Fork

Fiction
D.L. Olson


He nudged her through his open studio apartment door, clicking the lock behind his back, and met her mouth with his own lips—

“—Stop.”

Her wispy hair tickled his cheeks, her teeth raked his tongue, her cool hands slid under his shirt while he guided her toward the mattress on the floor—

“Gregory, stop.”

“What?”

“That’s it,” his wife was saying and pointing across the street.

Greg blinked hard and stared at the ranch house with an enormous picture window, a built-in garage, an automatic door, a tacky black eagle figurine, a white picket fence, and a putt-perfect lawn. Exactly like every other house they had driven past for blocks. Only this one was it. You could tell by the number above the door. Just as Dennis and Sandy had written. Or only Sandy actually.

He rolled the Volvo to a stop and killed the engine. “Nobody’s home,” he muttered at the sight of the empty driveway. “Probably because we’re so late,” he added, slumping behind the wheel.

“Come on,” Jane said. “We didn’t get that lost at the fork.”

“What?”

“Greg, what’s the matter with you? If you’re that light-headed again, grab a snack for Pete’s sake!”

Rubbing his burning eyes, Greg vaguely recalled something Sandy had written about parking right out front.

Jane stretched an arm into a shopping bag in the backseat, dug out what was left of a bagel, and shoved it into her husband’s hand. Greg stared down at the ugly clump of bread and bit off a tough end.

Five minutes later he was still chewing. With a toss of her close-cropped head, Jane told him, “Well, we can’t sit here all day.”

“What else?” Greg mumbled. A yellow jacket was probing the windshield as if it just might find a gap and slip inside.

Suddenly the front door of the ranch house flew open and a gray-haired woman in T-shirt and cutoffs barged out, waving. “You made it!” she called out and giggled like tinkling bells. Just like Sandy always had.

A grinning bald man, his hands awkwardly jammed into baggy jeans pockets, joined her on the steps. “Bienvenue, monsieur, madame!” the man greeted. His pencil moustache was as grizzled as his temples.

Sandy and Dennis. Of course. Actually neither looked that bad for their mid-forties. Better than Gregory did himself anyway, though Jane was holding her age the best of all. The heads of a calico and a pure white cat popped through the curtains and let out silent meows.

*

He hung his workshirt atop the cords and tiptoed toward the mattress on the floor. If she was still asleep, he’d better not wake her.

But the bed lay empty, the sheets thrown back. “How can you read this crap?” she snapped behind him, and he spun around. There she sat browsing through his thesis notes, goose bumps sticking out all over her bare limbs.

“Sartre’s fiction’s a lot simpler than his philosophy,” he muttered.

“I meant your handwriting!” she told him.

“Oh, that’s just my personal hieroglyphics.”

She didn’t laugh, not that he really expected it since she never found any of his quips amusing. She glanced up and gave his near-nakedness an ironic double-take. “You mean we’re finally going to do it?” she practically yelled.

He smoothed the hair on his temples back over his ears with both hands and slowly nodded.

“I’m in no mood for just fooling around,” she teased, the edge to her tone striking him just wrong. Even if at heart she was anything but mean or nasty.

“Don’t worry,” he mumbled, his voice pinched with apprehension.

“Good-o!” she crowed, dropping her bra and panties to the floor, and bounced over to the mattress.

He turned his back and lowered his jockey shorts, and shyly faced her defiant grin.

*

“So you decided against bringing the kids,” Sandy said, an unmistakable wistfulness to her mellow alto. Simone, the calico feline that her last letter had warned shunned strangers, nestled into her lap. So he and Jane shouldn’t take offense, she had meant.

“Ha!” Jane shouted. “You try telling a seventeen- and eighteen-year-old where to go and when!”

Sandy’s frown verged on a grimace. Good thing she let the issue drop since neither he nor Jane was eager to discuss how their boys were turning out.

“The usual everybody?” Dennis asked. Gregory looked away from his old grad school pal’s bloodshot eyes and met Jean-Paul’s vertical slits. The white tom hopped up onto Greg’s lap and scratched his snout against the hidden chin stubble.

“Bien sur,” Jane intoned. “Un bon vin blanc pour moi. But make it a small glass.”

Dennis’s grin was still boyishly mischievous, though his gaze had somehow become both oddly dull and disquieting. “How about you, Greg?”

“Sure,” he said, glancing away from what the air conditioner was doing to Sandy under her red Bucky Badger T-shirt. Why was the darned thing turned up so high?

“Sure what? Gregory, would you like some wine too?”

He met Sandy’s eyes still the clear azure of a high Wisconsin sky and shrugged. “I hardly drink anymore. But okay, why not?”

“Greg, wasn’t your drink brandy back then?” Jane asked with a convivial chuckle. Sandy wrapped her slender fingers around the calico’s flanks and held on tight.

“Yeah, that’s right!” Dennis said. “Brandy Manhattans at the 602 Club! Every Monday after Professor Jacomet’s deadly seminars! Our first semester, wasn’t it? Sandy, do we have any Korbel’s left?”

Sandy stood up with a distracted grin. Greg looked away from the tightness of her cutoffs and asked, “Or was it during our second semester?” Even though he knew full well Dennis wasn’t mistaken.

“Flaubert et Maupassant, n’est-ce pas?” Jane asked, her accent as thickly American as ever.

“Exactement, madame!” Dennis pronounced like a Parisian boulevardier. “Le mot juste. And all that other garbage.”

“Say, Denny,” Greg muttered, sitting up straight. “Maybe I’d better hold off on the alcohol for a bit. Do you have any mineral water? And some sort of snack?”

Sandy halted in the doorway, a sealed bottle of brandy in hand, and traipsed straight back to the kitchen. Greg shut his burning eyes.

“Greg has hypoglycemia,” Jane explained, a note of impatience undercutting her blitheness. “It’s no problem so long as he avoids sugar like strychnine. And snacks off and on day and night.”

Dennis stifled a chuckle. “Sort of like me with salt. Except I can eat a little.”

Greg nodded with a vacant smile.

Sandy returned with a platter of chocolate chip cookies, obviously pleased with her handiwork. And why not? A shame such a natural nurturer never became a mom. Not that she and Denny hadn’t tried. A letter last year implied the problem was his.

“Greg can’t eat sugar,” Dennis told Sandy, who frowned.

Eyeing the cookies gravely, Greg smoothed the hair on his graying temples back with both hands. “I suppose one wouldn’t hurt,” he mumbled.

“So how’s the job going, Gregory?” Dennis asked.

Greg scrutinized him like a wary stray tom.

“Greg got promoted to Associate Director last month,” Jane replied.

“My condolences,” Dennis quipped.

A genuine smile flashed across Greg’s face and as quickly vanished. Sure, the work was as bullshit as any other throughout his checkered career, but at least the salary was decent—for a welcome change. Or had something else provoked the discontent all along? “Could I use your bathroom?” he said.

“Come on, honey!” Jane shouted. “These guys are old friends! Just go!”

*

Clutching her flush and thrusting, her silky hair tickling his cheeks—

“—Greg?”

His eyes popped open and just like that the reverie evaporated.

“Here, try some of these instead,” Sandy said, grinning sweetly and bending deeply. Too deeply in fact. Or was he imagining intent in mere accident? “Dennis eats unsalted corn chips all the time,” she added, the smile even in her lilting alto. Amazing that after twenty years she still had a schoolgirl’s innocent air, as if not even suspecting anything might ever go awry.

