“Hungry” by Jessica Handler

ladles and cherry tree
Image by Dawn Estrin

There are sleepwalkers who tread the dark rooms of their homes, speaking the dialogue of their dreams, moving through two worlds at once.

My father was one. His heavy footfalls in the hallway woke me before dawn. Eyes closed, I waited for the suction pop and creak of the refrigerator door, the signal that he’d reached his destination. While I drifted back to sleep, Dad ate in his sleep, mining yogurt cups and scooping out curls of sour, slippery white foam. He ate handfuls of sliced hard salami from the meat drawer, a cluster of celery from the hydrator. Dreaming, he drank orange juice, Hi-C, and iced tea from their containers, leaving sticky crayon-colored splashes on the linoleum.

In the morning, I scowled into my yogurt cup. A furrow had been dug across the top, my breakfast violated. I was thirteen. Nothing was ever right.

“How can you eat that stuff?” Dad complained. “It has no flavor.”

“You’re supposed to stick your spoon down into it,” I told him. Somnambulist, he didn’t see the promise of apricot or strawberry.

Only once in his sleep-eating years did my father not return to bed. He lay down instead on the cold floor in front of the open refrigerator. In the morning, Mom almost tripped over him there, curled on his side in the dark, surrounded by carrot tops and Roman Meal bread bags. She poked him with her toe. She was disappointed when he roused.

“I thought he’d had a heart attack,” she told me when I was grown.

I WROTE MY FATHER’S EULOGY on an airplane, my notepad on the tray table. The words came easily, although I’d never written a eulogy, had never imagined writing one. Even though my father had been actively dying for several years, this concluding task had suddenly, surprisingly, fallen to me.

In the years I was small, my father wanted out, to eat a hole to the door, to dig to China with a spoon. When I was nineteen, he got his chance. A job overseas, and a year later, a move to Los Angeles. My mother divorced him. He landed in rural Massachusetts, where he settled into a new life, on a country road with an old car and a new wife. My father lost half a dozen jobs and his first marriage during my teens and twenties. He lost his two youngest children to cancer. He lost me to a truculence that equally matched his.

HIS EULOGY BEGAN LIKE THIS. Good afternoon. Some of you know me; I’m Jack’s daughter, Jessica. The fact that we are today only a few weeks from Father’s Day does not escape me. I rarely sent my father cards on Father’s Day – we had a ‘hit or miss’ relationship for much of our lives.

“I want to hold your gla-a-a-a-ands,” Dad sang along with the Beatles’ first album. That they wanted to hold my hand was clear, but my father, a rock-and-roll fan, seemed to think that they wanted to hold something else, something less sunny and cheerful that I, a first-grader, couldn’t put my finger on.

In fourth grade, I fell for his other favorite joke.

“I’m going to Panama City to speak at a conference about hemorrhoids,” Dad said over dinner. “Want to come along?”

Eager to be his companion, I said yes, not questioning why a lawyer would give a speech about medicine.

“That’s great,” Dad said, “because I will need to show those guys an example of one perfect asshole.”

My mother said, “For Christ’s sake, Jack.” She leaned over to my sister Sarah and helped her cut her food. Sarah was four. Our sister Susie, who would have been nine, had been dead a year.

Eager to perform, seeking the spotlight like a moth seeks flame, Dad heard only his joke, not my silence.

MY FATHER’S LUNG CANCER had been eating at him longer than he knew. It’s likely he suspected cancer growing in him, and kept his eyes closed. Maybe he thought he was willing to die. Dad liked jokes, but he loved drama.

For more than a year, specks the color of dried chili flakes had dotted the corners of his mouth. Red-streaked handkerchiefs dried in the pockets of his khakis. He had been a four-pack-a-day smoker since his teens. Lori, his second wife, saw the omens, heard his lungs groan like a harmonium. Maybe she kept her mouth closed, making cup after cup of chamomile tea for him, making soup, and fudge cookies. Or she urged him to go to the doctor, insisting for months until he made the appointment. He left the house cursing, I’m certain, gunning the engine of his battered black Oldsmobile. I imagine that sparks skittered from the slack tail pipe as he backed over the curb.

My father lived for two years after he learned he would die.

“People die,” my mother said, when I phoned to tell her he had inoperable cancer. She hadn’t known he was sick, and I knew she wouldn’t care. They hadn’t spoken for a decade, and then only terse exchanges at my wedding, an event for which she broke her long silence toward him to write him, call him, cajole him to come and celebrate. “This is not,” she reminded him, “about you.”

In the months before he died, I dug through boxes of family memorabilia looking for items that would entertain him. Among the detritus of other lost parts of life, I found my little lock and key child’s diary.

STANDING SOLO AT THE PODIUM, I watch my father’s friends. Row after row of metal folding chairs, each cradling a respectful, sorrowful, aging adult. I don’t know most of them. A few small children cling to parents or run to play on the lawn. Early summer in Massachusetts smells green, like fresh cut grass and cool breeze. Something hot and oily bullies through: the hint of a cookout down the street. Here, beside my father’s house in the shadow of October Mountain, the words I pieced together on the plane flow easily.

Giving speeches was my father’s skill before it was mine. When I was nine, he expected me to hold up my half of conversations that were part parry, part dazzle, and all lush, labyrinthine language. Dad introduced me to people well known in the news. I curtsied to the widow of a martyred Civil Rights leader, unsure how to greet her. Black netting hung from her hat. The fact that I could not see her face made me want to look away.

A gaping hole spreads between there and here, this stage from which I have been asked to explain my father, to love my father publicly.

MY FATHER DIED AT HOME, in the minutes when Lori left his side for what she thought would be an insignificant errand. The living room, with its rented hospital bed and oxygen tank, had become his dying room. Lori went to press the repeat button on the CD player, which my father called the hi-fi. Jessye Norman singing Amazing Grace lifted my father into the next world.

That autumn, Dad had announced that he wanted to be cremated. So much more efficient than a plain pine coffin, he said.

“Dad, we’re Jewish,” I said. “Can you even do that?”

We were not even slightly observant Jews. Every Passover, my father intoned “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat,” before passing loaded dinner plates to my mother, my sisters, and me.

The funeral home carried my father’s body out of his front door in the dead of winter.

Days later, they delivered his body to the cemetery in a brown cardboard box. Lori and I trailed behind in my father’s car. We made small talk—good thing the snow was gone, because she had never gotten around to having chains put on the tires. Glad that Dad had a chance to see this friend or that before, well, you know. She parked at the cemetery and got out. She sat on the hood. I felt crazy-brave, the kind where you’ll do almost anything because for that moment, all the rules are suspended. We were in the country, not far from where my father and I had once pulled over to watch a red fox lope across a field.

Look and see, I told myself.

I peered into the tinted window of the van.

Human Remains, the box read, stamped in black type. This End Up.

My father had been six foot one: the box was narrow and long.

Cardboard boxes that ride a conveyor belt into a fire resemble the cardboard boxes used for shipping refrigerators.

In my diary were breathless comments like ‘Dad chased me with a water gun!’ In these notes is a Dad I had forgotten, who made up bedtime stories, taught me poems, and watched the Beatles at Shea with me on television when I was six.

While I speak, I remember not cardboard, but wood. I had gotten a splinter during one of my visits to my dying father. Seeing me gnaw at my fingertip, Dad asked what was wrong. “Splinter,” I told him, picking at the spot. “Let me try,” he said. My father’s hands shook, from medication or anxiety I didn’t know. I doubted his ability to extract the wood fragment, but I held out my hand. I couldn’t remember the last time my father had held my hand, and the pain in that thought made me look away. I stared at a potted plant while Dad dug at my finger with a tweezers, delivering a thin, dark shred of foreign matter. A spot of blood rose from the tiny hole in my skin.

LORI CALLED Dad’s memorial service a “planting party.” She planted a weeping cherry tree outside her dining room window, and left an open furrow around the roots to receive my father’s ashes. Dad had been delivered back to her in a clear plastic bag, the kind that might have held half a dozen oranges at the Price Chopper market. Lori put the bag away, and waited until spring for the ground to thaw.

On the morning of the planting party, I slipped into the hallway outside the living room. The rented bed was long gone, but the shelves still sagged under my father’s books and music. Lori had put his ashes inside a clay tureen.

