“The Esterlink” by Robert Sachs

Painting by Anna Rac.

On a frosty March morning, Leon Esterlink left his Louisville home, running with a slow, steady pace. “It’s made for running,” he said to himself, moving up Eastern Parkway to Cherokee Park. There he found a gentle, dry breeze and made friends with it. “Perfect,” he said. He did the hills with ease, past the golf course, the pond, and then out of the park toward downtown. He knew he was sweating, but the dry air wicked it away. “Symbiosis,” he shouted. A man in a bright yellow parka walking his dog turned around to look. A trumpet voluntary marched through Leon’s head. The music paced him and he was lost in its melody. He barely noticed crossing the Second Street Bridge into Indiana. Leon’s goal was Indianapolis. If he could keep his normal pace, he’d be there before midnight. A film crew accompanied him: three guys in a flatbed truck and two more in a helicopter. He did his best to ignore them.

During his years of isolation after his hair fell out, Leon had survived on daily patterns that kept him from thinking about the injustice of his disease, about relationships never made, loves never found. He was alone. “Like a tree next to a stream,” he said once to the woman who cleaned and shopped for him. “I can see it, I take nourishment from it, but I can’t dip my toe in it. I can’t go swimming.”

She had laughed. “A tree swimming,” she said, wiping clean the electric cook top. “A swimming tree.” The thought tickled her.

Before he took up running, this was his pattern: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday he’d get up at seven, make breakfast, read the paper, listen to the morning news. He’d spend an hour on the treadmill and two hours on records for his insurance business and talking on the phone to the home office. In the afternoon, he’d call clients and prospects. Most of his business was transacted over the phone and through the Internet. E-mail had been a boon to Leon. He used a courier service to get papers signed and to deliver policies. Evenings were spent back on the treadmill and reading. His favorite book was The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone 1932-1940.

He’d sleep later on Wednesday, Friday, and the weekend. He tried not to work on those days. He’d read, play the guitar, cook. And jog on the treadmill, where he had a good view of the street from his living room window. He’d spend weeks, sometime months, this way, seeing only the woman who cleaned and shopped for him. Even for her, he’d wear a cap and draw in eyebrows. She understood that he was doing this for her. If he noticed that she wore lipstick and nylons on the days she cleaned for him, he never let on.

Some years earlier, when Dr. Fannin confirmed it really was alopecia universalis, he told Leon, “It needn’t be a death sentence.”

No, not death. Life in solitary confinement, thought Leon as he left the office. Six months earlier the first clump of hair had come off in his hand. Now he saw himself as a hairless freak.

“There are treatments,” Dr. Fannin said. Leon tried them without success. “There are wigs. Nowadays you can’t tell them from real.” Sure. And finally, “There are support groups.”

Support this, Doc, he wanted to say. Leon, toting his empty follicles, walked home from the doctor’s office three weeks before his thirty-seventh birthday planning for a life alone. His three-bedroom brick bungalow, with its sharp roof lines and wide oak flooring, provided sanctuary.

He was headed now north into the heart of Indiana, red with the glow of oxygenation, shadowed by the flatbed truck and the helicopter. The music was gone, the cadence called by his beating heart. It was mile fifty and his breathing was steady, his gait strong. He smiled thinking about how worried Dr. Fannin had been just a few years earlier. “I know your lifestyle, Leon. You’re a time bomb ready to explode,” he said. He tapped Leon’s belly. “Look at that paunch. Triglycerides above 500. HDL very low. You’ll need to shed some weight. And you’ll need to get more exercise.”

Leon bought the treadmill and like everything else he did, applied himself assiduously to the task of losing the paunch and getting into shape. He incorporated the treadmill into his daily patterns. He watched what he was eating. The woman shopped accordingly. She also changed her diet and began exercising.

He was on his treadmill late on an April day when a congregation of runners passed in front of his living room window. Hundreds. It could have been thousands. Serious athletes, poseurs, men, women, old, young. Running, jogging. Some walked. Some were in costume!

“They’re going somewhere,” he said out loud, “and I’m stuck here treading water.”

“Treading water on the treadmill. Treading water. Getting nowhere.” This mantra of the moment kept the tempo as he beat out the miles. “Treading water, getting nowhere.” The next day, after dark, he put on his blue running pants with the double white stripe down the sides, his Centre College sweatshirt and a baseball cap, and ventured outside for the first time in weeks. His first run. The windless air sat heavy on his Highlands neighborhood as he started out. One block. Two blocks. A mile. Three miles. Enough.

He walked back to his house, sweating heavily and humming show tunes. He passed a well-manicured hedge and ran his hand across the top leaves. It tickled. He leaned into a lamppost stretching his calf muscles, first one, then the other. He slept until ten the following morning.

The cleaning and shopping woman noticed something different. “Chipper today,” she said putting a carton of eggs in the refrigerator.

He couldn’t wait until nightfall.

Leon’s run to Indianapolis was, for the most part, along Route 31. Through Sellersburg, Memphis, Henryville, and Underwood. Past the deep cornfields of Vienna, Austin, Crothersville, and Uniontown. Up past Reddington, Azalia, and on to Columbus. Mile seventy. He had just completed a repetition of The Esterlink and felt confident. It was The Runner that gave it a name and made Leon wealthy. His technique, it was claimed, enabled a runner to get past the wall, to continue running much farther than would otherwise be possible. It looked bizarre even to Leon. “Who’s crazy enough to do this shit in public?” he thought. “You’d look like a fool.”

People lined the road approaching Columbus. First only a few, but the closer he got to the city the larger the crowd became. “Go Leon,” some shouted. “Esther-Link, Esther-Link,” groups of teens chanted. It made him nervous. He was expected to wave and smile.

It had taken a month or so of nighttime running before he got up the nerve to run in daylight around Louisville. There was little in the way of encouraging chants then. “Mexican Hairless,” young toughs would taunt. “Freak,” they’d shout. He took to running on country roads where he would be less likely to be harangued. And it was there, among the rolling hills, the farmhouses and the occasional horse that he discovered the secret of long-distance running. Loping along early one June morning and out of boredom, more than anything else, he started to skip. Feeling playful, he began goose-stepping, like the leader of a marching band. He noticed, quite by accident, that he felt refreshed. He ran farther that morning than ever before. And he could have run farther still were it not for the fact that he was due back home to take a call from the head office.

Leon sensed he was on to something, and he began methodically experimenting with various movements. It took a few months of trial and error, but he was able to eliminate the extraneous and whittle down the possibilities to the basic moves we know now as The Esterlink. With this technique, Leon felt he could run a hundred miles or more.

He was aware that the sight of a tall, thin (for by now he was thin), hairless man running, goose stepping, leaping and waddling would not go unnoticed. In his first marathon, his hairlessness garnered some attention, but he was not yet ready to use his newly discovered technique. He finished, but not without having to stop and walk several times.

He entered the Chicago Marathon, lost in the blur of thirty-seven thousand other runners. At the sixteenth mile, when he felt he could run no farther, he unveiled The Esterlink. Other runners dodged his goose stepping, avoided his leaping and, too oxygen starved to laugh, smiled at his waddling. At the twentieth mile, it was picked up by the television cameras. By the time he reached the finish line, a coven of reporters was waiting for him. He feigned exhaustion and refused to answer questions. “Thanks. Thanks,” was all he said.

He developed a following. In subsequent races, the people lining the streets were cheering for the skinny, hairless man with the strange moves. Newspaper reporters and television crews followed in his wake. A sports physician appeared on 60 Minutes explaining that the Esterlink technique couldn’t possibly work to eliminate fatigue. Another went on Oprah convinced that the Esterlink was the greatest advance in running since pavement. Leon made the cover of The Runner magazine. Weekend runners practiced the Esterlink and entered marathons. The notoriety was torture for Leon. He wanted to be left alone, but he recognized the improbability of that.

Wherever he ran, the press barked at his heels. Fartlek Shoes approached him with a seven million-dollar offer. A three-year deal. He’d be required to run in at least three marathons a year and make two television commercials and a video. The rest of the time he was free to run as he saw fit, as long as he wore the Fartlek insignia on his singlet and the Fartlek Esterlink running shoes. “I can’t do it,” he said to the woman as she sorted through his mail and straightened the papers on his desk. “I don’t think I could stand the spotlight.

“No, she said, “it would be too difficult for you. Such a shame. The money would make you independent, of course. You could retire after the three years and do whatever you pleased.”

“You think I’m crazy,” he said, “turning down that kind of money.”          

“No. Not for a tree,” she smiled. He stopped the treadmill and turned to say something, but she had moved on to the kitchen and was running the disposal. Later that day, he called his attorney and instructed him to accept.

Fartlek’s Esterlink model became a best seller, in the first year rivaling the sales of Nike’s Air Jordan models. The shoe was designed to his specifications and each week, along with a large check, he received a new pair in the mail.

Leon refused in-person interviews with reporters, but he agreed to a telephone interview with a newspaper reporter who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“How do you react when you hear that youngsters are shaving off all the hair on their bodies so they can look more like you?” the reporter began.

“I’m flattered, of course. I’m sure it’s a fad that will fade away soon enough. It’s ironic. Here I’ve spent years hiding my hairlessness, staying indoors, skulking around in long coats and sunglasses, and all of a sudden teenagers, even some adults, are using depilatories and shaving their body hair just to look more like me. The mind boggles.”      

The reporter scribbled “humble” in his notebook. He got Leon to explain the development of the Esterlink movements. “I have to admit, I watched the video and began to laugh when you started with those steps. You have to be aware of how strange you look,” he said.

“I understand in the last Bay to Breakers there was a group of seven runners who did it in unison throughout the entire course. Now that must have looked goofy. Sure, I was scared and felt stupid the first time I did it in a race. But there was no other way I could have gone the distance. It’s easier now.”

“What’s next for Esterlink, Inc?” the reporter asked.

“You make it sound like I’m an industry. I’m just a runner, and not a particularly fast one. I didn’t seek out the notoriety or the money. Maybe it’s just my fifteen minutes of fame.” He was trying to sound the way he thought a sports star should sound. It was painful for him. “Look, I really have to go,” he said by way of ending the interview.

The reporter thanked him. “Clueless schmuck,” he wrote.

Running had become an obstacle course for Leon. Well-wishers, autograph hounds, reporters. Jimmy Fallon wanted him on his show. Louisville renamed a street after him. There was a rumor he had donated a million dollars to endow the yearly Mini-Marathon on the condition that the city change the name of the race to the Esterlink Mini. The more he denied it, the more people assumed it was true. Fancy women called him at night suggesting things that turned his ears red. He yearned for the solitude hairlessness had imposed. He’d learned to tolerate the stares and the ridicule accompanying his early daylight runs. Adulation proved more difficult.

“My life’s no longer my own,” he moaned to the woman who cleaned and shopped. “My agent is suggesting bodyguards now. Goons in cars to shoo away anyone approaching me. How am I supposed to live like that?”

“Less than three years,” she said softly, putting orange juice and soy milk in the refrigerator. She suggested he see someone.

“I don’t need help. I need to be left alone,” he shouted and went upstairs to his bedroom.

The throng of people waiting for him in Indianapolis was clapping and hooting as he entered the downtown area and circled the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. A young woman with long auburn hair broke through the police line and tried to grab his shorts. It was after eleven by the time he hopped in the cab of the flatbed truck and headed home, the helicopter leading the way.

Two months later, on a sunny Monday, Leon awoke at seven. He made breakfast and read the paper. He flipped on the radio and listened to the news. On the treadmill he looked out onto the street. Nothing out of the ordinary. People going about their business, children waiting for the school bus. He thought about the nastiness surrounding his break with Fartlek. “I did the video; I ran in two marathons. They can continue to use my name on their shoes. I want out,” he had told his lawyer.

The contract had two more years to run, but Leon was through. He wanted to keep the two million Fartlek had paid him so far and walk away. Fartlek sued for the return of most of the money. His lawyer convinced him to counter sue for a share of the profits from shoe and video sales. The litigation, his lawyer assured him, would last for years.

In the two months after the filming and his decision to abandon his obligations to Fartlek, Leon hadn’t left his home. Every day he received dozens of letters from people he didn’t know, wishing him well and hoping he’d return to running. Many explained how he had inspired them with his courage. Some contained pictures of hairless children with notes about how he had given them self-esteem. These touched him.

There was a letter from the reporter. He was writing a screenplay about Leon’s life and he’d like Leon to work with him on it. “One of the movie studios had shown some interest,” he wrote. Leon was offered $25,000 to speak at the annual meeting of the National Sporting Goods Association in Las Vegas.

His popularity continued to grow. This, in turn, had a positive impact on his insurance business. He had planned to give it up, but found himself busier than ever and with mounting legal fees to pay, he was thankful for the business. He added Wednesday as a work day. The woman who cleaned and shopped agreed to help him handle the extra business. She moved into his guest bedroom so she’d be available to streamline his work flow.

A year passed. He was sitting in the living room watching Stephen Colbert talk to a man from Madison, Wisconsin, who opened beer bottles with his bellybutton. The cleaning and shopping woman sat down beside him. “Any regrets, Leon?” she whispered.

He thought for a moment about the fame and fortune, the adulation, his contribution to the sport of running, the positive role model he had been to alopecia sufferers. He laid his head on her bosom. “None,” he said.




Robert Sachs’ work has appeared most recently in The Louisville Review, the Chicago Quarterly Review, and the Delmarva Review. He earned an M.F.A. in Writing from Spalding University in 2009. His story, “Vondelpark,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. Originally from Chicago, he currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky. He serves on the board of Louisville Literary Arts. Read more at www.roberthsachs.com.

“The Nursery Walls” by Brittany Franclemont

Painting by Anna Rac.

Catherine stood frozen, paintbrush held an inch from the canvas and dripping blue paint on the art studio’s wooden floor. She strained to focus, but all she could think of was the last time she painted and the morning that followed.

The memories of that night came to her in brief flashes – Aaron standing behind her as he guided her in finishing up a design on the nursery walls that he had started, pressing warm kisses against her neck in between forming perfect swirls of pale green paint spelling out the gender neutral baby name, Aaron stopping for a brief moment to rest his palm against her stomach to see if the baby was moving despite the doctor telling them a million times that it was too soon for that, Aaron spinning her around and kissing her over and over until she could no longer tell where one kiss ended and the next began, until she forgot where he ended and she began.

The following morning began with them sharing breakfast in bed. He rubbed her stomach, laughing when she complained about swelling up like a balloon, even though she was not that far along. Everything was fine until he mentioned wanting to tell his parents about the baby. She rejected the idea. No hesitation. It had little to do with the fact that she disliked them as people and more to do with the fact that Aaron still had nightmares about failing as a person – failing her – because of the mental abuse he had endured growing up. He had grown angry and pointed out that her parents were not flawless either. Even when he reminded her that his parents had apologized and were trying to do better, she stubbornly refused to let them have anything to do with their baby. He had turned away, grumbling something under his breath about how ridiculous she was being. In a moment of weakness, she’d sworn that the baby would never meet them if she could help it. Saying the morning ended on a sour note was putting it mildly.

