Intestines

I found the book How do you know YOU are Falling from a Great Height when your Eyes are Closed? (40ft Press. Dublin. 1971) at the bottom of a huge bin, under cookery books, romances, children’s books, books on home interior, books on chemistry, math, How to Speak English, it was onionyellow and dogeared, the spine was broken, the front cover was missing. I took a punt; I like books with long titles. I took it home and read it.

I think that Larry Caomhánach was a nom de plume, it has been a futile search for information, I know that he was not Irish, nor was he an American, I have a tenuous belief that he was Norwegian; this tenuous belief has the foundation on Larry Caomhánach’s superfluous use of Faen ta deg. The phrase peppers the book.

I know it is a bad book compared to other books, I know that Larry Caomhánach is a terrible writer, the math gives it away, after all, he published only one book and the publishers were small, lackadaisical, and went out of business shortly after publishing the book, but still I cannot put down Larry Caomhánach’s one and only book, when I get to the end I start again, this is not down to some Joycean trick, but simply through the joy I experience. Being a writer, myself, small, lackadaisical, and penurious, I used the first page of How do you know YOU are Falling from a Great Height when your Eyes are Closed? for a short story, the story was never published, and so like the failed magician irate at the world I now want to reveal my secret.

 

How do you know YOU are Falling from a Great Height when your Eyes are Closed? (40ft Press. Dublin. 1971).

It was hot and the game was nowhere to be seen. It was still fashionable to shoot tigers, lions, and other dangerous animals, so Harry Black held his rifle tightly since he knew that the game was out there. Harry’s guide kept talking, but Harry was at a loss as to what Ozondjahe was trying to communicate. Ozondjahe was very tall, much taller than Harry was. When he laughed, which he did often, he showed the whitest teeth. They were so white Harry was lost for words. Ozondjahe carried a shotgun. The shotgun was Harry’s idea. At first Ozondjahe refused to carry the shotgun. Ozondjahe said all he needed was his walking stick, but Harry wouldn’t hear of it, for Harry the shotgun was better than any damn walking stick, after all, they were hunting tigers, lions, and other dangerous animals. Ozondjahe was deeply upset about having to leave his walking stick at the camp and carry a shotgun. The shotgun was heavy. Ozondjahe also had to carry three bottles of wine, a full meal consisting of roasted chicken, cheese, crusty French bread, and black olives. And the coffee pot, two mugs, and coffee makings. Ozondjahe led the way through the thick bush. The bush made a lot of noise. The bush was dry, so was the land, there was much dust in the air, and the dust turned the sky red. Harry had never seen a red sky. The dust also looked like big insects. It was too dry and so there were no real insects. Harry followed Ozondjahe through the thick noisy bush. The bush was reduced to dust under Harry’s boots.

 

The Whistling Between Your Legs (Unpublished. 1987.)

It was hot and there were many girls walking up and down the Boulevard. The girls were not naked, but the miniskirt had not disappeared. Harry Black sipped his coffee outside the café Loulou and watched the girls walk past. When a beautiful girl walked by with an ugly man, Harry sighed pensively. This happened a lot. Harry smoked a cigarette. It was 1972 and smoking was still considered chic. The year accounted for the number of beautiful girls with ugly men. Harry had visited the Seine, the Eiffel Tower, and the Palais Garnier. He had walked up and down the Avenue de Clichy. He had paid his respects at Père Lachaise. He had sat down at Honoré de Balzac and broke crusty bread and swigged wine. He had seen the Arc de Triomphe. Now, Harry wanted to trap a philosopher. They were out there, lots of them, Harry had read all about them and seen them on the television, sitting outside cafés, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and spouting their ideas. The hotel concierge told Harry which café attracted the most philosophers. It was the café Loulou. It was the best watering hole in the city. The philosophers were always to be found there, drinking coffee, smoking pipes, showing off, and tapping up the young girls. Harry was very excited when his waiter told him that Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir always stopped at the café Loulou for a coffee and a smoke.

 

How do you know YOU are Falling from a Great Height when your Eyes are Closed? (40ft Press. Dublin. 1971).

Ozondjahe stopped and dropped the rucksack that carried the roasted chicken, cheese, crusty French bread, black olives, coffee pot, two mugs, and coffee makings. Before he had a chance to lift up the heavy shotgun, point the heavy shotgun, a lion had him by the throat. Harry stunned fell back. He watched, numbed and paralyzed, as the lion reduced Ozondjahe into a number of nouns, too many to count. The lion finished off Ozondjahe and stalked Harry. Its eyes were enlarged and its mouth was awash with Ozondjahe’s blood and guts. The lion approached. Harry’s legs refused to carry him as his arms refused to lift him. Although, Harry’s body refused to work, his brain worked amazingly. Harry experienced a thousand deaths, all very violent. The lion metamorphosed into a thousand monsters all vile and terrible. The panting lion became a locomotion that would not stop. Harry saw his funeral: the attendance was good. Harry was able to look into the nailed shut coffin, something his family was unable to do, and he saw the thick mush sealed in a plastic bag. Harry screamed. The lion matched the scream with a roar. The sun was a golden disc that was beautiful, romantic, and at the end of the day, impassive.

 

The Whistling Between Your Legs (Unpublished. 1987.)

‘Look over there,’ said the waiter, pointing to a table at the other end of the café. Harry looked, but all he saw was a typical Parisian doing his usual thing, smoking, drinking coffee, and being coquettish. Harry shrugged his shoulders. ‘Don’t you know who that is?’ said the waiter. The waiter was an American student who thought a year or two in Paris would rub off on him. ‘No,’ said Harry. The student laughed, it was a mocking, mirthless laugh. Harry not one to be laughed at stood up and punched the young man on the nose. The young man wiped the blood away and looked, stunned and paralyzed, at Harry. ‘I know his philosophy is frustrating but there is no need for violence,’ said the young man. Another waiter appeared. « Vous at-il touché? » asked the waiter. He was a big man with a big mustache.  «Oui», said the young man, now with a bloody face. ‘I am going to teach you a lesson,’ said the big man with the big mustache to Harry. ‘The lesson will mean more to you than any logorrheic epistemology.” Before Harry could respond, the big man knocked him onto his bottom with a right hook. Those in the café reacted in a myriad of manners, some screamed, some were tongue-tied through shock, but most laughed. Harry managed to get back to his feet. The big man produced two hairy fists as a magician will produce a white rabbit and a white dove. Harry threw a left. The waiter collected it like a paltry tip and threw a right. The right sent Harry back against a table that refused to budge. ‘I think you should leave,’ said the young man who was no longer bleeding from the nose. ‘I have never backed down from a fight in my life,’ said Harry, but before he could attack the big waiter with the mustache but with even bigger fists knocked Harry Black out cold.

I am fascinated with how a writer writes. I write sitting down, smoking, drinking wine, lots of wine, my endings always suffer. I know Larry Caomhánach liked to write naked with a long piece of string traveling through his intestines.

 

————————

 Paul Kavanagh lives in Charlotte.

The Joy of Cooking

I stood alone in the center of my empty kitchen, staring idly beyond tattered floral drapes, single-pane glass, and drone of houses hugging the street. The sound of painted white floorboards clacking as I tapped my “Dorothy” ruby red heels was the only disturbance to cut through the thick humid air, inescapable during Atlanta’s oppressive summers. Standing there in a summery polka-dot dress with twin strands of pearls swinging down towards what I know to be perfect breasts, I felt like a parody of myself, an adult caricature of the little blonde girl who dressed dolls in white wedding gowns and always wanted to grow up to be a housewife. Seeing the white peach blossoms outside, I allowed myself to get lost in the afternoon sky, tinged with just the right amount of red. Closing my eyes, I felt the airy sensation of a daydream creep up gently from behind. Bob’s warm calloused hands slid along my waist in an impossibly seductive embrace. Moist lips traced a path from my shoulder to my neck, and came to rest—with a playful suck—on my creamy earlobe. They parted to whisper a deep guttural moan into my eager ear. All alone in my big white house, I let out a moan of pleasure. I was struck by the unfamiliarity of the sound I used to know so well. Imagining Bob behind me, I moaned again, letting the all-consuming noise envelope my dainty body until the misfire of a familiar red Studebaker announced the arrival of the real Bob and shattered the glimmering surface of my fantasy.

Snapped back into reality, I clacked to the kitchen, licked my thumb, and began to rifle through the worn pages of my favorite cookbook. Each recipe required only a glance: I had the book all but committed to memory. I paused at the meat section—salivating as I allowed pork-chop flavored desire to pass just in front of my trembling lips—before flipping to an exhausted section that advertised “100 Ways To Cook Potatoes!” The section failed to mention that no matter how potatoes are cooked, they always taste like potatoes.

The front door opened and allowed the gruff question, “What’s for dinner, Sandy?” to enter into the house. The door slammed shut behind Bob’s words, as if to punctuate the question and assure me of my husband’s foul mood.

“Potato pie,” I answered calmly, bracing for the indignation with which I knew Bob would take the news.

“Potatoes? Oh good! Potatoes! You know how much I love potatoes! Nothing better than good ol’ lumpy potatoes after a long hard day at work.” Bob stormed off to the bedroom, leaving me, alone again, to prepare his dinner. I knew better than to reply to my husband’s volatile sarcasm. I simply watched him leave, staring at the twin curves of his supple butt cheeks, shaped like perfectly marinated chicken cutlets.

Though the heat of the day had dissipated slightly, no evening breeze entered through the open windows. By the time dinner was ready, the sticky air was about the same consistency as my mushy potato pie. I glanced over at Bob, observing beads of sweat as they trickled down his strong forehead. We ate in silence until Bob’s twelfth gut-wrenching sigh of the night made the sinewy nerves that tether my temper to my good sense snap.

“Bob! Is that absolutely necessary?”

“Do you expect me to be happy with this meal?” Bob snorted at me.

“It’s all we have. We have to make do,” my no-nonsense tone startled me. Before the war I’m sure I had been a romantic. Bob didn’t respond. I bit my lip seductively and changed my tactics: “The war’s hard on all of us, Bob.” I advanced towards my husband and brushed the back of a painted red fingernail across his cheek. “We all just need to try and relax.”

Bob shrank away from my touch. “What are you doing?”

“How long has it been?” I watched Bob push his chair away from the table. I didn’t know whether to cry or tear my clothes off and beg. Stuck in between these two acts of desperation, I went on the attack.

“We haven’t made love since the day you got deferred from service.”

Bob started, “I told you not to mention–”

“Look, I know you’re upset. But having a bad ear is nothing to be ashamed of. It means you get to stay here with me… maybe make a baby?” I touched him again, more suggestively this time. I willed him to remember the love and passion we shared before the war. “What do you say?”

“Now you listen to me you… woman. There are certain things your kind can’t understand and how men think is one of those things.”

I sighed into my husband’s words. “Help me to understand, Bob.”

“You want to know? Really? Bob was standing now.” Patches of his collared shirt were becoming transparent with sweat. The shirt reminded me of the taboo fact that Bob worked in a factory where his coworkers were mostly women, and I felt myself immediately cut to the stomach with seething jealousy. I barely heard my husband’s next words. “Well for one men don’t look at sex the same way as women do.”

“Don’t they?”

“No. And there are only two things that get a man’s blood up: that’s fighting and meat. And this goddamn war has deprived me of both!”

That night Bob slept on the couch and I dreamt of the war. It was not unlike my sensual fantasies: I felt totally immersed in the bloodshed around me, but quite certain of the fact that I was immune to it, as if surrounded by a thin silk cocoon that picked up a pleasant, stimulating effervescence from the titillating energy of the war, bringing it to me in pleasurable waves. I woke with the paralyzed face of a slain soldier etched deep in my mind, and was struck by how manly he looked, even in death. Even in death not a boy, but a man capable of all things that men can do. Upon further reflection I realized that the slain soldier looked exactly like my husband.

Breakfast was oatmeal. I added a dash of cinnamon and snuck in a few precious raisins in a meager attempt to add some flavor but, from the look on Bob’s contemptuous face as he moved the lumpy paste in circles with his spoon while reading the morning paper, I had not been not successful. Despite his misgivings, I decided to remain pleased with my effort and wore a determined twinkle in my eye for the duration of the meal. The night had refreshed me, and I passive-aggressively hummed to myself as I washed up after the meal. Coaxing a not-nearly-long enough kiss on the cheek from Bob on his way out the door, I made a quick phone call, urging a charming old friend to join me for my afternoon tea. I then turned my attention to sprucing-up my already spotless home. All morning I worked furiously at the house, dusting, mopping, even beginning to prepare a side of mashed potatoes for dinner. At a quarter after one, the doorbell sounded. An unassuming houseguest waited on the front porch in the sweltering afternoon heat. I took my time answering the door, first stepping into the bathroom to check my perfectly powered visage. My white face glowed. My softly curled golden hair cast shadowed ringlets across my shoulders and cheekbones. My delicate skin and light hair complimented the flushed red paint that coated my voluptuous lips. If nothing else, I was beautiful, and if Bob was going through some sort of mid-life crisis that made him too insecure to sleep with me, then fine. But why should I suffer? I had always been a survivor, and I was going to do whatever it took to make my perfect marriage to the sexiest man (with the biggest piece of meat in Atlanta) endure this war. Even if that meant getting my hands dirty.

I sauntered to the front door and, giddy with anticipation, let my guest in with an alluring giggle and my sweetest southern-belle voice, “Why Father Carter, you certainly got here real quick! I haven’t even had time to straighten up.”

Father Carter was a mildly handsome man in his fifties whose strong hands and sun-worn face betrayed time spent tending to crops when he wasn’t performing his Catholic priestly duties. As far as I knew, Carter felt none of Bob’s confusing emotions regarding not participating in the war, and I assume he was grateful that his age provided him with a legal justification to avoid seeing combat. On the phone I told him I was inviting him to tea because I was thinking of converting to Catholicism; from the moment I opened the door, I could see how excited he was to convince me that I was making the right decision. He was a simple man, certainly nothing to spark wild daytime fantasies, but perfect for what I had in mind.

“Well hello there Sandy, you look… may I have a glass of water?”

“Certainly,” I flounced to the fridge, took out a crystal pitcher, and leaned over as I poured water into a glass, revealing even more of the cleavage that was already swelling over the top of my strapless red sundress.

“Thank you.” Carter glanced towards the heavens to avoid making eye contact with any part of me and breaking the tenth commandment.

I sensed that I was making Carter uncomfortable, so I moved in close to him and traced tiny circles on his knee with my middle finger. I had no time to waste, my husband would be home in a little over four hours, and I had no idea how long the process would take.

“So, Father Carter, I’m dying to know,” I opened my mouth slowly and seductively on the word dying, letting Carter get a good long look at the way my tongue lingered just behind my perfect white teeth during the “y” sound, letting him wonder at just what that tongue, and those lips, were capable of when given the chance, “just how are things at the parish?”

Just uttering these words filled my stomach with a fluttering sensation. I had always fancied myself a type of Scarlett O’Hara, and my excitement at the impending compromise of my good-girl “southern morals” was palpable. And why shouldn’t the possibility have excited me? In the north women wore impossibly short skirts and drank bootleg gin. I had felt the residue of these actions throughout my life as it had trickled down south. Not that I would ever want to be one of those floozies, what with their premarital pregnancies and short hair. I am and always have been better than that, but still there’s something about them that seems so… satisfied.

Carter struggled to put together a sentence,  “Well…things are um well…well. Things are going well.”

“That’s fascinating, you’re a fascinating man, Father Carter,” I inched my hand up the man of God’s thigh, “Simply fascinating.”

“I-i-is that so?” Carter stuttered.

I tried to smile like the devil: as sinfully and seductively as possible. “Yes,” I ran my tongue across my red lips in a way that I hoped portrayed a sexual hunger, “I think you are.”

I thought that I heard Carter whisper, “Forgive me,” as my hand reached further up his thigh and found its mark.

Before long the priest, who had entered my home with every intention of converting a good southern girl to Catholicism, found himself tied to a bed by an apparently sex-crazed woman in a red sundress who was promising to “make all your unrealized fantasies come true.”

“Yes, but is the blindfold absolutely necessary?”

“But of course. If you don’t see what I’m doing, it enhances the sensation.” I gave Carter one last glimpse of my swollen cleavage before I tied a red bandana across his eyes, plunging him in blackness.

Leaving my helpless victim in the dark, I tutted to herself twice before measuredly heading down the stairs to her kitchen.

After a few minutes I heard Carter’s voice: “Sandy, Sandy where are you? What’s going on?”

I didn’t bother to answer him; it was no longer necessary. I stood in the kitchen, letting delicious waves of pure fantasy wash over me: Bob in a soldier’s uniform, holding me at gunpoint and telling me to tear off my clothes. Bob kissing me as though trying to suck the life from me. Bob and myself at the kitchen table with meat fat smeared on our faces and bones on our plates. Before I even knew what had happened I found myself back in the bedroom with Carter, wearing a white apron with red bows and frills and heart-shaped patches for pockets.

“Sorry about that,” I giggled, “I had to use the bathroom. Truth is, I’m a little nervous.”

