Jennie and the orchestra were belting out Cole Porter. Quick-quick, slow: When they begin…the beguine…it brings back a night…
“He has a pigeon,” Sasha whispered as she passed Rita at the swinging kitchen doors. “Same woman, three numbers now. On the far side, where I’m serving.”
Sasha was Rita’s best friend at the Paradise Inn. She’d helped her get the job and more recently volunteered to help manage Roberto, Rita’s boyfriend. Manage, meaning get him back into line.
From the tables Rita was serving, he stood out: a young man dancing with an older woman. A few open steps, in perfect time with the music, then wheel. Nice variations. She knew Roberto was a great dancer; they’d met in a dance hall. Medium-tall, guapo handsome, hair ebony. A weightlifter’s chest, emphasized by his short brocaded tuxedo, almost like a toreador’s chaquetilla jacket, that he’d found in a second-hand store when all this began.
What mattered was how close they were dancing.
Rita cleared the dinner dishes, left the tray on a rack and threaded through the tables to the dance floor. Roberto’s back was to her. This was an older crowd: the Unionville Class of 1983 Reunion. The woman hadn’t lost her figure or at least wore enough Spandex to still look good. She had shoulder-length coppery hair, which was surely a dye job. Her eyes were closed; his right hand was not at her waist but in the small of her back.
Finally, they turned. Roberto’s eyes were open, watching for other dancers. He saw Rita, gave her a smile and wink. She glared, he wheeled away. She shouldered the tray back to the kitchen.
On the carving counter was a short boning blade, thin and razor-sharp. On impulse, she grabbed it with a dishtowel and put it on a tray of dessert puddings. Hoisting the tray, she paused at the full-length mirror just inside the outbound door. Management encouraged them to look good. More than good, she thought. A Columbiana, she was built at least as well as that ageing Spandexed fake redhead on the floor; she danced better too. Her black hair was as long, although tucked into a net when she worked. She frowned at her reflection, making fierce black eyes.
Sasha, coming in the other door, caught her. “Pretty good, babe!”
A compliment from Sasha meant something because she was, herself, a blonde bombshell. Ukrainian by birth, but a citizen now, lucky lady, with a husband and two kids. She thought everyone should enjoy domestic bliss.
“Thanks.” Rita tried to smile at her in the mirror.
“Enough woman for any man,” Sasha persisted.
“Wouldn’t you think?” Rita said, heading out to serve the pudding.
Sasha hadn’t noticed the knife.
Rita had been a waitress for three years. Although a motel, The Paradise was mostly a banquet hall: The wait staff brought course after course to crowded tables and cleared the rubble.
If the group was male with an open bar, it could become a gauntlet of gropes as the evening wore on. High school reunions, on the other hand, high school reunions were a joy. The women often dressed in school colours matched by crepe-paper streamers; older, not rowdy, only a few drinking too much. Many said ‘thank you’ when you set a plate down— most men with wives. Always a surplus of women, though, divorced or widowed.
This Class of ’83 had wine for happy hour. Rita and Sasha and all the waitresses carried hors d’oeuvres as people renewed acquaintances, talked about how far they’d come, showed off pictures of grandchildren. Their name tags had yearbook photos, which prompted polite lies about how little they’d changed.
In fact, the men were gray-haired, if not bald, and most had varying protrusions of paunch. The women – thanks to hairdressers, facials, yoga, uplifting bras, maybe a facelift or lipo – didn’t show their age as much.
They took a class picture while rolls and salads were put on the tables. Tony James and His Orchestra began; people table-hopped and danced between courses. Most of Tony’s players were as old as the reunion people, so oldies came naturally. Some guests sang along, or mouthed words, or asked each other who recorded that song. The dancing was mostly shuffling back and forth to the music. Even the men who could lead were a bit age-stooped.
So Roberto stood out. A man should dance head back and chest out, playing with his partner how a toreadorplays a bull, first at a distance with the big cape, admiring, then closer in with the muleta.
Rita was ready to teach him about the short sword hidden in that little cape.
She set the tray on the rack again and slipped out to the lobby where Tommy, the desk clerk, played computer solitaire. “There’s a redhead in a long black dress, Tommy. Stacked well enough that you would have noticed her. Is she staying here tonight?”
“A single on the second floor. You want me to ring her? Let you leave a voicemail?”
“No thanks,” she said. “My message isn’t for her. But thanks.” She hurried back to work, biding her time.
“You were late again.”
Roberto had discovered these reunions two years ago. He arrived early to pick her up after work one night and saw those single women looking lonely. He was dressed plainly but asked one to dance, then another, then a third before Tony played Good Night Ladies.
Rita waited until they got back to their third-floor walk-up so he wouldn’t miss the fire in her eye. “What was all that dancing about?”
“That was amateur night, chica. I can make money doing that.”
“Tips, baby. I’ll bet some of those women will pay to dance with me.”
“I’m not enough for you?”
“You’re plenty for me,” he said, patting her culo. “I’m talking about just dancing. We can put the money away to start our family.”
He, of course, knew that would soften her up, but she didn’t let him off the hook. “I don’t want my boyfriend to be a . . . isn’t there a word?”
Roberto was a boricuatwo-century but had left Puerto Rico young enough to get a good New York education. “Gigolo,” he said.
“You don’t just jiggle when you dance.”
“No, no. Gigoló. A dancing partner. Perfectly respectable. I’ll dance with reunion ladies, and we’ll put the money in our nest egg.”
She relented. Still, she went to the library to look it up. Male dancer, yes. But also ‘a younger man supported by an older woman in return for his sexual attentions.’
His new sideline was at first as squeaky-clean as he promised. He took Rita to The Paradise, and if he found it was a reunion crowd, he went home for a shower and shave, dressed up and came back to stroll among the tables. After a time, he’d start inviting single women to dance. Rita never heard the invitation, of course, but he bragged about his technique as he drove her home.
“Hello there,” was his line, “I wonder if you can help me? My name is Roberto. I’m a ballet student, but just now can’t afford to keep up classes. I need to keep practicing, though. I wonder if you would do me the honour of taking a turn on the dance floor?”
He wasn’t a ballet student; he drove a bus. But with his looks, they believed him and loved how he helped them cut a fine figure their classmates would admire. When he escorted them back to their tables, they invariably slipped him some cash to help resume his supposed ballet classes.
He bragged about his performance on the way home but always handed over the money, more than a hundred dollars most nights.
She let the money stifle her jealousy. She opened a savings account at a neighbourhood bank, and their start-a-family savings began to grow.
Then one night, Roberto sought out Sasha. He told her he had to leave early and asked her to give Rita a lift home. He was dragged into their apartment at four in the morning.
She was still awake. “Qué diablos! Where have you been?”
“I gave a guy a ride home.”
“Sure. A guy. In your bus, I suppose.”
“No, really; he was too drunk to drive himself. He offered me $200 to take him home.” He pulled two century notes out of his shirt pocket. “Here, for our family fund.”
Too tired to argue, she went to sleep, turning her back, so she barely felt him crawl into bed.
She felt him next morning, though, hard as a rock at ten o’clock, wanting to make love. “You’re supposed to be at work!”
“I called the dispatcher. Said I was sick. I want to be sure we’re still okay, you and me.”
Roberto wasn’t only a good dancer; he was a wonderful lover. She wanted to believe him. He promised she’d never need a ride home from Sasha again. They made love without a condom.
When her period didn’t come the next week, Rita got a test kit at the drugstore. Pregnant. Which made a difference the next time he had “a man who needed a ride home.”
In Sasha’s car, she cried most of the way to the apartment. Sasha turned the engine off. “You don’t have to put up with this,” she said. “There are other men. Throw the bastard out.”
“I can’t; I’m pregnant.”
“Oh, God! Does he know?”
“Rita, you gotta tell him. He’s going to be a father; he’s got to be responsible. I’ll have Ted find him at the depot, talk to him.” Ted was her husband.
“And tell him I’m keeping an eye on him. I do the tables nearest the dance floor.”
“Thank you, Sasha.”
Rita didn’t tell him right away, though, and Ted may not have spoken to him before it happened again.
“Does he know yet about the baby?” Sasha asked as Rita wept again on the way home.”
“You’ve got to tell him. And tell him you don’t believe his giving-rides-home stuff. Don’t tell him tonight, though, in the morning. Be all sweetness and light, and then lay it on him over breakfast when he’s not expecting it. When he’s vulnerable.”
So Rita didn’t wait up and pretended not to hear him tiptoe in. In the morning, she woke him without a kiss and got breakfast. They couldn’t afford eggs often, but Roberto always wanted them after they had sex – “restored his resources,” he said – and she put eggs over-easy in front of him.
If he got the signal, he didn’t show it. She pressed the point.
“You were late again.”
“Another guy who’d had too much.”
“And where did he live?”
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He took just a moment too long. “West Newbury.” He embroidered it. “Someday, we’ll live in a town like that. Nice neighbourhood, two-car garages. His wife hadn’t come last night. She’ll bring him this morning to get his car.”
Maybe I should write down the numbers from the car’s speedometer to get the truth out of him, Rita thought. No, hardly necessary. She ignored the lie and did what Sasha urged. “We’re going to have a baby,” she dropped on him.
There was no joy on his face. “Oh, my.”
“Yes,” she said.
“That’s sooner than we’d planned,” he said and managed to add, “but it’s wonderful! We should get married.”
Be tough, Sasha had urged. “I’m only interested in a faithful husband,” Rita said.
He got it and gave her a lengthy apology. “I don’t mean these things to happen. The devil puts temptations in my path.”
“So I should give you five Hail Marys, and all is forgiven?” Rita said. “Go see a priest.”
He actually wept; it would never happen again.
“You’ll give up the dancing?”
“We’ll need the money for the baby.”
She relented, he promised, they made love.
“Never mind that. Where the hell have you been?”
Two months went by; more dancing, more money in the bank, no funny stuff. Until this night with the Spandexed redhead.
“Did he see you watching?” Sasha asked.
“And he didn’t right away take her back to her table? Bad sign.”
“I’ve had it,” Rita said. She let Sasha see the knife. “It’s time this toreador got gored.”
“Oh my God! You can’t do that. You’ll go to prison and then get deported. Your baby will be put up for adoption. Why ruin your life?”
“I don’t care; he’s already ruined my life.”
“Let me think,” she said. “Go tend your tables. And give me that knife.”
Rita let her take it.
Ten minutes later, in the kitchen, Sasha had another plan. “You’re barely showing. Picking up a man for the night is entirely credible.”
She explained her plan: Turn the tables on him. It was time to teach him his lesson.
And then throw him out, Sasha insisted. It wouldn’t be easy, living alone on waitress earnings. But the new baby bank account was in her name, so she had a cushion. She could find a smaller apartment. Maybe think about abortion; she’d be unlikely to find a new man willing to disregard a swelling belly left by another man. In any case, show him the door.
Okay, Rita said, let’s do it. So she told the kitchen boss she was sick and took a taxi home. Sasha would catch Roberto toward the end of the evening, between dances. “Have you seen Rita?” she would ask. “She said not to wait for her tonight. One of the guests is drunk and needs her to drive him home.” And, she would add naively: “Does that make any sense to you?”
Roberto dropped the redhead like a bomb and stormed out to the lobby to ask Tommy if he’d seen Rita. “No,” Tommy said truthfully. Rita got all this later, of course. Roberto strode out to ask Vincenzo, the doorman if she’d left with anyone. He hung around until the guests had gone home and staff had cleaned up. Sasha waved goodnight to him.
Meanwhile, at home, Rita packed his belongings. Everything. They only owned one suitcase each, and she didn’t want to lose hers, so most of his stuff went into plastic garbage bags. Then she took a bath and went to bed. Maybe he dozed but was quickly wide awake when he came home at two.
“You’re late again,” she said, playing innocent. “Someone else needed a ride home?”
“Never mind that. Where the hell have you been?”
“Right here, sweetheart. Didn’t Sasha tell you I came home early because I wasn’t feeling well?”
“That’s not what she told me.”
“Maybe you misunderstood. I had morning sickness.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“The doctor said it could come at any time.” She was cool. “What did you think?”
That stopped him. He didn’t want to say what he’d been worrying about all evening.
She let him stew for a minute before asking the question that was the punch line of Sasha’s plan. “How did you feel about our marriage the last few hours?”
It was a pleasure to watch him; she told Sasha later. He frowned, trying to figure out what she meant. Then his eyes opened wide as he got it. He started to scowl, angry at being duped. Finally, his face softened into a smile, like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess I deserved that.” He looked around and saw all his stuff on the floor. “Are those things mine? What’s that about?”
This was the moment. Pick ‘em up, you gigoló deceiver, she was ready to say, and get out!
But first, be sure he knew what he was going to miss. Let him spend the rest of his life regretting what he’d let slip away, wishing he was still with her, helping bring up a man-child.
“If you put your ear on my stomach, you can hear the heartbeat,” she said. “The doctor says it’s a boy.”
