Ducks

Daniel Nazer
Fiction


Duck 2

Photo Credit: Michael Phillips/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

We moved to Castle Cottage in late August 1979, the final days of the first summer of the Thatcher government. It seemed like the right moment to escape. The cottage looked out over Loughrigg Tarn, a mirror-still mountain lake at the foot of the Langdale Range. Our first morning we stood outside with our tea and watched mist swirl around the distant ridge. Alison, her dreadlocks tied back in a bun, looked at me with a smile. Here we are.

Despite the grand name, the cottage was a dump. The National Trust rented it to tourists during the summer but did little upkeep. Drafts whistled through the loose windows, mice left droppings every night, and the floors sloped like the rolling hills outside. I could only imagine the shock of the weekenders up from London when they first opened the door. But we didn’t mind. It was practically free to live there during the off-season. We planned to stay through the academic year, commuting a few days a week to our classes at Lancaster University’s sterile suburban campus in Bailrigg.

My parents protested when they learned I was moving in with Alison. “You don’t mean that girl with the purple hair?” my mother said.

“She doesn’t have purple hair anymore,” I responded, failing to add that she now had dreadlocks or that we were more than just roommates.

When Alison told her parents, they said since she would one day learn how difficult it is to live with someone, there was no harm learning it early in life.

For six short weeks, we lived the Lake District life we’d hoped for. We took walks around the tarn, shopping trips to town, and spent long mornings together in bed enjoying the peace that comes from the certainty that you won’t be disturbed. Though our parents worried we would abandon university, the utter lack of distraction helped our studies. As the days grew shorter, we camped on the rug by the pot-bellied stove, our work scattered on the floor. Inevitably, Alison’s science notes got mixed up with my draft term papers to form new subjects like Organic Chemistry of the Russian Revolution or the Linear Algebra of Romantic Poetry.

*

When the trouble came, it arrived late at night. We woke to a loud crash, followed by repeated clattering. It sounded like someone knocking at every window and door. Was it the cops? I placed our small pouch of weed in the sock drawer and stumbled to the front door, Alison following right behind.

“Who is it?”

No answer. But we could hear something brushing against the outer surface. Alison reached for the handle and opened the door before I could stop her. A single duck flew in. Alison screamed with surprise as it flapped past us into the kitchen, settling on the counter where it shuffled and quacked. The bird had a dark brown chest and an iridescent green head.

“Let’s get it back outside.”

“Be careful not to hurt it.”

I approached slowly, trying to get in prime shooing position behind the drake. It kept at least one small eye trained on me as I approached. With all my attention on the bird, I tripped as I rounded the kitchen counter.

“Fuck! Another one.”

The new duck squawked as it dodged my feet. Where had this other bird come from? We’d closed the door the moment the drake had flown inside. Hearing more quacking in the second bedroom, I investigated to find the window smashed. Several ducks wandered the floor, crushing glass into the carpet with their webbed feet. More birds nestled in the blankets on our spare bed. The smell of wet feathers sent me into a sneezing fit. Alison half-laughed, half-whimpered beside me.

“Oh dear. So many.”

I grabbed a pillow and swung at the ducks. Rather than sending them out the window, it simply stirred them into a swirling panic. Feathers, beaks, and bird poop filled the tight airspace. Alison and I retreated. I closed the door, figuring we could clean up once the ducks left on their own accord. Back in the main room, we faced the more manageable challenge of two ducks. The drake remained on the counter while his friend (with the plain brown feathers of a female) sat in the sink. I stood, pillow in hand, and pondered how we might evict them. Before I could try anything, a new bird smashed through the living room window. This duck twitched on the floor, a triangular shard of glass lodged in its chest. Alison ran to it and scooped it up. She stood in the centre of the room, holding the bleeding bird, as more and more ducks flew in through the window, until I could barely see her through the mess of feathers. I followed the sound of her screams, which could only just be heard over the quacks and flapping, then led her to our bedroom and slammed the door.

We were alone. That is, unless you counted the dead duck cradled in Alison’s arms. Blood dripped from her fingers. I pried the duck away from her and inspected her arms and hands. She’d cut her forearm on the shard of glass that had been wedged in the duck’s chest. I dabbed at the wound with a dirty T-shirt I picked up from the floor.

“What’s happening?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

The depth of Alison’s shock unsettled me. She was usually so attuned to the natural world. When we hiked the nearby hills, she would name the flowers and identify animals by their burrow. So if the behaviour and density of ducks made no sense to her, then it likely made no sense at all. The bedroom window shook, but fortunately did not break, as another bird collided with the glass. I lifted the mattress from the bed and placed it up against window. I shifted the dresser against the mattress to hold it in place. No birds would get in this room. But we could hear chaos in the rest of the cottage. Alison sat with her back against the door, crying.

“It’s okay,” I said. “They’ll go away eventually, right?”

Alison nodded, though didn’t appear entirely certain.

“What kind of birds are they?” I asked.

“They just look like normal ducks to me. Mallards.”

“Why are they trying to get in?”

“I don’t think they are. The flock outside must be so dense that they are colliding with the house. Once they end up inside they don’t know what to do. They freak out. Like if we suddenly fell in a lake, I guess.”

She smiled a little. Thinking through the problem had calmed her down. With the mattress against the window and the door shut we seemed safe from further invasion. The worst seemed to have passed. We would wait them out.

*

Barricaded in our room, we held onto each other while wrapped in a blanket on the floor. Around dawn, as we were finally falling into a half-sleep, shotgun blasts rang out. Each blast was followed by an explosion of squawking. I had hoped the ducks would leave by morning. But the near constant honking told me otherwise. I got up slowly, achy from having slept on the floor, and moved to the window. I shifted the mattress aside so I could look out. Repeated impact from the birds had shattered the glass into a spider-web of cracks. I thought I could make out a council van but couldn’t be sure.

“I’m going outside,” I said.

“Not while they are shooting.”

“I’ll wear my cycling jacket.”

Alison looked on, worried, while I donned my florescent orange jacket and a pair of boots. On the way out, I tiptoed through the main room and kitchen. The ducks in there had settled down. They sat on couches and the floor as if they were waiting for an overdue train. I made it to the door without disturbing them and poked my head outside. A man leant against our wall, smoking a pipe with a shotgun in his lap. Our yard was duck-free, but I could see hundreds on the narrow road beyond. They flowed along the road like a river. The man yelled to his companion.

“Look here, John! There be people in the cottage.”

“You don’t say.”

I approached the men.

“You all right?” asked the one with the gun.

It took me a moment to decipher the dense Cumbrian accent (“all right” was more like “alreet”).

“Yes,” I answered. “But we had a rough night. What the hell is happening?”

“Don’t really know. Lot more ducks than usual this season. That’s fair to say. They’re thick all over the District and your tarn here seems to be the worst. Ducks on it like mosquitos.”

“Can you get rid of them?”

“Aye. Eventually. But you can’t stay here. It’s not hygienic.”

By then, Alison had joined us outside, pale, dreadlocks askew. She wore her thick trench coat over her pink nightie. After a night sleeping on the floor, she looked wild.

“What if we clean up?” she asked.

“Well, you can try. But I think you should come with us to town.”

We didn’t want to abandon our new home, especially if town (or “toon” in local dialect) meant Bowness, the plastic tourist trap on Lake Windermere. So we got to work trying to clean the cottage while the men went to the tarn to shoot. The ducks seemed calmer in the daylight. We were able to shoo most of them outside. Every now and then a new bird would fly in through one of the smashed windows. But we paid them little mind as we swept up glass and scrubbed the floors and counters. Pulling up the sheets in the spare bed, I almost retched from the smell. And every time I wiped a surface clean, feathers seemed to find their way back. At noon, we took a short break for crackers and cheese. Alison stopped after only a couple of bites.

“Are you okay?”

“I don’t feel so well.”

“Let me look at your arm.”

I remembered her injury as a small cut. But she pulled up her sleeve to reveal a deep gash. Even worse, the wound oozed a mustard-yellow pus.

“Oh God, Alison. We need someone to look at this.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“This looks infected. You need to see a doctor.”

While we argued, the council workers returned from the tarn shore. Their shooting appeared to have scattered the ducks a little, though the ducks continued to waddle along the road in massive groups.

“So will you be coming to town with us?”

“Yes/No,” we answered simultaneously.

Alison needed immediate medical attention. And she had to know it. But she also seemed to understand that, if we left, we would never return. She refused to accept what had happened.

“You need to treat that cut,” I pleaded. “And it will be so cold at night with the windows out. Let’s go to town.”

She nodded, finally. We each packed a duffel bag and met the council men at their van (too afraid to drive our own car on the infested roads). But before we could get in, another van came racing up the road, a large satellite on its roof. Birds scattered before it like a bow wave. Many ducks could not get airborne in time and went under the tires. The murderous vehicle skidded to a halt in front of our cottage and a camera crew jumped out the back.

“Wow! This is the best spot yet,” the reporter yelled as they began filming. He ran into a group of ducks so the cameraman could film them in flight. After a few minutes taping the thick flock, they turned to us. The reporter shoved a microphone in Alison’s face.

“Why do you think the birds attacked your cottage?”

“The birds are not attacking us. They don’t mean any harm…”

At that moment, a duck flew full tilt into Alison’s head.

