Shiny

by Tina Tocco

They were meeting me at school, Dad told her, so Grandma looked for her favorite shoes until she cried.  Even if she’d found them, she could never miss what else had gone missing.  The packs of Poise lined along the top of the linen closet.  A week’s worth of housecoats.  A week’s worth of socks.  Her heaviest sweaters, crowded in her bottom dresser drawer, now boxed and labeled at the back of the garage.  Even the Salvation Army mailer — free pick-up six days a week!! — sitting too long by the phone would not have helped.

After dark, I plucked the silver tangle from the kitchen garbage, my stepmother’s project from the night before, her gloved hands needling each strand until Grandma’s hairbrush seemed new.  Maybe that would have flicked something on, glanced across Grandma’s mind.  But the kitchen had scared Grandma for a while, and Kathleen making things shiny was not unusual.

Winning Prisoner

by June Sylvester Saraceno

Of the indoor games we played in winter, Prisoner was one of Dare’s favorites. One late afternoon when I had been tied to the small ladder back chair in Dare’s room for what felt like hours, it became my least favorite. The light had leeched away leaving me in a gathering dusk. At least he hadn’t blindfolded me, though he had gagged me and it was causing my jaw to ache. I squirmed more and tried to loosen the various cords holding my hands behind the chair. My wrists were chaffed and my armpits and shoulders throbbed from the slung back position.

I hate this game, I thought in red fury. Dare always got out of my knots in a matter of minutes, no matter how tight I pulled or how many times I tripled them. I never win this game. Never. I could hear the muffled sound of TV voices coming from the living room and knew he was in there watching some show while I was still tied up, now on the verge of tears. I hate him I thought, imagining him watching television while I was about to be sitting alone in the dark.

I made muffled gagging sounds in my attempts to scream but knew even as I did, that he’d never hear over the TV. I’d already tried stomping the chair around but it only hurt my armpits more. It was his room so no one would think to look for me there. But then, he’d have to go to bed sometime, and so would I, and then Mother would ask where I was. I tried to resign myself. Looking around the small room I remembered why there were two twin beds in here.

Granddaddy had slept in one. I was only little then, but I remembered him. I remembered his rough, stubbly cheek when he would put me to bed or lift me out. He was a gray man, gray hair, gray cheek stubble, even his skin seemed grayish. He sang songs to us and gave us candy. We used to raid his possessions hunting for hidden candy, digging into the deep pockets of his overcoat, going through his medicine drawer. Sometimes we found it. Most of the time, we had to wait for him to decide when we’d been good enough for some. I knew he had died but I couldn’t remember how. It had to be while he was living here in Dare’s room.

I tried to think of what had happened and I wished Dare would come in and untie me because he would know, not to mention I was sick of this dumb game and I would never, ever play it again. My arms really, really hurt, but a shadow was starting to take shape.

We were sitting at the table but not eating and Daddy was telling us about heaven. He was telling us Granddaddy had gone there. I remember now. I had been paying more attention to Dare because he was biting his lip like he did when he was trying hard not to cry and I was wondering why he was almost crying and whether he was in trouble. But then Mother started to cry and blew her nose in a handkerchief and just about then Dare broke down. I started crying, too, because everyone else was and I just couldn’t help it.

What Daddy had been saying was Granddaddy was dead. Why hadn’t I remembered that before? I must have noticed he didn’t lift me out of bed anymore or say prayers with me. I tried to think of what happened. I couldn’t remember ever going to a funeral for him. It was like there was this blank screen in my head. I looked around the room and I could re-furnish it with his stuff. He had half the dresser top and on his side was a comb, a razor, a framed family picture of him and his wife and their kids, and one of those kids was my mother. He would hold it up for me as he rested me on a hip and point her out saying something like that I was the spittin’ image of her. He said it a lot. We did this often. I’d ask to see that picture of when Mother was little and he’d bring me in and show me.

He smelled like Aqua Velva. He always wore long sleeves shirts. I heard Mother one day explain to a neighbor lady why he’d wear long sleeves even in the dog days of summer. She said he had gotten a tattoo in his young days but once he was born again he was embarrassed about it. I thought about Uncle Erskine’s tattoo and wondered whether Granddaddy also had a bare naked mermaid on his arm. I started to feel bad about how I’d forgotten about him and about how much I couldn’t remember still. Had I even seen his tattoo ever? What was that song he used to sing when he was getting me to fall asleep …I see the moon and the moon sees me, down through the leaves of the old oak tree. That was one of them. Folks still sing that to little kids.

He had half the closet, too. I could only remember that big black overcoat, though, because sometimes it had candy in the pockets. Heavy. Wool. I could hear him and Dare sometimes talking in their room nights when I was in bed.  I started to feel scared then. The room was completely dark. I felt like I could cry. What if other people die – would I just keep going along as if nothing happened, as if they had just been visiting? Where was I when Granddaddy was buried? I don’t even know where his grave is I thought miserably.

And then I did start to cry. It started to feel like everyone was gone and I was just tied to a chair for no good reason and I would die there too. Then I heard Dare turning the door handle and a slice of light came in from the hall. He stood there laughing, which made me cry harder and I started feeling like I was choking. He came around and untied my feet, then hands, but waited a long mean minute before he undid the gag.

“I hate you,” I spat, wiping my face with my shirt.

“Same to ya.”

“I been in here for hours.”

“You’re such a cry baby. You been in here maybe one hour tops.”

“I saw Granddaddy.” A sudden panic shot through me. Where had that come from? Why did I say that?

Dare flicked on the light and looked at me hard. “What did you say?”

“I saw Granddaddy.”

“LIAR!”

If I had been planning to back out of the lie somehow, I knew now it was impossible. “He was wearing a long sleeve plaid shirt all buttoned up even though it’s hot in here.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“He was looking for you to tell you to stop messing with me.” It was coming back, the way he would say Don’t momick your little sister like that, son. You’re her older brother — you got to look after her. I could almost really hear him say it. I could almost smell Aqua Velva. “The whole room smelled like Aqua Velva when he was here.”

Dare sat down hard on the bed. He just stared at me like he was looking right through me. Then he sort of shook his head a little and said, “You’re making it up,” through gritted teeth.

Rubbing my sore wrists and getting up from the chair, I said, “He said he was sorry he didn’t have candy. He couldn’t bring it with him from where he was.”

I saw with alarm that Dare was biting his lip. Granddaddy and Dare had been real close, everybody knew it, but it was another thing I hadn’t spent much time thinking about. I understood with a mix of panic and triumph that I’d shaken him, that he still hurt about Granddaddy dying. A few minutes ago I hated him and would have done anything to hurt him, but now I felt a little scared and I also felt like I was missing something inside. Why didn’t I want to cry over Granddaddy? It made me more curious than sad to think about his dying. Was I heartless? That was it! He had had a heart attack. I couldn’t remember how I knew but I did. And all those medicines, they were his “heart pills.”

I took a few steps toward the door but Dare wasn’t looking at me. Then, out of nowhere, I turned around and said, “He was holding his heart. He told me it hurt his heart to see me all tied up like that.”

Dare blinked hard about six times and stared at me like I was a ghost. Sounding just about like a frog croaking he said, “Get out. Get out of our room. I ain’t playing with you, Willie.”

He got up like he might smack me. But he stopped and stood completely still. He had said our room and I knew he was now sharing it again with Granddaddy in his head. I was at the door in a blink and before I closed it behind me I hissed through the crack, “I ain’t playing that dumb game ever again.”

When I got to my room I didn’t even turn the light on. I sat on the edge of my bed looking out the window, thinking about what I’d done. It was mean, but so was Dare. Served him right. He thinks he’s so tough but he’s probably in there crying like a baby. Then I felt a stabbing in my center. Why wasn’t I that upset thinking about Granddaddy? Didn’t I love him too? How could Dare, mean as he was, love somebody more than I did? I even had more leeway to cry since I was a girl but here I was completely dry-eyed just wondering about details like what did that tattoo look like. I started humming …and the moon sees me, down through the leaves of the old oak tree, please let the light that shines on me shine on the one I love. That made me feel a little teary but I was still having to work at it. I thought of Dare in his room and I knew he was face down in the pillow, stifling himself so no one would hear him crying. And from some icy, dark place a knot slipped and I thought with pure cold meanness I win. And I didn’t even try to feel sad after that.

Solomon

by Ryan Napier

From the journal of Solomon Godfrey, captain of the Industrious Cousin, a whaling ship out of New Bedford, Massachusetts:

Sat., Jul. 1. Early this morning, there was fighting below deck. The two combatants, Thomas Parker and William Boyle, were restrained and brought into my cabin.

Both were to be punished for fighting—ten lashes for fighting with a fellow sailor—but another question required my judgment. They had fought over a small leather purse containing twenty-five dollars—several years of pay for men like these. Who should get the purse?

Parker said he had been wearing the purse around his neck while he slept and Boyle had cut the strings and stolen it in the night. Boyle said he had been wearing the purse around his neck while he slept and Parker had cut the strings and stolen it in the night.

I ordered Second Mate Delano to bring me the purse.

We waited. I thought of my namesake, the wise king Solomon, and the famous story of the two harlots who had appealed for his judgment. A child was brought before the king, and each harlot claimed it as her own. Solomon pulled out his sword and threatened to cut the child in two, one half for each harlot. The lying harlot agreed: better, she thought, for the child to die than for her rival to have it. The truthful harlot recoiled and asked Solomon to give it to the other: better that her child be allowed to live with another woman than to die. Thus wise Solomon discovered the true mother, and gave her the child.

The captain of a whaling ship is no equal to a king of Israel, but he should still strive for kingly justice in his little floating realm.

Second Mate Delano brought the purse. I opened the porthole, took the purse by its leather strings, and dangled it over the waves. I asked the men whether I should drop it.

“No!” they both cried out together.

I asked again, and again they both cried, “No!”

I explained to them the problem. “The lying man,” I said, “should agree to let me drop the purse; the honest man should object. You both object. By Solomonic logic, both of you own the purse. But this is impossible.”

“Let us do it again,” said Parker. “This time, Boyle won’t lie.”

“I wasn’t lying!” Boyle said. “Ask us again.”

“Shall I drop it?”

“No!” they said.

“One of you is lying,” I said. “At least one of you. But the case is far more serious than that. This test comes from Scripture, men. It is holy. If you hinder it in any way, you are mocking the word of our Lord. That is a very serious action. On my ship, a man who fights with a fellow sailor gets ten lashes, a man who lies to his captain gets fifteen lashes, and a man who blasphemes against Scripture gets marooned on a treeless island. When you both say ‘No!’, you are saying, in effect, that the great king Solomon was a fool and that Scripture is nonsense. Is this what you believe?”

“No,” said Parker. “Great king, he was.”

“Very great king,” said Boyle.

“I’m glad to hear it. Now, I’ll ask you again—and keep in mind that treeless island—shall I drop this purse into the sea?”

“Yes!” they both said at once. They looked at each other.

I had found them out. “Both of you,” I said, “would have me drop the money—which means that neither of you are the true owner. You’ve stolen it. You were partners in this robbery, most likely, and you fell to fighting over the spoils.” I ordered Second Mate Delano to ask among the crew and find the purse’s true owner.

This task took him some time: he called men down from crows’ nests, and up from the lowest decks. Again, we waited. I placed the purse on the table and looked out at the sea. I hoped to spot a little sandbar on which to maroon these men, if the situation required it. After a few minutes, I heard a loud sound.

