A Feeling I Have Felt

I’m in a car with no cassette tapes or CDs and I’m flipping radio stations rapidly between the six preset and thus easily locatable locations on the dial. There’s nothing on and I have that “57 Channels and Nothing On” post-consumer, dry, sweaty feeling which is rather suddenly relieved by a song that’s not too bad. It’s not great, but it’ll do, maybe it’s a popsong that’s not going to be around in ten years or maybe it’s a random Motown song. But whatever it is, it’s okay, and I listen to it. And it’s pretty good for maybe two and a half of the song’s four minute duration. My head’s bobbing appropriately, if I know the particular song I sing along enthusiastically, and I finally lose my distaste for consumer society. But then I get bored of the song and feel the need to turn the dial. After all, it’s not my favorite song, just something to listen to in the meantime of consumption. But now it’s boring as all meantimes become in our jaded capitalist society. So, I turn the knob from preselected station through countless unknown songs to another preselected station. Finally (and here comes this feeling that I have felt before) I hear one of my favorite songs, and not only one of my favorites but also a song that functions perfectly as a driving soundtrack (some Springsteen maybe, perhaps the Clash). I tune into the song at the chorus so it’s difficult to tell how far into the song I am, but I presume it’s the beginning. Unfortunately, I am wrong, it’s the last chorus and the song is almost over. And this is the feeling that I have felt at this particular moment: regret that I listened to a mediocre song instead of one of my favorites, anger that too much is available and so much of it is not perfect, and sadness for not possessing the instincts necessary to find the perfect song.

————————

Francis Raven’s books include Architectonic Conjectures (Silenced Press, 2010), Provisions (Interbirth, 2009), 5-Haifun: Of Being Divisible (Blue Lion Books, 2008), Shifting the Question More Complicated (Otoliths, 2007), Taste: Gastronomic Poems (Blazevox 2005) and the novel, Inverted Curvatures (Spuyten Duyvil, 2005).  Francis lives in Washington DC; you can check out more of his work at his website: http://www.ravensaesthetica.com/.

Used Crib

The advertisement, as they ran it on Craigslist:

Used crib and crib mattress For Sale.  Slightly chipped. $30 O.B.O.

Next to it: pictures of the crib, dents, scrapes, stains and all.

Waiting for a response, Richard continued packing the car.  He had been on a ten-month research fellowship in Las Vegas, on sabbatical from his job in Pennsylvania.  He had rented a furnished condo, and when they’d arrived last summer they had bought this crib, on Craigslist, for thirty bucks.  Over the year they’d tried to keep an even balance sheet between what was acquired and what was scrapped, with the goal of squeezing everything back into the Subaru for the return trip to Pennsylvania.  Their two children (daughter 4, son 2) had been acquired prior to the trip and presumably could not be scrapped, though the subject occasionally was broached.

In full packing frenzy, Richard had begun loading the station wagon and X-Cargo.  An hour after posting the advertisement, when he next checked e-mail, he had a reply:  Is Your crib Still avalable?  Would you take 25 $ For it?  Mindy

Richard wrote back:

Dear Mindy,

Yes, the crib’s still available, though we need to get rid of it this morning, as we’re leaving early tomorrow.  We’ll take twenty, but you’ll have to come and get it as soon as possible, or we’ll be open to other offers.  Please give a call if you’re interested at the number below.

He made another three trips outside, down the stairs, along the inefficiently winding path, around the garages, to the car.  Their rice cooker, an overstuffed duffel, two heavy cartons of books.  Back upstairs Sandra was cleaning the fridge, the kids scrambling around her, making messes on top of messes.  He needed to go out for a replacement wireless headset and extra pull-up diapers for the trip, and just as they were getting the kids into their shoes (always an impossible task) his phone shrilled out.  It was the worst possible time – each kid with one shoe on.

Sandra answered it. “Yes, we still have it.  Richard, it’s a Mindy.  Did you write a Mindy about the crib?”

“Tell her she has to come and get it now if she wants it,” he called.  He was wrestling his son’s foot into the second sneaker, but while he did this Sasha had managed to kick the first one off.

“We live in Legacy Legends,” his wife was saying.  “It’s a condo unit, on Wigwam and Green Valley.  No, Wigwam and Green Valley.  Do you know where that is?  Are you in this part of the city?  That’s right.  Do you have a truck?  You don’t.”  Sandra grimaced, and then eying Richard, she smiled, those eyes glowing with mischief.  “No, it shouldn’t be a problem.  My husband will be more than happy to break down the crib for you.”

On the couch he cursed beneath his breath, and let Sasha, now shoeless, squirm out between his knees.  They didn’t have time for this shit.  They had half-a-million things to do; the apartment had to be cleared out by this evening to steam the carpets.  Sandra knew the only thing he hated more than disassembling children’s toys and games and furniture was assembling them.  He would have paid twenty dollars not to have to tackle this.

They were the crib’s second, maybe third, owners.  Over the last few nights they had argued about what to do with the damn thing.  It probably no longer met the ever-shifting child safety standards, and Richard was all for just tossing it into the dumpster.  “But someone can use it,” Sandra had insisted, “Just like we used it. Someone might need it.”  She had become obsessed in recent months with Freecycle, with breaking out of the consumerist trap she had seen on a video entitled “The Story of Stuff.”  Yes, she was right; she was always right.  But he just wanted to pack the damn car and get on the road already; ditch this cramped condo and the late-spring Mojave heat.  He’d posted on Craigslist imagining that someone with a truck would come, hand them 30 bucks, and haul off the crib in one piece.

