“Jenna” by Jessica Star Rockers

I keep thinking if I’m not the girl who shoots enough dope to kill an elephant, who am I?  There isn’t anything underneath all that.  Honestly.  And if there is, who the hell would want to find out what?

But I keep going to AA meetings anyway. Monday is Clean and Serene down at the Baptist church, Tuesday is How it Works at the Catholic cathedral, Wednesday and Thursday are step study at the YMCA, and Friday is in the ghetto.  The ghetto meetings start at midnight and go on until everyone has had a chance to speak.  Sometimes they last all night.

Most people at all these meetings I couldn’t care less about, they’re so full of shit. They preach the miracle power of “service” to keep a person sober, and then they don’t even bother to reach out to someone like me, who obviously doesn’t have any friends and needs a little extra help. Do you know how many times people in AA have condescended to me and taken my inventory and made me feel like a heel, and then pulled a stunt where they turned around acted even worse than they called me out about?  A lot.  Almost every week there for a while, but I smiled and took it in stride and told myself not to get a resentment because it was bad for me. I guess after a while it built up.  But they’re all like that, high and mighty liars all of them. Except for Jenna.

Jenna goes to a meeting every night of the week.  And every night I’ve watched her chain smoke, drink diet cokes, and reapply lipstick.  Her best friend overdosed and she cried for weeks.  She dumped her boyfriend, got a new one, dumped him, got another.  They all look the same, her boyfriends.  Dark and old.  Jenna’s only 20 and she’s always dating guys over 40.  Makes me wonder if she isn’t living out some daddy issues.  “Tissue issues” Jenna calls them, when your hang-ups are so bad they make you cry.  I mean, doesn’t she want someone her own age?

I was always into younger guys.  I can’t even begin to tell you how many virginities I’ve taken.  Ten, at least.  Maybe eleven.  I’ve struggled through premature ejaculation, impotence, you name it.  Virginity plus being drunk and high does not make for great sex.  No way.  One time a guy even put the condom on inside out.  It rolled right off and we couldn’t figure out where it went.  Under the sheets, between the wall and the bed, what?  Then we realized, the damn thing was up inside me.  Stayed there for over a week.  No matter what I did I couldn’t reach it, and I had my fingers as far up as they would go.  Finally I had to go to the free clinic and have them take it out.  They gave me the number of Planned Parenthood, just in case something unexpected happened.  But nothing happened.  I thought maybe I was barren or something.  But then my kid came along.

Jenna’s had seven abortions, if you can believe it.  I wonder what it’s done to her down there, like made it smell funny or look weird.  She doesn’t seem to have a problem finding a guy, though, so it must be functional.  She cries when she talks about the abortions.  One time when they were cleaning her out she started laughing.  It wasn’t like she thought it was funny or anything, she just cracked up and couldn’t stop.  Must’ve been nerves, I think.  I laughed at a funeral once.  Some old lady friend of my mom’s had died.  And there we were in church and I just started laughing my ass off and I couldn’t stop, just like Jenna.  My mom reached over and pinched me on the arm, and I got so pissed I quit the laughing.

Most Monday nights, after the meeting, a bunch of people go down to Charlie’s for coffee and cigarettes.  A few kids who go in and out of the program know we’re coming and will hang around the street outside, trying to sell us dope.  One night I saw Jenna out there with Todd F., who’s famous for going to meetings just to find people who’ll buy from him.  Todd and Jenna exchanged a handshake, so she must’ve bought something, and immediately a warm feeling rose up in my gut.  I had to stop myself from tearing Todd a new one.  But what I really wanted was for Jenna to ask me to join her.  I wasn’t sure what I’d say, yes or no, should I shouldn’t I.  I’d never seen Jenna on dope, but I imagined it all the time.  Maybe she’d hit on me.  Maybe she’d find some guys for us.  It’d been a long time for me.  I wasn’t even sure I knew what to do anymore.  After my kid was born I went sorta asexual.  I dress butch for no reason.  Mostly because I’m too fat and too poor and don’t give a damn about men anymore.  Thanks to the baby weight, I’m the only fat junkie I know.  That’s why most people mistake me for an old-timer.  Usually newbies look like Jenna, skinny and super-cool.  It’s the people with time that look like me, bored and sloppy and trying to blend in to the background.

Which is why, when the Friday night ghetto meeting asked for a volunteer to be their new treasurer, someone nominated me.  I needed to find a home group anyway, and it was the first time Jenna had ever looked at me. I couldn’t believe she was finally noticing who I was.  I only had a couple weeks clean, because of a few nights I’d ended up down at the tavern with some buddies I used to work with, but since I hadn’t done dope I figured it was a wash.  I didn’t bother to tell anyone.  They don’t need to know every damn thing.

So I was feeling pretty good about belonging to the same home group as Jenna, like if I hung around enough she and I would eventually have a real conversation. But then last night after the meeting Becky N. told me that Jenna’s leaving.  I guess it just happened, she just decided to move to Los Angeles. Somehow I knew it would go this way, just when I was getting close to being her friend.  I just couldn’t imagine myself being that lucky.

Jenna is one of those people who don’t stay.

She’s done everything wrong, though, so the other home group members are worried.  Got another boyfriend, let him move in with her, now they’re going away together.  She doesn’t even have a year clean, doesn’t have a sponsor, doesn’t know anyone in L.A.  The old-timers are sneaky as usual.  They keep whispering and shaking their heads behind Jenna’s back, but then to her face they’re all “Oh, good luck on your journey” and “Sounds like a wonderful opportunity” and bologna like that.

They’re all fakers anyway.

One reason I always like Jenna was because her story is a lot like mine.  Somewhere along the way she got messed up. She got molested, lost her virginity, slept around for attention.  Maybe it’s everybody’s same story, maybe it’s the way Jenna tells it.  She’s what the old-timers call “terminally unique.”  And she acts like the world is out to get down her pants.  Old men, young men, women.  Every old lady is a dyke staring at her tits, every dog is gonna hump her leg.  Thinks breast-feeding is a gross sexual perversion.  I wonder about that myself, because of a movie I saw once.  Movies do that to me, though.  I gotta be careful about what I watch.  I’m like Jenna—super impressionable.

Jenna owns a porno tape, just one.  The kind that guys like, with jizz on the face shots and “suck me” talk and whatnot.  Jenna says she likes to be removed, a voyeur-type, but she can’t get off unless she has the sound up really loud, so loud she’s afraid the neighbors in the next apartment are gonna hear. She only watches it when she’s too drunk to care, which isn’t often since she started going to AA.  And I only know all this stuff about her because she likes to talk in meetings.

People call on her at almost every meeting, too, because of the way she can express herself.  It’s really entertaining.  She has these thick black bangs that hang over her eyes, sort of swept to the side.  She lets them shake down every so often, then pushes them aside again when she’s making an important point.  And at the end of every sentence she adds a sad little whine, a groan almost, exasperated.  “My ex is back in prison-uh.  And he’s calling me collect every other fucking minute-uh.”  Jenna cusses a lot, but she makes it sexy.  The guys just drool all over themselves.  It sorta justifies her suspicions.  I mean, I’m drooling too, and I’ve only done it with girls when I was blacked-out entirely.

Jenna has names for all these things, words she makes up, phrases.  I can’t remember most of them, but they’re pretty good sometimes.  Once she said, “If someone were as hard on me as I am, I’d kick their ass.”  Everybody in the room laughed.  Whenever I share no one laughs in the right places.  I have to pretend like I find myself really funny, so they’ll know when I’m joking.  It makes me look like an idiot.  I don’t share very much.  Only when my sponsor tells me I have to.

I hoped Jenna would be at the meeting tonight, and when she walked in I couldn’t keep still. I hadn’t even had my coffee yet, but my hands were shaking the whole time and I felt like I had to go pee every five seconds.  Jenna had been sharing about how when she was a kid she was obsessed with sex.  At sleepovers she’d get her girlfriends to re-enact Dirty Dancing.  Eventually they’d take her mother’s old dresses and strip.  Then they’d pretend to hump through sleeping bags.  When she was in junior high she told her friends she’d had sex on her parent’s couch, even though she was still a virgin.  It was for attention, of course.  The girls knew she was lying, but they called her a slut anyway.  Eventually the rumors were true, and when she was using, she couldn’t remember which had come first, the rumors or the truth.  It wasn’t until her fourth step inventory that it all came out.  She’d been a good girl once.  She’d wanted to become a nurse.  Back then, her favorite song was by New Kid’s on the Block.

I don’t know what all this had to do with her leaving for L.A., but it made sense to me about why she was running off with her boyfriend, and the way she told it made me even more nervous.  Her boyfriend was with her this time, the first time I’d ever seen him, and he was old and bald and grey looking, like he was still shooting dope.  He’d been living in one of those halfway houses before moving in with Jenna, a place called Oxford House, and they do piss tests once a week, so he had to have at least a month.  They’d stolen the Oxford House supply of government cheese and free toothpaste for their trip, which is a sober bottom if I’ve ever seen it, but the group members just laughed.  Maybe they thought she was kidding, but I knew she wasn’t.

But tonight was the night.  I was gonna finally talk to Jenna. Who the hell knew what I’d say, but I took all the money from the treasurer box that I’d been collecting at every meeting for four months—$500 total—and put it in my jacket.  I thought maybe she’d need it for her trip.

After the meeting it was hard to get her attention.  She was standing there in knee-high boots and a tiny skirt, making it look so easy.  All through the meeting I’d tried not to stare at her white panties, watching her cross and uncross her legs, mostly because it struck me as funny.  I would’ve assumed they’d be red or black or something.

Outside I gave Bobby D. a cigarette and tried to make small talk.  Everyone was standing around in clumps like they do after meetings, smoking and bullshitting and planning where to go for coffee.  Bobby just got back from a three month stint with the merchant marines and was leaving after the weekend, so he had a lot to say, and it was enough that I just stood there smoking and pretending to listen.  I could see Jenna through the glass doors, coming my way, just about to walk outside.  Her boyfriend was nowhere around.

“Hey, Jenna,” I said to her before she passed.  “Hey there, Jenna,” I said again as she walked by.”  “Where you headed?” I asked, as she walked away.  She said nothing.  Bobby D. just kept on talking.  I gave him a look and he shut right up.

“Hey you!” I yelled out to her across the sea of people. A few people turned to look, but Jenna wasn’t one of them.  She was making a beeline to her boyfriend, who was sitting in a pickup truck in the parking lot.

“Jenna,” someone yelled, “I think you’re wanted.”

Jenna turned around and yelled out, “Who?”  By this time everyone was watching.  “Who’s been hollerin’ at me?” She yelled out, in a country accent, and everyone laughed.  She was always doing funny voices.

“We wants ya!”  Bobby yelled back, imitating.

“Then get yer ass over here, Bobby!  I ain’t got all day!” Bobby grabbed me by the arm and we made our way through the crowd.  “We’re leaving for LA in morning, damn it.” Jenna said.

“Want to get some coffee first?”  Bobby still had me by the arm, but I was fine with it.  If he did all the talking than I had less chance to sound like an idiot.

“Get in back,” Jenna said.  “We’ll drive.”

All I could think on the ride over was the time Jenna was trying to stay away from men.  “I’m on this inner tube,” she said, “and I’m rushing down the river about to head for some rocks, and I need to move around them quick, but everybody coming by wants to grab on to my tube to keep from drowning.  But it only has room for me.  So I’m like, get off my tube, buddy!  Get off my fucking tube!” No one laughed at that, they just looked at her like they understood.  But I’m like, what the hell?  What about those of us who need a tube?  I’m floating down that river, too, and I’m headed for the rapids.  I need a fucking tube, too.  I mean, where the hell does a person get a tube?  Besides, it seems like her new boyfriend hopped right on her tube.  And there I was, riding in the back of his truck, huddled down behind the cab windows with Bobby, trying not to puke from the smell of dog piss on the blankets underneath us.  She’s sharing her tube with this guy and I didn’t get it at all.  Just didn’t make sense.

When the truck stopped Bobby jumped out of the back and offered to give me a hand.  I could see through the front windows of Charlie’s that a bunch of people were sitting there already.  And there was Todd F., walking up to the truck.  He didn’t notice Bobby, and he sure as hell didn’t notice me.  He was headed straight for Jenna.

“Hey, I’m going inside Charlie’s,” Bobby said, “Are you coming?”

“We’re headed there, Bob,” I said.  I wanted to wait for Jenna.  But then the truck started back up and I saw the blinker flashing against the windows at Charlie’s, against the faces of all the people inside.

“Are you staying or going?” Jenna yelled at me from inside the truck.

This was one of those moments my sponsor warned me about.  I could go with Bobby, go sit at Charlie’s for the hundredth time this month with a bottomless cup of coffee and a basket of fries, chain smoking and talking about how the good old days weren’t as good as they seemed, or I could follow Jenna.  And I know what you’re thinking.  It’s hard not to see which way to go down this road.  But Jenna was leaving, and I didn’t necessarily want to get into trouble.  I just wanted to hang out with her.  And I’d already stolen the money from the treasurer box.  At this point I was willing to risk it.

“Going, I guess.” I didn’t care where.

A few minutes later we pulled up in front of a dope house.  I knew it was a dope house because of the chain link fence, the boarded-up windows, and the skinny half-naked guy standing in the doorway.  It was A Man Named Kim.  He and I were old friends.  Of the few girls in my life I ever slept with, his girlfriend happened to be one of them.  He’d caught us kissing in the bathroom of a karaoke bar and got excited until he realized we weren’t going to include him.  After that I found a new dealer.

“A Man Named Kim!” Jenna yelled to him as she walked up the driveway.  Her boyfriend was still sitting in the cab of the truck.

“Hi Kim,” I said.  I reached for my pack of cigarettes and waved it up in the air, like a peace
offering.  “Want a smoke?” I asked.

“Chico said he saw you down at the methadone clinic.” Kim said.  He hung his shirtless body over the edge of the truck bed and looked inside.  “Smells like piss.”  He took the cigarette and waited for me to light it.  “Hey man, you coming out of there?” Kim banged his fist on the truck window but Jenna’s boyfriend didn’t respond.  “Guess he isn’t feeling social tonight.  How about you?  You feeling social?”

“I’m not on methadone,” I said.  “I’m clean.”

“Whatever.  You got money?” he asked.

“I don’t need anything,” I said, but I followed him inside the house while I said it.  I wanted
to find Jenna.

The living room was dark and stale, the only light coming from the television set, but I kept
going, stepping over a couple people who were lying on the floor watching Sesame Street.  I could hear Jenna’s voice coming from the kitchen.  She was telling about how great L.A. was going to be, how she knew some guy who did hair in Beverly Hills who was going to help get her a job at his salon.  Jenna wasn’t a hairdresser, she was a shampoo girl.  She was hoping to work her way up by apprenticing to someone famous.  She mentioned his name but I’d never heard of him.

When I walked into the kitchen everyone looked at me except Jenna.  She was cooking
some dope in a spoon over the gas stove.

“I’m with Jenna,” I said, and this finally made Jenna look up, briefly.

“Oh ya,” she said. “We were going for coffee.”

I sat down on the kitchen floor and waited.  The dope she was cooking was black and looked nasty.  A beer would’ve been nice, but no one was offering, so I waited.  A Great Dane came in and sat next to me on the floor, leaning up against me as he licked his crotch.  I waited for Jenna.  She went into the bedroom and shut the door.

“Heroin is sexy,” I heard her say, “but addiction isn’t.  That’s the fuck of it all.”

She went on like this for a long time and I waited.  A Man Named Kim came in and bummed a couple more cigarettes off me.  A blonde girl came in through the back door and went upstairs and the Great Dane followed behind.  I chain smoked and thought of Bobby sitting in Charlie’s with a group of recovery people.  He was probably telling them all about how I relapsed, how I was killing myself, how they might as well assume I was dead already.  This is what recovery people do to make themselves feel better when someone goes off and makes their own choice, something that doesn’t follow the twelve step suggestions.  Those assholes wanted to think the worst to make themselves feel good about staying sober, needed to think that if they went out and had a drink that their lives would go to shit overnight.  But they knew it wasn’t true.  If addiction killed people overnight no one would do it.  It comes on slowly, and feels good while it’s happening.

When Jenna came out of the bedroom she was angry.  I had to jump up quick to follow her
out the front door, and she was stomping all the way.

“Fuck him,” she said to no one.  She was always talking to the room in general, to no one in particular, like she was the main event.  “He’s dope sick and he’s gonna die and just fuck him anyway.”

Her boyfriend was still in the truck, still sitting there, though it was at least an hour later.
He looked like he hadn’t moved at all.

“Jenna,” I said.  “I want to give you something.”  I was saying it more to myself than to her,
under my breath, practicing, but she heard me anyway.

“What do you want?!” she yelled, turning around.  I had my hand wrapped around the $500
in my jacket pocket.  It was a huge wad, mostly fives and ones, the way it gets collected in

“I thought you might need this.” I pulled the money out slowly and handed it to her.  She didn’t touch it at first, and I thought she was just going to walk off, which would’ve been fine.  I was starting to regret the whole thing anyway.  Nobody was missing me at Charlie’s, not even Bobby cared whether I went or not, but my kid was sitting at home, probably waiting up for me, asking my mom where I was. And I needed the money more than Jenna did, anyway.  I went to all this trouble for her, just so she wouldn’t leave without knowing my face, just so I wouldn’t blend into the background for her, just so I might matter.  But now I was regretting it.  I wanted to pull my hand back and put the cash in my pocket and take it back to the treasurer box, keep on pretending I had a year clean and everything was cool, that I wanted this, that I was getting it, that I was doing everything right.

“Now don’t go telling people I stole this or anything,” she said.  Jenna was taking the money.

“No,” I said. “I just thought you might need it.” I had my head down.  My pants were dirty and I’d spilled mustard on them at lunch.  I hoped she wouldn’t notice.

“My brother’s dope sick in there,” she said. “He needs it more than me.”

After she walked into the house, my home group’s $500 in her hand, I noticed her boyfriend looking at me.  He rolled down the truck window.

“You need a ride to Charlie’s?” he asked.

I hopped into the back, with the dog piss.  I didn’t have time to be friendly.  I needed to
practice my amends.

“I had the money and went straight to the dope man,” I’d say. “And you know you’ve hit your bottom when you’re sharpening your needle on a matchbook and don’t give a shit about your life.”  I’d lean over, brush my bangs out of the way, take a sip of diet coke. “But now I’m here to make it right.  It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I owe it to the group.  I just don’t want my bottom to be six feet under.” And everyone would laugh.  I’d wring my hands a little, wipe a tear or two from my eye, wait for a smile from someone. “But I’m glad to be here,” I’d say, “and glad to be sober.”


