The Taste of Blood

Fiction
Walter Kraut


He liked the taste of blood. It was as simple as that. Some people like good wines, others single malt whisky, Peter liked nothing better than a good glass of tasty blood, no ice, no water, just pure, freshly poured from a popping vein. It wasn’t an addiction though. He could do without it for weeks, months even if he had to—and sometimes he did have to, because supply was uneven and he wouldn’t settle for just any blood, which to him proved he wasn’t a bloodoholic like some of the people he knew.

Peter was not alone. As with a lot of things, you don’t realise the existence of like-minded people until you find them; and then they seem to be just about everywhere. There was even a blood merchant in a flat near Homerton Hospital in East London. Apparently the proximity to the hospital was a coincidence. No one fancied blood from sick people; it could even be dangerous to drink it, and although there was a market for the blood of the recently departed, Peter wasn’t into that. For more than one reason they called it ‘dead blood,’ like the Dutch talk about ‘dead beer’ when it is stale and has no head. The shop didn’t have an official name; everyone knew it by the name of the owner, Max, a man in his late forties with a flushed appearance, butcher’s arms and the round belly of a cartoon character, a stained apron permanently tightened around it.

Peter generally phoned in advance to check what Max had in stock, but this time Max, who knew his customer’s preferences, had phoned him. Last night he had acquired blood from a young black woman, of good quality, and exactly the kind Peter was into. Because blood could lose some of its freshness when it was chilled, and the colour would often fade a little, Peter had asked Max to keep it outside the fridge and let it cool down naturally. He had promised to pick up a pint of the blood that same day after work for 150 pounds, a lot of money, but if Max was to be believed it was of an unusually high standard and likely to be a one-off.

It was a Thursday afternoon, Peter sat behind his desk at London City Hall. The time on his computer was 15:18, his watch made it two minutes earlier and the clock on the wall behind him had its pointers at 3:20. He found it hard to concentrate. Max had rung him when he was already on his way to work and ever since then he’d had a clear image of the little glass bottle awaiting him. He could imagine the flavour slowly getting weaker, the taste diminishing. He wanted to get hold of it as soon as possible and give it a good sniff. He would drink only a teaspoon of it at first, the blood would be soaked up by his tongue, a sensitive palate that would send it out to the rest of his body. His extremities would tingle, his saliva would run—as it did now in anticipation of this first sip.

At the desk opposite sat Cherie. The stress of her name was on the last syllable, but Peter always pronounced it as a fruit. She didn’t mind, seemed to even like it when it came from him. She laughed at most of the things he said. Her eyes were quite beautiful when she smiled. Just a pity there was so much face around it, big and flabby, with an overflow of skin that drooped underneath her chin and wobbled when her smile became a laugh, with a high and penetrating sound that was known around the office as ‘the trumpet.’ Her hair was long and curly, a dark and shiny brown, and Cherie was clearly proud of it. Not long after they had made their acquaintance Peter had given her a compliment on her hair, which had been the start of a flirting match that had now been going on for about three months without ever leading anywhere.

‘Looking forward to tonight?’

With a start Peter was brought back to the reality of the office. Blood had gushed through imaginary rivers, it had dripped round the edges of bottles, it had rained down from heaven and filled his mouth which was pressed into an ecstatic smile when he’d heard Cherie’s remark. He blushed lightly at the thought that she might have seen the images in his head. He weakened his smile and raised his eyebrows. It was only then that he understood what she was alluding to.

No, he was not looking forward to it. Not tonight anyway, but when he glanced at the diary it was there, in his own writing, and he remembered putting it there, one-and-a-half weeks ago, long enough to forget, as he had done that very morning when Max had rung him, and through the rest of the day, distracted as he was because of that phone call. Yes, he remembered that a week and a half ago he had actually said ‘yes’ after her umpteenth suggestion that they should go out, and she had immediately fixed it by saying that she would book something. They would have a drink followed by a meal, and it would all be, she wouldn’t hear of anything else, her special treat, because, well just because he was such a lovely colleague. There was no way, he knew, of disappointing her now, so he smiled indulgently and said: ‘I wish it were half five already.’

The rest of the day he thought of ways of getting out of their date. He got up and got himself a coffee, pondering over the possibilities. He could of course pretend that he was ill and went as far as going to the loo to stick his fingers in his throat. It made him a little nauseous but didn’t give him the pale appearance he was hoping for. He could be called away by someone, invent an emergency. His parents were already dead, so they couldn’t serve that purpose. Who else was there? He would have to invent a person as well as an emergency. But while he thought of ways of pulling out he felt guilty towards Cherie, who must have been looking forward to their date ever since he had given his unexpected ‘yes.’

After a lot of deliberation about either going out with Cherie or having a quiet night in with an exquisite bottle of blood he came to the conclusion that he could probably do both. He decided to pop out for an hour, he could get away with that—he was a civil servant after all—and he would pick up the bottle and drink it as an expensive night cap, or if he came home late he could even store it in the fridge for the next day. That wouldn’t necessarily be a complete disaster. A good blood would keep its taste for at least a couple of days. Very young blood could even improve if stored under the right circumstances, although he himself preferred it ‘straight from the vein’ as it was called.

Peter put on his coat, told his colleagues that he would be back shortly and set off to Max’s with three fifty-pound notes in his wallet.

On the bus to Hackney his taste buds were aggressively yearning for the taste of blood. He was thirsty in a way that he hadn’t experienced before. There was a powerful pull towards blood. It wasn’t just quality blood that he longed for. He needed something soon, anything, and he looked nervously around him, as if he could at any moment expect something there, a blood bar that would suddenly pop up at the rear of the bus. Blood was off course everywhere; he even carried it in his own body. But he had only heard of one person who could drink his own blood; the man had, unsurprisingly, drunk himself to death.

When he craved blood, he could smell it everywhere. Even when saturated he could pick out any woman who was having her period. He knew of one guy who was hopelessly pulled towards these women, who would chase them for their smell alone and had almost killed a young girl he had followed and with whom he had suddenly found himself alone. She had, for whatever reason, stopped and turned around, facing him with incredulous calm. He, after taking one last deep breath, had run away and locked himself up in his room where he stuck two pieces of burning cotton in his nose to kill his sense of smell.

Peter knew he was lucky. His taste for blood had never been obsessive. His current craving therefore scared him. His eyes wandered and fell upon a woman in her early twenties, dark skin, straightened black hair; from the Caribbean, he guessed, Barbados probably. He loved female blood from that area. It had a sweet, dark flavour, a strong smell that wasn’t to everyone’s liking. His nostrils widened, his mouth filled with saliva. He forced himself to look the other way, put his hand on his nose and coughed loudly. He knew of people who carried a hip flask with blood with them at all times. Maybe he should consider doing the same.

He rang the doorbell, announced himself and was let in. Max received him at the top of the landing, a smile on his face; he seemed unusually cheerful. ‘I just knew you would come this soon. It’s been on your mind all day, hasn’t it? Well, it’s worth it, my best man. You never tasted anything this good, I can promise you that, and I kept it especially for you. I know I can rely on you. When you say you’ll come, you’ll come. And you know you can rely on me: when I say it’s good, it’s excellent!’ He released a joyful laugh and led Peter into the dark, but tidy hallway.

The blood at Max’s was stored in three big fridge-freezers in the only room where customers were allowed. There was a large, white table in the room with laboratory equipment on it; a metal stand with empty blood bags stood in the corner. Peter consciously ignored everything that reminded him of the origin of his favourite drink. He was like someone who wouldn’t eat meat if it was recognisable as an animal. It was better not to know, he thought. He preferred to trust that Max sourced his blood ethically, as Max always said he did, and never asked questions to find out more. He had been a regular for more than five years now and Max had taught him an awful lot about blood. Max believed that taste was personal and like a perfumer he would try to match the right blood with the right customer. He had written a guide that was the standard and did tasting sessions that drew in people from all over the world.

Peter said he couldn’t hang around for too long and took the three fifties from his wallet.

