Issue 7.3

Issue 7.3

CONTENTS of ISSUE 7.3

—PROSE—

The Sushi Maker’s Daughter by Loren Stephens

Oasis by Roxanne Lynn Doty

The Gate at the Edge of the Desert by Caroline Bruckner

Viking 2 by Christian Hayden

A Comfortable Ending by Patricia Livermore

At the Periphery of the Dance Floor by Riccardo Savini

Shadowmate by Sam Grieve

 

—REVIEWS—

Review: Night Watch by Mark Belair (2013) by Tim McLafferty

 

—POETRY—

Astrology by Edward Butscher

Caravaggio by Edward Butscher

Drones by Edward Butscher

Brothers by Edward Butscher

Attic by Laurie Patton

Smack by Hilary Sideris

The Last Time by Hilary Sideris

Speedballs by Hilary Sideris

Small Town by Mark Belair

Snow Man by Mark Belair

A Curvature of Bone by Patty Dickson Pieczka

In the Wind by Patty Dickson Pieczka

Dream Catcher by Patty Dickson Pieczka

Five Poems by Simon Perchik

Law of the Jungle Gym by Michael Mark

This Is Falling by Michael Mark

Intimacy by Alison Stone

Acceptable by Alison Stone

Swimming with Frogs by Alison Stone

Broken by Alison Stone

Wild Parrots of Pasadena by Mary Natwick

Perfect by Ann Minoff

Piyyut by Michael Sandler

Marvel the Ocean by Eugenie Theall

This Is Ours by Missy Banyacski

 

Review: Night Watch by Mark Belair

By Tim McLafferty

Night Watch, Mark Belair’s latest chapbook, must have been difficult to write indeed, as in it, he has rendered his mother’s death, burial, and its aftermath in a suite of 19 poems. These poems have certainly been composed in three movements, acts, or galleries, as there is rhythm, drama, form, and intense imagery throughout. At times cinematic, some of the poems read through as if scenes shot from Belair’s camera; still, others could be considered as portraiture, a sort of living ekphrasis in which Belair paints detailed images with minimal and well chosen words. Though composed in free verse, the poems often have definite musical phrases, which can be heard by speaking or singing the poems aloud. All of the poems, as always with Belair, are told from his perspective, and in Night Watch, he paints, films, and sings, in equal measure, to create an intimate and genuine contemporary American poetry.

Night Watch opens with a prelude in the form of the poem “Mourners.” Belair sets us in a fixed perspective, as if in theater seats, and sets his mourners in motion, approaching us from beyond the horizon line. Notable in this poem is its slow tempo, its almost military cadence, somber and dirge-like—the first line easily heard as a trochee followed by a spondee, placing the word “far” squarely on beat one of the measure; and singing through, we are kept at a slow pace by words like slope, distant hill, rise, first felt hats and black veils, then long, soft…

 

Mourners

From the far slope

of a distant hill

rise mourners—first

felt hats and black veils, then

long, soft, dark winter coats;

a procession at the pace

death itself takes

toward us

in the course of our lives—

slow, determined, respectful;

an advance made

in silence

until the time

arrives, encircles us, and—

quiet as a priest—

speaks.

 

It’s no priest, but Belair who speaks, and from this cinematic prelude, we cut directly to his mother’s hospital room and a grim portrait of his father, who, in the poem “The Stare,” is looking away from his wife’s bed, where he carves “a desolate, outward / space / gouged / by his grievous, / inward / stare.”

There exists a strange disconnect between our personal emergencies and the world around us—easily seen in the way we pull to the side of the road to allow passage for a speeding ambulance, its siren no signal of our need, and how we resume our course, unaffected. In “Hospital Activities,” Belair captures this strangeness from the other side—he creates a swirling, mad diorama of knife-edged intensity and absurd commonality, placing us inside it with him—

 

Hospital Activities

The cancer patient in the window bed

was packing her bag to go home

as my mother—slipped overnight

from sleep to a coma—lay dying,

the patient’s family—heartily

God-fearing, praising His Mercy—

filing past our forlorn family

as respectfully as possible, a distant

radio alerting us to tomorrow’s weather—

another bright October beauty—

a young resident doctor arriving

kindly to suggest we consider hospice care—

But she won’t last the night, I said, though

I was wrong: she didn’t last the hour—

the floor cleaning machine whining in the hall

while patients, glancing in, rolled IV drips past,

the food cart guy pulling up and delivering,

for my comatose mother, a luncheon tray—

life never so confusedly, miserably, gaudily, surreally,

outrageously

going on and on.

 

Life grinding us forward in and into “The Nurses,” which contains the long drawn out moment of his mother’s passing; perhaps too impossible for Belair to describe himself, he allows the nurses to tell us—after minutes of listening to her heart, the nurse “…lifted off her stethoscope, / draped it over her neck, softly said, / It stopped, / and checked her watch.”

This plain, matter of fact approach in “The Nurses” is not without empathy, but is grounded in the quotidian. Like all of Night Watch, one feels that Belair is not singling his family out to garner sympathy, as much as shining a light on them, which is his way of describing the common human experience.

The retention of sense memory is a challenge, and in absence there is its distortion and loss. In “Losing Her Voice,” Belair confronts this phenomenon—

 

Only months after our mother’s death,

my sister asked if I’d kept a recording

of her voice for she found it—

troublingly—fading within.

But I hadn’t, and realized that I too

found her voice harder to conjure—

 

“The Container,” a fifty-eight line poem that ends what can be called the second movement of the book, describes in some detail

 

The plastic burial container

for my mother’s casket

set tight

to the dirt walls

at the bottom

of her open grave,

there to protect her,

as much as possible,

 

The poem mentions other containers: the open grave, the silver hearse, her living body as a container of the warmth he struggles to remember, and the car that encloses him after the burial service—

 

I got in the car

and shut the door

to what suddenly

felt like a dark

container

I couldn’t breathe in,

couldn’t flee from,

couldn’t keep from

a strange, obliterating

cold.

 

With all the containers in this poem, one might miss the fact that Belair is the container: holding memory and grief, his palette of emotions, contained and composed, much like the boy we discovered in one of his earlier poems, “The Lemon Square,” who has learned to keep his emotions “in the bag.” The bag, it has turned out, is his poetry, and so each poem becomes a container, each book, and so on.

Art contains, is fit to contain, the record of the human abstract/unspeakable, distinctly different from the facts of history; or as Seamus Heaney very clearly stated, “I think the difference in a poem, or a work of literary art, shall we say, story, novel, is that it isn’t for the moment utilitarian communication, it is some kind of housing of a moment, a snapshot of consciousness that can be looked upon by other persons, people.”

And so a poet is not unlike the poems he or she writes, and Night Watch serves as art and artifact, a reliquary of sorts, filled with film clips, snapshots, portraits, and music, of the end of one life and the continuance of others. To open this book is to explore image and motion, intimacy, grief, holding and release.

 

 

*Seamus Heaney quote transcribed from Making Sense of a Life, a video interview with Seamus Heaney by The NewsHouse.

* “The Lemon Square” quoted from Walk With Me, Mark Belair (Parallel Press 2012)

The Sushi Maker’s Daughter

By Loren Stephens

Noriko poses in front of a full-length mirror; she holds a candle, moving it from left to right, watching the shadows play across her face. The scar on her forehead is barely visible under the fringe of black bangs.

She turns on the record player, puts her fedora on at a jaunty angle, tightens the belt on her raincoat, turns up the collar, and sings the words she has memorized to the zither’s haunting refrain:

 

Once again there comes to mind

Someone that you left behind

Love that somehow didn’t last

In that happy city of the past.

 

The next evening Noriko takes her place on the stage against the scenic backdrop of 1940s Vienna. Behind her is a miniature Ferris wheel, decorated with tiny white lights, that turns in time to the music. She cannot see the audience in the darkened theater, but she feels her father’s presence in the first row. She floats through the performance, her mind and body in perfect harmony. When Noriko takes her bow with the cast, her father comes out from the wings and hands her a bouquet of white orchids.

In the school newspaper the review of the drama club’s adaptation of The Third Man makes special mention of Noriko Ito’s “convincing performance as Holly Martins. Her singing and dancing were outstanding. She is a chameleon with an androgynous yet delicate face, and she will surely be able to play the men’s roles when she is accepted in the Takarazuka Theater Company Academy. We look forward to seeing our Noriko in the spotlight.”

Before the end of her senior year in high school, Noriko takes a trip from Hiroshima to Osaka with the drama club to see a performance of Mon Paris, a musical review at the Takarazuka Grand Theater. As the orchestra plays the overture, the shimmering curtain rises, revealing a staircase stretching across the width of the stage with lights underneath each step. Noriko leans forward in her seat. From the back of the staircase, a troupe of twenty women – some dressed in pink taffeta ball gowns and others in tight-fitting sequined tuxedos – sing and strut their way down the stairs. The audience breaks out in thunderous applause as the otokoyaku top star, bathed in a single spotlight, appears, dressed in a black tuxedo with glossy, blackbird feathers attached to her back and arms. She spreads them wide, commanding center stage. For the finale the star has changed into an all-white tuxedo. Her short-cropped hair is slicked back, and she wears sideburns that accentuate her high cheekbones. As the last musical notes are played, women dressed as traditional geishas stand on the top of the stairs and take their bows with the rest of the company.

Crowds of women and young girls wait patiently for the stars to come out of the side door to receive gifts and sign calling cards. Out of respect, no one speaks or calls out their names.

The drama teacher leads the girls back to their hotel near the theater. Noriko hands her roommate, Akiko, a pair of scissors. “Here, cut it all off.” Skeins of her long, black hair fall onto the black-and-white tile bathroom floor. She wets her hands under the faucet and runs them through her shorn hair. Turning to Akiko, she asks, “How do I look?”

“Just like a Takarazuka star.”

Noriko lowers her voice and imitates the otokoyaku spreading her arms above her head. The girls start to laugh. Outside, on the street below their hotel window, musicians are playing a jazzy American tune. Noriko takes Akiko in her arms and leads her in a foxtrot across the tatami mats toward the sound of the music.

Her father, Ryo, gives Noriko permission to move to Osaka after she graduates.  It is arranged that she will live with her half-sister, Setsuko, and work as a waitress at the Tesagara Tea Room while waiting for her audition into the Takarazuka Academy. She will “play” the part of a tea room waitress, and her costume will be a pretty pink uniform and white apron.

Unpacking her dance shoes and sheet music, she is dizzy from excitement. A few days before her eighteenth birthday, she will be auditioning for the academy. She cannot fail. There will be no second chances because the academy does not accept girls older than eighteen.

Noriko runs past the Hojenji Temple in the alley next to the tea room, nearly knocking over the caretaker, who is carrying a wooden bucket filled with water. She slides over the freshly washed stones and yells over her shoulder, “Forgive me madam. I am late for my audition.” The temple caretaker silently blesses the pretty young girl; she looks as if she is dancing, her feet barely touching the ground.

The waiting room is filled with young girls between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. Only fifty hopefuls will earn a place in the Takarazuka Theater Training Academy. Noriko scans the waiting room for Akiko, who waves at her and points to an empty seat next to her. She slips into her dance shoes and checks her makeup in the small mirror in her purse. Trying to remain calm and poised, she visualizes her audition routine. In her head she hears the voice of her acting teacher instructing her: “Remember to stand straight so that you appear taller. Keep your eyes focused on the judges, not on your feet. Extend your arms like the wings of a bird, and remember to breathe from your diaphragm, not your throat. That is where your power is.”

The doors to the audition hall swing open. A girl runs out, tears streaming down her face. Noriko whispers to Akiko, “Ah, she must not have made it. But she looks young enough that she will have a second chance.”

Akiko does not react. Her mind is on her routine.

And then the chorus master calls out, “Miss Akiko Takahashi.” Noriko squeezes her friend’s hand and whispers, “Good luck.”

Ten minutes later Akiko rushes over to Noriko. Drops of perspiration run down her smiling face. She can hardly get the words out, “I am in; I am in; I am in.” Noriko throws her arms around her. She wants to laugh and cry at the same time in happiness for her friend, but she needs to stay calm and focused. Akiko says, “I will wait until you have your turn. Then we can celebrate together.”

When Noriko hears her name called, she stands up. Her legs are shaking like a vibrating sewing machine and her mouth feels parched. The room spins around and she hesitates before entering the audition hall. A man with a white scarf tied around his neck sits at a table between two women, each wearing horn-rimmed glasses and bright-red lipstick. The man speaks. “Give me your paper.” He glances at it. “I see you graduated from high school in Hiroshima. Were you living there in 1945?”  The woman to his left raises her eyebrow.

Noriko hesitates to acknowledge that she is a survivor of Little Boy. She wants to shout out, “Don’t hold this against me. I did not choose to be there. I don’t carry the poison of radiation. I am strong enough to be a star. You won’t be wasting your time with me.”

Instead she whispers, “Yes, sir. I was there.”

 

* * *

 

At 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945, eight-year-old Noriko opened her song book, and suddenly there was a blinding flash of light. There was no warning air raid siren, but her teacher screamed for all the children to get underneath their desks. Glass and debris flew everywhere, and something hit Noriko on the forehead, but she was too numb with fear to feel the pain or notice the blood dripping down her face. Buildings next to the school caught on fire and smoke filled the sky. Everything was dark and a furious wind lifted broken tree limbs into the air. When the wind died down, the children were led to the cellar, but the “all clear” signal did not come. There was an eerie silence. Noriko huddled in the dark cellar, waiting for someone or something to rescue her.

Her father, Ryo, made his way through the burning streets on his bicycle. He tied a scarf around his nose to block the smell of the sulfurous fumes rising like steam out of the ground. Everywhere he looked, there were bombed-out buildings. Charred bodies cluttered the streets, and those who were still alive staggered around in a daze, many with blackened skin hanging from their faces and arms. The sun disappeared from the sky.

Riding on the bicycle behind her father, Noriko buried her face in his broad back as he tried to find his way home. Their house was far enough from ground zero that it withstood the mysterious explosion.

Her parents spoke in hushed tones, but Noriko heard her father say, “Many people jumped into the canals. The water acted like fuel and I could only watch as their bodies burned like so much parchment paper.” Noriko pinched her nose when she ventured outside because the stench of dead bodies was horrific. Fish turned upside down in the tributary of the Ota River.

