Fat Peanut

Baker’s Pick
Nancy Nau Sullivan


Photo Credit: Helen Haden/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Helen Haden/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Ann raked through the dresses on the sales rack. A blue dress with a chain link pattern. A Pucci. Pucci’s back.

Most of the good stuff was gone. She remembered when this shop was a wood hut where the islanders—the real islanders—bought cheap beer, cigarettes and salami. Now Pine Avenue was turquoise and pink, with a designer donut shop and shop after shop of this stuff. Her hand dropped down the polyester sleeve of a yellow-and-pink top with swirls from neck to hem. My sister could carry that one off, I couldn’t.

The grizzled old Floridians were gone. The island was peopled with fat rich white northerners who smelled of expensive soap and talked, loudly, about nothing.

The woman standing next to Ann pulled a short white dress off the rack. “I like it but I’d have to iron it,” she said.

“No one irons anything any more. They like to look wrinkled.”

The woman was wrinkled and stylish with shiny blond-grey hair and liquid-blue eyes, so light they almost disappeared into the whites. She had diamonds in her ears the size of cocktail peanuts.

The woman twirled the dress back and forth. She hung it up and then took it out again. “I really like it.” She mostly talked to herself like Ann wasn’t there. The woman seemed to be used to an audience.

Ann decided to be nice. Sometimes she had to make the conscious decision. “A good cut on you. Jag.” It was more of a beach top with breast pockets and pearl buttons. Ann liked it, too. If the woman didn’t want it, well, maybe…

The sun was bright and warm on the porch of the shop where all the sales hung. Forty percent off.

“It’s 87 dollars,” the woman said.

She was a snowbird flown from the cold, landing on this island off the coast of Sarasota. Ann couldn’t place the accent. Boston? Maine?

The woman suddenly dropped the dress to her side, as if reading Ann’s mind. “Where are you from?”

“Chicago,” Ann said. “Originally.”

“My daughter’s in Indiana. At Butler. She’s there because she’s a professor,” the woman said. As if the daughter needed a legitimate reason to be in Indiana, which by the way, Ann was about to point out, is not Chicago.

Ann let it pass. Snowbirds were one thing, one irritation in life’s island cycle. As soon as the first Easter egg came out of the basket, they would all be gone up north to their lilacs and tulips. Ann couldn’t wait. She wanted the roads and grocery stores and beaches back. But she couldn’t have it all back.

“Where are you from? Can’t quite place the accent,” Ann said.

“Ohio. Hubby’s in cardio.”

“Oh?” Ann felt like a snowball had been stuffed down her back.

“Yes, We just love this island,”

Ohio, maybe Cleveland. Cardiologist.

The Cottage.

Ann had lost their beloved cottage to a cardiologist from Cleveland. He’d swooped in with more money than God and bought it out from under them. Ann’s uncle had been the instrument of destruction. He’d taken the matter to court, and under the laws of partition, he forced the sale of the cottage. He took $840,000 in the deal, making the most of real estate before the Crash of ’08. Ann and her brothers had tried to buy him out, but he wouldn’t have it. He worked on the cardiologist from Cleveland who hung in there with a slew of lawyers, pushing for the deal until it was done. Ann had looked over at her uncle in court, his white, bald head bent and shining, the orb of evil. She could not look Uncle Neil in the eye after that. She didn’t have to because he died. She used her share of the sale—$130,000 of Judas money—to pay off debts. She’d wanted to throw it in the Gulf. It would have made as much sense. But the money was gone, and so was the cottage. To someone like this woman, someone from Cleveland. She remembered the name. Hurley, or Huntley.

The woman took the white dress out again. “I’m going to try it on,” she announced brightly.

The first thing the cardiologist from Cleveland did was tear down the cottage. He built a tan McMansion with orange shutters and a green barrel-tile roof and filigreed balconies, leaded glass coach lamps and Tiffany glass in the front door. Hideous. The cottage had stood on two gulf-front lots, so there was plenty of room for the grand mansión, finished off with its trucked-in Disney-esque garden of hibiscus and palms. They called it The Condo, it was so big, towering over that little house on the corner next door that now was completely cut off from view and sunshine.

Her grandmother found the cottage on a sunny day in 1956. She’d been reading The Bradenton Herald, crinkling the want ads. She tapped the crumpled pages of the newspaper with a pencil. “Ha! Let’s go out there and have a look.” Ann didn’t know what she was talking about, but she was excited. In her six-year-old brain, she knew this had to be something special. “Out there” meant the beach. On the island.

They drove out to Anna Maria Island in her grandfather’s new hunter green Cadillac, the bulbous versión with the pokey little fins. Ann had her bathing suit wadded up under the front seat, just in case. Off they went, her grandfather with the cigar in his mouth and her grandmother with a frill of white hair blowing in the humidity, clacking over the wooden drawbridge, past the tall spindly palms and the mangroves, the Brazilian berries and the Australian pines, out to the white beach and turquoise wáter. Burning pitch wafted from the fireplaces in the new little stucco ranch houses at Key Royale, Sand Dollar Haven, Coquina Corners.

The cottage stood on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico on stilts, slightly crooked on the white sand. The logs were interspersed with swaths of white stucco; it was a striped house with a rusty-red shingled roof. The white-framed windows on either side of the faded green door, like two great eyes, saw right into Ann’s soul.

Ann’s grandfather laughed when they pulled up to it and got out. “Liz, the gulf is right up to the house!” She just laughed. She was falling in love, and so was Ann standing next to her, the two of them looking out at the wáter, while Ann held her silky fingers. She squinted up at the sun, yellow, soft, golden sun. She opened her eyes, and the turquoise wáter dazzled her from that minute on. Her grandfather chomped the cigar, paced the short street of crushed shell. He nodded at her grandmother, both of them grinning. She raised the edge of her floral housedress and waded into the foamy surf. Ann flopped into the waves beside her, bathing suit forgotten.

Her grandmother had saved “egg money,” tucked in her rubber stocking. She made the down payment on the cottage and four surrounding lots—most of them underwáter—for $5,000. The seller was glad to get rid of it.

Over the years, they piled in and drove out to the cottage. The beach changed, receding and advancing, until finally they ended up with a football-field-sized playground of sand like white sugar. They jumped into the fierce winter waves and rolled in the sand until they were sugar cookies. They hid in the sea oats and ran out in shrieks of laughter; they buried each other up to their necks, dug for coquinas and made horrible soup with shellfish (from an Old Cortez récipe). They scoured the beach for sand dollars and periwinkles. They watched dolphins and fed lettuce to the manatees and stale bread and cereal to the sea gulls.

All day they were on the beach, and at night, they watched the white edge of the gulf from the window. The wind creaked and sang through the cracks between the logs. Ann went to sleep, listening to the waves that rolled up close to the window, some nights, lapping against the cottage. The splash was thrilling. Her grandfather said the pilings under the cottage went down seventeen feet into the sand, and that they would be safe in the best place on earth.

It was magic, winter after winter, into March for St. Patrick’s Day and Dad’s birthday in the sun and under the moon, until it stopped. The time was gone, but Ann held on to it. It was there in the burning pitch, the musty sea, the sound of gulls. It all brought her back there instantly to the cottage. As long as there was memory, it would always be there.

She stood behind the woman, the blue dress looped over her arm. Ann saw the woman write Hurley on the charge slip. Hurley from Cleveland.

Ann felt the sharp twisting in her soul.

She wanted to strangle the woman, follow her out to her Mercedes, probably, and key the side of its impeccable paint job, maybe even trip the woman on her way out—before she strangled her.

The woman turned. “Well, you have a wonderful day. Enjoy your dress. That is a fabulous color for you.”

Ann’s lips worked as she plastered on the fake smile. She wanted out of there. “You, too. Have a great day, and a safe trip. Back to Cleveland.”

“Cleveland? Why would I go to Cleveland?”

“You said you were from Cleveland.”

“Lord, no. I can’t imagine why I said that. Ohio, yes, Cleveland, never.” The woman juggled the white shopping bag with the Jag dress in it. She shifted her Fendi bag to the other arm. “Didn’t you say you’re from Chicago? No, we’re not from Cleveland. We’re from Chicago. Just like you.”

pencilNancy Nau Sullivan is a Chicago area writer who recently returned from the Peace Corps in Mexico. Prior to service, she taught English, and for many years, was a reporter and editor at newspapers in the Midwest. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Marquette University. Amphorae Publishing Group will publish her memoir, The Last Cadillac, in February. Her stories have appeared this year in The Blotter, The Atherton Review, and Akashic Books online. Email: nabns[at]aol.com

Remaining Balance

Erin Charvet
Baker’s Pick


Pontones
Photo Credit: Alberto Romero

Hal McHugh walked into the crowded, dingy waiting area and scratched his head. The last things he remembered were the antiseptic hospital smell, the masked faces of the doctors and some shots that had made him feel funny and fall asleep. Then a prolonged, annoying electronic beep had announced with apparent glee the permanent cessation of his vital functions. He’d done what they’d said and gone toward the light, but he hadn’t expected to wind up here, in this poorly lit place with a bunch of bored-looking people and no available chairs.

Had he died and gone to the DMV?

“Take a number, please,” said a frumpy woman sitting behind a window.

She slid a small slip of paper into the little metal tray beneath the slot at the bottom of her window. Hal picked it up. He was number 10,491,602. Glancing up at the large digital display on the wall, he saw that they were only currently on 533,754.

“Great,” he groaned. “Just my luck.”