“Listen, Sandy, can you take off this blindfold? I mean I appreciate you trying to make my fantasies come true and everything but this seems a little excessive. You’re a beautiful woman and…”

I didn’t answer. I just let Carter knead the tense air of the guest bedroom with his anxious babbling. As my hand gripped the butcher’s knife, I felt my heart pounding audibly in my chest. I closed my eyes. Bob’s face swam before me and I spread my blood red lips into a wide smile.

Four hours later I heard the telltale misfire of my husband’s car in the driveway and felt myself grin in the way people with delicious secrets tend to grin.

I heard the front door open as it always did around 5:30, every weekday. I heard the all too familiar “What’s for dinner Sandy?” punctuated by the slam of the  front door.

I let only a small smirk of self-satisfaction play at the taut red corners of my lips as Bob entered the kitchen to find his wife in a stunning red sundress, holding a large meatloaf in her oven-mitted hands.

“What did… how did…” Bob was speechless. Seeing my husband revitalized set me emotionally ablaze. I resolved to tell him later that night how much I loved him: that I might not know what’s it’s like to be a man but that I would kill for him, if it ever came to that. The catharsis was so great that I wondered how I had ever survived in such a repressed state.

I watched my husband inhale the final bite of his dinner proclaiming, “I feel like twice the man I was before.” I let my satisfied smile spill out my ice blue eyes.

 

————————

Leah Barsanti is a Bachelor of Arts candidate at Washington University. Her work has previously appeared in Oddball Magazine, as well as on various theatrical stages in St. Louis. Recently her play — If I Were You and Other Elvis Presley Songs — premiered as part of the Washington University Performing Arts Department’s 2012/2013 season, receiving standing ovations and sell-out shows. Follow her professional twitter account at @LeahBarsanti to learn what’s new in the world of her writing.

Seth Sankary is also a Bachelor of Arts candidate at Washington University who recently took an Intro to Fiction Writing class. He is studying biology and will be headed to medical school in the fall of 2013. His upcoming publications include a medical essay in The Journal of Hand Surgery. He is also dating the coolest and most talented girl ever, who just so happens to be his co-author on this story.

Often Ogled Nancy

Jeffery is due to be racing in three hours. For him, this is sacred ground. It is for the ground that we make this pilgrimage. Bonneville is all surface. Formed in the last Ice Age, this has been a wasteland for a hundred thousand years and counting. To move is to feel the salt’s crunch, the sun’s presence. Crunch is presence. The crunch is our exchange of smiles, the redness of our foreheads. I adjust my bra, warmer than I will ever be.

Salt is much more elegant than sand. Salt refuses life. It insists that you remember why you’re here. This is the most perfect place to race on earth. The surface is impossibly flat and concrete hard. On the horizon, there’s the promise of a curve. When winds come, they are everything, pressing at speeds to rival man. No matter how the air scalds, no matter how the wind scours, the salt will remain cool, moist to touch. For wheels, the hardness is forgiving. In moments of miscalculation, moments where control is lost and faith begins, it is more likely that a bike will spin out than flip. To flip, tires need to catch some living earth.

Around me, bodies move with purpose. During Speed Week, there’s no excuse to stand still. At this time each year, racers come to Bonneville to break land speed records that they already hold. Speed Week sits on the edge of August, lazily dangling its legs over the side of the earth. Jeffery and I are among a camp of thousands, bearing life in the middle of nothing. Here, even this largest gathering can be made meek at the liberty of a slight distance.

On this landscape, I am a Y-axis. I have no place being other than my genetic XX. My head is swung low, defeated. Sunglasses are conceding down my nose. Jeffery’s head is also bowed. My husband is not in prayer. This is our pre-race ritual: pacing is a push for focus.

“Will you just let me put the cream on you?”

Please, Cam. I don’t need it. I’ve told you I don’t need it yet. Just put it on me if you’re going to keep insisting. It’s not worth the discussion. Not today. The wind is already picking up. Do you have my water?”

This is Speed Week, and I am among the many women bearing the heat as a personal assistant. Better: I am Jeffery’s spiritual guide. My incense is motor oil. My medicine is after-sun. To my eyes, cars are cars and the bikes are bikes. It is Jeffery who knows. Jeffery’s a knower. He’ll know even when he doesn’t. My husband will rattle you through years, models, issues, engines, motors, top speeds, RPMs, G forces and all that is made possible between metal and fuel. I only know speed. Fortunately for me, this is Speed Week, and in a world of high specifics, speed is a tasteful tongue.

“Each of these machines is a recipe,” Jeffery explains. “Wait, not a recipe. A meal. They’re not just objects, you know? You can’t treat them that way. Some will taste great, and others need seasoning. Us engineers, we’re like sou-chefs, I guess.”

Jeffery knows himself as tall. For fifty-two years, he’s been the tallest, two full heads higher than I ever grew. Each year in his would-be nirvana, my husband becomes wilting, boiled flesh. For the fifth successive trip of our sixteen-year marriage, Bonneville is levelling us. Jeffery is slouched to the point of convexity. In the dry heat, we kiss on par. As our lips meet, Jeffery is a moist, hunchback shadow, a hundred foot long and two inches wide. He has been dressed for the race since dawn. Over his heart, there’s a patch on the leather: Leighton Gentlemen’s Fellowship – the team name I married into.

As we move, my head stays low. I orient myself by the pearled patches of oil that freckle the floor. Beautiful rings, indexes of error. Before I can escape, they’ll be divorced from the salt by two-inch rock drills.

 

***

 

Revs sound at what could be a mile away. Jeffery looks up to confirm his suspicions.

“They’re here,” he says. Now on duty, Jeffery spreads to full height, poised like a pretty-big-deal. My husband gears into a personable expression, the one from his profile picture: the smile so full, the chin so angled. Now, Jeffery’s pulse is working up his neck. His facial muscles are locked into position, the rehearsed beam that earned those eight likes. Internally, I preserve this pose, blinking two, three, four exposures.

“What are you doing?” he asks through the smile.

“I love you,” I say.

Through the haze of boiled air, a blur is growing larger.

“It could be a mirage,” I say.

“Mirages can be captured on camera,” Jeffery replies, always knowing, his hand in a shading salute. “But that’s them. Dean’s the one on our right. Can’t you see? Nancy’s there in the middle.”

At her name, I grimace and turn away, facing the track.

Racing is a misnomer in Bonneville. Here, each driver takes the run in turn.  Races are a test of speed, not time. Here, it’s always a question of speed. Each team gets two runs to set the record. For machines expected to run under two hundred, there’s a three and a half mile track. Speed-readings are taken at a mile and a half, two miles and the two and a half mile mark. An average across the three is what will make the record books. Cars that break two hundred run over seven miles, but for us, that’s uncharted territory, as foreign as the air. The track has no edges, it is just a single black strip. My eyes race the line faster than any car. On their limit, I create a mirage; I break my eyes for want of an escape. I see Mushroom Clouds, the blownback hair of white men. I am the only survivor, singing in the rain of a nuclear winter. I am writing my story. I am a New York Times Bestseller. I am in the last and only library. I am one hundred tearful eulogies from beautiful strangers.

“Kaboom,” I whisper.

“You’ve got to be nice, okay? Nancy’s had a fucked up year. She doesn’t need the bother. She’s here to be happy. You’ve got to let her be happy, okay?”

My mouth shapes out, “Be careful.” He responds with a laugh that I kill with my lips, my tongue.

A hundred metres away, the splodge of Nancy fills my vision. She is too alive to ever be mistaken for a mirage. In waving, my armpits are tenderized by the sun. Earlobes, nose, shoulders: thin skin burns first. The salt too knows this hurt. In places, it has been starved, cut to a crust. Since the 1960s, the once beefy reserves have been mined to an anorexic state. Even wastelands have value. Each winter rain falls, manicuring the damage. I toe into what’s left, winding my foot and my patience. I too force a smile.

Freeeeeeeeed,” the team roars. To them, my Jeffery is uncle. Uncle Fred: de facto elder statesmen of the group. In Bonneville, racing is a team sport. It takes a team to even reach this point. Each sprint is the result of a year’s planning, construction and fundraising. Raw acceleration doesn’t come from nothing. I am the sole groupie of The Leighton Gentlemen’s Fellowship. As the team comes into focus, Lloyd leads charge towards us. Jeffery has known Lloyd for some thirty years, long before Nancy had intruded on any part of our lives. Lloyd is Crew Chief and Transport Co-Ordinator, a man infinitely more gentle than his hair and tattoos should allow. Behind his bike runs a trailer carrying the key to our victory.

“I feel good. Damn good. You excited, baby?” Jeffery asks.

“Of course,” I lie.

“No you’re not,” he knows. Always knowing. “Thank you, darling. Really. Thank you. I know you enjoy it in your own way. I know you love it really.”

 

***

 

Within a month of her arrival, Nancy had married our Lloyd. She flew in at the end of summer, gifting England with her presence. Nancy promised the sun. Appropriately, our invitation came over Facebook. Theirs had been a relationship formed online. This was Lloyd’s mythical ‘Often Ogled Nancy’, the lady across the pond, the engineer behind the screen. For years, Jeffery had been subjected to Lloyd’s pub chatter about her. I was subjected in turn. Stories of Nancy invaded our dinners, our bed. She was the beautiful girl from Vegas; the girl who flipped houses and built engines on the side. ‘Often Ogled Nancy’ – it was Jeffery who coined the phrase. She had over sixty profile pictures in various provocative poses. She was arrogant enough to keep a blog.

Nancy’s Wikipedia page lists her as the founder of visordown.com, the biggest and best forum for speedsters across the globe. Since the site’s inception, Lloyd had been her most loyal member. Thirty-two people from the forum made it to Leighton for their ceremony. Lloyd had greeted us in a tuxedo, his eyes apologizing, his hair constrained to a ponytail. Nancy wouldn’t reveal herself until the main event, he explained.

“You nervous?” Jeffery had asked.

“About this? Never, man. Nancy’s the perfect girl.”

I have been held up to the standards of this perfect girl since. It was Nancy who pushed for Bonneville. She was a Nevada girl, through and through. Utah and the Salt Flats were only ever a mountain range away. Once the idea of Bonneville had been planted, it rooted itself in Jeffery, eating him like a mold. He had to be there. He had to be part of it. By 2007, forum members had pledged enough money to send us all out. Jeffery set a record that year then lost it the next.

The forum wants its record back. Since ’07 they’ve felt a right to the title. There are twenty-three different classifications for 50cc bikes, but it is only the APS-BF that matters. Every year since, the money has been found, so each summer, I smile in the background of another thank you video while Jeffery apologizes, promising more from next year, destroying himself over and over and over.

On the day of the wedding, Jeffery shared Best Man duties with Dean, Lloyd’s younger brother. Dean had been scripted to serve alone, but was deemed a liability following what was subsequently relayed to me as another episode. When the music started, we collectively turned to the aisle. Dean continued his staring contest with the chapel’s carpet.

Nancy was even better than her pictures. Petrol black hair framed her doll white face, which floated above a trim, curving dress. After the vows, a symphony of engines had roared from outside, their revved approval rumbling through the chapel.

“Isn’t it romantic?” Jeffery had exclaimed.

Within a year, Lloyd made her a mother. Of course, she shone; shamelessly right for the role. It was a role she took against all medical advice. It was a role lost to me, to us.

 

***

 

“Fred! Cam! Darlings!” Nancy cries. In one movement, she is off the bike and in my face. There’s a peck to my cheek and arms around my waist. Nancy smells like mint and diesel. Her breasts press into me, far above my own. It occurs to me that no other fortysomething woman could pull off that nose stud. Behind my eyes, her legs are being broken; I am walking on Nancy’s face, my heel is now her nose.

“Hi Nancy. Hi Dean, Lloyd,” I reply. Jeffery initiates the first team hug, two heads above the rest. A loose arm flails from the mass of leather, flesh and sweat, indicating Dean’s struggle to breathe. Dean is our electrical engineer. On paper, he and Lloyd co-own their Garage. This is a testament to Lloyd’s goodness. Dean is shaped for labor, not business. He’s squat, simple and gentle: the finest kind of worker. His hands have been permanently stained an oily brown.

“Cameron,” Nancy stretches out on release, puckering my name into three syllables. “I love it that you keep coming back. I know this is all nonsense to you, but here you are. Again. It’s really just great.”

I am wailing a chorus of internal fuckyous. I am a psychopath in waiting. For me, this is love, not nonsense. Jeffery brings meaning to everything.

“Like clockwork,” I admit. “You can’t keep me away.”

“I am so relieved that all those problems from last year are set firmly in your past,” Nancy says. “Today is all about positive energy. Today is what we’ve been working towards. Well, Lloyd and I at least.” I smile shit-eatingly: all teeth, no warmth. I cannot immediately recall any problems from last year, but she’s making me think. She’s in my head.

“And there’s my Fred,” she says, reinitiating contact, her hand slipped inside his leather suit jacket. There is just a t-shirt between my husband and her touch.

“Tell me that you going to do us proud. We’re hitting one eighty-eight this year, right Uncle Fred?”

“I sure hope so,” Jeffery gushes; tongue out, tail wagging.

“We really do miss you Fred,” Dean says. It has been eighteen months since we left Cambridgeshire.

“You don’t know how much I miss you guys,” Jeffery says before catching himself. “But, well, Cam’s work is worth it, you know. She’s been doing great. Some really bright kids this last year, right baby?”

“Right,” I say.

“Getting pretty windy, huh Fred?” Lloyd says, his arm stretched up around my husband’s shoulder. “Think she can handle it?”

“She’ll fucking destroy it, man.” Around machines, Jeffery’s eloquence moves to his hands. “Can we see her yet? Is she ready?”

“Be cool, Fred. She’ll be out soon enough. Dean will get started unloading her in a minute. We’ll be ready in time. Still got two hours until the launch.”

“I’m just so ready. We slammed down the road to get here. I’ve got no jetlag, I’ve got nothing to stop me. I’ve been dressed since six this morning.”

“Had any practice on the Yamaha?” Lloyd asks, deftly cutting me out from the conversation.

“Some. Late June, I bombed over to Yarmouth and wrecked the beach. Made one twenty, I reckon. She gave out a little on the uptick. Not like this girl.” Jeffery looks to the box with a father’s eyes. “This girl will handle it. Is the nitro already fitted?” At the word, a charge hums through Jeffery. He begins the dance of a full-bladdered child: the heel to toe swaying, a miniature spot contained waltz. This year, the forum plumped out an extra two grand to source some Nitrous Oxide tanks. On our flight to Utah, I received an intensive lecture on the schematics, tropes and cliffs of Nitroglycerin. As I understand it, Nitroglycerin means bike goes vroom.

“Just look at you two,” Nancy says, looking at Jeffery. “You know Cammy, what you’ve got there is special. You’re just so lucky. A hard man is good to find.” My Britishness winces. “You’re so lucky to have found a man like Jeffery at that age. You were what? Thirty? So you must be mid forties now, right?”

“Right,” I say. “How is Anthony?”

“Oh, you know. He’s a boy. Obsessed with his cars, just like Daddy.” Nancy throws Lloyd a smile. “His Grandma will spoil him all week and we’ll return as the bad guys, left to pick up the pieces. But it’s all worth it. It’s worth it for this place. Isn’t it special here?” she awes, her arms aloft, perfect pits exposed. Her is hair being casually restyled by the wind. “I love it here. Don’t you just love it?”

“It feels very ancient,” I say.

“Please, Cam. Your surname is twice the age of this country.”

“Hey girls, we’re ready over here,” Dean calls.

As the prize is unloaded, Jeffery is all Christmas day. He is toe-tipped, bouncing for the first peek. Dean is on hand with the crow bar, moving into position. Jeffery circles, inspecting the wood like wrapping paper. At the first splinter, his breath heavies. This is the closest my husband will ever come to a birth. Inside this box is my surrogate child. The bike will be weaned on my displaced, unfulfilled love. The bike is all my patience and more.

With a crack, the front falls. Jeffery is beside me, claiming my hand, kneading his thumb into me with a reassuring level of pressure.

“There she is,” he joys.

Jeffery moves to the bike in a gliding motion. His size fades to grace. With slight trepidation, he extends a loving hand. Upon the first moment of contact, he breathes again. His palm works the bike’s spine. Jeffery is stroking the machine like it were a pet.

“Come off it Fred, we want a feel.”

Jeffery steps backwards, his eyes locked. He parses over the bike, examining each element. In this moment, I am invisible to him. Dean has been hovering behind us. When I turn, he is discretely exhibiting a packet of cigarettes.

“Jeffery, darling, I’m going for a walk with Dean.”

“Okay, sure. Have fun.”

“It’s not getting better, Cam. She’s ruining him,” Dean says within our first three steps. “I keep telling myself that I’m overreacting or being a bad brother or something. I tell myself to forget it. But I don’t know. She’s just such a bitch, Cam.”

