Tell Me A Story

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


I began April 7 by singing “Jive Talking” as an audio post for my blog readers. A reward/punishment for them helping me to exceed two Walk America goals in as many days. That afternoon my daughter decided to check her own diaper, which resulted in a midday bath. My infant son woke up during the bath to find me not with him and he had a hard time settling back into sleep. I finally got a toasted cheese sandwich at 4:30, when both kids were asleep. My husband called at 6:30 to say he was on his way home. I’d checked e-mails, blog and news feeds, eaten… what else to do? Maybe I should see what’s in my spam folder. I haven’t looked in there for weeks.

Delete. Delete. Delete. Hrm. A spam with my real name in the title. I usually sign up at sites and such using my online identity, occasionally just a first initial (sometimes an S, sometimes an E) but rarely my real name. As I click it to open, it registers that adoption.com is also in the title of the e-mail.

Its first line is: “I think I might be your birthmother.”

This doesn’t happen, I say to myself. You don’t just put up a profile and six years later get an e-mail from someone who says, “I think I might be your birthmother.” I’ve put up at least three profiles in my life, posted on message boards, signed up with the national adoption registry. Then one quiet evening a spam e-mail reads: “I think I might be your birthmother.”

I went to the adoption.com forums to see what info I had posted and if she had a profile. Adoption.com’s search feature was down except for adoptee info. Eventually I got around that and found her profile. It had my name on it, with a different middle name and the 12/21 birthdate. It also listed a birthfather’s name, age, and military service. After that, I went Google-crazy, her name, his name, everything.

I e-mailed her a reply and I sent her my Flickr URL so she could see photos of me. I realized afterward that the reply-to address was not one she’d listed in the body of the e-mail. I forwarded a copy of what I’d sent to those two addresses; the AOL one bounced back as “no such mailbox.” The other e-mail address was obviously a work e-mail. Since this was late on Friday, I didn’t hold out much hope that she’d see it quickly.

I barely slept Friday night.

There was no response on Saturday so I tried the AOL address again around 3:30. Amazing how after 34 years, hours made such a difference.

I spent that first anxious weekend turning the names over in my head. One is Welsh, the other Scottish or Irish (with an excellent tartan). It’s a common thing among adoptees, to look in the mirror or at photos of yourself and wonder about your ethnic background. After so many years, it’s more fun than frustrating to wonder where you come from. You can invent your own background. I made it a point to be Scottish, French, and Greek just because I like the idea of belonging to those groups.

Looking at myself since that weekend, attaching a new name to my face has been bizarre. To say “I’m a ___” or “I’m a ___-___” has affected how I see myself. It’s like I had my choices taken away. I wondered if it would have been better never knowing and continuing with the mythology I built about myself or if knowing the truth is the best possible outcome. In the weeks since, I can confirm that knowing is better.

I finally heard from her on Monday morning, first thing in the morning her time. We spent Monday writing brisk e-mails, exchanging the basic information, and getting into more details about who we were.

Then late Monday, it hit me: oh my god—I have a birthmother.

I have a name and a background. I know that Zoe’s green eyes (and our red hair) come from her grandfather. I know that my father went to Vietnam, dammit, and that he was wounded in combat but came back alive. I have Irish, Welsh, and German blood but I’m still holding out for the Scottish, French, and Greek.

On Tuesday morning, I had fresh photos in my inbox. It overwhelmed me to see someone who looked so much like me. I’d never had that before. Until my kids were born, I had no one who looked like me in the world. When they both had my chin and hair color and little else, that was more than enough for me.

At 5 p.m. on Tuesday, I called her and we talked for two hours. She told me about a vacation to California that ended with her meeting Al Jardine. I could picture the tree-lined lanes and hear the surf just over the cliffs. She related what happened to her family during the Johnstown Flood in 1977. I imagined my grandfather in his work clothes, the only clothes he had time to find, evacuating the house. I could see the heirloom rug that was ruined and the waterlogged boxes of photos and childhood souvenirs in the basement.

She told me stories about the things she and my father would do together, from going to burger joints to hockey games. She described his car, a bright orange Roadrunner with the horn that went “beep-beep.” The only orange car I’d ever been familiar with had a horn that played “Dixie” and John Schneider would slide across its hood every week.

She’d been reading my blog since before my son Holden was born and therefore had an excellent knowledge of who I am. It was a strange feeling that she knew so much about me and I knew next to nothing about her. After our first phone conversation, the scales began to tip. She was open and honest, using her natural storytelling skills to show me who she was. I’ve spent most of conversations listening instead of talking. Not because she rambles or because I’m shy about speaking, but because she has stories to tell me, from how she told my birthfather about me to what’s happening in traffic while she drives to pick up a lottery ticket.

We both knit, we both love peanut butter, and we both like to tell stories. She confessed that she’d tried her hand at writing stories for children. I told her that it’s very difficult and to keep trying. I don’t know if I came by my love of stories through nature or nurture (I’m inclined to say it was both) but I can see it springing up in Zoe.

As I write this essay, Zoe is watching her new favorite show: “Pinky Dinky Doo.” It’s about a little girl who bonds with her baby brother by making up fantastic stories about people and places they know. Storytelling is a skill worthy of nurture, whether we cultivate on our own or inherit it. But now when I encourage Zoe to tell me stories, as she’s begun to do, I know that the skill to do it and the love of doing it is something we’ve both inherited.

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

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Turn Around

Best of the Boards
Sheela Jaywant


She recoiled and whimpered as he swooped her up in his arms, turned her face away from the stiff uniformed chest. The skin of her lower back, where her blouse and sweater had moved up, away from her flannel, trouser-like salwar, felt the cold buckle of his belt. She recognized the emblems and stripes of the Indian Army. Conditioning made her cringe.

“Stay away, Badriya,” her father used to warn, “Hide when you see any stranger.”

Once, she would have sprinted and sunk into the shrubbery around the village at the mere suspicion of a newcomer’s presence. Now, her limbs weren’t protesting as they might have before the earthquake, when, just at the start of winter, the house fell down. She had been sleeping, cuddled between her mother and brothers, on rough mattresses spread over the bare floor. The staccato shots that echoed across the Pakistani border didn’t bother her; she was used to those. Then, suddenly, she was beneath a gray, weepy sky, shivering, alone, surrounded by stones. Had she imagined that thunder-like sound? Where was she? Was she dreaming? Where was Ma? What was all this… wood? Who was crying? Allah, what was happening? The scene still seemed real, yet distant. The mountains were there, and some trees, but where were the houses? In the darkness she saw hands, legs, faces. Unmoving. She saw familiar clothes, vessels, crushed, spread out. Moans stabbed the silence. Wails of pain. Inhuman, indistinct, scary.

Next day, someone removed the stones, picked her up. Then she felt pain, hunger, cold, miserable. One brother had died in her mother’s arms, she learnt, and her mother in the Army hospital at Srinagar. The others had gone to Allah in their sleep, their bodies crushed by the fallen walls. She was carried, like now, in a soldier’s arms, to a tent. The bloody flesh that hung from her leg was swabbed with a burning liquid and bandaged. Despite the acrid smell and nausea, she ate warm dal and rotis. Someone who she had been taught was ‘the enemy’ fed her. She swallowed the spoonfuls instinctively. Unwillingly. She was terrified, helpless, confused. He held a crackling radio to her ear. ‘Aid for the earthquake victims was coming in from all parts of the world,’ she heard. At ten, her world ended at Kupwara, Kashmir. She wasn’t sure where Delhi was.

This man, who was carrying her now, said nothing. Where was he taking her? Who was he? Would he do ‘things’ to her? Kill her? What?

It had been two-and-a-half months since the earthquake. Badriya had worn and eaten whatever she was given. Quiet, withdrawn, sad. Her leg was still in plaster. She couldn’t even limp without help. The man carried her over the rubble in the village. A light blanket of green covered the scape. The clouds over the mountains were thinner, the morning sun more yellow. The snow had melted into a grey slush. Tiny buds dotted the almond and apple trees. In a month, the boughs would be bare no more. Amongst the ruins she recognized some collapsed structures. A lump came to her throat. Her body moved with the rhythm of his steps. She moved her eyes to see whatever… was left of her world. They crossed the graveyard. Did her father lie there? The others? Who knew? Beyond it stood the tents where the man was purposefully heading. What was he going to do to her? Where could she run? How? Allah, help me, help me, she mumbled in prayer.

