Winter: Editor’s Letter

Dear reader,

Contributors of our sixth official edition of Orange Quarterly represent some of the best in contemporary poetry, literature, and art. In our winter issue fresh from Green House Press, we feature seventeen poems by four poets (David Hornibrook, Katie Willingham, Beau Boudreaux, and F. Daniel Rzicznek), fiction by Jeannine Burgdorf, and artwork by Jim Zola and Fabrice Poussin. Also included are interviews with OQ 7’s contributors, plus embedded audio of poets and writers reading their work.

Green House Press is an independent literary arts publisher based in Cadillac, Michigan. Sharing contemporary poetry, literature, essays, and visual art as well as letters, features, and interviews with artists, Green House aims to build cultural enthusiasm around literacy and the arts, promote the appreciation and accessibility of poetry, and publish energizing work by diverse creators worldwide.

Thank you to all the writers and artists who submitted! We look forward to reviewing the work of international creators for the next round. Submissions are always open, and we plan to release OQ 7, our spring 2018 issue, during National Poetry Month in April. In the meantime, please enjoy and share this free collection of new poetry, fiction, art, interviews, and more, and celebrate the exciting #OQwinter issue launch with all of us at Green House Press!

Wholeheartedly,
Allison Leigh

Voice on Fire

The fires started three weeks ago. Julie had watched the news reports from a safe enough distance north. Her time was up, she had wasted it watching, and now she had to drive into them.

The fires spread, not in a contiguous line but like drips from a faucet slipping down the brush. Six major fires vibrating orange in the late December dark. The heat from the hillside radiated in thick waves onto the highway. She had the car’s air condition set to high even though it brought with it the pervasive smell of burning trees and bushes. The traffic from the north was made worse by the addition of the holiday travelers. She was impatient to get to the nursing home before lights out and to move past the other-worldly brightness lighting up the hills.

Julie inhaled deeply, worrying she might start to cough and not be able to stop. The ashes traveled past her car’s air filter and she could taste them, feel them settling on the fibers of her clothes and hair. Fire is the only cleansing force, she thought, but she wished for alchemy more than cleansing. Transformation into something new. She longed for the cold December air of the Michigan of her childhood. The air there so heavy with cloud cover that it took on a color, a gray-blue.

Julie hated visiting her father in the nursing home. He didn’t know her name at this point in his dementia, frequently mistaking her for his first wife who died before Julie was born. He probably didn’t know it was Christmas. Julie felt compelled to go to him, to look like a family.

The smoke and dryness was damaging Julie’s skin. As a make-up artist, her face was her livelihood, her reputation. To that end she took great care with her appearance and diet, spending most of her day practicing some form of cleansing or hydrating, the new moisturizing. She had inherited her mother’s vanity, her father liked to remind her. As if such a thing were written on her DNA instead of mirrored for her as an expression of femininity. Behind the scenes was as close as she had gotten in show business, even after twenty years. She got the show biz bug in fifth grade when her Catholic school was invited to sing Christmas songs for the interstitial segments of the local news. It was a means to spread goodwill and to not have produce news segments. She brought the permission slip to her parents to sign.

“Why on Earth would you want to do something like that?” her mother asked with derision from across the dinner table. She didn’t look up from the mashed potatoes she was pushing around her plate. Julie watched her attending to it but never taking a bite of food.

“I get to be on TV!” she said beaming, drawing out the e at the end. She was too excited to eat. Why wouldn’t they want to see her singing on television?

“That is not a good reason to do something.” Her father said spooning canned green beans onto his plate. I wasn’t looking for good reason, she thought, just your signature. She felt disgust looking at the thin strips of hair that clung to his bald scalp when he combed them over. They both said something about the spirit of Christmas and having baby Jesus in her heart and signed the form. Spirits and baby hearts were nothing compared to being on television. Every time she pictured the studio with its cameras and lights and monitors her heart soared. It was as though she had a crush on a place instead of a boy.

The day of the taping, a Saturday morning, Julie and her classmates were stacked on risers on the stage. Their pre-pubescent bodies were packed close together. A boy named Nico, whose fingernails were always dirty, his hair always uncombed, breathed his sour milk breath on her. The contrast of the air-conditioned coolness of the studio fighting the heat of the stage lights made her lightheaded.

The affiliate taped the school groups a month before they aired. Waiting for it was harder than waiting for her presents. She couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, was unable to concentrate on her homework or cartoons. When it did air, shots of her were so brief that she almost missed seeing her television debut. Julie sang her heart out, used the correct mouth technique Mrs. Stone taught her in choir, especially in the full jaw opening of “Gloria in excelsis Deo”. Her throat tightened up and she pushed back tears remembering it.

The air outside the nursing home was clearer as the winds shifted to the east. In the lobby, the plastic evergreen trees and branches were hung with cobalt blue and angry orange lights. She signed in at the front desk and the woman there told her that her father was in the dining room. The clock above the desk read 7:20, late for him to still be eating dinner, she said, but the woman had turned to greet another visitor. A sense of dread washed over Julie.

The dining room was completely empty. The tables had been cleared of their napkin dispensers and vases of tiny flowers. She went to the room she remembered from her last visit seven months ago, up the elevator, to room 403. He wasn’t there either even though the desk lamp was on and his single bed was made.

Julie walked down the long, florescent-lighted hall to the desk and explained that her father wasn’t here. The woman got on the phone and asked her to take a seat in the lobby. As she sat, she listened to the music that was piped in through the speakers. What was playing was familiar but she couldn’t place it, with guitar and keyboard and what sounded like bagpipes. Something from the 1980s: In a big country, dreams stay with you like a lover’s voice fires the mountain side. Stay alive. Even after the PA had moved onto another pop song, it rang through her ears, the harmony and words were like a warm blanket hugging her shoulders. The coincidence of fires on hillsides is a sign, she thought.

The woman from the desk called Julie over and explained that her father had walked down to the bus stop a few blocks away. He didn’t have any money so it was unlikely the driver would have let him board the bus. The woman was trying to offer consolation, to assure Julie that her father walking alone down the street was not an attempt to escape this life he didn’t recognize. The attendant would be bringing him back right away, could she just wait a few minutes?

Julie had driven for four hours expecting, against all evidence, to see her father, cogent and spreading holiday cheer. She was awash in the hope this particular holiday brings, of unexpected gifts and surprises. She was surprised that her father would walk out of the home. He might have been lost in time, but he knew the space he occupied: fourth floor bedroom and bathroom, first floor dining room, and television room. He had never, to her knowledge, ridden a bus. He was prideful at the fact that his father, an immigrant, owned new cars all of his life. He tried to maintain that status himself. What if he had just gone for a walk and grown tired and seeing the bus bench, just taken a seat? The woman at the desk, unable to wait for Julie to respond to her question, turned to answer the phone.

“He might never hear my voice again,” she said to the plastic evergreen tree strung in cobalt and fire bulbs. “Or recognize my face.” Julie could not think of one single thing she owed her father. She walked back to her car, singing in the parking lot, like a lover’s voice fires the mountainside. Stay alive, and drove back into the fires on the mountain sides.

*

In addition to writing short stories, Jeannine Burgdorf writes poetry, personal essays, and jokes. If you are in the Chicago area, you might see her performing stand-up on one of the city’smany comedy venue stages.

On “A Passing Phase”: An Interview with Joseph Moore

A Passing Phase” is a short story by Joseph Moore published in the REVIVAL issue of Orange Quarterly (OQ 5), released in fall 2017 (on October 31).

*

What inspired you to write this story?

This story came in fragments, without any semblance of narrative structure. I had the idea that I wanted to explore infatuation and limerence, as well as the inner consciousness of the clinically anxious. The middle of the story was written while I held a lovely sinecure, which afforded me ample time to write between emails. The other portions were written in bars and at home. It wasn’t until midway through that I had the sense to piece them together.

Why do you make art, and why write fiction in particular?

I like to think of artistic creation as a sort of ritualistic purging. If I don’t write, it feels as if a dam is building within, brimming with thoughts and ideas and anxieties and all manner of conflicting opinions. Writing wasn’t my first or even second choice as far as a means of expression—music and film were how I coped when I was younger—but with everything else, I felt like I was working against physical and social barriers. I wasn’t very dexterous with my hands, and I wasn’t a socialite who was in touch with my emotions. As I got older, I found myself tangled up in words and thoughts, and writing seemed to clear those away for a brief period. For a brief period, I tried my hand at the journalism thing, but unless you’re a cultural critic, the industry doesn’t exactly reward thought-provoking writing, just information or opinions. I’m not quite sure why I write fiction in particular. Things just seemed to turn out that way. Any attempt of mine at writing memoir or creative non-fiction eventually ends up as fiction. I guess it’s how my mind makes sense of the world.

Who were some of your biggest influences coming into your own as a writer?

David Foster Wallace is an obvious one, but his influence is a kind of double-edged sword, as many other authors have noted. His style is so grandiose (I think Mary Karr likened his prose to a show of fireworks) that any sort of imitation of his work immediately comes across as amateur. Truman Capote, Jonathan Franzen, John Barth, Saul Bellow, Tony Tulathimutte, and Alice Munro all played a huge role in shaping my sensibilities as a writer.

*

Joseph R. Moore is a SUNY Purchase Acting BFA dropout who eventually graduated with a B.A. in Literature/Writing at the University of California, San Diego. His work has largely been in poetry, fiction, and cultural criticism, with verse and prose in online journals such as Bright Lights Film Journal, Switchback, Flatbush Review, and The Magnitizdat Literary. He currently resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he is working on a forthcoming novel.

 

A Passing Phase

Jessica didn’t show up that day. They would sit together on the bus every day after school, linked by a pair of cheap earbuds—one for her, one for him. He kept staring at the inward gliding doors, even after the bus had left the loading location, half-expecting her to materialize out of the stale cabin air. His speculation on the cause of her absence slowly boiled over, engulfed everything in its path, until all was as cloudy as billowing steam from a heated pot. He hadn’t felt this before, this sense of longing. When he was cognizant of his surroundings again, the bus came to a halt alongside the road.

Tucking blond ringlets of hair behind his right ear, Don lifted himself out of the double-seat. A sleep-deprived trudge through the recreation center awaited him. There wasn’t any use in prolonging the forthcoming trek—he climbed down the steps of the lurid school bus, aware of the populated swell of kids amassing behind him. Once outside, the smell of natural gas and mass-produced vinyl lingered above him like a cartoonish rain cloud.

He continued down the street in hurried strides, as if to escape this cloud. He passed trees along the sidewalk which had been young for as long as he’d been a teenager. Years later, he would see them uprooted by one of California’s rare torrential downpours that seemed more and more common with each passing season. And he himself would be willingly carried away, across the Sierra Madre and the Great Plains, along the Appalachian Plateau, and through the towering sylvan overgrowth of New England, to the labyrinthine concrete of New York City. But for now, here he was: teetering at maturity’s apex, insulated from the swaths of adult classification, from inter- and intra- personal estrangement.

He came to another crosswalk. Cars rarely drove down the three-lane suburban slope which intersected his path home, yet he refused to jaywalk. The area was heavily policed, despite its low crime-rate and high income median. The fields on the opposite side of the street were strewn with soccer and Frisbee players, and an incline at the furthest fringes of grass hid a fenced-off salt marsh which dried out seasonally; still, a bronze plaque assured those who walked past that krill inhabited its minute, silty refuges year-round. Of course, detailing all of these scenic elements in his mind made them seem like a laundry list of picturesque sentimentalities, none of which truly captured the spiritual emptiness of this place; he felt its well-sprinkled and daily-mown fields a poor facsimile of natural human habitat, nothing more than a well-maintained bio-dome of suburban, prepubescent upbringing. He knew this town was not made for him. But still, he occasionally overlooked the salt marsh as the sun went down during the summer. Without a car, it was the closest connection he had to anything resembling wildlife.

By the recreation center, he found a lanky guy, long-haired and towering, wrapping his arms around some girl. Her hair, a familiar auburn, contrasted against his white shirt and pants. She turned her face toward him. It was Jessica. She had always appeared affable, with the exception of a few brief lapses of concern in appropriate situations. He continued walking, as if he hadn’t noticed the couple under a sapling, but something parasitic had leeched all of his strength in a trice.

“Hey Don, how’s it going?” she asked.

He stopped. “Oh hey, Jessica, what’s up? Didn’t see you there.” The sun was a spotlight; Don was center stage, stumbling over his words, not convincing anyone with his performance. He stumbled over a small piece of granite on the sidewalk.

“Just hanging out.” She laughed, and her eyes widened. “Have you met Chris?”

“Uhh, no. Nice to meet you.” Don suggested the motion of a hand wave toward him, tried to stare into him, the way you might peer into the eyes of a father-in-law whom you’ve met for the first time and were now shaking (more like clutching) hands with. But the faux business-first firmness was believable only for a few short seconds—Don’s attempt at a hardened demeanor, along with the hyper-awareness of how ridiculous he might look, were taking up neurological RAM, his neurons and dendrites akin to overheating microcircuits, memory misallocation. And so, he found that he could not focus on what Chris was saying without dropping the look on his face, resulting in a vacillation between these two outward manifestations, no compromise willing to come to fruition. He felt an involuntary tremor pulse through his body as he waved back, as he managed to force out a “cool.” His hand took on the shape of a makeshift visor as he shifted gaze toward the sunset.

“Have to get going. Got a few things to work on.” He turned to walk away.

“You sure? Why don’t you bring your guitar down here with us?” He thought this was Jessica’s way of being inclusive or accommodating, and wondered if she knew how he felt.

“I would but…I have homework for Government. Fucking Bedslinger man.”

“Alright, call me sometime. We’ll all have to do something one of these days.”

“Right. We’ll all have to do something.”

His parents weren’t home. They never were, at least, not until eight o’clock. He went into his bedroom, the furthest from the living room, and turned on his computer. His desktop, a high-end Hewlett-Packard, housed a soundcard with a colorful array of inputs and outputs, one of which ran through a tube preamp and into a guitar amp, along with a leftover speaker from his grandfather’s old car. The cone, annular and caked with dust, looked anachronistic against his bedroom’s assortment of tools and hardware. He had re-soldered it and set in a wooden enclosure with nothing but electrical tape, making his creation appear haphazard; but it was the process of MacGyvering a loose assemblage of parts in his garage into something useful which enthralled him. He selected a playlist he had created earlier titled “Black Hearts in May,” and pulled open a drawer underneath his desk. There were a few rolling papers, a dugout, and a sandwich bag full of crumbled up weed—bottom-of-the-barrel shake which he had bought off of his uncle for twenty bucks. He tried rolling a joint, but failed. At last, he inhaled a few melted-carpet-flavored drags through the one-hitter out of desperation.

