Untitled Number Five

Dear Asshole,

Come and get your monkey. It’s been two months. It shits everywhere. I haven’t had a banana in weeks. Asshole, why did you just leave me here with your monkey? You said you forgot it. How can you forget a monkey? Before you leave the house, always think to yourself: keys, wallet, cell phone, monkey. If you don’t have any one of these items, you don’t leave the fucking house.

And it cries. All night long. A deep, hollow cry. I think it has monkey PTSD. The monkey also shows signs of aggressive behavior. It listens to Rollins Band. It’s constantly cracking its knuckles. Last week I caught it fingering a stuffed animal. I don’t know why it would do something like that, but god damned if it didn’t.

It moves on the counter tops just like a Bollywood dancer. It holds its hands by its head and moves its neck back and forth. And that disingenuous smile. It’s too big. I don’t believe that smile for one minute. More like a third rate Bollywood dancer if you ask me, Asshole.

And it smells. Like Drakkar Noir and absinthe. I haven’t a clue where a monkey would get absinthe, but god damned if it didn’t. A few weeks ago I went to the back of a German restaurant. I was there to get a bottle of Jagermeister with the opiates in it. That’s the only place in town you can get it. It’s not legal in America. So I walked in, and there was that monkey. First in line. Cracking its knuckles. It keeps picking at its hair. It’s worried it’s losing it. The damn thing’s pushing forty.

I try to bond with it. I took it to a strip club. The tiny one off the interstate. We walked into its red wallpapered interior. It only had one stage. I wasn’t sure how a monkey would respond to a strip club, but it seemed to know what to do. It immediately took a seat in the front row, and put a dollar in its mouth. The stripper came by, and grabbed the dollar with her breasts. But the monkey wouldn’t let go. A tug of war game quickly evolved between the monkey’s razor sharp teeth and the stripper’s powerful breasts with the dollar bill serving as the rope. This went on for minutes. Finally, the stripper gestured for the distracted bouncer, and we got the hell out of there. The monkey was flipping everyone off as we ran to the door. Maybe this monkey isn’t so bad. No, what am I saying? It almost got us killed.

I remember almost forty years ago when you first got that monkey. I’ve told you this at least twice a day everyday since then, but it bears repeating. If a guy comes to your door and says, “Hi. I’m Jim Jones. I’m going door to door selling used monkeys in order to support my church, which is a new branch of Judaism, because I’m the messiah,” maybe you shouldn’t buy a used monkey from that person.

You need to get back here right away, and pick up your damn monkey. I’m at my wit’s end.

***

Dear Asshole,

I never thought I was capable of killing anything, until I met your monkey. I was all out of options. Last night I got it drunk. I took it to a strip club. Got it a lap dance. Then we got in the car. I kept driving for hours. At first the monkey was just bopping its head to the music. Then it got still. It cried. “Not now, monkey.” It stopped crying. I could see it moving around from the rearview mirror. It reached up to the front seat, and it handed me two hundred dollars cash. From the look and smell of the bills, I knew where the monkey retrieved them. I shouldn’t tell you the rest.

***

Dear Friend,

How is it that I miss that monkey? I misjudged it. I watch “Monkey Trouble” late at night and cry.

It still had to die, though.

————————

Daniel Shapiro was born in Chicago and raised in Wichita, KS. He is finishing his last class at Columbia College Chicago. He will be getting a degree in television writing and production. He has been preforming at readings and doing stand-up for about six months. The author’s sister, Barbara Shapiro, helped him write the preceding monkey story. He felt she ought to be credited rather than run the risk of his coming to bodily harm.

Luda

My little brother is obsessed with Ludakris. He wears T-shirts with pictures of the rapper/actor’s face on it, owns all the records and DVDs, has seen him live more than ten times, and has memorized every song lyric and line of dialogue ever uttered by Ludakris. He doesn’t call him Ludakris, though. He calls him Luda, like, “Dude, Luda was on Leno last night, talking about the flick he’s in,” or “Luda is an artist, and anyone who says otherwise should be tried for treason. He is the embodiment of what it means to be an American artist.” My brother also likes to go to the theater and sit in the back row, quietly, till Luda first appears on screen. Then he springs to his feet and shouts, “LUUUUUUUUDDDDDDDAAAAAA!”

I knew about the records, the shirts, the memorizations, the shows, but I didn’t know about the movie thing till we went to see 2 Fast 2 Furious at the dollar theater, because I refused to see it when it was full price, I finally gave into my brother’s constant nagging. Later on in the movie, my brother starts talking to the screen, saying things like, “You tell ’em Luda. You tell ’em.” I expect people to moan or shush him, but they don’t they laugh, and when the credits roll and Ludakris’s name scrolls up, my brother rises and offers a standing ovation. I sink in my seat, waiting for people to file out, but they stay, joining in on the ovation.

In the car, I look over at him as I drive. “You’re embarrassing.”

He smacks me in the arm, and unplugs my iPod to plug his in. “Sorry,” he says, “but your fucking gadget has no Luda. What the fuck else are we supposed to listen to after a performance like that? Nothing. You listen to Luda because that’s what God intended.” He starts rapping along.

***

At 3am my brother calls me frantic, but excited, rambling on about some phone number he just paid a bunch of money for, and that all he had to do was call it, but he didn’t know what to say if he answers. “What do I say to him?”

“Wait,” I say. “Who? It’s a dude?”

“Yeah, he is a dude. What are you crazy?”

“Well, just call him and tell him how you feel.”

“Dude, this isn’t just some crush on some school boy. Wake up! I’m talking about the greatest artist of our time. Actor. Rapper. Producer. Entrepreneur. Mother effing Ludakris.”

“Oh,” I say, suddenly deflated. I think for a second my brother has something interesting going on in his life, but he’s just talking about some rapper.

Oh? That’s all you have to say. This is huge!”

“Why would you want to call him? What would you say?”

“That’s why I’m calling you…what should I say?”

“I don’t know, you’re the super fan.”

He goes silent for a few moments, then says, slowly, “Don’t do this. Don’t you dare take this moment away from me. This is important to me. Have you ever paid attention to anything I care about? It’s Ludakris. It’s like if you were to meet Spielberg.”

“I hate Spielberg.”

“You would.”

“Yes, I would.”

“Look, just don’t be an asshole.”

“Congratulations,” I say.

“Don’t get facetious. It makes you sound like a snob.”

“Sorry,” I placate him. “I know this means a lot to you. This is a big deal.”

He heaves a sigh into the receiver and says, “I’m coming over so we can call him,” and before I can spit out a “no,” the phone clicks off.

He must’ve been in his car, because before I can roll out of bed and throw on some shorts, he’s knocking on my bedroom door and walking in with his arms up, shouting, “LUUUDDDAA!” He drops his arms down to his side when he sees that I’m still in bed, shakes his head, then reaches into his pocket, pulling out a crumpled piece of notebook paper with number written in big black numbers.

“Is that it?” I say, getting out of bed and walking across the room to get some shorts on. “What are you gonna say when you call him. You could call him now, he’s probably up.”

“So,” my brother says, gesturing at me, “why aren’t you dressed?”

“It’s three in the morning numb-nuts.”

“But I called forever ago.”

“Like five minutes. I barely had time to hang up before you were in my house.”