‘Ho, ho, first a little taste, my friend!’ said Max with his hand as a stop sign in front of him. He got out a couple of wine glasses. ‘First I would like you to try something new, something quite different from what you usually drink, but equally good if you ask me. It was brought to me this morning by one of my regular and best suppliers. He gets the blood from about anywhere in the world and always seeks my opinion and leaves me samples. Have a little taste of this. If you like it, there’s plenty more where it came from, at a good price. I think it’s beautiful, it’s light, slightly tangy at first, but with a sweet aftertaste. It’s best to drink it chilled. Ideal for a summer’s evening. Here!’

Peter took the glass and smelled it. His nose twitched slightly; a bit tangy indeed! He took a sip, breathed in through his mouth, took another sip. Blood wasn’t addictive, they said, not physically anyway, but something always happened to him when he drank it. He called it ‘disentangling’, it was as if all the knots in his body became undone. He felt relieved, as with the ringing of the school bell as a teenager on a Friday afternoon. It gave him a sense of freedom, it unburdened him, loosened the tight grip of responsibility. He drank up and sighed. ‘Just what I needed. I’ve been feeling a bit… unusual on my way here. Do you ever get that, the feeling that, how shall I put it, that you’re drawn to somebody, to some body I should say—two separate words—and that you really need to restrain yourself?’

‘That you feel you could kill someone?’ Max asked greedily.

‘Killing wouldn’t be necessary, but that you want their blood, that you want to drink them?’

‘Of course, we all have that, don’t we? To drink straight from someone’s body is possibly the best experience you could have… Did you ever do it?’

‘No, I wouldn’t know how.’

‘Would you like to? I mean: would you be interested if I could arrange it for you?’

‘I don’t know. Could you?’

‘There are meetings, LBPs they are called: live blood parties. I could introduce you if you like. They are usually organised at very short notice, because of the risk involved. You want me to give you a ring next time?’

‘I guess it’s not cheap?’

‘Who cares about money when you can spend a few hours in heaven?’

‘I’ll think about it.’

Max laughed. ‘I already know your answer, but yes, do think about it! And this is…’ He got a flask from a cupboard next to one of the fridges. ‘This is what you came in for.’ He opened the bottle. ‘Smell!’

Peter didn’t need to bring the bottle any closer. ‘That’s okay,’ he said. ‘Put the lid back on. I’ll have it. And a pint of the stuff I just tried, although I’m not sure if I have enough money on me.’

‘I’ll put it on a tab.’

‘How much is it?’

‘How much, how much? Like that’s all you care about. You can have it for a mere fifty pounds. Pay me next time you come in. Don’t worry about it now.’

With the two bottles, wrapped in tissue paper and stored in his leather briefcase, he left Max’s, the taste of blood still on his tongue.

By the time he got back at the office he had finished one bottle, the cheaper of the two, and he strolled gingerly past the guards at London City Hall. It was almost half past five.

‘I thought you had run away,’ said Cherie with a half-smile and Peter realised that she really had thought that he had fled from her. He felt guilty about the fact that he had indeed considered it and shook his head vehemently. Cherie stared at him, slightly bewildered, and she seemed to sniff at him; he could see her nostrils widen. Her eyes went back to the computer screen, but returned to him, curiously and with the audacity of a child who is just old enough to know that she shouldn’t stare but hasn’t yet learned to control her gaze.

He felt strangely aroused by her stare and wanted at the same time to hide from it. He excused himself, left his desk and went to the loo. The blood had stained his teeth, he saw when he checked himself in the mirror, and his pupils had widened. He drank some water, rinsed his mouth, stuck out his tongue. He nodded at a man who had at that moment come in, checked himself once more and went back to his desk.

‘Let’s go,’ he said to Cherie. ‘I fancy a drink.’

Cherie had continued her stare throughout the evening. It was as if she wanted to make the most of her eyes and tried everything to keep his attention fixed on them. He no longer wanted to hide from her stare and returned it with his own. He had also copied the way she sniffed at him. He sniffed back, less and less discreetly. When the food was taken away, her smell finally reached him fully; the smell of her blood, full bodied, delicious, he could sense it was rushing through her veins at high speed. He wanted to kiss her neck, lick her carotid artery and bite.

‘What about a drink at my place? It’s not far,’ he asked after Cherie had paid.

‘That would be nice,’ she said with a shy smile. She took his arm and, after a moment’s hesitation, put her head on his shoulder.

They walked to his flat in Bermondsey without saying much. Cherie held on tightly to his arm as if she thought he would flee again. On his other arm he felt the weight of his briefcase. The blood would have to wait until the weekend. He shouldn’t overdo it anyway, he thought. The greed with which he had drunk the first bottle had disgusted him. He wasn’t like that. He was a moderate drinker, a sensualist, not a bloodoholic. He had thought many times of giving up, but never quite managed it. The need, however small, was persistent, and because of that, he thought, he would never be able to live a regular life. How could you live a life with someone if you could not share your greatest passion?

He knew of a few couples in the scene. Most of them were Goths, or otherwise hardcore, who liked the rituals as much as the blood itself, who had gatherings like the ones Max had been referring to. They were would-be vampires drinking each other’s blood, they danced made-up dances that they insisted were traditional and took them seriously—a sense of humour was rare amongst bloodies. Drinking blood wasn’t fun, it was ‘beyond fun,’ as someone had once remarked, exactly the kind of fake intellectual phrasing you would hear in that scene. Peter just wanted to share a glass of the very best blood while listening to some music and cosying up on the sofa with someone he loved. Someone like Cherie, he thought with a twitch, while he led her upstairs to his flat.

‘Let me take your coat,’ he said politely, shaking off the thought. ‘Have a seat. I’ll get us a bottle of wine. Unless you want something else of course. Sorry, I’m doing this all wrong. What would you like to drink, Cherie?’

‘Wine would be fine,’ she laughed. ‘No need to be all formal all of a sudden. Is it okay if I take off my shoes?’

‘Of course, make yourself at home.’

He took his briefcase to the kitchen and opened it on the floor in front of the fridge. He got the bottle and unwrapped it, quickly but carefully, and unscrewed the top. Just a little sniff before he chilled it, he thought, it would invigorate him, ready him for what was to come. He might even put a few drops on his tongue while it was still fresh, and then go back to a heavy and dark wine, something that would complement the taste of blood. His hands shook lightly when he swiped the bottle under his nose, the aroma filling the kitchen and making him slightly dizzy.

‘Ah, there you are…’

The bottle slipped from his hand on the kitchen floor and glided just out of reach, leaving a line of blood on the surface. Cherie got to the bottle before he even knew what had happened. Peter looked up at her in a state of shock. ‘This is…’ not what you think, he wanted to say, but he left it there, unfinished. He wasn’t sure what she would think, but the smile that came to her lips suggested that she wasn’t at all upset.

She squatted next to him, dipped a finger in the line of blood and brought it to her lips. ‘I knew it, I just knew it,’ she whispered. She dipped again and moved her finger towards Peter’s mouth. She looked at him like she had done earlier at the office and kissed him on the lips.

‘Why don’t you get some glasses,’ she said and she nudged him to get up.
pencil

Walter Kraut has published two novels in the Netherlands (Blauwe ogen and Het echte werk, both by Prometheus) and several stories in periodicals and anthologies. He moved to the UK in 2000 and currently lives in London. ‘The Taste of Blood’ is his first story in English. Website: walterkraut.nl
E-mail: walter[at]walterkraut.nl

Painting Naked

Fiction
Kimberley Idol


“Look, look, look.” The boyfriend turned to show me a strip of masking tape attached to his dick.

“Don’t get primer on that,” I replied. I think I have painted more than a hundred rooms in my life. I attack the task as I do all tasks, like line drives. Painting in the nude was the best way to avoid washing acrylic off another T-shirt, even if I have dozens. If you travel to Amsterdam and you can not afford the Renoir or the Natchez triple dresser, a T-shirt emblazoned with green people boffing doggy style can substitute as a souvenir. Plus, I run in a lot of 10Ks. This activity nets you shin splints, free orange juice and free T-shirts. Allison and I run them once a month. We go to class together, bar hop together and run together. Last week we entered the Santa Anita Run. Someone miscalculated the length, the race was .75 miles longer than it should have been. When you strategise for 6.2, 6.95 takes a toll. You’ve spent all you had before the last mile and so you dodder along in the end, like a rented pony. They still owe you the T-shirt however, no matter how late you cross the finish line.

