“Hidden Valley” by Elaine Barnard

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I kiss Jered goodbye with the hope he’ll be clean by the time I get back from
the desert. I don’t even know where the desert is really. I just say I’m going
there because it sounds adventurous. Something I’m not. Something I’ve
never been. Now Jered is adventurous. He’ll be the first one to tell you so.
He’ll stick a needle in his arm without hesitation. He says it takes guts to do it.
Why am I such a wimp?

Before the day I found him at it I never knew what he did while I was at
work, work being the part-time payroll clerk at the Seattle free clinic where I
first met Jered. He was the clinic counselor. You know, the guy who interviews
the candidates for rehab. Jered counseled nights, I payrolled days. And that
worked swell for sharing our moldy apartment. We never got in each other’s
way. That is, until the day I left for work early feeling sick and found Jer higher
than Mt. Rainier. He was almost beautiful like that, dancing around the stains
in the carpet, graceful as Nureyev in “Swan Lake.” Only I was afraid he’d leap
out the window on one of his inspired flights.

“Jer, for god’s sake,” I yelled as he balanced on the sill. It was a humid
summer morning. I’d opened the windows before I left for the clinic. He
faltered at my voice, pressing his nude body against the glass for support,
sweat staining his skin until it gleamed. I wanted to touch him then. I wanted
to make love to him in a way I’d never done before.

“You idiot,” he hollered as he fell from the sill and rushed toward me. “You
never know when to keep your mouth shut.”

He clenched my wrists, forcing me back to the bed. Straddling me, he
clutched my neck with thin fingers. I tried to scream but strands of his bleached
hair muffled me. It had a chemical smell, like the one that overwhelmed me the
first time I entered the clinic. I felt myself falling into a gray space. “Jer-Jer,” I
gasped, “I’m…I’m pre-pregnant.”

His body grew limp, “You’re what?”

“I’m pregnant,” I gasped again, my throat aching.

He wrenched himself from me and slammed into the bathroom. I heard the
shower run full blast, as if he wanted to rid himself of any trace of me. After
that he slumped into a depression for weeks until I convinced him it wasn’t
true. I’d lied so he’d lay offa me. But that was two years ago.

Jer is in rehab now. He’s been in and out of rehab several times. He lost his
job at the clinic when they found he was the free loader they’d been looking for.

When I leave him this time I say, “Jer-Jer…I-I might not be back…”

“I hear you, Carla, I hear you.” He slumps on the sofa. His eyes glaze like
he hasn’t heard me at all. Maybe he hasn’t. How should I know what goes on
inside his messed up head?

Jer wasn’t always like this. In the beginning it seemed like we were glued
together, dancing the tango in the clinic cafeteria after it closed for the night. I
held a rose between my teeth, its petals in full bloom, fragrant and sweet on
my tongue, like Jered making love to me in the early morning before I left for
work.

As I make my farewell exit into the spongy streets he yells after me, “If
anything’s in that pooch Carla, don’t bring it back.”

I inhale hard. Suck in my stomach until it hurts, hoping that might change
everything.

Just in case you’re thinking how brave I am to leave my lost lover for
unknown parts, let me tell you that my Aunt Duffy is picking me up at the
airport. Aunt Duffy has been picking me up for years, ever since Momma died
and Daddy skedaddled.

“Come hang out in my trailer, Carla, until you get on your feet,” she said
when I confessed I’d lost my job at the clinic. They suspect me of being in
cahoots with Jer, which in one sense is true but not in the way they think.

So here I am, no job, no apartment, two months pregnant and living by the
grace of Aunt Duffy. Life’s a real picnic, ain’t
it?

Aunt Duf lives in a dumpy trailer park on a forgotten fork offa highway 62,
somewhere outside Palm Springs, California. She’s a naturalist. That is, she
eats natural foods. Drinks water straight from the faucet. Wears no makeup.
Skinny as a snake and so on. You get the picture.

Duf, who doesn’t know I’m “with child,” insists I need a little desert
orientation with her long time friend, Harry. She’s been on the phone with him
ever since I arrived. “Now you’re here, you might as well see what the desert
has to offer. It’s not the wasteland you might think.”

So here we are at the bus stop at eight-thirty in the morning with layers of
Duf’s sun block on my face, Duf’s extra straw hat, her extra sunglasses and
canteens of her natural water. Duf’s in much better condition than I am even
though she’s “seventy-three going on thirty-seven,” as she confessed last night
when we were bonding over bottles of cactus cola.

There’s something about Duffy that’s kinda sad. Maybe it’s because she’s so
determined to be cheerful. I wonder if someday I’ll look just like her, waiting
with sun wrinkled arms and freckled thighs for some retired tour guide to make
my day.

Because this is a tour, even it it’s just the two of us. Duffy wouldn’t let me go
any other way, not wimpy overweight me. I know that’s one of the things Jer
hates about me now, the weight I mean. I wasn’t this heavy when we met. I
started gaining when I discovered he had a secret habit he loved more than
me. That’s when I started stashing Hershey Kisses in my underwear. I have
some Kisses in the back pocket of my overalls right now, triple wrapped against
the oncoming heat.

Fortunately my overalls are two sizes too big or the Kisses might make my
butt look even bigger. I always wear my clothes two sizes larger. That’s
another thing he dislikes about me. “Geez,” he said, “if you ever get really
pregnant you’ll look like a house waiting to be demolished.”

Fact is, I feel just like that with my bulging tummy and my boobs too big for
my bra. But I don’t give a shit. I’m not giving into it, to my lousy mood and all.
They say that happens with pregnancy. The dark days loom ahead.

Harry is kind of a macho character, big and grizzled, in his sixties maybe.
Duffy said he was a ranger before he retired. Now he has his own company,
“Desert Adventures.” He yaks non-stop on our ride to Joshua Tree. I’m glad
he’s a motor mouth because I don’t feel like talking even though Duf tries hard to
get me going. Rocking and rolling over these roads just doesn’t do much for my
attitude.

Harry pulls up for a pit stop in Yucca Valley. The air is mellow with the
fragrance of May-blooming cactus all yellow and orange in the sunlight. My
stomach’s feeling queasy so I buy a carton of skim milk. Duf stands in line for
the toilet with a few weary tourists just arriving from L.A. I didn’t drink any
coffee this morning to keep my bladder at minor emergency level, so I pass the
line and park myself under a Joshua tree. I finish off my last Hershey Kiss
before it melts and wash it down with the milk, splattering my breasts, which
feel swollen and tender as I dab them with a tissue. In seven more months
they’ll be outrageous.

Harry honks, revs up and we’re off into Hidden Valley. As far as I’m
concerned, Hidden Valley is about as hidden as my boobs. Boulders jut from
the earth as if it had a headache. It must be at least 105. My skull will burst if I
touch it so I don’t. I just stand dazed while Harry demonstrates his rusty rock
climbing skills. I think he’s showing off for Duffy. She can’t take her eyes off
him even though his skin looks like he washes with a cheese grater, cuts and
scabs everywhere.

Harry scurries up his “minor” boulder like the mountain goat I saw pictures of
at the rest stop. If this is minor then I’m more of a coward than I thought. He
dares us to join him. Duf can’t resist. “Hey,” Harry hollers, “c’mon up, Carla.
Great view from the top.”

My stomach flips. I do not want to go up, but it’s obvious Harry isn’t starting
down until I do. They’re both above me now, cheering me on. “You’re a wimp,”
I hear Jer say, “just a fat female wimp.” His words sting like a bad sunburn.
Perspiration creases my chest, trickles beneath my armpits. I smell the deep
tremor of fear.

