Bounce

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


Eeyore & Tigger
Photo Credit: Brandi Korte

We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand. If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you. —Randy Pausch

In the speech usually referred to as The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch says that being a Tigger or an Eeyore is a choice, and obviously, he chose to be a Tigger. Obvious because he has a positive attitude even though, at the time he gave the lecture, he knew he had only months to live.

Eeyore and Tigger are, of course, two of Christopher Robin’s stuffed animals in the Winnie-the-Pooh books by A.A. Milne. Eeyore is the pessimistic donkey. He expects the worst. He puts a negative spin on all events. His best mood could be described as not unhappy. Tigger is the optimistic tiger (though he’s always referred to as a tigger). He expects the best. He puts a positive spin on all events. His best mood could be described as exuberant.

Tiggerish people are popularly portrayed as aggressively cheerful individuals. Eeyorish people, portrayed as cynical realists, perceive Tiggers as phony. In the Eeyore’s mind, that irritatingly upbeat Tigger at work is only fake-happy (because, according to Eeyore logic, everyone is miserable). At home, the Tigger cries herself to sleep (as all Eeyores do). In other words, Eeyores see tiggerness as being a superficial characteristic, a costume or mask the Tigger wears in public, but casts off in private. Eeyoreness, according to the Eeyore, is the real human condition. Internally, everyone is an Eeyore. The difference is that Tiggers hide their misery, while Eeyores do not.

The same is not true from a Tigger perspective. Tiggers do not visualize Eeyores as being stealth Tiggers (grumpy on the outside, gleeful on the inside). From the Tigger perspective, Eeyores are most definitely Eeyores, and Tiggers are most definitely not. Tiggers know they are Tiggers through and through. What’s on the outside is a manifestation of what’s on the inside, not a cover-up. But that is equally, if not more, problematic than being fake from the Eeyore’s position, for, in this world, anyone who truly isn’t miserable must be a shallow and unthinking person:

To live in our society sometimes feels like living under the tyranny of Happiness. Much more important, perhaps, to be engaged with life and all that life offers, to be curious about people and experiences. To feel things deeply, and not to be afraid of unhappiness, of feeling the magnitude of life. —Nicole Krauss

Krauss, I think, captures the essence of writerly feeling about the Tigger/Eeyore divide. To a writer, eeyoreness is a badge of honor. Tiggers are tyrannical bullies wielding capital-H Happiness that must be resisted at all costs. Like Eeyore, serious writers think they should carry their problems (or the problems of the world) around like a storm cloud of gloom that matches their monochromatic clothing. Angst is to be prolonged and mined for all it is worth. No self-respecting writer wants to be like Tigger, an airhead bouncing around in a zany orange and black faux-fur coat.

But is that really all there is to Tigger? I recently reread The House at Pooh Corner, and I realized it’s a misconception that because Tigger is optimistic, his mood never changes. While Tigger was bouncier than the average stuffie, he wasn’t redlining the cheerfulness at all times. He had his ups and downs, just like the others. He couldn’t find anything he liked to eat. He got stuck in a tree. Rabbit tried to lose him in the forest on purpose!

Here are some lessons I learned from Tigger:

  1. Try new things.
  2. You won’t like everything you try. (No worries. Try something else.)
  3. Eventually you will find something you like. Keep doing it.
  4. Take risks.
  5. Sometimes you will fail. (It’s ok.)
  6. Sometimes you will be scared. (That’s ok too.)
  7. Don’t dwell on your failures. Dust yourself off and move on.
  8. When you’re optimistic, someone will try to quash your enthusiasm. Pay them no mind.
  9. Be kind and helpful, even to your frenemies.
  10. Bounce. It makes you look bigger.

Turns out, being a Tigger is about much more than just blind optimism. He’s got some pretty good strategies for life or for writing. As a short person, naturally my favorite is number ten: bounce. Piglet sees Tigger as being big, although Pooh notes that Tigger really isn’t big. He just seems big because he bounces. This reminds me of how I once mentioned to a friend that I always forget how little I am until I see myself in photographs with other people. She told me I have a tall personality. Maybe what I really have is a Tigger personality.

I can’t tell you whether choosing to be a Tigger (or an Eeyore!) is right for you. But Tigger isn’t bouncy just because he literally jumps around, but also because he bounces back after hardship. Being a Tigger doesn’t mean you can’t ever be unhappy, can’t ever go through a bad time, can’t ever be depressed or angry. Of course you can. But when you’re a Tigger, these are acute feelings, ones that fade over time, as the wound heals, just as a physical trauma does. Tiggers are able to let negative emotions go when they no longer serve them, while Eeyores collect snubs, real and perceived, like medals.

If you’re a writer who’s living in an Eeyorish permafunk, ask yourself if that attitude is serving your writing or a detriment to it. Are you busy tallying up criticisms and rejections, unable to fully enjoy successes because you’re always looking ahead to the next slight? Have you become so absorbed with keeping current with publishing trends that you’ve lost the joy of writing? Maybe it’s worth thinking a little more like Tigger. You don’t have to go all in, just dip a paw. Try something new. Take a risk. Extend a white flag to that fellow writer you’re feuding with. And if you’re really feeling brave, bounce.

Go ahead. Do it now. I won’t tell. What have you got to lose? At the very least, it’ll make you appear bigger.
pencil

Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

Elysian Vestibule

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Jennifer Pantusa


Many windows
Photo Credit: Lorianne DiSabato

Marcia yawned as she stood at her cashier post by the gift store entrance.

“How wonderful to work at such a spiritual place,” gushed a Norwegian tourist.

“Awesome,” Marcia replied, as she tried to smile to make up for the traces of sarcasm that saturated her words. It is hard to sell earnestness when you really do not aspire to earnestness.

Olga (the Norwegian tourist—yes, that was really her name) politely ignored the sarcasm. Olga was a physician and secretly pitied everybody without an advanced degree, prestigious job, and blonde hair. She masked this superiority complex with exceeding friendliness and a lovely Nordic smile.

Marcia reflected on her luck. She had been trained to avoid the hot spots. In her teen years, Marcia’s great aunt had secretly been a teleporter and had disappeared into a hot spot. The rest of the family avoided the hot spots as if they were telemarketers (the hot spots not Marcia’s family).

Yet here was Marcia working at the landmark hot spot, the granddaddy of hot spots. Some savvy developers about a generation ago had found the spot and christened it the Elysian Vestibule in the hope of creating a destination for pilgrimages and tourist visits. Pagan spirituality was very big at the time. In twenty years’ time, the site had become huge.

The vestibule itself was lovely. The plain slate floor in the center was surrounded by various shades of highly-polished rock flooring. Petrified wood benches provided seating in the pseudo-forest of potted trees that surrounded the sacred tourist destination. The roof opened up to a tall skylight in the center of the rotunda. Fountains splashed down from the walls surrounding the rotunda into small koi ponds. Birds filled the air. Marcia had to admit it was lovely. Except for all the friggin’ tourists.

The developers had added the obligatory learning piece for the intellectuals who felt the need to justify their curiosity with the excuse of cultural importance. Well-meaning parents brought their children dutifully through the exhibits about the history of teleporters in the region and the world, about the dark days of their persecution at the hands of our very own now-enlightened government, about the folk history and tales of teleporter culture, and about the now famous teleporters who had broken through those stereotypes to succeed. Meanwhile the children longed to splash in the koi ponds, feed bread crumbs to the koi (or the occasional M&M causing a koi riot—hugely entertaining—but I digress), chase the birds, and run through the sacred hot spot. Yes, the hot spot was open for all, but it was not really a problem. Due to the fact that the teleporter culture had largely been exterminated, Marcia had only ever seen one person teleport: Wayne Haguebak, resident teleporter.

The coup de grâce of the developers had been to hire a real live teleporter to consult on staff. He could answer visitor questions and, twice a day, Wayne would teleport for the entertainment, enlightenment and edification of the visitors. The developers had found a golden goose. Wayne had found a headquarters for his fan club.

Wayne had written six novels milking the pain of growing up the outsider, the teleporter, the special one, the only sensitive and literate boy in his high school. Scores of adoring middle-aged women showed up at the readings that accompanied each new release. There is nothing quite so hot as a man embracing his status as a geek. He had finally cut off the embarrassing ponytail. It is harsh to say that the novels “milked” his pain. The truth is, Marcia loved his writing. It was funny. It was specific yet universal. It showed instead of told. It made her laugh and cry. All the clichés about good writing applied.

Marcia’s writing was goopy.

This train of thought was cut off by Wayne’s greeting from the door as her boss Marion swooped in to fawn all over him. Wayne winked at Marcia and then flirted with Marion until Marcia’s stomach could take no more. It seemed that the stacks of books at the rear of the store needed dusting, urgently.

“Do you have any more copies of The Viking Vestibule?” a tall blonde man asked. Another Norwegian.

“We are sold out. But I can give you a web address,” Marcia replied, wondering at the vast popularity of this insipid publication touting a connection between the hot spots and Scandinavian culture.

Marcia went to the counter to find the information card for the customer who thanked her, commented on her good fortune to work there, and left.

Wayne sauntered in and leaned on the counter. “How’s the thesis coming?”

“Tremendous! At this rate, I will have a full paragraph by next month, ” Marcia replied, surprised and gratified in spite of herself that he remembered about her graduate program.

“You know, you are the only person I know who has not asked me about teleporting.”

“I assume you get tired of talking about it.”

“I think you just don’t like me.”

“Does it matter?”

“Do you like being disliked?”

“Why, who dislikes me?” Marcia made a big show of looking around in paranoia.

Wayne laughed and looked at his watch. “Showtime!” he announced and headed out into the rotunda.

Marcia watched through the glass doors of the gift shop as she did every day. A hush fell on the room as parents settled their children. The more spiritual in the group sat cross-legged closest to the center. Wayne touched his fingertips to his temples, stepped onto the slate, and disappeared. A murmur went through the room. Marcia wondered as she always did what it must feel like to just disappear.

