The Dead Lady’s Stuff

Creative Nonfiction
Eileen P. Duggan


Voeren 008
Photo Credit: Stijn Nieuwendijk

That’s a damn fine tool,” Pat said, as I lowered her late brother’s long-handled spade into the trunk of my car. Its blade was about a foot long and six-and-a-half inches wide with a very slight scoop and flat edge, and we had just used it to dig up one of a dozen rosebushes Pat’s older brother had tended in the yard of his two-family flat. Pat, my mentor and friend, wanted someone to appreciate the fruits of his tender labor, someone other than the stranger who would buy the building. I was looking to spruce up the small yard of my rented duplex, and I love roses—bingo, a match. It was October, so the variety and color of my rosebush were unknown, a mystery to be solved in spring. Its roses turned out to be orange and gave me great pleasure for the next six springs and summers. When I finally moved, I decided not to transplant the bush again, leaving it for the next tenant.

Along with the Damn Fine Tool and the rosebush, I loaded up a sturdy pitchfork, a deeper- and wider-blade shovel, cleaning supplies, two card tables and enough window cleaner to last at least a couple of decades, especially at the rate I clean windows.

Every time I use the Damn Fine Tool, I think of Pat’s brother, whom I never met. To me, he’s just The Dead Guy, distant cousin to The Dead Lady.

These seemingly crass and impersonal designations have come to apply to any one of several deceased people whose treasures—juicy finds of furniture, decorations, clothing or even foodstuffs—have come to rest with my siblings and me, giving us pleasure that sometimes escaped even close relatives of the dearly departed.

A family of five children raised under the mantra “you’d better eat your dinner because we don’t know where our next meal is coming from,” we have never felt any shame in taking hand-me-downs. We welcome hand-me-downs. We let it be widely known that we accept hand-me-downs. Being of small stature, I’ve happily become the wearer of some fabulous outfits, coats and other apparel that I couldn’t have otherwise afforded, all because friends or relatives gained weight, got pregnant or grew bored with their clothes. But those are mostly living people.

The whole Dead Lady thing started with Myrna, a very nice (or so I’m told) terminally-ill woman whose son Bob operated the administrative functions of the family business out of her home, so he could take care of her. My sister did some part-time secretarial work for Bob, who was apparently the only one of Myrna’s three children who showed her any affection. The other son and daughter spent most of their visiting time fighting among themselves over who would get Myrna’s jewelry. This was while she was alive in the next room. When Myrna did pass on, the daughter came in from out of town.

After picking through the goods, she took the diamond and gold jewelry, then stuffed a multitude of “lesser” pieces into an electric blanket bag and prepared to throw them—not just give them away to charity—in the trash. My sister the actress could not allow that, so she rescued the undesirables, which included fifteen to twenty strings of pearls and some very nice costume jewelry by Monet and Trifari. In show biz, any jewels that may be a little over the top for everyday wear can always be used for a costume.

It wasn’t just jewelry. Bob let my sister take what she wanted from the house. She now has a steamer trunk, a complete set of dishes, some hand-painted blue china coffee cups from Portugal and several 78 and 33? rpm records. Myrna was a very good cook, so there were cooking supplies to disburse. Like a good sister, Cindy shared the bounty with those of us who lived here in town. My share included vinegar and spices (some of which still lurk in my kitchen cabinets), plastic wrap, aluminum foil, that sort of thing. At the time, I was a recent college graduate struggling to get my piano teaching studio off the ground. For someone living on a shoestring, it was a great relief not to have to shell out cash for those essentials. Even now, whenever I wrap leftovers or use the coriander, I think fondly of Myrna, even though I never knew her personally.

Then my brother Dennis was enlisted by a friend to help clean out his late aunt’s house. The widow had lived as a recluse for several years. Like many Depression-era survivors, Joe’s aunt, a.k.a. Miss Havisham, hoarded things. Lo, many things. When first entering the house, Joe and Dennis were waist-deep in bags of new clothing still bearing price tags, bags of unused cleaning supplies, stacks of newspapers, you name it. There was even cash, about $7,000 hidden away in various spots under the piles. When the months-long project was over, my brother had enough Ajax, toilet bowl cleaner, and Pine-Sol to last a lifetime. Joe appreciated his help so much that later he rented the house to my brother at a very attractive rate. So Dennis had not only The Dead Lady’s Stuff, but The Dead Lady’s House, lawn mower included.

When Evelyn, the mother of a family friend, died, we inherited some of her stuff, including the Hoover vacuum my Mom now uses. These were not family heirlooms or anything of great monetary value, but small things from her daily life—things that make me remember Evelyn and smile, even though I only met her once.

Another Dead Lady lived in an apartment below my sister for years. Lucille’s daughter, who had lived there as a child, could not get up the strength to go through her mother’s things. Because Cindy had been friendly with Lucille, she offered to help. She got out of it an easy chair and matching ottoman, a magazine rack, a wooden straight-backed chair, a sewing machine in accompanying cabinet and some old 45 rpm records. She also acquired Lucille’s old washing machine, from which she cannibalized parts to transplant into another washer left in the building by a former tenant.

Thanks to Lucille, Dennis now has some nice lamps and end tables, a lovely maple telephone table, and some decorative china tea cups to furnish his Dead Lady’s house. The garden tools he inherited from Lucille come in handy in his landscaping work.

Cindy sees collecting these treasures as a way of carrying on history and traditions. “Somebody else is enjoying the little tchotchkes or tea cups that someone may have enjoyed back in 1920,” said Miss Havisham-in-training. “They’re unique, you can’t buy this kind of stuff.”

When I climb up to the top shelves of my closets, I think of Florence, who started studying piano with me at age sixty-nine. After her second breast cancer surgery a few years later, she quit to take up guitar. After she died, I bought her two-step wooden folding ladder from her husband for two dollars. The ladder is purple now and holds a prominent place in my hallway, where I can have easy access to it and memories of Florence.

I got the ultimate Dead Lady inheritance when I bought my house. Rose had lived there some thirty years, the last ten as a widow. She had no children and her relatives handling the estate had no interest in most of her things, especially her house. After the relatives and realtor had hauled off most of the unwanteds, I took title and acquired for no extra charge a freezer full of food, a bottle of Heaven Sent perfume, a small electric child’s organ, a cabinet on wheels, and a large cutting table for my sewing projects. Each spring, I’ve been treated to new surprises Rose left in the flower beds.

Just last fall, when the workers replacing my storm-damaged gutters removed the rotted fascia board on the garage, they found a surprise. On top of the garage wall, just under the roof, were two very old pint liquor bottles—empty, of course. They looked like they had held some heavy-duty spirits, vodka or gin, maybe. It seems Rose’s late husband was hiding a secret when he said, “Honey, I’m going out to the garage to work on the car.” Now, I’m checking all the rafters in hopes that he hid some cash.

I never knew Rose, but I try to keep some of her essence alive. The orange shag carpet and pink drapes are gone from the living room—but they’re in the basement. The blue-and-green plastic shower curtain had to go, but it’s now a cover-up for my washer and dryer. The yard is completely re-landscaped, but Rose’s honeysuckle vines, lilies of the valley and her glorious red climbing rose bush remain. When her two rose bushes in the front died one by one, I planted new ones there immediately. I eventually replaced the old rotting picnic table with a new one in the same location. I’m still looking for a replacement for one of the two old-fashioned metal laundry poles in the back yard. It met an untimely end during the felling of a dead elm tree when an errant limb crashed onto it. The tree guys knocked some money off the bill to cover the cost of a replacement pole, but it has so far remained surprisingly elusive. If and when I ever find one, I’ll use the Damn Fine Tool to dig the hole for it.

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Eileen P. Duggan is a freelance writer, editor and journalist living in St. Louis, Missouri. She writes regular news articles for the South County Times and recently won a First Place award in the Missouri Professional Communicators 2010 Communications Contest in the Writing for the Web—Feature Article category. Her article, “Classical artists audition for recognition and a chance to perform” appeared on the St. Louis Beacon, April 23, 2009. Email: DugganPubs[at]sbcglobal.net

Writer Incognito

Fiction
James Steimle


Stack o' Manuscripts
Photo Credit: Jürgen Fauth

Beneath a tower of files and two books from the law library, I first found the clue that Art Lamon was more than a certified paralegal.

He admitted I should not have spotted the manuscript, that he had been careless. “What if the boss had discovered it?” he said with a nervous laugh. “Would have axed me within seconds for engaging in recreational activities on the job.”