“Hey, Duf, could you snap me on the way up?”

Duffy waves her camera and focuses as I press one shoe into a crack
between the rocks. This won’t be as hard as it looks. It’s all a matter of timing,
one foot in front of the other like the monkeys in the zoo that Jer and I used to
visit before-

God, I need some rain right now, a good deluge might clear my head, give me
some courage.

“Careful,’ Harry yells, “that rock might be loose. Test it before you climb any
higher.”

My legs feel stiff and achy. “Smile,” Duf calls, kneeling beside Harry. “Make
it look like you’re having fun. Us old coots can do it, you can too.”

Much to my surprise, I’m two thirds up. “Take another shot,” I gasp at Duffy.
“Double insurance.”

My fingers tremble. I place one hand above the other. “You’re almost there,”
Harry drones. “You’re-”

“Look this way, Carla. It’ll be a good one.”

I lift my head to smile up at Duffy. What a terrific shot to send Jer. Make him
eat his words. But just as she snaps the photo, my foot loses its hold, dangles
below me as if it had a will of its own. I cling to the rock, try to boost myself.
My knees scrape the granite. Blood trickles down my legs, saturating my socks.
Something releases inside me. Just some more blood. What’s a little blood
here and there. What’s a little-

Then I realize it’s my womb, my womb aborting its bit of life. I slip, slide in a
jigsaw down the boulder, peeling flesh from my arms, cutting my knuckles until
the bone shows bare and white like Jered’s skin in the sunlight.

Harry clambers down as fast as he can. He kneels beside me trying to
staunch the blood with his flimsy first-aid while he calls for help on his cellular.

Through a haze of sun I see Duffy, her gnarled fingers caressing me, dabbing
at me with her bottle of water. “My God, girl, you’re a mess everywhere.
Something must be wrong inside you. I can’t stop the blood.”

Harry takes off his shirt. Duffy diapers my crotch with it. Blood keeps
gushing, the dank odor of the unborn.

“Hang in there,” Duffy whispers from somewhere beyond me. “They’ll be
here soon.”

I vomit. The acrid odor makes me shudder in the heat as if I’d been
transported to the frozen side of hell. I descend into a numb dark as a final
surge of blood soaks the desert floor.

“That’s the-l-last of you, Jer…” I hear myself mumble as I reach for Duf’s warm
fingers.

A siren shatters the desert silence. Lights dazzle me. The musk smell of
cactus mixes with the blanket of sand drifting over me. Duffy caresses me, a
comforting cocoon, a sweet sensation…

I stayed with Duffy for a year before I went back to Seattle. I was hoping to
get my old job back or any job at all. I couldn’t live off Duffy forever, much as
she wanted me to. “We’re a team, Carla. Stay. You could get a job at the date
stand maybe, or that earth foods market down the road. There’s a ‘Help
Needed’ sign in the window.”

Harry drove me to the Palm Springs airport in his dusty old van. Duffy sat
beside me holding my arm like she didn’t ever want to let it go. “Here’s some
cactus candy for you,” she said before I went through security. “I made it
myself. I’ll send you more if you like it. It’s chock full of Vitamin C and stuff. You
might need it where you’re going.”

I arrived in Seattle in the rain and went straight to rehab. Crazy as it may
seem, I somehow had to see if Jer was there. I was hoping he wasn’t. I was
hoping-

The rehab clerk looked up from her computer when I inquired about Jer.
Then she scrolled her charts while I leaned against the counter for support.
“Jered was released a while back. I think he’s still around. Got a job, I hear,
with Sally’s Dance Academy downtown.”

I walk two blocks to Sally’s place, an old shoe store remodeled into a dance
space. Through the window I see Jer demonstrating a leap. The kids stand in a
circle around him trying to imitate the movement, their supple bodies silken in
white leotards and tights.

I press myself against the window absorbing him until the lesson is over and
the kids straggle home. “Jered,’ I whisper before I turn back into the rain and
hail a bus to the clinic. My breath leaves a memory on the glass.

 

 

Elaine Barnard’s fiction has been published in Kalliope, Pearl, Sage, Writers Forum (UK), Storyteller and Timber Creek Review. Several of her plays have been produced at regional and university theaters. On January 11, 2008 five of her stories were produced at the Beverly Hills Library as part of the City’s “New Short Fiction” series.  She holds an MFA from the University of California at Irvine.

“To Love Again” by Steve Cushman

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Pulling onto I-4, heading out of Orlando, Fay told herself to relax.
On the seat next to her was her purse and an overnight bag stuffed
with a couple days worth of clean clothes, suntan lotion, a romance
novel, and a manila envelope with the divorce papers.  She was going
to Cocoa Beach for the weekend, just long enough to clear her mind
and sign the divorce papers Dale, her soon to be ex, had the nerve to
send certified mail to Dr. Hasell’s office where she worked as a dental
hygienist.

Fay concentrated on staying between the white lines of the highway.
Driving had gotten somewhat easier in the last month.  More than
once, in those first few weeks after the separation, she’d had to fight
the urge to jerk the steering wheel hard to the right and plow into the
pine trees lining the highway.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to die as
much as go to sleep for a while, perhaps long enough to make it
through the grieving process, however long that might be, maybe wake
up on the other side, ready for life again.

She’d reserved a room at the Ocean Shore Suites.  The front of the
motel faced US 1 and the back faced the beach.  While her first floor
room didn’t offer a view of the ocean, only sand dunes, she could smell
and taste the salt in the air.

Hungry from the drive, Fay walked across the street to Sonny’s Pit
Bar-B-Q.  She ordered a pulled pork sandwich and watched a baby boy,
maybe a year old, at the table across from her, gobble up a plateful of
baked beans.  His face and hands were covered in the red-brown
sauce.  The parents, a scruffy looking pair of nineteen or twenty year
olds, didn’t seem to notice when the baby started running his dirty
hands through his blonde hair.  Fay had to fight the desire to reach
over and stop him, to fling one of her French fries into the back of that
worthless father’s head.

She could not help but think of Dale and her son Owen, who was a
high school senior and still living with his father.  Dale had come to her
that Sunday morning on his way out the door to go fishing.  He had on
that stupid hat with the hooks and lures fastened to the brim.  She
was reading the paper without much concentration, thinking that what
she really needed to do was get out there and tidy up the garden, get
it ready for winter.

“With Owen graduating this year I think we should consider splitting
up,” Dale said as easy as could be, as if it were something he’d
practiced hundreds of times before and were no bigger deal than
suggesting they plant a new crepe myrtle in the front yard.

At first she didn’t quite understand what he’d said; she didn’t listen
to half of what he said.  He was always talking.  Plans for expanding his
landscaping business, plans for buying a new work truck.  Talk, talk,
talk.  Always something she didn’t really care about.  Lowering the
newspaper, she noticed a cartoon was on the TV behind him.  This
seemed strange to her, because weren’t cartoons for Saturday
mornings?

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Split up, divorce.”

“But why?”  Other questions occurred to her: Is it another woman?
Have you felt this way a long time?  Is it me?  Am I fat?  Am I not
attractive?  But the words to these questions, thankfully, she would
think later, didn’t come out of her mouth.

“You know neither of us are happy,” he said.

And it was true.  She hadn’t been particularly happy with the
marriage for years.  But half the people she knew weren’t happy with
their marriages.  Were you even supposed to be married and happy?
She didn’t know.  They had a decent life—minus romance and
excitement and shared secrets—but it hadn’t been awful.  He had never
slapped her around or come home drunk wanting rough second-hand
sex after a night at the strip clubs like some of her friend’s husbands.
He had never, as far as she knew, cheated on her.