Don Noelis retired from four decades’ prizewinning print and broadcast journalism in Hartford, CT. He took his MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in 2013. You can visit Don at www.doneonoel.com.
I was found unconscious in my little house on stilts over the sea.
There were claw marks on the windows. The chimney’s bricks were ripped off their foundation. The pipes were burst, and long strands of hair were caught on the jagged steel edges.
That part I remember.
The dripping water, the yowls as those strands were ripped off the scalps, the slapping and the splashing of bare feet on their way to me.
I wish the water had smelled like rain or warm showers.
All the past versions of me clawed their way up the stilts and into the house. They did everything I said I would never do.
So as they held me down and the water went up my nose and burned my sinuses, all I smelled was pain,
I wondered who they really were.
The next morning I’m in the hospital, calling for nurses, doctors, other patients.
Please, could someone tell me what happened, someone that isn’t him.
Because, of course, Vincent was the one who found me. And he’s the one who sits on my bed, telling me what happened while I put my hands over my ears and hum. I hum so loud my teeth chatter. That’s what I tell myself, that I hum that loud. But really, I’m still cold.
I never want to hear bad news from people I love.
It’s the softness that kills.
I found you halfway out your window. Your head was upside down, and your eyes,
your eyes looked just like the moon.
I think that’s enough water. I think it’s time to bring you down from the peaks,
the peaks of thin air and clouds of your neighbours’ smoke.
Please let me carry you down to the valley,
where your feet can touch the floor.
Once he told me what happened, I can’t remember anything else.
Right when I get to the end of the memory, me with my head resting on the sill, out the open window, right when it’s time to close my eyes and rest, it all restarts.
I saw the me’s swimming in the water under my house, clawing their way up the beams. I couldn’t hear what they said. Their words were garbled, so used to being underwater, their voices sunk in the air.
They carried my limp body to the window, their seaweed skin slipping around me.
I could hear Vincent calling for me as headlights shone through the front window.
I can hear Vincent calling me as doctors shine their flashlights into my eyes.
I’m getting stuck in this memory so often the water that drowned me is slipping out of my ears, mouth, and nose.
Vincent asks what’s on my mind. I’m afraid that if I tell him, he’ll drown too.
As the water starts to seep out into the hallway, a woman comes in.
Tell me what you can feel with your fingers, tell me what you hear, tell me what you smell; Ground yourself.
I feel the paper sheets, the rough cotton of blankets. I can smell sharp antiseptic; I can hear the beeping of machines and swishes of fabric. My skin tightens where the IV is, and my pulse pushes against my hospital bracelet.
And there is so much beeping and screaming and tubes and claws.
I don’t know which place is worse.
The same woman comes in in the evening.
I apologize for the murky water that is flooding my hospital room. I see her glancing down at my strands of hair that wave in the water.
She tells me to do the same exercise as earlier, but this time Vincent leans forward.
I smell lemons and mint and sweat. I see sea glass, his sea glass eyes; I skim my fingers over the roughness of his beard, the roundness of his knuckles.
“I was in those shining buildings.”
For the first time, the memory ends.
And now there is the after:
Vincent yelling for me,
Dragging me inside,
Carrying me to the car.
Playing my limp fingers like a piano.
When Vincent takes me back home, my body is fighting me. My ears are popping. My lungs are gasping; when we’re almost there, my nose bleeds.
He tells me,
It’s the elevation.
You don’t have to get used to it, or you’ll tell yourself you can stay.
Stop climbing higher; you are not a bird.
Don’t you dare dive; you are not a fish.
The floors are slippery with undried water and sea moss. The carpet is soggy.
I can see fish swimming in the puddles of warped ground. Sea anemones latch onto the baseboards throughout my old tiny home.
There is a wind rushing, and I can’t tell if it’s the ocean or the highway.
And that salt air. It’s sharp; it stings, but it’s not dry enough to let me live.
Vincent packs up my clothes because I can’t bear to go to my room.
When I step out on the patio, I cough up all the water from inside. I gag and spit out the salt.
This is the thin air I’m used to.
My house is on stilts but is still shorter than my neighbours’. I can see the smoke from their cigarettes billowing down to me, and I try to pick out shapes.
I look up, not down.
Down is where the sea of hands and feet are.
I hear the door open as Vincent steps out.
I used to wave good morning to the me’s of translucent winter glow
and toss kisses goodnight to the me’s of laughing summer tans.
I guess it wasn’t enough.
I thought it was better to live in the neighbour’s clouds than in those swimming shadows down below.
He takes me away from the edge and out the door to the packed car.
All my things are so heavy they push the car down the winding roads faster and faster.
I know what it’s like,
breathing in those clouds.
Across the way, over the water,
I was in those shining buildings.
I was there long before I met you.
Wouldn’t it be nice,
to meet on the ground floor without sunburned skin and thinning air?
“I know the sun isn’t right outside the window, but I hope it feels like home.”
A place without bare, bending trees;
no dirt or dead grass;
no splintering sandalwood.
So that’s where he takes me.
With the speeding car and boxes of clothes and drying and smudged books,
He carries me down to the valley, and with that drive, it feels like my first summer.
Being so high up, the sun rushes to rise, and by noon is already stumbling to set.
I used to run up my neighbourhood, trying to get more sun, more time. I was told I would be closer to the sun, but it always seemed to be running from my grasp. I was supposed to be given more time. I was supposed to be given a time with sun kisses instead of shadows.
Vincent takes me to his house, and we unpack my things into the entrance hallway.
All day, I glance at the pile that is supposed to be my life.
Vincent nudges me, saying,
El que nace pa maceta, no pasa del corredor.
So we unpack, we rest on his front lawn, and I can’t help but roll around. I feel the gnats and spiders weaving through my scalp, and I shiver.
I take off my shoes and socks and spread my toes, looking at the bottoms of my scarred feet from running on blistering sand and gravel.
I get ready for the day to end as I am spread out like the angel I always dreamed of being, but he tells me it’s only 2 pm.
We eat lunch and move my books into sunlit spare spaces and fold my clothes into his dresser.
I run through his neighbourhood even though I don’t need to chase the sun. I go further and further, pushing my lungs, waiting for them to quit, but they never do.
I am dripping in sweat; my face is red and beating.
I am my sun, sizzling on the sidewalk, watching the sky grow dark.
The day was hot, but the night is apologetic.
I can feel the dust and grime and sun kisses that coat my skin. I am cooled and crystallized.
I sit in the new living room, with its wind-blown curtains.
Vincent wraps his arms around me, putting his lips to my temple, says,
Look at the wind,
asking not to be forgotten.
It’s twirling the trees just for you,
sending those flower petals into flurries just for you,
his singsong voice halts, “I know the sun isn’t right outside the window, but I hope it feels like home.”
We lay side by side in bed, and I close my eyes.
There is a low whimpering— a test of a whimper.
I want to sit up, but it’s not time yet.
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Light taps come from the living room. They make their way down the walls of the outside of the house.
Living room, hallway, bathroom, my room.
I’m on the other side, scratching on the window, asking for help.
I am dripping and blue, asking to be let in. And when I don’t respond, I smash the window.
Other me’s come pouring in, picking up my fighting body and throwing me into the sea.
I should wake up now, now, now is when I will wake up.
Rocks are jutting out from the water under my falling body. Big jagged rocks and I tuck in my arms and legs, so I don’t get hurt.
I’ll just curl up so I won’t hit the bottom, so I won’t break.
I wake up, and I’m not in my house at all. I am at sea level, maybe below sea level now, but there is no water crowding over or around me.
It’s morning. I go outside to smell fresh-cut grass.
I sink my feet into the grass and let my body get lost in the morning glory vines along the fence. I whisper to the plants,
Please, take me in.
My voice cracks and I start to cry, and I hope my tears don’t poison the plants, “Let the leftover water in my lungs nourish you because it’s been killing me. Keep me.”
Then I look back at Vincent standing in the doorway.
“Can you check the pipes?” I ask him, “I think they’re coming back for me.”
I pace the backyard.
It’s nice to step, to walk, to travel at my speed.
I think back to the car ride here. The car was speeding, everything of me so heavy I was sure we were leaving a path on the road.
Claw marks, really.
Long, unbreaking claw marks and I was being dragged down.
Vincent comes back.
He guides me inside and shows me how small the pipes are. Of course, they can’t fit through.
Later, when I’ve wrapped my arms around myself, he leans in and whispers in my ear, “I know it’s scary. We’re taught, climb higher and higher. Crush the sky!” Then, when he has my attention, he says, “But we’re not meant for such pressure. Our bodies will explode. Same for being down in the depths of the sea.”
I interrupt him, saying, “So not a bird, not a fish.”
He whispers back, “Maybe just a snake. Maybe a lizard.”
I frown, and he laughs.
Vincent says, “There are worse things to be.”
And I can’t help but think of the me on the other side in my dream, in my memory.
I spent five years balancing in that house of stilts. I saw the water teeming with every possible version of me that was or could be, everything I loved and was afraid of.
But not once did they ever tell me to jump, to join them in that water. They never asked until they did.
So I could be worse things,
Like the me’s that finally made it up that climb and dragged me out of bed, they’re drowning me and bringing me to the edge.
That evening Vincent grips my shoulders and walks behind me down the hallway.
I give a short laugh when I see the tub filled.
“They waved to me and hooted, telling me to jump.”
He mentions how I haven’t showered since coming here.
I think of being in the ocean, the real ocean, not that sea of sharp smiles and gnashing teeth.
How I used to let the waves hit me, and there was never any fear in that.
Because I would stand or drive or jump. And if I missed, the tide always brought me back.
So I sit in the tub now.
And my boyfriend, my lifeguard, pushes mini waves of bubbles toward my curled up body till I laugh and let my arms and legs go loose because I will not hit the bottom, I will not break.
He sets a wind-up turtle toy in the water, and it bobs along till it hits my shoulder.
I’m standing on the ocean floor.
My hair is floating above me. A black halo must mean death.
I see myself twirling toward me.
The twirling me has nails so long they curve back into her palms, and when I see me, I cry and say,
Come back to me, my love.
I turn, ever so slowly in the water current, and end up in my old kitchen.
The other me is curled up in the living room. There are no doors, no windows.
I hear a whisper saying,
Don’t you miss me?
And as I’m looking at myself, I realize that I am not me.
I am some other person, dragged to the bottom, pulled so far into the water that the world turned upside down, and I was back on land.
When I wake up, I tell Vincent.
I tell him the story before the story.
The beginning long before the beginning; he knows.
Because there is always another start. Before him and me, there was me, and before me, there were millions of others.
The longer I stay in this valley with him, the more I extend my origin. I’m sure that one day I will tell my end before I finish my very beginning.
We sit cross-legged, on the bed facing each other. I play with the tassels on the duvet and tell him how I got here, to be in this bed with him in this valley where its peaks are something I can look up to instead of being afraid of falling and spearing myself with their tips.
And I finally start, “The sun had grown blistering hot. It grew hotter than anyone had ever told me it would be. I was delirious from the elevation, spinning on my house of stilts that I had climbed so long to get.
I went outside on the patio. And as I looked down, I saw all those versions of myself swimming. They squirted water between the small gap in their front teeth. They spun and splashed.
Most of all, they weren’t sunburned and gasping like I was.
They waved to me and hooted, telling me to jump. I’ve never gotten this invitation before.
My arms shook as I pulled myself onto the patio railing.
“You will rain back down till you sink into the soil of the valley.”
It felt so good, so refreshing, as the wind flew through my sweating strands. I hit the water.
I smiled underwater and at all my reflections. And now they didn’t smile or wave or hoot. They dug themselves into my flaking flesh.
I swam to the surface, kicking away their claws. I climbed up the stilts, letting the old splinters anchor my hands and toes in place.
I coughed up water the whole day.
And at night, when I finally fell asleep, I heard them. They took the trail I left and found me.”
Vincent says I can pick the music as we drive back up those hills and mountains.
It’s not morning, but with these long days and nights of the valley, I’m not sure I can wait weeks till the sun rises.
“Vincent, I wasn’t always unhappy there. In my defence, I first loved the sun that sat so close it burned my skin. See, I had been cold my whole life. It was magical to overlook the water, to peer over it and to see millions of my reflections. But every beat of the sun was an hour, and I grew so dizzy, so dizzy that I would lie on the deck and I was convinced I could feel the rotation of the earth; do you know how terrifying it is—to feel the seconds of your life evaporating yet there is no way to catch up possibly; it’s a panic of being on a house of stilts but still not being able to climb over it all, but underneath, underneath those reflections came to life and I saw so much of myself and I couldn’t abandon them as they called for me, begged for me, and most of all, promised me that if I just jumped—and I only had to jump once— that I would be okay. The funny thing is, Vincent, I never saw any older versions of me in those laps and waves.”
I look around to make sure that speaking of them did not attract them. But there is no water around. No pipes. No stilts.