A small child ran into the center of the rotunda, and his embarrassed mother pulled him back. There was a rumor that a small child had run through and disappeared in the early years of the site. As fascinated as everybody was with the teleporting, most were secretly glad not to be teleporters and avoided the absolute center on the off chance that they too would disappear. Very few teleporters managed to make money off of it as Wayne had. Most just went crazy.

Reflecting on Wayne’s work, Marcia felt he gave a very unsatisfactory account of his time beyond. It sounded so lovely—mountain-top gardens and views of fjords. Why not just go there and stay? He seemed to always come back so quickly. She was dying to ask, but she did not want to be one of them… although she did not quite know why.

Wayne had disappeared for a little longer than usual today. Marion was looking around with a forced smile. There was a certain length of time that was optimum for these shows. If he returned too quickly there was no tension. If he took too long, the tension that developed started to dissipate. Dissipation was definitely the order of the day. A few people had wandered into the gift shop and gave increasingly perfunctory glances toward the rotunda as they wandered further away.

Wayne popped into view. He looked slightly shaken, or maybe Marcia was mistaken. Wayne winked at one of the more surprised-looking women who blushed obligingly. The crowd erupted in cheers. All was right in the world. The afternoon proceeded as usual. Many purchased his book. Many obtained his signature. Many purchased bits of the “sacred” granite fashioned into jewelry or bookends or tchotchkes. Little time for Marcia to work on her reading for her thesis, the real reason she had taken this mind-numbing job.

Several hours later Marcia locked up. Marion had some pressing engagement and had again left Marcia with the keys. She headed across the rotunda to the exit, but paused when she heard a sigh. There was Wayne, sitting behind some of the greenery, his back against a tree. He held his temples, but not the way he did for his performances. It looked like he was trying to hold his head on his body. He was obviously deep in thought.

“I’m forty today,” he announced.

Marcia jumped. “Happy birthday,” she said.

“Gena is leaving me.”

Marcia looked around uncomfortably. There was a bottle of Riesling at home calling her name. And she had never liked his girlfriend Gena. Marcia felt for him, she really did, but looking at those searching puppy dog eyes, it just all seemed way too messy. She liked him a lot, they joked all the time, she enjoyed taking him down a few notches, and she liked the way things were. She did not want any deep insights into his soul. The moonlight was shining through the windows above. Marcia laughed at the irony. How many women would love to be in her shoes? And then she thought she thought how bitchy it was to be unwilling to listen just because other women would want to. She put down her backpack and headed over to sit next to him.

“Why?” Marcia asked. “Why would your girlfriend want to leave you?”

“She thinks I am a pretentious has-been who flirts too much.”

“Are you?” Marcia snapped back. “Sorry, I am not good at the sympathetic ear thing.”

Wayne laughed. “Actually, I realized today that she is right. I worry more about my ego than I do about anything or anyone else.”

“Wow, that must have been some trip to the fjords today.”

Wayne looked at Marcia oddly. “Fjords?”

“You know.” Marcia gestured to the circle.

“Have you ever tried?” Wayne asked.

Marcia realized that she wanted more than anything to know. She wanted to see the fjords. She stepped into the circle. The rotunda vanished. There was no mountain-top garden. There were no fjords. She was surrounded by mirrors, mirrors that looked into her mind and soul. She saw in those mirrors all the times she had spent joking with Wayne. She shifted uncomfortably as she realized how she felt about him. She had to tell him. She took a step back and the rotunda reappeared.

Marcia was just in time to hear Wayne saying, “I am so sorry” to Gena as they embraced.

pencil

Email: jpantusa[at]tcps.k12.md.us

Things to Do Before You Die

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Michelle Orabona


Mystic Carhenge
Photo Credit: Kevin Saff

When Kaylee was diagnosed with cancer she decided she couldn’t die without seeing the World’s Largest Ball of Twine. She knew she was never going to get married or have kids or do any of the other grownup things that we all talk about doing someday. But she had enough time to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.

“It’s not really all that much ball-shaped is it?” Kaylee tilted her head as if looking at it from another angle might somehow remove some of the flatness. “I mean, the top is rather ball-like but something seems to have gone wrong with the bottom.”

We all tilted our heads like Kaylee, squinted our eyes, and moved around to look at it from a fresh perspective.

“Unless, maybe, the cancer’s already starting to mess with me. Is that a ball?”

“No, Kaylee, that is decidedly not a ball. Cylinder maybe? Sorry.”

“No, it’s all right. I haven’t really had any major disappointments in my life. Now I can check that off my list. All that’s missing now is life-shattering heartbreak and I can die happy.”

Four pairs of eyes turned to stare at her.

“What? Too soon?”

We got trashed in our hotel room on Boone’s Farm and passed out in the middle of a rerun of The Facts of Life on some nostalgia network. Jo and Blair were fighting about something and then Kaylee was shaking me awake. “Josh, Josh, oh my god, look what I found.” She was whispering with an intensity usually reserved for escaping from Nazis. “We have to go right now.” She shoved her laptop in front of me and pointed at the screen. “There, look at that. Look! Let’s go. Let’s leave a note for the others and just go.”

“They’re our friends, Kaylee, we can’t just leave them in Kansas. How are they going to get home?”

“They’ll figure something out.”

“They’ll be pissed.”

“I’m dying; they’ll forgive me.”

She wasn’t going to change her mind. She had nothing left to lose. And she was right. They’d all feel too guilty to stay mad for long.

“Fine. Leave a note.”

I drove for six hours, Kaylee snoring in the passenger seat. When we got there I pulled off onto the grass and woke Kaylee. The sun hadn’t even risen yet but there was light up ahead. Looked like a bonfire.

“Kaylee. Babe, we’re here.” She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands and stretched and twisted herself awake.

“We’re here?” Kaylee pulled herself up and looked around. There wasn’t much to see. Field. Field. Field. Field. And, off in the distance, the reason we had driven 380 miles in the middle of the night. She gasped when she saw it. “Come on! Let’s go see!”

As we walked closer, the bizarre landmark seemed to be moving. There was a large circle of cars dug into the earth and balancing on top of each other in an homage to Stonehenge, just as promised to us by Wikipedia, but inside that mammoth circle there was another circle of smaller, white stones, which seemed to be going round and round. It wasn’t until we were right up next to Carhenge that we realized the odd moving stones were actually people. We could see the white robed figures clearly now. They broke their circle and someone started singing while others moved about to the music on their own.

“Maybe we should go.”

Kaylee just shook her head and stared. “Oh my god, it comes with druids,” Kaylee whispered reverently.

As I tried to pull Kaylee back to the car a girl about our age came skipping over to us, smiling.

“Welcome! Oh, you’re just in time for the ritual! Blessed be!” She had long bright ginger-colored hair littered with wildflowers and blades of grass. “Come, join us!” She held out her hands to us. Kaylee immediately grabbed one but I wasn’t quite as eager.

“Um, yeah, we’re not um… druids. We’d just mess up your ritual. We should probably go.” I could feel Kaylee glaring at me.

“Nonsense. The solstice is for everyone. It’s about connecting with nature and the ancestors and communing with your dreams, listening to the great spirit of the goddess and letting her lead you to where you need to be. This morning the goddess led you here. It doesn’t matter what you believe. We don’t discriminate; we welcome all who long to fulfill their purpose.”

“Don’t you want to fulfill your purpose, Josh?” Kaylee and the ginger girl were both staring at me now, and two more druids were approaching.

“But, well, I mean, this isn’t an ancient and mysterious monument; it’s a bunch of cars arranged to look like one. What’s sacred about that?”

Kaylee was glaring again but the ginger girl was still smiling.

“This is America. What’s more entrenched in our collective psyche, more necessary in our lives than the automobile? That’s what brought you here today,” she continued, gesturing back at my mom’s Tahoe. “It’s what carries us through life; it’s what marks our transition from child to adult. What could possibly be more sacred in America today than our cars?”

“Avon, I see you’ve made some friends.” These druids were men, maybe in their twenties. Both had brown hair and the taller one had a goatee. “Has she been preaching about the sacred car again?”

“I think it’s beautiful.” Kaylee interjected.

“Severn, Trent, this is— oh! I didn’t ask your names!”

“I’m Kaylee and this bundle of sunshine is Josh.”

“Welcome Kaylee, Sunshine, if you’d like to join us we’re just about to welcome the sun,” the taller one, Severn, said, smiling. They were all smiling. They didn’t seem to stop.

I hadn’t smiled since Kaylee told me she had cancer. There just wasn’t anything happy or funny enough to compete with the fact that my girlfriend had an inoperable brain tumor.

“Yes, we’d love to.” Kaylee grabbed Avon and Severn’s hands and pulled them toward Carhenge. Trent waited with me, politely.

“I know it’s not for everyone but give it a try. If it’s not your thing at least you get to walk away with a story about celebrating the solstice with druids and car sculpture.”

“Better than sitting in my car I guess.”

We joined Kaylee and the other druids who were sitting in a loose circle. One druid had a guitar on his lap and was softly strumming a song I’d never heard before. A few of the druids were singing along, though they all seemed to be singing different songs and I think each was making the words up as they went along. The rest were sitting with their eyes closed silently meditating or mumbling to themselves. I sat down between Kaylee and a druid I had not yet met.

Kaylee was sitting with her legs folded up under her, smiling and swaying to the music. The sun began to rise above Carhenge and I have to admit, it was beautiful. It was probably the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen, the light prisming through the car windows and falling on us in so many colors. I was starting to get it. I was starting to feel at one with nature and whatever spirit it was that filled this place and guided us here. It was peaceful and beautiful. And then the ground began to shake and everything around us filled up with a light stronger than the sun should have been.

The wind stirred up around us violently and the druids stood up, stopped their singing and praying. Then there was a beeping sound like a large truck going in reverse. But it wasn’t a truck; it was a spaceship landing next to Carhenge.

A large set of doors opened and a group of people walked towards us. They looked human except their skin wasn’t really skin but scales. Iridescent purple scales.