“I’ve got to go,” he said.  “I’m already late.”  And then he walked out
the door.

Fay spent the rest of day shopping, buying flowers and a new
blouse, some shoes.  Anything at all but to think about the fact she
would have to start living alone.  What upset her most was that she
would probably have to move out.  Dale hadn’t yet said he wanted to
stay in the house, but he’d built a three-car garage out back the year
before so he could store his lawn equipment and they’d converted the
back bedroom into his office.

*

She leaned back in the motel bed, her head and neck up against the
strange headboard.  The old, green comforter was on the floor at the
foot of the bed.  Julie, Dr. Hasell’s wife and the other hygienist in the
office, had told her to never touch those things.  She said they were
only washed once a month and you never know what type of bodily
fluids might be on them.

This weekend trip had actually been Julie’s idea: get away, she’d said,
it’ll help you clear your mind and make plans for your future.  To Fay,
this sounded like a good idea at the time.

Fay took two big mouthfuls of the beer she’d bought at 7-Eleven on
the way back from the restaurant, then pulled the papers out of the
manila envelope.  His name Dale Ray Brown was above hers, Fay Alice
Brown.  The details of the divorce were what they’d already discussed
and decided: he’d get the house and pay her half its value over the
next ten years.  They would split the cost of Owen’s college education
and she’d cover his insurance.  There were no surprises here.

All she had to do was sign, slide her pen across those three lines
with the red X beside them and the marriage would officially be over.
But she couldn’t sign them just yet.  While she knew the marriage was
over and that she didn’t love Dale, the movement from one person, a
married woman, to the next, a divorcee, was more difficult than she’d
imagined.  She slid the pen back into her purse and turned the bedside
light off.  The beer and her breathing exercises helped ease her toward
sleep in only a matter of minutes.

*

Fay was at the beach by ten the next morning.  She’d bought the
bathing suit Tuesday night, after work, at Target.  It was a little loose
in the hips.  Without trying, she had lost fifteen pounds since moving
out.  The only time she bothered cooking dinner was when Owen came
over on the weekends.  Most nights she was in bed by eight, a half-
eaten bowl of cereal on her bedside table.

The beach was not crowded yet, but it was April and a Saturday—
temperatures in the mid-80’s—so Fay was sure it would fill up
eventually.  She found a spot twenty yards from the water, set her
towel down and her bag with the change of clothes, her lotion and
sunglasses, and the romance novel, To Love Again, Julie had given her
for the trip.

Fay had woken an hour ago, but the water and sun and sand made
her sleepy again, so she closed her eyes and drifted off.  The crashing
of the waves against the beach was calming and easy.

*

She had met Dale twenty-two years ago.  He’d come in to have a
tooth pulled.  He was well-built and attractive, but she was not
available.  Two days before, a man she’d been dating for over a year,
and whom she didn’t truly love, had asked her to marry him.

As she prepped Dale’s tooth for the extraction, she began telling him
about this other man—a man whose name she could no longer pull
from her memory—and about how he was a nice enough guy.  He wore
suits and argyle socks to work and had a yellow canary named Finch.

“Sounds like a fag,” Dale said.

“He’s a good man.”

“You know what you need?”

“No,” she said.  “What?”

“You need to go out to dinner with me, tonight.  I’ll show you a good
time.”  Dale reached over and ran his hand against her naked calf.  And
while she knew she should have been offended, she was not.  She
slapped his hand away, but took him up on his offer for dinner.  Four
months later they were married.

It was the sound of children that pulled her back to the beach.  Two
boys, no older than ten or eleven, were running in and out of the
water, screaming.  Fay sat up and pulled To Love Again from her bag.
On the cover, a couple stood arm-in-arm facing the sea.  In the right
corner of the book was a round sticker with 25 cents scribbled in black
pen.  It was not a new book.  Julie had told her to read it, said it would
show her there were more men out there.

The first chapter introduced the reader to Marie, a woman whose
husband was leaving her for another woman after twelve years of
marriage.  Chapter two and three went through the next couple
months of Marie trying to understand what to do with her life now that
she was alone.  A woman in her forties who had not worked in years.
There were obvious similarities to Fay’s life and she knew Julie had
given it to her for that reason.  She could imagine what was going to
happen; Marie would meet a man and they would fall in love and she’d
be happier than she’d ever been with that old cow of a husband.

Fay had read forty pages of the three-hundred page book when she
felt the need to pee.  Her motel room was only fifty yards behind her
but she didn’t want to leave her things out here unattended and she
didn’t want to lose this prime spot, so she headed to the water.  It was
cooler than she thought it would be.  It was only April.

In waist-deep water, she could see the crowd of people on the
beach.  White-fleshed tourists from places she’d never been:
Minnesota, New York, and Iowa.  She squatted and felt the warm rush
against her thigh, swimming around her knees, her ankles, and then it
was gone.  She was embarrassed as she walked out of the water, sure
that everyone knew exactly what she’d done.  But she told herself it
didn’t matter.  She would never see these people again.  Anything she
did this weekend would stay here, away from her other life back in
Orlando.

On her stomach now, propped up on her elbows, Fay continued to
read the novel.  Marie had started working the counter at a flower shop
where a customer named John came in every Friday and bought a
dozen tulips.  He didn’t wear a ring, so Marie assumed they must be for
his girlfriend.  After his fourth visit, she asked him who the flowers
were for and he’d smiled and said shyly that they were for his mother’s
room at a nearby nursing home.

When she told him how sweet that was, John invited her to come
with him and meet his mother and to have dinner afterwards.  Marie
accepted his offer.  What harm, she wondered, could happen to her in
a nursing home?  Or from a man who was kind enough to bring his
mother fresh flowers every week?

Fay smiled and shook her head.  Of course, it was ridiculous and
predictable, but still she read on, turning to on one side when she felt
her back starting to burn.  Over the course of the next few weeks,
Marie learned that John was an investment banker.  His wife had died a
dozen years earlier in a boating accident.

Through the next hundred pages, the couple began kissing, holding
hands, taking long walks on an unnamed, empty beach.  There were
long passages where they gave each other massages, would not have
sex, but would lie side by side, running their hands across each other’s
excited, naked bodies.  Marie would ask John to make love to her, but
he said he didn’t think he could move on to that stage of the
relationship while his mother was still alive.  She had loved his ex-wife
as if she were her own daughter.

In the parts of the book which detailed these massages, and oiled
hands gliding over  foreign flesh, Fay could feel a stirring inside of
herself.  She ignored it, pushing forward, wanting to know what was
going to happen and how they would finally consummate their love.

But for the next fifty pages, they continued to visit John’s ailing
mother and to explore each other’s bodies with their hands and to tell
secrets of their previous lives: the time John kissed a man in college,
Marie’s admitting she once watered her backyard naked.

With thirty-five pages left to go, Fay’s back and shoulders felt
officially sunburned.  She walked back to her room.  She’d been out
here long enough.  She closed the curtains and took a cool shower and
instead of putting her clothes back on climbed into bed naked.  Her skin
tickled.  The fan swirled overhead.

Fay leaned against the headboard and continued to read.  John’s
mother died.  Her heart simply gave out.  The night of the funeral, after
all the guests had left, Marie stripped John naked and made love to
him.  The book ended with them waking up the next morning with sun
streaming through tall, white curtains.

By the time Fay turned the final page, and dropped the book, her
right hand was stroking herself, pressing and pushing, and that was all
it took.  The force of the orgasm surprised her.  All alone in this
strange motel room with her hand moist, resting on her stomach, Fay
felt a little dirty, a little embarrassed and sore, but, all in all, she felt
pretty damn good.