She’d spent six months since that morning, wondering what would have happened if she had done something differently. If she had grabbed his arm before he walked out, stopped thinking about herself for once and just accepted they had their differences, could she have stopped it or would she have only been delaying the inevitable? There were no right answers.

She dragged herself out of her daze and stared at the puddle of paint at her feet. Even the good memories made her sad nowadays. She and Aaron would never again hold hands, never share a hug or a kiss, never get to hold their baby and coo over how perfect he or she was together. Everything that happened between them then no longer mattered and she reminded herself of that daily to distract herself from ever thinking about the future. She did not want to think about what she would do with herself now. What could she, a twenty-four-year-old unmarried and now widowed painter who never left the house do?

Catherine tore off a wad of paper towels and knelt, cleaning up the mess haphazardly. The white pine was now tinged a faint blue. What did it matter? She would be moving out in less than a week and the family moving in to fill her place had already gushed to her about redecorating the whole place. The happy couple – expecting parents, no less – even brought along paint samples and chosen which colors would go where. It stung, knowing everything that made the place hers and Aaron’s would be gone, but she tried not to put a damper on their excitement. She even went so far as to walk them out and wave a goodbye from the front porch. Then she went into the nursery and sat there, cheek pressed against the wall and eyes closed as if she could feel Aaron there.

No. She would not think about them again or envy them their happiness. Nothing good ever came out of feeling sorry for yourself just because other people’s lives were going well. She knew that much.

Brushing a tendril of wild hair out of her face and rising to her feet, she set the paintbrush and the paper towel on the easel. She needed something to distract her. Before she could talk herself out of it, she strode into her bedroom. The boxes were mostly empty in here. Although she had already packed up the rest of the house, she was not ready to face going through Aaron’s belongings, deciding what to keep and what to donate or throw away. She bit her lip as she glanced around, trying to decide where to start. It was too much, too soon. There was no way she could do this. Who was she kidding, trying to act like she was fine?

“Quit being a baby.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, Catherine, you can do this.”

She opened Aaron’s closet door. It had been practically forever since she had last been in there. During the move, they agreed that the separate closets were their own personal spaces. She stayed out of his and he stayed out of hers. As such, she knew he had hidden many birthday and anniversary presents for her there in the three years that they had lived there. Although she hated surprises, she had never broken her promise to stay out of there. It felt wrong to now. Even after six months had passed, it still felt like an invasion of privacy.

All his clothes hung there, freshly laundered. His favorite pair of shoes were kicked into the corner. Something caught her eye and she glanced up. Perched on the edge of the shelf, too high for her to reach, was a box. She pulled up a chair to get it down. It fit easily in the palm of her hand. Leaving the closet as it was, she walked over to sit on the bed and opened it. Out spilled a handful of petals and a slip of paper about the size of her thumb.

“Call this phone number,” she read aloud. “Ask for me.”

Catherine stared at the note. It was Aaron’s handwriting, but why would he leave a note like this to himself? She dialed the phone number before she could change her mind.

“Hello, you have reached Helen’s Handfuls of Happiness. This is Helen speaking. How may I help you today?”

“Well…” She hesitated. “I was calling about Aaron Johnson.”

There was a long pause. What if she was completely wrong about this? All she knew about Helen’s Handfuls of Happiness was that it was a florist about fifteen minutes away. How would Aaron react if he were here right now and knew that she dug through something that he obviously wanted to be private? What if this Helen thought she was completely insane for asking about something so vague? Her hands started shaking. Swallowing her pride, Catherine started to apologize and claim she had the wrong phone number.

“Oh!” Helen interrupted her frantic thoughts. “He told me you would be calling.”

“He did?”

“Of course he did!” She sounded horrified that Catherine would ever think otherwise. Before she could ask for more information, Helen beat her to the punch. “It was about nine months ago. He came in and bought a dozen red roses and asked me for a favor.”

“A favor.” She was at a loss for words, only able to repeat what she was being told at this point. “What was the favor?”

“He told me that he and his girlfriend were expecting and that he wanted to surprise her with something special before the baby was born. He asked me to wait until you called, so that I could give you the next clue.”

“What clue?”

“For the treasure hunt.”

“A treasure hunt?”

“Oh, no.” Helen sounded upset. “Did I ruin the surprise?”

“No, no!” Catherine hastened to reassure her. She could hear Helen rustling papers around on the other end, no doubt still wondering if she had spoiled everything. “What is the clue?”

“He said to go read your favorite quote from The Choice of the Solstice.”

“Thank you so much, Helen. You have been a big help.”

“No problem, honey.” There was a pause. “I sure do miss seeing Aaron around here. He came in to buy flowers every Friday. He was always telling me how much you loved surprises. I wish I could have made it to the funeral. My condolences.”

She drew in a shaky breath. “Thank you.”

“You take care of you and that baby now.”

It hit Catherine like a punch in the gut. She wheezed out a quick thank-you and hung up before she did or said something embarrassing she would regret. She dropped the phone on the bed.

Six months was an awfully long time to be without someone you loved. Forever was a hell of a lot longer. As far as she was concerned, she was as adjusted as she was going to get. Aaron had only been a year older than her. It was unfair and that made coping harder. She had been to see one of the grief counselors at the hospital where Aaron had been admitted after the car accident and a therapist that had been highly recommended to her. According to them, her grief had gone from healthy to concerning when she lost the baby a week later and fell into a deep depression. People told her over and over that it was common to have a miscarriage in the first trimester but it almost felt to her like she was losing all she had left of Aaron. A small part of her even thought that she deserved to feel this way – that she should feel guilty because she had wished so much for Aaron not to be gone that she stopped focusing on how grateful she should be that she still had the baby. Now that she was on antidepressants, she had been told her grief would naturally lessen with time. She was still waiting.

Enough of that. She went over to the nightstand on his side of the bed and dug through until she found The Choice of the Solstice. She and Aaron both read it so many times that the spine was broken and the pages were starting to fall out. As she thumbed through, his bookmark fell out and drifted soundlessly to the bedroom floor. A lump rose in her throat. It was something that seemed inconsequential but, in that moment, all she could think about was how he was never going to get to read it ever again.

It was this book that brought them together. She had been reading in a coffee shop one day when a shadow fell across the pages. When she glanced up, he was standing there with a bright smile and a battered copy of the same book clutched in his hands. She had never read it before. He later admitted that he never finished it before because he never wanted it to end. They finished it together.

 She turned the page and there it was. Her favorite quote had been underlined before so many times that she could run her finger along the page and feel the grooves the pen had left. Someone, presumably Aaron, had highlighted one specific part that read, “I chose you. I will never stop choosing you.” She blinked away tears. Scrawled out to the side was the next treasure hunt clue, which simply said, “Look inside my favorite pair of shoes.”

Catherine grabbed them from the closet. The last time she held these shoes was when she had given them to Aaron for his birthday years ago. He put them on once and immediately declared them the most comfortable shoes he had ever worn. Of course, she knew he would love them before he even wore them. Situating herself on the bed, she quickly glanced inside them. As far as she could tell, there was nothing there. She felt around inside them. Nothing. Her heart sank for a moment. As she started to pull her hand away, her fingertips brushed against something that crinkled. Her heart soared. She tilted the shoe towards the light and smiled when she saw the shred of paper taped to the top of the inside. She gently tugged it free and unfolded it. “This is the final clue. Turn on the black light in your art studio.” Again, it was Aaron’s handwriting.

She felt hesitant now, as if finishing the treasure hunt would mean the happiness she was feeling now – for the first time in a long time – would be gone again. Part of her knew she could not stop now when she was so close but the other part of her was screaming for her to stop. Catherine had no idea where this was going. For all she knew, it would only lead to more heartache. The worry that he had never gotten to finish setting up the treasure hunt began to set in. But she had to try.

Holding her breath, Catherine walked into the art studio where the blue paint from earlier was still drying on the floor. The black light hung on the wall in the corner. It had been a present from Aaron for Christmas one year. It was perfect for adding details that could only be seen under black light to already finished paintings. Aaron had joked that it was their little secret. Nervously, she flipped on the black light. The place lit up like the Fourth of July.

Catherine’s hand fluttered up to cover her mouth. The walls had been covered before, in quotes from The Choice of the Solstice, but now certain words had been painted over to stand out under the black light. She began to piece together the puzzle in her mind. The section Aaron had highlighted in the book flashed brightly at her from the wall now. As she spun around to take it all in, she noticed the floor glowing at her feet. She stepped aside to read it. Her heart stopped.

“Will you marry me?” she whispered, reading the words aloud to herself slowly as if they might disappear. Just underneath them was another line of text. “Turn around.”

Her eyes drifted closed. In that moment, she could almost imagine turning around and opening her eyes to see Aaron waiting there. He would be on one knee, smiling that smile that made her fall in love the first time they ever met. It would be everything she ever hoped for. She turned around and opened her eyes, blinking away her tears as she gazed at the empty doorway.

The life she and Aaron had had together was done and over with. She knew that and had known it for months. But, somehow, knowing what he had planned made the load on her shoulders feel a little lighter. She walked over to the canvas she had abandoned earlier. Catherine had stopped painting when Aaron died and she lost the baby. Painting had been the only thing that made her happy anymore and she was punishing herself. What had happened was no one’s fault. Whether or not she fought with Aaron that morning, nothing could have prevented the car accident and nothing could have prevented the miscarriage. She picked up the paintbrush. For a long moment, she stood there, teetering on the edge of something practically unknown to her after six long months. Then, she began to paint, streaking blue across the canvas.




Brittany Franclemont is currently pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing at Stephen F. Austin State University and has previously been published in The Piney Dark.

“Dead Man Walking” by Eli Landes


Photo Credit: TL Sherwood

It feels good to laugh again.

To close my eyes, throw my head back, and just . . . laugh. Peals bubbling up freely from my throat; body shaking with mirth. Nothing holding me back, nothing in the way. Just this moment.

I deserve it.

I’m sitting at a restaurant, a friend on either side. I’d tried to tell a joke but messed it up—got the punch line the wrong way around—but we laughed anyway, because we could, because life is free and why on earth not. As I open my eyes, a smile lingering on my lips, I feel the warm yellow light bathing my face; smell the delicious aromas wafting to me from the table.

I look up, and the dead man is staring back at me from the street.

I freeze, smile vanishing. This can’t be. It’s not possible. He’s dead.

I’d killed him myself.

He’s dressed well tonight; immaculate suit, expensive watch, polished shoes. He sees me looking and winks.

I look around, desperately, to see if anyone has noticed. No one has; the chatter continues on unabated.

When I turn back, he is gone.

~

By the time I reach my apartment, I’ve almost convinced myself I’d imagined him. I take off my suit, kick off my shoes, lay my watch on the dresser. I reach out, switch on the light . . .

“Miss me, kiddo?”

I pause, then slowly turn. He’s sitting on my bed, dressed now in just a white shirt and pants, his bare feet cross-legged underneath him. I shake my head wildly.

“No. No! You’re not here. You can’t be. I killed you.”

He spreads his hands wide, as if inviting me to look at him. “And yet, here I am.”

I don’t respond, defiantly—desperately—refusing to pay him attention. I lower myself onto the bed—he scoots over to make room—and close my eyes.

I just need to sleep.

His voice is the last thing I hear.

“Sweet dreams.”

~

I squeeze onto the subway car in the morning, cling to a pole for balance. I look around, distract myself with the latest ads. Out of the corner of my eye, movement catches my attention. I crane my neck to see.

The dead man is waving at me.

I wait until the doors are about to close, then jump out. I run to a different train, catch it just in time.

I sit down, wipe the sweat off my brow with a trembling hand.

The dead man next to me hands me a tissue from his briefcase.

~

At work, I run into the bathroom, turn on the faucet and splash my face with cold water. I look up at my face—pale and drawn, eyes bloodshot, hair in disarray.

This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening, this can’t be happening.

A toilet flushes behind me. The stall door opens and the dead man steps out.

He walks up to the mirror and adjusts his tie. “Don’t worry.” He smiles at me in the mirror. “We’re old friends. You’ll get used to me in no time.”

I shake my head frantically. “I don’t understand. I killed you. How can you be here? I killed you.”

“Please.” He slaps me on the back. “Haven’t you read the Bible?” He walks to the door. “You can’t kill sin.”

He strolls out.

~

Time loses meaning. It passes in a blur, me sitting by my desk, head in my hands, trying not to listen to him as he talks. I do things, meaningless tasks I forget the moment they’re done, and maybe I have a conversation with a coworker—I can’t quite remember—and I think my boss stopped by and told me something, and I think I smiled dutifully and nodded, and I think I even wrote it down, but maybe I’m wrong, because when I look down all I have written, over and over again, is help.

I look up and see that I’m at a bus stop. It’s night now, and I don’t remember walking here—I don’t really know where here is—all I know is that the dead man is sitting next to me and he’s still talking, still chattering endlessly in my ear, and I don’t want to fight anymore, I just want him to stop, I’d give anything to make him stop . . .

“How long?”

At first I think I imagined the words. Then I turn. A large African American is sitting next to me. I frown at him.

“Sorry?”

He gestures to my hand. I look down, see that I’m holding my keychain in my hand—funny, I don’t even remember taking it out my pocket—and I’m tracing my fingers over the metal tag, over and over again.

The tag with that date engraved in it.

The date I stopped.

“Ele . . .” My throat is weirdly dry. I have to cough, clear my throat before I can form the words. “Eleven months.”

He pulls out his own keychain and shows it to me. “Thirty two.”

Thirty two. Somehow, I can’t quite wrap my head around that. “It get any easier?”

He snorts a laugh, only it doesn’t sound very funny. “No.”

I don’t reply.

He turns to me. “You feel it, don’t you? The need, the itch? You were doing so well and then something triggered it—a smell, a sound, heck you probably don’t even know—and suddenly it’s all you can think about. Suddenly you’d do anything for one more time, just once more.”

I don’t say anything; I don’t need to. We both know

“And all the reasons you quit don’t matter anymore,” he continues, “Because you need it, need it like you’ve never needed nothing before, and it’s not fair, really, it’s not fair because you quit and you were supposed to stay quit, but it don’t work like that, does it?”

I swallow. “How . . . how do you make it go away?”

He shrugs. “Hell if I know. Ain’t got no tricks for you, kid. That itch—it’s gonna drive you crazy. Keep you up at night, won’t let you concentrate at work. It’ll go away, eventually, but it’ll come back. It’s like the tide—comes and goes, and when it comes it’s a tsunami.”

The dead man next to me waves at me, tries to get my attention, but for once, listening to this stranger’s words, I’m able to ignore him. “So what do you do?”

“You keep going, kid. You make it through a day. And when you do, you make it through the next day. It’s all we got.”