“Here you have Stonehenge, the first of Moxly the Great’s pranks on undeveloped worlds. His workers arranged the stones here in under an hour and the people of this world are still trying to figure out how they got here.” The small group laughed and the tour guide smiled.

“Holy shit, are those aliens or is this cancer brain syndrome?”

“Those are aliens. Unless I caught your tumor.”

Kaylee grabbed my hand and pulled me closer to the ship and the group of intergalactic tourists. “How come we can understand them?”

“That’s just one of many questions I don’t have an answer for.” We crept closer, whispering, listening to the tour guide.

“Stonehenge has been adopted by some of the people of this planet for use in religious ceremonies and—”

“Excuse me!” Kaylee called out to the tour guide and I almost peed my pants. The entire congregation of alien visitors turned to look at us.

“I’m sorry, but this isn’t Stonehenge, it’s Carhenge. See, cars, not stones. You’re on the wrong continent.”

“I—” The tour guide started to argue and then got a good look at her surroundings. “Oh, for the love of Bob, back on the ship everyone. Go! Go!” She shooed them like sheep and they all left without a second look. The spaceship was once again hovering in the air above us and then it was gone.

The druids scattered, running to cars that were not buried in the ground.

“Did that just happen?”

Kaylee and I looked up in the empty sky and back at the field of fleeing druids. We looked at each other and started to laugh. We laughed until our lungs burned and our cheeks ached. We fell to the ground and it was a long time before we got up again.

pencil

Michelle is a cubicle drone who dreams of one day inciting rebellion and leading the other drones to freedom. Until then she writes stories and bakes cupcakes. Email: michelleorabona[at]gmail.com

Shutter Speeds

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Caitlin Wolper


sand hands
Photo Credit: Pixie Bat

From the beginning she knew she couldn’t be the same.

She had this strange habit of touching things just to make sure they were real, and even more often she would photograph them and hang them on strings from the ceiling, so wherever she walked she would bump into memories and pictures with their whispers all surrounding her. It made her feel whole and loved and transported to somewhere better. They were her landmarks, hanging around her, warming her where nothing else could. The only kind of skyscrapers that she could respect, the only landmarks that made her feel.

It took her months to find the picture she had never taken. It hung from the very top of its string, and she squinted at the barren yellow landscape. She had never been to a desert, or known someone who had, so what was this? She pulled over her black stool and clambered onto it, reaching for and removing the photograph carefully. It was definitely the desert, and it definitely was not her picture. The state she knew was buried in perpetual winter.

But she wished she was there. She knew she would enjoy the warmth.

Her fingers dipped into the picture, and suddenly she could feel the sand. She could hold the grains between her fingertips and the sun was beating down on her back and she was there. She was there. For so long she had known exactly where she was; being this lost, it was invigorating.

She ran as though she had forgotten how, gleefully stumbling over the sandy terrain, breathing in the warmth on her back. She couldn’t even say why she had felt so compelled to run, it was just a feeling, a reflex. There was something there, right where land met sky, that she had to go and see. But as she advanced, she realized that that something was approaching.

On the horizon a mass of figures staggered to their feet, swaths of red against the pale desert sky, their thin and scaly arms tensing as they noticed her. Eyes glinted black.

Suddenly she found it hard to breathe. She looked wildly for escape, but couldn’t even discern the direction she had traveled from. It was desert. It was open. There was nowhere to hide, and suddenly she missed the snowy trees of home. She began to run, knowing that it was futile, doubting that she would live.

She was only there until she looked away from the horizon.

As quickly as she had left, she was back in her cold apartment, shuddering, pulling her coat tighter around herself.

It was sleep deprivation. It was mild insanity. It was something, something she couldn’t control. It would never happen again, could never happen again. She wasn’t crazy.

But three weeks later she was crying and the photograph was on the table but it had changed. It had to be the same one. She had left it alone on the wooden table with the mug stains and uneven legs. But there it was, completely changed from before, a silhouette of the city skyline beaming in the twilight.

She knew that if she reached out she could touch it. It was so beautiful and it wasn’t home and maybe it was far enough that she’d never have to be home again. It couldn’t be dangerous. She could be careful this time.

“Carrie?”

Startled, she dropped the photograph and it fluttered to the floor.

“Adam, what are you doing here? Get out.” Carrie glared at him as he entered the room.

“Hey, hey, we just never finished talking is all.”

“Just leave me alone already. I’m not interested.”

He didn’t seem to hear her as he noticed the room that they were standing in. Impressed, eyes wide in surprise, he went to the window and took a rope of photographs into his hand, inspecting them.

“Geez, I didn’t even know you had a camera,” Adam said. “These aren’t half bad.”

She ignored him, grabbing the photos out of his hand. “Be careful, you’ll get fingerprints all over them.” She gently let go of the string after making sure all of the photos were in place.

“Okay, fine. Calm down. You act like they’re holy or something.” He turned and spotted the photograph lying face down on the floor. “Looks like you missed one.” He picked it up and flipped it over.

“Come on, Adam, leave it alone.”

“Who takes a picture of their own house and frames it? Weird.”

“Don’t—” She stopped, surprised. Quietly, she said, “That’s not a picture of my house. I’ve never taken a picture of my house. What are you looking at?”

“It’s pretty obviously your house. I mean, I’m standing right there.” He jabbed his finger at the photo and she leaned over and looked at it. “But wait. I’ve never been in this room before today. How…?”

She took the photograph from him. “You’re not looking at it right.”

“It was me in there, I know what I look like! You were there too.”

“Oh really? And what was I doing?” she asked.

He was quiet. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“Adam…”

“We should tell somebody about this.”

“What? Stop being stupid.” Her hands were shaking.

“Hey, it’s like a fortune-telling picture or something. You know how much money you can make off of it?” Adam took the picture back from her and enthusiastically waved it in the air.

“Is that all you ever think about? Money?”

“Come on, that’s harsh. This could be worth something, and we both know you could use the money. Just think about it.”

“I don’t want to sell it.”

“Why not?”

She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. “Because,” she murmured, “It’s not showing the future.”

“Then what’s it showing?”

She wouldn’t have known how to answer him before this moment, but the answer suddenly came to her. “It shows you where you want to be.”

He laughed nervously. “No, that’s crazy. You’re just messing with me, right? Are people waiting to jump out and yell ‘surprise?'”

She snorted. “You can believe that it shows the future, but not that it shows you where you’d want to go? I don’t see how one’s more viable than the other. Last week when my heater broke, it was a desert. And I went to that desert. I was there!”

“You went on a vacation to a desert?”

“No, you idiot! I touched the picture, and, I— I was there!”

“Carrie…”

“I swear! You know there’s something weird about it.”

“We should—”

“Just leave it.” She cut him off. “Leave it be. We’ll think about it tomorrow, okay?”

“Carrie?”

“Just go already. We’ll talk about it in the morning. I’m tired.”

“But—”

“In the morning. I promise.” She opened the front door and looked at him expectantly. He sighed in defeat.

“All right, all right.”

After he left, she couldn’t sleep. She took the photograph with her into bed and peered at it, waiting for its shape to change, to tell here where she would rather be. Anywhere, that’s where she would rather be. Anywhere that she could wake up in the morning and Adam wouldn’t be looking over, trying to take what was hers.

She stared, until it was too dark to even see the photograph anymore. She stared for hours, until a knock on the door roused her from her thoughts.

She held the photograph tightly as she made her way to the door. Carrie knew it was Adam, but she looked through the peephole to be sure, her stomach filling with an unmistakable sense of dread. She opened the door.

“Hi.”

“Hey. You still have the photo?”

“Wow, nice greeting,” she said.

“Don’t get all snotty. We both need the money, you know that. So you have it?”

She nodded, feeling oddly disappointed. “Right here.” She held up her hand. She wasn’t surprised when Adam took the photograph from her, but she was surprised when he chuckled.

“Nice try, Carrie. Now gimme the real one.”

“What?”

“This one’s all brown.”

“Lemme see.” She peered over at the photograph and fought the urge to smile. “It is, it’s right. It… whoever developed it didn’t wash off the chemicals well enough. The photo’s gonna be completely brown and ruined.”

“No way. You’re kidding, right?”

She shook her head, still unable to control her smile. “I’m being serious.”

“So can’t you just… wash it some more?”

“It doesn’t work like that, sorry.”

Adam groaned and put his hands on his face. “I swear, this is so my life.”

“Hey,” she nudged him, smiling now. “So you said, in that photo, you saw us standing in my house? What were we doing again?”

He blushed. “Um, well… well, you know, it was no big deal, it was just…”

She stepped closer to him.

For the second time, the photo fell to the floor.

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Caitlin Wolper is a 16-year-old junior that attends a high school in New York. Besides writing, she enjoys singing, acting, and reading in her free time. Email: caitlin.wolper[at]gmail.com

Beginners Too

Broker’s Pick
Alonzo Douglass


Cinema
Photo Credit: Marcelo Acosta

Yesterday I sat in Theater No. 1 at the Broadway Centre with my friend Darvel. This is where people in Salt Lake go to watch indie, foreign, and obscure movies. This is one of the venues for the Sundance Film Festival. This is also my childhood theater. No, not the actual one, but one that is so close in nature it always makes me feel as if I’ve gone home.

As I sat in the low-backed chair, looked at the cloth-covered shapes hanging on the walls, remembered how small screens used to be, and expected the exit sign to be lit and in my eyes for the next ninety minutes, I was at peace. I felt comfort.

I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of the one movie I saw in my hometown theater that I can still remember—Fantastic Voyage. Here Steven Boyd was strong, handsome, and fearless Grant and Raquel Welch was top-heavy, sex-bomb Cora. I was nine years old when the movie was released, and one Saturday afternoon I went to see it with all my prepubescent friends. When they left the movie, they could see Raquel’s breasts and feel her body in their minds, and they never looked at older girls the same way as they did before. I know one had impure thoughts about our friend’s mother.

I took Darvel with me to see Beginners. We are not longtime friends. I think we’ve known each other three years. Yesterday Darvel was just being nice to me. He doesn’t like what I call “highbrow” movies. He’s The-Fast-and-the-Furious type. Give him Jordana Brewster and Vin Diesel. Give him Michelle Rodriguez and Paul Walker. Dammit! Give him Raquel Welch.

