“The Elephant in the Garden” by Hannah Whiteoak

Elephant in the Garden_Paradise
“Paradise” Image by Pam Brodersen

My world is small. That’s what Ian says. My world consists of our bed, the kitchenette with the hot plate, microwave, toaster and kettle, and the view from the window. He says it’s small enough to drive a person crazy.

Some days, my world is so grotesquely huge it overwhelms me and I have to get under the duvet to shrink it to a manageable size. Faced with too much stimulation — the traffic outside, the sudden shadows of birds on the window — I pull the covers over my head and lay there in the warm dark, listening to my loyal heart beat out a lullaby. That’s where I was the day I found out about the elephant.

“I’m home!” Ian announced as he came into the room and stomped over to the window. “Oh.”

“What’s wrong?” I threw off the duvet to find him frowning and squinting out of the window.

“You can’t see it from here.”

“See what? What’s happening?”

He stroked my hair, tucking the duvet back around my chin. “Don’t panic; nothing’s wrong. But there are elephants all over the city. Not real elephants, sculptures for some kind of art project. They’re big and bright and beautiful. I wish you could see them.”

He always wishes I could see the things he does, the things out there. “I’ll look online,” I said.

“It’s not the same.” He frowned and walked away to begin preparing dinner. I got up and followed him. While he cut carrots into careful slices, I rinsed lettuce, turning each leaf over in the stream of water.

Twice he inhaled as though about to say something. Finally, he spoke. “There’s one of those elephants in the botanical garden, just across the street. Why don’t we go and look? It’ll take 10 minutes at the most, and I’ll be right there.”

I arranged the lettuce leaves and set eight cherry tomatoes and eight olives on top. “I don’t go out there.”

He sighed and pushed the vegetables into the pan. Over dinner, we talked about his work, stories in the news, recipes we wanted to try. Anything but the elephant.

***

Now I knew it was there, the elephant trampled through my dreams, trumpeting so loudly I’d wake up, sweating, with a nagging feeling of self-doubt that wouldn’t let me go back to sleep. Instead of its usual steady beat, my heart buzzed and jumped, like a broken alarm sounding for no reason.

After the sixth night of broken sleep, I was ready to do anything to get some rest. “Fine,” I said, pushing away my cereal bowl. “I’ll go see the elephant.”

Ian looked up from the newspaper. “You don’t have to.”

“I do. I’ll go crazy if I don’t. We’ll go tonight, when you get home from work.”

All day I felt sick. Worried about throwing up on the way to the elephant, I didn’t eat anything. As my stomach growled, a dizzying dread skipped from worry to worry so fast I couldn’t keep up.

I met Ian at the door when he arrived home. Confined inside shoes, my toes cramped.

“Are you ready?”

“I think so.”

At the top of the stairs, I stood tense and dumb for over a minute before I could force myself to take the first step down into the world. Instinct screamed that this wasn’t safe, that I needed to get back inside, right now. Ian’s patient stare from the bottom of the staircase cranked up the tension even further, until, finally, something broke. Eyes closed, I ran down the stairs, hand sliding along the rail, ready to grab if I tripped.

Outside, the cars were hostile and angry. One wrong step and they’d mow you down. After six tight, controlled breaths, the lights changed and we hurried in front of an arrogant Mercedes, the engine grumbling and the driver’s stare heavy on my back.

Speeding up, I made it through the gates and into the garden before the lights released the traffic. In this quieter place, I noticed my shoulders up around my ears and forced them down. My fists unclenched.

The garden was as I remembered. Wisteria tumbling from trellises, rose bushes firmly rooted. Squirrels bouncing across the grass like skimmed stones. Benches where we used to cuddle, before my world shrank. And then there was the elephant.

Painted in garish colours, the elephant stood square and proud on its four squat legs. Taller than me, its bulk blocked out my field of vision as I approached to touch it. The fiberglass surface was smooth and cool against my cheek.

Sealing my ear to the elephant’s side muffled the roar from the road. In its place was a gentle throb, like the sea inside a shell. With the eye furthest from the elephant squeezed shut, the patterns painted on its flank stretched out in a distorted landscape that curved around the front leg and plunged into a valley behind the ear.

Ian put his hand on my shoulder. “Do you like it?”

I thought for a long time. “It’s just an elephant.”

“Oh. I thought you’d like it.”

Laughter spilled out of me. “Just an elephant. Just a garden. A tiny corner of a garden.”

When I turned to look at him, he was smiling. A real, hopeful smile, like I hadn’t seen in years.

***

The next day, I pulled the duvet over my head and didn’t respond when Ian left for work.

All day, I thought about how small everything was. Me, the flat, the public garden across the street. Even the elephant seemed small and unimportant. What was the point of expanding my world if it just made everything seem smaller?

“Have you been there all day?” Ian asked when he came home. He peeled the duvet from me as though unwrapping the cling film from a crumbly slice of cake.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go and see the elephant again.”

This time, crossing the street wasn’t so bad. The cars still roared, but at least I could visualise coming back, slipping between them and into the safety of home.

The elephant was still standing quietly in the garden. We walked around it, admiring the interweaving swirls of pink and blue and yellow, but soon got cold and hungry. We took a photograph, pinning down the elephant like a butterfly on a board, and went home.

***

My world is small. My world consists of our flat, the botanical garden, two hundred paces along the road in either direction and the book shop at the end of the road. I don’t go inside, but I look through the window at the titles and ask Ian to get them for me. He says I’m making progress. He talks about going to see some of the other elephants, before the art project ends and they disappear from the city for good. “You have to see them while you can,” he says.

I’m not so sure. Maybe he’s right, and my world is small enough to drive a person crazy. But I’m afraid the more elephants I see, the smaller it will seem.

 

 

Hannah Whiteoak is a freelance writer from the United Kingdom. Her poetry has been published in Ember Journal. She is the winner of a Reedsy Weekly Short Story Contest and was shortlisted for the OWT Short Fiction Contest in 2017.

 

“The Void” by Ryan Stembridge


“Evening Light” Image (detail) by Pam Brodersen

A few months ago, a hole appeared in my bedroom. For the first few days, I mistook it for a balled black sock as I dressed for work in the grey mornings. I didn’t have to wake up that early, but I liked to. An early run does wonders when you’re stuck in an office all day.

On laundry day, I reached with my toes to grab the stray sock and instead a cool whisper of air tickled the hairs of my big toe knuckle. I pulled my foot back with a shiver and looked closer. It was smaller than a baseball and too deep a black for fabric—a drop of pure night sky pooled upon my floor.

There’d been no breeze, I assured myself, and holes didn’t appear for no reason. On all fours, I looked into the hole. It seemed deep, possibly bottomless. The edge showed a cross-section of floorboards, as if cut and carefully sanded. Under them was . . . nothing. Nothing, where there should have been floor space and support beams. Or at least my downstairs neighbors. I reached out, slowly.

This breeze felt colder than it should. Memories floated up: as a boy, cracking open the freezer on hot nights, standing on my toes, pushing my neck toward the chilled air—cool, dark, and lonely. I pictured my floor floating over nothing—in a great vacuum. I stopped. I’m not afraid of heights, but something about that picture—the vast emptiness, and me floating somewhere in it, left me nauseated.

I made a deal: if the hole was still there when I opened my eyes, I would stop calling myself crazy.

It was still there. I wasn’t crazy. Is that something you could decide? Like not letting the rain bother you by deliberately walking slowly?

The air felt even colder as I reached my arm into the hole. Once my arm was fully extended, my fingers danced for contact. I tried to stretch the space between my joints. I felt nothing but pressure, like I’d reached into a deep sea.

Well, maybe I wasn’t crazy, but that damn hole sure was. I debated calling the super, but I couldn’t guess what he’d think. Something deep within rose up at the thought. I couldn’t tell him. He’d blame me, say I was vandalizing the place. So, I did what I do. I ignored it.

*

A few days later, I stepped into it. A feeling of weightlessness ran up my spine, expectations upended. In that moment—during the inch and a half drop—I questioned. Would I keep falling? Had the floor had caved in? Had there ever even been a floor? These doubts, although faint, sprang up in the back of my mind as if I’d always been ready to question the basic laws of physics and that brief moment gave me a reason. And then my heel stoppered the hole. Painfully. The sharp edge scraped back skin. The distraction of pain dispelled the worries for a time.

But later, as I tried to sleep, doubts poked me awake. Then I dreamed of drifting through space on a tiny raft of floorboards—no air but somehow still alive. It became recurring. I’d have nowhere to go and nothing to do but count the stars and watch the occasional comet pass. Sometimes, it wasn’t so bad. But then I’d wake, gasping for air, as if the vacuum had finally closed in.

I tried to get back to my life. I woke early and ran. I ate and worked and drank and slept. More routine than I anticipated when I moved from Flyspeck, Ohio to Chicago. I had a few friends, at least—was part of a semi-regular crowd at the bar. The occasional date went well. Or they used to. Since the hole appeared, I’d been hesitant to invite anyone over.

*

I noticed a whistling sound a few weeks later. I blamed ringing ears, faulty electrical wires, static hums from the TV. I even pictured some far-off jackass playing with a dog whistle that I could barely hear. But I knew what it was. It sounded hollow. I ignored it. I tried to. The hole grew, and with it, the wind.

*

A few days later, I almost dropped a whole leg in. I’d gotten comfortable with my habit of stepping wide as I entered my closet, gaze aimed carefully away. But this time I reeled forward, pushing hard off the sharp edge and falling into my closet, landing painfully on one knee. My other foot dangled in the hole behind me; air rushed around my ankle. No longer the whisper I’d felt before, now a steady flow of crisp, dry air, as if it swirled over morning snow. I looked closely for the first time in weeks.

A watermelon could have rolled in with room to spare. I pulled my foot away and spun around to face it. With the hole so large, more light should have revealed its depths, but inside was the same deep blackness in every direction. Vastness. I stood and dressed as if nothing had changed, but was careful to jump over it on my way out.

*

A week later, I had the usual crew over for poker night. I was only close with Mark and Iris, but we needed more for poker and my place had the largest living room. I usually left my bedroom door open as a low-key invitation for Mallory, but that night I shut it and wished it had a lock.

The hole had grown so large it filled the closet doorway. I put a cardboard box over it. I tried to forget about it—easier said than done. Twice that week I’d found myself staring at it without realizing. But this was poker night—no room for the void.

The game was going fine. Seb had the lead, as usual, but I had a good start. Mark flamed out early, but was enjoying spicy wings in the kitchen. I was nursing my third beer and trying to stay calm. I had pocket kings. The flop came out with another. I was riding pretty. Iris and Blair stayed in, bets came out, and the pot grew. One of the biggest of the night. Everyone watched.

“What’s that howling sound?” Mark asked. “Is it storming?”

A cold fist gripped the base of my spine. I kept my eyes on the table. No big deal. I couldn’t relax my shoulders.

Iris raised an eyebrow. She’d had her hand on a large stack of chips, probably to call my bet. Instead, she sighed. “I fold. Nice try looking scared, but you exaggerated it.”

Seb made an oof at the hand—he wasn’t one to be distracted—but now Mallory and Mark both were looking out the window and cocking their heads. Yellow street lamps illuminated still trees and grey, week-old snow. No storm.

“Is there a window cracked?” asked Mallory.

My stomach churned. “Oh, yeah, in the bathroom,” I said, hoping poker had helped my bluff. “The heater’s in there, so it gets crazy hot.” I felt trapped in my clothes, hotter by the second.

No one got up to look. A few hands later, Mark went to the bathroom.

“Does that window even open?” he asked as he reemerged and stood by my bedroom door. “It’s louder over here.”

What if they saw? What if they fucking saw? They’d want to know: what it was, where it came from, how it happened. How could I explain? Maybe they’d laugh it off as an oddity. Tell me to fix it already. I told myself it wasn’t a big deal, that it would be easier to show it than describe it. But I couldn’t. Deep down, I knew I couldn’t.

“I think it’s coming from in here.” Mark tapped on my bedroom door.

Panicked, I said, “Oh shit, you know what, I forgot I left my humidifier on.” My mom had one. It always made weird noise.

“You use a humidifier?” Iris asked.

“Yeah. So what?”

They were looking at me. My neck felt wrapped by a thick, scratchy scarf.

Mark reached for the doorknob.

“Christ, Mark, leave it the fuck alone,” I said.

Seb and Blair exchanged looks that said, spaz. Assholes.

Mallory looked concerned, a little annoyed. Fickle.

Jayesh hid in the kitchen, avoiding the tension. Coward.

Iris looked offended.

Mark raised an eyebrow, still listening at the door.

“Poker,” I said, in a more relaxed tone. I could still be chill. “Let’s play, man.”

Mark listened for a few more seconds. He said, “It sounds weird,” but walked back to the table and sat.

My game fell apart after that. Seb won. But they left and I could breathe again.

I approached my bedroom door and cracked it open. The howling had grown. It was a wonder they hadn’t all heard and stormed in.

The cardboard was gone. The void must have swallowed it. A quarter of the room was missing—baseboards hung over empty air on both sides. Wind pulled at my clothes as if it might pull hard enough to unbalance me mid-stride.

I sat on my bed and stared into the void. I pulled the blankets close around me and shivered as I stared.

My alarm went off, startling me. I’d fallen asleep slumped against the wall. My neck didn’t want to straighten. I hit snooze, but didn’t. Instead, I sat on the edge of the bed and stared. I could run tomorrow. Something drew me into that void. It was cold, dark, and lonely. Captivating. I was late to work that day. Only by a minute.

I tried to get back into my routine, but failed. My morning runs, most of my sleep, my bar nights, they all fell away. The howling wind became a blizzard and loose objects started disappearing. I’d find myself awake, lying on the edge of the bed, staring toward the hole while the wind pulled at my blankets. I had to sleep with them curled underneath me to hold them. I could still see the void in the dim glow from my alarm clock—a darker shadow than the rest.

I started stumbling into work, late and red-eyed. I had a meeting with my project manager last week about coming to work hung over. She wouldn’t believe I wasn’t.