The bus arrives, and he stands. He wishes me good luck and boards.

I don’t follow.

I watch the bus drive away, then turn to the dead man. He’s arguing with me, telling me it won’t work, but I’m not really listening anymore.

I glance at the keychain once more, then put it away and stand. I start to walk, and the dead man comes to walk beside me but for once I don’t care, because it’s OK if he’s there.

He talks and he screams, and his voice echoes in my head and it’s agony, but I grit my teeth and smile anyway.

Because he hasn’t won yet.

 

 

Eli Landes is a marketing copywriter by day and a fiction writer whenever he can squeeze in the time. He writes about pretty much anything and everything, but everything he writes has a little bit of novelty to it; a little bit of different. For more—including unique, never-before-published short stories—follow him at his blog, regardingwriting.com.

 

“Crying in Italian” by Virginia Pye


Photo Credit: TL Sherwood

Sara’s new Italian sandals have heels she knows no sane American tourist would attempt on cobblestones. Yesterday the Roman shoe salesman assessed her calves with an unreconstructed male gaze culminating in a subsequent nod of approval—as if her legs had been put on this earth for his pleasure, which she knew was also wrong in every possible way and for which she now pays the price with a sore back and unsteady gait.

Had she even thought about her legs like that in months, perhaps years? The children grab at her skirt and shoulder bag as her husband hurries on ahead in the wake of the tour guide. Sara answers her own question: on a rocky path in the Roman Forum, an American woman jettisons her sensible shoes and doesn’t have a clue which way to turn.

Gelato,” her son Graham says, for the umpteenth time.

Gelato,” little Rachel repeats.

They buzz around her like the bees in the Villa Boghese that very morning. Rachel was stung, something so shocking to her that her eyes welled up with indignation more than pain. Sara longs for such shock, although like the sandals, she suspects that the aftermath would hardly be worth it.

Under the shadow of a cross that rises from the ruins, as if Christianity itself were a monumental afterthought, she saunters toward the tour group, drawn not so much by the sights as by the sweat beading routinely, handsomely, on the guide’s brown neck. At the back of the group, her husband Richard appears rapt, his whole being hung on the guide’s every stilted English phrase.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Sara whispers.

Richard wheels around, letting the crowd go ahead to the next sight without him. “What? Why? We have to keep up.”

“You go ahead.”

He looks perplexed yet sincere, as if seeing one more ancient pile of rubble will answer anything. Sara thinks he wants them to carry on by simply going forward.

“I’ll wait in the shade with the kids,” she says. “We’ll meet you outside the Colosseum.”

“Here, take some euros.”

“What for?” Sara gestures at the ancient olive trees, the dry landscape, the spiky weeds poking through stones unmoved for all time.

“Get the kids something from the snack carts,” Richard suggests and turns to them. “What do you think, guys, you want some limonata?” His accent hurts Sara’s ears, he’s trying so hard. She knows she is being uncharitable, but perhaps, she considers, that’s who she is now.

The children huddle, deciding if their longing for gelato can be satisfied by limonata instead. That’s the question, isn’t it? she thinks. Can one high, desperate longing be satisfied by something else instead?

Sara’s husband gives her coins from his jangling pockets. He is generous, always has been. It makes her wonder how they’ll resolve things. Amicably, she suspects.

Graham reaches his sweaty hand into hers for the money. Coins fall to the pebbled ground and Richard tells him to cool it and to pick up the change for his mother.

“All right, you guys,” he adds, “I’ll see you in forty-five minutes over at the entrance to the Colosseum. Help Mommy find me, all right?”

Then he looks at Sara and presses her purse against her hip, ever mindful of the notorious Roman pickpockets, although their family stands alone on the path. He lowers his voice and leans in closer. “You seem a little out of it today. I’ll take the kids later so you can nap. But stay alert now, OK? Don’t get lost.” His expression is as searching and mystified as when he gazed up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling earlier that day.

Sara nods slowly, noncommittally, the latent teenager in her unwilling to offer more. She knows she’s being a brat and wishes he would recognize it, too. Richard turns and scurries up the trail and the children and Sara watch him go. She tries to picture that this is how it will be from then on.

Over the past week, their family has stumbled into dark medieval churches looking for the finger bones and femurs of saints, the preserved bodies of bishops still in their robes, their wax faces surprisingly plump considering there’s nothing inside. The bodies are hollow, eviscerated, and yet people kneel before them and close their eyes.

Graham pulls on Sara’s purse and jolts her back to the moment. “Euros, Mom. We’re dying of thirst.”

For an eleven-year-old, he has the presence of someone much older, she thinks, packing all the punch his father lacks. Somehow Sara knows her son will be all right. And little Rachel will be too young to remember. She will try to recall her parents together from snapshots on trips like this one—the picture this morning in front of the fountain in the Villa Borghese. Their separation will mix in her mind with that first bee sting and the Mediterranean heat, all mysterious and conveying a pain that startles, but eventually envelopes, like humidity on the skin.

Graham takes the coins and grabs Rachel’s hand. They dash off up the path. At least they have each other, Sara thinks.

“Slow down,” she shouts after them. “I need to keep you in sight.”

“Don’t worry, Mom,” Graham shouts back over his shoulder.

“Yeah, Mom, don’t worry,” Rachel copies. Her voice rises and tangles in the olive branches where the sparrows twitter at midday.

As Sara meanders after them, she notices off to the side of the path a flight of ancient stone steps leading up an embankment to nowhere. At the top, a young Italian couple stands close together, their arms around one another. What a romantic sight, she thinks, the woman with sunlight in the folds of her summer dress. Sara pauses and gazes up at them, prepared to smile and sigh, then move on. The young man wears sleek black pants and Sara notices the way his browned forearms and smooth forehead glisten. The girl rises on her toes to reach him and Sara can understand why.

As they kiss, she notices how the young man’s hand curves over the young woman’s hip. It presses down her thigh and disappears into the fabric between her legs, the small purple, embroidered flowers on the white background crimped against his outstretched fingers. Her skirt will be wrinkled, Sara thinks, and quickly feels embarrassed that she is the only one who cares. Any initial thought that this was a tame embrace vanishes as the girl lets out a throaty laugh and squeezes the man’s shoulder in a claw-like grip. He does not smile and, what’s more important, does not remove his hand from between her legs.

Sara stays frozen on the path, enthralled. She glances down at her new sandals covered now in fine, ancient dust. Something about them on her is as outrageous as the kissing couple, she thinks, and lets out a surprising laugh, too. It’s far quieter than the girl’s, but every bit as guttural and real. Sara rubs the toe of a sandal against the back of her leg, warm from the sun and firm.

When she looks up again, the couple has moved away from the steps and crossed a ledge overlooking a deep archaeological pit. To arrive at their next stopping spot, Sara sees that they’ve slipped around a low rope barrier and entered an area where tourists aren’t allowed. She can’t help wondering what they think they’re doing there in a forbidden area with groups of tourists drifting by on the paths below.

Without thinking, Sara heads off the central path, too. She hurries up the stairs to keep the couple in sight. Each stone step is high and as she ascends, her skirt catches air and flares outward. With heat billowing around her, her thighs feel damp and shadowed and secret beneath the light fabric. When she reaches the top step, she realizes that she now is exposed, too, her purpose unclear. When she looks across at the couple she is glad to see they haven’t noticed her.

They stand, locked in an embrace at the edge of the cliff beside the pit. The man has bent his dark head into the woman’s neck and appears to be feasting there. The neck looks startlingly white against his black hair, and then Sara notices the actual lips and open mouth as he kisses the woman’s skin. The wetness of his tongue on her cool neck, Sara thinks. That’s all she thinks, because it is a thought unto itself: attention must be paid to that tongue and those lips and the press of his body against hers, his hand at the small of her back, pulling her towards him, her dress hiked up, the girl’s leg up now, too, and the pretty violets smashed.

Sara looks away and still can’t fathom what they think they’re doing, what she is doing. They can’t make love there on that cliff, can they? she wonders. Or do people do that in Italy, because it is Italy? Perhaps, like her new sandals, allowances are made for such things—sex and passion woven into everyday life. She finished reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet on the plane ride over and keeps catching herself searching for tangled, hidden passion everywhere she looks. In Rome, secrets lay as stacked and layered and porous as the crumbled walls of archaeological digs.

Early that morning, metal shutters clattered as the shop opened up downstairs. Voices like none Sara had ever heard before echoed off the alley walls, busting wide apart the day. Arguing voices asking only for some milk. If she shed tears, she knows they wouldn’t translate: any crying in Italian evaporates, unshed in the scorched air. Swallows swoop past now, disrupting thought and whatever is left of her former self.

When she looks up again, the couple is moving on. The man has the woman’s pale hand in his and he’s steering her further across the ledge. Sara spots a grove of olive trees in the near distance and imagines he will take her to that quiet spot, where the rocky ground appears to give way to soft grass. He will ease her to it and the girl will pull him down.

Sara can feel the young man’s hand, the force of it pressing against her thighs. He pushes her back, hair outstretched like a virgin’s on a sacrificial slab. Only nothing about the couple is virginal, and certainly nothing about Sara is, either, which is why she wants to step over the rope barrier, teeter across the precarious ledge, and join them in the partially hidden incline that has been used for this purpose since time immemorial. Only in her own country, in her own stark life, would someone hesitate, Sara thinks, as she hesitates. Yet here she would do it, she tells herself, surely she would.

Then she looks back and realizes she can’t see the main path that leads to the limonata carts or the plaza where Richard will be meeting them shortly. Sara can’t see the kids any longer. She scrambles along the rocky hillside, clomps hastily down the stacked steps, and hurries back onto the trail again. Her greatest fear in this moment is that Richard will have left the tour early and discovered the kids alone by the snack carts. Her absence, she thinks, will prove something undeniable about her. A recklessness and irresponsibility that show she is a bad mother. Richard has recently accused her of being untethered. He doesn’t know the half of it.

In the days before their trip, she lost the car keys three times, accidentally shut the cat in the garage overnight, and forgot to pick up Graham from soccer again. She left a flame on under an empty pot and kept the water going in Rachel’s bath until a grey cloud appeared on the dining room ceiling. Richard may never know the details, but he grasps the overall effect: she’s lost, perhaps dangerously so.

Sara slows on the path and tries to consider the truth. She has been leaving for some time now, so much so as to be already almost gone. It’s a wonder she’s here at all. But she is a mother and a mother needs to be present. She needs to watch over her kids who, she reminds herself with another jolt, are nowhere in sight. The thought of her imminent and justifiable punishment rises before her: he will get the kids if she doesn’t get her shit together.

Sara hurries up the trail and pushes through the turnstile that leads out of the Forum, glancing at the souvenir and snack carts that circle the cobblestones. And look, she thinks, there are her children, bent over their drinks, the long, serpentine straws curving into their mouths. As she approaches, she hears the happy slurping, the pull of the syrupy liquid to their young lips.

Then Sara realizes those aren’t the sounds at all: instead of satisfaction, the burbling noise she hears is crying. She dashes forward and crouches down in front of Rachel. Her daughter’s face is red from the sun, but her cheeks are dry and her expression seems far too old for her age. Sara turns quickly and sees the last thing she expects: Graham’s face streaked with tears. She grabs her son by the wrist, not meaning to frighten him, but he lets out a cry and drops his drink. Acid yellow liquid spills onto the cobblestones like urine.

“What’s wrong?” Sara asks. “Did a bee sting you, too?”

Graham’s narrow shoulders heave and he tosses himself against her. Sara rocks back on her heels and lands on her ass on the hard cobblestones.

“Graham,” she says, starting to scold him, but something in his shaking body stops her. Sara tries to peel her son off her chest so she can see him better, but he won’t let go.

“Rachel,” she says over his shoulder. “Tell Mommy what happened.”

Her daughter bows her head lower toward her drink and lets out an old lady’s worried sigh.

“Did you spend all the money your father gave you? Is that it? You can tell me. I won’t be angry with you.”

She rubs a hand over Graham’s hair and he flinches.

“Children,” Sara tries more seriously, “If you won’t tell me what’s going on, I’ll have to ask one of the grownups here.” She spreads her arm towards the milling strangers, not one bit sure her meager Italian could do the job.

Her son yanks himself away and he shakes his head hard and scowls.

“Oh, for God’s sake, darling, it can’t be all that bad,” Sara says, her voice harsher than intended. She knows she shouldn’t have wandered off, but really, can it be all that terrible?

Graham wipes his cheeks with his forearm and looks at her, pausing for what has to be dramatic effect. “You don’t know, Mom,” he finally says. “You’ll never know.”

Sara can’t help it, but she laughs. Not a lot, and not loud, but enough. She wants to tell her eleven-year-old that he can’t possibly understand the extent to which no one will know, no one will ever understand. The cruelty of her own laughter dawns on Sara a little too slowly and she stops abruptly. The children watch her, worried, perhaps even scared.

She suddenly feels exquisite sympathy for these small people, although in this moment it is hard to grasp that they are hers. Her son’s words, spoken so firmly, seem foreign to her. She simply doesn’t get their meaning. She wants to believe that they are spoken not to inflict pain, but are the pain itself. But even that motherly understanding, she thinks, is lost in this untranslatable moment.

Sara looks past the children. For an instant, the Colosseum recedes into the distance and the cobblestones that fan out around her rise into a wall that encircles her children. She senses they are disappearing down an ancient stone tunnel. She must reach for them before they are sucked away from her and into a rough-hewn quarry where the innocents are taken. It’s a crazy thought, she thinks. The heat is getting to her, dehydration and the pain in her back.

She looks over at the man who runs the limonata cart, hoping he can help return her children to her. She will buy more sugary drinks from him to set things right. Grey stubble shades his face and his eyes are hidden under a plaid cap. Sara sizes him up and wonders if he is the culprit who has harmed her son. Yes, he is the dangerous one. But then the old Italian man smiles down at a little girl who stands beside her mother, politely waiting for her drink. Sara notices the mother holds her daughter’s hand, and she thinks, that should have been me. I should have been that mother, thanking the lemon man.

So if the lemon man didn’t do it, Sara wonders, who did? A young Algerian in an NYU t-shirt leans against his souvenir truck, his head bent into his cell phone. Under the shade of an ancient tree, the ubiquitous matrons dressed in black shake their heads at some long-repeated tale. A blond, Northern European family sits wedged together on a bench, eating their sandwiches on dark bread.

Which one of these people stole my son’s change from his hand, Sara wonders, or tried to sell him something illicit, or yelled at him needlessly? Which one is a pervert or a pedophile, a nightmare come true? It must have been the lemon man, she thinks again. He is the bad guy. Although now he is whistling as he unloads bright lemons from a wooden box.

She decides she will interrogate him nonetheless in a language he doesn’t understand. She will shout at the old man in English and blame him and insist he explain why this country of fine wines and routine epiphanies has not moored her more successfully to her life. Give me back my son, my family, Sara will shout, when really it is herself she wants returned. That’s when her husband steps into her line of sight. He looks plain and well-intentioned, familiar and somehow right.

