Christmas at Norma’s Pizza

by Manek R. Mistry

She knows her staff steals from the register.  Not a lot—surprising, because stoners can’t always manage subtlety—but enough to be noticeable, even though she doesn’t actually balance the till. 

She’s inclined to let it slide, if it doesn’t get worse.  They’re all just kids, and she pays them shit, and besides, what’s she going to do—make them spy on each other?  Set up video cameras? Hire a detective?  She hasn’t talked to Mark about it, but she knows what he’d say: fire them all.  Wouldn’t do any good though; she’d just have to start watching the new ones.

She lights a cigarette and leans back in her chair, blowing smoke into the pizza-tinted air.  Her office—a cramped, windowless firetrap at the back of the restaurant—is messier than usual, filled with Christmas presents waiting to be wrapped.  She could make one of the girls do it, maybe.  Kelly’s neat and organized; she looks like she’d make nice crisp packages.  Have to pay her extra, though, because she wouldn’t get any tips, stuck back here instead of out front.

She regrets buying the big flat-screen for Mark, now that he’s acting like a jerk.  She knows he’s having an affair—with the skinny bitch who does the books at Cartwright’s—but she doesn’t care, so why does he have to take his guilt out on her by being such an asshole?

Ok, maybe she cares a little bit, but it’s not like she hasn’t cheated on him, too, before the kids were born, so she can’t confront him— that would open a whole can of worms.  Maybe she can return the TV; the receipt’s got to be around here somewheres. 

She rests her cigarette on the ashtray— a mess of clay and glaze Petey made in third grade— and shifts papers around on her desk.  Most of them are invoices she hasn’t paid yet— some green, some pink, some white, all different sizes.  Why can’t they make them all the same?  She comes across a letter from her lawyer— have to deal with that, sometime— and the notice from the health department.  After a minute, she gives up looking.  Let him have the damn TV; he won’t be a jackass forever.  The affair will fizzle—like they do—and he’ll get all sweet and affectionate for a while.  That’ll be annoying, too, but then things will go back to normal, and he might as well have a nice TV then.

She retrieves her cigarette, picks up the newspaper, and turns to the puzzle page.  This Sunday morning ritual proves she’s middle-aged: the younger Norma would have ridiculed any of her friends who wasted time on the crossword, or the jumble, but she’s come to like it, and it doesn’t hurt anyone.  This morning, she can’t find a pen, though.  How can there not be a single pen in here?  She shifts the papers around again, hunts through the desk drawers, and checks her purse: nothing. 

Annoyed, she gets up and walks through the kitchen.  It’s all stainless steel, but not one bit of it is shiny like it was when she and Mark bought the place all those years ago.  What the hell had they been thinking?  Still, dumb as they were, it had worked out, and the pressure’s less, now that the kids are grown and the house paid off.  Maybe she can hire someone to come in here and scrub everything so it shines again, just to make it look nice and clean, like it was back then, before the residue of a thousand pizzas had accumulated.

She pushes out through the swinging door and threads her way between close-packed tables—the waitresses have always complained that there are too many—to the corner where the register sits.  The cup where they keep the pens is empty.  Damn it!

Just then, someone knocks on the front door.  Through the tinted glass, she sees big snow boots, a burly parka, and a scraggly snow-covered beard sticking out from inside the puffy hood.  It’s Ugly Beans, a guy who sometimes stops by for large quantities of pot that he deals to the college kids down in Amherst.

She gets her keys out, unlocks the door, and opens it, letting in a swirl of snow.  “Hey,” she says. “Need something?”

He nods, and she lets him in and locks the door behind him.

“Don’t have much on hand,” she says.  “You gotta call ahead.”

He stamps snow off his boots and pulls his hood off, revealing a bleeding lip and a pair of black eyes so fresh they look painted on.

“Holy crap, Beaner!”  She examines him.  “You want some ice for your face?  What happened?”

“Yeah, I know.”  He touches his lip with his fingers.  “Pretty bad, huh?”  His voice is thick; his words difficult to understand.  He holds one arm flat across his body, but she can’t tell through the thick coat if it’s his arm or his gut, or both.

She leads him into the kitchen and turns on the tap.  “Maybe some cold water first.”  She finds a rag under the sink and holds it out.  “Wash some of that blood off.”

“Is it still bleeding?”  He touches his lip again, then takes the cloth.

“You got blood in your beard, too.  What happened?”  She grabs a bowl, walks to the ice machine, and fills it.  “Here.”

He thanks her, takes a handful, and holds it to his eyes.  “Fuck, that hurts.”

He smells rotten, like he’s slept in a tub of rancid meat for a week, and his fingernails are black with grime. “Who was it?” she asks.

“Tiny and them guys.”

“You owe him?”

“He thinks I do.”

She nods. “I guess that’s what matters.  Wanna sit down?”  She guides him out of the kitchen to her office and clears papers off a chair. “I’ve got a story about Tiny. It’s a Christmas story, sort of.”

Ugly Beans tilts his head back, a cube of ice held to each eye with red fingers, the bowl in his lap. He’s undone his coat, but he still pins his left elbow to his ribs, like he’s wearing an invisible sling. “The one about the Santa at the mall?”

“Better.” She sits down at her desk across from him. “Your arm ok?”

“Yeah.” Dark threads of blood dribble from his beard down his neck and disappear into his grubby clothes. “What’s the story?”

“Back when his kids were little he had a Christmas party at his house—he had this big old house he got when his mom died.”  She remembers Tiny’s mom—short skirts, long legs, big boobs.  Rumor was she slept with all the dads in town.  “This guy Jimmy—you know Jimmy?—he got wasted and stepped on some presents under the tree. So Tiny’s all pissed off, and he pulls a knife and pokes Jimmy in the gut.  The cops come, and Jimmy goes to the hospital and gets stitched up and he’s fine.  Then—”

“Tiny go to jail?”

“Yeah,” she says.  “Just a year in county.  It was his first felony assault, I think.”

“First time he got caught, you mean.”

“Probably.  But listen to this: the cops can’t find the knife, so they seal off the house and come back with a warrant, and they go through the whole place, the garage, the yard, everything.  No knife.” 

He shifts in his chair, head still tilted back.

She can see a vein thumping in his neck, like there’s something inside trying to get out, and she wonders what he’s on.  Not just a little weed; something harder, she thinks.  “Turns out he put it in the tree like an ornament, just resting on a branch next to Santa and Rudolph.”

Ugly Beans snorts.  “What an asshole.”

“Yeah,” she agrees.  “Smart, though.  He went to college.”

I went to college.”  He drops the ice cubes back in the bowl.  The area around his eyes has grown darker and puffier. “UCLA.” 

“No shit?”

He nods.  “Engineering.  Anyway. How much you got for me?”

“Ten ounces, maybe. If that.” She opens a drawer, finds her scale, and sets it on the mess of papers.  Then, bending over in her chair, she reaches into the low cupboard behind her and takes out the locked metal box that holds her stash. When she turns back to face him, he’s looming over her with what looks at first like a machete. The blade is long and rusty with one bright sharp edge gleaming silver in the dim light.  His coat is unzipped, and his b.o.— rancid meat—is stronger and more oppressive than before.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“What the hell?”  She stares at him, more annoyed than afraid, her box of pot resting on her lap.  It’s not a machete, she realizes; it’s a lawnmower blade, with duct tape wrapped around one end to make a handle.  “Seriously? This is what you want to do?”

“I’m sorry,” he says again.  The tip of the lawnmower blade dips toward the floor, and he jerks it back up again.

“You’re a dick,” she says.

“I know. I’m really, really sorry.”  His hands are shaking, and he grips his makeshift weapon so tightly that his red fingers turn yellow-white.

“I could prob’ly get that away from you.” She’s got a baseball bat, but it’s behind the stack of unwrapped presents.  There’s also a revolver in the bottom drawer, missing its firing pin; now she wishes she’d got around to fixing it.

He waves the lawnmower blade at her face. “Don’t try. I don’t wanna hurt you.”

She puts the box on the desk. “Get out of here.”

“Open it,” he says.

“You open it, asshole.” She throws her keys at him. He has to bend over to pick them up, but she doesn’t bother making a move.  She’s pissed, but she feels sorry for him too, she realizes as she watches him fumble to unlock the box.  Stinky, smelly, beat-up loser.

“Where’s the cash?” he asks.

“In my hairy cunt.”  She bites the word out, so the ‘T’ stays in the air between them.

“Come on, Norma.” He holds the weapon up, but he’s still focused on the box. Finally he gets it open. “I need that cash.”

She glares at him and folds her arms.

He scoops ziplock bags of weed out of the box and shoves them into the pockets of his parka. The blade flops sideways and hits her on the cheek, and she jerks back, lifting her fingers to the spot, eyes stinging with the sudden pain. “Ow!”

“Sorry!”  He jams the last baggie in his pocket. “God, Norma, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to…”

“Asshole,” she mutters.  Her cheek is numb and wet with blood, and her right eye is tearing up. “Fuck!”

“I swear I didn’t mean to…  Just give me the cash, and I’ll get out of here.”

She finds her purse, pulls out a roll of bills wrapped in rubber bands, and throws it at him.

He catches it, crams it in his jeans pocket, and backs toward the hall.  Lowering the fake machete, he hesitates in the doorway.  “You still got that monster bong here? Wanna smoke a bowl with me before I go?”

“No, I don’t want to smoke a fucking bowl with you,” she hisses.  “What the fuck’s wrong with you?  Are you retarded?”

He zips the lawnmower blade under his coat and pins it to his side with his elbow “I’ll pay you back,” he says.  “No hard feelings.”

“Fuck you,” she growls.  “Get out of here.”

He looks as though he’s about to say something, but then he turns without speaking and walks away.  She closes her eyes, and feels sweat prickling her skin. Ten ounces, plus—how much cash?—at least four hundred. He shoulda taken the flat-screen TV; it’s worth more. Harder to carry, though.

She hears a noise, opens her eyes, and sees him standing in the doorway again. “What?”

“I can’t get out,” he says sheepishly. 

“Jesus Christ!” She grabs her keys off the desk, pushes past him, and marches through the kitchen into the dining room. “Give me the cash back and I’ll open the door.”

“Norma, I can’t.” He unzips his coat, reaching inside for the lawnmower blade.

“Aw, fuck, don’t bother.” She unlocks the door, holds it open for him, and smacks the back of his head as he walks through into bright snowy daylight.

When he turns, his whole face is an apology, overlaid with blood and bruises. “Norma…”

“Yeah, yeah,” she says. “Whatever.”

They stand there for a few seconds, looking at each other as snow covers his balding head.  “Merry Christmas,” he says finally.

“Get the fuck out of here.” She wishes she had something to throw at him.

He looks at her for another few seconds, then lifts his hood, turns, and trudges away through the snow, his oversized boots leaving fat footprints in the dirty white drifts.

She closes the door, locks it, and watches him cross the street, then walks down the smelly dark hallway to the bathroom.  She flips the light switch, turns on the faucet, and examines her cheek.  He nicked the skin, and there’s a red spot already darkening into a bruise. “Shit.” She rests her hands on the sink, shaking.  Without any warning, she starts to cry; tears stream down her face, and soon she’s sobbing, wishing she could go home and expect to find Mark there. She’d curl up with him on the couch, and tell him about Ugly Beans and his ghetto sword, and he’d hold her and give her a kiss, or storm out to find the bastard and beat the crap out of him for her.

But she can’t do that, because he’s probably off with the skinny bookkeeper, so instead she washes and dries her face and returns to the office. She pulls the flat-screen out of its box, carefully separating it from the Styrofoam packing, then finds her bat behind the stack of other presents, and takes a deep breath.  The shock of each blow travels up past her elbows as she hammers it again and again, clobbering the screen until every millimeter of glass is cracked. Then, sweating and panting, she repacks the TV, safeguarding it with the Styrofoam, and closes the box.  I’ll get Kelly to wrap it, she thinks, and I’ll put it under the tree.  Mark will love it.  I can’t wait to see his face.

