Already Gone

Fiction
A.M. Riley


Each day as I get ready for work, I look in the mirror, questioning the stranger, that guy shaving his three-day-old five o’clock shadow, who dares stare back at me with such a steady gaze. I hate him. Sickened by the shake in his hand, it’s hard not to notice the liver spots and stray dark hairs that have begun to creep along his hands and arms, a quiet warning that time is against him. The razor left on the counter, a touch of water and blood still there, marks the beginning of the day.

The sound of pebbles crunching under the tires of the heavy Chevy Nova is the cue to grab my faded blue work jacket and get going. I can barely make out Jerry’s face from the fog that surrounds him. The sweet smell of weed slaps me as I slide across the cold leather seat catching for a moment, as I do every morning, on the sharp edges where it is ripped and torn. I accept the joint, cradling it comfortably between my fingers. Jerry and I say five or six sentences during the twenty-minute ride. I thank him for dropping me off on his way to work. He nods and cranks up Zeppelin as he screeches bald tires across the newly paved parking lot.

The glass doors of the IBS, Inc. Building, a joke of a name that is not lost to employees and board members alike, open as my work boot draws near. I make my way through the crowds of cheap Men’s Warehouse suits and trashy secretaries drenched in knock-off perfumes. Early in the morning the grey basement is quiet. I pick up the scribbled time card and clock in, right on time. Ten years now, I’ve been working at this job; I’m good at what I do. It wasn’t my dream job to be a Maintenance Engineer, a glorified handyman, but you have to do what’s easy, what pays the bills. I thought I’d still be traveling the world, maybe settling back down in Europe, but after I left the Army gig my desire seemed to fade.

“Good morning.” Don smiles. His breath is warm with the smell of black coffee.

“Hey, buddy. What’s going on?” I pick up the stride and walk alongside the one man who stands between my promotion and me, my best friend.

Only a short time ago, two years maybe, I trained Don, taught him the ropes, let him in on a few of my workplace secrets, my specialties to get the job done and maybe the occasional slight pat on the back. Surprising as it was, Don took those ideas and hidden jewels, making them his own. He had excuses, always. It didn’t matter. Don kisses ass just the way they like it, tries offering Brown-Nosing 101 to me every chance he gets. He soon realized I didn’t play life that way and simply gave up on me. Before long he was ditching the striped uniform shirt with the name patch, embellished in a fancy cursive font, for polo shirts with the IBS, Inc. logo, available for purchase in the company gift shop downstairs.

“I wanted to get in early and check the computer room again.” Don’s face wrinkles as he speaks, forcing his thick glasses up and down.

My steps become heavy. I know what Don is doing. I don’t blame him. I was trying to do the same. “I’ll help you,” I offer.

Don thinks of telling me no, hesitation dripping from his pointed chin. He smiles again, showing off those financed veneers. “Okay, yeah.” He faces me as we await the elevators. The tension is gone. “You and Rebecca want to go to dinner on Friday?”

My family of keys sings a song on my hip as I shift from side to side. “Sure. I’ll call her at lunch but it sounds good to me.” I am pretty good at throwing out bullshit, been doing it all my life, learned it from my dad, a family tradition if you will.

“Have things been a little better between you two?” Don asks.

“No,” I answer.

“Damn, sucks to hear that.” Don avoids my gaze. “Is she still talking about leaving?”

I study the new blonde highlights scattered about his head. I hate it when men do shit like that. You wouldn’t catch my ass sitting in a salon getting highlights or anything else. Don notices the attention, he grins smugly while running small tanned fingers through the golden specks. I have to look away.

“She’s gonna do it. She has something lined up with one of those girls she works with at her office,” I admit.

Don shakes his head. “You just going to sit there and let her walk?”

I think about that question for a minute. “Yeah, I am.”

Don’s bulging brown eyes grow even larger. “I wouldn’t let my wife just walk out the door. You need to fight her.”

I grunt. “Fight her,” I repeat, “I can’t fight her anymore, man.” The elevator begins to moan as we near the fourteenth floor. “I’d leave me too if I was her.” I don’t have the energy to lie. My buzz is beginning to disappear.

*

Walgreens is packed with screaming kids and fat housewives. I hate it when Dad picks me up from work, then takes me along for his errands. Dad loves the drugstore, picking up pain pills for his ulcer, Tums by the case, fruit flavor only, or special ointments for his chronic foot fungus. It’s questionable if the pain pills are a true necessity but the ointment a given.

Occasionally, I pick up Rebecca’s birth control pills or pads when she is working late. I get a kick out of watching Dad cringe as I hold the pink plastic bag on the side nearest him, moving in closer as I notice him inch away. One of the few games we have ever played together.

“My pills will be ready in about ten minutes.” Rebecca comes up behind us. She notices the case of Pabst Blue Ribbon hitchhiking on the bottom of the cart and rolls her eyes. I’m sure she is regretting accepting Dad’s offer to ride along today.

“It’s his,” I whisper, leaning in to snatch a quick glimpse of her sweet perfume—Eternity. God, I miss her.

“Of course it is, Jack,” she turns away from me, “But I’m sure you’ll help him out with it.” Her voice is flat, empty.

Rage burns inside of me. I want to slap her. She knows I won’t touch her in the store, never in front of others, and it feeds her courage. “No, I won’t.”

Rebecca’s ponytail swings away from me. She laughs to herself but it is all for me. “I’m getting some Diet Coke,” she says into the air.

Relishing the sound of her high heels clicking on the linoleum, I watch her walk away. She is still the best-looking woman I’ve ever been with—big boobs, long neck, and legs that never stop. We haven’t made love in weeks, and it angers me that she is concerned about getting those damn pills. I assume she is hoping things will get better, but I know I am only kidding myself.

Dad drives to his house where we eat pot roast and potatoes with mom, my big brother Jerry, and my sister’s kid. I want to go home but I stay. Mom has asked me to look at the dishwasher while I’m there.

Rebecca is very quiet. She has become distant with my family, more than usual, not ready to forgive my parents. Although it has been a few weeks, it still feels fresh, ripe. It is pointless to make a real issue out of it, but I haven’t really forgiven them either.

No big deal asking me to test drive a car they were thinking of buying for my sister, Jenny. And that wasn’t a big deal. Because I am a good mechanic, friends and family ask me all the time to work on cars and shit like that. Sometimes I get a twenty shoved in my pocket but more times than not my reward is an ice-cold case of beer.

The fact that I had been drinking for three hours with my dad that day as we watched Earnhardt kick ass in Daytona was the part that really pissed Rebecca off. Was I drunk? Totally wasted. When the race was over, Dad was ready to go. We’d spent quality father-son time together—I couldn’t say no. He threw the keys towards my head, shouting a quick heads-up, prompting me to make the catch in mid-air.

Rebecca begged me not to leave. We argued in the garage, our tense voices bouncing off the walls in an echo, for about twenty minutes before Dad interrupted. Dad and Rebecca yelled for several minutes until she began to cry. Dad hates all that “sappy shit” as he calls it and instantly stopped yelling at her.

“You coming, son?” Dad asked calmly. “Or are you whipped?” The back door slammed behind him.

My eyes followed the sound of his footsteps as he headed down the drive. For a moment, I was reminded of the nights he would slam the door after fighting with my mom, his large shoes thumping into the darkness where he disappeared for days. Instinctively running after him every time, I found him long gone before making it outside.

“Jack?” Rebecca’s voice broke the silence.

“I will be right back.” As I hurried to catch up with him, my stomach rumbling and growling, the urge to throw up overwhelmed me. I bent over the hedge on the side of the drive way and heaved loudly, liquid spurting onto the ground, traces dribbling down the corners of my mouth.

“Good God,” Dad growled in disappointment. “You need to learn how to hold your liquor, boy.” He waved me on to get going.

Using the back of my hand, I wiped the spit from my mouth, glancing back at the house, making sure Rebecca hadn’t seen me. The flashing headlights blind me for a moment as Dad yells again, and I run down the driveway, stumbling over stones and my own feet as I make it to the driver’s seat, and we head out.

When I turned the sharp corner on Hampton Avenue, I didn’t even see the light pole; it literally jumped out in front of me, forcing me face first into the steering wheel of the car, crushing my two front teeth.

My first thought wasn’t of the warm blood seeping out of my mouth or even the excruciating pain but of my marriage. Rebecca, I was confident, would be finished with me, my parents, everything, a sobering thought.

Pissed that I hit the light pole, making a large dent in the hood of the car, Dad repeatedly yelled, “What the hell were you thinking?” Inspecting the damage with a flashlight and the high beams, he grumbled ‘shit’ a few times before shining the flashlight in my face, blinding me again.

“You’re coming out here tomorrow and fixing this.”

Dad grabbed something from the glove box that shimmered as he stuffed it into my jacket pocket. I felt around, realizing it was the small handgun he kept under the counter at the store. After gathering his camo jacket and the three beer cans he downed during our joy ride, he locked the door. The car belonged to the retired Yankee who worked third shift for Dad at the 7-Eleven, lending the car for the weekend, hoping for a quick sale. The people who lived next door to the light pole, allowed us to use their phone. Moments later, Jerry picked us up, the three of us riding in silence all the way to my apartment.

“Get that looked at,” Dad bellowed from the window as they backed up into the street.

Waving a bloody hand in acknowledgement, I carefully climbed the two flights of stairs. Rebecca had to be home. I was sure that she asked Jerry to drive her over the minute I left with Dad. There was a time that she would have waited on me, even just to fight a little more, but I knew that time had passed. Rebecca pretended to be asleep when I came into the bedroom. I turned on the lamp. Minutes passed, uncomfortable, hour-long minutes.

“Babe,” I whispered as I nudged her arm. “Rebecca,” I said a little louder when she didn’t answer.

“What?” Rebecca said angrily as she sat up and stared at my beaten face.