Jessica Star Rockers is the editor and publisher of the literary magazine the strange
fruit. She lives and writes on Bainbridge Island, WA.

“Lost River” by Jane Olmsted


She didn’t need to tell him how wrong she’d been or apologize for never calling. She needn’t explain how she’d been busy, first going to school, then working at the hospital. He didn’t want her to call out of guilt or pity or even nostalgia. In fact, she didn’t need to say anything. The call would come, and though silence would meet his “hello?” it wouldn’t be the dead silence of an empty line, but rather the silence of Cecily holding the mouthpiece away from her mouth so he wouldn’t hear her breathing. He’d say, “If you want me to come over now, just hang up.”

Five years ago, roughly if not surprisingly, they’d gone down in flames. The actual burning of the house had been her fault, and leaving her on the lawn after he’d pulled her out unconscious—that had been his fault. She’d already told him it was over. Sleeping with his cousin Josh had been her way of proving it. Since the house belonged to Josh and it was his lab that blew, neither of them had been charged. At Josh’s funeral, the casket was closed. The other users came to pay their respects, making connections in the parking lot on their way out. Derek sat in the back row, a human mummy from the waist up. No one approached him.

Returning home to Morgantown, he stayed in the back room of his parents’ house for six weeks. Shattered was the word his mother used. His face oozed where he’d torn the bandages away, then scabbed and finally closed up. He spent the next month listening
to their rock collection, emerging only to eat and mow the lawn.

“Guess I’ll go back to school,” he told them one morning. He’d returned to Western, where he spent the next two years lifting his 1.9, notch by notch. He burrowed into schoolwork the way an addict hunkers down with a pipe, saying this is all that matters.

He worked in the Education Office and ended up with four top-notch references, including one from the dean, which got him a job in town right after graduation. For his junior and senior years, he pulled a 4.0, which one of his professors encouraged him to include on his resume, next to his overall. “I see it every so often,” he said, “But never so dramatically as your transcript. It’s like there’s a dividing line between your sophomore and junior year.”

Derek just nodded. There’d been a line all right. A lot of lines.

It wasn’t as if he thought about Cecily every day, except recently, oddly, making him hunger for her all over again. At first, missing her had been a cement block that he’d carried—in his stomach, across his shoulders, between his legs, balanced on his head, in his throat. By sheer will he had levered her away, gritting his teeth through over-work and driving out the voices under headphones. It was three years since she’d told him never to call again and two years since that brief glimpse in Kroger’s, where she bent over the scanner checking her purchases, and he passed with his cart, turning once, twice, three times to look, almost stopping.

Recently, he felt launched him from his apartment, like being shot from a canon, to the streets of downtown Bowling Green. And whenever he left home, rocketing into the streets, he found himself pacing. He counted how many steps it took to get from one corner to the next. Leaning against a telephone pole, he told himself that passersby assumed he was waiting for his ride. He watched people pull up to the 12th Street stoplight, speed on. They glanced over at him, some nodded, lifted fingers from the steering wheel.

One night he threw his dirty clothes into a basket and headed for the Laundromat. As he stepped inside. the same long-limbed girl he’d seen at the library, at Bread & Bagels, even waiting at the stoplight, cast him a surprised look and left. Last week, taking the long way home to his apartment on Chestnut Street, he’d seen her emerge from the 440 Main bar. It was a rainy night, and a streetlight caught her friends in a yellow smear. In the middle she was blue, rising, a trick of the watery light. They stood beneath the overhang, laughing, then she lifted the hood of her sweatshirt and ran to her car. He’d followed her to her apartment on 11th Street. She paused before she entered and looked over her shoulder at him, as he crept past. Now he stepped back outside and lit a cigarette. She pulled out, one taillight winking. He went to the vending machines and ate a candy bar, then another. He didn’t stop until he ran out of money, then folded his clothes and went home.

That night he’d drunk more than usual, sipping Maker’s Mark and flipping back and forth, Gunsmoke/The Daily Show, Gunsmoke/Insomnia.

When he stood up too quickly, he fell over the coffee table and cut his shin along a newly splintered edge. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and watched the drops of blood track through the hairs on his leg, then rush over the anklebone and drip to the porcelain.

Like this, they had sat on the edge of the bathtub, laughing at how water slopped over the edge when they slid in together, almost emptying it. She looped her arms around his neck and pulled him to her, sliding her tongue, impossibly long, into his mouth.

His third graders were beside themselves as they lined up behind the guide, two rows of parted blond, brown, black, and red heads.

“Mr. Thompson, is our school named after Lost River Cave?”

He gave her the look. “Now, Lucy, we talked about that yesterday.”

He knuckled her cornrows and she grinned up at him, her smile taking up the most of the lower half of her face, parenthetical with two familiar dimples.

“Mr. Thompson?” Her small hand tugged at his elbow. “Are you going to wear your life jacket?”

“It’s only four feet deep. The water would only come up to here.”

Satisfied, she loosened her grip. “Will you sit by me?”

No one else was clamoring for his attention, so he nodded.

The path to the cave entrance led them past a blue hole, Ripley’s shortest river, running only 400 feet to the cave entrance. Once believed to be over 400 feet deep, the pool was actually only ten feet deep, linked with the underground river, where a current once pulled in a wagon, a team of horses, a soldier.

The guide’s voice got low and he looked around, as if he didn’t want anyone else to hear. “In a similar incident three soldiers went swimming, one didn’t come back, and his two friends, one by one, dove in to see what they could grab hold of. They were never seen again.” Forty round eyes met his.

“Is that how come they call it the Lost River, ‘cause of people getting lost?”

The guide turned a page in his mental notes. “Late in the 18th century, some people found sawdust that was dumped into the water here in a pond about three miles away. That’s when they realized there had to be an underground river connecting the ponds all along.”

Lucy peered over the railing, into the greenish blue water.

“It don’t look anything special,” she said. “Looks like my grandma’s pond.”

“I don’t care what it looks like. You wouldn’t see me dive in after they didn’t come up!”

This was met with a chorus of “Me neither” and “That’s straight” and “I would . . . for a million dollars.”

Getting them into the life jackets took almost twenty minutes of checking, wandering, taking off, putting back on, and finally loading into the boat.

Almost immediately, they had to duck their heads as the boat floated beneath a slab of lowered ceiling. Derek could see a series of cracks, inches deep, cut through the surface. They had the fresh look of something about to give. Lucy’s elbow gouged into his thigh as she leaned forward. “Tell me when it’s over,” she said and buried her head in her hands. The ceiling lowered silently, but personally, toward him, and he pressed his face between his knees and told himself the distant grinding wasn’t real. As he tilted his head to see how much longer before they cleared the ceiling, Lucy’s puffy braid brush against his mouth. A clutch of panic rose in his throat. He pushed her until she lifted her elbow and her head dipped away. He gulped as a rush of air met his lungs. Then the boat slid out from under the slab and they entered a large cavern, the ceiling a reassuring sixty feet above. Lights set up along the walls showed different formations and tiny streams of water that fed the
underground river. They all sat up, a collective sigh shimmering across the water to the cave walls and back.

He felt sick to his stomach.

A voice, under his left arm: “It smells funny, don’t you think?”

“Smells like a outhouse to me.”

The guide pointed out a drapery formation. His words swung in meaningless echoes, and the children’s comments bounced off the walls. They had opinions about everything, the temperature of the water, cool, not cold, the scummy green and yellow mineral formations dripping off the walls. How scary it was, and dark.

“Keep your voices down. Let’s hear what he’s saying,” Derek said, his own voice lost, someone else’s, as soon as it crossed his lips. There was a momentary dip in the volume.

“Thank you. Now, kids, I don’t want you to worry, but if a drop of water falls on you and
it’s cold, that’s called a cave kiss. If it’s warm, it’s called a bat kiss.”

“Oooh, gross. Are there really bats in here?”

“Yes, and if you follow my flashlight, you’ll see one right now.”

“Is he going to suck our blood?”

“No, that’s only in the movies. Bats are shy creatures. They help control the insect

“I’d like to take some of them bats to my house to eat lady bugs.”

“Do you have a lot of lady bugs?” the guide asked.

“They infestate our house all the time, especially in the spring.”

Lucy raised her voice, “Mr. Thompson says they ain’t lady bugs. Don’t you, Mr.
Thompson? They’re Mexican bean beetles.  Ladybugs are red, and these are yellow,
and they have exactly 16 black dots on their back.”

A wave of déjà vu washed over him—Cecily sitting beside him on the hard metal seat,
her arm reaching behind him and her fingers playing his ribs. “Isn’t that right, Derek?”
she was saying, trying to get him to talk. He could even smell her hair, a hint of
rosemary cutting through the damp cave air.

In truth, that last night she’d been so high she didn’t know who she was, kept saying,
“What’s my name? I can’t remember,” then laughing and chanting “fuck me, whoever I
am,” moving from Derek to Josh to whoever else had shown up, back to Derek. At some
point, she disappeared, probably passed out or ranting in the woods, then returned
towards morning when everyone had finally crashed. Down in the basement, she stuffed
Sudafed backings and empty containers of acetone, toluene, and Coleman fuel, into a
trash bag. Leaving a trail of lighter fluid, she had almost reached the top of the stairs.
The explosion knocked her out of the basement and toppled her into the kitchen. Derek
woke with burning lungs when he heard the scream of a cat cornered in the next room.
He watched it leap through one flame into another. Fire slapped the doorway, and
beyond, the kitchen careened away. He lurched forward, saw her sleeping, legs
cockeyed and her head bent to her shoulder and wedged between the floor and the
bottom of the cabinet. The kitchen was already beginning to fold into the basement, as
he pulled her out. Once outside, he saw a shadow moving in the living room, where Josh
had sealed himself, after doing loud things with Cecily that Derek had run from, ready to
kill Josh or himself or Cecily.

He staggered to the window and threw a brick. It bounced off, then a small hole
appeared and a crack. Sucked out of the sudden opening of air, smoke rushed to fill the
window, dark brown and gray, swirling, before the window shattered, and Derek fell
back. When he came to, his face felt on fire, but when he ran his fingers over his cheek,
they came away with blood and a shard of glass. He put both hands to his face, felt the
rough edges of a dozen pieces of glass, realized he was seeing out of only one eye. He
must have been unconscious for only a moment, because although the smoke had
cleared from the window, in its place a row of orange flames was just beginning to
dance. The room where Josh wavered, a smoky shadow, had devoured him. Behind
Derek, Cecily slept under the tree, her face flickering orange, and beyond, the sound of
sirens poured over the hills. A voice—hers, his, no one’s—sent him back to the woods,
run, run.

Back at school, Lucy ran up to him, something clenched in her fist. He was standing next
to the line of buses waiting to take the children home.

“Here you go, Mr. Thompson, I got this for you.”

She opened her hand and turned a jagged piece of scuffed and glittering mineral onto
his outstretched palm. He thanked her and slipped it into his shirt pocket, then hurried to
the back of the line to keep two boys from shoving their way into a fistfight. He clenched
his teeth. “Now why do you two want to go and spoil a nice day, huh?” His voice, louder
and harsher than he’d intended, surprised the children. “He started it,” they both
insisted, but climbed meekly into the bus, Derek on their heels. He got them seated, one
in back, one in the middle, and was moving back to the front of the bus, when he heard
Lucy’s voice.

“I’m going to marry Mr. Thompson some day when I get old enough.”

“How old do you have to be?” asked her seatmate.

“I’ll be sixteen and he’ll be twenty-five. That’s how old he is, I know, because I saw a
birthday card on his desk, and it said ‘Happy 25th Birthday.’”

“When you turn sixteen he’ll be forty-two or something. You can’t just freeze him till you
get old enough, Lucy. That’s retarded.”

She looked out the window, then turned back, her face lit. “Then we’ll move to Iran. Mr.
Thompson says that they lowered the marriage age down to nine.”

She caught his eyes and blushed so deeply that her brown skin took on a rosy glow
across her cheekbones. She turned to the window. He pretended not to notice.
Pulling onto Morgantown Road from the Natcher Parkway, he caught up with one of the
buses as it turned on its flashers. He waited behind the red blinking lights and extended
stop sign and looked around. It was a bright day, a stunning contrast to the darkness of
the cave, where he had—what, lost it? He shrugged it off, but the feeling of suffocation
was still fresh, and he again felt the impulse to gag. He pulled down the visor and lifted
his head so he could see the skinny legs of three girls pile out. They ran across the
road and raced up a long, paved driveway that led to a house and barn, tucked behind
a row of houses that sat closer to the road. They were older girls than his students,
longer limbed, faster, louder (well, maybe not that). He saw the driver in the gray
Mustang facing the bus in the next lane duck his head for a moment, then a fourth girl,
moving slowly, stepped across the yellow line, her arms hugging a book to her chest.
Even before he saw the Mustang leap forward and fling her back toward the bus, his
hand was on the door handle. The bus driver and the Mustang driver met him at her

“Oh, sweet Jesus, I didn’t see her.”

Derek knelt beside Lucy as he pulled his cell phone off his belt, his fingers fumbling with
the 9-1-1. She watched him, her eyes darting from him to the knees of the other two.
“Where’s my mommy?”

He looked toward the house, where the three older girls had headed. Beyond them, the
front door of their house flew open and a large woman bolted down the steps. The girls
looked at her, then back toward the bus. One of them ran toward her. The other two
dropped their book bags and galloped to the bus.

“She’s coming, you just sit tight.”

The driver danced from foot to foot and clutched his hands under his armpits. “Is she
going to be okay?” Derek felt a wave of pity for him, though the bus driver snarled,
“She’d be a lot better if you hadn’t of run into her.”

Lucy tried to look past Derek, toward home. “Mommy,” she cried, and it seemed to
Derek that her voice had thinned.

When Mrs. Jackson fell to her knees beside Lucy, Derek leaned back to give them room.
“I can’t sit up. But it don’t hurt.”

Lucy’s mother looked around as though trying to decide which of the three men could
answer the unspoken question in her face. “There’s an ambulance on the way,” Derek
said. “I’ll be glad to go with her, if you want, or if you need someone to stay with your
other girls.”

The three girls clustered behind their mother. One of them leaned over and began
patting Lucy’s head.

The boy wiped his eyes. Mrs. Jackson looked up at him.

“You do this to my child?”

“I don’t know how it happened. I was changing a CD and the car just jumped.”

“You’re in deep shit,” the bus driver muttered. Behind him, the children had all piled to
the side of the bus and were staring out the windows. One boy called out, “It’s that guy’s
fault in the gray car,” and Derek held his finger up to his lips.

Mrs. Jackson turned back to Lucy and gently felt along her legs. “I don’t think these are
broke. I don’t think this is. Squeeze my hands, Lucy,” she ordered. Lucy shrank under
her bulk.

“You say you can’t sit up, Lucy?”

“What?” she seemed not to understand the question. She struggled with her tongue,
then said, “I swam to the deep end, where the bats live, Ma, but the river was lost. And
the ceiling was falling but Mr. Thompson held it up.”

“Where’d the car hit her?” She looked up at the boy.

“Her back,” he said.

“Well, then, we won’t try to move you, sugar. Those EMS folks will do that. You cold or
anything?” Lucy looked at her wide-eyed, not answering.

“I’ve got a blanket in my trunk,” the boy said. When he returned, he knelt down and
handed it to the mother.

Lucy’s skin seemed ashen, Derek thought. She stared at him and he smiled, but her
expression didn’t change. Her eyes had thickened, then they rolled back and her legs
started to shake.

“Oh, baby, what you go and do that for? Lucy! Lucy!”

Mrs. Jackson lowered her body over her, warming her or holding her still, Derek couldn’t
tell. He looked away as sirens screamed, and a police car came to a stop beside them,
then the ambulance.

He sat in the only extra chair, next to Mrs. Jackson.

Lucy’s color had returned, though she lay unmoving, her thin brown arms resting on top of the white sheets and her face covered with a mask. Tubes reached from her right arm under the flowered hospital gown to her chest.

Mrs. Jackson kept her eyes on Lucy, as though she was speaking to her. “They saw something in the x-rays. Why do you suppose the doctor would say he was surprised she never had a broken bone before today? Did it seem like she got hit hard enough to break her pelvis?”

“I really don’t know. It happened so fast.”

“Do you suppose that boy’s foot slipped off the brake when he went digging through his CDs and hit the gas pedal? That ever happen to you?”

“I rolled into another car once, sitting at a stop light. I was taking off my sweatshirt.”

“Well, when I put on the brakes they stay on.” She paused for a minute, then tapped his arm with the back of her hand, “Sometimes it feels like all I do is ride those brakes. Know what I mean?”

She stood and stretched her back. “I work in this hospital,” she said. “Up on the sixth floor, psychiatric. I have been so lucky. This is the first time any of my children has had to go to the emergency room. I been dreading the day, but you don’t wake up every day and think, this is the day something bad is going to happen.”

“No, you’d be scared all the time.”

“I wake up every morning and get my four girls ready for school. And I just trust the Lord to watch over them. They look like stair steps when you
stand them next to each other. One every two years for eight years. Lucy’s my baby.”

“I like Lucy.”

“Well, she likes you, too. It’s Mr. Thompson said this, Mr. Thompson said that. Truth be told, I was getting a little tired of you.”

“I think she wants to marry me.”

She laughed. “Now that sounds like Lucille. It surely does.” Tears seeped from her eyes. “Mr. Thompson—”


“Derek, Lucy’s Daddy left at Christmas, and it’s been . . . rough on her.”

“You think that’s why—?”

“That’s why she wasn’t paying attention when she crossed the road, you know? I bet that’s the last thing she had going through her head, before that car hit her. Excuse me, Mr. Thompson, while I get aholt of myself.”

A nurse appeared at the doorway, saw Mrs. Jackson with a Kleenex and made her voice gentle. “We’re going to move her up to IC now, Mrs. Jackson. Sir.”

They followed the nurse and Lucy into the elevator and then into the IC unit, to one of the last rooms. “I like this,” Mrs. Jackson said. “It will be quieter for her back here.” Then she leaned toward Derek and whispered, “Less trouble for her to get into when she’s up and around.”

An hour passed, and when he looked up at Mrs. Jackson, he saw that she’d been watching him.

“You don’t have to stay any longer. You can check back any time.”

“I’ll stay awhile yet.”

She nodded and they went back to sitting in silence. Twice, a nurse came by and took Lucy’s vitals. He yawned, suddenly so tired he could barely keep his eyes open—the smells, the dull hum in the walls, voices from the hallway, disembodied laughter from the nurses’ station—together, a narcotic.

After the fire, he’d gone to another room, on another floor, where he’d spent two days, sick to his stomach. During that time his face had been worked on three times. Although he’d intended to run into the woods and then away, he wound up on the same county road that the police took as they led the ambulance away from the burning house. He overheard them in the ER, standing outside his room. They were telling the nurse how they found him.