He got up and looked around the room, which unfortunately, looked the same as it did before he had become intoxicated, and fought back an irrepressible urge to excise his own heart. He bawled instead, as this was a more realistic option. He thought of Jessica’s stilted little fingers playing the guitar, and pictured himself behind her, showing her a how to play a few chords. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a cork bulletin board his father had given to him and his mother. The idea had been to post pictures or symbols of what each family member wanted the most in life. Seeing their goals every day would somehow remind them to “keep our eyes on the prize.” There he had posted the picture of a couple locked in a kiss, their silhouettes enveloped in a corona of light, set against the backlit harp of Brooklyn Bridge suspension cables.

****

He was in love. Or, at least, he thought he was.

This time she was a dark-haired seventeen-year-old, Genevieve. He would talk to her over the phone once a week, usually at night while they were both in beds separated by seven-miles-worth of franchise restaurants, ersatz tract homes, and languid roadways. They had a few of the same classes together, where they spoke jovially about music and old computer games; Don thought they had better chemistry over the phone though, maybe because they felt less intimidated by each other’s physical attractiveness. Still, they hadn’t kissed, and he was starting to suspect that they never would.

The thought occurred to him one night while they were lapsing in-and-out of a conversation about Windows 95 and the Smashing Pumpkins that he could touch himself as she talked. He had reached down his pants, trying to focus on her whispery elisions, and that tantalizing way she used to purr when she wanted him to make a promise or do something for her benefit. He held in his breath as she went on about being a Gemini or something, and then all at once, she stopped talking.

“So, you know what I think?”

“You think too much,” he managed to squeeze out a sudden exhalation.

“You’re funny. You would say something like that.”

“Well, yeah, I would. I’m myself, how else would I react?

“And you’d say something like that too.”

“Well, of course. My personality dictates that.”

“You’d be surprised how little that’s true sometimes.”

“What do you mean?”

“Almost anyone would do anything given the right circumstances. The right setting.”

“I don’t believe that. Come on.”

And on, they parried like this—until Don forgot that he was holding his flaccid junk with enough constrictive force to put a small rodent out of its misery. He let go, and, in a strange way, it further confirmed the veracity behind his affection, his limerence really, his adoration of Genevieve. This wasn’t just about lust; to him, their social chemistry transcended beyond base, biological imperatives. An almost religious impunity came upon him—it allowed him to forgive himself for imagining the most grotesque sexual consummation. How could he sully her image like that? He cared about her, why would he ruin that by masturbating behind her back? If she wanted him, she would have him.

Before school let out for winter break, he had hatched a plan to confess his love to Gen. The unrequited obsession had begun to take over his every waking thought, and each day was transmuting into a backdrop, something rendered for the sole purpose of giving color to their impending encounter. But he was too nervous about the ordeal, and her possible romantic rejection felt like the forthcoming sentence of an all-too precarious court trial. No, he would need some kind of distance between her and himself, some sort of intermediary, like that of a computer screen or a tape recording. He decided to write her a letter. He could place it on her car windshield in the senior parking lot, while she was still in class.

And the scribbled note was placed soon thereafter. But Don had not thought about the timing of his drop-off. Winter break was fast approaching, and he feared that his chances of a reciprocated romance were contingent upon his being in her immediate vicinity, as if their would-be relationship consisted of a unique sequence of he-loves-me and he-loves-me-nots, stored in volatile memory, at the mercy of a nearby power source. He’d expected an immediate reply—an acknowledgement from her that he had made some grave error. But the next few days were agony. Travel to any location of note outside of his neighborhood was nigh impossible without several hours of biking, and Don’s parents rarely let him borrow the car; the last time they did, he’d constructed a bong out of a ballpoint pen and a water bottle in the backseat and proceeded to smoke while driving back from his weekly therapist’s appointment (as might be expected, they could smell “Blue Dream” from a mile away).

Winter break began. He had to take his mind away from the situation somehow. Systematically visiting internet bookmarks was always an effective time-waster, but after the first few hours of escape, little could be done to refresh his perspective of the same fifteen web pages. Don wasn’t much of an outside person, but he figured all of this self-perpetuated misery could be channeled into an activity with more palpable results. He decided he would venture beyond his room.

Across a large flatland of auburn chaparral and abandoned cul-de-sacs lay a secluded area he used to visit with his friend, Justin. They liked to take a 30-rack of American piss-water and “knock a few cans back” along the fringes of a nearby copse, leaving their cans behind so that their aluminum dross would remain undetected by their “parental units.” He had rarely dropped by alone however, and almost never during the late-afternoon crepuscule. A rational person would stay in, maybe spend the evening self-medicating with an abundance of processed food and cuticle mastication. But Don’s impulses had already made the decision for him—his legs were halfway down the stairs, and then his hands were twisting open the bronze knob of the front door, and soon enough, he found himself peering off into the purple-tinged horizon, tumbleweed shadows like spidery cardboard cut-outs against dusk-painted scenery. He could make it there in no time, before the bitumen of nightfall had filled the atmosphere.

The area was deserted and prison-like. A ten-foot-high, steel interweave formed the diamond-patterned barrier between him and the rocks below. This was a familiar sight, and not a diminishing one. Underneath the fence ran a miniature ravine of stone-colored asphalt. He gripped the chain links above it and slid through the small sliver, as if he were a foreigner infiltrating a strange nation on the grounds of espionage. This wasn’t far off from the truth—a metal placard warned that trespassers would be prosecuted for infringing upon county land, and he did ritually come down here to “listen to Kenny G” ­(his friends’ colloquialism for smoking weed) to the lament of the surrounding homeowners. A downward momentum took hold of him as he stood up to brush minute concrete fragments off his trousers and legs, minor annoyances which left Don with itchy, pink craters across his skin. He was starting to slide on the loose bits of gravel, and his shoes had more shine than grip.

When he did slip—not face-forward but with legs bent cosmically upward—his phone sailed through the sky, the screen reflecting a small semaphore of coded glint from the moon, but in a message that seemed to be not one of hope; rather, it hinted that one should turn back before something else broke, like right then. He landed on his back, and stifled any grunt or yelp he might make. In a daze, he lay motionless for a few brief moments, awaiting some sort of nociceptive indication of serious injury or laceration—a broken arm, a cut elbow, maybe even a skinning—but his fears were assuaged after looking at the starry firmament above. Cloudless, open, free. It wasn’t anything like the suburban patch of land that stared back at it.

He got up in one fluid motion and looked down at his body. Nothing out of the ordinary. He looked in the direction of his phone, which had flown toward an assembled pile of granite boulders. Each stone, bleach-white and about the size of a medicine ball, sat atop the bed of a small creek. Looking down the stream into the autumnal overhang of still-yellow leaves (Southern California was always about a season behind), he felt an anxiety growing within him, a hot-air balloon filled with worst-case scenarios rising through the pit of his stomach. Yes, his phone might’ve fell down one of the deep crevices in which each boulder met—even landed safely on the surface of one of them. But another outcome was more likely: the device had fallen into the water, and had been carried off by the stream’s quick current.

His parents were going to kill him.

A frantic hands-and-knees search commenced, his eyes darting back-and-forth across the rocks, all-encompassing darkness greeting him in each nook and cranny of imposing stone. Low visibility under the copse prevented him from peering downstream. So he felt around blindly in the water for a few seconds, and then returned to a search of the rocks beside him. He did this several times, moving forward a few paces in each instance, as if working through the steps of a checklist that required the frantic drudgery of hurried repetition. Another fruitless attempt, and then another. On and on and on. Hope was drifting away from him, beginning to float gently beyond his clutches into the backdraft of time. An intrusive thought hit him: What if she called? The whole scenario was improbable, sure. Still, most of their phone exchanges had taken place after the sun went down, and maybe she had just read the letter now, believing earlier that it was an envelope containing advertisements or coupons or parking tickets or a bribe or something other than what it truly was—the only thing that gave meaning to his existence—and afterwards decided to open it at a more convenient time. This thought gave his search an almost dramatic upswing of determination—arm movements increased in speed, splashes echoed louder, his breathing became heavier, and his jaw clenched in recoil.

Five minutes passed in this din of coordinated movement. Five minutes of obsessive turmoil, of driven regiment, of excited monotony. And then he heard it: a MIDI version of Kashmir that he had set as his ring tone a few months back, still disappointingly tinny and unimpressive despite the original’s misguided aggrandizement of what a Pakistani sojourn might sound like. He cocked his ear to the side so could locate the sound, and saw a flashing light emitting from a pit where four bigger stones kissed.

It was there, alright. Hairline fractures stretched across the phone’s face in spidery tails and chaotic vectors. It was difficult to read past the shattered glass, until the text “Genevieve…Calling” crawled across the screen. His heartbeat skipped rope in his ears, tuned to the rhythmic involuntary convulsions of simultaneous hope and dread; he could hear his body’s acceleration in tempo—moderato, allegro, vivace. It was all over. This was a new beginning. Love was shit. But it was in the air, he was sure of it. He reached into the dark chasm towards the light, and found himself once again inhibited by his family. Had they superior genetics, perhaps they could’ve somewhat increased his odds of hitting the polygenetic jackpot height-wise. Instead, here he was, unable to reach his looming salvation, coming up short, figuratively and literally, with his outstretched hands only inches from what could be a profession of reciprocated, undying love, or an awkward “I don’t really think of you that way” sort of rejection.

And what the hell did this all mean? Here he had come to escape the dark nimbostratus of Genevieve hanging over his head (something he had envisioned as tousled and large as her intentionally disheveled coiffure), and yet even as she called to reveal her feelings, she still managed to keep him teetering in the liminal threshold between resigned dejection and joy. All was unreal, Truman-Show-like, but he felt himself playing the necessary role. He dove headlong into the crevice between the four stones. His fingers were barely able to slide across the screen to answer the call.

“Don? Hello? Da-onnn. Don. Don’t do anything rash now. What’s wrong?”

“Gen…I ca—” He grunted from the pressure of his bones against the jagged, micro-terrain of each rock. He had to speak loudly into the air, since he still wasn’t able to grasp the sides of the device.

“Listen, I got your note.”

Silence.

“Did you want to talk about it?”

“I do.” He didn’t want talk about it. He wanted to flee into a future in which the hard part of his night was something he could sift through and analyze, as if they were the results of a faulty algorithm he could correct.

“I don’t really know how to say this…God, I’ve never had this happen be—”

Don heard a rustle at the bottom of the cavity. There were eyes, milky and jaundiced, staring back at him like two golden marbles in the tenebrous void. They blinked inhumanly. Their pupils dilated into two black vortexes, beguiling and seemingly magnetic; Don was transfixed not only by their striking emptiness, but the surreal nature of his predicament, and how Gen’s voice converged with the disembodied glare to almost form an off-putting face. What the fuck was this thing down there? He redoubled his efforts to save his phone.

“Look,” his voiced labored, “before you say anything, give me a second to pull this, oh—”

“Hello?”

Whatever it was burst from its nook, indeterminate in shape, more of a kinetic suggestion than the distinct outline of a creature, the genus or phylum of which remained anyone’s guess. A sandpaper-lathered-in-vaseline texture impacted the side of Don’s head with the force of tossed orange, leaving him to believe that some sort of amphibian had leaped upward with elastic force. A gelatin-like residue was left behind on his face, and he felt his whole body shudder in momentary disgust. Before he could recollect himself, another hit blinded him. He did his best to scurry out backwards as he heard the ubiquitous choir of dozy croaks growing louder around him. A plainsong of ribbit and groan, a rhythm-less cacophony of mockery. He felt abused by nature, by what little there was of it. With his eyes closed, imagination supplanted everything else—all at once, toads and frogs were marching toward him with sword and shield, their faces sharing a Genevieve-like expression of temerity, her voice channeled through their mouths, distant and tinny, almost as if coming from a phone speaker underwater, drifting downstream in Doppler effect…

He opened his eyes. Higher frequencies fell away from their initial crest as memory took precedence over reality; the remaining semblances of her voice were encoded into electrical signals, neurotransmitters, synaptic longing. They ceased to fill the air around him.

The phone was gone. He never heard, or saw, Genevieve again.

****

He reread “Araby” for the third time on the plane ride to the east coast. Turbulence and half-imagined death scenarios were the theme of this expedition, and they permeated the cabin’s morale like corpuscular invaders, ready to induce cellular autophagy. But underpinnings of optimism had already been constructed in Don’s mind, and nothing could stir their foundations; he was ready to start a new life, one devoid of hardship, one that embraced the artificiality of man’s surroundings rather than cowering behind planted palm trees and park meadows. No, he was going to a place where he thought no such falsehood existed—Bronx, New York.

He had been accepted to Fordham University as a major in Computer Science. His parents were at first vehemently opposed to him leaving the state—out-of-state tuition was sky-high, and though his parents would never admit this for his sake, they knew they would miss him, but after a little cajoling and the employment of a few familial references to the past (his mother had moved to the Bay Area from Pennsylvania, in order to study English at Berkeley), as well as repeated promises that he would pay monthly for the DIRECT PLUS loans they would have to take out, they’d finally caved in. They made him swear that he would get a part-time job in the city, so that he could have a firm bedrock of saving by the time he graduated. This was an easy concession to make, given that whatever job he worked, there would be no hourly requirement—ten hours a week as an IT assistant for the university’s technical support line would do.

He was ecstatic for periods, but there was something else nagging at him outside the sudden altitude drops. Before he had left, there was another girl, another infatuation. He felt circadian, lapsing into depressive episodes whenever he remembered that he’d left her behind. Her name was Belinda, and he really felt things were going to turn out different after he had met her at a school football game. They talked for hours afterward (in person, no less) and met up every Friday in front of the salt marsh near his house. It seemed like they could chat about anything, and for once in his life, he didn’t feel like had to play a role, or try to act cool—he could be Don. But after a few months of “going steady,” making out under the pallid cast of cloudless dark skies, clinging to each other solely under the cover of night, he began to have that Peter-Weir-esque awareness of looming, romantic cataclysm; things were going too well for him to not to be part of a supernatural hoax or tomfoolery. Every corner he turned, he anticipated a presage of rejection, resentment, defragmentation—maybe an army of frogs this time or, even worse, another guy. He was guarded with her now, cautious but deliberate. He would organize tests of her affection, pushing the envelope as far as how outlandish their outings could be. Belinda had once received a text in the middle of the December, asking her to go to the beach with him at midnight. This was it, a trip so absurd that no one in their right mind would enjoy themselves. But she obliged, and they drove an hour west together toward the beaches of Trestles, a coastal frontline that should’ve been treacherous during this time of year: jagged sedimentary rocks were strewn across tidal topography, poised to slice up any newcomer’s feet; the so-called nuclear “titties” (a twin, globular pair of pressurized water reactors) were close-by; and the surrounding urban enclave would be all but quiet by the time they got there. But when they arrived, they noticed an effulgent sheen of crimson flowing throughout the tide as it smoothed itself onto the shore. Don had read about this—red tide, he was sure of it.