He looked around for a sign indicating where the restrooms were, figuring he could kill some time that way, but didn’t see one. Then he realized that having relinquished his physical body, he wouldn’t need things like restrooms anymore. And if he didn’t need restrooms anymore, what else didn’t he need? This line of thought led him down a long, circular path of speculation that took up some time. A little while later somebody got up and he took their chair, so he was able to close his eyes and nap for a while. Napping—or rather, trying to—took a good bit of time as well, seeing how there were so many people shuffling about and arguing and asking one another for cigarettes and whining about being dead.

At last he stood up and began to wander the room again, contemplating his situation. He determined that although it was highly disagreeable, death at fifty-eight wasn’t the worst thing in the world that could happen. He’d had a respectable (albeit much-hated) mid-level management job for the past thirty years, a four-bedroom house in a good neighborhood and a wife who still wasn’t half bad to look at, even if she was hardly fit to boil water in the kitchen. His kids hadn’t wound up as cult members or with their faces on any America’s Most Wanted billboards, so he felt it safe to assume that his parenting had been equally satisfactory. His life hadn’t been the least bit exceptional, but he supposed that he’d gotten as much out of it as possible for someone who’d never sought even the shadow of remarkability. He might have lived another ten or fifteen years at most, had those clowns not botched his heart surgery.

After no certain amount of time spent wandering the room, sitting and standing again, striking up (and instantly regretting) conversations with the people in his immediate proximity, and examining water stains on the ceiling and walls with the closest to thing to scientific interest of which he was capable, Hal’s number was called. The woman behind the window pointed to a door, which he hurried through with the urgency of a man whose pants are on fire. Beyond the door was a colossal warehouse full of desks and ringing phones. He wandered down an endless cubicle corridor, overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the place.

“Mr. McHugh?” someone said.

Hal looked to the left and saw a pudgy, red-faced man in a tweed suit that perfectly fit his ideal of an IRS auditor. The man’s smile was so wide and artificial that Hal half-wondered if he were about to hear a sales pitch for a timeshare in Pensacola.

“That’s me,” said Hal.

“Name’s Dwight Strickland,” the man said, holding out a hand. “I’m your eternity officer. Wonderful to finally meet you in person.”

“Eternity officer?” asked Hal, shaking hands with him.

“I’m like a loan officer,” said Strickland. “Except this relationship really lasts forever!”

“I see,” said Hal. “So what is this place, anyway?”

“Sort of a stopover en route to your final destination, wherever that might be,” said Strickland. “Not quite what you were expecting, I take it?”

“Well, I’m not sure I—”

“Excuse me just a moment,” said Strickland, whose phone had begun to ring. He picked up and listened to whoever was on the other end with much intensity. There were a few uh-huhs and hmms and head nods. Then he thanked the caller and hung up. “Bosses!” he sighed, with an eye roll and a dramatic toss of the hands. “Just because we’re all dead doesn’t mean they’re any less demanding.”

You have a boss?”

“We all have bosses. You might’ve heard of mine—Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, Satan, etcetera. Some of your former associates have dealings with him on quite a regular basis.”

“What?” said Hal, blinking. “Like who?”

“Stan Ridgemore, who sold you your boat, for example. Fran Wyzinski, your old boss, and Dennis Neidermeyer.”

“My accountant was colluding with the devil?”

“We try to avoid terms like collusion here,” said Strickland. “Heaven, hell, purgatory, all it really boils down to in the end is business… and a slight temperature difference. Anyway, let’s get down to it.”

“To what, exactly?”

Strickland looked at Hal as if he were an escaped mental patient. “Your debt, of course,” he said. “Got to calculate what you still owe.” He took a big calculator from a drawer in his desk and began punching in numbers. “First of all, you were still sixteen years away from paying off that second mortgage you took out on the house.”

“That sounds like a lot.”

“Perhaps, but you really needed the money at the time. Remember how Holly just had to go to that fancy New England school with lots of big oak trees around? What you’d ‘put away’ for college barely covered her first year of tuition. Then she had to join a sorority, have a monthly allowance and get an apartment all by herself.”

“Fine, I get it,” said Hal. “Just tell me what the bill is.”

“Shortly,” said Strickland. He continued calculating. “There’s also the credit card debt, of which you still have over $48,000, not counting future interest. They’ve bumped up your rate three percent while you’ve been here, by the way.”

“Three percent already! How is that possible?”

“You’d never know, but you’ve already been dead for over a year,” said Strickland. “Sense of timing differs for the dearly departed.” He punched in more numbers. “Next we have the car.”

“But I’ve had my car since 1996!” Hal protested. “And Linda only got the Subaru because her Saab’s transmission was shot. That’s been paid off for years!”

“Not your cars,” said Strickland. “You co-signed on the purchase of Kenny’s Mercedes. Remember how he insisted on five-hundred horses under the hood and an all-leather interior being essential for what he so aptly referred to as ‘networking’? Well it turns out that Daddy’s little C-student wasn’t quite the entrepreneur one might’ve hoped for. As a result, the last several payments have been missed.”

“What else?” asked Hal, groaning.

“You owe the hospital for your heart surgery. Big time.”

“Oh no, that must be a mistake,” said Hal, holding up his hands. “I had excellent health coverage.”

“You are aware, of course, that your insurance company only covers sixty percent of the cost of successful operations?”

“But I died!” Hal protested. “I shouldn’t have to pay a single dime for that operation. If I were still alive I’d be dragging those incompetent jackasses to court right now!”

“Sound logic on your part, but here’s the kicker: if you were still living, you would have only been accountable for a forty-percent deductible, or approximately $37,600 for the operation. But because you died the insurance company pays nothing, making you liable for the entire cost.”

“That makes no sense!”

“Guess you’d better read the fine print next time,” said Strickland. “Now let’s see, where were we?” Hal put his hands over his face, the infernal clack-clack-clacking of the calculator knocking around inside his skull like marbles rolling around in a wooden box. “Now, with the new roof, remodeling of the kitchen, landscaping in the front yard, last year’s taxes, gas, electricity and dry-cleaning bills, we wind up with a grand total of $702,853.47.”

“Now hold on a second,” said Hal. “I also have a million-dollar life insurance policy. Haven’t you factored that in?”

“Correction,” said Strickland. “You had a million-dollar life insurance policy.”

“What happened to it?”

“Your wife threw a wonderful post-funeral party catered by Chez Hubert and picked out a reeeeeeally nice casket for you too. Macassar ebony and platinum with an incredibly comfortable satin interior. Top of the line, really. Almost makes you want to die all over again!”

“But the whole amount couldn’t possibly have gone to my burial, could it?”

“Oh no, of course not!” said Strickland, chuckling. “Linda went shopping on Rodeo Drive, got some plastic surgery and bought a beach house down in St. Thomas. She’s getting a foot massage right now from the cabana boy she picked up earlier.”

“Why would Linda think she needed work done?” Hal asked.

“Who knows,” said Strickland. “TV, magazines, marketing… but I tell you, she’s never looked better!”

“So now what?”

“Now we put you to work until you’ve paid off your remaining balance. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll be earning considerably less than you were at the time of your death.”

“Why less?”

“We subtract what you would have normally spent on food, which for you was a considerable chunk of your paycheck,” said Strickland, standing. “Now I’ll show you to your desk. Come with me, if you would.”

Hal followed him down the corridor for what seemed like several miles. After an uncertain number of turns, they arrived at an empty cubicle. On the desk was a rotary phone, a pen, an ancient typewriter and a yellow notepad. Strickland snapped his fingers. A huge metal cart overloaded with files came rolling their way. He stopped it with his foot.

“You’ll be reviewing these reports, and then reporting on what you’ve reviewed,” he said. “All you have to do is read through each file, type up a recap of the contents and place what you’ve typed into a new file.”

“Sounds pointless and dull,” said Hal.

“This job calls for a very particular skill set. Thirty years of mid-level management made you the perfect candidate.”

“So how long will I be here, then?”

“Shouldn’t be longer than fifteen or twenty years,” said Strickland. “About the time you would have retired anyway, if you’d made it that long. Then it’s on to good old ‘Rest in Peace’.” He looked at his watch. “Wow, getting to be that time. Enough witty banter for one day. I’ll let you get to it then. Good luck!”

Strickland spun on his heel and took off in the direction from which they’d come. Hal watched him disappear around the corner. Then he picked up one of the files, sat at his desk and began to read through.

pencilErin Charvet is an Atlanta native who studied journalism and psychology at Georgia State University. She’s been writing poems and stories ever since she can remember, and hopes to continue for as long as possible. She comes from a large family with whom she is very close, and currently lives in Paris with her husband. Email: erincharvet[at]gmail.com

Negative Space

Baker’s Pick
Sandra Fees


negative space
Photo Credit: mollybob

When sand is so hot on the feet
you forget how to walk

and when prayer is the shape
of a teacup

Because the young woman tells her boyfriend:
negative space is cool

and because the room is too big
and the world too small

After you drink holy water
in the Narayan temple

and sacrifice what was
for what is

Then everywhere is a tree
wanting to be climbed

and everywhere arms press
into sleeves of air.

pencilSandra Fees is a poet and minister. She studied creative writing at Syracuse University in the 1980s and was editor of the Harrisburg Review from 1994-2001. She’s an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and lives in Reading, Pennsylvania. Email: sandrarfees[at]gmail.com

On Cellardyke Beach

Baker’s Pick
Pamela Scott


The Reaper at Anstruther
Photo Credit: Gordon Ednie

Every summer when I was a kid my parents took me to a little fishing village in Fife called Anstruther for two weeks. We stayed in a chalet at Anstruther Holiday Village.

My parents never had money for a holiday so the first year we went it was a treat. I was nine. Dad drove us there in the old red Volvo he was driving at the time.

The village was twelve miles outside St Andrew’s. We drove past hundreds of acres of corn and poppy fields when a massive road sign materialised out of nowhere. Welcome to the East Neuk of Fife. I thought the words ‘East Neuk’ were exciting and magical.