*

Greg perched sideways on the edge of the unforgiving mattress, his face only inches from the wallpaper. His spent air whistled through nostrils strangely half-closed, his breathing twice as fast as Jane’s, lying just behind him. Lucky girl, that Jane McDowell Rykken, to sleep so like a child. She had been his wife now for almost two decades, and his closest friend, and so of course his best confidante as well. Who knew as much about him as any person on earth, including every family skeleton, faux pas, peccadillo, and embarrassment. Still there were things she hadn’t heard.

Images from their first day back in Madison kept churning through his mind. A beaming Dennis showing off a labyrinth of musty, yellowing tomes in the used-book store he owned and ran. An embarrassed Sandy pointing out the tacky office building where she toiled as a legal secretary. State Street, once the laid-back dinky downtown of a student ghetto, now a yuppie haven of tony shops selling Japanese imports, mountain bikes, and gourmet coffee—as if tasteful shopping were the long sought millennium. To think they had once risked their skulls against police billy clubs for this paltry a future.

But this was no time for thinking about any of that. No, somehow he had to get some sleep since the next day’s schedule would permit no nap. Following an early morning tour of their alma mater and brunch at the Ovens of Brittany, they’d head up to Devil’s Lake and spend the afternoon swimming and picnicking, before driving back for dinner at Paisan’s, their favorite old haunt. Finally they’d take in a Gerard Depardieu flick late at the Majestic. As full as a typical day of graduate school, only this time it’d be sheer fun.

Not that it had ever been pure drudgery back then. Yet the prospect of so much relentless relaxation on so little rest made him tense with dread. But how was he going to doze off, if he just wasn’t sleepy? Exhausted, sure, after the long drive from St. Louis, but not drowsy whatsoever.

A half hour later, Greg still lay there, his thoughts roiling as before. Why, if he hadn’t drunk more than a fourth of the St. Pauli Girl Dennis had foisted upon him? And just before going to bed he had made a point of eating cheese and crackers. But if he wasn’t hungry, then why was his stomach growling? And hadn’t he slept well in plenty of worse beds, for instance just last month at the Kansas City conference?

The thing to do was to let some pleasant memory well up and dwell on it until it drowned everything else out. And so he let them flow willy-nilly till he found himself again a thirteen-year-old swimming in his hometown public pool under the lifeguards’ watchful gaze. A flick of his thumb and a dime knifed into the water twenty feet ahead. He plunged after it, surging with long, smooth leg kicks to catch the coin before it reached bottom. Why was this his favorite game? Because no one else could swim underwater as well? Or because to those above the surface he moved in a wobbly blur? The silvery face tumbled brow over neck, slowing with every flip instead of accelerating.

He was standing in his bare feet, his toes sinking into the shag carpet. He dropped his jockey shorts to the floor and snatched the trunks from the chair and tugged them on. “God, I hope the pool’s warmer than your apartment,” he quipped, the fit of the borrowed swimsuit so snug it gave his crotch a dull ache. The woman’s giggle behind his back echoed like tinkling bells, her bikini so red it glowed to remember it. The coin landed in his palm as soft as an eyelash tickling a cheek.

“Come on in!” she screamed and dipped out of sight. A moment later she rocketed out, shaking her long hair like a sopping dog. “Just this once,” she muttered, stepping into his embrace. A freezing plume of water hit him square in the eyes. They jerked open, but saw only darkness.

*

She stood holding the refrigerator door, its light illuminating her flowing nightgown. And silhouetting what he shouldn’t notice, not on such a dear, old friend. “There’s yogurt,” she said with a giggling lilt. “And brie and crackers. And cantaloupe, strawberries, and bagels. Or how about a croissant?” As starved as he felt, it all looked tempting, especially the dark patch between her legs.

His thickening felt so uncomfortable squished against the mattress that he shifted his buttocks and found relief. Eyes open or shut, twenty years ago or hence, what difference did it make in the end? As the snack crept into his blood, he finally began to relax.

*

“Just go limp,” Denny instructed, stroking his bearded chin. “Make yourself heavy, like a sack of potatoes. Whatever you do, don’t resist.”

Sandy’s bright, cherubic smile dimmed a few watts. Jane nodded with a gulp, and Greg grabbed her clammy hand.

“They’re here,” Dennis said and took a deep breath. Three paddy wagons pulled up in quick succession. The back doors flew open and out spilled helmeted city cops. Billy clubs in hand, the officers stepped through the hippies blocking the main campus intersection in silence, their spit-polished shoes just missing the sprawling bodies.

“They’re coming this way!” Jane squealed.

A coed alongside let out a yelp. A rough hand clasped her mouth and hugged her close.

“God, I hope I don’t wet my pants!” Jane said, snuggling against Greg.

“Remember, like a sack of potatoes,” Denny whispered.

“French fries good enough?” Greg joked, his pulse pounding in his ears, and Sandy giggled. The zigzagging columns of navy blue converged without comment or curse on Dennis Hecht, the man on the megaphone throughout the last three days of campus unrest. After commandeering a spontaneous library mall rally, he had persuaded protesters to occupy the Administration building and now to block Park Street at University Avenue.

Madison’s finest finally reached their target, and two beefy cops calmly thrust their hands into Denny’s Caucasian Afro and lifted him off the ground by his hair. As he blanched and Sandy shrieked, Greg jerked awake and rolled into a warm, soft shoulder.

“Gregory?” his wife sleepily moaned and patted his hot cheek.

*

“How’s the moussaka?” Jane asked him.

“Fine, I guess,” Greg mumbled and lifted his Manhattan high to drain the last few drops. His wife wrinkled her brow in disgust.

“Are you okay, Greg?” Sandy said from across the table, wanly grinning. Had anyone ever expressed concern more sincerely?

Greg ogled her chiseled upper lip and shrugged. Just what about it was so compelling? But then what was attractive about anything on anybody? Or what made one relationship effortless and another teeth-gnashing? “Hey, guys, how about another round?” he called out. “Waiter, you call this place a bar? It’s more like a funeral parlor without the gladiolas.”

When the refills arrived, Dennis asked, “Greg, you still haven’t said a word about your work.”

“What do you want to hear?” he began and took a big swig. The icy fire of the brandy burned all the way down. “How I spend my days? Read your e-mail and wastebasket it. Back up the important memos and delete the other ninety nine percent. Surf the Web till you’re about ready to drown. Then if it gets really bad, conjugate new verbs. Like—byte, bit, bought. Or better yet—baud, bode, can’t abide? Neither has a perfective because the action is never completed. Ditto for the conditional because nobody has any choice in the matter. Do you think the flood of information will ever dry out?”

“Greg,” Jane pleaded.

“Stop the war!” Greg shouted. “Off the pigs! Don’t trust anybody under thirty! Or was it over thirty? I forget.”

“Whatever you’re up to, it doesn’t sound like teaching Flaubert,” Dennis said.

“I’ll drink to that,” Greg quipped. “And a vulture isn’t a warbler. But it goes to bed well-fed.”

Jane slipped a bejeweled hand into her spouse’s. “Remember that Mifflin Street party we all went to? Drinking brandy straight from the bottle and passing joints the size of cigars. Was that right before or right after we got engaged, Greg?”

“—Shhh, don’t say that word so loud,” he teased.

“Engaged?”

“No, the j-word,” Greg said and guffawed.

Dennis scowled.

“No, wait,” Jane went on. “Denny, you were already over in Tours teaching English. But Sandy—”

“—Sandy didn’t join me in France till the following summer,” Dennis interrupted, his tone suddenly metallic.

“You mean the summer Greg and I got engaged?”

“And you got pregnant, Jane,” Greg added with a chortle. “And we both bagged grad school for good. Or was it for worse?”

“Yeah, I was at that block party,” Sandy muttered, slowly rotating her empty wine glass between both palms.