Belinda took this as a planned surprise, and she slipped his hand into his.

“It’s beautiful. I knew you had some reason of bringing me out here.” She kissed him on the cheek.

His test had no longer applied—she loved their get-together. So he would have to orchestrate another one. Soon, it was yet another one. And so on and so on. But he could never isolate the variable; he could never reach the level of clinical precision necessary to test his hypothesis, to transcend falsifiable results. There had to be a way to assuage his fears of abandonment. Maybe he could tell her that he loved her, and that he couldn’t hold back his feelings anymore. He knew it was too soon though. She would be flabbergasted, completely taken aback, nonplussed.

But these tests took their toll on Belinda. Soon, she was seeing him only once every two weeks, and while the occasional text or phone call provided Don with sustenance, he felt as if he were at the brink of exhaustion. This was his life now—balancing on a precipice, a sea of loneliness below.

And then one day in his room, she told him: “I didn’t get into Fordham.”

“You’re sure?”

“Well, yeah. They sent me a rejection letter in the mail. I just opened it today.”

“Shit. That really…sucks.”

“I know.” She looked forlorn, but not crushed—not the way Don expected her to appear.

“You know what? Let’s just pretend this never happened. We’ll just spend time together as if nothing was coming in the future.” As the words left his mouth, he felt their hollowness between his lips, the peregrination of his thoughts as they traversed into a barren desert-scape of hurt. Clutching desperately at the past was an act of present denial, an unwillingness to face the issue at hand; he was aware of this folly, but still the impossible future outcomes were forcing their own hand, circumventing his thoughts, his feeling, and erupting into empty words.

He continued, “Look, I can go somewhere else. Maybe I’ll take a year off, head wherever we decide to go. Get a job, whatever. There are a lot of pos—”

“Don’t be irrational, Don. You have your future. You need to do what’s best for you.”

And there it was. She had failed the test.

He collapsed into a computer chair, and picked up the guitar by his bed. Despondence. The chord strums couldn’t be heard over the dissonant rush of thoughts swarming his head, gnat-like and ubiquitous in manner. She came over and hugged him.

“Look, you seem sad. I thought we weren’t going to get too attached in the first place. You know, keep things casual?”

He thought about this statement. Could caring about someone be filed into the dichotomy of casual/seriousness? Were things really divided this way? He imagined the whole “love” thing as more of a gut-wrenching gradient than anything else.

She stopped answering his calls at first. Then the rest followed: text messages, voicemails, Facebook messages. He received the breakup text two weeks before his flight to Fordham, the form of which was a multi-part scroll of at least four 160-character sections. There wasn’t an optimal method for breaking up with him—this he had calculated in various hypothetical scenarios—but the message’s arrival had run parallel to his friend Justin’s arrival in his driveway (they were going carouse along a few abandoned cul-de-sacs after their ritual imbibement). He tried to keep the news from his friend, but his demeanor was of one of disconnect, of social malfeasance. And as they drank together in the back of a pick-up truck, he couldn’t help but continue reading the series of text bubbles every five minutes or so, as if trying to decipher some maddening cryptogram, some cryptic gesture of “there still might be hope for you and I.” But he found himself grasping at something he could no longer clutch, much in the same way he had once reached for a certain phone a couple of years earlier. Justin did his best to cheer him up, but had little experience in bearing the brunt of a separation—he had always been the separator, and hadn’t dated anyone much longer than three months. His attempts to distract him floundered, yet Don recognized his friend’s good nature. After three or four beers, they were all at once bearing the brunt of a turbulent rainstorm, which Don found so pertinent to his overcast love-life that his situation felt, for an instant, more comic than tragic. He watched as momentary gusts of wind attempted to uproot the encompassing rows of columnar trees. And he imagined himself being pulled off of the ground, jettisoned into free-flight.

He nodded off in the airplane, catching his head before it fell onto his tray, which was not in its upright position, as had been recommended by the flight attendant over the cabin’s intercom. He looked out his window and saw urban development from some 30,000 feet below organized into clusters of light. There were intricacies he would never fathom, people he would never meet; he was scrutinizing NAND circuitry with naked eyes, unable to make out every bead-like capacitor, every microfabricated silicon cast, which formed together to produce something of value as a unified whole, rather than an anarchic tangle of mismatched switches and light.

He ruminated over the details of what had happened to him, but he could not bring them into a cohesive narrative. The only link seemed to be that he was the brunt of some omniscient trickster’s ill-timed prank. Or maybe there was something about him that turned people off, something repulsive that would have to be locked away, neglected, like the child of an abusive father, a man who would attempt to instill repressive behavior at a subconscious level, so that all was automatic, asymptomatic—less human, more ideal. He felt deeply that he was unworthy of love, and that his analytical nature was something to be loathed. This wasn’t him, his over-thinking was driving his brain to faulty conclusions.

“I noticed the seat next to you was empty.” A voice came from behind him. The abruptness of the delivery shattered the illusion that his thoughts were floating around in an empty vacuum, non-liable and non-repercussive.

“Yes?” He turned around. The voice came from a woman in a half-whisper. She was little bit older than he was.

“I was hoping I could move to this seat. To be honest, the guy in the window seat is like, huge and snoring. I’m just trying to catch some shut eye.”

“Well, ummm… Sure.”

She slid into the chair hurriedly, struggling to maintain a hold over several magazines and a tablet in her arms.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a student, I guess.”

“Oh, great. Me too. Where at?”

“Fordham.”

“Oh, love it over there. So nice.”

“I’ve never actually been. I mean, I’m a new student.”

“What do you plan on studying?”

“Computer science.”

“Really? Interesting. You don’t seem like a big computer guy.”

“I don’t really know what a big computer guy is supposed to seem like.”

“The stereotype. You know—glasses, patchy beard.”

“Right.”

For the rest of the flight, it felt like an interrogation. A one-way street. He didn’t want to talk about himself, his problems. He wanted the past to decouple from his existence. He wanted the world to bend to a single, systematic proof that spat out consistent results, quod erat demonstrandum. Her name eluded him five minutes into the conversation, and then the edges of existence began to blur as sleep deprivation worked into him like cheap wine.

He was just trying to be nice.

In the terminal, she gave him this kind of sad, sleepy-eyed expression. She told him all of the pleasantries: that it was really nice meeting him, that if he was in town, to stop by whatever college she had said she’d been going to, that she should get going now, that a cab was waiting outside for her, that she usually hated airlines, but that it wasn’t too bad this time, etc. Then there was a pause, as if she expected something; Don knew this was the social cue for an exchange of contact information, maybe even a brief embrace, without a doubt. The moments following were endless, spiraling, purgatorial. His mind churned as a creeping sense of the cyclical dawned upon him. He felt as if a pair of unwavering eyes were set upon his back, and a gladiatorial audience was cackling among the imaginary, curtained wings of the airport surrounding. Dilettantes and troublemakers stared down at him through Galilean binoculars. An MC in a terminal security jacket carried a long-tailed microphone to the center and said, “And without further ado…” All color-gelled lights focused their hollow radiance upon him at the departure gate.

He said and did nothing as she walked away.

*

Joseph R. Moore is a SUNY Purchase Acting BFA dropout who eventually graduated with a B.A. in Literature/Writing at the University of California, San Diego. His work has largely been in poetry, fiction, and cultural criticism, with verse and prose in online journals such as Bright Lights Film Journal, Switchback, Flatbush Review, and The Magnitizdat Literary. He currently resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he is working on a forthcoming novel.

Poisoning the Ant Queen

Timothy James Brearton

 

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of seeing a dead body, they look nothing like on TV. Or maybe “look,” isn’t the right word—they certainly don’t feel, not to your mind, not to your thoughts, the way they do in real life. The first one I saw was when I was fifteen and it was down at the end of town where the last gas station was, before the park and the hardware store and the animal shelter that you could always smell just by walking past. There was a fence around the perimeter of the gas station in back. Back behind there was the train tracks and a whole bunch of things I didn’t know about, if maybe the village was storing large construction items back there, or some businesses were piling things up in makeshift junkyards, or what, none of us kids really knew. It was just this whole stretch of train tracks and dirt roads crossing back and forth over the tracks, and dry, brittle honeysuckle, and the smell of the sun baking the dust. The train hadn’t come through for forty years.

The body was over by the headed-downtown end of the parking lot at the gas station, on the other side of the perimeter fence. There was phone booth there on that side. The body was leaned against the fence, in a half-sitting position. I stood with the gallon of milk that summer morning at seven a.m. and I looked at the body—saw it before anyone else did.

There was one person who should have seen it before me, though it was sort of tucked away from plain sight, partially hidden by the phone stand and that generally obscure perimeter with the onion grass and occasional car stealing an overnight in the lot. That person was Marla McGinty, I remember her clearly—she was there for her third summer at the gas station, she was a college student and had blonde curls which fell over her shoulders and I had a major thing for her, which is why I got up so early for the milk. She ought to have spied it when doing some sort of morning duties. But her shift had started at five—I don’t know to this day why she didn’t see it, or anybody else hadn’t seen it, because the word came around the next day, from the coroner’s report, I imagine, or maybe it was just talk—that the body had been there since at least midnight the night before. Died right in that spot against the fence, in fact.

It was a man, early fifties. He had graying hair that was sticking up like he’d been to the beach. But there was no beach around—not unless you count the little 65 foot stretch of municipal dirt on Lake Folger which always has someone’s dog’s turd lurking in the grass just beyond the edge of the wet, grainy, sand, sand that’s more like cous cous than the way beach sand should be. It was like the man was a surfer with salt water in his hair, I remembered thinking, but then I found out he was homeless. They found no identification on him. His face was the color of ash, but at the same time he had this peachy color to his cheeks, only it was the peach color of some bad ceramic dish a kid makes in art class, kind of pastel and lop sided. His hands were a different story. They were clasped together on his lap in the most obscene way—like he was a country boy sitting under a frigging apple tree, missing only the stalk of straw clutched between his teeth, having a dandy old time. That bothered me, seeing his hands like that. There was a lesion on his forehead—that’s what they called it, a “lesion.” I thought it was a gunshot first. That little bit of skin cratered out around the edges of a wound seeping cherry-syrup-type blood was only my imagination, though. The real wound was not bleeding, just a half-healed lesion in a paisley shape, or like a lenticular cloud, a long, smooth ellipse. And there were bits of dirt around his ears and nose, I remember that. Like he’d been sleeping for a while on the ground, face first. Some homeless guy, wandering up from those train tracks, abandoned for nearly half a century. Maybe he’d been waiting for a ride. For some reason he chuffed up the hill behind the gas station, probably pulling his way up using tussocks of grass as handles, grabbing at little cairns of rocks, coming up upon the gas station, seeing the fence, and giving up. Society’s last slap on the man’s face. Keep out. So he sat down, folded his hands on his lap, and punched his clock.

I often sit and wonder, as I’m driving along the long dark stretch of 75 in the middle of the night, doing my routine between Miami and Tampa Bay, if seeing that body was how I got to be where I am today. If seeing some homeless guy propped against a fence, dead, when I was fifteen got me into this life. Because it wasn’t like you see on TV, it wasn’t how that makes you feel like, “Oh, that’s some dead character or other, let’s be entertained for an hour finding out who sodomized them and tossed them in a lake,” no. I remember how I felt. You can’t experience that on a flat screen. It’s different than a funeral, too. You can literally feel the death at a funeral—that poignant absence of animation—but coming upon a corpse at random is very different. Because there’s no nicey-nice world of people in crisp clothes and wearing cologne and priests murmuring thoughtful homilies about the afterlife when you come across a body in the real world. It’s just you, and him, and a few flies alighting on his nose. And he pulls on you, like a weight.

I’ll drive for a long time thinking about this, and sometimes I’ll look at the fence along the Tamiami trail, the one that runs for more than a hundred mile stretch on 75, keeping the alligators in the swamp off the road. I had plenty of time to think about it one night in particular, the one I’m going to tell you about, when, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of night, in the middle of that goddam Cypress Preserve swamp, with those alligators rolling in the splashing dark, just on the other side of that little chain link fence, I ran out of fucking gas.

**

There’s two things I want you to understand. First, I’m not just some dumb Florida bumpkin, I’m a bonehead northern goon. I was born in New York, grew up for a time in Upstate, and then came to college at FSU. I graduated with a degree in philosophy. First Romano in my family to ever even graduate, but did my father congratulate me? No. My father wondered what the fuck I was going to do with a degree in philosophy. That’s because my father is a modern-day sophist; the expression of the sophists today can be found in secular humanism. Just because I went to school for philosophy didn’t mean I made a habit of running out of gas. And this wasn’t my fault, I’m telling you.

The other thing is, I never intended on being a criminal. Not that any of those guys up there in Starke, where Ted Bundy was executed, ever intended it either. I just mean, you know, some guys fantasize about it, they do. And some guys seem to just accept, somewhere in their youth, that it was going to be inevitable for them. Not me. I was middle class – my father was a shoe salesman and I had what I needed growing up. When I talk about that dead body, it’s because I really have to wonder. And I had plenty of time to wonder that long night on the Tamiami trail.

The car, my little Honda Fit, started sputtering when I was almost exactly half way between Naples and Fort Lauderdale. At two-thirty a.m., there’s a little bit of traffic on the road, but not much. As I coasted over to the side of the road and came to a stop, there was one big truck that blew past, buffeting me in its wake and rocking the little Fit on its shocks, and that was it for a while. I got out of the car, which is what you do when you run out of gas, I think, you get out of the vehicle and walk around it and look at it, like it’s the car’s fault, you scowl at it and say “hmmm” as you try not to think about what an idiot you are for running out of gas. I pulled my cell phone out of my jacket and squinted at the screen. I was grateful to see one bar – out there in Seminole territory, there’s not much in the way of coverage, but I had just a bit. So I dialed up Frank Mancuso, and got him up out of bed. The connection was spotty, but I was able to convey to him after repeating myself into the phone a couple of times, that I was in a predicament.

“Wh—out the—nt poison?”

That was the first thing Frankie could think to ask. What about the ant poison? I assured him everything was fine.

“I didn’t get in an accident, I told you. I ran out of gas.” I could tell I was getting angry because I felt like such a boob for letting the car get down to fumes. I even thought someone must’ve skewered a hole in the tank, and started hunting around under the car, poking my finger and looking for holes as I kept the phone to my ear. “I think someone might have punctured the tank.”