I am not a smoker, I am a friend. One cigarette cannot qualify as self-abuse. Besides, I have no real choice. In this moment, I am an altruist, sacrificing my health for the good of another. This isn’t letting myself down. It’s not like I am making the selection, dialing through all the brightly colored packets. I am under no illusion. One cigarette can be justified. Smoking breaks time. Smoking creates five pure minutes. Smoking is space. Smoking is reprieve, therapy, potential. With a cigarette in my hand, Dean can allow himself to be vulnerable.

I am led to a point behind the Porto-O-Potties. Dean promises that Jeffery won’t see us here. As he churns at the lighter, struggling against the wind, a woman joins us. She twists her head to register our presence, a cigarette toothpicking out the corner of her mouth, and then stands with her back to us, facing into the wind. This place must be a sanctuary: a haven for the stationary. I hold the lit cigarette Dean passes me like a friend.

“I’m civil and everything,” Dean says. “But I have limits. I won’t let her talk down to me. She’s got no right to my business. Always sticking her head in. I hate it, Cam. I don’t know what to do.”

I take my first drag of nicotine for twelve months. I am the glamor of a horrible and painful death. Look Jeffery: I can take risks too!

“The garage has three grand of its own out here, you know? That damn forum don’t cover everything. We can’t afford to be here, Cam. Nancy’s forced us out. We’re going under and no one’s saying a thing. Lloyd’s too proud, that’s his problem.”

“But how are you? In yourself, I mean. Is it getting any better?”

“A little, maybe. Being sad is funny and interesting at first. The pity can be sweet, I guess. It is fun to suffer, to be the victim. Then you realize how true it is, the sadness. That truth becomes nothing, then you’re doing nothing and there’s no way out.”

I take a long drag to punctuate Dean’s confession. The wind has eaten my cigarette. It is dead before its time. Upon release, the butt is blown twenty yards before I can exhale.

In the longflat distance, Nancy has earned a crowd. Here, she is a known entity. Visor Down is a global brand. Nancy stands still, gesturing with the prestige of a leader. Often Ogled Nancy – in the flesh; the damp, sweating flesh. She’s here all week. Men inspect her, suspect, in want of a flaw. Nancy sponges the attention, pushes her chest out into their affronts, their challenges, swelled with the high potency of a surviving artifact. We have gravitated towards the group: our feet fooled by her magnetism, the wind forcing our complicity.

My husband is stood in the position of a lieutenant. He motions me to his side. The wind has whipped fumes into my hair; I cannot let Jeffery smell my weakness.

“Personal space,” I mouth to him – nondescript, vague, cunning. Her tricks have infected, poisoned me. They are carried on the gale of her laugh.

Jeffery shrugs and moves off, setting into the direction we have come, walking flat into the burning wind, the path that I have left. I watch as he enters the toilet, my gaze sealing his fate. It is now that the wind works hardest, pushing against my husband, against every hope we share. At its fulcrum, the Porto-O-Potty seems to pause. The moment is almost calm. My head feels very clear. I know that this is love, and this is what love does. I will serve and serve and serve.

When the wind wins, the crash is muffled. It is my gasp that causes others to turn. The door falls like a curtain. Jeffery is a body of brown, laid flat, spitting and recoiling from himself. He rolls out, leaving a trace made of many men. His groans are long and deep. Rising six foot from the salt, he shakes off his hands, then each limb in turn. With my side to the wind, I begin moving towards him.

“No, Cam. Stop,” he shouts over the wind, extending two flattened palms. “Please, I’ll deal with this. You get a hose or a bucket or something, anything. Please, be quick. I have to race.”

“I don’t think you’re going to be racing today, darling. We’ve got to clean you up.”

“Please just get the fucking water, okay? I can’t race covered in shit. Don’t throw more shit at me. Not right now. Not today.”

“Okay, okay. Stop yelling,” I yell.

As Jeffery removes his suit and shirt, a crowd begins forming. There’s an atmosphere of tragedy. Cameras are coming out. From the floor, Jeffery’s top has been caught in a gust, dragged over the salt to an unreachable distance.

When I return with Dean, Nancy, some restroom soap lumps and six pitchers, the crowd has swelled to four deep. Jeffery is stood in only his pants, a pure spectacle, bent gagging against the burning wind.

On the salt, we clean him. Jeffery is reduced to his knees. Under my instruction, his teammates hurl long arcs of water from a splashless distance. I stand over my husband, baptizing him, soaked by his side. Jeffery’s head hangs back, swallowing the sun.

“I did need that cream,” he whispers.

“Don’t be too disappointed, my love,” I say. “We have the second run tomorrow.”

“I can still race. I can race if you let me do the ritual.”

“The run is in ten minutes. Lloyd’s already set up. Can the ritual fit in?”

“I can’t let everyone down. I can’t, not again. We’re ready this year, Cam. We’re really, really ready. We can get it back!”

“Fred, man,” says Dean. “That was the only suit in your size. I’m sorry, bro.”

With a protracted, kinking movement, Jeffery looks up, the ebb of defeat in his soap-red eyes. He beckons my hands and takes them to his cheeks. After a moment, he greets them with his own, meshing our fingers. Putting his weight in my hands, Jeffery comes off his knees.

“Nancy,” he calls without releasing me. “Get over to the car. You have to race.”

With a nod, she’s gone; no pity to her run, not a hint of turning back, all progress, all glory, charging onward, onward through age, onward through sensibility, onward to the end.

“You taste of smoke,” Jeffery says.

“You stink of shit,” I say.

 

***

As the sun blooms, the crowd is peaking. Jeffery and I have joined the spectator stands, a ten-dollar option designed to draw in more casual fans, the fans that Jeffery would commonly dismiss as speed junkies. We sit among their stares. Dean’s t-shirt reaches to the bottom of Jeffery’s ribs. He wears his arms over the exposed skin. Around us, noses are being whiffed. Jeffery has been doused down with a full can of deodorant. He squirms beside me, huffing and ticking.

“They should have called us by now. They’re taking the piss,” Jeffery says. “I can’t take it. They can’t do this. Not now. Not today.”

“Stay calm, my darling. We all need you to be calm now,” I say, speaking on the world’s behalf. On cue, the tannoy calls.

“Would 50cc APS-BF attempt sixteen, run ninety-one, team one-one-three please now approach the Measured Mile.” The voice comes through clearly, crisp like a verdict.

“That’s us. That’s definitely us right?” Jeffery pats himself down, in want of a number. “You got the details, Cam? That’s us, right?”

“That’s us alright. Look darling, Nancy’s coming up now.”

Nancy walks the bike slowly, filling the moment to its limit. The leather holds her like a second skin. Turning to us, she blows a kiss to the crowd. Cheers come fast, the whistles strong.

“Rip it up, Nancy,” Jeffery calls.

The helmet slips on. The light turns green. The bike flares. And like that, she’s gone.

 

I am the thumping sound of held breath. I am the calmness of a well-worn lie. I am the turn of a card, the turn of a smile, the fall of an empire. I am salt, the barren incarnate. I am hope at the earth’s edge. I am hope beyond all limits.

 

My reaction comes second-hand, as epitaph, brought on by the gasps of others. Jeffery is the first to scream.

“The bike! The fucking bike!”

In the time it takes him to look away, some two thousand people have begun to boo. Their noise is full and round, a ghostly groan. Disapproval and frustration lash like the wind. For no reason, I am blushing. During Speed Week, spinouts mean delays and delays mean cancellations. With no apology, Jeffery runs towards the track, his binoculars swinging wildly behind him like a loose leash. Lloyd has reached the ambulance in time, but Jeffery is still fifty meters away as they set off down the track, down towards the rising smoke. Now, he has slowed to the pace of defeat; now back to his knees, now head to the salt.

My chest is tight and my head is light. I try to flatten the smile that is kicking up into the corner of my mouth.

 

***

 

Our room is mostly bed. In the warm of Jeffery’s neck, I kiss. He smells of soap and clean. There is no trace of my husband’s scent. His eyes are ripping through the roof.

“Jeffery?” My husband gives no sign of response. “Dean will have it fixed up by morning. You can trust that Dean will manage.” I try to fill my words with belief. “And she’ll be fine, you know. Nancy, I mean. They all said so, didn’t they? She was smiling, almost.” Jeffery rolls from me. In the night of our sheets, it is clear that his hairs are showing the first notes of grey.

It was the Nitro that forced the crash. In her attempt to flick the switch, Nancy moved off the bar. Against the sheer speed and wind, she didn’t have the strength to move back to the handle. For once, Nancy lost control. Off before the spin-out, she flew four feet across the salt. Her jacket lasted three. The raw, coarse friction ate through to her side. They found her more dizzy than dead. Just a lot of ruptured skin, six broken ribs, a smashed clavicle and fractured cheeks. Just, they told us.

In bed, a minute has passed.

“I’m pregnant,” I threaten.

“No you’re not,” Jeffery knows. Always knowing.

“Please hug me. I need you close. I need you, now.”

“I’ve been recently covered in shit. I don’t feel too tactile. And what of your ‘personal space’?”

“I’d shared a cigarette with Dean. I didn’t want it to distract you before the race. Besides, you are my personal space. My personal space is a matter of convenience.”

“Fuck you,” he loves.

 

————————

Alexander J. Allison (b. 1991) was educated at York and Manchester. He is the author of The Prodigal (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013).

Phototaxis

Moths are not a vain species. The only beauty of which they are aware is light; and there has never, in the history of moth-kind, been a moth stupid and arrogant enough to wish for a luminous self, because all moths understand that beauty is to be followed, rather than embodied.

Matthew Ambrosio was a slightly below average-sized clothes moth. His colours were appropriately drab, and his flight was appropriately scattered and disorganized. He enjoyed his flannel dinners as much as anyone and was just as unafraid of the hands, boots, lizards, and newspapers waiting constantly and impatiently to decapitate him as the next moth. He understood his appearance only insofar as he had an innate sense of which things he could hide against and which he could not.

Matthew had spent most of the past week (which is to say his life) in graduate residence called Massey Hall, an old monolithic collection of buildings, with brick walls and impossibly heavy doors and austere, monastic beds in all the living quarters. Matthew loved the feel of a good, stiff, textured sheet and on that fateful day he’d been moving between rooms eating his small portion of fabric, and generally floating around touching things and flattening his wings against them, before settling into a fresh and equally confusing building for the day.

It is a deeply natural and reassuring irony that a species so enamored of light conducts their affairs almost exclusively at night, and it was one that Matthew did not regret. He’d seen the day, he wasn’t a timid moth, but was glad to go about his life in the enveloping context of darkness. That way he could always see the lights flick on and off, his favorite part. To see it shock on randomly while he was busy with something and disappear just as quickly whenever it wanted (he did not understand light-switches, or even really any switches at all, or even really thumbs, or even really any hands at all).

He knew other moths who hated light’s independence, who would have only been comfortable with complete dominion over the duration and intensity of their beloved, but Matthew understood that to love something one has any control over is merely to love one’s self. He loved light, for light’s sake, cruelty and kindness, steadiness and inconstancy included.

And so, he awoke around nine p.m. inside a dark closet and, after stretching his wings and getting halfway through his breakfast of bland red sweater, the door creaked open slightly and he felt once more the thunderous and confusing bolt of attraction rip through him, causing him to abandon his meal and float around, but never quite into, the light.

The bedrooms at Massey Hall all have hanging lights with heavy, oddly pleasing colored shades around them, and for Matthew these shades proved profitable. They were not opaque enough to block the light from his compound eyes, but they did ensure an extra degree of closeness and privacy with his beloved.

Matthew was not a particularly reflective or dark-minded moth, but he did often regret his extreme shyness around the light. Or, more accurately, he regretted his shyness combined as it was with instinctive, stalkery boldness. He would hustle towards the light anytime it was around, float around it and against it, but he never spoke to it, never rested his wings fully and flatly against it.

But these were thoughts for other times, and they were not even close to our hero’s tiny mind as he flitted joyfully around the object of his desire, secure from the wide world of blunt, heavy objects ready to crush him. He had no thoughts at all for several minutes, except brief, visceral frustrations when he bounced against the patterned glass shade. He did not notice the smoothness of the glass, or the hard, crafted wood of the frame, he saw only the light, and felt only the always sudden and bewildering storm of his own emotions. After Matthew had felt sharply and then forgotten the exact same kind of love a few times the light suddenly shut down, leaving only a vague twinge of residual heat.

Our hero had by now, once again, forgotten any notion he may have once had about how to exit the lampshade. There were large gaps at the bottom and top, sure, but what to make of them? As he tortuously considered his exit he flew around excitedly, slamming himself into both sides of the lampshade several times, until he hit it at a slight angle and was thrown off course through the bottom of the shade and was finally able to right himself in the open, and it must be said somewhat stark, space of the living room.

Matthew at this point felt the vague tickle of knowledge somewhere deep in his consciousness and, coupled as it was with a stern and abiding hunger, he intuited that there was fabric to be eaten in the room. He then undertook a long and repetitious search of the room, until finally finding himself drawn to the bedspread. After munching his fill Matthew took once more to the air and, after some time and very much to his surprise, he found the same gap in the front window’s bug-screen through which he had entered several hours prior.

As Matthew flew over the beautifully maintained patch of greenery in the centre of the College’s quadrangle he did not in any way, shape, or form remember the humble, wormlike existence he had spent there prior to his metamorphosis.

Moths begin their lives as simple, humble worms. They slither about the ground afraid of every kind of hoof, paw, and foot, terrified of every wheel and every falling acorn or pinecone. Certain only and always that they are the saddest, meanest, least worthwhile creatures that ever lived. And then, suddenly and as if by magic, they are transported, they shed their skin and sprout wings, and they use these wings to fly above the bottoms of everyone’s feet, into the air that they once considered valuable only insofar as it fed the grass that hid and imprisoned them. Because of this forgetting moths are doomed to repeat their worst errors, and to leave their truest feelings forever unexpressed.

After only a few seconds with wings, and only one short attention span of pure amazement, they forget their previous shell, the memory shedding itself as fully, but in a less unified manner, as the only skin they had known. And so a moth is rarely glad to be flying, when s/he is grateful it is for flying sake in the moment, never in the explicatory luminescence of the past, never in the cool, refreshing shade of resolved anxieties.

Humans, by nature, must see their changes step by step, one foot after the other, one book, one sincere conversation, one alternating step-up knee with a medicine ball after the other. While the moth must shake off the goo and slime and filth of the earth once, and forget it instantly, thereafter regretting the flight they once would have wished for above all else had they been able, at the time, to conceptualize it.

And so, as Matthew traveled mindlessly over and around his former loathsome home it did not once occur to him that he was lucky to be looking down at the grass instead of up from it. Our hero did not feel even the vaguest attraction or repulsion from the grass, and when a light suddenly appeared in a nearby window it was with only abject attraction to something pretty that he flew towards it.

Clear glass windows are the scourge of all species more capable of flight than reductive reasoning. For these species clear glass windows are a constant and perpetually transient annoyance. Matthew, for instance, had flown into most any window that had ever been in his path, but by the time he had rebounded off it, and saw once more the object of attraction behind it, the experience of impacting against the glass would be entirely forgotten, replaced instantly by excitement and desire.

Although he had been rebuffed by this particular window three times in five seconds Matthew felt the rejections only as fleeting, dissipating surprises. As our hero rebounded constantly and happily against the window he did not even remotely sense that the big, moving, breathing thing inside was feeling deeply sorry for him, and was using his thoughtless, mothly repetition as fuel for an intense session of late stage dissertation ennui. Truth be told, the momentary anxieties Matthew faced when being rebuffed by the window were nothing compared to the flickering, subconscious twinges of self-loathing he would have felt if he had been allowed to float near the object of his affection.

After a particularly forceful attempt to burst through the mysterious barrier Matthew rebounded far enough back out into the quad that he caught sight of another light as the door to the building was being opened. Matthew was somewhat surprised that his lover had changed places so quickly, but as was his way he did not reflect on it for more than a fraction of a second as he shifted his wings and raced towards his distant and unsympathetic Laura.

Flying, for moths, is a lot like running, some are naturally talented at it and some are naturally deficient. Not all moths enjoy flying, sad as it is to say, but most grow to at least appreciate its value in the pursuit of happiness and cloth fibers. And so, although Matthew had long since allowed the gravity that once oppressed his wiggling infancy to slip from his mind we should never allow it to fall out of whichever crease in our brains fancy and empathy tuck themselves into and cuddle.

Matthew, although mostly obtuse to gravity, had the sense that the giant wooden door should probably not be allowed to put its weight against him. And so he decided to forgo the stylish dips and swerves that characterized his flight and instead swooped directly through the shrinking crack of doorway. The danger, however, was only beginning.

A young man in a delicious looking tee shirt swiped maliciously at the winged adventurer, and actually succeeded in brushing against the thin, infinitely tearable surface of Matthew’s left wing. Although he was aware of the light’s presence, and he ached to hover around its direct source, his flight instinct (the running away one, not the flying one, although the two were naturally co-dependent for him) kicked in and caused him to flutter away, using the solid meeting point of the wall and ceiling as a guide while he recovered his deeply upset equilibrium.