The loud murmur from inside one tent fell as soon as the flap was moved aside. A second’s silence, then a single voice: “Badriya?” Followed by a cheerful roar: “Badriya-a-a.” She raised her head from the man’s chest and… flailed her arms and injured legs to get down and partly hop, partly crawl towards her childhood mates, sitting cross-legged on the floor, in the makeshift ‘classroom’ where they were following the school routine, doing lessons in a temporary-camp environment. Each face she recognized brought tears to her eyes. Hug, hug, hug. The uniformed man picked her up again, to carry her to her place on a mat in one corner.

She snuggled trustingly now; she was amongst her own, he was no longer the ‘enemy’.

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“I’m a hospital administrator whose work can be read on Chowk.com and Toasted-Cheese.com. I do a weekly column for a local newspaper and my book, Quilted—Stories of Middle Class India, has been reviewed on Sawnet.org.” E-mail: sheelajaywant[at]yahoo.co.in.

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On a Good Day

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Alison Hogue


“Two bacon biscuits, tater balls, large coffee with cream, and a newspaper. Anything else today, hon?” Shirley beamed at him from behind the register.

“Throw in a pack of cigs for me, sugar.” Glen leaned on the counter and shot her his best sexy wink. He had been practicing in the mirror so his cheek wouldn’t scrunch up and his open eye wouldn’t move when he did it. Shirley giggled. He had nailed it that time.

Glen handed her a few bills and made sure to drop his change in the tip jar. He watched Shirley’s hips move as she glided behind the counter and packaged his order up. “I threw in a piece of chocolate pie just for you,” she whispered as she handed him the bag.

“Thanks, doll. Stay pretty,” he smiled.

The melting snow crunched under Glen’s feet as he stepped outside and walked toward the parking lot. Water dripped from the roof and sprinkled his hat as he left the overhang. The air was unseasonably warm and birds twittered excitedly in the pine trees that lined the road. He knew it wouldn’t last. Spring had already hit the lower altitudes, but mountain weather was unpredictable. Glen unlocked the cruiser and stuck his coat on the seat. He turned the ignition and pushed in the chrome lighter button on the dashboard.

Tapping his new pack firmly against his palm, he pulled out one cigarette and lit it. He inhaled half of it and took a few sips of coffee before he put the car into gear.

Glen drove along the road for awhile, squinting against the sun that poured through the windshield. He found a nice shady stretch along the highway and pulled onto the shoulder to wait like every other day. First, he would eat breakfast and go through the paper: comics, then the advice column, horoscopes, and the classifieds. About that time, he would pull someone over for speeding, and after that he would skim the sports section. Later, Glen would go home and shower and stop back at the restaurant to ask Shirley out for a beer. Maybe they would end up back at his place, or hers if he were lucky. This kind of weather always put him in the mood for a lady friend. Shirley was soft and she smelled good, and more importantly she liked him.

Glen had just tucked into his first biscuit when the familiar buzz of static came over the radio, “Deputy Wheat, you there?”

“How’s it going, Pete?” Glen said into the speaker between bites.

“I need you at Anderson Park pronto, buddy.”

“What’s the situation?” Glen felt a rush of adrenaline in his veins.

“There’s been an incident involving a snowman. I need backup, over.” There was an edge to Pete’s voice.

“I’m on my way, over,” Glen crammed the biscuit in his mouth and flipped the siren on as he pushed the gas pedal to the floor. The tires squealed as the car jerked forward. He gunned it the entire way as his mind churned with possible scenarios.

As Glen approached the park, he saw that a crowd had gathered around the edges of a large rectangle ringed with caution tape. An ambulance and three police cars had already arrived. “What do we got?” Glen called excitedly as he slid under the yellow tape and pushed his way past the other officers. Pete glanced over and nodded to a large mound of snow with a scarf and a carrot lying on top. Boots stuck out from the bottom.

“Neighbors say some boys took the top ball with the pipe and the hat yesterday when it was still cold,” Pete said quietly.

“So?”

“Got a smoke?”

Glen handed him the pack.

“The shoes on the ground,” Pete continued as he took a drag, “Got feet inside them.”

Glen let out a whistle, “You don’t say.”

“Yep, been finding all sorts of parts packed in snow.”

“Any suspects?” Glen asked.

“Nah, can’t identify the body yet,” Pete grimaced.

“Why not?”

“Glen, I brought you here to talk to the news crew that’s coming. You’re better at these things than me. Now, don’t go getting everybody all worked up, but we need to find those boys.”

“What’s wrong?” Glen asked.

“The snowman’s not the only thing missing a head.”

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Alison Hogue currently resides in Chicago, IL. Although her background is primarily in theatre and improv, Alison has secretly been writing since she was a child. She would like to say that she enjoys Toasted Cheese not only as a creative outlet, but also as a delicious snack. She would like to thank the editors for creating this online community which has inspired enough courage in her to enter her first writing contest. She would also like to thank anyone who takes the time to read her story. Alison finds it both funny and uncomfortable to talk about herself in the third person. E-mail: pishoguepooka[at]yahoo.com.

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A House on Sand

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Jim Walke


I woke to the sound of a sinking house. The wind off the lake crushed the foundation deeper into the sand as the whitecaps chewed the beach. You built on rock where you could—basalt poked through the thin soil like bones—but our land was dune.

I threw back the blankets and stuck my feet into moccasins. A spray of frost clouded the window. March is still fiercely winter here.

The house settled as the wind drew a breath. My mother had preceded the sun for all of her sixty years, but I heard no kitchen murmurings. The clocks weren’t ticking. My aunt had stilled them when she draped the mirrors in black. Traditions die hard.

In the short hall, I shied away from the walls, filled with family photos in rough frames. Her bed was made.

There was silence and wind, until the stairs creaked under my weight.

The unfamiliar casseroles in her refrigerator were a sign of trouble, the required offerings of Midwestern grief.

Her car hunched in the driveway. Dad’s truck was still in the parking lot at the restaurant where he died. He fled to the bathroom to avoid a scene when he choked on a piece of gristle. He was found twisted on the tile floor.

I arrived yesterday in time for his funeral, exchanging the desert’s fire for the silver and pine emptiness of northern Michigan. The rest of the family lived within forty miles of where I stood.

Plastic sheeting sealing the sun porch off for the winter had been torn aside. It hung in the doorway like a broken wing. The floor was covered with stacks of paper. Clippings, letters, favorite books: all of my mother’s mementos covered the rug. She must have been up all night.

The first pile consisted of a primer from grade school and a card from her fifth birthday, addressed to ‘my dearest Ginny’. I counted the piles of paper. There were fifty-five.

I moved down the line. She grew older in the pictures of each stack. The sun broke through the windows, washing her youth in gold. The thin girl sitting on horseback became a beauty accepting an elocution prize. Society columns whispered her maiden name. The dance cards had no blanks. A third of the way across the floor he appeared. My father was a rough young fellow, looking like he had stolen his tuxedo.

Nineteen held dried flowers, live-forevers in a faded pink. Letters swore the young man was in love. He used her full name: my Ginger. In one many-folded scrap he described her body, completely. The wedding was in the next pile.

I shuffled faster, blurring the neat stacks together. My sister appeared, then me. The stacks were tall with childish paintings and report cards, but also held love notes from my father. Some were romantic, some racy. The best were both.

Two decades passed as I crawled, and although I could see my mother before me I could not hear her in the house. I pawed faster.

The papers thinned into an empty nest. They were alone together again. Still, he courted her.

The final stack was by the front door. It was a single piece of paper: the program from his funeral. I looked back. The sun had reached the wedding. My passage through her life had caused a disturbance but had not changed the overall shape. She was a girl, and then she was with him. The rest of us were beloved spectators.

A scattering of snow had blown in when she opened the front door. It hadn’t melted, but would when the sun reached it.

I left my coat on the rack, as she had done, and followed her outside. The wind was dying.

The drifts held traces of her footprints. The trees shed their coat of ice in the sunshine, flicking me with droplets. I broke through the crust in spots where she had floated over the top.