“Of course!” Jane crowed. “That was the weekend my Mount Holyoke professor came to town, and I met him for dinner. God, was I wrecked. But old Fabrice never let on he noticed. Greg, didn’t you and Sandy go see some flick like Carnal Knowledge?”

“What was it about?” Dennis snapped, grasping his fork like a dagger and then slamming it down. Sandy blinked, and Greg stared dumbly straight ahead. “Who the hell was in it?” Dennis hollered.

Nobody said a word while Sandy slowly crossed her arms and slumped.

“Greg,” Jane said, “you and Sandy went to lots of movies together back then. Whenever I had a paper due or something.”

Greg grabbed his wife’s vodka tonic and chugged it.

*

He opened the door and she sidled inside. With one hand he turned the deadbolt while the other pulled her soft chest close and their lips locked on, her teeth raking his tongue and her hands grasping his belt. The second they hit the mattress on the floor, the phone began ringing and wouldn’t quit while they writhed and groaned.

Afterwards they lay intertwined in dreamy exhaustion. When the phone jangled again, he snatched it and mumbled, “Uh-huh.”

“Where have you been?” his girlfriend whined into his ear.

“At the library,” he said, lying with ease. Too bad it took him so long to recognize this aptitude for upper management. When his guest tried to stand up, he grabbed her wrist. She yanked it free and quickly dressed.

“Are we going to get engaged then?” his girlfriend whimpered over the phone.

“Oh, honey,” he told her. Cupping his hand tightly over the receiver, he whispered, “Don’t go.”

His guest paused at the door to mutter, “I’m dropping out of school and flying to Tours as soon as possible.”

“Greg, are you still there?” the tinny voice said in his hand.

The apartment door clicked shut. “Of course we’re getting engaged, honey,” he told her.

*

“Hey, waiter, did you lose an earring or what?” Greg yelled at the twenty-something youngster. “And isn’t it about time to mow your mop again?”

The pony-tailed waiter rolled his eyes.

“Seriously, young man,” Greg said, “how about another round while we’re deciding on dessert?”

“Greg!” Jane pleaded, laying a hand on his.

“Do you have anything without sugar?” Sandy said.

“Since she’s sweet enough as it is!” Greg quipped.

“Ma’am,” the waiter replied, “I assure you there’s not one grain of sucrose on the premises. Least of all not in any dessert.”

“Right on!” Greg hollered, his fist shooting into the air. “Power to the people! The personal is political!”

“Please don’t bring us any more drinks,” Jane begged.

“I’ll drink to that!” Greg shouted. “Denny, you still with us? Hey, somebody take his pulse.”

Dennis’s bloodshot eyes glanced up from his empty stein. “Get the damn bill,” he snapped at the young man.

Sandy’s azure eyes glistened.

*

She closed the door behind herself and shuffled off her work shirt and jeans and stepped into his naked embrace. No, he shouldn’t have taken her hand at the movie. Just as he shouldn’t have put his arm around her walking back to campus. Just as he shouldn’t have kissed her in the stairwell. Because she was not just a good friend but a good friend’s girl. He hadn’t planned on any of it. But still it had happened. Whatever that meant. “Just this once,” he promised.

“Just this once,” she echoed.

pencil

“After graduating from high school in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, I studied literature and writing at UW-Madison, where I eventually earned a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees. Since then I have been working as a professional librarian at Ohio University and honing my fiction craft in my spare time.” E-mail: olsondl[at]verizon.net.

Snapshots

Fiction
Alan Danzis


April 1, 2004. Me. My girlfriend, Kristin. Bowling Hill High’s track field. Wearing the tight, dark red jersey I bought her for her birthday, Kristin looks beautiful despite running a mile in under six minutes, a feat she accomplished twice. Our arms are around each other and she’s laughing that I’m holding her too tight.

August 2, 1999. Me. My best friend, Don Williker. His new wife, Michelle, with her red hair tucked neatly into a bun. Outside the chapel, I’m standing between the two of them in the sacred place where someone actually succeeded in settling Don down.

June 3, 1977. Me. Ma. Don. A playground, not far from Bowling High, which we would start attending the next decade. Ma has a hand on each of our backs and is gently nudging us closer together. Her big smile, the light flickering synchronously on her teeth with the flash on what was a very cloudy day, makes me realize now, just how much she really wanted us to become friends back then. Off in the distance, near a row of trees, there’s a blurred image of a girl in cherry-red overalls trying to run up the slide backwards. Don, three years from a double digit age, tried to pick her up that day. He told her he wanted to take her to see a “Star War.”

December 4, 1993. Me. Don. His girlfriend, Angie. Some random dorm party at Indiana State University. Under the mistletoe, Angie and Don are making out as if an RA was seconds away from clearing the room. I, on the other hand, am not smiling. Not because I was jealous of Don. Angie was a sweet girl and Don did seem to genuinely care for her at the time. Plus, she was a bit too tall for a 5’9″er like myself. So it wasn’t anything like envy. It was because I was still feeling guilty—months later—about what I had done to my ex-girlfriend Jessica.

May 5, 1992. Me. My girlfriend, Jessica. Perched on top of the picnic table where we had had long talks three nights a week for four months, we’re just outside my dorm room. Crutches are under my arm while she leans across the bench, legs outstretched. Saying goodbye to the semester that day, we were also saying hello to faithfulness for the entire summer. Seeing each other every weekend made it pretty bearable and things were great when we arrived back at ISU in the fall.

September 6, 1993. Me. Don. Don’s girlfriend, Remi. The Fighting Trees Tavern. Named for an unfortunate mascot suggested for ISU a few decades earlier, the Trees was our favorite hang-out in school. Dragging me out that night, the two of them thought they could cheer me up with a few beers. It was after all, a really stupid fight Jessica and I had had that night. But one girl I met that night, Beth, didn’t think it was a stupid fight. She thought Jessica was possessive. Hyper-critical. And shutting me down too much. Plus, she thought I was really cute.

March 7, 1995. Me. My girlfriend Katie. The beach in Cancun. It’s Spring Break. We’re relaxing in our lounge chairs, sipping margaritas, happy to have forgotten about the fight the night before over Katie hitting on what she later called the “super-cute mistake” from the pool bar. The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful: mostly because Katie and I didn’t spend any more nights together; only days on the beach and afternoons in the hotel bed.

April 8, 1988. Me. Jessica. Dick Colgatiano’s house. Not the most popular guy in our class, Dick tried to impress the chess geeks, Spanish club members and model UNers with elaborate, catered and fully-staffed dinner parties at his parents’ house whenever they were touring Europe. Once word would leak out—usually about three hours before the party—his house would soon be flowing with senior guys, freshman girls, and booze. Plenty of booze. Most people didn’t really know Dick, but they knew his house, and they knew everybody else that was there. Dick Colgatiano was known for one thing: “Dick Colgatiano’s house.” Jessica and I met for the first time that night. Emptying myself in the Colgatiano’s master bathroom, I was interrupted mid-stream by Jessica, decked out in a beautiful blue sweater ruined by teensy crumbles of drying vomit from her apparently sick friend. As I held her friend’s hair back while she unearthed at least six beers worth of solids onto the porcelain bowl, floor and my sandals, I lamely told Jessica I wanted to take a picture of her in that sweater so I could show to my sister what I thought was a really pretty sweater—of course she didn’t know I didn’t have a sister. Afterwards, I got her phone number. Turned out to be the wrong one. naturally. On purpose. Of course. Dead in the water. Nah. So, I looked up her real number a day later and we had a date the following weekend.

