Little Big Man Speaks

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Robert Walton


Photo Credit: Jerry and Pat Donaho/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Hector?

Yes, Marsha.

It’s hot.

Yes, Marsha.

It’s beastly hot!

Yes, Marsha.

We could skip the next stop, Crazy-something-or-other.

Crazy Horse.

Whatever.

He was a Lakota leader.

Whatever.

They lived here.

Look at George Washington’s nose. The sun is hitting it just right.

The Black Hills was their sacred place.

Just think of all those little men chipping away up there for years.

Marsha, I feel a little dizzy.

I never knew George’s nose was so big.

I think I’ll get off the bus, get some air.

The father of our country!

I am weak. The hoop of our nation is broken. At the center of the world, the holy tree is dying.

Hector, where are you going?

A dream of power awaits me. White Buffalo Maiden awaits me.

Hector! Come back this minute!

I stand beneath the holy spire and sing to the powers. Thunder beings, I climb to you! White Giant, I climb to you! Morning Star, I climb to you!

Stop! Those rocks are loose!

Hoka hey! I climb!

Hector, come down from there!

I am Lakota! It is a good day to die!

Hector, come down this instant!

The powers are with me! I am one with the rock.

Hector! You’re hundred feet up!

A spirit floats above me, wrapped in a buffalo robe. His eyes are covered with blue ice. He opens his mouth to speak, but his mouth is filled with blood.

Driver, do something!

Crazy Horse! Brother-Friend-Warrior-Chief, you made the hearts of the Lakota grow big when you were near.

Get help!

In the Moon of Making Fat we leaped on our ponies and fought the Wasichu soldiers. Long hair led them and they wanted to kill our women, our children, but we rubbed them out.

Call the rescue team!

The dust was like a thunderstorm. The bullets fell like raindrops. The big, gray horses screamed when the arrows pierced them. I drove my lance through a soldier. Another turned to shoot me. I put my six-shooter beneath his chin and fired. Then I saw you on your pony, Crazy Horse, dead Wasichus under you. Burning dust hid the sun.

Yes, Ranger Murchison, he just got out of the bus, walked over there and started climbing.

Pahuska led them but we rubbed them out!

No, Hector’s never climbed anything before in his life.

I climb to you, Crazy Horse. The cracks and holds hide from me. I must hunt them as I would stalk deer. My fingers are arrows. They pierce the hiding cracks.

He’s almost on the top. Do something!

Crazy Horse, the victory was ours! We rubbed out the Wasichus together, but the Wasichus are like the blades of grass on the prairie. We cut down hundreds; thousands chased us through the long summer. Grandfather Winter came and the children cried. They had nothing to eat. The Wasichus took our ponies; the Wasichus took our guns. We went with them to the fort, even you.

Get a helicopter!

They came for you during the Moon when the Calf Grows Hair. A hundred soldiers with guns watched you. You did not fear them though you had no gun. Your courage made them fear. Their eyes were round and yellow.

He’s climbing again!

Later they came to move you. I came with them, for I felt uneasy in my heart. They took you through the darkness to the little prison with iron bars. You saw where they meant to put you and you cried out. You pulled out your knife and made to attack all those Wasichus. Their guns with the long knives on them shone in the starlight.

I can’t look!

Brother-Friend-Warrior-Chief, I did not want you to die. When you raised your knife high, I seized your hand. We struggled. Though I am larger than you, as an old bull is to a yearling, your strength was equal to mine. I held your hand high, but I could not move it. A Wasichu soldier moved behind you. His eyes were yellow in the dark, yellow, yellow. His cap fell off as he thrust at you with the long knife on his gun. He stabbed it into your back. I felt it pass through you. Crazy Horse, I mourn for you!

He’s going to fall!

I mourn. The rock flies above me like a cloud.

I’m going to sue the government. There should be big fences to keep people away from those rocks.

Hoka hey! I hear you, Thunder Beings. Come to me now. Fill me with your power! Help me climb the holy spire! Hoka hey!

My God, thunder and lightning and rain!

Ha! Thunder power fills me! Winds lift me! My arms burn no longer, for cool rains wash them. I climb. Hand over hand, I climb. I thrust hard and leap into the storm’s heart. Lightning is my sacred path.

He’s on top!

I stand and raise my hands to the powers. Thunder Beings speak with voices like mountains falling. Their blue fire covers my hands, my arms.

Duck, Hector! Lightning!

You step down the lightning path to me. You are covered with blue fire. The ice is gone. The blood is gone. You sing:

The light river is my way. Behold!
The light river is my way. Behold!
Blue light flows around me.
I have come again. Behold!

Crazy Horse, you are here. Forgive me.

Ho, Little Big Man, do not be sad. It is beautiful on the other side. Soon you will come home with me.

I see the white hailstones leap up from the rock. Their babies’ faces smile with joy. Crazy Horse, the Wasichus promised us this land for as long as grass grows and water flows. I feel the Thunder Beings cross their mighty arms in the clouds above me and listen in silence.

Little Brother, the grass grew and the water flowed for eight years only. They came after the yellow metal that makes them crazy. The earth is our mother, but they cut her with their plows. They built their iron roads. They poison the rivers, the streams, all of the waters. Where can a human being now find water to drink that will not turn his blood black? Nowhere.

I feel maiden fingers of wind touch my breast.

They killed the buffalo, used none of the meat, and the power of our people spilled like buffalo blood into hot sand. Our young men drink the Wasichus’ whiskey; their lives are dust. Our young women flee from here and never learn the songs of their grandmothers. The earth cries under their burning wheels. The earth cries!

Crazy Horse, hear me. I held you when the Wasichu knife drank your life. If you had lived—

No, my brother, do not think this. I could not stop the white men. Nothing stops them.

Then why have you come here? Why have you called me?

Even when the knife went through me, I knew that you were my brother.

He held out his hands to me.

Know this! I hold your vision. Its fire is wisdom.

He opened his hands and on them lay a small sun.

A great change comes. The earth shall heal; the air shall be clean; the waters shall shine clear again. New snows will fall. Hear me!

The Wasichus will be rubbed out?

No, there must be peace between all. Even the Wasichus will become our brothers.

Crazy Horse, brother, how can this be?

Little Big Man. The Wasichus looked too closely at the things they could make. Their eyes became sick and blind to the earth, to the Great Spirit. Their eyes are withered now like leather that has lain for a season in the sun.

They will I never see.

No, soon they will see again. Soon they will know us. Our children’s children will help them to heal the wounds they have made. Then they will honor us.

How?

You will do this. Hold out your hands, brother.

I hold out my hands.

Take this fire.

The fire passes over my palms, but it does not burn. It is cool and soft like new snow first touching the earth.

It is a vision. Take it to the Wasichus. Show them clear light. Let it heal their eyes. Peace will come then and the world can become clean. Go now, my brother-friend.

I turn from him and step to the cliff’s edge. I cannot climb down while holding the vision in my hands.

Brother, ride the lightning as I have done. The Thunder Beings will carry you back to the world of men.

I look up. Two white beings grasp my arms with fingers like talons. I think that their touch will burn, but it is cool and gentle. They lift me. Blue light surrounds us.

No! Don’t jump, Hector! Somebody, stop him!

I soar! I see Wasichus below and their wagons with no horses. In light I am coming, behold!

Hectoooooooooooor!

The Thunder Beings mount the sky on wings of light. The light in my hands rushes over me. I am covered with light.

Hector?

The light fades.

Hector?

I raise my hands to the Six Powers and give thanks for the vision they have sent.

Hector, are you alive?

I give thanks to the Great Spirit.

I think you fell?

I thank Crazy Horse, brother-friend, for this vision.

It must have been the helicopter. Thank God for the helicopter!

I feel great weariness. I must eat. I must drink good water.

Oh, my God, Hector! It’s the rescue squad.

I will I take my vision to all the far places in the world, to all human beings, but first I must rest.

Hector, the helicopter is landing! This is embarrassing!

White Buffalo Maiden welcomes me.

pencilRobert Walton blogs at Chaos Gate. Email: dragonlemontree[at]sbcglobal.net

That Yellow Sun

Fiction
Jay Merill


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

That yellow sun, so hot, so blinding. It blocked all thought though I could still hear the scream. I held my hand up over my eyes, trying to see things: the beach, that drifting sand, odd bits of dried-out wood, the sea with frills of foam. They seemed to fade to nothing. But the scream went on. At the time I didn’t realise it was coming from me.

Liane recalls these details and talks about them later at her new apartment just off the Fulham Road, sitting with friends over drinks. How it all had been, how she’d felt then, married to Franz. ‘What is love?’ she finds herself asking. Then she’ll give a shrug, the shrug saying probably you won’t know, nobody will. ‘Well, happiness then. What is happiness?’

‘I’d had that accident, cutting my foot badly. Blood was just oozing out onto the sand. Then you know, I’ve always wondered, maybe it wasn’t an accident. I could have done it on purpose, I was in that much of a state. But it’s all such a jumble. The glint of glass on the dune, the surge of red, also the pain. I was so angry with Franz and so desperate for him to love me. That much I did know, though I was confused about everything else. Maybe it was like this—I saw the shard of glass, my own naked foot, and thought, I’ll take the misery out on my own body, or, I’m going to punish Franz. Though I’m not saying it wasn’t an accident, it could very well have been.’

Liane talks a lot about that day, says she can still feel the prickly sweat of her body and the agony in her cut foot. Can even recall how the sand on which she lay had a ribbed surface embedded with curved lines of shells. Looking up suddenly she had watched as three grey birds went flying through the sky. Behind it all, her own agonised cries.

She shrugs, spreading her hands helplessly as she comes to that part of the story when she’d screamed alone on the burning slope of sand and Franz hadn’t come to her. Her eyes wince and darken as she lifts up her wineglass, replaces it, then picks it up again. Next she takes a piece of cheese from the central plate, then a biscuit or a wedge of bread. She chews a little, dabs at scattered crumbs, pours more wine from the bottle. Her eyes are everywhere. She looks at the wall, looks at the untidy pile of plates. From object to object she goes, her voice rising and falling.

‘It used to be so hard to swallow,’ Liane says. ‘But really, you know, that day was the start of things beginning to get better, even though there was worse to go through first. If that makes any sense.’

Outside it’s getting dark. The lights in the flats on the other side of the communal gardens are going off one by one. Her balcony door is still open. Breeze comes in, and it feels good. Liane sighs, leans back in her seat. As though to locate herself in the present she flicks her hand through her hair and smoothes one finger along the edge of the table. All solid, all in order. Good. She continues with her story:

‘These friends, Andy and Nina, were with us for the weekend. Franz and I were having a row which lasted the entire time. They were upset by us I think.’ And she laughs saying, ‘That was nothing, rows could last two weeks or more, or they’d subside and start up again, blowing in all different directions like the wind can up there in the Frisian Islands.’ She catches the side of her finger on her collar, the nail snags, she makes a face.

‘I crashed into the soft powdery dune and lay in a crumpled heap but with my bleeding foot sticking out straight. Blood gushed out and got absorbed in the sand. So dramatic. My blood, I thought. And the pain was terrible. Had I meant to do this to myself or just fallen on the glass? Part of my screaming was the terror at the not knowing. I so longed for Franz to come, but the row between us had been bad that whole day and he did not. In the end it was Andy and Nina who came back for me, just the two of them. Actually, I think that day was the crossroads. I turned away from Franz. I’d always been hanging on you see, waiting for things to get back to what they’d been at first, or move on to some new bright point, but this was the moment I let go of all hope. And you know something, I started to become stronger.’

Outside in the London street darkness settles. A few night sounds can be heard—the slam of a car door, occasional laughter, music here and there in snatches. There’s the soft zoom of a plane overhead, and the sudden swoosh of night wind. The late-talking hour.

Liane is an architect, when she’d married Franz she was just starting off. Franz had an import-export business. They’d met when Franz had come to London from Rotterdam and he’d moved in with her after only a few weeks. Then later, they’d bought a little house, a rundown sort of a place on one of the Frisian Islands where they’d first gone on holiday together. Terschelling. They had cycled through the pinewoods. Dreamlike echoes, bird cries. Liane remembers rambling through a wild marshy part of the island purplish pink with orchids. And they’d walked hand in hand, so necessary to keep on touching then. Just ahead of them, a tall spiky grassed bank in the shadow of which they had sex. Easy and happy. Liane says she’d felt blended in with nature. All this before the island had come to mean grief, because her marriage was grievous.

After the time of the cut foot Liane began to leave Franz by stages, trying out being separate in her mind before making the real ending happen. Franz noticed no changes, living to the full his blithe London existence. Liane’s first stage of leaving was going out herself whenever Franz went out. It got more frequent. Franz was never home. He went away for the weekend, most weekends. So Liane did too—not that he knew. Franz’s business was doing well. Now he had money he had flings, the two seemed to go together with him. Another stage in the leaving was giving up caring about his infidelities. She used to be in a torment and rage. Franz had told her, ‘But you’re my best girl.’ Liane repeats this odious phrase of his to friends in the late night recollections. She’d been desperate, and then she wasn’t any more. Franz was away on business quite a lot, going to Brussels and Rome. On one of her weekends away Liane had a one-night stand herself, later she began an affair. In this way she had started on her new life. At last she said to Franz they should have a trial separation, that she couldn’t bear things as they now were. How were they? Franz had raised his eyes as though asking this question. ‘You’re my best girl,’ he reminded her. Liane said she thought he should go to Terschelling and fix the house up when he wasn’t away on business. She agreed to go out to him every couple of months and they’d see how things went.

Liane in the bright kitchen of her new flat entertaining friends. They sit at the table sipping wine, chatting, later they loll around in the cushiony living area, addressing issues, enjoying the night. Liane says things like: ‘What is for real? What is fooling?’ What she keeps going over is Franz’s attempted suicide. She’ll never give up trying to understand that.

She says, ‘How could he have done that to himself? When he looked down at his arm, did he hate that arm?’ Liane uses her own arm as a model; taps at it, asks: ‘Did he say, Arm you’re not going to be any more, you’ll be dead?’ Her little performance gets her a laugh. She’s hardly expecting anyone to come up with an answer.

Terschelling. That yellow sun. Liane had gone up to the island for two weeks. Franz had renewed hopes. He’d given up his mistresses now he told her in a voice bold and emphatic. There was just this one tiresome woman who was hard to drop, one who hounded him. But there was really nothing in it, he just saw her now and again. Franz looked hopefully into the amber eyes of Liane. The greater his hope the more she had to disillusion him so the greater her coldness. The sex between them was distant in her case, desperate in his. The greater his renewed hope the more he was capable of blotting out her indifference, so the more she had to punish him with a show of apathy. Liane says she got some sort of pleasure out of the idea he loved her and couldn’t let go; that she was becoming addicted to his hopeless zeal. ‘Was I just craving retribution for the years when things were safe for him and when he hardly noticed me?’

Liane feels at ease in her Fulham Road flat, friends round, soft music on, balcony door left open all weathers. She’s been with clients all afternoon in her office at Mansion House. It’s good being part of the noise and rush of the centre when you know you’ve got your peaceful nook to come back to at the end of the day. Here, where it’s all quiet sociability, a place for night-chat, she works through the details of the past.

‘Out there in Terschelling it’s a different life experience, such a beautiful spot. There you can find another kind of happiness and I’ll tell you about that in a while. But what’s right for one time may not be right for the next. And I didn’t feel comfortable on the island after things fell apart with me and Franz and he went to stay in the house full time. Franz thought I was punishing him, and partly I suppose I was. Yet he didn’t seem to imagine what it would be like if we were to stay together. Strange he wasn’t able to foresee a life of despair, of bitter recrimination, when by now we could hardly bear to see one another do a simple thing like walking on the beach.

