Stepping into Summer

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Tony Press


dsc03469.jpg
Photo Credit: Mike Linksvayer

It is colder than it looked from my living room. After three glorious days of sunshine, during which I had been pent up within walled structures, this is my morning to walk it off.

I wear my old hooded soccer sweatshirt, which for years has felt thick and warm, but today is thin and not so protective. The breeze whips off the ocean, pausing only to plant cold kisses on my face. I keep the hood on. Summer on the coast can be hot, can freeze your ass off. Yesterday we hit 85 degrees right here, and today the radio is talking about 90-plus degrees “all over” but they never mention our corner, unprotected from sudden fog—nature’s air conditioner—and crisp sea air. Yes, sometimes, we do get the heat, but we’ll see about today.

I walk up San Pedro, glancing toward Hill Street, toward 2008 grad Teresa, and her baby, whom I’ve never seen. I suspect Teresa is worried about my reaction, as I had long harped “no babies” to my classes, and especially to the trio of Teresa, Lety, and Fabiola—so strong, so intelligent, each of them. Fabiola, too, has a baby, and I did see Fabiola and her baby, by chance, a few weeks ago. It was a fun, quick conversation, and we promised to meet soon for a longer visit. We set one up, but she didn’t show. I need to contact Teresa and Fabiola. I need them to know I still love them.

Lety, as yet, has no babies, is thriving in community college, and will be accepted by the university. Whether she can afford to go is another story. Not a good one.

Brisk walking takes away the chill, and soon I am flirting with sweat.

Across from Holy Angels Church I watch streams of people entering from all directions. A blue car briefly double-parks to let out a woman with a walker. She is about my age. I used to be young. Soon she is off the street and inside for Sunday Mass. The car moves on.

Around the corner on Mission Street it is quiet again. Few cars and almost no pedestrians, but two men walk toward me before disappearing into a doorway. What could be open at 8 a.m. on a Sunday? I reach the door: Al-Anon. Good for them, and glad it wasn’t me.

I cross the street and continue north. Two more men, could be brothers to the first two. They enter Gino’s Club: “where friends meet,” a bar that may have survived both earthquakes of the last century. I check its hours: open 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week. Not good for them, glad it wasn’t me.

Climbing the gentle Mission grade, I turn right just before the War Memorial onto a small street I hadn’t noticed before. Just a block long, then it bends into an alley. I almost take a photo of an ancient, weather-beaten house. It could be a good photo, but what would I do with it? Last night I took a couple of photos of two mariachi musicians walking down Bartlett Street in the city, ready to make their rounds. The driveway next to the old house has a Harley and two yellow tow trucks. I don’t take the photo.

I angle up to the west on Brunswick. Approaching Chelsea Court I remember that a few students live there: Susie, the sweetheart who tried to kill herself a few months ago, and Jason, one of my biggest failures last year.

Susie and a friend unexpectedly turn the corner and walk in my direction. We smile, hug, say “good morning,” and separate. She’s doing well, has good support. I think she’ll make it.

A minute later, at 9:02 a.m., Jason and a woman appear. It may be his mother or aunt, I don’t know. She doesn’t see me, and crosses the street. Jason does, and stops. I say, “good morning.” He wears the black leather jacket he lives in, the Cincinnati Reds baseball cap he must sleep in, and the smirk that, too, is all-weather, all the time. He stares for a moment, no expression of surprise, though I’ve never been on this street, says nothing, and crosses the street to join the woman. They walk up the hill on the west sidewalk and I match them, but a little behind, on the east side. I decide I will go any direction Jason doesn’t, at the next intersection. They go left so I continue straight. I walk a couple of blocks, again impressed that Jason has maintained his silence for me, hasn’t spoken to me for four months. He has determination, no question about that, and I failed him in many ways, not simply on his report card.

I’m over the hill and out of the wind. Off with the sweatshirt, it really is going to be hot. Thank you, God, I need it.

Turn another random corner and find myself on Hanover Street. Jessica, one of my first absolute wondrous students, from ten years back, lives somewhere on this street, I learned last week, but I can’t think of the address. Is it 565? Don’t know. She had a baby less than two weeks ago, and her sister, another gem, gave me the address. I walk awhile, three or four blocks, secretly hoping I might see, or be seen by, Jessica or someone who knows me. Doesn’t happen.

I spot a park a block over, and turn that way. It must be, and is, Lincoln Park. Two men do tai chi, two others shoot hoops, and two women, perhaps spouses of the first men, circumambulate the park. This is a place students love, not just for the name. I’d forgotten how small it was.

The western sky is changing from grey to blue, with a few perfect clouds, and the temperature is definitely warmer.

I see Mission Street again and walk toward it. On Mission again I realize I was actually all the way inside San Francisco, the Daly City welcome sign maybe 100 yards to my left. I look toward San Francisco, still mulling the idea of finding breakfast, but see nothing, so I head back to Daly City.

Cross over and climb Bepler, thinking that Roberto and Maila live here somewhere. I don’t see brother or sister. I do walk to the top, giving me a good view in three directions. The southern sky has joined the west as a lighter and more appealing sight. The north is still grey but I’m not going that way.

After Bepler I wind my way down toward the BART station. In the parking lot I see perhaps twenty men, and a couple of women, all dressed in black with white shirts, a conclave of religious folks. A bit later I cross paths with a man clearly on his way to join them, and his hair makes me think they might be Hassidic Jews, but I don’t remember the others looking like that. There was lots of smiling and hugging within the group. Maybe they were waiting for a chartered bus; maybe they had just been delivered by one. Maybe they’re heading for a casino, who knows?

Now on Junipero Serra, walking in front of the Century Cinema. There are people going to the movies at what, ten in the morning? The marquee shows a 10 a.m. start for a handful of slasher flicks. Happy Sunday, everyone.

Walking through the Subway and Starbucks passage, I spot Alexis, who graduated four or five years ago, setting up in Subway. There are no customers, but it is open for breakfast. We catch up across the counter. A current student, Diana, has just started working here, and she told me that her manager was a former student of mine—“Allie or Alice.” I’ve never had an Alice. The next day, Diana reported the name as Alexis, and we figured it out.

Alexis said that after just one week Diana is an excellent worker: “She knows how to do everything already.”

I told her I wasn’t surprised, that “she’s nice, intelligent, and hard-working; what else could you want?”

“And I only speak English with her,” Alexis smiled, but she was serious.

Alexis is in only by chance this morning. Last night the guy who was supposed to open today got drunk and sick in Alexis’s car as she gave him a ride home. Another passenger was hit by some of it and no one was happy. Alexis told him to stay home, she’d do the shift, which means she’ll be here for him until 2 p.m., then go to her regular 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. over at the Geneva branch.

She likes this site better; she only takes the bus when she works at the other place, because of “all the car break-ins.” Different people over there, she says.

Alexis is coaching a soccer team: the High Tides, or something like that, and is loving it. She promises to come to campus to talk to my students in September.

Time to get going. I pass Duggan’s Mortuary and think of April. I always think of her when I am here. She died last year at twenty-four, after years of struggle with an inexplicable disease. She always wanted to be Juliet in freshman English. I remember at the viewing, just before people began to speak, a man in the second row pulled out a Chronicle and started to do the crossword. Made as much sense as anything else.

Passed where Jerry’s Café used to be, where we had a “Meet and Greet” when I was managing a friend’s school board campaign, and where I didn’t use the right name for the café in the publicity. Jerry was not happy.

Cross over, and on the curve above the freeway I realize how very close I am to home. Just a year ago—last July when I was so lazy, so heavy—I would have thought, “Oh, I still have so far to go,” even if I were just coming from BART. Now I’m Paul Bunyan striding across town, covering blocks in a single step.

And on toward Washington Street, and I pass beside Fabiola’s apartment building and remind myself again I need to see her, see the baby, send a gift. Despite the two hours-plus I’ve been walking, the 12,000 steps my invisible pedometer would clock, it feels small: this morning, these neighborhoods, those memories I carry. At my mailbox I pause, wipe my forehead with my sweatshirt, and remember that if we had this weather every day, I couldn’t afford to live here. And I know if the valley hits 100, we’ll be back in the fog, and the artichoke plant will be happy.

I’ll take what I can get.

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Tony Press lives near the Pacific. His fiction appears (or will soon) in JMWW, Rio Grande Review, SFWP Journal, Toasted Cheese, The Postcard Press, Blink-Ink, BorderSenses, Switchback, Ranfurly Review, The Linnet’s Wings, Boston Literary Magazine, Qarrtsiluni, Menda City Review, Foundling Review, Temenos, Thema, MacGuffin, Shine Journal, 5×5, Lichen, and two anthologies: Crab Lines Off The Pier and Tales from the Courtroom. His poetry appears in 34th Parallel, Contemporary Verse 2, Inkwell, Spitball, Words-Myth, The Aurorean, Turning Wheel, and the anthology The Heart as Origami. Non-fiction appears soon in Quay. Email: tonypress108[at]gmail.com

Still Water

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Nancy Bouchard


Wading PEI National Park
Photo Credit: Bobcatnorth

My daughter wades in knee-deep ocean water, afraid of being eaten by a shark even though I’ve told her the water is too warm, too shallow, that I’ve been swimming in this water for over forty years and I’ve yet to see one. I tell her that sharks like warmer places to swim even though I don’t know where I got that fact from but it seems like it could be true. She rolls her eyes. She doesn’t believe me because she watches the National Geographic channel and sees people losing limbs. We’ve been here a week and she hasn’t made it in yet. She’s been doing the old lady splash, throwing water onto her arms, wiping her neck with her painted 14-year-old fingernails, never taking her eye off the horizon, seeing fins in the feathers of seagulls.

As we walk back towards the towels she tells me about a dream she had last night. A shark walked into her bedroom on human feet and sat at the bottom of her bed. She screamed for her oldest brother and he came in and put a towel over it, told her it was safe. She didn’t believe him.

“I’m canceling cable,” I tell her. “No more When Nature Attacks before we go on vacation.

“It was Shark Week not When Nature Attacks,” she says.

We sit until the sun squats low in the sky, dipping behind the big mansion squeezed between two small, weather-worn cottages. We enter week two of our vacation in a different space than when we got here. Settled into the ebb and flow of the tide and its pace, the stress of our everyday lives carried out to sea, we watch the sun go down.

The night before, at this exact moment, I was on a second date with a man named Ken even though I didn’t much care for him on the first date. Determined to change my strategy about my habit of trusting men that shouldn’t be trusted, I decided to look at things logically. If all of my instincts about the men I was drawn to up to this point had been so horribly wrong I figured I should go against instinct. I texted him that I was at the beach soul-searching and I was sorry I never called him back. He texted back, Can I pick you up, take you to dinner, walk the beach with you and maybe you can tell me what you’ve discovered in your soul. I texted back, Yes, to the beach, yes, to the walk, no to the soul.

