“Hunger and Thirst” by Sandra Hunter

Hunger and Thirst Jan 2008

Arjun shifts onto his right side. If he waits a moment he will have sufficient energy to
rock himself sideways and out of bed. But the energy doesn’t come. He waits.
Once it was easy to rock up, but now he has to use his body’s weight to ease himself
off the mattress. And he must take his time. Any small slip and he will slither off
completely and Sunila will panic and scream. Why couldn’t you call me for help? Why are
you so stubborn? Why can’t you just do something simple like wait for help? Then
prediction. You’ll have broken your hip/back/head.

He thinks of Just Desserts. Just don’t think I’m going to visit you every day. In this stage,
the suffering is transferred to her and he can stay in the background as the source of her bad luck.

As he has learned, it is better to wait. Most of the body’s cravings can be subdued,
as he learned even before he became sick.

It is difficult to remember that time. He was Thirty. Forty? No the first attack was
before then. He was thirty-six. So he was healthy until he was thirty-six. He marvels at
this other self whose body performed daily miracles; standing, turning, lifting, running
up the stairs two at a time.

And even further back, in the time of legend, he played Squash for the All-India
team. Who was this person who wore white shorts and ran after small rubber balls
with such speed and accuracy? Surely he was a superman in those days. He wonders
if those other squash players are also lying in bed and wondering where their bodies
went, wondering at which date the synaptic rush and response slowed and failed.

And even further back, there was his boyhood in India. How easily, fluidly he ran up
and down mountains, as though up were almost the same as down. How he jumped
over rocks, between rocks, balancing with his arms flung out, his body leaning this way
and that as the impetus carried him forward, forward.

In some faint responsive memory of movement, he moves his legs and finds he can
ease himself off the mattress. He holds on to the bedrail with both hands and steadies
himself as his feet touch the ground. He is sitting upright.

He smiles at the triumph; he can still get out of bed by himself, which means he can
still go to the bathroom by himself. Small victories. He can’t even brag to Rob, his
grandson. Rob is not only well past the stage of getting out of bed by himself but he
doesn’t even need a safety rail at night anymore.

Arjun realizes with humility that he is far behind his grandson, who is bounding
ahead into his future. That future won’t contain Arjun or his stories about tigers and
elephants, his descriptions of the mountain ranges of the Himalayas, his peanut and
monkey jokes.

He has become accustomed to letting go. He is no longer anxious to keep up with
Rob. Occasional accounts about his progress in school or on the football team are
enough. These days, visitors, particularly children, are exhausting and he feels an
overwhelming lassitude from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave.

He steadies himself as he takes the weight on his legs, both hands firmly on the
walker. Now to walk. The coordination that goes into walking is astonishing.  He
pushes the right leg forward first and leans on the walker, then the left leg. It takes a
few steps to get into his shuffling rhythm and then he is on his way to the bathroom.

He takes his time, making sure the door is fully open, that he can sit with his walker
in front of him. How long has it been since he was so indignant about having to sit to
urinate? Now he is merely relieved to sit after the walk to the bathroom.

What importance he used to attribute to things that now seem so small: his perfectly
ironed shirts, the knife-like crease in his pants, the well-tailored jackets and suits, his
meticulously folded socks and underwear, his Kiwi-polished shoes, his leather billfold.
These details made him feel a little taller, a little better prepared to face the hostile
country he had moved to.

He remembers pushing Roxi aside so he could iron the shirts that Sunila wouldn’t.
Roxi had wanted him to read to her. Another time, Murad had nervously waited on the
stairs for something or another, but Arjun was polishing his shoes. Couldn’t the boy
see he was busy?

It was Roxi’s job to lay the table, but it was never done properly. He remembers how
he would have Roxi straighten knives, move glasses over an inch or two so they were
correctly aligned, re-fold the napkins.

Murad was responsible for washing the dishes while Roxi dried. Murad was
mournfully methodical. Roxi was careless, swiping at plates and rubbing handfuls of
silverware together in the towel and jumbling them into the drawer. How many times
did he have to order her back into the kitchen where she angrily re-dried plates and
pans, or sorted out the silverware drawer?

It all meant something but he can’t remember what that is. Some sense of decorum,
some sense of fitting in to the middle class neighborhood whose ideals he’s never
quite grasped.

But their neighbors are now used to them. They’ve been there for fifty years;
they’re the old-timers. He’s seen nearly all the houses on the street change owners at
one time or another.

Now they are the sweet old couple at number 4, Oriole Drive (Ah, bless). Sunila
greets everyone with a friendly smile and wave, invites them in, offers them tea, hands
out cookies to the children on their way home from school. She has achieved her
coveted position of being accepted. She is harmless and old.

Her high heels no longer strike static from the sidewalk as she busies to work and
back home again with carrier bags of groceries. The children are gone; there is no one
to scream at in the evenings. She can’t even scold him for long without becoming

He used to laugh at her as she retreated to the kitchen coughing and angry. But
now he sees that this is how she stays alive; this is the vigor which allows her to
dress him, cook for him, wash him, help him to the bathroom in the day, turn the TV on
or off, fetch his photograph albums, take them away when they are too heavy to hold,
reach down books for him and re-shelve them when he can’t remember the page he

Now he becomes anxious if she coughs too much. He urges her to rest, to take more
time upstairs watching her soap operas on the bedroom TV.

Now that it is too late, he has come to love her. Even if he could find some adequate
language to tell her, she would dismiss him, would think he was trying to manipulate
her, would correct his syntax, would think he was becoming sentimental as the old
often do. She would never understand what it has taken for him to reach this point.

It doesn’t matter. He loves her ignorance, her wide-ranging prejudices, her quick
judgment of other people, her feelings of inadequacy, her suspicion of those who she
feels are somehow ‘better’; her inability to follow a simple argument, her inability to
follow simple directions her instinctive dislike of anything artistic, including art. He loves
her sad walls of exclusion, including those exclude her from anything that might
demand a little understanding outside of the terrible moral code by which she
attempts, and often fails, to live.

In the early mornings, while he is meant to be asleep, she sits in the least
comfortable armchair near the gas fire, bent over her Bible. He is still amazed at her
conversion to Christianity. She claims is it her refuge and her strength. But, perhaps it
was only that the Hindu gods were too many, too confusing to remember, somehow
not quite respectable.

Her lips move over the verses which spell out her failure in stark formulaic King James
prose with its incomprehensible italics and emphatic pronouncements. Thou shalt not.

But she shall, she does, she cannot help herself. And worse than her voice raised
against him, the words that ricochet out of her mouth, the fists clamped against her
sides, is that sudden recognition, I’ve done it again. I’ve done it again. And she abruptly
turns to the kitchen, to vent her despair on the clanging pans.

It is then he longs to tell her, “I know you’re angry. It’s all right to be angry.” She would
not believe him. It isn’t Christian to be angry. Even Christ, famously angry in the
temple, got over it.

Her anger has lasted all her life.

He doesn’t ask where it comes from. Does it matter? A spoiled child, she was given
everything her impoverished family could manage. He sometimes wonders about the
older sisters. Perhaps they resented her and that also fueled her anger. Perhaps she
just felt she didn’t get what she deserved.

So often, she has sighed after luxurious items, blaming him because she cannot hold
her head up since she doesn’t have a washer and dryer, convection oven, an Aga
stove, full central heating, silk velvet curtains, a nicer car.

No one else bought a Fiat, a Honda. She sneered at these bright, practical little cars.
When, by some strange combination of events he bought a BMW she was thrilled. He
was baffled to hear her refer to him to their church friends as her dear Arjun. How
quickly she adopted language and manners appropriate to one who owned a BMW.
She drove everywhere on errands, for visiting this poor old dear, that poor sick lady.
The elderly had never benefited so much from her Christian outreach.

He hated the car. It was too big, difficult to maneuver, costly to run and insure. She
backed it into a lamppost and then into another car, and their insurance soared. He
sold it as quickly as he could and immediately felt her deflate. He felt sorry for her,
quietly admitting to Mrs. Benson, “We’ve sold the car. Too many accidents, you know,”
as though the car led an independently willful life, rear-ending and colliding where it

Mrs. Benson had nodded elegantly and immediately Arjun had seen how Sunila had
copied the gesture, the you know, the half-abstract air.

He felt badly for her, but couldn’t see why she tried so hard to be like them, the
British, with their coldness, their inability to speak their own language correctly, the
assumption of superiority where none existed.

As he shuffles his walker back into the living room where he can finally sit down on
his bed, he has the impression that someone else is in the room. Perhaps Sunila heard
the toilet flush and woke up.

He positions himself and sits and then says, “Did I wake you?”

“You might have done, you took that long, you stupid old git.” The voice is young,
male and cold. A flashlight is shone directly at his face. There is a crash and swearing
as the flashlight is dropped and a chair is overturned. He expects a blow to the head.
He expects that he must die now. He hopes he will have the chance to say that they
have very little money in the house, but to take whatever there is downstairs. There is
nothing upstairs. Perhaps he can save Sunila from this final shame of being humiliated
and hurt by a maniac child.

But the blow doesn’t arrive. There is heavy breathing and the voice says, “You’re
Indian, intcha?”

Arjun manages, “Yes, I am. Please take what we have down here. I can tell you
where it is.”

“I can’t take nothing from you, you old bhenchod.”

Arjun flinches at the language. Even now he cannot accustom himself to the casual
way that young people swear. And then he realizes the boy is Indian, hence the
swearing in Hindi. “Beta, don’t hurt us. Or, if you must, then hurt me. Leave her be.”

“Shut up. Don’t say anything.” A pause. “Maderchod.”

“Beta, please don’t swear.”

“Don’t call me son. I’m not your son.”

“I’m sorry.” Arjun tries to slow his breathing down before the panic attack starts.

“What the fuck am I meant to do now? I mean, I go to all the fucking trouble to
break into your bhenchod house and you’re fucking Indian.”

“Son, can we put the light on?”

“Oh, so you can see me and report me to the police, I suppose.”

“Who is going to believe a sick old man?”

“Oh yes. Rub it in. Not only can I not smash your maderchod head in and take your
money, I have to turn the light on so you can make a positive ID. Well, why not? Why
not just make the whole fucking evening complete?” There is patting and slapping as
the young boy feels his way around the room. More swearing as he contacts the sharp
edges of the credenza.

“The light is just here behind me on the wall.”

The boy comes closer. “Hold on.” There is a struggle with some kind of material and Arjun
hopes he isn’t about to be blindfolded. Then the light is turned on. Arjun doesn’t move.

The intruder comes around to him. He is dressed in black sweats, and wears a black
balaclava, obscuring his nose and mouth. He is a large boy with thick eyebrows.

As Arjun blinks against the light, the boy comes into focus. Arjun says,
“You are so young.”

Slightly muffled by the wool, the boy says, “You don’t know how old I am, do ya?”

Arjun considers the smooth skin. “Sixteen? Seventeen?”

“You’re wrong. I’m fifteen.”

“You are such a big boy.”

“My mum’s side. We’re all big. You should see my sister. She’s huge.”

Arjun has a vivid picture of a teenage girl crammed into sweats wearing a similar balaclava
and tries to dismiss it before he starts smiling. This is no smiling matter. Despite the fact the
child is so young he could easily do a lot of damage.

“You want the money? I can tell you where it is.”

“You got money here?” The brief note of hope is dismissed. “Nah. I can’t take your money,

“But, you went to all this trouble. Breaking in and what-all.”

“How come you’re Indian? Me mates told me no one’s Indian over on this side.”

Behind the balaclava, Arjun thinks there may be a ferocious sulk going on.

“We’ve been here for many years. No other Indian families moved in. What to do?”

“How long you been here, then?”

“Almost fifty years.”

“Fuck off. I mean, you’re joking, right?”

“It’s almost fifty years. So many people have come and gone.”

“Yeah, well I didn’t come here to listen to all that.”

“Son, go to that cupboard over there. There’s money. Take.”

The boy pulls the cupboard door open, squats down and pulls out a few envelopes. He
leaves them on the floor. “If only I’d hit you like I was planning. Then I could’ve taken the
money and run.” He pushes at the balaclava. “It’s like Ashok says. I’m rubbish at this.”

“But if you’d hit me first, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you where the money was.”

“Yeah, but I hit you until you tell me.”

Arjun imagines the boy sitting enthralled in front of a detective show. “Son, that kind of
hitting is for a much stronger fellow than me. One hit, pachaak, and I’m done for.”

“Yeah. You’re really old, innit. No offense, like.” The boy sighs. “I better go.”

Despite his difficulty with breathing, Arjun is curious. “How did you get in?”

“Your front door, mate. You want to change the locks. Get one of them deadbolts.”

“Aha. I see.” Alert to the noises of the house, he hears Sunila moving upstairs. “Son, you
should go quickly. My wife has a phone upstairs. And we have one of these emergency red

“Shit. I’m off. Listen, uncle, get a deadbolt.” He hesitates, snatches up one of the
envelopes, and exits through the front door.

Arjun listens for the running feet, but there is nothing. Despite his bulk, the boy is light on
his feet. He admires the boy’s ingenuity. He must be experienced at breaking in to deal with their lock so easily.

He imagines Sunila, terrified upstairs, wondering whether it’s safe to come down. “Sunila.
Come down. He has gone.”

His voice is so weak he is certain she can’t have heard.

“Arjun? Are you all right?” Her voice is shaking.

“I’m fine. You can come down.” His heart rate is returning to normal but he cannot project
enough force into his voice to send it up to her.

“Arjun? Is the robber gone?”

“He’s gone. Come down.” He is frustrated with this upstairs-downstairs business. Must the whole neighborhood listen in? Why can’t she come downstairs and talk to him?

“Arjun? Are you there?”

“I am here, you deaf old cow.” He is shocked at his bad language, but there is pleasure in
the fact that she can’t hear him.

“Arjun, I called the police. It will be all right.”

He doesn’t know why she won’t just come down. “Listen, the boy is gone.”

“I am waiting here to see if you are all right.”

The flashing blue lights reflect through the curtains and he knows he will not tell the police
that the thief was just a child.

He waits while the police enter, check the premises, ask him questions which is he now
almost too tired to answer. No, he didn’t hear the robber enter. No, he didn’t get a look at
the robber’s face. No, the robber didn’t talk much to him, other than make vague threats. No, the robber didn’t harm him.

The police are intrigued with this last point. Old age and infirmity are rarely deterrents for
thieves. Did Arjun know the robber? No, he had never seen him before. About how old was
he? It wasn’t possible to tell since the robber wore a mask. A young man, he thinks.

“You’re lucky, sir. You could have been killed. It’s mainly kids. They’re after drug money. You know how it is.” Arjun doesn’t know how it is, but he nods anyway.

Sunila is brought downstairs. She can barely walk and when she sees him, she clings to the police woman and weeps. “Arjun. Arjun.”

He suddenly realizes she thought he was dead and was terrified of having to see his body. She continued to talk to him because she would not believe he was dead until the police told her. He imagines her crouched against the window upstairs, believing she was finally alone.

Her eyes are puffy from crying. She is leaning against the police-woman. He has a moment of sympathy for the officer. Sunila is not a light-weight.

And then he is irritated. She has had her moment. Another police woman is patting her
shoulder. “Mrs. Dasgupta, everything is all right. Your husband is fine.”

But she can’t resist. “Oh god, oh god.” And she weeps noisily. The two women officers try to get Sunila to sit, but she stays standing.

He clears his throat. He wishes for the strength of his voice so he could ask them all to
leave, so he could tell her exactly what he thinks of her hysterics. How can she behave in
such a low-class manner?

“I thought he was dead! I thought he’d been killed!”

Really. There is something indelicate, this shouting about his death with such gusto.

“Mrs. Dasgupta, please sit down. You’ve had a terrible shock.”

Arjun fumes silently. He was the one who could have been killed and just look at her,
hedged about with uniformed sympathy. Someone is in the kitchen making a cup of tea.

One of the officers speaks to him. “Mr. Dasgupta, I’m sorry to take up so much of your time. You must be very tired. I wonder if we could send someone over to talk to you tomorrow?”

“Yes. That’s fine.”

The officer collects the others, but not before someone has brought Sunila a cup of tea and she finally sits down. The tea-bearing police woman remembers and looks over at Arjun.

“I’m so sorry. Did you―?”

“No, thank you.”

Sunila stands up, in charge again. “He must get his rest. He’s not well, you know.” Gracious and bearing up under tremendous stress. He hates her.

The officers smile and pat her as though she is a well-behaved dog. She smiles up at them.

She sees them to the door and he manages to get himself back into bed.

With any luck, she’ll leave him alone.

But she comes in. “Arjun, are you all right?”

“I’m tired, Sunila. I want to sleep.”

“How can you sleep? You must talk about it, isn’t it? Did you see the robber? What was he like? I heard voices and there was all the banging and thumping. Did he steal anything?”

“I don’t know. I can’t talk about it now.”

“But what was he like?”

“Sunila, please. I want to rest.”

“I didn’t see anything. I was listening, but I didn’t get a look. I waited by the window to see
if I could get a glimpse. It would have been so helpful for the police.”

“You could have come downstairs and had a look at him.”

She tightens her lips and her nose whistles as she breathes in and out. “Oh yes. It’s easy for you. You were down here with every chance to have a good look at him. How are the police going to catch him without a proper description? You didn’t even try to see what he was like.”

“I was trying to avoid being killed.”

“He wouldn’t have killed you. He just wanted the money.”

“I gave him the money.”

She sees the open cabinet door. “He took the money?”

He hears the heartbreak in her voice. Not the money. He adds, “Not all. Just one envelope.”

“But that was for the poor people in Chad. I was going to take it to the bank tomorrow. To
send to the mission. And now it’s gone. What am I going to tell them? What if they don’t
believe me? They’ll think I just spent the money on myself.”

“Sunila, no one will think that. They will be sorry. That’s all.”