May 9, 2000. Me. Don. Jessica. University Plaza Hotel in downtown Bloomington, Indiana. This picture was taken at our 5 year reunion by Kyle “Killi” Kutterson, our over-active, under-achieving partially-albino class president. The last time I had seen Jessica—at graduation—I didn’t so much as roll my eyes in her general direction. After the party, we shared too many memories, too many Cosmos, and one too many beds up on the 45th floor. When I woke up in the morning, she was gone.

December 10, 1991. Me. Don. Jessica (in the background with a few other people I don’t remember the names of). At Dick Colgatiano’s house. Even though we had tried to avoid each other all night, a partnership was briefly formed when the wait for the downstairs bathroom was over sixteen people long and the one upstairs was locked. A hairpin, a credit card, and a screw from my sunglasses couldn’t pick the lock, so we used a plant in the hallway instead. Looking out for each other while we watered the plants, Jessica and I got to talking. We came to Dick Colgatiano’s house with different people. At the end of the night, we left together.

February 11, 1994. Me. My girlfriend, Katie. Our “Valentine’s Day” celebration at a fondue restaurant. We’d been together for two months at that point. Introduced by Killi Kutterson at a dorm barbecue, Katie and I got along so well that semester. We hardly fought and we didn’t ask a lot of questions about each other. It was an open relationship. Open emotions, open feelings, and open doors. Four days after this picture was taken, I took about a week and a half to forgive her for what I saw thanks to that third tenet.

March 12, 1989. Me. Don. My girlfriend, Jessica. And by sheer accident—at least on our part—the guy who lived at Dick Colgatiano’s house, Dick Colgatiano. Bowling Hill High School’s track field. A 10:45 2K time, my Everest, was reached that day. Jessica is standing behind me, her arms drooped around my neck in a tight embrace and Don is pretending to look not in total awe with his arms crossed and goofy grin stretched across his face. Dick just happens to be walking by and gives us—or is it the camera?—a thumbs up.

April 13, 1992. Me. Don. Don’s girlfriend, Lucy. Bloomingtown Hospital. Don bet me fifty dollars that I couldn’t climb the tree outside our dorm room in under five minutes. I broke my leg two minutes into the climb after grabbing a branch that snapped in half. In the picture, one-third of the participants are not wearing a smile. Of the other two-thirds, Lucy is giving me a kiss on the cheek while Don pretends to take an enormous bite out of my cast.

December 14, 1982. Me. Don. Sledding down a hill in some park in Bowling Hill. Reaching my uncle who’s holding the camera, we both give a thumbs up, moments before our sled smashes head first into a tree. (Luckily we did not, though I went right arm first and Don went left leg first.) Even though we were supposed to stay at home in bed for a week straight, we snuck out every night to play Donkey Kong, which had come out earlier that year. Don always got farther along than I did, mostly because he had the use of both his hands. I, however, beat him in every footrace we had from that moment on. Even years later.

May 15, 1978. Me. Alana, the girl from across the street. We’re sitting together on a tire swing in her backyard. Nearly an hour after this picture was taken, Alana pulled down her blue sweatpants. Mine stayed up and I lost the bet.

January 16, 1996. Me. My girlfriend Katie. We’re standing outside our new apartment in Los Angeles—this was of course months after my refusal to leave Indiana. All of the boxes are inside. Unpacking an hour later, I see Katie grab her keys out of the cubbyhole and head for the door. I slept alone that night, but at least she was back the following night.

August 17, 1989. Me. Don. Don’s girlfriend Ellen. Jessica. Philadelphia Phillies game. We all went one night as a double date; Phils beat the Cubbies 6-0. A nice, young father in front of us offered to take this picture. Afterwards, Don decided we should celebrate the impending victory—it was in the sixth inning and he was already declaring it—with a few beers. Luckily for us, Donnie had fakes on his person as ubiquitous as fans in the seats (“I brought them in case we were going to the Spit,” he claimed.) I had one on me as well, but with my 5’4″ height, I didn’t even look old enough to buy a lottery ticket or join the Army.

February 18, 1975. Me. Our living room. I’m playing with a Japanese Tin Space Top with Launcher Ma got me at some flea market. The top begins to lift into the air, and the red and white colors painted on top began to mix together to look like liquid candy canes. Ma bought me the toy to congratulate me on passing 3’9″. Beaming with joy, she said to me, at my rate, I’d be over 6′ and playing in the NBA in no time. While the colors were beginning to fade on my Space Top, the happiness on my face did not.

April 19, 1992. Me. I’m smiling because Jessica has just told me she’s coming to school with me and Don in the fall. She wanted a picture to remember that moment and that face of mine.

August 20, 1990. Me. Jessica. At some concert, where Dave Matthews Band was the opener. I don’t even remember for who because we made out on the blanket during the last set. Covered in empty soda bottles, we didn’t really care. At the end of the concert, I was the lookout while she went to the bathroom behind the guy who lived at Dick Colgatiano house’s ’69 Camaro. We broke up three days later. She said she wanted to see other people. Little did I know, she had already started to.

November 21, 1984. Me. Our dining room. Thanksgiving. Well, our Thanksgiving. We were celebrating a few days early because Pop was heading back into the service. Standing on the third stair, I’m decked out in every single piece of jewelry Ma owned at the time—including a glittering necklace of pearls that hung down to the floor on me. My hands are on my hips and I’m laughing. My drunken uncle called me a homo and told me to go back upstairs, but Ma just smiled and laughed. I’m 14 at the time, so I could understand my uncle’s concern and him questioning my sexuality; little did he know though, that at that point, I was just as drunk as he was.

May 22, 1990. Me. Jessica. Don. Don’s date, Frannie. It’s senior prom. I made love to Jessica for the first time that night. Don came up short. Frannie didn’t.

February 23, 2003. Don. Michelle. Jessica. Roger, Jessica’s new husband. Don gave me this picture so I could see what Roger looked like. He looks shorter than me.

April 24, 1997. Me. Katie. Outside a dog pound, holding a seven week old Lhasa Apso. A week later, Max was the only one in the picture that still loved me. That’s the last picture I have of Katie.

December 25, 1974. Me. Ma. The kitchen. Sitting on Ma’s lap, I’m clutching the only Christmas gift I cared about that year: a genuine, official Jesse Owens trading card. Encased in a simple plastic frame, it didn’t impress any of my friends at school the next month. Dated 1936, it was, however, one of the most sought-after cards—despite the fact Mom got it at a church charity sale—because it was the year Owens triumphed over Hitler’s athletes. Of course at the time, I only knew he was a fast runner—like I always tried to be—and he beat “someone with a rectangular moustache that was always high-fiving to no one in particular.” For a four-year old who dreamed of Olympic glory, no gift could be better.

June 26, 1976. Me. Ma. The zoo. We’re standing next to the monkey’s cage. I have chocolate icing on my navy blue shirt. That stain lived symbiotically with that shirt for the next seven years until it somehow just came out in the wash. Or maybe it was before that and I just didn’t notice because I wasn’t paying enough attention.

September 27, 1991. Don. Don’s girlfriend, Jenn. Me. The Trees. Don is behind Jenn, his hands in her pockets, pretending to lick her left cheek. I’m standing nearby, half-glancing at the camera and half-glancing at that some girl in the crimson dress at the other end of the bar. A skeezy guy with pre-Steinbrenner Mattingly sidebars was the guy she settled on to take her home that night.

February 28, 2002. Me. Don. Kristin. And about twenty other patrons celebrating with free shots. The Trees. Don and I decided to go back to the old college bar and do a little reminiscing. We met Kristin when Don got drunk enough to start buying shots for everyone in the bar. I noticed her right away because of the bright strawberry-red Indiana University sweatshirt she was wearing; I asked if she went there. She said no, her ex-boyfriend nicknamed Killi did and she swiped it from his dresser; it was his favorite sweatshirt and since he spilled semen on a dress of hers the night before, she figured she was entitled to it. Her honesty, her incredible candor, and her cleavage were nothing short of amazing. I asked her out right then and there. I also continued to ask her out for the next month and a half before she finally said yes.