When I walked out of Fantastic Voyage with my nine– and ten– and eleven-year-old friends, I didn’t imagine Raquel’s breasts and crotch, hips and legs. I didn’t imagine anything. I needed more time to find out who I was. When I did, I came to the knowledge I wanted to see Steven Boyd with his shirt off. I wanted to touch his skin. Beginners is my story. I liked Oliver and Anna. I was captivated by their romantic chase, their split up, and their reconnection. Still my story was told by Hal, Oliver’s gay father.

I love Darvel. He is everything I want. Look and you will see someone who is just shy of my height, who is slight but muscular, who has a full head of hair that looks good hanging over his collar or cut to a quarter-inch, who has absolutely no hair on his arms and legs and chest (I don’t know what it means), and who is missing his left lower canine tooth. His one defect doesn’t make him ugly. Like his strong-sounding name, it makes me love him more.

When Hal came out to Oliver, when we met his boyfriend Andy, when we saw the number of gay friends he made, and when we came to the realization his truth set him free, I sat knee-to-knee with Darvel.

“Dear, dear friend,” I said in my mind. “I am Hal. Come be my Andy.”

Then I remembered Andy is a bumbling fool. Darvel couldn’t be Andy. So, I said, “No, I’ll be Andy. You be Hal.”

Then I thought of the dog and said, “Let me be Cosmo. That way I can live with you, see you every day, and be close to you. Maybe you will let me sleep on your bed, and every night I will say, just like Cosmo did that once, ‘Are we married, yet?'”

Then I begged him to take my hand or touch my knee or, God willing, grab my chin, pull my face into his, and kiss me. The only touch I felt was my hand lightly resting on my knee.

Then I told myself what I’ve always believed. When Darvel was nine years old, he dreamed about top-heavy women like Raquel Welch. He wanted to see the older girl who lived next door naked, and he wanted to touch her. Perhaps he had impure thoughts about his best friend’s mother. He is Oliver. The person he wants is Anna.

When the movie ended, we watched the credits to the end. I hoped. Darvel fidgeted. When we stood up to leave, he said, “Let’s go get a beer.”

“Did you like the movie?” I asked.

“Well, you gotta know, it’s your kind of movie, not mine.”

“I was just wondering.”

Outside on the sidewalk, I said, “Who did you relate to the most?”

“No one.”

“Do you see yourself chasing after a girl like Anna?”

“Yeah, I could. I definitely could.”

My heart was pounding. I wanted to shout, “I love you!” This made me choke up inside, but I felt resolved.

“I’m…” I said. My throat was tight and my voice was slightly above a whisper.

After a short pause, I tried to speak again, but my vocal cords, tongue, and mouth refused to hear my commands.

“You are…?” Darvel said.

I took a full minute to find my voice. Finally, I said, “I’m Hal.”

Darvel stopped walking. I wanted to run, but I made myself stop beside him. He turned his eyes to stare at the buildings across the street, and I knew he understood me. When he took three to four steps away from me, I thought he was going to walk away and leave me and I wouldn’t see him again. Then he came to me, put his arm around my shoulders, and said, “I’m not Andy.”

His words hit me like a bullet to my chest. I was embarrassed and scared. My hope was false. Now I was vulnerable. Could he hurt me? No. Could he cause problems for me? Not many. Still I felt afraid.

“Let’s do this,” Darvel said. “We can start tonight. Let’s go find your Andy. I know where he goes Friday night, and guess what? They serve beer there.”

Once again, I loved him and wanted him.

“I would like it, if it’s okay with you,” I said, “if my Andy was like someone I know. He has a funny name. It’s Darvel.”

“Nope. Can’t be done. There is only one Darvel you will ever know.”

Darvel put more force into the hold he had on my shoulders and started pulling me down the street. I couldn’t move my feet as fast as he wanted me to. My entire body felt as heavy as the pavement I was walking on. Finding someone is hard. I was hoping Darvel was the one. He’s so perfect for me, but all he is a brother, one who at that moment was trying to get me to goosestep down the street with him. Then I thought, “Take some of this weight I’m feeling off me Darvel.” When I decided to believe he would, my steps felt lighter.

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Alonzo Douglass holds a master’s degree from Westminster College of Salt Lake in communication with an emphasis in writing. By education and from work experience, he knows how to write everything from a media release to a feasibility study. He does not know how to write fiction. However, he volunteers at Salt Lake Community College’s Community Writing Center. His job is to mentor the LGBTQ writing group. The incredible people who come to his group write fiction, and, because they do and they encourage him, he’s starting to step outside his comfort zone. Email: dw4731[at]gmail.com

Home to Her Island

Beaver’s Pick
Rich Ives


Cottonwood in the Fog
Photo Credit: John Van Atta

A woman who has been living in the cottonwood tree takes the shoe from her green window and brushes away empty cocoons and spider webs. It’s been a long time and she doesn’t know if she broke in or out. The limp no longer reminds her of anything.

Listen to the wreck feeding in the dark. You might like to think it’s only an old Edsel with a few stray heads of wheat climbing through the broken window, but it’s too late to vote against symbolism. Some things that seem accidental were just waiting but not these. All red stones must now prove their innocence.

When you have only the sky to look up to, it’s easy to feel small. It’s too easy to look at things the way something else sees them.

Ghostly widows of fog rise early from the cornrows, their pale blue tracks softening and sliding up and away, evaporating into the brightening horizon.

“The best embrace loss; the worst worship it.” That’s what the remaining landscape has been teaching so much longer than we can know.

 

Changed, utterly changed. As it would be even if no one had noticed. As it might appear to a traveler sitting in a chair, floating his thoughts on inkskin. It might bring you back on the eve of your salvation to that which you had spent your life escaping. What we’re going to learn from this is more than it could be because we’re more than is possible. We’re beyond ourselves.

 

Knock, knock.

I’m still my home.

Come back later when later is now. I’ll be there in my river, traveling isolated, traveling tall and green.

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Rich Ives has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, Seattle Arts Commission and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines for his work in poetry, fiction, editing, publishing, translation and photography. His writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Virginia Quarterly Review, Fiction Daily and many more. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander. His story collection, The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking, was one of five finalists for the 2009 Starcherone Innovative Fiction Prize. In 2010 he has been a finalist in fiction at Black Warrior Review and Mississippi Review and in poetry at Cloudbank and Mississippi Review. In 2011 he is again a finalist in poetry at Mississippi Review. The Spring 2011 Bitter Oleander contains a feature including an interview and 18 of his hybrid works. Email: ivesrich[at]yahoo.com

The Dying Season

Fiction
Cynthia J. McGroarty


And yet. And yet. This new road will one day be the old road too.
Photo Credit: harold.lloyd

I knew that day we drove out of town and headed west into Bradford County that Billy and I were going to a place we would never come back from. But in the end I was glad for it. I was ready. I wanted to go.

It was mid-October. A crisp blue sky was stretching over the hills that ringed the valley as we drove down the interstate. Billy had one freckled hand on the wheel and the other poised by the partially open window with a cigarette pinched between his fingers. Every once in a while he flicked some ash out the window, but he never took a drag.

“So Roy decides not to sign off on it, and I say, are you crazy?” Billy was talking about work and I was pretending to listen. What I was really thinking about was Drew.

“That’s Roy for you. His own worst enemy,” I said, just to let him know that I heard him.

We drove for a while and then turned off the highway. The last signs of commerce—the strip malls and restaurants and big chain stores, the warehouses and car dealerships—began to fade away until there was just the occasional gas station or diner or gravel lot, or string of ranchers or mobile homes set back off the road behind wide front lawns. I wondered who lived in those houses and what they would do when the westward sprawl reached them and brought noise and bustle to their quiet lives. It was only a matter of time.

“Left at this light,” I said as we pulled up to an intersection with a boarded up Tasty Treat on the corner. I had made this trip five times already, but Billy had never been with me. He’d been away on business or caught up with a project. After the second time, I hadn’t needed the directions anymore. I found my way with landmarks—church steeples, billboards, broken-down pickups rusting in yards—just as my father had taught me to do on long drives to see relatives across the state line.

“I don’t why he couldn’t pick a place closer to home,” Billy said. Then he softened his voice a little and said, “I mean, it would have been easier on everybody.”

We settled into a steady cruise down the long two-lane road that would lead us through the countryside to the far end of Bradford. It was Sunday, so there was hardly any traffic and no signs of life around the farmhouses and barns and silos that rose up between the spent cornfields. No laundry flapping on clotheslines, no bicycles, not even a dog. There were only the black cows grazing like sleepwalkers over swaths of meadow.

Billy went on about work while I gazed out at the fields and the rich blue drape of the sky, and tried to pretend that I was somewhere else, that I was with Drew on the porch, dancing under a big silver moon, letting him gather me in, letting him kiss me, one, two, three times from my shoulder to my neck, letting things take their course.

The next thing I knew Billy was saying “Nan, Nan!”

When I turned to look at him, I saw that he was staring down at my hands.

“Are you upset?” he said, shifting his tone into lower gear.

Three years ago, after we lost Mark, I developed the habit of pressing my hands together, fingers to fingers, then palm to palm, over and over. A nervous habit I hardly ever noticed myself doing. But Billy noticed, and he always asked me to stop. I think it made him uncomfortable because he felt responsible for it. And he was. If he’d been paying attention that day, Mark wouldn’t have ended up on the bottom of the swimming pool, and my hands wouldn’t be wondering what to do with all that grief.

I turned back to the window. “Aren’t you?” I snapped.

“What do you think?” Billy said. “He’s my brother.”

We drove in silence for a while and then I directed him to turn right at the Country Cupboard convenience store that was coming into view, a giant, fake ear of corn sprouting from its roofline.

“You think they sell coffee in there?” he asked.

“We could try,” I said. But as we pulled up to the light, we saw that the store was dark and the parking lot was deserted. “They’ll have coffee in the cafeteria when we get there,” I said.

