Browsing Category

Fiction

death, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Bernoulli’s Heart

April 9, 2021
By Marco Etheridge

The coffin was in the ground and clods of earth had drummed on the hollow box. Retreating to the home of the newly departed, the mourners pour out liberal libations. Murmurs move through the sprawling house; quiet lamentation mixed with dashes of muffled laughter.

Some of the bereaved gather under the shaded cloister, chic in veils and tailored suits of black. Sunlight spills over the red earthen tiles of the courtyard. Four tables stand in the sunlight, four umbrellas furled. All of the wrought iron chairs are empty save for one.

The woman’s face is hidden under a wide-brimmed black hat. Her legs are bent to one side, ankles crossed, the black-stockinged calves of a woman younger than five decades. On the table beside her is an almost empty wine glass rimmed with ghost kisses from crimson lips.

A man appears from the shadow of the cloister. He strides across the courtyard, a full glass of wine in one hand, a tumbler of scotch in the other. The woman tilts back her head, watches his progress from beneath the brim of her hat.

The man stops beside her table, still holding the two glasses. He smiles at the woman with that singular smile that is reserved for old lovers. She returns his smile in kind while adding up the years since she last saw him in the flesh.

— John Staffen, as I live and breathe.

— Hello Yvette. Bit of a redundant expression, especially for a wake.

— What’s more redundant than a wake?

— Too true, in a sad sort of way. I saw your glass was empty. I had to guess on the wine.

— You always were a gentleman. If the wine is red, and in a glass, it’s perfect.

John Staffen flourishes the wine and places it on the table with a mock bow. Raising himself, he gestures to an empty seat. Yvette awards him a regal nod. He unbuttons his black suit coat and sits. He looks long over the rim of his whisky and Yvette Martin lets him look. Crystal scrapes the glass tabletop as he sets it down.

— My brain is telling me fifteen years, but my eyes don’t agree. You look damn good, Yvette.

— Thank you, John, it’s been sixteen, but who’s counting? You look good as well.

Staffen snorts, shakes his head.

— I look like death on a cracker and you know it. Not as bad as our dearly departed Harry, of course.

— Don’t be a drama queen, John. You’re not on stage right now. A little grey at the temples, some craggy lines; you’re a handsome middle-aged devil.

He waves a dismissive hand.

— Are you living here in the old alma mater?

— That’s right, still living at the scene of our crimes. I’ve got a cute condo with a view of the Charles, walking distance from my lab and the lecture hall. I’m all settled down like a real grownup. I assume you’re here just long enough to pay your last respects.

— I’m watching a friend’s place for a few weeks, then I’m off to Seattle for rehearsals and a six-week run of Uncle Vanya. I’m cast as the Old Professor, something that happens more often these days. Not that it matters.

— I’ll bet the script girls still swoon.

She gives him a long look but not without a smile. It is a look he remembers well. He thinks better of it and retreats.

— Do you mind if I smoke? It’s been a long morning.

— By all means. I look forward to the waves of disapproval.

Staffen glances to the figures in black strung along the shadowed borders of the courtyard.

— Piss on them. A murder of crows.

He removes a small cigar from a pocket, clips it, and flicks a lighter. The flame hovers beneath the tip of the cigar. He leans back in his chair as a cloud of smoke rises and swirls into the sunlight. A half smile breaks across his face as he speaks.

— Sixteen years gone and our paths cross here. I think Harry would get a chuckle out of that.

— I hope so. Were you two still close?

— No, not since he became the rich and famous Henry Grimes. We’d see each other now and again, whenever he felt like slumming with his old pals. I played Falstaff to his young prince, even though he had a decade on me. When was the last time you saw him?

— It’s been five years. We had a bit of a falling out. Bitter words, expectations not met, that sort of thing.

— Wait, were you two a thing? I had no idea.

— Why would you? Harry kept all his lives in separate compartments. Not the sort of man to spill his secrets while swilling drinks with you. What would he say? Oh, by the way John, I’ve bedded the former love of your life. Lovely Girl, I don’t know why you ever let her slip away. That was never Harry’s style and you know it.

Staffen smokes in silence, taking this in. Harry would have been right to say it. Why did he let her slip away? More of a push than a letting slip, truth be told.

— Anyway, it ended badly, as we both knew it would. But here I am, mourning the beloved dead.

Yvette takes a long drink of wine. She smiles at her former lover, the edges of her teeth stained bloody red.

— Don’t be shocked, John, and don’t pout. I always hated that. Harry was a charming man in his own way, until he wasn’t.

— I’m not shocked, just a bit surprised. You know it’s true, the part about you being the love of my life.

— I know.

— Do you mind if I change the subject?

— Please do.

Staffen contemplates his cigar before speaking.

— How many funerals have you been to this year?

— That’s a morbid question.

— Humor me, you used to be good at it.

— Don’t be catty, it doesn’t suit you. How many funerals this year? Three, if we’re counting today. Why?

He nods, as if having something confirmed.

— This makes four for me. There’s been a subtle shift in my social schedule. It happened sometime after I turned forty. I used to suffer through more weddings than funerals. Now it’s the opposite. The change is weighing on my mind, or rather on my heart.

— You’re being serious. That’s not like you. What do you mean, weighing on your heart?

— When I review the owner’s manual for my life, I can’t find a single chapter where it states that death will become a regular event. The bastards who wrote it lied to me, at least by omission.

— There’s an owner’s manual? I guess I never got my copy.

— Sure you did; we all did. It’s that compendium of expectations that we learned as kids. Childhood, school, meeting that special someone, children of our own, then a happy life into our dotage. But the balance tilts along the way. Not everyone gets their allotted four-score years. A car crash, an OD, a cancer diagnosis, and before you know it your heart is filled with dead people elbowing for space. My heart is getting crowded.

Yvette swirls the wine in her glass, thinks better of it, returns the glass to the table. She leans closer to John before she speaks.

— Your metaphorical heart is running out of space?

— Ever the scientific mind, Yvette.

— That’s one of the perils of being a scientist.

— Yes, I’m talking about the poet’s heart, not the muscle in my chest that races every time I see you.

— John Staffen, that is a very odd and sweet thing to say. Setting that weird compliment aside, my scientific mind tells me that you’re talking about accumulated grief. But on another level, I think I understand what you mean. I lost my mother, then my sister, both to breast cancer. Dead friends, people you don’t know, some younger than me. And now Harry, of course.

— There’s that as well, the quick assessment of my own mortality. When I read someone’s obit, the first thing I do is compare my age to theirs. Were they younger than me? The math gets less pretty as the years pass.

Yvette shakes her head, raises one hand as if to ward off the thought.

— No obituaries for me, thanks. I’m fifty years old, not some crazy old cat lady. A girl has limits. And no mortality discussions at a wake; We’re supposed to be celebrating Harry’s life, remember?

— Right, and now I have to make room for Harry. Except as I’m saying this out loud, I think it’s a question of weight rather than space. The dead weigh more than the living. Does that make any sense?

Staffen reaches for his whisky, eyes on Yvette over the rim of his tumbler. He is surprised to see her chuckle and responds with a questioning shrug which she answers.

— Sorry, science and grief colliding.

— Which one of them is funny?

— It’s the collision that’s funny, at least to me. Do you remember Bernoulli’s principal?

— You are the strangest woman I’ve ever met. You know that, right?

— Says the man who almost married me. Are you stalling for time?

— No, Bernoulli, I remember. That’s what allows planes to fly and shower curtains to be annoying, right?

— Yes, and more to my point, why straws collapse when you try to suck up that last bit of milkshake. Fluid dynamics; as the speed of flow increases, the pressure decreases. Less pressure inside the straw than outside it, so the milkshake squishes the straw.

— I’m being serious and you’re making fun.

— No, I’ve been struggling with this same sense of loss, more than just today. You talk about grief in terms of weight and space and my brain searches for a scientific principle to corroborate or deny. It’s how my mind works. You know that.

— Then would you care to explain how Bernoulli equates to the weight of grief?

— This is not an equation; it’s an analogy that banged into my head on top of, um, three glasses of wine. Which doesn’t make it untrue, just a little tangled. First, we need a baseline. Have you ever dated a widow?

— No widows, no orphans. Why?

— You always were a smart man. It’s very difficult to compete with a dead lover. Once they’re dead, they don’t make mistakes. The dead don’t forget birthdays, or anniversaries, and they are always there. Unlike the living, who tend to fuck things up and are often absent when they should be present.

— Is this from first-hand experience?

— Trust me, John, just say no. You can bitch about someone’s Ex, but you slander their dear departed at your own peril. Which is the opening to my hypothesis: the dead are immobile, hence denser. The living are different. We hold them in our hearts, but not like lumps of lead. They move around, sometimes they annoy the hell out of us. Their relative weight in our heart changes. What I’m saying is that their presence is not a constant.

Staffen shakes his head in wonder. Yvette talking a mile a minute, an idea clenched firmly between her teeth. And no subject was ever too weird for her. A woman unlike any other he had ever known.

— The living are annoying, so they weigh less in my heart? That’s your theory?

— It’s a hypothesis, not a theory, and yes. Poor old Harry is dead and laid to rest. I can tell you about his less than charming traits, but I suspect that in a month all I will remember is the Harry that I loved, minus the annoying bits.

Staffen swirls the ice in his glass. Don’t say it; don’t be an idiot. Then the whisky does the talking.

— What about me? How much do I weigh in your heart?

He expects a thrown wineglass or a scowl. Instead, Yvette rewards him with a long loud laugh. The sound of it echoes across the courtyard and draws scowls from the margins. Her laughter fades from everything but her eyes as she gives him an appraising stare.

— You’ve still got balls, John. You always did. But you’re not dead yet, so how can I answer your question? I could give your ego a good stroke and say that I pine for you every day, but that’s not true. We had some amazing years, you and I, until you started indulging in script girls.

— Something I’ll always be sorry about.

She waves it away like a mosquito, somehow keeping the smile on her face.

— Water under the bridge, the bridge has fallen in the river, and always is too long for anyone.

— I’m a good swimmer; better now than I used to be.

Yvette says nothing, turns her head to scan the milling shadows at the edge of the courtyard. John sees Yvette in profile and his heart shakes off two decades as they have no weight or consequence. His brain struggles to keep up.

She turns her head and catches him staring, her eyes grey and serious.

— It’s a good turnout for Harry. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to say?

— Sure, a life measured by the column inches of his obit and how many mourners showed up for the free booze.

Staffen smokes, blows a small cloud above his head, watches it drift across the empty courtyard. He remembers when he and Harry were lean and poor and always dreaming up the next great idea. Old dead Henry Grimes might enjoy this memorial, but young Harry would’ve walked out of any party this boring.

C’mon, John, this place is deader than dead. Grab that good-looker and let’s get outta here. He hears the dead man’s voice in his head and laughs out loud. Yvette arches an eyebrow from under the shadow of her mourning hat.

— I was just thinking how Harry would have hated all of this empty ritual. It’s no wonder the dead want to clutter up my heart. Where the hell else would they go? Certainly not here, not with all this quiet, carefully modulated grief. It’s not even mourning, it’s grief-lite. Easier on the mascara and the neighbors don’t complain about the keening.

Then Yvette’s hand is on his and the rising tirade of his words falls to nothing. When she speaks, her voice is quiet.

— I remember walking through a graveyard in Greece. The tombstones had photographs set into them. They looked like old-fashioned cameos; black-and-white images printed on porcelain ovals. Harry was with me on that trip. He said the photos were ghoulish. I suppose they were, but I also thought they were a good idea. The dead person is fixed in place, bound to their grave by their own image. The loved ones go to visit, light the candles, tidy up, and then leave the dead behind when they go home.

— They leave the dead behind, but they don’t forget.

— I suppose that’s right. It’s as if we’ve lost the rituals that hold the dead in place. When I go to an old cemetery, I feel the presence of all those departed souls. Not very scientific, I know, but I do love an old cemetery.

— As if I could forget the two of us wandering around Père Lachaise in Paris.

— Yes, it was dismal and rainy and cold. You wanted to find Oscar Wilde and I was looking for Edith Piaf.

There was a stir and murmur amongst the black suits and dresses. Staffen turns to look over his shoulder.

— It looks like they’re closing the bar. Shall I fetch you another glass of wine?

— No thanks, three glasses of red on an empty stomach. If I stop now, I’ll remember what happens next.

He turns back and is trapped by her grey eyes. Fear and longing mix and swirl in his chest, pushing away the warmth of the whisky. Then his heart elbows aside the fear and makes room for the longing.

— What does happen next?

— I think we bid Harry a fond farewell and find a taxi.

Yvette rises from her chair and John is quick to do the same. She slides a black shawl across her shoulders, looks at him and smiles. He crooks an elbow. She slips her arm through his and speaks to the sun and sky.

Au Revoir, Harry. Bon voyage.

He feels the pressure of her hand on his wrist and finds his own words.

Adios, Harry. Vaya con Dios.

He looks into Yvette’s eyes and two decades fly past him and swirl away into the sunlight. A long moment passes before he is able to move.

Then Yvette and John are walking across the red earthen tiles of the courtyard, arm in arm as a couple. When they reach the shaded cloister, the murder of chic crows parts to allow them passage.

Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His short fiction has been featured in many reviews and journals in Canada, The UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: Coffin Bell, In Parentheses, The Thieving Magpie, Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, After Happy Hour Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and Blue Moon Review, amongst many others. His non-fiction work has been featured at Jonah Magazine, The Metaworker, and Route 7. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available now. Learn more about Marco at https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

In the Flesh of an Apple

April 2, 2021
apple

By Mercury-Marvin Sunderland

Julius bit into a big red apple. He was groggy, and it was morning. He was lying around in his on-campus apartment at Portland State University, trying to ignore the cramping in his uterus yet again. He got them fairly often, and would try to medicate himself with weed occasionally. He tried not to do it because he didn’t want to be as addicted to it as he was in high school. Provided, he didn’t want to be addicted to weed in the first place, but cutting down on it was the first step.

It had been years since he’d last had his period. When he’d started testosterone it had thankfully stopped the bleeding, but he was still getting the cramps. For a lot of people, starting HRT meant that it took away both the bleeding and the cramps, but for others, it wasn’t so fortunate. However, Julius was doing his best to just be grateful for what he had, and he knew that there were many people who didn’t get the privilege to start testosterone in the first place. He was just starting to get stubble and that was exciting. His voice was just getting deep.

Just think positive, Julius, he reminded himself. Think positive.

When he was a freshman in high school he read online that eating an apple every morning had caffeinated qualities. That was probably bullshit but he’d gotten into a huge habit of eating apples every morning ever since. He liked to eat the entire fruit, core, and stem. It pissed off his friends but seeing their priceless reactions only encouraged him to do it even more. Besides, the cyanide in apple seeds isn’t really enough to kill anyone, anyway. They taste like almonds.

Ignoring the way that his pain was literally making him aware of where his ovaries were, he got to the kitchen and made his morning coffee. He grabbed a Nature Valley bar and some slices of disgusting bootleg Kraft Singles. If you thought Kraft Singles couldn’t get any worse, you’re wrong. You can find bootlegs at the dollar store that try to be Kraft Singles but somehow manage to taste even worse. Julius wasn’t much of a chef, and didn’t have much money to buy his own groceries. He just knew that he needed the starch and protein, and that he was going to take what he could get.

He noticed that these packages of bootleg Kraft Singles claimed to be swiss cheese, but it had absolutely no holes in it. That drove him bonkers but he ate it anyway. He hated to peel off the plastic but he never had the energy to cook.

He got dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a Legend of Zelda t-shirt. He hated morning classes but he had to get to his 9 AM computer programming class before it was too late. He grabbed his powder blue backpack and headed outside.

When he got outside there was melting snow on the ground. Portland doesn’t get much snow but it was well past the point where snow was exciting anymore. People thought it was weird that he didn’t wear a coat too often, but nobody really seemed to think much of it.

When he was a freshman in high school he once ate an apple that tasted exactly like water. He’d never eaten an apple like that again but somehow it managed to be one of the most unpleasant things he’d ever eaten. Which isn’t to say that water doesn’t taste good, or that there aren’t gross mushy apples which would taste worse.

The taste of water just doesn’t feel appropriate in the flesh of an apple. It needs that sweet sugar.

Mercury-Marvin Sunderland (he/him) is a transgender autistic gay man from Seattle with Borderline Personality Disorder. He currently attends the Evergreen State College and works for Headline Poetry & Press. He’s been published by University of Amsterdam’s Writer’s Block, UC Riverside’s Santa Ana River Review, UC Santa Barbara’s Spectrum, and The New School’s The Inquisitive Eater. His lifelong dream is to become the most banned author in human history. He’s @Romangodmercury on Instagram, Facebook, RedBubble, and Twitter.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

The Sussman Service

March 26, 2021

by Roz Weisberg

At Rachel’s first funeral for her father’s Uncle Milton, her mother leaned over and whispered, “Promise me when I die you won’t put your father on top of me. I’ll come back to haunt you.” Rachel nodded yes. She was ten. Ten years later, Rachel arranged the open casket, lavish spray of roses and lilies, and the details to make her mother look like a version of her alive self for the open casket. A hundred and fifty people moved from the chapel to the graveside where her mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Standing at attention, Rachel waited for her mother to scream from below reminding her of the consequences of breaking her promise.

Ten years and three months later, a closed casket, a modest spray of roses, a condensed twenty-minute graveside service where Rachel’s friends who never met her parents attended the burial of her father. Two groundskeepers wore blue jumpsuits and stood at the head and foot of the casket guiding it into another box as if it were a part of a Russian nesting doll set. The park insisted on the extra concrete box to protect the earth and preserve the casket, but Rachel thought it made it easier to mow the lawn. A third groundskeeper plunged the shovel into the mound of dirt. The rabbi recited the Kaddish, but Rachel could only hear the ringing of her mother’s shrill voice, “I told you not to put your father on top of me, I get claustrophobic.”

The rabbi’s words morphed together as he stepped up to Rachel in his black fedora and tore the pinned black ribbon over her heart. He stepped aside. When Rachel didn’t react, he cleared his throat and spoke her name. She didn’t quite hear him, her ears had been plugged for days, but followed his gesture. Stepping toward the graveside, the crisp air and bright bleached sunlight reminded her that it would soon be daylight savings though she wasn’t sure when the clocks were supposed to be turned back. She peered into the grave at the white concrete slab before taking the shovel and scooping up a blade’s worth of dirt. Steadying the wooden handle, she guided it over the hole, and with a last inhale gave her mother one last beat to air her discontent. Nothing. She flipped the shovel over; the rocks of dirt exploded and scattered against the cement. She plunged the shovel back into the dirt and returned to the white plastic folding chair.

