Don’t Forget the Confetti

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


Confetti Cake
Photo Credit: Theryn Fleming

Celebrate (verb): to observe a notable occasion with festivities

This issue, I could have chosen to write about writers who bully readers who aren’t sycophants, those who feel compelled to rebut reviews, or those who just take matters into their own hands and write their own. So much material! Perhaps next time. This time, I’m going to press pause on the snark.

As I was mulling over potential topics, my eyes drifted over to my calendar and I saw a reminder I’d added at the beginning of the year, when I realized I had three ten-year milestones coming up in 2012.

The first was in April, my ten-year runniversary, which I celebrated by… going for a run. The second, which is this week, is my anniversary of going back to school. I’m celebrating that one by writing this editorial and setting myself the goal of being done by the time eleven rolls around. (Ok, now I’ve probably jinxed myself.) And the third is my ten-year blogiversary, which is coming up in October.

I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated my blog’s anniversary. But ten years, that seems worth celebrating. Especially when I see bloggers celebrating 4, 5, 6 years all the time (and inevitably claiming to be old-timers). I’ll probably celebrate by posting and linking to my (incredibly unexciting, yet somehow very revealing) first post. Ten years later, it’s all pretty much true: I’m still a procrastinator, I still futz with aesthetics when I should be writing, and I think I still have one regular reader (though it’s a different one now).

I never did get comfortable with blogging about myself, though I did try in the early years. In year three, I found my niche when I started keeping track of the books I was reading. That led to a reboot and the evolution of my blog into a commonplace book. I know it’s not really of interest to anyone but me, and I’m ok with that. It’s not only the longest I’ve ever journaled consistently, which is a success in itself, but every time I’m writing and I go to my blog to find a quote or refer to a book post, I think: woot! That’s why I keep at it.

Intellectually, I recognize these milestones as achievements. Emotionally, I have a tendency to downplay things, be they positive or negative. Okay, so it’s more than a tendency. You could say I don’t do drama. Which is, you know, kinda weird when you’re on the internet all the time, because it’s simply at odds with how the internet is. The interwebs loves the dramz.

It’s easy to get distracted by individuals who insist on creating drama where none exists (yes, I’m looking at you, writer going berserk over a one-star review) but what interests me more is watching the real dramas of everyday life play out online.

As I scroll through my feed reader or thumb through Twitter, I frequently run across people exploding with happiness and occasionally, crumbling with grief. I see people go all out to mark every occasion, the good, the bad, the big life events—birthdays, graduations, weddings—and all the smaller moments in-between. Things like typing “the end,” acceptances, signing book contracts, book launches and the like.

I remember once telling someone about Toasted Cheese and her asking if we had launch parties for the new issues. The question made perfect sense—print journals traditionally celebrate each new issue with a party. But honestly, until she said it, it hadn’t really occurred to me. I currently celebrate by sleeping in the day after a new issue goes up. While I’m sure I could make a convincing argument to my fellow introverts that sleeping in beats a party (some of the time), it’s not exactly a celebration.

In the past year or so, I have, amongst other things: run a half-marathon personal best, completed my comprehensive exams, written (and revised) my PhD research proposal, said goodbye to my fuzzy buddy, put out another year of Toasted Cheese—and learned how to be alone. And yet, I can’t remember the last time I did something extraordinary—something beyond picking up something nice for dinner—to mark an occasion.

I keep doing things, but it’s like I’m on a treadmill. I make note of the achievement, but I never pause to celebrate, it’s just right on to the next thing. I looked at everyone else’s celebrations and decided I needed a reward—before I launch into my dissertation.

Two weeks ago, I took a mini-vacation and stayed in a fancy-pants hotel. I booked the room through a site that offers discounts by not revealing the name of the hotel until you’ve paid. As I was choosing my mystery hotel, I noticed I was kind of excited—and not about the savings. I was thrilled about the surprise. Finding out the name of the hotel was like unwrapping a present when you genuinely don’t know what’s inside, but you know it’s going to be good. I loved it.

And that was when I realized just how much I need more festivities in my life.

Most writing-related advice focuses on getting to various goal points in the writing process. There’s not a lot of advice about what to do once you’ve accomplished a goal—except move on to the next one. Perhaps that’s because most people don’t need to be told to celebrate their accomplishments. But if you’re anything like me, here’s a reminder: don’t forget the confetti. Take the time to celebrate.

Maybe we do need to have Toasted Cheese launch parties. Hmm…

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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

Ashes of Honor by Seanan McGuire

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Erin Bellavia


Ashes of Honor

I’m going to start this review with a confession: I don’t think I’m very good at writing reviews. When I love things, I love them. I loave them. I lurve them. And when I love things, I have a hard time being objective. (I do occasionally hate things. I tend to avoid writing about them and instead pretend they didn’t happen.)

It was no surprise to me that I lurrrrrved Ashes of Honor by Seanan McGuire. Ashes is the sixth installment in the adventures of October “Toby” Daye, a half-human, half-fae private investigator living in San Francisco. Life hasn’t been easy for Toby; she’s been turned into a fish, watched friends and lovers die, and has nearly died herself too many times to count. Toby’s stories have a certain noir feel to them, and I don’t think it would shock anyone to learn that McGuire was a fan of the three-season series Veronica Mars. (I usually picture Toby as a darker-haired version of Kristen Bell.)

When I reviewed the first book in the series, Rosemary and Rue, I said, “Seanan McGuire’s first novel, Rosemary and Rue, is for anyone who has ever believed in faeries, for anyone who has ever wished to step into a wardrobe and out into a world that is magical and every bit as real as our own.” I stand by that statement, and would apply it to any and all of the books in this series. If you read one, you’ll be a part of Toby’s world forever, looking anxiously forward to the next time you can return.

Ashes of Honor has the usual mystery for Toby and her ragtag Scooby gang to solve; Toby’s fellow knight, Etienne, hires her to find his missing changeling daughter, Chelsea (whose existence has just been revealed to him). Chelsea is a teleporter like her father, but her power is out of control and threatens to tear holes in the very fabric of Faerie if she isn’t found and stopped. She’s popping in and out of realms she shouldn’t be able to enter, and someone seems to be using her for their own nefarious purposes. It’s a great adventure with a series of twists and surprises, and an ending that satisfies.

Even more satisfying, though, was the development of Toby’s relationship with Tybalt, the local King of Cats—a “will they or won’t they” that’s been in the works since the first book. I won’t give away details, but I don’t think any Tybalt fans will be disappointed. I know I wasn’t!

If you’ve followed the events of the last couple of books, you know that Toby has gained a near-supernatural ability to heal herself. One thing I really appreciated about this book was the way Toby talked about the injuries still hurting—an idea that gets glossed over in a lot of stories in which characters have healing powers.

Toby’s world gets richer and deeper with every book, a testament to McGuire’s worldbuilding ability. I’ve never found a trip into Toby’s San Francisco (and the pockets of Faerie that overlap it) disappointing, and I’m always looking forward to the next time I can return.

Tl; dr: Ashes of Honor was awesome. I lurved it. I hope you do, too.

Ashes of Honor hits the shelves September 4.

 

Seanan McGuire wrote Finding Your Fairy Godmother: A Guide to Acquiring a Literary Agent for Absolute Blank in September 2009. We interviewed her alter-ego, Mira Grant, in April 2011.

Seanan’s Live Journal
Seanan’s Twitter
Mira Grant’s Twitter

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Email: billiard[at]toasted-cheese.com

The Adolescent Letters

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Anna Shuster


The Adolescent Letters
Photo Credit: Anna Shuster

A warm August wind followed me down the street to the mailbox, playing with the corners of the envelope in my hand. Inside that unassuming swathe of white lay everything I’d never said to her, everything I hoped would break the silence stretching between us.

We’d been best friends. I just hoped these few words could bring that back.

I waited the rest of the summer for an answer, some little white letter that would tell me everything was ok. But that answer didn’t come until alarm clocks and school bells once again appeared in my life.

I’d almost forgotten about my pathetic attempts at communication when I found it—a folded piece of yellow legal paper peeking out of my backpack. Its blue lines revealed a tumble of apologies scrawled in the loopy, half-cursive script that could only have been penned by my best friend.

I read and reread these half-explanations dipped in guilt, signed with her distinctive nickname, and found myself trying to reassure the paper that everything was all right.

If my foggy eyes were any indication, I needed that same convincing.

I realize I still haven’t responded to your letter. How inconsiderate. I really enjoyed it, if I haven’t already mentioned that. I probably haven’t. Basically, don’t worry about me. I know that right now you’re scoffing while reading this. But it’s the truth. I’ll be fine. Things have just been weird recently. And I’m a stupid teenager. However, the most important thing: DO NOT TAKE THIS PERSONALLY. Please. Trust me when I say that it’s better that I’m withdrawing from all—and I mean all—of humanity right now. For everyone involved. Look, you’re an amazing person and an even more amazing friend. I do not want to lose that. Having said that: it’d be both rude and stupid of me to force you to wait for me until I get out of this. If you choose to, wonderful. I’d be eternally grateful. Stay happy. Stay you. You’re beautiful. -CRSFD

My heart broke a little bit more with each word, but the last six almost did me in entirely. Deep breaths filled the next few seconds of my life, and I glanced around to make sure no one could see the raw emotion I was feeling.

I realized after composing myself that I had to make a choice. Abandoning her completely was out of the question, obviously. But more choices remained: would I try to bring her out of this self-imposed isolation, or would I hope and wait for her to come back?

Being the coward I was, I opted for the latter.

That’s not to say I didn’t try—briefly. One day I went with her to the music room, a favorite secluded spot we’d both discovered. But my attempts at conversation were snatched from my mouth by melancholy piano refrains.

I didn’t try anymore after that.

In retrospect, I realize that was a risk—I could have lost her for good. But mercifully for my foolish self, she did come back.