“That was fascinating,” he says, nodding over his shoulder at the Colosseum that has righted itself again and appears appropriately colossal.

He leans forward and offers a peck to the air near Sara’s cheek. Instinctively, and for no good reason, she leans toward him, too.

She looks down at Graham to try to understand what has happened between them while his father has been gone. Her son stares up at her with an adult expression, one that shows he has things under control now. He surreptitiously wipes away any sign of tears.

“Everything all right?” Richard asks, glancing at each of them. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Graham says firmly. “We’re good. Mom bought us lemonade. Mine spilled, but it’s no big deal.”

Graham offers a manly shrug. He is protecting her, Sara realizes. Something bad has happened and he is covering it up for her sake. Something has come between us, something terrible, Sara thinks. A flicker of understanding passes over her as she wonders if that something is her.

Richard looks to her for an explanation, but Sara is at a loss. She looks to Graham again, and after a long moment, she nods in agreement with him that they are fine. Graham and Sara have made a pact. In one brief moment, her son has become fully-grown and capable of deception, as well as sacrifice and love.

But, Sara reminds herself, I am his mother, not his accomplice. Now is the moment to speak up, to set things straight. The voices of strangers, the wings of birds flapping as they rise to the triumphal arch, the chatter of birds as they settle on the cross casting a shadow on the path, the guides explaining significant moments in history to the interested tourists, the calls of the street vendors: Sara must speak above it all. And yet she stalls. She’s still not sure what to say. She stands frozen and feels nothing until Graham steps forward and takes her hand.

“Let’s go, Mom,” he says. “Time to go.”

Sara looks down and wishes she could move forward, take a firm step in her new sandals.

“All right, then,” Richard says as he takes Rachel’s hand. “We’ve got just enough time to catch the next bus back to the hotel.”

“We’re coming,” Graham answers for his mother as he starts to pull them up the ancient stones.

“Richard,” Sara finally says. “Wait.”

Graham looks up at her, his face dark with adult betrayal. He tries again to pull her onward, to march them into the future he assumes is theirs.

Sara turns to her husband, opens her mouth, and begins.

 

 

Virginia Pye is the author of two award-winning novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust, and the short story collection, Shelf Life of Happiness. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in Literary HubThe New York TimesThe RumpusHuffington Post, The North American ReviewThe Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. She lived in Richmond, Virginia for many years and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Find her online at www.virginiapye.com, FB, Twitter, and Instagram.

“Crying in Italian” first appeared in the anthology Abundant Grace.

“Bubba” by Mary Hutchings Reed


Photo Credit: TL Sherwood

Bubba arrived at my cousin Joan’s country house with a dog-owner’s instruction book, a vocabulary list, and a handwritten note from his previous owner: “If Bubba is going to be in a threatening situation (like going to the vet, being around other dogs or going for a walk ☺), you should use the choke collar.” Joan tells me this as we sip gin-and-tonics on her sprawling patio. “Choke collar,” she scoffs at the smiling face. “The point is, Bubba is supposed to be my guard dog.”

At eight months, Bubba is “still a puppy,” guessed to be part Labrador, part Golden Retriever. He is broad-shouldered and the jumbled color of whole wheat flour. When I’d arrived, Bubba had nearly bowled me over on the gravel driveway, his paws the size of boxing gloves jabbing my stomach. He’d seemed friendly enough, but his throbbing tongue, branded by a round black bullseye, worried me. He was drooling buckets.

Joan thinks she needs Bubba because, although she lives in the city, last week her country place was burglarized during the day. “I can’t imagine how they had the nerve to steal a truckload of hay,” she says, rubbing a wedge of lime around the rim of her glass. When she came up last weekend, she’d noticed that about a hundred bales–the good stuff, from her second cutting–were missing from her horse barn. “How do you do it?” she asks me. “In broad daylight, do you just back up a flatbed and start pitching?”

Being a city girl myself, I have no idea.

With her closest neighbors a mile away in every direction, I understand why, despite the elaborate alarm system hooked up to the Barkeyville police station, Joan feels vulnerable. She’s five-foot-four and built like a fireplug, but she is forty-eight years old, has a standing appointment for her weekly manicure (Chick Pick Cherry), and is typically swathed in heavy gold jewelry, most of it from Tiffany’s. When one of Joan’s friends, who was moving to California, offered her Bubba, the businesswoman in her recognized the obvious advantages of “live” protection, equivalent, she said, to having a man around. Now, as Bubba pants beside Joan’s chaise lounge, he looks perfectly at home, not at all aware that he is destined to be “guard dog.” Indeed, it’s hard for me to imagine that the thwack! thwack! thwack! of Bubba’s ebullient tail will scare off any poachers.

“Isn’t he a little friendly to be a guard dog?” I ask tentatively. Joan is a hard-nosed, highly competent executive vice president of something vitally important at a major communications company, and I don’t often question her.

“He’ll learn,” she says. Joan believes that all problems are manageable, given the right tactics against the right strategies.

I’m surprised that Joan replaced Max, her thirteen-pound pedigreed schnauzer, so quickly. He died just five weeks ago. Joan got Max the day after her husband Tom, without any warning or hint of disharmony, moved out to live with a paralegal at his firm who was honey-haired and fresh from college at Florida State. That was a dozen years ago. Joan was so angry she hired the meanest divorce lawyer in the city and pushed Tom’s partnership lifestyle back to early-student. She busied herself with her career, bought a country home and was “done” with men, except for Max, whom she called her “little gentleman” and insisted was nearly human. She fed him macrobiotic diets, allergy pills wrapped in liver sausage, and seedless green grapes instead of doggie treats. She forgave Max his sweet tooth when he found a guest’s purse on the floor and managed to get it open and eat the lipsticks and breath mints inside, or when he found the smell of her new yellow Pappagallo pumps irresistible. She would never forgive Tom.

“I assume he’s trainable,” Joan says again, “although he’s not as smart as Max. Max had papers a mile long.” Joan introduces everyone by title: CEO, CFO, EVP, etc., and it was important to her that Max had a pedigree. I know she has a little trouble introducing me to her friends because I’m “only” a paralegal, and probably guilty by that shared association with Tom’s bimbo. Joan doesn’t intend a personal insult; to her you either have the pedigree or not, and she’d rather spend her time with those with better blood lines. Still, we’re cousins. Like her, I’m single, and I admire her success and her independence and how she doesn’t feel sorry for herself about losing Tom. Had it been me, I would’ve been an emotional cesspool, but Joan treated her divorce like a business proposition and got the most out of it.

~

I also love Joan because she can say out loud the most outrageous things, things the rest of us would be ashamed to admit, but she says them like facts, cold and analytic, without fear of what anyone might think of her. I am reminded of one time in the city when Joan and I were walking Max. We passed by a middle-aged woman who sat on the sidewalk next to a filthy beige plastic pet carrier. The woman wore a blue jean skirt with a frayed hem and heavy, once-white athletic socks. Her maroon sweatshirt was grimy and bulky in the wrong places, as if both her possessions and her pets were burrowed beneath it.

“Feeeeed my caaat! Feeeeed my caaat!” The woman’s drawn-out plea was nasal, as cutting as a bleating goat. She spread the words too thinly to be easily understood, but the sound conveyed insatiable need, a well too deep to be filled. With one hand, she stroked a bit of gray fur curled in her lap. With the other, she rattled a paper cup from Burger King.

“Oh, please!” Joan muttered. “Eat the cat!” As if I weren’t there, she added a management-style bone, “Then, we’ll talk.” She yanked Max away.

“Joan!” I started to open my purse. “The poor woman is begging for her pet!”

“Don’t,” Joan said. She ticked off her business analysis of the woman’s situation. “One, she can’t afford a pet. Two, she can’t afford herself. Three, she should go to a homeless shelter, take her meds, and stop pestering people in my neighborhood.”

I bugged out my eyes to let her know I thought she was being harsh, but I closed my purse.

Joan kept walking, then brightened. “I have to admit it’s a pretty decent marketing hook. Who can resist a pet?”

We just had, but I didn’t say anything. Joan bent down and picked up Max.

~

I’m telling Joan about my latest document production for a big-name client when she jumps from her chaise and charges across the patio.

“No!” she commands, her tone checked, controlled, as if inviting a reasoned discussion with a gunman.

Paws on the glass-topped patio table, Bubba is eagerly inspecting Joan’s signature deviled eggs, each nestled in its own molded oval around the perimeter of a blue-and-white ceramic platter with a center inscription, “Joan’s Little Devils.”

“No!” Joan says again.

Bubba ignores her.

“Down!” she shouts, no longer solicitous.

Bubba doesn’t seem to understand; his snout stretches towards the platter.

“Off! Off!” she shouts. Bubba replants his front feet, flush against Joan’s stomach. She cups his paws and drops them back down on the patio. “Good boy,” she says, patting the top of his head.

“Right on target,” she mutters to herself, then turns to me. “‘Off ‘ is one of his words,” she says. Bubba sits by the table expectantly while she goes inside and brings me the instruction booklet, “Your New Best Friend.”

I read out loud, “Dogs are like people…” Bubba lifts one paw to the table and cocks his head towards Joan, his tongue snapping like a lizard’s.

“Max was never like this,” Joan says. “Max knew not to beg. I absolutely cannot bear that. No!” She slaps Bubba’s rump. “Off!”

With an almost-human toss of his snout, as if one thing’s as good as another, Bubba zig-zags across the yard, following the cologne of an unseen critter.

“That’s right,” I venture, knowing that I am on thin ice. “Max just went to the kitchen and took what he wanted!”

Before she can chastise me for criticizing Max, I ask, “Remember the rum cake?”

~

The Easter before Max died, Joan had hosted our entire family at her country house. My mother had brought her famous rum cake, a dense yellow cake with half a cup of Bacardi Dark baked in, and saturated with an additional half-cup through toothpick holes in the top. My mother usually loses patience with the procedure after filling half of the holes, and she then picks up the bottle and douses the other half. Just before serving, she seems to fear that the rum may have evaporated, and douses each slice again.

Twelve of the Strong relatives were seated in Joan’s great room, a combined living and diving room, for a late afternoon Easter dinner. After the meal, my mother insisted on clearing the table, since Joan and I had cooked. It took a little longer than usual for her to deliver her first load to the kitchen. When she returned, she took my plate and furtively lifted her eyebrow. She continued to clear the table, including the butter dishes, the salt and pepper shakers and every last thing not necessary for the dessert course, and then asked if anyone wanted coffee. She took a fair amount of time asking each of us individually, rather than just taking our family’s usual show of hands. I knew something was bothering her.

Hoping to prod her into serving it, I asked, “How’d the rum cake come out?”

She looked at me as if I’d committed some etiquette felony punishable by a year of hard, potato-peeling labor. Then, she put on a little girl face, pulled her lip down with her index finger and said to Joan, with the inflection of a question, “I think maybe Max got into it?”

Joan jumped from her chair. “MAX!!!” she shrieked, bumping against the table and toppling two water glasses.

She flew to the kitchen, and the rest of us, like a team of tornado-chasers, rushed after her. Nose down, Max shuffled past us.

“MAAAX!!!” Joan stomped back out of the kitchen and into the great room. She still clung to her linen napkin, smeared with cranberry, rose lipstick and a dot of brown gravy.

Max took a step towards his box of playthings by the fireplace before he apparently understood Joan’s tone, and stopped dead in his tracks, eyeing the stairs. He looked as if he wanted to bolt up them two at a time, but he was visibly bloated now and could hardly move.

In the kitchen, we saw the offense. There, on the pine table, in the center of a glass plate, surrounded by sugared walnuts, was my mother’s rum cake, gouged like a gravel pit. At least a quarter of the cake was missing.

“Oh, God, Max,” Joan yelped. Max plopped over, legs akimbo, his eyes like onyx, yellow crumbs stuck in his old man’s whiskers, begging her to rub his belly.

“You’re a dog! You’re not supposed to like alcohol! You shouldn’t get drunk!” Joan moaned.

“You’ve always said he was human!” I said cheerfully, but my mother shot me a glance that said I should know better than to choose that moment to mention Joan’s drinking. Luckily, Joan had been too concerned with Max to notice my jibe.

 ~   

Thwack!

We are laughing about the excavated rum cake, and I idly toss one of Max’s weathered tennis balls into the yard. Bubba races after it, hurdling some daylilies in his way. The lilies rebound, but, once more, Joan is disproportionately incensed. She charges after Bubba, screaming “NO!!!” Bubba pauses, momentarily confused, and trots to her, his tail thrashing.

“You’re going to have to learn to be an outside dog,” she mews, almost as if she is talking to Max. It is hard to tell if it is my story or the gin that has first angered her, then softened her up.

“I’m not sure this is going to work,” she says, scratching Bubba’s ear. “It may be too soon.” She takes a deliberate gulp of her gin. “Need another?” she says to me.

I decline, but she goes into the kitchen and returns with a tumbler—her third. It’s not polite to count, but I know from past experience that, after three, she gets a little sloppy and then sleepy. Occasionally she forgets to serve dinner.

Joan sighs and this time looks at me. “It may be too soon.”

I hold my breath. Joan doesn’t often admit mistakes.

“The vet said he could’ve had surgery, and then chemo and maybe radiation, and that he would be in there for like six weeks. But Max was old. I’d had him longer than I’d had Tom, the jerk.” She pauses to take a drink, and wipes her eyes. “Max wouldn’t leave me. He was more loyal than most humans!”

I study the daylilies. Joan has never cried in my presence. Now, there is a gash in her voice that I realize must have been welded silent when Tom left. Had she really thought a dog would replace a husband? That if she had Max she wouldn’t mourn Tom? She’d been angry, to be sure, but she’d never admitted to me that she was hurt.

“What could I do?” she asks. “I couldn’t put him through all that.”

“He was your friend,” I say.

Joan straightens in her chair, forcing her voice to the analytic. “It would have cost more for him than for a human being,” she continues.

The calculation is a dead give-away. Her decision was not just a business decision, the prerogative and burden of senior management, but an elective of love.

“So I drove up there, and the vet said he could do it then. I held his little body, and I don’t know if he even knew me, and the vet gave him a shot and that was it.” In a single slurp, she finishes her gin. She puts a hand on the chaise and steadies herself as she stands up.

“Don’t!” I say, surprised how much I sound like her.

She halts, as rigid as a pillar of ice, and glares at me inscrutably, like someone in a coma.

In the heavy silence, my heart throbs dangerously, and I hear, in the distance, country life: a crow cawing, a horse whinnying, a dog barking. It’s not my place to judge Joan’s drinking, but she is my cousin, and now I’ve heard her pain, and I can’t stay silent while she kills herself as surely as the shot that sent Max to sleep.

“Don’t what,” she says flatly. It’s a tone that dares a junior executive to contradict the senior.