*

It became an iconic image. Between the duck’s perfect comedic timing and Alison’s fall onto her backside with dreadlocks flying, it made for great TV. The clip quickly went from the evening newscast, to the late-night talk shows. Even today, along with footage of the miners’ strike, the Falklands War, and the poll tax riots, it still appears in montages designed to evoke the Thatcher years. At the time, Tories loved it: the naïve hippy calling for peace while malevolent forces picked their moment to attack. Months later, in the run up to the Falklands War, it became a mocking slogan directed at British peaceniks: “Oh, the Argies don’t mean any harm… Bang!” Anyone who heard the taunt would immediately picture Alison getting whacked by the duck.

We didn’t know any of this as we rode the van to Windermere. Unlike the TV crew, the workers tried not to kill any ducks, so we crept along the road. By the time we reached Bowness it was getting dark. The council set us up on cots in the local primary school gym. About twenty others had been turfed out of their homes by the duck infestation. Our fellow refugees were a strange mix of bourgeois retirees and rough farmers. Regardless of their background, no one wanted to be there and folks kept to themselves. When we’d settled in, a doctor came by to clean Alison’s wound. Deciding stitches weren’t needed, he settled on a bandage and antibiotics, and gave her a stern talk about finishing the full cycle.

We set off to find dinner. There were plenty of ducks around, sitting on fences, waddling on the sidewalks, and flying overhead, but it was nothing compared to the plague by our cottage. With Alison’s treatment, and fewer birds around, I began to relax. As we walked around town, a few people gave Alison funny looks. But we thought nothing of it. We settled on the pub for dinner and found a quiet table in the corner. I tucked into fish and chips and a Guinness while Alison, still queasy, sipped ginger ale. We could hear a television blaring the news. All of the coverage, even on the national broadcast, focused on the local duck crisis.

… The Prime Minister said that she would visit the affected area immediately. She blamed the population explosion on the Labour government’s intolerant attitude toward hunters. “If the previous government had allowed traditional hunting season to be observed throughout the country we would not be seeing the Lake District overrun by birds. We can only hope to restore order before one of the most beautiful parts of the nation is made uninhabitable…”

When Thatcher finished talking, the broadcast moved on to Alison’s short interview in front of our cottage. We both watched, transfixed, as the bird flew into her head on screen. A few of the other patrons in the bar chuckled knowingly. That’s why she’d been getting strange looks.

The reporters repeatedly compared the local infestation to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, usually while they ran the clip of Alison getting hit. But they were wrong and Alison was right. We were not under attack. The ducks meant no harm. The bird that collided with her seemed as surprised as she was. It was an overpopulation crisis and nothing more. After spending a warmer than usual summer breeding in Iceland, the mallards had descended on Britain in a cloud, landing first in the Lake District. Over the next few days they would disperse to the rest of the nation. And while a few lakes and ponds experienced local overcrowding, the country was big enough for a few hundred thousand extra ducks.

As the news continued, Alison got up from the table and rushed to the bathroom. When she got back, I could tell from the tips of her dreadlocks that she’d puked. At first I thought she was shocked by her appearance on TV. But her forehead was burning. “I need to see the doctor again,” she whispered. We left the gawking patrons and stumbled back to the evacuee centre. Her elevated fever and laboured breathing alarmed the doctor, especially since she’d already taken her first antibiotics. He called for a cab and sent us to the hospital in Kendal. At the hospital, a bored nurse asked a battery of intake questions. Halfway down the list, she asked if we’d been exposed to animal waste. I almost laughed as I recalled the state of our home. After I described the last 24 hours, the nurse perked up and waved a doctor over. He began to examine Alison, paying particular attention to her breathing.

“The cut on Alison’s arm is badly infected,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s causing her symptoms. I think she has histoplasmosis.” In response to our blank looks, he explained that this was a fungal infection of the lungs caused by inhaling bat or bird droppings. Since I’d also been exposed, they took me away for my own tests, only letting me go after a couple of hours of prodding and poking. I found Alison asleep in her own room, wheezing quietly. I kissed her warm forehead and took her hand. She slept on.

A TV bolted to the wall streamed the news. It showed Margaret Thatcher arriving in Bowness. She visited the local school where the council had sent us. We’d missed meeting the Iron Lady by just a few hours. I wondered if Alison would be disappointed. I only felt relief. With the cameras rolling, I probably would have greeted the Prime Minister politely. Then I would have spent the next decade wishing I’d told her off. Other footage showed Thatcher at some kind of warehouse, perhaps an abattoir. There was no sound so I couldn’t be sure. Men in plastic coats were pointing at duck carcasses. Some of the birds were not dead. Margaret Thatcher was given a hand drill and some directions. She picked up a twitching bird and drove the drill bit through its skull.

In all the years since, I’ve never seen that footage again. And no one I’ve talked to remembers it. But I am sure I saw it correctly. Were they euthanizing dying birds? Or had the birds been captured as punishment for crowding the lakes? Whatever the truth, the image chilled me.

Alison’s parents arrived from Edinburgh the next morning. I took the chance to head back to the cottage. I hoped to get a start on the cleaning and to bring back some of Alison’s favourite things—her sketchbook, her well-worn copy of Emma Goldman’s autobiography, and some uni work so she didn’t fall behind. I finally arrived after two bus rides and a long walk. A large pink notice from the council was pinned to the door. Our home had been condemned—declared unfit for human habitation. To deal with the shock of eviction, I walked to the tarn and sat on the shore, watching the sweep of the water and the shadow of the ridge beyond. A single duck swam to the beach and looked at me quizzically.

“You did this!” I thought to myself.

Back in the cottage, the stench was overwhelming. About twenty ducks seemed to have taken up permanent residence. They quacked at me insolently whenever I got too close. Fortunately, we had few possessions so it didn’t take me long to pack. I could fit everything we owned in our wedge-shaped Austin 1800 (the “flying doorstop” I called it). As I moved my acoustic guitar, I felt a weight shift within the body. Taking a closer look, I caught the now familiar outline of a duck carcass. How that bird found its way behind the strings and into the guitar I will never know.

*

Once she was out of hospital, Alison moved to Edinburgh to convalesce at her parents’ house. She never returned to her environmental science degree at Lancaster. Instead, she enrolled in law at Edinburgh (her parents were both lecturers there and it was the degree they’d encouraged her to do from the beginning). She grew tired of people snickering at her for getting smacked by a duck. So she cut her dreadlocks. Once they were gone, no one recognized her as the girl from the famous clip. I took a few train rides north to meet her. But our relationship couldn’t survive the distance. We agreed to take a break. The break became the rest of our lives.

Eventually, we both ended up in London. I teach history at Creighton Comprehensive, where my classes mix middle-class kids and Caribbean children fresh off the plane. Alison became a barrister. I see her on the news sometimes, representing an asylum seeker or a journalist whose muckraking has offended the wrong person. Her husband Martin, who she met studying at Edinburgh, is also a barrister. He tends to represent those that can afford his extraordinary fees. Sometimes Jennifer and I go to dinner parties at their place in Chelsea. But there can be moments of awkwardness: the two school teachers and the two QCs, the photos of them with Prime Minister Blair and his wife (“Tony and Cherie”), the painting hanging above their dining table worth more than our annual salary.

One day in summer, while school is out, I meet Alison for a quick lunch by her chambers. We eat at a crowded Vietnamese place on Clerkenwell Road, standing almost pressed together by the door as we wait for a table. When we’re finally seated, I order the roast duck. Alison raises an eyebrow and calls our server back to the table.

“He’ll have number 22, the mock duck,” she announces.

I laugh, stunned into obedience by her unexpected edict. We lock eyes across the table and wonder what might have been had ducks not come between us.

pencilDaniel Nazer lives in San Francisco where he is a Staff Attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Originally from Perth, Australia, he is a graduate of the University of Western Australia, Rutgers University, and Yale Law School. When he takes a break from writing and the law, he can be found surfing at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. Email: daniel.nazer[at]gmail.com

Asylum

Lane Kareska
Fiction


King's Highway 132 - Ontario

Photo Credit: Doug Kerr/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

5.

After sixty years of driving, this is John’s first accident.

It’s a raccoon or maybe even a bear cub—something dark and huddled—and he considers just plowing straight through it. But maybe it’s a rock. Maybe it’s a small boulder. It’s night, it’s hard to tell. He decides to avoid the thing, but already, he knows, he’s acted too late. He cranks the wheel to the right and feels the impact in his hips. A tire bursts. The car shudders as it swings from the road. One side of the SUV lifts—he’s going over, he knows it—and the car topples and grinds the pavement on the driver’s side. John isn’t scared, just surprised. Huh—5. This is happening—4.

The car drags to a stop in the ditch, and already John scrambles to pull himself from the car. Taped plastic bags heavy with large American bills crinkle within his shirt. He throws open the passenger door and it falls back atop him. He forces it open again, hauls himself from the wreck and, hyperventilating, lowers himself down to the earth. His hands shake more fiercely than usual. He looks at the car, the woods, the road.

Midnight in the middle of nowhere Ontario.

Something hard twists in his stomach and he sits down to let the nausea pass. He wants to look back at whatever it was that caused all this but the muscles in his back are locked and his entire body feels like one giant knot of meat.

After ten minutes of sitting still—no cars pass; he expects none—John smirks to himself. I pulled myself from an overturned SUV. Jumped from it like a man half my age. The realization that he is still a capable man comforts him, and for a moment he forgets that he is freezing.

The revolver. John forces himself to stand. On wobbly legs, he staggers to the hood of the upset vehicle and tries to force it open. Of course it won’t work. He needs to get to the latch inside. But the idea of climbing back into the car seems flat impossible now. Two days ago, while still in America, John had removed the car’s air filter and hidden a .38 revolver in the cavity.

