Stories

Damning with Faint Praise

By Lenny Levine

t must have been a hundred degrees in the auditorium. Michael Trowbridge, sweating bullets under his robe and mortarboard cap, strained to hear what the principal was saying. He didn’t want to look like an idiot and miss his name when he was called to the stage.

His friend Ralphie wasn’t helping, trying to tell him a stupid joke about someone giving advice on what to say on a blind date, whispering in his left ear.

“So the guy’s buddy says, ‘You’ve gotta compliment her, right off the bat. You’ve gotta say something nice to her as soon as she opens the door.’” Ralphie giggled in anticipation of the punch line, as Michael desperately tried to ignore him.

“Well, he gets to the girl’s house and she’s ugly as sin, a real porker. I mean, grotesque to the max. But the guy remembers his buddy’s advice, so he says, ‘Hey, you don’t seem to sweat much for a fat girl!’”

Ralphie cracked up laughing as the principal intoned, “And the winner of this year’s award for Perfect Attendance is…Michael Trowbridge.”

“Way to go, genius!” said Ralphie, slapping him on the back and cracking up again.

Michael stood and made his way down the aisle, to the feeble clap-clapping of his parents in the balcony. His fellow graduates watched him impassively as he gingerly mounted the steps to the stage, trying not to trip on his gown and humiliate himself for all eternity.

The Perfect Attendance Award. He’d never known such a thing existed until this morning, when they told him he’d won it. Now, here he was, forced to stand in front of everyone, right along with the Science Award winner, the History Award winner, and all the other brainiacs.

He’d been lucky to even graduate this year. If the gym teacher hadn’t taken pity and given him a B, bringing him up to the required C average, he’d be getting ready for summer school right now.

The principal gave him the plaque and shook his hand, barely glancing at him. Michael took his place between Phil Gennero, the Math Award winner, and Jane Sadowski, the Economics Award winner. Phil Gennero had never spoken a word to Michael before, but he did now.

“They say success is just showing up, so I guess you’re the proof of it.”

Jane Sadowski chuckled softly.

Michael’s face reddened. He looked down at the plaque he was holding and saw that they’d spelled his name “Trobridge.”

He wanted to cry.

Then a thought occurred, unbidden. What’s the matter? Isn’t this what you wanted?

He had no idea where it came from, or what it meant. Did it have something to do with the dream he had last night, the one that yanked him out of his sleep at two a.m.?

Usually, he remembered nightmares, at least for the first few seconds afterward. But he’d forgotten this one as soon as he opened his eyes. He was wide awake and sitting straight up in bed, unable to go back to sleep and unable to shake a feeling of impending disaster.

The principal was introducing the valedictorian now, a tiny, birdlike girl who seemed almost swallowed up in her gown. He lowered the microphone for her, stepped aside, and she began her speech in a whispery voice.

It was about learning to think independently. Michael barely paid attention, still wondering what he was doing there, feeling like everyone was secretly laughing at him.

The girl was speaking. “And just as you must ignore people who discourage you, you must doubly ignore people who praise you.”

Michael felt a twinge of unease. He didn’t know why, but it made him start listening to her.

“We all love praise,” she went on, in that whispery voice that was starting to sound creepy, “but praise is like candy. It tastes so sweet, you want more and more of it, until you can’t get enough.”

If he was sweating before, now it was pouring out of him. He blinked, trying to clear his vision as the vast auditorium in front of him began swimming before his eyes. What was happening?

“But inside each delicious morsel of praise is a tiny grain of poison. You can’t taste it, but it will fester within you and slowly eat away your soul until it dies.”

Michael fainted.

*   *   *

He lay on a cot in the nurse’s office, a tube running into his right arm for hydration, as his parents stood over him.

“Leave it to you,” his mother said, “spoiling that poor girl’s moment.”

She was an obese woman, whose body practically eclipsed his father’s slight frame as he stood behind her. Ralphie sat across the room, one hand over his mouth to hide the smirk.

“Come on, Edna,” said his father, “it was the heat. Give him a break!”

“I’m sorry, Bill, but he’s always looking for some way to call attention to himself, and it’s not right.”

“He wasn’t trying to…”

“We’ll talk about it later.”

“Listen, everybody, I’m fine,” said Michael.

He’d been out for only a second, and he’d immediately tried to get up. But the principal had insisted he lie there until the nurse could come to the stage and examine him, completing his mortification.

“One thing’s for sure,” his mother declared, “you’re calling off that stupid band rehearsal tonight and staying home.”

Ralphie’s smirk vanished. “Hey, no, please, Mrs. Trowbridge, don’t make him do that. We’ve got a manager coming to see us, and…”

“Don’t worry, Ralphie,” Michael interjected, raising his head from the pillow. “We’re not calling off the rehearsal tonight. No friggin’ way.”

“You watch your mouth!” said his mother. “Just ’cause you graduated high school doesn’t mean you get to use foul language.”

“Sorry, Mom, but we really do need to rehearse tonight, especially me. And incidentally, I’m fine.” He looked up at the bag attached to his arm, wishing the nurse would unhook him already, so he could get out of there.

After a few minutes, his wish was granted. She came back into the room, checked his blood pressure and pulse, disconnected the IV, and pronounced him good to go.

“Great!” he said, grabbing his cap and gown, his diploma, and the useless award they’d given him. “Let’s rock and roll!”

But he still didn’t know what came over him on that stage. And he still didn’t know why he had this feeling that something awful was about to happen. Or worse, that it already had.

*   *   *

They called their band The Plug-ins. Ralphie played drums, their friend Steve Philbart played bass, and Michael played guitar and sang. They basically sucked, but he didn’t care. As embarrassed as he’d been during graduation, that’s how liberated Michael felt whenever he was in front of a microphone, croaking out Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi songs off-key on open-mic nights.

The audiences either ignored them or shouted rude remarks. It didn’t matter. Michael would close his eyes and, for a few brief moments, become the Boss, sending a packed stadium into a frenzy.

Last night, maybe because graduation was the next day and they’d been distracted, their set was particularly sloppy. As they were packing up, a short, stocky man wearing a brown suit and a toupee came up and introduced himself as Harry Magnus. He handed each of them a business card that read Magnus Management: We Make Music Legends.

“I’ve seen lots of bands,” he told them, “but I think you guys are something special. If you don’t mind, I’d like to turn you into superstars.”

He claimed to have been instrumental in the careers of such artists as Sting, John Mayer, Bruno Mars, and many others.

“Now, I know you’re gonna Google me, and you’ll think I’m full of shit because you won’t find anything at all. But that’s the way I work, behind the scenes. Deeply behind the scenes.”

“So,” Ralphie asked reasonably, “how do we know you really aren’t full of shit?”

“Because I’ll prove it to you. How would you like to open for Joe Walsh this Saturday night at the Rock Palace?”

“What?!” they said.

“I can do it with a simple call. And I will. Check out the ad for the show in tomorrow’s paper and you’ll see your name there, right under Joe Walsh.”

The three of them nodded slowly.

“In the meantime, I’d like to come to a rehearsal, give you a few pointers. Where do you guys get together?”

“Steve’s parents’ garage,” Michael said and instantly regretted it. This man could be crazy. He sure sounded like he was. Michael wondered if he should’ve told him even that much.

“What’s the address?”

Steve gave it to him before Michael could say anything. The man wrote it down.

“When’s your next rehearsal?”

“Tomorrow night,” said Ralphie, “but this gig you just got us, if it’s real, is only two days away. Do you think we’re ready?”

“Oh, you’re ready,” the man said with a smile. “See you at the rehearsal tomorrow night.”

He shook hands with all of them and departed.

“Wow, how about that?” Ralphie said.

“How about nothing,” said Michael. “This is ridiculous; the guy is certifiable. We’ll check out the paper tomorrow morning, and that’ll be the end of it.”

But unbelievably, in the Friday Entertainment section, there it was:

 

Saturday, June 5th, at 9 P.M., The Rock Palace Presents

An Evening With Joe Walsh!

Then in smaller type, but not much smaller:

 

Special Added Attraction, The Plug-ins!

 

*   *   *

They told no one. They’d agreed to secrecy in hurried whispers as they got ready to march down the aisle with their classmates. If anyone happened to notice the ad in the paper, there was nothing they could do. But most people didn’t even know what their band was called, so they probably didn’t have to worry.

That night, when they got together in the garage, Michael told them he might have figured out what was going on.

“Obviously, there’s another group called The Plug-ins. I mean, it’s not impossible, right? That ad has been in the paper all week. When he noticed our band had the same name, he decided to prank us. I’ll bet if we check yesterday’s paper, we’ll see the same ad as today’s, with our name included.”

“Okay, let’s do that,” said Ralphie, whipping out his phone.

But they couldn’t find any ads for the show in the online version of the paper.

“Shit, we need to find a print version,” said Michael.

“I think I may have one,” said Steve, moving over to the back wall. “My parents always stack the papers and recyclables here in the garage. Wait a minute.”

He rummaged around briefly and came up with it. “Yes!” he said.

The others peered over his shoulder as he turned to the Entertainment section.

The ad referred only to Joe Walsh. No mention of The Plug-ins or anyone else.

“Hey there, guys!”

Harry Magnus was standing in the open garage doorway. He seemed to have just appeared there. They’d been so intent on finding the ad that they hadn’t seen him walking up the driveway, even though it was long and straight, and the exterior lights were on.

“I see you have some pretty crappy equipment here,” he said, stepping inside and looking around. “Not to worry. You’ll have a state-of-the-art setup tomorrow night.”

Michael was the first to find his voice. “Can I ask you something, Mr. Magnus? Why are you doing this? We’re not nearly good enough. In fact, we suck. Anyone who hears us knows that immediately.”

“You mind if I close this?” asked Magnus, reaching up and pushing the button that shuts the garage door. “There, that’s better.”

He stood with his back to it, facing the three of them.

“I know what you think of yourselves. But it’s only because you haven’t begun to work with me yet. It will all change, you’ll see.”

“By tomorrow night?” Michael said.

“Sooner than that. Pick up your instruments and play something for me. Anything.”

Ralphie moved behind the drums while Steve and Michael put on their bass and guitar. They spent a few seconds tuning up, a process that was mostly successful and as close as they usually got.

“What are we gonna play?” Steve asked. “Something Springsteen?”

“Let’s do ‘Dancing in the Dark,’” Michael suggested.

Ralphie counted it off and they launched into it, much faster than the count-off. It immediately became slower, then faster again.

Michael closed his eyes, stepped up to the mic, and let it rip.

I get up in the evening (flat on the last two notes) and I ain’t got nothin’ to say. I come home in the morning (the same two notes now painfully sharp) I go to bed feeling the same way. I ain’t nothin’ but tired…

Steve tilted his bass and whipped his head back to make his hair fly, playing several wrong notes and not noticing.

Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself. Hey there, baby, I could use just a little help…

Ralphie had stopped playing at this point. He was bent over, trying to retrieve one of the sticks he’d dropped trying to twirl it. He picked it up and then did the same with the tempo.

You can’t start a fire, Michael rasped, as Ralphie pulled ahead of him. You can’t start a fire without a spark. This gun’s for hire…

“Okay, stop!” Harry Magnus called out.

He strode across the garage to the drums and stood over Ralphie. “Look me in the eye.” Ralphie blinked and then did as he was told.

“You’re an empty barrel, Ralphie; all you do is make a lot of noise. But not anymore.” Ralphie blinked again. “I’m going to turn you into Ringo Starr, Mick Fleetwood, and Ginger Baker, all wrapped up in one.”

Michael wondered how he knew Ralphie’s name. They never told him their names, aside from the one reference to Steve’s parents’ garage.

“Give me your sticks, stand up, and move away from the drum set, please.”

Ralphie, with a shrug to the other guys, complied. Magnus sat down at the drums.

“You’re going to watch everything I do,” he said, and suddenly Ralphie was mesmerized.

“Good,” said Magnus.

He then proceeded to play the most incredible drum solo they’d ever heard. It went on for several minutes, with explosive crescendos and intricate polyrhythmic figures. His sticks were a blur, flashing from cymbals to snare to toms and back again with blinding speed, his feet pounding the double bass drums like artillery fire. It concluded with a crash that rattled the garage walls.

“There,” he said, standing up and returning the sticks to Ralphie. “Now sit back down.” Ralphie did so in a daze.

“Steve,” said Magnus, turning to him, “you’re not going through a very good time right now, are you? It’s tough when your parents are getting a divorce.”

“Holy shit, Steve,” Michael blurted out, this being news to him. “Is that true?”

It was news to Ralphie too, but he was still in a trance.

“You feel like you’re alone in the world,” Magnus went on as Steve gaped at him, “because all your parents care about is their hatred for each other. It really sucks, doesn’t it? The only thing that gives you any pleasure at all is that bass around your neck, the one you play so godawful shitty.”

Steve nodded meekly.

“But that’s all in the past, Steve. You’re going to become an amazing bass player, right up there with the greatest musicians who ever played bass. Give me your instrument, please.”

Michael would swear he never saw Steve take off the bass. It seemed to float from his shoulders into Magnus’s hands. “Don’t look away from me,” he said, and Steve instantly became a zombie like Ralphie.

Magnus began playing a funk figure, making the strings pop with percussive sounds, moving to an unexpected chord change and back, laying down an infectious groove. It morphed into a Motown-style bass line that would have been the rock-steady heart of a sixties mega-hit. He kept it going, adding a melody on top with the use of harmonics. Finally, he slipped into a smooth jazz progression that Miles Davis would have been proud to improvise over, before tearing into the dizzying string of descending notes that concluded it.

“You got all that?” he asked Steve, handing him back his bass. “Good.”

“Now, Michael . . .” Michael’s palms went clammy. “Your mother has a pretty low opinion of you, doesn’t she? She says you shouldn’t try to call attention to yourself, because you don’t deserve it. She’s absolutely right, you know.”

Tears sprang to his eyes. He tried to speak, but his lips wouldn’t open.

“Look at yourself. Why should anyone pay attention to you? You barely made it through high school. You can’t sing, you can’t play. All you can do is close your eyes up there and masturbate in front of everyone.”

“Please, don’t…” Michael managed, before his mouth stopped working again.

“And the thing is, you know it. You know it deep down in your soul, and you hate yourself for it. You wish that, somehow, it could all magically change, that by some miracle, you could be like Bruce Springsteen. The glorious object of praise.”

The tears were running down Michael’s face.

“Well, guess what?” said Magnus. “You can. Give me your guitar.”

Michael was unaware of taking it off. The next thing he knew, Magnus was wearing his guitar.

“You will not look away,” Magnus told him, “even for a nanosecond.”

He tore into a rapid-fire solo, his fingers dancing along the strings as the guitar keened and wailed and tore virtual holes in the air. Then he switched to a driving rhythm figure, growling as it boiled.

He began to sing to it, a song Michael had never heard before.

Hey, baby, look at me

The only one you’ll ever see

From now throughout eternity

And that’s the way it’s gonna be

His voice was rough, smooth, mellifluous, and earthy, all at the same time. He repeated the chorus, varying the melody and displaying a vast range that went from deep bass to a screaming falsetto, finally shrieking out the last note.

He took off the guitar and gave it back to a stupefied Michael.

“Okay, fellas,” he said, “let’s hear ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ take two.”

They stared at each other. Then, almost robotically, Ralphie counted it off.

The tempo was locked in now, so tight it squeaked. Steve’s bass lay down a solid foundation for Michael’s guitar, both of them now perfectly in tune and playing off each other. Michael opened his mouth and couldn’t believe what came out.

His voice was pure Springsteen, just like the record, and he wasn’t imagining it. He really sounded that way. Not only that, he was varying the original melody, doing vocal riffs off of it, taking it to another level. The song ended and they stood there in wonder.

“Not too shabby,” said Magnus. “Okay, here’s the deal. You’ll do six songs tomorrow night, all Springsteen. I’ll give you the set list before you go on. Don’t worry, you’ll perform them just as well as you did this one.

“You will not rehearse between now and then because it won’t do you any good. The only time you’ll sound this way is tomorrow night on that stage. After that, we’ll discuss the future.”

“Are you gonna ask us to sign some sort of contract?” Steve asked.

“Nope,” said Magnus. “We all shook hands last night at the club, remember? That’s the only contract I’ve ever needed.”

A wisp of a memory tickled the back of Michael’s brain. It was that dream, and it faded instantly again, replaced by the same feeling of dread, only more of it.

*   *   *

It was an absolute triumph! They did the set list Magnus gave them, starting with “Glory Days” and ending with “Born to Run,” and they played and sang amazingly.

But Michael couldn’t enjoy it, somehow. The strangeness seemed to overwhelm the wonder. He hadn’t told his parents, saying he was going to another rehearsal tonight. His father was curious about why they’d rehearse on a Saturday night, but he didn’t make a thing over it.

Ralphie and Steve hadn’t told anyone either, perhaps in fear that it might turn out to be an embarrassment after all. It was far from it.