Under a white pine that had grown in a clear-cut the ground was bare, yet if I turned over a rock I would find ice. A woman sat beneath the tree, leaning against the trunk in a silk gown. She was no longer my mother, but had returned to being a young lady in love somewhere in a warm springtime.
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J. Walke is an actor, writer and cubicle monkey in the mountains of Virginia. In his copious spare time he enjoys lying in a hammock and lying. E-mail: jimwalke[at]jimwalke.com.

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Anything for You

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
S.K. Traheir


“Sorry I’m late.” Shannon slid into the booth, shrugging off her coat. She began to unwind her scarf, but decided to leave it on. She leaned into the table. “I had a hard time getting started today.”

“No worries.” Peter smiled. “I got you a latte, skim milk. And Sugar in the Raw.” He slid the small brown packet across the table.

“Thanks, Peter, you’re my rock.” She took the sugar packet, shook it with one hand, then stirred it into her coffee. She picked up the tall glass mug in both hands. Under the thin layer of foam, the coffee was lukewarm. “This coffee tastes like dirt.”

“Well, it was probably…”

“…ground this morning, very funny.”

“I’m glad you came out. We don’t see each other nearly enough,” he said earnestly. “How are you?”

“I’m… you know, I’m… okay. Relatively.” She turned the ring on her finger, a tiny speck of a diamond. Once a token of a promise, now it represented a fading hope. She hugged her arms tight to her chest, the way she had held Brian that day. “So, how’s the landscaping business?”

“It’s good. It’s been a hard winter, though.”

Shannon nodded.

“The ground, I mean. It’s still hard as granite. I got all these bulbs ready for planting, but we’ll have to wait. This time last year was so busy—remember that huge project I had? Working day and night, barely had time to breathe? Wouldn’t be able to do that now, temperatures the way they are.”

“Yeah, I keep wondering if spring is ever going to come.” On the cafe’s speakers the Mamas and the Papas were California Dreamin’. Shannon sighed. “I haven’t heard this song in forever.”

“Remember in high school when I was looking for this? I had to have it. We went to a dozen used record stores, and you finally found it, filed under P instead of M.”

“I thought you were going to strangle someone if you didn’t get it! I couldn’t understand why you cared so much; I just kept begging you to give up already. Then you gave me that mix tape for my birthday with this song on it, and I felt sort of silly.”

“Anything for you, m’dear. No obstacle too great. Eighteenth birthday, after all, that’s no small thing. And I knew that loser boyfriend of yours wouldn’t do anything appropriate.”

“Justin was not a loser.”

“Oh yeah, what’d he do for you?”

“For my birthday? Gave me chocolate, I think. And… stuff.”

“Good chocolate?”

She laughed. “No, not really.”

“There you go—proof you weren’t meant to last.”

“That was so long ago. I haven’t thought about Justin in years.”

Peter put his mug down on the table. “What about Brian?”

“That’s different.” She fell silent for a moment and stared out the window at the sun struggling to break through the clouds. “I think about him every day. I mean every day. Sometimes, I’ll be home alone, and I’ll hear something, just a small noise, like a knocking or a something that could be a footstep and I’ll think for just a second, could it be him? Then I realize, of course it’s not.”

“It was a year ago, wasn’t it?”

“To the day. It was this exact day, last year, that he walked out the door and… never came back.”

“It’s hard to go on, without closure. I saw him, you know.”

“When? Where?” She sat up, pushed her coffee aside to listen.

“That day, I mean. Last March. He wanted to do something special for you and said he knew I’d be the one to ask for advice.” A note of pride crept into his voice. “I told him he was dead right on that score, and I knew just the thing, only it’d take a while.”

He brought out a low, wide planting tray from the seat beside him. He had groomed it with an immaculate miniature landscape, neatly trimmed grass, moss, and stalks that were just sprouting tiny buds. “I know you don’t have room for a garden yet, but this will do for now. It’s also a promise to make you a real garden if you want one, in the future. A living promise.”

“Peter, I don’t know… wow. It’s amazing.”

“Brian loved you, Shannon. But I love you more.”

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S.K. Traheir received an Honorable Mention in last fall’s Three Cheers and a Tiger contest. She reads, writes, lives, and works in Massachusetts, where the past winter was relatively mild, all in all. E-mail: sabeth[at]amergin.org.

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The Tracks

Beaver’s Pick
Robin Sidwell


We all knew not to go down to the tracks. We all knew the stories. We’d heard so many; we figured it was the place to be. When it rained, the embankment became a mudslide and we’d go down it on the soles of our trainers, squatting down low, like we were on skis. We’d get in through a panel of the wire mesh fence that had been wrenched back at the bottom left corner, like the lid on a tin of sardines. We’d play there, we’d hang out there, we’d scrap there. The older kids would smoke dope down there, leaning against the slimy tunnel walls of the viaduct. Sometimes, they’d bring girls down there and disappear behind the rows of derelict carriages that occupied a stretch of disused line.

In the winter we lit fires down there. We burnt anything we could find—old tyres, the backs of chairs, grass cuttings, the Gideon Bibles we were given at school. If we could light it, we’d burn it. Sometimes we’d get the chase off the security guard whose sole purpose was to patrol that stretch of track and keep us out. The Fat Controller, we used to call him. We’d throw stones at his dog. Other times we’d place two pence coins on the lines and then scarper up the bank to wait for a train derailment. We never saw one.

Loads of stuff happened down at the tracks. You could say I grew up there. I smoked my first cigarette—and later, my first joint—in the viaduct tunnels. I got drunk first time down there—on White Lightning Cider. I haven’t been able to drink it since. I copped my first feel down there and if I had still been hanging out there by the time I got the ride, I most probably would have gotten the ride down there, in one of the tunnels, like little Joey Robinson. But it wasn’t to be. By the time I eventually got laid, nobody hung out there anymore. Nobody had hung out there since the previous winter. Fourth of November, to be exact.

*

It was the last day of our mock exams, a week before my sixteenth birthday. The sky was like smudged ash. Me and Jake Dooley had skipped school and caught the bus up town. I skipped school a lot. It wasn’t like my parents really gave a shit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying my family life was that bad or anything, but we were hardly the fucking Waltons.

Jake and me were good friends. Jake always skipped school. His parents really didn’t give a shit. Nobody gave a shit about Jake, outside of us boys. He was a good lad though. You know the one, the class clown, the kid who doesn’t get it and who’s not going to bother asking ’cause nobody listens to him when he does. But if he fucks around everybody loves him for it. That was Jake Dooley. Class clown. Every school has one.

“Geary’s got a new BB gun, a gas gun,” he said to me that day as we sat on the wall of a multi-storey car park and got drunk on cheap wine we’d stolen from the Co-op.

“I know.” Jake was always telling you stuff you already knew. He was always the last to find out about stuff.

“He’s gonna bring it down the tracks tonight.”

“Yeah, he said.” I lit a cigarette. “Titch Anderson’s gonna bring some bottles. To shoot at.”

“Let’s ‘ave one o’ them!”

I passed him one.

“You’re pretty smart aren’t you, Dan?”

“Dunno about that.”

“Did you know, Mr Carver reckons that if a flea jumped from the top of the Eiffel Tower, its speed would give it the moment of an Elephant?”

“Momentum.”

“What?”

“Momentum.”

“D’you reckon it’s true?”

I shrugged. “I s’pose. It’s relative though.”

“What?”

“Nothin’.”

“Just think though, Dan, it’d be enough to kill us, with that kind of momentum.”

“S’pose.”

“D’you reckon if I spat off the top of this car park and it hit someone, it’d hurt ’em?”

“No. Does it hurt when a seagull drops its load on you?”

“Guess not.” He leaned forward and spat over the side.

Jake was a funny looking kid. He stood at almost six foot and was all thin and hunched over like he’d grown up in a confined space. The kid was an ugly fucker. You probably think I’m being a bit harsh, but I’m just telling it like it was. His face was shaped like the underside of an iron and his hair grew in these tight, wiry curls, like pubes, but on his head. The Pubic Barnet. Everyone called him Goat Boy.

