Got to Get You into My Life

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


It’s very easy advice: “write every day.” For me, I declare, “I’m going to write tomorrow.” Then the cat’s sick. Then the kids use the fridge contents as artistic media. Then I realize someone’s out of clean underwear for the next day. All of those little “right now” tasks mean that writing time is set aside until evening when I’m too tired to do much beyond open an old story and read it, looking for occurrences of “was.”

When I took my only undergraduate poetry writing course, the instructor told us he was glad to know that most of us were fiction writers (or non-writers). He said that knowing how to write poetry is more essential to prose writing than learning how to write prose. At the time, I didn’t get it but it didn’t take long before I could see how it worked. Word economy, word choice, juxtaposition, metaphor all stood at the core of our writing. In learning how to write poetry, I learned how to write more effective prose.

In the years since taking the class, I haven’t written much poetry but I’ve written a heap of fiction using the techniques I took from that class. One bit of wisdom that the instructor imparted to us near the end of the term was this: If you never write another poem, that’s fine. But keep reading poetry.

To follow that advice, I kept my favorite poetry books (The Moon Is Always Female, Leaves of Grass) and bought collections by new-to-me poets (Mark Strand, Billy Collins). There were few things better on a rainy day than to sit down with a warm drink, some good music and a book of poetry. I liked the collections because I could flip through and read what I liked or I could read front to back, noticing how the poet arranged the collection to enhance each poem simply by what came before and after it.

These days, I don’t have the luxury of sitting down with a nice chai, putting a little Sting on the iPod and cracking open one of those anthologies. However, I have time to catch a poem or two or three just by glancing through my e-mail. It can be inspiring to your creativity if you catch the right poem when you’re in the right mood. It’s also very easy to read poetry every day. Here are a few ways to get poetry into your life:

Super-easy:

Tiny Words: Have a haiku delivered every day. Poetry so short you rarely have to open the e-mail to read the entire thing.

Easy:

The Writer’s Almanac is doubly wonderful because you can read it via your inbox or listen to the almanac on your public radio station or online. You can subscribe to the free podcast or put it in a feed reader and never miss an episode. The audio segments run about five minutes; you can also download the podcasts to your iPod or other mp3 player.

Pretty easy:

Poetry Daily has a feed you can put in your feed reader. When you’re catching up on I Can Has Cheezburger, you can search for “poetry daily” and find the feed.

About’s poetry section offers a newsletter. They have some poetry available to read on the site; much of it is older work in the public domain.

Requires a little work or time:

The League of Canadian Poets provides some links to online poetry by American, Canadian and “international” poets, audio poetry and visual poetry.

Look up poems by theme, author or title: The Academy of American Poets provides a good database of poetry for all occasions. They also have audio files, biographies and essays. This is a good site to bookmark either for reference or for when you have time to browse.

The Poetry Society of America provides extensive resources for writers. Also at their site, you can read the journal Crossroads, which includes issues from 1997-2004.

For modern British and Irish poetry, check out the British Library section of modern British and Irish poets. It includes a sound archive and a listing of sponsored events, information on focused collections and links to Brit-centric poetry sites.

For info on Aussie and Kiwi poets, try The Poetry Resource, Australian Bush Poetry, Verse & Music and Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library. Perry Middlemiss’s blog Matilda is another fun resource for all literature Australian.

For non-English language poetry, a great place to start is at the Poetry Translation Centre. You have the option of reading the poems in their original languages or in English. Use your favorite search engine to find other translated poetry sites or journals.

A selection of poetry-only online literary journals:

Many literary journals publish poetry as well as prose. I recommend starting with our list of literary journals, after you comb our archives for some excellent poetry.
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E-mail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

Swing Shift

Best of the Boards
Steve Krause


1.

Her hybrid hummed into the parking lot; it made more noise when she harshly shut the door with more than a degree of anger than it did on the road. Flakes of snow swelled and flurried but did not fall or stick. The sky was gray and uninviting, the parking lot was still and empty, and Enzo’s stood imposing and cold before her.

Kjerstin opened the bar that Friday afternoon because Tim the former-crackhead chef and Mike the current-cokehead main server had both called in ill. Alonzo gave Mike the evening off and called in Kjerstin, who had closed both previous nights and who was supposed to be off. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to work, not that she didn’t want or need the money, but she had a life, had kids, and had another job. She grumbled and growled in dissatisfaction. She sighed, be-aproned herself—that was her special term for it—and put on a “happy face,” which was the only way to greet Alonzo, unless one had a way to shift the blame to somebody else. In that case “Ugly Face,” as Kjerstin called it, was warranted, for it would redirect wrath toward the guilty party. But if the buck stopped with you, don’t tempt fate, she told herself. It was something she never employed at work, for it tended to scare those around her; Anna and Graeme had only witnessed it as victims once in the past five years, and hadn’t made that mistake again.

Alonzo was fair enough, as managers went, though the unwritten and accepted sexism of the job rankled a bit. He had a chart in his head, one closely associated with BMI, and indexing height and maximum-allowed weights. At 5’8″ she was allowed to reach 140 lbs. before she lost her job, though his measurement was less actual weight than it was perception, and so remaining muscular and fit afforded her a few extra pounds. His semi-official rule was that if she exceeded the weight at which she’d been hired by more than 5% she could lose her job.

It was no idle threat; when Alice left for greener pastures the week before it was more that she was being put out to pasture for being perceived as a heifer. “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen,” Alonzo was fond of saying, but he was fond of saying many things, and as long as she brought in the bucks she was certain she would be fine, Kjerstin told herself as she wiped the exhaustion from her eyes and swept her hands over the black apron and the white of her sleeves to remove any lingering wrinkles. When Patrick packed on 25 lbs., though, not an eye was batted. They’d never hired a woman who was over 150 lbs. in the first place.

Female servers were part of the draw, part of the decor, so the reasoning went.

Happy hour would not start for another hour and she would be out and on her way home well after dark but before the evening news. Which meant she’d be lucky to take home a buck in tips. Which meant it was a worthless shift.

As for Tim, she expected to see him in shortly unless he was truly sick and not just hungover. Alonzo was in for that reason; if Tim didn’t show, he’d cover, but if Tim didn’t show and didn’t have a good excuse, he’d also have no excuse to come back in except to pick up his final check.

She poured herself a glass of ice water and made her rounds, checking all the tables. The mechanism of her success was a steel-trap memory, not quite photographic, for such a thing was a mere urban legend, but good enough to keep a half-dozen orders in her mind at any given time. Maybe she could handle more, but as a rule the cautious server never took on more than seven tables; those that did shortchanged themselves and their clients, leading to shoddy—and justifiably so—tips. Seven was usually Kjerstin’s “Hell No!” number, though she’d once covered twelve when duty demanded it and they weren’t that demanding as tables went. The competition was for packed tables. She had settled for worse, for anemic, poorly populated regions of the seating chart, and with Janice sharing the shift with her, the fight for alpha-bitch supremacy would continue.

It was very primatological. Or perhaps just canine.

It wasn’t just the perks of submission and having nits picked out of your fur; it had responsibility, including the protection of the younger females. Janice was a disaster waiting to happen.

 

2.

The reality, though, Kjerstin knew, was that Friday was “amateur night.” The serious diners came in Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays.

Kjerstin glanced around the room and noticed the wine steward. She would have to kill him. Dwayne was drunk again. She glanced at her watch and sighed. Barely a customer had entered; he’d barely had time to get hammered but had managed nonetheless. “Don’t touch my stuff, bitch!” he’d shouted at her a week before over some squabble in the cellar. Why Alonzo hadn’t fired him for his boozing and collection of the choice wines for his own use escaped her. If he talked to her like that again, she’d made it clear, Alonzo wouldn’t have the chance to fire Dwayne. Her first reaction when he’d gotten angry was to laugh, but she had learned that such a reaction usually only made matters worse. Then later the actual annoyance really set in. Perhaps Alonzo kept Dwayne as a balance; management already felt there were too many females around as it was. That she was infinitely more qualified for the steward position, hell, that small dogs were more qualified, barely entered Alonzo’s mind.

The night before she’d opened a $200 bottle of Veuve Clicquot 1991 and a $250 of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1999, but although she received obscene wine discounts as an employee she was not quite enough of a wine nerd to blow her cash on the fermented grapes; she could only justify the expenditure as an investment, which defeated her main purpose in collecting wines: drinking them.

The steward tended to “lose” bottles; when she came for a pricey one not long ago he couldn’t find it, but several hours later, after her customers had had to settle for their second or third choice—after she’d made the recommendation, knowing what was on the list, and was made to look the fool—the bottle magically appeared at another table.

Kjerstin stretched and looked up at the ceiling. It was so different than the floor, which was hardwood, shiny, consisted of many long panels fit together, and amber-brown; whereas the ceiling, visible by day if not by night when the lights came on, was black and bumpy, traversed by many exposed pipes for heating and cooling and whatever else the innards of the building needed. It reminded her that as snooty as the job was, as snooty as most of the customers were, the wine bar was just some joint in a strip mall, some place in a generic building that had a facade and decorations. It was just the current inhabitant and nothing particularly special.

 

3.

Tim arrived late. He was as cooked as a lard-covered frog in a pot of hot oil. His eyes were so red they almost dripped blood. Instead of sneaking in the back, he came in through the front and pushed his way past a few guests; evidently he’d been dropped off out front by a friend who was in a better condition to drive. Kjerstin almost pitied him; he was a great cook, and but for little relapses, which never involved the things that fucked him up in the first place but did often include other pills or booze, he was making progress. Dwayne, the wine steward, had it in for both Kjerstin and Tim, and she was loath to give him another reason to go after her, but she couldn’t leave Tim to Dwayne’s mercy, or Alonzo’s for that matter, so as soon as she saw him come in she hurried to him and navigated him around pillars and corners, staying out of sight of either danger. She got Tim in the kitchen, while her tables waited, and in an apron and at a table with knives in his hands as quickly as possible. She nodded at an assistant chef, Jorge, glanced around for Alonzo, who was probably in his office, if not patrolling the floor, and sure that everything would be fine for another night, she returned to her tables.

Jon was fucking things up, she noticed. He had the pacing wrong; he rarely worked tables. The key to the gig was spacing things out so the customer didn’t get his or her dinner too close to the salad, for example, but in this case he’d clearly put the order for the dinner in too soon after the salad, as if he were just unloading a delivery of food orders for some magical later dispersal. But as he walked by he twisted an old Hall & Oates tune and sang out the side of his mouth to Kjerstin, while nodding toward the woman at his table, “She’s a sloooow eater…”

Kjerstin almost snarfed diet soda from her nose, and then she heard the brewing of a commotion at the entrance.

Over her shoulder she saw a bulky man in a suit and tie, a bad comb-over, and a trophy wife on his right arm. Kjerstin had served him before and recognized him as a coach at the university. Before him, her back to Kjerstin, stood Taryn, a classic, very attractive, quiet, petite, friendly, and well-adjusted young thing in a committed and well-adjusted relationship. Taryn was being her usual, super-friendly self, though Kjerstin could feel the approach of ice. Taryn looked at the books and told the customer that it would be an hour and a half wait. The restaurant had filled up; an hour and a half, though, might have been pushing it.

The trophy wife confronted Taryn by dropping the classic douchebag ultra-despicable question, “Do you know who we are?”

The small server turned her attention to the spousal unit and replied deadpan after going a few degrees even colder, “I do. But I suppose just this once we can overlook it and serve you.”

The slight went unnoticed by the couple, who were too full of themselves to imagine this little girl might have issued a smackdown, but Kjerstin resisted staying around for the conclusion and instead retreated to the back where she retrieved an order. Much hooting and joy was felt and heard, and the rumor was that the coach had once been cruel to Taryn’s boyfriend. Kjerstin just smiled, pleased that she hadn’t dealt all evening with Janice, and pleased that Taryn had developed a backbone, for it was the alpha female’s job to protect her weaker peers, the responsibility of the appointment.

Her shift was near its end, she had her buck-fifty net, and only one last new table. She approached, and the man, who had been seated by Taryn, lowered his menu and smiled.

“Good evening,” Kjerstin began in a dignified but pleasant tone. “My name is Kjerstin, and I will be your server this evening.” Anna and Graeme should be home and cleaning the kitchen after consuming the leftovers she left out ready to reheat, she thought. It was a family movie night. She could still make it.

“Thank you,” replied the man, gentlemanly and stately. His eyes were large, brown and watery, as if they could penetrate one’s soul and yet were always on the verge of sympathetic tears. His hair, black streaked with gray, was short and curly, and accentuated a brown mulatto face featuring a sharp nose and strong, wide cheeks. He closed his menu. “My name is Leslie, and a colleague recommended this establishment to me since I am new in town. I was hoping you could recommend a dish and a wine.”

His words and voice were smooth and endearing, though like a good tannic wine, subtly dangerous and dry. She glanced at her watch as she adjusted the towel over her arm and her order pad; she could still see the kids, and this one might prove to be a worthy tip.
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Steve Krause is a graduate student in Madison, Wisconsin, where he is completing a PhD on analogy in 18th-century aesthetics.

“Swing Shift” was written in response to a set of Sunday Brunch Prompts. The Sunday Brunch Chats run at 1 p.m. ET / 10 a.m. PT each Sunday.

The Purchased Bride

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Tara McDaniel


There’s an old saying. When a woman is beautiful on her wedding day but comes to look like an ugly thing years later, she is married all over. We once knew a woman like that. Truth is, we drove her away. She wasn’t like us, and we wanted to break her open, to bury our noses and eat.

Instead, she ate at us.

 

What explanation can I offer? We were a small town, dying. We clung to whatever was left, which wasn’t much. Our whole lives were bounded by our small streets and even smaller expectations. By this time, so many of our own had left us: for cities, machines, money. The recently abandoned houses stood among our tailors and bakery shops like vacant eyes. That’s when Jim Wisp—the first to ever leave us—came back. He had a woman we didn’t know, and he intended to wed her.

This woman—Marianne—was incredible. Tall and big-boned, her shoulders jutted out the edges of her dresses like wings. Her hair was wild, the color of wheat cut through with blood red and icy gold. We were flabbergasted, didn’t know what to make of her beauty. On the day of their wedding, Jim Wisp stood at the altar, his face bloated in satisfaction. The man had left us on his eighteenth birthday with nothing but an old suitcase. He came back rich with a beautiful woman. He moved into the old, expansive house at the bottom of the hill. I tell you, we all had bulging eyes and slippery tongues. We were choking on our jealousy, and our righteousness. Of course Jim would come back. It was proof of his regret for ever leaving.

