The Storytellers

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


Storyteller - Statue by Chanel and Tiffany & Co
Photo Credit: Sarah-Rose

In mid-2010, the world got to meet a charismatic man who told a compelling story of a thwarted crime. He was described by the Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capeheart as “one of the strongest people we’ve seen for a while.”

In 2012, another compelling storyteller came to the nation’s attention with her animated tale of realization and escape set against the backdrop of Easter Sunday.

Now in the spring of 2013 the unbelievable tale of man who became a hero by being in the right place at the right time, at first reluctant and then accepting of his role as rescuer. Think Luke Skywalker. Think Harry Potter. Think Charles Ramsey, the man who painted a picture with words that was so complete and well-rendered, we could imagine every detail, from him ripping the door off his neighbor’s house to the Big Mac he held in one hand.

As I write this, the interest in Ramsey is fading but details of the true-life house of horrors are still coming out. But for a few days, he was an intrinsic part of the story. People knew his name. People bothered to learn his name, not to mock him but to hail him as a hero.

I hail Charles Ramsey not only as a hero to the women he helped to free but also for his ability to tell a story. He has the same talent as the other two people I alluded to: he can tell a vivid story in the time in a single news segment. Ramsey may not become an Internet sensation but the other two storytellers did: Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson. People might not remember who wrote The Great Gatsby but when you say one of these storytellers’ names, you might just be quoted some of the story in return.

One of the talents we’re expected to develop as writers is brevity, preferably compelling brevity. Novelists need to perfect their “elevator pitch” and tell what a 70,000 word novel is all about in fifteen seconds. We might kvetch about it but these three people have shown us not only that it can be done but that it can be done spontaneously in front of a TV camera.

With Dodson, Brown, and Ramsey controversy arose about whether the audience was mocking or revering them. Of course they had their detractors but, for the most part, I think their fame came not because of their class or the color of their skin but because all three told interesting stories in interesting ways.

All three followed basic plot structure: set-up, climax, and resolution. All three used colorful and interesting language. Language relevant to the situation and familiar to those involved. Language that cut straight to the story instead of embellishing beyond the bounds of tight storytelling. Language that’s modern and popular, reflecting our time and each respective setting.

I remember the first time I heard each tell his or her story. With Dodson, I pictured the story he told (of a man climbing through Dodson’s sister’s bedroom window and Dodson chasing away the “bedroom intruder”). I loved not only his enthusiasm and clear-cut language but also his direct address to the audience, particularly to the Bedroom Intruder himself, something storytellers have done since the first “hearken well, dear listener” or variant thereof. Dodson capitalized on his fame with T-shirts and music and has managed to keep his name in headlines ever since he first came to our attention. He’s interesting. He manipulates the media well. He only recently renounced his alleged homosexuality on May 2 and he has an arrest record so there is still a chance he could become the Oscar Wilde of twenty-first-century America.

When I first heard Sweet Brown tell her story of escaping a fire, I was drawn closer by her delivery (she claimed to have bronchitis but in subsequent interviews, I find her voice as melodically rasping as in her initial interview). She told her story with a particular cadence, her voice almost evangelical as she gained speed to convey a sense of urgency. In twenty seconds, she became a sensation. Not because of her clothing (which she said embarrassed her, in retrospect) or her son pacing behind her but because she told a complete story—in her own way, with her own words—in twenty seconds. And she even had time for a punchline. In her Tosh.0 “web redemption,” she played a version of herself who was a fire safety awareness superhero dumping buckets of water on careless fire-starters and saying her unintended catchphrase. Stephen King probably wishes he could do the same.

And then there’s Charles Ramsey. Like Dodson, he was a hero in the story he told. Like Brown, he took charge of a dangerous situation. Like both, he became famous for the story he told as well as for the telling itself.

I first heard Ramsey tell his story the morning of May 6 while I was driving and listening to Howard Stern. By that that point in the day I had read the headlines and knew there was a “hero neighbor” but I hadn’t heard him tell his story. I found his to be the most compelling of the three stories I mention here. Not because of its subject matter—which is on a whole different level from Dodson and Brown’s stories—but because he struck me as a true narrator rather than an anecdotist. Maybe it was because of the coincidence that The Great Gatsby was soon to be released in theaters but it felt very “Nick Carraway” to me—a first person outsider-narrator telling a portion of someone else’s epic story. There’s no doubt of his importance in the tale but if/when a movie might be made, the camera could be placed on either side of the door for this scene but wouldn’t be on the outside for the bulk of the film.

Ramsey followed the first rule of writing: show, don’t tell. His story was tight, factual, and direct, yet colorful and detailed. We watched and listened and while we might be left baffled and full of questions about what happened in that house, we are very clear on what happened on the outside of the house right before those concurrent 911 calls were placed. His narrative was colorful in his telling yet he maintained a tone in keeping with the solemnity and anxiety the story itself produced. When interviewed later by Anderson Cooper, I found Ramsey even more interesting as he fleshed out more details of the story and talked, reluctantly, about himself. Like Brown, he finished his original story with a decidedly final—and memorable—line.

Dodson came in (deus ex machina) at the tail end of the story he told, one of three major characters. Without him, we would still have heard the news report about a break-in and attempted rape, maybe with Dodson’s sister Kelly telling the entire story (she could probably give her brother a run for his money, based on the original news report).

Brown’s story plays on the universality that a simple incident could have become disaster and that it happened to anyone, including us. We identify with her, project ourselves onto her, and feel her relief with the story’s safe ending. We want to buy her a cold pop (and someone did, buying her a twelve-pack of RC soon after the story broke because he was so moved by her interview).

Ramsey had to be in that place, at that time, responding as he did (mail misdelivered, on suspension from his job, just back from McDonald’s). His is a “perfect storm” chapter of a larger story but that chapter and the story as a whole must include Ramsey exactly as he is, doing just what he did or else it fails. The actor cast in his role would probably have a credit like “with Guy O’Somebody as Charles Ramsey” and a name actor in the pivotal supporting role. I’m hoping for Don Cheadle.

So as to the cultural criticism that news media or the public are contributing to some kind of stereotype of class or race with the instant and ongoing popularity of Dodson, Brown, and Ramsey, we writers know the truth: people like a good story but people love a great story well-told and, by extension, the storyteller.

The fondness I proclaim for all three of these people is genuine. I would love to have dinner with any of them, just to hear more of the stories they must have to tell. When even our “reality TV” is obviously scripted, we crave people who tell real stories with real passion, especially when they can do it in the time it would take you to travel in an elevator with them and crack open a couple cans of cold pop.

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Email: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

One Night in Bridgeport by Mark Paxson

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Bob Zeanah


One Night in Bridgeport (King Midget Press, 2012) written by Mark Paxson explores the reactions of people to an alleged incident. Jack McGee is charged with rape after a one-night stand that he regretted the next morning.

Jack is a big-city lawyer sent to the quaint town of Bridgeport to make a contract offer on farmland. Bridgeport is full of small-town prejudices against lawyers and big cities. Lea Rogers is one of their own, a beautiful young woman, just home from college to help her mother save the farm that has been in the family for generations.

Lea files rape charges after persuasion by an assistant district attorney wanting to make a name for himself and to ingratiate himself to Lea, his secret high school crush. However, she is not a victim of anything other than embarrassment. In fact, she instigated as much of the sexual relations as Jack did. Abandoned by the people who should have supported him the most, Jack McGee is forced to face his crisis alone along with the court-appointed young attorney who must keep her opinions detached.

In addition to presenting an engaging story, One Night in Bridgeport is as much about a study of people and their inclination to prejudgment or capacity to withhold judgment until facts are known. Paxson explores his characters and the psychology involved affecting each character. He details what the responses reveal about each character. Some convict Jack of rape in their minds without the facts; some offer solace and a place of refuge. Friends and colleagues abandon him and strangers take stances, some withhold judgment and some find ways to support him quietly. Some strangers want to become vigilantes. The judge sitting the case plans to retire as soon as he can get the rape trial over. A couple of facts keep nagging him and he is torn between supporting the local girl and slipping quietly into retirement or pursuing what nags him.

Paxson brings his legal expertise into the writing of the book. Some may feel compelled to compare Paxson to John Grisham. However, Paxson goes much deeper into the analysis of human behavior. He shows characters at a greater depth of understanding.

*

Mark Paxson is a graduate of California State University in Sacramento and holds a law degree from McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific. He has practiced law for the past twenty years. His other published works include Marfa Lights and Other Stories (CreateSpace, 2012) and Shady Acres and Other Stories (CreateSpace, 2012). His stories “Gramps’s Record Player” and “The Ice Cream Man” were Toasted Cheese Best of the Boards selections and his article “Back to School: Reflections on Taking a Continuing-Ed Writing Class” appeared at Absolute Blank in 2011.

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Dr. Bob Zeanah is a freelance writer working mainly writing grants for small non-profit agencies. Bob teaches Creative Writing and his classes are in demand with students taking classes three or four times. In addition, he teaches classes in business writing, editing, and grant writing. He has two unpublished books, Then We Have Work to Do and A Magnet for Crazy. The latter he co-wrote with Suzan Christensen. Email: bobzeanah[at]gulftel.com

Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs by Traci Chee

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Traci Chee creates an opus of emotional echoes and poetic nostalgia within her short story collection, Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs (Aqueous Books, 2012), seventeen stories written in gorgeous prose that is eloquent, evocative, and edgy, capturing the big questions and the small moments of the ordinary and the extraordinary.

It’s about falling, it’s about dizziness and the blank step into the spaces between notes, it’s about missing the beat and having it come back to you, it’s about upsurging and deep places, it’s about the sudden blinding burst of light. — “The Human Organ”

Each story is a pearl—unique and shimmering, strung together with silky threads composed of music, water, and life. They are allegories of misfits. They are metaphors about fishes, first loves, and transformations, evoking fairytale, myth, and creation, the search for God and the longing for something more.

Within these stories, the reader will meet the strange and surreal. Worlds collide as animals and humans take on new forms and consciousness: a bear and a shark share a moment of existential thought; a crab takes on the weight of a boy’s soul, carrying him through life and loss; a fish reflects on his life as a human. For some of Chee’s characters the magical fabric of life is found within the folds of a kiss, in the beat of a popular song, or in the stars that fall to earth.

Other stories consider the intersections of life and death, love and regret, through adventure and peril on the road and on the high seas. In “Raft,” water is a personified character as well as the ocean that keeps company with a lost and lonely lovesick pilot whose plane has crashed. Reality blurs as the pilot lives in the past, the present, and the future. He is surrounded by water and is strangely sustained by it as he drifts further and further toward another body of water that is saltless and sentimental.

That’s not all. Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs contains images as well as prose. Chee takes her readers with her on a graphic journey through a series of letters written on postcards, accompanied by photographs and iconic images. Even the type itself holds meaning as it appears in poetic and stunning, artful form.

Chee’s collection of stories capture the moment, much like the impressionist painters did with their brushstrokes, collecting the light, the love, and the magic of life, holding it up for the reader to see like fireflies in a summer jar.

*

Traci Chee is a freelance writer. She holds a degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Thieves Jargon, Abjective, Able Muse, The Big Stupid Review and Toasted Cheese.

