“God and Laundry” by Tara Stillions Whitehead

“The World Below” by Sydney McKenna, watercolor, 22″ x 30″

Lacy was on her knees when you found her—six days shy of thirty-five years old and ninety-one days sober. The cats had been chewing the callouses on her feet for two days but were still shitting in their overflowing litter box tucked behind the brand new front-load Whirlpool washer. The warranty tag was still taped over the handle. It had never been used, and this unsettles you, confirms that she had never meant to do it. That it was a baffling, powerful moment of desperation. And before that moment, there was a future where she planned to carry out the banal task of washing her soiled clothing, but with a brand spanking new washer. She had even plugged it in. Attached the water hoses to the spigots and fed the plastic drain pipe through a hole in the kitchen floor, down the basement wall to the French drain.

 And then hanged herself.

It shouldn’t have taken you that long to agree to participate in a well-check. Lacy’d stopped showing up at the River Street meeting three weeks ago, citing an upper respiratory infection that just wouldn’t shake. She was always sick—terminally unwell, always on the mend from something trying to kill her. But the text responses had gotten shorter each time, and no one could seem to get her on the phone, not even Peggy. And then that long silence finally came, the one you hear about in the rooms too often, the one that you could not fill a little over a year ago.

Peggy was the one who spotted the body through the barely parted shades—just enough to make out the top of Lacy’s head tucked forward, the oxygen long expired, her last breath sealed inside by the Ethernet cable she’d used to twist-tie herself to the bedpost. It all happened in jump cuts from there. You became all action. Dislodged the screen, forced yourself through the window like you used to do when you were using. But this time was different. This time, your heart was on fire and you could feel what you couldn’t feel before—your fear of the static in the air and the cats, irremovable in their grotesque and frantic chewing. And the pain in your shins where you leveraged yourself over the sill into the tidy kitchen sink, knowing before you really knew it that you were too late again. Just like with your mom. And David.

You are standing outside of Trinity Lutheran when Peggy tells the story for the fifth time. As if you hadn’t been seeing and smelling and standing there, too. 

“Goddamnit, I thought she was praying when I first saw her,” Peggy explains, smoke from her menthol hanging hard on the image of prayer.

Just then, a white van pulls into the church roundabout and a group of young people emerge from the back. They are all wearing gray sweatpants and oversized T-shirts turned inside out to hide the logos, but you can still read them—Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger, Aeropostale. There are five of them. Four guys and one girl. None of them make eye contact with you or Peggy when they pass through the double doors into the hallway leading to the meeting room.

“Hill House is getting a lot of traffic lately,” Peggy says, and it isn’t until she says it that you realize that none of those kids looked old enough to buy cigarettes. “IOP saved my life. I don’t think I could’ve stayed sober if I had had to bunk with a bunch of underagers. I mean, it’s enough to have to parent Glenn, and he’s fifty-six—”

Peggy’s phone chimes. She looks down, dismisses the text with an irreverent tap.

You scan the dark parking lot. Where is everyone else? You want the meeting to be big so that you can hide in it. You want it to be full of people whose stories you have never heard, people who make you feel like less of a monster, people who did not know Lacy. You want distractions. You doubt that the Hill House group will be enough, but you hope they are. Maybe one of them will share something so honest and powerful that people will forget to ask about Lacy and whether you and Peggy are okay after finding her.

You have no desire to share details, and it bothers you that Peggy keeps recalling that image, that Peggy never seems to stop talking. But you don’t say anything because your sponsor tells you that you need to stop seeing people for their defects, that you need to pray for tolerance and love. Right now, though, the thought of prayer fills your stomach with marbles. Lacy isn’t the first woman you’ve known who hanged herself, but she is the first woman whose story felt like it could be your story, whose transparency and doubt and desperation could have been mistaken for your own. Lacy was the first woman to ask you to be her sponsor and the first woman you said yes to.

“I just don’t know if I’ll ever believe in god,” she’d said during your first meeting over coffee. “I’m more afraid of him than dying.” You knew what she meant, and that frightened you. Lacy was the kind of addict you were, which triggered you hard. During that first meeting, you couldn’t stop staring at her distressed Target jeans. You had the same pair, probably in the same size. You hadn’t worn them since your last relapse, and you should have thrown them away, but there they were, tucked fashionably into those tall riding boots of Lacy’s, reminding you what the last time was really like—and, that was it, you tossed them in the trash that night. That’s when you told her that it wasn’t going to work out, that you were sorry. You didn’t think you could give her what she needed, but Peggy could. Peggy with the fourteen years and eight grandkids. Peggy with the government pension and the summer house in Rehoboth.

“Do they know whether she was using when she did it?” everyone had asked.

“Nope,” Peggy would say, then, eyes narrowing over the tops of her Betsey Johnson readers. “But one would hope so.”

It sounded awful, and you hated her for saying it, but you knew what she meant. It was scarier to think Lacy offed herself while sober, like David did. Because who wants to give in just to give up? That was the real reason you wouldn’t sponsor Lacy. David was all it took for you to go back out. Death leaves a frightening emptiness in the chest, and you faced that fear the way you have faced everything in your life. You were high that afternoon, the coffee in the Styrofoam cup from the police station still hot enough to melt the ice on your windshield. Some part of you knew deep down that you couldn’t have stopped him if you’d tried, but now Lacy is gone—Lacy with the Target jeans and the story like yours—and you feel closer to a drink or drug than you’ve felt in the past year since you went back out.

“Thank God it was Evan’s weekend with Chase,” Peggy says. She stubs the cigarette out on the bottom of her Louis Vuittons. “She and I were just out buying him one of those sand and water tables for his fourth birthday on Thursday. She seemed so good then, so excited that they had the Paw Patrol wrapping paper on sale. Goddamn, I can’t even.”

You haven’t asked Peggy a single question since the two of you found Lacy, but the answers keep coming and you don’t know what to do with them, what you have to say to get her to stop talking.

People are coming now, two here and three there. While you wait to see whether you know anyone, the image of the cats chewing on Lacy’s feet enters your mind again, and suddenly, out of nowhere, the question that has been haunting you for days comes barreling out of your mouth before you can stop it: “What’s going to happen with the cats?”

Peggy looks at you as if you’ve been asking unanswerable questions all along. “I have no idea,” she says. She sprays herself with patchouli. “Goddamn,” she sighs—but not to god or you. “We better go get a seat.”

“I’ll be in in a minute,” you say.

You want to be alone. All addicts want to be alone.

But just as Peggy enters in through the double doors, the Hill House girl emerges, wearing a jacket one of the boys she came with was wearing.

“Can I bum a smoke?” the girl asks. Her voice is softer and more polite than you expected, which unsteadies you.

“I don’t smoke. Peggy does. I’m just an innocent bystander.”

The girl smiles a big smile that suggests she is even younger than you thought. Closer to fourteen. Your knees give out a little because she is young enough to be your daughter, and you can’t imagine what this girl looks like when she’s fucked up. When she isn’t smiling.

“Hello.” You hold out your hand, and she takes it.

“Callie. I’m only twenty days. I mean, I only have twenty days.” She laughs uncomfortably and wraps herself deeper into the jacket that isn’t hers.

“Not only,” you say, and you say it because you had been told the same thing when you came in. “Just…twenty days.”

She smiles.

“Be proud of that.”

“Okay.”

Westminster Quarters sounds from the bell tower, marking the hour, but neither you nor Callie move towards the double doors.

“I like your shoes,” she says, pointing at your purple slip-on Chucks. “I have the same ones at home. They’re my favorite pair. I miss them.”

“Thanks. They’re my favorite, too.”

You’ve worn Chucks since you were twelve. You wore them to prom. You wore them to your graduation from the most prestigious film school in the country. You wore them in your brother’s wedding and at your mother’s funeral. You try to stop yourself from feeling the feelings before you feel them, but you can’t. You imagine Callie’s mother slipping freshly laundered clothing into a child’s dresser, placing a new pair of shoes beside the canopy bed you slept in until you were sixteen. Does Callie know how to start a fire without kindling? With licorice sticks? With dryer lint cartons that smelled like your mother when you put a match to them? Does she know how to make a slipknot or the proper way to cool a burn? Did she know that soothing one with ice could cause frostbite?

“When I was a Brownie,” you say, pointing up. “We sang this at the end of every meeting.”

“Cool,” Callie says. “I’ve never been in any, like, organized thing. Well, until now.”

She looks like she is going to ask a question, and the marbles in your stomach start banging together. You want to talk to her, but you don’t want to scare her. And then, you want to scare her. You want to tell her about your mother and filling your underwear with Snickers bars to take to her when she was institutionalized. You were fourteen. Is that how old you are, Callie? You want to show her where you burned your wrists with cigars in college, to explain how Ivy Leagues and terminal degrees couldn’t stop your disease from trying to kill you. You want to tell her about Lacy and how you haven’t been able to sleep for five days because when the sun goes down, the cats are everywhere you look, gnawing the baseboards apart, chewing through the electrical wiring, and then hanging themselves in your windows, their tails hard from rigor mortis, curled violently into a question mark.

You want to tell her that you will answer any question she has. That you wish you had asked the ones you wanted to ask when you had twenty days. That, since then, you have not answered the ones you should have answered.

Callie opens her mouth. Allows the night air in.

The bells are quiet now, but their sound memory hovers over you, fills the parking lot, the street, the neighborhood, connects you and Callie to everything beyond the dark, beyond time, to that place where a clock melody becomes words, words you imagine Lacy’d sung without thinking, without questioning whether she believed in God. A song sung for the pure pleasure of singing, for the pure sense of belonging:

Oh Lord our God

Thy children call

Grant us Thy peace

And bless us all.