 

Well, he told us some great stories. He’d come up to the bar—Sanson’s, we call it—and talk for hours. What excursions! Riding horseback into new towns, setting up workers to dig irrigation, parceling out housing plots. All in all, making some big money. He’d been around to places I’d never heard of—Navaroo and Black Mine City. I could hardly imagine it.

Then there was his wife. She’d sit at the bar, her long back to us, drinking wine. She never came to join us, never touched Jim at the shoulder. She just sat there until Jim passed around handshakes. She would wait then at the open doorway, looking this way and that, as if she were waiting for someone to pull up in the road, bearing a coach. As if she were waiting for someone to come take her away.

It was strange that Marianne didn’t otherwise much come to town, except to do some shopping once a week. She wouldn’t strike up a friendship with anyone, and she hardly spoke. It was rumored—and I admit that my wife Courtsey started this tale—that Marianne had a large garden filled with melons, edible mushrooms, various wild grasses, along with a gaggle of her own geese. She supposedly ate their eggs. At any rate, I felt this could be true or not; but as time passed on, I began to assimilate this information less and less as rumor, and more like fact.

 

I guess we came to accept the silence as the way things were. That is, until Jim said he was leaving, by himself, for yet another adventurous excursion. This was about a year after the wedding. On the night that Jim told us, I was surprised to see Marianne not only sloppily drunk, but talking to the barmaid, Jane.

Now, Jane’s a fine girl, if not a little empty up in the head. She’ll chatter to anybody, that’s not unusual. What’s unusual is that Marianne was answering back. I forgot to ask Jane about it because of what happened the next day. It was just hours before Jim left. Marianne didn’t come to sit at the bar, but she did come stand at the door. She was colored by the moon, and wearing the deepest red ruby necklace I’d ever seen. It looked like her neck had been gashed by a deep blade, the blood thick and glistening in the yellow light. The effect was startling, and I couldn’t help but stare.

The necklace itself must have been worth a fortune. Where in the world would she get something like that? I thought maybe it had been a wedding gift, or an heirloom. It bothered me, but I told myself to forget about it. What would I do with the answer it if I had it? I was, by this time, devoted to Jim as a friend, and felt it was not my business to put my nose directly into his.

 

For about six months after Jim left, Marianne still came for her once-weekly groceries, and to make a trip to the post office. He was sending her packages. Around the third month, though, the packages stopped coming. She still went to the post until about the end of that sixth month. What she really thought of all this no one could know, for she hardly spoke words more than hellos and goodbyes. Not even to the post official, Jester. Except for this one time.

It was a rather cold afternoon and Marianne came in. She remarked to him on the fine weather, it being so crisp that she almost expected snow to fall, even though it was still early autumn. He was surprised that she’d spoken a whole sentence, and so tried not to look too shocked. I guess it worked because she went on.

“It reminds me a little of my home. One of my homes. Well, my second home.” She stuttered and grew nervous, her sentences punctuated. She pulled a stray piece of hair back into her bun, and looked at Jester sideways. “It was cold where I came from, living against a mountain. I loved it there. Until the mine fell.” But that was all she was going to give. She immediately straightened her back and said formally, “Do I have a package, Mr. Bullock?”

She didn’t.

“Not from Mr. Wisp, I mean,” she said, agitated again. “From someone else perhaps… a woman? A letter, with a return address marked from an Anne Marie? An Anne Marie Monroe?”

Jester averted his eyes. He played at examining his fingers. I’d say he was rightfully confused. When he finally looked up, it was just the edge of her skirts going out the door.

 

After that day, Marianne stopped coming to town altogether.

At first Courtsey thought that she was sick, and went to visit several times. Marianne would answer the door, but never invited Courtsey inside. She wasn’t sick, though; Courtsey saw that much.

“You know what I think,” she said to me one night at dinner. “She’s got some secret in there. Has to. Why else wouldn’t she ever let me inside?”

“Secret?” I said. “Like what?”

Courtsey leaned across the table, fork clenched in her hand. “Treasures. You said yourself that Jim admitted to leaving her a stash. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t come out ever. Don’t need to. She’s got blocks of gold in there!”

“Now, you don’t know that’s true,” I said, wiping my chin a little nervously. I was thinking of the ruby necklace, but pressing myself against gossip. “Besides, what would she do with the gold? She’s no alchemist; it’s not like she can turn the gold into cash.”

Courtsey sighed. “I don’t know, but it sure seems funny to me. She’s never been right, not even from the start.”

The thought hung between us that Courtsey was right about the garden, and that she might be right about this, too. But I didn’t really believe Marianne was guarding some secret treasure. If that were true, then why would Jim have to leave again? He had mentioned something about having a debt to repay, and not having the funds to do so. That’s why he was leaving. Somewhat muddled in my mind over this, I changed the subject to Sanson’s son, and we didn’t speak of Marianne again for the rest of the night.

 

Over the course of a month, my wife continued to make calls. But after awhile, Marianne ceased to answer the door altogether. She didn’t come to town, and we didn’t hear anything of Jim. We began to believe that Jim was dead. We couldn’t figure what to do. What if Marianne, too, was dead? What if she starved to nothing, or had committed suicide? Would we be responsible for a rotting corpse in that house?

Sometime in the dead of winter, we held a meeting at Sanson’s. Nobody agreed on anything, except that Marianne never spoke to anyone, and that she and the whole ordeal were way too weird.

Jane appeared, her face as round and bright as a coin. “That ain’t true,” she said, rubbing the bar with her oily cloth. “She talked to me once.” We were silent as we watched her. She just stood smiling to herself and humming a tune while she went about her work as if she had never said a thing.

Courtsey asked, “Well, what did she tell you, dear?”

“Oh! She said something about her Mama being a ghost in a town full of ghosts, but she had a sack of coins for a heart that were still alive.”

We are all stared at the girl. Whatever in the world was she saying?

Jane nodded. “She’s got a Daddy not whole in his body and neither his mind—it become like a cup of bad dreams—and he living with her ghost Mama but soon’s Mr. Wisp makes his payment they won’t be empty or separate no more.” Jane went back to her humming and working, and after a moment we all dismissed what she said either as dumb ravings or Marianne’s drunkenness. I thought it was probably a combination of the two.

 

That night, we decided we should later go down to her house. The following day at dusk we set out. The women had been baking all day: fresh breads, apple and blueberry pies from their stores of preserves. Many of us wore coats and hats against the cold, but I and several of the men kept to our shirtsleeves. I was burning up, and would have thought I was running a fever except that Coulhon and Sanson’s son, who had likewise neglected a coat, were also sweating. We were all nervous and silent.

We knocked at the door, jiggled the lock. There was no answer, but a light was on upstairs. We decided to go around the side of the house. I tried to peer into the bottom floor windows, maybe to get a look into the kitchen or sitting room. But they were completely dark. They were painted black, with what looked like little pin pricks of stars and thin outlines of snowy mountains lining the bottom panes. The whole thing honestly gave me the creeps.

Coulhon was at the door. “Marianne!” he yelled. “It’s only us! Your neighbors! We know you’re in there, now open up!” After a few moments of silence he pounded again, “Marianne!”

In response, a bit of music came from inside. It was a tinkling melody, like something from a wind-up box. The sound reminded me of the jewelry box Courtsey had given Lagnah’s daughter, on her tenth birthday, with a little ballerina inside that twirled when you opened the lid. But this sound seemed older and rusted, as if the inner wheels had not turned in years.

I guess that was all too much, because Courtsey fainted. Several of the women shrieked and dropped their pies, surrounding her. I pulled at my hair and swore, pushing my way through the women until my hands were put firmly beneath Courtsey’s thighs and shoulders. What the devil, I thought. I picked her up and walked around the house and out onto the road.

The group followed my lead, leaving behind the lot of baked goods upon the lawn. They didn’t leave behind their fear, though. It spread over the town like a heavy fog the next day, and did not lift until it was burned away the following night.

 

Courtsey was fine, of course, once I got her home and put her in a hot tub with a jigger of whiskey. She fluttered and made theories about the mansion, which I am sure she shared with the women who came to our doorstep a little past sun-up the next morning.

I heard from the kitchen: “Oh, but it’s true. I saw her with my own eyes! Her face is pale and a little blue—kind of like watered milk—but her lips are even bluer.” That was Lagnah Parrish.

“Who?” I said, coming in. “Marianne?”

The women, who were practically talking over one another just a moment before, stopped short.

“No,” whispered Lagnah, “not her.” Her eyes scuttled about the kitchen before landing on me again. “Though she was the one that did it, I’m sure.”

She told me that Donald McClane had woken to find his wife in a kind of coma. Dr. Olsen had come to the bedside, but did not know what was wrong with her, or why.

 

The McClanes didn’t live but a short walk from my front door. I went to their doorstep, removed my hat, and rang the bell. Donald opened the door. The living room was gloomy, every available surface covered with yellow candles. He led me down a long hallway to a bedroom. Patty’s form looked lumpy under a pile of blankets. I stepped to the edge of her bed, where a stool had been placed close to her pillow. Looking at her, I had to admit to myself that Lagnah was right—I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Donald stood behind me, with his fists hard against the windowsill opposite.

He said, “It’s a right strange thing, Frank. At first, I thought she had caught some kind of cold from last evening. But then she wouldn’t wake, and there’s the funny color. Olsen sat with her all morning, but has no idea what’s the matter.” He turned around and his hands were shaking. “Lagnah Parrish, she says it’s witchcraft. At first I thought her crazy, but after what happened last night, I’ve a mind to say she’s right.”

I sat regarding him blankly. I was somewhat surprised by what he said, but then what could I say? His wife looked as if she were in the throes of death. I didn’t blame him at all.

All I said was, “It’s a shame, Donald. A real shame.” I reached out and touched Patty’s face, and it was cold, like the winter’s night itself.

 

There were other fallen women that day. The only answer seemed to be at the bottom of a bottle. Most of the men went to Sanson’s, talking among themselves for hours. Sanson brought out trays of meat and nuts for us to eat as we ordered round after round of drinks. It is amazing to me still that we could even speak we were getting so drunk.

Around sunset, a group of women came through the door. There had been a fifth fallen woman. Lagnah.

Many voices rose to a pitch in the room, and above them all, Courtsey’s.

“I say, let’s burn the witch, and stop this madness!”

What is the power of a word, of fear? I think on this day I learned it. As if propelled from an invisible power, people leapt from their seats and milled about, bumping into one another and shouting orders to light a fire. To gather torches. We became, in just minutes, like a mob of yellow jackets. It was so easy to set our target: the mansion, and the woman inside it.

The energy hot from each body carried us down the road, fires blazing in our hands. The shadowed form of the house flickered in the red light of the torches as we approached, and I was dizzy with an excitement whipped up by the fire in my fist. Even now I cannot explain it; if you’d have asked me then, I would’ve told you God directed me at it. My heart was beating hard, and my own chant to burn the witch rose into the smoking air along with everyone else. Perhaps I had never felt so alive, so totally a part of something great, because it seemed that there was an electric current running through us all, spinning a magnetic web from person to person. My fingers and brow were tingling as we placed the torches into the bushes surrounding the house. The fire caught quickly in the dead branches, and licked at the walls of the mansion within minutes.

We watched as the house began to catch fire at the foundation, and the bottom floor soon succumbed to the heat. It was only when the planks nailed into the mansion’s edifice began to crack and buckle under the flames did I notice a murky shape appear in the windows above, watching us, as we jumped about in the orangey light.

 

Summerlund was quiet again. We did not speak of our act, and no one went to sift the ashes. It was perhaps enough that for several days afterwards a kind of gray cloud blew on the wind from the hill and into our main streets: dust of the house and the witch, Marianne, leaving behind a trail of what we had done. It was like a bitter kiss goodbye, but no one would speak of it. Instead, we swept our porches and cleaned our windows in silence, saying good day to passersby.

The illnesses stopped altogether, and every fallen woman recovered quickly. Dr. Olsen still could not say what had happened to them, but we all silently agreed that it was because of the burned witch that the curse was broken. We returned to our small lives in our small town: the mail ran orderly, Courtsey entertained with her baking, and the men went sometimes to Sanson’s to play cards and not speak of Jim or Marianne at all.

 

It was not longer than a month when a stranger walked into the post office while I was chatting with Jester.

It was an old woman. She looked like a traveling gypsy, or maybe a beggar going from town to town asking after food and money. Her hunched form was covered in dirty blankets; in fact, the wool itself was stuck through with little bits of crushed leaves and twigs.

She came to the counter, and drew a box from the inside of the blanket. When she set it upon the counter and pushed it forward, it tinkled. The sound made my skin creep up my forearms, reaching the edges of my scalp until I felt that all the hair on my head was being drawn up, and backwards.

“Good afternoon,” she said to Jester. “I would like to send this article by post. To Black Mine City, in the care of Anne Marie Monroe. I’m afraid I haven’t much money, but,” and she drew out a large ruby necklace from the same fold in her blanket, “I have this to pay for its passage. Will you take it?”

Jester reached out and took both the necklace and the music box.” Aye,” he said, “I think we can see what we can do.” I stared at the necklace, and darted my tongue at my lips, where were becoming chapped and dry.

But Jester, never having seen the necklace before, examined it somewhat curiously.

She said, “I want to send the box to my family. It was my mother’s, and the only thing other than the necklace that remained mine after I was sold. Perhaps, if I send it back, she will take it as a sign to send for me.”

The words came out before I could stop them. “Sold? Whatever do you mean? Who are you?”

She turned towards me. “You don’t know, do you?” She was smiling wryly. “I think there are a great many things you don’t know, not about me, nor your dearest Jim Wisp, whom I know to be a sly deserter, with his silver tongue and pockets lined with the souls of the unfortunate.”

