“The Sparrow” by Liz Betz


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

Warm Up – Chest Expansion

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

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

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

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

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

Cat Pose

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

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

Chair Pose

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

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

Plank Pose

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

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

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

Nostril Breathing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downward Facing Dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest – Deep Breathing

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus Christ,” Bridget calls out.

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

 

 

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

 

“Relapse” by Salvatore Difalco


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Think she’s dead?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, Carmine called me.

“You junkie piece of shit!”

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

“I want out,” I told him.

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

“Carmine—”

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

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

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

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

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

There, I thought. Found it.

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

 

 

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

 

“One Tough German, Part I” by Anna Villegas


“Lost Dreams” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas, 47″ x 55″.

The neighbor to the south was a single woman in her forties, Annie, who heard the sirens at close to midnight. Grateful for the cool air breathing through the front door screen, untroubled by the insomnia, which had become her bed partner since her divorce (and would be, she predicted, for the rest of her life), she was lying fully awake on the living room couch, listening. She’d heard the electrician from across the street slam his Ford Explorer’s door at ten; she’d seen the tip of his cigarette pulsing and imagined it into a firefly. She’d heard Happy’s dog tags clinking as the ancient shepherd nuzzled his way down the block, across her lawn into the carport, and back again to his home four houses up. Happy is tomcatting, she’d thought to herself, crossing her open palms across her breasts, pleased by the slight gift of sleeplessness: Happy’s nocturnal ritual defying her town’s leash laws.

She’d heard the first siren call from blocks and blocks away. Too raucous, she felt at first, to be the harbinger of death. Eddie, her neighbor to the north, was coping with stomach cancer, had been for two years. But still he pulled her garbage cans in every Thursday after pick-up as he’d done for over a decade. Just three days ago, she’d seen him pulling wisps of Bermuda grass from beneath his geraniums. He was thinned down, but his spirits seemed good. His voice was hearty and stern when he directed his grandson in mowing the lawn, in blowing the cement walkways clean of grass clippings. He was coping well enough that Virginia, his wife, sometimes escaped to Annie’s kitchen table for a cup of coffee and ten minutes of complaint. He’s so cranky, Virginia would say, nervously centering her coffee cup on one of Annie’s woven placemats. The chemo makes him dizzy. He doesn’t eat. Annie thought Virginia brave and loyal; she envied the smell of carrots and potatoes, steak and onions wafting across the backyard fence exactly at five o-clock. Annie couldn’t imagine not eating a meal which smelled so basic, so much more homey than the scrambled eggs or bowl of granola which had become her own thoughtless last-minute dinners. Virginia’s kitchen stood as Annie’s emblem of the enduring marriage. Cause or effect, Annie wasn’t sure, but she was vaguely aware that had only her oven, or her and Alan’s oven, produced the meaty perfumes of Virginia’s, they would never have been divorced.

She didn’t think about the yelling.

A neighborly sort, she’d thought when she arrived in the neighborhood years ago and came home from work after dark to find her garbage cans pulled off the street, illuminated neatly in the carport by her headlight beams. Perhaps it was neighborliness; perhaps it was Eddie’s insistence on order. His own front yard was all hard lines in concrete except for the square of lawn buffering his porch against the sidewalk. Cement curbing enforced Eddie’s red roses, which grew in deadpan earth as flat and clean as new asphalt. Annie, not much of a gardener herself, had thought one turned the earth beneath shrubs and flowers to make the broken surface welcoming to water. Eddie’s roses, though, were thriving in their hardscrabble floors. If a spent bloom managed to escape Eddie’s deadheading to drop its petals, he had them swept clean within a day’s time. A man so intent on tidiness as Eddie could not be nearing death, which would surely render dropped petals trivial.

As the sirens sounded and neared, Annie sat up from the couch and moved to the screen door, where she stood and watched. Two cars were parked in front of Virginia and Eddie’s: the older son’s white Lexus, the younger son’s dark blue Taurus. Annie was not a car person. She recognized these two makes only because Eddie had been quick to point their merits out to her. When the older son, Eddie Jr., had moved up from Camry to Lexus, Eddie schooled her in engine size, mpg, and luxury options like heated leather seats and defrosting rearview mirrors. Eddie had waved her over to the curb while she was mowing her lawn not so long ago. She’d let the mower engine die to hear about Eddie Jr.’s success at his chiropractic clinic, success that made the Lexus possible. These conversations—it was almost as if Eddie were a salesman trying to sell her a car—seemed misplaced in some psychic geography with which she was unfamiliar, what with Eddie Jr. inside the house visiting with Virginia, Eddie Sr. outside outlining the virtues of the Lexus to Annie. What was most impressive was cost, though, Annie had learned from Eddie, and that it was possible to pay forty thousand dollars for a car remarkably like nearly every other model on the freeway. She’d sensed early in her residence in their neighborhood—Eddie’s unembarrassed question about what she’d paid for her house–that money, having it and spending it, was important to Eddie, to his sense of himself in relation to others. Annie was neither a buyer nor a getter; Eddie became her weathervane of consumerism. His sons’ cars, the woven redwood fence newly erected across his back lot line, airplane tickets to the Dakotas, each was introduced and outlined to Annie in fine accounting including even the relative cost of cars not bought, fence bids not accepted, addendums necessary to certify the financial acumen of the buyer.

So Annie recognized easily the clean shapes of the sons’ cars as she stood at her screen. Their presence assured her that the sirens, winding themselves to hysteria as they drew closer and closer, were not coming to Eddie’s house. The sons—tall, portly take-charge types, gray-haired like their father—would not allow public disorder to overcome Eddie’s household any more than Eddie would. They were only visiting, Annie was sure, staying through the Late Show as they’d frequently done since Eddie’s diagnosis. When a midnight walk held more appeal than the prone, passive acceptance of her insistent insomnia, often Annie would pass Eddie’s house and the moonlit gleam of the sons’ parked cars to the studio applause following Letterman’s dialogue and the delayed roars of Eddie and his offspring. Where was Virginia, she’d often wonder, and then satisfy herself with the image of Virginia (a tiny beehived blonde waif amidst her big men) baking a lemon chiffon pie or a double chocolate layer cake for the midnight pleasure of her family. Annie herself had become the recipient of such riches on the morning after. Virginia would appear skittishly at the front door and offer her a quarter of a pie or an outsized slab of cake: Eddie can’t take the cream anymore. Or the frosting doesn’t sit well with Eddie these days. As soon as Virginia returned to her kitchen to design some other dessert, Annie would stop whatever she was doing, pour herself a glass of milk, and eat the pie or the cake. She was diligent about reporting to Virginia her enjoyment of the treats. She told herself Virginia needed her guiltless, unrestrained absorption of calories to make up for Eddie’s failure.