I always went carefully after that accident, skirting the dunes, stepping round sharp stones, blobs of scum, tangled seaweed. Everything. Franz was more casual, missing the bad bits naturally but yelling if he didn’t. It’s scary how much we annoyed one another with our different styles. I can see Franz walking moodily, kicking up foot-loads of sand, feeling, I’m sure, that this glitch in the relationship was all my fault. He said I mustn’t leave him. It hardened me. When we had sex those days it was tense because this was the way I reminded him that I had nothing left for him. I held back, refusing to be fluid. When I went away, back to London, he took to brooding, did drugs, slept during the daytime, refusing to accept it really was over between us. He spent so much emotional energy in the effort of hiding from the inevitable ending. We walked separately in a state of tension, tormented by pity and dislike. I remember wondering if there could be a resolution or whether we were doomed to go on like this forever.

I’d bought a beach ball, gaudy, red-and-blue-striped, a light air-filled ball. We threw it between us without enthusiasm, and it was always just out of reach, slipping to one side, falling. Was it the wind doing that? So light that ball, no substance to it, and there was this smell of soft perishable plastic.’

In the living room of the London apartment Liane lies back on her sofa, legs thrown over one of the arms. Friends recline on various chairs, the sky outside passing from pearl to grey to black.

Liane: ‘What is for real and what is only fooling? Even if Franz had said, Arm you’re gonna be dead, he mightn’t have really meant it. Most likely of course, he never thought about his arm at all or any other part of his body. But I was afraid, because even if he was only acting the part of being suicidal he still might have killed himself. He was in a bad state. You know, suppose he was acting all the time, and just meaning to punish me, or punish himself, then oops, the breath was gone, the arm inert, and it had happened. All over, meant or not. Drowned. Silky-salty water lapping round him, making the pink parts of his body look pinker, a swirl of loose sand shaly against his knees. Franz lying down in the water and saying he was going to kill himself. Out of malice, out of hate, out of anger, out of pain, out of terror, out of what? Well, for one thing, as if to say, You’d love me then, you’d be sorry. And you know something, a terrible part of me needed to know that he really was going to do it—that insecure, worst part that wanted to believe he couldn’t live without me.’ And Liane recognises there is still that in her which needs to know she really has been loved. As if this will make her into one of the lucky ones, a success story, no matter what.

‘He said his life was empty, that he was going to end it, but as for me, when I saw him lying there, helpless with resentment, I knew I would never love him again and also that I had to be strong, to get both of us past this terrible moment. The sad thing is, this threat of suicide was the last emotional experience between us, a great force which drove both of us, almost a bond, and maybe neither of us really did know whether it was genuine or a sham.

Franz said to me, ‘You don’t want me any more.’ He said, ‘You just want to destroy me. You don’t care what happens, do you?’ He said, ‘I’m going out into the sea, the North Sea, and I won’t be swimming! I’ll be drowning. Drowning! Then you’ll be satisfied.’ His face which had gone a dark beetrooty brown, looked frightening, unresponsive, sealed off from any possibility of hope. He took off all his clothes and left them on the sand in a careless heap and waded out. I called him back, called and called till my voice went hoarse.’

Tears have come into Liane’s eyes, remembering. ‘He just kept on walking, as though he couldn’t hear me. I thought, he’s really going to do it. He didn’t falter though he must have been able to hear me calling. Didn’t even look back, you know, and the water out there was getting so deep. Not even when I called his name would he turn round.’ Liane’s hands start to shake with the memory. ‘I could not believe it. That Franz would do a thing like this. But on the other hand I had to put the idea it might just be a game out of my mind. It would have seemed too churlish not to have taken him seriously. Maybe that’s what he wanted, I don’t know.’

Liane takes a sip of her wine. ‘If it was a game it could have been a dangerous one, tempting an accident, flirting with it. People can die in a game if they’re crazy enough. To hell with intention.’

‘He’d chosen a stretch of water where the current was strong. If you were a cynic you could say he knew I knew that. One part of me hated him, for being out of control or being too controlled, whichever it was. The main thing was, I hated what was happening. He went out further and further and still I was shouting and still he never looked back and didn’t start swimming. And then I went in after him. I cried out, “Franz, you’re not to do this thing. I don’t want you to. I’m sorry.” Yes, I had to say things like that. I told him I loved him and I said I’d stay with him, that it wasn’t all over. I had to.’ She wipes sweat from her face.

‘And still he wouldn’t look back. He was much further out than I was. I was up to my neck, I couldn’t get out that far, you know I’m a poor swimmer. And I wasn’t sure if he could still hear me. I felt sick agony as though it was all over. Then, on the beach which seemed so far away now, I saw moving shapes. Silent and unreal, silver shadowed. Two moving shapes. With the agony inside me I waded back towards them shouting as loud as I could. And they heard me. It was two Australians, guys here on holiday. They swam across. By this time Franz had slipped down under the water. I couldn’t even see him. Whole minutes went by and I thought that was it. But the guys got him out. Thank God, they got him, and they hauled him back to the beach. He’d gone so white I thought he was dead anyway. But they lay him on the sand; pumped the water out of him. He just lay there completely still. He was ok though. Thank God for that.’

Very few lights are still on in the flats across the gardens, but now and again you can hear spurts of music, talking, coughing, as people pass close by. Once or twice there’s the quick burst of a car horn from the Fulham Road, discordant, high-toned, and now as it gets later, the wind shudders making the curtains puff out. There’s the rustle of leaves on a nearby tree, the occasional hum of a plane overhead. Shifting sounds settling us into night. Liane’s voice gets softer, goes back further.

‘I have an earlier memory of us. Me and Franz on holiday. I never wanted to leave this place. Before we bought the house, it was. We were stretched out at the base of this embankment in a band of shade. We lay where we were on spines and prickly tangles, not minding, postcoital, coming to. Finally we got up, arms still wrapped around one another because we couldn’t let go. It took us a while to climb to the top of the bank this way as we kept on toppling and having laughing fits. At last we made it and sank down out of breath. Pinkish haze of flowers all around us, that yellow sun. Below us the long line of the sea stretched grey-blue to the horizon, ending in mist. Terschelling, with its own kind of perfection, its power. Being there can absorb all the possible questions, can make you think of nothing. You have this sheer unburdened happiness, you feel quite free.’

pencilFiction by Jay Merill is published or forthcoming in 3 AM Magazine, Berfrois, Epiphany, Hobart, The Irish Literary Review, Per Contra and Prairie Schooner. She is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. Further work has appeared recently in Anomalous, Citron Review, Corium, Foliate Oak, The Galway Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Literary Orphans, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, tNY, Wigleaf and other great publications. Jay lives in London UK and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing. She is the author of two short story collections published by Salt—God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies—which were nominated for the Frank O’ Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize. Email: jaymerill[at]talktalk.net

After School

Fiction
Dacia Price


Photo Credit: Rebecca Siegel/Flickr (CC-by)

He said he loved her on the front porch of his parents’ house with tucked-under legs and sneakered feet. Their backpacks sagged and crumpled against the wall, their skateboards half-buried in unmowed grass. Moments ago, they had been carrying both. But he had wanted to hold her hand. She took note of the smooth pavement and downward slope as they walked. She liked his hair first and his face second. His name was Jeremy and he had brown eyes. He had a square jaw and jagged, angled cheekbones. He had brown hair. Before, when they were still strangers, she liked to watch him twirl it around his finger. A nervous habit. Like nail biting, only sweet. Soft. She thought it must smell like coconut shampoo. Fresh. Tropical. New.

She had never been to his house before and thought the street was also new. Like it had arrived perfectly formed that morning. Like him. She wondered if it might disappear again once she left. She thought a lot about things like that. Roads appearing just for her. Coconut-scented hair. Why the boys she chose were always named Jeremy. This one was her fourth. Though the last had shortened his to Jer so that you were left wondering if his name was Jeremy or something less. A boy at school had called him Jerry Cheesecake once, and the name had struck her with such force, such undeniability, that she had broken up with him, just then, right then. His hair had been the color of cheesecake. Yellowed. Wilted.

This one didn’t shorten his name. He was Jeremy. No abbreviations. She thought his mom was probably one of those who thought Full Names were preferable, superior. Were the only thing their child ought to be called. Moms who had Christophers and demanded they never be referred to as Chris. Or Benjamins as Bens. As though they were offended by it. As though a name could offend.

She was his first Lia. His first girlfriend. His first everything.

Jeremy’s mother had brought them cookies and juice when they arrived. He had rolled his eyes. He’s not a child, he seemed to be saying, who needs after school snacks. But Lia could tell he was. She thought he was the kind of boy who still had his mom brush his hair. Still told her his secrets. Lia could see he was just learning to be his own person.

They sat on the porch and ate chocolate chip cookies and drank orange juice and the summer air twisted and tugged at her hair. It sent it around her head. Under her chin. Across her face. So she saw him through intersecting lines of blond. A cage of strands. The wind whipped around them and wrapped her face in strangling yellows and golds. She struggled to disentangle her lips. Her neck. Her eyes. And in that moment he mistook frustration for fragility and found it beautiful. Found her beautiful.

He proclaimed his love, his undying love, his new and different I’ve never felt this way before love with shining eyes and cookie crumb lips. His hand gripped hers so that it made her palms sweat and her spine ache. He sputtered his love so recklessly, so radiantly that for a brief moment she was sure she might love him too. Might love this Jeremy who didn’t shorten his name and whose hair smelled like an island. She laughed and he kissed her. And together they explored his mouth and lips. His earlobes. His neck.

That afternoon they had sex behind his bedroom door while his mother made dinner. His dark walls lined with posters of bands and airplanes, of medals earned in Little League, and guitars covered in stickers. In black marker. She thought of mac and cheese. Of homework that needed to be done. Of how coconut shampoo never smells like the real thing. The weight of him on top of her, his long hair brushed against her forehead. They used to play doctor like this. She on her back. Hands under her clothes. It was always pretend, before. His mother’s humming crept beneath the door.

When they were finished he cried in her arms, he had found her, he said, he had waited so long, and now it was over. It filled him with a profound sadness. So she held his head and stroked his hair and thought about how cool the evening air would be against her skin. About the heat inside his room and about the way his love clung to her, hot and humid and heavy.

pencilDacia Price loves nothing more than cold beer on hot afternoons, standing on top of tall mountains and writing stories. Some of those stories can be found in Pacifica Literary Review, and discussed on Ploughshares. She lives in Seaside, CA. Email: dacia.price[at]yahoo.com

Looks Like Death

Fiction
William Locke Hauser


jalexartis/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

We are driving, my sister and I with our mother, from Washington D.C. to Baltimore, to consult with doctors at Johns Hopkins about our mother’s hemochromatosis. My sister and I are very sad, and our mother is angry. It’s December 2016 and Hillary Clinton has just been elected president, which should make all three of us happy, but we’re still sad and angry from Mom’s predicament.

“I feel awful,” Mom says. “I want to go back.”

“We can’t,” Sis says with an angry shake of her head. I can see in the rearview mirror that her carefully coiffed pageboy is trembling with exasperation. “We’ve got to get you well or die trying.”

“What’s this ‘we’ stuff,” Mom chortles. “I am dying.”

I remain silent, concentrating on the road. My opinion of this expedition falls somewhere between that of the two of them, to wit, I wish Sis would shut up and I wish Mom would either flatly refuse to go or peacefully acquiesce, instead of sitting in the front passenger seat—I’m the driver—and muttering under her breath.

We’re an Army family, or at least we were when Dad was alive, and Mom is currently resident in a home for Army widows in northwest Washington, a converted mansion furnished with satin draperies, 1930s overstuffed furniture, and gold-framed portraits of intrepid generals from World War II. The main building holds the hale and hearty, there’s a wing for those who need “assisted living,” and there’s a basement dormitory for the dying, of which Mom is one. The walls there are decorated with crayon drawings from favorite grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the odor of urine is pervasive.

There’s also a daily bus to Walter Reed Armed Forces Hospital, where Mom goes every ten days to be bled. If that sounds medieval, it isn’t far from the truth. They say there’s no cure for hemochromatosis—where an excess of red blood cells overloads your liver and kills you very unpleasantly by inches—and no relief from intense pain, except when some phlebotomist nurse draws off a pint or so at a time, and if you’re very old—Mom is now 84—the puncture wounds heal badly or not at all. Gross.

“I’m hungry,” Mom says. She’s not, I know, but she wants to be difficult. I can see her face getting as red as her still-red hair, and her swollen-knuckled hands are wringing one another in her lap.

“No, you’re not,” Sis says.

Now it’s my turn to be angry. “Goddammit, if Mom says she’s hungry, she’s fucking well hungry!”

“What language!” Sis exclaims.

“Well,” Mom retorts, “I am fucking well hungry.”

I turn off at the exit for Baltimore-Washington Airport, and we see a sign with a knife-and-fork symbol, directing us to a roadside diner. It’s a Golden Corral, “all you can eat” of the whole world’s salty sugary fat-fried cuisine.

“Not here!” Sis says.

“Yes here,” Mom says. She’s almost crying. “I want my way. Didn’t I raise you to be obedient?”

Sis refuses to eat anything, and I’m not hungry, but I go through the line and get a small helping each of short ribs, coleslaw, and butter beans. The people in line ahead of me are obese; the people behind are almost as fat, even the littlest kids; and the odor of grease, despite over-airconditioning, is so thick that the very air seems opaque. Mom has grits and red-eye gravy, a harkening back to her Catawba County childhood.

Mom’s still a good-looking woman, despite the ravages of her illness—tall, slender, aquiline nose, long once-expressive hands. Sis must take after our late dad’s father, the one whose portrait hangs in the county courthouse: dark hair, olive skin, and hooded eyes that tell of the clan’s Native American heritage. She emphasizes this by wearing long Indian—Asian-Indian-made, that is—skirts, embroidered blouses, and turquoise bead necklaces. I favor Mom, except for having a dick, which you can’t see of course, and a mustache and beard which you can. I long ago decided I didn’t want to look like a woman, even the woman I love second best after Hallie, who isn’t along because she hates hospitals after what we went through with our son Kevin’s agonizingly drawn out decline.

We get back in the car, my new Jag sedan, which has a comfortable ride despite its racy lines, and despite Mom’s constant shifting in her seat as if she had plunked down her hemorrhoids in a wooden church pew.

“How much longer?” she asks.

“Must you keep asking that?” Sis demands. “Don’t you know this isn’t easy on the rest of us either?”

I look, expecting to see a sour expression, but she looks bland, an adjective which suits the moment because that’s the question she’s posed at least four times since we left the northwest quadrant of the District.

“Zip it, Sis,” I say, and though she relaxes in her seat, the tight sourness of her expression never loosens.

We leave the interstate and find ourselves in Baltimore’s potholed streets, past houses with incongruous marble stoops—there’s a story behind that feature, which our dad used to tell but I’ve forgotten—and the GPS leads us to the Cancer Ward annex. Hemochromatosis apparently isn’t a cancer, or so one of the specialists at Walter Reed told us, but it might as well be, with rogue cells crowding out the productive and clogging the channels, but hematology and cancer are traditionally housed in the same wing of major hospitals. I mean, if proliferating red corpuscles aren’t malignant, I can hardly imagine a more apt use of the adjective.

Dr. Azam is occupied with an extended surgical procedure, we’re told, and we’re asked to make our way to the cafeteria because the waiting room is too full with other backed-up patients, some of whom are absolutely ghastly-looking and falling out of their Eames chairs. I grab a magazine as we exit, and to my dismay discover on the way down the hall that it’s Golf, a game that I played as a teenager but have since discovered distracts me from the pleasures of a walk, if indeed the course lets you walk instead of electric-cart rolling along an asphalt path.

“Cup of coffee?” I ask Mom. “Or tea?” She disdains to answer.

It’s past lunchtime, and the cafeteria is empty except for two waitress-cashiers, who ignore us as we wait to pay.

“Can we get a little service here?” Sis calls out.

“We’re on our break,” one of the women answers.