The audience, at first, gave them lukewarm applause, but then they really got into it. These were, after all, great Classic Rock songs they were hearing, and Michael sounded exactly like Bruce. By the end, the crowd was on its feet, cheering.

It was surreal, as they drifted off the stage and into the wings. One of Joe Walsh’s roadies, going the other way, complimented Michael on his guitar.

“Nice Strat, dude,” he said.

“Thanks,” said Michael, even though it was just an ordinary Stratocaster and beat up, besides.

A group of girls was standing by the fire exit. “Love your shirt,” one of them said. “Love Springsteen,” said another.

“Thanks,” Michael said again, that ominous feeling growing.

Ralphie and Steve had preceded him into the dressing room. They were oohing and aahing over the buffet that had been left for them while they were onstage.

“This is really something, ain’t it?” said Ralphie, grinning widely.

“I could sure get used to this,” said Steve, picking up a canape and throwing it into his mouth.

Michael had no appetite. He couldn’t stop feeling like something was terribly wrong.

The door opened and Magnus came in.

“Well, guys, how did you like it?”

“It was great!” Ralphie and Steve said together.

“How about you, Michael?”

“Yeah, it was great,” he muttered.

Magnus raised an eyebrow. “I sense some hesitation on your part. What’s the matter? Isn’t this what you wanted?”

They were the same words he’d thought on stage at graduation, just before the girl started speaking. It made him think of the dream again. It was there now, just beneath his consciousness.

“You wanted praise,” said Magnus. “I got it for you. I even got you that Perfect Attendance award, as a show of good faith.”

“But that’s nothing,” Michael blurted out. “Getting an award for just being there? It’s embarrassing.”

“I can’t help that,” said Magnus. “Didn’t you like what that roadie said to you, or those girls outside the dressing room?”

“He liked my guitar! What’s that got to do with me? And one girl liked my goddamn shirt! And the other one didn’t say anything about me. She just liked Springsteen!”

And then he remembered the dream.

He was standing in a field, and there was a raging fire in the distance. It was getting closer. He knew he had to run, but he couldn’t move. The heat was becoming more and more intense. He could see a face forming in the middle of the flames, Magnus’s face.

It spoke the same words Magnus would use in the garage the next night. About how Michael hated himself and wished his life could magically change, that by some miracle, he could become like Bruce Springsteen, the glorious object of praise. It asked him what he’d give for that.

“Everything,” he’d said.

And that’s when he woke up in a cold sweat.

“I told you guys that after the show we’d discuss the future,” Magnus was now saying. “Well, here’s the future. You’re going back to your lives just as they were. No more rock ’n’ roll acclaim for you. I said I’d turn you into superstars, but I never said for how long. And anyway, who gives a shit about a Bruce Springsteen cover band?

“You will not remember any of this. You’ll go home, and whatever is supposed to happen in your lives will happen. But in the end, even if you don’t think you deserve it, and believe me, nobody thinks they do, I’ll be there. I’ve fulfilled my part of the bargain. You’ll fulfill yours.”

He gave a malevolent grin and then vanished, leaving a burnt match smell behind.

The three of them stood there, stupefied. They didn’t even hear the knock on the door.

It came again, louder, and the door opened. A bearded man in his thirties stuck his head into the room.

“Hi, my name is Van Simmons,” he said, “and I’m a producer with Parkhill Records. I saw your show just now.” He grinned and shook his head. “Man, I’ve seen lots of rock ’n’ roll bands, but you guys are something special. Each and every one of you has such good posture!”

With a cheery wave, he stepped back outside and closed the door.

___

Lenny Levine attended Brooklyn College, graduating in 1962 with a BA in Speech and Theater. Immediately thereafter, he forgot about all of that and became a folk singer, then a folk-rock singer and songwriter, and finally a studio singer and composer of many successful jingles, including McDonald’s, Lipton Tea, and Jeep. He has composed songs and sung backup for Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Peggy Lee, Diana Ross, Barry Manilow, the Pointer Sisters, Carly Simon, and others. In addition, he performed for a number of years with the improvisational comedy group War Babies.

His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Bitter Oleander, The Dirty Goat, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Eleven Eleven, Forge, The Griffin, Hobo Pancakes, The Jabberwock Review, Lowestoft Chronicle, Penmen Review, Rio Grande Review, riverSedge, Rougarou, Verdad, Westview, and Wild Violet. He received a 2011 Pushcart Prize nomination for short fiction.

Underwater

By Jim Ray Daniels

hey sat on separate branches of the bare tree. Early March in Pittsburgh, but no signs of green, despite the bright, setting sun, the kind of sun that made Beano want to bow down and believe again. He looked at Claire sitting on a branch slightly below him. She smiled shyly.

“We’re safe up here.” She squinted up at him.

“But we can’t stay up here,” he said.

“I’ve been up here a long time,” she said.

*   *   *

In December, at age fifty-five, Beano had taken early retirement from teaching. In July, he took his first peek at the want ads. Want ads. He found it reassuringthat desire’s possibilities were limited only by the $19.95 for three days classified. He liked sitting in the position of rejecting overtures, even if they were only imaginary, generalized. He could take them personally, and dismiss them personally, with one of the Sharpie markers he’d thrown in the box of things when he’d abruptly emptied his desk. He’d left every single sheet of paper there in a jumbled pile, graded or ungraded.

Beano, seeing nothing that might lure him into a second career (no one was asking for his main asset, sarcasm), moved on to the personals. That’s how he met Claire, who’d set about with a bored, mechanical detachment at age fifty to find someone she could trust, through the unlikely network of the daily newspaper.

*   *   *

Beano and Claire sitting in a tree talking about k-i-s-s-i-n-g. She liked his name. She didn’t think anyone named Beano would hurt her. Their first date, and they’d ended up in the climbing tree in her yard. It seemed magical, as if a freak storm had lifted them there on the way home from dinner at the spaghetti place down the road. She’d suggested it after he admitted he never went out to eat. “The whole ‘dining alone’ thing,” he explained. “I don’t want people looking at me like I’m some sad soul when I’m perfectly content to eat by myself.”

The whole ‘alone” thing. Clear, direct. Not like the guy who wanted her to cook dinner for him as some kind of audition. She was beginning to think middle-aged men were simply too set in their ways to move off their own square to meet her on some middle ground.

“Nobody ever climbed this tree with me before…any tree with me,” Claire said, marveling at the view she’d forgotten—a glimpse of downtown towers, lights from the stadium, the dark, twisting line of the Monongahela River.

“It’s kind of romantic,” he said, sighing. “If I was over on your branch, I might try to kiss you.”

“That might be a disaster,” she said.

He thought about the ways it might be a disaster. “Disaster’s a big word,” he said. Too big for a night like this.”

“Let’s just listen to it for awhile—the night,” she said.

Some birds had returned early, or else had never left. He only knew the names of brightly colored birds like blue jays and cardinals. The ones he was listening to just blended into the grayness, waiting for spring.

The tree sat on the far edge of her yard. She had inherited her parents’ house when they died. She’d never left. The tree grew at a 45˚ angle, making it easy to climb, even when she was very young. Her parents vaguely remembered a storm tilting the tree. Tilted, but it never died, never stopped growing.

The lightning of her Uncle Robert, her father’s twin. Jolly Uncle Robert, tickling her on his lap. Her father’s denial, then rage, the family tree split and charred forever. The neat box of silence that sealed it off, buried now that all principals were dead except her.  She’d been the classic maiden aunt nursing her dying parents, but she’d felt anything but classic. The past was like a blackout curtain hanging over the window of her life. At fifty, she decided the war might be over and risked letting some light in again.

“This might be the last time for me, Claire,” Beano said. “Climbing.” He was glad he’d found someone close to his own age so he didn’t have to try to be younger. Someone who wasn’t carrying around a checklist, who didn’t seem to be keeping score for future reference. Plus, she was more beautiful than anyone he imagined would be placing one of those ads.

“My back is going to be as crooked as this tree if we don’t climb down soon,” he said, smiling, trying not to look pained.

“Party pooper,” she said. It pleased her to say it, something vaguely risqué, as if she herself was willing to continue whatever party was at hand.

*   *   *

In the old-fashioned restaurant darkness of Mama Rita’s,they emptied the basket of garlic bread, wiping the sauce from their plates in near unison. They talked about Bloomfield, Claire’s neighborhood, and he seemed genuinely interested. Beano was a South Hills guy who’d taught at a suburban high school outside Pittsburgh. He’d spent little time in Bloomfield, an old Italian enclave. Claire was half-Polish, half-Italian, and they talked about the safe clichés of that mix. Beano told the story of his nickname, and surprised himself by enjoying the telling. The grandfather he’d worshipped had given him the name, taken from a comic book in England he’d read during the war. It’d been years since he met anyone who’d wanted to know. “Beano was a little rascal, I guess,” and he chuckled.

After dinner, they decided it was too early to abandon each other. Claire wondered how much the weather had to do with it. The first night of the year remotely warm enough for anyone to consider getting ice cream. Dairy Dee-lite had taken the boards off its glass a week earlier and had stuck the “Open For Season” letters up on its cheap plastic sign.  They both got the chocolate-vanilla swirl.

Ice cream on the way back to her place, then the tree. She did not invite him in, but she invited him to climb the tree. She laughed at her own audacity, the silliness. Two middle-aged geezers sitting in a tree, overdressed. Thirsty from garlic and ice cream, but she would not let him in for a drink.

“No initials carved anywhere?” he asked as he lowered himself down, stifling a grunt.The question left her stymied, though it had a simple answer. She knew the worn path they were headed down. “A beautiful woman like you?”

The first warm night, Trash Night. The smell of garbage wafted in from the alley lined with large blackplastic bags.

She flashed him a smile. “I don’t believe in marring a tree like that.”

“You’ve got a point,” he said. As much as she wished, she knew her point would be dismissed, would not count. If there was any carving to be done, she wanted to be holding the knife. She’d tell him soon or never see him again. She didn’t want to waste another season of reawakening. As Claire’s years passed alone, her uncle’s shadow would not fade. It spread, a shapeless, malignant blob, an oil-spill of silence over her life.

*   *   *

Who wrote those things, he used to wonder. Their name, the personals, suggested a lurid voyeurism in anyone who even read them. Despite the made-for-TV clichés, he allowed himself some vague hope.The tears of a clown when there’s no one around. The fool on the hill. King Lear in his beer. Looking for Ms. Right when he barely had the initiative to change the channel on the TV with the remote right in his hand. Retirement, sweet retirement. If he were renting out the place, he’d be his own perfect tenant: no kids, no pets, no spouse around the house.

Beano had been part of a secret fraternity of public school teachers who had found a corrupt doctor to give them medical leaves due to stress, which allowed them to take early retirement even earlier than the buyout mandated. They never met anymore, for once their conspiracy had succeeded, they found they had nothing much left to say to each other, and in fact were sick of seeing each other’s faces across the sticky lunchroom tables for at least twenty years. They knew each other’s jokes and tics and spouses and ex-spouses and children and pets and idle lusts. They knew the same doctor.

At school, few people called him Beano. He was Larry. He had another nickname that was never spoken to his face: Larry the Lech. He’d hated teaching for at least half of his thirty years. In retirement, the bitterness cultivated in the teacher’s lounge smelling of burned popcorn, burned coffee, and burned-out colleagues stewed inside him. He’d been hoping it would dissipate, would’ve been happy with a slow leak, but he was sealed up tight. Without the complex maze of principals and school boards and parents to negotiate, he found himself lost on the long straight line of a futurecleared of obstacles, dead ends, potholes, toll booths, stop lights. What he wouldn’t give for a good roadblock, just to give himself something to talk his way out of.

He felt above placing an ad himself. He simply answered hers. He’d been a history teacher with a history of bad relationships, though only married once, so he could edit out a lot of the smaller skirmishes in the chapter on romance in the version he imagined he’s have to tell Claire.

What was it about her ad that drew him in? The phrase, “Comfortable, but Not.”

*   *   *

“My ex-wife,” he began. Inside, she groaned. He’d picked the spaghetti place again. Their second date, and he was already expecting the same thing. She felt reckless with disappointment. The spaghetti house was a stuffy, muffled restaurant where secrets could be told without the ancient waitresses hearing.

When he asked if she wanted to get ice cream again, despite the cool, cloudy, evening, she ordered a refill on her cold coffee, and she told him. She just wanted to get it out of the way, but it was clear immediately that he saw it as a complication, even a burden.

“Listen, Claire, I feel bad about your Uncle. I mean, bad for you about him. What he did.” They were splitting the bill. He was doing the math. “I’ve been pretty much of a shit to women all my life, I admit, but I never—taking advantage of a little girl. His niece. That totally creeps me out. I’d go kick his ass, but I imagine he’s dead by now.

“He is. I killed him.”

“I wouldn’t blame you if you had.”

“The guilt killed him.” Claire was pulling at the ends of her white cloth napkin. He wished she’d put it down.

“How old were you?” he asked, though he suspected she’d already told him.

“Thirteen.”

Thirteen. The freshmen he lusted after at the high school were fourteen. And if he was honest with himself, if he missed anything in his retirement, it was daily access to the parade of young girls down the hall as he stood outside his classroom waiting for the bell to ring. He’d been a miserable old sleaze during his last years, leering unabashedly at girls in his classes. The principal was relieved when he took the buyout. Beano liked to imagine his eyes wandered just to keep him from getting bored, but he thought about those girls way too much when he got home from school at night.

He noticed a spot of spaghetti sauce on his blue shirt. He wet his napkin and dabbed at it. Ice cream, he thought, they needed ice cream.

She’d told him the secret of her life, but he wasn’t budging—his secret nearly intersected with hers. They were in separate lanes of the same road. They touched the same yellow line.

He’d run off with a girl right after she graduated, leaving his wife behind with two small children. He lived with the girl all summer, hiding out in a tiny cottage on Lake Erie. Her parents wanted to kill him. The school could find no evidence that the affair had started during the school year. She was eighteen, and she wasn’t fessing up to anything before her birthday. He was thirty-six. The union kept his job for him.

He wanted to follow her to college. Her parents said they wouldn’t pay for college if she didn’t dump him. The girl, Sarah, went away to Penn State, joined a sorority, and he never heard from her again. Maybe she just tired of it all, that gray area where nobody comes out alive, a malevolent limbo. He came back to school, Larry the Lech. The school watched him closely, but they couldn’t bust him just for looking.

His wife divorced him and moved away with the kids. He gave her whatever she wanted in order to avoid a hearing where it’d become public, in court records. The school rumors died off as class after class graduated and the students moved on. The teachers stayed, and the teachers knew. His children, adults now, did not speak to him. He was a grandfather now, he’d heard.

He finally looked up. She was staring. He shook his head and grimaced for Claire. A good-looking woman like her, he thought.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t even like ice cream,” she said.

*   *   *

Claire asked Beano into her house when he took her home—she couldn’t explain it. She’d stood on the porch fumbling with her keys and, and now she was letting him in. She was mad but didn’t want to let him go. She felt she had something to prove, and she didn’t want him to go until she figured out what it was.

The house, a modest three-bedroom ranch near the Parkway East. Built in the twenties or thirties, Beano guessed, before freeways. At the end of the block, a high brick wall had been erected to try and tamp down the noise, but inside her house, he could hear the steady whoosh of traffic.

She’d spent a lot of money on the inside. Everything looked remodeled, new, spotless. Claire worked for Liberty Bank, where she’d gotten her first job out of high school. She’d taken night classes for ten years to get a college degree and was now a branch manager. She’d slept with four men in her life, but none in years. She paid a woman to clean for her.

She led Beano into a dim living room with pale green carpeting, a dark green leather couch, and the most tasteless coffee table he had ever seen, featuring a slimy green mermaid with her head rising above the glass top of the table, the rest of her body ‘underwater,’ visible below the glass. The mermaid destroyed all of his theories about Claire. A tidal wave of bad taste canceling all the stamps he’d just licked and stuck to the envelope of her story. He almost wanted to climb the tree again.

“Wow,” he said. “That’s some table.” He sat down on the slick couch. It slanted down. He felt like he’d slide off if he let go of the armrest.

She remained standing in the hallway. “There’s a story behind that,” she said.

“I’m glad,” he said.

“Beano,” she said. “Everything has a story.”

Why’d she tell him her story? He felt like his own privacy had been invaded.

“Well, don’t you want a tour?” she said, her voice rising into a shrill squeak.

“Sure,” he said, pushing himself up. She wouldn’t agree to visit his condo, but here she was giving him the grand tour. He stared back at the mermaid’s large emerald breasts as she led him from the room.

She had a guest room, though she’d had no guests, no one to dirty the walls, muss the bed, stain the carpet. Her own room was Spartan in its furnishings: twin bed, dresser, nightstand, mirror.  No knickknacks, no table cluttered with makeup and perfume and jewelry like his ex-wife Dell had.

Beano noticed that the kitchen was immaculate—no sign of recent activity. As if it was a prop. He’d been ready to bail out, but he surprised himself by walking over to her and slowly embracing her from behind.

