Louvre Is All U Need

Fiction
Jason D. Schwartz


The rabbit’s neck bulged where the fence cut in. The fur around its new double chin blushed with blood. Its ears pointed to heaven and its grey body stretched straight back in the air like dry papier-mâché that would crumple if touched.

Ari felt the grass soaking through his white cotton socks. He could taste the rabbit’s creamy, rotted breath. He took a step forward. The trees whispered.

A fly landed on the rabbit’s left eye. Ari watched it dip its legs into the black bead and scrub itself. When it was clean, it buzzed away, weaving through the fence’s rusty rectangles.

Ari took another step forward, shivered, then ran until he was inside.

A new black woman was setting dishes in the dining room. “Hah there!” she called in a Jamaican accent.

Ari looked for a bulge in her clothing. The last woman used to carry a dried-out pig’s foot in her pocket. Ari had found it once, vibrating toward him on top of the washing machine, and screamed. She had asked him to keep it a secret, but he had not.

“I’m Hattie,” said the new woman. Her clingy apron outlined only a hunched, frail body. Tiny dead-skin droplets sprouted from her cheeks but she had a nice smile.

“Hi,” Ari said softly. He picked a scrap of leaf from his lawn-smeared sock, then jogged upstairs. A small wood-framed mirror tittered against the wall.

Mom wasn’t in her bedroom, so he picked up the phone on her nightstand. She had bought the nightstand from an antique store for too much money because it was hand-crafted. Then she put a glass sheet over the top so the etched loopy grapevine wouldn’t wear out. Then she smushed rubber bands under the glass to keep it from sliding, and slipped an old photo in next to the grapevine. Then she forgot about the grapevine and the photo and slopped her People magazine subscription over the glass. But she’d bought the phone to go with the nightstand and Ari liked it because it had a real bell and you had to draw circles with your finger to call.

“Becca Cohen speaking.”

“Mom?”

“Ari, why aren’t you doing your homework?”

“There’s a dead rabbit stuck in our fence.”

“Go get that piece ready for the Bildners. What is it again?”

“Mozart. But—”

“Right. I have to take this call.”

“Wait, Mom?”

The dial tone answered.

Ari peeked into the kitchen from halfway downstairs. Hattie was poking holes through crinkly tin foil with a butter knife. She hummed a song he didn’t know. The tin foil hush-squeaked when she slid the knife out.

The oven gaped behind her. The inside of its door was stained shades of burnt tomato sauce, handiwork of other black and yellow women. Hattie lifted the shiny tin basin wrapped in slit foil, turned her back to Ari, and stooped in front of the oven.

Ari leaned on the banister to keep the last four stairs from creaking. He turned left into the study, out of Hattie’s sight. His clarinet case lay neatly on the forest-green fuzzy chair. He picked the case up and peeked into the kitchen again. Hattie was doing something with her hands on the polished granite counter, but he didn’t have time to see because she was turning toward him. Ari started to tiptoe-race upstairs, but tripped and banged the clarinet case against the banister. He ran fast and loud and didn’t catch his breath until after he’d smashed his bedroom door closed with a flat, wet palm.

Mr. Singer had called Ari a vuhndurkint and then spelled it out for him, w-u-n-d-e-r-k-i-n-d. Ari had written it in his pocket spiral notepad. Below it, he’d neatly printed the definition, good clarinetist. Near the notepad’s beginning was Mr. Singer’s Number One Saying: The hardest part of practicing is picking the instrument up. Ari was a wunderkind because picking up the clarinet was his favorite part of practicing. He liked warming the clarinet’s neck in his armpit so the wood wouldn’t crack when he started blowing. He also liked soaking the reed under his tongue before slapping it onto the mouthpiece. The reed took on a distinct tone as mucous and bits of scrambled egg jammed its pores.

Ari knew he was going to perform today, so he chose his favorite reed by the wood-grain design on its torso and carefully slid it out of its holster. He started with long tones. He thought of a penny plunked into a bathtub and he grew louder and softer with the slow, swelling rhythm of water bumping porcelain. Mr. Singer had called this a mantra. Ari had recorded the word in his notepad. Under it he’d written, warm-up exercises.

Mr. Singer used to play Ari’s clarinet. Each clarinet has its own personality, Mr. Singer had said, so the only way to learn how to play a piece well is to hear it played on your own instrument. Mr. Singer would reach toward Ari as he licked grey foam from one corner of his mouth. His lips were cracked and red because ChapStick is bad for reeds.

Ari didn’t like the reed’s warmth when Mr. Singer gave the clarinet back. He wondered why Mr. Singer’s lips always seemed hotter and wetter than his own. But he was happy to share something special with a grown-up, so his mouth quickly swathed the clarinet’s moist head and he played.

Ari had liked Mr. Singer. Mom had liked Mr. Singer. After Dad moved out, Mom had started to call Mr. Singer “David.” Mom had said David was very business-minded and could help her sell real estate. Mr. Singer and Mom had set up business meetings three nights a week. Sometimes Ari didn’t hear the garage door until morning.

Soon, Mr. Singer started acting weird. After lessons, he’d shift from one leg to another in the front doorway and talk to Mom for too long. The daylight splashed oak leaves against his polo shirt and made his nose slippery. Sometimes before they finished talking, Mom told Ari to go downstairs and play Nintendo. This meant they kept secrets. Ari would choose a shooting game, bite M&Ms in half and crush them between the molars on opposite sides of his mouth.

Once, before he went downstairs, Ari had seen Mr. Singer pass Mom an envelope that had dry rose petals glued all over it. As she read it, Mr. Singer had cupped her elbow with his hand. Mom looked at Ari and then at Mr. Singer.

Then one day, Mom had told Ari he’d never see Mr. Singer again. Mr. Singer was a bad man, she said, and she expected Ari to trust her judgment.

But Mr. Reiter wasn’t as good as Mr. Singer. He was older and fatter and wore black plastic glasses. An elastic sports band clamped the chunky frames to his face. The back of his head folded over the blue strap like a hungry sock puppet.

Mr. Reiter didn’t play Ari’s clarinet. He didn’t play the clarinet at all. “You gotta learn to interpret on your own,” he said on the first lesson, creasing the spine of a thick book so it would stay open. He threw the book onto the wobbly wire stand. Ari read the top of the page before the stand collapsed. It said “Adagio.”

The phone rang in Mom’s room. Ari nestled his clarinet into the bedsheets and ran to catch it.

“Hello?”

“Guess who?”

“Um. Hi, Dad.”

“Ari, it’s good to talk to you. How are you doing?”

“Okay.” Ari stacked the magazines on Mom’s nightstand. He wanted to tell Dad that he was performing today, but Mom said not to let him know when people were coming over. “A rabbit got stuck in the fence.”

“Did it get out?”

He let his eyes relax on the photo that Mom had slipped under the nightstand’s protective glass. “No, he’s dead.”

“That’s unfortunate. Do you want a rabbit of your own?”

“I don’t know. Mom wouldn’t let me.”

“Well, when you love your kid for the child support, you can’t be expected to be the best parent.”

“Dad, stop.”

Mom smiled wide on the photo’s right side. Ari blinked behind her, a little out-of-focus. They were in the kitchen, the weekly China-Wok family talk and Aunt Emily’s last visit before the doctors cut off her breasts and she died.

“I’m sorry, you’re right. You’re too brainwashed to be having this discussion.”

“Please stop.”

“You know, maybe I should get a rabbit for myself. At least with a rabbit, you know that if you turn your back it’s going to fuck around.”

Aunt Emily had snapped the photo as Mom’s knee crashed playfully into a chair. Mom was wearing sunglasses and imitating a klutzy Stevie Wonder between laughter quakes.

The garage door rumbled downstairs.

“Dad I have to go.”

“And why is that?”

“I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Sure you do.”

A hand was wrapped around Mom’s inside shoulder. Its pale arm rested on her other shoulder and disappeared into a red T-shirt. Mom had cut out the head and body in a crooked line.

Ari hung up, went back to his bedroom and dragged a coarse silk cloth through the clarinet to soak up his breath’s dampness.

“Hi Ar,” wafted Mom’s voice.

“Hi,” he said to his room, then stood up.

Mom was sitting at the bottom of the stairs unfastening her pointy shoes. He tried to squeeze past her and she teasingly grabbed his left leg. He clung to the banister to keep from falling. Something ripped in his shoulder. He screamed. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Don’t you dare use that language with me,” said Mom. The corner of her lip quivered. “Your father was abusive enough.”

Ari looked at the shiny wet infection on her right ankle. Black stocking-dust stuck to its wrinkled brown rim.

“Have you met the schvartze?” said Mom.