Boyle had collapsed to the floor. Both men had been wounded in the fight—Boyle’s chest and cheek were slashed, and Parker’s right ear was severed—and much blood had been lost, judging from the considerable gore on the deck of my cabin. (The ear, apparently, had not been found.) I had hoped to resolve the judicial question before the medical one, but Boyle forced my hand. I called the surgeon, who treated their wounds and revived Boyle with smelling salts.

Second Mate Delano returned. None of the men had claimed the purse. Half said it was Parker’s, half Boyle’s. Second Mate Delano suggested that, in absence of an answer, we should confiscate the purse and give the money to a charity when we returned to New Bedford, or even use it to furnish the ship’s mast with certain necessary repairs.

“You can’t give my money away!” said Parker.

“You can’t give my money away!” said Boyle.

“Men,” I said. “no one is giving anything to charity. Second Mate Delano simply needs to have faith. Justice will prevail. Now, one more time.”

I picked up the purse and again held it out the porthole. Before I could pose the question, however, the purse strings slipped from my fingers. Parker and Boyle ran to the porthole and watched the heavy coins sink.

They both demanded I give them the twenty-five dollars.

“How could I give either of you any money,” I said, “after what we have seen here? One of you may have owned it, both of you may have stolen it—the fact no longer matters. God has judged that neither of you deserve the money, and he has taken it to the bottom of the sea to keep it from you. You may have lost your money, but you have gained a far greater thing. You have seen the hand of God.”

I ordered the two men taken away and lashed. I was alone, and my thoughts were as deep and as heavy as those coins at the bottom of the sea.

I had seen the hand of God. And what had it done? I was supposed to be a Solomon, but God had literally taken the matter from my hands.

I prayed, and there was a second miracle. I had an idea.

I found Second Mate Delano and told him to search below deck for Parker’s missing ear. A few hours later, he brought it to my cabin. It must have fallen through a hatch during the fight: Second Mate Delano found it in the blubber room. It was oily but otherwise intact: Boyle had made a good clean cut. I soaked the ear in good Formosan rum, and dried it with my own velvet cloth.

I hid the ear into the pocket of my coat and went below deck to the gallery. The cook’s boy gave me a jar of brine, and into it I placed the ear. This will keep off the rot. I will keep the jar in my cabin and monitor Parker’s conduct. If it improves, he shall have his ear again. Justice is more than punishment: it must also include forgiveness and redemption.

(I have consulted with the surgeon, who claims that he cannot reattach an ear after so long a time. He is far too humble: I have great faith in him.)

Boot Camp

by Michael P. McManus

Near midnight it was raining and everyone had left Brian’s going-away party. Brian was gone too, and no one ever knew how long he had been missing in his neighborhood of million-dollar homes. A few friends had gone searching for him, only to return with nothing but reassurances that I would find him. Later, I found him sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, his gaze directed at the wet concrete as if he was seeing his reflection.

Maybe he believed it, he was that drunk. I started to believe the universe was spinning out of control, we were falling from its graces, and it was necessary to find him shelter from the storm responsible for the flash flood alerts on my iPhone. Then there was the lightning: frightening apocalyptic flashes, like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, followed by the near-simultaneous thunder, which convinced me that someone or something was zeroing in on our location.

Brian was so sopping wet it was almost sexy. The black curls of his hair were flat against his head and his Portugal. The Man tee shirt fit his muscular upper torso like a second skin. Pathway lights along the sidewalk leading from the street to the front porch made everything look surreal as if we had landed in a strange new country. Then a 7-series Beamer approached in the street and slowed to almost a crawl. The soft glow inside it showed a woman’s ghost-like face looking out the passenger window. She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips as if she believed that she was witnessing the moral decline in her neighborhood.

I gave her the double-barrel treatment: both middle fingers and my best Lindsay Lohan scowl that followed like a sniper’s scope until they were gone.

“Brian, you’re drunk. Come on, we need to get you inside,” I said, knowing damn well I couldn’t lift him. With the added weight of my rain-soaked sneakers, Levis, and Old Navy V-neck, I weighed one-hundred and ten pounds.

“Lenny, Lenster, the Len-A-Reno,” he slurred in his old-school Saturday Night Live imitation, whose reruns we had watched the previous night.

My real name’s Lisa, but Brian named me Lenny on the night I refused to fuck him. That never changed, but his juvenile attitude did, and our friendship regained its equilibrium.  Sometimes there were other guys who, because of hyperactive imaginations and testosterone levels, became jealous when I only allowed Brian to call me that. When they wanted to know the reason, I’d smile and say it was my middle name and he was paying for the permission to use it. That sounded absurd enough to make it true, which was probably why they never asked again.

Many other girls would and did have sex with Brian. His family was super rich and as the only child, one day he was going to become rich the old-fashioned way—through inheritance. One night after drinking a few beers, well, maybe more than a few, my dad called Brian’s parents shoeshine republicans. This meant they expected everyone to shine their shoes just because they were rich, all because Brian’s dad, who spent his days watching stock market shows on the cable news, had inherited a vault full of cash and blue chip stocks from his parents.

Brian drove a powder blue, white pinstriped Mustang convertible GT. It had an aftermarket Alpine stereo with Bose speakers. He lived with his parents in a Tudor-style three-story, complete with conservatory, wine cellar, and inground saltwater pool. They had more Mexicans at their disposal than the Tijuana police and kept them busy doing lawn work, cleaning the pool, and the never-ending marathon of vacuuming and dusting the house.

It was never fair to compare my family to Brian’s, but his other snobby friends sometimes did, even though we would never be mistaken for characters from the The Grapes of Wrath. My father, a Liberal Arts graduate from Penn State, was content in corporate America, working for UPS as a supervisor, a job that afforded us to vacation each summer at the Outer Banks, and provided me with a comfortable childhood growing up in a remodeled Foursquare.

Brian’s parents had the money and the influential connections and the three-story beach house at Myrtle Beach. It seemed logical then that Brian, who was all-everything in high school—both in academics and athletics—would matriculate to the Ivy League to study business so he could return home to claim his rightful place in the mahogany-walled den, watching the stock symbols move across the big screen, and calculating how much his fortune was increasing by the hour. However, two months before our high school graduation, aside from a mix of jingoism and patriotism—two dichotomies that Brian confessed to—his parents never learned why he walked into the local Marine recruiter’s office and told the King-Kong sized Gunnery Sergeant that he wanted to enlist.

One week later, he became government property. A sweltering summer followed. It convinced most of us that climate change was real. Too soon it was the final week of August and the night before the morning Brian was scheduled to leave for boot camp at Parris Island. His departure seemed less likely to happen if I didn’t get him into his bedroom at the end of the hall on the second floor.

The house was empty because his parents had decided to forego the going-away party by first giving the Mexican staff a week off so Brian would have to cook and clean for himself, and then jetting to the Hamptons for a stay in a sprawling Greek Revival inn overlooking a pond. It was, in many ways, a puerile way of disagreeing with Brian’s decision, or, as my father framed it—old money talking and turning a deaf ear to the world’s reply. After his enlistment, Brian told me his mother subsisted for two weeks on Scotch and valium, leaving the room each time CNN broadcast news about another dead service member. Once, when I mentioned my full scholarship to UC, Berkeley, she excoriated me with her chestnut-colored eyes until Goosebumps rolled across my arms, as if my only right in life was to make assistant manager at Hobby Lobby, marry a forklift driver, and spit out five kids like watermelon seeds.

I almost told her about my grandfather, a World War II Veteran who, as a paratrooper with the U.S. 82nd Marine, had parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, and fought the Germans from the coast to Rambouillet. There, in the bomb-damaged lobby of the Hotel du Grand Veneur, he met an overweight, middle-aged Hemingway who was on assignment as a war correspondent. After exchanging war stories, Hemingway invited him to his room on the second floor where late into the night they drank enormous amounts of wine and whiskey until the number of Germans they claimed to have killed became too great for either man to believe.

As a child it was difficult to imagine my grandfather as a man who was capable of such exploits. His body had failed him many years ago; his arms and legs had become nearly muscleless and covered in scaly lesions that necessitated daily applications of ammonium lactate lotion. One morning, however, after my persistent naïve badgering, he made me bring him a shoebox from the bottom of his closet. Inside it, among other things, were his Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and crinkled, faded picture of Hemingway with my grandfather. Between them stood a blindfolded German Prisoner, a fair-skinned, blonde-haired boy who appeared to be no older than Brian was. When I asked what had happened to the prisoner, my grandfather’s jaw clenched and his breathing quickened in a way that first frightened me, only to soon realize that he was angry with me as if I had knowingly breached some unspoken etiquette that brave men shared. Moments later, when his anger subsided, in a soft voice, he asked if I would return the shoe box to his closet.

He never talked about that war again, only Iraq, about which he could be heard mumbling a string of expletives about American Imperialism. After offering such opinions, he displayed a strange tic that saw him slide his hand across his wrinkled head. I imagined him believing that he could brush away his liver spots, with his uncut fingernails sometimes flicking at the skin in one habit. After that, he would always spit a bullet of Skoal into a paper cup and go to cussing again.

My grandfather’s interest in Brian changed after he learned of his enlistment. When Brian came to visit, Paps would struggle up from his recliner and plant his cane into the carpet and inch forward to embrace Brian long enough it made me jealous. Then there was always Pap’s soldierly suggestion that involved them sipping a wee bit of Scotch. Mom knew Paps would sanctify many occasions in order to have a drink, so those times when it happened with Brian, because of the obvious age issue, which included Pap’s failing judgments, she assumed the role of a pleasant mediator who, for Brian’s sake, always replied, “Paps, why don’t we wait until Brian comes back from the Marines.”

“Damn it, Brian. You’re a moose,” I said, grunting from my Sumo crouch, forearms under his armpits for leverage. Brian had been working out for the past six months and weighed almost two-hundred pounds, and my repeated attempts to lift him were futile.  The rain showed no signs of ending and when lightning struck nearby that was it for my GI Jane impersonation.

“Bury me with my boots on. Bury me with my boots on. Bury me with my boots on, so I can keep on kicking ass.” Brian could never hold a tune and his drunkenness made it worse. Another car drove past. I couldn’t tell if anyone saw us because the S-Class cruiser had tinted windows and since I couldn’t see inside, it provided a false sense of comfort.

“Brian, get your ass up!”

His head rolled. He turned to see who or what was standing there. “Lenster, is that you?”

“Yes, it’s me. Now come on. Please, come on.”

“Lenster, I love you.”

“I love you too, now come on.”

“No. I’m staying here.”

“Oh, come on. Get up.”

“No. I said no and I mean no.”

My hair was dripping wet across my face, my bangs in my mouth as I began to speak. “Why are you acting this way?” I asked, tired of arguing with a drunk.

“Because you don’t love me. Because you don’t, you don’t, you don’t!”

“Of course I do, Brian. I love you.”

“No you don’t. You won’t sleep with me and in the morning I’m going off to die.”

“You’re going to boot camp.”

“But that could be the first step towards dying.”

He had a point and I knew it was no use engaging in some type of philosophical rhetoric.  “Okay. So what now?”

“I’m going to stay right here unless you sleep with me. That’s the least you could do for a dying man.” He rolled over on his side, assuming the fetal position with a big, childish grin on his face. I debated leaving him there, but respect for his family and my own personal responsibility prevented me from doing it.

“Okay, I’ll sleep with you.” My answer woke him like a hit of speed and he groped towards my face for a kiss. “No, not out here. Inside. Let’s go inside.”

I thought I was going to strain my lower back. He kept swaying back and forth and it was everything I could do to keep him from knocking over his mother’s ubiquitous Tiffany Lamps once we were inside. “You’re so hot, Lisa.”