The boyfriend isn’t a precise painter. He gets easily frustrated and slashes the white trim and cabinet corners with orange streaks by mistake. This frustrates me but watching him try to keep from dangling into the quart of Sunny Melon Misty makes up for the stress. There is only one paint can and we keep it near him. He can not dip his brush and carry it across the room without leaving a trail and I can. Every time he bends down he risks immersion. I paint in clean lines and I cover all cracks and crevices with a thick coat of paint because I don’t like to be reminded of the past. Chinks of old paint remind me of jobs not well done and I never let those go. I am still in recovery over a marriage that crashed two years ago because it seems that unless you die I can’t let you go, even then, come to think of it. My grandfather died when I was seven and I cried for about a year. Decades later I still believe that my life would have turned out better had he lived although I have no experiential proof of this. Better than what I can not say. Better than what is. The boyfriend doesn’t like my ex-husband, who lives a block away and shares custody of the dogs with me, but then none of my friends ever did.

I come to a wall plate that the boyfriend neglected to remove when we were prepping. Shit. Then I pull open three drawers stuffed to the gills with unrelated objects until I locate a screwdriver. It is too large to fit the screw heads so I press hard and make the tip do the work of a smaller driver. Then I toss it back into any drawer and it lands on a faded picture of three kids in shower caps sharing a bath. I was the oldest and Molly the youngest and in that space we found fewer reasons to compete than did Andrea and Molly who shared a room and fought over everything, and me and Andrea who likened one another to vipers, and kept our distance. Following a wicked impulse I crumple the picture and try to toss it into the trash. It bounds off the rim and falls into the bucket by the boyfriend’s naked ass.

“Why throw it away?” The boyfriend recovers it.

“Old picture,” I said. “It can’t be repaired.”

He wants to ask who the subjects are but he knows better. Instead he stuffs it in another drawer for the day I want to frame it.

I have no pictures of my sisters on my walls. Last year I took all my family pictures and threw them away. This is an engrained habit. As a child I used to scour the family albums and remove pictures of me from the pages. I can’t tell you now if I was wiping me or them from a combined existence. The pictures didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t know who the skinny girl with the long braids was and the pictures pretended intent were there was none. We didn’t love each other though we wished we did. The girl that was me was always smiling. There’s a picture I have kept. It was taken on Circus Day at the beach club when Grandfather had hoisted me onto his shoulders. I had gotten my face painted like a clown. I hadn’t read Stephen King yet; clowns were still fun. I looked like a little girl and I have always wondered who that girl was. I always suffer vertigo when I see the old pictures and so from time to time I remove all traces of the pretense from the family albums. No one looked at them until we had all grown so no one noticed the lack until years later and by then no one wanted the albums. My family was like a kelp bed in which things get trapped but never grow. There’s a holdfast but it keeps no one to center, provides no comfort from the salted tides that keep us drifting.

The picture I tried to toss shows Molly, Andrea and me, Cammy, sitting in the tub on a Saturday night. Andrea drifted out of my life like a brown blade separated from the kelp bed and sent to sea. Molly drowned thirty-five years ago. A stone sinking to the base of the shallow end of the pool and I remember that I never said a word although I watched her go because I did not believe in dying when I was eight although I had already been to one funeral by the time Molly sank. She didn’t struggle, that was the other thing. I saw her drift. Then I saw bubbles and then I looked towards my parents and their friends who were camped out by the pool in bright suits and sunning slickly underneath a boiling sun. Someone with thick gold rings wrapped her hand around a tall glass with a pink drink in it, someone else searched for her sunglasses. A man I disliked because he called me “Punkin” and hugged me whenever he visited was telling a story and no one made a fuss when the baby first dropped off the steps.

I took my cues from the adults; when they were afraid I was afraid. When my teacher showed our class pictures of lung cancer and told us about dying I went home and filled a trashcan with my father’s cigarettes and matchbooks then ran a hose into the result so that nothing could be saved. My mother said that I was overreacting. The first time I saw my dad beat Mom they told me not to make a fuss so I pulled out a coloring book and tried very hard to stay within the lines until they stopped fighting. When my Grandmother staggered to the living room window and stared in at us looking like a Grimm’s ghoul, Mother told us to keep eating while she went outside, pried the shrieking meemy from the window and called the caretaker who had abandoned his post for Happy Hour down the street. When Dad pulled the clerk over the counter at 32 Flavors because there were no bananas, we were told to “get a grip.” Afterwards we all piled into the back of the station wagon in silence and waited while Daddy decided whether he wanted to put Paint Your Wagon or Johnny Mathis into the 8-track and I don’t think anyone mentioned the incident to my mother.

When I was eight Andrea set the garage on fire. She had been dropping matches into the high wild grass that grew in the back and stomping out the flames until the flames overcame the power of the stomp. I wasn’t worried until the maid began to scream; neither was Andrea come to think of it. We were watching Hogan’s Heroes on a Saturday afternoon and if my mother had known she would have taken the television set away again. Andrea stopped to get caught up on the storyline before she went into the kitchen to get a drink and pretend to notice the flames. My parents went crazy, but no one was hurt so why were they crying? When I was nine I set my bedroom on fire; I put it out and didn’t get upset until my mother discovered the damage, a big black hole in the carpet and three singed stuffed dogs, and yelled at me. By the time I saw Dad kick a beggar sitting outside a football stadium I knew to keep moving through the line until it was time for the ticket taker to turn my ticket into a stub. No need for a scene unless someone said so. Given all these confusing cues how was I to know, when I was ten, that Molly sinking to the bottom was cause for concern unless an adult said so? I figured she’d hold her breath until she could breathe again. I knew people died but the dead seemed retrievable to me. Grandfather had died, so they said, but I’d had no proof except for his absence. People vanished when they died; that didn’t mean they couldn’t recover.

“Susan,” the woman with the rings said. The rest of the men were soaking in the jacuzzi at the other end of the pool and did not hear. Without a word, my mother launched into the water and pulled the baby onto the deck. Molly didn’t look dead, just still, like a stuffed animal. She drooled when they turned her over. Someone ran to the house to phone a doctor. The others pressed her chest and called her name. The adults waved me away while they tried to make her breathe and then forgot about me altogether once the ambulance arrived. My mother climbed into the ambulance, my father and the other four drove the station wagon after it and they left me by the pool with water lapping up the steps, sounds drifting in from the next door neighbors and our German Shepherd, Edel, who knocked the imported cheese tray to the ground so that he could polish off the pepperoni and jarlsburg slices. He was in a hurry and made the table with the drinks jiggle and I noticed sweating glasses and ice still floating in a pitcher of a concoction I was told never to touch because it was bad for me.

So they took my sister away and like the other times when people had died we kids were set aside, sent to our rooms to play, until the grieving was done. We were judged too young to attend services and then too much trouble to tend while my mother recovered and so we were sent to a friend’s for two weeks after which we returned to find all traces of the third girl removed from the premises. All her things gone, all her colors revised. I suspect that my parents’ purposes were two-fold. They wanted to protect us from the loss and wanted to avoid being required to share their loss with us. But the effect was stunning. Andrea and I obeyed the unspoken edict and we never talked about Molly but there were spaces in the house that missed her. Molly’s bed was gone but not the space in which it stood. There were two instead of three toothbrush holders by the sink, two places at the table, and the child seat was gone from the back of the car but that didn’t mean the room we had made for those things went with Molly. Still if our parents meant us to forget we could pretend. Andrea and I became concerned at how easily one could be excised from life. I took to hiding objects all over the house so that if I died my parents would never be able to find everything and throw it away. Andrea began scoring the walls and the furniture with fork marks. Branding the house with her presence, she picked both obvious and obscure places to damage so that they could never erase her entirely even if they wanted, even if they spent days scouring the rooms with caulk and sandpaper. Hiding things was fun and I started everybody else’s belongings as well. I presumed I could make a family stay if they could never find all their things. We would never move, and no one could leave because no one could ever completely pack.