He heard Hattie clinking pots under the faucet’s hiss. “Yes.”

“Homework?”

“I was practicing.”

“Go do your homework. The Bildners should be here soon.”

A silvery kinked dust-hair dislodged from her jacket when she stood. It tumbled toward Ari in the lamplight. He flinched, and it disappeared.

*

“So Ari, your mother tells me you’re a clarinet wiz.”

Ari made himself small for Mr. Bildner. The couch wheezed. Lasagna paste squished and bubbled somewhere under Mr. Bildner’s salami-brown button-down.

“Not really,” said Ari, clinging to the couch arm.

“Ar, don’t be modest.” Mom tripped into the living room. Her ribboned high-heels clopped without rhythm on the stained-wood floor. When she reached the Oriental rug, her ankles twisted jerkily. She held out three yellowed prayer pamphlets like a fanned card deck. “These were my dad’s.”

“Well, you should play at the Temple next Friday night,” said Mr. Bildner, reaching for a pamphlet.

“Oh yes, we’d love to hear you at shul,” agreed Mrs. Bildner. The tip of her umbrella-nose pulsated softly when she talked. Ari wondered if Mr. Bildner knew this about his wife. His glasses were thick.

“You know, some synagogues don’t allow music on the Sabbath, but at B’Nai Jeshurun we believe in only keeping the mitzvot that make sense,” said Mrs. Bildner.

“What’re mitzvot?” asked Ari.

“They’re—” Mrs. Bildner fanned herself with a pamphlet. “With such a Jewish name, you don’t know?”

“His father didn’t let me enroll him in Hebrew School.”

The Bildners looked at Ari and tilted their heads compassionately.

“Can you believe it? I grew up in Israel and he doesn’t know a word of Hebrew.”

Ari aimed his eyelids at his knees. The corduroy just below his belt bunched up hollow, then dipped back in.

“Thank God for the Reform movement,” said Mom. “At least now he’ll get a Bar Mitzvah, even though he’ll never pray like a Jew.”

Mrs. Bildner tried to smile. Mr. Bildner shifted and slouched. His denim pants-leg touched Ari’s. “Well, I think you’ll both feel right at home with us,” he said. “We’re a very close-knit community.” He paused to funnel M&Ms into his mouth.

Ari pressed his legs together. Mr. Bildner’s leg still leaned limply against his. Ari gnashed his legs together, breathing in teaspoons.

Mr. Bildner cleared his throat with an open mouth. Brown chunks glistened on his tongue. “We wanted to come over tonight to make you feel like members already so you… you know. Get the feel for what the Temple is all about.”

“So you’re only here on business?” Mom said and laughed.

Mrs. Bildner looked at her husband and her jaw muscle twitched, but then she knotted up her face and made her throat laugh. “Well, who wants to pray?”

“Actually, I don’t know these prayer books,” admitted Mr. Bildner. “Joan, do you remember which prayer comes first?”

“Oh.” Mrs. Bildner flipped through. “I don’t. They have different ones at shul.”

“With more English,” said Mr. Bildner.

“I know it starts with Baruch Atah… Becca, why don’t you lead us?”

Mom slapped her pamphlet face-down onto the glass coffee table and smiled. “You know what, it’s the thought that counts anyway.”

The Bildners agreed.

“Why don’t we have Ari play for us instead?” said Mom. “I really want you to hear how good he is. He practices a lot because he wants to go to Yale one day.”

“Well, I like it too,” admitted Ari.

The grown-ups laughed.

“Go get your clarinet, sweetie,” said Mom.

Ari went up to his room and lingered there to breathe. He looked at his watercolor portrait so he wouldn’t have to think of messing up. They’d bought the portrait last week in a kiosk at Short Hills Mall. “This way, if your father ever takes you from me, I’ll still always have an Ari of my own,” Mom had said. Salty mascara-water had stretched and quivered between black sunglasses and her cheek. Then it gave up and cut a jagged line down her face. “Louvre Is All U Need!” said the kiosk awning.

Mom had framed the portrait herself right there for ten percent off. The glass pressed Ari’s texture-less face at a tilt so he looked crooked no matter how the fake-wood frame hung. His eyelashes were long and straight and didn’t touch.

Ari tried to shake out the willies one last time by rolling his shoulders, then he plodded downstairs. Holding his clarinet in front of him, he stood still until everyone quieted down.

“Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, Adagio,” he said. He held up his clarinet and squinted at the reed. Its tip was stained coffee-brown with bacteria. His tongue tenderly swabbed it twice. He inhaled through his mouth and clamped the mouthpiece between his upper teeth and taut lower lip.

The first phrase sighed into nothing. Then its echo, thick perfume oozing through the room. Phrases dripped into each other and made Ari’s ears tingle.

The phone rang. Ari kept playing.

Mom’s suit-pants swished across the living room to the corner coffee table. “Hello?” into a cupped hand. “No, he doesn’t want to talk to you.”

Ari knew it was Dad. He tried to focus. He closed his eyes and swayed gently.

“Right. I brainwashed him. Tell me, where did he learn to say ‘fuck?'”

Ari bit too hard and the reed squeaked against the mouthpiece. Mrs. Bildner cringed.

“Stealing your money? We need to live. His school, his clothes, his clarinet teacher… Oh don’t you start!”

Ari didn’t care about the Bildners. He wanted Dad to hear him. The next time they talked on the phone, he wanted Dad to say, “You sounded really good on the clarinet. I wish I was there.” He played loud and took risks and now he was at the cadenza, where time gets loose.

Mr. Bildner scooped M&Ms from the glass bowl.

Ari tried to play an arpeggio too fast. His thumb slipped halfway off the thumbhole and the clarinet squawked. His lower lip trembled, and the clarinet shrieked.

Mom held out the receiver and made an ugly face. “He hung up on me.”

Ari stopped. He forgot where he was. “I have to go to the bathroom,” he said.

The Bildners clapped as he walked out.

He rested his clarinet on the bathtub’s lip and looked at the mirror. Closer. One eyelash on top of his right eye stuck out farther than the rest. It was bent halfway and snagged its neighbor. With his fingertip, he raked his eyelashes against the skin under his eyebrows, then looked at the mirror. The eyelash was still there, its root firmly planted.

His earlobes felt hot. He opened the mirror and picked up the tweezers, dropped them with a clatter into the sink, and picked them up again. His face slid slowly back onto the mirror as he closed it and leaned forward.

The tweezers looked blurry when he raised them to his eye. They shivered, clamped down on air, and opened. Then they closed and caught the tip of the bent eyelash.

Ari tugged gently. His eyelid made a soft tick when it came unglued from his eye, the sound of a crayon lifted from paper. He pulled harder, until his eye felt dry and he thought his eyelid was ripping.

He stopped and put the tweezers down fast. They ticked twice against the white porcelain. He covered his eye with his palm and breathed.

“Hattie, one last thing before you go,” said Mom downstairs. “There’s a dead rabbit stuck in our backyard fence. Can you take care of it? I’ll throw in another twenty.”

“Yes ma’am, Ah’ll take kear of it.”

“You’re a life saver. Keep the foot if you want. Just don’t leave it lying around anywhere.”

Ari put his hand down. The bathroom looked faded through his right eye. He leaned toward the mirror again. The snaggled eyelash still clung to his eyelid’s outer ridge.

The doorbell rang.

Ari eased out of the bathroom, toward the front door, hoping not to be noticed. Mom got there first. The outside breathed into the house and made his eyelid tingle.

Ari stepped onto the porch. A large wire cage sat on the cracked concrete. Dad’s BMW snored softly in front of the house, then purred down the hill and out of sight.

A white rabbit crinkled newspaper inside the cage. Its ears twitched. Its pink nose throbbed. Its tears stained the furry corners of its eyes.

“Oh my God,” said Mom.

The Bildners peeked out.

Mom swung the latch open and kicked the cage. She kicked it harder and harder. “I won’t let that man enter this house in any way, shape, or—”

The rabbit flailed out of the cage. It looked at Ari and shuddered. Then it bounded away. Its tail flickered in the shrubs across the street before it disappeared.

Ari clawed the sides of his stomach with both hands. His throat made a raspy whistling sound, but he stopped before it rose to a scream.

“Oh, come on, Ar,” said Mom. “You don’t have time to care for an animal with all your homework and practicing.”

“It’s trayf,” said Mrs. Bildner. “Jews shouldn’t own rabbits.”

The cage door squeaked softly in the wind.

“Fuck you,” Ari said.

“What?”

“Fuck you. Fuck you.” He brushed roughly past the Bildners and trampled up the stairs.

“Don’t expect any dinner,” Mom yelled.