You’ve heard Westminster Quarters a million times, been to hundreds of meetings where it signaled the hour, the quarter hour, the half hour—always the measure of arrival and departure and the reprieve in between. How had you never made the connection before? Why were you only making it now?

Callie looks over her shoulder towards the doors. She still looks like she is going to ask a question, but this time, she does.

“Not to be weird, but would it be okay if I sit with you? I’ve never been to one of these outside of Hill House, and the guys are like, sorry—this is so weird—I mean, god, I’m so weird—but you know guys. I don’t want to do anything, but they—you know. And this jacket? They’re always talking, and I’m, like, I can’t hear myself think, let alone have a conversation, which might be a good thing. I don’t know. My head is so full, and I’m trying to empty it out, all of the shit that’s in there, you know? Does that make any sense? I am so sorry. That was probably the most awkward way to ask a stranger for help.”

 “No, not at all,” you say. It is, hands down, the fastest you have ever answered a question in your life. “I’ll go in with you.”

“Really?”

 “Yeah,” you say. She smells wonderful. Like fresh laundry.

“Thank you.”

And as you lead her through the double doors, you feel yourself growing lighter in step, as if you have been given the answer to a burning question you had been too afraid to ask, as if she is helping you more than you are helping her.

     

Tara Stillions Whitehead has had fiction, essays, and hybrid texts published in Chicago Review, Fiction International, Red Rock Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Texas Review, New Orleans Review, Sleipnir, and elsewhere. She has received a Glimmer Train Press Award for New Writers, an AWP Intro Journals Award nomination, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. A former assistant director for film and television, she now lives in Central Pennsylvania, where she teaches English and Film Studies.

“The Australian Valiant in Its Natural Habitat” by Welton B. Marsland

“Sunrise Sunset” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 36″ x 60″

They were somewhere on the wrong side of Horsham. At least the number beside Melbourne’s name on the road signs was steadily declining.

Jeremy’s right foot had been on the accelerator so long that he wouldn’t be surprised to find it stuck there at journey’s end. Heat and sweat caused the gum trees on the roadside to dance in his peripheral vision for a fleeting, sickly moment.

“You okay?”

The voice from the back seat prickled the back of Jeremy’s neck. He hadn’t realised he’d moaned softly. “Huh?” he glanced into the mirror. The boy was sprawled along the Valliant’s long back seat, grubby hands cradling a sawn-off shotgun, both truncated barrels pointed at Jeremy’s nape.

“I said,” the boy sighed, “Are you okay? You moaned or something. What’s up?”

Jeremy stared at dark blue bitumen. “Nothing.” What else could he reply? He’d only been heading out for coffee, after all. He wondered again—117th time this journey—how long did Dirk and Grania wait in their favourite Fremantle café as Jeremy’s expected arrival time came and went? How many different types of shit did they call him for standing them up?

Jeremy remembered how smooth Dirk had sounded on the phone. He’d accepted the purred invitation without hesitation, tied his hair back, grabbed his leather jacket and gone. Almost out the door, he’d doubled back to his bedroom, searching amongst the detritus on the floor for the silver star on a chain Grania and Dirk had given him last Christmas.

They’d wanted coffee in the café he’d first met them in—a good sign. He’d pulled out of his driveway hastily, the sleek classic car narrowly missing the letterbox. At the end of his street, as he checked for non-existent traffic, he realised two things—one, he’d left his phone on the kitchen table, and two, there were shotgun barrels currently being pressed to the back of his neck. The sensation was cold and sharp; he could actually feel tiny, vicious nodules of rudely hacked metal scraping his skin. The Valiant stalled.

“Get it started again! Move it!” The voice sounded so young. Was this a joke? The barrels jabbed him once, twice. Jeremy fumbled the gear stick and ignition, deciding any joke that went like this was best played along with for the time being.

“Right,” the voice resumed when they were back on their way, “I’m heading for Melbourne. You’re gonna be nice and take me there.”

“Melbourne?!” Jeremy stared stupidly at his petrol gauge. “How?!”

“Drive me there of course, dickwit!”

And so it was.

Jeremy barely even noticed Perth falling away behind them those first few hours. His eyes were glued to the roads, not even daring to glance into his mirror. Several times, his fingers cramped around the wheel; knuckles bloodless, white. This Can’t Be Happening, he thought repeatedly, the shotgun’s lazy presence telling him otherwise, even as he thought it.

“We’re … we’re almost out of petrol.” He’d found his voice at last, somewhere behind his knees, apparently.

“Better stop somewhere then, hey?”

A small servo loomed up before them. “You got enough money on ya? Do ya want me to pay?”

Jeremy thought of the coffee and cake money in his jacket and stammered his negative reply.

“Settled then,” the voice breezed, like a boss announcing he’ll pick up the tab at a business luncheon. “I’ll pay our way ’til we get there.” A rolled up bundle of money plonked into Jeremy’s lap. “Use that. And be nice.”

Be nice? Jeremy almost laughed. Shouldn’t the voice say something like “Don’t try anything stupid”? or “No funny business”? Surely “be nice” was a little out of place here?

He stopped the Valiant at a bowser and because the place had a hand-painted sign boasting of driveway service, he waited for an attendant. A man soon appeared, smearing oil stains over a dirty overall. He waddled up to Jeremy’s window, smiling gap-toothedly.

“Series S,” he leered at the Valiant as though appraising a barmaid’s cleavage. “Bewdiful condition. Must be proud of her?”

Jeremy nodded dumbly. There was silence from the back seat and the shotgun had moved from the back of his neck. Surely, though, the amputated barrels were pressed into the restored leather upholstery of his backrest, waiting to blow both he and his beloved car apart unless he did his best to “be nice”.

“Fill her up, thanks,” he croaked.

The attendant shuffled the bowser nozzle into place, free hand tapping on the shiny black roof. “Restore her yerself, did ya?”

“Yeah,” Jeremy sighed. “Spent all summer on it. Me and some friends.”

He was lost for one sweet moment in memories … the bonnet sparkling in strong Perth sunshine, he and Dirk with heads bent close over mechanical intricacies, so engrossed that only Grania jiggling as she waxed the Valiant from bumper to bumper could distract them.

“Must be proud of her,” the attendant drawled again. Jeremy passed the man some money from the roll in his lap, the man passed back some workshop-grubbied change.

“Y-yes, I am. Thank you.”

Back on the road, the voice rose again. “Does that radio work? Or is it just for looks?”

“It works.” Jeremy twiddled the knobs, trying to find something the voice decided it liked.

“Cool!” the voice exclaimed, “Leave it on this!”

They travelled hours without saying a word. Jeremy tried not to look at the landscape too much; he hated being out of the city and this never-ending expanse, the unflinching openness of it, made him queasy. Jeremy instead filled his mind with candlelit images of bedrooms, rough kisses in dark nightclubs, three person conga lines around his kitchen table to cocktail music rescued from op-shops. His abductor stretched out along the back seat and growled along with every lyric the radio spilt into the car’s interior. Darkness was deep around them by the time the voice realised its driver must be wearying.

“Hey!”

Jeremy started at the sound, at the very poke of the voice.

“Tired? Want me to drive a while?”

Jeremy pulled the car into the gravel siding, feeling a little sick. “What’ll you do with me while you’re driving?” Oh god, his mind trembled, don’t let him put me in the boot. Oh god, please…

~

“So!” the boy slid into the driver’s seat, testing his foot-to-pedal comfort, “Ever been tied up before?”

Jeremy couldn’t help laughing. Could this teenager even guess why an adult might find that question amusing? He couldn’t be more than fourteen, surely? For godsake, he was being held captive by a little kid! He looked down at the complicated knots he was tied with and sighed heavily. A little kid who’d been a Boy Scout, obviously.

“Can you drive?” Jeremy demanded. “A lot of work’s gone into this car. I don’t want it wrecked by some little shit out for a joyride.”

The boy turned the engine over expertly and cast Jeremy a baleful look. “Do I look like I’m out for a joyride? Now be nice and sleep. I’ll need you driving during the day when people might see us.”

A flat tyre near the Victorian border was to be the only further event of the journey. Jeremy resigned himself to getting the kid to Melbourne quickly. He didn’t want to ask questions, didn’t want to try escaping and be a maimed or dead hero. The kid didn’t seem talkative either, so they rode out their trip with only the most essential of speech.

That’s why Jeremy was startled by the sudden questioning outside Horsham.

“You okay? You moaned or something. What’s up?”

“Nothing.” He sighed again. “Actually, yeah, something’s up.” He glanced into the mirror, finding the childish, wide brown eyes of his captor peering back. “I was heading out for coffee. Just a bloody coffee. There’s these people … you’re too young to understand, but this … couple … are very dear to me. I haven’t seen them for a while. We’d had this stupid argument over showing the car at a collectors’ show. Yeah, this car. Did it up together, see. Anyway. We had this stupid argument and haven’t seen each other since. I’ve been miserable, okay? Then suddenly they call me and want to meet in the place we first met. That’s where I was going when you popped up. Now here I am,” he made a sweeping gesture at the green and gold land rushing by. “Here I am thousands of miles out of my way, I’ve stood up the two people I love most, and I’ve got a shotgun pointed at the back of my frigging neck! To top all this off—have you seen the state of this car?! She’s a grand old lady and we’re putting her through a bloody cross-country rally!” Jeremy swiped angrily at tears as he finished, wondering what young thugs thought of blokes who cried these days.