“No, no,” she said. He didn’t know if she meant let go, don’t go in my kitchen, or both. “Let’s just sit down,” she said. “I feel like we need to get back to—tell me more about yourself. Happy things. Then I’ll tell you some happy things.” She forced a smile.

*   *   *

After the tour, Claire sat hugging herself in a corner of the couch, the side of her face pressed into the bumpy pattern of a throw pillow. She noticed the smudge he’d made on the glass coffee table.

“I guess I shouldn’t have told you. Too soon,” she said, her voice stretching into a defeated sigh.

Beano hadn’t felt so stupid in front of a woman since before he married Dell. He was shocked by the raw exposure of her pain after so much dignity and sophistication. He was thinking about baggage. How far would he have to carry that weight? Would she even let him help after carrying it so long herself?

“Of course, I’m still crazy about you. It’s just. Please don’t cry.” He laughed nervously. “I mean—you know what I mean. Help me out here, Claire. I don’t know anything about this stuff.” He didn’t want to know what lurked beneath the soft leather of that pristine couch. He didn’t want her to trust him just because his name was Beano and he was past fifty and remembered every bad TV show from the sixties. He wanted a new beginning. Not this plunge into another person’s pain. Not a haunting, for he was no exorcist, just a retired history teacher with one long clean blackboard in front of him. A decent pension and a condo that was paid for. He didn’t want to choke on the scrawled layers of dusty chalk. That’s what erasers were for.

“I ruined everything,” she said, though she didn’t sound concerned about the loss. No tears. Just weary, sad.

*   *   *

Beano realized that she must have been abused in one of those rooms. The tiny, tiled pink bathroom with the claw-foot tub? The musty third bedroom now used for storage? Right in the living room? Did he spend the night in the guest room and slip in to her bed?

Once she’d mentioned it, he carefully avoided the subject, so he did not know. Not how frequently, for what duration, what specifically he did, or made her do? It must’ve been close to forty years ago. Was he trying to pretend it didn’t happen, like her parents? He knew no one had believed her.

Claire’s long black hair streaked with gray fell nearly to her waist. She still wore it down or in a ponytail. If she’d dyed her hair, she’d look at least ten years younger. Beano knew about dyeing hair. What little he had left. He’d been balding since age thirty. When the fringe around his ears began turning gray, enough was enough. His ex-wife had ridiculed him when he showed up at her mother’s funeral. “What are you going to do next, start wearing gold chains and hanging out in singles bars? You’re an old man,” she taunted. She didn’t have to say what she meant, that the days of convincing an eighteen-year old to run away with him were long, long gone.

“You have my sympathy,” he managed to say. He wore a gold chain beneath his shirt. He’d been to singles bars.

*   *   *

“Tell me about the mermaid,” he said after a long silence. “I can’t think of any good things right now.”

“Well, she began, then paused. “I always loved mermaids. Kind of childish, I guess. And I know this table is hideous—no, no, it is—but I don’t care, see? My cousin Jill gave me this because she knew—she knew I loved mermaids. After my parents’ died. She said to make it my own house now. Once I got the mermaid, I was able to change everything else.”

“What do you think it is about mermaids?” he asked, bearing down on the novelty of it. He hadn’t thought of Sarah in a long time—they’d had no contact since she went to Penn State. He suspected she was embarrassed to have run off with him, that she would cringe if she saw him now—tired, old man. But he thought of her now, naked in Lake Erie, emerging and running up him on shore where he wrapped her in a towel and warmed her cold, clammy skin, her hard nipples. Everything about her was as fresh as cold lake water. She woke him up, and nothing else mattered. She woke him into a fool and a cliché, but nothing else mattered.

“I like mermaids because….” It was like a school essay. She may have even written that essay, though if she did, she had no copy of it. She liked mermaids because they were free. They were two things at once. They had no burden. They were too smart and quick for the nets. They lived in silence and did not need to explain themselves. They were almost liquid—slippery, fluid, carried by tides. Claire wanted to explain something about the table to make it less hideous, to make Beano see it the way she saw it.

“The only time anyone touches me is when my hairdresser washes my hair,” she said.

“Wow,” he said, and reached over to squeeze her hand. She’s piling it on, he thought. Pitiful. How had such a beauty kept men away from her? Surely someone at her job had put a hand on her shoulder in a friendly way? At school, he knew better than to even brush up against any of the girls after his return from Erie. He was trying to figure out if Claire was ready to break the surface, emerge. Maybe he needed to follow her, let her lead him away from the shore of his own shame.

“You must think that’s pretty pitiful,” she said, pulling her hand away to brush a strand of hair out of her face.

“No, no,” he said. “It must feel good to have someone else wash your hair.”

She frowned. “That wasn’t my point.”

He sighed. He heard his own breath catch, resume.

“It does feel good,” she said. He wondered whether he should try to kiss her. Or at least touch her hair. He felt like a teenager again, and not in a good way. “To have someone else wash your hair. You lean back over the sink and close your eyes.” She closed her eyes.“I feel like a mermaid then,” she said, smiling, blushing.

He leaned in so that he felt her breath warm against his face. He closed his eyes and brushed his lips against her cheek, but she pulled quickly away. He thought he understood why others had run out of patience or stamina, but he swore he would not. After all the years, he might finally have a grown-up relationship, something not completely wrapped up in sex.

“It’s like the sea running through my hair, the gentle sea that judges no one.”

He wasn’t sure what she meant by “judging.” Who had judged who about what? He found himself linking everything to her abuse, and he wondered if she still did, or whether it was because it was news to him. He just wanted to think of the poetry of what she’d said, not the facts. He knew he shouldn’t ask any questions. Just accept her, be happy she’d taken him into her confidence. It was a gift, and he shouldn’t spoil things by looking for the price tag. He hadn’t contributed anything, happy or sad. He was cheating her, cheating on her.

“The only thing like that I can think of is a dentist chair. Some guy telling me when to spit. I don’t like not being in control. Being, being at somebody”—he thought of her uncle again—“at somebody’s mercy.”

“Mercy. That’s such an odd word, isn’t it?” she said. “It implies someone already has power over someone else in order to grant ‘mercy’. I don’t like it.”

She slid her hand over the glass surface of the coffee table. “I knew you’d ask about it,” she said. “The mermaid.” No magazines or coffee-table books—just clear glass. “But I couldn’t come up with a better story…It’s odd, mermaids have been one constant thing in my life.”

“Do you swim?” he asked. He was sitting near the mermaid’s torso, trying not to stare at the detailed breasts near eye level.

“No,”” she said, startled. ”Why, do you?”

“Only with mermaids,” he said, and moved close to touch her cheek.

She flinched.

“Never married?”

“There was no point,” she said, “no point at which I was ready. And then I turned forty and….Beano, that’s personal. Maybe you need to tell me something personal.”

“You never stop looking,” he said.

“You don’t?” she replied.

“No harm in looking,” he said. “It makes us human, looking. Noticing. I mean, if I stop noticing pretty girls—women—you may as well shoot me….Back at the school…,” he began, then stopped.

“Back at the school?” she said. “Tell me about your life’s work.” She curled her knees up against the couch.

“Well you know,” he said feebly. “Between classes and such. History gets kind of boring—never changes. Lots of girls to look at—they change.Year after year….It’s like the mermaid. I can’t sit here and not look at her breasts. Why should I not look at them?”

“Do you want to touch them?” she asked.

Beano laughed nervously. “They’re not real,” he said. “Why would I want to touch stone?”

“Why would you?” she asked. “ If you like them young, why did you answer my ad?”

Her tone shifted. He pressed both hands against the glass tabletop, then lifted them, watched his impressions fade.

“I don’t,” he said, “that’s what I’m saying. Jut the one, and she knew what she was doing.”

“Who?”

“The girl. The one girl. She was legal. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“At what age do women get taken off the ‘look’ list?”

“You’re twisting it. Claire, you’re a real looker. I could look at you all day. I answered the ad—I wanted someone like…‘take it or leave it,’ no games.”

“Take what? Leave what?”
“Me. You. How we are.”

“You want to have sex? With me? Right now?” she cocked her head. She reached her hands up to the buttons on her blouse.

Beano pushed himself against the back of the couch. He felt like he had to defy gravity to stay on board.

“We can’t just….No, no. Not after talking like this. I can’t believe…”

She cut him off. “Oh, that wasn’t an offer. We’re just talking, right? So, your answer is no. Mine is no. See, we agree. We are kindred spirits, Beano.” She paused and swallowed. “Did you know the legend says mermaids drown men out of spite? I’ve gotten rid of my spite. Most of it. When I look at this table, it reminds me to breathe.”

“Are you playing with me?” Beano asked.

“You’ll have to ask me out again and see,” she said. “We can both see. I’m not sure myself.”

“Telling secrets. There’s a reason for secrets. People our age….”

“Nobody believed my secret,” she said. “That’s why I had to tell you.”

“It’s a conversation piece, that’s for sure,” Beano said. He stared at the mermaid, her long green flowing hair, her serene face, her large breasts.

“You can’t change history, that’s what you said,” her voice rising. “But that doesn’t make it boring. Isn’t it all about the interpretation?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should get going.”

“Too much truth?” she said. “Maybe we should just tell each other lies.” He rose from the couch, and she noticed the indentation his body had made. She wondered how long it would take to disappear.

He moved toward the door, but stopped and turned back. “We could call them myths,” he said.

“I carved initials in the tree,” she said.

“My children love me,” he said.

He wanted to stroke the mermaid’s hair. To show her he could be gentle. He wanted to touch the mermaid’s breasts. To show he had moved beyond shame.

“We’ll live forever,” she said.

The cars on the freeway continued their steady hum.

“We’re all half one thing, half another,” he said.

“That’s not a myth, that’s the truth,” she said.

They stood by the door, caught in the bright artificial light of her foyer. Behind them, the mermaid swam away or drowned.

___

Jim Ray Daniels is the author of five collections of short fiction, including, most recently, Eight Mile High, Michigan State University Press, a Michigan Notable Book and a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize. He is the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.

My Rembrandt

By Michael Andreoni

ight away the night looks screwed when I pull in from the alley and Donnie’s Escalade is at the back door to the office. It’s never once been a good thing when my boss figured we needed a face to face instead of an e-mail, or mister yellow sticky-note waving from my desktop. Normally our shifts overlap about once a month, except nothing is normal anymore with that idiot in the White House screaming about illegal immigrants. Every time his big mouth opens we lose workers like they’re grapes he’s bit from our vine.

I park the truck and pop the hood to yank the battery lead because my locks don’t lock anymore. I’m guessing Donnie’s stayed late to slam me over losing another account. Like I have a magic wand to replace the twenty highly motivated Latino cleaning machines we lost. Like I’m not pulling my hair out trying to run his business with the local fuck-ups who stumble in on application days, lying their punk asses off they know how to clean restaurants.

The boss is in my chair at my desk when I come in through the storeroom past the broken vacuums and mop buckets. Donnie’s big into non-verbal intimidation, with a dead stare full of understanding that intimidation has another year to work on me because we both know this job keeps my P.O. happy-snappy. Those black-hole eyes are an unsmiling universe that if I’m honest is why I took the job. You get used to that look in the penitentiary. After two months starving on the outside, a dozen interviews with smiling pieces of shit who weren’t ever going to hire a parolee but wouldn’t come out and say it had me dreaming about going back to taking what I needed at gunpoint. It felt like coming home seeing Donnie’s kill you or kill me makes no difference face. Far as I know he’s never been inside a day, which at first was a real mystery as to how he pulled off the part so well. A few months cleaning restaurants seven nights a week put me straight on that.

Donnie’s put on a few pounds since I started with him. I take credit for managing the operation so he doesn’t need to run around to thirty restaurants on the midnight shift anymore. These days he looks like Buddha-Who-Never-Smiles, spilling out of the chair, watching me slip my jacket off. I’d congratulate him on attaining Enlightenment before age fifty, except Donnie doesn’t do jokes.

“Who’s at Frenchy’s?”

            The thing about my boss is he never asks unless he already knows. Any lies you tell get saved up for a rainy day—and guaranteed, the rain will be coming down hard on your head, not his.

            “I got that Yolanda Green in there. She’s doing real good.”

            “You like her, huh?”

            You can’t read Donnie but I glance his way because it’s plain he knows something I don’t, which is dangerous. His stone face is a reminder that my job depends on knowing what’s up at every account. “She’s the best we got since Guillermo and Rafael and Rita, and all the others, disappeared.”

            “She’s stealing.”

            “No Way.” A sudden sharp pressure behind my eyes says Donnie wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t so, even if I don’t want to believe him. I hired Yolanda Green, so my ass is on the line. “I check up on her all the time,” I protest. It’s embarrassing how desperate that sounds.

            My boss’s shoulders twitch like I’m wasting his time. “I was there today. They caught her taking fry oil.”

            It’s always cash and steaks and lobsters when we have a theft. “Like, oil from the pantry?”

            “The used stuff they keep in the back.”

            It feels like someone’s thumbs are digging into my eyes. “They complained she’s taking dirty oil?”

            Donnie heaves out of my chair like a seal going for a fish. His hand brings up the tail of the Escalade’s fob from a pocket. When the fob comes out your ship has sailed, because Donnie’s said as much as he thinks is necessary. His unspoken argument being that once you start on the dirty fry oil it’s only a matter of time before you’re cleaning out the safe and making for someplace warm. It’s now my job to fire Yolanda, hire a replacement, work with them night after night until they’re trained, plus take care of everything else. I should be used to this crap after two years with Donnie. Even so, it sure does burn. He disappears into the storeroom. The back door slams and now it’s just me, rubbing my eyes, pulling up Yolanda’s info on the computer so I can go get the keys back from the only decent cleaner I got left. Her address is another nasty jolt that has me staring at the screen. Yeah, tonight is definitely headed south big-time.

*   *   *

Every day of my eight to twelve I thought I knew what getting out would look like. It was a cloudless summer sky over a shiny blue lake, with me somewhere in the picture, maybe lying on the beach, though the promises my mind painted were never clear on where I fit in. The point was it represented everything I had never done when I took walking down the street for granted. Prison counselors gave me a bunch of crap about writing an Action Plan. Job one was lining up someone to stay with until you found work. Then make up a list of businesses that maybe would hire someone fresh out of prison. They brought ex-cons into the cell-block to preach how to beat the system by getting right with God and keeping on course through prayer. The secret, they said, was applying for work every day plus reading your bible every day. When a job came along you showed up on time, did what you were told, no matter what. Everyone insisted the biggest thing I had to do was break the patterns that got me arrested. Like keeping out of every bar I ever hung out in just in case my old knucklehead buddies were hiding under the tables, ready to run me back down the path back to prison. Getting out felt like moving to another country.

Maybe it’s why I connected with the people who came north over the border to find another life. We were new together in a strange place, where we couldn’t trust ourselves to know the right thing to do. It didn’t take long for living on the outside to kill whatever I’d imagined I could do after prison. Outside looked nothing like summer sun kissing a lake. It was hundred degree heat in kitchens slimy with grease. It looked like acres of floors caked with winter slop. Outside was all about restaurant managers screaming their toilets weren’t as clean as Donnie had promised.

So now I’m driving under an iron shell of winter dusk to make my life worse by firing this Yolanda for no good reason. Not much sense thinking back to how great it was after I hired Guillermo, but what the hell, I’m on the freeway, and the radio doesn’t work. I first saw him on a below-zero morning last winter, coming home exhausted from trying to run Donnie’s business with the idiots we were hiring. The damn wind is rattling at me through the rust holes in my doors as I’m rolling past Home Depot, and there they are in the parking lot, bunch of guys holding up signs under a flickering light. At first it seemed they were protesting something, like maybe the cheap-ass hoses Home Depot had sold me that were already leaking. If the traffic light hadn’t turned I never would have read their signs: SHOVEL SNOW; PAINTING; CLEANING. Eight young men in the kind of ragged jeans that don’t come that way from the store. Two wore light jackets, the rest were in shirts, their arms locked tight around themselves. Faces that reflected the same enduring patience I saw every morning in the mirror. I had to turn into the lot.

Those faces dipped to check me out through the windshield as I pulled up. One of them came forward then, moving woodenly, as though frozen through, and yet somehow he unstuck a smile. I cracked the frosty window. Guillermo, he called against the wind. A little brown guy like a million little brown guys, and I’m a million ex-cons leaning out of a rusty truck. For a long breath we hesitate, silent and still, while winter sunrise paints us in an instant onto graying snow plowed up into mountains. I guess you’d call the picture Poor and Poorer. Prison gave me a few words of Spanish; Guillermo had a few more words of English. They all knew how to clean, he promised, and restaurants seven midnights a week sounded bueno. Did they have a car? No, but they could get the late bus or walk. The other men hung back, as if they were okay with letting Guillermo talk for them. That they all seemed too good to be true didn’t stop me from putting them in the picture.