Oy,” said Mrs. Bildner.

Ari closed his bedroom door. No, not loud enough. He opened it and put his weight into it. His stomach throbbed.

He waited for Mom’s front-door excuses, “I’m so sorry, he’s been going through a rough patch.” He waited for Mr. Bildner’s “don’t you worry about it,” and maybe a joke. Mrs. Bildner’s “hope to see you next Friday at shul.” The front door’s weather-proofed whomp.

He slumped on the edge of his bed and waited.

The grown-ups laughed. They were in the living room. The floorboards drowned Mr. Bildner’s story, but his deep voice waded through the brown carpet. They weren’t leaving.

Sludge clogged Ari’s nose. He rubbed his eyes. The sludge melted and tasted like fish and darkened his sleeve. He knew what to do.

He picked his black plastic lamp off of the dresser. The plastic was frosted with dust because Ari only used the ceiling lights. He fumbled with the lampshade, got it off, and placed it near the corner of his room. It wobbled slowly back and forth while Ari laid the bald lamp a few feet away, unplugged it, and zig-zagged the wire so it looked like the plug had ripped from its socket. He was glad there was no lightbulb inside, because he had been afraid he would have to break the glass to make it a believable nervous breakdown. After Dad had his, it had taken Mom a whole night to vacuum up the shattered antique lamp that used to sit on her nightstand.

He swatted the Kleenex box off his nightstand. One of its corners dented as it tumbled across the carpet, landing on a faint baby-formula stain. Then he picked up a wooden cigar box. It was filled with mail-order fossils. Mom had given it to him on the first day of Hanukkah last year. He didn’t want the fossils to break, so he had to take them out one by one. The sandpapery sound of the fragments scraping against each other made him shiver. Eventually, they looked believably scattered. Dead fish stared at him from everywhere, brown skid-marks on limestone.

His clarinet was safe in the bathroom, but the case still lay open on his bed. The bottom half of the case was indented with fuzzy molds where the clarinet pieces were supposed to fit. He’d stuffed the coarse silk swab into the mold of the clarinet’s mouthpiece. The swab smelled of rotting saliva. He threw it toward the door, and its weighted tail stretched out in front of it like a paratrooper landing.

He only threw the old reeds. He saved the newer ones in his pockets because Mom wouldn’t know the difference, along with his spare rubber thumb guard and a small key. The thumb guard kept his thumb from getting red when he held the clarinet for a long time. The key locked the case. He’d never used it, but if Mom ever said he was old enough to join her on a company trip, he would need it to safely take his clarinet with him.

Ari put the clarinet case face down. It looked like it was trying to eat the carpet because a strip of fabric connected its bottom half to its top half, keeping it from opening all the way.

He stopped. He’d forgotten about his portrait, and he had to throw it for real. It would look fake if it didn’t shatter.

He looked at his faint reflection in the glass. Then he looked past it, at the watercolor. That flat stupid smiling face.

He would throw it. The hook would tear a cardboard gash in the eggshell wall. He would whip it at the carpet like a ninja throwing-star and glass would explode as the frame bounced and ripped through the opposite wall and kept spinning through the aluminum siding, the clouds, and the planet’s atmosphere.

“I’m sorry,” Mom would say.

He would sleep. No matter how badly his nose itched, he would keep it buried in the pillow and breathe heavily, steadily.

“Ari, I’m so sorry,” she would whisper, sliding her fingers into his hair.

Ari exhaled and reached up toward the portrait. He lifted it gently off its hook, then carried it to the closet. He brushed a pile of scuffed sneakers aside, put the portrait face-down on the closet floor, and slid the hollow plywood door shut. Then he turned and fell into his bed.

The grown-ups continued to laugh downstairs. Someone clapped. Ari waited a while, then began cleaning up.
pencil

Jason D. Schwartz currently lives in New York City with his fiancée, Alicia. He spent his youth trying to become a professional writer or musician. He is, instead, a tax lawyer. And happy. E-mail: j.daniel.schwartz[at]gmail.com

Cotton-Eyed Joe

Fiction
Charles D. Phillips


I spent week after week clearing my land in west Texas. Hour piled on hour in an avalanche of brain-stunning heat, gnarled cedars, thorny mesquites, chainsaws, pickaxes, and long-handled shovels. My four-wheel-drive pickup never left first gear. Its engine growled, and then it howled with all its wheels spinning as we fought for possession of stumps welded to the dry ground.

Sunburned shoulders, crackling knees, and tortured muscles incessantly reminded me this was work for younger men or for men with bodies stripped and then rebuilt strand on hard strand by years of killing heat and unending labor. The once-sharp lines of my own body were now blurred. Decades of wielding little more than a keyboard and wrestling with nothing more substantial than recalcitrant software had taken their toll.

Cutting, then digging, then cutting again. A layer of caliche dust coated my naked upper body. My belly became a pale canvas with pink undertones. This canvas was punctuated with streaks of pink or red, where streamlets of sweat vanquished, for at least a moment, the clinging dust. Those salty streaks set ablaze dozens of shallow scratches bestowed by determined cedar branches or mesquite thorns.

Finally, I looped thick chain around the last stump. I hooked it ’round the Ford’s hitch, and I tore that last piece of scrub cedar free from the stingy dirt. It was time for kerosene, soaked rags, and a lighter. I spun burning rags through the hot air. They landed in the ragged pile of stumps, limbs, and roots that resembled an enormous nest of injured spiders. As the pile burned, waves of heat blistered and distorted the air.

I closed my eyes as hot wind whipped wood smoke across my face. Olfactory cells are the brain’s outriders, probing the environment for faint hints of threats or pleasure. They encounter scents and send back their messages. The cells where memories of that scent sleep then begin to flicker to life.

For a moment, I was back in Ohio. Stone chimneys were emptying into slate skies. I could almost hear my lugged boots squeak on snow too dry to pack. Beyond the bare trees, a dark river moved swiftly beneath its icy skin. I removed my sweaty gloves and leaned against my shovel, while my breath steamed for a moment in wintry air.

Then, I was standing again on the land my great-grandfather cleared. I was back in the place where my father’s father and his family fed chickens, stole their eggs, and fattened penned hogs. Toward the end of autumn, they’d string the hogs up by their hind legs, slit their throats, bleed and butcher them. They’d hang the meat in the smokehouse to cure over smoldering fires, until it was ready to feed them through the coming winter.

Here, my father chased frantic chickens when the preacher was expected for a meal. That preacher, according to Daddy, always brought his worn Bible and a blessing that lasted so long you feared the iced tea would grow warm while the fried chicken got cold. He also brought an appetite as large as his prayers were long.

This land hibernated, waiting for an aging great-grandson to reappear. As the land awaited my return, it knew the hardened hands of sharecroppers and renters. It repaid their toil with drought, boll weevils, small shares, and large debts. Usually, the battle ended one night with the ‘cropper filling his rusted pickup with ragged children and busted furniture. He would roll the pickup downhill to the main road before starting its faltering engine and turning on its lights. He and his family would then follow those two cones of light through the darkness toward another shotgun shack on another hardscrabble plot waiting to bruise him and his just as badly.

After the land was cleared of brush, I spent the next months building my cabin. I felt at times as if I was building one of those European cathedrals that demanded decades for completion. The cabin rose through a combination of sweat and determination that offset a lack of experience. I learned again the enduring truth in those wise words—measure once, cut twice; measure twice, cut once.

In the cleared fields, I burned back the remaining coastal Bermuda grass three times. After I’d eradicated all vestiges of this land’s twisted past, I planted the native buffalo grass it sustained for centuries before my family forced it to become something it was never meant to be. White-tailed deer and feral hogs cropped that hardy grass and drank from my year-round creek and from its natural pools. Those pools were dug inch on inch by drop after drop of water eating away for decades at exposed limestone.

I waited for the wild turkeys to return, hoping my Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners would evolve into something more than locally-cured ham, cornbread dressing, snap beans, and heirloom tomatoes. I spent most of my evenings on the porch of my cabin watching the varied colors of the sun as it set day after day just beyond the trees.

I played my harmonicas a good bit, still do. I played old hymns like “Just As I am,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling.” Every time I play “Jesus is Calling” I see Daddy sitting next to me sweating, while the heat of the day lingered on into the evening and throughout that revival tent. Momma is fanning my little sister and herself with our copy of the evening’s program, while a red-faced preacher from some faraway place like Dallas is standing there in his long-sleeved shirt and bowtie begging us to come forward and give ourselves to Jesus. I went up once. I thought that was what a good boy did, and my family would be proud. The look that Daddy gave me when I came back to sit beside him made that my one and only time.