He pffts at me and sits on the bed. He leans back and digs out his cell phone. After dialing the number, he stares at the phone. I sit on the bed behind him and stare at it too.

“Call it,” I say. “Just like jumping into a lake. You just jump in.”

He presses his thumb down and it rings. He puts it on speaker phone.

The line picks up after three and a half rings. “Who is this?” The voice distorts.

“Hi,” my brother says. “Is this Luda? I mean, is this Ludakris?”

“How did you get my number? I don’t know you.”

My brother doesn’t answer him. He looks at me, startled, then starts rattling off compliments about Ludakris’s music, his acting career, his dating life, tabloids, reviews, all while Ludakris keeps interjecting—”How did you get my number?”—and my brother’s practically vomiting out praise, eventually stopping to take a big breath.

“HOW DID YOU GET THIS NUMBER!?”

“I’m just such a fan,” my brother says, quietly.

Luda sighs. “What’s your name?”

“Alexander. My friends call me Alex.”

“Alexander,” Luda says, then breathes so hard into the phone that it crackles. “If you can find my address, I’d love to have you over. You seem harmless. If you make it, I’ll play you some tracks from the new record.” Before he hangs up, and before my brother can speak, I hear the sound of squawking or barking. Then the phone clicks off.

“I don’t know,” I say, suspicious of the invite.

“We have to. This is a once in a lifetime thing.”

“OK, OK. Let’s think about this. He’s super pissed about you calling, but says that if you can find him, you can come over. Doesn’t that seem like a big set up?”

“Luda wouldn’t do that.”

“You don’t know him. What if he wants you to show up so he can kick your ass?”

“That doesn’t sound like him at all.”

“You sound really stupid right now.”

“You’re just jaded.”

“Jesus, just think about it,” I say. “He sounded pissed about you calling.”

“I already though about it.”

***

He won’t tell me how much he’s paying for the address, and he won’t let me come into the coffee shop to meet his contact, but I can see the transaction through the big windows. At a window booth, the contact, who is super skinny and slouching like crazy, slides a piece of paper across the table to my brother, who in turns slides an envelope back to the contact. It takes about a minute and my brother’s back in the car.

When we’re driving I say, “I’m still not sure about this.”

“It’ll be the best time of your life. I’d bet your house on it.”

The house is a giant concrete block with a long nose stretching out to the driveway. It’s maybe ten feet tall. We get out of the car and go up to the door, where the doorbell is a giant fist protruding from where a knocker would be. My brother fist-bumps the doorbell and inside a buzzing echoes.

After a few minutes, Ludakris opens the door and looks us up and down. He points at my brother and says, “Alexander?”

My brother nods and makes a slight movement towards the open door, but Luda slides over as if to say you think you can come into my house? Then he nods towards me and says, “Who’s this?”

“My brother.”

He shoots me a quick glare and widens the door, gesturing for us to enter.

The hallway is long and bare with only white walls, white sconces, and white marble floors. The lights in the sconces don’t even look on, but the white from the walls and floor keeps the hall bright. There are birds flying around above our head. We dodge them, flinching when they get close, but Luda walks steadily. The sconces towards the end of the hall host nests. There are eggs and babies in the nests, and the mama-birds fly down, feed them and take off, back down the hallway. Ludakris doesn’t say anything, just walks. The other end of the hall is barely visible from the door, but the closer we get, the more I can make out a giant room full of couches and chairs and animals. And in the center of the room, it looks like there’s a big pool.

“You’ve got a lot of birds in here,” my brother says, trying to spark a conversation, obviously not able to see what looks like the turtle and a couple of foxes walking around in the room ahead.

“Yeah,” Luda says. “I like birds. I like animals. And they like me.”

When we enter the room, the animals look our way as though they’re sizing us up, or maybe just acknowledging our presence, then go about their business. My brother says something, but I’m not listening. I’m staring at the frogs swimming in the pool, next to the beaver, who’s built a little damn in the shallow end.

“Let me introduce you,” Luda says, then names off all the animals. Some of them look our way when he says their name, but most of them don’t. There’s a couple of ducks waddling by, quacking when he says each name, and a pelican in the far corner who makes some sort of snarfing noise when her name is called. Ludakris is smiling, and gestures for us to sit down in a little circle of couches, and when we sit, his face tightens up, and he says, “Now, who the fuck gave you my shit?”

“You said that I could—”

“—I said that to see if whoever keeps giving you my personal information would dare give you my home address. That’s fucked up, man.”

“I just thought…”

Luda laughs. “You thought we would hang out?”

My brother hangs his head.

“Who gave you my shit?”

“He doesn’t want to tell you,” I say.

“I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to Alexaaaaaander.” He leans forward, and when my brother looks up at him. He reaches out and grabs my brother by the cheeks.

I rise to my feet, but a wolf rises from behind the couch and bares its teeth. I sit back down.

“Now,” Luda says. “I want you to tell me who this guy is and where I can find him,” and Luda keeps talking, lecturing my brother about the woes of fame, the struggles to find privacy, how much time, effort, and money goes into getting privacy, how his animals would suffer if too many people knew where he was, and as he does this, my brother gets fat. First his face chunks out just like it did that winter when he went on a ski trip, broke his leg, and spent most his time in the dinning hall. Then his neck and shoulders get fat, and the rest of his body follows. When Ludakris lets go, my brother is probably 100 pounds fatter. He starts breathing out of his mouth and his clothes are about to burst. “Who is he and where can I find him,” Luda says.

My brother starts shaking his head, but he’s sweating, and looks like its too much work, so I say, “Just tell him, Alex.”

“Yeah,” Luda says. “Just tell me.”

In Luda’s SUV, we watch the neighborhoods pass. We’re in the very back, not bound or gagged, but sitting against the windows, on our way to the coffee shop to find my brother’s contact. My brother is really fat. He’s unbuttoned his shirt and pants, and now he’s spilling out all over the place. He’s whimpering, mumbling to himself, and I keep telling him that he’ll be able to shed it in no time, but I don’t believe it myself, because, I mean, he’s really, really fat. My brother wasn’t skinny before, but he wasn’t even chunky, he was just 28 and no longer a smoker.

Outside, the coffee shop, I have to stay in the car, while Luda and his bodyguard escort my brother inside. At the window booth, Luda slides in, and starts talking to the contact. Through the window, I can see my brother apologizing. The contact doesn’t look scared, just annoyed and a little star-struck, and also a little weirded out about how big my brother is. Luda waves his hand at my brother and the body guard helps him back outside. Luda’s speaking to the contact, relaxed, almost friendly.

“Go,” he says to us as he lets me out.

“Where’s our car?” I say to him.

“Where you left it.”

“Can we get a ride back?”

“No,” he says and shuts the back door. “Take a cab.” Then he starts walking back inside, where Luda is still talking. We turn and look into the coffee shop. Luda’s still just talking, looking quite polite with his hands folded and his posture straight. Then all of a sudden, he jumps up and snaps his hand across the table, grabbing the contact by the faces. He’s speaking really fast, and the contact is getting fatter, then Luda starts rapping, waving his hand like he does in all his vidoes, and the contact fattens, till he’s spilling out of the booth and smashing up against the window.

————————

Joshua Young holds an MA in English from Western Washington University, and begins an MFA in Poetry at Columbia College Chicago in 2011. His chapbook, Whoever Said Las Cruces was Great is a Liar, was published by Gold Wake Press in 2010. He currently teaches English Composition, and lives near Seattle with his wife, their son, and their dog. His films and other projects can be found at http://thestorythief.tumblr.com.