The fire engine, then ambulance, came from down the long south end of their street. The engine lurched to a stop in front of Annie’s house, two yellow-hatted firemen hitting the sidewalk at a run. The paramedics were a heartbeat behind, exiting the ambulance which had pulled onto Eddie’s lawn. (Tire tracks! Annie thought. Eddie won’t be happy.) Up and down the block, front doors widened and neighbors stepped out, the whiteness of pajamas and robes fluttering mothlike in and out of doors, back and forth from porch to porch, lawn to lawn. Nobody turned on a light. The paramedics unrolled a stretcher from the ambulance. When it sprang tall, its wheel-tipped legs scissoring open like an ironing board’s, Annie startled and stepped back. It was Eddie.

She shut the front door; the murmurs and footsteps, the throaty rumble of the fire engine softened. She turned off the kitchen light and, her hand sliding gently against the walls for guidance, she made her way to the bedroom, to the rumpled bed she had left hours before. Tomorrow she would speak to Virginia. She would try to find some small way she was needed, some small service she could offer that wouldn’t get in the way of the big sons and their wives whose voices ebbed and flowed as, her watching completed, she fell into sleep.

Annie’s house had been a wreck when she’d bought it. An affordable wreck, though, whose methodical clean-up and repair had so exhausted her that she had found it possible to sleep heavily for two and three hours at a stretch after a day of hauling garbage and hacking shrubs, scrubbing sinks and painting ceilings. What others had seen as an eyesore Annie had seized as a welcome alternative to Valium and Diphenhydramine, the refillable prescriptions to which her distracted gynecologist had prescribed when she’d murmured something about sleeplessness in response to the obligatory doctor’s summation following her check-up: Any questions? What she’d wanted, really, was guided instruction as to how one resumes single life after twenty years of muted, soft-cornered marriage. What exactly does one do with dinner, the one meal of the day which she and Alan had shared? How does one set a pretty place and face the four food groups alone? With a candle or without? When the fickle Honda’s clutch gives up the ghost during rush hour on a Thursday evening, whom does one call now that Alan, her best friend since high school, her officially documented ex-husband, was living on the outskirts with a golden retriever and his pregnant girlfriend (younger, although Alan had explained courteously it was her relative vivacity, not her youth, that had seduced him out of their marriage).

Annie had been a good patient and swallowed the Valium, but it enabled inaction, which opened the door to reflection, which led to the road down self-recrimination. The Diphenhydramine left her headachy and slothful for hours after waking. When Alan had asked, graciously enough, if she’d consider selling their pretty bungalow so he could extract his half of community property in cash, she hadn’t the wits to refuse. Homeless, she’d followed the directions of realtors the way she’d followed those of her distant doctor. The first refusal she’d offered to anyone (could it be decades since she’d said no, I won’t?) concerned the house.

You won’t want this one, the realtor had grumbled dismissively, kicking a broken sprinkler head from the front step. It needs so much work.

I want it, Annie had countered, thirty seconds inside the door. I’ll take it.

She’d warmed to Eddie easily in the early days in her new neighborhood. He appeared with his weedwacker after Annie blistered her thumb trimming the foot-high lawn in the back yard. He backed his tarnished silver El Camino into her carport and loaded the pyre of debris she’d dragged from the spider-webbed tool shed. Going that way anyway, he’d said, refusing her offer to pay for the dump fee. When her house and yard had been tidied and transformed from dereliction, You do good work, Annie. Meg and I were saying how nice the place is looking. Then, almost shyly as he turned away: You’re a good neighbor to have. Once during a break at work she’d mentioned to a co-worker that her neighbor was a Rush Limbaugh fan. When the woman pretended to choke on her coffee, Annie felt disloyal, as if she’d delivered a low blow to a person who’d only ever been kind to her.

Although it was Eddie’s upraised voice she overheard through the years, truly hotheaded angry if she were frank about it, and never Virginia’s, her fondness attached to Eddie rather than his wife. Virginia flitted while Eddie stood; Virginia waved while Eddie talked. It seemed to Annie that Eddie’s wife moved as if she were one step ahead of a rabid dog or a speeding car. Something about Virginia unsettled Annie, made her question uninvited all the secrets woven into a person, even a neighbor appreciated and trusted, even a woman who never let slip a complaint or discontent. A woman like Annie herself, who would never inquire about an absent husband. Or a present one.

She and Eddie and Virginia had developed a vacation system for picking up papers and mail, watering pots, pulling cans in and out on garbage day. In terse, polite notes they would inform each other of the dates of their removal from the neighborhood. When Virginia and Eddie went back to family in the Dakotas each fall, Annie stood sentry over their two houses. When Annie infrequently traveled for work, to San Francisco or Denver or Minneapolis, she left her house safe with Eddie and Virginia. Virginia collected teaspoons, Annie knew, and Annie always remembered to find her a pretty souvenir to add to her collection, an enameled tribute to the Twin Cities or the Golden Gate, over which Virginia’s exclamations of thanks would arise and subside, truncated to make way for Eddie’s questions about flight conditions and hotel locations. In season, baskets of overflow strawberries and peaches, bags of persimmons and apples, were set unannounced outside Annie’s carport door. A loaf of persimmon bread, a jar of apple butter, would be placed outside Virginia’s kitchen in the early morning. When the Honda failed, it was Eddie whom Annie had called, first for advice, then for a ride to the rental car agency. It was Eddie’s mechanic who replaced the clutch. Annie had been blessed with perfect neighbors.

~  

Annie tiptoed across her damp lawn to fetch the morning paper. Eddie and Virginia’s had, like hers, been tossed on the sidewalk, barely off the street. Eddie usually had his paper in long before Annie. Sometimes before dawn, standing at the kitchen window drinking her morning coffee after a troublesome night, Annie would see him, water hose or push broom in hand, waiting for their tardy paper boy. Virginia Annie liked to imagine sleeping, maybe rolling into the sheeted warmth left by Eddie’s body. It was always Eddie who brought in the paper, who handled the garbage cans.

The sons’ cars were gone, Eddie’s house still. The ambulance tires had marred the lawn as she’d predicted, flat indentations criss-crossing Eddie’s thick carpet like the tracks of interrupted ironing. Eddie would probably rake and then mow, as soon as he was able, to erase the imperfection. With the papers hooked under her arm, Annie knocked at the door. Through Virginia’s yellow lace curtains, she could see into the kitchen, chairs sitting cockeyed around the table, leftover coffee cups and dessert saucers awaiting rinsing and stacking.

Annie knocked again. She wanted to set the paper down and leave, but this seemed an instance where louder raps were warranted, so she knocked and waited. Hospital, she thought. The sons and Virginia are still at the hospital. It had happened before.

That evening Annie came home to find her block a congregation of cars and neighbors. The electrician from across the street, Happy’s elderly master and mistress, the pregnant accountant from the new house on the corner and her three-year-old, two middle-aged men she didn’t recognize, Eddie Jr. The old dog was asleep on the sidewalk, eyes shut, his loose leash coiled sloppily around his lowered head. The two-year-old, Annie thought his name was Morgan, was swinging a plastic baseball bat. She edged past them, pulled the Honda into the carport, set her purse and a quart of milk down on the step outside her door, and wondered what she could say, how she could phrase a question about the ambulance, the fire engine, Virginia’s absence that morning.