I looked away. “I need you to take me to the hospital.”

Rebecca’s face turned white as she continued to stare at my disheveled appearance. “I can’t,” she finally murmured as if in some kind of trance. “I just can’t, Jack.”

I watched in disbelief as Rebecca curled back under the white comforter, acting as if I wasn’t even there. It was the first real sign that things had changed for good. Rebecca could get mad, upset, whatever, but the minute she knew I needed her she was by my side. Even that first time I hit her, I felt so guilty I slammed my fist into the refrigerator and broke my hand in four places. Rebecca rushed to my side and drove me to the urgent care. The fight forgotten, never mentioned again. This time was different.

She didn’t move again. For a long time before I got up, I stared down at her, feeling as if she had already left. In the living room, I called Jerry and watched a little Letterman. More than once I swore I heard her crying while I was waiting but when I looked back in the room, the ghostlike form still hadn’t moved.

*

Rebecca agrees to go to dinner with Don and Kim as long as I don’t try to act like it is a date. Of course, I agree to her terms and conditions, willing to do anything to spend a night close to her, watching her smile and laugh.

The first thing I loved about Rebecca was that laugh. She didn’t put out like the other girls I dated, but it didn’t matter, because she made me laugh. And I’ve never been one to laugh much. My only complaint in the old days with Rebecca was the fact that my mouth ached all of the time from smiling so damn much. I’d think it was all some crazy ass dream if it wasn’t for Don reminding me when I get down how good it really was.

The four of us have been friends the entire four years Rebecca and I have been married. When they were introduced, Kim and Rebecca hit it off immediately. Their friendship worked out just right for Don and me. We are able to take the wives to football games and races confident they wouldn’t feel ignored or deprived—it was perfect.

We choose our favorite spot, Dugan’s on the river. It feels like old times when we are able to get our regular table out on the wooden deck overlooking the Bush River. Rebecca and Kim sip on red wine from Spain as Don and I guzzle down Budweiser long necks from St. Louis.

The three of them spend the next hour raving about Don’s contacts. He has talked of getting rid of the “coke bottle glasses” for years, and he now sports two ocean-blue eyes. Everyone loves them, except me.

“This is so nice you guys,” Kim says with a smile. “Cheers to old friends,” she says loudly, slurring her words just a little, while raising her glass in the air, smiling as we each touch our drink to hers.

Kim can’t hold her alcohol. It’s obvious to me that she is getting drunk quickly. I enjoy watching women lose control when they drink too much booze. All formalities fly out the window and the real fun begins.

When Rebecca has too much to drink, I love it and feel like we are able to meet on some unspoken equal ground, connecting in an entirely different way. She doesn’t seem so perfect and I don’t seem defective.

I tap the red-and-white box on the table, pulling out a Marlboro, and lean back in my seat, finally feeling relaxed. “Thanks for inviting us out,” I say appreciatively to Don. I really mean it.

It is the first time in weeks Rebecca and I have spent more than a few minutes together without fighting. I am happy just to be able to look at her up close. She has on the emerald green sundress she bought as a reward for losing so much weight over the past few months. This is my first opportunity to see it on her rather than a wire hanger. The dress fits a little snug and shows a lot of cleavage; I am being tortured ever so slowly.

“We are really glad you guys came,” Kim says. “We actually had ulterior motives for dinner.” She laughs while leaning lovingly into Don. “We have been busy planning this amazing trip to the Bahamas.”

“That’s so great,” Rebecca says. She has always wanted to go to the Bahamas but we have never had the money. The only time we ever came close to saving enough money for a vacation, we had to spend it on bailing me out of county jail and paying for court costs when I wrecked our only ride. I haven’t been allowed to drive since but it doesn’t really matter because I don’t have the money to buy another ride or SR 22 insurance.

Rebecca is a little jealous. I am not. I don’t know what to say. The envy seeps through her left cheek as it quivers under the pressure of a forced, reluctant smile. This is the way things are. I know that Don has the money for that trip, because he’s counting on getting the promotion. I don’t count on things.

Don reaches into his shirt pocket, one of those Hawaiian fruity shirts with parrots and flowers all over it, pulls out a pair of tickets, and lays them in front of the two of us. “We want you to go with us.”

I am speechless, watching Rebecca closely, searching for a reaction. There isn’t one. Her beautiful round face is void of emotions. She never once looks my way. That hurts.

“Wow.” Rebecca laughs taking a huge sip of wine. “What a sweet gesture. I don’t really even know what to say.” Rebecca gets up, leans over and hugs Kim tightly. “Thank you so much but I can’t.” She walks back inside to the bathroom. Kim apologizes to me and runs after her.

“You okay?” Don asks quietly.

I flash a fake smile, showing off the mouthpiece, something I never do. “I’m good.” I am not.

After Don and Kim drop us off at our apartment, I sit in the living room, relishing the dark. The only noise is coming from Rebecca taking a shower down the hall. I roll a joint, take two or three hits, and put it out. There is no peace, just quiet. I fall asleep.

At 3 a.m., Rebecca wakes me. At once I know that we are going to fight, and then it will all be over. It is obvious that she has been crying for hours—her eyes red and swollen. I feel like a jerk for dozing off. I sit up, trying to look like I am ready for anything, a real man.

“We need to talk, Jack.”

“I know.”

Rebecca pulls a tattered tissue from the pocket of her white furry robe. She calls it her “comfort” robe and wears it only in times of complete distress—bad day at work, fight with her mom, that time of the month and now the end of her marriage. “I’m tired of crying and fighting, all of it.” Her voice is trembling.

“What do you want me to say?” I ask. “I’m sorry for being a terrible husband? I’m sorry for being a worthless loser?” I can feel the heat spread across my face. “Would that do any good, Rebecca? Would it?” I yell. I hated to get so angry. I know that the red is showing through the thinning spots of my white-blonde hair. I can feel and taste the foam building around the damn mouthpiece because of the yelling. I feel so ugly in front of her.

“Not now. No, it doesn’t matter,” Rebecca says. “I just want to leave without a fight. Can you let me do that?” She puts her hands on my face. “That’s all I’m asking.”

I glare at her. Hate and love are fighting to the death inside of me. “I’m not chasing after you,” I say with a detached arrogant tone.

“You can’t chase after me, Jack, because I’m already gone.” Rebecca kisses my cheek, stares at me. “I’ll have my things out of here tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” I stand in front of her.

Rebecca moves around me, walking towards the spare bedroom. “One of my friends from work is bringing over her minivan. I don’t have much. So we should be out of here no later than three.”

“I won’t be here.”

Rebecca nods. “I think that’s a good idea.”

“That’s it?” I ask, trying hard to beat down the anger, knowing damn good and well it’s no use. It’s hard to catch my breath.

“That’s it.” Her voice is a whisper.

I try to stop myself, to control my anger. In an instant, I give up. I do what I know, grab the back of her hair and pull as hard as I can, catching her as we both fall to the ground. Moving over top of her, my hand goes over her mouth to make her stop screaming. “Don’t,” I mutter in her ear. I hate it when she does that. Then I begin to choke her until she stops kicking and twisting. Desperation gleams in her discolored face as her pulse beats into my hand. I stop and fall against the wall.

Coughing, greedily breathing in air, Rebecca manages to pull as far away from me as possible. There is fear in her eyes. She sits there, gathering strength, afraid but looking at me anyway. She pulls the robe back around her, looking as if she’s wearing a straight jacket, and uses the wall for assistance as she makes it to the spare bedroom.

Our neighbor grumbles at his barking dog, an old stray lab that stays tied up to the magnolia that separates our backyards and yells “Keep it down,” to either the dog or me. Sitting in the calm of the darkness catching my breath, fighting the desire to kick down the bedroom door, I notice the jacket draped across the back of the chair in the living room and I grab it, slipping my arms into the sleeves one at a time, precise and careful as if donning a tux. My head hurts. I pull the whiskey bottle out from under the bathroom sink where it’s been hiding, behind the toilet paper and 409, guzzling the remains within minutes.

Kicking down the door is easy. I am unnerved by the way Rebecca stares at me as if she knows what I am about to do or maybe even knew all along. Boxes are piled up, surrounding the room like a fortress. A picture of Rebecca and me peeks out from a box marked fragile. It’s one of those professional portraits, a first anniversary gift from Rebecca. She’s standing behind me, hands on my shoulders as if she is holding onto me while I sit noble in a leather chair, staring right at the camera, smiling larger than life. I slam my foot into the picture, hard as I can. It shatters. The door locks and the light goes out. The only sound is the neighbor’s dog, barking low and hurried.

pencil

“I live in Orlando, Florida with my husband, Bill, and our twelve-year-old daughter, Jordan. After recently recovering from a major pre-mid-life crisis, one in which I quit my marketing career to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing at Rollins College, I am working on building a freelance writing career.” E-mail: lifeofriley1[at]cfl.rr.com

The M.A.A.T.

Fiction
John Riha


Good morning. The Moral Ambiguity Aptitude Test is designed to measure deviation from the national norm established by the landmark research of Dr. Richard Hancock and Dr. Yi Taguchi in 2006. The test will take approximately one hour, although some of you may finish in as little as five minutes. Be sure to read each question or statement thoroughly and complete the test in the allotted time. If possible, check your answers. There are no right or wrong answers, but some answers may be more significant than others. Good luck!

Situation 1

You are working in your cubicle when your stomach begins to feel queasy. No doubt last night’s shredded pork/tofu burritos are acting up. You need to get to the restroom immediately. You grab the latest issue of Lucky/GQ/Out from your briefcase and hurry down the hallway. Your gut feels like a firehose with a kink in it. The pressure is unbearable. Suddenly, a co-worker appears in front of you. This particular colleague has been a reliable workplace friend and confidante, but was let go only three days ago in a brutal restructuring. She has finished cleaning out her cube and carries a pathetic cardboard box that holds an equally pitiful assortment of personal desktop paraphernalia. She is a single mom with few prospects. Her face is tight and unbelievably wretched, as if someone has stuck a spigot in her soul and drained every drop of vitality. She turns to you expectantly. She desperately needs words of comfort and sympathy.

