The Spirit of the Snark

The Snark Zone: Letters From the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


We rushed home from a weekend away this Halloween. In our first Halloween in the neighborhood, I didn’t want to be pegged as “one of those houses” that doesn’t give away candy. I got our cemetery set up, the lights lit, my costume on and a cauldron full of Kit Kats, M&Ms and Hershey bars ready to go. Half an hour after trick-or-treat began, we got our first kids. By the end of the two hours, I had barely given away the Kit-Kats, and I’d given them out in handfuls.

For a couple of weeks, I worried about possibilities from, “Is Halloween on the wane?” to “Is our neighborhood too dark?” Then it dawned on me: I assumed that kids would want to come to this neighborhood because it’s zoned in the country club area. I assumed that people here would hand out lots of the good stuff. In truth, the kids went elsewhere because the neighborhood not only refrained from passing out full-size Snickers but turned off its lights and hid.

I was never raised to be generous. In fact, I was taught to believe that you hang onto every penny and every possession and that the pharaohs had the right idea about taking it with you. I learned about generosity when I started working and had money to give. I checked the United Way box on my wage form. I figured I’d never miss it.

When I was most down on my financial luck, giving up meals so I could have gas money to get to work, I scraped together enough money to donate a toy to Toys For Tots. Then I had a small windfall of financial luck. So I donated some more and had the same result. This financial karma made me a giver; the more I gave away, the more I had to give. It was amazing.

In the last few years, I’ve given time and money when I could, almost exclusively on a local level. I’ve cleaned out my closet for women’s shelters and made food to feed volunteers. We’ve sponsored homeless and underprivileged children at Christmas and back-to-school time. Most of our giving is done anonymously but I tell people about these opportunities to enrich the community in hope that they will do the same.

To defray our running costs, Toasted Cheese accepts donations and this year we were blessed with a very generous donation from one of our editors . In lieu of donating to TC this holiday season, we hope that you will pass on this generosity and consider sending a small donation to Heifer International.

Like TC, Heifer International provides the tools and means for people to create using thier own talents. Instead of giving a bushel of wool or a bundle of meat, Heifer International provides animals to people throughout the world. The recipients then harvest wool, fur, meat, honey, etc. from the animals. They also breed their animals and pass the offspring along to other communities, lengthening the giving chain. You can learn more about what they do at their website.

If you would like to join other TC members in contributing as little as $2 toward a group donation, you can do so via our regular Paypal link. Just put in the comment section “heifer.org” and we will earmark your donation. At the end of December, we will announce what our community has donated to Heifer International.

If you would like to encourage donations in lieu of gifts, you can visit WhatGoesAround.org and create a “Give List” to share with friends and family. Instead of letting her give you another pair of slipper-socks, let Aunt Mildred know what charities are close to your heart.

On behalf of our editors here at Toasted Cheese, I encourage you to be generous with your time, your happiness and your love this holiday season. I hope this generosity returns to you throughout 2005.

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E-mail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Sailor Take Warning

Best of the Boards
Nyx


The sky was waiting for something. All day, it had been empty and open, an airy sea that held its breath and… waited. The captain of the small fishing boat felt cold when he looked into that blue abyss, colder than if he stared into a starless, moonless night. Darkness was meant to be feared. It was unknown. Bright and open, sunny and cloudless, this was a sky that hid its purpose behind beauty.

And Hank wasn’t the only one afraid. Along the docks, he saw the other boats pulling down sails, tying up, preparing for the worst, while puzzled people on shore shook their heads and scoffed.

“I have never seen anything so perfect, Dad,” said the boy at his side. “It’s unreal. It can’t be right, can it?”

The captain smiled.

“You are a sailor, son,” he said. “Only a man with saltwater in his veins knows enough to fear blue sky as much as black water. Go tell your mother. I’m not going anyplace but home today.”

The boy cast another glance at the horizon and hurried back down the dock. Hank’s eyes followed him until he disappeared around a dusty corner. A whistle caught his attention.

In the boat behind him, a young man was raising his sail and untying his boat, lips pursed and careless melody floating through the still air.

“Hey, buddy, I don’t mean to tell you your business, but you’re not thinking of going out in this, are you?”

The man looked up and grinned.

“God gave us great weather,” said the man as he opened a large metal case that resembled a tacklebox. “You sound as if you don’t trust him.”

Hank didn’t know what was in that box, but he was suddenly quite sure he didn’t want to know. “I’ve been fishing a long time. I know bait when I see it. My family’s not going to end up homeless ’cause I can’t see the hook for the worm.”

The man snapped the box shut and turned away.

“Ever have a fish take a worm right off your hook without tugging the line or bobbing the sinker?” Without waiting for an answer, he pushed off from the dock, heading for open water.
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E-mail: progressdownriver[at]hotmail.com.

Ayken’s Steps

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Lori Dehn


“They’re coming, Kaya!”

The girl was just a wisp of blood and bone and straight blond hair. She couldn’t possibly be strong enough to shoulder this burden. But then again, she couldn’t be a day over 15, and yet she had seen a hundred winters melt away. Just because something couldn’t be never meant that it wasn’t.

Kaya nodded at the dark-haired sentry on his horse. He reined the animal around and headed back down the path. The young priestess turned toward her unusual refugees and laid a hand on the stone wall of the mountain.

“This is the place where you must make your decision,” she told them. “After this place, this time, there is no step back.”

“But… how do we know this is right?” The voice was weak and vibrated like a too-tight lute string.

“You don’t, my lady. As with any decision, there are a thousand things that will happen because you choose this over that, and a thousand things will happen for each of those. Is it better than standing and fighting, or hiding, or taking that jeweled knife at your waist and saving the Dragon Lord the trouble? No one can say, because that answer could be different for everyone.” Kaya reached into her pocket and pulled out a pure white crystal on a long, silver chain. It cast a pattern of colored lights around the granite alcove. “What I can promise you is that action and intellect are Goddess-given, and those of pure intent are Goddess-guarded. All else is up to you.”

The tall boy pulled himself to his gawky height, placing his hands over the queen’s faintly trembling shoulders. “Father would want this. He would have done it himself,” said Ayken.

A tear slid down her cheek, splashing on the grey silk like a drop of blood. “I lost him already. That doesn’t make this easier.”

Kaya pressed her palm against the wall, opened her mouth and music pure and natural as rain filled the alcove. Slowly, the rock receded beneath her hand, like a sinkhole opening in sand. Behind the granite, a staircase spiraled up toward the peak and down through the earth.

Ayken frowned. “Which way?”

“That, too, is your decision,” Kaya said. “Either direction will take you to a new destiny.”