“—eally? Why—d—one—a hole?”

“I dunno, Frank. A prank, maybe. Some kids in Tampa with nothing else to do.”

Frank didn’t buy my theory. He told me to stay put. He wasn’t very happy I’d woken him up. Frank had a house just a few blocks in from the Gulf. He wanted one right on the water, but couldn’t afford it yet. This fact seemed to make Frank constantly irritable. He told me, after a few tries and me saying “Can you hear me now? You there, Frankie?” that he would come pick me up, dammit, that nobody was calling Triple A, nobody was flagging down any rides.

“You—eed—hi—ar.”

“Where am I going to hide the car. Frankie?” I looked up and down the long, lonely stretch of 75. The moon was a crescent, and there was just a little bit of soft light. The bugs droned past my ears, and I thought I heard something splash in the aquifer that runs parallel to the road, just on the other side of the gator fence.

“Push it off—ar as you c—“

Push it off the road as far as you can. Okay, I thought, where the hell am I going to push it to? Frank was from New Jersey and even though he’d been in Florida for 18 years, he still imagined that there were woods everywhere, like in Jersey, once you got ten miles away from the East River. Jersey was the perfect place for crime, and for keeping things secret, because you had all the corruption of New York and Newark and all the hiding spots of the Garden State. Florida, or at least this part of it, was not the best place for crime, or keeping secrets. Just ask the guys in Raiford Prison where old Bundy got the juice. I told Frank I would do the best I could. First, he told me, check the ant poison. It’s alright, I told him, but I popped the back hatch of the Fit and I looked in at the suitcase anyway, and told him again, everything was intact. We still had five hours to deliver the package, and if he came now to pick me up, we would make the drop with an hour to spare. This didn’t seem to place Frankie at all, and I told him I would get off the phone.

“—you—ing—hole—“

I didn’t like what I thought Frankie said at the end, and I hung up the phone.

Another vehicle appeared, its lights visible from a mile or more away, and I immediately shrunk. What if someone played Good Samaritan and stopped to help me out? I would have to put on a smile and play stranded tourist, that was what. I would just have to say No Thank You if they offered me a ride to Fort Lauderdale, and tell them I had a friend on the way. It wasn’t necessary anyway – the car didn’t even slow as it approached, and it blasted past in the humid night, and then things grew quiet, and I heard the frogs croaking again, and the buzz of the insects, and, after a little bit, another splash of something in the river along the road.

I walked around the Fit and opened the driver’s side door and put the car in neutral. I started pushing it forward, grabbed the wheel and turned it to the right so that the vehicle started to veer towards the fence. Bits of loose gravel popped out from beneath the tubeless tires. The ground sloped down just a little bit, helping me get it there. Stupid, I thought, pushing a car off the tarmac and into the soft, spongy shoulder. If a cop came by now it would look even worse, and I would have to concoct some story other than running out of gas—why did I push the car further off the road? The good news about Florida, though, and probably why guys like me and Frankie had gotten involved down here and still, to that day, marveled at the fact of it, was that you hardly ever saw cops in Florida the way you did in Jersey or Upstate New York. Up there, cops were part of the scenery. They were like flies on the roads. Down here, you had nothing but that vast flat swamp land, faintly glowing in the moonlight. You could also say that to the guys in Raiford, that while you couldn’t hide a body in a swimming pool, getting caught by the Florida cops meant you were pretty out to friggin lunch.

**

Let me tell you about the ant poison. Frank Mancuso wasn’t all that bright in a common-sense kind of way. When you first met him you’d think he was the type to, well, to try and hide a body in a swimming pool. But the ant poison gimmick was his idea; I have to give him credit.

Frank lived with his mother, who was at the end of her life, and their place was frequently occupied by hospice. Frank had prospered in women’s clothing, though he’d never really known much about clothes. He’d never really known much about women either—he hadn’t ever gotten far from his mother’s grasp, it seemed, and in recent years, with her illness, she’d renewed her grip with vigor. What Frank knew, though, was human behavior. He understood that people always wanted more than what they had. If that made him some sort of a casual Buddhist, I don’t know—you couldn’t talk to Frank about religions of the East; he had no ear for that sort of thing. He just knew people, in his way, knew that they wanted more—or in some cases, less—than what they had.

So, Frank started buying blouses and dresses that were size 8s when the label read 6. And he put slimming mirrors in all the dressing rooms of his store. (The mirrors weren’t so slimming you’d consciously notice, not like a funhouse, but subtle.) The women came in, took the clothes from the rack and tried them on in front of those mirrors. Behold! They were able to fit into that size 6 and they had the reflection to prove it. Sales went through the roof. Frank made over a million that first year alone—and this was in 1974. That he blew most all of it at the dog track over the next three decades is a tale for another time.

The idea for ant poison came from when Frank opened his second store in a Golden Gate neighborhood infamous for its vicious carpenter aunt population. Frank was undaunted by the scourge of tiny the ants. First, he was meticulous. You wouldn’t think a clothing store collected food-related waste like crumbs or sticky, empty soda cans, but, it did. People, Frank said, individually and at home, were typically not slobs. Sure, you had your hoarders and your sloths, but most people bore some semblance to manners and etiquette. But, together in a public place, people were filthy animals. Even in a clothing store you’d find sandwich crusts, apple cores, wrappers, bottles, half-full cans, and once three and a half donuts left in a box of a dozen sitting beneath a spin rack of bikinis.

Everything drew the carpenter ants, and no matter how fastidiously Frank kept after the mess (or, really, barked orders at his two nighttime employees, Elsa and Felicia, two Mexican girls on the payroll) the ants would always be there. Left unchecked, they would climb the racks and get into the clothes. Frank called them a “pestilence.” (He was fond of biblical terms, dramatic terms, likely having root in his early seminary schooling and the nuns, with their minty breath and knuckle-wrapping yardsticks.) But, he had the solution. There was a brand of exterminant Frank found that was called Infiltrix.

Infiltrix claimed to employ a method that was sure to eradicate the entire aunt problem in your home or office. One of the worker ants took the bait and brought it back to the colony. There it would wreak havoc, and ultimately destroy the queen, who was propagating all the new ants.

The queen, in this case, was Fernando Maddox, and he was in Miami. That was who I was on my way to see—the flamboyant son of Columbian emissary Polito Juarez. Fernando was queer as a three dollar bill, so they say, yet completely vicious in maintaining his clubs, boat races, and empire of toot-in-common. Whether sexuality has anything to do with the manner in which the son in a massive Columbian cartel governs the 38 men and women in his employ, keeps track of the books or choses the enterprise with which to satisfy the government (in this case the maintenance of those cigar boats you see out there leaping the waves at rocket ship speeds – two in fact, were in the Michael Mann remake of Miami Vice that Fernando’s crew had provided) is not something I have any idea about—as far as I’m concerned there’s no difference between a rival family member and a gay rival family member. If Maddox wants to put a bullet in you, you don’t get “gay killed,” you just take the toe tag and get killed. All I knew is that Fernando was fond of wearing bright yellow pastel gold shirts, or powder blue, and of smoking cigarettes through a holder the way Hunter S. Thompson is always depicted as doing. Fernando thought that Hunter S. Thompson was one of the greatest Americans to ever live because he rode with the Hell’s Angels. What Fernando likely didn’t know about was Thompson’s campaign for Aspen Sheriff, or the fact that his experience with the Angels lead to a kind of disdain for the banality of their depravity – once the motorcycle smoked cleared, they were just ruthless animals, and not rock stars. These things I knew about Fernando for a fact, and I what I could suspect was that he would have loved to be called The Queen.

I listened to the high sound of the insects and the splashes in the vast bog under the moon’s soft, iridescent light. Some of the noises came from far off, some disturbingly close, and twice my body tensed, my pulse quickened. I found myself walking alongside of the fence, running my fingers against the chain links, thinking of that body I first saw as a teenage kid.

I wasn’t thinking about it for long, because the first gator that had been lurking along the banks of the aquifer just on the other side of the fence crashed into it, rattling the whole thing for yards, startling me so bad I fell back and let out a scream.

Sitting on my duff a second later, I could see the glints in the eyes of the reptile as it recoiled slowly from its strike. I could make out the low, fat body of it. I sat in shock for a moment. There I’d been lost in thoughts on Fernando Maddox leaping though a gay killing spree and the dead homeless man I’d dropped the dime on years ago, and a fucking alligator was smashing itself against the fence. It gradually receded into the water as I slowly got to my feet, careful not to make any sudden movements. The fence was still jostling, the links rattling, coming to a rest. My heart walloped in my chest and my ears sang with a high ringing, my blood pumping fast through my veins, the pitch of the jangled fence resonating in my ears.

“You son of a bitch,” I breathed in a whisper. I stood all the way up and stared at the beast through the fence, under the pale light of the moon. I heard another noise—not exactly a splash, but the distinct sound of a heavy body entering the water as a second gator came out of the bog and slipped into the aquifer on the opposite bank. Two of them. I could make out the dark shape of the second one’s head as it cut through the water.

I started walking back toward the car, and realized I had strayed from the little Fit by about fifty yards. I’d been walking along in my reverie, getting further and further away from the vehicle. I hastened my pace and moved as quickly and calmly as I could back to its safety.

In the back of the Fit was a briefcase. In it was what Frank called the ant poison. The briefcase contained a special document, a forgery our people had concocted per Frank’s idea. The document was a fake transmission from Polito Juarez, Fernando’s father, who had been back in Columbia preparing the next massive influx of cocaine for the past week. Fernando and his father never communicated by cell phone or email, nothing that left a digital or electronic trail for the feds to pick up on. They were one step away from carrier pigeon, using only couriered documents that came by boat. It took longer, but then, word was, anything Polito Juarez wanted to tell his son was important and calculated, and would be timed to be apropos even if it took two days by boat. Our family had installed a fake courier some months before who had earned the trust of the Juarez Cartel since – that was the worker ant. My job was to deliver the document to the ersatz courier, who would then get it into Fernando’s hands. No guns, no bombs, nothing messy and obvious. Things today were done with paperwork. The document was the bait which, with its false message, would start a chain reaction, and take down the queen. That was the theory, anyway.

A vehicle whooshed past on the road. For a moment, I thought it slowed, and instead of this worrying me, this time I felt a rush of relief. I had to quickly brush this relief aside, both because it could still potentially spoil everything to be sidetracked by an interloper, but because I knew the feeling meant I was scared. Out here, smack dab in the middle of the Florida swamp land still owned by the Seminoles, in the middle of the night, with gators on the other side of a fence no more formidable than the one surrounding the parking lot of my youth where the body had been found, you might think it was okay to be scared. But this was all I had, this job, and one of its requirements was fulfilling the assignment at all costs. There were no excuses, ever, which were permitted, and running out of gas and being spooked by gators was high amid the inadmissible lot of them.

Thinking these thoughts, I never considered that there might be a gap in the fence somewhere. Some things, I suppose, effortlessly gain your foolish trust in this life, and fences seem to be among them. Maybe it was the fact that the homeless man from my childhood hadn’t found a way through the fence guarding that gas station, I don’t know—it just hadn’t occurred to me. All I could think about was opening the back hatch of the Fit and checking in on the briefcase again, and the document it contained, prepared to deliver Fernando Maddox the forged correspondence from his father which would bring him down. The aunt poison that would take out the queen of Miami, and, for a time, severely cripple the Juarez family, giving my family the time it needed to get in there and wreak havoc on the operation. I popped the latch and the hatch door drifted up and open.

The gator hiding beneath the Honda sunk its teeth into my leg as soon as I started to reach into the back of the Fit. The sensation of the bite was not so much pain—that would come a little later—but an intense pressure, pressure like nothing I’d ever felt before. The grip of the beast’s jaw snapped the bones in my chin and ankle like dry kindling. I could feel the flow of the blood instantly, but mostly I just gasped from that pressure, the vice grip of the animal something unearthly, something hydraulic, as if the car itself had suddenly dropped onto my leg—something I actually, for a fraction of a second, considered.

Then the animal, tucked beneath the Fit, gave a yank. I flipped onto my back, and the air was expelled from my lungs in a huffing rush so that there was not a cubic centimeter of it left inside my body. My mouth worked as I lay beneath the stars and moon, like a fish, probably, jerked to shore, gasping for air. The animal would typically roll, I thought, but from beneath the car, it didn’t seem to have the room. Instead, it pulled on me, and I felt my buttocks and the back of my head sliding along the grass as it attempted to drag me beneath the car.

You hear about alligator attacks from time to time—you may even see video of one on YouTube. What you don’t ever hear about is the sound the creatures make, or the smell of it. Well, I can attest: They are mostly silent, there is no roar. Instead, tugged halfway beneath the little car, I could hear everything in the immense quiet. The ringing in my ears had abated and now filled with the sounds of the huge reptile’s breathing. Blasts of air expelled from its lungs through the nostrils atop its long snout. It seemed to grunt, the air hissing in bursts and a snorting sound, and the smell—something like an inflatable raft left in the closet for months, taken out one day and inflated, the stink of it wet and rotten. The odor of shit, too, filled my nose as I took that heaping first breath after getting the wind knocked out of me; the smell of waste matter along the furry bottom of a swamp, where bottom-feeders live in the dark.

As the monster beneath the car chuffed and tugged on my leg, the pain grew. My nerves licked up from my lower body like flames sprouting in a freshly ignited fire. The pain was red, the pain was blue—blue fire in tentacles from my chin and ankle and up through my thigh, into my hips and lower back, winding itself all the way through my torso. I reached up and grabbed the rear bumper of the Fit before the animal could pull me any further. Its power was incredible—it took all my strength to fight with it, to hold there. And then, a miraculous thing happened. It let go.

I scrambled with everything I had, kicking with my good leg, digging that heel into the thick grass and pulling with my upper body to slide myself back out from underneath the car. As I did it dawned on me that there were still two other gators—that I knew of—and if one had been able to circumvent the fence, so might they. There was no time to lose. I was able to bring myself up into a sitting position, my legs still beneath the back of the Fit. My breathing was rapid, my chest lurching with short, panicked breaths. My arms trembled so bad one elbow slipped from the bumper. I placed my hands in the stiff grass behind me and slid myself back further. From the time the gator had let go until the moment I started getting up, perhaps ten seconds had lapsed, no more. Terror hit me bright and crisp as I thought of the animal circling around to the back of the car with sickening speed. The thought gave me a burst of strength and I was able to get up on one foot, and then dove into the back of the open hatch. As I did, I heard something—I was quite sure I heard something—and it sounded like the snap of jaws as the gator just missed me, having scrambled its way around to the back of the car.