The rabbi squinted, transfixed by something moving through the thin gathering. A hunched over old man in gray slacks shuffled up to the grave. His blazer too big, the arms to long. His small bald head sat on his shoulders as if he had no neck. Without turning around, he grabbed the shovel and scooped up some dirt, but the weight made him unsteady. One of the groundskeepers stepped out from behind the mound as the man coughed up and swallowed phlegm in the back of his throat and hoisted the shovel. It slipped from his grip, toppling into the grave. Before the old man fell forward, the groundskeeper pulled him back. The old man fell backwards on the groundskeeper.

Everyone gasped, their bodies jolted, the flimsy chairs legs gave out, and the first row collapsed like a row of dominos. The rabbi watched, frozen at the lectern. Rachel landed on her side. The other groundskeeper spoke into a walkie-talkie while another moved to help people stand up, dust themselves off and reset their chairs. The rabbi found his voice. “Is everyone alright?”

Rachel looked at the old man as she stood up. “Excuse me? Who are you?”

“Excuse you. Who the hell are you?” The groundskeeper had helped the old man stand.

It sounded as if the old man were speaking underwater. Rachel closed her eyes and took an audible breath, “This is Bernie Sussman’s funeral. My mother was Shirley.” Her own voice sound muted.

At the base of the hill a golf cart pulled up between the mourner’s cars. The driver in his blue suit got out and trekked up the hill.

“This is Stanley Leven’s funeral. Stanley was my wife’s second cousin. She couldn’t come, this hill woulda killed her.”

The man from the golf cart stepped up and introduced himself as the director.

“I’m here for Stanley’s funeral. Where the hell is Stanley?” The old man noticed the groundskeeper for the first time.

“I’m not sure sir. Why don’t I give you a ride and we can let these people continue their service?” The groundskeeper passed the old man’s arm to the director.

“Now, wait a minute. Let me think.” He tilted his head downward “Sussman you say?” He shook his head back and forth as if reading through an imaginary rolodex. “No, I don’t think I knew any Sussmans.” He tried pulling his arm away. “Must be the wrong funeral.” The old man took a last look in the hole, “That doesn’t look good.” He grabbed the director’s arm as if it were the bar on a walker and they waddled down the hill.

Rachel stepped to where the old man had stood and looked down. A groundskeeper grabbed a rake and maneuvered its teeth to pull up the shovel. Somehow, the metal edge of the shovel had chipped and cracked the concrete slab. A groundskeeper mumbled into his radio. Another golf cart arrived, another director climbed the hill.

The rabbi suggested he finish the service and offered final condolences, thanking the attendees. The mourners lingered as the director and groundskeepers conferred in a huddle. Rachel joined, glancing into to pit. The director explained, he’d never seen concrete crack like that, but he’d called for a replacement. Rachel was free to wait, but they weren’t sure how long it might take.

Rachel crossed her arms, the ringing in her ears echoed, “You promised me!”

The director tried to usher Rachel along, but she stood her ground. “I’ll go on my way as if nothing ever happened if you could reverse them. Put him in first and her on top.” She couldn’t gage the volume of her own voice though there some heads turned her way.

Her request was met with blank stares. The director mumbled into his radio and conferred with the groundskeepers before agreeing to the accommodation. Rachel turned to leave. Taking in the view of the paved LA River bed, her ears popped, the shrill ringing in her ear stopped as the groundskeepers lowered the crane and raised her mother’s concrete box.

Roz Weisberg is a recovering movie producer who went back to school and received her MFA at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She currently teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension, is a private writing coach/development editor and a writing specialist at Antioch.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Paper Lessons

March 5, 2021
gran

By Maggie Bucholt 

Loretta watched her mother loading packages of toilet paper into a huge cardboard box, then folding yards of wrapping paper patterned with hot-pink roses around the monster parcel. Her mother’s lips twisted in a hateful way as she taped the seams and tied the box with a purple ribbon so dark it was almost black.

“Mom, it’s…” Loretta folded her arms across her chest, wondering if Frances had forgotten her pills—or swallowed too many. She frowned, searching for the right word. She was about to say mean, but thought better of it. “Why not give Gran a nice pocketbook?” She nibbled a cuticle on her thumb. A drop of blood appeared, and she licked it away.

Frances—as Loretta had started referring to her mother in her head—signed her name to the card. Gran’s birthday was Saturday, three days away. Frances tucked the card under the ribbon when she was finished. Skinny arms stuck out of her short-sleeved blouse, and there were deep circles under her eyes. Watching TV news images of wounded soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam kept up her up at night.

Loretta was desperate to leave for college in August, ten months away, ready to start her own life; she had put in her time taking care of Frances. But all she could think about was how her mother would fare when she left. She would have to convince Gran that Frances could live on her own and not have to return to that horrible place. The nurses with their plastic smiles and their squeaky orthopedic shoes, the padded rooms behind the corridor’s locked doors. The first time when Frances had gone away for a “rest,” she had come back subdued. After she returned this time, she had been acting weird, as if they had fried all the normal parts of her brain along with the sick ones.

Ignoring her, Frances stood back and examined her work. “The lady in the Hallmark store said the gift was a hoot. Maybe I should get a job on Newbury Street wrapping fancy presents.” Frances removed the bobby pin from her stringy hair and repinned it. Then she laughed, without joy. Ha, ha, ha. “It’d probably pay more than my job at the card shop.”

“You’re working?”

A job. Proof that her mother was doing well, despite the ridiculous gift. Loretta seesawed between hope and doubt that this job would last any longer than the others Frances had had in the past three years since the last hospital stay. She ticked the jobs off in her head: Saleswoman at Jordan Marsh in Boston, and cashier at the five-and-dime, waitress at the diner on the main street of their suburban town. Frances argued with everyone—supervisors and co-workers, her own mother, and Loretta. She found fault with the downstairs apartment in Gran’s two-family house and brought up every injustice, present and past: the broken change machine at the Laundromat to Gran’s refusal to let her prune the rosebushes to her husband dying young.

“Why not?” Frances said.

“I’m glad, Mom, really.”

“You should be. The sooner we start saving, the sooner we can leave, just you and me, the way we planned.”

“Don’t you get tired of saying the same thing every year?” The walls in the living room were as bare as the day they moved in ten years ago, after her father’s car accident. Don’t bother to hang anything up, Frances had said. We won’t be here long.

Her mother whipped out a large manila envelope from the drawer under the white Formica counter. She waved it near Loretta’s face. “What’s this, huh?”

Loretta snatched the envelope and glanced at the return address. The brochure from the university in Colorado. Would be a good fit, her art teacher had said. “That’s my mail. You know what it is.”

“Still dreaming, are you? Well, stop, because you’re not going. We’re leaving here together.”

“Gran is paying the tuition, paying for everything.”

“Did she tell you what to study too?”

“You never say anything nice about Gran.”

“Because there is nothing nice to say.”

“What about her letting us live here without paying rent, taking care of me when you were… away.”

“You’ll see.”

They glared at each other. Frances was the first to look away, and a moment later the tension lines around her mouth deepened. “Oh, go on. Get to your room. You spend enough time studying in there anyway. Brush your hair, will you? And stop biting those nails.”

“At least I wash my hair.” Loretta ran her hand over her thick, long hair that never lay flat. “At least, I… ” Worry about what will happen to you.

Loretta closed the bedroom door, grateful to be alone. The last of the sunlight filtered in between the blinds, casting dark bars onto the beige rug. A car horn beeped twice, a sharp sound that echoed down the street. She peeked through the blinds. Old Mr. Tierney pulling his Buick out of his driveway. The beeps were his farewell before driving to the VFW to drink away the pain of losing his son in Vietnam. Oh, she hated this crummy neighborhood, and especially Mr. Tierney’s mousy wife who asked in a pitying tone, “How is your poor mother?” as if she were ready to hear the truth. That gossip would murmur something falsely reassuring before turning away, like everyone Loretta had tried to confide in.

Father Donovan, she avoided too; he pretended not to understand her predicament, and whenever he stopped her to talk about faith or about the children’s art program where she had taught the previous two summers, his breath smelled as though he hadn’t brushed his teeth for a week. No, the faith she had was in herself, and the only thing she liked about mass was watching the votives that burned as insistently as her desire to leave home.

She set the college materials on the blue-gingham quilt and went to the bureau. Under the bottom drawer, she felt for the fat envelope taped there, savings from her two summers of working and from birthday gifts from Gran. Eight hundred and fifty dollars and twenty cents. The bills were crisp, new, like the life she envisioned far away from Frances. She replaced the money and slid the college materials under the mattress with the others before fixing the sheet, hospital cornered, the way Gran had taught her.

In the living room, Frances had her legs tucked up under her on the sofa, transfixed in front of the TV. Her cigarette case rested on the lace doily that hid the threadbare arm. A plume of smoke from her cigarette wafted up toward the ceiling.

“Where you going?”

“Upstairs.”

**

Loretta entered her grandmother’s apartment without knocking. The living room smelled of lemon polish, and the crowded apartment had everything Loretta and her mother’s didn’t: gold-framed bucolic scenes on the walls, heavy red-brocade drapes on the windows with sheer curtains underneath, a china cabinet with Waterford crystal, and a grandfather clock with handsome Roman numerals, Loretta’s favorite.

“Gran?”

“In the bedroom, sweetheart,” her grandmother called.

Her grandmother sat at a dressing table with a three-paneled mirror, smoothing cold cream over her plump cheeks and under her eyes, lifting, then straightening her silver-frame eyeglasses. The bottom of Gran’s tent-like, navy-blue dress, the kind that hid her fat stomach and thighs, grazed the carpeting.

“You hungry?” Gran said. “I was about to start dinner.”

“Mom’s making spaghetti,” Loretta said, not meeting her eyes. She hated to lie, but it was easier to let Gran think that her mother was able to boil water.

Loretta ran her fingertips over the polished dressing table with its little atomizers of fragrances, the cobalt-blue Evening in Paris bottle, and the tubes of lipsticks on a glass tray. The thought of seeing Paris, especially the Impressionist paintings, Degas, Monet, Cezanne, that she had read about in books, made her smile. It was a dream she hadn’t shared with Gran yet.

She perched on the edge of the bed and leaned back, resting on her hands. The deep green comforter was silky beneath her palms. Watching the rhythmic strokes of her grandmother’s hands putting on lotion was a soothing ritual that had started in her childhood. Gran would pick up Loretta’s small hand, press it to her lotioned cheek, then to her lips for a noisy kiss. It made Loretta laugh when she wanted to cry. Everything will be fine, Gran seemed to say. It was Gran who sewed the ripped shoulder of her Raggedy Ann doll, and washed and ironed the small dress and white apron. Gran who had helped her with homework. And it was Gran who had given her the little booklet after Loretta noticed pink spots on her underpants when was she was twelve.

Gran told her a story she had heard a gazillion times, and Loretta wondered if her grandmother would begin forgetting more and more things, the way old people did. It was the story of how Gran survived the death of her young husband so many years ago. Unlike Frances, Gran was quick to remind her, she had found a job in a factory, at a time when not many women worked. Eventually, Gran had met and married a widower, the grandfather Loretta knew, before being widowed again.

“I had to do what was best for me.” Gran gazed at Loretta over the tops of her glasses. “You, too, have to figure things out, think of yourself.”

“Yes, Gran.” Loretta started to chew on a fingernail, before her grandmother gave her a warning look. She dropped her hand.

“Because no one else will.” Gran turned this way and that in the mirror, examining her wrinkled face before wiping the excess cream from her misshapen arthritic fingers. “How are things at school?”

“A’s in English, history, and biology.” Loretta plopped back onto the bed, pleased that her grandmother listened carefully as she talked. But an A- in math. She vowed to study harder, when she wasn’t taking care of Frances—she didn’t do sports or afterschool clubs. “I asked each teacher what was expected for me to get an A, and then I made a list and completed the extra assignments.”

She never mentioned she ate alone in the cafeteria or the bitchy girls who never invited her to their tables. She imagined the way they saw her: a too-tall girl who kept to herself and painted posters for school plays. Instead she talked about the library book with the glossy photos of the works of Monet.

Gran nodded approvingly. “You’re serious, not like your mother, marrying your father before she graduated. She could have finished college, if she let me help her. Stubborn, too stubborn she was. You know, your mother was always… different. I suppose losing your father was too much. Goodness, the shock was too much for me.”

“Mom is making an effort,” she said, feeling hopeful. It wasn’t as though she didn’t love Frances; her mother was the only parent she had left, not counting Gran. “Mom’s ….” She stopped. She would tell Gran about the job at the card store only if it lasted more than a week.

Loretta jumped up and from behind, wrapped her long arms around her grandmother’s bosomy frame, conscious of her height—tall like her father, Gran always said. She put her cheek to her grandmother’s and rocked her back and forth, eyeing both their reflections in the mirror. Gran, her short gray hair done up at the beauty parlor every week; and she, Loretta, with hair ballooning around her thin face, was about to start the rest of her life.

“Oh, you’re being so cool, Gran, about college and all.”

“I want you to begin your life the right way. Plenty of good colleges close by, in Boston.”

“Around here?” Her voice faltered. They had never talked about where she would attend college, and she was taken aback. “A university out west is what I was thinking. I’ve never been there, of course.” She was excited by the prospect of studying in a place she had never been, of traveling to Paris after college graduation. “I don’t know about Boston.”

“Think about it.” Gran patted her arm.

Later, Loretta sat on the back porch steps with the sketchbook and charcoal pencil for the preliminary drawing of the cardinal. A lone leaf zigzagged toward the ground. The bird in the denuded maple tree cocked its head, as though it were waiting for her to begin. A sketch for her senior art portfolio. Focus. She inhaled deeply. Focus. Empty your mind, the art teacher said, when she struggled with a sketch in the art room. Let your hand work its magic over the paper.

But she was unable to draw, her thoughts ricocheting from dissuading Frances on Gran’s present to convincing Gran about Colorado to improving the application essay so she would be accepted. Tomorrow she would show Gran the brochure and talk up the Art History major. Long after the cardinal flew away, she stayed where she was, staring into the autumn twilight.

**

The following afternoon, Loretta was home from school late, and when she heard Gran’s voice in the living room, her insides somersaulted. Gran’s birthday was two days away. Why was she here? She jabbed her jacket onto the brass hook. Gran hadn’t been inside the apartment in months.

Frances was on the sofa, legs crossed, the couch springs squeaking in rhythm with her wobbling foot. She had on a flower-print dress that Loretta hadn’t seen her wear in a long time. The red lipstick, smeared outside the natural contour of her lips, looked as though it been applied by a three-year-old. Frances’ tremulous smile was so wide, Loretta thought her face might crack.

Gran, her posture straight as a knife, sat on a kitchen chair; the sofa was too low for Gran. Gran shot Loretta an accusing look. Why didn’t you tell me?

“Loretta sweetheart, isn’t it nice your mother is working again?”

Frances turned to Loretta and raised an eyebrow. The eyebrow almost reached the uneven part in her hair.

“Yes, it is.” Loretta glanced nervously at the mammoth box with the dark-purple ribbon on the TV console. She still had to figure out what to do and quickly. She tugged down the hem of her sweater and perched next to Frances on the sagging seat, smoothing her plaid skirt over her knees.

“You feel up to doing this, this job?” Gran grasped the strap of the big black purse in her lap. She snapped the clasp open and closed, open and closed. Click, click. Click, click.

“She’s doing fine, aren’t you, Mom?” But Loretta could see her mother didn’t appear fine at all and, worse, Gran could too. Frances’s gaze darted around the room, and she pressed a folded piece of paper into her lap.

“I wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise, Mother,” Frances said, a slow flush spreading up her neck to her face.

“Now Frances, I didn’t mean anything by it.” Gran winked at Loretta. In her own way, Gran was trying.

  “Don’t start, Mother,” Frances said. “That’s not why I invited you in.”

“No, then why did you?” Gran gazed at Frances over her glasses that had fallen to the middle of her nose.

Frances’s foot bobbed faster. And Loretta tensed. She leaned over and whispered, “Don’t give Gran the present. Please.” Her mother struggled away from her.

“To say that we will be moving out as soon as I save some money,” Frances said.

Loretta groaned inwardly. She had heard the argument many, many, many times before. But at least she hadn’t given her the birthday present. Don’t say anymore, Mom. Don’t.

Gran seemed to consider this without rancor and adjusted the purse on her lap. “I see. And what apartment do you think you can afford, on a card-store salary?”

“Here’s the budget,” Frances said, her tone triumphant. She unfolded the paper and dropped into Gran’s lap. “An apartment’s for rent a few blocks from here.”

“Mom.” A flare of hope sparked in her chest.

Gran adjusted her glasses and made a show of studying the numbers. “This isn’t going to work.” Her words sliced the air.

Frances’s lipsticked mouth worked, but no sound came out. She sank onto the sofa and crossed her legs, staring into space. Loretta could tell by her grandmother’s stricken gaze that she knew she had gone too far and didn’t know the way back.

“Gran, come on, it’s a start,” Loretta said quietly. “You could help with a plan.”

Frances shot up, and before Loretta could whisper in her ear that this wasn’t the right time, Frances snatched the huge birthday present from the console and placed it at Gran’s feet. Frances’s smile was as gleeful as a mischievous child.

“For your birthday, Mother,” Frances said. “A couple of days early.”

“Why, thank you, Frances,” Gran said. A look of astonishment, then happiness flickered across her plump cheeks.

Loretta slid her moist palms down her skirt as Gran tore off the dark ribbon and wrapping paper. Gran sorted through the packages of toilet paper as if she were searching for something. Was there a real present hidden among the paper that she was missing?

  “A little joke. Right, Mom?” Loretta, her face hot, tried to laugh.

“I don’t see the humor.” Gran’s thin lips pursed.

“You get what you deserve, you mean old thing!” Frances started laughing, the same mirthless sound as when she had wrapped the toilet paper.

“Mom, stop.” Loretta tried to put her arms around her thin shoulders, but Frances pushed back in an irritated way, a smirk on her face.

Gran stood up to leave, trembling.

“Gran, wait.” Loretta was desperate to do something, anything to lessen the animosity. She ran to her bedroom for the bright yellow box with the black fancy script, the Jean Nate gift set she had bought, and at the last moment stuffed the university brochure into her skirt pocket.

“Happy birthday, Gran.” Loretta handed her the present. “I, I didn’t get a chance to wrap it.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.” Gran swayed a little, holding her purse and the yellow-and-black box. “You’re a good girl, a very smart girl.”

Gran had fixed her gaze on Frances, and Loretta stiffened. “Gran, let’s go.”

“Which is why Loretta will do well at college,” Gran said.

“Mind your own business, Mother.”

“Won’t you do well, Loretta?” Gran said, turning to her, with fiery eyes.

Loretta wished she were outside sketching the cardinal. Or unpacking her things in the dorm at the university in Colorado. Or painting the long view of the Eiffel Tower from the banks of the Seine.

“Come on, I’ll walk you up,” she said, and steered Gran toward the door.