“Thank you, but let’s get you upstairs.”

I might as well have been climbing Everest without any oxygen. It seemed like fifteen minutes before we reached the second floor where he lurched towards the hall bathroom. I heard puking in the toilet until he was dry heaving. I almost left then, but he stumbled out without his shirt on, grinning after brushing his teeth and gargling with mouthwash as the time had come to consummate our relationship.

“Come on,” he said. “You’re so hot, Lisa.” I guided him into his bedroom.

“Whatever, Brian.”

“God, you’re so hot. I can’t wait to tell all my buddies in boot camp about you. I always knew there was a little slut in you.”

He started slid down his shorts and before they were off his ankles, I rushed forward and slapped his cheek as hard as I can. He laughed and tossed his shorts.

“I like that. I like that a lot.” He fell on his back in bed, looking through me with his blue eyes glazed over, as all the pictures he would see that day were going away. I had begun to cry. I wanted him to say he was sorry, but then, with the quickness of one who receives the anesthesia, he feel asleep. I stood watching him, wiping my face with my forearm, before turning his head to one side in case he vomited. His loud snoring comforted me, but when he started to piss the bed, I stepped back, covering my mouth.

I came back with clean towels and positioned them around his body. I wondered how anyone could work in a nursing home, cleaning bedpans and pissy sheets.

In the morning, I returned to wake him up. I could feel his hangover as he moaned and rolled from bed, which I stripped the sheets from and along with the towels carried to the washer at arm’s length. Once he was in the shower, I scrubbed my arms and hands for five minutes with the tenacity of a surgeon prepping for surgery, and went to cook scrambled eggs and bacon. He drank water and orange juice. Afterwards we drove in my Prius to the airport. Inside, at the TSA security screening area, he turned and we hugged.

Soon I was sobbing on his shoulder. In spite of his money and the life it afforded, I believed the world had abandoned him. His hands slid down my back to cup my ass through my shorts. People were watching but I never made him move. We stayed that way for a long time. It was the patriotic thing for me to do.

Ghost Lines

by James McAdams

“Remember Tour of Duty?” Clyde asked.  He filled his glass straight from the tap without removing his eyes from the bar’s TV.

The man sitting next to him finished his beer, his back humped over the vinyl counter, cracked and appearing vaguely tectonic in places. They wore sweatshirts advertising local sports teams with wrinkled slacks and sneakers, looking in parallel vectors at satellite footage of ammunition fire between rebels and police officials in the Middle East.  There were tanks, helicopters, dusty men in beards retreating into alleys, shooting. The screen was tinted neon and crossed with jiggling eerie patterns or ghost lines, either because of a weak satellite signal or the old cathode-ray TV’s over-heating. Sometimes the Vietnamese owner climbed up the ladder next to the sink full of dirty glasses and cigarette butts to slap the side of the TV, which made them laugh cuz who is so short he would need a ladder to reach the TV.  The owner was in the basement checking inventory, while his two children sat in their reserved booth in the back by the restrooms, sipping from juice-boxes and looking in parallel vectors at a Vietnamese broadcast of Sesame Street, neglecting their spelling homework. The TV said, “Ma” means “ghost” in Vietnamese.

.

“About the war,” Clyde continued.  “Vietnam.  Late-80s, like that period after Stone made Platoon and everyone was doing Vietnam stuff.”

“I remember Cruise as a cripple in that July 4th movie, Robin Williams as a radio guy screaming. I was working for the power company then, still with Angela, that bitch.”

“But this show was about a commando troop or something in Nam blowing up villages, fucking Gooks, getting high.  It was real anti-Reagan shit.  Anti-war.”

“In prison, I knew this dude, big dude, black, had this necklace made from Gook ears,” he said.

“Fuck if they could show that on TV now because of PC shit.  Even with Reagan in power then, all that PC shit started and it was every white male American for himself.  You couldn’t mention the Gooks and Spics taking over America.”

He looked over his shoulder at the children’s bent backs but didn’t lower his voice. It was only the five of them there.  LBJ Elementary had issued a half-day because of inclement weather so the children needed to be at the bus stop outside the MoneyMart at 11:37.  The foggy snow outside resembled the ghost lines on the bar’s TV.

“My dad campaigned for Reagan before the cancer.”

“He in the war?”

“Korea.” The man sounded proud.  “Three tours.”

“I meant Nam, Korea wasn’t a war it was a conflict.  It’s all different man—”

“He was shot at, that enough?”

Clyde rolled his eyes and made a kind of calm down gesture, lighting a cigarette and changing the channel to a bass fishing broadcast. He had spoken to the man beside him many times in bars throughout the town and seen him in St. Catherine’s AA on Wednesdays but couldn’t recall his name.

“He was in Nam,” Clyde said. “I had this world map Mrs. Hendricks gave us for winning Geography Quest in ’73 and Ma put it up on the wall in my bedroom with push pins, to follow him sort of.”

The other man whistled and pointed at the TV, saying, “Damn sucker’s gonna break his line there.”

“When we received letters from him about the battles, she’d tape a Monopoly piece to its location.  For the victories she taped the hotels, they were red, and for the losses she taped the houses, they were green.  Onto the map with scotch tape folded over behind itself so you couldn’t see. So there was all this red and green, but mostly it was red.  Red for winning, because of Gook blood.  That was the idea, Ma said, that we were winning. That Dad was winning.  Mostly the whole map was supposed to represent American victory and to remind me of Dad, who left for the war when I was two.”

“America.  I’m with you.”

The two children worked on their spelling.  The girl had a red backpack and the boy had a blue backpack.  Both backpacks had American flags stitched above the children’s last names.  The girl, who was older, erased a word on her brother’s Steno Pad: he had written “appel,” which she corrected to “apple.”  Then she corrected another word: he had written “gost,” which she corrected to “ghost.”  The last name on their bags was “Ng.”

“All those years I thought my dad was a hero, even after he returned home and got laid off cuz of the twitching, and started drinking all day and watching John Wayne movies with an empty .45 in his hand pretending to shoot at the Indians and Mexicans.  He’d hit my mom when she came in the room which caused the hip thing, the hitting and knocking down.”

“He hit you?” the man asked, filling his beer from the unmonitored tap, splashing beer onto the linoleum floor where the owner’d slipped that one night and they all laughed and threw peanut shells.

“When I was home I’d get in between them and take it.  Once he swiped me with the gun.”  Clyde pointed to a scar above his temple with his glass and the man whistled approvingly.  “My dad said the map was bullshit, ripped it up and made me re-paint the walls where the push pins fucked them up.  But when Ma died I was talking to my aunt Lydia…”

He ground out his cigarette into the ashtray and grabbed an open Fritos bag from next to the register. There was a little jar there with a coin slot and a stickered Habitat for Humanity label next to brochures for the upcoming elections on the register’s base.  Clyde stuck a handful of chips in his mouth and said, “Liddy, she found the ripped map parts in the basement, we were cleaning out the house after Ma died, and when I told her what it meant she looked at me weird like a dumb bitch and said didn’t I know my mom was color blind?”

The other man crunched loudly on the Fritos and licked the orange crumbly glaze from his fingers.  “I used to call my Mom ‘Mother’ when she was alive but it’s like I call her ‘Mom’ now, when I think of her. ”

“Color blind means green and red are the same.  They’re like brown or something. Different colors for different people.”

“Your Ma saw three browns.”

“Point is the reds she put up for Gook blood victories and the greens she put up for American losses were all brown to her.  And it was only once when I was in rehab for the second time and watching Tour of Duty that I remembered this and realized that Nam was just one big clusterfuck and Ma was wrong, that my dad lost all those battles, he lost everything, that America lost everything: the map, it just mapped failure. That he drank everything until there was nothing left to fuck up anymore.  That our family was fucked from the get-go.” He spit on the floor covered with peanut shells.   “This was after the time I broke Shirley’s clavicle.”

“The time the cop was a fag and you—”

“What was most fucked was when I realized all this, sitting on one of those moldy rehab couches thinking of this (he gestured to his beer), two base-heads listening to nigger music were playing Monopoly under a map or poster thing of the 12 steps, but they were playing with that tweaked hustler rule where landing on Free Parking gives you all this money, like it’s fucking welfare. I wanted to go bust the table over my knee but there were two security guys there too, so it was just the five of us in the room.  I left the next day.”

The children’d heard Gook before and spelled it, not on their Steno Pads with their used Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, but on recycled bar napkins in crayon, but they spelled it “cook,” as in “Cookie Monster,” the girl explained, nodding up at the furry blue figure on the screen.  She was older than the boy, who sometimes called her Mommy in his sleep. The girl had seen pictures of her mommy in the scrapbook Daddy’d brought over, and couldn’t wait to grow up and be pretty like her and possess–she thought the word was “aura,” what Daddy said Mommy had, and because of this “aura,” he’d explained, Mommy was always around, watching over them and protecting them.  The Daddy, who was summoning the Mommy’s soul or whatever while doing inventory on the Budweiser and Milwaukee’s Best pallets, recalled her straight black hair and white smocks and furtive, barefoot movements, her reputation as the greatest beauty in her smoldered village, and thought again then of her aura radiating like a gentle beam or line through their children’s eyes, as if she were an angel or beatific ghost, hovering around them in a different dimension.

“That bass must weigh 35 pounds or I’m a shitkicker,” mumbled the man whose name Clyde couldn’t remember, his mouth full of Fritos and beer.  “No way any one line can support that.”

In the Cooler at Little Macedonia

by Sandra Kolankiewicz

For the months I lived in the City, I worked in a small restaurant called Little Macedonia.  The neighborhood had dirty brick buildings with little markets on street level, markets without splashes of flowers for sale out their front doors or exotic tropical fruits and vegetables lined up in crates along the sidewalk outside.

Little Macedonia served tavche gravche and sarma, and like nearly every little restaurant, cappuccino and alcohol, but Sonja and Branko’s place offered the added attraction of Turkish coffee served in little cups with saucers or, if you were special, in Sonja’s grandmother’s tiny china cups.

Macedonians in their mid-thirties, they had grown up in Skopjme.  First Sonja had come to America, having met and married, without being able to speak English, what she thought to be an American businessman, only to discover when they returned to Manhattan that he was really a white, trust-funded Rastafarian who promptly grew his hair, stopped combing it, and dumped her after she refused to wear skirts and refrain from meat.  They did stay married long enough for her to get a green card.  Afterwards, with her sponsorship, Branko, her childhood playmate, son of her mother’s best friend, left the Macedonian army and came to America.

Sonja and Branko fought as only two who love each other like brother and sister can: dirty, with insults, name-calling, the dragging up of each other’s past in front of customers and employees.  My first day, Branko instructed me not to call Sonja by what he called her ‘Christian’ name, but instead to call her ‘Butch’.

“She’s more aggressive than any man,” he said, the ends of a bandanna he had wrapped around his head flopping as he –whap!  whap!  whap!– tenderized a piece of beef.  “She catches them, wraps them up, and devours them like a spider.”  Whap!  Whap!  Whap!

“You prch,” Sonja had said to him, and then to me, “Don’t listen to him; he’s just a goat, he just likes the kind of womens he can boss.”  Turning to the customers in the restaurant, who were all listening, unsurprised, who perhaps had heard the story before, she said, “But Vesna!  Vesna got away from him!”  She waved her arms in the air and yelled at Branko, who was ignoring her.  “Vesna got away from him because he treat her like shit!  And you know what?  He cried like a baby!”  She finished gesturing and turned to someone who had just walked in.