Do you:

  1. Rush past with a cursory nod and artificially sympathetic smile in order to take care of your basic, most urgent needs?
  2. Risk the unmentionable and engage her in a conversation from which there is no easy exit?
  3. Dismiss her by saying, “Excuse me, but I have a job to do.”

Situation 2

You are driving home from work on the freeway. A frantic rush hour is complicated by road construction that constricts what normally are three lanes to two. In an effort to arrive home as calm as a chilled gherkin, you have adopted a Zen-like strategy. You will stick to the right-hand lane, no matter how slow the going. There, immune to the bloodthirsty cut and parry of traffic, you will divorce yourself of competitive urges. You will rise above. However, you soon find yourself behind a Very Cautious Driver who is droning along at an excruciatingly slow pace. Perhaps the driver of the maroon Corolla is a bodhisattva whose ultimate intent is to ensure your path of serenity. Nevertheless, vehicles are streaming past in the left lane at an enviable rate that puts them so much closer to their after-work martini/Vicodin/News Hour with Lou Dobbs than you. You hunker down in your seat as a precaution against being rear-ended, eyes stitched to the back of this VCD, breathing through your nose with large, full inhales and exhales. Orange stanchions and warning cones along the edge of the pavement indicate an impossibly narrow margin of error. Your heart rate is accelerating. You begin to lose focus. You consider an extremely perilous maneuver that will vault you precipitously into the left lane when an exit ramp appears. Impetuously, you decide to take this early exit and work your way along the back roads toward home, thereby keeping your promise to maintain a moderate pace and avoiding any adrenalin-soaked, high-speed interfacing. You are about to congratulate yourself on this spontaneous act of civility when you realize you are being funneled into a fresh labyrinth of road construction, forcing you on a detour route that doubles back to retrace a good portion of your progress so far.

Doesn’t this disprove the notion that God may not hold constant regard for your emotional and spiritual welfare?

  1. Yes
  2. No

Situation 3

Despite heavy traffic, you arrive home from work early to discover your wife/husband/lover in bed with another man/woman/mastiff.

Do you:

  1. Shoot everyone?
  2. Shoot only the interloper?
  3. Shoot only your significant other?
  4. Shoot yourself?

Situation 4

You are taking an early morning stroll along on a country road when you come across a turtle. The turtle is in the exact middle of the road. At the moment, the turtle is facing along the length of the road, not obviously headed toward one side or the other. From experience, you know this road will soon be busy with mountain bikers, joggers with dogs, and mean-spirited children with large sticks. (For the purposes of this Situation, assume this is not a snapping turtle, although it may have some icky stuff on its underside.)

Do you:

  1. Move the turtle to a side of the road, risking that this is not the turtle’s true destination and the animal will, as a result of your action, be forced to traverse the entire width of the road once again, making it even more likely to be injured or killed?
  2. Do nothing besides wonder why a species so stonecold dumb could have survived for millions of years virtually unchanged?
  3. Search for a large stick?

Situation 5

Your mother wants a cigarette. She has emphysema and whacked-out blood pressure and she is pathetic in her blue sweater buttoned to the neck and her anti-edema hose turning her lower legs into shapeless brown posts. She sits in a small parlor chair on a needlepoint seat cushion that was made by her own mother—one of the few familiar, meaningful items in her assisted-living studio apartment. You have put some family pictures on the walls and on her bedside table but she doesn’t really know who is who. She sits because normal-pressure hydrocephalus has made her unsteady and loopy. Her eyes are baleful and watery: her life is closing and no one will give her a damn cigarette. Not one stupid cigarette? At her age? What’s it going to do, kill her?

You:

  1. Struggle to get her into a wheelchair and push her outside to a place by the dumpsters that is mostly hidden from view and give her a fucking cigarette.

Situation 6

Your mother is dying. She lies in a hospice bed beside a large plate glass window. Outside, an early spring has given the surrounding woods a pale green blush. Squirrel tails flicker through the underbrush. A single cardinal, bold as a drop of blood, arrives at a feeder placed near the window. You want to tap on the glass but the impulse is fleeting. Your mother is dying, after all. Small cell carcinoma of the lung complicated by congestive heart failure, renal failure, and a chronic bad attitude but at the moment it is the morphine that is killing her. A substantial dose, administered by the well-meaning if perhaps too-eager staff, has brought her to a macabre precipice. Her eyes skitter back and forth as hallucinations cascade across a mental screen bleached of context. She tries to track the torrent of images—swimming in a cold lake with the raspy ends of seaweed reaching up to caress her knees and curled toes; a rude girl with braids in third grade sticking out her tongue; an unfaithful college sweetheart looking past the steam of his coffee toward a damp recollection; a foreign city street in snow—but the images, made hard and brittle by chemicals, induce panic, not wonder. Her breathing is shallow, like sheets of paper rubbing against each other. Her heart rate approaches 150 although no one is actually monitoring her heart because, after all, she is in a hospice where diagnostic tools and preventative measures are not necessary. The fingers of your right hand are intertwined with hers and with the back of your left hand you stroke the hollow of her cheek. Her skin is as dry and translucent as a locust’s shell. Her fingers are more bone than flesh; the softness is melting away. Behind you, down a hallway, someone drops a metal tray. The cardinal flies away. (For the purposes of this Situation, assume that you love your mother.)

Do you:

  1. Pray for your mother to die mercifully?
  2. Pray for a miracle?
  3. Ask for forgiveness?
  4. Call for more morphine?

Thank you for your time. Your participation in the MAAT has been invaluable. Please place your completed test face down on your desk and exit the door on your right. Some of you may wish to use the exit on your left. We will review your responses and score them accordingly. We encourage you to consider possibly having a great day.

pencil

“My previously published work has appeared in The Somerset Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Toasted Cheese among others. My non-fiction has appeared in Esquire, GQ, and Men’s Journal. I am currently the Editorial Director of Special Interest Media at Meredith Corp.” E-mail: jriha25[at]gmail.com

Buzzards in the Projection Booth

Fiction
H.H. Morris


Tornado, population 937, the largest town in Walnut County, Missouri, was abuzz this Monday with theories about Gil Corbin’s weekend disappearance. Corbin taught math at Walnut County Consolidated High School, located on the eastern edge of Tornado. The most prevalent rumor said he’d run from or been caught by a father, husband, brother, uncle, or male cousin of one of the many girls who’d passed algebra or geometry only because she scheduled unclad tutoring from her teacher. Other gossip suggested that one of Corbin’s failed business adventures had him leaving town with only a short lead over bankruptcy judges and creditors.

Jon Staggers avoided adding his own theories to the mix, choosing instead to listen over lunch at Janet’s Highway Café—one of several businesses in which his grandfather had left him a silent interest. If no one was around, Janet didn’t collect his check. Today he’d pay and consider a greasy cheeseburger and fries an investment in more than cholesterol. He’d inherited the weekly Tornado Independent, Walnut County’s only surviving newspaper, from his father almost five years ago, and as publisher and editor-in-chief he had to figure out what to write about Corbin’s unexcused absence from work and family life. He couldn’t say what he thought—that based on what he’d experienced and observed while a student in high school, Corbin’s disappearance improved the educational environment.

Trout season went well. The county’s court was in session and had just finished a trial of six local burglars who specialized in making tourists’ vacations memorable in the wrong way. Jon’s correspondents generated detailed accounts of the comings, goings, and doings of their friends and extended families. Alexander’s Funeral Home celebrated a banner week, having supervised seven buryings, four of which starred prominent citizens, thus making the obituary page overflow into the classified ads. Count on Gil Corbin to disappear at an inconvenient time. Corbin had disliked Jon even more than he did most male students ever since he learned that the tall athlete was Frank Staggers’ son.

Corbin had taught Jon algebra. Jon was good at math, but you wouldn’t know that from his grade that year. Frank Staggers was one of several local businessmen who laughed publicly at Corbin’s pathetic efforts at becoming an entrepreneur. Furthermore, Frank gleefully recounted the teacher’s various financial woes in the pages of the Independent. Corbin didn’t have the nerve to fail Jon, and he didn’t have the sense to realize the young man would become a nasty enemy when he inherited the newspaper. Corbin’s disappearance looked like an opportunity for the editor to demonstrate that Euripedes had been correct about the mills of the gods grinding slowly but exceedingly fine.

Jon visited Madison, the county seat, and found Deputy Martin Goff, the sheriff’s top investigator, in his office. Martin was almost 50 years old and not yet a coronary statistic. That might qualify as a miracle. He was six feet tall and before breakfast weighed in at approximately 320 pounds. He thrived on jelly doughnuts, strong coffee, Budweiser, and two packs of Winstons a day. He’d have been kicked off most city or suburban forces for being a slob. He did well in Walnut County because the sheriff wanted brains, not the ability to outrun juvenile offenders who got caught spray painting a water tower.

Martin provided basic information: Gil Corbin, 41, had been reported missing Sunday night by Laura Corbin, 39, his wife of 19 years. She’d last seen him Saturday morning at breakfast. She’d expected him home for dinner.

“Laura expected Gil for Saturday dinner,” Jon said, “but she didn’t report him missing until Sunday evening. Why the delay, Martin?”

“She told me she assumed he’d wrecked the car and was in a hospital and that we’d notify her. I asked her why she didn’t call nearby hospitals to see if her husband was a patient. She said she hadn’t thought of it.”

“She believed he was in a motel in the next county helping a local teen angel pass geometry by learning angles not covered in the textbook.”

“That would fit what I hear about him—and I’m waiting for the first female to give me courtroom evidence, Jon. Whatever Corbin was doing Saturday, it apparently didn’t interfere with his driving abilities. Houston found his car.”