Upstairs, she stood near the grandfather clock and trimmed a fingernail with her teeth. For once, Gran didn’t scold her about biting her nails. Gran moved slowly to hang her coat in the closet. Neither of them spoke. Gran seemed to collapse into the dining room chair.

“Mom’s doing OK, she does have that job.” Loretta hoped she sounded convincing.

Gran sighed and opened her arms, and Loretta moved in for an awkward embrace. She could smell Gran’s lavender-scented lotion.

“Did you think about what I said? About Boston?” Gran ran her hand over the polished surface to the table, brushing away imaginary crumbs.

Loretta pulled out the colorful brochure. “Colorado, see for yourself. The college has an Art History major and I…”

Gran shook her head. “Come now, sweetheart, did you think I wouldn’t be the one to decide? I will be paying for everything.”

“I didn’t realize that meant I couldn’t go where I want.”

“Look at you, getting all upset. I’m your champion, sweetheart. All I’m saying is that the college has to be closer to home.”

Loretta shifted from one foot to another, feeling miserable. “Because that’s best for you, Gran,” she spat. “That’s not fair.”

“Not for me, either.” Gran gave her a wan smile. “I can’t take care of her forever. I’m not getting any younger.”

Back downstairs, Loretta emptied a can of tomato soup into a pot and added water, trying to swallow the panic that stuck in her throat. The blue flame flickered under the pot. She had fooled herself into thinking she would be free, first at college, then after graduation. Free to do what she pleased, live wherever she liked. The realization that she could not left her cold. She stirred the soup with a wooden spoon. The soup sloshed over the sides. Mom had to eat something, had to feel better. She hoped the aroma would lure Frances into the kitchen. At the table, she opened her loose-leaf and turned to the unfinished college essay for Colorado, the one giving her the most trouble, perhaps because it was her first choice. Empty your mind, focus. But she couldn’t shake off the dread. Of course Gran expected her to take care of Frances when Gran no longer could. There was no one else.

“So what do you talk about with your grandmother when you’re up there?” Frances stood in the doorway, one hand on her hip. Loretta was surprised that Frances seemed fine, as though all she needed was a few moments rest to clear her head and change her vengeful mood.

“School, stuff.” She shoved the essay into her loose-leaf. She had gotten good at hiding the truth. The soup gurgled and the tomato-y scent filled the kitchen, and she stirred the pot. She had expected shouting, angry words from her mother, not this. An argument she could deal with. A self-pitying mother, she couldn’t.

Her mother lit a cigarette and shook the match until the flame died. She inhaled deeply, and smoke shot out of the side of her mouth. “You’re going to leave, aren’t you?”

Loretta didn’t answer. She got out two white bowls from the cupboard, ladled steaming soup into one, and set it on the table. Frances slipped into a chair and balanced her cigarette on the lip of the glass ashtray. She dipped the spoon into the soup. Halfway to her lips, she dropped the spoon back into the bowl, splashing soup all over the table.

“Mom, you’ll do fine.” Loretta wiped up the soup with a wet sponge. Another lie. Shame washed over her. “You can save money like you said and move, if that’s what you want to do,” she said, wishing she could believe her own words. “You don’t need me.”

Frances sucked on her cigarette, eyeing Loretta. “That store needs a better manager. I told the woman she could ask me whatever she wanted, that I’d help her run the place. She got all huffy.”

Loretta filled a bowl for herself and tasted the soup. The soup had a bitter, metallic taste, as if she had boiled nickels along with the tomatoes. She listened to her mother complain about the smart-alecky salesmen and the lumpy grilled cheese sandwich she had for lunch at the diner where she used to waitress. At last Frances stubbed out her cigarette, and all Loretta could feel was relief that the terrible moment, when she feared hearing the words I do need you, had passed.

**

At lunchtime the next day, Loretta shifted in a hard-seated chair at the guidance counselor’s office, one of two chairs that faced Mr. Crowley’s desk. The desk was cluttered with pens, pencils, forms, and a half-eaten, smelly tuna sandwich. Piles of college catalogues were lined up with precision on the floor.

“I’m having trouble with this essay for Colorado, my top choice.” Loretta pushed the two-page draft for the university in Colorado across his desk. “Could you take a look at it?”

“Certainly, give me a moment,” he said. He was a short man with a round face and a snub nose. The kids called him Porky behind his back. He jotted notes in the margins. After a few moments, he reviewed the essay, point by point, and suggestions to add why sketching and painting were so important to her.

“I have no doubt you’ll be admitted to a good college with your grades.” As he talked, he rubbed at a stain on his green-striped tie. “Have a backup plan, besides Colorado. Did you want me to review the other essays and applications?”

“I’ve already finished three.” Loretta tucked the essay into her loose-leaf. “They’re at home.”

“Good girl. I know they’re lengthy.”

“You, ah, said something about financial aid, when I came in before. My grandmother offered to pay but I’m not sure about.…”

“It can’t hurt to apply for financial aid, no matter what your resources. Colleges offer grants based on aptitude as well as need.”

He handed her a thick packet, and she listened carefully as he explained the different federal grants and work study. She thanked him and stuffed the daunting paperwork into her loose-leaf, hoping she wouldn’t have to fill out those applications too; she still hoped to persuade Gran about Colorado.

“I tried telephoning your mother, so she could be here.” Mr. Crowley nodded at the empty chair.

“She’s working, Loretta said quickly. “She won’t have time.”

“I can help you start filling out the aid forms, if you like. Just come in again.”

Back home after school, Loretta opened the front door and heard the soft, unmistakable sound of weeping coming from Frances’s bedroom. She dropped her bag and struggled out of her jacket. Disappointment knifed her insides. Frances had been fired. Why else would her mother be home before five o’clock? She ran down the hall and pressed her ear to Frances’s door. She knocked lightly.

“Mom?” She tried the doorknob. Locked. She waited, resting her forehead against the doorframe. “It doesn’t matter,” she said through the crack, willing herself to sound upbeat. “You know I love you, right?”

The wailing turned to loud sniffles.

“You can find something else. Mom?”

In the kitchen, she sipped a glass of milk and nibbled an Oreo. She would have to help Frances get past this setback, find the right job. Only she didn’t know how. The scribbling on the pad by the telephone caught her eye. An enormous X crossed out Mr. Crowley. A panicky feeling swept over her, and she hurried to Frances’s door. She stood outside, biting a nail, contemplating what she could say, something to soften the truth. But nothing came to her. She sighed. Frances would have to hold her own when she was gone.

Loretta opened the door to her own room, bent on making Mr. Crowley’s suggestions to her essay, and flipped on the light switch. She stood stock-still. Her sketches were torn from the wall, her dresser drawers emptied and left half open, her sweaters and underwear strewn on the floor, along with the blue-checked quilt. Balled up in the corner were her bed sheets, and her mattress hung off the box spring at an odd angle.

A pile of cut-up paper and the kitchen scissors were on top of the naked mattress. She picked up a sliver of paper with her name still visible. The essays and carefully filled-out applications had been shredded into millions of pieces. Her heart banged against her ribcage. She rushed to the bureau and pulled out the bottom drawer. The thick envelope with the money was still taped to the bottom. She shoved the envelope into her waistband of her skirt. She ran down the hall and pounded on Frances’ door with her fist—bam, bam, bam—until the side of her hand ached.

“How could you?” she shouted. Her pulse drummed in her ears. “I’ve always helped you, been on your side.”

No answer. She rattled the knob in frustration, picturing how Frances, her face blotchy red with rage, had overturned everything, cut all the paper with the same expression of gleeful revenge she had worn when presenting Gran with the monster package of toilet paper.

She flew up the stairs to Gran’s, her chest heaving, but at the top, she stopped and stared at the closed door. A college closer to home, Gran had said. I will be paying for everything. She gripped the banister, sick at heart and frightened. When had she ever been able to change Gran’s mind about anything? Gran would expect her to stay after graduation, too, find a job, and do what she had always done to keep Frances out of that dreadful place. Loretta turned and started downstairs as though she were sleepwalking.

In the apartment, she picked up the sketchpad and charcoal pencil and went out to the back porch. The sun was low in the sky and she gulped the cold, fresh air. She sank onto the wooden steps. From the Tierneys next door, she heard the grating sound of a metal rake and the rustle of brittle leaves. She glanced over. Mrs. Tierney was focused on clearing a path to the street. The lifeless leaves had been raked into organized piles.

The envelope in her waistband pressed into her side, and she placed a protective hand over the money for a moment, her mind churning with everything she had to do—she would ask Mr. Crowley for help with the paperwork—and the lies that she would have to tell until she left. She would learn to forgive herself for leaving Frances, the way she had learned everything else that Gran had taught her.

She opened the sketchpad and smoothed a new sheet of paper. The solitary cardinal appeared, bright red against the maple’s dark bough, and seemed to watch her. She assessed the cardinal, making tentative strokes at first. The strokes became bolder, deeper as the image of the cardinal took shape on the page. The body, the sharp beak, the unblinking black eyes. Then she drew the bird’s legs, fragile but strong.

Maggie Bucholt a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and was awarded a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to work on her novel. A story, “Deer’s Leap,” was a finalist in the Arts & Letters: Journal of Contemporary Culture fiction contest. Her credits include an essay, “Rhyming Action in Alice Munro Short Stories,” in The Writer’s Chronicle, and “Death and the Desire to Live Deliberately,” in Desire: Women Write About Wanting, published by Seal Press.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Guest Posts

The Honest Clown

February 26, 2021
balloons against sky, joe

By Shirley O’Shea

Joe the Moper walked from the entrance to his apartment building across the parking lot to a narrow space between the Dumpster and the recycling bin and lit up a cigarette. This was where he smoked when he was at home. It was cozy.

It was a foggy September morning in upstate New York.  As Joe exhaled, the smoke drifted, dispersed and became part of the cloud that had settled all around the neighborhood, which sat on top of a hill which overlooked other round, sleepy hills that Joe could barely see.

Joe liked his morning smokes because few people were about. No one passed by him, looking away. Joe was tall and skinny, with a head of thick, wiry salt and pepper hair and skin that seemed to be stained a tint of grey by his years of enjoying tobacco. In the early evenings, after work, Joe would go to the Dumpster to smoke and sometimes people passing by pretended not to notice him. Occasionally someone would give him a small smile and mutter a greeting. Joe, however, would widen his mouth into a melancholy smile and say, “Hi, how are ya,” almost invitingly, even though he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to have any kind of conversation.

The thing was, Joe looked wretched.

His clothes were hanging on him, and they seemed to have the same grey patina as his skin. His cheeks were hollow, and his chest was caving in. He wore a jacket in all weather. His eyes were slightly sunken. It wasn’t good.

He’d moved to the apartment complex after the tire outlet, at which he worked in customer service, had cut his hours, making his mortgage payments unmanageable. His wife, Mary Jean, had been philosophical about the loss. “It’s always boom or bust in this country,” she’d said with a sigh. “At least we have a roof over our heads.” She’d then rolled over and fell asleep. Their daughter, Christina, fifteen, had immediately begun to think about how she would set up and decorate her new, smaller bedroom. She was creative, and welcomed challenges.

Although Joe was a conscientious and, despite his appearance, energetic worker, helping the residents of Blacksville and its surrounding rural villages choose the most suitable and economical tires for their vehicles, he considered the job an avocation, the means to support his real work, which was entertaining and enlightening people as a clown.

Now that fall had arrived, he would have fewer clown gigs. He thought about this as he flicked an ash to the ground. He had to find a way to get as many apple and pumpkin festival gigs as possible because 

The cloud-fog was lifting, and Joe looked up at the emerging patches of cerulean. In the northern sky he saw the waning gibbous moon, white-grey and bluish where the craters and valleys were, sensual like a pregnant belly and as full of secrets.

“Hey, moon, can you line up a few gigs for me? I really need them,” Joe said plaintively. His cigarette was smoked almost down to the filter. He threw it to the ground and let it fade out.

He reached into the pocket of his blue flannel shirt and drew out another smoke. He’d been a clown for almost twenty years. The best times were during the summer agricultural festivals, which took place every weekend all over the local counties. Dairy fests, garlic fests, blueberry fests – they always wanted a clown or two to make balloon animals and tell ridiculous, innocuous jokes as they did so. And to perform a few magic tricks. Now that it was autumn he’d get called for the festivals at the waning of the year. It seemed to Joe that the revelry at the autumn festivals was all the more intense because of the shortening of the days.

Despite his reputation for being somewhat unconventional, Joe the Moper got calls regularly to perform at these country family hootenannies. There was inevitably at every festival two or three people playing a guitar or fiddle, occasionally a banjo or mandolin, and singing songs that were playful, mournful, spiked with wisdom, because it is a musician’s duty to sing or strum or bow the truth in a way that compelled the wandering, meandering folk at the fair to stop and listen carefully, if only for a few moments. Even during the Dairy Princess crowning or the awarding of the blue ribbon to Best Rooster in Fair, every soul on the fair ground hungered for an uplifting moment of truth.

Joe figured it was for the best that he would not be getting too many more calls to play the clown. He was weakening in almost every way; even his jokes with customers at the tire outlet were deflated and rueful. The tumor that had begun in his right lung had grown upward, encircling his esophagus like a snake or a choking vine, and made it almost impossible for him to swallow solid food. Mary Jean had demanded that he go to the doctor, who knew Joe smoked and had ordered a CT scan which revealed the reason for all Joe’s physical suffering. He had told Mary Jean nothing, putting her off by saying that the doctor had ordered some tests but wasn’t very concerned, that he results were not available yet and it was probably something gastroenterological.

“Well, what tests? Why are they taking so long? You look like a scarecrow.”

Joe shrugged. “You know there’s not a lot of doctors around here. Everything’s slow.” Joe couldn’t bear to tell Mary Jean that he would begin radiation treatments in a week. Until then, he would smoke as he always had, slowly, thoughtfully, considering the great gift of tobacco that the Creator had made to humanity and its almost supernatural ability to calm the agitated and arouse the lethargic.

If Joe could have smoked when he did his clown gigs, he would have. After all, he’d seen a number of photos of artists with a cigarette balanced between their lips as they worked. He thought of Jackson Pollock smoking while he drizzled paint all over one of his canvases. And Joe’s favorite was an elegant portrait of Tennessee Williams seated before a typewriter, a nimbus of cigarette smoke swirling about him like a muse. There were more addicted artists than anyone could count, Joe often thought. It was an unfortunate but necessary pathology of the creative urge. It was probably why he smoked three cigarettes after he made love to Mary Jean and she drifted off to sleep.

When Joe did his clown jobs, he wore black, head to foot, What he believed was most impressive about his clown costume was the long black tunic he wore over black trousers, and the black bowler hat he’d purchased from an antique shop. He believed the get-up made him look like a Victorian clergyman. He painted his face white, of course, but he took special care when applying his mouth paint. It was a dull carnelian, with just a hint of an upturning at the corners. The great circles about his eyes were violet, and his dramatically arched eyebrows were a ponderous black. He looked like he was someone who was almost shocked, but not quite.

He placed a rubber rat beneath his bowler, and when he introduced himself as Joe the Moper, he bowed and removed the hat and feigned mild surprise that a rodent had hidden itself in his favorite topper and wanted to launch a career of his own as a comedian.

Joe wore black because he wanted to tell the truth, like a good priest in his black robe would while sitting with an anxious seeker. Joe knew that humor came from fear, desperation, isolation. Like a seasoned clergyman or a Buddha, one faced it all with a slight smile of equanimity, and Joe vowed to himself, and his audiences, that he would do the same.

“You can stay in here and mind your own business,” Joe the Moper said to the rubber rat as he slipped it into the pocket in the side of his tunic. “Or maybe I’ll enter you in the beauty contest! You’d make a great ambassador for locally made cheese.

“Oh, you wanna be a clown, huh? Well, you didn’t pay good money to go to clown school, like I did. I am a highly educated clown, like some of our most illustrated politicians – oh, I’m sorry, folks, I meant to say illustrious politicians. Although most of them seem to be cartoon characters. Oh, there I go again! Better get to the balloons.

Joe made nothing but birds with he balloons. “Why d’ya think owls have such large eyes?” he asked the small crowds gathered around him.

“Because they hunt at night!” someone, usually a child, would call out.

“Precisely! Very good!” Joe said, and pulling out a white balloon, he fashioned into something that looked very much like an owl. He twisted the head three hundred sixty degrees and then a wind always came, caught the owl out of Joe’s slightly trembling hands and bore it away. This happened with every owl, hawk, and woodpecker balloon Joe huffed and puffed and twisted into existence. The children and most of the adults strained to capture the balloons as they soared overhead.

“You can’t get them – no one ever does,” Joe called out. “I don’t know where the magic comes from. I just tell lame jokes. And I didn’t go to clown school. At least, not in the usual sense. But I think we all go to clown school. You all think about that. The balloons are always out of reach because the wind wants them. Have a wonderful day. Wow! Look at this sunshine!” Then Joe would walk with long, gangly strides to the back of the agricultural pavilion to smoke a couple of cigarettes.

Now, this morning, watching the uncanny amorousness of the swollen gibbous moon, which had remained in the morning sky while Joe smoked four cigarettes meditatively, he felt like the moon was his wife, and he was impatient for her to give birth. He thought of Mary Jean just over fifteen years ago, and the impossibly round protrusion of her belly, all amniotic fluid and placenta and baby. Mary Jean had begged him to give up smoking the moment she had found out she was pregnant, and he’d said he’d try, but he was less than sincere. He knew he’s smoke more than ever. Between the two of them, there were barely able to make their mortgage payments. The anxiety grew in him, and some mornings, before getting up to dress and have coffee followed by cigarettes, he curled up in a ball and prayed.

Growing up, he’d listened as his mother instructed him to pray everyday, throughout the day. He and his brother, who was now an insurance sales rep in the Midwest, and their parents has attended a fire-and-brimstone church which had only served to set Joe’s nerves on fire. How could the pastor say that God is Love and be so eager to send poor, foolish human beings to hell? When Joe, still in grade school,  had asked his mother, in desperation, why this was so, she’d shake her head and tell him there was nothing to worry about. And when he’d brought up his fears with his brother, his brother had shrugged and said, “That guy is crazy. Sneak a book into church and hide it in the Bible. I do it all the time. I think Mom and Dad know, but they’ve never said anything to me. They just pretend …”

But Joe continued to listen to what the pastor said, because there was some kind of terrifying logic to it. Then he went off to college and let the bond between himself and church dissolve. But the fear lived on in his body without abatement. He studied sociology and was a competent student – some of his professors even told him he had talent – and returned to upstate New York and ended up in retail.

Because Joe still had the demons, he liked to make jokes. They purified the air around him and drew people to him. He considered finding out what it took to do stand-up, but he knew he would get so nervous before performing that he would probably die. So he decided to be a clow. No birthday parties or school character education gigs, just the local seasonal festivals when he could be outside, twisting balloons into birds.