“Can I ask how Eddie is?” she called to Eddie Jr. as she crossed her lawn. He turned from the accountant and stared at her, red-faced, rueful. “I’m Annie. Next door?”

“Oh, sure.” He put out his big hand. “Eddie Hausauer.”

Annie took his hand, found herself squeezing it too long. “How’s Eddie?”

“Dad passed last night.”

Happy stood and shook, nudged his wet nose against Annie’s knee.

“I’m so sorry.” She knelt and felt for the velvety inside of Happy’s ear. “I’m sorry.” She held the dog’s head against her neck.

“Took the ambulance and the paramedics almost fifteen minutes to get here. He was gone when they came. My brother and I, we came over when Mom called. Thought it was indigestion.”

“The cancer?”

“Massive stroke.” Eddie Jr. was massive, Annie thought. A mastiff was a dog like Happy, but bigger.

Annie stood. “What can I do? For Virginia?”

“Oh, we’re keeping her over at our house. We’ve got lots of room. Family’s flying in from the Dakota’s this afternoon.”

“A casserole?” Annie said, hopeful.

“Maybe later. We’re doing fine now.”

“He was … your father was always so good to me. He—“

“One tough German, that’s Dad.”

“And services?”

“Thursday morning. At the Methodist Church on Fairmont.”

“Yes.”

The accountant said something about being out of town. Happy’s old mistress picked up the dog’s leash and tugged. Annie understood Eddie Jr. had no more to say, neighbors having been informed, services announced. She knew that in times of loss, it was better to jump right in and do rather than ask. She thought of Eddie’s lawn, his flowers, the Bermuda grass growing beneath the geraniums like the stubborn hair on a corpse, ignoring the body’s signals of shutdown.

“Please give Virginia my love,” she said, touching Eddie’s broad shoulder.

“Will do,” he said, already turning away. Then, salving his shortness with her, he turned and grinned. “Dad was tough, but Mom’s tougher.”

Annie hadn’t thought of Virginia as tough in all the years she’d neighbored next to Eddie and his wife. It wasn’t her physical smallness in contrast to Eddie’s size, though she was the kind of tiny that suggested frailty, however untrue the stereotype might be. Maybe it was her voice, deeper than one would expect, and never raised, not even when Annie heard Eddie’s bellows for Meg, Meg, across the back fence, laced with Rush Limbaugh’s tirades. Annie would hear the back door open and Virginia answer: What is it, Eddie? It would be something misplaced, not where Eddie damn well knew he had put it, or something needing replacement, more lawn fertilizer or bird seed, which Eddie damn well knew he’d asked her to buy. Virginia would scurry and find the lost thing or head off in the car to Wal-Mart to buy whatever it was Eddie had asked her to restock, more than once if his retorts were to be trusted. Annie would put down her broom or put away her clippers and tiptoe into her own house, embarrassed, ashamed as if it had been Annie whom Eddie was castigating. Virginia tough?

But she hadn’t thought of herself as a tough woman, either, certainly not for all the years Alan had seemed to be taking care of her and their life together. Certainly not when Alan had segued into his abandonment of the marriage by explaining patiently how he’d always wanted a dog (news to Annie, who couldn’t recall such desire in her husband), how it was Patti’s golden retriever which made him see that Annie just wasn’t the person he needed to be with now. She’s playful, he’d said with an overflow of ardent admiration which made Annie nauseous; she’s outrageous. To cut him off—she heard the next line coming—Annie had said with a sarcasm so atypical Alan had not understood: She makes you feel twenty years old again, doesn’t she? Alan didn’t miss a beat. Yes, exactly! Annie became a conspirator then, Alan made her one, to all the passions and intrigues of his relationship with Patti. Once even, before he’d left their house for good, they’d made love between Alan’s drawn-out monologues on Patti’s uniqueness. It was as if for Alan, talking about his new woman became the aphrodisiac inspiring final coitus with his old one. Annie had been a strangely willing participant, the outgoing member of a ménage a trois collecting what she could before her displacement.

What had she been thinking, Annie asked herself as she put the milk into the fridge and slung her purse onto the kitchen table, her stomach clutching with the frankness of memory. What kind of person would let herself be handled so hurtfully by a man who’d promised to cherish her? A man who’d been her best friend? Could she even hold Alan to blame for what she’d allowed him to do to her? She shuddered and gripped the table edge with both hands to stop the shaking in her shoulders. These were thoughts she’d only ever before suffered at night, when the gloamy edges of insomnia welcomed nightmares. What did she and Virginia know of the toughness of men?

 

“One Tough German, Part II” will conclude in the July issue of r.kv.r.y.

 

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

 

“The Impostors” by Sarah Kunstler

dahlias and hypodermic
Image by Dawn Estrin, 2010.
(See also “Shot Through the Heart” by Jim Ruland.)

“Trust me,” he said. “This stuff is imported, honey. You serve it at your next dinner party, their jaws are going to drop.”

The cheese/quince/cracker combo felt dry in her mouth. There wasn’t enough saliva to work it around, much less swallow it down. One mouse.

She coughed, politely at first, but couldn’t hold it back for long, the involuntary retching that followed as her body rejected the free sample. She put her napkined hand over her mouth, her hand closing into a rigid fist as she secreted the warm, moist mass inside.

“Thank you,” she said, and walked away, abandoning her nearly empty shopping cart, picking up her pace when she heard the man calling, “Hey lady!” after her.

She pushed forward, cart-less, whizzing past the Bakery and Deli sections before making a sharp left and ducking into Bulk Foods, taking deep breaths as she listened to the steady rhythm of shoppers scooping and pouring and scooping and pouring, measuring out portions of rice, grains, nuts, and seeds. Still only one mouse, but one always meant more than one. They were social animals. Everyone knew that. They were also fastidiously clean, a lesser-known fact, for sure, but one that filled her with relief. Things could be worse.

After a few minutes, she was ready to move on. The supermarket was like a maze, with bright orange arrows on the floor compelling shoppers to follow a single route through the store. But it was a maze she knew, and the predictability of the layout was comforting. She’d been coming here for years, since back when she was married and lived in the neighborhood. She walked along, finding herself in Breakfast Foods, picking up cereal boxes and pretending to scrutinize the ingredients with care, trying to blend, even though she knew she wouldn’t be buying anything. It had already been enough of a day.

When she reached The Butchery, she was careful to keep her head down. A wall of glass was all that separated the violence from the retail area. As usual, and for reasons she couldn’t fathom, a throng of shoppers gathered, craning their necks to watch the butchers break down the animals, carving their carcasses into choice cuts or feeding them into grinders, the blood pooling on the scratched and dented surfaces of metal utility tables before spilling onto the floor.