I asked questions. He explained that he dabbled with words here and there at lunchtime. When he had arrived at seven thirty, he’d placed the pages on his desk, then dropped helpless into his daily workload, forgetting the secret treasure. It was only a hobby, he told me.

And I actually believed him.

That’s how it started. With the flood of other employees running from desk to copy machine to inbox and to coffee breaks, I thought no more than to inquire if he’d permit me to peruse one of his stories someday.

“Yes. It will cost you a dollar.”

I laughed.

He laughed back, a mirror of me, except he stood as serious as a professional.

“Okay,” I said.

The next day, I handed him a buck. He handed me a pinch of pages. I felt swindled, hid them from my boss, forgot about them, and when the day dragged to an end, the invisible string wrapped around my finger flipped an internal switch and a light bulb went on in my mind. I grabbed the printed tale and sped home. After eating, watching a couple of sitcoms I had seen before, then a little depressing news until I couldn’t stand any more, I went to bed beside a slumbering wife. I brought Art’s twelve pages with me to my pillow and covers. Under a soft light, I read.

The strangest thing happened. In the beginning, I smiled at the musical lines of prose, and I thought, Art wrote this, huh? Interest took me, but then I started to dream. Visions surrounded me—a world created by Art Lamon—I was riding a boat up the Amazon, looking into murky waters for fear of another giant anaconda like the one which had launched itself and struck our curious dog, Italy, who thought the water wondrous and alive until it ate him; I feared if I gazed too deep into the swirling pool, I too might get sucked down, feeling the sharp points of fangs as they gripped me and dug into both sides of my head. I dreamed all this, yet I was awake.

When the story slammed to an end, I looked at the ceiling, and it seemed foreign to me. When I reached for the light above my nightstand, I stopped, scratching the ribbed plastic switch, and gazed into the yellow glow from the lampshade.

Was I home?

Of course.

This is my home?

I shut off the light. I closed my eyes. I tried to dream, but found myself already there, lost in the Amazon, shouting the name of my vanished guide.

In the morning, I raced to work, tossed my belongings onto my desk, and ran to see Art. I held out another dollar bill.

He laughed. “No, I couldn’t.”

“You must,” I said. “Give me another story, or I will never sleep again.”

“Okay,” he said with his eyes shut. He wiped his brow, grinned at the dollar bill, and gave me a story every week from that moment on.

In time, I shared the handwritten dreams with Malinda.

“Here’s a dollar,” my wife came to say, holding up the crisp paper with two hands.

I wiped the breakfast off my face and dropped my napkin beside my plate. With all ten fingers, I took the money. She gave me a kiss, and I went to work.

When I returned with a new story from Art, Malinda pulled it from my briefcase before I had a chance to read it. She hopped around the house, doing leprechaun dances, pouncing into the air as if born on springs. She laughed and waved it at me, then fled as I chased her down the hall. “No, no, no! I have to read it first.”

“Fine,” I said, but I wanted to tackle her and take the story. I drank hot chocolate instead, failing completely to notice any flavor at all. I sat on the porch and watched the birds in the trees. I couldn’t hear them singing.

My wife screamed and laughed at the same time when the story ended. She gave it to me, yet I had to peel her fingers off the pages. “I want to read it again,” she said with a gaping smile.

“When I’m finished,” I said.

“When you’re finished.” Then she stood over me, her jittery hands about to strike and clamp the manuscript to steal it away from me. She held back, restraining herself like a cigarette addict pretending there wasn’t a pack sitting right beside her while her partner blew smoke moons and clouds and planets with rings. She stared at the birds hopping from branch to branch. When I looked over, I knew she didn’t hear their musical peeping either.

So it went for weeks, then months. After a year, she asked me, “Why does Art work with you?”

“What do you mean?” I bit into an apple as the sun set down the road. The asphalt lit up with twinkling stars, and I thought of Art’s tale of spacemen with guns drawn pressing through an alien valley after their ship went down. The sky glowed orange in the story. And the astronauts could see the stars.

She took my apple, took a chunk out of it with her teeth, then handed it back. Rubbing away the dripping juice from her chin with the back of her hand, Malinda looked at the orange clouds in our sky. “You said he got the job a year or two after you?”

“About a year-and-a-half,” I said.

“And he writes these stories?”

“Well hon, I’m not scribbling them myself.”

She giggled. Of course you’re not, her face said. You’re not that smart. “I just don’t get it.”

“What?”

“Why a man who can make up all these worlds… all these lives… all these experiences… works with you.”

I smiled, though I knew I didn’t make a particularly happy face. “Thanks.”

She poked me in the side.

I jumped.

“You ever ask the guy if he published one of these stories?” she said, taking my apple again.

I knew I wouldn’t get it back this time. I rubbed sticky fingers along the coarse threads of my blue jeans. “Sure I asked him. He doesn’t like to talk about writing at work. I think he’s afraid someone else will figure out our little secret.”

“He’s written books?” she asked, sniffing the air.

I nodded to my wife. I smelled the meat of a barbecue sizzling next door. A living haze rose like one of Art’s fictional spirits up and over the wall separating our place from the neighbor’s backyard. “So much you can’t see in a man, isn’t there?”

“So much to see, all kept secret. Hey,” she said, “what if he’s hiding out?”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. What if Art Lamon has another name. What if he lives another life? After all, would you publish with a name like Lamon?”

I looked at her. “What’s wrong with that?”

“No,” she said, lifting a finger. “What is right with hiding your identity?”

“Well, now I don’t get you,” I said, though I already had an idea where she was going. The idea shook me, because it seemed improbable—impossible—and very realistic at the same time.

She said it: “What if we might recognize Art’s work in bookstores and libraries if he gave his real name or told us his pen name, his pseudonym? What if Art Lamon has made it?”

“Made it where?”

“Oh come on. Think about it. Everyone wants to write a book. Everyone has personal computers, these days, but what if Art Lamon did it—I mean, really did it. What if he wrote the Great American Novel and didn’t tell a soul about it other than his publisher? ‘Here’s the deal: publish under this false name; I never appear in public; we use the picture of another man on the dust jacket; I’ll write you as many books as you want.’ I can hear it now.”

I laughed, because she had never met Art Lamon and spoke his words with the voice of a large burly man with throat cancer.

She gave the voice of the publisher a pinched New Jersey accent. “‘My dear Mr. Lamon. Why would ya want to hide ya name and ya face from the American public?'” She pulled her chin into her neck to play Art’s part again. “‘No more questions, Mrs. Robinson, only stories.’ Only stories.”

“Nope. Can’t see that. No way.”

She grabbed my knee. “But what if he’s rich and famous and powerful with a pen, a magician who regularly carries us common folk to faraway lands—and he’s hiding out because he wants to watch us, to live with normal people. Each day, he’s planting seeds and harvesting new ideas from the water-cooler gossip, from the business plans and failures, from the whispered drama between two employees here or two others there, from the secrets oblivious friends slip into his inbox, from the—”

I leaned my head back and laughed.

“What?”

“Art doesn’t stuff his chin between his collar bones when he speaks.”

We chuckled about it until the close of the day left the sky purple and gray.

At breakfast the next morning, Malinda stood beside me without makeup and grabbed my elbow. “Ask him,” she hissed.

“For another story?” I said with toast in my mouth, one arm through my jacket, and the other juggling my briefcase and my lunch bag.

“If he’s famous.”

“I can’t do that,” I said. “It would be insulting.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You said it yourself. Everyone wants to write a book. Plenty of people scratch something together on their personal computers, a little here, a little there, over a year, then two, a decade—a book. Alas, they send it into the real world. It’s a jungle. A rat race. Piles and piles of work from wannabe novelists choking the desks of every editor in America. Frantically struggling for breath among these heaps, the editors produce small rejection notices in an attempt to sigh it all away. They take the good stuff, dump the rest. So if Art really hasn’t published anything, which he has already suggested, it might be a painful subject. You understand now?”

“Ask him anyway.”

I went to work with a dollar bill in my wallet.

“Where’s Art?” I asked Ronda, who sat at the desk next door, an hour before lunch.

Around a huge wad of pink gum, Ronda said, “Sick today, I hear.” She looked at the workload on Art’s desk and shook her head. “Hate to be him when he gets back.”

With a smile, I ripped a yellow sticky note from the pad beside his terminal. For your next story, I scrawled. I taped it to the dollar bill and set it on Art’s keyboard. After a moment of standing there and staring at the buck as I thought about my wife’s request, I picked up the bill and the note and added, P.S. My wife thinks you’re a famous writer incognito.