“He looked like Freddy Kruger coming toward us, walking down the middle of the road. We pulled over and he was talking crazy. I waved the ambulance down and Bennie there took one look at him and put him in the back with the girl.”

The nurse spoke: “We’re pulling the shards we can see out. He’s been real still, just stares at the ceiling. If you push down on a piece he just clenches his jaw.”

He felt a tear escape his eye and roll down his cheek.

“You all right, child?”

He nodded and sat up straighter. “Bad memories is all.”

“You been here before?”

He reached up and touched a scar on his chin, his right cheekbone, his forehead, over his left eye.

“Did you walk into a glass door or something? My cousin did that. Wasn’t as lucky as you though.”

“No, it was more like a window coming out to meet me.”

“You mean an explosion?”

He nodded and looked out the door toward the nurses’ station. He felt his mouth drop. “And right out there is the person who almost died with me.”

He stood, knocking the chair back. He straightened it and stepped to the corner of the room. Mrs. Jackson leaned over so she could see into the hall.

“Well, if you’re talking about the pretty brown-haired girl with those big round glasses, she’s heading this way.”

“Don’t tell her I’m here.”

He slipped into the bathroom, where he could hear their voices through the door. “There’s a new shift coming on and I’m one of the nurses. My name’s Cecily. How’s she doing?”

There was more, but he couldn’t catch their words. Someone rapped at the door. “Derek? The coast is clear.”

He pulled the chair back into the corner and sat down.

“Old girlfriend?”

“We got into a lot of trouble together, you can’t begin to imagine, and she doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

Lucy’s hand moved and Derek pointed to her. Mrs. Jackson leaned over. “Hey there. How’re you doing, baby?”

She opened her eyes and tried to smile. “My head hurts.”

“Did you see Mr. Thompson here? He’s been waiting the whole time. Come here, Mr. Thompson, and say hello.” She stepped back to allow Derek room to stand next to the bed.

Lucy’s face lit up momentarily when she saw him, then she turned away. “I thought you didn’t like me no more. I made you embarrassed.”

“Nah, nothing like that. I’m proud of you.”

“And this lady here is one of your nurses. Her name is Miss Cecily, and she and Mr. Thompson are old friends, isn’t that right?” she spoke directly to Cecily.

Cecily’s eyes widened and the color went out of her face. She had stepped back, the desire to flee written across her face.

“Mr. Thompson is my teacher,” Lucy explained. “Do you still have that gem I gave you, Mr. Thompson? You put it in your pocket up there.”

He patted the pocket, felt the lump, and reached in.

“I thought maybe you could hang it in a window or something.”

“That’s a good idea. In fact, maybe we can do that right now. Is there a piece of string we could use?” Mrs. Jackson looked pointedly at Cecily.

“I think I can find some thread,” she murmured.

Touching her hand as he took the thread from her sent a jolt through him. He wished he could see if she’d been affected, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the sight of his fingers fumbling with the thread. He could feel her watching.

He laughed. “I can’t get my fingers to work.” He handed it to Mrs. Jackson. She had no problem getting a knot around the rock and a length for hanging it. She handed it back to him.

He tied the end around the bottom of the raised shade. The rock hung down, catching the light.

They all turned to look at Lucy, but she was asleep.

“Well, then, I guess that’s it for now.” Cecily turned to go.

Mrs. Jackson reached for her hand. “I reckon you have a break sometime and wouldn’t mind taking Mr. Thompson here down to the cafeteria for something to eat and some coffee, now would you?”

She flushed, then nodded and gave Mrs. Jackson a tight smile. “Sure, I can do that. If you’re here that long,” she added, glancing his way. “I wouldn’t want to keep you waiting.”

“Oh, he’s not going anywhere. Are you, Mr. Thompson. He wants to make sure my Lucy’s going to be okay.”
“I didn’t know you were working in intensive care,” he said, after they’d gone through the line and picked up a slice of lasagna for him and a chef’s salad for her.

“I wouldn’t expect you to know much about me anymore.”

“I’m surprised they hired someone with your record, what with all the narcotics around here.”

“My police record is sealed. Look, if you have something to say, here’s your chance. But I won’t talk about the past.”

“Are you seeing anyone?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“Why are you so mad at me?”

She sighed and stabbed a fork into her salad. When she spoke this time, her voice quavered. “I’m not mad at you per se, I’m just not interested in reconnecting with old acquaintances from my miserable youth.”

“Acquaintance. That’s one word for it, I guess.”

He worked at dissecting the lasagna. She pushed a tomato around with her fork.

“Can I tell you something without you walking away or getting sore?” He watched her eyes for another sign of alarm.

“I’ve grown up, Derek, I don’t think anything you say can undo me.”

“You’re undoing me right now, and I don’t care if you know that.”

“Are you trying to tell me you’re still in love with me? You shouldn’t be. Why do you want to hang on to something that—” She closed her eyes, looking for the word, “—that old?”

“Maybe I don’t want to. Maybe I’d be happy as a lark if I could just erase you from my mind. Maybe I’d like to start over with some girl with a pretty face and a nice personality, but I’ve got this little problem. Every time I go out with someone who matches that description, I get bored. I get annoyed. It’s like I can’t get close to anyone.”

“And that’s my fault?”

He shoved the plate to the other end of the table, reached across the space, and pulled her hand toward him. She resisted but he held on.

“I haven’t touched anything for five years, Cecily. Well, maybe alcohol, every so often. If I see someone from the old crowd I turn and go the other way. I put myself through school and have a good job now, where these cute little kids look up to me. That little girl upstairs would rather sit by me than any of her classmates, and when I’m swamped with work and she pulls on my arm to get my attention, it’s like I set myself to the side, on a shelf. Because that’s what it feels like to be there for someone.”

“That’s very touching.”

“I’d forgotten how cynical you are.”

“I’m glad you pulled yourself together, I really am. I’m still doing it, every day. No matter what you say, you were never that bad off. You look back at us and things get a soft focus and they start playing violins, or some shit. I look back at us and I feel a fist around my throat.”

He felt like a balloon the day after the party, floating around the empty room, four feet above the floor, and sinking lower. He looked down at the top of her head as he stood. He could see by the set of her jaw that she was listening.

“I know you, Cecily, better than you know yourself. You don’t like me saying that. But all I’m saying is that there came a day when I looked into your heart and saw something so beautiful I couldn’t breathe. We screwed it up, and I’m not saying who did worse, but if you tried, you might see that you can be around me and not go back to the way things were. You might see why I’m willing to stand here humiliating myself. . . . I’m going back up to see Lucy now, and then I’m going home. I’m in the book. The ball’s in your court.”

His heart pounded as he raced to the elevator. “You’re my man of few words,” she used to say. Hadn’t he shown her another side, just now? Except for that line about the ball in her court. Maybe the one about looking into her heart and seeing something beautiful. She hated sayings like that. He, on the other hand, seemed unable to resist them. Just don’t do it, she used to say. You deserve a broken jaw today. I’m not worth it.

Still, it had felt good. He walked back into Lucy’s room smiling.

“You look like you just won the lottery.”

“Has she woken up again?”

“Nah, but she’s sleeping good. They’re going to wheel in something for me to lie down on. You go on now, you been here for hours. I know a young, good-looking man like you has got to have plenty of pretty girls wondering where you are.”

“Don’t be too sure, Mrs. Jackson.”

She stood as he approached to give her a hug. “You’re a real gentleman, sure enough,” she said, squeezing his back. Tears stood in her eyes. “I can see why my daughter thinks so highly of you.”

The 440 Main bar was long and dark. The ironwork tables had been moved out front, facing Fountain Square. He left a note on his
apartment door, indicating where he was, just as he’d done every night for the past week. There had been no phone messages, no calls, and he’d stopped looking. But he couldn’t stay there, either, oppressed by his things, with the spring breezes drawing him out. He watched people drive by, looking for a parking spot, watched them approach, then go inside, watched them leave, some of them wavering as they stepped back to their cars, watched them drive away.

The blue-rising girl with the long hair drove by, and their eyes met. She parked. She stepped out of her car, tossed her head as though she was doing a commercial for Pepsi-Cola. Her steps were long and purposeful. She glanced at him as she passed, but didn’t stop. Several minutes later she re-emerged with a tall drink.

“Do you care if I join you?”

He pushed a chair from the table with his foot and gestured for her to take it.

“I’ve been seeing you around a lot lately. You followed me the other day, weren’t you?”

“I was curious.”

“Are you a sicko?”

“Nope. Are you disappointed?”

“A little. What happened to your face?”

“I got jilted.”

“That’s happened to me before, too. But it didn’t have that effect on my face.”

“You sure about that?” He reached over and drew a line down her cheek. “Because I’m pretty sure I see a pale line right here, running down from the corner of your eye.”

“You’re kind of poetic, aren’t you? Are you a student?”

“I’m a teacher. Third graders.”

“I’m a grad student. I live on 11th Street. But I guess you know that already.” She smiled and said hello to someone passing by.

He tapped the knuckles of her hand. “You don’t know what you’re getting into, do you?”

“Not really. Do you?”

“You want to go for a walk?”

Her hand was warm and dry, her bones long. Her fingers curled around his. Twice she bumped into him and apologized, saying she had a habit of listing whenever she walked next to someone. Her eyes caught the streetlights as they passed under them and she looked up. When they turned off of Chestnut, his street, onto 11th, she stopped. “We got here fast.”

He thought, I’ll kiss her and if that’s okay, I’ll stay. He could feel her heart hammering against his chest, her breath against his mouth. He liked it that she was as tall as he was.

“I’m scared,” she murmured. “I don’t even know you.”

“If you want, I’ll leave. Give me your number and I’ll call you next week.”

“I’m scared you won’t.”

“Are you always this scared?”

“I’m never this scared.”

He spoke into her ear, “How about if we walk back to 440 and get our cars. I’ll drive slow, and if you want, you can follow me. I live on Chestnut. You can come see my apartment. I’ll cook you some linguini. We’ll eat. Then you can go. It will be normal, you’ll see.”

“I never liked normal, but it doesn’t sound too bad, the way you describe it.”

When they reached her car, he said, “Do you ever test the future, to see if it’s going to measure up?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, I haven’t been very good at it lately.” He laughed. “In fact, I suck at it. But, for instance, if the second kiss is better than the first, then you’ll follow me to my place. If it’s not, then we’ll call it quits. Before we even get started.”

She thought about it a moment, then said, “Like the other day when you drove past and looked at me and I recognized you from the
Laundromat, I thought, ‘If his brake lights go on, that means he’s going to come by and see me. But if they don’t, I’ll never see him again.’”

“You’re not very good at this either.”

“Maybe we just haven’t been doing it right.” She leaned against him.

Aside from the intoxication he felt when her mouth opened to his—that was worth the price of admission—it would be nice to open up the other way, to place his words next to the words of someone else, someone in the flesh, who liked to be touched. Someone who looked at him and saw more than ruin.

Besides, waiting was for the birds.


Jane Olmsted teaches at Western Kentucky University.  She is co-editor of the Kentucky Feminist Writers Series.  Their latest volume, I to I:Life Writing by Kentucky Feminists was published in November, 2004. Ms. Olmsted’s writing has appeared in Poetry Northwest, Nimrod, Kalliope, Beloit Fiction Journal, The Louisville Review, Slow Trains, and A Kentucky Christmas. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

“Grace” by Bob Mustin


I noticed him half a block ahead, sitting on his haunches at the intersection
of Peachtree and Marietta, a grubby gargoyle beside a blue mailbox. He
glanced over his shoulder at a honking cab, then inhaled from his cigarette
and tucked its red ember inside a cupped palm against the November wind.

I slowed, Melinda tugging at my arm. “You have to be there by eleven, Alan.
That’s eight minutes from now.” Her thin lips moved to my ear. “I showed
you the letter. They said they’ll take the house. If we lose that, I don’t know
what I’ll do.”

Walking again, I saw the man twist his half-gone smoke to death on the
sidewalk, drop the butt into his shirt pocket, rise and rub his knees. Thumbs
now slung from his side pockets, the fingered-back pompadour reminded
me of ho-daddies I had seen on California beaches after my tour of duty.
We neared, and I made out the grit in his hair, the lines on his face
unmistakable. Equaling my six-foot height and decaying proportions, he
had to be very nearly my age. He grinned and nodded, gave a tentative
wave. The hand began to quiver, then dropped limp at the wrist.

Melinda steered me past and into the street, her voice rising to the brassy
tone she saved for her most insistent moments. “Alan, listen to me. You
have to remember, make eye contact. Be confident.”
I nodded, adding a soft grunt. Her liturgy usually didn’t require much of a

“You can’t afford to let them think you’re having second thoughts.
Remember last time?”

The man looked so familiar. If she had asked, I could have described him in
detail. But then there had been so many like him.

“Just be candid. You mustn’t let them think you’re holding back anything


“Exactly,” she said, gripping my arm tighter. “Put a positive spin on why you
were last laid off. And keep mentioning your assets. You’re a hard worker.
Dedicated. Willing to work long hours. Tell them about your experience,
how easy it is for you to adapt to a new work environment. That’s important.”

We’d be there in a few minutes, and I’d hand them my résumé and a stack
of recommendation letters, and they would note my age and the bum leg,
the occasional career lapses. I would tell them there hadn’t been any
recurrences of depression or respiratory problems in the last five years,
that I owned a home and worked with disadvantaged kids on weekends,
when I could. Then they’d smile, stack their papers, shake hands.

“We’ll be in touch,” they’d say, the death knell to any interview.

I almost tripped at the opposite curb, recoiling at the hand on my shoulder.

“Excuse me,” the man said, “your name’s Alan something, right?” He
snapped his fingers as if to jar loose a memory, then shifted his stance to a
loose at-ease, an old pair of dog tags clunking softly beneath the worn, too-
big khaki shirt. His boots were scuffed but still laced according to regulation,
all the way up. He smelled musty and smoky, the way you would in the
Central Highlands after a couple of weeks. I noticed the morning beer smell,
too, but it wasn’t the sour reek of a street drunk. Then we moved up the
curb and he gave us an engaging smile, one I thought to emulate for the

Melinda glanced to her watch and groaned. “Please,” she said, “not again.”

The man slipped ahead, facing us, pedestrian traffic swirling to either side
and passing on. “You were in the Nam. We know each other, right?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, not a completely honest answer.

“Sir,” said Melinda, “we’re going to be late.” Her fingernails dug into my
wrist. “Come on, Alan.”

“I was up in I Corps,” he said. “Hue to Khe Sanh. Mostly Khe Sanh.” He
looked down and shook his head. “What a mess.”

“I was in the delta. Pacification team.” I rubbed my bad leg, then gave him
an I’ll-make-it look. “Someone set off a mine while I was taking a leak.”

He stepped back, glanced at my graying crew cut, then offered a hand.

“My name’s Jerry, brother.”

Melinda stepped away, one shoe’s toe slapping at the sidewalk. I didn’t
look, but I knew she was assembling one of her strained smiles.

“Just Jerry? No last name?”

“Just Jerry.” He nodded to the street. “Nobody out here cares about last

“Look, Jerry, I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

He squeezed my hand, then his tremulous, nicotine-stained one dropped to
his side. The smile became wide-eyed.

“Tan Son Nhut, that’s where it was. Everyone went through there. You were
on your way home, and I was due in Hue in a couple of days. We did a few
beers together.” A cautious glance to Melinda. “Picked up a couple of
mama sans and some weed. Partied all weekend.”

A bus ground to a halt beside us, spewing passengers, as if into a hot
landing zone. Its tail pipe coughed, a dark effluent settling around us like
the ground haze of a late morning firefight. “Jerry, I really have to go.”

He nodded. “I understand, man. I do. I just wanted to say hello. For old
time’s sake.”

Melinda’s lips were against my ear again. “Don’t waste this opportunity,
Alan. You know I don’t want a divorce, but if I lose the house, well, mother
says I should come home.”

I took her hand, patted it and squirmed away, drew a ten-dollar bill from my
wallet and held it so Jerry could see it. Then I stuffed it into a pants pocket.

“Alan, I meant every word. Let’s go.”

Again his smile, and I squinted to see what lurked beneath. “You still a
drinking man, Jerry? You have holes in your arms?”

“No, no,” he said, his face suddenly that of a chastised child. “Oh, I snorted
a little smack in-country, but I got over it in rehab. Don’t drink any more,
either.” Then he laughed. “Not much, anyway. Doctor’s orders. Orange got
me. They laid that shit all over Khe Sanh. Wind blew it away, then blew it
back, day after day. I see things, can’t think straight sometimes. Didn’t slow
down Uncle Ho’s guys, though.”
“Orange,” I said. “I got a dose of that. By then we were at An Loc.”
He nodded. “Rubber country. Did a recon hitch out of there. Cambodia.”

Just thinking about the Agent Orange, I couldn’t breathe. And on such a
nice fall day.

“You get treatment?” he asked.

“Not really.”

He lifted both hands to meet his downcast gaze. “I shake a lot.”

“I saw.”

“It’s not bad right now. You?”

The clock struck and Melinda nudged me. “Okay, we’re officially late.”

“All right,” I said. “Here’s a ten. Will that help?”

“Alan, that’s our lunch money you’re giving away.”

With one deft move he took the bill and jammed it into a front pocket of his
grimy trousers. “Thanks, brother,” he said, casting a wary look to see who
was watching. “I’m a little down right now, but I have something working. He
repeated it, “Something working,” the words now a whisper. Then the
faraway look I knew so well.

A chill hit me – it happens that way, sometimes. The only thing that helps is
keeping your situation simple – hole up somewhere, close your eyes, try to
think of better things. Maybe this afternoon, in the garage, with a few beers.
“I’m very late, Jerry. I have a job interview. I don’t want to miss it.”

“Well, hallelujah,” said Melinda. “Come on.”

“Sorry, man, I didn’t know.” He bounced on the balls of his feet and began
to move away. “Hey, good luck with that. Don’t end up out here like me.”

I nodded, fighting the urge to follow.

He turned and strode off, through the other pedestrians, as if he were on
point, half a klik to the firebase. A shower, a shave, clean fatigues, a few
beers and a card game, that’s all we needed back then to get us back in
the pink.

“Honestly, Alan, why do you have to be such a patsy? He’s just a bum. I’d
think after all this time you’d set your sights a little higher.”

I had tried a couple of times to tell her what it was like, how we felt so alone
in the bush waiting for the ugliness to end, only to realize when it was over
that we were all one thing, going our separate ways at just the wrong time. I
held back for a moment, Melinda pushing through the revolving doors. Jerry
ducked into a building farther down the block. I saw a sandwich shop there,
and a package store next to it, but I couldn’t tell which he entered first.