“Sit down a minute, and then we’ll eat,” I say.

“I’ll have another drink first,” she says, victorious.

“You drink too much,” I blurt. I am shocked at my boldness. Joan is looking at me like she doesn’t know me. I soften my voice, “It’s not a cure.”

Slowly, her spine releases, her shoulders relax, and her face melts. She opens her dark eyes wide, and blinks to clear her tears.

Thwack! Bubba announces his return to the patio with a slap of his tail at Joan’s knees, and she sits back down. With impeccable timing, Bubba rests his chin on her lap. She hands me her empty glass and waves it away, done for the day.

She looks at Bubba and shakes her head. “It’s not your fault, Bubba. It may be it’s just too soon.”

~

A week later, Joan and I meet in the city for lunch. She isn’t certain yet that Bubba is going to work out. He still doesn’t know all the words on his vocabulary list, but he is learning. She thinks he may be a little too friendly to be a good guard dog. She can’t say why, but he’s growing on her.

Joan doesn’t finish her glass of wine, but we leave the restaurant. It is a bright August day, and the city’s pace is leisurely, pedestrians waiting for “walk” signs just to delay by a few precious moments the return to work. We are at the corner when we hear a stabbing voice.

“Feeeed my coat! Feeed my caaat!”

We turn around. The woman from Joan’s neighborhood squats against the brown mustard brick of the Save-More drugstore, the cat in her lap. In front of the pet carrier, the food bowl is empty.

“Jeez,” Joan mutters, then strides over to the woman.

“Oh, Joan,” I groan, panicked at the scene she might cause. She ignores me, and I look away deliberately, as if I’m considering whether to turn left to Nordstrom’s or right to Macy’s. I hear the woman rattle her coins.

“Thaaaaank you,” the nasal voice says, and I look back in time to see Joan’s outstretched hand over the cat lady’s paper cup.

Joan joins me at the curb, her shoulders thrown back in a business-like stance. There is a moment of silence between us when I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to make her feel self-conscious or incur her wrath. But then I figure there must’ve been a good reason for Joan’s change of heart. Thinking to tease her, I ask, “The marketing hook worked?”

Without looking at me, Joan touches the corner of her eye and says, “Doesn’t mean she doesn’t love him.”

 

 

Mary Hutchings Reed is the author of four indie literary mainstream novels: One for the ArkWarming Up,Saluting the Sun, and Courting Kathleen Hannigan, which foretells the #MeToo movement as it chronicles the challenges facing a young woman lawyer “growing up” in a prestigious Chicago law firm. Mary practiced intellectual property law in Chicago for many years and her short fiction has appeared in The Florida Review, The Tampa Review, Ars Medica and the Ligourian. Read more about her work at www.maryhutchingsreed.com

 

“How to Murder Your Monster and Get Away with It” by Nick Gregorio


“Fractured Glyph” by Kathy O’Meara

Your monster leaves green, wiry fur everywhere. He slops greasy white drool onto the furniture when he eats. His horns have splintered the door jambs and frames in nearly every room in the house. He never wipes his hooves before coming inside. He’s got a wet dog smell when he’s dry. A dead dog smell when he’s wet. He never cleans up after himself. Cigarette butts. Beer bottles. Take out containers. Condom wrappers. All over the place. All the time. He steals cash right out of your wallet too.

And every time you’ve tried to murder him he’s never, ever died. Not even once. Not even for a second.

But you keep trying.

You keep trying because if he’s still mucking around, you’re still making excuses. For the late nights. The inability to commit. The endless string of angry friends—former friends. For everything.

You cook up a beautiful breakfast of eggs and toast and waffles and bacon and sausage. You pepper it all with arsenic.

Your monster, he doesn’t bother to thank you—because, of course he doesn’t—before he starts throwing clumps of food into his face.

But you don’t care.

Not about the bits of egg that end up on the wall behind him. Not about the slurping, sucking sounds he makes while he chews. And not about the scratches he leaves in your good plates and custom, authentic Amish-crafted table, grabbing for more. (You bought that thing to show your mother, your father, your friends that you can take care of nice things. And now it’s wrecked.)

So you laugh when he keels over, shatters a plate with his face.

The impact jingles the unused utensils. Spills juice and coffee over the rims of glasses and mugs.

His face in a bed of shattered ceramic, you’re a cackling fiend. Your stomach muscles ache, you can’t catch your breath, your eyes are all runny. A rope of slobber runs from your bottom lip to your tie.

All because now, starting today, you’ll be taken seriously.

At work, you’re a new man. Everyone sees it. Your boss. Lola from accounting. Your marketing team.

You’ve hit reset. You’ve got a chance to begin again. Like the song you used to sing as a kid—the one about the pathetic old Irish man.

Lola says, “You look happy today.”

“Michael Finnegan begin again,” you say. “What would you say to drinks? Monsterless. Just you and me?”

But, of course, your monster calls the office just after lunch to tell you how delicious breakfast was. To ask what you did differently.

A Google search later you find out that arsenic acts as a strong sedative for monsters. That it adds volume and body to their fur on top of the very deep, euphoric sleep it induces.

You cancel on Lola before you leave for the night.

~

The next time you give it a go, you get your monster good and drunk at the bar you two used to close-up almost nightly. Now just semi-nightly.

You act like he’s your best buddy.

It’s easy because he used to be.

You buy him beers, shots, mixed drinks. More beers, more shots, and even more shots. And you, you’re faking sloppy while matching drink for drink. With a little help from the bartender, the beers are Becks NA in pint glasses. The white liquor is water. The brown liquor is…okay, it’s brown liquor. But you don’t blame yourself for that. You’ll need the guts to do what needs to get done.

Your monster, he’s cutting it up with other’s people’s monsters—the ones who have it together. The ones with their fur trimmed, and their horns polished, and their tusks or teeth all pearly white. Sure, they’re playing pool and swearing and smoking and talking bawdy about the purple-furred, fanged waitress’s scaly, sparkly tail…but most certainly they’ll go home with their humans to get enough sleep so that they’ll be ready for work bright and early.

The guys sitting at the bar with you, they’re adults. They’ve tamed their monsters. Landed good jobs. Bought houses. And only get drunk and rowdy when their schedule permits.

Buy you, you’ve had enough of all of it. Enough for two monsters, really. And despite your monster refusing to cut it out with the drinking, the smoking, the everything, you’re doing everything you can to separate yourself from that.

You talk to the bartender politely—because that’s what you do now. Ask her what she does outside of this place, what her hobbies are, where she’s from. You’re friendly with the waitress-monster, who, like most, grew up properly alongside her human counterpart.

But that’s when your monster loses everything he drank all over the pool table.

“He’s yours, right?” the bartender says.

You smile, say, “Yeah. But our priorities are different these days.”

You manage to get him into your car, buckle him in.

Then you remember the plan and unbuckle the belt as if it had buckled itself without your permission.

It’s dark. Dark-dark. No stars-dark. Just the halos from your headlamps crammed into yellow binoculars on the road. A streetlamp once or twice. Headlights every now and then. A police cruiser tucked behind some bushes here or there.

Before, this stretch of road at this time of night was just about the loneliest you could get.

Tonight—your monster snoring and slobbering all over himself in the passenger seat—you could scare children to tears with the grin stretching your face achy.

The bolt cutters bite through the chain at the quarry entrance with almost no effort. Maybe it’s the adrenaline. Maybe the light weight lifting is paying off. Maybe it was a bad chain because what kind of lunatic breaks into a quarry in the middle of the night?
Headlights off, the gravel’s a whispering rumble under the tires.

Your monster doesn’t stir, move, adjust. Doesn’t make a sound. Not a grunt. Not a deep, wet, drunken burp. Nothing.

But a hundred or so feet from the hole, you’re giggling.

The football helmet from high school smells too much like the past you hated while you lived it for no other reason than you were young and stupid and lonely. But it’s nice now. Like the prom you shouldn’t have drank through. The graduation you should’ve paid attention to. The couple of friends you should’ve kept in touch with.

One more big old whiff of sweat and dry rot, and you slam your foot onto the gas pedal, throw the car into drive, and take off toward the drop edge of nothing.

Just before the car sails into the black, you open the door and dive into the gravel. The momentum drags you through the dirt. Eats at your knees, hands, elbows, chest. But you don’t care. There’s plenty of time left to stop yourself before you roll over the edge.
Now that he’s gone.

The Uber ride home is silent. Every now and again you hum about the Irish guy in that kiddie song. Every so often your brain replays the sound of the car hitting the bottom of the pit. And every time crumpling metal smashing against stone fires through your head, you add to a list of ways your life is about to improve.

Promotion: Possible.

Lose thirty pounds of fat, gain fifteen of muscle: In-Progress.

Lola falling in love with you: Be your new self and make it happen.

At home, in bed, sleep doesn’t come easy because of the wonderful potential future ahead. But you drift off. Nice and slow, you drift away to be replaced by a brand new you in the morning.

~

Your monster calls from the police station first thing.

You have to burn some PTO to pick him up. Have to empty out your savings for bail.
At the station, your dinged up, bandaged, bruised monster acts all sheepish behind bars. He smiles, waves.

“He’s yours, right?” an officer says.

You say nothing. Nod.

Once he’s let out of his cell, you throw your arms around your monster, hug him tight. Then you say thank god, that you were worried sick, that you wouldn’t know what you’d do without him.

The cop says your monster was lucky. But not lucky enough to walk away from an accident like that without any consequences. There will be a hearing. Probably required community service. Restitution. Maybe thirty days in jail depending on how the lenient the judge is with first-time monster offenders.

You’re also told you need to be more responsible. “He is yours after all. Lead by example.”

You hug your monster again, a bit tighter this time.

Face in his reeking green fur, you listen for a pained grunt or a slight crackle of bone. But he doesn’t make a sound.

~

It’s weeks before you even begin to think about trying again.

Longer until you wonder if you’re the one who has to get murdered in order to get rid of your monster. But dying wouldn’t work at all. That productive-member-of-society status you want so badly wouldn’t apply to you. Lola from accounting would forget all about you, start talking to Dan from marketing, or Brian from the leadership team, or Ken from HR before too long. And your debt would get shunted back onto your sad, disappointed parents.

But when your monster falls asleep on the couch after talking about how wild that purple-furred, fanged waitress is, you turn all the gas burners on in the kitchen.
While gas stink fills the house, you’re on your computer.

You google, are monsters flame retardant? How many monsters died in fires in the last ten years? Does monster fur gain a new lustrous color after being burned?

You google, will Lola forgive you for canceling on her so many times if personal tragedy strikes? How much time off will you get for being caught in a catastrophe? Is a person whole if their monster dies?

You’re lightheaded when you reach for the scented candle on the coffee table. The scented candle you bought when your friends started putting scented candles on display in their lovely, well-maintained homes.

You pull the lighter that’s tucked between cigarettes in your monster’s pack of smokes. And when you flick the flame on, light the wick, you spring off the couch toward the door.

The explosion throws you through the screen door, down the porch steps, and spills you onto the little patch of lawn the landlord mows.

Aching, burned, bleeding, you laugh and laugh. You spit blood and laugh and laugh. And you have to force yourself to stop when the fire trucks and cops and ambulances show up, turn the neighborhood into a rave with their lights.

You answer all their questions lying on a stretcher.

“My monster was in there.”

“I smelled gas right before it happened.”

“I lit a candle. Is this my fault?”

The looks you get. Halfway between pity and scorn.

The same looks you’ve been getting since you and your monster never stopped yourselves from acting like you acted in high school. And college. And young-professionaldom. And middle-agedness. A boy and his monster, all grown up never having grown the fuck up.

“I’m alive now,” you say. “I’m alive.”

One of the paramedics, she turns to you, sort of smiles. “You’re very lucky.”

You laugh again.

That song floods your brain. The one about the Irish guy who never did anything right but always got second chances. The one you sang when you were a kid. Before you and your monster turned yourselves into beasts together.

Through your mangled, bloody smile, you say, “Luck had nothing to do with it. Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin again.”

Then you start to sing. “Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin again.”

Just before the EMTs shut the ambulance doors, someone outside says something like wait, wait, look. Something that sounds a lot like they’ve found something under whatever’s left of your apartment.

That something’s alive under there.

So you sing all the way to the hospital. You sing because you’re going to get another shot. Whatever it is, you’ll get another go at it.

Again and again.

Until it’s right.

 

 

Nick Gregorio lives, writes, and teaches just outside of Philadelphia. His fiction has appeared in Crack the Spine, Hypertrophic Literary, Third Point Press and many more. He earned his MFA from Arcadia University in May 2015. His debut novel, Good Grief, is available now from Maudlin House.

 

“Houses and Homes” by Christiana Dillard


“Witnesses” by Kathy O’Meara

A cloudy week can beat four sunny ones black and blue. Following a solid August for Vi, five miserable days in September fuck her up.

On Monday and Tuesday, she wakes with crust coating her eyelids and a phlegmy cough.

She breaks two plates in the restaurant kitchen after hours on Wednesday (Ronnie almost slips on the mess while preparing grape leaves, but he cleans it after she sinks to the floor, crying).

On Thursday, she receives a call from her father, ignores it, and smokes two more joints than usual.

She pulls a muscle in her arm on Friday morning carrying a heavy load of groceries up the stairs.

But salvation arrives in the form of a phone call from Ronnie on Friday night. Her left arm dangles off the edge of her bed, aching fingertips stretched to the floor. He invites her to help him with his grandma’s party the next day. The forecast predicts clear skies.

“You been trippin’ the past few days, Vi. Come eat with us.”

“Will she have salad?”

“Yeah. And watermelon, grilled chicken, potato salad. Other good things. You need some real food; you been on that depression diet forever.” He sounds sober and sincere, so she accepts.

In the morning, her arm surprisingly supple, Vi opens her door when Ronnie knocks. She closes it behind her before he can step in.

“For real? I got like three joints rolled up,” he says. “And we haven’t smoked all week.”

“Speak for yourself. I have.” He frowns, but she continues. “And no, Ronnie. We’re going over your grandma’s.” He sighs and lags behind her.

 

In his sedan, they head to the suburbs on the edge of town. Dense foliage borders the roadway. Sunlight splinters through the leaves. A hawk circles overhead. The sky is very blue. Vi rolls down the window and sticks out her head. The roadway smells of raw musk. Ronnie taps his fingers against the steering wheel to a rap song, shooting her quick glances.

“You got some pollen on your cheek,” he says at a stop sign. He reaches to brush it off, but she tenses up.

“I got it,” she says.

They pull into his grandma’s cobblestone driveway and hop out the sedan. Ronnie snaps his fingers. “Remind me to fill up when we leave. There’s a station around the corner.”

“Need gas money?”

“Nah. Don’t start with me. I just wanted you to be alright today. Alright?” He bops her lightly under the chin and smirks. They walk up the pathway and his knuckles rap against the door.