The boy was quiet while Jeremy composed himself then, for the first time, he swung his legs over the red leather backrest and fell into the front passenger seat. “I wouldn’t worry about the car if I were you,” he said. “Vals are tough. You could drive her through a war zone and she’d pull up alright on the other side. Plus, y’know, you and yer mates did a great job on her. You could keep going up to Brisbane before she’d even need a service, I bet.”

Jeremy snorted a teary laugh. “And what would you know about cars?”

“My dad was a mechanic. Used to work on oldies like this. Old Valiants. Old Holdens. He would’ve loved this car. Always wanted a Series S…”

Jeremy glanced sideways and caught the wistful look on the boy’s face. It took him a moment longer to realise the shotgun had been left, forgotten, in the back.

“Is that why you chose my car? Because your Dad would’ve liked it?”

“Yeah. Plus it’s not hard to get into a locked Val. Sorry mate, but it isn’t.”

The boy and Jeremy both smiled cautiously. Jeremy shrugged, giving his attention back to the road. He still didn’t want to ask of the boy’s whys and hows, even though it was probably possible to do so now.

~

The lights of Melbourne’s skyscrapers winked at the Valiant as it approached journey’s end. The boy dozed lightly. Jeremy nudged him awake, telling him to put his seatbelt on.

“Sure,” the boy said, first leaning over into the back to shove the shotgun into a battered sports bag. “North Melbourne station’s probably the best place to leave me. D’ya know where that is?”

Jeremy shook his head. “Never been out of WA before.” He laughed grimly. “You know Melbourne?”

“Yeah. My mum’s here somewhere. Haven’t seen her since I was six, when Dad took me to Perth. She’ll probably pretend she’s glad he’s dead when I tell her. But she’ll be upset really, I reckon. She always said he was a loser, doing all those robberies and stuff. Now he’s gone and proved her right. He should’ve stuck to fixing cars, instead of driving ’em away from banks really fast…” He smirked and hauled the sports bag into his lap, hugging it close while Jeremy eased the car into the dark parking area at North Melbourne train station.

They sat silently, looking embarrassed for a short while. “My mum always told me to be nice to people who help me,” the boy fumbled with his seatbelt and sports bag. “I’m sorry if I scared yer too much or anything. I know I’ve really put you out, but there was nuthin’ else I could do. I had to get away real quick … and it’s such a cool car…” He held his hand out. Jeremy looked it at a moment as if wondering what the boy wanted, then he clasped it and shook it solidly.

The boy got out of the car, threw two rolled-up bundles onto the seat and ran off, shouting a childish “Thanks heaps!”.

~

Although he’d given up smoking years ago, Jeremy ripped open a pack of smokes from the nearby pub’s machine as he listened thankfully to the coins dropping into the pay phone. He raised his voice over the traffic-mumble around him and blurted “I love you” into the receiver, barely registering if it was Grania or Dirk who answered at the other end.

     

Welton B. Marsland is a queer-punk writer from Melbourne, Australia whose stories, poetry & more have appeared in many local & international markets. Debut novel “By the Currawong’s Call,” set in 1890s Australia, is available through harpercollins.com.au and recently won the Romance category at the 2018 Bisexual Book Awards in New York. Twitter: @wbmarsland Website: weltonbmarsland.com

“The Unfastening of Winter” by Cris Mulvey

“Rising” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 36″ x 36″

Alice stretched her tired body and dropped heavily onto the straight-backed chair at the side of the open casket. She ran calloused hands through dull-blond hair and pressed her palms, just for a moment, against her eyes, steeling her mind against the silence. You’re free now. So…will you?

It was as if someone else had spoken, this unexpected voice inside her head. She looked sharply around the room. It was empty. There was only her husband’s body laid out before her, his face gray, but pain-free; the picture of the Sacred Heart above it; and herself, poised stiffly on the edge of this hard, little chair.

The Sacred Heart seemed to stare at her, a bit like the Mona Lisa, she thought. No matter which way she shifted to try to change the light, his eyes followed her. The voice in her head said it again. “Free, at last. So….will you?” It became like a mantra. It kept time with the tick-tock-tick of the old clock on the mantelpiece. “Free now. Free now. Free. Will you go now? Go now? Go?”

She focused on Matt’s face. This face that had lain beside her all the nights of thirty years, even those of the last ten, when he’d been bed-ridden, unable to move, paralyzed from the neck down, from a fall on the train tracks at work. It wasn’t that she hated him, she thought, swallowing. It was that she felt absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.

“It’s a kind face,” she mused, searching for a feeling, “a warm one, one that lit up often with smiling.”

“He’s a man who’s done his best, all the days of his life” her father had said once, reprimanding her. ” A man who loves you.”

“Enough for both of us,” Matt had said, the day he’d asked her to marry him.

“And you loved your sons” she said aloud now, to try to make herself feel it,

so hard they brought tears to your eyes, in good times and bad.” She sighed. She still felt nothing, Nothing at all.

Her eyes moved down his body. His hands were large as spades, from his work as an electrician for the railroad. Pale and purplish, knob-knuckled and rough-skinned, they lay limply now, folded across his chest. She remembered the feel of them on her skin, their first night, the way they’d grasped at her breasts, pulled at them, how they had closed tight on her shoulders at the end; her feeling of being taken. She had lain there afterwards, thinking about another man, a man who had taught her what it had felt like to open, to surrender; to pour herself, body and soul, like a river into an ocean, like milk into an urn.

~

She’d seen Doug first at a rodeo, three hundred miles away in the eastern part of the state. Black-haired and strong, his eyes, the color of wild phlox, narrowing each time he looked at her, flashing like the sun does on the rough edges of broken ice. Each time something inside her had shimmered. She watched him later, moving with the horses he was loading, his body loose with the out of doors, built to work under wide Montana skies, not in its dried out little towns.

Their first evenings together, at the end of her father’s corral, he had whispered to her of the ways of the wind high up there in the mountains, had dared her to cross the fence, cajoling her to leave her world of pianos and china and little lace doilies, just for an evening. When she declined, he told her he’d wait for her behind the chapel on Sunday, and that he’d show her the places God really lived. So she feigned illness at the start of her papa’s sermon and left for air. He helped her up behind him and immediately they were galloping, out across the mountain-side of the town’s white fences, out to the prairie’s tides washed up against sudden reefs, where there were no fences, only the smell of sage and pine, the ice-cold splash of rock-strewn creeks, the secret dens of animals who lived without fetters.

They’d had six months, six secret months of wild riding across open grassland, six months of him reading to her philosophy and poetry, six months of wet kissing, pressed first up against the rough, flaked bark of spruce trees, later, sprawled on the prickling forest floor. Six months where he’d awakened her as rain does soil and planted in her a new sense of what was possible.

It was a deathly cold winter’s night when the stone he threw woke her – and her papa. It had ended then and there. She remembered the long, slow wail of the train, as it pulled out of town, taking him eastwards. She could see it still, snaking its way out across the prairie, the prairie that stretched in waves like the ocean, waves which that evening were tinted hues of pink and purple, stained by the light of the dying sun. She crept into the frozen fields to do her weeping.

~

A year later, these hands that lay limp now beside her, had taken hold of her and made her a wife.

She had thought about bolting the first day he’d brought her to this town, to the very house where he’d grown up, a house full of the photos and mementos of a family she must now call her own. It was a bigger town than her hometown, but its streets were narrower and its houses smaller. There were no trees to break the dreariness, no views, only the rounded looming shapes of mountains, pressing around her from all sides, crowding out the great expanse of sky. All her life, it had been sky that had soothed her, helped her lungs expand, helped her to breathe. Here, there was almost no sky.

It would have been easy. The train passed behind the fence of their tiny backyard. She could have hopped on it any day, as it slowed its pace to move through town, slipped into one of its carriages, and ridden it ‘til it left this mountain valley far behind. She could have stayed aboard until, turning east across the open prairies; it left even the endless plains behind eventually and began to move between buildings, taller than the wheat silos of her home town, high above streets that danced, not just with the hard green of cottonwoods, but with the soft spread of maple leaves, and the creamy, rose-colored froth of cherry blossom.

But she didn’t.

The boys had come. First Tom. Born whimpering. She remembered the grasp of his hands too, their gripping at her hair, their reluctance ever to let her go. Robert, born a year later had, from the start, sucked at life, not her. He was distant, contained, utterly independent. She adored him.

What she remembers most about those long winters was the unceasing whine of the wind sweeping down from the mountain tops, whipping itself around the outside of the house. Hearing to it, she could think only of the barren, snow-locked flanks of Mt Heron, that beast of a mountain that rose six thousand feet above her window, where even the wolves had to shelter from the cold, from the unbroken, bone-shattering lonesomeness. She would picture the snowfields up there, their top layers shimmering with crystals, burning with starlight, the rocks far below, cracking and splitting beneath their weight of ice, the vast black bowl of the glistening night upended above it all. Sometimes the mountains held her in the immensity of their embrace. Sometimes, it was as though she held them, as though far inside her, in the place of her heart perhaps, or her womb, was a world of pure and dark and ice-cold beauty, lit only by the purple fire of the stars, quite untouched by human feeling.

The clock on the mantelpiece above Matt’s casket chimed loudly. Five o’clock. Another 30 minutes and the evening train, carrying her oldest son, would be pulling in. The clock drew her back to a day she’d spent the last ten years trying to forget. It had sounded just like this the very moment the last living thing inside her died.

Tom had arrived unexpectedly from Bozeman, where he and Robert had been studying. Walking straight into the living room, he waited for his parents to follow. He did not speak until they were seated. Something about his eyes had stopped her heart. The clock began to chime.