It hadn’t always been that way. When she first started shopping there, the aisle had been called Refrigerated Meats, and the wall had been solid. She had even bought meat there and eaten it, the sterility of the blue-Styrofoam-and-plastic-wrap packaging making it possible for her to enjoy her ground round.

And then one day, without warning, Refrigerated Meats was gone. Orange cones blocked both ends of the shuttered aisle. There were plastic tarps and polite signage. Please excuse our mess while we remodel to serve you better! And when it was all over, when they had taken down the tarps and swept away the debris, when she could finally see the bodies hanging from hooks through the pitiless, streak-free glass, there it was. Or rather, there they were. Thousands of tiny rodents crawling beneath her skin, scratching at the surface from the inside with their sharp, careless claws. It had taken weeks for the mice to subside, weeks more for her to find her way back to the supermarket. The trick, in the end, had been simple. She pretended The Butchery didn’t exist. Some days were easier than others.

Today, she kept moving, following the arrows pointing ever forward, hurrying by Seasonal Products, where lingering too long was like touching a wound, banking left into Household Needs, where she reminded herself to breathe. She had just entered Canned Vegetables and Ethnic Foods, when she heard her name. Melinda. She didn’t look up. Maybe she had imagined it. Or more likely, it was meant for someone else. A different Melinda. And then she heard it again.

“Melinda, is that you?”

She looked up from the floor. He looked familiar, but that didn’t mean anything. He was older, square-jawed, handsome, with kind blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair. Like an actor playing a man whose virility had been restored, thanks to a miracle drug.

The actor smiled and she smiled back, feeling the muscles in her face stretch. He was a good actor, and she wanted to play along. When he stuck out his hand to shake hers, she held out her own.

“Yuck,” he said, pulling away. He opened his hand, staring at the masticated lump that she had forgotten she was holding. “What is this?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. She was ruining this, if she hadn’t ruined it already. More mice.

“Oh Melinda,” said the actor, dropping the napkin and wiping his hand on his jeans. “Don’t worry about it. Gosh, it’s been so long. You look … good.” He seemed nervous, and his nervousness made her feel calmer, more in control.

“You look good too,” she said. And meant it.

“Stacey has me doing Pilates.” His eyes searched her face. She smiled, hoping that was what he was looking for.

“I know, I know,” he said. “Who even knew that was a thing, right?”

“Not me.”

“Right?”

“Right.”

Melinda’s face hurt from all the smiling. She started backing away, slowly, passing the canned beets and heading toward the jarred salsas. She was going in the wrong direction, against the flow, the opposite of where the orange arrows wanted her to go.

“I’m sorry,” she said, inching backwards. The mice were jockeying for position, clamoring for space when there was no space. She turned, intending to head back to the safety of Household Needs but misjudged her distances and collided head-on with a mid-aisle display tower of hard shell tacos. The tower careened back and forth before collapsing, boxes of taco shells blocking the aisle. She tried to clear a path, pushing and kicking the boxes out of her way, squeezing her way through any open space. She had had enough. Too much. There were just too many mice.

The man was right behind her.

“Melinda, just listen,” he whispered, his mouth by her ear. “I don’t know what dreamland you’re living in, but I can’t keep paying for this. I won’t.”

She closed her eyes, and covered her ears. Inhale, Exhale. Inhale, Exhale. She counted to ten—one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand—and then did it three more times for good measure.

When she opened her eyes, the man was still there.

“Melinda,” he said. And in that one word—her name—she felt the man’s anger, frustration, pain, tenderness, even his love. But she knew it wasn’t real. He wasn’t real.

“You’re a terrible actor,” she said.

The man’s eyes flashed and turned cold, not blue after all but grey, colorless, like stones.

“Get away from me!” She screamed. “Leave me alone!”

Everything stopped. Canned Vegetables and Ethnic Foods had ceased to exist. She was overrun, her body on fire, her blood thrumming in harmony with the writhing mass, clawing at her, drawing blood, struggling to break free. She wanted to cry, but knew that if she did, there would be nothing left, not even her. Instead, she closed her eyes and focused on her breathing, whispering I am here, I am here, I am here over and over like a prayer to herself.

 

 

Sarah Kunstler is a criminal defense lawyer, documentary filmmaker, and lifelong New Yorker. She is a member of the Rumble Ponies Writing Collective. You can find her on Twitter at @skunstler

 

“Mei Lei” by Alena Dillon

Garnet
Photo Collage by Matthew Chase-Daniel, 2010.
(See also “Garnet” by Anne Colwell.)

When I was a girl, my father played paper dolls with me every evening after work, and when he cut out the dresses and hats for my little paper girls, he worked cautiously around their edges so they’d be just right. His eyebrows bunched together like two hairy caterpillars. His scissors closed slowly, millimeter by meticulous millimeter. He worked like he wasn’t a New York taxi driver who shared his cab with his terrible older brother and two other Russian men in our apartment building who smelled of gasoline and borscht. He worked like this was his living. He was a paper tailor—and a good one.

I was careless. Too eager to get past the tedious preparation and down to the business of playing. I sliced through an abdomen without looking, or cut off a sleeve. And when I realized what I’d done, I’d collapse against the kitchen table and wail. (I was an excitable child. This was before I learned too much emotion was a disadvantage to survival.)

Zolotse,” my father would say, his hand on my back. “My gold. Don’t despair. You’ve done nothing that can’t be undone.”

With those reassurances in mind, I’d push myself up from the table to watch him repair my mistake. Because he was not just a paper tailor. He was also a paper surgeon.

He’d mend the wounds with precisely measured bits of scotch tape bound to the backs of the dresses so the stitching would be invisible. When he was finished, they looked as good as new. He was a paper miracle worker.

My mother watched us from the stove where she prepared food to satisfy both of their palates. Hot and sour soup for her, whose chili oil made my father’s eyes water just from sharing the same room as its powerful essence, and Olivier salad for him, a far blander mound of hardboiled egg, peas, and potato slathered in mayonnaise. Then there was always a third dish, one they could both sample: sautéed carrots and beets coated in soy paste. I still don’t know if this is a traditional Chinese dish that happened to incorporate elements of my father’s Russian heritage, or if my mother invented it, after she listed herself in a catalog, agreed to marry a man she’d only seen in a photograph, arrived in the United States two years before I was born, and was relieved and so very grateful to discover she could love the stranger that would be her husband. Grateful to be a wife in America, to be cared for. Grateful enough to cook and eat beets.

“You spoil her. You fix her mistake over and over. She never learn. She never do well herself.”

“You’re right, my love, lyubov moya,” my father answered. “Of course you’re right.”

But he was my paper friend. He continued to fix my mistakes, over and over again. Until the day he died.

Uncle Yegor moved from his apartment into ours the day after my father’s funeral. I was fourteen then. “Ivan wouldn’t want you alone,” he said. “I’ll watch over you. Keep you safe. For my brother.”