I’m getting better. I’ve pulled back the curtain for men who have wanted to look inside, only to find out they were in search of a weakness, my Achilles’ heel.

Ken was polite, funny, smart, financially successful, well-traveled, had decent table manners, and when he spoke, the tense of his subjects matched his verbs. It’s the little things. He also had good shoulders, wide caps that sat atop some decent biceps. We ate clams and steak at a restaurant that overlooked the marsh.

We walked the beach after dinner and of course, the conversation turned to past relationships. Before I was married and divorced, the golden rule of dating was that you don’t talk about your ex-whatevers. Every man I’ve dated or been in a relationship with since my divorce has wanted to know what happened, what went wrong. Wanted to know how many men I’ve been in relationships with; in other words, how many men I have slept with. As if.

I mentioned that I was hurt badly in my last attempt at love and I am guarded, that my heart seems sometimes to be in transition. I told him that I’ve had tenants, but no owners. I told him that Jack, the last man to rent out space, had a secret he kept from me. I kept it simple but the little I said was too much.

“An affair?” he asked me.

“No, not an affair.”

“Prison record?”

“No.”

“Oh,” he said, “a disease, he put you at risk for something.” And I noticed those broad shoulders that I had a second before admired, pulled back a little, the corners of his mouth and bottom lip went a little tighter.

“No.”

“Okay, don’t tell me, I want to guess.”

“I’m not telling you anyway,” I said and I knew the rest of the night he was thinking about it, trying to imagine what it could be. He thought he would find out something about me if he could uncover the tragic flaw of the last man I loved. I didn’t tell him that it’s not that simple. I didn’t tell him that I’m not that girl anymore so even if he knew it doesn’t matter. I didn’t tell him because there’s a part of me that agrees with the assumption that I am the sum of the men I’ve loved. That the act of choosing them in fact reveals my own tragic character flaw. I said goodbye to Ken and realized there was a reason I never called him back. Progress.

My aunt visits the next day and brings cannoli, pistachio muffins, and her own heartache like an anchor. She, too, has swum in unsafe waters. She says it’s because we are both Cancers, actually born on the same day in July, thirteen years apart. She says it’s because we are moon children and ruled by the changing tide. We both agree, sitting there on the beach, that there is no hope. That we are fatally flawed when it comes to finding love and that now at forty-something and fifty-something, we are simply no longer willing to take the risk.

Emma has been hovering enough feet away that she can’t hear our conversation but walks over and rips off her cover-up. “I’m ready,” she says.

“Really?” I ask.

“Will you come in with me?”

“Let’s go,” I say.

We make our down to the water’s edge as the last bits of sun are visible on the horizon. And the three of us, three generations, stand where the tide meets the sand. Emma grabs ahold of my hand.

“I don’t want you to come in,” she says.

I nod, afraid to say anything that will change her mind.

“You watch for sharks, okay?” she says.

“I will,” I tell her. And I watch as she pushes back the tide. I watch as she dives into a wave, surfacing right after it breaks, turns back around and smiles. And together we feel the sun.

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Nancy lives with her three children and their arthritic rottweiler. They all swim in the chilly New England water and have yet to fall victim to a shark attack. In those other months of the year, Nancy teaches English to high school students, eats dark chocolate, drinks too much coffee, and makes up excuses to skip the gym. Email: peacelovingchic[at]gmail.com

The Land Between Two Rivers

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Bint Arab


Tigris
Photo Credit: Adam Henning

When Hulagu Khan, Genghis’s grandson, attacked the land between two rivers, he destroyed Baghdad. The Tigris turned black with ink from the books his Mongols took from the libraries and threw into the water. Hundreds of thousands of bodies filled the alleys and paved the roads: men and women, adults and children and babies—everyone. He had to move his camp upwind to avoid the stench of the corpses. Blood flowed so thick the fighters stood ankle-deep in it. The rivers were black, and the streets were red.

The year was 1258 CE. The rivers bore witness; follow the rivers and you follow the story.

Hulagu Bush, the son, will attack Baghdad in 2003 CE. It will mark the end of the siege. By then I will be exhausted from years of rationing cups of sugar, flour, and rice. Relief will bring me to tears, not once but twice.

My scalp will prickle whenever I think of the petrol tanks on the top floor of our house, but we will not be hit by missiles.

I will stop going to Monsoor Girls’ High School one year short of graduation because Mama will make me stay home with her. I won’t know how well my school survived the bombing and the looting. My cousin Fadia, my father’s sister’s daughter, will tell me that our school still stands, though the blue tile mosaic over the entrance has gone, crushed to powder. In a casual, throwaway tone, she will say that the fountain in the courtyard crumbled and stands empty, dry as the desert. I will tell her that her haircut is old-fashioned, jealous that she will graduate though I was always smarter than her. I will feel a little guilty at the sight of her flushed cheeks and will offer to cut her hair myself.

Mama’s hair will turn white in those first three days after the invasion. She will use henna to hide it.

Abu Taif’s bakery, the little stone building a five-minute walk from my old high school, will stay open on the day of the invasion, and he will make certain that everyone knows that he has to. He will be ordered: Bake or die. Father will buy Abu Taif’s loaves, but Mama will continue to buy bread from Umm Hussein because hers are so airy and full of holes on the inside. When I go with Mama to pick up the bread, Umm Hussein will say: Whatever God decides will come to pass. In exchange for a cup of our flour, Umm Hussein will bake bread for us and wish blessings upon us. Her diamond-shaped loaves of sammoon will always have the crisp, golden patches that I love. After the invasion, her family will stay in their home a few blocks east of us, though the Hanafis next door to them will warn the Shi’ites to leave for everyone’s sake. For the sake of peace and safety. For the love of God. Leave or we will all pay the price.

Two weeks after Umm Hussein’s family moves, the Hanafis’ generator will explode.

Neither rivers of ink nor rivers of blood will mark the American invasion. Hard drives will have replaced books, and besides, the rivers will be so low that no one will bother to throw anything in them. Father, son of Omar, will say that we don’t need water from the rivers. We come from desert people. I will know that he is lying: we came from book-reading, aqueduct-building people. People who had built the walls of Mustansiriyya College six-feet thick to keep the heat out. They couldn’t think when they were thirsty any more than I can.

Poets and scholars had made Baghdad, the land between two rivers. The land between wars. Between thirsts. When the rivers finally dry out completely, surely then Baghdad will turn to dust and blow away on the wind, and no one will be left to bear witness.

When the Americans come, stories will pool in alleys and doorways, stories about bread and petrol, cement and cables and fire. Two days before the invasion, six columns of smoke from defense trenches of oil set on fire will surround our neighborhood like the points of a star. The rivers won’t turn black, but the sky will. It will make me choke and gag.

Bridges built and re-built with each new war will be bombed again: al-Sarafiyyah. al-A’immah. al-Adhamiyyah. More than I can name. For six months, the best way to cross the river will be by boat. After the invasion, the fisherman Abu Laith will not be able to make a living from fishing so he will become a ferryman. Father will pay Abu Laith a quarter of a dinar whenever he needs to cross the Tigris in that motorboat-that-used-to-be-a-fishing-boat. Because the bridges will be impassable, our stories will back up and fill the streets, a scummy green lapping against the walls of people’s houses. Sometimes the stories will run into the sewers and drip into the rivers where the waters will record them.

Often our stories will just turn yellow.

It will rain in the winter, then hail will fall, then it will rain again. And throughout the summer we will not have water.

Reeds and other wet things that grow along the riverbanks will die out. As a young man, my Uncle Tariq, Father’s oldest brother, went swimming in the Tigris one day, never to return alive. Weeds had grasped his legs and held him under long after my father, just a boy then, went home. There will be no weeds to rescue me. As an old man, Father’s eyes won’t tear up at the tale of his brother. We won’t have water to spare for that kind of thing. It will be enough that the river remembers.

The market near al-Adhamiyyah bridge that had been full of fat fish with bright red gills and clear eyes will become barren. Abu Laith’s stall will be empty. Father will say the fish are small and stinky and he won’t waste our money on them. Father will be old by then; he will have forgotten how smelly all fish were even before the Americans came. I won’t go with him to the market to judge for myself because there will be no point.

I will find light pink dust in my ears, in my hair, between my fingers. Father will think I’m too young to remember how it was, but he will be wrong. I am ancient like the rivers.

I was and always will be.

When the Americans come, the streets will stay dry. Blood won’t run here; it will burn and turn to ash before it hits the ground.

How could anyone bleed from a bullet wound if dust runs through their veins?

Faces will blacken, if you could even tell they had been faces. Hajji Majeed’s flesh will fuse with his steering wheel at the traffic circle by the fifteenth police station. They will say that he was kidnapped and forced to blow himself up or his family would be slaughtered.

The smell of burning plastic will join forces with the smell of burning garbage.

My cousin Zaid, my mother’s sister’s son, will be splattered against the wall of a bookstore on Mutanabbi Street. He will have written his name on a paper kept in his boot. His mother will wail but she won’t cry.

Our jasmine plant will stop flowering in June and dry up. Mama will not throw the woody stems out. She will say that she is waiting for the water to come back so she can revive the plant.

We will leave the faucets on so that when water trickles through, the bowls and buckets underneath will catch the drips. Whenever a drop rips itself from the kitchen spout, I will know from the deep ping that follows how full the jar beneath it is.

It will drip. Sometimes. Mostly it will just be quiet.

The house will be louder when my brother Haitham is home. He will grow four centimeters in one summer. He will tell me that his school is still there, just lacking books and windows. The plastic sheets they tape over the window frames will not keep the heat out. I will try to show Haitham some things from my old texts, but he won’t respect me like a real teacher; he will only be interested in the pictures. Even I will get bored with my old books. The green cloth cover will be faded and frayed, with grey cardboard bones showing from underneath the tears. The picture of him will still adorn the first page. One year after he is executed, I will have the courage to rip that page out and shred it.

Haitham will love the history stories Father tells. So will I, except for when Father says we come from desert people. Why won’t he remember?

Follow the rivers.

I will count the drips the way I counted spoons of tea or missile strikes near our house. I will count the neighbors who move away just as I counted the loaves of bread Umm Hussein baked for us or the empty flowerpots in our yard.

I will count the books on my shelf.

In March, the humidity will bully its way through our house and make my hair curl. I will wonder why the water is in the air instead of on the ground or in the pipes. I will not believe my Uncle Hazim, father of Zaid, when he says the river levels are low. I will not be able to imagine how the rivers could be short on water when the bridges have been repaired and our stories have sunk into the Tigris. I will remember how it rained the month before. I will think my uncle is lying.