“Then is there someone else?”

A shake of the head. “She’s in the can.”

“Fuck it,” Sis says, and leads the way to a table.

“Fuck it,” echoes Mom.

I sip my cup of coffee, which tastes awful, conjuring up visions of arrest for not paying, but no one comes. A third waitress joins the other two, and their conversation continues, with arm-wavings and exclamations of “You don’t say!” and “I’da told her…” and “You think I didn’t?”

Finally we are summoned. Dr. Azam is young, courtly, and precise of speech. “There is nothing to be done, “Mrs. _____. No cure, no therapy, no…”

“But we were told…” Sis begins.

“Leave it,” Mom barks. “Leave it!” She rises and leads the way out of the doctor’s little side office, glancing as she goes at his framed diplomas and testimonials. “Thank you, Doctor. We won’t be back.”

“But you may,” he sputters, “if you’re referred again.” His round face bespeaks sincerity, and his plump little hands steeple piously.

“I said we won’t,” Mom answers, turning back in the doorway. “W-O-N-apostrophe-T won’t.”

We get back in the car, drive to the exit of the parking lot and discover that we have neglected—“You were supposed to take care of that!” Sis says to me—to get our parking ticket validated by a machine in the entry hall, so I have to feed my AmEx card into the gate for a $25 charge. So we’re disgruntledly on our way.

“I want some oysters,” Mom says. “Stop for oysters.”

“You can’t get oysters on the interstate, you silly old…” Sis begins, and then swallows her words with a stricken look.

Mom and I both ignore the cruelty. “We’ll drive down to the harbor area,” I say. “I know a place that has crab cakes that’ll bring tears to your eyes, and I’ll warrant their oysters ain’t too shabby either.”

The restaurant, a low-slung weathered-wood shanty decorated with anchors and fishnets and with the fiberglass sculpture of a killer whale projecting from the shingled roof, has a poster board by the door that says:

EAT FISH, LIVE LONGER
EAT CRABS, PLAY LONGER
EAT OYSTERS, LAST LONGER

It’s past 2:00 p.m. and the place is empty. We choose a booth in a reasonably well-lit corner, and Mom consumes, with Sis and me helping, a dozen raw plus a huge basket of fried. She leans back in the booth and emits a most-unladylike belch. “Your father always used to say that that’s the way to show appreciation for a really good meal.”

And she leans forward and says, “Did I ever tell you the story about your dad and me and the bad oysters in New Orleans?”

“Be careful,” Sis says, playful for the first time today, “It’s against the Napoleonic Code to criticize New Orleans cuisine.”

“Well,” Mom says, “It was at the Commander’s Palace of all places. We’d been to an excruciatingly boring conference on management of Episcopal parish endowments—your dad was the parish warden back then—the zydeco music at the welcoming reception was appropriately deafening and your dad and I showed that stuffy crowd a thing or two about how to get down and dirty, but the appetizers were skimpy and the dancing had worked up a huge appetite. So we taxied to the Commander’s Palace and they said they were full and we didn’t have a reservation, but then your dad spotted some old friends from the board of trustees at his old boarding school, and they were obviously regulars, and next thing you know we had the best table in the house, under the branches of that magnificent old live oak, and I had all the oysters I could eat, and they were the best I’d ever had. Until…”

“I can almost guess,” Sis says. “You didn’t get sick on the airplane, did you?” Her tone implies that we haven’t heard the story before, which is not the case, but she is too polite to say so outright, and I also pretend to be astonished.

“Sick?” Mom says. “There weren’t enough sick bags on the plane to hold all the barf.”

“Mom, we’re eating!” Sis exclaims.

“No, we’re not,” Mom says. “We’re done.” She rises abruptly, and before I can reach out to steady her, she’s on her way out the door.

“Mom,” I call after her, “you don’t know where the car is parked.”

“I’ll ask the valet, and he’ll give me the keys, and I can start it and get the air conditioning going so the car will be comfortable when you and Sis get there.”

“But I have the claim check!”

“And I have an old lady’s privilege of getting my way. He won’t dare not fetch the car for me.”

Back through the city, which by now is clogged with rush-hour traffic. As we pass through a depressed neighborhood, locals peer into the car, and Mom mutters, “Looks like drug gangs, so make sure the windows are locked.”

I survey the passing and standing-watching parade, and see no evidence of drug gangs. The crowds are young and old, black and white and Asian and Hispanic, working class folks wending their weary way, “leaving the world to darkness and to me.” Then we get stopped by a house fire—red ladder trucks, hoses stretched across the street, forlorn occupants standing in despair and hoping for permission to reenter and rescue their meager possessions. The street is awash with water, and the gutters are emptying frothily. A kid comes up to the passenger window and taps on the glass. Mom presses the down button, and asks, “What do you want?”

“Close it!” Sis barks from the rear. “These people have knives.”

“I don’t have no knife, lady,” the kid says. It’s a little girl, her hair in intricate braids. “I’m selling Girl Scout cookies. We’ve got peanut butters, s’mores, and thin mints. Five dollars a carton, or eight dollars for two.”

“In original packaging?” Sis demands.

“Shut up, Sis,” I say.

“Shut up, Sis,” Mom echoes, and to the little girl, “We’ll take two s’mores, please.”

Cookies are passed in and ten dollars out. “Keep the change, darling,” Mom says, and I can see the sour-pickle expression on Sis’s face at the largesse. I never cease to wonder at her parsimony, financial and emotional, despite having been raised in an environment of outgoing generosity.

There’s a backup getting onto the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, and there’s obviously going to be another onto the Beltway, so I take a detour over to U.S. 1 to kill a little time at Behnke’s Nursery.

“Why are we stopping here?” Sis demands. “None of us has a garden anymore, what with Mom at Knollwood, me in midtown Manhattan, and you on Capitol Hill.”

“This used to be Mom’s favorite stopover,” I answer. “Still is, right, Mom?”

“Still is,” Mom echoes. She strains to turn her head toward the back seat, countering Sis’s glower with a sunny smile.

It’s hard for Mom to maneuver her walker on the gravel paths, and she eventually yields to necessity, switching to an electric-motored buggy. “Whee!” she exclaims, outdistancing Sis and me, slowing down when she herself becomes apprehensive. We tour the rose beds first, with Mom leaning precariously out of the cart to read labels with her AARP magnifier, of which she must have a dozen because that silly organization keeps sending her recruitment letters that offer one as a “free gift.” “That’s redundant,” she says. “A gift is always free, unless it undertakes a moral obligation, which I certainly don’t feel toward a bunch of patronizing do-gooders.”

And then to the houseplants, which I don’t have any of in my little flat, and I’ll bet if Sis has any in her 38th & Park terrace apartment, they’re tended by her and Geoffrey’s Filipina housekeeper with strict instructions not to let the children touch. We look at hen-and-chicks, snake plants, aspidistra (I recall an unheralded George Orwell novel, worth rereading), and a philodendron that stretches all the way across the ceiling of the check-out shed that would give me bad dreams to have in the house.

“I’ll have that snake plant there,” Mom says.

“It’s too big for your room at the residence,” Sis says. “And your roommate will complain.”

“She won’t complain,” Mom says. “She’s dotty. Anything I do is all right with her, because she thinks I’m her beloved sister. Or sometimes her mother. Sometimes even her husband.”

I load the plant onto the back of her buggy, and we head for the check-out.

“That’ll be $17.67 including tax,” the clerk says.

“Oh, no,” Mom says. “That bench of plants had a sign that said ‘SALE’.”

“Yes, ma’am, so it’s marked down from $25.00.”

“But one of the outside leaves is cracked. Look there.”

“Yes, ma’am, that’s why it’s on sale.”

“Never mind my mother,” Sis interjects.

“Never… mind… my… mother,” Mom says. “Did I just now hear that correctly? Surely not.”

“I meant, ‘Thank you for the bother’,” Sis stammers.

I hand the clerk a twenty, mumble “Put the change in that crippled-children’s-fund jar,” and we make our exit.

We’re on the Beltway within minutes, and after the bleakness of strip malls along U.S. 1, the landscape—if you ignore six lanes of traffic—is lush with trees. We pass signs telling of stream valleys now bridged with concrete, and I recall woodland adventures thereabouts from when Dad was in the Pentagon and I used to go camping with my Cub Scout den. The “den mother,” a woman of whom I grew so intensely fond that Mom would bristle when I praised her over the dinner table, was “only a housewife.” That’s what Mom would say, contrasting the lady’s status with her own as a lobbying firm’s legal secretary.

We take the Connecticut Avenue exit, and suddenly we’re in Washington’s elegant Upper Northwest suburbs. Massive houses of brick and stone fronting on the busy avenue, with once-deep lawns now amputated by the addition of lanes. And there’s a brand-new house of garishly modern design, turrets and furbelows, with a circular driveway in the middle of which looms an ornate fountain. Only half the lawn is green, the other half still bare but for stacks of sod. The traffic, already clotted, now slows to a crawl.

There is a bicyclist riding alongside us, sometimes getting a bit ahead, sometimes falling a bit behind. Now he’s passing at a glacial pace, and I can see out of the corner of my eye that he’s old and diminutive, helmetless with a bald head, bony face, and pale shanks showing beneath a billowing white garment instead of the usual road-biker’s colorful jersey. He’s waving his left arm at us, as if to encourage us forward.

“Looks like an angel,” I comment.

“Looks like Death,” Sis counters. “Brrr!”

“No,” says Mom, “he looks like Shorty Morgan. Shorty was my hometown boyfriend before I met your father. You probably met him at that tricentennial we went to, editor of the local paper founded by his granddad and run by his father back when I was a girl. It’s probably under his son now, more than likely. All named Arthur. They always were a close-knit family.”

“Still looks like Death to me,” Sis repeats.

I get distracted by something in traffic, and when I look again, the biker is gone.

We enter the residence’s gate and start up the drive to the main building. “We’re here, Mom,” I announce, but there’s no answer. I pull to a stop, and she is slumped forward in her seat, held in place by the shoulder belt. I set the parking brake, get out, and walk around to the passenger side. There is no pulse. Mom’s gone.

Late that evening, back at the hotel after dealing with the residence’s management and with a funeral director, I say goodnight to Sis and go to my own room, exhausted. I order supper from room service, and while waiting for it to be delivered, on impulse call 411. “Operator, please give me the residence of Mr. Arthur Morgan, on Magnolia Avenue in Newton, North Carolina.”

She reads off the number, and I copy. A recorded voice comes on, offering to ring the number for an additional charge. I push “1” to indicate assent.

“This is the Morgan residence,” a lady answers.

“Sorry for calling so late, but may I speak with Arthur Morgan?” I say. “I’m the son of an old friend.”

“Mr. Arthur Senior?” she asks. “Or Junior?”

“Either one,” I say. “Actually, I know Senior better. Like I said, he’s an old friend of my mother’s.”

“Well, you’ll have to speak with Junior. Mr. Arthur Senior, the one they called Shorty, he died this morning.”

pencilAfter military and business careers, William Locke Hauser is engaged in a third career of  writing fiction. Thirty-four of his short stories and narrative essays have been published, most recently in Stand Magazine, Big Bridge, Shadows & Light, and Rosebud Magazine. He is seeking an agent for a trilogy of novels. Originally from North Carolina, he and his wife live in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a summer home in Reston, Virginia. They have two married sons. Email: wlhauser[at]comcast.net

The Candle

Fiction
Nancy Christie


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

As Margaret leaned forward to light the tall white candles, she wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to die. It wasn’t that she wanted to commit suicide—at least, not exactly. But she had given death a great deal of thought in the past few weeks.

Her long blonde hair swung forward and, for a brief second or two, Margaret let the carefully-cut ends hover dangerously close to the flame.

Suppose, just suppose, she stayed that way—her hair close to the lit candles. Soon there would be that peculiar odor so typical of burning hair, growing stronger and sharper as the moments slipped by.

Then the golden strands, fed by the heat, would twist and turn with a life of their own. Fire would race along the shaft, hungrily seeking a pathway to her body until she herself became a flame-tipped candle, burning in death with a fire she had never know when alive.

Margaret stepped back quickly, pulling her hair safely away before shakily lighting the rest of the candles. That had been close—too close. A few more minutes of imagining could have brought that particular fantasy to life.

Although, she considered as she carefully set the spent matches in the crystal ashtray, that method of death stood a greater chance of success than pills or alcohol. With an overdose, there was always the chance that someone would find you before it was all over. You would no longer have the energy to tell them to leave you alone, that it was entirely your own choice to surrender.

Someone would certainly find her, she knew. And, once found, her body would have to suffer the indignity of a stomach pump while her veins were filled with life-giving fluid. And she’d awaken from blessed darkness to see accusing faces, her husband’s among them, staring down at her.

Sometimes, in her all-too-frequent nightmares, she would see the baby staring at her with just the same expression—accusing and unforgiving.

It had been such a small thing she had to do, after all. A pill each morning, and her womb would be kept under control. One of the few tasks Paul had expected of her—one of the few responsibilities they had both considered she was capable of handling.

When had it begun, Margaret wondered, this belief that she was incapable, incompetent, unreliable? She had long given up wondering if there was any truth to it. If she had any inner strength, living with Paul had drained it from her. Paul needed to be in control of everything—his life, her life, their future. There was no forgiveness in him for anyone who disrupted his carefully orchestrated plans.

She hadn’t even considered pregnancy as a possibility when her period failed to appear one hot June morning. It wasn’t until recurrent attacks of nausea kept her from eating even the blandest of foods that Paul ordered her to see the doctor.

“There’s obviously something wrong,” he had stated irritably, folding the newspaper in exact thirds as she came back into the living room, the remains of that night’s dinner flushed down the toilet. It had stayed in her barely long enough to make an impression on her delicate system before being summarily discharged. “This can’t continue.”

It was inconveniencing him, he meant. Already two dinner parties had had to be canceled for fear that Margaret would be unable to handle her role as hostess.

She made an appointment—she always did what Paul told her to do—expecting to hear a vague diagnosis of virus or flu.

Even now, more than two months later, she could recall every moment of the visit—the way the paper gown shifted to let a chill down her back, the cold metal stirrups, uncomfortably hard against her stocking feet.

Blood pressure, white count, palpitation of the lymph nodes lying quiescent under the skin of her neck and in her armpits, a urinalysis—all the usual tasks performed with impersonal efficiency. And then the diagnosis, tearing apart the calm fabric of the visit. It was totally unexpected, and after the first shock, she was filled with unaccustomed exhilaration.

“You’re about four weeks pregnant,” the doctor had said, and Margaret could only look at him in shock, hardly daring to believe. She had long since given up hope of ever having a child. Sex, like everything else in their life, was far too regulated to allow one renegade sperm to find her egg.

She was to come back, he said. Even something as random as this pregnancy must be brought rapidly under control. There would be regular appointments, blood work, routine examinations.

Margaret nodded her head, hardly hearing his words. It was the baby she heard—its heartbeat, its soft murmurings. A child full of life, who would, in turn, bring new life to her.

But the abortion ended her brief resurrection just as it ended the life of her child.

Although, as the psychiatrist later insisted, it really wasn’t a child. No longer able to bear her silences or her tears, Paul had made an appointment with the man, determined to “fix” her mind as he had “fixed” her body.

“You have to understand that at such an early stage it is just an indistinct mass of cells—not recognizable as a baby at all. This was just a medical condition you corrected.”

Margaret had closed her eyes against the stream of lies pouring over her. It was a baby—a tender, delicate thing with her eyes and smile. She would have held it and kissed it and watched it grow.

And loved it—how she had loved it already, poor little fetus. But she had let it die. She had signed the paper giving some strange doctor the right to probe inside her body and steal away the only thing she had of any value.

It didn’t matter that it was Paul who had insisted on the abortion, presenting her with carefully thought-out reasons. She was too old to consider any other course of action, he had said. She would look almost obscene, pregnant and waddling, when so many of their friends were becoming grandparents. (But first, they had children, Margaret thought.)