The Long Unhappy Resurrection of Mr. Jankiel Jameson

Mr. Jankiel Jameson, formerly of Toms River, New Jersey, has been dead and buried for six years when he wishes to not be dead anymore. Just like that he is living again, breath coming into his body from who knows where.

Alive! he thinks. A miracle! I’m alive!

Slowly, in the pitch dark, he lifts his arms and pushes at the top of his casket. But it doesn’t budge. The thing is too well made. He pushes harder, then with all his strength, but he is no better off than before. Oh why oh why hadn’t he let himself be buried in the cheap model. No, nothing but the best for him, always. He remembers the undertaker bragging that his casket would last ten thousand years.

In the zombie movies–(Mr. Jameson figures he’s something like a zombie, though he has no desire to eat, let alone eat people)–the corpses always sprang from their tombs no problem, just ascended from the earth like ghosts rising up from the floorboards, as if dirt had no corporeal weight to it. But Mr. Jameson sees now that even if he managed to claw his way out of the box he would never be able to dig his way out of the grave. The rushing dirt would simply crush him, and oh! his decomposed limbs are so weak!

Besides, he doesn’t imagine he looks like something his wife and kids would want to see again.

Now that he’s had the chance to think about it, he decides being dead wasn’t all bad.

So he wishes himself dead again.

But wishes so rarely come true….

————————

James Valvis lives in Issaquah, Washington. His work has recently appeared in Bananafish, Bartleby Snopes, Confrontation, Crab Creek Review, Eclectica, Hanging Loose, Metazen, Rattle, Slipstream, Southern Indiana Review, and is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Atlanta Review, Gargoyle, H_NGM_N, kill author, Los Angeles Review, Midwest Quarterly, New York Quarterly, Pank, River Styx, South Carolina Review, and elsewhere. A collection of his poems, How to Say Goodbye, is due out soon.

Paparazzo

“Mother I’ve come to record some sounds.”

“Huh?”

“I’ve come to record sounds. Your sounds.”

“Just a second dear.”

“Mother, I want us to put aside some of our differences so that you can make sounds into the recorder without perjuring yourself.”

“Differences? We don’t have any differences.”

“For sure we have differences.”

“Name me one.”

“Like the time you ate my birthday cake in tenth grade. For example.”

“Oh God. That trifling little episode is still on your mind?”

“You ate the entire cake in front of my friends. You went into a coma.”

“Years later and I’m still rocking this dress. Look!”

The mother spins around.

“Yes, you’re very beautiful.”

“Oh dear, I’m sorry. I see what this is about.”

“What?”

“You not being endowed with my good looks. You must hold a terrible grudge.”

“I don’t hold anything.”

“Now your sister…”

“I’m perfectly content the way I am, mother.”

“She’s got those curly locks.”

“My self-esteem is at ordinary, respectable levels.”

“And deep-set eyes. Sailors across the world have composed paeans to them, did you know?”

Serena turns from her mother and looks into the mirror, touching her brow.

“Mine are just as deep-set.”

“Yours are hollowed,” her mother says. “Not quite the same thing.”

“Well, that’s fine.”

“Don’t bottle up your anger dear, it’s unhealthy.”

“I’m not bottling anything.”

“You should really try opening up about those insecurities you have with your sister.”

“I’m fine.”

“Maybe see a therapist?”

“I’m fine!”

“Well, if you want you can talk to me anytime—”

“She’s a bitch!”

“There you go. Let it all out.”

“She’s a dirty wench! Plus her feet are malformed and grotesque. Curved like shells.”

Tears are streaming down Serena’s face, a welling of repressed feeling.

“At least she’s married,” her mother says.

“Yeah, to a bone-headed marine.”

“She has a house.”

“In the backwaters of Utah!”

Serena blows her nose and regains her composure.

“Do you need a moment to cool down?” her mother asks. “Take your time. Say, isn’t that recorder of yours turned on?”

“Yes I suppose it is,” Serena says.

“The little green light is blinking.”

“That’s how you know it’s on.”

“Right. So what sounds are these you need?”

“I’ve got them.”

“Already?”

“Yes.”

Serena is satisfied with the sounds she has recorded of herself, crying.

“Hey, it’s that naked woman again,” her mother says.

“What?”

“A woman. Naked. In the apartment across the street.”

“Oh I see.”

“She always exercises in the morning, every day. Up against the window.”

“She’s jumping.”

“Sometimes she’ll make herself a smoothie.”

“Naked?”

“As naked as skinned kittens.”

“She’s reclining on the couch now.”

“She likes doing that too.”

“Reading a paperback.”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“I suppose that is what one does.”

***

Serena, in the studio, with her closest friend:

“Explain all this to me,” asks Mack, waving his hands over the diorama and the camcorder positioned in front of it.

“Those are all candles, in the shape of couples.”

“Oh girl, that’s fabulous!”

“I haven’t told you what it is yet.”

“Just being polite.”

“Each candle is shaped like two lovers embracing.”

“With wicks on their heads?”

“Exactly.”

“Burning wicks?”

“Yes, like their heads are on fire.”

Serena plays back the video of the candles, in the shape of people, burning.

“And this is your art project?”

“So far.”

Ui ui ui ui ui ui ui ui ui ui ui.

“What is that?” asks Mack.

“I’ve looped the sounds of crying over the video.”

“Who’s crying?”

“Me.”

“It’s ghastly!”

Serena stops the video, then turns on her recorder.

“You’re right. It needs more wailing.”

“By the by,” says Mack, “I saw your boyfriend the other day. Hubba-hubba!”

“Where?”

“On screen. I saw his movie.”

The Metal Detector?”

“The one where he plays around in a cassock for an hour and a half.”

“I’m not sure which one you mean.”

“The one with the roguish preacher who falls in love with three different women, all at once.”

Priests In The Prime Of Their Lives?”

“Yes, that one. Girl, he’s got some body.”

“He’s a sweetheart.”

“Those hot sizzling muscles.”

“We’ve only been going out for a few weeks—”

“Makes me want to lick high-caloric food substances off his chest.”

“—but I think we’re in love.”

“Ha-ha. No, seriously.”

“What?”

“No nothing.”

“Seriously what?” asks Serena

“No I just mean. He’s a little out of your league, isn’t he?”

“Mack!”

“He’s just a cut above. That’s all I’m saying. Like if he’s marbled beef then you’re more like… like scrap meat.”

Serena starts wailing.

“Oh there, there. I didn’t mean.”

“Mack that’s terrible,” she says, sniffling.

“I said if. If.”

***

Serena goes to an art gallery to pitch her project. The place is in Chelsea, with large, beveled windows looking out onto Seventh Avenue. She speaks to the gallery owner.

“The soundtrack is composed of layered sounds,” she says. “That one’s me crying. That’s a neighbor of mine who dropped a hammer on his foot. And see, though the couples are hugging, they are also burning and screaming.”

The gallery owner nods gravely.

“It’s a commentary on the futility of love,” he says. “The ways in which we are extending ourselves to each other but, alas, there is no guarantee of joy or pleasure or peace. Oh, haven’t we all been mired in failed relationships. Oh, unhappy unity!”

The gallery owner tears up, so moved he is by the project.