“Houston? A deputy I don’t know? If that’s the last name, I’ve never even heard of the family.”

Martin said, “Houston, Texas. Named after Sam Houston, who was a general and a politician and didn’t like Mexicans.”

Martin Goff suffered from a prickly personality probably caused by the rash typical of fat men who sweat a great deal.

“Meaning Corbin ran away,” Jon said. “What from?”

“If you find out, let me know, Jon. His wife claims everything was heavenly at home. Max White says Corbin had become the model teacher. I checked court records. There are no civil suits against him. I did hear rumors of a business scheme so stupid that even Corbin had to stop and think it over, but men don’t run from dumb dreams. In a way, that’s too bad. Most premeditated crimes are dumb. If people ran from stupidity, those crimes would never happen.”

“Then you’d be out of a job.”

“Nope,” he said. “There are plenty of unplanned crimes. Passion and opportunity drive them. They’re hard to solve, Jon, because you can’t find a logical basis for them to have occurred in the first place.”

“What about Corbin’s disappearance?”

“Until I find evidence of foul play, I have to assume it’s voluntary—and more logical than you might suspect. A man can’t stand his job. He’s been married almost twenty years and suddenly feels aged. His daughters are teens and don’t think they need him, even if they still do. His wife has a good job and can make the mortgage payments on her own. Maybe something went wrong between them and she threw him out of the house. Nothing illegal, Jon. Lying about such situations isn’t moral, but it’s understandable. Look back at why the first man and woman in your family to migrate west left back east or Europe. The reason probably ain’t polite. I don’t care how tight Homeland Security gets. In America, the right to walk out of a lousy job or marriage is too fundamental to take away from citizens.”

The obese deputy seemed a peculiar source for the sentiment. Martin’s wife had walked out on him 50 pounds and 15 years ago—or run out, since she and her skinny boyfriend had to get clear of Walnut County before one of Martin’s colleagues arrested them on a phony charge. While Martin was no one’s favorite drinking buddy, he was popular with other deputies because his brains had helped most of them out of a jam at one time or another.

Jon said, “Corbin was last seen Saturday morning by the woman who reported him gone Sunday night. He could have driven to Houston easily in that time frame. Are any high school girls missing?”

“Not that we’ve heard about.”

“I’ll check with White at the high school.”

“Let me know what he tells you,” Martin said. “He gave me what the law demands and nothing more when I talked to him earlier today. My guess is that he hopes Corbin is all the way to Mexico City and still moving south. White isn’t the first administrator to cover for Corbin’s sex games, but if Walnut County is lucky, he’ll be the last.”

*

Max White was approximately 30 years old and in his third year as high school principal. Like most of the students for whom he was responsible, he saw little future in Walnut County. The small school was to become the first entry in the administrative section of his resume, a starter job that should eventually lead to a six-figure salary and a comfortable portfolio for early retirement to Florida or Arizona. White was marginally competent and had apparently never heard about being nice to those you meet on the way up because you’ll meet the same people on your way down. Downward trips didn’t exist in his shoddily-constructed dream world.

Etta Jenkins had been the secretary at Walnut County Consolidated for as long as the school had existed—40 years. She hadn’t been young when hired. When Jon was in high school, students had joked that her first job had been inventorying animals for Noah. The lady remembered every student who’d gone through the school and immediately reminded the editor that Jon Staggers was no stranger to the principal’s office. When he told her why he was there, she broke out her meticulous records to answer his first question.

According to Friday’s time sheet, Corbin had left the building at 4:13 p.m., later than most of the faculty, normal for him.

“He sits in his room and grades papers Friday afternoons. He doesn’t want them hanging over his head on weekends,” she explained. “There are those who’ll tell you it’s a sign that he’s finally matured as a teacher and a family man.”

A barely perceptible toss of her head and a disgusted expression showed that one of “those who’ll tell you” an obvious whopper was Max White. Jon wasn’t surprised to learn that Etta Jenkins was among the detractors who thought White’s pose as the Messiah who’d save Walnut County from a lack of management jargon was a bad joke for which the taxpayers got cheated.

“You can probably answer the next question better than the person I need to ask, Mrs. Jenkins,” he said, “but I don’t want to cause trouble by attributing the answer to you. See if his majesty is receiving.”

“You remind me of your grandfather, Jon. He was an honorable rascal, too.”

God bless small towns. No one mourned Frank Staggers—and that included Frank’s only child. Jon had been named for his grandfather because Jonathan was a traditional name among Staggers males since the first Jonathan had migrated west from the dying Confederacy with a wagon, two aged mules, and his commanding officer’s young, pretty, and reckless wife. If Jon was like his grandfather, who reputedly had been a worthy heir to the first Jonathan’s name, honorable rascal was a fair description.

Mrs. Jenkins left the door between inner and outer offices open while she informed White that Jon Staggers wished to see him about Gil Corbin’s absence. The principal said he didn’t have time. She suggested it was unwise to treat the local newspaper editor rudely, to which he replied that he’d treat a goddamn hillbilly journalist however he damn well pleased and reminded her that she was a mere secretary. If students had repeated that conversation to Jon, the editor would have doubted them. Etta Jenkins abhored profanity and objected to its use. Furthermore, there was nothing mere about the lady, secretary or otherwise.

She came out, quietly closed the door, and smiled at Jon grimly. He nodded to indicate that he’d heard. No matter how much contempt White had for the area or for Jon’s profession, his refusal to see a journalist, make hypocritical noises about a wonderful teacher having gone missing, and give the illusion of cooperation was stupid. Perhaps White had a reason to cover up what Martin Goff had yet to find.

Jon had entered the school in pursuit of one story. He exited with a different story. Its dimensions were amorphous, but its aroma made a skunk’s artillery smell sweet.

*

White ordered Mrs. Jenkins not to inform Jon on Tuesday or Wednesday that Corbin was absent. She technically obeyed, informing Jon only about the order. Martin learned no more than Jon had. Martin and Jon were good old mountain boys united against an outsider who thought them contemptible. Tuesday afternoon the large lawman gave the Independent a scathing quote about the school system’s failure to aid the deputies in their search for a man who might be dead or in dire need of assistance.

The Independent was printed late Wednesday afternoon for distribution Thursday morning. Jon obeyed what his father had called the prime rule of journalism and kept the story on page one objective. That made it the Gospel According to Martin Goff. Only the deputy’s quote and Jon’s statement that White had refused to meet with a representative of the Independent or make any comment on Corbin’s disappearance suggested that the school system might be covering for a teacher who preyed on girls in need of a passing grade. Jon saved that charge for his editorial. Since he wrote editorials for less than half the weekly issues, he alerted readers that one existed by announcing it in a sidebar to the main story.

“Unfortunately,” he concluded, “the failure of the high school administration to be forthcoming lends credibility to rumors that have long circulated about the extracurricular activities of the missing man. Instead of putting the gossip permanently to rest, White has added the new suspicion that Corbin misbehaved with the knowledge, if not the approval, of the school system.”

On Thursday afternoon Martin showed up at Jon’s office and said, “Get your jacket and a camera. I have one of those leads that may amount to nothing or may be the break we’re looking for. If it pans out, I’ll tell you what I want the public to know.”

The Independent would provide crime scene photos, thus saving the sheriff’s department’s a few dollars. It was the small-town version of checkbook journalism, a barter from which both parties profited.

King of the Hill, located beside the main north-south route through the county, had been the area’s only drive-in theater. It closed permanently before Jon was born, a victim of TV and newly installed air conditioning in the four indoor theaters, which soon after lost their battle with TV. Now there was no place but cable, satellite TV, or a home entertainment system to see an uncut, uninterrupted movie in Walnut County. Corbin had spent the past four months trying to raise venture capital to re-erect the outdoor screen, repair the crumbling projection booth and snack bar, and install a modern sound system so he could reopen King of the Hill. Most area businessmen considered the scheme the genesis of another Corbin joke, more proof that he should stick to teaching and invest in nothing riskier than a money market account or certificate of deposit.

Eight buzzards took off as Martin’s car bounced through the ruts of former aisles to the projection booth. The birds came from inside the building. The men got out of the county cruiser. The concrete-block building smelled even worse than Martin did.

“My God!” Jon said.

“A farm wife reported the buzzards and said they’d been in the area since the weekend. She initially assumed a deer had died. When she read your story, she remembered seeing Corbin hanging around the property. All we need to do now is find out if that’s him. It isn’t a deer. Deer don’t wear clothes.”

The corpse lay on its back. The buzzards, probably aided by rats, had destroyed the man’s exposed face, tearing away the soft tissue and rendering him unrecognizable. They’d also dragged the flannel shirt up, ripping it in several places, so that they could gnaw on the torso. The jeans had proved tougher, so the lower body remained intact. Almost gagging, Jon snapped several pictures. Martin didn’t seem bothered by the stench. He reached under the corpse, fumbled in a jeans pocket, and found a wallet. The two men went outside.

“Corbin,” he said, showing Jon the driver’s license. “Let’s take a look at your pictures while we wait for backup. You couldn’t have shot from any angle without picking up brass. It looked twenty-two.”

“Any notion about the shooter’s identity?”

“I’ve got notions, but I may never have enough evidence to speak a name. Here’s a detail I didn’t share earlier. Corbin’s car was on blocks, the tires missing, the chassis stripped. That’s how you expect to find vehicles abandoned in the neighborhood the driver chose, Houston says. The interior had been wiped clean. No corpse nearby. The boys who commit homicides in the area generally leave their handiwork where the citizens can see it until the law takes the body away.”

“Who called you about the buzzards?” Jon asked.

“One of my nameless suspects. When I wanted to know how firm her identification of Corbin was, she said she’d have to see the man with his pants down to be sure, but she remembered his face from class.”

“She’s angry at him after however many years?”