The rider thundered back up the path. “Kaya, the horses are entering the pass!”

The queen’s white skin paled so that her veins stood plain upon her face. “You have to go,” she whispered.

“Which way?” Ayken asked again.

The queen looked to Kaya, then back at her son. “Follow your heart, and we will find each other.”

Now it was his tears that fell. “How do you know?”

She smiled. “Because half of your heart is mine.” She kissed his bloodscraped knuckles. “Now go.”

He stepped onto the staircase, and the world dissolved in white light around him. He looked up at brightness, down into fearful dark, and hesitated. He started to lift his foot, preparing to head up the steps into the more reassuring light, but the glare hurt his eyes. Instead he swallowed his fear and headed below.

A moment later, Ayken was in the courtyard of his father’s palace, just as it had been three days ago, before the Dragon Lord’s coup. There were his father’s Lion pennants fluttering from the tower parapets, the golden edging declaring him king. There was his father’s horse, Whisper, nickering from the stable paddock. And there, feeding him some fruit, was his father, talking to a man in blue steel armor.

“Father?”

He looked up at Ayken. “Lad! I thought you would be at the races with your friends.”

I was, thought Ayken, feeling slightly sluggish, as though the air was thick and he waded through time. I cheered for my horse to win while you died.

It hit him. While you died. Now is when the Dragon Lord strikes. And as he thought the words, he saw the blue knight draw his blade.

“For Draconis!”

“No!” screamed Ayken, diving headfirst to the ground in a somersault. In his slowed, thickened world, time crept while he dashed, and the 14-year-old prince rose to his feet between the knife and his father’s side, a pitchfork in his hand. The tines found the articulated scales of the knight’s gauntlet, pushing through steel, through flesh and bone. The Dragon Lord’s man screamed like a frightened girl, his shining blade falling to the ground. Immediately, four of the king’s guard were upon him.

King Lyn fought down fatherly panic, allowing himself only a protective arm around the son who had saved his life. Instead, he faced the knight. “For Draconis? What message must my brother send me on the tip of a blade?”
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E-mail: progressdownriver[at]hotmail.com.

Falling

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Christine Marlowe


There was a whoosh from the pneumatic cylinders as the hatch on the International Space Station opened and the glare off the sides momentarily blinded Desmond MacKenna. He edged his way up along the external hand railings up to the pump control panel that he was about to repair.

Mission Control fuzzed on and off in his helmet, but his attention was entirely focused on the job at hand. There was a hand ladder that lead up to where the cooling panel was located and beyond to the solar panel and he crept hand-over-hand, carefully trying to control his unwieldy suit from floating effortlessly away. He gingerly lifted the corner of the panel from its resting place, making sure to keep one hand grasping firmly to the hand ladder. He heard the fuzzy warnings from Mission Control to be careful of the debris that may have collected beneath the pump. Des tugged at the panel with a motion as smooth as he could make it with his cumbersome hands stymied by the bulk of his space suit. It was stuck.

Sweat began to collect on his brow, the cool air pressure in his suit doing nothing to assuage the thumping of his heart. He blew a heavy breath out, muffling the transmission of his colleagues down on Earth. Sweat beaded down his brow and he shook his head to keep it from rolling into his eyes.

Closing his eyes to re-focus, he tried to calm his breathing. When he opened them again, he gazed beyond the silvery solar panel stretching away in front of him to the majesty of the Earth. His thoughts drifted to his family waiting below. Jenny’s face floated, unbeckoned, to his consciousness and he felt a rush of affection for his wife and a fleeting pang of homesickness. This was to be his last spacewalk and in a month he would be back on the solidness of Earth. He didn’t want to wish away these moments.

He let his eyes soak in the blues and greens of the land below tempering the harshness of the deep Void surrounding him. All his life’s dreams culminated in this moment—being able to gaze upon the splendour of the planet, able to appreciate the clarity of the land masses, able to see the finitude of human existence. He thought of the strife that marked so much of the land below him, the grief that reverberated throughout the world, the gunshots that rang out, the terror that ensued. And marvelled how up here in the softness of the Earthlight, all was silent save the slow even breaths that filled his ears. Humanity was what it was and he didn’t quite know how he could resolve the conflict he felt rising within—to stay here in the unending silence and peace of space, or to return and, through his contributions of work and family, try to turn the tide where humanity seemed to be rushing.

In a sweeping glance, he took in the smallness of the planet in the vastness of the darkness and the brightness of the Station from the unending light of the sun. His gaze settled on his hand, clinging to the hand ladder. It would be so easy to let go. Des looked back at the Earth, and as he watched the swirl of the clouds alternately cover and separate into wispy eddies, his grip on the ladder loosened. He felt his suit begin to drift further away from the Station, following the line of his gaze towards the overwhelming splendour of the stratosphere. He could vaguely hear Mission Control’s increasingly frantic queries but felt mesmerized by his weightless pull away from the safety of all he knew.

Opening his hand, he continued to make a slow drift past the half-opened panel, his shadow an eerie companion along this journey. He closed his eyes as he felt himself float further away from the ladder, unsure exactly what his intentions were, suddenly aware of the fallout that might ensue from his actions. But as he re-opened his eyes, the fullness of the planet rose up before him and he filled with a peace he had never known.

Des had closed his eyes once again, blocking all but the sense of peace from his consciousness, when he felt his suit collide against the Station. His eyes flashed open. He had rotated slightly and the EMU tether had worked its way in front of him and had gotten ensnared in the hand ladder. His hand automatically caught the ladder once again to prevent any damage to his suit and, in the heartbeat of time that passed, he began to pull himself back, hand-over-hand, down to the hatch below.

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E-mail: xeryfyn[at]canada.com.

They Will Come

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Sarah Mackey


She climbed, up and up and up, past the narrow beds of the others, climbing past the other girls, lying wide-eyed under thin blankets, waiting for it to tell them to sleep.

She felt like the climb would never end. All she wanted was her bed, hard and unwelcoming though the mattress appeared. She climbed on, careful to look neither up nor down. She stared steadily at the rungs, moving more quickly as she realised she was going to be late, that it would reprimand her if she wasn’t in her bed at lights out.

She paused for a brief second at the bed below her own. The towers of beds surrounding hers held girls she did not know, could not name, for they were forbidden to speak. But sometimes, late at night, after it told them to sleep, they would whisper, her and this girl beneath her. Risky business—one breath too loud meant it heard them, and they were reprimanded and punished the next day. But they had learned, over the years, to pitch their voices to slip in under its radar.