That evening, we got onto the tracks further up and walked to the viaduct, which was about ten minutes from my house. The white gravel that had been laid at the bottom of the bank was littered with crisp wrappers, empty cans of Coke, and bin liners full of hedge clippings that had been slung over the back garden fences. The smell down here was of locomotive dust and creosote.

“Winkle’s having a party tomorrow night.”

“Yeah, Marvin was on about it. Apparently there’s gonna be a load of sixth form girls turning up.”

Somewhere behind us was a train, although there was only a whisper of it, a taut, seething sound that slithered through the rails. A sound that was thin and dense at the same time, like the sound some pylons make as they carry hundreds of thousands of volts of electricity overhead.

“There’s a train coming,” Jake warned.

“I know.” It didn’t matter anyway; there was a fence between us and the track. Kids on the tracks was a big problem back then. It was on the local news and everything, this stretch of track.

“Geary reckons they’re gonna get the place camera’d up,” Jake said.

“I don’t reckon they will though. It’d cost too much.”

“Cheaper than security.” He’d obviously had this discussion with someone else.

“S’pose.”

“The law was down here the other night.”

“Yeah, I heard.”

“They wanna try building a youth club. If there was more stuff to do then nobody’d even come down here.” That was something I’d told him. Jake was always taking stuff you’d told him and making out like it was his own. A polythene sheet that had snagged on a bramble blew furiously like a flag in the bustling wind of a passing train.

“You goin’?” I asked as it rattled off into the distance. “To Winkle’s party?”

“Dunno. You?”

“S’pose.”

“S’pose, then.” I kicked a crumpled football and lit a cigarette. Gunk oozed from a rusty carburetor like stale honey.

We could hear people as we approached the viaduct, hear their voices from somewhere inside one of the tunnels.

“Sounds like Geary,” Jake muttered, flicking his cigarette butt at the gaping mouth of an old leather shoe.

“They’ve got a fire,” I said. I could see the flame, ragged and distorted against the shadows that spilled from the abandoned tunnel. We slipped through a gap in the fence below the black and white ‘NO TRESPASSING’ sign that had been smothered in red and blue tags.

Jake went first. I followed.

The viaduct was built of brown brick, but the bricks around the top of each tunnel were blackened. Jake reckoned it was soot from in the days when they had steam engines. It seemed like a reasonable explanation, but Jake was pretty fucking stupid so I didn’t take it as the gospel truth or anything.

There were six tracks in all—seven if you count the disused one. They criss-crossed and then separated, taking a tunnel each. The seventh tunnel was where we congregated. There was still track there, but the wooden sleepers were rotting and sodden. Spindly plants and weeds grew in the gravel between them. Brambles and creepers coiled around the smooth, black iron lines.

The walls of the abandoned tunnel were daubed in graffiti and splashed with piss. Halfway along it—about a hundred yards in—was an empty oil drum, the inside blackened from countless fires, the corrugated metal warped slightly from the heat, so that it leaned to one side, like it might topple.

There was other junk in the tunnel too—an upturned shopping trolley, the rusty handlebars of a child’s pushbike, the entrails of its tyres. Along a ledge halfway up the tunnel wall were rows of beer bottles, lined up and decapitated with the pellets of air rifles.

The first person we saw down there was Titch Anderson. He was taking a leak against the white pole of a signal box and had his back turned to us as we approached.

“Woy oy!” Jake greeted him. Jake was always making up words. I suppose when you’ve got such a piss poor vocabulary that you have to. Sometimes they were just noises though. “Jus’ remember, Titch, more than three shakes is a wank! Hyeeerrrmmm!”

“Boys!” Titch turned around as he zipped up his flies, before offering us his hand. Neither of us shook it. “How’s it goin’, Danny? Goat Boy?”

“Not bad, not bad. Yourself?”

“Pretty good, yeah.”

“Geary here?” Jake asked.

“Yeah, he’s in the tunnel. He’s got a new BB gun. Gas.”

“What’s it like?”

“Ain’t as good as mine.” That was Titch for you. Nothing was ever as good as his. If you bought a pair of trainers you could guarantee that Titch had a more expensive pair. If you told him your old man was thinking about buying one of those new Peugeots you could bet that his old man was thinking about buying an Aston Martin.

There were five others in the tunnel: Titch’s brother Carl, Fergus Geary, Gary Rangle, Barry Stiles and little Joey Robinson. They had lit a fire in the oil drum. Carl was walking around it, blasting it with a can of Lynx. The green and blue flames made a whooshing sound that filled the tunnel. “Check this! Check this!” he kept saying. The kid was a prick—like his brother but ten times more competitive. He had to be in charge of everything. Only reason he hung out with us was because he was too much of a pussy to hang with kids his own age. Nobody liked him. ‘Cept maybe Titch.

“How’s it goin’?” I asked, sitting down on a breeze-block at the entrance of the tunnel and taking a king size Rizla from my jacket.

“Okay,” Geary replied. “You?”

“Sweet, yeah. Did I miss anything in class?”

“Na. Just Mr Carver banging on about the time he met Stephen Hawking.” You could bet your life that Fergus Geary had been to class. Geary never skipped. “You seen my gun, Dan?”

“Yeah, it’s gas, ain’t it?” I looked across at Jake and rubbed my thumbs and forefingers together. He passed me half a cigarette.

“Dad got it yesterday,” Geary said. “He let me choose it.”

“I never shot a gas one. What’s it like?”

“Good. Until the gas runs out. It’s got a sniper torch and everything. You’ll have to have a look, once Titch and his brother have finished playing with it.” That was code. It meant, ‘if you don’t take it off them, they’ll fire it until there’s no gas left.’

Fergus Geary was the smallest kid in school. At fifteen, he stood at around five foot—most of the girls in our year were taller. Actually, the kid was pretty ill, something that had become more apparent as we had gotten older. He had Cystic Fibrosis. I remember going round his house for tea when we were kids. After we ate he had to lean over his mother’s knee and have her drum on his back for fifteen minutes. Fuck knows why. Probably to loosen the phlegm or something. Geary always had shit loads of phlegm. It was always a funny colour too. I wouldn’t be surprised if it glowed in the dark. Anyway, as we grew up, most of us had become more sensitive to it—his illness, that is—although it hadn’t always been that way. When we were kids, we used to play a game we made up, a kind of variation on tig. We called it Deadly Disease. Whoever got tigged had the disease—the disease was never specified—and had to pass it on. Geary could never keep up, what with his wheezing and all. He always got tigged. After a while, people just used to call him Deadly Disease anyway. It was kind of his nickname. He seemed to like it.

Of course, we didn’t understand back then. Truth is that most of us were pretty jealous of Fergus Geary. The kid had everything. I mean, don’t get me wrong, none of our families were what you’d call ‘well off,’ but Geary always seemed to have a new jacket or a new pair of jeans or the latest tennis racket. Like when we were in junior school I really wanted a Mr Frosty. You know those plastic snowmen that make blue snow cones? When I was seven I wanted a Mr Frosty more than anything else in the world. I never got one, of course. I got Mr Ice Treat. Mr Ice Treat! What the fuck? Of course, Geary got Mr Frosty and I was so jealous I actually punched him, full in the face. I even got suspended for it.

Fact is that when we were kids most of us thought that Fergus Geary was spoilt. Nobody likes a kid who’s spoilt, especially on an estate like ours. Especially if the kid can’t fight like the rest of us. Consequently, Geary got bullied pretty bad. He probably wouldn’t have made it through school if it hadn’t been for Jake Dooley. Jake had always looked out for Fergus Geary.

By the time I hit fifteen, the differences between Fergus Geary and everybody else in our year were obvious. I mean, we were all morphing into these overgrown kids with lank greasy hair and acne, whilst Geary kept on getting paler and thinner and wheezier. He still looked like a child and I no longer begrudged him a pair of Nike Shox just because I still had to wear Air Max. I guess I’d grown up a bit. Nowadays I understood why.

But to kids like Titch and Carl Anderson, that kind of bullshit still mattered and it was clear as they stood around examining Geary’s new BB gun that they weren’t happy.

“Shall I go home and get mine?” Carl suggested.

“Bit of a walk, ain’t it?”