“This is just making things harder,” my mother said to me. It was Friday night. She and my father were going to a party. He was dressed and angry and she had spent the past hour searching for her shoes, black leather pumps that matched her dress. She’d put on her phony braid tonight, the one that draped down her back. When she pulled the last shoe from the living room cupboard she noticed three scratches in the wood. She rubbed them with her fingers as if to erase them and then shut the door.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said. The cupboard held my collection of Crypt Keeper comic books so I made a big deal of reopening it and shifting through the pile. My mother pulled me away and slammed the door shut. I opened it again.

Then she closed it and held it tight while I waited for her to give up. “You have to stop,” she said.

“I don’t.”

“You have to grow up.”

“I don’t.”

“This is your fault.” She brandished the shoe at me. “That,” she pointed at the pool, “is not.”

My mother stopped taking us to the barber after Molly died so Andrea and I grew our hair long. Molly never got to that stage. I never saw her in anything but a pageboy. They made clay heads of us all when we were little, the same three girls with page boys, elaborate bows in the back and eyes scored to make pupils. They were aligned in the living room on three bronze pedestals and reminded me of goddesses and witches and the fates depending on which book I was reading at the time.

The busts were staged on the piano, an instrument that I doggedly played badly for years. I was talented, to a point, but I never like to practice. It wasn’t that I lacked discipline but that I was afraid to be heard failing to play the pieces perfectly. I would wait until the house was empty and then try. But the house was rarely empty. The maid lived in and my parents liked to socialize. I allowed Molly to sit nearby and listen to me play unless I was in a bad mood, then I called her names and made her leave. She was afraid to be alone and so sometimes I even had to hit her until she hid from me. Neither of us liked to be alone come to think of it. I had been known to crawl into the closet with the dog and sleep when all the adults were out because I was frightened of burglars, although I had never seen one and knew no one who had ever been robbed. After Molly died when I played the piano because I wanted her near if only to explain the change and I realized in retrospect that her presence had been comforting.

Because I was the oldest, I was taught to change Molly’s diapers and was supposed to help out when she was toilet training. It was fun for a while, until it was not. I never lost my taste for baby food so I didn’t mind feeding her until she refused assistance, by launching handfuls of muck into the air. She slept with me when Dad got loud and never got over her fear of either of her grandparents. Grandfather was too big and Grandmother smelled like gin and Virginia Slims which Molly claimed reminded her of poop. Poop was the coverall word for anything icky. Icky was bad smells, bad tastes, scrapes, bad table manners and people she didn’t like. She was still small enough to be carried and guests liked to try their hand at it, whether she consented or not. She learned, like me, to hold her tongue and endure. Eventually we escaped and hid under tables and in the big fireplace behind the iron mesh until the adults got soused enough to forget we existed. Andrea liked the attention. When she wanted to be ignored she turned mean. She didn’t need to hide ever.

We wrestled with one another at the drop of a hat. For us the world was all about defending territories. To cut down on fights my Mom color-coded our possessions. Rooms, bed sheets, furniture, even tennis shoes. Each child was issued a bottle of nail polish so that they could tag their belongings. I was orange, Andrea was purple and Molly was pink. I wanted purple but didn’t have my sister’s aggressive edge and she reached for the bottle first. Orange was my second choice. My boyfriend and I were in fact painting my kitchen orange although the label insisted it was a fancier shade.

“Goddammit.” The boyfriend was being conquered by the octagonal configuration of the bay windows. He used a soft rising pitch when he was annoyed, a tone I have had to learn because in my family when we are pissed, we bellow. I suspect the boyfriend is the kind who could never draw within the lines when he was little and I am annoyed at his incompetence but I cut him slack because I feel badly. I left the Gynol on the counter last night and in the dark he mistook it for toothpaste. He had come home late and had left the lights out as a thoughtful gesture and I had told him to feel around for the Crest, a brand name I always use because my mother bought it for us when we were little.

I set the brush down and fish the picture of me and my sisters out of the drawer. It’s turning blue and curling with age. It reminds me of the camera shop two blocks from our house where my grandparents had all their film developed and then it reminds me of Saturday nights at my grandparents’. My parents let us stay over on Saturdays so that Grandmother could take us to 7 a.m. mass. My parents were atheists but had no argument with their children being informed. I went to mass, learned the prayers and all the proper responses to liturgy and enjoyed Sunday school but never took to the notion of life after death. Again, no one could ever prove it to me. For a while after Molly died I had a nightmare that she had been buried alive. I was worried she would suffocate and I knew damn well that she was scared of being alone and of being alone in the dark. “It doesn’t work that way,” my mother tried to explain. “Dead people don’t need to breathe.” Ah, only living people need air, like little babies sitting in water I thought but did not say. Anyway the bible stories were entertaining and I was proud of my ability to remember and recite scripture but as for faith, I required proof. When it was explained to me that faith existed without it, I lost interest. You can’t fill holes with faith, you need dirt and someone to swing the shovel. Grandfather never went to church. When I asked him why he said that he was a Methodist and that they never attended services, instead they read the papers on Sundays and made pancakes afterwards. There’s another picture of us somewhere with all of us in bathing suits perched on the back of the couch reading the comics with Grandfather. We look happy. I hide some things even from myself and I bet if I looked around my house I might find that one still exists.

Andrea and I had less in common after Molly died. I can’t say I know why. We passed in the hallways but never crossed paths. We didn’t share clothing, didn’t share friends, didn’t share secrets except for the ones about our parents and those we knew well enough never to repeat. If we talked at all, the conversations always turned into arguments but since we never knew each other well I still can’t imagine what we had to fight about except that for whatever reason anger was our chosen dialect.

Molly died a sudden cardiac death. She was dead possibly before she dropped off the step. They make bad hearts in my family. Everyone is afraid of dying. My grandfather died on the golf course and my father died during dinner while waiting for someone to bring him a spoon so he could serve the mashed potatoes. When I got older I asked my mother where she was buried and it was then I was told that they had scattered her ashes overboard and that there was no where to visit, except the ocean and that did not satisfy. Molly dying sudden made every day seem suspicious. No one had told us she was sick maybe we were sick and now that I say this I know why Andrea and I stopped talking. Who wanted to see another sister go. Best to leave while they were breathing. And it was not my fault but even as the years go by and I know I did not kill my sister with disregard I know I felt nothing when I saw her sink. It frightens me no end to believe that I did not care and being raised in a place where the plot was hard to follow did not explain what I did that day nor does it excuse my failure to speak.

“Shit.” The boyfriend says again. I have to look up. He has trailed a vein of paint across the microwave.

“Stop,” I say, hoping to forestall the mess he will make if he tries to clean up. The house was painted pink when I bought it. Little by little I have been recovering the walls from that tainted tone.

“Save the picture at least,” he says and I see that he had pulled it out again and it has a drip on it.
pencil

“I am a graduate student matriculating at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I have been published in the The Portland Review, Danse Macabre, and will be included in Jarrett Keene’s upcoming anthology out of Stephen’s Press. My work has also been selected by our department for submission to the Kulka Best American Voices anthology.” E-mail: writtenword6[at]gmail.com

Words

Fiction
Caroline England


The searing heat of righteousness kept Mrs H company through the night, at least until the early hours, and even then the feeling of having been wronged, indefinable though it was, still burned in her dreams.

During her waking moments, she tried to identify the cause, to concentrate on the nub, but her mind was in spasm, convulsing with thoughts, moments and memories but unable to focus on any one thing. Archaic, antiquated. No longer of relevance, she thought. Mrs H closed her eyes and recounted the books from the well-stocked library of her childhood home.

She slept again, eventually, and woke at dawn feeling thirsty and vaguely bereft. Getting herself out of the lofty bed was more of an effort than usual, and she averted her eyes from the looking glass as she always did. She had been almost beautiful once and didn’t need to be reminded of a face consumed and robbed by lonely old age and secret obsession. She cleaned her teeth for longer than usual, focusing on nothing except the swirl of blood in the bowl when she spat.