As we reached the bottom of the hill that brought us to the end of our journey, my chest began to flutter with nerves and suddenly I wished Billy wasn’t with me. “Turn in there,” I said, pointing to a driveway on the left.

Billy eased the BMW past a spray of tall bushes and the sign came into view. Saint John’s Hospice it read in big gold letters against a red background. In smaller letters below were the words Compassionate Care for Those in Need.

Billy and I walked up the long allée of red maples that led to the main building. A few visitors and patients, the patients who could still walk or sit in a wheelchair, were wandering over the casually manicured grounds. Actually they never called them patients at Saint John’s; they called them residents.

“Looks just like the pictures,” Billy said, trying for a cheerful note. He had seen glossy color images of Saint John’s in a brochure I’d brought back after scouting the place one day. I told him it was the best care Drew could get, so he’d signed off on it. We were the ones paying for it. But money wasn’t an object. Billy had made plenty in corporate real estate in the 1980s, and by this point, in 1991, the year he turned 42, he could have retired. But Billy wasn’t the kind to retire.

We entered the main building and checked in at the desk, a mahogany island in the middle of a big sitting area furnished with sofas and chairs and coffee tables. I pointed toward a wide corridor to the left. “Cafeteria’s that way,” I said. “I’ll stay here.”

I took a seat by one of the large picture windows that looked out to the rear of the building. About 30 yards away was a landscaped plaza intersected by a grid of walkways. A fountain bubbled in the middle of the plaza, and a few people ambled back and forth around it or sat on the wrought iron benches. Further out were the cottages, four of them built in a wide semicircle, where the residents lived, or I suppose you could say died. The cottages looked like something you’d see on an English manor: multi-paned windows, ivy trailing up the stone walls, hydrangeas and boxwood ringing the perimeters. Drew was in the Bluebell Cottage, the furthest to the right. Bluebell. It sounded like spring, like promise.

A man and an attendant emerged from one of the cottages and started up the path toward the main building. The man was frail, hunched, withered, with a wild tuft of grey on top of his head. I thought of the lock of Drew’s hair, the dark brown sheaf, forever brown, cinched with a piece of grosgrain ribbon and tucked into a trinket box in my dresser drawer. I’d clipped it weeks ago, just before he cut his hair almost down to the scalp. “Hasn’t been this short since Da Nang,” he’d said, bouncing his hand on the top of his head and turning up his lips. And I’d stared at him and said, “Stop smiling.”

At the time, the doctors said Drew had maybe four months to live, five if he was lucky, and he ought to begin preparing for the end. So he’d started dropping the dead weight, as he called it. He packed up most of his clothes and donated them and gave away some of his books and personal belongings to his smattering of friends. He was living in a small house on the edge of town on a lot that backed up to the woods, and almost every night I went over to help him sort. I told Billy it was the least I could do and Billy agreed.

Drew was pretty tired by then—the final round of chemo a few months before had done him in—and we couldn’t make love. So we would work on packing for a while and then sit on his porch in the twilight, holding hands and looking out at the woods.

“What about the house, and the furniture?” I said one evening. Drew had made most of his furniture himself. The dining room table, the bookcases, the headboard on the bed, and a built-in cupboard with French doors in the kitchen. They were simple pieces, sturdy with clean lines, like Drew. Only Drew wasn’t so sturdy anymore.

“It’s yours, Nan. I’m leaving it all to you. It’s in my will.”

“I don’t want it. I want you.”

I went home and asked Billy whether Drew could live with us since he was becoming too ill to live alone. We had plenty of room, I said. And we did. Ours was one of those big suburban houses they were putting up in the mid-1980s at the start of the building boom. Five bedrooms, three baths, a garden, and the swimming pool, which Billy had insisted on putting in even though I didn’t want it. “How are you going to take care of him?” Billy said. “It’ll be more than you can handle.”

“We’ll get in-home hospice,” I said. But Billy still said no. I think that after Mark he didn’t like the idea of someone else dying on the property, someone he loved, even if it was a difficult love.

“Then we’ll get him hospice at his house,” I said.

I had already proposed this idea to Drew, and he had decided against it. He thought he should separate himself from everything familiar, that that might make it easier for him to die. “I just want to drift out of this life on an ice floe, like an Eskimo,” he said.

Still I thought I might change his mind, so I asked him again. “You love this place and you know it,” I said.

But he only put his finger to my mouth and said, “Shhh.”

Later he led me by the hand out to the woods and pointed down at the base of a towering white pine. “Here is where I want my ashes,” he said, his mica eyes clear and resolute. “Here and only here.”

I couldn’t imagine Drew, the flesh and blood of him, the hand that was holding mine, burned away to dust. “I promise,” I said. Then I yanked him to me and kissed him hard.

Billy came back to the waiting area, a paper cup in his hand. “Coffee isn’t so hot,” he said.

I led him through a pair of French doors and out into the morning sun. As we walked toward the cottages, I pointed to Bluebell Cottage and said, “He’s in that one.”

My chest fluttered again, and again I wished Billy hadn’t come. I wanted to be alone with Drew, to make the most of the time we had left. He’d been conscious and alert two days before, when I last visited. But he’d had to ask the nurse for some pain medication, and a while later he’d dozed off. It was only a matter of time before he would have to be medicated constantly, and then he might not know I was there anymore.

“Let’s stop for a minute,” Billy said when we reached the plaza. We sat down on a bench that was flanked by the shriveled flower heads of autumn sedum and sprays of small ornamental grasses that were turning to straw. Everything was dying now. Billy sipped his coffee. His hand was curled around the cup, freckles scattered over the skin like a dusting of brown stars under tufts of fine, apricot hair. I had always loved those hands, and I think I still loved them even then.

“What’s the matter? Losing your nerve?” I said, taunting him.

“Lay off, will you? This isn’t easy for me, you know.”

“Not everything can be easy, Billy.”

He turned and looked at me, searching and wounded. “Are you ever going to let it go?” he said, lowering his voice so anyone walking by wouldn’t hear. “Are you ever going to let me off the hook?”

I let his words hang in the air and then I said calmly, “No, I don’t think I ever will.” I stared back at him, feeling that in that moment I had been as honest with him as I’d ever been.

He shook his head and stood up, then tossed his cup into a nearby trash can. “C’mon,” he said.

We walked the rest of the way in silence. I thought about the way Billy began needing me after Mark died. His sad, deflated need. He was desperate for me to forgive him, to put things back together the way they were. But I couldn’t forgive him, what happened that day, his going into the house to rummage for some papers in his office because Roy was waiting on the other end of the line for an answer to something that really could have waited, while Mark, just six years old, was on his own by the pool. And I didn’t want to forgive him, because I hadn’t really liked the way things were. A distance had opened between us, miles of territory, like that space between two mountains that always looks shorter than it really is, and when you go to cross it, you realize how far you are from your destination, and you lose your will to go on.

At the Bluebell Cottage, a woman greeted us from behind a desk just inside, one of the staff, friendly but sober, her eyeglasses hanging on her chest from a thin gold chain. I didn’t recognize her from my other visits. “We’re here to see Drew Bradley,” I said.

She got up and waved us past the furnished parlor and into the hall, where we got into the elevator, one of those old-fashioned lifts with a wood interior and brass details. The building housed twelve residents in a network of large, airy suites. I had requested that Drew get a corner suite so he would have windows on two sides and plenty of light. “We believe one will open up quite soon,” the administrator had said, avoiding my gaze. Five days later, he called to say Drew could move in.

Billy and I got off on the second floor and turned left and headed down the hallway. Old oak floorboards creaked underfoot; tasteful landscapes hung on the walls. I slowed down at the room at the end of the hall, Drew’s room, and peered in. Sun was washing through the windows, falling over the double bed and the easy chair beside it and a long bureau against the wall. Drew was sitting in an upholstered chair at the foot of the bed. His eyes were closed but he opened them when he heard us.

“Hey,” he said, sitting up.

“We made it!” I said cheerily. I went to him and bent down and kissed his cheek, letting my lips linger for a moment just beside his mouth.

Billy was behind me, and when I stepped away from the chair, he moved in and bent down and embraced his brother and stamped him lightly on the back.

“How’s it going, bro?” Billy said, and Drew shrugged and smiled and said, “Downhill.”

Billy and I pulled up two chairs and we settled into conversation. Some niceties to start, the weather, the drive, the changing colors of the trees, Billy saying, “Hey, buddy, the Braves played like shit last night,” and Drew answering, “Yeah, but not as shitty as the Twins are going to play tonight.”

Then Billy looked around at the room as if to take everything in, and said, “So how are they treating you here? Let us know because we’ll set them straight.”

Just then a nurse came in, a woman in her forties with cropped blond hair. She was wearing a cotton tunic and a pair of pale linen trousers that I imagined had a drawstring at the waist. She carried a blood pressure cuff in her hand.

“Here comes Ratchet,” Drew said, loud enough for her to hear.

“You better be careful, Andrew, or I’ll hurt you,” the woman said. She put the cuff on Drew’s arm.

“Just don’t leave any marks,” Drew said.

After she left, Drew said he wanted to rest, and Billy popped up and helped him over to the bed and then stood awkwardly, watching Drew settle in and pull the covers over his shins.

“I think I’ll run up to get some coffee. You want some, Nan?” Billy said.

I shook my head and Billy left, saying he’d be right back. Drew signaled me to the bed and reached for my arm. “Come here, you,” he said. I bent over him and kissed him. He tasted brackish, medicinal. He looked toward the door and nodded. “He’s trying.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said.

Drew patted the bed and I sat down. “Nan,” he said tentatively. “I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to die on an ice floe. I want to go home. I want to die in my own bed, in our bed. Do you think you can arrange that? I’m sorry, I know…”

“Shut up,” I said, almost teary with relief. “I’ll call the hospice people tomorrow.”

“I was hoping, and I know it isn’t right for me to ask…”

I knew what he was going to say next. I often knew what Drew was going to say. “You want me to come live with you, for the rest of your life.”