Back in Pennsylvania Sasha would be transitioning to a toddler bed.  It was the end of these excruciating infant years.  Two children, soon both soon out of diapers.  Able to brush their own teeth, drink from an open cup.  Things were finally easing up on the parenting front, and getting rid of this crib had seemed a significant milestone.  Consumerist trap or no, it would have given him much satisfaction to toss it into the dumpster, above the NO FURNITURE sign.

Sandra, still on the phone, was rolling her eyes at what she was hearing.

When she hung up she told him that this Mindy couldn’t seem to make up her mind, even for twenty bucks.  The whole time on the phone she’d been screaming at her daughter, “You want it?” and the daughter kept yelling “What?”  “The crib!”  “What crib?”  “I showed you the picture!”  “I don’t want that crib.”  “What are you going to do then?”  “I don’t fucking want that crib?”  “You need a crib!”  “Fine.”  “You ask Mike if he can bring the truck round?”  “I’m not asking Mike, that prick.”  “How you gonna get the crib?”  “Not with Mike!”  And then Mindy had come back on the phone and said, politely, “We’ll be there very soon.”

So now Richard set to work disassembling the crib, trying not to strip screws or break anything (further), trying to keep the hardware together and out of the prying hands of the children, who danced around him, eliminating any possibility of concentration.  For them a nervous excitement charged the apartment: their toys boxed, clothes suitcased, fridge emptied, bed-sheets stripped, crib now turned upside down like some giant TinkerToy assemblage. Through it all Richard expected this Mindy to show; but this Mindy didn’t, and he was just about to check e-mail to see if there was any other interest in the crib, when the phone rang.

Through lousy coverage a woman’s voice was simultaneously breaking up and echoing.  He couldn’t make out what she was saying.  “Do you need directions?” he guessed out loud.  “Are you lost?  Are you in the apartment complex?  I know it’s confusing.”  He’d found he was yelling. On the other end the voice was mumbling something he couldn’t get, followed by what he finally realized sounded like, “think…at this…your door.”

Could it be?  Richard opened the front door and yes, there they were, a crowd of women, milling in a group on the second floor landing.  Why hadn’t they just knocked?

There were five of them.  The oldest, presumably Mindy, looked like a grandmother, though it was difficult to be certain. She had that indeterminate quality of age somewhere between 45 and 60.  She was bespectacled, bedraggled, slightly hunched, her defeated breasts hanging low towards her stomach.  A tough-looking woman, but some intense confusion now colored her face.  She clutched the cell phone in both hands, her thumb hovering, searching for the off button and not finding it.  Her hair, part sandy-blonde, part gray, clung to the back of her neck in sparse, greasy strands.

Around her stood four younger women – girls really.  The youngest (and prettiest, Richard tried not to notice) was a thin teen with smooth pale skin and long straight brown hair.  She was wearing a tight halter top tucked tightly into tight cut-off shorts.  She, too, was talking on a cell phone; and when she looked up at Richard she wielded an expression of intense scorn, as if by opening his front door he had rudely interrupted a private conversation.

Her three sisters – or cousins? friends? – surrounded her like courtesans.  One was a chunky blonde, and it was she who would, wordlessly, offer the only help Richard would get in the trials to come.  Another of the girls, snapping gum, seemed in some kind of rush, stepping on one foot, and back on the other, leaning over the landing to look out at the golf course.  Maybe she needed a bathroom?  The last girl had something wrong with her: her face wasn’t exactly symmetrical: one side was bloated, the other cheek had a small patch of acne, so it was like two faces grafted together.  She peeked into the apartment and gawked openly at the chaos.

Richard thought: five women, coming for a crib.  Not a father, not a husband, not a boyfriend in sight.  And there seemed to be a generation missing here: no mother, either.

“This is it,” he said, waving a hand at the parts fanned out on the floor and leaning up against the loveseat.  “Look ok?”

Mindy turned to the pretty one in the halter top.  “You want it?”

“I don’t CARE,” she said, pressing her phone between her bare shoulder and ear.  And she went back to chattering on the cell.  “Don’t tell me he said that about me…”

If she were pregnant, there was no clear sign of a child yet – just thinness, and ripened sexuality, and bitter teenage denial of this, the rest of her life, disassembled before her in the flattened mess of railings and brackets.  She couldn’t be bothered with this.  She had been dragged kicking and screaming into the purchase of a twenty dollar used crib.

One by one the group stepped in.  What else was this teen seeing when she walked into their condo?  Suitcases and shopping bags and training potties, and his two children staring up in curious expectation at the unfamiliar faces.  His kids, naturally, were adorable, bright-eyed, long-banged, and anyone else might have said hello, or crouched down and asked their names, returned their smiles.  Anyone else may have praised the starfish made out of Tooberz his precociously creative daughter had constructed and was now holding up to show them.  Anyone else may have admired his son’s line of Matchbox cars fighting their way through traffic across the apple-juice-stained carpet.  The pregnant girl and her minions, standing in the front doorway, acknowledged none of it.

***

The crib broke down into railings, headboards, mattress, sideboards, support beams – about fifteen separate parts.  “Let me help you get some of this,” Richard offered.  He expected the grandmother would say, “We got it,” have each of her girls grab a piece or two, and that would be that.  Crib gone, he’d be free to tackle pressing errands.