After he had escaped into a stairwell he just couldn’t see the point of, Matthew did not catch his breath, because moths have no need of such a procedure, they simply fly away and seek out another object of sustenance or desire. And so, Matthew spent the better part of seven minutes (a not insignificant portion of his waking lifespan) moving gradually and feverishly up the four large light fixtures that illuminated the staircase.

As he fretfully orbited the top fixture the door to the stairway opened and Matthew, sensing an opportunity, dipped down and through the new passage. Following a large, moving, breathing, second year law thing into her room, passing stealthily over her shoulder and depositing himself once more into an enclosed space with a light bulb, and once more showing his affection only as a flighty, nervous proximity.

After only a few alternately joyful and tortured moments alone with the light bulb Matthew was plunged once more into hungry, oh so very hungry, darkness. The hungry fellow, this time without struggle, exited the lampshade and went to work on the khakis hanging blissfully unguarded on the chair below.

A moth in darkness is a far more reflective creature than a moth under the insistent duress of amour. And Matthew, having had enough beige summer wear, flew around the room at a relatively calm and leisurely pace. He found his way into the bedroom, and then suddenly and happily saw a streetlight through the window.

It had been several minutes since Matthew had seen a light, and so he had only the vaguest recollection of any of his previous encounters, but a notion grew in him, in the two seconds between his noticing the light and his almost reaching the window, that he would not, as he deeply wanted to, just fly around the light and content himself with quick, dry leg kisses against the light’s shell, but that he would fly to it directly, and express his love obviously and sincerely.

This plan for self-reform was made doubly amazing because it was not based on any direct, conscious recollection of prior experience. Matthew did not remember a single other instance of passively floating around a light, rather he felt the urge to do so and decided to better himself in the moment. In just this one instance, our hero resolved to correct mistakes he had not yet, to his recollection, made. Thus Matthew did something of which people are entirely incapable. In human terms he was able to perfectly correct his balance without remembering a single fall.

Matthew in his own unique way had subverted, for the only time in history, the true tragedy of moth-hood. And so it does not really matter that before he reached the window, which would have inevitably blocked his path and made his transcendent notion of self-improvement just another listless drop in the unending sea of passing moth thoughts, he was sliced neatly through by the blades of a fan he could never have imagined or understood.

It does not matter because the truth of tragedies is never found in the piles of bodies and blood, but rather on the long, lonely road of iterated mistakes and unvoiced feelings running through that most contorted and animating part of those bodies while they walked, one tired foot after the other, towards their seeping, inevitable conclusion.

————————

Andrew Battershill is the co-editor of Dragnet Magazine. His work has appeared in Untoward Magazine, Burner Magazine, Soliloquies, Glossolalia, and Headlight Anthology. He has poems (!) forthcoming in CV2.

Madness In Miniature

It is commonly assumed that Nietzsche was a madman, but in fact he was perfectly sane. The reason for this confusion is that he employed a madman to do his bidding. A pleasant thought, is it not? Couldn’t we all use a madman to assist us in our daily lives—a shameless sidekick to run errands and perform those various tasks that are just beyond sanity’s reach? How nice it would be if he came in miniature, an imp to sit on our shoulders and whisper devious advice into our ears. We could keep the mad homunculus on a leash, perhaps, and teach him to do tricks. Whenever an impractical situation arose—an ethical dilemma, for example—we could call on him to carry out the necessary actions. He could deal with all the ugliness of life, leaving us free to enjoy whatever beauty might remain.

I once befriended a dwarf who wanted to serve me in this way. He swore allegiance to my cause (though I had none) and vowed to sacrifice his life for me, should such a situation arise. I told him that he needn’t die for me, but that he could, if he had nothing better to do, act as my companion. You see, it is easy for a writer to drift through life without friends. He spends so much time in his own head that he often forgets there is a world not just behind his eyes but in front of them as well. Since the age of twenty-two I’d made a living as a writer (due not to precocity, I’m afraid, but rather to a fortunate mistake at a publishing house). I became rather successful, but when I reached the age of forty I fell into a state of apathy. I felt empty and distant, as though estranged from myself. I stopped working and instead spent my days wandering through the city, staring out the windows of coffee shops, loitering in bookstores, and watching movies late into the night.

The dwarf’s name was Leo, but he preferred to call himself “the Stump,” “the Barnacle,” and other derogatory nicknames. I insisted on calling him by his given name, and for this he secretly despised me. We met under odd circumstances. (“All of my circumstances are odd,” Leo liked to say.) I was at the zoo, commiserating with my fellow sufferers, when someone tapped me on the back. I turned around and saw Leo grinning up at me.

“They should put me in one of those cages,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied, “and me, too.”

“I wouldn’t mind joining the monkeys. They look like a friendly bunch, don’t they?”

“Yes, very friendly.”

“They’re probably just as smart as I am.”

“Oh, I doubt that.”

“No, no, I’m sure it’s true. I’m of subnormal intelligence, you see. Subnormal height, also, but I’m sure you noticed that already.”

“Yes, I suppose I did.”

“Which animals would you like to join?” he asked earnestly.

“The otters, of course,” I said. “They seem so happy, as though they were meant to be in captivity.”

“Yes,” he said, nodding at me with utter seriousness. “I too long for captivity. Freedom can get so burdensome. It would be nice to slip away from responsibility, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, it would, but I’m not sure if committing oneself to a zoo would be the best way to achieve this.”

After a thoughtful hesitation, he said, “The animals don’t belong in the zoo any more than we do.”

I nodded in agreement. He patted me on the back, shuffled his feet, and finally thrust his hand into the air and introduced himself. He then invited me to have lunch with him, and I followed him to a small café across the street from the zoo.

“I drink twenty-three cups of coffee a day,” he informed me as we sat down. When the waitress arrived at our table I ordered a sandwich. Leo asked for coffee and three bars of chocolate. “When you’re in the state that I’m in,” he said, “you don’t really care about what you eat.” He laughed briefly and added, “I haven’t eaten a vegetable in five years.”

We had a friendly conversation throughout lunch. Leo listened closely to the things I said, but occasionally he was distracted by the waitress. She was very short, and this appealed to him tremendously. “I want to be able to look my lover in the eye,” he said.

 ***

My ramblings about Leo could go on forever. He was such an unusual person, after all, that every experience with him is worth retelling. But, as Leo was so fond of brevity, I feel obliged to limit myself to one final anecdote.

We were at an exhibit of Native American artifacts in the basement of the art museum. Leo had just finished a lengthy speech on the significance of dwarves in European folklore. (“I may not be impressive in reality,” he concluded, “but as an imaginary creature I am second to none.”) We wound our way through the various display cases positioned throughout the room. The glass door to one of these cases was unlocked. Leo slid it open and with my assistance climbed inside. He wrapped an intricately patterned blanket around his shoulders, placed a feathered headdress on his head, and picked up a long, slender pipe.

“Close the door, please,” he said.

I protested, but Leo, perhaps for the very first time, interrupted me. “I don’t ask for much,” he said, and it was true. He seemed so determined to stay there, dressed up like a Native American, on display, an artifact rather than a man, that I couldn’t refuse his request. As soon as he was sealed inside the display case he became completely still. I watched him for a few minutes, waiting for him to grow tired and return to his normal self, but he continued to stand there in rigid silence. At last I walked away to explore the other exhibits. When I returned, Leo was gone. I searched the entire museum, but I never found him. In fact, I never saw him again.

————————

Abraham Elm lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works as a writer and editor.

The Greater Darkness

The bones of the angel were found protruding the muck and brine like the enormous ivory tusks of some long extinct mastodon. Here they lay in the shadow of a great dense forest, alongside untold generations of primitive man, born and dead with the inconsequence of the passing of the sun. These bones were illustrated in ink by men who only heard the tales and exhibited on the front pages of newspapers as natural fact and horrid proof that the divine at least once existed.

So much the haze of those moments, the frenzy of possibility, the rapture of priests, weeping in the streets, pummeling each other, the blood-glistening crucifixes and blood-drenched collars, scientists decrying the bones as fabrications, deliriums, hoaxes, and now advertisements for a steamship voyage hastily printed in papers and plastered in shop windows and nailed to lampposts. Onto these decks swarmed the diseased, the ruined, the maimed, the deformed, some chattering aloud, to no one, to their children, to their wives, brought in tow, brought with similar disfigurements, diseases, some silently gazing at their hands, at the water, the gulls. Some missing arms, the empty sleeves pinned up and hanging limply, or missing legs and leaning on crutches or tottering on stumps or the jut of a wooden leg, and some disfigured in the face, scarred or burned or born with a lipless scowl.

And you too stood in the ruined midst of these travellers. Some were already weeping and praying and bowing to the deck, even as the whistle of the steam, the black smoke and ungainly lurching and chugging, the shouts of the captain, the hustling of his crew, and the shore slowly vanished. The priest who walked amongst them, dashing their brows with fluid from a flask, waving his book aloft, reciting what you assumed were verses from his book. The deformities wept and grabbed his shoes and kissed the glinting black leather and he called them “children,” blessing them in the name of the god they assumed they held in mutual esteem.

This priest in his white-collar, his wire-rim glasses, their sun glazed lenses. This priest, light and slender, white-haired, and yet as-if-ageless, his skin translucent and with neither blemish nor line. This priest who remained above deck with the captain and his crew while you and the others were ushered below. And some said the priest remained above for he had chartered this ship and so must surely keep better quarters than your hard, musty bunks while others, those especially stricken, insisted such a man, one who lived in the glow of the divine, would refuse gentler quarters to make his bed with dignity upon the wooden deck.

And you were led below, the dank-dripping from exposed pipes, the faint wane of the oil-fixtures, the steel walls fissured with rust, and divvied into various rooms at seeming random. In each room the same bunks, the green-wool blankets, moth-disturbed and splotched with the discharge of common sailors, workers, stowaways, a faded national flag, a tin-framed portrait of a long ago president. Now within the hive of the ship, the constant ministrations of the pilgrims, their murmuring prayers, their idols clasped, the pills they shook into their palms, the medicines that sent them to red-eyes and absent gazes, the tincture of Opium and the Opium itself. The air took on the smoke of their pipes, the hum of their prayers. And beyond those who medicated there were those who simply awaited the divine.

And you in the rumpled hounds-tooth of your only suit, the threadbare cotton of your only socks, your shoes sickly with frayed threads, your hands laced behind your head, and in the opposite bunk, one man held a child’s head upon his lap, the child asleep with a thin wheeze. An ancient man and woman lay curled on another bunk, the faint glimmer of their eyes. You said your name to the others, and the father said his name and the name of the child, her soot-smudged face, her hair tangled with pins and seashell-combs. And the old man said his name and the old woman made a sound that seemed to be her own until the man said, “No, you remember now, that is not right” and now he said the name he insisted she bore.

The little girl who wheezed as she dreamed, her father whispering the story of her mother dead from fever and the girl who had never seen nor heard. The old man who simply said they had known each other for eighty-years, their closeness unrelenting into the failure of the flesh, but now when his wife looked upon him most days she knew him not. “I have contemplated unspeakable deeds,” he began, until his voice caught.

And when they wondered of your purpose aboard this ship, you pressed the father’s hand to your chest. His eyes widened, “It’s a trick,” he said. “No,” you answered, shaking your head.

Now there were those aboard this vessel who said you had always lived with a stilled heart, born into the condition of death, anointed with the last rites even as you wailed your first breath, and there were those who said your father, the doctor, gave you ether and laid you to the table, and there he plumbed your chest for the source of your life, if not the mortal pulse of a heart. And there were those who said your father found a faint and barely moving organ, while others said he found it trapped within absolute stillness, and still others said he found no heart at all. All agreed you wore now a father-given scar along your chest, ever enflamed and aching.

***

To follow were days of beauty: the trembling, blue clarity of the water when the sun lit the sky, the oil-blackness when clouds flowed in doomy-sheets, bursting with light; the roving packs of dolphins, skimming alongside the ship; the enormous mournful calls of whales; the sunrises pulsing from the horizon, the sunsets burning out over the waters; the passengers wandering the decks in their various distorted ambulations, the elderly couple fixed in embrace upon their bed, the father and the daughter at the railing, the father describing the scene to his daughter in easy cadences, his hands upon her shoulder, the tangle of her hair, his lips near her ears. She seemed to smile in the breeze.

And you too walked the deck, your lungs filling and unfilling with the briney-air, until the young boy of the crew stood before you, a summons clasped in his smutty-hands. Now you were brought before the priest, and there you each supped on what he called water and hard tack but was actually roast chicken and wine. Soon you forgot yourself, sucking greedily at the bones, the grease of your fingers, and as you supped the priest said, “You are ______” and here he uttered your name and you nodded. He said, “I studied with your father, long ago. I know what he did to you.” You watched his lips as he continued speaking, the reflections of furniture and light fixtures in his glasses, how he spoke of your mother’s doom. The many ways you were made to be alone. Of your father he offered, “I still believe he was a good man,” he finished. You said nothing in reply until the priest asked where your father now was. “I believe he’s dead,” you said. “Yes,” the priest nodded. “He would be. Most of them are.” Now he brought up his book, a small bottle housed within the casket of its hollowed pages. This he shook into his palm, the mound of pills he washed down with wine. His flesh seemed to slacken. His eyes glazed and he spoke as in a dream, “It stood a thousand feet tall, roaring and gnashing, and then it consumed us all.” You were silent some moments before you said, “The angel?” and the priest smiled in his hazy manner, “Yes, the angel.”

***

It was the girl who woke the others with her weeping, crouched and wrapped in her own arms, her pale eyes swollen and pink from her position in the far corner. And when her father went to her, petting her arm, her brow, she moaned and spat. And in this noise, now the old man cried out, for in his arms lay the ragged body of his wife, her neck limp and eyes glazed and mouth fallen open. Now the little girl wailed the louder and so it was she would not cease her cries until the old woman’s body was wrapped in her green wool blanket and even then she would come no nearer to the bed. “You’ll have to remove her,” the father said. The old man petted the shroud in his silence and when the little girl again wailed the old man looked up with his red eyes and said that he could not lift his wife. “I will do it,” you said.

You brought the body to the deck, the head jostling through the blanket, and there she settled as a loose collection of limbs. In the hours to follow, the priest stood before the form, uttering phrases most believed originated from his book while the old man sighed throughout, “It is so, it is so.” But when you raised her he shouted that if you threw his wife overboard you must murder him as well. Now the others murmured and one man said, “I’ll do it too!” until the priest held the man, blessing his name and the name of his wife, and now offered the old man his own cabin as a crypt. Soon the priest’s unlined brow as he stood before the cabin door, the boy who brought from within a satchel, a stack of leather volumes, a lamp, placing these upon the deck while the body was laid upon the bed. And there the old man was said to lie alongside her. And none wondered aloud if he pulled open the blanket.

***

It was night when you arrived. All seized up when the bells clanged and the chugging slowed, when even the smoke dispersed for the air of the jungle, the shrill yammering of monkeys and birds and the hooting and snarling of creatures unknown. And many now clamored onto the deck, pressed to the railings, to the shrouded darkness. And no native torches lit the shoreline nor did missionaries row in greeting. And some called to the angel in the darkness, and some swung their ravaged frames over the railings, or cried out to be thrown over, and now the screaming, the frenzy, the gnashing, the weeping. And when none obeyed the captain’s command to “clear the decks” he fired his revolver and when none heeded this shot he ordered his crew to force the passengers below.

And through the clamor, the old man waited in the priest’s cabin, murmuring his wife’s name, his wretched hands stiff upon her mound.

And through the night, the little girl pawed at the darkness. And when finally all were lead to the deck and loaded into lifeboats, she refused to leave the room, gripping the doorframe and throwing herself beneath the beds, cowering in the dust. And when you pulled her into the light she gnashed until your hands dripped. And when the priest touched her brow she thrashed and tore at her eyes, her chest, her throat, until these bled.  Finally, the father took her, his hands engulfing her wrists, petting her brow, whispering near her ear while she hissed. So he carried her by the shoulders and you carried her by her feet, and in this way she was loaded into the boat, never ceasing her screams, her bucking and thrashing.

***

You and the priest rowed, his translucent face without strain save those veins which seemed to pulse with increasing blueness, into the dense swollen air, the mosquito clouds, their long bodies hunkered upon your arms, your throats. And the father held the girl on his lap, buckling and foaming at the lips, her cloudy-eyes bulging. And the old man whispered to his blanketed and stinking wife. And when finally the boat lodged into the sands of the shore, the little girl let one last scream and now she lay silent, yellow foam crusted at her lips.

***

Some wept, some fell to their knees, some ran into the new world before them, the trees laden with red and green spiked fruits, the shrill monkeys, hopping and bobbing about the shore, beating their fists, screeching, while lizards lounged in the dirt, their scales and loose hanging necks. And some monkeys beat the lizards with rocks, chewing the soft meat from the devastated skulls. And some lizards turned and hissed and the monkeys fled up the trunks of fruit trees, their brown emaciated faces and crisp blue eyes. And along these sands what seemed a hillside of chalk was actually bone, a mound of hip or a leg, and you wandered atop the apparent fragments of a monstrous spine. And some wept and beat the ground. And some called out “It glows! It glows!” and some said they heard the angel humming and some insisted they sensed a lost limb beginning its regeneration.