The next day I passed by Art’s desk a little after nine thirty. Art was sick again. At least, that’s what another coworker told me.

The following day, a Friday—the day when all of corporate America holds its breath, then lets out a long weekend sigh—I came early to Art’s desk again. Eager for a story, I only found piles of manila-clasped labor. I smiled at it and spoke aloud because I knew Ronda sat close enough to hear. “He’ll never catch up now. The boss’ll kill him, don’t you think?”

Over her nail file, Ronda said, “Art’s not coming back.”

I laughed, but heard a twist of fear in the sound bubbling from my throat. “Why do you say that?”

“Came in early this morning. He was gathering personal things from his desk, then he sped out of here before the boss arrived. I think he came in early yesterday too, but left before I got here.”

“You mean… he was here? Today? I heard he was sick again.”

She shook her head. “Not coming back. Here. This has your name on it. He’s passing out work, I’m telling you. Don’t hand it back to me.”

I snapped the folder out of her hands and tore it open. Ronda barked a rebuke and retreated to the small lamp on her desk to better examine her nails.

As I expected, a story of three pages waited inside. I read the title and felt a cold sweat break out on my forehead.

Work proved doubly hard that day, and when I finished, I couldn’t sigh no matter how thankful I had been for the arrival of the weekend. My life had also ended.

No more Bermuda Mysteries. No more Dark Side of the Moon stories. No more tales of Arabians at Night. No more Romancing on the Gold Coast of Africa. I would have wept on the drive home, but all my tears evaporated and turned my eyes into dusty granite balls that rarely shifted left or right to spy for oncoming traffic.

“What is it?” said Malinda. She had taken my briefcase with a grin, expecting the answer she had awaited for days now. Hoping, at least, to read Art’s story first, if I had brought one. Her pale face told me she already knew the deflating message I bore.

Instead of speaking, I handed her the final story, still clasped in Art’s manila file folder.

She opened to the first page. She read the title, then crumpled to her knees.

Art’s last tale was good, very good, of course. Malinda and I read it only once. We did not comment. We did not jump for joy at the end. We still have it on a shelf somewhere, but I will never read it again.

When I dream at night, now, I try to go places I’ve never been. I play a little game: concentrate and relax, attempting to see people whose lives I would want to watch. I imagine ancient times and quantum possibilities on distant planets. I guess the stories just don’t come to me like they came to Art. When I shut my eyes after all my attempts to wander via astral projection while my body shudders under the covers, I find myself cold next to Malinda. She tosses back and forth, unhappy with her two-dimensional dreams. I keep my eyes shut. I go nowhere. All I see is that last title burned into the back of my eyelids. It makes my throat coarse, my tears dry, my breath shallow.

As I go about my life, nodding with wet eyes at Art’s desk and the new guy who sits in Art’s chair, I see those words still in my mind.

“Sweet Guilt of the Innocent.”

It was a story about us.
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James Steimle’s fifth-grade students find him entertaining, but he thinks it’s only because writers are actors. He prefers to perform in writing, but will dance in whatever spotlight he can find. Email: jms1[at]steimle.us

Emma’s Dilemma

Fiction
Fred Marmorstein



Photo Credit: Masaaki Miyara

Of love and intrigue, Barbara Cantors settled on neither. Instead, she collected peel-off sticker labels from fruit (Bartlett pears being her favorite) and bathed twice weekly with her pet budgie, Chou Chou. (Although from what I heard, the bird benefited more than Barbara.)

B.C., as she was known amongst her fellow collectors, also collected nicknames. These derived from sources other than herself—frequently neighbors and fellow collectors—and consisted of the mostly unflattering kind: Beneath Contempt and Bitch Chick comprising the top two identifiers. The latter accompanied her into the operating room as she underwent her first open heart surgery. “All bitch and no chick,” she joked as she wafted away in gauzy anesthesia-like bliss the afternoon of her first procedure.

Porcine valves being what they were (and never a substitute for 21st century machinery), B.C.’s recovery lasted about as long as it takes to read The Three Little Pigs. Another valve—metal, of course—her doctor scheduled for early March, and B.C. felt determined to survive man-made objects placed directly inside the one organ known to fail both physically and emotionally.

This being her second valve and her second operation and her second time away from home, she again conveniently depended on her friend, Emma Presleigh, a far distant relation to The King who spelled her name in the Tennessean tradition. Emma (a devoted Granny Smither and apple sticker extraordinaire) did not want B.C.’s friendship. She looked upon it as an arctic explorer seeking the Northwest Passage: if you made it through without crashing into an iceberg or eating your companions, that was at least something to be thankful for.

“I assure you,” B.C. explained on Saturday night, in her most rational of voices, “this will be the last time I ask a favor. And, of course, you know it’s not just for me. Think, no, dwell on the fact that Chou Chou luxuriates in your attention and precise care. You follow my directions to the best of your ability, and he survives to his utmost. I can’t say ‘thrives’ but you are known for your matchless bird-sitting skill.”

On the other end of the phone, Emma strained to find a compliment or, for that matter, a discernible string of three or more appreciative words. B.C.’s speech, unfortunately, included several wheezes, muffled inhalations, and the clankety clunk of the portable oxygen tank her doctor prescribed.

B.C.’s aptitude for offending people still amazed Emma, and Emma’s wilting tolerance left her free to inform her fellow collector of fruit label stickers, albeit as delicately as possible, that babysitting Chou Chou was as unlikely as her finding a husband at sixty-seven years old.

“My dear, you’re not old,” B.C. said, as she adjusted her red velvet recliner. “Not old in the way of, say, the Parthenon or a petrified bug. Though a sprucing might help. Botox, nasal reconstruction, facelift, some liposuction. Nothing fancy.”

With a gush of sarcasm, Emma replied, “Thank you so much for your… honesty.”

“Truthfulness is—”

“And this truthfulness,” Emma interrupted, “certainly helped your cause at the last meeting you attended, didn’t it? Or have you forgotten all about poor Jonathan?”

“Well, I was truthful. I never heard of anybody dying from a broken hip.”

“You know that Linda’s husband died from the infection at the hospital, not from a broken hip.”

“She might soon have a problem herself,” B.C. advised, “if she doesn’t collect more bananas than blintzes. Potassium is so important at her age. Look at you. Abundantly trim from the apple-green granny’s gift of health.”

Emma’s trimness seemed to be the exception rather than the rule because for years she had noticed a slight correlation between collector and collection. B.C.’s choice of pears to fuel her fruit-label enthusiast’s frenzy proved that resemblance to one’s fruit of pursuit was indeed truthful.

“I have to run, now. I’ll speak with you later.” Exhausted, Emma surrendered and hung up.

On Monday, the opportunity for truth-telling continued with the arrival of an invitation in Emma’s mailbox—the inside sprinkled with birdseed and the outside titled “Tea for Three.” That’s how B.C. always introduced an eventful Wednesday afternoon of hot water, cream, and tea leaf–dunking excitement complete with budgie perched upon shoulder or teapot.

When the invitation appeared, tied with an embroidered chiffon ribbon bearing the initials C.C. (B.C. actually had us believing Chou Chou sewed it himself), Emma already knew what to expect: a bombastic afternoon with continual reminders that “Chou Chou is a combination of Shakespeare and Betsy Ross. And the beak! Don’t dismiss the powerful beak and its numerous attributes.”

A full afternoon promoting and disseminating beaks appealed to her like a lecture on the history of lint. (I told her later that at least lint managed a few more positive characteristics than a parakeet.)

On Wednesday around 2:30 p.m., with her lily-pad green purse swinging silently from north to south, Emma climbed the stairs toward the tea leaves and avian information extravaganza. Chou Chou’s chirps and whistles (usually described by many club members as “shrillingly pleasant”) removed the last bits of serenity from the air.

“The truth never ceases to amaze me,” Emma said to herself, moving up the last two steps toward the apartment.

Emma knocked four times before B.C. opened the door.

Nestled under her arm, a pale yellow oxygen tank spluttered air while yards of plastic tubes crisscrossed her body from nostrils to tank.

“Hello, hello, Chou Chou says hello. Come in to the dining room. Leave your coat and hat there. I have some pyramid-shaped tea bags to indulge in this afternoon,” B.C. gushed. “They’re so Egyptian. Chou Chou loves the exotic.”

Mustering the politeness of a frazzled ambassador on her way to nuclear weapons talks, Emma replied, “It should be enjoyable.”

