Night in El Rodeo

Creative Nonfiction
Andrea Klunder


The night is warm, same as every other night in El Salvador. There is no sun, no street lamp, only a shaft of light from the bare bulb in Julia’s mud house, spilling onto the cement slab of a porch.

The boys have gathered here, perhaps because it is the weekend, perhaps because of the heat, or perhaps because they have finally grown accustomed to my presence in the village. They are chattering and laughing. I do not understand their Spanish. Julia says they are telling dirty jokes and that I wouldn’t want to understand anyway.

I look at their faces in the dim light from the house, seeing only half of their features: harsh lines chiseled from the elements, arms muscular and brown from working the fields. Daniel’s weathered face is mocking, cruel. Carlos has a high-pitched laugh, awkward in his pubescent body, all limbs and hands designed for grabbing. César’s round, innocent eyes sparkle brightly, even in the absence of light. He blushes at Daniel’s joke. I wish I understood.

I am an outsider, all but forgotten in the dark on this wooden bench. If I knew the words, I still wouldn’t understand. The barrier reaches beyond language. This is not how I imagined them before I came: silent, dignified, mysterious. Instead, they are like the boys at home, only perhaps nastier and more dangerous.

Daniel turns his black eyes toward me. He makes a comment. His lips curl into a sneer. Julia hits him on the arm. She tells me, “Daniel says you are not amused by them.” They wait for a response.

I am mistrustful. Daniel’s eyes linger, looking me over: my tank top and cotton pants, sunburned shoulders, weak arms, and pale feet caked with red dirt in my Birkenstocks. I feel he is flirting with me. I imagine the touch of his callused hands, the smell of his sweat. Can he read my mind, even as he doesn’t speak my language?

Carlos is laughing again, his gawky girlish giggle. I feel a hand touch mine. Tiny. César. He squeezes my hand in his grubby 10-year-old fingers and smiles a toothy grin. I smile back, grateful for a new friend.

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Andrea Klunder is a Chicago-based writer/actor/director and is artistic director of Chicago ScriptWorks, a non-profit that produces staged screenplay readings. Klunder has traveled throughout Europe and El Salvador, where she recently collaborated on a weekly milk project and a new library for the elementary school in the rural community of El Rodeo. E-mail: cswcasting[at]yahoo.com.

Supernova

Fiction
Leslie Van Newkirk


My house is a topographical map, Charlie thought as he awoke on a Saturday morning. The bed is Mt. Fuji, the rug is a lake, my desk a Mies van der Rohe-designed building. The framed picture of Masako, a billboard advertising love, happiness, prosperity. Charlie put two feet on the floor, tested their sturdiness, and padded to the kitchen to make his morning coffee.

Masako came over at noon. They planned to go to the Hayden Planetarium. Not wanting to spend the extra money on lunch, he made them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The berry jam was brownish-red, and reminded him of a squashed insect’s blood.

Since it was a summer day, they shopped for bottled water at the Polish deli by his apartment. There, old women jostled them for a good place in line. But when they reached the counter Charlie saw that a young Polish girl—his favorite shop clerk—would ring them up. He saw her often, this girl, who despite her square face and scrunched features, had long legs and nice breasts, and to accentuate them, wore tight shirts. She smiled warmly, unlike the old Polish women. She talked fast and loud with her cute, thick accent, perhaps hoping that some rich Japanese-American man would swoop in and take her away from the Polish deli. Trouble was, Charlie wasn’t rich.

He and Masako walked towards the subway. He looked at her walking, but she was lost in thought and didn’t notice him examining her. He wondered if she would be okay today because the previous night she had said, “I don’t know if I can go through with it.” Meaning the planetarium. For Masako was claustrophobic, along with many other fears. But surprisingly, she had agreed to go to with him after all.

I’m not afraid of anything, he thought. Even death was an anticipated event. Charlie welcomed death, but not in the sense that he wanted to die right away. More that it was a great puzzle that he looked forward to solving. He thought that death was a gateway to something else, not just darkness and finality. He liked to think about it when he was stoned. Masako would not talk about death and said it “freaked her out.” Lots of things “freaked her out.” At movie theaters Masako had to sit in an aisle seat in case she had to go to the bathroom or suddenly leave. At restaurants Masako could not sit at a table that “wasn’t right.” Much to the staff’s annoyance they would sometimes switch around tables trying to find one that “was right.” But often they would just leave their menus untouched on the tablecloth and quietly scoot out their chairs in their embarrassment to slip out unnoticed.

Charlie’s thoughts switched to the planetarium, a white orb in the metal cage that he had seen in a picture in the newspaper. The planetarium made him think of Walt Disney, Battlestar Galactica, and those dog-eared science fiction books he had read as a teenager in suburban Maryland. The stories of robot colonies and half-alien women did for him then what drugs do for him now: took him away to other worlds. He hoped the planetarium would do the same today.

Waiting on the subway platform, he squeezed Masako’s hand. She looked up at him, blinking like an ingratiated child. When the train arrived, they stepped on. The putrid body smell of the subway decimated Charlie’s romanticism of public transportation. Masako’s sweaty hand gripped his tighter, though he could not tell if she was afraid. He looked out the subway window and noticed some graffiti in panels on the tunnel walls, kinetic, springing to life like animation. Masako coughed and stared out of the opposite window, a mirror reflecting a grim and sullen expression on her face. She was difficult to read. Her moods could swing so pendulously that he gave up guessing, for it only got him yelled at.

The subway spat them out at the Seventy-Ninth St. exit and they hurried through the tunnel, their voices reverberating through the vaulted stone hallway. Around them, children buzzed like one gigantic beehive until Charlie and Masako could take no more of the rising crescendo. They found the nearest exit and would have to find a way to enter the planetarium from the outside.

At the orb’s entrance, Masako complained that “her feet hurt already” in her scuffed, white pumps, though he suspected she was too embarrassed to admit once again that she was afraid.

“Why don’t you sit and wait for me out here in this park.”

“Okay,” Masako said. “Can we go to Times Square after this?”

“Sure.” Charlie didn’t know why she liked Times Square so much. Unless it reminded her of her native Tokyo with the neon, lights, and advertisements.