A Day at the Races

by A. Scanlan O'Hearn

When Jimmy said they’d spend a day at the races, Jaycee thought of the expression, It’s a dog’s life, and then, what the fuck is that about? Any dog she ever knew was layin’ in the dirt in a hole-strewn back yard on a short leash next to an empty bowl.  But Jimmy really did mean a day at the races, not like they’d stand trackside or sit in the grandstand looking down on the horses. Definitely not the clubhouse.  He meant the OTB.   You’re my goddamn lucky rabbit’s foot, he said leading her by the arm to put down for the first trifecta, then forgot she was there and left Jaycee to wander off. She might have been the only female in the place, everyone either old or male or both standing around faces bent over racing forms, or staring at screens then running to windows before the bell to win or lose again. Jimmy’d find her when he needed her, so she made her way to the ‘cafetorium.’  At least they had beer.

From her table, Jaycee scanned the crowd, mostly they were looking at her.  She knew she still looked good and tried to stay fit, keep her hair fashionably cut, wore jeans and heels when she was goin’ out. That’s the way Jimmy liked it, too. If I wanted a mother fuckin’ mother, I’da stayed home, he told her.  You don’t got kids, do ya?  When she said yeah, but long gone, that satisfied him. They’d been living together for a year.

A young woman at a corner table caught Jaycee’s eye. A bit pretty, alone.  The girl was scanning the crowd too.  Jaycee tried to picture her man, maybe an older guy who’d treat her right for the day, maybe another Jimmy who needed luck.  Maybe the girl really was alone, too, just here for the beer. The girl continued to look around, then oddly landed her gaze on Jaycee and smiled. Uh oh, one of those. Then Jaycee knew she wasn’t. The girl was on her way over. Jaycee put her head down, pretending to rummage through her bag.  When she looked up the girl was at her table, a real shit eatin’ grin on her face. Like she was stoned, or just coming off somethin’.

 Jaycee wanted to get up and walk away. She wanted to call Dean, the one person she could call at any time and he’d answer. She’d raised him after all. But the girl’s face made Jaycee stick. 

‘Can I show you somethin’?’

‘I’m sorry?’ The girl was prettier than Jaycee first thought, but tired, pale, her eyes heavy, like she just woke up in a car outside. Probably did.

‘There’s somethin’ I need to show you,’ and the girl put her hand on Jaycee’s arm, reaching and then resting it there heavy. They stayed like that a second. Again, Jaycee wanted to leave.

‘It’s this way,’ and with that the girl was looking over her shoulder to be sure Jaycee followed.  Jaycee sat a second.  She wanted to call Dean, reached into her bag. The girl was back.

‘Please.’

Everything told her not to. She’d been that girl, had run that game herself. 

‘This better be good,’ and Jaycee got up from her seat, slung the plastic cup of beer back. 

By the time she had downed it the girl was out the cafetorium door and into the crowd under the monitors, now denser than before, people running from bet to bet as the chances at winning grew smaller and smaller.  Jaycee couldn’t see Jimmy anywhere, but they all blended together, now a few more women, too, all eyes on the screens above their heads.  Jaycee spotted the girl twenty or so feet ahead, looking again over her shoulder to be sure Jaycee was behind her.  She thought for a minute she’d duck out.  It wasn’t too hot and she could wait by the car, although it might be a couple of hours, but the girl kept moving forward, and Jaycee followed.  Jaycee fished around in her bag for the phone.  She’d call Dean.  He’d talk her out of it, or through it.

Ma, what’s the matter? I’m workin’

Dean?

Yeah, Ma, this isn’t a great time, can I call-

Dean, I’m about to get into somethin’

Ma, I can’t talk.  I’ll give you a call later.

Dean, you know when you’re headed for somethin’ you shouldn’t?

Ma, really, I gotta go.

The girl entered the ladies room and Jaycee followed.  Son of a bitch.  He had no time for her.  She couldn’t blame him, though, twenty-five, carefree.  Living the good life, the one she gave him and lost herself. The girl was right inside the door when Jaycee swung it open. Then she was standing firmly rooted right in front of the stalls, her arms nearly wrapped around herself twice.

‘What’re you sellin’?’

‘Huh?’  The girl looked at Jaycee like she’d never seen her; her face had gone sheet white and Jaycee noticed for the first time her clothes were dirty, her hair around her neck matted and sweaty.  The girl started to shake and Jaycee knew she had a drug addict on her hands.  The girl didn’t move, stood stuck with her feet planted on the tile floor.

‘It’s there.’

‘Listen, honey, I don’t want it whatever it is’ and Jaycee reached into her purse.  She’d give her a twenty and get out.  She shouldn’t have come, but it was something about the girl, the way she reminded Jaycee of being young, although Jaycee suddenly wondered if being young had been all that great.

‘Just look at it, that’s all,’ and the girl, her feet still unmoving, her body in a gesture so pathetic, the way she reached, Jaycee thought she’d fall over. 

‘There, in the last sink, ‘ and Jaycee looked down the wall past the stalls to where a bank of sinks ran under some dim lights, the bulbs above mostly dark.  Jaycee could make something out in the last sink.  Was the girl trying to sell her clothes?  It was a dark mass of something and then Jaycee thought for a minute it was moving.  She moved closer to look without getting too close, suddenly afraid of something biting her.  She’d known of people selling exotic pets.  The girl could have brought her boyfriend’s cobra, for Christ’s sake.

Brown and crumpled paper towels filled the sink and now Jaycee knew something in there was moving.  She could make out what looked like the arm of something, dark and wet. No, she wasn’t interested in any reptiles, thank you. The thing let out a cry and Jaycee jumped.   A cat?  Whatever it was it was in distress, the cry a half choking sound, it reminded Jaycee of something.  And then it hit her. It was a baby, the fuckin’ thing was covered in blood, just about dried.  It was dark, maybe black, as Jaycee looked closer, she could see its arms and legs entangled in the towels, its mouth sucking on a wadded up corner, the thing struggling to survive.

‘Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me?’ she turned to the girl.  But the girl was gone.

Even if It’s Only Me

by Lance Dyzak

Carolyn read somewhere that in the ‘90s mothers were dropping their babies into public toilets. Tiny corpses discovered by the janitors and covered in wet toilet paper, the umbilical cord still attached. And she reassured herself with this knowledge – Steven could have had it worse.

She laid the suitcase at the end of the bed. The hard-covered American Tourister that her father had given her when she went away for college. She remembered the old excitement of snapping open the catches. The hinges yawned as she unfolded it, and the smell of it was musty, like a vacant motel room. Carolyn ran her fingers over the satin lining and felt the current of her adrenaline like an electricity. She’d sent Steven out to ride his bike and told him not to come back for an hour so that she could concentrate. All morning she’d been clumsy with anticipation. When she’d pulled the suitcase away from the closet door, she banged the wooden jamb so hard that it chipped the paint. For the first time it seemed possible. This was step one. Step one was required before you could get to step two. Step one meant that she was on her way. Step one was part of the process.

The sun poured in through the bushes in front of her bedroom window and left their pattern on the wall. The bedroom was spotless; everything dusted and cleaned, the bed sheets pulled taught against the mattress and tucked into the corners. The bedcover, with its pattern of country flowers, was flat against the sheets like a canvas. There were no distractions.

She might have run around the world. Instead, she went to Steven’s room.

Just the essentials, enough to get him through. She went to his dresser at the far wall. All of his winter clothes were in the bottom drawers. She tugged the lowest one open and took out two of his sweaters and a long-sleeved thermal tee-shirt. She gathered them into her arms and went back down the hallway. It would have been more efficient to bring the suitcase into Steven’s room, but it felt better to do it this way; in steps. Every round-trip with another load of essentials was one more step. She went from the lowest drawer to the highest: two pairs of jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, three undershirts, three pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks. She went to his closet: two buttoned-down dress shirts, one pair of dress pants, his dress shoes, his winter coat, a stocking cap, a pair of gloves. She went into the hallway bathroom: his toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, a container of shampoo. Slowly the suitcase filled. It was so big, and everything he had seemed small in it. She didn’t notice Steven behind her.

“You’re acting weird,” he said. The noise made her jump.

“Jesus kid, you scared me,” she said, and tried to smile. “What did you say?”

“Why are you acting weird?”

Carolyn went for her bathroom.

“I’m not acting weird,” she said, over her shoulder. “I thought I told you not to come back—”

“It’s been like two hours. How long will we be gone?” He stood in the doorway, thumbs hooked into the front belt loops of his jeans.

“I told you, I don’t know yet.”

She’d told him the week prior that they were going away on a long trip to see some friends. It was such a simple thing to tell him then, this shapeless thing that they were going to do together. But when he’d walked in just now she was unguarded and lightheaded from the idea of it. She didn’t trust what she might say to him. Everything rang in a high pitch. She knew he’d want more details, had prepared for more details, but now she pushed the details away. Carolyn shut the door right in his face. He knew which lines not to cross. The floor tiles were cool on her bare feet.

“What about school?” His voice reduced, dribbled in through the cracks. His feet little dark spots at the bottom, flitting in and out of the grim light beyond the door.

“We’ll worry about all that later.” The shower walls were lined with ceramic tiles just like the floor, all blues and grays. “This is summer vacation,” she said, speaking to the tiles. “School isn’t going anywhere.” She waited in the bathroom until she heard him leave. Then Carolyn went out and closed the suitcase, snapping everything shut. It wasn’t like him to interrupt. She saw that he was spooked, and that she needed to be careful.

He came out of his room a few hours later. Carolyn made turkey sandwiches and served them with corn chips and cherry Pepsi. They sat at the kitchen island under the dull glow of the pendant lamp. Steven ate slowly, taking small bites as Carolyn studied him. He was fidgeting with the digital watch that she’d given him for his birthday, breathing through his mouth like he did whenever he was concentrating. The questions from that morning had all dried up. The watch didn’t keep great time and he was always adjusting it. She listened to his breathing and the little electronic chirps. She cleared the dishes (the little bites up to the edge of the crusts), and Steven wiped down the table.

That night they watched a rerun of All in the Family on the Me-TV channel. The one where Edith asks Archie how he wants his bowling shoes laced and Archie tells her what’s the difference? Steven went to bed without being told, something that Carolyn had instilled early on. All the lights were off in the living room; there was just the flickering and the steady murmur from the television. Carolyn watched as he slid down from the recliner and disappeared into the hallway. Carolyn turned off the television a short time later. As she passed Steven’s room, she could hear him moving around on his mattress.

She was glad that she’d decided to put fresh sheets on her bed. It was satisfying to feel them fold away neatly as she turned them down. They were cool on her feet just like the bathroom tiles, and she loved the way they made her feel enveloped, neatly folded. But Carolyn’s mind wouldn’t slow down enough for sleep. She’d taken a pill, but her thoughts still somehow slogged through and ping-ponged around in her skull.

She and Marc on a day trip to Door County. They’d taken the ferry out to Rock Island and hiked around the lighthouse. Early October and the temperature just above freezing, but warmed by the sun inside of their ski jackets. Marc with his beard grown out for the deer season. Inside the little tavern with the worn leather and the ancient dark timber.

 Hey… he’d said, after she finally told him. Hey, hey, hey… Just kept saying it over and over again, like a lullaby. Kept wiping his beard with his thumbs. The tears leaking out as if she were cracked open. Keeping it is the right thing to do he’d said. I love you he’d said. I’ll be a father for you he’d said. We can still get through school. You can still have a career. This will all work out.

The bizarre way Steven had seemed to her as a baby. Sexless in the beginning. The nose and the ears too big for the face. The skin dry. The strange way it would slough off around the scalp. An old man, shrunken and useless.

It. That’s how she’d referred to him during those first days. There were two times she’d said it out loud. The doctor presenting him like a waiter with a bottle of wine. Why is it so red? Her limbs distended and obscene against the whiteness of the recovery room. Marc reading off baby names. I don’t give a shit, Marc. Call it whatever you want. The nurse excusing herself and the click of her shoes. She had to train herself to call him by his name. It became a taboo word, like fuck or cunt. But it’d taken months before she could cleanse the word entirely from the way she thought about him – Steven.