She is sorting through her envelopes and stacking them neatly back in the cabinet. How
often he has told her not to leave money there, but she won’t listen to anyone.

“Of course, he would take the one with the most money. They’re like that, you know. And
now those poor people in Chad will have to do without.”

“Sunila, take your money and put it in the bank.”

She closes the cabinet door and stands up. “Well, that’s it. Nothing to be done. No good
crying over spilled milk. Are you hungry?”

I’m not hungry you stupid old woman, I am exhausted from nearly being killed by a foolish
child. How can you stand there babbling about money for Chad?

And then he realizes; he is hungry.

“I’ve got some of that chicken curry. We can have with pilao, yes?”

She bustles off to heat the food and he feels the anger subsiding. The comfortable noises
of plates and silverware, the thunk and ka-thunk of the microwave door opening and shutting. The hum as it starts heating the food. The water from the faucet streams into the sink and she fills the kettle for tea. The fridge is opened and he hears the tuk of Tupperware being opened. She must have found the cucumber and tomato salad and his favorite coriander chutney. He imagines her arranging it all on the plate and putting the plate on a tray to bring to him.

He usually sits in the Laz-y-boy for his meals, but he can’t move from the edge of the bed. He tries leaning on the walker, but his legs won’t respond, won’t bend, won’t take his weight.

Sunila comes in. “I’m making some tea. Oh.” She stops. “Let me help.” She puts her arm
under his and eases him upright so that he can lean on the walker. Together, they shuffle to the Laz-y-boy and she helps him sit, plumping the cushions behind him so that he is propped forward.

“Thank you, Sunila.”

“Not at all. Can I bring your food?”

He smiles at her. “Yes, please.” There is gentleness in his smile. He wants her to see that he loves her. He wants her to see that he understands her panic. How strong she is. Instead of continuing to fuss over the money, she just gets on with the next thing and the next. After they eat, she will clear away the dishes and wash them. She will help him back into bed. And tomorrow, she will go on, cleaning and washing and cooking and helping him write his letters and reading to him when he is too tired to read for himself.

And after, as he listens to her climbing the stairs, quietly closing the bedroom door, he will pray for her. Lord, give her the strength she needs so that she can keep on doing the next thing. And the next.



When Sandra Hunter isn’t teaching at Moorpark College in Ventura, she toils up hills in Malibu where it is still possible to fly, by bike, above the clouds, she dances with her daughter on the beach and isn’t arrested, and she doubles the garlic in most non-dessert recipes.  Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in New York Stories, the New Delta Review, Zyzzyva, Talking River Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Glimmer Train, the South Dakota Review, and others.  “Hunger and Thirst” is part of a sectional novel with a working title of “Waiting to be Filled.”

“Closing the Cabin One Year Later” by Bart Galle

Brown Wooden Cabin in a Lake

It had snowed the night before.
The boards of the dock were white,
the morning water grey and starting to move
I wanted to stay inside, under the covers,
but we got up and went for a hike
on a new trail to a new lake.
We walked past marsh grass
brittle as spun glass
and crossed small brooks,
also looking for the lake.
Too much to do, we turned back.
That afternoon we closed the cabin,
drove toward home.
Clusters of snow buntings
rose unexpectedly along the road,
flashing white wings
in a purposeful way.
They flew before the car
like porpoises leading a ship.
Go here!  Look here!



Bart Galle spent most of his professional life in medical education, a field in which he now works part-time for the Heart Failure Society of America. He is a gallery owner and artist specializing in pastel painting, the book arts, and installation pieces combining the two. His interest in poetry grew out of the death of his youngest son in 2002, when it provided a means for expression and learning. He was a finalist for the 2007 Loft Literary Center’s Poetry Mentorship. His poems have been published recently in White Pelican Review, Main Channel Voices, and Coe Review.  He and his wife live in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“Walking by the Aikido Center Late at Night” by Bart Galle

bus, public transportation, seats

I stop to watch two students
vacuuming the mat.

From opposite ends
they go side to side,
working toward the center.

The vacuum cleaners
are chrome with red bags,
everything else is white.

I catch my bus before
they finish. As the stops go by
I think about the students
meeting in the middle.

I picture a kind of minuet
with cords held high,
cleaners tilted on their heels,
right-hand turns, left-hand turns,
palms together, eye-to-eye,
deep into the night.



Bart Galle spent most of his professional life in medical education, a field in which he now works part-time for the Heart Failure Society of America. He is a gallery owner and artist specializing in pastel painting, the book arts, and installation pieces combining the two. His interest in poetry grew out of the death of his youngest son in 2002, when it provided a means for expression and learning. He was a finalist for the 2007 Loft Literary Center’s Poetry Mentorship. His poems have been published recently in White Pelican Review, Main Channel Voices, and Coe Review.  He and his wife live in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“Circle the Wagons” by Cathy Strasser

Green Rectangular Toy, Gray Boat Toy, Gray Shovel Toy, and Green Car Toy on Top of Brown Leather Surface

Jeff crouched in the sandbox, pushing his bulldozer. In two weeks, he would be finished with second grade. He liked this time of year because it stayed light enough to play outside after dinner. He switched from bulldozer to dump truck as the screen door at the Barnes’ house slammed. Leaning over, he could just see their back porch. It was Mrs. Barnes. She pushed up the sleeves of her tattered blue robe, stumbled to the edge of the porch, and started yelling. “You sons a bitches! You goddamn commie bastards! Who the hell do you think you are, treating us like that?”

Jeff jumped as her hand slapped the railing. Mrs. Barnes staggered back a step, then lurched forward to slap it again. “You got no right! No goddamn right. Who the hell makes the decisions anyway? What ass-hole decided to do this?”

Picking up his shovel, Jeff bent over to keep an eye on Mrs. Barnes. She was leaning against one of the posts now.

“You think you’re God, but you’re not. You’re nothing but a goddamn sorry-assed bunch of bastards who think they can rule the world…”

The slam of another screen door distracted Jeff. His mother came tiptoeing across the yard toward him and crouched down once she reached the sandbox. She was wearing her rainbow-striped housedress and smelled sweet, like the powder she had in the round pink box.

“Jeffey, would you like a popsicle?” she whispered.

Jeff nodded eagerly. Two desserts in one night! Usually she was very strict about desserts; he must have done something really good today. Happily, he followed her across the lawn. “…and I don’t give a good goddamn what anyone else thinks, I know what’s going on…” The front door cut Mrs. Barnes off as they entered the house.

His mother gave him the Popsicle and sat him down at the kitchen table to eat it. It was orange, his favorite, the kind with two sticks. He bit off the top while his mother bustled around slamming the windows shut. That seemed strange because she had been complaining of the heat at dinner, but Jeff couldn’t ask why with his mouth full.

His mother patted him on the head and went into the living room where his father sat reading the paper. The sharp tone of her voice carried into the kitchen.

“Tom! We have to do something. It wasn’t so bad in the colder weather, but now it’s getting unbearable to have to close the windows every night.”

Jeff heard his father’s low pitched voice answer, but couldn’t make out the words.

His mother’s voice jumped back in. “I don’t know who we should call. But there must be something we can do. It’s just not right to have to listen to that every night.”

Jeff noticed the Popsicle was beginning to drip down the stick. He tilted it sideways and sucked at the bottom to try to slow it down. He wanted to finish without making a mess. Whenever he was messy, his mother talked about not buying any more of whatever made the mess. Her voice resumed in the living room.

“Talking to him won’t do any good. For all we know he’s in exactly the same condition, just not so noisy. Lord knows what Jeff hears. All we need is for him to repeat some of that language at school and then we’ll be down there trying to explain it all!”

Silence. Jeff worried it would be one of those nights when their talk ended in the crisp crackle of the newspaper from his father, and the sharp slam of the bedroom door from his mother. On those nights his mother tucked him into bed so tightly he could barely move, and her good night kiss was so curt and fast it was like a stab to his forehead.

He waited, then heard the strike and sizzle of a match, a pause, two quick breaths and a long exhale. The tang of cigarette smoke drifted into the kitchen, and Jeff relaxed. When his father lit a cigarette for his mother and they sat smoking together, her goodnight kiss was always gentle and tender.

Carefully, he put his Popsicle sticks in the trash and checked his clothes for drips that might have escaped.

Finding none, he moved close to the living room door. His father was talking again, low and soothing, and when he finished his mother laughed for a moment. “But seriously Tom, something has to be done. I can’t spend the whole summer with the windows closed at that end of the house, and besides, it’s not healthy for her. She could fall and hurt herself or hurt someone else. She’s yelling threats out there.” More soothing murmurs from his father.

“If you say so Tom, but it needs to be soon. Now I’d better get our little scamp into his bath.”

The next morning, Jeff trailed slowly down the block to the bus stop. Billy Morton was ahead of him, walking with Joe Carter and Stephen Brooks. They were deep in conversation as they reached the corner.

“Ma Barnes was at it again last night.”

“What is that, three nights in a row?”

Joe kicked a rock into the street. “At least. What was she saying this time?”

“The usual. Goddamn this and son of a bitch that.”

All three boys sniggered.

“Was she bombed?”

Billy rolled his eyes. “You better believe it. She could barely stand.”

“My mom says it’s getting worse every week.”

“Was she yelling her dear son Eddie’s name this time?” Stephan’s kick sent another rock to join Joe’s.

“Nope, just a lot about commie bastards.”

Jeff edged a little closer. They were talking about Eddie. Eddie was his friend.

“Jeez, you wouldn’t think she’d get so nutty so fast.”

“How long has he been gone now?” Billy stepped out into the street and nudged both rocks together.

“He left just after Thanksgiving, and it’s almost June now…”

There was a silence as the boys counted.

“Seven months!” Joe got the answer first.

“When do you think he’ll be back?”

“I dunno. Maybe a year. If he doesn’t come back in a box.” Billy said, letting fly with his foot and managing to hit both rocks in one savage kick.

Jeff moved away again. He didn’t like the way their voices sounded. It was like when they decided to steal his lunch box or play keep away with his hat.

That was how he met Eddie last spring. The boys had taken his new baseball cap and were making him jump to get it back. Eddie was walking by the bus stop on his way to work and saw Jeff trying to jump without crying. He crossed the street and grabbed Jeff’s hat out of Billy’s hand.

“What’s going on here?”

“Nothing.” Billy muttered. Eddie towered over the three boys, and looked very tough in his green mechanic’s coverall. He seemed like a super-hero to Jeff.

“Why don’t you leave the little kid alone?”

“We were just playing. He doesn’t mind, do you Jeff?” Billy glared at Jeff, daring him to disagree.

Jeff didn’t know what to say. If he said yes, the boys would pound him as soon as Eddie left. If he said no, they’d take his hat every day and tell him he’d asked for it. Eddie solved the problem for him.

“Well, I mind. I don’t think its right for three of you big guys to gang up on one little kid.”

“It’s none of your business.” Stephan piped up from behind Billy, drawing nods and sounds of assent from the two other boys.

“It’s my business ‘cause Jeff here is my next door neighbor, and we’re buddies. Isn’t that right Jeff?”

He winked at Jeff. Jeff bobbed his head up and down.

“And I’m gonna make it my business to walk past this bus stop every morning to make sure you’re not bothering him. Got that?”

Jeff watched the three boys back away, grumbling about busybodies. Eddie stayed with him until the bus came and kept his word over the next few weeks, showing up at the bus stop most mornings.

But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was the evenings, when Eddie came home from his job at the garage. He started calling Jeff to come over and help him with his project. Eddie was an auto mechanic. “A grease monkey,” he called it. During the day, he worked fixing up other people’s cars. In the evening, he worked on his own; tinkering with the engine to make it go faster. He said it was his ‘hot car’. Jeff couldn’t figure out why. He’d touched the car once when Eddie wasn’t looking, and it felt the same as any other car.

It didn’t matter. What mattered was that Eddie talked to him while he worked. He told Jeff about his plans for the car, asked him to pass tools, and called him ‘buddy’. They’d work together until it got dark and the smell of baking came stealing from Eddie’s house. Then Mrs. Barnes would call them both in to her shiny kitchen and offer them a snack, usually fresh from the oven. Jeff didn’t know there could be so many kinds of cookies.

“C’mon in boys,” she’d say, while the light from the kitchen touched her carefully curled hair and glimmered off the pearls she always wore. “It’s getting too dark to see out there.”

It gave Jeff a wiggly proud feeling in the pit of his stomach to be classed in the same category as Eddie. He liked Eddie very much.

Jeff’s mother liked Eddie too. “Are you sure he’s not bothering you?” she asked when she called him in for his bath.

“Nah, he’s a good egg.” Eddie said, while Jeff beamed up at him.

“He’s so polite and well behaved.” Mrs. Barnes added. “I hardly know he’s here.” Eddie’s father, a quiet man, murmured his agreement.

That always pleased Jeff’s mother. “I’m glad to hear you’re minding your manners while you’re there. It’s nice to know you remember the things I tell you.” And she would give him the soft bedtime tuck in.

Things changed when the leaves started falling off the trees. Eddie didn’t talk as much when they worked together. His mother talked more, and they both smiled less. Mrs. Barnes’ conversation didn’t make as much sense, and she seemed to be talking to herself a good deal.

“Here’s your snack,” she would say. “Heaven knows you should stock up now. Who knows what kind of food you might find…But you’ll have to eat. No one can do anything on an empty stomach. I just worry that there won’t be much worth eating.”

One night when Jeff went over to Eddie’s he was surprised to see that no tools were out, and there was a sheet pulled over Eddie’s hot car.

“Come over here buddy, we have to talk.”

Jeff went over and sat on the little stool Eddie kept in the garage just for him.

“I wanted to tell you I won’t be able to work out here with you for a while. I have to go away for a few months.

You see, there’s a war in a little country called Vietnam. Have you ever heard of it?”

Jeff shook his head.

“Yeah, I wish I never did either. It’s over by China. You’ve heard of China, right?”

Jeff nodded. Sometimes, for a treat, his mother would make chop suey for dinner. She’d tell him that was what the children ate on the other side of the world in China.

“Anyway, I have to go to Vietnam to help fight in that war. I just found out I’m leaving next week and I’m gonna be busy getting ready until I go. So I wanted to say good-bye now, okay?”

When Eddie didn’t say any more, Jeff nodded. That seemed to be the right thing to do. Eddie stuck out a hand.

After a minute, Jeff did the same and Eddie shook it.

“I’ll look for you when I come back. I’ll expect my buddy to be ready to help me again.”

Jeff nodded once more and Eddie steered him to the door. “Take care, buddy,” he said, then turned and went in to the house. Jeff ran through the yard to his own door; suddenly frightened. He had never seen Eddie so serious.

Over the next months, Jeff heard that strange word Vietnam in more and more places. It was in the news program his mother listened to on the radio. It was in church when they took a minute to pray for ‘our brave boys overseas’. It was even on the playground where kids talked about brothers and cousins ‘pulling low numbers’. For a while, Jeff listened, hoping to hear about Eddie. But no one mentioned his name, and soon Vietnam became just another grown-up topic, like ‘demonstrations’ and ‘student unrest’.

It was around Christmas that Mrs. Barnes started coming out on her porch to yell at the
neighborhood. At first, Jeff’s mother had been understanding.

“It’s the stress of the holiday season.”

She baked a cake and took it next door. She told Jeff to stay home because there would be a lot of adult talk and he would be bored. But she came back very quickly.

“I stood on their front porch,” she told Jeff’s father, “out in that cold wind, ringing their doorbell and no one would answer! I could hear someone moving around inside so I know they were home. I just can’t imagine why they wouldn’t come to the door.”

Jeff’s father inclined his head toward Jeff and raised his eyebrows.

“Oh, all right. Jeff, scoot up to your room now and play. I have to clean up the kitchen and I don’t want you under foot.”

Jeff moved to the door and climbed the stairs as slowly as he could. His mother’s voice followed him.

“I thought they were such a nice family. But to act like this! I never thought someone could change so quickly.”

Mrs. Barnes continued to come out on her porch throughout the winter and spring. She stopped wearing her neatly ironed dresses and started wearing her robe, even in the daytime. Jeff’s mother stopped using her name and started calling her ‘that woman’. When school let out for summer, Jeff’s family took out a membership at the town pool. Every afternoon, they left the house and spent the day there. Jeff got a tan and learned to dog paddle. Jeff’s mother made new friends and exchanged recipes. Jeff’s father built a patio on the far side of the house, away from the Barnes, got a charcoal grill, and a big red apron that said ‘Chef.’

Jeff’s mother didn’t talk about Eddie or his parents unless it was an exceptionally loud night from Mrs. Barnes. Then his mother would say, “I don’t like the thought of Jeff going over there once Eddie comes home.”

“If.” his father said. “We’ll worry about that when and if the time comes.”

Eddie Barnes came home just before Halloween. He didn’t come in a box and he didn’t wear a costume. He had a purple heart pinned to his shirt and a metal hook sticking out of one sleeve.

The other sleeve was empty, and hung loosely from his shoulder.

Jeff didn’t see him come home, but he heard the story from the boys at the bus stop.

“Both his hands were blown clean off.” Billy said.

“They couldn’t even find any pieces.” Joe added, twirling his book bag by the strap.

“There must have been blood everywhere.” Stephan dropped his bag on the ground and stood straddling it, nudging it with his feet.

“I wonder what that must feel like.”

The sudden silence was awkward.

“He got a medal,” Billy rushed on. “Cause it happened while he was trying to save someone.”

“And the guy was booby-trapped; as soon as Eddie touched him, ka-boom!”

“Now he’s got a hook instead of a hand.” Joe stopped twirling his bag and started swinging it.

“What can you do with just a hook? He doesn’t have anything on the other side.”

“I bet he has to pee like a girl now.”

“And I bet he can’t even…” Stephan stopped suddenly as Billy nudged him. “What?”

Billy nodded toward Jeff. He’d moved closer when they started talking about Eddie.