Her mind was merciful for the first few hours of the day as she methodically replaced books in the reference chamber, but it didn’t take long for doubt, regret even, to elbow through the haze. Sentiment long out of fashion, she thought, lamentable excess of gush.

Mrs H shook her head from time to time as she cautiously climbed the ladder to reach the topmost shelves. She had been so confident, so convinced that she was right, that the time was right. But now she was not so sure. She needed to concentrate, to think it through, to examine every word, every thought, every nuance, but despite the notices demanding silence in the chamber, people kept talking, whispering loudly, asking her questions and interrupting her thoughts.

It wasn’t until Mrs H unwrapped the cloth from her cheese-and-tomato sandwich at a table in the far corner of the staff room that she had time to think, and even then she found herself jotting down words and abstract phrases because she still couldn’t focus. Sentences popped into her head unbidden. Want of originality, want of intensity and, worst of all, want of concentration. There were gaps in her memory, gaps she didn’t realise were there until she let her mind drift to fill those gaps with horrible recall. Things that were written, things that she had written. Things that had seemed so important at the time, but now she was doubtful.

Lacks perfection and inevitableness of expression, either in the splendid, or in the simple, style, she recalled. Mrs H sighed and put her head in her hands for a moment before pulling away the upright chair, causing her untouched sandwich to fall from the table and collapse on the red-tiled floor. Too many flowers, she thought, too little fruit. The trouble was that she was still having difficulty in getting to the end of the story in her mind. At every turn she was diverted to another path of thought, dismal, dark and full of doubt.

“My, you’re in a hurry, Mrs H. No books today, then?” Joseph, the caretaker commented as she spiralled through the doors of the building. “You’ll be pleased to see that your New Monthly magazine arrived in the post. I left it on your bureau,” he called as Mrs H brushed by without saying a word. He stopped sweeping the steps and looked at her with a frown about his bushy eyebrows, but Mrs H really didn’t care that she had offended him by failing to stop for a word as usual; she couldn’t wait to get to the peace and quiet of home. She needed to steady herself, to think, to prepare for what she had done, for what her future may hold.

The hot breath Mrs H imagined she had held in all day streamed out of her as she locked the old oak door behind her and waited for her eyes to become accustomed to the dark of her hallway. But the silence she had craved all day suddenly oppressed her, filling her with an urgent desire to speak to someone just to assure herself she was real. She had been married once, in her nineteenth year, to George Henning, a Captain of the 3rd Regiment. She had never loved her husband, nor had she given birth to any child. The Captain was much older than her and as his health had become impaired by Foreign Service, he had become a permanent resident in Italy only nine months after their wedding. Since then she had lived in solitude, with only the companionship of books, for so long that the only person she could think of was her dear brother, and Harold was long since gone.

The embers in the grate had lost their blush and the untouched mug of cocoa had formed a skin, but Mrs H’s milky eyes stared at the benevolent shadows of the books dwarfing her bedroom. Even with her eyes closed, she could smell their company.

No enjoyment of extraordinary stimulous. Little evidence of accumulation of time to bring perfection, she recited to herself. Mrs H closed her eyes and drifted. It was the right thing to do, the right time to do it, she repeated through the treadmill of unwelcome thoughts as the second night droned on. She must have slept at some point as her pillow was wet at daybreak with the evidence of sleep—saliva, she supposed, or perhaps even tears. It wasn’t until much later, when enough daylight cheated its way through the gap in the heavy curtains that Mrs H noticed the stain was a shining deep crimson.

“You alright, Mrs H? You look like death!” Joseph called as she hurried up the sodden steps of the library. “You’re early, even for you. I haven’t opened up yet.”

Although her chest hurt and she needed to cough, she smiled at Joseph. Her need to get to the literature library an hour before the general public made the effort worth her while. “Open up will you, Joseph. I have so much to do today and I’m not feeling so good.”

For a few minutes Mrs H stood soundless as a statue in the huge domed room; she looked all around it, then closed her eyes and breathed deeply to take in the smell. She then hurried to the section she was looking for, not even bothering to take off her hat and coat, and slipped into a chair at the vast oak central table. For a moment she held the book, the original illustrated copy, to her chest and then carefully laid it on the table, automatically opening the cover to check whether anyone had borrowed it recently. But as soon as the page was open, a drop of liquid spilled onto the page, landing in a perfect pear shaped bubble before dispersing into the absorbent old paper. Mrs H immediately put her hand to her mouth, drawing it away slowly, and then inspecting the palm of her shaking hand. There was no doubt about it, she was still bleeding. Someone might notice and make a fuss, the thought of which was unbearable. Mrs H hadn’t taken a day’s illness for over thirty years at all the different libraries she’d worked, but she knew that today there was no alternative but to go back home.

“That was quick, Mrs H. You’ve left before you’ve arrived,” Joseph chuckled at her departing back. “Tell them you’re not well, shall I?” he added, as Mrs H and her bag full of books disappeared towards the tram stop beyond the willow tree.

As the day drew on and evening emerged, Mrs H toyed with the idea of writing another letter asking The New Monthly to discard the first. She had spent so many years in the comfort of the shadows that she was fearful of notoriety, of attention even. She was aware that many people found her uncommunicative and eccentric, yet the distance it had created suited her. But now the truth was bound to come out and Mrs H had no idea of how her fellow workers might react to her carefully concealed secret.

After sporadically pacing the floor boards over several hours, Mrs H sat down at her bureau, and put ink pen to parchment. Dear Editor, she wrote, but by then her coughing had become so severe that she could do little else but lie on her bed, head slightly raised on the pillow with a bundle of rags held to her mouth.

As Mrs H fell in and out of consciousness her mind seemed to recover some of the clarity she was once famous for. She held up the article in her mind’s eye. Very popular in her day but archaic, antiquated and no longer relevant to modern times, she read. Her sensibility has long been out of fashion, her technique deplorably bad. Her popularity set a most unfortunate precedent for women.

Mrs H felt warmed by her outrage once again. A lamentable excess of original gush, she continued to read through closed eyes as the night fell away. Her work suffered from her restricted experience. She relied too much on the influence of others and often used stereotypic images.

In delirious dreams Mrs H rose from her bed to open the bureau and search for her letter to The New Monthly. A beautifully composed missive in her best long hand, she recalled. A vitriolic letter, responding with vigour, putting them straight. She could remember that much, but the rest of her words were a fog. Try as she might, her recall was poor, her memory dim. Had she really told them she wasn’t finished or dead but working at a library in Slough? Had she really walked all the way to the post office in the rain and placed the letter in the gloved hand of the post mistress?

Mrs H reached the bureau in stockinged feet and found the unopened letter on the desk. With fumbling fingers she tore open the seal but when she peered at the parchment, the page was blank.

As Mrs H’s breath became shallow, she remembered that her husband, the Captain, had once written to her brother: “Dear Henrietta has such a young enthusiastic nature and I wish her the best. My fear is that one day her dreams of happiness will be overtaken by sad realities”. Mrs H had disagreed with this sentiment at the time, thinking she would write forever and be happy, but she now felt that perhaps the Captain had seen something she had been unable to see.

Mrs H lifted her head and gazed towards the pile of books neatly stacked in the open trunk as her light began to fade. The first editions of all twenty volumes were there, in pristine condition in the main, permanently borrowed from libraries over the years. Some of the cheap editions, without plates, were still in the library. She fleetingly wondered if she would have the strength to go back into work and bring the final few copies home.

Mrs H shook her head almost imperceptibly, smiled and sighed. Her soul was poetic, but it was not a hardy one and it neglected to follow what star it had. Perhaps they were right, but Mrs H didn’t think so. She could no longer focus on the top cover title but she knew what it said: POEMS BY MRS HENRIETTA HENNING WITH ILLUSTRATIONS, cloth edition 2s. 6d.
pencil

Not well known for her pyrotechnics, Caroline’s had some stuff published in magazines—Transmission, Parameter, Pipeline, Chimera, Lamport Court, Peace and Freedom Press, nr1, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Recusant, Succour, Pen Pusher, Positive Words, Twisted Tongue, The Text, White Chimney and The Ugly Tree. She is currently working on a novel. E-mail: caroline[at]englandc.fsnet.co.uk

Voice on the Water

Fiction
Louis M. Abbey


“How can you say you’d like one? You don’t know anything about boats,” I said. My father sat on a kitchen chair, a Time magazine on his lap.