I remind myself that they will not find me because I’m on my way to find them.
I know we’re getting close to my old house because I said all that, and it seems like a week has passed.
Vincent parks in front of my house, turning his tires in and putting on the emergency brake.
I’m panting by the time we reach the doorway.
Everything inside has been sundried; no more ocean residue, no water damage. Everything has been seared away.
I’m waiting for something to come running out. I can see the pictures of dreams drawing themself into this moment. My eyes are searching for all the places I saw them.
Vincent goes out to the patio and waits for me.
I hear screams and howls, and I brace myself.
But it’s just the wind.
“Look down, “ he tells me, gripping my hand, “ They’re not there anymore. And I say they because they were just you in a single moment; it’s just that sometimes those moments add up, and there can be mobs and swarms.”
oh no, please.
And I think that but I’m the first to jump, and he falls after me.
I use my right hand to plug my nose because I’m not sure if, at this point, I can survive with more of this water filtering through my lungs.
We swim deeper and deeper and float, so the water settles, and there, right there, are all the bones of those reflections of me.
Their hair has planted itself into the sand, and now it’s just seaweed, just water reeds, and their teeth have become covered by their gums and turned into a coral reef.
We kick and swim and flounder till we reach the surface, and I’m gasping.
We float on our backs and let the waves take us till we latch onto the stilts and use the claw marks as grooves to get back up. I take off my soaking clothes and leave them in the house. My trail will end here, just in case they ever come back and look for me.
Back in my summer valley,
Our car is flying through the streets.
And it’s so green here. Ivy is dripping off the houses and fences, trees are erupting through grass, flowers are spilling over sidewalks, and even weeds are winding through the cracks in the street.
Our windows are down, it’s barely dawn, the sun is drying my hair into curls, and he looks over to me at a red light.
There are no other cars out, but we still stop.
Vincent says, “Maybe, years and years from now—after a lifetime with me—you will step out into that howling wind and be carried to the clouds again. You will rain back down till you sink into the soil of the valley. Right there in midair, you will start over again. In hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and eruptions, tsunamis and monsoons.”
And the thought of starting over again, even as rain or ivy,
I almost can’t bear the thought of it because I worry about those years down the line. Catching a reflection and it is me, with windblown hair, sprinting downward toward my valley.
So I smile wide and laugh so it will echo till I find this me again, in mirrors and oceans, in car windows and dreams.
Dani Herrera writes her magical realism from the simmering Central Valley of California. She is currently a fiction candidate at St. Mary’s College of California and always strives to include her Hispanic heritage in her writing. Dani has been previously published at Crack the Spine. You can follow her on Instagram @dani.herreraa to see pockets of her life and her beloved border collie, Blu.
Day-drinking naps give me the best dreams, and this one’s no different. I’m with Renee, a figure I’m still connected to in a weird, offensive way. In my dream, though, it’s all honeymoon. She’s unzipping my pants, about to do something marvelous, when a knock rattles my bedroom window.
I throw the blanket off and pull back the curtain. It’s not yet dark but soon will be. Rain slashes against the building. Wind whips a fast-food wrapper stuck in a branch and ruffles my neighbor’s makeshift garbage bag car window. Nothing out of the ordinary. Probably just a branch rubbing against the siding. I’m turning back to bed when I hear it again. It’s more of a persistent tapping than a knock. I look outside and see the same. Then I look down and there’s my father standing on the sill, no bigger than a baby squirrel, half-drowned and shivering. I open the window.
“Christ, dad, what’re you doing? I mean…how?” I bring him inside, cradling him in my hand.
“You thought throwing some dirt on me would get rid of me.” His shivering makes my handshake. I use two hands like you would a communion wafer.
“Usually that does the trick. Twelve years, why now? And how’d you get so small?”
“Boy, get me some dry clothes. You want me to catch pneumonia?”
I glance around, bewildered. “Clothes? There’s nothing to fit you.” I carry him into the bathroom and set him on the counter. I shut the door.
“We’ve got to be careful. I’ve got a cat.”
He looks at the red hairdryer pushed against the corner of the vanity. “You must got yourself a woman, too.”
I laugh. “Don’t you recognize it? It’s yours.” I tell him to strip.
Plaid shirt and his favorite jeans—the clothes he was buried in. Dad never was a suit man. He pulls his shirt over his head, unbuttons his jeans, and shimmies out.
“But you don’t have enough hair.”
I pat my buzz cut. “I know. But I had trouble getting rid of your stuff after…you know. I’ve kept most of it. Every time I take a piss, there it is reminding me of you. Call me sentimental I guess.”
Dad still has great hair, flowing loose curls like all the best paintings of Jesus. With his blue eyes, broad shoulders, and big hands, there was never a shortage of bar hags crashing at our house growing up. But it’s hard to make out these details now on account of his stature.
I plug in the blow dryer, set it to warm at the slowest speed. I put my left hand behind his back so he won’t scud off the vanity. “Okay. Turn.” After I finish drying his backside, I switch the thing to the faster speed and dry off his clothes. “They feel good now.” I hand them back.
“Why were you in bed so early?” He slides his arm into the sleeve.
“I’m doing some babysitting. Just resting up a little before Renee brings her boy over. He’s very active.” Of course, I don’t tell him about the day drinking.
“The kid’s not yours?” Dad pushes the button through the last hole on his shirt.
“Nah.” I hold my hand out for him to step on.
“Then who is this Renee?”
“Why the fuck are you volunteering to watch her kid?”
“It’s complicated. I worked for her dad as a salesman at his furniture store. He fired me two weeks ago saying business sucked, yet I outsold Renee every week. He just didn’t want me there anymore, staring at his daughter like some lovesick clown. Plus he might’ve heard me call her a slut when I discovered she was sleeping with the warehouse guy. Anyhow, he never mailed my final check. I can’t reach him because he and the Mrs. are on a cruise. Renee said she’d drop it off if I watched her son for a few hours.”
I carry dad into the living room. Pusser, my 18-pound tabby, is lying on the couch. “That’s going to be a problem.”
“You told me you had a cat, not a mountain lion.”
I set dad on the armrest farthest from Pusser. I scoop up Pusser and carry her to the spare bedroom and shut the door. His clothes, his tools, his high school wrestling trophies; it’s all in there. I hear Pusser knocking into things, things falling.
“What’s all that racket?”
“Nothing. It’s just Pusser being Pusser.” I offer dad a beer, figuring things are different now, but he waves me off. With dad still on the wagon, I feel funny about boozing in front of him, but this is my apartment. Am I not a grown-ass man? I grab a beer for me and a bottle of water for him. I grab a few slices of imitation cheese while I’ve got the fridge open.
Dad has the remote on the sofa cushion, hopping up and down on the power button.
“You’re wasting your energy. The cable got shut off.”
He looks at the blank TV. “How do you entertain yourself?”
I pull my phone from my pajama pocket and blow his mind. When dad had passed, flip phones had just been invented. I find Key & Peele on YouTube. We laugh our asses off.
“I help pry Spike off her leg so she can leave.”
“Phones are televisions. Unbelievable. What else have I missed?” “Not much.”
“Not much,” he mocks me. “You’ve got phones that are televisions —televisions!”
“I mean, yeah, we’ve got these tricked out phones, but everything’s gotten fake because of it. People don’t want to hang out anymore. Kids just sit around and type messages to each other.” I scroll through Renee’s text messages to demonstrate.
“Damn. She didn’t have the lady nuts to break up in person?”
“I know. Ridiculous considering I worked with her. I give her seven months of my life and this is what I get in return. A goddamn text.”
Dad presses different icons on my phone. I let him play around with it for a bit until he clicks on the photo gallery. I take my phone back, unsure whether I deleted all the pics I sent Renee back when we were screwing all the time. I get back on my soapbox.
“All people do is showboat, posting pictures of their new house, new car, new abs, new butt lift, their kid’s perfect report card. And they’re always going on and on about how blessed they are. It’s so damn phony. It makes me want to puke. We’re all eating shit sandwiches breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but no one will cop to it.”
Dad scratches right below where his hair hangs down on his neck. “What’s this posting pictures?”
I click on the Facebook app. My last posting was from two months ago, a selfie of me and Renee in front of a Lamborghini at a car show. “There’s this thing called a Like button—see it? People try to get as many Likes as possible.” I can tell dad’s not following. “Look, it’s not worth explaining.”
I go back to YouTube, scroll through some recently loaded videos. I hit play on one called Chicken vs. Gorilla. Two grown men—I assume they’re men—dressed in costumes are beating the shit out of each other.
Dad tilts the phone to see better. “So what’s this thing you’re showing me?”
“YouTube. What it is, you shoot a video and upload it to this site for the world to see.”
“And people Like this, too?”
“Yes.” I point to the thumbs up button. “Or if you don’t like it, you press this one.” I point to the number displayed beneath the video. “This tells you how many views the video has. When you get enough people watching, companies wave money at you to play their ads. That’s why we had to watch that truck commercial before the video.”
We sit quietly, enjoying the action. It looks like chicken is done after gorilla lands a left hook, but when gorilla charges in for the double-leg, chicken times a beautiful knee to gorilla’s nose, laying him out.
The doorbell rings. I check the time. “She’s not supposed to be here for another hour.” I pan the room, figuring where to hide dad. “Here, slide behind this throw pillow.” With dad out of sight, I open the door.
Renee’s wearing red lipstick. Her winter coat hides the hem of her dress, skirt—I can’t tell. Knowing Renee, whatever she’s wearing won’t be on long. Spike hides behind her; she’s got to push him through the door. “Say hi to Uncle Kevin.”
I tussle the little guy’s moppy brown hair, then deadeye Renee. “You said seven-thirty.”
“Yeah, I’m early. So what?” She turns to leave.
I clear my throat. “Forgetting something?”
“I’ll give it to you when I get back.”
“You’ll give it to me now or you’ll have a two-year-old cock block stuck between you and Mr. Swipe Right.”
Her look says it all, but she says it anyway. “You’re such a dick.”
“Go on,” I shoo her back to the car. God damn it, look at that run in her stockings! She’s playing mind games. She put that run in her stockings because she knows it makes me hard. She leans inside her car, digs around for a bit, then reemerges with an envelope. She puts the envelope in my hand, careful not to let her fingers touch me.
She bends down. “Come give mommy a kiss.” She offers her cheek so Spike won’t smudge her lipstick.
“Don’t slut around too long. I’ve got stuff to do.”
“Sure you do,” she says. I help pry Spike off her leg so she can leave. Her headlights arch onto the neighboring duplex as she backs out of my stumpy driveway. I wait until she turns onto the next street before closing the door. Spike starts up with his sniffling routine, but I’m prepared this time.
“Hey buddy, want some M&Ms? Uncle Kevin’s got a whole bag. A big one.” The little guy follows me to the kitchen. I cross back into the living room with a bag in hand.
“Dad always had too much confidence in the wake of ridiculous obstacles.”
“You can come out now.”
“What about him?” It’s hard to hear dad behind the pillow.
“Our buddy here is speech delayed.” I pretend to have Spike’s nose. “But that don’t make him no dummy, right ol’ Spike?” Spike grabs my thumb and puts his nose back on his face.
Dad steps into view. Spike stares at him, eyes big as Frisbees, gaped mouth drooling red and green holiday saliva.
“Chew your candy lil’ man. The landlord likes his carpet beige.” I lift on Spike’s chin.
Spike takes a step toward dad but is distracted by the thumpety thump against the bedroom door. He looks at me.
“I put the kitty in the bedroom. Why don’t you let her out?” Spike toddles toward the sound. I walk to the armrest and pick dad up.
“This is getting to be too much. I’m moving you to higher ground.” I carry him into the kitchen, set him on top of the refrigerator next to a cookbook featuring that guy with the frosted tips. When Renee was living here, we thought we were going to cook and save money. We never did. I hear Spike working the doorknob until he gets it.
Renee doesn’t pick Spike up until three a.m. She could’ve put her stockings back on but she didn’t. Like it’s not enough for her to stick the knife in my heart—she’s got to give it a twist. It’s too late to wake Spike, so we put a blanket down and lay him across the backseat.
After they leave, I check on dad. He’s still sitting next to the cookbook, wide awake.
“Don’t you sleep anymore?”
“I’m tired. I’m just worried about rolling off the edge.”
“Sorry, I would’ve moved you earlier, but Spike and I fell asleep on the couch.”
“How come your ex knocks and you open right away? Look at my knuckles. I was pounding that window for twenty minutes.”
“Don’t know. Maybe it has something to do with you weighing less than my sneaker.” I pick dad up and carry him to my bedroom. I shut the door to keep Pusser out. I set him on my pillow until I find a suitable sleeping arrangement. There’s a tissue box on my nightstand, the squat, rectangular kind. I rip the top off and splay the sides. I lay him down on tissues. “How’s that?”
“It’s the store brand, but I think they’re just as soft.” I turn off the lamp and close my eyes. I think about what it would be like to never open them.