“Don’t let the kid hear you. We might get in trouble.”

The three boys looked at Jeff, then moved away. Jeff didn’t care. Eddie was home.

Jeff waited for Eddie to call him over to his house, but the invitation didn’t come. Finally, he walked next door and rang the bell.

“Who is it?”

Jeff hesitated. Eddie sounded angry. The curtain over the door was wrenched aside, and Eddie’s face peered out. “Oh. It’s you. C’mon in.”

Jeff opened the door and followed Eddie’s back into the kitchen. The house smelled sour and musty, and the kitchen was cluttered and grimy. Eddie, dressed in a rumpled T-shirt and boxers, matched the kitchen. He sat down at the table and surveyed Jeff.

“You’ve grown. Now that you’re here, you can make yourself useful. See that pack of cigarettes?

Wedge one in here.” He held the hook up near Jeff’s face and turned to show a small opening. Jeff fumbled for the cigarette and tried to get it into the space.

“Not that way. There has to be enough sticking out so I can get my lips on it. That’s better. Now, grab that lighter and light me up.”

Jeff froze. His mother never let him near her lighter, and threatened dire punishments if she ever saw him touch one.

“C’mon, c’mon, you just flick that wheel with your thumb. Even a baby could do it.”

Stung into action, Jeff managed to light Eddie’s cigarette. He sat down across from Eddie and watched him inhale deeply. Eddie looked over at him. “You want one? Go ahead. I won’t tell.” Jeff stared and then shook his head. He’d be grounded for life.

“Suit yourself.” Eddie shrugged, an oddly off-balance action with only one arm. “It’s one of the few things I can still manage, so I do a lot of it.” He exhaled unhurriedly, letting the smoke trickle out through his nose. Jeff sat, hands pressed between his knees, waiting for Eddie to finish. The kitchen faucet was dripping slowly, and it made an odd counter rhythm to Eddie’s puffs on his cigarette.

Finally, he finished, knocked the stub out of his hook into a bowl on the table, and squinted over at Jeff. “So what’s your story these days, kid?”

Looking away, Jeff squirmed slightly in his chair. He didn’t like the way Eddie called him ‘kid’. He wished he’d go back to ‘buddy’.

“No story, huh? Just like me. No story, no chance of a story any more, just a lot of nothing. At the VA they gave me this,” he shook his hook toward Jeff, “and told me they could rig something up for the other side.”

He banged the table in disgust. Jeff jumped, then perched back on the edge of his chair.

“I told them not to bother. What’s the point? What good are a pair of hooks gonna do me? You can’t use tools with a pair of hooks, can you? CAN YOU?”

Eddie shouted the last two words at Jeff, leaning across the table toward him. Jeff shook his head, hunching away from Eddie’s yellowed teeth and stale breath.

“What the hell do you know anyway, you’re just a little kid.”

Jeff blinked and hung his head. They were buddies. Why was Eddie talking like this? He stole a quick look from under his eyelashes. Eddie was still looking at him.

“You don’t talk much, do you? Were you always this quiet? You’re like some kind of little spook, just sitting there, staring at me. Well, this is it, kid. This is all you’re ever going to see. So why don’t you just head back home to your mamma and leave me alone. I JUST WANT TO BE LEFT ALONE!”

Jeff didn’t remember how he got to the door. He paused with his hand on the doorknob and looked back once more at Eddie. His expression hadn’t changed. He looked mad and scared and sad; just like Jeff was feeling. Jeff opened the door and ran out, leaving it to swing closed behind him.

It was the day before Thanksgiving, and Jeff was out in the yard. His mother had shooed him outside, telling him to take advantage of the nice day before winter set in, and stay out from under her feet while she started tomorrow’s pies. Jeff went over to the sandbox and lined up his trucks.

His father thought he was getting a little old for the sandbox, but his mother told him to let Jeff alone. “He’s still a boy. Let him be one as long as he can.”

He cleared the leaves out of the corners of the sandbox and began to dig. Soon he had a road, a deep pit, and a parking area. He was just clearing out the space to try a tunnel, when a screen door slammed. He looked toward his house. His mother had promised him the leftover pie dough when she was done, but their door remained tightly shut. He leaned to the left and looked at the Barnes house. There was Eddie, out on the porch.

Jeff hadn’t seen Eddie since his visit to the house. No one talked about him much any more. When his name came up Jeff’s mother pursed her lips and shook her head, and even Billy, Joe, and Stephen no longer speculated about him. Jeff looked at Eddie through the trees. He seemed to have trouble walking. He got up to the porch railing and leaned against it, looking up toward the tree tops.

“You sons a bitches. You goddamn assholes. Who the hell do you think you are? Look what you’ve done to me. You had no right to play with my life like that.”

Quietly, Jeff began to gather up his trucks.

“I hope the goddamn commie bastards who did this burn in hell with you right next to them, you sick sadistic psychos. You think you know what’s best, but you don’t know a goddamn thing.” With the trucks neatly gathered in the corner of the sandbox, Jeff got up, brushed off his pants, and headed toward his house.

“You sent me to the other side of the world just to blow my fuc…”

Jeff closed the door firmly behind him.

“All done outside?” his mother said.

“I think Dad’s right. I’m too old to play in the sandbox.”



Cathy Strasser is an Occupational Therapist and freelance writer. She has had short stories published in the Mom Writer’s Literary Magazine, The Literary Bone, Silverthought Press Women’s Anthology, Touched By Wonder Anthology, The Chrysalis Reader, as well as a two article series in Cabin Life Magazine. She is currently working on her first book, Autism: A Therapist’s Journey Toward Enlightenment, describing her experiences in working with children with autism and will be published by AAPC in late 2007. Cathy is a member of The New Hampshire Writer’s Project and co-founder of the New England Chapter of the National Association of Women Writers. She lives in Sugar Hill , New Hampshire with her husband and two children.

“Libby” by Aaron Hellem

Water Drops from Stainless Steel Faucet

Billy glows in the dark. Not as green as money or Jello, but a softer incandescence.

Elizabeth reaches out and lays her palm flat against his stomach. Billy leans over her, kisses her forehead and down her nose. Finds her lips in the dark. Finds her buttons with his eyes closed.

She wraps her lips around his whole body as if to swallow him and burn on the inside from whatever makes him glow in the dark.

The water boils when it rushes from the tap. Glaciers are melting quickly somewhere in the world, but that’s not what makes the water boil when it rushes from the tap. Billy’s father, at the table, looks like he’s melting into his coffee and buttered toast. His skin sags like a turkey’s neck. Dark circles around his eyes. Sores on the end of his nose. He doesn’t look good.

Dad, Billy says, you look awful.

Thanks, son, his father says. Now, will you please pass me the goddamn shitting son of a bitching salt?

He doesn’t look up from his toast.

Outside a tanker truck shifts gears and screams down their street. Children aren’t supposed to play outside for stretches of time longer than forty-five minutes.

What do you do there at the plant, Dad? Billy says.

Put food on the table, his father says. Son of a bitching bacon on this goddamn shitting table. How do you like that? He looks up at Billy. His eyes are entirely black. Sheen, like a fish’s.

How do you like that? he says again. Your sister’s shitty ass shoes and your son of a bitching college fund. His left eye twitches in manic spasms.

All right, dad, Billy says. The whole side of his face looks ready to burst, his eyeball ready to pop out and roll across the table.

It’s all right, dad, Billy says.

I know it’s all right, his father says. You don’t have to tell me it’s all right. I’m the one who son of a bitching slaves away all shitting day in that worthless asshole shitbox. You don’t have to tell me.

Billy nods. He’s too young for this, he thinks. Too young to have a melting father. Too young to glow green in the dark.

Elizabeth is late, and the ultrasound shows them their baby, as big as a fish. With flippers. The doctor doesn’t say anything. Quiet, like he has to tell somebody a loved one is dead.

They’ll go away, Billy says to Elizabeth. They all look like that initially.

Right, doctor?

The doctor points at the screen and shakes his head.

The baby glows green just like its daddy. Elizabeth cries. Billy holds her hand. Just tell us straight, doctor, he says.

The doctor cries. His finger on the screen. It’s a fish, the doctor says. He traces the gills and the bottom of the baby where a tail protrudes.

Elizabeth squeezes Billy’s hand as though she’s falling from the top of a building. Off the edge of a cliff. Dangling only by metacarpals.

Gills? Billy says.

Oh god, Elizabeth sobs, I see the tail.

Where? Billy says. He squints at the screen.

I see it! Elizabeth cries.

Where? Where is it?

The doctor’s shoulders shake. His hand trembles. He points at it. As long as the tip of his finger.

There, he says.

I see it! Elizabeth cries. She closes her eyes and turns her head away.

The bones in Billy’s hand are crushed to chalk dust; he doesn’t feel a thing. Oh god, Billy says.

I don’t want it, Elizabeth says.

Are you sure you don’t? the doctor says.

I’m sure, she says.

And you? the doctor asks Billy.

He already has gloves out. Already has a rod and a hook ready. Bait all ready to go. The baby shifts on the screen. On the screen, glowing green, flipping and flopping. The doctor hooks the worm.

Billy? Elizabeth says.

We need to do this now, Billy, the doctor says. Billy nods, but doesn’t watch. He holds on to Elizabeth like he’s the one falling now. From a mountain. Off a bridge.

It’s all right, Elizabeth whispers into the sides of his head. She holds onto him as the doctor dangles the lure in between her legs. It’s all right, she says again. Billy feels the green bursting inside him, squeezing into the backs of his eyes and from the inside of his ribs, thrashing to get out. He feels the glow burn on the tips of his fingers and the ends of his hairs. Can feel his teeth from white-wash to Chernobyl green. Ghoulie green. Gangrene.

Billy works the night shift because his green glow allows management to cut out the lights at night. He walks so he won’t wallow. Elizabeth won’t answer his calls. Her mother threatens to call the police. The police know Billy, and are afraid to touch his skin to handcuff him.

Billy makes his rounds, sings so he doesn’t sob. Other night-watch men have mentioned hearing voices at night, sneezes and screams from down the hallways. It used to be hospital for those too sick for reality and those not sick enough for a real hospital. Some physically defected from the contaminated water they drank and poisonous soil they played in as children. Those who ate vegetables grown in their own backyards and those who ate fish from the river. They were sent there when the tumors were too big to
carry. It’s where his father will go when he finally melts into a hole in the ground; his voice will boom in the dark at Billy: Get your son of a bitching ass back to motherfucking work! His ghost will haunt in a puddle, oozing underneath the door cracks and mail slots.

Billy doesn’t have a flashlight. He has a belt of keys instead. One for every door in the building.

There are, at least, a hundred doors. One key for each of them. Sometimes two. Billy doesn’t open them. Down the dark hall, he hears the ghosts flopping towards him. With tails rather than chains.

With fins stretched out. You’ll know your father, Billy thinks, by his green glow. By how he goes in between the worlds of light and dark.

His father melts into his slippers. A puddle of skin pooled in the bottoms of his worn slippers. Does this mean you’re not going to work? Billy asks him.

I can’t take the day off, his father says, his voice as quiet as though on the other end of a telephone.

No goddamn son of a bitching vacation time for this sorry old bastard son of a bitch. His father sighs.

Crap, he says.

Is it time for me to feed you now? Billy says. He envisions breakfast in a blender, down a straw into his father’s deflated mouth and down his deflated throat, leaching into his deflated intestines.

I don’t need nothing from you, pissant, his father says. I’ll melt right into my goddamn grave before I take a son of a bitching helping hand from you.

The horoscopes are printed right next to the air and water quality reports. The air is better today because of a front blowing through. The water still needs boiling before using. Billy’s horoscope tells him not to expect anything extraordinary from loved ones. He hears two tiny voices: one tells him to turn down that son of a bitching green glow and the other tells him to run. He leaves the dishes where they are, leaves the newspaper scattered on the table, and leaves his father in a skin puddle rippling with each miniature expletive. His legs carry him down the street like wheels.

The light in Elizabeth seems extinguished. I’m sorry, she says. Her hands shake. Her bottom lip, too.

Splotches of red in her pallid eyes. A ping in her palliation.

It was nobody’s fault, Billy says. Rocky Mountain creases across her forehead. He takes her hand to infuse her with his green glow heat. It radiates into her palm and up her forearm. Her eyes widen, and it spreads into her chest and her clothes combust and fall off her in sparks.

I’m sorry, she says, and the words fly out in flames, bursting brightly in the air like popping fireworks.

I am, she says. I am, I am, I am, I am. Each one a flowering flare as though spit from a roman candle.

We are, Billy says.

Outside of town, they lie down in the middle of a field. They stare up at the other small suns scattered across the Big Sky Country night. That one, she says, and points at one that glitters.

It looks tropical there, he says.

Clear blue water, she says.

She finds her way around him in the dark. He delights in the way his skin lights up hers.

The way they see perfectly when they should be blind. The heat of her skin smolders new lines into his fingerprints. They burn a circle around them where they fall asleep in the grass.

Again: Elizabeth is late, and this time the doctor smiles and points out the carpometacarpus in the ultrasound. You know what this means, the doctor says.

They don’t. Elizabeth squeezes Billy’s hand tight because ultrasound news pushes her from high heights.

The doctor traces the outlines of a beak. The webbed feet.

I don’t understand, Billy says.

Not again, Elizabeth says. I don’t think I can take it again. She closes her eyes and cries.
No, the doctor says. You’ll see for yourself. The doctor calls in a nurse.

I’m not ready, Elizabeth says.

I’m afraid that doesn’t matter, the doctor says. He snaps gloves onto his white hands. Do you wish to stay? he says to Billy.

I’m not going anywhere, Billy says. He offers Elizabeth his other hand. She holds onto both of them as though the world might reveal a drain and wash her down it.

I’m not ready, she says again.

Billy wonders what haggard creature his defective genes will wreck into the world. He imagines the worst: a scaly dragon breathing fire into all the dark corners. Crushing the tops of houses with incredible talons. Scorching those trying to run. A pitiful and painful end to Libby at the fire and talons on his progeny.

I’m not ready, she says again.

I’m not ready, Billy says.

A nurse enters with a syringe, a press, a mop. Her clothes swish and crinkle as she turns on machines and readies the room. Right here? she says to the doctor.

There’s no time to move her, the doctor says.

Don’t leave me, Elizabeth says.

Never, Billy says. He can’t help the images flashing through his head, strobe-like ultrasounds glowing green. The nurse places Elizabeth’s feet in stirrups.

Oh god, Elizabeth says. She closes her eyes and bites down on Billy’s arm. Billy doesn’t feel a thing.

Here we go, the doctor says. The sound of an earthquake, of continents scraping together until one acquiesces, rips and rifts and tears. The screams and the song. Their son bursts out of his mother like canon fire, unfurls wings and flies, twice around the room then through the window. Wind rushes in as their son soars out, slow and powerful as airplane propellers. Ascends into an existence of its own that owes nothing to Billy. He watches out the window as his son fades into the horizon. The nurse dabs at Elizabeth’s head with the hot water press. Sticks the syringe in the fat part of her arm.

I felt him love me inside, Elizabeth says.

Billy watches from the window.

Billy, Elizabeth says.

He’s sure his son’s wings will help him accept the malaise and keep him above the film of scum on top of every water body. Will help him rise high enough to see for himself the only kingdom up there is an illusory one, a thinned vaporous one erected out of rarified air. He can’t blame me, Billy thinks, I’m the one who gave him wings. It’s true I gave him life, but the wings and the songs will save him from that. Billy has only his glow, and he glows as the sun sets.



Aaron Hellem lives with his wife in Leverett, Massachusetts and attends the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  His short stories have recently appeared in Fourth River, Xavier Review, Ellipsis, Phantasmagoria, Amoskeag, Quay Journal, Menda City Review, Mississippi Crow, 13th Warrior, and Beloit Fiction Journal; also, works of his are forthcoming in Lake Effect, Oklahoma Review, Parting Gifts, Crate, Cause and Effect Magazine, and Confluence.

“The Graveyard Shift” by Carolyn Harris

animal, chicken, cock

DS is my name. My mom calls me Desiree–the desired one, but I go by DS–DS
for dog shit. I’m sixteen. I do drugs. I run.

I’m back in Juvie again. Be here a while too. They can’t figure out what to do
with me—I run from placements. The last one was out in the middle of the northern
California desert. Boring. As soon as I stepped off the school bus, Maggi, she was
the mom, had a list of chores–and I had to keep my eye on three little raggedy
kids while I did them. Maggi locked herself up in the bedroom with the TV. She got
sinus headaches. She came out when I had dinner ready, sniffed around, piled up
her plate, and headed back for the TV. We ate a lot of macaroni and cheese. And I
shoveled a lot of chicken shit cleaning the coops. I fed the chickens and collected
the eggs before school every day. Maggi sold eggs for her cigarette money. Once
a week, I got a pack for helping. She used to keep them under her bed. I figured
she wouldn’t miss an extra pack a week. And she didn’t–one of the kids was a
snitch. Maggie knocked me in the teeth with the TV zapper when she found out–
then blamed me cause the zapper broke. Maggie wasn’t all that bad, I just got
bored cleaning chicken coops–so I ran.

I work as a whore when I’m out. I get knocked around sometimes, but the pay’s
good. Better than cleaning chicken coops. I usually work the truck stops. I keep my
hair short and my tits aren’t much. The truckers aren’t sure if I’m a boy or a girl.
One guy was gonna knock my head off when he found out I was a girl. He made
such a racket another trucker climbed in the rig and tore into him. Told him to get
his ass out of there or he was calling the cops. That scared the shit out of me. I
don’t need any more trouble with the cops.

I thought the second guy wanted me to ride the bony pony, but he cleaned up
my face–even tried to put a band aid on my split lip. It just slid off when I tried to
talk. He bought me a double cheeseburger and a chocolate shake. He didn’t say
much. Just that he had a couple of kids my age. He dropped me off in Susanville–
that’s where my mom was living then–and told me to keep away from the truck
stop and behave myself. I did for the rest of the night. It was getting cold.