Here’s what’s different about employing illegal aliens: I never had to fire one. They always showed up, they always worked like hell. After a while they brought their friends and relatives to me. I didn’t care one moment about their immigration status. We were together in a struggle to live without government interference. They paid taxes out of their pay same as any other employee, after I got Donnie to see the light on hiring them. He was dead against it, from the moment he glanced up from checking the payroll and there’s Guillermo and his friends ganged up outside his office, smiling away. All the while I spun my idea Donnie’s laser eyes raked them over. “No,” he grunted across the desk. Probably he thought that was enough to put an end to this nonsense from his new Manager, except that was one time when Donnie trapped himself. I’d been promoted because he was worn thin working day and night trying to make the customers happy. Didn’t matter how much he worked, our lazy-ass, no-show workers lost us the accounts faster than he could pick them up. So in the end he’d pretty much had to give Guillermo and Friends a try before his business dried up and blew away.

And those guys sure did keep the customers happy, until that idiot in Washington screwed everything up. I just wish one of them had tipped me a hint they needed to disappear. It’s understandable wanting to lay low until this craziness shakes out. We’re all waiting on that. They could have come to me for help. There are a few decent hiding places around this town that would have kept them local. At least I could have given lifts to the bus station, maybe hit up Donnie for some traveling money as thanks for their excellent work. It was a couple months before I could accept that they needed to go quick and quiet, and wish them all the best. Whoever hires them next is one lucky boss.

*   *   *

I’m looking to get through tonight without any drama over asking this Yolanda for her keys to the restaurant. The workers we get now don’t always give them up with a smile when I cut them loose from their ten an hour. Donnie won’t be happy if he has to come up with a story for Frenchy’s about how their keys came to be flushed down the toilet “accidentally” and please, could we have another set? Yolanda’s been solid from day one so it seems unlikely she’ll be a problem, though if this job teaches anything it’s prepare for the worst. No one who knows the score asks how you’re doing in the restaurant cleaning business. You’re wading in filth seven midnights a week, no benefits, no holidays, is how you’re doing. In that way it’s like the penitentiary.

Yolanda Green’s address bothers me, as though rolling back to 321 Elm might vacuum me back up into my old life. My last address before the state required my presence elsewhere, and of course the place must have changed in the years I’ve been gone, or maybe I hoped The Hideaway Motel had disappeared. Back in the day it was the kind of place you never went barefoot in for fear of stepping on a syringe embedded in what was left of the carpet. The joke among the local criminal establishment was whoever named it The Hideaway got it right. The place backed up to an abandoned train yard littered with derelict rail cars and track, twisted together as though a God had worked off some serious frustration. Once you made it through the hole in the fence it took a helicopter or a dog to track you. I don’t imagine Yolanda Green is living there for the quick get-away, but she is supposedly stealing the used fry oil, so you never know.

She had reminded me of Guillermo and his friends at the interview, because she also looked too good to be true. Short and stocky, with dark molasses skin, a charcoal briquette of a woman dressed to impress in heavy work pants and a sweat shirt. We get these idiots in all the time wearing designer business casual. Maybe they think they’re interviewing for vice president of the bank and need to impress me. The one thing I care about is if they can impress grease off the kitchen floors. Now this Yolanda was something, the way she made eye contact when we shook hands. The way she sat quietly across my desk while I looked over her application, without once fooling with her phone.

“So you worked for a maid service up until last week. What happened?”

“What happened, they short my check every week for six months.”

“Before that you cleaned at the high school for almost a year. How come you left?”

“They say file for unemployment ‘cuz no money left in the budget. Teachers gonna sweep they own classrooms.”

Her answers came without hesitation. Either it was the truth or she rehearsed everything—and why take that much trouble for a cleaning job? Donnie tells everyone we run background checks, though we almost never do. For one it costs money, and for two, we already know more than half of everyone who applies has a police record. No sense wasting time finding out what you pretty much can count on. Mainly we interview to weed out the mass murderers. Anyone left with the breath to fog up a mirror is a candidate for a set of keys and a mop.

“You got a car?”

“Naw.”

“Well, we got an opening on the bus line. You ever cleaned a restaurant?”

“I did the cafeteria at the high school. Can’t be worse.”

And that was all of it, short and sweet. Never asked what we were paying, or about the benefits and holidays she wasn’t going to get. She started at Frenchy’s that night, and one night was all it took her to learn it. The woman was not afraid of the mop. I popped in once a week to check if there were problems. There never were. The customer loved her, plus Yolanda seemed happy enough—at least she didn’t complain. You don’t look for cleaners to be like those TV actors who get so happy over the new improved toothpaste they start dancing like morons. I know most everyone would take the commercial over cleaning, but at least we don’t have to dance about the fucking toothpaste for our money.

A couple issues are chasing me by the time I get off the freeway at Elm: There’s the unfairness of firing Yolanda. I don’t for a moment believe she’s stealing and even if she is, it’s dirty fry oil, so who cares. On top of that I’ve got this strong aversion to going back to the place where I was someone I don’t want to be anymore. I could call and ask Yolanda to meet me up the street at the gas station, if that’s still there. Just the thought of it hots me up with embarrassment. Firing workers never bothered me before, so why now? This is nothing new, I’m telling myself, so I’m going straight to 321 Elm, whatever it is now. I’m not a criminal anymore. Stopping in where I used to live won’t turn me back to armed robbery. I think. I just wish it felt easier.

My foot wants to let up on the gas when I get close, until I’m creeping like a criminal down Elm. On the left a street light etches crazy shapes into the emptiness beyond the sidewalk, which probably means the old train yard is still there. Then the low brick building I remember too well extends out of the headlights. I stop the truck in the middle of the street. The place looks the same, though the office isn’t lit up pink by the flashing Hideaway Motel sign that once hung in the window. Most of the rooms are dark. The last door on the far end is room 8, my old home. I have zero desire to see if the inside is what I remember. Pull the truck over and get out. Yolanda is around the back in 12. I lean against the hood and just look at the place. I shouldn’t have to do this. Isn’t it enough for one night to have come back? I’m here, and the fear of returning proves I’m not the person I was. That should earn me the right to get back in the truck, to go about my business. Let Donnie get rid of Yolanda, is the argument, even if I know it can’t work like that. It’s my job to give her the bad news.

So, knock knock room 12. I hope short and sweet is in my future: Sorry it didn’t work out, feel free to use us as a reference, we just need your keys, have a great life. That’s five minutes work if she’s reasonable, then back in the truck with the night’s work before me. I knock again. What a drag if she’s not home. I try a third time with my ear pressed to the door—nothing’s going on inside. I should have called first. It’s freezing out here, with no choice now except to catch her at the restaurant, which isn’t ideal if she wants to take it personal. Frenchy’s hired us to clean the place, not have scenes their late-night staff can watch and maybe get ideas from. I guess age thirty-five is past due to stop wishing that something goes easy. Taking the cash and running was easy, and look what it got me. Yolanda’s door gets a couple revenge kicks before I step away.

“What you want!” comes through the door, like somebody’s been waiting on the other side the whole time. It sounds like her, but I don’t know.

“It’s Steve from Donnie’s Cleaning. I need to talk to Yolanda.”

The door cracks. Yolanda is dressed for the restaurant, unless work pants and a sweatshirt are what she wears all the time. She doesn’t look happy to see me.

“Why you here?”

“Uh . . . something’s come up I didn’t want to tell you at Frenchy’s.”

She leans halfway out the door to look both ways, like maybe I brought cops with me, or something worse. It’s that kind of neighborhood. She checks it out, shakes her head before backing in. A hand waves me in. “C’mon.”

Probably The Hideaway Motel’s original business plan didn’t rely on renting month to month to the poor. Exactly when it went from respectable motel to fleabag apartments is something I wondered about when I inhabited room 8. The condition of the place, even back then, was an argument for The Hideaway abandoning travelers to our fair city long before I arrived. Maid service had definitely been discontinued. And since a ten by ten room with adjoining closet bathroom tends to fill up quickly with everyday clutter, most of my fellow residents had long since given up on cleaning. Paths from door to bed to bathroom were the norm.

“Ugh, you been huffing something in here?” It’s like walking into a paint factory. I take small breaths; already I feel kind of floaty. Then I forget the smell, because dead dogs are what I’m seeing. Pictures of dead dogs hang from the walls all around me.

“Well, you gonna shut the damn door or not?”

It eventually penetrates she’s asked twice. I close it, and even the back of the door holds a picture. A hook has been screwed in through the old room regulations. A rectangle of what looks like white cardboard hangs from the hook, and on it a dog, a black lab, has been painted. The stomach is torn out. Everything that’s supposed to be inside is spilling in colors so much brighter than seems right that I have to look away. At a narrow cot pushed against the far wall next to a bench piled up with cardboard. Not much else in the room but tubes of paint and brushes on the carpet, framed by once-painted cinderblock walls. They’re lined with poodles, pit bulls, dogs I’ve never seen, hung floor to ceiling with their insides hanging exposed in colors that should be for flowers and balloons.

“God. They’re all dead.”

Yolanda shakes her head. “Naw. They all right now. They been changing.” She runs a hand back and forth over a fluffy white poodle hanging by her bed as though petting it.

“Right. Into dead dogs.”

A sharp frown twists her. “Why you here,” she repeats, stroking Fluffy.

“Uh . . . It’s probably not you, but Frenchy’s—”

“The oil, yeah.” Yolanda flicks the non-stroking hand as though to get rid of the thought. “I knew that was trouble.”

“So you took it?”

She looks me in the eye. “Yeah, I took some.”

“Dirty fry oil. Why?”

She turns back to the poodle. “She my favorite. See her eyes?”

Something about the eyes isn’t right. I slide between the cot and the bench to get a closer look. This dog died a terrible death . . . but the eyes . . . so warm and wet, like they understand everything you ever been through. The line of the jaws is like a smile. If a dog could laugh it would look like this, except not with a stomach torn up like that.

“She died happy,” I say, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure of much right about now. I’m not sure I can get out of here alive.

“None of them dead, but yeah, you got it right. Oil makes the eyes shine.”

“They’re definitely shiny. Tell me you didn’t kill these dogs so you could paint them.”

“I tell you they not dead. They changing.”

“Into what?”

“What they want.”

“With their guts coming out?”

Yolanda pulls her sweatshirt up. I step back in case she’s going for whatever she killed these poor dogs with.

“See it?”

A ridge of pink brown scarring on her stomach shows above the belt. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say about it. “That looks serious.”

She pulls the sweatshirt down. “Exit wound. Four years this month.”

Again I don’t know what to say. A headache is coming on from the paint and I still need to deliver the bad news. Why can’t this be easy? Just please let me get out of here with the keys so I can go clean Frenchy’s.

“How’d you get shot?” If she was the usual shitty worker we get I’d ask for the keys now. Instead, I’m standing around wasting time, surrounded by dead dogs. I feel like I have to hear her out, which is weak as hell. Donnie would never do it like this. He’d already be gone with the keys.

Yolanda sits on the cot. “Wrong place. Coming out the liquor store, two fools shootin each other shoot me instead.”

“That’s a tough break.”

“Yeah. I’m thinking that in the hospital, screamin with the pain. Then after a while a change comes. I figure drinkin that beer like I been gonna put me in the wrong place rest of my life. That’s when I quit drinkin that beer. Four years this month.”

She’s looking at her favorite poodle. I see their eyes are a match, oil for tears, which is my fault for asking about stuff that should be left alone. Sure as shit I’m stuck here until she settles down to where I can fire her without ending up like these dogs. There’s nothing but the cot for sitting on. I sink down onto green carpet torn like pawed-up grass.

“You said she’s changing. What does she want?”

“Be something better. Something different.” Yolanda’s head shakes. “Not sure exactly. Just different.”

“How’s she get there?”

“She don’t know that either. I catch her in the moment after the changing. What come next is something no one can say.”

“Why dogs?”

Yolanda rubs her eyes dry. A weird little snorting comes out. It’s a long moment before I realize she laughed. “What’s funny?”

“I do cats first. Didn’t come out right.”

“Like the dogs, with their insides out?”

She laughs again. “Drowned. Wasn’t the same.”

“You didn’t drown them, did you?” That feels wrong the instant as it comes out, because I’m starting to think she wouldn’t. “I’m sorry. I take it back.”

Yolanda gets off the cot. I have to bend my head back to see she’s turned that sharpish frown on me again. “I paint them from memory,” she says, rubbing her belly.

“All right.”

She goes back to loving Fluffy. I look at the other laughing dead dogs. They’re not bad—I mean she paints them pretty good, not that I think any normal person would want one. Except for the insides coming out it’s as though they’ve just run in from a good romp and now it’s dinnertime.

“You come here to fire me?”

There it is. She’s petting the dog, her eyes are somewhere else, and all I have to answer is yes. She’s ready to give up the keys now—I know she will. Then I’m gone out of here. All I have to answer is yes.

“How come you don’t use oil from the store?”

“I show you.” She takes Fluffy off the wall to hold the cardboard in front of me. “Look at her. Stuff from the store is new. It don’t sit on the eyes right, like old burnt stuff. Frenchy’s oil been used and abused. Perfect for her.”

“I see that.” Strange as it is, I kinda do. Every dog in here has the same pain in their eyes. That will always be with them, whatever they change into. I guess eyes remember everything. I turn to the black Lab, those eyes . . . that smile. Even torn up like that, damn if he doesn’t have the happiest face you’ll ever see on anyone. I point.

“You think you could do me one like him?”

“He a she,” she says, re-hanging the poodle. “I don’t know. Paint costs, ‘specially if I’m not working.” She points that sharpish frown at me again.

“You keep talking like we’re getting rid of you. I had to ask about the oil because Frenchy’s complained. That’s no big deal as long as you don’t take any more. Donnie sent me to offer you a job as my assistant. We hired all these idiots don’t know how to do shit, so you can help train them. Pays a buck an hour more. You in?”

Yolanda smiles. “How much you pay me for the painting?”

“Depends. I don’t want one with his insides out. Could you do it where he’s all healed up from the change?”

“ Maybe. I think about it.”

“Well think about it in the truck. We got a heavy schedule tonight.”

*   *   *

 Donnie’s sitting on the hood giving me the murder stare through the windshield all the way down the freeway. He won’t go for it unless I can sell Yolanda to him like Guillermo. I figure bring her into the office in the morning. We’re a package deal, I’ll tell him, fire one, fire us both. Because people like us need to stick together. It’s like there’s a war coming on against the ones who do the grunt work in this country. Maybe I should say another war, or the latest war. We have to get our changing done so we can be ready. We have to get organized. I steal a glance at Yolanda, sitting next to me. What did it cost her to come through the changes; what’s it cost me? No more than Guillermo and his friends are paying. Yolanda’s dogs know the price. It feels right to have one for my little apartment, yet at the same time so damn strange I have to laugh.

“What’s funny?” Yolanda asks.

“It’s like I’m rich, buying a painting.”

“It’s a change,” she says.

Another change, and how much it will hurt I can’t tell. That this feels good now, in this moment, is something I haven’t had in a long time. Maybe that dog and I have come through the worst, plenty torn, but smiling to say we’re still here. It’s dark in the truck to look at my eyes in the rear-view.  First thing I have to do when we hit Frenchy’s is find a mirror.

___

Michael Andreoni’s fiction has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Euphony, Calliope, Avalon Review, Pif Magazine, and other publications. A working-class writer, his stories explore the complexities of low-income life. His story collection, The Window is a Mirror, is forthcoming from BHC Press.

Yesterday and Today

By Richard Compean

e will be gone in two weeks—gone not just away on retreat, or business, not to visit family, not to the almost comatose sleep he has been going to increasingly for the past two months, but forever, to Hamlet’s “undiscovered country,” as he himself would say, to the death that will us finally part.

All this I know because I just met yesterday with his hospice nurse, who has told me this, as she explained, for my own sake, not his, to get me beyond denial and anger.

And, yes, I have been angry at him ever since he told me a few months back that suicide might make things easier, especially on me. We both laughed when I threatened to kill him if he so much as even tried.

The hospice nurse also told me that his periods of consciousness and lucidity will continue to diminish, both in frequency and length, until they stop completely. Yesterday there were three, and all were less than an hour. Last night we talked for only about forty-five minutes, and he once again reminded me to be sure that his daughter Lucy gets that original Beatles Yesterday and Today album (the one with the broken dolls and meat) when she comes to visit today.

This request reminded me of the first gift he gave me—a two-part CD collection, one part red and one part blue, of all the Beatles’ greatest songs from 1962 to 1970. Then I was less than half his age, and he promised as he courted me that he would make sure that when we married—something he was much more interested in than I was—he would be less than twice my age.

This was one of several important promises he made me, and—dammit—he managed to keep them all, even though I grew to want more. I was halfway past twenty-four when we married; he was not yet forty-nine. And on my twenty-fifth birthday he promised that I would catch up with him in age. He anticipated the question on my mind, and the puzzled look on my face, by telling me that for ten years now he had remained the same age, an age that I, too, would reach. Each year on his birthday he would celebrate being, once again—as he is even now, with less than two weeks to live—“between thirty-nine and death.” This is how I caught up with him, in a matter of only fourteen years.