“Robert’s dead,” Tom said. “…a car crash. Early this morning. He was drunk.”

After that, all she remembered was the chiming. The sound of it just went on and on in her head. She sat there listening to it. Tom and Matt were talking, she thought. Crying maybe. She just listened to the clock’s voice, to the echoes it made through the silence of the house.

That evening she found herself alone. Matt was at work. Tom was out, making funeral arrangements, taking care of business, acting responsibly. She made her way upstairs. She pulled out the suitcase she had brought from home all those years ago. She put it on the bed and began to pack. “When they come back,” she thought, “I’ll be gone. I’ll figure out where when I’m on the train. It really doesn’t matter. East somewhere, somewhere there’s a college, a library, and a whole lot of pretty trees.”

The wind was cold. A waning moon sailed in and out of bits of angry cloud, never spilling light for long. She had been waiting in the unlit lane by the station trying not to be seen. When the train pulled in she would walk briskly through the turnstile and climb aboard. She would buy the ticket down the line.

She heard the familiar whistle, signaling the train’s passage through town. She bent to lift her suitcase, rising suddenly to a swirl of light from a car pulling in to the station yard. A car door slammed. Footsteps, hasty, on the gravel. She gripped her suitcase, turned away, walking through the turnstile and onto the platform, earlier than she had wanted. She looked southwards anxiously, towards the approaching train.

 A man came up behind her. He was out of breath. She didn’t look around.

 “Mom?” she froze. “MOM!”

 “It’s Dad. He’s had a fall. It’s bad.”

The train’s brakes screeched to a halt. A door opened right in front of her, pouring light across the platform. She moved towards it. She placed her foot on the step. The light was yellow on her shoe.

“He’s in the hospital. They can’t wake him … They think he’s paralyzed … from the neck down.”

She pulled herself into the corridor of the train and turned into a carriage. It was empty. She sat in the seat by the door. She took off her hat. She placed her suitcase by the wall beneath the window. She took off her scarf, her gloves, laid them on top. Then she gazed for one long moment east.

With the first shudder of the carriage she stood up, smoothed her coat and left the train, its gathering speed causing her to almost turn her ankle as she leapt. Her eldest son’s hand steadied her.

“Take me to him.”

From the car she saw the moonlight catch the roof of the train as it made its way out of town. On the other side of the tracks, the snow at the top of Mt Heron glinted and flared. Then a bank of cloud totally swallowed the moon.

~

That was ten years ago. Ten years! She’d counted again this afternoon when, emptying the urinal down the toilet, she had heard him call. Once, twice, a third time:

 “Alice. A-lice. Ple—e—-e—ase…”

Despite the mounting panic in his voice she’d pretended not to hear, listening instead to the tin-like notes the urine made sprinkling against the water of the toilet bowl. She listened to it echo, almost musically, through the silence of the house. She noted the color. Too dark. She’d have to bring him more liquids. Later. She’d been all day in and out of that room. She knew he wasn’t doing well, but, well, she couldn’t breathe. Rubbing the condensation from the inside of the bathroom window, the outline of Mt Heron appeared blurred against the evening sky. She let herself gaze at its highest slopes. She sucked them in. A sudden flurry of hail hit the tiny pane like a fistful of gravel and she started. She’d go later. Just a little later. It was time for dinner.

Alone in the steamed up warmth of her kitchen, the crackling of the wood-stove, the drone of the late afternoon radio, the sweet knowledge that not even the telephone could get to her here, she let a long, slow breath expand her ribs, then let it out. She couldn’t afford to let herself think. She hummed to the tunes that came and went on the radio. Frowning in the half-light at a recipe book, she washed, sliced, cut, diced, flung the vegetables into a casserole, flung the casserole into the stove and turned immediately to baking.

The hard slipperiness of the butter yielded beneath her fingertips. The cool softness of the flour ran across her palms. She rubbed, squeezed, kneaded, rolled, her eyes following the trickle of melting snow, as it slid pencil-thin runways down the opaque windows. Outside, she knew, Mt Heron stood, stood as it always did, stood as she stood in the midst of her life, immobile, expressionless, letting the seasons and the weathers come and go, untouched by any of it.

An hour later, she entered the bedroom to bring Matt his dinner. She found him lifeless, a dribble from his lower lip dried white against the stubble he had wanted her earlier to shave. She moved immediately to do what needed to be done.

The key in the door brought her back to the present. It was Tom. She lifted herself out of the chair to greet him. They hugged, briefly. She pulled away first and left him alone with Matt. In the kitchen she stood, hands on the cold edge of the sink, staring at the hump of Mt Heron through the net curtain. She thought of the high fields, their snow glinting in the starlight. Still, she felt nothing.

~                                       

It was the day after the funeral. Tom and she were returning from an after dinner walk. He’d been trying, all day, to talk her into leaving, into going back East with him back, back to where his wife and he had a place. They’d just turned off Main St. towards the house. The streets were deserted. The shadow of the mountain stood black against the evening sky.

Suddenly, Tom stopped and waved his arm at the streets and their buildings.

“Look at this place! It’s dark! Miserable! Empty! You can’t stay here alone. There’s nothing here for you. Not now.”

She couldn’t help a wry smile. She walked on. He caught up.

“Look, I know I’ve said it before, but it all makes sense. Mo and I have tons of room. You’ll have company, and you’ll have space. When you sell the old house, you’ll have money. Then you can figure out what you want.” His voice whined with frustration. “Just give it a try, will you?”

Alice said nothing. She was trying to picture those tree-lined city streets, the ones she’d dreamed of all those years, trying to see herself walking across a tree-filled campus, reading in an oak-shelved library, sipping coffee with friends, talking poetry. But none of it would come into focus. There was only the mountain, its snow-capped peak shining far above her. Her mind would go nowhere but there. She saw herself standing atop that north facing ridge, way up there at the top of the world, gazing down at this valley that had held her life. She had never been up the mountain. Suddenly she wanted to go. Tom stepped in front of her to peer into her eyes. “I’ll think about it, Tom,” she said. “I will. Now, I, for one, am going to bed.”

Alone in the attic at the top of the house, a place she sometimes slept alone, she stood gazing through the dormer window at Mt Heron. With a flourish she threw the windows open to the night and leaned out. Far below leaves were skittering down First Street, gusting in circles, gathering in the corners of fences, and settling. It was a wind she knew, a wind she watched for, year after year, the one, she believed, came to shiver the tops of things, and whisper to them to grow.

High above it all, Mt Heron glimmered, its peak and ragged edges white with moonlight, its crevices and the meadows where the tree cover grew, pooled in darkness. Watching the curve of its massive flank and the delicate arc of silvered snow across it, Alice felt a sudden opening. The friendless world that had leaned forever against her windowpanes seemed to lift, just a little. The mountain seemed to lean towards her.

“Perhaps,” she thought, sniffing the wind “perhaps, at last, winter is over. Perhaps now, Spring can finally come.”

She had no idea what that might mean. She knew only that she would not recognize it anywhere but here.

     

Cris Mulvey was born and raised in Ireland and spent the first half of her life as an educator, activist, and community organizer. Drawn by the beauty of wild nature and its power to feed, heal, and inspire, she moved to Montana where she began to write poetry, short stories, and memoir. Mulvey currently lives in Northern California with her husband Jack, a dog, and two cats. Her work has appeared in a number of journals, including the Naugatuk River Review, the Whitefish Review, Mobius, Last Night and Women’s Voices for Change.

“Repossessed” by Ellen Leary

“Time is on Your Side” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas

I ran into him, by accident, in a department store in New York. Saks. He was buying a printed silk scarf—probably for one of his many paramours, I think, wryly. The familiar ache rises up and makes me turn away. I am going to pretend that I have not seen him and walk on, but just as I do, he turns.

“Reina! Is that you?”

His eyes flash with the sparkles that first made me fall in love with him, and he takes my arm.

“What a lovely surprise to run into you! How have you been? You look amazing!”

I manage a smile, privately relieved that I had taken some time with my appearance that morning. I know I look good. He gives me a once-over that would be highly inappropriate save from someone who had known your body intimately, and for a long time.

I think: Of all the department stores, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into mine …”

but I say,

“Jack. How nice to see you.”

He turns back to the saleslady who is wrapping the scarf while she processes his credit card.

“Hold on a second,” he says to me, not relinquishing my arm.

He signs the receipt with his right hand, still resting his left hand on my arm. His left hand has a wedding ring.

Of course I knew that he had remarried. The information had been batted around at a cocktail party and brought to my attention by my husband. “Did you know …?” he asked. “Of course!” I said, shrugging it off, although I experienced a sudden lightheadedness and was having trouble breathing.

He turns back to me:

“Can we … I mean … are you in a big rush? Or can we have a drink somewhere?”

“I … have a meeting I’m supposed to …” I find myself stammering and he sees me flush and smiles broadly.

“Ah, come on! How long has it been? Five years? More? I want to know what you’ve been up to. Can’t the meeting wait?”

It has been seven years. I look at my watch, apprehensively.

“I suppose so,” I say, regretting it immediately. But my heart has risen like a helium balloon. “I’ll … have to make a phone call.”

 “Go ahead,” he says.

He turns to take the shopping bag that the saleslady holds out to him and I see her face respond to the eye-sparkling smile he gives her. Like they all respond.

But I take my cellphone from my purse and walk a distance away, knowing that I will be talking to my answering machine.

“Hello?” I say, into the phone, “It’s Reina. I will be late for the meeting. Please go on without me. Thanks.” I turn the phone off and stare into the distance, amazed at what a cool liar I am. I walk back to him.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s get out of here. I know a nice restaurant not far from here. It’s after lunch hour and I’m sure they’ll let us sit with a drink for a while.”