They walked into the dining room. B.C. continued into the kitchen while Emma placed her purse on the table and directed an irritated stare at Chou Chou resting on his black chestnut perch by the window. Glib and glossy, his grayish blue feathers were as polished as the antique table and chairs used each week for tea. Millet and bits of zucchini peelings formed a Stonehenge-like circle underneath his stand.

“B.C., what is that smell?” Emma asked with the foreknowledge of someone who knew exactly what she smelled.

“That’s just some cuttlefish I picked up at the market,” she replied from the kitchen. “I make my own cuttlebones. A sharp beak is a happy beak. I’m making one now. Gives Chou Chou reassurance. Everything to his liking.”

“Couldn’t he just chew on a block of wood?”

“Now. Emma. Budgies must—”

“Fine, dear. Fine. My first bird-sitting lecture educated me thoroughly. And I so loved watching Chou Chou for you while you handled your first ordeal. But what I wanted to discuss… some of us in the club… we get the distinct impression that you don’t… wouldn’t you rather collect bird paraphernalia?”

B.C. smoothed her apron of blue budgies in flight over South Sea palms. “Emma,” she admonished, appearing in the doorway between the kitchen and dining room. “Fruit stickers are practically my life. This is my 37th year, and my collection outshines all others at every convention and competition. Remember my excursion to Togo two years ago? No one has a Forelle sticker label. Except me. Parakeets and pears encompass everything I am. I need them and they need me.”

B.C. returned to the kitchen for the teapot and cups.

“Maybe know more and say less, dear,” Emma suggested.

“What’s that darling?”

“I think I sat on a cuttlebone.”

“Chou Chou’s speaking, Emma. It’s quite difficult to hear.”

“With the sound of triumphant gladiators returning from battle,” Emma hissed.

“I have it right here, Chou Chou,” B.C. insisted as she emerged from the kitchen.

Emma expected to see the same old Wedgwood teapot and cups in lilac they had been using for years. Instead, B.C. held a wooden spoon high in the air. Glazed with a dark raspberry–colored stiffness, it flared in her hand.

Horrified, Emma asked, “Is that for the tea?”

“No! Kidney beans, yams, and steak. No gristle. Blended on the ‘frappe’ setting for no less than three minutes. Chou Chou craves vigor.”

Emma pushed a spiff of air from her lips in disgust.

B.C. again tried defending herself. “I complimented Carl on his plum label stickers before my first surgery. He had ‘aplomb’ I said with satisfaction at the last exhibition. You have to admit that was a clever one.”

“May we have that tea? I have to get back. As for your joke, Carl and his wife’s temperament lacked any form of amusing response.”

“Have you ever heard of hyperbole?” B.C. countered as she returned from the kitchen with the tea.

“Is that what you call it? Your hyperbole made Carl and his wife look like tiny white birds trying to escape the Pompeii blast. Is it hyperbole when you compare apples to pears? My stickers and, in fact, everyone’s stickers, are labeled, dated, and sorted by country, color and state just like yours. And, Millie? Calling her labels ‘cantalousy’ after she had just returned from Costa Rica’s premiere cantaloupe grocer. Her tear stains ruined that beautiful red sticker shaped like a clay pot.”

“After my next surgery I plan on making the greatest amends to the entire club population. I’m still a bit weak and out of breath with this present valve. But you will see me good as new soon.”

“That’s what we’re afraid of,” Emma whispered as she poured herself a cup of tea.

“I know you wish me the best. Five days in the hospital. That’s all. Five days to recover.”

With apprehension, Emma asked, “What about Chou Chou?”

“Well, of course, just like last time, you would care for him. Chou Chou felt very comfortable in your lovely home. The operation takes place a week from Thursday.”

“I’m afraid that just won’t be able to happen.”

At the back of B.C.’s head, a tuft of gray hair edged toward whiteness. Even the bird with knowledge of all things Shakespearean stopped his twitter. “But I’m counting on you.” B.C. emphasized “counting” like she was the hostess of a new early morning children’s show.

“It’s not possible. You can simply place Chou Chou in a boarding facility for birds. Look in the paper. Bird-sitting’s popularity grows daily.”

“Emma.” B.C.’s voice rattled with disapproval.

“Well? What did you expect? A week from Thursday gives you plenty of time. It is a bird after all. And the tweeterings, and the baths, and the cuttlebones? That bird chewed through two of my best extension cords simply because his cuttlebone fell behind the radiator. And who knows how long you’ll be recovering? One open-heart surgery was bad enough. Two? You stayed in the hospital for twelve days last time. Your valve recovery time remains a mystery.” Emma gulped her tea.

“The cuttlebone,” B.C. lectured, grabbing the white, oval-shaped disk and placing it on the dining room table, “is an essential piece to a budgie’s beak health. I’ve informed you before of the origin of Chou Chou’s name; the parakeet naturally gnaws. Chews, if that word so suits you. As for the rest, a living being needs care. Care, Emma.”

(The scuttlebutt was that Emma raised her saucer as if to commit pre-op open-heart surgery harm. Oh, we had a chuckle at that vision.)

“I think it’s time for me to leave. I must get the Crock-Pot started,” Emma announced suddenly, grabbing her coat, purse, and hat all at once. She fled out the door and down the steps.

“Chou Chou’s memory won’t fail him,” B.C. shouted as best she could with an oxygen tube clinging to her nostrils.

Thursday night, the fruit label sticker club met at Linda’s house. She had taken over as president from her husband. Everyone congratulated her on the enlargement of her collection by almost a third. Also that evening, Carl and his wife finally returned, keeping their ears open for plum-related puns.

When the phone rang, Linda thought it might be Paul running late as usual. But a few moments after she said hello, Linda turned white as a cauliflower. Everyone stopped browsing through her banana portfolio.

“That was the police,” she announced. “B.C. is dead. Last night. I told them she was a member. But I hardly knew her that well.” Linda looked for Emma. “You were her best friend.”

Emma, sitting on the couch, said, “Yes. Was.” She reached for her purse.

“They said her oxygen tube had been chewed in half.”

“That’s weird,” commented Carl’s wife, admiring the banana label sticker from Vietnam.

Emma’s purse was open.

“What’s that stink?” Carl asked. “Smells like dead fish.”

Emma reached in, grabbed a handkerchief, and dabbed her eyes. “Oh. I think I left an apple in there,” Emma sniffed, quickly closing her purse. “It must’ve spoiled.”

“Maybe a rat found its way into the building,” Linda speculated. “Her neighborhood. It’s not what it was.”

“A rat? Probably a ferret. They can chew through anything,” Carl added.

Several members asked about Chou Chou.

“What’s going to happen to her bird?”

“She loved that bird.”

“What do you think, Emma?” Carl’s wife asked.

Emma sat near the bowl of potato chips quietly chatting with Mr. Jansen who had just started the first-ever plantain collection.

“I think,” she said. “I think I have to buy a new purse.”

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Fred Marmorstein taught secondary school Language Arts for seventeen years before devoting himself full-time to writing. He holds degrees from SUNY-Binghamton and New York University and has published fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He currently lives in northern Virginia. Email: fredmarmorstein[at]gmail.com

Last Summer

Fiction
Hilary Harper


Et Voila: Pull To Open
Photo Credit: Kim Piper Werker

I have come into this house with a boy I don’t know because he is cute and cool. He’s holding my hand and leading me into an upstairs room. The door creaks as he pushes it open. “Come into my master’s chamber.” He does some dumb kind of horror movie voice.

It’s a small, dusty bedroom. The shades are pulled and it smells like stale rose sachets. There’s a dresser and some bedside tables with hardly anything on them. There’s a lamp, a set of ceramic poodles, and a clock that’s stopped.

“We shouldn’t be here,” I say.

“Oh, come on,” he says and I know I should say no, but I don’t.

I am fifteen, uncertain, and curious. A radio is on outside and someone just dove into the pool. I hear laughing. “We should go back.”

“Don’t be such a drag,” he says while leading me toward the bed.

We’re damp from swimming and his long dark hair is flat and pushed away from his face. I notice his bony shoulders, the freckles on his chest, and a few long hairs around his nipples.

I know he’s going to kiss me, which is something I want to happen. His lips are full and enticing, but his kiss, when it comes, is sloppy, insistent, and wet. I am disappointed but try not to show it.

I don’t know this boy and he doesn’t know me. I can be a whole new person with him. I can be a girl who does this kind of thing. He kisses me again and pulls me down onto the bed, onto a white chenille bedspread just like my mom’s, a familiar bumpy softness.