Faint little creaks, a twitchy knob, then the sudden slap of air conditioning. A brown lady with soft wrinkles stands smiling in the passageway, wearing a loose top and matching pants with house shoes. Her fingernails are painted ivory. She eyes Vi.

“Well, you’re pretty.” She hugs them both with fleshy arms. “Come in, babies.”

The home is crowded with houseplants: hanging, sitting. Blooming and breathing. As they pass through the living room, a loud pink hibiscus petal falls from its bud. Vi bends to pick it up, sticking it in her pocket.

“Stop stealing,” Ronnie teases with a whisper. Vi rolls her eyes, but gives him a little grin. He smiles in return. Ronnie’s grandma scoots ahead, leading them to the kitchen.

“I’m Ms. Shirley. Now,” the kitchen smells of the labor of love, “you must be Violet.”

“Yes ma’am. But I go by Vi.”

“Last name, Vi?”

“Greene.”

“Very interesting.” Ms. Shirley points down the hall. “I keep violets in the spare room. Violets and lavender. I learned about color theory in one of my evening classes at the library.” She chuckles. “And they go with the theme. I think I’m doing pretty good.”

Ronnie gets a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Doing well.”

“Boy, shut up!” Ms. Shirley laughs. “One thing you can count on from me, Vi,” Ms. Shirley says, strolling behind the kitchen island, “I don’t cut this young man any slack. No overbearing grandmotherly love here.” She eyes them both, eyes darting back and forth, and grins. “Don’t let him mess with you.”

“Oh believe me, Ma’am. I don’t.”

“Yeah,” Ronnie mumbles. “Vi doesn’t let me do anything.”

 

As promised, there’s a large bowl of watermelon topped with sprigs of mint sitting on the granite island. Ms. Shirley turns to the cabinets and pulls out small dishes. She scoops the fruit onto the plates and passes them to Vi and Ronnie.

“There’s macaroni in the oven; potato salad, an actual salad, and marinated chicken in the fridge; and red beans and rice on the stove. A sweet potato pie’s on the way.” Ms. Shirley smacks her lips together after crunching into a chunk of melon. “Ronnie told me you all work together, so I know you know he cooks, too. But I just didn’t care to have the help today. Though, if you all could do these dishes, I’d appreciate it.” She gestures to the crowded sink, where pots and pans are stacked in a balancing act.

“Of course.” Vi pops a watermelon cube in her mouth and strolls to the sink. She begins placing the kitchenware on the counter. Ronnie leans in and squeezes her shoulder. She jumps.

“Woah, my bad. It’s me, friend; you’re in good hands.” She turns to look at him. He’s smiling, yet again. “I have to talk to my Grandma real quick. I’ll be back in like, two minutes. Grandma!” Ronnie turns around and hugs Ms. Shirley around her firm shoulders. “Let’s step outside for a little bit.”

“OK. Grab the chicken.”

They walk out to the back porch, Ronnie lugging the aluminum tray of barbeque to the grill. Vi starts the hot water. Her fingers jerk away at the searing heat.

“Shit.” She nudges the cold faucet to cool down the water and squints through the window. Ronnie is giving Ms. Shirley a loving pat on the back. She pinches a stray leaf from his hair and flicks it away. They mouth an exchange as the wind blows, gently lifting their shirts at the hems. Ms. Shirley turns quickly toward the window, and Vi thinks she sees her staring, so she starts cleaning a soapy plate.

Ronnie heads back in slowly and slides the porch door shut. “Just asked her who’s going to be here.”

“And?”

“A few older people from around the neighborhood. And her ‘boyfriend.’ Haven’t met him,yet. Some old guy, stays a few miles away. Told her that I’d have to approve.”

Vi runs water over a cast iron skillet and raises her pitch. “Boy, shut up!”

“That impression was shit.”

“Boy, shut up!”

“Better.”

They scrub and dry. They let some dishes sit out on the rack. They are quiet. Outside, Ms. Shirley maneuvers the grill soundlessly.

The sun sinks lower in the sky, not as inviting as earlier. When they finish, they step back. Ronnie drains the sink. Vi looks out the window and breathes.

“I need some air,” she says.

“Want to take a walk?”

“Doesn’t she need help?”

“Nah. Didn’t you hear her earlier?”

“Well, check in and make sure.”

Ronnie knocks on the screen door from the inside. Ms. Shirley looks up. He lays his still damp hand on Vi’s shoulder and jabs his thumb toward the door. Ms. Shirley’s eyebrows go up. Vi rolls her eyes and slides open the door.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am. We just wanted to go on a walk, I don’t know why he’s being so cryptic. You good?”

“I’m good, baby. I appreciate it.” A cloud passes overhead, and Ms. Shirley frowns.

“You all should hurry up. Looks like there might be rain after all.”

“Yes, ma’am. Won’t be too long.”

When they get to the front, they meet a straight-backed, mahogany man in a plaid button down. His shaky grip hangs onto the bottom of a large bouquet of orange lilies.

“Shirley here?”

“Yes, sir. You Mr. Barron?”

“Barron Baxter. That’s me.”

“Huh,” Ronnie grunts. Vi nudges him in the rib. She butts in and clears her throat.

“She’s out back. Do you know your way?”

“Sure do. You, young man. You her grandson? Ronald?”

“Ronnie. Yes, sir.”

“And you, young lady?”

“I’m Vi.”

“Vi?”

“Violet, sir.”

“Huh.” Mr. Barron shrugs. “You all be good, now. Headed out?”

“Just for a walk.”

“Well, then. You all be good, now.” He slinks around to the back. His slow stride reminds Vi of Ronnie’s.

They shiver at the sudden temperature drop as they troop up the street.

“He’s too old for me to talk shit about, Vi, so save it.”

“Damn, who said I was going to say anything? You’re always accusing me of something.”

“I said it because I know you. And anyway, all I would’ve said—”

“And yet, here you are about to say it.”

“All I would’ve said is, he said ‘You all be good, now’ twice. And his name is corny, but whatever.”

“Maybe he really wanted us to be good, Ronnie.”

“He just seems lame. Grandma can do better. You know I’m always looking out for my own.”

Vi rolls her eyes. “At the end of the day, you don’t own her. I thought you were the optimist out of the two of us.”

“I’m the realist. The realest, too.”

“Uh huh. You’re corny.” The road begins to slant uphill. “If you’re so real, what am I?”

“I don’t know.” He stops and squints toward the end of the road. “I’m waiting for the day you figure that out. I hope it’s something good.”

They pass houses with dull aluminum awnings, and porch rockers accumulating outside grime. Wind chimes clang in tune with the tiny, noisy birds zipping from tree to tree.

The yard of a periwinkle ranch house buzzes with bees. They speed by each other, some even venturing out to the curb where Vi and Ronnie trek.

“Woah!” Ronnie plants his sneakers into the concrete, but leans back to avoid three bees too close to his unblemished face. Vi studies him for a moment.

“You’ve got a little dimple by your chin,” she comments.

“For real?” Ronnie swats and smiles. There’s a twinkle in his eye. Vi doesn’t answer as the bees zoom around her. She ignores it all and turns away.

“Want to play a game?” Vi asks.

“Yeah, of course. What is it?”

“‘Who Lives Here?’ Something I just made up now. So you have to guess the kind of people who live here.”

“But I already know who lives here.”

“That’s the point. Tell me if I’m right or wrong. And if I’m wrong, you win that round.”

“Sure. Let’s go.”

“OK.” Vi gives the house a once over, hands on her hips. “People don’t live here. Just a person. A widow. Her husband died not too long ago—like, the past two years. She has gray hair, like an old cotton ball.”

“Damn, an old cotton ball?”

“I don’t mean it in a bad way. That’s just her. She was probably pretty in a librarian sort of way, once.”

“I don’t know about all that.”

“But you do know who lives here.”

“Yeah.”

“So tell me!”

“OK, you done?”

Yes.”

“Damn, OK. OK. So you’re right. Except her husband’s still alive. He has a bad back, though. They’re actually coming to eat. She’s always giving my grandma pounds of topsoil and shit.”

“So then I wasn’t right! The dead husband was the main thing. Take your point; my gift to you.”

“Whatever you say. You know,” he adds, “I’m going to win, right?”

“Why? Because I’m bad at predicting?”

“No. And you won’t get better until you stop saying that. Just an observation. But no,” he continues, “it’s because I could just be lying to you about who lives in these houses, Vi.”

“You wouldn’t do that.”

“Why? Because I’m honest?”

“Actually, yes. That’s alright, though.” She turns to the house behind them. “You’re the only person I seem to be able to read.” Ronnie frowns.

There’s still no rain after half an hour. Ms. Shirley’s house is out of view, and they find themselves on another block. A high hanging mist begins to fog the sky. They continue to walk. The score is 6-2, Ronnie.

“We can’t play the game here, Vi.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t know anyone this far. This is getting close to where that Barron guy lives. I won, let’s go back.”

“Leave that old man alone!” Vi pokes him. “Don’t be jealous because he has a girl and you don’t.” Ronnie grunts, but she continues. “And you saying ‘I won’ all carefree like that makes me want to win.”

“Well, glad to see you’re back to your old, competitive-ass self. You can’t, though. We ran out of homes.”

“Houses.”

“Yeah, whatever. Homes, houses.”

“No.” Vi stops. “Just because it’s a house doesn’t make it a home.”

He looks her over, creasing his eyebrows. “When’s the last time you talked to your people?”

“Spoke to my mom like two weeks ago. My dad called the other day. I’ll call him back.”

“When?”

“Tonight. I swear.” She smiles, small. “Today has been nice, I guess. I can do it.”

“You guess?”

“I guess. You and your grandma … you all are cute. It was a lot to handle.”

Ronnie sighs. “Just know that I tried. What about your sister?”

She shakes her head. “Don’t ruin it. I don’t want to talk to her.”

Ronnie holds his hands up in protest. “Alright. She fucked you over. They all did, I get it. Baby steps.”

They resume the game.

“Alright. Look at that house, the two-story with the balcony. Let’s both guess who lives there. And then,” Ronnie shuffles over to a curb, still a distance away from the impressive house in the cul de sac, “we’ll wait till someone comes out.” He squats at the curb and watches.

“Until someone comes out? You’re so extra.”

“Nah; someone has to come out. It was trash day, and they didn’t collect their cans yet.” The empty containers straddle the lawn, lids off.

“Alright. I’m taking you up on this.” She scoots beside him. She feels around for the hibiscus petal, peeking at the healthy pink before putting it back. “You first. Who you got?”

“A family of five. They have a dog. It’s a big dog.” Ronnie pulls a Bic out of his pants pocket and flicks it on and off, thinking. “The son’s the middle child, an athlete. Two daughters. The oldest is probably fine as fuck—she’s in college. The youngest is popular, finishing up middle school. And the parents are tracking their 401K as we speak.”

“They white?”

“Yeah.”

“No.” Vi shakes her head. “No, they’re not.” She tips her head to the side. It lands on Ronnie’s shoulder. She feels his muscles relax. “Or they would’ve picked up their trash cans already.”

After a breath, he says, “You right.”

“But they’re good people. I can feel it.”

They sit. The sun sinks. They remain the only two on the street. Ronnie doesn’t want Ms. Shirley to worry, so they concede, the residents of the house unsolved. Vi’s neck, strained from leaning against Ronnie, begins to throb. The rain starts to fall in droplets, and Ronnie wipes one off of Vi’s face with a gentle hand.

This time, she lets him.

 

 

Christiana Dillard is a freelance writer from Orlando, Florida who relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has published non-fiction work with the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, Pitt Magazine, and Soul Pitt Quarterly, a community magazine. She enjoys creating content and taking walks, no matter the weather.

 

“One Tough German: Part II” by Anna Villegas


“Maneuvers,” by Kathy O’Meara.

[Part I of “One Tough German” can be read here.]

Eddie Jr. and his wife kept Virginia with them through the week, until the day of services. In that time, the space between death and the formal closure of grief, Annie saw her once, leaving the house to climb into the Lexus. Virginia’s hair was smartly styled, the beehive replaced by a svelte, attractive short cut which took off twenty years, Annie thought. She didn’t feel she could dart out and catch Virginia to whisper her condolences just then; there would be time enough after the services.

On Thursday morning, Annie dressed quickly for Eddie’s funeral. An old black dress with an even older tan jacket. She’d be no fashion plate, but respect for Virginia’s age made the choice of anything cooler, more summery, seem wrong. She found the modern, low-slung church easily, twenty minutes before the hour, and signed the book stationed on a small marble-topped table beneath a collage of photographs of Eddie and Virginia, their family through the years of little league, graduations, marriages, grandchildren. One picture drew her; she set down the pen and moved closer. A recent snapshot of Eddie and Virginia, seated on their living room couch. Eddie’s arm extended along the couch back, Virginia was perched on the edge of the seat as if she’d finally been coaxed to sit still by the photographer, or as if she were gathering herself to rise and fetch coffee and cake. Eddie’s hearty face was pure satisfaction: a king in his castle. Virginia’s expression was harder to interpret. It had the uncomposed look of a booking photo, the kind the paper ran once a week captioned by whatever crime had led its subject to such unflattering publicity, usually drink or drugs. Blinded by headlights? Caught with illegal possessions? Afraid of losing her soul?

Behind Annie, a stout woman in a flowered muumuu was breathing heavily, big draughty breaths punctuated by gasps, perhaps from the walk in from the street, perhaps chiding Annie for clutching the provided writing tool, holding up the line, thinking unkind thoughts.

“Excuse me.” Annie offered the pen. The woman cleared her throat, took the pen, and bent to sign her name in a long, loopy script which ran to the edge of page and curled upward. Her breathing frightened Annie. She remembered a relative’s story, one of Alan’s old aunts, who’d attended a funeral during which a sister to the deceased died herself, in the family pew before the services had even begun. One mourning turned into two. Annie backed from the table and bumped against someone’s heavy chest.

“Annie, right? To the south of Dad and Mom?” Eddie Jr. looked larger than life, shiny and black-suited, carapaced into the role of Hausauer patriarch.

“Yes. Annie.” Annie let his sweaty clasp take her hand. This time, it was she who withdrew her fingers first from his warm palm. “How is your mother doing? I—“

“She’s one tough German,” Eddie Jr. smiled. “She’s doing better than we’d expected.”

He must be on automatic, Annie thought, repeating those words again and again, a week of quick comforts dished out to near-strangers, people like her who were outside the circle of family. “I’m glad to hear that. I’m always home—“ But Eddie Jr. had turned away, murmuring first to the stout woman, then to a couple behind her.