“S’pose, it’s worth it though. I mean, this fucking gas is gonna run out any second. If you were ever in a combat situation you wouldn’t wanna rely on a gas gun to protect yourself with.” He said it to his brother, but made sure it was loud enough for all of us to hear.

“Twat!” I muttered. “If you were ever in a combat situation you wouldn’t wanna rely on a BB gun full stop, fuckwit.”

“What’s that, Danny?”

“Nothin’.”

“If that prick’s still banging on about that gas gun when I come back, I’m gonna wrap it round his head,” Jake said quite audibly as he wandered over to an emergency telephone in an orange kiosk and took a leak. I licked the sticky end of the Rizla and sealed the joint, putting it to my mouth, where it hung heavy from my bottom lip as I signalled to Joey Robinson for a light.

“That bud or resin?”

“Bud.”

“Twos on that, Dan!”

I caught the disposable lighter in my right hand.

“There’s girls gonna be coming down ‘ere tonight,” Joey said, coming across and squatting down next to us. “Charlie Grayson’s sister, Shauna. If you’re lucky she might bring a couple of mates.”

“Yeah, but I ain’t lucky, am I?”

“Dunno. I don’t care either, so long as I am.” He leaned across and ruffled my hair. “I can feel it, Dan! This is my lucky night!”

“You ain’t getting a sniff of this joint if you fuck my hair up!”

“Sorry, Dan. Oh! By the way, just so as you know, I told her that I’m seventeen and I’ve got a car. Okay?”

“Sure.” I lit the joint and leaned back against the cold brick, slugging on a can of Special Brew. A few feet into the tunnel, Titch and Carl Anderson shot at empty beer bottles.

*

By ten o’clock the numbers had trebled. A can of Stella sat on an upturned bucket, beer spraying from a puncture wound like blood from a main artery. Tins of spray paint hissed and rattled in the tunnel, like fire from a toy machine gun. I could hear Joey Robinson telling Charlie Grayson’s sister about the alloy wheels he’d just bought for his fictional car, interspersed with hand-up-the-skirt giggles that floated over from the other side of the tracks. Jake Dooley had just let rip a cacophony of grunts at one of his own jokes—or rather, somebody else’s joke (Jake only knew the jokes that everybody else knew)—that he’d gotten completely wrong anyway. I would have told him that he’d gotten it wrong, but right now I didn’t feel so good. I was beginning to wish that I hadn’t eaten macaroni cheese for dinner. It was bad enough the first time round.

I was oblivious to it at first, busy trying to think calming thoughts. Still thoughts that might help me forget the looming inevitability that I was going to be sick. I was sitting on my breeze-block, head in my hands, listening to Marvin Fletcher a few feet away—“Look at Dan! Check him out! He’s gone white! He’s gonna be blowing chunks any second!”—when I became aware of the argument that had broken out at the entrance to the tunnel.

“What I’m saying is that you ain’t his fucking Dad.” It was Carl Anderson. “If he wants his gun back he can come and ask me himself.” I slowly lifted my head. Carl was standing just inside the tunnel, his arms stretched out either side of him, his palms open in a ‘here I am/have a go’ kind of gesture. Jake was standing just outside the tunnel, his body slouched, his shoulders shrugged in a ‘who the fuck’s this kid think he is?’ kind of way. Geary was standing between the two of them with his hands raised in front of him in an attempt to halt the onslaught of confrontation like it might have been a car.

“It’s too late now anyway,” Jake told him. “You’ve caned all the fucking gas. You’re gonna have to buy him some more.”

“If he didn’t want us to use the gas he shouldn’t have brought it down here.”

“Just stop fucking about and tell him where it is!”

“Jake! Just leave it! It ain’t worth it!”

“If he wants it back he can ask.”

“He has asked,” Jake said. “He’s been asking all night.” He took a step forward. Geary blocked him. “Stop acting like a prick and just tell him where it is!”

“So what, are you asking me for him? Is that it? Little Geary ain’t old enough to fight his own battles so the Goat gets involved. Is that it?”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“If he wants his gun back he can ask us himself,” Titch said, appearing behind his brother.

“Just stay the fuck out of this, Titch! Anyway, he already has asked. Now quit fucking around and give it him back!”

Carl Anderson spat on the ground. “Don’t tell me what to do.”

“Or what?” Jake yelled, dodging Geary and making a lunge for Carl, catching his shoulder but losing his balance and falling to the ground, taking Carl with him, where they grappled in the dirt, biting and pulling at one another’s hair, grunting and cursing and rolling and tumbling away from the tunnel and onto the tracks. Within seconds they were the focus of attention. Cries of “get off the track!” were interspersed with yells of “go on, Goat boy!” and “have him, Carl!” as they exchanged punches. I climbed to my feet and stumbled toward them, a torrent of sick gushing fourth as my stomach reminded me why I had been sitting still as the Buddha for the last half hour. As I lifted my head up I could see Marvin holding Titch back, stepping from side to side and eventually grabbing him and wrestling him to the ground. I could see Carl on his knees with Jake in a headlock, Jake digging quickly and mechanically at Carl’s temple with his sovereign fist, unable to actually see his target, but nevertheless hitting it with surprising accuracy. And that is one thing I will say about Jake Dooley. The kid could fight. He’d had a hard time of it all his life and he knew how to give a good beating as well as how to take one. If I’d had to put money on it I’d have gone with Jake, I don’t care if Carl was a sixth former. As it stood, Jake was winning. Then suddenly, the focus of attention shifted once more.

Titch had broken lose after punching Marvin and now Charlie Grayson was holding Marvin back as Titch pointed the gun on Jake like he was about to shoot. Several people were telling him emphatically to put it down. This told you how fucking wired everyone had gotten—after all, the whole argument had been about the fact that there was no gas left, which meant that the gun didn’t fire. Geary was hovering nervously around them both, pleading with them to stop fighting. Even Joey Robinson had stopped what he was doing to see what all the noise was about. Everybody else was circling them, either shouting in support or telling them to pack it in. I was making my way over to try and break it up myself, but that was when I heard the yell. I don’t know who said it, but the voice rose clearly above the drunken clamour. Even Jake and Carl heard it.

“There’s a train coming!”

The mood suddenly changed. People began to plead and yell at them to get off the track. A few jumped in. Jake was now on top of Carl, pinning one side of his face against the gravel, punching him over and over, occasionally turning his head to spit the blood that was running into his mouth from the back of his broken nose. Several people were trying to pull them apart, a few of them had a hold of Jake’s jacket, but he managed to wriggle out of it. The sound of the approaching train shot through the iron like pain through the root of a nerve. Joey Robinson came legging it across.

“Get off the fucking tracks, lads! Get off the tracks!”

Jake had stopped now and was leaning over, his face right next to Carl’s, talking softly.

“Hear that, Carl? That’s a train. D’you like trains? Eh? Eh, fuckwit?” He grabbed him by the collar and pulled him up so that they were face to face. Carl’s head fell forward, lifeless. “D’you like trains? Wanna see one close up?”

“Get the fuck off him!” Titch was struggling to pull Jake off his brother, screaming through tears as the sound roared towards us, already echoing in the tunnels. Geary was kneeling down beside Jake, talking softly, as if he thought he could somehow snap him out of it. Pretty much everyone was now involved and after a few seconds, confident that he had won, Jake gave it up and let go of his opponent, allowing them both to be quickly pulled to safety. It didn’t matter anyway; the train was on another line.

I didn’t actually see it happen, but I still have a clear image of it, in my mind. I remember the thud. A hollow sound, like you’d get from kicking an empty cardboard box as hard as you could. Even over all the noise, I heard it loud and clear. The next thing I remember is the torch, rolling on the gravel, the light moving in an arc across us, the sound of the tail end of the train disappearing into the tunnel on the far side of the tracks, the drunken yells and squaring-ups trailing off with it.

People began to take flight, scrambling up the bank, running this way and that like they were ants and somebody had just kicked off the top of their ant’s hill. Titch and Charlie Grayson picked up Carl Anderson and began struggling to get him up the bank.

Jake lit a cigarette, spat a load of blood and turned to me.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here, now!”

Geary began to cry. A dog barked. A single bark. A German Shepherd.