Outside her door she heard the sharp snap of the hallway light switch, and a cold anxiety passed through her. It meant Steven had had another nightmare. He began calling for her, as he always did. His voice, tinny and stranded in the hallway, normally irritated her during these episodes, and she would yell to him from under her bed sheets to go back to sleep. But tonight was unlike those nights. A few empty seconds passed. Carolyn took a deep breath and held it against the weight of the silence. Then she heard the soft thud of him backing up against her door and the hiss of his body sliding down the length of it. She rose slowly and crossed over the room toward him. When she opened the door she could feel his weight pushing it inward, as if the hinges were spring-loaded. He rolled back slightly – crouched into a ball with his arms slung over his knees – and lolled his head up toward her. He was wearing the footed pajamas again.

“I thought I told you to put those in the Goodwill box,” she said. “You’re twelve years old now.” He was picking the lint balls off of the sleeves.

“It was the guy with the big head again. He was standing in the doorway.” The big-headed guy was a frequent visitor. Carolyn looked down the hall toward Steven’s bedroom and knelt down beside him.

“Look at your door,” she said. “Is he there now?”

“No,” he said, into the crook between his knees. She nudged him on the shoulder. “C’mon then. Back to your room.”

“Can you tuck me in?”

Carolyn stood over him and ran her hands through her hair, holding it in a heavy, wiry ball above her forehead.

“Yeah, I can do that,” she said, and started down the hallway toward his room. She turned back toward him at the doorway. Steven was trailing timidly behind, using one hand to trace the length of the wall with his fingertips. “C’mon kid, I’m tired.”

She opened his closet door and yanked on the pull chain for the light. The metal grommet leapt up and rattled against the bulb. She pushed the door forward with the tips of her fingers and let it swing slowly open to let the light pour out. She’d forgotten that his closet was now mostly empty and the sight of it caught her for a moment.

“Hey mom…”

“Hmm? Yeah?” She looked back over her shoulder. Steven walked to his bed along the far wall and went back in stiffly under the covers.

“What’s it like in Nebraska?”

She didn’t mean to laugh, but it was so absurd. She’d never really thought about it. “I just—” she started. His expression shifted and she knew that he was puzzled by her reaction. He’d assumed she’d deliver something a bit more standard. Rolling hills? Omaha?

She made a gesture toward the closet door. “Look, he’s not in here either.” Steven rolled toward the wall, which gave Carolyn an odd sense of relief. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, it was just a dream.”

“I’m not afraid,” he said.

“Then why are you bothering me?” She stepped past him. “We’ve got a big day tomorrow so you should get some sleep.”

“Hey mom…” Carolyn paused at the doorway. “I mean I’m afraid at first, and then it goes away. It’s like I’m still dreaming when I first wake up.”

“Yeah, I know.” She sighed and rubbed her eyes. “I have nightmares, too, kiddo. You just get used to it, Steven. It’s part of growing up.”

Carolyn left his door open a few inches, just enough to let the light from the hallway fall over his face. He wasn’t a bad kid, just so goddamned needy. And she was so sick with it; too sick most of the time to give anything away anymore. The pill was making her feel groggy and swollen; she could feel her pulse in her lips. Sleep wasn’t an option, so she went into the spare bedroom and sat behind the small, laminated computer desk to wake up her laptop. There was the light from the screen.

She’d mapped the route over a month ago. But back then it was just a whim, like when she would pretend to sign up for classes at the UW-Extension. It was roughly seven hundred miles from the house in Marinette, on the thumb of Lake Michigan, to Douglas County, just over the Nebraska border. She studied the screen without blinking, and read the estimated time and distance, over and over. Ten hours, twenty-seven minutes. They could drive straight through and be there the same day. The route looked tedious, a diagonal slice through the Fox Valley (Kaukauna, Winnebago) along Hwy 151 toward the Mississippi River (Mineral Point, Platteville), crossing over it at Dubuque, and then through the entire length of Iowa.

There were similar laws in other states. Texas called theirs the Baby Moses Law. But the one they passed four months ago in Nebraska was different because they didn’t set an age limit. They called it the Nebraska Safe Haven Law, which for some reason made Carolyn think of a bird’s nest. Thirteen Nebraska babies had been discovered dead and abandoned within a span of ten months. A genuine epidemic. One was unearthed by a dog, wrapped in aluminum foil. So they passed a law. Meredith, one of the girls from Cosmetics, was fanatical about it. She was always yelling about the latest details as she flipped through the newspaper in the break room. Jesus, Carolyn. I mean shit! Did you hear about this guy that dropped off his entire family? It seemed like there was a new story every week. Carolyn would always nod and make an impatient expression, a halfway smile. Another one, Carolyn! Another one! Did you see it?

Carolyn had kept the idea incubated in her mind, quarantined to barracks unpatrolled by her conscience. She had kept the idea and used it in the same way the terminally ill keep a suicide cocktail. For comfort. But then the news stories had kept coming and coming and she knew they would ruin everything. She knew she would have to decide.

#

The morning arrived cloudless and stifling, but the house was surrounded by tall evergreen trees, which kept it cool and dim. She’s meant to get them on the road before noon, but she couldn’t shake the feeling she was forgetting something Steven might need. She kept drilling him for answers. Do you have your extra pair of glasses? Where’s the wallet I gave you? And so they left later that afternoon. When Carolyn finally stepped out the front door and out of the shadows, the shock of the sun temporarily blinded her and she squinted her eyes against it. With the weight of the suitcase, she stumbled from the narrow walk onto the grass. August had been dry – it hadn’t rained in weeks – and so the grass was brown and the blades crunched with each footfall. After a few steps she stopped and slowly widened her eyes as they adjusted. Everything was drained of color. She turned and saw Steven as he struggled with the door, a dark lump against the shade of the house. He had to tug on the knob to force the door shut. The keys jangled as he pried the tumblers of the lock into position. Carolyn winced when the deadbolt finally snapped and wished she’d thought to let him out first – to be relieved of this spectacle. It was just last year that she’d handed him his first key ring with the set for the front door.

He had his backpack slung loose, and the bottom of it hung down below his belt, weighted down by whatever he could fit. She’d told him to bring along his favorite things. As Steven jogged toward her, it jostled up and down on his narrow shoulders. Carolyn opened the rear door of the car, and he heaved it into the backseat. As Carolyn pulled away from the curb, an elderly woman with a watering can flapped her arm at them.

#

On the day the news broke that Nebraska was going to set an age limit there was a related story in the paper about a woman – out of work and a thousand miles from any semblance of her extended family – who took her daughters to the hospital. She told the ER staff that the girls had a strange rash and didn’t know what to do. Then, while the nurse knelt down to look them over, she excused herself to use the bathroom and didn’t return. So simple. So clean. One moment she was a mother. And then she wasn’t anymore.

Meredith had been beside herself. The headline read: Another ‘Safe Haven’, and directly underneath it there was a full color photo of the mother. The reporter had dredged up a mug shot, a DUI judging from her glassy-eyed expression. She looked too young to have children, and Carolyn had wondered absently if either of her daughters were around when the picture was taken. She didn’t look crazy or vengeful, just confused. Maybe a bit naïve. Her eyes averted the camera.

Carolyn imagined this woman holding one of the babies with the same glassy-eyed expression that she wore in her mug shot. She wondered if Meredith considered herself a good mother. Probably. Meredith was just as full of shit as everyone else. Carolyn had never claimed to be a good mother. But she had been a guardian. Keeper and provider. She gave her son food when he was hungry. She cleaned him when he was soiled. When he was cold, she put more clothes on him. But there was an emptiness in the way she did these things, and she derived no pleasure from it. It was as if he were assigned to her.

“Six and eight years old. Can you even imagine it?” Meredith had asked.

“No, Meredith. I can’t imagine.”

“Where do you think they get—”

“The first of September it all ends, Meredith. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

#

They were just a few hours from the Nebraska state border when last gasp of sunlight disappeared behind the horizon. There was no moon. Ahead, beyond the pallor of the headlights, there was darkness. Darkness like Carolyn had never seen. It seemed to have a thickness, a heaviness that weighed down on them.

“Where are we?” Steven asked. In the darkness, Carolyn could only see his face, lit by the electric blue lights of the dashboard. He looked frail, corpselike.

“We’re almost to Des Moines.” Her voice was monotone. She looked at the clock. It was almost ten. “I thought we could make it there, but then the sun went down and it sapped everything out of me. I have to stop for a bit. Just for a bit. We’ll pull over so I can sleep.”

There were no other cars on the road, but out of habit, Carolyn flipped the turn signal anyway. The amber light flashed against the pavement as she veered the car over to the shoulder. The tires whined against the pattern of the rumble strip, and then whispered over the gravel shoulder as she brought it to a stop. The night had grown cold – cold enough that she’d switched off the AC and had the heater running.

In the trunk there was an old woolen blanket that she kept for emergencies. She took it and climbed back in behind the wheel. Steven was slumped back against the window. Carolyn reclined her seat as far back as it would go, and she hit the automatic locks.

“I just need like twenty minutes of sleep,” she said. “Christ, it’s too quiet.” She turned the keys forward in the ignition, and the dashboard sparked back to life. “Why don’t you try to find something on the radio.”

He began to play with the dial, but there was only static. It pulsed over the speakers in waves.

“There’s no signal,” he said.

“Just keep trying,” she said, and spread the blanket over her. Steven shifted in his seat and paused with his fingers on the knob.

“Mom?” His voice was just above a whisper, and there was no depth to it.

“What…” She had begun to nod off. The words were muffled under the blanket.

“Why don’t you have a suitcase?”

#

Her sleep was shallow, just below the barrier of consciousness. In her dreams Carolyn was back in her own bed, burrowed under the weight of the comforter with the country flowers. She thought she was alone, but then a small voice from across the room disturbed her. Somehow she knew that it was Marc. He kept asking to borrow the car, a test to see if she were awake. But she pretended to be asleep. When she peeked at him she saw that Marc was a boy, maybe thirteen years old. He was reaching into her sock drawer where she kept the jar of spare change. She became angry, saying, “If you touch that jar, I will kill you.” He paused, caught for a moment, and then turned suddenly toward her. His eyes were full of tears, and there was a curious look of surprise, as if he’d not realized she was there.

“I missed my mother,” he said, the words weighted with sadness. “I miss…”

He came over to the bed then and crawled in with her. But when she felt him – his embrace, his hot tears against her neck – she was not his mother. She sobbed along with him. There was a feeling of admitting, of blissful release. “I know… I know… I know…”

When Carolyn woke, it was cold inside of the car. She could feel it at the tip of her nose and her fingers. The wool fibers of the blanket were damp from her breathing. For a moment she lay still and felt her heart beat against her chest. There was a crackling sound coming from the radio, and behind the static a man’s voice sputtered. She pawed for the edge of the blanket and peeled it away from her face. The pale light of the dashboard reflected on the window. She could see the reversed numbers of the clock. It was after midnight.

“Shit.” Her throat was raw from breathing in the cold air. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” She turned toward the passenger’s seat, but Steven had moved into the back while she slept. Half-dazed, she was momentarily unable to process his absence.

In the back of the car, his form was barely visible in the darkness. He had the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head, and his hands were jammed into the front pocket. She leaned in closer, squinting her eyes, which allowed her to see the slow rise and fall of his torso as he breathed. Carolyn gripped the top of the driver’s seat and collapsed over the headrest. She was looking out of the backdoor window, but with the light from the dashboard the window became a mirror. She studied the small, metallic levers on the armrest, the slim cylinder of the door lock, flared out at the top so you could pull it up and push it back down. So simple. Just two options. It was pushed down.

“Steven, wake up.”

“I’m not asleep,” he said. “I have to go to the bathroom.”

“I do, too. C’mon, we’ll go out by the bushes.”

Caroline put the high beams on. They illuminated the terrain just beyond the edge of the gravel. There were no bushes. There was only the long grass in the ditch along shoulder and then the endless fields. She took the blanket and went out to the trunk. She watched Steven walking gingerly away from her, toward where the corn started. He slipped beyond the reach of the headlights, and then she couldn’t see him anymore.

“Steven?” But he didn’t respond. Several seconds passed. Then the splashing sound of his urinating. The splashing stopped, and she heard him struggling in the grass coming back toward the car. He reappeared out of the darkness like a ghost.

“Get back in the car and wait for me,” she said. “I still have to go.”

She’d overslept, but there was still time to make it.