Those hymns were the music Daddy played on his harmonica some evenings for Momma and us kids on the porch. He usually played when he had come back from old man Krueger’s place on Comanche Hill with a Mason jar full of honey for Momma to cook with and some cone for us kids. To everyone in the county Krueger was simply “The Bee Man.”

He would also come back with a Mason jar filled with the shine the old man’s boys cooked in a hollow farther up the hill. I heard that the older one, Parson, would watch the cooker. The younger son, Joe Walter, would sit with a 12-gauge across his lap, smoke his hand-rolls, slowly sip shine, and keep an eye on the trail coming up toward their still. Prohibition was over in the US, but not in our part of Texas. These counties had too many Watchtower-toting Jehovah’s Witnesses, snake-handlin’ Pentecostals, foot-washing Baptists, and tight-collared Scots-Irish Campbellites to go “wet.”

I knew Daddy as a man who met both pleasure and pain with the same unchanging expression and demeanor. My Momma would say, “Everette, your sister, Golda Mae, is getting married to the Jones boy. Lord, me and the whole county thought she’d never find a husband,” Daddy would say, “Okay, guess we need to find ’em some kinda present.” Momma would say, “Everette, Junior just run over our sow with the tractor and kilt it.” Daddy would say, “Okay, guess I need to get my butcherin’ knives and my whuppin’ belt.”

Daddy was a farmer and the son of a farmer. He had a family, and he had to keep moving through drought, storms, boll weevils, grasshoppers, busted tractors, and broken down trucks. The old maps didn’t call this part of west Texas the southern tip of the Great American Desert for no reason. Despair was always just a step away from anyone trying to support a family by farming this land. My Daddy fought off that despair by ratcheting down his emotions so that his entire emotional range could be measured by the distance from “Okay” to “Okay.”

When he played his harmonica alone in the barn after he’d visited The Bee Man’s boys was the only time Daddy’s heart seemed to break through its bindings. On those nights, my brother and I would sneak out our bedroom window. We’d run across the yard from piece of junk to bale of hay, like those soldier heroes we saw at the movies in town, until we reached the barn. Then, we’d listen through cracks and holes in the barn walls to Daddy play blues harp and sing.

He talked so little, it amazed us both that he had a fine singing voice he could fill with emotion. Later, I learned that when Daddy was younger he played harp in the juke joints, barrelhouses, and blind pigs that dotted this county and the counties around it. Daddy must’ve been a skinny, teenage white boy tolerated because of his smokin’ harp. He would’ve had to play his wailing cross harp with the same men who worked for Granddaddy and the same women who washed him and Granddaddy’s underwear.

In our barn, Daddy sang and played his old songs. Some I’ve found and now play myself. He did Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Abilene” and “Midnight Special,” a song Lead Belly convinced some visiting white boys was his own when they recorded him in Angola Prison. He did a couple of Memphis Minnie tunes. He did “Selling My Pork Chops,” which my brother and I thought was really about pork chops. The pleasure and humor in his voice as he sang “Pork Chops” was something I’d never heard before.

He also did “You Ain’t Done Nothin’ To Me.” The deep emotion in his voice when he sang Minnie’s line, “You may cock your pistol in my face, but you ain’t done nothin’ to me” filled that barn. For me, that song was his personal anthem. To this day, I am not sure exactly what it meant to him. Every time I pick up a harp, I wish I could ask him. Other songs I don’t remember at all or have never heard again.

I remember being amazed at discovering a part of my father completely hidden from the rest of the world and that I barely understood. What I learned best from him, because it was what I saw the most, was the necessity of building a wall around myself. It took me thirty years, assisted by the love and patience of an extraordinary woman, to find the part of myself that matched the part of Daddy I saw in his barn and to celebrate it in a way he never could. He reserved it for those nights in his barn with a Mason jar, his harps, and an audience that he thought consisted only of a mule, a couple of milk cows, and his blue tick hound.

In my cabin, I typed my stories about the Texas of my past on an old, black Underwood typewriter. I found that I couldn’t write about this place, my people, or those times, while I stared at liquid crystal poured into a slender matrix where it waited to be activated by jolts of energy from indifferent electrodes manufactured in South Asia.

My stories were about men whose burnt skin formed steely barriers. When the mule died, my great-grandfather harnessed up and pulled the plow through his hard fields. His children ran ahead of him pitching rocks out of his way, while his wife grasped the plow’s handles, pushing and pulling to keep the blade deep and the furrow straight. At night, Great-Grandmomma applied poultices where the harness had worn bloody grooves in her husband’s shoulders.

When a baby died, my grandfather built the coffin himself, while the midwife washed the small, pale body and sent one of the neighbor’s older boys for the preacher. Daddy told me that for the next few weeks, my grandfather worked from before dawn until after dusk, ate a cold meal while standing next to the sink, and fell into bed to sleep. Then, unannounced, one day Granddaddy went to town, returning with penny candy for the children and a bolt of cloth for his wife. That evening the family ate together, and something like life returned to their home.

I wrote that these men were never defeated by this hard land. I wrote about how these men bent the land to their will to feed and shelter their families and about how it bent them. They loved their wives while never giving themselves up to the thrill of simple romance or to thudding lust. They knew for certain that part of themselves must remain forever beyond the reach of the world around them, if they and theirs were to survive. I wrote that they died assured they had in some way made the world they left a better place than the world they entered. I don’t know if what I wrote was true for them, but I knew I hoped it would be true for me.

On some days, after writing, I continued ripping out the remains of rotting posts and rusted barbed wire from cross-fencing meant to protect crops of cotton and corn that grew well for many years, then grew poorly, and then didn’t grow at all. Other days I put in my vegetable garden. I sometimes cooled off by showering in the cool, hard water from my shallow well and then drinking the sweet water from barrels placed beneath the gutters of my cabin’s new tin roof.

My wife, Rachel, loved the sound of rain on a tin roof. It reminded her of days in a tin-roofed mountain cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee where her family spent what she remembered as the glorious summers of her childhood. We returned there with our children, and that sound entered their memories as well. By that time, though, walking across the cabin’s kitchen floor was like walking on the deck of a boat in rough seas, and the roof sprang the occasional, if not regular, leak. But, the roaring creek behind the cabin was still there to be dammed-up simply for the sake of building something together as a family. The occasional trout still hung in the shallows near the rocks. They could be brought out into view by pitching chunks of white bread into the clear stream. Black bears still occasionally “came-a-calling” in search of an impromptu dinner.

After Rachel’s death, someone said to me, that since I had enjoyed my marriage, I would certainly marry again. Why would that be? Did I need someone on the other side of my bed? Did I need the ease found in the constancy of the same face across the table or next to me in the car?

If those things had been the glue of my marriage, then I might have remarried. But, I loved my Rachel, not marriage. I balanced my bed with the memory of her skin against mine and of the weight of her breast in my hand. I chose each morning which of her faces I would see that day. Would it be the young Rachel filled with joy and tenderness or the older Rachel whose lined face was filled with joy, tenderness, and wisdom?

Rachel remained with me each day in memories that sparkled like crystals revolving in bright sunlight. After she died, I could not remain where we’d been. I couldn’t return to the life and places we shared. My memories of our life would’ve smothered me as surely as a pillow pressed hard and tight against my face while I slept. Even thinking of remaining amidst the hollowed out remnants of our shared life made it difficult for me to breathe.

So, I glanced back over my shoulder. Some places and moments in my past shined like new dimes. Others might as well have been black holes in the swirling arm of the Milky Way. Memories of only one place made my heartbeat slow, the tightening bands around my chest loosen, and my breath come from deep inside me. To this day, I am not sure why it was this place, but I came back, bringing with me every piece of my past, both near and far. I planted it all here in west Texas to see what would grow as I tried to weave my past to my future until my life again became all-of-a-piece.

Here on this land I again began to watch the sky as I had when I was a farm child. I scanned it with the intensity of a condemned man looking through a jailhouse window, searching the horizon for the outline of a rider bringing his reprieve or swinging a rope. I learned again what it felt like to shed my clothes and wade into the creek to wash away the worst of the sweat and grime of a hard day’s work and let evaporating water cool my hot skin.

When the first good rain came, I uncovered my head, and sheets of water poured over me. It christened me as surely as holy water sprinkled from a priest’s fingers. “Do you renounce death and its false promises? I renounce it. Do you accept your loss? I accept my loss. Do you choose to return to life? I hope to shine like a light so that I can offer others comfort, warmth, and joy.”

I lingered for a few more moments, face upturned, and eyes closed to the pouring rain. Then, still in my wet clothes—heavy boots, long-sleeved flannel shirt, and denim overalls—I slapped my stained fedora against my muddy ankles and danced a slow “Cotton-Eyed Joe” as that rain fell on the rows of beans and squash in my newly-planted garden. As I danced, I sang my personal version of part of that old tune’s refrain:

Oh, where did I come from?