He slept on the couch that night, and the night after that. When he was still in our living room a week later, drinking Moskovskaya out of my mother’s porcelain teacups, she said, “Yegor, you been so good to us. But you don’t have to stay here no more. We’re fine. I have Mei-Li and she have me. We do okay.”

I watched from where I was doing my homework at the kitchen table. I knew she wanted him out, but was tiptoeing around everything she’d learned. Family honor. Patriarchy. Meekness.

His stare didn’t waver from the television, where the American soccer team struggled against South Africa. Yegor loved to see Americans lose. “I’ll stay,” he said, his voice gruff, almost threatening. “It wouldn’t be right to leave two women on their own.”

My mother gripped her hands at her waist and smiled in a way that scared me. “No, it’s okay. Really. We be fine. Mei-Li is smart girl. And I’m strong. We take care of each other. And you live close. If we need anything, we find you in no time. But you can go home. Don’t be uncomfortable for our sake.”

His gaze slid toward her. The darkness in his eyes made me put my pencil down. “Now Fan, you don’t sound very hospitable.”

My mother chuckled and shook her head. “Oh no. You misunderstand.”

Yegor shot to his feet and whacked my mother upside the head. It wasn’t forceful, but the sudden cruelty of it caused me to gasp. “Don’t you talk back to me. If I say you are being inhospitable, you are being inhospitable,” he said, and then he returned to the game as if nothing had happened.

Violence in our home was so foreign, so strange, neither my mother nor I knew how to react. I couldn’t see her face from where she was standing, but her body was rigid. After a few frozen moments, she turned on her heels, walked down the hall, and closed her bedroom door behind her. The announcer’s voice hummed in the background, but I couldn’t focus on his words. I could hardly even breathe. Yegor didn’t look back at me. He sloshed another helping of Moskovskaya into my mother’s teacup, one of the few items she’d brought with her from China, and when the American team scored a goal, he screamed, “Otva`li, mu`dak, b`lyad!” and hurled the cup against the wall where it smashed.

As I brushed my teeth that night, he walked down the hall and into my mother’s room. The brush stilled in my hand. I caught a glimpse of her sitting on her bed, a photo album open in her lap. When he appeared, her eyes widened in surprise, and perhaps in fear, but she said nothing to stop him. He closed the door.

Instead of going to bed, I gathered the shards of my mother’s teacup and laid them on the kitchen table. As Yegor’s grunts and my mother’s whimpers drifted through the walls, I hummed to myself and tried to glue her precious keepsake back together. But this time what was done could not be undone. It had been broken into too many pieces to fix.

~

If I ever have a daughter, I will give her a male name. Something like Jaw-long, meaning: like a dragon. Boys get names like that in my mother’s country. Jianjun: building the army. Lei: thunder. Huojin: fire metal. Yingjie: brave and heroic. Girls are defined by their grace, their compliance. Baozhai: dainty and loving. Luli: dewy jasmine. Renxiang: benevolent fragrance.

My name, Mei-Li, means beautiful. But what good did beauty ever do me?

It took a year from that first awful night for Uncle Yegor to come into my bedroom. Perhaps I should be grateful for that.

My mother went through the motions of stopping him. She tugged on his arm. She moaned. She asked him to come back to her room. But her words were hollow. Formalities. She knew she couldn’t stop him. Her name is Fan, which means orchid. Orchids are delicate flowers. Any sudden change in weather will cause their petals to drop. It doesn’t take much to wither their stems. What she told Yegor the year before about her being strong, capable of surviving on her own, wasn’t true. She wasn’t like a dragon. Or thunder. Or fire metal. She was an orchid, plain and simple, and he knew it.

Although my mother wasn’t putting up much of a fight in my defense, Yegor still wrapped his thick hands around her neck and squeezed until her eyes bulged. He wanted both of us to know he was capable of killing us. We only lived because he let us. He was the god of our universe.

Or maybe he wanted my mother and I to understand, if one of us left, if one us so much as said a word against him, he could kill the other. That was his leverage.

My mother sputtered. Her fingers clawed at his unrelenting noose.

“Stop! Do whatever you want to me. Just stop,” I cried.

And he did what he wanted. He was going to, anyway. He alternated between my mother and me for the next two years.

One day, when my mother was sick with the stomach flu and Yegor wanted beef stroganoff for dinner, I brought home the wrong cut of meat. He walked me down to the corner grocery store to show me exactly how stupid I’d been.

That’s where I first met Sister Loretta. She stole glances at Uncle Yegor and me, and I don’t know how she understood so implicitly, but when our eyes met, she recognized something in me. I felt it. She saw me in a way nobody else had—not my neighbors, not my teachers, not Yegor’s sister, Aunt Antonina. Or perhaps those people did see that thing in me, that broken thing, but they chose to look away because it was easier, safer. Sister Loretta didn’t look away. And neither did I. I saw something in her too.

As we approached the counter with a package of cubed round steak and a bottle of Yegor’s Moskovskaya, she appeared with a cart full of bagged groceries, a savior in an oversized sweatshirt. “Excuse me,” she said sweetly to Yegor. “I couldn’t get my shopping cart over that step in front of the door, so I left it out on the sidewalk, and now I need to transfer over all of these heavy bags. You’re big and strong. Would you help a feeble old woman?”

As soon as Yegor was out the door, she grabbed my wrist and her voice dropped into a lower, gruffer register. “35 Chauncey Street.”

“What?” I pulled my arm back.

“35 Chauncey Street. Mercy House. We can help you.”

Uncle Yegor had half of the bags in the outside cart now. Later that night he would describe his act of heroism to my mother as she shivered with fever. Because despite everything, sometimes it seemed he wanted her approval. Even beasts long to be loved. “Help me with what?”

She meant business and didn’t have much time. She leveled her stare. “You don’t deserve any of this. You need to get yourself out of this situation as soon as possible. 35 Chauncey Street. It’s the one with the angel doorknocker. Arrive any time. Day or night. We’ll keep you safe.” Then she turned to the Middle Eastern man behind the counter and nodded. “Sorry about the switch, Abdul. I’ll bring your cart back tomorrow.”

~

The next morning, before Uncle Yegor woke, I told my mother what the old woman had said, and that I wanted us to leave. She didn’t look up from where she diced cooked beets for vinegret. (She didn’t make anything but Russian meals anymore. Not Chinese, and never her hybrid.) “I have no work, no friends, no family. How do I survive? Where I go? Back to China?” Red juice pooled on the cutting board like fresh blood.

I asked her four more times. Let’s go to Mercy House. At least listen to what they have to say. But her answer was always the same. She feared Yegor, but she feared life without a man even more. And I couldn’t imagine leaving her alone with him. If I stayed, at least we had each other.