No way you’re getting to that now—5.

Long minutes of just thinking. Ok. Time to walk. It’s almost summer, but the night air is still terribly cold. John, aged 70—though he knows he looks closer to a hundred—walks down the road, hugging himself against the chill. He doesn’t know what’s coming. He just knows he needs to find some safety.

 

4.

Six weeks ago, John Valley was a full professor in the Creative Writing Department at Tacklin, a small college in southern Kentucky. Keeping secrets came naturally to John.

Almost no one knew about his rituals and rules. People suspected something was off, sure. He’d often been spotted whispering to himself. The constant hand washing, the way he lingered a moment too long at doors. But the full globe of his complex remained something he trekked alone.

In the invisible safety of his VW beater, John counted backwards, aloud, between the stop signs as he pulled into the faculty parking lot. He waited a moment in his car, finished the countdown and looked himself over in the mirror. He was shocked to look so old. Women live longer, his father had once told him. Because it’s the men that have to deal with everything. John’s face looked like a fist behind the steel frames of his glasses. His hair shone a brilliant, laughable white. It didn’t even look like real hair, but an outrageous wig.

John walked through the campus courtyard. Some students kicked a soccer ball. It was mid-spring and the air was full of water. John inhaled deeply as he walked. He believed that flooding his system with oxygen helped to slow his heart and relax his mind.

He checked his department mailbox, washed his hands in the men’s room, sat in his office and booted his computer. He read his email from students, coworkers and the Liberal Arts College. “Come,” John said when someone knocked on his door.

A student opened the door cautiously—was it a student?—John didn’t recognize him.

“Hello,” the young man said.

Young. He looked older than most undergraduates. He wore his red hair clipped close to his skull. A gray sweater, jeans and gym shoes. John found himself instantly wondering if this were a student or someone impersonating a student.

“Yes?” John said.

“Professor Valley?”

“That’s right. Would you like to sit down?”

The young man stared at John as if he hadn’t heard him. As if he’d been suddenly struck deaf. The moment held and John searched for something to say. The young man stared at him. Examining him. Memorizing him. Yes, John was sure of it. He was memorizing John’s appearance.

“And you are…?” John finally said.

“I’m sorry. Wrong office.” The young man ducked into the hall and shut the door.

Wrong office my eye. John pushed himself from his chair, his knees popping, and opened the doorway. The young man jogged down the hall and disappeared.

This would, John knew, consume him utterly for the day.

5. 4. 3. 2. 1.

 

I am not being followed I am not being followed I am not being followed.

John’s physician worked out of an upper room in one of the new buildings on the St. Nicholas Hospital property. The check-up went well. Let’s keep an eye on the blood pressure, John. Heart rate elevated but not more so than usual. Lungs sound good. Eyes, ears, nose. And we’re done here.

John buttoned up his shirt and Dr. Smetko (mid-forties, handsome, dry handshake, crisp and healthy blue eyes) said, “How’s that other thing going, John?”

As if he’d almost forgotten to ask. As if he hadn’t been waiting till right now to bring it up.

“What’s that?” John asked.

“The obsessive compulsive thing we talked about. You know. The countdowns and stuff?”

“Oh. Good.”

“You still seeing Dr. Harver? Those pills are working?” Dr. Smetko asked.

“No. I’m between doctors. Scheduling difficulties.”

“John.”

“I’ll keep you updated. Golf soon?” John asked.

“You’ve got my number.”

John left the office and stood at the elevator bank. He thought for a moment and decided he wasn’t ready to leave the hospital. He rode the elevator to the third floor and walked by his daughter’s office. Dr. Valley, MD. Her door was shut.

John stood there, tipped his head against the door and listened. Rachel Valley spoke on the phone. He couldn’t make out the words exactly but he recognized his daughter’s voice. Strong, curt, truth be told sexy. Though he’d never say such a thing out loud.

A hard-faced nurse approached. “What do you need, sir?”

I am not being followed I am not being followed I am not being followed.

“Sir?” she asked.

“Nothing. Wrong office,” John stepped to a hand sanitizer dispenser and massaged the gel into his hands as walked away.

 

Monday. John sat at his desk and read his email. I know who you are.

An email from an unknown address. I know what you did. John’s body released a tide of cold adrenaline as he read. My father. He read the message five times. The asylum. His mind, attempting to process the message, destroyed it. I am watching you. Sitting at his desk, hyperventilating, sentence fragments collected in John’s mind. I am always watching you. Expect me soon. John jumped when someone knocked on the door. “Come,” he said.

A female student. A female student he recognized. “Professor Valley?”

“Yes. Lucy.”

“Laura. Are we having class today?”

“What? I don’t understand your question.”

“It’s ten-thirty. Class was supposed to start twenty minutes ago. We were just wondering if maybe class was cancelled. Professor, are you all right?”

“Yes. No. Class is cancelled. Please tell them.”

Lucy nodded and eased shut the door.

John sat there and his dusty, panicked heart thudded in his chest.

 

3.

Hustling from his office to faculty parking, a soccer ball exploded against John’s temple and felled him. At first he did not know that it was a soccer ball. It could have been anything. John hit the pavement hard. The frames of his glasses broke and tore the skin of his face. A girl tried to help him up. “Sir, are you okay?” she asked.

John sat up, dazed. Blood ran from his cheekbone. A small crowd had gathered around him in the courtyard. A red-haired young man ran off.

“You were hit with a ball,” the girl said. “It was an accident. Are you okay?”

John lifted his finger and pointed at the man. He tried to say Stop him. Stop that man. But no words arrived. His brain was shaken and his tongue seemed not to function. Someone chuckled. The girl helped him to his feet. She bent down to collect the shards of his glasses but he ignored them. He staggered off toward his car.

In his dreams he had heard nurses speaking. His head ached fiercely and his dream-vision was cloudy as though he were underwater. After a disoriented hour of bloated hallucinations, his mind began to return to him. John woke alone in a hospital bed. He knew that he’d been speaking in his sleep. What had he said?

Dr. Smetko knocked on the door as he opened it. He seemed surprised to find John awake. “Hey,” Dr. Smetko said. “It’s Pele.”

“Is that a joke?” John asked.

“Yes. How do you feel?”

“Angry.”

“It was an accident. It happens.”

“How did I get here?”

“They found you on the pavement by your car. Someone almost parked on top of you. After you were hit with the ball you apparently tried to drive yourself home. Not smart. Luckily, you collapsed and hit your head on the pavement.”

“Luckily?”

“What if you’d driven, John? What if you’d had a car accident? I wouldn’t be explaining this to you right now.”

“I need help, Steve,” John said.

“I know you do. Talk to me.”

“Can I have a pen and paper, please? And a lighter?”

“A lighter?”

“I need to write something down but then you must destroy it.”

“John, this is a hospital,” Dr. Smetko said.

“Steve.”

“We’ll flush it down the toilet.”

“Things can be found. You must burn it,” John said.

“Okay. Okay. I’ll take it home and burn it. What’s this about?”

“Paper and pen, Steve.”

John wrote down two telephone numbers and two first names. He asked Dr. Smetko to call these men and explain that John was in the hospital and he’d urgently requested them.

Dr. Smetko returned two hours later.

“Well?” John asked.

“Well, what?”

“The numbers!”

“Sorry, John. I’m working, you know? I tried them both twice. Each is disconnected,” Dr. Smetko said.

Rachel, John’s daughter, stood in the doorway. “What numbers?” she asked, entering the room. Rachel was in her mid-thirties. She wore her blonde hair in a short, mannish cut and she wore no makeup. “Dad,” she said. “What numbers?”

“This is doctor–patient privilege,” John said.

“Oh please. What’s going on?”

A heavy weight pressed against John’s chest. I am not being followed I am not being followed.

“Dad,” Rachel said, “now.”

John looked at Rachel and Dr. Smetko both and tried to decide whom he wanted in the room. “Steve,” John said. “Do you mind?”

“The opposite. Feel better. Talk to you tomorrow. Bye, Rachel.” Dr. Smetko touched Rachel’s shoulder and left the room, closing the door behind him.

Touched her shoulder. Were they involved?

“Spill,” Rachel said.

“I’m being followed.”

“By who?”

“I don’t know. The son of an old friend I think. Come closer, please. I need to whisper this.”

Rachel rolled her eyes and approached her father. She sat in the chair beside him and looked him in the eyes. Well?

As John began to speak, he realized he’d never spoken of this to anyone not involved. His first violation of his oath. He whispered for nearly ten minutes. When he’d finished, Rachel stared at him as if she were waiting for a punchline.

“And?” she said.

“And? And what? That’s the truth. That’s what’s happening. His son is coming after me. He knows what I did,” John said.

“Dad,” she said, then inhaled slowly. “You wrote spy novels, but you were never a spy. You were an executive for Kraft Foods. Do you remember this?”

*

John brought himself to a psychologist in an office park and found himself unable to say anything useful or true. She was a pleasant woman, younger than himself, and this deeply embarrassed John. After ten minutes of introduction she asked him, “Mr. Valley, what brings you in here?”

John coughed. “I’m not sure. I’m getting older, I guess.” I engage in rituals. I find myself counting down in my head for no reason.

“How do you feel about that? About getting older?”

“Um, fine. It doesn’t trouble me.” I don’t know why but some part of my mind believes that when I reach the end of the countdown whatever I’m seeing in my mind’s eye is something I will ruin. I don’t know how long I’ve been doing this.

“Are you married?”