Bob Mustin has been a North Carolina Writers Network writer-in-residence at Peace College under Doris Betts’ guiding hand.  In the early ’90s, he edited the a small literary journal, The Rural Cooweescoowee, Under The Sun, and at thesquaretable.com. Another fiction piece is forthcoming in Reflections Literary Journal. His novel, A Reason to Tremble, was published in 1997.

“Amaranta of the Sky” by Michael Milliken

If I run faster, the young girl will live.  I understand this like I am her mother and I chase the girl, chase the trample of her small, bare feet through wildflower fields that stretch endlessly, blossoms that spark with a hundred colors.  But darkness nears.  Already, the sun reddens the western sky, an angle of rose light cast down from distant mountains.  I’m closer, though, each step gaining on the girl in a white dress.  Then she turns, and I turn, both of us headed toward the setting sun.

For a moment I take my eyes off the girl’s back, the swishing brown hair, and see before us the end of endless wildflower fields. The fields narrow, flanked and winnowed by dark forest.  And I run faster. The girl, too.  Our arms pump, feet pound into the earth as we run fast, free, the chaser and chased, fast across the strip of wildflower field.  Just ahead, I see the end. The strip thins out to a cliff, then gone.

The girl runs toward the edge, on toward the great red sun.  I follow.  If I can only run faster, the girl will live.  And now, I’m almost there, just another few feet to grab her.  But the girl’s at the end already.  She turns around and looks at me with big, glossy brown eyes, eyes that slow my pace.  She’s sick, this girl, sick and fearful and quieted by pain, standing limp with her hands behind her back.  But I can save her.  I jump, lunge forward, arms out, but the girl jumps backward, a flare of fright in her eyes.

No!  I’ve scared her.  Scared her to jump!  I fall down hard against the earth.  Tears well as I scrabble over the raspy grass to the edge of the cliff and look down.  And there she is – no! – there is the girl drifting down, arms and legs outstretched, sinking into endless black in her white dress.  I see her through tears – no – smaller and smaller she’s a white spot, a fading star, and now, with the sun, she is gone.

In the morning, I turn over in bed, pick up the phone and call my sister.  I leave a message on her machine, then crawl into a ball and wait.

I wake up to a frenzy of knocking on the front door.  Who knows how many hours I slept?  But this time I did sleep.  This time I didn’t chase the girl, but gave in to my exhaustion completely.

I get up and stagger into consciousness.  At the front door, I see Karen’s nose pressed against the center green-stained glass.  I open the door and stand there, limp, blanched before her troubled eyes.

“I’m done,” I say.  My voice trembles.  “Done.”

“It can’t be that bad,” she says.  “Whatever it is–”

“No.”  The word, the heft of my eyes slice her sentence.  I shake my head.  “No.”

She reaches out to my shoulders and pulls me toward her, then drops one arm and wraps it around my back.  She holds me, hard against her body.

“What is it?” she whispers.  Tears warm the edges of my eyes.  “What?”

I pull back, reach for her hand and hold it loosely.  We walk over the hardwood floor, the length of the hallway to my office.  As we enter the room, I release Karen’s hand, then sit down on the couch.  She stands in the doorway and looks around.  Nothing unusual to her.  The computer hums on the desk, its screen saver throwing a hundred stars through darkness.  Framed photographs, black and whites, rest on the walls.  There’s Lawrence, my late husband, and our daughters who’ve spread across the southern states.  Drooping plants.  Stacks of hardcovers.

She looks at me and I point toward the window.

“Open the curtains,” I say.  “Pull them back.”

“The curtains?”

I know what she thinks.  She can’t imagine that anything beyond the window could bring me to this state, anything short of hell’s mouth opening in the backyard.  She looks at me, raises her eyebrows, but I stare down the line of my arm toward the window.

So she walks there, holds one curtain in each hand and looks back to me.  I bite my lower lip and nod.  She pulls back the curtains.

In the middle of the window, attached by four long stretches of tape and glowing before the late winter light, sits an MRI scan of my brain.  It’s unmistakable, even to Karen, that white shape like a jagged heart in its center.

“Inoperable,” I say.  “Smack in the middle.”  And for a moment, I lose my voice, just hold a hand over each ear, shake-almost-thrash my head while on the verge of screaming.  “In my brain.”

She runs to me and falls down on the couch with a rash of tears, then grips my hands and pulls them from my head.  She holds my tense hands hard and looks into my eyes, hers powdery blue and faded with strain.

“There must be options,” she says.  “Something?”

But I can’t reply.  My head falls to her shoulder and I sob, dry and doleful gulps for air, sob in her arms long beyond the time when the sun concedes to night.

The next morning, I wake up early, some hours before Karen.  I know she’s tired.  I am.  Last night, the dream came and again I scared the girl to jump, again I lay on the edge of that cliff, tear-streaked and worn and watched the white dress fade into darkness.

Out of bed, I wrap a robe around me and walk to my office.  I sit down and stare at the computer screen, those hundreds of stars shooting through darkness.  I shake the mouse to stop them, then go online.  As I have so many times before, I search for medical information, read about treatments, side-effects.  I’ve seen it all.

So I search for something different – repetitive dreams of the terminally ill.  And then I find her.

Karen finds me at the kitchen table with a newspaper spread over its surface.

“You look rested,” she says.  “Slept well?”

“Yes,” I lie.

She purses her lips and pours some coffee.

Across the table from me, she turns the warm mug in her hands and remains silent.  She doesn’t know what to say, what’s too trivial or too much of an acknowledgement of my condition.  I understand this because I understand Karen. I slide my hand over the table into hers.  “Would you take a few weeks off if I asked you?”

“Of course,” she says, squeezes my hand.  “Anything.”

“Then we’re taking a vacation.”

“To see the girls?”

“No, not yet.  I will call them, but not now.  I just can’t tell them to drop their lives and run up here.  Besides, they never liked the cold weather.”

“You know they’d come.”

“And that’s why I can’t call them.  Mary has the baby and Pam’s finally in a relationship that’s not with a co-worker.”

“But you called me.”

“You live closer,” I say.  “And you will help me find her.”

We drive to Boston and board a plane that follows the sun to come down before dusk in San Salvador, in the warmth and color of Central America, in pursuit of help, of Amaranta of the Sky.Carrying tote bags, Karen and I walk the length of the plane’s exit ramp into a rotunda, the walls and high ceiling all the aged color of ivory above a black-and-white checkerboard floor.  Under a navy banner marked ‘Internacionales’, we join a throng of people and wait for the one attendant at a service booth to check our passports.  He’s quick, though, and after a few minutes, I stand before his dark eyes and complexion after Karen’s passed through and slide my ID across the counter.

“You come for business or you come for pleasure?” he asks, opens my passport and scans over it.

I hadn’t thought about it.  Certainly not business and, well, not pleasure.

“I guess the latter.”  I shrug.

“You are the sister of the brown-headed?”

“Yes.”  I nod.

“I did not say this to her,” The man leans toward me and whispers, “but you should not go to Torola.  You are crazy to go there.  Please, that is not our El Salvador.”

“Will we be safe?” I ask.

“Safe?  Yes.  But it is not a good place.  I hear things happen.”

“I see.”  I look to Karen, her taut smile and raised eyebrows.  I know she wonders if I’ve stumbled into a problem.  “I’m ill,” I say, my voice hushed.

“I’m very ill.”

“Just be careful.”  He stamps a blue quadrant of my passport and hands it tome.  “Y bienvenida a El Salvador.”

I walk up to Karen and together we continue to the lone carousel in baggage claim among thirty or so people.  And then I see her.  The girl in the white dress stands on the other side.  I see her coffee skin, her flax dress with an embroidered hem of white ivy.  She clutches her mother’s wide skirt in her small hands as her head fans to each side and searches the conveyor.  Her mother’s hand drifts down, cups the girl’s head which lifts her eyes and the corners of her lips.

Right there,” Karen says.  “Quick.”  I look down to where she points, reach and snap up the heft of my suitcase.  I check the tag, then look for the girl – she and her mother already gone.

“And mine.”  Karen bends over and removes her borrowed suitcase.  “Now let’s figure out how two lost Americans get to Torola.”

Outside, in the warm, humid air, I scan the crowded street for a taxi.  I rub my arms as if shedding the last of the New England chill, then look to the city, along a main street running long between two-story stucco buildings, for miles on toward the surrounding mountains.  It’s beautiful despite the urban dust and heat.

“So, what’s our plan?” Karen asks.

“We need to get there.”  I drop my luggage and stand akimbo.  “Attention!” I holler into the crowd.  Karen’s jaw drops.  “We are looking for Amaranta del Cielo.”

Many faces turn toward us, then away with light chuckles.  I know that I saw a few frowns.  Still, no one walks toward us.

“Torola!  Amaranta del Cielo!  We must get to her!”

I watch a man, late twenties, possibly older, push open the door to his parked pick-up truck on the other side of the street.  He steps out in faded jeans and a red t-shirt and shuffles toward us.

“One hundred American dollars,” he says.  “Torola is far.”

Karen looks at me and raises her eyebrows.

“It will be night soon,” he says.

The gypsy taxi driver taps his foot as Karen and I exchange stares and silently discuss his offer – scrunch one eye, open wide, tilt head.  Is it safe to accept?  What is risk for me, now, anyway?  But I have Karen to consider.

“I have a family,” the man says, having seen our ocular hesitation.  “I drive for mis hijas, my daughters.”

“Okay,” I say.

“Bueno pues.”  He extends his hand into mine.  We shake.  “Okay.  You get there, you pay.”

“Si,” I say, using my wee bit of Spanish.

We follow him across the road to his truck.  My daughters would call the blue Ford a beater – one of those old pick-ups owned solely for bombing through backwoods, one with lopsided bumpers, dents and rust holes.

“One in the back,” he says and points to the bed where a pair of passenger seats, worn down to the pale yellow foam, rests against the driver’s side.  I grip the truck’s bed, stand on my tiptoes and peer down to see the rusty bolts that hold the seats to the metal bed.  There’s dirt and withered roots strewn about and no seat belts.  With woeful eyes, I spy two lengths of rope, tethers to hold on the road.  Still, I must find her.

“This is… provincial.”

“Hazardous,” Karen says.

“You need to look at it differently.”

“Huh?”  Karen stares me down.  “Who are you?” she asks.

“It’s new and adventurous and open air.”  I throw out my arms.

She has no response.  For a moment, we’d slid into a state of forgetfulness, a short span of time when we’re simply on vacation and briefly butting heads, taunting, and everyone’s healthy.

“Don’t worry.  I’ll take the back,” I say.

“Me too,” Karen says.

“No.”  I reach out a hand.  “I want to ride alone for a while.  You take the front and wear a seatbelt.”

Once out of the city, for one hundred American dollars, Leonel drives one hundred miles per hour toward Torola.  My left hand braces against the seat beside me and I grasp one of the rope tethers with my right as the truck jolts and bucks over the pitted dirt road.  I watch the outskirts of San Salvador fade into the distance.  The earthenware homes, roadside vendors with groups of patrons and parked bicycles fade too.  Now, I see only thin, feral dogs and birds that dart across the road as flashes of color.  And soon even the dogs fade out and I see that we are, indeed, on the way.

We drive on, fast along the edge of a wildflower field, blossoms that spark with a hundred colors.  My eyes widen, taking in the small bursts of color.  Then they widen more and I lift my head straight.  Blink.  In the middle of the field, the small girl in a white dress waves to me.  I think to shout, to stop this truck.  But what can I do?  I can’t even stand. I lift up one hand and smile.

The girl watches as the truck moves on, fast, and I know, though she is far and fading, that she will watch me with big, glossy brown eyes until I am gone from her sight.

We arrive at Torola at the edge of night, some sort of small village compound from what I can see.  Cabins, spaced apart, encircle three large buildings, everything white-washed with green trim and all at the base of a mountain.  Already, a sand spray of stars has settled overhead.  I wait in my seat until Leonel gets out and reaches his hand to help me.

I drop down to the ground and hold on to the truck for a moment.  Leonel grunts as he pulls out my suitcase.

“I’m sorry,” I say to him.  “I don’t know how long I’ll be here.”

He pulls out Karen’s suitcase, too, and I reach into my front pocket.  I turn away from Leonel to count out his money, not fearful, but embarrassed.  For him, I’m sure there’s a small fortune in my hands.

“Muchas gracias,” I say.  “You are a good person.”

“Thank you,” Karen says.

“De nada.”  He winks and jumps back into the truck.  The motor starts and Leonel pulls around us, fast, speeding back to the city and his home while we wave goodbye.

“Let’s hope this is the right place.”

“It is,” I say.  “I’m certain.”

We turn around and just feet before us, the little girl stands in her white dress.  She holds a lighted candle and looks up at me.

“You!” I say.

“You?” Karen asks.

“The girl.”

“The who?”

“The girl.”  I point to her.  “Standing right here.”

“Yes, I see her,” Karen says.  “But you’re not telling me that you know her?”

The girl’s big eyes volley between us.  She walks forward, right up to us and I see in the light of her candle that it’s her.

“You’re alive,” I say.

“Of course she is!  What’s going on, Joan?”

“Welcome.  Here, come with candle,” the girl says, her soft English strained and broken.

She reaches behind her back and returns the hand with an unlighted candle.  She passes it to me, then reaches behind her back again and finds one for Karen.  She speaks to me first.

“The candle light takes you–”

“Are we in the right place?” Karen bends down and asks.

I look to Karen and tell her, with my eyes, to shut up.

The girl stares at me.

“The candle light takes you to the place to rest and heal.”  She lifts up her lighted candle to mine.  It catches, flames, then she turns toward

“The candle light takes you to the place to rest and heal.”

The more that I look at her, the more I realize she’s not the girl in my dreams.  Just a child.  Just a small girl who memorized some lines.

She turns around and walks and Karen and I follow, holding our candles and dragging our suitcases with the carry-ons over our shoulders.

We walk around the large building on one end, darkness seeping around us, and I hear voices scattered through the woods, voices in Spanish and others too, English then something Nordic, then a quick, shrill laugh.

The girl stops at one of the cabins and opens the door.  I let go of my suitcase and follow her inside.

“Your new home,” she says.

It’s small, simple.  With just the light of the candles, I see bunk beds, a primitive kitchen, a desk and – Thank God – bathroom.

“Food,” she says and points toward the two kitchen cabinets.  “Water.”  The faucet.  “Luz.”  The desk.

On top of it, there are matches and candles.

Karen nods and the girl walks around her, then outside, then gone.

If I can only run faster, the girl will live.  And now, I’m almost there, just another few feet to grab her.  But the girl’s at the end already.  She turns around and looks at me with big, glossy brown eyes, eyes that slow my pace.  She’s sick, this girl, sick and fearful and quieted by pain, standing limp with her hands behind her back.  But I can save her.

I think to jump, but the girl brings her hands around.  In each, she holds a candle.

I stop.

She joins the two wicks together and they spark to flame.

“Here, come with candle.”

I reach forward and take one.

“The light of this candle takes you to the place to rest and heal.”

She lifts her head and looks at me and I know what will happen, though my body does not move.

The girl stretches out her arms and jumps backward and now I run forward, drop to the edge of the cliff and watch her disappearing into darkness.

My mind screams – no! – but my feet push forward.  I squeeze my lighted candle with one hand as the fingers of the other release hold of the cliff’s edge.  My feet push forward.  I’m half over the edge, a cantilever – No! – that falls.

Down into the darkness, I spread out my limbs to slow down.  Down.  I spiral into the depths.  Wind roars on all sides.  Hard to breathe.  I survive on sips of air.

The candle blows out.

My mind mutinies.  My mind revolts – fills up and fries with a million screams of protest.  No!  No!  No!  This is the wrong choice, the end choice, the choice of the desperate, the beggar.  Who flees the truth?  Who flees her doctors?  Her daughters?

A woman who jumps from cliffs, that’s who!

And what to show for it?  Nothing!  Just death, certain and firm.  Death draws nearer, closer, faster over wildflower fields, death runs for you.
Runs!  You’ve made him faster!  It’s death that chases you and already you sense his breath upon your neck.

I scream awake, throw out my arms and bang them against the bottom bunk bed posts.


My arms smart with pain.  Karen grunts above me.

“Joan?”  The top bunk squeaks.  Karen bends, holds the edge of her mattress and looks down at me in the dim morning light.  “Joan?  What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” I say.  “Just a dream.”

Someone knocks on the cabin door.

Karen looks at me.  I look at her.

The person knocks again.

“Come in,” I shout.

The door opens and a triangle of light spreads into the room.  A dark head peers in at us.

“I thought someone was here,” the head says.

Karen and I remain silent.

“You are here for Amaranta del Cielo?”

“Me.”  I stick up my arm like a schoolgirl.  “I am.”

“You will be late, señorita.  She sees the people in five minutes.”

“I must see her.”

“Hurry with your dressing.  I take you to her.”

The door closes.

I jump out of bed, Karen too, and we change into t-shirts and shorts.

“Is this… acceptable?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”  Karen shrugs.  “What does one wear to meet a divine healer?”

“Señoritas,” the man says from behind the door, then knocks.

“We’re coming,” I say, rush and open the door to his reserved and stern face.

“I am Juan Carlos.  Now follow me, fast.”

I walk behind him, Karen behind me, both of us staring at his pressed, white shirt and black thatch of curls.  We comb fingers through our hair and pull taut the wrinkles in our shirts as we walk on a worn path toward the three large buildings.  I see that, indeed, we’re in a jungle, a dense overhead canopy of wide, waxy green leaves, tall trunks, bird calls, insects.

“You did not register.”  He talks ahead of himself.  “But I knew you were there.”

“The girl led us,” I say.  “She showed us to the cabin.”

“There is no girl,” he says.

“There is,” I protest.  “She led us.  A girl in a white dress.”

“There is no girl.”

“I saw her.”

“I saw her, too” Karen says.  “There was a girl.”

The man stops, turns around.  He looks at me, calm, truthful.

“I believe that you saw a girl.  Yes, I believe you.  But there is no girl.  There is only Amaranta.”

He turns around and walks.  I follow and, somehow, understand that if I don’t know this information, I soon will, but he cannot help me to find it.

We walk to the center large building where I see two great bins marked ‘Donations’ on each side of the front door.  There, the man turns around once more.

“All is free,” he says. “The cabin, food, water, fire.  All is free and you may stay as long as you like, but we hope that you donate to keep the place going.  It is expensive.”

“I understand.”

He opens the door and we follow him into one big room set up like a church – rows of chairs on two sides, a center aisle, one large wooden chair at the front.

And there are people.  Dozens and dozens of people.  Natives and foreigners.  And so much illness.  These people cough, hold their heads.  I see crutches and wheelchairs and bald women.

Karen grabs my arm.

“This is miserable,” she whispers.