I stared at her, repulsed. She had stepped quite close to me. She was not as old as I had thought. Yes, her skin was dry and loose, and her hands like claws… but her hair, wild and tangled that it was, was not wholly white. My eye was drawn to the knots of red and gold coursing from her temples and woven into the white; each strand caught in the afternoon light like strings of glittering fire about to ignite.

pencil

Tara McDaniel lives in Oklahoma with her husband and three cats. Her previous work has been published in Staples, Project for a New Mythology, and Words-Myth. She is currently working on a master’s degree online at the University of Denver. E-mail: like.the.pale.lily[at]gmail.com

Movement of Skin

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Fay Bouman


Small tentacles of light were spreading through the dim Nevada sky, promising the rise of the sun. Temperatures had fallen during the night and tiny droplets hung from the desert grass, quivering in the breeze. Lawrence bent down and cut the stem of a young saguaro cactus, carefully avoiding the thorns. He used a scalpel to slice the flesh and opened his mouth to the soft, sweet pulp. Transparent clumps dripped down his beard onto his overalls and he wiped them away with the back of his hand. His eyes remained open, following a cactus wren as it dipped and arched through the reddening clouds and perched on a thin, gray branch. Lawrence smiled. Perhaps this was one of Eleanor’s relatives.

Eleanor had been found outside of Amargosa Valley two days earlier. She had crushed her skull against Lawrence’s windshield. Her beak had been broken and pinkish blood had splattered her feathers. Now she lay, wrapped in paper towels, in an icebox in the back of Lawrence’s van. He had carefully filled her nostrils and throat with tissues, and laid her next to the paper bag labeled: Marcy—Ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis). Found April 22nd, 1997, Carson City, NV.

The sun had climbed above the distant mountains and was now looming over the miles of sand and rock. Shadows lay still under the cottonwood grove where Lawrence had camped. The black remains of his fire were scattered over the earth.

Lawrence slapped a blanket against the van, sending dirt scurrying to the ground. He folded it, meticulously matching the edges and placed it on the front seat. His eyes searched the ground and when he was satisfied that nothing of his remained, he hoisted himself into the driver’s seat.

The engine screamed as the gears slipped. The noise reverberated off the silence of the desert and mounds of dust followed the van as it made its way to the main road. Lawrence turned east onto I-80. 126 miles to Salt Lake City, read the signpost.

Lawrence slipped on his dark aviator glasses and pulled down the sun visor. His window was open and the hot air whipped through his long brown hair. He knew he needed a haircut, but he had promised himself he’d wait until Lincoln, Nebraska—right before the competition. He picked up the pamphlet and scanned the words he’d memorized by heart: “1997 World Taxidermy Championship: Where animals exhibit their beauty in death, as well as in life.”

Small jars lined the interior walls of Lawrence’s van. Skinned squirrel carcasses and dehaired kittens floated in pickling compound, bouncing and bumping against the glass. Lawrence had removed the back seats and large ice coolers stood in rows along the floor of the van, leaving just enough space in between to stand. Buckets filled with bleach and acidic tannin compound served as tables for boxes labeled: Glass Eyes; Clay; Airbrushes; Knives; Miscellaneous.

Lawrence had placed in the top five during the past nineteen years of competitions. Last year he had walked away with the championship. His winning piece had been entitled, “Shrill Little Voices.” Inside a lush mahogany frame, he had carefully glued silk rose petals. Within each rose he had placed the heads of premature kittens—their glass eyes bulging forth and contrasting with the delicate beauty of the petals. The panel had called him a genius and applauded his work for a full three minutes. He wanted that feeling again, but he was still lacking a piece. He needed to find something special, something unheard of.

Lawrence threw the pamphlet onto the passenger seat next to a faded pink monkey. The doll’s arms were carefully pinned open by the seat belt and a large plastic grin covered most of its face. A small glass reliquary filled with mammal hearts was lodged inside its fake fur chest. Lawrence had named it Napoleon. He didn’t normally work with dolls, but this one had been special. This one had reminded him of his cat, Rosy—they shared the same wide ears and bright eyes.

Rosy had been shot in the head when he was ten, and had crawled home with blood streaked behind her. Lawrence had covered her with tears, soaking her fur long after her eyes had glazed over. Finally, in the early morning dew with red-crusted fingers, he had laid her to rest on the bottom rack of his father’s meat freezer—preserving her for when he was ready.

Lawrence had spent most of the next year in the Arkansas University Library. His mother had left when he was two and his father was rarely sober—allowing him the freedom to do as he pleased. After school, he would hurry to the library where Mrs. Windon would grant him free reign of the facilities. It was clear that she took pity on him. Lawrence had been born with a limp that looked more pathetic than it was. He had learned to cope with his forward lean and slightly curved right foot, which lagged behind at times.

Lawrence had grown to like the smell of old paper and molding bindings. He read and re-read every book on taxidermy, taking notes and drawing diagrams. In the afternoons, he would scurry from the building with a pocketknife in hand, searching for cold mice and rats in the neighboring barns—ready to practice his newfound knowledge.

On September 19th, 1964, three years after Rosy’s death, Lawrence returned to his cat. It was a cold evening, with the first signs of winter sparkling beneath his feet. He tiptoed to the shed and shivered as he heard the whir of the freezer. Lawrence sifted through the packages of Stew Meat, Ground Beef, Venison, and Chicken Necks. Finally, in the corner of the bottom rack, he found Rosy. Broken teeth jutted out from her open mouth and white crystals encased her fur. Each hair follicle stood like a dagger, pointing at him, blaming him for his prior ignorance. Puffs of white smoke rose where his tears fell, sizzling upon the ice. Lawrence bent to reach for her, but the ice cut him like a claw ripping through flesh and he jumped back. Lawrence reached again, this time allowing the ice to pierce his skin. He watched as the daggers broke away, revealing the shape he had once known. He pulled Rosy near to him and closed his eyes—remembering. How could he have been so stupid, how could he have left her with no coverings, with no preparations, for so long?

Lawrence carried Rosy back to the house. And in his haste and with his limp, he dropped her on the stone steps of the front porch. Rosy shattered. Her body broke into millions of crystals—dancing and bouncing along the cold surface.

A violent shiver ran through Lawrence’s body, despite the heat. He shook his hands and ran them through his hair, untangling the knots at the ends. He reached over and pulled Napoleon out from behind the seatbelt. Lawrence brushed the soft fur against his cheeks and forehead, and kissed the wide smile. He laid the doll next to him and ran his fingers along its body, petting it with tender strokes.

The engine droned and Lawrence stopped only for gas, food, and the occasional beetle or bird that found its way onto his windshield. Smoldering dogs were common along the road, but Lawrence showed them no mercy. He hated them. He hated their ferocious indifference towards other creatures, and he despised their odor. Once he found a slightly compressed squirrel that he managed to scrap from the boiling asphalt. He quickly skinned it and placed the fur in the cooler labeled: Fur. He wrapped the remaining muscles and tiny bones in paper and stored it away, next to Eleanor and Marcy.

Twice-baked beans, bread, and vanilla wafers had become Lawrence’s main staple. Occasionally, however, in larger, more equipped gas stations, he would indulge his cravings. After inspecting the aisles, Lawrence would return to the counter, arms laden with snacks and salads and the occasional candy bar. He would unload and quickly limp back to the glass fridges for chocolate milk and water. Overly enthusiastic clerks would sometimes attempt small talk or comment on the amount of food. They would laugh nervously when he didn’t answer and focus their attention on bagging.

After eleven hours, Lawrence pulled into a rest area outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming. He stretched his calves on a tire of the van. The sun was lowering in the west, but the heat remained. He methodically dropped to do push-ups in the irrigated lawn and after the warm up, he headed for the roadside. He ran along the ditches, avoiding the dust and fumes from the passing traffic.

As he skirted past cacti and sharp rocks, Lawrence’s eyes remained fixed on the dry expanse beneath him. His dark pupils darted from side to side, absorbing everything—looking for signs of life. Beads of sweat dripped from his nose and elbows, spilling onto the dust. Lawrence felt the first signs of desperation crawling up through his body. He had to find something, anything; he had to win.

Lawrence’s legs began to move more quickly and soon he could feel his heart in his fingertips, pumping blood, banging on his brain.

He tripped.

A small, bundle of cloth sent him sprawling along the sand. In pain and embarrassment, he picked himself up from the ground and limped to the perpetrator of his fall. Between two small cholla bushes, lay a bundle, slightly larger than a football. The dark blue cloth was faded and torn. Lawrence picked it up and weighed it in his hands. After making sure he was alone, he began to unravel the cloth. His hands were shaking and his breath came in short bursts.

 

Lawrence sat in the back of his windowless van, staring down at the bundle. He sat cross-legged, cradling what was left of a baby girl, rocking her ever so slightly. How could it be, how could someone discard a creature so beautiful? Lawrence had never held a child, and no woman had ever asked him for one. No woman had ever even approached him, and he pretended to understand why. In a society of normal, he was the un-normal. He lived in a van filled with creatures that few found beauty in. But how boring would it be, if everything were the same? He decided to name the baby Rosy.

Lawrence stopped at a grocery store outside of Macon, Missouri. He bought ice, bread, cheese, and a small dress. He found a hardware store and restocked his boxes of epoxy, wax, and polyurethane foam. He drove four miles out of the city and pulled in behind an old factory. Soybean fields spread out around him, lush and green, promising the summer’s harvest.

Lawrence lifted Rosy from behind the seatbelt she and Napoleon shared. He laid her facedown on his blanket and prepared the knives. The sun glinted from the steel, and sweat dripped from his nose. With a shaking hand, Lawrence began the carcass-casting procedure. He inserted the scalpel at the top of her hairless head and pulled it down her back, splitting off into her legs. He pulled the pale skin to the sides, cutting the hardened connecting tissues as he went. When he was finished, he placed the skin in the bucket of acidic tannin compound. Lawrence wrapped the remaining muscles and bones in the blue cloth she had come in. He dug a hole next to the van and gently placed the blood-soaked bundle in the earth. He covered it with dirt and placed a buttercup on top. He bent and kissed the mound and returned to the van.

After two hours, Rosy’s new skin was ready. It had grown thin and rubbery and Lawrence smiled as he began to sew her back together—from her tiny feet up. He used nude, waxed thread and a thin needle, placing the holes as close together as possible. Lawrence left a small opening in the top of her cranium and used a funnel to pour polyurethane foam into the empty folds of skin. Her feet were the first to come back to life, then her legs. Her stomach came next, bulging out from its tiny frame. Soon her fingers rounded, becoming proportionate with her pudgy arms and finally her head took shape, blowing up like a small balloon. Lawrence was careful not to spill, and he waited, holding her by the open flaps at the top of her head.

After the polyurethane foam was dry and Lawrence finished the sewing, he held Rosy’s supple arm and smiled at his work. He raised the hand and wagged it from side to side. He waved back at her and laughed for the first time in many years.

Lawrence found two green eyes in his box of glass eyes. He lifted Rosy’s eyelids and carefully glued in the glass balls. He used clay to prop open the lids. Lawrence sifted through the box labeled Miscellaneous and found small teeth and fingernails. Then he glued long strands of horsehair to Rosy’s head and lathered her skin in linseed oil. Finally, Lawrence used his airbrush to add color and makeup to Rosy’s small face. He took the pink-checkered dress from the front seat and marveled at his work. Rosy was absolutely stunning—his best work ever, by far.

As promised, Lawrence stopped in Lincoln, Nebraska for his haircut. He left Rosy and Napoleon in the car and returned forty minutes later, carrying a handful of his own hair. He added it to Rosy’s head and delicately ran a comb through her new locks. He stopped at Goodwill on his way out of town and bought a pair of white lace socks and shoes for Rosy. He also found a doll purse that matched her dress and he glued it to her right hand.

On July 1st, Lawrence turned off the ignition outside the Springfield Convention Center. His palms were sweating and he wiped them on his pants. He unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned over to unbuckle Rosy’s. He took her into his arms, caressing her soft skin and delicate hair. A tear fell from his cheek and he held Rosy in front of him. He smoothed her dress and parted her hair. They were ready. Lawrence kissed Napoleon once more and shoved the pamphlet into his back pocket.

It was exactly 1 p.m. and Lawrence was sweating inside his blazer. In the crook of his arm sat Rosy—staring straight ahead with her fixed green eyes. Lawrence was next in line. He noticed no one around him. It was only him and Rosy, rearing to win the first prize.

It was his turn. Lawrence stepped in front of the panel. He delicately sat Rosy down on the table before the judges. Then he stepped back and smiled, proud of his creation. He wiped his sweat away with a yellow napkin. He continued to smile.

pencil

“I was born and raised in the backwoods of West Virginia, home-schooled until the urge to meet people came along, whereupon I attended a Quaker boarding school outside of Philadelphia. After traveling around the Pacific for seven months upon completion of high school, I attended one year at Pacific University in Oregon, then finished my education with a BA in Writing for Publication, Performance and Media from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. Once again the travel bug kicked in and I traveled around the world with my parents and finally came back to the states to settle down in Charleston, SC, where I now reside. Writing has been at the top of my list for many years and for some reason dark stories always seem to emerge from me, though there is nothing dark or depressing about my life at all. Writing has become a way for me to explore different ideas and now I would like to share those ideas with you.” E-mail: faybouman[at]hotmail.com

Vespers

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Robert T. Knight


The motorcycle streaked through the darkness, the flash of the streetlights on the chromed machine laughing at the night. Richard hunched over the handlebars, hands coaxing more power from the roaring beast, face split into a huge grin under the black helmet. Though his ears were protected by the hard plastic, he was satisfied when the growling echoes reached him from the nearby buildings. Had he been in any other part of town, grumpy sleepers would be bellowing from their frozen windows, threatening to phone the police. Dogs, protective of their human packs, would bark at the marauding ghost, while he would be more concerned with weaving through the dense traffic of the city, avoiding the slick piles of dirty slush.

Not here.

The abandoned newspapers flitted behind him, caught in the wintry wake of his prized possession. Watching them rip through the twilight, the weak overhead lights cast the streets in a sickening, yellow glow. Only the occasional cat was present to give a baleful glance, hair rising on end as the felines spotted the apparition.

Richard lurched forward, the breath knocked from his body.

He allowed the bike to coast while he rubbed the offending muscle, wincing in pain. Slowing, he came to a quiet stop, the frosted asphalt lining of the neighborhood succumbing to silence. Removing his helmet, he grimaced again, warm breath rising in the chill. Sweat trickled from under his shock of dark hair, toying with his square jaw before dripping to the cold ground.