I saw Mark and Iris a few more times, but I avoided the group. Mark kept asking me what was wrong with me. Iris kept saying I looked stressed and patting my arm. We were supposed to play poker again yesterday, but I cancelled. Iris has been texting me a storm since. Mark sent a few angry texts, but gave up.

My phone vibrates in my hand. It’s Iris again. She sounds worried. I should say something. Tomorrow. I’ll text her tomorrow.

I look back into the void. It’s truly massive now. My bed’s the only thing left in the room save for my desk and chair, out of reach, in the other corner. I’ve been here all day, sitting on the edge of my bed. My feet hang off the side, chilled to the bone in the howling wind. My heels rest on what’s left of the hardwood floor. There’s only three or so inches left sticking out from under my bed, barely enough for me to stand.

It’s been growing. Soon, the entire floor will be gone. Will my bed slide in and fall away? Or will it be like the walls by my closet, floating on nothing like a raft on a sea of emptiness? I balance on the lip, calves against my bed. The wind tears the blanket from my grip and swirls it around the room until it catches my desk chair and pulls them both into the void. They fall away, further and further until the black envelops them. I raise my arms to feel the wind. It’s almost strong enough to lift me.

 

 

Ryan Stembridge recently graduated with an MFA in fiction from the University of Memphis. He enjoys magical realism and exploring experimental formats, as well as more traditional styles. Ryan’s poetry recently appeared in the Merrimack Review’s spring issue and he worked as an editor with The Pinch Journal for three years. Outside of writing, Ryan is a proud new father and sometimes sleeps.

 

“An Opening” by Ree Davis

An Opening (Celestial Fantasy)
“Celestial Fantasy” Image by Pam Brodersen

The drawer smelled rancid. I dug into the narrow void, past where I could see. I hated losing things, and didn’t do it often, but somehow over the last few years I’d misplaced a box of my grandfather’s things that I’d found in his bedside table after he passed away. Its contents were gone as well, dispersed over the house by the kids during one of their various phases of fascination with Mommy and Daddy’s stuff. Of all the items the box contained, one stuck in my memory—a cardboard pheasant about three inches long and a quarter of an inch thick, the smooth, colorfully printed image laminated to the cardboard almost too detailed for the age of the other objects in the box. When I’d found it, I’d imagined it was part of a set. Now I had no idea where it was, and I was running out of places to look. My grandfather was a coal mine fire boss—he kept the pheasant in a box with his Social Security card; a silver coin that had been turned into a ring by a friend from his youth who was gassed in the war; an untitled herbal remedy that included bitters; various buttons; and an old brass-handled nutpick. I would tear apart the house to find it. Beads of sweat sprung up on my forehead despite the chill of the weather outside, which was sending another several inches of snow onto what had fallen the day before. I bent at an unnatural angle to grope the back of the drawer.

“Something missing?” Jeremy’s voice cracked as if he hadn’t spoken in a while. I took a breath in and twisted to see him.

“Nothing.” I stood and closed the drawer.

“Something smells awful.”

“It’s the drawer.”

“I highly doubt that, Michelle.” His eyes didn’t look as sunken as they had over those last few weeks. Maybe it was just my imagination. A short crop of stubble was beginning to appear on his scalp and chin. He reminded me of a school presentation our daughter had done that included a marker drawing of the top of a bald head and eyes looking up to handwritten text, Why Chemotherapy Makes You Bald. I liked him with this rough glaze of stubble, as if new life was springing from his skin. But his self-image included lots of hair, so it was a version of him that I had to keep quiet about. “Twist ties and rubber bands don’t stink.”

“We’ve kept all kinds of stuff in here. It’s a junk drawer,” I said, envisioning a small scrap of asparagus clinging to a tight purple rubber band, having rotted to pure stench over a period of a few weeks. I imagined the odor leaking out even with the drawer closed.

Jeremy poured himself a mug of water with a short gush from the faucet and punched the microwave latch. He slipped the mug into the microwave. It made a hollow rumble as he pushed it to the center of the turntable. I never microwaved water for tea because it got cloudy and tasted like metal. “Your imagination is too active,” he’d say. He punched two minutes and leaned against the counter with a tea bag in his hand. “I’m not going to make it, you know.” He looked at me only after the last word had settled in the air.

I didn’t want to listen. I’d invested too much in him. Losing the fight of his life had never been an option. I preferred to look for a cardboard pheasant. The drawer stuck out from the cabinet just a bit, as if something was jammed behind it. I could barely resist the urge to pull the drawer open. If I could figure out how to yank it out of the cabinet, I would. My hand ached to reach back in. The pheasant had been brilliantly decorated—a male with long variegated feathers. My grandfather must have treasured it. His coal-rimmed fingers must have sought out its smooth surface whenever he rifled through the box. I wished Jeremy would say something else.

The timer on the microwave beeped. He dropped the tea bag into the water, which hissed and bubbled.

“You were gonna kick this thing? We were.” My voice barely disguised a resentment I didn’t understand. I was fighting-mad.

He didn’t seem to notice. All his attention was on the surface of the tea. Was the water changing color as the bag dropped into the hot water?

I didn’t want to remember Jeremy this way. I closed my eyes and envisioned him coming in from a run with his T-shirt dark with sweat instead, his forehead glazed in salt, and his hair in thick damp curls.

“That smell, that you think is in the drawer.” He gripped the mug with both hands and moved to the window. “It’s everywhere.”

“It’s not; it’s old asparagus or something rotted into the wood, just bad housekeeping.”

“I keep thinking of all the choices I made.”

I didn’t want to hear it. I’d rather talk about about the twins or how his mother never really liked me, even after caring for him.

“Drinking, smoking.” He hesitated. “Drugs.” He stared out the picture window. I closed my eyes again because I didn’t want to roll them. Spouses of the sick do not surrender to sarcasm or impatience. “Watching TV rather than exercising. Not drinking enough water. All that fast food my mother warned me about. This is the price for being careless.”

I wanted to rest my hand on the chenille of his robe, but I couldn’t. The fabric had grown rough with frequent washings and smelled of fabric softener—lavender with a chemical edge. Underneath, something else. I rubbed my nose as a reflex. My fingers smelled like the drawer, which was almost comforting. I touched the tips to my nose and inhaled. I hated the notion of larger judgments, of a past that haunts you, bad decisions like latent viruses waiting to take hold. Biological retribution. One genetic test would have ended this discussion. “That sounds more ridiculous now than when you first said it.”

Jeremy looked at me like he knew something I didn’t. “I once heard that every heart has only so many beats—once you’ve reached that number, it’s over. A slower pulse means a longer life. Faster, shorter. That’s it.”

“Like planned obsolescence?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“I was kidding.”

“Maybe we only get so much endurance. If it’s squandered, it won’t be there when we need it.” He blew across the tea. Months ago, the lecture had been longer. “I feel like crap. My last days on earth are going to be more about feeling like crap than life. I won’t be able to remember another way of being. Images of feeling like crap will be all that flashes before my eyes as the lights go out.”

Parts of Jeremy had been completely unaltered by the process of illness—the shape of his legs, the pinkish tan lobes of his ears, the fullness of his lips. “Maybe I’d be better off with lots of morphine and a chaise lounge in the backyard. I’d be happier. I’d be in nature. The kids could play while I watched. Maybe you could take some time off and garden again.”

This didn’t work for me—the movie ending with the couple holding hands in the backyard and the sick one quietly nodding away in death. My memories deserved a fight. I took the kids to school, went to work, called him a few times a day. Work was a relief, a vacation from caregiving. I even got a raise in the middle of it all.

I tried to take in Jeremy’s look, his smell, the sense of him in the room. But I felt caged, like I was banging my head against the bars. “The doctors said there’s hope. Let’s stick with hope.”

I wanted him to reach over and rub my head, mussing my hair like he used to. Instead, I closed my eyes tight, feeling the flesh around my eyes wrinkle in on itself. Imagining his hand in my hair.

“’Chelle, I’ll jump through hoops for you if you want me to.” He really was saying, but don’t make me.

“How about for the twins.” I wasn’t exactly certain of when that look in his eyes shifted to some other plane of his existence. He could barely see the kids anymore. He’d started writing cards for each of them for future birthdays, graduations, weddings. All the cards said the same thing, “Know I’m with you. Know I love you.” I would put those cards away and only bring them out when I was alone, when I wanted to see his lousy penmanship again.

Jeremy walked to the back door and onto the patio. I watched him through the windows. The green lawn framed him in his blue robe, his pale hand held the red mug, white stubble coated his face and head like an early frost. All the colors seemed vivid and oversaturated, as if the sunlight carried its own psychedelic glow, and I realized then how much I missed our life together.

I opened the drawer again and reached deeper inside. My fingers felt a narrow, thick tab, like maybe the shape of a pheasant’s tail. I pulled, but it was lodged in the back seam of the drawer. I leaned in with a flashlight, and the smell hit me again. I almost couldn’t bear it. I held my breath and finagled my arm deeper into the drawer. As I tried to wrench the object from where it was wedged, I could see over the counter, out through the window, and into the yard. Snow filtered down from an unbroken gray sky and settled onto the black covers shrouding the lawn furniture. A spiderweb of frozen crystals moved across the panes of glass in the window. The twins piled more snow on the snowman they’d built yesterday. “Fatter, Mommy, fatter,” they’d said in unison. Around them, the late-afternoon sky changed everything to shades of gray.

~For Betsy Smith Edmunds

 

 

Ree Davis has worked as a cook, dishwasher, seamstress, farmworker, typist, and baker. She’s traveled across the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Graduating from Cornell University, she headed R&D for a Fortune 500 Company and gained masters degrees in architecture and creative writing. Ree lived on both US coasts, in Japan and China. Her work has won two Pushcart Nominations and appeared in Narrative Magazine, Daedalus: The Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Limestone, and Penmen Review, among others. Her story “A Limitless Sky” was adapted to a radioplay by Delmarva Public Radio. She lives in southwest Virginia.

 

“Robbing Pillars” by Sheryl Monks

Robbing Pillars
“Down” by Penelope Breen

Maiden Estep leads the Red Hat into Number Six at Bear Town, where the mine starts. They walk at first, back to the crawl, miles deep inside, under the town of Grundy. Already, they have cut a strip in both directions, and soon they’ll be coming back through the middle, robbing pillars it’s called, the most danger any of them have been exposed to except the old guys, the robbing line and the dynamite guys. Maiden runs the scoop, loading what they dig and blast loose onto the conveyor that carries it out through the mountain and into the yard. A couple times a night, he climbs off the scoop and crawls along the belt throwing pieces back on that have fallen over, up and down the narrow gangway.

The Red Hat’s name is Charlie Hawkins, barely out of high school. Most of the men know him already. Got a little girl pregnant his junior year. Who hadn’t gotten a little girl pregnant at some point?

The kid’s tall, six-five or six, there abouts, and carries it all through the legs, not the trunk of his body as some men do. From the knee to his hip, he is nearly as tall as the mine is deep in this section, so the crawl behind Maiden is cumbersome.

“Don’t bow your back,” Maiden warns. “4160 running overhead.”

Maiden is only a White Hat himself. This is the first time he’s been part of robbing pillars, and he is uneasy, even though the actual pillar robbing is not his job. Once they’ve humped out the vein they’re working on, the robbers will come behind and start pulling the pillars, the mountain collapsing at their heels.

There is water standing in ruts along the crawl, which dampens the knees of their work pants. Occasionally they hear a drip, but once they travel deeper inside, the floor of the shaft becomes dry again. Visibility is only possible by the dim lights of their miners’ caps, powered by wet-cell batteries. Overhead, the 4160 hums in Maiden’s ears.

The only other thing so far that has spooked him is the blasting. When the dynamite men come in, the others hunker down where they are and protect themselves as best they can. The only real thing between them and fire-in-the-hole is prayer. Not even the unbelievers chance it. “Faith can move mountains,” the miners say. “Just pray like hell it don’t have to.”

A case of the nerves makes the Red Hat natter on about something or other behind Maiden. Baseball. Goose Gossage. Maiden has never watched a game of professional baseball or any other sport, on television or anywhere else, but he can’t imagine pulling for a player from New York City. He likes only westerns and war movies, though he doesn’t mention it to the Red Hat. Maiden lets him blather on, respectfully saying nothing, only occasionally issuing a calm reminder now and again about the current running overhead.

The Red Hat is having trouble, though, and somewhere deep in the pit of Maiden’s stomach he knows something’s going to happen. Something bad. It’s as if a ghost has suddenly whispered in his ear. His flesh crawls all over and he throws another piece of slab up onto the conveyor. Then he turns to look at the Red Hat, low-crawling for every penny he’s worth. Maiden thinks of learning to low-crawl himself at the boy’s age, nineteen or there abouts, in the army, basic training, under concertina wire, fake rounds fired overheard and only sporadically. Nothing nearly so dangerous at 4160. The Red Hat hasn’t thrown the first chunk of coal up onto the belt, but Maiden does not reprimand. The boy is scared. Maiden lets him prattle on.

“Got an aunt over here in Grundy,” the kid says. “Reckon we might be up under her house?”

Maiden doesn’t answer. Says only again, “Watch it there now.”

“Hard to say, I guess. Never know though. Could be we are. Right up under Jimmy’s old room. Jimmy’s gone off to Beckley. We got people there. Know anybody in Beckley? I knew this one girl from War, nearby you know, and buddy I’m telling you she was abou–.”

And then, just like that, Maiden sees things happen twice before his eyes. One version takes place quick. In an instant, he sees the Red Hat stretch forward with one arm, his head buried into the earth. Then he bows up for leverage to push off again. And just as he pitches back on one knee, he arches his spine and the wet strap of his mining belt draws too near the 4160 and sparks. “Oh, Lord!” the boy cries. “Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!” Over and over and over while Maiden screams back down through the shaft that a man has gotten tangled up in the wire. “Kill the switch!” Maiden screams. “Cut the goddamn juice! A man’s hit! A man’s hit! Good, Jesus, a man’s hit!”

“Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord!” the Red Hat seems to say, even though he is a puddle of flesh, melting like cheese in the damp but smelling of meat. Maiden knows he’s dead, but the kid keeps talking and Maiden just lies there, waiting helplessly as he was taught to do in miners’ school. He does not extend a hand. He doesn’t rush to the boy’s side, though the urge to is overpowering and Maiden just screams his guts out and cries for God in heaven to have mercy. He’s just a kid. Nineteen. Twenty at most. A big, gangly-legged kid whose knee caps have been blown off. “Jesus! Oh, Jesus! Hurry the fuck up down there!” Maiden calls again and again before the power is thrown and the Red Hat stops chattering.

~

In the other version, Maiden had seen a ghost behind the Red Hat. Some kind of phantom. A wisp or something. It was blurry but distinct enough that Maiden had fixed his gaze upon it while the kid had talked on and on about his cousin Jimmy going off to Beckley. Maiden’s wife begs him every night to quit. Number Six is about to shut down soon anyway, she tells him. When Maiden dons his carbide light and packs his dinner bucket with water and leftovers, she resorts to threats, name-calling. Maiden, you sonofabitch! Maiden! Maiden! He lets her speak her peace. Goes on to work. Someone has to run the scoop.

Today they are coming back up the middle, robbing all the pillars. Number Six will chase them tunnel by tunnel as they pull timbers and wait for the roof to collapse one room at a time so they can mine the fall. That’s money standing there, supporting the roof, and the company wants every square inch.

The Red Hat is not the first man Maiden has known about dying, nor the only one he’s witnessed firsthand. Parmelai Cline was caught between two cars on the tipple of a breaker. Clarence Price was killed by a rush of slush when water forced it out the gangway. Julius Reed was tamping a hole when powder in the tunnel exploded. During miners’ training, Maiden heard about men suffocating when they walked into pockets of gas, being struck by frozen slags of culm or being smothered by a rush of dirt working at the culm bank. Men had been run over by loaders, crushed by cave-ins when ribs gave way. They’d been burned, mangled by machinery, and electrocuted like Charlie, the young Red Hat.

When Maiden runs the scoop back through the shaft where the boy died, he wonders about the aunt’s house in Grundy and whether or not they had indeed been somewhere under it when the kid had gotten caught up in the wire. It’s risky, thinking about the dead so soon, if old wives’ tales are to be believed. Bad luck. Better if he thinks of something else, just in case, but the Red Hat consumes his thoughts. Goose What-was-his-name? And then the boy melting like a Popsicle before him. He wonders where the boy’s aunt might’ve been standing. Had she felt something, deep in the earth, some pull on her like a dowsing stick drawn by a vein of ground water?

The robbers begin taking out a few of the timbers as Maiden waits near the other room with the scoop and watches. Those remaining start to buckle under the weight of the roof, but the process isn’t as fast as he expects. The roof does not cave in immediately in order for them to load the fallen coal onto Maiden’s scoop and send it out into the yard. The robbers go one timber at a time, striking with their hammers, prying and shoving on each one until it kicks loose from the floor and the weight of the rock above their heads is redistributed to the others still standing. It’s a game of Russian roulette, no telling when the roof will fall, so they work slowly, pulling one timber and then watching, listening as the other supports begin to splinter and crack in the dark around them. There is nervous energy between the robbers. They talk casually together, laugh loudly, estimating if they should maybe pull another one. Watching by the dim torch of his carbide light becomes unbearable for Maiden. He can feel the weight pressing down on them, inch by inch, timbers slowly splintering and buckling all around, but still the roof is content to hold.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” one of the robbers says. “She ain’t budging. Run the scoop up here, hoss, and let’s see if we can shake this bitch loose.”

Maiden realizes he is being addressed, but still he hesitates. “What’s that?”

“Run the scoop this a’way and see if it don’t shake the ground just enough.”

All four of the men, including Maiden, are working on their stomachs. Whenever the roof does decide to fall, they won’t be able to run. The robbers can’t risk pulling out another timber. Maiden watches as they make their way toward him to the other room, a safe distance away from the shattering timbers. At least he has the scoop, which might be fast enough.

He wedges himself into the machine and drives forward cautiously as the robbers tell him how to proceed.

“Tap on that one right there,” says Arbury Massey. “Easy ought to do it, and then hightail it back.”

Goose Gossage was the ball player’s name, Maiden remembers. And then he is caught by a feeling of being drawn upward. He hears a low growl of thunder and looks around to see that the cap boards have begun to twist and rip. The watery contents of his stomach seem to rise like a wave in his diaphragm. But it’s not only that; the blood in his heart and veins pools at the top of his head, in both arms and legs.

The Red Hat’s aunt is standing directly over him, he realizes. Maiden closes his eyelids, lifts his face, and as the tears well in his eyes, they too are drawn up in streaks that wash the coal dust from his temples and over his forehead. The woman kneels to the floor and places her hand, just there, on his cheek. And then the earth rains down.

 

 

Sheryl Monks is the author of Monsters in Appalachia, published by Vandalia Press, an imprint of West Virginia University Press. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Sheryl’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Electric Literature, The Butter, The Greensboro Review, storySouth, Regarding Arts and Letters, Night Train, and other journals, and in the anthologies Surreal South: Ghosts and Monsters and Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Contemporary West Virginia Fiction and Poetry, among others. She works for a peer-reviewed medical journal and edits the online literary magazine Change Seven. Visit her online at www.sherylmonks.com.

“Robbing Pillars” is excerpted from Monsters in Appalachia (Vandalia Press/WVU Press, 2016) and first appeared in Split Lip Magazine. It appears here, courtesy of the author.

“BOOM!” by Ron Tanner

Boom
“Emotional Landscapes2,” by Penelope Breen

On the ferry ride back to Ebeye, when the boat is a quarter mile from the lagoon’s rim of reef and Kwajalein is half a mile behind them, a collection of distant white lights winking from the black horizon, Jeton jumps overboard when no one is watching. He knows to push away quickly, to avoid the tow of the boat’s churning propellers. A strong swimmer, a pair of borrowed running shoes tied around his neck, he backstrokes over the boat’s wake. It’s hard work because the tide is going out. Soon the boat is far away and Jeton is alone in the dark water. If he were on the oceanside, he would be shark bait. But here on the lagoon side, he knows there are few sharks. Still, he has to be careful.

He can hear the water slapping exposed rock on the reef a hundred yards ahead. And at last he can see the pale expanse of sand below him—and large darting fish. Above, clouds chase each other like racing ships through the whorl of stars. The moon has yet to rise. As soon as he can stand, bullied by small waves, Jeton slips on the shoes. The reef at low tide will allow him to walk back to Kwajalein. But he has to walk fast, watch for Security Patrol, and get across before the Security boat motors by with its sun-bright spot. He has to walk careful too, watch that he doesn’t slip and cut himself on the coral, which is sharp like fish knives. Salt water will ruin the leather Nikes he borrowed from cousin Mike. But fuck it.

It takes a long time, this careful walking in dark water.

As he sloshes through tide pools, slipping every other step, cursing the reef, he almost wishes a rogue wave would reach over from oceanside and pull him into the depths—then Nora would be sorry, drowned Jeton washed up on Emon beach, where Nora takes her morning swim.

When they met at a soccer game that first time, Nora said, “You’re damned reckless, you know that?” She was flirting, he knew right away. He offered her a cigarette and she said, “Are you crazy?”

“Yes,” he said.

That’s all it took. Boom! like that.

In two days she flies to the States. Four thousand two hundred miles east. What is four thousand miles to Jeton? He has flown to Guam twice. One thousand three hundred miles. That was far enough.

After the game this afternoon, when his team walked over to shake hands with her team (they beat the ri-pālle 7 to 2), he got close enough to her to whisper, “I’m gonna die if I don’t see you, jera.”

Then he heard her sigh the kind of sigh he hears Betra, his younger sister, make when she looks at the mail-order Nordstrums catalogue from the States, at all those things she knows she cannot have. Nora didn’t have time to answer him. And then she was gone, swept away with the other cheerleaders and the ri-pālle boys.

“I know, it’s hard,” Nora said at their last meeting.

“I own a fourth of Kwajalein!” he said, desperate for justification.

“You mean your grandmother does,” Nora corrected.

“Same thing!” he said.

Jeton’s grandmother gets a check every few months for leasing her part of Kwajalein to the Americans. It has been enough to buy her a condo on Guam, a new Nissan Altima LX every other year, a pork farm in Manila, but not enough to give to her huge family, every one of them with an empty hand held out. Still, she offered to buy Jeton a used Sentra and set him up in the taxi business on Majuro. Jeton pictures himself driving Majuro’s long, flat two-lane road all day, every day—ial an iroj, the King’s Road, it is called. The only road. Four or five quarters per ride. Majuro island is one mile wide and 34 miles long and 300 miles from here. They have a couple of discos and a copra plant and fifteen churches.

Fuck that.

In his mind, he hears Nora say his name, over and over. Nobody has said his name like that, like it was a valuable secret. He can smell the strawberry shampoo of her hair, the flowery scent of her body lotion—she sunburns easily. She gave him everything.

She used to say, “You’re the one, Jeton, you’re the only one.”

He knows that in her ettōnak, her awake dreams, she is already on that plane, already back in the States, going to college, dating other boys and thinking of a “major” and a life Jeton can’t begin to understand.

“I will write,” she promised.

“Yes,” he said. “Long emails.”

Now: something stutters and skips past his feet. A shrimp scuttering to safety.

Americans like to come out here with flashlights to hunt for shells at low tide. Some aren’t careful and the high tide catches them, sweeps them out to deep water and they are never found. All of this is a mystery to them, the water, the reef, the life the ri-Majeļ used to know. The ri-Majeļ were great navigators, great canoe builders. They knew how to read the waves and they made secret charts with sticks and cowries shells that enabled them to travel anywhere they pleased. No one knows how to do that any more, except at the Allele Museum on Majuro, where two old men work year-round hacking out ceremonial tipñōls, sailing canoes, for tourists to see.

Jeton once took Nora to Pikeej in his uncle’s speed boat. Pikeej is uninhabited, an overgrown coconut plantation with many hidden ruins from the World War Two, Japanese bunkers and huge oil tanks rusted orange. “Oh, God, Jeton, this is so cool,” Nora said as they combed through the jungle. Jeton had a machete, wasps bobbed over their heads, the air was sweet with the scent of kōno blossoms. They found a grassy mound that could have been a grave site or a buried ammo dump. There they slipped off their clothes and looked at each other in the filtered light. Then they kissed and kissed until their lips were raw and there was nothing left to do but exhaust each another way.

Why isn’t this good enough?

Jeton comes ashore at last, wet up to the knees. As he walks, his borrowed Nikes sound like soggy mops against a tile floor.

Nora lives in one of the new pre-fabs at this end of the island. They all look alike and, for a moment, Jeton panics, hidden in the shadow of someone’s central air. He doesn’t know if he can remember the right duplex.

Here comes the Security pickup with its big light. Lucky thing there are no dogs on Kwajalein, all that barking. Jeton scrambles farther into the shadows just as Security shoots its light where he was crouched. Truck slows to a stop, engine grumbling, light snaking through the dark stubbled yard between the pre-fabs, back porches, bamboo fence, gas grills, locked-up bicycles. Jeton pants, sucking air through his mouth, balled up behind a low fence. Shameful to be caught this way, like a shrimp curled under a rock.

If they catch him what can they do?

Last night, while drinking, one of the older men said to him: “Loving American likatu is no big deal. Everyone has a story of loving American girls.”

This is what he fears, that he is not special, that there is nothing in him that will make him different from anybody else. Doesn’t matter if his grandmother owns one fourth of Kwajalein. Doesn’t matter if he would’ve been a prince in another life. What is he now, right now?

~

The difference between Kwajalein and Ebeye starts with the streets, Jeton decides. Here, they are wide and paved and bright with electric light. The houses are neat, they all look alike, the yards are clear of motorbikes, scrap wood, trash, and chickens, and everything everywhere is green.

Jeton prefers Ebeye. Or Majuro. The haphazard houses and the sandy streets that curl and twist like vines and the animals that run freely and the children playing everywhere you turn and the cooking smells and the women singing and the laundry flagging from the lines over the dirt yards—it all feels good. The Americans’ place seems empty and haunted like Japanese war ruins on Jaluit.

Here it is, Nora’s house. Plastic Chinese lanterns of many colors glow from the bamboo’d patio. Jeton hears several girls talking, laughing. Sleepover. He has guessed right. Far from the patio fence, Jeton crouches at the trunk of a palm tree and listens. He can’t make out what they are saying. Maybe talking about hot boys. Maybe talking about college. Who can tell with girls? When there is a lull in the chatter, Jeton whistles. It is his special whistle, sounds like hissing and bird squeak at the same time. Everyone in his family does this whistle. Nora has teased him about it. “You think I’ll answer that, like a dog or something?”

He whistles again. Now the girls whisper severely to one another. A wasp’s nest. Then he hears his name, like a curse on their lips. Jeton, it’s Jeton.

            And he knows that he has made a mistake. He should run, he should leave Nora alone, he should give her space, something Americans are always talking about. He is making trouble. But he can’t go, he won’t go. Not now. He will take his punishment, whatever it is, like the day he reefed his uncle’s boat, like the time he insulted his grandfather by patting him on the head like a child, like the night he got drunk and rode his brother’s bicycle off the pier.

The patio door opens, a paw of yellow light leaps into the yard, and Nora—unmistakable silhouette—walks towards him. The pink of a nearby street lamp lights her face. It is the face of a smart woman. Mālōtlōt. The kind of woman who could live happily on an outlying atoll. Who would not cringe from cleaning fish. Who would not complain when the rains came.

She is popular, she has said, because she is not pretty like those models in the Nordstrom catalogue who scare Jeton because they look so mej. Dead. “Who could love them?” he asked her. “Why do Americans think these creatures are jouj?” Questions like these delight Nora: he can make her smile. This is how it should be always.

Tonight she wears a sparkly tank-top and white shorts and her white Berkenstocks. Tall, long legs, head up like she was walking at graduation. A woman who would sail with him through Toon Milu pass, north to Rongelap or Bikar or far-away Bokak.