Although the church was large, it was not crowded, so Annie found an aisle seat easily. She sat, then thought it more courteous to slide to the middle of the pew where latecomers would not need to squeeze past her. From her seat, she could see the family arranged in three rows of the slight transept. Virginia was there, centered between teenaged granddaughters. She was turned to one of them, a pretty girl whose blonde hair matched Virginia’s, smiling brightly. Annie had been mistaken in her choice of solemn colors: Virginia wore a blouse patterned in bold red and black branches—what seemed like sycamore leaves– black slacks, shiny red heels on her small feet. Annie realized she’d never in all her years in the neighborhood seen Virginia so femininely dressed, so apparently concerned with her own appearance, as she had in the past week. That Virginia’s loss had not extinguished, had encouraged, really, her attention to her own beauty made Annie glad so that, for a brief moment, she felt disloyal to Eddie. What if Eddie had been able to see his wife today as Annie saw her, as pretty as one of his perfect roses, fed and watered and tended so artfully?

Annie couldn’t remember the precise moment her concern with her hair, her clothes, had fallen away. It had happened, emphasized by the literal belt-tightening she’d practiced following the divorce (her leanness growing leaner, no need to decorate it with smaller sizes), and now she could count on one hand the pieces—a denim skirt, a navy-blue wool sweater–she’d bought in the last few years. Her hair she’d stopped fussing with—when exactly? Before Patti certainly, years in advance of Alan’s elopement with a clothes horse who wore spangled bracelets on her plump tan arms and silver sandals on her painted feet. Silver sandals. Annie took the hymnal from the wooden pocket in the pew back and fanned through the pages. She admired Virginia’s red heels as she’d not admired Patti’s sandals. She lifted a hand to her ponytail; she’d looped her shoulder-length hair into a barrette, like a schoolteacher or a flower child. What would it be like to cut her hair short, to mimic Virginia’s bob? She’d be bound to monthly visits to a hairdresser then, which is why she’d let her hair go long in the first place: the constancy of those appointments grinding into her calendar for years on end. Maybe Virginia welcomed these, was already filling her weeks and months with obligations, no longer to Eddie but to herself.

Alan had never seemed to notice. Whether she wore sweatshirts or silk blouses, her clothes hadn’t registered with Alan. Their first date, so far back, she’d borrowed a checkered dress from her college roommate because she’d thought it important to be new somehow, not herself, when she went out with this boy, a business major whose notorious kindness on their small campus now extended to her, including a spaghetti dinner and a mediocre movie. She’d not discerned, apparently, what had altered in Alan during the languid years of their marriage, what made silver sandals and golden retrievers, their newness and exotic difference from Annie, what Annie was still after twenty years, satisfy such unmet need. The revelation of Alan’s absorption by details she’d long thought he’d overlooked had taken her so completely by surprise that Patti had become the subject of their joint study, the final examination before graduation.

Was Virginia welcoming the newness of what she could become now without Eddie? Annie watched her, the organist’s somnolent notes mismatched to Virginia’s bright quickness, the graceful lift of her small white palm to her younger son’s face when he bent his head for a kiss before he sat in the family pew. As she half-listened to the pastor’s intonations, as she bent her head for a moment when commanded to pray, as she heard the testimonies of Eddie Jr. and two grandchildren, Annie thought not of Eddie’s passing but of Virginia’s becoming. Not of what would change in the neighborhood without Eddie, but what would change inside Virginia’s kitchen now there was no finicky eater to tempt and to coax. No shouted interrogations about where she’d put the push broom this time, about what had happened to the new clippers Eddie knew she’d misplaced. Nobody to call out: Meg, Meg, Meg.

The service took over an hour. Finally the procession of mourners trailed up the aisle and past the family. Annie took Virginia’s hand, then felt herself pulled close as Virginia stood.

“I’m sorry, Virginia.”

“Honey, Eddie loved you,” Virginia whispered, patting Annie’s back. “Thank you for coming.”

“Whatever I can do, you know I’m just next door.”

“I know, honey. I know.” Another hug, one last whisper. “Annie? You okay, honey?”

~

Virginia seemed to be okay, far as Annie could tell. There was a certain remoteness to being a neighbor, Annie realized, which Eddie’s presence had enforced. One could pull in the next-door garbage cans after pick-up, but children (Morgan, driving a miniature blue tricycle with a bell) couldn’t be allowed to wander onto another’s lawn. One could ask what a newcomer had paid for a house, but one didn’t ask if the newcomer had ever been married. (Eddie never had done.) One could leave a box of peaches fresh from a backyard tree, but one didn’t exchange birthday presents because birthdays were private affairs.

With Eddie’s passing, Virginia ignored the formalities. She picked up the morning paper at ten or eleven, still pajamaed. She was happy to make conversation at all hours, whatever her dress. She forgot to call the grandson to remind him to mow the lawn, which turned dry around the edges as summer’s last hard days turned harder. She let the Bermuda grass take over the rose beds. Virginia seemed to have lost track of garbage days, whether it was the week for the gray yard-and-garden or the green recycle bin. She had her hair styled anew every week. She wore blouses so garish, so improbably colored, even brighter than Eddie’s favorite rose, the orange and red Party Girl, standing now in a thatch of healthy weeds encouraged by the soaker hoses Virginia would set and then leave, daylight violations forgotten without a blink of remorse for the drought-stricken state. And instead of shifting, racehorse nervous, when she spoke to Annie across the lawns or through the carport, she stood planted on both feet, her tiny hands set firmly on her hips. I’ll never listen to that Rush Limbaugh again. I’ve had enough of him for a lifetime. The redneck idiot.

Annie, startled, made a point of remembering the neighborhood rules for Virginia. The week after Eddie was buried, she began pulling Virginia’s garbage cans out alongside hers. She put them back when she came home from work. She watched for Virginia’s running water, making it her mission to shut the valves before the tell-tale gutter flooding attracted the water police. On her midnight walks, Annie stooped to pull handfuls of crabgrass and spurge from beneath the roses. Digging her fingers into the earth, setting her heels and wresting the weeds from the earth felt good, the same kind of good Annie felt when she tiptoed through Virginia’s breezeway to drop the weeds into her neighbor’s garden bin. Helping her widowed friend to keep things up, she told herself. But when she thought carefully about it, she flushed. Even in the dark, even all alone on the curb, she felt as if somebody had overseen her tell, with confidence and aplomb, a deliberate, rather slanderous lie.

When they passed each other, Virginia pulling away in her car as Annie did the hand-watering or Annie pulling into her carport after work as Virginia stood on the curb kissing a grandkid goodbye, they didn’t speak of secret kindnesses. It appeared the family was keeping a close eye on Virginia, except that nobody save Annie seemed to understand that Eddie’s sphere was being eclipsed by inertia. Nobody else seemed to care.

~  

Maybe seven or eight months after Eddie’s passing, when the local television station’s meteorologists had spent over a week whooping and hollering about the yearly rainfall totals breaking a twenty-year record, Annie stood in her carport and shed her black rain slicker after her midnight walk. More properly, it was a slicker of Alan’s, dating back to the years after college when winter backpacking didn’t seem so daunting, when sharing a sleeping bag made even the mountain weekends romantic. She shook the slicker hard, three times, and slung it carelessly on the driver’s side rear-view mirror of her car. There she’d remember to take it off before heading to work in the early morning, although the idea of losing the slicker didn’t, when she thought on it, seem such a bad idea. When she turned from the car to her kitchen door, she heard Virginia’s voice, uplifted and insistent against the drumming rain on the carport roof.

“Annie! Annie, honey!”

Annie’s pulse fluttered; was it Virginia, now, the way they said it often happened? Couldn’t live without the partner, the mate, the lost spouse?

“Annie!” Virginia was gliding across the lawn, barefoot, wearing only a magenta negligee.

“Virginia? What are you doing out—up so late—and in this weather–“

“It’s just water, honey. Come on over. I want you to have a piece of strawberry pie. I got the berries from the Fresh Picked Daily lot out on Thornton? It’s just done.”

Annie took Virginia’s hand. “Virginia, it’s after midnight—“

“We’re both up, aren’t we?”

Annie thought of sliding on the slicker, but the clamminess of old rubber—and the sight of Virginia’s own damp negligee, like a gown of glistening petals—made her step out across the lawn with Virginia’s hand in hers.

“I know you’re a night person,” Virginia said, cocking her head slyly when she turned toward Annie at her door. “I know you don’t sleep well.”

“You—I—“

“I’ve known for years. I don’t either. Sleep much.” In her kitchen, Virginia handed Annie a thick bath towel she pulled from one of three plastic laundry baskets filled with unfolded clothes and sheets, the product of a living household with more important tasks at stake than folding clothes. She lifted one from a chair and nodded to Annie: Sit there.

“Since Eddie?”

Annie couldn’t tell if it was pity or amazement animating Virginia’s face. “Oh no, honey,” she said, and Annie saw clearly the pity Virginia felt for her, for Annie. “Long before Eddie died. But now I don’t have to pretend.”

“Pretend?”

Virginia was cutting a slice of remarkable pie, so symmetrical in each of its whipped cream and strawberry layers that it might have been a studio prop. “Pretend to be asleep…you know, the way we do…so they don’t know what we’re thinking…the kinds of things we think that would make them upset or, you know…”

In the face of this bald confession, so unexpected and so frankly abrupt, all Annie could think to do was take a bite of Virginia’s pie. She didn’t know what manners were in order, what kind of female clucking might be demanded by Virginia’s offering. She didn’t know if she were capable, even if the script were made absolutely clear, of following Virginia’s line of conversation. So she took a second bite, and a third.

“You watch late night, ever?” Virginia asked, setting a glass of skim milk next to Annie’s plate.

Annie swallowed. “It’s on, usually, but I’m not watching, not exactly.” She took a long drink of milk. “For company, you know. To make the house…less empty?”

“Don’t I know,” said Virginia. “Another piece?”

Annie shook her head. “You do miss him, then?”

Virginia lifted the table knife she’d used to cut Annie’s pie. Like a geometry teacher or a deft surgeon, she cut the remaining pie into exactly equal pieces. If they were put on a scale, Annie was sure, they would weigh within grams of one another. Virginia was doing fine. Virginia was doing far better than Annie had ever done. Virginia was going to be all right.

“Honey.” Virginia paused to lift a jelly glass and sip what Annie realized must be wine. The glass was circled with pastel elephants; it had been—how old was Eddie Jr., Annie wondered—used in this very kitchen for nearly forty years, a relic from the child-bearing days when Virginia pretended…pretended what?

Virginia circled the lip of the glass with her finger. “The kids used to call him one tough German.”

She sat back solidly in her chair, a tiny queen on a restored throne.

“I see the chair’s empty in the living room. I see that, and I think: I can watch whatever I damn well want, whenever I damn well please. That’s missing, isn’t it?”

 

 

Anna Villegas worked as a full-time college English professor in California’s Central Valley for forty-one years. Her published work includes four decades of short stories, poems, essays, newspaper columns, and three novels. Now retired, she lives in Nevada City, California, where the folk, the foothills, and the ghosts of her Gold Rush forebearers supply inspiration for her fiction.

 

“The Sparrow” by Liz Betz


“Escape” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas, 47″ x 54″.

Warm Up – Chest Expansion

Bridget clenches her jaw, ready to explain a thing or two if the woman goes any further with the spiritual angle. One of the things, she will explain, is going to be very blunt. She’d warned this ordained woman that if God were mentioned even once; that would be the last time she’d be here at Stretch and Relax. How like a minister to try and sneak a sermon into the yoga class!

Fine for others to hear that opening your chest would free your emotions so the Almighty could fill you with peace; Bridget only needs to hear the physical directions to breathe deeply and stretch the lungs. She closes her eyes and comes up with an image that suits her better, her ribcage opening up in the same way a hay bale swells when she chops the twine that holds it firm. That holds her thoughts for a moment but her agitation butts against her calm in the same way the cows rub and move bales. The cows had been cared for today, the balky tractor and the frozen-down feed hadn’t stopped her mission.

The mission here is to relax. If she can. But it galls her to see the bible story cartoons plastered on the walls, and it is vexing that in this room, children hear how Jesus loves them and how God knows when the sparrow falls. It’s a wonder the bible school room doesn’t smell like puke. She exhales and rolls her shoulders in a curl around her breasts, then on her inhalation spreads them wide as if they were wings. Around her the yoga classmates do the same.

She’s here with a half-dozen people; two others are seniors like her. Yoga is something she would have never expected to do but neither had she expected her anxiety attack. Definitely the anxiety attack is the big unexpected thing. Really, she thought that her decades of handling all the big and little crises of farm work had given her resistance to ‘nerves’ as they used to call it, embarrassment attached. People a decade younger than her, like her sister Lisa, had a more relaxed view, the shame factor much diminished.

Bridget’s churning thoughts have bunted her attention from exercises. Back to it, she tells herself. Curl. Spread.

Cat Pose

Nowadays people have the world’s blessing to fly apart. Therapy is touted as the answer; didn’t her own doctor suggest exactly that? He could set up an appointment for her with a psychologist. Didn’t take him long to add when she is ready, because he could see his notion didn’t fly. But then, in the gentlest way, he told her to learn to relax, maybe meditate or start a journal. Stupid idea from a wet-behind-the-ears, never-had-to-physically-work-a- day-in-his-life, stupid doctor.

Jesus Christ and bloody hell, but just when she starts with her usual head down and to hell with it all, her chest tightens and her breathing gives a hitch as a reminder. Even thinking about that trip to the doctor upset her. Shoulder pain brings her smarting to the present. Had she been thinking out loud? No one seems to be paying her any attention, but still this is not good. Her neck joins the shoulder in a big ball of hurt. The pain could lock her away from relaxing as efficiently as a closed gate prevented her cow herd from getting into grain bins. Big trouble. Trouble is she has to handle the stress in her life differently or have a nervous breakdown.

Chair Pose

Lisa is the one who suggests the yoga sessions, offering that she and Tom could handle Vince one night a week. Her sister’s offer is a surprise, for years she has avoided being alone with Vince and while she never explains, Bridget has a pretty good idea of what Vince might have done and even why some women would be flattered. Not Lisa. She is a loyal sister and a faithful wife. Like their grandmother, who seems to peer out from Lisa’s face, her sister is a true soul, armed with regular church attendance, practiced charity and goodness. Maybe all that works if there is no one like Vince in the picture. Bridget stops. Somehow remembering her grandmother softens her tenseness. The hardships endured in the past were huge. Women didn’t even have the right to vote.

Someone should tell Vince about women’s rights. Like a husband of that past era, Vince tried to dish up disapproval over her attending yoga class. He’d have her think it is disobedience on her part that she be here. She watches the woman leading the class noting her mustached upper lip. Bridget decided long ago that the homely get called to God’s service, perhaps because the mirror is so cruel. What she had done to deserve Vince, beyond promising to love, honor, and obey could only be called the devil’s plot, if the devil were more than a convenient fiction. Funny to remember that her grandmother spoke of the devil as well as God. Bridget didn’t really believe in deities but she could conceive a devil like Vince. She shifts uneasily, her thighs tense to the point of quivering. Not knowing how much longer this position is to be held, Bridget takes a rest. Her body sinks to the floor where she slouches and rubs her thighs. The instructor brings everyone to a new position.