We go out the next morning to stock up on ramen noodles and non perishables with my last paycheck. Dad fits in the inside pocket of my jacket. I leave it partially unzipped so it won’t be as stuffy. There’s a PetSmart next to the grocery store. We stop in there and buy a birdcage on clearance, something to keep dad in when Pusser is sharing the room with us. On the way home, I buy a bottle of Old Crow at the liquor store.
It’s hard not to overdo it with my drinking in front of dad. Two weeks had passed since I lost my job. None of the neighboring retailers would touch me because of my neck tattoo—one of the many bad decisions I’ve made while under the influence. Next month’s rent wasn’t getting paid. Dad instigates the shit out of the cat, butting his face up to the bars of the birdcage, knowing they are set too close for Pusser to stick her paw through and attack. Pusser tries regardless, flicking her tail and twitching her upper lip. I hold out the whiskey bottle, offering to splash some in dad’s drinking bowl inside the cage. I know I shouldn’t press dad, but drinking by yourself feels weird when you have company.
“You really want to wind me up and set me down that road again?” He runs his fingers across the bars. Pusser presses her nose against the cage. Dad flicks her right on the tip of it. Pusser hisses and bares her teeth, then scrambles out of the room.
I swirl my whiskey. The ice cubes have melted into one big lump. Of course, neither of us want him going down that road. The last time he went down that road we had gotten into it after he’d had too many. He threw a sloppy right that caught me just above the jaw. The punch didn’t hurt. What hurt was knowing I would’ve flattened him if I swung back. That was the first time I thought of dad as anything other than invincible. Who would look after him when I wasn’t around? Who would wake him up when he hit the snooze too many times? The morning after, I heard him in the bathroom flushing the toilet to drown out his sobs. He never had another drink, even when the cancer moved in and dismantled his body.
The spring-latch squeaks as my father reaches through the bars and opens the door. He climbs onto my lap and sits there like a child. We stare at a hunk of Pusser’s fur rolled up in the corner of the room like tumbleweed. Pusser prances back into the room. Dad steps back into his cage just as she hops on the couch. I latch the door behind him. Dad studies Pusser for a spell.
“How hard is it to create one of them YouTube channels?”
“You got something to film it?”
“Right here.” I hold up my phone. “What are you getting at?” “I think it’s time for us to grab some of that ad revenue.”
Dad always had too much confidence in the wake of ridiculous obstacles. Like that time I was fifteen, working out in the basement, attempting to turn my concave chest into a hulking chick magnet. Dad came down and demanded I put every plate on the bar even though he hadn’t benched since high school. “Every damn plate,” he yelled. He had set his beer on the washing machine and helped me load the plates. It took everything I had to pull the weights off of him that evening. And here was that bravado again, thinking he can outrun Pusser through an obstacle course.
“It’ll be like a modern-day Tom & Jerry.”
I shake my head. “Except that was a cartoon and you’re not a mouse. This is a bad idea. A very bad idea.”
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“No, it’s a crazy idea, not a bad one. Every great idea sounds crazy at first.” He stops pacing and grabs the bars. “Until someone proves it possible.”
I’ve heard this story before from dad. Roger Banister. The four minute mile. Blah, blah, blah. “Look, you can’t outrun Pusser. You just can’t.”
Dad points to Pusser’s underbelly. “She’s got a lot of flesh hanging there. A whole lot of gunt action.” Dad punches himself in his abs for effect. “I’m in the best shape of my life. Haven’t had a drink in fifteen years.”
“You can’t count the years you were dead.”
“I’m not sitting here splitting hairs with you all night. Take me for a spin.”
“I’ll know when I see it.” He rattles the cage door. “Open up.”
We drive around town looking at Christmas lights and nativity scenes. Dad has me slow down every time we approach a manger and plastic figurines.
“Pull over, son.”
I pull onto the shoulder in front of The Church of God. “What’s your obsession?”
“Do you see that? The clothes are real, not just part of the mold. Go snatch that shepherd.”
“I can’t steal from the church.”
“Yes, you can.” He pushes on my hip. “Get out there. Quick, before a car comes along.”
I jog across the frozen grass and kneel by the icons. The fluorescent cross attached to the church washes over me with its artificial glow. I grab the shepherd and run back to the car.
I shut Pusser in the bedroom when we get home. Dad has the shepherd disrobed and is shoving his arms through the sleeves. The cuffs hang past his hands; the bottom bunches on the carpet, hiding his feet. “It’ll have to be altered,” he says.
“Would you please tell me what’s going on?”
“I’m Jesus. Lil’ Jesus. LJ. The miniature messiah. This shit’s going to go—what you call it?”
“Yes, viral. Everybody’s hopping aboard the LJ train. Think of all the sponsors we’ll have. We’ll shoot an episode every week, each escape more daring than the last. We’ll build an online store. Lil’ Jesus hats, hoodies, tee shirts. Maybe get some beer koozies and bumper stickers up in there. You’ll never have to sell furniture or whatever bullshit again.”
“Exactly,” dad thrusts his fist in the air.
“No, I mean Jesus as in you’ve got to be kidding me. Jesus, as in you’ll get hurt and leave another hole in my life.”
Dad cocks his head and looks at me with confusion, disappointment —it’s hard to tell what’s scribbled on his tiny face. “Why aren’t you seeing this for what it is? This is an opportunity, son. When opportunity knocks you don’t go hiding under your bed. You invite it in, ask it to stay.” He pulls his hair back so it falls evenly over his collar. “I’m doing this. Whether you tape it or not, that’s up to you. But one way or another, I’m running from that goddamn cat. Now get some scissors so we can take care of this.”
I rifle through the junk drawer until I find scissors. I cut a few inches from the sleeves and bottom. Still, it’s big in the chest. I cinch the robe at the waist with the cloth belt. We build the obstacle course with shoe and cereal boxes, orange juice cartons, and other miscellanea we find around the apartment and community dumpster at the end of our street. We duct tape a red string to the ceiling at the midway point of the course that will allow dad to swing to an elevated cereal box.
The next day we buy a hot glue gun and Popsicle sticks at the craft store and construct hurdles, adding them to the final stretch. We use another shoebox for the finish line, cutting a slot into the side that’ll allow dad to dive through safely. We wedge the box into the bottom shelf of the entertainment unit. At the opposite end of the course is Pusser’s travel carrier set six feet behind the strip of tape stuck to the carpet marking dad’s starting line. I argue with dad about having a bigger head start, but he’s having none of it.
“The race needs to stay competitive to capture the audience.” He adjusts his robe.
“You going to be able to run in that thing?”
“Like the wind.”
“They think I’m a phony,” he mumbles.
I grab my phone and shoot a video trailer of the course, zooming in on the red string, the cereal boxes, the miniature hurdles. Lastly, I zoom in on dad leaning against the steel gate of Pusser’s carrier. The robe, the hair, the beard— I have to admit, he makes a good Jesus. Pusser rams her head against the gate, jostling dad. Dad turns and wags his finger at Pusser for comedic effect.
“Tune in Monday for our inaugural Cat vs Lil’ Jesus.” I end the video and post it on YouTube.
“What are we waiting for?” he asks. Let’s film the race.”
“You can’t post on the weekend. People are out doing shit. You post it on Monday when people are stuck in their cubicles.”
Dad watches me push buttons on my phone. I create a Facebook page, Instagram, and Twitter accounts. I submit our teaser video to Reddit. “We’ve got to use a bunch of platforms to create traction. Hopefully, we’ll have a substantial following come race day.”
Dad looks exhausted. He dumped all his adrenaline into this idea of his, and now he’s suffering. I pick him up and carry him to his bed of tissues. “I still don’t get why Jesus. Just be yourself.”
“People are lazy. They can’t see a miracle without the packaging.” Dad yawns. “You coming to bed?”
“In a minute. I’ve got to let Pusser out of the carrier.”
I do that. Then I head to the kitchen and make another whiskey and cola. Dad just needs a hobby, something to distract him. I wish he was bigger. Or his tools were smaller. It wouldn’t be hard finding a car in this neighborhood to fix. Maybe I can get him one of those nicer Matchbox cars, the bigger ones that glide real smooth with the hoods that pop and the detailed plastic engine beneath.
The bulb burns out in the brass chandelier. It’s down to a single candle built like a flame. I must be getting drunk. Of all the stupid ideas. What would dad even say? How the fuck am I going to turn a wrench on this?
By race day we have 200,000 hits from our video trailer. I carbed dad up the night before with homemade Thai—drained ramen noodles with scrambled eggs and hot sauce. I grab my phone and shoot dad doing hurdler stretches, then catch some footage of Pusser butting her head against the gate.
“Looks like we’re ready folks.” But dad motions one more second. He kneels and clasps his hands. “Right, let’s pay our respects to the big man first.” I watch dad move his lips silently. Is this part of the act? What if it isn’t? And why didn’t he tell me about this?
Dad stands and hops around. “Lil’ Jesus getting the blood flowing, getting ready to cut loose.” He plants his foot on the grey tape and assumes a crouched position.
“On your mark, get set,” and on go I release the gate. Dad jumps onto a ream of copy paper, bolts along the surface, and jumps down. Pusser sniffs the ream, then detours the obstacle. Dad scales the shoebox, deftly maneuvering between hand and footholds I had notched in it with a steak knife. He reaches the top, grabs the red string, and swings. We screwed up calculating the trajectory, and instead of landing cleanly, he slams into the General Mills logo. The box tips and dad topples with it, landing on his shoulder and rolling to his feet. Pusser feels a renewed commitment and closes the distance. As dad clears the final hurdle, Pusser swats, pawing nothing but air. Dad dives through the slot in the box, punctuating the race.
“Talk about a close one! Lil’ Jesus tearing ass through the course, leaving Pusser with a mouthful of dust bunnies. Lil’ Jesus one, Pusser nothin’. Be sure to subscribe to our channel to catch all our videos. You can also watch us on Facebook Live.” I hit the red square to stop recording. I rush to where dad is bunkered and slide the box from the shelf. I pop the lid. “You alright?”
“That was some workout.” He takes a minute to catch his breath, then pushes himself to his feet. He swings his arm in tight circles. “That box got me.”
“Want me to get an ice cube for your shoulder?”
“Nah, I’ll be alright.”
“That was amazing.” I lift dad out of the box.
“How much money do you think we’ll make?”
“A lot,” I tell him. “A lot.”
The following Monday we had gone viral with twenty million views. A Texas real estate investor advertised a house flipping course on our video. I was in talks with several apparel manufacturers, putting together a line of tee-shirts, hats, and hoodies. We had already generated enough ad revenue to build our online store.
Within a month our store is cranking out thousands of dollars in merch. A fulfillment center ships it directly from a warehouse to our client for a small cut. We get the cable reconnected just in time to catch football playoffs. A blonde analyst is on the field, the Green Bay weather whipping her scarf and reddening her cheeks. Dad is on the sofa, eating a microwaved taquito and reading viewer comments from our YouTube channel.
“Listen to this one. If you believe that fake-ass Jesus you must’ve been born again yesterday. Just some UCLA grad CGI-ing the shit out of this video.” Dad shoves a hunk of taquito into his mouth. “They think I’m a phony,” he mumbles.
“The comment section is a wasteland. Don’t bother with them trolls.” But he doesn’t listen.
“He is my father, who am I to disobey him?”
“Here’s a good one. Dear Americans: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, modern-day Israel for you dumb shits that have never spun a globe. How can he possibly be your shade of vanilla? Enjoy your ignorance while you can, because there will be no Walmart in the afterlife.” Dad puts his taquito down. “These people are worked up.”
“C’mon dad, that’s enough.” I turn the phone over so it’s face down. “All you think about is work these days. Kickoff is about to start. Let’s watch the game like old times.”
Dad glances at the players running through the tunnel. “I’m thinking on the next shoot we use empty toilet paper rolls instead of hurdles. We’ll place them in a T-formation, so I’ll jump over one and crawl through the next. They’re light enough, maybe I can ping one-off Pusser when she gets on my heels.”
I polish off my whiskey & cola and set the stubby glass on the end table. “I don’t know, dad. I’m thinking maybe we should stop shooting.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We’ve been cutting it close. Pusser almost got you last time.”
“It was just my foot,” Dad says. “The rest of my body was already in the box.”
“Still,” I say, “the first time she ever touched you. She’s getting leaner, faster, smarter. It’s only a matter of time. We’re playing Russian Roulette.” Pusser won’t stop rattling the bedroom door. “I better let her out before she shits on the floor again. You should get back in.”
Dad crosses the threshold and I shut the cage.
“I’m getting tired of this fucking cage,” he yells as I walk to the spare bedroom. When I turn the knob I see I’m too late. There is a turd on top of dad’s red Snap-On toolbox. She had to hop five feet to lay that one down. Pusser gives me this cocky look I don’t appreciate, then prances into the kitchen. I follow her. Dry cat chow clinks against the metal bowl as I make another drink.