“Yes, exactly.”

“I love this, Serena,” the owner says, edging forward in his seat. “I want you to do more, take it further! Really push the limits. Really get out there.”

The gallery owner takes her by the hand and introduces her to the other art pieces in his gallery. While they talk, Serena thinks she spots her boyfriend across the street. He’s with another girl—a blond with curved hips, wearing a silky, springy dress—but she thinks nothing of it.

***

“How are you Serena?”

“I’m fine. You?”

“Oh, getting there. Getting there.”

“You look peaky,” Serena says.

“Well I guess I do feel a bit peaky, yes. But, you know, being as I am in the middle of labor, I think the peakiness is normal.”

“What’s this one? Number five?”

“Number six.”

“Six round, nubby babies!”

“Serena, I heard from your mother that you’re dating a strapping young actor now, is this correct?”

“Yes he’s lovely. It’s been a month now.”

“I know why you’re here.”

“Oh?”

Serena takes the opportunity to place her recorder on the table next to a wooden dancing female in a hoop skirt.

“You’re probably wondering how I, your grandmother, have managed to remain so fertile throughout all these years.”

“No actually—”

“I’ll tell you. There’s no real easy way to say this.”

“Gran, the baby’s crowning.”

“As I said, there’s no easy way of telling you this. I’m a witch.”

“You’re a witch?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Prove it.”

“The fact that an octogenarian is having a sixth baby in front of you is not proof enough?”

The baby lands on the bed and shrieks like a prehistoric bird. Serena points the recorder in the general direction of its unearthly mouth.

“Fine. So you’re a witch.”

“Your mother also told me that your boyfriend is a very handsome and well-known actor.”

“He is.”

“Serena, is this fresh-faced and distinguished fellow faithful to you? Do you see yourself with him in five years? Do you want to bear his children?”

“I’m not sure how to answer that, Gran.”

“Say no more. I’ve made you a potion.”

“What?”

“It’s easy. It’s delicious. I’ll tell you how I made it.”

Grandmother Pachaw hands her a vial.

“It’s green. Why is it green?”

“Duck milk, simmered until it begins to curdle. Added to that some clay, a piece of ceramic tile, the white kind, and stolen army boots. And the skin of a bootlegger.”

“Ew, that’s gross!”

“Bootlegger skin usually does turn people off. But trust me. It’ll solve your problems. He’ll be as faithful as a mule. And you’ll be popping out those babies in no time!”

***

Serena is starting to feel drained by her regular day job. She loiters all day outside the Ritz-Carlton with her camera, waiting to snap pictures of celebrities, a paid paparazzo. This is how she first met her boyfriend, the actor. She’d followed him to his house and he invited her in for a cocktail. She was coy, but she accepted.

Today, nobody is coming out of the Ritz-Carlton. Whatever celebrities are in there have bunkered down for the weekend, lying in bed with hangovers, migraines, arms draped over their faces. Serena leans against a bike rack and thinks about her art project. It’s left her wounded. In the past few weeks she’s talked to friends and family, distant relatives, all of whom have bared their teeth and sharp elbows. They tell her she needs this, she needs that. A new career. How can you live as a stalker taking photos? Or, ha! an artist? You’re an artist now?

She’s never cried so much in her life. She palms the vial in her pocket.

As she is considering this, her mother, as if trying to body-English her way into Serena’s thoughts, calls her cell phone.

***

In her mother’s apartment again:

“Mother, did you know Gran is a witch?”

“Of course she’s a witch dear. What did you think?”

“Well, nothing. One doesn’t ordinarily go around assuming people are witches.”

“Did she give you the potion?”

“Yes. Here.”

“Ah yes, I remember this one.”

“You’ve taken it before?”

“I’ve never swallowed it, good heavens, no. But when I was ten years old, I did fall into your grandmother’s cauldron. That is why, ever since, I’ve been a lesbian.”

“A ten-year-old lesbian daughter of a witch. You can’t have had many friends.”

“No.”

“So, mother, why did you call me here today so urgently?”

“Oh rats, that reminds me. It’s nearly eleven. Stand by the window.”

“Why?”

“You’ll see in a few minutes.”

Serena walks over to the window of their sixth-floor walk-up. They wait a few minutes in silence. The clock ticks on the wall.

“How’s this project of yours coming along,” her mother asks.

“A gallery in Chelsea bought it the other day. Hey, there’s that naked woman again. Across the street.”

“Yes indeed. That’s her. She comes every day.”

“And there’s a man with her this time. A naked man.”

“Yes, the man is naked too.”

“They are embracing.”

“Two lovers.”

Serena begins taking pictures, a professional reflex. She zooms in with her telephoto lens.

“Hey, does that man look to you like…”

“Yes, it does.”

“It’s not!”

“It is. I’ve seen it every day. This is what I brought you here to see.”

“But he tells me he’s at the gym!”

“He’s certainly getting exercise,” her mother chuckles.

Serena bursts into tears. Her mother puts an arm around Serena and cradles her head.

“Don’t worry about it too much, dear. Don’t cry. There are ways to fix this.”

A bloodless smile creeps into the mother’s face. She is anxious for her daughter to marry.

“Come,” the mother says. “Let’s get away from all this. Where’s the damned thing? Here. You’re ready for the potion now. Take it.”

————————

Carlo Cattaneo Adorno is a writer from Brazil. His work has been published in FlatManCrooked and Lambda Literary. He is currently pursuing an MFA at The New School.

Palestine, Texas

There were jokes that began like this—a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim were wandering in the desert—so it was only natural that the three boys in the dusty schoolyard, with its unmanageable crop of tumbleweed and eye-jabbing dirt clouds, found themselves in a similar tableau, drawn together to a scorched corner of school grounds that served no other purpose than to designate a ball as “foul” when one happened to fall into it. In this case the Christian was a Catholic called Chucho, though this did not disqualify him from the gag, since his was a nickname for the most Christian name of all, Jesus (pronounced, in this instance, Hey-Zeus). The Jew spoke with a Southern drawl not one bit like the Yiddish shrug that no doubt characterized his counterpart in the joke. The Muslim was not Muslim at all but was actually Sikh and wore a turban on his head and, having come from mountains, had never seen an Arabian desert, only this dry, flat land enclosed in the shape of a barbed heart. And these boys might have heard the old joke’s preamble, but they didn’t know what happened next—maybe the three wanderers stepped in camel dung, or maybe a genie appeared, maybe God Himself. The boys were far more aware of what would happen next to themselves, here in their schoolyard diaspora. This was middle school, and they were sixth graders, the bottom of the bottom of a terrible, throbbing, anxious heap. Every day at recess, the threesome tasted the bitter knowledge that had crawled upwards all morning from their stomachs, compelling them to gather in this corner where they could count on the absolute worst to unfold: a football might roll to their feet, where Singh would lift it up awkwardly and fling it back into the staring crowd, missing his mark entirely and instead hitting a black girl right between the back pockets of her Faded Glorys. A beating from the eighth-grade girls would surely follow. Josh would lose his retainer in the melee and it would show up in math class, mysteriously stuck to Chucho’s black Velcro head. But never mind the details; the boys knew the drill. They understood their part in the indelicate ecosystem that was middle school, and they assembled at the corner of the schoolyard every day with the sour calm that came from each child’s quiet, personal sense of the rewards of martyrdom that he shared with no one, not even the others.