Her resurrection came in the form of a chai tea latte and a proposal one sudden afternoon. She remembered the letter I’d written months ago, and wanted a return to that kind of correspondence. Though this offer seemed to me to come from out of the blue, I wholeheartedly agreed. Then, finally, the awkward, obligatory smile she’d worn around me for so long widened into a legitimate grin.

The next morning, a neatly folded piece of legal paper awaited me in my otherwise chaotic locker.

I fumbled it open and devoured the words it offered me. After reading and rereading what she’d taken the time to write to me, I began a carefully crafted reply on my own white, lined pages.

From there spun several months of the good old days. Laughing, talking, and confiding wedged themselves into our days, and penning letters back and forth took up many of our nights. We would insert doodles and song lyrics into the margins, inking every surface of the lined pages we sent back and forth. Hers were always better than mine.

Some days, I would just sit and admire the artistry she put into her letters. Others, she’d give me more to marvel at. One day, I remember clearly, a delicate origami butterfly sat waiting for me among my textbooks. That was a good day.

From this newfound correspondence our old friendship was reborn. We went to concerts and record stores together. We played music together and talked about everything: boys, classes, British musicians, guilt, depression. Our letters were always filled with some kind of passionate discussion of life, love, or how much we hated chem class.

And we were supportive, naturally, but in the oddest ways. I still remember the days after I broke up with my first boyfriend, and how she drew little cartoons to make me feel better. They worked.

As the year began its race towards the finish line, though, letters were more hurried. School work took priority over doodles, vocab words replaced heartfelt ones.

In short, the honeymoon ended.

We started running out of things to say before conversations even started. Letters became more awkward, words more forced. We tried to keep up the dialogue between us, but it was crumbling. I didn’t think much of this slow descent at the time, but she did.

Without my notice, she started retreating into herself again, bit by bit. But this time, I wasn’t the one who could save her. Another friend, a better friend, swooped in for the rescue.

Soon enough, she was encased in a new fortress of friends. I sat outside the gates, unable to shake the feeling that I’d failed somehow.

By now it’s summer once again, and the letters have long stopped coming. I open up the box I keep them in, take in their familiar, musty scent. I pick through them one by one, remembering the stories behind each one. I keep picking through them, memory by memory, until I’m right back at the beginning, walking down the road with a little white envelope in my hand.

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Anna is a high school student and managing editor of her school paper. Writing, music, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are the main focal points of her life. She loves more than she probably should, but she doesn’t mind. Email: bluemoonesp[at]gmail.com

Being My Mom

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Amy Gantt


Being My Mom
Photo Credit: Amy Gantt

In the spring of 1992, when I was seventeen years old, I got out the purple pen I’d bought myself with the money I earned cleaning the furniture store in the tiny downtown of Wallace, North Carolina. I sat on my bed, my notebook balanced against my knees, and I chewed on my pen as I thought about what I wanted to say to her, how honest I wanted to be. And, dry-eyed, I wrote Mama a letter.

Then, shaking, I carefully folded it in thirds and sealed it in a plain, white envelope and printed her name on the outside in purple block letters. I wondered when she’d get the letter, how long I’d carry around this knot of worry in my gut.

When she called me into her room to talk, I slouched in, hands buried in my pockets, and I refused to meet her eyes. I was afraid that I’d see she’d been crying.

“I don’t even understand what this is,” she said. “What does this say?” She pointed at a scrawl of names.

“Those are,” I said. “I mean, these are the people you work with, you know, L.D. and Verna and Ray and all them. And that—” I pointed at a nearly illegible scrawl. “That says ‘an-guh-tham.’ I didn’t know how to spell it. You know, that thing you have to watch while you’re working.”

“Oh,” she said. After a long, miserable pause, she said, “So this is how you feel about me.”

“No, Mama, I mean, I guess. I just—I just wish that things were different. I thought they would be, after Daddy left.”

“I don’t see you helping out much,” she said. “I have to work. I wish I could be around with y’all all the time, but I can’t.”

“But when you are here, you just, I mean, like, the other night, when James was so upset. I mean, he’s only nine years old, and I had to go and get him to stop crying.”

“That wasn’t any of your business,” Mama said. “You didn’t even know what was going on, and when you undermine me like that it doesn’t make it any easier.”

“I just didn’t want him to be so upset.” I felt the unshed tears burning behind my eyes, and I looked up into Mama’s face for the first time. There was anger and under that, pain, and under that, the exhaustion of Sisyphus.

I sagged under the weight of what I’d done, fucked it up again.

“Are we done?” I asked.

“I guess, unless you have anything else you want to say.”

I shook my head.

*

Mama,

First of all, I love you, and this is extremely difficult for me to do simply because I love you. However, there are some things I need to tell you. If I tried to talk to you, you would hear me, but you wouldn’t really comprehend what I’d be saying. Please read this and think about what I’m writing.

I value our friendship, but I am your daughter. That’s hard enough without having to be your best friend. I have my own life, and I really need to live it myself. You tell me almost everything, but when was the last time you sat down and really, really listened to me or asked if everything was going okay? If you have asked me, I know you didn’t really want to hear that I have been severely depressed since school started, and that I have prayed time and again just to die, to go home. I enjoy talking with you, but I have to say what I have to say in short bursts because you seem to only pause with your narratives about Brian, Ray, Verna, the jimco, the angatham, James Keene, L.D., or whoever, to catch your breath. We’re not talking; you’re talking. We used to be close because you listened but now you talk and talk and talk; and then you get angry when I am tired and want to go to bed. After I’m gone next year, don’t dump on Kevin, please. Find a friend outside of work, a female friend that you can trust and talk to. I know you’ve got to talk to someone about Ray, but that someone shouldn’t be me. I’m your daughter for God’s sake.

I know you love me, if for no other reason than the fact that I’m your daughter, but when are you going to be my mom? You’ve been my friend, my enemy, and my sister since I’ve been an adolescent, but what I need most is a mom. I wish that you had been tougher, made rules and made sure I stuck by them. You are fortunate that I am more mature than the average seventeen-year-old, because I would have really taken advantage of your inconsistencies. Be tougher on the boys; they need to know what to expect from you, always. Don’t get angry with me for wanting to go out with my friends, whether they’re the Bowdens or Ann Marie. I need friends outside of this family as much as you do. Also, don’t resent my friends. I’m not trying to find someone to take your place, but I do need a break from our family, as much as I love you and the boys. Support me, but don’t monopolize me.

Do you remember when I got my first report card this year? It was the best report card I’d ever gotten, and all you had to say was “That’s good.” And James got on the B Honor Roll for the first time and he was so proud, but you didn’t give him a pat on the back either. No matter what we do, we never feel like it’s good enough for you. Give us a pat on the back, don’t take us for granted. Before Daddy left, I asked you once if you would spend more time with us once Daddy left, and you said yes. You talked about going fishing and walking in the woods, and “exploring” like we used to do when I was small. Now it seems that you have no time for anyone but Ray. You’ve got to be uptown at 8:00 because Ray worked late. You get off at 12:00 on Sunday, but you spend the afternoon with Ray, not us. I know you love Ray, but you see him seven days a week, or if you don’t go to work, you spend the entire day looking for him. Why not take that Sunday afternoon to take us walking at the river? We need you, Mama, but you’re seldom there for us.

Every time I tell you something about a guy that I like, or a secret dream that I have, or anything like that, you laugh at me, or him, or my dream. I’m not talented enough, or he’s too old, or that’s stupid. You don’t know how much your discouragement hurts me. For example, when I told you that I wanted to take a course in acting in college, you laughed at me and told me that I would never be able to do anything like that. Mama, I love acting, not as a career, but as a hobby. Don’t destroy my dreams, my hopes, my ambitions. I need them, too. You also hurt me deeply when you say stuff like “What happened to your hair?” or “Your makeup looks terrible!” or “I hate those clothes.” Did you ever realize how much I idolized you? No longer. I am too disillusioned with you to ever worship you the way I once did. I’ve been hurt too deeply too many times. Please don’t disillusion the boys. They need a mom, as much if not more than I do. Love them, be there for them, and above all, show them what a mother is supposed to be like. It’s too late for me, but not for them. I hope we can get things straight.

Loveya,

Amy

*

“I think,” I said, furrowing my brow the way I always do when I’m trying to articulate something that’s only been an itch in a dusty corner of my mind. “I think that my mom always just kind of wanted to be a mom. She loved being a mom, and now that we’re bigger and don’t need her so much anymore, she doesn’t know what to do. So she just holds on tighter.” I was 21 years old, four months into my first real relationship with a woman, and Allie was furious that Mama had tried to guilt me into going to her nursing school graduation instead of camping along the river with her.

The truth was, I did feel guilty. I mean, really, it was just a graduation—not a funeral or something. I didn’t even see the point of my own graduation, a year off. Certainly, my high school graduation had been one big day of bullshit. The last time I saw my father, the man who had caused me so much pain, was the day of my high school graduation. He sat with Mama and her parents and my brothers, and he wept openly as I sat on the stage, glaring at him. I channeled my rage into my valedictory speech, starting with a quote about suicide and finishing with an imperative to my class to get as far from Wallace-Rose Hill High School as possible, even if—maybe because—it was home. When he disappeared again, after a dinner of fried seafood at the Magnolia Restaurant, I was relieved. I was done with that part of my life, and good riddance.

And now, Mama was finally getting her nursing degree. I had a girlfriend, who I’d already moved in with, already exchanged plain gold bands with, who wanted me to be a grown-up and listen to my partner—my new family—and not my mother, who was part of my old family.

“She needs to quit trying to control everything you do. I don’t even like hearing you talk to her on the phone ’cause I know you’re just going to give into whatever she wants.” Allie’s eyes hardened and her lips tightened in a line, just like her mother’s did when she was angry. “She’s got a problem with you because you’re a lesbian, and you need to start standing up for yourself for a change.”