Now I hoisted myself up and over the back seat. My leg was a symphony of pain. It pulsed and throbbed, and razor strips of pain flashed up and down its length. I felt like there was barbed wire wrapped around my calf and chin, cinched tighter with every passing second, scraped up and down the length of my lower leg at the same time. I fell into the back seat, dragging blood over the upholstery. So much blood—I didn’t quite realize how much at first. But when I managed to turn around in the back seat on my knees, my chest was drenched with it.

Could the gator climb up and into the car after me? I wasn’t taking any chances. With my abdomen pressing painfully into the headrests of the rear bench seat, I stretched and was able to reach the interior handle of the hatch door. As I brought the door down the alligator leapt, its jaws slamming closed inches from my face, hanging suspended there as I stretched for the door. In that split second the gator came so close to biting off my nose, my lips, maybe my eyes, I pulled even more forcibly on the hatch door so that when it came down, it crunched the skull of the beast.

At least, in that somehow infinite stretch of milliseconds, that’s what I envisioned. Instead, the brittle plastic of the little car was what did the crunching, and bounced off of the tough hide of the gator and rebounded back. I lost my grip on the handle as the door swung back up into the air, and I fell forward. With my one arm sticking out, my fingers twiddling the air where they had once gripped the hatch handle, my other arm crushed below my own weight on the seat back, my body’s balance was lost, and I fell forward, pivoting on the fulcrum of the seatback.

The beast’s mouth was still closed and so my face slammed into the top of its head. I felt its hard scales with my soft skin. I could smell the swamp on it, those dead-creature smells, that fecal odor. It was slick with the water and oils on its skin, and my face slid off to the side. I felt my ear graze one of its massive, thumb-sized incisors. At the same time, I brought my right arm down and pressed my palm to the upholstered base of the rear hatch. I shoved instantly and pushed myself back up and away from the gator. And while the hatch door hadn’t had the crushing effect I’d hoped, it seemed that it had been enough to give the animal pause, because as I got myself resituated, the gator slipped out of the back of the Fit. I heard it hit the grass, sounding like a packed suitcase dropped to the ground. I reached up again and took the hatch handle firmly. I swung the door down and shut.

Only because of the damage I’d just done bringing it down on the back of the gator’s head, the door didn’t latch closed, and bounced back up again.

“Oh dear Jesus,” I said.

The creature rose back up. My balance was gone again, and I swung helplessly down, the soft tissues of my face hanging there in the humid air in the back seat of that fucking Honda Fit, my body a trebuchet swinging my dumb face down towards the briefcase which sat stupidly on the floor of the hatch. I saw the monster’s face with startling clarity now; it suddenly lit up the way I figured things do moments before you die. Its narrow eyes flashed bright and murderous, sparkling like obsidian. It’s mouth opened to reveal an interior not pink, but the color of moldered earth, the color of waterlogged, rotted bodies, a sick, mottled peach color, like the face of the dead man from my youth. Its body was shining black and green, the nubs and knobs of its rigorous skin like the scales of a dragon.

And then, the creature vanished.

It took me a moment to realize that the stark clarity with which I’d seen the animal wasn’t because I was on the precipice of death, but because a car was coming to a stop next to mine, its lights on brightly, filling the interior of the Fit now.

I heard a shot. Then I heard shouting. A second later I saw good ole Frank Mancuso standing there at the back of the Honda holding a pistol, his eyes wide, his mouth open in an O shape as he looked in on me. Frank Mancuso, who had prospered in women’s clothes.

“What the hell?” asked Frank.

My leg gushed blood. The pain crawled over every part of my body now, a living thing with thousands of teeth. My head swam. I wasn’t sure who I was, where I was. I saw the body propped against the fence. You never know what a dead body is really going to feel like until you experience it yourself. Was I dead? I didn’t feel dead.

I didn’t feel dead.

 

Being Chuck

Ali Zahiri

 

You just turned sixteen. You’re looking for a job and don’t know any better, so you apply to Chuck E. Cheese. You walk toward the seating area near the robotic singing Rat and begin lling out an application. Name: Ali-Reza Zahiri. Sex: Male. Ethnicity, you’re not sure. Both your parents are Iranian but you were born in the states. Your blood is Iranian, but your mentality isn’t. You don’t like intricate rugs. You hate rice. You hate festive music. You hate dancing. You own a Lou Bega CD, read Men’s Health, like sushi. You feel white, but still hesitant to mark it. You cop out and check ‘other.’

Three days after you ll out an application you receive a phone call asking if you’re still in- terested. You’re excited about the idea of your rst job and accept an interview for the next day. That’s when you’ll meet your manager Greg. You don’t know this now, but Greg is a dick. Greg is disappointed about his life and will take it out on you. You assess him as the talentless guy who wanted to be an actor but is instead managing a children’s restaurant. He asks you questions like, if you could be any cartoon character who would you be? You wonder the point of this question. Be careful though, this is the make or break it point. If you say Pepé Le Pew you’ll be seen as sexist. If you say Yosemite Sam you’ll look racist. You say Bugs Bunny and smile, but refuse to show teeth. You’re hired on the spot. Congratulations.

First day on the job Greg introduces you to everyone.

“This is Pablo.”

“Hello, Pablo.”

“This is Juan.”

“Nice to meet you, Juan.” “This is Elsa.”

“Hi, Elsa.”

You pick up the trend. All your co-workers are very approachable, especially Juan. Every time you look at him he is smiling at you. Every time. He is heavy set with a large stomach but a at ass. Juan is your trainer. You’re shocked you need training to work at Chuck E. Cheese. Juan asked your name before printing your name tag. “Oh Ali, like Aladdin?” he asks.

Your eyes roll. Exactly, fuckhead, just like Aladdin. You think of telling him Aladdin is a loosely based documentary on your life. You don’t because there is a 23.4 percent chance he will believe you.

Juan gives you a hat as part of your uniform. You don’t think about this now but will later wonder why it has so many white stains. Your rst day you learned the protocol of washing dishes. Rinse. Put in dish washer. Take out of dish washer. There are written instructions there in case you forget. He then walks you into a closet just outside the dining area. You see a large rat head looking straight into your eyes. You silently pray he doesn’t say it, and that’s when he does. You have to dress as a rat every half hour for fifteen minutes. Juan walks you through putting the suit on correctly. Pants, T-shirt, giant head, how can you fuck that up?

The suit is warm and sweaty. You think about the sweat from all the others who have worn it. You imagine a thin paste coating the inside. Your rst time on the oor a young boy comes up to you and kicks you in the leg. You want to kick that little shithead back but you can’t. Instead you refer to your training. You put both your hands on your cheeks and shake your head from side to side to act embarrassed. You are embarrassed but the suit did offer a form of protection. Walking on the oor you check out every thirty-something bombshell mom, each wearing low-cut tanks trying to salvage their youth. A young girl runs from twenty yards away and gives you a hug. The hairs on your arms stand. Seconds later, a boy throws a pizza crust at your face and reminds you how much you hate kids. These bastard kids don’t smile, they smirk. They woke up that morning knowing they would fuck Chuck over. They make you want to punch yourself in the nuts. Note to self. Even though it might seem like a good idea, never punch yourself in the nuts.

Questions about your name start coming from co-workers. So your name is Ali? Where are you from? You tell them you were born in America but your parents are from Iran. Oh that’s cool, they say. That is followed with a three second moment of silence because neither of you know what to say. Your friends would try and mock you by speaking in an Indian accent. Apparently any foreign country that isn’t America is welcomed with an Indian accent. If you didn’t know this, now you do. After the third time of explaining to your friends you are not from India you consider carrying an atlas with you for visual evidence. You then donate ten dollars to your local elementary school in hopes it will be used toward creating a geography program. To avoid any such conflict in the future you will now tell everyone you meet you are French Canadian.

It’s dif cult to determine your ethnicity by looking at you. You have tan skin, bushy eye- brows but a clean-cut face. You have been mistaken for Italian, Mexican or Greek. An elderly customer approaches you and blatantly keeps asking where you’re from. When you nally tell him he puts both his hands in the air and says, “That’s OK, That’s OK. Just as long as you’re happy to be here.” You wonder what that’s sup- posed to mean. First it was the Blacks, then Jews, then Mexicans. Now it’s you.

Your second day at work isn’t any better than the rst. You receive the joyful task of clean- ing the restrooms. It looks like confetti of shit and piss fell from the roof. After nishing, you walk into the break room to nd your coworkers eating a cake. Six Mexicans huddled over a table, only three chairs so the other three were standing. The green frosting read ‘Happy Birth- day Jonny.’ Some use their hands to grab at the food; the more civil used plastic forks. There weren’t any napkins because they didn’t need any. No food was going to waste. Any rogue piece of frosting or crumb would undoubtedly make its way off the table and into someone’s mouth. One by one they would take a moment to sip their drink. After a few seconds a natural sense of entrainment occurred where they all took a drink at the same time, put down their cups, then recommenced their handout. A piece of cake slips off the fork of your trainer Juan and lands on the ground. You assume he wouldn’t pick it off the floor, you assume he wouldn’t eat it, but god bless him he does both. With each bite they look at each other with smiles, a sense of camaraderie. A brotherhood that with each moment is exponentially increasing. You’ve always wanted to be a part of a fraternity; this could be your chance. A window opens, the dishwasher offers you a slice, “Hey primo, you want piece?” he asks you. You think about declining but don’t. What makes you so different from them? All of a sudden you’re the Chuck E. Cheese employee with standards? Fuck it, it’s chocolate. You opt for a fork and grab plate. Your fork accidentally hits a coworker’s as you both go for the same piece of cake. She looks at you and says sorry. If she only knew how sorry you would be after you finish, she would rescind her apology. You remember your manager warning you about the danger of eating off someone else’s plate.

You recall him telling you a story of a former employee getting hepatitis from doing so. You then recall thinking bullshit on that same story. The idea of eating other people’s leftovers isn’t as disgusting as you rst imagined. For justication purposes, you consider yourself one of the people invited but got there late. You were hesitant your rst bite, but the eager eyes surrounding you offered comfort, security. From then on, each bite felt like another step toward the edge of a building. You take a moment to look around af- ter cleaning your plate and notice three not so elegant things. Everyone’s head is down. Everyone is stuf ng their mouth like it’s a race; who can disappoint their parents the quickest? And nally you see your re ection in a mirror. Surprisingly you were smiling but didn’t feel it. Then slowly those thirteen muscles it takes to smile-relax and the thirty-three it takes to frown-tense. You see a smear of frosting on your shirt from wiping your hand. You see yourself side by side with people whose idea of a promotion is a dollar raise and a new hat. At that moment you realize you’re all equal. It is depressing.

The next day you knew it was your last. A kid pissed in the inner tubes. Every child that slid down into the ball pit began crying. Greg walks over to you with a bottle of Windex and a cloth and tells you to clean it. You wait till he walks away then throw the Windex and cloth in the ball pit as your last fuck you to Greg. You then walk into his office and tell him you’re done. He tries to look upset but was sympathetic to your cause. He was you fifteen years ago and wishes he made the same decision. At that moment you realize what Greg really was: misunderstood, sad eyed, and a wrong that was too difficult for him to make right. You hand over your name tag that carried the biggest myth about you: your name.

 

Five Very Short Stories

Rupprecht Mayer

 

Encounter on the beach

a short film

A coastal scene. Back-lit clouds wander across a dark sky. Thundering breakers on the shore. No swimmers. A couple relax on the beach with a child and all sorts of paraphernalia. They discuss their next purchases while the child plays with sand. A soldier in heavy boots staggers out from behind the dunes, runs towards them and jumps into a pit nearby. The pit is like a battle eld trench, with soil and roots beneath the sand. The soldier kneels in the dirt and gasps. He clutches his ri e and stares into space. Did he just survive a battle? He takes off his helmet. His hair is wet with sweat. There are blood stains on his uniform. He begins to speak, in labored bursts, incoherently. He is tormented by what he has seen, what he has done. What has been done to his people, their wives, what his people did to other people, and their wives. He sobs, stammers. He does not speak to the family who are barely a yard away. They do not seem to notice him. They continue talking about their purchases. The child crawls away. Nobody follows him. One should be concerned that he’ll be swept away by the erce waves. Later the woman moves out of the scene, but in the opposite direction. The husband continues talking as if his family was still there, but, eventually, he stops. Now the soldier speaks with a low voice. He seems to be getting weaker. He probably has internal injuries. The soldier and the husband, their eyes meet. Do they recognize each other? They look similar. Without the uniform one might mistake one for the other. They examine each other, surprised, pensive, as if they had lost their memory, as if watching a reflection.

 

In the woods and on the roads

Bosnia, 1994

These people belong in offices, not in the high grass. People expect me to know every clearing. I’m pointing here and there. They must not see the tears welling up in my eyes. Luckily, I stumble and fall into an anthill, eyes and mouth wide open. When I cough they turn their backs. They shun the sight of a suffocating man and prefer to retreat into the brush.

I shake it all off and am alone. Who will comb these people out of the woods like rusty bicycles? Sure, there are other forests, but who knows what happened there? From now on, I’ll stick to asphalt roads. I’ll wander from church to church. The villages are empty. I have to enjoy the scenery before the cows, with no one left to milk them, start to bellow.

The earth was made by God so well
that none might starve and all may dwell; He waters vales and mountain tops
to feed the cattle and grow the crops.

(Hans Vogel, 1563)

 

My son

I’m an old man now, and the times are getting harder. I do not mind, because what could be harder than death? But my son is only thirty- three and already shows cracks. I‘m afraid I explained too little to him when he was still a child. He is getting porous. I did not give him enough, and now it‘s too late. I often told him that he should help others, and now he can‘t help anyone. I recently discovered that he does not know the names of Germany’s central low mountain ranges. But that‘s not the problem. There are things now that grind people. I told him that he must be persistent. I took away his computer once to let him learn more, and stressed that he chew properly. Now he is getting crumbly nevertheless. He knows from me that he has to watch out for traf c before crossing the street, but it turns out that this is not enough. My son appears absent-minded when he looks at me. We put too much trust in the teachers. By now, his teachers are in their seventies, and they stay as unmoved as I when bridges collapse. I would like to hug my son, but he‘s already too old for that.