But only the overweight blonde moved to grab a single railing by the loveseat.  The grandmother reached into her wallet.  Her hand emerged from a change purse with a worn twenty, limp and soft, surprisingly droopy in the dry desert heat.  Sandra took it and thanked her warmly.  Richard’s daughter Sophia asked what that money was for, and when Sandra explained that they were selling her brother’s crib, Sophia broke into tears.  “Sasha’s crib?  You can’t!” she wailed.  “What will he sleep in?”

“In the hotels he’ll sleep in his Pack’n Play.  Once we get home he’ll have a bed, just like you.”  Patience, clarity, words properly enunciated, syntax precisely calibrated down to a four-year-old’s level.  Sandra’s mother voice usually filled Richard with pride, but at this moment he felt she was overdoing it, playing it up for a hostile crowd.

“No, no, no,” his daughter was saying, “I don’t want you to sell Sasha’s crib.”  She wagged a finger at them.  “No, no, no.”

“Sophia,” his wife said, her voice stern and rising, “please don’t speak to your mother like that.  See how big it is.  It wouldn’t even fit into our car.”

“If you sell Sasha’s crib,” their adorable daughter said, “I’ll hate you forever.”

His wife smiled up at Mindy. “Girls!”

Mindy, watching, did not smile back.  Her expression went blank, and she asked, “It’s still for sale then?”

The chubby blonde, meanwhile, had disappeared down the stairs with her railing.  The other teens and the pregnant girl had followed, taking nothing.  Richard grabbed the two heaviest pieces, the sideboards, and lugged them downstairs himself, holding them up close to his ears so they wouldn’t drag across the rough pebbled stairs.  He squinted into the noon desert sun; the heat prickling his bare arms. Out front it was an infuriating, poorly-planned, thirty yards around the manicured rock path to the parking lot.  Turning the corner past the garages, Richard came upon the truck.

$29.99 In Town! proclaimed the U-Haul rental.  It was a 17 footer; they’d parked it at an angle in the fire lane, one front tire crushed against the curb.  The chunky blonde was handing her single piece of wood up to someone in the cargo area, and the Pregnant Princess, as Richard suddenly thought of her, was sitting up in the passenger seat, with the door open, still talking on her phone, long bare legs crossed, a flip flop dangling off a black-polished toe.

“If he doesn’t want to give me any money, he’s not going to see the damn thing.  It’s his too.  Tell him that!  No, you tell him!”

Richard knew he should have felt only sympathy, but at that moment he hated the girl.

The cavernous back of the truck was large enough to fit fifty cribs; and inside it the gum-chewing sister leaned the pieces he gave them against the side wall instead of stacking them down.  Even to Richard, a Humanist, not mechanically inclined, it was clear that once they drove away the particle-board frames were going to fly everywhere, rattle around the empty truck, possibly break.  He wanted to correct what the girls were doing, but an assertion of paternal authority seemed inappropriate, considering the circumstances.  It wasn’t for him to get involved.  In a situation like this you had to maintain your distance.  He’d never see these people again.  Only on the walk back did it occur to him that the truck cost more than they were charging for the crib itself.  For that price, plus tax, they could have just found a brand spanking new crib somewhere, safely boxed.

Upstairs his wife was still talking to Mindy, who was saying, “Not enough space. We want to get out of here, go back home near Sacramento.  California’s better than Nevada.  But can’t afford it yet.”

“Oh, we honeymooned in Santa Barbara a few years ago,” Sandra told her. “We went whale watching!  We saw dolphins.  It’s a beautiful state.  It really is.”

“Whales?” the grandmother said, falling silent at the sight of Richard.  Sasha had run over and was grabbing Richard’s legs and yelling, “You come dance!  Daddy, you come dance.”  His daughter emerged from her room dressed as a Rainbow Fairy, wings strapped on, looking for an audience.

He saw that Mindy had been confiding something to his wife, woman to woman, and that he had interrupted the beginning of a disclosure.  Mindy remained silent now, watching him suspiciously as he dragged out the crib mattress for his second run downstairs.  Richard smirked at her, and made his sweating way back out the door.

Not one of the girls, not even the chubby one, was on her way back up from the truck to help.  He huffed around the cacti, caught the mattress on the branches of an overgrown Palo Verde, and at the rental found that, for no apparent reason the kids had moved all of the pieces that were previously leaning on the right side of the truck to the left side.  “Here you go,” he said, lifting the mattress up for them.  The overweight blonde grunted something that would be the closest to a thank you he’d get this afternoon, and dragged the mattress across the filthy truck floor.

By now the pregnant one had hopped down off the passenger seat, come around, and instead of climbing in and lending her sisters a hand, asked Richard, “That all yet?”

She couldn’t have been ruder.  But she was so damned pretty, so assured – so tragic, in her condition – that her acknowledging his existence, her deigning to speak to him, disarmed Richard.  He found himself falling in line.  “I think there’s, um, a few more pieces.”  He pointed lamely upstairs, and shook out his gray T-shirt, which was clinging to his torso.  Batches of sweat had darkened his chest in patches; they were dripping down his stomach like leaking breasts.  “One or two more trips,” he conceded.

The Princess grimaced, dismissed him with a turn, and jabbed at her cell again, dialing.  He was inconveniencing her.  Chastened, he made his way back upstairs.  The heat was pounding off the pavement, the air above the cement walkway glimmering white.  The wing on their neighbor Maureen’s shaded hummingbird thermometer pointed to 109.  A dry heat, they called it.