My mom was living with the Tattoo Man from the circus then. That’s what I
called him. He had a trailer down behind the stockyards. He didn’t want me in the
trailer, but I got to sleep in the camper stuck on the back of his pickup. It wasn’t
too bad. He had a sleeping bag. A month later it got really cold. The neighbor had
a cat–a fat old orange tom with half a tail. Even with him in my bag, I almost froze
my ass. The windows in the camper froze and I got needles in my throat when I
breathed. I get asthma sometimes. I think the cat knew it. He tried to hold on to
his hair.

That night, when the trucker dropped me off, I knocked on the door of Tattoo
Man’s trailer. It only had one hinge, so I never messed with that door. I didn’t
want to be the one that dropped it in the dirt. They were doing crank. I’d made
enough money that night so Tattoo Man let me stay inside.

By the time I really froze my ass–it was just before Christmas–he and my mom
got busted. That sucked. The cops were pissed at me because I’d been skipping
school. That’s the funny part. I really do like school. School for the dog shit kids. I
don’t like regular school with all those jocks and cheerleaders with their fancy
clothes and their noses in the air. In my kind of school, we know we’re dog shits
and don’t stick our noses up at anybody. I like to think we’re the real people. Now
I don’t think all cheerleaders are fancy-ass freaks. I know one–or about one, and I
think I’d like her.

It’s time for dinner. I’m in lockdown and have been for the last twenty-eight
days. I still get to eat. They bring me a tray–slide it through the slot in the door.

“I wonder who’s working graveyard?” I asked staff when they brought my
dinner, but they didn’t know. I hope it’s Mrs. Manley, cause she talks to me. She’s
the one with the cheerleader granddaughter. Sometimes she works graveyard on
the weekends. Usually with Mr. Roberts. He’s nice, too. I’d like him for a

I’m a room alone because they know I’m a whore. I’m in Room One. I have a
little window in my door and can see the kids go by if the flap’s up. And I have my
own toilet. I like it–even if staff can watch me pee. There’s a monitor in the
control room. The toilet’s cold and I don’t sit long, anyhow. I don’t have a toilet
seat. Not just because I’m a room alone–nobody does. The sink–almost big
enough to float a goldfish–is built in the back. I can sit backwards on the toilet and
brush my teeth. Good idea, huh. Too bad they don’t make toilets like that in
regular homes–with a seat of course. And I talk to the toilet. Not really to the
toilet, but if I stick my head in the toilet, I can talk to Jay in Room Two.

Jay’s the reason I’m in lockdown. I’m in love with Jay. He’s kinda skinny, but he
has dark hair and dark eyes, and he’s smart. He knows the name of every bird
around here. He told me his name was Jay for Blue Jay, but I think he was just
kidding me. He’s a good artist, too. He drew a picture of me once. I was dressed
like a warrior princess flying over the mountains on the back of an eagle. I’ve
known him for a long time so this isn’t one of those short term relationships like
my mom always has. Every time she meets a guy–and she picks some pretty
freaky guys–he gets busted, she gets busted, or he kicks the crap out of her and
throws her out.

Jay’s been in and out of Juvie since he was ten. Twenty-three times so far. That’
s more than either of his two older brothers and he says there’s no way
they’re gonna beat his record. They’re both in CYA now. You don’t come back from
Youth Authority. Jay brags a lot. Once he was out and back in here in three hours.

He ate lunch, they released him, he stole a bottle of Jack Daniels at Safeway,
and was back in by dinner.

He’s got a plan–we talk about it through the toilet. They won’t send him to CYA
if he’s crazy. He tells them he sees things and hears voices. He had a fit at school
last month. Yelled he was having a flash back then pulled his desk over on top of
him and started kicking and spitting. It scared the teachers. The staff who watches
us in school called for backup and they made us all get against the wall. Then
they took Jay down and cuffed and shackled him and took him to his room. He told
me through the toilet that night it was all a fake. I sure believed him. So did a lot
of other people. Melody in Room Eight was screaming she’d never do drugs again.
That’s a lie, but maybe she believed it then. That’s why most of us are here. We’re

Jay’s an Indian. When he’s not in Juvie, he lives down river with the other
Indians. He says he does drugs because it’s part of his religion. It helps him see
things better. I think he gets high for the same reason I do. I like it.

It’s snack time. If I lay on my bed and put my ear against the block wall just
below Bambi’s front foot, I can hear everything in the activity room. I really have
Bambi on my wall–and flowers, too. They have pictures painted all over the place
in here. With my ear by Bambi’s foot, I can hear movies or the AA meetings. On
the graveyard shift, if they turn the TV off, I can hear the staff talk. There’s some
pretty interesting stuff that goes on around here on the graveyard shift.

Jay won’t talk to me tonight and I’m worried about him. I think he played crazy
too long. Last week when they let him out for a shower, he tried to jump a staff–a
big staff. That was dumb. He yelled he saw a moose and it was attacking. That
was dumb, too. He has a moose and some trees painted on his wall. He could
come up with something better than that. He got pepper sprayed and that’s not
much fun–take it from me. I’ve been sprayed twice. He yelled he wanted to commit
suicide. That’s stupid, too. Take that one from me, too.

They took all his bedding and clothes and gave him a paper Barney gown– one
of those bulky brown hospital gowns that stick out in back and make us look like
Barney on TV. They do that to you if you’re a pain in the ass or say you’re thinking
of suicide. If you’re just a pain in the ass, you usually get your stuff back piece by
piece on the graveyard shift. It’s cold here in the summer. The air conditioning runs
all night. I mouthed off big time once and ended up naked as one of Maggi’s
chicks. I’d have promised anything just for a shirt. I thought I was back sleeping in
Tattoo Man’s pick up. Lucky for me, Mr. Roberts worked graveyard that night. He
gave me my stuff back, even my clothes, as soon as the swing shift left. He just
told me to cut out the funny business and go to sleep. I don’t think he likes
working here. He always says, “Two years, four months, thirteen days, and I’m
out of here,” or something like that. He has grandkids. I bet he’s a good

He was the one who took me down when I was pepper sprayed. It was the last
time I was in here. I had Room One again. Lucky for me I’m a room alone. I
always get the good room. Jay was down the hall. He’d been locked down for
seven days and his roommate told me Jay was talking suicide again. I couldn’t talk
to him through the toilet, so I started yelling, “Blue Jay, I love you.” Once I started
yelling, I couldn’t shut up. They took my bedding. Then they took my clothes. I just
kept yelling, “Blue Jay, I love you.”

Boss Lady shot the pepper spray through the slot. I jumped behind the door so
she couldn’t hit me, so they clanked the door back. It’s a big steel door. You have
to watch your toes–we can’t have shoes in the room–they’re dangerous–the
laces, you know. She came at me like something from outer space with a big gas
mask and some kind of Michelin Man suit. I kept jumping around and she couldn’t
get a good enough aim, I guess, so she sprayed the wall, sprayed the bed, and
sprayed Mr. Roberts. Finally, she got it right up under my nose and I felt it slurp
down my face like that silly stuff they shoot at you in parades–just before my eyes
got it. I ran around like a trapped hamster. I knew better than to stick my head in
the toilet to wash it off–Jay did that once and he warned me not to try it. I heard
Boss Lady yell at Mr. Roberts to take me down. He straddled my back and cuffed
me and I felt him put his hand between the toilet and my head. I was jerking
around so much I had a big lump there the next day.

Mr. Roberts came back that night during the graveyard shift to see if I was okay.
Staff’s not supposed to open doors at night–because we’re dangerous, but he
came in with Mrs. Manley to talk to me. My asthma was bothering me so she
brought my inhaler and let me puff. I kept a damp cloth over my eyes. It burns
worse if you open your eyes–remember that, if you’re ever pepper sprayed. She
sat on the bed and rubbed my back while he talked to me. I pretended I was sick
and they were my grandparents.

Mrs. Manley is the one who helps me pretend. She’s the one who has the
granddaughter. She doesn’t know I’m pretending about her granddaughter, so
don’t tell her. When I know she’s going to work graveyard, I try to sleep during
the day. That’s pretty easy to do around here–especially if you’re in lockdown. I
don’t have a window to the outside, just Bambi. I tell time by the food. If they
gave me breakfast some night, I bet I wouldn’t be able to sleep. They don’t turn
the lights off because they have to do fifteen minute security checks so you don’t
plug the toilet or kill yourself. Mrs. Manley can’t come in my room. The only night
she did was that night with Mr. Roberts and I won’t ever tell.

Last week, Mrs. Manley brought a pillow and sat outside the slot on my door.
She says she has a bony butt and can’t sit on the cement very long and her back
gets tired if she bends over to talk in the slot. I don’t think she looks like a
grandmother. She looks younger than my mom. I haven’t seen my mom for over a
year, so she probably looks even older now. Last time she came to visit me, the
deputy brought her in. We didn’t say much. It’s kind of awkward to talk to your
mom while she’s in shackles and a belly chain.

“Like my new jewelry?” She held up her cuffs.

I wanted to give my mom a bad time about my last home furlough. I knew I was
gonna get a pee test when I checked back in–they told me three or four times.
She had some good stuff and we got high. She told me they’d never know if I
drank a cup of vinegar before I checked back in. I didn’t think it was such a good
time to bring it up with the deputy there.

Back to Mrs. Manley–maybe the crank is getting to my brain. My mind sure
wanders a lot. She’s got this granddaughter who’s sixteen just like me. She’s just
about my size and has blonde hair just like mine. I’m not sure about her eyes. I’ll
have to ask about that. This granddaughter–Sara’s her name–is smart. Really
smart I’d guess with some of the things she’s doing. I’m smart, too. The teachers
tell me how smart I am. I don’t think they’d all be lying to me. I’m certainly a good
reader. There’s not much else to do in lockdown.

I saw a picture of this granddaughter once. It was a prom picture. She had on a
red strapless dress and her hair was done up in fancy curls. I could have fancy
curls if I let my hair grow out, so we’re really not that much different. She works in
a department store. Not a JC Penney, but one of those ones the rich kids shop in.
Sara’s not rich. Her mom’s a single mom and has to work two jobs. I’m not rich,
either, so we’re alike that way, too. She was a cheerleader for three years but
had to quit so she could save money for college. I’ve never been a cheerleader. I
wouldn’t want to be either. The only time I really yelled, I got pepper sprayed.
Sara isn’t a cheer leader anymore anyway, so that makes us more alike. The only
thing we’re different in–she doesn’t do drugs. Mrs. Manley says Sara looks down
her nose at kids who do drugs. I asked Mrs. Manley if she was sure Sara didn’t do
drugs. She said she was sure.

Mrs. Manley didn’t like to talk about Sara at first. I think she was
afraid maybe I’d be upset, but I told her it made me feel good that
somebody was happy. I wanted to know what classes she was taking.
Sara’s in her third year of Spanish. I don’t know about that one. I know
how to say taco and burrito. They don’t have Spanish in the schools I go
to, but I get A’s when I go. In lockdown, that’s part of my punishment–I
don’t get to go to school. Last time I talked to Mrs. Manley she told me I
ought to zip up my lip, get out of lockdown, and get back in school. I
know she’s right, but I need to stay here to help Jay out for a while.

I can pull inside my mind and pretend I’m Sara. You know, I think that’
s a better name than DS. If Mrs. Manley doesn’t work tonight, I think I’ll
pretend I’m Sara. “Yes, Ma’am. Would you like to see our new sale
item? We have it in red, too.” Then I’ll slip my fingers through the fancy
clothes on the sales rack and find a red strapless gown–no I have one
of those. Maybe blue to match my eyes. Are my eyes blue? I better find

Jay still has them fooled. Dr. Drug told them to give him another shot
tomorrow. Dr. Drug’s the staff’s name for him, not mine. I heard
Graveyard complain about him. He has half of us on the same meds–
when he shows up. Last time I saw him, he never looked up to see if it
was me. Just kept writing. He asked my name, I told him, and he said,
“Thank you, that’s all.” I told him I didn’t think I needed so much Xanax
anymore. I certainly wasn’t nervous. I slept all the time. He didn’t even
look up. He must have read in my file that my name is Dog Shit and was
afraid he might get some of me on him. I don’t like all the meds they
give me. I wonder sometimes if they’re part of the reason my mind
wanders. I tried cheeking them, but lost points and missed movie and
treats for a week. I want to get out of lockdown as soon as Jay’s okay,
so I better take my meds. They’re talking about Dr. Drug again. He called
in and renewed everybody’s prescription over the phone. Even the two
kids that left yesterday for Boot Camp.

Last night, the Chippies brought in three bookings– all guys from
Sacramento. Sara lives in Sacramento. I kept watching the tall dark-
haired one. I’m not sure what Sara’s boyfriend looks like. I forgot to ask
about that one, too. I almost had myself believing it might be him. Then I
convinced myself Sara’s boyfriend was probably too smart to get caught
by the CHP in a stolen car. He might be Spanish-looking though, since
she’s so interested in Spanish.

Before breakfast, Jay came by for his hour out. He shuffled by my
room in cuffs and shackles and that paper Barney gown. He looked at
me like one of those wild men you see in the movies–a crazy preacher in
the old west. He scared me. Now I know why he wouldn’t talk to me in
the toilet last night. I think they made him crazy. The last three days
they’ve given him shots so he won’t see things. I need to tell him to stop
acting crazy before they make him crazy. When he came back he
wouldn’t look at me. I saw his ass hanging out of the Barney gown. I
turned away so I wouldn’t embarrass him.

After breakfast I called him through the toilet. He said, “I don’t want
to talk. I have a headache.” I told him to please stop pretending to be
crazy. He said, “I’ll try.”

Before lunch, just before the kids came back from school, Boss Lady
came in and talked to him. Even with my ear on the wall I couldn’t

When Boss Lady left, I called Jay until staff came and told me to get
my head out of the toilet or they’d take my bedding. Day staff watches
the monitor in the control room a lot more. Jay got his mattress and
pillow back so he must have told Boss Lady he’d stop acting crazy. His
Parole Officer came in and talked to him. He was in there a long time
and I started worrying. Maybe he was gonna go to Boot Camp–or a
mental hospital. My mom was in one of those for a while and she said it
wasn’t any fun–people always screaming and hollering.

It’s pretty quiet here. Except when the Indians come in drunk and
start yelling, “ENP”–eternal native pride. They’re worse than
cheerleaders. Cheerleaders just jump around and stand on each other’s
backs. The Indians–Jay’s one of the noisiest–yell “ENP” and kick the
doors and bang their fists.

I went to a basketball game once. It’s worse than that. I told you we
have metal doors–so heavy you have to watch your feet. When they kick
those doors and yell, it makes me nervous. That’s when I’m glad I’m
taking meds. I saw a movie about Custer once. Custer would have
headed home in a hurry if he’d heard them kicking those metal doors
and yelling. The racket goes on for a while then out comes the pepper
spray. Poor Mr. Roberts got caught in the middle of the last one. Boss
Lady missed and sprayed him again–right in the face.

Jay’s calling me in the toilet. He says the PO says he’s gonna go to
Youth Authority. I guess he knows I’m crying. He tells me to keep quiet
and start kissing ass so I can get out of lockdown. He’s glad he’s gonna
go. He’ll get to see his brothers. I want to talk, but he says his head
really hurts. He cheeked his morning meds so he can figure things out.
He’s not gonna tell them even if he does see things because he doesn’t
want another shot in the ass.

I got a good on my day shift score and Jay got his clothes back. I
heard them talking about me at shift change. If I get goods for the next
three days, I can get back in school. Maybe I can get one of the teachers
to find me a Spanish book.

Today’s Wednesday. I wonder if Sara’s working after school today. I
thought about writing her a letter, but it’s against the rules. No contact
between staff and the dog shits–or staff’s granddaughters and the dog

I have DS on my left arm. I did it two years ago with a staple and a
ball point pen. I lost points and missed a few movies for that one, too.
I’m working on ENP now–on my left leg so staff won’t find it. If I get
down in the corner under the camera they can’t see me. I have a staple
hidden in my mattress. Staff hasn’t found it. We had a room search this
morning. I hate that. They tear up my bed and poke down in the wire
screen where we used to have a window. I’m a very neat person. I
always line my pillow case up along the seam of the blanket. I can’t get
a pen till I get back in school, but if I keep the scab off, I’ll have the EN
part finished by next week.

Smells like rolls for dinner–and macaroni and cheese. I wonder how
Maggi’s doing. Her kids are probably all in school now, so she won’t
need a foster. Mrs. Manley and Mr. Roberts are working graveyard. I’m
gonna sleep a little after dinner so I’ll be awake.

Jay says he’s doing okay. He liked the macaroni and cheese. His
mother’s a rotten cook–burns everything. Mine never burns anything–
she never cooks. I told him to make sure and wake me up when he got
his bedtime meds so I’m awake for graveyard.

I can’t sleep. We had yogurt for snack–strawberry. I’m gonna find out
what color Sara’s eyes are. When I get out of lockdown I can have hand
lotion once a day. I’m gonna start rubbing some on my face–and let my
hair grow.

Jay’s calling me. They gave him a blanket. I told him he’d probably
have the rest of his stuff by graveyard. He told me not to worry–he’s
fine. He wants me to have the silver bracelet with the eagle on it he has
in his locker. He can’t take it to YA. I told him I love him. He wouldn’t say
he loves me. I think it’s just hard for him to say it. Giving me a bracelet is
just as good.

I haven’t seen Mrs. Manley, but Mr. Roberts came by to see if I was
okay. I told him I needed to talk to her and he thought I needed pads
and was too embarrassed to ask him.