“You,” Juan Carlos says and nods toward Karen.  “Sit where you like.  And you.”  He nods toward me.  “Get in line at the front.”

I look up to the two people who stand by the large wooden chair at the front of the room.

“Apurese.  Ya vien.  Hurry, she comes.”

Karen releases my arm as I walk to the front of the room, down the aisle, looking to both sides at these people, these sick people who feel the breath of death on their necks.  I remember that I am one of them.

I take my place at the end of the line up against a wall.  The first person is a woman in a wheelchair, anorexic-thin with bare, twisted feet.  The man beside me doesn’t appear ill, but neither do I.  We all face the audience, on display.

Juan Carlos stands tall on the other side of the front chair and I know that she is coming.

Amaranta del Cielo.

The crowd stirs.

I imagine her regal, young, but mature with wide eyes and coffee skin.  I imagine her as a modern American queen, a demi-goddess.

Then she walks before me.

It’s her, right?  I know it’s her.  I see the look of the crowd.  I feel it.

Amaranta del Cielo is over-the-hill, short and fat with thin, dry hair, limping forward in a dirty t-shirt and frayed jeans.  She’s one of those people whose age I’d never guess out loud – could be an okay sixty or terrible forty.

My mind awakes.  That’s your healer!  That’s your American queen!  You’re killing yourself with this, Joan.  You’re killing us.

Amaranta grasps both arms of the chair, grunts and lifts herself onto it.

“Buenos dias,” she says.

“Good morning,” Juan Carlos translates.

The crowd returns her greeting with a mixture of languages.

“Esta mañana he venido aqui para pedirles algo a todos ustedes…”

As she speaks, my eyes move about the room, to Karen’s disbelieving eyes, the people, then up into the vaulted ceiling where I see nests and birds that dart in and out of open windows.

“Today, I ask you to pray for these three people,” Juan Carlos says.  “As each appears before Amaranta del Cielo, pray for that person.  Pray for health and happiness, understanding and acceptance.  Pray that each will heal and be strong.”

“La primera, por favor.”

“The first, please.”

The woman wheels herself forward, in front of Amaranta.  She straightens her head and back as Amaranta closes her eyes, then reaches out one open hand and sways it back and forth before the woman’s body.  Her hand stops over the woman’s legs and it pulses and shakes.  Amaranta opens her eyes.

“El siguiente.”

The woman wheels away to Juan Carlos as the man in line takes her place before Amaranta.

This is it!  A little shake of her hand!  All this way to see some ragged woman shake her hand!

The hand reaches out again, back and forth, pulse and shake over the man’s heart.  He jerks, gasps a bit.  The crowd twitches.

Amaranta speaks to him, then Juan Carlos translates.

“You are not ready for the healing.  You must rest.  You must sleep.”

Ready?  Am I ready?  I certainly have not slept.

“La ultima.”

I walk before Amaranta and look into her eyes, the eyes of the girl in the white dress, big, glossy brown eyes.

My mind quiets.

She closes her eyes.  Her hand reaches out and instantly I see the dream in my mind.  I chase the girl – her – over wildflower fields.  She jumps.  I jump.  But the image stops there, suspended.

Amaranta’s hand stops.  It pulses, shakes over my head.

I feel nothing.

I feel calm.

I hear the birds tweet above me.

“Ahora empezamos el sanamiento.”

“We start the healing.”

I walk away and Juan Carlos flutters his fingers for me to come to him.

“You both,” he says to me and the woman in the wheelchair.  “Get your companions and meet me in the prayer room in the back of this building.”

I turn around and walk toward Karen who sits in the back row as people in the audience stand up and form a line next to Amaranta.

“What was it like?” she whispers as I crouch down.

“Calm,” I say.  “I need you to come with me.”

Karen stands and we walk around the perimeter of this room and find the back room, another open, plain space with rows of white chairs.  No birds.

Juan Carlos walks in behind us.

“You are ready,” he says.

“I didn’t know.”

“Yo lo sabia.  I knew.”  He smiles.  “She has called for you.  You have seen her.”

“Seen who?” Karen asks.

“Now you must stay in this room and pray.  No talking, no eating.  There is water.”  He points to two gallons jugs and a sleeve of plastic cups on a corner table by a bathroom.  “Stay comfortable, but remember to pray.  Both of you.  Pray for health.  See it in your minds, see the body healing.  You must pray for three hours.  I will get you when that time has finished.”

“What is happening?” Karen asks him.  “In there?  With all those people?”  She points toward the large room that we just left.

“She is healing the sick,” he answers.  “You go there tomorrow, but now you must pray and not talk.”

Juan Carlos turns around and speaks in Spanish to the woman in the wheelchair.  She is alone.

Karen and I sit down.  She leans toward me.

“Three hours!”

“Please,” I mouth and she nods.  We sit back, close our eyes and pray.

When Juan Carlos comes to get us, finally, I am tired, hot, sticky, achy and ready
for sleep.  Karen, too. Walking back to the cabin, she grabs hold of my hand with hers
and squeezes once.

I want to cry.

“Thank you,” I say.

“I tried,” she says, her voice soft.  “I saw that MRI in my mind and I saw the white
tumor shrink.  I saw it shrivel and disappear again and again, smaller and smaller fading
away.  I saw it a hundred times.  I willed it.”

“I know you did.”

“But, Joan, really,” she says, stops walking and turns to me.  “This is your life.  This is too important for hocus pocus.”

“I need you to trust me, Karen.  I need you to trust me so I can trust myself.”

Down into the darkness, I spread out my limbs to slow down.  Down.  I spiral into the depths.  Wind roars on all sides.

But the candle remains lighted.

I see below me a faint star, the light growing sharp, strong.  It’s the girl’s candle.

Slowly, the depths take on shape  The undulating darkness breaks below me to shades.  I’m getting closer to the girl.  Her candle glows stronger.  The shades sharpen, define.  I’m high over a valley, a jungle canopy.  Broad leaves above bare trunks.

My mind shouts.  You’re going to hit the ground!  You’re going to die!  Right now!


I feel my body lighten.  I will my pace to slow.  The roar of wind dies down and I coast below the canopy and see the girl who lies on the jungle floor.  I coast down and turn in the air, slow and refined.  Gingerly, my feet come to rest.

Then the girl screams, a strong, primal sting of pain.  Her back arches, limbs flail, her fingers contort.  I drop down on my knees and her eyes roll backward.  Nothing but white.  She jerks up her arms.  It’s a seizure.  The doctors warned me that I may have seizures.

I place my hand over her arms.  I strain to restrict the spasms, to hold her here, here and safe.

“You must live!” I shout.  “You must live!”

All movement stops.  So quickly, she’s a sleeping child, tranquil and angelic.  A thread of blood seeps out from her nose.

I lean down just inches above her to feel her breath upon my neck.


I wake up shaking, heavy.


My eyes open to Karen who leans over me and shakes my arms.

“Are you okay?  Oh, Joan.”

She falls down upon me and I wrap my arms around her.

It’s dark, I realize.  I’m on the jungle floor in the dark, outside of the cabin.

“Oh, God.  I didn’t know where you were,”  Karen sobs.

“What?  What happened?”

She lifts up her body, wipes her nose.

“I don’t know.  You slept most of the day.  I thought you’d sleep all night and I went to bed.  But then I woke up and you were gone.  I’m lucky I found you out here, with just a frigging candle.”

I sit up and brace my hands against the hard ground.

“Oh, Joan, stop,” she pleads.  “Stop this nonsense.  Stop it now.  You need doctors and nurses.  You need electricity and hot water and chemotherapy.  This is just some sham seeking donations, Joan, just another tourist trap.  And look what’s happened.  You’re passed out in the middle of a jungle and who knows, who knows what could have happened.”

I wrap my arms around Karen and she holds on to me, tight.

“I need you to trust me, Karen.  I need you to will me to health and I need you to trust.”

The next morning, we sit in the audience before Amaranta of the Sky.  Just one scared man up front, one new arrival who stands still as her hand shakes over his stomach.  I understand what Karen thinks, that Amaranta’s just a crone with a capital idea.  I wonder, too.

Amaranta opens her eyes.

“Empezamos el sanamiento,” she says.

“We start the healing.”

Juan Carlos takes the man away to pray as I stand up and walk to the front of the room and join the line of audience members who seek healing.  The sick forever return with their hope.

Amaranta gets out of the chair and a man brings over a cart covered with medical instruments.  I see scalpels and tongs and a collection of jagged steel tools whose names are unknown to me.  I hope they are clean.  I hope I’m not too scared.

Amaranta looks at the first person, a woman about my age, Salvadorian, I believe, one who appears healthy.  Amaranta takes an instrument, some sort of thin, needle-nose gripper with a scissor handle and grasps a strip of cotton gauze.

She walks to the woman and cups her free hand beneath the woman’s mouth.  Her jaw drops and Amaranta pushes the gauze into the woman’s mouth, moves it around in circles, a bit forceful.  Then she pulls out the wet swab and drops it and the instrument in a bucket on the cart.

The woman walks away, back to join the audience.

Not so bad.

Amaranta picks up a scalpel.  Standing before a man – the second person in line, I’m next – she lifts up his shirt and I see thin red lines, scars on his lower left side.  Amaranta raises her arm and swoops it down.  I flinch as she slices deep into his skin.  The man doesn’t move.  The wound swells with blood which runs into his pants.  I see that they
are stained with old brown blood.

Juan Carlos is in the room now and the bleeding man walks to him.  Juan Carlos has bandages.

Now what will she do to me?  What will this crazy woman do?

I look at Karen who holds a hand over her mouth, eyes wide.  She shakes her head.  She’s telling me to leave, to run, for us to get up and out of this place.

Amaranta now stands before me, cotton gauze gripped in the needle-nose instrument.  She cups my chin, but I know she’s not going for my mouth.  Her eyes narrow in as she thrusts the gauze and instrument inside my nose.  My head cocks backward, spins, clogged and groggy.  My eyes flutter.  I choke for air.

But there’s no pain.

She wrenches her wrist and twists it around.

I look to Karen who stands up in the audience in disbelief.

She twists it around, around.

But no pain.  In my mind, I see the little girl in the white dress, back arched, fingers contorted.  The girl has taken this pain for me.

Amaranta pulls out blood-soaked gauze.  I feel blood run out of my nose.  I taste it.

I can’t look at Karen.  I just walk to Juan Carlos.

He hands me a ball of the gauze and I press it against my nose.

“You did well,” he says.

“I was shocked.”

“There was no pain for you, no hurt.  You made no move.”

Slowly, I walk back to Karen with the ball of gauze covering my nose.  Her face has fallen, blanched.

“How could she do that?” she whispers as I sit down.

“I felt nothing.  It just happened and I felt nothing.”

“Nothing at all?  She shoved that thing inside your head.  This is quack craziness.”

“I haven’t mentioned anything, Karen.  Have I?  But still she chose to shove that gauze inside my head.  Somehow she knows.”

“Hmmph.”  She crosses her arms.  “But what’s that going to do?  She cleaned out your nose, made you bleed.  What’s that going to do for cancer?”

“What’s anyone going to do?  It’s inoperable.”

We watch Amaranta walk in front of the last person, the woman in the wheelchair.  She bends down and takes the woman’s bare feet into her hands, then swoops out her elbows to each side.  The woman jolts in the wheelchair.

“This is mad,” Karen says.  “This is all mad.”

“I have to trust it.”


“I can’t explain.”
Karen frowns.  I know what she thinks – that I’m wasting my time.  I think it, too, but I’m trying to put that aside.“I just need to sleep,” I say, my head heavy and dry.  “I just need to rest.”

“You must live!” I shout.  “You must live!”

All movement stops.  So quickly, she’s a sleeping child, tranquil and angelic on the jungle floor.

I lean down just inches above her and feel her breath upon my neck.

“I will live,” she whispers.  “I will always.”

I sit up.  The small girl smiles, sits herself up, too.

“You should not worry about me.  Worry about yourself.”

“You are Amaranta, aren’t you?”

“Yes and no,” she says.  “I am many.  I am what you needed to lead you here.”

“You are Amaranta as a child?” She puffs out her lower lip, disappointed.

“Your mind is too fixed.  Amaranta is a woman who bears the pain of a thousand illnesses.  She is a shepherd.  A name.  I am and am not Amaranta.”

“I don’t understand.”

We both stand up and the girl holds out her open hand.  I take her hand in mine and feel a calmness seep into my fingers, my arm, then spread across my chest, up, down.  I am too calm, too completely rested to speak, every muscle and care eased.

Gravity falls away and the two of us rise.  The little girl holds a lighted candle above her head and leads me up toward the canopy.  I look down and see, in the distance, Karen kneeling over my still body on the jungle floor.  She shakes me.  She cries because I do not respond.  I know that I scare her, but I cannot wake.  Not yet. Out of the valley jungle we rise above the cliff edge and I see before me endless wildflower fields.  I see mountains and lakes, cities and oceans.  We rise together, calmly lifted above the solid world, up beyond clouds she leads me into the sky, high into sky beneath a sand spray of stars, we look upon the greatness of the earth, the vastness of a breathing planet and I feel within me the living will of billions.

And now I understand that this will is the girl.

She is and is not Amaranta.

There is no girl.

As I know this, she looks at me, then disappears and I am left here to float, to inhale, stretch out the power and resolve of my body above the turning earth because I shall live on the will of my existence.  Yes!  I shall overcome.

I, too, am part of this all – Yes! – because I, too, am Amaranta of the Sky.


Michael Milliken is a graduate of Yale University and is currently working on his M.F.A in Fiction Writing at the University of New Hampshire.  His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Beginnings, Better Fiction, Cellar Door, and the anthologies 50 States, Riptide and Visiting Hours.

“Painless Poem” by Paul Hostovsky


Remember this poem? its simple
rooms? its window full of trees? the white

gable which you loved?
how its lone triangle seemed to encompass
all humanity? and the spiky yellow sun

exploding somewhere outside of it?

Of course you do. In fact you’re reciting it
right now, standing on one foot in the room
of a different poem.


Paul Hostovsky has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac; and published in Carolina Quarterly, Shenandoah, New Delta Review, Atlanta Review, Poetry East, and many other journals and anthologies. He won the Comstock Review‘s Muriel Craft Bailey Award in 2001, as well as chapbook contests from Grayson Books, Riverstone Press, Frank Cat Press, and Split Oak Press. He has two full-length poetry collections, Bending the Notes (2008), and Dear Truth (2009), both from Main Street Rag. Paul’s poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize 13 times, and won one once. He makes his living in Boston as an interpreter at the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing where he specializes in working with the deaf-blind.

“Personal” by Richard Luftig

Loneliness seeps
from each entry
like yesterday’s
news. The dread

of exposing
an Achilles’ heel,
while struggling to put
your best foot forward.


Richard Luftig works at Miami University in Ohio. He is a recipient of the Cincinnati Post-Corbett Foundation Award for Literature and a semi finalist for the Emily Dickinson Society Award. His poems have appeared in numerous literary journals in the United States and internationally in Japan, Canada, Australia, Finland, and England.

“Me and Her and My Machine” by P. Kobylarz


Blinking red eye. The blinking red eye. How he dreaded it. Like in that crazy Poe story. The one about this man and he’s, well, living with this other guy, and, now, how does it go? And so anyway he gets real pissed off at this guy ’cause this guy has this eyeball that’s milky white gross and so this other guy, like, slices him up, and well, you get it. Quite logical if you think about it. For a while.

But what can you do to a machine? A machine with a blinking red eye. A fucking twenty buck heaping crap of technology you bought from a derelict at a pawner’s who had missing bottom teeth and cologne that smelled like sweat. A little black box of a machine that’s got something on you– that knows a little bit about your eventual future, knows who you hang with. A machine that has some vital information someone else has entrusted to it, and not you. An answering machine that never not once answers to you.

I hate these things and so do you. Everyone does. They’re the price we pay for living in modern times. We need so bad to catch all possible information, invitations to parties, possible job leads, romantic intrigues of friends and co-workers. Any bit of information that tells us something about us or who we want to be. Any possible reflection of ourselves. Narcissus with technologies. Narcissus in a Hall of Mirrors.

You sit there like an idiot, alone in a room, after three hours of trying how to figure out how to record a message, and when you finally do, then you dread the deed. It’s like cuddling in public. There are better times and places. One on one. Your worst date–you and yourself. Duration: sixty seconds.

What makes it so bad is that you’re on the spot with yourself. You fuck up– you stutter, you mispronounce– and you have to do it all over again. Like being your own blind date on a mutually bad night. You and you in secret conversation. Overheard only by yourselves.

Who doesn’t despise their own voice played back on tape? All day long, you walk around the halls at work, sifting some Sinatra tune from your gut through your teeth into the air. Thinking the ladies are melting in their seats, you trill those vocal chords at others assured that the organ music emitted from your pipes is wholly an original, mellifluous song. (Note: you have practiced how to say mellifluous).

You yourself a Benedict Arnold of spontaneity who rehearses what amounts to be almost prescribed messages to friends and beloveds in what you have cleverly learned to be named dulcet tones, describing your exact state of mind and mental/spiritual bearing (that have oftentimes been cut of by a rude beeping), but regardless of all this, you never think that of the betrayal done to all your grandiose croonings by the rare instrument of your throat until that very moment that all of life stops, as you press the playback button and sit silently, open-mouthed in denial hear the seal in heat croup.

You hate the way you sound. If only you recorded yourself having sex! And maybe even watched it in slo-mo.

Then there’s the rhetorical problem. The message. What should it say, exactly. Should there be funky music in the background, the James Bond theme, or classical, the sound of a busy city and people mumbling “peas and carrots, carrots and peas?” No one knows. But everyone thinks about it. More than once.

Should it just be you– your voice– the humm of electricity– a confession presided over by the priest of reality? How does it go?


“Hello, this is Pete’s machine answering because Pete isn’t here . . .”


Why the hello?

“Hi, this is (#). Please leave a message.”

A robot with an electronic soul. Too informal. Too– I am not a number! I’m a man! And why the please. This type of message solicits a lot of messages from wrong number callers anyway. Never worth the listening. People are so sure they’re calling who they want to call. They choke up in disbelief that they’ve screwed up. How could the telephone lie? How could they misdial? Technology can always be trusted. Technology never means to let us down.

So there’s no way to actually go about it. Strange the wrong messages left on a machine. These are great to listen to, probably because the people are prepared and it’s their choice if they leave a message or not. Those who need to reveal something about their personality.  A dollop of them. A pause you’d never want to interrupt. A catch in the throat that signals vulnerability.


“Misses Jackson, you left your wallet in the pocket of your dry cleaning. We put it in a bag under the counter so you can come in and pick it up. It looks like a wallet, but we didn’t open it, so we’re not so sure what in it. It is here though, so you an pick it up whenever. Your pocketbook that is.”