A quick glance at his watch confirmed he was late. He imagined his brother pacing at the apartment, wondering where on earth his devilish sibling had torn off to. Frank’s wife would calm him down, using a gentle touch of his arm and her soft words to remind him not to throttle Richie when he waltzed in the door. Dinner could be kept warm and, besides, this would be
their first meeting in two years. There was too much catching up to do to remain angry, she would reason.

The flashing neon caught his eye, the beckoning wink drawing his gaze. He wondered if he should call Frank, just to let him know that he was safe. It wouldn’t hurt to grab a snack, a quick bite to tide him over.

He hoped his brother hadn’t cooked.

He looked behind to the chill road, tempted to continue his ride. Shapes moving in the darkness sent shivers down his spine, giving him pause. The small group emerged from the shadows, far up the road from where he had thundered. From their hooded sweatshirts and baggy clothes, complete with glinting jewelry and flashy hand signals, he guessed they were part of a gang. They gathered around something crumpled in the road, their happy laughter reverberating along the callous walls.

The wailing sirens caused them to bolt.

Richie decided to rest for a minute, wheeling his bike to the beaming glow of the bar. Vespers blinked the sign. An odd name, he thought. Though he had traveled the road many times, he didn’t remember such a building. Perhaps it was new, the courageous owner attempting to wrest some form of life from this bleak neighborhood. The cracked door could have been shipped from its former destination, giving the place a slightly weathered feel. He grunted as he turned off the bike, lowering the kickstand. With no windows decorating the exterior, he couldn’t see inside to judge whether the place was a haven from the dangers of the dark, or a mere cage for the animals stalking the streets.

The warmth curled around him as he opened the wooden door. The forlorn rooms begged for patrons, those few that were already there keeping their gazes averted. No sense in starting any trouble in this town, this late at night.

His felt his breath sucked from his lungs. The petite, fiery-haired woman stood behind the bar, flipping glasses as she poured drinks. Her brown eyes met his for only an instant as she looked to her new visitor, but the crush of her smile sent his heart into an offbeat cascade of rhythm. Her dark cropped sweater, unzipped, hugged the white T-shirt underneath, the stark clothing blasting out the Vespers logo across her chest.

“Do you have a phone?” he asked, hearing the croak of his nervousness, yet not caring.

She didn’t answer, but nodded her head to the corner. He gave her a smile, trying to catch her eye, but she was too focused on her work. Giving up for the moment, he made his way to the old phone, dropping his quarters into the gluttonous beast. As he waited, he found his eyes sliding back to the angelic woman.

“Hey! Frankie!”

“Richie, where in the—” A voice warbled in the background, causing his brother to make a quick correction. “—world are you?”

“Some place called Vespers. It’s on the east side. Ever heard of it?”

“Never. What are you doing there? Dinner was supposed to be… ” He and his wife exchanged some sort of remarks with each other.

Richie caught the bartender’s eye again; she smiled. “I think I’m in love.”

“Right. Cheerleader?”

“No.”

“Rocker?”

“No, she’s a bartender.”

“Oh.”

He smiled, imagining he could hear his brother’s eyes roll.

“Well, just get her number and get here already.”

Now he laughed. “Sure thing, bro. I’ll only be a little while.”

Frank’s grunted response indicated he didn’t believe him, and the ensuing click confirmed this.

“What’ll you be havin’?” she asked from behind the counter as he turned from the phone.

He raised his hands. “Nothing with alcohol. Got to hit the road in a few minutes.” His eyes caught sight of the lean man sitting across from her, one of his hands resting near an old, lit lantern. The flame illuminated the man’s dark eyes, casting them in an orange glow. His gaze didn’t move from the odd sight, the man ignoring him as he read his paper, moving only
to massage his left arm, as if the pain from an old injury bothered him. “Say, do you have a bathroom?”

“Down the hall, around the corner to your right. Can’t miss it.”

He thanked her, retreating from the room and the eerie lantern. As he walked through the next room, an older man approached, wringing his gnarled hands, a desperate look floating in his bloodshot eyes. The old timer gripped his arm in a crushing embrace, pulling him down to his level.

“You know, I had to do it,” he rambled. His breath reeked of alcohol, the pungent aroma encircling Richie’s head, leaving him in a repulsed haze. “They weren’t supposed to use it. It was mine! Thought I’d scare them off by moving a few things!” His eyes grew large, as if he were seeing something in the distance. “But that didn’t stop them!”

“Yes,” Richie answered slowly, removing his arm from the drunken fool, thinking it best to just agree. “It’s a shame. Something should be done about that.”

The old man tilted his head, then shuffled backward, lurching as if the idea struck him in his brittle forehead. “Yes!” he answered, his shrill voice grating against Richie’s ears. “Yes! Something should be done!”

Richie made his way back to the entry room after finishing his business. Thankfully, the old man was jabbering to himself when he returned, allowing the young man to bypass that awkward conversation. He walked to the bar, moving to take a seat. “You know, I think one of your customers is drunk,” he began.

“Drunk?” the lean man repeated from beside him, lowering his paper. “James?”

“Mr. Elliot’s drunk?” the pretty woman asked.

Richie wasn’t paying attention any longer, leg frozen halfway in the air as he was about to mount the bar stool. Sitting in the corner, next to the ancient phone, rested his bike. His mouth moved, but no words tumbled forth. More air than anything escaping, he turned to regard the two nearest him, jaws flapping in confusion. “That’s my bike,” he stammered.

“You sure about that?” she asked, hand on her hip.

“Yes!” There was no mistaking it, for he was the only one that had the audacity to sully a Harley by placing the shield symbol of his favorite comic-book hero upon the headlight. “Who brought it in?”

The thin man shrugged, and the redhead went back to her work without a word. There was a sad look nestled in her soft eyes, but she turned away from him, resuming her flipping and filling as Mr. Elliot staggered in from the next room.

Richie decided he had enough of this place. Even getting her number was not enough incentive for him to stay. Something just wasn’t right about this bar, these people. He strode towards the door, intending to throw it open and dash into the waiting darkness. A quick look outside would inform him if his bike had been moved, and he could ride to Frank’s in time to receive a justly deserved tongue-lashing.

Instead, the old door swung inward, and a sopping wet, sobbing girl stumbled inside. He had just enough time to step forward and catch her in his arms before she collapsed.

“Becky!” the lean man called from behind him.

“Oh, it happened again, sweetheart!” In a second, he was there, extracting her from Richie’s arms. It was then that the young man could see the thin, pink dress she wore, soaked through to her skin. The only thing keeping her from freezing to death was a blazer someone had thrown over her shoulders.

The man snatched it from her as he led her to a seat. “Took another one, did you?” he asked in a stern voice, placing it on the counter.

She looked at the coat, giving a miserable sigh. “It always happens so fast.” A trembling hand went to her forehead. “I just don’t have time to think.”

“Mary? Be a dear and get Becky something to drink.”

“Time to think?” Richie had to ask, taking the coat from the top of the bar. He didn’t know who this man was, but he did know that the jacket was the only thing keeping her warm. He moved to throw it around her frail shoulders.

“No, Richie,” the man admonished, taking it away with a firm, but gentle tug.

He stopped. “How’d you know my name?”

Before the stranger could answer, the room began to buzz. Richie put a hand to his ears, wincing from the deafening roar. It was as if a thousand locusts had descended upon the bar, their fluttering wings threatening to devour every sane sound left to him. In front of him, Mary turned toward the giant mirror stretching the length of the bar. Though he couldn’t see her face, her heaving shoulders told him she was crying. The buzzing grew louder, and he could swear that voices were within it, chanting something.

Bloody Mary! they screamed.

Smoke swarmed into the mirror, reducing its former reflective brilliance to a dark haze. “Why? Why do they keep doing this?” she wailed. Her fingers wiped at her eyes, and he could swear that the tips came away with blood. The beautiful bartender turned to regard him, wishing that he didn’t have to see her like this for, instead of tears flowing from her brown eyes, blood trickled down her cheeks.

Then, she vanished, the devouring haze of the mirror consuming her.

“Whoop, there we go,” the strange man said, moving to place a chair behind Richie as his legs gave way. “Becky, get Richie here something strong. I think this calls for my special reserve. And pour yourself something, too.” He sat on the edge of the table next to Richie, waving away the patrons as their heads peered from behind corners and booths. Placing
the glass in the young biker’s hand, he gripped it with him until he was sure Richie could manage on his own.

“What?” was all a stunned Richie could manage.

“Let’s start off slow. Take a drink… that’s it… good.” He extended his hand, looking down his hawk nose at the young man. “The name’s Budd Hookman. Yours is…?” He already knew, of course, but something had to jar Richie back to reality, such as it was.

“Richie Turner.”

“Now, Richie, you’re in Vespers. A kind of in-between place for some of us.” He grasped the paper he had been reading, placing it in Richie’s hands. “I want you to read something. Feel free to finish your drink first, though.”

Richie emptied the entire glass.

17 December 2007

Richard “Richie” Turner died Saturday, December 15, from a gunshot wound while driving through the East Hill neighborhood. He was 23 years old. He was attending Roosevelt College, due to graduate next summer. He is survived by his brother, Frank Turner. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m., Sunday, January 13, at Chase Hall.

“That’s not possible,” Richie smiled, some modicum of strength returning to his body. Perhaps it was the alcohol, maybe his refusal to believe, but a sheer bolt of confidence now coursed through him. He slapped the paper down on the table, rising, intent upon leaving the insanity once and for all. No sobbing girl would stop him this time.

Budd watched as he stalked towards the door. “Richie,” he called. “Have you noticed any windows in this place? That’s because there’s nothing outside.”

Richie snorted, yanking open the door.

Moments later he sat in front of Budd, another drink in his hand, color drained from his face. A finger toyed with the bullet hole he had found in his leather jacket. He made no move as the giant mirror over the bar swirled, Mary deposited back into the room by the uncaring smoke. He did offer her a small smile, trying to give her some comfort, but there was none left for even him. She wiped her bloody tears on the stark white of a bar towel, then resumed her work with shaking hands.

“So, what is this place?” he whispered to the man.

“Oh, an in-between place,” the older man repeated, his voice still calm and even. “I’m sure you know enough about Mary now, given what you’ve heard. Becky,” he pointed towards the young girl, the pretty blonde grasping Mary’s hand as she walked by, “she went to a school dance a few years back. Sad story. Went with the guy she loved, but he just wanted one thing from her. When he tried to make his move, she let him know where she stood. He left her on an old, abandoned road in anger, forcing her to walk the ten miles to town in a torrential downpour. Now, each year on that anniversary, she returns to that spot. Most times a kind stranger picks her up and takes her home.”

“But she never gets home, does she?”

“No.” Budd shook his head. “No, she doesn’t. She ends up keeping a coat or a hat, or some other such apparel that the strangers offer. She claims she forgets, but I think she just wants something from the living to hold on to.”

Richie was confused. “What about me, though? I don’t have any story attached to me that should hold me here.”

Budd raised a brow at this. “We don’t stay here because of the legends. We stay here because our deaths created them. Often, it’s just a small thing that sets off the rumors.”

Again, the quiet of his voice soothed Richie’s nerves, even though he knew bad news was stalking him. It was as if the older man could quiet a storm just with that singsong tone.

“What about the phone call you made?”

A blank expression met that statement.

“You’ve got your paper. Read it.” Budd accepted a drink from Becky before she flounced back over to Mary. “Everyone gets an edition when they walk through the door. Kind of a glimpse into the future, or an explanation.”

He watched as the news article sank into his young companion’s brain. “Turns out, all those gang members die within a year from mysterious ailments, or just dumb luck. They never find your bike, and the police can’t explain how you called your brother from a nonexistent number after you died.”

Richie stabbed the bold type with his finger. “The Demon Rider of East Hill? What’s that about?”

“That’s you, my friend. That’s what they’ll call you. You appear on your bike and hunt down criminals in the area.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound so bad.”

“No. Actually, crime drops in East Hill, so much so that businesses start moving in again. But there’s a price.” Budd finished his drink. “You can never go home again, Richie. None of us can.”

The young biker let his head roll backwards until he stared up at the wooden ceiling. No going home? No seeing Frank again? His numb mind tried to wrap around the concept, a shudder rippling along his skin as he imagined his funeral, his body being lowered into the ground. Then he thought of what Frank would be going through, how his older brother would be the only one left of their family.

The bitter taste of regret flooded his mouth. “Not even to comfort my brother?” he asked.

“Not even to do that. You might get lucky and catch a glimpse of him when you’re out, but that’ll be all you get.”

Richie rose, placing the paper on the table. When it faded away into nothing, melting into the ancient wood, he found he was no longer surprised. He found himself wondering about his calm companion, about the flickering lantern and the way he rubbed his shoulder. Mr. Elliot chattered away in the next room, perhaps having caught the ear of one of the bar’s eternal patrons. A story rested in that addled skull, an explanation as to why such a disturbed old man was now a legend.

His brain was tired, his heart heavy. As he looked towards Mary, however, the same fluttering in his heart he had experienced upon his entrance sprang forth. There, at least, was some desperate measure of escape, a welcome distraction from the ghostly reality he now waded through. She met his eyes, almost as if she could read his thoughts, and flashed that beautiful smile again.

Budd followed his gaze, a glad feeling enveloping his heart. It had been decades since the warmth had settled there, and it forced a smile onto his serene face. His hand settled onto his glowing lantern as Richie approached her, words exchanged between them. For the first time, he saw Mary blush, the redhead turning her face from Richie as the flitting of her heart pounded against the walls of her chest. Perhaps, even in the midst of all the dreary haunting, something could flourish.

“Richie,” he said, rising to resume his place at the counter, lantern swinging by his side. Though the flame flickered orange, a green glow followed him along the ground. “You’re free to move about here. There’s more to Vespers than just a bar. Just one thing, though.” He placed the metal lantern on the table as he slid onto the seat. “Don’t ever go down in the basement.”

“Why’s that?” Richie asked.