And here the old man settled his mound, unfurling the blanket, her eyes yet open, her putrid skin yellowed and swollen. Flies swarmed as he fell upon her, smoldering her with tears and kisses, pleading with the bones to resurrect his wife as she had been in their youth.

And now the little girl was made to sit in audience before the bones, thrashing and moaning flatly from her delirium. And her father too wept as he held her to the mounds, moss tufted and otherwise unblemished. And the father begged the god he believed omniscient and benevolent to heal his daughter. And he dared not say his wife’s name. And he dared not dream her returned unto him.

And it was the priest who saw the skull rising from the soil, the horrid snout, a tower of long bone and teeth and eye caverns, tufted with moss and rusted with ancient murder.

And he commented not on the teeth, as tall as any man. Nor did he speak of the reptilian curve of those nostrils, those fathomless caverns. And he said nothing to those pilgrims who wept and prayed and investigated the bones along the shore even as he looked upon them with horror. And his mouth opened and closed while he looked to you with eyes filled with tears. And now he fled into the forest.

You followed through the brush, his huffing and terror, the insane chortling of monkeys and the screams of birds until in the midst of a clearing stood the priest. And there the bloated bodies of natives, afflicted with lesions, black and dripping and swollen the size of apples. The priest staggered amongst the tangled bodies, mounded to his knees. And some distance beyond strode a man, touching a torch of bound sticks and grasses to the thatched roofs of huts, the mouth of flame drifting over these structures, collapsing into waves of heat, the flickering light upon the glisten of his skin. And while one building burned he went to a pile of bodies, selecting immediately a figure and the trail of dead limbs in the dust and across the threshold of another home.

The man amidst his fires, the entirety of his figure illustrated with the apparent literature of his kind, geometric depictions of birds and monkeys and enormous lizards circling and devouring their own haunches and tails. Now the crashing of houses into cinder and ash, as he took the priest by the shoulder, wrapping the smaller man until he seemed to disappear, into the smoke and horror and blood, into lost gulping sounds and soft moans and noises vaguely like thrashing. And the smoke came over their figures like a veil. And you coughed and your eyes blurred and when you looked again the tattooed man was dragging another blackened body through the dust. The priest was nowhere apparent in all that land.

***

When the last of the bodies was disappeared and the last of the houses devastated now the tattooed man dipped his hands in the coolest of the ashes, raking these hands across his face and chest. He looked to you, while behind him the smoke coiled into the shapes of birds and lizards and monstrous unnamed apparitions.

***

So when you emerged from the forest the pilgrims were covered in sand and sweat and tears. And some sat upon the bones and some crouched before the bones and some slept in the sand and some yet murmured their prayers. No dead had risen, no frailties or impurities healed. And the little girl sat dumbly in the sand beside her father, who stroked her brow while he watched the sky taking shape. Some claimed they felt a tremor within their ravaged limbs, and others believed a humming in their skulls and a light flashing in their eyes, indicated the coming of miracles. “It will happen before long,” one woman nodded, both her limbs mere withered stumps. And none had known you were gone, so they looked upon your smoky, stricken figure with wonder, as you said, “We must leave. Immediately.” And when you indicated the tattooed man, saying he had come from the depths of the forest, they wondered of your sanity, for they knew the man beside you as the priest, appearing to them as ever before.

And when finally all returned to the ship, the old man remained beside his wife, and none could move him from her position. “I must be here,” he said “for when she wakes.”

***

The little girl fell ill some days into the return voyage, her neck and arms bulging with lesions, her brow pulsing with heat. And soon her father too sickened, and from the old man’s former bunk he gazed through the swelter of his fever. And in this vision his daughter opened her eyes and seemed to regard the man before her, the oval darkness of her mouth as she spoke of the land she had these years dreamed, a place of far greater darkness than any he had ever known.

***

When she died, vomiting and spitting blood, the tattooed man entered with the hacked-apart remnants of a wooden chair and a velvet upholstered stool, his hands and forearms laced with splinters and dripping blood, and these he slid beneath the girl, along with crumpled bunches of pages ripped from logbooks, journals, stray newspapers. And he took the oil lamp from the wall. The father moaned while over his daughter a blue flame grew and consumed, the tattooed man’s eyes and his teeth shining with the light of his fire, his skin hued with the blur of the smoke. Now he grabbed his skull, ripping his hair, weeping and bellowing. And then he set upon the father.

***

Then followed days of formless gray, islands of ice drifting the sea, and upon these bears and flippered mammals wandered in blood crusted scenes of murder, the tufts of slaughtered fur and teeth and skulls heaped while the ship radiated with the sounds of agony, of doom, of moans and then silence.

And now the tattooed man ravaged chairs and stools and dressers and desks, heaping the pieces and dashing upon them the liquor of lamps. And some murmured in their final moments while their rooms became as infernos. And some wept and begged the man to preserve them. And some simply lay stiff and bloated.

And while black smoke coughed from below, and the ship seemed to swell and buckle with the heat of the fires, you took over the captain’s cabin, bolting shut the windows and sliding wool jackets beneath the door. And you dressed in his spare clothing, the shirts immaculately folded in the top drawer of his lacquered dresser; the thick wool jacket slumped over his chair. The photographs fanned out on his desk, a hairless child in a dress, a young woman holding a bouquet of daisies, a saddled horse. What had been his wedding band was likewise left upon a stack of anonymous papers. The captain himself extended upon his bed, his boot tips pointed up, his mouth open, eyes and tongue made the feast of rats.  And you bundled the captain in his sheets and slid him beneath the bed.

***

When the tattooed man finally sought entrance, he came wielding an axe, hacking and splintering and pounding with the handle, his eyes reddened and gleaming. His awful rhythm. His muscles pulsing and rippling while the wood gouged and tore and the wood bulged inward.

And the door buckled while you drank brown liquor from a crystal carafe, weeping and smearing the photographs with tears and splotching them with drink. And when you lay upon the bed, you spoke to the child from the photographs, the woman, the glint of her smile, her eyes in the oil light. And when you closed your eyes you heard either the beating sounds of your heart, or the tattooed man’s feet against your floor.

 

***

When finally your vessel moored on some distant wasteland you lay as all the others, collapsed into the ash of his fires. In this land rocks and dirt protruded the snow, wildflowers, purple and yellow and red, and reeds of grass, slender and brown and bent before the gusts. And here lay the devastated remnants of bears and birds and whales, pulled ashore and eviscerated by a creature far grander than they. And some hours came the sound of its hissing, its lumbering. And in the days its blood-crusted teeth jutted from the horizon like crimson monuments. And in the nights its eyes, yellow and throbbing, thrived with the light of your ship ablaze.

And had some ship come across your craft, adventurers or explorers or just those in search of what had gone missing, perhaps they would have found this tattooed man living on the bludgeoned meat of birds and making his home upon a ship that was no more than a burned out husk, he and the fire purified corpses become as cronies within his mind. And perhaps they would have found him bloated with lesions. And perhaps they would have found the husk abandoned of all life. And perhaps they would pass over those waters without a second notice, the ship sunk to the bottom of the seas, mangled and torn apart. And perhaps they would have found only the bloated body of the priest amidst the char and ruin of the rest. But no such vessel has ever passed by those waters.

————————

Robert Kloss is the author of The Alligators of Abraham (Mud Luscious Press). He is found online at robert-kloss.com.

Illustration by Nick Francis Potter, who can be found here…

A Teen Tale

Dear Three Editors:

I noticed from your masthead that you must be a family run rag since your names end the same way, and I’ll bet that at least two of you are married to each other and the third one is your father or brother or maybe just some third wheel. I like most of your stories, except for the short ones that have no conversation or characters or plot in them. And your poems are pretty nice, except for the ones about cranberry bogs, which I must admit generally don’t excite me, even when the subject comes up during daily interactions—which is hardly ever.

This is my first teen story, as my type of writing has so far been aimed at mature literate types only, like for instance my recent story about an old woman who made it her business to free a sad looking ape from the zoo. It is a gut-retching tale to say the least, but I’m still not finished with the end. In my first try at the story the ape escapes the grasp of the old woman and scoots away, leaving her sitting alone and learning an important lesson, which is either not to try freeing apes in the first place or simply deciding to bring a leash next time. I’m still working on it.

Anyway, without any further to-do, here is my teen story, a subtle tale about the perils of teen life—which I know all about, having barely escaped mine—and I hope you like it and that your mag does leather binding.

“A Teen Tale”

Arnold, a shy sophomore, was a real loser. Everyone hated him, even his guidance counselor; meanwhile, he was crazy for Julie, a senior cheerleader whose father drank and whose mother was having an affair with a dairy farmer. But since Julie was the most popular senior in the school, no one knew about her crummy home life except her best friend Suzie, who everyone in school hated because she was the most popular girl’s best friend and therefore thought she was all that.

Anyway, Julie didn’t know that Arnold, the loser, was even alive. Then one night some of Julie’s friends called her to go out for a ride, but her father beat her before she could get out of the house. The friends, all twelve of them, had decided to drive Suzie’s mom’s Toyota down Bell Hill, which had black ice all over it. Arnold the loser lived near the top of Bell Hill, and he was outside looking up at the stars when the twelve of them stopped to ask if he wanted to ride with them or go on being such a miserable dud. He almost climbed into the car, so he’d stop feeling like such a dud, but his dead grandmother whispered in his ear, “Don’t be an idiot,” and he backed away. All twelve joy riders gave him the finger and then tore down the hill on the black ice.

Julie limped over to the top of the hill where Arnold was, cursing a blue streak because she’d just missed the fun. But then they heard the screeching brakes and some awful laughing and screaming, followed by a distant boom. Julie gave a blood-curdling shriek and started bawling, but when Arnold tried to drape a comforting arm around her shoulder, she shook him off.  “Get lost, creep,” she said.

Later Arnold slumped at the kitchen table, cringing over the memory of Julie’s angry face.

“What the hell’s that?” his father asked, overhearing the many sirens.

I don’t know. A crash,” Arnold answered, annoyed, moping over Julie’s “get lost creep”, which rang in his ears.

All twelve teens, in the hospital with concussions and broken legs and arms, had been bullies who’d picked on kids in their school, so everyone cried a blue streak over them. The teachers cried blue streaks too, but one young female teacher suffered the conniption fits of her students when she said, “Oh well,” to a class, and chuckled. There was a general uproar and some gnashing of teeth that abruptly ended when the bell rang for the next class.

Meanwhile Arnold’s father, who worked as a guard at Riker’s Island, didn’t know why his son was such a scrawny loser. “You should’ve been in that car—like a man,” grumped his father, but Arnold’s dead grandma whispered in his ear, “Don’t listen to him; he’s an ass.”

“All right, Grandma,” Arnold blurted, and his father took it to heart and beat him.

Bruised purple the next day, Arnold went to the library instead of going to math class.  Miss Shrump, the teacher who’d said “Oh well”, told him he looked good with his face all battered like that, and Arnold bowed his head in shame.

“You too, Julie,” Arnold heard her say, and he looked over to find Julie near a stack of century old encyclopedias. Her face was even more beaten up than his face, and so he ached for her; but when she looked over at him she mouthed two words that aren’t appropriate for teen audiences but which all teens probably say to each other every day, at least once.

Still, Arnold knew that he and Julie were meant for each other because of their mutually beaten faces, so he talked to his guidance counselor about her and hoped that she could talk to him and Julie together, but the guidance counselor told him to get the hell out of her office. All day long the guidance counselor felt bad for telling Arnold to get the hell out of her office, so she yelled at the next kid who asked for help and forgot all about feeling bad over Arnold.

More determined than ever to put an end to his anguish once and for all, Arnold walked to Julie’s house after dinner that night to share his feelings with her. But her father answered, and when Arnold asked for Julie, her father said she’d run off with a carnival barker and wasn’t available at the moment. Then he slammed the door in Arnold’s face.

Meanwhile, Julie, eavesdropping from upstairs, heard the whole exchange and watched out her bedroom window while Arnold stood outside listening to his dead grandmother tell him not to believe the father, that he was an ass. Julie saw Arnold’s bruised face in the moonlight, and was so moved by his loser-like passion, and the fact that he had no chance with her, that she began to kind of like the guy a little bit. Later, when her father asked who the loser at the door was, she screamed a blue streak at him and he thrashed her to within an inch of her life, stopping just short of killing her because he didn’t want to get in trouble with the law or anything.

Julie saw Arnold at school the next day, and she tried to talk to him, but he avoided her, which was easy because she limped badly, bent way over to one side because of broken ribs, and her face was even puffier and yet more smashed in than it was before. She looked more beautiful to Arnold than ever.

Arnold felt the urge to hurt someone, or hurt himself—or better yet hurt something inanimate, if he could only get hold of an easily breakable item; but he was too much of a wuss to do anything about his sorrow. Miss Shrump saw him sulking in the hallway between classes and told him to relax, that this was only the beginning of his troubles. That cheered Arnold up.  He thought of his future, of maybe becoming a forest ranger or something and disappearing into forests, and the rest of the day he wondered what forest rangers even did, so his mind was off Julie for a while.

Weeks went by. It was spring, and Arnold still wouldn’t let Julie come near him, but she kept trying anyway. Soon all the unmaimed popular kids left in the school were calling Julie a loser for chasing after some stupid sophomore. She didn’t care, though, and finally ran away from home after her father conked her over the head with a shovel. The same night, Arnold ran away when his father stuffed him into the clothes dryer after overhearing Arnold sigh.

“You goddamn sissy,” his father seethed, slamming the dryer door closed on him. Arnold’s grandmother’s ghost opened the door for Arnold, though, after his father had gone upstairs to clean his taser, and Arnold squeezed himself out just as his dad came back down the stairs.

“Thanks, Grandma,” Arnold said aloud and luckily beat it out of the house before his father got to him.

So Julie and Arnold had both run away overnight and then skipped school the next day. They roamed through town, turning corners and going into and out of stores at exactly the wrong moments and just missing each other.  Back at school, some other losers had been planning to stink bomb the hallways; but they lived in the country and could only think of using cow dung. They did succeed in stinking up the place, much to the student body’s delight, but were later caught with some of it still on them and were arrested for assault.

Julie walked into a coffee shop in town and saw Arnold sitting at a table, preoccupied with picking lint out of his hair. She took a deep breath and sat across from him and they had breakfast together. Arnold wouldn’t say much at first but when she felt at his bruises he loosened up and felt at her bruises too. Pretty soon they were getting along okay, and she told him that even though he was a creep and a loser, she thought that maybe they could be friends.

Arnold smiled a little, and his dead grandmother whispered in his ear, “Kiss her, right now.”

“No, Grandma,” he said aloud.

This caused a serious misunderstanding between him and Julie for a while, but outside, after he told her all about his dead grandmother, she kind of understood. Their squabble had brought them closer, and much to their mutual relief, and mindful of their bruises, they gingerly kissed a blue streak.

————————

Lou Gaglia’s short story collection, Poor Advice, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books (2014). His work has appeared in JMWW, The Cortland Review, Untoward Magazine, Toasted Cheese, Blue Lake Review, and other publications. He lives in upstate New York.

Amateur Night

When Miriam called about a trip she had won, Lisa was sitting on the kitchen counter.

“It will be great. It’s already all paid for,” Miriam insisted. There was a rustle of static on the other end of the phone. There was never a good connection between Idaho and New York.

“What about the kids?” Lisa stared at her bare feet against the granite countertop. Earlier, she had been trying to reach a cobweb floating from the fan above the table, but as she swatted it away and it disappeared below, she was struck by the sight of the apartment from a point of elevation. She still had trouble believing that Nathan had let her keep the entire thing in their divorce settlement, so to view it all at once was like living in a space station orbiting Earth.

“Rob said he could work from home for a few days. And don’t you still have miles left?” Miriam asked. “It will be great, Lis,” she added in a whining plea, a tone that brought Lisa right back to the backyards and bunk beds of their childhood.

“Yeah.” Lisa trailed off, resting the phone against her shoulder. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to spend four days in New Mexico with her little sister that was causing her to hesitate; it was the fact that she wanted to so badly.

“Fine, I’ll go. I guess I’m not really doing anything else.”

“You just made my week! Want to say hi to Simon. Simon? Come say hi to aunt Lisa.”

Lisa heard movement and a pause, and then the sound of a raspberry being blown into the receiver.

 ***

On the way to Albuquerque, Lisa sat next to an older couple that insisted on paying for her headset and then proceeded to ask her questions about her life. She took a double dose of Dramamine and woke up as the plane was skidding into the airport, with drool running down her shoulder.

Walking through the terminal, looking for the baggage claim, Lisa rubbed her thumb along the inside of her ring finger. The ring itself was somewhere in the depths of the apartment that somehow now belonged explicitly to her, but she could still feel it snug around her finger. She often found herself going to touch it in new situations and when she realized it wasn’t there, it took a moment to calm the panic she had lost a ten thousand dollar engagement ring.