You got to believe it.

The reason why I’m even going into all of this is because I do not know what to do. The tv’s playing, birds are chirping outside even though it night, I’m messed up and the phone is in my hand. My brain is dancing to that dialtone tune, that little tornado warning that the line makes after the dialtone has hung up on you.


It began when she left this message I recorded onto a microcassette recorder. I listen to it periodically. I have a lot of these tapes. They keep me busy. Anyway, hers kinda goes like:


“mmmmmm-ello,(tune humming in background) thought you’d be (deeply seductive intake of breath) . . . home. But you’re not and that’s (pouty baby voice) oh so too too bad.”

After I heard this I fumbled through the receipts that I keep and invariably lose when it comes to checkbook balancing time. I ripped through my wallet to find that piece of napkin or tear of post-it-note that I wrote her number on. God is willing and I find it. I called her back. I get her machine.

Her voice is as sultry on her message as it is on my machine. She sounds good recorded. How can this be so?

It beeps.

I hang up.

I’m not one for phone tag.

I call back immediately. Busy. Her machine is thinking to itself.

I wait five minutes. Ring.


“Hey, what’s going on? Got your message. Now it’s your turn to call. Thought maybe we could hook up, hang out, have ourselves a time. Call me back.”

Yeah, I practiced it a few times in my head before I said it. So it would come out nice and smooth. So it would leave little waves of reverberation that would cause her fingers to move and her throat to tremble and the creases underneath her breasts to sweat as she phones me back. Ready. Willing. Eager.

It doesn’t happen for days.

When I do finally get her message, it goes something like this. And, oh, I didn’t re-record this one.

“Hey, what’s up? Didn’t get your message until too late to get back with you. If you want to go out, or something, I’m going to be at the Massachusetts’ happy hour on Friday. With some friends. Be there. We’ll talk for real.”

The Massachusetts is this kind of preppy bar downtown where people go to be seen. Drinks there are real expensive. The women there are mostly beautiful. Sometimes they smoke cigars. The guys there are all assholes. Sometimes they smoke cigars, too. The other thing that freaks me out is it’s name. I don’t know why it’s called the Massachusetts even though I should.

This is a day later. I call her in the afternoon. I leave her this one:

“O.k., hi and everything. That bar thing sounds all right if I can get away at that time. Hope your friends are as pretty as you. See you then.”

Guess what? I never went.

It just wasn’t my kind of place. I mean, you got to feel right about where you are for things to happen, if you know what I mean. I don’t even know what that place’s jukebox has on it– probably Bananarama and select soul tunes thrown in for flavor. I don’t even know if it has a jukebox. What’s a guy to do?

It just wasn’t my kind of place. I mean, you got to feel right about where you are for things to happen, if you know what I mean. I don’t even know what that place’s jukebox has on it– probably Bananarama and select soul tunes thrown in for flavor. I don’t even know if it has a jukebox. What’s a guy to do?

A couple of days later I call her back. I get the machine. I freeze up. I get paranoid. I start thinking she has caller ID and is avoiding me. But I think, hey, she gave me her number. She wrote it down on a something or other. Does it get more official than that? Wasn’t a drunken ink bleeding scrawl on some cheap dive’s sorry ass excuse of a napkin the classic intro? Or maybe I’m dreaming this. Maybe she wrote it down on a bus ticket. A matchbook, a movie stub, an invitation to a party she never went to.

Maybe she was being polite. Democratic and all. Maybe she collects phone messages. Oh what I wouldn’t do for her machine’s secret code. So in the privacy of my own mental womb, I could dial her up, plug in that number, and surf through her other messages.


“Yes, hullo, this is Dale the plumber. Can you call me back so I know when’s the best time I can drop by to check out your pipes? Thank ya.”


“Hi honey, this is Mom. Was returning your call of, oh let’s see, Thursday evening. Hope everything’s all right. Love you.”


“Hey baby, it’s Charles. Last night was out of sight. Did I leave my belt there? Call me.”


” Girl this is Rosalee. Did that guy ever get back to you? How was he? He isn’t gay. I mean, he seemed so nice and all. You never know. Calling to let you know that if you aren’t interested in him, I might be. Talk to me.”

Nah, it couldn’t be like that. She doesn’t seem like that kind. I mean, she wears braids. She uses clear nail polish. Am I getting my signals crossed, or what?

I dial her up again. I know she must know that it is me calling and hanging up but I’m hoping that her machine doesn’t record me hanging up (it’s not like I’m breathing hard) and I do, can time my click with quartz-like precision.


“Me again. Hoping you know me now by voice. We got to get together soon. You must be busy working, or I hope nothing’s come up. Give me a call. I should be around most of today and tomorrow. Number is 321-8868. Bye.”

Couldn’t be more straightforward than that. What I will do is wait. I won’t hang out. I’ll stay home. She’ll call. We’ll go out. I’ll see where she’s coming from. We’ll go out for a bite. We’ll get a drink. She will see that I’m more than a nasally voice badly taped. She’ll hear that my voice is song. She’ll get addicted to that tune. We will get it on. When other men call her number in the future, they’ll get me on the message machine.


“Hi, we’re out right now. We’ll get back to you. Message us.”

But it never happens this way, does it? Never except in lame movies.

She calls me back. She gets my message. This is how it happens.


“Hey, it’s me. So what is your problem? Are you afraid of me? Of yourself? You need to lighten up. I’m real busy that’s all. I work my ass off. I’m trying to make my job a better one, or quit. I don’t know what I’m doing. I take whatever as it comes. I hate schedules. I can’t organize anything, least of all my life. I’m sorry we can’t hook up. But you need to hang loose. Not be so anal. Here’s something for you. To think about. BRRAAPPPPPPP  click.”

I couldn’t believe it. I was astounded. She ripped one. One the phone. She farted on my machine! I have it taped! I play it back to my friends! It’s great! God, does she have guts! She does have guts. And I’ve heard them!

The funny thing is is that I’m the one who’s too embarrassed to call her back. Usually, people are together for years before they can share such moments. I know married couples who can’t even after years. And she rips one on my phone. What the hell does it mean?

I call her back. I get her machine. I don’t have to fart. I have ten seconds. I don’t know what to say. I am disgusted. I am enthralled. There’s no time to think.


What is up with that? More subtle ways to make a point. You did, didn’t you. Listen, I’ll call you back. Or I’ll pick you up after work. Call me, tell me the address. Friday night. We’ll do happy hour. Bye.”

After hanging up, I wondered what phone sex with her might be like.

Days go by. I do nothing. I check my messages endlessly. Always some idiot calling to sell me something like life insurance, magazines, crap no one ever buys on the phone, more credit cards. I’m too afraid to call her. Ball’s in her court. Or the balls.

I watch a lot of tv. I begin drinking by myself while watching a lot of tv. I listen to music. I drink. If I had any drugs, I’d do them. I begin cooking for myself. I invent sandwiches. Bologna and friend onions with Dijon mustard. A fried ham/hamburger and bacon bits steak platter. I eat these things. I wait by the phone.

RRRRRRRRRIIIINNNNGG. She calls. It must be her. It’s Sunday night. I put my hand on the receiver. My machine picks up before I have the will to. It’s her. There’s something wrong. She’s not saying anything. She’s crying. She’s trying to cry. She’s trying to say something.

I hear heavy breathing. I hear what sounds like pain. I hear seriousness made into sound. She’s struggling. She’s fighting to hold something off. She’s breathing, breathing harder. I recognize her breath. It’s getting more difficult. She’s saying something like “ooooooooooooooooo”. She screams as the phone cuts off, hangs up.

I’m sweaty.

I go get the bottle.

I drink.

I don’t know what else to do.

I stare at the tv screen. There are people talking. Whatever they have to say is pointless.

A woman has phoned me.

A woman has phoned me and a woman has orgasmed on my answering machine.

And if I had picked it up?

I drink.

I drink some more.

The rationality alcohol brings makes me wonder. I’m putting two and two together. Did she have someone with her? Would she do that to me? Why would she do that to me? I don’t even hardly know her. What does she want with me? Could it have been me? What should I do.

I wait five minutes. I hold the phone in my hand. I don’t want her calling back. I don’t want her smoking a cigarette on my machine. My machine is my machine. We share secrets. My machine knows everything thing about me. Now my machine knows her. She does not know me. I do not know her. But she knows something I don’t.

She knows my machine.


P. Kobylarz has recent work in Connecticut Review, Scrivener (Montréal), Pleiades, Colorado Review, New American Writing, Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review and has appeared in Best American Poetry 1997.

“In the End, the Beginning” by Stephanie Johnson

DANTE THE PILGRIM isn’t sure whether to head stage left, back to the vestibule of hell, or stage right, into the circle of the gluttonous. Seth, the director of this fiasco, isn’t faring well. His round Norwegian face blossoms heat-stroke red. Dante isn’t supposed to be going left or right; he’s supposed to fall straight down, the way our production seems to be headed.

“Do you have extra cash we can hand out at the door?” Seth asks me. “Because that’s the only way this show is going to get a decent review.” He looks at the stage where Dante heads stage left.

“No, no, no…” Seth says to Dante. “Faint out of pity for Francesca’s story. When you regain consciousness in the third circle of hell, you’ll meet Cerberus, the three-headed dog. Cerberus won’t step onstage until you faint and recover.”

Dante nods and smiles revealing a row of perfect white teeth.  Three months of work on this production have taught him – like Pavlov’s dog—that this is the best response. Dante nods, but it doesn’t mean he comprehends. He continues nodding, fingers hooked in his belt loops.

Dante’s real name is Chuck and by day he’s a plumber. At the audition twelve weeks ago, Seth immediately fell in love with Chuck’s thick black hair, chiseled biceps, and movie-star good looks. Even though Chuck couldn’t pronounce the Italian names of the sinners he encountered in Hell—which I thought was a big red flag—Seth cast him anyway, promising to give him “private lessons” if necessary.

Seth doesn’t look sure of his decision now. He tugs on his bleached hair and rubs his eyes as though he wishes he could remove them from his head. “Dante, goddamn it, faint.”

Chuck remains ramrod straight. He looks at Virgil.

“Faint, Chuck, goddamn it. Faint.”

Chuck sinks to his knees and slowly slumps over. His faint is about as convincing as a kid feigning sleep on Christmas Eve. Seth sighs. He looks at me. I look at him.

“I suppose it’s no use having Virgil cue him.”

Seth snorts. We chose Horace Henderson for Virgil. His silver hair fell in large curls just beneath his ears and we imagined Virgil’s robe would hang well on his lanky frame. His hazel eyes were almond shaped and his nose was strong, forming the classic Greek profile. His voice was deep and steady. Who better to lead Dante the Pilgrim through the underworld? We chose Horace because he seemed wise; later we discovered he was a drunk.

“Oh, the humanity,” Seth says to me. “How do you go down from community theater? Prison enrichment programs?” He looks sweaty. “Send them home, Goose. I can’t face them. I need a cocktail and a hot bath.” He reaches for his coat, presses a cigarette between his lips, and heads for the door.

Once the door slams behind him, I face the group. Cerberus the Three-Headed Dog’s six ears poke out from behind the stage right curtain. Francesca adjusts the straps of her black lingerie and begins to pick at her fingernails. Chuck smiles. Virgil picks at his ear. From the balcony, Kermit plays a few ominous notes of the funeral march on the keyboard.

“Let me remind you that we’re not even out of Upper Hell yet. This is circle three; we’ve got to get through circle nine.”

The cast stares blankly at me.

“Run lines with your scene partners.”

The cast heads toward the dressing rooms. Once everyone has left, I turn off the lights, lock the door, and meet Kermit at the car.

KERMIT IS LEANING on the hood of his Honda. Our car is the only vehicle left in the community center’s parking lot.  I slide into the driver’s side as he settles into the passenger side. He fusses with sheet music as I let his car warm up before beginning our trek back to the city. He’s composing an original score for Dante’s Inferno. Kermit wanted a full-sized organ hauled into the balcony; Seth’s budget allowed for a Casio keyboard with an organ sound-effect. Kermit wanted something to do, and Seth was an old friend, so he compromised. Twice a week, we drive to the suburbs together for full-cast rehearsals.

Kermit turns up the heater. “You can tell me, Goose. How bad is it really?”

“Dante’s lost in hell.”

“Too bad we’re not going for black comedy.”

“It’ll get better. It has to.”

Once we’re headed toward home, Kermit cracks the window and lights a cigarette.

“You’re not supposed to do that,” I say.

“Maybe I don’t want to live long enough to see the curtain go up. And besides, fuck the doctors. What good is a ‘few more months’ if you can’t enjoy them? I’ll take forty-five years and cigarettes, thank you very much.”

There’s no use trying to talk him out of it. He’ll do what he wants because he’s stubborn. I’ve been his tenant and by proxy his friend for two years. When he’s worried I’m short on cash, he rips up my rent checks as fast as I can write them; when he wants alone time, I could knock on his door until my knuckles bleed. Try telling him that his disappearing acts worry you, and he’ll remind you he has a mother.

When he finishes his smoke, he tosses the butt out the window. “Ah, Goose, how did we end up here?” He stares out the window at the other cars, the dark outlines of leafless trees, and the white blanket of snow periodically interrupted by rest-stop islands. I don’t answer what I know is a rhetorical question. His head rests against the window, and soon enough, he is asleep.

I drive toward the city, waiting for the transformation from the dark woods along the highway to the glow of urban life in the distance, signaling our arrival home. When the lights appear in the distance, the city looks like a million stars. The first lines of the Inferno run through my head – Midway along the journey of our life/I woke to find myself in a dark wood,/ for I had wandered off from the straight path.

Kermit snores in the seat next to mine. He was originally the assistant director, but he is getting weaker now. He couldn’t commit to the stress of the final weeks, right before Easter when the show opens. He has no way of knowing how he will feel. Better that he take a lesser role – music director. He convinced me to be the assistant director in his place: this would be a great way to use my art degree – a small production in the suburbs.Not that Seth hadn’t dreamed bigger. He lobbied every theater in Boston. However, no one was interested in producing Dante’s Inferno.

“Too bleak,” said one house manager.

“Too ridiculous,” said another.

“Too wrong. Who wants to go to hell? Don’t we have that around us daily?” The denials took various shapes and forms.

I agreed to do this not because I wanted to revive my affiliation with the arts or because I thought dramatizing the first volume of Dante’s Commedia was a good idea. I did this so Kermit would have a ride.

ONCE I PARK THE CAR, I wake Kermit and help him up the stairs. He’s grumpy, like a teenager reluctant to go to school, but eventually we climb to the third floor where he kisses me on the cheek and tells me he’ll see me tomorrow.

I return to my apartment. I slip into my pajamas, start water for tea, and prepare to go over my notes. Once I settle at the kitchen table with my work, there’s a knock at the door.

Boris stands in my doorway. “You still up? I need someone to talk to,” he says. He follows me back to the kitchen.

According to Boris, the common cold is the arch-villain of the modern world and one day he will be the Superman of science. He tells me this again as he sits at my kitchen table barefoot and wearing silky nylon shorts that ride too high on his thighs. His chest is as white and smooth as the snow which piles up on the fire escape and windowsill.

“Two hundred viruses can cause colds,” Boris says as I take the kettle off the stove. “Rhinovirus, coronavirus, Coxsackie virus, respiratory syncytial virus. That’s only the beginning.” He sighs and reluctantly accepts the cup of tea I’ve poured for him. His long fingers hold the mug as he inhales the steam. “I’m in a funk,” he announces.

I remember last June when Boris moved into the first floor apartment. He sulked around the hallway, stopping to press his nose against the screen door, as Kermit and I sat on the porch drinking whiskey and iced tea. “He’s depressed,” Kermit informed me as he squeezed another lemon slice in his mason jar. “Sunburn is the number one illness during the summer. Boris feels like he’s spinning his wheels.”

“Maybe it’s really as simple as bed rest, plenty of fluids, and chicken soup,” I tell Boris now.

“The Institute won’t give me more funding if I submit that as my proposal.”

Boris takes his work at the Institute seriously. Other researchers have gone on to tackle more threatening diseases and taken their funding with them. Although symptoms like congestion and achiness are an inconvenience, no one in recent history has died from the common cold.

“It doesn’t matter which virus causes the cold,” Boris tells me in the voice he uses for the non-scientifically inclined. “The body reacts the same way. But with nearly two hundred different viruses, it’s impossible to create a vaccine.” He rubs his fingers up and down the goose bumps on his arms and I can hear his teeth chattering.

“Want a sweatshirt?”

Boris frowns at me. “Don’t interfere with my research. I may need to use myself as a guinea pig.” If it were up to Boris, he’d work in his shorts, but the Institute has a policy against half-naked scientists in its labs. I sometimes pass him in the basement halls that connect his lab to the Alumni Records Office where I work. He seems like a caricature of the mad scientist: his wheat colored hair stands in a tuft off the top of his head, the lab coat flaps behind him as he anxiously races back to his experiment from the soda machine, his legs hang like two broomsticks on a scarecrow. When Boris first started coming up to my apartment bare-chested and in tight shorts, I thought he had romance on his mind. Now, I realize it’s all in the name of science. He’s trying to catch a cold.
Upstairs, Kermit begins playing warm-up scales on his organ.

“How the hell did he get that upstairs anyway?”

I shrug. “He was here when I moved in. I have no idea.”

“It makes me crazy.”

By listening to the music, I can tell what kind of day Kermit has had. If he’s happy, he plays Take Me Out to the Ball Park or When the Saints Come Marching In. If he’s not so good, he plays the church music he learned as a child, before he abandoned organized religion. He ends every evening with Every Time We Say Good-Bye, which loses some of its quiet grace on the organ, but I know Kermit plays it and thinks of Kenny.

“How do you live with this?” Boris asks. “I have to sleep with cotton in my ears or I dream I’m in a cathedral.”

“It’s Saturday night, and it makes him happy.”

AT THIS POINT, Dante’s Inferno isn’t making anyone happy. Seth calls on Sunday shortly after noon. As soon as I pick up the phone, Seth asks me, “Which circle of hell are directors who cast because of tight buns and sweet smiles relegated to?”

“The circle of opening night ulcers?”

“I’m working with Chuck this afternoon. We’re going to dumb it all down and remove the poetry.”

“Good luck.”

“He’ll either learn this script or I’ll drink enough to make a pass at him. Either way, he wins.” Seth chuckles. His coughing rattles through the phone line. “You know, if he’s straight, the duty transfers to the Assistant Director.”

“I don’t need your casting couch left-overs.”

The truth is, Chuck is strikingly handsome, but I don’t think he’s capable of a conversation. While I can imagine indulging in a night of steamy lovemaking with Chuck, the notion of having breakfast with him makes my skin crawl. This, I’ve learned, does not a strong relationship make.