Allie was right. I did need to stand up for myself. Every time I was with Mama, I fell into the same patterns we’d created over my lifetime—I wanted to please her, to make her proud, to be a good daughter and a good friend. I wanted to give Mama whatever she wanted or needed, no matter what. No matter if I had to give up parts of myself to make her happy. No matter if I had to avoid mentioning my girlfriend to keep from seeing her look of disapproval.

But I was right, too. Mama really had loved being a mom.

“Why did you quit college?” I asked Mama during one of our late-night talks after my brothers had gone to bed. I sat on the floor of her dark bedroom, my back resting against her dresser. I stared at the glow on the tip of her cigarette. She took a long drag and the glow flared, bathing her face in orange shadow. I loved these talks, and I dreaded them, too. I was a senior in high school, struggling with the emotional fall-out of no longer needing to protect myself from my father, and feeling in some indefinable way that I was responsible for keeping the rest of my family together. These talks made me feel like her equal; they made me feel like she relied on me as her equal, like a grown-up, with all the fears and responsibilities that went with it.

“Well, I didn’t really want to go to college,” she said, “but Grandmama and Granddaddy told me I had to. So I went to UNC-Greensboro, about as far away from home as I could get.”

I nodded, even though I knew she couldn’t really see me in the dark. I wasn’t surprised that Grandmama and Granddaddy expected her to go to college—they were probably surprised it was even a question. They were both college-educated, and as far as I knew, Grandmama had worked her whole life as a teacher. Grandmama’s mother hadn’t gone to college, and when she left Grandmama’s abusive father, she worked hard to make sure that all three of her daughters went to college. They needed to be able to take care of themselves, not to rely too much on someone else to take care of them. Granddaddy was from a highly-educated family of lawyers and businessmen, people who read and worked hard and did everything right, always.

There was no way Mama was going to get away with skipping college, in their minds.

“I met your daddy while I was at UNC-G,” Mama said. She sounded a little wistful, a little sad.

“But he didn’t go there,” I said. “How did you meet him?” Daddy was six years older than Mama, and he’d only managed one year of Bible college before he dropped out. I knew the story of how they’d met from Daddy’s point of view. He’d told me on one of those mornings when he’d invaded my bedroom. He’d bragged about how he could get any college girl into bed, and when he saw Mama on the tennis courts, he had to have her.

“I met him at the tennis courts on campus, not long after I got to Greensboro, and we just started going out. I told Grandmama and Granddaddy that we were going to get married. They were not happy. But eventually they agreed, when we threatened to elope to South Carolina, but they said I’d have to wear Aunt Linda’s wedding dress. They wouldn’t buy me my own.” She took another drag of the cigarette, and I listened to the familiar hiss and crackle. She exhaled and smoke swirled through the darkness. “They made me promise I’d stay in school, but I hated it then. I tried going to a technical school for graphic arts, but I hated that, too. I just wanted to have a baby and stay home and play with you, so I did.”

She was nineteen when she and Daddy got married at the First Baptist Church in Wallace. She was twenty when I was born. I’d counted the months so many times, hoping I’d find out that she’d been pregnant when she got married, that there was some compelling reason for her to marry him. Something other than love. But she wasn’t. I was born almost exactly a year after they said their vows.

“I almost left him,” she said quietly. “When you were a baby. Things were bad, and I just couldn’t put up with it anymore, so I packed up all our stuff and put you in your carseat and started driving back to Wallace. But then a Kenny Rogers song came on the radio, and it was so sweet, about all the things he missed about the woman he loved, and I started thinking about what I’d miss about Daddy, and I just turned around and went back.” I heard the shrug, the it is what it is, in her voice.

I thought about what my life would’ve been like in that alternate timeline. I wondered what made her want to leave then, but when things had been really bad for so long, she still grieved when he finally packed his things and drove back to his hometown. Had he hit her? Had he had an affair with a woman who was younger and who hadn’t just had a baby? I’d never know. If she’d left, my brothers never would’ve been born, and I thought about whether I would have given them up for the chance to grow up without an alcoholic monster for a father.

I wondered what it would have been like, just me and Mama, a team against the world.

Mama stayed home with us until I was eleven, and she threw herself into being the kind of mom she had wanted to be when she dropped out of college. We played in the yard of whatever house we were living in and made up games. We walked to the library once a week during the summers to get books. She brought home butcher paper from the grocery store and taped it to the wall so we could draw murals in crayon and magic marker and watercolors. She showed us how to turn over rocks to play with the roly-polies who lived under them, and she made us promise never ever to play with snakes or spiders, not even baby ones. She took us exploring in the woods, and she organized Saturday afternoon bike trips around town, the smallest kids strapped into seats on Mama’s and Daddy’s bikes.

When we misbehaved, she’d swat us with her hand, and when we really misbehaved, she’d spank our bare legs with the flyswatter and tell us how disappointed she was. She dealt with tantrums by ignoring us, and with disobedience in public by embarrassing us or pretending to leave us behind. When we were good, the world was full of love.

When I was eight, I learned the word “recuperate,” and I felt guilty that I wanted so much for Mama to pick me up and hold me. But after her fourth child was born, Mama had to have a hysterectomy, and that meant she couldn’t pick up any of us until she was done recuperating. The four pregnancies and her return to childcare duties too soon after each one meant that her uterus dropped and pressed on her bladder, making her incontinent. She put a clean towel down everywhere she sat, even in the car to go to the grocery store. While she was in the hospital, Daddy bought her a new car that she hadn’t leaked on, a used brown station wagon that, he assured me, would not need me to pound on the starter to get it to crank, and wouldn’t need to be driven backwards when the transmission fluid leaked out, either.

We stood in the parking lot around the new car and waved at Mama, up in her hospital room. She tried to smile, but I could see the pain and desperation in her face. Later, I heard the arguments. How were we going to be able to make car payments when we could hardly afford rent and utilities and clothes and groceries and diapers?

By the time I was a senior in high school, thinking of college as an escape rather than a sentence, we didn’t have to worry about Daddy’s impulse purchases, or the loans he’d take out at the pawn shop, or the bills he claimed to pay and didn’t. And, finally, Mama was going back to school.

“I tried to go back to school sometimes,” Mama said, stubbing out her cigarette. The smell of burning filter filled the room and I wrinkled my nose. “Every time I’d try, though, Daddy would get all pissy. Supper wasn’t cooked on time, or the laundry wasn’t finished, or y’all needed more attention. He’d get mad every time I tried to do my homework. So I just gave up.”

“But now you can go back,” I said.

She’d decided she wanted to be a nurse, and she was going to James Sprunt Community College in the fall. “Just basic stuff the first year, English and math and history and stuff. I’ve still got to work to keep a roof over y’all’s head,” she said. And she did it, too, working long shifts at StevcoKnit on the weekends and at nights, while going to school full time. When she couldn’t keep up with the schoolwork, the shift work, and the mom-work anymore, she asked for a layoff. The company was already cutting back on their staff, and they agreed. She and my brothers lived on unemployment and student loans, and she got her degree in three years.

I was right when I told my girlfriend that Mama had loved being a mom, and she did try to hold onto me too tightly, to tell me how I should live my life. I responded by arrogantly pushing her away. My phone calls with her were fewer and farther between, and I tried not to call when Allie was around. When she was, though, Allie listened intently for any hint that I was giving into Mama. “And why do you always have to call her?” Allie asked. “She’s just trying to manipulate you into feeling guilty again. She ought to call you if she wants to talk to you so much.”

I asked Mama why she never called me, and she sighed deeply.

“I don’t want to bother you,” she said. “I don’t know what your schedule is like, and I don’t want to disturb Allie, either.”

When Allie left me for a woman in my master’s program, I called Mama before I told anyone else, and even though I’d pushed her away and disappointed her in more ways that I could count, she immediately offered to leave right then and drive the two hours to Raleigh to bring me home.

“I can drive,” I said tearfully. “It’ll be good for me. Maybe I can clear my head some.”

“Are you sure? I don’t mind.”

“I’m sure,” I said.

When I got to the clinic where she worked as a pediatric nurse, we walked out the back door to the nurses’ smoking area, and she held me tightly and let me cry. She listened, not interrupting, not telling me that it was for the best, or that she’d known all along that it would never work out. She just held me.

*

It was the fall of 2007, and Mama was dying. My husband and I had flown home for my brother Kevin’s wedding reception, and we helped Mama with the preparations for the brunch she was hosting at the newlyweds’ home the morning after the party. She dragged the cord for her oxygen tank around the kitchen, while she mixed up eggs and showed me the recipe she’d found for pumpkin pinwheels.

“I keep tripping over your leash,” I told her, kicking the clear plastic tubing out from under foot.

She laughed. “It is a leash, isn’t it?” She pulled it off and lit a cigarette. “I need to go pick up some stuff, some more cigarettes and soft drinks and stuff. Y’all need anything?”

“A drink,” I muttered.

“You’ll have to get that yourself,” she said with mock seriousness, her eyes sparkling. “I don’t buy ‘adult beverages’.”

I stuck my tongue out at her.

She left me in charge while she went off to the store, and I royally fucked up the dough and had to start over.

“What am I supposed to do again?” I muttered at the print-out Mama had given me. I was modifying a recipe that looked like it was supposed to work and didn’t. Or maybe I couldn’t follow directions. The fear of her disappointment flooded through my body, and though I laughed with Richard at the gooey mess, I felt the old hysteria building. It had to be perfect. I could not disappoint her.

When she got back home, I admitted my mistake and showed her the mound of doughy crumbs. “It wouldn’t roll up. It just kinda did… this,” I said, waving my hand vaguely.

She teased me about not being able to cook, and picked a lump of dough off the top. “It tastes good, at least,” she said. “Do you think we’re gonna have enough?”

“I think so,” I said, pointing to the rolls of cake and frosting that were more or less behaving themselves. “What do you think? I can go get some more pumpkin if you think we need to make another couple of batches.”

“Nah, that looks fine,” she said. “There’ll be plenty of food.”