October 29, 1998. Me. Don. We’re at The Dragon Spit Bar, the only bar in all of Bowling Hill. We’re celebrating Dick Colgatiano’s wedding, which we had attended earlier that day. Rumor had it that no one was actually invited; we all just showed up. The Spit was my and Don’s bar of choice when we were kids and had crappy IDs made by a 13-year-old chess prodigy. Don and are sitting in the corner stools and leaning back towards the bar, trying to coax the bartender into the picture. Don swears to me that night that he wants to be single for the rest of his life. After the picture was taken, he got up and approached some girl in the corner with red hair.

March 30, 2003. Me. Ma. And my girlfriend, Kristin. Ma’s house. Kristin has just met Ma for the first time. Ma took one look at her and said, “She looks like she comes from good stock.” I was pretty sure I agreed, but not until we went up to my bedroom. Taking one look at all of my racing trophies, Kristin smiled and said, “I bet I could kick your ass.”

December 31, 2005. Nothing. Whoever took that picture must have been really trashed that night. It’s completely blank.

pencil

“I’m a 2003 graduate of Writing from Loyola College in Maryland and currently work in the field of public relations.” E-mail: adanzis[at]gmail.com.

Musee Mecanique

Fiction
Terri Brown-Davidson


She looked forward to the rocks even before she dreamed about them. It was that craving for gray-and-black striation, stony rubble, the tactile longing so pronounced that she felt the rocks’ blunt edges dig into her palms, though there was never any blood. The railing was rusted, that weird, corrugated, reddish-brown, flecks of it falling off the iron, scant moon to guide the goggled men in black wetsuits steering the motor boats.

And when she woke, clammy, breathing hard, sometimes she saw sea lions lolling atop those rocks, heard their distant lonely bray.

She liked to look at her husband while he slept so she could get used to the idea that he would, indeed, die. She’d shared this information with Jason as she’d shared all of her premonitions: it was her duty, as a wife. And, as usual, he’d laughed.

But she hadn’t laughed, because she’d known that her vision was true.

 

Zipping up the suitcases was good, like tidying up her emotions for travel. Glancing at Jason as he prepared for the flight, folding his already impeccably squared blue Oxford shirts into tinier rectangles, lining the shirts with tissue, she wondered if he ever felt anything anymore, since Tara’s death. There were the flashes, of course, and the images that accompanied the hole: the hole was what she felt. She never would have believed that she could have walked around carrying the sensation of a moist grave inside her, but she did. She saw it, too: the roots that threaded up through the gently collapsing mud; the yellow weeds that sprouted stick-fingered across the sloping mahogany coffin, oversized, ludicrously expensive for a child. She felt it and saw it, and it wasn’t the least bit empty for her, or morbid. It was a form of fulfillment, of emotional satisfaction. Communion with Tara.

The flight was fast and she knew that he was nervous by the expression on his face. She felt nothing except the sensation that she was flying into the future, where she belonged, or at least the place where the future intersected with the past. Jason ordered orange juice from the flight attendant. Megan helped him settle the plastic cup into both palms, closed the fingers for him over the plastic; he was trembling too violently to manage. “Shh,” she said, over and over. He couldn’t lift the cup. She raised it to his lips, tilted it, helped him drink. Soon they’d be in the White Swan Bed-and-Breakfast Inn. She would savor the opulence of the floor-length, blue-velvet curtains, the winding staircase, the chocolates and rose on each of their pillows, the warm buttered croissants and rich, black, Columbian coffee. He wouldn’t, though: he’d be remembering, instead, the last time they traveled there.

“Drink your juice,” she said, and regretted the edge to her voice. But he just stared at her with his wide gray eyes. She lifted the cup again, wedged it firmly into his hands. “Here,” she said. “Here,” and gripped both his wrists until they stopped quivering. Max & Stein wouldn’t give him an indefinite leave from his position, she knew. Still, it scarcely mattered, since he’d be dead in three years anyway, so why should he spend his final years selling insurance? Plus, she knew that he wanted to be dead. There was a hole in each of them, but the quality of the hole inside her was different: maybe it was the moistness of the soil, from which at least a few scattered weeds could take root, flourish. And she thought of Jason’s impending death not with panic but with an incipient warm sadness that had flooded her ever since childhood, when she’d begun to know that things that happened in her mind would happen in real life but also knew that she was powerless to prevent them from occurring. She didn’t like the term “psychic,” though, because she believed that the power she possessed was, in fact, accessible to everyone; it was simply a matter of allowing the conduits of one’s consciousness to open: it was natural.

“I don’t want to go,” Jason said, but he didn’t cry because he simply didn’t anymore. He closed his eyes. Even with them closed, she kept lifting the cup to his lips, helping him drink.

Ever since she was a child, San Francisco had been a haunted place for Megan. And a magical one. She and her parents didn’t live there but about seventy miles away, in the more sedate city of Santa Clara, which was famous for its plum orchards at one time and then became renowned for Silicon Valley later. Santa Clara was too pedestrian for her, not mysterious enough. She loved, though, their almost routine trips to San Francisco every weekend, where she felt her otherwise quiescent mind jostled into a kind of fevered activity via the oddness of the place. Holding hands, all three of them (they always walked that way, she and her mother and father, and she was always in the middle), they’d stroll down Fisherman’s Wharf through a fog so thick Megan pulled its moisture back into her lungs and learned to savor the dampness, as she came to savor the dampness of her hole after Tara’s death. There were vendors who sold huge orange crabs along the Wharf; sometimes they’d raise them, still alive, from plastic soaking buckets, and Megan would stare at their thrashing claws and feel something dark yet pleasant start in the back of her mind, strong-tasting as chocolate. Then they’d stroll to the Wax Museum with its big hokey monsters, a hulking, bright-green Frankenstein, a blood-dripping and fanged Dracula in a long black plastic cape that looked as if it’d been purchased from PayLess and the girl—Marie Antoinette?—being guillotined, her white-powdered head laid down below the blade, her smooth, pale neck bared, and Megan would always scream though her screams, increasingly, were fake: the shepherdess being beheaded hadn’t scared her since she was three.

And then there was the long drive back to Santa Clara, through the semi-darkness of the freeway and the fog thinning out and the tall, stately mansions, the Victorian Painted Ladies that her momma loved easing away and the picture of tangled steel and blood that grew sharper as she grew older, though, then, she didn’t know that the picture was real until it actually happened on a day she was home and not in the car.

 

Megan handled the check-in. She didn’t want to think of Jason as a “mess” because that was too unkind. And he followed her dutifully enough, up in the black-basalt elevator to their modest room (no flowers) on the fourth floor. When they entered their suite with the key card, he went immediately to the overstuffed recliner near the window, sat down, stared straight ahead.

The window looked out over an industrial part of San Francisco; the sight of all of those back alleys (greasy-looking, with blowing papers) and back doors to shops or factories fascinated Megan, so she had to remind herself that they weren’t there for sightseeing but for the Musee Mecanique, and she set to work hanging up all of their clothes.

When she finished, Jason was still staring out, so she found a plastic comb in one of his back pants pockets (the pants hung up neatly, now, folded along the creases) and combed his dark hair going to gray while a distant Asian man in the alley hauled mysterious trash out to a dumpster.