In August, the bougainvillea will try to bloom its hell-inspired red flowers.

In December, I will beg Mama to let me go back to school. In February she will relent.

After they fix the al-A’immah bridge, the Shi’ites will use it one holy day to come to the shrine in al-Adhamiyyah. They will hear a rumor of a bomber come to kill them; they will panic and run. They will fall by the hundreds into the Tigris where many of them will drown. Haitham will see it all from the riverside. He will come home bright-eyed and talking too loud, full of stories about how he and his schoolmates had tried to help. His friend Salaam, son of I don’t know who, will be exhausted from swimming in the river to fish out survivors. Haitham and his gang will decide to become better swimmers just in case, but they will forget that resolve in a week.

There won’t be enough water in the river to make good their promise to themselves. The river will barely be full enough to hold the stories I whisper into the drain.

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Bint Arab is Iraqi American, born in Baghdad and raised in Brooklyn. Today she lives in Texas, where being a New Yorker makes her more of a stranger in a strange land than being Arab American ever could. Her stories have been published in Expanded Horizons, 50 to 1, Every Day Fiction, and Absent Willow Review. She administers the writers’ forums at Bibliophilia.

It’s in the Bones

Baker’s Pick
Mary J. Breen


Sugar Rainbow
Photo Credit: Aimee Quiggle

I was finishing off the sandwiches and brownies left behind on the tea tray and ignoring my mother’s dirty looks. The other girls and their parents had gone, and Mother Superior was trying to hold Mummy’s attention with her tight hungry smile.

“Poor Fiona,” my mother kept saying, “such a big girl.”

“Yes. Yes, indeed,” Mother Superior said.

My father stooped to examine a painting of the flaming souls in Purgatory yearning for their release.

My mother wasn’t done. “Poor girl. Takes after her father. I’ve tried everything, even buying her clothes a size too small, but nothing works.” Then, like always, she held up her tiny wrist for all to see. “But what can I do? It’s all in the bones.”

Mother Superior nodded.

“That’s why we’re entrusting her to your care, Mother. If she insists on being so big, then it’s time she developed some poise and grace. So important for a girl of her size.”

“Sweet Jesus, Barbara!” my father roared as he spun around. Mummy beamed a tight smile at Mother Superior, and grabbed Daddy’s arm. He brought his voice down, but in the shocked silence we all heard him say, “This has nothing to do with that kind of grace! Have you forgotten what she was doing with that damned Protestant reprobate? What she needs is sanctifying grace!”

Mummy nodded quickly to Mother Superior, and rushed Daddy towards the hall, assuring him that the nuns at St. Margaret’s Academy understood a girl like Fiona perfectly.

Well, I thought, I’ll show them.

I skipped meals for three straight days. When I fainted in study hall, they put me in the infirmary. Sister Clement, the Infirmarian, was quick to congratulate me for trying to mortify my flesh, telling me that feeling cold and dizzy was how saints feel when they’re getting closer to God. I let her believe I was fasting in reparation for my well-publicized sins. When she promised to tell my father how repentant I was, I realized that being both thin and contrite was my ticket out of here.

My tunic is already much looser although Mummy didn’t even notice when she stopped by last weekend. At least Father Neill has stopped cornering me in the hall with his own hungry look.

I do eat fruit—well, sometimes—but I fainted again in chapel last Friday. Mother Superior came stomping into the infirmary. “For shame, Fiona! Don’t you remember your history? Ireland’s Great Hunger? People eating grass and drinking cow’s blood at night, and still dying left, right, and centre. Remember: a few of those ancestors of ours made it, and you, my girl, have a duty to them to eat!”

I didn’t tell her that Sister Clement says what the body loses, the soul gains.

Today, I only had the Communion wafer.

The other girls eat like pigs at the trough, but I’m not like them anymore.

Tomorrow all I’ll have is six jellybeans. And if I’m really strong, I’ll only eat five.

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Mary J. Breen has written two books about women’s health, and her essays have been broadcast on CBC Radio. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines. Email: mjbreen[at]sympatico.ca

Giraffes Do Bite

Creative Nonfiction
Mary Wuerth


Giraffe
Photo Credit: David Groth

I sometimes thought of going to him in the night. I could visualize myself knocking softly at the door to his basement apartment, making him search the nightstand for his glasses, six inches of bare wrist slipping from his pajama cuff as he undid the latch, and the little dog going all white-eyed. “Hush, Puppy,” I would say. Hush Puppy.

Ron was the lead proofreader at the typesetting house that hired me away from a miserable job at an insurance company. Better pay, less-strict working conditions and no dress code made me feel sure that my life would get back on track. And I would finally put behind me the divorce that had left me in the doldrums for so long.

From the very beginning I was in awe of Ron. Being the lead proofreader merely meant he had the most seniority, yet that seniority granted him certain privileges the other four proofreaders didn’t have. He was the only one with an actual desk and the only one who got to go home at five o’clock. The rest of us worked at folding tables and stayed until the day’s work was done. I remember how, on that first day, as he patiently explained the duties of the job to me, I felt like a chimpanzee taking instruction from a sad and oddly vulnerable giraffe. He showed me how to use a pica pole, measure point size and check for proper kerning. He concluded by telling me I must always, always, initial my proofs in case an error needed to be traced. His calm, unruffled air made me think of the mastodon skeletons at the natural history museum.

Ron was seven-foot-two. His head was, I don’t want to say pumpkin-shaped, but the word “melon” does come to mind, and it sat atop the classic stickman’s frame. He bought his clothes at the Big & Tall Men’s Shoppe, and while the pants were long enough, his slender white wrists frequently freed themselves from the confines of his cuffs. His cheeks were pink and hairless, the comb marks were fresh in his hair, and his trademark Hush Puppies showed meticulous care. He also collected stamps and had a wire-haired terrier.

Ron had a couple of odd habits besides brushing his Hush Puppies every day after lunch. One was putting his used Kleenexes in the bottom drawer of his desk. The other was using a wooden knitting needle as a proofreading tool. While the forefinger of his left hand followed the copy, the knitting needle, held like a pencil, made a thin, harsh score beneath the lines of type on the galley proof. It seemed an awkward way to proofread because the knitting needle had to be exchanged for a red pen when an error was found.

One day as I was looking out the window I saw Ron unfold himself from his sub-compact car. I’d seen the same scene played for laughs by a clown at the Shrine Circus, but this scene wasn’t funny. I continued to watch as he scissored his way across the parking lot, and the lump in my throat told me that I felt something for the man. It wasn’t exactly a crush that I had, but curiously, it fell somewhere in the same family of emotions.

In the days that followed, I began bringing chocolate chip cookies to work, making a point of offering the first cookie to Ron. Carrying coffee from the break room was another thing I did for him, and I fixed the coffee just the way he liked it with two sugars and a heaping teaspoon of artificial creamer. I also became protective of Ron and glowered when the camaraderie of the guys from the back room grew too boisterous during the times when work was slack. Ron was a willing butt to their practical jokes, once wearing a sign that said “P_OOF READER” on his back for an entire afternoon. In the rubber band wars he generally gave as good as he got, and I was often caught in the crossfire.

Ron talked freely with me about his hometown in Iowa, the elderly mother he visited on weekends, the antics of his little dog, and the urgent matters dealt with in the most recent episode of 60 Minutes. Yet only once did Ron ever mention how he happened to be so tall. He said he had been of slightly below normal height until early adolescence when a pituitary tumor caused him to shoot up abruptly. At fifteen, when he was seven feet tall, the tumor was removed. Afterward he grew only two more inches, but the rapid growth left a legacy of physical ailments: a weakened heart, shortness of breath, and habitual leg cramps. His voice remained that of an adolescent.

I sometimes thought of going to him in the night. I could see myself lying in his long, cool crypt of a bed, my back to his chest. Embraced by his long arms, I would be the beetle clutched by the praying mantis. I, in turn, would clutch the little dog’s scratchy hide to my own chest, and the three of us would find our dreams flowing together seamlessly.

The boss called the proofreaders into his office one day. I fleetingly wondered if we were going to get a raise, but the boss’s voice was stern as he gave Ron a proof to pass around. I recognized it as part of an important job we had recently done. In 36-point type the top line read, “Let’s Get Aquainted.” I swallowed uncomfortably as I beheld the proofreader’s nightmare, a major typo that had slipped through. Acquainted was missing the “c.”

The error, the boss informed us, was caught by a pressman just as 500,000 copies were ready to be printed for a regional marketing campaign. “Now, pressmen don’t get paid to proofread,” he lectured. “You guys get paid to proofread.” The proof was uninitialed, so there was no way to be certain who had let the error pass, yet when I looked carefully I saw the fine indentations left by Ron’s knitting needle. I said nothing at the time, but later told one of the other proofreaders. That’s how word of what I had seen got back to Ron. He gave me the cold shoulder all that week.

Gradually, as the weeks passed, I began to find more things about Ron that were irritating. They went beyond the dirty Kleenexes stashed in his bottom drawer and the freshly-brushed Hush Puppies. The precise way he aligned everything on the top of his desk got on my nerves. And I couldn’t stand the lecherous, throaty chuckle he used when the back room guys told a raunchy joke, or the way he sucked his teeth after lunch. Our conversations dwindled and I let him fetch his own coffee.

Christmas was coming and Ron was scribbling furiously during his breaks. Every year his sharp eye picked up on the vulnerabilities and shortcomings of his coworkers and he used this material to weave the poem he traditionally read at the Christmas party. Whenever anyone approached, he slid a blank sheet over the top to cover what he was writing. I wondered what he would say about me.

The Christmas party was a blast. The lower echelon proofreaders worked up a skit with main characters called Deleta Comma and Dash Ampersand, pardonable names only someone in the typesetting business could find amusing. After dinner we presented the boss with a gaudy green polyester jacket from Goodwill. He loved gags and was modeling the jacket to the accompaniment of our hoots and whistles when we gave him his real gift, an expensive navy blue blazer we’d each coughed up twenty bucks for.

And then it was time for the poem. As I watched Ron struggle to the podium, crippled by a leg cramp, I felt that tug of affection for him again. And when his voice broke during the first few words of the poem and he had to start over, tears pricked my eyes. But then he got rolling and before long Ron had eviscerated each and every one of us with his searing observations. In the way of all roasts, it was intended to be humorous, yet a slight air of maliciousness lingered in the air afterwards. Even the boss was not exempt because there was a reference to his three-martini lunches and afternoon naps on the sofa in his office.