When we got to Kevin’s house, more than two hours from Wallace, I helped Mama unload all the food she’d made and all the decorations—the candles and faux fishing nets and seashells and sand dollars and beach-themed plates—she’d brought for her perfect brunch.

“What do you need me to do?” I asked.

“Nothin’,” Mama said. “I’m gonna decorate when we get back tonight, and there won’t be much to do in the morning.”

“So what time do you want me and Richard to be here tomorrow?” I asked.

She shrugged, and one of the earpieces of her oxygen tube fell off. She fitted it back with a practiced motion that reminded me of just how sick she was. “Whenever. I told Kevin it was from nine ’til about eleven, but people can just drop in whenever they feel like it.”

“Okay, that sounds good,” I said.

Richard and I got to Kevin’s the next morning around quarter to nine.

“Where have you been?” Mama hissed. “I still haven’t got the decorations up yet, and people’ll be here any minute!”

“I, well. I’m sorry, Mama,” I said. “I thought you had everything under control.”

“I just wasn’t expecting you to sleep all mornin’,” she said.

I clenched my fists and put them deep in my pockets.

By the time we got back to Mama’s house, pain and exhaustion lined her face.

“I guess we should start packing up,” I said to her. “Do you want me to get you anything first?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Can you go get me a Diet Sun Drop? And I’ll change clothes and feed the dog, and then I can sit down and rest a minute.”

“Sure,” I said.

When I got back from the kitchen, she was still standing up, wearing one of her knee-length knit nightgowns, waiting for me. “I wanted to give you this,” she said. Her mouth was in a line, her blue eyes flat.

“What is it?” I asked, taking the envelope from her. I looked, and recognized my purple handwriting. “Oh,” I said.

“So now you have it back,” she said. “Now I need to just sit down and have a cigarette. I am tired.”

I slouched back through the house, burning with remembered humiliation and fear, wondering why she had given the letter back. Forgiveness? To remind me, when she was just months from death, that I had hurt her? To show me what a stupid kid I’d been? To remind me of all the disappointments, all the anger, we’d experienced over the years?

When Allie left me eight years before, I’d fallen right back into Mama’s orbit, with her on the periphery of all the decisions I’d made. She had cast her shadow on every memory, creeping into all my dark nights and standing beside me through all my fuck-ups. She gave me advice when I worried I’d gotten an STD, she reassured me when I didn’t get interviews for jobs I thought I wanted, she teased me and laughed with me, and cheered for me when I moved to Boston. Somehow, simultaneously, she saw me both as her baby and as myself, even as we repeated the well-worn grooves of our fears and our failures and our love.

And, I decided, that’s what she was doing when she handed back the letter, just as she had always done—just being there, being my mom.

Some names have been changed.

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Amy Gantt grew up in rural North Carolina and moved to the Boston area eight years ago. She writes grant proposals for a university, and she writes true stories about her life, particularly about family relationships and how those relationships don’t end, even after death. She is currently working on a memoir about caring for her mother as she died of ovarian cancer, and when she loses her nerve, she recites the words tattooed on her left arm: “Remember your name, Do not lose hope. What you seek will be found. Trust ghosts. […] Trust your heart, and trust your story.” Email: amygantt74[at]gmail.com

Brief from Oma

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Laura Story Johnson


Brief from Oma
Photo Credit: Laura Story Johnson

When their family finally got off Ellis Island, my great-great-grandfather purchased his five daughters and one son the biggest orange he had ever seen. He splurged to celebrate their feet touching New York City streets. My great-grandmother coughed and so they’d waited and waited in the warren of rooms, praying that the harbor breeze would clear her lungs, blow them forward: deliverance. “If she goes back, we will all go back,” my great-great-grandfather said. Back to Germany, back to starvation. It was November, 1923 and my great-grandmother was twelve years old. It took her a few days to recover from the two weeks on the ocean, but the officials eventually let them through. My great-great-grandfather cut the orange, split it between his thin and worn family. Hope tasted sour and they had to choke it down.

My great-grandmother would laugh when she told of the grapefruit they all confused with an orange. Her laugh rumbled in her lungs, triggered a cough that never really went away, just like her accent. In America she learned English and became a teacher. She taught her students to say Jamaica: “Yamyaca.” She fell in love and married a horseman, keeping her marriage a secret because teachers could not marry. Eventually she delivered the twins she’d hidden under her dress and learned to cook. At the restaurant she made meals for businessmen, city folk. At home on the farm she made tiny cookies with aniseed, hardtack I hated as a child and longed for as an adult.

After I graduated from college she continued to mail me boxes of the tiny cookies: “kleügens” she called them. My new boyfriend knew them as pfeffernüsse. We ate them together at our plastic kitchen table looking out the window across our Soviet apartment complex. We dipped them in warm water that tasted, faintly, of coffee. I fiddled with the emptied packets of “Coffee King: American Flavor” from the window shop under our stairs as I told him about my Oma. Her strength was the reason I’d moved, the foundation that made me brave enough to seek meaning in foreign places. She always told me to see the world. And there I sat, around the world from her, eating something she had cooked in her Iowa kitchen. I could see her hands: long fingers, knuckles large with arthritis and farming, working the dough into little balls. They were my hands. Or, my hands were hers. The weight of a family recipe that had traveled so far sank in my chest and I suddenly longed to be closer to her. I wanted to soak her up before an inevitable happening that I couldn’t say out loud would occur. Instead I choked down the lump in my throat and put the rest of the kleügens in our cupboard.

I wrote her letters from Mongolia and told her the things we were experiencing. She wrote me back, sometimes confusing German with English as her mind so filled with life let the bubbles of memory overflow. I visited her on a cold November day when I returned for a couple of weeks to the United States. My boyfriend’s job kept him in Mongolia while I left. She asked me about my students and told me about her time as a teacher, experiences not that far removed from the book I was reading to my third graders. I taught my students to say pioneer: “Laura.” It was my name. Or, my name was hers. Some of my students thought that I was Laura Ingalls Wilder and that the book told the story of my life in America. I would laugh when I told of their confusion.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was a teacher too. Like my Oma, she was only a teenager when she first stood in front of a classroom. Like my Oma, she married a man who loved farming and horses. Like my Oma, the stories of her childhood seemed a world away and yet were mine. Everything had changed since she was a girl. In a lifetime the places she knew became unrecognizable. I realized that my students lived in a place where, seemingly, nothing had ever changed.

When a Mongolian colleague hosted us at her home, a ger on the steppe, I watched her third grade son gather dung for the fire. He was struggling in my class, grappling with the pronunciation of English words. He couldn’t understand our book, but maybe it wasn’t the words. What I understood seeing him leap onto a horse bareback was that for him that life, my Oma’s life, my life, were all the same. Time meant nothing; it was just foreign. When I was home, time meant everything. I held my Oma’s hand and we sat together on her couch, looking at the autumn leaves out the window and making plans for the summer when I would be back.

Like my Oma, I fell in love while I was a teacher. I decided to leave my job in Mongolia at the end of the school year to return home. My boyfriend decided to go with me. We knew we wanted to get married, but I needed him to meet my Oma, to be a part of my family before he joined my family. I mailed my Oma a picture of the two of us smiling and wearing red hats against the falling snow of Ulaanbaatar. I sent Russian fur hats home as gifts and sewed stockings out of silk from China. At Christmas we set the box of kleügens out in our living room and ate them with cocoa we made from grinding up chocolate bars into warmed milk. I wrote my great-grandmother a card and taught my boyfriend to say words in German. Letter: “brief.”

It was an unusually warm April day when my mother called. A postcard to my Oma, a picture of three little Mongolian boys holding lambs tucked in their del, sat on my desk. I’d typed it to make it easier for her to read, used a new ribbon in my ancient Olivetti. I wrote that I felt the energy of spring and told her we would be home in July; we’d already purchased our tickets. Then my mother’s broken voice said it out loud and hanging up the phone was an impossible happening. I let the foreign beeping of an ended phone call carry me with it, my hands, her hands, the phone’s cradle. Eventually I walked to my desk and clutched the postcard to my heart. I wept knowing that she would never receive it. Summer came early to Mongolia that year, but it was too late. I was too far away and couldn’t go back for the funeral.

A week after my mom’s phone call all of our snow had melted. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon my boyfriend and I hiked to the hills outside of Ulaanbaatar. There on a sunbaked ledge he built an ovoo, an offering of sticks sculpted into the celebration of a life, of all life. The ovoo pointed out across the valley toward the mountains we could see on the other side, shimmering in the distance. I faced west, home, and breathed in the warm blue sky. Then I sat on a rock and wrote my last letter to my Oma. I filled the page and strung a piece of string through it, tying it to the ovoo along with two blue prayer scarves. I held my boyfriend’s hand and said goodbye to her. She taught me to say goodbye: “Auf Wiedersehen.” It meant until we see each other again.

The following Tuesday morning there was an envelope waiting for me in my postal box. I couldn’t breathe when I saw the handwriting. Ten days after her death I got a letter from my Oma. She’d mailed it before she passed and suddenly there I sat in another world than her, holding something she had written. I clutched it to my heart before I could open it. When I finally did, I found another miracle. She wrote about the picture I sent her. The words were brief, but they were everything. She recognized the warmth I needed in his eyes and told me. She knew. From a picture, from a letter, they became family. I took the letter home to him and searched for the box of kleügens, tucked at the back of our cupboard. Somehow there were a few left and I ate them with the man I would marry. We didn’t dip them in anything. Kleügens soften with age.

In November she crossed an ocean. In November I crossed an ocean. In November my great-grandmother arrived in America. In November I held her hand. Beginnings. Endings. Hope. An unusually warm November day took my voice through an intense happening. I had to whisper to say her name out loud.

It was November, 2010 and my daughter was just a few minutes old. Lying with her at my breast, I stared into her black eyes, wondering at the journey, at her passage: deliverance. My husband cut an orange, split it between us. It was the sweetest thing I had ever tasted. We named our beautiful miracle after my Oma.