 

She often fed the hole but preferred not to consider it. In the beginning, right after Tara’s death, a series of images had penetrated her consciousness, sped toward her faster and faster while she ate breakfast at the sad yellow kitchen table with Jason, walked solo around the block in their quiet New Mexico neighborhood lined with paper-bagged luminaria, the sea lions, the darkening ocean, the rocks, flashing toward her as if urging her, Why didn’t she know?

Because she hadn’t been allowed to.

Yet.

She’d believed she was taking a trip with Jason and Tara to her old childhood haunts: the Cliff House, set on the white-foamed majesty of the Pacific with all its rocks and sea lions lounging in the foggy sun; the Musee Mecanique, a white-painted, ocean-weathered shack full of odd antique toys and turn-of-the-century memorabilia, where Tara, upon hearing her stories of Laughing Sal, begged to be taken, too.

She’d believed she was going there, with Tara, to play.

This time, she had no illusions.

She understood—or thought she did—why she and Jason had been summoned back.

He slept as uncomfortably as he lived. And she knew he was already there, hours before they had to be, at the Musee Mecanique. She looked at his eyes, twitching beneath his lids, tried not to view it as a betrayal that he’d preceded her. And then she closed her own eyes, pressed her fingertips into the lids. Odd how she’d liked going there with him, before Tara. Had there ever been anything enjoyable about the place? It was grotesquerie personified. The nude, semi-pornographic lithographs through an outmoded viewmaster. The racist black dolls that hauled bales of cotton in inch-high wagons toward some happy vision of slavery, their little mouths grinning. And, of course, Laughing Sal, whom she couldn’t bear to think of anymore. She wished, for a long time, that they’d torched the place, she and Jason, after the accident. And it had almost closed once due to lack of interest: who ever wanted to visit it anymore?—it was purely depressing. But it had stayed open because it was a “historical landmark.” And she was glad that it had. Because of Tara. And, of course, because of Jason, a few years from now.

In the semi-yellowed grayness of the room, Jason twined his arms around his torso as he slept.

 

When she woke, she didn’t know where she was. She sat up in bed, bracing her palms against the mattress. Outside, the sky had turned a stark, blackish-brown, as if ink had leaked into the fog, suffused it with shadows, and she thought of the darkness of the rocks with the whitecaps breaking over them, the solidity and blackness of the rocks and how they thrust up through the foaming ocean, and she had a kind of a hunger to see them though she didn’t know what that hunger meant, the rocks pushing broken-mouthed out of the water and, far below, the faint browning pools of blood. She placed her fingers over her mouth, eased them inside, bit down. Her skin tasted dusty, as if she were a museum piece herself, and for a second she saw Tara’s face tilted sideways and staring up, ants crawling across the sweet sticky glaze on her irises.

Fuck, Megan thought. I’m going to be sick.

But she was tougher than Jason. Bracing her hand on her stomach, cupping her belly through the nightgown, she crawled on her hands and knees out of bed. The carpet, a rich rose plush, felt so sumptuous and warm against her knees that she stood up then, staggered before heading out to the balcony, where Jason was drinking strong black coffee in the fog, peering out at the ocean, the breakers, the Cliff House, Musee Mecanique.

“I can’t do it,” he said, and sipped his coffee, though she saw the cup tremble.

“You already did it,” Megan said. “Last night. I saw you.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“In your dream.”

He shrugged then glanced at her with such a strange, calculated air that she felt startled, even before he tossed his cup over the balcony; she willed herself not to hear it shatter against the rocks, but it was fine; the cup was too small, too far away, for her to hear anything.

“I can’t accept… everything you’ve told me. Though it’s a relief, I guess, in a way. ”

“You don’t know how much.”

“What d’you mean?”

“You don’t want to be here anyway,” Megan said. “Three years isn’t so long.”

“You’re crazy,” Jason whispered, before he wiped his wet eyes with the back of one hand.

“Sure,” Megan said. “If that helps,” and touched his back through his white, terrycloth robe though he didn’t look at her; he kept gazing at foam that shrugged and billowed, riding up onto the rocks.

 

They didn’t go eat at the Cliff House, as they used to do before visiting the Musee Mecanique; maybe neither of them could admit they had no appetite. Jason was never hungry much before anyway: in some respects, he was a passionless man. But when Tara was born, a bloody mass of shriveled skin and bone on the nurse’s palms, something in Jason had intensified like kindling laid to a fire. It was wonderful, of course, while it lasted. But, of course, any fire can be extinguished; Tara had taught them that.

Nevertheless, though they’d both—it seemed—tacitly agreed not to eat there, they found themselves walking in tandem toward the Cliff House’s bank of tall white windows glittering with sunlight reflected off the bay; Megan grabbed Jason’s hand, whispered something she herself couldn’t hear, so loud was the pounding of high cold blood in her temples, and Jason whispered something back she couldn’t hear either, pieces of white quartz glinting off the parking lot, tourists in red shorts and T-shirts walking with arms draped around each other until—“No,” Megan said. “No,” and started to retrace her steps, and then she found herself running.

The building still the same. More dirty, battered, but that was all. A little more salt erosion. The big tattered sign intact: “Musee Mecanique.” And, inside, Laughing Sal. The Grandmother Fortune Teller. The Arm-Wrestling machine. The Dancing Can-Can Woman. The Bizarre Musical Monkeys. She stepped inside and leaned against the wall, her palms braced against a machine she couldn’t remember though she knew Laughing Sal was to the left, she could feel her, hanging there, though it would take a quarter to make her laugh again, and she never wanted to hear her laugh.

She opened her eyes and was gazing at Jason’s forehead. She looked carefully at his sweaty forehead and then at his big calloused palm flipped open against his jeans knee and knew before it happened that she was going to think of Tara’s hand and the red scratches she had on that day from a sharp chair arm she’d cut herself on at the hotel (drawing no blood, though, no blood) and how the hand looked receding from her, just the hand moving away, the face, the open mouth.

She kept staring at his sweat.

“You look awful,” Jason said. “Maybe we should go.”

“No. Today. We had to come today.”

“You say that as if you were sure,” Jason said.

“I am sure.”

“How could you be, when you didn’t—”

Say it, she was whispering inside her mind. Say it. And another part whispering, Just shut up. Though she knew, yes, that he would. Three years from now. She couldn’t wait. Sadistic-sounding, but she couldn’t wait.

Not for herself—she still loved him, in all his torpor and limpness and passivity—but for Tara.

“We could go outside,” Jason said, and touched the soft area beneath her chin with one finger, teenagers in black leather jackets clinking quarters (it was the sole expense of the Musee Mecanique; you had to come laden down with quarters), milling about them laughing, and the roar inside her mind started, the roar that she hated because it pushed the language out.

“No,” she managed, and grabbed his finger, clutched it until she felt the bone. “No camera obscura. And no—”

“No—”

“Telescopes. Yeah.”

He looked so pale, suddenly, that she wanted to laugh, and she knew that he was thinking about the blood. Knew—Jesus Christ—that he hadn’t thought about it till this minute! Hadn’t let himself think about it, though there was all that blood too, Christ yes, from the birth, from the warm steaming mound of the placenta, the cord, so much blood she threw up on herself on the cranked-up bed and then laughed though it was ridiculous, a harsh stale laugh (she could smell her own breath after the delivery) of raucous love and joy—

Against her better judgment, she did.

And then: Laughing Sal.

The roar inside her skull louder.

She turned her face to the left. A skinny boy in a crewcut walked toward Laughing Sal, juggling a quarter on his palm. Megan lowered her eyes. Raised them. She was there, in her glass booth. Her pasty face framed by crimson curls, grotesque dark freckles on her cheeks, her red mouth open, her chest heaving in mock-convulsions of mirth when the boy fed her the coin, her head bobbing forward, and Jesus she felt sick because Sal’d scared Tara, she had, the last time Megan’d heard that laugh, and Megan looked down at her shoes and the cracking green linoleum but Jason grabbed her shoulders, shoved his fingers under her chin, thrust her head upright.