His first gig had been a spring festival with a medieval theme. A man in green velvet played a lute while a lady with a ring of artificial flowers in her hair and a purple gown sang songs with little ribald jokes, to celebrate fertility. Morris dancers stomped on the cold earth, to awaken it. The sun had shone brilliantly on that day, and the air was almost hot.

Joe had studied books on balloon animal shapes and practiced for dozens of hours before the full-length bedroom mirror, making cats and poodles and alligators. But now that he was here, in front of a curious audience, made all the more enthusiastic by this burst of light and warmth after an upstate winter, he froze. All he could think of was birds. He’d found some shattered robins’ eggs on the ground that morning, as he had brought his boxes of uninflated balloons to the car, and the pale blue of the fragments made him pause and he exhaled forcefully enough to ruffle the feathers of a hatchling that lay on the ground, forced out by its mother, Joe thought. Then he drove to the fair.

And as Joe drove, he began to feel light-headed. When he arrived at the fair and saw the Morris dancers pounding the sodden ground, he thought of the shattered eggs, the doomed hatchling, and the fact of the perpetual changing of the seasons caused his heart to race and his breath to quicken. If only his life could be one unchanging winter or summer, without the interruptions of the seasons of emergence and withdrawal, that disoriented him and filled him with such grief at their brevity and their blatant declaration of the impermanence of things. He thought that perhaps his entire performance should be blowing air into balloons and releasing it, slowly, so that the kids would laugh at the flatulence-like sound. But then he came to himself, realized all of this was stage fright, and drove on until he reached the Blumenfeld Vernal Fest on the top of a hill that overlooked other gently curving hills transforming into verdancy under the kindly sun. Spring was, perhaps, not quite so disorienting, Joe thought, as he parked his car and began to unload his boxes of balloons.

The parking area for vendors bordered on a stretch of woodlands, and Joe heard the calls from the cardinals and robins as he lifted the boxes from the hatch of his car. Then he stopped and pulled out a cigarette. He had been so deep in thought about how this gig was going to play itself out – how he would play himself out – that he hadn’t even thought to smoke. This was passing strange. It was as if he were keeping the air in his lungs pure and strong before forcing it into the balloon toys he was about to make.

Joe took one last drag on his cigarette, crushed it on the ground and then put it in an empty coffee cup in the car.

So, now he would find out if he could do it. He stacked the three boxes of balloons – much more than he would need, but best to be prepared – and walked to the information kiosk to find out where he should set himself up. The lady at the kiosk – round, grey-haired and amiable – told him he would be near the petting zoo, which was about one hundred fifty yards west. Joe looked up at the sun to determine where west was, and followed, glancing upwards every few seconds to keep his bearings. Some fair goers looked at him and grinned, others looked with slight consternation – a clown, in springtime, should not be wearing black. And his smile should be wider, freer. Joe had the feeling these people considered him a clown with an ungenerous spirit. And what was the point of that? A clown gives himself completely, divests himself of all dignity, and even self-respect in order to entertain. Joe didn’t feel a vocation to be quite that kind of clown.

The balloons and the wind – they stole the show. The creatures Joe intended to make resisted creation – dogs, giraffes, monkeys. They all twisted themselves into birds, and the moist spring breezes lifted them away. The children jumped up and tried to grab them, but they soared out of reach and the audience let out a groan. It seemed as if the wind grabbed the balloons out of this strange clown’s hands. But Joe pretended that was exactly what he’d wanted to happen. “Well, folks, thanks for stopping by. Remember, I’m Joe the Moper. Weird and inexplicable things happen whenever I’m around.”

So it went with all of Joe’s performances. But the people didn’t come to listen to his mordant humor, his absurd imitations of celebrities, and the few magic tricks he had learned to broaden his appeal. They came to see the bird balloons. And how impossible they were to hold. People in the audience believed that Joe the Moper and the wind colluded to let the bird balloons ascend into the heavens.

Joe looked at the moon again and thought of how his daughter was growing, so awkward and lovely, and he knew the Mary Jean would give her all the love she would need. That didn’t mean Joe the Moper didn’t intend to fight this serpentine tumor with all the strength, sarcasm and something like faith that he had in him. But he knew how these things went. The radiologist wanted to shrink the tumor, get him some time.

For much of his life, Joe, with his easily rattled nerves, had felt that time could not pass quickly enough, so that night would come and in the darkness he could feel unseen and uncalled upon to be anything but what he was – a confused and congenitally frightened man. All the sardonic jokes that he threw out into the air, to his wife, the guys at the tire shop, to his bemused audiences, did nothing to protect him from his terror. And now that he finally had something to be beside himself about, he felt gentle and quiet and somewhat remorseful about his jokes. And he felt gratitude for the balloons that had all taken flight and left his audiences in awe.

That night, as Mary Jean slept fitfully beside him, Joe knew he had to tell her about the tests, the tumor, the treatment. He began to shake and feared he would have a sleepless night. Well, all right then. He remembered the angels that the pastor of his youth had described in more than one sermon. The angles in the Book of Revelation were monstrous – immense, with countless eyes and wings, wings, wings flapping and concealing and then revealing those eyes. There was no place one could hide from them, and that was why Joe wanted an angel to pay him a visit. He prayed, “God, let one of those hideous and holy angels come and look at me. I want – need – something now that’s not like anything I’ve ever seen. I’m not afraid of being afraid – at least not now, not of that.”

But as Joe lay awake, no angel came. Well, perhaps it’s invisible, Joe thought. Even without the angel’s help, he would tell Mary Jean that …

While he was in a deep sleep, a great golden balloon, as round as the sun, drifted down to Joe, as he sat in a meadow overlooking the round, verdant hills in upstate New York, someplace where he’d visited as a child and had been very happy. The gold balloon had one great eye that looked on him with mercy. It extended a wing and enfolded Joe, who was now in the realm beyond speech. He was in the air, the golden air and with the balloon floated higher and higher and he could see himself far below, where a crowd had gathered, and he could see himself at the center, as his black tunic fell off and he stood denuded before the audience laughing until they cried.

Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer and full time mother living in upstate New York. She has worked as a paralegal, elementary school teacher and small town newspaper reporter.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rebecca Solnit’s story of  life in San Francisco in the 1980s is as much memoir as it is social commentary. Becoming an activist and a writer in a society that prefers women be silent is a central theme. If you are unfamiliar with Solnit’s work, this is a good entry point. If you are familiar with her writing, this is a must read as she discusses what liberated her as a writer when she was discovering herself as a person. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Little Buddy

February 12, 2021
creature

By W. T. Paterson

The chill in the air settled against the fading blue sky as Porter lugged an ancient wooden storm panel around the side of the house. The cold sand shifted under his boots turning each step into an arthritic nightmare for his knees. It felt like the end of an era. The summer house that once teemed with life now sat empty and cold leaving only the rat-a-tat knocking of a pesky woodpecker that wreaked yearly havoc on the panels. Buddy, his son, had always helped with the end-of-season board-up, specifically shooing away the bird, but the boy had moved to the big city for a fancy hospital job and Porter was lucky if he got a phone call every other month. Minnie, his wife, took over their Massachusetts house after her therapist suggested a trial separation now that Buddy had grown. Minnie agreed before Porter could weigh in and all but exiled him to his family’s seaside cottage in Maine for the winter. A quarter-century worth of marriage dissolved like a cruel magic trick. One moment things were fine, and the next the veil lifted to reveal the great absence of a used-to-be.

The wooden panel slid into the de-screened slot and hooked into place with rusted latches. Porter rested his sore shoulders and aching back and looked out across the empty beach. The calm ocean barely rippled, more lake than tidal beast roaring with surf. With the summer crowds gone, the small town barely stirred. A part of him believed that being holed up in the place for the winter would bring some clarity to the situation, that the isolation would do him good until the rat-a-tat started up again.

Porter wiped his brow and then slapped the boards. The thick panels shook, and the knocking ceased.

He stepped outside and around the house toward the bulkhead for the final panels, and that’s when he saw it; the creature hiding near the cement foundation of his neighbor’s place. A baby dinosaur, a dilophosaurus by the looks and no bigger than a housecat, watched with cautious curiosity. Its yellow skin with red-striped belly sniffed the air through a long, ridged snout. The creature gave Porter a weak warning growl to reveal a curved row of small, jagged teeth.

“Monsters,” Porter said under his breath, and shook his head at the wealthy summer goers like the Hartwells who loved to buy exotic pets in the spring only to decide they didn’t want them come fall. Instead of heading to proper shelters, they stuck the creatures outside to fend for themselves and left town without so much as a second thought. One year, animal control wrangled a Chupacabra after reports of missing cats piled up, and a few years later, the carcass of a tiger was found in the snowy dunes frozen and starved. Finding the small dinosaur was, unfortunately, par for the course.

Porter closed the rusty bulkhead and went inside even though he wasn’t finished. He held his fingers under warm water to melt the stiffness in the joints and considered phoning the town. From the kitchen window, he watched the dinosaur sniff around and make chirping noises, neck craned and eyes large as the shadows of the houses stretched over the dunes and onto the empty beach.

*

The dark autumn sky swallowed the day. No one at the town hall had answered when he called, so Porter left a voicemail requesting that someone collect the dino. Poor thing won’t survive the cold, he said. It’s their blood. They need the heat. Porter wasn’t sure how he knew this, but he knew it to be true. Leftover details from his childhood fascination with predators perhaps, or something pulled from Buddy’s picture book filled with sharks and crocodiles and yetis and wolves.

That book was still upstairs, he was almost certain. They read it together every summer until Minnie complained that Buddy should turn his interests toward more sophisticated prose and came home with books about the anatomy, and physiology, and medicine. She tucked the book out of reach where it collected dust and rendered the sturdy pages fragile.

What an odd thing to remember at a time like this, Porter thought as he sat on the well-worn and sun-beaten couch. The muted television glowed with his favorite trivia show as static crackled across the screen. He waited for the phone to ring. He watched in quiet until the contestants shouted with glee as a big-money gamble paid off huge. They danced and twirled and pumped their hands up and down like they had just gotten married, like they had a few glasses of fine wine and a belly full of prime rib and sauntered to the dancefloor still believing the person they married was who they believed they were, that an office job wasn’t built to turn a man inside out, that unconditional love could actually heal a person, that paying hand-over-fist for a future that benefited everyone but themselves was a noble path. “Dreamers,” Porter said, and tried to will himself into a nap. That type of happiness made him uncomfortable. It was exhausting, a game for the young. It was why those trivia shows never cast anyone over thirty, because anyone older knew the that the world was a limited path with nothing but forced naps that wouldn’t come in a cold and empty house inside of a town that only lived for a single season.

When the evening news came on and the weather forecasted only cold days ahead, Porter went into the kitchen to scrounge up some dinner. In a cupboard was an unopened box of Rainb-O’s cereal, buddy’s favorite. He purchased a new box every year in the hopes that his son would visit and they could both share a bowl like the old days. He didn’t want to open the box, just in case.

In the back of the freezer, he found two steaks so frozen and frostbitten that they could hammer a nail. He took one out and ran it under the faucet resigning to finish installing the panels in the morning. Over the hiss of the tap, he could faintly make out the lonely wail of the baby dinosaur somewhere outside.

“Poor thing,” Porter said, and against his better judgement, filled an unused bamboo salad bowl with water and walked outside. At the base of the front steps, he put the bowl on the ground and whistled for the creature. The long, gravel driveway wound around sleepy dune grass, cut through overgrown lawn grass, and intersected with a paved road lined with tall pines. The neighboring houses stood like vacated caverns. Crickets pulsed in the chilly air like the slow breath of a sleeping giant. A moment later at the edge of the shadow, the dilophosaurus poked it’s head out from a patch of cratered dunes and sniffed the air. Porter clicked his tongue and pointed at the water. The small creature took hesitant steps and growled a curious growl.

“Atta boy,” Porter said, and watched the creature approach. “Don’t get used to it, though. Done enough charity for this lifetime.”

The idea turned him sour. Why did he always have to do things for the benefit of others? Why was it his responsibility to fix things? There was that time at the restaurant where Minnie had a little too much and started in.

“We should call and check on Buddy,” she said.

“He’s an adult, Min, he’s fine,” Porter said, feeling the night balance on the edge of Minnie’s fragile mood.

“People can be adults and still drown in the bathtub, Porter,” Minnie said, cupping the wine glass with such ferocity that it was a miracle the thing didn’t shatter.

“Ok. We can go,” Porter whispered, and put on his winter coat. He tossed an extra-large cash tip onto the table in an unspoken attempt to smooth things over with their server – a college girl with large eyes and full lips.

“He thinks money will buy you,” Minnie said, stumbling through the slurred words as the server picked empty plates from the table. “But he’s not your type, is he?”

The server went flush and smiled politely, and something about the reaction made Minnie go ice age. She didn’t talk to him for the rest of the night.

In the morning, she knew she had done something, but couldn’t remember what.

“Jog my memory,” she pleaded, rubbing her head. “You’re upset, and I can’t change if I can’t remember.”

“Said some things is all,” Porter mumbled, and twisted the gold wedding band around his finger to let the feeling go extinct.

A chill ran Porter’s spine, so he turned suddenly to go back inside. It startled the dinosaur and the creature reared back on its small hind legs. A scaley umbrella-like mane shot out from the sides of its head. It rattled like a snake, an unmistakable warning.

“Oh please,” Porter laughed. “Been married for nearly three decades. Know what that does to a man? Teeth don’t scare me, pal.”

He chuckled his way up the cold and creaking steps and closed the door inside. As he turned the porch light off, he watched through the glass as the small dinosaur retracted its mane, approached the bowl with curious eyes, and gulped down the water.

That salad bowl was a wedding gift, Porter thought. What an odd thing to remember at a time like this.

*

Just past sunrise, the rat-a-tat returned—a crude wooden alarm to usher in the rising coastal sun. Porter pulled the thinning comforter over his eyes and tried to ignore piercing rap, but the tapping pushed awake-ness through his eyelids like the slow drip of a hangover. His bones ached, the fossilized remains of a great used-to-be. Once a man so sturdy he could board up the home by himself breaking a sweat, he now struggled to sit upright in bed. All those years in an office behind a desk staring into sheets and memos and computer screens left little behind, and what remained had eroded into sun damaged skin and liver spots.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter slid out of bed still in jeans from the day before and shoved his wool-socked feet into tired work boots.

“I’m up,” he grunted, and wiped the last bit of sleep from his eyes. He put on the same flannel as yesterday and walked downstairs. The bones of the quiet home creaked with every thumping step, the arthritic walls wailing and moaning too. With day old coffee sitting cold in the cloudy glass pot, Porter poured the thick mass into a mug and tossed it into the microwave. A single spotted banana stared at him from the fruit bowl and he considered the possibility, but instead watched the digital seconds count down until the ding produced a steaming cup of bitter jet-fuel. After one sip, he knew it had turned but he finished the mug as to not be wasteful before heading outside to finish the job.

A familiar dull pain pulled at the muscles between Porter’s shoulders as he lugged another wooden panel from the bulkhead to the side of the house. Two more, and then he could shelter without worry of those winter storms.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter shoved the panel into the sand below an open slot and huffed. He wanted to confront that damn bird, the constant pecking and relentless picking, but what good would that do anyone? No matter what he felt, the bird always came back and the rat-a-tat became a wooden, mocking laughter. At least with Buddy around, the boy could chase the bird through the cool and crunching dunes until he got tired, or bored, wanted to help with the panels. But Minnie always came outside demanding that Porter do something about the incessant, belligerent, ridiculous racket.

“It’s fine, Minnie,” Porter would say.

“Some people come here to relax. Some people need quiet reflection,” she’d say, and flap back inside chirping about how she married the only man in the world who couldn’t stand up to a bird. Buddy would watch from the dunes with large, confused eyes until Porter explained that it would have been Uncle Marius’s birthday.

“Oh,” the boy would say, and spend the rest of the afternoon quietly chasing birds, and bugs and while his father boarded.

Now, as Porter turned the corner of the boarded-up porch, he saw the small dinosaur crouched in the grass watching the gnawing woodpecker.

“Get!” Porter said and swiped at the bird. The dinosaur tilted its head. The woodpecker did a quick loop in the sky and swooped back onto the sill with an anarchic rat-a-tat. Porter’s blood boiled and his ears went hot.

“I said…” he shouted, and the bird took off again. This time, as it swooped over the dunes, the young dilophosaurus expanded its scaley mane and spit a dark glob of venomous, paralyzing phlegm, which wrapped the bird and brought it crashing out of mid-air. The woodpecker landed lifelessly in the nearby sand. The baby creature trotted over and ate the remains with big, proud bites and then looked at Porter with glistening, hopeful eyes.

“Not bad, little buddy,” he said, and though he couldn’t be sure, it looked like the creature smiled at the compliment.

For the rest of the morning, the dinosaur walked along the sand and dunes chasing away seagulls, butterflies, and crickets that came too close as Porter fixed the final wooden panels into place.

At lunch, Porter cooked the other remaining steak, but something chewed at his wandering thoughts. The spotted banana eyed him from the fruit bowl, and Porter knew that sometimes cooking for one was really cooking for two. He slapped the steak onto a Corelle plate and popped outside. The dino poked its head out from between long blades of dune grass.

“Eat up, you done good today” he said, and balanced the plate on the bottom step of the stoop. The creature sniffed the air, eyed Porter, and scampered out to devour the cooked meat. Porter peeled the yellow banana back and ate the sweet fruit—though he didn’t enjoy it—happy to be able to lend his talents to an appreciative crowd.

“If I let you in, you gonna be good?” Porter asked. The dinosaur looked up and continued chewing. “You gonna be good? If you come inside? You’ll be a good boy?” The creature pondered the question like it understood, and finally chirped as it stepped toward Porter’s knee. He gave it a gentle head-butt. Porter reached down and rubbed the top of the scaley head with his tired, heavy hands. “You’re a good boy.”

The baby dinosaur leaned back and sneezed. A tiny fleck of black, venomous phlegm landed on Porter’s knuckle and burned the skin with a terribly, fiery pain.

“Sweet mother of mercy,” he said, rubbing his fist on his jeans. The creature shrank with alarm when it realized what it had done, eyes wide with a different kind of hurt. “Ain’t your fault, boy,” Porter said. “It’s just how you are.” He stood to walk inside, and then whistled. The dilophosaurus perked up and followed, trotting next to Porter’s knees but never crossing in front.

*

Porter started to suspect that something was different that evening. Not wrong, but different. The dinosaur took a wheezing nap against the electric baseboard heater of the thin-walled coastal home. Upon awaking, he watched Porter as though trying to communicate something.