Ryo worked on a volunteer crew clearing the streets in their neighborhood. When he came home, he dropped his clothes in a bamboo basket by the door and put them on again the next day. Water was too scarce to waste on washing clothes and there was no electricity.

Noriko’s head throbbed from the shard of glass that had punctured her forehead. The pain made it difficult for her to sleep at night, but worse than the pain were the nightmares. She wondered if the sun would ever come out again, but she was too afraid to ask her father. To pass the time, she put on plays with her dolls for her brother’s amusement and sang him a lullaby to help him sleep at night. Listening to his daughter, Ryo remarked to his wife, “Noriko has a beautiful voice, ne? It is good to hear her singing.”

A month passed after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and then the Japanese mainland was hit by one of the worst hurricanes in the country’s history. Whatever damage had been done by the bomb was magnified by blinding rainstorms and gale-force winds. People who had no shelter were thrown against wrecked building walls and washed into the river by currents of gushing water and mud. It seemed to Noriko that Izuna Daigongen and his fellow gods were truly punishing the world.

When the rain finally subsided, Noriko and Ryo waded through the mud to find the remains of his sushi shop near the Hiroshima train station. Children no older than Noriko cluttered the streets, swatting at mosquitoes that bred in the soggy rain puddles. Many of the children had been sent into the countryside during the war, but with the cessation of fighting, they returned to the city, unable to locate their parents. Noriko saw a young boy carrying a shoe shine box, hoping to find a customer with shoes that needed polishing.

A young girl with a white satchel strapped to her body stood outside the overcrowded orphanage. Noriko asked her father what she was carrying inside the satchel. “Those are the bones of her mother and father. She is hoping to find a place to bury them.” Noriko felt ashamed that she and her family had survived and others were not so lucky, but she took her good fortune as a sign that she must be destined for great things. Otherwise why would she have been spared?

 

* * *

 

The director repeats his question. “So Miss Ito, you are a survivor of Hiroshima?”

Nodding her head, she answers, “Yes, I am.”

“You’ll have to project better than that if you expect to win a place in our company. I see that you want to try out for the male parts. You are a bit short.”

Noriko raises her voice. “I have always played the male leads in my drama club productions. I won my school drama club prize in The Third Man.”

“How old are you?”

“Almost eighteen, sir.”

The director snorts. “So this is your last shot. All right, then, show us what you’ve got.” The director folds his hands behind his head and leans back in his chair.

Noriko hands her sheet music to the pianist. She has chosen one of the popular songs from the Takarazuka repertoire, transposing the music into the key of B flat to suit her voice. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror behind the director, she straightens her back and arranges her bangs to hide her scar.

The pianist plays the introduction and then nods to Noriko. She starts to sing. One of the women leans over and whispers into the director’s ear. The other passes him a note. When Noriko reaches the bridge, the director raises his hand. “That is quite enough. You have a very pleasing voice and a beautiful face, but unfortunately we already have enough candidates whose voices are stronger than yours. Thank you and good luck.”

The woman to his right takes off her glasses. “You would have been better off saying that you would be content to train for one of the women’s parts. There are more of those to be had in our company. Sorry. Your aspirations are higher than your height.” They all laugh at her joke, except Noriko.

Noriko bows. The pianist gets up. “Here, don’t forget your music, Miss Ito.”

Hiding her tears, she bows and backs out of the room. Had she made a terrible mistake to try out for the men’s roles? They are the real stars of the Takarazuka. Perhaps she had overestimated her talent. But it was too late now. She smiles and walks over to Akiko. In a whisper so that none of the other girls can hear, she says, “They said I am not tall enough to play one of the men’s parts and that my voice is not strong enough. I did not get in. Pretend that you are happy for me. I don’t want the other girls to know that I’ve been rejected.” She feels as if she is suffocating.

Noriko and Akiko gather their dance bags and run down the stairs. Noriko tries not to rob her friend of her happiness at being accepted into the academy. “Akiko, I shall look forward to seeing you on the stage. Someday you will be a star, and I can tell my children, ‘Look, that is Mama’s high school friend.’ And we’ll be sure and wait for you outside the theater so that you will sign our special card.”

“Perhaps there’s another path to your future happiness. In time, you’ll find it.”

“My dearest Akiko, that may be true. But right now the only path I see before me is the one leading back to the Tesagara Tea Room, and the only role I’ll be playing is that of a waitress. Besides, I want to pay my father back for paying for my dance and singing lessons.”

“Will he expect that of you?”

“I don’t know, but it’s only right. I have obviously squandered his money. I’m sure he will need it to pay for my brother’s tuition. He plans on being an engineer.”

“What is it that the sensei Morihei Ueshiba tells his followers? ‘There are many paths leading to the top of Mount Fuji, but there is only one summit – love.’”

Noriko answers, “Thank you for reminding me of our wise teacher’s remarks. But as far as I’m concerned, there’s love and there’s the theater. I wanted both. Now I’ll have to settle for something less. And who knows if I’ll ever find love? Perhaps I’ll be disappointed in that as well.”

Akiko puts her arm around Noriko’s slim waist, their steps in time with one another, each girl lost in her own private thoughts. The two friends take pleasure in their intimacy, their bodies silhouetted against the amber glow of the late winter sun.

Noriko runs upstairs to her room above the tea room, relieved that she does not have to tell Setsuko of her failure. She slowly unbuttons her dress and hangs it up in her wardrobe. Standing in her bare feet in front of the mirror, she examines her thin body covered in a white lace slip. She brushes her bangs from her forehead. There is her scar; it has barely faded after ten years.

Just that morning she had danced in front of the mirror, anticipating the excitement of her audition. Now she feels as if she is standing alone on the stage of an empty theater, a single ceiling bulb illuminating her face. Someone outside her window in the alley below sweeps the remnants of shattered glass into a dustpan.

­­___

Loren Stephens’ essays and short stories have been published in Peregrine, MacGuffin, the Sun, the Montreal Review, the Summerset Review, the North Atlantic Review, Eclectica, and ken*again, among many. She is the executive producer of the PBS Emmy nominated documentary, “Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist,” and a former member of the editorial advisory board of Memoir. She is the founder and president of Write Wisdom and Provenance Press.

At the Periphery of the Dance Floor

By Riccardo Savini

When I lived in Stockholm I went out with a girl named Pauline Grell who went window shopping every Saturday. We met through a language exchange program. She had lived in Italy and loved to speak Italian. I was single, and being Italian, I played the Italian with her.

We got together at a café twice a week. For the first half of our meetings we spoke in Italian and afterwards Swedish. I could hardly string a Swedish sentence together. As with the best of teachers, she took pleasure correcting my pronunciation and made sure I remembered the previous “lesson.”

I fell in love with her because of her firmness.

I learned to say “Will you please let me know when you are available?” and “Would you like to go to the movies with me?” But this proved quite useless because Pauline politely declined every one of my invitations to see her outside of our scheduled conversations.

Then one Friday night I got the call. I was alone in my apartment, surfing the internet.

“Will you go dancing with me?” she asked.

I checked my watch. It was almost ten o’clock. “Really?” I said.

“Are you up for it?”

I sensed this was my chance to get closer to her. She wanted to go to a cozy tango salon near her house. I said “yes” to everything she said. When I got off the phone, I quickly changed clothes and raced out to meet her.

This is what I remember of that playful, ruleless night:

Inside the tango salon the women wore long baggy skirts or skinny ones with a slit up to their thighs. No one wore blue jeans, which made me feel comfortable: I wasn’t over-dressed. Small candles lined the counter. It was almost eleven o’clock when we arrived there, and twenty or so couples twirled in one direction on the floor. I was put in a good mood by the warm atmosphere, the rich sound of the four-piece band, the voice of the female vocalist, and the fact that everyone here had come with a dance partner, which meant that Pauline would only dance with me. We ordered our drinks, and watched the dancers from the bar.

Most men were sweating it, hoped for the best, and clearly didn’t enjoy themselves. They fretted about making a good impression on their muse. The rigidity of their faces and shoulders gave away their apprehensiveness. Their minds ran through a checklist, like a nervous apprentice jet pilot: thinking about flaps and gages and a long list of things, and forgetting to listen to the music, forgetting to feel your partner’s body, her skin under your palm, sense the scent of her, catch the glint in her eyes, the playful sound of the stand-up bass, the fullness of the guitar, the regularity of beats, the verve and change of pace. You forget to enjoy yourself.

The men in the tango salon didn’t dare to look their women in the face. And the women, only one or two of them had abandoned themselves to their partner, while the others seemed to doubt the physical prowess and dancing virtues of their cavalier.

“Have you ever danced Tango?” Pauline asked, between sips of Chardonnay.

“No, not really,” I said. “But I have danced to Latin music many times.”

“But you don’t know Tango,” she said, putting a hand on the glittery red belt she wore over a gray-blue dress. “If you don’t, we cannot dance.”

I said I had taken a Tango class, then corrected myself and specified it was just one lesson.

Pauline laughed.

The mere memory of that lesson dented my confidence. I had missed the very first class; on the second class I did as the instructor said and went to the far corner of the room and carefully watched my fellow students. But certain things are best learned through practice, rather than observation.

Most students weren’t beginners or else they were dancing fiends. They must have taken a multitude of dance lessons: they put their feet in all the right places. After twenty minutes in the corner by myself, I joined the group. My hang-dog looks swayed a nice girl to give me a chance, but after a few minutes she dropped me. Sighing theatrically she went straight to a stocky man with short legs and the face of a boxer, who wore a leather vest over a white t-shirt. The men outnumbered the women. I was the odd man out, standing by myself. I stood there for fifteen minutes, then I quietly left the room. I never went back.

“Let’s just sit here and watch,” Pauline said.

We’d finished our drinks. I ordered another whiskey and another Chardonnay for Pauline. The music was in full swing.

There were two columns in the middle of the dance floor, and the dancers spun in one direction, drawing rings around the columns. Just one couple ventured into intricate dance moves. The woman laughed continuously, and when she wasn’t, she had this great smile. She looked like Kim Basinger in her heyday, with long tumbling curls, and green and gold jewelry at her fingers and neck. You could see she was falling in love with her cavalier; a tall and tanned stud with the first three buttons of his white shirt undone to display his pecs. His black trousers fit his ass tightly. He kept a straight face despite the woman’s laughter and ecstatic smile, and stared suavely into her eyes. He was imperturbable. It worked. I wished that I too could act this way, stare into Pauline’s eyes, any woman’s eyes for that matter, and give her the marching orders with a deadpan look that revealed no emotion. Pauline was eyeballing the same couple. Oh, I could see from her face how she longed be in the arms of the Stone man.

“Wow, look at that couple!” Pauline finally said. “They know how to dance!” She went on like this, hammering into me a subliminal message. “He must be Argentinean,” she said, “to be such a good Tango dancer. Oh look at them,” she exclaimed as Stone man had Kim Basinger bending backwards.

It was true. The couple stood out of the crowd. But it was mostly because of Kim Basinger’s sparkling smile and laughter. Now that I observed them carefully, the man seemed a big ego hotshot, and this especially, I guessed, was what amused Kim Basinger. She couldn’t stop laughing at the pretentious Latin Lover who made her spin ‘round and ‘round and ‘round and do pirouettes, while not giving her a hint of an emotion.

I started thinking about the things I would say and do with Kim Basinger, if only I had the chance to dance with her. I would pull her up to my chest, and hold her tight and loose. I would let one hand slip to the small of her back and seize her arm with the other. I would gently grip her waist and whisper outrageous compliments in her hair – tell her how beautiful her long legs were, and that time and the world stopped with this dance, and would ask whether she realized we were meant for each other and if she would consider marrying me.

These fantasies only made me more depressed and envious. Why couldn’t I have a girl like Kim Basinger, someone playful? Someone who knew how to have fun, and knew how to infuse confidence into her man, instead of putting him through misery.

I ordered another whiskey and resigned myself to watching couples roll around as statues on wheels, their arms stiff, their bodies far apart, and with little imagination. A young, lanky couple, both wearing librarian glasses, moved like cranes. The young man seemed very nervous and avoided eye contact with the girl. I observed him for too long because he suddenly glanced at me, and his cheeks flushed, and he completely lost his already gawky stride. Then, his face flushed every time they waltzed past me.

Pauline asked once more if I knew Tango. I told her I thought so, and that I was a quick learner. Her eyes glared at me.

“Everyone here dances so well,” she said.

I said nothing, but I disagreed: every couple, besides Kim Basinger’s, clocked around so orderly, so mechanically, and the men grimaced every time they suspected they had made a faux-pas, while the women sighed and rolled their eyes. No, this wasn’t dancing. What the hell were they thinking? This looked like torture, like trying too hard to stick to form.

Pauline teetered in the stool. “This isn’t Salsa,” she said.

“What difference does it make?” I said. “We’re here to dance and we paid the cover.”

She looked disappointed. “I should have asked you. Tango is not Salsa.”

How depressing. I drank my whiskey and listened to Pauline gasp how wonderful the various couples looked together. The music was lovely, though, and the female vocalist let out these hypnotic guttural sounds. I could not keep my feet from springing up and down the stool’s footrest, then this became a sort of tap-dance and I kicked my legs and shuffled my ass on the vinyl of the stool. For a moment I forgot Pauline’s misgivings.

Pauline sprang in her stool. “The music’s really good,” she said.

“I know, it really makes you want to dance.”

“No, we’re not dancing. You don’t know Tango.”

“And you know?”

“Yes, I’ve danced it many times but always with a man who knows. The man must lead.”

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s easy for you. You just have to follow.”

“Exactly. But I don’t want to make a fool of myself,” she said. “Everyone here is such a good dancer.”

“Yep, most of these couples master their Tango, for all I know.”

“Yes, except that couple over there,” she said, pointing to a little fat man with a much younger girl. They were dancing slow, locked in an embrace, at the periphery of the dance floor. They looked a bit ridiculous because the man had this big belly that seemed to push his partner away, and his arms were quite short. He barely managed to hold on to her. Yet the two looked lovely together. The woman regularly lowered her head onto the man’s shoulder, and they both closed their eyes as they slowly spun around, with these blissful smiles on their faces. Every once in a while they looked right into each other’s eyes and spoke softly.