“I’m a widower. I have a daughter.” Rachel is the key to this. When I countdown, I believe that if I think of her on the number one, something terrible will happen to her, something blasphemous. I don’t want to think sexual thoughts about my daughter… but these thoughts, they’re jumbled… They’re unwanted.

“Do you have a good relationship with your daughter?”

“Yes. I think so.” Why do I think this way?

*

Panicked weeks at home interrupted only by a few phone calls: The English Department, Dr. Smetko, an empty line. Rough dreams.

On a Saturday afternoon, John sat in his study examining a magnetic tracking device he’d pulled from the undercarriage of his VW. The doorbell rang. He flung open the curtains and found Rachel standing on his porch holding one of his old novels in her hands.

John opened the door and hurried her in.

“Hi,” she said.

It occurred to him that this was her first time in his apartment in months, perhaps more than a year.

“How are you? Has anything developed?” she asked.

John ignored the question. “One of my books?” he pointed at the dog-eared novel in her hand. “I didn’t know you owned any.”

“I’ve read them as well. Dad, I need to talk to you. Can we sit down?”

In the study, John sensed he was in for a lecture. On what subject he unsure.

“Dad, do you remember what you told me in the hospital? About your old friend?” she asked.

“Of course I do, Rachel. It’s the truth. The son of the man I imprisoned is following me. To what end, I don’t know. But I assure you—”

“Dad. The story you told me, it’s from your book. It wasn’t real.”

John felt as if he’d been struck in the head again. Book? She held up the novel. Asylum by John Valley. 1985. She handed him the book, a page was paper-clipped and a passage highlighted.

“Read,” she said.

He read the first few lines and understood his daughter’s point. Asylum had been one of his first (he felt) serious spy novels. It had failed to find an audience and was not a remembered book. Set in the early seventies, a crusty CIA officer named Jack Allain uncovers a spy in the US government—his best friend. Rachel had highlighted the passage when Allain confronts his friend’s family.

He held the book out to her and said, “Rachel—”

“Read it,” she said.

 

Jack rang the bell and waited. After a moment, Charlene opened the door to her home.

She stood there, silent and sad.

“Jack,” she said. “Where’s my husband?”

Jack removed his hat. “That’s what I’ve come to discuss, Charlene. May I come in?”

Charlene Felter led Jack into the parlor and sat him on a loveseat. She took a seat across from him and offered neither drink nor pleasantry. She wanted the news about Simon and, clearly, she wanted the truth.

“Your husband has had a breakdown,” Jack lied. “The doctors are certain.”

The skin on the knob of her chin spasmed. “A breakdown?”

“He’s a patriot, Charlene. A hero.” Lies. Simon was a traitor, a spy, a Soviet. “The work he’s done… this country owes him more than we can ever repay. I’m afraid the cost of the work has finally hit him. His mental faculties have collapsed.”

“How long until he’s better? What do the doctors say?”

“They’re going to keep him in the asylum, Charlene. You can visit him on Sundays. You and the children both. The government is going to pay the bill. You’ll bear no financial strain. You’ll want for nothing, I promise you. As your friend, I promise you.”

Tears welled in her wide eyes. “I’ll want for my husband, Jack. I’ll want for Simon!”

Jack’s heart broke for her. He thought of Simon, his one-time friend and partner. Now Simon was a drugged maniac with half a mind, rotting in an asylum somewhere. There was no mental collapse, none that was natural anyway. Jack knew what fate awaited his friend: regular druggings until his mind broke and a suicide could be convincingly faked.

The front door opened, Simon’s two school-aged sons ran into the room toting their schoolbooks. They saw Jack and stopped. Both of the boys smiled. “Uncle Jack!” they exclaimed.

 

John handed the book back. “Fiction,” he said.

“I agree,” Rachel said.

“No, Rachel. You’re wrong. I remember what happened. I remember my life. There’s a lot I’ve kept from you.”

“That I also believe.”

“What’s that mean? Have you been talking to Dr. Smetko?” John asked.

Rachel sighed. “Dad, Steven cares about you. So do I. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is nothing to be ashamed about. And it’s manageable, but let’s get you checked out and make sure it’s just that and not the onset of Alzheimer’s or…”

John stopped listening the moment he realized his daughter was suggesting hospitalization.

 

2.

A local Appleby’s restaurant.

John had never actually been inside, and as such, it was one of the only suitable places to meet in town. John sat huddled over a newspaper in a booth. He blew five (5, 4, 3, 2, 1) times on a bowl of beer cheese soup and sucked from a straw on a glass of ice water. A heavy black man entered and looked around. Mr. Banes.

John looked up and that was enough for the man. Mr. Banes walked over to the booth without so much as a nod or a lift of the eyebrows. Good man. He sat down across from John. He wore a shaved head and a shiny earring in his left earlobe.

“John Valley,” John said.

Mr. Banes nodded and shook his hand. “How can I help you?”

John said, “You’ll find a GPS locator and a set of keys on the bench beside you.”

Mr. Banes pocketed the items without looking at them.

“This is what you found on your car?”

“Right. Now, I’ve rented a vehicle and I’m going to leave town for a few days. You’ve now got the key to my house and the key to my Volkswagen. I need them each swept for bugs, locators, any other devices. Thoroughly.”

Mr. Banes nodded.

“And I need to know about a Samuel Clark Fine.”

“The mental patient you told me about. Have you remembered the name of the facility?”

John shook his head. “No. I can’t remember it. I’ve tried, but I just can’t.”

“It’s okay. I’ll find what you need.”

“And his family as well. Sons especially.”

“Mr. Valley,” Mr. Banes said. “Whatever this is about, it’s private, that’s fine. But is there anything you can tell me that might make it easier to know what I’m looking for?”

“For instance?”

“For instance, is your life in danger? Have you been threatened, do you have enemies, is this a social, professional or extramarital connection? That kind of thing.”

“No. That’s all the information I can give you.”

“Okay then,” Mr. Banes said.

John nodded. That’s all.

Mr. Banes stood and left just as the waitress arrived to take his order.

*

No longer a drinker, Professor John Valley sat in a southern Illinois motel hot tub and drank his fourth bottle of Bud Light. Head lolling, he examined the stars and thought about his daughter and Dr. Smetko. He was now certain they were seeing one another.

He wondered what, exactly, about that bothered him so deeply.

He dismissed sexual and professional envy from his mind and settled on Imbalance. His daughter and his doctor knew far more about him than he knew about either of them. Anyone knowing anything about him made John uncomfortable. That had always been the case, had always been a constant stressor.

John fell asleep in the hot tub. Foam gathered in his chest hair. The cool, night wind eased against his sweaty flesh.

He dreamed about his daughter and Dr. Smetko.

He dreamed of them nude in bed. They were a powerful pair of lovers. His daughter screamed. Dr. Smetko grunted. The bedroom scene fell away and he saw them again, this time sitting alone in John’s study. John was the topic of discussion.

He’s losing his mind, Dr. Smetko said. The things he does when he thinks no one is looking. The numbers, the repetition. The ‘If This Than That’, the ‘If Not This Not That’.

Rachel said, And the spying? The CIA story?

Absurd, absurd. You know those headlines you sometimes read? ‘Prize-winning Scholar Found Wandering in Traffic’. Do you ever wonder how that happens? This is how that happens. Warning signs go ignored. This will be our failure if something happens to him. We must act responsibly. He needs help. Medication! An asylum! Something!

John woke to a woman tapping his shoulder.

He had a fierce erection.

“Sir? Are you all right?” she sat back against the far rim of the hot tub. Her handsome partner—a husband?—draped his hairy arm across the woman’s shoulders and eyed John suspiciously.

An erection while dreaming of his own daughter. Had he spoken in his sleep?

“I’m fine. Fine.”

“Thought maybe you had a heart attack,” the man said, staring at the empty beer bottles.

John sat in the hot tub, looked at the water and waited for his excitement to wilt.

 

The phone rang in his motel room. He woke in the dark and lifted the receiver. “Hello?”

No answer. Steady breathing. A male.

Hello?” John snapped. “Who is this? Answer me!”

“Professor Valley?”

“Who is this!”

“I think we have a bad connection. This is Marc Banes. Your investigator.”

John exhaled, and coughed. His pulse marched in his ears. “Sorry, Mr. Banes. My heart rate… What have you found?”

“Well, very little. Your house and car were negative for electrical surveillance. No sound, no visual. And no transmitters, except, of course, the one you found.”

“Were you able to trace the purchaser?”

“Not exactly. The serial number was removed, as you know.”

“And Fine?” John asked.

“Five Samuel Clark Feinsteins. None in mental facilities. None that have ever been. Does this surprise you?”

It didn’t surprise him.

“Two things though, Professor Valley,” Mr. Banes said. “A transmitter identical to the one you found was purchased recently in your area. By you.”

“Yes. That was me. I wanted to confirm what it was. I’ve never used one before.” John thought for a moment. “What was the other thing? You said there were ‘two things’?”

“You’re missing.”

“I’m missing?” John asked.

“Your daughter has called the police and reported you missing. Did you not tell her you were leaving town?”

John drove through the night and decided to leave his job. He gave it little more thought than that.

His daughter though, the dreams, those lingered.

He passed a mile marker. 5, 4, 3, 2, Rachel—1. Again. Cannot end on her. 5, 4, 3, 2, Rachel—1. He counted down again and again, trying not to see her as he thought one. It wouldn’t work.

He tried to compensate with pain. He withdrew his left hand from the steering wheel and formed a fist. He curled his fingers and dug his sharp nails into his palm. Focus there. That one point of pain. That—5, one—4, point—3, right—2, there—1. He thought of the red-haired young Fine on the ‘one’—looking into John’s office, memorizing his ridiculous face. I am not being followed.