I lifted the tureen’s lid.It formed a shape like a gaping mouth.

The voice of Señor Wences and his hand-shaped puppet Pedro emerged from the memory of the black and white television screen of my youth. The tureen’s interior was dark and smooth, the plastic bag stuffed inside, along with, inexplicably, a partially used box of Chanukah candles.

“T’saright?” I thought.

“T’saright,” I heard my father agree.

I unrolled the black twist-tie and pressed the pads of my fingers against the basest form of my father, powder gray as cigarette ash. I bent my fingertips against what had been his bones. They felt gritty, studded with hard, star-shaped flecks. My father’s bones looked like the calcified shards I had picked out of sand dollars at Panama City Beach in the fourth grade.

With fragments of my father under my fingernails, I said the Sh’ma for him, the most basic prayer in Judaism, the only one I knew by heart.

Sh’ma Israel, Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai Echad.

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is one.”

My father believed that all Jews know the sh’ma, even those who were never formally taught the prayer.

There is a concept in Judaism called l’dor v’dor, meaning “from one generation to the next.” I am not religious. When I spoke the word “one,” my fingers rubbing something like sand, what I thought of was my father, my sisters, my mother, and myself.

WOMEN WEARING EMBROIDERED BLOUSES carried pots of flowers to the planting party, setting them on picnic tables before taking seats under the tent. They brought chili, lasagna, homemade three-bean salad. Men with hair like squirrel tails brought poetry and cookies. After the planting, we would eat and make toasts to my father. We would sing “We Shall Overcome” and “When I’m Sixty-Four.” A videotape of Dad’s last birthday before he got sick would roll along in the VCR.

Lori emerged from the kitchen, cradling the tureen. My father’s black dog ran behind her. The screen door banged. Lori drifted barefoot across the lawn. Arriving at the tree, she ladled a scoop of ashes over the upturned earth.

The tureen and ladle made their way around the circle of Dad’s friends. A warm breeze puffed the hem of my dress. A bird flew over. A motorcycle thrummed past on the road. When my turn came, I did what the others had done; dipped the ladle into the gritty ash and upended the contents over the roots. I was embarrassed. This felt like a made-up ceremony from summer camp, not a real funeral.

What I left out of Dad’s eulogy were the three funerals in my life before his. The first was my sister Susie’s, she eight to my ten, on a brittle cold day after her blindingly fast spin with cancer. The second, less shocking only because he was not a child, was the funeral of our father’s father. It was my hand that sprinkled the dirt over his casket. Dad was away, couldn’t be reached, did not come. My father’s ritual task fell to me. And the last funeral, my youngest sister Sarah, dead after twenty-seven years with an unconquerable illness, the lights from the medical examiner’s car and the ambulance spilling into her driveway.

This was our story, the father made empty.

WHEN THE LADLE TRAVELED full circle, we returned to the house to eat. Dad’s friends chuckled at the videotape, filled plates with food, and piled beer bottles on top of the TV set. They were comfortable in this house I couldn’t look at closely, where the ceilings were spotted tobacco-brown from leaking pipes, and chairs were piled deep with unopened mail and unwashed clothes.

In the kitchen, I took a beer from the picnic cooler. The kitchen was empty – just the drip of the faucet, the clunk and whine of the greasy yellow refrigerator, and a long view of the empty road outside.

I wanted that silence, and I wanted something to eat. I picked a wedge of tomato from a puddle of salad oil in the bottom of a wooden bowl. A heel of homemade bread sopped up the oil. I lifted the ladle from a pot of chili.

I knew what I saw. I wanted to look away.

The ladle was familiar, the kind of memory you feel in your muscles before your mind can identify why. This ladle had dispensed my father’s ashes into the earth.

I held it toward the daylight coming from the window. Chili streaked the spoon and the handle. A gray, grainy crust outlined the sauce along the dull metal shoulders of the spoon. The ladle that had served my father’s ashes to the earth had served the chili.

The things my father believed in life—justice, human rights, marvelous language—he gave to me. And the last earthly sign of my father I have is a streak of his ashes on a serving spoon. I remember my mother’s mornings, wondering if she would have to sweep him up from our kitchen floor. You are not, I thought, going to believe what I’m left to clean up now.

A BURST OF LAUGHTER flared from the other room. The phone rang somewhere in the house. I was alone in the kitchen with remnants of my father—he and I, and our horrible secret. I considered throwing the spoon on the counter and running out to my rental car, hitting the door-lock button and rolling up the windows: damsel in a horror movie. Then I imagined holding the spoon close and pressing it to my chest in a belated embrace for my father.

I watched the spoon as if it were an oracle. Do I wash it and return the ladle, clean and dry, to the drawer? Should I stuff it into the trashcan by the back door? That seemed wrong: I would be throwing my father in the garbage. Should I stick the ladle back in the bowl, return to the party, and avert my eyes from every plate? My father has returned from the dead stuck to a spoon.

Dad would laugh. I heard him in my memory, loud and jittery. He would relish the idea that his friends were at that moment pressing specks of him against their palates, assuming, perhaps, that the grit they felt in their mouths was merely roadside gravel, blown into their chili by the wind.

Sounds from the party grew louder; the chipmunk squeaks of the videotape rewinding, the swell and fall of conversation, some Bob Dylan or the Beatles from the hi-fi. These were the sounds of the parties my parents gave when I was a child, when I hung back from the crowd and picked black olives from the hors d’oeuvres tray. The pitted olives fit neatly on my fingertips. My habit was to take one for each finger. Nibbling ten olives, I watched and hungered to be an adult.

What do children believe adults can see that they cannot? Can adults see where the edge lies, the horizon starts, where the answers are found? What fills the holes in their hearts? Children believe that adults know what happens next.  Adults know that they can’t.

I am here to respect my father. Go ahead and look.

I set the ladle in the sink beside coffee cups and a wine cork. The grit of my father circled in eddies of water, finally settling in the dark.

 

 

Jessica Handler’s first book, Invisible Sisters: A Memoir (Public Affairs, 2009) is one of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Eight Great Southern Books in 2009” and Atlanta Magazine’s “Best Memoir of 2009,” as well as one of the “Twenty Five Books All Georgians Should Read” for 2010. Her nonfiction has appeared in Tin House, Brevity, More Magazine, Southern Arts Journal, and Ars Medica, and is forthcoming in New South and Defunct Magazine. She received the 2009 Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop, and a special mention for a 2008 Pushcart Prize. Handler teaches creative writing in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Lamb” by Isobel Dixon

deathbed ram
Image by Dawn Estrin

We left him sleeping peaceful in the night
but they have tied him down, bony wrists
wrapped in a sheepskin cuff, lashed tightly to the rail.

He was fierce after we left, they say:
shouting, tearing at the drip. Hard to believe it
of this gentle man, but this morning,

unbound for the time we’re there, he cavils,
clawing at the needle in his arm, moaning
and stubborn, baring his teeth at us

when we refuse. I stroke his fettered hand,
his paper forehead, murmur comfort,
courage, anything. He shakes me off, tossing

his head, red-eyed, an angry ram. Ha!
I must remember who I am: his child,
just a child, why do I question him?

So I hold my tongue, but stay. Lift up the cup,
with its candy-striped concertina straw,
to his splintered lip and he, in resignation, sucks.

Yes, we make a meagre congregation, father,
disobedient. The flesh, indeed, is weak.
Still, remembered echoes of his sermons come:

a promised child, the tangled ram, the sheep-clothed son;
last-minute rescues, legacies, and lies.
The promised and the chosen, certain hopes.

How, from these stories are we to be wise?
His word was clear and sure before, but now
his raging, rambling, shakes this listener’s heart.

And yet, to be here, of some small use,
is a kind of peace. Three spoons of food,
oil for his hands, his feet. Then at last,
at last, returning to gentleness, he sleeps.

 

 

Isobel Dixon grew up in South Africa, where her prize-winning debut Weather Eye was published. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Financial Times, The Guardian, The Manhattan Review, Southwest Review, Magma, Succour and Wasafiri, among others. She has been commissioned to write poems for the British Film Institute, and her work is included in several anthologies, including Penguin’s Poems for Love and The Forward Book of Poetry 2009. Her latest collection A Fold in the Map is published by Salt. Her next collection, The Tempest Prognosticator, comes out from Salt next year. www.isobeldixon.com Lamb taken from A Fold in the Map, ©2007, (UK: Salt; SA: Jacana), Reprinted with permission.