“You wanted it,” he said. “Then and now. You wanted it.”

And then he walked away.

Megan sat down on the floor, against one of the machines. It was strangely comforting being there amid the cracks and dirt and grime. Tara’d been there all the time, really, a tiny child who could never resist crawling across any floor, though how satisfying had her worm’s eye view of everything been? And Megan was always trying to change her. Shouting “Dirty!” when she dropped to her knees, because she was too fucking old to be crawling the last time they’d been here.

She gazed at the shoes wandering past. The turned-down socks, the cracking leather, the bare ankles (blemished, blotched) ending in sneakers. She felt so cold, sometimes. And not just from the hole. It was the sense that she was outside all of this, watching. As if only a pane of glass separated them. But thick glass. Thick. She rose against the machine, discovered she couldn’t stay standing.

Jason helped her out. Guided her out, fed her popcorn. They swayed, both of them, coatless in the cold, against the railing that protected the ruins of the Sutro Baths. Standing there, her fingers curled over the railing, Megan wished that she’d brought a hood, an umbrella. It wasn’t raining, but she’d forgotten how potent the San Francisco fog could feel. Megan kept staring at the baths. Jason dug down into the red cardboard container, pushed a few more kernels tenderly between her lips. And, when Megan shivered, he slipped one arm around her shoulders; she only stiffened once.

“I think this was a bad idea,” Jason said. “I think we should go home now.” He hesitated. “And you didn’t feel anything, right?”

She looked up. His face waxen in this peculiar grayish light.

She didn’t want to admit it.

But it wasn’t fair to him. To Jason.

“No,” she lied, finally. “I didn’t feel a thing.”

Jason paused, gazed out at the brown ruins of the Sutro Baths. Then moved his gaze to the left to take in the massive sea lions lolling across rocks. “Then… do you think we should go home?”

Megan thought of Tara. And of what she’d believed that—coming back here—she’d find. She didn’t know how to say “No” anymore. That was the truth.

 

One thing that she’d learned, in the time that she had Tara, was that there were different varieties of darkness. Like a mood disorder, that first year of darkness after Tara’s birth: no gray mixed into the shadows. Megan was that darkness, and the darkness blossomed up through her, blocked whatever psychic ability she possessed. She lay in bed on her back, the covers heaped over her, her eyes trained on the ceiling for flickers of light from passing cars.

 

She woke in the White Swan that night and the darkness was everywhere, but different from the way she’d experienced it after Tara was born, more of a metallic taste inside her mouth. And she got up out of bed, went to the window, sat down in an easy chair, pulled the lovely damask curtains apart. It was out there, the ocean, illuminated by the moon, and she heard something inside her mind, studying it, it wasn’t a voice, exactly, or it was more like her own voice talking to her, consoling her, and there were no images but there was a tightening inside her body, inside her mind, as if all her synapses and neurons were preparing, and a migraine flashed yellow and brown across the periphery of her vision.

Downstairs, in the deserted lobby, she picked up a phone, called a Yellow Cab. There was nowhere to wait except on the overstuffed sofa, the cushions swallowing her. She knew that the wait wouldn’t be long this time because images were starting to snap over one by one, like the quickly shuffled cards inside a Rolodex, and she couldn’t see any of them, they were all still too cloudy, gray, but she was hopeful that they’d clear, was confident they’d clear because of the way her body kept tightening. Why hadn’t she known that Jason wouldn’t be part of it? Of course, he was, in the biological sense: he was the father. And he’d be the one taking care of Tara after he died. That couldn’t be helped, though she wished, somehow, as she’d wished long ago, seeing the dog wandering the alley, that it didn’t have to be like this, that she could become more agent and less receiver, but it never worked out—

She waited on the sofa before windows tinged with a yellow glow. Outside, the streets were gray, deserted. Occasionally a lone walker passed, head jutting forward against the wind, not a homeless person but a businessman returning home late from the office.

And soon enough, the yellow cab pulled up, cutting a clean headlit swath through fog, and she climbed inside the back seat and once again was gone, winding through and through the streets, uphill, down, lone cars passing, the occasional white stretch limo, though the cabbie wouldn’t shut up, kept questioning her destination even after he pulled up next to the railing.

 

“Fifteen-fifty,” he said. “You sure I can’t take you somewhere else?”

“No,” she said, and handed him a twenty. “Really: I’ll be okay. Please keep the change.”

“Let me take you somewhere else. This area isn’t safe at—”

“Really,” she said, and climbed out of the cab’s back seat, slammed the door. She was sick of his narrow yellow face, his obsequious manner: she knew he was ill but just kept wanting him gone.

He idled for thirty seconds before pulling away.

She waited until he’d turned the corner before she gripped the rusted railing, climbed over, started her rocky and uncertain descent to the Sutro Baths though no one was allowed, the descent was too steep, too dangerous, the cacophony of voices more than she could bear. They’d died here, so many of the young men who’d come seeking warmth, the young men with their crewcuts and corded backs and moist lips and straddling bodies: she could feel their presence, their thin and poignant cries, feel them wrapped inside each other’s arms, all the hard blunt pushing that wouldn’t bring them relief, only a hot, momentary pleasure though sometimes, she knew, that was enough, their lips bitten to blood, their eyes rolling back, the young men seeking in sex and in their bodies what they only located, finally, in death, though not until the last had they expected what a warm lover death could make, and her body tightened and spasmed as she climbed on hands and knees down the rocks, the baths broken off and rubbled-looking, like old, decaying teeth snapped off toward a blackening gumline, as she approached nearest the ocean side, the water foaming up rusted and metallic, even the whitecaps foaming brown, tears in her eyes that she had to keep wiping away with hands bloodied from the rocks: it wasn’t time to cry yet. Wasn’t time.

 

When it’d happened, she’d been blank. After they searched the rocks. After they searched the shore. All of those flashlights, gigantic, green, sweeping over the rocks that loomed black though then there was only a sliver of a moon, and the directed white light, the gaze of a single powerful eye. She’d been shivering, up above. She’d brought a coat but forgotten it back in the car when they walked to Musee Mecanique. Then, she’d thought it hadn’t mattered. They’d have the quick dash to the car after, Megan the only one coatless, Tara in her pale-blue parka with the white-fur trim bundled in Jason’s arms, all of them laughing wildly, grotesquely, in imitation of Sal, pulling up at the It’s-It’s stand after, its battered red sign fluttering in the San Francisco wind that—even on the sunniest days—contained that secret chill.

But that hadn’t happened, of course.

And the boats.

The men climbing into speedboats.

She wondered if they’d disturb the sea lions, sleeping like large dark sacks atop their rocks. The thin veil of black blood atop one, like a garment discarded. She hoped that that was what it was like. It was too soon to cry. Too soon to feel anything yet though Jason left a few times, staggered over toward the Cliff House, vomited in the parking lot. She saw the flashlights sweep the water by the railing. She and Jason stood there and watched. They watched the men diving off the boats in their scuba gear. For nights she’d wake with the image of the goggled, black-wrapped faces, shiny and rubbery, in her mind. And Tara. She was sleeping out there, sleeping, and Megan didn’t know where. She wanted to bring her home. She couldn’t see anything. Her mind a great gray sleeping muscle, sleeping the sleep with her baby in the ocean, beside the rocks, dead and distilled to one perfect sensation of suffering, unable to see anything.