Budd laughed. “There are alligators in the sewer.”

pencil

“I’ve lived in Washington for most of my life. This is my first foray into the writing field, though I have fiddled with various longer plot lines. I enjoy the sense of wonder that reading and writing offers, and hope that this story enables me to spread that sense to others. I am fond of all styles and genres of writing and, when not doing any reading, I can be found traipsing through the wilderness with my wife.” Published works: “Manesgrove, OR” to appear in the Midnight Times (July ’08). E-mail: panthaeanprophecies[at]gmail.com

King of Bull

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Kristi Petersen Schoonover


I make beer that comes with its own bull. Urban Legend, it’s called, and each can’s got a story printed on it. All you need to do to impress that lady is read the can while her back’s turned, then entertain her with amazing, terrifying tales. Of deadly South American spiders lurking under restroom toilet seats. Of children bitten by snakes living in carousel horses. Of slighted dead brides seeking revenge or spots where cars roll uphill. No matter how wasted you are, you’re glib as Saki.

Yup, it’s a winning idea. People drink the bars out of Urban Legend faster than I can brew it. Last year, I surpassed Sam Adams in output, for God’s sake. I own the second biggest brewery in the country, and I’m now rich.

And famous. Just ask last month’s Beer Times. Or Bottle Talk. Everyone wants to know “Why Urban Legend’s got ’em talking!” But don’t bother reading the articles; I know the story. Consider the couple who brought home a dog as a souvenir of their Mexican vacation (turned out it was actually a rat). Or the homemaker who bought a very expensive cactus (which suddenly exploded, infesting her million-dollar home with deadly tarantulas). Or the girl who swam with her mouth open (nine months later, she gave birth to a frog, a lizard, or an octopus. Depends which version you hear). This stuff sounds plausible. It plays on common fears. Add a little alcohol, you get a sensation. I figured out how to capitalize on that. That’s why Contemporary Brewery dubbed me “King of Bull.”

Which gives me a lot to be grateful for on Thanksgiving Day. It’s bright and cold, and this makes it out of the question to eat at home. No, I like where I live. It’s an abandoned factory that’s been converted to lofts. Except for the unfinished top floor. Because I live underneath it, on windy days like today, there are all kinds of frigid drafts bouncing around my apartment. And all kinds of weird noises from up there. Like the skitter of leaves or maybe rodents looking to get out of the elements. Not to mention winds screaming through every crack. So I eat my Uncle Cluck’s Cock-n-Bull Special—chicken and roast beef in gravy—in my office at the brewery, where it’s warm and quiet.

That’s when she walks in. A wisp of a woman in a white gown with a poinsettia-red bow at the bodice. Attractive, save for her thin lips and slightly blue complexion. And the smell. Like slugs, boiled rice, and rubbing alcohol.

“You.” She points a squiggly, curled fingernail at me. “You’re the one that’s gotten me in this mess.”

I suddenly regret not being at home.

“Uh… I’m sorry. What mess?” I get the pit in my stomach. The one that signals unavoidable catastrophe. Like a lawsuit, maybe she cut herself on a can. Just give her what she wants…

“The mess that’s brought me back from my perfectly pleasant vacation.” She takes a cigarette from the pack on my desk and rams it in her mouth. “I’d like a light please.”

“In the bowl, there.” I nod.

She strikes a match and lights up. “People had almost forgotten about me. I was finally going to get some rest!” She blows out a long column of smoke. “But now that you’ve got every inebriated individual telling my story, I’m running all over the place again, and do you have any idea how outlandishly cold it is in a cemetery in the middle of October when you’re only wearing a nightie?”

I just blink at her.

“Okay. Fine. How about this. A typical night of my life. In Vermont, I hang from some bridge because my bastard lover jilted me. Then I travel to New York and rise up out of some dirty lake looking for my dead child. If I get done with that before witching hour, I get to Connecticut, where I streak across the road scaring motorists. If there even are any at that hour. And then, just before dawn, I’m in New Jersey, where I was either killed immediately after my wedding or following my first prom, and I’m still looking for either my new groom or my prom date. I think. Hell, I don’t even know who I am anymore! All I wanted was some time to find myself!” Then she cries.

I reach over and touch her arm. It’s like touching a cold keg. “I’d like to—”

“Get away from me!” She recoils. “Don’t touch me.”

“Look, ma’am, I really—”

She slams her hand down on the desk. The ax-shaped ashtray jumps, and my pencil cup falls over. “You don’t understand!”

The pencils, one by one, roll off the desk.

She is suddenly nose-to-nose with me. “Every time someone tells my story, I get more real. Look at me, for God’s sake! I’m practically opaque. I have no shimmer anymore!” She shudders and rubs her arms. “Horrible. I’m like this flat gray pasty thing.”

I know the story on this one. She obviously just believes she’s the Lady in White. Yup. Like someone who skipped the meds today. All I need to do is appease her, talk her down. “What… what do you want me to do?”

“I want you to pull all the cans with my stories on them. All the variations that have a white lady, I want them all pulled. Off the shelves, out of bars, wherever else you’ve got them. Pulled.”

Why don’t crazies ask for simple stuff? Like give me six cases of free beer? Or give me a check for fourteen grand? “Look, miss, I… I can’t… what you’re asking me to do would be impossible… cost-prohibitive—”

“Fine. You’ll hear from my lawyer, then.” She opens the door and whisks through it.

*

This isn’t new. I’ve been threatened before. When I bought the abandoned asylum to turn it into a brewery, people around town buzzed. Said I was going to get attacked by the Bulldog Boy. Or the Melon Heads. Or whoever it was that had been rumored to live here. I showed up one day and BULLDOG BOY WILL BITE YOUR ASS was graffitied all over the side of the building. And whoever did it used neon green spray paint—it was obvious as snot on a bridal gown. But there is no Bulldog Boy, of course. There are no Melon Heads, of course. So nothing ever came of it.

When my office phone rings, I answer it on speaker.

“Dix, what are you doing? I thought we were past the days when your mouth was getting you into trouble.” It’s Rick, my lawyer.

“What do you mean?” I glance over at the bar. I’d ripped it out of our old house before I had it bulldozed. Yup. Had to condemn my childhood home. Nothing quite builds character like that.

“You know what I mean,” he says. “I just got a call from Lady White’s lawyer.”

I go over to the bar and get myself an Urban Legend from the fridge. The story on the back claims that if you chant “Bloody Mary” thirteen times in a candle-lit bathroom a pissed-off ghost’ll show up and rip off your face. “Who?”

“Lady White? She stopped by to politely ask you to remove the defaming stories from your beer cans and advertising, and you refused? So she went to her lawyer, who promptly called me.”

You have got to be kidding me, I think. I light up a cigarette, lean back, and put my feet up on the desk. “First of all, she wasn’t polite. She helped herself to my cigarettes—”

“Dix.”

“I won’t do it, Rick. She’s a nut. I can’t believe you’re buying this.” What’s-her-face’s cigarette butt is still in the ashtray; I pick it up and twirl it in my fingers. The butt has blue lipstick on the filter.

“She has a case. Be smart and let’s just drop this. If it goes to court, you’ll lose. Besides, great stories never really die.”

The only sound is the ticking of the big clock that’s shaped like the state of Maryland. A gift from the guys at Weird U.S.

“Unless you stop telling them.” I toss her butt back into the ashtray and crush out mine. They look like a pair of grubs hibernating in the dirt.

I remember her despair. Her whinnying tears. Oh, hell. There are tons of other urban legends out there. It isn’t like I’m gonna run dry. She’s a little nutty, and it might be best to just play along. And Christ, it is the day after Thanksgiving. “Wait a minute. You know what? Tell her I’ll pull them.”

*

Anyone else’d be thrilled to see a package outside his office door on Christmas Eve. Well, maybe not if it looks like this one. It’s pretty beat up and has no return address. The brown paper’s stained and waxy like the wrapper you’d find at the bottom of a greasy order of fries.

I set it down on my desk next to my Uncle Cluck’s bag. I crack open a can of Urban Legend, and bite into my Cock-n-Bull Special, contemplate the package as I chew. I suppose I could open it. It doesn’t look like there’d be a bomb in there, and there’s also an antiseptic smell.

Which suddenly I’m not sure is coming from the box or my sandwich. It tastes weird. A little off. The roast beef’s flat, the chicken’s yeasty. I put it aside.

I open the box, and a shower of those damn Styrofoam peanuts sprays all over the room. The smell gets worse as I peel aside a couple of layers of yellowed newspaper. There’s a white satin dress.

And now I know the smell. Formaldehyde. And I know the storythat goes with it. Yup. It’s on the backs of the latest batches of Urban Legend. A poverty-stricken girl gets an invitation to a fancy ball. She goes to a pawnshop and buys a dress. It smells a bit strange, but she thinks nothing of it ‘cuz she’s just thrilled to be able to afford a gown. Only halfway through the night, she starts feeling sick. When she goes home that night, she dies. They do an autopsy and find her blood’s coursing with formaldehyde. Turns out the dress she bought’d been on a corpse just a couple of days before. The embalming fluid soaked the dress and then into the poor girl’s pores. It killed her.

Of course, that’s just an urban legend.

I reach for my sandwich and it’s not on the wrapper. Where the hell did it go? Did I miss the wrapper when I put the chicken down?

I shift papers around. I look on the floor. The damn sandwich is gone.

I consider this a minute. Just as I lift my beer to take a sip, I catch the story printed on the can.

Animal 57: The Evil Lurking Beneath the Drive-Thru Window. Think that fast food is real meat or chicken? Think again! Here’s what’s really going on in the back rooms of those chains we’re all so fond of: ungodly genetic experimentation. Huge, throbbing piles of artificially created meat float in nutrient-rich jelly. Headless chickens with fourteen breasts and thirty-six thighs hang from hooks, feeding tubes coursing through their flesh. Worse yet? Some of these animals are conscious. They know when they’re about to be flayed. They can feel themselves being—er—dismembered. So the next time you’re tempted to cruise the drive-thru, stop and think. And I wouldn’t leave that sandwich unattended if I were you.

My God. Maybe Lady in White is… telling the truth. Maybe anything I print on these cans comes true.

Which means some girl really was just poisoned by embalming fluid. Which means there’s a possessed sandwich crawling around my office with plans to take over the world.

Unless I pull the stories. Put it all back the way it was.

Enter the Lady in White. Only she’s—a little difficult to see. Almost like gauze, sparkles trail behind her like a bridal train. “You!” She twirls toward me and kisses my cheek. “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, gracious sir! Look at me!” She flies to the mirror. Apparently she can see her reflection; I can’t. “In just a couple of weeks I’ll be practically invisible!” She tosses her tresses back over her shoulders. “I hope it happens soon! I absolutely can’t wait to get to Florida.”

“Florida?”

She turns. “Well, yes. I’m going to retire down south, sit on the beach, and bask in the sun. I’ll be warm! No more nighties!”

I reach for a cigarette. “Glad to hear you’re feeling better.” Her eyes are yellow, like hops. “Want one?”

“I’d smoke another but I’m almost getting to the point where I’m too transparent to pick things up and I wouldn’t want to drop it somewhere and start a conflagration. Well, I’ll be on my way.” She glides by me. “By the way, my name is Constance.”

“Constance?”

“Yes. I remembered it just yesterday. I can’t wait to figure out my last name and how I died! Thanks again!”

Over the next few hours, the snow turns to freezing rain.

*

When I leave the air’s warmer. Thick fog cottons the parking lot. Yup, it’s real Loch Ness weather to the point I have to guesstimate where I parked my car. The second I get in and start the engine, it rains, like small brutal fists beating on my hood. Visibility’s sucking. But I know these roads, so it’s all dandy.

Until I start over the railroad tracks and my car dies right in the middle of them.

Which it’s got no reason to do—I’d only driven it off the lot in June. I sit back in the driver’s seat and think. It’s still pouring, I have no umbrella, and it’s not like there’s a whole lot of houses around here I can run to anyway.

Just as I think I should get out and see if I can push my car over the tracks, there’s a God-awful rumble. The clang-clang of the bell and the red warning light that translates to get your ass moving because there’s a train coming. And there is. Chugging around the bend, hell-bent right for me.

I go to bust open the door and something holds it closed. An angry teenager glares at me. Some of his teeth are broken. Then, in the back window, I see a dozen or more petite shadows. I feel the car move. Something is pushing it over the tracks. The kid glares at the group in the back and starts yelling, but I can’t hear him. The train blasts its horn.

Jesus. I know this story. I’m being pushed over the tracks by a bunch of dead kids.

I cringe as I hear the shocks creak and groan before the car slams down safely on the other side of the tracks. The train rockets past, so close the car shimmies.

First, I thank God for Urban Legend. Then I roll down the window. “Listen, you crazy—”

The kid who had trapped me shouts at the others. “I told you guys we could have ended this if we just knocked him off. But no, you have to be a bunch of humanitarians!” Angry Teen folds his arms across his chest. “Listen, dude. It’s like this. We were gettin’ all cozy. We were goin’ home to the light. And then you started with the stories on the freakin’ cans about the dead little kids in the school bus accident and how they haunt the place where they died and now? Now we’re back where we were. Once again we gotta stand out here every freakin’ night and wait for clowns like you to come along and break down on the railroad tracks.”

A little girl with blond curls clutches Angry Teen’s leg. Trickles of blood play at the corners of her mouth. “You’re mean. Please let us go home.”

“Stop printing our story,” Angry Teen says as the group gathers around the car. They yelp please please please please and it sounds like a flock of Canadian geese. I roll up the window and their hands paw at the glass.

*

A vacant parking lot greets me at the apartment building. Not unusual for Christmas Eve. My five neighbors’ve got relatives in better towns. They’re at family dinners where everyone secretly wants to stab everyone else with forks.

I turn off the headlights and smoke a cigarette. It’s gotten cold again and freezing rain pelts my windshield. I think about the kids at the railroad crossing. If they’re huddled in some cave, trying to keep warm. If they’re trying to remember their last Christmases. Or if they even know that today is Christmas. I should pull those stories. Let those kids go home.

But I’m the King of Bull. What am I going to do with no stories to tell?

Right now, nothing. I’m doing nothing. I’m going up to my apartment. I’m plugging in that scraggily half-dead thing I call a Christmas tree. And I’m drinking a few more beers.

I get out of the car and make my way across the lot to the building entrance. There are strange-shaped footprints in the snow, ones that don’t have toes. And the door to my building is wide open. There’s also a gash in it, like someone splintered it with an ax. Snow and ice have blown into the hallway. Icicles stalactite the mailboxes. The lights buzz and flicker.