We almost missed the turn off for the village. The road sign was tiny. Faded white paint on a tiny pillar of stone. WELCOME TO ANSTRUTHER and a sign pointing to the right. Mum saw it at the last minute and yelled so hard Dad slammed on the brakes, thinking something was wrong. Dad reversed back along the road, turned right and followed the street.

The Holiday Village took ages to find. It was tucked behind several rows of houses. We drove along the same street dozens of times before Dad finally asked for directions. He weaved the car between the houses and drove through large wooden gates bearing a sign with the words ‘Anstruther Holiday Village’. He parked the car in front of a small building marked OFFICE. It didn’t take him long to get the keys and a map to our chalet.

It took ages to find the chalet. We drove around the place in frantic circles while Mum scrutinised the map and Dad yelled at her. He finally stopped next to a building we’d passed dozens of times, got out of the car and carried our luggage inside.

The chalet was a converted old one-storey, two-bedroom Army barrack. The amenities were basic. Electricity. Calor Gas fire instead of heating. A bath and toilet. A colour TV with four basic channels. Basic furniture including a couch, a couple of chairs and a large table. Self-catering of course.

As the years passed my friends went on holiday to Spain, Greece, the French Riviera, and Italy and we returned to Anstruther. It never occurred to me to be jealous of them. The weather was always scorching. Every year I got a tan. I was with my favourite people on earth. I got to take pets with me. Foreign climates held no interest for me.

 

Our first year in Anstruther was a year of discovery.

I took my budgie with me. Billy Boy. Dad had taught him to sing rude songs, swear creatively and make rude body noises. I couldn’t help laugh when Billy Boy whistled the sash, made belch or farting noises and sang Billy Boy’s a Protestant boy while Mum threatened to cook him for dinner and gave Dad one of her famous ‘looks’ designed to wither him.

On our first day in Anstruther I discovered the greatest secondhand bookshop in the world. It was at the end of a street that looked directly onto the harbour. We were walking to the village to have a look around when I noticed a sign on a lamppost that read ‘2ND HAND BOOKS’ with an arrow pointing along the street. I dragged my parents with me. The bookshop was in a building painted bright blue.

I was in heaven. There were two large fold-down tables in front of the shop covered in books. Inside the shop was my version of Aladdin’s Cave—every wall covered in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves breaking under the strain of books they carried. There were even shelves in the middle of the room that you had to squeeze past.

We hadn’t been in the shop five minutes when I started weighing Mum and Dad down with books. There was sappy expression on my face. My eyes were wide as saucers. I’m sure I drooled a little. They almost had to drag me screaming from the shop in the end carrying eleven carrier bags filled with books. The whole lot cost less than £30.

I visited the bookshop every year. I always bought dozens of books. As I got older my tastes changed and I discovered the joys of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Shaun Hutson, and Richard Laymon.

I have so many memories of summer days sitting on a blanket on the beach huddled over one book or another completely lost in the world between the pages.

On our second day we discovered the neighbouring village of Cellardyke. It was a tiny village a mile-and-a-half away. We decided to check out the beach at Anstruther and were sorely disappointed. A few inches of sand and lots of rock. Dad clambered across the rocks to see where they led. Mum and I followed. I stumbled and fell a couple of times.

The rocks led to a proper beach and another harbour. Golden sand stretched for miles. The beach had donkey rides, stalls selling gifts, and a Mr Whippy ice cream van. Dad bought us a cone and found out the place was called Cellardyke, the smallest village in the East Neuk. There were a couple of rows of shops, a post office, and a café.

When we finished our cones we took the road way back. The road was called Coast Road. We walked past rows of caravans that stretched most of the way between the two villages. We found out later they were part of Cellardyke Holiday Park.

Over the years we spent a lot of time in Cellardyke. The walk was pleasant along the Coast Road. The breeze from the sea was lovely. We always bought a cone. Dad and I walked along the narrow harbour wall and watched fish in the sea and looked at all the fishing boats. Mum always sat at a small bench on a hill overlooking the harbour. The idea of walking the harbour wall made her feel queasy. We spent a lot of time on the beach. Dad would drag Mum into the water and wind her up by splashing her. I sunbathed and read.

On our third day we discovered the little shop at the bottom of the hill behind the holiday village. There was a very steep hill that led from the back gate right down to the beach. The hill was too steep for a car and you had to walk very carefully. My legs were killing me by the time we reached the bottom.

We were behind a lot of houses. There was a sandy path that led down to the only sandy area of the beach. Right next to the opening that led to the sandy path there was a little shop. It sold the usual newspapers and magazines as well as handcrafted gifts and homemade sweets.

Dad started to go down to the shop every morning to get a paper, bread, and milk. We bought all of our gifts there. We started our daily walk to Cellardyke from there. As the years passed the hill seemed to get steeper and steeper. Dad’s legs got bad with arthritis and we had to stop using the hill.

On our fourth day we discovered the Anstruther Fish Bar. It was one of many businesses that overlooked the harbour. We’d been shopping one day when Dad noticed a huge queue leading from the building down the street. Curious, we went over to investigate. The windows of the place were covered in signs proclaiming the fish bar to be award winning, the best in the East Neuk and world famous.

We had to queue for almost two hours before we finally got a table. We sat at a table at the back of the restaurant. The place was mobbed and cramped. There wasn’t a lot of room for people to move about.

The fish and chips were amazing. They were served on plates inside cardboard boxes that looked like rolled up newspaper. You had to eat with a wooden fork.

We ate there at least once every year.

 

I have so many memories of Anstruther that have never faded.

The smell of the sea. I’d never smelt it before and grew to love it. Even now I can’t smell the sea without thinking of those summers.

The sound of seagulls screaming as they flew overhead.

Hot sand squelching between my bare toes.

Rummaging inside various gift shops.

Sitting on the harbour wall and eating a Mr Whippy.

The hot sun in my face, making my skin sweat and my eyes water.

Walking along the pebbled streets that wound all over the village.

After we stopped going on holiday to Anstruther we returned for a day trip every year. We revisited all our haunts. We carefully made our way down the steep hill behind the holiday village. We walked across the rocks. We walked to Cellardyke and had a cone on the harbour. We paid a visit to the secondhand bookstore. We ate at the fish bar. We walked the pebbled streets.

 

It was during the first week of our second year in Anstruther that Dad had his accident.

It had been raining and miserable all day but it finally stopped. Dad wanted to explore the rocks with me and my dog Sheba. He wanted to show me how to fish in the shallow pools that sometimes formed in the rocks. Mum didn’t want to come.

The rocks were okay at first. A couple were damp buy nothing major. Dad walked carefully, stopping to wait for me to catch up. He lifted me over some parts I couldn’t manage myself. I had a net with me and Sheba was running around. He helped me catch tiny little fish. Sheba got bit on the nose by a crab and stayed much closer to us.

After a while we reached several large flat rocks that had green moss on them. They sloped upwards. At the bottom were a series of sharp rocks piled on top of each other. Dad tested the first moss-covered rock. It was fine. We crossed it. He was testing the second one when his legs went from under him. He gave a scream and he lost his footing and slid down the flat rocks towards the steep ones. He smashed both knees off the sharp rocks. There was blood everywhere. Sheba lay down at his feet and howled in pain.

He couldn’t stand up and told me to get Mum. I ran back towards the holiday village screaming my head off. I yelled and cried all the way to our chalet while everyone stared at me. Mum phoned an ambulance.

Dad had to get over thirty stitches in each knee. At the hospital they found out he had arthritis in both knees. The stitches didn’t come out for a month and his knees were left badly scarred.

 

Sheba came to Anstruther with us every year. She was my dog. My voice was the only authority she recognised. She never paid any attention to Mum and Dad. At home she used to escape from the back garden and run to the grass verge across from the house. She ran circles round Mum and Dad as they chased her. As soon as I appeared she ran to my side. I didn’t even need to say anything.

Summers in Anstruther were even better with Sheba. I’d play with her on the beach and in the water. I’d bury her in the sand. I built sandcastles that she took delight in demolishing. She had this big rubber bone that we used to play with. I would take a hold of both sides. She’d grab the middle and drag me around the water.

I came home from school one day and Dad told me Sheba was gone. I was thirteen. She’d bitten a kid at the end of the street on the hand and his parents made such a fuss she had to be put down. I went into hysterics. I locked myself in my room and trashed the place. I didn’t speak to my Dad for weeks and called him a murderer.

The summer after Sheba was put down we returned to Anstruther for the last time. It wasn’t the same without Sheba. I sat around the chalet moping with my head stuck in a book. I didn’t want the beach or the water or anything. Dad offered to get me a new dog that was trained but I only wanted Sheba. My best friend I’d shared so many happy memories with on Cellardyke beach.

pencilPamela Scott is thirty-two years old and lives in Glasgow in the UK with her partner of eight years. In her day job she works in a call centre. She has had her poems and short stories published in various UK magazines including The New Writer, Carillon, and Words with Jam. Her poems have been published in anthologies by Indigo Dreams Press. She has been shortlisted and won second place in various competitions including The Global Short Story Competition. Email: scootiepm26[at]hotmail.co.uk

Leaving

Baker’s Pick
Cheryl Diane Kidder


Feet in the light and shadows
Photo Credit: Silver Starre

The sun came in sharply against the heavy curtains of Ramada room 615. It was a Thursday morning and the maids weren’t quite up and about yet. There were only a few guests during the week so the maids took their time pulling out the clean sheets, folding them, pulling out the clean towels, folding and putting them into neat white stacks on their carts. The couple in room 615 hadn’t slept all night. But they’d never left the bed.

“What time is it?” He had never stopped watching her.

“Ten, ten-thirty, I’m not sure.” She leaned up on one elbow, “You need to get going?”