What can he say to make her smile now?

He remains crouched, out of respect. He wants a cigarette, something to do with his hands.

“Jeton, what are you doing?”

His listens for love in her voice, a voice so much lower than any ri-Majeļ woman or girl he knows. Americans talk deep in the throat with flat words.

“I die when I don’t see you, Nora.”

“How did you get here?”

“Walked.”

“Across the reef?” She widens her lovely eyes. “Are you crazy?”

“Yes.”

“Jeton.” Sighing, she kneels near him. But then she has nothing to say.

Her freckles, he can see them now: a thousand islands he wants to inhabit.

He says, “I don’t want you to go.” The words hurt like fish bone in his throat, make his eyes sting. As he swipes at his tears, he sees the other girls peering from behind the patio door.

Nora says, “What would I do here?” This sounds like a complaint.

He shrugs. “We could have fun.”

He wants more than fun. He is sure she knows this.

She sighs again. Is she so tired? “We have been over this several times.”

“You and me could do it, lijera, we could live on a island, just like we dreamed. You’d like it.”

“It wasn’t my dream,” she says. Then, quickly she adds: “I’m seventeen, Jeton, what do I know about living on an atoll?”

It wasn’t my dream. He tries to ignore this. Maybe all she needs is convincing.

“You could learn,” he says. “You love it here, you said so.”

“I’m seventeen!”

He says nothing, only stares at her, waiting. Then he does what the ri-Majeļ do best. He smiles.

“Why does this make you smile?” she asks.

“Seventeen, Nora. You can do anything.”

“And that’s what I want to do—anything and everything. Things I can’t do if I’m stuck on a tiny island out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“Nowhere?” There is no equivalent for nowhere in his language. Ejjeļok maybe: nothing.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” she says quickly. She touches one finger to the top of his hand.

But she does not take his hand. He feels himself sinking, like a man wallowing in wet sand. Nowhere. What is nowhere?

He sees regret in her face, that sorry look he has seen after his mother loses a day’s wages at cousin Amsa’s weekly cock fight. Gone, her look says, it’s gone.

Jeton weighs the American words of loss: nothing, none, not, no.

At last his bellen lays her hand lightly over his, brings him back abruptly, but he can hardly see her for the tide rising again in his eyes.

She says, “Jeton, don’t you have any plans?”

“College, Nora? I’m no good at school.”

“Maybe start with junior college.”

“In the States? You don’t want your ri-Majeļ boy in the States with you.”

“I didn’t say we’d be together, Jeton. I’m talking about your future, not about us.”

“You are my future.”

“I am your girlfriend, that’s all. And day after tomorrow I’m going to fly away. That’s a fact you have to accept.”

“I don’t want you to forget me,” he says.

“Why would I forget you? How could I?” She lowers her head to meet his eyes.

Sitting in the half dark, palm tops clattering above them in the breeze, the girls spying on them from the patio, Security Patrol prowling somewhere nearby—Jeton understands that he wants more from Nora than she can give him. If only he could describe his feelings, he might change her mind. But there are not enough words and they are not the right kind of words.

“You will have other boy friends,” he says.

“And you won’t ever have another girl friend? You want to mummify me or something? I’ve got my life, you’ve got yours. Maybe you’ll find your way to the States and we’ll see each other. Maybe I’ll decide I’d rather be here and I’ll come back. Who can say? Anything can happen, just like you and I happened. “

He wishes she would take his hand, kiss it the way she used to, lay her face against his neck.

“You are right,” he says. “I am just a boy, I don’t know what I am doing.”

She smiles at him. This is what he wants, that softening, that kindness. But he is lying to her. He believes that she is making a terrible mistake, that she will be in her big, cluttered American house years from now and she will look out at her big empty yard with its too-green grass and she will think of the life she could have had here with Jeton. But he knows that he cannot stop her. He knows that, as with certain lovely fish, he has to stay clear or risk great harm.

She says, almost in a whisper, “I’m not sorry for what we had, are you?”

“No, I am not sorry,” he says. She will haunt him, he knows. He will see her always in his head: Nora running, Nora laughing, Nora waving to a friend, Nora’s long fingers combing through his hair, Nora kissing him on the nose.

“Are you going to be all right?” she asks.

“I’m cool.” Saying what the American boys always say.

“You’re not going to do something crazy?”

“I will hang out till morning, then take the ferry back, OK?”

“Why don’t you sleep on Brit’s patio—we’ll go inside.” She offers him her kindest smile. “Please?”

It is impolite to deny an offer of hospitality. And he wants to make her happy. And he would like to be near her. Maybe in the morning she will change her mind. He knows this is a slim chance but it is more than he had a few minutes ago.

She does not kiss him when she says good night from the back door of Brit’s house. He is sitting on the patio hammock, which swings slightly beneath him. The patio smells like candy sweetness. Girls. Jeton nods his goodnight to Nora, watches her close the door and disappear into the darkness beyond the kitchen. She feels sorry for him. That is not good. She will return in the morning to find him curled on the hammock like a stray dog. And he will smell of tonight’s hard walking. And she will be eager to get home because she is excited about her trip. She is going places. 4,250 miles. And he is going to Ebeye. He is not going to college. He is not going to the States.

He does not lie down; there is no sleep in him. He leaves the patio, the girlish sweetness still in his lungs. Sadness makes his heart feel like it is a piece of water-soaked wood. Sodden and sluggish. He stands in the street and stares up at the duplex, at the light in Brit’s window. He imagines the girls will whisper all night long. They will give Nora advice, tell her how to dump Jeton in the morning.

He doesn’t know how long he stands out here. A long time.

Then he hears a truck approaches. Security Patrol. But Jeton does not think fast enough to run. And suddenly it looks like morning, so much light around him.

He turns to the light. Truck light.

“Don’t move, son.”

It is the big-bellied black American officer named Ulysses. With a grunt of effort he steps out of the pickup. He reminds Jeton of his third uncle on his father’s side. Except this man has no sideburns. The officer squints through the smoke of his cigarette, which he keeps at his mouth. He has his right hand on the gun at his wide leather belt. His other hand holds a big flashlight. Truck’s spot makes Jeton squint hard.

“You got I.D.?” the officer asks. He stands to one side of the truck. Garble stutters through the little black radio attached to his shirt pocket. It looks like the weight of the man should pull him over.

Jeton slides his Velcro wallet out of his back pocket. Slowly. Everybody knows you have to move slow in front of Security.

The officer takes the wallet, flips it to the I.D. “Jeton DeGroen,” he says. Flashlight on the I.D. “I heard about you. Your grandma owns half the island.”

“A fourth.”

The officer smiles, shakes his head like he knows something Jeton doesn’t. “She gets a lot of money for that land. And I bet you see some of it.”

Jeton wants to tell him that the land means nothing, it has always been here, it will stay here until the ocean decides to swallow it. He remembers what the teachers told him about how these atolls began. Coral attached itself to volcanoes and kept growing as the volcanoes sank. After a long time, the volcanoes were gone, sunken deep under water. But the coral remained, a circle of coral where the volcano used to be. That’s what he feels inside him now, Nora gone but a hard crust left behind.

He says, “She has offered to buy me a used Toyota so I can have a taxi business on Majuro.”

“There you go.”

“Taxi’s not my style.”

“Neither is obeying the law apparently.” The officer flicks away his cigarette, turns his head to the radio at his shoulder and says, “Got a code 40. Bringing him in, ten-four.” Then he says to Jeton: “What’s your excuse for breaking curfew, little man?”

“I don’t need excuse.”

“You better think one up.”

In another life Jeton DeGroen would be a prince!

When Jeton doesn’t answer, the officer says, “Man, in the States we’d send you to a work farm.” He lights another cigarette with a silver Zippo lighter, like all the Security have, and doesn’t seem in a hurry to go. Maybe because Jeton is so relaxed. Late night like this makes some people want to stand around and talk. Always somebody talking late on Ebeye—Jeton hears them every night, two or three people off here and there, smoking and talking.

“Got a smoke?” Jeton asks.

“Take the pack, little man.” The officer tosses the cigarettes to him.

Like a fish flying from a wave, Jeton leaps forward—not for the cigarette pack but for the officer’s big waist. Tackle him, he tells himself. Tackle him, then run away. It’s not a plan exactly, it just happens. Boom! It reminds him of soccer, of diving for a shot that saves the game, his reflexes so quick, his jump so surprising, that it makes the American girls on the sidelines cheer, even though they are not supposed to cheer for the ri-Majeļ, and then one of them, he notices, the tall, pretty one, flashes him her smile and Jeton knows he shouldn’t give a second look, he knows that American girls are trouble, everyone says so, he really should leave them alone. Do not smile back! he cautions himself. But she is tall and freckled and beautiful, Miss America, and he is the center of her attention now—he remembers this so clearly, the cheering in his ears as loud as waves crashing over him. Of course he smiled back. Boom!

 

 

Ron Tanner’s awards for writing include a Faulkner Society gold medal, a Pushcart Prize, a New Letters Award, a Best of the Web Award, a Maryland Arts Council grant, and many others. He is the author of four books, most recently Missile Paradise, a novel. He teaches writing at Loyola University-Maryland and directs the Marshall Islands Story Project.

“The Magic Cure” by Karin Aurino

Magic Cure
“Botanically Seen” by Penelope Breen

I had to adjust the sharp points under my ass because when I sat down next to him, they poked me in places that made me jump back up. I met him on a school hayride, a thin boy whose sweet eyes and sparse facial hair contradicted a deep voice and big hands. He was two grades older than me and I liked looking up at those tangled brown eyebrows.

It felt like a magic cure. He snuck along a plastic water bottle filled with vodka and he passed it to me. It was my first time with a drink. It was homecoming so everyone was there, taking turns on that squeaky wagon as it bounced along the dirt path behind the football field in that cold air. The leaves on the trees were changing from green to yellow and red. He jabbed his tongue in my ear and I pretended to like it. I had to resist the urge to wipe away that wet spot that got colder and colder as we rode along. I could tell he wanted my virginity, but I let him know I wasn’t eager to give it up by squeezing my knees together for that whole bumpy ride. He made sure the bottle spent most of its time in front of me, in case I changed my mind. Then I passed out.

When I came back to life, the yellow hay poked me everywhere and had weaved its way into my hair. My friend Kaitlyn shook me awake and took me to the girls locker room. The rows and rows of lockers mixed with the stench of old damp sweat made me dizzy. We passed the warped wall mirror and I looked a sight—would’ve even without the carnival image. Kaitlyn told me to stick my fingers down my throat and push. She said I would sober up.

I washed my hands first because I knew where they’d been. My hair smelled like cows or horses did their business in that hay.

At first I put one finger on my tongue but quickly realized I needed to push two in deep to get the job done. I felt better after, like magic. Kaitlyn drove me home and my parents had no idea. They didn’t notice because they’re more like grandparents who only show up for the fun stuff. My mom is 60 years old and my dad is 70 with their loose clothing and squirrely Einstein hair. They had seven kids. On purpose. Who even does that?

Kaitlyn said the thin boy with a deep voice left after he got tired of picking at the drool crusted on my face at the hayride. I went looking for him next Monday at school and in front of the science lab he kissed me right on the mouth. He had on these ripped Lucky jeans and an Adidas t-shirt, and he said, “Hay, you.”

I laughed, and we became a couple just like that. His name was Jake, but I looked at those tight jeans and started calling him Lucky, because anyone will tell you that a senior going with a sophomore just doesn’t happen. I was lucky to have him, and the tag told me so.

We went to movies or hung out at my house. He always had one of those clear water bottles so I ended up puking a lot. Two fingers instead of one. My six siblings were never home and even when they were, they didn’t notice us. When I was ten my parents decided they didn’t like us anymore, so they took off on road trips in their new convertible. I think it was gray.

The day they left my mom made dinner for us and left it on the kitchen table while we ran around the neighbor’s yard playing Ghost in the Graveyard with our friends. The kitchen—that’s where we all used to eat breakfast together.

There was a note. My older sister, Rachel, read in a chipper voice as if it were good news, “Finally taking that vacay! Be back in a few days. Lots to eat in the fridge. Love, Mom and Dad.” Though Rachel read the note cheerfully, in my head I heard a sarcastic sneer.

The food was lukewarm and covered with flies. It was in the summer so the heat was unbearable. They hadn’t shut the screen door in their haste to get away. Over the years when they had talked about that “vacay,” I thought they meant for all of us—the whole family. Not just them.

Joey is the youngest. He was nine then. I could tell he was trying not to cry and when Nick, the oldest, said, “We can’t eat this shit now,” and started to dump the food into the trash, Joey grabbed one of the plates filled with that toxic dinner and ran into the bathroom, locking the door.

Rachel pleaded with him not to eat it, “You’ll get really sick! C’mon, we’ll order a pizza with all the stuff you like.” He wouldn’t come out.

Chloe is the annoying middle sister who looked it up online and said Joey was going to get TB or typhoid or leprosy. She said house flies transmit 65 diseases to humans. So we waited for Joey to die while our parents were livin’ it up on their vacay.

I had dinner at Lucky’s house, a stiff mansion straight out of The Great Gatsby, which I’ve watched a hundred times with Kaitlyn—the Leo version. The thought of going to senior prom with him, as an underclassman, was awesome. His family of four, older sister included, wasn’t free-spirited like mine. These were proper people with manners and a Pomeranian. Before dessert, I excused myself and locked the bathroom door. It was next to the dining room and I didn’t realize they could hear me hurl. I didn’t drink that night, but the food was so good my stomach felt huge, gross and ugly. It wasn’t a big deal. But the next day Lucky came to my locker at school and said, “I know you’re bulimic and you better cut that shit out.”

I shook my head and tried to change the subject, “I saw this pretty blue prom dress in Seventeen. You can get a matching tux.” He rolled his eyes. He said his sister used to be bulimic and she knew the signs. He seemed annoyed that she told him he should help me, maybe get me started in a program called BA. Whatever.