This doesn’t feel right. But I climb the stairs anyway.

They’re blocking my front door: a clown with glowing eyes and blood running from his mouth, and a man in a rabbit suit, who’s gripping an ax.

Dear God. I know these stories. The Phantom Clown and the Bunnyman.

Which means at this point it’s probably too late for me to do anything.

“Mr. Robinson,” Bunnyman hisses. His face is pocked, like from years of bad acne. “We’d like a word with you.”

pencil

Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s work has appeared in The Taj Mahal Review, Adirondack Review, Afternoon, Barbaric Yawp, Bewildering Stories, Chick Flicks, The Circle, Citizen Culture, I Like Monkeys, New Witch Magazine, Toasted Cheese, and a host of others. She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at Goddard College and lives in Danbury, Connecticut. E-mail: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com

Waiting Room

Boots’s Pick
Meg Pokrass


In the doctor’s waiting room, she passes the time by going to the restroom. It’s hard to walk, so getting there is exercise. The problem is: once she’s in, she only has herself to talk to in the mirror. Running warm water over her cold hands and then using a paper towel to dry her fingers evenly, one by one, is strangely comforting.

When she comes out her husband, Will, has disappeared into a sports magazine. Though it could be her imagination, he looks older than last time they were here. He has less hair, and his laugh lines have disappeared. There hasn’t been a lot to laugh about. He has been aging from the stress they are living with, and though it’s not her fault, it feels like it is.

The doctor is fifty minutes behind, and she’s his last appointment of the day. He’s the top Podiatric Surgeon in the city and he doesn’t understand what is happening to the nerves in her foot, and that alone makes her so anxious she wants to scream. He says it’s due to her autonomic nervous system, similar to Phantom Limb Disease. Only she’s not lost a limb, and she isn’t an amputee. During every visit, he shakes his head and says, “This is not making sense.” He always ends with a half-smile and tells her to come back in four weeks. Before walking out, he shakes Will’s hand hard.

Sitting in the waiting room, looking at the clock and listening to Barbara Streisand singing “Silent Night,” she recalls Christmas Eve morning at the airport waiting to travel to New York to be with Will. That would have been their first Christmas together. Her heart was pounding because she was so nervous just like this. She remembers that first Christmas Eve well but she can’t touch it—Will’s breath, her freezing nose, the warmth inside their bed despite the inadequate heater.

She turns to him and says, “Let’s leave.”

She can see the thought of it blooming in him, bringing blood back to his face. She feels a gigantic sigh escaping her diaphragm like the pop of cork.

There are no stairs to climb down, just an elevator to the main lobby with the plastic tree and more Christmas tunes to listen to. Will parked the car on a slight hill so he runs to get it. It’s evening. White lights blink on and off in the windows of St. Mary’s hospital across the street, offering their standard but fragile cheer.

pencil

Meg Pokrass lives in San Francisco. Her poetry and stories have appeared in The Emry’s Foundation Journal, Two Twenty Four Poetry Quarterly, Black Buzzard Review, March Street Press, Flutter Magazine, and are forthcoming in The Orange Room, and Halfway Down the Stairs. She has performed with theatre companies throughout the United States, and considers writing a natural extension of Sensory work developed as an actor. E-mail: meg[at]newbusinessintroductions.com

Miss Rhonda Knows Hair

Baker’s Pick
Sarah Yost


Jonathan come home from college talkin’ ’bout postmodern this an’ relative that, an’ I told him, “Jonathan,” I says, “I been a single mom for the past twenty years, trying to raise you an’ Katie to be somethin’ more’n trash in the gutter, and here you come back from university soundin’ crazier than when I sent you.”

I ain’t got time for all that garbage, an’ I told him so. Yes I did. An’ now he wants to argue ever’ single little thing with me, practically callin’ me ignorant an’ doin’ his best to make me feel foolish.

Well, I told him, “Boy, you ain’t never old enough not to get smacked right clean ‘cross that face.” Thinks he’s cute with all them books. Well I tell ya, you just can’t reason with them kids these days. An’ you know it’s true that a little learnin’ is just about the worst thing can happen to a person. His head’s so dang swoll up, I’m surprised he don’t up an’ float away.

That’n Katie ain’t been up to no good. She’s gone and got herself a boyfriend. Scary thing is that child reminds me of myself when I was her age: fourteen goin’ on twenty. I tried to reason with that one too. “Katie,” I says, “you don’t wanna go an’ end up like your mama. Look at me: worked hard enough to break my back all them years, an’ I ain’t got nothin’ to show for it but a coupla unappreciative children an’ a stacka loans.”

Course she don’t hear none of what I been sayin’ neither. Just rolled them eyes like she was havin’ a seizure an’ stomped off somewhere to go git up to no good. You just can’t reason with ’em. They only believe what they’ve experienced, an’ they ain’t experienced nothin’ but bein’ spoon-fed an’ coddled all their lives. Guess that’s my fault… but I didn’t never want nothin’ but the best for them. It’s just a shame they ain’t never had no sense. Guess that’s their daddies in them.

Those are some men I don’t like to think about. Bobby was my boyfriend in high school when Jonathan happened. He looked right handsome back then, with them Tom Cruise eyes all shining an’ lookin’ directly at things, not milky-bland the way some people’s eyes is. I thought he hung the moon. Course I didn’t know no better then (just like my Katie), and was more’n happy to spread my legs wide as you please an’ grunt an’ holler good-bye to any fancy-pants dream I once had nerve enough to imagine. But just like Daddy used to say: wish in one hand, shit in the other, an’ see which one fills up first. Real life’ll fill up your hands with filthy shit faster’n you can say, “I dream of Jeannie,” or any other fool’s wish you can think of. An’ that’s what happen to me, right there at age fifteen with a bun in the oven an’ Bobby lookin’ dumber than a cow in a feedlot.

Mama an’ Daddy was ashamed, but they was Christian enough to know it’s a sin to throw your own daughter out to the wolves. They kep’ me in, away from Bobby an’ any other pryin’ eyes, and I had Jonathan safe an’ clean at Lutheran hospital in downtown Jonestown. You shoulda seen their eyes when little Jonny came out that morning. They didn’t look so ashamed no more, but looked right pleased with that little bundle. Mama helped a lot—she did the best she could, with bringing Jonathan up those first few years. An’ Daddy helped too, bringing in the money to buy him formula an’ diapers an’ all them crazy things a baby needs.

We was like a right happy family until I made that same mistake again, only this time it was with a black boy from over by the river. Darrell. He was gonna save me from dryin’ up inside like a cooked snail with all his smoothness an’ low talkin’. Well, this proved too much for Mama an’ Daddy. Because even though they was Christian, they was also Southern and old and poor and white, an’ I guess the last four just kinda swallowed up the first one.

They put me out. I didn’t have nowhere to go, Darrell done finished with me, Bobby done married, an’ I had a four-year-old an’ a newborn on my hands. Them’s the bad times, an’ I don’t much think them over. I do recall the cold rain on the asphalt an’ walkin’ a real long time an’ standin’ outside a grocery store just cryin’ an’ pleadin’ with people, till finally someone would buy me some formula or diapers or enough bread an’ lunchmeat for some sandwiches. An’ I remember travelin’ up north to the city, an’ the shelter for women and families. It smelled like collard greens and mop water and unwashed bodies, an’ all the residents shared one big room. The only privacy was just these little bitty screens that you could hear all things through, an’ there just wasn’t no peace the entire time we was there.

I wasn’t but twenty at the time. No schoolin’. An’ like I said I had me a toddler an’ an infant in tow, both gettin’ thinner an’ madder at me by the day. Christmas came an’ went without us payin’ much mind, beyond the donated gifts (a used truck an’ a tattered gray teddy bear, some undershirts, an’ toothbrushes.) We was just so lost and disjointed from our normal ways of bein’. Well, I had to make up my mind as to what I was gonna do with all this responsibility on my hands, ’cause the burden was gettin’ to be too much an’ I feared in a few more weeks of livin’ on the edge, I would just t’ump right on over that dark, jagged cliff. I was scared, for real scared, for maybe the first time in my life ’cause I didn’t know what was lurkin’ on the other side of that cliff. So I called up Mama.

“Hey,” I said.

“Rhonda? That you, girl?” Mama’s voice was real high-pitched, an’ I knew she wasn’t mad no more.

“Yeah, it’s me, Mama. I wanna come home, now, Mama.”

“Rhonda, you tell me where you at, girl, an’ I’ll come git you in the truck.”

An’ jus’ like that we was livin’ with Mama an’ Daddy again. We didn’t never talk about my time up north. The five of us lived together for near twelve years, ‘fore Mama died of the cancer. Daddy went soon after of one disease or another. He had diabetes from bad eatin’ all his life, an’ he had emphysema from smokin’, an’ he had some nerve problems from workin’ in the factory for thirty-odd years. But I think he jus’ missed Mama, an’ wanted to go on up an’ join her. An’ men’s weaker than women like that. Grief’ll kill a man quicker than it’ll kill a woman, ’cause a woman’s more used to havin’ things took from her unexpectedly.

Now we ain’t got nobody but ourselves—just be Jonathan an’ Katie an’ me at Christmas again, since Mama an’ Daddy done passed. But the good Lord giveth an’ He taketh away whenever He dang well pleases an’ He don’t consult us neither. I been mighty blessed with two healthy children, even if they is lazy an’ unappreciative an’ foul-mouthed an’ disrespectful to their own mother. At least they was born healthy an’ I thank the Lord ever’ day for that.

My boy Jonathan didn’t hardly give me no worries until he went off to university an’ come back thinkin’ he knowed it all. He was always a bright child, good in school, got me lots of compliments from all the teachers. He always said he’s goin’ someplace, an’ I’d ask him, “Where you goin’, boy?”

“I’m goin’ someplace big an’ important. Like JC Penney’s.” He said that when he was ’bout ten years old—cracked me up! He said “like JC Penney’s” like that was goin’ someplace important. But he kep’ on growin’ an’ his dreams did too, an’ now look at him! My boy got him a scholarship to university, and some loans from the government too. Worked all them figures out on his own. I wish Mama an’ Daddy had been around to see it—they’d’ve been proud.

But they always was proud of Jonathan. They favored him somethin’ awful. An’ my Katie would just look at me all puzzled, like, “Why can’t I go too, Mama?” An’ I’d always try to make it up to her, with a shrug an’ a snuggle on the couch or some Blue Bunny ice cream, but there wasn’t nothin’ I ever could do to undo all that was said an’ done in front of her very own eyes. I would scream at Mama when Daddy was at work an’ the kids was outside playin’: “You know I have two children, Mama!” But I never did say what I really felt: “Racist!” or “Love my daughter, goddammit!” I didn’t want us put out on no streets again, even if it was jus’ me an’ Katie this time.

My Katie is beautiful—that’s what’s got me worried about this here boyfriend a hers. Carmel-color hair, skin, an’ eyes to match, skin like smooth taffy, soft and shy voice; my baby is beautiful. When she was little I put her hair up in a hundred little braids, but now she wears it straightened. I like it better in curls, but she got to go with what all the other little girls are wearin’ these days: straight hair. I get all the best products at a discounted price since I do hair myself, an’ I can give her a chemical wash if she wants it.

I been doin’ hair ever since I moved back in with Daddy and Mama when Jonathan was five an’ Katie wasn’t but one yet. I got me my regulars, an’ then I got some people who come in from further out in the county. Mosta them want them awful mullet-cuts. I hate those things. Look like you got some dead animal tied down on your skull an’ hangin’ down around your shoulders. I always say, “Sure you don’t want me to even this thing up real nice?” but I says it with a smile, like I’m jokin’ so as I don’t hurt their feelin’s. Country folk is a different sort, even from us small town folk, an’ Lord knows it takes all kinds.

There ain’t nothin’ I like better than givin’ a pretty girl a nice haircut. That’s fifteen dollars wortha pleasure an’ confidence you just can’t get nowhere else—not from no man neither. This one little girl come in the other day with this long tangled mess, an’ I said to her, “Sit right down, honey, an’ we’ll get you cleaned up real nice, now.” She can’t have been but eight or nine.

Well, I washed her hair in the warm water, an’ I used the best shampoo and conditioner, even though Clara says only use that on the twenty-dollar cuts. I sudded up her head an’ rinsed it clean, takin’ my time to make sure her hair’d be real nice an’ soft when I dried it. Then I led her back to my station, helpin’ her with the towel on her head ’cause she was real awkward with it, never havin’ had her hair cut before. I sat her down an’ asked, “Well, honey, how short do you want to go?” That poor child just shrugged her bony little shoulders and refused to meet my eyes. Her mama was outside smokin’ a cigarette, an’ I popped my head outside the door. “Ma’am, how short do you want that child’s hair?”

She laughed that phlegmy smoker’s laugh that Daddy used to have. It made my skin crawl like I walked straight into a nasty patcha basement cobwebs. “It don’t matter none, Miss Rhonda, I just want that girl’s messa hair cleaned up.”

“I’ll just clean off the split ends, then.”

The poor child’s head was still bowed when I come back in to my station.

“Your mama said to just trim up them split ends—won’t be too much shorter a’tall,” I smiled.

She seemed to put her head up a little then, an’ I think I felt her mood lighten. I knew she was scared: like I said, it didn’t look like she’d ever got her hair cut before.

Well, I took them scissors and carefully trimmed away layer after layer of her dried, broken hair ends until only a neat, clean edge hung down right at her shoulder. Now her chin was up a little higher an’ I said, “Okay, sugar, I’m just gonna put in some mousse an’ give you a hot blow-dry an’ you’ll be done.” She looked right pretty when I finished an’ you could see she felt a bit bigger, just by the way she held herself up a little straighter’n taller. “You’ll look right pretty for the holidays,” I smiled.

“Thank you, Miss Rhonda.” That little girl’s smile was as small an’ pink as a mouse’s tongue.