*

It’s been three years since it happened. Yesterday, I celebrated my nineteenth birthday. I’ve thought about it every birthday ever since and this was no exception. I bumped in Marvin Fletcher in the Dog and Doublet and we caught up over a couple of beers. Neither of us mentioned it, of course, but I was still thinking about it as I caught the 75 to the office this morning and later as I sat on a bench on Upper Gough Street and ate my sandwiches.

We all knew not to go down to the tracks and after that, nobody did. Turned out the Fat Controller knew my mother. He drank in the pub where she worked. Geary’s old man played darts with him. Loads of people went to his funeral. It was in the paper. I’ve still got the cutting:

‘The funeral of Doug Peterson was held today at Pawlsey Heath Roman Catholic Church. Mr Peterson, forty-two, was hit by a train on Friday. He had been employed by a local security firm to patrol the stretch of track between Pawlsey Heath and Harbour Oak Green, on which youths continued to gather. Police investigating the incident believe that Mr Peterson ventured onto the tracks after local residents reported a fire in one of the viaduct tunnels. They are appealing to anybody with information to come forward.

Mr Peterson leaves behind a wife and two children.’
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“I am twenty-six, from Birmingham England and have been writing for a long time. I have a BA in Creative Studies and an MA in Writing.” E-mail: robogambino[at]yahoo.com.

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I’ve Come to See the Show

Billiard’s Pick
Daniel Lanza


It was a coffee shop downtown where I first saw her. I know it sounds obvious to say that, boring maybe, but it’s the truth. I wish it had been some place more romantic like on MUNI moving off in a different direction, or ordering the same thing at some obscure Afghan restaurant, but plain as it may be, it was a coffee shop. She was sitting at a table in the far corner with a book in her hands. Her hair was long, the shifting brown of dying leaves. She wore glasses and read while sipping from a petite cup of coffee. I knew then—at that first view of her—that I was in love, madly and intractably. The kind of love you experience solely during high school or those first fumbling years of college, back when you can still do so without reservation or fear of complication and disappointment.

I didn’t have the courage to talk to her then, she was so beautiful and serene. Like a statue or fantasy.

She caught me looking and I turned away.

*

I was sitting in the corner seat, near the window when he first approached me. There was a touch of swagger in his step, obviously forced. He was a little insecure for someone his age. Early forties maybe. Around the age of those who always seem to look, but never touch. The ones with wives and kids at home, who take their seat on stools toward the back of The Blackbird to watch, and fantasize, their eyes filled with guilt and longing. His hand trembled slightly in mine when he introduced himself. His eyes were tightened into a false casualness. I was reading Ellis: Rules of Attraction. He told me later that he thought the book and its title were just a coincidence.

They weren’t.

When he asked for my number, I gave it to him. I didn’t have any paper, so he got out his wallet to offer me an old receipt. Instead I plucked out a twenty.

I wrote slowly, including my name, lest he forget it: Amelia. His was Harry, or—I guess—still is, wherever he may be.

We smiled.

He lingered for a moment, waiting for something more. I coyly directed my eyes back to my book and pretended to read until he left.

*

I didn’t want to seem too desperate, so I waited a few days to call her. She told me later that she was impressed. She was sure I was going to call that day, if not the next. In fact, she’d written her number on the bill to ensure just that.

It was four, to be exact.

Four horrible, hopeful days spent struggling to remember her face instead of just colors and a feeling. I’d picked up the phone nearly a dozen times. In the end I would will it back into the cradle, but it was always a struggle.

I was never good at dating games early in life. During those years, I would always fumble my way through the etiquette and hope that I came off as endearing, instead of crass. When, much later, I told Amelia this, she said she’d never have thought to call me crass, boring, maybe, but never crass.

Her voice was calm through the receiver when we spoke. We agreed to meet for dinner by the pier. Some event or another was going to be setting off fireworks over the water, and she wanted to watch the rockets explode into fiery ribbons. She said it was as close as you could get to seeing shooting stars in the city.

I told her I’d meet her there around eight.

I arrived fifteen minutes early and circled the block. When I got back, I found her standing out in front of the restaurant looking luminous.

*

The suit was cut impeccably across his shoulders. The fabric shifted slightly as he approached, showing off the curvature of muscle underneath. His smile was slight and hesitant. When he arrived, I felt his hand slide to my elbow. A braver move than I’d expected.

“Have you been waiting long?” he asked.

I shook my head, even though I had. The July day had begun to wind down, but I noticed faint traces of nervous perspiration dotting his hairline and neck. I thought it was cute.

“Shall we?” he asked.

We did.

I don’t remember many of the specifics after we sat down. What I do remember, though, is that the evening went well. Harry was witty and self-deprecating. His eyes lit up when I laughed and cuffed him gently on the arm, letting him know that I was hooked.

Back then, he was still pushing papers downtown. When he asked what I did, I told him that I danced for a living and that I’d been in a few productions around town, but left out the details. For the most part, it was the truth.

*

We were seated inside next to one of the windows with a view out over the bay. The sun began to set out into the west, throwing a blanket of hues across the sky. Oranges and yellows mingled with the clouds and sea air in a way that appeared far off and lonely. I didn’t look when Amelia’s fingers covered my hand. It was fear, I guess. Fear that if our eyes met, she might realize her mistake and pull away. So instead we watched the light play over the sky and water.

Sometimes, I think you can pinpoint the height of a relationship; its cresting point, if you will. If you’re lucky, you never reach it. Marriages, births, grandchildren, these things form an ever-rising peak of accomplishment that death ends before you reach the summit. Other relationships peak too soon. I wonder, then, if the moment would have changed, had I known back then that it was the peak. Could I have traded that instant of perfect silence for something deeper, grander? Maybe if I’d looked into her eyes, I could have smelled out the lie and settled things then. Maybe.

Instead, I stared at the sunset, which no longer seemed so lonely. When the sky was finally dark enough for the fireworks to begin, their reflections were blurred and beautiful on the surface of the bay.

*

I wondered when I woke up beside him the next morning, if the time to come clean about my job had passed.

I should have done it at dinner, I can see that now, but I didn’t want anything to ruin it. I didn’t figure him for the kind of guy who would overreact; I told myself I was waiting for a better time. As it turns out, that time never came.

His eyes were sleepy when he finally woke, and he wrapped an arm around me. Light filtered in through the shades and he was so beautiful there. I didn’t mind that he tasted like sleep. I shifted next to him. The lie fluttered in my chest, like wings of a moth against my rib cage. I looked into his eyes and smiled.

It could wait.

This was too perfect.

*

Things were wonderful, for a time. We spent afternoons and weekends making love and sharing expensive ethnic take-out dinners.

Amelia worked late almost every night leaving us few precious hours between the end of my day and the beginning of hers.

She told me she’d been cast as an extra in some number downtown. It saddened me then, to think of her face lost in a crowd of dancers. When I asked if I could watch her practice, she mumbled some excuse about the director being strict about guests.

If I had to pinpoint the moment that sparked my suspicions, that was it. Something in her voice, her movements, seemed off. Amelia, who was always so suave and self-assured, was suddenly cagey and evasive.

Weeks went by. She stopped talking about work, and I stopped asking. Even our silences grew strained and seemed liable to break at any moment.

It got so bad that I tried following her to work one night. She didn’t notice me, that I’m sure of, but when I turned the last corner, she was gone. I stood in front of the strip club while the Market Street crowd shuffled past. It had grown dark and no matter how much I looked, there was no sign of her. I even circled the block in a vain attempt of spotting the dance studio. It was cold and windy. After half an hour I returned home.

*

I could feel the guilt tighten in my stomach every time he asked about work.

I could tell he was getting suspicious, but for the life of me, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t in love with him yet but I wanted to be, which is almost the same thing. I knew that he was in love with me, but I kept waiting for the right moment. In retrospect, I think that was my mistake. I convinced myself that if I framed it just right, then he’d be the one to get it. The one to understand how hard it was to get by as a dancer. He’d see it like I did: as a transition, not a destination.

Before things got bad, he used to look at me and I felt something flow between us, an understanding maybe. But as time went on, the understanding turned to inquiry. He didn’t look at me anymore; he studied me. Each glance was an attempt to figure me out and I was too afraid of what he’d find when he finally did.