Mrs. Manley brought me some pads and asked if I was okay since
I’d been bleeding last week, too. Not much gets by her. If Sara’s
mother’s like her, that’s why she’s so sure Sara doesn’t do drugs. I told
her I wanted to get out of lockdown and back in school so maybe I could
go to college. That really just popped in my mind, but I knew it was a
sure way to get her back to talk. She’s the kind that thinks everybody
ought to work hard and go to college. I figured I better see if Jay was
still okay, then work on getting my story straight.

Jay finally answered me. He told me to go to sleep. He was tired and
didn’t want to talk. He flushed his toilet in my face.

Mrs. Manley dropped her pillow by my door and we talked. Sara’s
studying for a hard history exam. And her eyes are blue–the same color
as mine. Mrs. Manley checked her watch and got up to do another room

It doesn’t take fifteen minutes to hang yourself. It isn’t noisy either.
We were talking very low through the slot so we wouldn’t wake up Jay.
Neither of us heard anything. Not a bump. Not a gasp.

That was a year ago. I still think about Jay. At first, I blamed
everybody–his mother, his PO, his older brothers in YA. Even me. I
wondered how I could have saved him. I guess I was so busy trying to
figure out how to save me, I didn’t have all that much time for Jay’s
problems. The other day I found a crow feather in our back yard. Jay told
me crows take good care of their families. Maybe he’s a crow now.

I wore that silver bracelet for a long time. I’d run my finger over the
eagle wings and picture him flying through the clouds with that funny
little grin he had when he was happy. Did I tell you he was a real funny
person when he wasn’t all doped up? Last week, I tucked the bracelet
away in the backpack in the bottom of my closet. Yes. I have a closet
again. And a bed that isn’t a cement slab. I’m with another foster. My
foster mom, Andi, is a recovering alcoholic. We spend a lot of time at
meetings. And I still have Bambi. A real one this time. He comes into our
backyard each morning while I’m eating breakfast and waits for his
snack–he likes apples and carrots best.

Me and Sara e-mail. Mrs. Manley isn’t staff anymore. After Jay died,
she quit. She helped me get this foster placement and she told me she’d
kick my butt if I messed up.

My hair is long now and I had it done up for the prom, but not like
Sara’s. We’re alike in some ways. I have a foster mom who’s a single
parent and sometimes has to work two jobs. We both want to go to
college and we both work. There’s no fancy store here and I couldn’t get
on at JC Penney, but I work at Burger King. And we’re different. Sara
looks down her nose at people who do drugs. I don’t.

I still want to run, but not from Andi. I’d like to run with Bambi and
figure out where he hangs out during the day. Andi says, “Go for it if you
can keep up with him. Just be back for dinner.”

My name is Desiree, the desired one.



Carolyn Harris lives in the Cascade Mountains with her husband, Dave, and too many cats. She is a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She blogs at Wednesday’s Woman. Her articles have appeared in travel and sailing magazines, and her book RV in NZ: How to Spend Your Winters South–Way South in New Zealand can be seen at www.rvinnz.com. Wednesday’s Child, a novel set in a northern California logging camp, is looking for a home.

“Leviathan” by Clifford Garstang

accessory, antique, blur

The Armani shoes, the sleek indigo-black ones with the angel-hair laces he could never keep tied, were too big for William, but he slipped them on anyway. He’d wanted to wear one of Frederick’s suits, too, maybe the newish Pierre Cardin that Frederick had liked because he swore the tiny black-and-white checks were slimming, the one William  thought really made Frederick look like a circus clown, although love had kept him from saying so.

But the suit was impossible on William, the shoulders drooping wide on both sides like little mutant fins, the sleeves dangling past his wrists, the flapping waist that suggested William might be a spokesman for Weight Watchers, except it wasn’t his weight he’d lost. He couldn’t wear that to the grand opening, but he didn’t mind sliding around inside the Armanis, just for one day, and if it got too awful he had his clogs in the canvas tote. Surely no one would care if he made himself more comfortable inside his own store.

His own store. It had been Frederick’s idea, the older man thoughtful as always even with his guts turning to jelly and a daily joint the only thing that had still worked to keep the pain at bay. “Look, sweetie,” he’d said as William helped him into the tub one night near the end, “this is perfect. It’ll keep you busy, put food on the table, which God knows you need, you skinny little thing, and it’s all I’ve got to give you. And you can stay here,” he’d said, with a weak little wave that scattered rose-scented bubbles across the black-and-white tiles, “at least until Cassie gets wind of it.” Then he nearly sank under the water until William got him propped up and started scrubbing his back with the loofa. Cassie. William hadn’t met her, and Frederick usually referred to her as the evil stepsister, the reason Frederick hadn’t inherited the house from his aunt outright.

And it was Frederick who’d found the empty retail space and negotiated the lease and hired a couple of his former students, tobacco-chewing dropouts, to move the stuff in, although it was just as well he hadn’t been around to see the brutes manhandle even the most delicate pieces.

As William scuffed down Central Avenue, braced against a chilly November wind and stopping every so often to tie the shoes, he could scarcely believe that at the age of twenty-three he was on his way to the shop that he owned, the shop to which only he had the key, the ancient black safe of which only he knew the combination to, and that in just a few minutes after opening the door, no more than that surely, he would be pressing all the buttons on the complicated new cash register Frederick had ordered just for him, to ring up the first sale. His own store.

William & Frederick. That had been William’s idea, and it pleased him. They’d wanted to call the store Blue Ridge Antiques, but when Frederick checked around, thumbing through the phone book, a blustery call to directory assistance, an Internet search for listings up and down the Valley, he turned up no fewer than fifty shops with that name, including one hidden away inside the ghastly mall outside town, and another a few miles south, that looked, when William drove Frederick’s Riviera down to investigate, like it had been somebody’s garage, converted into a flea market, half an acre of rickety tables covered with muddy tarps, and a hand-lettered sign out front that said, “Make an Offer! Swap Meet Saturday.” But the perfect name had come to William two weeks ago while he sipped a latte in Java Mountain, watching the lanky kid behind the counter flirt with the fuchsia-haired Madonna, worried about the letter he’d received that morning, just gibberish to him, from the lawyers handling the estate, the Richmond firm of Botts & Allen, whose offices had impressed William with their dignified style, plush Persians and early Americana. That’s it,  William said to himself, or maybe out loud because the girl with the freakish hair turned to  look. An elegant, refined name, to sell elegant, refined antiques. William & Frederick.

It wasn’t all elegant stuff, though, William had to admit. Frederick had owned some fabulous pieces, collected over half a century of shopping and travel, and roomfuls he’d inherited from the aunt he’d claimed was royalty. “We’re all queens here, honey,” William had said, mortified when Frederick didn’t laugh. “Well, she was,” he’d insisted, running his hand over the dark surface of the walnut Queen Anne highboy, the gem of the collection. Then there was the mahogany breakfast table that had its own name. Duncan Phyfe, Frederick called it, as if it were a guest in the house and not a piece of furniture. “Let’s join Duncan Phyfe in the kitchen,” he’d say, determined that they should actually use the thing, despite William’s fear of damaging a valuable antique. “What,” Frederick had said, “you don’t think the colonists ever spilled their tea?” The one piece that really unnerved William was the Khmer bust of Buddha, which Frederick said he’d acquired for a blowjob in Bangkok in the sixties. William didn’t doubt the price, a currency familiar to him, but Bangkok didn’t sound like the kind of place Frederick would have been caught dead in—dusty and smelly and filled with women on the make. That wasn’t Frederick at all. When he’d arranged everything in the shop before the grand opening, William had settled the bust into a corner and, when its stony eyes followed him everywhere as he dusted and shifted and rearranged, hoping customers wouldn’t notice the little nicks and scratches that cropped up everywhere like acne from his not-so-long-ago adolescence, he draped over it a soiled batik sarong from that same Asian trip. But in addition to those valuable artifacts, William had elected to display stuff that people in their god-forsaken, drought-parched village might actually buy: Frederick’s childhood rocking horse; a pair of glass candlesticks, with red wax cascading down the sides from last Christmas; five shelves of dusty books, “The Classics” Frederick had called them when he’d tried to get William to read something other than mysteries and true crime, and there were plenty more where they came from in the den at home; a yellow porcelain teapot that William had no use for now that he could drop the pretense he’d adopted to please Frederick, even though he knew Frederick knew it was all for his benefit, but they both had gone on as if the love of chamomile was something they shared. Thank God he could drink coffee again.

William stopped just short of his store, in the glare of the tacky gift shop Frederick had
always refused to step foot in, but that William admired for its clever inventory, like those
darling salt and pepper shakers in the shape of Dalmatians. He gazed at his future. His
store wasn’t on high-traffic Main Street—the rent for both vacant spots there had been too
expensive, one next to the coffee house and one tucked between the tavern and the town’
s only nail salon—but he could see his door from the corner of Central and Main, a location
Frederick had been sure would guarantee success. Of course, the door was below street
level, five steps down into a tiny courtyard, more like an overgrown window-well that
collected leaves and cigarette butts and any other trash that blew down the hill from the
courthouse, and would probably fill up with grimy snow come winter, but the gold lettering
on the window, William & Frederick, was visible, even from across the street. It sparkled a
little, William thought. He stooped to tie his shoelace.

Dodging a red pickup and then a Ford van with a crater on the passenger side that looked like the kind of dent an old cannonball would make, although William couldn’t imagine how that had happened, maybe some Civil War reenactment gone awry, he crossed the street in mid block. He didn’t have to fish in his pocket for the key because he was wearing it around his neck on one of those lanyards, a gift from Frederick because William, who had never owned anything valuable to speak of, had a knack for losing keys. It didn’t matter so much, really, because the house was never locked, most folks didn’t bother unless they lived on the west side of town, and Frederick hadn’t let William drive the Buick except on special occasions. So the house key, the one key William had, until the shop, was more a token of Frederick’s affection than it was of any practical use. William didn’t bother to take the lanyard off, just bent over and fit the key in the lock, jiggled it a little like the real estate agent—that handsome, thick-haired Mr. Lynch who had seemed to hurry through their appointments—had demonstrated when he showed them the property.

A musty smell greeted William (why hadn’t he ever noticed it when all this stuff was
cluttering up the house?), and new paint, the lilac they’d picked over the bleeding-heart
pink because the pink was too passionate, Frederick’s color, and was sure to bring up all
kinds of memories he didn’t want to deal with. The lilac was just right, soothing and soft, a
color that made you think of your grandmother’s garden, which was exactly what customers in an antique shop should think. Or at least that’s what Frederick had asserted
when he told William the rest of his plans for the store.

“I don’t want you going back there,” Frederick had said, and William knew he meant
back where they’d met, as if William could ever think of hustling again. Frederick had
rescued him, given him things, taught him things. Now he knew about wine and music and
antiques. A little, anyway. That other life was over.

“No,” William said. “I’d rather kill myself. But at least that way we would be together.”
That was something else they talked about, how fate had united them when Frederick
popped into a gay bar in D.C. and found William, and nothing like a little colon cancer was
going to tear them apart, at least not for long. Frederick wouldn’t listen to that, though.
He shook his head. “You’ll meet someone, honey. You’ll move on. I know that. But in the
meantime, there’s enough stuff in this old house to keep an antique store going a long
time, and when it’s gone you can buy some junk and sell that. It’s decided, then.” And
William had gone along to keep Frederick happy. The momentum had been too strong to
fight. “A shop. You know, I’ve always wanted to run a shop, keep the customer happy,
service is our business and all that. Where everyone expects you to be gay anyway, so it’s
no surprise when it turns out you are. And I’d paint it lilac, like my grandmother’s garden.”

Lights on. William hadn’t realized before just how dark the space was, on an overcast
fall morning, on this side street with no direct light anyway and the shop window half-
hidden by the stairs. Even with the fluorescents the place felt like a cave, or the bowels of
a ship, and William made a mental note to use the proceeds of his first sale to install
better lighting, maybe a couple of torchieres like Frederick had shown him in one of his
magazines, or a spotlight aimed at that nasty Buddha, maybe it would even help sell the
thing. He took a quick look around, sure he wouldn’t get another chance once the store
flooded with customers, a last-minute inventory of Frederick’s life before the hordes
started picking at the brocade on the Venetian divan, testing the strength of the spindly
comb-back Windsor chair, the one Frederick had never let anyone sit in, not even
featherweight William, for fear it would collapse into splinters, or caressing the seductive
satin of the Rococo rosewood chairs, the pair that Frederick had been given by a friend,
about whom he never said any more, no matter how much William pleaded, or forgave him for past indiscretions.

William wanted just one last minute of respite before he started haggling with the gaggle of bargain hunters: “It’s not quite what I’m looking for, and isn’t that a burn mark on the top, and I saw the exact same piece at Blue Ridge Antiques for a third what you’re asking, and I couldn’t possibly go any higher than . . .” William’s eyes landed on a Georgian wing chair that had been one of Frederick’s favorites at home, angled by the fireplace, perfect for a quiet evening with a book and that awful cognac he liked, while William curled up on the couch with a Heineken. The leather was caramel, and spidery veins had emerged on the seat where it sagged into a bowl.

“Come sit with me for a second, honey,” said the chair, although it was Frederick’s lilt
that William heard.

William turned around, slowly, making sure he was as alone in the store as he thought he was. “I am not getting into a conversation with this chair,” he said. “I’m not. Do you hear me, Freddy?” He spun on his heel and saw the Buddha, hiding under the sarong. “Do you hear me? So please just shut up.” William knew perfectly well that the furniture wasn’t talking, any more than the cozy tub at home called to him, or the big four-poster in their bedroom whispered in his ear. He wasn’t crazy. He missed Frederick, that’s all. He missed candlelight suppers of exotic dishes he’d never heard of before, he missed that awful opera screeching from the stereo, he missed being corrected whenever he  mispronounced a word. He missed Frederick.

He hopped to the cash register, always reluctant to step on the grizzled Heriz rug from the living room, even though Frederick had insisted rugs were meant to be walked on. “They’re not fragile, honey,” he’d said more than once. “Some camel probably fornicated on this rug.” William had been unconvinced. “All the more reason not to walk on it,” he always said. William took up his position behind the counter, turned on the cash register, saw by Frederick’s marble-and-gold Belgian mantel clock that it was almost ten, and eyed the door, ready for business.

Just before noon, William still stood behind the counter. The door had yet to open, although he had watched countless legs go by, legs cloaked in jeans and cowboy boots, bony legs in running shorts and Nikes, elephantine legs that ended in what looked to be fuzzy slippers, shapely legs in high heels behind a stroller. A little girl peeked out of the carriage and waved at William. William waved back.

“Well, it’s understandable that business would be slow the first day,” William said aloud. “I’m sure there’ll be a crowd at lunch.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” said the wing chair.

“I’m not talking to you,” shouted William.

When no one came in during lunch, William looked for ways to keep busy. He took down the grand opening sign he’d taped to the window, got out the Windex to attack a streak he’d noticed, and put the sign back up. He took Frederick’s collection of Toby jugs out of the glass case under the cash register and dusted each one, wiped the shelves, and put the jugs back, careful to leave them facing forward, as Frederick had shown him after dusting them at home. Then William pulled the books off the shelves and set about arranging them, in alphabetical order by author, and wondered if maybe he should kill
some time by reading one of them.

“Frederick would be pleased,” he said.

“And astonished,” said the bookshelf, a handsome oak lawyer’s cabinet with glass doors and white porcelain knobs. “But what you really ought to do is move a chair outside, so people can see some signs of life.”

William backed away. “Shut up!” But when he thought about it he saw it wasn’t a bad idea, and he settled on one of the sturdier pieces, a heavy Roycroft chair from the dining set Frederick had been so proud of because he’d assembled it from different arts and crafts designers—the Greene Brothers, Gustav Stickley, even Frank Lloyd Wright. William lugged the thing out to the sidewalk.

“Ouch,” said the chair, when William bumped it into the door. “Be careful.”

“Sorry,” said William. He went back inside, hopped over the rug, and grabbed a book off the shelf without looking to see what it was, then sat outside, with his knees together as Frederick had taught him, Frederick’s gray cashmere sweater over his shoulders, waiting to be noticed. The street was empty. William opened the book and read: “Call me Ishmael.”

At three, William was hungry. He made another mental note, this time to bring his lunch in the future, but on opening day he’d been so sure he wouldn’t have time to eat anyway, he hadn’t bothered to pack anything. And he was reluctant to close, even for a minute, to run down to Java Mountain for coffee and a bagel, because surely in the time it took to get there, have that slow-witted boy with the snake tattoo on his wrist, cute as he was, make the sandwich and the latte, someone would have come looking to buy the highboy and gone away disappointed. He stood up, sleepy from reading about the doomed whaling voyage, and took a step toward the shop door, then stepped back, worried even now that he’d miss a customer if he took a break. His stomach growled.

“Put a note on the door, sweetie,” said the chair. “I’ll be right here and people can wait.”

“I suppose you’re right,” said William. He scribbled a little sign—Back in 5—and taped it to the door. He ran up to the corner, took a right on Main, and ran back, slipping inside the Armanis both ways, confident there’d be someone in the chair when he returned.

“Did anyone come?” William asked the chair, wheezing from the unfamiliar exertion.

“Nope,” said the chair. “Nobody. Nada. Zippo. Zero. Zilch.”

“Shut up,” screamed William, and looked around sheepishly when he remembered he was standing on the sidewalk. He sat down, sipped the latte and nibbled at his bagel, toasted, with rosemary chicken salad, no tomato, and opened the book again, this time in the middle to see if the action might have picked up by then. “Chapter 49. The Hyena.” Hyena? What happened to the damn whale? “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke … ”

“You got that right,” William said, and closed the book. He dragged the dining chair inside.

At five, William banged the “enter” button on the cash register, heard the satisfying bing-bong when the drawer popped open, and counted the day’s receipts. Zero, of course.