 

“And” by Isobel Dixon

deathbed ram
Image by Dawn Estrin

And I was thinking in the breaking dawn,
my fingers on my father’s precious skin:
so this is what a death is like.

And not just any death, I see that now: the good death
of a good man. How it takes a lifetime
to prepare for such a death.
And a lifetime after for the rest of us, recovering.
Trying not to botch what’s left us of our own.

 

 

Isobel Dixon grew up in South Africa, where her prize-winning debut Weather Eye was published. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Financial Times, The Guardian, The Manhattan Review, Southwest Review, Magma, Succour and Wasafiri, among others. She has been commissioned to write poems for the British Film Institute, and her work is included in several anthologies, including Penguin’s Poems for Love and The Forward Book of Poetry 2009. Her latest collection A Fold in the Map is published by Salt. Her next collection, The Tempest Prognosticator, comes out from Salt next year. www.isobeldixon.com And is taken from A Fold in the Map, ©2007, (UK: Salt; SA: Jacana), Reprinted with permission.

 

“That Year” by Susan Laughter Meyers

Yellow Flowers
Image by Dawn Estrin

for my mother

When the black-eyed susans begin to bloom
in the backyard, and the moonbeam coreopsis
bursts into tiny stars, I think of the year

I banished yellow from my life. It was the year
I dug up the lantana, when I didn’t plant
narcissus and all the buttery bulbs

but chose white, and a little blue, for the garden
without knowing that I was readying
for two long years of her dying. The next spring

I painted our kitchen, once a lemony gloss, ecru.
I threw out from my closet all the blouses
hinting, from their hangers, of glad canaries.

Beginning that fall I dressed in a dull haze
of beige, toning myself down for the end.
I ignored the incandescence of morning, the amber

of dusk, and leaned to clouds billowed in black.
The week in November she died I loaded the trunk
of my car with flats of pansies, three sacks of bulbs.

I wanted my hands working the dirt, a dark loam
that would spring into jonquils, daffodils—bright
coronas of yellow, and yellow, and yellow.

 

 

Susan Laughter Meyers is the author of the full collection Keep and Give Away and the chapbook Lessons in Leaving. Her poetry has also appeared in The Southern Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Subtropics, and numerous other journals and anthologies. A long-time writing instructor, she lives with her husband in rural Givhans, SC. That Year first appeared in The Southern Review, was reprinted in Keep and Give Away, ©2006, University of South Carolina Press, and is reproduced by r.kv.r.y. with permission.

“Like Father” by Jericho Brown

Like Father
Image by Dawn Estrin

My father’s embrace is tighter
Now that he knows
He is not the only man in my life.
He whispers, Remember when, and, I love you,
As he holds my hand hungry
For a discussion of Bible scriptures
Over breakfast. He pours cups of coffee
I can’t stop
Spilling.

My father’s embrace is firm and warm
Now that he knows. He begs forgiveness
For anything he may have done to make me
Turn to abomination
As he watches my eggs, scrambled
Soft. Yolk runs all over the plate.
A rubber band binds the morning paper.

My father’s embrace tightens. Grits
Stiffen. I hug back
Like a little boy, gripping
To prove his handshake.
Daddy squeezes me close,
But I cannot feel his heartbeat
And he cannot hear mine—
There is too much flesh between us,
Two men in love.

 

 

Jericho Brown worked as the speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans before receiving his PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. He also holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans and a BA from Dillard University. The recipient of the Whiting Writers Award, the Bunting Fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, and two travel fellowships to the Krakow Poetry Seminar in Poland, Brown teaches creative writing as an Assistant Professor of English at the University of San Diego.  His poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, jubilat, New England Review, Oxford American, and several other journals and anthologies.  His first book, PLEASE (New Issues), won the 2009 American Book Award. Like Father is taken from Please by Jericho Brown (New Issues 2008) Copyright © 2008 by Jericho Brown. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the author.

“Macaroni and Cheese” by Lu Livingston

mac and cheese
Image by Dawn Estrin

Macaroni and cheese. She wanted the solace of her grandmother’s macaroni and cheese and rummaged through cookbooks until she found the three-by-five From the Kitchen of Katherine Blair card with the recipe.

While the water came to a boil, she trimmed mold off one corner of a block of sharp cheddar and sliced it into strips. Small elbows, slightly cooked. I’m sorry, Mama.

Her mother stood at the stove, making macaroni and cheese. It’s nothing, Sweetie, it’s only macaroni. We’ll make some more, but not cook it quite so long.

Not the macaroni, Mama, I’m sorry I disappointed you.

She’d like some wine, but her mother was there by her elbow, assembling the ingredients on the counter: saltines, butter, salt and pepper, milk. Now, grease the baking dish. That’s the way.

She wondered how it would taste if she substituted Ritz for saltines, if she added some garlic, suspected this was why hers never turned out well. For one who’d had most of the advantages, Elaine hadn’t turned out very well, either, and knew she hadn’t lived up to her parents’ expectations. Their expectations were those of the insular campus of a small state college where she’d grown up. She wasn’t published. She didn’t hold a chair. She’d ended up in health care by default, not design. Not like her sister, Mary Beth, who led a charmed life because she followed The Plan: finish school, land a teaching position, get married, buy a house, then think about children, but by then Mary Beth was thirty-seven.

Where did waitressing at Denney’s or packing dispensers at the Dixie Cup factory fit into the plan?  At thirty-seven, Elaine still hadn’t finished her degree. At thirty-seven she’d been weaning herself from Stelazine and working her own plan for leaving John, and Susannah had been gone for three years. All the while, her sister had been secure in their parents’ world where everyone knew the rules, where their mother had known the idiosyncrasies of Mary Beth’s washing machine, had known that in her sister’s house the coffee mugs were on the second shelf, corner cabinet.

Where do you keep the colander?

Elaine couldn’t remember where she’d put it, looked in the cabinet, found it in the drawer under the oven.

Now drain the macaroni and put a layer in the bottom of the dish.

She did and felt better in the repetition of this act of communion.

Now, a layer of cheese, a layer of crushed crackers. Dot with butter. That’s the way. Salt and pepper.

Is this the secret, Mama, these layers? Or the cheese, perhaps, and though she wondered how Monterey Jack would taste, Elaine followed her mother’s instructions. This time she followed her mother’s instructions to the letter, except for the lying. Mary Beth had no reason to lie, her life spread before their mother, a life as honest as a line-dried sheet on a double bed.

I couldn’t tell you what it was like. You wouldn’t have understood. I always tried to call you, timing my calls when John wasn’t home. The time you called and I told you I couldn’t talk because I was expecting twelve for dinner, that was a lie. There was never a dinner party. John was drunk. I was afraid you’d hear him in the background. Is the secret the cheese?

There’s no secret to it, Sweetie. You just follow the instructions.

In her heart Elaine knew Susannah’s leaving was her fault, that she had never been the mother her mother had been, hadn’t taught her how a lady removes her gloves, how to pour coffee and serve dessert, how to play bridge. She knew it was her fault as surely as she knew she could’ve left John the first week they were married, the night he cornered her on the couch and made her tell him everything she’d done with every man she’d ever been with, and then hurled a coffee mug against the wall. She could have packed her red American Tourister and taken a Greyhound back to Bronxville. She could have told the dean she’d made a foolish mistake and begged to make up the work, and the dean would have understood and said yes, and all would have been forgiven. She could have walked past Freddy the gardener, past the endowed tulip beds, and up the steps to her corner room in Gilbert.

The second layer’s the same as the first, but you add milk before the crackers so they don’t get soggy, and put the butter on top so it melts down on everything and makes it good and buttery.

How for years her mother had been distracted by Mary Beth’s job and Mary Beth’s new house and hadn’t noticed that Susannah was never there to talk on the phone, such a social butterfly, they’d say; ball games, and play practice, and has Mary Beth chosen drapes yet? Wallpaper for the guest bedroom? Have they thought about a baby?

Then you bake it at 350 for twenty-five minutes.

Fresh from the oven the macaroni was bubbly hot, its top gilded with cracker crumbs, and Elaine sank a spoon deep into the dish and watched the cheese trail as she lifted it to her mouth. It tasted just like she remembered, like three generations of love, and tears filled her eyes from the pepper and the heat, the roof of her mouth blistered.. Mine never tastes like this, she said.