I’m awakened by my moans, the sugar and alcohol having rung my brain like a dish sponge. My sinuses are clogged; my eyes glued shut with mucus. I had fallen asleep on the sofa, a bad habit perpetuated by my growing arsenal of whiskey cocktails.
“Your immune system is shit.” Dad watches me work the sleep from my eyes. I blink until his image sharpens. Dawn snakes through the missing slat in the blinds, illuminating a whorl of dust motes above his head.
“Good morning to you, too.” My throat is parched and it’s hard pushing the words out. “I need some water.” It takes three attempts to get my footing under me. I come back with a glass filled with tap and two Advil. Dad starts lecturing.
“Don’t act as I did.”
“I’m not.” I gulp the medicine back. “You drank with friends.” “They weren’t my friends.”
I look at the whiskey glass and empty beer bottles littering the coffee table. What am I doing? When will I say enough’s enough? I’m too embarrassed to look at my father. “I can’t lose you again. You’re everything.” I rub my eyes.
Dad reaches through the bars and opens the latch. He climbs down the sofa, using the rivets along the edge as footholds. He zips across the carpet and jumps on my foot. He bunches the leg of my pajamas in each hand and begins to climb. At my thigh, he pauses to catch his breath, then continues up and up, his face a red dot from the strain. When he reaches my waist, I offer my hand.
“Put it away,” he barks. He regroups and doubles his effort. He clasps my tee shirt and inches up my torso. Panting and trembling, he leans his ear against my chest. “Can’t you hear that, son? It’s bigger than anything you can imagine. As long as it’s pumping, it’s all you need.”
He continues to ascend, hand over hand. He pulls himself onto my shoulder. He rests.
“I just climbed a mountain. No gear. No safety net. All heart. It’s time you put the bottle down. You’re bigger than your excuses.”
I try to hide my trepidation about the shoot. Pusser has changed. She no longer rubs against my leg. When I go to pet her under her chin she bites my fingers. She never finishes her two scoops of dry mix anymore, and her belly sag has noticeably shrunk. She has awoken me on several occasions during the predawn hours galloping through the house and climbing doorjambs like she used to.
“What time’s this shoot?” Dad rolls his neck from side to side. “Whenever you want. We can always push it off.”
“Shit no we ain’t pushing it off. We sold over a thousand tee shirts last week. I want that doubled by month’s end. I’m ready.”
“You sure you’re good for this? You exerted a lot of yourself yesterday with the climb. Maybe you need another day to recover.”
“What do I look like? Some kind of Sally? Hit the button.” Dad puts his foot on the line.
“Don’t you want to stretch? Do your hurdlers or something?” “I’m stretched.”
I open my mouth, but there’s no point in speaking. His mind is set. He is my father, who am I to disobey him?
“On your mark. Get set. Go.” I release the gate.
Like so many great sprinters, dad never looks back, his eyes glued to the obstacles. The ream of paper has been replaced with two shoes. He jumps and rolls off them, smooth like butter. In his best start ever, he scales the shoebox without a hitch. But Pusser is dialed in. She doesn’t pause, she doesn’t sniff. She is a sniper. As dad swings from the red string, his hair flowing back, Pusser takes a great leap. She hooks her claws into dad’s back, yanking him to the floor.
I drop my phone. I wrench Pusser off dad and chuck her across the room. But I’m too late. Dad’s eye dangles from its socket. His neck and body are carved up and bleeding.
I wrap him loosely in a Lil’ Jesus tee shirt and lay him in the shoebox we used for the finish line. For two weeks I hold vigil over his body, calling his name, praying for a second resurrection. But who exactly am I praying to? All I can think of is my ol’ man. How he taught me where to put my fingers on the laces. How he taught me to use a full bladder to spell my name in the snow.
He’s not coming back this time. I move his box into the spare bedroom with his other belongings. I set him on the side shelf of his Snap-On toolbox. Most of the tools in there I’ll never use, but just being near them fills me with a sense of purpose. Second acts come in life, sometimes even thirds. But you’ve got to put in the work. I start by unscrewing the cap on the Old Crow and finding the nearest sink.
Don Foster grew up in a Maryland farm town and now lives in Delaware with his wife and kids. In 2019 he won an artist fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts, and his stories have been published in various places online and in print. When he’s not writing, he’s masquerading as a flooring salesman. You can find his work on his website here.
I was laying on my cold and crinkly blowup mattress when the phone rang. I moved carefully to avoid spilling the noodles that I made in the microwave earlier, rolling over to my other side where the consistent hum pulsed through my bed’s empty membrane.
His name flashed across the glowing screen. No. I couldn’t do it. I did not have the energy to deal with this right now. I would say time, but I had all the time in the world.
Every weekend Hazel went back to the city to see her kids, leaving me alone in our childhood house that we were remodeling together. She told me not to do any work while she was gone.
“We all need to rest sometimes,” she would remind me before she left— the same kind of compassion I knew she would not extend to herself.
I would raise my overgrown eyebrows at her. As childish as it was, I still hated it when she told me what to do. I was almost a 30-year-old woman for crying out loud. And besides, I knew the real reason she didn’t want me to work. Her overbearing was almost enough to stop me.
“I thought of us as little girls playing dolls in front of the wooden kitchen cabinets…”
So while she was gone, I tore down walls, laid floors, and painted the bedrooms, the sorts of things that you don’t need two sets of hands for. It was better to hear the roaring thunder of crashing walls than to hear the phantom clock ticking in my mind.
Nostalgia is a strange thing. More than a pang in your chest, it disintegrates your bones and puts an ache in your teeth. I tried to not let myself sink in. I don’t know what it would look like to give in to that cruel lover.
It was strange to be back in that beautiful house. She was ever changing these days but held shape to my memories of the place. Looking back was a kind of mirage. It was hard to tell what things had been there in my youth and what had been changed by the three owners since.
But there she stood, tall and shapely, a grand affair back in the day. A huge porch, two stories, enough space for work and play. I thought of us as little girls playing dolls in front of the wooden kitchen cabinets, jumping off the step into the sunken living room floor, now a sign of its time, running barefoot, shag carpet worming its way between our toes.
We never thought we would get a chance to set foot in her again—us living about 5 hours away and Mom and Dad in Florida. It was fitting that it came at this point in our life. So much had changed and we had given up almost everything to pursue a dream that had only begun a few years back.
“I had begun to believe that she might be the real Misty in the next of her nine lives.”
At the beginning of it all, Hazel had spent the last few days before her divorce wallowing in self-pity in a pile of soggy blankets in my shoebox apartment. She had sent her three small children to stay with our parents for a few weeks, hoping they would go to the beach and forget all about mommy and daddy’s separation. Despite the mutual end, it was so much more brutal than either of us could have imagined. Second thoughts and words, crueler than lashes pushed back and forth between them.
She would disappear on me. The strong sister. The one who had it all sniveling back to her now ex-husband begging for him to take her back. I would plead for her to stay every time she left to see him one last time, to make love or hate or whatever it was.
“You wanted this,” I would say to her.
“And I still do.”
But the bond, the animal magnetism, the evolutionary desire to love and be loved was too much for her human nature to bear. Without fail, until the last of the papers were processed, she still believed that her love was stronger.
In the house, there was a kitten that looked exactly like the one that we had as kids— a cinnamon tabby with golden stripes, round green eyes. Hazel made her live on the porch while she was there, claiming that she didn’t like cats inside and that our old cat never set foot inside a day in her life. I would plead that she was all alone in the cold, but Hazel would never concede.
The kitten lived on the front porch where we fed her table scraps, but when she was gone I would let the little kitten in. She would explore the house, nimble on her tiny feet, hunting blinds strings and slinking past whatever construction equipment we had hauled in that week.
“Misty?” I would whisper to her sometimes hoping that she would recognize me. I had begun to believe that she might be the real Misty in the next of her nine lives. She would look at me with those huge orbs of eyes and blink knowingly in response. I took it as a sign and called her by her name.
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When I would try to tell Hazel, she would deem me ridiculous. She had gotten more rigid since the split. A coping mechanism, I would tell myself, hoping that I believed it. It was different too, to work with her. She had been somewhat like that when we were kids, but now, spending almost all day every day with her, she found herself too good to believe in fairytales, too strict for fun, too driven to spend a second on herself. Like my Misty, she was another ghost from my past reincarnated into a completely different being.
The house had many mirrors on the walls. The ones that I couldn’t justify shattering in the overhaul, I ran past quickly hoping to never catch a glimpse of myself. I tended to avoid reflective surfaces those days. I didn’t need any more reminders that I was a phantom myself.
My hair was still growing back, the bags under my eyes becoming less dark, nevertheless, not returning to their original state. My ribcage still looked a little too skeletal when I wasn’t wearing my self-imposed uniform of men’s work overalls. I wasn’t the woman I used to be.
But I was different than before in other ways as well. The muscles in my arms and back became more defined from the hard labor, my skin a bit more bronzed, a greater sense of purpose in my head.
I was fine. I was doing fine. I don’t know why I did the things I did. Sabotages and mutinies on my own ship, abandoning love and letting it sink. Why couldn’t I just answer the phone?
But I couldn’t, so I ran.
“Do you want me here?”
It didn’t start that way. After Hazel’s split, I left behind my few things and we flipped her house to put on the market. It hadn’t needed much to update it, so we were able to turn a pretty good profit. Then we laid all the tile in her second home that she bought all on her own and built on the bedroom for her little boy. We learned a lot in that time. We were young and knew nothing of building up and tearing down in the physical sense.
After those first two, we met a crossroad. It was an easy choice with lots of immediate consequences. Hazel had to say goodbye to a class full of kindergarteners halfway through the school year. Looking back I think teaching was a strange choice for her to begin with. She must have had those children military ready by winter break.
I had less of a shift. I kept working, but took far fewer freelance jobs and was finally forced to leave my couch and create some sort of a routine. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for the stay at home life either. I had never been able to create any sort of structure. I didn’t even own a desk. It had been nice though when I was sick. I could work from my hospital room with no need to explain anything to anyone, not fear of anyone seeing me in my weakness. Now I could work with Hazel all day and avoid the rest of my problems at night by working some more. A golden setup. I was tired, but I felt good, the kind of exhaustion that comes from your body going to battle with herself.
Back in the city, the weekends were on the same schedule, but at the house, just me and Misty, we were left to sit with our thoughts and talk to our house. “Do you want me here?” I would ask sometimes. I wondered if she remembered me from when I was little. I wondered if she liked me tearing her apart, gutting her out, and giving her new polished insides.
I walked around barefoot like when I was small, my toes turning blue from the cold wooden floor. We would probably take that out soon too and replace it with some more modern vinyl. I could feel each scratch through the souls of my feet and wondered if they had all been here before. Surely we couldn’t have been that destructive. Surely we couldn’t have made scars that deep.
“I never asked for this.”
Our childhood was everything good and holy and pure in this world — running through sprinklers in the backyard, believing in the tooth fairy, bedtime stories every night, an eternal summer. Now that we were there for such a short period, it felt like we were wronging the place, not doing justice to her glory days.
I sometimes thought about the families that lived there after us. Did they have children? Did they spit cherry pits off the front porch and make blanket forts? Did they ride the bus home from school and proudly wear their first pair of bright yellow rain boots even when it was dry outside, and name the earthworms that crawled out of the garden? Did they fall in love? Did they break someone’s heart?
I couldn’t do it, couldn’t answer. I couldn’t let someone in. How could I do it when all I would give in return was heartache and loss? The house didn’t ask for me, but there I was. He asked, and I was forced to protect him from this ticking time bomb.
When she went up on the market, 5 long hours from modern civilization, I knew I had to take this opportunity to leave. What better excuse than the distance. Who knew how long this project would take.
I knew he watered my plants in the window box of my apartment. Sometimes he would send me a picture of them, the vines that my little yellow flowers grew on in the spring. I never asked for this. I figured they would die in the first freeze anyway, yet they lived on.
And so did I. Through the cold months, the hard labor, my ghost curled around my feet. Through the ache in my jaw that I woke up in the morning, the time with my sister in our childhood home, and the stillness and longing on the weekends in my loneliness. I tore down walls, and I rebuilt them so that one day, I might pick up the phone and make a call.
Aimee Brooks is a writer, artist, and lover of snacks living in the Wild West (aka Texas). She currently works for a college mentorship program but has hopes of going back to school sometime soon to pursue an MFA in creative writing. When she is not working, writing, or creating art, she spends her time playing with her cat (even though he is kind of evil) listening to podcasts, and fighting the patriarchy.
Lips are gross if you watch them in motion wet, dry, rough, soft, flaky, luscious, spittle, and bad breath. Harlow had asked for her tube of lip balm from Orderly Roberts.
“Can I have my lip blam?” Harlow asked. “You see, my lips are so chapped,” she said with a pout.
“Okay, give me a minute. I have to give out meds,” Orderly Roberts said.