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

Marginalia

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Jen Julian


e-book generation 8356
Photo Credit: korafotomorgana

Our cousin Ruthie was seventeen when she disappeared. By that point in her life, she’d swelled to the size of three average full-grown women, which inevitably became her defining feature. My brother and me heard all the usual punches about how impossible it was for a girl that big to go missing at all: a guy who stepped out on his front porch anywhere in the county would be able to see Ruthie; Ruthie’s ass was visible on Doppler radar; Ruthie had to iron her jeans in the driveway. Etcetera. We joined in. Given our tenuous place in the fourth-grade hierarchy—we wanted to be tough, tricksters, uprooting order for the sake of chaos—it was impossible not to join in. In fact, a couple of the jokes I just mentioned, that was actually Chris and me.

When Ruthie had been gone three months with no word, our uncle hit a breaking point. The bus dropped us off from school and we found him home from work early, wearing a paper surgeon’s mask. He had doused the bathroom and the kitchen all over in bleach, and the smell was so strong that Chris and me couldn’t stay inside without getting dizzy. We moved our play to the magnolia tree in the front yard. There, higher in the branches than any adult would dare to go, we watched our uncle coming and going from the door carrying trash bags. He put whole boxes of Ruthie’s books out on the front sidewalk for the garbagemen to pick up. We threw magnolia fruits at him, pretending they were grenades. He ignored us. This wasn’t by itself unusual. If we were outside, the rule was that we were basically animals, and our uncle had come to accept our wildness in a way that had earned him our respect. Still, we could feel his intensity as we watched from the tree, the buildup of anxieties that had been quivering underneath since Ruthie’s disappearance. In his yellow gloves and surgeon’s mask, with his rimless glasses flashing, he had become the mad scientist of our Sunday morning TV shows. We found ourselves genuinely unsettled.

By dinnertime, we’d mostly forgotten this feeling. The gloves and mask were gone, and we assumed our uncle was once again himself, salesman, smooth-talker, unaffected and distant. He wore nothing on his sleeve but a large silver watch, and when he spoke his voice was warm as whiskey; it could, as our father had said, “wheedle the bloomers off any blue-haired lady.” But the intensity was still there, bubbling in the steaks he cooked for us that night. When Chris and me began to fight and stab at each other with butter knives, something broke. Our uncle snatched the steaks up and hoarded them at his end of the table.

“If you don’t stop acting like a couple of goddamn fools,” he said, “neither one of you will eat till Sunday. I will consume every bite of this in front of you. Every bite.”

We fell quiet. The house, still thick with the lemon-bleach smell of the Great Cleaning Blitz, was all the more filled with absence—absence and misery and a kind of guilt I wouldn’t understand until I was much older.

“Now listen,” said our uncle. “Y’all need to grow up. Y’all need to grow up because y’all need to help me out. If we’re on our own, then that’s the sad state of things, and the foolin’ has to stop.”

I looked at Chris. Chris stared at the table.

“Now eat,” said our uncle, pushing his plate within our reach. “And don’t be animals about it.”

We ate, but our uncle didn’t. He looked out toward the window with his chin in his hand, his sharp movie star chin. He was among the better-looking men in town. Strangers wouldn’t have guessed Ruthie was his daughter. Once, a crazy woman in a supermarket had mistaken him for a resurrected Marlon Brando, though I wouldn’t know who that was until years later. Out of a family of six brothers, he was the only one who’d actually been successful; it was due to his pretty face and charisma, according to our father, who didn’t think much of either quality. Our father was in jail for assault. Our mother was at a place upstate with manicured lawns and topiary, “unwinding” as it had been told to us. We had been living in suburbia for a little over two years.

“The books,” our uncle said. “I should bring them back in, I guess.”

He wasn’t talking to us.

“No,” he said. “They’re just gonna take up space. Leave ’em out there. Hell, leave ’em out there.”

*

I dreamed of rivers that night and woke up to the heavy sound of rain on the window and the pale gray light of morning. Our uncle went on to work while Chris and me waited for our bus in our rain jackets. The big trash pile was still there at the end of the driveway.

A lot of the books had laminated covers and call numbers on their spines. Ruthie must have gotten them when the library closed down and sold off all its stuff for five cents a pop. As I remembered it, Ruthie had bought everything she could and read it all, cover to cover, even the children’s books. Even the biographies, for God’s sake.

“Why do you think he’s throwing this stuff out?” I asked, kicking at the waterlogged boxes.

Chris shrugged. “Like he said, they were taking up space.”

“Seems weird,” I said. “She could come back still, or the police could find her.”

Chris was ten months older than I was. He’d ceased to be curious about the ways of adults. He thought he saw through them.

“Shut up about it, would you? She comes back, it serves her right for running off, her stuff getting thrown out. If she doesn’t come back, don’t matter no way.”

“But what if somebody kidnapped her?” I asked.

Who would kidnap her?” said Chris, a statement of fact, not really a question.

The police told our uncle that Ruthie had probably run away. That was usually what happened. She’d come back in a few days. But none of Ruthie’s things were missing, and she hadn’t taken any money out of her bank account, and her mother in Jacksonville, who’d remarried years ago, hadn’t heard a thing. As the weeks wore on, we entertained morbid ideas. Visions of serial killers and cannibals populated our imagination, though girls like Ruthie were rarely targets in the horror and crime movies we obsessively watched. We had trouble reconciling this contradiction.

The bus was late that day. I started picking through the books.

“Check it out,” I said. “The Elephant Vanishes.”

Chris looked at me and smiled. We shared a high five for the unsaid fat joke, but it was more out of habit than meanness.

See, we’d never wanted someone to harm Ruthie, though we hadn’t liked her much. For all our uncle’s coolness, Ruthie was surly and shrill, prone to bouts of seclusion and panic. It was always pranks on Ruthie that got us banished from the house, since our uncle’s only recourse as peacemaker was to shove us out the front door and tell us to come back later. He’d send us off with some sardonic phrase, a signal to us that we weren’t really to blame for being so wild: “Go find a feral cat to torment. Go poke a stick into a fire ant mound. Go throw some rocks at a wasp’s nest. Go on. Get.” So we’d wander around the neighborhood until dark. By the time we returned, our uncle would be watching a ball game, and Ruthie would be sealed up in her room, doing whatever it was she did in there.

“She wrote all these notes and crap in her books,” I said. “You can’t read most of them now. They’re all wet.”

“Why you still looking through that shit? Leave it alone,” Chris said.

If we’d grown up twenty years earlier with the advent of Scooby Doo and Jonny Quest, we may have been more interested in figuring out what had happened to our cousin. But this was the nineties, Scooby Doo was lame, and the coolest thing you could do was not give a flying fuck. In town, whatever interest had been piqued in Ruthie’s disappearance had settled by the time our uncle shoved her books out on the curb. No leads, no new information. Her name had disappeared from school altogether, and she had started becoming one of those faceless town legends that kids brought up at sleepovers to scare each other. When our uncle threw away Ruthie’s books, it raised the last questions we would consider for a long while. Why throw them out? Was he so torn up that he couldn’t bear to see them in the house? Did he think Ruthie had in fact run away, and was he punishing her for abandoning us? And if Ruthie had run away, why had no one seen her? She had no car, no close friends that we knew about. How would she get out of town? She was, as we’d known her, an outsider, lonely, distant like her dad. But on her wide, homely face, her distance just seemed to us like desperation. Had someone helped her leave? If they had, they’d stayed quiet about it.

I wouldn’t have said it to Chris, but throwing out Ruthie’s books seemed mean to me. She had been totally invested her books, if nothing else. She’d read intensely and without discrimination—pulp romance and fantasy, anthologies of short stories, Victorian novels, war novels, speculative sci-fi novels, self-help books, Beat poetry, whatever. She liked old books, enjoyed their feel and smell. In the book pile, I found an illustrated collection of limericks so ancient the binding was peeling off.

“Hey,” I said, choosing a page. “Hey, Chris, listen to this.”

“What,” said Chris.

“Listen.”

“I’m listening! Jesus.”

“Look what she wrote here. ‘My whole fucking life. Here is my whole fucking life.'”

Ruthie had written this underneath one of the limericks. Chris took the book from my hands. I watched as he read, his lips moving silently with the words.

There was an Old Man of New York,
Who murdered himself with a fork;
But nobody cried—
Though he very soon died—
For that silly Old Man of New York.

“That’s so friggin’ stupid,” said Chris.

The opposite page featured a cartoon of the man of New York with the fork jammed into his round belly. Beside it, Ruthie had written, “me.”

For a while, we were quiet. The neighborhood seemed enfolded in cloth, and I felt a hum, a ringing, and I think Chris felt it too. I remember thinking the hum had been there all along, pulsing throughout the entire suburb, only I hadn’t noticed it until then.

It was Chris who broke the silence. “I don’t think you could murder Ruthie with a fork.”

We smiled, but we didn’t high-five each other that time.

For a reason I couldn’t have explained, I kept the book of limericks, though I wouldn’t crack it open again until years later. When we came home from school that afternoon, the rest of the books were gone.

*

We finished up our fourth-grade year at our uncle’s place and moved back in with our mother over the summer. It was the last summer Chris and me were really what you’d call friends. After that, he made his own friends, kids with acne and tobacco teeth, kids who liked fire and jumping from high places. Chris got in trouble. I got a scholarship. When I was seventeen, he got pissed off at me for some stupid reason and broke my jaw, and it’s been clicking ever since.

Ruthie never came back. Our uncle never heard from her.

I kept her book of limericks, though I couldn’t say why. I opened it up again during Christmas while I was home from college, around the same time our uncle paid a visit, slinking around the house and drinking spiked eggnog from fluted glasses. He made charismatic gestures as he spoke. I noticed for the first time how long his fingers were.

My mind kept going back to the long afternoons we spent wandering around the neighborhood, coming home to a quiet house—our uncle on the couch, Ruthie in her room like a hermit. They didn’t interact much, not that we cared, though I remember getting up one night to raid the kitchen, and I saw his lanky shape and Ruthie’s round one on the living room couch together. They were eating leftover pasta and watching a movie, and as I slipped by, I saw a flash of silver as he poked her side with a fork.

“Porker,” he said, the word sifting out of his mouth with softness and affection I hadn’t heard before, the tone you’d use for a child much younger than Ruthie was.

“Quit it,” she whispered, sliding away.

He poked her again. “I’m gonna eat you up.”

“I said stop,” she said, sternly.

I went back to bed with a handful of Oreos.

I must have told Chris about this. Maybe I didn’t. In fact, I may have forgotten about the moment entirely until I opened up the book of limericks at Christmas and saw the page again, the image of the man on his back with the fork in his gut. “Me.” The neighborhood hum returned, unceasing. It stayed with me.

If Ruthie did leave town, my hope was that she ended up someplace better, someplace without kids like Chris and me to torture her, without a town to laugh at her. I don’t know for sure and this troubles me, I admit. Her moon face on the window keeps me awake at night, expectant and surly. In the end, all I can really do is close the curtains.

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Jen Julian is a first-year PhD candidate in Fiction at the University of Missouri, Columbia. In 2010, she received her MFA in Fiction from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she worked as editor for The Greensboro Review. She has had work published in Four Way Review and Press 53’s 2010 Open Award Anthology, and her fiction was a finalist for the 2009 NC State Brenda L. Smart Fiction Prize. Email: julianjen.n[at]gmail.com

Rare Books

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Ellen Wright


Books
Photo Credit: Ben Leto

My uncle Robbie works for the NYPD, so even though I only eat over there once a week, I’ve gotten used to almost every dinner being interrupted by a murder or a robbery. Aunt Lauren insists that we eat together “as a family” which means putting everything in the fridge until he gets back closed-mouth and depressed and we choke down the congealed, cold remains.

On this particular day we’re nearly done eating when the phone rings so I start cramming big bites of mashed potatoes into my mouth. Lauren shoots me a look but I just keep eating while Robbie grunts a lot into the phone.