Where did I go?

Where am I headed for,

Cotton-Eyed Joe?
pencil

Charles D. Phillips is a public health professional who lives and teaches in College Station, Texas. His flash fiction has appeared in Flashshot, flashquake, HeavyGlow, Long Story Short, The Angler, Static Movement, Toasted Cheese, and The Vestal Review. His historical, western short stories have appeared in The Copperfield Review and Rope and Wire. Smokebox will publish his short story, “Bourbon and the Blues” in the summer of 2009. His non-fiction essays have appeared in Bent Magazine, Events Weekly, and Touchstone Magazine. Clockwise Cat will reprint his essay, “Love, True Love” in the summer of 2009. His work has been nominated for StorySouth‘s 2009 Million Writers Award, the Pushcart Prize, 2009 and for inclusion in the Best of the Web, 2009. E-mail: chasphil3[at]verizon.net

Stowaways

Fiction
Kimberley Idol


Catholic girls who fail their families learn to lie to their loved ones and tell the truth to strangers. My grandmother shared her secrets with cast offs and drifters who bunked at her place, pawned her knick-knacks, and forgot to let the dog out until it shit on the carpet. She lived in that kind of company because finding caretakers for aging addicts is a grueling chore. She would drink all day then drive through town in her big blue Thunderbird looking for spies or dead husbands or houses she no longer owned. If we hid the car she called the cops and blamed her minder. The cops didn’t respond, but the calls made them testy.

The last time we visited, Grandmother had not answered her phone for days. I tripped across a rocky surface to get to the light switch, and then had to sweep a passel of turds onto the porch. She was wizened and pale and had not washed for a while and she sat on the couch and talked about her father while Meg and I cleaned house. It took us three days and then we left promising nothing. Sobriety infused Grandmother with a stunning meanness and never lasted, so we didn’t bother. It wasn’t as if there was some great life waiting for her if she kicked. Protective Services forced us to put her in a home. The home dried her up and she died within the year, a babbling mess. My mother decided to bury her in the desert, which meant a long drive for Meg and me.

The night dropped in on us while we were in a store buying snacks and ChapStick. We coasted away from Baker towards Death Valley into pitch black. The stars were high and the moon was out but neither cast much light. Keeping tight to the white line, Meg shifted into fourth and revved to 80 miles-per-hour. Thanksgiving night was probably not one patrolmen would spend sitting on a dark desert road.

I had agreed to come because Meg asked, because I was supposed to help but I felt like a visitor rather than a relative. I reached for the chips in Meg’s lap. She moved faster than I did and tossed the bag out the window. I wedged the sodas behind my seat, where she would have to ask for help if she wanted another.

“Where is it?” I asked.

“Somewhere in the back,” Meg said.

I rummaged through the bags in the back until I unearthed the urn that held grandmother’s ashes. It was slick and cold with the look, but not the feel, of pebble stone textures. Meg had picked it out and tried to dun me for half. I would have picked something cheaper. I posted her request “return to sender.”

“It doesn’t seem like much.” I shook the container.

“She weighed seventy pounds when she died,” Meg said. “That seems like more than it should be.”

“If we hucked it into the desert, no one would know,” I said.

“Don’t you dare.”

“Mom should be doing this.”

“Mom can’t.”

“What can Mom do?”

“Tell us to do it,” Meg said. “Bree, put it back.”

I sympathized with my mother’s impulse. Grandmother had been an enduring affliction. She was wild and witty when she was sober and younger but my good memories of her were clobbered by the bad ones and, in the end, I was sorry to have known her. I returned the urn to the footwell where it nestled among the groceries. I wished there were two other granddaughters who could bury it. Grandmother had grown up in a place much like Death Valley and had hated it. She would have despised our decision to bury her in the desert.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea,” I said.

“We’ll bury her, we’ll eat, read and drink, and we won’t talk about anything unpleasant,” Meg said. She pulled her sunglasses from her pocket and put them in the glove compartment.

I realized that I had forgotten to stow mine and felt around. “Like what?”

“Did you talk to Mom before we left?” she asked.

“I love the way the stars shine once you get out of the city,” I replied.

“You do get my drift.”

“Do you know—” I started to ask until I saw the remains of my glasses, black shards, at Meg’s feet. “Those were new,” I said.

She ignored me or could not hear my voice. She had the music turned up high. And even though it was freezing, we had rolled the windows down because we both liked the wind and didn’t mind knots in our hair.

“Girls like you two are the reason I sympathize with Medea,” my mother had said once. She kept our hair trimmed short. Meg hid whenever it was time to visit the barber. I just cried. Once we both got older, we grew our hair long and let it knot.

“Poor Mom,” I said.

“What?” Meg yelled.

“Do you still leave your drawers open just a little?” I asked.

“What?” She turned down the music.

“I still leave my closet door cracked,” I said.

She laughed. “I never put my things away.”

When my mother could not sleep, she roamed the house, righting all the household details she hadn’t the time to attend to during the day. I remember that she wore a velveteen dressing gown, walked in bare feet across cold hardwood floors and moved so quietly that she never woke us even if she entered our room to tidy what we would not.

“Why didn’t you make Mom come?” I asked.

“Why didn’t you speak to her before we left?”

“She makes me feel thoughtless.”

“You make yourself feel selfish,” Meg said. “She doesn’t say a word.”

“She can’t stay in a room with me alone,” I said.

“You make decisions for us without permission.”

“Neither of you make any decisions at all.”

We let the conversation die.

Dead ends are easy to spot, harder to avoid. Meg fiddled with the tuner. I searched for a sweater. When enough time had passed, we tried again.

“I bought a copy of Omega Man the other day,” Meg said. It was her third copy. Meg lost DVDs and CDs like other people lost socks and pens.

“Instead of Road Warrior?”

“I like Omega Man better. In the end, he dies a hero,” she said.

“I prefer Road Warrior,” I replied.

“Why?”

“In the end, he has no family.”

The staff called me when Grandmother arrested. Mom was in Ireland and Meg had aborted the DNR order. I resurrected it and Grandmother died. It was not the first time she had nearly expired. My grandmother had lived her life carelessly. Neither Meg nor Mom agreed with my decision. If there was a right or wrong to these things, I didn’t know what it was. I managed my grandmother’s details but I never visited. Meg visited but never made decisions. Two parts of one person created a kind of grandchild for the crazy old broad who had endless insatiable needs. It wasn’t the booze that made my grandmother crazy, it was enduring selfishness that made her a bitch and cut her loose from the rest of us. You can’t save what you can’t succor. She craved attention but insisted on privacy. She phoned at all hours then vanished for days. She wanted a servant, not a caretaker. She could not see well but wanted a car, not a driver. She wished we would visit, but made a scene when we did. She flirted with our dates, fought with our friends, and only phoned when she was drunk. She lied when she was sick and told her friends we didn’t care and every Christmas she threatened to kill herself usually just as company was arriving for dinner. She also gave odd gifts that we stowed in closets so we could display them when she asked.

She adored her father until he evicted her. After that, I am not certain she loved anyone again. I saw him once, a mean bundle of bones clustered under hospital sheets in a white room. Snotty men sometimes raise ratty daughters. Grandmother cared for him in his declining years. She also cleaned out his bank accounts on cruises to Mexico before anyone noticed that there was no money left to pay his bills. I think that was the first time I saw my mother cry and I recognized the same fragile mindset staking its claim on the next generation. If it was as easy as changing your name, I think I would have liked to have been an astronaut. I would pass overhead in a speeding shuttle and watch my family cope and never touch ground.

“Grandmother left you the jade,” Meg said.

From time to time, Grandmother would tell us about the things we would inherit when she died. She’d make a list and ask us which items we wanted. I refused to play. Shiny things were Meg’s purview.

“Did she have any left?” I asked. “I thought we spent everything on the hospice.”

“She kept the jade. She wanted you to have it.”

“I don’t want it.”

“Then I want you to give it to me.”

“No.” I replied on instinct, not knowing why. In theory, Grandmother had owned a heavy jade necklace with matching earrings. No one had ever seen them except in pictures. Shapeless and pale, the pieces were ungainly lumps. Grandmother said she wanted us to have them. Her offerings angered me.

“I need you to give it to me,” Meg said.

I heard her but pretended that I didn’t.

“I need,” she said, louder.

I waved my hand at her to indicate that I understood. As we raced through the vast dark space I could imagine infinity for a moment. I was feeling edgy; infinity seemed a comforting thought, like a weightless place where the past anchored no one to the ground.