I am being followed.

A shadow leapt into the road before him and John turned the wheel—saw there was no threat, the wind and trees casting strange shapes—and corrected. The car, alone on the road, squeaked and continued.

 

At noon, John drove past his house. Smetko’s red SUV sat parked in his driveway. John did not stop his car. He broke into a cold sweat. So that was it. Smetko was waiting for him in there—ready to make his announcement: John, Rachel and I’ve had a talk, we need you to see someone. We need you to come with us. But how did he get in? Rachel had a key. Rachel would let him in. Smetko and Rachel, waiting there, together. Probably sitting in his study—hadn’t he dreamed this?—discussing him. Discussing their options. And there was only one option, so far as they saw it.

But why just one car? Where was Rachel’s—of course, they’d driven together. Smetko had driven Rachel. Casual. She was probably used to being in his car. She had her own key.

He tapped the brake at a stop sign and continued. 5, 4, 3, 2, Rachel—1. No!

He counted again. And again. He thought of Fine between the numbers. What terrible moments of clarity he must have had between his injections. I am here—5. Alone—4. Broken minded—3. Defecating in my gown—2. Where are my children—1?

He ran the concert of images and numbers all throughout his drive. The gas light illuminated.

John stopped at an Amoco and filled the tank. He counted down in his head continuously. Why could he not get out of the countdown? Just do it right. Just don’t end on your fucking daughter.

Get some water. Clear your head.

Inside, he enjoyed the sigh of refrigerated air when he opened the cooler. He drew a plastic bottle of water—one use, cancerous chemicals—and stood in the line.

John bumped into the young man ahead of him and the young man turned around.

Fine’s son stood there before him.

Enough.

John placed the palms of his hands on the young man’s chest and pressed forward, saying, “I’m sorry! I wish it hadn’t happened. But your father deserved it!”

A woman in line screamed. The young man pushed back.

“You don’t know what he did!” John screamed. “I’m defending his memory, you ingrate. You child.”

The young man—smiling—pushed John to the ground.

When did I start counting?—2. Rachel—1.

“I’m calling the police!” someone shouted.

On all fours now, John moaned, “You don’t know what he did.”

Was he crying now? Am I crying? Sobbing, he jogged out to his car.

John drove by his own house. Smetko’s SUV sat in his driveway. John glanced in his rearview. Fine’s son followed two cars behind in a gray sedan.

John circled once more. Smetko’s car—5. Fine’s son—4. Still—3. Following me—2. Rachel—1.

Smetko’s SUV. I should get a car like that. I could empty my account and buy that car. Buy exactly what I need and drive the hell out of town. John pulled onto the highway and thought about his daughter. What would she say? He accosted a customer in a gas station—5. He drove to different bank branches—4. One branch a day—3. Made gigantic withdrawals—2. Tried to buy a gun off a private investigator he’d hired—1.

But if they knew. If they knew. John wasn’t done yet. John still had friends in the world.

This wasn’t over.

 

1.

Rachel walks the halls of the Tacklin English Department. A police officer and a woman from the department wait by a door. Her father’s office. Former office.

“Sorry, I’m late,” Rachel says. “They sent me to the wrong office.”

“Did they send you to Professor Rhonda Valley? In Foreign Languages?”

“Yes.”

“That happens a lot.” The woman smiles.

Rachel looks at the woman, then the officer. “Well, then.”

The woman smiles and opens the door to John’s office. “Okay,” she says, “let’s see what we can find.”

“Yes. Let’s,” says Rachel.

pencilLane Kareska’s work has previously been published in Berkeley Fiction Review, Sheepshead Review, Flashquake and elsewhere. Sirens Call Publications recently published his novella North Dark. HIs undergraduate degree in Fiction Writing is from Columbia College Chicago and his MFA is from Southern Illinois University. Email: Lane.Kareska[at]Gmail.com

Mississippi of the West

Arika Elizenberry
Fiction


Fremont Street, 1959

Photo Credit: Allen/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

“I went from being a nigger in Mississippi to one in Las Vegas,” said Celia Eddins out loud. She hugged her legs with her cheek on her knee. Tears steadily dribbled down her face and glistened as the moonlight peeked through her bedroom blinds. “And being a whore to white men.”

Slot machines from the Golden Gate Hotel resonated in her mind and the clouds of smoke made her nauseous all over again. Worst of all, the foreign hands of male patrons groping her breasts and buttocks in the confined spaces of an elevator or hotel room added another layer of pain.

Like many other blacks of her time, Celia and her husband Eugene emigrated from the south for better jobs in the West. Many came in the thirties for the Hoover Dam project, the forties with hotels, and now the fifties with the Test Site and hotels. Black porters, cooks, and maids staffed the biggest hotels in Las Vegas and were paid decently, but southern etiquette was reinforced to not upset white guests. Blacks were even forced to live separately from whites in the former J.T. McWilliams Townsite near downtown known as the Westside.

“Why’d you have to leave me, Gene? Even on a bad day I still had you to count on. You were there,” she said through clenched teeth.

Eugene died in 1953 after a hit-and-run while walking home from work—two years after settling in Las Vegas. When word spread of employment in hotels and casinos, Eugene and Celia didn’t hesitate to move. He had secured a job as a porter in the Horseshoe and was confident things would be better, so he had urged Celia not to work. But Celia felt they wouldn’t progress unless they both worked. Now she was doing it alone.

Celia wanted to tear down the walls surrounding her and torch every hotel in Las Vegas. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw the light blue eyes and wrinkled skin of her rapist. His thrusts, panting, and kisses to her neck and chest sent her body into a cold sweat. Celia knew she couldn’t say anything, because she’d lose her job. And if she resisted the advances of men, she’d lose her job. She had no choice but to swallow the pain, smile, and carry on. After a fitful sleep, Celia woke up at a quarter to seven. The sun’s glow provided her with the energy she needed to sit up. She begrudgingly stretched her fingers and toes and eyed Eugene’s photo on her nightstand. Sometimes she kept his photo on the nightstand or put it in the drawer when she couldn’t bear to look at it. But, last night, holding the photo of Eugene close to her heart eased her troubles and made sleep more durable.

She dragged herself out of bed and wet her face in the small bathroom in the hall. A loud knock on the door startled her, but it could only be her friend Sadie. Sadie also worked with her at the Golden Gate and lived in the tenement across from her. Celia grabbed her robe from off her door and let Sadie in. Dressed in her black-and-white maid’s uniform and black Mary Janes, she held a plate covered with a kerchief. Sadie knew Celia had had a bad night and brought her a breakfast plate of grits and eggs to cheer her up.

“How are you feeling today?” asked Sadie, taking a seat on the couch. The tenement was so small that the kitchen and living room were one. One side had a refrigerator, sink, and shelves and the other side had a couch.

“How do I look?” asked Celia. Her brown eyes were puffy with bags underneath. Although her greedy mouth was tight-lipped, the shaking of her hands and heaviness her eyes carried said everything.

Sadie couldn’t blame her for being snippy. She felt the same way, but dealt with it differently. Sadie didn’t feel victimized, but like a survivor. Celia felt the opposite, walking around half-alive and half-broken. Every maid they knew shared their struggle.

“But you still rise,” said Sadie.

Celia took her breakfast plate and ate by herself in the corner and used her knees as a makeshift table to wolf down the meal. Considering the hour walk from home to work and Celia not being dressed, eating hastily was the way to go.

Sadie and Celia started walking at eight. In their matching uniforms, they passed identical brown tenements and trailers on unpaved streets and greeted other people taking their children to school or others getting off work. The ones who worked at the Moulin Rouge, the only integrated hotel, had jaunty walks, snapped their fingers, and wore pompadour hairstyles. Hotel workers from downtown usually dragged themselves with downcast eyes and bags in tow from the store adjacent from the Moulin Rouge.

The red grandiose hotel and tower came into view. Palm trees kissed the sky in front of the hotel and a fleur-de-lis twirled with the Moulin Rouge inscribed on it. Splashes from the pool and Thunderbirds whirring east and west were familiar sounds to them.

“We should go in there again sometime,” said Sadie watching the cabs pulling in the parking lot. Mixed couples were seen walking outside and cab drivers opened doors for guests.

“Remember when we saw Nat King Cole?”

Celia’s husband was a Cole fan, and to pass the time coming home from work, they sang Cole’s hymns. She thought of Gene and herself slow dancing to Cole’s piano in their home. For a few moments, she heard Gene’s baritone voice and saw his handsome face appear. It gave her a good laugh. Sadie saw Celia round her shoulders and stand taller.

“‘Route 66’ was his favorite song,” said Celia. “But I don’t think I can go back. It was nice seeing black and white folks enjoying themselves, but I’m not comfortable being around crowds like I used to. I don’t know what’ll happen in there.”

Within the next forty-five minutes, they walked along Main Street to Fremont Street where the Golden Gate sign was. Along Fremont Street were hotels and casinos like the Lucky Strike, the Monte Carlo, Boulder Club, and Hotel Apache. The Golden Gate, a light khaki, looked drab compared to its florescent brothers, but people entered and exited it like clockwork. Through the throng of people they watched a young black man jaywalk across the street into the Buckley’s Slots. A guard patrolling the place escorted him out and shouted, “No Blacks allowed!” Murmurs and stares from passerby collected around him.

“I guess he didn’t get the warning that he’s in Mississippi of the West,” said Sadie.