She gave the smallest of nods to the girl below her, signaling that she would be waiting up tonight. She received a nod in return, almost imperceptible. She didn’t know this girl’s name—too dangerous to speak your name aloud in this place, where it listened in every crevice and lurked around any corner.

She climbed into her bed, relief flooding through her at having gotten there in time, at surviving another day without a reprimand. She rolled over, careful not to look down at the ladder, knowing that if she took one look at the endless rungs she would never be able to climb down again. When it had found out that she was afraid of heights, it had assigned her to the top bunk, saying that her fears weakened her, that she must learn to overcome them so as not to be controlled by them. And so every day, she was faced with a climb that terrified her, to the top of the endless stack of bunks. They had built these hyper-efficient rooms to make better use of space, so that more girls could be fit into fewer rooms. As more and more orphans arrived, more and more beds were built on top of one another.

She had been there for three years. She could no longer remember the faces of her parents. She could no longer remember the feel of arms around her, or the sound of a voice above a whisper. She could no longer remember love. All she knew now was here. These girls, whose faces she saw each day but whose names she would never know. This bed, narrow and cold but familiar, at least, the closest thing to comfort she had. The ladder, stretching out below her, taunting her daily. And it, echoing through the room with its instructions and reprimands. And all that kept her going was the knowledge that her parents would come for her. They had to. They had never found their bodies. And one day, they would find her.

She rolled over, pressing her face against the crack next to the wall. “They will come.” She whispered so softly she wasn’t sure the girl had heard. But a moment later, she heard a reply. “They are dead. They will not come.”

“They will come.”

She rolled back over and closed her eyes, unwilling to risk reprimand for a conversation that would go nowhere. Every night, when she got to the top of the ladder, she allowed herself to imagine them coming, them running into the room and calling her name, throwing herself joyfully into their arms and knowing that it would all be all right, that she no longer had to listen to it. That her life was no longer governed by it, that she was free.

“They will come.” Every night, she whispered to herself until she fell asleep, finding her only comfort in those three words, willing herself to believe they were true. She faced the ladder each day only because she could let herself believe that they were true. Night after night, for three years, she had told herself. “They will come.”

She fell into a troubled sleep, tormented by the shadowy faces of her parents. “We will come,” they told her, every night in her dreams. “We will come.” She awoke in the morning, bracing herself for the long climb down the ladder, knowing that at the end she would find nothing. Facing the ladder, she was startled by the unexpected interruption of its voice.

“Rachel.” It said.

She had not heard her own name in three years.

“Rachel.” It said.

“They have come.”

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E-mail: sarahmackey[at]shaw.ca.

Cathartic Introspection at 3:18PM

Boots’s Pick
Matt Hardman


It’s always interesting when we see an object or person juxtaposed into a unfamiliar situation: a seagull sixty miles inland, a rusted Ford LTD in an affluent neighborhood, a attractive woman alone in a seedy bar sipping Pabst, or the show of capitalism of the bohemians at the Wicker Park craft show that surrounds me as I write this.

That’s why it struck me to see the old woman in line in front of me in the supermarket. I see her almost every morning on the train. We always end up in the same car towards the front. She gives me the same “looking down her nose” look at me every day. Maybe it’s my long hair, I think, Or maybe she’s tired of seeing me.

We both get off at the same stop, Clark Street and Lake. I always rush past her, probably brushing up against her bony shoulders once or twice. She takes the elevator and I take the escalator. I try and get ahead of her so I’m not stuck in the processional that seems to automatically form behind her. Thousands of us flow out of the cattle cars that whisk us away from our lives to our places of employment, and she is just a slow moving obstacle, blocking the American dream of “Work hard and you can make it, by God, you can be someone!” You see, she always walks, or should I say shuffles, very slowly. I’ve learned that kind of movement doesn’t play well with the hurried crowd pouring out of the Blue Line subway. All’s fair in love, war, and trying to get to your connecting train at 6:50AM, I’ve discovered. So I don’t feel too bad for brushing past her; she should be used to it by now.

So here we are, together in line at Jewell on a Saturday afternoon. Again, I was joining her, both of us on the way to a destination, with a singular purpose. What was she buying? I peered over those same bony shoulders to see what was in her basket and noticed three packages of generic instant cocoa, a quart of soymilk, and a pair of white socks. She turned at looked at me and I got the same look down the long range of bone that was once a nose. I wonder if she recognizes me? I thought. I was wearing a hat after all. She glanced into my basket to discover it full of fresh vegetables, chicken, organic corn chips, and a six-pack of Red Hook IPA. It was going to be a good dinner tonight.

What kind of person gets cocoa, soy milk, and ankle socks in the same trip to the store? I wondered. She was no doubt questioning my decision to purchase organic chips instead of the store brand. Hey, it’s my money. Deal with it.

She hobbles slowly in line, putting her items on the counter and brushes into me as she sets her plastic basket on the floor. Payback, I guess. She burrows around in her coin purse looking for the correct change, then gives up looking for the nickel in a sea of dirty pennies. She stares blankly at the clerk as he tells her that the machine at the end of the counter will automatically dispense her change. Ah, the wonders of modern technology! Now the uneducated no longer have to make change. She grabs her thirteen cents and meanders home. She must live alone since she doesn’t have a wedding ring on. She looks isolated, aged, and discontent with whatever hand that life dealt her.

So what’s the point to this three-minute observation I made while in line at the grocery store? I started wondering what she thought of me. Why does she look at me the way she does? More importantly, what do others see when I’m out of my element?

I work long hours at a corporate job, a prisoner in my cube. The good of the company affects my every decision. I am professional, honest, and do my job quite well. There have been many instances while interviewing candidates that I make a decision that will affect their lives, even though we have never met. I have sent many people back to the unemployment office to testify to a faceless swine of government efficiency, to beg for one more week of benefits, when I could’ve sent that person home to celebrate their new job with their family and friends. So what would my stuffy co-workers think if they saw me now? Camped up against a tree with a notebook propped on my ripped jeans and an anti-corporate America T-shirt on? An opposite portrait of the character I play Monday through Friday. How about when I’m lying naked in bed with a girl I hardly know, high on Mexican hash that we bought earlier that night? Or when I was running from the police at an anti-war rally on Lake Shore Drive? Or when I sit alone in my apartment, crying, wishing for a second chance at a lost love? What would my Protestant family think if they knew I spend my Sunday mornings in a Buddhist temple, chanting away as the incense permeates my skin and the spirit of Siddhartha surrounds me? Do my eyes truly convey the life that I have lived? The pain, the happiness, and the 27 years I have spent becoming me?

I guess I’m no different than the woman in the supermarket. I am a picture within a landscape, within a telescopic view from the heavens. I lead one life, then another. But does anyone really care? Do they take me as who I am, not caring what’s beneath the surface? What do others see when the sun is at my back?