“Here you go,” he said and handed over the little tube of Orange Crush chapstick. Roberts didn’t think her lips looked chapped. He figured it was just something to do when stuck on the ward and watched as she applied it to her pale lips. He fantasized about what those lips would look like with a bold, red color like his sister wore. Roberts was just an orderly, but he felt some of the patients were misplaced and mismanaged. In his mind, Harlow was one of them. If it weren’t for the morning and evening rounds of meds, Roberts would not indicate Harlow’s condition. She was Bi Polar and went off her meds from time to time, and every time she landed in the hospital. But she straightened out pretty much by the time she reached the main population ward where Roberts worked. He was jerked out of his reverie by an outburst from Oliver. This guy had been in much longer than insurance customarily allowed. He had nowhere else to go. No family, no place to stay, the social workers had promised him he would be released three days ago, and this quiet guy who shuffled the floors like an old man, which belied his 23 years, was frustrated. The Nurses’ station housed Cafe and De-Cafe urns of coffee along with Styrofoam cups and little packets of sugar. The objects were now being hurled at the nurses. Roberts embraced Oliver in a stifling hug and worked him to the floor. Another Orderly joined the struggle armed with a syringe of Midazolam. Together Roberts and Orderly Harrison muscled Oliver back to his room, where he could sleep his anger off. When Roberts regained the floor, the other inmates were whispering and wide-eyed. Harlow approached him and released the chapstick in Robert’s hand.
“Here’s the lip blam,” she said.
“You know it’s balm, right?”
“What?” she said shrinking from Roberts.
“It’s lip balm, not blam,” Roberts said gently.
“Oh, right. I get confused,” Harlow said.
Roberts felt wrong for correcting her. He didn’t want to scare Harlow off. He only had her for three more days, and then she was getting out.
“Orderly Harrison fastened the restraints.”
He couldn’t ask for her phone number. It was an impossible relationship. Roberts palmed the lip balm back in her hand.
“Keep it. Just be discrete,” he said. He gave himself the same advice.
Roberts wasn’t working when Harlow was released. He resigned himself to the inevitable. His purpose was to help those short term cases get back on the right path. It started as rewarding, but some of these people just seemed to be arrested on the fringe of society, not a danger to it. Of course, he was no doctor. He was the muscle.
Time inside an asylum sucks the staff and the patients into a warped fabric of reality, and the days run a cycle of drama and drool. Roberts began to wonder who was really incarcerated in this place, him or the patients? Charlotte slinked up the hall and cornered him up against the wall, mumbling, ” Do you identify as a hero? Do you identify as a hero? Do you identify…” Charlotte’s repetition of this question was maddening, and it got inside Roberts’s head like an earworm. He would ask himself the question on break and off shift. Was he a hero or a medical thug? His time in the asylum was tortured and terminal. Who was really trapped in this place?
A new patient, James, was obsessed with his missing shoes, and tension was high in his demeanor. He shouted out threats to the unknown persons that had his shoes.
“Where’re my kicks?” James pleaded.
“You can’t have your shoes here. You got the gripper socks,” Roberts said.
“Man, I don’t want no gripper socks. I want my kicks. Then I’ll kick your ass,” James shouted.
“I need you to keep it down and stop the threats,” Roberts said.
“You telling me what to do? I don’t think so, Bitch,” James said and pushed Roberts back.
Roberts got him in a prone floor hold. Orderly Harrison fastened the restraints. Hopped up on adrenaline, the Orderlies lifted the man and strapped him to the table in the solitary room. The rest of the inmates made a reticent scatter to their rooms.
It was the end of the summer, Roberts had a much needed three day weekend. He and his buddies, Marc and Lucas, were meeting up at Milo’s for some beers and bocce ball. And to be honest, they were hoping to hook-up with some babes. Marc fetched the first round of beers, while Lucas and Roberts wrestled up the bocce balls and chalk to mark the score. Marc returned with a trio of girls, and introductions were made.
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“So, what do you do?” the strawberry blonde Twiggy asked Roberts. “Oh, stay away from him. He’ll lock you up,” Marc said.
“What are you some kind of cop?”
“Naw, he’s an orderly over at the mental hospital. Spends all day with the loonies,” Marc said.
After the last pitch of the bocce ball, the ladies begged-off and went in pursuit of less creepy conversation.
The guys were still quarreling over who was responsible for scaring the ladies off when they entered a greasy spoon, the Midnight Owl.
Roberts did not like owls. He got a plush owl on his 8th birthday. Since then, every birthday and Christmas, he was gifted another owl. Things had really gotten out of hand when his grandma got him a set of owl salt and pepper shakers when he was 14. This diner’s name had kept him away, but tonight the dining victory went to Marc and Lucas. Roberts kept his head down in the menu, avoiding the Owl clocks, toys, and taxidermy on the walls. The waitress smelling of bacon was rattling off specials. She started to recite the Midnight Owl special when Roberts looked up into her face. No introduction was needed. It was a greasy Harlow with her hair up and thick eyeliner. It was Harlow right in front of him. But she didn’t let on that she knew him. Roberts assumed, correctly, that Harlow didn’t want to be identified. But this understood anonymity did not stop her from zoning in on Roberts and flirting aggressively.
Roberts excused himself for the bathroom. In the narrow back hall, Harlow stood in his way, “It’s so nice to see you,” she said.
Roberts was unsettled. What were the odds of them meeting like this? He ate up her attention, and his fantasies about her came crowding back in his head and cluttered his judgment.
“Let’s go somewhere more private,” she said.
“Ah, yes,” he said with bated breath.
After a greasy meal of eggs, onions, and hash, the guys made their good-byes. Roberts settled into his black 1967 Chevy Impala and waited. Roberts was racking his brain for a private place. There was a Red Roof Inn four miles down the road, but they never made it there. Harlow unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned dangerously close to Roberts’s face, for starters.
“Hey, hey, you need to put your seatbelt back on,” Roberts said.
But she was busy fishing for something in her purse. It was a tube of Orange Crush chapstick.
“Here’s some lip blam for you,” she said, smearing it across his open mouth and chin.
“A second squad car arrived…”
A clump stuck on his bottom teeth. Roberts wiped and at it with the cuff of his sleeve, while Harlow redoubled her attack and swung her right leg over Roberts. Saddling him, Harlow began to grind.
“Harlow, I can’t see. Get off,” he said.
“I thought you liked me?” she said. “You’re no fun.”
Harlow was pouting and leaning against her door with angst that scared Roberts. Just then, he saw the lights in his rearview mirror, and it was backed by the siren. Roberts pulled over on the shoulder of the road. This was a busy road during the day, but at night the businesses were all shut down, and the four-lane road was a vast playground for drunk drivers on the way home.
“What’s going on here?” Officer Manners asked.
His flashlight illuminated the half-dressed Harlow slumped along the window.
“Do you want to have a good time, Officer,” Harlow said, climbing back over Roberts. Roberts was glad to have the policeman’s assistance. Harlow was out of control.
“Step out of the car,” Officer Manners said to Roberts.
“Me? What about her?”
With that, Harlow stepped from the car and planted a handstand on the side of the road. Her waitress uniform fell around her waist. She was naked waist down. Roberts looked to see her panties draped from his rearview mirror. He had no idea when that happened.
Officer Manners made Roberts take a breathalyzer test, which he failed, and found himself cuffed in the backseat of the squad car. A second squad car arrived to take the loud and hard to handle Harlow to the psych ward. She’d been wearing her medical ID bracelet.
Roberts’ car had been impounded, and he was unable to release it until Tuesday. He drove straight from the impound yard to work. He told his supervisor that he would need time off for his court date. Roberts thought this was the height of his embarrassment, but he was wrong.
“Hey, there lip blam man,” Harlow said in a scratchy voice.
She moved in close, not too close, just close enough so only he could hear her when she dropped her voice.
“How much trouble did you get into?”
“Plenty. But you need to stay away from me.” Roberts said.
“Awww. Don’t you like me when I’m manic? Admit it, I’m much more fun.”
“No, I don’t. We can’t act like that in here.”
“You mean you can’t act like that in here. I can do whatever I want. I rather thought I got that point across this weekend,” Harlow said. “It’s not about you.”
Roberts stared into those big brown eyes. But he stopped seeing what he wanted to see. He saw a woman that needed help, stability. And what had he done but take her for a joy ride? He felt like a misogynistic ass. Harlow slipped off like a discarded garment and curled up in a green faux leather chair. Roberts watched her sitting there, talking to herself. A patient approached Roberts from the left. It was Charlotte. She was to be transferred to a long term facility that day. Charlotte stopped to rub the top of Harlow’s tussled hair.
“Do you identify as a hero?” she asked Roberts. “Do you?”
Leah Sackett is an adjunct lecturer in the English department and the Communication & Media department at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. This is where she earned her B.A. and M.F.A. Her short stories explore journeys toward autonomy and the boundaries placed on the individual by society, family, and self. Learn about her published fiction at LeahHolbrookSackett.website.
The machine in the lobby was placed as a nicety. Something warm and inviting offered visitors like yourself. It maintained the body heat of their initial handshakes. A first attempt to show the corporation cared to learn about others too by offering, “How do you like your coffee?”
Your ceramic mug held the first sip of truth. A streamlined, sigil logo on the exterior contained the burnt out and bitter from spilling over. What artificial sweetener and
dry powder pampering combination could you bring to the organization?
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Current employees tried all the corporate kitchen counter alchemy fixes of ingredients bought for an extended boxed in shelf life. Are you a green, six months, resume hopper giving the cauldron a quick burst of youthful energy before tipping it over to start again? Are you a freshly cut vital organ from another competitor? Or will you stay the long haul wishing back to this day?
The coffee maker bubbled bottom charring residue. The burner is not turned off in time. As you waited in the closed-off lobby, being told it should only just yet be another twenty minutes. Contracts were being reviewed. Magical laws wiped continuing their conversion into legal rhetoric.
You get up and walked out placing the empty mug by the glossy brochures. The cycle had been broken. Time weaved and waved back towards you. Saving yourself time for one last cup of coffee.
Dominic Loiselives in Chicago, Illinois. He is open about and advocates for mental health awareness. His work has appeared on Alchemic Gold Poetry Society, Analogies & Allegories, Calm Down, Raven Review, Refresh & Short Editions and in Collective Realms & Emotional Alchemy.
Rosa felt flattered and appreciative when Jenny invited her to join a few other housekeepers and resort staff for a TGIF. She’d only been working there a couple of weeks and hadn’t yet made any friends. The truth was Rosa had no one she was close to outside of work either; she passed this off as due to her being overweight, acne-scarred, and the shy, reserved nature that had been a restraint for her for as long as she could remember.
Their group met at an outdoor bar on the boardwalk not far from the resort and included three other housekeepers, a grounds guy, and a well-built bellhop. They’d each changed out of their work uniforms and were all in their early to mid-twenties. They sat at a table away from the Calypso band playing in a corner, ordered Happy Hour drinks and appetizers, and conversed over the sound of the music and the soft tumble of waves beyond the boardwalk. It was early spring, pleasantly cool, and as the late afternoon fell, the sky took on the color of a bruise.
Rosa was last to arrive. Jenny gestured her over to the empty seat next to her, made introductions, then engaged her in conversation. Jenny was twenty-four, two years older than Rosa, and had been working at the resort since shortly after she graduated high school, had a baby girl and got married. She told Rosa she had taken sporadic online courses through a technical college but was having a hard time finding meaningful time for that.
Rosa asked, “What does your husband do?”
Jenny’s lips pursed and she rolled her eyes. “Warehouse security guard. Overnight shift.”
“How do you handle things with your daughter?”
“Well, he mostly sleeps while she’s at school and I’m at work, then takes care of her until I get back. We have dinner, and he catches another quick nap before he heads to the warehouse.” She shrugged, “We manage, How about you?”
“I need a favor,” she said.
Rosa mimicked her shrug. “I live with my grandfather. He and my grandmother raised me before she died when I was in high school. Now I kind of care for him…he’s pretty frail, forgetful.” She smiled, “I call him ‘mi abuelito’.”
Jenny nodded. “That’s nice. Then you probably can’t stay too long this evening, either.”
Rosa shook her head.
Phillip, the bellhop, raised his glass and called for a toast. Rosa regarded his tanned skin, his flop of bleach-blonde hair, his self-assured surfer vibe; in spite of the stereotype, she felt a tickle of attraction. He toasted Happy Hours, he toasted poorly paid workers everywhere, he toasted beauty. As he uttered those last words, he gestured at the setting around them, the ocean, the sky, the music, but when he finished, his eyes rested on Jenny.