He also promised me on our honeymoon that in appreciation for my marrying someone so much older, he would give me at least twenty good years (a “score,” as Abraham Lincoln counted them). They have not always been perfect, but as of this morning our nearly twenty-one years together have indeed been good, even though he will not quite make it to the biblical three score years and ten.

When we talked last night, he also told me that he had a gift for me that I was not to open until he was gone, and that he would say more about it tomorrow. I already know what it is—something that he had his closest friend, David, help him prepare.

I not only know what it is, but also where it is, and I have even opened it, or at least a part of it. I overheard some of his conversation with David and saw David give him a large envelope, wrapped with gold ribbon. David had followed his instructions to write on the outside—just as Marshal Will Kane did in High Noon, with a quill pen—“To Be Opened in the Event of My Death.” Then I saw David, following his instructions, put the envelope underneath his mattress on the far side of the bed, close to the window.

Earlier this week, after I was sure he had gone into one of his more and more frequent nearly catatonic sleeps, I could no longer resist the temptation to pull out the envelope and bring it out to my room to look inside. But because I was sure he would know if it was gone, I took out and only looked at a part of the contents.

The first thing I noticed was that everything was in teal blue—his favorite color and the same color as the dress he bought me for our second anniversary, the dress that I wore out with him only three times, and which I wore out wearing for him at home with, as he had demanded (reminding me that Je demande in French meant only “I ask” or “I request” in English), absolutely nothing underneath. For a couple of years I had worn it as a prelude to our lovemaking, and I remember that it became so threadbare that the last time I wore it, he tore it off of me.

In the envelope was a sheet of parchment on which he had written (I, of course, recognized the handwriting), in dark ink, “I gave you the twenty years I promised, and I had hoped to give more, but then came the cancer that I did not anticipate. I thought our love would go into extra innings, but I’m now behind and it’s the bottom of the 9th, with two out and two strikes on me. And to top that off, Death has one hell of a curveball that’s almost unhittable and of which he is justifiably proud, even though one guy named Jack Donne hit it for a home run in that remarkable ‘Death Be Not Proud’ sonnet you know I love.

“Before I strike out, I want to leave you with something that will help in the game of your own life. I don’t mean it to be precious or sentimental, but something that will help you carry on without me—not that you’ve ever needed me to help live your life. That something is this small set of cards that I want you to carry with you, at least for the first year after my death. They are not in any order of priority or importance, so they can be shuffled or rearranged. And after you read them, you may decide to toss them as the demented blubberings of an old man whom you should not have let talk you into marrying when you were so young. At least consult them once and, as a last request (‘Je demande’) from me, give them a year.

“By the way, I think David did a good job in matching the paper stock on which they are written to that teal-blue dress I bought you a long time ago—yes, that one.”

Inside the parchment sheet on which he had written were ten—make that eleven—cards. To cover up my surreptitious theft, I grabbed the first three, then put the remaining cards back inside the parchment and the parchment sheet back inside the envelope, then put the whole envelope back under the mattress where I “found” it.

The first card, like the others to follow, was actually laminated. And it consisted of simple advice. I think he wanted this card to be first, even though he had written that they were put together in random order.

That first card only had three words: FORGET ABOUT ME. I liked its simplicity, but its message, like his earlier suggestion about suicide, made me angry! What do you mean, “forget about you”? Goddammit, you are the only one in my life that I will not ever be able to forget. You yourself made certain of that, you and all your fulfilled promises, all your loving gifts and days, your compassion and your calmness that got us through so much, and yes, even your humor, which I think underlies the advice on this card.

The second card was easier to accept: KEEP WALKING. Before the cancer, and even up until a few months ago, we walked nearly every day, through the park, around the lake, even just to Safeway and back. Those walks were a part of him that I am already missing, and a contradiction to that first card.

The third card was downright weird, not because of its advice, but because that advice was circled in red and had a line through it (like a No Smoking sign), meaning DO NOT. It said, inside the circle and line: WATCH BASEBALL. And I knew that it was meant as a joke. In fact, I casually flipped it over and found writing on the other side, writing that said, “Never mind. This one was for me.”

Then I thought to flip the other cards over, and sure enough, there was more on the other side of them as well. On the back of the first he had thanked me for twenty great years and assured me that I was a wonderful, life-affirming human being and that I never did need him before and certainly would not need him now. I never could get him to acknowledge that it was not a matter of need but want. And now that he is almost gone, I want him more than ever. The back of the second card advised me to walk slow; to walk for exercise of my mind, not of my (“great,” he had added) body.

Having read these cards, I went back for more, putting the first three back.

On Wednesday night I read two other cards, truly random: EAT RAW VEGETABLES AND FRUIT and WATCH MOVIES. On the back, the first simply said not to get cancer, as he had, growing up the son of a cook and eating all that meat and cheese. The back of the second one quoted the T-shirt he still sometimes wore on our walks: Si on aime la vie, on va au cinema.

Next morning I looked at the other two: READ DANTE and DON’T LET THE DUKKHA GET YOU DOWN. One advised, on the back, “not just Inferno and Purgatorio, which are the greatest depictions ever of human suffering, but also Paradiso, where you will find compassion and joy.” The back of the other told me to see the “Dante” card.

I have saved the remaining four cards for now, as I wait for Lucy to arrive to see her father for most likely the last time and to receive the Yesterday and Today vinyl album he repeatedly made me promise to deliver to her personally. As I look at the songs on this album, I hear him stirring and know that he will soon be ready to say goodbye to Lucy. I still want to know, as the Beatles themselves asked, why he is saying goodbye when I want to say hello.

I say hello to Lucy when she arrives, then check to see if he is ready for her. When she goes in for her farewell, I take out the final four cards.

One card says PRAY; on the back it reminds me to wish wellness and happiness to everyone, even my enemies. Has he become an enemy for deserting me?

The second card says TALK TO ANIMALS and adds, on the back, that I will be amazed at how much they have to teach me.

The third card advises me to GIVE TO OTHERS and reminds me of what he has already taught me, how much great pleasure and joy there is in giving.

The final card says LISTEN TO THE BEATLES. I think I already know what will be on the back of this card.

 

——————–

Richard Compean grew up listening to The Beatles and has passed his love for them on to both his children and student at City College of San Francisco where he teaches English. In his spare time he enjoys hanging out on the corner of pop culture and spirituality, admiring the work of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon as much as that of John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Andrew Marvell.

The Fractalist

By Jory Pomeranz

n some old encyclopedias, you will find under the article on Spain, the border between Spain and Portugal is 620 miles long. In the same encyclopedia, under the article on Portugal, it says the border is 760 miles long. It’s the same border. The geometry we learned in high school—circles, squares, triangles—tells us nothing about the shapes of nature. Where the land and sea so variously lie about each other and lightly kiss is no hyperbola. If you measure in kilometers, you reach a certain length. In meters, you’d pick up more wiggles and wobbles of the coastline. Centimeters? Even longer. There is no well-defined length for a coastline; the length depends on the scale by which you choose to measure it and the scale of your perspective. This is called scale ambiguity.

Michael Crane was a mathematician studying and teaching fractal geometry at Cornell University. Fractals are great for finding simple descriptions for complicated shapes. Take Sierpinski’s gasket, for example. The gasket possesses an infinite number of triangles, and the equations of those triangles aren’t straightforward. Yet if you shrink it by a half, take another copy and shrink it by a half, then move it over by half, and then take a final copy, shrink it by a half, and move up by a half, you get the gasket. A fractal description of an object is the story of how it grows.

I learned from Michael he was dying of cancer and it was everywhere. It was inside his brain; it had taken one eye, which he hid by covering his glasses with duct tape and joking about being a pirate. It was all over his lungs and he would exclaim, “Our lungs, oh my God! There are half a billion alveoli in our lungs—it would take the whole genome just to describe the lungs! That’s why the genome just tells us how to grow instead. If we take these structures apart, study the patterns in smaller scales, anything visually complex can be decoded into something very simple.” And he’d be totally out of breath, and I could see and feel it hurt him now, every time he chose to use those lungs to speak. There are, on average, twenty-three levels of branching in the lungs, and they have a volume of five to six liters and a surface area of 130 square meters. It’s like taking an envelope and folding it up to fit inside a thimble, yet evolution discovered a way to do it by branching, and branching, and branching. Every bit of the lung looks like the whole lung. It’s a fractal and dually simple and complex.

* * *

With Michael’s disease progressing, I wondered how much of his nature, nature itself would have to destroy before his childlike curiosity for nature itself would be destroyed. He still had this gentle, vivacious curiosity in a dying body. As a child, he had wanted to understand the different shapes of clouds, or why flowers grew the way they grew, or why mud cracked the way it did when it dried out in the sun. As an adult, he wanted to be that tottering old guy ambling into class with a piece of toilet paper stuck to his shoe, still telling the same dumb jokes. And the sicker he got, the more I wanted to walk the measuring tape back on his life, giving him more time with his wife and his seven cats.

Michael taught me that science has a narrative component that we too often forget. He was a storyteller. The shape of a snowflake is the story of the pressure, temperature, and humidity it encountered on its flight through the clouds. A coastline is the story of rocks and tides and waves. A mountain range is the story about plate tectonics and erosion. A child’s face, a field of daisies, a fall of snowflakes: bilateral symmetry for the human face, translational symmetry for the field of daisies, rotational symmetry for the snowflakes. Fractals.

Near the end of his life, they took one of his arms. He used the one arm to walk with a cane. He told me, “I feel disgusted that I’m being betrayed by my body,” and I knew he understood it was by the nature he found so beautiful. Cancer cells are fractals too. He died a few days afterward at night. I sat on my porch. I cried because I felt it was unfair for a man to understand so much about the uncontrolled elements of life and still have to die. I looked up at the night. I had this very clear sense that instead of looking up into the heights, I was looking down into the depths—something flipped, and the space between the stars was just immense and empty, but there was something else to it too. And I couldn’t explain it. And I missed him already.

——————–
Jory Pomeranz is a holistic chef living in Cincinnati, OH. He teaches chess to students and veterans.

A Warm Welcome

By Sam Smith

is temples throbbed as he lurched through the undergrowth, each step tightening his chest. Stopping to catch his breath momentarily, he leaned against a tree and scanned his surroundings for any sign of sanctuary. Nothing but dense foliage rose up to barricade him on all sides.

He glanced upwards through the lattice of branches at the failing light; the last thing he wanted was still to be out here after dark.

Following a minute’s rest, he trudged on warily, listening for anything untoward. It began to rain heavily, the canopy of tree limbs providing scant cover, and it didn’t take long for him to become completely drenched.

A wet crunch from somewhere behind sent him stumbling ahead once more, boots squeaking as he slithered over downed tree trunks. An unfamiliar animal’s grunt to his left caused him to stop too quickly, and he narrowly avoided plunging blindly into a quagmire. This time he threw himself to the ground, covering his head with his hands. When he was sure the danger had passed, he got slowly to his feet and moved on, looking all around.

Then, through the rainy haze, a square patch of light could be glimpsed. As he drew nearer, he squinted ahead and saw that it was emanating from the window of a squat, picturesque farmhouse. Just like Grandmother’s place in Little Red Riding Hood.

He attempted to hide the limp in his left leg as he walked, and ran a trembling hand over his wet face to check for any cuts or bruises. Stopping at the fence that skirted the perimeter of the dwelling, he washed his face in the water butt, before approaching the front door.

He patted his jacket pocket and felt the slight heft of the Swiss Army knife, blade already out, and was instantly reassured. Taking one last breath, he hammered a fist on the rain-splattered door. A muffled sound from within, and it was opened to reveal a bloodshot eye, which looked him up and down.

“Well?” barked the owner of the eye.

The stranger cleared his throat before replying.

“I got separated from my rambling party and I just need a place to ride out the storm”, came the well-rehearsed reply.

The door opened a little more and an elderly man’s head emerged, like a turtle’s from its shell.

“It’s barely even coming down out there”, he sniffed.

From somewhere behind him came a sing-song voice.

“Who is it, Alfred?”

The sound of approaching footsteps followed, and then the door was opened fully to reveal a plump woman wiping her hands on a chequered apron.

“Don’t stand on ceremony young man, come in!”

She shoved her indignant husband aside and ushered their guest in, before spinning to face him.

“Were you giving him the full inquest, you old goat?”

The old man didn’t reply, instead choosing to slope into the front room. He growled over his shoulder at the interloper to “close the damn door”, then was gone.

“Never mind him”, the pinafored lady said as she removed the stranger’s coat, “It’s the cold affecting his mood, not you.”

As she secreted it in a bustling pantry, he remembered the knife in the pocket and silently cursed himself for being so complacent. Looked as though he’d have to…improvise. He hovered awkwardly on the threshold for a few more seconds before wiping his muddy boots on the mat and stepping into the kitchen.

The woman busied herself near the sink, and the stranger took the opportunity to scan the large table that occupied the majority of the room. Three place settings, which included three plates, three forks…and three steak knives. Just one would do.

In one smooth movement he grasped the handle of the nearest one and held it low by his side. He glided into the living room and glimpsed the top of the old man’s head over the back of the armchair. It was reflecting the eerie glow from the television and sending it around the darkened room as the old man swayed his head.

The stranger crept forward, raising his knife in readiness, and ran a tongue over his dry lips.

Snick! He felt something enter his spine, and his limbs went limp. The steak knife clattered to the floor a few seconds before he did, a large cloud of dust sighing from the carpet as he landed.

“Ahh, the impetuousness of youth”, whispered the old man, rising stiffly from his chair. He stepped over to where the stranger had fallen, and picked up the steak knife between thumb and forefinger.

“This’ll need a wash”, he said to his wife, who was standing directly behind the stranger. As she stepped into his eye line, he used the last of his strength to turn and look at her, and immediately wished he hadn’t.

From the neck down, she still resembled the same sweet, slightly doddery old lady as before, but her face had…changed. It was now a monstrous black protuberance from the misshapen and deformed head, easily double the size it had been. Two compound eyes, made up of hundreds of glistening red orbs fixated on the stranger’s helpless body. Instead of a nose, there was now a long, flexible appendage that extended slowly from the face, twitching horribly. It must have been what he felt enter his back earlier.

But by far the worst of all were the jaws, which the stranger felt compelled to gaze at, even though he would rather be blinded than to ever see anything quite so terrible again. To describe them would be to go mad, but describe them he must. They were large black mandibles, slick with mucus, and they clicked and quivered whenever she (it?) made any movement. The mucus shone in the light, and ran along the mandible’s razor sharp edge before splattering and pooling on the cottage’s wooden floor. The stranger saw that the creature was clutching something by its side that resembled a used rag, only realising after a few moments that it was the old woman’s face that the creature had been wearing like a mask.

The old man now appeared by her side, having taken on the same appearance, and put a hand on her shoulder. Finally, the woman spoke. When she did so, the mandibles opened and closed in a grotesque imitation of a human mouth speaking.

“We’re ever so sorry it had to end like this, love, but I’m sure you understand that we can’t let you go. Now, shall we make a start on dinner?”

The creatures shuffled towards the stranger, and the last sound he heard was that of the proboscii unfurling from their alien faces.

 

——————–
Sam Smith is a former Creative Writing and Scriptwriting student. His preferred genres of writing are sci-fi, horror and comedy. Among his influences are George Orwell, H.G.Wells, Charlie Brooker, Terry Pratchett and Stephen King. His stories have been featured in Maudlin House, Lit Cat, Visitant Lit, Two Words For and Baphash.

The Laying on of Hands

By Heather Whited

t was quiet and Honor wondered if the snow had started.

She was hidden in the cabinet under the kitchen sink, wearing two sweaters and two pairs of socks and listening to her father wash the dishes while she pretended to be a cave explorer. It was a game she played, crawling under there with her flashlight. She’d drawn on the back wall of the cabinet; a stick bison being hunted by two stick men like she’d seen in a book at school. Mom would kill her when she saw. The skinny calico cat was curled up with her, a pink triangle nose pressed against Honor’s ear. Warm against her cheek and a purr rumbling through her. The rhythm of breathing.

The cabinet door was cracked open and she watched the kitchen; her father’s swaying legs, a sliver of the kitchen table, the high chair where baby Daphne slumped. She had lost one of her small blue socks and her other foot was bare. She weakly flexed her toes. Their parents were normally more careful since Daphne was sick, so Honor was surprised at this oversight.

No one had even turned on the television this evening and every small noise had free reign. Pings and drips and forks banging against each other in the sink.

Snow was quiet. Not like rain. On the news they had said it was going to snow today and all day, the sky had the look of it, overfull and moody, a heavy and lumbering stomach. Everything was so quiet but she couldn’t tell if the snow had started.

“Lance.”

Mom. Honor couldn’t see her feet just yet, but there was the smell of coffee. Mom always had a mug of coffee with her these days. His name was all Mom said and Dad stepped away. Mom’s feet joined Dad’s at the kitchen door and the whispering started. Honor closed her eyes and hugged the cat to her.