“Don’t know exactly, but I feel it,” he answered, distracted. The Red Sox were on the radio. The commentator’s staccato monotone crackled over the hoarse breath of the crowd.

“Feel it. What do you mean by that, Dad?”

“I feel it, David, right here,” he punched the center of his stomach. “When Williams smacks a homer, he doesn’t feel contact, his gut just knows. Same as me about a boat, I know I’d love one—you would too, holding the wheel, wind in your hair, it just feels right, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t know, Dad, I sometimes feel…”

“Hold on, Dave. Williams’s up, bases loaded, Detroit just changed pitchers. Listen to this.”

He upped the volume. “This one’s down the pipe,” the announcer’s voice rose. “And Williams swings, connects. It’s way out there, going, going, gone! There you have it, the Kid’s 17th career grand slam, and 4 more RBIs. You just can’t stop this guy and it’s only July.”

“Way to earn your salary, Kid!” Dad slapped the magazine in his lap. Then he picked up the can of beer beside the radio and took a long pull that bobbed his Adam’s apple. Wet rings intersected on the table. I smacked my left fist into my right palm and swung an imaginary bat.

“Pay for a bat, Dave. That’ll win it for ’em this year. Pay for every last homer. Highest salary in the majors.”

“Bet he could afford a boat,” I said.

“Sure he could. He’s over a hundred-thou-a-year now. It’ll be a million before you know it. A million bucks and you can do anything. A steady job’s all I ever wanted. Boy I could’ve used money like that before you were born. Look at this.” He turned the open magazine around, pointing to the picture.

It was a whiskey ad he’d shown me before. A Concordia Yawl in a stiff breeze, rail buried, sails bellied. A mustached skipper in blazer, white ducks and yachting cap grips the helm with one hand and holds a glass of Canadian Club in the other.

“That’s the life,” he said.

“Dad, it’s just an ad, maybe a fake boat. How can he stand there and drink whiskey in a wind like that?”

“It’s gonna happen, Dave—someday. We’ll work hard and get that boat. This cook job of mine, ‘chief cook and bottle washer,’ it’s all going to lead somewhere, I just know, right here.” He slapped his gut again.

I’d heard more than a few of his dreams in my fifteen years. He’d draw on his cigarette and with smoke-muffled voice, tell me about a deal he’d found on a new Ford. Next day he’d be on his back under the old car, making it last another year. He had a way of falling in love with his intentions.

“I know, you just feel it,” I said and drifted outside in the July afternoon.

*

The next summer, I was sixteen and took a job bussing trays at Shelter Point Inn (known locally as The Inn) on the Rhode Island shore, my first summer away from home. The shingled three-story ark crouched on a spit of land beside a saltwater pond separated from Block Island Sound by sand dunes. Behind The Inn, large cedar-shingled cottages looked out on our world from bayberry-covered hills keeping their own counsel. Narrow, rutted roads connected the houses to the paved road that snaked past The Inn and the yacht club next door.

At work in the dining room, I loitered beside the large windows to watch the local kids sail their Beetles, Blue Jays and Comets between the club’s harbor and the cobalt pond where, far out, they became gliding white triangles, without apparent guidance. In the late afternoon, I would stare, mesmerized by the liturgy of lowering, folding and reverently bagging the sails. On windless days, crews tipped boats up on their sides to wash, varnish, and paint the beautifully curved hulls to gleaming. It all looked so easy. An invisible pull from inside me winched tighter by the day. It wanted to draw me through the windows toward those boats. I didn’t understand it beyond the feeling that I belonged there on the clam flats at low tide.

Apparently the club’s member families sired more daughters than sons. So one day on the beach, the girls invited us “Inn-boys” to a Saturday-night club dance. Several of us went.

In my frayed oxford shirt and sunburn, I laughed and talked with feigned urbane confidence. I added nothing to the boarding school shoptalk and pre-race bravado. Scratchy songs tumbled from a portable stereo. I danced with Calley, a barefoot redhead in madras shorts and her father’s old shirt. She sang the words softly while gazing over my shoulder.

“Will you crew for me on my boat Sunday afternoon?” she whispered.

Whatever she said blended with the verse of the song and I didn’t answer.

“Well, David…will you?”

“Will I what? What did you say?”

“Will you crew for me on Sunday?” softly insistent.

“Yes!” voce robusto. Message received. Heads turned. She wouldn’t have been my pick, but it was a pass through the dining room windows. She said we could meet at the dock at noon, then broke away and trotted back to her friends. Noon was my work time.

Sunday morning I invented nausea and stomach cramps that made me unfit to work.

“Too damn much partying,” said the maitre d’.

“If you miss another day, you can kiss the job goodbye… and I better not catch you outside that dorm!” the manager shouted. The dining room crew lived in two eight-room shacks on stilts adjacent to a salt marsh behind The Inn. The girl’s shack was theoretically separated from the boy’s by the parking shed.

All morning I tried to ignore the off-duty bellhop, Dan, and Carol, a chambermaid, in the room next to mine. I studied a picture of a boat like Calley’s in a sailing book I’d found in one of the other rooms. Underneath the picture it said, Blue Jay—an open, thirteen-and-a-half-foot sailboat with main and jib sails, a centerboard and an outboard rudder. Terms ran together making amusing confusion. Another diagram explained step-by-step how to tie a bowline. Mental images of Dan and Carol interposed themselves between the drawings. My stomach twisted itself into a perfect square knot. The yacht club kids wore scuffed Sperry Topsiders. My wardrobe boasted Converse All-Stars, so I opted for bare feet. It was almost noon.

At 11:50 I tiptoed past Dan’s room. His deep voice penetrated the door, “We can both keep a secret, can’t we, skipper?”

“Sure thing, Dan,” I croaked over my shoulder, “Sure thing.”

A moment’s hesitation, then I slipped out the rear door and down an embankment to the salt marsh at low tide. Keeping below the bank I got well away from The Inn and crossed the road to the club out of the sight line from the dining room.

I bounced onto the dock and tiptoed between skippers and crew unbagging sails; surely someone would ask why I wasn’t at work. They joked loudly in a nautical vocabulary. I heard “…traveler amidships…” and “…jib fairlead…” and began to question my ability to take orders. Calley sat on the end of the dock, back toward me, tying a knot while one foot held her Blue Jay, Squall, against a piling. She hadn’t noticed me.

I stopped, frozen like a pilgrim, and stared. This first boat I would ever sail was my shrine, the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes on. Dark-green hull, her cockpit flashed layers of whiskey-amber varnish. The heaven-pointed mast was square, not round like I thought it would be. I inhaled her light, oily perfume, mahogany mixed with the tarry pungency of marine hemp. Squall was a glass full of Canadian Club, and I had just downed the whole thing. I wouldn’t have cared if Calley had morphed into the maitre d’. It was irreversible. I was hooked, foolish, head-over-heels in love with a sailboat.

Calley looked up. “Don’t just stand there, Dave. Come aboard and bend on the main. I’ve got the jib.” She shoved a folded sail into my outstretched arms. That term, “bend,” searched for a match in my memory. A quick glance around at what others were doing suggested it involved attaching the mainsail to the mast and boom.

I fingered the surprisingly stiff sail fabric. All the activity around me shifted into slow motion. I discovered fasteners along one edge of the sail and fumbled them onto a track attached to the mast. Calley had already linked the jib to the forward mast support, mounted the rudder over the stern and adjusted the tiller.

“Watch it, Dave, you’re upside down,” she said, and grabbed the sail. She slipped fasteners onto the track from the other end so fast it made me realize I wasn’t deft with anything, especially on a sailboat.

“I’ll get the jib.” I lunged, nearly sprawling in some coils of line on the cockpit floor. The boat rocked violently,

“You don’t know much about this, do you?”