She sat down on the edge of the rocks. She’d dressed more warmly this time, taken one of Jason’s chunky fisherman’s sweaters from the closet, and the beige, densely knitted fabric slopped over her wrists, caught weird flickering gleams of light as she waited, staring out at the black ocean, hearing a single sea lion’s cry (like a great, guttural moan) in the darkness; she waited until her legs ached then her entire lower torso and then, when she couldn’t stand it, she sat down on one of the rocks and the foul-smelling ocean rose over her boots, crawled up her long johns beneath her jeans, the soaked jeans and the sopping long johns clinging, shaping themselves to her, and she was gazing at the rocks, her body shocked again and again from the cold.

It was like this the first time, at her early home where she lived with her parents, when their dog first went missing and they tacked fliers up for him around the neighborhood, knowing how valuable Irish Setters were, knowing that he was probably lost to them, probably dead, her parents not knowing how Megan woke before dawn and saw him out there in the alley, how she climbed down the fire escape and started tracking what she saw (the glimpses of red hair, the feathered tail, the droplets of blood) through one trash-choked alley after another until, from a distance, she saw him lying beside a gutter, and when she approached, tamping down again the shout that had strained against her chest, he was there, though his eyes were sockets, dark, as she knelt and took his muzzle on her lap and finally, finally, let the scream out, though she knew, by then, what was happening. That would be the last—the absolutely last—time she ever screamed about anything she saw.

So she sat there for a half hour, waiting, as the images flipped over faster and faster, until the dark clots started washing up against the rocks, the fabric scraps that looked as if they never could have been blue, a thin dark sliver that might have been bone: she sat down in the water up to her waist and lifted little fragments, cupped them, clasped them, kissed them, peered at them under the moonlight, trying not to hear the faint cries of the men behind her, and then she pushed it all back into the ocean, the fabric and the kelp and the memories, and watched it go bobbing away, and then she turned, her palms bleeding from the rocks. She could still feel how they’d cut her as she hung onto them in the water, and then she turned and started up, hearing Laughing Sal laugh, seeing the Fortune Teller light up slowly in her glittering glass cage: she started running though she kept falling on the rocks as she scaled the way back to the railing that seemed miles away now, miles, Tara’s faint voice in the darkness of the Musee as the lights snapped on one at a time and the machines went buzzing, whirring, creaking, groaning, and once again Tara was crying, crying for Megan, crying for Jason, who’d be joining her soon, as Tara surely knew, though it wasn’t soon enough to suit her, she was lonely and wanted her mother, a jagged, knifelike shard of bone bloodying Megan’s hand.

pencil

E-mail: tbrowndavidson[at]comcast.net.

All I’ve Ever Learned

Flash
Daniel Lanza


As I stand on the curb under a faded blue sign labeled “Baggage Claim” I start to wonder what I could do if no one shows up. When I was younger, I used to wish I that I could fly and standing here at Charlotte International Airport, I realize that I should have been more specific.

The wind is cold, even by mid-December standards. Around me families huddle together, dreaming of destinations that are finally a car ride away. For a moment, I consider turning back. I could walk up to the counter and buy a ticket to somewhere else, somewhere I’ve never been before. Brazil, Ireland, or Africa maybe. Some place with problems so huge, that my heart and mind confusion seem unimportant by comparison.

I think how easy it would be to re-check my luggage and grab a sandwich and a bottle of water from the concourse. After boarding and buckling in, I could pull out a book which I’d only half-read while the plane taxis. For the third time today I’d close my eyes, and feel the plane’s wheels leave the tarmac. I can feel my stomach rising just thinking about it. That feeling of gravity trying one final time to claim the plane, pulling down on it, fighting to draw it back to earth. After a few moments of struggle, the vehicle would finally lift into the air and rise far above the ground’s jealous reach.

I know I could do it. When I was younger, I used to dream of flying. But now as I wait on the curb and ready myself for another lonely Carolina Christmas, I know that all I’ve ever learned to do is run away. I wonder idly what Scotland is like this time of year. It doesn’t matter too much, though. I’ll know soon.

pencil

“I am currently a Junior at Sonoma State University in California where I study English and Creative Writing. I have been previously published in the Sonoma State Literary Magazine The Zephyr. Last year I finished my first novel, and I am currently at work on the second.” E-mail: Lanzad[at]sonoma.edu.

Three Poems

Poetry
Lynn Strongin


The Failure to Speak miraculous things

could result in death.
Pressed up against the wall
the bookcase covered Anne Frank:
prayers against penury
of spirit:
the spirit overflowed with richness but the body lost.

You draw me a bridge on paper of charcoal     paper with nub & tooth:
I wheel thru
I open my arms
you open your arms
hope grafts wings
with a paper swish
crepe de Chine

Braided air.
Lightening.
now an elbow
now a shafting
dark eye
so fluent
but obviously flawed
spilling like liquid bronze the whole narration:
I flew too near the sun.

 

Hitting my Stride by Third Cabin Morning

I circle a porthole
with wing
humming broken Yiddish.
How come every time I run into you
with your gap-toothed smile
even on your way to the Cancer Clinic
in August
to receive more burns from radiation
because you take a doll to a girl
who will not live
I am happy.

I lean my poverty up against your poverty.
We are not nailed to each other.
Your silhouette
Anglican
moves apart from mine
like clay crumbling from form.
I cling
to the very room the words are in, the poem’s
origin
and dear to me as anything,     speech of the miraculous     that it
live:     even amid
the sight of ruins.

 

Birch Candles

Mahogany holds their burning circles
prisoners
in its table mirror.
Dust coats the ceiling.
Honeygold islands
hang out the window
& books     dot the room.
Garlic with olive oil in the pan
is what I hold     common
—loss ironed out the hour I am cooking:
And stoicism
in league with the Greeks’
beauty:
the rest from the Romans. pencil

These poems are “part of a sequence, Prayers Against Penury. I have poems in roughly 50 journals (Italy, England, Canada, the States.) Work in thirty anthologies, and nine published books of poems. I worked for Denise Levertov in the sixties, studied informally under Robert Duncan. My anthology The Sorrow Psalms:A Book of Twentieth Century Elegy will be published by the University of Iowa Press, April 2006. Work on-line in: Hotel Amerika, Storie, New Works Review (featured poet, winter 2005), C / Oasis, Terrain, Tryst, Avatar, Chiaroscuro.” E-mail: yosunt[at]shaw.ca.

War Zone

Poetry
Margarita Engle


The children have learned to fly back and forth to school, dangling from steel cables suspended high above the flooded rain forest floor… no trails or roads in this realm of jaguars and guerrilla camps.

The children cross chasms and gorges, first climbing cliffs and trees, then rappelling to heights, and sliding along the cables, older children carrying the younger ones in sacks of coarse burlap, like small, helpless creatures being delivered to market. Nameless villages are hidden far below.

The river is black.

There are angels in the water.

From their place in the sky, children see the white fog and green wildness… it’s a place so familiar that each child in flight accepts an airborne existence as normal… nothing is impossible here, no miracle of daily survival ever seems completely new.
pencil

Margarita Engle is a botanist and the Cuban-American author of Singing to Cuba (Arte Publico Press), Skywriting (Bantam), and The Poet Slave of Cuba (forthcoming from Henry Holt). Short works appear in journals such as Atlanta Review, California Quarterly, Caribbean Writer, and Hawai’i Pacific Review. Awards include a Cintas Fellowship, a San Diego Book Award, and most recently, a 2005 Willow Review Poetry Award. Margarita lives in central California, where she enjoys hiking and helping her husband with his volunteer work for a wilderness search-and-rescue dog training program. E-mail: Englefam[at]Earthlink.net.