We are kissing again and fumbling around when he unties the straps of my bathing suit top, exposing my breasts. I’m embarrassed by this, I’m ashamed, but excited, too. “Hey!” I say. I scoot farther onto the bed and retie my top while he moves up between my legs. His weight is heavy on top of me and I am uncomfortable. I am squished.

“Stop it,” I say. But he doesn’t. I put my hands on his sides, trying to hold him up off me, but he grinds against my bathing suit bottom and grunts. He groans deep in a way that scares me a little, but then he goes weak and rolls off.

“Oh, man!” He gets up and leaves the room.

I am straightening the bedspread when I hear shouting.

The boy runs past the bedroom door. “Come on!” he yells and clomps down the stairs.

I’m right behind him, my heart pounding wild. We run outside where everyone is grabbing towels and scrambling.

“Damn kids! I’ll call the police!” A guy is yelling from an adjacent backyard.

I scoop up my macramé purse and my shorts. I’m the last one out the redwood gate; my bare feet pound the sidewalk, running toward the van where my best friend, Susan, is shouting, “Hurry up!”

This whole thing was Susan’s idea. It’s all because of a guy she met—a guy and his friends who hop pools for fun.

“Jesus,” she says when I finally jump in. “Where the hell were you?”

 

I embellish when I tell the story to my friends. I make it bigger, more dramatic, and much more romantic. I tell them we did it, me and David. David. I don’t know his last name, or where he lives, but I think about him all the time now. I tell my friends it was great, that I liked it, and I am the center of their attention as they press for details with a mixture of awe and revulsion. I turn it into a story so good even I begin to believe it. I believe that he looked at me, deep, right into my eyes, and kissed me sweetly, sweetly.

 

“Oh my God.”

We’re hanging out at the park when I see a guy and think it’s David. I grab Susan’s arm.

“What?” She pulls away from me.

“It’s him!”

But then the guy turns and it’s completely wrong. This guy is older, has a mustache and a big nose, which makes Susan laugh. Not at the guy, or the situation, she laughs at me. She thinks I’m a joke. A slut. A nut case because I’m so obsessed. There’s a harsh look of teenage disdain on her face.

“You are so queer!” she says. Words that strike and hurt me.

We’ve been best friends since second grade. She lives across the street and we’ve always done everything together, including going along on each other’s family vacations. “They’re like twins, those two,” my mom used to say. We even went through a phase of dressing alike, but Susan criticizes just about everything I wear these days. I keep trying to talk her into hanging out with the pool-hopping boys again, but she’s got a crush on a guy named Paul now. He works at the shoe repair shop downtown and we’ve already walked by there about a million times today.

“So what if Paul wanted you to do it?”

She gets a smug little smile on her face. “I wouldn’t,” she says.

“Why not?”

“I just wouldn’t.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Well, don’t then.” She flicks her long sleek hair over her shoulder.

 

I’m sitting on a stool in Susan’s kitchen. She’s going to pierce my ears with a sewing needle. She’s sterilized the needle by whisking it through a flame on the stove a couple of times and I’m freezing my left lobe with an ice cube.

It’s a Saturday afternoon and we’ve got her house to ourselves. We’re listening to a Jimi Hendrix album and smoking her dad’s cigarettes—menthol Kools. I trust her completely, but flinch every time she comes near me with the needle. At first it’s funny, but now I’m pissing her off.

“God damn it, hold still!” She jerks my head back into position.

“Okay, okay. I’m just gonna close my eyes and I’m not gonna think about it and you just do it.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t move!”

“Okay.” I have my eyes closed and I’m holding as still as I possibly can. I really want my ears to be pierced; I want to be able to wear cool earrings. I trust her. I want this. It’s okay. I’m ready. She’s got a grip on my lobe and I know she’s about to poke the needle. I hold my breath.

 

I think my ears might be infected. They’re red and puffy but Susan says to just keep putting alcohol on them. We’re sitting on a picnic table in Bishop Park, which is where all the would-be hippie kids have flocked. It’s August, 1969. We’ve been sitting here all day waiting for Paul. Paul. Paul.

We’re about to give up when he finally ambles by. His dark brown hair hangs to his shoulders in waves and he’s wearing a handmade leather headband with fringe. Paul is already out of high school, but Susan lied and told him she was seventeen.

“Hey,” he says. “You chicks going to the Procol Harum concert tonight?”

 

We’re at the Grande Ballroom in downtown Detroit. We rode here in the back of a van with Paul and smoked some hash on the way; my mom thinks I’m at Susan’s house and her mom thinks she’s at mine. The Grande is an old dance hall, crumbling and kind of spooky. It’s crowded, hot, and I am extremely stoned. I’m entranced by the flowing images of color projected on a screen behind the band, but then I realize I can’t see Susan anymore. She and Paul were standing right next to me a few minutes ago, but the crowd has shifted and pressed in.

I become aware of someone touching my arm and when I turn, expecting Susan, I am surprised to see David. David! I smile and so does he, a really big smile, but I’m not sure he recognizes me. He hands me a joint and then goes back to watching the band. I’m already too high but take a toke so I won’t look uncool, keeping my eyes on him the whole time. I know it’s him, but he looks different. He seems shorter. And maybe not as cute as I thought. He’s moving to the music when I hand the joint back. I lean in and say, “David?”

“Yeah,” he says, and then “Hey!” like he just figured out that he knows me from somewhere, but he’s not sure where.

I’m standing outside after the concert and I can’t find Susan. I’m worried about her and wondering how I’ll get home, but thrilled because I’m with David.

“Hey man, it’s cool,” he says. “Just ride with us and you’ll find your friend later. She’ll be all right.”

So I get in the backseat of somebody’s car and make out with David all the way home. His kisses have improved, or maybe he’s just mellower now as we flow along with the radio on and all the car windows rolled down.

I open the back door and creep into the house as quietly as I can. The floor squeaks, but the TV is on loud in the living room where my dad is snoring on the couch. I tiptoe to my room and sprawl on my bed with my ears ringing and my mind spinning. I close my eyes and listen to the familiar clacking of boxcars on the railroad tracks and the next thing I know it’s morning and my mom is calling my name.

“What?”

“Susan’s on the phone.”

“Tell her I’ll call her back.”

“No. Get up. Get your ass out of bed now.” She yanks the blankets off me.

Susan is pissed when I finally come to the phone. She says she looked all over for me. For hours. But I bet she was too distracted with Paul to really care.

“The doors were locked when I got home. I had to break in my window. My mom is really mad. She wanted to know why I didn’t stay at your house, so I told her a big lie about coming home for Kotex.”

My mom is trying to listen to my conversation so I don’t say much. I stretch the phone cord as far as it will reach. I sit on the floor behind the couch and whisper about David.

“What’d ya do? Let him ball you again?” Susan asks sarcastically.

“No!”

“Well, you know that’s all he wants,” she says.

I hang up.

She calls right back. But I just lift the handset up and then down again, disconnecting the call.

“What the hell’s going on?” my mom asks.

“Nothing,” I say and stomp into the bathroom.

 

School begins and we pass each other in the halls, but don’t talk at all. It makes me sad and I miss her, but it’s become this Big Thing now. And I don’t know how to break the silence between us. I don’t know what to say.

At least she’s not in any of my classes, but I always see her just before fourth hour. Yesterday she was laughing with Jeannie Hicks and Diane Harris, like they’re her new best friends. That’s a laugh! I was talking to Robin Kwiatkowski, but I had my eye on Susan and she kept looking over at me, flicking her hair and laughing too loud.

She put a box of stuff on my porch after that night at the Grande—it had some of my albums, a couple of books, nail polish, a strip of pictures we took at a photo booth, and a purple-haired troll that I bought her. But there wasn’t a letter, not even a note. Not a word. I threw the box in my closet and cried.

“This is so stupid,” I imagine saying to her. Maybe that could be a beginning, but I’m afraid of what she’d say back. Plus, I haven’t seen David since the night of the concert. I wrote my phone number inside a matchbook, but he hasn’t called, and I’d be embarrassed to tell Susan that.

I peek out our living room window sometimes and watch her house. I watch her coming and going. But I never come in our front door anymore—I walk down the alley and go through the back.