I laughed right along with everyone else when Ron referred to me an “old-age, wino hippie,” rhyming hippie with his description of the cameraman’s accent being “right out of Mississippi” in the next verse. Obviously I didn’t expect a discreetly-worded little love note hidden within the lines of the Christmas poem, yet I felt my cheeks burn as I heard those words spoken by a man with whom I had been so gentle, a man with whom I had contemplated… well, (blush!) greater intimacy.

After the party I went home with the cameraman, whose accent sounded kind of cute to me. As we shared a beer on the sofa in his apartment, he told me he thought I got off light. He was a cameraman, not a proofreader, so he did not say “lightly,” and under the circumstances, I did not correct him. After all, he reminded me, I had often mentioned a fondness for zinfandel and my wardrobe did tend toward the Bohemian. His eyes panned downward to take in the gypsy-like outfit I was wearing. I had to agree. But “old-age”? That cut to the quick; I was only 31 at the time. Ron was 27.

I sometimes thought of going to him in the night. But after that, I never did.

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Last year Mary Wuerth won first place in Toasted Cheese‘s A Midsummer Tale Contest, and in 2007 she won second place in the same contest. The Oregon coast is presently her home. Email: Geraniumgirl[at]aol.com

Red Tide

Fiction
J.S. Sollazzo


Dead Fish on Beach after Red Tide (concentration of algae that's toxic to fish)
Photo Credit: Judy Baxter

It was the worst red tide in memory. More dead fish piled on the beach with every roll of the waves. The cleanup crews were no match and had long since given up. Even the vultures and rats and maggots couldn’t eat fast enough; the smell of rot and death was as thick as mud in the air.

The people who study such things talked of bacterial blooms and irregular tides and global warming. They said that the first big storm of the year would wash it all away. Then the gulls and pelicans and other seabirds began dying, falling out of the sky like kites on a windless day. Their carcasses rotted on the beach with the fish that had poisoned them and the stench became unbearable. The retirees and lawyers and doctors evacuated their condos and expensive homes, the hotels and bars and gift shops closed; the towns along the coast were as deserted as on the eve of a hurricane.

Darryl Biggs was affected by none of these things. He lived far from the beach, in a rusty single-wide trailer on the outskirts of an ugly little town tucked between interstate highways and flat pastures dotted with cows. He worked his meaningless job and came home every evening to his rotund, agoraphobic wife. Angie spent her days inside, her fat ass nestled in the deep depression it had made in the couch, watching television and eating foods that came in plastic wrappers. She wore billowing housedresses stained with condiments and her thin brown hair was so greasy it looked wet. The house was littered with unwashed clothes and grease-stained takeout boxes and smelled of sweat and dust and spoilage and every time Darryl walked through the door he wondered why he bothered.

When he was a boy, Darryl had imagined a different life for himself. He dreamed of going to college and getting a real job in a big, important city, a job requiring a suit and tie and a black briefcase and rides on subway trains and elevators. He dreamed of a pretty blond wife and cute blond kids and a big brick house in a neighborhood peopled with other perfect families, the smells of fresh-cut grass and barbecue grills filling the air.

But dreams died quickly in the trailer park next to the landfill where he grew up. He got Angie pregnant before he finished his junior year of high school, quit for a job bagging groceries at Winn Dixie (a job he still had), and married her only a few days before his pink little son came screaming into the world. When Darryl held his boy for the first time he felt so much love inside him that he thought he might burst like an over-inflated balloon. His dreams became important again and he promised his son that he would one day make them real.

It was a promise he never kept. The boy died in his crib just short of his first birthday, simply stopped breathing sometime during the night, as if he saw the white-trash world he was born into and decided he wanted no part of it.

After that, Darryl’s life became only something to endure, his sole purpose to keep the memory of his boy alive inside him.

Darryl learned about the red tide from CNN. His wife watched obsessively, mumbling things about Revelations and the coming Apocalypse as the screen showed a hot blue sky above a calm blue sea and a shore littered with dead things. To Darryl it looked peaceful, the beach emptied of tourists and the roads deserted. Somewhere between his first and second six-pack he decided it would be a good time to visit.

The smell hit him as soon as he crossed the bridge from the mainland, like a punch in the gut. It sucked the oxygen from the air and settled like phlegm in the back of his throat, making it itch and burn like he had swallowed a mouthful of ants. He wondered if he had made a mistake. Then he saw the Gulf glittering like a galaxy of stars between the condominiums and hotels crowding the beach, reflecting a big yellow sun hanging high in a bottomless blue sky and for the first time in a long time, he smiled.

It was even quieter than he had imagined. The road snaking along the beach, usually clogged with cars, belonged only to him. No police cars, no television news vans, not even a single stubborn tourist or drunken beach bum. He had his choice of the metered spaces in the public parking lots. He found one close to the water and sat in his car, smoking cigarettes and gazing at the view. Even though the place where the waves met the shore was littered with myriad species of fish and fowl in various stages of decomposition, it was beautiful. After awhile, even the smell began to dissipate, if only because he had grown used to it.

He thought about his boy. There were awful times, usually while sitting with Angie while she laughed at her sitcoms, when he couldn’t remember the details of his son’s face. His red lips and gray eyes and the topography of his fragile, fuzz-covered skull turned slippery and furtive, like a nocturnal, elusive animal. Sometimes it would take him hours to catch the memories, to hold onto them long enough to remember every tiny detail of his little boy’s beautiful face.

But today his son was so clear in his mind that Darryl could feel him there, like he was holding him in his arms. It was a wonderful feeling but also a sad one. He missed his boy terribly.

Their son had been dead almost as long as he had been alive and Darryl had never seen his wife cry for him. Unlike Darryl, Angie had chosen to pretend their son had never existed. Instead of remembering, she tried to forget, drowning herself in her television shows and her Bible and her fast food binges and Darryl hated her for it, hated her more each day. It grew like kudzu inside him and when it finally invaded the place where he kept the memories of his boy he knew there was only one way to make it stop.

After one more cigarette, he pulled himself out of his car and opened the trunk.

He wife was in there, wrapped in a green tarp that was once part of a tent he had never used for camping. There was a single, unimpressive spot of blood showing in the place where her head was wrapped, the only reminder of the damage caused by the beer bottle he had broken over it the night before.

After taking a look to make sure he was still alone, he yanked Angie out of the trunk and dragged her towards the beach. She was a very heavy woman but Darryl was strong and he pulled her slowly but inexorably across the warm sand.

He was sweating when he reached the shore and the waves felt cool where they lapped at his feet and ankles. He unwrapped his wife quickly. She was naked, her skin as pale as the underbellies of the fish floating around him and the fat bulging under her skin reminding him of a beached whale, just as it had last night when the idea had occurred to him.

He looked back only once on his way back to the car and his wife was already invisible, lost among the other dead things rotting in the sun.

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Joseph Sollazzo is a retired police officer who splits his time between the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina and the beaches of Tampa, Florida. He has had stories published or forthcoming in Story Teller, Mud Rock, Eyes, Nth Zine, Short Stories Bimonthly and The Circle Magazine. His short story “Doorbell” was nominated for the 2005 Pushcart Prize. In between short stories, he has been painfully, inexorably working on a novel that he hopes to finish by the end of the year. Email: jssollazzo[at]gmail.com

Safety Measures

Fiction
Sarah Clayville


Finished Carport to Garage Conversion, VA, MD
Photo Credit: Summit Design Remodeling

Maya refused to set foot inside the house.

“You’re being ridiculous, Ed cajoled, stroking the back of his wife’s hand as they sat in the driveway by the For Sale sign, the blue SUV idling. “It’s ideal.”

“It’s staring us right in the face,” she said, her voice rising with each syllable. “No garage.” Her eyes stayed transfixed on the small white structure ahead, a renovated carport.

“Well, I should at least let the Realtor know we’re passing on the walk-through.”

Ed gently shut the auto’s door so Maya didn’t think he was cross with her. It was far too great a risk to take. Maya, after all, was his angel. He’d be a maniac to disrupt their ideal balance of a relationship.

“One minute, love,” Ed called from the front door of the sprawling ranch house, but Maya was preoccupied picking at spots of nail polish on her cuticles. Maya defined herself by her sparkling, perfectly-maintained ruby nails. She often clicked them together, and hearing the sound made Ed feel like he was home.

The front door, newly painted Belgian beige (a favorite of Ed’s) was adorned with streamers. The color of Deb the Realtor’s business cards cleverly cut into the shapes of starter homes. And magnets, she had magnets, one posted on Maya and Ed’s apartment fridge. Deb the Realtor promised dream houses but had yet to find one for Maya minus a garage.

“Ed, you made it,” Deb drawled, aggressively grabbing his shoulders and leaving a small cherry blotch on his cheek, one he immediately erased with his palm. Maya pretended to never be jealous, but he knew, or at least imagined, better.

“Deb,” he half-spoke, half-sighed. “We told you no garage. Maya had a bad experience with a garage. It’s a deal breaker. You wouldn’t understand.”

Debbie leaned to the right and caught a glimpse of Maya out of the expansive bay window in the living room. Twenty-eight panes of glass, all displaying Maya’s obvious displeasure.

“Ed. Let’s be realistic,” she said. Her voice rolled along slowly, deep and comforting. Ed noticed her bare nails cut short, just grazing the tips of her finger tops. Otherwise it appeared makeup was everywhere, including the edges of her bleach-stained teeth.

“No nice houses are without a garage. It’s like a cake with no icing. Now, who’d order that?” As she spoke, she navigated Ed through the living room into a spacious dining room the color of the sea. A pewter chandelier hung in the center, begging a dark mahogany table to feed people beneath. Ed lost sight of the bay window, drawn in by Deb’s enthusiasm and the lingering promise of the magnet.

“This will sell the house,” Deb motioned to the basement door. “You’d be a fool not to see this.”

In an instant Deb vanished through a small oak door at the end of the kitchen. Ed loved to cook and couldn’t ignore the brass pot rack hanging from the ceiling. Or the magnetic knife rack. He imagined his modest set liberated from the standard wood block at home. The knife tips were actually bent and chipped from overuse. He’d be forced to buy new ones if they bought this house.

“Come on, slow poke,” Deb hollered, her voice echoing up through various grates in the house.

Ed’s pocket vibrated. He knew Maya was calling him or texting. She must have finished her nails and wanted to leave. Deb’s voice beckoned, and Ed silenced the phone.

“Unreal.” Ed braced himself against a shaky wooden rail leading him down the narrow stairway. “Unreal.”