He comes back already wearing his coat. “Jules, I’ll take you home. I shouldn’t have to be there long, and it’s in your direction.”

“Dad lets me take the subway alone,” I say, but he ignores me. I swipe a couple cookies and stuff them in my backpack.

Leaving Robbie and Lauren’s apartment on the Upper East Side is always surreal. The halls and stairs and elevator gleam, and the doorman always smiles at us. It’s a far cry from my dad’s and my cramped walk-up in Alphabet City, whose staircases usually smell of pot and are stained with vomit and other things I don’t want to look at too closely.

Robbie hails a cab and pretty soon we’re zooming down Second Avenue. Neither of us feels like talking. I stare out the window at the buildings flashing by.

“We can get out here,” Robbie calls to the cabbie. We’re in front of a swanky hotel that I’ve never seen before. Robbie looks at me and glances around. “You’ll have to wait in the hallway,” he says finally. I know he’s thinking that Lauren will yell at him if he makes me sit out on the street.

“Sid, can you keep an eye on Jules?” Robbie asks when we get upstairs, not waiting for an answer before he brushes past us and starts talking to one of the detectives. People in uniforms are milling around everywhere, holding coffees and notebooks and talking very seriously. I exchange half-hearted waves with a few who’ve seen me before.

Sidney, a rookie cop who has been stuck on Jules duty before, greets me amiably enough, giving no hint that babysitting isn’t really his job.

“Whatcha reading these days, Jules?” he asks, but his heart isn’t in it.

What we both really want to be doing is eavesdropping on the investigation. In unspoken agreement, we meander closer to the open hotel room door. There’s a table over in that direction where a hassled-looking young woman is handing out coffees.

Sidney saunters up to the table. “Hey Liz, how about snacks for me and my friend here?” He nudges me and I blush, but Liz smiles kindly and hands me a cup of lukewarm coffee. I don’t really like coffee but I take a tentative sip so I’m not just standing there.

Robbie sacrifices himself and keeps distracting Liz while I concentrate all my attention on eavesdropping.

“This was on the body,” someone is saying.

I hear Robbie’s distinctive rumble in response.

“It’s some sort of poem” is the response. “It says—

There was an Old Man of New York,
Who murdered himself with a fork;
But nobody cried—
Though he very soon died—
For that silly Old Man of New York.”

“Edward Lear,” I mutter to myself. Sidney looks sharply at me but I shake my head and he goes back to distraction mode.

“Doesn’t make any sense to me,” Robbie says. “Suicide note?”

“My grandfather write poetry,” offers a distraught female voice. I lean a bit closer to the door and squeeze my eyes shut, concentrating. “Maybe that’s how he decided to say his good-byes…” Her words dissolve into muffled sobs.

“Hey, Jules,” Sidney says, and I open my eyes. Liz looks a bit angry. I know I’ve been too obvious and she’s going to tell me to go stand by the elevator, so before she can, I dash over to the open door.

“It’s not a poem!” I shout. “I mean, it is a poem, but it’s from a book by Edward Lear. He must have…” Then my eyes go past a shocked Robbie and a woman with tearstains on her face and a bandage on her arm and fall on the enormous man lying dead in an easy chair, clutching a fork covered in some brown substance. His eyes are closed but his face looks like he’s in so much pain.

“Jules!” Robbie yells. Behind me, Sidney is apologizing. Robbie stalks towards me and drags me away from the room and out of the hotel. Outside he hails another cab. He doesn’t even yell, that’s how upset he is.

“Mom used to read the book to me,” I offer a few blocks of silence. “A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear. I liked that one because we live in New York.”

He doesn’t respond.

“Do you think the granddaughter did it?” I ask after some more silence.

“What?!” Robbie exclaims. He’s really shocked. “What makes you think that?”

“Well, if you were dying and you ripped a page out of a book,” I explain, “you probably wouldn’t have time to put the book back on the shelf, but she pretended there was no book. Maybe the book had evidence and she threw it out so you wouldn’t find it.”

My queasiness about seeing a dead person is now entirely replaced by this idea. Robbie, on the other hand, now looks ill.

“Jules, if the man was trying to tell us anything it was that he was sad and wanted to end his life. Maybe that book gave him comfort at the end.”

I can tell Robbie doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, so I fall silent, but I’m still thinking about it. I’m thinking, if I’d murdered my grandfather and there was a book that might lead the police to me, what would I do with it? If I just threw it in the trash they might find it. And then I know I have to find out what the next limerick in the book is. Maybe it’ll be something like—

There once was a young woman who—

and then I’ll know it was the granddaughter.

Robbie doesn’t say anything when we pull up in front of my apartment but I know I’m still in the doghouse. I run up three flights of smelly stairs and unlock the two padlocks on our front door. Dad’s sitting on the couch watching Reservoir Dogs like he’s going to be quizzed on it.

I go to bed but I can’t sleep, staring into space and thinking about poems and forks and Edward Lear. The light of the TV from the living room dances on my ceiling all night long.

The next morning I get up early. The TV is still on and Dad has fallen asleep in front of it. I shower and make some cereal really quietly. It’s Saturday so the buses won’t be running very frequently. I weigh my options and decide to walk the mile to the Strand since it’s not raining.

Mom’s copy of A Book of Nonsense disappeared a long time ago. I think Dad got rid of most of her books after she died, excepting the few I was able to sneak into my room. I’m determined to find a copy and figure out what the next limerick is, in case it points to a killer—the granddaughter or someone else.

Usually I try to avoid the clerks at the bookstore but today I need help. I approach the skinny guy who’s standing just past the notebooks and new fiction and he smiles at me.

“I’m—I’m looking for a book?” I stutter and his smile widens.

“We’ve got plenty of them here,” he jokes.

“It’s by Edward Lear? A Book of Nonsense?” I add weakly, wishing everything didn’t sound like a question.

He leads me over to one of the computers and punches it in, then points out the right aisle.

I find the book and sit down in the middle of the aisle to read it. It isn’t a very long book, so it doesn’t take long before I realize I’ve reached the end and I haven’t seen the one about New York and the man with the fork. I flip back to the beginning and read it again, more carefully this time, but it still isn’t there.

Two employees happen along just as I finish. The guy says, “Hey, you’re not allowed to sit in the aisles.”

I scramble to my feet. “I—I have a question,” I say, and he raises an eyebrow. I hold up the book. “I’ve been reading this, but it’s missing pages. I mean, there aren’t any pages torn out or anything,” I add hastily, afraid they’ll blame me, “but there are poems that I remember being in it that aren’t in here.”

“Oh,” says the girl. “It’s a different edition. There were more illustrations in the first two editions, and that one’s the later one. I like Lear, too.”

“Do you have the other one?”

“We might have it up in the rare book collection. It’s pretty expensive…”

“It’s pretty important,” I say, barely louder than a whisper. She glances at the guy, who shrugs, and takes pity on me. I’ve never been up in the rare books collection before. I look around me with awe as I follow her.

“I remembered it because we just got this copy in,” she says, placing it carefully on the table in front of me. “Did you remember that there’s a poem about New York in it? That was always my favorite…” She rifles through the pages just as I did downstairs, with the same expression when she comes to the end and it isn’t there.

“Maybe… it’s been torn out?” I suggest.

We go through page by page, and to my immense excitement find a ragged edge in between two of the pages.

“Whoa,” she says. “That’ll bring down the price. It’s in good condition otherwise.”

I would argue with her—it smells musty and you can barely turn the pages without breaking them—but I’m too eager to see the next poem. I sit down and open the book wide to that page. It says:

There was an Old Person of Chili,
Whose conduct was painful and silly;
He sat on the stairs,
Eating apples and pears,
That imprudent Old Person of Chili.

I sit back, disappointed. I can’t make any sense of it at all. But maybe Robbie or one of the other cops can?

“I need to take this with me,” I tell her. “It might be important evidence.”

“Slow down, kiddo,” she says with a smile. “It’s still worth a couple thousand dollars, even damaged. This is a very rare first edition.”

I call Robbie, hysterical. “I found the book!” I say. “I found the book and the page is torn out but the next page doesn’t make any sense and she sold it so she must have been…”

To Robbie’s credit, he doesn’t tell me to shut up or to forget about the case, he just says he’ll be here as soon as he can.

I’ve calmed by the time he arrives. He looks angry but I jump right into my explanation. “She must have sold the book,” I say. “She knew there was evidence in it and she couldn’t throw it out, and maybe she knew it was expensive. It’s worth a couple thousand dollars,” I add. “But I can’t make sense of the next limerick in it. Maybe you can or…” We flip to the torn-out page and he inspects the ragged edge. Unlike the rest of the pages in the book, the one about Chili is stained with dark trails. I wonder if it’s the same thing that was on the dead man’s fork, if he spilled that last meal on this page.

“Jules…” he says and trails off, closing his eyes.

“Did you find out something more?” I say suspiciously.

“Yes,” he says. “He died from poison. If he committed suicide, we should have found the bottle by now, but we haven’t.”

I’m reeling but he just stands up and flashes his badge. “I need to take this with me,” he tells her, and she actually lets him.

Three days later, I’m microwaving canned spaghetti when Robbie calls. I tuck the phone under my chin and stick one bowl on the side table next to my dad’s spot on the couch.

“I can’t believe it,” he says, sounding tired but with a smile in his voice, “but you were right. There was evidence in the book.”

“The poem made sense?!” I ask excitedly, sloshing tomato sauce over the brim of my bowl.

“Not exactly,” Robbie says. “Those stains on the page turned out to be the granddaughter’s blood. We also found her blood on the fork the dead man was clutching. He must have realized that she’d poisoned him and attacked her.”

I’m stunned. I remember, vaguely, that the granddaughter had a bandage on her arm when I saw her sobbing next to her grandfather’s still body.

“What happened to the book?” I ask after a moment.

“We had to take out the other page to analyze the stains,” he says hesitantly. “It’s not worth as much anymore, and we’ll have to keep it for the trial, but… would you like to have it, after that?”

So I don’t have my mother’s copy any more, and I don’t have the poem about New York, but the book is sitting on my bookshelf in a place of honor next to my desk. It reminds me of my mom, and the dead man whose last thought was probably of it, but it’s not really morbid. It reminds me that books are meaningful, even if not always in the way you expect.

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Ellen Wright lives in New York and works in publishing. Email: ellenbwright[at]gmail.com

Derry’s Down, Deary

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Alison Reeger Cook


fork
Photo Credit: Robert Parviainen

1887—London

Owl went missing two weeks ago. Normally, Pussycat wouldn’t worry about him; Owl could take care of himself, and sometimes he landed jobs that would make him vanish for days. But he had never been gone this long, and Pussycat’s intuition screeched in her ears that something wicked had befallen him.

That was the nature of the game, of course. Assassins for hire could disappear just as easily as their targets, but Owl and Pussycat were the best in the business. Their aliases were whispered with reverence and fear throughout the underbelly of London; if there was a hit that was judged impossible by every other cutthroat in the city, Owl and Pussycat could get the job done. That also meant there was competition who would love to snuff out the deadly duo, and one rival had attempted to do so. After pieces of him were delivered to other hit men as a warning, no one had pursued the pair since.

But this was different. When Owl and Pussycat were together, they were untouchable. Apart, Pussycat could only imagine what traps were set for her partner. She owed much to Owl—he had swept her up from the streets, taken in a poor mangy girl with no family or home, and rescued her from the workhouse or the brothel. He was the only one who ever made her smile, playing silly songs on his guitar, pilfering little trinkets to bring back to her, teaching her all the “most fashionable” dances—not that they’d ever attend any public affair at which they could dance.