Grit pelted the windscreen and skittered away. Too late to save ourselves from the burst of debris cast by a wind devil, we rolled up the windows. Meg palmed a pack of cigarettes and shook one out into her lap.

“Don’t,” I said.

“Cause you say so?” She felt around for her lighter.

“Cause it’s shitty for you,” I replied.

She laughed. When she did, she turned her head so I could see the scar on her chin. Seven stitches closed the wound.

“I believe I told you that bouncing downhill on a Hippity Hop was a shitty idea, too.”

“I remember thinking that you don’t get to tell me what to do.” She crushed the cigarette and let the pieces drop to her feet by my glasses.

“You giggled when they sewed you up.”

“You belted Kitten Lawrence with a stick when she tried to tease me afterwards.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“Maybe I made it up.” She loaded Rick James into the stereo and then lit up. We had sixty miles to cover before we would arrive at the road that cut from the highway into the desert. There was another forty minutes to go after that before we crossed onto another dirt track that led to the house, if the trail hadn’t been washed away by winter rains.

We called it the ranch. Jo and Harry, my mother’s friends, raised Arabians there until Harry died, then Jo let the place rot, which happens in a heartbeat in the high desert, where the constant elemental battering weathers everything to a wizened remainder. Mom leased an acre of sand from Harry and set a mobile home there when Meg and I were kids. It became a refuge, a place to be happy, sad, angry and scared, out of sight of the rest of the world. It was a place where you could sit and reflect without having that reflection cast back at you.

“Super Freak” blared from the speakers and filled the car with a masculine shriek. To me, it was one of those songs you endure, but I knew someone somewhere found it melodic.

“You don’t like it?” Meg asked.

“Love it,” I replied. I had a CD of bagpipe music in my bag. Stolen from an old boyfriend who had been taking lessons, I kept it to remind me that there were things about my lost love that I could do without. Meg and I would be listening to it later. I hated it, but so did Meg. Every win is a tradeoff. A pair of high beams dimmed on the road up ahead. Meg flicked ours off in kind. Travelers leaving Vegas sometimes preferred this route instead of Interstate 15. I thought of them as interlopers on our road. This highway was the way to our home. Rabbits drawn to the lights but wary of the noise skittered along the edges of the road. One or two crossed the road in an uncertain, skippy fashion. It had been a rainy season, and both the rabbit and snake populations had blossomed. The insects had flourished too. Our window screen was smeared with a hatch pattern of broken wings and smashed bug bodies.

The China Ranch Date Farm whipped by on our right. It marked a halfway point between our ranch and Baker. Presaged by a stand of palms, the orchard remained hidden from the road but signs indicating the wealth of souvenirs for sale lined the driveway. The logo for the farm was three trees. They looked like oaks to me. Oaks don’t grow in Death Valley.

“I only poisoned five trees between my condo and the bay.” Meg said.

The sign of the trees put us both on the same track.

“Did your neighbors ever sue?” I asked. The story had hit the papers and Meg was famous for a few weeks.

“You’d have thought that I’d been peddling children.”

“You actually killed the trees?” I had an image of her in a terrycloth robe and pink mules spraying the tree trunks with a machine gun. Wind whipping through her hair and a cigar chomped between her teeth while she considered her new view.

“Drilled holes in them and injected pesticide with a turkey baster,” she said. “They threw dog shit and rocks at my windows afterwards. And I had to fucking buy five new fucking trees.”

“Why do it, though?”

“I want what I want, and I wanted to be able to see the bay from my balcony.”

We spun into the first turn off and bucked off the asphalt. The car canted to the right. We fishtailed then dropped into a wash. The road, covered with a fine sandy finish, was still passable. Dropping into the wash cut us off from the skylights and I realized that we had not been traveling in the dark at all by comparison. The only view we had now was narrowed to the scope of the headlights and that light was a dimming glow in the wafting dusty way ahead of us. Shades of shadows and a grey, filtered landscape sped by. Scrub and cactus scraped paint off the car. Meg’s Scout loved this kind of terrain, dug this kind of abuse. She did not slow much once we dove into the wash. I jammed my feet against the floor board and wedged my elbow against the door.

“We should bury Grandmother by her husband,” I said.

“Which husband, there were five.” She took wide swings from one side of the wash and the other, trying to avoid boulders and ditches. An awkward spin slid the back of the car against a loose wall of sand and ignited a silted spray.

“Ted,” I replied. I felt around for my pills. Paxil, one a day. I took it with a huge swallow of Coke because the car jounced when I pulled from the bottle. Then I capped the soda and set it in the bag next to Meg’s vodka. The bag rolled over my gun case in which the gun traveled that was not supposed to be loaded but was.

“Number five was Ted, the trumpet player,” Meg said. “He sat on the porch and shot squirrels and stray dogs with a BB gun.”

“Shot at, he was a piss poor shot.” I had been horrified, but was too intimidated by the blowsy old man to say so. The man he might once have been had been scrubbed away by a lot of back road travel and poorly paid gigs by the time I knew him. What was left settled on a porch step with a can of soda when it was warm outside. At night, he watched T.V. and argued with his wife about histories neither of them could remember clearly.

“He told me that a snapping turtle lived in the water barrel out back,” Meg said.

“What’d you do about it?”

“Stood outside with a stick and tried to stab the thing.”

“You should have asked Ted for his BB gun.”

“Like he would have trusted me with a gun, look at what I did with sticks.”

We bashed into something spiky and mashed it in passing.

“Why not let me have the jewelry?” Meg asked.

“It doesn’t exist.”

“She would’ve kept the jade. She wanted you to have it.”

“You imagine I had a relationship with Grandmother that didn’t exist. I don’t have the jewelry.”

“It wasn’t in the house, I looked.”

“Then it was never there.” I replied.

Meg swung us around a bend at a fierce pace and, as the rear wheels spewed sand, it occurred to me that she was driving too fast.

“I need it,” Meg said.

I heard her but pretended that I didn’t.

“I need it,” she said, louder.

I ignored her again.

We rolled up the path that led to the house. Shut down for months, it was a dark shell. A hallway ran the length of it. With the bedroom doors open, you could see straight through to the windows on the opposite side. The house seemed more like a passage than a place to stay. The wind was picking up but we were sheltered between the house and a stand of trees my mother had nurtured for years.

“You said we wouldn’t discuss unpleasant things.” I remembered that the hard part about raising these trees was the fact that, out here, trees tended to bush.

“I lied.”

“I didn’t believe you in the first place,” I said. You had to keep pruning the trees to keep the branches growing from a single trunk instead of into multiple smaller shoots.

“Did you know Mom’s been feeding the coyotes out here?” Meg asked.

“That doesn’t sound wise.” I looked for figures but was as successful as the times when I look for shark fins on the ocean’s surface. Even when I did not see danger, I sought it out. My mother never woke us, but the next morning, evidence that she had been in my room unsettled me. What had she taken, what had she moved? What would I miss now that she had come? Rabbits along the highway reminded me of bobcats, mice reminded me of snakes. There was always some hunter bigger than you wandering the planet. I tried to keep focused on the real. Like my mother, I have spent many of my nights wandering from room to room, fixing things that did not matter in order to feel better about the things I could not fix.

“She wants a dog,” Meg said. She had not pulled the keys from the ignition.

“She could buy a dog.” I tried to open the door but Meg hit the auto lock.

“She can’t care for a dog.”

My mother had a penchant for collecting pets but no talent for keeping them fit. She had a boa constrictor that died in its own urine. Apparently reptiles are susceptible to infections. One cat was lost in the desert, one was dumped when it couldn’t be housebroken, and two died when we fumigated the house. Of course, my mom couldn’t buy a dog. She could keep inanimate objects in their places but the care of living things was a cipher to her. Except for plants. My mother was good with plants.

“I’m tired,” I said. The wind skipped little things across the landscape.

“I didn’t want to worry about Grandmother anymore so I told them to keep her alive. It was the easiest choice,” Meg said.

“If you don’t want to make the decisions,” I said, “then I don’t think you get to win the prizes.” I had my hand on the door handle that I was not going to be allowed to use until she was done. I pulled at it anyway.

“I had to sell my home. I now have a home with no view. I’m living with Mom.”

“You live indoors, buck up.”

“Do you remember when Grandmother locked us in the attic because I spilled a glass of milk?”

“Wasn’t no Flowers in the Attic. It was a fully furnished bedroom.”

“She called a priest when I said I was scared of mirrors in the dark. She took us to confession when she found out you were left handed. She was a nut.”

“Much like her granddaughter. They find my frozen body here in the car, my hands will be, in my last living act, wrapped around your throat.”