“Sammy Davis, Jr. can’t enter through the front entrance,” said Celia. “We’re on the same plantation with different masters. Southerners are all up and through here and they will have you at the bottom of Lake Mead.”

The two women walked to the back of the hotel where the garbage was and entered through the back door. They passed the kitchen, cut across the lobby and gaming area, and Sadie pressed the buttons of the freight elevator. They felt the vibrations underneath them rise until the mouth of the elevator opened. The repugnant odor of booze and smoke from the gaming area a few feet away made Celia lightheaded, and the rapid drop of the elevator to the laundry room caused her to lose balance.

They were greeted with the heavy musky scent of laundry soap and Mr. Lombardo, the manager, when the elevator opened. Industrial-sized washers and dryers filled both walls, the folding tables in the center, and the key holder for the rooms was next to the time stamp. They clocked in just in time.

“Next time leave earlier ladies,” said the bald-headed Mr. Lombardo. “I don’t pay you to slack off.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Lombardo,” they said simultaneously.

“When Shirley comes down, I want you to take floor two, Sadie,” said Mr. Lombardo.

“And when Beverly comes from third, you take over, Celia. Margaret is taking care of fourth.”

Then he went upstairs.

Soon the timers on the dryers beeped for towels, spreads, and sheets to be folded. An hour into drying and folding, two maids came with the laundry carts and clocked out. Sadie loaded her cart with cleaning supplies and linen and took the second floor’s keys. Celia did the same and headed to the third floor. The Golden Gate had a total of 106 rooms—40 on the second floor, 40 on the third floor, and 26 on the fourth floor. Most people occupied the second and third, but the fourth were luxury suites and were pricier.

Celia pushed her cart along. The floor was shaped like a blocked letter C with stairs in the middle and tacky mauve carpeting. Doors that had “Do Not Disturb” signs were to be left alone, but Celia was required to knock to see if they needed anything. The first dozen didn’t answer, but the next six wanted towels and nothing more. There was no sign on the next one, so that’s where she started.

The room reeked of stale cigarettes with liquor bottles strewn everywhere. Fresh trauma arrested her mind and held it captive. Using the doorstop to air out the room kept her uneasy. Heavy footsteps of porters and cackles from guests made her sweep the floor harder, scrub the sink and windows vigorously. She wanted to erase the words I ought to thank you as the blue-eyed guest unbuckled his belt. A lump in her throat resurfaced and she clawed at her skin to rid herself of his hands, lips, and body on her.

“No, no. Gotta keep my mind on work,” said Celia, trying to suppress what ate her inside. Celia didn’t know if she was finished or not, but she knew she had to leave the room. She rushed out, stuffing the keys into her apron and pushed her cart over a jagged piece of carpet making a right turn. Celia hit a brown-haired woman, causing the towels and linen to fall on her.

“Goddamned nigger! Watch where you’re going!” she belted and pounded her fist into the floor.

“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” said Celia removing the linen. “Let me help you up.” She lent the woman her hand, but she jerked it away. She got upon her own just to spit in Celia’s face. Celia huffed and ground her teeth. It took every ounce of her not to send the woman airborne downstairs. Instead she closed her eyes, gained her composure, and wiped the spit off her forehead.

Celia proceeded cleaning until she ran out of linen. She smelled like bleach and Windex, but was more than three-fourths of the way done. Her body felt like it been set ablaze and walking sent her into an inferno. As she trudged down the hall, she made sure to round its curve cautiously to avoid another incident from happening. Celia had to get to the laundry room, but the freight elevator could take at least twenty minutes to reach the third floor. Even though blacks weren’t allowed to use the main elevator, it was a quicker alternative. For Celia, hopping from one elevator to another was a shorter ride to the laundry room. No sooner after the elevator arrived on the third floor did a man jog from his room and yell for her to hold the door open.

“Thank you,” said the man. He had on a grey suit and tie, but his cologne was there before he was.

“You’re welcome, sir,” said Celia. She tried standing up, but the few seconds she did made it worse. Celia leaned on the elevator wall and exhaled a sigh of relief. She wasn’t aware of the man’s roving eyes over her body. He had stared at her breasts when they first got on, then her torso. However, having a view of her backside, it looked like two ripe melons under her skirt and he wanted his pick. Before the elevator door opened, he squeezed it and sent a jolt of shock to her heart. He winked and walked off. I can’t have a good day, thought Celia. What did I ever do to you?

She moved fast through the aisle of poker tables and slot machines and caught the other elevator. In the laundry room, two other maids piled warm linen on the tables around them. Celia took what she could and went back to the third floor.

Her last couple of rooms seemed to take the longest to finish. With the negativity she harbored, she should’ve been drained after cleaning for eight hours. But every mirror she wiped to bed she remade, the energy ricocheted back in her body and stayed there.

Celia stood in the bathroom of last room on the floor. Her square fingers rubbed the porcelain knobs and rim until they shined. She lifted her head and looked at herself in the mirror. Over the past four years, it had been a hard for her to look at what reflected back—her brown skin, wide nose, and big lips. What about her made others so mad to call her out her name, to take advantage of her, to spit on her? Was it not bad enough she was branded as inferior, but did her subordinate status have to be pronounced when she made a mistake? She wasn’t Celia to the whites in the hotel, but a nigger maid, bitch, or wench—terms which she heard more than her own name.

“I clean behind your shit and piss on sore knees, but if I accidentally step on your shoe I’m a stupid wench. If I don’t have your room done by the time you arrive, I’m a lazy nigger. You can take sex from me and I’m dirty, but you crawl into bed with your wife later,” said Celia. “I’m everything from a beast to a baby-making machine, but not a woman. Not someone who feels joy, sorrow, love, or hate. Not anyone.”

Celia wasn’t sure what her words would accomplish, but spoke them anyway. She tried thinking like Sadie—the treatment she received wasn’t a reflection of her, but of the person inflicting it. Mentally she knew it was true. But her heart couldn’t grasp the message. She looked for reasons to justify the irrational behavior thrown her way—that if she worked a little faster and paid more attention to her surroundings, the poison administered would be less deadly.

Soon more people started checking in, because porters were assisting them with their luggage. The afternoon was the busiest part of the day, and luckily Celia’s shift was almost over. She decided to tough it out with the freight elevator rather than being groped again. As she waited, a blond married couple, arm in arm, toted their luggage to the last room she cleaned. What struck Celia as odd was that they had no assistance whatsoever. It was rare to see anyone—disabled or able-bodied, young or old, carry their own things. They can’t be southerners, she thought.

“I think she’s out in the hall,” she heard a man’s voice say.

The woman looked in either direction and waved to Celia. She didn’t seem angry or disgusted.

“I’ll be right there, ma’am,” said Celia. She walked like she had cement blocks on her feet, but the blond couple met her halfway.

“Were you the last person to clean our room?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” she said with a bowed head.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“I’m Celia, sir.”

“Celia, my wife and I have been to other hotels, but the rooms were filthy. But your attention to detail and level of cleanliness shows us you have pride in your work. You work hard.”

“Thank you for the compliment, sir. I do my best.” Celia really didn’t want to be bothered with their compliments, especially if it was backhanded. They both looked like kin to the people who hurt her earlier.

“Take this as a token of our gratitude,” he said. He peeled off five ones from a wad of money in his pocket. “We insist.”

Celia made $6.75 in the nine hours she worked. She could do a lot with five dollars. However, she wasn’t sure if it was a ruse or not until she added up her observations: they were self-sufficient, addressed her by first name, and went out of their way to pay her a compliment. Even in her untrustworthy frame of mind, she could see they were genuine.

“He won’t bite,” said his wife. “Your role is just as important as a change girl and front desk clerk. You do what others take for granted.”

Celia’s boss never made comments like that, but a stranger did. The man and wife didn’t see Celia as disposable, but someone essential to the fabric of hospitality, someone with value. Celia placed the money in her apron.

“Thank you both kindly,” she said.

Celia showed them a pained smile, but a smile nonetheless.

pencilArika Elizenberry is a native of Las Vegas, Nevada. She has been writing poetry and fiction for over ten years. Notable influences on her work have been James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Maya Angelou. Her poems have appeared in the Silver Compass, Neon Dreams, Open Road Review, and East Coast Literary Review. She holds an A.A. in Creative Writing from the College of Southern Nevada and is currently working on her B.A. in English at the University of Las Vegas Nevada. Email: wordwarrior17[at]gmail.com

The Crocodile Grip

Louis M. Abbey
Fiction


Elderly woman hands up - Issan, Thailand

Photo Credit: Ronn Aldaman/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

September 1982, Kamput—a refugee camp in Thailand

Two Thai soldiers grab Vannak by the arms and wrestle him to the ground. He struggles but the knee on his chest forces a bitter taste into his throat. They rub dirt on his hair, all the while shouting in Thai, then let go and walk away laughing. Vannak sits up, glares after them thinking—you are nothing compared to the Khmer Rouge; Kamput is nothing.

He had been looking for leaks in the roof of the hut where he lives with other Cambodian orphans from the Khmer Rouge Revolution.

Raking a hand through his hair Vannak stands up and hurries off along the dirt road to the top of a small hill near the camp’s center. He sits on the ground in his favorite spot to watch the sunset. Red, pink, yellow and orange clouds streak the horizon. Colors envelope him like warm water. He closes his eyes and his sunset dream returns.