Deb stood in the middle of a master game room. She rested her curved hips against a professional pool table, the felt freshly edged. The corners, smooth carved wood, held playful indents. Dozens of professionals or giddy amateurs had left their marks. Deb’s shoes, black slip-away pumps, rested at the entrance to the basement. Her toes, long and wispy like a baby’s fingers, dug into the deep blue carpet. Ed remembered this sort of shag from his grandfather’s study. No one should ever wear shoes on it, and he found himself slipping off his own loafers, a bit ashamed of the hole in his left heel.

“There’s more.” Deb had mastered the art of buyer seduction. Ed let his phone continue to vibrate and followed her deeper into the basement. “The owner left it all. He’s moved past it. Three kids. A partnership. Now tell me you and Maya couldn’t start the most fun life here.”

Ed coveted the pool table, more so than the house. The basement room painted a fantasy.

“The garage is a deal breaker.” He fiddled with his wedding ring and ignored the other gaming tables. The dartboard and the strange door at the end of the basement.

“Bomb shelter,” Deb whispered before Ed could voice more concerns or tell the siren Realtor that his wife had seen her brother hanging in a garage, surrounded by poisonous fumes, two methods to guarantee one distinct outcome.

“A bomb shelter. Can I see it?” Ed felt eleven again, clothed in sneakers and sloppy jeans, sipping beer in a neighbor’s mother’s walk-in closet. “Is it safe?”

“Are you kidding?” Deb winked, a spider set of eyelashes fanning themselves. “Take a look.”

She flipped a switch along a concrete wall and Ed crept inside, unsure what a proper bomb shelter ought to look like. He felt transported to the fifties, faced with a barebones wooden bed with rope supports, a tiny metal stool and mystery canisters lining the wall.

“Now you could turn this into a wine cellar. Or a pot den,” Deb attempted to joke. “This space is reserved for good times. The whole basement is, really. Ed, when’s the last time you had fun?”

“Can I have a minute alone?” Ed tried to remain loyal to the cause, the mission.

“Sure, hon.”

Ed texted Maya.

This is our dream house, he wrote. I am claiming it for us. In the cool bomb shelter he radiated authority.

He knelt down and sat on the bed, pretending there were imaginary enemies outside, not his wife.

“I’d buy this house for my husband, if I had one,” Deb hollered from the rest of the basement. Ed heard a beer bottle uncap, and he stayed hidden in the shelter, waiting for a return text. He felt firmly trapped between Deb’s rabid yes and Maya’s equally potent no.

In one final act of desperation, he shot off a text.

We’ll rip down the garage. It’s gone.

Seconds later, both the basement dwellers heard the doorbell followed by several insistent barrages of knocks at the front door. Ed stayed frozen in the shelter. Deb slipped on her shoes and traipsed upstairs, greeting his wife with the same dogged enthusiasm she’d met all interested parties. Ed felt the old wooden bed creak beneath him as he shifted while the two pairs of footsteps danced above him, one set decidedly Maya. She walked heavily, in a determined fashion because she always knew exactly where she was going. Ed tended to shuffle, never quickly enough to keep up with her pace.

“Ed,” her voice ricocheted off of every object in the basement. “Ed, where are you?”

He paused, quickly glancing around, memorizing the details in case he wasn’t allowed back. There were several nails driven into the concrete. Someone had either hung pictures and taken them away or intended to make the space home.

“What are you doing in here by yourself?” Maya refused to sit on the old bed. “I can certainly see why you want the house.”

“It’s not just the basement. The price. The location. We’ve been looking for seven months. Isn’t there any way you’d consider?” Ed wanted to win this. He’d settled in his mind on the house.

“You know how I feel. You’re being insensitive.” Maya backed out of the bomb shelter, reluctantly followed by Ed.

“It was horrid, the man hanging there, purple as a blueberry and all that car exhaust. I’m lucky I didn’t die just opening the door,” she lamented.

He worried that the fumes had deteriorated her sense of joy. “Honey, I understand.” Ed didn’t, though. “But there’s more than one way to suffocate a person.”

It was the boldest statement he’d made in their relationship, and as soon as the words sputtered out, Ed missed the safety of the shelter. To imply that she was smothering him couldn’t be a bigger bomb.

Maya paused, the ruby nails frozen at her chest, roughly located above her heart.

“Let’s get it,” she broke the silence with a surprise. “If you mean it about the wrecking crew and the garage.”

“Of course I meant it. We’ll have them here the day we close.” Ed lunged at her, forgetting Deb standing at the foot of the stairs. “Thank you for compromising.” Stiff in his arms, Ed assumed it was rough if not painful for Maya to come to terms with her fear and surrender her exception. Over the next several weeks he found himself holding her more often, working to release the stiffness from her limbs. She packed the apartment silently most nights, letting Ed decide which items should be grouped together. He didn’t understand Maya’s change in demeanor but appreciated it. For the first time in years, he wasn’t holding on to her by a thread.

“I’ll meet you there,” Ed told her closing day.

“With the crew?” she asked expectantly.

“With the crew,” he assured her, brushing her ear with his lips as he headed to work, elated. Ed had visited the house a few times, lingering in the basement where he envisioned future gatherings with friends, playful nights with his wife, even tournaments with his children. The four boys he confidently saw in his future. The house had given Ed this, a taste of certainty. He’d even hung in the bomb shelter a small photo from the cruise he and Maya took to the Bahamas despite his interest in Alaska and chillier environments.

As luck would have it work was ravenous on closing day. Ungrateful clients ate up three-and-a-half hours of his time. Although the paperwork had already been signed he missed the satisfaction of the crew gutting the garage for Maya. A null gift, a gift removing something amused Ed.

We’ll start without you, Maya texted. Big exclamation points. An upbeat tone if tones could be expressed on a digital screen.

Ed cruised down 11-15 towards the new home, at least new to them. Apartment living had been too tight and now both of them could spread out. He pulled up at sunset, confused that he couldn’t see it through what still remained a solid, sturdy garage. There was, in fact, a dumpster full of debris. A gnawing barb rumbled around in his stomach as he left his car. Blue. Blue hair spiked up from over the edge of the dumpster. Blue shag carpet to be more precise. Ed staggered, reaching out to the edge of the dumpster where there stood a piece of knotted wood, a corner to a pool table ripped off of its body. The rest of the basement was in the dumpster, too. Even the bomb shelter bed, an antique in its own right, lay mangled. And on top, like a nasty bow, sat the small framed picture once hanging.

“Imagine that,” Ed mentioned to no one in particular as Maya flipped on the lights inside his once dream house.

She had actually listened to him for the first time in their relationship. After all, there certainly was more than one way to suffocate a man.

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Sarah Clayville’s work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Small Spiral Notebook, and Moondance. She is currently an English teacher, mother, and at odd hours of the morning or late at night, a writer. Email: sarah.clayville[at]gmail.com

Posthumous

Fiction
Charlie Brooks


prairie gothic
Photo Credit: Kristin Marie Enns-Kavanagh

I find myself trapped in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Try to get away from the wascally wabbit and he always pops up right behind you.

I run up the stairs to my apartment, slam the door, and slide the deadbolt into place. On cue, I hear her voice behind me, calm and sweet while I’m red-faced and out of breath.

“Hello, Joe.”

It’s Eddie, actually, but I won’t let that ruin the joke for her. I turn around and put my back to the door. She shakes her head slightly, apparently bored with our game but amused to see the effort I’ve put into it. She has a round face that’s just a breath away from being considered chubby and long brown hair. Her black business suit is contrasted by her pair of white jogging sneakers—apparently she opts for comfort rather than professionalism when it comes to footwear.

Oh yeah… she’s also completely transparent. Ghosts tend to be that way.

I shrug my shoulders, cornered in my lair. “What’s up, doc?”

“I’m not a doctor.”

And here I thought she had a sense of humor.

“My name’s not Joe,” I counter.

She sighs, or tries to. Except for speech, which most people can’t imagine being without, it’s hard to make noise without lungs to do so. “We’ve got some talking to do, then.”

I nod. “I guess we do.”

*

I asked her out for drinks half an hour ago. “Not in this lifetime,” she said as she hustled toward her car. It made sense for her to see me as a threat. After all, how many complete strangers ask a woman out on a date after bumping into them in a mall’s parking garage? The ones with criminal records don’t count.

Then her car blew up. That was the first indication that our relationship wasn’t going to work out.

*

She floats about my apartment, looking at the pictures on my wall. Theodore Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, the 1986 New York Giants defensive squad—all people who accomplished something with their lives while I went through the motions. Then she reaches the closed door to my bedroom and pokes a hand through it experimentally. A smile crosses her lips as she realizes that, for her at least, solid walls do not a prison make.

“Don’t go in there, please,” I say, just before she pokes her head through the door and checks out all of my secrets.

“Why not? Do you keep fresh corpses in there or something?”

“We just met. A gentleman doesn’t bring a woman into the bedroom until at least the third date.”

She turns away from the door and drifts back toward me. “Dating etiquette? After you practically accosted me in the parking garage?”

“I only asked you out to drinks. And, if you had come with me, you might not have wound up on fire.”

I gesture toward the table and set a mug of green tea down for her.

She looks at the cup and frowns, not amused. “Are you trying to mock me or something?”

“I thought you might want at least the trappings of humanity around you,” I reply, taking my own seat across from her. “Having a cup of tea nearby seems to make everybody feel a little better.”

“I just got blown up. Having tea I can’t drink isn’t any comfort.”

“Fair enough.” I pick up the cup and take a sip. “What would comfort you?”

“Answers.”

“To what questions?”

“For starters, how is it that you can see people like me?”

“Practice. I’ve done a lot of looking.”

“Can you see other ghosts, too?”

“Sometimes.”

“What do you mean sometimes?”

“I can see people who have certain traits.”

“What kind of traits?”

“The type of person who sings in front of her bathroom mirror because she’s afraid to do it in front of an audience.” I smile as her eyes go wide, my conjecture hitting its mark. “Or the type of woman who for reasons I still don’t understand is completely obsessed with Bugs Bunny cartoons.”

“Have you been stalking me or something?”

“I just know your type when I see them.”

“‘My type’ seems like a pretty specific subset.”

“It’s big enough to draw charming phantoms like yourself.”

“Is that why you asked me out? You saw something about my aura or something?”

“No.”

I stand up, walk over to the far wall, and open up a cardboard box. “I’ve got some old cartoons on tape if you want to watch them.”

“You like them, too?”

“Not at all. I think they’re the dumbest things I’ve ever seen. But for some reason, ghouls like you can’t seem to get enough of them.”

She chuckles and floats over to the box. I smile at the sound of her slight laughter.

“For your information. I like them because they’re always familiar, but always different. The running gags and the jokes stay the same from decade to decade, but there’s always a twist that makes them unique. Does that help you understand?”