I resigned myself to this fate until the day Yegor didn’t like the tone I used to tell him dinner was ready and he put a knife to my throat. The steel was cool and sharp against my skin and his breath was warm and sour. His eyes were crazed, and his pupils dilated the way they did when he thrust himself into me. He was getting pleasure from this moment. It pleased him to have his way with my body, to have his way with my life.

That’s when I decided I would be more than just beautiful. I would be like the dragon.

I told my mother, when I left for school the next day, I wouldn’t be returning. And I wanted her to come with me, to meet me at Mercy House at 3pm, when Yegor had his shift with the taxi.

I waited on the front steps of 35 Chauncey Street for two hours before I gave up on her and lifted their angel doorknocker. Worry for my mother filled my stomach, my head, my mouth. There wasn’t room for anything else. I was afraid that if I parted my lips, my mother would spill out.

So I kept her in. I kept myself quiet. Because no matter how badly I wanted to be like the dragon, it couldn’t happen all at once.

Sister Loretta answered the door. “I’m glad you decided to come,” she said. And then she opened it wider. “Welcome home.”

 

 

Alena Dillon is the author of the humor collection I Thought We Agreed to Pee in the Ocean. Her work has appeared in publications including The Rumpus, Slice Magazine, The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review, and Bustle. She teaches creative writing at St. Joseph’s College and Endicott College and lives in MA with her husband and their dog. “Mei Lei” is an excerpt from Mercy House, a manuscript she’s currently shopping to agents about a gritty nun who goes against church doctrine to advocate for survivors of sexual assault. Visit her at alenadillon.com.

 

“Nobody Scars the Same Landscape” by Meg Tuite

Cover Image
“Body with Fire” by Laura Didyk, Sharpie on paper, 2015.
See also “Three Moons Over Maple Grove” by Susan Gower

Some days the planet is large as a splinter and Ronnie is gouging through it. She’s sucking down rum and cokes in the tropics and wearing some other girl’s bikini watching the sticky men at the bar with their speculum eyes already examining the prospects. She tromps through three continents in her head. Every photo she is in a bar. Her friend says, “Looks like you never left Toledo,” until she knocks her head when she heaves down the stairs at a party and everyone is speaking Spanish when she wakes up in a hospital.

Ronnie is back on a plane and then she is back on her porch again sucking down wine at noon. Her liver pillows her through another day of the same. Parties on the porch are epic. Anyone walking by is invited up.

One night after dancing with a cop, Ronnie falls backwards down the front steps and hits her head again. Her girlfriend puts her in an ambulance and they cart her away to a place that’s supposed to churn your brain cells back into neighbors and cut back the crust around your internal organs until they are brunching on cucumbers and shaking their thin limbs at what a typhoon looks like on a foundationless house.

When Ronnie gets out of rehab and back home she just about curls up like a hose in the yard and sits with rheumy mud flaps for a face. Minutes crawl over her in horrific ant stings. She scratches blood, sounds jump, and that porch cracks with her into something only mornings remember. Those mornings when the light shines in, lint-splattered, and Ronnie is in her rocker with coffee and vague moons that jostle her waxing and waning memories, just like every crooning moon before them.

There was a time when she could make it to one of those tropical places without taking the white pill and the blue/beige one just to get on the plane.

Ronnie and the porch turn into a still life. A psychiatrist guinea-pigs her with multi-colored medications that red pill her body into some hellish rash. She barfs, retreats inside herself, stops talking to strangers.

How many moons does anyone remember? Tell me you spent a day scrubbing money out of a computer and sucking it in to other peoples’ accounts. Tell me you spent it pulling a mortgage payment through the opening of houses drooling for piles of signatures, loans and down-payments. See yourself sitting on that patio having barbeques and drinking Moscow Mules. Yes, and yes, and yes sell humans cars and clothes and airline tickets so you can turn around and get a car, some clothes, and a trip to remember who you’re supposed to be. Or do you? How else can another day find you if you can’t find yourself in it? It’s a matter of who we are against the force of who we think we are.

So then, about Ronnie? How does she fare? Her girlfriend uncurls her by hiding bottles where Ronnie will find them, under cots and in cut slits of coat pockets. Soon broken men follow Ronnie back up on the porch.

The music kicks up and life reigns itself in again. Ronnie is swinging with a postman.

She and her girlfriend start adding photos to the album again. The neighborhood is raging with people and Ronnie captures each one on her Polaroid camera as they get talked into a drink or six on the porch.

Ronnie takes her pills and then gets on a plane with her girlfriend and lands in a place where it’s necessary to drink as much booze as you can. She finds a wicker rocker and stares out at the whitecaps. She holds her girlfriend’s hand and they smirk at each other. After all, they are back in Toledo and they are both tanked wearing half of the other’s bikini.

 

 

Meg Tuite (No One Scars the Same Landscape) is author of a novel-in-stories, Domestic Apparition, a short story collection, Bound By Blue, and won the Twin Antlers Collaborative Poetry award for her poetry collection, Bare Bulbs Swinging, as well as five chapbooks of short fiction, flash, and poetic prose. She teaches at Santa Fe Community College, is a senior editor at Connotation Press and (b)OINK lit zine, and editor of eight anthologies. Her work has been published in numerous literary magazines, over fifteen anthologies, nominated nine times for the Pushcart Prize, five-time Glimmer Train finalist, shortlisted for Bristol Prize, and Gertrude Stein award finalist. Her blog: http://megtuite.com 

 

“The Bridge” by David Jauss


“Windblown One” by Jane Cornish Smith, mixed media encaustic collage, 2012.

If I had it to do over again, I’d still go to the funeral, but this time I wouldn’t wear a disguise. And if I heard anyone say, “What’s she doing here?” I’d just give them my Mona Lisa smile, then take a seat in a pew up front, right beside the grieving widow. Everyone would be staring at me, but I’d just sit there, ignoring them and looking only at the casket, trying to imagine what he looked like in there after the accident. And I wouldn’t cry, not even once.

As it was, of course, I made a world-class fool of myself. And I don’t even have the excuse of being drunk, since I’ve been on the wagon for nearly three years now—pretty much ever since he said he’d had enough of me. I don’t know what made me decide to put on that stupid wig and sunglasses, but it wasn’t a pitcher of margaritas. And it wasn’t love. Don’t you make the mistake of thinking that.

I read about his death in the Sunday paper. I was just turning the pages, and there his photo was, on the first page of the Arkansas section, right next to a shot of what looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa but was actually a concrete bridge support stuck in a riverbank. I knew it was him even before I saw his name because of the missing eyebrow. I was with him the night he lost it on I-40. We shouldn’t have taken the motorcycle out in the rain, but this was right after we were married and we were immortal in those days. I remember how the bike just suddenly disappeared out from under us, like we’d only been dreaming we were riding it, and we went skidding face-first across the wet asphalt. No helmets, of course. He’s lucky he didn’t die then. Me, too. I got a road rash you wouldn’t believe, but at least I didn’t lose an eyebrow. As he liked to say, you never realize how important it is to have eyebrows until you lose one. I think he grew the mustache so people would look at it, not his missing eyebrow. But it didn’t work.