Her mother smiled, tossed a dish towel across her shoulder. That’s because you don’t follow Grandmother’s recipe. You’ve always improvised. She combed Elaine’s hair out of her eyes with her fingers. That’s one of the things I love most about you.

Elaine tucked the card back into the Junior League of Little Rock cookbook, remembered how she’d finally broken down and confessed her whole ugly life and begged for forgiveness and for money to get out while she could, remembered that her mother had asked how much she needed, sent a check for twice that amount and included in the envelope this card: a From the Kitchen of– card with the recipe for Grandmother’s Macaroni and Cheese.

 

 

Lu Livingston teaches English at University of Arkansas-Fort Smith and is a life-long student. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University, Charlotte, NC, and is pursuing advanced studies in Scottish literature at Orkney College, UK. Her current pursuit is to transmute her novel about a southern U. S. biker club into Gaelic bardic metre–an eerily natural fit.

Read our interview with Lu here.

“Breathing” by Joan Hanna

breathing
Image by Dawn Estrin

Breathing can be severely compromised if your soon to be ex-husband’s knee happens to be in the middle of your chest, pinning you to the couch, as he wraps his fingers around your throat and squeezes.

It’s funny the things that run through your mind. You think about the already packed bags and boxes ready for their escape at the front door. You think about the empty apartment waiting for you. You imagine the rooms and how safe you will be there: alone. You wonder what the police will say because you are wearing these old lady pajamas with lace on the edges of the sleeves and pant bottoms. You wonder if your daughter will see you and be embarrassed that you are wearing the ugliest pajamas in the world when your body is found and she will have to live with that image burned into her brain for the rest of her life.

The snowy affect that signals you are about to lose consciousness flickers in the corners of your eyes followed by a swishing sound drumming in your ears. You realize this is your heartbeat as you gasp to get oxygen into your blood stream. You think your life is going to flash before your eyes like a sleek and dark thirties noir montage. But that doesn’t happen. Out of the din two very clear, decisive thoughts will rise to the surface as you feel your eyelids begin to close. The first is that you realize you are going to die. Which is rapidly followed by a voice somewhere deep within you that says, “You ain’t going out like this, not at the hand of this little motherfucker.”

You don’t know this now, but for years, you will wake up in the middle of this nightmare, and hold your breath, unconsciously. Your throat will close and you will not be able to breathe. You will have to think about letting out the air you are holding in your lungs. You will try to expel this memory when you exhale. Then you will try to flush it with a deep cleansing breath. But this memory will persist as if it has been encoded within the syntax of your DNA. It is always with you; in your breath; in your lungs, clenching at your throat like these fingers that grip you now. You will always wonder if this memory is real and when you touch your throat, you will expect those finger depressions to always be there. You wonder if the purple finger shaped bruises will rise to the surface again and again, changing from red, to purple, to green, to yellow.

When you get out of bed from the nightmare those marks will not be there. You are no longer in that time or place. Your breathing softens; comes easier. Your chest unclenches. Your knees stop wobbling. Sweat dries up. Your hands stop shaking as you splash water onto your face, chest, and wrists. You will tell yourself “It’s okay. You are safe now. You can breathe.”

You also don’t know that it will take seventeen years before you will be able to get close enough to anyone to remarry. That this future husband will never think to wrap his hand around your throat, or pin you down with his knee. His hand will gently hold yours, caresses your face; hold you close while you sleep. His knee will fold into the back of yours in a spoon that holds you tenderly and for the first time you will feel safe. And although you do feel safe, you wonder if he senses your urge to run when a sudden movement spikes your flight reactions. Does he see you break into a cold sweat when you realize you are standing in a hallway and he has moved his hand in a harmless gesture that you catch in your peripheral vision? At these times, you will be caught in the grip of memory from this moment. You will have to remind yourself, constantly, that his hand, his knee is not the other. You are safe, here. You can breathe. And then, you will quickly run out of the hallway, just in case.

But right now behind this knee, this hand, this theft of your breath is the person who promised to love and never hurt you. Promised he would never hit you.

“I would never hurt you like that, ever.” He says, ironically, after the first slap to the back of your head. The second is your fault, he tells you, because you get him so mad. The first push is in a supermarket because you don’t agree on the brand of peas to buy. Your six-month pregnant belly bouncing in front of you as cans fall from the rack he shoves you into in the local PathMark. You assure the janitor rushing to your aide that you are fine. You must have tripped. You keep losing your balance because you are so big and pregnant. You giggle and hold your breath, afraid that the janitor will call the police, which will only make it worse when you get home.

“Mind your own business.”  He says to the janitor.  “Stop talking to my wife.”  And the janitor exits into the shadows of the back room through the strips of thick-clouded plastic hanging in the doorway that clap together in a dull, distant noise.

All of these followed by the delivery of flowers, flourishes of he’s so sorry, please don’t leave, and promises that it will never happen again: until it does. Next, it will be a hand wrapped around your throat, shoving your neck against the wall. He will catch you in the hallway, halfway between your bedroom and the living room. His lips against your face telling you how easy it would be to just squeeze all the breath out of you; and that maybe, then, you will shut up. You will feel the veins and arteries pumping against the pressure. Feel the power of his palm against your throat. When you swallow, the muscles will contract as they push their way through the constriction as if you are swallowing a baseball. You will gasp at air, unable to breathe.

You will notice your two-year-old, sitting up in her bed, watching. Your eyes will meet for a second. But you will look away from her. When you look back, she is lying down, with her back to you. How can you let her see this? How can you let her think that this is acceptable behavior? One night, looking into her eyes, you think maybe it’s time to go. You realize if she sees this, she will grow up thinking it’s okay. You will make the decision to leave because of her, not because of you. You are stubborn and have become used to living your life without breathing.

So, this is what you have come to: the knee that once bent to the ground in adoration with a marriage proposal now pins you down. This same hand that slipped on the wedding ring vowing to love and honor, wraps itself around your throat constricting airways and speech. These hands and knees are now enemies stealing your breath and threatening your life; this is the worst theft of them all.

So, you lie here and think that this is the end. You are going to die, at his hand.

In this place, there is no breath. This marriage has led to this deathbed.

So, this is where your life must begin again.

You tell yourself don’t give in now.

Take in a deep breath and push—him—off.

You ain’t going out like this: not at the hand of this little motherfucker.

 

 

Joan Hanna was born and raised in Philadelphia. She has a BA in Writing Arts with a concentration in creative writing from Rowan University and is currently attending Ashland University’s MFA program in Creative Writing for poetry and creative non-fiction. She recently had the poems “Dragonflies” and “Ghosts” published in Common Threads. Joan is a reader for River Teeth and writes reviews for Author Exposure, Poets Quarterly and Examiner.com.

 

“Tears of Christ” by Myra Sherman

hand, necklace, lightning
Image by Dawn Estrin

I didn’t get treatment until I hit menopause. That was thirty years ago.

I’ve had all kinds of medication, gone from monthly psychiatrist appointments to weekly therapy sessions, to daily groups at the Acute Outpatient Program, AOP they call it, for patients who are too depressed for the regular clinic but don’t need to be hospitalized.

My therapist is a nice man but today he seems tired. I’m tired too. Sick of being sick, yakking about the same problems day after day. I’m sitting by Dr. Peter’s desk, pretending I don’t see him swallowing yawns, close enough to get a whiff of his aftershave. The citrus smell reminds me of spiced lemonade, which reminds me of my mother, which starts me crying. My mother died when I was eight. Almost eighty years and here I am, bawling like a baby.

“I feel so hopeless,” I say.

“It will get better.” Dr. Peters hands me a tissue box, the extra soft kind with lotion.

I blow my nose and wipe my eyes, sigh. “Not now.”

“Betty, you can’t give up. This is temporary.”

But when I stand and maneuver into the walker, we both know it isn’t.

“Maybe I should see the psychiatrist again,” I say, reaching for straws. “I don’t think the Cymbalta’s working.”

“Dr. Reed just changed your medication.”

“I’m dizzy from it.”

Dr. Peters rubs his forehead. When he holds the door his blue shirt shows dark sweat rings under the arms.

My attendant is waiting in the hall to drive me home. “Good visit?” she asks.