He nodded. “Do you think you could do that? Would you do that?”

“It’s the only thing I think I could do right now. The only thing I want to do,” I said. I kicked off my shoes and crawled onto the bed beside him.

“And then, when I’m gone,” he said, “you have to go back to nursing, like you said you would. Live in the house and find a life for yourself.”

“Why didn’t we have a life, Drew? Why did it come too late?”

“At least it came. We had those two years, my best years.” He paused then he said, “You know I have always loved you.”

“I know,” I said, and I burrowed in next to him and put my arm around him. He was thin under his baggy T-shirt. We lay that way for a while, neither of us moving, until a shadow crossed the doorway. It was Billy, holding a cup of coffee.

“Chrissakes, Nancy! Right here?” he said. He didn’t register surprise. Somehow he’d known. He’d known and had decided to ignore it, to bide his time because Drew would die and it would be just he and I again.

Drew lifted his head and let it drop and looked up at the ceiling. “Billy,” he began. But I cut him short as I sat up and moved to the edge of the bed.

“I’m sorry, Billy. I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s been so hard.”

“And what about me?” Billy said, pointing back to himself with his thumb. His face began to flush. “He was my son, too. And now,” he nodded toward the bed, gathering himself to go on. “My brother… and by the way, bro, thanks a lot!” he said. He shook his head and suddenly threw up his hands, the coffee spilling over the cup. “So I lose everybody!” he said. Then he turned around and walked into the hall.

I started to follow him, to say that I was losing everyone, too, that whatever we’d once had together died long before Mark did, that some things needed to pass away. But I stopped and let him disappear, and a moment later I heard the ping of the elevator and the opening and then the closing of the doors.

“He’ll be all right,” Drew said from the bed. “You know Billy. He’ll survive.”

I took Drew home a few days later and moved in with him. We had three months together and then he slipped away one cold January night. The last thing he said was “I’ll find Mark.”

Billy didn’t come to the service, which was really just a gathering of friends and family out by the white pine. But I saw him a week later at the supermarket. He looked tired. “How about coffee some time,” he said. I said no, there was no point in it. He tried to smile as we said goodbye. I walked off, thinking about the walnut headboard above Drew’s bed, my bed now. Thinking about home.
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Cynthia J. McGroarty is a former reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College and teaches English and writing to graduates and undergraduates. Her work has been published in a variety of journals including Schuylkill Valley Journal, Newtopia, The MacGuffin and BloodLotus. She lives in Paoli, Pa., with her husband James J. Kirschke. Email: cynthiamcgroarty[at]comcast.net

Michelle

Fiction
Jennifer Hurley


Don't Talk
Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk

When her father finally died, after months of deterioration that was excruciating to witness, Michelle realized she no longer had significant ties to anyone. Her younger brother, her only living relative aside from a long-lost aunt, had left San Diego nine months ago in an RV to “go east” with his band. He sent one postcard, of some railroad tracks in West Virginia, and had not been heard from since. He had not even known that their father was sick.

The funeral was well attended, probably the best argument Michelle had encountered for belonging to a church. In the chapel, photographs of her father were projected on an overhead screen. He was a boy standing on a desolate farm in Indiana, a young man posing stiffly in Dress Blues, and suddenly he was older, heavier, wearing outdated glasses and sweatshirts imprinted with the names of college basketball teams. In each picture he had the same somber, knowing expression, as if he were already aware that people would view these photographs after his death.

The reception, held in the church hall’s cafeteria, was crowded and energetic, the doors propped open to let in the spring air. Someone had arranged for cupcakes topped with jimmies, a favorite of her father’s. Michelle sat in a metal folding chair and took messy bites of cupcake, not caring that she was getting frosting on her chin and nose, and on the only dress she owned, a floral-print rayon with buttons down the front. Friends of her father’s kept stopping at her table to accost her with hugs and tears. They called her Shelly, which had never been her name.

She went to Pacific Beach after the funeral with some friends and got drunk at a bar, still wearing the stained dress. Before going out she’d sloppily applied some makeup over her face, which was broken out from all the stress, and in the bar mirrors her face looked too pale, almost ghostly. One of her friends was going to buy a Vespa and there were arguments over which color was better, powder blue or racing green. She should’ve been grateful for how normal her friends were acting, but instead she despised them. She had told them not to come to the funeral and they’d agreed too readily. They were friends of convenience, she saw now, who worked together at a coffee shop by the beach. They all wore jeans and flip-flops and hooded sweatshirts with surfing logos, though only the guys actually surfed. Michelle had quit the coffee shop when her father was diagnosed with cancer. Everyone assumed she’d come back now that he was dead.

The next week she spent at her father’s house, sleeping at odd hours and sorting through his possessions. She sold his furniture on Craigslist, making almost three thousand dollars. Once the bed was gone—she gave it away as a freebie, tossed in with the dresser—she slept on the floor, using a stack of her father’s sweaters as a pillow. In the end, all that was left of her father was a tote bag of things Michelle decided to keep. These included a Marine cap, some photos, and his bank ledger with its tidy rows of penciled numbers, which he’d shown her once during a fruitless lesson on finances. She tried to throw away his stupid leather shoes from the Philippines with the elevated heels, the ones he wore to church to make himself look taller, but those ended up in her bag as well.

It was midnight, but she couldn’t sleep. She poured some bourbon into a paper cup—part of her plan to drink up the remains of her father’s liquor cabinet—and turned on her laptop. By three a.m. she’d had three cups of bourbon and filled out an online Petition for Change of Name in the State of California. She was surprised that there was no place on the form for her to explain her reasons. She’d wanted to explain how much she’d hated being “Michelle Mc” in school, to distinguish herself from the other Michelle M. She didn’t know if this qualified as a reason, were she asked to present her case in front of a judge.

It turned out that the judge didn’t have the slightest interest in her reasons. He stamped the appropriate forms, she paid a fee, and it was done. Her name was now Audrey McCarthy. She got a new license at the DMV and a new credit card. She liked to imagine the life Audrey had lived up to now: crisp button-down shirts, perfect skin, an East-coast college. Michelle had gone to community college for a few semesters, earning As in every course she took. When she realized she’d be almost thirty before she could earn even an A.A., she stopped going. She wondered if she’d be able to transfer those credits to her new name. It would probably require too much paperwork, if it were possible at all.

Her father’s lawyer came through with an astonishing check, filled out in her old name, for $58,542, and promised more when the house sold. The other half would go to her brother, if he ever turned up. It was a shock that her father had so much money—he’d worn the same pair of khakis for nearly ten years. Michelle didn’t know what to do with the check. She’d already decided to close out her bank account and move somewhere else, although she didn’t yet know where. The lawyer advised her to cash it into traveler’s checks. Even though the checks were supposedly replaceable, she worried that she would lose them. She started carrying them in a wad stuffed inside her bra, noticeable beneath her hoodie, but only if someone were looking. The truth was that not many men bothered looking at Michelle. She didn’t think she was unattractive—on certain days she looked in the mirror and judged herself as pretty—but for whatever reason she was invisible to strangers. It was common for people, both men and women, to bump into her on a relatively unpopulated street, and then look surprised to see someone standing there.

After an afternoon of sitting on a beach and staring into the ocean, Michelle decided she would go to Boston. It was far enough away, but she would still be near water. She would be free of vulgar salmon-pink buildings like the one she lived in now. She bought a plane ticket online, charging it to her new credit card stamped with her new name.

A startled real estate agent accepted Michelle’s deposit, paid in hundred-dollar bills, on an apartment with bay windows in the upscale neighborhood of Brookline. She was embarrassed for the agent to see her beat-up plastic suitcase covered with stickers of band logos and a marijuana leaf, so she left it behind a shrub and retrieved it after she was given the keys. The apartment’s faux-lace curtains billowed inside the room when she pushed open the windows. She took them down and threw them inside the closet. She did not want anything interfering with her view outside. It was June and the trees were flowering. Across the street, yellow tulips bloomed in front of a pristine brownstone. A man was carrying a little girl in a red dress up the steps. Michelle could see the red bows at the ends of the girl’s braids. She had not expected Boston to be so sunny and vivid. In her imagination it had been all browns and grays.

The apartment was an empty expanse of freshly waxed wood floors. She would buy a bed and just one table that she would keep clear except for a vase of flowers. Her apartment in San Diego had been cramped and dirty and stuffed with all manner of junk that she had to pay someone to dispose of. Now she was in a clean space, and her head felt clearer. She was no longer thinking every day of the images of her father projected on the chapel screen, and the unphotographed image of him at the end, skeletal and ruined. On her laptop were dozens of photos of her father eating various fried foods at the Del Mar Fair, taken for her photography class at the community college, but she wasn’t planning on looking at them.

She had no idea what kind of work to look for, or what kind she was even qualified for. Audrey would’ve worked in an office, most definitely, wearing a skirt and heels, so Michelle spent the better part of a sunny day in the crush of shoppers at Filene’s Basement, where fashionable women rummaged purposefully through huge bins of purses and panties. She could not understand what they were looking for. But Audrey would not have felt that way. Audrey would know what she wanted, and she’d have the money to buy it. Michelle forced herself to select some business clothes from one of the racks. She waited in line to go into a communal dressing room walled with mirrors. Michelle was astonished to see women with unappealing figures striding around the room half nude. She went to a corner and tried on her clothes as quickly as possible, keeping her gaze on the carpet before remembering that Audrey would not act like that. In a red skirt and blazer, Michelle threw back her shoulders and stared into the mirror.

“Honey, you should go with that,” said a woman with pendulous breasts who was naked except for a pair of parachute pants.

“Really?” Michelle said.

“How much are they asking?” The woman grabbed the price tag on Michelle’s sleeve. “Well, it’s too much, but still. It’s gorgeous on you. You’re so skinny I could just hate you.”

In the mirror Michelle saw that she was blushing. “Yeah, I think I’ll get it,” she said out loud, but the woman already was talking to someone else.

Brenda, a recruiter from the temp agency, was black and heavy-set. She blotted oil from her face with a tissue as she scanned Michelle’s application.