Joshua was the obvious leader, a practiced pariah, with his Yankee Jew of a father and a mother who perpetually wept at the waters of Babylon—or so his father had dubbed their backyard hot tub—over the marriage that had banished her from the promised land, Uptown New Orleans. The wire device Josh was sometimes forced to wear around his head, locked obscenely into his retainer, required a kind of noble leap of imagination on the part of his companions, who were able to look sternly into his face and hear his ever-righteous lispings without so much as a smirk. These honorable boys did no less for Singh, the tailor-made candidate for their dusty exile, with his colorless turban and the plastic sandals that reminded Chucho of his bisabuelita, his mother’s grandmother, who lived with him and his mother and bought her footwear from a street vendor who also sold candles of the Virgin of Guadalupe as well as his birthday piñatas. Chucho’s father had been a gringo soldier from Georgia who died not overseas but right here, in Texas, where he’d been struck in the temple by a rubber bullet during an urban-combat exercise before Chucho was born. Chucho’s mother kept his hair in a cadet’s fresh crew-cut and insisted he looked just like his father, but his face was as round and brown as any of the cholo faces that populated his public school, so that was not why he’d been expelled to the corner with the other boys. Chucho was an outcast because he was strange. His regimented sense of order and tremulous fascination with all things military had won over Josh and Singh, perhaps because in this Babylon, they needed a code of conduct they could count on, or perhaps because their deepest hopes and convictions involved angels decidedly of the martial kind.

These boys gathered in the corner of the schoolyard at recess time, and they huddled together in the lunchroom before that, and sometimes after school all three went for ice cream at Singh’s parents’ shop. The shop was called “Verma’s Dairy Freeze” and it featured a shivering cow on the sign under its name, and next to that hung another, less professionally painted sign that read “American Owned and Operated.” Since Singh’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Singh, had already been sworn in as American citizens when they bought the shop, they’d seen no reason to remove the sign. They had recently cleared a cooler in the back of the store and stocked it tentatively with some of Mrs. Singh’s specialties, plastic tubs filled with soupy concoctions in yellow and brown and flat breads that resembled, but were clearly not, tortillas, nothing the boys considered an attractive after-school snack. All three preferred soft-serve in wafer cones and were glad Mr. Singh dispensed it as generously as he did, since he was otherwise a serious man who would beckon to his son at random moments, sometimes even before the boy had finished his cone, and the two turbans, large and small, would disappear behind a curtain at the back of the store. Singh would wave a quick apology and leave the other boys to their own devices.

“Sher must sit with his pita now,” Mrs. Singh would explain, and the boys would slip off their stools and step outside. Singh’s full name was Singh Sher Singh, but when his parents had explained to their son’s first teacher at the elementary school that they preferred the boy to be called by his middle name, as he was at home, the teacher had advised against it. For reasons Josh did not understand but did not find important enough to inquire about, his father referred to Mr. and Mrs. Singh’s place of business as “Up the River” whenever Josh mentioned it. There was no river anywhere near the Singhs’ shop, unless you counted the little flash-flood ravines out back that were out back everywhere in the place they lived. Josh and Chucho would look for rattlers along one such ravine when they walked onward, after school and after soft-serve, to Chucho’s immaculate house, where Josh would politely wipe his hands on his corduroys before he lifted the phone to call his mother and ask to be picked up. Josh’s mother agreed to this arrangement on the days when she had to drive him to the city for his orthodontist appointments, since Chucho’s house was near the highway. His mother usually stayed outside in her SUV and honked to let him know she was there, though once she had come in to say hello, and afterwards in the car, she said that those women who looked after Chucho had probably put some kind of spell on the house to keep it so utterly free of Texas dust. She hated Texas dust, especially when it kicked up in great clouds and blew across the flat highway to town. Josh’s mother often drove the road to town, but Josh only joined her when he had to have his retainer tightened and once a year at Yom Kippur, a trip they took at his mother’s insistence. Josh’s father said that for the Jews of New Orleans, Yom Kippur was like Mardi Gras (to which Josh’s mother had said, “That doesn’t make a lick of sense,” and his father said, “That’s right”). At his father’s insistence, Josh would not, when he turned thirteen in the spring of his sixth-grade year, become a Bar Mitzvah at the temple in town; his father, a Zionist, wanted him to visit Israel instead, but his mother objected (“Too many terrorists live there,” she’d said, to which his father replied, “Everybody needs to live somewhere”). When his mother prevailed, Josh’s father settled for teaching him to sing HaTikva, “The Hope,” the Israeli national anthem. To his father’s surprise, Josh had no trouble remembering the Hebrew words, but the melody constantly eluded him. He did not tell his father that when he tried to sing the song to himself, it always came out to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

• • •

Joshua’s Yankee daddy was in the paper business. When they’d first driven to Texas from Alabama (where they’d lived when Josh was younger) and Josh pointed out the giant bales of hay rolled in neat rows on the side of the road, his father had called them “reams.” Josh’s father often went away on paper business, and he loved to bring home little souvenirs—rebel flag cigarette lighters and jumbo pecan logs and T-shirts reading “I Love GRITS (Girls Raised in the South)”—at which his mother always scoffed in precisely the same way she did when Josh’s father made his little amused comments on the way things were in “the South.” New Orleans is not Alabama is not Texas, Josh’s mother would insist, and his father would say, What about a carpetbagger? I can be a carpetbagger just about anywhere down here, can’t I? Josh’s father also collected names of towns “down here,” particularly in Texas, where he’d found a place called Cut and Shoot, as well as a White Settlement, and even a Rosenberg, which just happened to be his own family name. So it was Josh who first heard of Palestine, Texas when his father went there on business and came back with a jar of pepper jelly from their annual Hot Pepper Festival. It got him thinking, the name of that place, especially as he munched on a peanut-butter-and-hot-pepper-jelly sandwich in the cafeteria while Chucho and Singh debated the likelihood that anyone would achieve teleportation in their own lifetimes (maybe not for the average commuter, they’d agreed—but surely the military, Chucho argued, or a private multi-billionaire investor, said Singh). The fact that they had soldiered through the first five years of the 21st century without the advent of mind-blowing technological developments had seriously disappointed them, but they had faith in the work being done secretly, by people in the know. Josh chewed and thought all the while, and he decided, as he crossed the schoolyard with the others, dislodging the last bit of peanut from his orthodonture, that he had hit upon something worth running by his schoolmates. He turned to them when they’d reached their corner, which, in the late autumn afternoon, was hit at an awkward angle by the sun—not hot, but relentlessly bright.

“I’ve got an idea,” he began, and the others were immediately silenced, turning to face him expectantly: perhaps they would get somewhere with teleportation after all. Josh was not wearing his metal headgear, but it was clear he’d worn it to sleep the night before—the tracks had not fully disappeared from his left cheek. Chucho and Singh blinked quietly and focused on his eyes, which flashed brilliant blue in the sunlight. Josh’s were the only blue eyes in the bunch.

“I’ve been thinking about Israel,” Josh said.

The other two had nothing to say to that. Josh’s Bar Mitzvah was still a good six months away, but teleporting wouldn’t help with Josh’s Bar-Mitzvah problem; he’d get there faster, but a terrorist could blow himself up anywhere, even in a teleportation depot. No way would they have home launch pads any time soon, especially not in Israel, which was in the Middle East and therefore even more behind the technological times.