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Laura Story Johnson is an attorney working in human rights research and advocacy. Born and raised in Iowa, she has lived in New York City, bush Alaska, Mongolia, Boston, west of the Zambezi River in Zambia, and in Austria. Her work has appeared in the South Loop Review. She currently resides in Chicago with her husband and two young children. Email: lstory.johnson[at]gmail.com

Oh Woman

Baker’s Pick
A. Gonzaga


Daltonism - 070/366
Photo Credit: Frikjan

Five months into his doomed relationship with her, Winfred could not pronounce Anna’s name properly. Before he began dating her, he had been exposed to more than his fair share of the irrational anger that inevitably follows a woman’s unexpected disappointment.

So often had he felt the blast of their combined wrath that Winfred was convinced a nameless British poet whose exaggerated verse on Tiger Woods’ divorce, which had become an internet sensation, had either spiritually stolen from his thoughts bank without first seeking Winfred’s permission—under the copyright law which protects ideas, and not just their expression (for none of his were expressed yet)—or that the poet was located somewhere in the Nordic region.

Titled “Tiger,” the poet had composed this:

Now that she wants three-fourths
of a billion dollars, I suppose I should
assume that Tiger had married
a Nordic woman
without asking questions firstly?
With ‘Forgiveness’ missing still in our vernacular,
and the future not looking good for Christ here,
I too have come to like to consume
revenge as though it were cheesecake…

*

Such a prolonged fuss can’t be all about ‘saying her name correctly’ Winfred thought that evening as he sat alone in the Amarillo restaurant and bar, in the heart of the city, having read—with moderate shock—Anna’s text message ending their relationship just a few hours earlier.

*

Anna was knock-kneed but, quite frankly, hers was a sexy genu valgum. The twenty-six-year-old understood perfectly that life is what you make it. In winter, she inserted those thick, knock-kneed legs into black-and-white striped leggings, creating balance with a matching neck scarf. And was on fire then, with her black, funnel-shaped thigh-reaching overcoat, at one with her black, knee-reaching leather boots, allowing just the right amount of striped leggings to be seen. Metropolitans observed her admiringly in that particular attire. She knew and loved it, their eyes on her.

*

There is definitely more to it than her name, brooded Winfred. She has been easily irritated from day one, finding fault where there was absolutely nothing wrong, as if I caused her writer-ex to dump her. See me see wahala o! The writer guy probably had his valid reasons. What an average woman she is, and thinks she’s something special! And what’s the big deal if I call her ‘Ana’ instead of ‘Anna’, stressing the double ‘n’ the Finnish way? Would my stressing that double ‘n’ make her prettier? Would it straighten her knock-kneed legs? This must be the world’s most laughable reason for two adult people to break up! I should have seen it coming! How did I let a girl younger than me selfishly use me to enhance her depressed life—because of being discharged by her dream ‘writer’ man—while she repaired herself, and then dumped me with a text message in the end. A text message! Winfred, how you have suffered in the hands of these females!

If you are simple and quiet they stupidly conclude you are an ojodu (crude and possibly stupid). If you are expressive they wrongly accuse you of being a show-off who’s trying to dominate them, and thence see you as their competition. The other guy who braggingly calls himself prince comes to mind. Who would have, two months ago, foreseen his sudden downfall? It seemed obvious the dude always did his best to appear presentable and, seemingly, wait on his then-lady hand and foot which should have been enough for any normal woman. But no! These twenty-first century ones are after the impossible which explains why she first showed him off around town, then punishingly dismissed him. But I ask—for what sin? And didn’t the guy who always behaved as if flood water can never reach his corner, humiliatingly commence his mourning with the depressing Facebook message “Guys get lonely too!” How sad.

Now isn’t it obvious these females are looking for a superman in the name of a partner?

*

First there was Marina, who thought Winfred looked like a basketball player and quickly smuggled him out of the nightclub before her two friends, who had gone to the ladies’ room, returned. She had hoped to bed a black man—a tall, huge one—that night, eternally concealing it from her two friends who didn’t warm to the idea when, once, she had dreamily and adventurously mentioned it. They drank that evening.

Forty-five minutes later Winfred had negatively amazed Marina as he stood frozen two arm-lengths away from her. The semen he prematurely ejaculated as he caught sight of her nudity, had hit her navel area, splashed about and caused the horny lady to stop dead, agape. They had earlier just romanced and smooched, while standing, for a short while before pausing to undress.

Afterwards she tried to view the strange man’s involuntary action positively, though it was understandably a bit challenging. One could imagine why; she hadn’t risked her friendship with her girlfriends for this poor show. She didn’t believe any woman’s bodily beauty could inspire such an explosion, particularly not her body, which she called neither special nor poor.

There was a clean up after which the lights were turned off, by her, even though this was Winfred’s one-room apartment.

It was now that Marina realised the just-experienced incident was an omen of the hopelessness that was to come as Winfred refused to join her in his own bed, citing the ridiculous excuse that didn’t just madden her but, in fact, drove her bonkers on the spot.

‘It’s nothing about you, honestly,’ Winfred begged. ‘I really like sleeping here on the floor mat. I prefer it to the bed, believe me. It’s a good bed by the way, and I hope you enjoy it! Please throw me a pillow…’

Marina flew off the bed. Her clothes were easy to put on. ‘What a jackass! A real jackass!’ she protested and banged the door after her. He could hear her stiletto heels marching angrily down the stairs.

*

Sini followed. After she and Winfred met in the city’s main library, she swiftly made up her mind to bed him that same evening. She imagined her little woman self in Winfred’s broad arms behind closed door. It was a beautiful image. Yet this small cute-face was meticulousness-obsessed and to make things worse, despised ‘weak’ males. She owned her own definition of them.

The conversation had progressed in a manner that pleasantly surprised the two till Sini thought it time to test the apparently poised man’s real confidence. ‘Did I hear you say you would like to get to know me better?’ her face misleadingly coated with vexation. Winfred, who was both caught off guard as well as found wanting, stammered, ‘No! No! I didn’t mean it like that. I was just kidding.’ He gave a fake, uneasy smile. Sini watched and grimaced.

Why should I give it to a coward at all, one-night stand or not? She questioned herself, experiencing no trouble finding the answer that satisfied her resolute heart. No. No way!

*

Afterward a true beauty surfaced, Frida, who liked Winfred through and through following their first meeting in a park. But her bisexual friend, at the time metamorphosing into an absolute lesbian, kept calling him at midnight, night after night, calling, calling, calling, and he kept answering, answering, till his brake lights were out of her sight, his voice out of her earshot.

*

Reminiscing here and now in the hottest spot in town, the Amarillo restaurant and bar, Winfred didn’t think it had mostly been his fault with women. He was convinced he was the victim in the cases of Anna, Sini, and Frida. He’d really fucked up with Marina and thus deserved her womanish wrath, he admitted. But it could have been worse.

A woman now rose from the southern end of the room, approached the bar and began to do there what visitors did. Another bottle of the same wine, please, she said. Red—you remember? And chilled of course… The woman was in her seventies, but was visibly winning the war against wrinkles. Winfred closely observed the woman, beheld her charm, feasted his eyes on her sleek red lips and flawless eye makeup and wished someone had advised the wrinkles to stop fighting the losing battle and recognise ‘a hand’s palm cannot conceal the moon’.

She was wonderfully shaped, and sandpapered and polished, and knew just how to be beautiful.

Oh woman, how many manly hearts did you injure who aimed only for a ticket to your temple some five or so decades ago, when my kind was a mystery here and Africa last looked poised? Winfred reflected, uttering nothing as you would wager.

Note: See me see wahala o! is a Nigerian Pidgin English decrying phrase which, if translated into English, can loosely mean How is it my fault!

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A. Gonzaga (Oluchukwu Aloysius-Gonzaga Nwikwu) lives in Newsweek’s 2010 world’s best country—Finland. He is Nigerian-born, Nordic-educated. His literary work has been widely published in journals, magazines and anthologies across Africa, Europe and North America including Helsinki Times, The Battered Suitcase, The Slovenia Times, Itch, The New Black Magazine, Aunt Chleo: A Journal of Artful Candor, Newropeans Magazine, Red Lion Sq., Palapala Magazine, The Glass Coin, and many others. Work on his first book is ongoing with plans for translation into multiple Nordic languages. Email: a.gonzaga[at]ymail.com

The Hole

Fiction
John Young


DSC05620
Photo Credit: omefrans

In front of their row house was the big road. Not far beyond that and to the left were the hospital and the water. Behind his house was the whole neighborhood which spread over the big hill; all the other houses, the loops of streets, the five or six schools were there. He knew how to get to his school: one way, during the day, and without taking forever. He didn’t know what the water felt like since he’d never touched it and he’d never even seen the hospital close up. On the way to his friend Andre’s house, he saw a little more hood, but not much. The rest of it could have been China.

The world was too huge. The city—the hood—the street was too huge. There was nothing he really knew.

His grades, height, strength, weight, looks (except for glasses and extra-dark skin) were all average, average, average for a thirteen year old, and he knew it. Even so, he knew he couldn’t compete in this world or pretend to know how. He was no more than that dust mote floating there in the sunlight. The millions of dust motes in the dirty, cagey air, coming from the musty carpet were like the people in the world.

He knew nothing. He got Cs and maybe a B, but he knew nothing. “Do I even know my name at least?… Travis Taylor, Travis-Taylor-Travistaylor, Chtrashish A-lor,” and he’d get to speaking it so fast that he would stutter or so that it would start to sound really weird to him. So the answer came back: Nope, didn’t even know that.

He only guessed at it and got close enough to the correct words or names enough of the time. And there were so many other words that he should know but didn’t, and things he shouldn’t have forgotten but did. That thing at the ocean… called a “sure” or a “shure” or a “shore”… Who was there to ask?

And there was Andre who lived just around the corner—five row houses in total. It was summer, and they’d seen a lot of each other and had been bored together for most of June, all of July, and half of August, and then when Travis came home from Andre’s house one day, he wasn’t allowed to go back out that night because of the shooting. Andre ended up getting killed.