“Would you like a menu?” she asked sweetly.

The man had shrugged.  “Well I didn’t come in here for the company,” he said and unfolded a newspaper.

“Give him water and a menu,” she told me, disappearing into the back.  All had gone back to whatever they were doing before the fight, and the man ordered a Brankoburger, sliced sausage with sautéed green peppers and onions in a hard roll.

People liked to work with me because I did more than my share.  Since arriving in New York, I hadn’t been able to stand still.  When I wasn’t wiping tables, delivering lettuce-less sandwiches of stacked meat, or reorganizing the cooler, I found myself entertaining because of my accent and the fact that I was a good listener.

I told a good hill tale too, about the corpse candles, the tomb of General Solomon Lowe, the great mine disaster of 1914, in which nearly every family in Reunion, Ohio, lost a man.  I respun legends I had heard since my childhood, but I rarely told my own stories.  I didn’t have any yet.  In fact, I was even still a virgin, the last one in New York from what I could tell.

 

Connie’s Obsession

In the early evening, when people who have been working hard, with not a moment to think about themselves or their lives, when they pause to imagine what awaits them beyond the dusk, in that moment when the self of the day stops and turns toward the self of the night, there is always an image toward which they feel joy, indifference, or dread.

Those who want to be in the place that their thoughts direct them hurry home.  The indifferent ones sniff the wind.  The ones with hearts full of dread linger, looking desperately for a distraction, anything to keep the momentum going, prevent the vacuum from descending.

Right before dusk, a city feels deserted, as if taking in one long, sweeping breath that will exhale and become the night.  Every evening, we inside Little Macedonia felt the moment like a sigh.  Sometimes Sonja spoke, or one of the customers who had nowhere better to go.  Perhaps the mailman talked, or someone who’d just stepped in to buy a newspaper.  It might have been Frank, the other cook besides Branko, or Hymen, the nearly-blind cab driver.  Someone always needed to break the silence.

On days when Connie talked, she always brought up Paolo.  Connie was the other waitress, forty-one years old.  After many experiments with her hair in an effort to regain her substance after Paolo left her, she had come to prefer the color black, the texture kinky.   She wore black clothes and eyeliner as a uniform.  Unlike most of the people in Little Macedonia, she had just one story.

“I guess I’m not going to hear from him again today,” she’d sigh at the end of each day, and smile apologetically.  We were supposed to laugh at her joke then, but none thought her funny by that point.  According to everyone, including Connie, she’d been saying the same line for over a year, ever since Paolo, a twenty-nine-year-old Italian from Brooklyn, told her he didn’t love her anymore.

At first she’d said it in disbelief, like she expected him any moment to walk through the door of the restaurant as he’d done every night at dusk for the three months he’d courted her.  He’d seemed so dogged and smitten that the whole restaurant became involved in their affair, encouraging Connie to go for him.  After they became lovers, when he strolled in, he stopped her at whatever she was doing and kissed her, greeting the room.

However, one day after a fight, which he had lost because he had been wrong, he just ceased coming.  He didn’t return her calls, and when she went to find him, he wasn’t home.  Gradually, with each evening he did not appear, as the months and months passed and one season turned into another without his return, her “I guess I’m not going to hear from him again today” became a restaurant joke.  Every day at that hour Connie’s mood turned blue.

Usually she could hold her tongue, swallow that feeling she got when she thought about Paolo, the hugging, kissing, rolling around the floor before she’d got sad and serious, wanting to talk all the time.  Her need to discuss her feelings, the state of their relationship, which after its blissful beginning was beginning to sour, her need to talk had eroded his love for her.

At dusk every day Connie was forced to realize again that Paolo’s courting and abandonment of her had, indeed, happened.  She felt stunned, stuck, and used, guilty because he blamed the death of his lust on her, as if she had somehow undone herself.  All of us had heard her story over and over.  She clung to certain details of the affair like they were jetsam, replaying scenes over and over, spending and recharging herself.

“I just don’t understand what’s wrong with me,” she’d curse.  “I can’t get over this.”

“I’m not ready for commitment,” he had admitted at the end, when she’d finally caught him at home.  He wept because he “really hadn’t meant to hurt her.”

“Then why did he go to my brother about me!” Connie always wanted to know at that point, pale face twisted as if the breakup had been recent.  “Why didn’t he just leave me alone in the first place!”

None of us ever had an answer.  Sometimes a person who hadn’t heard the story would say, “Forget about him, he’s not worth it.”  You might as well have just told Connie not to breathe.  She might as well have been one of my teenage girl friends at home.

“I keep thinking he’s going to come back,” she’d confess.  “I keep thinking that he’ll realize he still loves me.”  She’d stand at the counter then, a dreamy look crossing her face.

“For God’s sake!” Sonja would remind her then.  “You knew him only a few months!  He didn’t love you!  He didn’t even know you!  He just wanted to fuck you!  He would have told you anything you wanted to hear!

Connie never became angry; in fact, she usually agreed except for when the sun was setting, the evening drawing in its breath.  She’d flash then for a moment on the little apartment where she was headed.  Her thoughts would immediately turn to Paolo, the memory of his leaving her as if it were an involuntary vesper to her daily agony.  Some days she would even cry a little while we politely ignored her.

But I had learned to be careful in the cooler at those times because she might catch me alone.  I’d have to listen to her run over and over the details about a man she had known and slept with nearly every night for only two months, a year and a half before.

“He used to say ‘Isn’t she wonderful?’ to everyone we met,” she’d insist, standing between the door and me.  “When I couldn’t be there, he’d sleep with my nightgown.”

Branko thought Connie a fool and thus took every opportunity to remind her that her loyalty was wasted.  He’d stand in the doorway to the kitchen, cleaver in hand, half-diced lamb on the counter behind him, and remind her that she’d been working for them for over five years; he had a right to tell her this.  Then he would lean forward on his toes and point to his temple with the tip of the cleaver, his face becoming wide and round, as if he were simple.

“Only a person with no brain,” he would say, crossing his eyes, “would throw away her time.  He tricked you; he tricked all of us.  Put him behind you.”  When she became sad, Branko lectured Connie, a look of disdain on his dark, handsome face as he told her that she should just face reality and get on with her life.  And she should probably read the Bible, that was one of her problems.

However, if he rode Connie too hard, Sonja interceded, always by distracting him with his own past.  She’d stop in front of whomever she was serving, or turn toward him, a check in one hand and the other poised to ring open the cash register.  She’d lean at Branko over the counter and hiss, “And what about Kalina!  You don’t eat or sleep for three months because of Kalina!  Kalina the bitch!”  Then she’d gesture to anyone who was listening, “The worst she treat him, the more he lay around for her like a dog!”

When Sonja brought up Kalina, they would immediately begin arguing in Macedonian, and Connie would be safe in her obsession.  People were, for the most part, kind and loving toward her.  Each had experienced at least one obsession of his own.

 

The Brass Ring

There is hardly a person alive who cannot look back at someone he thought he once loved as if his soul depended on it, only to see the relationship now as freakish or, at the very least, absurd.  At the time the liaison ends, or when we are forced to finally admit that its beginning will never occur, we are struck at once breathless and reeling.  We believe that without this person, the sun will never shine again.

Sometimes we get drunk; other times we get fat, we start sleeping with any substitute at all, or making phone calls in the night and hanging up when someone answers.  Others of us are lucky enough to compartmentalize and put thoughts of the person aside completely, but only when we’re so busy we don’t have time to think.

Then one day we glance back and find that not only is it okay that the relationship didn’t work out, but it had been a ridiculous thought to begin with!  We look out over the wave of the past and realize there’s no way in a dead rat’s ass that we would now even want to be with that object of our relentless desperation, and we examine ourselves in wonder, asking, “Did I really do that?”  “Did I really want her?”  “Did I have to think it was him I needed?”  Because, of course, what we thought we wanted was never the person.

No.  Otherwise, instead of shock, shame, embarrassment, or absolute disbelief, we would feel grief, we would be thankful, or we would feel nothing, nothing at all– the person would have disappeared from our memories, rarely to return until we were old and suddenly wanted to remember a name again, how we’d met.  And then, of course, it would still not be the person we would be remembering, but perhaps the hair.

What was Connie wanting from Paolo?  Who he was?  Or what he said he wanted from her: stability, security, sex whenever he asked for it, even when the sex was just her letting him watch her naked body while she slept?  She never saw Paolo at work; she never met his family, never saw how he acted with a waiter, whether or not he tipped a bartender or said Thanks for things.  She had no idea how he treated animals, if he was in debt.

She had wanted the dream he wove for her late at night after making love, while they were smoking cigarettes and staring at the ceiling, her head on his shoulder; how they would save their money and go somewhere, how he’d love her even when her breasts were shriveled and her still-firm ass a memory, even when no one would believe in a million years that she had once been beautiful, and their granddaughter would ask her such things as, “Why are you so old?”

She loved the dream, not Paolo.  If only she’d really looked at him, she would have decided very differently, but he had held out the dream.  For weeks he had strolled into Little Macedonia and dangled that brass ring in from of all of them, as Connie and the rest of the folks in the restaurant circled and circled on the crazy carrousel, on their way to work, lunch or back from an appointment with the dentist.

Paolo had hung out that eternal brass ring for them all to see, and each had jumped at the prospect of someone’s really finding love.  All had said, “Connie, grab that ring before it gets away,” and next time she got ’round, she caught it.

If she could see Paolo now, who would he be?

We all look back and lament, “How could I have thought I was in love with that!”

Even Branko laughed about it.  “That Kalina,” he’d say at the end of the day, “You know, if I like a woman, it is a sure indication that she is a bitch.”  And Sonja would agree.

“Butch,” he’d say to her reflectively, leaning back against the counter, his arms folded, legs crossed at the ankles, his face genuine in its disbelief.  “Can you believe you thought you were in love with that narcotics agent, the one with the skinny shoulders and big head?”

Everyone laughed at the folly of it all, especially Sonja.

“I’ll be saying “Seventy-five and still single,'” she’d joke as a way of lightly ending her stories about a failed romance, but always the person from the past that she recalled for us in Little Macedonia was someone she now recognized as a man not to have loved, not to have cried over, not to have tortured herself with, stayed up all night and grieved for, not a man on whose account to stop eating, not someone to have taken away that new American smile she had porcelain-crowned into her face for what she called ‘tousands’ of dollars.

Nevertheless, like most of the people I have observed, she picked what amounted to the same person over and over even though she knew how our lovers use us as mirrors to reflect what they want to see about themselves.  As soon as we flash back a clear picture, they dump us.  They disappear from our looking glass like vampires before a mirror.

 

The Four Stages of Obsession

As far as I can tell, there are four stages to obsession: Excitement, Mania, Dread, and Depression.  The Excitement Phase lasts only until you sleep with the object of your obsession, which immediately puts you into the next phase: Mania.  It took all of two evenings and an afternoon to lose what I’d been trying to protect for what seemed, at eighteen, all of my life.  His comment after it was over was, “Now you’re not in the dictionary anymore.”  He’d lit up a cigarette then and stared at the ceiling, pleased with himself

“What do you mean?” I’d asked, the afternoon sunlight hitting the end of the bed, my hair all messed up as I took in the vision of my black clothes recklessly tossed onto the floor, crumpled and silly-looking now without my body inside them.  He had turned his head toward me on the pillow and exhaled into my face, an act which thrilled me at the time.

“Under ‘virgin,'” he explained and drew on is cigarette again, leaving me to ponder whether having lost my previous classification were something desirable, and whether I would have a new one.  Non-virgin?  Slut?  There didn’t seem to be anything between the two.