He turned toward her and grunted no and pulled her closer. He let the smell of her skin envelope him, pulled the sheet around them in a protective gesture.

“When do you need to go?” she asked him, speaking softly, watching his closed eyes. She wanted him to tell her he would never leave.

He didn’t want to answer. He didn’t want to leave. “Sometime,” he said quietly. There was nothing in the room but the two of them, no day outside, no night passed.

She lay back down. Their pillows were overlapping. The sheets were tangled. The bedspread was somewhere on the floor. She had no idea where any of her clothes were.

“Where are the kids?” She didn’t want to know but thought they might be on his mind.

“With the sitter.” He opened his eyes and looked at her. She’d closed her eyes by then, only imagining his face next to her. “Are you hungry?” he asked her.

She opened her eyes. “Kinda.” She smiled at him. “You?”

“To eat I’d have to get out of bed.” He closed his eyes again. There was a heat in the room, under the sheet. He hooked his leg around hers, their ankles entwined.

“What do you have to do today?” she asked him, smiling at the motion of his hips on her, answering back, meeting him under the sheet.

“Work, always work. Go home, then work again.” He made a face at the thought.

“Work is so bad?” She laid one hand on his arm, encouraging him.

“We get a lot of jerks. You just have to deal with people all day long.”

“You need a desk job.”

“I’m not cut out for a desk job.” He let her lead him.

“Have you ever tried it?” She gently nudged his arm onto her hip.

“I couldn’t be cooped up for eight hours. It would drive me nuts.”

“I’d hate to be on my feet for eight hours,” she told him. There was a pause. She listened to his breathing. Her head was just below his shoulder. If she blinked now, her lashes would brush his chest. She wanted to always stay within the sound of his heart beating.

They were like statues in the bed. They were like children in the bed.

“What will she be doing?” she whispered into his chest, not sure he would hear her.

“I really don’t know.” He opened his eyes.

She looked away.

“Do you want me to find out?”

She laughed, “No.” Her breath made a warm spot on his chest and he moved against her.

“Because I will if you want me to.”

“No, no. Not at all.”

He pulled back from her and looked at her. “She’ll wonder where I was last night. And this morning. She won’t ask, but she’ll wonder about it.”

“She won’t talk to you about it?” Her hands had gone silent.

“We don’t talk.”

“Never?”

“Never.” He thought about it. “Only about the kids.” He closed his eyes again and put his hands back on her. “What will you do today?”

“No work.”

“No work for you.” He grabbed her ass and pushed into her ever so slightly.

“No work for me. I’ll be bored. I’ll wonder when you get out of work. I’ll wonder what you’re doing, I’ll wonder who you’re talking to, who you’re seeing, if you’re laughing, if you’re sad.”

“I won’t be happy, much,” he said, rocking forward and back, stroking her back.

“I will be happy for a little while. After I leave here I will be very happy. I will forget everything except that I was here. This will be my only reality.”

He stopped rocking, left his hand paused over her back and looked at her. “This is my only reality.”

She can hear the maids outside their room speaking in Spanish but she knows she’s put the “Do Not Disturb” sign out so they won’t knock at the door. The heavy drapes are keeping the light out of the room and the A/C purrs quietly. The room is shadows around them.

“What time is it now?” he asks her, his hands moving across her back, down to her ass again, pulling her closer.

“About noon I’d guess.” She groaned a little, not sure what he wanted, not caring.

“I should get going.”

She opened her legs one last time. He pulled her on top of him, her hair in his face.

He won’t close his eyes any more. He’s getting ready to leave. He hasn’t moved a muscle but she knows he’s getting ready in his head to leave. He’s thinking about where he left his jeans and that his shoes might be in the bathroom. He won’t look at the wine glasses on the table when he picks up his keys to go, but she will sit up in bed a little just to watch him get ready. He won’t look at her again until he’s completely dressed, keys in hand, shoes tied, jacket on. Then he’ll sit on the edge of the bed and take her hand. The room will still be in unnatural shadows around them even though it’s no longer morning.

It was noon and nothing had been decided.

pencil

Cheryl Diane Kidder has a B.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Her work, nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, has appeared or is forthcoming in: CutThroat Magazine, Weber—The Contemporary West, Pembroke Magazine, Able Muse, decomP Magazine, Tinge Magazine, Brevity Magazine, Brain,Child, Identity Theory, In Posse Review, and elsewhere. For a full listing see: Truewest. Email: chekid[at]hotmail.com

Oh Woman

Baker’s Pick
A. Gonzaga


Daltonism - 070/366
Photo Credit: Frikjan

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

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

Titled “Tiger,” the poet had composed this:

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

pencil

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

Echoes

Baker’s Pick
Jennifer Hurley


Piled up
Photo Credit: naraekim0801

Tina repeated her mother’s mistake, only at a younger age. She was fifteen when she got pregnant with John’s baby. He gave her money for an abortion, money he must have borrowed or stolen. When Tina came back to school two days later, she told Robin, Melissa, and Yolanda—her best, her only friends—that she’d had an ovarian cyst removed. She couldn’t tell them the truth. Unlike Tina, they were real Catholics, obedient, believing.

After the abortion she broke up with John. She told him they were too different; probably he thought it was because he was white. He put his hands over his face. She was thinking how beautiful his hands were, admiring his long, pale fingers, when she realized he was crying. A terrible chill passed over her. She wanted to take everything back, to beg him to forgive her. But that was the whole problem with John, the thing she could not accept: he made her needy. Days when he didn’t call her she became panicked, hopeless, short-tempered—the way her mother was when a man was getting ready to leave her. A long time ago, when she was a little girl, maybe seven years old, she overheard her parents having sex in the one-room apartment, her mother saying, “Te quiero, te quiero,” her voice frantic. Shortly afterwards her father left. He had not been seen from again.

Two years later, Tina was pregnant again, the fault of a torn condom. The father, Balzac, was Mexican but dyed his shoulder-length hair blond and talked like a surfer. He played bass in a punk band that held gigs in people’s garages. Tina had sat on countless washing machines listening to him play. She was proud of how Robin, Melissa, and Yolanda cheered after his solos. And she loved Balzac’s family. They made a competition of insulting each other in colorful ways, and they were always laughing. They did not condemn her for being pregnant, as her mother had. In fact, Balzac’s grandmother offered to pay their rent on an apartment. She crocheted blankets and a pair of tiny yellow socks for the baby.

A month after Tina dropped out of school and moved in with Balzac, she finally called her friends and asked them to come see her. She thought she would surprise them with the news that she was pregnant. She wanted to show them how her belly button had popped out. It turned out to be bad idea. Robin began to cry, and Melissa berated her for ruining her life. Yolanda was quiet, searching Tina’s face with her soulful, mascaraed brown eyes.

Tina didn’t care anymore what they thought. She hated high school with its rallies and tests. She was sick of heating up a can of spinach for her dinner while her mother was out on dates. She wanted to show her mother how a family ought to be run. In their new apartment, she and Balzac hosted dinner parties for his family, frying tempura-battered vegetables in a stockpot or stewing black beans in beer. Balzac was a vegetarian. After the baby was born, they went to the Hare Krishna temple on Sunday mornings and ate as much of the free buffet as they could stand. It got so that the smell of turmeric instantly killed Tina’s appetite.

Balzac would carry the baby on his shoulders or tied to his belly with a swath of fabric. He prepared the baby’s food in an ancient blender from overripe produce in the sale bin. At night he kissed Tina and then the baby, gently, on the tops of their heads. Often Tina would think that she loved Balzac, but then an image of John would pass through her mind, refuting the notion. In the neighborhood where Balzac’s grandmother had found them the apartment, there was no chance of running into John, but still she looked for him. It was a loud, angry place to live. At all hours of the night ambulance sirens sent the baby into fits. It was Balzac’s idea to name her Afrika, and sometimes Tina wondered if she were screaming to protest the name.

 

Tina and Balzac argued about the baby. Balzac was suspicious of electronics, including baby monitors, which meant that one of them, usually Tina, had to sleep in a chair next to the baby’s crib. He was philosophically opposed to plastic, including packaged diapers and pacifiers and televisions—all of the things that would’ve made Tina’s life bearable. When Balzac found out that Tina had fed the baby corporate baby food from a jar, he launched into one of his tirades, shouting that the manufacturers of baby food also made weapons. Was she just ignorant, or apathetic? Tina put her hands over her ears and said nothing.

One afternoon, when she was so tired she thought she was losing her mind, Tina put Afrika into her stroller and walked the seven blocks to the dollar store, where she spent $16 buying all the plastic crap she could find: bottles and pacifiers, a rainbow of plastic keys on a plastic chain, a squishy foam football, and a miniature doll with a bright smear of mauve paint across her plastic lips. Back at the apartment, she spread everything out on a blanket and sat in the middle of it, holding Afrika to her chest, waiting for Balzac to come home. Either he would laugh, or he wouldn’t. Staring at the doll’s obscene purple mouth, Tina predicted which way it would go, and she was right.

But it did not end as she thought it would, with a grandiose fight. Instead, she and Balzac continued to live together, interacting only when they had to. After a while Tina realized that Balzac was detaching from the baby. He no longer kissed her on the head goodnight or carried her in a sling around his neck. Tina could accept that Balzac slept on the very edge of the bed, so as not to accidentally touch her while he slept, but to watch him ignore Afrika—this was unbearable. She asked him to go, and he did, leaving her the apartment and enough money for two months’ rent. She telephoned Balzac’s grandmother with the intention of telling her everything, but Nana didn’t want to listen. She was angry about something, Tina couldn’t figure out what. A few weeks later, she sent Tina a threatening letter written in flowing cursive in which she said she’d hired a lawyer to fight for custody of Afrika. This was the same woman who’d called Tina her “sweet potato.” Tina read and reread the letter, clutching the sides with sweaty fingers.