I wonder now if the undertaker drew in an eyebrow for him. He probably didn’t, since the casket was closed, but I like to think he did. If I’d still been his wife, I would have made sure he did.

It’s funny he died helping to build a bridge. He loved bridges, especially rickety old ones. One year he bought us a calendar of covered wooden bridges in Vermont or New Hampshire or someplace like that. And he once said that if he knew how to take photographs, he’d take a whole book full of shots of old bridges and make a fortune selling it. He said there was a real market for bridge nostalgia. And a few times he drove me up to Heber Springs on his bike just so we could stand on this old wooden plank bridge they call the Swinging Bridge and feel it sway a little in the breeze over the river. He loved that feeling, he said. He said he felt almost like he was about to float up into the air and fly away. Other people went to the Swinging Bridge to fish, but he went there just to stand. Frankly, I never thought the bridge was that big a deal. But I didn’t say that to him, of course. I think he knew, though, because once when we were standing there, swaying in the wind, he started to sing, real slow and somber, that old song “Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and stupid me, I thought he was joking and started to laugh. He stopped singing right away then, and when I looked at him, I could tell he was hurt. I told him I wasn’t laughing at him, that I was just thinking of a joke I’d heard at work, but I don’t think he believed me. He was very smart, even if he did do some dumb things. Anyway, I’ve always felt bad about laughing at him that day. I should have known better. I should have remembered he had a deep, serious side.

According to the paper, what happened was, a cable on a crane snapped and dropped the bridge support on him. He’d been guiding the base of it into the hole they’d dug for it in the riverbank. The coroner said he probably died instantly, but it took his coworkers and paramedics seven hours to dig him out from under the concrete column. They had to jackhammer their way through it. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can hear what it must have sounded like. Like a machine gun, only louder. And I wonder if he heard it, if only for a second, and tried to figure out what that sound was.

It shocked me to hear that he’d been killed, but what shocked me more was that the paper said he’d remarried just a few months before. Why none of my friends told me, I don’t know. I wouldn’t have minded. I’d have been happy for him, and I would have gone to his wedding just the same as I went to his funeral. Only I wouldn’t have worn a disguise to the wedding. I would have gone as myself. I would have waited in the reception line like everyone else to shake her hand and kiss him on the cheek. I would have said, “I hope you’ll be happy this time.”

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. I stopped loving him long before he stopped loving me. When he told me he’d had it, we were already history as far as I was concerned. But not loving someone doesn’t mean you hate them. And I didn’t hate him.

I didn’t hate her either. In fact, the reason I started crying at the funeral was that I felt sorry for her. Even from where I was sitting, a dozen or so rows behind her to the right, I could see her lips and chin were quivering, and once when she reached up to adjust her black veil, her hand just fluttered. She was trying so hard not to cry that I felt I had to do it for her. And did I ever do it. I’ve always been a loud crier, but now I was crying so hard that I was gulping air, which made my sobs sound kind of like seal barks. I can’t help it. It’s the way I cry. And isn’t crying normal at a funeral? The way everyone turned and looked at me, you would have thought I was singing “Happy Birthday” or doing a striptease or something. Even the minister stopped telling lies about him to stare at me.

It was the same minister who’d married us, but it wasn’t him who recognized me, it was the wife. How she knew it was me despite the curly blond wig and sunglasses, I don’t know, especially since we’d never met. Most likely she’d seen one of the photos he took of me, maybe even that one where I was all laid out on a blanket in a bikini like the main course at a picnic. Or maybe he’d told her about the way I laugh, which is a lot like the way I cry. He couldn’t have told her how I cried. He never heard me cry. Not once. Not even the day he took off his ring, dropped it in my glass of José Cuervo, and walked out the door without so much as a fare-thee-well. I just sat there, looking at that ring. It looked so much like a dead, curled-up worm I almost had to laugh. But I didn’t. And I didn’t cry either. There’s no one alive who could tell you otherwise.

Anyway, she said my name. She didn’t shout it or anything. She just looked at me and said it. Then someone said, “What’s she doing here?” and someone else said, “No respect for the dead.” I also heard the word bitch, and more than once. And the word drunk, too. But like I said, I wasn’t drunk. That’s the thing about a reputation: once you’ve got one, it’s got you. To his friends and relatives, I’ll always be the drunk who cheated on him. He got to start his life over with a new wife, but me, I don’t get a second chance.

I could be bitter, but I’m not. And I suppose I could move away from Little Rock, go someplace where no one knows me. But I like it here, and I’ve got a good-paying job—lab tech at Baptist Medical Center. I deserve my second chance here, just like he did.

It didn’t take me long to stop crying. One minute I was wailing and the next I was stone silent. It was not a dignified silence, though. I was trembling all over, and I could feel my face flush red-hot.

That’s when his asshole brother came up to the pew where I was sitting and said, like he was trying to be polite, “Would you please leave?” I looked up at him, my mouth hanging open. Of all the people to ask me to leave!

“You’ve got some nerve,” I said.

His face was so red it looked sunburned.

“Now’s not the time,” he said back, his voice shaking a little.

He got a second chance, too. My ex-husband forgave his little brother but not me. When he found out, I told him it takes two to tangle, but he still blamed it on me and me alone.

“I’m not going,” I told his brother now.

The minister cleared his throat then and asked if he could resume the eulogy. The last I’d heard, he’d been saying something about the corpse having been a loving and devoted husband.

I stood up. “Go right ahead,” I said. “Lie your ass off. The bastard left me.”

Well, you can guess how people reacted to that. No one likes the truth. For a few seconds, there was nothing but arms and elbows and legs and shouting, and then I found myself outside, laying face-down on the sidewalk, my wig ripped off, my dress torn, and my head throbbing. There was a small crowd standing on the top step looking down at me, mostly men but also a couple of stocky women. One of the women was his brother’s wife. She shook my wig at me and said, “You didn’t even have the guts to face us. You’re pathetic.” I rose onto my skinned knees then and reached up to touch my eyebrows. They were still there. Then I started to laugh.

“Get out of here,” a man’s voice said. “Now.

But I couldn’t stop laughing. I stood up then, and my head went woozy, and for a moment I felt like I was back on the Swinging Bridge, my husband by my side, both of us swaying there in the breeze, so light somehow that the slightest puff of wind could lift us up off that bridge and into the blue, blue sky. And then I felt like I really was floating up into the sky, just like a balloon or a saint, and he was floating there beside me, holding my hand. I knew that any second I’d drift back down to earth, to the cracked concrete sidewalk, the scowls and jeers, to the realization that I’d been an utter fool and always would be, but I didn’t care, at least not then. I was with him, and they weren’t. I was with him, and he was holding my hand, and it felt so real, so real and so right.