Masako waited outside watching the frolicking squirrels while Charlie followed the crowd into the planetarium. Once seated and locked inside, a deep voice, like the voiceovers of car commercials told of infant planets and black holes. He felt glued to his plush chair, his neck and body completely supported. Yet at the same time, he seemed as if he was floating in the black dome, the lights of stars and comet trails inhabiting his personal space. He savored every exploding star. This was better than a rock concert.

Later in Times Square, Charlie and Masako slowed to a crawl along with the rest of the foot traffic. Heads swiveled around to take in the gaudy sights—T-shirt vendors, religious fanatics, news cameras. People bumped into one another because no one looked where they were walking. Tourists stared blatantly at a paraplegic man as if he were an attraction like the gigantic Cup O’ Noodles sign. Charlie wished he were back in the planetarium with the Polish girl. He would teach her how to say supernova in Japanese.

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Leslie Van Newkirk grew up in Southern New Jersey and now lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She has been an independent musician and not-so-independent writer/producer for MTV Networks, but her greatest love is fiction. Her short stories have been published online in Word Riot (Dec. 2003) and in Reading Divas. Leslie is currently represented by the Jane Rotrosen Agency who is shopping her second novel to editors. E-mail: leslievannewkirk[at]yahoo.com.

Objects Are Closer Than They Appear

Fiction
Carol Culver Rzadkiewicz


Tammi Jean Cook was sixteen. She was also psychic, a designation she used to describe herself more often than she did her age or any of the other so-called “vital statistics” found on her Alabama beginner’s license. So as Tammi Jean stood west of Luverne on U.S. Highway 10, sticking her thumb out at an approaching minivan, she thought how, given her keen intuitive powers, she already knew the van wasn’t going to stop. This being the case, she then wondered why she was standing there needlessly exerting herself in the God-awful August heat.

Sure enough, just as she had known it would, the van didn’t even slow but rocketed past, the hot wind of its passage whipping her hair back from her face and flinging dust onto her new boots.

“Bitch,” Tammi Jean hissed, since she knew that the driver, a middle-aged man, whose sympathetic eyes had met her own for an instant, would have given her a ride if not for his ugly bulldog of a wife. Yet, if anyone had asked her how she knew this, Tammi Jean would have been at a loss to explain. All she knew was she knew, and exactly how she knew was a mystery even to her.

Sighing, Tammi Jean looked back down the highway. It was now totally devoid of traffic as far as she could see, which she estimated to be a fair distance, especially allowing for the hills and how deceptive they could be if a person were trying to calculate the exact mileage to the horizon, which she wasn’t, given she’d never been much good at math and, come to think of it, really didn’t care how many miles it was to the damned horizon. All she cared about was when and if another vehicle was going to make its way down this highway. Not that it was much of a highway as highways went. Just a pot-holed stretch of asphalt that ran east to west, bisecting the lower third of the state like a carelessly inflicted incision and winding its way through kudzu-choked fields and small towns as nondescript and dull as Clio, her hometown, which now lay somewhere to the east, miles beyond that heat-washed horizon.

“Never gonna get to California at this rate,” Tammi Jean said, set her guitar case on the ground, then slid the cumbersome backpack from her shoulders. The pack she let drop so that it landed with a thud, creating a short-lived cloud of red dust that rained its contents upon her boots. She glared at the once shiny toes and yanked a pack of menthol cigarettes from her shirt pocket.

There were a lot of things Tammi Jean hated about Alabama, more than she cared to count, but she had to admit its damned red dirt was pretty high on the list, though not as high as the kudzu and mobile homes. Both of these she personally likened to some contagious skin disease, maybe leprosy or scabies, which infected the land instead of a person’s body and was epidemic in the state of Alabama.

Sitting down on the backpack, Tammi Jean made a half-hearted swipe at her boots, smearing the dust in the process, as well as soiling her fingertips. “Oh, to hell with it,” she said and lit a cigarette, all the while keeping her eyes trained on the highway.

Her Aunt Winnie swore that the neighboring state of Georgia was famous for its kudzu and red dirt, but Tammi Jean had news for Aunt Winnie—whatever they had in Georgia couldn’t hold a candle to that found in Alabama. No way in hell. Not that she’d ever been to Georgia to make a comparison, but since she had no desire to go to Georgia, it being too close to Alabama in both topography and climate for her taste, Tammi Jean figured Aunt Winnie would just have to take her word on the matter, given it was one of those things she instinctively knew, being psychic the way she was and had always been, regardless of the fact that other folks seemed to have a hard time accepting that she possessed some kind of sixth sense. Like her cousin Yancy. He didn’t believe in it at all.

“You’re plumb crazy.” That’s what he’d said, laughing like a hyena while saying it, when she’d told him he’d best not go out with Molly Cope because she knew it wouldn’t bring him nothing but trouble. The idiot. He should’ve heeded her warning. But had he? Hell, no. Just gone right ahead and dated the slut, that’s what he’d done. Yet since he’d chosen to ignore her prediction, Tammi Jean now felt more than a little smug self-satisfaction in knowing that, just two weeks after she’d warned him about Molly, Old Yancy was at Doc Talbert’s being treated for a runaway case of the clap; plus, three short months later, he was standing in front of Preacher Dade, marrying Molly Cope and looking like someone who’d just been condemned to the death penalty. The cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, Tammi Jean smiled, remembering Yancy’s hangdog expression and thinking how that still wasn’t the best part of the story. The best part was her knowing that the child in Molly’s womb wasn’t his at all but Wade Dickinson’s. Not that she was going to share that bit of information with her cousin or anyone else for that matter. Doubting Thomas that Old Yancy was, let him raise Wade Dickinson’s brat. Served him right for laughing at her.

Tammi Jean took a long drag on the cigarette, pulling the smoke deep into her lungs and holding it there as long as she could so that when she exhaled, only the faintest wisp escaped her lips. Frowning, she glanced at her watch.

Ten o’clock and hot as hell.