“I understand; I just don’t see the appeal in it. Do you want to watch them or not?”

She shakes her head and drifts away from me. “Do you really expect me to spend my afterlife floating around and watching seven-minute shorts for all eternity?”

I shuffle back to the table and pick up the teacup again. “Not exactly. Our speaking is a limited time only deal. You’ll start fading away as you get further from your death.”

Her eyes expand and the corners of her mouth twitch downward. Even as a phantasm, she seems to need to use her face to express herself. “Fade away? As in oblivion?”

“I can’t tell you for sure what happens after that.”

“So…” Her voice squeaks, and she makes a failed attempt at clearing her throat. “So how long do I have?”

I check my watch, then squint out my dirty window as the setting sun burns its colors across the smog-filled sky. “Two hours, maybe three.”

“Damn.”

I finish the tea in one gulp, burning my throat a little as it goes down. “Yeah. I know.”

*

I stared at the green stripes on my sneakers as I heard the engine of her car kick on. Something sat in my stomach, heavy and uncomfortable like I had just swallowed a brick. I just stood there, about thirty feet from her like a dejected puppy—like maybe she would turn around and talk to me if I looked sad enough. I don’t know if I knew something bad would happen until I heard the mechanical wheeze of her engine when she tried to back up. My head snapped up, eyes wide as I started to understand what was about to happen.

The car didn’t go up like a pyrotechnics display as action movies had taught me. Instead it fired off a chain of explosions. The first boom came from her engine, which then touched off more, smaller bursts of fire. Only when the sparks hit the fuel tank did the car really burst into flames. She had the vehicle in reverse the whole time, and the car kept rolling backwards, sleepwalking through its seconds-long destruction. It hit the guard rail on the far end of the garage as it finally lit up. I didn’t see her after that thanks to the thick black smoke.

Well, I didn’t see her body, anyway.

She rose about a minute later from the wreckage, transparent and stunned. Her eyes met mine, and I immediately looked away. That was my mistake. Even the newly dead expect invisibility—it’s one of the few accurate myths about being a ghost. She saw my look of recognition as our eyes met and shouted out to me.

“Hhhhheeey!” she said in slow motion, her ghostly body adjusting to the lack of a physical way of making noise.

I turned and walked away. When I got to the exit of the garage, I started jogging down the street.

“Hey!” she shouted again.

I broke into a run. I didn’t stop until I got back to my apartment.

*

“Why did you run?” she asks.

Instead of answering I play with the teacup, rolling it from one palm to another. My hands are calloused and rough, which falsely implies a harder life than I really live.

“Why?” she insists.

“I didn’t want to get into this situation. There’s not much I can do for you, Sarah.”

“That’s Tara.”

“My mistake.” Then, realizing that I haven’t given my own name, I add, “My name’s Eddie.”

She registers my name with a nod. Then her eyes—green with flecks of brown—narrow. “How did you know my name, anyway?”

I don’t point out that I actually guessed wrong, instead playing it off with a shrug of the shoulders. “I’m an investigator. I pick these things up.”

“Wait, so you’re like a private eye or something?”

“No… I’m a professional investigator. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I don’t talk to myself in a bad film noir style monologue.”

“So what’s the difference between a private eye and a professional investigator?”

“A private eye is a creation of pulp mythology. A professional investigator spends his career looking for people who ran away from home and tapping phone lines for jealous husbands going through a divorce.”

“And seeing ghosts, apparently.”

“That’s not a PI thing. That’s a… talent of mine.”

“So have you ever taken a job from a dead woman?”

“No.”

“Would you like to?”

“Ghosts don’t pay well.”

“I have a private account with my life savings in it. I’ll give you the number.”

I set the teacup down and start folding and unfolding my hands, repeating the cycle as a physical mantra. I have no mirrors in my apartment—I’ve tried my best to forget how I look. Puny, pale, and useless is all I can remember. I have never been Humphrey Bogart, willing to throw a punch in defense of a lady’s honor.

I try not to look at Tara as I think, because she’ll sway my opinion. Curvaceous, confident, and utterly wronged by circumstances beyond her control. I don’t want to go through this again. But my eyes drift back to her face, and I feel myself losing the battle.

“What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to get back at the man who killed me.”

*

She didn’t listen to a thing I said. But within the hour I’m standing on a downtown bus with a gray paperboy cap pulled close to my ears and a duffel bag that contains a change of clothes and a tire iron.

“This is stupid, isn’t it?” Tara can’t stay still. Her form wavers, growing fuzzy at the edges—a ghost’s way of fidgeting nervously.

“Relax. I’m on board with it. Just go over it one more time.”

“That bit about me performing in front of a mirror? I don’t know if you were making a lucky guess, but you were right on. I’m a nobody.” Her not-there body flickers in a spectral tremble at the confession. “I grew up with big dreams and fancy ideas of being a star, but I don’t have the courage for it. Instead I took the safe life—a low-level job where I could keep my head down, a husband who I thought I would learn to love.”

I glance at her left hand. “I didn’t notice a ring on you, even when you were alive.”

“I caught my husband at home with another woman. We’ve been separated for over a month, and I was going to clean him out in the divorce. No one else would have tried to murder me. It has to be him.” She starts to wander the bus, putting her hand through a man’s shoulder. He doesn’t even twitch. “Except for you, I can’t connect with anyone else in the world. In a couple of hours, even that will be gone. It will be like I never existed. But I still remember the smell of my burning skin, and I want someone else to feel my pain. Does that make sense?”

The bus pulls to a stop. “You don’t have to convince me,” I say. One of the other passengers gives me a strange look for talking to myself. “You want to get even. I can respect that.”

*

Everything about the neighborhood screams that we’re on the wrong track, but I do my best to tune out the logic portion of my brain. Tara’s husband has to be the murderer, because the alternative is unacceptable.

Tara’s old house is rooted firmly in the middle class, with peeling paint on the houses and faded fences separating the lots. Her husband’s car is a decade old. I don’t know how much a hitman costs, but I know someone with a salary only a bit above mine can’t afford it.

“This is a bad idea,” says Tara, maybe noticing the things I picked up on, maybe just responding to a wisp of common sense that we both lacked earlier.

“Trust me,” I say.

I take the tire iron out of my duffel bag. Then I smash the car’s front windshield.

The lights go on in the home, the noise predictably flushing my quarry out. The front door flies open and he steps out onto the stoop dressed in red pajamas that match the color of his face.

The man who emerges from behind the front door catches me a little bit by surprise. Tara’s husband stands only about five-and-a-half feet tall with a slender body and a chubby face that seems too large for the rest of him. Except for the thin layer of hair on his head, he looks like Elmer Fudd to me. I cast a sideways glance at Tara, silently admonishing her for settling for so little. Of course, my thin, pasty-skinned self isn’t exactly a prize, either.

“Joseph Carsten?” I shout, marching purposefully toward the front door.

“That’s him,” confirms Tara, drifting alongside me.

“Yeah?” he responds tentatively.

“Your wife sent me.”

“Tara hired a hitman?”

“Yeah… posthumously.”

“Posthumously?” His eyes shift from side to side, searching through the dusty dictionary of his brain for the meaning of the word. “Oh God… you mean the bitch is—”

His reaction lights up another bell in my brain. That alarm gets drowned out by the surge of adrenaline that his insult to Tara sends rushing through my body, causing me to attack before he can finish his sentence. Something more than chivalry drives me. My arms shake as more aggression flows through them than I can contain. I want to bash this man’s skull in for one reason and one reason only: Tara spent her short life with him and not me.

Unfortunately, tire irons are meant as tools, not weapons. They’re heavy, awkward, and dull. I take a batter’s stance, but my swing comes too slow. He steps forward, raising his arm and catching mine before I can land the blow. Then he punches me in the chest, knocking the wind out of me and causing me to drop my weapon.

“We made a mistake,” says Tara. “Get out of here before things get out of hand.”

I ignore her, driven forward by anger and pride. My skill, however, is lacking. As a result, the fight turns into the type of awkward slap-battle that can only come from two men who have thought about violence but never actually had to resort to it. I charge forward, knocking him against the doorframe and grabbing him by the waist. He hits me in the back until I let go and we both fall to the ground. We both roll over and kick out at each other, tangling our legs and bruising our shins. Then he remembers the tire iron. I push away from him and start to get up. He stays down and grabs the weapon.

“Look out!” warns Tara with a shout. She lunges at her husband, momentarily forgetting that she’s a ghost, and passes right through him as he swings the tire iron at my head. I feel an impact across the side of my skull, and my vision lights up with an explosion of bright colors. I stagger backwards and fall down, and when I open my eyes everything has gone blurry. Tara yells something more, but I can’t seem to hear her over the ringing in my ears.

Joseph’s face has gone white, and I guess I should be thankful that he doesn’t press the attack. Instead, realizing how close he has just come to killing me, he retreats inside to call the police. I stagger away in a half-conscious retreat, my eyes trying vainly to refocus.

As my mind recovers from its forced scrambling, I start to replay Joseph’s reaction to the news of Tara’s death in my mind. His shock could have been acting. But calling Tara a bitch at the same time… someone who wanted to pretend to be surprised wouldn’t have immediately shown some happiness in her death.

“We should get you to a hospital,” says Tara, audible to me once again.

“No. Not done. Gotta find out who did it.”

“You can barely speak coherently. You’ve probably got a bad concussion.”

“I’ll be fine. I heal fast.”

I keep moving, trying my best not to puke on my own shoes.

*

I find myself capable of walking in a straight line again as we reach a fast food restaurant a few blocks away. I make my way to the men’s restroom to splash some water on my face. Tara stops at the door. Apparently, the bathroom’s stickman sign wards her off like garlic in front of a vampire.

She’s practically a window by the time I step back out again, continuing her slow slide toward complete invisibility. She’s my own personal Frosty the Snowman, melting away before my eyes. Just like I had hoped to avoid.

“We don’t have much time, do we?” she asks, noting my frown.

“We’ve got to check out the parking garage.”

“You’re not bleeding anymore,” she says as I march out of the restaurant. “You don’t even have any bruises. How’s that possible?”

“Like I said, I heal fast.”

“No one heals that fast.”

“I do.” When I feel another question coming, I decide to cut it off with a preemptive strike. “It’s all part of the deal.”

“What deal?”

“The deal that allows me to see lovely young ladies like yourself. I made it a long, long time ago.”

“How long ago? How old are you, anyway?”

“Old.”

“Who gave you this deal?”

“Someone you’re not supposed to make deals with.”

“What did it cost?”

“Excuse me?”

“If you made a deal like that, there’s always supposed to be a price. You didn’t sell your soul or anything, did you?”