“Nada, zilch,” said the chair. He certainly didn’t remember selling anything, but he considered the possibility, likelihood even, that he had spaced out, suffered temporary amnesia perhaps, because surely there had been a steady stream of customers, it being opening day for the elegant new antique shop near the corner of Central and Main, a location that couldn’t miss, painted in surefire lilac, William & Frederick, a welcome addition to commerce in the sleepy hamlet. He closed the drawer.

“Good night,” said the chair.

“Good night,” said William.

Although the first day had been disheartening, even frightening because it raised the specter of poverty that his life with Frederick had, until now, allowed him to nearly forget, William arrived the next morning armed with a rosy outlook. For one thing, the shop was less lonely than the house. He’d moved so many of Frederick’s things into the cramped store, and they’d been so vocal while the hours dragged on, that he actually looked forward to leaving the echo chamber that had once been the living room of the Victorian mansion and having a chat with the wing chair. Even if no customers appeared, at least he’d have someone to talk to. Maybe the Louis XVI armoire would speak up today. William had always wanted to learn French.

By the end of the first week, though, William was truly discouraged, the talkative antiques being little relief in the end, a steady cinema of bleak alternatives playing in his head—getting a real job, seeking out the brother he knew he had somewhere but hadn’t spoken to in a decade, going back to the bar in D.C. where he’d first latched onto Frederick, almost as hungry and desperate now as he had been then. The furniture tried to cheer him up, assuring him it was only a matter of time, that the breakthrough would come, that he only needed to be patient. William listened, dusted everything as lovingly as he had seen Frederick do it, and even tried to read more about the devilish whale. At home he’d painted a new sign to hang in the window, “Grand Opening Sale,” but it hadn’t enticed a single browser into the store, much less a paying customer, and since it blocked what little natural light he had, William took it down.

On Saturday morning, he opened the glass case to take out the Toby jugs yet again, to remove for the fifth straight day dust that hadn’t had a chance to settle from the first cleaning, when the shop door scraped open.

“Helloooo,” crooned the woman who entered, a behemoth in a flowered dress, with overflowing chest and hips, breathless from the five steps down. She looked vaguely familiar to William, as half the town did. Whenever he and Frederick had ventured out of the house, resolved to ignore pointing fingers and stage whispers, Frederick offered William a running commentary on the townsfolk. “That’s Bobby Cabe, a drunken old backwoodsman who tried to pick a fight with me once because he thought I was staring at him, not that I’d be the least bit interested in him even if he were the last fag on earth. Now he’s just belligerent and babbles on about fairies, and it’s not me he’s talking about, I’m reasonably sure. That one over there is Mildred Rutledge, from the high school. From what I hear, she’s fond of young boys, so you better look out. And that one, the one with the white hair bent over double like she’s looking for a dime, that’s Henrietta Doak. She’s ninety years old and still drives herself around in her late husband’s Cadillac, so when you see her coming, best get out of the way.” William wasn’t sure if this woman was one Frederick had described, but he wouldn’t have been able to remember anyway, despite her eye-popping girth, caught up as he was in the excitement of having his first customer.

In his haste, he dropped the smallest Toby jug on the glass shelf, and gasped when the handle, a delicate, gray thing in the shape of a dolphin, or a whale maybe, or at any rate some big fish, rolled away, sheered clean from the face that made up the body of the jug, apparently a seafarer of some sort, William couldn’t tell. A mental note to glue the fish back on, and William donned his widest smile, stuck out his hand as Frederick had suggested even with the most unlikely buyers, and this woman looked as likely as William could imagine, and welcomed the giantess into the shop. Mrs. Benson, as it turned out.

“I knew Frederick,” she said in a low, sympathetic voice, as if they were at the funeral, although that had been over a month ago, early October, and no one from town had been there except the lesbian couple who ran a candle and macramé shop out on Sparksburg Pike, and a handful of Frederick’s former students. “He might not have known me, though,” she admitted. “My boy Joshua was in his literature class for a while, but we put a stop to that when we heard.” Heard what, William wanted to ask, but even around Frederick, gentle, patient Frederick, he’d been afraid to ask questions because it seemed like the answer was always something he was supposed to have known in the first place but, he usually rationalized, he’d been too busy just surviving to learn. His confusion must have been scrawled on his face, because Mrs. Benson whispered, in a pitying voice that said, as clearly as if the words had come out of that cavernous mouth, “don’t tell me you didn’t know,” along with the words she actually spoke: “About his illness.”

Oh, that. He had cancer, it wasn’t the other, William longed to say, looked over at the wing chair, the most outspoken of the collection, and shook his head, silently apologizing.

“Is there something in particular you’re looking for, Mrs. Benson?” That’s what Frederick had told him to say, wasn’t it, get the customer to commit to a quest, then put the Holy Grail in her hands and you’ve made the sale. Assuming you had the Holy Grail in stock, of course, and hadn’t offered the Golden Fleece instead. Just browsing, she said, so William took up his post behind the cash register while Mrs. Benson pawed over Frederick’s Waterford goblets, and the silver cake server that William really should have taken to a jeweler to appraise, but that seemed too crass somehow, and an insult to Frederick. Mrs. Benson stumbled into a Victorian writing table, a one-of-a-kind mahogany jewel on which Frederick had written daily his letters and lists, recorded every household expenditure, graded remedial compositions, and she looked over at William with stiletto eyes, so disturbing in a woman that large, as though he most certainly had put the table in that spot for the sole purpose of injuring her. William shrugged, hoping it conveyed his meaning, which was, I’m terribly sorry, but I hope you haven’t damaged Frederick’s desk, lady, or there’ll be hell to pay.

Mrs. Benson browsed a while longer, and picked up and carried around with her like it was  a watermelon, or maybe a football, a pear-shaped coppery vase that Frederick had said was Ming but to William just looked Chinese and William hadn’t even wanted to know what Frederick had done to get. She sat for a minute in the wing chair that William could hear groaning under her incredible bulk, ran her fingertips over the cracked leather, then struggled up and over to the bookshelves, and lifted her glasses to read the titles. She even took one out to thumb the pages. But her wandering eyes always came back to the offending table.

“How much is it?” Mrs. Benson’s voice had lost both its ingratiating melody and funereal whisper, and she was now all business. “Your best price, of course.”

This was the moment Frederick had tried to prepare him for, the first negotiation with a customer. There was so much to consider! He wanted to make his first sale, of course, because he had to admit that things were not going well and he’d been so sure the money would just be rolling in at this point, and there was always the apparition of the evil  stepsister lurking in his subconscious, so a sale would be a good thing, an omen of better things to come maybe. But he couldn’t start out too low, could he, because the desk had some value, and not only the price Frederick had paid for it or the services performed in Paris or New York or wherever, but it had belonged to Frederick! Frederick used it! Frederick treasured it! On the other hand, there was the rent, and if he didn’t sell this piece and several more by the end of the month, William would have to dip into the cookie jar of cash Frederick had filled for him, and as Frederick had explained over and over again, that was not—what was the word Frederick had used—sustainable.

But despite all the planning, Frederick hadn’t gotten around to telling William what the prices should be for anything. What did William know? He’d never sold a thing, apart from his own companionship, unless you could count that fiasco behind the men’s fragrance counter at Macy’s one of his regulars had finagled for him and that William had walked away from during a coffee break. Too stressful, too much to remember. Frederick had begun to talk about antique prices once, but somehow the subject of his stepsister had intruded and he’d gotten so upset, so overcome with what it would mean to William when she eventually showed up to claim the house and whatever William hadn’t managed to sell by then, that he hadn’t been able to continue. He’d gone downhill fast after that, barely able to speak, too weak to leave the house, too horrified by his appearance to allow visitors. And now William was on his own.

He opened a notebook, a black three-ring binder, and looked for the writing table on the list. Frederick had made the list years ago for insurance purposes, and when they were going through his papers, near the end, he had discovered it and handed it to William. “Perfect,” he’d said, in a breathless gasp. “An inventory. Just what you need, my boy.” And William had put the list in the binder, a dusty torn thing he’d found in the attic, and had decided that the values assigned for insurance purposes surely were the least he should try to get for each item. Hadn’t Frederick called it perfect? He ran his finger down the page to the writing table, then across the row to the value, and closed the book. But wait, he thought, that’s where I should end up, so I’ll add a little for bargaining purposes, and then I’ll give her a discount and we’ll all be happy.

“Because you are such a delightful woman, I could let you have this darling table,” William began, imitating as best he could the warble Frederick had demonstrated repeatedly, and remembering what Frederick had said about flattering both the customer and the purchase, to make them think they were made for each other, “for five thousand five hundred dollars.” The woman’s jaw dropped. Comically, William thought. He wondered what he’d done wrong.

“You’re joking, of course,” she said, recovering, laughing even.

Was the price absurdly low? It seemed expensive to William, but then he’d never lived in the world of objects until he’d met Frederick. For years, after running away from his mother and stepfather’s home in New Jersey, his older brother already free, off in the Army, the only thing on his mind had been food and shelter, and sometimes getting high, and after awhile even food and shelter receded in importance. But then Frederick had rescued him and brought him home to the country and the house filled with curio cabinets, lace tablecloths, real china plates, engraved silverware. Frederick had tried to teach him, but there was only so much a boy could absorb. How could he know the real value? Too low? Or was the price too high? That must be it, William realized. Frederick wouldn’t have put a low value on the insurance forms, even William understood that, when he stopped to think about it. He might have inflated the value a tiny bit, right?

“I could consider a discount,” William said, reciting the dialogue he’d learned from his lover, his mentor and savior. “One shouldn’t really bargain with the customer,” Frederick had insisted. “Bargaining is so … tacky. But one may offer a discount. A special price. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“I bet you could,” said the leviathan, and ran her bloated finger over the table one more time. “I’ll give you fifty bucks for it. And that’s because I hit the jackpot at bingo last night.” She pulled a wad of bills from her purse and counted out two twenties and ten wrinkled ones. William hesitated, felt Frederick pushing him to take it, heard the armoire whispering that rent day was just around the corner, actually lifted his hand to touch the cash, when out of the corner of his eye he saw the Buddha, shaking his head under the sarong. William put his hand in his pocket.

“No,” he said, taking a step back from the counter. “It’s worth much more than that.”

“I see,” said Mrs. Benson. “Bingo has its limits, I’m afraid.” She stuffed the bills back in her
purse and moved to the door, turned the knob, pulled it open, raised her foot to step out.

“Wait,” said William.

Mrs. Benson closed the door and grinned. Maliciously, William thought. She reached into her purse and waved the cash at him.

He looked at the floor. “No,” he said. “I can’t.”

The following week, William’s expectations were lower. He’d put the Armanis away in Frederick’s cedar closet, along with the checked suit, the cashmere sweater and all the rest of his clothes. He’d have to give them away or, better yet, leave them for Cassie to deal with. William’s Dockers, that Frederick had bought him when he couldn’t stand to see him in jeans any longer, and the clogs—Frederick bought those, too, of course—would do just fine. It’s not like anyone would see him anyway, tucked away in the dark basement. He arrived at the shop just at ten, a lunch packed, nothing fancy, a bruised apple and expired yogurt, no reason to think that the situation had changed, especially now that his one and only customer, the enormous Mrs. Benson, would spread the word that his shop was too expensive and that he, skinny, pasty little William, would never make it in the world without Frederick. On the way, he’d stopped at the Ace Hardware and picked up some glue, the only kind he knew, the milky white stuff that smelled like pudding, tasted a bit like it, too, if he remembered right, and set about fixing the little Toby jug. That done, he pulled the book off the shelf and settled into the wing chair. If I’m going to be bored to death, not to mention starving and poor, he thought, I might as well do what Frederick was after me all the time to do. “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long ago, having little or no
money in my purse—”

The shop door swung open and a gust turned the page. “Hellooo. Anybody home?” It was
that colossus again, this time with a woman who could have been her twin in tow, or rather her shadow, William thought, since she looked to be just a deli slice compared to the big woman’s beefy slab. And anyway, their resemblance might only have been an illusion, as William realized he might have lived his whole life so far thinking that all old women looked exactly the same, only in different dimensions, with the salon-curled, blue-gray helmet and the high-collared flowered dress and gold broach.

“This is Lydia, and I told her all about how charming you were and how you had some wonderful goodies in your shop and those candlesticks would look just fabulous on her mantel and how much do you want for them?” Mrs. Benson tugged Lydia to the armoire, where the candlesticks sat in semi-darkness. William had struggled out of the chair while she spoke and now opened his binder with the insurance list. He ran his finger down the page, but didn’t see the candlesticks anywhere, which was no surprise because at home he’d found them under the sink in the powder room and knew they’d either been forgotten, or worthless. He picked one up and then the other, pleased with their heft, and even the dripped wax cheered his fingers, reminding him of his last Christmas with Frederick. He set them down gently on the counter and looked again in the binder. He ran his finger down the page one more time and stopped when he came to the armoire, value $15,000.

“I can let you have the pair for, let’s see,” William said, stalling, hoping they’d think he was calculating a discount off the asking price, when in fact he had no idea what number would be high enough to keep this gargantuan and her shadowy friend from buying the candlesticks, “I think, maybe, I suppose, two hundred dollars.”

The wraith called Lydia opened her purse and pulled out a checkbook, but Mrs. Benson laughed so loud the Buddha’s sarong fluttered and Frederick’s rocking horse launched into motion. Mrs. Benson shook her head and laid a meaty hand on her friend’s arm. Lydia looked up at her, obviously puzzled.

“You’re a silly boy, William. No doubt this appealed to dear, sweet Frederick.” She raised her eyebrows, and William understood she wasn’t talking about Frederick’s weakness for antiques. “But it’s no way to run a business.” With that, Mrs. Benson pulled Lydia, whose hand still clutched her checkbook and a fountain pen, up the stairs. The window shuddered, William thought, when the door slammed behind them.

“Now you’ve done it,” said the highboy. “You had the fish on the line and you let it get away.”

“But at least the store is still afloat,” said the wing chair. “For now.”

“Forget the list, mon cher,” said the armoire. “Go low.”

In the afternoon, a young couple came in, a sloppy bra-less teenager with a pierced eyebrow, and a slim young man about William’s age in khakis and a polo shirt, a silver ring on his thumb. William watched his careful steps, trailing the heedless girl. They looked at everything, laughing and poking at each other, “you’re such a nerd,” said the girl, and “at least I don’t have a tattoo on my butt,” said the young man. She called him Donnie, he called her Pammy, more like sister and brother than a couple.

“Is there something I can help you with?” he asked them.

“We were just looking,” said the girl, pawing through a drawer full of costume jewelry that Frederick—William didn’t really want to think about why Frederick had a drawer full of costume jewelry.

“Yeah, just looking,” said the man, now keeping his eyes on William, straightening his collar.

He stuck his hand out, thin and pasty, a light grip, like William’s own. “I’m Donnie.” Now the
girl turned around to look, eyes wide.

“William,” said William.

The girl clucked, grabbed Donnie and pulled him out the door. Donnie waved.

At home that night, there was mail. Addressed to him. He never got mail, but enjoyed the ritual of opening the box and going through the catalogs and junk mail and solicitations still being delivered for Frederick. This was a pale-blue envelope, the kind you might expect to be scented, with his name on it and a return address in California, and a regular first-class stamp, not one of those telltale bulk postage stamps he’d noticed on all his other mail. Frederick’s mail. Who did he know in California?

It was from Cassie. She’d just heard, was deeply saddened, sorry she and Frederick hadn’t been closer, and by the way she’d be arriving next week to turn the house over to a Realtor she’d hired and would William be so kind as to be gone by the time she got there? William sank to the window seat, clutching the letter, pictured Frederick in his silk robe descending the stairs, Frederick reading by the fire, Frederick beating eggs for a soufflé. What to do?

The next morning was damp and drizzly and William was happy to open the shop, shake out his umbrella, and ease into the wing chair to wait and think. There was still room in the shop, he saw, especially if he started piling things up, so he could call those awful boys Frederick had hired and ask them to bring another load over from the house. William didn’t have much of his own to move, he could use one of Frederick’s suitcases and still have room for some more of Frederick’s things, and until something turned up he could sleep on the divan, shower at the Y maybe, and things would be fine. “You’ll see,” he said to the armoire. There was no answer.

He was still sitting there, gazing out the window, when he saw a pair of skinny legs in tight black jeans go by. Then the same legs went by in the other direction, stopped and crouched down, and that guy from the other day, Donnie, was looking in, upside down, grinning, William thought, but it was hard to tell that way, with the chin at the top. Donnie waved, and then his face popped out of sight and the legs skipped away. William felt a chill.

The titan came back, with Lydia in tow. “You silly boy,” Mrs. Benson said, opened her purse
and pulled out the bills she’d offered before. Lydia peeked around her megalithic friend and
flashed her checkbook at William, a narrow grin on her lips.

“Forget your pride, mon petite chou,” whispered the armoire. “Take the money,” said the wing chair, “what choice do we have?” “Cassie is coming,” said the highboy. William backed into the counter, rattling the Toby jugs on the glass shelves, and nodded as the whale closed in.

He slid out of her path, spun around to the cash register and pressed the buttons. Nothing
happened. He looked up at her and shrugged. Pressing harder on the numbers, he hit “enter” with the heel of his hand, as if he just hadn’t been convincing enough the first time, as if the machine would not allow him to surrender Frederick to this goliath. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Donnie’s legs again, the black jeans, slowly now, stopping just at the steps. With a sheepish grin toward Mrs. Benson, William felt around the back of the box and threw the switch, felt the hum of power in his fingers, and rang up the sale, the insurance list forgotten. The drawer popped open and William slipped the bills inside, while Lydia wrote out her check—twenty dollars, Mrs. Benson had decreed—for the candlesticks.

“I’ll pull the Lincoln around in a few minutes,” said Mrs. Benson, and plowed up Central, with Lydia in her wake. While the door was still open, Donnie stepped in.