So I didn’t stay long in the Excitement Phase, except for a trip to the Guggenheim, a couple of cappuccinos, and some carrot cake, a walk through Washington Square.  In retrospect, however, I realize that prolonging the first stage might have prevented movement into the second: once you take the time to get a good look, you usually will turn and run.  ‘Checking someone out’ is what the Excitement Phase is supposed to be about.

When my roommates, Sara and Cam, found out I had had a few dates with E–, they were shocked.

“My God,” said Sara on the phone, the morning of the day I lost my place in the dictionary.  “You picked the biggest asshole at the party.”

I’d said something really lame, like, “But I really think he cares about me.”

“Listen,” warned Sara, suddenly no nonsense.  “This one’s just a salesman.”

And sell he did–how I had loved it!  He trashed everyone, all the great thinkers of the world.  Socrates was a bum!  James Joyce was an idiot who didn’t know anything, and Shakespeare was just a dead poet.

 

The Manic Stage

I should have prolonged the Excitement Phase, milked it for a little more fun, because of the Manic part one remembers merely a rush of scenes that later, in the Dread and Depression Stages, he’ll replay over and over.  No matter how long the Manic really lasts, whether weeks or months, it’s still too short.  When you’re through, you have a feeling of missing time, of alien abduction, or you torture yourself with a series of ‘if only’s.’

What a thrill it was, really, to be in the Manic Stage of obsession for the winter holiday in New York City!  What everyone dreams about, the stuff of Fred Astaire movies!  For four days we walked everywhere, held hands constantly through the perfect snow, big dreamy flakes until at last, with no pressure at all, I gave it up.

Somewhere in there I worked, but he would never pick me up there. He didn’t like, he said, to ‘get close to a bunch of people he didn’t know.’  The commonness of my job appalled him, though he was always throwing Marx’s name around, because I wasn’t just playing at being a waitress while someone paid for my schooling.

He claimed that his main reason for not going was that no one there at Little Macedonia would have anything interesting to say.

“Discourse,” he would announce and get this serious look on his face, like he was about to say something profound, “is the stuff of life.”

Perhaps I have made him sound like too much of an ass, myself too much of a fool.  After all, the reason I had sex was the oldest in the world: after two nights and a day, his spending a little bit of his parents’ money, bandying smatterings of his knowledge about coffee shops while I listened intently, with a rapt gaze, he told me he loved me.  Then I existed: ping!: like that.

I walked around Manhattan that Christmas with the daze of the newly born, following him around like a gosling.  In Little Macedonia, they recognized the signs.

“Oh my god,” said Sonja.  “Get me the t’ermometer.  This girl has the fever.”  They claimed they could tell about me by the way I now dressed, not just black now but overtly sexy, more like someone else than myself.

“Is this what love does to people?” Branko asked me one day when I showed up in another tight black outfit.  “The guy’s a creep if he lets you out in public like that.  Besides looking like a prostitute, you are going to freeze.”

When one is manic, one doesn’t listen; neither does one feel the cold.  I thought them all wrong and only myself right.  Only myself and him.

Connie tried to warn me as well.

“It’s just like cocaine,” she said.  “The higher up you go, the further you have to fall.  You should listen to me; I know.”  But I thought I knew better.

In total, my first love affair lasted less than two weeks.  I found out later that a month was about as long as it ever got with him.  I used to know precisely how many days our affair lasted; like Connie, I used to be able to recite the litany of our contacts and torture myself with the details once the ‘affair’ was over.

For fourteen days, three or so in Excitement and then several in Manic, we walked around, held hands every where we went, kissed in public, and made love whenever we were near a bed.  His roommate was gone for the holidays, and we had their apartment to ourselves, as if I lived there with him.  We never slept and were always a little drunk.

Then one morning as I was throwing on clothes to go to work, I disagreed with him about something.  The jig was up.  He rolled over and refused to answer me when I left for work.

 

Dread

The third stage of Obsession, Dread, starts with a feeling in your solar plexus, a cold anxiousness that sits as heavily on your chest as a cat in your worst suffocation nightmare.  There’s no waking.  You carry the dread with you everywhere because in your heart of hearts, you know the affair is over.

As I sat there in Little Macedonia, after less than two weeks of what at the time I presumed to be bliss, I knew I was tied to the telephone, that I would barely eat or sleep and merely drag myself through the motions of working and living until I heard from him again.  As I forced myself to wait on tables, I felt a tremendous sympathy for Connie and regretted begrudging her those moments in the cooler when she talked about Paolo.

The most I could do at home that night was lie on the couch and fall asleep for a few hours, sleeping fitfully, waking with night sweats.  Sara and Cam tiptoed around me from what had become their shared bedroom.

Every morning for days I went to E–‘s apartment before work.  Each evening when I was through, I’d stop by again.  Sometimes I’d go at night, before I went to bed, around midnight.  He was never home.

Neither did he frequent his usual spots.  When I asked his friends where he was, they would flick an eye at each other knowingly but say they had no idea.

I stopped eating and sleeping.  I took up pacing as my recreation.  When I wasn’t waiting on someone, I wore a track from one end of Little Macedonia to the other, back and forth like a duck in a shooting gallery, reliving everything he and I had ever done together, my brow creased with effort.  Folks in Little Macedonia exchanged looks, every one extra nice to me, in an embarrassed way.

Finally, I caught him at home.  True to the rest of the cliché, he was with another woman, an ex-girlfriend that he had complained bitterly about to me in some cafe.  Now she wore the smirk of the successful repossession man, and she made sure to let me see that she was naked under his bathrobe.

And so Dread turned into Depression.

 

Depression

The Depression Stage begins when all the fears in the Dread Stage are realized.  Yes, he has left you.   Indeed, she never loved you.  Everything he promised is a lie.  Yes, you are too old, your ass is too big, the color of your hair drab, your nose too long.  Yes, you still have to drag yourself through the day with everybody knowing; you have to find a reason to pull that comb through your hair.  In the Dread Stage things are dying; in the Depression Stage, everything is dead.  You become Connie in the cooler, boring everyone, torturing yourself with your memory of the details. You become me and go back home.

 

A Treatment for Obsession

If I could see Connie now, all of them from Little Macedonia, I could tell them how to treat Obsession when it is confused with love.  You have to stop watching television and going to movies, I would say, give up listening to the radio or any other music with words, cease glancing through magazines and checking out the ads, stay away from most novels, ignore billboards.

You must change your topics of conversation, develop hobbies that have nothing to do with the outside world.  You must cut yourselves off entirely from popular culture by having no friends and living in a box with no doors or windows.

But one day, perhaps only when your hormones have faded and you can finally think and see at the same time, when so much track has been laid down behind you that the past seems like a dream, some day, even though that person once hurt you terribly, you’ll no longer feel the pain and, even better, you won’t care.  When the sun goes down, and dusk exhales like a sigh becoming the night, you won’t be anxious.  You’ll make your way home gratefully, joyously, even though you’ll be there alone.

Juan Camilo’s Dream

by Rolaine Hochstein

1

We were leaving Colombia.  The driver was waiting.  Dennis, my husband, a man of action, was downstairs with our baggage.  I, just a woman, was still upstairs.  Tooth brush and toothpaste zip-locked in my shoulder bag.  Drawers empty (except for the Bible in Spanish).  Hangers bare in a bare closet.  Pesos for the chambermaid left on the writing desk.  My hand was on the door knob when the room phone rang.  I ran for it.  The caller was Juan Camilo.

“I had the most interesting dream,” he said.

I sat down on the edge of the double bed.

We were traveling in Colombia, Juanca began.  You and Dennis and me and another person—Norteamericano.  This other person was suffering from a toothache and I had to take him to a dentist.  We were all sitting around a small round table outside some café and someone came out from the bar next door.  I could see him so vividly.  Another Gringo—old, with wrinkles, wearing khakis and a khaki hat with the kind of hemisphere top and the big brim.

“An explorer’s hat,” I said.

Juan continued with a characteristic change of tense.

 I see him so vividly.  He comes directly to our table.

Before he gets there he says, Betty! He stands behind the man with the bad tooth.  He says, Betty!  Is it really you?  I don’t remember his name in the dream so I’ll call him Larry.  You squeal, Larry!  And he is an old friend from high school.  Maybe college.  And Dennis is looking not at all happy and you are saying, Larry it’s wonderful to see you.

I could see Juan’s delight, his smile almost a perfect circle because his mouth was wide open in amazement at the doings in his dream.  But Dennis was waiting. 
C’mon Juan, I wished, let me go.  But Juan was, as always, swept up in his tornado of enthusiasm.  His café-con-leche skin was puckered with devilment,

And I am saying, We can’t stay here.  We have to go to the dentist.  And Larry is saying, But Betty, I have so many stories to tell you.  And you say, Look, Larry.  Stay right here.  Don’t move.  I’ll come back to you straight from the dentist.  And that was the end of the dream.

“Good,” I said.  “Because Dennis is waiting downstairs.  The taxi is here.”

“Whoops,” Juan said.  “I’ll put on clothes and be down in three minutes, no more than five.”

 

The lobby was open-air like so many places in Cali and already blanched in morning light.  Dennis was standing among our check-ins and carry-ons amid tongues and fingers and fists of green protuberances, bushes and trees and shrubs growing out of the ground, hanging from the walls, rising from ancient Inca pots.  He gave me his adorable look of feigned admiration at how late I can manage to be.  I dropped into a bamboo chair beside a gushing waterfall.  “Juan will be right down,” I told him.  “He had a dream he wanted to tell me.”  Dennis was spreading sun protection over his nose and forehead and bald spot.  “It must have been an all-nighter,” he commented without rancor.  I love my husband for good reason.  It was his idea to take a vacation in Colombia.  He wanted to be high in the Andes (high altitude-wise, I mean.  Dennis is a down-to-earth guy with no bad habits).  Besides, in Cali, now that the city was on the rise, nobody seemed to mention drugs.

The day was starting to get hot, and the driver had come inside, swabbing his face with an extra-large, extra-colorful handkerchief and talking to me in Spanish, which I couldn’t understand.  Then, like a fanfare, Juan was there, to hell with the elevator, jumping the last four steps, zooming in with armloads of baggage and his shirttails flying.  “I hope I’m not too late,” he said with a face you’d have to forgive for anything.

 

The ride to the airport took us climbing up the sides of the bowl of the city, on newly-paved roads that cut between fat, curious trees leaning in, looking at us, just a little bit menacing, leaves like giant paws and claws, and pushy bushes, variously green—for Go, for envy, for being new at the game or in one’s salad days, as green as green gets—and splintered with pokes of HD flowers—wine-drunk purple, showbird yellow, bloody red, orange gone mad.  The mountains served as neutral background, solid greens with a bright sky topping. These mountains, though steep and hulking, were cozier than our mountains up North.  They stayed green all the way up and the tops were scalloped and smooth as lollipops.  We were speeding in ascending circles so that all that landscape became spectators and we were the show.  The car was compact and Japanese.  The driver was a white guy.  The air conditioner was pitched on high and his handkerchief was now a neckerchief.  Aside from being a speed freak, he seemed to be a friendly guy with comic strip good looks.  Anything to say, he addressed it to Juan, who would have understood if he could have heard it.  Juan was in back with me and the bags that didn’t fit into the trunk.  He was leaning forward to tell his dream to Dennis, who was in front with a seat belt on and phantom-braking, I knew.  Dennis kept his eyes on the road while he was leaned back to listen.  I was listening, too.  The dream had filled out since the first telling.  Juan’s English, of course, was impeccable.