“They’re having the best time of anyone,” I said.

“No they’re not,” she said. “They’re not even dancing.”

I bit my tongue to keep from saying something stupid.

Pauline ordered a third glass of wine and we remained at the bar, bouncing in our stools.

“Don’t you want to give it a try?” I finally said.

“You don’t know Tango. What’s the point?”

“I have watched it for a while now. It can’t be that difficult,” I said, and suddenly I didn’t know any more if I wanted to give it a try. “I think I could manage,” I said.

She gave me an annoyed look and stared back at the dancers.

Su, dai,” I said, extending my hand to her. She didn’t take it, but this got her out of her stool. We stepped together to the edge of the dance floor and stood face to face. This made me nervous, the way she just seemed to coldly wait for me to sweep her off her feet, or fall on my face.

I don’t know how I managed to take hold of her hands, and pull her with me into it. I started moving my feet, clumsily for sure, for I only had eyes for the shoes sliding and clacking besides me, and all of a sudden I was back in that Tango class: I couldn’t reproduce the movements I visualized. I wanted to get it right, so badly. I wanted to make a good impression, but similar to the other cavaliers around the room, everything started going wrong. My feet stomped on the wood floor with a great clatter and my legs and feet tangled with Pauline’s. I didn’t even wear the appropriate shoes, I realized now. My rubber soles didn’t slide on the parquet. She grimaced painfully. I redoubled my effort to improve my coordination, get the steps right, spin and take her with me with a fluid motion, but my mechanics disjointed and my vision blurred. Pauline’s arms went limp, and her body numb.

“This is no good.” She yanked her hands off and pushed away from me. “You are ridiculous! You trampled my feet. Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”

She withdrew to the stool, abandoning me in the centre of a rumba-powered tornado of skirts and shirts and sweaty faces and stiff necks. The gipsy singer with a red flower in her hair wailed, and her pupils vanished behind her eyelids, and her screams, and the whirlwind around me, and Pauline’s desertion paralyzed me. The gawky young man who kept blushing, made sure to thud a shoulder into me as he danced by with his girlfriend, and gave me an all-knowing smirk.

Somehow, I found my way back to the stool next to Pauline and noticed that with the exception of the two of us, the band’s drummer was the only other person sitting down. Even the bartenders behind the counter were dancing.

I ordered another whiskey, hopeful that the alcohol would loosen me. I started to think that Pauline wasn’t exactly beautiful, and that I had been mostly attracted by her bossy attitude. She worked as a schoolteacher, and she had the severity and inflexibility of one. I had fallen in love with her firmness, but now it was working against me.

A half hour passed before I snapped out of my depressed mood telling myself to get out of here, or make one final attempt.

“Come on. Let’s try again,” I said. “We don’t have to do what the others are doing. You like to dance, don’t you?”

Her lip twitched and she glanced at the dance floor to consider my suggestion, or visualize how bad we’d look compared to those “wonderful” dancers.

“Nobody will care what we do. And if we have fun, they’ll look at us whishing they could have as much fun as us.”

“You think so?”

I had almost convinced her.

“Sure,” I said feeling a little tiny bit confident. “Most of these people are following the rules too strictly to have fun. Just look at their faces. And then listen to this great music. So let’s have fun. But you have to help me out. It takes two to Tango.”

“Ah ha,” she said, “good one.”

She worked her lips, swallowed the last of her Chardonnay, and I pulled her up to her feet, and drew her into a dance. Her body felt light this time. Her arms skimmed mine. We started spinning and found our groove, putting into it legs and arms and hips and heart. I don’t know what did it. If it was my joke about Tangoing, or the three Chardonnay glasses, or something to do with my last ditch attempt to sway her, when I didn’t care anymore. Or the mere fact that now I looked her in the eyes.

Every time Pauline smiled I became more daring, and as I led her, she followed me. To hell with the Flamenco! And Tango! And Salsa! I thought. To hell with dancing etiquette! To hell with all the people who have to tell you how to Tango, and give you a condescending look by the squint of an eye whenever you miss a beat! I made Pauline spin one way and the other, and her eyes smiled, and I felt unusually calm.

Much later, when my gaze slipped off her face, I discovered that we were the only dancers left in the room. The band had packed-up and gone and for who knows how long, we had been dancing to a Latin music record that the bartenders played as they closed down the place.

“See,” I said to Pauline, as we danced on, “we’re by far the best dancers here. No one is as good as us.”

___

Riccardo Savini grew up in tiny Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and spent his adult life between the USA and Europe.  He has spent the past years in New Orleans, where he is completing a MFA at the University of New Orleans.   One of his short stories was previously published in Tratti, an Italian magazine. 

A Comfortable Ending

By Patricia Livermore

It was an impossible situation. He couldn’t go back, but there was no way he was going forward. He couldn’t bear to hurt her feelings. She seemed so excited and happy that he was taking her advice, and making a different choice for once. If he told her how he really felt, it would probably break her heart. On the other hand, if he didn’t, how could he look at himself in the mirror? What would the neighbors, his ex-wife, his co-workers say?

He had to step up. Take charge of his own life. He couldn’t let her control him. There was no reason to put it off any longer. He had to tell her.

She returned from the other room, flashed him a smile, flipped her hair, and said, “Are you ready to go?”

He looked down at his feet, cleared his throat, and steeled his resolve. “I… don’t think so. They’re not… right… for me.”

“Oh.” She looked a little disappointed, but there were no tears, which was better than he’d expected. “That’s too bad,” she continued. “I really felt like those lime green high tops really… matched your spirit.”

“Well, I…” he began, feeling as though he had lost her forever.

“Sorry about that, sir,” she interrupted, giving him another smile. “Did you want me to grab you that pair of loafers that you were looking at when you came in? Size eleven, right?”

He nodded, breathing a sigh of relief, and reflected that sometimes uncomfortable conversations can have very comfortable endings.

___

Patricia Livermore is a writer from Lincoln, Nebraska with a degree in history and a lifelong love of writing and voraciously consuming stories in their many forms. She shares her own stories, fiction and non-fiction, weekdays at usingmytalent.blogspot.com

Viking 2

By Christian Hayden

Some friends and I got together and we started telling Brien stories. We were at Brien’s sister Mary’s place in Frelinghuysen, and the reason we were all back home was because it was our fifteen year reunion. I hadn’t been to the fifth or the tenth, but someone told me that Mary was going to have a little Brien ceremony, like a memorial, so I decided to go home for that too.

My parents were dead at this point so I had no one to stay with and ended up staying with Mary. She offered when I reached out to her about the memorial. She was living with a guy at the time, a really sharp-looking Latino guy, and they had a two-year-old daughter. The guy would watch me with the kid in the living room, like when I tried to play with her, and smoke cigarettes. He was a lot better looking than Mary, and younger, and I never could figure that out. The kid was really cute, really big eyes. I guess she was too young to play. She asked me to draw her a picture, though, and I drew a sheep. She liked that, and said I was good at art. The guy looked at the picture and snorted.

He wasn’t there when the rest of the gang came over. There was Miranda, who was tall and chalk white and the only one besides me who wasn’t local; Todd and Mels, who had a kid of their own and who hadn’t invited me to their wedding; Jack, the only one I still talked to; and also Lucas, Brien and Mary’s cousin, who was younger than us.

In Mary’s backyard, with its swing set and patio, we started telling Brien stories. We started with the funny ones – Brien getting high on a date and falling asleep in the poor girl’s bathroom, Brien talking his way out of driving through a toll booth without paying – but soon we ran out of those. Brien was a funny guy a lot of the time, but he was also a moody prick. And he ranted a lot. I can’t tell you how many times he’d corner me in my shitbox car, or in the little parking lot across from school where we’d smoke, and just bitch. Bitch and bitch for hours and hours on end.

Sometimes you feel guilty thinking about stuff like that. I think that was everyone’s problem. It was like each of us wanted someone to pause and then say, You know, he could be a real asshole, too. And then everyone could exhale and talk about all the times Brien was a grade-A douchebag. Mary was really the only one who could have done it, but she had her feet up on her chair and was looking at the dregs in her plastic cup.

So I decided to tell my story. I was nervous, because I don’t tell stories to big groups very often. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I had. But I had a couple of beers in me, plus Todd had made us all do shots of Very Old Barton, so I felt okay.

 

* * *

 

When I was a kid I used to save all of my candy wrappers. I was probably seven or eight. My parents went through a Catholic phase and had me in Sunday School at this weird hippie church over in Parsipanny. I don’t remember too much of it, but the part about souls really got to me. I started asking my parents, who were a little older than most of the other parents, about souls. Just basic questions, like where was it and could you lose it and stuff like that. They answered as best they could. But what I couldn’t figure out was why everyone was so sure it was only people who had souls. We didn’t have a dog, but I knew some dogs, and they seemed pretty soulful to me.

Anyway it just sort of spread from there. I got really afraid of hurting anything. I wouldn’t kill any bugs. I wouldn’t throw any of my old stuff away, like my toys or coloring books or whatever. And then I started saving candy bar wrappers too. Halloween came around, and I went out as a big shaggy dog. My mom cut all these newspapers into strips and glued them to a brown paper bag. Then she spray-painted the whole thing grey. Then she added a snout and some floppy ears. I took a pillowcase for the candy and off we went.

It was a good year. I had dozens of Snickers and Kit Kats and Butterfingers. I had about thirty packets of Smarties, those little fruity candies. Those weren’t the best, but just about every other house gave them out, so you always had a dozen and you couldn’t trade them. I took all this candy and I left it in the pillowcase and I put it in the bottom of my desk drawer. Then I ate it over the course of a month or so like any other kid.

But I noticed that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away the wrappers. I’d eat a 100 Grand or a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and I’d just put the wrapper back in the case. When I was opening the candy, I remember, I’d try very carefully to keep the wrapper in one piece too, like I didn’t want to hurt it. Eventually I just had a pillowcase full of candy bar wrappers, and at the top were about two dozen little cellophane Smarties wrappers.

I kept them in the bottom of my desk drawer for seven years, if you can believe that. Even after I grew out of being Catholic I still felt like I had to keep the candy wrappers from that Halloween. They felt – and I know that this is going to sound strange – like they had become a part of me. I was terrified, also, that they’d be discovered. Some kids hide Hustlers or baggies of weed in their desk; I had a pillowcase full of plastic and little flakes of chocolate. It made me very uncomfortable to think of someone else finding it.

One day when we were fourteen Brien came over after school. My parents worked, so I had the house to myself for a couple of hours every day. Brien and I weren’t doing anything bad or anything, though. Our plan was to spend the whole afternoon playing Super Mario World. I had the Nintendo in my room and I had a couple of beanbag chairs.

At one point I went to the bathroom. Brien was playing. I have no idea, even now, why he decided to stop and look through my desk. I was just peeing, I remember, so I wouldn’t have been gone more than a couple minutes. But when I came back Brien was sitting on the bed holding the pillowcase and looking at me.

It was like he’d stood up and hit me square in the belly. I felt like the air was being forced out of my lungs. Now I think it must have been a panic attack. I was breathing really fast and hard. All those nights I’d sat up in bed and worried about that fucking pillowcase. All the time I’d be thinking about girls or something and the pillowcase would intrude. It would sort of hover over me, is how I thought about it at the time.

Then I started to cry. I felt like beating the shit out of Brien, and with his sunken chest and his chicken legs I’m sure I could have, easily. I didn’t, though. I just sat down, on the floor. I folded my legs Indian style and I cried, for no reason at all.

What is this? Brien asked. I shook my head. I didn’t even really know what it was.

I don’t know. I just, uh, kept them, I don’t know.

Dude, that’s retarded, Brien said calmly. Ugh, Smarties. Those are the worst. Then Brien got up, went over to the wastebasket in the corner of the room, and emptied the pillowcase into it.

What are you doing? I asked.

are you doing? What’s up with the crying?

I stood up. You can’t throw those out, I said. I’ve had those for years.

You’ve had these for years? That’s nuts, man. He plopped back onto the beanbag chair and picked up the controller. I stood there. As I remember it I was equidistant from the wastebasket and the TV, like right in the middle of them, which doesn’t actually make sense given how my room was set up. That’s how I remember it, though, like it was this monumental choice.

Brien picked up the other control and extended his arm. He didn’t look at me; he just held it out. I felt like it was my destiny, though I know that sounds lame. And I don’t mean that it was my destiny to play Mario forever. I mean more like I had to go one way or the other. I know that I’m making it sound more dramatic than it really was, but after all I was telling a story to a bunch of people. It needed to have some weight behind it.

So it seemed like five minutes, but it was probably five seconds. I went over to the beanbag chair and sat down. You really fell into those beanbag chairs, which is why only teenagers can use them. I took the controller and Brien unpaused the game. I kept crying. It was silent, but there were still tears running down my cheeks, and I kept licking them up. Brien didn’t say anything for a while.

All I’m saying is, Brien said at last, is there’s two ways to live your life. Like a normal dude, or like a weird dude. I don’t care either way, I’m just saying. Onscreen he got a cape feather.

After a while Brien paused the game again. So, he said, do you have any actual candy?

 

* * *

 

I’m even worse at telling jokes than I am at telling stories, but I thought of this as the punch line of the thing. I guess I expected people to laugh. I don’t entertain much. I don’t really know what people laugh at.

People did, though. Jack and Lucas laughed a lot actually. Mels did a little, and then Todd did because Mels did. Miranda smiled. Her lips were a bright painful red like she’d been chewing on them.

Mary didn’t laugh, though. She looked at me like she was even a little pissed off.

The memorial wound down after that. There was another round of Very Old Barton and another round of To Brien! and some small talk. Jack asked me if I wanted to get a drink the next day before I hit the road. It seemed a little early but I told him sure. Then people started trickling away. Mels and Todd pleaded the kid. Lucas had a class in the morning; nobody asked him what it was. Miranda had a flight. Jack just melted away.

I wanted to leave, too, but I was staying there. Mary hadn’t said too much since I told my story, just goodbyes. I felt a little weird sitting there at the table with her when she seemed angry with me. We sat quietly for a while. It seemed like the time of night to smoke a cigarette, but I hadn’t in years and I couldn’t remember if she ever did.

Finally her boyfriend came home and joined us on the patio. He brought us Tecates and Mary poured hers into a cup.