Thinking this, she suddenly saw her mama sliding from between the semen-stained sheets back in that rundown doublewide on Mason Mill Road. Saw her as clearly as if she were standing there in the doorway and watching the woman. Then she saw Charlene Cook run a hand through her bleached-blonde hair, stagger down the narrow hallway, and open her daughter’s bedroom door. The scene was so vivid, Tammi Jean could even feel the heat in that stifling mobile home as the sun careened over its roof, and she could see the sweat already beginning to roll down her mama’s puffy face, streaking the makeup she hadn’t bothered to remove last night. Then Tammi Jean couldn’t help but giggle as she watched Charlene walk into the room and pick up the note she’d left on her pillow.

Guess what? I’m going to California so I guess you got to fix your own damn morning coffee.

Again puffing on the cigarette, Tammi Jean closed her mind on Charlene Cook and watched an eighteen-wheeler top the crest of a ridge almost two miles away, watched it slide into view and then disappear, only to reappear again, riding the undulating hills like a gigantic black whale rising and then plunging over waves in the sea. She narrowed her eyes. This is it, she thought, my ride outta fucking Alabama. She knew it for a fact, just like she’d known about the minivan driver’s willingness to stop, about Yancy’s making a mistake, and about Molly’s carrying Wade Dickinson’s child. Knew it without understanding how. The same way she also knew about her daddy’s not being dead, the way her mama insisted he was, but being alive and in California instead.

Tammi Jean inhaled again, wanting to finish the cigarette before her ride got there, and continued to watch the semi as it swam through the mirages on the hot asphalt and pushed its way through the August heat.

“And I know it for a fact,” Tammi Jean said as she stood and hoisted the backpack once more into position. Travis Leon Cook wasn’t dead. And she didn’t give a damn what Charlene Cook had to say on the subject, though she doubted she was going to forget the woman’s skepticism anytime soon.

“You’re outta your fucking mind!” Those had been her mama’s exact words when Tammi Jean had told her Travis was in California and not lying six foot under in some cemetery outside of Waco, Texas, the way folks seemed to think he was.

“No, I ain’t,” Tammi Jean said in response. “Like I keep telling you, I just know things.”

“You don’t know diddly squat,” Charlene said. “You just think you do. I done told you ten thousand times your daddy got hisself killed out in Texas.”

“Humph,” Tammi Jean said, “You ain’t got no proof.”

“The hell I don’t. I also done told you, his second cousin Morris Goodall called me. Said the family got word from somebody your daddy knew and…”

“That ain’t proof! You didn’t get no death certificate.”

Charlene rolled her made-up eyes. “Why would I? We weren’t married no more. I’d done divorced his ass ’cause he deserted me.”

“So, did you ask his folks if you could see that death certificate?”

“Hell, no. The last thing I wanted was anything to do with the Cooks. Not a one of ’em ever did like me, so when I divorced your daddy, I went and divorced them, too. And it was good riddance to the whole lot.”

“Well, if you didn’t see no…”

“I ain’t gonna talk about it no more,” Charlene snapped. “Your sorry daddy is dead as a damned doorknob and…”

“He ain’t dead either. He’s out in California.”

“Did you hear me say I ain’t gonna talk about it no more?” Saying this, Charlene left the kitchen where they had been sitting at the time the topic was broached. But Tammi Jean wasn’t one to give up easily and followed her mama down the hallway to the bathroom. Charlene slammed the door and locked it as she yelled, “Leave me the hell alone.”

Tammi Jean leaned as close to the door as she could get and yelled back, “My daddy is in California, and I know it for a fact!”

“Like I done said, you don’t know diddly squat! But if you’re so dead set on him being in California, why don’t you go find ‘im? Just don’t forget to tell ‘im he owes me nine years in back child support, the bastard.” After screaming this, Charlene turned the radio on to WYNX AM, her favorite station, setting the volume as high as it would go and letting Hank Williams Jr. effectively put a stop to any further discussion of the matter at hand.

Now recalling her mama’s attitude, Tammi Jean narrowed her eyes as the semi topped the final hill and began its descent. A Kenworth, its chrome-plated exhaust stacks and running lights flashed in the sun and its powerful diesel engine growled as it bit off the distance to where she waited.

Hell, she thought. It didn’t matter whether Charlene Cook believed her or not. She knew her daddy was alive and he was in California. The knowing was enough. And thinking this, Tammi Jean tossed the cigarette butt onto the median, picked up her guitar case, and stepped closer to the highway to wait for her ride out of the hellhole called Alabama.

A few minutes later, the driver shifting gears and the truck once again picking up speed, Tammi Jean settled into the seat, looked into the mirror on the door to her right, and watched the spot where she’d been standing grow smaller and smaller still as the ribbon of highway spooled out from beneath the silver trailer and unwound, twisting into the distance.

“Objects are closer than they appear,” the driver said.

“What?” She turned toward him.

Smiling, exposing a gold front tooth, he said, “On the mirror. That’s what it says. Or ain’t you ever noticed?”

She again glanced at the mirror, read the words printed across the bottom of the glass.

“Objects are closer than they appear,” he repeated. “Says it on all side mirrors, on cars and trucks alike. Hell, you ain’t gonna find a vehicle that don’t have it stamped right there plain as day.”

Looking back at him, Tammi Jean sized him up: barrel-chest, stomach resting on an ornate silver belt buckle, he was in his mid- to late-forties, his hair more gray than black, though most of it was hidden beneath a sweat-stained baseball cap that announced he was an Atlanta Falcons’ fan. She decided if someone were to ask her to describe her idea of a typical truck driver, her description would be that of the man now changing gears on the Kenworth.

“Kinda makes you wonder, don’t it?” he asked.

“Wonder what?” Tammi Jean asked in return, given he’d lost her somewhere at the beginning of the conversation.

“You know, what it really means.”

“What, what means?”

“The message on the blamed mirror.” Saying this, he laughed, the gold tooth flashing as he did. “Least ways, it makes me wonder. Hell, way I see it, it must be important or why put it there in the first place, right?” He glanced at her expectantly.

“Right,” she said, since she suspected this was what he wanted to hear.