When I was little, we used to have these big family hugs in the mornings before everyone went to school or work. After my mom sizzled sausages and my dad flipped pancakes, someone would yell, “Bring it in!” No matter where we were in the house, everyone came running into the kitchen and squeezed together, like a football team after a big win. We never knew where we would end up in the pack. I always tried to wiggle in the middle, because there was nothing to feel but the bodies of my family.

Lucky said, “You embarrassed me in front of everybody. Don’t do it again.”

I suppose I had been throwing up a lot. It had been six months since the hayride and it was happening almost every day. I knew I had to do something because I still had my virginity and Lucky was losing patience. Senior prom was still weeks away. The idea of going with him felt important, as if proving to the world I was loved.

After my parents started their road trips, I used to wish I had cancer. I thought that would keep them home. I imagined them hovering above my sterile hospital bed with gifts and sympathetic smiles. I guess if I told them I had an eating disorder they would just tell me to stop. After all, I was doing it on purpose, wasn’t I? You can’t get cancer on purpose.

I didn’t want to lose my boyfriend. Kaitlyn suggested, “Stop drinking, then you have no reason to yuke.” It sounded so simple. So easy. So I tried. But Lucky was good at sneaking that vodka into the library at school and he liked to share it with me. Then we’d make out and I would let him feel me up in the Student Life Center. But after, I would always heave, and then at home I would heave again after frozen food night, which was all the time since Mom and Dad left.

Then we got caught at the football field under the aluminum bleachers by the vice principal with Lucky’s hand down my pants and grass stains on my cotton shirt. She grabbed his water bottle and smelled. Lucky smirked, so she stuck her finger in and put a drop on her tongue. Then she smirked. Detention for a week. Detention and community service for Lucky.

My parents happened to be in town and they actually showed up while I sat and waited in the VP’s office. On the car ride home they said the sex part didn’t bother them and my dad, no lie, pulled out a package of condoms. I said I wasn’t there yet and could he please put them away. Gross. They seemed relieved but they wanted to talk about the alcohol. Then they wanted to talk about the throwing up. They said Chloe knew.

Later that night the whole family came together in the kitchen, even the oldest ones who had moved out. All nine of us were there. They had organized an intervention, and they wanted to help me. There weren’t any gifts, but there were eight sympathetic smiles.

At first it was awkward. No one knew what to say. Then Chloe spoke up, “You don’t have to make yourself sick.” She liked to get right to the point. “You could die from doing that.”

My mother asked why and I said I didn’t know. But when my dad reached over and held my hand, words came spilling out as if I had put my fingers down my throat and threw them up. I told my parents they’d abandoned me. I told my siblings they’d forgotten me. I said we didn’t do things together anymore and no one was ever home. I said I didn’t understand how we could have such a big family, yet I felt so alone.

My mother cried. Rachel and Joey rubbed my back. Chloe was already on her computer. Nick punched me in the arm, and I pinched him back. When I asked if we could have some fresh food once in a while, like we used to, Mom grabbed a pad and pen and we all put a grocery list together. She wrote down things like vegetables and fruit, flour and sausage. Nick said he would come by and drive me to Eating Disorders Anonymous meetings on Saturdays. And according to Chloe it was called EDA or ABA for Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous—not BA. Or AA.

Then my dad asked what they could do to help make us feel like a family again. What would make me feel better, less lonely. They all wanted to know.

My parents said they were done with road trips for a while. Then I asked for that big family hug we used to do, and my dad said, “Bring it in!” I got to be in the middle without even trying. My heart blew open, and as I peeked through the cracks between our bodies, I saw our reflection in the kitchen window and there we were. A family.

 

 

Karin Aurino is an American writer of essays, short fiction, and a first novel, which draws on her former career as a fashion model. She worked in the entertainment industry for ICM, Paragon Ent., and was a Longform and Series Television Producer with Alexander/Enright. She is the recipient of residencies at Hedgebrook and Bread Loaf, and her fiction has received recognition from Glimmer Train. She is a member of The Woolf Pack, founded by the Humanitas Prize Foundation—empowering and nurturing writers. Karin lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. You can follow Karin on Instagram and Twitter @KarinAurino

Read an interview with Karin here.

 

“Slattery’s Ghost” by Stephen G. Eoannou


“Slipping On Chippewa Street” by Pat Zalisko, 48″ x 88″, acrylic, mixed media on canvas

It was after midnight when they admitted my old man. He was in the hospital bed closest to the door. A curtain partitioned the room even though the window side was empty. They had raised the bed, propping my dad at an angle to make it easier for him to breathe. Oxygen tubes were tucked in his nostrils and every few minutes he’d touch them with his fingertips. His eyebrows would arch when he felt the plastic as if discovering the tubes for the first time. Outside, a relentless February wind howled.

“How far did we drive tonight in this weather, Johnny-Boy?” my Dad asked, his voice soft, tired.

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other as I stood by his bed. Buffalo General was a mile-and-a-half ambulance ride from his house. “We didn’t drive anywhere, Pop. You’re in the hospital.”

He touched the oxygen tubes, raised his eyebrows. Surprised.

A monitor was clipped to his fingertip; sensors were taped to his chest. He couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and thirty pounds—a buck thirty he would have said—almost a featherweight. A screen mounted above his bed displayed his vitals—oxygen level, blood pressure, heart rate. All low numbers.

“How come you picked such a crappy hotel, Johnny-Boy? I got money.”

I smoothed his white hair into place. “We’re still in town, Pop. You’re in Buffalo General.”

Finger tips. Oxygen tubes. Eyebrows.

The hospital gown hung loose on him. The broad shoulders were gone, his thick chest a memory. His skin was almost translucent, the back of his hand already bruising where they had inserted the IV port. It was hard to believe this was the same man who had once thrown Jimmy Slattery, the former lightweight champion of the world, Buffalo’s greatest boxer, out of his restaurant. He had bum-rushed him by his collar and belt, tossing him out on Genesee Street, and watched him belly slide across the icy sidewalk to the curb. Slattery’s drinking buddies, other once-dangerous men with flattened noses and cauliflower ears, had yelled at my old man, saying he can’t treat the champ that way, that he should show him more respect. My old man had yelled back in Greek, cursing them and their Irish mothers, and went back to his grill. This was after the war when my old man was hard and lean from marching across Europe with Patton and Slattery was a drunk, his fighting days long gone, just another bum who bothered waitresses late at night.

It was one of my father’s favorite stories to tell back when he still told stories. If there were others listening around his age—my uncles, my mother, all gone now—they would add their own Jimmy Slattery story: how he had danced on his toes and fought with his hands down decades before anyone had heard of Cassius Clay; how he would have filled out and taken Dempsey’s heavyweight crown if it wasn’t for the bottle; how handsome he was with his dark hair and crooked Irish smile.

A nurse came in then. She was pretty with caramel skin that contrasted with her light blue scrubs. Her dark eyes were tired from a long shift but still flashed when she smiled and asked my father how he was feeling. She had a sweet face with soft features and deep dimples, the kind of face you wanted to see while propped in a hospital bed, while propped in any bed.

“What’s the maid doing in our room so late at night, Johnny-Boy?” my Dad asked. “I didn’t call her.”

“Pop,” I said, hushing him, and then apologized to the nurse.

“That’s all right,” she said, her lips pressing into something like a smile. The light in her eyes faded, the dimples disappeared. “Everybody’s tired. You should go home before the weather gets worse. Get some rest. Let him sleep.”

I nodded. I had calls to make in the morning: to the priest; to my sisters spread across the east coast, telling them to come home despite the storm; to Debbie, my ex-wife, living a thousand miles away on the other side of town.

“I got to go, Pop. I’ll see you in the morning.” I bent to kiss his head.

“You get your own room?” he asked. “You next door?”

I looked down into his eyes, pink rimmed and watery, a new vacancy seeping into the irises. I kissed his head again. “Yeah, Pop. Right next door.”

I didn’t go home.

I found myself skidding down Chippewa Street, the roads icing from sleet. I slowed to a creep as I passed the bars: Bada Bing, Bacchus, Bottoms Up, their neon calling me. Seven hundred and eighty-six days had passed since I last had a drink, the same number of days since Debbie had left me, as if sobriety would show her I had become a changed man, a better man, someone worth returning to. My tongue rolled thick and heavy in my mouth. I took my hand off the wheel and curled my fingers as if a lowball glass was already snug in my grip, smooth and cold against my palm. I could almost hear the ice cubes rattle.

I needed to call my sponsor.

I pulled to the curb in front of where the House O’Quinn, Slattery’s favorite bar, had once stood. Katie, the last bartender there before it was sold and gutted and transformed into a trendy Italian bistro, had told me about Slattery’s ghost—how the cleaning crew and day manager had all claimed catching a glimpse of the prizefighter hunched at the end of the bar only to have him disappear when they turned to look dead-on. Or how customers who sat on his old stool would complain of an icy chill and ask her to turn down the air conditioning. She told me other stories, too, ones she heard from cops and cab drivers and early-morning deliverymen, all swearing they saw Slattery’s ghost staggering down Chippewa Street with his arms outstretched like an aerialist trying to keep balance.

I didn’t call my sponsor.

I called Debbie and listened to her recorded message assuring me she was sorry she’d missed my call, that my call was important to her, that I should leave a message at the tone. I hung up and wondered if she didn’t answer because someone was lying next to her or if she was just long past taking middle-of-the-night calls from me. As I slipped the phone into my pocket and swung from the car, my breath fogging the frigid air, I made promises: I’d only have three drinks, only beer, I would not call Debbie again.

I went inside and ordered Scotch.

The new owners had kept the old oak bar with the brass foot rail that ran along the east wall. That may have been the only thing that Slattery would have recognized if he still haunted the building. Pine floors had been ripped out and replaced with laminate that looked like wood. The natural wainscoting and doorframes had been painted over with a black matte to match the new high-back bar stools. Light fixtures of the same dull color had replaced the original brass ones and were suspended from the faux tin ceiling. Tables in the darkened dining room were covered with white tablecloths; a vase centered on each held a single red rose. I wondered if patrons still felt a chill when they sat at the far end facing the entrance or if that had ended when Slattery’s barstool was hauled away with the heart pine floor and everything else they had torn from the place.

“The kitchen’s closed,” the bartender said, setting the Scotch on a cocktail napkin in front of me. He was short and stocky with mean, narrow eyes and didn’t look like he smiled much.

I nodded.

“And this is last call.” He said it like a threat as if he was looking forward to throwing me out by my collar and belt and locking the door behind me. There was no one else in the place. “Drink up.”

I nodded again, certain other bars on Chippewa closed later.

A flat-screen TV was mounted between two tiered shelves lined with bottles behind the bar, the shelving painted the same dismal matte. A basketball game from the west coast flickered without sound and I imagined squeaking sneakers and the leather-against-wood dribbling ball. I looked everywhere—at the bottles, the ball game, out the front window onto frozen Chippewa Street—everywhere but at the glass in front of me. The Scotch remained untouched but I could feel the rim touching my lips, the whiskey’s first bite, the heat in my throat, then my belly, then spreading through me, melting everything. If I take that drink, my eyes will close and when they reopen the world will have reverted to the way it had been seven hundred and eighty-seven days ago. Time travel, I thought.

Magic.

A man about my age, maybe older, entered the bar and cold air rushed in with him before he shut the door. The temperature must have dropped as the sleet had turned to snow. His cheeks were pink from the wind and dark circles bagged under his eyes. He pulled off his wool watch cap and his static hair stood at angles. I turned back to the bottles, to the ballgame, to the shelves.

“Last call,” the bartender snapped, angry, I guess, that another customer had wandered in when he wanted to cash out for the night. “We’re closing soon.”

The man stomped snow from his boots and headed to the end of the bar without answering. He must have lost his balance when he passed because he bumped my shoulder and muttered an apology; I would have spilled my drink if I had been holding it, the amber staining my jacket cuff, a waste of precious drops. He, too, ordered Scotch.

I felt the man staring at me, studying me, but I didn’t turn. The last thing I wanted was to talk. Then the phone was in my hand and I pressed redial and heard Debbie’s voice thanking me again for my call.

“Slipping?” the man at the end of the bar asked.

Now I had to turn. “What?” I set the phone next to my glass, wondering which I’d pick up next.

“You slipping?” he asked again.

“I don’t know what you mean, friend.”

He didn’t wait after the bartender slid his drink to him; he picked up his glass and drained half in a single gulp. I swallowed hard watching him, my Scotch still filled to the brim in front of me. I felt so tired then, as if weariness, thick and heavy, was sludging through every vein. I tried to remember the last time I had slept. My old man, so unsteady on his feet and confused, had been getting up every hour to use the bathroom, and I’d gotten up with him to hold him upright, to make sure he got back to bed without falling, to change him and mop the floor tile if he didn’t make it in time. This had gone on for weeks. My eyes burned as if all the moisture had been seared off days ago.

“I know you,” the man at the end of the bar said, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. One eye squinted as if steadying me into focus. “I know you.”

“Oh, yeah?” I said, and it was my turn to study him. His cheeks and nose weren’t reddened from the weather. Broken blood vessels mapped across his face. The lowball glass shook in his hand as he set it down. “From where?”

“Saint John’s Grace,” he said, nodding, certain. “From the meetings in the basement.”

I didn’t recognize him, but I hadn’t been to a meeting since my old man had started to fail. Maybe he did look familiar, one of those guys who stood in front of the old church on Lafayette Avenue smoking cigarettes and drinking thin, Episcopalian coffee during breaks. I don’t remember him getting up and telling his story: how he had awakened parked on railroad tracks, or in a different city, or in the back of a police cruiser covered in blood. Or hearing of his broken marriages, or broken children, or lost jobs, the same sad stories we all told. No memories surfaced of him confessing to the lies he had whispered to himself or others, or the violence he inflicted on those he said he loved. Still, he may have been one of the guys in front of Saint John’s Grace, hunched to the wind, talking about anything—football, movies, the weather—anything except how much he wanted a goddamn drink.

You slipping?” I asked.

“No,” he snorted, and lifted his glass in a wretched toast. “Way past that, brother.”