And he added, think of the disruption to their lives.

“What would we do with a baby? How could we entertain, travel? There would be diapers, bottles, toys scattered everywhere. And we would both be unhappy,” he said the night before she was to see the doctor again. “And it would know that—it would know that it wasn’t wanted and be unhappy, too. You wouldn’t want it to be unhappy, would you, Margaret?” he asked persuasively.

Margaret sat, still and silent, in the rocking chair, her hands clasped protectively over her slightly swollen abdomen. She could never withstand Paul when he spoke like that. It was one of his strengths, this ability to appeal to her better nature, to make her feel any other choice would be foolish or selfish.

That was the way he had spoken when he wanted Lady, Margaret’s pet collie, put to sleep, because “you know, Margaret, the city is no place for a dog that size. It would be miserable in the apartment”—the apartment he had chosen, although Margaret had preferred to live outside the city. “We would be doing it a service to put it down.”

“‘She’,” Margaret had said, stroking the soft fur as the dog lay trustingly at her feet. “Lady isn’t an ‘it,’ but a ‘she’.”

It was all Margaret could say in the animal’s defense, not that any more words would have made a difference. The dog was taken first thing in the morning, like the baby, years later.

Paul had called the baby “it,” too, Margaret remembered suddenly. The few times he had spoken about their child, he said “it” as though the genderless term gave it less right to exist in a world of two sexes.

But Margaret always thought of the baby as a girl—a tiny, blue-eyed, golden-haired daughter who would love her mother just the way she was.

She realized with a start that she had been standing there, watching the candles flicker, while the minutes ticked by. Paul would be home soon, and he would expect that dinner would be ready—candles lit, wine chilled.

He always insisted on having a formal dinner in the dining room, instead of the more intimate nook off the kitchen. The first few days after Margaret’s treatment (he never referred to it as an abortion), he had permitted her to have a tray in her room, while he ate at one of the many expensive restaurants in town.

But now he judged her to be fully recovered—although, she wondered, what was the expected recovery time for grief?—and wanted a return to the way their life had been organized.

The baby would have been so inconvenient, so disruptive—and Margaret wasn’t certain if the thoughts were her own or Paul’s.

“Is dinner nearly ready?”

Margaret turned, startled. She hadn’t heard Paul come in. He was frowning. It took so little these days to irritate him.

“Very nearly,” she said hastily, picking up the matches from the ashtray.

“Fine. I’m going upstairs to change my shirt.”

And Margaret nodded her head, not that an answer was required.

“Why don’t you take a glass of wine out to the patio, and I’ll join you there,” he added, the force of command underlying the suggestion.

Margaret nodded again, like a marionette. Nod your head, Margaret, smile and agree when you are told.

She walked into the kitchen, but instead of opening the wine, reached for the vodka. Carefully, she poured some into a tumbler and then added several ice cubes. Then, seeing there was still room in the glass, she gently tipped in a second thin stream of alcohol.

Pulling open the French doors, she stepped onto the brick patio, stopping at the wrought-iron table to light the candle securely placed in a pierced brass holder. Then, still holding the glass, she settled herself on the cushioned glider, watching the stars as they glittered in the night sky.

It was nearly eight. Night had fallen, and the candles and stars were the only source of light in the darkened world. As Margaret sipped her drink, she hoped that dinner would go smoothly, that she would give Paul no excuse for any more irritation.

Her eyes blurred, and she blinked them hard before taking another sip of her drink. The alcohol burned a bit, but the pain inside her was slowly being drowned, and that was all that mattered.

She brushed a hand across her forehead and closed her eyes. When she opened them again—was it a moment or longer? How long had she been out here in the dark?—she heard Paul’s step in the kitchen. She knew he was searching for her, but she was too listless to call to him.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have had that drink after all, she thought. Not when she was still taking those tiny blue-and-white pills the psychiatrist had ordered.

“For your nerves,” he had said, not knowing Margaret had no nerve at all.

As she forced her eyes to clear, she noticed a delicate white moth hovering dangerously close to the patio candle. Translucent wings danced and darted above the point of light, toying with self-destruction.

Margaret sat, still and silent, unable to stop watching. With one breath, one small motion of her lungs and lips, she could save the life of the small insect. Voices echoed in her mind—“It’s only a moth”—no, that wasn’t right—“It’s only a baby, not even a baby” and suddenly she shivered.

Startled by the sudden motion, the moth dipped and swirled over the table. As she watched, still unmoving, it gracefully circled the candle, drawing nearer and nearer the flame until, in one perfect second, the fragile wings burned with light.

pencilNancy Christie is a writer by trade and a fiction writer by preference, the author of a short story collection, Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories and the inspirational book, The Gifts of Change. Her fiction has been accepted by magazines such as Down in the Dirt, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, St. Anthony Messenger, Talking River, Wild Violet, EWR: Short Stories, Hypertext, Wanderings, The Chaffin Journal, Fiction 365, Full of Crow, Red Fez and Xtreme. She’s also the founder of “Celebrate Short Fiction” Day, an annual celebration of short stories and those who write them. Email: nancy[at]nancychristie.com

The Net

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Gail Webber


Photo Credit: Austin Kirk/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Austin Kirk/Flickr (CC-by)

We didn’t get to Franklinton very often, and a new pet store was a pleasant surprise, but the three dead guppies in the first aquarium I checked were a bad sign. There was no one to tell except a man at the cash register who was on the phone. He was old, maybe thirty-five, and so thin he was almost skinny, but he had great eyebrows. When he saw me he smiled and held up one finger, universal sign language for, “Be with you in a minute.”

My mother was up the street looking for clothes to fit my surprise baby sister. In the little lake town where we lived in the early 1960s, there was a post office and a great ice cream store, but the only clothing available was fancy stuff for the summer people. To get reasonably priced things you had to drive to Franklinton where there was a department store. I went along that day because I knew that store had a pet department in the basement and I had fourteenth birthday money from my grandmother. When the department store fish proved uninteresting, I left to explore town and that was how I accidentally found the pet store.

I had just over an hour before I was supposed to meet Mom at the car, so while I waited for the man, I peered into the tanks one by one. There were some fish I could identify and even distinguish males from females, but there were others I’d only seen in books. I took my time. As soon as the man was done talking, he came over and said, “Hi,” but nothing more. I learned later that “hi” was how he wanted his employees to greet customers, considering the usual “Can I help you?” unfriendly and pushy.

“You’ve got a couple dead guppies,” I said and pointed. His smile faded and he turned toward the guppy tank, but then the phone rang again.

“There’s a net in that methylene blue wash,” he said on his way back to the counter. “Over there in the corner, see it? Go ahead and scoop them out and bring them here.” He indicated the glass counter where the register was, and then picked up the receiver. “Franklinton Pet.”

Really? I was perfectly capable of that little task, but it seemed a strange thing to ask a customer to do. Why not, I thought, and picked up one of the nets. I shook it a little to get the excess off, and then fished out the dead guppies. The man nodded to me and mouthed “thank you” when I put the whole thing, wet net and dead fish, on the counter.

It wasn’t until I was inspecting the baby Jack Dempseys that I noticed the nickel-sized blue stain on the yellow T-shirt I’d just gotten for my birthday. I groaned, knowing how methylene blue stains—I’d used it before to cure itch. But my new shirt! I didn’t get many new clothes, not with the way things were at home. The baby clothes Mom was buying that day were going to be the big splurge for the month.

Behind me, I heard the phone being replaced in the cradle, and then a ripping sound. When I turned, I saw the guy put a long strip of masking tape across the front of the tank where the dead fish had been and write NOT FOR SALE on the tape. “Mouth rot,” he said to me. From his pocket he pulled a blister pack of capsules and emptied two of them into the tank. They turned the water orange. Then he reached in and pulled out the box filter, leaving the air hose to bubble, and dried his hands on his pants. When he saw me watching he explained, “Charcoal deactivates tetracycline so you have to take the filter out.”

I nodded, though that was new information. Apparently this guy wouldn’t sell fish from an infected tank. That impressed me, and I thought maybe I’d get fish from him after all if I could find some I liked that would get along with what I already had. I figured I’d have to go back and look at prices, though.

He surprised me by saying, “Oh, no,” while he was looking at my chest. I didn’t know what to think and felt myself blush. I was used to guys at school looking there, but not most grown men. As far as I was concerned, my new shape was mostly a good thing, but sometimes my cup size was an embarrassment. Everything I ate or drank seemed to land on that shelf.

“I feel responsible,” he said. “Vinegar and vitamin C.”

I had no idea what he was talking about but was grateful he was looking at my eyes. “What?”

“It gets methylene blue out of clothes.” He nodded at the stain on my chest and then found my eyes again. “I know because I’ve done that a hundred times. Crush up a vitamin C tablet in one part vinegar and five parts water and soak the spot as soon as you get home.”

I don’t even remember exactly how it happened, but by the time I left with a trio of killifish, I had a summer job working for Richard at Franklinton Pet. I didn’t even have to spend any birthday money because the killies were my pay for an hour of cleaning water spots off the aquarium fronts. This would be my first job that didn’t involve mowing or painting. I knew the hour bus ride each way would be a pain, but I was looking forward to all the money I could save for college. Plus I’d be learning new things.

It was June, so I figured I’d have the rest of the month and then all of July and most of August to work as many hours as Richard would let me. His wife had just had their third child, all girls he said, and the baby made it harder for her to come in to help like she used to.

I guess her having the three kids made other things problematic, too, because by the middle of August, Richard was showing more than a casual interest in what I was wearing and how I did my hair. In those days, you dressed up for a job, even if it was one that involved catching snakes and chameleons, and cleaning hamster runs and bird cages. I even learned how to put my hair up in a twist because he said he liked it and I thought it made me look older. I was a good worker, and he always complimented me, but not just for doing a good job. Honestly, I liked the attention, and I don’t know, maybe I needed it. My only boyfriend so far—albeit a rather platonic one—had dumped me for a senior girl, and nobody else was asking me out. I had come to believe I must not be girlfriend material—that my first boyfriend had been a fluke, and I was destined to be alone for the rest of my life. Maybe that was why Richard’s approval was important, why I wanted to believe it meant something.

My job was supposed to be just for the summer, so my parents were surprised in September when I asked if I could keep working during the school year. My grades were excellent, and I was involved in everything from student government and debate club to all the sports they would let girls play in those days, and Mom and Dad said they thought working would be too much. I argued that my friends managed that same kind of busy schedule as well as boyfriends, and that since I didn’t have one, I had extra time especially on weekends and vacations. I told them how much I’d saved for college that summer and they were surprised. After they finally agreed and I had time to think, I considered looking for a different job. The truth was that despite Richard’s interest in me being exciting and affirming, it confused me. But I stayed.

It was the month before Christmas that year when we started keeping the store open on Sundays, and Richard’s wife offered to let me stay over at their house on Saturday nights because as she said, it made better sense. Being open that extra day made a big difference in the weekly take, something I knew because a few basic accounting duties were added to my responsibilities. But as the month wore on, it seemed there was more and more to do after Richard and I closed the store on Saturday nights. At least I assume that was what he told his wife. I knew it was wrong, and I blamed myself, believing that I must be a truly bad person to get involved with him at all, and worse for not calling a halt to what was going on. It was my first experience with guilt that ran so deep, and it changed how I saw myself. I was two people, the honor roll student during the week and something else the rest of the time. All the time.

“Tawdry” was a word I came to understand that first year, and over the next two I found myself thinking of men quite differently than I had before Richard. I lost myself for a while, who I was and who I wanted to be. Still, I kept working there and I kept up those relationships—the one with Richard and the one with his wife and children—until right before I graduated and left for college.

Even after I was far away I felt guilty enough to wonder if I’d ever feel good again. The longer I was gone, the less I understood how I could have let myself be used like that, and I hated myself for being so stupid. After the self-loathing came fear that I’d ruined my chances of ever having an authentic relationship with a man. It was the 1960s, and though attitudes about how women should behave were supposedly changing in the cities, most of the same old expectations held for women where I lived and where I went to college. How could anyone love a woman who’d done what I did? I couldn’t expect that anyone else would respect me when I didn’t respect myself.

But someone did, and that changed everything again, this time for the better.

By the end of my freshman year when I went home for the summer, I wasn’t much older, but I was a more savvy girl than the one who’d left ten months earlier. I was more confident and outspoken, and in some ways harder. I was also angry. There had been no contact between us after I left, but I intended to see Richard, not for the reason I knew he’d expect, but to confront him. What he’d done was wrong and I wanted to tell him so. I wasn’t without blame; I wasn’t exactly a child when it started and I let it go on. But I’d also been clueless… and he was the adult.

I went in the propped-open front door of his store and stopped with my back to it, about ten feet from where he stood at the counter. No one else was in the store.

“Look at you!” Richard grinned. He didn’t approach me as I expected, and instead leaned back against the wall behind the register.

He looked older than I remembered, with dark circles under his eyes, and his hair looked oily. Even from a distance I could see the dirt under his too-long fingernails and realized there had always been that black line where the white of his nails stopped.

“With that long hair and your clothes, you’re a cute little hippy girl, aren’t you.” He said it like it was a fact and not a question.

All that I planned to say to him, every stinging and freeing thing I wanted to say to him, flew out of my head and I just stood there mute.

“We hoped we’d hear from you, but then I guess you had lots going on.” He cocked one knee forward and put his hands in his pockets.

We? Really? I thought. And what is “going on” supposed to mean? All in my head, but then I knew where to start. “You had no right,” I blurted. “Back then, you had no right.” If he’d looked ashamed or angry, I would have known how to continue, but the quizzical expression on his face and the crooked half-smile shut me up.

“No right about what?” he asked me. “I can see you’re pissed about something, kiddo, but I have no idea what you mean. What’s up?”

Anyone watching would have thought he was innocent. My throat closed up and made that choking sound it always does when I’m caught off guard and try to talk, so I stopped. I’m not sure how long I stood there before I heard someone’s footsteps behind me. When I turned, I saw her, a young girl in a purple pleated skirt and sweater. Her blonde hair was piled up on top of her head making her look like she was playing dress-up, and she carried a bag with a familiar logo. Tony’s Place was where we used to get meatball subs.

“Hi,” she said to me as she passed by on her way to the counter, and then to Richard she said, “Ready for some lunch, Ricky?”

pencilGail Webber taught science, middle school through college, for thirty-two years, and then worked with children and teenagers considered at-risk. Since retiring, she has returned to her old love, writing fiction. She lives and works on a tiny farm in western Maryland. Gail is new to the publishing arena, with one middle grade novel published three years ago, and short stories appearing in The Tower Journal and Persimmon Tree. A second novel is out for consideration, and she says that a third is keeping her up nights. Email: gail_webber[at]hotmail.com

Liberal Arts

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Heather Finnegan


Photo Credit: Alexander Boden/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Alexander Boden/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The security guard could tell immediately that the young girl was wearing layers of stolen lace underwear beneath her shirt and tight jeans. He did not even have to see the look on her eyeliner-smudged face when she saw him in the Sears elevator, floor five.

“Oh,” he said. “The elevator’s broken. Been stopping at every floor for no reason all day. But it’s fine to use.” The girl, who had greasy brown hair and smelled like sticky buns, stepped on nervously. It was the summer between his first and sophomore years of college—they didn’t use the word “freshmen” at his school because it excluded women from their daily vocabulary—and he had just finished a seminar on ethics where he learned about stepping into another’s shoes. Maybe, he thought, she couldn’t afford the underwear she needed. Maybe her dad just died of a ravaging brain cancer or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and her mom, who’d dropped out of college to birth her and her two triplet-sisters, was still trying to pay off the debt of his medical bills with only a seventy-five-cents-to-a-dollar minimum wage job. It was possible, he thought. He should be nice to her. She could probably use a little kindness and guidance in her life.