When Owl didn’t come home after five days, Pussycat began prowling every dank and dreary cesspool of London to get a lead on where he was last spotted. After a week-and-a-half of dead ends and false tips, desperation led her to an underworld barkeep named “Snout” Robinson—not an ironic name by any means. He was a bloated boar of a man, with piggish eyes and a gold ring in his nose.

“Yeah, I’s seen ‘im,” Snout said. “Few weeks ago. Seemed off ‘is box, almost sick-like. But he left me somethin’, said someone might come lookin’ for ‘im and to give it to ‘er. Seein’ you’s the only one come askin’ for ‘im, I’d guess he meant you.”

Snout handed over a leather purse to Pussycat, who instantly recognized it as Owl’s. She pocketed the purse and turned to leave.

“Missy…” Snout lowered his voice. “I’ve heard rumors, maybe I’m not supposed to be tellin’. The Morbids may’ve gotten to ‘im.”

Hot pinpricks stabbed at Pussycat’s skin as the dreaded “M” word echoed in her ears. Owl had warned her about the Morbids. They were relentless. They were undetectable. Once they targeted you, you were gone. No matter how sly you were, no matter how far you’d run, the Morbids would find you.

But no, it couldn’t happen to Owl. She gave Snout a dark glare before she exited to the safety of the night’s black shroud. Inside Owl’s purse were two items. The first was a scrap of paper that had been torn from a book. Upon it read:

There was an Old Man of New York,
Who murdered himself with a fork;
But nobody cried—
Though he very soon died—
For that silly Old Man of New York.

The other object she stuffed into her coat pocket and rubbed its cool, smooth surface repeatedly over the following days. She massaged it in her palm as she stowed away on a merchant boat to America; she held it as she hid in a crate and was carried onto the docks by the unaware ship crew; she held it as she wandered the grungy streets of New York City, sniffing out any clues as to the “Old Man” indicated in that ridiculous poem, or any clues to finding Owl.

The object was a silver spoon with the word “Runcible” engraved on the handle. For some reason, Pussycat had a feeling that her life, and Owl’s, depended on that spoon.

*

“May I help you, deary?”

Pussycat looked over the woman at the counter of the antique shop. She was squat and stout, with a chin wattle that embraced her neck like a python. Her hair—what was left of it—was decayed red, straggly wisps framing the pink prune that was her face.

“Are you Madam Runcible?” Pussycat asked.

The woman chuckled. “No, I’m afraid not. My great-uncle, Irvin Runcible, was the original owner of this shop, but he passed away long ago. My name is Eliza Narragansett, but you may call me Ellie. May I help you find something?”

Pussycat narrowed her eyes on the woman. Even sweet, harmless old ladies could prove to be otherwise. Who knew whom the Morbids—if they indeed had a hand in Owl’s disappearance—employed to spy for them. Rumor was, the Morbids had eyes, ears, and fingers everywhere, not just in England. But this was the only place in all of New York City that carried the name Runcible—Runcible’s Antiques and Home Wares—and she was growing desperate for clues. She withdrew the spoon from her pocket and placed it on the counter.

The woman looked over the spoon. A look of bewilderment crossed her face. “Oh my, the spoon from the original Runcible wedding dinner set! My great-uncle had twenty pure silver place settings custom made for his bride and his wedding guests. Only one of the place settings had the Runcible name engraved in the silverware, for my great-aunt. How did you—”

“Do you have the other silverware that goes with this?” The limerick from Owl’s purse began a haunting chant in her mind. “Do you have the knife, or the… fork?”

Ellie scratched her chins. “A close friend of mine acquired the whole set from to the Runcible estate auction, when the Runcible sons went bankrupt. Paid a pretty penny for it. That’s why I’m surprised you have the spoon. Although it would be like Derry to buy something expensive, only to lose it or give it away. How did you come by it?”

Pussycat kept a cool expression, despite her temptation to pounce on the woman to strangle the information out of her. “My brother is a business partner of Derry’s. Derry let him have it to bring home to me. I collect rare silverware. That’s why I would like the rest of the set. Do you have Mr. Derry’s address, so I can pay him a visit? My brother has been out on business, and I cannot reach him to inquire about Mr. Derry’s homestead.”

“I dare say, Derry doesn’t much like surprise guests, but I’m sure he’d enjoy a little company. Poor man’s alone so much. Use to be such a happy man…” Ellie shuffled through a counter drawer, taking out a pen and paper and scratching out a list of directions. “He lives right above the Bong Tree Café, down on 55th Street. Try the turkey-and-pea soup. Put a little meat on your bones.”

*

Pussycat waited patiently until the owner of the Bong Tree Café closed the restaurant and locked the door behind him, then she made her way to the entrance that led up to the second floor apartments. She ascended the staircase with soundless footsteps, to the apartment number noted in Ellie’s directions. On the doorframe was a worn nameplate, “D.D. Derry.” She knocked, and then wrapped her fingers around the pistol tucked into her belt. For all she knew, she was walking right into a snare. No one answered. She reached into her boot, plucking out a lockpick. She jimmied the door easily, and stepped into a dark space that carried familiar smells—familiar to her line of work, that is.

There was an oil lantern sitting on a table at the far end of the room. Pistol at the ready, she crept across the apartment, and picked up the lantern. She intensified its flame, and held it before her as she scanned the room in the soft yellow light. There wasn’t much: a settee, a dining table, a bookshelf, an armchair… with someone in it.

The chair faced away from Pussycat, but she could see the hand resting on the chair’s arm. She heard a faint melody coming from the chair, like someone humming.

She aimed her pistol at the chair. “You, in the chair. Move one inch, and you’re a dead man. You’re going to tell me what I need to know. Got it?”

The chair’s occupant didn’t answer. The humming continued.

“I’m talking to you!” Pussycat stepped towards the chair. “Do you own a Runcible fork? Or can I skip ahead, and ask what you know of my missing partner? He gave me the spoon. It led me to you. Start talking!”

By now, she was three feet from the chair. The humming was, in fact, soft singing, and she could make out the words:

There was an Old Derry down Derry, who loved to see little folks merry…

“Are you deaf? I am two seconds from spilling your brains—”

So he made them a book, and with laughter they shook at the fun of that Derry down Derry…

Pussycat leapt in front of the chair, cocking the trigger of her pistol and pointing it straight at the singer. She stopped cold at the sight of a withering man, with full-moon spectacles set before tired eyes. The wrinkles of his face implied this was once a man who laughed, and sang, and smiled, but now had sunken into moroseness…

A silver fork, with the word “Runcible” engraved in the handle, was sticking out of the red, sticky pool in his chest.

It was not the first time that Pussycat had seen a bloody body, of course. It wasn’t the first time she had seen self-mutilation, or even death by fork. But as the man continued to chant, as the life-wine dribbled down his front, she felt a sickness well up inside of her that made her drop her pistol.

This wasn’t suicide. There was something unseen at work here. This was… morbid.

She approached the bleeding man, placing her fingertips on his cold, bony hand. “Mr. Derry, can you hear me?”

The glazed eyes wandered up towards Pussycat. The lips paused, and then a dusty, creaking sound came from Derry’s throat. “Oooooooowl…”

“Owl? Where is he? Did the Morbids do this to you?”

Derry’s eyes fell. “I was… his happiness. I… was the part of him… the Morbids couldn’t touch. The songs, the poems, the paintings… it drove back the Morbids. But they became too strong… they took the songs, they took the stories… but they had no use of me…”

Pussycat was losing her patience. “I don’t understand. Why are the Morbids doing this? Who are they? Tell me. I can find them. I can kill them.”

Derry shook his head. “The Morbids… are… sadness. His sadness. They have… overtaken… him. Once they have him, they have the rest of us.”

“Who’s ‘him’? You said something about poems. Owl left me a poem, about an Old Man from New York. Do you know that poem? Who wrote it? Is that who you’re talking about?”

Derry sunk deeper into the chair, or perhaps he was shrinking. “He went by my name… I was the side of him he never wanted to let go. But he was the real one. I was… just… the shadow. Find the man… who has my name… but it is not his true name…”

“You’re not making any sense!”

Derry suddenly looked at Pussycat. An unsettling smile cracked his face. “Exactly… it’s nonsense… that you’re looking for…”

There was scratching at the windows.

There was clawing from beneath the floor.

There was a suffocating sorrow dripping down from the ceiling.

Pussycat knew the Morbids were there. They were there for her. She shoved her hand into her pocket, grasping at the silver spoon, thinking of Owl and his singing and his dancing and the way he always made her laugh, and laugh, and laugh…

*

Two months later she was in San Remo on the Mediterranean coast, in the Villa Tennyson. She stood at the foot of a bed, staring at a man wasting away beneath the sheets, a man who looked so much like Mr. Derry, except older, and grayer, and sadder. She had tracked him down after searching for the author who had for years gone by the pseudonym Derry Down Derry. Somehow, the name Edward Lear didn’t sound half as charming.

Lear stared up at the ceiling, hands folded over his chest. Pussycat had heard gossip in town that Lear was suffering from a heart disease. It only made it easier for the Morbids to do their work on him.

“Mr. Lear, did the Morbids take Owl?”

Lear was still.

“Have the Morbids killed him? Or is he still alive?’

Lear sighed. Very quietly, he breathed into the stillness, “An Owl and a Pussycat… they went out to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat…

Pussycat felt an intense pang of grief.

They sailed away, for a year and a day, to the land where the Bong Tree grows…

“Mr. Lear, I read your story about us. About Owl and me. We’re supposed to be together. I think, even if the Morbids take us, we won’t die. So, if you would…”

They dined on mince, and slices of quince…

“Let the Morbids take me.”

Lear stopped.

“Let them take me. Because they’ll take me to where they took Owl. I want to be with Owl, Mr. Lear. Even if it means sadness overtakes us, at least we’ll be sad together. Being sad together is better than being sad alone.”

The quiet lingered a moment longer. Lear tilted his head towards the foot of the bed. There was no one there.

He smiled. He laid his head back down. He closed his eyes, whispering:

And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.”

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Alison Reeger Cook is the book reviewer for the Gainesville Times in Northeast Georgia. Her first young adult novel is The Scholar, the Sphinx, and the Shades of Nyx (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2013). In 2011, she placed Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 80th Annual Writing Competition for her play “Major Arcana,” and in WD’s Science Fiction contest for short story “Psycho Babbles.” She currently works at Peachtree Publishers, a children’s picture book publisher, as a trade show and literary conference coordinator. She likes sushi and sundaes (but not together). Email: imaginalchemy[at]yahoo.com

Qingyundian Vignettes

Creative Nonfiction
Hannah Samuels


Cucumber vendor---Beijing
Photo Credit: Alexandra Moss

1. ping-pong

A gate just a few apartment buildings down from where we live looks exactly like the doorway to Bilbo Baggins’s home, a circle gate or, as the locals call it, “moon gate.”

Between the last apartment building and the highway rumbling outside of the moon gate there are three ping-pong tables lined up in a crooked row. Behind one of these tables is strung a large, forest-green cloth. The cloth is hung up to catch the balls that get hit too hard and aren’t hit back. The cloth quickens the game as it frees the players up from running after balls all of the time.

These ping-pong players are the real deal. They play every day, every season, every morning and every evening. There has rarely been a day that I do not pass them on my way out of the complex. One morning there was a storm rolling in, but the ping-pong players were not hunkering down, they were out at their game as usual. Winter mornings can be frigid, in the single digits Fahrenheit, but on they play—fierce competition in the brutal weather.