He trudged up the steps once again.  This time when he entered the condo it was his wife who fell silent.  Sandra looked at him accusingly and said, “How’s it going down there Mister?” She had turned on him too.

It took two more trips to get the baseboards, pegs, and bags of screws down to the truck.  On his second to last trip out of the condo he heard his wife speaking in a hushed voice to Mindy. “It’s gonna all work out for those girls.  It’ll be hard, but I promise you, it’ll work out.”

Mindy was backing towards the door.  “Might work out,” she said, shrugging.  “I, for one, don’t see how.”  She attempted her first smile.  Her teeth were misshapen and bent in painful directions, and Richard couldn’t hold her eyes.

He glanced at his wife.  He could tell Sandra was upset.  Mindy followed him out empty-handed.  The baseboard he was carrying wasn’t heavy, but it was wide and awkward, and dancing it downstairs Richard tripped on the third to last step, on a pinecone Sophia had assembled as part of her ‘treasure collection’ and had placed here for the world to admire.  At the last moment he caught his balance, but landed on his ass.  He’d scraped up his elbow against the stone landing – but the baseboard, as it turned out, was unharmed.

Behind him Mindy didn’t ask if he was all right or lend him a hand.  She waited as he clambered to his feet, and she followed his now careful steps through the boiling gardens at a funereal pace.

At the truck he showed the girls that the directions for putting the crib back together were still pasted on the bottom of the baseboard.  He told them to have a look, and if they had any questions to let him know.  He was merely being polite, merely filling the silence as they finished loading the crib pieces, but the blonde took him seriously, and started reading the instructions then and there, out loud, with a puzzled, myopic look. “Required pieces…”

Richard realized only as he listened to her that he had forgotten something: the sideboard for when the crib converted into a day bed.  They’d never used it, and he’d left it up in Sophia’s closet.  He told the women to hold on, he’d be right back, and ran back up to the condo to retrieve it, cursing each step.

Inside, in the shock of the air-conditioning, Sandra grabbed at his elbow.  “She’s seventeen,” his wife said.  “And this is her second time.  She had one just nine months ago, and now she’s pregnant again.  Mindy’s her grandma.  Those are all her grandkids.  When I asked if the mother’s around, she just shook her head.”

“Christ.”

“It’s awful.  Isn’t it awful?”

On his way out he looked at the counter where the wilted twenty dollar bill was curled atop his wallet.  He grabbed it, and went back downstairs, the side railing under his other arm.  Mindy was still standing outside the truck, gazing into the brutal sun, eyes closed, as if she wanted a severe tan. The youngest girl, the one that looked mildly-retarded, was sitting in the driver’s seat, apparently ready to drive away.

“Look,” he said to Mindy, holding out the twenty and gesturing to the truck. “It cost you some money to rent this thing.  Why don’t you take this back.”

He might very well have been insulting her.  Maybe she didn’t care for his charity.  He half-expected her, with the steely pride of the poor, to skewer him with a look, to insist on paying exactly what they’d agreed on.  Instead her hand shot up at him, and she took the rolled bill into her palm, fingers curling tightly around it.

“Looks like it all fits,” she said, indicating the nearly empty 17 foot truck.

He went around one last time to make sure the girls were OK, and inside two of them were still puzzling over the directions, while their pregnant sister blathered away on the cell phone.  The girls were still trying to match the pieces to the instructions, and beginning to argue.

“This gotta be part A.  Maybe this looks like B.”

“No this is part A.  There’s three of ‘em.”

They were already far off the mark, hadn’t even noticed that the wooden parts were labeled.  It must have been 150 degrees inside that truck. He was going to wish them luck.  His Subaru needed to be packed, their cable box returned, a wireless headset purchased, the kids fed lunch, his son put down for a nap.  Bank accounts needed closing.  Mail needed forwarding.  A half million things needed doing before they rolled out of town the next morning.

Instead, he hopped up into that 17 foot oven, found the Allen wrench, grabbed a leg of the crib, and got to work, assembling what had just been disassembled, this time without complaint.

***

Flagstaff.  Albuquerque.  Amarillo.  Oklahoma City.  A nine day trip across country, driving in five hour days – as much as they could push the kids and stand it themselves.  America was rushing by, the majesty of the nation reduced to bathroom breaks and fast food pit stops.  Richard hadn’t thought much of Mindy or the Princess.

Then, between Oklahoma City and Missouri the wind picked up.  Warnings on the radio; but they made it to Springfield before any tornadoes hit town.  That night, after a dinner of the town’s bizarrely famous Chinese cashew chicken, the sirens began blaring.  At the Best Western the walls of their first-floor room shook with the noise; the children grew frightened.  Richard stepped out to double-check that the X-Cargo luggage carrier was securely bolted to the Subaru.  At the edge of the parking lot the trees were bending and swaying around him in an eerie twilight.  Back inside Richard moved Sasha’s Pack’n Play away from the window, into the center of the room.  Sandra muted the television while the kids tried to sleep, and from the bed they watched the Weather Channel’s radar.  Every twenty minutes or so the sirens wailed outside; but the children slept through it.  Even when the sirens cut off, the noise continued to ring through his head, a high-pitched hum, the sound of impending, ceaseless disaster.