It was a Daphne talk, the whispers tense, reminding her of the out of tune guitar upstairs that Dad sometimes played. She fell asleep there, under the cabinet and Bo woke her. It was a hard waking, scared because she had forgotten where she had fallen asleep, jarred by the cold. The sink leaked and it had dripped on her back.

“Wake up,” said Bo. “We’re leaving.”

“Where to?”

Bo shrugged.

“Don’t know. Mom and Dad said get ready.”

Honor crawled from under the sink. The house was so cold tonight. She rubbed her hands together. They put on their shoes at the door. Bo’s were from the church bin, pink with flowers. They’d been the only ones that fit him and he was silent about it in a way Honor had not been about hers, which were scruffy and plain. Shoes are shoes, he had said, to himself and to his sister.

There was no one in the house but she and Bo, but Honor heard footsteps on the front porch. Heavy. It was Dad.

“I’m hungry,” Honor said. “Why didn’t we eat dinner?”

“Don’t ask me.”

“Is it the hospital for Daphne again?”

“I don’t know. Jeez.”

Honor knotted her laces together.

Outside a sky pearly with the anticipation of the weather, a sharpness to the air.

Mom drove them and Dad stared out the window, his hand on her knee. In town, they pulled into the drive-in place and sat at a table under one of the heat lamps. Soon, a tall, skinny girl came out with a bag of hamburgers. Honor finished hers and played with a dog tied up at a neighboring table.

“Come back and eat,” said Mom.

“But I’m done.”

Mom looked over at her crinkled up wrapper and she sighed.

“Fine.”

They didn’t go home after that, but the road they took was a familiar one. For a while driving past the business of houses and cars and all their lights, driving past the billboards, towards the darkness and silence of the hills. It wasn’t Wednesday night, so Honor didn’t know why they were going to church.

When they arrived at Miss Judy’s house, where the small congregation met several times a week, there were already cars parked in her drive. Dad turned around and took Daphne from her car seat.

“You stay here,” he said to Bo and Honor.

“It’s cold!” said Bo.

Mom snapped around.

“You won’t freeze. We’ll be back in a minute. Watch your sister, Bo.”

Every light in Miss Judy’s house was on. The tiny, square basement windows, just stretching over the hedges, were bright too. Daphne whined.

“Is it church?” asked Honor.

“Stay here,” was all Mom said.

Then they were gone. The door to the house opened for them as they walked up the steps. Miss Judy, in her large sweater, her gray hair pinned up. Their parents went in and the door closed.

The world had fallen into the still that only came before snow, when everything stretched out and lay unmoving. The sounds of church music rode the emptiness to them from Miss Judy’s house.

Bo said, “Want to see something?”

From his coat pocket, he pulled a rolled up magazine. There was a baby lion on the cover, yawning stretched on its back. It had the library’s stamp on the front.

“I took it,” he whispered. “Yesterday, when I walked down.”

“You should give it back.”

“I don’t want to.” He bit his lip. “Don’t tell.”

“I won’t.”

“Come here and I’ll read it to you.”

Honor unbuckled her seat belt to move closer. Bo opened the magazine and started to read.

“Do you think Daphne is going to die?” asked Honor.

“Don’t say that. You’re not having faith. Mom and Dad say that we have to have faith if she’s going to get better.”

“Well you broke the stealing commandment. What if you being bad makes her die?”

Tears came to Bo’s eyes.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean it,” mumbled Honor. “It’s only a magazine. Just read?”

It was dark and they could hardly see, but he read until they both fell asleep.

The car doors opened and Mom and Dad were back. Daphne wriggled in Dad’s arms. Her pallor was replaced with a frantic, pink flush. The windshield was dusted with snow.

“What time is it?” asked Bo as he rubbed his eyes. He hid the magazine back in his coat. Dad was buckling Daphne in her car seat as the car warmed.

“Late,” said Mom. The car reversed. “Sorry. I didn’t know it was going to get this cold.”

The snow picked up quickly on the way home. The tires crunched on the frost that had hardened on the ground. Theirs was the only car on the road as they drove away.

At home, Bo and Honor complained that they weren’t tired.

“Look at the snow,” Dad said to Mom. “No school tomorrow.”

“Do what you want,” said Mom. “The baby needs to go to bed.”

She left with Daphne and Honor watched Bo jump at the slam of the bathroom door.

Dad made them cocoa while Mom gave Daphne a bath. They sat on the couch together watching television and waiting to be tired again.

*     *     *     *     *

He woke in his bed. On the other side of the room, Honor was asleep. The cat lifted her head as he sat up but didn’t pay much mind in the end. Bo made no noise going back downstairs, putting on his shoes, his coat with the magazine in the pocket. He creaked open the front door and stepped out onto the porch.

His were the first footprints. As he walked down the steps, the snow covered his ankles. His shoes were quickly soaked through. He would return the magazine and go home.

The night was a bright and brittle eggshell that he cracked.

___

Heather Whited graduated from Western Kentucky University in 2006 with a BA in creative writing. She lived in Japan and Ireland before returning to her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee to get her graduate degree. She now lives in Portland Oregon. She has been published in the literary magazines Straylight, Lingerpost, The Timberline Review, A Door is Ajar, Allegro, Foliate Oak, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Windmill; The Hofstra Journal of Art and Literature, Chantwood Literary Magazine, and soon Cricket, Storm Cellar, and Forge. In 2015 she was an honorable mention in Gemini Magazine‘s annual short story contest. She is a contributor to The Drunken Odyssey podcast and Secondhand Stories Podcast.

The Ghost of Joseph Gagnon

By Mike Siemasz

wen grasped a patinated handle of the black chest he had discovered in the lightless, grotto-like alcove under the basement staircase. The chest scraped across the concrete floor as the kid pulled it into the yellow light of a single bulb above. The floor above creaked where his sister, Sable, ambulated around in the burnishing mid-morning light pouring through the kitchen window. She was unpacking and obstreperously stacking dishware into various cupboards at the new house.

Owen unlatched the chest lid and opened it to the stale smell of age. Inside were old Army dress blues folded under a stack of notebooks beside a photo album on which sat a peaked cap. The album lay beside the folded canvass of a pitch tent upon which sat several inconsequential items—a necklace of animal fangs; a club of black, petrified wood; a snake skull; a lidded Mason jar containing a black, desiccated spider on its back with constricted legs; a canteen, a compass, a knit cap, a skillet, a rucksack. The chest was a reliquary of forgotten things, pieces of someone’s history. It was a museum of ordinaries arrayed in an unordinary context.

Owen pushed aside the items and flipped through the photo album. In the back, he found suctioned between two plastic sheets a black and white portrait of a young soldier. He flipped the page over and read the name on the back of the photo in messy cursive: “Joseph Gagnon.” Owen set the album down on the concrete floor and went for the dress blues. He flapped the stiffness out of the uniform and put it on, after which he chose the two most intriguing articles in the chest to carry upstairs to show Sable.

Owen slogged up the stairs in the baggy uniform, tripping over the blue slacks sagging below his little ass and covering his shoes. The shirt hung to his knees. Its sleeves were an arm longer than his own. Every few steps he pushed up the blue cap falling down his forehead and covering his eyes. He shuffled to the kitchen doorway and stood there about ready to burst with laughter. “Hey!” he shouted at Sable. She gasped and turned around. He held the snake skull in one hand, in the other the spider-occupied Mason jar. Her eyes shrunk back down from their wide glare into an inquisitive gaze and she turned back to stacking dishes.

“Where did you find that crap?” Sable said.

“Down there.”

“The basement? What’s down there?”

“A haunted black box with cool stuff in it.” He ran out of the kitchen, tripping on the blues and stumbling a little, and back down the basement steps. The unfinished basement was damp and concrete, its corners shadowy and pale with demented, blotchy light refracted through thick block windows near the ceiling. Sable came down the stairs after Owen and discovered him on his knees rummaging through the chest.

“It’s not kind to go through others’ things,” she said.

“Whose?”

“Someone who owned that box I guess.”

“Is he dead?”

“Who?”

“The man who collected all this stuff.”

“I don’t know. Maybe?”

“Probably, because he was in a war.”

She picked up a notebook. “Joseph Gagnon” was written on the inside cover. She flipped to the middle. Sable shut the thing and tossed it into the chest as though it were on fire. “What in the hell?” she said. It’s a witch book, or something, an evil thing, she thought. She felt a cold breath on her nape, though she knew it was a draft leaking out from somewhere in the basement. She had smoked something strong earlier, a parting gift from Sally, that pothead, before they piled into the car with Mom, Dad driving the big moving truck, and drove off to the new home, and the pot totally made her think this is such a drafty, evil basement, like it’s haunted or something, maybe Owen’s right. That would be so funny, though, to pretend I’m possessed or something, and that would totally be good practice for acting, given my aspirations to play a major role in the fall musical at the new high school.

It was decided, then.

Sable whipped her head around at Owen with such violence her neck cracked. That was a bad idea, she thought, I might have some pain tomorrow, but it’s dedication that makes good acting, even sacrifice of health sometimes, okay? She covered her mouth with one hand and began laughing with a heinous cackle. You have to be so high to do this, she thought. Owen stood stupefied and stupid looking in the baggy dress blues with his head tilted back because that big cap still hung too low over his little face.

“Would you like me to save this man’s spirit divided among lonesome nightmares?” she said. Wow, where did that come from? That was good. Sable could see Owen felt uneasy about how she was acting. Kids can be so intuitive, she thought, they pick up on aberrant behavior without a hitch.

“I’ll grab some garbage bags and get rid of it,” Owen said. With her best demonic smile, Sable stood glaring at Owen, glaring through him, her imagined sinuous fingers wriggling and snapping.

“Be right back. Promise,” Owen said after Sable didn’t respond. He didn’t want to upset her. He put down the jar and skull and fled upstairs. She was still staring at the place where he stood under the stairs after he had run off, just to keep the effect in place. Don’t want to upset the fictitious environment I’m creating, she thought. The thing she pretended to have inside her burned. Her face looked white and green, she hoped. Her eyes were red and dry maybe. Her tongue was purple and sharp in this role. She held it tight between her front teeth imagining all of this would be her true countenance when Owen came back.

Upstairs, Owen thought about calling the cops but the cops would think Sable’s crazy, and Mom and Dad wouldn’t appreciate coming home to discover I shipped her off to an insane asylum, he thought. Can’t we trust you with anything, Owen James? One quick trip to the sub shop for lunch and you send your sister off to a nuthouse?

Owen went back downstairs with the garbage bags. “Halt,” Sable said. Owen froze. In the upper left corner of the entrance to the lightless space, an orb weaver was perched halcyon and motionless in its awkward, ineptly spun web. Sable reached over, ew! can’t believe I’m doing this, she thought, you have to be so high to do this. The spider crawled onto her finger. She brought it up to her eyes as it crawled over her hand. “Let me tell you the story of Joseph Gagnon. I’ve just heard it myself,” she said.

“Don’t you want me to clean this stuff up?” Owen said.

She glared at him in anger and he shook his head. The orb weaver still crawled along her hand, ok can’t take this anymore, she thought and flicked it off, ok broke character a little there. She opened Joseph’s notebook. She threw her shoulders back and stood straight and stoic and began to read in an incantatory drawl as though someone else was speaking through her. She was as unprepared for the content as Owen, though he believed she somehow was privy to its meaning without having read any of the sentences yet. She was, after all, empowered by dark forces at this point.

She read.

March 16, 1967

Yesterday, woke up in the medical unit. Dale’s dead. She maybe ate him. Maybe almost ate me. They won’t tell me where his body’s at; just make stoic faces when I ask. They say, who? What’s he look like? Big black dude, I say, like Frederick Douglass without the hair and beard. Frederick Douglass? they say. Forget it, I say. We were many miles out from Saigon where they found me.

Before that:

That way, Dale whispers.

How you know it’s that way? I say.

We been walking straight toward nothing for hours.

Walking through the jungle. One hundred degrees. M16s above our heads. Sharp grass lacerating our necks and cheeks. Far echoes of exotic birds screeching in the trees. Morning light. Stale air. Sweaty. Ache from sleeping on hard ground. Out here we feel watched. Can’t sleep well for fear of vicious beasts tearing us apart, or bullets or a knife.

I stop in the tall grass and shut my eyes. I smell the swampy heat. I listen to the jungle. I look at my broken compass. Let’s go this way, I say. Should have listened to Dale. We cut right and continue walking. The grass ends and we walk until we come to a dark, cool place. It’s preternatural in the middle of the blazing and muggy jungle. I stop to analyze the change in temperature and make some notes. We stand there for a few minutes while I note-take.

I don’t like this, Joe, Dale says.

Relax, I say. I put away the notebook and take a few steps forward and hear the thud of Dale’s body against the jungle ground. I turn around, see a long bamboo spear thrust through his chest. I sweep the jungle with my M16. The gun shakes in my hands. The clip empties. No one comes out. Loading another clip, something pricks me in the leg. I black out.

Wake up in the evening on a sheet of canvass beside a smoldering fire. Quiet, same cool temperature as when she killed Dale. She has me tied up. Some indigenous campsite with bamboo sticks in the dirt, vines strung between them and laced through a sampling of animal skull eye sockets. On a log sit in a line a number of cloudy, unrelated jars with large insects crawling around in them trying to escape. A sickening smell like burnt feces lingers despite a constant and unnatural zephyr.

She comes out of a small hut on the other side of the fire toward the edge of the campsite. Skinny, shirtless, native woman with piercings, wearing a tattered green skirt fashioned out of Dale’s T-shirt. Stringy, black hair hangs long over her shoulders and down her back. Eyes are black coins. Walks toward me with a scimitar in hand pointing towards the ground.

Degar? Degar? I say. I try to get up. My ankles are tied too. Degar? American. Friends. Good. Here to help. War. Saigon. She stares at me and continues walking toward me. My stomach tightens as I prepare for the abdominal pain of puncture.

She stands over me with the whet-anew blade dangling beside her. I spit at her feet. Last moment of pride. She starts mumbling something and holds out her fist, opens it, blows on a small pile of orange powder. It fills the air like talcum. She closes her eyes and begins mumbling something again. A heavy sleep overtakes me.

There’s a nurse at my bedside. Says some farmers found me naked and passed out next to a rice field. You wouldn’t wake up, like comatose, she says. You’re lucky the farmers told us. They said they wouldn’t bring you in like the other soldiers they’ve helped. They said we shouldn’t either because you’re cursed. The nurse looks askance at me. They took your gun and went through your pack, she says. They found some peculiar things in there, things a witch would carry they said. I’m staring at the snowy mountain peaks at the end of the bed where my feet stick straight up under the white bed sheet. I’ll leave you alone now, she says. She smiles and walks away.

Ill at night. Vomiting a black, putrid substance. I grab the hand mirror beside my bed and gaze in disbelief at the pallor of my face, the sluggish purple of my lips, the devilish red of my eyes. The doctors, I can sense, do not want to treat me. I’m ugly. Something evil is boiling within me. Others around me are sleeping. I sit propped up against my pillow wheezing, feeling my teeth with my tongue. They hum for something I can’t sink them into.. Each incisor, cuspid, bicuspid has a stomach of its own. The doctors stand in a corner at the end of the unit speaking in low, concerned voices. One looks back at me and I see the horror on his face.

Not horror at me, not horror at all. Tenseness as he regards the medic they’ve recruited to sneak up on my left side and jab a needle into my thigh. It prompts my sleep.

My dream is maybe drug-induced, vivid regardless of its provenance. The jungle woman appears. She speaks in a bygone ghostly tongue. I understand while remaining conscious of my unfamiliarity with it. She is bringing me a message.. I wake and recall the information without labor in my own language:

The night hag proclaims her shadow gathers princes’ souls to dwell in repose within her thorn-and-thistle haunt. The monsters assemble in her castle of cries to share the spirits they possess forever. All generations are her beasts for gathering from their overgrown desert briar abodes. There, all are gone wild and missing, lacking food and rest, mouths and minds. They shall be marked and ordered under her shadows of jackals for eternity.

“What’s going on down there?” The basement light flickered on and off. Their dad was toggling the switch at the top of the stairs.

“Just exploring,” Sable said.

“Come up for subs.”

Sable looked at Owen and brought back her demented countenance. “We’ll finish this later.” She slammed the notebook shut. Owen took off the old clothes and hat and put them away.

*     *     *     *     *

Owen observed Sable throughout the day as they unpacked boxes and put things away in the new home. She seemed normal now, but it could be a ruse to keep their parents from discovering her possession, either by Joseph Gagnon or the witch who cursed him or the demonic spirit that inhabited or empowered her, Owen thought. By end of day, he hadn’t noted anything else peculiar about her behavior. Still, he was wary of her earlier transmogrification, her seeming understanding of Joseph Gagnon’s notebook and other obscure items in the chest. He thought it would be best to sleep with his hand-carved hardwood tribal dagger, which some former missionaries to Africa who lived around the block from the old house had allowed him to purchase for ten dollars at their garage sale last month. It was very dull, but it was his only weapon. He wished he could trust Sable, but she wasn’t herself. It was a messy situation for her to get caught up in.