“So,” he said. “Having a good day?”

“Fine,” she said, crossing her arms.

“That’s good,” he said. “Mine was good too. Would be better if it weren’t for this elevator though.” The door opened onto floor four, home goods and as-seen-on-TV items. The security guard often came here during his breaks to use the scalp scratchers. The girl didn’t say anything. He held down the close door button. “So,” he said. “You in school?”

“It’s summer,” she said.

“Right,” he said. “But… in the fall?” She told him she would be starting high school but didn’t say where. He thought maybe she went to the “inner city” school and was embarrassed to say so. “Do you think you’ll go to college?” he asked.

She shrugged.

“I study at a liberal arts school,” he said.

“Cool,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Liberal arts schools are cool because they teach you how to think instead of what to think. It’s way different than high school and vocational schools. Good different.”

“Cool,” she said.

Then he thought, what if she couldn’t afford a fancy liberal arts school? He had been lucky, winning a scholarship for badminton, but what if she wasn’t supposed to go to college? Plenty of people weren’t supposed to go to college. Maybe she was supposed to be a sales representative or a hairdresser or a full-time surrogate or something. Then he thought those were typical women’s jobs and maybe she could be a plumber or a construction worker or a security guard like himself. Also, he should use the word “cosmetologist.” Not “hair dresser.” The elevator stopped on the third floor, which was full of lots of overpriced, nonsensical books. The security guard had only visited the floor once and got scared because he couldn’t tell where the floor ended. The rows of books situated in little hexagonal displays seemed to go on forever, like an endless beehive or something.

“But it’s not all great,” he said. “Liberal arts school. Once I read this graphic novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for an English class. It was okay but I didn’t like it because it was all in black-and-white, only I couldn’t tell my professor that,” he said. “I had to tell him I didn’t like it because it showed a really harsh bias toward the Palestinians by not mentioning any of their violent acts in ancient or in modern times. But I don’t really know much about the Palestinians’ violent acts because that book didn’t teach me any and no one’s taught it in any of my history classes. I was just kind of bullshitting,” he said. Shit, he thought. Did he just tell her college was about bullshitting?

“Cool,” she said.

The door opened on the second floor which sold no goods at all but housed a large concrete gate with an old, peering gatekeeper and a sign labeled “das Gesetz.” He started to panic. He was running out of time.

“But I could have learned more if I wanted to,” he said. “I could have studied abroad in Jerusalem this summer. That graphic novel, it said that you can find whatever you’re looking for in Jerusalem as long as you know what it is you’re looking for.”

“Wow,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “ I didn’t go because I couldn’t afford it. But I could have found grants and scholarships and stuff if I tried,” he said so as not to discourage her. “And I got this job for the summer which has been cool,” he said. “College is full of great opportunities like that. Like, if you work hard then you can learn about whatever it is you want to learn about. But it’s like that The Mamas & the Papas song. ‘You gotta know where you wanna go,’” he sang. “Just have a goal and go for it,” he said.

“I think it’s ‘Go where you wanna go,’” she said.

“Right. Same thing,” he said. “What I mean is college is a really cool opportunity. It can be really important,” he said. “Or not,” he said. The door opened onto the first floor which, like most department stores, sold makeup and perfumes and fancy watches. “Cosmetics,” he thought. Not “makeup.” “There are lots of parties,” he said.

She stepped out of the elevator and power-walked toward the exit.

He stepped out, too, and called to her, “Have a great day!”

“Thanks,” she said, which made him feel accomplished.

He remembered that he was supposed to have gotten off on the fifth floor to relieve another guard for break, but the elevator door had already closed. He pressed the button and played Candy Crush on his cell phone while he waited for the car to return.

pencilHeather Finnegan’s work has appeared or is soon to appear in The Interlochen Review, Cargoes, The Quaker, and Litmus. She is graduating from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. Email: finneganhr[at]gmail.com

The English Girl

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Anthony Conti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Anthony Conti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

After the day’s work, they gathered round the fissured table that sat beneath the shading branches of a fir tree. Today it was the turn of the English girl to cook. There had been teasing, inevitably, about English cooking, which felt unfair given Swiss cuisine stretched no further than melted cheese. Her style in any case was not typically English: tonight it was a casserole of Mediterranean vegetables and lentils.

The English girl. It had started as a joke. Already when she arrived, there was a French girl called Marie, and although the two could have been distinguished by the form of pronunciation, nationality provided a simpler distinction. The English girl smiled when she was called that. She didn’t seem to mind and the name stuck.

The day had faded into evening and the earlier warmth of the sun was released back from the hard-baked earth; it lingered as a glow on skin. The English girl’s nose was peeling in small, white flakes—raw pink beneath—and it would burn again if she weren’t more careful. The backs of her hands were stained nut-brown, the deepness of pigmentation continuing up her arms, until close to her shoulders the colour lightened by degrees, reflecting the varying sleeve lengths of the four cotton shirts which she rotated, rinsing one out each evening.

That night there was someone new at the table. She saw him first in profile, from a distance, knowing instantly from the rapid ease with which he chatted to Anneliese that he was one of the permanent staff.

The English girl had volunteered to work for Fourth World for three months, the whole of her university summer holiday. She had arrived with a rucksack, whose weight she had struggled beneath on the long walk from the station. She had been there a month now and people had come and gone. Permanent staff moved between locations. Most volunteers worked only for two weeks or so.

As she approached the table, the large earthenware dish weighing heavily under her hands, she was aware of how her arm muscles had strengthened over the weeks of light manual work. She concentrated step by step, fearful that a tree root might set her tripping. Her stomach growled with the aroma of herbs and garlic and she observed how, even sitting, the newcomer appeared short and squat. His skin was gypsy dark, the type of brown that comes from living outdoors; his hair was black dots against his scalp, continuing into the stubble on his chin. Thuggish looking was her first thought, registering simultaneously that a certain type of ugliness—Jack Nicholson ugliness—can be attractive in a man. She noticed those things even before the moment when—food delivered safely to the table—she turned her eyes more openly on him and felt his gaze on her, unsettling in its masculine conceit.

‘This is Johannes,’ Anneliese said, in her German-accented English. ‘And this is Marie. The English girl.’

 

The end of that week marked some local festival, providing the excuse for a party with folk music playing on a battered CD, and a roughly-built brick barbecue filling the air with smoke and the smell of burning fat. Sitting in the cool of a falling evening, eating burgers dripping grease between torn hunks of rustic bread, the English girl found herself perched on the end of a bench with Johannes at her side. All week she had been conscious of his presence, while he had shown no sign of noticing her.

Johannes pushed his plate away, declaring himself—‘How you say? Stuffed?’—slouching forward over one elbow, the skin of his forearm dark, the hairs darker still, one hand reaching for his chunky glass, the other under the table and settling on the English girl’s knee. The heavy feel of it frissoned through her. She abandoned a burnt nub of meat and sipped her lukewarm beer, its hue almost black, its taste heavily hopped and bitter. She focussed on her expression remaining smooth.

English was the common language for the group, the only language which all of them—the French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish—knew at least a little of. Johannes was talking, his bad English lapsing sometimes into rapid German, which Anneliese translated in summarised form. He shifted further forward over the table, the bulk of his body lending weight to strong opinion, his legs spreading so his denim covered thigh now pressed the length of the English girl’s. She was wearing wide shorts which reached halfway to her knee. His hand followed the ridge of her leg, then curled inwards so his thumb hooked over the top of her leg and his fingers rested on her inner thigh.

And all the time he talked.

The English girl sat unmoving and silent. She had no particular desire to talk to Johannes or to thrust herself into the conversation. She liked the fact that he was the natural focus and everyone was listening and that what he expressed chimed so fully with her own beliefs.

The Fourth World. She had tried to explain it to friends at college. Poverty exists in all societies, she said, feeling self-conscious and anxious that she would sound pious. Even in the most affluent countries there exists a substrata, outside the common flow, who remain trapped. The Fourth World, like a fourth dimension, coexisting with and yet invisible to those who prefer not to look. The centre where she was spending the summer would provide an alpine holiday for poor families; she and the volunteers were carrying out essential maintenance—building wooden fences, turning an old horse carriage into a children’s playhouse and preparing flower and vegetable gardens—before the centre could open. She remembered the scepticism on her friends’ faces. Poverty? In Switzerland? ‘You should see my bank balance,’ Thomas had said. ‘I think I must qualify.’ She had smiled politely and felt a flash of dislike.

Sitting here now, she could feel Johannes’ passion transmitting through his faulty English, through the heat of his body and his gesticulating hand; his passion mirrored her own notions of equality and fairness, views that her friends—firm believers in the magic of markets and capitalism—declared naïve. She liked that others here would see how the line of their bodies was pressed together without seeing what was happening beneath the table.

His fingers reached higher. She remained perfectly still, aware, vaguely—because everything that evening felt vague, perhaps due to the beer, perhaps more fundamentally—that to surrender so easily with no indication of her own will, went against all her feminist principles. She thought, but only fleetingly, of Thomas, who she had started dating towards the end of term, and whom she had so far fended off as far as full sex was concerned. What was she waiting for, he’d asked, exasperated.

Johannes said something—‘but there it is, no?’—bringing his diatribe to an end and removing his hand from her leg equally abruptly. Dismay crashed and crushed, and stupid thoughts chuntered through her brain, that he would not like her precisely because she seemed so readily acquiescent. He shifted away, turning his back on her, swinging a leg to straddle over the wooden bench, all the while laughing and talking unintelligibly fast to Anneliese. The English girl smiled with muscle-ache inanity.

She stared down at her brown hands and cupped them around her empty glass, certain suddenly that Anneliese, that everyone, would see how she had been discarded. Then she felt the touch of his hand on her shoulder. ‘Kommst du,’ he said, his head jerking towards the clearing and the others. ‘Come.’ She scrambled to standing, banging her hip hard on the wooden table, fearful that if she hesitated she would lose the moment and its momentum.

The cassette player had been replaced by an accordion, played by the Spanish guy whose name was Jesus, the awkwardness of which made her shy to talk to him.

People were dancing to a fast French jive and Johannes had taken her hand and was pulling her towards the centre of the group.

‘No,’ she said, pulling back and laughing, conscious of just how much she hated dancing, aware that allowing yes to groping then saying no to dancing was perverse.

Johannes stood his ground, gripping her hand firmly, and he stood there—squat and insistent—ignoring her no, and gesturing to the group of dancers with his stance. Her resistance slackened and she was drawn into a dance that she had no knowledge of.

The music rollicked and rolled. Johannes’s rhythm, his sequences of steps, became hers. He pulled her in close—chest to chest—then cast her outwards to arm’s length. They circled round, then rapidly changed direction. Partners were swapped, without her having any say in it, and suddenly she was in someone else’s arms and her fleeting gracefulness deserted her; she felt clumsy, acutely aware of why it was she’d never liked dancing. Johannes reclaimed her, or perhaps it was just the chancy outcome. She felt herself lifted off her feet; her thighs tightened round his hips as he swung her around and then she was tilting downwards so it seemed her head might bounce along the ground. But it didn’t, because he knew precisely the moment to swing her back upright.

She found herself passed along again, this time landing with the Polish guy who’d been trailing her all week and whose bumbling movements served to exaggerate her own ineptitude. Out of breath, she mumbled excuses and extracted herself from his clinging hold to draw back to the edges of the group, standing under the shadow of trees, watching. Waiting.

A figure appeared out of the darkness beside her and the two of them stood there. She listened to his breathing and the shuffle of pine leaves beneath his feet. Then he took her hand, pulling her back amongst the firs. Vegetation crunched and the world smelt of dried-out green and sunsoaked earth. It was dark, getting darker amidst the thickening branches, but at the same time her eyes were adjusting and shapes in denser shades of black emerged and there was a path of sorts, forming a silver ribbon through the trees.

Johannes stopped when they came to a narrow clearing, lit by a sliver of a moon. Something swooped in near—a bat perhaps—and she jerked away from it, turning into him, feeling his hands touching her shoulders and the damp heat of his breath against her neck.

He pressed her against a tree and whispered low, guttural words. Her hands reached behind to the textured bark, which was rough like the stubble on Johannes’s chin as his mouth met hers.

 

She woke next morning in the ancient bed with its sagging mattress, under a bedspread that was poked through with the sharp ends of feathers. Light filtered through the flaking, green-painted shutters in sharp lines. The air smelt of wood resin, of stale sweat and sex, and she thought of what had happened in the woods and of how Johannes had returned with her to this bed, then slipped away at first light. She stretched her body out long and thin and contemplated the effort of walking down the external wooden staircase to the outside toilet. Her hand touched the smooth rawness of her face and she remembered Johannes’s skin sandpapering hers. Sex as exfoliant. Glancing at the pale glow of her alarm clock, she realised how much she’d overslept.

A little later, she emerged from the weight of feathers and pulled clean clothes over her unwashed body. Descending the steps, she waved at the farmer who had donated the use of his room and called out, ‘Grusse!

Walking down the hill took ten minutes and her heartbeat rose as she opened the door into the large wooden chalet, finding everyone already finishing breakfast. Everyone except Johannes.

‘Hi!’ She offered a vague salute from the doorway as she made straight for the bathrooms, where she could get a shower and emerge fresh and clean.

Anneliese rose from the table and headed purposefully her way. She could feel the heat of her face and the stink of her body radiating outwards. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘For being late.’

Anneliese’s smile was wide and tight as she delivered an instruction that the showers needed cleaning, which could easily have waited. The English girl’s simple pleasure on waking transmuted now to embarrassment and she wondered if Anneliese and Johannes were lovers, or might once have been.

Johannes appeared at lunchtime, and there was nothing to indicate that she was any more to him than anyone else, less in fact, because the English girl didn’t speak any German and his English was bad. He sat beside her as they ate, not touching, but nonetheless sitting a little closer than he needed to. And by evening, he had gone.

 

Time moved forwards; people arrived and left; gradually the days shortened and the humid heat gave way to thunderstorms, breaking on the distant jagged peaks. Until it was her last day.

Anneliese proposed a farewell party.

‘There’s no need,’ the English girl said.

‘But we must do something,’ Anneliese insisted in her somewhat correct and distant tone. Of course, Anneliese always had such a lot to do with new volunteers turning up and needing to be instructed; she had little time for friendship.

Johannes hadn’t visited for ten days. The English girl had never understood the schedule by which he appeared and then went away. She began to think that she would leave and not have seen him to say goodbye.

The weather had turned cooler and they ate indoors. An iron fondue pot—containing four types of laboriously grated cheese—was placed in the centre of the table and served with roughly-cut cubes of bread alongside large carafes of local, yeasty wine.

Please would Johannes come. It felt an awkward type of prayer.

Then just as she was willing him to be there, just as it seemed hopeless that he would come, he materialised in that way he had, appearing with a magician’s flourish as if from a hat. He greeted Anneliese in German, explaining something at length, before offering a vaguer greeting round the table and then nudging in beside the English girl whose skin was flushing hot beneath her tan as she passed him the basket filled with bread.

‘So,’ he said to her, scraping the bread across the layer of cheese that by now was congealing at the bottom of the pot, ‘English girl.’ She was sure he must know her name, though she couldn’t remember him ever using it. ‘You go home tomorrow.’

‘Yes,’ she said, her voice far too bright. ‘I’m afraid so.’ And she thought it was a strange phrase, and that she was in fact deeply afraid. ‘My summer’s up.’

‘A pity,’ he said. ‘Wir werden dich vermissen.’ He’d miss her, or, more accurately, they would miss her.

‘Me too,’ she said, ‘Mich auch,’ thinking how much she would miss the shifting community she been absorbed into, the broken communication which operated at a deeper dimension than the competitive chit-chat of her college friends with their constant striving to entertain.