William pretended to busy himself at the cash register, which for the first time actually harbored cash, but watched Donnie move through the store, examining everything he and the girl had seen already, making his way deeper inside, stopping again at the pile of costume jewelry. He turned toward William with a tiara in his hand, slipped it into his wispy blonde hair and blushed crimson, then set it down on the counter. “How much is it?”

“A dollar?” guessed William, suppressing a laugh. Donnie’s fingers brushed William’s palm when he handed him the bill, and they both turned away. William felt himself blushing now, too.

He’d barely finished the small sale when the door whooshed open again. A young couple—
newlyweds, from Philadelphia, they announced right away, as if that somehow was going to make a difference in any price he might quote them and, William had to admit, it did incline him toward a bigger number than he would have otherwise—instantly moved in opposite directions, the woman asking William about the highboy, then the armoire, while the husband shouted questions from the back about a dusty school desk he’d noticed in the corner. “It’s from the oldest school in the county, a real collector’s item,” William lied loudly to the husband, with a wink to Donnie. “Previously owned by royalty,” he crowed to the wife, when the door opened again and an elderly couple came in and started nosing around and they were all still in the store when Randy, from Java Mountain, strolled in, waved at William, and began fingering the books. Donnie leaned against the counter. William pretended not to notice.

As William was writing up the chair for the young couple, watching how the dark finger hair
curled over the man’s wedding ring while he steadied the checkbook, the older couple asked for the price of the armoire and this time William halved the insurance estimate, told them there was room for discussion and let them mull it over and in the meantime Randy had grabbed a couple of books off the shelf and stood at the register with his wallet open. Donnie still leaned. Oh my, thought William, this is just as I’d imagined it would be. The world isn’t going to come crashing down after all! Let Cassie come!

Randy had gone with his books and the old couple was still examining the armoire and William would be sorry to see it go, but selling the most expensive piece in the store would be a real coup, even at the more realistic price, and he left them alone to talk themselves into it.

Mrs. Benson’s Lincoln pulled up out front, idled there, a little cotton candy cloud of exhaust out the back, and he knew it was finally time. He leaned over the writing desk, tried to hold both ends and lift, but the table dragged its feet. William laughed at himself. You are a silly boy, aren’t you, he thought, the table doesn’t have feet. Well, it does, but . . . He leaned over again and it still seemed like the table was reluctant, but William knew perfectly well what was happening. He wasn’t a total dunce, despite what his stepfather might have thought. It wasn’t the furniture who was foot-dragging. Donnie hopped around the counter, touched his hand to William’s shoulder and grabbed the other side of the table.



Clifford Garstang has published in Confluence and the Ledge. His story “Nanking Mansion” won the 2007 GSU Review Fiction Prize and will be published shortly. He also has work forthcoming in Potomac Review, The Hub and elsewhere. Leviathan originally appeared in North Dakota Quarterly. Garstang blogs at Perpetual Folly.

“Chickens” by Lance Feyh


White Rooster

She lost all respect for him after the incident with the chicken truck, but she’d probably lost most of her respect for him long before that. The thing with the chicken truck was that it confirmed what she already suspected, that he could no longer afford even the pretensions associated with respectability. His wrecked vehicle was there in the front yard for everyone to see, little feathers still stuck to the bent steel and broken glass. Not that they had many neighbors in the first place, and not that anyone out here was overly concerned with property values anyway, but it was the principle of the thing.

The tow truck had dumped the Subaru off in the yard while he was still at the hospital. He could have been killed by the chicken truck, and she was grateful that he wasn’t hurt more than he was. He could have come out of the whole thing with a permanent disability, and nothing would have been more terrible than that. This way she could leave without the guilt.

When he finally did get home, his right arm was in a sling and she was gone. He knew she was gone, probably for good, because she’d taken her pillow and her toothbrush, among other things. She didn’t leave a note. But she’d been more or less telling him for a long time that it would eventually come to this. Frank didn’t want to linger on it much. He couldn’t remember the name of her boss anyway. Bob or Bill, something like that. That was the guy she’d run off with, he figured.

He sat down on the couch, turned the television on, and popped a pain pill. The insurance company wanted to total the Subaru, which sounded like a good idea to him. He’d have to figure out a way to pay for the emergency room visit, but it wasn’t like he had to worry about slow payments making his credit any worse. For now, he had food in the pantry and beer in the fridge, plenty of good pain pills to take and some time off work, part of it paid. He hadn’t had a vacation for years, except for the one time they visited her crazy brother in Indiana .

After a few days, the weather had turned warm and he got the idea that he might go fishing. He’d been out to the garage a few times to tinker with his long dead motorcycle, but there really wasn’t much point to hiding out in the garage anymore. So he brought some of his fishing gear inside and started practicing with a rod and reel in the living room, even though the ceiling was too low. The wrist on his bad arm was still in good condition, and he found he could use it to fling a cast with his ultra-light as long as he didn’t move anything from the elbow up. With his left hand and arm, he could work the reel and manage all of the other tasks required to catch a fish. As long as the sling stayed tight and his damaged shoulder stayed at home, he figured he wouldn’t have much trouble taking a few smallies from the stream.

He had to walk through the neighbors’ wooded backyard to get down to the river. Frank didn’t really know the Lubanskis that well. But Harold Lubanski was retired and he was always out back working on birdhouses. Harold’s wife, Loretta, liked to stay inside and bake things that smelled good.

“Howdy, neighbor,” said Harold. “Looks like you had an accident.”

Frank figured he might as well level with the guy. “Got in a wreck and my wife left me,” he said. “So now I’m going to do a little fishing.”

“I’m sorry to hear about all that,” Harold said.

“Well I’m in better shape than the Subaru,” Frank said, looking back in the general direction of the place where the wagon had been temporarily laid to rest.

“I noticed it in your yard, saw the tow truck drop it off, actually,” Harold said. “I’m just glad to see you made it out alive.”

That’s when Frank decided to tell Harold the whole story about the chicken truck. Harold was so interested that he put his paintbrush down and turned his attention away from the birdhouse he was working on entirely.

That morning, they had been in the middle of a fight about the phone bill when Trudy’s boss at the accounting firm called to tell her not to bother to come in on account of the ice. Frank said it was nothing and that he wished he had a boss who would write the whole morning off on account of a little ice. He worked at the college, where it was his job to sort and deliver the campus mail. The professors would get bent out of shape if they didn’t get their magazine subscriptions and various solicitations on time. Besides, he got paid by the hour.

It was the end of winter and Frank figured what ice there was on the road would melt off quickly. But his was a two-wheel-drive Subaru instead of the fancy kind, and the tires were worn. He’d bought the wagon used a few years ago from a college student who was looking to upgrade. Already late for work, he was trying to maintain enough speed to get up the first big hill on the interstate without going too fast. When he started sliding on some black ice, he figured it was just his luck. He knew not to hit the brakes, but he couldn’t get any traction and he was worried about going off the road and over a steep embankment or
crossing the median and sliding into oncoming traffic. There were two lanes going his way. He slid across the center lane one way, then the other, working the wheel back and forth without predictable results. It was all very slow and uncontrollable. Then he slid sideways, and that’s when he saw the chicken truck. The truck driver couldn’t stop and he was trying to slip the big rig by the Subaru in the right lane.

Frank figured he was a goner.

But after making contact with the chicken truck, the wagon went shooting across the ice like a vehicular hockey puck and then came to rest abruptly in the grassy, frosted median. One whole side of the wagon was crunched and most of the windows were shattered. The driver’s side door worked, but Frank didn’t know that. He dislocated his shoulder badly when he fell out of the window trying to escape like a stock car driver.

The driver of the chicken truck had pulled over on the shoulder of the interstate on the northbound side. “You almost slid right under me,” said the chicken truck driver when Frank finally made it over there to talk to him. The driver was leaning out his window. “I thought you were a goner,” he said.

The heavy truck only had superficial damage, a few scrapes. The chickens were visible through open spaces in the trailer. They were stacked and secured tight in big metal crates. A few of the jailed chickens were making low squawking or screeching noises and some white feathers were still drifting through the air. Mostly, though, it was strangely quiet. Incredibly, one chicken, a ball of white, had somehow managed to escape during the mismatched confrontation between the big truck and the little wagon and that chicken was
moving slowly back down the hill, a surreal and determined refugee. Frank figured it would either get hit by a car or get eaten eventually by something coming out of the woods. He figured the chicken was better off in the long run, no matter which way it turned out.

The chicken truck driver was a black guy. His wife was riding along in the back of the cabin. They told Frank to come on up and they’d give him a ride into town, seeing as how their rig could handle the road conditions. They let him use their cell phone to report the accident and to call a tow truck and call work. He tried to call Trudy, too, but he had to leave a message when she didn’t answer. The truck driver’s wife poured Frank some coffee into a foam cup out of an old thermos, and she said she was just glad that nobody
got hurt. Frank said his shoulder hurt pretty bad but that he knew what she meant.

The truck driver and his wife were heading to St. Louis with the chickens. Apparently all of the big chicken processing plants in the southwest part of the state were taking on as many chickens as the Mexican workers could process and, besides, the people who lived by the processing plants were starting to raise a stink about the constant stench coming out of those places. Now there was a new processing plant in an old warehouse near St. Louis, across the river in Illinois, actually, where there were already lots of interesting
industrial and organic smells and where people were less likely to complain or less likely to have their complaints heard.

“Nobody from my outfit wants the East St. Louis run, so they keep giving it to me,” said the chicken truck driver. “What do you think about that?”

Frank said he didn’t know what to think about it.

They exchanged insurance papers and agreed that the accident was the weather’s fault and that it definitely wasn’t the chicken truck’s fault. Frank thanked them and wished them luck when they dropped him off at the emergency room.

He took extreme care in descending to solid ground. As the truck started to roll away slowly, Frank found himself staring straight into the pink eyes of one of the chickens. It was just one of hundreds, maybe thousands, and that chicken looked mad as hell. “Jesus Christ,” Frank said.

Frank’s neighbor didn’t laugh at any part of the story. When the storyteller got to the part about Trudy running off with what’s his name, the guy actually put a hand on Frank’s good shoulder.

“Do you really think you ought to be fishing?” Harold asked.

“I’ve got it all figured out,” Frank assured him.

He’d tied on a small plastic worm back at the house. That was the hardest part. When he got down to the little river, he flipped a cast into a little hole and immediately caught a little smallmouth. The hook came out easily and he released the fish, and the best part was he didn’t have to use his bad shoulder at all. The water in the stream was cold and it was flowing pretty fast in the shallow riffles, but Frank risked wading a few feet down to the next hole. He caught another smallmouth out of that hole and was feeling pretty good about
things. Let someone else deliver the mail for a while, he said to himself.

But as he tried to move on through another shallow stretch of running water, he slipped on a wet, moss covered rock. Unable to catch himself, he got swept up by the seat of his pants in the current. He lost his rod and the river rocks were punishing his backside, but he didn’t try to fight it. The current quickly dumped him into a pool of water about five feet deep.

He wasn’t about to go back the way he came, so he cut his losses and waded over to the bank and reached for an overhanging tree limb with his left arm. The first limb broke when he tried to use it for leverage. But the second one held and, with much difficulty, he was able to pull himself up.

Dripping and cold, Frank made a new trail through the woods and finally emerged into Harold’s backyard. He must have been a sight. The old man looked up from his birdhouse and didn’t know what to say.

“Caught two,” Frank reported.

Harold didn’t laugh or anything. “Are you okay?” he finally asked.

“I figure I’ll live,” Frank said.

The good thing about the incident in the river was that Frank, though sore all over, didn’t do any additional damage to his shoulder. It was still in place and all. While he was taking a hot bath, he thought he heard the door bell ring. By the time he finally got changed and went to the front door to check, somebody had taken the Subaru away. Apparently the insurance company had towed it away to wherever they kept totaled vehicles. Frank thought it would make a nice addition to their collection.

Standing in his doorway, he looked down and made another discovery – a bag of Loretta Lubanski’s homemade peanut butter cookies and one of Harold Lubanski’s hand-made birdhouses. There was also a little note and it just said, Hang in there, neighbor.

Frank thought he might cry.

Later that afternoon, he called the phone company to make arrangements on his bill. Then he called his brother, who had an old car Frank could borrow for a while. Next, he called his boss and told him that he’d be back to work the following week and that he might be interested in some overtime, assuming that kind of thing was even available. Finally, he thought about trying to call Trudy. He got the phone book out and put it on the kitchen table next to a ceramic bowl with fake fruit in it. He didn’t know if she’d be back to get the
rest of her stuff or if she’d already taken everything she wanted.

He ate a peanut butter cookie and then he got a beer out of the fridge and sat down to think some more. He thought about the caged chicken with the pink eyes, the one that had stared right through him, and then he thought about the chicken that got loose on the highway. He even considered the meaning of birdhouses.

He took a long drink of beer and smiled. Her boss’s name was Bill Cooper. That’s what it was. Not that there was anyone to listen anyway, and it might have been a failure of imagination on his part, but Frank couldn’t think of a bad thing to say about the guy.


~Lance Feyh

“The Reprieve” by Dorothy Duncan Burris

Pile of White Pink and Brown Oblong and Round Medication Tablet

My daughter auctioned the furniture out from under me while I was in the nursing home. What feels emptiest are my hands; I was so used to stroking my possessions, as though they were pets, or as though I were blind and could not see them any other way.

The real loss is the shape Ross, dug into his side of the mattress, the worn section of bedpost where he grabbed hold of it every morning, everything on which he left real or imaginary marks.

I feel like a dog who has been driven miles into the country and dumped out of the car. I’m not angry at Peg, though. I was senile when they put me in the nursing home, and it wasn’t until the doctor took me off all those prescribed medications that my mind started to clear up.

Being in that medicine-induced fog was nice for a while, but then I needed to take more medicine just to feel normal, let alone any kind of high. When I think about these last wasted ten years, I’m angry at my doctor. Angry that he would go along with my pleas for more of this and more of that. Especially when none of it was necessary. Well, the first pill wasn’t necessary. The others became so — as antidotes or equalizers of whatever preceded them.

I know I shouldn’t have asked for the pills. I was wrong. Ross was dead and I was lonesome, but I was wrong. I also know that the doctor should have called my bluff. He should have called me what I was: a prescription junky. But he lacked the integrity. Our symbiotic relationship is not a pretty truth.

Peg is visiting me today in my new apartment. I’m still a visitor myself here. Yesterday, I wanted to go around and mark it off in the liquid way a dog does. Peg’s finally grown into her nose. It used to be a few sizes too big. Now her long countenance has been counteracted by a haircut that fluffs out at her ears.

Peg tells me that the money she got for the furniture has been doubled by a stockbroker and acts as though it were an unalloyed good. The words pencil the enlarged nose back on her elongated face. I don’t criticize. She meant no harm, just like the time when she was six years old and locked me out of the house and wouldn’t — or couldn’t — let me back in. I never believed Ross when he told me she knew — at five — how to operate the lock. The first thing I said to her after I got back in the house was “I know you didn’t do that on purpose.” I said it to her twice to make sure she heard, but the second time she covered up her ears and glared at me as though she had been the one locked out. I ignored her, which is what I usually did when she misbehaved.

“I’d give up more than half of the money to have my old things back,” I say now, and I notice there is a note of exasperation in my voice–no, more than exasperation. Anger. A real anger that is as different from irritation as a legitimate pill-taker is from a prescription junky. Peg doesn’t reply, but a hint of a smile sears itself across my eyes. This is not a Mona Lisa smile. There is no doubt concerning the pleasure behind it.

Peg very seldom shows her emotions. I have too often penciled lines in between dots that aren’t there. This is something I started to look at in the nursing home. Peg’s one lone visit to see me. That was it, just one. Not two. So you couldn’t connect them with a line. That kind of woke me up. Not that I, still being on drugs, recognized her when she came.

The nurses told me about the first visit, so I kept looking forward to her next one. I’d sit–and later stand–by the window and look out, willing the black speck on the horizon to turn into a car that carried her inside, just the way I carried her inside forty years ago. Then I would remember the way my own mother would wait for me by her window at my age. And how Peg, as a child, never did wait by the window for anybody but her father to return. Then I felt ashamed and stopped waiting as though it were a hex that was keeping her away.

When I stopped looking, I started listening. Every so often one of the other residents would get a phone call. They’d be taken to a little glassed-in office on the ground floor and left alone, sometimes trembling, with whoever was on the other end of the line. I remembered the toy phone Peg’s father gave her for Christmas once and how she used to spend hours talking to him at the office and my wishing that I was the one who went off to work. He was gone all day–maybe that was what made him more precious, made him the favorite. It certainly couldn’t have been his strictness, although Peg never seemed to mind it. But then, she seldom showed her emotions. I think I said that before. And I have to admit in hindsight that if he had been as permissive as I was, she would have been a thoroughly spoiled child.

When I first started coming back from drug-induced senility, I comforted myself in Peg’s absence by imagining her on that toy telephone, calling me.

Now that Peg’s here with a smile like a Cheshire cat, I realize she is happy that I am unhappy. She has locked me out of my house for the second time now. Except this time is permanent. All right, I will not look the other way again. I reach out with my hand and Braille her face, her mouth, willing myself to feel its sharp, cruel curve. “My own daughter. Happy that I’m unhappy.”

There, I’ve said it. I lived through it. And I feel strong instead of the way I thought I’d feel —

Peg is nodding her head in acknowledgment, encouragement. She is cheering me on, the way I prayed she would when I was at the nursing home. I not only feel strong, I feel happy, as though I have reached into the past and changed something for Peg. I look at the dear shape of her nose and of her face. This alone is landscape enough.



~Dorothy Duncan Burris

“Out of the Blue” by Mary Ann Cain

Blue Skies

Twenty-six years ago, he called from Paris, from a phone booth he’d hot-wired
for long distance at no charge. Last summer, it was an email bearing the
heading, “Out of the Blue.” It had been almost as long as that stolen phone
call since I’d last heard from him.