She doesn’t use the can, said the boyfriend. The mice piss on it. He grinned. I looked down at my open can.

What?

Mice have hantavirus, said Mary. They poop on the tabs, you drink the beer, you die.

I never heard that, I said. I started looking around for another cup. The boyfriend was drinking out of the can, though.

Because it is crazy, he said. Mary shrugged. I got the sense that on another night she would have been more defensive about it.

Do you know Brien’s birthday, Mary asked.

April 11th, I said. It was two weeks before my mother’s had been.

Right, Mary said. 1980.

Uh-huh, I said.

You know, our dad was big into astronomy, Mary said. I mean, he never had a telescope or anything like that. I guess he was more into NASA, the space program, that kind of stuff. He would watch all the shuttle launches. I remember he obsessed over Challenger. Everyone else was upset but he just wanted to get to the bottom of it, like it was a murder mystery. Actually he was like that with the other one, too, from a couple years ago.

She rested her feet on the boyfriend’s knees. He was really good-looking, this guy, and he had great teeth for a smoker.

Anyway my dad would always tell Brien about his birthday, April 11th, 1980, and how special it was. Do you know what happened on that day?

I shook my head. The boyfriend did too.

I mean, nobody knows. This isn’t like a date people know or anything. But it was the day that they turned off Viking 2. She turned to the boyfriend. Viking 2 was an unmanned spaceship they sent to Mars. It landed on Mars, it hung out for a couple of years, taking pictures and collecting soil and stuff. Then eventually it ran out of batteries and they just – she snapped her fingers, poorly – turned it off. I guess she felt like she had to explain it to the boyfriend because he was younger and wouldn’t remember it.

Shit, Viking 2, I said. Sure. With the radar and the robot arm and stuff. Sure.

April 11th, 1980, she said. They just turned it off.

She said it like she was mad at them. The boyfriend and I looked at each other. She might have been a little drunk.

It’s funny about your story, Mary went on. I remember Dad used to tell Brien about Viking 2 all the time, and how it was shut off on his birthday. And I used to think – I swear to god, when I was little – I used to think that Brien was Viking 2. Like when it died he was born. You were talking about everything having a soul, even manmade stuff. And that’s what I thought, that Brien got Viking 2’s soul the day he was born.

Just like Brien said, it’s retarded. And this part is really, really retarded. But when Brien got worse, I thought, God, that fucking piece-of-shit Viking 2. It must have been one sad little spaceship. And I started to think that the batteries didn’t really run out. Maybe it was just up there, digging with its little claw thing, unable to move, and it just got unbelievably sad. And it realized it was never going back.

And it just gave up. I mean, wouldn’t you?

And then maybe NASA saw that and tried to talk to it and couldn’t. And so they shut it off, alone up there on Mars.

The boyfriend and I didn’t exchange any more glances. I was looking at the table. He was looking at Mary’s feet on her lap. They weren’t the nicest feet, either.

The thing, I guess, said Mary, would be to find something born or made the day Brien died. And to tell that thing to take care of itself.

Mary excused herself from the table. She went into the house. A minute later her daughter’s bedroom light went on. The boyfriend and I sat there. I had thought before he didn’t like me, but now I wasn’t so sure. Knowing whether people like me or not is not one of my strengths. After a while we finished our beers and called it a night.

 

* * *

 

Brien hanged himself in his apartment on July 21st, 2012. He was a graduate student at Columbia at the time, and he lived by himself in Harlem. When a guy goes to graduate school in his thirties, a guy like Brien, they say he’s getting his life back on track. Brien had struggled with depression. And alcoholism, depending on who you ask.

The next morning I got up early. I guess I didn’t want to see anyone. I decided to call Jack from the road and cancel. I could tell him I had a hangover, which was true.

When I went downstairs, though, the boyfriend and the kid were already up. The kid was playing in the living room on a mat decorated with some colorful numbers and letters. The boyfriend was watching her and smoking. He nodded to me when I came in. Then he insisted I at least have some coffee. I wanted some, badly, and I felt strange saying no. He went to the kitchen to make some instant.

The kid was stacking up foam blocks and knocking them over. I sat down on an ottoman to watch her. After a while she got bored and started smiling at me. She got up and went to the kitchen table, then came back with a big box of crayons and a piece of stationery.

Draw! she commanded, and I did. I gave her the paper and she scrunched up her little face. She said it was a bad sheep.

When the boyfriend came in I drank the coffee as quickly as I could. I told him to thank Mary for me and I got my things. The kid handed him the drawing.

It’s a sheep in a desert, she said. The boyfriend took the paper and looked at it. He saw the grey body and the radar dish and robot arm.

It’s not a sheep, he said gently. He pulled her onto his lap.

What is it? she asked.

Your uncle, he said.

Shadowmate

By Sam Grieve

You do not know of us. We are hidden to you.

I saw you when I was already grown. It was spring and Mother had brought me to the edge for the first time.

“Don’t forget to hold on,” she kept reminding me as we made our way there. “And be careful. Do what I do and take it slow.”

But nothing Mother said could have prepared me for what I felt.

The want you exert in us, you see, is insatiable. You and your incandescent world. It is only as we age, as we learn to govern ourselves, that we can be trusted to venture near you. Mother was right to warn me so. Otherwise I might have succumbed. I might have leapt into that shining well. And who knows what might have happened then? Where I might be?

 

* * *

 

Sometimes now, in the night, when we are in bed, our breath synchronous, I find myself awake. I talk to you then, in my own way, silently. I tell you of the gray and the silver and the myriad shadows that lie between, the quenching black and the starry brilliance, the occasional splash of aubergine, the loamy green of willow, your lithium sky. I explain to your sleeping form how you pour color into our world, and light, but when your sun is shining down below, we go hesitantly to the edge, for it scalds our eyes. But in the evening, at twilight, when all is golden and the veil ripples backward and forward like breath, we come from our homes, and we watch you. You are our favorite entertainment, and we dissect you as such, gathering in conclaves to debate you: What are you?

I believed you were like us but denser – an opposition in light fractals to our dark consciousness – but I kept this to myself, for Mother disagreed. She thought you were nothing but the play of light spooling through the water, a mirage, she insisted adamantly.

Yet when you appeared that first time, I could not take my gaze off you, and neither could Mother for all her views. Now I know it was last April, but for us it meant the light was changing. The ice was melting, taking with it its milky luminosity. The edge began to gleam, and we woke from our hibernation, unfurling from our beds.

Little groups set out on pilgrimages, but because it was my first time, Mother and I made an expedition of it, taking the long route past the cousins, and the aunties, many of whom were still bundled in dusty heaps together. Mother did not want to appear eager; several times we had to stop for a chat, find out how so-and-so was doing, but I could sense her excitement, her desire for the light. We therefore got to the edge late, and crept up cautiously, clinging on to each other so as not to tumble in.

And there you were. The first thing I saw. Wending your way along your edge, bending down and peering every now and again into the water. Your feet were wreathed in yellow light, which I now know were daffodils, and you were immense, as tall as a small tree but uprooted, your hair the color of the setting sun. Jiggering near you were some small ones, whirling in gusts, and a dark mass with its few jagged sounds (Dog, my mother whispered into my thoughts). From our vantage point we noticed other things too, and each thing Mother named; the undersides of ducks, sometimes their eyes and beaks, dabbling up at us, the gray fans of swan feet, the sinuous curves of fish darting among the shuddering clouds.

 

* * *

 

At night you put the children to sleep with stories. I love to listen to you, be close to you, so I tiptoe up the stairs, pressing with my feet only in the places I know will not creak. Outside the bedroom, I crouch upon the homespun rug (fashioned by The-first-Katy on her loom that gathers dust in the shed) and rest my head against the wainscot. A spider labors over her web above me, leaping and jumping with such a clear plan, I am encouraged each day to brush down her work so I can see the artistry anew. You do not know I am here, or else you would invite me to join you. But I prefer to hear you like this, from afar, the way I used to see you.

Do not go into the deep woods, you read to the children from your book.

Be wary of the kindness of strangers.

 

* * *

 

We have our stories too, but compared to yours our imaginations are tepid things. Your world is our forest of the night, but in our dread tales, light falls everywhere. In your world there is not place for shadow; in your world we cannot exist.

 

* * *

 

And yet and yet and yet, into our world pours your light, a radiant temptation. After my first visit to the edge, I grew thin just thinking about it, wasting away to a smudge of air.

Be careful, my love, Mother begged. Do not be tempted.

But I could not help myself. I longed to feel the brightness of your sun. And you, you were an enigma, with your upside-down lives, the changing sky stretching thin beneath you. You moved so fearlessly. Your dog darted and sometimes he swam, and I saw his feet and the curve of his brown belly and the flat oar of his tail. And when he was in the water, he was not a blur but a something, an almost shape. And I wondered – if you were to swim, would you have a shape too?

Now I know the answers. Of your world, and mine, and the veil between us, which you call Echo Lake. I know because I have lost my shadow form and fallen into this place, of light and noise. In our world we are wordless. No, not wordless, for our thoughts pass like fog one to the other, and we hear, but we do not speak. This is something I only comprehend after I am in your world:, our silence. I know my world by what your world is not.

 

* * *

 

After I saw you and your family, I came day after day, to spy on you. My mother did not know, for I hid myself in the reed shadows or floated amid the skeletal reflections of trees. Evening was when you came: you in the front, a quivering, delicate form balancing on your shoulder, your children, Tom and Cecilia, with their pails, one red, one blue, that from my hiding place looked like hovering balls of light, your dog, Jacob. And on two occasions you came with Katy, which is my name now.

 

* * *

 

I did not know it could happen. I did not believe Mother and her old wives’ tales. But Tom dropped a coin from the bank, a quarter, a sparkle of light that spun into our world. I saw it rise, and I could not help myself. I sent out a limb to catch it, and as I did The-First-Katy stretched her long gray fingers into the water for him and caught it too.

 

* * *

 

This is where your many words fail me, for how can I describe for you what happened? That, as the tips of our fingers brushed against each other, my whole world shifted.

Up became down became up.

Sometimes now, I go out to the lake. Not too close, but close enough, to where the clover grows in a cool, dark patch on the grass. Minnows leap from the surface, and overhead I watch the same swallows I once saw from underneath now wheel above me. I go there to try and remember, not my shadowlife, of course, for that is still clear for me, but my transition, and its attendant terrors. I repeat to myself the story of how it happened. How, with that accident of touch, I found myself standing on the grass while all around the brightness and hardness and weight of your atmosphere bore down on me. What else do I recall? Screaming, which I now suspect was my own. And the children, all harnessed in set volumes, hurtling toward me. Fear surged though my being, and I fled – into gathering darkness.

“Katy! Katy!”

I opened my vision to a forest of blades. A monster clambered up a stalk, unfurled its enameled wings, and levitated into the air with a buzz.

And you were there. Your body was around me, encasing me. I stared in wonder at your face, at the blue brightness of your eyes. You lifted me and together we flew. In my true shadow form, a ripple, a wave, rose, fell, rose again.

 

* * *

 

Others came. They prodded me, poked me. I folded myself to the core and hid, but I could not truly hide, for the body I was trapped within was shaken and jerked, and each time I was compelled through curiosity to peek. Once I saw the sky so much further than I could imagine, and another time I was in a cave of white light with dark rivers streaming past. And the unyielding noise! Something pierced my integument, and I could not move for the shocking pain. I plummeted to the depths, sequestered myself there.

And there I stayed for a long time. At first I was confused, listening to the cacophony of thoughts that surrounded me. How rude you all were, with your constant interruptions, your babbly, overexcited shouting. But then I understood that you were all deaf to each other – all you could hear were the sounds you released from your mouths. And with that understanding came relief, for I knew then that you could not hear me; that you did not know it was I who paddled in the currents of my new form’s heart. I listened. I learned. And when you, my Jack, were not there to hold my hand, I kept myself busy. I sang songs and talked to myself or slept, for I was very tired.

Time staggered on. My fear ebbed.

 

* * *

 

How long did I stay in the hospital? I cannot say, for each day was the same. I began to grow bored with my confinement. I was offered sustenance. I had to get up and walk about, a challenge at the beginning, for although my carapace could stand, the weight of the world dragged on me, and I kept trying to float down. I learned to talk and look after my covering. In the shower I washed the hair and cast my hands, slick with soap, over the soft belly, the long legs covered in tiny brown marks, the flat feet with their callused undersides, the breasts, the one on the left a bit heavier than the one on the right, the hair, bristly and short down below, the red sheaf hanging down my back. I learned when the mouth is dry, I must drink, and when the stomach grumbles it is time to eat, and this is my favorite part of this new world – how each solid thing on the plate is a surprise in my mouth.

 

* * *

 

After lunch you would arrive. You dragged the blue chair from beneath the window and placed it beside the bed. You put your coffee on the bedside table. You would hunt in your flat case for a gift from the children; a message in bright, waxy colors that I could not interpret but which I would lay on my knees as though it were something of infinite value. You would entwine your fingers through mine. And you would tell me about your day. You were working because you needed to be home at four when the school bus drew up outside our house. But I should not worry, you said. Everything was fine. The children had been very upset initially but were very resilient. They were looking forward to me coming home. You were drawing in the evenings, in the guest room, for when did we have guests? And you were working on a plan for a law firm in the city. Oh, and the runner beans I had planted were going wild, so much so, you were giving them away, and even the tomatoes were ripening on the vine…

Light tumbled in from the window, setting the hairs on your neck aglow. Sometimes, as you were speaking, I dozed, but kept my eyes awake, blinking. I could feel your love emitting from you, and I wondered if you could feel mine flowing back. Mother, I loved dearly, but you, oh, you are different.

Often you came in and you were sad. I would catch you staring at me, and I would say, “What’s wrong, hon?” like the nurses do, and you would put your head in your hands and mumble, “Oh God, where are you, Katy?”

And sometimes you came in with Dr. Wing. He would sit on the edge of my bed and ask me questions: What had I eaten for breakfast, did I remember being a child, what is my favorite color. Some of the questions I could answer with the new words I have learned (toast, egg, oatmeal, muffin), but for others I had to cheat by sneaking into your mind. And some I could not answer at all, for you did not know me then.

Outside my door I heard the two of you whispering. Your voices rustled like leaves against a windowpane.