Two tornadoes touched down that evening, one outside a convenience store barely a mile from the Best Western.

In the morning after breakfast Richard went to the desk to check out.  There was a pricing issue with the motel room: they’d been charged twenty extra dollars for two double beds.  The discount website guaranteed only a single queen bed – but nothing had been mentioned the night before, when he’d checked-in.  They hadn’t had this issue in any other hotel he’d booked online.  Clearly it was some kind of scam.  Richard asked to speak with the manager.  The manager was not in yet.  He’d only get in after breakfast was over.

Outside, Sandra said he should drop it.  They had six hours driving until St. Louis; they needed to hit the road.  It was only twenty bucks.  Principle, Richard said.  He couldn’t.

While he waited for the manager to show, Sasha and Sophia played on an ancient swing-set, under an oak tree, on a weedy island in the center of the motor-court.  This was old-school metal playground equipment from the 60’s or 70’s.  A slide with sharp edges, poles with jagged rivets, ill-positioned handles waiting for his son to smack his head against them.  Sophia was busy tangling the rusty chains of the swings, twisting, twisting, and then letting herself unwind back around.  “Tornado!” she screamed in delight.  She’d just scarfed down two frozen waffles at the breakfast buffet.  Richard expected they’d see those waffles again.

Sasha, meanwhile, was making his determined way high up the perilous slide.  Richard hovered at the base, wanting his son to explore independently, but not wanting him to get hurt, remaining close enough to scream, “Watch your head!  Feet first down the slide, buddy.”  The necessary paternal warnings.

He’d only taken his eyes off his son momentarily to look for the hotel manager, but it was too late.  Sasha had found something up there, and was cupping it in his hands.  “Daddy?” he called down, concerned. “Daddy, what this?”

Richard climbed the ladder two steps at a time.  Resting in his son’s palms was a dead baby bluebird, the size of a thumb, its neck twisted at a crazy angle.

“Put that down,” Richard started to yell.  “Don’t touch that.  Put that down.”

“What’d he find?” Sandra called up.

“What’d he find?” Sophia echoed from the swing.

Frightened, Sasha dropped the carcass.  It fell softly, lightly, all the way back down to earth, and landed in the grass without a sound.  Their daughter was off the swing, exploring what had fallen.  “Stay away,” his wife was calling beneath the slide, while Richard helped Sasha down the ladder.

They stepped over, as a family, to investigate.  There, beneath the oak, caught in the weeds, was a fallen nest.  It must have blown down in strong winds the night before.  Richard saw four or five baby birds, scattered dead amid the high grass.  “Mom, there’s another,” Sophia called, bending into the weeds.  “And another.”

“Birds!” his son was shouting, pointing with growing excitement at each carcass.  “Bird.  Bird.  More birds!”

Seven.  Eight.  Ten.

“Why?” Sophia asked, coming up out of her crouch.  “What happened to them?”

Richard could see the tears welling up, the questions mounting.  There’d be hours of interrogation in the car that day, glances passed between him and Sandra as they tried to explain that nothing could be done for those bluebirds. They dragged both children towards the car, away from the playground, which had come to seem like a cemetery: the bumpy metal slide, the sagging swings, the weathered monkey bars missing handles, some cruel monument to a fallen family, doomed before it ever had a start.

————————

Robert Rosenberg is author of the novel “This Is Not Civilization” (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). His fiction and reviews have recently appeared in Witness, West Branch, The Miami Herald, and The Moscow Times. He has previously held a Teaching/Writing Fellowship at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop; and last year was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship. He currently teaches creative writing at Bucknell University.

Learning About Sonnets

Octave:

Sitting in the upper last row of Wyatt Hall, Matt stretched his long legs under the fold-up desk top. He looked down past  his fellow students’ heads to barely catch something Dr. Mock had said about verisimilitude, whatever the hell that was. Something to do with a Billy Collins poem he hadn’t read, though part of this week’s assigned readings. A female student eight seats over on his left and down six rows had read Collins’ “Sonnet” aloud to the class while Matt was sipping his Starbucks. Her name was Laura-something, he thought. She was standing, turned slightly toward him, while still carrying on about the poem with the professor and a couple of other literature types in the front row. Not for the first time however he noticed how hot Laura was.

Sestet:

Tallish, a torrent of straight, light brown hair with blonde highlights flowing halfway down her back and over one shoulder. She is really hot he thought. I think I’m gonna be in love. Prof. Mock droned on about how the Collins poem has an allusion to someone named Petrarch and how the poem plays on sonnet love conventions. Matt neither understood nor cared much for poetry. Still, he decided, when class met again Wednesday he was moving down from row fourteen to see if he could score a spot next to this hottie Laura. He would read some of the assignment before Wednesday too so he could start an offhand conversation with her, saying how much he learned about sonnets from listening to her talking in class today.

————————

Ed Higgins poems and short fiction have appeared in Commonweal, Monkeybicycle, Otoliths, Duck & Herring Co.’s Pocket Field Guide, Pindeldyboz, and Bellowing Ark, as well as the online journals CrossConnect, Word Riot, The Hiss Quarterly, Blue Print Review, Tattoo Highway, and The Centrifugal Eye, among others. He and his wife live on a small farm in Yamhill with a menagerie of animals including an emu named To & Fro and a barn cat named Velcro. Ed teaches creative writing and literature at George Fox University, south of Portland, OR.