There was a morning one day where the rain was falling hard as I left for work. I couldn’t see far enough through the downpour to notice if a ping-pong game was going on.

2. Street Sweepers

I have read in books about the street sweepers of yesteryears. It’s almost a historic profession. In mind’s eye I see the grizzled man, hat cocked, sweeping streets that, even before he started, were cleaner than he was. Maybe these public service workers sing, like in My Fair Lady, “Oh, wouldn’t that be loverly?”

Street sweeping is something that I don’t see, I don’t talk about; I only read about it in a nostalgic way. Street sweeping seemed to me like a bygone job, replaced by machines and trucks, until I moved here to this little China-village and suddenly manual street sweeping was a daily sighting. Every morning they are there, the street sweepers, wearing their orange vests and carrying their handmade brooms or shovels.

The brooms are made out of wheat sheaves, or at least something similar. Dust that settled overnight is swept up into piles. I don’t know what is done with the piles. Some middle-aged ladies carry shovels; it is their job to transport trash into the dumpsters, or to lift spadefuls of waste from the dumpsters into the pickup-like trucks which deposit this rubbish into the ditches where it is later burned.

Every morning I see them, some busily at work, others chatting with their coworkers and drinking green tea.

3. A Street Breakfast

The friendly face of the Xian’r Bing baker smiles over his glass-enclosed case of freshly fried “bing” at me. “What would you like today?” he asks in his accented Mandarin. I ask which type is the hottest and he gestures to the moon-shaped breads in the corner, “chives and egg,” he says, and then motioning over to the rectangular layers of dough and ground meat, “and these meat ones.” I ask about red bean paste, my favorite filling as long as the bing is hot; he points to them, and nods his head when I ask if they are still warm.

I buy one chive-and-egg bing, and another red-bean-paste one. I pay the man one yuan, the equivalent of fifteen cents in America. That is, I pay him one yuan for both breads; this is the cheapest food in China—round bing at 0.5 yuan a piece.The tiny plastic bag they are served with seems too thin to keep the heat in and I worry that the hot breads will melt a hole right through.

Biting through the crispy bread and into the hot filling, I sigh with pleasure. Street food carries such a magical charm.

4. A Busy Corner

Since the police told all of the farmers a few months ago that they could no longer peddle their fruits and vegetables and freshly-made tofu at the town center, the village has not been quite like itself. The center of town is quiet, the streets are wider and a sense of impressed industry overshadows our once rustically-productive village.

But I have made one of the happiest discoveries during my daily walks through town that, until a quarter till eight, a new “center of town” emerges down the street, with all of the bustling and bartering of fresh products that feels so natural. It seems that the farmers have decided that, for as long as they can, they will continue to use the village as their marketplace, so they have chosen a new location for congregation.

I can hardly get through this back street as I walk in to work, but I love the challenge and the smells and the sounds: the carts of the farmers are so heavily laden with brightly-colored vegetables and the villagers on their bikes and in their own carts and on foot clog up the road in the most festive manner.

At quarter till eight, however, the police come and, starting at the far corner, slowly drive their cars through the jam-packed streets, telling each seller, one by one, to leave. It’s a very slow process, as the road is congested with activity and it takes each seller a few minutes to finish their latest transaction and pack up their wares. Every policeman that I have seen on this route wears a look of bored frustration. I have been noticing that the policemen assigned to this piece of road are younger and younger, almost as if it is becoming the appointed job of the rookies as a possible form of initiation into the police force.

5. The Vegetable Seller

After the farmers were kicked out of the center of town, one couple needed to find a new location for their vegetable stand. Walking down the road, they discovered a wide alley and, realizing that it was an unfrequented path, chose to set up their shop there. The board-on-stick table that they used fit perfectly in the narrow entrance and there was just enough light to tell broccoli from cauliflower and lettuce from cabbage.

Every morning the couple drive their little cart with the table hitched to the back, down through the alleys until they get to the one adjacent to the main road. There, setting up their wares, they settle for a day of chatting, sitting, and selling. More often than not I see a friendly chat going on, as opposed to a business transaction.

Gan Maiya?” A passerby calls out, the equivalent to “What’s up?”

“Nothing really,” they reply. “Just being. Buy some vegetables? Come and sit a bit?”

They know how to be. These people know how to keep life from being choked up in tasks and forced productivity. They’re not beating themselves down for being lazy, because sitting is not lazy. Sitting is just being. Get out into the city and you’ll see just the opposite—the anxious, Westernized task-oriented behaviors that squeeze life out of living. But here, in quaint Qingyundian, life moves not at the pace of schedules, but at the pace of inspiration.

6. Corn Harvest

I thought that all of the corn in the village had been harvested and shucked and laid out to dry and then bagged into sacks to either be sent to be ground into meal, or saved to feed the pigs. I was wrong. Walking through the town on the first day of October—a special holiday—it seemed like the village population had doubled and the corn harvest had tripled. There, laid out on the streets where the corn of last week had already been bagged into sacks, were piles and piles of corn cobs, bright orange and bold.

I think that I saw every village mother and grandmother sitting out on their stools and shucking the corn, chatting about the last year. The grandchildren and children and cousins were all running about in their split pants and oddly-shaved heads. The young men played basketball and the fathers and grandfathers ran the cobs through a manual machine that shaved the cobs of their kernels. I stood and stared and soaked in this festivity that was everywhere.

A child, less than two years old, too young to know much of anything I thought, suddenly turned around and saw me. She gasped and put her hand to her mouth. I smiled at her. “Baba, waiguoren!” she exclaimed. Daddy, a foreigner!

7. Cora’s Story

When Cora gave birth to a daughter, her mother-in-law was enraged and refused to look at the baby girl. When Cora found out that she was pregnant again, she and her husband loaded up their bicycle-cart with vegetables and biked the hours to another village. They stayed there for nine months while the grandmother, Cora’s mother-in-law, who had since become more accepting of her granddaughter, looked after the little girl.

When Cora gave birth to a son, her husband called his mother from the distant village they had escaped to and told her. There were happy tears on both ends of the line. The family quickly scraped up their life savings and borrowed from relatives to pay the high additional-child fine.

If Cora’s second child had been another daughter, she doesn’t know what she would have done.

8. Prayer

Ni meiyou nancheng de shi’r.

I think that I know what this phrase means. My mind starts thinking as Amy continues to pray, her full, yet mellow, voice rising and falling with the tones common to Mandarin.

Ni.” I know that one. It’s one of the first characters that I learned when I first began to show an interest in China, over ten years ago. “Ni” means “you.” “Meiyou” is such a common phrase. Do you have something? No? Then “meiyou.” It means “have not” and even little children learn this early. “Nancheng.” Now here’s a word that maybe I haven’t heard before, but I know that “nan” means difficult, so I’ll just go from there. “De” indicates that there is some possessiveness going on here and “shi’r“… I think that “shi’r” means “task” or “thing.”

It’s almost my turn to pray. This room full of Chinese and foreigners is going around the circle; each person takes a point on our list. Some pray for things like protection, for our sponsors to be blessed, or for the doctors to be endowed with supernatural wisdom as they perform difficult surgeries on our little ones. Sometimes we just pray for the children, each by name, lifting up their specific medical needs, or their immediate need of a forever family—an adoptive family, every orphan’s ultimate dream. It’s almost my turn and I have figured out what Amy said: “Ni meiyou nancheng de shi’r” means “Nothing is too hard for you.”

I sigh; it’s true. My turn to pray, “Father, nothing is too hard for you…”

9. Cute and Cuter

Stella and Lewis arrived fresh from the orphanage and, freshly bathed, I posted their arrival pictures on the foster home’s Facebook page. Neither of them had English names yet, so I just called them Ying Ying and Chao Chao, nicknames created from their real Chinese names, assigned by their orphanages.

Within minutes people all over the country were liking and commenting and sharing the photos. In a few hours, Ying Ying’s picture had garnered over twenty comments; by the end of the day it had forty. Poor Chao Chao, however, only received seven comments on his arrival picture and it remains at that low number to this day.

Of course, it seems totally wrong for one child to quickly become more special in the eyes of the public than another. For publicity purposes, I’m glad that little Miss Ying Ying arrived. It’s fun to welcome the cutest little babies into the foster home, but a part of me wishes that we only brought in the not-so-cute. But when I overthink it, I start wondering if she should even be here at all, and if maybe a more needy child should have been brought in. Those huge, soulful eyes will find a family for her regardless of where she’s living, who does her much-needed urology surgery, and how often she gets a bath. Chao Chao, on the other hand… I can just see it in his eyes; he needs us.

If a family is each child’s greatest need, then it’s the babies that aren’t all that adorable who need our care the most.

10. Mia’s Giggle

Mia will celebrate her first birthday in November, but she’s probably spent at least six of the nearly twelve months in the hospital. Mia has had over five surgeries and has had pneumonia more times than I have had the flu. Today she is done, done with hospitals and surgeries and near-death experiences. She’s had her final heart surgery and will no longer turn blue and stop breathing… what a relief.

When Mia came home from the hospital for the last time, she didn’t smile. In fact, I don’t remember ever having seen her smile at all. Daphne, a nanny who stayed with her for a few of those hospitalizations, claimed that by rubbing Mia’s cheek and talking sweetly to her, Mia had flashed a tiny smile once. This report was the only one I had ever heard of Mia smiling.

A few weeks after coming home, Mia smiled when I gently ticked her and told her how special and loved she was. Her smile was bigger and happier than I had ever imagined. Yesterday I heard her giggle. And I observed with those smiles and that giggle, that little Miss Mia has a dimple.

11. Gaining .2 kg

This little darling who I hold in my arms was born four months ago and abandoned around that same time at a local hospital. A hospital has been her home for all of this time. This little treasure has lived in PICU and been nourished through an IV since the day she was born, because there was a hole between her trachea and her esophagus, and her esophagus never actually went into her stomach.

When she was released from the hospital, she only weighed 2.8 kilograms. A few days after coming home for the first time she weighed 2.9 and yesterday, when I weighed her, she was 3.0 kilograms. That’s 6.6 pounds, impressive, though still tinier than I was when I was born.

“She gained 0.2 kilograms in just two days?” I was surprised.

“I think that it’s a real gain,” her nanny said. “See how well she eats? In the hospital there was not this much closeness and love, so of course she wouldn’t have gained as much when she ate. Here, we hold her close and talk to her when we feed her. I think that is why she really has gained so much so quickly.”

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Hannah Samuels is a current undergraduate student attending Thomas Edison State College, majoring in English and living in China. Email: beforethethrone29[at]gmail.com

Suckers

Creative Nonfiction
Melissa Leavitt


tentacles
Photo Credit: Bill Selak

I almost flunked my interview when I applied to volunteer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The volunteer coordinator looked at me, straightened the lapels of her lavender blazer, and cleared her throat. She asked me if I had a particular interest in aquatic life; I said no. She asked me if I was from the area, if I could easily give directions to visitors; I said no. She frowned. But finally, she opened up a black binder, tapped a page with her pencil, and said she had an opening at the Information Booth on Friday afternoons. She handed me a turquoise cardigan, with the aquarium logo embroidered on the pocket, and told me never to throw it out or donate it to a thrift store, even if I quit. “We don’t want just anyone to wear it.”