Well I knowed better than to try an’ tell Katie or Jonathan about how good it felt makin’ this little girl smile her faint little smile. They wouldn’t even hear me a’tall, but scowl off into the distance like they got somethin’ real important to think about, an’ I’m just wastin’ their time an’ suckin’ up all the good air they got left to breathe. So I didn’t bother to tell ’em. When Christmas came I just put on my smilin’ face that can’t no one stop from shinin’ an’ grinnin’ like I ain’t got no care in the world an’ asked them all sortsa questions about what they been doin’ until they got tireda talkin’ about themselves. Then I just sat quiet an’ kep’ smilin’ at the dinner table, the Christmas tree all blinkin’ an’ twinklin’ its rainbow colors in the corner an’ them kids just slidin’ their mash potatoes an’ corn pudding around like they ain’t even hungry. Least they could find somethin’ to say to each other, you’d’ve thought!

“What’chall thinkin’ ’bout?” I asked, trying’ to strike up some conversation.

“You don’t want to know,” Jonathan said all sulky.

Katie didn’t say nothin’.

“Well if you got somethin’ to say, boy, g’on an’ say it.” I was gettin’ plain fed up with their danged rotten attitudes.

“I’m getting engaged.”

“Well now why wouldn’t I wanna know a thing like that? You must be crazy, child! Come here an’ give your mama a kiss!” But he didn’t move an inch—he didn’t even smile. He just narrowed them blue eyes like he was makin’ thin little ice slits.

“You don’t get it.”

I was struck cold. “What don’t I get, son?”

He pushed back his plate an’ leaned back in his chair with arms crossed. He was lookin’ real mean—meaner, even, than I’d ever seen my own daddy look.

“I’m not bringing her back here.”

“I wouldn’t’ve expected you to.” But I spoke too quickly, like I was too eager to please. The look on his face was amused: pure hate. Where did this all come from?

“No. I mean I’m not ever bringing her back here. Not even for a weekend.” I looked at Katie. She was jus’ starin’ at her food with her head propped up on an elbow, just like she had been before Jonathan even started speakin’. I wondered if she’d even heard him.

“Well if that’s how you feel.” I felt dizzy, but I wasn’t goin’ to fight it. I knew there’d be no use. “Just know you both is always welcome to come see me. Anytime. Don’t need no reason.”

He laughed a dry little laugh, like a cough, an’ got up from the table. “I doubt we’ll have any reason to come to this podunk Kentucky town,” he was sayin’ over his shoulder. Katie followed him out an’ they both went into their separate rooms, closed and locked their doors.

I looked ’round at the dishes needin’ to be cleared and cleaned and felt jus’ plain exhausted, like I hadn’t slep’ in twenty-some-odd years.

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Sarah Yost teaches reading and writing to seventh graders in Louisville, Kentucky. She graduated from Colgate University in 2004 with a BA in English and Religion and the University of Louisville in 2007 with an MA in Middle School Reading and Writing. Her work also appears in Eclectica Magazine and The Orange Room Review. E-mail: yost19[at]gmail.com

Afternoon Performance

Ana’s Pick
Howard Waldman


Calistro’s day finally came. For weeks before Christmas, the paper magician had been everywhere at once, like a foretaste of his promised marvels. Wherever the patients found themselves—wonderfully vertical in the hydrotherapy pool, or maintained that way by hypertrophied triceps between parallel bars, or seated in the drab corridors down which they pushed or were pushed—they’d seen his imperious gaze beneath the words Calistro Bends the Laws of the Universe to His Will! Beneath scotch-taped plastic sprigs of holly,
posters all over the place announced the magician’s special afternoon performance.

It was an unlikely spot for magic. The Rehabilitation Center, a dark-brick five-story building, stood close to the river in a landscape of cracking-units, scrap heaps, and factories, largely disused. Those magnetic mountains of crushed cars deprived the patients of television. Most had few if any visitors. On Sundays, when the industrial haze thinned, those
whose gaze could reach the level of the windows often killed time by watching the tide push in and leak out past rusting freighters awaiting dismantlement. Weather permitting, they could make out the capital’s white towers, forty kilometers downstream, and enabled freighters heading for the sea.

Today, though, things beyond the nearby rusting freighters were blanked out with a sullen yellowish fog, like prelude to snow, unheard of at this latitude. Not even the juvenile patients dreamed of a possible white Christmas.

The big multi-functional room was used for rehabilitation on weekdays but today the gym mats had been rolled up and placed in a corner along with the weighted pulleys. A spotlight in the rear printed a full moon on the closed green curtains of the stage where the patients were often exhibited to medical students, their condition expounded in carefully incomprehensible
terms. On holiday weekends, as now, the stage sometimes offered live performances. On Sunday morning, a priest performed mass there. A novelty today was the antique Victrola standing on a table to one side of the curtains.

Jammed together, prone or seated, waiting for Calistro, the patients badly outnumbered the visitors chatting doggedly in their temporary wooden chairs next to the permanent chrome and leather ones. The strange cold and the yellow fog provided a precious topic.

Calistro was already twenty minutes late. With the exception of the fidgety children, half-believers in magic, the patients waited patiently for the magician to materialize. Patients in this place had to have patience, as the staff often told them evasively, not adding: a lifetime of patience.

But each time the door opened, patients lost patience and (if they could manage the movement) turned toward the door in faint hope of a particular visitor. Seconds later, most of them turned back to the closed green curtains. The ones seated near the windows returned to the unclear perspective outside, still hoping. Occasionally they saw a headlight blur quit the
fog-shrouded freeway and head for the Center. The car would slowly emerge, sometimes the right color for one of the patients but the wrong model, sometimes the right model for another patient but the wrong color. Sometimes one of the cars was the right color and model but the wrong man or woman got out.

Finally, an attendant drew the window curtains shut, depriving most of them of the world outside. Through the inch gap between the curtains, though, the better-placed patients managed to salvage a view of an empty sliver of the car park.

The young Activities Director stepped out from behind the green curtains into the spotlight, arms outstretched. Charley had a winning smile and an enviable build emphasized by a white sweatshirt. He thanked the audience for the fine turnout and announced a wonderful last minute addition to the program, a distinguished artist, famous for over a half-century on the music-hall stages of London, stepping out of retirement today just for us, you all know him (Charley paused and glanced at the card in his hand): Harry Lane!

A very old man with a cane slipped from between the curtains into the circle of light. He wore a striped jacket of antique cut, a flowing cravat, yellow spats on black pointy shoes and a cocky-angled straw hat. In his chalky makeup, his bright red lips were set in a smile. Charley invited the audience to give him a great big hand, which they did, within the limits of their possibilities.

The old man beamed. He blew kisses until the last ripple of applause died away. He collected himself, drew a deep breath, and then deflated into bewilderment. Finally, remembering, he walked stiffly to the Victrola with its flaring horn like a giant drab morning glory. A phantom orchestra struck up a jaunty tune.

The old man shuffled about and sang in a thin cracked voice that he hadn’t got pounds, hadn’t got pence, hadn’t got hounds, hadn’t much sense, but by jiminy, but by crickity, criminy, jickity, got me a girl, regular pearl, all my own, best I’ve known, name of Sue, forever true, Sue-Sue-Sue, true-true-true.

The tap dance that followed was like a feeble attempt to scrape filth off his soles. The children squirmed about restlessly. The creaks of their wheelchairs seemed to come from the old man’s joints. He tried to twirl the cane. It clattered to the stage. He bent down to recover it. The straw hat fell off his head, disclosing bumpy baldness between white fringes.

The children started laughing. The hat wobbled over the edge of the stage. A visitor recovered it. The old man gratefully took it back and crowned himself at the same cocky angle. The children laughed harder.

Sweat or tears trickled down his rifted cheeks. The adult patients hushed the children. The tinny music stopped. Puffing badly, the old man made it to the Victrola and put on a new disc. The flaring horn evoked a faint memory of a piano.

Back in the spotlight, the old man launched into the next song. He urged the audience to keep smiling, to make December May, to keep smiling for a smile will pay, to chase the gloom away, to keep smiling all the livelong day, not to mope, ’cause there’s always hope.

Just as he began urging again, the Victrola wound down and the music collapsed.

The old man too wound down. He stood there helplessly, slack-armed and blinking. The audience murmured in discomfort.

Charley bounded onto the stage, smiling, and linked his arm under the old man’s, thanking him in the name of all present for his fine performance. He overcame Harry Lane’s feeble resistance and hustled him out of sight behind the curtains. The audience could hear the old man’s pleas and Charley’s soothing voice. Finally, Charley returned to the spotlight. He removed the prompt card from his pocket.

“And now, friends, allow me to introduce a man celebrated in five continents for incredible feats, materializing objects out of nothing.”

A high mocking nasal voice behind the curtains cut him off: “Fraud. Out of nothing, nothing.”

Confused, Charley lost his place in the card and then resumed. “Able to defy chains, buried but resurrected.”

Again the scoffing hidden voice: “Illusion, machinery, mirrors, hoaxes.”

Charley tried to continue with his catalogue of marvels but the voice behind the curtain sabotaged each of the extravagant claims and ended by routing him off the stage. The audience creaked and murmured.

The curtain tugged open.

Calistro stood there, finally, in flesh and blood, white-gowned, before a large draped table bearing a black mantelpiece clock, two empty flowerpots, and what looked like a fortuneteller’s globe. From the posters the patients recognized the melodramatic shock of white hair above the commanding forehead, the aquiline nose, the masterful chin, the thin-lipped ironic mouth.

“Let there be no light,” the magician commanded in the high mocking voice that, seconds before, had disclaimed his vaunted exploits.

He pointed at the spotlight and there was darkness.

The clock started tick-tocking loudly. The fortuneteller’s globe began glowing yellow, stronger and stronger, like a private August sun in winter, blinding the spectators.

Calistro’s finger subdued the yellow glare. He turned to the audience. Saffron-hued, they participated marginally in the miracle.

“Hidden wires, they say. Charlatanism, deception, sleight of hand. Out of nothing, nothing, they say, but… but… what is this?”

A bouquet of roses materialized in Calistro’s right hand.

The audience forgot the painful fiasco of the ex-music-hall star. The real performance had begun. Accompanied by the ironic nasal patter, the prestidigitator’s swift hands contradicted the pretend skepticism of his words.

A white silk scarf turned red then yellow then blue and then vanished.

Juggled balls, too, changed color and vanished.

More things.

At 3:36 by the tick-tocking mantelpiece clock, the rear door opened for the seventh time since the beginning of the performance. Another late visitor negotiated the labyrinth of wheeled stretchers and chairs. Many turned about in stubborn hope. An attendant finally got up and locked the door, putting an end to the recurrent disturbance and to the recurrent hope.

At 3:47, a brawny volunteer attendant tested a chain. He wrapped it about the magician and padlocked him into paralysis. The fortuneteller’s globe turned blinding red. Even before they heard the jangle of the chain on the stage, the audience knew he’d be free for he was a professional escape artist. When vision returned, so he was, free, but with a bonus: the chain transformed into a garland of white roses about his feet.

The tick-tocking mantelpiece clock marked 4:03 when Calistro, standing behind the table, passed his hands above the empty flowerpots. The fortuneteller’s globe went out. After five seconds of darkness, light returned on full-bloomed azaleas, one red, one white, occupying the pots.

Calistro was acknowledging the applause when Harry Lane’s faint querulous voice started up.

Frowning, the magician turned to the left wing of the stage and snapped a few words.

The old man’s voice broke off and Calistro resumed with a quick-handed multiplication of coins, enhanced from copper to gold.

At one point, a flourish of his arm caused one of the coins to fall, perhaps out of his ample sleeve. It bounced off the stage and rolled under a weighted pulley.

At 4:26, the magician displayed a photograph of a bikinied girl. Paraplegics whistled. He shredded her, placed the fragments on the table, covered them with a shroud of white silk, executed a pass, and snatched the shroud away. She was whole again. Paraplegics cheered.

“And now, my friends—”

The magician’s solemn phrase broke off.

Harry Lane was back, this time visible to the spectators. He blew kisses at them. The children protested. They wanted magic. Why didn’t Calistro magically dematerialize the old man as he’d done to bouquets and scarves instead of negotiating his withdrawal?

Finally, the old man tottered off stage.

Calistro returned to his magic. But his authority was shaken. He got fewer exclamations of wonder as things came and went.

At 4:43, in a strange abdication of authority, Calistro pretended not to see what everybody saw, the old man hobbling toward the center of the stage. The magician began his routine of summoning an object into existence while proclaiming the impossibility of it.

This time, the object refused to materialize.

Confidence gone, the magician repeated his formula, reciting again “Out of nothing, nothing” just as the old man started piping the song about Sue-Sue-Sue, true-true-true.

Nothing came out of nothing. The spectators were humiliated for Calistro.

Harry Lane launched into the tap dance. He tripped up on himself, blundered against the table and collapsed into a sitting position, the straw hat shoved over his eyes. The jarred fortuneteller’s globe started pouring out a chaos of colors. The clock had suffered too. The loud tick-tock accelerated. The hands swept the dial faster and faster. The globe short-circuited into a white glare and died.

Darkness.

The globe started flickering deep violet as the furious tick-tock slowed and halted.

The funereal violet light revealed the two azaleas reduced from opulent bloom to black skeletons, a miracle in reverse.

The bikinied girl was in shreds again.

The garland of roses on the floor was back to chain.

Calistro stood contemplating his wrecked magic, drained of arrogance, slack-armed and blinking, like the old man at the collapse of his first performance.

Finally, the magician broke out of apathy and turned to the audience.

“No! Like all things, this can be undone, but you must assist me. Our united wills can achieve the thing. Will it!”

He raised his trembling hands towards the dead azaleas.

“I feel it coming, yes, stronger and stronger, your will coming and uniting with mine.”

A fountain of glittering dust took form above the table. The fortuneteller globe struggled out of mortuary violet, gathered strength in yellow, and culminated in blinding sunburst.

The clock returned to life, not tick-tock tick-tock but tock-tick tock-tick, in accelerating reversal.

When vision returned the spectators saw, O!, the last of the glittering dust settling on the azaleas, summoned back from death to glossy green and perfect bloom, settling on the nearly naked girl, whole again, settling on the reborn garland of roses, settling on the inert old man, settling on the wildly tock-ticking clock with its hands whirling counter to future.

Now the furious tock-tick backwards halted and then resumed as tick-tock at the normal petty pace, the hands creeping imperceptibly into the future.

Glittering with dust, the old man slowly rose to his feet as the orchestra started up from the giant morning glory horn of the Victrola, wound up by no visible hand, the scratchy century-old music miraculously updated, quadraphonic in fidelity now.