 

I hang out with Karen Williamson a lot now. She turned me on to Jefferson Airplane and mescaline. We both got suspended for skipping but I don’t care. Karen says she’s just gonna drop out and maybe I will, too. “We could hitchhike to California,” she says, and I think she really means it. That’s probably where Susan went—she disappeared a couple of weeks ago. I heard that she split with some guy in a band, but I also heard that she joined the Hare Krishnas, which I know isn’t true.

Her mom came over and asked all sorts of questions and accused me of lying when I said I didn’t know anything about it. And then my mom got in an argument with her mom and now they don’t speak to each other either.

My mom says I’m grounded, but that’s a joke. My dad’s been working overtime and my mom passes out in front of the TV every night, so I just do whatever I want. I usually meet Karen at the park and hang out, but it’s cold and deserted and nothing like it was last summer.

I’m huddled with Karen in front of the closed women’s restroom when I find a note in my coat pocket. Folded up into a kind of origami square, it’s a note Susan wrote last school year. I must have stuck it into my pocket and forgotten all about it.

I know it’s from Susan because of the daisies she drew in each corner, and I don’t have to open it to know what’s inside. She probably wrote it in study hall and it’s probably just about how bored she is, and who she likes, and who she doesn’t, and do I want to come over tonight.

“What’s that?” Karen asks.

“Nothing,” I say. I think about tossing the note in the trash, but I don’t. I put it back in my pocket and keep it there. I rub the note in my pocket the whole winter long, as if it’s some kind of good luck charm. But I never see Susan again.

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Hilary Harper lives in Detroit. Currently at work on an MFA at Queens University of Charlotte, she writes both fiction and non-fiction. Email: hilhar[at]sbcglobal.net

Dolls

Fiction
Kindall Gray


Pink wine!
Photo Credit: Amanda

Once, I dropped my sister on purpose. I picked her up, flung her over my arms, rocked her around like a baby, and then dropped her. She was bigger than me, maybe by twenty pounds, but I was strong. I blamed the drop on her weight. “Mommy,” I said. “She’s so much heavier though.” My sister’s knees and elbows turned blue with bruises, and she looked at me with her big dark eyes and blinked.

We were very young then, not even preteens, not even ten.

“Maybe it’s time you spent some days apart,” my mother said, because she’d been noticing our arguments, the fact that we had nobody to invite to our birthday parties except each other. At lunch we ate at the same long table in the school cafeteria, sharing raisins, and secrets, and head lice, and embarrassment.

We also slept in the same bed, drifting closer when we were scared and moving into separate corners when we were fearless, but after the fall my mother bought another little bed, and moved it right beside the old little bed. She pulled pink sheets and blankets over the white mattress, and smiled, “Presto, change-o!”

I stared at the new bed for a long time, thinking of the way my sister’s toes felt against my ankles, thinking of the sound of her breathing when she slept. She breathed funny, sucking in watery gulps of air as if she were drowning.

“Well?” my mother said finally. She wanted our reactions.

“Looks good to me,” Shelly said, and I clenched my fists.

I got used to sleeping alone after a while. It wasn’t even a big deal. I took the new bed and my sister kept the old bed. Except sometimes when my sister breathed like that. Except sometimes I thought if I were near her she wouldn’t breathe like that. I’d be able to tell by the warmth of her body she was dreaming. I would hold my hand over her heart and feel the rhythm of its thumping.

*

In my right hand is a beer and in my left hand a jump rope. I find Shelly by the pool lying on her back on a towel, staring into the bright orange sun. “Want to play?” I ask.

My sister gazes at me and her eyelashes look like thick black spider’s legs. She shields her face with a fashion magazine. “Not right now,” she says. “And anyway, I’m too old to play.” Her short, stubby fingernails are painted glittery red.

I drop the rope and sip the warm beer. I’m not sure why I drink it but I do. My sister has one too, a tall can glistening beside her towel, almost empty. She turns her neck to look at my cousin, Theo. He is sitting in a lawn chair in only his underwear, his long body angular and brown. She touches her mouth softly, thinking about her lipstick or her boobs I bet, and whether or not Theo likes them. Last summer, when Theo came to visit us from Pinetop, we played softball in the backyard, rode go-carts at the amusement park, and gorged on hotdogs with mustard and chili for breakfast. Now he’s been in Tucson a few days and all he’s done is make crazy eyes at Shelly. He tosses his dark-blond hair back and smiles at her, big, so that his teeth sparkle in the light. I am tired of being left out.

I sit down on the pavement next to the pool and run my fingers over the surface of the water. The summer sun makes the water hot, almost burning. I dump the rest of my beer in the pool, watching it bubble and bubble until it disappears. I imagine melted butter folding into flour and sugar.

“Don’t do that,” Shelly says. “You idiot. I’ll tell mom if you keep doing that.”

“And what then?” Theo is awake now. “She’ll just be upset with you for letting your kid sister have a beer. Shelly. Jesus Christ.”

I turn to look at Theo. When I look at him, something hard and heavy settles in my stomach as if I’ve just eaten an entire cheese pizza. His Fruit of the Looms are cotton, small and white, and blonde-brown hairs crawl up his thighs, disappearing into creases of cloth. I wonder if those hairs are prickly like saguaro needles. I turn back to the pool.

“He’s right,” I say to my reflection. My face is as bald as a mound of wet clay. “Mom won’t care about the beer in the pool. She’ll care that I drank beer at all.”

“Oh, fuck,” Shelly says. I hear the scraping of her knees against the concrete as she pulls herself to her feet. She says the f-word every time she gets upset now, because it’s cool to say such a bad word. When I say the f-word I feel dirty, and I wash my fingers beneath hot water until they turn a cherry red.

I listen to the wet patting of my sister’s feet as she walks toward me, and suddenly my head snaps back so that I am looking at the clear blue sky instead of my reflection. “Keep your smart-ass remarks to yourself,” she hisses. She lets go of my ponytail and I rub the back of my head. My cheeks burn fiercely.

“Hey,” Theo says.

I turn my body to look at him again.

“I’m the oldest here, so I make the rules. No hair pulling.”

Shelly wrinkles her nose at me. “I hate you,” she mouths.

I crunch my beer can in my hand (not as easy to do as I expected) and narrow my eyes at my sister. “I hate you more,” I say. I feel a clenching at the back of my throat. “This summer is terrible.”

“It’s terrible because of you.” Shelly settles onto her towel again. She wiggles her fingers and sucks in her stomach. She’s putting on a show for Theo, like the women in beauty pageants put on a show for judges.

“Now, now,” Theo says. “That’s not right, Shelly. But, it might be better if you found something to do on your own, huh, Gerta? Okay? Just for a little while? Let us teenagers hang out, huh?”

I sniff. I throw my beer can in the pool and green water splashes up around it, onto my ankles. “Shelly is thirteen. Barely a teenager. And I’m only a year younger.” I wait a moment to see how Theo will respond to my statement, but his face is motionless. His straight, pointed nose is bright pink at the tip.

I don’t turn around as I walk away, but I am conscious of the way my butt and thighs jiggle in my bathing suit, and I wish there were a way to cover the jiggling so Theo couldn’t see it. I want my mother. I don’t even care if she knows I drink beer. I just want her. When she gets a day off work and doesn’t have a date, my mother makes cookies with me sometimes, letting me put as many butterscotch chips into the dough as I want.

Inside the house the cocker spaniels waddle over to me and push their hard, freezing noses against my kneecaps. I kneel down and pet them. “I’ll tell mom everything,” I say to Sunny, Hairy, and Sammy. Sunny responds by licking my cheek with her gummy tongue. “Shelly will never get away with this.” I think I see something like fear in her eyes but I continue. “She’ll never get away with any of it, I promise.”

“Leave those dogs alone,” my sister interrupts, walking by me into the kitchen.

I hadn’t realized she was behind me. I stand up to face her.

She pulls a soda from the fridge and pops it open. The soda fizzes over the top of the can, dribbling onto her fingers. “Stay in here for a while, all right?” She puts her hands on her hips. Her blonde hair is piled on top of her head in a messy bun and she looks drunk. Her pink bikini is loose and wet, so that it both covers and exposes her new breasts. I know she doesn’t hate me, not exactly, she just doesn’t care about me.

“I’ll do what I want,” I tell her. “And there’s nothing you can say about it.”

Shelly lets out a moan, her red mouth a perfect O, and goes back outside, slamming the screen door so that it hangs off the tracks half-open and crooked. Flies buzz into the house, and I think of going after them with the swatter, or just fixing the screen door so that they can’t get in anymore, but I decide it’s Shelly’s job. And anyway, I don’t mind bugs like everyone else seems to. Their wings are as delicate as lace.