So I began to spend every Friday afternoon standing at the Information Booth, telling people how to find the bathroom or the gift shop; thanking Harriet, my shift partner, every time she told me how nice it was to work with such a jovial young person; and waiting for the octopus to swim out from behind the rocks. The octopus habitat was in a tank across from the Kelp Forest, in the wing of the aquarium adjacent to my booth. I’d never seen her during my previous visits, and when I started volunteering, I asked the Kelp Forest volunteer to let me know as soon as she came out of hiding. She was shy, I was told. She almost never came out during the day, never when there was a crowd. Occasionally someone would buzz me on the walkie-talkie, telling me to come over, quick, because the octopus was out. But all I could ever see was the tip of one tentacle, one sucker grasping a seaweed frond, or one eye looking out between two rocks.

I had moved down to Monterey for the summer with my boyfriend, Michael, who had a temporary job in the area as a real estate attorney. I was portable, since I was writing my dissertation—all I needed was a stack of library books and a place to plug in my laptop. Volunteering at the aquarium gave me a break from sitting home by myself all day, trying to write about other people’s homes. My dissertation was all about representations of the home in American literature: the difference between tenancy and ownership, domestic bliss, and the motif of eviction. In Monterey, I hoped to finish my third chapter, about an obscure midwestern writer obsessed with what he called “a nation of homes.” A nation of homes was a land where everyone had a place that couldn’t be taken away, where work and commitment were the currency of ownership. I began every day by typing “a nation of homes” onto my blank Word document. I couldn’t get past it. A nation of homes.

Michael and I sublet our San Francisco apartment, and treated the summer like an extended vacation: he loved the mountains, I loved the beach, and the Monterey peninsula had it all—including a furnished two-bedroom house we could rent that was an upgrade from our cramped studio. We dated for years before we lived together, but began to fight as soon as I moved in, over things like dirty dishes and the unmade bed and who finished all the Cheez-Its.

On our drive down to Monterey, as the suburbs gave way to small towns where the homes had huge spaces between them, we listened to Selected Shorts on NPR, a reading of “Goodbye To All That.” We stopped at a roadside stand to buy cherries and pistachios, then stopped a few miles later to buy lemonade from kids sitting at a card table on their front lawn. The smell of eucalyptus reached in through the open windows as we turned off 101 and broke west toward the coast, and we imitated the calls of the sea lions that seemed to welcome us home.

But just a couple weeks into our stay, we began to fight again. One night, after we finished eating dinner, I told Michael that when we moved back to San Francisco, I thought we should try to find a different apartment, a bigger apartment; maybe we just needed more room to spread out. Michael said he didn’t want to move, because he loved the neighborhood and he’d been in that place for years.

“If we don’t move, then I don’t think we can live together,” I said.

“Then I don’t think we should be together,” he said.

He took off his shoes, left them under the kitchen table, then walked into the living room and sat down on the couch. I threw his shoes against the wall, while he stretched out and closed his eyes. An hour later, he came into the spare bedroom, where I was sitting on one of the twin beds, deciding whether to call my friends now or wait until Michael went to work the next day.

Leaning in the doorway, he said, “Sorry. I didn’t think I’d take that long of a nap.”

“Do you remember what we talked about before you fell asleep? Do you remember that we broke up?” I asked.

“Yeah. Sure. What do you want to do now?”

We watched La Dolce Vita, the next movie in our Netflix queue. We watched the closing credits, in their entirety. We watched the DVD extras. We stared at the blue screen on the TV for ten minutes after we pressed stop on the remote. Then we talked, and decided to keep living together through the rest of the summer. He had two months left at his job, and we had two months left on our lease in Monterey. I could have asked him to pay rent on his own for the rest of the summer, but I didn’t want to leave. I had just started volunteering at the aquarium—I couldn’t turn in the cardigan yet. And I had friends scheduled to visit. I couldn’t disrupt their summer vacation.

I emailed those friends the next morning, and they both called me within the hour. What happened? they asked. They seemed surprised. Andrea told me she didn’t think it was a good idea for me to stay; Diana asked if I wanted her to drive down to get me. The morning fog had burned off by the time I finished with the second call.

Every day around noon, the sun thinned out the fog, turning the sky lighter shades of grey and the carpet paler shades of beige, until I found myself squinting as I looked at my book or computer screen. That day, after I hung up the phone, I stretched my arms above my head, trying to warm my hands in a beam of light coming in through the window. Then I sat on the floor in a patch of sunlight and cried. After a while I went for a walk out to the bay shore, taking the path along the docks so I could watch the sea lions. They slept piled upon one another, the long white whiskers of one disappearing into another’s folds of fur and fat. I stared at them, trying to tell where one body ended and another began, until the wind picked up, the fog blew back in, and I was too cold to stand still. I started walking out to watch the sea lions every afternoon, right around the time Michael would get home from work.

We still slept in the same bed, but hardly ever touched. I’d lie awake for hours after he fell asleep, watching his shoulder blades move together and apart as he breathed in and out. When he turned over, I turned the other way, too, so if he opened his eyes he wouldn’t see me watching him. I’d leave as much space between us as I could, fearing that if I did fall asleep, I would reach for him out of habit, or he would reach for me, cupping the underside of my breast with the palm of his hand. I only slept soundly after I heard him turn on the shower in the morning.

Before we broke up, I always made a point of getting out of bed when he did. When I first moved into his apartment, we commuted together from San Francisco to the East Bay—I headed to my teaching job at UC Berkeley, and he went to his law office in Oakland. BART was so crowded in the morning that we always had to stand, but I wasn’t tall enough to reach the handrail hanging from the ceiling. We stood facing each other in the middle of the center aisle, with people pushing in on either side, and Michael held onto the rail while I held onto him. He put his messenger bag between his feet so he could reach up with both hands, bracing himself while the train jerked back and forth. I wrapped my arms around his waist and we held steady as our train moved underneath the water, swaying while everyone around us shoved.

When my job ended and I began to stay at home to write everyday, I made myself get up early so we could start the day together. I slept on the left side of the bed, and he slept on the right; when we got up we’d cross paths at the foot of the bed, between my closet and his dresser. This moment of crossing paths was my favorite time of the day. To be a person in a couple—a person set in motion because someone else was in motion, too—made me feel like I’d found my place in the world, like the path had been cleared and I could see my way home.

After we broke up, I thought about moving into the extra bedroom. We had made up the twin beds with new sheets and blankets so friends would be comfortable when they visited. But I convinced myself there were ghosts in our house, and I was afraid to sleep alone. The other volunteers told me ghost stories, and I believed them all, even in the cheer of the aquarium’s crowds and piped-in Caribbean music. My favorite restaurant, just a block away from our house, was supposedly haunted. I figured our entire neighborhood was haunted. Our house was old. The doorways had settled and shifted, and doors would swing open and shut; the ceilings were slanted, and cast shadows even in the middle of the night.

Our new sheets stayed unused until Michael’s friends came to visit from New York for the Fourth of July. Jake and Lillian had just got engaged; they slept in one twin bed together, saying it reminded them of when they first started dating during their freshman year at Brown. We told them we thought that was cute. We didn’t tell them we had broken up—Michael said he didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. I agreed to go along with the charade, but all weekend, I worried I would give something away in my gestures or choice of words. Afraid to seem cold or unkind, I laughed a lot, too often, when I should have been listening.

We took them to the restaurant with the ghost in the attic. After we ordered, Jake asked Michael what was new in his life. I grinned to fill the space left by Michael’s pause, and Jake smiled back.

“Ok, this is gonna be a good story,” he said. “I can tell.”

“No, actually,” Michael said. “My father died.” Michael looked at me, and I looked away. I had forgotten about it somehow, before Michael even had a chance to tell his friends. Lillian dropped the roll she had just picked out of the breadbasket.

Two weeks before we moved to Monterey, I was cleaning out our closet when the phone rang. It was Michael’s brother-in-law.

“Hey, is Michael home? I have to talk to him right away.”

“No, he’s down the street doing laundry.” I looked at his desk and saw his cell. “He didn’t take his phone. Should I have him call you when he gets back?”

“No, I have to talk to him now.”

Michael’s father had suffered a stroke that morning; things looked bad. Michael had to come home to Ohio right away, to take a flight that night if he could. They were keeping his father on life support, and Michael had to decide whether he wanted them to turn it off. His father would probably die right away without it.

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll get him.”

I couldn’t find my keys, so I left the doors open. I ran two blocks barefoot down the hill to our laundromat, and found Michael sitting in front of one of the machines, reading. I sat next to him, touched his knee, and pushed his magazine down, telling him what happened.

“I don’t know,” he said. “What am I supposed to say? I don’t know.”

“I don’t know. You have to go now,” I told him. “The door’s open. The door to the building is open.”

“You talk to him. Tell him I’ll call him back.”

“Michael, I can’t. He’s waiting. He’s still on the phone. You have to go.” I pointed to the machine. “I’ll watch your stuff.”

He told his family to take his father off life support, and flew home the next day. His father died before he got there. As Michael told Jake and Lillian, I nodded along with what everyone said—their questions, their condolences, Michael’s stories about planning the funeral. One of his hands started to shake, and he put it in his lap. I didn’t take it in mine. I waited too long, trying to decide if that’s what I would have done, before. I looked at his hand, watching him trying to stop the shaking by pressing it, palm up, into his knee. I wondered what Jake and Lillian would say about me that night when they crawled into their twin bed.

The next day we drove down the coast to Big Sur, stopping partway to hike in the seaside hills. We pulled off on the side of Highway 1 and climbed down to the beach, jumping off a low cliff wall. Jake and Lillian went first, and then I came behind them, with Michael following. I heard him stumble on the rocks and skid down to a ledge, and I turned around.

“Need a hand?” I asked.

“No,” he said, jumping the rest of the way down to the sand. Lillian turned around. Michael waved at her and then put his hand on my shoulder, pulling me back toward him. “Thanks, though.”

We finished the day at a restaurant that jutted out over the ocean, where diners could watch whales breaching in the distance. Our table was pressed against the window, with two seats facing the ocean and two seats facing the interior. I took one of the seats without the view.

“No, you can’t,” Jake said. “We can’t steal the whole view.”

“No, seriously guys, it’s totally fine. I really want you to enjoy it. Don’t worry about it!”

I put my hand on the table to emphasize my point, and knocked over the salt shaker. Salt spilled over Michael’s side of the table, and he pushed it back toward me. A young boy sitting at the table next to us tapped me on the arm.

“Hi,” I said to him.

“You need to throw that salt over your shoulder. You’re gonna have seven years of bad luck.”

“Oh, ok,” I said. “Thank you. I will.”

“You have to.” The boy took his hand off my arm and went back to eating his fries, while his father looked at me and shrugged.

I changed the subject, but Jake interrupted me.

“You know, he’s right, you don’t want bad luck. Throw some salt.”

For the first few months of my relationship with Michael, after the initial weeks of show-off dates, when he took me to concerts and plays and restaurants I’d never been to, we would spend the entire weekend in bed. I was living in Palo Alto at the time, and I would drive up to his apartment around six every Friday, and stay until Sunday or Monday. When I arrived, we’d go to the store to pick up food—cheese, crackers, red wine—and we’d call in for take-out when we got tired of that. We might take a walk at some point on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and if the fog cleared, we might go down to Dolores Park to sit in the sun. But other than that, we were in bed.

One night, I picked up the bottle of wine off the floor next to the bed and filled our glasses. Then I rested the bottle against my side and leaned over to kiss Michael. He rolled over on top of me and knocked over the bottle. I scooted down to the end of the bed, wrapping myself in the top sheet, while he went to the kitchen for a towel. “Get salt!” I shouted after him. “To sop it up!” He emptied the entire salt canister over the spill and we watched the grains turn red. We left them there over night and fell asleep at the foot of the bed.