 

* * *

 

And then one day you said, “Time to come home, Katy.” And you looked in my eyes as though you were truly searching for me, the real me, my shadow self, floating in its pool of gray iris.

I compressed your hand. “There is a reason I am here,” I declared truthfully. “You.”

You laughed then, and clucked my chin with your finger. “Romantic now, are we? Well, I suppose I can’t complain about this change, old girl.”

 

* * *

We walked slowly to the car, for there was so much to look at. Cloudscapes evolved against their backdrop of strident blue. The sun glared out, left circles on my vision when I glanced at it.

At home you gave me a tour. You showed me my house that my great-grandfather had built, with its small sign attesting to its antiquity. We stood in the light-pricked shade of the oak tree, and with your fingers guiding mine, we traced the lovers’ letters delineated in the trunk. You pointed out my vegetable garden, where fragile spirals of bean plants waved in the breeze, the worn stone with its hitching ring for a horse, the oak front door, my bright brass key. I recalled so little of the place, from my last brief visit, and each thing was new, although I could sense that you hoped it was not so.

As we went inside you became flustered, a sheen rising on your forehead. In the pantry were my pots, heavy orange things, and the umbrella stand with my cashmere sweater still dangling from a handle, where I had left it. And on the hall table was our wedding photo, with you so carelessly happy, staring at my face with open wonder. And in the study was my cabinet of curiosities, over to which you dragged me, crying, “Katy, don’t you remember? All your precious things.” And together we stared at the oddments within: a piece of a star, a dinosaur bone, a fly trapped in a hardened toffee of amber, a sharpened angle of flint.

I could not hide from you my lack of interest. They were all dead things, lifeless things, and as such held little value for me. The only thing I saw that caused a stirring was a shadowbox on the wall. Inside was a creature of such beauty I gasped on seeing it. “Your butterfly.” You smiled. “Remember? We bought it in Paris. A Queen Alexandra Birdwing, Ornithoptera Alexandrae. You always wanted one for your collection.”

I stood on my tiptoes and pressed my face close to the glass. The butterfly lay still with its perfect wings outstretched, like an angel. I wished I could take it in my hand, see it fly.

 

* * *

 

As I am still learning, Mona comes in. She washes the clothes and fries eggs and takes out the trash. I try to help, but still, even now, the edges confuse me, their unforgiving rigidity. When I try to pour milk, it pools in a spill on the table. Mona says, “Don’t worry, Meesus, I do it.”

When she leaves I walk around the house. I lie on the beds. I feel the damp heads of the toothbrushes. I watch the raindrops chase each other down the windows, and talk silently to the butterfly, frozen in his case on the wall, the scales on his wings iridescent, sliding between lavender and blue. Sometimes I choose things from the fridge and try to cook, but nothing I put together works, and I am afraid of the knife and its fierce blade. I eat what I can from the pantry, pasta crunchy in my mouth, cookies, chips, pinches of salt.

When you return at lunchtime you say, “Christ, what a mess!” and you help me sweep the floor. You bring food too, and I open the hot bag and smell the inside. You tell me about your morning, about an interview and how your colleague’s a jerk, and I eat my curry, and then when you look away, I eat your curry too. You shake your head when you notice, and make a sandwich with tuna from a can. I watch carefully so tomorrow I can open the tins in the larder.

At four, we go outside to wait for the bus. The children jump off, dragging their sweaters behind them. You wrestle them to the grass, and they squeal and shriek. Then you say, “Kiss your mother,” and they come to me, reluctant. Their lips are soft against my cheek, dabs of moth wing.

Back in the house, I rest, while you occupy yourself downstairs with homework and dinner. We eat together, and afterward, while I pile the dishes in the sink with emerald streaks of detergent, you take the children upstairs for a bath and bed. At the beginning I stay in the kitchen, but then, one night I surmise your thoughts clearly. “When is she going to start being a mother again,” and I say loudly, “And I will be up soon to say good night,” and you wrap your arms around me, and I can feel your happiness piercing my heart, sharp and bright.

In bed later you roll toward me and move your hands over my body, and you say, “Do you mind, darling?” And I say, “Mind what?” And you laugh and caress me and then you hove above me and are in me, and I feel the joy in your thoughts and shut my eyes for my own joy, and I know now I could never go back, that, like my friend Ornithoptera Alexandrae on its pin, you have imprisoned me here.

In the late summer we sit outside, and you give me a glass of pale wine, but you say strongly, not too much. I have new clothes, for The-First-Katy’s clothes have grown smaller. The children run on the grass, throwing themselves into bent handstands and cartwheels, and Jacob the dog tears around, his tongue hanging from his mouth. In the crepuscular light our shadows lengthen, and every now and then a firefly sparks like an ember, fading into the sky. If the children go too close to the water, I stand up and shake my finger at them. “Hey! Get yourselves back on the grass this instant!”

“They both can swim,” you remind me.

I say, “I know, but that lake is full of things you cannot imagine.” And as I sip my wine, I watch the reflection of the willow flutter and slide between leaf and light and wonder if Mother might be resting in the shadow branches. The evening star hangs on the horizon, still invisible to her eye. Does she ever wonder what happened to me? Her beloved shadow child? Or has she seen it all before?

As for the The-First-Katy down there somewhere amongst the fractals and diffusions and the endless dark, drenched spaces, well, I do not like to think of her.

___

Sam Grieve earned her BA in English and French literature and graduated with honors in creative writing from Brown University. At Brown, she had the great fortune to study under Robert Coover and Paul West, among others. After gaining her MA in English from King’s College, London, she worked initially as a bookseller, and then moved into the antiquarian book business. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, she lived in London, Paris, and Providence, Rhode Island, before settling down in Connecticut with her husband and their two sons. She writes under the name Sam Grieve.

Her work is forthcoming or has recently appeared in A cappella Zoo, Cactus Heart, Grey Sparrow, PANK, Sanskrit, and Wild Violet.

Oasis

By Roxanne Lynn Doty

He left her at a motel in Oklahoma City with a 1981 Dodge Charger, four-speed stick shift and $200 cash. They were heading to Phoenix from Bolivar, Missouri – a small town with dying strip malls, below average wages, and an above average tendency for summer tornados. Jack Olson had been a line supervisor at Alpine Manufacturing for the past twenty of his forty-nine years. Cindy Ann Richter had worked in the stock room for six months. They both drank too many beers and shots of Tequila at Friday’s happy hour at the Southern Star Saloon on State Route 13 and ended up in a nearby Motel 8. She had acted out his sexual fantasies, sitting on his naked lap with her long legs wrapped around his fat waist, pulling him into her. His breath was quick and heavy as he came. In the next instant she whispered into his ear, “Take me to Phoenix,” because she couldn’t think of any other way to get there and Phoenix was the closest thing to a goal she had in her young life.

“When?” he laughed, a little out of breath.

“Now.”

He was drunk enough and sufficiently high on sex that heading out to Phoenix on the spur of the moment made some small amount of sense. She hadn’t planned any of it. She had picked up an old 1976 Arizona Highways magazine at a garage sale a few months back.  A photo of the red rocks of Sedona caught her eye. What kind of place had rocks colored like that? There were pictures of Phoenix too.  Palm trees stood like sentries and threw scattered shadows all over the city and the mountains just there looming in the background and the whole place was full of sunsets and radiance and impressed upon her a world where she could find some dreams to pursue. So what if 1976 was twenty years ago, how much could things have changed? Things hadn’t changed in Bolivar since the day she was born twenty-three years ago, which is when she figured the ache to split had begun.

“I need to get some stuff at my house,” she said. So, they swung by her parents’ small three-bedroom house where she still lived. She made her way to her bedroom in the dark, threw some clothes into a small suitcase, grabbed her toothbrush from the bathroom and closed the front door. Then she remembered that the Arizona Highways was still on the table by her bed and went back to get it. She flung it in the backseat. They hit the highway shortly after midnight and drove through to Oklahoma City where they checked into an Econo Lodge. Jack relived his sexual fantasies. They were both sober this time and she couldn’t quite bring off the pretended enthusiasm of the night before.

Afterwards she felt like she had somehow lost the upper hand, and when she awoke after drifting off he was on the phone buying a plane ticket back to Springfield, Missouri, the closest airport to Bolivar. He must have had a twinge of conscience though because he left the car with the title in the glove box. The car was fifteen years old with 200,000 miles on it. It was a piece of shit, but would probably make it to Phoenix. When the taxi pulled up to the lobby entrance he put $200.00 on the nightstand and walked out the door.

“Fuck you,” she yelled after him. She needed the money though. She was being left alone again, which is where she always seemed to end up. “Fuck you,” she said again softly, even though he was already in the taxi on his way to the airport and couldn’t hear her.

She had driven a manual transmission only once before when she was seventeen and her boyfriend at the time was so drunk he could hardly walk and had handed her the keys. She was scarcely more sober than he and had nearly hit a car head on, coming close enough to knock the mirror off the driver’s side before swerving into a Dollar Store parking lot, slamming on the breaks, locking the tires, and putting the car into a mad spin.

Now, she struggled with the clutch and gearshift, but a few times around the motel parking lot and she had the hang of it, at least enough to get the damned thing on the road and onto the Interstate. She drove all afternoon and far into the night, stopping to go to the bathroom in Amarillo, Texas and again in Gallup, New Mexico. About eighty-five miles south of Flagstaff, Arizona she pulled off I-17 at the Cordes Junction exit where she saw billboards for gas and food. She hadn’t eaten since Oklahoma City. As she pulled off of I-17 she noticed a guy on the side of the highway sitting on a bucket that had been turned over to serve as a stool. A wool ski cap covered his head and most of his forehead. Something that looked like an electric grass edger was beside him, the bottom part wrapped in a white plastic bag, the long handle lying across an oversized backpack. Good luck getting a ride, she thought to herself. It was three in the morning last time she had checked her watch as she drove through Flagstaff.

“Where is the nearest hotel?” she asked the clerk at the MacDonald’s.

“About forty miles down Highway 69,” the clerk said. “In Prescott.”

“How far to Phoenix?”

“Ninety, maybe a hundred miles.”

She sat in the car eating a cheeseburger and sipping a large black coffee, considering her options. She had the $200 plus $125 of her own money. Driving to Prescott meant forty miles out of her way and then another forty miles back in the morning, plus money for a motel. She decided to pull into the far corner of the parking lot and try to get a little sleep in the car. Sleeping was impossible though. She couldn’t get comfortable, the caffeine in the coffee had given her a second wind, and she couldn’t stop thinking about what Phoenix would look like “in-person.”  She started up the engine and pulled into the Texaco station next to MacDonald’s. The air had a feel to it as it gently brushed against her skin, a feel of morning. Faint and dry. It hung unobtrusively over this new world that awaited her and smelled of vague promises of a place where people did more than just cope with a life that fucked you around over and over.  She inhaled deeply. One hundred more miles. As she was pumping gas, she saw someone walking toward her.

“You heading to Phoenix, ma’am?” It was the guy with the grass edger. He was tall, but she saw that he was little more than a kid, maybe eighteen or nineteen. He held the edger in his left hand, the bucket in his right, and the large backpack was strapped across his back.

“Yeah, why?” she asked.

“Can I bum a ride, ma’am?”

“Ma’am?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Can I bum a ride to Phoenix?”

She hesitated, sizing him up. He looked harmless enough, but what the hell did she know? But she figured, what the fuck. She had taken off with that asshole Olson and let him fuck her twice, and what the hell had she really known about him? And when it came right down to it, what had she known about anyone, any of the guys she had been with?  It was all a fucking crapshoot.

“Can you drive a stick shift?” she asked, thinking maybe another driver might be a good thing if she hit the wall from lack of sleep before they got to Phoenix.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“My name’s Cindy Ann, not ma’am.”

“Yes, ma’am, Cindy Ann,” he said, and extended his hand to her. “I’m Taylor.”

Weird kid, she thought.

“What the hell is that thing?” she asked.

“A lawn edger.”

“Just put it in the back seat.”

He handled it like a musician might handle a fragile musical instrument, gently placing it across the back seat. He put his backpack and stool on the floor. She was putting the gas pump back on the hook when he picked up the window cleaner, dipped it in the liquid and began to clean first the front and then the rear window.

She just looked at him and thought again, “Weird kid,” but said, “Thanks.”

I-17 was nearly empty except for a few semis that raced past them. It was dawn and the sky was taking on a light grey whisper of brightness. It was her favorite time, when the drunks and losers of the night were finally going home and normal people were about to start their day. It was hope and despair at the same time.

“So, do people call you Taylor? Tay?” she asked.

“No, ma’am. Just Taylor.”

“Fuck. Could you not call me ma’am? How old are you anyway, Taylor?”

“Just turned nineteen. Three days ago, back in Memphis?”

“Well, Happy Birthday, Taylor.”

“Thanks.”

The sun was full up by the time they reached the exit for Black Canyon City. Bolivar was a lifetime away.

“You want some coffee?” she asked.

“Sure.”

She exited onto the frontage road that led to the Sagebrush Café. A few pickup trucks and semis were parked outside. The café was small, with three booths on either side of the door and a row of stools facing the counter. The stools were full and only one booth was vacant. When they walked in, several heads turned and looked at them briefly before turning away. They sat down at the vacant booth.

“So, Memphis, what’s with the edger? Why do you carry it around with you?”

“For jobs. I might need it for doing jobs.”

“Is that what you did back in Memphis? Yard work?”

“Sometimes,” he said.

“You got a girlfriend back there?”

“Not really.”

“You been to Phoenix before?” she asked.

“Long time ago,” Taylor said. “I was born there, but my mom and I left when I was four.”

“I’ve never been there,” she said. “Never been anywhere, except fucking Bolivar, Missouri.”

He nodded.

“I’m going to get an office job,” she continued. “Where I can dress professional every day.”

“I’m going to see my dad,” Taylor said. “He doesn’t know I’m coming.”

“You gonna surprise him?”

“I guess so. My mom died two months ago back in Memphis. Thought I’d head out here. Look up my old man. Haven’t seen him since I was four.”

“Shit,” Cindy Ann said.

She looked at him closely. Only the first signs of light, fuzzy facial hair were visible around his jaw. His wool cap was yellow with a red band, pulled down nearly to his eyes; his eyes were a turquoise blue, deep and liquidy like that river water in the Arizona Highways photo. They almost made her dizzy.