And just like that, as though we were still married, as though I was still his wife, his possession, as though the seven years of therapy had never happened, I let myself be led out of the store.

“Look” he says, pointing up to a wrought iron fire-escape on an apartment building across the street from us, “Look how New Yorker’s strive for a tiny touch of nature.” I look. There is a potted geranium sitting in the one shaft of sunlight that has made it through the concrete labyrinth. “In California,” he says, “there are beautiful flowers all around.”

We turn into a dimly lit restaurant — a French place — that is empty except for a bartender who looks up at us, scowling, as though he has just seen his cigarette break flying out the window. Behind the bar there are racks of wine bottles in a geometric pattern.

We sit down at one of the tables with a blue and white checkered tablecloth on it and the bartender approaches us, resigned.

“Something to drink?” he asks, pleasantly, in an accent that I take as French. Maybe scowling is just his natural demeanor.

“Yes,” says Jack. “Two extra-dry vodka martinis, straight up with a twist.” He remembers.

Then he looks at me,

“You still drink martinis, don’t you?”

I smile and nod, knowing that I don’t drink them in the middle of the day.

“Reina, Reina, Reina!” he says, looking at me and shaking his head. “Look at you! Red is your color!”

“So you always said.”

“I guess the divorce did you good!”

“Oh, Jack. Don’t be ridiculous. The divorce didn’t ‘do me good’; I just pulled myself together afterward and managed to go on with my life. (Good for you, I think! Assert yourself a little.)

“What about you?” I ask. “ You are looking very well also.”

He sits back and sighs, looks down at the table.

 “Yeah. Things have been … good. I’m … I’m just in town for a short time. Actually, leaving tomorrow morning.” He looks up. “I am living in California now. Doing the tennis thing. “

“Ah. That accounts for the tan,” I say, smiling.

A piebald cat emerges from behind the bar and sits on its haunches licking its front paws.

“Yeah. It’s a nice life out there. I don’t know … you get a little older and the winters here start to wear you down. You might consider it yourself.” He looks up hopefully.

The waiter puts the two martini glasses down on the table and leaves.

“You know, I think of you often, Reina,” he says, fingering the stem of his glass. “Do you ever think of me?” He looks up waiting for my answer.

“Sure.” I say. “I think of you every time I wear a piece of the jewelry you gave me.” (Good retort. Keep hitting them back, I say to myself. All you have to do is get them over the net.)

It is beautiful jewelry. He has good taste. Some for my birthday; some for our anniversaries, and some for when he’d come home much too late. When all the wars are over and civilizations crushed, jewelry is what will remain. If you don’t believe me, go to the Met.

What I don’t say is that I once stood stock still on a busy New York street thinking I saw him, only to realize, as he came closer, that it was a stranger. Or how, late at night, when my mind wanders, I recall his hands. Or how my life went unspooling when he left and how I ran like a frantic child to pick up the thread.

He raises his glass.

“To old times,” he says.

I raise mine.

“To old times.”

We clink glasses.

The martini is good. Cold and sharp and the vodka infuses my mouth with its familiar bite. May it give me strength, I pray.

He studies my face. He tilts his head and slides his bottom teeth forward, slightly, absently scraping his top teeth. He eyes are searching mine, looking from one to the other. I feel the hackles or the shackles or whatever you call them rise on the back of my neck.

“I hear you’re with someone nice.” he says.

“Really?” I am taken aback. “Who told you?”

“Oh, people are always giving me updates on you,” he says.

I am surprised, but pleasantly so.

There is a pause. The ball is in my court. I have to say something. I meet his eyes.

“Yes,” I say. (Noncommittal. But still an answer. The score is thirty-love. Only, don’t mention “love.”)

He sighs and sits back.

My husband is nice, I think. He is kind and loving and takes good care of me. I have a happy life. A calm and centered life. But how can I say — it is like a missing limb that has been replaced by a brace: an up-to-the-minute, state-of-the-art artificial leg. That you strap on and you can walk as though nothing had happened. It is perfectly functional. But it doesn’t stop you from dreaming that you still had the real thing.

Somewhere in the back of my closet in a shoe box there is a letter in his familiar handwriting. A letter that says, “You need someone who will take a little care of you. I was never good at taking care of you. I let you get fat and unhappy.”

“He takes good care of me,” I say. (Game, set, match!)

“No children?” he asks. He knows the answer. If there had been children his sources would have told him, surely.

“No,” I say.

“We should have had some” he says. “Maybe that would have kept the marriage together.”

“Ha! It rarely does that, so I am told,” I say. “Anyway, I’m passed all that, I’m afraid.”

“Why? You’re still young, Reina. You are two years younger than I am. And I am … what? 41?”

“You are 45, Jack.”

“Oh. Really? Ah. Yeah, I guess so.”

“And you?” I ask, trying to make my voice airy. “No children?” (I don’t want to hear the answer.)

“No,” he says. “She has two from her first marriage, but they live with their father. She didn’t want any more.”

I nod. My heart resumes beating.

“Still. We should’ve had some, Reina. They would have been something else!” He smiles at me.

I manage a smile back, thinking, Yeah. They would have been something else!

We stay silent for a while, drinking our martinis and thinking of the children we never had.

“I’m glad that things worked out well for you, Reina. That you seem happy.”

Maybe I should tell him about my recurring dream: the one where I am standing at the luggage carousel of some airport. My suitcase has sprung its locks and is going around and around with the top open. All my belongings are spilling out. My intimates, my bras and panties are strewn across the metal belt, for all to see. I try to pull the suitcase off the conveyer while at the same time stretch out one hand for the items that are moving out of my reach. I am trying to hold everything together and keep the lid of the suitcase from springing open again. (I don’t need a therapist to explain the dream to me.)

A group of rowdy young people enter the restaurant. They appear to have been drinking. They sprawl at a nearby table, laughing and speaking French. The waiter eyes them and brings over some menus. One girl gets up and sits down on her boyfriend’s lap. She is caressing his neck.

We watch them. There goes our quiet drink. He reaches out and puts his hand over mine.

 “My hotel is right down the block,” he says. “The New York Palace. Madison and 50th. You know it, it used to be the Helmsley Palace. Why don’t we go there where it is quiet? I have a dinner I have to attend this evening, but we’ll still have time …”

My blood feels as though it has been carbonated.

‘Yes!” I say, “Yes!” But the words that come out of my mouth are: “I can’t, Jack, I have to get back to my husband.”

He nods, releases my hand, and finishes his drink. I finish mine, excuse myself and find the ladies’ room.

Inside I collapse on a striped divan. Oh God! To be able to pretend for one hour that all the hurt had never happened. That we are still young and so in love. To shut our eyes and cling to each other as we used to; to feel his arms around me, his mouth on mine …to fill the well of longing for just a tiny moment. To feel whole again!

Why did I have to arrive at Saks at exactly that time? What if I had stopped in at the shoemaker’s as I had planned to do, and not suddenly change my mind when I saw the bus approaching? I never would have been at the scarf counter at the same time he was. Why didn’t I turn away a split second sooner, before he saw me? Can all of life hinge on such a tenuous element of chance?

I pull myself together and run a comb through my hair. I add some lipstick and determine to go back out there and face up to the challenge. The martini has made its way into my bloodstream and is giving me strength.

He stands as I approach the table.

“I’ve paid the bill,” he says.

“Thank you,” I manage to say. We leave the restaurant and stand outside for a moment. He is headed in one direction; I in the other.

“Maybe we could meet every five years or so,” he says. “It’s been nice catching up with you.”

“Sure” I say.

I smile at him. A lock of his perfectly coiffed hair has blown lose and I reach to pat it back into place, but stop myself. I think of Barbra Streisand standing in front of the Plaza with Robert Redford at the end of THE WAY WE WERE. That gesture she did spoke volumes. It was so inmate. It told of the affection they still had for each other; of past lives living together, laughing in the sunshine and making love, but there was also the poignancy of the differences that rose up to crush the love — not all of it. Just enough so as not to be able to live together.

I kiss his cheek. “See you in five years,” I say.

I turn and head down the block. I can feel he is watching me, but I don’t turn back. I walk into Saks and go up to the same counter where ladies’ scarves are sold. It only takes me a minute to find a beautiful silk scarf that is way out of my price range. I take it up to the saleslady. It is the same saleslady who was there before. She doesn’t recognize me. That often happens when you stand beside Jack, I think. Standing in his aura. No one can see you because the light that he gives off is so blinding.

I pay for the scarf, head out of the store wearing it and hail a taxi. I give the driver my address and sit back in the seat. There will be no one at home, I know. My husband is away on a business trip. One end of the scarf flutters in the open window.

     

Ellen Tovatt Leary spent twenty years acting on the professional stage. She performed in theaters from the Ahmanson in Los Angeles to the State Theatre in Lincoln Center, including four Broadway, many off-Broadway and regional theaters. She worked with Hal Prince, Maureen Stapleton and James Hammerstein among others. She graduated from Antioch College and was a Fulbright scholar at LAMDA. Her first book, a memoir, Mother Once Removed, details her childhood growing up on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in the 1940s with an eccentric, divorced mother. She was on the writing staff of the Carnegie Hill News in New York for fourteen years. She has published short stories as well as poems, is a native New Yorker who currently resides, with her husband, in LA.

“The Blue Rigi” by Patricia O’Donnell

“Transitions” by Lisa Boardwine, Oil/Cold Wax on Panel, 12 x 12.