 

Together we walk

I thrust my ngers forward so that they almost snap. I stretch my arms horizontally; in the front of me the feeling is blue. The space that’s left gets cooler, and yet I welcome it. Where are we going? It’s nice that so many of you are around me, but once the moment comes, you’ll undoubtedly back away. No one can blame you for that. The earth is sandy and soft. Is it warm from the sun or from your feet? What color is the sun above us? No, it’s not green. You’re making fun of me. Good that you’re muttering in languages I don’t understand. I always had an interest in your talk, but today I just need your murmuring. It tells me that you are there, and yet no meaningful sentences from your mouths disturb my thoughts. I’ve heard all your truths, and I’ve accepted them, learned them by heart and passed them along. Where are we going? When the moment comes, you may back away from me so nothing will strike you. Not the ngers I thrust, and nothing else either. Is the moon in the sky as well? I still remember its color; you can’t deceive me. A green sun. You’re making fun of me. I’ve learned your truths, even those that contradict themselves. I could recite them with all those ridiculous mistakes; then the laugh would be on you. You see, you’ve stopped murmuring. You’re afraid that I understand your admission of foolishness. Now, all I hear are our footsteps in the sand. Where are we going?

 

A field crew

Up and down, such an endless up and down, said Hinterseer. But beautiful, Schöller said. They worked the area between the rivers Inn and Rott. Schöller was in the eld, Hinterseer did R&D, actually. The girl sat in the back seat. There are beautiful villages in these valleys. Kirn, Kösslarn, Triftern, Rottalmünster. Ridges in between with huge four-sided farms. Windy in winter, said Schöller, who knew the region. You’re lucky if they get the snow off the street; the job takes the whole day. Then, at night, people lie exhausted on their wives. And in summer they lean against the wall apathetically and buy shit, Hinterseer remarked. Maybe it’s the product, said Schöller. Look at the creeks in the valleys. Deep chasms they are, covered with green glass. Not a single duck, and no one jumps in. I want to swim, said the girl. Out of the question, we’ll hose you down when we get back. The girl was their prototype. She talked from time to time, but the two men didn’t take her seriously because she was blind. Actually, she wasn’t blind, she just didn’t have anything above heir mouth. No nose, no eyes. In this beautiful area you won’t nd any women during weekdays, and so Schöller and Hinterseer occasionally took the girl into the woods.

 

Life Is a Hard Rock

Beth McHugh

 

I’m not quite sure how I’ve ended up here, with a ten-year-old girl to take care of, an unfinished degree, and an effeminate Russian man. Stella is Anton’s niece, but they only recently met, when Anton arrived from Russia and discovered that his brother and sister-in-law had killed themselves and left him their only bit of wealth: a scrawny, desolate daughter. I was a friend of the Alexanders, the dead Alexanders, and would sometimes take care of Stella when I wasn’t busy working on my master’s thesis, which is quite often since I periodically change my mind about my topic. Before Stella happened I was thinking something about Silkworms, and how they might be some kind of poverty solution to Chinese farmers. Lately though, I’ve become fascinated about the complexities of parental love around the world. I’m sure Stella’s weren’t the only parents who just felt they couldn’t deal with it anymore and flung their offspring out into the universe thinking that the world was one big cushion. I am twenty-eight years old, and my first lesson to Stella will be this: “Life is not a pillow. It is a very hard rock.”

There must be a blind symmetry to life though, because just about the time I was having to return a box of kitty litter so I would have enough money in my bank account to cover rent, I met Mr. and Mrs. Alexander. They were new hires at the university, hired together because one of them, Mrs. Alexander, was an expert in European History, and the other, Mr. Alexander, knew enough Russian to teach an introductory language course. He’d never taught anything before, but he liked the feeling of standing before large groups of people so teaching made sense. He hired me on as assistant since I’d studied Russian in undergraduate school, and three times a week I found myself stuffed beside him in his little attic office at the Alexander residence, grading the scratchy hand of two dozen nineteen-year olds.

The Alexanders lived in a narrow house four blocks from campus; it was not a mansion but had three floors above the basement and an attic, and its winding, narrow outer appearance gave an impression of something tottering, as if the whole thing would lose grip on the ground at one corner and come falling like a tree truck. Inside, the house was solid and warm. Mrs. Alexander had an affinity for red; red couches, red oriental rugs, red lampshades—all filled each room with a wealthy and long-established air. In his attic, Mr. Alexander was allowed decorative freedom, and we sat grading or arranging lessons on painted wooden chairs between three walls of books. Mr. Alexander also liked candles; he burned them constantly, so the room was often overwhelmed with the scents of hot cinnamon or lavender. If I hadn’t had his company or the task at hand to keep me somewhat alert, I could have fallen into some fantastic naps in that tiny, high-up hovel.

In the attic a dormer window looked down into the back yard, where a crumbling wooden swing-set stood beside a hole in the grass that was mounded with gravel—a makeshift sand box. Stella spent her afternoons there when the weather was mild, and in between bouts of study I would watch her from the attic. She was rarely a happy child. She played in the yard with a set frown on her pointed face; her movements as she went from swing to sand box almost regimented, as if she were following orders from some invisible dictator. She had one toy: a bald-headed Barbie doll named Ellen-Faye, for whom she constructed clothes out of leaves and mud. She played until five-thirty, when Mrs. Alexander would call her in to practice the piano, and when Mr. Alexander would sigh, run his veined hands through his hair, and declare the afternoon a lost cause. As we descended through each red room we could hear Stella at the piano—a monstrous, engraved upright that stood in the hallway outside the kitchen. She played very well for a ten-year old, Chopin and Beethoven and Bach, all the choices lively and pounded out feverishly on the keys. Her favorite piece to play was by Schumann, ‘Kinderszenen’; a sweet, strangely absolute tune that signified the end of each practice session. Mrs. Alexander would call that her dinner was ready—Mr. and Mrs. Alexander ate at eleven over brandy—and I would be shown to the door.

I became Stella’s nanny quite easily. One afternoon in the attic, the air stuffed to the brim with the scent of lupine, Mr. Alexander stopped in his work to find me looking out the window at Stella. “She’s a pretty girl, isn’t she,” he said.

“Yes.” I turned from the window and saw that he was studying me, the light from the candle etching his features to his face in deep rivets. He pushed himself back from the table and joined me at the window. The room was cramped, and we had to lean together to view the backyard. I could smell the skin over his collarbone; he gave off a scent of well-hidden sweat. “Does she have any friends?” I asked.

“No,” Mr. Alexander said. When I didn’t respond he looked at me. “Is that strange?” he asked.

“Oh,” I said, uncomfortable under his gaze, “maybe not.”

“That is strange,” Mr. Alexander decided. “She should have a friend. Did you have friends Leah? When you were a girl?”

“A few.”

“I didn’t have many friends when I was younger. I suppose I’ve forgotten what that was like.”

I nodded, unsure of what to say, and sat back at the table, pulling a stack of papers toward me. There was silence for a few moments; Mr. Alexander remained by the window, hands on his hips, his face drawn in deep concern. We could hear the muffled, far-off sounds of Stella playing in the backyard—the thud of her feet when she jumped from the swing, the high-pitch of her cry as she made Ellen-Faye fly through the air into the gravel pit.

“I think we’ve worked enough for today,” Mr. Alexander said.

I looked at the table, strewn with paper and open books. “It’s only three-thirty,” I said.

“You must have other things you’d like to do.”

“Yes,” I said. “Alright then.”

He nodded and left the room without another word.

I gathered my things and went slowly down through the house, listening. On the ground floor, in the living room, I heard their voices. “Ellen-Faye has a cold, Papa,” Stella said. “Ellen-Faye has influenza.”

“Poor Ellen-Faye!”

“Bury her in the gravel to be warm.”

“How will she breathe?”

“She has gills.”

 

The next afternoon, when I arrived at the Alexander house, Mrs. Alexander answered the door and told me that her husband had decided to work on campus today, but would I mind very much watching Stella while she went to teach her four o’clock lecture? I agreed and went out to the backyard, secretly relieved to spend an afternoon outside instead of up in the stuffy perfumed attic. The day was cold; it was early November, and Stella was wrapped in a knee-length down jacket, her feet in rubber boots, her head bare. When she saw me she put her hands to her hips; Ellen-Faye’s bald, smiling head poked out of one coat pocket. “What are you doing out here?” she asked.

“That’s a lovely sand box you’ve got,” I said. She seemed thrown by the change of subject. Turning, she slowly inspected the mound of cold gravel.

“It’s crap. You can’t go in or you’ll cut yourself.”

“Ellen-Faye goes in,” I said.

“Don’t you worry about Ellen-Faye,” she said warily, moving off towards the swing set. I put my bag by the back door and sat beside her on a swing. “I suppose you can stay,” she said. “My father will come play with me later though.”

“Ok,” I said, pushing myself into motion with the tips of my toes. I squinted in the slow rush of air that cut against my face.

 

From then on, whenever I arrived at the Alexander house, I was greeted by Mrs. Alexander, given Mr. Alexander’s apologies, and directed around to the backyard. I had been feeling ambivalent for weeks; I was not interested in my thesis, not interested in Russian, not interested in anything except that which could divert me from what had to be done, so I welcomed Stella’s distraction. I still saw Mr. Alexander on campus when he taught and he seemed embarrassed around me, forever trying to stop short our conversations, as if he were waiting for me to call him out on his sly maneuvering of my assistant duties. One day he came close to admitting what he’d done. We were walking towards the classroom at noon. “Stella enjoys your company, Leah,” he said. He spoke without pause so I wouldn’t have a chance to interject. “She mentioned the other day that she liked you and I’m not surprised, you’re good company for her. She was always alone before. I would be with her myself, or her mother, but we’re so busy. It seems we’re always so busy. But she’s a good little girl, isn’t she? She is a good little girl.” His voice shook as he finished. Looking at him, it occurred to me that Mr. Alexander was not a young man, that one day in his late forties he had discovered that he was a father and that still, after nearly ten years, he had yet to understand what this meant to him. I enjoyed his unease; it gave me a feeling of power. I nodded and smiled in response and followed him into the classroom, the sensation of what he had admitted drowning in the din of students savoring their final moments of freedom.

 

Stella didn’t exactly love me, but she didn’t hate me either. She began to let me sit beside her when she practiced the piano, or to hold the towel for Ellen-Faye after her daily bath in the kitchen sink. We moved inside when December came; the backyard was hard and frozen, and the sky hung heavy with waiting snow. I was spending almost every day at the Alexanders, meeting Stella at the bus stop after school and fixing her afternoon snack. “My uncle is coming to visit next week,” she said one afternoon as we were applying lotion to Ellen-Faye’s waxy legs. “This is good for her,” Stella said, smiling as a mother might do. “She has been struggling with some psoriasis lately. Don’t rub so hard, Leah.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Do you like your uncle?”

“I’ve never met him. He’s my father’s brother. He’s Russian.” She began spreading lotion over Ellen-Faye’s shoulders with the tip of her thumb. “My parents are Russian, you know. They weren’t born there, of course, but my Grandma Faye grew up there.”

“Is that how you named Ellen-Faye?”

Stella blushed. “Maybe,” she said. “Not the Ellen part though. That I came up with on my own.”

“I like it.” We were quiet for a few minutes; the wind had picked up outside and now and then somewhere in the house a window rattled against its frame. “Have you ever been to Russia?”

“No! Don’t say that kind of thing. I’ll never go.”

“Why not?”

“They’re all Commies, duh.”

“Not anymore, Stella. That was a long time ago.”

“You don’t know anything,” she said, yanking Ellen-Faye away from my reach. She coddled her, whispered in her ear.

“Is that what your parents told you, Stella?”

“Please,” she scoffed, “they love Russia. They want to have sex with Russia.”

I laughed and Stella blushed, lowering her eyes from my face.

“Ellen-Faye is tired,” she said. It was a tactic she had, switching to a younger voice, babying her talk after she had revealed something callous and shrewd about herself.

“Stella,” I said, “your parents love you very much.” I braced myself for her anger, but at the same time felt something new in our rapport, a sense of power on my part, as if Stella had exposed a weakness unintentionally and was unsure of how to cure her mistake. She looked up at me, the blue of her eyes almost fading into the white.

“Yes,” she said, her voice dull. “I know.” She wiped a blot of lotion from Ellen-Faye’s frozen face. “She should go to bed now.”

I nodded. We finished slathering the doll, wrapped her carefully in a strip of cheesecloth and put her to bed on a striped red and blue cushion beneath Stella’s nightstand.

“When my uncle comes,” Stella whispered as we tiptoed through the room, “will you come to dinner to meet him?” The unease from the kitchen had faded, and with the curtains drawn in the bedroom, Stella’s eyes had turned a hardy grey.

“If your parents say it’s alright.”

“They will if I ask them.” We walked together down the hallway, our footsteps muffled in the plush maroon carpet, and as we turned to go down to the living room to watch Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Stella slipped a cool hand into mine. I felt my heart shift a fraction within my chest, a movement so subtle and deeply buried I couldn’t be sure it had happened at all.

 

Mrs. Alexander called one evening the week before Christmas and asked if I could come watch Stella; she and Mr. Alexander had been invited to a departmental holiday party. I left my studio apartment littered with wrapping paper and Christmas lights and walked the four blocks to the Alexander house. Stella answered the door in her Halloween costume. “Mother says I have to put it in the attic,” she explained. “I wanted to wear it one more time. It was such a good costume, don’t you think?”

I nodded. She was dressed as a turnip, her sprouts a tiny green cap on the back of her head. She had thrown a Halloween party that year, inviting everyone in her class at school. Only six people showed up, including Mr. Alexander and me. Mrs. Alexander had been out of town.

“We get to have pancakes for dinner tonight, Mother says.” Mrs. Alexander came out of the kitchen then, her lithe body swathed in a black evening gown. A thick strand of pearls caught against her neck and fell the length of her back.

“We’ll be home by eleven,” she said. She bent and gave Stella a kiss on the forehead. “Remember the moth balls when you pack that up,” she said, tweaking the edge of the turnip costume. We followed her to the front hall where she was joined by Mr. Alexander in full formal dress, a thick wool coat making his shoulders appear broader than they were. He held out Mrs. Alexander’s red cape, and together they went into the night, sending back kisses and a waft of frigid air. “You’re my little darling!” Mrs. Alexander called at the front gate. Stella stood in the light of the doorway, curtsying goodbye.

It was not an unusual night. Stella and I made pancakes, painted Ellen-Faye’s toe-tips in pink polish, and watched half of It’s a Wonderful Life on TV before Stella fell asleep on the couch, still wrapped as a turnip, her green sprouts askew. I woke her, guided her upstairs to her bedroom, and helped her out of the costume and into her pajamas. She was asleep by the time I left the room, Ellen-Faye beside her. I took the costume to the attic. In one corner was a tall stack of cardboard boxes, pushed away to make room for Mr. Alexander’s desk and filing cabinets. Mrs. Alexander had labeled each box, and each one pertained to Stella’s youth in some way: Stella’s Creations, read the top box. Stella’s Baby Clothes, Stella’s Pictures, Stella’s Toys. There were ten Stella boxes in total, a surprising number since Stella’s every day existence seemed to fit itself so subtly into the Alexanders’ lives. Here, in one dark corner of the attic, Mrs. Alexander had organized and labeled her daughter’s history, adding mothballs so it wouldn’t fall victim to time, but otherwise letting it rest quietly. I put the costume in the box labeled Stella’s Holidays alongside a pair of plastic reindeer antlers, a bag filled with carved wooden soldiers, and a broken music box. I stayed for a while in the attic, enjoying its close warmth and the way it held on to the residue of Mr. Alexander’s candles. There were several waxy stubs around the room.