When she got back to the car she saw that Steven had returned to the back seat. Carolyn turned the keys in the ignition. She moved the shifter into drive. The car lurched forward. She pulled back onto the highway. The man on the radio kept talking. A student was shot at a high school in Knoxville. The United States won a gold medal in men’s basketball. Hurricane Gustav was pummeling the Gulf Coast. Carolyn switched it off. Steven lay in the back. He had his head on his suitcase.

The Conclusion of the Species

by Soren Gauger

It was now two hours I had been waiting in the anteroom of Doctor Porcheria's office. There had only been one patient before me, a slight Chinese gentleman whose eyebrows drooped at their outer edges, giving him an expression of continual woe. At the doctor's signal, an irate metallic buzz, he slipped in through the office door and they immediately launched into a loud and impassioned dialogue. This gradually petered into more civil tones, then a confidential murmur, and now, perhaps two hours later, I could hardly be certain, howevermuch I strained my ears, that they were still in the office at all. Through the frosted glass it seemed I still saw the rough outlines of their silhouettes; but these were perfectly motionless, and truth to tell, they could have been anything – a table lamp and a decanter.

My gaze drifted about the anteroom. There was a gilded screen behind the likes of which a woman might have disrobed in some Oriental fantasy, a table fanned with magazines, and a number of pictures in frames: landscape paintings. 

I had come to Doctor Porcheria with a certain ailment of a very private nature, an ailment which my sense of dignity – an outdated thing, my acquaintances kept telling me – had not allowed me to disclose to anyone, not even those nearest to me. I would say without exaggeration that my ailment had given me a renewed sense of the obscenity of the human body. With it came a peculiar sort of shame, a distant cousin to how the pubescent feels upon discovering the new workings of his body; but in place of the young man's accompanying shudder of excitement, I found this horrible discovery had laid a stone in my chest, and one which has lodged in place to this day.

At the time, however, I had experienced only the first forebodings, a dark glimmer of what was yet to come. I had only gone so far as to mention to an old friend that I was deeply troubled by this certain ailment, and with a snap of his fingers he was off to make a few telephone calls; half an hour later he had, much to his evident satisfaction, fixed me up a rare appointment to see Porcheria.

When he was done, he insisted we drink a coffee, standing up in the Waldorf, and he spent a long time fingering his little stubbly mustache before he spoke. The Italians, he said, should never be trusted in matters which require a scrupulous attention to detail; but our Porcheria (he actually said our Porcheria) was in fact from Switzerland, he confided, and this was quite another thing altogether. Naturally, he would not invite a Swiss man over to his home for dinner to meet his family – as he had on previous occasions, I would be astonished to learn, a German urologist, a wiry man with sharp features, whose laugh was a painful, choking thing to behold, it sounded quite as though he were trying to dislodge a fish bone from the back of his throat – much as he would not permit a Swiss man to make serious advances upon his daughter; but he would, for example, allow a Swiss man to borrow his toothbrush, something that would be out of the question with a Greek or a Hungarian (he flinched at the word), and he would most certainly allow a Swiss man to make a discreet medical examination, even an Italian Swiss, though perhaps not a Swiss-born Italian; this last matter required more attention. At any rate, our Porcheria, my old friend assured me, waggling his eyebrows, was simply the most thorough medical professional in the country, and thoroughness, he added, was a doctor's cardinal virtue. In some quarters he was unfairly dismissed because he was incorrectly supposed to be Italian, and not Italian-Swiss, as he, my old friend, had mentioned, and because [here he dropped his voice to a stage whisper, though the two of us were practically alone in the cafe] he is monstrously fat, and to be obese – and with a name like Porcheria, on top of everything – was seen, in some quarters, as a thing that was incompatible with his practice as a doctor, or which even nullified his medical opinion. These people are nothing more than wrong-headed idiots, he said, his face betraying a rare flash of emotion, who have confused form with content to their own stupid detriment. By the nature of things, my old friend confessed, he himself did experience shudders of discomfort around the grossly obese, but this was not because he considered them unsightly – though, he stressed, there was no denying this simple fact – nor because he was continually mindful of their overtaxed hearts and caving muscles, but it was rather a question of the physical disproportion, the sense that he was a dwarf before another man, this was what kept him from feeling at ease, if he was to be perfectly frank. Or then again, perhaps it was the knowledge that this human body, being of the same species as other human bodies, lithe and supple ones that made the heart leap and palpitate in erotic convulsions, showed bodies as such to be a thing of total repugnance when the proportions were only slightly adjusted. Whatever the case, he concluded with a stiff shake of my hand, he trusted that I would not let any of this superstition come between me and the soundest medical advice the country could offer.

Of course, so far I knew Porcheria only, as the saying goes, by reputation, and by the muffled sound of his voice, and there was no good reason, I recalled, that he should have the little snub nose and the sausage fingers I was imagining; he could be, I reasoned, the kind of fat man who looks neat and prim in an expensive suit.

With this resolved I picked up one of the glossy magazines on the table and found, much to my surprise, that it was filled with nineteenth-century engravings. As if this were not peculiar enough, the engravings were nothing more than a cavalcade of grotesqueries – beasts half-human and half-ape, in various stages of evolution or devolution. A top-hatted man swung from a lamppost by his tail, a chimpanzee turned to stare quizzically at her hairless derriere or painted her toenails. I was beginning to find the pieces rather witty, if in questionable taste, and I turned to read the note on the artist:

Dudley Horner – a 19th-century bookbinder, a tubercular, possibly related to the inventor of the Zoetrope (1833). The vulgar, sometimes degenerate scenes he portrayed in his hundreds of drawings are purported to reflect the viewer's hiddenmost thoughts (a technique which Horner was wont to call “Spectrism.” He died in 1889, alone and rejected by all except his housekeeper.

My eyes drifted to the adjacent page and grew wide – for there I saw two naked humans, faces grimly set with resolve, copulating in the most bestial sort of fashion, the female, it seemed, screeching in pain. The image quite naturally captured my attention, I became quite engrossed in it for several seconds, that is, until I heard a gentle cough from the seat beside me.

Sitting next to me was a rather plain woman in a tan skirt and a frilly top, holding her hat in her lap, looking quite embarrassed for me. Her features were regular but uncomely, her eyes had something vaguely dazed about them, so that even when they looked straight into mine, I did not really feel as though we were seeing each other. I slapped the magazine shut and gave her a look that said I was a decent and respectable man, and that it would be lunacy to hop to any conclusions.

This look, however, missed the mark.

She shrugged her shoulders. It is not as though it is the first time it has happened, she said in a gentle, almost monotonous voice. You sit here for a couple of hours and the trance takes hold. It is in the slow dimming of the lights (this was true: the room had grown darker since my arrival), the insipid music (for the first time I noticed music playing a repetitive piano piece, distorted, as though heard underwater), the furniture, which seems to cradle you in its arms. I've been watching you stare absently at that engraving for almost twenty minutes.

This was a jolt. I took a hasty look at my watch, which made her chuckle. Apart from being a medical doctor, she confided, her voice dropping to a whisper, Porcheria is a marvelous hypnotist. Hypnotism was his first love. All of his things her are just saturated with hypnosis.

Her lips, plump and red, drew so close that they grazed my ear.

No one knows how much he can actually hear through that frosted glass, she continued in her throaty whisper. There could, of course, be microphones.

He is said to have archives in one of these walls, filled with conversations between patients. Piles of old reel-to-reel tapes. Ten minutes of anteroom conversation tells him more, they say, than any conventional patient interview. So of course we must watch what we say.

With these last words I could now feel the moisture of her lips on my ear, which was not altogether unpleasant. She inclined her body at such an angle that I could feel her warmth beat up from under her shirt in pulsing waves.

A sick feeling slid up my throat and I abruptly stood, wiped my palms on my trousers, and strode over to examine the paintings on the walls, inquiring, with an air of idle curiosity, into what sort of disease had brought her to see the doctor. Her look showed me that she found my question rather piquant; she began fiddling with the buttons on her blouse and explaining that such things were of an extremely intimate nature, because, here she tilted her head and smiled, there was something in a disease, didn't I think, which burrowed into the nether stuff, which touched and probed our nightmares, our anxieties, and yes, also our fantasies, though she hoped I wouldn't demand that she explain just precisely what she meant, it was all rather muddled in her head, and as she was thus speaking I bent over to examine a painting to find it was not an undulating landscape at all, on the contrary, it was the naked body of a woman lying on her back, an arm folded over her face as though to block out the sun. The light, however, had grown so dim that I had to squint to make it out. It was an easy, even a natural mistake from a distance, the woman's body rippled and furrowed, quite imitating the supple contours of the hills, the crevices and hazy colors of an autumnal landscape.

I unfolded my reading glasses from a breast pocket, trying to make out her gesture – was she fainting or shielding her eyes? – and found now, to my astonishment, that her features had an incredible affinity to Lisa's. The bend in her arm, the slope of her neck, it was all quite unmistakeable. And what was this memory that foisted itself upon me?

Ah yes, the last time I lay beside her naked, a faraway, perhaps disappointed look in her eye as she shielded her face from the glare slicing through the crack between the curtains, explaining to me that it was remarkable how, given the strength and, she had once erroneously supposed, invincibility of the feelings she had nurtured for me, it was inexpressibly odd to be lying there beside me now without the faintest glimmer of emotion. And I may only be stating the obvious when I say that her words sounded scripted, her voice unnatural and metallic, as though filtered through a machine. I even found myself wondering: Who has penned this script? Or: Who has built this machine? Was it possible either of us was to blame? And, not without a sense of absurdity, I began weeping softly, now, fourteen years after the fact, hunched over to scrutinize this pornographic picture.

I slid my fingers under my glasses to wipe the tears, the world smeared about then sharpened, and I turned to see if the women had been observing the maudlin scene I had been making. She had not – in fact, her chair was empty, and now I swept my eyes around the room a bit frantically to find where she had gone to, terrified for a moment that I had concocted her, that the lights and the music – now a barely audible waltz – had so played havoc with my senses that I had begun seeing things that were pure fantasy. But then, I reminded myself: If indeed I had fantasized a woman, then why had I chosen to make her so thoroughly unremarkable, so unalluring to the extreme, when this choice for once was apparently mine to make. Why had I made her hair so limp, her face so like a horse's?

The thud of a falling shoe made me swivel to face the pseudo-Oriental screen; I could discern through the gap beneath it that the woman was letting her shoes drop from her feet, unrolling her stockings so that they puddled on the floor.

This Porcheria, I thought, he is completely out of his mind.

My thoughts were flying feverishly now, trying to unravel it: Why was this woman undressing? And no matter how I framed the situation, it always came back to the same thing. She was undressing for me.

This was more than I could bear, that they – for there could be no doubt that Porcheria was at the bottom of this – would have me just sit still and allow this to unfold, as if I were not a man with my own drives and convictions, as if all this were a matter of supreme indifference. 

Keeping one eye trained on the pseudo-Oriental screen I began edging toward the door, my shoes muffled in the plush carpet, and I managed to get the door open without so much as a click, then I padded down the hallway and out the front door, not looking back, not even for an instant.

I Hope You Have Now Found The Peace There You Couldn’t Find Here

by James Hartman

A few weeks later I saw her at Kroger near the red delicious apples.  When I moved to Lexington–where I had used to live with my parents for three years when I was nine–I looked up all my old friends, on Facebook, Twitter, I even joined Match.com.  I wasn’t delusional, I expected many of my friends, crushes, etc. to be long gone, married, or unconverted to social media, and I was right.  But I never expected to stumble upon, while hiking, a brown bench commemorated to the memory of one Timothy J. Richardson, my best friend when I was nine. 

He loved wars, and Gettysburg was his favorite movie.  Nearly every Friday night we’d put it on his parent’s big-screen and when watching it no longer tethered our interest, we’d reenact specific scenes.  He was always, always, even when I begged him to switch, the Confederate soldier charging Little Round Top only to fall inches short of the Union line, his chest pummeled by bullets.  He’d variate the ways in which he’d get shot, but most often he’d take a bullet to the shoulder and spin around fast before somersaulting to the floor, his body convulsing as if still being pummeled.  He was, generally, a rambunctious kid, acting up in class and drawing a couple detention sessions a month.  I thought maybe he had enlisted and died in either Afghanistan or Iraq and was struck by such an overwhelming mix of awe and pride that I had to sit down to catch my breath, right there on my best friend’s bench.