I looked at Jake and pressed my fingers on the table, picking up a few grains of salt on my fingertips. While Lillian clapped, I flicked salt at the window behind me.

Our next visitors were my friends Diana and Andrea, who came for my birthday at the end of July. They had asked me if I thought Michael would do anything for me, and I said yes, I think so, because it would be too weird if he didn’t, right? They said they’d come anyway. The four of us went to see a movie at the amphitheater in Carmel, answering the pre-show trivia questions and winning me a T-shirt. When the movie started, Michael stood up and walked to the end of our row, saying I probably wanted to sit next to my friends.

“Is he pouting?” Diana asked.

“I hope he’s not trying to ruin anything for you,” Andrea said.

I pointed at the screen. “It’s starting. We’ll talk later.”

But Michael did most of the talking later, after the four of us went back home for tea and birthday cake. I kept asking him, “Aren’t you tired? You don’t want to be tired when you get up for work tomorrow. You’re going to work tomorrow, right?” But he stayed up as long as we did, the four of us sitting cross-legged on the living room floor.

Diana, Andrea, and I slept in the next morning, and then spent a few hours at the aquarium, taking advantage of my guest passes. I pointed out the volunteer ladies in their turquoise cardigans and we laughed. We watched the sea otters dive for plastic balls; we waited for fifteen minutes in front of the octopus habitat, trying to catch a glimpse of her between the algae-streaked reefs; and then we headed over to the wave display, where we took pictures of each other pretending to be capsized. After a stop in the gift shop, where Andrea bought a Steinbeck novel and Diana bought an octopus-shaped magnet, we headed back home for lunch. As we ate bowls of homemade pudding with strawberries fresh from the farmers market, we planned the rest of our day, deciding between a drive past the mansions in Pebble Beach, or a visit to Tor House, a home in Carmel a poet had built for his wife.

When we were almost finished eating, Michael came home for lunch.

“Oh, you went to the aquarium?” he said. “That’s good. Aren’t those guest passes great? Nice to know a volunteer, huh?” He put his arm around me. “Did you see the octopus? I still haven’t.”

Andrea and Diana looked at him without saying anything.

“Michael,” I said. “We’re eating here. We’ve kind of been hanging out. We’ll probably leave soon, though.”

“Oh, that’s ok, I don’t mind you didn’t wait.”

Michael took out a Trader Joe’s mini quiche from the freezer and put it in the microwave. Then he came over to the table and opened Diana’s bag from the gift shop. He picked up the magnet, tracing the pattern of green dots on the purple body. There were eight little magnets on the octopus, one on each leg where a sucker should be, and Michael threw it at the fridge, five feet from the table. He whistled. “Just had to see how well it would stick. Pretty good.” Then he took the magnet from the fridge and walked further away, throwing it again. He did this several times, throwing the octopus harder and harder from greater distances.

“What are you doing? Stop it,” I said. “You’re gonna hurt it.”

“Just seeing what it can take,” Michael said, throwing it again. This time the magnet didn’t stick, skimming across the surface of the fridge and falling on the floor. He picked it up and tossed it to Diana.

“Thanks,” she said, pushing her chair back from the table. “I’ll just put this with my things. Before I forget and leave it here.”

A week or two after Diana and Andrea went back to San Francisco, I started to search Craigslist for apartments. The lease on our Monterey home was up in the middle of August, and I didn’t want to be caught with no place to go. Michael was adamant that he should keep our studio, and I didn’t fight him for it. He was there first. Plus, he had never repaired the hole in the bathroom floor where a mouse chewed its way in from the basement. Every time I sat down on the toilet and looked at that hole, I felt like Michael was opening the door to something dirty.

The mouse first appeared one night a few months after we moved in together, when Michael was out with a friend. I was in bed, reading, when it ran out of my closet and into a cupboard. I screamed louder than I ever thought I could and called Michael, telling him I saw a mouse and asking him to come home. He laughed, but said sure. When he got home, we sat on the bed waiting for the mouse to run back across the floor. It finally did, and I screamed again, but Michael wasn’t able to catch it. Our upstairs neighbor, Armando, called to ask if we were ok; Michael told him I was scared of a mouse. The next morning when I woke up, there was a patch of blood on the bed sheet beneath me.

“Holy shit,” Michael said. “Are you ok? Didn’t you just have your period like two weeks ago?”

“Yeah, I don’t know,” I said, trying to lift myself out of bed without smearing the blood. “It’s not my period. I guess I was just really scared.”

Michael called his work to say he would be late. He set out glue traps and cleaned up the droppings we found in my shoes. But we still didn’t catch it. I’d hear rustling during the day, when I was trying to write; I’d see a flash of something when I walked past the closet. I was terrified every time I was home alone. I made Michael go into my closet every morning to pull out the clothes and shoes I wanted to wear that day, and he always tried to get me to laugh by pairing sweaters and skirts he knew didn’t match. If the day turned foggy, I would sit in our apartment, shivering, until he came home and handed me a sweater.

One day I finally called an exterminator, who pointed out the hole in our bathroom floor and the cracks in our walls.

“You’re living on a rat highway,” he said. “You basically have to tear this place down and build it again if you want to be safe.” He told me to make sure no one left any crumbs on countertops or tables. He also told me to get rid of any plastic bags, which we kept in the cupboard under the sink.

“Use those arty-farty canvas bags the hippies take to Whole Foods. You know what I’m talking about. I guess you should use them anyway, because of the earth.”

I nodded.

“And find the food source. This guy’s eating something, that’s why he’s still here. What’s the asshole eating? Ask yourself that. What’s the asshole eating?”

I told Michael we probably had this mouse because of him, because he left dirty dishes where he ate, on the couch or at his desk. He started washing his dishes as soon as he finished a meal, but the mouse still didn’t leave. “What’s the asshole eating?” we joked every morning, while Michael cleaned up the new droppings.

After another week, we bought still more traps, and lined them in every cupboard, on every shelf. I went to the grocery store for more plastic bags, to replace the ones we threw out. I put the traps inside the bags, stuffing them in the cupboard under the sink. A few hours later, I heard the bags crinkle and the mouse squeal; eventually, the squeals got louder and came at shorter intervals. I decided to leave, and opened the top drawer of Michael’s desk, where he kept his spare change, to get enough quarters to take the J-line downtown. I sat in Union Square, holding a cup of coffee but not drinking it, listening to all of the noise. Not until Michael called me, telling me he had found the dead mouse and thrown it out, did I finally go home.

I decided to stay in Monterey after Michael left: I could keep working at the aquarium, I could probably write better without any distractions, and I could be alone. I imagined living in a home where nothing ever changed unless I changed it—where every glass or book or towel stayed put—and where I could sit still for as long as I wanted. I found an apartment in a building that I thought looked quaint, and then went back to San Francisco for a week, staying with Diana and packing up my things while Michael was at work. When I packed my share of towels and sheets from the linen closet, I found a torn cardboard box sitting on the bottom shelf. Inside were pieces of the gingerbread house I made for Michael the previous Christmas, which I had saved so we could use it every Christmas. All that remained were hard candies and shreds of the six-pack container that served as the house’s foundation.

On the morning I moved back to Monterey, I went over to Michael’s apartment with the moving truck. He had taken the day off work to help me, and was just waking up. We had decided that I would take our bed, since it was originally mine; he had pushed the mattress and box spring against the wall, and was lying in a sleeping bag on the floor beneath them.

“That seems like kind of a dangerous place to sleep,” I said.

“It’s ok, no problem,” he said. “I didn’t want to make you wait around too long.”

A couple of his friends came over to help us load the truck. When they left, they told me, “See you later.” I picked up my keys. Michael walked me to the door, and we looked at each other.

“Hey, I have to tell you something funny,” I said, tapping him on the chest. “Remember that mouse we had?”

“Yeah. I think I remember the mouse.” He smiled.

“Well, I finally figured out what it was eating.” I told him about the gingerbread house.

“That’s what the asshole was eating? That’s hilarious.”

“Yeah,” I said. “So I guess it’s my fault, huh? I’m sorry. I was the one who said we had to keep that house.”

“Oh, it’s ok.” He reached behind my head and tugged on my ponytail. “It was a really nice idea.”

After I’d been back in Monterey for a few weeks, I finally saw the octopus. While I was working at the Information Booth, counting the number of wheelchairs we had lent out to visitors, the Kelp Forest volunteer buzzed me and told me the octopus had come out from her hiding place—she was really exposed this time. I grabbed my camera and nudged my way past the visitors, trying to look official so I could get a clear view. The octopus took up almost the entire length of her habitat and I had to step back to take her all in. Her head, like a misshapen egg, was tilted to the left, with all of her arms stretched out to the right. She wasn’t like I imagined. Her head was lumpy, her arms weren’t fanned in a perfect circle around her body, and I couldn’t get a good picture of her. No matter how many different angles I tried, she kept coming out looking lopsided, with her arms cut off or her head indistinct.

When I show those pictures to people now, they can’t tell what they’re looking at. All they see is a pile of rocks in the background, and a row of suckers pressed up against the glass.
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Melissa Leavitt is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has previously appeared in Willow Springs and New Delta Review, among other publications. She is currently working on a collection of essays and a children’s book. Email: melissaleavitt[at]gmail.com

Identity

Fiction
Brittany Michelson


The Lady in the Park
Photo Credit: Christopher Walker

“Jesus, Julie, drop the baby, why don’t you?” Julie says, catching her foot on the pile of dirty clothes taking over the floor. She’s gotten in the habit of narrating her actions out loud, even though Elliot is much too young for words. She imagines him falling head first onto the hard wood floor, his tiny head bursting open and his brains flying out like Silly String. These thoughts come out of nowhere and it feels there is not a single way to stop them from surfacing.

She sits on the futon and holds Elliot to her chest. She touches her nose to his dark, sweaty head and inhales his scentless sweat, as if she can absorb how to be at peace with him through her nostrils. She fumbles with her blouse and guides his mouth to her nipple, then leans back and puts her feet on the coffee table.

“Hi Elliot,” Julie says with a gust of enthusiasm. Direct acknowledgment in a cheerful voice is one of the most effective methods of bonding. The other day she typed “How to bond with your baby” into Google and there were 55,600,000 results in .14 seconds. She realizes she isn’t the only mother who has asked this question, even though it feels this way when she watches other mothers. They seem to carry themselves as if light is streaming through their veins. She, however, must be missing the gene responsible for bonding.

“God, look at this place,” Julie says, scanning the cluttered living room. She feels panicked when she thinks of the emails she needs to answer and the bills she needs to pay, but it will take a few hours for the cable company to process her late payment and turn her Internet service back on.

“Unfold into the uncertainty of everything,” Kristen said last night in her new, enlightened speech. But Kristen has no one to take care of beside herself. Plus she’s in love, with a yoga teacher of all people. Lately, during phone conversations, Kristen inserts slices of wisdom about being present or thinking with the heart and not the head. Kristen knows about Julie’s propensity for anxiety, yet she makes it sound as if the brain were a machine that could be unplugged. Julie thinks back to the beginning weeks of dating Kenneth. Did little stars come out of her eyes? Was the world a spinning ball of light?

“Embrace each movement through the world,” Kristen said last week, or was it just the other day? Kristen has started sounding like a whole different person and Julie finds herself missing the friend she could be completely herself around. She misses the way the two of them would commiserate, viewing the world through a lens of cynicism.

She can’t bring herself to let Kristen in on the baby thoughts. What would she think if Julie told her how she imagined pushing Elliot’s stroller into oncoming traffic—how she could see her own hand doing it, and then saw herself stand on the sidewalk while his skull cracked open on asphalt?