 

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN INDEPENDENT. Until three months ago I was gardening, making cannoli for St. Basil’s, cooking for my friend Martin. I never let the depression slow me down or interfere, just soldiered on. But that accident on New Year’s did me in.

I was just back from dinner at my nephew Frank’s and even with his wife Ann so sick from chemo it was very nice. “To the New Year,” we’d toasted. “May we all be well,” Frank added, looking sad. I prayed for Ann as I drove home, grateful it wasn’t me. Female cancer’s the worst. My sister Helen had it too, awful, how she suffered.

If I hadn’t decided to take the garbage out…one minute celebrating, the next crumbled helpless on the ground. I wasn’t tipsy, though that’s the first thing Frank asked. “The wine at dinner, Auntie, your drinking, I worry.” It wasn’t an alcohol kind of thing. I’m not supposed to drink with my medicine, but I’m Sicilian. I like my wine, all my life, no harm done.

I want to blame my slippers, or the step where the wood pulled out, but don’t know. I was balancing the garbage in one hand and my keys in the other, halfway down the stairs, when I walked into nothing and landed on my left foot.

I couldn’t sit up never mind stand, sprawled on the cement in front of my house surrounded by garbage, in my plaid flannel robe. The pain was unbearable, like daggers up my leg. My ankle was swelling, turning reddish-purple.  I was desperate for someone to help me.

I shivered on the ground forty minutes before my neighbor found me. “Ms. Lombardo, you gotta be more careful,” she said. “At your age…”

Mrs. Cole is black, like most of the neighborhood now. She bought the house next door, where the Lenzis lived, ten years ago.

“Don’t worry, we’ll just get you right to the hospital,” she said, calling to her teenage son to help get me in the car. I collapsed in the back of her Toyota, moaning with pain.

I was in the emergency room three hours. The doctor said I was lucky. I could’ve broken my hip instead of my ankle.

“And how are we this lovely May morning?” my attendant, Victoria, asks when she arrives. She’s wearing a yellow cotton dress that shows off her bosom. She has strapping arms and smooth, dark skin.

I nod and stare at the television.

“Going to your program?” Victoria’s South African. She wears large hoop earrings and long fake braids.

I haven’t been to AOP in two weeks, not since my psychiatrist appointment. “There’s nothing else,” Dr. Reed said. “No other medication.”

The truth is they don’t want me there. “It’s her age, intractable depression,” Dr. Reed told Dr. Peters. Like I wasn’t even in the room.

That’s okay. I’ve had enough of them anyway, enough of everyone. Martin using me for a meal ticket and Frank waiting for my money and Dr. Peters pretending to care—good-time Charlies, all of them.

I’m alone except for Victoria, who’s paid help. Who’s supposed to cook and clean, not boss me around with her British accent and superior air. If I want to hibernate and vegetate it’s my business.

Once I heard two women at AOP talking about me. “Isn’t she adorable? So sweet, I could just hug her.” My blood boiled but I didn’t say anything. I was never adorable or sweet, not even as a child, but especially after my mother died.

I’ll never forget her hanging from the beam—the bathroom smell, tongue sticking out, nightgown open, her breasts and pink panties, red toenails. I was eight years old. The church sent me to a home until my sister was old enough to take me. I lived in a dorm with twenty cots, with girls who whispered about my mother’s sin.

In her suicide letter my mother wrote she was sorry. Give Betty my Tears of Christ pendant, she wrote. I wore it until I was thirteen, when the pendant turned black on my neck.

 

FRANK CAME TO VISIT yesterday and was very upset. “Auntie, I’m really worried. Almost a month, not getting dressed, doing nothing all day,” he said.

“Did Victoria call you?”

“What about your program? Why did you stop?”

Lots of questions that asked nothing, but Frank kept nagging and eventually I let him call the clinic and talk to Dr. Peters, who said I should go to group the next day and after they’d have a special family meeting with Frank and me.

So here I am, back in group, kicking myself for giving in. Three months of groups with strangers who act like your best friend but don’t know you, talking about their depression and suicidal thoughts, work problems and job stress, I don’t know how I stood being here, never mind liking it and looking forward to coming.

A skin and bones blond is crying, saying she can’t eat and would rather be dead. Then a Philippines woman says she wants to die and a red-faced fat fellow says he dreams of hanging himself. It’s too much to take. They don’t know anything.

“Suicide is stupid and selfish. If you don’t care about yourself think about your families.” My voice is too loud and my face is wet from crying and my right leg, the good one, is shaking. “You don’t know,” I say, and tell them about my mother, finding her and what it did to me. “No matter how depressed I get, I’d never kill myself.”

The group leader already knew but the others are shocked and say how sorry they are, they had no idea, how brave I’ve been all these years. I barely listen, thinking of what I said, how suicide hurts the ones left behind.

When the group ends I go to Dr. Peters’ office. Frank is there, with Dr. Peters and Dr. Reed. I know they’ve been talking about me.

Dr. Peters explains we’re meeting to discuss treatment options since nothing’s worked and I seem to be getting more depressed. Frank looks troubled and I notice how old he seems, all wrinkled and bald. I’m trying to figure his age when Dr. Reed starts talking, so I miss the first things he says. I decide Frank is seventy and then notice Dr. Peters is frowning, Frank’s eye is twitching and Dr. Reed is nodding, like he’s saying something important.

“ECT is our best option,” Dr. Reed says.

“Isn’t that an outdated treatment?” Frank asks. He’s a dentist and knows a little about medicine, but not as much as he thinks.

I hear ECT but don’t know what they mean. My mind wanders, thinking here I am with three doctors and they have the advantage with their educations and I need to watch out.

“Real improvement, especially with the elderly chronically depressed who don’t respond to antidepressants,” Dr. Reed says.

“What’s ECT?” I ask.

“Electro-convulsive therapy,” Dr. Peters says.

 

I FEEL SO BETRAYED, so angry, so afraid. Like when my mother died but worse, because then I had my life ahead of me, and now I have nothing. My nephew and my doctors, telling me to get electroshock, like Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest. I don’t care what the video said. They want me brain-dead, like a zombie.

“I’ll never do it,” I tell Victoria.

We’ve just watched the film about ECT, the one Frank and me saw at the clinic yesterday with Dr. Peters, that they gave me to take home. Seeing it the second time doesn’t make me feel better, being unconscious and paralyzed, then having electricity run through your brain.

“It will help you,” Victoria says. “Anyway, you won’t remember.”

“Exactly, you heard what they said about losing your memory.”

“That’s only for a short-time. I meant you won’t remember the procedure.”

“Or anything else.”

“You should listen to your doctors.”

Before she leaves for the day, Victoria serves dinner, baked chicken breast and rice, tasteless and dry. I wait until she leaves, then hobble to where I hid the grappa in my sweater drawer. It was a Christmas present from Martin, so Victoria didn’t dare get rid of it when she took my wine. “Doctor’s orders,” she’d said, like she was a nurse and not a glorified housekeeper. I’m sick of Victoria, and if it wasn’t for my hands shaking so much and the weakness I could do for myself, even with the walker. I’d like to try anyhow but whenever I bring it up Frank says no, like he has the right to control my life.

The grappa tastes better than I remember, warming my bones and easing my fears. I’m sipping from the bottle, lying in bed, when I remember the group that afternoon, when everyone was talking about suicide.

For the first time I think about doing it. No hanging, I don’t have the strength. No knives. But I have lots of pills and they’re in the medicine chest and it’d be so easy. But if I killed myself would Father still do the Mass and could I be buried in my plot from church? I didn’t go to my mother’s funeral, but she’s buried in a Catholic cemetery.

I’ve never had much sympathy for my mother. I blamed her for leaving me. For not caring what would happen to me. When I was younger I wondered what my life would’ve been like if she’d lived.

My sister was seventeen when my mother died. Helen was able to finish high school, live with a girlfriend’s family. She never had to stay in an orphanage, with the nuns and the unwanted unloved children. Helen was never depressed, like my mother and me.

I don’t know if losing my mother made me depressed, or if I inherited the gene.  Maybe both, from what I’ve learned in AOP. I look like my mother, short and slim, brunette until I went gray.

Because I could’ve married and didn’t people called me feisty, a firecracker, a pistol. I didn’t start therapy until my fifties; by the time I learned I was afraid of getting hurt it was too late. My time had come and gone. Still I had my moments, my gentlemen friends and flings. I have no regrets.