On Facebook, I found a memorial page–comments filled with happy memories, wishes he were still here, some claiming to feel him always around.  His Dad, big gorilla of a guy but calm as a rabbit and grilled you an extra burger if you asked, begged for his support and guidance in making important business decisions.  But not one mention of the Army, nor war, nor Afghanistan or Iraq.  I scrolled all the way to 2007, the date on the bench’s gold commemorative plaque, the year I graduated from college with a BA in Journalism.  June 23rd was soaked with comments–“I had no idea you were struggling so much” and “I wish I would have answered the phone.”  A Robert Valentine said, “I hope you have now found the peace there you couldn’t find here.”

Lying in my bed at three in the morning, all the pills and wine boiling me more than assuaging my anxiety, my Macbook on my chest, I cried.  I don’t know why, but that night I remembered the day when Timmy and I had been playing Pongs and none of his would flip but all of mine were, and I looked up suddenly and he slapped me quick in the face, stood without a word, and walked away.  I didn’t see him again until the next night, Friday.  He took a bullet to his shoulder and swung around, smiling as if there were a glorious thrill now to dying, and somersaulted over, his whole body vibrating for a full minute from all the bullets.

The day after I read those comments I friend requested Timmy’s sister Bree.  I asked her how she was, if she remembered me.  Bree was two years older–smart, the biggest tomboy with the sexiest legs, and she had a crush on me.  When my family and I moved Timmy and I weren’t close, but I was in what I thought to be love with Bree.

Didn’t you used to live next door to us in Heartland way back, like 15 years ago???

Her profile photo was of her and a young boy under her shoulder with the same light hair as her own, behind them a handsome guy with black hair and blue eyes.

You do remember 🙂

I wanted to be wrong about Timmy, that the kid who loved Gettysburg and Pongs was not the same young man who could have killed himself so when she asked how I was I gave her my brief history: my parents back in PA, me newly divorced and just moved from Vermont, and my brother, Alex, working and living in Chicago.

What about you?

It was, I believed, a harmless summary and even a more harmless question, but she did not respond.

Exactly 36 days passed when I saw her by those apples, lifting one after the other to her inspecting eye.  Taking one deep breath and then another, I found myself standing right beside her, each reaching for the same apple.  Her fingers skimmed mine, and when she looked at me I was all too ready to smile.  When recognition still did not form in her face I took a step back, regrouped my smile more gently and stuck out my hand.

“Hey, Bree, Michael.  Long, long time, huh?”

She stumbled back.  Her eyes seemed to dart in two different directions at once.  Before she completely swiveled around she strangely grabbed at random a red delicious apple, and when I finally blinked out of my daze she had disappeared.

At home, my Macbook on my chest, full of wine and pills that were having no effect, I typed an apology to Bree but before I pressed send the question nagged at me:  What was it exactly you were apologizing for? 

It’s been eight days and still that message sits in the rectangle beneath our conversation, unsent.

I continue hiking twice a week, sometimes more, always alone, having made no new friendships nor reestablished old ones.  But whenever I pass my old best friend’s bench I automatically jerk my shoulder, twist my body around and around and around and then, dizzy, finally topple to the dirt and leaves.

Long Hair

by Uche Okonkwo

My parents cut my hair the day after I got my admission letter into Model Secondary School.

First, mother used her fabric scissors. She parted my hair into four sections and took them one at a time. Then father used his clippers, to make the cut smooth and neat. Mother nodded when it was done. She held me by the chin, turned my face this way and that. ‘Hair is a distraction,’ she said. ‘There will be plenty of time for it when you finish school.’

My head felt hot and swollen, but light at the same time. Naked. My parents were waiting for my ‘thank you’ so I said it, even though my throat was tight.

After packing my fallen hair into the bin I went to my room and looked in the mirror and cried. Then I asked myself what I was crying for. I have hair like mother’s; hair that never grows long even if you rub all the Virgin Hair Fertilizer in the world in it. It used to make me sad that my hair didn’t grow. But now I know that long hair can be a bad thing. If you don’t believe me, ask Jennifer.

 
 

Jennifer got transferred into our school when I was in Junior Secondary Two. They placed her in my class. Everyone kept saying how fine she was. I didn’t think she was that fine; but she was yellow and she had very long relaxer-straightened hair that reached the middle of her back. I used to stare at her a lot when she wasn’t looking.

When Jennifer first joined our school everybody asked her all the time, ‘Jennifer, are you mixed?’ ‘Jennifer, is your mother from London or America?’ Jennifer liked it when the other girls asked her these questions; you could tell she was the proud type. She would laugh and say yes to everything: Yes, I am mixed. Yes, I was born in London. Yes, my mother is related to the Queen. But we all knew she was joking. We had seen her parents – they were both fair but they were not white.

All the girls liked Jennifer but I used to look at her with side-eye; her type of hair needed an explanation. Nigerian girls don’t have this kind of long hair just like that and for no reason. We pay for her type of hair at the market, and then we pay more at the salon so they can fix it in for us with thread or glue. Then we wear the hair for six weeks so that the money we spent on it doesn’t feel wasted. And when it starts to itch we beat on our heads like drums, because everyone knows your fingers can’t reach your scalp when you’re wearing a weave.

It used to pain me the way Jennifer walked about the whole school as if it was her father’s land. Everyone knew her, even the teachers. If a teacher sent you to go and call Jennifer and you said which of the Jennifers they would say the long hair Jennifer. Or the oyinbo Jennifer. Every time I heard this I wanted to pinch their lips the way my mother does when I say something stupid. I wanted to remind them that Jennifer is not ‘oyinbo’; she’s not even as yellow as me. It’s like everyone forgot that they used to call me oyinbo, before Jennifer came with her hair.

Now they all kept saying Jennifer come, let us touch your hair, and with a sigh and a frown she would let them. She would keep the fake frown on her face as they played with her hair. They would say Jennifer you are so lucky; we wish we had hair like yours. Then Jennifer would sigh again and complain about how much shampoo and conditioner she had to buy to take care of her long hair. And the relaxer! Did they know she had to buy two big-size containers every time she needed to relax her hair? Don’t envy me, she would say, stroking her hair in a way that said the opposite.

 
 

Jennifer’s problems started when one girl had a dream. Everyone called this girl Vision, because she saw the future when she dreamt. One time she dreamt that there was heavy rain and the principal’s house collapsed, killing him and his family. She said it would happen in three weeks. Many months passed yet the principal’s house stayed standing, and nobody died. One other time she dreamt that a snake bit a student and she died. And truly, about two weeks after, some senior girls were cutting the tall elephant grass in the school’s field and they found a big snake. Vision said it was only by the mercy of God that the caretaker had been nearby to kill the snake, or else someone would have died that day. After this, everybody forgot about the principal’s house and every other bad thing Vision had said that did not happen. 

So Vision had this dream. She saw a very beautiful water demon, the type that village people call Mammy Water, sitting with all her pretty girl servants. (All Mammy Water girls are fine; everybody knows this.)  The Mammy Water was saying how she had sent an ‘agent’ to our school to make trouble. Vision had a very sweet mouth, and she knew how to tell stories. So when she started talking like this you believed her, even if you remembered that the principal was still alive and well in the house that should have killed him.

The same day that Vision told her dream, it spread throughout the whole school. After that, when any little thing happened everyone blamed the Mammy Water’s agent. It was the Mammy Water’s agent that went about the whole school stealing provisions and bath water and pooing in the wrong places. And sometimes the agent would stand outside the dorm at night dressed in black, frightening the girls who would later swear on their grandmothers’ graves that they had seen the thing with their own eyes.

Then Vision had another dream and announced that the agent was on a mission of death and anyone could be the target. We all had to be careful, she said, and sleep with one eye open because the person you call your best friend, your bunk mate, your classmate, that could be the agent, and you could be the one she was sent to kill so you won’t fulfil your destiny. Everybody grew even more afraid. Students stopped walking alone after dark. People were bedwetting more, and they blamed it on the agent. And it was true in a way; was it not fear of the agent that made girls lie on their beds and pee with their eyes wide open instead of going out to the convenience after dark? I know because it happened to me once – but that story is by the way.

Even though the school was upside down with this agent matter, Jennifer just went about as if nothing bothered her. Like she wasn’t one of us. So I whispered to my bunk mate Dumebi and told her that Jennifer’s habit of talking and laughing in her sleep was strange, that maybe she was talking to her fellow Mammy Water girls. I wasn’t doing anything bad; I only said what I was thinking. It’s not my fault that Dumebi carried the matter on her head and started asking the other girls what they thought. They were not sure if Mammy Water girls talked to each other in their sleep, they said, but it sounded right when they thought about it. Plus, someone added, all Mammy Water girls were pretty, with light skin and long hair like in Nollywood movies. Like Jennifer.

By evening the entire dorm was bubbling. Girls were whispering and pointing fingers and looking at each other in code. The agent was Jennifer and there was proof: one, her long hair; two, her fair skin and fine face; three, she spoke to her Mammy Water friends every night; four, she was such a deep sleeper that it took a whole day to wake her up, meaning her spirit travelled whenever she slept. One of the girls said that even Jennifer’s name was a sign, when you added everything else: Jennifer rhymed with Lucifer, and Lucifer was the father of all evil.

I didn’t feel sorry for Jennifer. She was busy pretending not to notice that the girls were not talking to her anymore, that nobody called her to admire her hair, or asked her to walk with them to the shops, or begged for cubes of sugar. Even her friends started finding ways to avoid her, to show everybody that no, they really weren’t that close. But Jennifer kept acting normal. I whispered to Dumebi that this was what a proper Mammy Water girl would do. Act normal while everyone ran mad. 

The next day, during evening prayers, the chapel prefect asked us to pray for protection from evil, and someone kept mentioning Jennifer’s name in their prayer. I did not see what happened next because I was busy with my own prayers, but I heard later that Jennifer jumped on the girl and that was how the fight started. We formed a circle around them as Jennifer held the girl’s body to the ground and plastered her face with slaps. Jennifer was screaming shut up shut up, and the girl was crying Jesus Jesus and trying to hit Jennifer’s face. But Jennifer was an expert. The way she lifted her neck and face up out of reach while using her knees and one hand to pin the girl down, you would know she had fought many times before. It took three prefects and the matron to separate Jennifer from her victim.

The girls whispered evidence number five amongst themselves: Jennifer was too strong for a normal girl. She had to be the agent.

It was only after they pulled Jennifer off that I noticed the other girl was Dumebi. Her face was packed with sand and swollen like a watermelon and I felt bad for wanting to laugh.

The matron dragged Jennifer and Dumebi to her house, and they did not return to the dorm until long after lights out. I know because I waited. I asked Dumebi what happened, but she just turned her back to me and covered herself with her wrapper. As if it was me who asked her to go and fight Jennifer. I turned my back too and went to sleep.

The next day Jennifer and Dumebi were sent to work with the kitchen staff as punishment. When they came into the room at the end of the day, everyone went quiet like they were expecting something to happen. But Jennifer went to her corner and Dumebi went to hers, and slowly the others went back to their business.

 
 

Dumebi kept acting funny the rest of the week. She seemed angry and wouldn’t speak to anyone. I think she was expecting us to thank her for fighting Jennifer, even though she had lost. In a way, Jennifer had lost also, because everyone was more afraid of her now. But what Dumebi did next surprised even me.

Late one night, when we were all asleep, Dumebi crept to Jennifer’s bed with a pair of scissors and started cutting off her hair. She had gone about halfway when Jennifer woke up screaming, waking the whole room. Somebody turned on the lights and we all stared from the safety of our beds with our mouths wide open. Dumebi was standing bent over Jennifer’s bed, holding the scissors in her right hand and a fistful of hair in her left. Clumps of dark hair lay scattered across Jennifer’s pillow and on the floor.