I run my tongue along the back of my teeth, making sure they’re all still there. “That’s just stories. This deal didn’t have a price mentioned.” I wave my hand in front of her nearly-invisible torso. “On the other hand… maybe I should have checked the fine print.”

“You really like being vague, don’t you?”

I take a long look at her—or, more accurately, what I can still see of her. Through her fading body, I see the imperfections of the world all the more clearly.

“No, I don’t.”

*

The garage is still cordoned off with yellow tape that I happily ignore, but the police have already combed the area through. The fact that nobody’s around speaks volumes. Car bombs hint at terrorism, which means federal investigators swarming over the scenes like black flies in the summertime. They never mean a quick investigation and an empty lot. Somewhere on some police officer’s desk, a report has already been filed that supposedly explains everything. Neither Tara nor I will ever see that report.

The pavement is scorched and melted in spots. The remainders of her car were lifted out as evidence, leaving an outline of two halves of a vehicle on the concrete. Black soot highlights the outline like an old-timey cartoon explosion.

“What are you looking for?” Tara’s voice seems small and distant now. I touch my forehead and feel sweat as I contemplate what will happen next.

“I don’t know, but I should have come here first. Always take a look at the scene of the crime… if there was a crime.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I’m not sure how to answer her, so I don’t. I get down on my hands and knees, crawling through the soot and dirt and discarded cigarettes of the garage. I can feel the curve of the pavement where the concrete was poured unevenly. I can feel something else, too: deep scratches in the floor, each the size of water drops. Then, near the front end of Tara’s last parking spot, the scratches form into a palm-sized indent, like a shallow, dried puddle. I place my hand over it and feel a tingle on my skin—a slight burning sensation like walking through acid rain.

I stand up and try to recall anything I can remember about mechanics. A car has the explosive capabilities of two sticks of dynamite. All it needs is a spark…

“Did you find something?”

No. Make it murder. I’ll bash someone’s head in right this time.

“Eddie?”

Her voice saying my name causes my head to snap up. I stare dumbfounded into the face of the transparent woman. Maybe if I don’t answer, she’ll say my name again…

“Your battery,” I say, unable to keep the secret from her.

“What?”

“Your car’s battery was damaged. It was leaking hydrogen and acid. When you turned on the engine, you sparked a small explosion. Then it touched off something else that kept the flames going until they hit your gas tank.”

She stands, dumbfounded as she continues to fade into oblivion.

“So I died… just because of some stupid freak accident?”

I should tell her the truth, or at least what is suspect to be the truth. I should tell her that it’s my fault. Instead I remain silent and nod once.

Her face contorts into a mask of pain. Even if she didn’t mean anything in life, she could have at least gone out with a bang. Instead, nobody even cared about her enough to murder her.

She can’t cry anymore, so she wails. The keen sounds like rusty nails rubbing together, magnified a million times into a banshee’s shriek by her frustration. I stumble backwards and fall into a sitting position. My eyes start watering, but I don’t ask for mercy. I let her keep going until she has nothing left.

“That’s it. That’s my life. I’m a nobody. Just a nobody! I’m a stupid little secretary who married her boss and then watched him run off with some newer, younger, stupid secretary! I can’t even get murdered right—no one would waste the energy! Nothing to nobody, nothing to nobody. No meaning in life… no meaning in death…”

She staggers now, transparent and truly lifeless. She falls down next to me and begins to fade away for good. I reach out for where I think her hand might be and squeeze emptiness. Only when she’s almost gone can I bring myself to saying the words I don’t even want to hear.

“You’re not nobody. You’re Tara. And before that, you were Sarah. And you’ve been Chandra and Alice and even one awkward time Stan. And I’ve spent every borrowed year of my life looking for you.”

Her wispy smoke-body turns its head and looks at me one last time. I make sure to stare into her eyes. I owe her that much.

“A long, long time ago, I fell in love with you just before you died. That’s when I made the deal I mentioned. I can’t die, but I’ll always be able to find you as you’re reborn again and again. Up until now, it’s always been something else that’s killed you—an illness or a thug or something else I can’t stop. I thought this time if I could get close to you quickly enough, I’d be able to protect you. But now I know what’s really happening. That bit about paying a price you brought up… nobody gets something for free, do they? Fate is a vindictive bitch who doesn’t like people messing with the order she’s set up. The explosion will get filed away as a freak accident, but it never would have happened if I had been smart enough to stay away from you.”

I watch her face as she disappears, expecting to see anger there—hatred for the pain I’ve caused her. Instead she nods in understanding. She leans forward to kiss me, but she’s gone before our lips meet. And I’m left alone again, bereft of the one who will always understand and will always forgive me.

The real reason I ran… I didn’t want to watch her fade away again.

*

I make it back to my apartment after dark and slam the door. I lean against the wall and look at my box full of old cartoons. The same vindictive running joke that will be replayed again and again with a new twist every time.

I walk to my bedroom and open up the door. Posted on the wall above my mattress is a large bulletin board filled with newspaper clippings, old photographs, and yellow sticky notes. At the top is a strip of lined paper marked with the words “Wabbit Hunting.”

Sarah: Tuberculosis. There’s a vaccine for that now.

Chandra: Lynched by racists. Next to her picture is a map of the United States with certain parts of the country crossed out in red marker, letting me know of the danger spots in case she comes back with dark skin again.

Alice: Suicide. A list of articles citing medical journals and treatments for clinical depression surround her name.

Stan: Shot in the streets by an admitted homophobe. A string on two thumbtacks leads back to the map of the United States. More areas are crossed out, this time in blue marker.

I write a new name on the board. Tara. Cause of death: me.

I don’t know how to get around that one. But I’ve got another lifetime to figure it out.

pencil

Charlie Brooks is a graduate of the Advanced Writing Program at the University of Vermont, where he worked with authors David Huddle and Philip Baruth. He has two published novels to his name, the fantasy epic Shadowslayers and the science fiction thriller Reality Check. His short story “Fantasy as you Like It” won the Chaffin Award for Fiction, and his novel Hell: A Love Story was a quarterfinalist in the Amazon.com Breakthrough Novel Awards. His most recent fiction works include “Family Reunion,” which received publication in Suspense Magazine, and “Gods and Roses,” which won Glimmer Train‘s “Best Start” contest. Email: chabrooks[at]gmail.com

The Sponge Diver

Fiction
Vanessa Blakeslee


barrel sponge kimbe bay
Photo Credit: Rob Jeff

Nearly every day for six weeks, Melissa basked in pleasure at Jono’s house. They savored gourmet cheese and crackers with Mexican beer by his pool. They kissed and tasted each other’s salty mouths. They chased one another and laughed in the sunlit water, warm as a bath. But when Jono slid his hand to caress Melissa below the waist, she entwined her fingers in his and pushed him away. There remained the problem of his deafness. Jono had lost seventy percent hearing in his left ear due to a sponge diving accident nineteen years earlier.

One late afternoon Melissa started to shove Jono’s hand away and he shoved back, planting his palm between her legs. Just an hour ago she had become annoyed when he offered to upgrade her Air France flight to business class. The company which had hired her for the translating job had paid for the round-trip coach ticket, and Jono had ignored her pleas that she didn’t find an upgrade necessary. Eventually she gave in because her arguments against the upgrade were drowned out by his reasoning—“I want you to start your training session rested, and you’ll be much more comfortable,” he insisted. And she had loved the first class flight she and Jono had recently taken to the mud spa retreat in Martinique: the champagne before take off, the fancy noise-reducing Bose headsets. “Just say thank you,” Jono always said about these perks to their falling in love, and she did.

Now they had just fallen into bed, mid-afternoon. But Melissa squirmed and said, “You’re pressing too hard.” She moved her hips as if she might succeed in bucking him off.

“Why won’t you let me touch you and make you feel good?” he asked, hand still in place.

Melissa stopped squirming. Her body stiffened and she looked away, at a mask hanging above Jono’s nightstand. The mask jeered back. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Yes, you do,” Jono said. “If you don’t love me, just say so.” He rolled away on the bed and perched on the edge as if ready to bolt.

“I do love you,” she said, scrambling to put her arms around him.

“Then why do you run away from me?” he asked.

“You’re older,” she said. “It’s intimidating.”

“Ever think how you might be intimidating?” he said. “Especially when you make me laugh and flirt like crazy one second, then shove me away the next?”

“I guess not.” she said. “I’m sorry.” A moment from long ago returned, a high school boy with dark hair somewhat like Jono who was supposed to give her a ride to the burger place where they both worked. She had stalled and invited him into her bedroom after claiming she wanted to change her shorts, the boy squeezing her ass as they hurriedly made out, the boy’s only remark afterwards, “Cocktease.”

“I’m older, but I’m not crazy,” Jono said. “You’re sure there’s nothing else on your mind?”

“I’m fine,” she said, toying with the bare chain of her necklace.

“‘Cause I can tell if something’s bothering you by your voice,” he said. “The bum ear makes the other one a super listener.”

She smiled and wrapped her arms around him, drawing him closer. “Thank you,” she said. “And I want you to touch me. All over the place.”

“What’s that?” Jono said. “Just remember which is my good ear.”

“I will,” she replied and tugged his earlobe twice.

And he reached across her knees to yank open the nightstand drawer and fish out a condom.

 

The next morning, Melissa and Jono ran out of condoms. Jono had complained that he hated using them and after making Melissa stand in the shower for a full minute, naked underneath a dollar store poncho, she assured him they could investigate other options. So as soon as they got dressed, they headed for the closest pharmacy.

Each began at the opposite end of the display case and worked toward the center. Jono plucked a box off the shelf and examined the writing on all sides. “How about this?” he asked. “It’s a sponge.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never used anything like that before.”

“Come on,” he said, tossing the box in the air and catching it. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Sticking a plug up my cooch isn’t exactly my idea of adventure,” she said.

“You just need to relax,” he said. “How about we just tuck it in the drawer when we get home, that way you can forget about it. Hindu Cowboys is playing downtown tonight, we can go out, have a good time and then bam—we’ll come home and slide that sponge in no problem.”

Trouble, trouble, she thought, staring at the sponge box and back to Jono, a shit-eating smile plastered across his face. The propaganda on the sides of the box read, “Ensures the steady flow of passion for a natural feel.” So why did nothing feel natural about this?

“I think it’s better if we stay in tonight,” she said. “I don’t want to stumble home and shove a sponge in wrong when I’m half-drunk.” She almost added with my ears ringing but stopped.

Silently they sorted through the other boxes on the rack but the other options, bullet-shaped gel inserts and an odd new condom from Japan, failed to convince Melissa of worthiness.

“No big deal,” Jono said finally, grabbing a new tri-pack of condoms off the shelf.