When Tina thought about someone trying to take Afrika away, her jaw clenched with rage. She would not let anyone take her baby, even if it meant going on WIC and food stamps, as her own mother had done. She found a job as a hotel cocktail waitress, where she wore a bikini top made of coconuts and endured the indifferent lust of businessmen.

The custody battle cost thousands of dollars, which Tina paid with credit cards. Every few months she found a new card offering a no-interest balance transfer. She couldn’t understand why these companies were offering her more and more false money to spend, but it was there, and she spent it. She had heard about people declaring bankruptcy and cleaning the slate on all their old debts. When Melissa found out about the credit cards, she yelled at Tina, calling her naïve, while Robin calmly mentioned that she could’ve convinced her uncle to do the legal work for free. Yolanda started to cry and told everyone to stop talking.

Tina broke off contact with her friends after that. They were going to the local college and had boyfriends and uncomplicated lives. They would never let her be better than she had been. They would never accept that Tina and Afrika were fine. Tina now had a job as a receptionist at a company that installed home heating systems. Afrika was in first grade. She had beautiful tanned legs that looked too long for her body. The grandmother had developed emphysema and wasn’t angry anymore. But Balzac had become eccentric in new ways. He cut his hair, started wearing sweat-stained suits with bow ties, and carried a diminutive Bible in his breast pocket. When she dropped Afrika off at his apartment for visits, he gazed at Tina through the screen door as though he were meeting eyes with the devil. Once, long ago, he’d made a prank call to get Tina out of school, picked her up on a bicycle, and pedaled out to the bay, where they stole someone’s canoe for the afternoon. Trying to get inside they rolled the canoe several times, laughing so hard that they could barely get their balance to try again. Tina thought about that day a lot. It made her feel happy until she snapped back into the present.

 

Alejandro came along just as the bill collectors were beginning to harass her. He loaned her money before she could work up the nerve to ask for it. He was one of the heating system salesmen, a handsome, compact man whose dark skin looked striking against his clean white shirts. He was a traditional Catholic who went to church twice a week and was against premarital sex for women. On their third date he told Tina he forgave her for having gotten pregnant with Afrika. He was so earnest that Tina was amused rather than offended. He was different from Balzac in every way. His apartment, a small condo overlooking an office park, was tidy to the point of being barren. Weekends when Afrika stayed with Balzac, Tina lay all morning in Alejandro’s bed, inhaling the lemony fragrance of his sheets, feeling relaxed and giddy. Alejandro looked directly into her eyes and said that he wanted to save the sex for after they were married. Tina’s heart fluttered with nervous hope. She prayed, for the first time since she could remember, that she would manage not to screw things up.

It was important for Alejandro to marry in the Catholic church, so Tina had to finish the confirmation classes that she’d abandoned and make confessions to a priest. Kneeling in the confessional, which smelled of mold and furniture polish, her mind went blank. What were her sins? Was it a sin, the sex she’d had with John? Probably so, although it felt like a lie to say so. The sex with Balzac had been too unsatisfying to be a sin. The abortion—that was a monstrous sin, too unforgivable to confess. What ended up coming out of her mouth was strange. She said to the priest that she had abandoned her mother, and her eyes filled with tears. The priest mumbled some things she didn’t understand and assigned her seven Ave Marias. Out in the fresh air, Tina felt an acute sensation of relief, as it she’d unburdened herself, even though what she said wasn’t true—she hadn’t really abandoned her mother. Her mother had screamed at her, called her a puta, and Tina had moved out. After that, neither had contacted the other. Her mother had not even seen Afrika, but that was her own choice.

Alejandro had two wedding gifts for her: a pair of two-carat diamond earrings, to match her engagement ring, and a new house in the suburbs of Rancho Bernardo. The ceilings were so high that she was startled by the echo of her own voice. Sunlight blazed through the French doors, making her eyes water. Tina had always lived in dark places, the windows covered to protect against thieves or dreary views. Now she felt like she was coming out of cave onto a bright plain without shade.

On nights when she couldn’t sleep, Tina would wander through the house. She’d drink a little tequila with lime, peer into Afrika’s bedroom and watch her sleep, and then go back to her own bedroom and watch Alejandro sleep, his face scrunched up like a little boy’s—in sleep looking more like a child than Afrika, who was now eight. Finally she went into the kitchen and peered inside the refrigerator, impressed each time by the clean, cold, orderly containers of food. Even now, Tina came into her own kitchen half-expecting to see her mother at the stove, making tortilla de papa, as she sometimes did late at night after coming home from dancing. She and Tina ate it straight out of the cast-iron skillet, sharing a fork, her mother still wearing a slinky skirt and traces of red lipstick. One night Tina started to make a tortilla herself, at midnight, but she changed her mind after cracking two eggs, worried that she might wake Alejandro and Afrika if she tried to clean up afterwards.

Life in the suburbs was almost too perfect. There were block parties and potlucks and parades, and when Tina became pregnant, women in the neighborhood walked around the manmade lake with her in the evenings and offered to go with her to Lamaze class if Alejandro didn’t want to. Of course he did want to. His parenting books were flagged with colored tabs and had notes penciled in the margins. He would never make baby food in a blender or carry a baby in a sling, but he was concerned with buying the right toys that would encourage proper intellectual development. He confessed to Tina that his own father had been distant, something he was determined not to replicate.

When she was six months pregnant, Tina got a phone call from Robin. She had heard Tina was married and had tracked her down online. Her friends gave her a baby shower. They bought her gifts wrapped in pretty paper that she couldn’t bear to throw away. Yolanda had brought a roll of toilet paper and they all had to guess how much it would take to wrap around Tina’s big belly. They were all married now, all happy with their adult lives, and none of them could remember why they had lost touch.

The baby was a girl, and Tina named her Henrietta. She was a serious little Buddha baby. Tina thought that this was how Alejandro must have been as a baby. Every day Tina noticed something new about Henrietta, some gesture or sound, and she was eager for Alejandro to come home so she could tell him about it. On the weekends, they would rent kid movies and sprawl out on the enormous orange sectional in front of the gas fireplace. Alejandro would make real popcorn, in a pot with oil, and a margarita for Tina. Afrika would dote over Henrietta, massaging her feet and carefully combing her wisps of hair with a pink plastic brush. During these moments Tina often thought about her mother. She wished her mother could see her in this new, luxurious life. It took some of the pleasure out of it—that her mother wasn’t around to regret not being the one to offer all this to Tina.

It was around Henrietta’s second birthday that Tina started feeling restless. Henrietta would be playing outside in the sandbox Alejandro had built for her, and Tina would wander through the house, trying to think of what to do. The other mothers on the block liked to push their strollers through Target, browsing the clearance racks, but Henrietta hated to be in a stroller—she hated to be anywhere except outside. Tina tried sitting outside with her, reading a magazine, but she couldn’t concentrate. She did her Pilates video every day, and prepared meals, and tidied up the house. With the completion of each of these chores she felt worse. When she felt really bad, she would leave Henrietta with the next-door neighbor and pick up Afrika early from school. She took Afrika for an ice cream, even though the girl was already too chubby. She had lost the gorgeous long legs that Tina had loved so much. Afrika didn’t care that she was overweight, or that she was falling behind from missing so many classes. She was always up for new adventures, she was always loud and cheerful, and she made Tina feel better.

 

One afternoon Tina showed up at Afrika’s school, but the secretary refused to call her out of class. She was taking an important test, the woman said, peering at Tina over the top of her gold-rimmed spectacles.

“It’s a family emergency. I need to see her,” Tina said.

The woman lowered her voice. “Every week it’s an emergency, Mrs. Hernandez. Just let the child alone.”

Tina’s face burned with rage and humiliation. She started yell, as her mother would’ve done, but the words caught in her throat. The woman gave her one last glare and turned back to her computer.

In the street she had a wave of vertigo. It was a hot day, the perfect day to take Afrika for an Icee in the park. But instead she was alone, her day was ruined, and she was so dizzy that she worried she might not make it to her car. She was passing a bus stop when the bus pulled up. The doors opened, emitting a blast of air-conditioned air, such delicious cool air that Tina found herself mounting the steps, rummaging in her purse for some change. She collapsed into a seat, tilting her head back to get the full effect of the cool air. She didn’t know where the bus was even going. She did not take buses anymore, but she remembered them. She remembered being on a bus as a small child with her mother—the heat, the stench of fish coming from the pink plastic bags carried by Chinese ladies, the unpleasant vibration beneath her feet. Tina used to close her eyes against all of it, hoping that when she opened them next, they would’ve reached their stop. Probably her mother still took buses everywhere—she could never keep a car running for long.

Tina almost expected to see her mother on the bus. She scanned the women’s faces. It had been almost nine years since she had seen her mother, and maybe she wouldn’t even recognize her face.

“Tina,” said a voice.

She looked up, startled, her heart racing. It was not her mother. It was some man she didn’t recognize, but who seemed to know her.

“It’s John,” the man said.

All the times she had imagined encountering John, it had never been on a bus. It had never been when she was hot and sweaty and feeling ill. She brushed her hair back from her face, worrying about whether her lipstick had rubbed off, whether her lips were chapped. He was looking right at her face, and it was making her blush.

“Stop looking at me,” she said.

“OK,” he said. He sat down beside her and stared at the ridged, rubber floor of the bus.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“I must have scared you,” he said.

He was thinner than before, his fingers longer and paler than she had remembered. His hairline was receding. He was wearing jeans and a red track jacket and boots. The top of his right boot was peeling away from the sole. He was such a pitiful sight that Tina wanted to hug him, to tell him everything would be fine.