In every story Clarissa began, or even thought of, someone had recently died. There was no other story for her: someone loved, someone irreplaceable, had died, and how did one go on? She told herself it wasn’t because of Jared; it was because everyone dies, and how can one write anything that doesn’t acknowledge that?

For Jared, dying was rich in comic possibilities. He had the worst sense of humor; no joke was too corny for him. “Treat each day as if it were your last, and one day, it will be.” They were jokes he would have told their child, if they’d had one. So he told them to Clarissa, daily, to her anguished moans and protestations: “What’s brown and sticky? A stick.”

Clarissa flew overnight from Boston to Dublin. She faded during the long line going through Customs, twisting through the cavernous, windowless room. She caught a bus to Monaghan, and finally a taxi to the artists’ residency. She was here for two weeks, a trip funded by the university where she taught, to finish a novel. The estate house, in Gothic Revival style, was impressive; the grounds green and rolling down to a tidy lake. Her head swam as the Director showed her around the place, rushing her past the artist studios, making jokes in his Irish accent that left her bewildered. When she made it to her room, she collapsed.

After a time of staring at the posts of the four-poster bed, feeling all the mistakes of her life, including the decision to take this trip to Ireland; her failures in her professional life; her personal unworthiness, and the sense of loss and aching loneliness at the center of it all that she tried not to look at head-on, she fell asleep.

When she woke, it was nearly time for dinner. She opened the drapes and stared at the well-tended gardens in light constantly shifting from clouds moving overhead: early roses, lavender, and lilies. She showered, put on her black dress, and brushed her long brown hair. Maybe there would be single men at dinner, devilishly handsome Irish men or Brits, intrigued by an American woman. She leaned close to the bathroom mirror, drawing a fine dark line around her eyes.

There was just one man at dinner, a white-haired man who sat next to her. He was the husband of the woman across from Clarissa. Painters, they each had a studio in the building that used to be the stables. The man leaned in to Clarissa to hear her speak in a way that reminded her of her father. His wife leaned forward to talk with Clarissa, once reaching across the table to touch her hand. Later Clarissa struck up a conversation with a dark-haired, intense young woman sitting next to her, an essayist from Dublin. The wine helped Clarissa feel loquacious. In this setting, no one knew of her failures, losses and mistakes, or that the novel she was working on was going nowhere. She told the woman, whose name was Siobhan, about her tenure-track position at the state university in the Midwest, and about her two close male colleagues. “They’re both very well-published,” Clarissa said. “And they’re friends.”

“Oh, dear,” Siobhan said, in a way that made Clarissa feel she understood more than Clarissa said; understood something of the paternal tone of the older colleague, and the mild flirtatiousness of the other. Clarissa didn’t want to complain about these men; they were her friends and colleagues, and it was important to keep positive in the workplace. As her mother used to remind her, no one is perfect. “Not even you,” she would say, looking pointedly at her daughter.

There was just one person who thought Clarissa was perfect, and he was gone.

In the morning Clarissa stared at her fingers, resting on the laptop’s keyboard. Left index on F, right index on J, waiting to be told to move. The novel waited on the lighted screen, truncated, partial, and longing. She’d started writing about a young woman who wanted to be a gymnast, but the story shifted until the young woman was older, and had lost her lover in a fire. Clarissa thought this turn might be a bad idea; it seemed obvious to write about a woman who had suffered a great personal loss, but it was all she wanted to write. It was the experience she knew best. Her fingers hesitated on the keys. She wanted her character to grieve, and then fall in love again, and discover she was loved in return. The thought made her embarrassed. Surely that wasn’t enough to write about; surely she needed a darker, more complicated vision.

Three fat flies buzzed at the window in front of her, trying helplessly to get to the garden. The window was closed but she saw it could open at the top, with a lever pushed straight out. Standing on the chair, then climbing onto the desk in her bare feet, Clarissa pushed the window open and secured it. Climbing down, she took a piece of paper from the desk, and pushed its edge gently against one of the flies. She finally got the fly to step onto the piece of paper, and remain there while she climbed back on the desk and tapped it out the window. “There you go, dummy,” she said. She climbed down and back up again with the next fly, and the third. Standing on the desk, tapping the paper out of the crack of the open window, she watched the fly zoom away into the overcast sky, then looked down to see a man, standing in front of her on the garden walk.

He turned away with a smile, embarrassed to be caught watching. From his position on the sidewalk it would have been hard not to notice her, standing full-length in front of the window and reaching up. Still, it had been worth the effort to stop hearing their anxious, desperate buzzing. She sat back on her chair, pushed it up to the desk, and looked at her keyboard.

None of her characters died of cancer, which is what her fiancé died from; she chose more dramatic deaths. Fire, or car crashes, or suicides; something sudden, rather than the slow, sad slog that had been the approach of Jared’s death. She hadn’t really known he was going to die, even though she should have known, until all of a sudden it was time to call his parents. She had never found the right time to tell him that, when he got better, she wanted to try for a child. It was what he’d wanted, all those years, a decision they disagreed on that kept them from settling on a date for a wedding. She was in grad school, then starting a stressful new job; where was there time to be a mother? Then, when she felt ready, he was dying, then suddenly their story was over.

She didn’t want to write a character as stupid as Clarissa had been. She wanted her character, Amanda, to be perceptive, intuitive, and courageous. She wanted someone to fall helplessly in love with Amanda, and for Amanda to fall in love also, after she finally determined the man was for real. Like Jared had been for real. It had taken a long time for Clarissa to finally believe that, and to trust.

There were new people at dinner that evening: a couple of women who were sharing a cottage and working together on a play, and the man who’d seen Clarissa at the window. Shaking her hand, he said, “I’m so sorry about earlier. I couldn’t help watching; I thought you might fall forward through the window, and I would need to be there to rescue you.” He had gray streaks in his dark curly hair and a bit of softness around his middle. Clarissa thought he was British, but he said his accent was originally Australian. “Tempered by years of living in Dublin.” His name sounded vaguely familiar, Dillon Burnham. He asked her name, and what she was working on, and saw him search his memory for any trace of her.

“You wouldn’t have heard of me,” Clarissa assured him. He sat next to her at the table. Throughout dinner she was aware of him, of his arm close to hers. She talked with one of the playwrights. Carol and Isabel were from Belfast. Carol talked about the community theater she worked with, the plays she’d written, their progress on this one.

Clarissa knew she should talk of her own work, but she didn’t want to; it felt private to her, wrong to discuss. Instead she asked more questions of Carol, and nodded thoughtfully, pretending to listen.

Clarissa slept deeply, waking only once when she opened her eyes to darkness, forgetting where she was, what this room was, what this building was. For a brief moment, she thought Jared might be lying next to her in the house they used to live in together, and reached to feel for him. It wasn’t until she was standing in the dark room, feeling the walls, that it came back to her: she was in Ireland, at the Artist Residency. That was her desk, that was the door that led to her bathroom.

In the morning, she was glad she didn’t have to talk to anyone when she helped herself to the food set out on the counter; she was not a morning conversationalist. Jared was more energetic in the morning, but had learned to save conversation, and especially jokes, until later. That was one of the things that it takes time to learn about a person. She didn’t know if she could ever do that again: take the time to adapt to someone, to their snoring, for example, and have them take the time to adapt to her. She thought of the things she did that used to annoy Jared: take too long to leave the house when they were going out, always remembering one more thing she needed, or a last-minute change of shoes. They were getting over these minor irritations, finding ways to reach their affections around the things that irritated them, and Clarissa had just begun imagining what it might be like to have a child with this man, when he became ill.

But for that short time their relationship had been a success for Clarissa, a flash in her life. So brief, it seemed now, the five years they’d been together; a gasp, a kiss, a moment, and it was over, Jared gone as if he’d never been.

Clarissa took the time to look up on her laptop poems by Dillon Burnham. He was quite accomplished, with several well-reviewed books and a major British award. It was strange to be reading the words of someone who was in one of the rooms next to her, just beyond a wall. The language of the poems was vigorous, with exact, unsentimental observation of nature. She particularly liked one that came around to the subject of death, and the loss of the loved one’s eyes. She thought the writer of that poem must understand loss. It helped her move back into the novel; she imagined Amanda remembering her dead lover’s eyes. Clarissa made those eyes gray, the same color Jared’s eyes had been.

At dinner Clarissa sat between the two playwrights. They were a couple, she presumed, thought she wouldn’t have guessed that either of them were gay. Carol had curly red hair and Isabel was tall and thin, graceful, with long blond hair. Isabel took an interest in Clarissa’s work, asking her what it was like to teach creative writing in the United States.

Clarissa was aware of Dillon Burnham at the other end of the table, glancing their way. After dinner, Carol and Isabel stood and apologized for leaving: “Back to work!” Carol said, dropping her napkin on the table.

“She’s a rough taskmasker, she is,” Isabel said, and followed Carol out the door. Dillon moved to sit next to Clarissa, bringing his bottle of wine with him. He filled Clarissa’s glass. “Cheers,” he said, and raised his glass. “How’s the writing going?”

“Let’s not talk about that,” Clarissa said. “I read some of your poems,” she confessed.

She watched a faint pink spread up the sides of his face. “Oh, no,” he said.

“They are quite beautiful.” She couldn’t remember the name of the poem, but said “My favorite is the one about the eyes.”

He raised his glass again. “Here’s to the writing of Clarissa, of which she doesn’t wish to speak. May her characters suffer a better fate than her namesake.”

He was referring to the heroine of the novel by Samuel Richardson. That Clarissa was abducted and raped, but fought for her virtue to the end. “My parents had not read that book,” she said, “Or they might have thought twice about naming me.”