“Course,” he said, “that being the case, I gotta ask why it’s so all-fired important?” He held up a finger. “And the way I got it figured is—that message is important ’cause it don’t really mean what most folks think it means.” Lowering his hand, he again cut his eyes toward her. “It’s got one of them hidden meanings.”

“Like what?” Tammi Jean asked, wondering just what in the hell he was talking about.

“Oh, one of them deeper, symbolic meanings, what folks called philosophical. Course, that’s just me talking.” Shrugging, he shifted his hips on the seat as he asked, “So, how ’bout you? You ever wonder what it really means?”

“Not really,” Tammi Jean said. She had a difficult time imagining herself sitting around and wondering whether or not the words printed on two zillion car and truck mirrors meant anything other than just what they implied.

Still chuckling, he eased the Kenworth into a higher gear. “Well, that’s ’cause you ain’t me,” he said. “Me, I’ve had lots of time to think about it. Been driving for twenty-three odd years, and ever mile of the way those words have been staring back at me whenever I look in the mirror. Objects are closer than they appear. All I gotta do is look and there they are.” He jerked his chin toward the window to his left. “Right there, plain as day, objects are closer than they appear.”

“So, with all the thinking you been doing, I guess you figured out if they have a deeper meaning or don’t.” Tammi Jean said this to be polite and not because she had any interest in knowing what conclusion the man had reached.

He grinned. “Yep, reckon I’ve done that all right.”

“And?”

“And nothing. I ain’t gonna tell you what I decided ’cause I want to know what you think?” Saying this, he looked at her and raised one eyebrow. “So, tell me what you think.”

“I don’t know. I’d have to study on it awhile,” Tammi Jean said, though she had no intention of overexerting her thought processes on such a trivial matter as damned side-view mirrors. She had better things to do with her brain.

“Well, you just do that,” he said, “but let me know what you come up with.” The Kenworth now sailing smoothly along the highway, he leaned back and removed a pack of Marlboros from the dash. “By the way,” he added, “my name’s Elvis. What’s yours?”

“Tammi Jean,” she said and swallowed a giggle.

“Go ahead and laugh,” he said. “Most folks do. Always think I’m kidding, but I ain’t. Name’s really Elvis, like the King hisself. Hell, I was even born in Tupelo, just a few miles from his home-place. Course, I ain’t no relation, and unlike the King, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.” Saying this, he laughed again, glancing back at her. “Get it? Tune in a bucket.”

Shit, Tammi Jean thought, sure I get it. She wasn’t exactly dense.

“But I reckon you can, carry a tune I mean,” he said. “Else you wouldn’t be lugging that guitar around, now would you?’

“Guess I can sing a little,” Tammi Jean said. “And my daddy, he taught me how to play. It was his guitar.” Though she’d really learned by listening to the radio and watching music videos, she knew, had Travis hung around, he would have taught his daughter, and this, in her opinion, was enough to make it true.

“Was?”

Tammi Jean removed her cigarettes from her pocket and shook one out. “Well, he let me have it when I got old enough. Got himself a new one.” Not that Travis had exactly done this. Instead, he’d left the guitar behind, and when Charlene had come across it in the back of the closet, she’d thrown it out the front door, so Tammi Jean had claimed it as her own.

Nodding, Elvis the truck driver slowed the Kenworth to avoid ramming a Dodge pickup that was pulling out from a side road. “So y’all live around here?”

“Nah, me and him live in California.”

“California? You’re a right far piece from home, ain’t you?”

“Yeah, guess so, but that’s where I’m heading. Back home to be with my daddy.”

“What about your ma?’

Tammi Jean rolled the window down a little and watched the smoke stream out into the hot Alabama air.

“I said, what about your ma?”

“She’s dead. Been dead a long time now.” In uttering these words, Tammi Jean realized they were somehow true. Charlene Cook had been dead for a long time, in fact, almost as long as she could remember.

“Oh, so what you doing here in Alabama all by your lonesome?”

“Been visiting kin folks in Florida. Just passing through on my way back home.” Tammi Jean looked his way and smiled. “Had one hell of a time in Panama City. Me and my cousins, we…”

“Look,” he said, “I gotta ask—what’re you doing hitching?”

“Wanted to see the country,” she said, which was true, though she also wanted to make the money she’d saved from her part time job at Dairy Queen last as long as possible.

Quiet for a moment so that Tammi Jean dared hope he had tired of his inquisition, Elvis puffed on his Marlboro and kept his eyes on the highway ahead. Yet just as she was beginning to relax, he spit out another question: “Does your pa know you’re hitching cross country?”

“Sure does,” she said. “Course he pretty much lets me do what I want.”

Frowning, Elvis tossed the smoldering remains of his cigarette out into the wind. “Ain’t none of my business,” he said, “but seems to me, no daddy would want his little girl taking rides from strangers. Sure would hate to know any daughter of mine was out hitching on the highways.” He cut his eyes toward her. “Seems mighty risky. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, maybe,” Tammi Jean replied, turning her head to watch a field of kudzu grow closer and then flash by, blurring into a wasteland of green. Maybe he was right and it was risky; still, it was a risk worth the taking when weighed against the alternative—staying in Alabama and ending up just like her mama, living in a mobile home at the edge of town and letting sour-smelling men paw her body and then laugh behind her back.

“But ain’t you ever afraid?” Elvis then asked.

Under the branches of a lone oak, a Fleetwood doublewide set in the middle of a scraggly, unkempt yard, the sun relentlessly and unmercifully hammering on its roof and pummeling the prefabricated walls. This too bled past her window, and Tammi Jean thought, the only thing I’m afraid of is what I see spread out on each side of this highway. Yet she wasn’t about to tell some stranger her fears, so she just shook her head and said, “No, I ain’t afraid.”

“Still, you ought to think twice about what you’re doing. You know what I mean?”

Hearing him but paying him no mind, Tammi Jean kept her eyes on a pickup as it made its way down a dirt road up ahead. Winding through parched cornfields, the road was red as blood beneath the blue expanse of sky, and the pickup, an old Ford, was traveling fast, the Alabama dust spiraling up behind and following it like the fiery tail of a comet on a collision course with some destination only the driver knew and was making no attempt to avoid.