“That must be tough for you.”

“Yeah.” For a second he appeared a little lost and she briefly wondered how he made it all the way from Memphis. But physically he looked like he could take care of himself. He had taken off the denim jacket he was wearing and slim but muscular arms were evident under his black t-shirt. Still, she thought there was a gentleness, a vulnerability to his appearance.

They descended gradually into Phoenix and the flow of morning rush hour. Sprawling housing developments stretched to the base of the surrounding mountains, the rooftops a huge pallet of red tile spread over the earth. Billboards and strip malls, endless ribbons of highways and overpasses traversed the future in front of her. For the first time since she left Bolivar she thought of specifics of her new life in Phoenix. What now?

“Hey, where do you want me to drop you?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Where does your dad live? I can take you to his place.”

“I don’t know. Like I said, I haven’t seen him for a long time.”

“You don’t know where he lives?”

“No.”

“Jesus.”

“You can just let me out when we get into town. Whereever you’re going, I’ll get out then.”

“Okay,” she said. Phoenix spread out in all directions as far as she could see.  She could have driven through Bolivar a thousand times before they even got to the downtown area. The exit said Van Buren. It seemed as good a place as any. She drove east for a few miles heading to what looked like the center of town. Boarded up motels and run-down bars lined the street. The scenery became brighter, cleaner, and more modern around a large sports stadium and a convention center. She kept going for a few blocks and more cheap motels appeared, some boarded up, some still open. She had noticed a Budget Inn a couple of blocks back that looked like a possibility. She pulled into a vacant parking lot to turn around.

“You can just let me out here,” Taylor said.

She pulled over and stopped the car. Taylor got out and opened the back door to get his backpack and lawn edger.

“Good luck finding your dad, Memphis,” she said.

“Thanks.”

She turned the car around and headed to the Budget Inn.

Ten units arranged in an L-shape faced a waterless swimming pool framed by a cracked and chipped deck; the tiny room smelled of vomit and rug shampoo. But at least the door lock worked. From the bed she could see the top of the pool; she closed her eyes and imagined it full of water. She awoke to the afternoon sun blazing through the window, her hair damp with sweat. She decided to walk around downtown and get to know the city a little.

The streets were lined with bars, small restaurants and pawnshops. Down the side streets old bungalows in various stages of disrepair stood alongside new home structures under construction. The center of town was just a couple of blocks away. There were numerous office buildings. She looked at them and imagined that she might end up working in one of them. She thought of Linda Miller and Carolina Walker, the two girls in the front office back at Alpine Manufacturing who always made her feel cheap and unworthy. Their very presence, their perfect clothes and hairstyles and manicured nails with clear, shiny polish, the whole professional way they looked, made her feel like a pile of dog shit in jeans. They acted so superior with their stupid certificates from a two-day office management class at the community college hanging on the wall above their desks. She knew they probably thought she was trashy. She bet Jack Olson would have never even approached them. Fuck him. Fuck them. She got to Phoenix didn’t she? Fucking A – yes she did and here she was in her sun-drenched promised land on the verge of starting her new life.

The only clothes she had brought with her besides jeans, t-shirts and tank tops were a black skirt and pair of dressy sandals.  She found a Ross and bought a light blue long sleeve blouse and a grey blazer. Then she picked up a local paper and a pack of Winstons and went back to her room to look through the classified ads. She circled a few possibilities to call in the morning. After paying for the motel, gas, the clothes, and some food, she was down to $200.00.

She used the phone booth just outside the motel office and called five companies with jobs advertised. Three were already filled, but the other two were taking applications. One was in West Phoenix about ten blocks the other side of I-17. The other one was just a couple of miles south of the motel in a small industrial park. She took a shower, washed her hair and put on her new interview outfit. She examined herself in the bathroom mirror, one thin swoop of light green eye shadow and a little mascara and lipstick. Keep it low key, she told herself. She pulled her long brown hair into a low ponytail, thinking she should probably cut it.

Both places overflowed with women, from her age to her mother’s, filling out applications. As she was filling out the applications she thought again of Linda and Carolina back at Alpine and under “previous employment” she wrote “administrative assistant” and under “education” she wrote, “high school diploma, some college, and office management training program.”  She wrote these things out so carefully and deliberately in the blank spaces provided that she began to think of them as true and experienced herself as a new and different person, who had spent her days at Alpine Manufacturing in the front office. She felt far from who she had been less than just a week ago. But as she was driving back to the motel, she began to think the whole thing was a crapshoot. Just like everything else.

When she went into the motel office to pay for another night, the manager told her about a little efficiency unit he thought she might be interested in.

“If you’re looking for long term,” he said. “It’s the last unit, #10. Used to live there myself as part of my job, but my girl wanted me to move in with her. You can have it for $250 a month. Owner don’t ever come around. He doesn’t give a shit.”

Cindy Ann figured that $250 was probably the cheapest rent she would find. Trouble was she didn’t have $250 at the moment. She hesitated.

“Think it over,” the manager said.

“I will,” she said and then, “Hey what if I give you $100 now and the rest when I get paid.”

“When would that be?”

“Real soon,” she tried to sound convincing, to him and to herself. “I’ll be getting an office job soon.”

“Okay. I’ll take the $100 now and $150 when you get paid.”

The room was about twenty by twenty-five feet with a chest of drawers in the corner and a sofa bed against the wall.  A small table with a hotplate on it and two chairs were next to a sink and mini-fridge. The bathroom contained a shower stall, a small sink, and a toilet. There was barely enough room to turn around. When she turned on the light in the bathroom, a roach scampered into the crevice behind the toilet. When she turned on the water in the sink, three more fell from the faucet. Cindy Ann opened the screen-less window in the bathroom and the one in the front to air the place out. The window in the bathroom opened to an alleyway filled with litter, broken bottles and an old mattress propped upright behind a large garbage bin.

Later in the night when she was closing the bathroom window, she looked out and saw the mattress was now laying flat on the ground with someone sleeping on it. The figure was wrapped in what looked like a sleeping bag or quilt. Then she noticed the wool cap, yellow with a red band. She saw the edger sticking out behind the sleeping figure. Her heart jumped like she had found an old friend.

“Hey,” she called. “Memphis.”

The figure stirred.

“Memphis! Here at the window. It’s Cindy Ann.”

Taylor sat up looking around him and then to the window.

“Hey,” she said again. “It’s me, Cindy Ann.”

“You get that office job?” He smiled.

“Not yet. Come on around to number ten,” she said. “My new apartment.”

In a couple of minutes Taylor was at her front door, sleeping bag draped over his shoulders.

“How long you been sleeping out there?” she asked.

“A couple of nights.”

“Ever since I dropped you off?”

“No,” Taylor said. “I hitched over to North Phoenix, to the last address I had for where my dad worked. He was long gone, so I just hung out over there. Slept behind a strip mall. Then went to a shelter just south of here, stayed one night. It was dirty and crowded and there were some scary dudes there.”

“You got any money, Memphis?” She noticed a bruise under his left eye, a cut on his lip.

“A little,” he said. “Like fifty bucks.”

“Well, you can crash here for a while if you need to.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Cool.”  He seemed relieved to be off the street. “Oh, and you don’t have to worry about me.”

She looked at him.

“About me bothering you or anything.”

“Bothering me? Are you a serial killer or something?”

“No,” he said. “I mean, like hitting on you, stuff like that. I’m gay. So, you don’t have to worry about me bothering you.”

“Oh. Well that’s good news Memphis. I think,” she said and laughed. “I won’t worry.”

She smiled and added, “You know what they say. All the good guys are married or gay. But, all the married guys I know are assholes and I’ve never had a gay friend, at least not that I know of.”

“Well, you have one now,” he said.

The next day she used the phone in the motel office and called the two places where she had filled out the applications. Since she didn’t have a phone there was no way they could contact her. The first place had already hired someone but the second place told her to come in that afternoon for an interview.

“Hey, Memphis. You got some scissors in that backpack?” she asked when she returned to the room.

“Nope. What do you need scissors for?”

“I was thinking of cutting my hair. To look a little more professional.” Her hair hung in thick dark brown waves half way down her back. “Don’t you think it looks a little wild like it is?”

“I like your hair,” Taylor said.

“Well, it doesn’t look professional.”

“I don’t know what professional looks like,” he said. “But it looks pretty.”

Cindy Ann smiled. The word pretty sounded innocent coming from Taylor.

“Here,” Taylor said, pulling something from his backpack. He handed her a large silver hair clip with a dark blue stone in the middle. “You can put your hair up.”

“This is beautiful,” she said. Where did you get it?”
“It was my mom’s.”

“Wow,” she said. “Isn’t it a little special to you?”

“Yea, sort of. “ Taylor said. “But you can borrow it.”

Cindy Ann combed her hair, pulled the front sides back and secured them with the clip.

“That looks very professional,” Taylor said.

The interview was at a small producer of components for aircraft communications called Oasis Manufacturing. It was located in an industrial park just a couple of miles south of Van Buren. She was interviewed by Mike Bradley, the manager of the purchasing department which consisted of himself, a file clerk, and who ever got the job she was applying for.

“When can you start?” he asked.

“Right away,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound overly eager or desperate.

“Well, Cynthia,” Mike said. “In that case I’ll see you tomorrow morning, 8:30.” He extended his hand to her.

“Shit,” she thought to herself as she left his office. Her heart was racing. He hadn’t even asked her how fast she could type or if she could type at all. She liked that he called her Cynthia and not Cindy Ann. She couldn’t remember anyone ever calling her Cynthia.

Mike’s office was a large room with a huge wood desk covered in glass. Two big, high back chairs were in front of the desk and a leather recliner stood off to the side. She was in another office next to his with a desk, typewriter, computer, phone and file cabinets. Cindy Ann answered the phones, kept track of Mike’s appointments, and made coffee in the pot in the kitchen/eating area next to her office. A woman named Marsha shared this office and was the file clerk. Vendors and potential vendors came in frequently. They took Mike out to lunch, wanted to show him a good time, get his business. Sometimes Mike was away most of the afternoon on these lunches. Then it was just Cindy Ann and Marsha in the office.

Marsha seemed to be in her mid to late forties or maybe even older. To Cindy Ann she looked more like a barmaid than a file clerk. She wore thick jet-black eyeliner and lots of foundation. Her shirts were always low-cut with gold or silver bangles hanging around her neck to match her big hoop earrings. Her hair was a mass of jet-black curls almost to her shoulders. Her voice had the raspiness of a longtime, heavy smoker. She didn’t make Cindy Ann feel like a low-life shit, the way Linda and Carolina had. Mike seemed the ideal boss. He held doors for her, thanked her for her work, wore a smile every morning like he was thrilled to see her, like she was going to make the whole workday worthwhile. He was handsome, a little slick and sexy. She put his age at about forty. She never acted like she thought he was sexy, though, and diligently avoided saying or doing anything that could even remotely be considered flirting. The office made her feel professional, respectable and classy. About a month after she started the job one of the vendors came to show his wares to Mike and take him to lunch. Mike asked Cindy Ann and Marsha to join them.

Cindy Ann had never been taken to lunch before. By anyone. Unless Taco Bell drive-through counted. Lunch was at the restaurant in the new Holiday Inn just around the corner from the office. The place looked elegant to Cindy Ann. Mike pulled out chairs for Cindy Ann and Marsha.  She was feeling very classy which is why the thing that happened took her aback a little. During lunch there was a fashion show. She had never seen a fashion show before, but didn’t think too much about it. It was just girls walking down the runway modeling summer clothes. Then they switched to lingerie, skimpy and a little revealing.

“You could do that,” Mike said to her. He turned to the vendor. “Don’t you think so?”

The vendor smiled and looked at Cindy Ann and nodded.

“Leave the kid alone,” Marsha said to Mike and the vendor.

But Mike made a point of calling one of the models over to the table when the show was over. Her name was Sunny. Up close she looked older than the other girls, mid to late thirties. She was wearing baby doll lingerie with a nearly see-through top. Apparently Sunny was the boss lady. She gave Mike a hug like they were old friends.

“This is Cynthia,” Mike said nodding toward Cindy Ann. “Cynthia, Sunny.”

Sunny extended her hand. Cindy shook it. Sunny excused herself, but returned to their table about fifteen minutes later dressed in tight jeans, a tank top with fake diamond studs along the breast line, and stiletto heels. She handed Cindy Ann a business card.

“Give me a call if you’re interested,” she said.

Cindy Ann took the card.  She smiled and nodded, but didn’t even look at it before putting it in her purse. She felt a little disappointed. Complimented if you looked at it a certain way, but sort of insulted at the same time because she was wondering why Mike was thinking of her modeling underwear like that. That didn’t really seem professional to her. But then she figured he probably just meant it as a compliment.  It didn’t mean that he didn’t respect her. He treated Sunny with respect didn’t he? And besides it was Sunny who gave her the card, not Mike.

All afternoon she pondered how Linda and Carolina would have thought of the situation. Would Mike have even made a comment to them about modeling? She decided to just let it slide. How much was she going to let a silly, innocent thing bother her new life anyway? She just put it out of her head.

“Do you remember anything about Phoenix?” Cindy Ann asked Taylor.

They were sitting in a couple of lounge chairs he had found in the alley and pulled over by the empty pool. The city was settling into dusk.

“Not really.” Then, “Maybe the zoo.”

“The zoo?”

“Yeah. But I don’t know if I really remember it or if I just think I do because of the picture my mom gave me. I’m three years old and my dad is holding my hand in front of the zebras. So, maybe I’m just making up the memory in my head.”

“Hmm.”

A man with shoulder length, straight black hair, wearing dark jeans and a threadbare winter coat was pushing a dolly with two cases of bottled water down the street in front of the motel. A pair of rosary beads dangled from his left hand. He waved to Taylor. Taylor waved back.

“Who’s that?” Cindy asked.

“Manchego. He lives in the alley.”

Manchego turned into the motel driveway, pulled out two bottles of water and passed them to Taylor and Cindy Ann.

“Thanks,” Taylor said.

“This your lady?” Manchego looked at Cindy.

“I’m his best friend,” Cindy said.

Taylor looked at her. Manchego nodded and wheeled his dolly back out to Van Buren.