He is in Cambodia, ten years old and three years a prisoner in a Khmer Rouge labor camp. It is dark. Monsoon rain drips through a hole in the roof onto his bed. He gets up, grabs a shovel and slops along the path to the work site. There he pushes the blade into the wet ground with his bare foot. Pain shoots through his heel into his ankle and grips his back when he lifts the mud into the basket beside him—dig, lift, fill, all day. By late afternoon, clouds break. He glances at the bright red sky. The old man nearby stops digging, leans on his shovel to watch the sun go down. In seconds a guard rushes over, kicks the old man’s shovel away so he falls then beats him on the hands and head with the shovel. The man groans, stops moving. “Learn this lesson!” the guard shouts at Vannak.

He blinks out of the dream. Fading pink washes over everything, making him drowsy enough to lie down in the thick, soft darkness that swallows the camp for the night. But he rises, walks quickly along the darkening road toward his hut, head down so as not to appear lost. Murmurs, bits of conversation, drift from unlighted huts beside the road. From somewhere, a flashlight’s golden beam strikes his shoulder and moves on.

People with lights never share them, he thinks.

Instinct and smell, not sight, tell him he has arrived at his hut. He climbs the steps, feels his way to his cot and lies down one arm slung across his eyes. Before sleep, another dream returns.

He is shoveling dirt in the same field a year after the old man was killed. Rumors of a Vietnamese invasion flash everywhere. Without warning, a guard drops his weapon and shouts, “They’re here!” Other guards run past Vannak and into the trees.

People flee in all directions, avoid eye contact. Vannak freezes with fear. A line of running men knocks him over. Two women grab him. “Turn around! Wrong direction!” He turns. Tears blur his vision. A hand yanks him to the side of the road. “Follow me!” The man’s voice and grip are strong. He leads Vannak away from the fighting and they begin a yearlong trek to the mountains and Thailand.

Images race behind Vannak’s closed eyes. At the border, Thai guards take them on a night ride to a camp called Kamput. Registration, interrogations—something called United Nations—photograph, picture ID, and a bag of clothing.

In a bright crowded room people shove and shout questions. Babies scream. Someone calls out in Khmer, “Attention! Listen! You will get out of this camp!” A lie? A dream? The voice goes on: “Kamput is temporary. Every morning there is a new list of people who will leave Thailand for a safe country.” Shouting and shoving begin again.

Vannak blinks, smiles in the pitch black. The list, he thinks, then shuts his eyes and falls asleep.

At first light he rolls over and sits on the edge of the cot scratching his head. From beneath the mattress he pulls out his pencil and three calendars, one for each year he has spent in Kamput. He opens the top one and draws a large “X” in the square marking his nine hundred and eighty-sixth day.

He replaces the calendars, rubs water over his face and hair and walks to the food tent where he picks up a bowl of watery rice and sits at a table with three other orphan boys. Eating is the only activity until the bowls are empty, then they talk, make plans to meet later for soccer.

Vannak steps outside and joins the foot traffic walking the dusty half-mile to the UN Office. He stands at the edge of the crowd. The list hangs up front on a weathered board. A UN worker calls out names. People stretch their necks, throw back shouts and questions. Vannak listens. No familiar names. He decides to leave.

As he turns, a hand reaches out of the crowd, grabs his wrist and drags him back among the jostling bodies. The hand belongs to a woman who, two days earlier, had asked him to help her carry a jug of water.

What does she want now, he thinks, and yanks to get loose. Her grip reminds him of the man who led him out of the labor camp.

“Let me go!” Vannak protests. “I’ll come back later.”

“You can’t,” she says. “I saw your name, Soeur, on the list. Tell the UN worker now.”

“It’s not true,” he scowls, struggling. “You dream.”

But the crowd presses him toward the woman.

She did say Soeur, my family name, Vannak thinks. I never told her. She thinks I am someone else. People always look for someone else. I’ll return later.

He pulls and pries at the woman’s fingers, bumping the hip of an old man and knocking into a child. She grips like a crocodile, Vannak thinks.

“Obey your mother!” the man yells, shoving him in the direction of the woman’s pull.

The UN worker stands patiently in front of the list turning pages. Every so often he calls out a name and answers questions.

“Go slower,” a man beside Vannak shouts.

“Go faster.” Another man.

“Back two pages,” the woman gripping Vannak’s arm shouts.

“Go to the end; start over.” Another voice.

The woman presses Vannak ahead of her into the second row, forcing others aside.

He squints the list into focus, but the page turns before he can read the names. He tries to shout Go slower but no sound comes out. A breeze cools his damp T-shirt, and he shivers.

After the last page, half of the crowd drifts away. The UN worker remains on guard. Vannak stares at the list. Sweat creeps down his wrist below the woman’s clamping hand. With his free hand, he fingers the letters on the front of his T-shirt.

The UN worker shouts, “Page one!”

Vannak looks up.

The woman nudges him aside for a late arrival.

I don’t have to speak, he thinks. Who listens to a boy anyway—nothing on the first page.

He smiles. One family takes up half a page—nothing on page two.

On the next page, one family is listed to go to Australia and France. He remembers those countries on a map. USA is easiest to remember. He recalls a story he heard of a man who went to the USA. The government gave him money, even though he didn’t have a job. Vannak smiles, pictures an American on the street handing out money—no Soeur on page three.

“I know I saw your name,” the woman looks down at him—nothing on page four.

The first name on the fifth page is Chann, clearly printed in Khmer. Vannak shakes his head—looks again, smiles—yes, my friend. Closing his eyes, he pictures a soccer ball descending from high in the air; Chann leaps like a frog, lands, captures the ball, steps to the side, changes direction and everyone runs after him. Vannak fingers the letters on his T-shirt and in his mind recites the lesson Chann taught him: “A… B… C… D… E… F… G…” Everybody likes Chann.

“I know him,” Vannak says aloud to no one, then blinks, checks again. Chann is still first on the list. Then he notices U… S… A… printed after Chann’s name. A tingle shoots down Vannak’s arm. The woman lets go. Makes no move to grab again.

Now I can run, he thinks. But I want to see the others. Below Chann’s name are several unfamiliar families. Vannak’s T-shirt sticks to his back.

He rubs his aching eyes, opens them, focuses again and there it is: “SOEUR, Vannak,” plain and clear. He blinks, shakes his head, looks again—“SOEUR, Vannak,” printed in Khmer and USA after the name.

“Look there! I told you I saw it,” the woman says, grabbing and shaking his arm, then letting go.

Vannak feels light-headed but paralyzed, unable to shout, cheer or cry, or even pray. Men, women and children spin around him in confusion. He searches for Chann’s name but all he can see is the UN guy’s wide smile, the large gap between his two front teeth.

Vannak locks his eyes on that gap and it becomes a window through which he is looking out at the shouting people in shirts, shorts, and sarongs. A thin, brown-eyed boy with black hair grins up at him from the second row. Gold and black words (IOWA Hawkeyes) splash across the front of his white T-shirt. What do the words say? Vannak wonders.

Then the picture dissolves and he’s standing alone in front of the smiling UN worker. Even the woman with the crocodile grip is gone. He feels unbalanced, about to fall. Looking down, he fingers the gold and black letters on his T-shirt, thinking, I am on the list with a place to go.

A fly buzzes his sticky neck, then his eyelid. Vannak turns to face the road in front of the UN Office. The stream of people drift slowly by in the hot, red dust, like in a movie. Some carry large bundles on their heads. Others are without burden. They gesture in the air talking and joking. A pair of Thai soldiers stroll hand in hand right in front of him, guns slung loosely on their shoulders. Three people on a moped sputter toward the main gate stirring up a dust cyclone that catches a waft of afternoon wind, whirls up the road then disappears.

On the highway, a hundred meters away outside the gate, trucks roar toward Bangkok. Drawing a breath thick with the smell of diesel and burning shit, he wonders, will I see Bangkok? But he floats above it brushing away another fly on his nose.

Is it a dream that didn’t really happen? With the question, tightness rises in his throat. Where are the others? Chann and I could not be the only ones. He drags a nearby cement block in front of the board, steps up and turns the pages of the list. Chann’s name is at the top of page five. OK, proof enough—look no further.

Idly fingering the smooth surface of his photo ID, he turns to face the road. A woman in a bright red sarong with a large bundle on her head walks quickly along in front of him. Her bundle remains perfectly still as if attached. Where is she going so fast? He Looks at his image on the ID: SOEUR, Vannak is written underneath in both Khmer and, supposedly, in Thai. Does the Thai writing really spell my name? Maybe they wrote “Water buffalo” or “Dog” instead. What if Chann is on the list and I dreamed I saw my name? He turns back, reaches up and leafs to page five again. Chann is indeed there. He moves his finger slowly down the column. As the names come into view, he whispers each one and counts. The fourteenth name emerges. Maybe it was a dream; I think I was closer to Chann. Then the fifteenth name rises like the sun. SOEUR, Vannak, USA. Real. He smiles, steps down, replaces the cement block and climbs the stairs to the UN Office.

pencilLouis Abbey is a retired Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology from VA Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from VCU. His work has appeared in Indiana Review, The MacGuffin, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Georgetown Review, among others and online in Grey Sparrow and twice in Toasted Cheese. One of his poems was anthologized in Blood and Bone, Poems by Physicians, Angela Belli & Jack Coulehan, Eds. U. Iowa Press, 1998. He lives and writes in Revere, MA. Email: lncabbey2004[at]yahoo.com

She Thinks…

Christopher T. White
Fiction


Duke_Ellington 111

Photo Credit: US Department of Education (CC-by)

…I give a fuck. She’s wrong. She thinks I’m gonna get up and spaz on her; I won’t, even if I have every reason in the world to do it. She thinks my feelings are hurt and that I’m going to cry or storm out or fall into a corner somewhere huddling in the fetal position, but it won’t happen. What will I do? How will I respond to her showing the entire class those text messages: the ones where I told her the biggest secret I’ve ever had, the ones where she promised I could tell her anything and that she would never tell a soul? Stare.