After a nap, she took another quick shower and got dressed for
dinner.  A mile up US 1, there was a bar named Conchy Joe’s.  She’d
eaten there years ago with Dale.  She decided to go there tonight, have
a beer or two, some oysters and a plate of conch fritters.  Then she
would come back and sign those damn divorce papers, be done with it
once and for all.

Conchy Joe’s was hopping and Fay took a seat on the balcony bar
under a faux straw-mat roof.  Behind her was the Intercoastal Waterway
and she watched as a pair of sailboats cruised under the bridge.  It was a
fine evening.  The heat of the day, though mild, had burned her shoulders
and her neck.  She could feel the fabric of the shirt touching her skin and
this, she thought, was not completely unpleasant.  She hadn’t worn a bra
and her nipples felt firm, reacting to the soft cotton of her top.

The bartender was tall and young and cute and he winked at her.  But
she knew he probably winked at every woman who came in here.  His tips
counted on it.  There were a couple men, both older than her, sitting at
one corner of the bar and a married couple sitting to her right.

Just relax, she told herself again.  The beer tasted good.  The oysters
felt soft and soggy on her tongue but she didn’t care.  She was miles
away from her home and that apartment, from her son who had
disappointed her by choosing to stay with his father, from her all-but-final
divorce.  She was a woman alone at the beach enjoying herself.  This, in
itself, was a new life for her, one she couldn’t have imagined a year ago.

She thought about that little apartment she’d lived in for almost five
months.  The only personal decoration she’d added was a pair of framed
photos atop the entertainment center: one of her and Owen at the state
fair and Owen’s senior photo.  The apartment had come furnished and she
was grateful that she had not had to go out and purchase furniture that
would be hers, and not theirs, for the first time in twenty-one years.

Maybe she shouldn’t sign those divorce papers as they were written.
Originally she’d agreed to leave Dale the house because it was set up for
his business, but now with the conviction of beer and distance she
wondered why in the hell he should get it.  Sure he would be paying her,
but she deserved it as much as him, if not more.  She’d painted almost
every room, had picked out the carpet and appliances and she’d hung the
borders.  Plus, she had been the main breadwinner for almost all of their
marriage.  If she had to move out and start over, maybe he should have
to do the same thing.  They could sell the house and split the profits.  But
she knew it would be easier to just let him stay in the house.  Plus, Owen
would have that little bit of consistency when he came home from college
on summer breaks.

“May I buy you another?”

It took Fay a moment to realize someone was talking to her.  She
turned.  He was a thick man, a couple years older than her, with gray hair
and a deeply tanned face.  His pale blue button-up shirt was not tucked
into his linen slacks.

Fay smiled, lifted her bottle to finish it and said, “Sure.”

“Chuck,” he said, extending his hands.  “Chuck Mulhauser.”  The only
jewelry he wore was a gold band on his pinky.

“Fay,” she said, shaking his rough, calloused hand.

“Another beer for the lady and a Jack and Coke for me,” he said to the
bartender.  He turned back to Fay.  “So the obvious question is what is a
beautiful lady like you doing alone in a place like this?”

She could see tufts of his grey chest hair at the top of his shirt.  Dale
was practically hairless.  She could see a slight shaving nick by his right
ear.  Dale wore a beard.  This man’s lips were full.  Dale’s lips were almost
non-existent.  Chuck Mulhauser was the physical opposite of Dale and this
alone was enough to make him attractive to Fay.

“A little vacation from life,” she said.  She considered telling him why she
was really here, the divorce papers and whatnot, but did not want to seem
like easy prey.

“We all need one of those sometimes.”

She knew this was playful banter.  For twenty-four years now, she’d
done that, leaning over patients and talking, saying words that didn’t add
up to anything.  “And you, what are you doing in a place like this?”

Fay was well on her way to being drunk.  She’d had two beers before he’
d approached her, and she knew she was a certifiable lightweight when it
came to alcohol.  What was she doing talking, even flirting, with this
strange man?  For all she knew he could have been a murderer, a
rapist.

“I was hungry,” he said and smiled.

He ordered another dozen oysters and eventually each of them another
drink.  Fay felt herself leaning into him.  He ran his hand along her knee, an
inch or two up her thigh.  A respectable distance, she thought, confident
but not too aggressive.  As they ate and drank, he told her that he was in
the import/export business over at the docks.  Boring stuff, he said,
except plenty of money to be made.

“I’m not sure why I’m even talking to you.  Women, I’ve discovered, are
the enemy.  My wife, Sheila, married twenty-nine years—two sons—built
her the fancy house she wanted.  You name it, I gave it to her.  Well, she
runs off and leaves me for some pansy-ass out of work physicist.  I
should have beat the shit out of both of them.  But what are you going to
do?  Am I happier now without her?  Hell, no.  Would I take her back in a
minute if she called me?  Hell, yes.

“I don’t even understand how these things happen.  You think
everything is going along at whatever rate it’s supposed to and then
bamb, you’re blindsided.  Hell, I just don’t know.”

Fay saw the tears in the corner of his eyes and she reached out and took
his hand in hers.  Why couldn’t Dale be more like this man?  Huh, why
not?  Because, she knew, life is not fair and never would be.

“Let’s go back to your hotel,” he whispered.  She looked into his eyes
and nodded.

*

Inside the hotel room, they went at each other’s clothes before the door
was even shut.  He was thicker around the middle than she’d imagined,
but this Chuck Mulhauser was a sure and confident lover.  She closed her
eyes and held on and enjoyed herself.  Although he was not particularly
big, maybe even smaller than Dale down there, it hurt a little at first.  But
she liked his smell and the way his rough hands gripped her waist and
squeezed her breasts.  And then as quickly as it had begun it was over.

She rested her head against his hairy chest, could feel his heart
thumping wildly.  “Was it good?” she asked, embarrassed as soon as the
words left her lips.

“Amazing,” he said in a low, satisfied voice.

“Tomorrow we’ll go for breakfast,” she said.

“I’ll serve you fresh eggs and fruit,” he said.  “Orange Juice.  We’ll take
my boat out.”

Fay closed her eyes, thought that sounded damn good.  Maybe Julie had
been right after all.  Just let yourself go and you’ll find happiness, you’ll
find something.  Chuck started to snore and she slid away from him,
listening to his even breathing.

When Fay woke early in the morning, he was still sleeping and snoring
on his side of the bed.  She thought about what he’d promised, about
breakfast in bed, a day out on his sailboat.  That sounded good to her,
the way something like this should begin.  She wanted to do that, but
knew she couldn’t, not yet.  She’d come here, met a man and discovered
that she just might be able to love again.  While she knew two people
meeting at a bar for a one-night stand wasn’t exactly love, it was a start,
perhaps a sign that her life could be filled with a sort of intimacy she’d
forgotten she was capable of.

Fay got dressed quietly.  She wrote him a quick note on motel
stationary: thanks & take care, Fay.  After writing the first three numbers
of her phone number, she scribbled through them.  Walking outside, the
bright sun almost took her breath away.  Fay blinked a couple times and
headed to her car, climbed in.

Instinctively, as she always had in times of crisis, Fay dialed her old
phone number.  It rang two, three times.  She could see Dale standing
there with his mug of coffee, one hand scratching his fat ass.  Then his
voice was in her ear:  “Hello.”  When she didn’t say anything, he said it
again, annoyed this time, “Hello.”