“It is a beautiful name,” Dillon said.

Outside the glass doors, the evening was soft and gray, bushes shaking in the wind. “Would you walk down by the lake with me?” Dillon asked. They filled their glasses and walked down the gravel path to where the lake shone, one white swan drawing lines across its surface.

“This is simply ridiculous,” Clarissa said. Dillon looked at her. “All this.” She gestured with her wine glass. “The building, the lake, the grounds. Ridiculously beautiful,” she said.

They stood by the water, watching the swan cut the lake in half with a smooth line. Dillon taught literature at Trinity, and played the cuislenna, an instrument he described as a small Irish bagpipe, but he didn’t mention a wife. Clarissa kept thinking of the eyes of the poem, and of a pair of gray eyes she couldn’t forget. She wanted to tell him of her sorrow, and see if he had something similar to share. Jared’s death had occurred just nine months ago. Long enough to grow a baby, if she’d been able to do that. She stood tense, and instead of saying anything about eyes, blurted out, “Did you hear about the black swan that walked into a pub?”

“No . . .” Dillon said, turning to face her.

“The bartender says, ‘Hey, I named this pub after you!’ The swan says, ‘What, Dave?’”

Dillon chuckled politely. Clarissa felt a flush of embarrassment. What had gotten into her? After a quiet moment he said, “The lake is just the color of a Turner watercolor, don’t you think?”

Clarissa bit her lip, searching her memory for Turner’s watercolors. When she confessed that she didn’t have a clear image of Turner’s paintings of lakes, Dillon said he would show her one. He wanted to go fetch his computer now, but she said no. “Tomorrow,” she said. “Eleven o’clock. We’ll meet in the kitchen.”

They said good night in the darkened kitchen. Clarissa impulsively reached over and took his hand. He was so kind, his eyes looking down at her warmly. “Good night,” she said. “It was a pleasure.”

He took her hand to his lips and gave her thumb a quick kiss. “Dear Clarissa,” he said. His low voice rumbled through her. She slipped away to her room without saying anything else. There would be tomorrow to talk.

In her room Clarissa lit a low lamp and looked at herself in the mirror. The evening had gone well, except for that ridiculous joke about the swan. In bed, she lay in the darkness, smelling the faint scent of laundry detergent on the sheets, feeling the sensation of her hand being brought up to his lips. As she was beginning to drift off, she heard a familiar voice say, What do you call a fish with no eyes? And the answer, Fsshh.

In the morning, Clarissa looked up more of his poems, but she refrained from looking up Turner’s work. A few minutes before 11:00, Clarissa wandered into the kitchen and sat casually at the table by the glass doors. The room was empty but for a staff member wiping up the floor with a mop. Clarissa poured herself another cup of tea, added a drop of cream, and sat back at the table.

She heard a door open in the hallway, footsteps, and the white-haired man she’d met her first night shuffled into the kitchen. He waved, then went out the door and down the gravel walk. The day was overcast again, though a suffused light came through the clouds. She could see figures down by the lake, people walking, but she couldn’t make them out, then their heads dipped below the rise of the lawn.

At 11:20, Carol pushed open the glass doors and entered the kitchen, her red hair wild around her face. She went over to the coffee machine and pushed the button for espresso. “How’s it going?” she said to Clarissa.

“Well enough. Is your work going well?”

“It has been, yes. Isabel seems to have taken off . . .” Carol glanced down toward the lake. “Taking a walk, I guess. Oh well, I need a break too. My husband is waiting for a phone call.” She sipped the espresso. “Don’t want him to think he’s forgotten, now, do we?” Behind her, the couple walking by the lake came into view again, this time close enough for Clarissa to see that it was Isabel and Dillon, walking slowly, thoughtfully, deep in conversation.

Back in her room, Clarissa looked up the painter J.M.W. Turner on her laptop. His paintings seemed to be mostly of the ocean, many of them set in Venice; only one reminded her of the lake at all. It was called “The Blue Rigi,” and was an image of a Swiss mountain, Mount Rigi, as seen from Lake Lucerne. The gray and blue colors were similar to the colors of the water last night. The painting reminded her of sadness.

She opened a new file. Jared’s eyes were gray, she wrote. They reminded me of a smooth gray stone. When he opened them in the morning, he would make a joke. He would be sick, about to vomit, knowing he was to die soon—and he would make a joke. A terrible joke, but a joke nonetheless. “How does a train eat? It goes chew, chew.”

She would write Jared alive on the page, for herself if for no one else. There was no more of him left in the world, no child with his smile. She would recreate him, breathing, making stupid jokes for her, Clarissa, just to get her to smile. Dillon Burnham wasn’t what was important to her life. She would smile when she created Jared again on the page, smile when she remembered his terrible, terrible jokes. What did the finger say to the thumb? I’m in glove with you. She would write about the way he tried to pretend he didn’t feel too bad, even as he grew pale, and the pain made him pant for breath. He did that for her. She would write about his death, how she told him to close his gray eyes and rest, not knowing he would never open them again. She would spend this entire residency writing Jared alive again, and then letting him die, and when she was ready—when she was good and ready, not a moment before—she would say goodbye.

   

Patricia O’Donnell is the author of the newly released novel, The Vigilance of Stars. Her other books include the novel Necessary Places, the memoir Waiting to Begin, and the short story collection Gods for Sale, which won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award. Her short work has appeared in many places, including The New Yorker. She is a professor of Creative Writing in the University of Maine at Farmington’s BFA Program. 

“Night Fishing” by Whitney Curry Wimbish

“Passage of Time” by Lisa Boardwine, 12 x 12, Oil/Cold Wax on Panel.

Abel’s twin sister had died a modest death, not the spectacular one friends and family feared, or privately expected. An aid worker traveling the world should perish operatically, from the sudden outbreak of civil war or the contraction of a rare deadly virus. Yet Ariel died during a work meeting when she leaned too far back in her chair and fatally struck her head. Abel’s parents phoned him at his own job to deliver the news, and for several long moments he stared out the window, waiting for the words to resolve into meaning. In that period of shock his thoughts drifted in and out of arguments he’d had with Ariel over the years, and it occurred to him that he finally had proof his job ensuring regulatory compliance at Deloitte was indeed the better career. Here were comfortable chairs made to lean back. Here was a floor that could hurt no one, covered as it was with a plush carpet. He thought, miserably, that for once he could have said what she did every time they argued about career choices: “I win.”

It was a year later when Abel arrived in Cambodia. He’d put off the trip in order to receive several vaccinations, including one against Japanese Encephalitis, though it was unlikely he’d contract it, and because he wanted to avoid the rainy season, and because he had always been afraid to fly, and because, most of all, he wasn’t sure if he could do it alone. His bravest moment in life had been accepting an internship in New York City immediately after graduating from the University of North Dakota. It was his first offer and he wasn’t sure he’d get another; He had been terrified to walk the block and a half between his apartment and the office for at least half a year. The internship turned into a job, and since then, his only trips were back home to Grand Forks. He’d never visited Ariel at any of her postings, though she visited him at least annually.  

His plane touched down at 9 p.m. and he hired a motodop, as recommended by his travel guide.

“English?” the man asked. “French?”

“English,” Abel said. “Or American.”

“Oh. Comedian. You speak Comedian.”

Abel wished he was the kind of person who could seize the moment and extend his half-hearted joke into a playful exchange. Instead he named his guest house and handed the man a printout of the address written in English and in Khmer. Through the busy city center the man bobbed and weaved, and Abel held him around the waist, as he saw was the custom for men and women alike. The driver’s body was relaxed and safe. He delivered Abel to the right address and Abel clutched his backpack to his chest as he watched him go.

It was hot. The lane was quiet and pockmarked. Vines strained against the tall cement fences. The heavy air smelled of jasmine and garbage and bore the sound of a million tiny wings.

Was it jetlag or something else that woke him at dawn? He wandered out to the porch and saw for the first time what Ariel must have seen every day, early riser that she’d been. A watercolor sky. Thickening haze. Trees and tall grasses wet and bright.

And there at the far end of the porch was Ariel herself, sitting in a wicker chair. She wore shorts and a sleeveless shirt and was pouring cream into a glass of ice coffee. It moved through the liquid like it was alive. Another glass sat on a low table in front of a second chair.

“Coffee?” she said.

Abel wanted to scream in her face. Pour out his tears. Embrace her and never let go. But the setting was so calm, her posture so relaxed, that the impulse evaporated. In its place: a pointless flicker of hope.

Ariel pushed a list across the table. “Can you get me this stuff?”

The curvaceous Khmer script was indecipherable to Abel.

“Ok, but – ”

“Go to Orussey and then go to Tuol Tom Poung.”

“Ariel, can you just – ”

“Hey, want to see something?”

She reached into a backpack. When she turned back she was wearing the wooden mask of a demon. One eye was closed and slashed across the eyelid, the other wide open and bulging. From bright red lips poked two fangs.

“Boo!” she said.

Abel stared at her.

“I’m a ghost!”

“No kidding.”

Ariel shimmied and wiggled her fingers. “Ooooooo,” she said. Then louder, leaning forward. “OOOOOOO!”

“Okay! Jeez.”

“According to folk tales here, if you shake your bare ass at a ghost, it will get scared and go away. Isn’t that great?”

Abel’s laugh was genuine. “Would that work on you?”

“No.” Ariel took off the mask.

Abel stood at the curb to hail a tuk-tuk and another guest house resident came to stand beside him, a white woman in a white linen dress with a white leather purse and a big floppy straw hat. Abel fidgeted and hoped she would leave him alone.