The evening continued with more wine, talk and laughter. Finally, she separated herself to walk up the hill. She walked slowly into the darkness and waited for Johannes with his unhurried footsteps to slip in beside her, the way he had done, on and off, all summer. They walked, hand in hand, beneath the wide scattering of stars.

 

The next morning, he rose early from the ancient bed in the wooden house, and he parted with a simple, ‘Bis bald!’—he’d see her soon—despite the fact he wouldn’t.

He was gone by the time she descended to the centre for breakfast. She set off shortly afterwards, carrying her large rucksack back along the road to the small station where she would take a local train, and then more trains and then a ferry, which would deliver her back to England. England, where her tan would fade and her muscles slacken, and the summer turn to anecdote. England, where, she would cease to be the English girl. Where she would rebecome Marie.

pencilSarah Evans has had over a hundred stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Winston Fletcher, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. And publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Bloomsbury and Best New Writing. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York.

Terror on the Beach

Fiction
Gina Sakalarios-Rogers


Photo Credit: Keoni Cabral/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Keoni Cabral/Flickr (CC-by)

When my bar’s invaded by snowbird oldsters and the local diet-soda-and-whiskey sets the atmosphere cloys. No matter how peppy the music on the juke or how festive the décor and lighting, these crowds alone are enough to make anyone swear there are no companionable evenings to be had in a bar. Mix them together and no one emerges at the end of the evening without feeling tainted by the experience.

The problem lies in the contrast. Snowbirds far from home on a warm beach in a cozy bar can feel they are momentarily outside of time, outside of the cares of the world. The essence of vacation, right? Throw in the girls in too-tight dresses with bikini strings showing around their necks and leg muscles taut from balancing on their spiky heels or tanned to their flip-flop-gripping toes and a bit of the past intrudes. The visitors from colder places sip at their diet soda and liquor of choice through little red straws with glossy wet lips and the gin-and-tonic with a lime wedge doesn’t taste so much of vacation anymore.

Confronted with these young things and the suitors that inevitably trail in their wake, the snowbirds get a bit less fun loving and little more judgmentally bitchy.

I’d refused yet again one woman’s request for “something fruity with an umbrella in it, like a Mai Tai” when I’d had enough and handed it all over to my bartender. He’s a smartass, but he keeps himself around by putting up with the shit I won’t.

“Hey,” he said to the woman, “this ain’t Hawaii. It’s Florida. Closest you’re gonna get to fruity from me is a lime in your tonic or a token strawberry in the daiquiri premix.”

Sometimes he does it better than me.

I strolled out of the bar happy to be leaving. Got in my little old brown Datsun truck and enjoyed a warm mid-June breeze blowing through the windows. It’s a good truck. Late 1960s model just a couple of years older than me. It’s been reliable since my uncle passed it on to me in the eighties. It survived the big island-wiping hurricane a few years ago because it was off-island with me.

Now it faithfully rolled me down Pickens Road to the main beach parking lot. My feet took me the rest of the way. Past the new lifeguard building and the large lights keeping the cement strip between tarmac lot and sandy white beach bright for the nighttime crowd at the restaurants and bars. On down to the spot on the beach just next to the fishing pier where the guys and I always meet.

Only one of them was there. Nick. Young one with an old demeanor. He stood with his hands in his pockets, watching the surf build.

“You all alone out here tonight?”

Yeah,” he said. “I think Lyle might be out in a little while. I called him. Think it should get interesting out here soon.”

A storm front coming in from the west had the Gulf roiling. The breakers were getting large, rough, and sloppy.

Nick pointed down the beach just outside the pool of light cast by the large chain restaurant trying to look quaintly seaside. Three young guys had stripped off their shoes and shirts and were tempting each other into the surf. Guys like these get drawn in by whatever magnetic force attracts fools with no adventure in their lives to dropping barometric pressure.

“They’ll go in you think?” Nick said.

“Oh sure, hope they’re sober,” I said.

“Doubt it,” he said. “Hope Lyle gets here first. He swims better than me.”

That’s Nick, thinking ahead.

“Man,” I said, “Let’s just stop them.”

“Good luck with that, D.”

“You’re not going to help me?”

“I’ll follow you down there, but I’m not getting involved.”

“Sure, let the woman do the work.”

What a puss. At least he followed me. It’s always easier to be a hardass with a friendly body standing behind you.

We moved slowly, taking our time since it looked like these three fellas were having a hard time convincing each other to go on in. I was thinking maybe I wouldn’t have to get loud with them when the first one went for it.

He was the shortest of the bunch, curly blond hair, bright red board shorts. Maybe he’s a surfer, I thought. He’d know how to handle the waves then. It was a brief thought, one of those that forms without your bidding. Just pops up in your mind even though you’ll dismiss it immediately as foolish wishful thinking. If he’d been a surfer there wouldn’t have been enough novelty in the roughening waves to entice him. It was all messy chop.

Nick grunted.

I said, “Morons.”

The two friends moved closer to the water’s edge, cheering their buddy on. The guy managed to stay on his feet, splash around a bit and run back out to his friends before Nick and I made it to them.

They were slapping him on the back, he was pointing out at the gulf, urging his friends to go back in with him.

It looked like they were going to follow until they saw us. The short one waved, said something about needing to cool off, and then they were moving back up to the restaurant. Maybe Nick’s park ranger button up looked official enough to be trouble for them. It certainly wasn’t my five feet and three inches or Nick’s skinny physique that worried them.

“Well, that was too easy,” I said.

“You wanted it to be difficult?”

“Just wanted to have a little fun with them.”

“You always been such a mean little bitch?”

“Nah,” I said. “I was very nice before my house got wiped off the beach and my best friend was eaten by crabs.”

Nick sighed. He has no compassion for people who hold grudges against intangible forces of nature. “You’ll let it go one day and be much more content.”

He followed me back to the pier and we waited for Lyle. Who showed up with hoagies and Corona. We had a good night.

*

You can’t sleep on the beaches anymore. Back in the early eighties we did it all the time. Perfectly natural thing to do. Nowadays it’s loitering, I guess. No way for us to have slept down by the pier anyway with all those damned lights.

Couldn’t sleep in the truck either. Cops roust the parking lot looking for drunks sleeping it off in their cars. Everyone should be in their own homes, tucked up nice in their beds. That’s the responsible citizen thing to do.

Instead I stretched out behind my house. Not much beach, just scrubby beach grass on the small strip between my back porch and the bay. I used to sleep on a hammock out on the dock Mr. Scott and I shared. That’s gone now. So’s he. I don’t eat blue crab anymore.

*

Since I woke up feeling mellow the next morning, I decided to cruise across the bay and on through the intracoastal waterway to Perdido Key. The bay was rough with the storm still edging ever closer, but the sky stayed sunny and the wind kept me from sweating too much.

A nice day until I spotted Gary banging on his outboard on the Perdido side of Pensacola Pass. It looked like he needed help, so being the kind (to friends) woman I am I idled my small Bayliner up next to him and got out to help.

His wife’s another sort.

Two steps off the beach, ankle deep in Pensacola Pass, Gary’s wife was screaming “Shark! Shark! Getoutofthewatershark!

There were only two other people on the beach. They were laid out on their blankets unmoving, either uninterested because they weren’t in the water or unconcerned because no one else was really in the water.

Gary looked back over his shoulder, away from the sputtering motor.

“There. There,” his wife yelled again. “Get out of the waterwheresthedog! Joe! Joe!”

Joe lounged on the front of the boat, unconcerned about the shark menace, since he’d already enjoyed his obligatory Labrador water romp. After which he required uninterrupted relaxation in the sun. Sharks be damned. He didn’t even bark.

“Where’s Joe?” Gary’s wife yelled once again. “Get out of the water!”

A fin arched out of the water barely 50 feet off the stern of the boat.

Dolphin. One, two, three.

Gary turned back to his motor.

“They’re dolphins,” Gary said.

“How do you know? There it is again.”

“Dolphin, smaller dorsal, arcing, more than one. Sharks don’t swim in pods, Cheryl.”

His wife, still frantic, but daring to step into the water, said, “I’m not getting in this boat if the motor isn’t working right. Call the tow.”

Gary waved me over. Wanted to know if I had any idea why his motor wasn’t getting any gas.

We puttered over it a while longer. Cheryl kept her eye on the dolphins, still convinced they could be sharks. Joe kept sleeping.

“Gary.” I wanted to know. “Why don’t you have any tools in this boat?”

He gave me a sideways look. “You don’t either.”

“I have a rope. Give you a tow?”

He hated the idea, but didn’t turn it down.

We got to maneuvering the boats into position, not noticing the other two beach-goers had wandered over to Cheryl until they all three started hollering at me.

I’m waist deep in the water, trying to keep the small chop in the pass from shoving my stern too close to Gary’s bow.

They were pointing at me, waving, the old fellow jumping up and down. His companion, a young blonde woman in a red striped bikini charged into the water. She headed towards me, determinedly.

Gary’s yelling at Cheryl.

Cheryl’s waving back.

Joe’s paddling towards the young bikini woman, barking. He was ready to protect me, I suppose.

It all distracted me so much I didn’t feel the rope wrap around the foot of my motor, so when the chop nudged the boat away from me, I naturally tugged the rope to keep it close and, not having as much slack as I expected, I pulled the boat right into myself. I went down. Under the boat.

The sandy bottom was all stirred up from the activity, so I couldn’t see a thing. I stayed calm, pulled myself along the rope, untangled it from the motor, and swam clear of the boats.

I’m ready to yell at someone, give them full on scathing fury. I couldn’t.

The scene already too ridiculous.

Gary dove into the water to find me. Joe swam splashy circles around the bikini woman, not letting her retreat to the beach or dive into the waist deep water to help Gary search. Cheryl was still yelling incoherently from the beach and the old guy moved slowly towards his companion and Joe.

I’m fully on the beach, squeezing the salt water from my shirt when they finally notice me. I don’t know who saw me first, but it was Cheryl that came running my way.

I held my hand up in a halt gesture, stopping her before she cleared Gary’s boat.

“You just stay over there, Cheryl,” I said. “You and those damned dolphins caused all this. Dolphins, woman.”

“I can’t help it. I can’t see they are—“

“Dolphins!” I yelled.

Gary started some yelling of his own. The boats had drifted too close.

The husband-being-crushed threat trumped the husband-being-attacked-by-dolphin-possibly-shark threat. She charged into the water. “Help! Help!” Yelling yet again. “He’s going to be crushed!”

Joe continued circling the bikini woman. Her companion tried to coax Joe away when I waded past them to my boat. I could have called Joe off, but he looked happy.

Once Gary and I had the boats safely hooked up and I’d fired up my motor and pulled the line between us taut, Gary hauled Joe into the boat.

Cheryl sat in her seat, not looking at anyone, lips pressed firmly together, arms across her chest. She wouldn’t even pet poor innocent Joe when he nudged her with his nose.

The old guy and his companion moved back onto the beach without a word.

We made it back to Little Sabine before the sun set and without any more terrifying dolphin encounters. Gary pressed some bills into my hand for the extra gas I used towing him, and I told him to come by my bar for a few free ones later. Once he got his wife calmed down.

“Bring the dog along,” I said.

“Sure thing.” He snapped his fingers, the universal gesture for having a surprising thought. “Hey, dolphins heading into the Gulf means the storm’s not coming in here.”

“They were headed the other way, Gary.”

The bar opened slowly for a Saturday night and it stayed that way. A few snowbirds in and out, but none stayed for long. They were, no doubt, back in their comfy condo rooms watching the Weather Channel closely.

The televisions in the bar weren’t on. Gary came in with faithful old Joe around seven o’clock and sat at the end of the bar with me.

“Storm weakened. Coming this way. Just gonna be a tropical though. No big deal.”

My bartender gave him a Jack and Coke and a small bowl of water for Joe.

“Lyle’s bringing some oysters over from Peg Leg’s,” Gary said. “Fried for you.”

The raw oyster is a disgusting thing. I’ve tried it at different points in my life. No one has ever found a way to persuade me that there is any pleasurable value in slimy, salty, goo sliding across my tongue and down my throat. No intensity of hot sauce makes the oyster go down any easier. My gag reflex cannot be so easily fooled.

We hang out, talking of this and that. Nick shows up. Then Lyle comes with the food. Things stay quiet like I said until right before closing.

Lyle wanted to mine us for our opinions, once again, on the new condo towers going up on the edge of the National Seashore.

“Bumped as close as they can get it to the protected part of the island,” Gary shook his head. His most extreme bodily reflection of disgust. “Let ‘em that close they’ll find a way to push in more.”

“That’s what I said,” Lyle added.

Nick, the young one, didn’t agree. “The condos are an economic thing as much as the protected beaches. Without something protected and left undeveloped no one’s going to want to live here or visit. They’d kill the economy.”

“Developers don’t give a shit,” I said. “They get their money and run.”

“You know that’s not true,” Gary said.

I did, but I wasn’t going to admit it. The vitriol had been my solace for too long to give it up now.

“All these tourists and beach residents keep you in business,” my bartender said.

“That’s right!” Nick raised his glass and bonked it against the bartender’s raised fist.

“I get the tourist hate, D. Know where that comes from,” Gary said, “but what’s your problem with the locals?”

“Half of them aren’t locals,” I said. More forcefully than I intended, sure. “They moved out here just to say they live on the beach.”

“Oversimplification and generalization,” Nick countered, feeling smart.

“I know that.” Forceful on purpose now. “Who’s the former professor here?” I pointed at myself. “So here’s my analysis. They like the beach, have the money to live out here, so they do. It’s a status thing now. You can’t live out here now on a middle class salary anymore, can’t even rent that way. Used to before Ivan came through, but that was a stellar opportunity for certain factions to wipe out the old bungalows and build fancy, expensive. Upscale.” I hoped the ooze I saw dripping off that last word could be heard.

“It’s just the money thing you hate?” Nick said.

“No. It’s part of it. They move out here, like I said, because they like the beach, want to say they live here because that reflects their status. They like the view, but they aren’t beach people. They are neighborhood people.”

“Now what the hell does that mean?” This from my bartender who must have decided he doesn’t need a job anymore.

“They aren’t sleeping on the beach, so no one else can. They don’t want loiterers, but what the hell else are you supposed to do on a beach? They want it generic. The only changeable, unpredictable thing they want out here is the environment.”

“And you like that, right? The unpredictability?  The adventure?”

“Sure.” I said it too tentatively. I knew it wasn’t true.

“Hurricanes washing everything out. People sucked out and brought back to feed the sea life?”

Smartassery is one thing, cruelty is too far. Gary said something that sounded vaguely mediative, trying to defuse. It must have gotten through because I didn’t fire the bartender.

“Shouldn’t you working. Wiping something down. Closing the place up?”

I always shut the place down at midnight. No later. I have no interest in serving that later night crowd. They’re up to no good or headed that way, no need for me to contribute.

The guys retreated to the pool tables to give me some space. The final rituals of the night were performed in silence and I used it to calm down, think about why I have to be so angry. The guys clacking pool balls around in an attempt to get one in a pocket over Joe’s head so he’d bark was the only sound, so the noise of a couple loud vehicles sliding into the small lot out front carried right on into the bar.

“Hey,” I said to my bartender. Quiet. “Go lock that door before any stragglers get in here.”

“Sure thing. We wouldn’t want stragglers,” he had to keep up the sarcasm. I held my tongue somehow. He vaulted over the bar. He knows I hate this.

His sprint the few feet from bar to door woke up Joe, who jumped up and started barking.

The guys let out a cheer.

My bartender put a hand on the door and reached out for the lock. Not soon enough.

The door hit him in the face. He hit the floor. Three young guys came in ahead of their fourth, the troublemaker king, Nevin.

“No, no,” I yelled at him. “You get the hell out of here. I’m not serving you one single drink.”

“Shit.” My bartender pulled himself from the floor with help from Lyle, his nose bleeding.