Andre had been his best friend, and he felt bad for wishing that he could have been there to see it happen because then he could have believed it really happened. He could have known at least that one little bitty thing. It was sick and wrong of him to want to know that it really happened, but at least then he wouldn’t have thought that someone was playing a trick on him. Maybe it was Bryant, his little brother, who was pure evil.

And that was another thing he didn’t know: how a twelve-year-old could be pure evil.

Travis sat on the carpet before dinner and held between his thumb and pointer finger a gray carpet fiber he’d picked out because it was loose. He looked at it, twisted it, smelled it, looked at the glue, where it had come undone, and he closed his eyes, thinking about what it looked like—but he had a hard time remembering. When he opened his eyes and saw that he hadn’t done a great job in picturing it in his mind, he cried.

When Bryant wasn’t around, he asked his stepfather if they could go to the funeral, and his stepfather said, “I’ll find out when”—and he was looking at the TV both times Travis asked. Both times (two separate days), it had been around three in the afternoon, when his stepfather got home from work. It was hard to tell what day it was because there was no school and TV is the same Monday through Friday. So, when he woke up on the afternoon of what felt like the third day, he couldn’t remember whether it really was the third day or whether he had just taken a nap on the second.

It was around five in the afternoon when he thought he would ask again (on either the second or third day), but he waited until dinner. The only problem was that Bryant was there.

Would his stepfather bring it up? He wasn’t in his work clothes. He looked a little relaxed.

Mom was taking the fries and hamburgers out of the bag. Then she went back to the kitchen to get Pepsi and rolls. Travis, his stepfather, Shelby (little sister), and Bryant were all sitting on the couch already. As he watched his mom work, he thought about asking her, but it wasn’t a good idea to ask her things on the days she worked, and he didn’t know if she worked this day or not. (She worked when she got called.) And if his stepfather said yes, then it was yes. If he said no, then it was no.

“Lord, bless this food,” she said. “Amen.”

When Andre was alive, he used to say that his dad said grace and it was long and that his mom never said grace because that would have been really weird. Travis asked why they did it that way. Andre said he didn’t know.

Everyone reached for the burgers, fries, rolls, all at once—except for how Travis served his little sister first and then served himself. No one said anything about anything.

In spite of the heat, in spite of how he felt, Travis was hungry—maybe because he’d been lying down sleeping all day. And he took the fries and burger (though there weren’t many fries after Bryant had taken them all).

It tasted good. Half of it was gone from his plate (and he had taken as much as he could) when his mom said—

“What’s the matter, honey?”

Was she talking to him?

Hard to tell, but no—eyes on the TV—the answer was no. She was talking to his stepfather.

He was looking at the TV too, but nothing on his full plate was even touched.

Then he smiled stupidly and said as though he was saying something barely worth saying—

“I ain’t got no ketchup.”

Mom sighed, and as she was joking about how he could get it himself, she was on her way into the kitchen to get it for him.

She put it on the table.

He was watching TV.

A minute passed.

“Oh,” he said, figuring out that the ketchup was in front of him. Smothered his fries. “I hungry.” And he ate it like he was starving.

Travis wanted to ask now, but he knew his mom could yell at him. That, and he was scared, scared that his stepfather would say, Oh, it was today and you missed it. And he was scared that Bryant was going to use it against him, but Bryant was going to use something against him, didn’t matter what.

But then Travis imagined that it really could be tomorrow (since he couldn’t even remember how many days it had been, two or three) and if he didn’t ask now, he was going to miss it for sure. And why did it matter so much?

He had no idea why, but to miss it was a real, true horror—nothing less than one of Bryant’s little guns or his poisons or his friends. He wasn’t really sure, but though it wouldn’t have killed his body, it would have been like being shot. That feeling that he got when he couldn’t remember what the little pieces of carpet looked like—that feeling that made him cry—could have been even worse. It wouldn’t have been just that he would forget his friend… it was hard to put it into words… it would have been like losing his soul. It would mean that he knew nothing, was nothing, meant nothing, and was better off dead. It would have been like Andre never existed.

And even if he asked and got beaten up or spit on or smacked, anything would have been better than not going to the funeral.

But his stepfather never, ever touched him; never. Never ever did Travis remember his stepfather touching him. Never, never, never, ever. And he really couldn’t even remember, now that he thought about it, his stepfather ever looking him in the eye. And his stepfather called Travis by his name just as often as Travis called his stepfather “stepfather” or “pa” or “dad” or anything at all. It never happened.

Bryant would hit him though, or he would use his sponge—that sponge… that made up his nightmares.

“Umm…”

No response.

“Umm. I want to go to the funeral.”

His stepfather’s eyes didn’t turn from The Mo’Nique Show.

“What about the funeral?” he continued.

“Ain’t much ketchup,” he said.

“It’s enough,” said his mom.

“I want to go to the funeral.”

For a while—a good three minutes—everyone but Travis was watching the TV. There was a man on who kept shouting, “That’s not what I said! That’s not what I said!”

“I want to go to the funeral.”

Then, as he usually did, his stepfather jumped right into the conversation as though he’d been there all along.

“I don’t know when it is!” he said shrugging, eating.

“You said you was going to find out.”

“I’m going to change this.”

“I don’t care,” Mom said.

“Can’t you ask them?”

“Who you talking about?” asked Mom. “Ask who?”

Stepfather never asked questions.

“Andre’s family. Ask them!”

The pudginess, the big pores, the sweat—the rashy looking black stains on this stepfather’s face said a whole lot, but none of it had to do with why they weren’t going to the funeral. Or maybe they did.

“You can ask them.”

His stepfather was looking towards Travis as though he still seemed to listen to the TV and probably would have for a while.

After another half-minute, Mom said—

“It was today. The funeral was today.”

“What?”

“The funeral was today. At least I think. The pastor was in a black car.”

“Why didn’t you… find out—damn it.”

He never cussed—never—but they didn’t even look. They didn’t know why not any more than he did.

His gaze went to the plate of burger and didn’t leave until he ate each bite extremely slowly. His stepfather was flipping through the channels, his food all wolfed down at once now that he got his ketchup; his mom was in the kitchen; his little sister had gone to her room, but (how could he not notice?) Bryant was still in the living room, now across from him, a bunch of food still on his plate. (He was so stringy; his face like those bodybuilders’ muscles; so stringy.) He mashed down a fry with the flat part of the fork and watched the oil ooze. His gaze went to Travis and just sat there. Travis looked down.

Something about his brother’s eyes—some trick of shadows or how he squinted viciously all the time or the sharp bones that were over each eye, his eyes, at least to Travis, when he was a few feet away, looked all black. Devil’s eyes. And how could his face be like that? All strings? Travis had a soft face; Shelby had a soft face; their mom had a soft face.

Looking away didn’t do much good.

“You know who killed him?” Bryant asked.

Their stepfather was sitting right there on the same couch.

Bryant sniggered. “Punk.” A pause. “The boys killed him because he was a punk. Now you a punk. They going to kill you. They’s coming to get you.”

Stepfather was a fungus there.

Travis took his plate to the trashcan behind—something he had to do, although it gave Bryant a chance to cut him off at the hall.

Just as Travis neared the exit, so did Bryant.

From his hand low at his side, a short piece of wood like a chopstick held at its end a little piece of blue-green sponge. This was tied with a metal twisty-tie and could have been moist with something.

“You want this, punk?”

Travis looked at this and then into the black eyes again in spite of the fear because it hinted of whether his brother was going to use the sponge or not.

Travis shook his head. “No.”

“No?”

“Why not?”

“…I…” He wanted to say: because I would rather die and take you with me!

The thing on the stick was horror. It was pain, death, loss of brain. Damage. It was a drug, he was sure, sure, sure, sure. Anything he knew—at all—even his name—would vanish!

“No…”

And he knew that he was close to wetting himself but had held it off in time.

“My friends is coming over…”—and he flicked the little stick at Travis and missed. Travis moved away, pretending he wasn’t horrified.

Ok, thought Travis, right there is a spot on the floor that I’ll have to avoid from now on…

 

Andre, in a lot of ways, was really unlike Travis. Andre liked stories, Travis math; Andre sports cars, Travis running shoes; Andre light-skinned girls, Travis dark-skinned girls; Andre could talk for a long time with one girl (Daysha who was just a friend), but Travis was all nervous with all girls. They were different in a lot of ways, but both of them were sure that he didn’t know anything. Both of them didn’t understand why anyone would ever join a gang, when he could just be by himself. When they had been together for the last time, they’d found the “secret passageway” (that didn’t go anywhere)—and both of them were amazed by it. Amazed by a little hiding place as though it held treasure—even though it clearly didn’t.

They would never miss him in the basement; they would think he was in his room. If they ever looked in his room, Shelby always covered for him since she loved him. She always kept her door open to guard her brother’s closed door. She always used to say, “I think he’s at Andre’s.”

And maybe she still could say it and they’d believe her.

The basement door and steps took a lot of caution—a rusty knob and mechanism, stepping on the far side of one board and the opposite side of the next.

And at the bottom of the stairs was the only light. No flashlight in the house. He turned it on, got a look at the obstacles, and then turned it off and walked silently to the far wall. There were no windows. The room was narrow, and there was no “path” from the light bulb to the far wall. He moved around one old couch and a big wire clothes rack that was on top of it—he moved, delicate around a lot of left over insulation, cushions, the water heater, and lots of garbage bags filled with clothing. It was dirty down here; the air was all used up by the dirty, breathing trash.

At the far end, set into the empty wall, was a wooden panel (all the walls were wooden panels) that was so slightly squeezed into place that it could be pulled out very carefully as though it were on a hinge. Behind the panel, the insulation brushed against his right shoulder as he moved to sit on the square foot of plywood that covered some sort of water pipe. His feet touched the rough, splattered concrete, and as he pulled the panel back into position, it kept pressure on his left shoulder.