By midnight, Owen had fallen asleep, dagger enclosed in his right hand beneath the covers. When Sable crept into his room, the floorboards creaked. Owen stirred but stayed asleep. She walked to his bedside and knelt. This’ll be so good, she thought trying not to laugh and blow her operation. She put her hand around his neck, not a tight grip, and in her most infernal, guttural voice told him to wake up. And he did. His eyes shot open and, as he had been prepared, he threw the covers off, screaming, and smacked Sable above her ear with the blunt, wooden dagger. It was a poor attempt at a stab or a jab. Sable fell back screaming and holding her head. The hallway light came on.

“What the hell’s going on?” their dad stampeded down the hall like a pachyderm. He turned on the light. “What is this?” Sable was on her back pretending to cry. Owen sat confused and frightened in bed holding the dagger.

“She’s possessed!” Owen said.

“He stabbed me, he stabbed me,” Sable said.

“What?” Their dad saw the dagger. “Give me that. Where’d you get it?”

“Garage sale,” Owen said with his head down.

“But why? Why? You might have seriously injured her. This could kill someone!”

“She’s a witch!”

“A what? A witch? Owen James. What is wrong with you? You’re done. You’re done for a month at least. Grounded, I mean. I don’t even know what to say about this. This is just, evil. Absurd. Can I even trust you? Do I need to somehow padlock your door so you don’t come murder us all?”

Sable had stopped fake crying. Now Owen was truly on the verge. Sable stood. “I forgive you,” she said. She walked to bed. Their dad still stood over Owen.

“Don’t even think about pulling anything else tonight. We’ll talk tomorrow,” he said. He turned off the light and walked out.

No one will believe me, Owen thought, I should have figured that out hours ago, I’ll always be on my own with this. He lay in bed awake, wondering if he was crazy or if everyone else was too stupid to see the danger in Sable, who was there again, in the doorway, a still, breathless silhouette moving. Owen stared at her motionless, afraid to breathe himself; afraid she might eviscerate him with some vicious, punitive spell she had learned. He waited for her to move in on him again. He didn’t have his dagger now, or any other means of defending himself, so he waited. She stood there for half an hour, and then left. He sighed with relief and closed his eyes for just a moment. When he opened them, she was in front of him, having crawled along the floor beneath his line of vision, and was putting her hands around his throat again. And in that hoarse, horrible voice: “Gotcha.

___

Mike Siemasz lives near Detroit and works in corporate communications. He has a B.S. in Written Communication. His fiction has been published in Mulberry Fork Review. Twitter: @mike_siemasz.

Cakewalk Island, 1944

By Burton Shulman

he recon reports all agreed that the little rock they were attacking today, Cay-Ak Island, was barely defended—abandoned, in effect, but for a couple of hundred unfortunates who’d been left behind to die. Plus, Ike’s camera unit was going in third wave: strictly mop-up.

Low-rolling South Pacific swells were catching and releasing fresh morning sunlight. Hump—Lt. Humphrey—told the pilot to drop them near the left perimeter so they’d have a broad view of the other incoming Ducks and, on the other side, an equally broad view of the horizontal mound that rose fifty feet in the air a hundred yards inland, and ran parallel to the beach for half a mile. Reports from the first two waves confirmed that Jap resistance was minimal and would be over when they landed. The unit’s goals today were quality and clarity. The rear-echelon Johnnies—MacArthur’s tacticians—wanted rock-steady footage, fixed compositions they could study so they could tinker with the latest landing tactics. That was probably the operation’s only real value; the island had a small airfield, but no one pretended it was strategically important. Mostly, this was a live-ammo training maneuver to sharpen tactics for the landing everyone was starting to think about all the time—the invasion of Japan. MacArthur himself had taken to calling it “Cakewalk Island.”

“Cakewalk Island: the place to go in the Solomons when you’re…”

…thunder, followed by instant rain, brought Ike back to the moment; one of those Solomon cloudbursts where one second the sky was clear, deep blue and the next you were soaked. He glanced up— why was the sky still blue?—as a second thunderclap followed, this time accompanied by a skyrocketing fountain thirty yards to port. Confused, Ike blinked at the fountain, as a third eruption grabbed him and shook out his body the way a hand might shake out a paper bag.

He heard a scream and another boom, his eyes grew round as bullet holes, and he wet his pants.

Hump was yelling, Ike couldn’t hear what, and everyone was diving. They were still thirty yards off the beach as he hit the water. When he surfaced, the Duck was in a creaky turn and Ike was screaming at nobody, combat sweat popping out like measles. Another concussion threw him back underwater, where the shriek of metal was amplified and unavoidable; Pacific water was so clear that sound waves were visible, forming an envelope around the Duck’s hull as another shell tore it open. The water shook with such violence that it rammed Ike’s face down into the coral as his legs tried to run. When he found footing, his head and torso shot too high over the surface and he threw himself back down. His back was to the island, his face toward the mess that had been his Duck. A sob tried to emerge, but he had to breathe in first as he dragged his legs through the surf, which kept shoving him back.

He pictured himself beating MacArthur to death. Somewhere the old shithead was watching this, chewing his pipe, already working out the excuse; when he’d said “cakewalk,” he hadn’t meant what everyone seemed to think he’d meant. It wasn’t his fault if some crazy Jap officer had chosen third-wave Cay-Ak to commit suicide. They’d conceded the island, they’d abandoned it, plus Japs never did this on third waves, especially not when all they could hope for was a few dead GIs before they died themselves.

Ike was going to die in a cakewalk.

He started to dump his gear so he could move quickly but the impact of another shell rammed his lower back and threw his head forward, knocking out his breath again. This time his face slammed against beach, and he gagged on sand for a few seconds. He was frightened by the ugly, strangled sounds he was making, tried to spit and couldn’t but somehow managed a breath because his body kept moving, flattened itself against the clammy sand, dragged out the IMO camera, and started filming the futile maneuvers of the remaining Ducks. Shells continued to explode as they moved through floating bodies of dead and dying GIs. He’d never really known why they were called “Ducks” until now, seeing them flap around as if the ocean was a barrel of water in a carnival, and their wings had been cut.

The destroyers now started flinging masses of ordnance at the middle of the island, so when Ike turned he saw crazed GIs diving, jumping, rolling back over the mound, fleeing positions they’d secured hours ago, trying to escape the cross of friendly and unfriendly fire. Cay-Ak was an animal shaking GIs off its hide, shrieking with the staccato bursts of nonexistent Jap guns fired by nonexistent Jap infantry, occupying nonexistent Jap positions.

*     *     *     *     *

It took a half hour before there was enough of a lull for Ike to crawl down the beach and form up with the rest of his unit. Somehow they’d all survived.

The shelling heated up again as they hacked foxholes out of the coral and sand. Alternately ducking and digging, Hump wouldn’t shut up about how he’d personally seen the recon, personally read the reports proving there weren’t more than two hundred Japs on this piece of shit. Given a combined U.S. force of ten thousand backed by three destroyers that had thrown down 130mm shells for a week, their fucking situation was impossible.

Another shell exploded and Ike threw himself on his face, pressed as flat as he could under the hail of coral that pummeled his back, as his legs tried to jam his head deeper into the sand than the sand itself would allow.

*     *     *     *     *

For ten miserable days the Japanese maintained numerically impossible dominance of every part of Cay-Ak except the beach. The big guns that recon said they didn’t have established a cross-fire zone that made it suicidal to break the vertical plane of the half-mile mound. MacArthur must have been having trouble diverting ships from other operations because after the first day, the destroyers’ ordnance stopped cold. Ike wasn’t alone in assuming this had something to do with trying not to admit the enormity of his stupidity. How do you demand backup for a cakewalk?

Day eleven, the general’s voice crackled over Armed Forces Radio, psychotically reassuring them that “Mopping-up operations on Cay-Ak are in their final stages.”

Day twelve, word came that a forward patrol had finally figured things out: Running lengthwise under the middle of the island was a previously undetected chain of coral caves. Speculation was that when the Jap supply ships pulled out weeks before, they hadn’t left behind a “token” defensive force—closer to a full division, which was now dug into the caves with a full complement of heavy artillery. So the Japs had lured in waves one and two, then opened up on wave three—a good strategy if you thought you could win, mass murder/suicide if you knew you couldn’t. Since no Jap ships had been detected headed back to Cay-Ak—they couldn’t.

 

When you took a piss, you were shot at. When you crawled between foxholes, you were shot at. When you scratched your ass, you were shot at. HQ raised the estimate of enemy troops from “under five hundred” to “under ten thousand” so quietly, the first number could have been a typo.

Misery floated among the men like mustard gas.

Day thirteen, artillery spotters delivered the first reliable coordinates to a group of redeployed destroyers, which launched a fresh bombardment, this one directly at the caves. Shell after shell screamed overhead for a week, dwarfing the intensity of anything Ike had previously experienced. The noise hardly paused, amplified each morning by aerial bombardment, sometimes loud enough to push Ike to tears. When everything finally stopped, the silence was almost worse. Then came the order: Move toward the caves.

Recon had found more than one opening; the Japs had planned escape routes. Infantry sealed off all but one, set up a perimeter of night-lights around it, and cut down every Jap who tried to run. This attrition continued for a week until the big artillery was close enough to aim directly into the caves. That bombardment went on for yet another week.

Next came the flamethrowers. Ike filmed streams of jellied gasoline bursting into flaming light in the cave’s blackness. When occasional return fire hit a gas tank, it blew up and killed the operator instantly—who was replaced so quickly, there was hardly a pause. Long ago, Ike and his buddies had made it standard practice not to learn any of their names.

The battle was now a slaughter—and Ike was all for it. Jap willingness to suffer starvation, heat, thirst, and terror had always seemed insane, but suicide on this order terrified him, infuriated him. He hated these Japs far more than if they were only trying to kill him. Everyone said Japs were more concerned about avoiding a nasty afterlife than clinging to their current one—that surrender was disgrace. But after being bombed and starved, and now trapped in suffocating heat and darkness without the possibility of escape, why didn’t they surrender?

Because.

Without a surrender, everyone in Ike’s camera unit was now in almost as much danger as the nameless flamethrowers.

*     *     *     *     *

Twenty-one days after the landing, Hump slid into Ike’s foxhole and delivered the news.

“We’re up.”

Ike was checking over his camera and smoking perhaps his thirty-fifth cigarette of the morning.

“For what?” He made sure the cigarette bobbed in his mouth as he spoke, to remind himself he was tough.

“Anyone who’s alive is surrendering. We got to film it.” Hump scratched a bloody insect bite on his neck. “Then we go in.”

Ike had to breathe a few times before speaking. “Into the caves.” Of course MacFuckingArthur wanted this. Still, he couldn’t believe it.

“They want proof. We need to shoot the dead people so the general has proof that this was recon’s fault, not his.”

Ike laughed without smiling. His hands shook. The tough-guy image of himself he’d been clinging to after two years of on-and-off combat—Sgt. Grizzled Combat Veteran—collapsed. He wanted to bury his face in his mother’s apron.

“Ike, it’s just bodies. We’ll have infantry with us. I’m on Leica, you’re on IMO. They’re delaying the surrender till we get there. Dougie wants pictures. We gotta move.”

Furious, Ike threw canisters of film into his sack. He felt the eyes of his buddies on him, the ones who weren’t going. It was like being picked at by vultures: He knew how glad they were that they weren’t him, but he didn’t hold it against them; he’d feel the same. Ten thousand dead—maybe with a few still breathing who hadn’t surrendered because they were still really angry.

*     *     *     *     *

The ones who did surrender—there were maybe a hundred—had big heads, big bellies, and stick limbs. The bodies were barely alive and the eyes lacked light. It looked as if the only things still undecided were the exact circumstances of their deaths. Some clung to bits of white cloth—ludicrous symbols of surrender—stumbling with eyes half closed against the white sun, after weeks of darkness, banging blindly into the coral as infantry studied them for signs of booby traps.

Hump was right; it was just bodies.

What was ten thousand minus a hundred?

 

At the cave mouth the air was humid but breathable; thirty steps in, a wall of stench smacked into Ike so suddenly that he vomited. He turned to run but Hump was right there, also vomiting but not running. Ike swiveled back; he wasn’t going to be the one who ran.

“Sooner we’re in, sooner we’re out,” Hump said, and threw up again. Ike hit his shutter and heard Hump do the same.

It was a system of coral caves with huge ceilings, pools of rank seawater in places, and other places where the white floor was smooth and dry. Ike had shot plenty of bodies, but this was different. They were everywhere, in every pose. A few were more or less intact; most were in the process of falling apart. Nearest the opening, the flamethrowers had left charred meat. Further in it became clear that when the pace of dying accelerated, it overwhelmed the Japs’ ability or will to do anything with the dead. They lay where they fell. Every stage of human decomposition was on display, from older bleached skeletons picked clean, to recent corpses, bloated and wet, covered with the bugs who did the picking. Once, an itch on Ike’s leg caused him to shake his body wildly, sure that one had run up his pants.

He felt increasingly…odd—not that it made sense anymore, differentiating between odd and not-odd, but this was new; he felt as if something was draining from him, something he might have called “will.”

For instance: he had a crazy desire to sit down. He had enough presence of mind to wonder what the fuck was wrong, but that didn’t change what he felt. In search of solidity he looked for Hump, but it was dark in this part of the cave; he was flooded with vertigo and almost fell. He lowered the IMO. A surge of some kind of physical terror burst through his body and left him shaking again. He located Hump now, just twenty feet to his right, but it didn’t calm him. He wanted to tell him what was happening, but when he moved his mouth, nothing came.

“Orders are go deep,” Hump insisted. He spat, and spat again. “Faster we’re in, faster we’re out.” Why did he keep repeating himself? Ike again tried to say that something was wrong, again couldn’t. He tried pleading with his eyes, but Hump wasn’t looking. With nothing else to do, he lifted the IMO and resumed shooting.

Riflemen moved alongside. They’d tied handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths; they looked like desperadoes. Their job was to find signs of life and extinguish them. No one spoke; the only sounds were bursts of gunfire, boots, dripping water, intermittent vomiting, and the cameras, echoing through the caves.

The bombardment had opened a few holes in the roof, letting in pockets of breathable air along with weird ambient light. Concentrating on inhaling in one such pocket, Ike stepped on an arm; it cracked so loudly, the sound exploded through the cave and his brain. A GI called to him and pointed. Turning, he saw a fire pit with charred driftwood and bones. The bones were human. He saw other fire pits.

It took a few seconds to realize that the Japanese had been eating their dead.

The stench they’d been breathing included airborne bits of that too. Ike started hacking out saliva and mucus, took a slug from his canteen he couldn’t swallow, could only use to rinse and spit out, though that didn’t get rid of the taste. His muscles were so tense that his whole body ached; moving was getting harder.

At one point he almost threw down the IMO, but caught himself. He’d gradually learned to trust his combat sanity because Hump did; hearing the click of Hump’s shutter, seeing the flash of his light, he wanted to cry. Hump depended on him; Ike couldn’t do this to him.

In the ridiculous heat he shivered.

Maybe if he kept his eyes inside the viewfinder. Sweat splashed from his chin into pools of the foulest water there ever was. Tears, too, and tears were absurd, walking around acres of dead Japs whose kinds of death proved they deserved to be dead. Emotions he had no names for surged and retreated like surf. After two years in this shit, why was this fucking place snapping him like a rubber band? The bodies stank but couldn’t hurt him; they were just dead. So why was he fighting not to scream, not to throw the fucking IMO, not to fall, not to stop breathing, not to be dead himself?

If he was going crazy, it wasn’t what he’d expected—there was no release. He knew exactly where he was—a stinking hole with ten thousand bodies. The problem was that accepting such knowledge wasn’t possible. So where were the goddamned hallucinations? Why did he have to know what was going on and just not be able to stand it? He just wanted to shed all this, to molt it. That it existed, that he was inside it taking pictures, he couldn’t accept.

Maybe his number was up. His will went on pulsing out, an arterial wound draining the ability to do anything. You could fall down, he heard something say; Hump will hear the splash, and if you scream loud enough, it might get you out. He tried but got the timing wrong, tried just after he’d breathed out, so he couldn’t scream or breathe either, until a strange gasp turned into a strangled breath.

Even breathing was now complicated.

Another wave of vertigo caused him to breathe in more deeply, after which he gagged and spat again. Why had he forgotten how to breathe? He wasn’t an infant! And why could he only think now of his dead mother—not his stepmother but the one he didn’t remember, the one from old nightmares?

Part of his mind started talking shit—this was as good a place as any to die; there never really was an “outside” anyway. All your life you were looking at things through a window or maybe a doorway you secretly knew you could never cross. And because you could never cross, you’d eventually end up in a grave, except now you realized you’d been in a grave all the time. Wasn’t every place only a farm for cemeteries, where the fully dead outnumbered the merely dying? The purpose of life was to make bodies to fill graves.