“You hungry?” Porter asked, and the sound of his voice seemed to put the creature at ease. The young dinosaur rolled to his feet and tip-toed over to the couch and placed his scaley and unusually heavy chin on the top of Porter’s thigh. Porter smiled and rubbed the creature’s rough and uneven head. He noted the retracted mane on the neck like wrinkled skin and wondered at nature’s design. The dilophosaurs relaxed into comfort, but the type of comfort that stems from concern and, he wasn’t sure how, but Porter could sense it like a light left on in a room he was no longer using.

When he moved his leg, the creature stepped back and followed him into the kitchen where the man pan-fried a chicken breast and put it in a ceramic cereal bowl – the big one that Buddy always filled to the brim with colorful Rainb-O’s but could never finish, until the year that Minnie insisted he switch over to something more nutritious like sausage and hash browns.

“A growing boy needs protein,” she said. “You keep giving him this, he’ll stay small forever, and be fragile, and his bones will be weak.”

“Ok,” Porter said like a deflating balloon, because every fight with Minnie was an unwinnable task. She fought with the fury and guilt over her wheelchair-bound brother Marius who drowned in the tub as a teen while she took a brief nap. What could he say to curb venom like that? Nothing, and Porter absorbed every last bit until there was nothing left.

The creature chomped at the chicken breast and pulled it apart with a ravenous hunger until everything was gone.

“You’ve got some appetite, lil’ buddy,” Porter said, and opened the cupboards to try and find something else to feed it. All that remained was the unopened box of Rainb-O’s. He rattled the cardboard and the dinosaur tilted its head. Porter popped the top and poured into the ceramic bowl. The creature sniffed the sugary O’s, looked at Porter, and then slowly lapped up the bits with his dark tongue. It only made it halfway through before walking away from the bowl, back into the living room, and pushed himself against the heater.

“How about a bedtime story before the sun goes down?” Porter asked, watching the young dino give in to heavy eyelids and long, strained breath. He knew just the book, it had to be here still.

Upstairs in the closet tucked in the very back of a shelf was the picture book of predators, the thick and sticky pages the same as they ever were. He remembered nights going through the pictures watching his son’s wide-eyed wonder at sharks, and coyotes, and lycans, and felt the venomous sting of a used-to-be erode the sides of his heart.

Downstairs, he sat on the couch and whistled for the dinosaur. The creature lifted its head and walked with a sleepy limp over to Porter, who opened the picture book and read aloud the simple prose. With each picture he pointed to, the creature seemed to smile and drift further into the clutches of sleep, seemingly happy to hear the man’s voice.

*

Porter’s worry began to peak. The creature asleep at his feet sounded like it was having more trouble breathing, and it kept twitching with miniature seizures. He didn’t know if this was natural, or a cause for alarm, so he pulled the phone from his pocket and wondered if his son might take a call in the big city. Wondering things such things made him feel insignificant, burdensome, left behind.

“Hey Pops!” a voice answered, which startled Porter. He hadn’t been aware that he even dialed, and it sounded like his son was at a restaurant, or a bar, or out with friends being social.

“Hey Buddy, it’s your father,” Porter said.

“I know. Call ID. What’s up?”

Porter wasn’t sure where to start, or how to even ask. Stuttering through ideas, he blurted out the only thing that sounded plausible.

“What do you think about having a dinosaur as a pet?” he asked, and then held his breath for the reply.

“Nah, you don’t want a dino. They have to have their own feeding space because they need to eat live meals. Birds, goats, sheep. Lot’s of blood and entrails, pretty heavy cleanup. Only raw food. Their micro-gut biomes are so strong that cooked food doesn’t get transferred into nutrients and they’ll starve to death. No people food. It makes’em sick, like dogs and chocolate. A lot of work, too much work, Pops. Why? You, uh, you doing ok?”

“Oh yes, yes. Just daydreaming is all,” Porter said. Dread rose from his chest into his throat as the creature kicked out again, writhing in some sort of pain. Porter did what he could to mask the anxiety. “How did you get so smart, anyways?”

“Years of mom forcing me to read books about how bodies work. Go figure,” Buddy said. “Hey, can I call you back in the morning? The firm just got a grant and we’re out celebrating.”

“Of course, son. Sure thing,” Porter said, and wheezed out a half-hearted, lonely laugh.

He hung up the phone and bent over the creature. The skin didn’t feel right. He wasn’t sure what right should have felt like, but this wasn’t it. Dry, too dry, and far too warm in the head, while the yellow belly with red stripes felt too cool.

“Don’t do this to me,” Porter said. “Please, I’m doing the best I can.”

The creature opened its eyes and chirped, but it was a distant noise. The pupils irised like a dimming bulb.

“I didn’t know any better,” Porter said, taking the head into his arms and cradling. “I did the best I could with what I knew, with what I had! I’ll try harder, please!”

The dinosaur began to shake and froth. Porter couldn’t look away even though the sight physically pained him, this creature in so much helpless, needless pain. Had the little dinosaur been like this all summer? Slowly starving to death?

A rattle began in the creature’s chest, which forced the remaining air from its lungs like a tea kettle coming to boil. Porter physically felt the life inside the dinosaur diminish, and he broke down into tears.

“I could have done better, I wasn’t ready for you, but I’m thankful we had this. Know that I’m thankful we had this,” he said. A small spark of life came to the young dinosaur’s eye and for that brief moment, they saw each other in the cold room. Porter wasn’t sure how he knew, but he knew that dinosaur loved him in their short time together.

And then, as the sun dipped over the horizon, the remaining light turned to darkness, and Porter was alone.

*

Porter barely slept, if he even slept at all. After carrying the creature into the basement and deciding to bury it in the woods later, he couldn’t shake the image of the dinosaur’s last moments and how this all could have been prevented with a little attentiveness and research.

Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat. Rat-a-tat.

Porter wasn’t in the mood. Of course another bird had come. Of course.

Then he realized it wasn’t a knocking, but a ringing. His cell phone vibrated against the wooden night table with an incoming call from the town offices.

“Heyo, Porter, it’s Len from City Hall. I didn’t wake you, did I?”

“No,” Porter said, and sat up.

“Anywho, got a call from the Hartwells asking if we’d seen a small dinosaur. Said it escaped as they were packing up last month. I told’em you’d called with a sighting, and they said they’d swing by. Wanted to give warning.”

“Thanks Len,” Porter said.

“Ayuh,” Len said, and ended the call. The morning sun forced its way through the thin drapes with blinding reminders. It didn’t seem fair that days got to start and end.

Porter sat up and put on his flannel, the same as the day before, and noticed a few places where venomous phlegm has burned small holes through the fabric. He ran his thumb over them and felt the immediate, pressing absence of a used-to-be.

Work-boots on, he limped downstairs with cold and tired knees as a shining car with New York plates blasting loud, electronic music pulled up the drive. He saw a young man and woman in their early twenties in the front seat, dark sunglasses pulled over their eyes, hair styled like they had just come from a fashion magazine’s photo shoot.

“You the guy?” the woman asked as she stepped out of the car in high heels.

“Len said you’d seen our dinosaur. Tricky bugger snuck out while we loaded the car.”

“Over those dunes,” Porter said, pointing away from the house. “I was boarding up. Saw’em hiding near the beach.”

“Is he still there?”

Porter shrugged and shoved his aching hands into his pockets. The woman rolled her eyes and whispered to the guy that she couldn’t walk in the sand with heels, and that he should go, and that he better be quick because she wanted to get back to the city by nightfall.

“We have a buyer, you see,” the guy said. “Top dollar.”

Porter didn’t move as the Hartwell boy traipsed into the dunes and whistled, pushing aside long blades of grass to look for any sign of the creature. He walked near the beach, deep into the grass, and then back again before returning to the car.

“Anything?” Porter asked.

“It’s a baby, how far could it have gone?” the woman said, annoyed. She leaned against the car and scrolled through her phone.

“Maybe you should have kept a better eye on it,” Porter said. He took his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms.

“Excuse me?” the guy said and took off his sunglasses. He stepped into Porter’s personal bubble.

“You left this town two months ago. Never once came back looking. You can’t treat things that way, can’t abandon something just ‘cause you’re bored. You have to love it. You have to try at least and sometimes stand up for yourself, even when it’s hard, and you have to commit to working through tough times. Otherwise, anything that matters goes extinct and everyone ends up alone.”

“It’s just a dinosaur, dude,” the guy said. He held up his hands like he was trying to ward off a charging bull.

“Let’s just go,” the woman said. “We’ll tell Franco it was hit by a car or whatever.”

The woman opened the passenger door and sat down as the guy stomped around to the driver’s side cautiously eyeing Porter. At the end of the road, a familiar car turned into the drive. The car with New York plates turned around and sped out of the gravel drive as the other car—Buddy’s car—pulled in. Buddy parked and stepped out into the slowly warming day. He stood with large shoulders, a yellow and red striped sweater hugging his frame. Though he hadn’t been away in the city for too long, Porter couldn’t believe how much his boy had grown.

“Hey Pops,” Buddy said, holding an overnight bag. “What did those clowns want?”

“Something they shouldn’t have,” Porter said. “What’s the occasion?”

Buddy shrugged.

“Talking to you last night, I dunno, thought you might enjoy some company.”

Porter hugged his boy and welcomed him inside. With the wooden panels up along the porch wall, the inside felt cavernous and dark, but Buddy brought a certain light to the rooms that hadn’t existed in quite some time. They chatted in the kitchen about life in the city, about Porter’s move to the seasonal home, about the split with Minnie and how situations never stopped evolving.

“It’s good to see you, though,” Porter said after a while.

“No way, is that a box of Rainb-O’s? Haven’t had those in years. Don’t tell mum, but…” Buddy said.

“Say no more,” Porter said. He went into the cupboard and pulled out the recently-washed bamboo salad bowl.

“A growing boy needs his nutrition,” Porter said. Buddy sat at the kitchen table like a happy child while Porter popped the top of the cardboard cereal box. He poured the colorful O’s until the bowl had nearly filled and the box had all but emptied, and sat with his son in a warming house as daylight spilled through the cracks of the ancient wooden panels illuminating the presence of an always-will-be.

W. T. Paterson is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of New Hampshire, and is a graduate of Second City Chicago. His work has appeared in over 80 publications worldwide including The Saturday Evening Post, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Delhousie Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Fresh Ink. A semi-finalist in the Aura Estra short story contest, his work has also received notable accolades from Lycan Valley, North 2 South Press, and Lumberloft. He spends most nights yelling for his cat to “Get down from there!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

Dan Chalmers

January 21, 2021
dan

By Christine Heuner

“He’s doing it again,” Gianna reported at lunch, looking across the cafeteria at Dan Chalmers, his eyes fixed on Rachel.

Gianna nudged Rachel. “Hey,” she said. “Look.”

Rachel flickered her eyes to see Dan’s eyes on her. When he caught her glance, he looked away.

“See,” Gianna said. “Told you.”

“Quit it,” Rachel said, looking down at her anatomy notes.

In anatomy class, Rachel and Dan, both high-school juniors, were lab partners. He took the lead in dissecting a cat, and she was grateful.

She hadn’t noticed him looking at her until hawk-eyed Gianna picked up on it. Gianna also heard from Allison Levy who heard from Owen Lehrer that Dan had a crush on Rachel, and Owen was always a steady, reliable source. The only interaction Rachel had with Dan other than the cat dissection was when she bumped into him in the threshold between the hallway and classroom. They moved to get out of each other’s way, but ended up shifting in the same direction. They smiled; Dan might’ve said he was sorry.

But Rachel couldn’t dedicate her thoughts to Dan. Only weeks ago, she and her best friend of one year, Val, had taken off their clothes in Val’s room while Val’s parents were out. Facing each other in Val’s bed, they made each other feel good. Rachel had never been attracted to another girl, and her lingering feelings about Val confused her. She tried to find other girls attractive, focusing on the swell of their breasts, their curves. She fixed her attention on eyes, lips, hair, but only Val’s dimpled smile, her full, glossy lips, brown eyes, and shoulder-length blond hair, loose and curly, snagged Rachel’s attention. Rachel noticed how good Val looked in her leggings. Her cut-off shirts revealed her belly button and light skin. When Val spoke, she gestured with her hands. Her laugh was as bright as her costume jewelry.

Rachel was excited the next time she and Val were alone in Val’s room; she sat closer to Val than she usually did while Val sketched and Rachel painted with watercolors. When they watched a horror movie, Rachel leaned closer to Val, put her head on her shoulder, and held her hand. They rested their arms on Val’s thigh. Rachel hoped Val might change her position, lean in and kiss her, but she didn’t. Rachel assumed Val was anxious about her parents coming in her room, but another day when Val’s parents were both out to dinner, Val didn’t come closer as Rachel hoped she would. Val never asked to touch her again, and Rachel wondered if Val thought their moment in her bed was a mistake or a distraction from boredom. Rachel’s stomach lifted when she thought of them together, and then fall with shame for what she wasn’t supposed to feel.

Rachel tried to keep a distance between her and Val. She lazed around the house, muddled through chores, watched romance films with tidy endings. She attended to her grades as a distraction and to keep her parents off her case. She memorized the limbic system, math formulas, irregular verbs. She fed and walked her dog Cinnamon, played with her ferret Stella, went out on two dates with Jonas Martino, a senior. He made good money at his part-time construction job and flashed his thick wallet, bulging indiscreetly from his back jeans pocket.

After dinner and a drive through the mountains, where Jonas pointed out his favorite estates, he parked his Jeep in a dark parking lot and pressed his tongue in Rachel’s mouth. He tried to go up her shirt. She pushed him away. “Stop.”

His eyes narrowed in hostile impatience. “If that’s the way you want it,” he said.

She wanted a slow kiss from soft lips, gentle fingers, hair on her cheek, the smell of lavender shampoo, vanilla and honeysuckle. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” she had told Val. “Don’t stop.”

Unable to restrain herself, Rachel cried.

“Holy shit,” Jonas said. “Sorry.”

Rachel wiped her cheeks in quick fury, snapping, “I’m fine.”

As Jonas drove her home, she recalled Val scratching her back, laughing as Rachel murmured, “That feels so good.”

Rachel shivered; chills raised bumps on her arms.

I’ll never be free of this.

I don’t want to be free.

Rachel hung out a few times with Gianna, but only felt an aching emptiness when they sat in her dull blue-gray room, listening to music, gossiping about bullshit. She imagined kissing Gianna, but the thought enticed her as much as kissing her own hand.

Tuesdays after school, Rachel stayed late for Key Club. Her mother wanted her to join more activities, and this was Rachel’s compromise. While she waited for her mother to pick her up, Dan Chalmers approached her in the near-empty parking lot.

“I fixed up my Corvette,” he said, tipping his head vaguely to the right. “Do you want to go for a ride?”

He was the only red-head she knew. He had small eyes and flecks of acne on his cheeks. He smiled hesitantly, as if the wrong word from her might destroy him.

“Sorry. I’m busy. I have all this homework.”

“Maybe we can study together then.”

“I don’t think so.” She shifted her backpack straps.

He came closer to her with surprising quickness. His body was long and lean. “I like you a lot, Rachel.”

She shook her head.

“I think about you all the time.”

“You’ll get over it,” she could have said, but he had been kind to her, slicing into the cat’s chest cavity while she gagged, giving her his notes when she was absent with strep throat.

“Won’t you give me a chance? I’ve had a crush on you for so long.”

And yet she had not noticed it other than what Gianna reported. Now, she wondered if Mrs. Moss, their anatomy teacher, knew about this crush and assigned them as lab partners, hoping for the best.

“I’m sorry. I really am.”

“Is there someone else?”

Unbidden, an image of Val, laughing, dimples pressed into her cheeks, rose to the surface. She shivered, remembering Val’s fingers on her skin.

She shook her head. “I’m just not ready.”

He kicked at the pavement with his black Nike sneaker. “Do you think you could ever be ready?”

“I don’t know.”

He exhaled a labored breath and slouched his shoulders. He was too thin. “Can’t we just go for a drive? The car is great. You’ll love it.”

She couldn’t tell if his persistence was more exasperating than her consistent refusals. It pained her to see his cheeks flushed, the acne more prominent.

“I can’t.” Why was her mother so late?

“You mean you won’t.”

“I guess.”

“Will you at least think about it?”

She nodded, but his expression fell, his hope gone.

As her mother drove home, Rachel imagined telling Val and the rest of her friends about Dan, but decided to keep his agony to herself. Another thought of Val intruded: They got out of Val’s bed that day, naked, a little shy with each other. They handed each other their clothes and dressed in silence. It was a complete moment, a fulfillment of a desire they’d hidden or didn’t know they had. But Val, somehow, stuffed it away. Rachel’s heart sank as if, instead of Dan, she were the one rejected, left alone to suffer.   

Val continued calling Rachel, asking to get together. Finally, Rachel gave in, accepting Val’s request to go to the Halloween bash as zombies. Val had been practicing makeup techniques online. “I can do wounds,” she said. “I’m perfecting the weeping sore.”

Rachel and Val spent hours in Val’s room getting ready. Rachel’s mother, Kate, came to take pictures.

“This is absolutely disgusting,” Kate said, wincing at the bruise on Rachel’s eye, the oozing gash on her cheek.

Rachel gave her mother a look.

“I mean it in a good way,” Kate said. “You’re talented, Val. You should do makeup for Hollywood.” Val beamed. Her lipstick, the deep-red of blood, made her lips look kissable.

At the Halloween bash in the school gym, all the chaperones made Rachel and Val pose for pictures in their ripped flannels and jeans and boots, their hair wild, teased with a comb and hair sprayed. Everyone agreed that if zombies walked the earth, this is what they would look like. The principal created an award for Val, giving her free cupcakes and snacks. She took her fairy godmother wand, a shimmery silver baton with streamers, and handed it to Val.

“Here, my dear,” she said. “You’re queen of the apocalypse.”

 Val laughed and took the wand. “Not sure you want me to be in charge, Mrs. Cullen, but okay.” She pointed the wand at her friends. “Now, who am I going to turn into a frog?”

In spite of the music, played at normal volume, not many people danced; Rachel and Val gathered with Gianna and Gianna’s friend Tara by the bleachers. Rachel startled to see Dan Chalmers, dressed as Pennywise the clown, by her side.

“You look really creepy,” Rachel said. “Who did your makeup?”

“My Dad.” Rachel imagined that Dan came from an intact family like her own. He might have told his father about her, plied him for advice about how to ask her out.

“Your dad did your makeup?”

“Yeah. He has a steady hand. He paints model airplanes and boats.” Dan rocked back and forth on his heels. He would have a good father. That sounded right.

“So,” Rachel said. What else could she say?

“You did a great job on your makeup,” he said. Val, seated not far from Rachel, looked up.

“It’s all Val,” Rachel said. Val turned and smiled. Rachel’s felt a warm pressure in her chest.

“Awesome job, Val,” Dan said, raising his voice and leaning in.

She acknowledged him with a wave of her wand. “I did it by magic.”

“Huh,” he said as Rachel felt herself grow warmer. She knew Dan wanted to speak to her, erase the rest of them.