He finished his drink and his body shuddered as if a door somewhere behind him had opened letting in the icy wind. I reached out, my hand hovering above my glass ready to snatch it but grabbed my phone instead and checked for missed calls, certain I had shut off the ringer at the hospital. The phone was on, the volume set to maximum. There were no messages. I set the phone down, the screen facing me, just in case.

The man tapped his empty glass against the bar to get the bartender’s attention. “Another,” he said.

“I already called it,” the bartender answered, his voice sharp. “That was the last one.”

The man tapped his glass louder. “Another.”

“Look,” the bartender said, his voice rising as he walked towards him. His face and slit-narrow eyes darkened. “I told you it was last call when you came in. Last call means last call. If you’re done, leave.”

Bastard.

The man showed him his empty glass as if it was piece of crucial, convincing evidence. “Another.”

The bastard reached under the bar and pulled out an old wooden billy club, something I hadn’t seen since my old man had sold his restaurant. He, too, had kept one under the counter for late-night customers who wouldn’t listen. The nightstick even looked like my Dad’s with the same ribbed handle and brown leather strap. The new owners must have found it under the bar and kept it. It’d probably been hanging there since Slattery spent his days at the House O’Quinn drinking to forget all he had lost and what little remained for him to lose.

The bartender slapped the baton against his palm—wood against skin, wood against bone. “Get out.”

“I just want another drink,” the man said. “This is a bar, isn’t it?”

“I said get out. I’m not telling you again.”

“Get me a drink. It’s your job.”

The bartender smashed the billy club against the oak-top, the sound cracking across the empty restaurant as if it had come down across skull. The man jerked backwards almost tipping his stool.

“Hey.” I grabbed my Scotch and slid to my feet. “It’s all right. He can have mine. I don’t need it.” A memory flashed of me as a teenager and my old man lecturing me on the difference between a want and a need. I set the drink next to the man’s empty glass. “Everything’s fine.”

The bartender pointed the nightstick at the man. “Finish it and get out.” He aimed the billy at me. “You, too.”

I raised my hands showing him my empty palms, surrendering, proving there was nothing up my sleeves.

“You’re a good man,” the drunk said, and reached for my drink. Debbie would have differed.

I pulled some crumpled bills from my pocket to pay for the round and a white chip fell to the floor. My sobriety chip, the Desire coin, the one they give you for being sober for that first awful twenty-four hours. I bent to pick it up before it rolled away. I had other chips at home—silver, red, blue—thirty days, ninety, a year, but I only carried the white one with me.

The bartender stood across the bar from us, the billy club in his fist, waiting for the man to finish the Scotch. I zipped my jacket; the prick must have already turned down the thermostat for the night. I watched the man down the drink, glad I had given it to him, wishing I hadn’t, my guilt increasing every time he swallowed. The bartender snatched the empty glass as soon as the man set it back on the cocktail napkin and pointed to the door with the nightstick.

“Get out,” he said.

The man grabbed my arm and steadied himself as he slid off the barstool. He wavered a moment and took a deep breath before releasing my sleeve. I didn’t say anything to the bartender when I left—there was nothing to say—and only slowed to scoop my phone from the bar; I hadn’t missed any calls.

Outside the wind drove the snow at a slant into our faces, my cheeks pelted by tiny bits of ice. I turned from the wind. Chippewa was already covered in white—the sidewalks, the icy street, the parked cars—giving the false impression of purity, of cleansing, of grace. I shoved my hands in my pants pockets, the chip, the same color as the snow, tight in my grip.

“I’m going to Bacchus,” the man said, slurring a bit, and nodded across the street to the cream terra cotta building that probably hadn’t changed much since Slattery had haunted Chippewa and the bar there had been called The Calumet Club. “You coming?”

“No,” I said, squeezing the chip in my pocket so tightly I’m sure it left an impression. “Early day tomorrow.”

The man nodded, turned and stepped into the street just as a car was turning left onto Chippewa from Franklin. The driver, startled that the man had stepped from the curb, slammed his brakes but the ice beneath the snow stole the tires’ grip and he skidded toward the man. I grabbed the man by the collar and jerked him back to the sidewalk as the driver fishtailed passed. It happened so fast. I saw it in slow motion.

The man turned to me breathless and smiled showing no teeth, no light in his eyes. “You saved me,” he said, then crossed the street without looking either way again.

I hadn’t saved anything—not him, not my father, not my marriage. I gripped my white chip and headed to my car.

The next morning, I called the priest and my sisters; Debbie still wasn’t answering. I brushed snow off my car and chiseled ice from the windshield. At the hospital, I signed forms—Medicare, HIPAA, Do Not Resuscitate. A different nurse, ginger-haired and freckled, maybe a year out of nursing school, told me they would soon be moving a new patient into the window-side bed. It didn’t matter. I had spoken to the doctor. They were transferring my father to the Hospice floor that morning.

I opened the curtain that partitioned the two sides and let sunlight flood the entire room, hoping it would warm my old man. I moved to the window still holding the white Styrofoam cup of thin, now cold coffee and looked down on the city. Brilliant sunshine reflected off snow-covered roofs, the sky a cloudless blue backdrop, the storm having moved off to the east. From twelve floors up I could follow Delaware Avenue past Chippewa, past Lafayette Avenue and Saint John’s Grace, and guess which was my father’s street, but I was facing the wrong direction and Debbie’s new neighborhood, new life, was far from view.

Movement flashed from the corner of my eye and I turned toward the hospital bed. My father, eyes still closed and somewhere beyond sleep, had stretched his arms to his sides like airplane wings as if he was about to take flight and was waiting for the wind to lift him. Or maybe he was dreaming of the old days, of his restaurant, of The Calumet Club and The House O’ Quinn, of Slattery’s ghost weaving down Chippewa Street like a drunken aerialist, reminding us in his own way to keep our balance, to steady ourselves, to try not to fall.

 

 

Stephen G. Eoannou is the author of Muscle Cars, a short story collection published by The Santa Fe Writers Project. Stories have appeared in Best Short Stories from the Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest (2013 & 2014), The MacGuffin, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and have been honored with two Pushcart nominations. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte and an MA in English from Miami University. He currently lives in his hometown of Buffalo, New York.

Read an interview with Stephen here.

 

“Covered in Red Dirt” by Liz Prato


“Tomoka Trail” by Pat Zalisko, 24×24, acrylic, mixed media on canvas

Kimo and I stretched out long in my bed. I ran my finger over his arm wrapped around my waist. I traced the edges of the blotches on his skin, milky white patches blossoming against brown. “It’s what Michael Jackson said he had,” Kimo said when Kayla asked him what was up with his skin. I’d hushed her: That’s rude. But Kimo, he didn’t mind. “It’s just the way I am.” People call him Hapa Kimo. Hapa is what locals call folks who are half Caucasian and half something else. Half haole, half Japanese. Half haole, half Samoan. Kimo’s mom was haole, his dad Filipino. “Guess my skin wanted to keep Mom close by,” he said.

Kimo came by every Tuesday. It was the day he delivered bottled water to the Lawa‘i Valley. I once asked him if he had a woman for every day of the week, for every part of Kaua‘i. He laughed. “You’re crazy. You think they knockin’ down doors to get to Kimo?” I wasn’t sure what that said about me, or him. He also taught surf lessons and did handyman work. That’s how it is here: you have to work three jobs to get by. I only worked one, giving massages at a hotel spa, because John was paying enough child support for me and Kayla.

“Almost Kayla time,” Kimo said. I slid out from under his arm. We were always sure to make the bed back up by the time Kayla was home from school. Most days, my daughter came home covered in the island’s red dirt. It was on her ankles or her elbows, sometimes on her knees. When it got into her shorts and shirts, there was no cleaning it out. Kayla used to wear white, when we lived on the mainland. She had white dresses and frilly white tops; little white Capri pants and even white sandals. But since we moved to Kaua‘i last year there was no point. The island made its mark on everyone and everything.

Kimo and I sat on the porch, not saying much, just listening to the way the trade winds swished the palms, when Kayla came walking up the road in her shorts and T-shirt and flip-flops. Slippers, Mom, she always reminded me. That’s what they call them here.

“Howzit?” she said, plopping her backpack on the porch.

“Hey, little wahine,” Kimo said. “You ready to hit some waves?”

“I need a snack,” she said and headed inside.

“Little grind!” he called after her. “No want your stomach too full.”

I waited until Kayla was in the kitchen, away from us. “I’d like it if you didn’t talk Pidgin with her,” I said.

“That’s how people talk round here, Dorrie,” Kimo said, just looking out at the breeze, making me believe it was possible to see a breeze. “You been here long enough to know.”

Nine months. At first it didn’t take me long to slip into the island ways, the slow talk and the slow walking, slang that seemed easier than saying the real words. But after John left us, my attitude went back the other way.

“How about when she needs to get into college?” I asked. Or how about if we’re not forever stuck on this island? Someday we might just get back to the mainland, and kids would tease her.

“She’s twelve,” Kimo said. “Plenty of time till college.”

Kayla came back with a fruit roll-up in one hand, her surfboard tucked under the other arm. “Let’s rip,” she said. “You coming, Mom?”

“You bet.” There was no work that afternoon, no tourists wanting me to rub their muscles with coconut-scented oil. The three of us squeezed in the front seat of Kimo’s rusted pick-up and drove down the curving road to Po‘ipu.

~

When John and I moved to Kaua‘i we bought a small house in Kalaheo, in a valley away from Po‘ipu’s tourists and desert landscape. Kalaheo is carved out of jungle, blanketed by bamboo and monkeypod trees and philodendrons with leaves like giant flat fingers. On Po‘ipu’s south side, it’s just dry red dirt and cactus. It’s barren like the surface of Mars, except where a mainland developer came in and planted palm trees and thick-blade grass. Orchids, plumeria, yellow hibiscus. If you went the other direction from our house, you’d be in Waimea canyon, deep walls carved away by the river’s erosion. If you want something different on Kaua‘i, you don’t have to go far. John went North, to Leilani’s house. It’s rainier there, but greener, too.

Kimo and Kayla took to their boards, paddling out to waves. I sat on the beach with the tourists lazing in the sun. They bring that fake coconut smell with them, painting them slick and brown. When I was fifteen, sixteen, I’d sit in my backyard coated in baby oil, trying for a Valley Girl tan. I thought the burn would wear off into luscious brown. It never really happened that way, but I kept on burning my flesh anyway.

Kimo paddled ahead of Kayla, sometimes looking back for her. Little waves rolled towards them, and Kimo and Kayla slipped over the tops. Like riding a bucking bronco, but gentle. Sometimes a bigger wave came, but too close to the shore, so they grasped the front of their boards and dove under. “Always better to go under or over a wave than through it,” Kimo would say.

John didn’t want Kayla surfing, still wouldn’t want her surfing if he knew she surfed. “It’s too dangerous for a young girl,” he said. Kayla had been trying to wear him down since before we moved, since we were on the plane. She kept talking about a girl from Kaua‘i who lost her arm in a shark attack. “She started surfing again only one month after the shark bit her arm off,” Kayla said. “And she’s a professional now.” The argument did little to sway John, and who could blame him? But for every surfer who gets mauled in a shark attack there are hundreds of thousands who never do. John would never see it that way, but after he left us for Leilani, I figured how he saw things wasn’t the only way.

Kayla and Kimo were so far out that I couldn’t hear them, they couldn’t see me. Not that they were looking for me. I wondered why Kimo never had any kids of his own. Then again, I didn’t know that he didn’t. I didn’t even know if Kimo had ever been married. Hell, I didn’t know what he was doing with me, some uptight, middle-aged haole.

Kimo waved a windmill through the air at Kayla. Take this one. She paddled to catch the lip of the wave. Then she was up on her feet. Sometimes I imagined her on that board when I did Warrior Two in yoga. I’d imagine the salty spray around my face, a roar so loud I couldn’t hear. No mirrored walls in front of me, no click-click-click of the overhead fan, no rubber mat sticking me to the ground.

Her first few seconds upright were a fight between Kayla and the wave: who would ride who. She gave a good knee bend, and won that battle. The wave pulled her along, like she was tethered to the other end.

Whatever tension had been keeping Kayla upright was severed, and the water tunnel crashed down. I shielded my hands over my eyes, afternoon sun grimacing back at me. Kimo paddled toward where Kayla had gone down. Her yellow board popped up, and then her head. The ocean spit her right back out. Kimo held out his hand and pulled her on her board. The two paddled back out again. They went to fight another battle against the sea.

~

John had Kayla every other weekend, more if he wanted. There was no official custody agreement. That could have never happened on the mainland. John would have had one of the partners at his firm draw up reams of paperwork. Everything would have been official, from the separation to the division of assets to the final divorce. But after we moved to the islands, John lost that drive. Killer instinct, he used to call it.

Every Friday John drove clockwise around the island to pick up Kayla from my house. On Sundays, I drove counter-clockwise to retrieve her. His way was worse, getting choked in Friday rush hour in Lihu‘e. Nothing like L.A., of course. This traffic was just one long lane going one way, one long lane going another. When I drove up on Sunday, the worst of the traffic wasn’t in Lihu‘e, but up North. Tourists heading for Hanalei beaches and the Na Pali Coast. Pulling their cars aside to snap pictures of rainbows.

Leilani’s house was inland, surrounded by mango trees. “We eat a lot of mangos when I’m there,” Kayla told me. “Like, all the time. It drives me crazy.” I knew she just said this for me. Leilani’s three mangy dogs barked and followed my car up the long driveway to her house. Wagging tails, ears forward. No teeth bared.

“Are you early?” John was on the porch, wearing a shirt bursting with orange plumeria.

I looked at my watch. “Not really.”

“Kay, your mom’s here!” John yelled into the house. “Get your stuff together.”

“Yeah, coming!” my daughter yelled back.

John stood against the porch railing, looking out at the mangos like I wasn’t on the top step, my arms folded across my chest. “You want some tea?” he said. “Or juice? Hey, Leilani!” he called behind him. “What kind of juice do we have?”

“Why you yelling?” Leilani stepped through the front door wearing peach-colored scrubs. I couldn’t tell if she was coming from the hospital or going. “Hi, Dorrie.”