“The good old days of casting couches,” Seth says, “the days when things were simple…when we weren’t afraid of things. I sound like a tired old queen. If you get bored later, you should ask Kermit to tell you stories. Kermit was a striking leading man. He made good use of the couch. I remember a time back in 1989… oh, well, I digress. But let me tell you this, if there were a way, I’d have him play Dante. Is he a little old? Sure. But
he’s talented. There’s just no way with his… well, you know.”

Seth quickly changes the direction of the conversation. “Have you heard him working on the music?”

“I have not. Casting couch? Did you and Kermit…”

“Child, look at the time…”

“I see how it is…”

“True ladies don’t kiss and tell.”

“I’ll check his progress on the score. Ha. Ha. No pun intended.”

I hang up the phone and realize how much I don’t know about Kermit. I hear bits and pieces, selected stories, the edited-versions of things. I see the final production, each line in place, each actor made-up and polished. He never breaks character in his real life.

KERMIT AND I AGREE that Boris is lousy to watch television with. On Sunday nights, I make microwave popcorn with extra butter and Kermit brings down a twelve pack or a bottle of red wine. Sometimes, if Kermit has an appetite, we order pizza. Boris stops by when he’s finished at the lab. He works weekends and holidays. He’s the only person I know who looks forward to going to work when he’s sick, as if the answer he’s devoted the last three years to may show up if he catches one of his sneezes on a slide and examines it beneath a microscope.

“That’s not really how it works,” Boris says. He points at the television. “They only give a partial medical explanation.”

“Oh, who cares?” Kermit asks. He doesn’t move over on the couch to make room for Boris because he’s hoping he won’t stay. “It’s television, Boris. Have you heard of this thing called escapism?”

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” Boris answers and leans against the doorframe.

Kermit ignores Boris when he’s in this kind of mood. He’s looking to pick a fight, usually because he’s run into another dead end in the lab. Kermit picks a kernel or two out of the popcorn bowl.

“Really,” Boris continues. “When they come back from commercial the medical expert has results from the lab which prove their theories. What a load of crap. Science isn’t that fast or that easy.”

Kermit and I shove over on the couch as Boris squeezes in next to me. Even though he’ll complain for the next hour, he’s not going to leave. Kermit rolls his eyes and rests his feet in front of him on the coffee table. He wears fuzzy pink slippers that don’t match his navy silk pajamas.

“Kenny had such a crush on that guy,” Kermit announces and points at the show’s lead actor.

Boris stares intently at the screen, ignoring Kermit. “If you don’t shut up, you’re going to miss valuable information.”

“Have you ever been in love, Boris?” Kermit asks during the next commercial break.

Boris hesitates a moment, unsure if Kermit is baiting him. “No,” he says.

Kermit leans back into the couch. His face is pale and although I never knew him before he was sick, I imagine he was thick and muscular. He used to do landscaping. I’ve heard stories about him carrying Kenny into the bedroom, doctor’s offices, and warm baths. It’s hard to see it now.

Kermit sighs. “I’m not sure if meeting Kenny was the luckiest or unluckiest thing that ever happened to me,” he says.

As he leans back into the sofa, he rubs his hand on my knee. “I wish you could have met my Kenny, Goose,” he says. “He would have loved you.”

THAT NIGHT in bed, I listen to Kermit pace in his apartment. Since Kenny died, he has trouble sleeping. He walks so much I’m afraid he’ll wear a path through the floor. Sometimes I hear a muffled voice. I don’t know who he is talking to. Kermit’s phone rarely rings, and if it does, he seldom answers. His mother invites him back to Jesus. The doctors demand that he come in for check-ups. His former friends remind him of Kenny. Seth is the only person he still talks to.

Meanwhile, Boris sleeps downstairs. Boris may never have loved a woman or a man, but he has known a different connection, to his work. Boris is a
humanitarian who can’t deal with the particulars of human beings. He does not notice freckles or memorize laughs. The person who loves Boris will
have to understand that he loves with his intellect rather than with his heart.

Like Boris, I used to have a job I loved.  I spent three years running a small theater. The grant money ran out and the doors closed. During the final
year of trying to keep the theater afloat, I rarely slept.

My mother had goaded me for years with comparisons to my more “successful” siblings. It was a shame, my mother said of me, for someone so
smart to constantly be on the brink of financial disaster, for a twenty-eight year old woman to be unable to make rent or sustain a meaningful

I took her advice and moved to Boston where I took a job as a software consultant. There, I learned the real meaning of heartbreak. The theater was filled with drama and divas, but at least their heartbreak made a noise. In corporate America, I found myself surrounded by hollow blue suits. They scoured the internet for chances at love and climbed Stairmasters in pursuit of calves. Living in the right neighborhood, driving an expensive car, and vacationing on the choicest beaches, promised illusory happiness. I quit. My mother was disappointed.

Now I believe a job should be like a reliable friend. I spend my days cataloguing: address changes, marriages, deaths, and donations to the Institute. I oversee eighty thousand people in my database without meeting one.

WHEN I COME IN FROM WORK, Kermit is sitting at my kitchen table. I nearly jump out of my skin.

“Make me a cup of coffee?” he asks.

“Isn’t this abuse of landlord privileges?”

“You’re not just a tenant to me.” Kermit plays with his heavy ring of keys. “You’re my friend, my confidante.”

“Something on your mind?”

“Funny you should ask. Kenny and I have been talking.”

“The Kenny?”

Kermit raises an eyebrow at me. “You think I’ve lost it, don’t you?” He shakes his head. “I thought so, too. Even in death that damn man won’t leave me alone. It’s worse than A Christmas Carol.”

After my father died, my mother used to see him walking around the house. She swore he came back to torture her by playing the accordion. She swore that she’d know she was in hell if she heard accordion music when she entered the white light.

“What does Kenny want?”

“The same stuff he wanted when he was here. Don’t leave your hair in the sink after you shave. Take out the trash. Eat a vegetable.” Kermit sighs. “Where do you think he is? I just want to know he’s okay. I mean, I don’t think I believe in God anymore —or maybe it’s that God doesn’t believe in me — but I want to know what you think.”

I look at the crows feet around Kermit’s eyes. His pale skin and the scruff shadowing his jaw make him look tired.

I’m a cop-out agnostic. Content to say something exists, I am unable to pledge allegiance and servitude to a deity and unwilling to embrace the morbidity of eternity existing in a pine box burrowed through by worms.

“I don’t know what happens when we die.”

Dante fills my head and I wish Virgil could make an effort to save us. If life could imitate art, we would each have a guide, but in this life, nothing divine intervenes for us. All we have is each other.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT’S REHEARSAL goes better. We make it all the way to the brain-eaters from Canto XXXIII and Seth seems pleased. During a break, I ask him about his meeting with

“The good news is he’s single; the bad news – he’s straight.”

“That’s too bad.”

“He asked about you.”

“Did you tell him I have a leaky faucet?”

“I told him that your plumbing could use a good cleaning.”

“That’s attractive.”

“It’s a harmless crush. It could be worse. It’s not like I signed you up for an arranged marriage.”

After rehearsal, Chuck approaches me. “Hey,” he says flatly, reminding me of every boy I ever knew in high school.

“You’ve come a long way in learning your lines.”

“Seth helped. So did these.”  Chuck pulls a worn copy of Cliff’s Notes from his jeans.

“Did Seth give you those?”


“You went to the library?”

Chuck ignores this. He hooks his thumbs in his jeans and inflates his chest. “I’ve got a question for you.”

Chuck’s eyes are a perfect shade of blue, the color of the sky right before it gets dark.

“This might sound stupid, but it’s bugging me. I thought this thing was supposed to be a comedy.”

I imagine the things Chuck might say to inspire laughter. I imagine he’s the type of man who mishears song lyrics and sings awful alternatives with a straight face. I imagine he misuses big words all the time: I’m notorious for my lovemaking skills.

“How can this be a comedy if nobody’s laughing?” He seems genuinely confused.

“That’s a more contemporary definition of comedy,” I say. “The classic distinction between comedy and tragedy depends on what happens to the character at the end. In tragedy, a ‘good’ person meets with a bad ending and the audience responds with pity and fear. In a classic comedy, the audience witnesses a rise in fortune of a character they like. Things work out well for a good person. In other words, there’s a happy ending.”

“So, I have to be likeable.”

“It helps, yes.”

“I can do that.” He stares at me and the pause is awkward. I button my coat. I see Kermit hanging over the balcony, and I’m suddenly self-conscious, a young girl on her first date.

“Anything else?”

“Yeah.” Chuck cocks his head to the side. “If I practice – being likeable – do you think you’d like to get a beer with me?”

My mind moves forward. I imagine how this will end: clothes on the floor, sweaty bodies, an overwhelming sense of regret. This is destined to be a tragedy.

In the balcony, Kermit clears his throat.

“I can’t,” I tell Chuck. “I ride share with Kermit.”

“Oh.” He bounces back from his disappointment quickly. “Okay, I’ll think of something.” He winks at me and walks away backwards, keeping his eyes on me until he’s at the door.

IN THE CAR, Kermit hisses at me. “What’s wrong with you?”


“He’s gorgeous, and you need a date.”

“I’m fine on my own.”

“God knows I love you, but I think you’re missing the point. You can’t spend your days caring for a man who’s trying to catch pneumonia and a frail, old queen who’ll die when he does.”

“Please don’t.”

“That’s the reality of it.” He holds my hand. His fingers feel as frail as dried twigs. “I was the whore of Babylon. I flew by the seat of my pants – when I was wearing pants, that is.” His laugh turns to a dry cough. “Kenny had a way of making none of that matter. All of this,” he says, looking at me. “It’s been worth it.”

Kermit squeezes my hand. “You could be lonely for a lot of reasons, Goose. Fear, convenience, laziness… a bad experience with someone or something you loved.” He tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. “It’s pretty easy to be lonely, but it’s also pretty pointless.”

IT’S LATE, BUT BORIS comes upstairs when he returns from the lab. “I’ve been thinking,” he says as soon as I let him in the door. “What about the market for a cold vaccine. Does it even exist? I bet most people won’t be willing to spend money until they get infected.”

His cheeks are red from the cold weather and excitement of deep thought. “Even if a spray could be created that would keep rhinoviruses from attaching to the ICAM-1 receptors on nasal epithelial cells, would people care?”

I nod. Boris rants about Ipratroprium, Naproxen and interferon-alpha2b. When he finally settles down next to me on the couch with a glass of wine, I declare a moratorium on science.

“Let’s talk about love.”

“Kermit’s passion; I’m logic.”

“Not true. People aren’t that easy. Have you or have you not been in love?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Boris fidgets as he sits next to me.

“Of course, it matters.”

“There was a woman. Before I began work on my doctorate.”

“What was she like?”

“What does it matter? She’s not here now.”

“But she existed. She was a piece of your life.”

“Exactly. Past tense.”

“Still, you must think of her now and then.”

Boris shakes his head. “She could be a housewife in Oklahoma or a showgirl in Vegas. It makes no difference.”

“You’re not curious at all?”

Boris snorts. “You and Kermit both equate love with a fear of letting go. Maybe I did the best thing by letting her leave. The memory doesn’t remember things as they were, but more often as we wish they’d been. Once a person leaves your life, you can change things. Who’ll disagree with you? You forget things: birthmarks, crooked teeth, hot tempers, until you’re more in love with the idea of that person. I choose not to do that.”

Boris is right, but I’d never tell him so. I still remember my leading men, even though we left each other long ago.  I remember Cyrano’s drunken kisses in the costume room, the lines of Petruchio’s muscular arms, and Jack Worthing’s highbrow wit. Neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern ever gave me an orgasm, and Estragon and I mutually decided we could no longer wait for Godot. I remember how the Man from La Mancha never looked over his shoulder the last time he walked away from my apartment.

AT REHEARSAL, I sit near the back of the house. I try to take notes, but Chuck mesmerizes me. His lines are perfect. He’s animated. He’s given Dante the Pilgrim a sense of purpose. For the first time, we make it through the entire play in a single rehearsal.

Seth whispers to me as he stares at Chuck, “Is that our Chuck? This is too good to be true.”

At the end of the evening, Seth is glowing. He tells me, “I think we might pull this off.”
Once Seth dismisses the cast, Chuck jogs back and tugs on my coat to stop me from leaving. “Dante’s like a plumber, ” he says.

“Do tell. How is the author of one of the most profound poems ever written—like a plumber?”

“Dante’s got to go to hell to see people who have fallen into traps, who are making excuses.

Dante’s got to soak up all this stuff so he doesn’t make the same mistakes. Hell’s not only about wrong action. It’s also about wrong belief. Dante’s like a plumber because he has to get down in everyone else’s shit to know how he sees the world.”

Chuck is proud of himself. He smiles. “Have a beer with me?”


Chuck is still smiling. “Okay,” he says. “Dante waited forever, too. But in the end – once he gets to Paradise—he sees his girl.”

BORIS STOPS BY MY OFFICE at the Institute, so I know he’s excited. “December 8th. Mark your calendar.”

“What’s the occasion?” I ask, still trying to recover from the shock of seeing him standing next to my desk.

“The planets will line up.”


“Those things in the solar system, Goose. Monday night. I’m borrowing a telescope so we can see Pluto,” he adds over his shoulder as he disappears into the hallway.

SUNDAY MORNING, Kermit comes downstairs and hands me two tapes.

“What’s this?”

“In case,” he says and neither of us finishes his thought. “One for you, one for Seth.” He pours himself a cup of coffee and sits down. “I think it’ll fit what Seth’s doing.”

“How did you do this so quickly?”

“The script, some of Dante’s love poetry from the Vita nuova, a little bit of criticism on the collected works of Dante, and Kenny.”

“Were you talking with him?”

“Remembering him. After reading the love poems, I realized Kenny’s my Beatrice.” Kermit’s forehead wrinkles.

“Dante says that love moves from preoccupation with your own feelings, to enjoyment of the other person, to ultimate concern with the other person’s happiness. For Dante, this became concern with Beatrice’s spiritual well being because she died young. Like Kenny. Dante’s willing to go through hell to meet her again.”

Kermit looks out the window. “I was stuck in phase two, still thinking about how much I enjoy Kenny. This,” he taps the tape. “This is me in phase three. Me concerned only about Kenny.

“I met Kenny at a closing night party and we talked all night. I was scared shitless. Kenny was so smart, I thought there was no way he’d want to spend the rest of his life with a landscaper who dabbled in community theater as a way to meet men and get free drinks. But we were happy. Even now, some people may see this as a horrible way to die, but I’d do it again.”

BEFORE WE MEET FOR our television party, Kermit hatches a new plan for driving Boris crazy. At 7:30, I stop upstairs to see if Kermit wants a pizza and find him in a t-shirt, his pajama bottoms, and a tuxedo jacket with tails.

“What’s the occasion?”

Kermit leans out his door, hollers Boris’ name down the stairwell, waits for a response and then, with the grandeur of a prodigy, flips his tails and sits at the organ. The evening’s repertoire consists of songs originally about sunshine. He belts his way through standard favorites like Mucous on my Shoulder Makes Me Happy, You are the Rhinovirus of My Life, and is just about to hit the high note in You Are my Nasal Spray, my only Nasal Spray, You make me hap-PY when Boris bolts upstairs and begins bashing Kermit in the head with a red velour pillow from Kermit’s couch.

Even if Boris gets a kick out of this, he won’t admit it. Later, as I hand him money to pay the pizza delivery person, he tells me he thinks Kermit has too much free time, but I know it’s Kermit’s way of giving Boris something he thinks Boris needs.

BORIS CALLS ME AT WORK Monday afternoon to demand that I head for the train. I get home at five, and he’s on the roof, shouting for me to hurry upstairs.

“It’s only for thirty minutes. After 5:30, it’s all over for the next 100 years!”

When I reach the roof, Boris is fussing with the telescope. Kermit leans against the chimney of the building. He’s bundled tight in a thick coat with fur around the edge of the hood, fuzzy gloves, and a thick wool scarf. It’s hard to tell if anyone’s really inside the coat and snow pants until Kermit waves half-heartedly.

“It’s Boris’ coat,” Kermit says. “He didn’t want me to catch a cold. Go figure.”

Boris is pointing into the sky. “Fifteen more minutes and you’ll be able to see them the best. They’ll shine like little stars.”

Boris talks about alignment, the predictions of Nostradamus, and why he prefers astronomy to astrology. I stand next to Kermit, shivering. The wind is chilling, but the night is clear. Perfect for stargazing.

As I stare into the sky, I wonder who else is stargazing. While Boris talks about inferior and superior conjunctions, I think of our future. Singular life is not nearly as impressive as when taken in conjunction with others, like the stars which combine into a blanket of motion and light.

For the first time in weeks, Seth isn’t thinking about the play. He’ll sleep well tonight knowing that he has a chance of doing what no one believed was possible: a successful dramatization of Dante’s Inferno.

Eventually, this thing Boris loves will invite him in and reveal itself. He’ll be riding his bike to the Institute on a fresh spring morning, and the thought he’s been waiting his whole life for will be reflected to him in the glimmering light off the Charles River. Aha, he’ll think, I’ve waited a long time for you, but at last you’re here.

Kenny will have walk-on appearances as long as Kermit’s run continues. After closing night, Kenny will wait backstage, arms filled with roses. There, they will have the chance to love again without conditions.

And Chuck. Perhaps if he keeps asking, he’ll get the answer he wants.

In the last lines of the Inferno, Dante emerges from hell and notes, we came out to see once more the stars. Paradise, too, ends with the stars, and it is suggested that Dante the Pilgrim becomes part of what he sees. He does not understand, but he experiences. He journeys from bondage to freedom, and therein finds happiness. If our lives were a script, we could know how we end.

“Three minutes to show time,” Boris announces.

I feel a tug on my sleeve. As I turn to look at Kermit, I notice the wrinkles around his eyes. Until now, I’ve never noticed how old he looks, as if he is waiting not for something to begin, but rather for something to end. Kermit’s legs waver under him and he teeters, falling against me. He clutches my arm as he tries to right himself, like a man dizzy from age and exhaustion.

“Do you think Kenny’s up there?” he asks.

I take his hand and breathe. Yes.


Stephanie Johnson lives in Madison, Wisconsin. She holds a B.A. in English from Middlebury College in Vermont and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College in Boston. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in The Rambler, where she is a regular non-fiction contributor.