Jenny began joining Rosa often for lunch in the staff room, which Rosa also appreciated. Unlike most pretty girls she’d known, Jenny didn’t appear smug or aloof, and Rosa didn’t mind that Jenny did most of the talking while they ate. Rosa learned that Jenny’s marriage had been one born mostly of obligation, that her husband’s name was Carl and her daughter was Audrey, and that the little girl loved glitter, ponies, the color pink, and preferred dressing in tutus and plastic tiaras. When she spoke about Audrey, Jenny’s eyes softened as much as they went dull when the talk turned to Carl. He wasn’t a bad guy, Jenny told Rosa, just kind of a doofus; a high school jock gone to seed. He worked weekends, and she didn’t, so with their schedules, they saw little of each other. Jenny gave a kind of smirk when she said that was fine with her. Rosa watched her grow silent afterward, gazing at something, it seemed, on the opposite wall.
The two of them had the same shifts during the week, so when Jenny told her their car had broken down and would take several days to be repaired, Rosa offered to pick her up and drop her off until it was ready. Their apartment was in a low, cinder-block building on a busy street in a rundown section of town. When she arrived that first morning, Rosa knocked on an open door with a tattered screen, and a man’s voice called for her to come in. Rosa entered a small living room that was separated from an equally cramped kitchen by a Formica table and chairs. Carl stood at the kitchen counter arranging items in a lunch box that had a unicorn on its lid. He was a big man with a soft belly and prematurely thinning hair, but kind eyes.
He gave her a sheepish grin and said, “Jen will be right out, sit if you want.”
“Jenny would simply call Rosa’s name softly”
Rosa lowered herself into a chair across the table from Audrey who didn’t look up from the coloring book she was scribbling in. Both rooms were cluttered with toys, piles of laundry, dishes, and strewn papers. A television played an animated children’s program against one wall of the living room. The smell of fried bacon and toasted waffles lingered in the air; a partially eaten plate of both was pushed aside next to Audrey, a puddle of syrup ringing its edge. A red ribbon perched next to the crooked tiara on her curly head.
During the next few moments, Rosa watched Carl write what appeared to a note with a heart at the bottom and fold it into the lunch box before closing the lid. Then Jenny burst into the room buttoning her uniform top. She quickly gathered her purse and pecked Audrey’s cheek.
“Hey, there,” she said to Rosa. “We better go or we’ll be late.”
As Rosa followed her to the door, Carl called, “See you later. Love you, babe.”
“You, too,” Jenny muttered, pushing through the door, the tear in it flapping behind her.
They each had different morning and afternoon breaks, and Rosa often saw Jenny spending hers down behind the resort’s dumpsters smoking cigarettes with Phillip; sometimes another staff member or two was with them. When the two of them were alone, they sat close together on a makeshift bench there. Rosa felt her eyebrows knit the first time she saw them exchange a quick kiss when they parted. Each time that happened afterward, she stood very still and tried to chase away thoughts of crooked tiaras, love notes in unicorn lunch boxes, and farewell calls of endearment.
At the TGIF’s that continued every month or so, Rosa only saw Jenny and Phillip chance occasional furtive glances. But on the one occasion that a group of them met on a lark later at a club, she did see them push their way into the crowd on the dance floor during a slow song and stroke each other’s backs while they moved closer together. Jenny’s eyes met hers through the throng, and Rosa looked quickly away. When she glanced back, Jenny’s eyes remained on Rosa’s, and she did not attempt to hide the fingertips that continued to caress Phillip’s back.
So, Rosa was startled, but not entirely surprised, when Jenny appeared beside her cart in an upstairs hallway during one of her breaks shortly afterward cradling a set of clean sheets and pillowcases. Jenny fixed her with a gaze that held a combination of things, yearning, and determination among them.
“I need a favor,” she said. “I need to use one of your rooms. Just for a little bit, but I need you to keep an eye out for the supervisor. Knock if she comes by.”
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Rosa felt herself blinking, but Jenny’s gaze remained steady and unyielding until she said, “I checked the registry, and there’s no one in 402. We’ll change the bed when we’re done.”
Rosa watched her march quickly down to the end of the hall and nod into the stairwell there. Phillip came out of its cavity, waited while Jenny used her pass key to open the guest room door closest to them, then followed her inside it. Rosa winced as the door clicked quietly behind them. She set the towel she was holding on top of the cart and didn’t reach down to pick it up when it fell to the floor. It was early afternoon, the hours between the end of guest check out and the beginning of check-in, so no one else was around. The only sounds were the screech of seagulls outside mingling with laughter and splashing from the pool four stories below.
At home, Rosa’s grandfather had begun to fade further. Even though she measured his meds out into clearly labeled sections in a plastic dispenser, he often forgot to take them when she wasn’t there. Rosa started calling him during her breaks and at lunch to remind him and to check upon him. When she got home to their bungalow, he was often still dressed in his pajamas sitting where she’d left him that morning and staring at the same channel on the television that was usually muted. She tried getting him outside for some exercise before dinner, but he could barely make it to the end of their block with his walker. She brought out old photo albums and flipped through the pages with him to jog his memory, but he sometimes struggled to even recognize his wife. Rosa lingered over the photographs of her grandparents alone together in which they always held hands, even while blowing out the candles on the cake she’d baked them for their forty-eighth anniversary just before her grandmother’s death.
The brief afternoon trysts between Jenny and Phillip continued at work every week or two. But unlike the first time, Jenny would simply call Rosa’s name softly from the end of the hall, and when their eyes met, gesture with her head towards the guest room in front of her. Rosa gave no acknowledgment, but a moment later, Jenny would juggle the change of bedding in her arms, make the same gesture into the stairwell, and Phillip would appear and follow her into the room. He never glanced Rosa’s way, and Rosa always made certain to leave her cart in the hallway, but not be there herself when they dropped bedding into its dirty-laundry sack and returned to the stairwell.
Rosa normally had her grandfather sponge-bathed, diapered, and in bed by eight each night. She usually channel-surfed on the television afterward but began spending time on her laptop looking at online dating websites. She felt a sheepish excitement as she did. She concentrated on those that advertised matching potential couples by personality and valued characteristics. It took her nearly a month to gather the nerve to join one. She kept her personal description brief, using words and phrases like, “Loyal, enjoys simple things, quiet, and giving.” When prompted to describe the sorts of traits she was looking for in a match, she used similar descriptions, but included, “Integrity, honesty, and faithful.” She posted only three photos, all profiles in shadows from the waist up which she’d staged awkwardly with the self-timer on her grandmother’s old camera. Rosa hesitated for a long time, her finger poised over, “Enter,” on the keyboard, before finally blowing out a breath and finalizing her membership on the site.
As soon as she did, her grandfather groaned from his bedroom. She hurried into the room and knew immediately by the smell that he’d soiled himself. He stayed asleep while she cleaned him up and changed his diaper. Her eyes widened when she returned to her laptop because a flashing icon on it indicated that she already had her first potential match. Her heart hammered as she skimmed through his profile and photos. He was a few years older than her, appeared a bit overweight, too, and his personal descriptions seemed to be reasonably close to her own: nothing to dissuade her from pursuing the match.
“Silently, Rosa set the bag of trash down…”
Rosa looked at the framed black-and-white photo of her grandparents on the desk next to the laptop. In it, they were about her age, newlyweds, and had just immigrated to the United States from Cuba. They’d grown up there in the same village and had been childhood sweethearts. A sudden flush spread through her. Rosa shook her head, looked back to the laptop where her photo smiled back at her in a blouse Jenny had told her was, “Slimming,” and with a couple of quick taps, deleted her membership on the dating site. She closed the lid, sat back in the hard chair, and listened to her grandfather’s soft snores from the next room.
Several mornings later, she carried her cart’s full plastic bag of trash to the dumpsters. She smelled cigarette smoke as she approached them and stopped still in her tracks when she heard Jenny’s voice from the other side say, “You mean Rosa? Are you kidding me? We’ve got nothing to worry about there.”
Phillip’s voice followed. “How can you be so sure?”
“All that cow cares about is fitting in somewhere,” Jenny said. “We keep asking her to a TG every now and then, and we’re good as gold.”
Rosa heard Phillip guffaw, then two clouds of exhaled smoke rose above the dumpsters. She felt her throat tighten and burning behind her eyes. Children shouted happily to one another in the nearby pool, and dishes clattered into a sink in the restaurant’s kitchen a handful of yards away. Silently, Rosa set the bag of trash down in front of the dumpsters and somehow found her way back to where she’d left her cart.
Rosa didn’t sleep much that night. For a long time, she just lay thinking, vaguely aware of her grandfather’s snores and the occasional vehicle passing in the street. She allowed her feelings to tumble over themselves. She thought about her loneliness and what her life would be like when her grandfather was gone. She thought about how safe and cared for her grandparents had always made her feel. She thought about Jenny’s gaze beside her cart before the first tryst with Phillip and realized the look in her eyes held something beyond yearning and determination: it held to scorn. Rosa felt her eyes narrow, and a small snort escaped her. An image of cigarette smoke drifting over the dumpster kept invading her attempts to quiet her mind. She finally dozed briefly as the first birds began tittering, woke up at full dawn, and immediately called in sick at the resort.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?”
She lingered over breakfast with her grandfather, then took him for a long walk in his wheelchair through their neighborhood with her jaw set hard. She eventually got him settled in his recliner in front of the television at about nine and drove off. She’d waited until then to be sure that Audrey would be at school. When she got to their apartment, she turned off the engine and sat staring at their screen door for a long time before heaving another snort, climbing out, and knocking on it.
Rosa rubbed her damp palms together as she waited. It took three more knocks and before Carl emerged rubbing sleep from his eyes on the other side of the torn screen. He wore plaid sleeping pants with a ratty T-shirt that rode up over his stomach. They regarded each other until his eyebrows knit into a frown.
He asked, “Shouldn’t you be at work?”
Rosa cleared her throat. “There’s something I need to tell you.” The same breakfast smells came from inside. “Something you need to know.”
She watched him rub his disheveled hair, his frown deepening. “All right,” he said. “Tell me.”
William Casshas had over 200 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as J Journal, December, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press. He received three Pushcart nominations and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. His short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, is scheduled for release by Wising Up Press in late 2020.
Among the rocky outcroppings and narrow trails, I find my footing. Smaller rocks slide out from underneath the larger ones; I wobble on my left foot but come down stronger on my right to counterbalance. Each step along the Lake 22 mountain pass takes me upwards and out—along a ledge, but I’m not afraid. It’s the highest point I can imagine at this time.
In the clearing, the lake is a dark turquoise and the surface calls to me to break it, but I won’t. At the bottom of many lakes are the broken bits and pieces of dismembered bodies—mostly of the young—who dove in headfirst. The most I’ll do is kick off my shoes and slide my feet into the water.
At the edge of the lake, I sit and tentatively lower my toes, then my arches, and then my ankles into the icy water, which feels smooth and clear. I can see straight to the bottom, and it holds jagged edges of rocks, the limbs of trees, and small plants. Occasionally, I think I see the body of a tiny fish flash before my eyes, but it’s rare, I believe, to see much else. At least, I’ve never noticed much else before.
My eyes trace the edges of the rocks over and over again. The same lines and shapes, under the cool turquoise water, become familiar, but something else seems to be tangled up in the lines. Something that moves. At first, I think it’s just some kind of leafy plant, trapped between the rocks, but it’s iridescent— as if it had scales—and is more fish-like than plant-like. It moves quickly, darting in between the rocks, trying to catch my attention. The form is unfamiliar and not quite as graceful as I’ve come to expect aquatic life to be.
“In a trance, I bring the rock down hard…”
Carefully, I lower myself into the water, still wearing my jeans shorts and a sports bra. I expect to feel the sharpness of rocks on the soles of my feet, but they’re far below me. I reach out my hand, under the surface of the water to see if I can feel the plant/fish creature I expect to be there—and something smooth glides underneath the palm of my hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I catch a gleam, a sparkle, or a glimmer of something I’ve never seen before and that now, I want to see more than ever. I swim out towards the middle of the lake—following the path I think it’s taking—chasing ripples and bubbles that sometimes surface—swimming for what seems like hours until I reach the shore on the other side.
It takes some effort to pull myself onto the bank and look out at the water. Every ripple and glimmer on the lake turns my head. Then, about five feet in front of me, the surface bubbles in a most unusual way, as the top of something rises. I recognize the shape of a head that seems more human than fish- or plant-like in form. The head is smooth and dark green like moss. It glistens, slick with algae. Its eyes are open and gaping wide, as a sorrowful expression spreads upon its face—and it wails as if it were a human child— shrieking so desperately, I feel as if my heart will break if I don’t help. The teeth inside the mouth are brown and rotten, and the crying is so desperate that I’m consumed with pity that’s instantly crushed by repulsion. Brown, greenish warts, studded about its face at intervals, twist and pull themselves into grotesque shapes as the crying and shrieking continue. I tell myself it only wants solace, comfort, but I just want to make the noise go away and I’m sorry that I ever followed it here—or gave it any hope. As it climbs from the depths of the lake, it stretches its sorrowful arms outward as if it were asking me to hold it—to make it stop crying, but menacing, reptilian claws are attached to those hands, and I wonder if this is its purpose: to pull me in and devour me. Fully emerged from the water, it’s only the size of a toddler, and I start to remember stories. Horrid stories of newborns locked in rooms without any love or human contact. They develop into wretched, hopeless monsters. This creature, submerged and forgotten—undiscovered and unloved—is someone else’s monster. Not mine. It’s not mine.