Besides, my sister married and what did it get her? A lazy husband who barely helped with the deli, left the work to the two of us, but still we made money. They sent Frank off to school. I bought my house. Then Helen got cancer in her ovaries. It took two years of misery before she died.

Frank’s the only one left and now his wife is dying and their daughter is in New York, so they never see her. If I’d married I would probably be a widow by now. Maybe I’d have children, but they grow up and grow away. At my age I’d be alone, no matter what, all the old white-haired ladies, going to church and having lunch, with their TVs and mementos, relics to the rest of the world, waiting to die.

I don’t know what to do. My doctors are right. The depression is getting worse, taking me over. I can’t go on like this.

After weeks of agony, Ann has mercifully died. I should’ve seen her at the hospice, but I’ve been in bed myself. The weakness and shaking and I couldn’t eat or do anything and poor Frank, having to worry about me, at a time like this. I feel so guilty.

I can’t believe June is half over. I can’t believe Ann is gone.

It’s Tuesday, when Victoria is here, so she’s taking me to Mass and the burial. She’s dressed for church, in a navy blue outfit I’ve never seen with a matching scarf over her braids. She says she goes to Mass every Sunday.

I guess we’ve reached an understanding, Victoria and me, or maybe we’re just used to each other. “I’ve got your clothes ready,” she says, patting my hand.

Getting dressed is a struggle. When I’m done and look in the mirror I feel awful.  My good black dress that used to be fitted hangs like a sack. “You’ve lost too much weight,” Victoria says, shaking her head. She puts on my shoes because I can’t reach down without getting dizzy. Finally I’m ready to go.

“Thanks for the help,” I say.

“I have something for you,” she says, reaching in her bag.

She hands me a gray velvet box and helps me open it. Inside is the Tears of Christ pendant, polished silver, the tarnish gone. “I found it under your night-stand. I hope you don’t mind. The jeweler put a coat on, so it won’t turn black again.”

I hold the pendant in my hand and remember how it looked on my mother with her holiday suit, how pretty she was and how happy she seemed. When Victoria puts the pendant around my neck, I start to cry. “From joy,” I say to her.

Somehow I get through Mass, not at St. Basil’s, but the new church Frank goes to. Even with our family pitifully small, just Frank and me, his daughter and her twin boys, there are lots of people. Ann’s sister from New York and her cousin from San Diego, Frank’s dentist friends, women from Ann’s book and quilting clubs.

It’s harder at the burial. I always hate that the most, the final descent, the weeping and solemn prayers. I keep touching the pendant, trying to find comfort. Some people would say Ann had a full life, even dying in her mid-sixties, family and friends, her faith, her volunteer work and hobbies. I don’t know though, I keep looking at Frank choking his tears, his daughter weeping, her sons, the generations left behind and nothing seems to really mean anything.

My funeral will be small. Just Frank and his daughter, people from St. Basil’s, Martin, maybe Victoria will come. People will say she’s had a long life but no one will remember me when I was young. I’ve outlived family and friends. My generation is almost gone.

I’m picturing my burial, the casket I’ve already picked, the flowers, when I realize I don’t want to spend my final days waiting to die. I’ve always been a fighter, all the people in AOP said I was, being in treatment at my age.

Before Victoria leaves for the day I thank her for everything. “I was on the pity wagon,” I explain. Then I tell her I’ve decided to have ECT.

 

“OKAY BETTY,” a nurse says. “I’ll just find a vein here and put the tube in. You won’t feel anything with the medication.”

I’m in the ECT room. It’s been two weeks since Ann’s funeral. Frank brought me to the hospital a few hours ago and stayed with me while I signed the insurance papers and consents. “I’ll be waiting outside Auntie,” he told me. “The procedure is only fifteen minutes or so, over before you know it.”

The blood pressure cuff on my arm keeps inflating, the heart monitor is beeping, I smell chemicals and plastic. I try to take everything in, to remember, the bright overhead lights, the coldness of the pads on my head where the current will go. I imagine electricity pouring through me and panic. I don’t know if I’ll be the same person, with my wits and my memory. I don’t know…

I think of the things I want to remember, my mother happy, Helen’s wedding, my first lover, the deli, Martin, Victoria, the people from AOP. What makes up a life, gives it meaning. I see my mother’s body, hanging from the beam, how could she, I’ll never understand, a young widow with two daughters. I know people look at me and see a cute little old lady, white-haired, dressed in pastels, my true self hidden away. Will anyone remember me, will I remember myself?

There’s a red electric smell, scorching lights. Victoria is with me, patting my hand. The ice cream grappa she gives me tickles my brain and makes me laugh. When it’s done I want more.

 

 

Myra Sherman lives in Northern California. She was a finalist in the 2006 SLS-Kenya Fiction Contest and the 2006 Moment-Karma Short Fiction Award. An excerpt from her recently completed novel was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Best Start 50 List for June 2009. Her fiction and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals including Ars Medica, 580 Split, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Thuglit, Mobius, Zygote In My Coffee, Storyglossia and Skive. She has fiction upcoming in Another Sky Press Horror Anthology, Inkspill Magazine, The Medulla Review and Kerouac’s Dog.

“Weight of the Moment” by Jeffrey Hess

place setting with wine
Image by Dawn Estrin

As Hank rolled to a stop in front of Bern’s Steakhouse, the valet opened the door for his wife, Laura. The ride was short and uneventful which gave him the feeling that the evening might go smoothly.

It was their eleventh wedding anniversary and Hank took a moment to check his face in the rearview mirror. He wished he had shaved again before leaving.  Sex was guaranteed on anniversaries and a full day’s beard reddened Laura’s soft flesh. It was the kind of oversight that might put her out of the mood. He suppressed the thought by extracting himself from behind the wheel in time to see Laura hand the valet a twenty-dollar bill. It wasn’t the money that annoyed him but the coy smile she shared with the skinny bastard.

The kid met Hank by the trunk of the car, waved a ticket stub in his face like a cigarette being discarded.

On the other side of the revolving door, he said  “Twenty dollars? Really? It’s a BMW, not a Bentley, honey.”

“Enough,” she warned.

He watched her walk ahead of him, searched her back for signs of annoyance.

She’d been the same weight since college. Exact same size. And why shouldn’t she be? With what Hank paid to the long list of personal trainers and coaches.

Once inside the dining room, Laura sat to Hank’s left at their usual table. The chair was small beneath him and despite the padding, the edges of the seat cut into the backs of his thighs.

“It’s crowded in here tonight,” he said.

Without looking up from her menu, she said, “It’s always crowded in here during tourist season.”

He scooted as close to the table as possible, tucked his feet under the chair, then sank back. If he had stayed in his suit, he would have had the wingtips. He wished he’d at least worn socks with his Topsiders. He said, “It’s crowded tonight.”

“You already said that.”

Laura’s hair was down, framing an oval face as creamy as cashew butter. Hank looked down at his menu trying to ignore the warm current of heat radiating between the side of his knee and the front of hers. He wished they could skip dinner and go straight home. It had been so long since they were intimate. He wanted to find out if she still kept her privates bald as a peach or if she had grown hair there again. Hank shifted, tried to provide some slack in the front of his trousers.  Eleven years, and she still gave him spontaneous erections.

He’d been doing okay on Atkins lately, not going gangbusters, but not depriving himself either. He pulled at his shirt to flatten the material against his chest, hoping she’d notice the weight he’d lost in the last couple days. But she never noticed. Or if she did, she kept it to herself.

After a moment, they made eye contact. Hank smiled and looked down at the silverware. Neither reached a hand across the table toward the other, they never touched in public.

The saliva in Hank’s mouth grew thick. Nerves did that to him, but three sips of mineral water diluted the pastiness and made his teeth slick.

Laura lifted her linen napkin and motioned toward her forehead, pantomiming one of those little signs they’d worked out years ago.

He looked at his napkin folded on his plate in the shape of a fan, the crisp edges shiny from too much starch. He picked it up–knew what to do. The napkin sucked moisture like sponge cake.

Laura smoothed her napkin and looked up. “Tourists stay down here later every year,” she said.

Hank nodded, watching her mouth, but not hearing her words. Those lips, perfect even before the collagen.  Her nail polish the same shade as the roses he’d sent that morning.