There are moments now and then, when I see a well-dressed woman, or an empty swing set, or when I hear the sound of sudden laughter, and I am taken back swiftly to the winter night before Christmas when I took care of Stella. I have given up trying to find the connection between this night and the one that followed. If I stayed long enough in memory perhaps I could find an answer, but I like to imagine there isn’t one. I like to think of the way the old candles smelled, and the yellow glow that came through the attic window from the backyard, something having set off the motion light above the garage. If I go much further, if I leave the moment and possible conclusions arise, I find myself caught in an eddy of despair. It should not be the case that life can be taken with such ease, and I imagine that Mr. and Mrs. Alexander found it easy to remove themselves from the world — from Stella’s world. I have boundless hate for them.

I went to the window when I heard the garage door open. They had returned from the party. I watched them come through the backyard. Mrs. Alexander was ahead, stumbling in her high heels. She was laughing—a high, frantic laughter. Her cape blew open around her, and her thin white neck was splayed out to the cold air. Mr. Alexander came behind her; he made to grab her by the waist, and for a moment I thought they were playing, that he was trying to embrace her, kiss her hair, feel the shape of her body from behind. When he touched her though, she wrenched herself awkwardly away from him and fell to the frozen grass. The impact turned her laughter to a low wail and Mr. Alexander stood over her, not offering his help. He said something, one word, and held his hands to his face. I turned away then, filled with a sudden fear, as if someone had jumped out and startled me. I did not wait to greet them. I ran through the house, took my coat from the hall closet and left, the sound of Mrs. Alexander’s cry following me down the street.

 

It was the next evening, almost five and already dark, when Mr. Alexander telephoned and asked if I could pick his brother up at the airport. There was no reason this time, there was only the request, delivered with the slightest note of command, and I agreed. I had been thinking of Stella all day.

Anton was Mr. Alexander’s brother, and when I met him at the airport he embraced me and kissed my right cheek. His mouth was cold, even though he’d just come off the plane, and he had to set his case down and reach his head up in order to catch the side of my face. I showed him to the car. “Nice car,” he said. “My brother does well for himself.” He had a short, simple way of speaking that was pleasing, though I felt that behind his words were infinite amounts of observation and even a little judgment. I thought about what Stella had said, about them all being Communists, and on the drive home I tried to see traces of this in Anton. He maintained a half smile through every stoplight, every one red and glowing out through the still December night. Snow began to fall when we reached the strip mall, and the fat flakes gathered with ambivalence on the street.

“There was snow there I bet,” I said. “When you left.” It was a caustic remark; tossed off with the notion that I knew anything about the life he had left behind.

“Yes,” he said. “There is snow.” He continued to gaze out the passenger window, his face placid. We pulled into the driveway. The center of every window in the Alexander house was lit by a single red Christmas light; plastic bulbs shaped to imitate real candles, and Anton admired these while I searched for the garage remote. The doors opened slowly, a huge yawning mouth, and I pulled in next to the Alexanders’ other car, an ancient, cushioned Buick. Because we stayed a few minutes in the closed car, gathering our belongings, and because we had brought the fresh air in with us, we did not at first notice the heat of the space, or the liquid way the air hung, laced with a foreign substance.

Barely visible in the dim interior of the garage, I made out two round shapes resting together in the center of the front seat of the Buick. They were heads. Mr. and Mrs. Alexander’s, and they appeared to be sleeping, using the other for support so they wouldn’t fall lengthwise across the leather seat. On either face was a pleasant, dreaming expression. For one ridiculous moment I believed they were actually sleeping, and imagined that they looked the way they might if I were to have come upon them in their bedroom, spread gracefully on the thick red quilt of their king-sized bed. Behind me, Anton began speaking. “My God,” he said in a quavering, matronly tone. He said it over and over. “My God. My God.” I turned on him.

“Shut up,” I snapped. I covered my mouth and nose with the collar of my jacket. He looked at me with startled blue eyes and continued his low moan.

“My God. My God.”

I went to the Buick, the smell of the carbon monoxide releasing itself in slow waves out through the open door of the garage, and reached a hand through Mr. Alexander’s window. His face was calm and waxen, but up through the flush of his skin crept a gray light, and from this vantage I could see that his smile was fading to an expression hollow and unfamiliar, one with no relation to any expression of life. I pulled the key from the ignition and jerked back, wiping my palms on my pants. Down through my layers of winter clothing my skin was humming with heat, and I felt beads of sweat breaking out on my temple. I left Anton in the garage rocking his small body back and forth as if rocking a child to sleep, his leather case pressed to his chest with both arms. Outside, the gathering snow illuminated the night and everything was deafened in an orange glow. In the backyard, Stella’s mound of gravel was a white hill. She was perched on the very top, her black down jacket spread around her, her head bare. I stood at her feet. “Stella,” I said. She looked beyond me.

“Ellen-Faye has died, too,” she said. She extended the naked doll to me. “She’s died from the cold.”

Young Punk’s Guide to Nicknames

Sean Michael St. Charles

 

The fox was blood and guts and bootprints. Dead for hours. At least as long as they’d been in Boston. They being John Boy, Pip aka Mike P, Brennan (now Sleeves), and Sean. And they were supposed to be into it, or something. They were supposed to be punk rock motherfuckers. Honest-to-god-devil-dealing-blood-sucking-we-don’t-give-a-shit-punk-fucking-rockers. That’s why they were in Boston, after all.

Boston had seemed so nice in the morning. Sleepy sort of town, like Ann Arbor back home. Snow had fallen overnight and all the houses looked the same to Sean. Not brick houses or wood houses or white houses or blue houses. He preferred it that way.

It was his turn to drive that morning. Nothing unusual. He was always driving or next in line to drive. Sean/Pip/Sean/Pip and so on. John never drove. He was a van sleeper. Blue suede seats like a dream: kept him real cozy. Brennan had the inverse problem. East Coast driving made him itchy. Too cluttered. Too move-it-or-lose-it-buddy-and-piss-off-while-you’re-at-it. Driving back home was something else. Not adrenaline pumping, but at least enjoyable. Real scenic and peaceful. Woods along the side of the highway and pine scent and windows down just a crack. Just enough to feel. Michigan, through and through.

So it was up to Pip and Sean. Which was fine. This division (Pip/Sean vs. John/Brennan) simply made sense. It was rhythm vs. lead. Of course Pip and Sean drove: bass and drums, respectively. At the show, they were in the back. First to set up. Tune up. Shut up. Count off and kick it up. Make way for the talent. But out in the real-real world they were in front—driving to the show.

And today it was Sean driving. New York to Boston by way of Connecticut. He never would’ve guessed Connecticut was a traffic-jammed-55mph-shit-hole. Boston seemed nice though. Big and white and blank. Filled with possibility.

 ___

The Bad Boy Shack looked like any other house in Allston: two story Victorian painted peach with white trim and a swing on the porch. Coated in snow it was downright pleasant. Snug as a bug. Home-away-from-home kind of place. If not for the boys on the porch in patched jean jackets, Sean would’ve driven rright past.

The Bay Boys sat on the railing with their backs to the street—drinking Mad Dog 40s out of paper bags, looking like the cold couldn’t touch them. They wore black. Black jean jackets and dark denim pants and black watch caps folded to hit above the ear. They all had matching boots: slick leather, ankle-length, with one-inch rubber soles. Permanent mink oil sheen. Goddamn, they were beautiful.

The driveway lay un-shoveled. Sean parked on the street. He knew the Bad Boys by way of a Massachusetts band he’d booked in Ann Arbor. The band couldn’t play worth shit, but were good guys and had promised him a fun time in Boston. It was the same with every band that came through Ann Arbor. You think this is wild, you should see our shows back home. Kids hanging from the rafters. Punching holes through the wall. It’ll blow your fucking mind.

Sean hesitated in the driver’s seat. There was a foot of snow on the driveway and his sneakers were already soaked.

“Cold feet, huh” John said to him. “Cold feet, cold feet, cold feet” building into a chant that Brennan and Pip happily joined. They pounded the roof with their knuckles and hollered at the top of their lungs. Cold Feet. John had been pushing the name since Cleveland.

“Fuck off, Mr. Pretty-Boy-Hollywood-Hot-Shot. Why don’t you do the talking this time?” Sean tried to get the name out with a straight face but couldn’t manage.

John laughed. He was dangerous in situations like this. “I’ve done the talking every night so far, and you know it. Now get your ass out there, Cold Feet.” His cheeks were flush and his blue eyes twinkled and he looked like Ian Curtis. When John was in a mood, he had real gravity. You couldn’t help but fall into it.

There was no way in hell Sean was going to let Cold Feet stick. He slammed shut the van door and trod up the driveway.

“What’s happening, college boy,” one of the punks called out immediately. No sneer. No mean look. Just a smile, and a drag from his cigarette. Sean wanted to protest, but couldn’t manage it. The kid was right—Sean was a college boy, which was understood to mean Fancy Boy, which was a roundabout way of saying Faggot. They all were. No denying it. Sean wore slim-fit chinos and a white button up with the top button done. He got his hair cut at an old-fashioned barber: faded, combed, greased, and parted on the side—a real 60s cut. He looked clean. There was nothing punk about it.

“Whaddya want,” another boy chimed in, “sellin’ textbooks?” The Bad Boys all laughed. Sean’s face went red.

“We’re supposed to play here tonight, some friends said it was cool.” He sounded disinterested. That was the trick with rough and tumble types: the less you cared, the cooler you were. Within every clique there was certain etiquette. Drink with the street punks; talk animal rights with the hippies; talk shit with the 80s purists; ham it up for the girls. But across the board, you played it cool.

“Right on, load in the through the back,” said the first boy. He took another drag from his cigarette, clearing his throat afterwards and hocking a mouthful of yellow and brown gunk into the snow. Another boy did the same, and another and another until the snow at their feet was riddled with yellow-brown divots. When they ran out of spit they took turns stomping out the spit holes until all the snow was level.

­­­

___

Pip had final say of load in/load out. He was simply good at it. College had prepared him for such real-world situations. Sure—the others had taken plenty of their own classes, but Pip attended his; wrote notes and made study cards and did homework ahead of time. He kept a planner full of dates with actual importance: phone interview with NASA on January the 3rd; presentation for the School of Engineering on the 14th titled, iPhones and the Airline Industry: Writing the Killer App—which admittedly needed some work, but words had never been Pip’s forte.

So he didn’t talk much. Never a pip out of Mike P. Never a squeak. That’s how he got the nickname.

“Bass cab out first, then the amps,” he ordered Brennan.

“Why don’t you move your own fucking bass cab,” Brennan retorted and Pip just stared at him. Tour had an understood list of rules and responsibilities. Pip’s job was to direct and Brennan’s was to do the heavy lifting.

Sean listened to the argument from the front seat. What a pair they were. Pip got a real kick out of seeing Brennan struggle with the cab. It was massive: eight ten-inch speakers, encased in solid wood: ugly as sin—but the tone was killer, and it could make a basement shake at quarter volume.

Next up was the guitar cab, then the amps, then the guitars, then the merch, then finally the drums. Sean only unloaded drums, and he was the only one to touch them. The kit was his baby. It took him three summers of pushing carts at Kroger just to buy the shells. Hand-carved birch with a satin black wrap. Not to mention the cymbals and the hardware and new heads every few months. Being a drummer was expensive and it made him feel valuable. Here I am making the racket. Banging away. Bang-Bang-Bang. I have visible and audible worth. I swear. I swear. I swear.           

John led the way downstairs through a rear cellar door. Ann Arbor didn’t have cellars. Back home, a basement was another room in the house. The Bad Boy’s cellar was a cave.

They set the gear down on a rug in the corner and turned to survey the space. There were your show standards: cinderblock to put in front of the drum kit, PA system with two mics snaking out from it, pillows taped to the wall to absorb the sound, shattered glass littering the dirt floor.

Then there were the oddities. Christmas lights hung from the rafters like some kind of new stalactite. An inflated children’s pool was set up at the foot of a second staircase, and—as far as Sean could tell—was filled with mud. The room was stuffed with knick-knacks of all sorts: a pile of broken toys, four bike wheels, a raccoon pelt, two deer skulls, a box of cafeteria-sized milk cartons (presumably staled), and a statue of the Virgin Mary with lipstick smeared on her cheeks.

The whole cellar stunk of sweat and stale beer, and they didn’t mind so much. After eight days of shows and no showers, they were hard-pressed to find a smell that offended. Not to say there weren’t odor-issues from time to time. Brennan had this problem with gas. He’d been eating energy bars by the twos and threes all tour long. Smart thinking, really. Save a lot of money that way. But all the fiber had to get out somehow.

“You look like you saw something dead.”

They smelled him before they saw him. The boy from the porch was smoking another cigarette as he climbed down the stairs. Sean coughed. Smoke still bothered him, even after eight days.

“Other bands should be here pretty soon.” The boy them tossed them each a Natty Light from a thirty-rack he was resting on his shoulder. “Have a drink. That’s something they teach you at college, isn’t it?”

Again, with that goddamn smile. Sean shuddered. It wasn’t a coffee-and-cigarette smile or a dear-lord-look-at-those-pearly-whites. The boy’s teeth were clean enough and straight enough. Not particularly unusual looking. Almost too normal. Like he wasn’t smiling at all, just holding up a picture of a smile he’d cut from Good House Keeping.

Who told the boy he could do that? Sean wanted to know.

He stood there watching the boy while the others drank their beers. John shot-gunned his. Typical. The boy laughed, and Sean wasn’t sure if it was at John or with him. John didn’t care either way.

“You college boys are alright. I’ll bet everybody thinks you’re the Number One Punks, back home.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Sean replied for the group. Ann Arbor didn’t have a bustling punk scene. Sure, they booked punk shows at their punk house, but never on exam nights and when they walked down the streets they weren’t those punks they were just that-guy-in-my-Econ-class or that-guy-that-makes-my-drinks-at-the-coffee-shop.

“Well, you’re gonna see what a real punk show looks like tonight.”

The boy still hadn’t introduced himself. He was gone before anyone could ask his name.