“Angry at herself, I suspect,” Martin said. “Is a grade worth hooking?”

“The morality preached in churches says no. A more pragmatic morality says it depends on what a girl uses the grade for. High school graduation might be worth it if she plans to find better paying work than a custodial job.”

“How about college?”

Jon said, “Tests help determine acceptance or rejection and measure what the student knows or can do, especially in subjects like math.”

“So Corbin’s grade means nothing to students?” he persisted.

“I’m sure it still means something if you’re going to college or are a marginal student whose parents believe in the high school diploma. I think a lot of girls who are neither would have nothing to do with him. His run of luck over the years proves he possessed canniness in picking his pigeons.”

Martin said, “A run of luck can end, Jon. It only took one wrong pick, if that’s why he’s lying here.”

*

Laura Corbin taught third grade in Fillmore Elementary, a school ten miles south of Tornado. A tired-looking brunette, she politely received Jon the following Sunday. Her daughters, Grace, a lush young woman of 17, and Mina, already buxom at 13, said hello and left the room. Mrs. Corbin added little to what she’d told Martin. Gil went broke frequently. They’d nearly lost the house a couple of times. His heart had been in the right place, however. He wanted his girls to have a better start in life than he and Laura had received. Neither she nor Jon brought up the gossip to which he’d alluded in the editorial. A wife whose husband had been notoriously unfaithful observed Cicero’s dictum to speak only good about the dead. In this case, eliminating the negative made for a brief interview.

Walnut County had an elected school board of seven members, one each from the small high school districts that had been rolled into the consolidated school. By Sunday evening Jon heard from five. Three assured him that they’d attempted to investigate the rumors. The other two tried indignation. He explained to the upset pair that he intended to start by interviewing girls who’d been in school with him. Then he’d branch out to talk with those who’d gone before and after his high school years, but when Corbin was there. Now that the math teacher posed no threat to little brothers or sisters, younger cousins, or sons and daughters, anonymity should elicit steamy details.

Jon told all five who contacted him, “I’m not letting it go because the known offender died. If one teacher did it, and I have better evidence that he did than the board wants to believe, there might be other teachers who also consider the high school their private harem.”

The board members who contacted Jon were unanimous about one point: Max White was so eager to set the record straight that he’d make time to see Jon whenever the editor went to the school. The smile that Etta Jenkins gave him Monday morning suggested Jon was the greatest student who’d ever gone through Walnut County Consolidated. She ushered him into the office.

White tried indignation: “There was no need for you—”

“Try this for need,” Jon told him, tossing one of the more graphic photos of Corbin’s remains on his desk.

White turned pale and swayed. Fearing the principal might be one of those lower animal forms who use projectile vomiting as a defense mechanism, Jon moved out of range.

“Since I came here, I’ve received three complaints from former students,” White said, aggression gone. “Former students. Girls beyond any danger of retribution for filing a false report. Corbin denied their charges. His word against theirs. After looking at the girls’ records and talking with a couple of men on the board of education…” His shrug was better than a comment, but a shrug would be difficult to print.

Jon said, “The girls are also beyond retribution for filing a true report. I can finish your sentence. They come from two radically different backgrounds. Either they were running wild and Corbin didn’t have an exclusive franchise on their bodies, or they came from homes where the greatest sin a child could commit was bringing home a bad report card. What about current students?”

“None. Corbin had reformed.”

“What did he catch?”

“Fatherhood,” White said. “Mr. Staggers, there may have been a coverup before my watch. When I came here, Corbin had gone straight—if he ever really misbehaved, that is. You can check with any faculty member. Grace, his oldest daughter, is a mature young woman. She drives them to school most mornings. King of the Hill, an investment several members of the board have warned me against, was meant to secure her future. Personally, I think helping her get a scholarship at a good university would do more for the girl, but that’s none of my business. If Gil Corbin ever saw girls as prey, he eventually began seeing them as daughters. You really have no proof he saw them as prey in the first place.”

If he took the same attitude with Martin and the other deputies, White would find his career derailed within a year. He assumed that if he had no proof, the yokels lacked it.

Jon said, “You feel confident no one from his present shot him. How about from his past?”

“More than likely he fell over a drug deal and got himself killed, if you want my opinion. Students tell me that King of the Hill is a rendezvous for some rather nasty specimens.”

Teens occasionally parked in the deserted area. So did slightly older men and women. Their drug of choice was a six pack. The meth labs and users concentrated themselves in less visible sections of the county. Part of the stench in the projection booth came from males using it as a latrine. Jon let White think he’d fooled him. He knew a number of women to call, including five whose morals definitely deserved reproach, since they’d had affairs with their friendly newspaper editor. A couple of them were so dumb that he was sure Corbin had worked a deal with them so they could graduate.

*

White’s story hung together too well to be true. The faculty would lie to protect a dead colleague and themselves. Martin had trusted Jon with a detail he didn’t want made public. Corbin, who carried a wad of cash to impress people with his imagined standing as a wealthy entrepreneur, carried nothing but change in his pockets when found. His credit cards had been in his wallet, however. The law gave the contents of his pockets to the survivors. White had asked Grace about the amount of money Corbin had been found with. Grace had told the principal the truth. White had then concocted his theory about the passing, murderous robber.

When Jon came back from lunch that Monday, he cut through the copy center. A different perspective on the story collated a job. He told Betty Hillen to come to his office when she finished the task. Because another employee could overhear them, he didn’t tell her why.

Betty, a blonde who went to school mornings and earned work-study credit as well as wages for five afternoons a week in the copy center, was a senior. She and Grace Corbin, also a senior, had been fellow members of the drama club. Betty was still active in drama, although Grace no longer showed up in cast lists. The Independent carried school news because parents not only subscribed, but also bought extra papers for distant friends and relatives whenever a child’s name appeared.

Jon hadn’t meant to frighten Betty, but the young woman walked into his office looking the way students generally look when sent to see the principal.

“What’s wrong, Mr. Staggers?” she asked nervously.

“Betty, don’t assume that my wanting to see you means you’ve done something wrong. I need some information for a story. That’s all.”

She gingerly perched on a chair and stared at her faded jeans. Betty knew which story Jon meant.

He said, “You and Grace Corbin are friends and in drama together.”

“Is this gonna go in the paper?”

“Betty, I’ll keep your name out of whatever I print, just like Martin Goff and I did for the woman who phoned him about the buzzards at King of the Hill. A man was murdered. Maybe he deserved death, or maybe he didn’t. I want to learn more about him than I knew years ago when I took algebra from him.”

She studied Jon’s face for a minute, as if sizing him up. “Grace and I are friends. She dropped out of drama a couple years ago, not long before it got so I didn’t want to visit her house unless Mrs. Corbin was home.”

“Yeah, you’re the right age for Gil Corbin and prettier than most,” Jon said. “The smart chicken doesn’t visit Mr. Fox in his den.”

“Not me, Mr. Staggers. Grace.”

Her remark made sickening sense, a twist Martin hadn’t suggested and Jon had never suspected. “What did you see, Betty?”

She said, “His hands on her. He’d pat her bottom or fix it so an arm brushed her boobs. One time I went to the bathroom and couldn’t make the toilet flush. When I came out Mr. Corbin had his hand down her blouse and was squeezing.”

“Did Grace say anything to you afterwards?”

“No. The scene embarrassed her, though. People say that he took her to restaurants and treated her like a date. None of the guys in school went with her. It was like she had an ownership tag that said this girl belongs to Daddy.”

“Think she liked the attention?” Jon asked.

“For awhile. I went through a phase when I dreamed about replacing Mom as my daddy’s favorite. Now that I’m eighteen, I’m grateful that he teased his little girl, kept on loving me, and never touched me. Grace didn’t get that chance to appreciate her father. I think her mother understood, though. Mrs. Corbin acted nice to Grace and her friends.”

“Are you sure the arrangement was consummated?”

“That they actually did it?”

“Yes.”

She said, “I can’t prove it one way or the other, Mr. Staggers. But he looked at her like a guy looking at his steady and thinking about the next time. She had birth control pills in her purse.”

“When you came in here, Betty, you acted as guilty as if you’d been cheating on your time or stealing supplies or petty cash. I know you’re an honest young woman. I’m also sure you’re supposed to tell me a lie. Lots of people lie to newspaper editors, and I won’t fire you if you insist on joining the parade. But if you’re planning to give Grace or her mother an alibi for this weekend, think carefully before you lie to Martin Goff.”

Her hand went to her mouth as she stifled a scream.

Jon wondered if Martin was going to feel like an idiot when informed about this interview or if the deputy already suspected incest. He said, “That car didn’t get to Houston on its own.”

“No. Grace drove there and flew home. She was supposed to have spent the weekend at another girl’s place with two other guests. She wasn’t there. The girls in it with me are Ruth Simpson and Adelaide Markham.”

“If she flew, her name is on file. You have to show identification when you buy a ticket. The lie never had a chance. Don’t get yourself caught in it. If you want to call the other girls and warn them, feel free to do so. You can cover your friends’ normal transgressions, but murder and armed robbery generally make those who cover them accessories eligible for the same sentence. This sounds like first-degree homicide. It doesn’t get more serious unless you commit treason in wartime.”

“Didn’t she have a right to kill him?” Betty asked.

“No. She had a damn good reason. There’s a difference. Make your calls fast. When you leave here, I’m phoning Martin Goff. My word is good. I said your name doesn’t go in the paper. A deputy sheriff isn’t the newspaper.”
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“I’ve been a publishing writer since 1963. Your magazine once helped me enjoy this guilty habit.” E-mail: hhmorris[at]iximd.com

Schadenfreude

Fiction
Clare Hughes


Schadenfreude: Scha.den.freu.de. From the German, meaning to take malicious joy out of the suffering of other people.

She studies her feet and for the first time Mr Supergenius there finally notices she’s missing a shoe. Her eyes are red and there are bruises up and down her arms. She can’t be more than eight years old.