The Mechanics Of Certainty

The single most reliable mechanical device in the history of technology had been fitted to Jacob Frohmstein’s forehead at birth. Jacob’s father and mother were behavioral psychologists, and, prior to his birth, they had volunteered their child to have the device fitted, for the purposes of what they considered the most interesting experiment their field had ever known.

The device looked like a tiny fly swatter with a small, self-agitating leverage device attached. Its only mechanical function was to slap Jacob’s forehead once a second, every second of every day. The device had never malfunctioned, never skipped a single beat. The experiment was to let Jacob live his life with the slapper, and then at the start of his 13th year the slapper was to be removed, and his reaction observed.

People often asked Jacob what it was like to be slapped in the middle of the forehead all the time, and he had no answer, no frame of reference by which to even attempt an answer. To Jacob Frohmstein being slapped in the forehead and the experiential life of a human were the same thing.

There was no data on Jacob’s faculties prior to the slapper, and the device had been so instrumental in his childhood development that its ultimate effects were impossible to discern. He lived a sheltered life, for fear of upsetting the device, and he was, it must be said, a little slow mentally. Physical inactivity had left his cheeks rounded with baby fat, and he had not a single scar.

Also, he was exceptionally reliable at keeping time.

The experiment was explained to Jacob on his 8th birthday, after the pizza had been served, and before the ice-cream cake, and he accepted the information, as was his usual style, passively, and with a rhythmic tapping of his foot. The most obvious consequence of the device was that Jacob placed a great deal of value on individual moments in time, as both his parents had stressed the incredible importance of those few seconds on his 13th birthday to come. It would be a turning point in his life, a special occasion, like a Bar Mitzvah, only instead of reading some Hebrew, getting presents, and trying to convince one of the girls to give him a hand-job in the parking lot behind the restaurant Jacob would be experiencing a fundamental inversion of the universe as he had known it.

The day came punctually, with the resolute steadiness that Jacob had come to expect of life. There were hundreds of students and doctors and academics all watching, ready to record everything, but they were kept out of sight, so that the boy would feel less nervous. In this way too Jacob’s big day was different from a Bar Mitzvah. Jacob’s father (whose hands were so thin they suggested bone through skin) touched his arm and asked if he was ready, and because Jacob was not in the habit of nodding (having been taught that such movements may obstruct the device before being potty trained) he made a gesture of affirmation with his thumb. Jacob’s father did not tousle his hair, but in the family’s accepted alternative gesture of affection tapped the boy’s leg three times with an open palm, and left the room wordlessly.

As science watched Jacob sat in the empty, sterile doctor’s room, closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and waited for the sudden disappearance of complete consistency.

————————

Andrew Battershill is the co-founder and editor of Dragnet Magazine, online. He was the winner of the 2010 Irving Layton Award for Fiction, and the On the Danforth Postcard Fiction Contest.

A Grand Unfurling

As Henry Forrester finished drying off his cherry red Ford, something caught his eye. His once vigorous arm movements slowed until the yellow cloth in his hand ceased its movement entirely, resting obliviously beside a stubborn water spot. Henry’s gaze was held not by the beauty of his car but by the simplicity of cloth hanging from a wooden pole on the porch. Barely moving in the ever-so-slight breeze, the red white and blue of the flag appeared worn out, the colors almost indistinguishable. The flag was so tattered and furled that it could hardly catch a breeze if it tried. Henry might as well have just hung the drying cloth in its place.

Rag still in hand, Henry scanned the neighborhood surrounding his family’s three bedroom house on Huntford Lane. The Forresters, like everyone else on their block, had kept their flag flying in all its glory since that fateful day nearly eight years ago when patriotism had suddenly become en vogue again. Across the street, the Douglasses’ flag flew freely, gliding magnificently on even a gentle breeze. Next door, the Trowelers had a flag dangled with unfrayed edges and vivid colors. The David residence featured a faded flag, but it looked vintage rather than deceased. The flag at the Brayford home, the biggest on the block, didn’t fly freely and had a few tatters, but the colors were filled with passion and the tears added character, as if telling the world that this flag was purposeful. Henry felt surrounded by flags that were superior to his.

Leaving the yellow cloth on the hood, he trotted up the concrete walk. Henry pushed his way into the door, not bothering to wipe his Converse shoes on the mat that welcomed him, and stormed into the foyer and subsequent hallway. “Honey,” he shouted at the wife who was dusting the furniture in the living room.

“Yes, dear?”

“I need your keys.” Henry was panting.

“What do you need now?”

Henry had already borrowed her car twice that morning, once to buy wax and once to buy a new yellow terry cloth to dry the car without leaving all the little particles that a regular rag left.

“I need to get a new flag,” he said proudly.

“Why do we need a new flag? We have a flag outside already.”

“Yeah, have you seen that thing? It’s a total disaster. It’s shameful to the country.”

“Well, that’s what happens when you insist on leaving it out all the time. Whatever happened to the notion that you were supposed to bring the flag in at sundown?” She resumed her dusting, gliding around the room and eliminating dust particles with graceful dexterity.

“Well, all the neighbors leave their flags out, and their flags all put ours to shame.” Henry wanted to tear the rag out of her hand and shake all of the dust back out onto the furniture.

“So this is about pride rather than patriotism?” she asked without raising her head from the book case.

Henry paused for a second to gather his thoughts. He had never viewed himself as especially patriotic, nor had he gone out of his way to instill patriotism in his two children. But he did believe in supporting his country when he could.