“Then again,” Elvis added, “it’s like I said. Ain’t none of my business, is it?”

No, she thought, it ain’t.

“But if I was you, I’d be careful,” he warned. “Ain’t no way you’d know who you was climbing into a vehicle with.”

Tammi Jean smiled as she glanced into the mirror on the door. “You’re wrong about that,” she said. “Cause I’d know.”

The words “Objects are closer than they appear” were superimposed across the face of the landscape she despised; and as the kudzu, mobile homes, and red dirt faded into the distance with each rotation of the Kenworth’s tires, Tammi Jean realized exactly what Elvis the truck driver thought these words meant. You can never leave your past behind. This was his so-called deeper, philosophical meaning. Yet, she had news for him—he was wrong—and she was going to prove it. In fact, she was proving it right this very minute. Her damned past was just that—the past—and she was never going to give it another thought.

“You would, huh?” Elvis said.

“Yeah, I would,” Tammi Jean said. “You see, I’m psychic, and I know these things.”

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“I am an English instructor at Remington College in Lafayette, Lousiana. I am also, perhaps first and foremost, a writer. My stories have appeared in The Sun, The New Review, Zine5, The Phoenix, and Horseman Magazine, among other publications. I have also won several awards for my writing, most recently at the Writers Guild of Acadiana, which was held in March of this year.” E-mail: professor_carol[at]yahoo.com.

Knobby Knees

Fiction
Brian D. Moore


Ben sat up in the maple tree for his stepsister’s entire softball game. It was a huge old tree that grew just at the edge of the woods, and it gave him a great view of the field. He could have sat in the stands, but he didn’t want her to see him. She didn’t seem to like him much. Sure, she called him Benjamin very sweetly when other people were around, but otherwise it was Nerd Boy and a door slam. Sometimes she called him Davy Crockett, which he would have liked if she didn’t say it so snotty.

Ben called her Knobby Knees, but not to her face. To her face, he called her Patricia—which she hated—or Patty if she wasn’t being mean. From the day his mom married Patty’s dad, his mom had been bugging him to call her Sis. “She is your sister now Ben,” she kept saying. Sis didn’t work for Ben. It sounded like something out of an old black-and-white TV show, plus it kind of got stuck against his teeth when he tried to say it. “Give it some time,” his mom said. Ben didn’t think time would help.

Knobby Knees played shortstop for the Astros. She was good, really good, but the Astros were still losing by one run. It was last bats—now or never—and Knobby Knees was up next. She stood in the on-deck circle, swinging along with each pitch to the batter at the plate. Fast pitch softball looked so weird. The pitcher threw the ball underhand, but not in a slow arc that barely makes it to the plate like parents do for little kids. Her arm twirled in a blur and the ball shot out like from a cannon. Three of these rocket balls and the batter struck out. Ben felt bad for her, knowing that he probably would have cracked under the pressure too. But Knobby Knees wouldn’t, she never did.

The winning run is at the plate with the tying run on first. The play-by-play ran in Ben’s head thanks to Rick, Patty’s dad—Ben’s step-dad. Rick was a yelling-at-the-TV and jumping-off-the-couch kind of sports freak. All season long, baseball games blared from the TV or from the radio. Other than that, Rick was okay, although he talked kind of funny—going on to Ben’s mom about “giving Ben his space” and “waiting for Ben to come to him.” Ben loved to spy on them talking in the living room. It was good practice at moving silently—slipping across the kitchen floor without making it squeak, breathing slow and even with his mouth wide open—plus he never knew what he might hear.

Knobby Knees stepped into the batter’s box. She windmilled the bat with her left hand, pointed it at the pitcher, and then to left field. Show off. Knobby Knees was a sucker for the first pitch and she stepped into it, unleashing her bat with an aluminum twang that drove the ball deep—over the pitcher, over the short stop, and over the left-fielder until finally landing, bouncing, and rolling past Ben’s tree. A sure homer! Knobby Knees sprinted around the bases, leaning in as she rounded each. Ben wondered how she could run so fast with such stick-thin legs. Did her gigantic knees hold coiled springs? Or was it her huge feet? Gunboats, Rick once called them. Only once, because she locked herself in the bathroom after he said it.

Rounding third, Knobby Knees snuck a look to where the left-fielder was just picking up the ball. As she jumped on home plate with both feet, her teammates surrounded her and the slap of their high-fives carried all the way to the tree. Ben frowned, he could only remember getting high-fived once, and that was in third grade, two years before, when he’d won the Pine Wood Derby. Knobby Knees moves to town and within a month, she was getting high-fived all over the place. Plus, after living here his whole life, all of a sudden kids were calling him Patty’s little brother. He couldn’t believe it—Patty’s little brother!

Ben scrambled down from the tree, and snuck through the woods along the left-field line until he was opposite home plate. He crawled the last few feet and stretched out under a raspberry bush where he had a clear view of the Astros huddled around Knobby Knees. He could tell which one of the crowd of pony-tailed girls she was by her long pants. While the other girls all wore white shorts under their team shirts, Knobby Knees wore boy’s baseball pants—the kind held down by a loop around the bottom of each foot. She claimed it was so she could slide, but he knew she really wore them to hide those knees. No way would she put those monster knobs on display.

The Astros yucked it up over her game-winner for what seemed forever. Weren’t they used to it? Finally, they wound down and wandered toward the parking lot with a couple of parents to drive them home.

Knobby Knees watched them go, then stuffed her equipment into her bat bag. She slung the bag over her shoulder and turned towards the woods, towards Ben and the path that came out three houses down from his—theirs. Ben slithered backwards, branches slipping around him with a whisper. Knobby Knees walked past the raspberry bush and started down the path. She stopped a few steps into the woods, right where the fast-setting sun had its last reach. The game had run late, leaving her with a dark walk home. She turned back towards the field, her winner’s grin replaced by a frown. Looks like old Knobby Knees doesn’t like the woods at night, Ben thought. Ben hadn’t at first either, but soon he grew to love how invisible he felt when the woods emptied of kids and the night bugs started singing. At night, he owned the woods.