“You type fast. Did you take lessons?”

“No. I just learned by typing, I guess.”

Brenda rubbed her forehead with the tissue and sighed. “I can get you into data entry, which is absolutely as boring as it sounds.”

“Okay,” Michelle said.

“I think you’ll be bored. But at least you don’t need to wear a suit. Just some regular black pants will do. Basically you can wear anything.”

Michelle ran her hands over her skirt, smoothing out the fabric. She asked if there was something she could do that would require her to wear a suit. She had just bought a closetful of suits, she told Brenda with an awkward laugh.

Brenda gave her a strange look. “You want to wear a suit. All rightie. Well, if you had a college degree, I could get you into a nice admin position, somewhere with swank.”

“But I don’t,” Michelle said.

“How about I put down Boston University?” Brenda said, her pen poised over the application.

“Really? Isn’t that—? It’s not true.”

“Audrey, it’s just an admin position. You’re not applying to be God. You want me to put it down or not? You had some college, somewhere, right?”

“Right,” she said.

The following Monday Audrey went to work at a software company as an executive assistant. She got up early and washed her hair and set it in curlers. She put on her red suit, pantyhose, and heels. She had bought some eye makeup at the convenience store, and she looked up a video on YouTube to see how she should apply it.

Audrey was relieved she had lied on the temp application. She saw the homely, middle-aged women who did data entry—they drank coffee all day just to stay awake. Her job was easy, easier in fact than fulfilling people’s complicated whims at the coffee counter. She typed letters, sent faxes, made copies, and scheduled appointments on the phone. The hardest part was mastering the phone system with its flashing lights and colored buttons, each with a particular meaning. A few times she sent calls to the wrong place, and when she apologized to her boss, she heard a weak tone in her voice, a remnant of Michelle. It was important to Audrey not to screw up, not to ever have to apologize for herself. Michelle used to go to work hung over with her unwashed hair in a sloppy ponytail. Audrey only drank green tea during the week and got up early to do her hair while watching the Today show. On the weekends she cleaned her apartment and took long, aimless walks through Boston, sometimes getting lost and panicking until she figured out where she was. In the evenings she went to bars or the movies with people she met at work, but she stayed away from one-on-one conversations. She wasn’t clear enough on the details of Audrey’s upbringing to talk convincingly about it, and she certainly didn’t want to talk about Michelle.

By the time winter came, Audrey had gotten a raise and a promotion, and she was moved from her cubicle into a windowless office with a door. Now she was called a “Project Manager,” which meant that she basically did the same things, only people treated her better.

It was around this time that she was walking up the stairs from the subway platform and caught sight of her brother in the rush-hour crowd. At least it looked like her brother, except that his hair was cut short and he was wearing an expensive-looking overcoat instead of his leather jacket with spikes on the shoulders. In an instant he was gone, and she wasn’t sure if she had seen him at all. Back at her apartment she rummaged through the photos that she’d taken from her father’s house and found one of her brother as a young boy. He was grinning, a plastic machine gun slung over his shoulder. She’d hardly seen her brother in the past few years, so how could he possibly make her feel sad? With shaking hands Audrey started to tear the photograph in half. Just as she began to do it, she changed her mind, but the picture was already wrinkled and marred by her sweaty fingerprints. She quickly buried it beneath the other pictures and put the box away.

Winter in Boston was colder than anything she could’ve imagined. Audrey bought a down coat and a cashmere scarf and a special kind of silky undershirt that was supposed to seal the heat in. Still, she was always cold. The pathetic heater in her apartment churned out only a whisper of heat, which was probably why the place had been priced so low. Audrey bought several space heaters and had them going all the time when she was at home. She came down with a bad cold and realized that there was no one she could call, no one who would go to the store for her and bring back Nyquil and a can of chicken soup. She was about to call Diane, one of Michelle’s friends from the coffee shop in San Diego, before realizing that she hadn’t transferred any of the old numbers to her new phone.

She spent the next day home from work. She ordered a pizza to avoid having to go out, and she ate it in bed, stopping frequently to blow her nose. Her bed was strewn with tissues, and her nose was raw and bleeding. She opened her laptop and began to look at the pictures of her father. In one of them he was pretending to eat a chocolateéclair in one bite, looking at her as if to say, Have you got the picture already? She started to cry, and soon she was heaving with sobs. She used the corner of her bedspread to wipe her face and nose. Eventually she fell asleep, the pizza box still on her bed, leaking oil onto the sheets.

The next time she saw her brother was at a loud, expensive restaurant in Back Bay. It was still winter, which seemed incredibly unjust to Audrey, since she associated March with spring break trips to Ensenada Beach in Mexico. She had gone to the restaurant on a date with Charlie O’Malley, who wore argyle sweaters beneath a gray wool blazer and had a thick Boston accent. He called her McCarthy, which she liked, and he never asked her questions at all. Instead he kept up a stream of banter and ironic commentary. Audrey had never known anyone like this. In San Diego people were not ironic—maybe it was not possible with so much sunshine.

From the bar where she sat with Charlie, Audrey spotted her brother in a mirror. He was sitting at a long table with a group of people who looked like they worked in an office. Everyone at the table was talking and laughing. What could her brother possibly be doing in Boston, working in an office? She’d known him as a barely employed slacker, prone to bursts of energy when he would stay up all night writing songs. Once he spent an entire weekend building a fifteen-foot-tall pyramid of beer bottles that ended up being photographed for an architectural magazine.

“That’s my brother,” Audrey told Charlie, pointing into the mirror. “Don’t turn around.”

Charlie turned around. “Which one?”

“Stop turning. The one in the light blue sweater.”

“You’re telling me that’s your brother? The one in the blue? Jesus, he’s like Steve Buscemi without the good looks. What kind of game are you playing, McCarthy?”

Did they look alike, she and her brother? It was something Audrey had never considered before. She could have gone over to his table, but what if it wasn’t him after all? The man who might have been her brother was engaged in conversation, his elbows on the tablecloth, looking perfectly content with his new life.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” Audrey said to Charlie. She turned to face him and brought her glass of wine to her lips.

“Yeah? Like what? What size bra do you wear, McCarthy?”

“I know you’ll never know,” Audrey said.

“Oh, funny girl. We’ll get you more wine and see about that. What do you say to Barolo? We’re having pasta, right?”

Charlie was the sort of person who would order Dom Perignon for the entire table on a dare, laughing and calling out insults to his friends as he signed the bill. Audrey liked his extravagant gestures, the fact that he always ordered way too much food just so that she could sample everything. He was stunned that she’d never had an oyster, never eaten beef carpaccio, never skied, never gone to the Cape. He wanted to introduce her to all of these things.

By the time they were seated at their table, Audrey was nearly drunk. There was a new group of people at the table where her brother had been. Later, as Charlie was devouring a slice of tiramisu, he said, “Was that really your brother, McCarthy?”

“Everyone here is my brother,” Audrey said, waving her fork.

Charlie sighed and rolled his eyes. “You’re wicked sheisty is what you are, friend. Why the hell were you saying that’s your brother?”

Audrey laughed, holding the corners of the table. “I don’t know, Malley,” she said, wiping her eyes.

A year later she and Charlie got married at Our Lady of Victories Catholic Church downtown. The soaring gothic arches and stained glass and polished wooden pews made Audrey feel small and nervous. She wore a strapless princess dress with a lace train that followed her up the red-carpeted aisle. The priest, a friend of Charlie’s parents, accepted at her word that she had been raised as a Catholic, even though she wasn’t able to give him her saint’s name. Her story was that she’d lived in San Francisco all her life until college, and her parents had died when she was twenty in a boating accident. She had researched the whole thing online and was prepared for the follow-up questions, but no one bothered to ask her for any more detail. She was almost frustrated by how willingly they believed her story, which sounded absolutely absurd as she recounted it. It was as though they didn’t care much who she was as long as Charlie was happy with her, and he was. He was profligate with his gifts and affection. By the time they were married Audrey had a whole drawer dedicated to the jewelry he’d given her. As Michelle, she had never owned any jewelry at all, aside from a silver and amber ring that her father had once bought her at the fairgrounds. That ring had been lost, when and where she didn’t know.

Apparently she was not expected to work any more, but she told Charlie that she wanted to, and he agreed in a way that implied he was indulging her. By now she was an executive at the software company. Her assistant, a man just out of college, had asked for her diploma so that he could frame it for her new office. He was as excited for her as if he’d been given the job and the glamorous office himself. She kept stalling, saying that she had misplaced it when she moved into Charlie’s place. Part of her wished that someone would discover her lie and interrogate her; the thrill of possibly being caught had made her job more interesting than it really was. Now it seemed possible that even if she confessed what she’d done, no one would care.

She and Charlie spent their honeymoon in Cabo San Lucas. Audrey didn’t understand why it felt so good to be in Mexico again. She had never been further south than Ensenada before, but somehow Mexico felt like home. A person couldn’t grow up in San Diego without learning some Spanish, and Audrey knew enough to order meals and chat with the waiters. Charlie was impressed. In Mexico he looked chubby and sunburnt and out of place. He utterly mangled the word “gracias,” and Audrey felt sorry for him. He was completely transparent, incapable of disguising or moderating his emotions, but he knew nothing about Audrey—about her real life. Occasionally, when she’d had too much to drink, she had an urge to tell him everything. She had no idea, not an inkling, of how he would react. That was the one mystery about Charlie. Would he clasp her into a hug? Would he refuse to look at her, refuse to talk to her? Would he yell accusations? Would he laugh the whole thing off, refusing to believe she was serious? Would he even hear what she was saying? She could not take the chance of finding out.

On the last night of the honeymoon, Charlie drank too much and passed out. Audrey tried to sleep but couldn’t. She slipped on a dress and sandals and went outside. One of the beach cafes was still open, the music blaring. There was a group of young surfer types, the sort of people Michelle used to know, sitting at a table covered in seashells that were being employed in a drinking game. Audrey sat down at a nearby table and ordered a beer. She smiled at the surfers, hoping they would talk to her. After spending the entire day alone on the beach—Charlie had stayed in room, reading a crime novel and keeping out of the sun—she was eager for conversation.