“If you want a flag that badly, just take your car,” she said.

“I’m not taking the Ford. I just washed it.” Henry threw up his arms in disbelief.

“It’s going to get dirty eventually anyway.”

“So are those shelves.”

“Well, I’m not refusing to use them.”

“So just because I know something is going to get dirty eventually I should get it dirty right away?”

“Does that mean you are going to keep the new flag wrapped in the original packaging and save it for a special occasion?”

“You’re missing the point. I worked hard to get the car to look like that. It would be like if you dusted the shelves and then poured dust all over them. Only a lot worse because it’s harder to clean a car than it is to dust.”

“Then next weekend we can trade,” she said before playfully snapping the dust rag at him.

“Just give me your keys.”

“Fine, if that’s how it has to be.” There was a glimmer of victory in her hazel eyes. “They’re in my purse. The red one.”

“Alright. Do you think I should go to Home Depot or Lowe’s?”

“I don’t think it really matters,” she said as she opened the back door to shake the rest of the dust off into the open air. “I doubt there’s a flag shortage,” she added, her voice barely audible from the edge of the deck.

“Home Depot it is,” he said to himself as he turned to retrieve the keys from her red purse.

As Henry backed the silver SUV down the driveway, he took one last look at the flag that hung so pathetically from the front of their house. “The neighbors must think I don’t care,” he said as he shifted the car into drive and pulled away.

Once inside Home Depot, Henry was momentarily overwhelmed by the vastness of the warehouse. He didn’t precisely know where to look to find the flags, but he knew it best to not ask anyone. Although it was part of an employee’s job to help the customers, it was also part of the customer’s job, especially at a place like Home Depot, to know exactly where to go.

After strolling through the expansive store, he found a section of lawn décor, which seemed to him the most appropriate spot to garner the flags. He glanced around the area, spotting heavy concrete frogs, wooden Uncle Sams, welcome mats with various greetings, and many other items, but no flags were in sight.

“Do you need some help finding something?” an old man in an orange vest said in a friendly voice.

“Yes,” Henry began, his eyes still wandering about in a last effort to spot his need. After a long pause he added, “I am looking for flags.”

“We have a wide variety of flags right this way.” The man led him to the next aisle where shelves and boxes were stashed with colorful flags and banners. Some were patriotic, and others were decorative, but none of them were The American Flag.

“No, I am looking for The Flag,” Henry stated proudly. “I want a brand new American flag. The highest quality you have. One with the big silver eagle on top of the pole.”

The old vested man hesitated for a moment, scratching his head with one hand and clinging to his vest pocket with the other. “I’m sorry sir, but we don’t have any American flags. We’re sold out. But we should get a shipment in next week.”

“Sold out of flags? How can that be? Is someone hoarding them? I saw dozens of homes without flags on the way here.”

“Perhaps they came when we were sold out of flags as well.”

“This is ridiculous,” Henry roared. “I’m an American citizen in an American store. I deserve the right to an American flag now.”

“If you need a flag that badly, you can always go to another store. But what’s the rush? We’ll have them next week. What do you need a flag for right now? Are you heading into battle or something?” the man asked before walking away.

Disgusted, Henry marched out of the store vowing that he would never go there again.

When Henry arrived home, he noticed the flag had been removed from the porch.

“Where’s the flag?” Henry inquired the moment he stepped into the door.

“I got rid of it.”

“What do you mean you got rid of it?”

“I mean I disposed of it. After all, you were buying a new one.”

“What did you do with it?”

“What’s it matter. We have a new one now.”

“No. They were all sold out.”

“Sold out of flags? That’s so bizarre.”

“Yeah. Sold out. And now we’re the fools on the block without a flag.”

“It’s okay. We’ll just buy one the next time we go to a store that has one. We can go a few days without flying the flag.”

Henry thought about her suggestion. Although he wasn’t quite sure, he supposed there was nothing he could do about it now. He wasn’t going to run all over town looking for a flag, especially not on his day off.

“Alright, we’ll pick one up later.”

For the next few weeks, Henry went about his business, forgetting all about his sudden need for a new flag. Every day came and went the same as it had before. Not having a flag made no difference in Henry’s world.

One morning when Henry was sitting at work, it occurred to him that the Fourth of July was nearing much more rapidly than he had realized. Instead of feeling joy about his three day weekend, he felt a nagging sickness in his stomach. Something was dreadfully wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. For the rest of the day he sat isolated in his cubicle, skipping out on his lunch break and both of his coffee breaks, desperately racking his brain. At first he thought that perhaps he had missed his anniversary or his wife’s birthday, but then he checked his desk calendar and verified he still had months before those dates. Perhaps there was a big family trip planned. Or a piano recital for one of the kids. Somehow he would have to get the information out of his wife when he arrived home.

Henry’s car ride home was so tense with trying to remember that he almost ran two red lights. “What the hell am I forgetting?” he shouted three times during a five block stretch, passing the same number of Walgreen’s stores in the process.

He was only three houses from his own when he realized what was wrong. “I need a damn flag,” he shouted at the steering wheel with his arms raised. The steering wheel turned slightly to the right in response, showing either indifference or pointing to a neighbor’s boldly waving flag. Henry corrected the wheel and guided the vehicle into his driveway.

“How was your day, honey?” his wife asked.