If ever he grew a couple more inches, he would have had to lean forward because of the beam of wood grazing his hair. Half an arm’s reach in front of him was where the insulation started again. He could, if careful, pull the panel back—and he was invisible—like an air bubble in a cake.

And was invisible.

And didn’t exist.

And the whole thing was a sure accident—like his existence.

*

Smell… smoke, weed. How could he have possibly smelt it before he even heard them on the steps? But he was sure he did. Had they been smoking it all through the house and no one said anything?

But here they came. There were three of them. Their steps came, pa-puhm, pa-puhm on the stairs in three sets—and this happened after he had been hours in the dark, sitting there awake without even thinking about sleeping since he’d been sleeping all day. Even if he’d had his watch, he wouldn’t have been able to tell what time it was because there was no light at all and no light on the watch. It was probably around 2 or 2:30 in the morning.

Their pa-puhms all got to the bottom and there was a big delay until they got the light on. When they did, they left it on and were able to make their way around the boards, insulation, cushions, cans. They were sitting (or maybe just two of them) on the couch that he had never sat in because it just seemed like some sick, dirty thing that they would have used—and he was right. It was a couch—with cushions—like a sponge that had soaked up his brother’s… personality (not a good word)… his brother’s… curse (the perfect word)—had soaked it up and threatened to poison Travis.

The weed smell was gone. At least, when he drew in a slow breath across his clear nostrils, he couldn’t smell anything but mold. It could have been that he just imagined it. But it didn’t really matter; he wasn’t afraid of what a little bit of smoke could do to him.

A line of light sliced diagonally across his legs and there could have been some light on his face if he had to guess, but it was really nothing to fear. From how he sat, he couldn’t see them through the crevice, but in the silence he could hear every word.

Bryant was cussing about someone Travis didn’t know, saying he wanted to cap him.

“Sneak up and get right in the ear.”

And then repeated it.

The other two were agreeing (he guessed), and that was all they really had to say about that.

“I’m sick of this weed, yo,” said one of the other two. “These seeds is crap.”

“You should grow it down here,” said the second one to Bryant.

Bryant responded, “My bro a bitch, yo. He’d call the cops.”

“That’s some messed up bullshit.”

“He would.”

“Then you should cut his ass.”

“He a punk. I got a thing of wood that got a sponge on the end. I tell him it’s acid on it. He gets scared.”

(Acid? Bryant never said anything about the sponge and the stick; he had only done a great job pretending that it was dangerous. Acid?)

“Acid like the shit you drop?”

“Huh?”

“You know, get high with?”

“No, like the shit you burn a n— with,” said Bryant.

“You burn him with it?”

“No, man, ’cause I ain’t got it!

There was a little pause. Then one of the other two (their voices were hard to tell apart; they were both soft) said—

“You got any of that shit, yo? That shit good.”

“Naw, man. Just this weed. This seedy-weed.”

“So why you tell him you got acid on it when you ain’t got it.”

“You stupid, yo. You ain’t listing to what I saying. I ain’t got the burn-you acid, and I ain’t got the other shit either. If I had the other kind, do you think I would get him with it if I had it?”

“Then cap him.”

“You cap him. I ain’t getting caught for some bullshit.”

“You want me to cap your little brother?”

“He ain’t my little brother. I ain’t gonna waste my time with him when I got too many other n—s to cap. What you keep talking about him for anyway. You’se gay?”

They both said “fuck you” to the other one.

A long pause this time. Someone said, “Careful!” They were probably rolling up that cheap weed.

So how funny is this? That there wasn’t anything on that sponge and his brother couldn’t even get the stuff (either kind of acid) and if he could get it, he’d use it on himself, and his brother wouldn’t cap him even if he had a chance because he was scared to. So the sponge was… a joke?

Travis laughed noiselessly, tensed his abdominal muscles and rocked forward and backwards, thrilled, thrilled, and came back to an easy rest in the chair. It was a joke, and he finally got it.

A few minutes later he heard a lighter flick and the three boys were quiet as they smoked. The smell did make its crippled way over soon enough; it smelled like a stale cigarette. He laughed again to know that they were smoking the cheapest pot in the hood.

“Shit, yo! I burned myself.”

“Dumb ass.”

It was damned funny, and the stink was something like victory. Maybe the smell was making him a little dizzy, but not enough to matter. He would have loved it if one of them went into shock and started shaking, and then he would have gotten to see the other two cry like babies. Or it would be great if the bulb burnt out and they all wet themselves because they were scared down here in the basement at dark. They had that kind of softness—he knew it—but stuff like that was for the movies.

And it would have been pure movie stuff if he jumped out of the wall and knocked the joint out of their hands and plucked all their heads off like flowers, one by one, and let them bleed all over the basement until they were skeletons. But that was movie stuff too. How could his brother keep this up without getting killed pretty soon anyway? Movie stuff wasn’t for him. After all, he was just starting to get to know something about himself (of all things). Something real. Movies were fake.

They complained for another twenty minutes, mostly about how bad the weed was and how they were going to buy from someone new but they were worried that if they cut out “Lil” that they would get shot. Then they all three left their reek, climbed back up the stairs, leaving the lights on. The last thing Travis heard was his brother saying, “If he ain’t with his crew, like I says, he gonna get it in the ear.”

It was about that boy whom Travis didn’t know.

When they were all gone, he said aloud, “Go ‘head,” and smiled.

 

Holes (he had no idea there had been anything) in the wall—the exterior wall—showed that it was dawn. Smaller than BB-sized holes showed dawn.

He had slept for a little bit in this hole-in-the-shape-of-his-body, and then had to go to the bathroom. The wall swung out, swung back in—closed back like a box of candies only he owned and would come back to. The little box was the last thing he’d found with Andre, and now that he was out of it, no longer looking at it, he smiled and breathed deeply (breathed victoriously the lingering reek) thinking that he in fact could see that place, could know it, could remember it just as much as anyone else who had a chance in this world. He knew something. He only needed to start small.

And he smiled, believing he had the guts to find that sponge and touch it.

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In the last year John Young has published an op-ed on compulsory education in the Baltimore Sun and two articles in the on-line journal, The Christendom Review. He is a career Spanish teacher at Baltimore City College High School. Email: jclaytonyoung[at]hotmail.com

Tarmac

Fiction
Stacey Spencer


gray purse with buttons
Photo Credit: Kathryn Harper

My cell phone is nestled inside my knit purse, the purse I picked out because it was like one another woman might wear on summer vacation, sitting on the passenger seat next to me. I’m driving, first on windy Highland Avenue then along grinding Oporto-Madrid. The dirty grey road laps its tongue out toward the horizon in front of me, just for me to drive on. Traffic on either side of me, roadside attractions—most of which are long on roadside and short on attraction—whiz past as my cell phone rings.

I’m driving.

I do not jump to answer it. It buzzes and vibrates.

I said, I’m driving.

It’s true that oil burning on asphalt smells like long country drives, that the passing lane dividers pacify me into a restful lull, and that the lives of the drivers on the road are just as real and either touched or left wanting by the Grace of God as my own. It’s only their urgencies, joys, triumphs, and pains are not as loud as my own. I could swear sometimes that the man on the radio is airing my insecurities one by one in agonizing detail. When I listen closer I can tell myself no, it is someone else’s tragedy. I cross my heart once, then again passing under the yellow light in the intersection. I feel lucky for a moment.

The driver to the right side of me is able to keep up with my slow pace. Her permed, dyed-red hair matches her eyebrows. She’s had them done. They’re splotchy like her complexion. Her smile is enviable, in spite of her smoking. She flicks her ashes to the ground from her car window. The sun catches the gold bangles on her wrist. The cigarette is a menthol. I know from the green ring above the filter. I imagine what her voice is like, what words come out of her mouth when she’s not smiling or puffing on a smoke.

I’ll take Marlboros, hon.

No sir, officer. I did not know I was speeding.

I love you, Frank.

Whichever man she loves, I bet his name only has one syllable, and she speaks it like a truck driver. Mine has two. So do “I’m done,” “Want more,” and “Get lost.” I like the second one best. It suggests discontent but leaves mystery around who is discontented over what. A woman could chew over that question all night long and I intended to since I had the entire night to myself.

I lost the flame-haired smoker paces ago, after losing interest in counting bright yellow dashes. I was going somewhere. Twinkling stars, they astounded me. The darkness around them that appears empty reminds me I’m going somewhere, but where was it?

Who cares if gas is precious when you’re outrunning your pain? The buzzer on my phone does its song and dance announcing to me and to the stars, “You have a new message.”

It buzzes again.

You have a new potentially exciting or exhausting message, damn it. If it’s possible, I do not pick up with even more effort than the first time I did not pick up the phone.

I’m driving, I say to the tiny phone still abandoned inside my purse next to my breath mints, last night’s movie stub, and my last speeding ticket from another race against emotion. I slide my purse underneath the passenger side seat. Now it’s hiding.

That phone needs a new personality; a quieter, more thoughtful one, maybe. One that buzzes when I want it to and doesn’t sing the Gloria to the high heavens when I don’t want to hear it. I cross my heart again.

The air is so fresh. What is it with those stars, anyway? Jesus, does air have to be so fresh? Not to be ungrateful. As a child I believed stars twinkled because they were happy. Now I know. They are not smiling brightly. Not tonight. At least not on my behalf. You see, I have this pain, this giant, oaf-like pain wedged inside of me. Open air tempts it to leave. Miles have passed and the dark country roads are empty.

Next I imagine nighttime under ebbing and flowing airplanes on the magic city airport tarmac. Planes like futuristic dragonflies veer off towards the heavens, the roar of their heart engines purr so loudly that it vibrates my entire body right down to my painted pinky toe. The sheer power of it shuts off my noise, the steaming engine of doubt chug-a-lugging through my days. The tongue of the runway rolls itself onward, ahead, into the future—a red carpet of asphalt and light where these memories can gain momentum, race past me and, finally, leave the stratosphere. I feel the vibration and the lightness as they lift.