She turned the phone off and dropped it on the seat beside her, pulled
the divorce papers from the envelope.  After signing all three required
lines, she slid the papers back inside and sealed it shut.  Then Fay climbed
out of the car and walked back to the motel room and knocked on the
door.  When Chuck answered, he had a towel around his waist, his eyes
cloudy with sleep.  “I thought you left,” he said.

“Not yet,” Fay said, taking him by the hand and leading him back to bed
and those still warm comfortable sheets.

 

 

Steve Cushman has worked as an X-ray Technologist for the last fifteen
years.  He is the author of the novel, Portisville, and a short story collection,
Fracture City.

“How Many More Times?” by Dorene O’Brien

https://i1.wp.com/i27.tinypic.com/o53reh.jpg?resize=443%2C212

I managed, with the help of my parents, to maintain a 1.4 GPA throughout most of high
school, and I flunked out of vocational school, too. That was no small task. I showed up
late every night after sloshing a Dixie cup of whiskey around my gums while sitting in the
Murray J. Field Voc Tech parking lot listening to Foghat in my beat up Duster. I made sure
to get up real close to Mr. Chominski, even breathe in his face while asking how to operate
various power tools, but he’d just tell me to put on my safety glasses and get to work.

Then one night a purple Javelin slipped its jacks and rolled over Jimmy Watts, who was
underneath slapping at a stubborn exhaust pipe.  He sued the school and won an
undisclosed amount of money by convincing a jury that the jacks were placed incorrectly
under the car by a classmate who was at the time intoxicated.  That would have been me,
and that would have been how I flunked out of vocational school. But let me say here that I
did not misplace those jacks, and I was not drunk since I never really swallowed the whiskey but spit it onto the asphalt where I watched it spread like cancer before trickling into the cracks.

After getting kicked out of Voc Tech my parents said I had to get a job.  I’d been living in
the basement, where I’d carved out a small space between the washer/dryer and my dad’s dark room, when my parents clomped down the stairs, classifieds in hand.  I was nailing egg cartons to the paneling in an effort to do justice to “Bridge of Sighs” in a less than perfect acoustic set-up when my dad rapped me across the back of the head with the rolled up newspaper.

“Get a job if you wanna keep living under my roof,” he said.

“Doing what?” I said.

“You’re a smart boy, Raymond,” said my mom, wringing her hands.  “Here,” she offered a
section of newspaper splattered with yellow highlights.  “There’s lots of stuff you’d find
interesting.”

I glanced at the ads she’d honed in on: fast food restaurant staff, all-night party store
clerk, gas station attendant. I wadded up the paper and threw it on my bed.  “What do I
look like, a moron?” I said.

“You don’t want me to answer that,” said my dad.

“I’m not workin’ no crappy ass job,” I yelled, looking for that red in my father’s cheeks
that indicates a sudden rise in blood pressure.

“Well I’m sorry, Raymond,” he said, “there aren’t any openings for brain surgeons just
now.”

“What about the ice cream parlor job?” said my mom.  “That sounds nice.”

I walked to the stereo and cranked the volume up to ten so that Robert Plant shook the
basement windows with his plaintive question, “How Many More Times?”  I think the
statement was lost on my dad, whose cheeks were reading crimson when he shoved the
turntable off the stack of milk crates I’d stolen from mom’s work.

“That album just cost you six bucks, my friend,” I said, and seconds later we were
replaying a popular family drama in my new basement digs: My back on the cold hard floor,
my dad straddling me, his fingers clenched around my throat, and my mother screaming,
“Christ have mercy!”  I decided to apply at the record store.

The manager at Spinners was pretty cool, but I knew when he said that Katie couldn’t
hang around so much I’d have to get fired.  At first I just ignored customers who asked for
help, but all I gained from this was the knowledge that people are entirely apathetic.

Instead of complaining to the manager, they just wandered around the store on their own until they came across another red-smocked, name-badged employee with a little less attitude.  I ripped off the cash register so I’d have enough money to keep Katie in burgers and ice cream next door at Bosco’s until I got off work, at least on the nights mom cashiered at Food Town.  Finally I just made sure that several other employees saw me stuff a Black Sabbath album into my backpack, and that did it.

This, of course, ended with a basement floor replay, which was really okay because by
then I had learned to fake choking so that my father always thought he was farther along in
the process than he actually was.  It was worth it to see that fleshy pink face turn burgundy.

The old man used to take Katie and me to ball games at Tiger Stadium when we were little; he’d let us eat peanuts and cotton candy for dinner, scream at the opposing team’s batters and draw all over our programs. Then one day I noticed it, and it was like waking up from a dream.  I was twelve, but I still wonder how long it was there before I realized it.  Dad’s stomach was spilling over his belt in folds as he sat on the hard wooden bleachers, a grease-stained box of popcorn dwarfed by his bloated fingers, and as he stared past the field and off into a distance too far to name, I was disgusted.  He caught me staring, and to hide my repulsion I launched into a desperate monologue.  “Do you know Kaline’s batting
average?  It’s .295.  Yep, two-nine-fiver. They’ll retire his number for sure. Did you know
Mom is making spaghetti tonight, extra peppers? Her spaghetti always clears my sinuses.
Did you know basil is poisonous to cats?”  He was staring at me then, looking me right in
the eye when he said, “You’re a smart boy, Raymond.  You ask a lot of questions.  People
don’t like that.” He resumed staring and I resumed being disgusted, and not much has
changed.

I tried calling Aunt Martha and Uncle Stu, but they had moved to Denver after the riots.

Aunt Lena and Uncle Marvin were killed in a car wreck six years ago, and Uncle Ted, my dad’s twin brother, is exposing himself regularly to the staff at the veteran’s hospital he’s called home for the past ten years.  None of my mother’s sisters has spoken to her since I was in kindergarten, and I’ve pieced together enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this is in no small way related to my father.  The moral of the story: You never realize you’re alone until you need help.

Katie told our mom before she told me, and I think she only told me because she was desperate: Mom, who couldn’t handle any crisis past a burnt roast or a parking ticket, wouldn’t believe her.  I remember it was the night of the football game against Cooley; I never went to another game after that, and I never went anywhere without Katie.  I was in tenth grade and she was in eighth.  I could tell she was embarrassed-she didn’t cry or anything, probably because that never got her anywhere with me before-but she kept her head down and snapped the ring on her pop can when she told me about the touching, the twine, the camera.  When I found the pictures behind several cans of developer on a shelf in the dark room downstairs, two things occurred to me: that my father was very stupid to hide them there, and that it would have been okay if Katie had cried.

I hid the pictures in different places-one in the Peter Frampton Live album jacket, one under the floor mat in the Duster, one in a gutted 8-track-so that he’d never find them all when he came looking.  My mom, though determined not to believe Katie, must have confronted him because the next time I checked the cans were scattered and my room had been tossed.  Maybe my mom believed him when he said that I had taken his camera from the dark room, that I had done some horrible thing to my sister, that I was a sick, sick boy.  One day when my dad and I are really going at it, when his face is as red as the paint on Crandell’s Mach I, I’m going to pull out those pictures and show him how sick I really am.

After the last heart attack, some fat guy from Social Services came to our house and
asked Katie a bunch of questions in front of our parents.

“She’s not gonna talk in front of him,” I motioned with my head toward my father
dismissively, but his face remained as white as chalk.

“Son,” said Fatso, “why don’t you let me do my job?”

He continued asking embarrassing questions and Katie continued staring at the carpet and flicking the ring on her Rock ‘n Rye can.

“Katie, honey,” said our mother while shooting me an accusatory glare, “look what your
father’s been through.”