Nathan had been a gentleman when Lisa first met him. He reminded her of the eighteenth century men she read about while studying literature in college. He always wore a suit – only once did Lisa see him in anything casual, and then it was in neatly pressed jeans and a button down shirt so perfectly white her eyes hurt when she looked at it. He was polite and kind and always pulled her chair out at restaurants. He never spoke out of turn and his talent at investing in the right places was respected in every social circle they seemed to encounter. Lisa was enamored with him.

Lisa waited at the baggage claim until she saw her black suitcase coming towards her on the belt. She grabbed it by the handle and went to sit in the lobby by the windows. The dusty orange glow of the sunlight outside was so like what she had seen in pictures of New Mexico that she had to look around to make sure she still wasn’t asleep on the plane. She looked at her watch: Miriam had flown out of Boise and caught another flight in Salt Lake City. They had planned it so Lisa would only have to wait for a half hour before Miriam’s flight arrived in Albuquerque, and looking for the baggage terminal had taken up most of that time. Lisa sat on one of the plastic seats by the windows and reclined her head against the glass. She hadn’t seen her sister since the wedding, and then only briefly because Nathan had lots of colleagues and lots of former bosses Lisa had been obligated to dance with. Miriam had been her maid of honor, and had done everything in her power to plan a New York bridal shower and not an Idaho one. But when Lisa walked into the banquet hall the day of the party, and saw white and blue crepe streamers dangling from the ceiling, she couldn’t help feeling angry and disappointed. Don’t you know who I’m becoming? she had wanted to ask.

“Can you believe this!” The shout came from across the lobby and Lisa looked up to see her sister stumbling towards her. She was wearing sweatpants and a Michigan sweatshirt, her hair pulled back in a loose bun and sunglasses on top of her head. She had lost weight, and the sight of her sweats hanging off of her hips made Lisa want to cry. She looked beautiful.

Lisa stood and met her halfway, leaving her suitcase by her chair. “God, I missed you Miriam.” Lisa wrapped her arms around Miriam, feeling the weight of another person beside her. Her sister smelled faintly of lilac, and something sickly-sweet, like a melted lollipop. She always seemed to carry the smell of kids with her wherever she went, even hundreds of miles from home.

“Can you believe I won this? I never win anything!” Miriam said. Lisa thought of how, when she and Miriam were on the same soccer team in elementary school, Miriam got the medal for Most Improved Player.

Miriam slapped Lisa’s butt like she always used to do when they were kids, Lisa running around the house or through the backyard until Miriam caught up to her and they both collapsed in shrieks.

“It only takes a raffle to make a queen,” Lisa said.

“Ha ha. I see your sense of humor hasn’t changed.”

“My humor stays the same and my marriage falls to pieces.” Lisa stopped abruptly and went to grab her suitcase; she hadn’t meant to say anything yet, and now Miriam looked as if she wanted to ask her something, if she was okay or if she needed a drink. But Lisa came back pulling her suitcase and reached forward to touch Miriam’s arm. She smiled, and Miriam seemed to forget what Lisa had just said.

Together, they stepped out into the dry heat of New Mexico. Even right outside of the airport, the air smelled so different Lisa thought she was on another planet. Reddish brown dirt swirled around gray bushes across the one-way street in front of them. Miriam sighed beside her. “God. This is beautiful.”

A van from the spa picked them up and Lisa and Miriam squeezed down the narrow aisle to two open seats at the back. It was another hour to Santa Fe, and as soon as the van began to move forward, Miriam reached down and slipped her sneakers off her feet. She rolled her socks down her heels and stuffed them into her discarded shoes, pulling strappy leather sandals from her purse and sliding them over her feet. Lisa saw that her sister’s toenails were a bright shade of turquoise.

“Your toes are blue,” she said.

Miriam was leafing through the spa’s pamphlet and looked, startled, down at her toes. “What? Oh, no I painted them last night. It’s very ‘Navajo,’ don’t you think?”

“Hmmm.” Out the window, the swirling dirt seemed to move at an even greater speed, which was weird because when they had been standing outside, Lisa had not felt any wind. It felt like they were moving forth on a bullet, so fast as to be felt but not seen until much later.

“God I’m starving,” Miriam said, her nose still in the folds of the pamphlet. “Do you know what I was thinking about on the plane? Those raspberry tarts Nathan made for your rehearsal dinner. A man that can cook like that?” Miriam let out a low whistle and turned a page of the pamphlet.

“They were alright.” Lisa remembered trays and trays of flaky pastry covering the island in their kitchen the night before the rehearsal. Nathan insisted on baking something even though the dinner was going to be held at a fancy restaurant downtown. His attachment to the kitchen never wavered; even the private chef they had cook for them twice a week had to step aside so Nathan could demonstrate the proper way to clean a copper pot. Lisa remembered she ate so many of his raspberry tarts before the actual dinner that when one was set on her plate the next night, she felt sick just looking at it.

“They were delicious.” Miriam waved the pamphlet in front of Lisa’s face. Lisa saw a photograph of two women wrapped in white towels, with a green cream smeared on their faces. Miriam tapped the picture. “I want to get a clay facial. I’ve heard it’s great for your pores. I mean, when else to I have time to worry about my pores?”

“How are my lovely niece and nephew, by the way?”

“Loud.”

“Better than stupid.”

Miriam set the pamphlet in her lap and looked at Lisa. Here comes the pity, Lisa thought.

“How are you? Really, Lisa. I haven’t heard from you much about anything.”

Lisa sat back in her seat as the van hit a bump in the road. Her knees jerked up towards the ceiling and she felt the sensation of her heart leaping into her throat. I’m great, she wanted to say, I get to start over. But instead, she answered:

“I’m sad. I mean, of course, right?”

Miriam pulled Lisa’s head to her shoulder and pushed her hair behind her ear with her fingers. “Hey, look at that.”

With her other hand, she pointed to a building outside the window. It was two stories, made of dark brick and full of blacked-out windows. There was a neon beer sign in the bottom left window and a paper sign on the door that advertised Amateur Night in large black letters. It looked like a building that belonged in New York.

“Maybe I’ll find my next husband in there,” Lisa said.

Miriam slapped her hand, sighing so that Lisa’s head fell up and down with her breath.

 ***

When Lisa first met Nathan, he held her attention like no other person she had ever met. He didn’t even have to speak, or touch her hand across the table at dinner; just the sight of his collar folded crisply against his smooth neck was enough to show her something real before her, something she could pick out of the crowd and see as her own. He had a control over her that was intoxicating.

The spa was the same type of thing, something not built by humans. It was set against the dusty orange mountains, and its sleek white peeks cut swaths like wings into the sky.

“Where are we? Mars?” Lisa asked as they stepped out of the van.

“I have to call Rob, let him know we got here. I’ll meet you upstairs?”

Lisa nodded and watched Miriam walk off into the lobby, her leather sandals scuffing against the red dirt and mosaic tiles covering the ground. Lisa decided to walk the perimeter of the spa, hopefully ending up by the pool where she could kick off her sneakers and sit with her feet dangling in the turquoise water. She started towards the left, walking down a cobbled path through overhanging trees. There were women lounging in chairs in a courtyard to her right, their eyes closed. Lisa thought spas were places where you put slices of cucumber over your eyes and she was a bit perplexed to see the bare eyelids of the people beside her. She rounded a corner and found herself at the back of the spa. Beyond a white gate, she could see for miles over desert and dry grass to misty forms of mountains in the distance. It was so open out here, and she felt her throat constrict.

Back in New York, when she was married, she gave up any sense of making her own money. She always told herself in college that she would never be one of those women who gave up her own ambitions because her husband brought in the cash. She used to be a great public speaker: she had a strong, unwavering voice and a good sense of what the public wanted to hear through words. In her sorority, she was always the one who addressed the new pledges, stating the rules for their little group in crisp sentences that transformed into muscled serpents, hypnotizing the girls in the crowd.

But it was just easier, when it actually came to pass, to allow herself to be free of all ties to responsibility. Marrying Nathan was what she thought excitement would be like. She thought she would get to be one of those wives who addressed her husband’s colleagues at corporate events, raising a glass to the room and opening her mouth in a glittering, comforting smile.

Wandering around the city during the day while Nathan was at the office, Lisa would think about the beautiful outfits she would wear to whatever gala they had to attend that evening – silky blouses and tailored pants; skirts that skimmed her hips; and gowns, dozens of gowns with shining clasps and shimmering hems. Lisa would wind her way through sidewalks and imagine what the city looked like from above – a maze of gravel and the squares of the tops of buildings. While moving and thinking, she was happy. This was what she had always wanted – to have so much time to think and so much to look forward to when it was done. It turned out all the parties were the same, and no one there ever wanted to talk to her.

Lisa entered the spa from the back door and found the front desk. The woman at the check-in counter was dressed in a neat black blazer, her hair piled on top of her head. She handed Lisa a key and she climbed the stairs to the second floor. The hallways were open, and as she wandered down the tiled ways, she could see out into the courtyard she had only moments before passed through. This time, she could see the women from above, and from a few stories up, they looked like flattened tissues on the ground.

Miriam was already wrapped in a white robe when Lisa entered their room.

“How’s Rob?” Lisa asked, tossing her purse onto the bed and setting her suitcase against the wall.

“Seriously, I think he must have a screw loose. He spent the goddamn morning working on his car out in the garage and for a good two hours Simon and Ginny colored the living room walls with crayon. Jesus.”

“Maybe they are stupid then.”

“Where have you been, anyway?”

“Walking around, exploring. There’s no cucumbers.”

Miriam dug through her bag and pulled out a pair of flip-flops. She exchanged her leather sandals for the plastic ones. “I’m going to get a clay facial.”

“Right now? We’re here for three days.” Lisa collapsed back onto the bed. The ceiling was stucco, and it looked like plaster would drip onto her face.

“I want to shrink my pores. You can come.”

“That’s alright. I think I might take a nap.”

Lisa could here Miriam sigh. She propped herself on her elbows and looked over at her sister. “What?”

“You need to do something, Lisa.”

Lisa knew Miriam wasn’t just talking about some health treatment at the spa. She sat up and rolled off the bed. “Maybe I’ll get a massage. I’ve never had one before.”

“Yes! Great! A massage! You get your kinks worked out and I’ll get my pores squared away.”

 ***

Walking through the spa in her white robe, Lisa felt more naked than if she’d been wearing nothing. She stopped by a marble-topped table in the hallway with a bucket, bottles of wine chilling on ice. There was wine everywhere, which Lisa found odd because she had a vague notion that spas were places of cleansing. She poured herself a glass and went looking for the masseuse’s room. Whenever she saw movies or television shows where one of the characters was getting a massage, she thought it looked so nice, like a complete stranger smoothing out the clumps of tangled nerves and making roads of loose muscle across their backs.

She opened a door that advertised Masseuse in gold letters and stepped into a white room with gray leather tables. They each had a hole at one end, big enough for someone to stick her face through and stare down at the floor. She pulled her robe tighter around her naked body and hopped up onto the chair furthest from the door. She felt like she was in a doctor’s office, waiting to hear the results of some invasive test. She was wondering if Miriam was in the midst of having clay rubbed on her face when a man in a tight white t-shirt and loose-fitting white pants walked in through a door in the back.

“Afternoon. Here for a full body massage?”

Lisa looked at the man’s dark skin showing through the whiteness of his t-shirt. She could see the small round knobs of his nipples. She looked down at her hands in her lap. “Yes,” she said.

“Alright, well take off your robe and lie down on the table there and cover up with the sheet, if you want. I’ll be right back.”

He left the room, easing the door closed behind him. Lisa quickly slid the robe down her shoulders and set it behind her on the table. She crawled up onto the table the masseuse had indicated, almost laughing out loud at how ridiculous she must have looked, naked and pale and on all fours. She pulled the thin sheet over her ass and shivered. The material was cheap, which surprised her; the turquoise tiles and the colorful vases and bottles of wine throughout the spa made her think of elegance and clear, blue water. To have something so institutional inside this beautiful building was almost insulting to her. She propped herself up on her elbows and reached over for her glass of wine. She took a sip and tried to balance it on the gray leather material, where it promptly tipped over and shattered on the floor. She sighed. Looking down at the broken pieces of glass, she thought of the women she had seen outside an hour before, glittering in the sun.

The door opened and the masseuse entered, carrying a tray laden with bottles of various creams.

“I dropped my wine glass. I’m sorry,” Lisa said.

He set his tray down and crouched to the floor, gathering the broken pieces into the darkness of his palm. “No big deal. I’d say it happens all the time…but it really doesn’t.” He looked up at her and grinned. Lisa smiled back, her chin resting on her hands.

He threw the pieces away, and suddenly his hands were on her shoulders, pressing down and kneading the muscles at the base of her neck. Lisa could feel herself tense; for some reason, she had expected to feel the broken pieces of glass he had just put into the trashcan, slicing her skin and smearing blood onto her back.

“Okay? The pressure good?” he asked.

Lisa mumbled assent and tried to relax. She had never been good at relaxing. It was partially why she had been so reluctant to come here with Miriam in the first place. If Lisa wasn’t doing something, she felt useless, like a blob of atoms dropped from the ceiling. When she and Miriam were younger, their father used to take them to the river behind the elementary school to go fishing. Miriam was always stoic, sitting on her rock by the edge and waiting for something to bite her line. Lisa bounced around: chasing butterflies in the tall grass, looking for turtles hidden in the algae at the edge of the water, setting her hands on her father’s shoulders and watching his line bob in the water. Her favorite part was digging her fingers into the cool, packed dirt in the Styrofoam cups of worms her father purchased at a gas station on the way, and twisting them onto the hooks dangling in front of her face. Miriam refused to touch them.

“How long have you been a masseuse?” Lisa asked. She felt his fingers along her spine, imaging what her bones and tendons looked like beneath the surface.

“About five years now. My brother is, too. But he’s got another job back in Albuquerque.”

“Oh?” Lisa propped herself up again. The hands on her back felt too heavy and the table too stiff beneath her.

“Lay down, relax,” the masseuse said.

Lisa obeyed, turning her head to the side. “Where does your brother work?” she asked.

“He’s a bartender.”

Lisa thought of the sign in the window of the building they had passed on the way in. She felt the masseuse’s fingers making trenches in her back and she realized she hated this; she hated lying here and being molded like a mound of raw meat. It was boring, and underneath this cheap sheet – naked and spreading onto the table – it was humiliating.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

She heard him sigh, and his fingers pressed harder into her shoulder blades. “Darnell.”

“You have nice hands, Darnell.”

 ***

Lisa found Miriam out by the pool, a speck of clay smeared beneath her eyebrow. She was drinking a glass of wine and flipping through the same pamphlet she had been looking at in the van from the airport.

“How was the massage?” she asked as Lisa sat down beside her.

“Uncomfortable.”

“Well my face feels amazing. Like someone took a vacuum to it and sucked everything out.”

“That’s disgusting.”

Lisa took a sip of Miriam’s wine. The sun was setting in the distance, a purple and red haze behind the black shadows of the flat-topped mountains. “Do you remember going fishing with dad?” she asked.

Miriam took her wine from Lisa’s hand. “Of course. You loved impaling those worms.”

Miriam turned to face her and Lisa saw in her sister’s eyes both the reflection of the sun on the pool water and the hazy sunset colors in the distance. Miriam sighed and set a hand on her knee. “Lisa,” she began.

“Please. Don’t patronize me, Miriam.”

“We haven’t even talked about you and Nathan. Are you doing anything about it? Therapy?”

“I sit on my kitchen table. The therapy’s the sound my breathing makes when it echoes off the walls.”

“You can be such a control freak, Lisa.”

Lisa stood and realized they were alone on the pool deck. “I want to go out for a beer. I’m already sick of wine.”

“Shut up and talk to me.”

Lisa laughed and bent down. She stuck her hand in the water, shaking off the sparkling droplets and touching the wet tips of her fingers to Miriam’s face, wiping off the smudge of clay.

“Come on. I know somewhere we can go for dinner.”

 ***

They took one of the spa vans back out through Albuquerque. Miriam had been sure to check three times that the vans made the trip every thirty minutes so that they would not be stuck, “in some hell hole that doesn’t even have a pay phone.”

When she saw the dark-windowed building appear, Lisa asked the driver to drop them off.

“Here?” Miriam got out of the van behind her and dusted off her knees, as if she had already fallen on the disgusting floor she was expecting to find inside.

“I told you I want a beer.”

The bar was dark and smoky, low music playing overhead and bottles of liquor glinting from shelves behind the counter. There was a stage that spanned the length of one wall and a runway that stretched almost halfway through the bar, chairs and round tables surrounding it from either end. There was a purple curtain that billowed in the dank air and three gold poles that shined through the darkness.

“I haven’t been in a place like this since college,” Miriam said. She had changed out of her robe back into her Michigan sweatshirt, her turquoise toenails covered once again by her sneakers.

Lisa took a seat at the bar and ordered them two lagers. As they sipped, Miriam kept looking over her shoulder, back at the stage with the billowing curtain.

“I can’t believe you dragged me here when we’ve got three all-paid-for days back at the spa.”

“Will you just relax? Maybe we’ll get to catch a show.”