The convenience store has a sale on light domestic beer, the lights inside are bright and, in contrast to my tarmac fantasy, real. The line is short. For that I am grateful. I quit two years ago, but the circular green line reminded me of forgetfulness, then alertness, then finally bliss and complacency of nicotine slinking its way through my veins like an old toxic friend.

Chill from the freezer nips at my bare shoulder—I reach inside for a bottle of Mello Yello. I catch the pale blue satin petal from my bra strap and the whites of my eyes in the reflective glass set inside the freezer door. The whites pour in all around the dark green circles of my pupils like diamond-bright sand on the edge of a lush and verdant island. I lick my lips and flip my hair. They don’t have Mello Yello. A Fresca will have to do.

I pay for my drink with my check card and return to the car. The cell phone I’ve been hiding from all night has fallen out of my purse and slid into plain view. Where the light is blinking, I know there is a sign.

The message is clear. He called. The door is open. A cool breeze blows inside through the open door. Call me back. I’ve been thinking, he said. He’s been thinking. I could call and run back, return to the life I’d mourned all month. I could call. From my parking spot at the gas station, I stretch myself out across the hood of my car and watch the bright overhead lights reflect in my silver-chrome-painted toenails. I imagine I’m stretched out along a windy stretch of concrete beneath the roar of passing airplanes. I could still call, I think, but I can also sit here for a while, then get back into my car and keep on driving into the night, keep saying good-bye, keep on leaving for the rest of my days.

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Stacey Spencer, also known as S. Michelle Spencer, writes from her home in Birmingham, Alabama. When not writing she can be found hiking on a trail, making jewelry or enjoying Mexican food. She would also like to say that if this short story had a soundtrack, it would be “All I Need” by Air. Email: stacey.spencer[at]rocketmail.com

Furnished Rooms

Fiction
Don Smith


Before many doors of light
Photo Credit: Lori E. Burleson

Death comes sure as Sunday, he thought. It comes inch by cold inch till it has taken the exact measurement of your life. He had not expected it so soon, but here it was, and he didn’t care much.

He wasn’t sure that he had ever cared. He had lived his life in the rooms of others, among the things they had chosen, arranged in their way—as a son, an employee in one office or another, and a husband to two wives. Now, his final resting place and whatever arrangements attended his departure would be for others to decide. He had no preferences.

Death came to all whether they wanted it or not—but so did life. He hadn’t chosen to be born. His parents chose, presumably. And if he had a soul, it wasn’t his; presumably, it was God’s. So, God would get it back, as he understood the arrangement. God was welcome to it.

Life’s choices came down to very little. It was like you found yourself at a station with trains coming and going, all bound by different routes to the same eventual destination. Which route you took and who went along with you and where you stopped along the way made no difference in the end. Every passenger on every train wound up eventually at the same destination, the end of all lines.

Looking back, what had he actually chosen? He more or less chose a field of study and a career, though much of his progress in the latter depended on variables beyond his control. He chose to marry, twice. He did not choose to have children; his first wife chose, though he was glad and loved them very much. They kept in touch, but as they grew up, they had inevitably grown apart. They loved him, and would say that he had been a good father or at least that he had tried to be one.

His first wife divorced him when the children were still young. She got the house and custody. He did not contest the settlement; it was best for the children. She soon remarried and moved to another state. After that, he seldom saw the children. He called them, sent gifts, and contributed to their support, but it wasn’t like being in the same house, eating meals together at the same table, and sharing the routines of school and work.

They did not yet know that he was dying. They would be upset when they learned. He guessed they might look back at old photographs and perhaps share memories from the early years when they had all lived together in one house. They would come to the funeral. But they had their own lives now, and he would be little less a part of those as a memory than he was as a distant presence. And they would still have their mother. He remembered when his own father died. He felt the absence, but not so much as he did when his mother died a few years later. Maybe it didn’t matter which parent went first. As long as one remained, there was someone who had known you longer than you had known yourself and who would always be genuinely interested in every detail of your life. He was glad that the children would still have their mother.

He had not told her, either. They did not keep in touch. So, she would learn from the children, once he told them. He did not look forward to calling them.

His wife knew, his current wife. She had not been married before but had a home of her own, and so he had moved in with her. No children—they had agreed it was past time for that. They had a good, close relationship, the kind that maturity offers perhaps in compensation for the more intense passions of youth, and he loved her more as the years went by.

She had not taken the news well at first. He guessed he would have wondered if she had. She accepted the reality of it after a while, as one must, and they came to treat his impending demise in a sportive way, forced though the bantering might be. Gallows humor, though the gallows in his case were very real and not distant.

He heard the garage door open, and shortly she walked into the room, smiling as usual, and came over to the bed to fluff his pillow and kiss him on the forehead.

“How’s the pain?” she asked. “Still bearable?”

“Yeah,” he said. “The pills do a good job. Better than I deserve.” Actually, they took away the acute pain, but there remained a constant ache and therefore restlessness, which competed with immobilizing weariness, so that he kept shifting uncomfortably in the bed—but not by much.

“I’m fixing lunch,” she said. “What would you like to eat?”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter; I don’t get hungry just lying here.”

“Look,” she said, “even the condemned have to eat, and they get to choose their last meals.”

“So I have to come to the table even if death is at the door?”

“I could bring you a tray,” she said, “but the exercise might do you good.”

“I guess I’d have to eat your cooking either way.”

“I hope it isn’t my cooking that has done you in.”

“Oh, you’ll find someone else willing to eat it,” he said. “My chair at the table won’t be empty for long.”

She drew back at that and made an effort to steady herself, her lips trembling. It had not been the right thing to say.

“But,” she said, as the tears came, “I don’t want someone else. I belong to you.”

At that he was suddenly stilled, staring at her as she sobbed without reserve, her face abject yet now seemingly radiant. His love, his life. Then he too wept.

Don Smith has retired from a career filled with writing a lot of memoranda, reports, plans, manuals, and professional articles. He published a few stories years ago, has started writing fiction again, and has now published a couple more. He tends to focus on the small dramas that mark our daily lives.
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Email: smithdon37[at]sbcglobal.net

Ball Gag

Fiction
Anthony Marshall


whereyouwanttobe
Photo Credit: Alexa Avitto

Chicago seems like the center of the universe when you’re nineteen and don’t even make your bed in the mornings. For the longest time I never wanted to talk about Chicago. I eventually fled the city and my family back in Ohio, preferring to live in Boston. My mother called me and asked why I wouldn’t come home to Cleveland. I told her I wanted to be a comedy writer and to be a comedy writer one had to live near the action. In Cleveland there hadn’t been any action since Levy gave a blowjob to a twelve gauge. If somehow it was possible to make a legit living being a bullshitter I would have a leather couch that was not on loan from Rent-A-Center. The closest I could come to that was being a comedy writer. I lived in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. Ramona came to Chicago with me to live until she met a boy and moved back out after six months. I was still so excited to be in a big city and living on my own like an adult. The only thing hindering me was the constant calls from my mother checking up on me. The apartment itself, located above a deli with the most delicious turkey club sandwich, was peso cheap so I didn’t really need to find another roomie. My job as an assistant manager-in-training at an upscale department store covered all my bills and left a little for nightlife and writing. Usually I went out with Ramona, her boyfriend, and a few of their friends down to the Ukrainian Village or to watch improv somewhere.

It was one of the hottest July Fourths on record for Chicago. The humidity was so oppressive it either forced people into their homes or out of their homes like the Gestapo. During that night, after the fireworks left the skies full of smoke and barbeques went out, was when my apartment was broken into. There is something about having your home broken into that dumps a huge pile of paranoia on you. The safety blanket of my home was taken from me. To me, it seemed like all of those disheveled possessions in the house no longer belonged to me, that I didn’t even want to touch them because they felt dirty.

I didn’t see the two men who broke in until many months later when I happened to have enough strength to actually google the news article. Once they were in they went through the cupboards in my kitchen, they made some sandwiches, watched a little television and made some long distance phone calls. The men went into the bathroom and took a bottle of painkillers I had from two years prior when I had a rather large abscess lanced. They knocked over all of my shampoo bottles on the ledge of the bathtub. On my bed was a Valentine’s teddy bear I had brought from Cleveland. My father had given it to me for protection just before he died when I was ten. They ripped off the arms and discarded it alongside my emptied dresser drawers. There was no money in the house but everything I had in life that was valuable was taken. At the time these men broke in I was not at home. I was far away on vacation getting my hair braided in the Caribbean. I was lingering over the canals in Venice, reading Dostoevsky. I was holding my parents’ hands while we strolled through Disneyland. I was in Cancun. I was on the moon.

I know exactly what happened when the men broke in because a police officer meticulously walked me through the events while the broken glass cracked beneath my Converse.

Then, Ms. Jeunesse, the two perps used the last of the duct tape to seal the airways on the doors, the officer said. When he asked me if there was anything I could possibly give him to help the investigation I started to cry. I had no more to give. The tears rolled down my face and the officer offered some cold reassurances. My cell phone rang and he excused himself. I couldn’t stay in the house alone so I walked out, down into the street and answered my phone. It was Mom.

Yvette, darling, why haven’t you called all week? I’ve been trying to get a hold of you, she cried.

I know mom, I said, trying to stifle my sniffling. The heat didn’t relent on the Fifth of July, the day after Independence Day. The sun was burning the back of my neck. I had already spent so much time outside of the house that, through my teary vision, I could see a pale ring around my wrist from where the hospital band denied my skin a suntan.

Well, dear, how’s things going, she asked while chewing something crunchy.

Mom, I’m thinking about moving again, I said, and folded my arms, feeling the pain of stretching skin behind my elbows from the three cigarette burns on the back of my arms.

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Anthony Marshall lives in Paris on the Left Bank where he drinks wine and wears a beret. He is smart, sexy and full of shit. Email: tantalusplague[at]yahoo.com