Maybe I’ll take the time to greet the woman on the train when I see her next. Probably not though. Our private selves are our own, for those privileged few to discover.

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“I am 27 years old and live in Chicago. I currently work a job that stifles creativity, so I have begun writing again to help balance my life.” E-mail: ml_hardman[at]hotmail.com.

The Premature Birth of a Story

Beaver’s Pick
Linda Downing Miller


Most writers mine their lives for material. In my first creative nonfiction class, I learned to look for deeper meanings in everyday experiences, to sequence events or collect anecdotes in a way that captures some universal truth.

For the past six years, I had what I thought was a funny little story nagging me to be written. I made several attempts to capture the story in a cohesive narrative, but its deeper meaning remained elusive.

In a nutshell, two nuns and a Princess adopted my poodle. I found this guilt-free solution for my wacked-out dog through what seemed like a stroke of incredible good luck. It came just four months after the birth of my first daughter, which had convinced me that my canine companion was not meant for a family with kids.

Although I’m not affiliated with a specific religion, placing my poodle with two deeply religious women seemed to be the most wonderful adoptive home I could imagine. They would have vast reservoirs of serenity, love, and patience. Bonnie’s quirks would be accepted as part of God’s plan.

Sending Bonnie to live with another dog (named “Princess”) made the opportunity even more attractive. I imagined Bonnie frolicking with a dainty canine friend in a pointed pink hat.

The stories I drafted about the experience felt rich with amusing details.

Bonnie had a cute, wet, “liver-colored” nose, because she was an apricot poodle. We called her “liver-nose” on occasion, as a term of endearment.

Bonnie barked like a maniac whenever the doorbell rang. This was not a problem when my husband and I lived alone in Indiana, where our most frequent visitor was the weekly pizza delivery guy. It became a problem in Chicago, where we knew people. It became a big problem after we had a baby.

For the first four months of my daughter’s life, I would either bring her into the bathroom with me or pee as fast as possible. Bonnie made nervous, darting motions toward the baby. I was afraid my poodle might lunge for those tiny, flailing fingers and toes.

My husband and I actually met with a dog counselor, who talked to us about ways to acclimate Bonnie to the baby. My comfort level did not improve.

I found out about the nuns through the sister of a friend of my boss. The sister knew the two Sisters. The Sisters had owned two dogs, but the other dog had died. The family needed a new “Prince Charming” (of either sex).

The nuns agreed to take Bonnie if she and Princess seemed compatible. When the chemistry worked during our first and only encounter, the Sisters whisked Bonnie away in a nondescript car. My husband and I were left standing on the curb, our mouths gaping at our sudden good fortune. (The cast of Touched by an Angel could have been hugging in the shrubs.)

The nuns actually sent us postcards from Bonnie. She went on a family vacation with them to Michigan!

Bonnie had clearly gone on to a better life, but what was the universal take-away? My story drafts conveyed the general feeling that miracles do exist, even for the nonreligious. It seemed too “Chicken Soup.” The story languished on my computer.

My oldest daughter, now almost seven, began asking about getting a dog. She knew about Bonnie. I wondered what had become of her. It had been a couple of years since I had last heard from the nuns. Was Bonnie still living a life of luxury, at the ripe poodle age of 12? Without telling my daughter, I sent a note to the nuns. I envisioned reading their response to my family, my eyes still twinkling at our good fortune in finding Bonnie the best of adoptive homes.

A heartfelt note arrived in my mailbox, but the warmth with which one of the Sisters described Bonnie could not fully blunt the true end of her story: a car hit my poodle on Mother’s Day last year. She had to be put to sleep.

I put the note away, glad only that my daughter was not expecting any news about Bonnie. I mulled over the new meaning of my story. Miracles don’t exist? You can never pass on a lifelong responsibility without guilt? Parenthood, even puppy parenthood, is forever? Perhaps more broadly, the flavor of life is usually much spicier than chicken soup?

In the end, I think the story is about writing itself. I have heard many authors compare the process of writing to childbirth. Like a baby, a story should be fully developed–brought to term–before it is thrust into the world.

Writers must follow a story to the bitter end, even if it takes us where we don’t want to go. Bonnie’s story was premature until I discovered her fate.

Two nuns and a Princess adopted my poodle. She was hit by a car on Mother’s Day.

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Linda Downing Miller is a journalist and writer of creative nonfiction and fiction. Her essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines, and journals, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Parent, and Scrivener’s Pen. E-mail: ldowningmiller[at]comcast.net.

To Hell and Back

Baker’s Pick
Robb C. Sewell


My loft’s window seat is uncomfortable, yet it provides me with a bird’s eye view of my neighborhood. I kick off my boots and stretch my legs. A Bible lies unopened beside my feet.

I look outside the dirt-stained window and run my fingers along a crack in the glass. On the street below, life goes on. Neighbors sit on their stoops. Children run down the street and into an alley. Two feral cats hiss at each other. As for me, I watch as life passes by. I like it that way.

“Well, God,” I begin. “I don’t know. Where do I start?”

It’s stifling in my loft so I open some windows. I spot the Bible at my feet and slowly reach for it. As I hold it in my hands, I imagine an intense stream of heat emanating from its cover, searing my fingers. As the image fades, I weave my fingers along the lettering on the cover.

My family never owned a Bible, although we did go to a Catholic church until I was seven years old. My dad, rest his soul, just couldn’t tolerate organized religion. Man, did it ever piss him off when I first started to go to a born-again church back in my sophomore year of college.

“How could you go to that church?” he asked. “You know nothing about these people. It could be a cult, Matt.”

“Dad, it’s not a cult,” I whispered.

“How do you know that?” he demanded.

I wanted to scream, “My God, I’m your son. Do you really know me so little to think I’d join a cult?” But I didn’t, I couldn’t voice my indignation. Instead, I stayed silent, my father’s imposing figure strangling the words from my throat.

“Son, please,” he said, putting his hands on my shoulders. “I’m only concerned about what you’ve gotten yourself into. Your grades are dropping. You seldom come to visit anymore. I don’t like what’s happening to you.”

Finally, I summoned enough courage to demand feebly, “Why can’t you just be happy for me? Is that too much to ask?”

The heat is getting worse. Beads of sweat trickle down my forehead. I rise slowly from the window seat and go to the kitchen. I snatch a tray of ice cubes from the freezer and walk back to my window to the world. I remove my tie and let it fall to the floor. Then I open the buttons of my black silk shirt and rub the ice against my chest. My hands brush against the cross that hangs around my neck.