The waiter approached the table like a quarterback receiving an award—wavy brown hair and a red server’s jacket in place of shoulder pads and helmet. Hank ordered a bottle of Cabernet ignoring the fact it would overpower the salmon he planned to have.

The waiter lingered, asked Laura about every detail of her meal. Meanwhile, Hank sorted through the wine list and double-checked the bin number. When he looked up, he could have sworn he saw Laura smile at the waiter with even more eyebrow and teeth than she did with the valet. It gave him a spasm under his sternum. Made him cough. Wiping his mouth with his wet napkin, he convinced himself he was reading too much into it. It was nothing. Just courtesy.

He stared at Laura, undressing her in his mind—those legs, the curve of her ribs, the scar on her hip from a bicycle accident as a child. The waiter came back to open the wine. Without asking, he poured the sample in Laura’s glass. Hank gathered his voice but swallowed it when he saw Laura smile. “That’s awfully good,” she said with a sigh.

He closed his eyes. They had celebrated ten anniversaries with no catastrophes, other than that brief incident on their fifth, when they were staying at a dude ranch in Montana and he’d first gone carb free and ordered the Cowboy Buster 32-ounce, boneless rib-eye, and suffered through every bite while other diners had left their tables to crowd his and watch with excitement and speculation. Every bite was like an inning in the World Series. After finally “beating the meat” Hank received a commemorative certificate and a free “Cowboy-Buster Buster” t-shirt. Size 4XL. He would rather have had his dignity back.

He’d packed on more weight in the years since and regretted every pound.

A toast, he thought. But instead of speaking, he watched Laura sip her wine. The lifting of the glass. The arching of her neck. Whenever he watched her, he felt voyeuristic. Like some hidden-camera peeping Tom stealing eye-time; peeking at his own wife.

He huffed the wine’s bouquet. Sucked in a chest-full of ethereal magic, all red and velvety and rich. Oak overtones and raspberry crème brulée. He raised his glass. “Isn’t this excellent, darling?”

She shifted, re-crossed her legs. “We should get a case for the house.”

He nodded without meaning to. It was a reflex. He didn’t approve of her bottle-a-day habit, especially at a hundred dollars per.

Her blouse matched her eyes and illuminated her face in a glowing blue-gray radiance. He’d like to tie her arms with the matching sweater when they got home.

“What are you looking at?”

“Most beautiful bride ever.” He breathed the words as he leaned back, proud for whipping out a spontaneous line so quick, so concise.

“Please.” She stared into her wine. “I’m hardly a bride.”

He searched for a counter to her remark, something clever, but came up blank. That’s why he was in real estate law instead of a trial lawyer. He rarely had the wit. That ability for dialogue. But this should have been a meatball on a silver platter. Perhaps it was nerves. He’d been a jumbling bag all day. Sex on their anniversary had been wordlessly scheduled. And today was a conjugal visit.

Sitting at that table he fantasized about feeling Laura’s palms on his chest, her nails pulling at the flesh, like a greedy animal. Like in the wild. Carnal. Before the image faded, his stomach rumbled. He’d only had one burger at lunch. No super-sizing today.

He tried to look calm there in his seat in the restaurant as he patted the top, then back, of his Berber hair, hoping none of it sprang wildly as it was prone to do. He turned again, this time remembering to tilt his belt buckle, and looked at Laura. It would be a long time before another opportunity appeared on the calendar. He threw her a slow wink. Her features softened. A swell of hope floated over him.

When their food came, he prepared himself. It was time to eat, not indulge. Feel hungry. Be hungry. He repeated it like a mantra.

DESPITE INTENTIONS, the internal shark devoured a feast he didn’t remember ordering.

What happened to the fist-thick slice of beef? All the Amaretto-soaked carrots, that huge potato, the onion strings? That scalding bowl of French onion soup, the cheese on top so thick that he had to cut it with a knife? And what about that monster Caesar salad, prepared tableside, with a near-violent scraping as the waiter mixed the anchovies and garlic? Did he really eat all of his salad and half of Laura’s too? What about the entree?

He again looked to his plate hoping for the image to change, but it was as empty as Laura’s expression. She was silently reapplying her lipstick and Hank wished he had ordered the fish as he’d originally planned.

She sat back. “Well, that was delicious.”

He panicked. His plate was clean. Hers too. Laura never finished more than half of anything she ordered and always offered him the rest.

Now, his diet was blown and he couldn’t bear to think what she would think of him when she saw him naked in the pale light from the streetlamp flooding their room later that night. He sucked in his stomach, tried to hide his fear. “I’ve got to go to the bathroom. Be right back, sweetie pie.”

“Stop calling me that,” she said.

Climbing the marble stairs to the men’s room, he stopped halfway, caught his wind. Breathing in heavy wads of air, he looked up. Nine more steps. Instead of stopping at the top, he walked directly to the men’s room. At the door, sweat rolled down his back. His shirt stuck to him.  He entered the stall. He was a marshmallow in a matchbox.

He pressed his arms against the stall, bent over the toilet, poised to do the only thing he knew that might get him in bed with Laura later that night. Staring at the bowl, he tasted the salty remnants of garlic toast on his index finger as he wiggled it over his tongue, past his tender uvula. As he reached the reflex point, his stomach heaved into his ribs with a dry convulsion that made his anus constrict and his heels lift off the tiled floor. Nothing came out.

“Damn it,” he yelled and then leaned forward again. In one fluid motion he opened his jowls a little wider and forced his finger past the trigger point. That effort got the finger deeper. Better angle. Hit the spot. The reward was a colorful regurgitation of all he’d just consumed. A violent flow pulsing in subsequent waves. Coughing back the bitterness in his throat, Hank hunched over the bowl. Hands on his knees. A triple-take shudder rolled through him. Was there really that much in there or did the water make it look more voluminous? He guessed the carrots made that glowing shade of red by combining with the wine, or possibly the pound of Chateaubriand he’d downed.

Streaks of vomit splattered down the yellow backdrop of the silk shirt Laura had given him that morning as an anniversary present. The stains formed a purple zodiac design as they expanded through the fibers of the material. The only sound in the room was the dusty exhaust fan, directly over the stall. Spinning in clicking revolutions. Sounding as if it were chuckling. It was the sound of God Himself, looking down and laughing. He realized that the opportunity to have sex with his wife had been purged as well. Even if Laura could get past this sulfuric smell on his clothes, he would never get his breath fresh enough no matter how many times he brushed, rinsed and repeated. And he could floss a hundred times but he’d never have the confidence of cleanliness. The stress wouldn’t help matters downstairs either.

Dieting had always been an illusion. Just like Laura’s fidelity. He’d hidden from the reality of both issues the way a bear hibernates to avoid winter, but his cave was the refrigerator. His pillow was the cookie jar. The further he sank into self-pity, the more he couldn’t blame her, and the more doughnuts he grabbed for buoyancy.

He’d never caught her. Never got off his ass to investigate. But he’d never wanted proof. It was easier to digest a Titanic wad of suspicion than it was to risk a morsel of evidence.

He stood and leaned on the back wall, resting his head on his meaty forearm. After swallowing hard several times to clear the biting acid that coated his teeth, he muttered, “Christ.”  He felt, not empty, but hollowed out, like a melon scraped raw from the inside but left just as round on the exterior as he’d been before. It was surely too late.

This thought circled his mind as he flushed the pungent contents and watched them swirl around the bowl. If only he could pull a hidden lever on his body and flush away the excess pounds, never to see them again.

In the mirror over the sink, just like at the beginning of his day, Hank saw a blob looking back at him. A stained sack of failure. Wiping them with a paper towel, inhaling the strawberry fragrance of the soap, he hoped it would dilute the smell of vomit. He wondered how he was going to explain this to Laura when he went back to the table.

Hank reached for his mints, filled his mouth with them until he was on fire, and headed back to the table.

The restaurant was mostly empty now. Laura seemed perfectly content talking to the waiter, her posture relaxed and casual. She plucked at the platinum chain around her neck and tossed her head back in laughter. The chain was his anniversary gift to her. She’d purchased it herself at Tiffany’s earlier that week.

Hank looked at the waiter, whose arm was extended, the sleeve of his jacket pushed up.  Laura was tracing his tattoo with her finger.