“You broke his nose, man,” one of Nevin’s companions said. He’s new. Looks much younger than Nevin’s usual crew.

Nevin came my way, looking determined. That look he always gets when he’s working himself up to some ridiculous new frenzied act of vandalism. Nevin considered himself an eco-terrorist. Most of his victims and the police considered him a nuisance.

“This is gonna be the big one,” he said to me. Leaning on my bar. Like I’m a confidante.

“I don’t care,” I said. “Get the hell out and get on with it.”

“You got a room in the back. Let us use it tonight. No one will look for me here. Everybody knows you can’t stand me.”

“Hate wouldn’t be too strong.”

His new young friend was holding my bartender in a chair so Nick could pop his nose back into place. I recognized him. He was still wearing the bright red board shorts.

“Good to have an old corpsman in your crew, huh?”  Nevin was trying to be chummy.

“Get the hell out of my bar,” I said to him, knowing with the intuition briefly granted to us all when a bad situation happens that my bold words weren’t going to have any effect.

Nevin’s other two buddies, the ones I knew, flanked my friends. Arms crossed in stereotypical bad guy posture.

Red Boardshorts let go of my bartender. “Let’s just go,” he said to Nevin. “We can hole up in my hotel room over in Navarre. No one’s gonna come that far to find you.”

“No,” Nevin said, “I want to stay close, so I can hear it go off. Feel the island shake.”

Explosives now? No more petty vandalism for him.

“What are you blowing up?” I asked.

“Those ugly towers going up near the National Seashore,” one of Nevin’s buddies said.

Red Boardshorts chimed in all peppy proud, “A blight on the beach!”

Nevin’s always been a charmer, and he has a good eye for the naïve. Red Boardshorts, whose name was Peter, had obviously showed some sort of minor concern for the environment or made some comment about how beautiful the beaches are here, and Nevin had jumped on the opportunity to fire up the poor fellow to a frenzy of environmental righteousness. He’d tried that with me the first time he came dragging in here.

A phone rang. Gary pulled it out of his pocket and told his wife he’d call her back. “Got a situation here,” he said. Then he shoved the phone back into his pocket.

“There’s no situation,” I said, rounding the bar and striding right up to Nevin. Too short to get in his face, tall bastard, but my palms made firm enough contact with his chest to knock him into a table. “Get out now, Nevin. Take your idiot crew with you.”

“We are staying here for the boom,” he said, shoving me hard enough to topple me into a bar stool. I sprawled on the floor, so my view of the gun as he pulled it from his waistband was much more dramatic than anyone else’s. I had that perspective you always get in the movies, slow motion from the gun wielder’s hip. Close up shot of the slow reveal, grip to sight.

He saw me see it, so didn’t take time to address its presence with me. Instead he tried the common ground approach. “I know you don’t want them going up either, so just do your part to save the beach.” He turned so my buddies and bartender could see it. “Put your phones on the pool table and sit on the floor.”

Joe barked.

No one else protested. We did what he said.

Nevin’s buddies got worried after an hour passed with no explosion. They had a quiet conference in a booth on the other side of the bar. I sat against the front of the pool table with my bartender. He had a few suggestions about how to take them out. Like he was in some damned action movie. Big dumb hero. I’m sure he had planned some sort of catchy one-liner to deliver as well.

I twice talked him out of tripping one of Nevin’s buddies, and laughed when he attempted to talk Peter of the Red Boardshorts down. Maybe I should have been more helpful since the guy had a gun. Hindsight often makes me feel like a blind asshole.

This bartender of mine always did a good job behind the bar. He kept the place clean, made decent drinks, and held me in check when I wanted to berate a tourist or a dumb chick too drunk to make good decisions. I’d never been quite nice to him. Always gave him the impression that I tolerated him. I think he knew I respected him because I didn’t fire him when he pushed me too far.

He pushed Peter too far, and the dumb kid started yelling at him. Kicking at his legs. We all laughed at his tantrum.

He shot my bartender.

He may have said something like, “Now who’s laughing.”  Or one of Nevin’s other stooges said this and Peter was the one who said, “No. No. Oh, no.”

The voices were vague. I knelt over my bartender. Gary scooted up to his other side.

Peter reached for Gary.

Joe jumped over Gary’s head in full growl. He clamped his jaws onto Peter’s gun arm and shook. Peter’s hand reflexed open and the gun fell into my bartender’s lap.

I grabbed and sighted on Peter. I could pull the trigger and maybe get lucky like Peter had and hit a vital organ, deflating it like he deflated my bartender’s heart. Nick said something to me though, and I did not squeeze the trigger.

Peter went down, Joe holding on now, no longer shaking, but silently maintaining enough pressure to keep Peter crying out in pain.

“Shit, man,” one of Nevin’s other two stooges said. “We gotta go now. Just leave him here.”

Nevin nodded, his gun already put away. “Sorry, D. I didn’t mean for it to go down like this. Alec was a—”

“Shut the fuck up,” I yelled, sighting the gun on him now. My hands shook, and I knew I couldn’t have hit him if I worked up the guts to pull the trigger. All my bravado was trapped in my head. I couldn’t get it out through my fingers or through my mouth. All I could funnel from my brain were obscenities strung together in nonsensical patterns.

Lyle took the gun from my hand and laid it on the ground behind him. He pointed his finger at Nevin. “You gave him the gun and the ideas.”

“Come on man,” the second of the remaining stooges said. “Let’s go.”

Peter whimpered, quietly not to arouse Joe to greater bite force. “Don’t leave me.”

We all heard tires sliding into the parking lot. Sirens approaching. Pounding on the door and female voices demanding the doors open.

“It’s your wife, Gary,” I said. “You know she doesn’t like you out this late.”

*

While the medics packed my bartender into a body bag and treated Peter’s dog bites, I had the selfish thought that now I would have to deal with the snowbirds and drunk chicks all alone.

I sat on the floor against the bar, stroking brave Joe’s warm fur, thinking about Alec. Good bartender. Good guy who put up with me, made my life in here easy enough that I could just get up and leave whenever the crowd got on my nerves. I’d never thought about how much I trusted him. I relied on him, took advantage even. He laughed at me and I took it. Hell, we were friends; I’d never taken notice.

What a bitch.

No one had spoken to me. The cop knew me well enough to save me for last.

When he finally got to me, I told him what happened, every detail sharp.

“You think you guys have Nevin this time?”

“He didn’t pull the trigger, D.”

“No, he worked the guy up though. Brought them all here, held us at gunpoint. He’s got explosives rigged up on that new condo. What the hell else do you need to get rid of him!”

I’d let go. And he let me. I ranted. I jumped up off the floor and smacked my palms flat on the bar a few times. Kicked over a couple of bar stools. Pointed at the body bag. Pointed at Nevin and his buddies piled up against the far wall, cuffed and complacent.

But Nevin had the nerve to smile.

“Can’t you just find a reason to shoot him? Aren’t you cops good at that kind of thing?”

I went too far. He escorted me, not too gently, out of the bar, put me in my truck, took the bar keys, and sent me home. “Gary can lock it up for you.”

“Let Joe loose on him. He’s got the chops for it.”

“Go home, D.”

*

The guys took over the bar for a few days so I could wallow in the grassy shallows behind my house and grumble at the emptiness of the lot next door. Mr. Scott and I could have sat out at the end of the dock and talked this out without actually talking about it. I’d mourned his gruesome death, weathered it alone, but it’s easier to mourn someone you cared for, you don’t have to feel that you aren’t allowed, that your grief is melodramatic self-indulgence.

My bartender, Alec, and I never socialized outside of the bar, never really inside either. He was one of those people that are part of your life outside of established or courted friendship, who you don’t think too much about until they are gone. Not gone like moved away, but dead gone. Didn’t know shit about him.

Just took advantage. Like I do when someone amuses me. Or deals with the shit I won’t. Or takes responsibility when I can’t. Or is generally a better person than me.

I sat on the small strip of beach behind my house and thought about what I didn’t want to think about. Thought about myself. Shifted over to the broader stretch of beach on Mr. Scott’s abandoned property and tried to do some communing with him spiritually.

Such bullshit.

All of it.

So I picked myself up off the sand, out of the hollow I’d dug with my ass, took Mr. Scott’s bike out of my garage and rode it off island.

pencilGina Sakalarios-Rogers lives in Pensacola, Florida. She has published fiction in The Bare Root Review, Toasted Cheese, Flash Fiction Online and Foxing Quarterly. She was nominated for a 2006 Pushcart Prize and was voted a notable story of 2006 in StorySouth Million Writers Award. Email: ginaasr[at]gmail.com

Food for Thought

Fiction
Michael Retzer


Photo Credit: Joel Kramer/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Joel Kramer/Flickr (CC-by)

More time awake is spent at work than outside it. A person gets to know their coworkers real well during the week, throughout the years. I’d worked at Don’s Pizza for six. Years. Yeah, it’s not a glamorous job—I’ve received enough patronizing looks from acquaintances when they learn a thirty-one-year-old is tossing dough—but time is money, and my rent is a nightmare, but whose isn’t?

So about three-and-a-half years ago, my boss, Don Fonzarelli, he hired a new girl onto the crew. Shannon Austen was a junior at Millington High School, my alma mater, which I’ll always remember had great views of the Pike River from its north side.

Don gave Shannon the interview at Table One: Don on one side of the table, Shannon on the other.

I was busy shaping a piece of dough to send through the mechanical roller and saw the whole thing.

Sexual desires work in the way of a computer that is programmed to recognize square shapes. Codes tell the computer that this surface meeting this surface at that angle in a particular array of intersections makes a square: the computer recognizes the square in a millisecond at most. Humans are a bit slower—requiring maybe an entire second—but the genetic codes of sexuality are programmed to do one thing: perceive their programming. It was midsummer—July—and Shannon Austen had shorts on during her interview. I think that’s all I need to say. But don’t worry. The acknowledgment never went any further than it did. For, unlike computers, humans have something called a Good Conscience.

By the time I had the pizza made, Shannon had the job.

It was up to me to show her the ropes of the business. Don sure as hell trusted me, and why shouldn’t he? I’d put in enough of my time, made enough money, and Don knew I was probably going to be around for a while longer yet—

Sorry—perhaps I’m bitter—forgive me, please—this isn’t about me.

Don, during that entire first week, he scheduled Shannon both when he knew I’d be on the clock and when business would likely be slow. This way Shannon could learn the ins and outs of the restaurant without wanting to close her head in the brick oven.

*

The bell above the door chimed as Don left the restaurant; I was alone with Shannon Austen for the first time.

“Don said you’re a junior?”

“Technically I’ll be a senior this year,” she said. “But the new school year hasn’t started yet—so yeah, I suppose I’m still a junior.”

I nodded. “I guess you are.”

“So you gonna show me the ropes, Elijah—or what?”

“Quite the talker,” I replied.

We’d been standing in the middle of the kitchen. I turned and moved towards the back then.

“My dad has always taught me to stand my ground,” Shannon said, following.

I turned and faced her at the sinks.

“As much as I respect that, you have no reason for that here. We’re sort of a family here at Don’s. You’ll meet Manuel and Berta, the other two long-timers, later in the week—just Don and I run the shop on Mondays—and you’ll meet the others, a lot of them closer to your age, when you’re scheduled for your first weekend shift. Weekends are busy, is all—why Don waits to schedule you on them, once he knows you’re up to par on how things work. Tips sure as hell are nice though.”

She nodded. Having put in six years at the place, I knew enough to know when one of the newbies from the high school was paying attention versus simply looking for a desired sum of money to later cop a quarter-ounce of weed with.

Shannon wanted to keep her job. She’d be around for a while.

“So here’s the sink,” I said. “We wash in this bin, sanitize in the middle one, and rinse in this one.” I moved right to left. “Dishes obviously go in the drying rack on the end.”

“Is someone assigned to do dishes?”

“Not officially,” I said. “Usually we just lend a helping hand when possible. On weekends when it gets busy we might unofficially assign someone as dishwasher for the night, usually the newbies… hey, don’t hate the player, hate the game,” I said.

She stopped rolling her eyes and grinned then.

“And over here is the prep table, where we prep non-pizza items on the menu: things like your cheesy bread and bread sticks and subs.

“Over here is the fridge and freezer, freezer on the right, fridge on the left. I’m not even going to try showing you where everything is in there because chances are you’ll still forget like I do, and I’ve been here for—well, I’ve put in my time.”

“And I take it this is where we make the pizzas,” Shannon said. She walked to the mechanical dough roller and ran a finger across the board, collecting flour, and wiped the flour on her leg. It was August on her first day—but all in Good Conscience, remember.

“That’s where we start making pizzas,” I said. “This,” I said, patting the long rectangular cutting board nearby, “is what we call The Line around here, and pizzas are made on The Line. See all your ingredients inside the plastic containers in the topping refrigerator up there above The Line?”

“Yeah. Reminds me of Subway when they make your sub. Green olives, green peppers, pepperonis, sausage—”

“You got the idea,” I said. “And so you move down The Line with your dough, that’s what that first machine you touched is for, and after the dough is perforated and cut to the proper size with those pre-sized stencils, you start with your sauce and then move down The Line and put on whatever the customer asked for. We keep a copy of the menu on the wall there—” I pointed to the wall space above the topping refrigerator. “—for when a customer orders a patented pizza, say like the Honcho: sausage, pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, and bacon.”

She leaned forward, scrutinizing the menu.

“Problem?”

She shook her head. “I’m just still sort of confused—is there a certain order we put the toppings on?”

“Ah, yes,” I replied. “And good question. That sheet of paper on the wall there next to the menu, with the pizza diagrams, they tell you the procedure. The alternating green and black dot patterns signify where to put your solid meats. I’m talking sausages and hamburgers, the meats that can be formed into solid balls. Sheet meats, such as your pepperoni and Canadian bacon, are placed on top of the solid meats, and if there aren’t any solid meats then just give the pizza a single layer of sheet meats. Things like your pineapple tidbits and green olives—loose toppings—you just want to sprinkle those evenly across the pizza. And the toppings go on in that order: solid meats, sheet meats, loose toppings. Cheese last, and then a sprinkle of Don’s special seasonings.”

“Can we make one?”

I cocked an eyebrow. “Most people are a little intimidated by all the information right off the bat—you sure?”

She cocked an eyebrow back. “I’m working here now, aren’t I?”

“That you are.”

“Let’s do it then,” she said.

“We have to wait for an order to come—”

The phone rang. We made a pizza.

*

Shannon Austen’s first day went pretty well. Her first week went great, and after a month she was making pizzas a hell of a lot better than Manuel. Between you and me, there was a pragmatic reason we always had Manuel running the oven: he couldn’t make a pizza worth a damn but he sure could time them: not too crispy, but crispy enough. Although, I had Shannon run the oven one day, and she did it just as good as Manuel, and in only a month’s time—

You get where I’m going with this.

Shannon was a wonderful employee. Don sure as hell knew it, scheduling her more than the high schoolers that were technically higher on the restaurant totem pole. However, as much as Shannon Austen was a stupendous employee, she was perhaps an even better coworker.

Can you believe me?

Thirty-one and a seventeen-year-old was becoming my best acquaintance. After about seven months—Shannon well into her senior year of high school at that point—we started talking at work, see. Because by then Shannon knew the ropes well beyond enough as to be asking questions all the time, so when we worked the slow shifts together we talked, we got real.

I remember asking her once if she liked her classes. It was maybe ten after six on a Tuesday, and business was crawling. We were sharing an unpaid pizza at Table One, but Don was out of town at a convention for restaurant supplies so there was no chance we’d get caught.

*

I asked her which class she liked best.

“Probably psychology,” she said.

“Psychology, huh? What about it?”

“The possibility.”

“I don’t think I follow.” I took a bite of pizza, watching the cheese stretch as I pulled the slice away.

Shannon broke the strand with a finger.

“Thanks,” I said, my mouth full.