“Where are you from?” one of them called out to her.

Audrey almost said San Diego before she caught herself. “The East Coast. Boston.”

“Cold there this time of year, huh?” said a girl with long, damp blond hair, who resembled Diane from the coffee shop.

“Way too cold. I used to live in San Diego.”

They told her they’d driven from L.A. to Mexico in a Volkswagen van, which had broken down twice and had to be pushed in order to start. They had ditched the van and were planning to buy motorcycles and ride all the way down into South America. The stories of their adventures had Audrey laughing so hard that she was crying.

“Look,” said the blonde in a conspiratorial voice, and Audrey’s heart leapt. For an instant she thought they were going to ask her to go with them to South America. The girl continued: “I know it’s totally lame to ask you this, but do you have twenty dollars? Or fifty? Something you can loan us so we can eat in the morning?”

“Come on, leave her alone,” said one of the men—a boy, really. He was bare-chested, still wearing his swimming shorts.

“I shouldn’t have asked. I interrupted your beer,” said the blonde.

“No, it’s fine.” As Audrey opened her wallet, the votive on the table caught the light of her diamond rings, and suddenly she felt afraid. What if they followed her on her way back to her hotel room? She was a fool for thinking they had genuinely liked her.

“Here.” She placed two twenties in the girl’s hand and got up to leave.

They shouted their thanks as she walked away.

It was not long before Audrey was pregnant, and she was proud of the fact that she continued going to the office, even in her eighth month. One insufferably humid day in August, Audrey was standing on the subway platform when she had a wave of vertigo. The train arrived, but she did not get on. Instead she labored up the stairs to the street. The sun was blinding. Dizzy and nauseous, Audrey walked down the street, taking deep breaths. She had stopped and taken hold of a frail, leafless city tree when she saw her brother like a phantasm coming towards her. This was her real brother, in ripped jeans and a Pavement T-shirt, stubble on his face.

“James,” she called out, when he was already past her.

He turned around and briefly glanced at her, then kept walking. Had he recognized her? Was it possible that he’d recognized her and intentionally walked away? She felt panicked. What if she never saw him again? He was already so far away that she had to yell.

“James, it’s Michelle. Your sister, Michelle.”

She was tempted to run after him, but she was too queasy, too exhausted. Besides, what was the point? James wasn’t even her brother anymore, not really. She had no family anymore, no friends that knew her. Turning back to the subway entrance, Audrey was startled by her reflection in a glass office building. She was hugely pregnant and sweating through her pink silk sheath. Her hair was coming loose from its French twist. Michelle would never have worn her hair in a twist; she never would’ve worn anything that required dry cleaning or even ironing. She had taken pride in not caring about appearances, in being straightforward and sincere. Audrey stared into the glass, trying to imagine what Michelle would look like now, but she couldn’t picture it.
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Jennifer Hurley’s fiction has previously appeared in Front Porch, The Mississippi Review, The Arroyo Literary Review, Stone’s Throw Magazine, Natural Bridge, Brain Harvest, Slow Trains, and of course, Toasted Cheese. Website: jen-hurley.com. Email: jenhurley[at]alum.bu.edu

What She Calls Life

Fiction
Lisa Heidle


top model
Photo Credit: Jon Feinstein

Mrs. Shephard wakes at five each morning, surprised and a little disappointed. A reason to throw back the covers and greet the day flew years ago. Her children think it was when their father died. Not true. Her grief sustained her then, a reminder that she was still living, that there was a purpose for the heart: to break. The pain dulled, then faded, replaced with fond memories of the life she wished she’d had.

She drives to the bank and waits for it to open. It is the first stop in her daily rituals: bank, then pharmacy, a quick lunch at the diner, on to the grocery, back home for television, in bed by eight. It would make her sad if it didn’t give her so much comfort. Barbara Jean and Sylvie pull into the bank’s parking lot and Mrs. Shephard watches the employees hurry to the front door, heads tucked against the harsh wind that gently rocks the car. If they see her, they don’t give any mind. It’s embarrassing, the intense craving to be seen, to be noticed. She’s always enjoyed people: making their acquaintance, being privy to all their tiny, self-important secrets. Now she finds herself staring hard at strangers, a hungry smile on her face, coercing an awareness that she still exists. That’s why she comes to the bank first—they use her name, even if they have to read it off the computer screen.

One by one, the lights come on and Barbara Jean, the pretty girl who runs drive-thru, appears and disappears, backlit by harsh fluorescent. Last week, Mrs. Shephard overheard her say that her boyfriend wants other women. Barbara Jean’s face was hidden behind the partition, but Mrs. Shephard sensed tears and a quivering bottom lip. She wanted to tell her that it would be okay, that men are fickle and presumptuous, always certain that something better is on its way. That’s what happens when mothers raise their boys like princes, letting them believe that the world wants to give them their heart’s desire. She taught her two sons and three daughters to know that life is about work, that tenacity makes the difference. Lyle Junior, her oldest, was the only one she was unable to convince. From day one, the boy had no follow-through. Now he sits alone like a monkey in a cage, chewing on her words as he counts the hours, days, months until he’s released back into the wild. She kept her counsel with Barbara Jean, having learned that young people don’t want to know what the shriveled and aged think, believing that if they knew anything about life, they would’ve done it better, wouldn’t be withered crones.

Mrs. Shephard lights a cigarette without cracking a window. She started smoking again after fifty years—a homage to when she was a beauty, not yet a victim of selfish time. Her grandkids refuse to ride with her, shrieking at the stale odor that has seeped into the seats.

“Smoking is bad for you Grandma,” Molly, the youngest, says when she pulls the crumpled pack from her bag.

“So’s being a wise-acre,” Mrs. Shephard tells her.

“What’s that?”

“Someone who tells others how to live their lives.”

The conversation always ends in tears for Molly and a reprimand for her. It’s easier to let them strap her into the minivan, surrounded by car seats, Cheerios sticking to her palms, and act appreciative for the overcooked steak and baked potato. When they drop her in the early evening, before the sun has set, they feel good for meeting the standard required of children with aging parents. She wants to tell them that she does appreciate it; it’s not a waste of time—it’s good to have something to look forward to at the end of the week. She doesn’t, fearing they might feel pressured, which could lead to resentment, which would make her a burden, and no one honors a burden, even if it gave them life.

Looking at her hand, the cigarette pinched between the first and second gnarled fingers, she ponders the crosshatch lines and dark blue veins. The skin hangs loose, making her question the point of muscle and tendon if they shirk their duties. Sylvie unlocks the front door as Mrs. Shephard takes a last pull on the cigarette, holding the smoke deep in her lungs until there’s a slight burn. Rolling the window down, she flips the cigarette into the wind. The wind laughs and throws it back into her lap. Opening the car door, the ember ignites and flames dance on her legs. She sees Barbara Jean’s surprised face framed in the window, hears Sylvie call out, “Mrs. Shephard, drop to the ground and roll.” She knows my name, Mrs. Shephard thinks, and marvels at her neediness. She starts to do as Sylvie says, slapping at the flaming licks as they move up her shirt. With a sigh, she stops, spreads her arms wide and gives the fire permission to devour what she calls life.

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Lisa Heidle has completed her first full-length manuscript, is working on her second and researching the third. She writes short stories and book reviews that have appeared in The Chattahoochee Review, Rebecca’s Reads, The Scratch Anthology, Pine Magazine, Weird Year and The First Line, and has edited numerous manuscripts that have gone on to publication. Lisa writes a literary-based blog, Modern Day Scribe. Email: lheidle[at]yahoo.com

Creation

Flash
Allison Landa


Pesto
Photo Credit: Magda’s Cauldron

I’m making pesto. I do this when I need to think, when I need to run away from thought, when I want to get cut as I inevitably do, the blood seeping to stain the cutting board, another one ruined.

But first, my recipe for pesto: Really, it’s not different than anyone else’s. Take some basil, some pine nuts, some garlic and olive oil and cheese, and there you have it. Cut the basil. Smash the nuts. Grate the cheese and mince the garlic. Put it in a food processor, pour in the oil, pulse.

I’m making pesto. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon and the sun is streaming in through the dirty window. The pasta is boiling on the stove and this morning I was diagnosed with cancer.

It’s blood cancer. I don’t even know how you get blood cancer. Maybe I cut myself one too many times. Maybe I didn’t wash the wound properly. Maybe I let it heal too fast. Maybe you’re supposed to prolong the cut, run your finger along its edges for a while. Maybe life has been too smooth. Maybe none of this is the case at all.

Smash the basil, cut the nuts. I’ve done this a thousand times and still I don’t know what I’m doing.

The pasta boils over.

I close my eyes.

None of it goes away. Nothing changes. Except for how everything’s changed, everything’s shifted. Or has it? I had cancer before I knew I had cancer. I was sick for—how long? The only thing that’s changed is the knowledge, not the fact. If you pull open a curtain to reveal an atrocity, does that mean the atrocity didn’t exist before it was acknowledged? Or was it there the entire time, gaping and grimacing?

None of this is helping.

Nothing can help.

I open my eyes, turn to the stove, snap off the burner. I watch the flame vanish in an instant. My motion has invalidated its existence. I am the god of the gas.

Pesto. I need to make pesto.

Actually, what I need to do is sink to the floor, feel the hardwood against my ass. I need to cradle my head in my hands, feeling my chin sharp against my palms. I need to feel my hair fall against my face, thin and blonde as my hair is, pale and drawn as my cheeks can appear.

In my hand the knife is smooth and sharp. Pointed. It knows what it’s doing. I’ll let it lead.

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Allison Landa is a Berkeley, Calif.-based writer whose work has been featured in Salon Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, Swill Magazine, Word Riot and Defenestration, among other venues. She has been a resident at The MacDowell Colony, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and The Julia and David White Artists’ Colony. Her website is allisonlanda.com. Email: allison[at]allisonlanda.com