“Well, if I could just…”

“No, I mean really.” Calley said with a grin. “The main goes up first.” And with several hand-over-hands, she’d raised and cleated the mainsail.

I glanced up to the dock to deflect her amused frown, or perhaps for rescue. My raised eyes encountered scuffed Topsiders out of which sprouted tanned, hairy legs attached to a tall, square-jawed boy about my age, in wrinkled shirt and baggy shorts.

“Oh,” said Calley, “David, this is Bronson. He’s going to crew for me ’cause his crew went home this morning. Thanks for helping, though.”

I untangled my feet from the line and Bronson gave me a hand up on the dock.

“Looks like a nice one out there,” I said. “Good luck.” My sunburn heated up.

“Thanks for the help, man,” He grinned and grabbed my shoulder. Bronson’s grip molded my weakness into relief. Then he hopped aboard Squall.

I sprinted back to the salt marsh. On the slippery mud between grass hummocks a profound fever for sailboats spread through my body. It helped me shed my morning illness in time to work the evening meal.

I sailed a couple of times that summer, once as passenger and once as crew. At home, the beginning of September, I told my father about my sailing adventures and the Blue Jay, leaving out the Calley-Bronson affair.

We were in the kitchen. I grabbed a straight-backed chair and sat down, the portable fan blowing in my face.

“See, Dad, this is what it feels like sailing into the wind. The boat starts to tip, you lean back over the rail so far your head skims the water,” I leaned back over the chair seat into the breeze. My hair dragged the floor. In my throat, I made the soft gurgle the water makes against the hull. “That’s what it’s like, Dad.”

“They’re pretty small boats, you know, unstable, dangerous.” He always downplayed small boats. “You’ll never catch me in one.” He had the same old car and still planned to get a new one.

*

Over the next twenty years, I built models of sailboats, went to college and got married. My new wife, Gigi, and I actually went sailing together on a long weekend in Maine. We fought and argued through two hours on a rented boat, but when it was over, we were on the same side.

Boat fever flared again in the doldrums of Piedmont, Virginia, two hours from the ocean. A new job, new house, a year-old daughter, Molly, and we were ready for sailing. The nearest water was either class-ten rapids or a twenty-acre artificial lake with a forest of tree skeletons and submerged stumps.

That fall, for diversion, we took Molly to the “Virginia Boat Show” in Richmond. We’d agreed before we walked in that it might be time for a “small” sailboat, if we came across one.

I asked one of the dealers why there weren’t more sailboats.

“Let me tell you something,” he said, moving his hands together prayerfully. “On land, you want to go some place, you hop in the car and go. You look at water like it’s a liquid road. It’s that simple. And I can put you in the driver’s seat of a water vehicle you can drive anywhere you want to go at any point in time. Power, man, that’s it, power that’ll work for you.”

Our Volkswagen Beetle could never have towed the few Winnebagos with sails that we did see. We took a wrong turn looking for the exit and ended up beside another couple staring at a small booth. Meet the Mac Dinghy, the sign said.

She was all fiberglass and extruded aluminum, far from the wood of Calley’s Squall. She offered the penetrating odor of monomer and the “tink tink” of halyards on a metal mast, but she was in our price range. Ten feet long, dark-green topsides bonded to a fat white hull, she conjured up the image of a bathtub. Nevertheless, propped on Styrofoam blocks on a carpet of fake grass, she projected a cheerleader’s perky self-assurance.

I turned to Gigi and explained that the boat was probably too small for the baby and us. She floored me when she pronounced the Mac maybe a good place to start.

“Besides,” she said, “By the time you learn to sail her solo, Molly’ll be old enough to stay with someone on shore while you teach me.”

“Green topsides remind me of the hull on that Blue Jay I almost sailed in Rhode Island, remember?”

An impatient smile, a roll of her eyes—Gigi continued bouncing Molly, who acted like she wanted to nurse.

Eagerness stares a few seconds too long. The salesman, a stocky weathered guy in jeans and plaid shirt, was out of his deck chair and beside me before I could reconstruct my disinterest.

“Sealed, airtight compartments, she can’t sink. Hundred pounds all up. The name’s Roy Waller, what’s yours?” He slapped the Mac’s quarterdeck.

“Uh… David Becker,” I said, casting my eyes down toward his knees while I extended my right hand. Roy grabbed and pulled like I’d thrown him the end of a dock line.

He reached over and handed me the main halyard, “Try this, man, internal halyards. See how easy that main goes up.” He threaded the mainsail’s rope luff into a groove in the aluminum mast (no track and slides). The twisted tan halyard looked familiar but lacked the smell of marine hemp. I gripped the line and pulled. It felt oddly slippery so I suspected a Dupont pedigree. It did glide up easily.

After I’d snugged up the halyard, I worked the stiff Dacron sail fabric between my fingers. Roy tapped me on the shoulder. His right hand balanced the varnished mahogany dagger board on the floor in front of his scuffed Topsiders. I took it from him, pressed it to my nose and inhaled the perfume from Squall’s cockpit. The slick gel coat and bonded deck of the Mac began to blur. I thought, Could I just buy the dagger board? Gigi fussed with the front of her shirt in a seat off to the side of the booth.

A few more minutes and I was hooked. Molly slept in her mother’s arms. My helpless expression drew a resigned but genuine smile and a nod from Gigi. A little more negotiation, a down payment and I was set to pick up the Mac at Roy’s Newport News showroom in a week.

When we got home, we celebrated our new status in our customary way as parents of a one-year-old. The three of us, Molly in her high chair, sat around the table and dug into big bowls of Neapolitan ice cream.

“And have you thought about how we’re going to store our boat?” Gigi asked. I gazed out the window at our twenty-by-forty-foot back yard. Molly mashed her fingers in the vanilla and smeared it on her face. My parents would be visiting in a couple of days and could babysit while Gigi and I picked up the boat.

Two days later, at dinner, I poured wine and lifted my glass. “Dad, Mom, Gigi I want to raise a toast to our new sailboat. To a fair wind and prosperous voyages.”

Dad almost disappeared into the broad grin that took up half his face. He didn’t say anything memorable or unpredictable that evening, and Mom kept asking if we could afford it, and how we could sail it with the baby.

To fill in the time, Dad and I fashioned a rooftop carrier so we could bring the Mac home on the Volkswagen. She was only ten feet long. We sanded and varnished the wood frame and made secure fasteners to which we could attach rope to tie the boat on. We decided to mount the hull upside down. It was Dad’s idea to build in a special arm that would hold the mast on one side and the boom on the other. We finished. Dad ran his hand over the smooth frame surface. I could tell he was back between the covers of Time.

Pick-up day was a clear blue October Saturday. My mother was too tired to babysit. Gigi volunteered to stay behind with Mom and insisted I go with Dad to get the boat. I didn’t argue.

During the drive, we laughed and remembered the old baseball game afternoons and the whiskey ads. We found the yard. Disappointment surfaced briefly when they wheeled out our Mac with maroon topsides instead of dark green. Roy said he’d order green, but it might take a few months. Impatience ignited the check for the balance in my pocket. It would be maroon. Dad slid his hand over the deck and smiled. Roy rigged her and raised the sails. I couldn’t believe it, my first fully-equipped sailboat materialized. I just stared and Dad kept smiling and rubbing his hand along the gunwale. He was aboard that yawl.

Roy must have seen my preoccupation. He had me rig the boat again myself. My own arms lifted the twenty-pound mast, tightened the gooseneck, threaded the main rope luff into its groove, and hauled the halyard. I inhaled the varnished mahogany aroma rising from the dagger board. The final act was raising the jib with its sewn-in wire forestay, no romantic rake of bronze fasteners. I cleated the halyard correctly on the second try.

Roy Waller pocketed my check. Dad and I lifted the hull onto the rooftop rig. Roy stood back and shook his head.

“Sure glad I’ve got that check in my pocket,” he said.

She fit. We tied her down and took off heading back the long way, beside the York River. It was easier to stop in case something needed adjustment.