*

We were getting coffee when it finally broke. It wasn’t the same coffee shop we met it. Or it might have been; I’ve forgotten. Amelia was standing off from where I was. Some guy recognized her—some lonely, disgusting, strip-club guy.

“She’s got a great ass,” he told me.

I said, “Hey. Lay off, buddy. That’s my girlfriend.”

His expression sobered. “Fuck. I’ll just wait to see it tonight.” The words were almost under his breath.

Amelia was oblivious to what was happening. She didn’t notice until I’d already dropped him. She yelled and her coffee slipped from her hands. I’ve never been a violent man, so I guess I surprised us both.

He got up and felt the split in his lip. “Your girlfriend’s a stripper, you fucking moron,” he said.

I told him to shut his fucking mouth and leave. He did.

We didn’t touch or talk the entire way home. When we were back at the apartment, I called her on it. She cried, but didn’t deny it. I was furious.

“This doesn’t change who I am,” she said.

I remember turning away. I couldn’t look at her then without seeing it. In her face, in her body.

I told her she disgusted me. She told me I was a judgmental prick. Both statements were true, I guess.

She grabbed me and turned me toward her. She asked me to look at her, and tell her what I saw.

I did and she slapped me.

I think I deserved it.

*

There was a moment of silence after my hand connected. His face was turned away from me and suddenly my insides grew heavy. I swear I could feel my heart break right there. Shattered on the point of a word.

Whore.

Part of the appeal of Harry was that I’d never thought he was capable of breaking my heart. People have a way of surprising you.

I don’t remember leaving, just walking home in the rain.

I didn’t even call in to work that night. They tried calling when I didn’t show up, but I unplugged my phone before they could leave a message. My apartment suddenly seemed lonely and quiet. All I wanted then was him. Even after what he’d said, even after he’d pulled open my insides and spat on them, I still wanted him.

Love’s funny like that. It never leaves when it should. It just lingers like an illness or an unwelcome guest.

*

I didn’t know whom I was angrier at. I’d known that I was only fooling myself. I just hadn’t seen her lying to me too.

I picked up the phone to call her nearly a dozen times. In the end I managed to will it back into the cradle, but it was always a struggle.

I called in sick to work, and spent the week listening to music and watching daytime television.

I hated the way my pillows still smelled like her. The way I still yearned for her. The way I thought of her each night before sleeping. I’d lie in the bed we’d made love in and pretend it was one of those times.

Back when things were good. Back before she’d wrecked it all by revealing herself to me.

I’d been too quick to fall for her. If I’d been more careful, or taken more time then maybe I could have dealt with it better. At least I could have pulled away without hurting as much from it.

As you get older, each failed relationship seems to sting more. Maybe it’s just from the familiarity that seems to accompany that moment of parting, or maybe it’s the daunting fate of singularity that creeps closer with every goodbye; I’m not really sure any more.

When I couldn’t take it any more, I went back to her work, knowing where it was, this time. It was called The Blackbird. She wasn’t there that night, so I came back the next.

It wasn’t until my third visit that I saw her dancing on one of the platforms.

Up there she seemed real for the first time. Not a fantasy, just a girl. A tired, heartbroken girl who’d gotten caught up in a lifestyle and a lie that I couldn’t handle.

I pulled the twenty from my wallet where it had stayed since the day we met. Funny, the ink still looked wet.

Soon it was gone, and I was just another customer.

*

The shadows made his face look hard, but his hand felt warm in a way I missed. I felt it when he slipped the bill into my waistband.

I didn’t need to look to see what was written on it; I’d put I there.

With his back turned, he couldn’t see the misstep.

He probably wouldn’t have noticed it anyway.
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“I am currently an undergraduate at Sonoma State University in California where I study Liberal Arts and English. I have been previously published in the December 2005 issue of Toasted Cheese and in the Sonoma State literary magazine, The Zephyr. Last year I finished my first novel and I am currently at work on my second.” E-mail: Lanzad[at]sonoma.edu.

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When Life Hands You Lemons

Boots’s Pick
Stephanie Moulton


Life hands people lemons all the time. This guy was given a whole grove—and no sugar.

He stood at a busy intersection with a sign, which read, “Will Work for Food.” Cars passed, and the occasional driver gave him the finger. Most shook their heads and frowned. He could see contempt in their eyes, could almost read their minds. “Get a job,” they’d spout. “The rest of us have to work, why shouldn’t you?”

They didn’t know that he’d had a job once. It paid enough for his wife to stay home with their children. When the economy went bad, he got laid off. He had too much education and experience for other jobs in his market. Fast food places wouldn’t hire him either. The savings account went dry, but the mortgage lender still wanted money. Soon, they were living on the streets.

Days blended one into another. Every morning, he and his wife would look for jobs, and every afternoon they would stand at the busy intersection with their sign. Once in a while someone would stop, but would tell them where to get help instead of just helping.

He thought this day would be no different. The sign was smudged; he stood motionless in the spring heat. He saw the stranger approach and dipped his head in shame, wanting the man to pass by as quickly as possible. Instead, the stranger stood before him with a paper bag that smelled of warmth and full stomachs. He smiled and took a large thermos out of the bag.

“Lemonade?”
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“I am a senior English major and Student-Creative-Writer-in-Residence at the University of Illinois at Springfield, married, and have a one-year-old son. Another piece of flash fiction, “Beautiful Medusa,” was Billiard’s Pick in the June 2005 edition of Toasted Cheese.” E-mail: stephaniemoulton[at]gmail.com.

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Noisy

Baker’s Pick
Kathy Mitchell


When she woke on Tuesday, the alarm clock read 9:12 a.m. This was unusual. At 9:12 she should be at work. She made a note on the to-do list and got in her car.

That evening her husband forgot to tell her that his poker club would be at their house on Thursday. On Thursday, he yelled at her for not having beer and munchies for them. He hadn’t yelled at her since their honeymoon when she drove their car into a ditch. She cried all the way to Safeway.

On Saturday morning she drove her daughter and her daughter’s friends to soccer practice. While the girls practiced, she walked around the lake at the park. She found it odd that despite the warming weather, only a few birds were singing. The girls were so quiet on the way home that she asked if their coach had gotten mad at them. They said no.

Saturday night bridge was a disaster. She missed every bid, and at the break her partner asked if they could rotate. She sat out the last round and watched TV with the kids, but she couldn’t understand what was going on in the movie. On the way home she said nothing until her husband asked if she was okay. She told him she had a headache.

The next Friday she and her husband met his boss and his boss’s wife at a restaurant for dinner. They ate sushi and talked about baseball. The conversation drifted into gardening, so she mentioned the peonies she had just put in. Everyone stared at her like she had grown horns. She excused herself from the table, and her husband followed. He was not happy. He wanted to know what was the matter. His mouth opened and closed, opened and closed, gulping air, teeth and lips flying, flailing. She couldn’t hear what he was saying and she felt bad about it, so she made up words for him to say. You look tired, honey. Why don’t you spend some time at the beach? The world will be noisy again soon. I promise.

pencil

Kathy Mitchell is pursuing an MFA at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is also a librarian, and is currently working at the Naropa Audio Archives Project. A native Coloradoan, she lives in Lakewood, Colorado with a crazy old cat. E-mail: katmitch[at]earthlink.net.

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She

Fiction
Heather Woodward


The shopping center turns with the predictable rhythm of busy people living their busy lives, just like it does every time he comes here. It seems the same children giggle and whine, trapped in their steel frame carts, while their stressed-out mothers stuff groceries into the back of their financed cars.

He watches the same college students huddle together at the chain burger joint stationed at the far corner of the square, squished between a trendy smoothie bar and a greasy Hawaiian BBQ restaurant. They eat French fries with ranch dressing, sip diet sodas from extra large plastic cups, and banter on about the latest horror movie in the animated conversation that only comes from a heady mixture of caffeine and youth.

He leans back in his favorite chair outside the local coffee shop, legs crossed at the ankle, a paperback splayed across his knee, and a cigarette in his right hand, which dangles over the edge of the plastic chair. He reads fervently, every now and then absent-mindedly grabbing the lukewarm triple latte from the edge of the table or taking a drag from his cigarette. When he reaches the butt, he pulls at another from the pack and lights it with a flick of his disposable lighter, never looking up from his book.