“It’s so strange that I would see you,” he said. “Just this morning I was just thinking about that night with the kittens. Do you remember those kittens we found in the tire?”

She nodded, then covered her mouth with her hand and began to sob.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” he said.

“I must look terrible,” she said.

“You look just like yourself,” he answered, and held her small brown hand between his two long, pale ones.

 

Five months later Tina got a divorce from Alejandro, gave up Henrietta, and moved into the house where John used to live with his parents before they died. Tina snuck onto the school grounds and found Afrika at recess, and told her they were leaving. Afrika did not need to be convinced. It was a great adventure for a girl of ten—a meeting conducted in whispers, a suitcase stuffed with messy piles of clothes, a new house, ice cream whenever she wanted. She was getting very fat, but Tina could not deny her anything.

She expected Alejandro to fight her for Afrika, simply out of spite, but he didn’t. He was not anything like she’d expected. When she told him she was sleeping with John, he was silent for a few moments and then began brainstorming solutions. His voice shaking, he told her he understood, he forgave her, he was sorry for not realizing how much she was suffering. Obviously she was bored being a stay-at-home mom—maybe she would be happier with a job.

“Teeny, we’ll get past this,” he said.

“But there’s nothing to get past. This isn’t the past,” Tina said. She’d been so afraid to tell him—afraid of what wrath might be buried beneath his calmness—but now she felt embarrassed for him. She could not bear to look at his eyes, which were so full of pleading. Eventually he accepted the divorce, but he refused to say a word against her.

Her friends, on the other hand, were livid. Robin and Melissa defriended her on Facebook and would not return her calls. Robin went to the trouble of writing out a letter by hand, three pages of insults and accusations. Tina kept thinking she would write back and try to explain herself, but she couldn’t counter any of what Robin had said. She was a cheater, a slut, a selfish bitch, a demon, a pathetic excuse for a mother. She had abandoned her baby girl and her husband, who had rescued her when she was broke and alone. She was an embarrassment to her gender, to Mexicans all over the world, to humanity.

But she had John. She loved him desperately. His eyes, a foggy gray-blue, could see into her. When they made love she clutched at his shoulders and kissed him all over his neck and face.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” he said, but of course, she worried.

Her mother heard about the scandal through Yolanda, and she could not resist the temptation to come by and see what a mess Tina had made of her life.

She stood in the doorway of John’s parents’ house. Tina could see her critical eye taking in the plastic flower arrangements, the faded floral-print draperies, the sagging sofa.

“Don’t just stand there. Come inside,” Tina said.

“I can hardly see you, it’s so dark in here. You look like a shadow.”

Without greeting Tina, she strode over to the draperies and pulled them open. When Tina smelled her mother’s perfume, her body prickled with goosebumps and tears stung the corners of her eyes. It wasn’t fair, her mother wearing that same perfume, which smelled of Tina’s childhood.

“That’s better. You just needed more light.” Her mother stood in the middle of the room facing Tina, sunlight illuminating the sleeves of her red blouse. She was thinner now, and her clothes were nicer. Her hair was pulled back from her face in a way Tina had never seen before. She was not at all the same mother that Tina had been conjuring in her head all of these years—she was a lovely, fascinating stranger. It made Tina ache, how little she knew her own mother. And then a chilling thought occurred to her: that Henrietta would look at Tina someday and feel the same thing.

She could not permit herself to think of Henrietta. “Do you want to meet Afrika?” Tina asked her mother.

“Later. Let’s sit.”

They sat down on the sofa, sinking deep into the cushions, the same cushions on which Tina and John had created an almost-baby a million years ago.

“Tell me about you,” her mother said.

Tina couldn’t think of what to say. All the events of the past ten years were like a giant tangled knot in her head. To find even one end of the thread felt impossible. She said, “Too much has happened. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

Mija, just start talking,” her mother said.

pencil

Jennifer Hurley’s fiction has previously appeared in Tidal Basin Review, Front Porch, The Mississippi Review, The Arroyo Literary Review, Stone’s Throw Magazine, Natural Bridge, Brain Harvest, Slow Trains, and of course, Toasted Cheese. Website: Jen-Hurley.com Email: jenhurley[at]alum.bu.edu

It’s in the Bones

Baker’s Pick
Mary J. Breen


Sugar Rainbow
Photo Credit: Aimee Quiggle

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

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

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

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

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

Mother Superior nodded.

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

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

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

Well, I thought, I’ll show them.

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

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

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

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

Today, I only had the Communion wafer.

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

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

pencil

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

The Dried-Up Seahorse

Baker’s Pick
Emily J. Lawrence


Seahorses
Photo Credit: Gaby Av

1.

Rachel Galindo’s mama, when Rae was thirteen, forbid her daughter to wear bikinis, proclaiming, “I did not dedicate you to the Lord for you meet Jesus in ‘ocean underwear.'” Even though all her friends’ mothers allowed their daughters to wear them. They lined the beach in their key lime, sherbet, and polka-dotted bikinis, swimming in the ocean like a league of mermaids.

Rae would whisper to her collection of Kewpie dolls by her bed how she coveted a slim, yet tasteful, bikini the color of cherry Laffy Taffy. Also, she told her Kewpies, her name should be “Mandy.” And she wanted a boyfriend who was smooth and dark like Dove chocolate.

That night, nineteen years later, sitting in the grove of trees on the white sand with the manipulator Sal Hernandez, while the punk-rocking babysitter, Clara, ‘sat her daughter, Rae’s naked toes pulled out the strings of a lost bikini top. It was red velvet, like the cake. The words “Siempre” and “Coca-Cola” were across the breast triangles. She looked at it through salty red eyes and inside her all her middle school yearnings bloomed again.

There was her bikini. And beside her, telling his story of woe and self-fulfillment, was her dark man. You could say that her heart was lost in his Cherry Coke hair, clay skin, and his voice which they could vend at any booth along the beach.

That night she heard the words that killed her. Stuffing the bikini top into the pocket of her Capris, she clutched onto the feeling of hearing them. She drove home, and curled up beside her daughter on the hideaway bed in her sandy clothes. Several nights after that she held the bikini top in her hands and stroked its synthetic threads and thought about the weak man, Sal Hernandez.

2.

Sal Hernandez’s lemon-slice smile, which made the hair on the back of Rae’s neck suspicious, found its way to the open door of her new apartment the day she and her daughter, Miley, moved in. In his hands—lotioned, unlike most men’s—was her television box marked “shoes” in purple crayon. “Cheap movers you’ve hired. Told me to carry this since I was coming up anyway.”

Rae protectively took her box of shoes from the intruder with a curt thank you, nothing less but nothing more.

“Only a pretty lady would have so many shoes.”

The alligator’s teeth shine bright before he takes a bite, her mama’s words ran through her mind, and being recently divorced, Rae’s male-bull crapometer was exhausted. “Yeah.” She was not impressed.

He saw that she was waiting for some justification of his presence. “My name is Sal Hernandez; I used to live here.”

Behind Rae, Miley ran into the hallway in her mother’s yellow sundress and a string of pearls twisted into a diadem. Her skin, like her mother’s, was the color of pork ‘n’ beans. Her eyes, little black raindrops. She didn’t feel safe enough to squeal and laugh like other five-year-old girls, not yet, but she grinned until her ears stood tippy-toe. When she saw the strange man in the doorway, she froze and flitted off the same way she’d come. She was afraid of men. Rae didn’t call back her little one but turned to interrogate Sal with her eyebrows.

“Wants to be like Mama. That’s the difference between boys and girls. I have a son a little older than her,” he said. He was a little older than Rae, nearly forty, though he appeared closer to forty-five. Rae was thirty-two.

As he chatted, almost flirting, Rae thought: here’s the man that burned cigarette holes in the carpet and let water rings form on the ceiling. “I guess so,” she said.

The portly moving men, with an orange couch, interrupted their conversation.

“So anyway,” Sal said, reappearing. “Could you hold my mail here for me for a few weeks? I could pick it up on the weekends?”

3.

Once the audacious but gorgeous man had gone, Rae stirred up a box of macaroni and cheese, the only meal Miley would eat, and the only one Rae could afford. At the table, with steaming plates and glasses of Juicy Juice before them, they yelled “It’s dinnertime!” as loudly and as many times as they wanted.

After dinner they played mermaid in the bathtub. Rae captured a galloping Miley in a towel as soft as bedtime and picked her pajamas out from between couch cushions. However, Miley insisted she sleep in the yellow sundress or she wouldn’t at all.

Swaddled in the cotton-woven dress Rae had bought from an Indian lady vending dresses, sunglasses, watches, and Spirit stones, Miley curled up like a rabbit babe in the hideaway bed they shared. Her mother laid a cupid Kewpie doll in her palm.

“Do you know what a kiss is?” Rae said quietly.

“I shall know once you give one to me,” Miley recited, playing with her fingers.

Pushing back the hair on Miley’s brow, Rae examined her daughter’s forehead. The gash was long since healed but Rae always looked just in case curses were true, just in case the worst mistake of her life might still be there. A little white indention remained; to Rae it seemed more noticeable than to other people.

“Why did we leave Daddy?” Miley asked.

Rae brushed Miley’s forehead with her thumb. Their fingernails were the same color, the color of seahorses. “Because he did the one thing that would ever make me leave him.”

“Is it because of me?”

“Everything I do from now on will be because of you, mija.” She pressed her lips to her daughter’s eyebrow. “That is a kiss.”

4.

Sal came for his mail inconsistently for two months. He would knock on their blue apartment door on a Friday or a Saturday and Miley would run and hide behind the toilet. He may have come on Sundays when they were at church; Rae didn’t know. She was becoming irritated. “How long does it take to fill out a change of address form?” she asked her five-year-old who replied, “Last night I dreamed I was a pony-mermaid.”