“Guitar” by Louis E. Bourgeois


You’ll never play the guitar again, I was told right after they took my arm, forever.  In fact, at the very moment they told me, the arm, my arm, was being taken outback to the hospital crematorium to be burned to ash as if it never existed as a part of me at all.  I asked to at least be given some of the ash but they wouldn’t let me have any of it saying it was against hospital policy and probably against state law.  Think about it, they wouldn’t even give me the ashes of my better and former self, which they took without my consent—they said they had to amputate in order to save my life, that bodily life that was left to me in fragments and I say, all right, fair enough I suppose, you had to take some of me in order to have any of me left for my parents and for society at large, but now that you have these fragmented remains of me, what on earth are you going to do with me now that I can’t play the guitar or fish and swim like I use to?  I’m alive all right, too alive, like some kind of post-post modern self, in more honest times they would have called that self a monster or at the very least a cripple, now what?  I’m more alive now than ever, then you’ll ever be able to deal with—extreme mutilation brings a person to life all right—you’ve never seen some one so greedy for life and so arrogant just to be alive at all, some weird elitism—I demand all things at once right now, but back to the guitar—we mustn’t forget our thesis here!  It was a beauty of a guitar that my rich uncle bought for me when I was 9 years old and he paid something like $1,000 dollars for it and it was on sale at that, $1,000 dollars, at that age and at my socio-economic level, I thought that was all the money in the world—finally, they let me go home, I guess they got tired of me, or, finally realized I didn’t have any money to pay them for taking my arm—I had to go home with nothing in my left sleeve and needless to say I felt a little awkward about that, a little horrified really…I was a beautiful child and now I was still beautiful but in a totally different way that would take a little getting used to you might say…there was nothing to hold my left sleeve together, no arm to feed it, you might say—Mama drove me home of course, silently, then talking about Chinese food for reasons unknown, poor Mama.  It was her fault she now had a crippled son, no, at least not completely her fault, but God’s fault too, but little did she know there’s no God only darkness, that’s what I discovered when I died 4 times and lived to tell about it, no God only Darkness, the self is nothing but darkness, dig…when we got home I immediately went to the closet to play the guitar, for I was dedicated to the guitar on moral principles alone and was literarily addicted to playing chords and notes, but quickly I realized the hospital people were right, I couldn’t play the guitar in any traditional sense.  Perhaps I could learn how to play with my feet like that armless guitarist did when he played for the Pope and brought real tears to the Pope’s eyes, but, no, I’m not that smart or talented, so it was time to accept the gruesome fact that I’d never be able to play my exquisite guitar again.  I just got drunk for a long time and left the guitar to collect dust in the closet until about a year or so later when I took the guitar out of the closet, which was still in the real leather guitar case, and walked deep into the swamp; walked further into the swamp then I’d ever had, and that’s a long way because I was raised rural my friend…in any case, I found a little hill of dry ground and opened the case and placed the guitar on top of it and poured gasoline all over it and dropped the match on the thing I loved more than anything in the world and watched it go up in red and orange flames. The warblers and sparrows in their evening bushes twittered and tweaked as if nothing was happening at all.


Louis E. Bourgeois

“A Couple of Runs” by Christopher Dungey


I was hanging out with my sister-in-law because my wife was stuck on the night shift. Usually, I entertained myself on Friday nights—a coffee house or a hockey game. But if Merrill called to whine about the heebie-jeebies, we’d figure out something to do.

It was snowing again at the end of a grey day of slush, at the end of a greyer than normal February. After I’d taken Merrill to cancel her car insurance then to apply the refund to her phone bill, we’d been arguing about where to eat.

I was ready for chili in a bread bowl at Border’s. They usually have free entertainment on Friday night. Merrill wanted the endless breadsticks or bottomless minestrone at Olive Garden. Her appetite was coming back. I had to make sure she could pay for her own meal if we went there. I reminded her that I wasn’t made out of money. So then her mind drifted to Acropolis Coney.

Merrill had been in recovery for awhile, herself, so she just rolled her eyes when I told her it was Richie O’Malley on my lame, pre-paid cell phone. He said he was holed up in his dinky house with all the doors locked. I hadn’t seen Richie but once or twice since I retired and left him behind, chasing the line at the auto plant. He came to my stepson’s wedding last October. He didn’t look like he was using again—he has a skinny build to begin with.

“Listen, man,” he whispered. “Whataya doing? Is this a bad time?”

“Richie, speak up! This phone sucks.”

“Are you in town? I need ya do me a favor.” He was still whispering. He sounded like he might begin to weep. “We don’t know what we’re doing yet. Taking Merrill around on some errands first. Her car crapped out. What can I do for ya?”

The mention that my sister-in-law was along seemed to throw him for a moment.. “You still there?” I asked.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m here. Shit, man. Merrill’s with you?” He wasn’t whispering now. He sniffled. “She can’t see me like this, man. Can’t let her see me.”

“Fine. She’ll stay in the car,” I said. “What do you need from me?”

“Dude, I’m still kinda sick and I’m outta cigarettes,” he coughed. “No way can I leave the house. I’m avoiding some people. Bring me a couple a packs a Winstons and I’ll pay ya back.”

“O.K. We’ll be right there. We’re on Bristol now.”

“Uhh, Cliff?”


“Can you get them in the box. Not the pack?”

I holstered the cell phone and whipped into the first place I saw, a 7-ll. “What’s his problem?” Merrill asked.

“We’ve gotta make a run for him,” I told her. “He’s flipping out over at his place.”

“Woah, man. I can’t be around him if he’s fucked up,” she said. But then she started brushing her hair in the visor mirror.

“Guess what. He feels the same way about you,” I said. “You’d think you people would try to help each other.” Merrill cracked the passenger-side window and lit a cigarette while I tried to park close to the entrance.

“Sometimes. Or you end up stealing from each other.” She pursed her mouth an inch from the opening to exhale. “He’s called me twice since the wedding.”

“So? At least you two have something in common.”

“I’m just not attracted. He’s a nice guy but he hypers around like a Chihuahua or something. When we danced at the reception? He was, like, shaking.”

I knew the irony of this was probably lost on bony Merrill, who was still trying to fill in the junky shadows on her own face.

Big, wet flakes splatted on the windshield when I came out of the store. I got back on Bristol Road and headed west. “You know what I think it is?” I said. “It’s the nice guy part that doesn’t appeal to you. Richie isn’t dangerous enough. And you can’t sit still five minutes either.”

“Yeah, well. When I do sit, I’m not rocking back and forth like a meth freak.”

It was almost dark for the rush hour. We waited through two long traffic lights. So many cars hauling ass, then creeping, trying to get to the banks. A line of vehicles backed out onto the street at the Credit Union by Holy Redeemer Church. Get the money on a Friday night and take the wife and kids for franchise burgers. Take them all to Wal-Mart afterward for entertainment. Cheap shoes and video games for everybody. Someone must still be working.

I turned north onto Fenton Road, headed back across the unguarded frontier into Flint. The neighborhoods deteriorated with each block. Past South Flint Plaza, it was all check-cashing- 40 ouncer stores and used tire places that had once been gas stations. The Plaza used to be one of the first shopping malls ever. Now they were down to a few nail salons, a video warehouse, and one huge showroom full of mobile home furniture. “Lincoln Street, I think,” I said.

“Don’t ask me.”

The side street was narrowed by unplowed snow and derelict cars stuck in grimy drifts.

“This area is really going down. He should have sold the place after his last divorce.”

“Welcome to my world,” Merrill said. “But guess where the money would’ve gone. He’s lucky he still has a place.”

“We’ll see.” I had been to Richie’s house only a few times. There were lots of unpainted drywall repairs and carpet remnants. I didn’t know the address and there were hundreds of one-story-frame places cloned in the fifties for auto workers with VA loans. I crept the car down the middle of the street, looking for his S10 truck with the capper, or his beat-up Cavalier. The back of his truck was always packed with camping and fishing gear. He’d always have that stuff, at least. There wasn’t much hock value in any of it. Maybe the Coleman stove or the fly casting reels.

I found the Cavalier, which I remembered was red. I could see enough red under a week’s worth of undisturbed snow. The truck was not in the drive or by the curb. Merrill had had cars stolen by friends and associates and had stolen cars in turn.

“Be right back,” I told her.

“I’m about starving, ya know.”

The front walk hadn’t been shoveled but was trampled passable. Same situation with the porch. I scuffed at the thick, icy build-up. A sizeable chunk broke loose and ricocheted off the aluminum storm-door frame. I followed that up with some hefty pounding. There was no glass in the frame. It clattered on its hinges. There were no lights on inside, that I could see.

“Richie! C’mon, man,” I called. The Good Samaritan business was going to wear thin if he didn’t meet me halfway. “Winter out here!”

I heard footsteps then, stopping short of the door. I knew he must be in the vestibule. You’d think someone with his history would have one of those peep-hole gizmos in a heavy, steel door. But this was a peely, painted wood job, delaminating at the bottom. Richie would be trying to take a peek out the drapes of his front window. Then the dead-bolt clanked back and the door opened about the width of his nose, still secured on the sort of chain you’d use for a cat leash.

“I ain’t got anything. Go the fuck away.”

“It’s me, numbnuts! Geez-us! Did you or did you not put in an order for smokes?” I tried to peer into the gloom. Richie wasn’t backlighted by so much as a stove light, candle, or even his aquarium.

“Cliff? You got a new car?”

“No. Same car. Holy shit! What’s going on in there?”

The chain slipped from its track and rattled against the door. “Well, guess,” Richie said. He turned on a tiny table lamp which sat on the floor of the vestibule. It gave off the glow of a child’s night light.

The door parted enough for me to angle in. Sure enough, the aquarium which had been his pride and joy in sobriety was shut down and devoid of life. On a pedestal in one corner, a portable TV had replaced his big flat-screen.

“Tell me you didn’t eat your fish,” I said, handing him the Winstons.

Richie stared at the tank for a moment. He ran his fingers through nearly white hair slicked back into a thin queue. “I guess I did, in a way,’ he said. “The shop gave me a sick-leave  after Christmas, but I only just got a check yesterday.” He dug in his pockets and pulled out a wad of bills. He handed me a ten. “I needa get rid of this fast, while I’ve got it.”

“Oh, that makes sense. How come you’re not in rehab, anyway?”

He scratched his neck and shoved the money deep. “No need now, pardner. This run has just about petered out. I meant I needa get out an’ pay up my bills before I get tempted.”

When Richie turned to find a lighter on the dinette table, I saw the grip of a gun in his back pocket. It was a small piece, a chick’s purse weapon, maybe a .25 automatic, but huge on his faded buttocks in the dim front room; big enough to defend a narrow doorway, I supposed; accurate enough across his warped porch. “I’ll be alright now,” he said. “If these assholes’ll quit draggin’ me back in. I gotta go back to work next week.”

“So you better pull it together,” I said. I stood in the arch between the front room and kitchen.

“I’m gettin’ there.” Richie shrugged. “I may leave the house tomorrow if no one else visits.”

“Is the bathroom still through here?”

“Straight on back. The kitchen switch is behind you. Don’t mind the mess.”

It wasn’t that bad. A fluorescent tube flickered on above the sink, both halves of which were surprisingly empty. His trash basket, however, had overflowed with Styrofoam plates.

“These are killing the planet, ya know,” I said. I pushed down on the heap as I stepped past. The hatch on the cover slapped closed as I entered the bathroom. Two bare bulbs glared above the vanity when I found the chain. I shoved the door closed with my foot.

“My sister brought those after she cashed my check,” Richie called. “She did up the dishes, too, last…It was…Christ, Tuesday? No, that was somebody’s girlfriend. I dunno anymore.”

“Sorry I brought it up, dude.” I let go a sustained trickle of all-afternoon-coffee drinking while holding the seat up with a free hand. It wobbled on loose hinge pins through the pube-grubby porcelain. I didn’t think the sister or anyone else had made it this far with the 409 and a sponge. The tub spigot leaked its own steady drizzle. Two rolled-up towels at the base of the toilet stanched the linoleum.

“It’s O.K.,” Richie said from the kitchen. “Did this to myself, right? Lucky Barb’d even come over. My brother-in-law took the truck for safe-keeping.”

I took my shakes in the harsh shadows.”Hey, Richie. Can I flush this bad boy?”

“Far’s I know.”

I didn’t wait for the slow whirlpool to choke down. I killed the light and backed into the kitchen. “You need anything else, man? Have you got any food in the place?”

“Ummm,” Richie’s scratching moved from collar bone to abdomen. He opened the refrigerator. “I had some Doritos when I got up. Around lunch? There was pizza in here. I think Barb said she boiled some eggs. I was sleeping.”

Just then, Merrill beat the door a sharp rap and stuck her head in. Richie nearly leaped out of his slack skin as he whirled. He recognized her before he could find his back pocket.

“Hey, Rich.What’s the deal, Cliff?” Her eyes popped wide, like someone had awakened her with a cattle prod. “I’m getting lightheaded out there.”

“How are you?” Richie mumbled. He eyed her quickly then turned back to the hollow appliance.

“She’s jonesing for some buffet.” I told him. “And forgetting her roots. Listen, we’re gonna go get you something, unless you can force yourself to come with.”

He reached into the refrigerator and touched the eggs in a bowl. “Awww, guys, c’mon. I’ve held you up long enough.”

“Screw that,” I said. “We’ve all been there, one way or another. And Merrill used to do-good with Catholic Outreach, if you can believe it. Grab your coat.”

“Nahhh, man. I can’t do it yet,” he said. “Word hasn’t gotten around yet, I’m dry. They’ll pull out  my wiring if I’m not here.”

Merrill slipped in and leaned back against the door, hugging herself in her hooded mackinaw. “I’m sorry, Richie. I can wait. I think I saw wild-cherry Hall’s in the glove box.”
“You stay out my glove box,” I said. “O.K., then. Arby’s, Big John Steak ‘n’ Onion? Just name it.”

Richie straightened, empty handed, and gently closed the refrigerator. He turned toward us but stared at the floor. “Anything with nutrition to it, I guess. Nothin’ that’s gonna blow right through.” He handed me a twenty.

“You got it. We’ll be right back.” I followed Merrill out the door and down the steps, surprised when Richie turned the porch light on behind us.


We drove back the way we’d come. I tried to remember where I could find the nearest KFC. Hill Road, I thought. Chicken strips in original batter, mashed potatoes, or maybe mac’n’cheese were probably harmless.

“Was that actually a gun in his pocket?” Merrill asked, two lights south on Fenton Rd.

“Nah. He was just glad to see you,” I said.

“It was in his back pocket,” she said. “Believe me, if he’s burning rock, pussy’s the last thing on his mind.”

“Well, then. He was just showing you a nice fruit basket,” I laughed.

“You jerk. Hey, pull in here!” Merrill blurted. We’d gone through the Bristol Road intersection and were nearly past the entrance of a neighborhood Kroger.

“Why?” I hit the brakes. “Their delis aren’t that great and he won’t wanta cook anything.

We don’t want him monkeying with the stove.”

“I’ll take care of it,” she said. “Once you do-good, you won’t go back. Haven’t you ever heard that one?”

The parking lot was nearly full. We ended up at the back. I handed Merrill the twenty.

“Nothing spicy. There should be spuds on the menu somewhere.”

“Relax. I can do this,” she said.

The snow was falling quicker. The wipers patted it into clumps. It whirled in the floodlights and collected on the salt-bleached asphalt. It wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on, but it wasn’t my job to talk her down. Richie didn’t have a bad bone in his body, not really. I didn’t know him like a brother, exactly, but I couldn’t see where he’d find the abuse, mental or physical, to keep Merrill amused. Any more than I could picture him pulling that trigger. Maybe it was just her sporadic Christianity talking. But then, my status as a shrink was, admittedly, amateur.

In spite of my caffeine level, I nearly dozed off to that wiper and heater duet. Merrill’s hood was tugged forward like an undersized unibomber as she perp-walked the last few feet. She kneed the door a couple of times for me to look alive and open. A bag dangled from each bare hand.

“That was only a twenty,” I said.

“He owes me five, then.” She swung the bags into the back seat. “I got round steak. I got au gratin in a box. dinner rolls and ice-cream. One of those jello parfaits. I think they’re caca, but they’re easy on the stomach.”

“That should do the job, alright, if he’ll eat. Better buckle up.”

The rush-hour jam had abated somewhat, but there were still plenty of cars forcing their way through the elements to start the blue-collar weekend. A few knuckleheads tested their antilock brakes on the veneer of slush trying to crystallize on the street. Merrill braced her hands on the dash, her eyes wide with a return of survival instincts.

“Oh, do I love the straight life,” she said. “Would you slow down?”

“It’s not me, darlin’.” I eased down to the Bristol Rd. light for what seemed the umpteenth time that day. “I gotta tell ya, though. This isn’t what I had in mind for my evening. If you’re broiling that, you’ll have to pound the crap out of it first.”

“Really?” Merrill cracked the window and started another cigarette. “Don’t you wanna wait around while I marinade the damn thing?”

“No, I don’t,” I told her. “I wanna hear some live music and listen to strangers talk on their cells. I want chili in sourdough, damn it!”

Merrill chuckled. “Caca. Those bread bowls have sat in the display case all day. Better hope one of those kids doesn’t lose a tongue stud in it.”

“Whatever,” I said. My traction broke loose in the first two gears. We were nearly back to Richie’s neighborhood before I dropped it into sixth. “So I’m coming back for ya? Is that the plan?”

She gave me a dirty look. “No way am I staying overnight. You keep your phone on, alright?”

“Sure. They close at ten, though. Let’s just say ten.”

“I’ll call,” she repeated. “Company comes, I want out of there.”

A salt truck roared south like a one-lane avalanche. I waited for it to clear then turned onto Richie’s street. Merrill relaxed enough to flip down the make-up mirror in her visor. She went to work with a tube of gloss as I tiptoed, again, down the constricted street. Now there were adolescents and preenys with shovels and snowballs to be watchful of. I suppose that wasn’t the worst thing, to be out getting some fresh air, unless they were too
poverty stricken for X-Boxes. Nah, I thought. They’d have to be homeless first.

“O.K., here we are,’ I said. I inched into Richie’s short driveway. There were no other vehicles at the curb on either side. “Looks like the coast is clear. I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“You heard him say he was done,” Merrill said. “And he claims he isn’t holding.” She hoisted the groceries out of the back seat. “That’s usually true when a run is over with…for awhile. Besides, I’m good.”

“Baby, you are do-good.” I laughed.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said. She pushed the door closed with a slushy sneaker.

I backed out and plugged my cell-phone into the lighter to make sure it was charged. For just a heartbeat, I considered that it might be kinda crazy to drive to the other side of town now. It could take twenty minutes in this slop and then the chili would be gone. But I kept going. It was too late to do anything but let nature take its course. Let poor Richie stutter his gratitude. Merrill’s relentless sort of 12-step empathy was probably enough to make any sentient person shiver like a Chihuahua—no matter what those motivations, buried in the scar tissue, might truly be.


Christopher Dungey has published his work in Zone 3, Asphodel,
Pinyon, Timber Creek Review
and is forthcoming in Rockhurst Review.