Of course he wore the look of an invalid with ease, hand on his heaving chest, droplets of
sweat popping up on his forehead like blisters.

Maybe I should have brought out the pictures then, but who knows how that would have
gone?  He might have believed us, taken us both away, even separated us.  Or he might
have believed my father and taken me away.  What would happen to Katie then?  I knew
that in his condition the pictures could be a deadly weapon against my father, so I holstered them.

“Forget it,” Katie said quietly.  “Nothing happened.”  Fatso had his pen capped before Katie left the room.

That night I put a dead bolt on my sister’s door, hammering and pounding as the old man
recuperated in the bedroom next door, and we worked out a code so she’d know when it
was me knocking.  In truth, I didn’t believe the old man would try anything-he just had a
heart attack, for chrissake-but I figured this was a good way of letting him know that
nothing would get by me again.

I know what you’re thinking because I’ve thought it myself.  Instead of being such a screw
up, I should work my ass off to make some serious money and get Katie out of there.  But
it’s hard to make serious money when you flunk out of high school or when you have to get
fired from jobs because you can’t work Monday, Wednesday or Saturday nights since those are the nights your mom is stacking cantaloupes and doing price checks until midnight, not that you can count on her for much, anyway.  My escape plan involves more than slapping burgers onto a bun or sprinkling chocolate ants on some brat’s vanilla cone; it involves timing and patience.  I’ve gathered up the pictures and slid them under a flap I cut into the carpet downstairs, and I bought two used speakers and mounted them to the basement ceiling.  My dad hasn’t come downstairs since Fatso visited and his face has remained pretty white despite my best efforts, but I’m pretty sure I can count on Ozzy Osborne to help me restore his color.

My dad has already had two heart attacks, the most recent one triggered by a struggle
with Katie at about the same time the Javelin made sauce of Jimmy Watt’s legs.  My mother remained unconvinced even though the paramedics told her we’d get a visit from Social Services, told her they’d found my father in Katie’s room, one hand clutching his chest, the other clutching the Polaroids.  My mother believed him when he said that it was me, that I’d bullied my sister into lying, that I destroyed the lives of everyone in our once happy home.

Lipitor and angioplasty have made my job difficult, but not impossible: I have Led Zeppelin
and Black Sabbath on my side.  Between my new speakers, Ozzy’s “No Rest for the Wicked” and Plant’s “Communication Breakdown,” I imagine it won’t be long before my father pays me another visit.  After he’s sprawled out on the concrete floor with a red face and a bulging heart, I’m going to pull out the photos, then I’m going to pull out the twine, then I’m going to pull out the camera, and then I’m going to snap.

 

 

Dorene O’Brien’s work has appeared in the Connecticut Review, Carve Magazine, Clackamas Literary Review, New Millennium Writings, The Cimarron Review, the Chicago Tribune, Detroit Noir and others.  She has won the Red Rock Review’s Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the New Millennium Fiction Award, and the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award.  She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has won the international Bridport Prize and has received a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.  Her short story collection, Voices of the Lost and Found, was published by Wayne State University Press in 2007. She teaches writing at the College for Creative Studies and at Wayne State University in Detroit.

“Augury” by Scott Owens

 

I watch you in the pool
clinging to your kick board
next to a girl who already
has the look of a woman,
long hair pulled into tight bun,
earrings, face made up, confident
smile given to every stranger.
Your little girl haircut, focused
inattention, playing at horses,
dolphins, ducks, games you make up,
embody what it means to be three.
Older girls run screaming
around the pool, wild
and unafraid, suits all lycra
and lace and getting smaller.
Older still, they gather in groups,
smack pink gum between their teeth,
mostly watch, talk, laugh,
seem always aware of their bodies.
I fear how much you’ll change,
how little I can control,
how much less I should.

 

 
Scott Owens is the author of The Fractured World (Main Street Rag, 2008),
Deceptively Like a Sound (Dead Mule, 2008), The Moon His Only Companion (CPR,
1994), The Persistence of Faith (Sandstone, 1993), and the upcoming Book of Days
(Dead Mule, 2009). He is co-editor of Wild Goose Poetry Review, coordinator of the Poetry
Hickory reading series, and 2008 Visiting Writer at Catawba Valley Community College. His poems have appeared in Georgia Review, North American Review, Poetry East, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Cimarron Review, Greensboro Review, Chattahoochee Review, Cream City Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Cottonwood, among others. Born in Greenwood, SC, he is a graduate of the UNCG MFA program and now lives in Hickory, NC.

“Pilot Glasses” by Patricia Fargnoli

When I put them on the sky turned bluer than it was,
and the hills, as if suffusedwith gold, glowed
like an Old Master’s oil.

*

We were driving back from Montpelier where we met our California e-mail friends.
It was the first time I’d seen them in their real bodies, instead of the bodies of words
lofted across a continent.  I knew them and didn’t know them.  What is added when
we see athing we have only touched with language?  Patrick handed his glasses to me.

I put them on,
and in those tinted lens,
the mountains turned to topaz, emerald, garnet.

*

Once, at my old job in an ugly city, the receptionist came back from the cellar where
she’d gone to store files.  Talking high and fast, she said she’d looked through the
basement window into the storm drain outside, which was covered at ground level
with an iron grill.  At the bottom of the drain, lying there, was an impossible animal:
two-headed, pink and beige.  We didn’t, of course, believe her.

One after another, we went down
into that place of moldy dampness,
into the dust.
But each returned
with the same strange story:
two heads, pink and beige.
I was last.

I went down into the
dust and dim, and found my way
to the window that was the one light,
and looked through it.

And looked again.
In truth, the creature was pink fur and beige fur.
It had two heads
and both were sleeping.

*

What is it when we see when we see?
Whatever held me to that perception
lifted, and I saw
not one, but two of them, one tan — one white,
their small tails curled around their small bodies —
tame creatures whose gone-wild mother
had gone off and left them,
lying one across the back of the other,
asleep and unaware.

What is it we want to see?
Patrick said I looked good in the glasses.
I kept them on for a long time
as the Green mountain autumn
flew, heightened and sharp-edged, by us,
and the sky with its brilliant and irregular
triangles of turquoise stayed steady
between the clouds.  That illusion — I held
on to it for a long time,
because there was nothing confusing then —
nothing that was not beautiful.

 

 

Patricia Fargnoli is a friend of r.kv.r.y. and the Poet Laureate of New Hampshire. She authored 3 books and 2 chapbooks of poetry. Her latest book, Duties of the Spirit (Tupelo Press 2005) is the winner of the prestigious 2005 Jane Kenyon Poetry Book Award for Outstanding Poetry. Her first book, Necessary Light (Utah State University Press), won the 1999 May Swenson Book Award. Fellow at the Macdowell Colony, and a frequent resident at The Dorset Colony in Dorset, Vermont, Fargnoli was on the faculty of The Frost Place Poetry Festival. She has published over 200 poems in such literary journals as Poetry, Ploughshares, and The Mid-American Review.

Pilot Glasses reprinted from  Necessary Light, Utah State University Press, 2000.

“Detainee” by Peter Desy

 

The night they picked me up
I said But wait…
A psychiatrist, a general and a statesman
and my fourth grade teacher gathered

in the dingy foyer at 3 a.m.
It was in a cold month,
when the house flies are so fat
you can pick them up by hand.

My brain, the captain, somewhat
still in charge, gave up its rank.
You’ll be happier with us.
Did they all say that?

* * *

I am much better now.
They let me break eggs in a cold
frying pan. When I get a glass of water
they give me two straws.
They say my bedsheets are blessed
by the pope and the president knows
they are helping me.
Mom, this is still the greatest country
in the world and they are trying
to get me to see things as they really are.
I am very peaceful
and do not worry for me.