I open my Bible and its cover falls against the window seat. I look at the scrawl on the inside cover, my eyes stinging from staring too long. It reads, “Matthew, welcome to the family. Your brother, Evan.”

It was the first week of the semester when a knock sounded upon my door. A young couple, Evan and Stacy, were going through the dorm, inviting people to a campus Bible study. Their little spiel intrigued me: all about God having a purpose for my life. I figured, “Why not?” After all, I had experimented with lots of stuff since I first came to college—drugs, alcohol, sex with women, sex with men. Religion was something else to try.

And so began my introduction to the International Church of Hope. The next sixteen days rushed by as I studied the scriptures with my newfound friends. Soon, I learned that I was a sinner and that I was damned to Hell lest I repent of my sins. The path to salvation was laid out before me. Clearly, it was time to leave my sinful ways behind. Caught up in the euphoria of the church and friends who claimed to love me heart and soul, I made the decision to be baptized and become a Christian, born again in God’s love, compassion, and glory.

I return to the kitchen and scour the cabinets for a clean glass but they’re all in the sink waiting to be washed. Perhaps I’ll get to them tomorrow. I head to the refrigerator and snatch a can of Coors Light. I pop it open and take a long, refreshing drink.

Slowly, I walk back to the window seat, beer in hand. I take another gulp and look out the window. My neighbor, Mrs. Slocume, is just getting home from her job at a local department store. I invited Mrs. Slocume to church once.

She turned me down. Meeting people and converting them was extremely important in the International Church of Hope. It was far more important than school, work, or family. I always felt that sharing my faith with people was fine, but I also strongly believed that meeting people’s physical and emotional needs was equally important. There were more needs in this world than just saving souls, I would argue. One simply had to walk the two blocks from my loft to the campus bus stop to see a glimpse of humanity’s needs: the homeless looking for food, shelter, and money; the poor struggling to make ends meet. As I studied the Bible, I saw that Jesus not only shared his faith with people, he also sought to meet their physical and emotional needs. I shared this conviction with the guys in my Bible study but they blew me off, saying evangelism was more important than anything else.

Evan admonished, “Your convictions are great, bro, but I think your priorities are screwed up. You can feed people all you want. You can nurse them back to health. But ultimately their greatest need is for their souls to be saved. That’s our purpose in life, bro. You need to be saving souls. After all, Jesus came to seek and save the lost, not to feed the hungry.”

As always, I sheepishly backed down from my convictions as guilt infested my heart. After all, what Evan was saying sounded good and wise. Who was I to challenge his authority, the church’s authority?

I stretch my legs out once more, and bring the beer can to my chest and lay it against my skin. I sigh heavily. I catch a dim reflection of my sweat-riddled face in the window. I’m in need of a shave, I realize as I draw my fingers across my stubble. I run my fingers through my dark brown hair. I’m the only member of my family to have brown hair. My mom and my brothers are blondes. My dad, rest his soul, always had gray hair for as long as I could remember. I’ve tried other hair colors. I’ve been blonde, and I’ve even been a redhead for a few weeks. Now, I’ve gone back to my roots—in more ways than one.

I drop the Bible to the floor and lean my head against the brick wall. “I don’t know; it used to be so easy to talk to you,” I pray. How could things change so quickly? I spent two years as a member of the International Church of Hope and now I can’t even utter a single prayer.

Though I enjoyed most of my time in the church, in my heart I harbored doubts about the church, its leaders, and its beliefs. The vehement intolerance and arrogance spewed from the pulpit disgusted me. I was troubled by the church’s emphasis on reaching out to popular, attractive, and wealthy people to the exclusion of the average man or woman. Questions nagged at me, keeping me awake through many nights. Yet, with all of my doubts surfacing, I continued to attend church services.

Night is beginning to fall. I crush the beer can and toss it toward the garbage container. It misses and lands beside my bureau, drops of beer spilling onto the floor. I look out the window and see my reflection staring back at me. I turn away for a second, and then look back. My hair brushes against my shoulders, caressing my neck. When was the last time I tied it together in a ponytail? I spot my silver hoop earring and smile. Ah, yes, the ear piercing incident.

It happened about two months after my conversion. I had always wanted to have my ear pierced but never dared to do it while I lived at home for it was against my dad’s wishes. So, one day, I went downtown, intent on getting my ear pierced, and then spent the next two hours walking around, wavering between indecision and fear. Would it hurt? What would my parents say? Finally, I did the deed. I liked it and thought it looked cool. The next night was the weekly Bible discussion and here I show up with my newly pierced ear. Man, did I ever get stares from the members of the group! The next day, Evan approached me and reprimanded me for getting my ear pierced without seeking advice.

“Advice?” I snapped. “About getting my ear pierced? You gotta be kidding!”

Evan drew close to me. “You know we discussed this when you were studying to become a Christian. A disciple needs to seek advice.”

“Well, I didn’t realize I had to get permission to get my ear pierced. Don’t tell me I also need permission to get my hair cut, or about the clothes I wear, or when I can take a piss.”

“Don’t be a jerk,” Evan snapped. “It’s important for you to seek advice. You’re still a baby Christian, aren’t you? Whatever you do or say, how you look, it all reflects on the church and God.”

I rise from the window seat and walk to my dresser. When I get to the bureau, I kick the beer can toward the garbage container. It misses and splatters stains against the wall. I lean against the brick wall and close my eyes. The feel of bricks against my skin is rough at first, but I quickly grow used to it.

As sweat runs down my face, I take off my shirt. My fingers softly touch my cross. I always wear it. I wear it while I shower, while I swim, while I’m having sex, Holy Father, forgive me my sin, I know what I do. I lay my shirt across the bureau, drop my jeans, and take off my black boxer briefs. I reach into the bureau and snatch a pair of black silk boxers. The coolness of the silk against my skin is refreshing.

I stand silently, gently pulling the hair on my legs. Words fail to pour from my heart, my soul. Nothing comes. No praise. No confessions. No petitions. Nothing. Nothing at all. Instead, my heart and soul brim with anger, pain, and resentment.

I recall Evan’s letter to me, a plea to reconsider my decision to leave the church. I stopped going to church about six months ago and in the days and weeks that followed, I resisted any attempt by church members to contact me. The telephone would ring and ring but I wouldn’t pick it up. Evan and some of the other guys came by from time to time but I wouldn’t answer the door.

My final break from the church came after the annual Super Bowl party, which was really an opportunity for the church to bring more people into its fold. Evan wanted me to come to the party but I wasn’t up to it. Only two months had passed since my dad’s fatal heart attack and I simply wasn’t up for a damn football game. So, I stayed that night at home in my loft, adrift in memories.