She wasn’t pretty like the word Leilani makes you think, long and thin, on an exotic postcard. But she wasn’t some big Samoan either, a formidable force of womanliness. She was an average woman. Except she was more.

“Bring some juice out,” John said. “We can sit, talk story.” It—talk story—sounded stupid coming out of John’s mouth. It’s what everyone said around here, Kimo all the time, Kayla, and even me, but from John it sounded like trying to force a round peg into a square hole.

“I’m not thirsty,” I said.

“Maybe some cookies, then?” John said.

“John, come inside,” Leilani said. He followed her in.

All the windows in Leilani’s wood house were open to capture whatever breeze made it that far inland. It also pushed out John and Leilani’s voices.

“What are you doing, trying to get us to all sit and grind?” she asked.

“There’s no reason we can’t be friendly,” John said.

“You left her for another woman,” Leilani said. “She doesn’t want to be your friend.”

“She’ll get over that,” John said. “She’ll move on.”

He didn’t know about me and Kimo. I didn’t want him to think I’d moved on.

“John, just let her be,” Leilani said. “Show her respect.”

It made me want to say, “Yeah, I’ll have some mango juice,” to sit on Leilani’s porch and eat coco-mac cookies, just to prove her wrong, because it pissed me off that she was right. But Kayla skipped through the front door, carrying her backpack and duffle bag. “Okay, Mom,” she said. “Let’s go.”

There was hardly any traffic on our side as we drove clockwise again. I’d gotten hungry, standing on that porch, so we stopped at a roadside stand in Anahola for burgers and shakes. We ate at a round picnic table with tourists. Two wild chickens and a rooster wandered around our perimeter, waiting for us to drop a piece of meat. The island was overrun with feral roosters, crowing day and night. We watched the birds scratch and scrape, waiting for their prey.

~

Next Tuesday, when we were still lying in bed, Kimo said, “Let’s you and me get some dinner on Saturday. While Kayla’s with her dad.”

“Why?” I asked. Kimo and I had never been outside of the house together, not unless we were at the beach with Kayla, getting shave ice, eating Puka Dogs.

Kimo pulled himself on top of me and kissed my lips. “If you’re this pretty in the daylight, you must be a goddess at night.”

There wasn’t much more to say, really.

~

We ate at a Chinese barbeque joint in Lihu‘e, but didn’t eat barbeque. There were too many places to get island barbeque, so we shared shrimp with choi sum and sizzling scallops with black bean sauce. Fried coconut ice cream for dessert. The place was full of brown-skinned locals, a few haole, like me, and some tourists brave enough to go off the beaten path. I kept thinking that most of those locals were technically hapa, but none of them looked hapa like Kimo. His brown and white skin, the way he didn’t care much about it, made him seem royal. Maybe Kimo was right, maybe there was something about seeing each other in nightlight that made us divine.

We went back to Kimo’s place, a house he shared with two other guys. One was tending bar, the other waiting tables. The living room furniture was worn wicker, dusty walls covered by tapestries of whales and sea turtles. The air smelled like old apple cider vinegar.

“It’s how locals live,” Kimo said, even though I’d said nothing. I got the feeling that he could read my thoughts. That maybe he had some sort of island mojo.

His bedroom was small, but immaculate. No clothes on the floor, no clutter on his nightstand. The bed made with crisp-looking sheets. His mattress sat on a bed frame of carved koa wood.

“It was my tutu’s,” he said, as I ran my hand over the reddish-brown wood. “She gave it to my dad, and my dad gave it to me.”

My grandmother gave me a brooch, once. It was gold-plated, shaped like a snowflake, mindlessly picked out of her jewelry box. Here, she’d said, you can have this. I lost it in the backseat of some guy’s car years ago.

Kimo’s bed was bigger than a back seat. We stretched out and up, laid flat and round. We bathed in the scent of plumeria and sex. We were royalty.

~

Next Tuesday I worked at the spa. Another massage therapist called in sick and I had to cover her shift. I don’t know if anyone really got sick—more likely someone was heading to big waves on the north shore. “Cough, cough,” they’d spew into the phone. “I have a sore throat.” It meant I wouldn’t see Kimo, but he was going to drop by the house and pick up Kayla for surfing anyway.

I gave massages to three couples that day, folks who just got married or wanted to pretend like they just did. Olina and I worked together, standing side by side in a thatched hale. Her hands glided over one client, mine over the other. We worked separate, but moved together. The rain beat outside.

Olina and I were standing outside the hale, waiting for the couple to put on their long terry robes. Rain smacked the tops of broad leaf plants, then slid into the garden. There was water from the waterfalls, water from the sky. When it rained like this, it was easy to believe the island would just return to the ocean.

“So, I hear you were out with Hapa Kimo the other night,” Olina said.

“Where did you hear that?”

She waved a hand. “Oh, you know how people talk. Nothin’ better to do.”

“We had scallops,” I said.

“Just scallops, yeah?” she poked me in the ribs. If Olina knew that Kimo and I had Chinese BBQ in Lihu‘e, then could the news travel to John? Sure, it was an island of fifty-thousand people, but only fifty miles of road between us. Maybe there was some math, some physics, some law that made information travel faster. Then John would think it was okay, dragging me and Kayla all the way across the ocean, only to leave us amid giant leaves for mango trees.

“Hey, Dorrie?” It was the receptionist who stood behind the spa’s front desk looking impossibly pretty. “Phone call for you. Says it’s an emergency. About your daughter.”

All the smells and sounds of the island shut down. I could have been on the surface of Mars, ice cold and airless.

~

Kayla was at Mahelona Memorial Hospital in Kapa‘a. She got hit by a big wave, and then another, and she couldn’t grab her board. The waves kept coming, and one finally threw her into the rocks. Ancient lava, black and jagged, tearing into my baby girl’s skull. She was bleeding in the brain, needed surgery to stop it. I signed the papers, called John. Waited for him to show.

I sat next to Kimo in the waiting room. His hair was still wet. “Why is she here?” I asked.

He put his hand on top of mine, but I refused to give him a hand. Just a fist, so his hand was more like a piece of paper in rock, paper, scissors. “I know. It’s hard to understand.”

“No,” I said, pulling my fist away from him. “Why the fuck is she here? On this part of the island? Why were you surfing up North?”

“She wanted to surf where Bethany surfed,” he said.

“You mean where Bethany got her arm bitten off by a shark?”

“That’s not what happened,” Kimo said gently.

“I know what happened.” I stood. “You took my daughter someplace dangerous. You let her do something that could kill her.”

“Dorrie . . . .” Kimo reached up, pulled my hand. “She’s going to be fine. She’ll be fine.”

Kimo didn’t know if Kayla would be fine. I didn’t know it, John didn’t know it, and Leilani didn’t know it either. Even if Kayla was fine, John would be pissed. Pissed enough to take Kayla away from me.

Leilani walked around the corner, just wearing shorts and a T-shirt, like it was any old day. “John’s on his way,” she said. “Had his phone turned off. Just got the message.”

“Have you checked on Kayla yet?” I asked. “How is she?”

“The surgery’s coming along,” Leilani said. “Right now she’s okay.” Then Leilani turned to Kimo. “You have that looked at yet?”

“No time,” Kimo said and touched his head. I didn’t see them before, the scrapes and scratches on his forehead and his arm. Red bleeding into the borders of his brown and the white.

She said something in Tagalog, and he said something back that I couldn’t understand. She stood at Kimo’s side, peeked closely at his skull.

Kimo put Kayla in the ocean, and Kimo pulled her out. But it didn’t feel like a zero-sum game. Especially since I knew John could turn back to his killer-instinct ways. If he took Kayla away, I’d have no reason to stay. But I still couldn’t go back to the mainland, where plants were small and turned brown and dry. I’d stay here, alone, just for those two weekends a month when I could drive counter-clockwise for my daughter. I’d be stuck with half of me on one side of the island, half of me on the other.

The elevator bell dinged down the hall. I waited for a doctor or a nurse to deliver the news. I waited for a priest to take my hands. I waited for John to be harried and irate. I waited for John to punch out Kimo. I waited for John to take Kayla away. I waited to be expelled from this uncertain paradise. I waited for my daughter, dressed in bright white.

 

 

Liz Prato is the author of Baby’s On Fire: Stories (Press 53) from which this story is reprinted. Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, The Butter, and Subtropics. She is Editor-at-Large for Forest Avenue Press, and teaches at literary festivals across the country. Liz is currently working on an essay collection that examines her decades-long relationship with Hawai‘i, using the prism of White colonialism.

Read an interview with Liz here.

 

“Harmony” by Richard Bader

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“Confined to Memory” by Dawn Surratt

Anna suggested it. In theory they took turns, but in fact it was usually Anna.

O sink hernieder nacht der liebe.” Descend upon us night of passion. From Tristan and Isolde. The fury it caused when it first played, the rage at Wagner for composing it. Erik admired Wagner. Maybe it was his Teutonic roots. Erik the Red, Anna had called him the night they met, at that party after Carmen, even reached up and flicked his hair where it hung down over his forehead. Erik the Receding now, more like. Tristan had an incompleteness he could relate to, the way it left you hanging, waiting for something that never fully arrives.

And it was in his range, though that high A might give him trouble. Anna would sing it beautifully, of course. Though not the way she once did.

Erik sat at the piano, a baby grand that took up half their living room, fingers hovering just above the keys. “Don’t be all warbly,” she said, smiling to let him know she meant it in a good-natured way, and he smiled back to reassure her that it didn’t hurt. That reminder. Always that reminder of what he wasn’t. Gieb vergessen dass ich lebe, the song went. Let us live our life forgetting. If only it were that easy.

But he knew what she meant. That first E-flat, in the second line, held for three beats: nacht der lie (one, two, three) – be. Like starting too slow on a bike, wobbling a little before you get your balance. It was right where she came in, echoing his phrase, so he hoped she didn’t notice, but he saw it in something she did with her eyebrows.

Anna had been a brilliant Carmen that night all those years ago, performing with raw ferocity, The Italian equally brilliant as Don José, their chemistry intoxicating. Erik was there because a college friend was on the opera board and invited him, to the performance and the after-party for donors paying insane amounts to breathe the same air she breathed, even as her beauty took their breath away. Their wives expected The Italian and tried not to look devastated when he didn’t show. It was said he had other plans. L’amour est un oiseau rebelle, Anna had sung. Love is a rebellious bird.

“Stop,” Anna said at the point just before, one after the other, they sang their way into the night of love. Eric’s fingers paused above the keys. “Let’s go over that part again.”

~

She had been the rising star. Only twenty-four, young—some thought too young—for the roles they were giving her, with extraordinary range and versatility, a voice that could be liquid and soothing or could explode with fire.

Anna Colston. The Anna Colston. In her silver dress with the plunging neckline, reaching up with a pale arm to touch his hair, the backs of her slender fingers brushing lightly against his forehead. Her golden hair tumbling in waves, blue eyes sparkling, mouth wide with mirth, enjoying the effect she was having on him. “Erik the Red,” she said. “Such a pleasure.” That way South Africans have of making pleasure sound illicit and thrilling.

~

O sink hernieder nacht der liebe, Erik sang, his voice rising with more confidence this time, no wobble on the E-flat. She followed him, traces of nectar still there in her voice after all this time, but now it was as if it had been aged in oak barrels and become a deep red wine, full-bodied, maybe a little sediment at the bottom.

“Shit!” she said, slamming her hand on the piano. Mad at herself now, something off in her voice that he couldn’t detect. “Again.”

~

“Call her,” his college friend had urged later that night.

“How?” Erik asked, part of him aching to see her again, part of him hoping to discover the impossibility of that, like standing on a high ledge too narrow to support him, but with a view too captivating to resist. A high-school music teacher didn’t just call a woman destined to become one of the world’s great sopranos, even if she does flick his hair. “You can’t just call Anna Colston.”

They were sitting in a taxicab outside Erik’s apartment. The friend took a business card from his wallet and wrote something on the back: the name of Anna’s hotel, the number of her room. “She’s only here for three more days,” he said.

He called her the next day to invite her to have dinner with him that night after the performance. “What?” she answered, not “Hello,” sounding distracted, impatient, as if he’d interrupted something. Then, “Who are you again?” And he felt like a fool, his words tripping over themselves as he tried to explain. “Oh!” she said, interrupting him and laughing. “Erik the Red.” To his astonishment, she accepted.

~

He played the section over. It was a simple phrase, in a part where they traded solos. Erik thought she sounded perfect, but he didn’t say so because he knew it would make things worse. She was frustrated by what eluded her, irritated that he couldn’t tell the difference.

Vas vir dachten, vas uns dauchte. All that daunted, all that haunted.

~

That second night he paid for the best seat he could afford and again watched Anna’s Carmen steal the heart of The Italian’s Don José and then break it, discarding him for the bullfighter, the act of betrayal that would destroy her. As the audience rose in gratitude, Erik worried about how he could possibly satisfy a dinner companion like Anna Colston.

They went to a Spanish restaurant he knew in a cobblestone alley where she surprised him by wanting to talk about him. He told her about the cello competitions he had won as a boy, the scholarship to Oberlin, the doors to a performance career that refused to open for him, and his decision to teach instead. He told her how he used to fill in occasionally with the symphony when a cellist was sick or away. He told her about the baroque quartet he played with, the recording they planned to make. “And my father was a teacher,” he said, as if that explained something.

She said, “It must be so rewarding to work with young people, though.” That one word, sharp as piano wire, underscoring what separated them: Though.

Erik took a sip of the Rioja he had ordered that cost nearly what he made in a week, hoping it would steady him. “With your talent, I imagine you were spared the political games.”

“My first role,” Anna said between big bites of paella, “I got by fucking the conductor.” She said it brightly, matter-of-factly, as if she were commenting on the previous day’s good weather, her blue eyes watching for his reaction.