 

The American with the bad tooth was bellyaching all the way.  He was complaining about everything.  The hotel wasn’t good enough.  He didn’t like the guard at the gate.  Why does he sit there holding a rifle? he kept asking.  Inside the hotel, the air conditioning was too weak.  The bed was too soft.  Outside, the taxis were too small.  The food was too spicy.  He was a real complainer.

“Who was he?” I asked.

Juan thought.  “Maybe he was your friend Tom.”

“Tom!” I howled.  “No way!”

But he could have been.  Maybe he was.  Tom had planned to come down from Texas and meet us in Cartagena.  Tom and his wife and sometimes not his wife often joined us on vacations.  This time, at the last minute, he had canceled the trip because of illness—real or feigned we hadn’t found out yet.  Maybe it was a toothache.  But Tom was usually an A-one travel companion.  It took some effort to imagine him being a pain-in-the-neck.  And yet…

Juan Camilo has worked with Dennis’s firm for a long time.  He had met Tom once or twice when we’d all gone out in New York.  Tom, though Juan didn’t know this, happens to be a bit phobic—heights, tight spots.  He had reason to bow out of our trip as Dennis penciled it out with his mind on the Andes.  Tom was a stocky six-foot-three.  He might have found ample grounds for dissatisfaction—dinky cars on steep slopes, dirt roads like the downswing of a roller coaster.  A couple of no-star lodging establishments.  Spicy food.  If he had a sore tooth he would probably not have been able to eat the fruit—the luscious mangos and scrumptious papaya, the slurpy tangy guanabana, naranjilla with fat beads of juice, the chontaduro and the guava, and purple passion fruit that we rolled in our mouths and pressed with our tongues and sighed over like after-sex bliss.

Deprived of fruit, Tom would have been testier than his usual benign self.  The man in the dream needed to see a dentist.  That made sense.  Juan Camilo’s father was a dentist, though many years ago he had sold his practice to devote himself to playing polo.

And you were so happy to see Larry, Juan was saying to me. He was sitting back now, addressing me over two of the suitcases.  Dennis was…he made a face that smelled something faintly rancid.  “Disgruntled?” I said.  “Yes.  Disgruntled,” Juan said.

 

“So who’s Larry?” he asked me with his misbehaving smile.

I thought.  I asked Dennis.  “Could it be Larry who comes with the fish soup?”  Larry is a graphic artist who lives in our building in New York.  He makes a soupe de poisson, really French, with much garlic and a little Pernod.

“No.” Juan said firmly.  (Juan loves Larry’s fish soup).  “I only gave him that name for the dream.”

I thought again.  Deeply.

“Maybe he’s Manny Valente from high school.  I Googled him a couple of months ago.  We’ve been emailing.  He stayed in our home town and married some local girl—I mean, woman.  He’s got arthritis now and says he doesn’t get out much.”

Juan wasn’t sure.  “He was old and wrinkled but he was wearing the clothes of an adventurer.  He wanted to connect with you.  You’re an adventurer, Betty.”

Adventuress,” I corrected him.

 

Juan is the most heterosexual man I know. Put him in a bar or dance hall and he immediately becomes the center of a daisy with all the petals hanging around him and not a single loves-me-not.  He likes the Heterosexual title.  “I have to keep at it,” he said recently with a shadow of worry.  “I will soon be almost fifty years old.”

I wasn’t overcome with sympathy.   Juan is at least a dozen years younger than my husband.  More, if I wanted to be frank.  Juan’s girlfriend in New York is Viki.  His girlfriend in Medellin is another Viki.  Coincidence.  Everyone from Colombia has emailed the New York Viki, who has prior claim, about the new Viki (Juan, too–he keeps no secrets) but New York Viki isn’t jealous.  Correction: only a little bit of residual jealousy, because she and Juan are in the process of dissolving from lovers to old friends and it is to be expected–encouraged, really—that he should see other women while she sees other men.  Many other men, in her case, even though she’s no spring chicken.

My Dennis still finds it hard to look at Viki, the New York one.  He says he is blinded by the sun of her beauty.  (I’m not jealous).  The Medellin Viki is by no means bad-looking, not as blinding, but just as sexy and athletic, as hot a dresser, almost as cheerful, and in addition she’s a highly-placed executive at Colombia’s second to richest oil company.  She, too, is close to fifty but both Vikis in clothes look like the lean and nubile young women who go naked in the locker room of my gym, where I keep a towel wrapped around me, even though I have nothing to be ashamed of.  Colombians all look younger.  No surprise. Medellin–once best–known for epic drug activity–is now at least equally famous for cosmetic surgery. Everybody does it (cosmetic surgery) and all the while they’re eating that fortifying fruit and going out dancing every night.  Juan looks younger, too.

Neither Viki shows up in his dream.  Here is cause for wonder.  Why is he dreaming of Dennis and me and a cranky friend with a dental problem?  To say nothing of my tie-in with a high-school sweetheart who is single again?

 

You can’t go far in the Cali area without coming upon the eponymous river, an energetic worm of a river—chugging through a curly crevice between the jungle and the mountainside or streaking headlong at eye-level behind an innocent pineapple field.  I always thought pineapples grew on bushes in Hawaii but here they were in Colombia—lined up in squat platoons, acres of them, growing right out of the sloping ground.  Even everyday fruit like pineapples–there isn’t a way to describe them that’s rich enough, juicy enough, tasty enough, radiant enough.  Manny, when he saw me, was a little like that, even though his posture was not as straight as it used to be and the skin on his face—once so smooth and tight–was now rough and saggy.  CocaCola eyes that used to send out sparks of dazzlement …they were chocolate now, deep set, but…  Betty, he sang out in his undiminished baritone, arms wide (with his cane like a baton), smile wide with the small indented teeth (now varnished with age) that I remembered from his invitation to dance on the gym floor while the chaperones kept an eye out.  Betty, as if I were the pot of gold.

 

Dennis is not at all happy to see him, Juan says, relishing the words, taking his usual delight in awkward situations.  And I am delighted.  Delighted that Juan’s dream features me as the object of erotic jealousy.  Larry, our affable, soup-making neighbor, has made a Faustian exchange with my teen-age love interest.  And what about poor Tom?  Poor pain-struck Tom sits sourly over his coffee—Juan ordered it iced to assuage Tom’s toothache.   Tom is chewing on the ice.  “A lousy three cubes,” he grouses.  “And besides that, they’re skinny.”  We were on a terrace overlooking the sidewalk of a nice residential section of this ambitious Colombian city.  But this scenario improves upon Juan’s dream.  Juan allows Tom to fade into the background.  In Juan’s dream Tom becomes nothing but a toothache.  How like Juanca, I have to notice, to bring someone to a party, promise him a good time, great food, sparkling beverages and sparkling company (and perhaps a little goody bag)–getting his hopes high and then just leaving him in some vacant corner, hunched over a not-very-strong aguardiente…

Maybe Tom is yin to Juan’s yang.  Or maybe Juan found out that pre-toothache Tom, in genial Texas mode, had once invited New York Viki to come out West for a barbecue on his ranch, expenses paid.  Or that Tom on another occasion had failed to respond to our neighbor Larry’s fish soup despite Juan’s rave review.  These possibilities are impossible to penetrate.  Juanca, by the way, is what Colombian intimates call Juan Camilo to distinguish him from Juan Fernando, called Juanfer, and Juan Luis and Juan Martin and Juan Patricio, etc.

We were on the tree-defined terrace beside the café, making a centripetal circle around the little table.  I pushed my chair back to make room for Manny.  Juanca called for another cup of strong black Colombian coffee (ha-ha, it was from Ecuador because all the Colombian is exported) but Manny stopped the waiter and told him descafeinado.  We all moved our cups and saucers to give Manny some table space and I was happy thinking how he and I would soon be regaling an audience with home-town gossip and scandals, Manny filling me in on what was new since I bolted so many years ago.

But before Manny could sit, Juan Camilo rose from his chair and reminded us that we had to go to the dentist.  Commanded us.  With a smile, of course.  Poor Tom, we remembered.  Juanca, for all his mischief, was often able to put the needs of others before his own.

I couldn’t say No.  (Ask my therapist).  I wanted to stay in the cafe.  (Therapists never tell).  I wanted to stay with Manny and hear his stories.  Dennis had his eye on me.  I could tell he was thinking I’d gone to bed with Manny, a youthful escapade filled with guilt and ecstasy.  (Maybe he thought I’d gone to bed with Larry, too, in love with his fish soup).   He thought I’d been in love with Manny and never gotten that first love out of my system, as Juanca might have said in his fondness for Gringo clichés.  Dennis had never asked about my private life, assuming—I assumed–that he was my private life.  Had he asked, I would have assured him that Manny as a youth was only a fantasy lover, or would have been if my fantasies had dared to venture that far.  Still, it pleased me to imagine Dennis imagining me in the heat of an affair.  If in the dream he was a little bit aroused, a little bit curious or even ferociously worried, I might have savored his discomfort—not wanting to hurt him, of course.  I would not want his discomfort to dig into him like the cutting aroma of Colombian garden herbs, their rosemary, their basil.  But I might have liked him to be, let’s say, piqued by the more delicately suggestive scent, to put a finger on it, of their digitalis flower, so subtly sensual as well as medicinal.

So of course I went to the dentist with my suspicious husband and suffering Tom (whose toothache now joined Juan Camilo at center stage).  There was no way out, especially as the dentist was Javier, Juan’s father the polo player, and I needed to say hello.  Juan’s mother Estella would be the handsomely coiffed, elegantly poised wife-hygienist, who was not much older than I claimed to be.  I must chat with her, too.  Buenos dias, Senora.

I said to Manny, “Stay here and wait for me.”

 

And Manny stayed, of course.  He lowered himself into one of our deserted chairs and pulled up to the tiny, glass-topped table strewn with variously-emptied coffee cups and coffee-stained saucers and pink paper sugar wrappers and crumpled little paper napkins, a disarray of spoons like bodies after an explosive drug raid, and a crushed paid check.  Manny rubbed his pants belly, spread his legs wide, leaned against the caned chair-back and looked into the setting sun.  The brim of his explorer’s hat protected his eyes, I hope.  As our little group descended from the terrace, I turned to wave to him once more and to tell him once more that I would be back.

The horizon:  a swollen orange sun easing down into the mountaintop.  The far distance:  eerily tall wax palm trees stabbing the sky like spooky, spaced-out solar units.  Middle distance:  elephantine ceiba trees with enormous lumbering roots, canopy trees with white-washed leaf-tops, strangler figs, eucalyptus, marmalade bushes, fuchsia and bougainvillea vines.  Closer in: verbena shrubs with fading colors and then the dear, tiny-flowered border plants and mosses.  In the foreground Manny waited, closing his eyes in the cooling breeze.

The Change

by Kathleen Hellen

Mitzi wasn’t her name; it was the name Dad had given her because it sounded like a movie star’s—more exotic—a nickname he had given her after they married, when she started working for him at the bar. A photograph of Margaret Ella Simmons posing on a beach resembles one of those 1950’s Hollywood studio publicity shots. At the corner of her mouth she had penciled in a beauty mark like Marilyn Monroe’s. She drew her eyes round and stupid-looking like a cow’s, glued a fringe of mink as eyelashes. Another photograph: Summer, 1956, my mother in a sleeveless turtleneck brandishing a cigarette like Bette Davis. In her eyes, what was it? Hatred? The affect of boredom? Despair?