“It is so, so hot out, isn’t it?” she said. She retrieved a fan from her purse and thworped it open with a flick of the wrist. She held it before her face and waved it with a fussy little motion.

“It’s so nice to see another expat here,” she said. “I’ve been here for a year now, volunteering.”

Abel’s smile was a closed door. He scanned the traffic.

“You’re going to love it,” she said. “It’s so pretty, there’s a ton to do. Oh – there’s an expat party every second Tuesday at Sunny’s, so that’s coming up and everyone goes. You should come!”

“Hm.” No tuk-tuks, no motodops, no taxis.

“Let’s see, what else. We hang out on Street 140. Check out Pontoon Bar. It’s a bar on a pontoon. Buy some lotus seeds and feed the monkeys as soon as you can. It’s so fun. And make sure you get a pair of shoes made. All the expats have some. They make them exactly to your specs.”  

Abel did not want to do any of that. He wanted to see what his sister saw in her last days, just a glimpse, maybe understand finally why she kept travelling so far from home. And then he wanted to leave. But suddenly he also wanted something else, some way to dispel the welter of anger he was surprised to feel. He met the woman’s eye after a beat.

“You keep saying ‘expat,’” he said. “What do you mean, exactly?”

“You know, someone who moves here.”

“So, an immigrant?”

The woman looked at him blankly.

“People from El Salvador, then,” he said. “Nigeria.”

The woman cocked her head. Abel pressed on. “You mean white, no?” His voice rose. “White people are so fucking special, so they get the special word.”

“I never really thought about it.”

“You never thought about it,” he said. “Cool.”

“I don’t know what you’re getting so mad at me for. I’m trying to help.”

Abel had never picked a fight with a stranger before, but it wasn’t fair this lady got to be here instead of Ariel, who had made fun of words like “expat” and phrases like “friendly fire.” He reached for the worst thing he could think of and ignored the tightness in his chest. “Well you should try harder.” He willed his voice not to crack. “Because otherwise what good are you.”

Stalls of spices, of vegetables, of freshly butchered meat. A vendor of deep-fried insects and tiny flattened frogs, tossed in oil and salt and eaten one after another like potato chips. A stall of hot peppers whose proprietor wore thick rubber gloves.

Abel wandered towards the back and found a series of food stalls around a big fire pit that filled the space with smoke. He greeted a vendor and pointed to a plate of food someone else was eating. With quick precision she produced another of the same: a wide eggy crepe filled with bean sprouts and leafy greens. It hung over the plate and he took a bite of one edge, as he would have a plain slice. The woman was looking past Abel at the next in line, so he moved on to a communal table and pretended not to understand when a table of English-speaking men asked where he was from. Two of the men had broken off from the others.

“At the beer garden, these girls – ‘Beer Girls’ – they come up and give you a massage, and if you give them more money, they’ll do more,” one in a suit said.

“Oh man, that’s awesome,” the other said and raised his hand to receive a high-five.

The first was distracted by his phone. “Wait – sorry bud,” he said. “I gotta head back. You go on without me.”

“Man, the embassy works you guys so hard.”

Ariel was waiting again in the early morning and Abel handed her the sacks of groceries. He passed her the list, each item ticked off.

“Thanks,” she said. “Now we can get started.”

The food came together like magic, neat cabbage-leaf parcels of minced pork and herbs, tied with a length of lemongrass.

“So on balance, ‘aid worker’ is kind of a misnomer,” she said.

Abel made a face. “What are you talking about?”

“‘Aid worker’ sounds nice, but it’s kind of bullshit.”

“But you worked for the UN,” Abel said. “That’s no joke.”

“It kind of is.”

“You guys went around, giving people money and stuff. That’s good, that gives people security. When you’re secure, you’re happy!”

Ariel’s hands were busy. The cabbage rolls multiplied by the hundreds. “There’s more to it than that.”

Another list. A different market. In the morning he found this one outside the center of town, near the Japanese Embassy. Rougher. Smaller. The tarps covering the outermost stalls were frayed around the edges and whipped the air. A storm was rapidly gathering in a sky that minutes before had been clear. The street emptied.

Abel bought a plate of food and sat on a stool to watch the rain fall in sheets. A tiny girl approached and extended her hand. Six years old? Five? She was dressed in rags and held a baby on one hip. Its arms hung limp and its mouth was open.

“Please,” she said in English. She patted Abel’s arm with a bird’s fluttery staccato. She shifted the baby to her other hip. Abel dug into his pocket and held out a dollar bill, worth many times over the local currency. She hesitated before taking it. “Please,” she said again. Abel thought back to his guide book; he was meant to turn away now to show he would give no more. The girl stood by his side for a long moment. A man from behind the counter glanced at Abel and handed the girl a skewer of meat, the same kind stacked high on Abel’s plate. The man spoke a few words to the girl and for an instant her too-adult countenance transformed as she smiled. Another child appeared and the two took turns eating and holding the baby. Its head lolled back.

An enormous pot simmered on the stove. Noodles gleamed in thick brown sauce. A whole fish was fried and golden, its skin slashed into diamonds. The kitchen smelled of freshwater and wood smoke, of oil and ginger and sweet grasses and history.

“The Khmer Rouge wiped out the country’s whole culinary tradition,” Ariel said. “And now people are trying to remember the old recipes.” She was issuing statements like this, one after another. “Did you know there was a big rock scene here before the KR?” Her face was obscured by steam. “Did you know the country was once a matriarchy?”

She sent Abel out twice more. Two more days of heat and humidity and grit in the folds of his skin. He went to the killing fields and stared at a tower of skulls. Afterwards he heeded his intense desire to stand barefoot in the fine dirt, to physically feel the earth beneath him more intimately than he could with shoes. He ignored the sidelong looks of other tourists.

“Hope you’re hungry,” Ariel said that night. “Dinner’s ready.” There was a long table that stretched forever, laden with endless plates of food. The Cambodian ones came first, followed by those of a dozen other nations, everything beautiful and enticing, valuable in a way Abel could not precisely explain. They sat facing each other and Ariel stretched her arms wide to indicate the bounty. She folded her hands in prayer and closed her eyes. “Dear God,” she said, and frowned. “Actually, what am I saying, it’s just us here.”   

When they were young, Ariel would always say “this is what heaven must be like” every time they went to Whitman’s Candy Store in Fargo, and in adulthood, she transferred the ritual to restaurants. When she visited Abel in New York for their 30th birthday, she said it of a fancy uptown hotspot Abel chose in the hopes of pleasing her. But she would have said it of the corner diner. And now, here, in this dreamstate or purgatory or whatever it was, she said it again, and for the first time Abel did not think the phrase was sentimental nonsense. And then the forces at work transported him backwards in time, and he saw himself in the year since Ariel died, checking off his to-do lists, saving his money. He saw himself come straight home from work, night after night after night, double-lock his door, and sob.

In the morning Abel had coffee in the guesthouse café and watched fellow travelers discuss what they would do that day. Shopping figured heavily into their plans. Massages. High tea at the big fancy hotel. The dollar went so far here. They lamented the city’s poverty and promised to make donations. They considered visiting the genocide museum and decided against it. It was, after all, awfully grim for a vacation.

Abel wandered the streets without aim, around a wat where monks in orange robes played Candy Crush on their cell phones. He bought noodles from a food cart, tried to squat low to the ground and eat like the locals, found he could not. The beef and egg and chilies and fresh greens were straightforward and nourishing.

After nightfall Abel walked past a throbbing party and saw it was Sunny’s. Today was the correct Tuesday and the enormous outdoor garden was packed. The party was sweaty, loud, and it stank. He walked on and soon found himself along the Tonle Sap River. Past the Foreign Correspondents Club and its own hectic gathering. Past motodops. Past taxi girls dressed up and waiting. They walked expertly over the gravel in their stilettos. Abel crossed a causeway to the dark silence of the river’s other side. He stood on the shore. Let his eyes adjust. There ahead, the silhouette of a long canoe. The figure within flung a net wide and it slapped the water. He pulled it in. Repeated the motion. The sound was clockwork, a hand measuring time. The boat passed beneath the bridge. Then it was gone.

   

Whitney Curry Wimbish is an American writer living in Scotland. Her fiction has been published by MIROnline, and has received honorable mention in two Glimmer Train competitions. Her journalism/nonfiction has been published in The Baffler, The Financial Times, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in North American Review.

“The Esterlink” by Robert Sachs

Painting by Anna Rac.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He couldn’t wait until nightfall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

“The Nursery Walls” by Brittany Franclemont

Painting by Anna Rac.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He did?”

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

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

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

“What clue?”

“For the treasure hunt.”

“A treasure hunt?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

“Dead Man Walking” by Eli Landes


Photo Credit: TL Sherwood

It feels good to laugh again.

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

I deserve it.

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

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

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

I’d killed him myself.

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

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

When I turn back, he is gone.

~

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

“Miss me, kiddo?”

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

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

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

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

I just need to sleep.

His voice is the last thing I hear.

“Sweet dreams.”

~

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

The dead man is waving at me.

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

He strolls out.

~

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

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

“How long?”

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

“Sorry?”

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

The tag with that date engraved in it.

The date I stopped.

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

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

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

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

I don’t reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t follow.

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

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

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

Because he hasn’t won yet.

 

 

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

 

“Crying in Italian” by Virginia Pye


Photo Credit: TL Sherwood

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

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

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

Gelato,” little Rachel repeats.

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

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

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

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

“You go ahead.”

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

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

“Here, take some euros.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Richard,” Sara finally says. “Wait.”

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

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

 

 

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

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