Knobby Knees turned back to the path, leaned forward, then started in a rush—branches scratching against her bat bag, feet scuffing the dirt. Ben moved quietly on a course parallel to the path, stepping carefully through the brambles and over fallen branches. He couldn’t see Knobby Knees through the tree trunks and bushes, but he didn’t need to; he could tell where she was by her sounds. She stopped, then started again, then stopped. Ben kept moving, a shadow passing through the forest. Was she scared, he wondered—of the silence, or of the dark? He thought about breaking the silence with some noise, but that might scare her too. So he kept moving, listening hard for her and in his head telling her to keep going. Soon it would be real night and the woods would be as black as a cave.

A few steps farther on, he thought he heard her again, but the sounds came from ahead of him. He stopped to listen and decided that she couldn’t have got past him, so the sounds must be coming from a backyard that bordered the woods. But he was still pretty far from the houses. And the sound was closer, and was like a hiss. Whispering. Boys whispering. Ben stood still and focused. He took another step. Another. Then he heard them clear.

“Is she coming? Huh? Do you see her?”

“Not yet and shhh—wait for my signal.”

Every kid in town knew those voices—Bill Scranton and Lucas Weaver! The meanest eighth graders that ever lived. What were they doing in the woods? Then Ben heard Knobby Knees again, coming in a rush, branches whipping against her legs, a grunt when she tripped on a root.

“Here she comes,” hissed Scranton.

Scranton was waiting for Knobby Knees? Why? For what?

“RAAAHH!” Scranton yelled.

“Ahhh!” Knobby Knees wailed. “Who is that? Crockett?”

What? Ben was stunned. Why would she think it was him?

Silence.

“WROWRRR!” Scranton and Weaver roared together.

Silence.

Trees rustling, branches snapping.

“Davy Crockett? Is that you?” Knobby Knees voice was almost calm. “Who’s with you? … Ben? … Ben?”

“HA! HA! HA!” Their voices were pushed so low and deep that the air shook.

She can’t think that’s me, Ben thought.

“Help!” Knobby Knees yelped. “Help me!”

“There-is-NO-one-to-help-you!” Scranton boomed. “You-are-at-OUR-mercy.”

Ben’s mind spun and his hands clenched into fists. What should he DO? Run for help? The houses were still too far away. What could he do? He had to DO something! But what? What could he do to eighth graders nearly twice his size? THINK! THINK! The dark was the answer. Ben knew the woods and knew the dark and they didn’t—Ben was sure of it. They just couldn’t.

Ben ducked under the lowest branches and dashed through the woods, targeting the sounds, planning as he went. When he got near Scranton’s noise, Ben spotted the glow of a yellow T-shirt crouched beside the trail. Ben aimed for the glow and scuffed his feet the last few steps. Scranton ducked his head and twisted toward the sound. Ben bellowed and plowed into Scranton, knocking him spinning into the bushes, and then melted back into the near blackness.

“What happened?” Weaver said. “Scranton?”

“Shut up!” Scranton said from the ground where he struggled against the confining branches.

Weaver dropped his voice to a hiss. “Scranton? What is it? What happened?”

Ben targeted Weaver.

“Who’s out there?” Knobby Knees asked. “What was that?”

Ben curved around to catch Weaver from behind. As he crossed the path, Ben saw Knobby Knees huddled in the dirt, hugging her knees to her chest. Ben’s ears burned and he gritted his teeth. A few steps on he saw Weaver squatting behind a sapling that he gripped in both hands. Ben gave a Hyena-like scream and charged, knocking Weaver spinning into a bramble that snared his clothes and scratched his arms. Ben slipped away.

“Oouuu! What was that? Who’s out there? What do you want?” Weaver whined, thrashing against the branches that gripped him.

Ben circled around and shook the trees as he sped back and forth in an arc between the boys and the houses. Hoo, ha, hoo, he called in his most practiced owl imitation—the one his sister was so tired of hearing.

“Davy Crockett!” she said.

“Scranton! Scranton! I’m getting out of here!”

“Me too. Let’s go! Let’s go!”

Ben kept on shaking the trees as the boys stumbled away through the forest, crashing through deadfalls, their clothes tearing on brambles.

Ben stepped onto the path and walked backwards down it; hoo, ha, hoo; hoo, ha, hoo. Ben could hear Knobby Knees following the call, pushing slowly through the branches. At the edge of the yards, where glowing patio lights pushed away the dark, Ben gave one last call then ran to their house. He sped up to his room and flopped onto his floor with his Boy’s Life magazine. A few minutes later, there was a knock on his open door.

“Hey,” his sister stepped into his room and looked him up and down. “What have you been doing?”

“Reading,” he showed her the magazine. “About tracking coyotes.” Ben glanced down to see what she was looking at. Bits of leaves and twigs covered his clothes.

“Thanks, Ben,” she said.

“Sure, Sis.”

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Brian writes short stories in the few odd hours that he isn’t working his day job or being a parent and husband. Brian had an earlier story appear in the June 2003 issue of Toasted Cheese. You may contact him with comments at bmoore[at]wideopenwest.com.

Genesis

Fiction
Abbey Davis


“It’s raining,” Car said hopefully. Her family made no attempt at recognizing her or what she had said. But they never had before, so why should now be different?

An hour passed, and the rain continued. Still, Car’s family sat around their kitchen table doing what they had done for the past ten years. They wrote.

There were pages upon pages of written papers surrounding every nook and cranny of Car’s home. It was a sea of ink that never ended. There were pages that had been written on so much, they were unreadable. Yet still her parents and sister sat and wrote.

They would not let her read what they wrote. If Car approached them or tried to take one of their pages from them, they would snatch it away. If she were persistent, they would tear their work to shreds. Car was not allowed to read their writings, their masterpieces, their souls.

Car was not a writer. She had little imagination, she did not enjoy reading, and she had no way with words. When she picked up a pencil, she felt only a piece of plastic that made her hand hurt after a while. She did not feel warmth or power in her fingertips.

There was no time in Car’s memory when her parents had slept or eaten in front of her. Perhaps they did these things while she slept, but she had awoken in the middle of the night more than once only to hear three pens scratching away at the paper they so craved to fill.