Jennifer had sat up in her lower bunk bed and was feeling the bare half of her head with shaky fingers. She looked like a confused child, and for one second I remembered the way I had felt when I first saw myself in the mirror with my new short hair. But then Jennifer flew from her bed, screaming like the demon she was, and attacked Dumebi. Everyone started to shout, a mix of anticipation and fear, as Jennifer pushed Dumebi to the floor and sat on her stomach. She grabbed handfuls of Dumebi’s hair, but it was not long enough for her to get a good grip so she started slapping and punching. But this time Dumebi was lucky, or maybe she had learned from the first fight. She managed to reach up and scratch Jennifer across her left eye. Jennifer stopped hitting and touched the scratch. Then she stared at the red stain on her finger like she’d never seen the colour of her own blood.

Seeing her chance at freedom Dumebi shoved Jennifer, who fell to the side, right next to the spot where the scissors had landed when it flew from Dumebi’s hand moments ago. Dumebi started to crawl away as Jennifer reached for the scissors, but before Dumebi could get far Jennifer sprang at her and stabbed with the sharp end into the back of Dumebi’s thigh. Blood, so dark it looked black, flowed from the wound and down Dumebi’s thigh. Dumebi stayed on her hands and knees and cried for her mummy; and Jennifer just cried. She let the scissors fall to the floor and began wiping her hands over and over on her night dress.

 
 

They sent Jennifer and Dumebi home on an indefinite suspension, after the principal paraded them before the whole school on the morning assembly. He called them ‘bad eggs’. Dumebi had a bandage wrapped around her thigh and a prefect had to help her up to the podium. Jennifer wore what was left of her hair swept to the side, to cover the bare half, but the breeze kept blowing it around. They both had their eyes fixed on a spot above our heads as they stood in front of us. The principal did not say anything about Vision or her dreams. He said there was no guarantee that Jennifer would be allowed back into the school; there would be a disciplinary panel to decide.

I kept a straight face throughout the assembly.

Dumebi never came back; her parents withdrew her from our school. I heard they also hired policemen to threaten the principal and he had to beg them not to have him arrested.

Jennifer returned, many weeks later. By then her hair was cut short like mine and Vision had had new dreams.

And Jennifer looked fine now. Pretty and normal. Like a proper Nigerian girl.

Angle

by Glen Pourciau

I’m looking at my phone in a comfy chair at the mall, more or less unaware of anything around me, when a man sits in the matching chair to my right and starts in on me with his story.  I think nothing of the way he looks or dresses, but he’s intent on making eye contact and that seems intrusive to me.

Forgive me, he begins, do you have a moment?  I’ve just witnessed something.  I travel in my work and I’m away from home and don’t know anyone nearby to talk to.  I could call someone, but I’m not married and not in a relationship and I don’t want to intrude on anyone who could be busy.  And what could they do about this situation since they’re not here?  I see that you’re occupied with your phone and it could be that you have something urgent to tend to.  No?   Then if you don’t mind, here’s what happened.

Without waiting for answers, he keeps talking, but he strikes me as being a little too interested in making me believe his story.  Why tell me his relationship status and why he’s not calling someone he knows?  More explaining than seems natural, something unconvincing about him, more like a person absorbed in his own head than someone who needs to talk about whatever he claims to have seen.  Does he mean to suggest that because I’m present he’ll expect me to take some action, and if action is needed, why hasn’t he taken it?

I stop by malls to stretch my legs, he continues hurriedly, to be around other people, pleasant environment, weather’s not a problem, get some exercise, quick bite in the food court, then on my way. I’m going out to my car and I see a youngish man and woman arguing, not just a discussion but heated and loud, and some people, like me, are standing outside the exit watching them.  The man is demanding that the woman get in the car, but she won’t do it and shouts so that all of us can hear that she’s not going anywhere with him.  I have no idea how long this has been in full uproar, but my car is on the other side of this scene or incident, and I’m not about to walk through it, not knowing what could erupt at any moment.  The man’s frustration with the woman grows and we can’t hear every word they say to each other but all of it is heated and finally the man turns and smashes his fist into a side window.  The window does not break, and the man cries out in agony and shakes his hand as if he’s broken most of his knuckles and then rubs his shoulder and curses and yells:  You see what you do to me!  She’s furious that he blames her for the window punching, and she starts away from him toward the mall, toward us, the watchers.  I take an instinctive step back, as do most of us, but the man runs after her and grabs her arm and pulls her back.  I notice that a few of the watchers are talking to their phones, reporting the incident, I guess, or perhaps telling their friends.  I turn and come back into the mall, unsure what I should do.  I don’t see a security person anywhere and I would think that at least one of the phone users was calling someone to take charge.  Not sure if I sound coherent, I’m still rattled.  I mean, the guy was rough and he could have had a weapon, who knows?  I couldn’t try to stop him without risk to my safety, could I?  I’m not trained to handle this type of crisis.  So what do you think?  Should we go out there?  Maybe we could find a way to help her.  She wasn’t giving in to him, but how long can she protect herself and what will happen to her once he gets her in the car with him?  They’re right out there, he says, and points toward a corridor that leads to covered parking.

I don’t answer, don’t get up, don’t react, don’t know whether to trust this stranger.  I come to the mall about twice a week and I’ve never seen anything like what he’s described. Why has he chosen me to speak to?  Is it because I’m somewhat older than he is and he presumes I have more experience, or does he hope to lure me outside and overpower me because he thinks I’m too old to put up much of a fight?  What would happen if I went to the parking lot with him?  Would he walk me to the car where he’d say he witnessed the scene?  Would someone be there waiting for us, someone working with him? What’s his angle? Does he have one?  Could he be doing this just for fun?

Did you hear what I said? he asks. Don’t you feel any responsibility for what happens to that woman?  Are you saying you don’t care about the danger she could be in? Is that what you’re implying?

His face takes on an expression approaching outrage. Is his growing emotion real? Has he seen something he doesn’t know how to deal with? Is he sincere in wanting my help? I don’t answer his questions, not any of them.

Are you judging me for walking away from them? How can you do that when you sit there in silence, basking in the neutrality of this processed mall atmosphere?  What is it, in your mind, that makes you human? Not the power of speech, apparently.  For God’s sake, answer me. You think I’m sitting here talking to you because I want to be ignored and therefore disrespected?

As he speaks, a woman with a phone that she’s already fingering approaches an empty chair opposite us, but hearing the anger in the talker’s voice, changes her mind and goes on her way. I hesitate to do as she has done, my distrust causing me to wonder what forces could be at work. I fear the talker will follow me if I attempt to walk away from him, that he could have a partner whose eyes are on us and the two of them could converge on me as I get in my car.

Don’t you have anything at all to say? the talker demands to know, but he sees that nothing will come from me. He stares at me with disgust, as if his eyes could tear a response from me, and then stands and heads toward the exit where he says the argument took place. Why should he be indignant, assuming he was sincere and he did come across a violent altercation? Didn’t he flee the scene? If he was looking for help, why didn’t he ask anyone there to help him? I can’t make any sense of his behavior or his sudden anger, so why should I accept what he’s telling me? If I went with him and confirmed too late that his story was part of a con, these questions would be ones I’d later think should have been heeded.

Yet, I’m tempted to follow him at a distance to see if anything might still be going on, to see if I can learn something that will help me understand why he has told me the story. Not that much time has passed and a police car could be in the parking lot and bystanders could be gathered. But I haven’t seen people rushing toward the exit to catch sight of some unfolding drama. If I follow him, would I be letting him maneuver me with his story and accusing insults? Would he be watching for me?  Is that idea ridiculous?

I pocket my phone and look around for anything that seems suspicious. I picture myself walking along the wall of the corridor he’s pointed to until I reach one side of the exit doors. I peek out and see him talking to a man who’s almost a head taller than he is, both of them close to the trunk of a parked car, the conversation animated, the man appearing to be known to him.

The longer I sit, the more I feel like a target. I get up and take a walk around the mall, vigilant, wondering how much he could know about who I am.  I see nothing that arouses my concern, but as I start to relax I imagine a man smashing his fist into a car window, his bones giving way on impact, the woman possibly seeing her reflection in the glass.

I’m not parked near where we were sitting and not in a covered lot. Eventually I walk into the open air.         

For Official Use Only

by Charles Rafferty

Marcus saw the station wagon pull away from the shoulder of Route 25, leaving behind a pile of fresh flowers in the snow. He was on his way to meet Trisha at her apartment. Trisha had separated from her husband, and a mutual friend had introduced them. Though they had met for an afternoon coffee two days before, this was their first real date.

The flowers were part of a roadside memorial. Someone had died there, and they had a lot of friends, a large and Waltons-like family. Marcus could tell this by the variety of bouquets and stuffed animals, the many tire tracks traced into the snow-covered grass.

Marcus made a snap decision. He hooked a left into one of those U-turns they have for cops and firetrucks. He saw the sign for official use only and he ignored it. He accelerated and took another illegal U-turn a mile up the road, and then he was headed back to the memorial, fitting himself into the tracks where the other cars had been.

He was out of the car for less than a minute as the traffic sped by, the drivers probably thinking he was one of the grievers, that he was saying some kind of prayer as he picked out the freshest and most durable of the flowers. And then he was back on the road, with an armload of calla lilies and orange mums. The whole thing was barely a hiccup. He wouldn't even be late.

People give Marcus a funny look when he tells them all this, but he doesn't see anything wrong with it. Those flowers weren't doing David any good out there on the highway, he says. That was his name. Marcus saw it written in red spangles on several of the wire hearts. Apparently David was somebody's husband, and his wife wasn't ready to let him go. Marcus reasoned that the flowers would be destroyed the next day. Another storm was coming, and the plow would surely cover them as it scraped its way towards Bridgeport. David's friends and family had built the memorial too close to the shoulder. Marcus thought it might be on the very spot where David had died. Or perhaps they had lost all foresight in their time of flowers and snow. Either way, Marcus says, he didn't take them all.

When Marcus showed up at Trisha's door, she was surprised. No one had ever brought her flowers. She invited him in for a pre-dinner drink, but it was already clear to Marcus that they'd never make it to their reservation. The flowers had something to do with it.

Marcus liked the look of her as she stretched for a couple of highball glasses on the top shelf, and Trisha liked that he didn't turn away as her shirt rode up, exposing the small of her back. She held each glass up to the light, then ran them under the faucet to get rid of the dust. Their fingers brushed when she handed him the drink, and they ended up undressing each other right there in the kitchen. Marcus kept thinking the husband might walk in through the front door, but from the sound of things, Trisha hadn't considered the possibility. Afterward, they lay in a heap on the cold linoleum, laughing together, a little embarrassed. They decided to have Thai food delivered.

Later, when Trisha fell asleep in the bed, Marcus pulled the newspaper from the basket beside her toilet. He found David's obituary and the write-up in the police blotter. Killed by a drunk was the main message. The drunk was fine, naturally. He sounded like Marcus — the same age, the same penchant for driving when the bar had closed. Marcus came out of the bathroom and made his way to the kitchen through the dark. He proceeded by a series of tiny steps, afraid that he might bump into something. He found the vodka bottle and poured himself a drink. He downed it while standing over the dripping kitchen faucet.

Less than two weeks later, Trisha and Marcus were finished. They had run their course. They had had sex in a variety of locations and positions — a movie theater, a Safeway parking lot, in every room of their two apartments. Trisha found out that he was allergic to shrimp and preferred tragedies to comedies. Marcus found out that she was still in love with her husband and didn't have a washing machine.

They parted ways. Marcus remained the only man who had ever brought her flowers, and a snowplow destroyed the roadside memorial, as Marcus had predicted.

Immortal Longings

by Charles Rammelkamp

“I see Fahrenheit 9/11 is showing at the Bijou along with Princess Diaries 2.  When did Brent Mitchum open a second screening room, anyway?  The Bijou was always a single-screen cinema when I was growing up.”

“How else are you going to keep up with the multiplexes?” Jodie asks rhetorically.

“The Bijou has a monopoly in Potawatomi Rapids, though.  Of course, you can always drive over to Muskegon or wherever if you want to see a movie that bad, if it’s not here.”

“What’s that?” Caroline Castleman demands.   Roger wonders at his mother’s deafness, the insulation from noise it suggests.  He imagines sounds for her are muffled and distant, as if trying to penetrate a cocoon.  Especially over the last dozen years of the ninety-seven she has lived, she has been slowly, gradually losing her hearing.