He looks at this little girl, so wide-eyed and vulnerable. The poster girl for charity cases. And God knows the streets are no place for a little kid, but she’s got that wide-eyed vulnerability that tourists open their wallets for and, this is how screwed up this guy is, for a minute he almost wishes he was that little girl.

He wishes he could incite that much pity in someone else. And okay, it’s not quite schadenfreude, but it’s close.

Wait.

This is not how the story starts. Well, in a weird kind of way, maybe it is—but it isn’t. This is so screwed up.

I’ll start again.

Picture this:

It’s another sticky day in Louisiana, when Mr Charisma finds himself out on his ass again. Mr ‘I’ll pay you right back, chérie.’ Mr low-riding jeans.

Right now, this dickhead, this dreg of society, is standing outside his own apartment, holding his finger down on the doorbell and periodically banging on the windows. He looks like he’s been out drinking all night. He probably has.

He yells: “C’mon petite, can’t we talk about this?”

He yells: “C’mon, open up!”

There are no garbage bags full of clothes for him to step over. No half-filled suitcases flung from the top floor window. This is a man who doesn’t own much. He’s only been living there for a couple of weeks anyway, and the only thing this bum has to show for it is a small wooden card table that his (presumably by this point, ex-)girlfriend had tossed out the door by way of eviction notice. He picks it up and crosses the road to a payphone, where he leaves another bullshit message on her answerphone. He knows it’s too late at this point. She’s on to him. He knows when to give up.

Jessica has kicked him out. He doesn’t know it for sure yet, but he’s fairly certain he’s homeless again. But, if we’re being honest here, they’d only really been living together for a couple of weeks, and it’s not like he was planning to help out with the rent or anything. He liked to think sex was his rent. I don’t think Jess saw it that way.

Forget about Jess. Jess isn’t part of the story. She isn’t a character and she’s barely even a plot device. This isn’t about Jess, this is about him. Our Louisiana anti-hero. A living chapter to Southern misogyny.

Maybe he knows when to give up but it takes about twenty minutes for him to actually leave.

For your information, it’s a fifteen-minute walk from Jess’s apartment to the Dixie Landin’ Amusement Park down in Baton Rouge. It sits nose-to-nose with the Blue Bayou Waterpark. Make a note: The Blue Bayou Waterpark is the place you want to be when your girlfriend kicks you out of an apartment that was never really yours, and the sun is beating down on your back. Our boy stumps out his cigarette. His T-shirt sticks to his back. He picks his usual spot, between the hotdog stand and the Hall of Mirrors and it’s business as usual.

Laissez les bons temps rouler.

He unfolds the small table and starts to shuffle the cards. The table is old and stained. It probably isn’t too stable after being flung out onto the pavement, but it holds up well enough when he cuts the deck and places the cards face down into three piles on the top of it.

He’s attracting a crowd now, because even though people tend to hate buskers, this guy, he’s young. He’s young and unconventionally attractive, in his own small way. He’s right back where he started a month ago, relying solely on his charm and selecting a pretty young woman out of the audience; he’s back to wooing with his cheap magic tricks

He smiles, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. He walks the pretty girl through one of the simpler card tricks, letting her think that she’s beating him.

Letting her think that she’s a winner.

She isn’t.

She giggles and coos, and slips him a small piece of paper with her phone number on it, so maybe he has a place to stay tonight after all. It’s funny sometimes how fate plays out. It’s almost like God has a grand scheme.

This guy, he thinks he’s God. That’s how come he’s usually two steps ahead of everyone else. And even though he didn’t foresee Jessica kicking him out on his ass, he wasn’t surprised when she did. It was almost a premonition. A premonition that missed him by this much.

Our lead character, he does another flashy card trick and people throw nickels at his feet. This does nothing to stave off his God complex.

The next mark, he isn’t so lucky. He loses twenty bucks.

And time passes.

Time doesn’t pass in hours—it passes in currency. And fifty-two dollars and thirty-three cents later, this unscrupulous bastard gathers up his cards, folds his flimsy table and bows to the audience. His fair skin is sunburnt. That’s usually a good indication of a hard day’s work. A child, a little girl, who could be either side of seven years old, watches him with wide blue eyes. Everyone else is already scattering, but she’s waiting to see what else he can do.

Thumbs up. Another satisfied customer.

Fifty dollars. Fifty whole dollars. And there’s no one to share it with either, so tonight he’s looking to supersize that Happy Meal. He walks off, table under arm, and whistles to himself. Stupid god damn idiot. The little girl follows him. She’s clutching a toy bunny. And she’s missing a shoe. Facts easy enough to miss when she’s standing in a crowd but when she stops him at the traffic lights, it still doesn’t register.

She tugs at his T-shirt.

“What d’ya want, little one?” He says, “I got places to be.”

The little girl, she’s all big-eyed and innocent. She asks if he’ll come and see her mother.

“Some other time.” He says, “Why don’ you come back tomorrow, little one? Maybe I’ll see her tomorrow.”

Please?

But, dickhead that he is, he’s already crossing the road.

She catches up with him outside an abandoned record store. He grimaces. You can see his jaw working whilst he thinks. Teeth grinding. His momma taught him that you’re never supposed to say ‘fuck off’ to children, but mentally he’s reviewing this policy. His momma was wrong about a lot of things.

The little girl, she says, “Pretty please, come an’ see my momma.”

He shrugs. Resigned. He says, “A’ight. I give up.”

He says, “Why you want me to see your momma, little un?”

He says, “Why can’ you just go get someone else?”

Schadenfreude. She studies her feet and for the first time Mr Supergenius there finally notices she’s missing a shoe. Her eyes are red and there are bruises up and down her arms. She can’t be more than eight years old. And she says, “Because they don’ know magic, like you.”

This is where the story starts.
pencil

Clare Hughes is 24 years old, and lives in Liverpool. Aside from drinking herself into an early grave, Clare enjoys the many other facets associated with a career in writing and has had poems published in Summer Daze and Still Life by United Press. She is currently studying for her master’s degree in creative writing at Edge Hill University, and has a full-time job doing paternity tests for the Jeremy Kyle Show. No, seriously. E-mail: impersonating.tomlenk[at]gmail.com

Existentialism at the God Rodeo

Fiction
Diana Goble


Blood-coated Cheerios slid down the white porcelain like a slow-motion avalanche. I watched the red whirl into the water, creating a smoky tie-dye pattern. I didn’t remember eating coffee grounds, but the former contents of my stomach seemed to suggest otherwise.

I leaned back against the side of the tub, its coolness chilling the sweat on my skin. Or perhaps the frigidity erupted from the sight in the toilet. It was the fifth time this week; it had happened before, once a month for the last few months, but never at such an alarming rate. Some red mixed with the morning’s oatmeal. Ulcers could have the same effect, I’d heard. But, I thought, this must be one big ulcer.

Despite the calming cold, I felt nauseous again. Not even two minutes had passed. I forced myself to think of other things. My sister was having a barbeque later that evening to celebrate fifteen years of marriage. I was supposed to bring the potato chips. I debated about what kind I should get. Salt and vinegar was good, but ripples always appeased the masses. Bile welled up again; thinking about food didn’t help.

I wasn’t pregnant. Thank god, since I was having trouble keeping enough blood in my system for myself, let alone a fetus. I stared at the days-old pregnancy test in the trash next to me, my knees pulled up akimbo, feet sticking to the tiles to prevent me from sliding down. I wasn’t disappointed, but I supposed I had had my hopes up. The signs had been there: nausea, vomiting… well, those signs had been there. I sure as hell hadn’t been gaining weight. I’d taken the test after the second bloody mess that week, thinking about another daughter like Annie. Darling Annie, who slept through the night her first evening home, and every night thereafter. The six-year-old who proudly served me burnt toast and instant coffee in bed last Mother’s Day. The daughter who was easy to smile and anxious to please.

My husband Gilbert knocked on the door, his passionless departure for work. Normally he wouldn’t even do this, but even in the shower he couldn’t ignore me wrenching over the nearby toilet.

I pulled my feet free from their suction-cup hold and curled up on the bathroom rug. Something was wrong; I could feel it like a cold coming on, like a storm in arthritic joints, like a ghost haunting my veins.

In the cold space of the distance living room, I heard the obnoxious Latin ring of my phone, the tone I selected to purposely to annoy my husband. It was a long shot, meant to combat all the times he came home smelling like the Chanel he was too cheap to buy for me.

The Latin mambo swelled like an infection, and I debated whether to leave my bathroom cocoon to answer it. It was my sister, I figured. I had made her promise to call me at eight on her way to her studio, to make sure I was still alive. I didn’t tell her that last part, of course, but she was the only one who would remember or care enough to call.

I sat a moment too long before pushing myself up and onto my feet—I knew I’d reach it just a second too late, and I deliberated as I crossed the living room barefoot, What would happen if I didn’t answer? Would anything be different? Would the sun streaming through the thinly veiled windows grow one degree colder? Would I vomit up my lifeblood one time less today than yesterday?

The ringing stopped, and I held the phone one moment too long before letting it fall to the leather couch, next to the coffee table where it had been charging. The sun beams pounding at the curtains felt the same temperature, and the nausea continued its butter churning motion. Nothing affected anything, I decided. And with that notion echoing in the dark corners of my brain, I headed back to the bathroom to release another round of blood, blackness and despair.

*

I didn’t want to call my sister back. I didn’t know what to say. Besides, it would overshadow the barbeque, where our kids could play on Nicole’s brand new swing set, and the four adults could drink beer in the lemon-tinted evening.

Everything about Nicole was laid-back, always the cool little sister, yet smoothly cautious. She checked her son’s Halloween candy twice with the ease of a flight attendant checking boarding passes. She even turned her cell phone on speaker when talking in the car, so she could have her hands free for driving. Hers was a caution barely noticed.