“What a weirdo,” Sean said to no one in particular.

“Seems like a nice enough guy,” Brennan shrugged without much thought, and the others nodded.

He did seem nice enough. That was the problem. Sean sighed and set his beer down in the dirt. He never drank before shows. Couldn’t stomach it sloshing around while he played. He found a clean spot along the wall and took a seat. His feet hurt.

It was cold in the cellar. Cold and dark and one-hundred-percent-lifeless. He tried to imagine the room packed with kids, but couldn’t. Didn’t feel right. The cellar was a real nice place, right then. Sean could live in a place like that. He untied his shoes and slipped them off his feet. They were heavier than usual. Still wet. Wetter, maybe. His socks were wet, too. Beneath his socks, his skin was getting mushy.

He considered pulling the socks off by the toe, but was afraid his skin might come with them. That wouldn’t do. He’d need to be gentle. One sock at a time. Starting with the right, he peeled the cotton from his leg and folded it down. The exposed skin didn’t look his own. Loose-leaf-paper-feet. Pale white with pale blue lines.

The blankness was overwhelming. He pressed the soles of his feet to the ground and rubbed as hard as he could. Nothing changed. Another sigh. His feet were raw and filthy, but beneath it all they were white still and still cold and still not his own.

“You’re the fucking weirdo,” John smirked. He walked over to where Sean had set down his beer and picked up the can. “We’re all fucking weirdos.”

John pulled his Swiss Army Knife from his pocket and stabbed the can, quickly popping the top. He looked like a movie star even then, beer dribbling down his chin. Brennan and Pip sipped their beers and together the four of them waited. The cellar was a real nice place, right then.

___

The cellar was full shortly after doors. Turns out the Bad Boy Shack was the place to be. Brennan sat at the merch table with his sleeves rolled up, trying to look tough. He was tattooed—not completely covered, but enough that he could pass for a tattoo-guy in Ann Arbor. Classic American stuff: a black panther with an anvil in its mouth; a Rose of No Man’s Land for his mother. It seemed like everyone in Boston had more tattoos than Brennan.

“Cute ink, curly,” some guy with a skull on either side of his neck threw out as he walked by the table. “Your momma must be so proud.” Brennan was a pretty big kid, but Skull-Neck was the kind of guy who could beat someone up just by thinking it.

Brennan’s “thanks” was nothing more than a squeak. He’d started the whole nickname thing. Before they’d even written a song, he was thinking up nicknames. He wanted to be Clawhammer and Snake and briefly Big Beefy. On the first day of tour he was Chains. By New York he was Sleeves—as in Tattooed Sleeves. He’d take any name that sounded tougher than Brennan. Sleeves would have to go.

There were only two bands on the bill: them and Boston local called Diet Coke Heads. They were playing first. Sean usually hated opening because the crowd wasn’t loose enough yet, but that didn’t seem to be a problem here. If anything, the crowd was already too loose. It was only 8 o’clock and everyone was drunk. Even the frat guys in Ann Arbor didn’t start drinking before 10.

John was drunk and polarizing the room. It made Sean nervous just knowing him. A group of girls had surrounded John in a back corner and every guy around was glaring at him. Not punk girls, either. Beautiful girls—all dressed up and made up and feeling their drinks. Sean sighed. Good-looking girls were welcome in any group: a life lesson if he’d ever learned one.

“You’re like sooooo handsome.”

“You must be a singer.”

The girls were especially fond of John’s Michigan accent. He had a voice like a bonfire—all smoky and crackling. He winked in Sean’s direction. That dog. He led the girls to the merch table and sold them each a t-shirt. Five dollars a piece. “Special deal just for you lovely ladies.”

After the girls left, John put the money in the moneybox and counted his earnings. He’d made thirty-five dollars, all told. Enough to get pizza later.

“How do you always do it,” Brennan asked and John patted him on the shoulder.

“I’m not a punk, that’s how.” He put his hand out and the four of them slapped five.

“Yeah, well don’t my ass kicked ‘cause you’ve been hitting on somebody’s girlfriend.” The mean looks were getting to be too much for Sean.

He sat down and started to set up his drums. Next to him, Pip had his bass out and was going over parts in his head. Brennan tuned his guitar first by ear, then with a pedal. John hummed scales out of pitch. It was those moments they looked forward to most: the sort of calm you’d never think to find amidst the cigarette smoke and broken glass.

Except, Sean couldn’t find an inch of calm, right then.

“Can you guys move my drums for me? I need to take a breather.” He booked it out the door before anyone could say no.

Cold air was hell on his lungs, but it was better than the smoke from downstairs. He took a hit from his inhaler and breathed deep—slow at first, then faster. One-Two-Three-exhale. One-Two-Three-exhale. Everybody-loves-me-exhale. Everybody-loves-me-exhale. Loves me. Loves me. Loves me. The air was sharp and hurt to breathe, but he wasn’t crying. It was the wind in his eyes.

From inside, he heard his band getting ready. John was talking into the microphone. Pip methodically picked away at the opening groove and the whole house shook in meter. Brennan messed with his levels until his amp was shrieking. He was a genius when it came to the guitar. Never took a lesson and didn’t know a lick about music theory, but the kid could play. He learned by listening. Spend enough time alone and you can figure out how to do just about anything

Sean closed his eyes. There was acid in his throat. One-Two-Three-exhale. One-Two-Three-exhale. He thought about running away but the noise from the cellar was only getting louder. The house would blow if he didn’t go down soon. The entire world would shatter into a thousand slivers—sharper than the air outside, and it would be his fault.

He took one last breath and made his way downstairs. Every eye met his. He took off his shirt and sat down at the kit. One-Two-Three-exhale. One-Two-Three-exhale. He looked up at John and nodded. On the count of four. One-Two-Three-Four. Sean hit the crash and Pip strummed and Brennan strummed and everything went black.

John had punched out the light bulb above his head. Motherfuck. Exactly what Sean needed: something to piss the crowd off even more. The reaction was immediate. One of the Bad Boys ran into Skull-Neck and Skull-Neck hit a Beautiful Girl and pretty soon the whole crowd was thrashing about.

And they fucking loved it. Everywhere Sean looked was a smile. John wrapped the mic cord around his throat and Pip turned to face his amp and Brennan knocked over a kid in the front and played even faster. Sean couldn’t believe his eyes. These weren’t his friends. They were animals. They all were animals: every last person in the room, except for him.

He looked away. The animals might see him.

All of a sudden, something stunk. It was the Bad Boy with the smile. He was coming down the stairs—something furry around his neck. A fox with tire marks across its belly. Must’ve been road kill. It looked so fresh.

The boy marched to the center of the room and plopped down the fox. He started stomping it. Over and over and over and over. The guts squirted out and flecks of frozen blood went flying in every direction. The crowd gathered around and cheered as he stomped the fox into the dirt. The skull caved so easily. The eyes sparkled in the lowlight like treasure for a moment, and then were gone. The paws. Oh those precious little paws—seemed to kick with every stomp. He smashed them all but one.

Sean was next. He could feel it. They’d drag him to the center of the room and stomp him to pieces. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. Oh no. He screamed until the guitar stopped and the bass stopped and he was the only playing.

“That’s all, thanks for having us,” John said over the microphone. He looked back at Sean. The set was over.

“Fuck yeah, you guys were really something.” The Bad Boy came up and gave them each a hug. “Some of the best shit I’ve seen.”

They loaded out while the Diet Coke Heads played. Sean sat on the hood of the van and listened from outside. They didn’t sound very good, but he could hear the crowd singing along.

John hopped up on the hood and sat next to him. “You alright? Got pretty crazy in there.”

“Hell yeah it did,” Brennan shouted from behind the van.

Sean didn’t say a word.

John put his hand on Sean’s shoulder. “The kid already paid me, we can take off any time.” He appreciated the offer. John had always been a good friend.

“Hold on, I gotta grab something first.” Sean ran back down stairs.

The van was loaded and ready to go by the time he returned.

He jumped into the driver’s seat. “All set?”

“What was that about,” Brennan asked and Sean just shrugged.

John laughed. “You’re such a weirdo, man. Let’s go.” And they were gone.

___     

After Boston was Rochester and after Rochester was Pittsburg. It was Pip’s turn to drive that morning. Nothing unusual. In the backseat, John dozed and Brennan listened to his headphones. They’d slept in the van last night.

The sun was beautiful behind them—a dusty shade of red only seen at dawn—and Sean stared out the window as they drove. Traffic was sparse so early, just how he liked it. There was no snow on the roads. If they were lucky, they could make it to Rochester in seven hours. Not so bad. They’d been through worse before.

They made a hundred dollars at the Boston show: enough to fill the tank and get breakfast and the world was a nice place, right then. All the world that fit inside the van. They were expected in Rochester that night, but they could go anywhere. Down to Florida, or all the way out to California. They could drive until no one knew their names, or who they loved, or what they dreamed of at night.

Sean reached into his pocket and pulled out the paw. The fur was soft still and the claws were still sharp. It fit perfectly in the palm of his hand. He’d never seen a fox up close before. It was so much smaller than he’d imagined. He felt himself nodding off. Warm in the van. Nice-and-cozy. Pip was driving. Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.

 

Skatewings

Sean Alan Cleary

 

Later in the summer he would be sent back to the warehouse to sort through black seabass with Bill, the usual dock manager, mostly because he didn’t get along with the new guy who complained all Charlie did was look up the girls skirts on the observation deck above the pier and didn’t move fast enough to cover the good fish with ice to keep them fresh and the bad fish with ice to keep away the flies. Charlie complained all the new guy did was go over orders incessantly—until the buyers from Fulton Market stopped taking his calls—and talk with his wife on the phone about what he was going to do to her later that night. But before, early in the season when things were as they should be, Charlie arrived in his father’s old BMW down at the docks at 1am to help Bill collect the catch of the big draggers harvesting skate migrating out past the crab ledge, maybe twenty miles off-shore—he didn’t know. In early May it was cold and the summer crowds hadn’t gotten big enough and girls from New York didn’t stay weekends at Chatham Bars Inn so there was nothing too distracting, and Charlie and Bill got along grand: shoveling ice, waiting for the draggers to come in late off early season storms. Charlie came down between finals, on weekends, and went elbow deep into vats of skate-wings—the flapping, stinking remains of tailed nautical saucers, prodding them along the big silver chute from the boat with a shovel, separating smaller orders into totes, the slime running down his rubbers, staining his shirt.

He’d go back to school carrying the stink of those vats—something like rotten pumpkins and day old mackerel—with a wad of twenties in his pocket from the check Bill had cashed for him at the Local 5 Bank, taking his customary five dollars for the effort. Charlie would get back to his dorm and shower and walk down to the corner spa for a bottle of Simple Tymes whiskey to forget about inhabiting filth for 18 hours. He’d fall asleep on the couch and wake up, shower again and go to the library. When he sat down, the sniffs would start around him and he’d get the point, eventually retreating to the basement to study in peace with the engineering students who were either too focused or too distracted by their own brand to notice.

He’d first got the job down at the pier before he even made it to college, looking through listings for summer help in a super-market flyer, unable to force the indignity of the service industry on himself. He retired to the back porch of his parents summer cottage to watch his sister and her friends jump into the pool, running around to jump again and again to the tisking of his mother—”Slow down! You’ll break your neck!” she screeched. But round they went anyways, even daring to slide along the slick pebbles glossed into a solid mass surrounding the pool, skittering and chattering as they flew through the cold May air. When he came across the listing he mulled it over for a day before calling up the office—they hired him on the spot, excited for someone without a thick Limerick brogue or broken Eastern-European English looking for dock-work—ready, Charlie thought, to thrust hard work on a dandy trying to experience something for a summer.

But it was nothing of the sort, just four innocuous droning summers of slogging through vats and totes of skate-wings, dogfish, haddock, cod, founder, dace, redfish, ocean catfish, monk-fish and seabass. There were no shanties, no rituals, no grand old times, just people, there—at work, calling out weights, culling sizes of fish, tossing rotten soaked groundfish to the seals: unsellable—looking up the skirts of the girls from New York who came and stayed at the Chatham Bars Inn and walked down to the docks to look at the seals and smell the fish, squealing as the slime splattered from another bucket of skate-wings.

Charlie couldn’t tell, halfway through a bottle of Simple Tymes if he had somewhere along the line been naive about the whole practice. If when he sat there, looking at his sister’s friends run around the pool, their fifteen year old bodies just beginning to be dangerous—him mulling over whether he should call up the office and try his luck at the fish pier—did he somehow imagine himself a brave enlightened fool off to drown himself in the troubles of those poor lumpen fisher-folk. Did he think they had stories? Had he too recently read the romantics—Marx?

He couldn’t remember, but he measured, at least when he was there at 1am in May in his father’s old BMW parked up in the visitor’s lot because it wouldn’t fit well between the old pick-ups of the fishermen, the dock workers’ beat up subcompacts and the new SUV’s of the Government people and Coast Guard, he had some semblance of romance—however fleeting. With the sun still not a glow over the cottages on the very end of Nauset beach, two of which would fall into the ocean during his tenure in late spring squalls before he was done with the place, he’d sit and listen to CDs of folk music his high school girlfriend made him and drift off until Bill would knock on his window and they’d start off unlocking the ice-sheds and getting everything ready for the first of the draggers to come in, their flood lights illuminating briefly gulls swooping and swaying eager for the skate entrails ditched overboard as they rounded the beach into Chatham Harbor.

He couldn’t remember, halfway through a bottle of Simple Tymes if he’d learned anything from the men down there, if he had gotten any respect, if there was any more indignity to smelling like slime and being spat at by fishermen, angry and distrustful of your math who threatened to pack up and go with a rival company if you shorted—they thought—and when they’d yell, “Hey, you remember to tare that?” when Charlie would be counting up boxes of cod to send to New York and Charlie couldn’t remember, halfway through a large order and unable to recall the last few bleary seconds—lost between the sleep and three grimy boats filled with skate and the few precious Cod left. Was that were the dignity lay? In that moment, when Charlie and Bill would empty out the last two boxes and count them out again, all agreeing the second box was two pounds heavy the first time around, the captain now smiling and scratching his head with a hand speckled with dried fish scales—”should have trusted you the first time.” And Bill warning him to pay attention more afterwards in the office, but not meaning it really.

But it was a fleeting understanding. Momentary. And each half ton vat of wings they loaded into the truck bound for New York took Charlie further and further from the few early mornings, when still in finals: his brief romance, his high-school girlfriend’s music, his memories of her, of his father’s BMW, of sunrise, of the faint smell of his clothes that never went away, waking up to that staleness of flesh anticipating the days perpetual-damp.

 

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