As she smiled into her beer, Lisa heard the low beats of music coming to life from somewhere in the ceiling, and the curtains parted to reveal a woman wrapped in leather and feathers. Her dancing and twirling around the center pole brought the few men scattered throughout the bar to the round tables along the runway. Lisa thought she could hear the faint patter of coins hitting the stage.

“Well, she’s obviously not an amateur.” Miriam pushed her beer from her and checked her cell phone. “I told Rob to have the kids call me before they went to sleep.”

Lisa finished her beer and leaned in closer to her sister. “You’re a good mom. Just wish you were a better bar partner.”

“Hey, the mom part kind of erases any of the bargirl part. How was Nathan with going out?”

Lisa remembered sitting on a leather couch in the center of a new club uptown. Nathan stood beside her with one hand on her shoulder and the other around his gin and tonic. “He was polite,” Lisa said. Over Miriam’s shoulder, the stripper was upside down, the feathers of her outfit stroking the gold pole.

 ***

The next night, Miriam insisted they stay at the spa for dinner. In the line for the buffet, Lisa pinched some of the thick material of Miriam’s robe between her fingers. “What, do people not bring any other clothes with them?” she asked.

“Make sure you get some greens. They’re good for your skin,” Miriam said.

They both loaded their plates with food. Lisa choked back a laugh at the weight of the plate in her hands, how the heaviness did not coincide with the lightness of the brown rice and steamed vegetables heaped before her. She poured herself a glass of wine at the end of the table. “They don’t even have red here,” she said, but Miriam was already on her way to a candlelit table in the far corner of the room. As Lisa weaved her way between tables of women picking at health food, she thought of how she used to weave through the parks and boutiques and fur-clad women of the Upper East Side to find her way back to her favorite bagel shop. She would buy a salt bagel bigger than her fist and slather it in strawberry cream cheese, eating the entire thing before she finished walking two blocks back to her clean, impressive apartment. She always worried Nathan would notice the smell of empty carbohydrates on her breath, but he never did. He always gave her a quick kiss on the lips when he came home from the office, and then collapsed onto the couch where he promptly fell asleep. Lisa looked down at her plate of food now and thought how strange it was that she was eating the things she always imagined she would have to consume in the company of Nathan and his friends, the food she would have to pretend to enjoy and eventually learn to appreciate.

Lisa sat down beside Miriam with her plate of halibut and sautéed spinach. She watched Miriam shove forkfuls of limp leaves into her mouth and grimace as she chewed.

“What kind of fish did we catch with dad?” Lisa asked.

Miriam finished chewing and took a sip of wine. “Sunfish, I think. Not the kind you eat.”

“Why not?”

“Jesus, I don’t know. Because they swim in ponds full of sewage and cigarette butts maybe?”

Lisa shrugged and took a bite of fish. As she chewed, she felt the tiny snap of pin bones between her teeth.

“Fuck!” Lisa’s fork clattered against her plate. She shoved her fingers into her mouth and pulled broken fish bones from the crevices of her teeth. Some of the smaller pieces stabbed her gums, and she took a sip of wine to loosen them. “What kind of spa doesn’t clean their goddamn fish?” she said.

“Jesus, Lis!” Miriam looked over her shoulder and back at Lisa quickly. “There’s other people in here!”

Lisa gulped more wine and felt a small piece of bone lodge in her throat. She had a flash of Nathan standing at the marble island in their apartment and cleaning fish to cook for dinner. He used tweezers to grasp the little bones and pull them out in one whole piece. Lisa remembered holding a glass of wine and standing beside him as he held the fan of bones before his face. It looked like a feather, thin and white, twirling between the arms of the silver instrument. They both stood there, side by side, staring at it in the light of the setting sun.

Lisa’s eyes streamed, and she reached for her napkin. She pawed the tablecloth and her hand hit the spoon and knife by her plate, but she couldn’t find a napkin anywhere.

“There aren’t even goddamn napkins at this place! We really are on a different planet! Planet bullshit! Where there aren’t even any napkins!”

“Is there a problem over here?” Lisa turned to see a hand on the back of her chair. Darnell the masseuse stood between her and Miriam’s chairs, looking down at them curiously.

“Darnell!” Lisa said, patting his hand. “Welcome to the comedy hour!”

“Lis,” Miriam hissed again.

“You need to keep your voice down,” Darnell said at the same time.

“Darnell, there were bones in my halibut, and there aren’t any napkins at the table. What do you want me to do? You saw me spill my wine the other day. I’m a mess!”

“Goddamn it Lisa! Here!” Miriam threw a white cloth napkin into Lisa’s lap and left the dining room. Darnell looked after her and then back down at Lisa.

Lisa fingered the napkin in her hands. “I swallowed a bone,” she said into her lap.

“Come on.” Darnell slid a hand beneath her armpit and brought her to her feet. Outside of the dining room, in the empty and tiled hallway that seemed to stretch on forever and ever in a sea of palatial wonderment, Darnell steered her into a chair against the wall, beside a carafe of wine. Lisa reached for the pitcher.

“Uh uh,” Darnell said, grabbing her wrist and taking the still-full glass of wine from her hand. “Why don’t you go find your sister and set things right?”

“Darnell, you have a brother, don’t you?”

Darnell set her glass on a table behind him and then set his hands against his hips, looking down at her. “Why are you so concerned about my brother?”

“I really want a beer,” she said.

There was the sound of flip-flops coming down the hallway and Lisa turned to see Miriam emerge from the restroom, a used paper towel crumpled in her fist. “Thank you, sir. I can take it from here.”

Darnell backed away and headed down the hallway. Miriam leaned against the wine table beside Lisa.

“You know why I invited you along to this?”

Lisa shook her head.

“My first thought when I found out I won this trip was ‘Lisa could really use this. She could really use a break.’ You’re always doing something.”

“I haven’t done anything for months.”

Miriam sighed. “You got married.”

Lisa snorted and stood up. Looking down the hallway, she saw a woman cross from the dining room to the bathroom. She looked down the other direction and saw nothing. “You know those raspberry tarts?” she asked, turning towards Miriam.

Miriam nodded.

“Nathan made me try six batches of those fucking things the night before the rehearsal. I couldn’t fit into my goddamn dress without three safety pins.”

“You didn’t have to eat them.”

The sentence seemed to ring off every wall around them, and Lisa suddenly wished she, too, were encased in a fluffy white robe.

“Jesus Christ,” Lisa said. Looking down at the blue and orange tiles, she felt she was above that maze of a city she imagined months ago.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you about everything because I’ve been trying to come up with the best way to tell you that what you did is right. He made good tarts. So what?”

Lisa laughed and couldn’t stop. She laughed so hard that Miriam tightened the belt around her robe, as if the tremors of Lisa’s body would loosen the fabric and cause it to slip off her shoulders.

“Darnell!” Lisa called. “Darnell, come back!”

She saw his head poke around the corner. “Are you serious?” he said.

“Darnell, do you have a car?”

 ***

They drove out of Santa Fe and back through Albuquerque. Darnell claimed he only agreed to take them because he had been planning on going to have a drink with his brother once his shift was over anyway. During the car ride, Lisa sat beside him up front and Miriam sat in the back, and when someone said something, no one else answered. It was like their words were sucked out the open window as they drove through the desert and Lisa felt right. Happy and sad and a little bit sorry, but right.

When they entered the bar, Lisa felt full, as if she had just eaten a large and satisfying meal and was now sitting on the couch watching television.

“I’m going to find Jerome,” Darnell said, disappearing into the darkness.

Lisa led Miriam to one of the shaky little tables by the runway. When the waitress came over, she ordered them two beers and then leaned back in her chair, relishing the stickiness on the floor that caused a bit of resistance.

Their beers came and Lisa took a gulp, and then another. She set her glass on the table as Miriam sipped her beer as if through a straw. She shrugged when Lisa grinned at her.

“I never said I liked beer.”

“Do you and Rob go out much?” Lisa asked.

Miriam took another sip from her glass and then set it down an arm’s length away from her. “We have date night on Thursdays. We usually just go to the steakhouse and then park somewhere to have sex.”

Lisa started laughing again and the table between them shook, rocking the beer back and forth and causing amber droplets to sprinkle the table.

“What?” Miriam said. “When else are we supposed to do it with two kids running around?”

“You’re just perfect,” Lisa said. “That’s all.”

Darnell found them and brought his brother with him. The beer had made Lisa feel calm like the wine at the spa had not been able to. She stood and shook hands with Jerome, a tall and thin man wearing ripped jeans and a flannel shirt with a threadbare t-shirt beneath it.

“I hear you like to talk,” he said when Lisa sat back down and the men pulled over extra chairs to join them.

“I do,” Lisa said, draining her beer. “I really do.”

Miriam’s face was flushed from the half a beer she had consumed. She was shaking her head as if someone had just said something very funny. “You should’ve heard her when she was little. She ran around like a crazy person all the time – her legs were so skinny you could barely see them – and she was always talking about things. Birds or Africa or the Civil War.”

“She just wanted to know all about me,” Darnell said, smiling over at Lisa.

Lisa examined the crowd before her, her audience, and stood. “So Jerome. What’s this Amateur Night all about?”

He led her into a back room where there were cardboard boxes full of feather boas and stiletto heels, a clothing rack of silk robes and barely-there lingerie. Lisa shook Jerome away and ripped off her jeans and tank top, pulling on a metallic bra and matching panties and a red robe over that. She wrapped a yellow boa around her neck and examined herself in the mirror on the back of the door. She looked like the New Mexico sun, bright and orange, falling over mountains that she would never climb.

A slow and sexy song began and Lisa parted the curtains with her leg. She heard cheers from her table and a few that were occupied by men from farther out west, bringing beers to their lips and wiping sweat from their brows. She strutted out onto the runway, twirling the boa around her wrist and dipping down low to reveal the curves hidden beneath her robe.

“You are insane!” she heard Miriam yell. She bent towards their table and grabbed Miriam’s hand, pulling her up onto the stage and back to the poles glowing in the spotlights. They were like kids again, laughing and galloping and only concerned with what game they would play next. Together they twirled, around and around, clothes rippling in the applause and the wind they created, effortlessly, by their moving bodies.

————————

Joellyn Powers is an MFA candidate at American University in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Bluestem and Twelve Stories, among others, and she is the books editor at Used Furniture Review. You can follow her on Twitter @hipsternonsense, or read her blog about nothing, especiallyfreeing.tumblr.com.

Ghastly Dislocation

I arrived at the hospital early with the intention of slipping into Harker’s chamber whilst he still slept.  My plan was to then soundlessly creep across his bare floor, and with the utmost stealth, ease open his closet door, insert my arm into that dark space and obtain, in short order and with no more trouble than I have already mentioned, “his” cream colored suit, white leather shoes, canary yellow tie, socks (but he had no socks), and rakish Panama hat without rousing the wretched man from his slumbers.  The point of this stealth was not, of course, to avoid disturbing Harker, and certainly not to avoid “getting caught” by him (but what an absurd reversal in our relations that would be!) but rather, and very strictly—indeed, exclusively—to obtain the clothes with the absolute minimal exposure to Harker himself.

To this end then, I parked my car at the very far end of the supplementary unpaved lot, crossed the lot on foot but then, instead of entering the hospital by the front door, skirted right past it around to the side and entered via the service entrance, the one usually reserved for the delivery of bulk commodities. I did this to avoid encountering any members of the secretarial or custodial staff who had made it their habit to congregate in the airy vestibule attached to the main entrance at that time to take their communal breakfast (rolls, coffee etc…) and with whom I would have been obliged, as administrator in chief, to exchange hale good morning greetings, which no doubt in short order would have alerted Harker to my precise location within the building.

He waited for me, you see.  He waited for me every morning. Even though I hadn’t been to see him for several months (could it have been a year?), he still waited for me to arrive every morning, and, though his movements were wholly circumscribed within a single chamber in a rather peripheral ward (a good distance I might add from the front entrance, indeed, any of the hospital’s entrances), he had his own peculiar methods for divining not only when, where and how I had arrived at the hospital but also for following my movements throughout the day.

That was his most infernal trick! Omniscience. He seemed to know everything about me from where I’ve been in the morning before beginning my rounds, to what patients I visit regularly, to the contents of my files, to every minute interaction I’d had with any member of the staff no matter how insignificant; in a word, to all the comings and goings of my days—he knew it all!  Or so it seemed. Of course he didn’t really know.  He could not. He exclusively inhabited, as I have mentioned, a single and somewhat narrow room in one of the most peripheral wards of the hospital whilst I was free to wander—and I do wander, I’ll have you know, I’ve always allowed myself the widest possible leeway—the quite extensive grounds of this entire establishment (not to mention the even larger world beyond). However, he did know enough about me to project the impression that he knew everything.

You see he was very clever. I have to hand it to Harker there; the wretch is clever. He was very clever with whatever bits of information fell his way.  He was so clever that even after I had managed to pierce this particularly inciting ruse (the Ruse of Omniscience) but before I had become wise enough to leave off intercourse with him altogether, I never could clearly discern, in the smashed mosaic of his insidious conversation, which cracks separated known fact from fair deduction, deduction from plausible supposition, supposition from speculation and speculation from out and out guess.

Just take all that business about parking spaces, for example. For the first several weeks of the “promising” phase, the weeks in which I had lavished so much unmerited therapeutic attention on him, Harker tortured me daily (I was visiting him every day; can you imagine?) with his unerring and yet (at the time) wholly inexplicable knowledge of the precise space in which I had parked my car. Our sessions invariably and for quite some time (until that is—in the fourth or fifth week, I believe—when I could no longer bear to enter the room and was forced to resort instead to questions shouted through the crack under the door) began like this:

Harker:

Before we get into what he had to say, please note: he spoke first. He ought not to have spoken first. I was the therapist after all. It was up to me to speak first, or better yet sustain a preliminary (long and unbroken) therapeutic silence. But, evidently, protocol, even that derived exclusively for his own long term benefit, was not among Harker’s concerns. He spoke first. He always spoke first.  I would stride into his fetid chamber—in white lab coat, nondescript (but sharply creased) trousers, black ward-walking shoes, clipboard under my arm, stethoscope around my neck (rarely used, but as an ornament, I believed, it had the intended effect)—cast over his pitiful form my cool, clinical but not entirely unsympathetic gaze (what sympathy there was, feigned, of course, in the interests of professionalism) clear my throat and part my lips in preparation to opening the session with a greeting precisely calibrated to optimize the therapeutic trajectory of all further discourse when Harker (the patient) would blurt out:

Harker: You parked in the third lot on the right side today, didn’t you? You took the space furthest from the berm and closest to the beach, I believe. Is that not so?

To which I was forced to reply, absently, in a daze actually, and already drifting across the room—

Doctor (me): Yess…s…s, thaaaatttsss…  riiiiiiiight…

toward Harker’s window, not the head-sized window Lucy and I used to look in on him but the other full-sized window that he used to look out on—I was drifting and dazed of course because he was absolutely right, I had parked exactly in the spot he named! I was amazed then, as they say, by his evident clairvoyance—absolutely nothing, or rather, a dark column of air. For this particular window was set in an interior wall and “looked out on” only the central ventilation shaft of the building, or rather the pillar of dark air within that shaft, illumined—and this I confirmed as I reached the window and, with two fingers of my right hand,  parted its superfluously thick, vinyl blackout curtains to peep out through the gap—only by what cloudy drips of radiance might dribble in through the milky surface of the sky light far, far above, and more to the point—as far as confirmation goes—it afforded no vantage from which the parking lot in question, or indeed any exterior location whatsoever, could be observed, prompting me to further voice my incredulity thus:

Doctor (me):  But…but… How could you?

To which, Harker responded with luminous complaisance:

Harker:  I heard you drive in, and then I counted your footsteps across the lot.

Bosh, of course! Utter nonsense! Harker was as completely insulated audially from any point at which I might have parked my car as he was visually. His chamber itself was  sound-proofed for one thing. (How could it be otherwise? We had lunatics practically living on top of each other in that ward—the Hopeless Ward, as it was known, truth be told, as it housed exclusively those “patients” for whom no positive prognosis could be formulated. And a good portion of these “patients” naturally (at least initially, and by that I mean, at least for the first several weeks, months (sometimes years) of their confinement—it’s the fresh ones I am speaking of here) were of the consistently noise emitting variety (chattering, screaming, ranting, sobbing, moaning etc…) Why, without near perfect sound proofing on each and every chamber, Pandemonium must ensue!) But even had that not been the case, the parking lot in question lay on the other side (across a diagonal) of the institution itself, which thereby interposed all its muffling bulk (exterior and interior walls, echoing courtyards and cul-de-sacs, not to mention the distracting noises of the infinitely various coming and goings of innumerable inmates and attendants alike) between that lot, my car, the sound of my footsteps, and Harker’s tiny sealed chamber. But even if that had not been the case (Erase the hospital building and all it contained! Erase it completely! Merely place Harker, hand cupped to ear, naked and exposed on a bit of sand where his chamber would have been!) there was still the sea, whose incessant crashing surf blanketed the coast with a low din much more than sufficient to smother the footsteps of multitudes!