Only once had Car’s mother ever spoken to her. Car had been nine, and she had said to her mother, “Did I do something wrong? Why do you ignore me and write all the time?”

Car’s mother had actually ceased writing and looked up. “Have you ever written?” she had said, her voice cracking from such little use over the years.

When Car shook her head, her mother had answered, “That’s why.”

So Car sat, among paper and ink, and watched her family write away their lives into nothing. When she had been smaller, she had hoped that they would run out of paper, but there seemed to be more than enough of the substance everywhere. Paper was stacked against the walls of their home, it lined the floor, it piled in mountains over their belongings.

Car had realized long ago that her parents paid her no attention. She could do anything she wanted, which included reading the paper that was so abundant in their home.

But the papers were unreadable. The words written on anything she found in the house had been written in such a hurry that Car could make no sense of it. It was as though they had so much to say that one lifetime of writing was not enough.

The rain continued now, falling more quickly than before. Car looked around at the smoldering wreck of her home, which could barely be seen but for all of the paper, and her eyes filled with tears.

“What is it?” she screamed, “What do you have to say that is so important?”

Slowly, ever so slowly, her mother, father, and sister looked up. Then they smiled and put down their pens.

“We thought you’d never ask,” Car’s mother said.

Shaking, Car stood up, walked to the table, and sat down next to her sister, where a pen had been laid out for her years ago. Together, the four family members picked up their pens and began to write.

It was the silence that echoed through their home that spoke now; it was the silence that made them write. No one spoke, no one moved, except for the constant shaking of four hands holding four pens writing four stories. Their stories would never end; the families to come after them would sit in these chairs and hear this silence and pick up these pens and write the same story, the same story that had no ending.

But for now, it was Car’s turn, and her story had the most wonderful beginning of them all, for she was the last one to begin, and she had the most to say.
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E-mail: orangelocomotive[at]yahoo.com.

Kiss Me With Your Mouth Closed

Flash
Jeremy S. Simmons


Chuck and Stephanie were drinking wine, listening to comedy records. They were into the third bottle and Chuck was wobbling. He was big, but hadn’t eaten since two-thirty; it was nine-fifteen. Flipping through albums, he thought that he was very horny, and needed to fuck Stephanie tonight, then he thought how they hadn’t done it since last Tuesday, it was Friday, and God-damn that moody, picky, frigid bitch. The words rolled around a screen behind his forehead, like the news ticker on the building in Times Square. Need to fuck; frigid bitch; repeat.

He picked Gilda Radner, put her on, and sat down next to Stephanie on the couch. They kissed a while until she grabbed his wrist because he was doing what she called twiddling the dials.

Chuck said, “Hunh?”

Ninety-seven seconds later they were screaming, and if you were outside their living room window on Walnut Street, you would’ve done a double take, because of how they were punching the air with their fingers, and how the spit was coming off their lips in snowy gobs.

Gilda sang, “Honey, touch me, with my clothes on.”

Chuck asked what the fucking hell Stephanie wanted him to do.

“Sweety, kiss me, with your mouth closed,” said Gilda.

Stephanie said she didn’t fucking—she swore as a reminder that she didn’t like it when Chuck swore—want him to do anything. Also, she said that Chuck obviously hadn’t the faintest idea how to touch her, and four years was more than enough time to learn to leave your girlfriend’s tits alone when she had her period and her nipples felt like giant cold sores on top of two black eyes and a hangover.

Gilda said, “Just like you love me, and I love you.”

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Jeremy S. Simmons: 35 – Boston native, recently returned after nine years in NYC. Fiancee: Candice, 33 – poetess/model of fecundity. Future Stepson: Trevor, 5 – sweet devil/standup comic. Jeremy likes to write. E-mail: reficul_tpecca[at]yahoo.com.

Verdigris

Flash
Holly Robinson


I was playing on the porch the afternoon the angels came and took my mama away.

School had just started. Johnnie Mae was waiting for me in the hall outside my classroom when the bell rang. Mrs. Weatherly, my teacher, liked books a lot and told the class that she would give us a sticker for each book we read and that we could pick out any sticker we wanted from the sticker basket and she would put it next to our name on the wall above the blackboard. Walking home, I told Johnnie Mae all about the books and the stickers and how I was going to read so many books that my stickers would go round and round the room. Johnnie Mae was walking real slow and I kept running back to catch up with her.

When we got home, she told me to play quietly on the porch, that she would bring me my snack.

“Your mama ain’t feeling real good today and she’s lying down on the bed so you be a good girl and play out here until she wakes up.”

*

That summer, before school started, I played on the porch a lot. Sometimes, I played games with the sun’s rays. Sometimes, I sat in the wicker rocking chair and looked at the books that Johnnie Mae and I checked out from the library. Sometimes, I waited for Johnnie Mae to call me into the house and tell me that my mama was awake and that I could go see her for a few minutes. If I was reading a book I really liked, I would bring the book with me and show it to her.

*

Johnnie Mae came out onto the porch with a plateful of apple slices slobbered with peanut butter and dropped into the wicker chair next to mine.

“Dr. Tom is upstairs with your mama, Molly.”

She didn’t say anything else after that, just sat for a few minutes, her eyes closed, her cheeks dark and shimmering. Then she hauled herself up out of the chair and returned to the house at a funereal pace.

Three figures in white swept past me and into the house. A slight breeze blew. The screen door slammed behind them. They rushed back out, spiriting mama with them. The door slammed again. I blinked my eyes and the white figures and mama were gone.

“Johnnie Mae,” I called, “Where they taking mama?”

“The angels are taking her to be with them, Molly.”

*

The front porch floods with afternoon sunlight, warming me with her bright yellow rays. When I feel really sad, I sit directly in her light and watch the sun fill me with yellow. Sometimes, if the sadness doesn’t leave, the blueness and yellow mix inside me, turning me green.

My name is Molly. I am nine now. Mama missed my birthday. I play on the porch in the afternoon and wait for the angels to bring my mama back to me.

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Holly Robinson lives in Portland, Oregon, writing laws by day to support writing short fiction and creative non-fiction by night. Her short fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Long Story Short and Word Riot. E-mail: hollyr[at]speakeasy.net.