She can hear Kristen saying, “Breathe deeply and surrender to the moment.”

But for Julie, letting go has always been much more difficult than holding on.

Elliot is overdue for his nap and Julie feels like a change of scenery, so she straps him into his car seat, plunks the stroller in the trunk, and starts driving west from Hollywood. Sometimes she puts him in the car and drives up and down her neighborhood, playing soft music from the classical station until he falls asleep. Back at the apartment she places him in the crib, silently begging for a flawless transition. If he wakes, she rubs his back and tries to sing, but she often resorts to playing the music mobile instead, because the sound of her own voice singing doesn’t sound convincing. Julie tries not to make the driving-around tactic a habit. Gasoline is expensive these days, and she can’t afford the luxury that wealthy mothers have in using a tank of gas to put the baby to sleep.

Elliot has been napping about thirty minutes by the time Julie parks the car in Beverlywood, an upscale neighborhood at the edge of Beverly Hills, but he needs at least an hour-and-a-half, otherwise the entire shape of the day changes. As she transfers the versatile car seat to the base of the stroller, he starts wailing.

“For God’s sakes, the world’s not going to come crashing down,” Julie says, and covers the stroller with two layers of blankets. She feels better when she can’t see his agitation. The sun is a tired baby’s enemy. She does a loop around the block and he doesn’t go back to sleep, but she moves towards the grass anyways, a surge of hunger in her stomach.

The crying blends with the noise of an electric saw, and of welding—of a wood structure being splintered and poked and prodded. His cry is the cry of a searching gull circling the sand; it morphs into the whine of a feral cat. She sits down and pulls the apple and cheese from her insulated lunch bag, then takes a balanced bite of each. The buzz of lawnmower, echo of hammering, and brush of wind through the leaves of the tree they sit under, irritates her. A car alarm goes off and she wants to rip the voice box out of the car. “For Christ’s sake, there’s a baby trying to sleep.”

She takes another bite of apple and cheese, concentrating on the way the two tastes work as a team. When he’s this overtired, it’s a matter of minutes until he falls asleep. The more she focuses on getting the bites just right—a little more apple, a little less cheese, now three-quarters cheese, one-quarter apple—the more she can block out the crying, until it has become an element of everything she can hear but is not attached to. It’s another layer of construction—part of the world’s work, but not her role in it.

“Get up and start strolling again,” she says out loud. But her body feels like the tree rooted in the ground. Oh, the tree never has to move, she thinks. He stays fixed in place, but grows and changes through the seasons, and is only responsible for bearing fruit, which falls from him and in an instant belongs to the world. The power she feels in being able to stay or go—in being able to keep him there, both satisfies and scares her.

A cop car drives by, oblivious to the agitated infant in the stroller. I’m not doing anything wrong, she thinks. I’m letting him cry himself to sleep—sleep he needs for proper functioning. She’s been reading online about the Cry It Out method. The theory claims that it’s perfectly fine and at times absolutely necessary, for a baby to cry itself to sleep, even if it takes awhile.

She has the same feeling with the passing cop car that she does in the presence of mothers in the park, the feeling that they can see through her, that they know—all of them do—that she has this thing inside of her that’s on the verge of snapping. Like a rubber band stretched too tight. Or a balloon filled with too much air—a bomb ticking away.

The baby’s crying often makes her feel crazy, like she wants to tear her hair out or shove a sock in his mouth, but when it stops—the instant it stops—all is right in the world. Everything that was stirred up is restored. It’s like the mounting tickle that’s wiped away in the instant a sneeze happens, or a building orgasm—the kind of agitated pleasure that begs for release and is relieved through climax. There are times, like right now, when his cry goes from full-blown to sudden silence, as if the cry fell off a cliff. Has a baby ever choked from crying? What if he had a heart attack from all the spasms of discontent pumping through his tiny chest?

She leans forward and lifts the edge of the blanket. Peering in at him, she sighs relief at the flutter of closed eyelids and his breath like the swell of a tiny wave. How sweet he is when sleeping. She can hardly contain the sense of responsibility she’s been given for something so tiny and so dependent upon her. The power of small movements and the fear of consequence that could result from making specific choices about this helpless being causes her face to flush and her heart to feel like an engorged burden in her chest. It often feels that choices are outside of her.

She has the restless desire to walk again. Pushing the stroller across the crosswalk, her heartbeat quickens and the handle feels slippery. What if someone plows right through us? What if an impulsive jerk on wheels wipes us out? At night, these thoughts do not rest. Dreams are filled with scenarios in which she is running in slow motion, trying to protect Elliot from a tsunami, a man with a brick, or a rabid tiger. She is unable to run fast enough—is not strong enough, good enough, or smart enough to help him. She lies perfectly still, afraid that her own ragged breath will wake him. She waits for a little sign, a turn, something. If it doesn’t come soon enough, she must go to the crib to check. She leans down and watches for movement, but sometimes his breathing is so faint she has to place a hand on his chest to feel the rise. This often wakes him.

She hears babies crying all the time, sees mothers pointing their fingers. Trees wag their leaves and the sun seers its harsh light into her skin. Even the birds point their beaks with accusation. Everything can see through her bone structure to her inadequacy as a mother.

She misses Scotch with soda. She misses morning runs and long, steaming showers. Mornings spent with silence and the Atlantic Monthly. She misses her old breasts, breasts that required nothing. They might’ve been small, but at least they didn’t ache from needing to be relieved. She wants breasts for sex, not for survival. And before all that, she misses taking a long drag on a Salem on those mornings with the Atlantic Monthly. She had quit smoking five years before she became pregnant, but this role of motherhood makes her pine for things she once had, as if the nature of habits will help reclaim her identity.

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Brittany Michelson’s print work is published in PoemMemoirStory Magazine, If & When Literary Journal, The Poetry Of Yoga Vol. 2, and an anthology by Bona Fide Books. Online work appears in Bartleby Snopes, Glossolalia Fiction, The Whistling Fire, Sleet Magazine, Backhand Stories, Effluvia, and other journals. She is a teacher living in Topanga, CA (in the Los Angeles area.) Email: brittanymichelson[at]yahoo.com

Late

Fiction
E. Branden Hart


185(365) knees
Photo Credit: Jason Tamez

For Chris Garson
Who was only early the one time we wanted him to be late

“Where the hell are they?” said Danny, his breath a cloud of vapor in the freezing Michigan afternoon. “Should someone call?”

Teresa pulled her coat tighter and leaned into me. “Tried that already,” she said. I put my arm around her shoulders.

“Relax, Danny,” said Trent. He kicked at something laying on the cold blacktop. I didn’t see what it was, but it careened into the parking lot and ricocheted off someone’s car with a loud ding.

“Tim’s never been on time before,” I said. I leaned my head over and put it on top of Teresa’s. Her hair smelled like cigarettes and Pert Plus. “Why should this time be any different?”

“Because we’re standing in the freezing cold in the middle of winter in the fucking U.P., that’s why.” Danny shook his head, then reached into his jacket and pulled out a yellow pack of American Spirits. His hands trembled as he passed them around—we all took one—and he lit them for us with an old Zippo that had the words “Only the Good Die Young” etched on the front in flowing Gothic letters.

We stood there, smoking, and waiting for Tim. It wasn’t quiet—in the building behind us, a hundred of our closest friends and family were milling about, talking, drinking shitty coffee and pretending to like each other. But we couldn’t go in there yet. Not until Tim was with us.

“Too cold to smoke,” mumbled Teresa, but she kept on smoking.

We were silent for awhile, watching the sky turn the pale yellow of old paper as the sun went down. Then Danny started laughing.

“Remember that time Tim made his own shorts?”

Teresa started chuckling—she had been there. Danny turned to Trent, who hadn’t known Tim as long as the rest of us, and said, “Tim was at summer camp with us when we were, what, eight?”

“Eight or nine,” I said, watching the gray cloud of smoke and breath forming around us.

“It was out in the woods—basically in the middle of nowhere. And his mom was scared shitless that he was going to catch malaria, or get bitten by a snake, or scrape his leg on some piece of metal and end up with tetanus, so she didn’t pack any shorts for him—just five pairs of blue jeans.”

“For summer camp?” asked Trent.

“Yeah—blue jeans and sweatshirts. So we got there, and in the middle of the first night, I heard a noise from the bunk above me, where Tim was sleeping. It was a quick click-click-click. I got out of bed and stood up on my tiptoes, and there he was, using a pair of fingernail clippers to make his own shorts by cutting off all the legs of his jeans.”

Trent chuckled and said, “That’s pretty funny.”

“No,” I said, and took a drag from my cigarette, “the funniest part was that he wore those shorts for years. His mom was so pissed at him for ruining those jeans that she didn’t buy him another pair of pants until he was in high school. For the next four years, he was wearing these ridiculous jean cutoff shorts wherever he went. But he didn’t give a fuck. ‘I like ’em this way,’ he’d tell us when we made fun of them. ‘They breathe better than regular shorts.'”

Teresa sighed. “You know, that was the summer he tried to kiss me.”

“I think we all tried to kiss you that summer,” said Danny.

“Yeah, but I almost let him do it. The rest of you were too gross.”

We all laughed and tried to think of other stories to tell, but there were too many and most of them weren’t appropriate, so we lapsed into silence. At one point, we heard a car engine approaching and all looked toward the street, thinking it was him, but it drove by without stopping.

“He called someone a douchebag at work the other day,” said Trent, smiling.

“Seriously?” I said. Tim had never called people names, even when they were picking on him.

“Yeah, but this guy deserved it. He and Tim were working on a project for the client, and Tim had fallen behind, because he was also working on this other project in any spare time he had. So Tim was pulling fifteen- or sixteen-hour days at the office, and this other guy was getting in every day at nine, leaving around four-thirty, and the whole time, keeps telling Tim he needs to pick up the pace, work harder.

“Tim finishes the project, and even nominates the other guy for an award for doing such an awesome job. In his official nomination, which went on the company website, Tim said this other guy deserved the award because he was dedicated, on top of things, underappreciated, caring, honorable, emphatic, bombastic, amazing, and grounded. He put it all in bullet points so, when you looked at it, the first letters were D-O-U-C-H-E-B-A-G. Douchebag.”

Danny doubled over and laughed so hard he started coughing. I could feel Teresa shaking with her own laughter. I smiled.

“Holy shit,” said Danny. “Yeah, I think Tim grew some balls in his old age. He would have never pulled something like that when we knew him in high school.”

I took a last puff of my cigarette and threw it to the moist blacktop. The glowing orange ember at the tip fizzled out immediately.

We all turned our heads at the sound of an approaching car. “Finally,” said Danny, as the hearse pulled into the parking lot.

The driver apologized for being late. Danny argued with him for a while before agreeing to pay. As we took Tim’s casket out of the hearse, the driver mumbled something about a tip, and Teresa yelled at him and told him he was lucky to get paid at all.

We started walking toward the church, two of us on each side of the casket, and I glanced over my shoulder at the setting sun. There was a cloud of smoke and the vapor of our breath where we had been standing seconds before, but when I blinked, it was gone.

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E. Branden Hart was born and raised in Texas, and lives and works in San Antonio. “Late” is his first published short story, and was written in the hours after the funeral of his close friend, Chris Garson, who had an affinity for using Billy Joel lyrics in everyday conversation and wearing short pants as a fashion statement. Chris was also a creative powerhouse without whom Branden might have never found the courage to submit his writing. This story and all the other good ones are for him. Email: Branden.Hart[at]gmail.com