“He thinks he steals water from the Purple Mountain Saloon when they leave the back door open. But I’m pretty sure they know he takes it,” Taylor said.

“Maybe it doesn’t even matter.”

“What, the water?”

“No. Whether you remember the zoo and your dad or just think you do because of the picture.”

“Oh.”

“Either way, you got a memory in your head. That’s what counts right? It’s yours no matter how it got there.”

“I like the way you think Miss Cindy Ann, Ma’am.”

A few weeks later the vendor was back in town and Mike again asked her and Marsha to join them for lunch. It was a Friday; things were slow. The factory workers worked four day, ten hour shifts, so the whole place was empty except for Mike and Cindy Ann and Marsha.

“You girls up for lunch?” Mike asked. “After, you can just take the afternoon off.”

“Cool,” they both said at the same time and Marsha winked at Cindy Ann.

They went to the Holiday Inn restaurant again, but there was no fashion show this time.

“It’s only on Wednesdays,” Mike said.

She was glad there was no show so the topic of last time wouldn’t come up again. The vendor had ordered a pitcher of Michelob beer.  Cindy Ann hadn’t been drinking much since arriving in Phoenix, mostly because of the money or lack of it.  The beer tasted good. She pulled out a cigarette. Mike was quick to light it, practically the instant she got it to her lips.

“You’d be good,” he said, nodding toward the empty runway. “You’re as pretty as those models you saw last time, just as sexy.”

She took a long sip of her beer, not knowing how to respond. If it had been Jack Olson back in Bolivar she might have told him to fuck off. But this was a whole different thing. She wanted Mike to like her and think she was attractive, but she also wanted him to be full of respect, overflowing with respect in fact. Maybe she was being too sensitive. What was wrong with him telling her she was pretty and sexy? Maybe she was thinking about this thing all wrong. She finished her beer and Mike immediately refilled her glass. And when she really got down to it she actually was feeling a little sexy and pretty anyway, and a little sophisticated here in this fancy lounge on a Friday afternoon with the attention of an attractive man on her.  And damned straight, she could model that lingerie if she wanted to. She could do a fucking good job; walk right up to Mike in skimpy little bikini bottoms and a tight sheer tank top, so close that she could feel his breath on her. She could do that if she wanted to.  But she didn’t want to. She had a new life now. So she just smiled at Mike and said “Thanks” and took another long drink of beer.

There was another pitcher on the table. Cindy Ann’s glass always seemed to be full. Food was ordered, but she was feeling full from the beer. Food seemed a bother. She had a few bites of something; a sandwich, fries, chips. Marsha and the vendor were laughing. Marsha looked over and winked at her. Then the vendor was pulling out a credit card and paying the bill. Somehow it had become 3:00 pm.  They moved from the restaurant to the lounge where it was dark and cool and so different from outside where summer had suddenly slammed into Phoenix. They sat in a circular booth in the corner. Another pitcher of beer and a steady stream of gold liquid flowed into her glass. Someone put money in the big jukebox by the bar. “I love that song,” she said when she heard Willie and Waylon singing “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” “Man, that song just follows me around,” she added. A warm arm slid itself around her waist. She thought it was Mike’s but didn’t bother to look over at him. Maybe she was just imagining it. Marsha’s raspy voice seemed louder than usual. Cindy Ann noticed the vendor’s right hand on Marsha’s left thigh. Marsha winked at her again.

“How you doing, honey?” Marsha asked Cindy Ann, like they were on an adventure or something. Her voice sounded a little slurred but Cindy Ann couldn’t be sure. Maybe her hearing was a little slurred. They had switched to a mix of beer and margaritas. It tasted like lemonade on a summer day. Cindy Ann couldn’t remember how many she had drunk; maybe she was still on her first, maybe her second or third.

“I’m doing just fine,” she said to Marsha and tried to wink but it must have come out a little crooked because Marsha laughed – probably a bit louder than was warranted because the couple at the table next to theirs turned around to look at her. Mike and the vendor were talking about something but Mike’s arm never left Cindy Ann’s waist and she felt his hand slowly rubbing the skin on her lower back. She felt like she could sit in that booth in the cool lounge forever, like maybe they had already been there forever.

Then they were all getting up from the table and going out the door into the late afternoon sun. A translucent net of heat seemed to have draped itself around the city. Cindy Ann experienced it as a staggering intensity as if something brilliant and blinding had exploded all around her shooting tiny sparks of fire into every pore on her air-conditioned skin. She fumbled in her purse for her keys but only retrieved a cigarette for which a light instantly appeared as if by magic, like had been happening all afternoon. She immediately regretted the cigarette because it seemed to exacerbate the heat and she let it drop to the sizzling blacktop of the parking lot.

“I think you left your car back at the office,” she heard Mike say.  The world took on a surreal quality. The office? Just where was the office? The glaring sun overwhelmed her.

She was in Mike’s car. The cold air-conditioner was blowing in her face and it seemed they were instantly back in Mike’s office. She thought it was a little odd to be in the office when she was drunk.  She briefly wondered where Marsha and the vendor were and were they going to have a party here in the office because Mike was pulling out a bottle of Tequila from somewhere behind his desk. He filled two shot glasses about half way and passed one to her, which she drank down immediately not even thinking if she wanted it. What happened next was a bit of a puzzlement. Or not. Maybe it was inevitable. It all depended on how you thought about it. She was dimly aware of Mike coaxing her into the leather recliner chair in his office, sliding his hands around her panties and pulling them down and she was thinking that Marsha and the vendor probably weren’t coming to the party. The front of her blouse was unbuttoned and his lips were on her breasts. Somewhere in her mind she thought she tried to tell him to stop, thought she should say no because this was not seeming professional at all.

“Don’t be a baby,” Mike whispered. “It will be okay. Everything is alright.”

The smell of his cologne was overpowering and he was unzipping his pants. Then he was inside of her and it was like so many other times in her life when she couldn’t say precisely how one thing led to another.  When it was over, she lay back on the recliner with her eyes closed. Hazy memories broke over her.

Mike was shaking her shoulder like he thought she had fallen asleep or passed out.

“We’ve got to get going,” he said.

She opened her eyes. He was buckling his belt, smoothing his hair.

“You’re okay aren’t you?” he asked.

She sat up and reached for her purse, which was on the floor by the recliner. The silver barrette had slipped out of her hair and was lying next to the purse. She picked it up and pulled her hair back and clipped it.

“Yeah,” she said. “Sure. I’m fine.”

She felt almost sober, a little nauseous.  Her car was parked where she had left it that morning. It was an oven inside. She let all the windows down and hot air blew into the interior as she drove through South Phoenix to the Budget Inn. It was 8:30 pm. Her room was sweltering. She switched on the small AC unit. It blew out coolish air, sputtered, and then stopped. “Fuck,” she said and kicked it. She opened the bathroom window and the front window and left the door open. “A cigarette,” she thought and looked for her purse. She must have left it in the car. She found it on the floor in the back. As she picked it up she noticed Taylor’s stool. He had put it there back at Cordes Junction when she agreed to give him a ride to Phoenix. Then she saw the Arizona Highways laying on the backseat where it had been ever since she left Bolivar. She picked it up and brought it in the room. She lit up a cigarette and lay down on the bed, surrounded by the distant white noise of the city and the sounds in the alley behind her room where people were always drinking and carrying on and doing God knows what.

Thoughts flooded into her head. Maybe Mike was drunk too. Maybe that was why it happened. Things just got a little carried away. It wasn’t hard to see how that could happen, was it? But, the thing she wished she could be sure of was that moment when Mike was coaxing her into the recliner. Did she say “no” or was she just thinking “no” or what? She turned it over and over until her head hurt and she still couldn’t figure out for sure how that part had gone down. She had a sense though that regardless this time was different from, and worse than, the other times in her life. Because she was in her promised land, which was the one damned goal in her life she had achieved, and it all seemed a little off track now.

She dozed off and when she awoke Taylor was sitting in a chair in front of the open door. He was smoking a joint.

“Where did you get that?” she asked as she got up and pulled another chair outside.

“One of the guys that hangs around out back,” he said. He passed the joint to her. She took it.

“And something else,” Taylor said. He was smiling, like a kid who was proud of something he had done. “I met a guy in the café across the street who has his own lawn business and he hired me starting Monday.”

“Way to go!” Cindy Ann said. “You and your edger?”

“Yeah,” he laughed.

Heat still filled the night air, but it had become bearable, way more bearable than inside with no air-conditioning. The city was quite now. Only sporadic sounds came from the alley. She gazed at the empty pool and the street beyond.

“Phoenix is a lot different from how I thought it would be,” she said. “It doesn’t look anything like the pictures in that magazine.”

“What magazine?”

“That Arizona Highways.” She nodded toward the table in the room where she had set it.

“Things always look different from the photos,” he said.

“Such wisdom, Memphis. I mean it’s not such a paradise like it looks is it?”

He shook his head, “But you got your office job, didn’t you.”

“I did. I sure as fuck did.”

“You know what I was thinking?” Taylor asked.

“What’s that, Memphis?”

“After I get some money together, maybe we could get a real apartment. Share expenses and stuff?”

She looked at Taylor for a long time.

“That might be a plan,” she said. Monday was far away, but it was already lurking in her head. Then she thought, how much was she going to let Mike spoil everything for her, after coming all this way?

“Fuck you, Mike Bradley,” she whispered. Then, out loud. “Fuck you, Mike Bradley.”

“What?” Taylor asked.

“Nothing.”

She thought of those red rocks of Sedona on the cover of Arizona Highways and wondered if they really looked like the photo.

___

Roxanne Lynn Doty teaches at Arizona State University. She is currently working on several short stories. One of her stories was recently published in the inaugural issue of Four Chambers literary magazine and another another flash fiction piece has been accepted for publication in I-70 Review. She lives in Tempe, Arizona with her dog, Kassie and cats, Pita and Rum Tum. She writes short stories, poetry and some short memoir pieces.

The Gate at the Edge of the Desert

By Caroline Bruckner

The sun had barely risen over the horizon. An early morning haze lingered above the Temple roofs. The Higher City looked like a strange growth of mushroom with its mud huts and houses climbing atop each other, crowding in and out of each other as they did, struggling uselessly for a breath of fresh air. Even at this hour the stink of stale urine and spoiled mutton fat lay like a heavy cloth in the narrow streets and dark alleys.

The air down here, far from the Temple walls, was a whiff of paradise. Within the Temple one could hardly breathe at all. The Priests stank pungently of chamber pots and greasy robes; the hallways of moth-eaten tapestries and rat droppings; the Great Hall of Prayers of sweat, decomposing bodies, and sulfur. The stench of sour milk and rancid goat cheese rose from the kitchens; and over it all lay a numbing lid of incense, the smoke thick and impenetrable as dungeon walls.

For two years during his free hours Riksha had been running along the thorny bushes that protected the city, eager to catch a whiff of the world beyond. Morning and night he had risked the heavy, punishing hand of Pater Laah to continue this senseless search. He had torn his sun-bleached cloak and ripped the tender skin of his arms and legs. Wild dogs had bitten at his feet, thieves had caught him, and street children had beaten at him with sticks. At first because they thought he might have a coin or some stale bread, later because they found it amusing. “It’s the crazy orphan,” they would hoot when they saw him. “He thinks he will find a way out.” They’d snort with laughter and shake their heads.

He had crawled along miles of tightly entwined roots looking for a way to pass underneath. He had crept along this dreadful high wall of thorns because he dreamt once that he would find the Gate.

Till this day he had not been able to get even a hand through the bushes. Till this day he had seen nothing more than a blurry, golden flicker of what lay beyond.

A hundred times he wanted to give up on his dream.

Yet here he was now.

Hands at his side, he inhaled the fragrant air. He wanted to laugh out loud and sing a silly song and throw kisses at the sky.

“You crazy orphan,” he whispered in disbelief and covered his face with his hands. He couldn’t say how he found the Gate at last. It was as if he had been poured into the clearing like goat’s milk into an earthen jug. One moment he was walking along the wall, his eyes darting up and down trying to detect a gap, a handle, any sort of something . . . and the next thing he knew, he was standing in the clearing.

The bushes seemed to have been groomed to hold this rather large, circular space. Riksha was standing in the middle of it, scratching one of his many mosquito bites with a dirty, sunburned toe, mouth open in astonishment. In front of him the bushes ended abruptly, and two derelict pillars of sandstone thrust themselves into the sky. The pillars were overgrown with jasmine, and the white blossoms tumbled and climbed over an arch above the Gate.

The Gate itself was narrow, smaller than he had imagined it to be. It was made of beautifully crafted wrought iron, but the metal was old and rusty. Had he found the Gate two years ago, he might have been able to squeeze through the bars sideways. But he was grown now, almost a man with his twelve years. He thought about climbing over it, but there weren’t enough horizontal bars for one to step on. There was a curved handle but no lock. His heart started pounding. Could it be that he need only to press the handle and walk through?

Riksha ran to the Gate, sand crunching under his feet. He stopped just an inch in front of it and stared out through the bars. He had to smile and run a hand though his hair. The sight was majestic. He sent his eyes soaring over the sand dunes. Sailing the rising and sinking waves of this endless golden ocean. He was already out there running over the dunes, screaming, taking off flying.

He held his breath and carefully placed a trembling hand on the grip. The heat of the desert beat up at him, but the iron felt cool to the touch. For a moment his heart seemed to stand still. Then he pushed gently, cautiously down.

The handle moved smoothly but the Gate did not open.

Riksha felt as though someone had sucked the breath out of him, and he had to bow down for a moment. What had he thought? That he, a dirty orphan boy, would escape the Temple and Pater Laah? That he would walk straight into the desert through a gate made of dreams?

He grabbed hold of the bars and buried his face between two of them until his temples ached. He might not be able to enter, but he was still able to dream. He drank this vast, strange, overwhelming sight in enormous, thirsty gulps. The sight of the wind brushing a plume of sand over a peaked ridge delighted him more than any hymn or prayer had ever done. The playful rippling of a curved dune sent shivers of pleasure down his spine. The shimmering horizon, where the fierce blue magically became a luxurious bronze, made him sigh in longing.

Of course even if the Gate had been unlocked, there were only terrors waiting beyond, Riksha thought to cheer himself up.