 

 

Peter Desy is loving his early retirement from the English Dept. of Ohio University. He has poems in or forthcoming from The Iowa Review, Hubbub, The Literary Review, Southern Poetry Review, and other journals, as well as a poetry collection, Driving from Columnus, and two chapbooks.

“Medusa Song” by Mary Akers

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She scrambles the eggs while the baby howls at her knees. To drown out the racket, she hums as she jabs her fork into the yolks. She enjoys the way they spill their yellow color and swirl into the whites. She matches her tune to the schook, schook, schook of the fork against the bowl, then does a quick side-step when the baby lunges for her legs.

His little fat hands grasp the air, throwing him off balance. He totters on his heels for a moment then sits hard and rolls back sideways, bumping his head on the floor. He stops crying abruptly and flails his arms in the air like a big bug stuck on its back.

Cynthia knows she should pick him up, comfort him, but she’s too deep in her own need. She won’t look down, even, because if she looks at his face all twisted up and desperate for her, she’ll have to pick him up, and she just can’t do that motherhood stuff right now. She used to love the feeling, everyone needing her so badly. She would peel and seed John’s oranges when she packed his lunch. She cut the crusts off his sandwich out of pure love. And when the baby fell asleep, she’d sit and hold him just as long as he would let her.

But John Junior is walking now-into everything-and he’s gotten so clingy. Her friend Alice says that John Junior is feeling separation anxiety. Every time Cynthia leaves the room he thinks she’s gone forever, just disappeared. Secretly, Cynthia wishes it could work like that–two steps into the bedroom, and poof, she’s in another life, another world.

She used to love her life. She looked forward to every day. Cynthia can’t even say when things changed. Maybe it was back when she suspected John of sleeping with his secretary. Maybe it was after John Junior was born and she couldn’t seem to do anything right.

John and she had never fought before. Well, sometimes, but it was always more of a disagreement and once Cynthia apologized it would be over. It never spilled out into the rest of her life.

Now things seem to get all tangled up, till she can’t separate them, one from the other. She feels like that woman with snakes for hair, only all her problems are tangled up there too, squirming and writhing around, hissing on top of her head. She figures that must be why John isn’t home yet-imagine living with a woman who can’t comb her hair for the snakes. She tries calling his office, but that snooty Angela answers, so Cynthia puts on a different voice and pretends to be one of John’s clients.

“Mr. Albee promised to show us a home today, is he in?”

She smiles because she knows Angela is too dense to figure out it’s her. She’s careful to keep the smile out of her voice. Then Angela says, “Mr. Albee hasn’t been in all day, Ma’am, may I give him a message?”

She says it real sly-like, with extra emphasis on the ma’am, until Cynthia is really getting sick. The eggs look disgusting and she feels so nauseous. Then she’s throwing up again, retching in the toilet, and thinking, God, please don’t let me be pregnant, but she’s known it for a while.

When she’s wiping her face, John calls and she thinks he says he’s at work, but it’s hard to hear for sure over the baby. Liar. She just called there. Cynthia doesn’t want to yell at him, but she feels it rising up in her throat like bile, and she wants to stop it but the words are pouring out all over the place like vomit, sour and steaming.

She hangs up and tries to finish supper, even if it is just eggs and toast. After John sells a house they’ll have steak. She puts the baby in his crib, and over the monitor she can hear him banging his head against the bars. She goes to the door and watches, fascinated. His eyes roll back in pleasure. She tries banging her own head once on the door frame before she remembers the snakes. No sense getting them all riled up.

Then she hears the eggs frying too hard, and sure enough, they’re brown when she stirs them, and the toast needs scraping. Schook, schook, schook, the crumbs fly all over the sink, sticking to the sides. She thinks about that woman who drove her kids into the lake and cried about it on national TV. What a terrible person, a horrible mother. But the snakes hiss, “Yessss.”

She’s barely gotten the toast buttered when John Junior starts up again. He’s poopy, too. She can see it rimming the edges of his diaper. What with the snakes and the baby it’s really all just too much for her and she carries him out to the pickup and puts him squish onto the seat and she leaves supper unfinished and she’s really going to do it this time because she just can’t take it any more.

Halfway to the lake it starts raining. John Junior is sitting in the floorboard playing with his toes and the wipers are keeping time in the dark, schook, schook, schook, marking off the seconds till it’s done.

Cynthia pulls right up to where the lake meets the road, and there’s no one around, so she gets out and goes over to the water’s edge. The baby watches her; his face against the window, nose flattened, big eyes shining white through the dark.

The water smells dank and fishy and it’s way too cold when she sticks her head in. Cynthia is on all fours holding her breath and she thinks about how she must look-rear in the air, head in the lake. She doesn’t get up, though, and her chest starts to ache from needing to breathe. Her head is throbbing, and her throat spasms, her body trying to force her to breathe. But she won’t, she won’t, and she can hear the schook, schook, schook of blood in her head, looking for oxygen.

When her body starts to relax and she’s feeling like she could stay down there at the bottom of the lake forever, she jerks her head up hard, throwing back her shoulders, landing on her back at the muddy edge of the lake.

And possibly the baby is crying in the truck, but he’s safe enough, and she remembers that his diaper needs changing while she watches drops of rain fall silver through the night and feels them sting her cold lake-water face as she listens and waits and hopes the snakes have drowned.

 

 

Mary Akers’ fiction, poetry, and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various international journals such as Bellevue Literary Review, The Fiddlehead, and Primavera. She has an essay in the newly released anthology The Maternal Is Political and her co-authored book Radical Gratitude, first published in March of 2008, is in its second printing. Although raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia-which she will always call home-she currently lives in Western New York with her husband and three children. This is Akers’ second appearance in r.kv.r.y. Her short story Multicolored Tunneled Life appeared in r.kv.r.y.’s summer 2006 issue. (Edited to add: in 2010 Akers took over editorship of r.kv.r.y. from Victoria Pynchon.)

“Life and Breath” by Corinne Loveland

In my yoga practice, I’ve been told, time and time again, that unexpressed emotions are stored in our bodies. My emotion is concentrated in my hips and jaw, which, I’ve also learned, are directly connected.

This makes sense. Most nights I clench my jaw so tightly it wakes me from
sleep. I open my eyes in a dark, still house with an aching jaw and sore teeth and I
know something is going on, swirling beneath the surface. During yoga, when I sit
cross-legged and stack my ankle over my knee in double-pigeon pose to stretch my
outer hips, I feel more than taut muscles stretching. I feel resistance, and I feel
fear. In my hips and in my jaw, I sense a past I struggle to make sense of.

∼∼∼

On the evening of November 3, 1992, Gail Shollar, my aunt, was raped and
murdered. She was loading bags into her minivan after grocery shopping with her
youngest daughter, Andrea, near their home in Piscataway, New Jersey. At that
point, Scott Johnson, a man she never before saw, forced her into the van at knife
point.

Andrea was found early the next morning on the lawn of a nearby daycare center,
cold and crying, but alive. Gail, who must have pleaded with her captor to release
her young daughter, did not have a fate as fortunate.

∼∼∼

I know exactly what I was doing while my aunt was being killed. I’ve never been
able to shake that. It was Election Day, the day Clinton was elected for his first
term. My sixth grade teacher had handed out U.S. maps and asked my class to
color in the states as the electoral votes were decided: red for George Bush, blue
for Bill Clinton, and yellow for Ross Perot. I remember staying up until almost
midnight, sprawled on the floor in front of the TV, coloring nonchalantly. When I
put my crayons away and fell asleep that evening, I had no idea that my aunt had
been raped and then stabbed to death. I didn’t know that my Uncle Bob would wake
up in the middle of the night to find his wife and daughter gone, that he would panic,
call my mother, and that chaos would officially erupt.