“It was the worst day of my life,” he replied. “I spent the whole day trying to figure something out, and then I figured it out on the way home. It was complete agony.”

“Well, glad to hear you remembered. What was it?” she asked while chopping carrots.

“We never bought that flag.”

“Well, let’s put dinner on hold and rush out to buy it,” she said with great urgency but without dropping her knife.

“That sounds great. I just need to take a leak before we leave.”

“I was just kidding dear. There will still be flags after dinner.”

“Oh really? You think so? Last time you told me there was no shortage of flags, that it didn’t matter where I went, and then there were no flags. The Fourth is only a few days away and we still don’t have a flag. Do you want to be known as the flagless fools? I’m buying a flag right now.”

“Suit yourself. I’m going to stay here and eat a hot dinner with the kids.”

“Alright, don’t help me out any. I’ll make sure the family stays afloat.”

“I’m glad you’re doing your part to save our family and the country,” the wife told him as she rinsed off the knife.

Not sensing the sarcasm, he nodded assertively to acknowledge her compliment and darted for the door. “I’m going to Lowe’s this time. Home Depot can kiss my ass.”

“Yes, I’m sure the men in blue vests will be much more helpful than the ones in orange,” the wife said as she emptied the carrots into a glass bowl.

Henry didn’t bother to tell her that they wore red vests at Lowe’s before he slammed the door.

Henry returned home forty minutes later with a boastful look on his face.

“Where’s the flag?” his wife asked.

“It’s in the garage. I’m going to wait until the Fourth to put it out. It’s going to really shock the neighbors. It’s one helluva flag.”

“That’s great to hear honey. I am sure that everyone in the neighborhood will have flag envy. You know what? We should host a neighborhood barbecue to christen this momentous purchase. You were so right. Rushing out to get a flag was much more worthwhile than a dinner with your family.”

He gave her a firm kiss on the cheek and a gentle slap on the bottom. “That’s a great idea honey. You can call the neighbors tomorrow and let them know.”

“You want me to tell them about your flag?”

“No, you’re gonna invite them to the party.” With these words he rushed upstairs to change, loosening both his tie and his belt on the way.

When the big day finally rolled around—Henry had utilized his obligatory day off from work on the observed holiday by playing golf while his wife went to the grocery store and lugged watermelons, cases of Budweiser, and packages of meat into the house—the Forresters were prepared to throw the best Fourth of July party the neighborhood had ever seen.

While his neighbors wiped barbecue sauce off their hands onto disposable American flag napkins, Henry went to the garage to retrieve the guest of honor. He had thought about unveiling the new flag before the guests arrived, but he wanted to see the looks on their faces as he unraveled the majestic cloth in front of them.

With the tightly packaged phallus held in his firm grip, he marched like a soldier out of the garage and into the backyard where his neighbors were feasting. “Excuse me everyone,” Henry bellowed proudly.

The crowd looked with mild interest at him as they continued to eat.

“I’d like to cap off this fine celebration with a brief remembrance of what this day is all about.” He cleared his throat regally. “Please follow me,” he added as he turned to lead the dozen feasters to the front of the house.

Henry ascended the few steps up to the porch. Like a knight, he unsheathed the flag from the transparent cellophane, his hand just above the grand eagle that sat with wings spread atop the pole, guarding the mighty stars and stripes with its menacing talons.

Henry imagined oohs and aahs as he slid his hands down the fine cedar shaft. In one grandiose swing, the flag unfurled with exceeding power, cutting through the wind, its stars and stripes in such vibrant colors that he could see the entire history of his country in each minute detail. He waved the flag twice more, its thick cloth beating powerfully against the wind like the wings of a great bird. In one swooping motion, he slid the wooden pole into the metal holder that had served the old flag so well. The flag securely in place, he stepped back and offered a salute, a few tears glistening in his eyes as he prepared for the grand finale. He bent over and pressed the play button on a hidden Sony boom box. Within seconds, “God Bless America” blared from the crackly speakers of the portable stereo. As the song filled the neighborhood, Henry raised his hands like a conductor to prompt the small crowd to join this fine celebration of the greatest country in the world.

He stood in his grand posture through the final note, holding it out himself longer than the backing tape, the flag still full sail in the breeze. When he could no longer hold the note, he erupted into an applause that was reciprocated half-heartedly by his neighbors, most of whom still munched on potato salad and watermelon.

“And now for dessert,” his wife suddenly chirped. “You’re all going to just love what I’ve made,” she said in the bubbliest voice she could offer.

The neighbors turned to follow her, and Henry, content with his display, marched down the steps methodically, wondering all the while what the dessert was.

As he turned the corner to head to the backyard, a strong gust of wind roared through Huntford Lane, its force ripping the old rusty flagpole hanger right off the wooden pillar. The flag flopped to the ground like a wounded aircraft, smacking first into the concrete step before rolling off the porch and into the thick juniper bush adjacent to the home.

Henry didn’t notice the red, white and blue hidden in the evergreen until a week later when he was mowing the lawn and saw the sleek metal eagle resting lifelessly on a thin branch.

————————

Nathaniel Tower writes fiction, teaches English, and manages the online lit magazine Bartleby Snopes. His short fiction has appeared in over 50 online and print magazines. A story of his, “The Oaten Hands,” was named one of 190 notable stories by storySouth’s Million Writers Award in 2009. His first novel, A Reason To Kill, is due out in July 2011. Visit him at www.bartlebysnopes.com/ntower.htm