Rachel noticed that Tara made eye contact with Gianna, opened her eyes wide and tipped her head to the left. Gianna gave a quick glance over her shoulder at Dan and said, “Hey, guys. Let’s get something to drink.” She still had a soda can in her hand.

Only Val looked back at Rachel, shrugged her shoulders, mouthed “I’m sorry,” and, swinging her wand, jogged to catch up with the others.

“That was subtle,” Dan said. Rachel had to smile.

“I didn’t mean to take you from your friends. I just thought I’d come say hi. How are you?” He had to raise his voice a little to talk over “Thriller.” He leaned in toward her, smelling vaguely of Axe. She wondered if he’d put it on, hoping to see her. To impress. He’d helped raise her grade from a ‘C’ to a ‘B+’ in anatomy, and she was grateful, but standing beside him all she wanted to do was escape. She wanted to be with her friends.

“I’m good,” Rachel said, looking away. It was hard to look at the clown makeup without feeling uneasy.

“So, maybe… I was wondering if you might like to go out sometime.”

“Dan—”

“It doesn’t have to be like a date. We could just go as friends.”

But we’re not friends. “I don’t know.”

His voice tensed. “What does that even mean?”

His eyes, black-rimmed, looked cruel; the red slivers of makeup, sharp against the white background, ran vertically from his forehead to the edges of his mouth like ribbons of blood. This and his red hair, thick on top, looked menacing.

“I don’t know,” she said again; sweat gathered on her forehead.

“You think I’m a loser, don’t you? You think I’m pathetic.” His voice was flat; dull.

“No.”

“I am, maybe,” he said, looking down. He tapped his black Nike sneaker against the base of the bleacher. “You know I’m crazy about you. I’ve made it so obvious.”

She looked down at her nails, painted black. Val had decorated her completely.

Crazy about you.

When she didn’t answer, he said, “This is going to sound stupid to you, but I feel like we belong together.”

“How could you possibly know that?” she said, an arch rising in her voice. “You don’t even know me that well.”

He spoke methodically, as if reciting a list: “I know you love animals. I know you’re a good friend, especially to Val. You work hard, you listen well. I like your clothes. Your hair—”

This hair?” she said, pointing at her ragged head, the raised strands stiff with hairspray.

He smiled, but she sensed his latent annoyance at being interrupted. He shifted his position and cracked his knuckles.

“I notice you. I notice everything about you. You’re beautiful, Rachel.”

There was no way to make her escape. She felt dizzy. Trapped. Yet she had an impulse to kiss him on his white, unblemished cheek. She almost smiled, thinking of the silly image: this zombie and clown sharing a moment of affection.

“I don’t like you that way, Dan. I just don’t. I’m sorry. And I can’t go out as friends, pretending… you know. Why waste your money on me?”

He gave her an actual smile. Combined with the painted-on grin, he looked like he wanted to rip her head off. She shivered.

“It wouldn’t be a waste. I’d be honored.”

She shook her head, knowing how ridiculous she must look with her weeping wound and her teased hair, so messy and fake amidst all this gravity.

“I’ve got to go,” she said. She turned around, walked a few paces, then turned back. “I just want to tell you: You’re the bravest person I know.”

After the Halloween bash, Val and Rachel waited outside the gym for Rachel’s mother to pick them up. Val told Rachel she had a boyfriend named Clay who she met online.

Rachel’s head spun and temples throbbed. “Online? Where online?”

“He follows me on Instagram. Does it matter?”

Rachel pressed her with questions: How old is he? Where does he go to school? What does he look like?

“He’s almost twenty-one. He works for a towing company. He has brown hair, brownish eyes. They’re light brown, sort of like maple syrup.”

Rachel looked at Val’s dark lips, the fake blood smeared on her cheek; it looked almost like a bruise under the streetlamps.

“What?” Val asked. “I thought you’d be happy for me.”

Rachel’s chest burned; her stomach lurched. She felt hot; even her scalp prickled. “What about that day with you and me in your room? What about that?”

Val looked away; Rachel could not sense of Val were angry, sad, or simply indifferent.

Rachel touched Val’s arm gently. “Val?”

“It was good,” Val said, though her expression belied her words, her mouth pulled down, her eyes askance. “But you know it can’t be more than that. I—”

“Why not?” Rachel spoke with a new confidence, born of anger. Good wasn’t a strong enough word. She pressed against it.

“Because we’re not gay, Rach. That’s why not.”

Rachel felt dizzy; nausea gripped her. “You know what, Val? You can just fuck off.”

She stepped away from Val just as her mother pulled up in her Escalade. Rachel got in the passenger seat, left Val to sit by herself in the backseat.

At Val’s house, Val said, “Thank you, Mrs. Downey,” and gave Rachel a weak good-bye that she did not answer.

“What is it?” her mother said as soon as Val closed the door. “Oh, sweetie,” she said. “Come here.”

Rachel shook her head; her mother handed her a tissue. Rachel wiped her face, the tissue smeared with red paint that looked like bright blood. Rachel shivered, recalling Val’s fingers on her skin as she applied the make-up, her warm breath on her cheek.

She imagined Val kissing over-aged Clay, her tongue in his mouth, her satisfied smile as she pulled away, gazing into his maple-syrup eyes. Rachel wished she could recall the feel of Val’s tongue upon hers, the taste of her, but she could not. It was as if the entire moment was a fantasy, fake as the costumes Val conjured for them.

When Rachel got home, she ran to the bathroom, stared at the face Val had created: the damaged cheek, the hollowed eyes surrounded with blue-and-purple shadows as if she’d been punched.

At the cafeteria the following Monday, Rachel approached Dan Chalmers at his lunch table, asking quietly if they could talk. He had just taken a bite of a whole-wheat sandwich. She could feel all of his friends looking at her.

“What’s up?” he asked as they stood by the vending machines.

“I’m ready to go out… I mean, if you still want to.”

He paused as if he hadn’t heard her correctly.

“You mean it?” he asked. “This isn’t some bet?”

“Of course not,” she said. “I’m sorry I put you off before.” She noticed his acne had cleared a bit. He wore a dark green Henley that accentuated his light green eyes. He looked almost handsome.

In the dark movie theater, Rachel settled close to Dan. He was hesitant, holding her hand like an egg. He told her she smelled good.

Rachel thought all night about whether or not he would try to kiss her.

In her driveway, he leaned toward Rachel in his Corvette, a barely perceptible motion. She moved in, uniting their lips, touching her tongue to his. She closed her eyes, and she was in Val’s room, Val’s bed.

It was Val’s lips she kissed.

Christine C. Heuner has been teaching high-school English for over twenty years. She lives with her family in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Narrative, Philadelphia Stories, Flash Fiction magazine, and others.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

  The Vanished Hitchhiker

January 15, 2021
hitchhiker

By James Gallant

December 1971, a clear, cold late afternoon sky. Maya had good luck thumbing rides after leaving college in Des Moines that morning. She was now within thirty miles of her family’s home in Evansville. But for the last couple hours, she’d been standing by a two-lane road in rural southern Indiana, her backpack at her feet, cars and trucks whizzing by as if she were invisible.

She was making the mandatory trip home for the year-end Xmas shopping and gluttony revels conjured by the retail industry, with the assistance of spectacular imagery explosions: Coca-Cola Saint Nick, the stable scene in Bethlehem, jingle bells silver bells candy canes at the five and dime dreaming of a white Tannenbaum hung by the chimney with care. Scrooge and his entourage of spirits had materialized again with the reminder that anyone who didn’t shop until he or she  dropped one was going straight to hell; and  there was Bob Cratchit and (god-bless-him) Tiny Tim to obscure awareness of the atomized, essentially gratuitous, American family. The seasonal hoopla, whose continuance was guaranteed by cultural inertia, reduced millions to depression.

Maya liked the word “inertia.” Both of its contrasting definitions were appropriate where “the most wonderful time of the year” was concerned. “Inertia,” on the one hand, described tendency of things in motion to continue in motion until impeded by an external force or obstacle. Otherwise, the term referred to stagnation, immobilization, paralysis, and torpidity.

If “inertia,” in both senses, was valuable for describing the year-end holidays, it  described also the American educational system that involved her, superintended by what Paul Goodman called the “school monks”: the creeping sludge of curricula, schedules, and testings valuable mainly for developing habits useful once a person was conscripted into the employment army: showing up on time, sitting still, following  instructions.

She’d encountered recently in a college text, William F.  Ogden’s conception of “culture lag,” a form of inertia. As rural-small town America was undergoing transformation into a predominately urban and industrial society, Ogden observed in 1922 that the altered material circumstances did not prevent people from passing on from generation to generation mores, values, and folkways that had originated in other circumstances. Conflicts between expectations and reality were inevitable. “Culture lag” epitomized Maya’s life experience. She understood immediately what Ogden was saying without even having to read the book in which he had said it.

She’d been warned countless times about the dangers of hitchhiking, but she’d  never had any trouble on the road, and liked thumbing rides. There was a pleasing simplicity about having one’s attention being focused on the simple task of getting from here to there,  temporary liberation from the dubious purposes and artifice imposed on her otherwise.

However, she was feeling a little anxiety at the moment. It was getting late. Dusk came early that time of year. Traffic was sparse now, and the temperature dropping. A cold breeze blew fitfully. She was not far from Evansville, but too far to walk.

A huge full moon appeared on the horizon. From the back pocket of her jeans she withdrew a little red notebook whose cover bore the title she’d scrawled across it:  MANTRAS FOR ALL OCCASIONS. The “mantras” were lists of related words she’d jotted down, mainly synonyms, characterizing aspects of her life experience. In order that the moonlight would shine over her shoulder on the pages, she turned her back to the roadway. Her musings on inertia and culture lag attracted her to the page titled GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS. Listed under it were stereotyped, standard, walking through it, keeping up appearances, pro forma.

She flipped through the pages to PASSE: outmoded, defunct, dated, extinct, fusty, old-hat, out-of-date, faded, lapsed, obsolete. The enigmatic phrase “a posthumous society” which she had written in parentheses at the bottom of that list after encountering Ogden, brought a smile to her face.

A presence in the corner of her eye caused her to look back to the roadway. Approaching slowly, silently, was a  scene from a nostalgic Christmas card: a carriage pulled by four horses. The driver seated on the carriage bench above the horses, reins in hand, wore a top hat. She assumed the coach-and-four were participants in Christmas festivities somewhere, and it did not occur to her that might try to hitch a ride, but the carriage kindly stopped for her, and the door in its side sprang open invitingly.

“Are you going to Evansville?” she called up to the coachman, whose face was silhouetted by the moon so she could not see its expression. He did not reply, but simply extended an arm, and pointed a finger, to indicate his direction, which was toward Evansville. Wherever specifically the coach was bound, she would at least be going in the right direction, better off than where she was.

The coach was egg-shaped. She stepped through the open door. The dark interior was only large enough for a single person. There was no one inside. Who had opened the door? Seating herself, she felt the upholstery grip her shoulders firmly on either side. The door shut.

There was no sound of horses’ hooves or wheels turning on the pavement. It was as if the carriage were stationary, but looking through a narrow horizontal window in the side of the carriage she witnessed the illusory movement of the moon behind skeletal winter tree tops. It was as if the coach were flying.

When streetlights began to appear Maya supposed the coach had reached the suburbs of Evansville. She must inform the driver where she wanted to be let out, since for all she knew the coach might pass through Evansville, cross the Ohio River on the bridge to Kentucky, and continue into the South. Stagecoach compartments in historical films she had seen, had little windows that could be opened to allow communications between passengers and drivers. She felt along the front wall of the dark carriage, but found nothing of the sort. Perhaps she could get the driver’s attention by rapping on a solid surface, but she could not find one of those, either. The interior of the coach was a padded cell. She tried the door handle. It was locked.

Now the carriage was passing homes in residential streets, and when it came to a halt she saw through the carriage window a portion of a house door decorated with the blinking red nose of Rudolph the Reindeer, which could only be the battery-powered seasonal ornament her father installed every December. She had somehow reached home.

The carriage door opened. She got out. Making her way across the lawn to the porch, she watched the carriage continue down the street silently to the dark dead-end where it appeared to vanish.

The house door was unlocked. She entered. From the foyer she could hear a murmur of voices, and the dining room clink and clank of silverware on plates. She went to the doorway of the dining room where her mother and father, with her two younger siblings, were at the table.

“’Lo,” she said.

There was no response.

“’Lo,” she said louder.

Her little brother, the one with artistic skills, was drawing on a paper napkin.

“I expect Maya will be barreling in any time now,” her father said.

“If she didn’t decide to spend Christmas somewhere else,” Mother put in.

“O, she wouldn’t do that,” Dad said.

“I wouldn’t put it past her.”

“Goofy Maya,” her brother Timmy said. “I did a picture of her.” He handed around the table the cartoon drawn on a napkin, Maya glimpsed the caricature which featured her very large ears. The picture stirred general merriment.

“That’s not nice, Timmy,” Mother said.

“It’s a good picture,” Dad said, “but you shouldn’t make fun of your sister. She’s just trying to find herself.”

Maya was reminded of Alan Watts’ remark that people trying to “find themselves” could be trying for a long time, since they were looking for what did not exist.

“With Maya, we just have to batten down the hatches and be patient,” Dad said. “She’s smart, and there’s nothing with her that getting a job, marrying and having a couple kids won’t fix.”

“I’d be happy if she just stopped hitchhiking,” Mother said. “It’ll be the death of her.”

James Gallant’s “La Leona, and Other Guitar stories,” which won the 2019 Schaffner Press Prize for music-in-literature, is now available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. His e-novel, “Whatever Happened to Ohio?” from Vagabondage Press, and a collection of essays and short fiction, “Verisimilitude: essays and approximations,” published by Fortnightly Review press (UK), appeared in 2018. (Gallant has been an online columnist for FR since 2015 (http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/category/verisimilitudes/). His website is: www.jamesgallantwriter.com

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Is your writing ready for the next level?

Bestselling author Emily Rapp Black has limited space in an online workshop through Hugo House. This ten week intensive is designed to work with the narrative clay that each writer presents, and helping the writer shape that piece to its highest level. Check out this unique opportunity!

  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Song Looking for a Tune

January 8, 2021

By Travis Stephens

“What’s the matter?’ she asked for the third time in as many nights.

Tonight he was ready to say “nothing,” knowing it would sound half hearted. Low down half hearted, a song would say. Roman rolled those words around in his mind, probed them with his tongue. Can’t make it rhyme, can’t make it carry.

“I don’t know what’s the matter with you,” Susan said. “You’re in one of your moods.” They had moved into this place two years ago, glad for a house close to the city park. Now Susan could walk out with the dog and do a clockwise loop on the walking path. There were a lot of dogs in the neighborhood and Susan waked with a tight knot of Labs, spaniels and standard poodles. Roman’s dog, an otherwise proud Walker hound, had taken to whining and sometimes peeing in anticipation of the morning walk. Roman felt embarrassed for the dog.

That dog had been the impetus and star of his second best song, the one picked up by that handsome Nashville singer married to the Australian actress. Not that the singer needed a hit, but got one anyway. He put a little Oklahoma onto the song when Roman had wrote it with a Kentucky state of mind. A little moonshine and banjo around a hound who left him with his estranged wife. Nashville had run a fucking dobro over the best finger picking Roman ever tried. The royalty checks helped ease the pain, but goddamnit anyway.

His first hit, the song he was known for, was told through the eyes of a little boy whose father drove a truck “steering big wheels of sadness” for days at a time. A tear jerker in the best country tradition, with mandatory slide guitar wail. It ended with an uplifting final message.

“Where did that come from?” Susan asked, when he had played it for her.

“I dunno. Just did.”

“I don’t see how. Your Daddy teaches economics at Saginaw Valley.”

“It’s not about me, Sue.”

“It’s weird.”

Roman had been teaching composition at the two-year university and sending free verse poems out to literary magazines. He had shared the song with Debbie Garnet, a folk singer he had grown up with. Dated, briefly, too. Debbie knew someone who knew someone and when the publication contract arrived in the mail Roman thought it for one of his poems. The call from Jackie followed shortly after.

“Hey, bub,” Jackie said in her whiskey and Diet Coke voice, “you probably need a better agent. I got you covered right here.”

“I don’t have an agent?”

“You just book shows on your own? Oh, honey child, time to move out of your parents’ garage.”

“I don’t do shows. I’m not part of a band. I work teaching English and composition full time.”

“You’re just a Kris Kristofferson, ain’t you?”

“More like a John Moreland.”

“I don’t even know who that is.”

On Jackie’s advice he had rented a small studio and reduced his teaching to part-time.  He attended a songwriter’s workshop in Nashville, which Roman found to be exactly like any other writing workshop, full of snark and self congratulation. Jackie took him on a round of the smaller recording companies.

“Let me do the talking,” she said.

Roman paged through the press releases she was passing around.

“Wait, I’m not from Texas.”

“Hush. Everybody is from Texas. Just talk slower when anybody asks you something.”

“I’m not a trucker, either.”

“Don’t you worry about it. Nobody reads these things anyway.”

Afterward he was glad to go home. Nashville seemed  enamored with slight young singers with oversized guitars. These singers, usually attractive blond women, were guarded by a coterie of executives and makeup artists. Roman heard his songs when they emerged from a radio and sometimes struggled to recognize his writing. It was why they lived across the line, in the corner of Kentucky that abutted Arkansas. “Whooee,”Jackie, said, “why you want to live over in that cracker barrel?”

“I just like it, Jackie. We can afford a nice house there. Besides, it’s only a few hours away.”

“If you say so.”

Today Roman had taught class from eight to eight-fifty and had spent the rest of the day in his studio. The painter who had the adjoining studio had been spraying fixer on a series of abstract landscapes so Roman was forced to open his windows. Eventually he moved a stool onto the tiny galvanized steel fire escape and sat out there. It overlooked a lot of gravel, grass and the bones of a burnt out garage. As Roman watched a cat slunk along the cinder block wall. It moved with a sneaky furtiveness that spoke of having done some terrible wrong.

Roman strummed the guitar and mouthed a series of phrases that contained “cat”, “heartbreak”, and “night” which eventually tuned into a few good lines about tomcatting into the morning light. Not bad.

But that was it. No focus. A few words surrounded by daydream. These were full of jingles and carried by cliché. He was strumming when he heard movement behind him.

Stuart was a self taught painter who, Roman suspected, lived illegally in his studio. That couch looked too slept in. It wasn’t like Stuart had a string of models he bed. The artist was a pear shaped man with a mean set of eyes. He’d stepped into Roman’s open door and was wearing a full face shield. Roman saw him peel it off.

“Must be nice,” Stuart said.

“What?”