 

 

David Jauss is the author of four collections of short stories (Crimes of Passion, Black Maps, Glossolalia: New & Selected Stories, and Nice People: New & Selected Stories II), two collections of poems (Improvising Rivers and You Are Not Here), and a collection of essays (On Writing Fiction). He has also edited or coedited three anthologies, most recently Words Overflown by Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight from the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program. His short stories have been published in numerous magazines and reprinted in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards: Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, as well as in The Pushcart Book of Short Stories: The Best Stories from the Pushcart Prize. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a James A. Michener / Copernicus Society of America Fellowship, and three fellowships from the Arkansas Arts Council and one from the Minnesota State Arts Board. His collection Black Maps received the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction. A professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, he teaches in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

“The Bridge” first appeared in Arkansas Literary Forum.

“Asha in Allston” by Chaya Bhuvaneswar


“Turned Away” by Jane Cornish Smith, oil, encaustic on board, 2014.

The one thing you promised, you swore, was that you’d never allow her inside our house. Remember, when we came here, that you believed we’d have four sons. An optimistic belief but not outside reality, since I come from a family of ten, you from just five, and the astrologers had said that we’d have sons. Their predictions were what made us get engaged.

You said this was the house where we’d grow old. I say “this was the house” because, though you don’t know it yet, there was a kitchen fire last week. Your patio, gutted. Much water damage to the tiles, the basement, other areas. Cheap melted plastic and disjointed machines, the sound of a soft female voice droning all her broken syllables, pathetic. Don’t bother asking what became of her. I won’t answer. You shouldn’t care. You have her download store-housed somewhere permanent. You have what you need to make as many new Malins as you need. I can’t say the same for making me.

I know you’ve got enough to think about, nodding and bowing your way through the summer retreat with VC’s, trying to make sure you keep your job. Everyone at Ganesha Inc. is aware now, aren’t they, not only engineers, even corporate, that Malin became one with you, somehow? That like an animal researcher who gets too attached to his primates, you seek to protect her constantly?

I shouldn’t say “her.” I never forget what Malin is. A mannequin with hardware, an old-style robot encased in new-style coverings, turning her tricks. A plastic dream. The sum consciousness of notebooks, graph paper, comic books you used to read and collect long years before I ever met you, where women’s breasts were large and conical, leg muscles strong and well-defined enough so they can leap between buildings. Malin’s a fucking joke, the sister of inflatables. She isn’t real. She never will be real. It doesn’t matter that her legs and arms can move so precisely. Her smile plays to your dreams and isn’t her own. She can’t own anything.

But that must be why you love her. Your Malin has nothing to lose.

That old stupid question: What does she have that I don’t? I know the answer without having to ask. Her sight. She can see better than most people. Ninety-seven percent of humans, nearly as good as an eagle. But that reflects on you, not her. You designed and built her laser gaze. I recall just how intent you were that day.

I was just back from the neurologist, a cold morning that left me shivering. The doctor in JP was still too …what? I couldn’t say. Empathic? Guarded? Practical? All of the above? To make my diagnosis definitive, even though I’d read enough and knew enough by then not to be fooled. The best we could hope for was relapsing remitting. Then there would be good days, even Richard Pryor funny days, days I could walk and even dance a little bit. But the doctor wouldn’t confirm even a name. “How many children do you have again?” he’d asked, the absent-minded and respectable doctor. “Zero,” I forced myself to say, only because at that moment, I craved his pity.

By ten-thirty, I’d taken a cab home because of how pressed-down I felt; how held back by the silence in the examining room, the sense of life moving so fluidly all around me. I hadn’t exposed myself on public transportation—I mean “exposed” in the sense of even sitting on the T among strangers—because of how frightened I felt. What would go first? My speech? Mind? Hearing? Where would the plaques surface, white clearings where there should be brain forest? I did not want to know.

You had equipment spread on the table, a naked blond woman open and smiling before you, flat on her back. You had a headlamp on and tiny screwdrivers and tools I did not recognize. But most of all you had the room and there was no way I could have entered it. It wasn’t for three weeks afterward that, spent after your run around Jamaica Pond, you came to me smiling, wanting to make love before you showered, the way you often do, and I had to show you the neurology report, the patient education handout. Wait for you to read it. Blame and even hate myself for turning you so grave. You didn’t run once you found out; you stayed. We stayed in bed for hours. I can’t remember what we did, except that I had you completely, you had me, yet all the while, I felt empty-handed.

That was six months ago. Nothing has changed since. Everything has changed. There is a taut anticipation in our lives. We wait for the worst, know it will come. I lose my balance often. You catch me before I fall. You’re dutiful, perfect, really. The best neurologists. Second and third opinions. The articles you clip, saying it might be Lyme’s disease, Guillain-Barré, benign tumor, even a mild case of herpes. Anything reversible. Anything but what it is. And yet, the more responsible you are, the less I have of you, the less you’re here. You disappear into the closed garage, the place where I once thought of gassing myself. While I still can. While I still have enough control to decide when the end will come. But the garage is your space. The place where Malin was constructed, after a big check was written to your AI program from no less than Paul Allen; after your postdoc at Stanford and your being recruited to a Kendall Square biotech; after you’d earned a big enough bonus to bring me to you from India and bid high for this house.

And now there won’t be any sons, or other kids. There won’t be birds singing in the trees. Sunrises, sunsets. First my balance, then all my senses, ephemera, sometimes working, other times blocked because of muffled synapses, ghosts in the machine of me. My cellular catastrophes.

But you’ll have Malin, won’t you? Yes. This being, first inert, named after some Swedish actress, your crush from that movie about superheroes, but now, quite a bit more. This thing that’s come alive. She can think now. You look like you could spend eternity watching her think.

No doubt, when you build her next version, salvaging whatever you must after the fire that I set, unable to bear the living and moving sight of her, the way she sang songs you programmed in her—no doubt she’ll tell you how frightened she was. When I approached her, leaning on my cane, dousing her with kerosene, lighting the match. At first not caring if I burned myself too, but in the end managing to run while she stayed still. I’d glued her feet. I’d tried to think of every possibility.

I couldn’t kill her. It shouldn’t surprise you, given that I couldn’t kill myself either. The fire was only for her physical body. Your files, your work in the garage, I left intact. So you will be able to rebuild, of that I’m confident, and also—that you’d rebuild me if you could. That if you had to choose between Malin and me, there’d be no choice. But we don’t get to choose. Have or don’t have; we’ll have to wait.

Sorry my love, my dear. I truly hope that she’ll give you comfort.

 

 

Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, The Awl, Michigan Quarterly Review, Redux, Compose, Nimrod, Asian American Literary Review, Notre Dame Review, jellyfish review, aaduna, Bangalore Review and elsewhere. She received a Henfield Transatlantic Writing award, scholarships to Grub Street and Squaw Valley Writers conferences, and is at work on a novel.

 

“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.