Seven days a week Dad was at the Carousel, the bar he had bought when he came back from Japan after the war. Mornings he mopped the linoleum floors, switched kegs and cleaned the beer lines; scrubbed glasses at the sink, and hauled up cases—Jim Beam, Four Roses, Old Grand-Dad—from the dirt cellar; evenings he played bouncer and supervised the barmaids, including Mitzi who worked the shift from 7 to closing. In the few hours he wasn’t at the Carousel he was snoring on the couch in front of the black-and-white Motorola. He only stirred if I changed the channel to cartoons. Meanwhile, the Eva Gabor wigs were coming in the mail like party invitations. Short wigs, long. Blonde and black. A fiery copper-red. Whenever she put one on, Mitzi assumed the character: The Sex Kitten. The Mysterious Dragon Lady. The Blonde Bubble Head who waltzed around the house, singing “Que sera sera” with Doris Day on the record player, a duo of whatever will be, will be…..

By now Mitzi was having an affair with Uncle Al. We started calling him that after he showed up one Sunday with a brand-new Singer sewing machine. She’d been asking Dad to buy her one for years but he always made some excuse: the till was short three months in a row or another barmaid had quit after “stealing him blind.” The Singer hummed constantly when Mitzi wasn’t working at the bar; she hemmed Dad’s pants, made curtains for the front room that looked out like a storefront on to Main Street, she made our dresses for school she called “shifts.” The next thing we knew, Uncle Al was stopping by the apartment every weekend in his beat-up truck to take us to the farm or Spillway Lake. It got so obvious my Dad put his fist through the wall, leaving a hole the size of a dinner plate.

That was only the beginning. Mitzi started sleeping with a baseball bat under the bed. She started taking pills for weight loss my sister called “robin’s eggs.” From 120 to 100 pounds, Mitzi lost her “baby fat” Dad called it, but she was also always agitated and prone to crying jags that locked her in the bathroom for hours and from which she emerged, all red and puffy, her eyes swelled up like golf balls. My sister took over the cooking, toasting hot dogs for dinner over the burner, the way you toast a marshmallow over a camp fire. She washed the dishes, washed the clothes, kept an eye on me. “Maybe if they kill each other, I’ll get some sleep,” she’d say, and stab a sizzling hot dog with a fork.

The bar had become everything. Not only did we live in its apartment—dark rooms, dark paneling, cold linoleum floors—it had insinuated itself into our lives, exacerbating Mitzi’s drug-induced behavior. Sometimes she got so drunk she fell off her silver stilettos. Or she slept all afternoon, her bedroom reeking of cigarettes and Harvey’s Bristol Cream—the booze Dad had suggested she drink because it would be easier on her stomach. Once she tried to stab him with a kitchen knife. Another photograph: the two of us girls in halter-tops and boxy shorts. I was squinting, shaking my fist—at what? The camera? Whoever was taking the picture? “Do you think they’ll get a divorce?” I asked. But my sister was changing too. She started sneaking out at night to meet boys in the dug-out.  I made my escape in movies.

The Blob was the second in a series of sci-fi features that had hit the Anton Theater on Third and Main. I thrilled to it. How else to explain why these people called my parents had become so strange? An alien life had consumed them. Run…the trailer warned—against that oozing, creeping thing that slid into the rows of darkened seats, through the agitated shadows of the projectionist’s booth, into the movie of a movie, a red, pulpy slime that would transform us. It was everywhere. Near Whiskey Point, at the hairpin turn, so many unexplained accidents. In October two men in a car were approaching the bridge when they saw an egg-shaped craft floating above them. They were burned when the object lifted, flying away.

If only I had known its power, so insidious—not human, not animal. A growing jelly-mass of alien life-form that had slipped into the bar that August night to grab a Yoo-Hoo from the cooler. I don’t know what had awakened me. The train? A rumbling like some living thing trapped inside the walls. The shaking. A long low whining in my sleep. I slipped out of bed, tiptoed down the hallway, the cramped rooms on one side. The narrow kitchen overlooked the pony-league field and dug-outs, the tracks that stretched from here to someplace in Ohio. B&O. The P&LE. The door to the adjoining bar was shut. If the movie had a score, it would have been that finger-snapping, toe-tapping song that was the prelude to The Blob oozing toward us. On the screen, suddenly: The house lights had gone down, the curtain had drawn back, and now there was Mitzi. She had climbed up on the bar with a sledge hammer. She looked huge, feral in her leopard-print capris, Amazonian; the copper-colored wig she was wearing seemed to have burst into flame. She let out a grunt.  Her target was Dad’s new National cash register.

The first blow popped out the drawer; it sent metal like shrapnel flying everywhere. Money flew—paper bills shot out helter-skelter, swirling, floating, falling to the floor like ticker-tape in a parade; coins skittered across the linoleum, rolled, spun, collided into each other, into the metal legs of bar stools. At the second blow chunks of flying metal careened into the whiskey bottles lined up on the shelves; the bottles exploding like grenades. A piece of metal hit the neon in the “Mabel, Black Label” sign. It popped, sparked, went out in a fizzle, permanently black. Another piece of metal crippled the potato chip rack, toppling bags into the sink, under which I had crawled and was hiding. “For Christ’s sake, Mitzi,” I heard my Dad wail.

The Carousel closed that weekend for the first time. We never really talked about what happened after that. On weekends, just like he always did, Dad counted up his fives and tens; in paper wrappers, he rolled up the nickels and dimes, the quarters marked red for the jukebox. Dad got a new cash register. Dr. Golomb diagnosed the episode as “Change of Life,” but I knew better. Sometimes I would come home after school to find Mitzi in black leotards and fishnet, wigged like Abbe Lane, twisting, rolling her hips, snapping her fingers to Cugie’s Cocktails on the record player. Sometimes we danced the “Daiquiri” together. The “One Mint Julep.” “The Singapore Sling.” From room to room we did the Latin mambo, the cha-cha-cha, down the narrow hallway, back again, Mitzi leading as I followed, my sister too, sometimes—neither of us knowing where we were going, where Mitzi was taking us, into what dark alien world.

Zeros and Ones

by Michael Don

Our bellies are full of Easter, mine for the first time.  I wonder what Neal is thinking.  He likes to start and finish his thoughts with silence.  I do the opposite.  Neither of us is eager to be alone together even though a week has passed and what happened could have happened to any two housemates, any two best friends, any two men in their late twenties.  Just by chance, just that one time, just for the sake of not being all or nothing.

Neal’s mom, Beverly she has us call her, is driving us back to Boston.  We don’t have a car and Beverly says buses are dangerous these days, too many have flipped over or caught on fire.  But I think it’s that she wants to spend more time with Neal.  There are four of us in the front of her slim pickup truck.  I’m folded up into three quarters of a man.

“Who do you like better, short people or tall people?” Adrian, Neal’s little brother, wants to know.  Neal is talking even less these days, so I answer, “Short people,” though I’m the tall one.

Beverly glances beyond Adrian and sees two male figures who for many years have not been boys but who also don’t live like men.  She glances a second time in search of a clue, because these days Neal will only offer one or two words at a time.  Maybe she notices the physical space between us, an inch we’ve managed to create out of nothing, but what could that possibly let on?  She looks again and rests her eyes on Neal’s emerging beard, a length of facial hair he has never attempted. “Makes you look distinguished,” Beverly says, letting the car drift across a lane of traffic.

The blaring horn of an eighteen-wheeler jolts us out of our private thoughts.  I pop out of my seat, my head stopped by the ceiling.  Beverly yanks the wheel and swerves back into our original lane.  Adrian squeals then pushes out a string of staccato breaths.  I find my hand clutching Adrian’s knee and quickly pull it back hoping it wasn’t there too long.  Neal stares blankly at the road in front of us.  He has no reason to react to a near accident.  What’s done is done, and what will happen will happen. What’s avoided is avoided.

We pass a sign that reads “Worcester 25, Boston 68” and our vehicle starts going much faster. Beverly seems of no particular age.  She went to college on a swimming scholarship but dropped out and married when Neal started growing inside her.

“Do you like brown grass or green grass better?” Adrian is only nine but weighs as much as Neal.  His flesh flattens against my left side.

Beverly’s frizzy hair blows into her mouth then she sighs and rolls up the window for a quarter of a song on the radio before she can’t take it anymore, rolls it back down, then lights up a Merit.

“Brown grass or green grass?” Adrian demands an answer.

I want to take back some of what I said at Easter dinner, but I also want to say more. “Brown grass,” I finally say.

Adrian looks satisfied with me then turns to Neal. “What about you, Neal?”

Neal only shrugs.

I wonder if Adrian is testing us – his questions could easily be metaphors.  Now I worry I chose wrong.  I was just trying to have fun, right? Go against the grain, to see what happens.  “Actually, I like green grass better,” I say, but no one seems to hear me.

The road curves right, and now I’m pressed against Neal.  His oblique holds its ground and digs into my side.  I wish he were softer.

“Brown or green? Green or brown?” Adrian shifts in his seat pushing me further into Neal and Neal further into the window.

“Yeah, yeah,” Neal finally says, “I prefer concrete.”

*

“The guest makes the toast,” Neal’s dad said. “That’s how it works at the Caraker house.”

I used simple words like “Grateful, wonderful, together, special, family, delicious, feast,” but without knowing it, I left out a few words everyone was expecting to hear. Neal’s dad popped up, thanked me, and finished what I started.  I should have been silent and grateful, but that’s not the way I work when there is more to say, so I jumped up and resumed center stage to the clinking of glasses. “I want to thank you all again for having me.”  Out of the corner of my eye I could see Neal’s clenched jaw telling me to wrap it up and sit down before I let on too much, before I made Easter about something it’s not, but I needed to admit to something.  “And what else can I say other than” – I looked to Neal ’s dad’s girlfriend for empathy, a short Guatemalan woman who during the kid’s egg hunt had politely answered a series of questions about Mexico from Neal’s grandma, but she was looking down at her plate of ham and green bean casserole and scalloped potatoes.  “This is my first Easter,” I announced.  Blank faces turned into jumpy eyes and gentle smiles. “And it’s even better than Passover!” A couple of chuckles. “And I have a hole in my sock.” Roars of laughter.  “And once I peed in a Gatorade bottle because I was too lazy to walk all the way to the bathroom.”  One pity laugh.  “Just one room away,” I added.  A collective sigh.  And I masturbated in my grandma’s living room. And the Synagogue bathroom. And I thought about people way younger than me and some way older and some in this very room.  And I’ve never physically harmed anyone, well, not a human being, but sometimes I imagine a situation in which I do.  And sometimes I consider stepping in front of a bus so I can face the inevitable on my own terms.  And I cheated on every single assignment in my college computer science class.  The only concept I bothered to learn was binary. The simplest of them all. 

*

There are four urinals at the rest stop bathroom but Adrian pulls up next to me. Neal hangs back by the sinks.  Adrian finishes first.  While I shake off those lingering drops, Neal whispers to Adrian.  I turn my head slightly but can only make out a phrase here and there, “not polite…too crowded…that guy.”

On the way back to the truck, Adrian asks Neal, “Who do you like better, Mom or Dad?”

“Beverly,” Neal answers automatically.

Adrian frowns and waits for an explanation.

Our legs are stiff, our upper bodies sore, so we zigzag back to the truck delaying things as much as possible.  We pass a group of three men and two women, wearing UCONN sweatshirts and hats, leaning against a blue Escort missing a couple of hubcaps.  They share one cigarette and flirt with each other in all sorts of different combinations.

“I like them both,” Neal says forcefully. He then softens his tone, “For different reasons.”