An older couple approached their table, the woman gushing over Anna’s performance that evening, the man standing back. They asked for her autograph, and Anna obliged, writing it on the playbill the man took from his overcoat pocket. The couple looked awkwardly at Erik, wondering what role he played, this lesser star dimmed by the supernova of Anna Colston. The man, a short man with wispy gray hair, held the playbill and pen out to him. Erik looked at Anna, who laughed into the back of her hand. Erik took the pen and wrote in a bold cursive so Anna could see: Erik the Red.

~

Tristan was built of sounds that had no business being with each other, with harmonies dissolving into dissonance, intrusions thwarting the musical release. It was music that helped shape the surrealism of Dali and the paranoia of Hitchcock.

~

He drove her back to her hotel and wasn’t sure he heard correctly when she invited him up. In bed with her that night he was nervous, hesitant, intimidated by her experience. It was like holding a Casals cello—you wanted to play it at the standards it deserved, but feared doing so was beyond your reach. He had to teach in the morning, and left her room wondering if this was another audition he had failed.

But she would call whenever she played nearby—La Boheme, Rigoletto, Otello—and he would go to see her, and they would go out somewhere after, or go straight to her hotel room.

Months later, in Philadelphia, during the last performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, at the end of “Il Dolce Suono,” one of opera’s most demanding arias, from his seat Erik heard passages that were meant to soar but that failed to, and saw on Anna’s face not just the grief of Lucia, but also a fear that was Anna’s alone. Something was wrong. Backstage he found her in tears. She was too young, her voice too immature, the music had pushed her too far. A crowd had gathered around her: at age twenty-four Anna Colston’s vocal cords had hemorrhaged.

The Italian stood apart from the others talking to the young mezzo-soprano who played Alisa, Lucia’s handmaid.

They agreed that after surgery she would move in with him so he could help with the recovery. For over a week Anna didn’t speak at all, and for weeks after that she spoke only when necessary, and not much above a whisper. No singing, no shouting, no vocal outlet for what she felt. Things needed time to heal. She created a language on his piano, a modest upright back then, letting the emotion held in music reflect her moods, pounding the flat of her hand on the lower keys when she got frustrated.

He cooked for her, cared for her, consoled, encouraged. His students looked at him differently as word spread that a famous opera star lived with their teacher. Mr. Zimmerman. With Anna Colston. With Anna Colston. He slept on the couch though, because she worried that if they made love she might cry out.

One day Erik came home from teaching to find her at the piano, her eyes red from crying. A newspaper lay folded there: Don Giovanni, at the Met, The Italian in the title role.

They took the train to New York, Anna staring out the window the whole way.

The Italian gave a stellar performance, seducing the audience as completely as his character seduced his lovers. At the end people stood and shouted his praises.

Erik leaned down to her. “Go see him,” he said. “I’ll wait for you outside.” But when the curtain drew shut, she hooked her arm through his and steered them toward the exit. That night in an Upper East Side hotel room they made love for the first time in months.

She started back with baby steps, the two of them singing together in his apartment. Erik surprised her with how well he could sing, his voice somewhere between a baritone and a tenor but passable with either. As her strength and confidence returned, Anna began taking small roles with lesser operas, like a big-league pitcher rehabbing his arm in Tulsa, and they were all too glad to have her because of what her name meant at the box office. Audiences loved her, hearing greatness because that’s what they wanted to hear. Critics were more guarded. “A brave effort by Anna Colston as she attempts a comeback,” wrote one, young and trying to make a name for himself. “This may not be the Anna Colston we once knew, but what her voice may have lost in range it makes up for with depth and weight.”

“I’m mezzo,” she said bitterly after reading that review, as if the word were Italian for failure. “I’m fucking mezzo.”

“Give it time,” Erik said.

“Witches and bitches. From here on out, that’s what I play. Witches and bitches.”

The call came: the Seattle Opera wanted her to play Gertrude, shallow, adulterous Gertrude. “Hamlet’s mother?” Erik heard her say into the phone. “I’m twenty-five years old and you want me to play Hamlet’s mother?” She was assured that it would be fine, that their costume and makeup people were excellent. “They just want me to sell tickets,” Anna said after hanging up, but she took it.

He went with her. They rented an apartment downtown and he would sit watching in the empty opera house as she rehearsed. In the middle of a scene two days before opening everything stopped abruptly, the young girl playing Ophélie sobbing, inconsolable, others in tears with shocked looks. “What’s going on?” Anna asked someone.

The Italian had flown his plane into the side of a mountain near Chamonix.

Anna played a convincing but uninspired Gertrude, and never sang professionally again.

“I can’t live in his shadow,” Erik said to her when she brought up the topic of marriage.

A thin smile pulled at her lips. “We all live in shadows,” she said.

~

With tonal harmony notes and chords form in ways the ear and brain expect. Many of the world’s finest classical works fall into this category, with Bach in particular pushing the form to its artistic limits. In Tristan, Wagner launched an assault on tonality, and nowhere more noticeably than with what came to be called the Tristan chord, made up of the notes F, B, D-sharp, and G-sharp, which in relation to the key and the notes around it becomes jarring, disorienting, unresolved. Wagner paved the way for a modernist disintegration of tonality—for Debussy, Bartòk, Stravinsky, for music that was disturbing, daring, and occasionally scandalous. “Rite of Spring” provoked a riot when it premiered in Paris. It was music that fooled the ear, deceived the brain, yet for those who gave it a chance, it would somehow manage to create its own kind of balance, built upon imperfection and vulnerability and the unexpected.

Des Tages Dräuen nun trotzten wir so? Erik sang. Have we day’s menaces thus defied? Then she followed him, and they sang together of unmeasured realms of ecstatic dreams, of endless self-knowing, of love’s utmost joy. He sang confidently, as well as he could, and when they finished he looked at her for affirmation. But she was off somewhere, which could have been Sydney or Vienna or Moscow or her hospital bed or their bed or another bed or any aria she or anyone else had ever sung.

“Again,” she said, and he turned back the pages and started to play.

 

 

Richard Bader is a former a restaurant cook, whitewater rafting guide, and college communications director who now earns his living working as a writer and consultant for nonprofit organizations. He also sings in a church choir, though nowhere near as well as the characters in this story. His fiction has been published by the Burningword Literary Journal, SN Review, and National Public Radio. This is his third story for r.kv.r.y.

Read more about this story here.

 

“The Way She Is” by Claire FitzSimmonds

the-way-she-is
“Childhood Narratives,” Image by Dawn Surratt

It’s strange, everything being the same.

I wake up for the first time at 7:47 and roll over until 8:40. At 9:02, my bladder gets me out of bed. I check for blood, but after six days the wipe comes away clear. While the coffee brews, I open the bills that Max has forgotten to pay. At the very second I was reminding him yesterday, as he was saying “Yes, Molly, I will right after this,” he was forgetting. I pay them out of my account and take half the amount from his stash of cash in the drawer of the coffee table.

It’s just like any other day. Except it’s getting warmer. May is a week away, and I go outside to the stoop. There’s barely room for my coffee and my legs, but I squeeze myself together and try not to knock the mug into the bushes.

Across the street cars spill into the arena’s parking lot, four hours early for today’s basketball game. Further down, three firemen wash a truck in front of the station, and another block away a man in tattered pants with dreads down his back stands by the light and holds a sign. No one lowers their window. Trees rustle and clouds darken, clues that rain is coming. The morning glories that grow in tangles on the chain link fence around the empty lot behind our apartment building have folded in for the day, but the rest of the world opens around me.

After a few more minutes, I take my cup and go inside to start the day. My dad would laugh for the rest of the week if I told him I’m a workaholic, but not painting for the last five days has been torture. I’ve dreamed of my mistakes, of a streaky sky, of somehow turning the canvas in with a hole where the girl’s head should be. Once I woke up in a sweat from a dream that I’d accidently thrown it away. Does it say something awful that the loss of a painting is the nightmare that’s been plaguing me?

I step back and study my work. The tree behind the girl is wrong, too fluffy and fake. The coloring of the sky isn’t close to a match. I falter between the blue and the green paint, wondering what part is less scary. Fear is inevitable when I’ve gone a long time, or not long at all, without painting. I might have forgotten how.

Like so many times before, I choose a spot and attack. The tree is easy to fix, the sky not at all. A little orange and it’s cheesy, only blue and it’s boring. This woman probably wants boring for her daughter. I smile. If only she knew how boring trauma can be. Of course there’s a difference when trauma barges in unexpected and when it is recruited for a purpose. No thank you, not quite yet doesn’t always work.

I glance at the picture I’m going off of. The little girl – Christine, I think – stares at the grass with her lips in a straight line, though her mother asked me to paint her looking at the camera and smiling. “You know,” she said, nudging my shoulder with hers. “Lighter.” I’ve painted an outline, but it would help if I could see her eyes. Mrs. Grant has a Facebook page but her pictures are no help. Her 10-year-old daughter apparently skipped all family vacations and church cookouts. So I focus on the sky and grass and a patch of tulips. I’ll save Christine for tomorrow.

At 2:00 I tell myself I’ve worked long enough. Washing my brushes is therapeutic: running my fingers through the hairs, working out the paint, watching it gush into the sink. The red of the flowers oozes between my fingers, squishy and cool, and I stand a few extra seconds with my hands under the faucet looking at the print hung above the sink, a gift from a friend on Max and my wedding day. A little boy and little girl hold hands in a baby’s breath field. Their hair blows in front of their faces, and my chest opens up when I look at it. Every other inch of this apartment is taken up with the kitchen table, the loveseat we refer to as a couch, the octagon coffee table, hardly bigger than the stoop. There’s no place for storage, so boxes and plastic crates are stacked in the corner of our bedroom, taking up what little extra space we have. Sometimes I think I’m suffocating, not even able to spread my legs out on the couch, but right here I can breathe.

The ceiling creaks above me. Max is stirring. I sit at the table with my book, but I read the same page three times while listening for his feet on the stairs. Through the triangular window over the back door, I see the clouds have lightened. Max appears at the foot of the stairs.

“Good morning, honey.”

“Good afternoon.” I hop up, not saving my place. “Let’s go for a walk.”

He asks if he can eat breakfast first, and I tap my toes while he pours a bowl of cereal. He eats it in three bites, rolling his eyes at me the whole time.

We turn down Farraway first and begin our argument over which house we will buy someday. I want the light blue one with the roof we could go out on, the hint of a garden behind the house, windows stretching the length of the walls. I’d wind my own morning glories through the white wooden fence. Max insists on the one painted orange, overgrown with vines and broken toys abandoned in the yard. As an artist, he says, I should want that one too. But I want a pretty home, a place to raise children, a place with a yard where I will take pictures and they will look at the camera and smile, arms draped happily over each other’s tanned shoulders. Instead of saying so, I loop my arm through his.

“We are lucky.” I take a long stride, banishing how thin his cash looked this morning, the shiny new balance on the credit card we’d just paid off last month, the tiny trickle between my legs.

“Very lucky,” he agrees. He’s worried, but I don’t know any other way to set him at ease than to act how I feel. I don’t know how much is allowed to be said. I am happier than ever. I am so relieved.

“Do you want to eat lunch?”

“I just ate breakfast.”

“Cereal.”

Without further discussion, we turn toward the pizza place three blocks over. I order a glass of wine; he gets a beer. He tells me his book is coming along. In a year or ten he might be ready to query. He’s had several short stories published, but this is his first novel. I haven’t read it, but I believe in him more than I would have thought possible. He grunts when I say so. I tell him I don’t know how I’m supposed to paint eyes I can’t see, and he says I’ll figure something out. This annoys me so I take two pepperonis off his last piece.

Halfway home, we stop at an intersection and wait for our turn to cross. The wind blows through his hair, but his spiral curls don’t move. There’s a pot behind him, bursting with marigolds. He asks why I’m smiling that way, and I toss my head so my hair whips in my eyes.

At home, he says he has to write. He’ll be parked on the couch for the rest of the day, more of a workaholic than me though 2:30 was early for him to wake up. I go upstairs and open the door off our bedroom. There’s no porch connected, but a breeze rustles the faded flowered sheets, the closest thing we have to a field.

I reach down to turn off the lamp that lives on the floor. I spread my arms above my head and stretch my legs out to the end of our bed, almost to the crates. I take up the length of the room. I take up all this space. Rain blows inside and splatters on my toes. I am reminded for the second time today, the thousandth time this week that I love our life. I am reminded to be patient. And I wonder again if I should feel guilty, at least for not feeling guilty.

I try again. I recall the white room, the crinkling paper, the glimpse of metal speculum and plastic bowl before the doctor said ‘it’s done’ as lightly as if announcing sandwiches. I wanted a chicken sandwich. I close my eyes and do my best to freeze the moment I walked into the emptied-out waiting room and Max sprang to his feet. I remember the dull walls darker than they were and then I turn on my side, toward the sky. The clouds have turned purple and black, an almost cushy velvet, like a place I could sink into. Another second and there’s a monsoon, the full weight of a pent-up sky swirling around me. Angry but somehow still soft.

Sometime I fall asleep, and when I wake up, Max is beside me, the tips of his fingers tangled in the ends of my hair, his ankle brushing mine, his mouth gaping open. The rain has stopped. Tears burn my eyes but not the way they should. More like another smile. I kiss the tip of his nose and slip out of bed.

The clock on the stove glows 2:47. Another day has started. I tiptoe through the kitchen, avoiding squeaky boards, and stare at my painting. After several minutes I pull out the picture. Christine stares down studiously, her mouth tight, pale arms straight as rods that finish in clenched fists. I’ve painted her looser, the way her mother asked. A crease to her elbows, a tilt of her head, daintier hands. A free and happy girl. I guessed at how a smile might look, and I guessed all wrong. She looks more like me than Christine, more like a painting than a girl.

I take my brush and coat it in white. With wide strokes, I slash through her elbows and face, the angriest strokes through her smile. When the paint is dry enough to start all over, I paint her looking down, expressionless, the tiniest hint of brown peeking through wispy lashes.

I paint her the way she is.

 

 

Claire FitzSimmonds lives and writes in Louisville, Kentucky. She graduated from Asbury University in 2009 with a journalism degree. She has dabbled in blogging, but “The Way She Is” is her first published fictional piece.