The Picnic

Flash
Trish O’Brien-Edwards


He sits across from her on the blanket spread across the ground in the park. He wears his work clothes, a navy shirt and pants, the same thing everyday. Even when he changes when he gets home, it is only a clean version of this. He fidgets, folding and unfolding his paper napkin, touching it to his clean mouth. He sits Indian style, then puts his legs out straight in front of him, settling on one leg up under. She knows he wants a chair to sit in, but doesn’t offer to move to a nearby picnic table.

She wears a lemon yellow dress, well worn from washing. She loves the way it forms to her breasts, making them appear larger, and the way it flares at the bottom. Sometimes she spins in the kitchen, watching the dress circle around her.

The baby lies on his back, trying to catch the sun falling down through the leaves. He concentrates, a frown on his face, wondering why he can never capture the light. Bored, he climbs into his mother’s lap, putting his sticky fingers in her hair.

He won’t look directly at his son, but always glances off to something more important in the distance. He doesn’t listen when she tells him that their son got his first tooth or took his first step.

She wants to tell him about the packed bags by the door, but her throat is dry and she doesn’t say anything. They eat in silence. She knows he’s thinking about going back to work after this respite. He’s always going back to work. Their lives follow not the sun, but his job. Their dinners are planned around it, their vacations.

“We’re really busy now,” he tells her every time she asks when they can go to the Grand Canyon or to see her parents across the state.

Finished, they pack the remnants, the plastic bags the chips came in, the waxed paper that held the sandwich with a touch of mustard still clinging. He wads his things up into balls, throwing them in the basket. She takes her time, patiently putting her things away. She wants to remember the wetness of the cooling pop cans, the way the air tastes of lilacs, the baby’s happy gurgles. She brushes the blanket free of crumbs and together they fold it up, each taking an end.

She smoothes the seat of her dress as she stands, takes the baby up into her arms then holds her hand out to her husband who carries the load of the basket. She’ll take it with her, to remember better times.

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“I am a graduate of Iowa State University where I studied Literature and creative writing. I live in Ames, Iowa with my husband of twelve years.” E-mail: trishieo[at]yahoo.com.

Homecoming

Flash
Suki Litchfield


Tomorrow I will throw jeans and a toothbrush into my backpack and exit my cold, messy apartment, leaving behind a note for my phantom roommate and two pieces of moldy bread in the refrigerator. It will take my feet and a train and a car to finally deposit me in front of the house where I grew up. I will climb the three steps and open the door and be greeted by warmth and love and chatter and delicious smells. I will sit in the kitchen where there are four types of cereal and five types of fruit, and I will eat and answer my parents’ questions, and I will joke with my brother and hear myself laugh for the first time in weeks.

Later, the relatives will come over, and I’ll be hugged and photographed and interrogated, and my grandmother will give me a present that will be edible, to Put Some Meat On My Bones. I will nod and socialize and exchange amused looks with my brother and smile until my face hurts. Dinner will be huge and wonderful, and people will keep passing me food, and I will keep eating.

Afterward, my brother and I will sneak out to the back porch to talk and be alone. He will make fun of Aunt Edith, and when he laughs I’ll notice that his eyes are as blue as the darkening sky. Sometimes we won’t talk, and all I’ll be able to hear will be crickets. It will be much too cold, but we will sit outside until we can’t stand it anymore, and then we will go back in and sit by the fire and stay there until we have eaten and talked ourselves to sleep.

The day after tomorrow, I will take a car, a train, and a subway, walk over a bridge and up three flights of stairs and return to my apartment. It will be as cold and empty as before, and all I’ll hear will be the steady noise from the four lanes of traffic outside my window. But the highway starts to sound like the ocean after awhile, and one grows accustomed to the cold. You can even get used to hunger once you’ve lived with it. Soon it will become so familiar it will seem as much a part of me as the blue of my eyes.

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“I am an award-winning writer who lives in Florida. My fiction has appeared in Elements, The Storyteller, Mudrock Review, and on the website Satireville.” E-mail: kjlitchfield[at]juno.com.

Paris

Flash
Josh Dinman


Then there was Paris. We were miserable. It was very hot. We were in a little hotel on a street off the Rue de Magenta a few blocks from the Gar de Nord. The hotel looked in on a courtyard shared with an apartment co-op whose tenants celebrated the end of July and the coming vacances.

We spent five days there at the height of the worst heat wave on record. Enduring sweltering nights wrapped in hotel linen, we counted the days to our departure. She maintains we made love once. I do not remember. Love, the making of it, does not ring a bell.

Late on our last night, the courtyard echoed with the sounds of a man and a woman making love. The expressions of the lovers resonated through the courtyard. The woman cried out, “Oui monsieur. Oh oui, monsieur, merci monsieur.”

And she said, “She’s faking it. No woman really feels that way. She’s acting. Maybe she’s a whore. Listen to the way she calls him monsieur.”

“Yes,” I agreed, stroking her thigh.

She took my hand from between her legs.

“So?” I asked.

“No woman cries out something like that while in the throes of passion,” she said.

“No?” I asked, thinking of other lovers.

“Not that way,” she replied. “There are whispers, cries, moans, but that woman’s faking.”

So we listened to the lovers the way you listen to an amateur orchestra, listening for squeaky notes, misplaced fingerings. We lay there nearly naked, so close that our sweat intermingled and yet we were as distant as foreign moons. We waited, and listened, to the gurgled ripple of laughter passing from throat to throat of the apartment revelers drinking to their impending vacations, to the woman’s theatrical, impassioned cries and to the man’s animal grunting, all commingling above the courtyard. In the sweltering Paris night, the lovers’ lies became transparent, and their voices were joined by others, a swirl of laughter, of moans and breaking glass, an orgiastic swirl that echoed through the court as though the heat had finally gone to the entire feverish city’s head.

She turned and traced her finger down the length of my spine, drawing her tongue across my sticky Adam’s apple.

And in the infinite heavens, the Great Deceiver smiled.

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Josh lives in Virginia. E-mail: jddc[at]iname.com.