“You liked her. Maybe that’s why she gave you the jade.”

“Like is a strong word.” I liked learning to play poker. It made me feel like a grown-up. I liked watching old movies and making penny bets. I liked smelling her cigars on my clothes late at night. I stopped talking to her at sloppy drinking scene number one thousand and one.

“Grandmother liked you better,” Meg said. “And I don’t like living at home with Mom.”

“Do you like it here inside the house? I’ll turn all the mirrors to the walls.”

“If we bury grandmother here, she will always be here,” Meg said. “And I’ll still be living with Mom so she’ll make me come here with her and I won’t like coming here anymore. So I want to leave. I want to take the jewelry and leave.”

“You’re asking a lot from a handful of jade.”

“You can care for Mom. She’s feeding coyotes because I won’t let her have pets. You take care of her. You’re better at it. It’s making me nuts.”

That familiar family word. I had read about people who died not because they were shot, but because they had believed they were fatally shot. I had read about survivors who endured bad places for hours then died once they were safe because they gave up once they were rescued. Their minds killed them once they let go. Madness made what could not be true, real. I was tired of catering to madmen. I no longer pitied them. A large shadow detached itself from others and then wafted back in place. The wind blowing the tress apart no doubt.

“I’ve never seen any jade jewelry in Grandmother’s possession,” I said. “Why do you believe it exists?” It took Meg a moment to answer because she decided to fish for the sodas, much to my relief, as I had the feeling she was looking for the vodka.

“I know she had them. She said one of her rich husbands gave it to her.”

Rabbits with huge ears shot from bush to bush, keeping to the darkest shadows. Somewhere in the same scrub were predators but, for some reason, the bigger animals are harder to pick out at night.

“Will you give it to me if I don’t shoot you?” Meg asked. I looked over to see my gun lying in her lap. It was a .44 Magnum, a gift from the man of the bagpipe music.

“If you shoot that thing in here, you’re gonna end up deaf and blind.” Once the fool has the gun, you have to decide whether showing fear will save or hurt you and commit to the decision.

“Think so?” She was not holding the gun, she simply cradled it in her lap.

“You remember the things Grandmother said better than I do,” I said. “But you’re making up the jade. It never existed.”

“I was paying attention. You were playing cards and learning to smoke.” Meg was the girl sitting in the corner at parties, the one sitting in the back seats. She never participated but never missed a thing. Like a librarian who does nothing else with life but read books and live indoors, Meg collected data about the human race without putting it to good use. She didn’t share, she didn’t write, she didn’t learn about the people she studied. She did not connect the dead trees with their effect on her neighbors, she did not connect a gun with the consequences. She wanted something, that’s all she knew, much like my grandmother.

“Fucking trees,” Meg said. “I’ve always hated Mom’s goddamn trees.”

“I think the trees you assassinated know that.” She grasped the gun butt but did not touch the trigger. She did not aim it at me, instead, she hefted it and set it on the seat between us.

“You won’t help me.”

“I can’t help you. As usual, I don’t know what you or Mom or Grandmother were, or are, or will be talking about in your private ghost language, about the things in the world that don’t exist.”

“Shit, then.” She put the gun back in its place and took the keys from the ignition. “Sorry about your sunglasses,” she said, unlocking the doors.

“If the stones existed,” I said. “I would throw them into the Pacific Ocean before I gave them to you.” Outside, the wind had stopped. Mountains have regular afternoon rains. The ocean has tides. The desert wind has a schedule of its own. It blows until it’s done and, since the gusts are not accompanied by storms, there is no telling what that schedule is nor how hard the storming will last. But if you stand long enough in the sand, you begin to see patterns others miss. Weather is easier to read than people. The sky was dark and crisply outlined in stars and, if you paid strict attention to the horizon, you could see the lights of the towns 60 miles away. I stared at them until Meg had taken her things and gone inside. Meg went straight to sleep. I put away the groceries, stowed my things, replaced the linens on my bed, then sat in the living room at a sagging dining table my mother used to set for guests with pewter candlestick holders and napkin rings and lots of forks. I set the urn in the center of the table, displacing a mirrored plate. Then I pulled the stones out of their pouch. I have no idea why my grandmother was so attached to her ugly pieces of jade.

“You’ll just sell them if I give them to you,” she used to say.

“I don’t care about jewelry,” I would reply. “I’d rather take the money and go on a trip.”

“You’ll be sorry when you don’t have anything to remember me by. Why would you do that to me?”

“Give them to someone who wants them. Give them to Mom. Give them to Meg.”

“They are mine I can give them to anyone I want. You should want them.”

I pulled the stones out of their pouch and hefted them. Apple green lumps shot through with white, headstones for the grave of a woman who lived her life always bathed in the harshest light. The pieces belonged to my mother who couldn’t come to bury her mother. They belonged to me and I didn’t want them. They didn’t belong to Meg who never earned a thing in her life.

Weighted with a history of lost causes, they were as ugly within as without.

They didn’t remind me of anything good.

I put them in the urn and went to bed.
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Kimberley Idol is a graduate student matriculating at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She has been published in The Portland Review, Danse Macabre, and will be included in Jarrett Keene’s upcoming anthology out of Stephen’s Press. Her work has also been selected by her department for submission to the Kulka Best American Voices anthology. E-mail: writtenword6[at]gmail.com

Punctuation

Flash
Andrew S. Taylor


Your face is always the same sentence, but the punctuation keeps changing. Around your eyes and mouth, quotation marks appear, like weather patterns of localized irony. Above the bridge of your nose, sometimes I find ellipses, and other times marks of exclamation. Your chin changes with the light: a stately period by day, a protective parenthesis by night. Your ears, those elevations of mysterious scripture between the warm sandstone of your cheek and the long fall of your hair, at most times take the form of semicolons, though when I am closest to them they are more like the start of a musical staff: treble clef, bass clef, treble clef again.

But now, during combat, there is nothing to read on your face, only mathematics. The commas no longer rest at the edges of your lips like tiny embryos. The familiar words still come screaming, always the same words in the same order, but thrust between them are endless signs of operation. Your face, my favorite message, hovers above me, drawn and quartered.
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Andrew S. Taylor’s new novella “Swamp Angels” appears in the anthology Needles & Bones, recently published by Drollerie Press. His fiction has also appeared in Pindeldyboz, Thieves Jargon, Mud Luscious, Word Riot, Menda City Review, Monkeybicycle, Underground Voices, Mad Hatter’s Review, The Cafe Irreal, Ellery Queen, decomP, and The Dream People. He lives in Brooklyn, NYC. His blog is Fables and Riddles.
E-mail: ribaldry[at]earthlink.net

The Repairman

Flash
Janice D. Soderling


What she said was that she’d had an unhappy childhood and I was supposed to fix it. I can’t fix it, I said. I can do broken bicycle chains. I can do broken windows. I can do broken plaster falling off the front of your house. But I can’t do broken hearts.

She was a pretty girl and she was crying by then and pounding on the counter, her blue mascara running. You can fix it, she said. I know you can.

OK, I said. I’ll try. So we got married. But I was right. I couldn’t fix it.
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Janice D. Soderling is a past contributor to Toasted Cheese. Her flash and short fiction has appeared in many print and online forums, most recently Soundzine, Shakespeare’s Monkey Revue, Literary Bohemian, JMWW, Right Hand Pointing and Boston Literary Magazine. She lives in a small village in Sweden. E-mail: wordwright[at]telia.com

Scraps

Flash
Ethel Rohan


The waitress brings Elizabeth a glass of water with lemon. She wants red wine. It’s too early for wine. She returns to her book—The English Patient, which only adds to her longing—and waits.

He arrives at the restaurant dressed in a yellow raincoat. She checks the sky; it won’t rain for hours yet. If he can look like that then she can have wine. She signals the waitress. He places his keys on the white tablecloth, and gives her that disapproving look. Her gaze jumps to his germ-laden keys, and back to him. His face is milky pale and eyes cold. She recalls him sucking her nipples, and looks away. He doesn’t remove his raincoat, yellow as mustard.

Beyond the window, an Alsatian as big as a baby bear is tied by its leash to the bus-stop pole. The dog sniffs passersby and whimpers low in its throat. She returns her attention to her lunch guest. He’s come straight from the Botanic Gardens where he tends the tropical plants and he smells of earth and green. His fingernails are caked with dirt. Once, they made love inside the Gardens’ greenhouse, secreted inside the forest of potted plants. It takes all her strength not to tell him to remove his coat and go wash his hands.