“We were just talking about the movies at the Bijou,” Roger shouts.  “When I was a kid they only had one movie at a time; now they have two.”

“Oh yes, Brent Mitchum opened a second room upstairs where the balcony used to be.  The kids from the college are the only ones who go to the Bijou any more, I understand.” 

“When does school start again?”

“What?”

“I said, when does school start again?” Castleman shouts.  “At Potawatomi Rapids College?”

“Haven’t they started already?”

“I don’t know.  Have they?”

“Yes, I think they may have started last week.  It’s stupid the way they have classes in August.  Didn’t used to start until after Labor Day.”

“Probably why Fahrenheit 9/11’s showing.  The college kids.”

“I’d like to see Princess Diaries 2,” Lily declares.

“I’d like to see Outfoxed,” Jodie says, “the one about Rupert Murdoch that’s due out next week.”

“I want to see Garden State,” Carol says to Lily.  They know all the current offerings. Alien vs. Predator is coming to the theaters in Baltimore, and another Benji movie about the dog and another Exorcist are also due out.  There’s no end.

“We’ve already seen Fahrenheit 9/11 once.  I don’t need to see it again.  Did you see it, Mom?”  They’re discussing the options for evening entertainment.  They’ve been to the beach already.  They’ve eaten dinner and are sitting on the porch, facing the lake.  Maybe they should go for a walk downtown, Castleman thinks.

“What?” Caroline Castleman calls out again.

Castleman raises his voice again.  “Fahrenheit 9/11.  Have you seen it yet?”

“Oh yes.   Marilyn Schumacher took me to see it.  You know Bush was up in Traverse City yesterday?”

“I saw that in the paper.  First sitting president ever to stop there, or something.  Where is he today?  Pennsylvania?  West Virginia?  I guess he comes to Michigan a lot, since you’re supposed to be up for grabs.  Nobody comes to Maryland.”

“Which is fine with me,” Jodie comments.

“I read where some 55-year old social studies teacher wasn’t allowed to go inside the Grand Traverse County Civic Center where Bush was speaking because she had a Kerry sticker on her blouse,” Castleman marvels.  “The campaign security people ripped up her admission ticket and wouldn’t allow her in.”

“What’s that?”

“A schoolteacher wasn’t allowed in to see Bush because she had a Kerry sticker on!”

“Oh, I saw that!  Isn’t it dreadful?”  Caroline Castleman is a registered Democrat, her party affiliation dating back to New Deal days.

“Come on, Lily, let’s go down to the beach,” Carol says to her sister.  She can tell the adults aren’t about to move any time soon.  The girls run off the porch and down to the lake.  An evening calm has come over the water, and the sun is sinking over in Wisconsin.

“I belong to a writers group,” Castleman tells his mother, his voice raised, “and there are these two guys who are on opposite sides of the issue.  One’s a Bush supporter and the other’s a Kerry supporter.  One guy writes super-patriot stories about a Middle School basketball coach who’s a spy on the side, and the other writes screenplays that expose American greed.”

“It’s just awful,” Caroline Castleman declares.  “What he’s done to the economy with these tax cuts, the war in Iraq, and it just horrifies me the way he’s removing the barriers between church and state.  Faith-based initiatives.  What a disgrace!  What a – what a shipwreck!” she concludes, at a loss for the right description.

“People should look up the definition of ‘evangelism’ in their Funk & Waganalls’ if you ask me,” Caroline Castleman goes on, unheeding.  “Crusaders!  That’s what they are.  Zealots!  People should be more concerned about the political activism of the evangelicals than they are.  All they do is propagandize and proselytize.  They want the government to do the job their preaching isn't doing for them, and they’re too hidebound to recognize nobody wants to hear any of it!  Nobody’s buying what they’re selling at all.  But they aren't going to be happy until they’ve imposed a theocracy on all of us.  People are just too complacent about these fanatics.  These lunatics.”

“Religion should be kept personal,” Castleman agrees.  “Or at least within the circle of people who share the same beliefs you have.   Evangelists and missionaries may do a lot of good, but they don't do it out of altruistic motives.  They do it to promote their agendas.  Sure, they run homeless shelters and soup kitchens. A meal or a warm place to sleep attracts a captive audience. Eat the meal or use the cot and you are obliged to sit and listen to their sales pitch.   An age-old practice. Sometimes it’s used to promote Jesus.  Sometimes it’s used to promote timeshares.  I just don’t see the religious people getting into some of these programs out of the goodness of their hearts. They have ulterior motives, and I would hate to see their causes financed with tax dollars.  I don't trust those guys any more than I would a timeshare peddler.”

It’s a bravura performance on Castleman’s part.  He hasn’t talked so much in ages.  Or at such a loud volume. 

“So you think Al can get in on the faith-based initiative money?” Jodie asks, amused.  Roger’s brother is a storefront preacher in Saint Augustine, Florida, a confidence man.  He has a plan to bottle vials of water from the “Fountain of Youth” and sell them on the internet.  Everywhere, “anti-aging” strategies are popping up on the internet spam everyday.  Why not take this to its logical conclusion?

“Why not?  He outlined his paradise strategy to me when I talked to him on the phone yesterday.  Paradise.  He’s parlayed his credentials as a preacher into peddling paradise.  He was going on and on about the various conceptions of paradise.  It all ties into the Fountain of Youth scheme.  So sure, if he hypes up the born-again aspects of his grand vision, I bet he can be sucking on that faith-based initiative tit as much as any fundamentalist preacher.  Nobody knows about his sub rosa activities.”

“You don’t think they’ll poke around his ‘sub rosa activities,’ as you call them?  Flush him out in a minute?

“What about Paradise, anyway?”

“Paradise?” Caroline Castleman exclaims, the word penetrating the wall of her deafness.  “Has Al been talking to you about Paradise, too?”

Raising his voice so that his mother can hear him, Castleman summarizes his conversation with his brother.  “First of all, he mentioned the idea of ‘immortal longings’ that he says are the basis of what it means to be human – happiness, harmony, an essential ‘stillness’ that amounts to immortality and eternal youth.”

“Immortal longings,” Castleman emphasizes, ever the English professor.  “That’s what Cleopatra says just before she applies the asp to her breast, commits suicide to join Antony in death.  ‘I have immortal longings in me.’  Act five, scene two.”  In a lower voice, self-mocking the pedant professor, he adds to Jodie, “Of course the asp is an obvious phallic symbol.”

“What?” Caroline Castleman demands.

“Shakespeare!” Castleman shouts.  “Al was going on about these immortal longings that form the basis of his sales pitch.  Talk about timeshare salesmen, Al’s offering a slice of paradise.  Even before there was a Garden of Eden, he says, which was made for humans, there was a city identified in ancient Sumerian myth called Dilmun which was made exclusively for the gods, a paradise.  It’s in the myth of Enki and Ninhursaga.  Enki was the god of fresh water that flows under the earth, and Ninhursaga was his consort.  Dilmun is modern-day Bahrain.  Dilmun was ‘pure’ and ‘virginal’.  There was no disease, no death, no getting old. 

“What Al doesn’t mention, by the way, is that even though this notion of paradise goes all the way back to Mesopotamian myth, it’s literally a ‘utopia’ – a ‘no place’.  Because Enki persuades Ninhursaga to have sex with him, and then after she gives birth to a daughter, Enki has sex with the daughter, and then the daughter’s daughter and so on.  The point is that you can’t have paradise and civilization both.  The only way there’s an absence of death is if there’s an absence of birth.  There’s no sense of nostalgia for Dilmun the way there is for Eden.

“But anyway, Al launches into these original myths of paradise to prove that there really is a paradise, because people have always believed and longed for it, so it must be so, and not only that, but it’s available now; you don’t have to die to get there.”

“Who is he telling this to?”

“Nobody yet, at least I don’t think so.  He’s gotten some senior citizens to worry about getting Alzheimer’s, but I don’t think he’s taken the next step yet.  It’s possible that he worked some of this stuff up in his sermons back in L.A., too.”

“Al was telling me some interesting things about – I don’t know, the Aztecs, the Celts.”  Caroline Castleman gestures vaguely and looks out toward the horizon on the lake.

“That’s right,” Roger recalls.  “Aztec paradise was called Tlalocan or something else that’s equally difficult to pronounce.”

“Avalon for the Celts, the place where King Arthur went to die,” his mother muses.  “A blessed place where it’s always summer and full of fruits and flowers and nobody experiences sorrow.”

“And don’t forget Valhalla!” Jodie adds sardonically.  “Odin’s palace in Asgard.  You get to it by crossing the rainbow bridge, Bifrost.  But I forget whether you take a left or a right once you’ve crossed the bridge.”  She ignores Caroline Castleman’s request to repeat herself since it would only spoil it to explain her joke.

“Only warriors get to go there, though,” Castleman clarifies, “only those slain in battle.  And the only females there are the Valkyries.  At least the heroes’ goblets never run out of mead.”

“It doesn’t last forever anyway, does it?  Valhalla.  They live in the palace until Doomsday – Ragnarok.  Then they have to do battle against giants, with Odin.  They’d probably be feeling pretty restless by then anyway.”

“Then there was Hades in Greek mythology, and Olympus, of course, where the Gods cavorted.  Sheol is the Jewish equivalent of Hades.  A gloomy place with insubstantial shades flitting about,” Castleman ticks off other afterlife venues, almost as if he’s listing the movie selections at area cinemas.  “Islamic paradise is an eternal place of bliss and comfort, the ‘garden underneath which rivers flow.’  And of course we all know about the houris, the virgins of paradise that righteous men will get to enjoy for their good actions on earth.  Suicide bombers.”

“The word ‘houri’ comes from the Arabic ‘hur,’ which means ‘astonishment’,” Jodie says.

“The Australian Aborigines believe in a time beyond living memory that they call The Dreaming.  When a person dies, his spirit goes there, to join the ancestors.  It’s not a reward or a punishment.  It’s idyllic, though.”

“African religions have a similar belief in an ancestral afterlife where the dead exist as spirits in this life, but the Bachwa tribe in the Congo have a belief in an afterlife where there’s no illness or hunger or death.  Just comfort, happiness and easy hunting.  And then there are the Rastafarians of Jamaica, former Christians, who believe that Ethiopia is the site of the original Eden, or paradise, and they smoke dope, the ‘holy herb,’ ganja, to help meditate on holiness or whatever. 

“Rastafarian paradise is a perfect example of one of Al’s themes, by the way, exile and return.  That’s Miltonic, too, the exile from the garden.  The nature of existence is exile; the goal is to return.  Al preaches that we can return to the garden, and he knows the way.  For a price, of course.  The Golden Age, the Elysian Fields, the Isle of the Blessed.”

“I don’t know where he’s going with all this,” Caroline frets.  “It’s comforting, I suppose.  People need comfort.”

“Where he’s going with it,” Castleman echoes.  “All the way to the bank, he hopes.”

“So have we decided what we’re going to do this evening?” Jodie asks, bringing the conversation back to its origin.

“What?” Caroline asks, scrinching her face, and all at once her son realizes they’ve been blithely talking about how to cheat the grim reaper, how little time his mother actually has, how soon she’ll be gone, how much he is going to miss her.  The slow, inevitable tumble into oblivion, as in a dream.  

Born Out of Love

by Andrew Rhodes

My mom was forty-two years old when I was born, and my dad was forty-nine.  They were unequipped parents and did not sign me up for sports or activities, which assured my status as interloper from a very young age.  One time, when I was twelve, I destroyed the backyard garden in a fit of nameless rage and they didn’t say a word about it. 
        

Most nights my dad sat in his office reading and chewing on his pipe stem.  When he spoke it was slow and clear.  He seemed depressed and I wondered how much of it had to do with aging.  My mom, on the other hand, never seemed happy or unhappy, and always wore a look of slight confusion.  One time Dad told me that Mom had the worst memory in the world—she was like a permanent amnesiac—and that’s why her temperament was so consistently tranquil.   
        