Josh glanced in the direction of the massive flagpole that occupied a more desirable corner of the schoolyard. Drooping together at the top, completely still in the Texas air, were the Stars and Stripes and the Lone Star Flag. Josh squinted upward, briefly, and delivered his carefully considered proposal.

“I was thinking,” Josh shared, “that it might be a really good idea if Israel was moved to Texas.”

It was obvious, Josh explained, that Israel had been placed unstrategically in hostile territory, surrounded as it was by Arab nations, and the people of Israel had given that idea a shot for more than half a century already; one only had to look so far as the evening news to see that things over there were not working out. Texas, on the other hand, was expansive, a frontier still partly unsettled (at this he waved his hand out over the school’s back fence, which was bordered by another of those familiar ravines, and beyond that, a field of dust, and far beyond that, a two-lane county road, though this was imperceptible unless a vehicle happened to be crossing it, stirring the dust crop). Texas also had its share of oil, Josh continued, something on which the Jewish people had gotten a bum deal, since it seemed there was very little in their particular corner of the Middle East. Texas could welcome the people of Israel with room to spare, and in exchange for American oil-mining expertise the Israelis could share their knowledge of desert irrigation, which, he’d heard, was extensive.

“The two places could, you know, morph into one,” Josh concluded. “I was thinking it could be called ‘Texrael.’”

Josh’s small audience mulled this over a moment. Both his companions liked the hybrid name—it was a much better idea than, say, a Republic of something—but though the fact remained unspoken, this plan seemed to require that the fifty United States have their well-rounded number reduced by one. The boys had all, however, recited the Lone Star Pledge of Allegiance: one and indivisible didn’t mean Texas couldn’t back out and join up with something else, did it? They were well aware of their state’s secessionist tendencies. All three simultaneously shot a glance toward Mikey Nesbit, whose daddy owned a whole lot more guns than anyone else’s daddy, and whose big brother had once been held for questioning by what Mikey called “the F, the B, and the I.” At that moment Mikey was climbing the ladder to the polyethylene treeless treehouse beside the jungle gym. He disappeared inside, and they heard a group of girls screech. The echoey plastic noise stirred Singh to speak.

“It could be decided by referendum,” he suggested. “We could add a place on the ballot for the name: ‘Texrael’ or ‘Israeas.’”

“That other one sounds like ass,” Josh noted. “But I think you’re right to leave the choice to democracy.”

Singh nodded at this insight, but Chucho was not convinced. “Didn’t the Lord tell the Jews to live specifically in Israel? Isn’t that where they’re supposed to retreat when things get jacked?”

“There is that one thing,” Josh conceded. “But God probably wouldn’t want all the fighting that’s going on there now. He’d probably settle for a good place to live—and remember, we could fit a whole lot more Jewish people into Texas, like the ones persecuted in Siberia and Chile. Israel is smaller than the state of New Jersey.” His father had told him this last bit; as it happened, his father was a native of that very same Yankee state.

Singh wasn’t certain of the exact dimensions of New Jersey, but he sided with Josh on this matter as well. “It is not as if the land of Texas has been previously granted to anyone by God at this time,” he pointed out. “Was it God who gave Texas to The White Man? And yet here The White Man rules.”

At home, Singh’s parents had not once, in all their references to the American people and their many foibles, used the term ‘The White Man,’ but he had heard it spoken in the first Western he’d seen on American television and had loved it ever since, loved the way the Indians said “Man” instead of “men” even when they spoke of a dozen cowboys, shrinking them with their talk. He was always looking for an opportunity to use the phrase himself in casual speech. Chucho had noticed Singh’s habit, and it made him cringe every time he heard his friend say those words. They made him think of his father, The White Man who came to him in his dreams each night, his face larger and whiter than it appeared in any photograph, now drained of life and hovering in the air above his son’s bed. In each of his dreams, Chucho was struck with the terrifying certainty his father was drawing near in order to show him his head wound, and he would burrow head-first in his sleep, deep into the covers of his tightly-made bed, but his father’s forlorn face would try to follow him in there, until he was trapped in the black, airless space at the foot of the bed, and he’d wake up to the close, fabric-choked sound of his own screaming. He loved the relief of his mother’s gentle hands guiding him out to the cool air, her soft kiss on his damp cheek, so he never protested when she’d sigh, just before she left, and tuck the covers in snugly around him, though he knew that meant he’d soon drift off to sleep and find himself penned in again, helpless.

“Besides,” Singh was saying to Josh in that matter-of-fact accent with which he said everything, “it was The White Man who caused the tragedy of the Jewish Holocaust, not the Arab, so it should be The White Man who provides the Jews with the land for a permanent home.”

“It’s not only gringos who run Texas, you know,” Chucho pointed out, but his voice lacked conviction.

Singh’s brow furrowed, a gesture that caused his turban to dip over his eyes, then rise again. “Our president, George W. Bush,” he replied, “has a great deal of influence in the state of Texas.” Singh contemplated the influence of Mr. Bush, the Great White Man, quite often. “He could help arrange a treaty, maybe even provide his ranch for the summit.”

“Yeah, I thought of that too,” Josh said. “It would be like the president actually gets to fix something in the Middle East before he has to leave office. Jimmy Carter didn’t even help that much, and he got a Nobel Prize. And that’s why I figure President Bush would help out, since he’d probably win one himself.”

Chucho brightened. He hadn’t heard about President Carter. “We could help the President win a Nobel Prize?”

“Yeah. Maybe we’d win one too.”

At that the boys fell silent, moved to dreaming. Then Chucho thought of something.

“We could start a—a fusion army between their armed forces and the Texas National Guard. Our boys could train the Jewish soldiers to fight and to use the FGM-148 Javelin guided anti-tank missiles and the Global Information Grid. We’d design new uniforms and insignia.”

“The Israelis won’t need training,” Josh corrected. “Their Defense Forces are among the finest in the world. They’ve never lost a war.”

“The U.S. Army hasn’t ever lost a war, either,” Chucho said. He looked to Singh, who shrugged.

“It could be a super-army collaboration,” Singh offered. “Texrael would be small, but it would be mighty.”

“And if anyone wanted to bomb us, they’d face total annihilation,” Chucho smiled.

“And we wouldn’t even need to change our official language,” Josh added, just as the yard monitor’s air-horn trumpeted the end of recess. “Hebrew’s an ancient tongue, so everyone in Israel has to be fluent in English.”