Suddenly a loud knock came upon my door. I slowly walked across the concrete floor and opened the door to find Evan standing there.

“Bro,” he said as he walked into the loft, brushing against me. “Where were you tonight? We missed you.”

“Obviously, I’ve been right here,” I said, shutting the door.

“I’m only concerned about you, Matt,” Evan said as he sat on my wicker chair. He laid his Bible on his lap. “I was worried that something might have happened to you.”

“Look,” I said, rubbing the back of my head. My hair fell through my fingers. “I just needed to be alone tonight.”

“Well, I don’t think being alone is the answer for you. You need people around you. It wouldn’t hurt for you to get out and get your mind on something else for a change. You know there was this guy at the party tonight and I really think the two of you would have hit it off. He’s thinking about majoring in English.”

Evan reached for his Bible and slowly began to unzip its leather cover. I snapped, “Look, I’m really not in the mood to hear something from the Bible right now.”

“What’s with you, man?” Evan asked. Holding the Bible in his hands, he continued, “This is what you need to hear. This is where you’re going to find answers.”

“Well, right now, I don’t want answers, okay?” I snapped. “I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t. My heart isn’t in it. I’m finished.”

Looking down at his Doc Martens, Evan said softly, “Bro, do you know what you’re saying?”

“I do… in every way. And I’ve never felt better. I’m tired of it all. The hatred preached from the pulpit. The double standards. The hypocrisy. I’m so tired of feeling guilty all the time. Like I can’t do anything right. I’m tired of worrying if I’ll get rebuked because I didn’t seek advice. I’m just so tired… tired of it all.”

“Why are you doing this? Why are you saying these things?” Evan asked; his hands shook ever so slightly.

“I’m saying what’s on my heart. I’m through.”

“Bro,” Evan said as he got off the chair and walked toward me.

“Just leave. Get out.”

“Bro, do you know what you’re doing? You’re turning your back on God.”

“So you say,” I whispered. “I won’t ask again. Please leave.”

Slowly, Evan walked toward the door and opened it. Rocking the doorknob in his hand, he said, “Give me a call when you want to talk.”

That night, I drove to my hometown. My mind was entranced with the twinkling white lights that had been strung along the trees on Devon Lane, the hamlet’s main thoroughfare. I drove past my family’s house and finally stopped my jeep at the entrance to the North Woods Cemetery. It was close to four in the morning and the wrought iron gates were closed and chained. I trudged through snowdrifts until I reached the southern end of the cemetery where my dad is buried. I climbed the fence and jumped over, falling into the snow. Wiping back tears, I continued on until I reached his grave.

I sat down in the snow and leaned my back against a tombstone. Through tear-laden eyes, I stared at my father’s grave and then toward the sky. Snowflakes softly danced upon my face. “I’d have done you proud, Dad,” I said. “It’s over. It’s finally over.” I brushed the snow from my dad’s tombstone and slowly walked away.

I light a candle and then turn off the lights. I walk back to the window seat and set the candle down. My knees are bent. I lean my forehead against my sweaty legs. Tears bitterly pierce my face. My fingers gingerly caress the cross, nestled against my chest hair. I hold the cross in my hand and stare at it. It is tarnished with age. My hand forms into a fist and clutches the cross. I tear it from my neck and hold it in my hand. I wipe the tears from my eyes. The candle flickers. Minutes pass; they seem like days. I reach for the window and drape my hand outside. One by one, my fingers unlock and the cross slips away.

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Robb Sewell is a communications specialist. He received a B.A. in English from Rutgers University and is presently pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Rosemont College. E-mail: rcsewell[at]comcast.net.

A Connecting Thread

Creative Nonfiction
Linda C. Wisniewski


In the thirty years after I left my mother’s house, I never missed her. Yet it pleases me now, in my sixth decade, to find a connecting thread.

Mom was an excellent seamstress. She made her living at a sewing machine, and came home to sew most of our clothes in the evening. She had decidedly mixed feelings, proud of her skill but trapped in a life of manual labor. I remember her frequent complaints—her thread broke, there was a mistake in the pattern, she couldn’t find her scissors.

“Goldarn it!” she’d mutter.

Though she seemed to take little joy in it, she always produced a beautiful garment. The prom dress she made me had a white lace fitted bodice, apple green slim skirt, and thin shoulder straps. The other girls wore dresses from Holzheimer and Shaul, the local department store, and two of them showed up at the dance wearing identical models. Mine was an original, custom made for me.

‘Why did you tell them it was homemade?” Mom scolded. “They’ll think you can’t afford a dress from Holzheimer’s.”

“But they liked it,” I said. “No one else can get one anywhere.” She hadn’t thought of it this way, and I could see that she wasn’t sure what to believe. Her philosophy was to work hard, not enjoy it and never take credit for what you’ve done.

My mother’s fingers cracked and bled from long hours in the factory, feeding parts of men’s work pants into industrial machines. For a few years, she worked on basketballs; I can’t imagine how she did it. She welcomed the occasional layoffs, though we needed the money. I was with her one day when she left the unemployment office with a job offer.

“Goldarn it!” she muttered as she grabbed my hand and marched out the door.

At home, Mom sewed in the tiny bedroom she and Dad shared. Her old Singer machine stood at the front window, looking out on the street. She slid a small padded bench Into the two-foot space between her machine and the foot of the bed. In the weeks before every major holiday, she’d make new clothes for herself, my sister, Judy and me.

“Linda, come and try your dress on!”

Uh oh. Time for another endless fitting. Mom dropped the dress over my head. I tried not to move as she tucked here and folded there, pinned the darts and removed the pins and did it all again, shaking her head in frustration. A curvature of the spine made my left shoulder lower than the right, my left hip higher, eliminated my waistline and condemned every sewing project to countless alterations. I grew bored and impatient. Unable to resist squirming, I got stuck with a pin.

“Ow!”

“Goldarn it! I told you not to move!”

I tried not to wet the dress with my tears.

“Just go. ” Mom lifted the dress over my head and turned away. I barely glanced at the back of her head covered with short, dark curls. Both of us tried so hard and failed. She couldn’t make the perfectly tailored dress. I couldn’t be the perfectly quiet little girl. I turned the glass doorknob, pulled it toward me and ran out.

Where was the picture of a happy mother and daughter sewing together? I’d seen them in McCall’s magazine, and on the poster in the fabric store window. I wanted to be the little girl in that picture. I wanted a different mother. Maybe Betsy McCall’s mother, the one that came with my paper dolls. Betsy and her mother were always having fun.