I had only one friend.  His name was Sean Carrigan, and he lived with his dad, an Episcopal Priest, and his older brother, Nelson.  In the searing Mississippi summer, Sean and I would ride our bikes down to the river where we would goof around on a rope swing, or walk on the railroad tracks and throw rocks at cars passing on the nearby highway.  Or we would ride to Devil’s Tower which was a just an abandoned grain silo covered in graffiti.  Devil’s heads and cuss words.  We were on the lookout for any devil worshippers, wanting to get our fix of fear.  In the fall we tried to make a haunted house for some neighborhood kids.  We painted our faces in black and red, fake blood and everything, and when we looked in the mirror we were both kind of scared.  We didn’t go through with the haunted house.  Though we did not admit it to each other, we both wondered if, by dressing up as demons, we were inviting pain and terror into our lives.
       

Unlike my quiet home, something was always going on at Sean’s, and it usually involved Sean fighting with Nelson.  One morning I rode my bike over to Sean’s, and when I got there Sean was lying on his back in the front yard.  Nelson and his friend Dominic were leaning over and talking to Sean. 
        

“Hey Stake,” Nelson said.  “Stake” was a nickname Nelson had given me; it was short for “Mistake,” which is what he claimed I was since my parents were so old.   
        

Sean rolled on to his side and squinted and groaned.  He had grass clippings in his hair and stuck to his face.  He tried to take deep breaths. 
        

“See, you got your wind back,” Nelson said.  “He just got the wind knocked out of him.  Been laying there for twenty minutes to make it more dramatic,” he said to me.
        

“He pushed me off the roof,” Sean said.
        

“I didn’t push you, you lost your footing.  I wouldn’t push somebody off a roof,” Nelson said.
        

I looked at Dominic but he didn’t offer any more explanation, just put his hands on his hips.
        

“He fell off the roof?” I said, looking at the one-story house.  The foundation of the house was not raised, but it seemed like he could have broken something.
        

“The bush softened his fall,” Nelson said.  He pointed at a camellia bush that was split with cracked branches making the core of the bush visible.  “He’s fine.”
        

“I’m telling Dad,” Sean said.
        

This threat did not sit well and the two brothers argued.  Their dad was, like my parents, hands-off, but he could get very angry in the right circumstances.  He certainly would make Nelson pay for pushing his brother off the roof, accident or not.  Though he was a priest, he didn’t seem religious.  He didn’t pray before meals.
        

“What do you want from me?  You want to go somewhere.  Don’t say a word and you can hang out with me and Dominic.  How’s that?” Nelson said.     
        

“I don’t want to hang out with you,” Sean said, still lying on his back.  I didn’t believe him because Nelson was all he ever talked about.  “Take us to a movie,” Sean said.  “Your treat.”
        

We wanted to see The Crow.  Sean had the soundtrack and we had read magazine articles about how the movie’s star, Brandon Lee, had died in real life while filming.  Nelson and Dominic brought us to the theater in Nelson’s Jetta, and he went up to the counter—he knew a guy who worked there—and got us two tickets to the R rated movie.  He said to Sean, “I just broke a fifty dollar bill for you, punk.”   
        

In the movie, of course, a loving young couple gets murdered—the woman gets raped first—and then the man comes back to life as a superhero to have his revenge.  I felt sick when they raped the girl, tingling with frustration and anger, and I was glad to see the hero get his revenge in such extreme fashion, but something didn’t sit right.  How did he come back to life?  What force was behind this return from the dead?  Was it all due to a magic crow?  Where did the magic crow come from?  I understood the viewer had to be kept in the dark on this to some extent, but the revenge plot seemed insignificant when compared to issues of immortality and God, or whatever was supposed to make this supernatural event possible.  Still, we left the theater saying we loved the movie.    
        

The thing was, Sean and I were both in love with the same girl at school.  Her name was Jill, and after the movie I knew Sean was doing the same thing I was doing—picturing some variation on the story with Jill as the victim and himself as the hero.  Thinking about eternal union with his beloved.  It made me jealous that we were both thinking the same way about Jill, and that there was nothing that made my fantasy scenario any more likely than his.  We were picturing the same pitch black night, rescuing her from torture. 
        

After the movie we had to wait two hours for Nelson and Dominic to come pick us up.  We sat on the front steps and watched crowds come and go from the theater, both wondering if somehow Jill would be among them, which she was not. 
        

The Jetta pulled up at almost six o’clock and we got in the car.  “You and Stake like that movie?” Nelson asked.  Sean nodded. 

Nelson said we were going to hang out with him tonight.  “Another special treat,” he said.  He must have still felt guilty about pushing Sean off the roof and felt like he had not bribed him enough quite yet.  He said we were going to the midget house.  During the drive there he turned up the music and rolled down the windows so that the wind blew through.  I thought about the four of us in the car.  I thought about our relationship to the higher power, about what we believed.  In Mississippi everyone knows what church someone goes to, and many people feel the need to explain their affiliation.  Your church was part of your casual biography.  Though I rarely went to church, I was a Baptist and believed in God in a typical way.  Sean said he believed in God but not the same way his dad did.  He believed God was somehow involved with outer space and aliens in ways that Christianity wouldn’t condone.  Dominic was Catholic—he never spoke about it—but I had seen him cross himself before eating.  And I didn’t know about Nelson.  He didn’t seem like he could care one way or the other.  It was strange to me that we could all believe slightly or very different things and be in the same world, the same town, the same car. 

        

The midget house was an abandoned dwelling on a narrow road off 40th Avenue.  It was in the woods behind a strip mall that was empty except for a prosthetic limb manufacturer that was closed on weekends.  The house was by itself with no neighboring structures, and it was easy to imagine the dwarf owner or owners, some years ago, deliberately isolating themselves in the woods to avoid attention.  The small front yard had gone back to nature, weeds having taken over the grass and vines running up all sides of the house. 
        

It was literally a miniature house, with everything half the size of a normal house.  The counters came up to my knees, cabinets and ceilings were low, and I had to duck to walk inside and through the kitchen where the linoleum on the floor was bubbled up and curling in the corners of the room.  In all parts of the house the floor was beginning to give, the wood softening, and there were plenty of signs of decay, enough that even some teenagers refused to walk inside.  The two bedrooms were empty other than random trash like fast food bags in the corners.  In the den area the ceiling was higher, and there was a short ladder leading up to a second floor loft that was more like a crawl space.  I never figured out what the loft was supposed to be.  There had been a miniature side table and TV stand in the den, but both had been burned in a bonfire behind the house during a New Year’s Eve party last year.  I had been here plenty of times before, but never at night.  There were plenty of ghost rumors, and we all wanted to believe them.   
        

The knob was broken off the front door.  We followed Nelson and Dominic ducking through the kitchen into the den.  All the windows were broken out but the house still smelled musty like rotting wood.  An evening breeze swept through the den, and there were people behind the house yelling and laughing.       
        

In the den there were two guys and a girl sitting on the floor smoking cigarettes.  It was dusk and there was just enough light for those of us inside the house to see.  The people said hey to Nelson and Dominic asked if there was beer.   There wasn’t.  Nelson and Dominic immediately joined a card game the people were playing.  Sean and I were not introduced to them, and the people on the floor didn’t seem to take any notice of us.  We walked around.
        

Something had happened since I’d been here last.  The ceiling below the loft was starting to cave in.  Somebody had probably gone up there to be funny and stomped around too much.  Or maybe they had sex and the weight of two teenager bodies was too much for the dying structure. 
        

We heard a sudden scream come from the backyard—a teenage boy’s sandpaper scream—the voice rising and cracking in fear.  The seated people dropped their cards and got up to look out the window.  Nelson immediately went for the back door; Sean and I followed, not yet aware what was happening.  Outside, in the backyard, next to a make-shift fire pit that was inactive on this pleasant spring night, a guy was kneeling down one knee and had what looked like a knife at another guy’s throat.  A group of people—ten or so—were standing around watching this like it was a play.  I knew the guys’ names.  The one with the knife was named Carl Gordon and the other one was Daniel Therry.  Daniel Therry had scoliosis and was an atheist.  I knew he had scoliosis because my mother was a nurse and had taken care of him in the hospital, and also he had slight curve of his upper spine that was only noticeable if you looked closely.  And I knew he was an atheist because he always told people.  His father, an Accounting professor at the local university, often wrote letters to the newspaper editor criticizing religion.  Being an atheist made Daniel different than everyone else and made him seem dangerous, which is what he wanted.
        

“I could kill you right now, cousin,” Carl Gordon said.
        

“Man, no.  Man.  Listen.  What happened?”  Daniel Therry’s voice was cracking again. 
        

Looking back, I know that Carl Gordon had no intention of cutting him.  He was making a statement about himself that had very little to do with Daniel Therry. 
        

“Get off him,” Dominic said. 
        

“Get the fuck off him, Carl,” Nelson said, trying to strengthen Dominic’s plea.  He tried to sound casual at the same time, but there was fear in his voice that he couldn’t hide.
        

When Carl finally brought the knife away from Daniel’s throat, someone in the crowd said, “You’re losing it, buddy.”  Carl stood up, still looking down like Daniel was a deer he had killed, making a scene out of it.  He folded the knife and put it in his pocket. 
        

In my life I have seen many things that have surprised me.  But what Sean did next may be the most unexpected event I have ever witnessed.  The moment after Carl put the knife in his pocket, Sean ran and jumped on him, wrapped his arm around Carl’s neck and started choking him like a pro wrestler.  Sean was not an aggressive person, but here he was attacking a guy four years older and twice his size.  I knew this attack was partly due to the movie we had seen and something about the older people present, the pressure to be a part of something.  For a moment, everyone seemed frozen in disbelief.  Carl fell down to his knees and very quickly unfastened Sean from his neck and dropped him on the ground and pummeled him.  Nelson and Dominic had jumped in and were trying to break them up.  Nelson got some licks in on Carl.  Daniel Therry had gotten up and was stumbling away.  It quickly turned into a scrum, and I couldn’t tell who was fighting who.  Dust rose from their feet and knees.  Sean stood up and then fell back down.  Then Nelson had Sean under his arms and pulled him away, pulled him all the way to the car with Sean screaming. 
        

Around the time of the fight, back at my house—for some reason I imagine it happened right at the moment when Carl took the knife away from Daniel Therry’s throat—an embolus from my dad's heart became large enough to block the flow of blood in his artery wall and he suffered a stroke.  He lay on the office floor, unresponsive, though his left eye remained open.  My mother discovered him and called an ambulance.  She tried to get some kind of response from Dad. 
 

Driving away from the midget house, Nelson told us the knife to the throat was because Daniel had kissed Carl’s girlfriend, but we later found out that Daniel had stolen Carl’s wallet at a baseball game a few months before, and that Carl had just found out about it. 
        

When I got home it was dark.  The house was empty, and there was no sign of my parents’ whereabouts.  It was not like them to leave in the evening, and certainly not without a note explaining where they were and a phone number to reach them.  I walked around the house, walked in each room, and called for them.  I imagined them gone forever, disappeared from the earth, and I felt terrified and free.  In my rational mind I knew they were not gone forever.  They had probably stepped out for a moment on some ordinary chore, and they would be back any second.  Still, I convinced myself they were gone.  After the midget house, my house felt so huge.  Every room was overwhelming.

I went into my parents’ bedroom where the light was off.  I went into the dark closet and sat on the carpeted floor.  In darkness I felt the silence that ruled so much of the universe.  In a weird way it felt like the silence was alive.
        

When my mother got home and told me what had happened to dad, I could not face it.  Even when I went to the hospital to see him—he had survived the stroke and was in stable condition, though he could not yet speak—I denied that his pain had anything to do with me.  These people were my parents, but what did that really mean?  They would be gone one day and I would be alone, so why wrap myself in the world of their decline?  I retreated to thoughts about the movie and about Jill.           

Monday at school Jill looked beautiful.  Her hair was shiny and she wore a blue jean jacket.  It was a bright, cool day outside, and our classroom was lit with cold fluorescent light.  The world wasn’t dark and rainy and ominous like in the movie. 

Still, it seemed possible that somehow, by chance, I might one day save her from something so bad she would be forced to love me.  For that to happen, I would have to save her from suffering and pain.  She would have to face terrible violence, like the woman in the movie.  Could a fantasy so dependent on pain and terror be born out of love? It didn’t seem right.  Yet there it was again, running through my mind.      

Everything was cold and clean.   I had done nothing to win Jill’s love and there were no magic birds.  She and I would never meet in the dark.