One day a letter came for Sal that wasn’t a bill or a credit card offer. It was a little envelope with a full tummy. Inside was something hard and jagged. Curious, Rae held the envelope up to the seashell lamp by the door and stared at the object for several minutes. Then she realized it was a green toy soldier. Flipping the envelope, she saw “Max”—no last name—in the top left corner along with an address for a town down the coast.

The day Sal retrieved this letter, Rae followed him, keeping an eye on his varsity jacket, which wobbled on his Vespa through traffic. What grown man wears a varsity jacket? Rae thought. Sal pulled into a parking lot on a secluded part of the beach, away from the swimmers and their colorful umbrellas. The white sand was naked and free, cropped by a friendly grove of trees. Sal took off his helmet, took the large paper bag he’d been balancing on his lap, and walked into the grove.

Rae silently pulled her Jeep closer. Through the ashen trunks she saw a little navy-colored tent. Sal unzipped it, crouched down and crawled in. Homeless? Rae wondered as she sat in the parking lot. Her mind wove together several sob-stories for him before she drove away. Her heart began to soften like a potato mashed by a fork.

5.

The next two weeks Sal didn’t come for his mail, leaving Rae alone and unsupervised with two little envelopes, each with another object inside. She held them to the light. One, she decided, was a Tech Deck skateboard. The other was easier to discern: a miniature squirt gun. When a third envelope arrived, bursting with a seashell, Rae felt the urgency behind the letters. This little boy, this Max, really wanted his letters to reach Sal. Leaving Miley with Clara, Rae drove to the empty beach. On feet pregnant with nerves, she tiptoed through the grove to the navy tent.

Sal didn’t look as surprised to see her as she’d expected. She stuck out her hand, full of mail, the three letters from Max on top. “I thought these might be important.”

He took them, thanking her, but obviously he didn’t believe it required immediate action.

“Is Max your son?”

“Uh. Yeah. He’s at his grandparents’ right now.”

“He seems to really miss you.”

“Yeah. Well, ever since his mother died… Yeah, he’s a good kid.”

“Why do you live in this tent?” Her tact momentarily slipped.

Sal chuckled softly, looking at the ocean, then turned an eye on her. “Have you ever gone on a trip to find yourself?”

Rae dragged out her answer. “No. I never had time for that. I married directly out of high school and my husband wasn’t the type to… let me do that.” The sudden thought of her ex-husband made her insides cry. “He hosted an all-night eighties radio show. You may have heard of him: Joe ‘The Tornado’ Galindo. I couldn’t even run the blow dryer in the morning or he would scream and cuss and…” She noticed that she was swallowing a lot.

Suddenly Rae realized it wasn’t her insides crying but her outsides. Once this realization hit, Rae unleashed every tear and sob she had in her. She needed a toilet to hide behind. There was not a toilet, but there was Sal Hernandez, the next best thing.

6.

“One night I sent Miley up to tell Joe it was dinnertime. She came downstairs bleeding. He hit her in the forehead with the alarm clock.”

Sal’s nose curled and he spat out a dirty name for her ex-husband that jarred her but she couldn’t debate it. “You were right to leave him.”

Rae tried to see how deep she could bury her feet. She used to do this when she was a kid. That seemed too long ago. “I didn’t leave right away,” she said. “I sent Miley to my mother, who begged me to come, too, but I stayed. He was my husband.” Rae didn’t need a better excuse. She believed in the sanctity of marriage; she wanted to do the good Christian thing. But it was no use.

“What changed your mind? Did he hit you?”

“No.” She smiled. “I missed my daughter. Oh, he apologized at first, then his apology turned into ‘It was an accident.’ How do you accidentally draw blood? When I couldn’t forgive him as much as he thought I should, he became angry, stopped saying he was sorry. I finally left after Miley called me one day to say she missed me. I asked if she wanted to come back home but she began to cry. I told her everything was okay but… she said she was happier staying with grandma.” Red clouds of emotion stung her face.

“The worst part is, I still want to be with him. I want to go back and live like we were. I know I shouldn’t. Sometimes I don’t care that I shouldn’t. It’s what I want. People talk like I’ve had some sort of epiphany but I haven’t learned anything! My therapist—I see a therapist now!—says we can never have a healthy relationship.”

She punched the sand. “I realized that my best friend in the whole world is my five-year-old daughter and yet I keep whining about going back to that, that man who abused her, that, that…”

Sal repeated the dirty name he had said.

“Yeah.”

Sal didn’t put his arm around her as she wept. The cold vinyl sleeve of his varsity jacket didn’t paste to her cheek. Its absence was a clue Rae missed. Not five minutes later, he steered the conversation to himself, to his beloved dead Celaya, and his quest to comfort himself.

7.

Celaya, beautiful as her name, Rae imagined, struck with leukemia at age twenty-nine, Sal’s wife. Nearly a year ago she had died. Sal grieved without stopping and their son, Max, was left motherless. Sal confided this to Rae as her feet wormed down in the sand, white as in an hourglass.

“I was lost. I separated from my body like oil from water and flew off, away, long off up the coast,” he said, sweeping his hands vaguely upward. “I had to go find myself, right? So I packed up, dropped Max off at her parents’, hopped on my Vespa and now… I search.”

Like Peter Pan for his shadow, Rae thought.

“Celaya took care of everything, school fees, clothes shopping, shots. Hey, I was a good father! When she told me she was pregnant, I didn’t complain, I didn’t ask her to get rid of it. I picked up an extra shift, worked hard, brought home the money. I did my duty. I came home and played catch. Bought Christmas. Now that she’s gone… I can’t do both duties.”

Rae sighed. “Being a single parent. It’s hard, so much harder than anyone understands. You live from one box of macaroni and cheese to the next. And those little I-love-yous keep you warm at night though you know the cold is just outside your door, waiting for you; you’re right smack in the middle of it.”

“What do you do?” Sal asked.

Rae chuckled. “Pray. Like the Lord has taught me,” Rae said, and when he asked if it worked, she replied, “It hasn’t stopped my desires.”

“Maybe you pray to the wrong thing.”

“What do you pray to?”

Sal shrugged. “Maps, mirrors, and most nights, waitresses.”

An unbeliever. May the yoke be not uneven, she remembered. She could change that about him. She’d once thought she could change that about Joe. It would be different this time, she promised herself.

“I just don’t know what to do with him anymore.” Sal’s voice was husky with emotion, his face dusky with embarrassment. These were the words that killed her.

Rae place a hand on his knee. “I’ll help. I’ll do whatever you ask me to do.” Oh, she wanted him to need her.

At this point with a woman, Sal would lead her to a dark place, by an ice machine outside a bait shop or a gas station bathroom, even a port-a-potty at the Pier, reach behind her and strip off her bikini top, like the one Rae suddenly pulled out of the beach with her toes, and throw it to the moon, the girl giggling. The last time Rae ever saw Sal she looked him in his weak eyes. “Why not me? All those women but why not me?”

He told her. “Because of your daughter.”

8.

Rae stuffed the bikini top into the pocket of her Capris and walked to the Jeep. Being with the gorgeous dark man reminded her of the Embeth Bridge. As a girl she rode her bike across the bridge to buy candles and Windex for her mother. Not knowing why, Rae had the yearning each time she peddled across the loose boards to shed her clothes and jump naked as a Kewpie doll from the wooden rail into the snow globe blue water and swim. Swimming over rocks, swimming in the coolest water on earth. A mermaid. This desire was most strong when the time of month prevented her from swimming.

One day in the drive-thru of McDonald’s she confessed this to her mother. Instead of a lecture which she expected, her mother nodded. “Yes. Everybody thinks of things like that. That is one of those natural desires we enjoy but must keep dressed up inside us.”

Rae called her mother when she returned from the beach, after she paid Clara and passed a hand over Miley’s sleeping head. Over the phone, she asked, as if she were still belted in the old Toyota Starlet, waiting for her number three, no pickles or onions, “Finding yourself… Going on such a journey of risk isn’t wrong, is it?”

Her mama repeated the question then answered, “Risks are good. Adventure is good, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Rae told her about the gorgeous man and his search.

Afterwards, Mama was pensive. “Stretching yourself and finding yourself are good things. God calls us to do this, mija. But be wise! The heart’s desires can be deceptive. Giving into them, you may lose what you’ve been responsible for all this time.”

9.

One day Rae returned home from her job at the BMV and paid Clara, who was a nice girl despite the safety pins in her ears. Clara paused outside the door and said, “Oh by the way, some guy came by to get his mail?” She possessed the 19-year-old characteristic of turning declarative sentences interrogative.

“Yeah. He used to live here. Did you give it to him?

Clara scratched her cheek. “Uh, yeah, but at first I thought he was your ex, so I kinda slammed the door in his face, told Miley to hide in the bathroom, and picked up that seashell lamp. I was going to beat the shit out of him if he tried to hurt Miley.”

“I appreciate that,” Rae said, amused.

“But he told me the mail was in the magnetic clip on the refrigerator. The name he gave matched the one on the mail, so I gave it to him. He’s a smooth talker. Is he your friend?”

“Well.” Rae twisted like an embarrassed preteen. “He’s not exactly my friend. Thank you, Clara.”

“Yeah, sure.” Clara slung the golden checkered bag higher on her shoulder and walked down the terrace and cement stairs to the parking lot.

When Rae dragged four leaking white trash bags to the dumpster five minutes later she had just missed Clara, arms around Sal, riding off on the back of his yellow Vespa. She didn’t know that night Sal and Clara drove to the Leviathan Bar and Grill, danced to cheap metal music, drank vodka and cherry Coke…

Sal talked about Celaya, got Clara’s blue mascara on his face, led Clara back to the handicap restroom. Rae didn’t know, didn’t want to know! didn’t want to know! that Clara cracked her forehead on the porcelain tank of the toilet, that her palms turned cottage cheese white on the loose, clapping, toilet seat. And that those achy hands held Sal’s head as he vomited into the toilet after they were done.