The old man repeated his earlier routine, enjoining smiles all the livelong day, but back to ancient competence, his body supple, his voice full and true, belying the furrows and wrinkles of his face. He leaped about the stage with incredible grace, defying gravity, no need for the buoyancy of the hydrotherapy pool. His cane twirled about faster and faster, a blurred propeller reinforcing his limber leaps. Won’t he take off, rise and hover above them, levitated like a Tibetan monk?

The music triumphantly climaxed.

The afternoon performance was over. The old man and the magician bowed to applause, bowed to greater than applause, the tribute of exalted faces, some tear-stained.

The green curtains began tugging shut when Harry Lane grasped Calistro’s arm and pointed at a curtained window with an inch gap, strangely white.

The attendant swept aside the curtains on the raging snowstorm, inconceivable at this latitude. Did the audience take it for a continuation of miracle? Just before the curtain hid him, Calistro converted his astonishment into an expression of brow-knitted power, raising his wonder-working hands, taking credit for the meteorological quirk.

The swirls of snow parted for an instant like ragged stage curtains.

The patients near the window thought they’d caught a glimpse of possibly the right car below.

If so, wasn’t it possible that the right person was just yards away, waiting outside the locked door?

After all those afternoon miracles, wasn’t that little thing possible?

The chairs pushed or were pushed into a metallic mass stalled before the door.

Waiting, a few patients noticed the coin that had fallen out of the magician’s ample sleeve and rolled under a weighted pulley.

In a few hours the cleaning woman would come to tidy up for tomorrow morning’s performance of mass. The priest, an irascible white-haired old man, had already complained about the Saturday afternoon disorder. She was sure to see the coin too. It was copper, hardly worth stooping to. But she was poor. It was predictable that she would kneel and pocket it.

The door opened.

The coin was forgotten.

The chairs and stretchers started moving toward that opening and what might possibly lie beyond it.
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Born in New York but long a resident in Paris, Howard Waldman taught European History for a France-based American university and later American Literature for a French University. His short stories have appeared in Verbsap, Gold Dust, Global Inner Visions, and other publications. He has published three novels with BeWrite Books: Back There (2005), Time Travail (2006) and The Seventh Candidate (2007). A fourth novel, Good Americans Go to Paris When They Die, came out in late 2007. E-mail: howard.waldman[at]orange.fr

Staggering in the Headlights

Creative Nonfiction
Erin M. Pushman


It is strange that looking back on anything in your life, no matter how terrible, it seems bearable to you, and anything different seems unbearable (even less terrible things). You look on other people’s tragedies or other possible tragedies to yourself and say, ‘That I could not bear.’ —Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Hour of Gold Hour of Lead.

In South Carolina, not far from where I live, an escaped sex offender captured a teenage girl and held her in his underground bunker for five days. Long before the girl, he was a master of digging and hiding and hurting. He’d committed other sex crimes and evaded police for almost one year through what news reports called an “elaborate system of underground bunkers.” One year: escaping and waiting and evading. First he huddled down in a bunker hidden under a trap door in the bedroom of his trailer; then he crept to other bunkers, dug and scattered here and there. Then he found the girl. A treasure for the holes, the spoils of evasion. The bunker for her was special; hidden in the woods and booby-trapped, it held food stores and boasted a dug-out latrine. He was hard at work digging another hole, under the girl’s bunker, so he could escape down further, if need be. The girl would have heard the scraping of metal on earth. Felt the bruising and opening of the clay below her. He dug these bunkers out himself like a weasel or a fox, crude dens, graves for the living with walls of dirt.

He evaded police.

 

He slips into my room at night. He creaks the wood floor in the hallway and creaks it again when he’s beside the bed. He lowers a hand, tugs my sheet. If I haven’t screamed by now I won’t, so I’m good and quiet when he raises the other hand to show me whatever he has planned for me this time. Shadowed and vague, he could be six feet tall, he could be five. He could be stocky or skinny, longhaired or short. Maybe he looks the same, maybe he doesn’t. I can never tell, and it doesn’t matter because he’s just a nightmare. His presence is real enough, though, that I can still feel him after I wake, can still hear him moving, and I have to wait until he’s gone before I can breathe. His hand slides away from the sheet, his steps knock softly back down the hall, the toe of his left shoe nudges the kitchen door back open, and I hear the comforting click as he shuts it gently behind him. Then, breathing finally, I am able to unwind myself from the tight knot I’ve formed in my bed.

 

A woman in Washington Township, Michigan, an hour or so from where my mother lives, went missing. Her husband said she got into a dark car he didn’t recognize and never came home. An investigation ensued. Before the husband was a suspect, indeed before there was even a crime to be a suspect of, my mother knew the husband killed his wife, and she knew he cut his wife up, and she knew his wife’s body was “in or around the house.” My mother called the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office.

“You’ll think this is crazy,” she said, “but this is what I have in my head. I tend to pick things up, and this is just a feeling I’ve picked up.”

My mother will know things, just that, know them by a turned-in sight, a sense that works upside-down of other senses. If I lose my watch or my favorite pen, I can call her and tell her it is lost; she will close her eyes and “pick up” mercurial imprints—like a photograph not quite there, planned but never taken—images of where the thing has gone. “It’s in a warm place,” she’ll say, “somewhere light comes in…” Or “Do you have an orange bag, or something bright, something holding something else, it’s around there.” Then I will find my pen landed on the windowsill behind the nightstand or my watch fallen inside the orange bag of cat food. Or someone will die, and when I call to tell her, I will find she has felt the dying in the dawn and has by now washed and readied her clothes for the funeral. Or she will call to tell me that this or that something has finally come to pass, and for days now she has known it would.

 

Something in the tilt of his head lets me know he’ll get my husband first. He has a knife or a gun, has it tight and cool in that awful hand, and he’ll make me watch Chris die before he starts in on me. He moves his body, tapping little meanings out into the air with the noises of his clothing: belt buckle clinking for me, shirtsleeve shushing Chris. Soon I know there will be other noises. Soon. I know. But before that, just before, a scream builds in me, then sticks. The sticking scream thrashes me around and forces some other noises out. Small hisses and gulps of sound. Compressed, staggering movements. But they’re all enlarged and inflated by the quiet of the night and the closeness of the bed, and they wake Chris.

“It’s okay, Baby. It’s okay.” But it isn’t.

“He’s in the house. Someone’s in the house.”

“There’s no one.”

“Don’t you hear him? Can’t you hear him?”

“No one’s here.” Just then the noises stop. He is silent, and he is gone.

 

Because the teenage girl was a minor, the police would not release any information about if or how the bunker man abused her. But one day, while he was sleeping, she snatched his cell phone and text messaged her mother, typing out that she was in a bunker in the woods. The bunker man woke and caught her with the phone, but the girl said she was just playing with it. Assuming his victim was a silly little thing, the bunker man believed her.

He was evading police.

 

Coming through the kitchen door, he is too noisy this time; the scrape of the lock being forced stirs me to consciousness, and his heavy step on the tile floor yanks me square to the middle of that point between waking and awake. Still it’s like coming up from underwater, and I cannot quite make the surface, and without making the surface, I cannot scream. And he is not in the bedroom yet, and there would be time to act, to run, to climb out the window, to lift the lamp’s base in defense, but I cannot make the surface, and I cannot scream. I make only a small mewing, a small, small no, no, no-ing. He comes. Chris will not wake.

 

Within twenty-four hours of my mother’s phone call, the Macomb County Police considered the husband a person of interest in the disappearance of his wife. A day or so after that, he became a suspect.

Searching his house, investigators found the wife’s torso in the garage and other parts of her in the wooded area behind their house. My mother called to tell me this. Her head was pounding with the knowledge “in or around the house.” Now the husband was a suspect in the murder and dismemberment of his wife.

But he evaded police.

 

During one trip back home, I spend several days with my old friend Amey, who is visiting her family too. I don’t sleep much; he wakes me every night. Creeping up the gravel drive, circling the house, peering in the windows. Until he finds mine. He grades the gravel under his boots. He grinds the grass below the windows. I feel the imprint he sinks with his treads into the dirt patch he has scraped beneath my sill. His mark here. I make no sound.

One late night, Amey and I get drunk with her dad, and I go far enough to say, “Look, Mitch, I’m a little afraid lately of getting raped and… worse; I’ve taken a self-defense class, but it’s all choreography; you’ve been to Vietnam, what’s the best thing to do if someone’s trying to get you?” Amey’s dad doesn’t even shift his eyes; he just looks directly at me, then stands up and shows me and Amey three ways to kill someone with our hands.

 

Suspecting the police were on to him and would eventually approach his animal den, the bunker man fled, leaving young Miss _____ there and telling her not to make a peep. The police were on to him too, and they were searching the woods. Knowing the police wouldn’t find her, burrowed away in the earthen hole, by sight or smell, young Miss _____ screamed anyway. She heard the police searching the woods above her head, and she screamed and screamed. The police evaded the booby traps, found the teenage girl, and later arrested the bunker man.

Would I have the courage to grab his cell phone and call for help? Doubtful. I can hardly manage a scream in my dreams. And anyway. Once I was a victim, not of a violent crime but of a drunken one, one that guaranteed me two years of physical rehabilitation before I could walk again unaided. I had the chance to run or dive or jump from the car’s screaming trajectory. But I did nothing.

 

Or maybe, when I’m staying with my brother and sister-in-law, he comes as the shadow man sneaking in through the door in the back of the garage. He drags his feet this time, whisper, whisper, whispering them on the carpet. I wake as he passes my bed—passes it—on his way to the baby’s room. He’s come to get my niece, and I strain to push my scream out, strain to stop him, strain to warn my brother and rouse my husband to help. The scream does come, and this time, hundreds of miles away from my own bedroom, the scream evaporates him.

 

When the Macomb County Police Department found the remains of Mrs. _____, they sent out a press release saying they’d received some phone tips, taken them seriously, and would continue to pay attention to them.

The husband ran on.

My mother’s head pounded.

 

I was walking, close to the outside edge of a curve in a sidewalk, a good five feet from the street. Hearing the Audi Station wagon before I saw it, I instinctively looked to see how close I was to the road. I’m fine, I thought. But I was not. Seeing the headlights, seeing they would not make the sharp curve in the street, I stood and watched and listened. Someone inside the car shouted “We’re not gonna make it!” No, I thought, we’re not.

So the hood came, and I rode it for a while, strangely watching the screaming on the other side of the windshield before we—the car, the Audi driver, the passengers, and I—slammed into a brick wall, and I bounced off and sailed through some tall bushes and landed on the earth. Slamming, sailing, landing. I, silent throughout. They, screaming from behind the safety of their glass.

The Audi driver wanted to evade police.

I stayed conscious. When the Audi driver said, “I killed her, oh shit, I killed her, I’m going to jail for the rest of my life. Shit, I’ve gotta get out of here,” I stayed awake and pushed from my mouth the earth that clogged it, and finally, finally screamed:

“I’m not dead. I’m not dead! Call 911. I need you to call 911!” And I screamed I had dirt in my mouth. I screamed my head was bleeding. But I did not pass out, so when a neighbor ran from his house and said, “I can’t see you. Where are you?” I told him where I was, and which building my roommates lived in, and the number to call my parents, and the name of the dorm where he could find my brother, and when the paramedics came I gave them my social security number and my student ID.

 

Still I have a shadow man, a dream rapist, and sometimes, I feel this is coming to me. His cold, cold hands and the rest of him, an impact harder, oh so much harder, than the hood of an Audi station wagon. “This I could not bear”…

 

My mother called the Macomb County Sheriff’s Office back and told them the husband was heading up north, that he planned to drive across the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula and head west from there.

“But he’s not at the bridge yet,” she said. She said they could probably find him “in or around” a park in the tip of the Lower Peninsula.

They found him in Wilderness State Park, in Emmet County, Michigan, at the high edge of the Lower Peninsula. He’d planned to go to a cabin in Escanaba, due west of the Mackinac Bridge.

 

When my mother calls to tell me this news, I am driving home on I-85, through South Carolina. In the dark. She tells me the ending of this story; the telling, telling, telling will not stop. And I don’t ask it to. My hands slip on the wheel. Cold, sweating breaths I can not catch hold of. I can’t see straight, and I realize it’s because I am crying. And because Macomb County, Michigan and the woods at the edge of the Lower Peninsula are flaring up behind my eyes. But I know I am not crying for Mrs. _____. I am crying because I don’t want my mother to have known this. To know the hiding places of lost things, to feel the dying of a relative, to sense the coming of an event, these are acceptable knowings, things allowable in a mother’s mind, or in my mother’s at least. But I don’t want for her to know this, not killing and burying, not the taking off of limbs, not to be tapped into an evil mind, not to track it like a cat. Not.

My head pounds. I want to reach for my water bottle, to click my phone shut, but my mother says:

“And I think you’ve been doing this in your dreams too, picking up, things happening around you. I’ve been thinking this for a long time; I haven’t wanted to say…”

And worse.

I have the same ability my mother does. Though it does not come as strongly to me, nor do I make as good a use of it. For a solid month before that Audi station wagon came careening down the road and onto the sidewalk, I’d seen it happening. I saw it almost every time I approached the part of a sidewalk that edges up to the street, and the night before, I dreamed the whole thing out, from the moment of impact when my knees collided with the Audi’s bumper to the arrival in the hospital when the doctors categorized me as critical but stable. But when I heard the tires screaming and saw the headlights dashing toward me in a sprint, I never thought to run. I simply staggered two paces back and murmured something like, “Oh.”

Sometimes he steps out of my dreams to peer at me from the basement entrance below the sidewalk I take to my car at night, or to squat in the bushes just inside the entrance of the park where I walk my dog, or to follow discretely behind me, several car lengths on the highway, creeping closer all the time. I hope I am wrong about this, that he is not coming toward me, really, but if the shadow rapist is waiting for me in the dark, I hope I can do more than stagger in the headlights.

Some names have been changed in this piece.

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“My creative nonfiction has been published in several journals, including Moonshine, Thrift Poetic Arts, and Works.Org as well as The Asheville Times newspaper. I am also a playwright, and my plays can be seen regularly on stages around the Carolinas. One of my monologues has been published in the prestigious More New Monologues by Women for Women by Heinemann of Heinemann/Boyton-Cook.” E-mail: epushman[at]limestone.edu