As they proceeded toward the check-out, a display island near the school supply section caught Melissa’s attention. A deluxe edition of Scrabble. She stroked the plastic-wrapped wooden box.

“Let’s make a deal,” Jono said. “I promise we can make dinner at home and play Scrabble afterwards, if you’ll at least come out with me for two hours.”

Melissa said nothing.

“Being in a relationship is a two-way street,” he replied. “I can’t be with someone who’s not willing to meet me on the most basic level.”

“Okay,” she said. “It’s a deal.” As soon as she said it she felt dishonest, like the deal she was making was really against herself. But how was that?

“There’s another part to the deal,” he said. “We try the sponge. Tonight. Just once.”

She grimaced when she pictured the sponge on the box, the crude insertion instructions which reminded her of drains or sealing up a manhole.

“Maybe won’t be so bad. Like my hearing aid.” He tilted his deaf ear toward her as he spoke. “I got used to wearing it.”

“Right, okay,” she said. “Go get it.”

He hurried in the back to the sex-and-pregnancy-test aisle. Just as he was about to turn the corner, Melissa said, “Hold on.” She thought she said it pretty loudly, but Jono didn’t hear her. He disappeared past the two-for-one tampon display.

 

That night Jono made good on his promise. Over grilled lamb kebobs and then the Scrabble game, he told more stories about his family and his many Greek relatives who still lived in Tarpon Springs. Hardly any of his generation had stuck around to preserve the sponge-diving tradition. Melissa begged Jono to play one more game, this time using only foreign words so she could practice her French, but he packed up the game and blew out the candle. Already it was nine-thirty. The earlier they went to the show, the sooner they could be back.

Galloping banjos pounded from the small stage as Jono led Melissa toward the bar.

“Great, huh?” Jono shouted into her face.

Melissa only ventured out to clubs for blues or jazz and at home she often put on old cabaret, but she nodded. Jono asked her what she’d like to drink. She told him a rum and Coke. His face scrunched into a mixture of surprise and dismay, but he held up his finger to indicate he’d be right back.

About ten minutes passed and Melissa wondered where Jono had gone. To her surprise, she was really getting into the music, too, and so wanted to find out more from him about the band. Then she saw him walking toward her. He held out a box of Marlboros.

“This is all they had,” he said. “Hope that’s okay.”

“What?” She shook her head.

“Thought you said you wanted to smoke.”

She shook her head again. “Rum and Coke,” she said.

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry. It’s pretty impossible for me to carry on a conversation when I go out in a noisy place like this.”

“I’ll get the drink,” she said.

But Jono flagged the bartender down.

When Melissa finally sipped her drink, she noticed it tasted strange. She took another sip before realizing that Jono had ordered her a rum and Diet Coke. Tapping on his shoulder to tell him didn’t do a thing to grab his attention though, so Melissa hung back. Jono’s head bobbed and shoulders rocked to the tunes. Between the increasing bodies packing in, the smoke and Jono’s towering frame in front of her, Melissa couldn’t even get a decent view of the band. In an effort to show patience, she forced down a quarter of her drink (she loathed diet) before she got across to Jono that she wanted to go. Now.

On the ride home Jono rattled off nonstop about the band, Hindu Cowboys. Melissa remained silent. Why couldn’t she get over a simple handicap and accept that Jono was a little different? He even encouraged her obsession with demystifying French culture, a fascination which previous boyfriends had either deemed too perplexing, tried to ignore, or both. With these past dating partners and lovers she had more often than not begged, even bribed, to see a French movie at the local art house cinema together or dine at the only French restaurant in town, Chez Vincent (the reluctant partner would undoubtedly pronounce “chez” like “fez”). But Jono enjoyed foreign films in general and spoke enough French to use liaisons in ordering off a menu.

They arrived at Jono’s house. Melissa traipsed behind Jono’s lumbering, fast pace (he kind of had a hunch to his back, she noted) and once inside he dragged her into the bedroom. He pressed her close and kissed her. For a few minutes neither of them said anything.

“We could have stayed a little longer,” he said. “But now that we’re back, we have plenty of time to figure things out.”

“Let’s not talk anymore,” Melissa said. “Where’s the sponge?”

The sponge posed no problems that night, to Melissa’s relief. She and Jono joked about it, which lightened the mood. Still, she grew anxious about leaving such an odd-looking man-made object in her body for too long—the sponge resembled a miniature inflatable raft. Since the directions said she could remove it six hours after having sex, she rolled out of bed in the morning and headed for the bathroom.

But she ran into one problem after another in her attempts to persuade the sponge out. First she couldn’t find the string. She tried to hook the edge of the device with her finger; the sponge turned like a globe on its axis but refused to move downward. After varying attempts of squatting, breathing, squeezing different muscle groups and rereading the microscopic instructions, Melissa burst out of the bathroom and shook Jono awake.

“You have to help me,” she said and explained to him in detail the situation.

He rolled over and hugged the pillow. “Nope,” he said, voice muffled underneath the quilts. “I’m not pulling that thing out.”

“What?” she said. “The only reason I’m in this position is because of you!”

“You just need to relax more. Why do you want to take it out now anyway?” He lifted his head and spoke with a grin. “Maybe I want to have sex again.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said.

“You’ll get it out,” Jono replied. “Come back to bed, will you?”

Melissa ducked into the bathroom and sat naked on the toilet. Why, just now, did he act like he wasn’t concerned in the least? She poked the sealed sponges remaining in the box and thought his refusal funny and irritating, the irony that Jono had once gone sponge diving and lost his hearing, but he was now unwilling to help her with a different type of sponge. What kind of guy treated his new girlfriend like that, especially a smart, sexy, twenty years younger girlfriend he should consider himself lucky to catch? A dick, that’s what kind.

She remained there a few minutes, her head on her palm like the Rodin sculpture featured in her French grammar book. So what if Jono wasn’t the real problem—maybe the problem was her. Hadn’t she always savored Degas’s ballerinas and skipped over Picasso’s blue period because she preferred ease to noise? And her life was smattered with dead spots that she had chosen to leave empty when they might have brimmed over with laughter and love.

She threw the box of sponges, clothes and belongings in her overnight bag, dressed, and left without saying goodbye.

 

By that evening, much had changed.

She had arrived home from Jono’s house to spend another two hours bending, probing, and cursing the sponge, wedged tight as a cork. Since it was the weekend, she would have to wait until Monday morning to call her doctor and make an appointment. Jono called every hour that afternoon to ask about the outcome of the lodged sponge. He pleaded for her to come over, and he would try his best to help her get the sponge out. “I was just having some fun with you,” he said. “I didn’t realize you were so freaked out, honestly.”

But when Jono answered the door, he waved her inside with a big smile and turned down the music blasting on the surround sound speakers. Then he hugged her to his chest and apologized. He gave her a present of designer jeans, a silk blouse and a miniature stuffed llama made from real fur which made her laugh.

“That’s to get you to relax before the procedure,” he said. “I figured out how to do this.”

And the sponge popped out. After much laughter and forgetting, Melissa ended up spending the night.

 

The following Saturday, Melissa and Jono lounged poolside at his house. They sat at opposite sides of the patio, each fiddling with an individual laptop. Since she had the trip booked to visit the south of France, the program on Melissa’s laptop crooned out simple French phrases, a pronunciation exercise which recorded and rated her replies.

Jono jumped up and paced. “Let’s go to a show or something,” he said. “Maybe I should make a few phone calls, find out what bands are playing.”

“A band, like what we did last week?” Melissa asked. “Isn’t that bad for your hearing?”

Jono didn’t answer. Melissa shouted a few times and finally had to reach up and grab his arm to get his attention.

“I’ll just wear my hearing aid,” he said. “I thought you said you like to go to concerts.”

“I do,” she said, squelching the image of them arm-in-arm in a packed bar, Jono’s hearing aid sticking out for the world to see. She repeated the phrases after the bewitching female voice strangely emitted from the laptop, “Where is the cat? Ou est le chat?

“Or a play,” Jono suggested. “To Kill a Mockingbird is playing. Eight o’clock.”

“The cat is on the table,” said the laptop.

“I don’t know if I want to see that,” she said. “Could we maybe squeeze in a Scrabble game before we go?” To the recording she answered, “Le chat est sur le table.

“If you’d rather stay in, that’s fine,” he said. “But I hope you’re better at French than this, right?” He took the seat nearby and dragged her onto his lap, folding up her laptop with his other hand. Mid-sentence, the lilting French interrogation cut off.

“I’m just brushing up,” she said quickly. He started kissing her neck but she pulled back. “I like going out,” she said. “Only I like staying home even more. Isn’t this nice?”

“Are you afraid of me or something?” Jono asked. “Sometimes you act— repulsed.”

Melissa let out a nervous laugh. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Jono shoved her off his lap. “You sure? Look at me.”

She scooted back onto the chaise lounge and leaned over her own computer, opening its face. “No, I’m not going to.” When he reached for her chin to jerk it towards him, she stiffened. “This is stupid, you can’t make me”—and he abruptly got up.

“I want you to leave,” he said. “Right now. And don’t bother to call or stop by.” He roamed around the patio with his unwieldy walk for a few minutes, his breaths labored and jerky.

She tried to respond, but her thoughts were jumbled. A vague whimpering protest was all that escaped her lips.

“You think I’m kidding?” he said. He was chucking her things into the straw bag she used for the pool, speaking in a rasping voice that scared her. “Your little act, I’ve got it all figured out. Even if you don’t. Now get the hell out.”

 

He trailed her as she gathered the rest of her stuff, sullenly climbed into her car. Finally he disappeared inside the house. She sat there for a minute, vents on full blast, waiting for the air to cool down as she knew it would. When she looked again, she saw him in the dim kitchen, shirtless. He had balled up his T-shirt and with his back to her, rested against the counter. Then he picked up his hearing aid, jammed it into his ear and disappeared from view. Well then, she thought, it’s done. She plugged in her iPod, turned the knob on her stereo system. An Edith Piaf song burst to life, the lamenting wail reverberating throughout the baking vehicle. Too shocked and ashamed to sob or curse she backed down the drive automatically. In the trapped heat she was unaware of anything but the singer’s crackling, yearning voice.

pencil

Vanessa Blakeslee’s work has been recognized by grants and fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Yaddo, the Ragdale Foundation and the United Arts of Central Florida, and has appeared or is forthcoming in Harpur Palate, The Bellingham Review, Green Mountains Review, and The Southern Review, among other journals. She was a finalist for the 2011 Philip Roth Residency at Bucknell University and the Sozopol Fiction Seminars. Please visit VanessaBlakeslee.com for more. Email: vblakeslee[at]gmail.com