I tried to ignore the fact that she was the youngest and, as a child, perpetually spoiled. She’d been named after our Dad’s sister who had died shortly after I was born. My name—Cass—they got out of a baby book a month after I was born.

I’d been the older, restricted offspring, breaking curfew and downing beers at underage drinking parties. Perhaps that’s why I was being punished now. I had had my fun at 17; my lifetime allotment and the reservoir of living pleasure was dry. Not that life was all the much fun, even before the vomiting. I had a husband who was there, but not really, and two kids who were at the age where they didn’t need Mom much anymore. Yeah, Nicole got it all.

Except this.

*

When I got to work, bending stiffly into the space between my desk and chair, I had messages. Nicole had called several times. I hesitated, but finally dialed her number. I didn’t want her to worry.

“Cass!” She was perpetually enthusiastic and happy. “I’m glad you called me back!”

“Happiness is genetic. Did you know?” I said. I wasn’t in the mood to match her gusto.

“I don’t think that’s right, Cass. Otherwise you got your genes from Dad.” She laughed at her own joke, four little snorts.

“Right,” I said, then blurted out, “I’m sick.”

“That’s what you said last night. What is it, a cold? Does that mean you don’t want to barbeque?”

“No. I think it’s worse than that.”

“What do you mean?”

I reached out my hand to fondle the pens in the “World’s Best Mom” cup on my desk, a present from Annie. “I threw up blood.” I could taste the metallic red in my mouth at the mention of it, feel the gritty black sandpapering my taste buds.

“Oh,” Nicole said, like she’d just found out about a mistake that had already been fixed. “Oh… God.”

“God really has nothing to do with this.” I was impressed with my own detachment. I didn’t even feel like crying.

“Oh Cass… ” she gulped, her concern uncharacteristically audible. “Have you seen a doctor?”

“Not yet.” I hated doctors. Dad had been a doctor and he died penniless, thanks to several malpractice suits. The one that did him in was when he’d misdiagnosed a severe case of diabetes as allergies, and the patient lost her foot. My father didn’t know anything. He just wanted people to think he knew everything.

“No matter what it is, we can beat it right? Remember what Mom used to say. When you’re on the bull’s back, you got to hold on until it’s done bucking.”

“That’s retarded. No one can hold on to a bucking bull,” I scoffed. Then softer, because Mom was a soft lady, “And I don’t remember her saying that.”

“Well, she did.”

We hung up after I promised to see a doctor and call her immediately afterwards. It was a promise I didn’t mean to fulfill. I didn’t need any of those quacks poking and prodding just to tell me something I could find out on my own.

I followed my thoughts to a medical website where I could cross-reference my symptoms. Vomiting, blood, loss of appetite… could be a great many things, I realized, as I scrolled through the possible diagnoses. Some weren’t so serious and I could live with. Ulcers were no problem, and food poisoning was fine. I rested easy until I came across a disturbingly accurate description of that morning’s vomit: red coffee grounds. No other diagnosis had that detail, and my heart dropped like a broken elevator despite my attempt to remain detached.

Cancer.

I was sure of it.

I bit my bottom lip hard to fend off the panic that arose, and prayed to whoever was listening that I was wrong, that it was just a nasty ulcer. Cancer was something that happened to people on TV, the one patient George Clooney couldn’t cure, re-run after re-run. And stomach cancer… I hadn’t known such a thing existed. Smoking led to lung cancer, sunburn led to skin cancer, so did eating lead to stomach cancer? There was no immunity, then. Just rotten luck. Lady fortune had always been with me. I once won $5 on a lottery ticket.

I pushed my chair back from my desk and pressed my right index and middle finger into my stomach, feeling for a lump. Of course there would be a lump. And there was, right above my right hipbone. I massaged the spot for awhile, feeling the lump move back and forth as I manipulated my stomach tissue.

There it was. My cancer. So close I could touch it.

The world around me seemed to intensify as the concept sank in. Time slowed down, light grew brighter and sounds grew louder. I could feel the mass gnawing away at my stomach lining like the chomping cannonballs I’d seen on my son’s Mario Nintendo game. My eyes burned under the fluorescent lights and all the ringing of phones in my office were like irritating insects. They made me dizzy and I felt like screaming for them to stop.

I had become immune to the environment around me, and it took a death sentence to become more in tune with all the things that defined who I was, like those incessant phones. I needed to get out; if I was right about my illness, I didn’t have much time left, and I didn’t want to be like these other losers, talking up products over the phone that I hadn’t even tried. Whatever apathy I could find—accumulated in years of hatred for the small things in my life, my father, my husband, my vomit—I grabbed it and wrapped it around me like a wet blanket, probably the army-issue kind. Mentally swatting at the electronic buzzes behind me, I walked into my boss’s office, my throat scratchy with suppressed panic.

“Excuse me, sir, but I have cancer and would like to go home.”

*

On the way from work I stopped at the Hy-vee. In the checkout line, petty problems cluttered impulse shelves: some star was getting divorced for the third time; a baby had been born with the image of Jesus on its chest; the world was again predicted to end the following week. The cashier was gossiping with the purple-haired octogenarian ahead of me about a terrible accident on the outskirts of town, and I was growing impatient. You can at least start writing your check, grandma, I fumed. I probably have less time left than you.

Next to the tabloids were horoscope charts for all star signs, promising love, health and happiness. It was too late to start reading into the stars. On the rack below was a small pamphlet: “Living Longer for Dummies” and I was insulted. Was I a dummy for not buying this pamphlet early enough? Or perhaps only dummies needed to be told how to live longer, because smart people lived a cancer preventative life from day one. I felt the bitter sting of tears. I was a dummy for wanting to live longer. Or thinking that I had a right to.

I dropped the potato chips and bustled my way out of the store, back to my car. How embarrassing, tearing up in a supermarket. Cancer isn’t even exempt from that social restriction. How antinomian of me to wish for special treatment when I didn’t want to have to be different at all—to be like everyone else. How many different types of people are there in the world who are all required to act in the same manner? It seemed unfeasible, I thought, as I let the gripping spike of sorrow drip away. What was there to do with the rest of my life? I guess I would have to make that doctor’s appointment, verify my fears, and then make preparations. The chemo, the life insurance, the funeral. Most people didn’t have time to plan their earthly departures. Lucky me. I contemplated the sort of flowers I should plant in the garden. What kind would be good at a funeral?

Trying not to cry again over the pointless series of events that concocted a human life—my life—I remembered my dear Annie, the only thing worth living for. The sun grew warm, radiating through the windshield as I started the car and drove the road that would take me to her.

*

I pulled into the deserted bus lane outside my daughter’s school, allowed my body to move with the momentum of the sharp break and slap back against the seat. Slipping the gearshift into park like a dislocated shoulder, I sat and waited, melded into the seat. The dashboard clock flickered seconds of existence away into the silent new car scent, announcing that I was two hours and fourteen minutes early. It hadn’t quite occurred to me to go home. There was nothing there for me either. Gil was at his office creating ads for off brands of relish, even though he vehemently claimed they were actually number one but got second rating because the general public was stupid. Gil Jr. was at school, too, and then football practice. Annie was my sweetheart anyway, the little of piece of myself I’d been glad to let escape into the world.

I remembered the Christmas Eve Annie, in her jammies, walked out into the living room while I was putting out the presents from Santa. I froze under her five-year-old Medusa gaze, those big brown eyes surveying the wreckage of her Christmas imagination. Instead of crying, instead of throwing a fit, she simply walked up to me, wrapped her arms around my leg and said, “Oh, Mama. It’s okay. I won’t tell Junior.”

I didn’t want to think about the future now, what Annie would do. Who would teach her how to shave her legs when she got old enough? Who would bake her cookies and gossip with her while her friends who got asked to Homecoming were flirting with the DJ? I squinted the stinging away. I wasn’t much of a cookie baking mom anyway. That was Nicole’s area of expertise.

Junior had it easier. He was my husband’s son and appropriately named. Hard-headed, stubborn and driven. He used to tell me stories of how he’d bully the bullies because it was fun. I spewed forth clichés my mother had passed along the chain: You attract more flies with honey; an innocent man turns the other cheek. I remember his laughter, just like his father’s, chafing my ear canals. No matter what I said or did, nothing affected the outcome. Junior would always be Junior.

I stared at the school grounds, the pine trees cutting off the corners off the brick building, the playground equipment lonesome as a metal desert, devoid of kids. I tried to remember Mom using that rodeo cliché. But she always had a lot of them, and truth be told, I never listened.

When I was a kid we lived somewhat beyond our means. Our house was new, and on the outside we were rich. Inside, vacant corners acted as echoing toys for my sister and me. Despite the four whole bedrooms, Nicole and I shared the extra bed, one made of cheap wood. It had been my mom’s as a kid. Telltale scratches of childhood insomnia, generations old, were the only ornaments on the wooden headboard. We moved into the house before I spent regular days at school. I could still feel the chilled window making a snout of my nose as I stared into our backyard. It was adjoined to our neighbor’s with no boundaries but two squat shrubs on each property line, and I dreamt of a peppermint-striped swing set like theirs. It had a slide with a red stripe down the middle which I imagined to be so slippery that sliders dropped fast enough to fly up into the sky to play among the clouds. The swings themselves were stiff yellow plastic above foot-worn ground, held in place by creaking metal chains. I watched the neighbor girls on those swings, soaring, only with a little too much gravity. We were promised a swing set one year for Christmas, but Dad spent the extra money on elaborate lights to keep up with the neighbor’s lawn declarations. Dr. Rosenfall, a dermatologist across the street, had an animatronic Santa Claus. That year I did get a generic baby doll I’d once asked for. Nicole got a Barbie.

I shook the past from my head like a dog out of water and stared at the chipped brown doors of Annie’s school. Nothing seemed under my control, and not just regarding my health. I drew in a deep breath to suppress the evoked bitterness. I’ll make it happen, I thought, as I killed the engine. I’ll buck it off. Somehow.