At the time, I thought that both sewing and I were a huge pain in the neck. Mom tried to teach me, but I never got the hang of it. I suspect it felt too close to being her. I didn’t want to be so harried, so trapped in a difficult job.

Years passed without my sewing more than a loose button. I had a career, two children and a husband, and a house in the country. We needed new window treatments, but the cost was so shocking, I decided to make them myself. And that is how, shopping for drapery fabric, I fell in love with a computerized sewing machine. It threaded itself, came with six presser feet, and remembered your monograms. It did everything but make coffee.

I wished that Mom could see it; other memories came flooding back. The smell of sizing from the aisles filled with colorful bolts of cloth. The filing cabinets filled with patterns in paper envelopes. The huge catalogs on tables with high stools to sit and browse from, turning the pages, dreaming up a new dress… I remembered her then, leading me through the store, and I knew I was not my mother. I would not become her by learning to sew. And I had found something we shared, something about her I wanted to keep.

When I sew, each sound, each item I touch, becomes a memory that connects me to her. The feel of the tissue paper pattern, the placement of the pins attaching it to fabric just the way I watched her do it. The chop, chop of the scissors taking me back to the kitchen table that was her cutting board. The soft whir of the machine as my foot presses down on the pedal. The way I focus on my work, snipping loose threads and letting them fall..

I love all my tools—the rotary cutter and mat, the spools and bobbins, the snips and scissors, my stash of fabrics. I have some things from Mom’s old sewing cabinet—patterns in her size, bindings and trims, her paper cutter. I like to see them nestled among the notions I bought for myself. Because my mother was so skilled, I believe I, too, can be good at this, and I want to be.

When I’m sewing, I feel like I’m standing on her shoulders, as she stood on the shoulders of women who sewed through the ages, making clothes, making art, making memories. And if only by a thread, I finally feel connected to my mother.

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“My work has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mindprints, the Rose and Thorn, the Green Tricycle and other print and online publications. I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2003. I am a former librarian living with my family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I also teach workshops in memoir writing for adults at Bucks County Community College.” E-mail: lindawis[at]comcast.net.

Fuck You, Pele and Reynaldo

Fiction
Aaron Harper


I’ve taken their yearbook photos and scribbled on their faces: devil horns, vampire fangs, mustaches like those of 1970s porn stars. I’ve etched their names on the trunks of historic trees, the sides of great buildings. These words are permanent. Fuck them, I say.

Fuck Pele and Reynaldo.

Norah breaks up with me over dinner at Shabo. She tells me she’d rather be with them instead. Both of them. She says she’s in love. She says Pele and Reynaldo are full of soul, dreams, compassion. I ask how it’s even possible to have two boyfriends at once. How, after two and a half years, she could possibly consider leaving me for them.

“Two boyfriends are better than one,” she says. “It’s simple math. Even you should be able to understand that.”

I want her back so badly I almost say, Then how about three? “I’m gonna beat their asses,” comes out instead. I say it loud enough to attract a number of aggravated looks from smartly dressed diners.

“It isn’t their fault this happened,” Norah says quietly. “It’s yours.”

“What do Pele and Reynaldo have that I don’t have?” I say.

“I’m not doing this,” she says.

“Is it my looks?” I say. “I can let my hair grow out. I’ll get on Creatine. I could put on fifteen pounds pretty easy.”

“You don’t get it,” she says. “I’m like a trophy to you. I’ve never been important.”

“Of course you’re important,” I say.

“When’s my birthday, Brad?”

“January. February. No, wait. December. December or February.”

“It’s March 10th,” she says.

“You didn’t answer my question,” I say. “What do they have that I don’t?”

“Me,” Norah says as she stands up and leaves.

I still don’t buy the story. Homecoming Queen dumps Homecoming King for two skateboarders. Two nobodies. It doesn’t make any sense.

I’ve never been dumped before.

When I get home, I sit at my desk and write down a list of all the things that are important to me. The list looks like this:

  • Homecoming Crown and Sash
  • Rich Dad
  • Letterman Jacket with patches for 3 years of Varsity Football, Basketball and Baseball
  • 2nd team All-Conference Quarterback Trophy
  • 2004 BMW 745i Sedan
  • A Way With Women
  • Stock portfolio with positive dividend outlook for 1st quarter 2005
  • Custom 22″ silver rims
  • $25,000 limit on credit card
  • Girlfriend Norah (Hot)

“Hey,” I say into Norah’s voice message as proudly I re-read my list. “You were wrong. I made a list of all the important things in my life and you were on it. Call me back.”

She doesn’t call back.

I stay up all night trying to figure out what she meant about not being my trophy. I call all her friends but repeatedly get sent to voicemail mid-ring. Girls not taking my calls. This is another first.

*

I corner Norah in the hall after second period. She looks incredible in a new D & G white skirt/black sweater combination. She looks thinner.

“What are you doing?” she says.

“I took you to Paris. I brought you to dances, played at your dad’s country club, gave you diamonds. I did my part, didn’t I? What else do you want from me?”

“You’re scaring me right now,” she says.

“Is this about Pele and Reynaldo?” I say. “What makes them so special?”

“They give to charity. They donate blood. They use their birthday money to buy dinner for homeless people. Plus,” she says, “they’re totally sensitive.”

“I’m sensitive,” I say.

“You’re a dick,” she says.

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Forget about yourself for a while,” she says. “Try it, see what happens.”

“You look really great,” I say. I’m trying not to stare, but I’m staring.

“I’m late for class.”

*

We had a plan. Norah was going to be a Defense Attorney to the stars and I was going to be a Quarterback in the NFL. It was foolproof.

“Maybe some people don’t ever get the life they dream of,” she had said as if doubting her own abilities. “Maybe there are people who aren’t good at anything, who never figure out how to get the things they want.”

We’d felt sorry for those people then.

Suddenly I feel like I am one of those people myself.

I stare at my credit card for an hour before I cut it into a hundred pieces and dump them into the trash.

Then I go over to the house of a retarded kid from school and knock on the door.

“Hi there,” the woman who answers the door says.

“Is BJ here?”

“Do you mean DJ?” she says.

“Yeah, DJ,” I say. Though I’ve never had an actual conversation with DJ, I once told him he ran like a gay rod in Junior High P.E.

“He’s taking a nap now. Can you come back in an hour or so?” she says.

“I wanted to give him this,” I say as I take off my letterman jacket and hand it to her. “I hope he likes it.”

“Oh my,” the woman says. “Well can I tell him who left it?”

“My name’s all over the jacket,” I say.

*

“The hell is this?” my sister Molly asks as she looks into the trash.

“My credit card,” I say. “Or what’s left of it.”

“You moron,” she says. “Don’t even think about trying to borrow mine.”