No one here was “killed in action.” Whatever words you used to describe this should be invented or you shouldn’t use any.

Another part of him reminded him he was going crazy; with immense weariness he resumed moving, shooting, reloading, shooting.

Everyone said Japs worshiped the dead. So why would they do this, especially knowing they’d soon be dead too? A crazy pain ricocheted inside his head and left an aftershock. His hands shook as he opened the canteen and forced himself to swallow a salt pill. Sitting heavily on a coral shelf, he thought about how every bit of that shelf, every bit of the cave above the waterline, in fact, was dead too. Long before the war this was a tomb–for billions of tiny coral skeletons. Now his living bones sat on their dead ones, amid thousands of new dead ones, laid out like a carpet for as far he could see.

He closed his eyes but ghastly images sprang up, and he opened them quickly. He’d seen guys go nuts, seen medics tackle them and jab in needles full of morphine, dragging them off to field hospitals where they lay staring. A time or two he’d been close himself. He couldn’t do that now, not in this place, not with Hump in here with him, counting on him.

So he tried again. This time he decided to focus only on hands—no arms, legs, heads, or torsos, only hands. He’d study them. Some were all bone, white as coral; others had bits of flesh. Many seemed to be grasping at something. What? He shook sweat from his eyes.

Him?

He judged the distance to the cave’s mouth as about a hundred yards. Closer than he’d thought, but that made no difference. No way would he re-cross those hands—bone hands, purple hands, oozing hands, red meat hands. They’d let him in but they wouldn’t let him out. Now that they’d touched him he was infected. His head throbbed, as if one of the dead Japs had just rammed a bayonet through the back of his skull and out his eye.

There was sunlight back at the cave mouth. So what. Sunlight, darkness, sunlight, darkness. It never stuck. All bullshit.

He put the camera on another shelf and sat down again. Hump was probably gone, probably left him alone. Something would happen to him after the sun was gone. He was sure of it.

“Out.”

Hump said it hoarsely.

Ike shook his head but Hump pulled him to his feet and shoved him forward to get him going. They stumbled toward the mouth, stepping on all the things Ike could not step on.

“This is the bottom, Ike; there’s nothing worse.” Ike wanted to laugh.

Who was Hump kidding?

___

Twenty years ago, Andrea Barrett called Burton Shulman’s first collection of short stories, Safe House, “lean and beautifully written… A strong and unusual debut.” The book was well reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and other publications. Charles Baxter said, “It takes nerve to write stories like these-nerve, intelligence, and heart.”

Burton earned his MFA from Warren Wilson College. After the birth of the first of his two daughters, he worked for twelve years as a corporate vice president, mostly for Thomson Reuters and Standard & Poor’s, before shifting to a consulting position that allows for more time to write. When he’s not writing, he plays and composes songs for guitar, and studies secular Buddhism.

From Where She Stands

By Heather Leah Huddleston

he never wanted to have babies.

At least that’s what she told herself for most of her life.

But every time she found herself in a chance encounter with a baby on the street or in the market, whenever she was in the presence of something so small and vulnerable and powerful, she transformed into someone unrecognizable: giddy, unbridled.

But today, she stands in her kitchen, a rag in her hand, staring at the ants that crawl on the floor, over the countertop, down the wall into the closet where the trash is kept, and back up again, two lines moving in succession.

No matter how much she cleans.

No matter that it’s the beginning of November.

The ants come in through the sliding glass door off the deck. They come in because, unlike her neighbors, she refuses to use the sweet smelling poison that the creatures would then carry back to their—what is it, a den? a nest? a lair? She knows she should Google it—at least that would be productive—instead of just standing here, staring.

Her husband has told her that the ants will stop coming if there is no food for them.

“From where I stand, you have two choices,” he has said to her more than once, “learn to live with them or learn to be OK with killing them.”

“But I couldn’t…”

She cleans to the point of obsession: taking the trash out twice a day; wiping all surfaces with the drenched rag until lines of water streak the counters and table; sweeping the floors, especially around the cats’ food bowls, so much that they hiss at her if she comes near the bowls without food in her hands.

But the ants still come.

There was an illusionary reprieve for a few weeks when the temperatures dipped to the low forties at night, but the seventy-degree days keep them coming back.

They’re desperate.

“You’re too sensitive,” her father had said when she called him to ask his advice on how to humanely remove the critters. “They’re just ants! Get rid of them.” He informed her about ant bait. “It’s simple. All you have to do is put the bait trap on your counter or by the door, and voilà! They’ll be gone in a day or two. Like they never existed. From where I stand, doll, that’s your only option.”

But that couldn’t be her only option. After that conversation, she called an exterminator to find out what happened to the ants, after—what the bait actually did to them. But his too-cheery way of discussing their certain deaths, his too-eager desire to get rid of the “things that were inconveniencing her,” and the free consultation he offered caused her to hang up the phone on him mid-sentence.

Then she went to the Internet.

Which was far worse than what the exterminator had told her.

The destruction, the boasting and selling of products that end life, the ease of it all.

*     *     *     *     *

You’re too sensitive, that’s what everyone said about her after she accidentally hit the mourning dove while driving around the bend onto the highway. She had seen its mate on the right side of her car, had said aloud, “Stay there, little guy.” A flash of wings on the periphery of her vision. Left side. Then the thud. “No!” she had screamed as she looked in the rearview mirror, the car plowing through feathers; she stopped to look under the hood, inside the grille, around the car, but there was nothing, no evidence that the life had been there, outside of the single down feather stuck to the roof that stayed attached through the highway speeds until she got home.

Sensitive. She locked herself in her studio for months after hitting the dove, and all she could paint for two years were two doves in flight, each version had the space between the doves growing. She learned that mourning doves mate for life, and she often spent hours at a time wondering which one she had killed. After that, everything that darted on the edge of her periphery caused her to startle and skitter behind the wheel, resulting in her braking a little too quickly, for a little too long.

But the baby raccoons on the side of the road were the things that caused her to stop driving altogether. She had not hit them, and there were no bloody entrails, no blood at all in fact, just a sleeping softness to their ending that disturbed her more than any “roadkill” she had ever seen. Every day, when she drove to meet her husband for lunch, she saw them, two of them with at least ten feet between them, curled up like stuffed animals against the curb. The fact that no one tended to them made her wonder if they were even real, and when suddenly, after two weeks of daily sightings, they disappeared, she questioned if she had ever seen them at all.

Or was it just a dream?

An illusion?

“The raccoons are gone,” she had said to her husband over lunch as she imagined their mother waiting by the side of the road. In mourning.

*     *     *     *     *

She’s tried everything to get rid of the ants, all the recommendations the humane sites offered. Rescuing them from the sink and dishwasher before washing the dishes. Licking lollipops and putting them out on the furthest corner of the deck to divert their path. That worked for a day or two until the candy dissolved completely. Cream of tartar, cinnamon, coffee grinds, chili pepper, cloves, lemon…she infused them all and spread a line along the seal of the sliding glass door—all the things that repel them together would surely make for a stronger resistance. But somehow their presence lingered: Several stragglers, or scouts as she learned they were called, remained.

Just in case.

When none of the natural remedies worked, she decided on the one thing she could live with: coexistence.

Until she couldn’t anymore.

Until today. She stands with a wet rag in one hand, drip-dropping onto the floor, an unopened box of ant poison in the other.

“What’s this?” her husband had asked the day before while unpacking the groceries. He held the box up to her. She didn’t answer. She couldn’t.

“Is this what took you so long?”

And she had, in fact, lingered in the pesticide and home care aisle, not because there were stacks upon stacks of options, but because she couldn’t will herself to raise her arm, couldn’t command her hand to grab a product. Any product. Instead, she cried for thirty-five minutes until a nice old lady picked one off the shelf and said, “This one has worked for me.” She nodded her head at the woman as she dropped the box into the cart. Not a “thank you” offered or needed.

Her husband pleaded with her to just wait it out—the temperatures would soon shift and the ants would retreat underground to hibernate. It was a dance they did every year. But this year, it’s different. This year, she can’t wait. Besides, the ten-day forecast promises temperatures in the 70s and 80s: an Indian summer.

“What’s wrong, baby?” He started asking the question two months ago after he got back from his business conference. He asked it every day from that moment on when he got home from work and she was still standing in the same spot as when he left—in the kitchen, staring at the ants. And when she couldn’t answer, he asked: “Baby, are you OK?”

He kissed her; she nodded. This was her sign to move; otherwise, he may require her to “see someone.” His dinner was always ready. They ate together, talked about his day; they had sex and fell asleep sometimes in each other’s arms, sometimes with their backs touching. They woke together. She made him breakfast as he showered and got ready for his day. They ate together. He left. She cleaned, tried to create art in her studio. This was the pattern they walked together.

But today is different. The dripping rag, the box of ant bait that she can now see is in the form of a cute little hotel, at least that’s what the cover promises.

Today, she stands in front of the ants. Pregnant.

She never wanted babies—at least that’s what she always told herself.

But then she met her husband, and as soon as she saw him, as soon as they occupied the same space, as soon as she heard his high-pitched laughter that almost mirrored a dolphin’s, as soon as his fingertips grazed her skin, she knew she wanted to have not just any baby, but his.

When he told her, almost in the same space as the falling, as if he were used to this, as if his telling was a preemptive requirement that freed him to fall in love, that he had had a vasectomy, she had to mourn the baby she knew she was meant to have with this man (and the urgent desire to have it), the one that would be the pure expression of the UNION OF THEM. She mourned this before they had sex, before they had even kissed.

The freedom of her not having to worry about getting pregnant too soon made their sex raw and primal, something a step beyond passionate. But the weeping always came after, when she had gone to the toilet and his sterilized essence dripped out of her. Only if it’s meant to be.

The mourning.

The entire first year they were together, and even though he was forty-three at the time and had an adult child who lived across the country, he would whisper to her, “I can get it reversed, if you want me to.”

Her pillow talk returned: “It’s not a hundred percent. If we’re meant to have a child, our love will make it happen.”

“That’s what I love about you: your sensitive spirit.”

But for the last five years, neither of them have approached the issue. They’ve been content, happy even, with their life together: Him + Her = THEM.

*     *     *     *     *

Her husband had gone away for a business conference two months ago. He had asked her to go, but being away from her studio would only increase her anxiety. She was no good to him in those settings, and he was OK with it. While he was gone, she dressed like she used to when she was single and had frequented bars, back when she was the brooding college artist. Her body still fit into her size eight jeans, but most of the makeup was either crumbling or had a strange organic smell to it and had to be thrown away. The mascara and lipstick were another story—they worked well enough for her to feel like she did before the sensitivity had overtaken her entire life. She felt like someone altogether different. Instead of calling her one friend outside of her husband, the one she would meet once a week at the local museum to discuss art over lunch, she went to the bar alone.

Other people, all life outside of her small, contained house, drained her. But that was OK, she had an artist’s disposition, “a gift,” her husband learned to call her sensitivity; he learned that it was just part of her personality, that he didn’t have to worry.

Until she started standing in the kitchen, staring at ants. If she could just bring herself to tell him: It’s all for art. Then everything would be different. But she couldn’t. She doesn’t believe it herself. She’s taken to the staring almost the entire time he’s away from the house, when she’s supposed to be locked away in her studio, creating.

*     *     *     *     *

Slipping away to the doctor’s office was easy enough; she had sold a small painting to her friend and used the cash she had given her to pay for the visit. She was foggy, she had told the doctor, even more sensitive than usual, enough to make her worry. I spend my days staring at ants, she almost made the mistake of saying to him. Instead, “I can’t stand the ants in my house,” she wrung her hands. “Normally, we can coexist, but now…”

“It’s perfectly normal to want to exterminate pests.”

The word made her teeth clench, her jaw muscle bulge.

“But we’ll take some tests just to see if there’s anything wrong.”

Urine, blood, the whole works. When to doctor called and said, “Congratulations!” in a singsong voice, followed by, “That explains the nesting.”

“What?”

“You’re pregnant, my dear!”

“But…” His words sounded as if they were delivered from underwater.

“Happy news!”

Silence.

“Are you OK?”

She couldn’t breathe.

“I’d say you’re about two months along. You need to start on a prenatal right away… Hello?”

The phone slid to the cradle.

“From where I stand, you have some choices…”

A gentle click.

The fact that she should have been happy, that his swimmers, what they both affectionately called his sperm that first year when she was still feeling hopeful of “divine intervention,” that they wanted her after all and had worked extra hard to make their way to her…

But she wasn’t. Happy. She was terrified. After the call, she noticed the ants, a circular swarm, as they overtook a piece of wet cat food that must have either dropped off a whisker or been flicked from the tongue as the cats tried to consume it. Her old cats did that—abandoned food they couldn’t quite fit into their mouths on the first try; they always knew there would be more. There was a pattern to the swarm, a place where they entered the circle, where they left it. The pattern of the utilitarian relationship, the trust. She walked to the ants in the closet that housed the trash can and watched them, her nose grazing the surface of the wall on which they climbed. In a line, she could learn to accept them, how each individual had a meaningful purpose, the one that carried a piece of food three times its size, the one that trailed behind empty-handed in order to pick up pieces if they were to fall. Was it this trust that kept her from eliminating them? She could see it: Each ant would be drawn to the poison, carry it, and think they were doing what was best for the collective; they’d never suspect anything, never see it coming. But then…

She couldn’t. It seemed utterly cruel.

Right before her husband came back from his conference, she had stopped emptying the trash twice daily. The crumbs around the toaster oven, the trash piled to more than a quarter way up in the can, carrot slivers and dehydrated onion skins on the floor, these were what prompted his questioning:

“Are you OK?”

She simply nodded.

“But the ants…”

She shrugged her shoulders: “Coexistence.”

*     *     *     *     *

Standing in front of the ants with the dripping rag and the bait, she remembers how she went to the bar, not to pick up anyone or to even be noticed, but just to remind herself of who she was before the sensitivity, before the confines of her house and studio and husband were all she wanted or needed. At the bar, she had gone to the bathroom, returned to her seat, finished her drink, and hobbled home on shaky legs with a foggy brain. None of this surprised or concerned her. She never drank more than a glass of wine every couple of weeks. The GNT at the bar had hit her hard. That was all. She held her head the entire three blocks she walked back to the house; she unlocked the door; she woke at noon the next day, the sheets of her bed torn from her husband’s side like she had wanted to wrap herself in the scent of him. Only they didn’t smell of him. The entire room reeked of something organic, something metal.

Her body hurt—her breasts, her vagina, her head, the places so deep inside of her she could only imagine and paint but never actually see. Because of this feeling and the fact that she could barely remember why she even felt this way—oh, yes, the bar, the larger-than-life GNT that she will paint life-sized on a different day—she decided in that moment that she would never drink again; her painting would be an ode.

When she slid into the steaming bath and her skin turned to fire, she saw what looked like four thin claw marks trailing down her abdomen from nipple to groin. Not a gouge. Just deep enough to break the skin’s surface. And red-and-purple bruises that would later darken on her inner thigh. And the ant floating in the clear water.

“No!” Water sloshed over the side of the ceramic claw-foot tub. The black dot bobbed on the waves. Making a scoop of her hands, she let the water drain carefully from them as she stood and got out of the tub. The black dot she knew was browner when not wet clung to her hand. I never wanted this, she thought. Not this. Just my own space. She tried everything to save the ant: blew on it, used toilet paper to suck the moisture from its limp body, even the rebellious act of prayer. After several seconds, the ant started to wiggle and inflate, as if pumped full of air. Two of its legs were damaged, but it crawled a micrometer, waited as if catching its breath, and crawled again. She howled, then quieted her joy in case the volume traumatized the resurrected ant. The ant’s unfolding back into life was so beautiful, so mystical that she simply forgot about the tenderness of her own bruised body. She placed the ant on a washcloth on the bathroom counter, where she left it crumbs and drops of water, and there it stayed for four days until her husband returned from his conference. Then, it disappeared.

By the time he came home, the scratches and bruises had calmed enough to be either nonexistent or unimportant.

“An ant made its way into my bath a few days ago.”

“All the way up here?”

She nodded.

“How odd.”

She nodded again.

“I saved it from drowning.”

“That’s my baby,” he said as he held her close and kissed her on the forehead. He started to undress her and she did something she had never done before: She turned off the light.

*     *      *     *     *

She had never wanted babies; at least that’s what she told herself for most of her life. Until she met her husband and she dreamed her daughter into being and mourned her within the space of a few breaths.

And now she stands, a dripping rag in one hand, drip-dropping small puddles on the floor that the ants dance around, an unopened bait hotel in the other, watching them crawl on the floor, up and over the countertop, up the wall, into and out of the trash can, two lines in succession, working together to survive.

___

Heather Leah Huddleston’s work has appeared on the TEDx stage, in the Listen to Your Mother (Baltimore) show, in Reader’s Digest and other print and online media. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and is a certified AntiGravity Fitness instructor and yoga teacher. She also teaches a writing workshop, “Writing the Body,” which combines yoga, meditation, and creative movement with writing prompts.