I never saw him again once he left for Paris. But he did call—twice—until the
French phone company cut him off. And he did write, a letter or two, one
about wanting to make love to me on his windowsill with the amazing rooftop

The email comes to my campus address, the one that anyone even remotely
curious could Google with ease. The tone is friendly, even polite, like that of a
distant friend with whom one has lost touch, not by design but by default. He
offers some details about himself, says he heard from a former teacher of ours
that I am teaching creative writing. He’s married to a kindergarten teacher
(which I knew), has a teenaged daughter (which I didn’t know but am not
surprised to learn), lives in Evanston in an old red brick house with a white

I check out his website. It’s the same face, only without the wild expression of
the one in my high school yearbook, that crazed-looking face that, a few years
later took Indiana reservoir curves at high speeds and dove into its dark
waters during a full moon. It’s a mellower, more peaceful face, the kind of face
that won’t scare off business for his freelance writing work. Age has been kind
to him. I notice, though, that in a separate photo his white dog still mugs a
salacious grin.

I’d heard he’d published a novel, though I never saw it on the shelves. But at
the bottom of his email is a website for downloading an e-version of his book.

He’d written in my yearbook the year I graduated and he left for graduate
school, “You’ll probably end up a better writer than I. At least I can say I knew
you when.”

I am just curious enough to write him back. I respond in kind about the big,
brown-shingled house from 1929 that I share with my poet husband and my
beagle with the soulful eyes.


High school graduation is a month away when I tag along with some of the stage
crew guys to visit him in Lombard, where he lives in his grandfather’s house. He
shows our entourage inside the house, dark and gloomy, solidly wooden in the
Germanic style of my cabinet maker forebears.

“Whipping Post” is blasting on a stereo with seriously large speakers. The stage
crew guys are duly impressed by the sound equipment while I am stirred by Gregg
Allman’s larger-than-life vocals. The guys pass the album cover back and forth,
noting the tribute to the band’s roadies on the album’s flip side. They are like his
roadies, having traveled an hour west just to return sound equipment they had
previously hauled for one of his theater productions.

Walking back down the gravel drive to the car, he and I chit chat about our next
moves as the stage crew guys pile inside an old Falcon. He is going to graduate
school in southern Indiana to study creative writing. The gravel under my feet, the
grape leaves trellised against the wide hips of his grandfather’s house, the
flowering bushes and generous front porch transport me to a familiar place, a deja-
vu that is also prescient of what is to come. I reach out for one of the grape
leaves, twirl its sturdy stem, and risk a small smile back over my shoulder. Maybe
I’ll see you there, I say. Knowing, with that gesture, in that place we’ve both
known before, that we will, of course, meet again, and again, and again. The leaf,
the twirl, the knowing smile. On the way home, one of the stage crew guys sitting
in the back seat kisses me, but I am still twirling that leaf, smiling that smile, as if
I have already lived the life that is yet to come.


I met him in high school, creative writing class. It wasn’t my first class in that
subject, but it was the first one where I could imagine writing as my life’s work.
In that class, we wrote journals. We watched surrealist movies such as Un
Chien andalou, replete with a razor-slashed eyeball and ants like sinister armies
stalking from an open palm. We did writing exercises; we read out loud. He
turned me on to Anais Nin and Henry Miller. He said he taped words that he
liked to his wall, unusual words like fritillary. He was also an actor and director,
in charge of stage crew for school productions but also director of his own

Word had it that he was dating the leading lady in his fall show, a cheerleader
who aspired to be the next Melissa Manchester. “Dating” wasn’t the word for
it, though. Two students was dating. A teacher and a student was something

He read my journals for class and made brief notes in the margins, encouraging
me to keep writing. After he’d read a few weeks’ entries, he asked me to stay
after class one day, then offered to tutor me privately. Together, we would
read Nin and Miller, Durrell, Artaud, and all the other writers mingling in that pre-
Hilter Parisian café scene.

When I stopped by his classroom one afternoon, the cheerleader was there,
and they were laughing, leaning into each other, like they shared some secret.
Later, when he asked me why I had left, I said I felt like I was inside a
boudoir. He laughed, that crazy howl that was his trademark. I always
wondered if that was his real laugh or if he was acting; it seemed too big to be
real. After I turned him down, claiming I was too busy with speech team and
the school newspaper and my AP English class to take the time for tutoring,
and after he tried to persuade me to rethink my priorities, I started to fantasize
about him, about him and the cheerleader, about him and me and an
opportunity that I could not put into words.

The rumors about him and the cheerleader continued into the spring. She
played Lola in the annual musical, “Damn Yankees.” I shared the role of
reporter Gloria Thorpe with another girl until the cheerleader came down with
inflamed vocal chords two weeks before the show, and I was asked to take
over her role. I’d never sung in front of anyone before, and although I had
done bit parts in other shows, I’d never played a lead. She wrote me a
handwritten note, encouraging me to act like a cat onstage, to help me get into
Lola. I hated her for writing me. It was the kind of advice he’d have given, had
I let him. I never answered her. I was furious with him but instead turned my
scorn on her.

He, on the other hand, was all the more attractive for being so outrageously,
intensely, and inappropriately involved with a high school student (if the rumors
were, in fact, correct—I never did ask him). I wanted what she wanted. I
wanted to be noticed, admired, talented, a star. Other girls in school were
rumored to have done the same as her, slept with male teachers for reasons I
was only just beginning to understand.

I never acted again. I never sang again. But I kept writing–in my journal,
stories and poems. I read the writers he wanted me to read, and the writing
of their friends and lovers, reading my way into other worlds more passionate
and stormy than anything I alone had ever imagined.

I haven’t spoken to him in nearly three years when he comes into the small café
where I work as a cook, across town from the university. Only this afternoon I’m
also waiting tables, covering for an absent server. I greet him to take his order.
He’s with a friend. They laugh and joke. I push at the bandanna that holds back
my hair and tug at my cut-off shorts, feeling sweaty and unattractive.

I tell him I thought he’d left town, graduated. He says he’s visiting before he leaves
for Paris.

Even though fall classes have started, the steamy southern Indiana air lulls me
into believing it is still summer, and I have all the time in the world. Three years
collapse into three days. We joke and laugh and say nothing about the years of
silence between us. I bring them German beer in brown bottles and bratwurst I
spear from a pot of boiling beer and wedge into steamed seeded buns. I am a
vegetarian, yet bratwurst envy seizes me as they take huge bites from their
sausages and guzzle beer from the chilled mugs I chiseled from the freezer.

The friend is watchful of me when I return with more beers, and again with the
check. It’s late afternoon, and few people are around except the café owner, who is
preparing to roast a whole pig on the patio, part of a special weekend event that
includes belly dancers and a band. I feel the friend’s eyes staring at me, at my Ball
U t-shirt that I first bought back in high school but still wear when I don’t really
care how I look. Those eyes are dark and wolf-like, and in hindsight, a little scary. I
look past his eyes at the pig on the spit, the owner cursing as he struggles to
mount it on the barbeque rack, readying it for the fire to come.

He asks me to go to a party tonight. I touch the loose tendrils of hair reaching out
from under my red bandanna. I feel the tug of my t-shirt across bare nipples
underneath, the rub of my cut-offs in the crease of my thighs. Those wolf eyes are
devouring me. I turn back to him, whose eyes are light and whose red lips remind
me of a beautiful girl’s.

Can you pick me up? I ask him. The wolf eyes look away, out of shyness, or envy,
or simply lured by some other sight, I can only guess. But after that they stop
watching me and turn to him alone.


The first time we made love, he picked me up and brought me to his apartment
on a side of town I’d not yet been to, too far from my dorm to easily walk. It
was a two-story place, with doors on the outside like a cheap motel. By the
calendar, it was still summer, but I shivered uncontrollably while sitting on his
sofa. I didn’t think of our meeting as a date, as in pizza and a movie, or a party
with friends. We were both new to town, and so still had time to kill. I think he
cooked dinner, but I don’t remember what we ate. I tucked my hands into my
armpits, and my stocking feet between the sofa cushions for warmth. We
smoked a joint, and I shivered even more.

“I’m freezing,” I said, in hopes of drawing him closer. But instead of covering
me with himself like a blanket, he touched me lightly, kissed me delicately,
feeling his way. I buried my hands in his hair, rubbed my feet against his.
Eventually he must have noticed my shaking because he took me by the hand
and to his bed, where a plush satin comforter folded me into its softness, and
finally, I could relax and feel my warmth return.

Later, he asked me gently if this was my first time. “No,” I replied, somewhat
defiantly. I did not want him to think I had been shivering out of fear. The
apartment was dark and cold, and I was sensitive to the lack of heat. I
wanted, needed more. But when it finally arrived, I was too exhausted and
stressed to feel much more than relief that my shivering was over.


The party, as it turns out, is him and his friend, and two six-packs of cheap beer.
They have both been getting high, but when they offer me a joint, I shake my
head. I will be the sober one on this wild ride. He steers his Pinto tight around fast
curves hugging the reservoir, serious as a race car driver yet laughing all the way. I
sit in back, minding the beer, gripping the top of the bucket seats for balance while
he and his wolf friend pass the joint back and forth. He starts to drive off a ledge
then stops at the very last minute, laughing, his friend laughing, me unable to
crack even a lame smile. If I bail out now, I’ll be stuck out in the woods, on a road
few drive, with no sense of direction and only Chinese velvet flip flops on my feet to
get me home.

He parks at the edge of another bank high over the water, and they are both
running down, flinging off shirts, pausing at the shore to push down jeans and
shorts, then diving headlong into moonlit water. At first, I am determined to wait
in the car, keep myself apart, but the heat, and the light, and the sound of the
water pull me down the rocks and onto the narrow beach, testing the temperature
of the reservoir with my bare toes.

I know they are watching even though I can’t see them. I can feel their eyes on
my skin, the color of the moon, and just as light. Between their laughter, I feel
them ripple through the dark water as I enter, slowly, carefully, deliberately. I am
apart and distant, yet intimate as moonlight.

Just before his email came, I had been back in southern Indiana for a
university conference. For some reason, I had felt drawn to retrace my
steps around the town, around campus, daydreaming, sweating in the
mid-May heat, letting random memories flow in and out. Despite the
unlikelihood, I searched for familiar names on the mailboxes of a white
four square where I’d lived with a friend my senior year. I cut north
through the student ghettos and around the pampered Victorians with
their gingerbread and high-pitched roofs, following the shade of old
sycamores and poplars. I searched for the Oriental grocery where,
one summer when I was laid off for six weeks, I bought almond
cookies for ten cents apiece to stretch my meager unemployment, but
found no signs of the store. Then I headed uphill towards campus, on
the way sizing up the sports-bar inhabitants of what had once been a
vegetarian restaurant run by a local ashram. The varnished picnic
tables and mirrored Rajasthani embroidery that had decorated the
walls was replaced by big-screen TVs and table tents touting draft

I returned to the dorm where I’d spent my first two years, a huge
limestone building in the shape of an H. Inside and upstairs, WPA-era
murals depicted different decades of student life on the cafeteria
walls. Sturdy, brass-edged tables still filled the huge room. I started
to count the chairs but gave up after a few hundred. The dish room
where I’d worked my first year and the serving line my second year,
my hair held back by old lady-style hairnets, had been replaced by a
food court that looked straight out of a mall. Downstairs, the snack
bar had been upgraded and the small grocery expanded, along with
internet terminals scattered around the lobby. The brass wall of
student mailboxes, however, had not changed. The granite floor,
brass stair rails, and imposing limestone walls transmitted a comforting
sense of permanence, yet at the same time sparked strange fears of
its weight.

Inside that building that had housed generations of students, my
weightless wandering took on a heaviness and deliberation. What
had started as simple nostalgia and a desire to wander became a
more conscious circumambulation of a place that was sacred for all it
had given. Yet that same place also bound me to old desires that had
disappeared from view but, like the cicadas that trilled without pause
as I continued to walk, were still very much present even after I no
longer listened. I searched for words similarly sacred, similarly
powerful, words of gratitude but also words of release.

As I walked, I breathed in gratitude for all I had experienced. I
breathed out my wish for freedom from desires unmet, from what I’d
lost, from whom I’d known that continued to haunt my present-day
life. I stood in the courtyard outside, where students in cutoffs and
bandanas had once thrown Frisbees and blasted Kansas from dorm
windows, and breathed in my dorm window where I’d perched big
speakers until they had crashed to the floor in the middle of a Steely
Dan song, then breathed out the memory of that sickening thud. I
breathed in the grassy courtyard, now empty but for birds and cicadas,
and breathed out the window of a guy I’d once loved, how I’d watched
for his light to come on and wondered if he had done the same for

I followed a shallow stream that cut through the heart of campus,
paused on the plain wooden bridges, and breathed in the honeysuckle
around the President’s house. I breathed in the tall, modern building
where I’d taken all my writing classes and attended readings, and
breathed out the memory of preachers who’d stood outside each
spring and warned of hellfire soon to come. Back in town, I breathed
in the deliciously bitter espresso of a coffeehouse that was a second
home when I lived down the street, and visited the goldfish that still
lived in the bathtub, then breathed out the red brick apartment of
another guy I thought I could love but never got a chance to. I
breathed in the second floor of a house sheltered by shady poplars
where a friend and former writing teacher had invited a few of her
students over to form a writing group, and breathed out the memory
of her suicide years later in the desert West. Heading back to the
courthouse square to the import shop where I once splurged and
bought a flowered kimono, I breathed in the memory of a pizza joint
with all-you-can-eat spaghetti that had given way to a much more
expensive continental café. I breathed out as I passed the café on the
way to an Afghani restaurant where I was to meet my friend from the
white four square to talk about, among other things, her son who had
signed up for war time Reserves.

When I came home, and saw his email, Out of the Blue, I realized
immediately that his apartment was, inexplicably, the one place I had
neither breathed in nor breathed out and the one I most needed to let
go of for good.


The last time we make love, it is hot, height-of-summer hot. But the
reservoir has bathed and rocked us, and the breeze from the Pinto’s open
windows has ruffled us dry. Inside, I feel cool and clean as a hit man.

The awkwardness and expectations, the hope and the helplessness of
nearly three years ago have given way to a more calculated set of desires.
He will say he’ll write, and I’ll pretend to want him to. I will send him off
to Paris, and out of my life, proving to myself that I, too, can act as well as
he, and enjoy playing the part.


He emails that he is starting a theater troupe that will perform plays as
living rituals. In leaving him out of my own ritual, I realize I’ve left
something undone. Somewhere in the dreams that housed our desires,
we still meet, we still act as if there is no end.

Breathing in, I say silently, release me from those dreams. I breathe out
the ruins of my desire.


I have dreamed this house before, the kind my grandfather grew up in on
the south side of Chicago, solid, gloomy, and full of dark-stained wood. I’
ve never lived in such a house, but I still know it as a familiar place: safe,
substantial, meant to last. The house I was raised in was new, bright,
and modern. I long for the mystery of my grandfather’s house. It’s that
house and its surrounding property I fall in love with before I ever fall in
love with him: the big trees, the vines on the walls, their roots large and
deep. I have been here in my dreams and beyond. I want to fall asleep
on its wide porch in a warm breeze scented by snowball and lilac bushes,
bridal veil and honeysuckle, trumpet vines and roses. Sleep and sleep,
and never wake again.


We email a few times more. I don’t say much about his new theater; I
expect he is working up to ask for a donation. Instead I ask about a
mutual friend and my former writing teacher, the graduate student
who had started a writing group with her students and who, a few
years later, had killed herself in the desert West. Did he know what
had happened? I’d tried to find out and gave up, but never stopped
hurting for the loss of her. He emailed me the novel he wrote about
her, which included excerpts from her journals that he had taken after
she’d died. I read the whole thing in two days, stayed up through a
fierce storm until four a.m. just to finish, stunned to find out she may
have been sexually abused as a child. Only in the novel, the abuse
occurs in a “past life.” When I ask him why he did not make the abuse
real, he writes back that he didn’t want to make her a victim. Of
course, this doesn’t stop her character from killing herself.

I decide not to offer comments on the novel. He has just revised the
manuscript and may have a publisher, so I tell myself there is no
point. I thank him for showing me the manuscript and the insight it
gave me into her.

But then he asks what I think. So I decide to tell him the truth, that
his use of my friend’s journals to tell her story is more about him and
his own need for redemption than about any redemption of her. He
doesn’t respond for two months, when another email arrives, this time
very brief, asking for my snail mail address. No comments about my
comments on his novel.

Just as I expect, a brochure arrives, asking me for support for his new
theater. It amazes me that he would ask, yet it doesn’t surprise me,
either. I have always supported his shows, played parts that were
written long before I was born. I have lived his dreams as if they
were mine. Why would he think anything has changed?

At the bottom of the brochure is a brief note, thanking me for my
comments on his novel. I continue my ritual, breathing out as I throw
away his brochures when they arrive in the mail and delete his emails
of solicitation without reading them. I don’t have to; I know his lines
well. I breathe in, still twirling that leaf, smiling that smile. I breathe
out the red-lipped girl who wanted so much to be noticed, admired,
talented, a star. Breathing in, I am grateful for having survived.



Mary Ann Cain has received grants from the Indiana Arts Commission and Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne for her fiction, as well as residency fellowships at Hill House Writers’ retreat and the Mary Hambidge Center for the Arts. She received Special Merit for Abiko Quarterly’s International Fiction award (Japan), was nominated for General Electric’s Award for Younger Writers, and was a finalist for the Schweitzer Fellowship (under the direction of Toni Morrison) at SUNY Albany, where she earned a Doctor of Arts in English in 1990. Her outside interests include West African drumming, movement, meditation, cooking, and hiking. She lives with her husband, poet George Kalamaras, and their beagle, Barney, in Fort Wayne, Indiana.