Searching for the Gate was one thing. Going through into a certain death quite another. Starving robbers, evil demons, murderous lizards with poisonous tails. One might fight robbers, kill lizards, and bargain with demons. But one couldn’t fight the sun. There was no weapon to protect you from the dizziness that twisted your mind into a pit of coiling mad snakes as the sun reached its throne at zenith. The sun was not the same in the desert as in the city. In the city man was king. In the desert it was the sun that ruled. And the Sun-God did not welcome intruders into her Realm. How many times had Pater Laah pressed Riksha’s face against the foul-smelling walls and forced him to recite the Sun’s Prayer?

I am not worthy, Oh Sun, to enter into your Realm. I am not worthy to stand in your Light. I am not worthy, Oh Sun-God, I am dirty and full of lies.

So completely had he sunken into his dreams that he startled awake when the bronze gong called out from the Temple. How could it be? He felt as though he had only just arrived here, and already the sun stood high in the sky. Soon Zenith would be consummated. The Yellow cloaks of The Ones Who Pray would already be filling the courtyard at the Temple for midday offerings. The circle of priests around the Tower would already be humming with the Holy Syllable.

It took a moment for Riksha to collect himself and realize he must turn back. He must run. He must hurry. Pater Laah would finally crush his head against the cold stone if he came too late to Zenith. Riksha let go of the Gate with a sigh and took a hesitant step back.

At that moment a high-pitched cry called him from the sky. A desert hawk circled the heights slowly. It seemed to Riksha it mocked him, poor earthbound slave, with its glorious independence. In one razor-sharp move, the bird dove, falling toward earth like a comet. Riksha instantly forgot about Zenith. He forgot about robbers and snakes and Pater Laah. Heart racing, he felt the dive as if it were his own. As if it were he that was that feathered arrow. The hawk stopped short for one breathless moment, suspended above ground, and then came flying straight toward the Gate. For one second the bird hovered, nose to beak. “Return to the Temple then, Slave,” it seemed to sneer. “Go back to your prison.” The hair stood up on Riksha’s arms and legs. A panic seized him and he threw himself at the Gate.

“For all the devils in hell!” he wailed and grabbed a hold of the handle, jerking it, bewildered.

The old metal rattled and groaned but didn’t move. He thought about raising his cloak for Pater Laah’s dry, blistered hand, and an avalanche of disgust ran up his throat. Tomorrow he would be one of them. Tomorrow he would receive his gray apprentice robe and the High Priests’ cold blessing. Tomorrow they would shave his hair and eyebrows, cut off his gender, and give him his new name: Un-named One of The Order. Riksha had always known this. His life was to be spent kneeling on cold stone floors in silent prayer, year after year, until his bones ached and his back broke and all curiosity about the world deserted him, leaving him as empty and cruel as Pater Laah. His life was to be given to the Gods and the High Priest to do with as they saw fit. If he was lucky he would live to become a Teacher of the Old Ways and have an orphan to himself. A scared, dirty boy to wash the warts on his feet and pick the porridge from between his rotting teeth. A fragile being he could insult and beat as much as his dried-up heart desired. If he was unlucky, though, he might be chosen for Sacrifice, in which case he would have to starve himself to death for some rich woman’s sins or throw himself on a burning heap of wood to heal some wealthy merchant’s sick child.

He shook the bars of the Gate until his hands bled. He pushed, kicked, and beat at it. He shouted curses at it and he spat on it. And then he finally fell down on his knees in the dirt and wept beside it. But he soon dried his tears. A wave of shame swept over him. He should be grateful to Pater Laah, who had spent the entire night in enclosure swinging a spiked leather belt at his own bloody back. All through the night the ancient corridors had echoed with pained gasps, terrible moaning, and tortured, shrill wails. The priests cleansed themselves in place of the apprentice boys. The boys must be given to the High One as innocent and pure as when they were fresh out of the womb. An entire life he would be in debt to Pater Laah for washing his sins clean, for spilling his priestly blood so Riksha might enter the Order. Riksha sighed and pressed the palms of his hands into the sand. There were worse lives, he supposed. Although he could not think about one right at this moment.

Riksha struggled to stand up, but a voice called out then and scared him so much his legs gave way under him. She was swathed and hooded in a rough brown cloak, features invisible.

“Is something the matter, child? You look pale. Are you ill?” Sunken black, piggy eyes peered at him from under the torn rim of the hood. A smell of earth and rotten meat made him wrinkle up his nose as she approached, but there was something more, something that seemed to come off her in sickly waves. Riksha felt it and went cold in spite of the heat.

“I was just leaving,” he squealed guiltily. “Forgive me.” He jumped to his feet, eyes set on a bug crawling over her sandal. The crone followed his gaze, waited for the bug to get back on the ground, then crushed it with her foot.

“So, where were we?” The witch clicked her teeth together and grinned.

“Could you help me?” he stammered nervously. “Do you know how to open the Gate?”

She leaned forward on her crooked wooden staff, poking at a wart on her nose. “If one could help? If one could help? Of course one could help.”

Riksha’s face suddenly filled with hope. “I want to look for my own name! I want to see all the wonders of the world! I want to—”

She held up a hand for silence. “Soar freely like a bird in the sky? Yes, yes. Always the birds,” she muttered. “One does get rather tired of it. Why not crawl the moist earth free as a worm?” She tapped at one of her remaining teeth as if in deep thought.

“I dreamt about this gate,” said Riksha feverishly. “I dreamt I would find it and go through it and travel the desert with a caravan!” He felt a sudden, frenzied elation; surely this old crone would help him! After all, the Gate in his dream had looked identical to this one right here in front of him. “I dreamt about adventures and treasures and oceans as big as the desert!”

The old crone looked him up and down as if she could hardly believe what she saw.

“I don’t think I have properly introduced myself.” She coughed and paused for effect. A claw-like finger came out of the long sleeve, and with it she drew a neat, precise figure in the empty space. Instantly Riksha felt a tug at his intestines, and then his body was pulled up in the air. She held him there for a moment, his legs dangling, before throwing him back to the ground the way a child might toss away an old toy. Riksha’s bones rattled, a jagged moan whistled from his lungs.

The old crone spluttered giggles through clenched gums. “Silly, silly boy,” she wheezed. “Turn back to where you belong. Turn back to the life that has been chosen for you. Turn back to the safety of your bed and the protection of The Ones Who Pray. This gate will not open for you. Adventure is nothing for Unnamed ones. Adventure is a perilous journey where the only one waiting for you is death. You will never be safe. You will go hungry and alone. You will fall into terrible traps with nobody to come to your rescue. You will be tortured and abused and bitten by poisonous snakes. So turn back, foolish one! Turn back to whence you came and forget this gate ever existed.” The old crone sighed, bored. “What insipid drivel,” she snarled then, as an afterthought, pressing at a wart on her nose.

Riksha held his hip and bit his lip. A searing spasm went up his left side from foot to jaw. He thought he would never walk again.

“What are you lying there for? Hop, hop!” she demanded, waving a hand toward the Higher City.

Riksha scrambled up on jittery legs, wincing with the pain.

“Yes, go away, you coward boy,” spat the witch. “You are not worthy. You are filthy and full of lies.”

Suddenly a cooling thought flashed across his mind. Tomorrow he would be shaved and robed. Tomorrow he would be one of them. Tomorrow all was lost. Tomorrow. Today he could do as he pleased.

“I might be filthy. But you stink worse than a pile of dead alley rats,” he said, edging closer.

The crone stared at him for a moment, mouth hanging open.  A reedy, gurgling laughter escaped her then. She dried the tears from her cheeks. Then she stopped laughing as quick as she had begun. “Are you mad?”

Her hunched back unfolded and she stretched, towering tall above the boy. Her features quivered and blurred, and when they sharpened again, a woman with long, white hair, blushing face, and full, primrose lips stood before him. Riksha swayed in surprise. He put up a hand to shield his eyes, so dazzling and sharp was the light that enveloped her.

“You have no coin and no tricks. You have no name and no sword. Being a good slave is the best you can hope for, Unnamed One. Go back and learn to obey, boy.” She bent over him then, her lovely silver hair touching his face light as a kiss. “Turn around and run or I will kill you.” Her lips pressed sharply together, her eyes stared fixedly at him with an expression of cool madness.

Riksha darted away like a mouse chased by a woman with a broom. Pulse racing, he threw himself into the bushes. The branches were moving, growing, closing in around him. They were like thin, sharp hands grasping for him, ripping his skin to pieces. The shrill yells and ringing of the street vendors was getting louder, and the final clangs of the bronze gong vibrated over the city.

Maybe Pater Laah would forgive him one last time. Riksha prayed to the Gods he would. Prayed that if Pater Laah would only forgive him, he would never disobey again. Pater Laah would have the most grateful of slaves, the most attentive of servants at his side. Riksha would take on the role as an Unnamed One with humility and grace. He would look for his own name no more. He would brave the whips of the belt with a song of gratitude on his lips.

Then he heard that call again.

He could hardly make out the bird through the ragged roof of thistle, but the message was painfully clear. He would perish and die if he went back, if he did not enter the desert to discover who he might be there, out there among the robbers and poisonous snakes. He would fester and sour like Pater Laah if he did not fight his way through the dunes to look for his own name.

When something has to be done, do it quick. Those were the words Pater Laah proclaimed before getting out the belt or rolling up his sleeves. So there was nothing to be done but to surge out of the bramble with one mighty leap.

The crone was a mess of smoke and absurd features, changing her face. This was Riksha’s chance at getting past her. He focused on the soft horizon behind the Gate. He would climb over it, or press himself through it, or beat the darn thing down to the ground. He clenched his teeth and started to run.

“Always the birds,” the old woman muttered when she saw him, rolling her eyes toward the sky. She raised her hands to paint a spell. But the movement was slow and without vigor.

Riksha was almost there; he stretched out a hand, fingertips brushed the cool metal. The crone came back into focus with a jolt. The hood fell to her shoulders. Her face was a mask of lined, puffy, sagging skin. Sparse hairs, snowy white, stuck unkempt from her head like the whiskers on a cat.

“Foolish boy,” she snapped and threw a coiling thing at him. It curled around his feet, trapping them, making him stumble and fall face-first to the ground. He groaned but sat up on his knees.

“You can’t stop me!” he croaked.

“Foolish boy,” the old one hissed.

Sickening flashes of acid green shot at his heart. Riksha threw himself on all fours, blinded for a moment. The flashes buried themselves in his chest like hot coal on paper.

The crone studied her victim, taking her time. Her hands swished and weaved through the air with practiced smoothness. A ring of dust danced around his tousled, hazel curls.

Riksha felt as if he was drowning in mud, his head filling with wet clay. It erased his memory. It killed him slowly from the inside. It clogged his ears, choked his mouth, and blocked his nose. He was suffocating, gasping for air, lying squirming like a worm out in the sun. “You can see where this is going,” she said gently. “Turn back.”

“Never!” shrieked Riksha. He tugged at his ears and stuck his hands into his mouth.

“You don’t have the power, Unnamed One, to get through the gate. Give up now and I will let you live unharmed.” She blinked at him, eyes glittering brightly.

Riksha tried to think behind the pain, behind the mud choking him, behind the fear of it all. There was a choice to be made here, a choice to live or die. He thought about the dream. The dream of the Gate. The dream that had forced him to look for something; he did not know if it existed at all. In the dream it had been so easy, the Gate had opened as if by itself.

He drew one last breath and wheezed with all the strength left in him, “Open, Gate! It is I, Riksha the Orphan! I dreamt about you once!”

Flashes of violet and red were dancing around his waist and feet. In a second or two, he would be no more. That thing that keeps one alive would soon break. He knew it and when he knew, it came to him. He struggled up, legs trembling.

“Open, Gate. It is I. Riksha the Dreamer.”

And just like that the mud seemed to leave him, pouring back into the same nothingness from which it had come. The Crone lowered her hands and dropped to the ground in a puddle of exhaustion.

“Finally,” she muttered. “One isn’t as young as one used to be.”

The Gate at the Edge of the Desert swung open with a creak and a moan. The jasmine jangled softly above it, making creatures light and heavy alike sigh in longing for adventure.

“You crazy orphan,” Riksha whispered, eyes round with wonder. He scratched his chin in disbelief.

“Go,” came a heavy voice from behind him. “One’s got other things to do, you know.”

A slight breeze blew in from the desert, greeting him, whipping at his hair and tugging at his cloak. He took one shy step through the Gate, closing his eyes, inhaling the intoxicating scent of the white blossoms. There was a gentle pull at his heart. He raised his arms and spread them like great, wide wings. And with a deep breath, he flung himself into the desert, down the first, vast dune. Screaming, taking off, flying.

___

Growing up in Stockholm, Sweden, Caroline Bruckner loved reading and writing from an early age but initially lacked the courage to pursue it. After a few award-winning but unsatisfying years in advertising, she wound up attending the National School of Film and Television in London and getting an MA in screenwriting. This abrupt change in career path paid off as the short film she wrote, The Confession, won a student Oscar in 2010 and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011. Also, an animated film she wrote, Cooked, was selected for the Cinéfondation in Cannes Film Festival in 2010. Her short fiction has been featured in Willow Review.

Having survived emotionally intense parents, a strict Catholic school run by wart-faced and choleric nuns, a chronic disease that left her paralyzed for years, and a series of faith crises, she enjoys writing about desperate people in times of great change.

Marvel the Ocean

By Eugenie Juliet Theall

When I could not be there,

I read Neruda, turned my back

to the sun so the verse was in shadow,

dreamed we were at the beach,

listening to waves under starlight.

I took your hands, cupped my breasts,

so you could feel their true weight.

___

Eugenie Juliet Theall was born and raised in White Plains, New York, and was introduced to poetry by her mother, which ignited a deep passion. She completed her fourth degree, an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and has workshopped extensively, including in Nairobi, Kenya, where she founded a children’s library. Currently, she teaches creative writing and English to middle school children, and continues to fundraise for the Kenyan scholarship fund she also established. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Carquinez Poetry Review, The Chaffin Journal, CQ, Curbside Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Eclipse, Flash!Point, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Illuminations, Lullwater Review, Mudfish, Oregon East Magazine, Passage, Quercus Review, Red Rock Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and Slipstream. Miss Theall’s work also won first place in the Elizabeth McCormack/Inkwell contest.