“To work with nothing. No paints or canvas. Man, I got thousands of dollars tied up in oil paints and gesso. You can just sit with a guitar.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Sure it is.” Susan had framed one of his songs and it hung on the wall. Stuart tossed his thumb at it. “What is that, two chords?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“You’d think all country songs would already been done. All the possibilities run through. We have been painting for hundreds of years. Da Vinci. Michelangelo. Rembrandt. You could go back to the cave painters. Thousands of painters. It’s art that never ends.”

“Listen” Roman said, “How much longer you going to be spraying over there? You about give me a headache.”

“I just did the first coat,” Stuart said. “Two more coats to go.”

Roman fled to his car. Tossed the guitar in the back and drove the opposite direction of home. He wasn’t hungry. Before he went two miles he saw a ROAD WORK AHEAD, followed by WAIT FOR FLAGGER. He drove slowly past yellow behemoths grubbing in the dirt. Roman stopped when a flagger in a safety vest stepped in front of him. She held her palm toward him like she could fend off a songwriter in a half ton of steel.

She stood in the road a yard ahead of his radiator with a flag held lazily horizontal. The flagger wore scuffed work boots and jeans, a gray t-shirt. Her hair tried to lift the hardhat. County tomboy. Roman tried to imagine what someone like that would say when she came home after a day of standing on a road shoulder. How was your day? Exciting. Today I saw a red sports car. Kids on a bus waved to me. How was my day? Like any day just outside the grave.

Were there any songs about flaggers? He couldn’t think of one. Most country songs glorified the manly pursuits—ranching, trucking, building stuff or knocking it down. Roman tapped on the wheel, playing with a loose string of words that might be coaxed into a rhyme. Flag, nag, brag. Wave, crave and save. Maybe wave the flag and tie it to the US flag. Checkered flag.

Darlene, he decided. Dar—leen. Like darling. She lived in a trailer—no, she lived on a little place just big enough for a horse. Dreamed of carrying the flag on horseback like she used to do at the rodeo, flag over her shoulder, proud and tall with a Stetson instead of a hardhat, a pearl buttoned shirt with those western yokes. Big smile for the crowd. let’s give her a hand, folks, Miss Darlene of Abilene….

“Hey.” The flagger was at his driver’s side window. She was not smiling. She placed her hands on her hips. “What’s the matter with you? When I lower the flag it means you can go. Okay?” He heard her say “Dumbass” just under her breath.

Roman stepped on the gas a bit too hard. Spat gravel at the car behind him and toward the flagger. Damn. So long Darlene. So long. Nobody sings about flaggers and now he knew why.

Travis Stephens is a tugboat captain who resides with his family in California. An alumni of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, recent credits include: 2River, Sheila-Na-Gig, Hole in the Head Review, GRIFFEL, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

Recommended Reading:

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Chinchillas

December 11, 2020

By Con Chapman

Ray was chief of police and Sue Ellen was his wife; Duane was their only son and Sandra their only daughter.  When he was younger Duane had learned how to keep himself company while his dad worked for long stretches of time.  He took up hobbies that didn’t require a playmate, such as coin collecting and building model cars, which he pursued while he waited for his dad’s day off.  When that day came, Duane hoped they could play catch or, better yet, that his dad would pitch to him.  If the latter was the case, they would drive over to Veterans Park and his dad, in his undershirt and smoking a cigar, would throw batting practice until his right shoulder was stiff.  Those were the best days, but there weren’t that many of them.

When Duane became a teenager, his mother worried that he wasn’t social enough and encouraged him to join a club at school or go out for a sport so that he’d meet new people and make some friends.  Duane said no, he was fine.

“You oughta get a job, you’re old enough,” his dad said, but Duane had a different idea.

“There’s an ad in Model Car Science where you can send away and learn how to raise chinchillas in your basement.  I’d like to try that.”

His mother didn’t like the idea of a bunch of rodents in the house, even if they were locked in cages.

“We never go down there anymore,” Ray said in support of the boy’s idea.

“Maybe you don’t.  I have to do laundry every day.”

“We could move the washer up into the room off the kitchen.”

It had been one of Sue Ellen’s hopes for a long time that they could eventually afford to move the laundry upstairs so she wouldn’t have to walk up and down the basement steps everyday, so she agreed that Duane could turn the basement into his chinchilla farm.

Duane sent off the money to the address in the ad, which read “RAISE CHINCHILLAS AS A HOBBY. Fabulous profits. Small space in your basement, garage, or extra room is all you need.”  Two weeks later he received a male and a female in a cardboard box with airholes in the sides, and put them in the pen he had built in the basement.

“I figure I can keep up with them,” Duane said when his dad would come down into the basement to see how he was doing with the cages.  “I can swing a hammer pretty good,” and his dad thought, yes he can, unlike some of the guys he had worked with when he was a line manager out at the recreational vehicle plant before he became chief of police.  He had to let a lot of them go after a week or two.

Sandra didn’t like the smell from the very first.  She complained to her mother that she couldn’t have friends over for cheerleaders’ practice or yearbook meetings.  “It stinks up the whole house,” she complained, and her mother had to agree, it certainly didn’t stop at the basement door.

“Maybe he could open up the windows down there,” Ray would say when his schedule gave him a chance to have dinner with Sue Ellen.

“They’re little basement windows.  I don’t think that’s going to get the smell out of there.”

“Then he just needs to clean the cages more often.”

“You talk to him.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s down there now.”

Ray went down the stairs and found Duane building cages.  “Hey there,” he said.

“Hey,” Duane answered.

“How’s it going?” his dad asked.

“Pretty good.  I’m up to 12.”

“Wow—that’s great.”  He didn’t know whether it was good, bad or indifferent.

“I want to get up to 200.”

“And then what?”

“Sell ‘em and make a bunch of money.”

“Sure—that’d be terrific.”  He paused, then asked “What are you saving up for?”

“I want to buy more.”

Ray considered this for a moment.  “I don’t know that we’ve got that much room down here.”

“I can put a wall of cages in the furnace room, too,” Duane said.

“We could do that, I guess.”

“I need some more plywood and screen wire.  Can I charge it down at Cash Hardware?”

“How much is it gonna be?”

“I figger forty dollars.”

“All right.  But let’s set that as your limit.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t want you getting in over your head.”

“I understand.”

“Okay.”

His dad walked back upstairs and said he’d talked to Duane.

“And he understands?” his mother said.

“Yep,” his dad said, and settled down to read the paper.

Two weeks later there were nine more “chins,” and the new cages that Duane had built were full.

“It smells worse,” Sandra said to her mother.

“I know.”

“Can’t you just go down and yell at him?  I want to have Cindy and Donna Lee over for a slumber party Friday.”

“That’s fine.  I’ll talk to your father.”

When Ray got home Sue Ellen lit into him before he even took his jacket off, asking him what his deal was with Duane.

“We set a limit.  He was gonna build some more cages then sell them off.”

“Well take a whiff, would you?”

Ray sniffed and admitted that the smell couldn’t be ignored.

“I’ll talk to him,” he said.

He picked through the mail, looked out the window over the sink, and headed down the basement steps.

“Hello there,” he announced when he was about halfway down and could see under the basement ceiling.

“Hi,” Duane called back as he continued hammering.

“What’s the update?”

“I’ve got 28, and I’m making a maternity cage to keep the males out after the babies are born.”

“Why do you do that?”

“Otherwise the males get the females pregnant again and wear ‘em out.”

“Oh.”  Your mother would appreciate that, he thought, but now wasn’t the time to tell her an amusing anecdote about the sex life of chinchillas.  “So who you gonna sell these things to?”

“I sent away for a list of places.”

Ray was silent; that didn’t sound too promising.  “Are they pet stores or what?”

“I don’t know—I don’t have the list yet.”

“Well, you’d better get busy on it.  The idea was you were gonna sell ‘em.”

“I know.”

Ray went back upstairs.  He knew he’d have to start pushing harder, but he felt guilty that the chinchillas were all Duane had.  Ray decided he’d do some research on his own.  The town library was only two blocks from the police station.  Maybe he’d walk over there on his lunch hour—the exercise would do him good.

The next day he went over to the Carnegie Library and asked the librarian for some materials on chinchillas.  She picked a few books out of the pets section, showed him the Index to Periodical Literature, then showed him how to do a search on the computer.  To get him started, she typed “chinchilla” into a little white slot on the screen, then clicked on a green “go” button, and a list popped up.  Ray said thanks to the woman, put his reading glasses on and went to work.

It didn’t take him long to figure out that Duane had been duped.  The first article he read was by a state agency in Minnesota that warned people about buying animals to raise for a profit.  The attorney general got a cease and desist against one company, and they had to pay a pretty big fine.

So Duane was never going to be able to sell his chinchillas, and Ray would have to come up with a way out of the mess Duane had got himself into.  He knew better than to try and press charges against the company that sold the animals; it wasn’t like a breaking and entering case, where the guy was in jail and all he had was a court-appointed lawyer for free.  He checked–the company was a long way away, and would have lawyers they paid for.  They would wear Ray down, and he didn’t need that at this point in his life.

When he got home that night Ray told Duane he needed to talk to him, upstairs in his room.  He sat down in Duane’s desk chair and Duane sat on his bed.

“I did a little research on chinchillas today, which you probably shoulda done before you got started.”

Duane just sat there, taking it in.

“You’re never going to be able to sell those things.  I checked into it today.”

“Dad I can sell them . . .”

“I went to the library and read up on ‘em.  It’s a scam.”

“A what?” Duane asked.

“They take your money but they don’t come through on their promises.”

“What promises?”

“You’re not going to be able to sell them for a lot of money.”

Duane was silent.  “I don’t need to sell them.  I’d just as soon keep them.”

“We can’t keep thirty critters in the basement.  They’ll eat us out of house and home.  Plus they’re breeding all the time.”

“I’ll get a job.”

“You should be saving your money for college, not to feed a bunch of rodents.”

Duane said nothing for a moment.

“I’ll work with you to get rid of ‘em,” Ray said.  “I don’t know how the hell we’re gonna do it, but we’ll figure out something.”  Ray got up and as he moved past Duane into the hall, patted him on the shoulder and said “Live and learn, son—live and learn.”

Ray didn’t see it but Duane started crying once he was gone.  Duane felt bad that he was crying—he was too old and his dad hadn’t yelled at him.  He didn’t do anything dramatic, like throwing himself on his pillow or slamming his door shut, but he couldn’t stop crying, and it showed on his face, so he couldn’t deny it when Sandra walked out of her room, stopped, and asked why he was crying.

“None of your business,” he said.

“Dad told you to get rid of those stupid rats, didn’t he?”

“They’re not rats.”

“I told you so.”

“You didn’t tell me anything.”

“I told you to get rid of them—same difference,” Sandra said as she walked off.

Duane got on his computer after he had calmed down and started searching for people who would buy chinchillas.  After ten minutes he gave up and began to write down the addresses of places that would adopt them.  He didn’t know what he was going to do if he had any left over; maybe he could sell them at school.

He decided to take a card table to school and set it up in the cafeteria at noon time for a week.  One girl was interested—she took the chin out of its portable cage and held it up close to her face—but the next day she told Duane her mother wouldn’t let her.  There was one kid dressed all in black who said he might be interested, but Duane didn’t want him to have one—he thought he’d kill it for fun.

By Friday the curiosity of Duane’s chinchilla enterprise had worn off and no one even stopped to talk to him.  When his dad got home he greeted Duane with a “Howdy, partner,” as if he was expecting to hear great news.  “How’d it go today?”

“Not so great.  Still didn’t sell any.”

Stay positive, his dad thought.  “Well, you might offer to give a few away, just to drum up some interest.  Lots of stores do that.”

“I don’t think it’s gonna help.  The kids go home and ask their parents and they say no.”

Ray had known for a while that it was going to end this way.  “Let’s go down in the cellar,” he said as he got up, and the boy went ahead of him.  Ray reached under the sink and took a trash bag out of the box and followed.

It would be a hard lesson to learn, but it was one he had to teach, he thought.

“We won’t do this all at once, but we’re gonna have to start getting rid of these little fellas,” he said.  “Empty out a couple of cages into this bag.”

Duane’s eyes misted up, but he did what he was told, lifting eight chins out of their cages one by one and dropping them into the bag.  When his dad said “That’s enough” they went upstairs and into the garage, where his dad took a spare brick, put it in the sack, tied the top in a knot and put it in the back of his pickup truck.

They drove in silence a few miles to a bridge over a man-made lake, out beyond where the houses ended.  Ray turned on his emergency flasher, stopped his truck, got out and walked around to Duane’s side.  “Get out,” he said as he pulled the trash bag over the side of the truck.

“Here—take this,” Ray said as he handed the bag to Duane.

Duane took the bag and held it in his hand.

“Drop it in.”

“Do I have to?”

“You brought ‘em into this world—you’re gonna have to put ‘em under.”

Duane took the bag and walked over to the rail.  He looked down into the brown-green water, felt the life within the bag, lifted it over the rail–and let it drop.

The bag hit the water with a softer sound than he expected, then sank out of sight as the brick pulled it down.  Duane watched it for a few seconds, then turned around and looked his dad in the eyes.

“Better get used to it,” his dad said.  “We got quite a few to go.”

They got in the car but before they could get started another truck pulled up beside them and the driver rolled down his passenger-side window.

“Hey Ray,” the driver yelled.  “Whatcha got there—a cat that needs an operation?”

“Hey Vern.  Naw–something more exotic.”

“What?”

“Chinchillas,” he replied, with an emphasis that made Duane sink down in his seat.

“Oh—can’t you make your wife a coat out of ‘em?”

“Naw—I’m no good at sewin’.  This here’s my boy, Duane.  He raised ‘em but we got too many now.”

“Oh—okay.  Well, I can’t use ‘em neither,” the driver said with a smile.  “See ya.”

“See ya,” Ray said as the man pulled away from them.

Ray turned the ignition, put the car in gear and, after checking his rear view mirror out of habit, drove off.

“We’ll come out here every night after I get off work until we’re rid of them,” Ray said.

“All of ‘em?” Duane asked.

“You can keep a couple of males if you want, but you better make sure ‘cause I don’t want no procreatin’ once we’re done.”

When they got home Ray went to the living room to watch the news and Duane went down into the basement.  He looked at the stacked cages, and counted the chins that remained—twenty of them.  He watched their little cheeks chewing away, and thought of them sinking into the water, which they never would have felt before.

He started at the top left-hand cage–unhooking the latch and opening the door.  He moved his hand to the right, undid the hook that secured the door, and continued until all of the cage doors were open.  He walked into the furnace room, banged the metal bolt of the bulkhead door to the right, and opened it up.  Some of the chins were out of their cages by now, scurrying around without any sense of which way to go.  He took them one by one and walked them up the steps to the back yard, where he put them down on the ground and watched as they ran off.

Con Chapman is a Boston-area writer, author most recently of “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges” (Oxford University Press), winner of the 2019 Book of the Year Award from Hot Club de France. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, and a number of literary magazines.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Pay Me In Attention

November 27, 2020

By Francesca Louise Grossman

My eyes are too far apart. My skin isn’t rosy or olive, the two options on the online makeup matching quiz. My hair is mid-length and curly. Sometimes frizzy, but I can usually get that under control with some of the expensive hair gel I steal from my mom. My lips are thin. My eyebrows aren’t thick enough. My lashes are nubs. 

My thighs do not gap.

I stand in front of the mirror in my attic bedroom and look at myself. My mother says at sixteen this is the best I’ll ever look, so I should cherish it, but if she’s right I might as well shoot myself now. Thankfully she’s not right about most things. Except the hair gel. 

If only I were pretty. It’s such a lame thing to think, but I can’t help thinking it. If I were pretty, I would be able to walk down the halls in school without slouching. I would be able to raise my hand in class without worrying that my classmates will see my pocked face. I would be able to get my best friend to fall in love with me instead of treating me like a friend with benefits. 

But I’m not pretty. And I know that. And so does he.

I hear my phone buzz. I scan the room and zero in on a pile of sheets on the floor from when I kicked them off last night in the heat. Summer is so gross in New England, and my parents still haven’t put in central AC in our house. They say I can use a window unit if I want to go back down to my old room on the second floor, but I set up my stuff in the attic three months ago and no way I’m moving back downstairs. For now I will fry. 

It’s worth it to be two whole floors away from my parents. They aren’t terrible, but it’s too hard being an only child. Why they stopped at one is anyone’s guess because my mother’s suffocation is enough for at least three daughters.

I shake out the sheet and my phone bounces on my makeshift rug, a bunch of beach towels laid out on the floor because my mother said I was not to bring my shag rug from my old room up into the dusty unfinished attic. I scramble to pick it up. 

Where are you? It’s my best friend, Walter, the very same one with the benefits. We have to go to Annemarie’s party!!!! 

Last thing I want to do. I love hanging with Walter alone, just the two of us, but as soon as we’re around other people, he forgets I’m alive. 

When? 

Tonight!  

I’d so much rather just hang with Walter at home. 

Ugh, I text.

Shut up you’re coming

You’ll owe me 

The text lingers. 

Like a party would kill you, he adds.

It might 

Crystal

OK fine what time? 

9:30. i’ll come get u 

Fine

I throw the phone onto my bed, an old cot that my mother put up in the attic for when my cousins come for Christmas. It’s covered with some couch cushions from a springless loveseat that’s pushed in the corner.

 

I go back to the mirror, turning this way and that, trying to ignore the pimples that have ravaged my cheeks, squeezing my stomach to approximate flatness, trying to see myself as maybe a sixteen year old boy could see me if I could just look a little bit better. 

Maybe working out would help. Maybe not. 

 The truth is I actually don’t really care about most of the sixteen year old boys who might see me. I only care about one. I’m as cheesy as the 80’s movies my mom makes me watch with her when I’m sick and can’t refuse. I am desperately in love with Walter, and I have been all my life. It ripped my heart out when he told me he didn’t feel the same way about me.

It wasn’t long ago. A few weeks. I thought things were going well. I thought we were both on the same page. We had been hooking up for a couple of months, nothing major, making out in his room or my attic. He had his hand up my shirt. I was sitting on his lap. And then I made the mistake. 

He was kissing my neck, making his way up to my ear. His palm lay flat on my boob, like he was going to squeeze but was waiting for something. He stopped, took a breath and looked at me. For a minute neither of us spoke. Then he smiled, kissing my nose. 

“I love you,” I said. It slipped out. 

Walter coughed. In my face. He coughed in my face and I swear he laughed, just a little. 

“Crystal, you know what you mean to me,” he said. 

“What do I mean to you?” 

“Don’t do this, don’t screw with this, you’re my best friend.” 

“But that’s it,” I didn’t want to say it, but I couldn’t help myself. He was still so close to my face, his hand was still up my shirt. I could feel myself starting to sweat. 

“I don’t want to ruin what we have,” he said. 

“Which is what?”

Walter took his hand from my chest and scooted up to the top of the bed. He ran that very same hand through his hair and looked at the ceiling. 

“I’m sorry Crystal, I just don’t feel that way about you.” 