From afar he blends in—another one of the nine-to-fivers enjoying the elusive sunny-weekend weather that usually only shows itself during business hours. But only he knows that he hides in this epicenter of the mundane from something not quite tangible. Something he can’t pinch between his fingers, like the comforting roundness of rolled paper and tobacco. He only knows that it comes from the too-quiet stillness in his apartment. The remnants of something bigger smeared on every surface of every room, tainting it with its… nothingness… no… emptiness. He feels the emptiness all around him like a hole that won’t fill up because it has no sides. Just a seamless black void that breathes in the spaces where his thoughts used to be.

But here, outside in this small shopping center, with life thriving all around him, he can concentrate on the book in front of him. He can take a few drags of his cigarette, filling those infiltrated spaces with the slightly euphoric haze of nicotine. Eventually, he is only a passerby in a sea of monotony. Not a focal point, but a piece of a bigger puzzle. Here he can disappear, and forget and blend.

The only distractions come when he hears the out-of-place squawk of a seagull begging or the rumble of a muscle car amongst the purr of minivans or the sound of her laugh affronting the predictable scenery. He jerks up, and looks around for where the sound might have come from, but he doesn’t see her. He wonders if finally the memories have taken over, seeping into his well-confined reality. He takes a sip of his latte and tries again to concentrate on the book in his lap. But now, the missing happens, a reflex he hasn’t quite figured out how to stuff down into the recesses of his forgetting.

The missing her is tricky, it has a life of its own and clings to his skin like a leech. He misses the way she spilled things down the front of her shirt, the way she tripped over the carpet and bumped into walls. Small things that filled up the emptiness, laughable things that he found… sweet. She was clumsy and messy and awkward. Chaos swirled at her feet like dust devils. Yet, these days, he finds himself looking for her chaos in everything, just to remember how it felt to hate her. How it felt to feel.

The hating her was much like the loving her. It came upon him without warning like a giant ocean wave crashing into his sensibility. Loving her was unnerving and unpredictable. It had thorny roots that tangled him up and kept him distracted. Hating her was easier. It was clear and precise without circular patterns of reasoning that sometimes went nowhere. It had logic.

But without her, he is static. Without her, he is just a book, and a latte, and a pack of cigarettes.

He hears her laugh again, this time closer. Then she’s standing in front of him. Her back is turned to him, unaware that she is so close he can smell the gardenia perfume on her pulse points. Her head is down, and she’s biting her lip in that insecure way that makes him want to scoop her up and wrap his arms around her, to tell her that everything is going to be okay. She’s rifling through her overstuffed purse for something, probably her keys.

He thinks he hears a tear somewhere near his lungs, and then the bubbling of blood oozing from the wound. His hand wants to move instinctively to his chest to stop this new bleeding, but he takes a long drag from his cigarette instead, and focuses on an unkempt strand of her hair hanging just over her shoulder.

Does he acknowledge her?

He doesn’t know, but much to his dismay, he can’t help but linger over her solid frame. The black silky material of her skirt glides over the slight hourglass of her hips, over the softness of her thighs. The tight pull of her red shirt stretches over her breasts.

He is suddenly struck by the vision of her taut nipples pressed against the inside of his palm. The sweet taste of her mouth entangled on his tongue, the saltiness of her skin, the smell of her hair. The way her gaspy moans reverberated on the slick skin of his shoulder when he moved inside of her, the way she chanted his name like a sonnet.

He remembers this so clearly that he drops his book with a loud thud. She flinches and turns. She grabs the book from the ground, hands it to him, and then smiles.

He smiles back with a tight grin, not knowing how to let the muscles in his jaw relax or the tension in his shoulders dissipate. Suddenly he is a stiff board of wood floating against a current of animosity. She wraps her arms around him in a genuine hug and speaks sincerely about “missing him” and “it’s been too long,” but later, he won’t remember what exactly she said, only the movement of her painted mouth and the searing burn of her fingertips on his back.

She sits down nonchalantly, unaware of the snake-like wriggling in the pit of his stomach. He slides another cigarette from its pack and lights the new one with the old cigarette that hasn’t quite burned down. His hands shake a little as he inhales deeply, but she won’t notice the tremor because she’s too busy talking.

“How are you doing? What have you been up to?”

He doesn’t know the answer to this. What has he been doing?

Existing.

And thinking; it doesn’t stop. The dissection, the analyzing, the grinding, until there’s nothing left but a pile of dust and an ashtray full of cigarette butts. The numbers on the liquid clock tick away, ascending into early morning. He finds himself still awake at 5 a.m. eating cinnamon rolls and playing Dig Dug.

“Just the usual,” he manages to say with an easy drawl that hides any shadow of the truth. He takes another long drag of the cigarette and casually ashes it into the tray on the table. It’s a simple enough task, yet it feels like the weight of a thousand fuck-ups are lying across his shoulder blades. It angers him for some reason that the light in her eyes glows while his are traced with dark circles.

“What have you been up to?” he asks her, turning the conversation to her favorite subject.

“Everything and nothing at the same time. I’ve really missed you.”

He smiles with the acknowledgement of her missing him, but doesn’t reply. He will always miss her like a fine line drawing without the detail—color without contour. Yet, he can’t seem to find a way to say, “I miss you too,” without it becoming some sort of hopeful gesture.

Still, there’s something comfortable about seeing her. A familiar uneasiness in her voice whenever she talks about her desires, the way she nervously twists her hair around her fingers when she speaks. For a moment, he feels full. For a moment, he feels alive. For a moment, he wants to reach out to her and hold her hand, pull her toward him, lay his head on the round of her stomach. But he doesn’t, and he won’t. He knows the price of her touch, and he’s not willing to tangle himself up in her thorny bits of chaos.

She pretends to ignore his silence, and rambles, “My goal this year is to get my paintings into a gallery… I have no idea what I’m doing with myself… I feel so free, like I can do anything, and yet so constricted by my own thought process.”

He listens as her ideas sway back and forth like a leaf caught in a drift. He is agitated by her spatial inconsistencies. The way her thoughts never seem to come to any real conclusions.

“I don’t know… I just hope that I make something of myself. That I can learn to accept myself as an artist, you know?”

He nods with a realization that without him, she is not grounded. Suddenly, he feels the inevitable urge to save her from herself. Only he knows that this is why he left in the first place.

She doesn’t need to be saved or fixed or changed. She is this person, this child-woman who forgets to turn off the oven after she’s done baking, who doodles flowers on the corners of important paperwork when she’s talking on the phone. She is home to him, and yet she is everything he loathes. She is a Picasso in a room full of Monets.

He is brought back by the silence, and he realizes that he is staring her in that judgmental way that she hates. She smiles airily, but the heated desperation in her eyes betrays her.

“What?” she asks.

He shrugs.

There are things that he has never said that she already knows. It was implied in every action and every non-gesture. The long nights he spent on the computer, the way he forced her to take a full-time job instead of the internship at the gallery, the way he would stare at her paintings in the middle of the night loathing each passionate stroke of the brush. Or the way he helped her pack her things on Christmas morning and dropping her off on her mother’s doorstep.

He drove away, never looking back, feeling the oxygen return to his lungs, the life tingling back into the ends of his fingertips. He knew then what he still knows now and will never be able to free himself from.

She will never be good enough.

His life is empty without her, and yet when she’s around she takes up so much space that he hardly knows who he is anymore. He is only an appendage, an arm or a leg, an extension of her neurotic tendencies, a safety net for her to fall.

She will always be too much and not enough at the same time.

So, he closes the book on his lap, butts out his cigarette, and he makes an excuse to walk away. When she says goodbye, he hears the disappointment in her voice. She knows that nothing has really changed.

It never does.

pencil

“In college, I won 4th Place for column writing at a California State Community College Competition in 1994. I also won an Honorable Mention for poetry at the Cal Poly, Pamona Harvest Competition in 1994. Since then, I have had my fiction and poetry published at Scars Publication and Spanq Magazine. I have also written a screenplay, SMALL DETAILS, which was filmed and distributed in 2002.” E-mail: phluphee[at]sbcglobal.net.

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