∼∼∼

We waited. For four endless days and four endless nights, we, a family united in
fear, fidgeted, waiting to find out what happened to Gail. We waited for her to be
found. My mother needed to be there, she explained, couldn’t be anywhere but at
her sister’s house, in the middle of the madness. My mother further explained that
she needed my brother, Prescott, and me to be there with her.

Those were the hardest four days of my life.

When we arrived, the van wasn’t in the driveway, like I knew it wouldn’t be. And
though the house looked the same, it wasn’t. I knew this as soon as I stepped
inside. The couches, of course, were in the same place and long white curtains
framed the windows as usual and the caged parakeet was chirping. The school
photos of my smiling cousins still hung on the walls. The house still looked like a
home. But I felt it in the air, and I felt it in my body, it wouldn’t be the home I knew,
not ever again.

∼∼∼

I stationed myself at the kitchen table, away from where everyone else sat,
stood, paced, and cried. I was incapable of feeling anything besides emptiness.

I approached my cousin Sherri, then eleven years old, Gail’s oldest child, and
tapped her on the shoulder. “May I borrow your crayons and some construction
paper,” I asked. I knew it was an unreasonable request to ask of someone whose
mother had been kidnapped. It seemed like nothing was appropriate to say, nothing
at all. That’s why I didn’t look at her when I asked. But Sherri didn’t hesitate. She
went straight to her bedroom. Maybe she was relieved by being able to handle a
simple task, a task less draining than surviving a missing mother.

I returned to my seat at the kitchen table and propped my chin in my hands.
Sherri returned with a handful of construction paper and a box of crayons. I hoped
she would stay in the kitchen with me, but she didn’t. I slid a piece of paper from
the pile, pink, because pink was Gail’s favorite color. I chose a green crayon because
green was my favorite color. Carefully, I drew two stick figures, both with long
squiggly lines indicating curly hair. My aunt and I shared, among other features, long
brown curls. In the drawing, we held hands. We were safe. I put smiles on our
faces and flowers at our feet. Then, in big sloppy script, I wrote “Hurry Home, Aunt
Gail, I Love You.”

∼∼∼

“I embrace all of life’s sorrows boldly, with my whole self,” my yoga teacher said,
weaving between myself and the other practitioners in the studio. Heat blasted from
the vents, sweat dripped from my hairline to my mat as I flowed through a vinyasa, a
set series of postures that lead into one another, linking movement to breath. I
moved with grace and determination, wanting, aching for what my teacher said to
resonate in my mind and body.

∼∼∼

If we ate, or slept, or did anything ordinary while we waited, I don’t remember.

I only remember the worry, the fear, and the pain.

They found the minivan first, parked near a patch of woods a few miles from
where Gail had been shopping. There was a bloody palm print on the inside of one
of the windows, and from this, or from a piece of hair, or from something I can’t
remember, police knew who did it. They just didn’t know yet what he had done.

They found the knife next, the following day. It was a kitchen knife, covered in
my aunt’s blood, found in the backyard of the killer’s girlfriend.

∼∼∼

At the house, the house my aunt would never see again, the doorbell, like the
phone, sounded constantly. Family members, friends, neighbors, news crews, police,
strangers, they called and stopped by continuously, wanting to know what it was
that we felt. Cameramen from NBC, ABC, FOX, CBS zoomed in on the front door of
my childhood, trying hard to expose the faces behind the horror.

Another day passed. My Uncle Bob agreed to a TV interview. Bright lights and
microphones and cameras were all in place. Bob was on the couch, surrounded by
his three children. “We want her back,” he said, his big brown eyes swollen with
sadness. “Please, who ever you are that has her, let her go safely,” he pleaded,
gasping between sobs. “Let her come back to her family. We need her.” He wiped
his tears with his fist.

I did need her. My mother left us at Gail’s house all the time. I knew with Aunt
Gail everything would be stable, safe. I knew nothing crazy would happen and now
that she was missing, craziness was here.

Four days of waiting, four days of rain. In the sturdy house of my childhood, I
sat, listening to the rain pound on the roof. Enough was enough. An army of
rescuers, nearly one hundred men and women from the community, formed on the
fourth day. They promised to find my aunt. From the house that had become a
prison, I saw them on the news, saying they were determined to find her, to get to
the bottom of this waiting game. They were going to find her body, they said. Not
her, her body. I think that’s when I began to understand that my aunt would never
see the construction paper card I made her.

∼∼∼

To look around the studio and survey the practice of others is considered
improper yogic behavior. It’s an ego thing, comparing yourself to someone else,
striving to hold a headstand for as long as the person on the mat next to you or
taking pride in your ability to outstretch another. Yoga isn’t about flexibility. Yoga is
about steady, controlled breath. Yoga is learning to understand the nuances of your
body, finding inner awareness, and acknowledging the sensations that emerge
through the physical postures and breathwork.

During hips stretches, I need to keep my eyes closed, clamped shut in fact, to
avoid being elsewhere. My urge is to scan the room, to watch my fellow yogis
effortlessly stretch their lithe hips. I don’t mean to, but I envy them, not for their
loose hips but for what they must not be storing there.

∼∼∼

My cousins, my brother and I were in the basement when the detective came.
We hadn’t thought anything of the doorbell. Sherri sat in a rocking chair, her face
worn from what was nearing a week of crying. Bobby, Gail’s middle child, and
Prescott, climbed on the pool table and smashed pool balls together. I sat on the
floor, my knees pressed into my chest.

It was my mother’s piercing scream that we heard. All motion stopped as I
slowly lifted my head and turned toward the staircase I did not want to climb.

I knew.

Gail’s dead body, naked and mutilated, had been found, submerged in a drainage
ditch, covered by a pile of fallen, soggy autumn leaves.

∼∼∼

Often, before beginning my practice, I bow in dedication to a person, a cause, or
a feeling. I vow to breathe through the upcoming physical challenges, to look inward
and send my breath to the areas of my body that ask for it. Sometimes I think of
my aunt and I dedicate my work on the mat to her struggle, her pain, and her love.
Sometimes, I can’t help but imagine her as she died: her face an expression of
terror, pleading not to be killed. Breathing deeply and with control, I remember her
voice and I hear it cry as she is led deep into the woods. I envision my aunt to the
backdrop of a cold dark autumn night, her final night, and I feel the silence that must
have followed the slaying. I see her killer walking away from a bloody body that
means nothing to him but everything to me, a body that is no longer her. With a
knife in his hand and a smirk on his face, he leaves. He leaves permanent damage.
Sometimes, while I move, I wonder what she thought as she was penetrated, as he
came toward her with that kitchen knife to slash her throat, as she was stabbed
again and again. And again. I wonder if she put up a fight or if she surrendered. I
wonder if she thought of her family, and selfishly, if she thought of me, if she had
any idea what she meant to me.

And I breathe.

 

 

Corinne Loveland writes nonfiction because she believes in the power of the everyday. Regardless of what happens to us—be it shocking or simple—life as it occurs is artistically worthwhile. As a writer and as a photographer, Corinne aims to capture the
nuances of life and portray them as art. Originally from the New Jersey Shore, Corinne now lives in Santa Cruz, California – a less crowded Jersey Shore with easy access to San Francisco, her favorite city.