“Welcome. But it’s such a new science, psych is. And beyond popular belief—I’m talking pop psychology, the stuff everyone thinks they know when they ask ‘Why would you study psychology, what is it you don’t already know?’—but so beyond popular belief, psychologists have just cracked the surface. And once neuroscience gets more on board and directs some of its funding towards the psych field—” Shannon stopped, setting down her slice of pizza as to then pantomime for emphasis. “Once neuroscience gets on board, it’ll be like exploring. The Marianas Trench. For the first time.”

“Metaphor for the mind,” I said.

She picked up her Honcho slice. “Glad to know you followed.”

“Hey now, just because I work, well—” I looked around the restaurant. “—doesn’t mean I’m not at least halfway there in my head.”

I waited for Shannon to finish chewing.

“I was fucking with you,” she said.

“Well, before you do,” I replied. “Have you yourself ever considered college? Otherwise who is to say you won’t be here next year right along with Manuel and I?”

The strangest thing happened then.

Shannon seemed to crawl into herself. She’d been in the process of pulling another slice of pizza from the pie and stopped, flicking a precariously placed sausage off the damned thing instead. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Hey, Shannon, I was just horsing around. Don’t worry about it.”

She looked up from the pizza. “I’ve thought of Gustavus.”

“Private school, huh?”

She nodded.

“That’s great!”

She shook her head. “My dad could never afford it. And there’s no way what I’ll have made here by next fall will cover near anything enough. Plus, my dad sort of needs me… I could never leave him—you know?”

I leaned forward, resting my forearms on the table. “Hmm. Well I don’t know about your dad but my sister went to school,” I said. “Augsburg. My family didn’t have money either, we were actually pretty dirt-poor, but turned out that worked in our favor cause the government gave Danielle—that’s my sister—more money because of it.”

“Really?”

I nodded, taking another slice of Honcho pizza.

“Maybe I’ll look into it.”

“I think you should. You’re a smart girl.”

She smiled. It was a normal smile. But her eyes frightened me. Her eyes widened, see, as if that’d been the first time she’d ever heard anything like it—it being my compliment, I mean.

But what did I know? I only made pizzas.

*

It was January when we’d had that conversation over a Honcho pizza; Shannon still had plenty of time to apply to school. I never mentioned it again, figuring it wasn’t in my place to do so, and in the meantime all of us down at Don’s spent more time making money. Shannon became quite close with a few other employees during that time, Berta and Manuel especially: Manuel, because Shannon never gave him a hard time when busy circumstances required Manuel to make a shit-poor pizza, and Berta, because Berta, who’d never had kids herself, sort of saw herself as a mother figure to Shannon, I think, once we learned Shannon didn’t have a mother. Had not a clue where her mother was; she’d apparently run off with a guy from Hard Times Saloon last year. Shannon lived alone with her dad. Probably why she’d said her dad needed her.

She could never leave him—her dad—you know.

Her words, not mine.

And her dad had always taught her to stand her ground. Shannon never let us forget that one. It seemed to be the only time she ever mentioned her father—and time is funny, see, because there is a thing called hindsight and in hindsight, after the money has been made, a sense of clarity is purchased. You see things that weren’t clear the first time.

I guess time sort of changes in this regard.

But this is all speculative. I’m telling you all this looking back. I’ve paid my dues.

*

I think it was March.

“I applied to some schools,” Shannon said. It was just the two of us in the restaurant again. It was Thursday, and Manuel wouldn’t be punching onto the clock for another hour, when the pace of business would presumably start picking up.

“Yeah? That’s great, Shannon.”

We were in the back by the sinks. I was busy running a few daily prep-work dishes I’d dirtied earlier in the day through the wash-sanitize-rinse cycle. I’d washed a whisk and the large dual-handled cheese knife before I realized she’d gone silent. Grabbing a reasonably dry dishtowel, I turned away from the sink, patting my hands.

“All right, what’s got you down?”

“You know how you ordered a pizza on your day off last weekend?”

“That was a good taco pizza—you make it?”

“I used your address. I just want you to know.”

“My address for what?”

“My return address,” Shannon replied. “For the college applications.”

The nearby freezer hummed. One of the three faucets behind me dripped.

“Okay,” I said. “That’s fine, I guess.” I tossed the dishtowel back onto the sink. “Can I ask why?”

Shannon in a way resembled a provoked and frightened turtle after I asked the question, her body slinking into the protective shell the fabric of her sweatshirt provided.

The faucet dripped behind me.

“Just never mind all right—” I began.

“It’s my dad is all.”

“What about him?”

“I told you I could never leave him and I just wouldn’t want him to get worried before I even know.”

I thought of Shannon’s mother not being in the picture, imagined a lonely man weeping over his wife that’d run out on him, clinging to the spitting image of her that was his daughter, that was Shannon, holding on to what was already gone the best he could. “Right,” I said. “That’s fine then. Have your acceptance letters sent my way.”

“How do you know I’ll get accepted?”

I winked, and went to answer the phone that had started to ring.

*

I’d never been to college, remember: a few odd jobs after high school, and Don’s Pizza had been my place of my employment since I was twenty-five. Don’t know why I never went. Just didn’t feel it, I suppose. Also don’t know why I stayed at Don’s. Guess the money that’d got me by thus far brought with it a purchased sense of comforting stability. Nevertheless, I wasn’t aware of the length of time it took universities to respond to applications. Shannon told me she’d applied in March, and it was mid-April when the first acceptance letter showed up in my mailbox. It was maroon, and in bold-printed gold font said ‘Congratulations!’. It was from the University of Minnesota, not yet her first mention of Gustavus, but I was ecstatic nonetheless.

Of course I was. I’d worked with the girl for almost a year at that point. We knew each other as much as any coworker knows another coworker. Perhaps more. Probably a lot more. I can’t explain it. Because it wasn’t like we’d shared any heart-to-hearts: we just talked, chewed the fat, shot the shit. Perhaps I’m referencing the subterranean nuances of emotion that conversation conveys.

Yeah.

I think so.

So anyway I set the maroon-and-gold envelope on the felt passenger seat of my out-of-date Nissan Maxima and drove over there. In all this time we’d failed to exchange cell phone numbers, and I’d never had any reason to look it up from the sheet Don kept attached to the back of each month’s schedule. I didn’t want to wait to tell her the news, and neither should Shannon have to wait to hear it. Luckily, I knew she lived in the puke-green rambler on Ninth Street in the west side of town, from one of the many times we’d talked. The street had trees on either side. They were just barely—and only on some—beginning to bloom, it being mid-April, yet the slow cruise on the spring-moistened asphalt was serene indeed. Most of the houses were beige or an off-shade of white—some even various shades of maroon—but only one was puke-green. And why had I never seen it before? I’d driven through the area thousands of times during the thousands of dollars worth of time I’d spent working for Don’s Pizza, making deliveries.

Conscious perception sees what it wants to see, I guess—

—and wait until you see what I was about to see.

*

The car lurched into park. I was excited.

I rang the doorbell, twice.

The front door had rectangular windows flanking either side that were the same length as the door itself. Translucent curtains covered the interior side of the windows. After some time a silhouette peeked through, and stared. I waved. The door unlocked, opening slow. The silhouette had been Shannon. I had my hands clasped behind my back, concealing the envelope.

“Oh—hi,” she said. She looked behind her. The house was dark, the way a house gets dark during the middle of the day when all the curtains are drawn and the lights are off. She looked back to me. “Why are you here?”

I stood there smiling.

She looked behind her. Looked back at me. “Just cut to the point, Elijah?”

“Fair enough,” I said. And I couldn’t blame her. At thirty-one I still didn’t enjoy unexpected visitors on my days off—who does?

She looked behind her. I brought the envelope into view, holding it chest level. She looked back at me. Her eyes widened. At seventeen years old she carried herself as much older, had since the day I first saw her with Don during her interview, but in that moment she looked just her age, a girl on the brink of womanhood. Taking the envelope, she ripped it open as a child does on his or her birthday—as if she didn’t already know what was inside the thing marked ‘Congratulations!’

I bent down and picked up the scraps of paper while she skimmed the letter.

“I got in,” she said in a single short breath.

“Congratulations, Shannon. You deserve it more than anyone.”

She gave me a hug then, although I didn’t hug her back. Something in my conscience, and so I waited for her to let go. But this was when things got weird. Bizarre. Shannon wore a tank top and a pair of shorts. This made sense, it being mid-April. But I had a solid hunch that they weren’t her day clothes she’d chosen that morning. Because as she released me from her hug and began rereading the acceptance letter, I noticed the disheveled wrinkles in the clothing, the way clothes get after they’ve sat in the dirty clothes basket for a few days.

Remember:

At the time, everything I’m telling you was marinating in my subconscious.

Hindsight. But of course you know all about that by now.

The house was dark.

“I should get going, Shannon,” I said. “Have to work in—” I checked my watch. “Twenty-five minutes. Figure I might as well make a sandwich before I clock in. Just wanted to stop by and give you this.”

She looked up from the letter. “Thank you, Elijah. For everything.”

“I only brought you a letter.”

She bit her lower lip, stared up at me, her eyes misting over. The house was dark, and an atavistic psychic twitch… Get out of there, man!

But it was too late. If only I’d had more time.

I heard the footsteps before I saw Shannon’s old man step into the entryway from a room off to the right. He had slicked back gray hair, was shirtless, and wore brown corduroy trousers. He had a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hand.

“And to whom do I owe the pleasure!”

Shannon tucked the envelope under the back of her shirt and took a few steps back, away from the door. “Dad, this is Elijah. I work with Elijah at Don’s.” Her voice had gone up a few octaves.

The old man watched his daughter while she talked. “Is that right?” he said, his head bobbing to the cadence of his words. He looked to me then. “Any friend of Shannon’s is a friend of mine—Bill,” he said.

At thirty-one I’d shaken my fair share of hands, and I fucking hated the way Bill’s claw felt. “Nice to meet you,” I said.

“Firm handshake!” Bill replied, staring at the connection between us.

He released his grip then and hoisted up the corduroy trousers. They had that same wrinkled look as Shannon’s clothes, that fresh-out-of-the-dirty-clothes-basket look. Bill and Shannon hadn’t been expecting company, remember, it being Shannon’s day off, a Sunday—

Unplanned clothes—clothes thrown on in haste—taken from the dirty clothes basket at a moment’s notice—

When Bill let go of his beltless pants the fabric dropped a bit too far. He didn’t have any underwear on. I saw the upper fringe of salt-and-pepper pubic hairs. Then, using the same hand he’d adjusted his pants with, the same hand I had just touched, he patted between Shannon’s shoulder blades. And patted. Patted. “I like that,” he said, his head bobbing to the cadence of his words. “Good to know someone with a firm handshake is around my daughter. I don’t want anything happening to her, not Shannon—she’s my girl!”

Bill shot me a grin, his teeth yellow. He bent over then, directing the smile at Shannon, and kissed her on her forehead. When he stood up, two things: one, Shannon had her eyes pinched shut, lips pursed tight, her entire face pulled into a grimace; and, two, Bill had lost the smile, his eyes glazed over as he ran his tongue from one side of his lower lip to the other. He guzzled the rest of the Pabst, crushed the can over his thigh, letting it clank to the floor, and ran both hands through his greasy gray hair.

Good Conscience? Not there, not in Bill.

Bill Austen was plastered; the alcohol had fried his computer.

He’d always taught Shannon to stand her ground—her words, not mine.

“I have to go,” I said. “See you at work tomorrow, Shannon.” I turned. “Bill,” I said, nodding.

And I left.

*

The next day.

“Don’s Pizza.” Don answered the phone. I was busy scraping bits of burnt pizza off of the brick inside the oven. “Uh huh, I see—okay then,” Don said. “Get better,” he said, and hung up. He went back to counting the money in the register, thumbing the bills with the efficiency of experience—

Swish-Swish-Swish

And then he stopped.

“Shannon’s sick,” he said. “You don’t mind working for two today, Elijah, do you?” He looked over his shoulder. “I can call Manuel if you want.”

I looked at the most recent of the burnt-pizza scraps I’d been working on. I stared at it, a charred glob of cheese with a crusted pepperoni sticking out. “I’m fine,” I told Don, and pushed the metal scraper across the brick, knocking the stuck debris free. “I’m fine,” I said.

*

Are you fine?

My Good Conscience wondered this. It especially wondered when Shannon succumbed to the elusive phantom illness again on her next shift, and was then ‘sick’ so much she stopped showing up entirely. Don, the ardent, meticulous businessman that he is, he got fed up, and was, to his dismay—he’d said—forced to fire her. There’d be none of that on his watch, not on his time. I could’ve looked up her cell number from the sheet attached to the back of the monthly schedule… but what would I have said? I have no clue… and besides, Berta called her, to give her a heads up, let her know Don was furious and that she’d better watch out, but Shannon hadn’t answered, Berta then resorting to a sorrowful and withdrawn voicemail. Shannon didn’t answer when Don fired her over voicemail either… was she ashamed to answer? Had Bill… did he know that I might know… but what was there to officially know?

For a week I asked myself this, and a week later I received an acceptance later from Gustavus in my mailbox. One from Augsburg three days later. The following week a University of Wisconsin acceptance letter. But I remembered the way Shannon had hid the letter I’d given to her behind her shirt. She’d used my address for a reason, because her father couldn’t live without her, and so the damned letters remained in my possession. They sat on my kitchen counter, in the corner, collecting dust. They said ‘Congratulations!’ whenever I grabbed a beer from the fridge.

Bill Austen drank beer…

Should I have done something? No, really, I’m asking you, because I lost enough sleep over the whole ordeal during the months that followed. But what would I have done? What was there for me to prove? I was going on hunches, after all, and at the time I was baking in the oven of an angry Good Conscience, where sensible thinking burns away. And anyway, had I said something, Shannon would’ve probably held her ground and denied whatever it was I had only ostensible proof of.

*

I don’t work at Don’s Pizza anymore. Don was sad to see me go, of course, and I felt bad—terrible—leaving. I volunteered to train the two new guys Don hired to replace me. As a parting gift, call it. Thing was I had to leave. There was no question about it. That day on the Austen’s front stoop changed me, as a man. Millington haunted me after that. And the nightmares were brutal: I’d awake in a cold sweat, stuck to the sheets, and in my mind’s eye Bill Austen would be staring at me, standing in the corner of my dark bedroom, drinking a Pabst with his free hand down the front of his pants. I don’t even want to guess how many post-nightmare drives I took, cruising by the Austen home, five miles per hour at three-thirty in the morning. Some nights I’d even get out of the car and trot to the front stoop, where I’d stand staring at the door for minutes at a time, the acceptance letters clenched in my sweaty hands, before my senses—whatever was left of them—returned.

Okay, so maybe I did run. But I got a nice place in the cities now, been working sales at an appliance store for a solid year. And although I waited around five months before I burned the letters on the banks of the Pike River the night before I got the hell out of Dodge—I believe I knew I was gone the second the phone rang. When it was just Don and I down at the shop. The day after Shannon received the University of Minnesota acceptance letter in my mailbox. After I met Shannon’s old man, and scraped much more than burnt cheese and pepperoni from the brick oven…

Oh yes.

But time changes in hindsight, and memory might as well be as malleable as dough while it moves through the mechanical roller of time—am I sane in my recollections?

As I finish writing this, on a day off from the ApplianceSmart over on Doswell Avenue in St. Paul, I sit in the grass of the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Mall. I am out of place, thirty-four years old, amongst thousands of passing students—waiting—wondering if I’m not wasting my time.

And I’m hungry, could really go for some pizza.

pencilMichael Retzer is a recent University of Minnesota graduate, working as a mortgage processor when he’s not reading or writing.  He enjoys drinking craft beer, and lives with his girlfriend and cat.  Currently, he is at work on a mystery/suspense novel. Email: retze012[at]umn.edu