Now, it steps out onto the bank, with sharp claws for feet, which match the hands. I inch backward, closer to the tree line behind me, and stumble upon a rock. I tower over this creature, but it has an advantage if it intends to seek its revenge—to act out on the unfair circumstances it has been given.
My heart can’t take any more. Picking up the rock, I slam it down hard over the top of the creature’s head. Its face shows confusion, betrayal—and it begins to choke and struggle and shriek some more. In a trance, I bring the rock down hard in a steady rhythm until I hear the cracking of bones, piercing of flesh, and the screaming stops. I tell myself it’s a mercy killing. The underside of the rock is thick with blood; the skull is broken—and then I bury it, face-up, in the sand. I tell myself I’ve done the right thing, but even now, I think I hear someone calling my name when no one else is around and the wind starts to blow.
This summer is particularly difficult for the headstrong, yet the sensitive woman I believe my daughter to be. Perhaps I clung too tightly or expected too much. Reams of computer paper—freshly printed with essay prompts and short answer blanks piled up on my office desk—and I was willing to help her with each one. Day-by-day, the deadlines would pass, and I’d worry about her future and remind her of how smart and talented she is and how she shouldn’t waste her gifts. Then, I let her know how disappointed I was to realize that she would be the only one in the family to have not gone to college.
“Mom, I don’t know what I want to be or do. How can I apply to college if I don’t know?” she asked.
“You just pick something, Nora—anything. Then, you can change your mind, but only once—”
“I want to explore the world.”
“There are plenty of study-abroad programs, and I have college applications for you in other countries—like Ireland or England or British Columbia—all of them wonderful places.”
“All of them are safe places. I want to live, Mom—really live—out there, in the world.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I want to take a break and travel. I’ve never seen . . . I’ve never seen Syria, for instance, Mom. Syria is in such need of humanitarian aid. I could help! I would go to Lebanon and teach the Syrian refugee children games and art —and I’ve been learning Arabic.”
“Look, I don’t mind if you travel—even to more risky places, but I’d like for you to go with a group or something—someone who knows the area well. I have lots of contacts and I could set you up—for a week or two or something. Any longer than that and you’d need a real degree anyway—to be more useful.”
“Mom—I’ll be fine—and I’m going. I’ve decided.”
In a tear-filled rage, I told her how disappointed I was in her and that she couldn’t possibly be my daughter. In a tear-filled rage of her own, she left. So, I let her go. What choice did I have?
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In her absence, I clung to fantasies of joining clubs and activities like synchronized swimming and dragon boat racing—and I’d show up once or twice, feeling the back of my throat well up with the salt of tears, and I’d realize I had nothing in common with the absolute joy others seemed to have—just stretching from their fingertips. I’d grow tired, listless, and bored. Somewhere in the world, I had a daughter, but I let her go.
The first letter came three months later. She told me she had made it to Lebanon and was teaching sports and games as a kind of recess director. She alluded to some stories regarding the disappearance of volunteers—but no one from her group. She was being careful and learning a lot. Three months after that, she told me that although she was learning a lot, there was more she could do, and now, she realized she needed a college degree and perhaps a graduate degree. She expected to be home by the end of the year and was working on applications on her own. I told her I loved her and that I was proud of her—and that maybe she knew better than I did what she needed all along.
Three months later, no more letters were sent, so I wrote one of my own. Nothing came in return. I contacted the school in Lebanon, and they told me she hadn’t shown up for work. Not for several weeks. Now, the U.S. Embassy is doing, “all it can,” and suggests that she’s been taken—and here’s where they stop—where they let me imagine the rest: a daughter of mine, locked away alive—or maybe not—and I wonder how much longer I can wait until I know the end.
The scrabbles of rock, bleached in the sun, are the same as they’ve always been on the Lake 22 trail, but I haven’t been here in quite some time. The rocks have always felt unsteady beneath my feet, but now I’m more aware of the spread of my hips—the shifting of weight—the height at which I take this trail. How, in my youth, could I have felt so steady up here alone? Today, taking this path again—after more than 20 years—I feel a hollow disconnect between my limbs and my heart. On the back of a breeze, I think I hear, “Mom!” in Nora’s voice and I turn around, but no one is there. The voice is real and clear and so incredibly, distinctively Nora’s, but when I turn, I’m only left with sadness and a view of thick pines looming tall and large ahead of me.
“I dig ruthlessly as if trying to fill the space between my limbs and heart with some kind of useful work.”
When I reach the lake, I hear her voice again, so I jump into the water to drown out the sound—to let out a long, steady scream, blowing out as a stream of bubbles below the depths. And I swim—swimming from the sadness. On the other side of the lake, I touch land, but I imagine it’s the edge of the summer of the in-between years when I was alone and didn’t have a daughter or responsibilities. . . And then I remember. I remember something I’d tried not to think about all of this time. When I climb out of the lake, I walk towards the tree line. There’s nothing here to indicate the place where I’d once buried the hideous creature that called out to me, but I have a pretty good idea of where it might be.
Bending down, I begin to dig into the sand with my hands—scraping and pulling at the earth—digging deeper. I know what I’m looking for and what I’ve put out of my mind for so many years. The wide, hopeful eyes and desperate shrieks of a child/monster—not mine but somehow my responsibility—are no longer easy to forget. In Nora’s absence, I can’t forget. Memories are cruel that way. So are silence, the empty room, the piles of letters, and a hair ribbon of hers I found in a drawer.
I dig ruthlessly as if trying to fill the space between my limbs and heart with some kind of useful work—as if I had to prove my memory is correct: This did happen. I got rid of something and brought my daughter into this world and she lives, somewhere between life and death. I can taste the salt on my face as I tear into the ground, toiling under the hot sun until I hit something soft, but scaly.
More gently, I brush away the remaining bits of sand and find a greenish-brown mound that resembles the belly of a human being in form and shape. When I touch it lightly with my finger, it moves—pulsing and breathing—after all of these years. It’s still alive—and Nora’s voice, coming in on the wind is crying, screaming for her mother—and my heart sinks. At the edge of the lake, I find a sharp rock, which I run back over to the pulsing, breathing mound. I slice through the creature’s belly to make the pain stop—to quiet the voice. And when I think the breathing has stopped and the wind has died down, I scoop the body I’ve never forgotten into my arms, and I rock it to sleep.
Cecilia Kennedytaught Spanish and English for many years in Ohio before moving to the Greater Seattle area to write horror stories. Her first book is a collection of 13 dark tales: The Places We Haunt (on Amazon), and she has words in Headway Quarterly, The Daily Drunk, Coffin Bell, Open Minds Quarterly, Gathering Storm, and The Writing Disorder. She also keeps a humorous blog of her attempts at cooking and home repair: Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks.
Mother comes back after two years in San Francisco. Nick is fourteen. It is 1969.
She rents an apartment for them, asks Nick to arrange things as they were. But this is a new apartment with white walls and beige stucco outside. The living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms hold the weight of constraint as if it were meant for monks. Besides, Nick can’t recall how she arranged her Yates, Cheever, and Salinger. By title? Emotional mood? And what of her pants, her blouses? Were they arranged by colors? Lavender to light blue? And her Beatles records? His mind does cartwheels, always landing on itself.
Mother says the city moved too fast. After a year, she never knew the shape of things before her. New ideas took over. New ideas became old. Her rights and dignity were drowned by drugs and despair. A man walked on the moon, she says, but Nixon’s walked into consciousness.
She’s missed Nick, wants to pick up again. Now she’s been able to write, create, send her work into the world. She’s taken that away from San Francisco if nothing else. She’s created material labeled not by relationships to men, but by her name. Elizabeth Botkin.
“You think so? How do you know?”
“Do you know what that feels like?” she says. “To have someone pronounce your name. There’s a power to it, Nick.”
She’s been tortured by his absence in the nights, she says, had dreams about leaving even. But she couldn’t be a mother then. She felt as if the world kept loading, loading, loading. Nick wants to believe these words, but he cannot imagine. He thinks she loved him, but not like movie mothers who weep every ten minutes when their children fall off their bikes or run into villains.
Nick’s father left when he was five and he has no memories of him, save for a fleeting baritone laugh, a mustache. But even he’s not certain whether this is true, or an image his mind has conjured. While Mother was gone, he stayed with several friends, moving from one to the next by choice, even though each one assured he was, “Welcome.” There was Christophe Dubois with his petite French mother, Marie (who made the word happiness sound happy, sans the h). There was something too tender in her litany of hugs, the beatific smiles she wore, perhaps a little too beatific. Nick was overwhelmed by the attention she showered upon him, asking if he was hungry, if he was happy, or if he needed to talk. Nick lasted less than three months, trying to conceal a rising hatred for Christophe and a desire for things he couldn’t have, things beyond the grasp of logic.
Then there was Henry O’Toole whose mother drank White Russians copiously, a sort of brutal reminder that perhaps Nick’s own mother was doing likewise. She’d drink and ruminate about Existentialism, socialism, and a litany of other isms. Lastly, there was Tony DiCenzo, whose mother was a pianist and played arias from Puccini on the piano with heartbreaking fervency.
“I know I’ve lost my temper,” Mother says over dinner one night. “But it’s different when you have space. You can look down on yourself, see who you were.”
“Are you happy now?” he asks.
Nick tries not to think of that night, two years ago, a slammed door, Chevy Bel-Air engulfed by moonlight shadows. He remembers the severe, wobbling smile she wore, her once-confident gait a slouch. She used to work at her Corona Zephyr typewriter, moving from kitchen to living room, looking for the right space. She often surveyed Nick as if he were an alien, said he needed too much. He was all about I, I, I. Sometimes she cried, lilting, desperate cries as if she were in the darkest chambers in a war and no one would come.
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“I’d like to think so, Nicky,” she says, slurping her noodles, laughing. “This place is a shithole, but it’s a start.”
“You think so? How do you know?”
Mother inhales. Smiles. She still has that sharp, crooked smile, still wears the same flipped bob. She still smells of sweat and Chesterfields. But there’s something off about all this. Maybe it’s like trying to remake a movie and following the exact same rules.
“I think so, Nicky. It’s hard to really know. But that life was a waystation, a temporary point. I was just swamped. It’s not that I didn’t want to be your mother. I couldn’t, Nick. I couldn’t think, really.”
Nick doesn’t know what he expected to be different. She’d be older and happier? But he doesn’t know what it means to be happier. Mother still loses her temper, although she apologizes more. She comes in late at night, smokes cigarettes, calls him his old nicknames Nicky, Sunbeam, her husky voice echoing across walls with desperation. But there’s still something missing in this arrangement. In his arrangements too.
The typewriter needs to be right under the window. Doesn’t he remember? He can’t combine Yates and Nabokov. That’s like combining grapefruit with an onion. It’s about an arrangement of ideas, Mother says, a logical progression of things.
“I’m sorry,” is all Nick can say.
“It just has to be right,” Mother says. “I had it right in San Francisco. At the start anyway.”
“I don’t know that,” Nick says.
She frowns, inhales.
“You’re right,” she says. “You can’t know how I arrange everything. I was always a perfectionist. In high school, they said I’d be likeliest to be the best housewife and mother. Isn’t that something?”
“They didn’t rate you likeliest to walk away?”
Her face crumples as if another being has consumed her soul.
“Some spaces won’t be filled. “
“I came back,” she says. “Or am I a permanent sinner? I could have stayed. I could have changed my name and disappeared. I know people who did it. But I needed something familiar.”
Mother keeps criticizing the placement of items. She tries to arrange things herself, starts spending more time away, late nights filled with growing emptiness. Some nights, she doesn’t come home at all. This is temporary anyway, she promises. Nick knows it. Maybe this time she’ll leave a note, tell him a week, a month in advance. Maybe she’ll take him this time.
He keeps trying to arrange things. But there are still gaps, the books aren’t pleasant aesthetically. Her wardrobe clashes colorwise and Mother complains she needs something less domestic.
Nick goes into Mother’s bedroom one evening when she’s out. He removes her books from the shelves, the jeans and dresses, and blouses from the closets. He packs them into her suitcases, feels the release of items and their weight, feels the whirl she must have felt, the future. Something is thrilling in this removal of things. Nick imagines that Mother has arrived somewhere new, excited by these arrangements before her. There is a new life, something all her own. So it seems.
But the items will have to be unpacked, rearranged. And just arranged.
Some spaces won’t be filled.
Yash Seyedbagheriis a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program in fiction. A native of Idaho, Yash’s work is forthcoming or has been published in West ward Quarterly, Café Lit, and Ariel Chart, among others.