That acid taste returned to Hank’s mouth.  His arms quivered with some primordial instinct.

Laura’s thick lips tightened when Hank approached.

“What happened to you?”

“Forget the shirt,” Hank said. “What’s going on?”

“I was just keeping her company,” the waiter said, “ ‘til you got back.”

Hank charged the punk. Got street-fight close. “Well, I’m back.”

“Hank!” Laura said, her hand on her throat like a southern-sorority girl.

His caveman arms flapped at his side, up and down twice, “So take off, pal.”

“Easy, buddy.”

Hank grabbed the waiter’s shoulders.

He stepped away. “No need to make this physical, man. I don’t want no trouble.”

“Bring me the check.”  He took his seat.  Sweat rolled down his back.

“It’s been taken care of. The lady paid cash.”

“Good,” Hank said, then stood.

As he came around the table, Laura touched his arm. “I’ve never seen you like this,” she said, looking up into his eyes.

Hank didn’t speak or pull her chair out for her. Instead he fished into his pocket, retrieved his valet stub.

Outside, he tossed the stub onto the valet stand and watched the kid’s shirt billow in the breeze as he ran to get the car.

Hank walked to the driver’s side as his car pulled up.

Holding a ten-dollar bill, he asked, “You got change for this?”

“Not on me.” The valet reached for the bill.

“Fuck you, then.”

Hank wedged himself behind the wheel and drove off, not even looking in the rearview mirror.

 

 

Jeffery Hess is the editor of Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform an anthology of military-related fiction (www.homeofthebraveanthology.com). He holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte and his writing has appeared in numerous corporate publications and websites, as well as in The MacGuffin, Plots with Guns, The Houston Literary Review, the Tampa Tribune, and Writer’s Journal. He lives in Florida where he leads a creative writing workshop for military veterans and is completing a novel.

 

“Fallen” by Alicia Gifford

Fallen
Image by Dawn Estrin

On the one-hundredth day of not speaking, Max called, wanting to reconcile over drinks at the Polo Lounge. Toni scurried to Nordstrom’s and bought a way too expensive little black dress with a neckline down to there, and splurged on a ridiculous pair of sparkly fuck-me shoes and a beaded little ladybug bag.

She showered and shaved, perfumed and plucked; she took extra feminine hygiene measures and then chugged over Coldwater Canyon arriving thirty minutes too early, so she drove around Beverly Hills and scored a traffic ticket for a slow slide through a stop sign. She made an okay living as a new junior associate at a Miracle Mile investment firm, but lately her spending was a whole robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul ordeal, and the last goddamn thing she needed was a ticket.

But Max!

At five minutes to seven, Toni pulled up to the hotel entry and the valet took her VW Beetle, she so glad that she’d run it through the car wash a few days ago and emptied it of  the fast food wrappers and empty Starbucks cups . She’d been grieving-by-drive-through, and if it weren’t for the fact that she regularly paced half the night instead of sleeping, she would’ve gained more than the five pounds that went straight to her tits and ass. The extra jiggle made her feel more present in a room.

She made her way to the Polo Lounge, sat at the bar and ordered an appletini, feeling break-through sweat in her armpits despite two layers of industrial strength deodorant. Birds batted in her chest. Max thrilled her deeply, viscerally. She could devour him like a ham sandwich.

At seven-fifteen, she ordered another appletini.

She’d loaned him a hundred dollars. It was clear that it was a loan. Mostly, she paid for their nights out, and Max liked his nightlife. If Max had some kind of acting gig, they’d split expenses and she was more than glad to do it.

But it was definitely a loan and all she did was ask when he thought he could pay her back. She asked because it had been a few months and he’d gotten some bit parts on a few sit-coms and then he’d flown to Vegas for a few nights with the guys, and so she thought maybe it had slipped his mind or something.

He wrote her a check, mad, stopped calling, and wouldn’t return her calls.

The check bounced.

And she grieved, given to sudden crying jags, insomnia and the comfort of a cheesy bean burrito. The irrational love-junkie in her knew how to kidnap and kick the shit out of her self-esteem and logic.

She hoped that Max would fuck her tonight. She needed a fuck and even though the fucking wasn’t all that great with him, even though he was pretty selfish and awfully quick, the possibilities of what it could be kept her hooked.

 

AT SEVEN-THIRTY the man sitting across from her raises his drink. Hers is empty again, but she raises it and the man indicates to the bartender to get her another. Toni thinks of protesting but another drink is exactly right.

At seven-forty-five the man sits next to her. My name is Ara, he says.

I’m waiting for someone, she says. Ara smells like oranges and incense and like what she’d imagine myrrh to smell like. He has a slight accent, a burgundy cashmere sweater and black silk velvet jacket. Groomed up the wazoo.

She checks her cell, no calls. She calls Max, no answer. Ara orders her a fourth appletini. She imagines straddling him as he talks of the Arabian horses he raises somewhere. She might-could let him fuck her in the ass, she thinks, as he talks of Turkish coffee and clotted cream on the Bosporus. She leans close and feels a magnetic field, a heavy alchemy, something she’s felt with only a few dozen men in her life.

I have a room, he says, paying the bar bill. I don’t think your friend is coming.

My friend? She tries not to slur. Fuck my friend, she says.

He takes her arm and she wobbles in her sparkly fuck-me shoes, hoping not to fall. They pass through the lobby and she sees Max rushing, a cellophane-wrapped bunch of supermarket flowers in his hand. She flutters her fingers, but he doesn’t see her. Ara pushes the elevator button. Up.

Fuck my friend, she mumbles again.

In the room, Ara pours little splits of champagne. To life, he says.

They drink and he kisses her, fully, passionately. She is ready to suck his asshole. If she had a tail, it would be thumping.

Then he asks her if they should take care of business first. She thinks he’s talking about taking a leak, but then she sees him reach for his wallet. For one horrible moment she wonders if he expects her to pay him, gigolo-like, the desperation and need so obvious in her, but then she gets it and she flares with mortification despite her solidly drunk state, to think, that he thinks, that she, USC, MBA, magna cum laude—

He’s swarthy and suave, hirsute with sensual lips and dark dangerous eyes. She’s ecstatically drunk, hopelessly horny. She’s in the Beverly-fucking-Hills Hotel. What’s she supposed to say, that she’s willing to give it up real good for free? She could use some recouping.

A thousand dollars, she says. She hiccups; holds her breath.

My pleasure, he says. He pulls out ten new one-hundred dollar bills and gives them to her. She tucks them into her cute little ladybug bag.

And they fuck, up, down, sideways and under, and then a hard, deep sleep.

Next morning he’s in a terry cloth robe, already showered and oozing his spicy citrus smell. He offers her coffee from a silver tray replete with croissants, Danishes, cheeses, jams. Her head pounds, she has to pee. He hands her a robe and she gets up, pees, and wipes some of the makeup off from around her eyes, swipes at her teeth with his toothbrush. She stuffs her ragged panty hose into the trash and dresses in her wrinkled little black dress and fuck-me shoes, garish and sad in the California light of day.

I have a meeting, he says. But next time I’m in Los Angeles I’d love to call you.

She gives him her phone number. She bites her lip. I’m not really, I’m not—

He pulls out another hundred-dollar bill. I love your enthusiasm, he says. She blushes hotly. She does recall a fair amount of enthusiasm. She takes the money.

One day, Toni will manage Ara Babajanian’s fifty million dollar portfolio. He will be one of her most loyal clients at the conservative investment firm that will one day make her a partner, and one day Toni and Ara will share more champagne and they will laugh loud and hard about this night. By then, Max will be a dim memory, a shallow notch on the headboard of her life.

But right now she holds her head high as she struts lightly through the lobby to the main entrance, realizing that attitude is half of everything. She could feel degraded, corrupt, fallen—but the cool clear reality of being fabulously fucked and financially flush trumps. Win, win. She digs into her ladybug bag and gives the valet a hefty tip, and then gets into her car and drives away, a little less wide in the eye, a little less dew on the petal, wiser, maybe, sadder, hardly.

 

 

Alicia Gifford‘s short fiction has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Narrative Magazine, Hobart, The Los Angeles Review, Confrontation, FRiGG, The Barcelona Review, Best American Erotica, and more journals and anthologies.“Fallen” first appeared in Pank 4. Reprinted with permission.