I should have been mad. I should have yelled at him for taking advantage of the situation, told him I wasn’t an object he could play with. I should have thrown him out. But this wasn’t just some guy. This was Walter. He was my very favorite person in the world, my best friend. And he hadn’t promised me anything. 

“OK Walter,” I said. 

He took my hand. “I’m sorry.” 

Me too. I thought, but this time I kept my mouth shut.

Later that night, after Walter had gone home, I lay in my cot staring at the ceiling. What would I have to do to get Walter to feel the way I did? What would it take to make him see me like that? How could I make a change?

 

That was weeks ago, but I feel the same. Rejected. The next morning, I do my face for school. I put as much foundation on as I can, slathering concealer over the hot red bumps that cover my cheeks. I line my lips with a brownish mauve, dabbing a little gloss in the center as the YouTubers have taught me. I line my eyes in black flicking it out a little from the corner of each eye. I brush on mascara and powder my whole face. Hopefully everything won’t melt off in the heat. I look ok, passable.

I go downstairs to the kitchen, walk to the pot and pour myself a cup of coffee. 

“Morning Hun,” my mom says, coming over to hug me. I don’t want to mess up my face so I pull away, something she misinterprets as me not wanting to be close to her. She thinks I hate her, which just makes me hate her. 

“When are you home today?” she asks. 

This question. If I answer it, she’ll be waiting for me, and get upset if I’m “late.” If I don’t, she’ll think I’m hiding something. 

“Text me later and I’ll tell you,” is as much as I can give her. I grab a banana from the bowl on the table, and make my way to the bus. 

 

About an hour later I’m in math. I touch the grooves on the old wooden desk. Years of teenagers have scratched the surface with points from a pencil, a protractor, a ruler, a pen. Teachers can see if we’re writing something, but they never notice us etching, slowly and silently, at the pace of a math class.

I stare at my desk to avoid looking at Walter. Watching him from the back, out of the corner of my eye, even though I know he can’t see me, I notice him squirm. I can make out his waist between the wooden slab and metal rungs that keep the chair upright. I can see how the fabric of his faded tee shirt follows the curve of his sides, grazing him, almost meeting the waist of his jeans. That inch of skin. It is so pale, and so smooth, I can imagine, without much effort, how it might feel, how it might taste.

Today Mr. Parker is talking about sines and cosines in the faint background, but my thoughts are far away from anything resembling Trig. I trace my gaze upward, landing on the back of Walter’s neck. His dark brown curls reach his earlobes and I wonder if they tickle him. I’m jealous of his hair for getting to be so close. 

The bell rings. Mr. Parker looks directly at me as he says, “We’ll have a quiz on this on Monday.” His look suggests he knows I wasn’t paying attention. I hide behind my hair, and

gather my graph paper, completely blank, following  the herd of sophomores out of the classroom. 

I squeeze past kids clogging the hallway, stumbling, and there he is. I tuck my hair behind my ear and smile. My heart beats too fast. My hands get too sweaty. This is my best friend. I know him. He knows me. I don’t understand why my insides don’t know this. I have to be cool. 

“Hey Crys.” 

He waited for me. 

“Hey Walter,” I say, and I can’t help it, my stomach flutters. I have told myself a million times to let it go. But look at that hair, those eyes, his smooth cheeks. 

Truth is, I’m pretty sure he loves me too. He just won’t admit it. I’m the one he calls when he needs a pep talk. I’m the one he texts to go out when his parents are fighting. I’m the one who knows he’s afraid of the dark, and sleeps with the TV on. 

“Wanna walk me home?” he asks.

My pulse speeds and I nod, my voice failing me. This happens all the time. My brain forgets. It makes new realities that I believe. 

Walter hooks his arm through mine. It’s almost summer and our arms are bare. A shiver runs up to my shoulder from where our skin touches. 

Walter leads me to the big double doors that go out behind the high school. His house is on the far side. We walk slowly, making our way to the other side of the wide set of fields, where the younger kids have their soccer games and the JV girls play field hockey in the fall. 

Walter is telling me things like the party is going to be epic, they should make a pact to drink only two beers so they don’t get out of control, should he wear jeans or shorts? but it’s the thick arm hair in the crease of his elbow that I’m focused on, so unlike my own smooth crease it feels almost pornographic. 

 

When we get to the edge of the first field, Walter pulls me towards a large oak, one side covered in a florescent green moss. He leans me up against it, taking me by the hips. Why does he do this? Doesn’t he know what this does to me? 

One of the many problems with the situation is that Walter is more than willing to fool around in secret. This should infuriate me; and I sort of wish it did, but I let it happen because, in a way, it thrills me. If we hook up in secret then I’m a secret, and if I’m a secret I’m worth keeping secret. Right? Could that be a good thing? 

I wish that I believed that. I wish that were true. But I think Walter wants to hook up with me when we’re alone in the woods because he doesn’t want anyone to see us. That kind of secret is not the nice kind. 

Walter puts a palm on my shoulder. Our chests brush up against each other. Sparks fly up my leg and land between them, but I don’t flinch. I don’t want anything to stop what is about to happen. 

“Should I stop?” Walter asks, trailing one finger along my collar bone. 

“Yes, no, yes, stop,” I answer, even though I know in my mind this is all crazytown. Teenage boys are obsessed with sex, my mother would tell me, it doesn’t mean to them what it means to you. Be careful with your heart, Crystal. 

 

He looks at my mouth and I can’t look away. The small woods are quiet. I can barely hear school letting out through the trees. 

I’m aware of how I must seem to him at this moment, sweat pouring down my back, the sides of my head wet behind my ears. My foundation must be dripping down my face in globs. I am not a polished girl. I know girls like that, of course, who somehow never sweat, whose shirts are never wrinkled and whose hair is never mussed. Walter could have any of them. He could have anyone. But right now he’s here with me, and that has to count for something. I glance back at school. It seems so far away, a canopy of trees guarding us against all of the possible teenage eyes and gossiping mouths. 

A soccer ball comes bounding through the trees and hits Walter in the leg, dissolving our sun dappled moment. A freshman comes jogging to retrieve the ball and stops short when he sees us. He lifts his eyebrows, waits a beat and winks. Walter stands up and passes the ball back to him. “Nothing to see here,” he says. 

“Thanks, man,” the kid replies, chuckling to himself as he jogs back to the field.

The moment lost, we walk to Walter’s house, hand in hand to the basement entrance and into his room. His space is totally private, he took it over when his brother moved out. 

“You’re still up for hanging later tonight?” I ask him.

“Yes! Annemarie’s, it’ll be epic” he says, and he kisses me on the forehead. Epic. Awesome. Forehead. 

I take Walter’s hand. It’s so big, my fingers fit so nicely inside it. How does he not see how perfect this is? 

 I look at him. Walter dresses like a typical parking lot boy, low-slug jeans, tee shirts; in the winter a cracked leather jacket he inherited from his older brother. He wears faded black converse, low tops. When he smokes, which is not as often as people might think, he lifts his face towards the sky like he is praying. 

Walter walks like he carries a huge weight on his shoulders. He’s tall, almost six foot two, and he stoops, but not too much, just enough to remain mysterious. His hair falls delicately over his hazel eyes and I love nothing more than pushing the shock of it back off his forehead with the palm of my hand. Without the bangs in his face, Walter looks younger, fresh, maybe even innocent. His long black lashes are the envy of everyone, myself included. 

Once we toss our backpacks on the floor I pick up the book on his nightstand and finger through the pages. The cover of the book is ripped off so I can’t tell what it is. 

“What’s this?” I ask.

“It’s silly,” Walter says. 

“Is it for school?” I flop back on his bed, lying face up at the ceiling, turning the book over in my hands. 

“No.” He swipes it from me and tucks it in the back pocket of his jeans. The pages re-form their ripples, like they belong there. 

“What is it?” I lunge for him and Walter shimmies out of the way, arching his back away from me. I dive onto him and grab the book out of his pocket. The corner of his grey fitted sheet comes loose. 

“It’s embarrassing,” he says, flushed. “It’s nothing. It’s a book.”

“What book, asshole?” Does he think I’m not smart enough for it?

“It’s a bunch of short stories. Raymond Carver. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Oh come on.” I roll my eyes, though secretly I’m swooning.

“It’s good, I promise,” he says. 

This is one of the bazillion things I love about Walter. His mushy side. Most people don’t see it. They see a brooding bad boy with a wallet chain. But I know the real him. The deep one. The one with the soft palms. The one who reads love stories. The one who pays attention. 

 

“Look, don’t make fun of me. It’s great. It’s not what it sounds like.” He smiles. 

I grab the book from his pocket. It’s ripped up on the edges. I put it up to my nose and smell it, the thin paper scent going directly to my head. It smells like the library and cardboard and laundry detergent. And Walter. 

I put the book softly down on the bed and look up. Walter sports a sheepish grin but I can tell he isn’t really that embarrassed. 

He reaches for me and pulls me towards him. Our bodies align front to front. 

“What do we talk about, then?” I ask. 

“When?”

“When we talk about love?” 

“Crystal, come on,” he says. 

We have talked about this. I know. But I know he must feel it too. He has to. And my mind gets all muddled up between what happens and what he says. 

“I know. Don’t worry,” I say, even though I don’t mean it. 

“OK.” 

My mother texts me:

What time will you be home?

What do you want for dinner?

Crystal?

Hello?

Call me. 

“Ugh, it’s my mom, I have to go,” I say and look around for my shoes. 

“You’re coming with me tonight, though, right?” Walter asks and I sigh. I know what will happen at this party. I will go with Walter, he will stand by me until Annemarie or one of her swan-like friends walks by with their long necks and big boobs and bouncy hair and then he will leave me in the dust. I’ll know no one else there, and I’ll have to call an Uber to get home before midnight. 

“Yeah, alright, I’ll go.” 

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I can make him see me like he sees the swans. I can try, can’t I?

After dinner with my parents, I run up to the bathroom and lock myself in. I shave my legs, I scrub my face, I wash my hair with coconut shampoo. I do my face, slick my hair with gel, pick my outfit, spray perfume. I avoid the mirror, hoping that my imagination of what I could look like will catapult me into a reality in which I do. I pull on my blue halter top, tuck my racerback bra in so the straps don’t show. I put on cutoffs, ones that barely cover my butt cheeks, and I tie a sweatshirt around my waist to cover the shorts until I’m outside. As I run down the stairs to meet Walter, I catch a glimpse of myself in the windowpane. I look good. Not Annemarie good, maybe not even her swans good, but good enough for me. 

 

Walter picks me up at 9pm, which my mother thinks is “an outrageous time to go out.” He beeps the horn. 

“Boys should ring the doorbell,” she says. 

“It’s just Walter,” I say. 

“He’s a boy, right?” My mother is typing on her laptop, but his eyebrows lift up and over the screen. “I know it’s not PC for me to say,” she starts, “but do you ever think of pulling back a little from Walter? Let him come to you?” 

“We’re just friends, Mom.”

“You never have to settle for being good enough Crystal, I hope you know that,” she says. 

“What does that mean?”

“It means, my love, that there is something to be gained from letting him wait a little, letting him want more.” 

I roll my eyes but there’s a part of me that thinks she’s probably right. I know the old he chases you in the playground because he likes you and you always want what you don’t have might be antiquated and unpopular unfeminist tropes but they’re sayings nonetheless. And there’s always some truth in a saying. “Maybe,” I say, I’ll give her a maybe. She smiles, appeased. 

 I let her kiss me on the top of the head. 

“Be safe,” she said. “Home by midnight.” 

I nod and run outside, jumping into Walter’s car before my mom can say anything else. 

“You look hot,” Walter says, and kisses me on the cheek. 

I smile. I have put myself together in the best way I know how. Something that looks effortless, but took me over an hour. 

Tonight. Maybe he will change his mind tonight. 

We get to the party, park around the corner. 

Walter looks at his phone, chuckles.

“What?” 

“Just Annemarie. Nothing,” he says. 

The air hisses out of my heart. 

We go in the back way into the kitchen, where kids are lounging on the counter and playing flip cup at the table. Walter heads to the keg, pumps and pours us a beer each, mostly foam. He hands me one. 

“Thanks,” I say, leaning into him. I want him to smell the coconut, a scent I know he loves. But I want more than that. I want him to lean in towards me and kiss me. I want him to take my hand, show this kitchen of kids that I mean something to him, that we mean something to each other. 

He does not.

Annemarie appears in the doorway, a golden fairy, one hand on the doorframe, a waterfall of bronze curls tumbling down her back. The room hushes just from her presence. Annemarie is beautiful, but it’s more than that. Her face is flawless, not one red bump, not one scar, and not one smear of cover up. She wears a low cut top, red and white polka dots. The outline of a black lace bra is clear underneath. Her shorts are low on her hips. Annemarie has a raspy, breathy voice and when she clears her throat we all wait to hear it. She always sounds like she was just laughing. Like she just finished something that took her breath away. A run, a dance party, a cigarette, sex. Somehow this evokes a sense of urgency, a sense that you should pay attention to her, before she’s off again. If I’m invisible, she’s the show.

I see the change in Walter. He is no longer easygoing. He straightens up, breathes more heavily. I can almost smell him start to sweat. 

“Hey Walter,” Annemarie breathes, and I know I’ve lost already. 

“Hey wassup,” Walter says, handing Annemarie his beer. 

“It’s new,” he says. “I’ll get another.”

“Thanks Babe,” she says, taking a sip.

“I’ll be back Crys,” Walter says and follows this breathy fairy into her backyard.  I know he will not be back. 

 It feels like my belly button bumps up against the back of my throat. I take a sip of the foam in my cup just to have something to do and it goes down the wrong tube. I cough and run to the sink, leaning my head to the faucet. I see my foundation streaming onto the plastic cups already discarded. How I could think I’d be able to keep Walter away from Annemarie is now completely beyond me. I can’t compete with someone like her. 

I put my cup on the table and wipe my chin.  I’ll walk home. I’ll be back way before midnight, and my mom will be thrilled. 

I leave through the screen door, letting it slam. 

I can see Walter and Annemarie sitting on the edge of her pool, their feet dangling into the glowing aqua water. He has a hand on the small of her back, she’s stretching, exposing her midsection. He splashes at her. She laughs in a trill. I don’t know how to trill like that. 

I’m a glutton for punishment. I know this, but I can’t look away. I sit down on the grass far enough away that they won’t see me. I stare.

Walter goes inside and gets them more beers; when he’s back they lean into each other and laugh. I see him touch the curve of her spine with one long finger. 

I lay back, I can’t watch. But I can’t leave either. I close my eyes, mortified that I thought even for a minute that Walter would choose me.

I’m not sure how it’s possible, but I fall asleep there in the grass, and don’t wake up until Walter kicks me lightly on the thigh. 

“Crystal,” he says, “Come on, it’s late,” his voice is slower than normal, like he’s dragging it through honey. 

I don’t move, and he lays down next to me. 

“Was it worth it?” I ask. 

“Annemarie?” 

“Obviously.” 

“Don’t do this,” Walter has turned so that he is facing the sky, one of his arms up and behind his head, the other resting on top of my hand in the grass. 

“Don’t,” I say, pulling away. “Someone might see us.” 

Walter sighs. 

I want to be mad. I want to shove his hand away, get up, walk home like I planned. But I can’t be mad, I can’t move. I know that I’m not his girlfriend. I know the deal. 

“I think I can hear your heartbeat,” I say. 

“Oh weird, I think I can hear yours too,” he says. “Do hearts beat louder when you drink beer?” 

I laugh, turn towards him. 

I let him choose. He could easily turn away. Or he could scooch his way up and let me listen to his heart. Or he could scooch down just a little bit and face my face. 

Our heartbeats amplify while I wait. Maybe it’s just mine. The crickets buzz and the grass is wet on my side and the beer is stale in my mouth. 

Walter touches his lips to mine, gently at first. I don’t react and he kisses me harder, pulling my face toward his with his hands. He parts my lips and kisses me more deeply. As he finds my tongue, I push him softly away, our mouths staying pressed together as our bodies part, holding on. 

“Wow,” Walter says. All I can do is nod in agreement. 

Walter places a hand on the underside of my chin. Right before our lips touch again, I feel a trickle of sweat roll down the side of my face. I pray it doesn’t end up in his mouth. If it does he doesn’t say anything. He just kisses me more. Walter’s lips are cool. And soft. They taste like ocean water mixed with malty beer and just a little bit of honey. 

I know he is doing this because he’s drunk. I know he probably kissed Annemarie this same way just a few minutes ago. I know she’s the honey I taste. I know that on Monday I will still just be the best friend, and his guy friends will be asking what it was like to be with Annemarie on Friday night. I know that I should stand up for myself, tell him he needs to choose, that this isn’t fair.  Tell him I have to protect my heart. 

 

But I don’t do any of those things. I kiss him back. I pretend that this moment is all the moments. I pray someone will see us, so that our whatever this is will be out in the world. If it is out in the world then it’s real. I imagine myself with long honey hair and a see through tee shirt.I imagine the choices I might have. We sometimes have to live in the moment in front of us. We sometimes accept second place because it is so much better than losing everything. 

Francesca Louise Grossman is a writer and writing instructor. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Brain, Child Magazine, The Manifest Station, Ed Week, Drunken Boat, Word Riot, and The Huffington Post among others. She runs writing retreats and workshops internationally, and leads an annual intensive workshop at The Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has a BA and MA from Stanford University and a Doctorate from Harvard University in Education. Francesca lives in Newton, MA with her husband and two children and is currently working on a memoir and a novel.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Click here for all things Jen

Anxiety, Fiction, Guest Posts

Anxiety and the Lamogrian.

October 26, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black

Note from Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station: I was the guest speaker at Canyon Ranch in Lenox and Tucson this month. When I was at the Tucson location I met Natan Baruch when he came to my Manifestation Workshop there. He told me he was a writer. I don’t often get men at my workshops so I tend to get kind of excited when they show up and really commit to being there fully. Natan did. He then went home and sent me something he had just written. A short story. I loved it and decided to publish. Here’s to more of us declaring who we are in the world. xo jen

By Natan Baruch.

Last week I moved to Berkeley, California, to a beautiful two-story blue house where I live with thirteen other people. In the mornings, we chant and pray and meditate, and then we walk down to the farm where we all work. After communal dinners, I like to sit on one of the ratty old couches under the pear tree in the back yard and drink tea.

The other evening, as I sat on the couch and wrote a poem about weasels, I heard a voice say, “Hey,” and I looked up. It belonged to a robot, about the size of a filing cabinet, which sat on the couch across from me.

“Hey,” I said back.

The robot looked uncomfortable. “The Zorgans said-”

I sighed. Once upon a time the Zorgans had hyperslipped into the space between my dresser and my wall and asked me to share my thoughts on creativity, and I, like a fool, answered them. Now hundreds of different species insist on visiting me with their questions.  Continue Reading…