“Forget about yourself for a day,” I say.

“Eat my shit,” Molly says, rolling her eyes.

Charity feels liberating, like when an unpopular person who is trying to talk to you finally gives up and goes away. Whenever I start to miss my jacket and credit card I imagine Norah and how happy she’ll be when I tell her what I’ve done.

“I’m proud of you,” she says on the track after school.

“Can we be together now?” I say.

“No,” she says. “I’m utterly in love with Pele and Reynaldo. We’re volunteering in a Kenyan orphanage this summer.”

Charity becomes an epidemic. I throw my second team all-conference quarterback trophy over the bridge and watch it break the glassy water below. I box up my wardrobe and have it picked up by a Salvation Army moving van. I leave my collection of cds on the sidewalk and watch two girls load them onto a motorized scooter and wobble away, squealing with delight. I give my DVDs to homeless people living in alleys and under doorways. A Methodist church I’ve never been to before gets my Dolby surround sound stereo system, my 52″ plasma TV, my Sumantra Bedroom Collection from Pottery Barn.

I cash out all my stocks. I go to the BMW dealership and tell them I want to trade in my car. They give me sixty thousand dollars and a ride home. I begin to give away fifty dollar bills to everyone I come across: strangers at school, people on the street, opposing players during football games.

I’m famous. Everyone loves me.

I call Norah every day to give her the tally: what I’ve given away, who I’ve helped, how I’m becoming a more thoughtful person. I leave voice messages and long, detailed emails. I go to her house and fill the mailbox with handwritten letters. I’m making progress. I can feel her slowly coming back.

“I’m never coming back,” she says on the phone. “It’s totally over.”

“I don’t follow,” I say.

“You’re freaking my parents out,” she says. “You need to stop calling. You need to stop coming to my house. The letters and all that. It’s too much. You need to stop.”

“You’re important to me,” I say.

“They want to call the cops,” she says. “Pele and Reynaldo are upset, too.”

“I gave away all my stuff for you,” I say. “There’s almost nothing left.” I want Norah to jump through the phone and kiss me for this, my greatest sacrifice, but she doesn’t.

“That’s crazy,” she says instead. “You had some really great stuff.”

*

I skip football practice and walk to the skate park after school. I find them there, jumping the ramps in oversized t-shirts and long, baggy shorts that go halfway down their shins. They both have dark, wavy hair that falls over their eyes as they shoot off the ramp and hang for a moment like cobwebs in a breeze.

When they see me standing at the edge of the cement, they pick up their boards and walk toward me. They look different than they do at school or in the glossy yearbook pictures. They are short and thin with long eyelashes. I can’t tell what nationality they are: Hawaiian, Persian, Mexican, whatever.

They look at me like they’re blessed. Like they’re Alex Trebek, always itching to give you the right answer.

“Pele,” I say. “Reynaldo.”

They nod.

“You know why I’m here.”

“Nope,” Pele says.

“Norah,” I say.

“She’s amazing,” Reynaldo says. “The perfect woman.”

“She’s my girl,” I say.

“Hey man,” Pele says. “You lost her fair and square.”

“Yeah. Finders keepers,” Reynaldo says as he pokes Pele in the ribs and laughs.

“You little punks,” I say, taking a step. “Give her back.”

“She ain’t ours to give,” Pele says. “You’re thinking about things all wrong.”

“I’m thinking about putting two skaters in the hospital,” I say.

“We ain’t about to fight you, boss,” Reynaldo says. “Is that what you come here for? A brawl?” They both laugh. “No brawls here man. Only love.”

I want to charge them, grab their tiny heads and smash them together like cymbals. I know this won’t help me get Norah back, so I do the only other thing I can think of.

“I’ll give you each a thousand dollars if you dump her,” I say. I’m holding the cash in front of me, fanning it out. It’s my last two grand. “What do you say?” All they have to do: say yes, take the money, dump my girlfriend. This is what needs to go down before she is mine again.

“Well?” I say. “We got a deal?”

Norah steps in front of me and takes the money from my hand.

“Jesus,” she says. In my ear I hear a million other words she’s saying too, but Jesus is the only one that actually registers to my brain.

“Come back,” I say as I take her hand and fall to my knees. “I’ve changed. You can see it, can’t you?” Norah shakes her head like she’s mourning the death of an uncle she hardly knew. “I’ll build houses in Africa or help cure AIDS or teach English to the natives. I’m a brand new person.”

“I can’t help you,” she says as she tosses the money at my feet. “Nobody can.”

She turns and leaves with Pele and Reynaldo.

The wind is blowing. The money is swirling at my feet, dancing like flame in every direction. I do not move. I watch it blow off and away, down the sidewalk, into the trees and bushes, out of my life.

I watch them go away. Norah, the tallest of the three, walks in the middle with Pele and Reynaldo on both sides. They each have an arm draped over her shoulder as the rear wheels of their skateboards drag along the street behind them.

“I love you,” I say softly to her, to the wind, to no one.

*

When I get home my sister tells me that she’s informed my Father of what I’ve done, that there’s absolutely nothing left of all the things he’s bought for me.

“He’s coming home from work early just to kill you,” she says with delight. “Oh, and this kid from school came looking for you. Why did you give your letterman jacket to a retard?”

“Did he say anything?” I say. “I mean, does he like it?”

“You used to be the most popular guy in school,” Molly says, shaking her head.

I imagine DJ dancing around his room in my letterman jacket, admiring himself in the mirror, showing off to his friends. My jacket must make him happier than he’s ever been in his entire life.

Norah would be proud of me for this. She would realize how far I’ve come, that I’ve sacrificed everything just to be with her.

This is a phase. She’ll realize that Pele and Reynaldo can’t buy her the things she needs and take her to the places she wants to go. She’ll come back to me in a mascara stained heap at my front door, begging for another chance. And I’ll take her back, because I’m different now, too.

I’ve learned things.

I pick up the phone to call her. It rings twice before a recorded voice tells me that the number I’ve dialed is no longer in service.

I take out the yearbook and turn to Pele and Reynaldo’s pictures, admiring the blue and black artwork I’ve done on their faces. I flip to Norah’s picture and take her in: red licorice lips, tiger-green eyes, sleek blonde hair. The low cut Versace dress I bought for her in Paris.

I can hear her speaking to me. Don’t worry, she says. Pele and Reynaldo won’t last. You’re the only one for me.

Fuck Pele and Reynaldo. They can’t make you happy.

I have everything you’ll ever need.

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Aaron Harper graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles. He currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where he spends his days writing and thinking about adopting a puppy. E-mail: atharper[at]hotmail.com.