With his hot hair in her eyes, Clara remembered the way her father held back her hair when she got sick into Wal-Mart bags, or on the white line by the highway, when they drove over the mountains. That is, until one day as she lay home from school with a stomach virus, he said she was old enough to hold her own hair.

Angry, she marched to the bathroom and retched loudly, even screaming, as the puke rushed into the toilet. But, he didn’t come. He yelled at her to shut up, stop being a brat. Then, he turned the TV louder. He was never the same after he lost his job. Never did what she needed him to do and never needed her either.

She whispered all this into Sal’s back as he coughed. “I’ve never done this before,” she said, meaning, have sex with an older man, a man old enough to be her father. She said this knowing that Sal knew it was a lie.

The next day, Sal didn’t call Clara, wouldn’t ever call her. Rae gasped at the ugly swell on Clara’s forehead and gave her a scarf lined with ice. A week later, Clara called her at the office weeping and Rae took the day off. When she arrived home, Clara’s face was dried cement. “I have to go home,” she repeated two or three times as Rae tried to understand what had happened.

Finally, Clara looked at her and said “You should tell that man to get his mail somewhere else.”

“Did he come again today?”

“Yeah,” Clara’s dragon mask face said. “He came.”

Rae asked if something happened and Clara spilled out all that did, right on the brown living room carpet. The dragon mask began to crack. Then she cursed. “Last night I saw that…” she wrenched out several adjectives “jerk spanking some girl on the balcony of Hotel Aquarius.”

“Clara,” Rae said after a long silence. “I think I need to find another babysitter. For your sake!” she added quickly.

Clara nodded and left. Rae began looking for a replacement. All the while, she replayed Clara’s testimony in her head and thought: he may find momentary release with these women but he only shares his pain with me.

10.

After asking a dozen questions about why Clara wasn’t coming back, Miley finally fell asleep with puffy eyes and Rae opened the kitchen window to get a breath of night air. She noticed Sal’s mail in the magnetic clip on the refrigerator. Clara had been too upset to give it to him. Another letter from Max was among the grocery coupons. This time, though, nothing appeared to be in the letter other than the letter itself. Odd, Rae thought. Then, something crunched under her thumb. Very odd.

Rae stood with the little envelope in her hands, wondering what was inside, and decided to make the rice for tomorrow’s breakfast. Steam eventually spouted from the rice cooker and Rae was still standing over it with Max’s letter in her hand. The glue loosened and the envelope flap gently rose. “Oops. Look at that,” Rae said.

She upturned the letter and five tiny, dried seahorses flitted into her palm. Also, a pile of dust that had once been a sixth. Rae felt a warm wave through her body. The seahorses lay on her hand, dead leaves of the sea. She imagined the son of the gorgeous man: a dark little boy with bangs in his eyes and swim trunks exploring the shore. Waiting for his father to return home. This made her very sad.

She wanted Max to come here, come to her house where she could care for him. And his father would be near. Yes, he could move in. They’d all live together. Peter Pan would find his shadow on the wall of Wendy’s house.

Rae returned the seahorses to the envelope. She would tell Sal it was damaged in the post office. Then, she would suggest Max come to visit.

But, Sal probably wouldn’t come for his mail again, Rae realized. He’d be afraid Clara would open the door. Poor Max. He needed his father.

Rae turned out all the lights except the bathroom light, in case Miley woke up and had to pee. She would only be a few minutes, she promised her sleeping daughter as she grabbed the keys. She spoke a prayer for the dead bolt then ran down the cement steps, and drove to the deserted beach in the pouring rain. Sal should come home with her, she thought, and get out of this storm. She pulled into the deserted parking lot, got out, saw Sal’s tent, lightning flashed, she got back inside and drove away.

11.

“Lord, why? Why do I pursue men who use me? Who don’t love me, don’t want to be with me? Even after I obey their orders or forgive their sins? Even after I give all of myself away. All I want is to marry a man who loves his family. Will I ever be healthy?”

12.

Rae encouraged Sal to let Max come see him when he came for his mail the following Saturday, her hand on his arm. He looked at the “damaged” letter instead of Rae’s face. “You could bring him here, he could play with Miley, maybe go to the beach and swim, we could make a day of it.” Sal nodded and Rae set a date, two weekends away. Her heart was jubilant and desperate.

Over the next two weeks she talked Miley into playing with Sal’s son. Her daughter nodded silently, dragging a crayon across her coloring book. Rae still hadn’t found a babysitter. Miley sat under her mother’s desk at the BMV, coloring or playing with Kewpie. After work the last Thursday, they went to the grocery store and splurged on dinner for the upcoming weekend: pulled pork and black beans, peppers, and red onions for fajitas.

At night, with her deflated daughter snoring behind her back, Rae lay on her side, the bikini top in her palms. Her body was remembering how it felt to shop and cook for a family and electricity tickled her nerves. The sound of rain began to creep into the apartment and suddenly she thought of Clara. The ugly gash on her forehead bled all over her mind. Something tugged at her but she quieted it.

I didn’t fire her because she slept with him.

Then, her night turned stormy. The lightning filled her eyeballs, she saw the tent wall, illuminated to point that the navy looked white. Shadows inside. The way they moved made her heart pound and her teeth ache. Rae forced herself to look at the bikini top, only the bikini top, only the hope of being a wife and a family again.

13.

Sal showed up at Rae’s door but this time without a lemon-slice grin. His eyes were blackened and deficient and he wouldn’t look her in the face. In front of him stood Max, just like Rae had pictured him: dark with long black hair. He had a pink spot on his cheek that may have been a scar or a birth mark, she couldn’t tell. Max also looked sad, like a dog who knows it’s entering someone else’s house for a reason.

Hooked to Sal’s arm was a girl, younger than Rae. It was obvious she had smoked too much in her life. Her shirt is too small, Rae thought then realized it was a bikini top. And her hair was too big, frizzy, messy, which she didn’t seem to notice. Rae wondered if those legs, those shadows so sharply defined when the lightning struck, the legs Sal rocked into, belonged to this woman.

She regarded Rae nonchalantly and that’s when Rae realized: the woman was looking at her like she would a babysitter.

“Thanks for watching him,” Sal said and the woman squeezed his arm.

Something kicked on in Rae; a mode, like she was a machine. Like a light switch, a smile flipped on her face. “Oh, no problem! Miley will love having someone to play with.”

Sal scooted Max inside. Rae bent down and said, “Hey there, Max. It’s nice to meet you.”

Max nodded, the way everybody had been nodding around her recently. Pretend. They were humoring her. They were letting her play pretend.

She guided Max down the hall. “Miley’s in the living room with some coloring books.”

Sal kicked at the threshold despondently. “We’ll be back,” he said. So vague.

“Yeah, okay,” Rae said.

Sal and his woman slowly turned and walked away. Rae closed the door and held the cold knob in her hand. What would have happened if Peter Pan left Wendy for one of the mermaids?

Rae turned and saw Sal’s little lost boy staring at her. “Where’s my papa going?”

“Max,” she asked, “do you like macaroni and cheese?”

pencil

Emily J. Lawrence is a bruised paper bag marked “Surprise” sitting in a dollar store. She broke into herself years ago and what she pulled out is what you read in her stories. These can be found in A Capella Zoo, Hawk and Handsaw, Pif, and Cheek Teeth. She’s a fiction reader at A Capella Zoo. Her blog: Buys Paper, Writes on Napkins. Email: emilyjessannlawrence[at]gmail.com

Two Poems

Baker’s Pick
Holly Burdorff


Get Your 50-50 Tickets
Photo Credit: Nigel Gunn

Shimmy

On the gridiron, waves of bodies crash and fall,
bathing in a million watts of yellow light— but

that’s behind the line of lithe girls
shaking pom-poms, tossing and tumbling

through the air like the red and gold leaves
falling from the maples surrounding the stadium.

In the bleachers, their mothers shimmy around feet
and knees, selling the night’s 50/50 raffle tickets:

one for a dollar, an arm’s length for five. Their limbs
arc to measure; their joints stretch with honesty.

 

While inside, hot gymnasium air stands still, smothering
all, and echoes pop and bounce off every wall.

After each point, all six girls furl up in the center
like petals of a flower at sundown; hands clasped,

they recite cheers for perfection. Pressure is the pulse
of the room; they are driven to be diamonds—

although, aren’t they more than just carbon?
The setter wipes sweat from her fingers

as she waits for each pass, raises her palms skyward,
knows that the seven spectators are holding their breath.

After each spike, knees knock on floors
like knuckles rapping on doors to empty rooms.

 

Geology, a Love Story

They were big together, they knew. Like gravity:
it exists, but few people care.
He was her knight in schreibersite armor,
she said. And he said
she was still his home.

They would stroll, late at night,
holding hands. Their outside hands
wandered into their coat pockets;
they let their fingers play with bits of rock.

They’d spend hours poring over minerals
in empty classrooms.
One deep-scratched table, one hand lens.
They’d pause, every now and then,
to test each others’ mouths for halite.
Who needs stargazing? Here,
on Earth, we have apophyllite
and garnet
and carpathite.

When he found her,
he knew she was steadier
than the ground beneath his feet;
she was a place to build a home.

He washed over her
like field manuals spread over a hard wooden table.
Or sweeter;
like thick ribbons of fudge frosting
spread over a marble cake.

pencil

Holly Burdorff lives, works, and attends school in central Ohio. This is her first publication. Email: hburdorff[at]hotmail.com