I’ll stare at her with these watery brown eyes; I’ll freeze my face into the blankest, most unfeeling expression I can muster. I’ll breathe deeply, sit back in my desk, fold my arms, and stare at her. I’ll stare until she’s forced to look away, call me names, or demand that I give her what she wants, a huge reaction. You know what I’ll do then? I’ll stare. She doesn’t know that I’ve come to peace with this a while ago. She doesn’t realize that I only told her I was gay because I wanted someone to know because I wanted someone to practice coming out to. She doesn’t know that her little stunt, standing in front of the class with her gaudy gold jewelry and sticky brown hair, and over-painted, pimply face, has done her more harm than she thought, more harm to her family, because while I’m staring at her, I’m going to get mad, and then I’m going to get even.

I’ll wait until she’s finished trying to make this scene, then I’ll stand and say to her:

“I’m sure this is funnier from where you’re standing, but I’m more certain your little brother isn’t going to take too kindly to you trying to embarrass his boyfriend in front of everyone.”

She’ll look at me with a weird expression, insulted, confused, and probably a little angry. Ok, well maybe a lot of angry, but I won’t care. She’ll try to deny it, tell me I’m a liar, threaten to ruin me or kill me or whatever little girls desperate for attention do these days. I won’t care. I’ll stand up, pull my phone out and show everyone our lovey-dovey pictures and texts. You’re probably thinking, “You’re going to out your boyfriend? Why?”

It was going to happen anyways. This is just days ahead of schedule. We planned it. He would talk to my sister, and I to his. We’d see how they felt and prepare ourselves for their responses.

After proving my point, the bell will probably be just about to ring if not already ringing. I’ll grab my books, walk to my next class, and text Jake to let him know what happened. He’ll be mad, but more at her than me. And I’ll be fine. Why? Because I don’t give a fuck.

pencilThis is Christopher T. White’s first publication. Email: ctw0808[at]gmail.com

Shattered Dreams

Bradley Sides
Flash


Shot through glass II

Photo Credit: Tom Roeleveld/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Richard’s mornings are ceremoniously predictable. After a bowl of Fruity Pebbles and an apple, he tucks his dreams under his arm and makes his way to the damaged cedar door that he and his mother share.

“Why don’t you crack the damn thing?” his mother asks, while slamming down the newspaper.

“I’m not ready, Mother. Mine needs to simmer,” he replies, without turning to her.

“Yeah. Your father was never ready either.”

He then shuts the door.

Richard rarely looks up when he strolls through the alleys on his way to work. Along his path, he kicks tiny fragments of garbage and counts the cracks that he steps over. His satchel hangs over his portly body. Sweat edges along his frosty, fading hairline, and his pants, being a full size too long, drag with his languid steps. It is under his left arm that he carries his prized glass sphere.

Other people of Richard’s age smashed their containers long ago. They are already executives. Some are lawyers. Others are doctors. A few are poets and actors. Richard is a data entry consultant. He’s not ready to shatter his yet.

At work, Pattie, a young and energetic officemate, appears at his cubicle. “Richard!” she mockingly howls. He jumps and knocks the edge of his desk. His dreams crumble toward the floor and shatter. A swirl of haze wraps around his body as he sits—perfectly still. When it settles, she laughs.

“Nothing happened,” she says.

“I never knew what to put in mine,” he says, powering on his computer.

pencilBradley Sides holds an M.A. in English. His fiction appears in numerous print and online journals, including Literary Orphans and Used Gravitrons. He is a staff writer for Bookkaholic and frequent contributor to Drunk Monkeys. He resides in Florence, Alabama, with his wife, and he is working on securing a release date for his debut novel. Email: Brad.Sides[at]Yahoo.com

 

Signs

Jill Boyles
Flash


Smoke & Steam

Photo Credit: Gerry Balding/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

His hurt charged like a steam engine in a huff of smoke, whistling and clanking against clenched teeth as he stalked every room of that empty house trying to pick up the scent of her, synapses firing crumpled clothes, dirty dishes, empty cupboards. His boots stomped louder than his heart racing across memory tearing on jagged edges of accusations and silences he followed to the threshold of their bedroom and grunted before crossing into the center of blue where a hollowed-middle pillow lay on the left of an unmade bed, clothes draped over half-opened drawers of a bureau with a mirror hanging above cockeyed reflecting his foreshortened figure of cradling wants and bloated birthright. Snatching a thin quilt from the bed, coarse hands catching on patches of pregnancies and babies, he thrust it under his nose smelling staleness and threw it in the corner puffing up faded, red feathers around a dismembered Mardi Gras mask he had bought her on their honeymoon.

He left the house and went to his workshed of sandpaper with smooth spots and planes with worn handles and chisels with soft angles. He dragged a forefinger through sawdust on a table saw and inhaled air heavy with the pungent scent of cut and scored wood. His latest project lay prostrate on the worktable. Before he touched it, he sensed the mahogany’s firmness and its eventual yielding. Resting a hand on the warm wood, his eyes traced linear grains that curved and folded back in multiples of Us.

Something clawed at the window. His wife’s rose bush grown wild. Grabbing a handsaw, he left the shed and thrashed the saw against the trunk pulling teeth over wood, screeching and pushing back, blade bending in a bungling U. A corner of a book protruded between the rose bush and the shed, and he threw down the saw to tear away at the loose dirt. Holding the book in front of him, he searched for a title on that old, leathered face but couldn’t find one. He opened the book to her handwriting that looped, curled, snarled incomprehensible, page after page his dirt-smudged fingers turned until a plump, red feather dropped from the book to the ground.

pencilJill Boyles’s work has appeared in Calliope Magazine, Focus on Dalian, and The Minnesota Women’s Press, among other publications. She holds an MFA in Writing from Hamline University. She was the recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board grant and a finalist for the Jerome Grant. Email: 01jlboyles[at]gmail.com

 

On Hammond Street

Anne Britting Oleson
Poetry


blinds

Photo Credit: Kelly Hau/Flickr (CC-by)

Not even a chance meeting,
just your name, printed
on a card on a mailbox
in the quiet hall
outside the waiting room.

Sitting here, watching traffic
through half-open blinds,
four floors below you—
no; midday, and you’re
surely not home—
tumbled about in other
apartments, traffic, city, times,
thinking: of all the stories
I told you, with words
and silences both,
none was quite so true
as the one I never spoke.

And should I, one day,
step outside this waiting room
to see you sorting
through the post,
would I speak then,
or walk on, quickly,
onto the galleried porch
and into the street,
letting this opportunity pass
as I did that other,
all that time ago,
out of the shimmering confusion
between the possible
and the impossible?

pencilAnne Britting Oleson has been published widely in North America, Europe and Asia. She earned her MFA at the Stonecoast program of USM. She has published two chapbooks, The Church of St. Materiana (2007) and The Beauty of It (2010). Email: annewords1965[at]gmail.com

In Settling Up Property

John Grey
Poetry


zipping up the cracks of life - IMG_3812_web

Photo Credit: Kevin Dean/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Half a Dylan box set—
I take the early years,
you get the breakup stuff
and the religion.

Two televisions so that split is easy.
The 40-inch, stuck for life
on American Idol, is yours.
Its smaller brethren,
lover of all things Shark Week,
comes to me.

You don’t want the microwave,
so that’s mine.
In return, I concede you
your grandmother’s prize dishes.

Strange how everything
divides so easily,
as if there always was
my stuff and your stuff
and we just didn’t know it.

And the little that we did share
like the bed, the couch,
the kitchen table,
I can take to with a chainsaw,
wield that implement
like someone from a drive-in horror flick,
hack them equitably down the middle.

All that togetherness we pledged
ten years ago
was begging for a cutting implement
to sever the join,
to save us all this trouble.
But back in those times, my love,
I could never get my hands free.

pencilJohn Grey is an Australian-born poet. Recently published in Oyez Review, Rockhurst Review and Spindrift with work upcoming in New Plains Review, Big Muddy Review, Willow Review and Louisiana Literature. Email: jgrey10233[at]aol.com

Wednesday Night

Holly Day
Poetry


My Loved ones

Photo Credit: Nick Kenrick/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

I’m washing my daughter’s hair and she tells me there’s a boy
She likes in school, he’s nine years old, he says he doesn’t like her
He told her best friend he doesn’t like her, she’s upset now and I
Don’t know if I should laugh or cry. I carefully

Rinse the shampoo out of her hair and resist the urge
To wrap my arms around her tiny, bony chest and hold her
Like I did when she was tiny, she wants me to give her some sort of
Womanly, adult advice and I am not ready for this.

pencilHolly Day was born in Hereford, Texas, “The Town Without a Toothache.” She and her family currently live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she teaches writing classes at the Loft Literary Center. Her published books include the nonfiction books Music Theory for Dummies, Music Composition for Dummies, Guitar All-in-One for Dummies, and Piano All-in-One for Dummies, and the poetry books Late-Night Reading for Hardworking Construction Men (The Moon Publishing) and The Smell of Snow (ELJ Publications). Her needlepoints and beadwork have recently appeared on the covers of The Grey Sparrow Journal, QWERTY Magazine, and Kiki Magazine. Email: lalena[at]bitstream.net