They discuss the sale of the holiday cottage, the only thing they legally share. It is white-washed and covered in green moss and is the only place that’s ever felt like home; she wishes she could afford to buy him out. His dirty fingernail pushes his lemon-rind into his soda. She winces. The previous night, mosquitoes feasted on the backs of her legs and she struggles not to scratch, not to order another glass of syrupy, plum-flavored wine.

He sucks on his lemon rind. They met at a friend’s fortieth birthday bash, a casino on a boat in the bay. She beat him at poker with a Queen of Hearts. Outside, a woman appears next to the Alsatian, feeding it from a greasy brown paper bag. The dog’s tail thumps the ground like a jump-rope, its eyelids drooping with pleasure. They ended when she found out about his affair with some skeletal twenty-nothing intern at the Gardens.

When the waitress returns to take their lunch order, she asks for the check.

“I can’t do this,” she tells him.

The waitress brings the check on a white plate with three tiny chocolate chip cookies. His dirty hand paws all three. Down the back of the nursery is his tools trunk—if he still keeps it there—and inside is a manicure set she gave him, used on him. Once, she thought she could die for him.

She pays, and hurries into her coat. He’s still sitting, chewing.

“Call me,” he says. “Let’s get this finished.”

The bells of a nearby church ring out for noon, their peals echoing like a gong. Overhead the storm clouds gather. Used to be, she’d think that meant something too.
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Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Ethel Rohan received her MFA in fiction from Mills College, California. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from such journals as elimae, PANK, DOGZPLOT, Storyglossia, Word Riot, mud luscious, Ghoti Magazine, Anemone Sidecar, The Los Angeles Review, and (So New) Necessary Fiction, among many others. Her blog is Straight From The Heart In My Hip. E-mail: ethelrohan[at]gmail.com

Hunger

Poetry
Rae Spencer


I confess them
These bodily hungers
All satisfied, every need met
By the luxury of my living

Further hunger ingrained
Genetically inscribed
Not just possession of thumb
But obsession of hand

No matter I am satiated
Belly overfull, fully clad
Room after room of comfort
Summer-cooled winter-warm

So I scrounge for new wants
Invent new anxieties
Because I am human-born
With my urge to climb

My ambition derived
From the seed of my past
Deep roots have survived
Towering forests that heave

In a surfeit of greed
Though I have all I need
Except rest, except peace
All I need, and more
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Rae Spencer is a writer and veterinarian living in Virginia. Her poetry has been published in The Powhatan Review, The Healing Muse, The Chaffin Journal, and vox poetica. Website. E-mail: raespen[at]mac.com

Five Poems

Poetry
Paul Hostovsky


Survivor

The first time we kissed
you turned away, saying:
“Not on the mouth. Not yet. I’m
sorry. There are things
I haven’t told you…”
I didn’t understand.
But I understood enough
to gather your hands
in my hands,
to rest my cheek
against yours,
and to kiss
your cheek,
your temple, your
eyebrow, and then
only the side
of your mouth,
its corner. It was
a sort of lateral kiss,
like looking a little to one side
of something to see it better,
like with stars,
or with poems,
or like the truck that carries the glass
on its side,
because of the nature of its cargo.

 

The Message

In the dream I was living with your death
and it was intolerable. When I woke
you were alive, and the dream of your death
receded like the dark. I went about my day
in a kind of daydream—eating, drinking, walking,
talking to the living, not recognizing which ones
were living with death. But I kept thinking about
how intolerable it was, the loss, the thinking about
the loss, and the not waking from it ever. I thought
it’s the thinking about it that’s intolerable. As if life
were thought. And so while there was still time—
before there was no place in life where the thought
of your death was not—I called you. I got your machine.
I left the message of the dream on your machine.

 

Ars PO

A poem should have
at least one good list—
anything fragile, liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous?
A poem should be
suspicious
as a package you might put
into the hands of
unsuspecting others.
Can you be trusted?
Can they be trusted?
You can receive a thing
without opening it.
You can reject a thing
without opening it. You can
read a poem by holding it up to the light,
holding it up to your ear
and giving it a shake
to see what shifts. You can
even walk away from it
and come back to it later
to see if it has changed
you, opened you. Oh my
bearer of rectangles,
if I could tell you
how to tell the pure
money of the poems
from all the other rectangles
in your little square truck
with its picture of flight
on both flanks,
if I could show you
how to feel it
through the envelope,
like a Braille letter,
like someone else’s
goose bumps in your hands,
worth its weight in
transport of a kind I cannot
teach you how to make your own,
though you steal it,
though you open every
letter, oh my poor
letter carrier, rich already
with the handling of it,
though you look for it in all
four corners
of its own sumptuous
destitute world
which is thinner than paper,
which is air itself,
air from the country
of someone else’s
mouth, oh my beautiful
mailman, I would,
I would.

 

The Self

It was a Buddhist lecture on the Self.
There must have been fifty people
in that room with the eight Vicissitudes,
six Stages of Metta, four Noble Truths,
three Kinds of Suffering and two
ceiling fans spinning, spinning. She was
sitting on the other side of the room,
touching herself. I couldn’t stop staring
as she twisted a strand of her long hair
round her fingers absentmindedly,
listening to the speaker, holding it
to her lips, sniffing it, tasting it,
eyeing it doubtfully, then letting it go—
She caressed her cheek, her forehead,
the palm of her hand cupped her chin, fingers
drumming. It was a pensive attitude
lasting only a moment, for her hands
grew restless again, and she started hugging
herself, her left hand massaging her right
shoulder, her right hand making excursions
to the hip, belly, armpit where it moored itself
with a thumb camped out on the small hillock
of her left breast. I couldn’t help wondering
if she could feel my eyes on her body the way I could
feel her hands on her body on mine. “Don’t
attach to anything as me or mine,” the Buddhist
speaker who was Jewish before he was Buddhist
was saying, “because attachment is the second
arrow.” That’s when I realized I had missed
what the first arrow was. And then, as in a dream,
I was trying to raise one of my hands lying
in my lap like two dead birds, belly-up, to ask.

 

Looking at Boobs with Aunt Edie

Me and my Aunt Edie are looking
at my parents’ wedding album.
My parents are dead; my Aunt Edie
is living with Alzheimer’s; I’m fifty
and twice divorced—just to give you
an idea, a preamble. On the first page
a photo of my mother and grandmother.
Aunt Edie’s short-term memory is shot,
but she can still remember the name
of her fourth grade teacher, her best friend
from camp, her great Aunt Millie, Uncle
Donald, and the exact number of the house
on Observantenveg where she lived
in Maastricht until she was eight: #46. “Hey,
look how busty Saftah looks,” she says,
and we stare awhile at my grandmother’s
boobs. I smile, nod, turn the page
to a photo of my mother and grandfather
walking down the aisle arm-in-arm. “Hey,
look how pointy Reggie’s boobs are here,”
says Aunt Edie. And I can’t help noticing
the theme that’s developing page by page,
breast by breast. And I’m wondering if
this is a side of Aunt Edie that was always
there, only covered up, inhibited, corseted like
her own ample breasts (“which were always
much bigger than your mother’s, you know,”
she’s telling me now) and only coming out
in her late seventies, now that she’s forgotten
the reason for keeping it hid. Whatever
the reason, her celebration of the bosoms
of the women of my family is making me
squirm. That’s when she looks up, adjusts
her bra strap, fixes me with a penetrating
hazel arrow, and says, “If I didn’t know you
better, nephew, I’d say you were blushing.”
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Paul Hostovsky’s poems have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Best of the Net, The Writer’s Almanac and The Pushcart Prize XXXIII. His latest collection, Dear Truth, is available from Main Street Rag. To read more of his work, visit his website. E-mail: phostovsky[at]gmail.com

The Bank

Poetry
C.L. Bledsoe


Dad said there was no future in farming
so he sent his sons off to bag
groceries, stock produce, flip
burgers while his brother and the bank
carved up the farmland and kept
the white meat. We knew fish
and cattle, rice fields and soybeans.
We knew jeans and family, sunup
to sundown, the names
of the people for whom we worked.
My brother put in thirteen years
on the line before being replaced
by an elsewhere of lower wages,
looser laws. I filled a desk for nearly
a decade before standing in front of one
myself. Once the bank owned our land,
now we don’t even have land
and yet the bank still stands,
its heel on our throats.
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C.L. Bledsoe is the author of two poetry collections, _____(Want/Need) and Anthem. A third collection, Riceland, is forthcoming later this year. A chapbook, Goodbye To Noise, is available online. A minichap, Texas, is forthcoming from Mud Luscious Press. His story, “Leaving the Garden,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for storySouth‘s Million Writer’s Award. He is an editor for Ghoti Magazine. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. E-mail: clbledsoe[at]gmail.com