Back on the highway the blue Escort flies by us, smoke billowing from its tailpipe, arms dangling out the windows, indie rock blasting.  I think of our trip to Montreal back when we were in college.  A bunch of us went up in our friend’s mini-van with only our wallets and winter coats.  We popped in and out of shops, flipping through racks of shirts we found intriguing but would never buy.  We drank dozens of Labatt Blue and finished the night at the casino hemorrhaging what little money we had.  We kept saying stupid things like, What happens in Canadia stays in Canadia and Spring Break 1997, woot woot, even though it was November of 2001.  At the casino I lent Neal fifty bucks because his parents still received his bank statement, and he didn’t want them after the fact to learn he’d been in Montreal.  Neal had been talking to his parents less and less as it was becoming clear they were talking to each other less and less.  He wasn’t trying to keep secrets, but he wasn’t going out of his way to keep them updated.  He didn’t want them to keep him updated.  On the way home we pulled off the road and slept in the van, using each other’s shoulders as pillows, our breaths musty, our clothes sweaty and stuck to our backs.  We were drunk and exhausted and a bit dejected from losing all of our money at roulette.  But we woke up in good moods, content to be heading back to our little bubble where together we ate and slept and wrote papers and made love to our girlfriends, not realizing that one day in the near future many of us would drift to different corners of the country, buying houses and making families with people whom we’d yet to meet.

Adrian grins at the speeding Escort and says, “What do you like better, going fast or going slow?”

“It depends,” I say.

Adrian nods.  He does not care what it depends on.  He just wants both of us to answer his question.

“Neal?”

“It depends,” Neal agrees.

Adrian continues to grin.  He is amused by our answers.

Beverly eases up on the accelerator, and the back of the blue Escort disappears around the bend.

*

Back in our college days, Neal and I lived in one of the smallest doubles on campus.  I dated Rachel and he dated Cynthia, roommates who lived in one of the largest rooms on campus.  They pushed their beds together to create separate quarters for sleeping and studying.  Neal and I figured doing the same might open up our space, so we did and it did.

Later that day we played Wiffle ball on the quad.  After a couple of games, the other boys gulped down Gatorade in the student union while Neal and I lay in the grass.  I revealed my recently acquired fear of death as if I was the first person to recognize our non-permanence.  “You’re no different from anyone else,” Neal assured me.  I laughed, then said, “That’s not even close to true.”  The sun in his eyes, Neal only squinted.  “We’re full of disparity!” I declared, but I wasn’t sure if that was the right word or if I was even responding to him.  The brewing of the clipped grass, damp soil and our sweaty backs emanated a rich earthy odor that reminded me of what I had recently discovered under Rachel’s jeans.  Neal patted my thigh and forced a smile.  I must have amused him.  But he in his coolness, in the way he never bothered to worry about the things that make us or don’t make us, filled me with an urge to do something I’d never done.  I waited for a pack of off-balanced frat boys to pass, then rolled onto Neal’s stomach, pinning his hands above his head with my hands and his thighs down with my thigh, elbows with elbows.  A bead of sweat rolled off my cheek onto his lip.  “You’re so goddamn calm,” I avoided shouting, not wanting to draw any extra attention.  Neal only breathed.  I shifted so our bodies aligned with each other in a way that felt both pleasant and painful.  I kept him there.  I occasionally shifted to feel more friction, but ultimately the lack of movement, with all that potential, became too much, as if holding your breath.   The others emerged onto the quad, refreshed and ready to start up again.  We let our bodies untangle and pretended we were just boys being boys, but later in his steadiest, coolest voice, he said, “You better sleep with one eye open tonight.”

We left the beds together.  To move them we would have had to acknowledge certain things.  But when Rachel and Cynthia finally saw the arrangement, Rachel forced out a throaty laugh and Cynthia said, “Very funny, guys.” And then, before we headed out to dinner, Rachel insisted we separate the beds, “In case we get back late and you’re too tired.”

*

“What’s Jewish?” Adrian looks to Neal.

Beverly’s phone rings.  She checks her screen, smiles and then leans on the accelerator.  Neal clamps his mouth shut and nods.  I think of the woman who showed up during dessert and hung back from the adults, haphazardly watching the kids hunt for eggs between short intense glances at Beverly.  We blaze through Framingham.  Not a single car passes us.  My left side tingles.  My right side aches.

“Are you Jewish, Neal?”

Beverly shakes her head as though she’s made some terrible mistakes and they’re finally affecting the well being of others. “It’s not good to ask so many questions, hon.”

These questions are nothing, I think. They’re not metaphors.  They fill time and space and that’s it. They spew from a nine-year-old’s mouth – a little boy who eats too much junk food and plays too many video games – who arrived eighteen years after his brother – who has every right to be curious until –

“Am I Jewish?” Adrian interrupts my thought.

The gentle curve of the exit ramp is enough to send Adrian into me and me into Neal.  I now remember the way Neal’s hipbone dug into my thigh and how mine must have dug into his.  I can’t blame him for what happened.  We were free, between girlfriends, had enough money, an entire city to run around, yet we’d been this way for years with no one to obsess over, no one to make decisions for or with.  All it took was a late night in the living room, a few beers, another round of our perpetual argument over which city had the best baseball fans, followed by a particular silence; me pinning him down like that day on the quad, excited and frustrated, not knowing which feeling to follow.  “I could really stand to hurt you,” I said.  Neal’s silence was inviting and assured me we could try something new and never have to talk about it.

“Short people,” Neal says. “I like short people better than tall people.” The question was asked back on I-95 over an hour ago, but I’m the only one who recognizes how this answer could matter.

We hurry through the narrow, winding streets of Boston, just barely avoiding other cars and pedestrians.  Beverly speeds past our split-family house before she uses her entire body to brake and flip the truck around. Neal and I untangle and drop out of the vehicle.  Neal limps around the driver’s side and hugs Beverly with one arm.  She mostly talks and he mostly nods. Finally Neal says, “Keep an eye on that one,” pointing the crown of his head at Adrian.

Beverly looks at Adrian and must wonder when exactly she’ll start to know him less.  She then looks at Neal and must wonder when he became a stranger.  If only she could pinpoint the moment.  “You look tired,” she says, then waits for Neal to respond, but he just tugs on his beard.  “I hope you’re having some fun, not working too much.  Letting yourself live.” She waits again, but Neal only nods.  “Take good care of yourself.”  Beverly’s statements are more posed as questions.  Are you tired? Are you having fun? Are you taking care of yourself? What the heck are you up to?  Neal continues to nod, sending Beverly back to the truck, unsatisfied, empty-handed.  As she opens the door, I blurt out, “We’re taking good care of each other.”

Beverly hovers over the truck.  Her face is relieved and curious.  She must want to know, How exactly do you take care of each other?

I slap my hand onto the back of Neal’s neck.  I can’t see his face because I’m intent on looking Beverly in the eye, but I can feel his body tighten up, holding his breath, waiting for this moment to pass.  “We go out on weekends and cook during the week.  Plenty of veggies,” I say.  Beverly gives me a grateful smile.  “We introduce each other to all kinds of new people.”  Beverly shuffles closer to us, her eyebrows raised.  “Sometimes we have a drink or two and there’s some horsing around.”  Neal exhales and I find myself squeezing his shoulder. “Sometimes we get a little rowdy,” I add.

I bite my tongue and squeeze Neal’s shoulder harder, as if wringing out a wet towel.  I feel my fingers digging into muscle, not wanting to stop at bone.

Beverly’s smile fades.

Neal doesn’t move.  To react would be to reveal.  Still I wonder what his silence means.  I wonder if he himself knows.

Beverly crosses her arms over her chest and narrows her eyes.

“What’s going on out there?” Adrian shouts from the truck.

This is an excellent question.  My hand starts to cramp up, but it’s either this or saying more, so I smile and tighten my grip.

“Are you hurting him?” Beverly says, lighting up a cigarette.  Neal’s face must be bright red and contorted.  “He’s okay,” Beverly answers her own question.

I wonder if I’m hurting him.

“Beverly,” Neal says softly, but she doesn’t hear him.

He takes a deep breath.  My brain clicks back on.  He sighs and my hand goes limp and falls from his small shoulder.  I frown at Beverly and think to mutter the words “I’m sorry,” but nothing comes out.  I’m not sure these are the right words.  So I just stand there trying to decide whether to feel proud or guilty.  If only one of these options felt true.

“You’re still just boys,” Beverly says, mostly to herself.

“Mom,” Neal says.  “He wasn’t hurting me.”

Beverly takes a long drag from her unlit cigarette.  “Right,” she says, reaching into her jean pocket and fumbling for a lighter.  “He’s practically family.”

Neal won’t reply.  He won’t utter another word.  He won’t say what we are because words like friend and family and lover bleed into each other.  He won’t assure Beverly that they’re still mother and son and always will be, and after many more years of growing apart, they will one day start to grow closer.

Neal and I idle over our unkempt lawn, willing a tree to fall or even a phone to ring.  Beverly waits in the truck.  She wants to make sure we get in. She wants to see which one of us opens our front door.  She wants to peek inside.  Neal scratches his beard, how he hates facial hair.  I refuse to think what I sometimes think: two men in their late twenties should not live together.  Adrian leans over Beverly and waves out the window, his pudgy hand flopping around like a fish washed to shore.  Our neighbors are pulled out of their side of the house by a chocolate lab.  They seem older than us but younger than most people.  They wear jeans and sweatshirts and always seem to be yawning.  They keep to themselves, but we know sometimes they fight and sometimes they make love.

Maybe the Best Catcher Dickie Pracht Ever Had

by Paul Dickey

Dickie Pracht, Tommy’s favorite pitcher, admitted he hadn’t actually seen Tommy for twenty-five years. Anyway, at the last minute at the grave site, Tommy’s daughter invited Dickie to the family lunch provided by her church. Tommy had often spoken highly of Dickie and that seemed reason enough.

The Reverend Vance Allen  Cauthon, Senior Pastor, presided and opened with a word of prayer. Dickie fumbled with a paper plate of fried chicken and corn to find a seat. He says, “Tommy was the best catcher I ever had.”  And he remembers that Ronnie and I were pretty good bat boys. He is trying to be nice, but I protest: “No, Dickie, Ronnie and I also were players.”  Dickie says, “Well, maybe we let the little kids play if the score was twenty to nothing.” With a grin as big as Lucifer, he says that Tommy was his best friend and he knows Ronnie is Tommy’s little brother.  Dickie says that Tommy always kept him out of trouble, took him bass fishing whenever he always wanted to do something else.

I dropped by the head table. Being a sentimentalist that day, I said to Tommy’s ex-wife that we all wonder now in our own way and our own faith who will keep us out of trouble now that Tommy has been tossed out of the game. “That Ump sure blew the call.”  She looked at me as if I were just playing right field.  I supposed it was the grief.  Rev. Cauthon who was in charge of the table had some suggestions and recited us passages from the rule book. Maybe he is right and Ronnie and I should just take our mothers home any way we can, telling them anything they already believe.

“No way,” Dickie interrupts. “No way.”  He’s still the ol’ devil Tommy’s mother always claimed he was.  “There still is a ballgame to play. It’s not twenty to nothing.  Tommy would have wanted us to finish,” Dickie added sheepishly.  So we hung around for hours hanging bat handles through the chain-link fence, cheerleading that all we need is a few good hits and a bit of luck and maybe we can get back into this thing.  Maybe Dickie himself even has a few more good innings left in him.  Though everyone (even Vance somehow) knows that this ballgame was called hours ago on account of darkness.