*

I spent all of those two hours and fourteen minutes bitterly imagining my funeral. Who would come? Who would give a eulogy, and what would they say? I saw Gil getting up, spewing out stock funeral comments:—“She was a good person. A loving wife and mother. She will be missed”—even though he never thought such things about the living me.

I put all the anger and sadness aside for Annie. As school dismissed, she bounded up to the car like someone had put her—only her—on fast forward. A big ratty teddy bear bopped along behind her.

“How was your day, sweetie?” I smoothed a straggly lock of hair away from her face while she buckled herself in.

“Great!” Her face was an animated Disney cartoon. “I got picked to take Bertrand home for the weekend!” She thrust the bear up for me to examine and approve.

I smiled through my disgust. How many germs must that bear have accrued over years of first graders taking it home with them? I almost wanted to take it away, to save Annie from potential illness. But she seemed so happy to have it, tucking his limp body into the seatbelt with her and whispering, “He’ll be safe, too!” as she did so. She deserved to be so happy.

We swung by the grocery store again—a different one this time—to pick up the chips I’d abandoned before. Annie walked the aisles with her bear, ignoring the usual items children threw tantrums over, just as she normally did. Things like candy or Pop-Tarts, frozen pizzas or Doritos. Junior would throw anything he fancied into the cart without asking, just like his father. And, I thought bitterly as I scanned the checkout lane for any yellow Dummies guides, just like mine.

*

Gil, Junior, Annie and I arrived at the barbeque an All-American family, potato chips and teddy bear in tow. Nicole’s husband, Don, was grilling in an entirely too festive chef’s hat and apron with “Eat My Meat” emblazoned in red. He waved at us as we approached, the epitome of suburban happiness.

“Go on in and grab some beers, guys,” he sang merrily. “Root beers for the rugrats!”

Inside, Nicole’s kids were running around the table wearing cowboy hats and holstered plastic guns. They slipped by us and out the door with a quick shout. Nicole was standing at the counter in a crisp blue summer dress, buttering the buns for our burgers. I tossed her a meek smile, a sisterly way of letting her know I hadn’t told anyone else, and asked where to put the chips.

“Right down here, hon,” she said, gracefully swiping the bag and placing it on the counter. Her other arm snaked around my waist and she turned to Gil with a world-class grin.

“Gilbert, darling, why don’t you grab a Heineken and relax outside with Don.”

Gil returned the smile, a smirk drowning in flirtation, and I found myself wondering how long I’d be dead before he made a pass at my sister. He never smiled at me anymore.

“And you two—” she directed the kids, “go check out the new swing set. Uncle Don just finished it.”

She had, in her graceful, cautious way, managed to get us alone.

I took a seat at the table while she started for the coffeepot, but she changed her mind and scooped up two beers from the fridge instead. “You need this more right now.”

I didn’t say anything as she joined me at the table.

“You call the doctor yet?”

I sighed, accepted the magnetic bottle opener from her and pried the cap off. “No. I don’t think I need to.”

“Cassandra,” she started.

“I don’t really care, you know?” I spat out. “It’s not like what I have going right now is all that great.”

She gave me a look of utter dismay and leaned in, lowering her voice. “Come on, now. Look out there. You have a wonderful husband. Two beautiful kids!” She leaned back in her seat, her cheeks dimpled. “And one very attractive teddy bear.”

I grunted. Right.

“Well, you have to do something, Cass. You can’t just waste away. There’re things they can do now.” She took a sip. “Plus, you don’t even know you have cancer, right?”

“I don’t need anyone to confirm. I know it already.” I pressed a hand into my tummy and touched the bump. “Right here.”

“What, are you a doctor now? You can’t self-diagnose this stuff.”

“The hell I can’t!” I retorted. What did she know anyway, I seethed. She’d never been seriously sick in her life. “Dad was a doctor and he didn’t know thing one about illness.”

She leaned forward and put her hand over mine. “Come on, Cass. Use your head. There’s just some things you’ve got to do.”

“Like die.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Cass. I’m sure you’re not going to die!” She sipped again. “You look just fine to me. What else can I say to you?”

I turned to her then, feeling even more resentment than usual. “You don’t know what it’s like to be me. To go home every day to a man just like our father. To hate your son because he’s just mean and there’s nothing you can do to stop it!” The words came spewing out like I’d shaken my beer before opening it. “To never ever get what I want?”

“What do you want?”

I looked outside. Don had set his hat and tongs aside to throw a small plastic football around with his son. Gil was sitting on his ass watching his son shove a sobbing Annie down the plastic yellow slide. The life I could have had, the life I did. And then I looked at the swings.

“I’m tired of all this shit.” I said, chugging almost all of my beer in one labored but somehow refreshing tirade. I slammed the bottle down so hard the remaining drops propelled upwards and splashed onto my arm. “And I’m so fucking tired of wishing I were you.”

Nicole’s lips caved in on themselves in suppressed emotion, or perhaps surprise. But I didn’t stick around to watch, or listen, or be chastised and convinced of how I had it good. I knew very well how I had it. I breezed through the screen door and toward the swings.

I bypassed my brother-in-law, my nephews, my pain-in-the-ass husband and sobbing daughter. When I reached the swing set, I turned around to face all I had, and everything I didn’t, and lowered myself onto one of the swings. Ahead of me, to the east, a storm was coming, escorted by a wet, warning breeze. It felt nice combing through my hair, and I adjusted my weight so that the swing was supporting it. And then, amidst the lack of control I already felt, I willingly relinquished the rest, swaying back and forth like my disparaging thoughts on death. I began to figure out the rhythm that allowed me to fly like the neighbor girls of my youth. I didn’t care that my hair assaulted my face on my way down, or that it would be a bitch to get untangled later. This may be the only time, I theorized, and allowed the pendulum momentum to replace the fear—the bitterness, the sadness—with a small numbing drop of exhilaration. At least I knew what was coming. I could plan accordingly. I could quit my job with its buzzing telephone insects, and I could come to terms with a marriage to a cheating man like my father, and I could find out what made me happy before I went. I guess that was the ultimate goal, now. To be as happy as possible before all possibility of happiness was gone.

I swung higher, pumping harder and harder and relishing in the soreness that was already creeping into my muscles. When I reached the very top of the swing’s trajectory, I flew for an extended, glorious second before gravity called me back. The swing met up with my body again, bucking like a bronco. But I had finally found out how to fly, and did it again. It became a shared control between me and the swing, one I had no idea existed—a control that injected life back in, if only for a second. Although I was conscious, now, of every fleeting minute, for the first time since diagnosing myself, I didn’t feel as if the moment was being wasted.

Suddenly I wasn’t swinging alone. A blur swept by me on my way back down. My eyes met my darling Annie’s; she had the teddy bear nestled up next to her on the swing. I slowed down my motion to let her catch up, to bask in the carefree love of being a child, something I’d never known. There we were together, mother and daughter, one fighting for her life, the other enjoying it to the fullest. And then we were swinging in rhythm, in perfect harmony with one another, and Annie laughed, a tinkling sound like wind chimes, “Mama, we’re married!” And I laughed too—long, hard and limitless. We continued to swing in our own shared rhythm, watching the churning storm roiling just out of reach, then closer, then out of reach once more.

pencil

“I am currently an MFA student at Minnesota State University Moorhead. I’ve just recently finished my thesis, a coming of age novel called The Impressionist. I should be set to graduate next semester. I’ve also had work published in Red Weather Literary Magazine and Main Street Rag.” E-mail: gobledi[at]gmail.com

Shadow

Poetry
Aaron M. Wilder


When he gets home from college it’ll be that time of year. The Millers’ old lab won’t move from under the withered pines lining their property. They let him lie in the shade all day, bringing him kibbles in stainless steel trays. Wondering when the sun will cool so he can play like he did in spring.

Someday soon he won’t lift his head to watch the children play. He won’t covet the scraps of bacon they lay at his nose. The shine in his eyes will tarnish, and skin will hang idle over his teeth.

By sunset the food will be gone. Stray cats and field mice will have their fill. Not fearing the old lab under the trees. Perhaps the Millers will bury him there, beneath those pines. Take a moment to recall his glory days. That day he came home after wandering for two weeks. That night he came home with blood in his eyes after a bout with a coyote. That time he licked the giggling face of a two-year-old, now home from college to bury a friend.

pencil

Aaron M. Wilder is a student of English at Marian College in Indianapolis, IN, where he plays baseball and tennis for scholarship. He hails from the small town of Decatur, IN, where his parents, Susan and Michael Wilder, were also born and raised. After college he plans to attend grad school and hopes to pursue a future as a writer, editor of a literary magazine, or college professor. E-mail: aaron_m_wilder[at]hotmail.com

When a Porn Star Steals a Poet’s Name

Poetry
Natasha Kochicheril Moni


The poet with her shirt
off, again, boils
water for hot cereal she will eat

in her bra. And apple. A pink lady,
she slices, blanches,
adds to the sugar

oats whose only redeemer
is the organic seal.
Maybe you wanted her

in black
lace, a clove,
an espresso dripping

from lips.
She is here
to tell you she keeps

the door shut,
her favorite utensil
is a spoon, that only once

when she burned
the wood too bright
did she throb naked outside.

Here, the cats she keeps
on china, a cooling
tea beside milk sweets,

two tablets of vitamin C
and this
letter from you,

a stranger, sent to
the wrong woman
with the same full name.
pencil

Natasha Kochicheril Moni, a recent editor/publisher of Crab Creek Review, currently writes and resides in the Bay Area. Three of her poetry manuscripts were named semi-finalists in Black Lawrence Press competitions. Her work regularly appears in journals including: Indiana Review, Verse, Rattle, and Diagram. E-mail: natashamoni[at]yahoo.com