The boys passed notes through math, diagramming their ideas for the new nation, and during art, when they had to push their desks together in order to share supplies, they swore each other to solemn secrecy (Chucho scraped with a frayed brush at the watercolor tray, marking each note with a red stripe that denoted its classified nature) until the time would come to share the information with the proper authorities. The proper authorities, they agreed as the school day finally wrapped itself up, would be Mr. Arbrust, their civics teacher, and they decided the time would come to present him with their plan at the next day’s recess period—not a moment too soon if they wanted to save lives and take advantage of the Texan president’s remaining term. Josh was scheduled for a new phase of dental work that afternoon, and he was glad that though his mother had offered to collect him directly from school, he’d insisted on the pick-up at Chucho’s. Josh had insisted because he’d wanted one last taste of soft-serve—the orthodontist had warned that with the new hardware, he’d have to stay off cold foods for a while—but now he had another reason to make the walk to the Singhs’ store, since there was a certain division of labor to establish before the three parted for the day: it was determined that Chucho would spend the evening considering Texrael’s military needs in greater detail while Singh would research international business ventures that could serve as a model for the two cultures’ union on Texas turf. Josh, they agreed, would have to consider the two states’ political landscapes; after all, once the two separate governments were combined, only one man could sit at the top. They took a final oath of silence outside the Dairy Freeze, this time to keep the matter from their parents specifically until they got the ball rolling with Mr. Arbrust. As Singh retreated with his father to the store’s back room, he confirmed his commitment with an index finger to his lips, and Chucho responded with a thumbs-up, all-systems-go. Josh gave Chucho the same signal before he climbed into the SUV and slammed the door, his mother giving him a little pat before she turned up his father’s Jack Teagarden CD—music was the one thing his parents seemed to agree upon—and as he watched the empty, arid land fly past on their way to town, the dairy-sweetness of ice cream lingering in his mouth, Josh felt a quiet, glowing calm of the sort he had not felt since he’d begun to round the bend to his thirteenth birthday. The future had now spoken to him, and it told him he just might change the terms of world peace before the advent of his Bar Mitzvah.

• • •

Mr. Arbrust, the civics teacher, had a deformed right hand, its fingers permanently curled into his palm, as if he kept something concealed there at all times. He was right-handed, and so when he wrote on the board Mr. Arbrust would pass the chalk to his right hand with his left and then scroll his fist sideways across the blackboard’s surface, making precise circles with his arm. Civics was a new subject for the boys, something they hadn’t even heard of in elementary school, and they’d all agreed early on in their middle-school tenure that they liked civics, liked the way Mr. Arbrust would lay things out so methodically, and the dignified way he used his words, even though he wasn’t that old. After a debriefing at lunch, during which Singh shared his discovery that Senator Padmé Amidala was actually Israeli, they gathered at their corner for one last pow-wow before they would approach Mr. Arbrust, who was at that moment sitting at one of the student desks in his own classroom (a fact they had already confirmed by peeking through a dingy window that looked out onto the schoolyard) and not in the lounge where most of the teachers spent recess. Chucho announced that though he had in no way breached their security pact, he had indicated to his mother that they would have reason to celebrate after school, and she had promised to set them out a sundae party before she left for her afternoon shift, no questions asked. All they had to do was pick up some of the regular, scoopable kind of ice cream from the Dairy Freeze on their way home.

Joshua winced. By the time he’d taken two Extra-Strength Tylenol and gone to bed late the previous night, his taste for ice cream had been fully knocked out of him. The orthodontist in town had glued tiny metal rivets to each of his upper teeth and then threaded them with a piece of wire, giving Josh little wads of wax to attach to the wire’s ends to prevent them from boring holes in the sides of his cheeks. He’d already endured many metallic tortures in his young life, but this was the first time something had been cemented to his mouth. He swallowed hard and led his team to the civics classroom, where all three boys poked their heads—metal-mouthed, turbaned, and Velcro-buzzed—through the slightly opened door. They found Mr. Arbrust working at his laptop, to which he’d attached a giant red ball contraption that they recognized as some kind of mouse. When they piled inside, Mr. Arbrust used the knuckles of his contorted fist to spin the ball and then slam the computer shut. Then he seized his bad arm by the sleeve and swept it into his lap.

“Mr. Tucker.” (This was Chucho.) “Mr. Rosenberg, Mr. Singh.”

“Hi, Mr. A,” Chucho grinned.

Josh shot him a sideways look. His mouth was a painfully taut line, and behind it, something was making his teeth feel as if each one was tied to a John Deere, and someone at the wheel was flooring it. He licked his lips.

“Hello Mr. Arbrust.” Josh tried hard not to lisp. “We were wondering if we could talk to you about an idea we had.”

“An idea?”

“We have composed a proposal for the achievement of peace in the Middle East through the combination of the states of Israel and Texas here on Texas territory.”

At Josh’s nod, Singh stepped forward and delivered a stapled collection of notes, maps, and flow-charts to Mr. Arbrust’s outstretched left hand. The document had been a joint effort composed via e-mail the previous night and printed on Josh’s father’s best laser-printer without the permission of Josh’s father, who was again away on paper business. The cover page featured the sentence Josh had just recited, along with the words “The Hybrid Nation TEXRAEL (name pending popular approval)” in a hefty font, aligned center.

“I see,” Mr. Arbrust said, and, anchoring the packet in his lap, flipped through its pages while Josh repeated the argument he’d shared a day before at recess, now bolstered by the addition of factual support gathered by Chucho and Singh. Josh could hardly wait while their teacher turned laboriously through each page; he continued to present their case.

“In this report, we’ve listed the many advantages to moving the Jewish homeland to our region. We were thinking you could help us push this through the proper channels, you know, get the attention of those in power.” He put heavy emphasis on the phrase, just as he’d heard Mr. Arbrust do each time he referred to those officials entrusted with the glorious checks and balances on which their government was so gracefully poised. Mr. Arbrust always spoke the term affectionately; those in power were his friends. It was on this fact exactly that the boys were counting now.

Indeed, Josh’s invocation of the term seemed to awaken something in Mr. Arbrust. His head jerked up from the pages in his lap, his lips curled in a congenial smile. “Well, gentlemen,” he said, “you don’t approach the men engaged in managing the business of our nation without truly thinking things through.”

The boys exchanged nervous glances. They had thought things through, not only at recess but on class time, and they’d clocked a substantial number of hours on the Internet to boot.

“Well,” Josh ventured, “we were hoping you could advise us on how we might persuade the right people to think this over. If the proposal isn’t written well enough, maybe you could help us revise it? Or, maybe add pie charts?”

At this, Chucho emitted a tiny groan. No one had paid him any mind the night before when he’d Instant Messaged his idea about pie charts.

“We might first consider content before we move on to form,” Mr. Arbrust noted. Chucho gazed past him to the copy of the United States Constitution thumb-tacked to the bulletin board. It was printed on a sort of fake parchment that had been rolled at the edges, like a treasure map. Mr. Arbrust poked a rigid finger at the document in his lap. “It is your vision to invite the entire population—that is, everyone living there who is not Arab—to settle permanently in our state.”

“Our regions have similar climates, so the transition should not be difficult,” Singh explained.

“And what of Jerusalem?” Mr. Arbrust’s voice rose in a funny way. Maybe it was his pronunciation of “Jerusalem,” an antique word in a mouth that usually formed more familiar sounds, like “Austin” and “Washington, DC.”

“What is your stratagem, boys,” Mr. Arbrust continued, “for the landmarks holy to Christian and Jew alike?”

“We were thinking the National Park Service—Texrael’s Park Service—could reconstruct all the holy places right here.” Josh wanted to say that he himself had visited a Civil War fort in Alabama reconstructed in precisely that spirit, since the battle he’d seen re-enacted there had really taken place in Virginia, but something told him to keep it short. “This would also generate tourism revenue, since everyone in America could visit holy places by tour bus.”

“Except if they come from Hawaii, then they’d have to fly,” Chucho said.

Mr. Arbrust sighed. His smile had not left his face, though it had now pulled itself into an eerily sad sort of grin. “Boys, you’ve used your imaginations impressively here, so I’ll ask you to accomplish one more feat: consider, please, what would happen if you were a bit older, say of my age, and you flew with your proposal to Congress and attempted to approach that great forum as you have approached me now.”