I watch Shelly until she’s out of sight, by the pool again. I open a kitchen drawer and shuffle through coupons and paper clips until I come across a shimmering pink pack of cigarettes. My mother doesn’t smoke but she keeps them around for when her boyfriend comes over and she has wine. I know exactly where they are and I steal them when I’m alone and have nothing to do. They’re Virginia Slims, long and thin and womanly cigarettes with a pink band around the filter. I love to smoke and pretend I’m grown, like my mother, like the beautiful, exotic women in movies. I light a cigarette on the stove and inhale sharply. I’m the only twelve-year-old I know who can inhale. Even Shelly doesn’t inhale.

I tiptoe to the kitchen window where I can see Shelly and Theo by the pool. Theo is rubbing sunscreen into my sister’s shoulders. Her bikini top is untied and the pink strings hang limply down her back. Theo’s arms look shiny and strong as they move. All I can see are the backs of their heads, not their faces. I have no idea if my sister looks happy, sad, or nervous. Theo, though—I imagine he is smiling.

Before I know it the cigarette has burnt down too low. I throw it on the floor and shake my hand. The cocker spaniels run over, sniffing the smoking cigarette like it’s a chunk of meat. I crush it out with the heel of my foot and kick the dogs away. “Out!” I scream. “Get out of here!” The dogs scatter, each going in a different direction. Their nuclear family splinters when there is danger, each dog out for its own safety. I am angry, hateful toward them. Those stupid, cow-eyed, ugly dogs.

I look back out the window and see that Theo is kneeling beside Shelly, whispering something in her hair, so close to her neck he could either kiss or bite her. His hand is cupped around his face, like he knows it’s possible someone is watching, like he knows it’s possible that the someone watching can read lips because she read a book about it, and suddenly Shelly pushes him away, and I see her mouth part in a raucous laugh. Her bun falls loose, and her wet, wavy hair uncoils down her back, tangled up with the strings of her bikini. Theo stands erect, folds his arms, and laughs politely at his own joke. Men don’t rock around and shake their hair loose and go into convulsions the way women do when they think something is funny. Men recognize humor and respond accordingly. Women are delighted by any kind of humor, as if hearing a joke were as good as winning a million dollars; or, they pretend it’s as good.

I can’t watch this any longer. I turn away from the window and go into the room I share with Shelly and sit on my bed. I want to do something. I want to forget how Theo rubbed my sister’s back, how slowly and precisely his hands moved, and how Shelly laughed at some stupid secret joke. I pull my piggy bank off the shelf, the old, faded piggy bank my sister gave me as a birthday gift when we were little. It’s been dropped many times, and thick cracks sealed with super glue cover the pig’s body, crosshatching its eyes and glass snout. I’d like to buy a bus ticket to my father’s house in San Diego. It’s only a few hours from Tucson, right? I can get along with my half-brothers if I try.

My father has the children whose faces he put on Christmas cards, and then he has my sister and me. The children he puts on Christmas cards—cards he sends to me and my sister, unembarrassed—are bucktoothed fat-faces who look like their mother, Vicky Lin, a cocktail waitress with a large, dry-looking bouffant. Vicky Lin is pretty nice though, and does my laundry when I come to visit. My father just sits in his armchair watching television. “Gerta,” he says now and then. “Can you move the antennas to the left?” But there is the ocean, and the surfers with their long hair, and the seashell necklaces I make with Vicki Lin at the kitchen table.

I empty out the bank onto my bed and count the hard coins. Only twelve dollars and sixty cents. Not enough to do anything with except buy a CD or a few slices of pizza and some ice cream. No San Diego, that’s for sure.

A knock comes on my bedroom door. I jump. For a minute I think it might be Shelly trying to apologize. Then I imagine it’s Theo, asking if I want a hot dog. I straighten my hair and put a pair of shorts over my bathing suit, and then get up and open the door. Benny Harpy, my neighbor, stands in tight jeans and Converse tennis shoes, his posture so bad his stomach sticks out like a pregnant woman’s.

“Hey-lo, Gerta,” he says.

My disappointment makes me turn away from him without responding. I sit back on my bed and he follows. His black hair hangs in his eyes and he’s playing with his new nose ring.

“Gerta,” he says. “Gerta, what’s with your name, huh? Who gave you a name like Gerta?” His teeth seem sharper than normal and flashy white. He reaches forward and pokes me between my breasts, which aren’t really breasts at all, more like nubs. “It’s an ugly name. You’re too pretty for it.”

He always tells me that. I’m sick of explaining to him it’s my grandmother’s name. I go back to counting quarters.

Benny is fourteen and everyone in the neighborhood calls him a pervert. I don’t care if he is or isn’t a pervert but he makes me uncomfortable for other reasons. For one, he asks too many questions, and he can be mean. He’s the only boy who speaks to me, though, and the only boy who seems more interested in me than in my sister. He sneaks into my house whenever my mother isn’t home.

“What’s with all the money, huh? And who still owns a piggy bank these days? What are you, weird or something?” he asks. He starts to push at the quarters stacked up on top of my down comforter.

“Shut up,” I say, shoving his hand away. “At least I have some money.”

“Whatever,” Benny shrugs. He spreads his fingers out in front of his face and examines them. His nails are painted black. “I’m playing with you, baby.” He winks.

“I know,” I say. I put the change back in the bank before he gets any ideas. The quarters make banging noses as they fall into the pig. I don’t want to spend it after all. One day I’ll have enough to go to San Diego. No one will be able to stop me then. I don’t care if Benny thinks I’m weird or not.

“So, what’s with your sister and your cousin?” Benny asks. He pulls his legs up onto the bed and crosses them. He knows all about Theo; when Benny and I are getting along I tell him about the go-carts, the hot dogs, how that was the most exciting summer of my life, how Theo is the best and nicest cousin in the world.

“What do you mean, what’s with them?” I ask. I push the piggy bank onto the shelf.

“Well, on my way to your room I saw them in the yard. I don’t know—seems like they’re leaving you out.” Benny shrugs.

“I guess they are,” I say. I turn on the radio. Soft rock creeps from the speakers. I switch the station until I find something louder. “But, what do I care? I have a lot of other stuff to do.”

“I’m as old as Theo,” Benny reminds me. “And I’m willing to hang out with you.”

“I don’t even care anymore,” I say again. “I mean, I was mad, but, I guess I just want to forget it now.” I look down into my lap. “And who said he wasn’t willing to hang out with me,” I mumble.

Benny falls back on my bed and clasps his hands behind his head, looking at the ceiling. “Your sister’s a cunt,” he replies. The word is strange, like “fuck” but worse.

“No,” I say. “She’s okay.” No matter how I feel about my sister, I don’t want anyone insulting her. Any day now we might go back to being friends again. “Let’s stop talking about this.”

“Can I have a beer?” Benny asks. “A cigarette?”

“There isn’t anymore beer. But there’s wine.” Wine will distract him from my sister and Theo.

Benny stands. “Show me.”

I take him to pantry. The wine is pink in the bottle, a soft, hesitant pink. Skin-pink. I am sure my mother will miss it but I want to please Benny. Even though I nearly hate him, I want to please him.

“It says serve chilled,” I say.

“Well, we’ll serve it warmed,” Benny grins.

He finds the bottle opener after fumbling through drawers. He drinks directly from the bottle without a grimace and then passes it to me. I sip it and make a sour face. Wine tastes terrible, bitter and sweet at the same time, almost the way vomit tastes coming up into my mouth when I have the stomach flu. I like how light my head feels, though, how Benny’s eyes look softer the more I drink.

“Wow,” I say. “This is disgusting!

“This is rad,” Benny says.

We sit across from each other at the kitchen table. I’m sweating and I’m not sure why. The bottle is almost empty. After a few drinks the poison taste goes away. I smile. “My mom is going to kill me,” I say.

“No, she won’t. Your mom doesn’t know her ass from the ground.” Benny covers his mouth, laughing. He always covers his mouth when he laughs.

“Ass from the ground?” I say. “What does that even mean?” I laugh too, despite myself. “And your mom isn’t any better.”

Benny shrugs. He knows I’m right. His mother is a train wreck, or, at least that’s what my mother calls her. My mother says she herself isn’t close to being a train wreck compared to Benny’s mom. Benny’s mom leaves the house every night at nine or ten to go strip at a place called Eleven’s out on the highway. I’m twelve, but I know what stripping is. I’ve seen enough television movies to know. My mother is a receptionist at a dentist’s office and she gets child support from my dad. She makes her money the right way.