There was a light breeze. The late afternoon sun made everything stand out in sharp relief along the river. I turned into a car park within a few feet of the water to check the load. We got out and walked down to the narrow strip of sand. It was high tide. A quarter mile out from shore, a crabber gunned his growling diesel every few seconds moving from pot to pot, the only sound except for the occasional swish of a car.

Dad’s hair blew in the breeze, and he looked at me like we were living in one of those magazine ads. He glanced back at the boat on top of the car, then out at the water, then over at me again and caught my eye. We nodded without a word and dashed back up the bank. After what seemed a few seconds, a flurry of untying knots and pulling line, we had that dinghy in the shallows with the mast and boom rigged. Moments later her sails were up and I was fitting the kick-up rudder.

“Go on, get in,” he said and steadied the Mac. I banged my knee on the gunwale. There wasn’t space for him, and he muttered something about no damn room on these small boats anyway.

He shoved me off the sand. I floated free, sail luffing gently. I turned and looked back at him on the beach—bent at the waist, bracing his hands on his knees and grinning the way he encouraged his little kid to push plastic boats in the pond that formed in our backyard after rain. Then her sails bit the breeze, filled and I was on my way up and out into the river.

I turned quickly when I heard him shout. He’d rolled up his pants and waded into the water up to his knees, jumping and cheering, letting out whoops that rang off the nearby trees and slowed cars on the road. He yanked off his T-shirt, soaked it and whirled it around over his head, hollering at the same time. The Mac just perked along making a little gurgling sound where the lee hull met the water. I raised my hand and waved back, going fine, getting closer to the crabber who’d stopped to watch the whole scene.

A couple of minutes and I tried to come about. Dad still whooped every so often. I’d head the Mac up into the wind, luff, but she’d fall off. After my third try, an electronic announcer voice, like at a baseball game, blared from the water behind me, “Head up and keep that rudder to lee,” it said. “She’ll come around.” That’s all it ever said. I obeyed and she passed through the wind onto the opposite tack. The crabber gave me the horn when the Mac bit into her new wind. I waved at him, but kept my eye on dad, how small he’d gotten that far away, and how he looked whirling that wet shirt over his head, glistening in the low sun.
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“I am a retired Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology. I taught at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry in Richmond, VA for thirty-five years. I have an MFA in Creative Writing from VCU and have published both fiction and poetry in literary journals such as Georgetown Review, Indiana Review, The Macguffin, Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Literary Review, among others. I currently live and write in Revere, MA.”
E-mail: lncabbey2004[at]yahoo.com

Anniversary

Flash
Michael Zapata


My parents are dancing. Their steps are Venn Diagrams, permanently looped into the oak-wood flooring. Their bodies are concentric hemispheres. They are rocking back and forth and my mother’s heels are clicking like Amtrak wheels but, at times, my mother is also swinging from my father’s arms and she is beautiful and her skin is not Devil White like my abuelita expected when my father called one day from Quito to Santa Fe to say he fell in love with an American student—her skin is not pallid, pasty, ashen, wan, piss or even pearly, snow-white, ivory—or like any gringita‘s—her skin is the color of luz and my father knows not to let go or the song will be ruined.

Chicago, 2008
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Michael Zapata is a writer and educator living in Chicago. He is co-founder and fiction editor for MAKE: A Chicago Literary Magazine. He has produced and written for comedy revues at Second City’s Donny’s Skybox, The Viaduct, The Trap Door Theater, and the Apollo Theater Chicago, and is co-creator, co-writer of the television pilot Settling Up. He is also a 2008 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship recipient for Prose. Currently, he is working on a novel entitled Children of Orleans. Email: mikezapata[at]hotmail.com

Hubris

Poetry
David Fulton


Pollock was down to his last two Lucky Strikes
and no one was going out for more wine
and the last of Coleman Hawkins was fading
into a silence like static, like too much
coffee and trying to sleep.
It was day three and the artist
had the shakes. Maybe it was time for lunch.

The work was there at his toes, spread out
like a map of sublime feeling. He let it lie,
the tangle of dendrites and long, white cancers
that danced on the pumpkin platform of the canvas. Something
converged in the overlaps; the amorphous whirls sparking
from the center, arcing towards the periphery.

Would it seem chaos and order were at odds, or part of a larger order
that couldn’t be seen from the vantage of a squinting yokel?

Would anyone notice the “fuck” hidden in scrawl underneath?

He wanted, briefly, to strip and roll over the top of it while
it was still mostly wet. Hang me on the wall, Peggy. It almost
made him smile.

In the bathroom he washed up with Lava soap and dish cleanser.
The sink was white and shined like cold milk,
but a thumbnail-size blot of dried cobalt blue remained.
The water activated it and formed tiny incursions of the color
that ran into the edges of the foam and turned the bubbles
a shade of cerulean. It worked its way deeper into the mass,
and made clouds of Brandeis, azure and cornflower
before swirling into a periwinkle cataract at the drain.
No stain of the original color remained on the surface
as though it had actually capitulated to something infinite
and if anything had happened at all, only the human
stood witness

his hands hanging at his waist, dripping on the floor. The last
of Coleman Hawkins skipping on the record player.
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“I am 37, was born in Redondo Beach, California and currently live in the San Fernando Valley. I am a college English instructor. I graduated from CSU Northridge with an MA in 2005, and from CSU Long Beach with an MFA in creative writing, in 2007. I have been writing poetry for twenty years and feel that I am starting to do some of the best work of my career.” E-mail: jackbox1971[at]gmail.com

Confirmation

Poetry
Gale Acuff


In this issue of Lois Lane I rub
her blouse off with my eraser and she’s
naked above the waist. I draw circles
for nipples and a couple of Us for
bosoms and she looks like a real woman
now, not that she wasn’t before, even
though she’s just a comic-book character.
But I’m thirteen and in the seventh grade

and I’m sprouting hair where only animals
have it and I smell bad all the time and
my voice is cracking but cracking to depth.
And the girls at school wear short dresses—it’s
’69, a good year for miniskirts
if awful for the war in Vietnam
—and I’m afraid to be too close to them

because it’s such a pleasure. I’m a pig
and they know it but sometimes they pity
me and cross their thighs and their skirts draw up
until I see the tops of their stockings.
I don’t need a girlfriend because I need
one. When I see my first femme naked that
will surely kill me and I mean stone-dead.
The hardening has already begun
in my crotch. Eva Trout caught me looking

at her cleavage yesterday and her thighs
met mine—I mean her eyes met mine, my eyes,
I mean—and spoke, I know what you’re thinking,
and mine replied, It’s not what I’m thinking
but what I’m feeling that makes for this hell,
and she looked away, out of the window,

rain pounding the glass as if the sky
just couldn’t take the beauty of the land
anymore and shamelessly spilled it all
over the earth and then the sun came out
again and was hot and bothered with shame.
Then she looked at me again and her tongue
slipped between her lips and her right eye, or
was it her left, blinked—winked, I mean—my way

and I remembered confirmation at
the Pentecostal church, speaking in tongues
and writhing and falling and being caught
on the way down and gently settled and
stroked until I came to, praising the Lord.

After class I met her in the hall. I
love you, I said. I love you, too, she breathed.
You’re my steady girl now, I said. She said
Yes. I’ll buy you a ring, I said. She said
Yes. I love you, I said. I love you, too,
she said. No man’s ever loved a woman
more, I said. No, she said, biting her lip.
I mean yes, she said—yes is what I mean.
Kiss me, baby, I said. But she wouldn’t
—started to cry and ran down the hall. It

feels good to be a man and I threw up
in the boys’ room, thanking God I was saved.
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“I have had poetry published in Ascent, Ohio Journal, South Dakota Review, Santa Barbara Review, Adirondack Review, Worcester Review, Maryland Poetry Review, Descant, Florida Review, South Carolina Review, and many other journals. I have authored three books of poetry: Buffalo Nickel (BrickHouse, 2004), The Weight of the World (BrickHouse, 2006), and The Story of My Lives (at press). I have taught university English in the US, China, and the Palestinian West Bank.” E-mail: asadgale[at]yahoo.com