He was lying of course! I did not believe him, and yet he somehow managed to open session after session (in spite of increasingly elaborate counter measures on my part) with this astonishing bit of parlor magic. For quite some time I found myself both mystified and confused. Of course I did figure it out eventually. He had a confederate. He had a co-conspirator among the custodial staff who had made it his business to ascertain where I had parked my car each morning (or whether I had taken the bus; or even hiked in) and then duly report this intelligence to Harker in some fashion, often with great alacrity, for it was not at all unusual, at that time, for me to proceed directly to my “session” with Harker the very moment I arrived at the building, before even stopping in my office to take off my coat and hat, and even in those instances somehow the information unfailingly reached Harker before I did.  But I see I have digressed.)

This morning then, in quest of the suit, and having avoided the front entrance, I proceeded from the service entrance through a long zig-zag of intersecting corridors until I reached a stairwell in the environs of Harker’s ward. I ascended to the second floor on which the aforementioned ward was located, and approaching the far end of  “his” hall (by that I mean only the hallway in which his chamber was located),  I removed my shoes so as to avoid waking him should he be asleep and padded down the hall toward his chamber door, before which I dropped silently into a crouch such that I could listen at the crack without exposing any part of my person to view from the inside through the head-sized window (set at about head height in the door.)

(You see they loved him. (I digress again.) I am speaking here of the custodial staff. They were crazy about him. I think it was because he was such a shameless gossip and busybody. No member of the custodial staff managed to pass through, or even by, his chamber without being both grilled and informed. They loved that. How much more entertaining was he than the other more tractable but less gregarious inmates (of the Hopeless Ward, no less!) What’s more, he directed most of his queries and gossip at yours truly—the staff’s much maligned boss and lightning rod of discontent! That was how he managed to gather all the bits and pieces of information about me that he needed to project the Ruse of Omniscience. (And it was truly amazing. That business with the parking space was only the beginning.) Where is the doctor now? he would ask, say, the room cleaner. What is the doctor doing today? Or even, How is the doctor? To which the staff good naturedly responded with sufficient information for him to build up an extraordinarily complete and detailed account of my comings and goings which he duly presented as the most tantalizing clairvoyance during our morning sessions. To make matters worse, the staff seemed to look upon Harker’s inordinate interest in me as a sign of affection, which–without, I assure you, any encouragement on my part–they assumed I reciprocated.  It wasn’t long (into the “promising” phase) before they began to refer to Harker (to me) as “your favorite patient” and to me (to Harker) as “your favorite doctor.”  This, of course, vexed me deeply. But back to this morning.)

I heard nothing.

This indicated to me that Harker was indeed still asleep (as I had hoped) or at least motionless on his cot perhaps feigning sleep (almost as good). Gripping the door knob firmly in one hand to steady myself, I rose oh so very slowly with the intention of taking one long and precautionary peep into the room through the head-sized window, hoping in this way to confirm the above supposition(s) with the oh-so-gratifying sight of Harker’s semi-supine and insensible form curled up against the wall, utterly motionless, on his cot in the corner, as was his wont. Unfortunately, to my horror, instead I confronted—perfectly framed in the glass, peering back at me with—I must confess—a nauseatingly mixed expression of imperfectly suppressed fear, lurid curiosity and intense disdain—my own face!

For several long moments I suffered a paroxysm of ghastly dislocation.

And that was it! That was his trick! How long had the scheme taken to geminate in his brain? How much careful and patient manipulation of the staff had gone into acquiring the necessary materials? And most of all, how long had he waited in perpetual readiness for me not only to appear but to approach in such a way that he could “spring it” on me, so to speak, with maximum effect? And there it was! All over in moments! He had without a doubt created a shock, but I soon recovered myself. Surprise turned quickly to indignation.

With some vehemence, if not violence, I shoved open the door with my shoulder (it opened inward), knocking Harker, who had been crouching against it on the other side, listening no doubt for the sounds of my distress, to the floor. I stepped commandingly into the room. Harker slid, rolled and scrambled to the far side of the chamber, where he adopted a posture positively canine in its servility, cringing on his knees by the foot of his cot, shielding his face from my disapproving gaze with one hand whilst, with the other, holding out to me—to brandish or surrender? I could not say—a shiny, silver framed rectangular mirror of the type and size as might have adorned a vacant corner on a lady’s otherwise crowded vanity. I think he was brandishing the mirror actually. There was no real submission in his posture. In the midst of that theatrical cringe, I could clearly make out, in the slight panting movements of his wasted and hairy sides (he wore no clothes as was his habit), the ragged palpitations of imperfectly suppressed laughter.

I ignored that.

“That’s quite enough for today, Mr. Harker,“ I said, stepping across the room and smartly relieving him of the mirror, as if, I might add, I had come to his room expressly for that purpose. ”Have you been trading favors with the chambermaid?” (A little joke. Of course, there were no chamber maids in the hospital and the cleaner assigned to Harker’s room was a particularly large and masculine member of the custodial staff.)

Harker did not respond but merely gibbered and spat unintelligibly.

“Glass is strictly forbidden as you well know,” I continued to admonish him but got no response. Or was that twitch about the waist the aborted beginning of a sarcastically elaborate (and elaborately sarcastic) curtsey? Could he have been thumbing his nose at me, figuratively speaking, even then?  No matter. I’d wasted enough time on him. I had better things to do. Indeed my entire morning in the hospital still awaited me.

And so, I got the trick but no clothes. I obtained no suit.

Instead I walked back along the hall empty-handed, put my shoes back on in front of the stairwell, returned to my car, crossed the parking lot once again (for the third time that morning) and re-entered the hospital through the main entrance as is customary. I offered hale good morning greetings to the staff, whom I encountered breakfasting (as was their habit) in the airy reception area, and made my way from there to the administrative floor where I took refuge in my “office” (not actually an office, as I may have mentioned but more of a rectangular space partitioned off in glass from the rest of the floor, made cozy (somewhat) by the artful placement of vertical blinds and potted plants around the perimeter.) Safely inside, I turned the blinds closed, settled myself behind my desk, withdrew Harker’s mirror from under my lab coat, and placed it carefully (that is to say, face down) inside the vacant drawer second from the bottom on the left side of my desk. It was not long after that that the intercom began to buzz, and, after I opened the circuit with a deft flip of the switch, my secretary’s voice (she is a totally unremarkable and yet unfailingly reliable person) emerged to report that Harker’s personal attendant, Lucy, had phoned a little while earlier to announce that from that moment forward she had decided to unilaterally terminate her employment at our institution and thus would never be seen again.

I put my face in my hands and wept.

————————
James Lewelling’s first novel, This Guy, was published in 2005 by Spuyten Duyvil, his second, Tortoise, by Calamari Press in 2008. Over the years, his short fiction has appeared in a variety of literary venues ranging from The Cream City Review to The Stranger to The Evergreen Review to Fence. He has been writing fiction since 1988 while at the same time teaching and working abroad in Morocco (as a Peace Corps volunteer), Turkey and for the last ten years in the U.A.E. At present, he is writing fiction and taking care of his family as a stay at home dad in Abu Dhabi.

Florence Green Was 110

Florence Green Was 110 by Derick DupreWake for Florence Green. (The old babe faceplanted on the dinner table at the Briar House Care Home, splashing soup.) A number of cultural gerontologists are present, have flown in from research centers the world over, many of them looking a little dry and making little rustling sounds when they move. I note that everyone’s suits seem to be a size too large, indicating either delusions of bodily grandeur or the slow sag of bodily decomposition. There are history buffs, disaster addicts, honored servicemen and several Greens ensnarled in the equipment of affliction. I snuck in earlier, having bribed an unpaid intern, specialty embalmment, and am sitting in the last row.

A jolly man breezes his way to a sturdy lectern and starts to deliver the eulogy. It is Barry Rand, CEO of AARP, speaking: “Florence Green, who lived to be 110, was a waitress in the WRAF. She met and dated dozens of pilots but she never flew. She worked hard. She had a lot of friends and had a great deal of fun in her spare time.” Some applause, in the form of rustling tweed. “Florence Green was not only a veteran – she was a supercentenarian. How many of us here can say that about ourselves?” I note that none of us can say that about ourselves, but some of us come pretty close. “Florence always said that the Great War was the best time of her life, a splendid, lovely time. For her, Versailles signaled the end of the party. Florence never went to France. So here’s to a happy and healthy year. In the name of Ethel Percy Andrus, amen.”

I appreciate the inherent contrast of a brief eulogy with a life that bridged millenia. I appreciate contrast. We rustle amongst each other, exchange remarks, repair to the banquet hall and find our namecards (I assume the role of “Gary Filch,” who couldn’t be here today) and take our seats.

Preprandial repartee gets me going, they don’t know this but they speak playfully and compliment in code, getting me going. They insult each other’s shoes. They’re all agoraphiles. Not just once has anyone here absently removed a twig from their hair or tried to explain their grassy knees. A girl appears slowly ambling, absently removing a twig from her hair. She says, “I am at the height of existence.” She looks like a waitress on a cruise in a movie about the cruise titled Bankers Away. She might be. She walks around the hall saying things like, “Just think about all the things we won’t be, “ and “We found love in a hopeless place.” Under my table Barry Rand lies supine and has the look of a patient hiding a dose. I don’t ask what he’s doing there. When laughing, the girl throws back a hand lifting invisible plates. “I could just die,” she bursts. Rand rises from the floor and dusts his clothes. He catches the girl’s eye and she begins her come-hither slither, writhing to a number in her head.

“I am the opposite of all I have known.”

“I am Barry Rand.”

“It’s not that I find beauty in ugliness, but beauty in contrast. I can see the inviting luminance of beauty, but I look the other way, look for something yet shapeless in the dark. “

“My problem, haha, I’m usually groping for something shapely in the dark, for example.”

“In my mid-twenties I began to see what kind of person a person had to be. More helpfully, all the kinds of people she didn’t have to be.”

“I think I can offer you some money-saving discounts, if you catch my drift.”

“Get the fuck out of my sight,” he repeats.

I think I love this girl, this possible waitress, this deft beauty (Robert Payne on Chaplin: “The deft beauty of his clowning illuminates the space he dances in.”) who loves contrast as much as I do. Florence Green, who lived to be 110, most likely loved contrast. I imagine the meals she served to contrast with mortar fire, bubble and squeak and death. I imagine a squadron of DH10s dropping payloads of flour sacks. I imagine Florence at seventeen, getting nailed admirably by an officer in the larder. All of these fancies contrast beautifully with the fact that Florence Green lies cold in a coffin in the parlor next door.

We are served great bowls of Scotch broth, in honor of the early bird special at the Briar House which was Florence’s last perception before keeling over. I snap my fingers and tell a server, “Yes, another Scotch broth, hold the broth, single malt if you can. Florence Green, who lived to be 110, anecdotally loved Scotch.” I sit in silence, noting the airborne odor of hardware store peculiar to old age, until a bowl of Scotch slides under my nose.

The girl’s demeanor is soccer-maternal now, making sure everyone hydrates, making sure everyone gets a pamphlet titled How Sturdy Is Your Belief Structure? which concludes if you don’t pray or stand by your faith then your structure has already crumbled, is already as sad as a Kansas song. Believing in nothing but unintended consequence, I know that my structure is sound. Rand begins to talk, to sweat while thinking about talking, and hits the floor after thinking about a response to the question How are you? What he was thinking about saying is I can’t remember what I was thinking about this time yesterday. The memory problem. The incredulity problem. Florence Green, who lived to be 110, most likely experienced these problems.

I remember that I’ve seen the girl on TV, live local and lascivious, interviewed by a woman anchor who later suffered a nervous breakdown because she thought Sherlock Holmes was on her tail. The mere mention of a deerstalker would send her into hysterics. What does it mean to my society when beautiful anchorwomen go off their meds? This is an issue I wish the pamphlet would address.

“Excuse me, but I saw you on TV. I saw the dress they made you wear. The stately brick-colored dress. You were like an art teacher in an idiot town. It was a brilliant contrast.”

“Contrast?”

“Brilliant, if I may be so bold.”

“A bold contrast is all it takes to make me want to love,” she says.

“Gary. How do you do.” We shake hands, boldly.

“Connie. How do you do. You seem very sturdy. They tell us to say that. I’m just handing these out for cash. As a matter of fact, I used to teach pottery in Ponchatoula.”

“They?”

Rand bolts up from the floor and says, “Good – I remember. I was thinking about bringing cue cards to parties.” He rises, dusts his clothes, and strides to a table ensnarled with several Greens. A former poet laureate and current sundowner shouts to Rand, “With the language of the modern world a better world is woven.”

Rand is beaming. “Poetry is an activity many retired persons enjoy today. I’m sorry for your loss. Florence was a beautiful lady.”

“Florence?” shouts a Green.

“Is that you, Florence?” shouts another.

Connie and I fade out and then emerge in the neighboring room, a gallery of sorts, where young people are hurrying to identify each other’s personal brands, young people like us. What were we doing with people like the late great Florence Green? There are new brands to wield, to sear into the mind of a loved one. (Although I’m not sure how to sell the Gary Filch brand.) The show is called Death in Degas, it’s a popular success (“Vraiment Degas-lasse, in a good way,” writes Roberta Smith) and no one wants to take credit for its conception. Each frame contains a shocking and macabre sort of answer-portrait to The Dead Fox. The crowd talks to itself.

“I dunno, the fox, I just. Felt a connection.”

“Forced a connection. “

“’Forced a connection’.”

“It must’ve been something to force a certain idea to feel a certain way. “

“I felt great.”

“But what do you think of the re-context? Is death any deathlier today than it was a hundred plus years ago? Is there more heft to death repurposed, does it have a meatier role, am I boring you.”

“I feel great.”

“I just feel.”

“Connie,” I cry, “for god’s sake, let’s get out of here before they start to talk about Biz Stone’s rescue tortoise.”

“I love to see a man take charge. They tell us to say that, sorry.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Connie.”

“Who are they?”

“Biz Stone’s rescue tortoise?”

We fade out and repair to the banquet hall, slowly, because Connie has decided to walk like a tortoise. Nobody notices, the hall is filled with variously mobile leafeaters, what’s one more groaning hunchback?

“Connie. Okay. Get up.” She hisses at me, slowly, then collapses like a marionette with its strings cut. Rand glides over. “What,” he says, “is this the meaning of?”

“Shh. She’s moving.”

Connie assumes the tortoise pose, which outside of any ashram just looks like the insolence of a child on strike.

“What is she protesting?” Rand asks.

“Old age, maybe?” I say to Rand.

“Get her the fuck out of my sight.”

“And burn that yoga mat,” he repeats.

Children, eagles, corpses, and chairs, all source objects for today’s yogis favorite poses, coincidentally all things found at Florence Green’s wake.

A young boy with strong, load-bearing arms walks out with a tall tiered cake. This is it. Everyone’s silenced at the sight of the cake. Meandering jowls now settle. The Green table holds its breath. Paramedics are called on account of the Greens’ respiratory history. The paramedics talk over the bodies.

“Looks like we got another one.”

“Another Green.”

“They just fall in our laps.”

“I’m very distressed by my Native American heritage.”

“Albert Green is part Cherokee. Was. He just checked out.”

“I just can’t stop crying when I come home from this.”

“This is what you signed up for. Death is part of it. Just don’t feel it.”

“I can’t feel.”

“Never feel,” says the paramedic bravely. They stack the Greens departed and hurry out.

The young boy with the cake is shooed away by Rand and what’s left of the Green table begins to breathe.

Connie and I fade into the kitchen, where the young boy is duly assaulted by crock-wielding Connie. She finds a knife and slices the cake. “I knew when I saw the cake, I would do anything for a taste.” Blood starts to sneak from the boy’s head. I nudge him with a foot.

“Connie, this boy is dead. I’ve checked his vitals, and he is dead.”

She moans. “Coconut.”

“Help me get him out of here. We can put him in the coffin with Florence. Get the legs.”

“I have a pamphlet on how to get the legs of a ballerina without taking a step.”

“I don’t believe you anymore.” I think of the anchorwoman, once a babe, now an eater of hair, and how Connie must be to blame.

“I never believed you, Gary.”

“Just help me here. I’m trying to cover up a murder.”

To our great delight, the Kossoy Sisters have begun one of their famous murder ballads in the banquet hall. They’re a little shrill, causing many of the wakegoers to tune down their hearing aids. We drag the boy’s corpse unnoticed. Is this contrast, or just utter madness? I wonder.

Florence Green got her wish. She’s now in a place where everything is different, where the postage is free and there are no wars, although Florence Green loved wars. As an appraiser of contrast, I am hugely tickled when we dump the boy on top of tiny Florence. There is some struggle slamming the lid shut. Connie and I take a seat in the front row, looking in each other’s eyes.

“My name isn’t Gary Filch.”

“That’s okay. I’m not Connie either.”

“Who are you?”

She kisses me and I taste coconut.

“I’m so glad to live in a world with multipurpose spaces.”

“Yes. Let’s go back to the gallery.”

Hand in hand we stride to the gallery, where everything is quiet. The crowd is horrified at the sight of a large tortoise.

————————

Derick Dupre lives in New Orleans.