I push the pack of cigarettes toward Benny. I’m starting to feel a little sick. But, I’m also a little drunk. “Wanna go spy on my sister and Theo?” I ask. The room is turning, round and round, so that it is like I’m on a slow carousel, atop a golden horse, and it’s mildly fun.

We stand up and go to the window. Shelly and Theo are on the same lawn chair. It takes me a minute to realize that Theo is on top of Shelly. He seems huge compared to her. I’ve seen porn, sure I have, the stuff my mother’s boyfriends have left around, but I never knew it looked like this in person. I never knew how large the man looked, how monstrous. But—but—they aren’t really having sex. Are they? My sister’s arms seem pinned beneath her, tiny little bird’s wings pinned beneath her. Her top is off, and his clothes are gone too. Theo is naked. Is he raping her? I know about rape; I know what it means. Women are raped all the time, my mother says. Women are raped sometimes without even knowing they are raped. They wake up in the morning raped and they are ruined. My mother says the world is dangerous for girls, entirely dangerous, and I have to be careful.

I turn to Benny. “He’s raping her,” I say.

Benny scratches his head and looks out the window. He seems pleased. “No.” His eyes are glassy, unfamiliar.

I look back again. I can’t say anymore if she’s being raped. I notice she is grinning, from ear to ear, as Theo kisses her neck and face. Benny touches my shoulder. “Does it make you feel horny?” he asks.

I bend forward and throw up on the kitchen floor. My vomit is pink from the wine. The mosaic tiles my mother raves about to everyone who comes over are covered in my pink vomit. She used her bonus from the dentist’s office to buy those tiles. I feel too tired to clean it up. The dogs come in and clean it for me, their tongues the same color as the wine.

I go into my room and Benny follows me. I want him to leave. “Can you leave?” I ask. He turns on the radio and Heart’s “Barracuda” comes through the speakers. My mother used to play that song in the car with the top down. My sister and I sang along in the backseat. Hard wind would cut through my hair like a knife. “Can you leave?” I say again.

Benny lies down next to me when I climb into bed, and we get under the scratchy comforter for no reason. It is so wet-hot I can feel my legs sticking to the sheets. “Shelly’s so much older than you now,” he says. “Now that she’s not a virgin, she’s a lot older than you.”

“Only a year,” I say. I can’t believe my sister did it. I can’t believe she did it with Theo. I think for a minute I want to do it with Theo, too. I want him to kiss my face and neck. There were those times last summer when Theo shared ice cream cones with me, those times our shoulders touched as we sat on the back stoop. I didn’t want him to kiss me or anything, or do it with me, but my throat had tightened, I’d licked my lips and smiled at him in a different way than I smiled at my sister. “Only a year,” I say again.

“A year is a long time,” Benny assures me.

Somehow he’s inched closer to me, so close he’s nearly on top of me. His body feels peculiar, sharp-boned and scorching-hot. I wonder if everyone’s skin is that hot, if even I am that hot and don’t know it. His arm is pressed up against mine, his fingers against my fingers, and he smells like laundry detergent, better than I’d expected him to. He grabs my wrist under the covers and puts my hand around something that is both hard and soft, like a piece of metal wrapped in tender leather. I push against his chest with my free hand, and my mouth is so dry I imagine it is full of warm sand. I feel the same way as when I try to speak in front of the class at school: paralyzed.

“If they can do it, we can do it. They’re cousins,” Benny says.

I pull my hand off of his penis and turn away from him. I know, without knowing, I’ve been touching his penis. I press my fingers, hard, between my legs, curling into the fetal position. I might throw up again. I want to be good at something, have a boyfriend, but Benny is no boyfriend. I hear him behind me, breathless and tender-voiced.

“C’mon,” he says. “Just give me a kiss. Give me a little touch.” He tries to pry my hand from between my legs. He is stronger than me.

I squeeze my eyelids together and imagine I’m not alive, I imagine I am buried deep in the ground, that none of this is happening. I could give up fighting. It would make it easier if I did that. I know that if I have sex with Benny, I’ll at least outdo Shelly, because he isn’t my cousin. He’s a real boy—not a family member. It’s best just to go along. But something inside of me, something welling and welling, something not unlike a bomb set to explode, will not let me just go along. I hate Benny, hate my sister, hate my father and his fat kids, hate my ugly mother. I am tired of all of them suddenly. And especially, I hate Theo. He wrapped around my sister like I saw a snake do to a mouse once, squeezing it and squeezing it till its eyes went dull and grey.

“Leave,” I say.

I grab Benny’s penis as soon as he guides my hand to it, and it is small and sweaty in my palm, disgustingly soft now. I can’t look at him, so instead I close my eyes and clutch him like he is an almost-empty tube of toothpaste. Benny jumps out of the bed, throwing me off of him so that I bounce backward and hit my head on the wall with a thud. I uncover my eyes. Benny’s lower lip is dark-pink and wobbly, and his eyes are round and wild. I tell myself I’m not sure whether I hurt him on purpose or on accident.

“What’s wrong with you?” he cries.

It takes me a moment to find words. My head throbs and my hand burns where I grabbed him. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” I say finally.

Benny shakes his head, his mouth hanging open. I realize he is scared. There is sweat on his upper lip, above his brow. “Go fuck yourself,” he says, still holding his crotch.

The words are horrible, like “cunt” had been horrible, but I’m not shocked anymore. “No,” I say. “You go fuck yourself.” It isn’t hard to talk like that, to say those things. I roll over toward the wall so that I don’t have to look at him.

Benny slams my door so hard the books rattle on the shelves.

My heart is pounding in my chest. I feel mean, sad, anxious, as if I’ve narrowly escaped death. I will never tell Benny but I’m a tiny bit glad I hurt him.

After I dropped my sister, I was glad I’d hurt her, too. I loved her, but I was happy to hear her cry. She believed me when I said it was an accident and so did my mother. We were best friends, Shelly and I, but look what I did to her. And look what I did to Benny! Only I know what I am capable of. My mother says the world is dangerous, but I can be dangerous too. I press my fingers into my mouth and try to fall asleep, satisfied that Benny is gone, that everyone, everyone, everyone is gone.

pencil

Kindall Gray is an Arizona native who writes poetry and fiction. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories, as well as a novel entitled The Crying Party which focuses on a young wife’s mounting paranoia regarding her husband’s fidelity. Her fiction has previously appeared in Back Room Live. Email: kindallg[at]email.arizona.edu

Scent of a Woman

Flash
Jeffrey Miller


36
Photo Credit: Caobhin

On a hot July afternoon, she boarded the crowded bus on Halstead and stood next to him. The bus lurched forward; Newton’s Law did the rest. Her long brown hair smelled of gardenia and skin of lavender.

“Excuse me,” he said, as he regained his balance but not before he drank in enough of the perfumed air around her to get him through the day.

She smiled and fanned herself with a folded newspaper. That’s when he noticed that she had hands like a boxer’s, with bruised and scarred knuckles.

Ten bus stops later and the woman long gone, he couldn’t get those scents out of his mind—but those hands. Damn, he wished he could have forgotten them.

pencil

Originally from LaSalle, Illinois, Jeffrey Miller has been living and teaching in Asia since 1989. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in A-Minor Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Boston Literary Magazine, Caper Literary Journal, Eunoia Review, Full of Crow, Grey Sparrow Journal, Negative Suck, Orion headless, Short, Fast, and Deadly, and Thunderclap. His first novel, War Remains was recently published at Smashwords and is forthcoming from Lulu.com. He can be found online at jeffreymillerwrites.com and jeffreyalanmiller.wordpress.com. Email: sparksjam[at]gmail.com

Collar Bone

Poetry
Scott Lucero



Photo Credit: Kevin N. Murphy

her hands tangle
in my hair
she whisperpurrs
a song I forgot
I knew the words to
while my lips
trace the line
of her collar bone
connecting
looped shoulder
to looped shoulder
tasting the sweet salt
of the cleaved
dip of bone
below her throat
her body song
snarls deep from her belly
and it rumbles
through us both
and that bone
hums
buzzes
and trembles
against my lips
like a bluesman’s
harmonica

pencil

Scott Lucero is a teacher and writer from eastern Kentucky. He lives there with his wife and their two children. His work has appeared most recently in memoir (and) and PLUCK! The Journal of Affrilachian Art and Culture. Email: Scott.Lucero[at]kctcs.edu