Plank Pose

Thinking of her grandmother has made her feel perversely bad. She loved the woman but would like to ask a few questions of anyone with enduring faith. Was she supposed to pray the cattle would wait for her to open the ice hole? No! She had to get out there first thing, before they crowded onto the ice and fell through. Then she had to follow that up with starting the tractor, rolling out the hay and then after the animals were tended, returning to whatever Vince was dishing up.

But Lisa and her husband are with Vince making sure Bridget has a home to return to after yoga. They’ll stay and visit for a while before Bridget faces the rest of the evening with her husband. Usually Vince is tired and irritable but armed with a firm voice and an established routine, Bridget can get him to bed before exhaustion hits them both.

Lately she has been dissolving a sleeping pill in Vince’s evening glass of warm milk, oh how unkind, really, this resorting to drugs. She feels forty shades of guilt over it. But tonight it is possible that Lisa will innocently warm his milk and Vince, who even now, is nobody’s fool, will refuse a doctored second glass. Which means any peace and relaxation she gains here could be wiped out when she gets home.

Nostril Breathing

That is another unexpected thing of Bridget’s life; that her husband Vince would end up with a brain injury, which sounds simple enough but is actually a bitch and a half. It is when Bridget comes up with a house remodel to include a safe room for Vince, a padded cell affair, with piped in music and a television mounted like a window, just so she can have a few minutes reprieve without calling on someone else, that she realizes she has to do something. More than just the sleeping pill in the evening.

Then Bridget who prides herself equal to a man in all things agricultural; who works the cattle in the corrals, births them in the barn and occasionally puts them down with the rifle, who drives the combine, the grain trucks, the tractor with the air seeder, who figures out their finances, and helped Vince make the right decisions for forty years finds herself unable to breathe. By the time she calls Lisa she is sure it is a heart attack.

After a number of tests, all physical reasons are ruled out for her episode. Episode. How useful the word. Bridget uses it as shorthand for Vince’s various mishaps, the occasions when he soils his clothes, the meals that he dumps on the floor or in his lap, the blank moments or bleak moments where the unfurled flag of his rage whips over her. The term episode serves to inform people that it is not all heavenly in their lives, but doesn’t seem a whine, or invite an offer of prayers. Time after time she hears how lucky she is that Vince survived. Well, yes. And no.

But it is time to put these thoughts into the corral. Fix the mental fences. She takes a moment to tighten the elastic around hair that others call a marvelous shade of silver and tuck in her favorite plaid shirt. She remembers the anxiety episode, believing it to be an attack of her heart; all she could ask is how on earth they would get by, if she were struck in this manner. It’d be the nun-operated nursing home for them both, every wall with a cross and Christ. A sorry deal, except that others would deal with her bully and bastard of a husband.

A deep sigh escapes Bridget. The episode wasn’t her heart giving out but a message for her to ease her mind; to relax. It is unlikely, though, that she can expect miracles from prayer which her sister suggested. Not bloody likely, she thinks and shakes her head vigorously. The instructor glances in her direction. Bridget frowns back, mind your own blood-of-the-lamb business.

But that frown released something. Her agitation gives way to deep breaths and her shoulders are no longer sheltering her ears as a small miracle occurs.

In and out, for every breath the world slips further and further into the background. Every breath brings inner tension to the surface where a gentle breeze blows it away. A feather floats. Every breath lifts her closer to the beauty, to the truth, to the place where she is comforted and loved.

Bridget breathes in but her exhalation is a whimper. She has to steady herself. There is nothing to cry about here. But she can’t seem to stop. Next thing she’ll be on the receiving end of sympathy and in fact, the minister is headed in her direction. She fakes a coughing spell, lifts her arms in defense and mumbles that she needs to go home.

Downward Facing Dog

She lays her head on the steering wheel as her farm truck warms up for the drive home. The evening gospel music winds around her until she hears the hymn and strikes the switch off. Partway home she has to pull off on a seldom-used intersection and let the lonesome come over her like the moon on the snow. Weakness. Her fists wipe away her tears.

This is not a nervous breakdown. There is no echo in the silence except for her mind. Oh, isn’t it? You broke down tonight at bloody stupid yoga. And the anxiety attack? You couldn’t deal with reality. No. No, this is just an episode. That’s all.

How long has she been here? It’s late.

She enters the farmhouse. The smell of gingerbread wafts out and there is laughter. Under the bright light of the dining room table, Vince jumps his marbles across the Chinese Checker board. He beams widely, having fun, getting excited. On an average night, with just Bridget as company he’d be bitching and moaning and demanding his snack.

Bridget goes to pour his bedtime glass of milk so she can add the sleeping pill. She pours the white liquid over the tiny tablet. Lisa approaches. Her hand touches Bridget’s elbow. Bridget jumps.

The full bottle of pills tipped in her hand, Lisa reads Bridget’s name on the prescription.   Bridget avoids her sister’s eyes that are searching for a denial, explanation or confession.

They will stay the night Bridget is told, as her sister pours the glass of milk down the sink and fixes another one for Vince.

Rest – Deep Breathing

In the middle of the night, Vince goes to the basement and silently makes his way to the storage room and begins to rip into boxes and throw things around. He spends extra, destructive time with a certain corner, a certain trunk. The cattle-show banners are torn in half, a fate shared by brown paper envelopes that contain the deeds to their land, birth certificates and their marriage license. He is set on disemboweling Bridget’s hope chest. Linens embroidered with sparrows and daisies, hand stitched pillowcases are ground under his heels; the framed photos of ancestors are smashed. The sound of breaking glass wakes the sleepers. Jesus Christ and bloody hell, the three of them rush down the stairs.

Vince looks up as if confused by their presence. He holds a sampler that is Bridget’s oldest possession—The Lord’s Prayer in cross-stitch that her grandmother coached her to complete.

Vince who a moment ago was in a frenzy is now compliant and docile and allows his brother-in-law to guide him out of the room. He passes the sampler to Bridget. She cannot look at him but she has not the same choice with the sampler.

How innocent she had been when she stitched it. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our trespasses. She stops reading. Forgive me. From one pill a night to the whole bottle. It is the trespass that she’s been skirting around, pretending the temptation isn’t waiting. She knew the route. She’s put down animals. Gathering her reasons, marshalling her strengths. Her legs fail her as she drops to her knees.

Lisa is there and her arms wrap around Bridget. Her comfort Bridget has heard before: Jesus loves you. He can give you strength, if you just let him.

“Jesus Christ,” Bridget calls out.

She means it as a curse, but it doesn’t turn out that way. For a moment Bridget considers Christ but the very idea curdles in her throat. It is such a weakness—meekness and lamb to the slaughter. All that goodness of gospel is religion’s nasty trick. Bloody hell, it means surrender. The sparrow fell. God saw. Bridget folds herself over her thighs and rests, a position of supplication if not prayer. The Pose of the Child

 

 

Liz Betz is enjoying her retirement pastime of writing short fiction which has been published in a variety of markets. She writes from rural Alberta, Canada. Follow her writing blog lizbetz.blogspot.ca for news of her publications. The Sparrow is her 40th short story published.

 

“Relapse” by Salvatore Difalco


“The Aftermath” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas, 52″ x 48″.

I was already running late. Carmine wanted to meet near Pape and Danforth at noon. Ten minutes to go as I sped down Coxwell Avenue from O’Connor to Danforth. I’d just scored two plates of primo hashish for Carmine from Robbie in East York. Robbie dispensed for some Montreal bikers. I stood to make a couple hundred for a simple handoff. But Carmine hated waiting for anyone. You didn’t want to keep the big man waiting.

The light turned green at Danforth and I signaled a right turn. Pape was a few blocks west. At the same time, a half-ton truck on my left started through the intersection. Just as I go to make my turn, a late-breaking black BMW comes racing westbound along Danforth through the red. Slams the truck’s rear end with a sound like an airplane falling from the sky, front end crumpled, red-faced, bug-eyed driver still belted into his seat, and the BMW now set into a violent spin directly toward my car.

For a second or two I found myself watching the whole thing unfold like a slomo YouTube clip—but I snapped out of it with an adrenal surge, squeezed the steering wheel, footed the gas, and lurched forward enough for the BMW to just miss my car. But it continued on a crazy spin, somehow circling back toward the intersection, where it hit a woman running across the street with her child. The child escaped injury, but the woman went down, black hair flying as the car took her out.

I sat there, knuckles whitened on the steering wheel, trying to process what had happened. My body shook; my hands started cramping. I let go of the steering wheel. A wave of vertigo overcame me. I bent to the dash and took a few deep breaths, hoping not to pass out.

Pandemonium ensued at the intersection. Sirens wailed. People cried out. I rolled down my window for air. Debris littered the street; people scrambled to and fro. I shut my eyes, clapped my hands over my ears.

Maybe I should have stayed and reported what I’d seen to a police officer. But with abundant witnesses around, I felt my testimony would have been at best superfluous. And I had all that hashish in the car, surly Carmine waiting. So I drove off.

I parked on the Danforth not far from Pape and took a minute to gather myself before I texted Carmine. Little snapshots of the accident kept flashing in my head. Carmine was parked in a lot on Pape and wanted me to go to him. Barely able to stand, I staggered down the leaf-strewn street. The cool autumn air tingled in my nostrils and pricked my ears, but everything was bathed in a weird yellow light that made me feel like I was dreaming.

Carmine bitched about being ten minutes late. He backed off when I told him about the accident.

“Think she’s dead?” he asked.

I shrugged. Didn’t want to think about it.

“Still,” Carmine said, unable to not play the heavy, “be early next time. Time is money.”

Went on with my day, feeling spooked and fucked up. Drank a few scotches to settle my nerves. I’d been off the opioids for six months. Yeah. I’d gotten in deep. Started with sciatica issues. Oxycontin blissed me out so much I could walk without gimping around. Grew to love the high. Long after the sciatica healed, I kept popping the pills. Felt sick as a dog when I wasn’t high. Don’t know how I crawled out of that hole. Guess I wanted to live. The new shit was killing folks. But the temptation never went away. It hung around you like a vulture circling a dying animal. When you’re jonesing hard, you don’t care. You almost welcome death. Go on, get it over with. And stress made you jones like nothing else. Would have been easy to relapse that night. But I didn’t. I just got good and drunk.

Then, watching the late night news, I saw a report about the accident. Drunk driver arrested at scene. Mother of three pronounced dead on arrival. Recent immigrant from Guatemala.

Man. One minute you’re walking along minding your own business, maybe laughing about something, feeling good, alive, looking forward to the rest of your day, the rest of your life, and the next minute you’re gone. Poof. Just like that. It was incredible how fragile we were, how nothing. I didn’t sleep that night. Kept replaying the scene in my head: driver’s red face, mother pulling child, hair flying as the car struck.

Next day I drove by the intersection. They still hadn’t cleaned up the debris and some police-tape surrounded the bus shelter on the southwest corner. Thought I detected a stain on the road, roughly where the woman had fallen. Could have been motor oil, transmission fluid, or God knows what. But something told me it was blood. Forensics weren’t needed at this point. No mysteries here. And no one was going to clean it up. In time the traffic would smooth it all out, smear it down into the asphalt.

A few uneasy days passed. Your problems really begin only when you start thinking about them. So you do things to distract yourself. Drive around town. Maybe watch a flick or two on TV. Smoke dope or drink until you can’t think. Try to forget what you are, forget those events that trouble you, forget yourself. Tell yourself that under no fucking circumstances will you relapse. But nothing helps.

Found myself cruising along O’Connor a few mornings later. Yeah, cruising. Had the tunes turned up. Still like my metal when I’m in cruise mode.

It was a crisp, sunny day. Rusty leaves blowing around. Full autumn. I won’t say I had resisted my demons. I won’t say that. I’m not here to lie about myself and paint a picture that would somehow, unfaithfully, ennoble or validate me and my existence. I know I’m fucked. I know I’m lost. I fell in a long time ago. I passed the event horizon a long time ago. Once that happens—as we all know—there is no escape.

Robbie had another delivery for me, and Carmine would be waiting, but I couldn’t bring myself to go up to Robbie’s shitty apartment and swap nothings with him while he scaled the hashish. I sat in front of his building for almost an hour. I couldn’t do it. It was comical. I sat there laughing to myself like a cretin. I wouldn’t have thought it funny if I wasn’t high as a kite.

To be honest, Robbie and Carmine bored me to death. I didn’t fear them anymore. I didn’t like them. They had nothing to offer me. I don’t know why I was mixed up with them. Easy money? But it was nothing. It was a nothing gig and only sanctioned my status as a nothing. Maybe that was the answer, after all: that they confirmed what I believed about myself.

I turned down Coxwell and headed toward the Danforth. Almost noon. I drove slowly.

When I got to the intersection, I felt dizzy. I turned right on Danforth and parked near a Greek pastry shop. Don’t know what I was doing. Trying to regain my bearings? Reliving the horror? Going for another adrenaline rush? Except for a dented signpost, chaotic tire marks, and flowers lain by the southwest bus shelter, no sign of the accident—but I thought I could still see a bloodstain on the road. I was sure of it. I wanted to get a closer look. The noon traffic was intense. I was too high. I stumbled around the intersection. People gaped at me. It was too much. I returned to my car. Took me a few minutes to get it together. Eventually I drove away.

Later, Carmine called me.

“You junkie piece of shit!”

Man, he was mad. I would have shit my pants if I cared.

“I want out,” I told him.

Out, you cockroach! You’re on the hook for five large. How do you expect to pay that back? Out? You’re lucky I don’t come there and break your legs right now.”

“Carmine—”

“Don’t Carmine me. I don’t wanna hear it. Now listen here, sonny. Tomorrow you show up to Robbie’s by ten thirty, no ifs ands or buts. Show up or you won’t be talking to nobody no more. Understand? You fucking junkie. You couldn’t stay clean even for a few months. You’re pathetic.”

He hung up. Pure buzz kill. But he was right. I was pathetic.

That night I couldn’t sleep again. The usual monsters danced through my head. Kept seeing that BMW dude’s red face, looking right at me, wasted out of his mind. Too drunk to feel anything. Too drunk to know.

Unable to empty my head, I dressed and went out. Got in my car and drove to the intersection. The streets were all but deserted.

I parked near the bus shelter, exited my car and walked to the middle of the road, looking for the exact spot where the woman had fallen, perhaps a bloodstain, likely dried by now. A cab appeared, so I jumped back to the sidewalk. The cabbie slowed and looked to see if I wanted a ride. I waved him off and returned to the middle of the intersection.

There, I thought. Found it.

A circular or perhaps somewhat oblong stain, roughly two or three feet in diameter, darkened the asphalt almost to black. I was certain it was blood. I checked if any cars were coming. When I saw the coast was clear I kneeled down, lowered my face to the stain and sniffed it. I shut my eyes and sniffed it, hoping to discern or dispel I don’t know what.

 

 

Salvatore Difalco is the author of 4 books. He splits his time between Toronto and Sicily.