The boys looked again at one another. Chucho shrugged a little. Josh tried to do as he was told, which was not too difficult, since he’d already pictured himself before that very assembly, though in his imaginings, he was nowhere near his teacher’s age; in his imaginings, he hadn’t yet had his braces removed. Then he saw what he believed Mr. A. wanted him to see. He giggled a little with relief.

“Oh, but we know!” he replied. “We want to start small, like with local government, like the flow-chart you showed us in class. We know we have to follow the right channels.”

“We have a stratagem for that on page twelve,” Singh added. He stepped forward once again, this time attempting to turn to the page in question, but Mr. Arbrust had already begun to flip the packet back to its cover sheet, and in the confusion of hands the whole thing slipped off his lap and landed at the boys’ feet. All three of them stepped back, as if the papers on the floor threatened to singe their toes.

Gentlemen,” Mr. Arbrust said. He was acting as if they hadn’t been listening, as if they’d talked in class or were just being stupid, like when Mikey Nesbit called Mr. Arbrust a conspiracy theorist and Mr. Arbrust said if he wanted to insult the teacher he should consider the obvious since the absurd undermined his case, or when Kimberly Caldwell raised her hand during the Immigration Unit and said a visa was a credit card. Mr. Arbrust spoke gently and looked dog-tired.

“I am not a religious man—as you are well aware, I have a preference for an ethic by the people, for the people—but I know each of you holds certain spiritual beliefs as sacred as I hold the Constitution—and needless to say, I have operated on the impression that all my pupils hold that document just as sacred as I do, regardless of their orientation.” Mr. Arbrust remained seated at the low desk where they’d found him, but he now bore a look so full of heartrending benevolence into the boys’ eyes that they found themselves shrinking nonetheless. “You have chosen to come to me, and that is why, boys, I will not shirk my duty to shield you from misunderstanding. You may not see it now, but with time you will: to the individuals who truly matter to the world—and even to some other, more dangerous individuals who should not—this immodest proposal, were it considered with any seriousness, would greatly offend. I am not sure to whom it commits a more significant offense: the Union, or the Lord. But most of all, young men such as yourselves, who are well aware of how things work, would not want their everyday flights of fancy to be taken for anything like—well, anything for which you would later find yourselves ashamed.”

Joshua sensed it first, a kind of stinging in his eyes and throat. He didn’t know if the others had felt it, but in that moment, he hardly thought of them; instead he wondered which of Mr. Arbrust’s dizzying words was worrying microscopic tears from beneath his eyelids. Had he dared to look, he would have seen the red flush that had risen to Chucho’s brown cheeks, and the thin trail of sweat that had formed along the neckline of Singh’s starched shirt. Each of these boys knew something of what it meant to offend God and country—they understood Mr. Arbrust was implying they’d committed the sins they had not once dreamed they’d commit, the twin sins of blasphemy and treason. But worse, he’d stopped short of a darker word, some other crime—a crime for which, if they remained as careless as they’d apparently been today, they would eventually pay dearly. The warning throbbed in each boy’s mind as Mr. Arbrust pushed his chair back from the desk and leaned toward them confidentially.

“You are good boys”—there was that smile again, so full of something like pity, but not just pity, what was it then?— “and so it will be as a favor to you that I will not let our discussion leave this room. Or rather I will banish it from this room, and send it away, into the ether.”

Singh had heard before of ether; the word conjured for him the hissing of something poisonous, and it was with alarm that he finally looked toward Josh, who turned, and, without collecting their workmanship from the floor, led the retreat to the schoolyard, where five merciless minutes of recess remained.

• • •

Josh’s jaw was pounding, a war drum in his ears. He looked upwards, to the bright, vast Texas heavens, and then around him, unable to find what he was searching for. He turned to Chucho, his pupils pulsing. “Why the hell did you have to mention Hawaii?” he yelled. “Who the hell in Hawaii cares about the Holy Land?”

Chucho kicked at the dirt. Singh tried hard to catch his eye, but Chucho hadn’t lifted his gaze from his sneakers since they’d taken their leave of the civics room. Singh turned to Josh instead.

“Maybe we should have reminded Mr. Arbrust of the tragedy of the Jewish Holocaust?”

“Stop saying the Jewish Holocaust!” Josh’s voice broke as he screamed. “What other Holocaust is there, dickwad?”

Something sharp dislodged itself from the back of Singh’s brain, rocketing forward in his head, and now he was spinning. He didn’t know “Dickwad.” He wished he knew something besides “White Man.” He looked again to Chucho, who still wasn’t speaking, was barely moving, and Josh looked at him too, glowering. Chucho stood alone, in his own private universe, where for the first time his father’s white face had appeared before him in his waking life, a face full of disgust for his living son. Chucho could not comprehend why it had happened, this ghostly crossover from his dreams, but here there was no darkness into which he could burrow, only harsh sunlight and dirty air that made his nose run. He lifted a hand to his face, but before he could properly drag the backs of his fingers across his upper lip, he heard Josh yell, “Don’t friggin cry!” and he saw Josh’s hand shoot out, and then he felt his own fist slam into his own nose. Chucho stumbled a moment, his neck tilted back, his eyes upturned to the cluster of sixth-grade girls gaping at him from the treehouse window, and before he’d caught his balance he threw himself forward and parried, sending the same snotty hand into Josh’s face. Josh felt metal claws scrape the insides of his mouth, the exhilaration of blood’s release. He heard some kids shouting something, and he swung again, first at Chucho’s tear-streaked face, and then at Singh’s arms, which had reached in to stop him. Singh persisted, shoving his whole self between the combatants, and both felt the impact of an entire body, not just a fist, with wild delight. Then all three were tearing at each other, stumbling to the ground, tasting dirt, miserable and free until two recess monitors, four stronger arms, lifted them from the dust and delivered them to the principal, from whom they accepted their half-day suspension with a prideful gravity and gathered their backpacks and walked separately to the front gates where a procession soon arrived to escort them home: one turbaned father, one great-grandmother, one SUV. Josh’s mother said, Go to your room, wait until your father gets home, and Chucho’s bisabuelita wept while she wiped the unopened jars of caramel nuts and maraschino cherries clean and placed them in the cupboard, and Singh’s pita only stared at him quietly before departing alone for their study in the store’s back room. The boys returned to school the next morning, to social studies and science and English and math and even civics, all the things that held the world in place, and they chewed lunch together silently and then walked back to their scorched corner, as they’d do for a long time to come. They stood there in silence, looking out at the desert, quiet not because they hated each other, but because their heads felt emptied of ideas, their mouths caked with the schoolyard’s paralyzing dust. And as the joke says—or the book, or the song, or whatever keeps track of how things are and always will be—these boys, like all boys, would one day grow up in the world and be men.

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Eliezra Schaffzin was once a mild-mannered teacher of writing at Harvard University, but she’s put all that behind her, and, having let down her schoolmarm’s bun, she is hard at work as a full-time Emerging Writer. Her writing has emerged or is in the process of emerging at PANK, AGNI Online, Barrelhouse, Word Riot, Sein und Werden, SmokeLong and other fine publications. She has indexed her work at her emerging website, eliezraschaffzin.com.