Narcissus

Fiction
Rich Seeber


Like the pansies and petunias in their ordered beds, like the daffodils along the drive and the purple fuchsia below the partial-shading eaves, the dahlias were dead.

Joplin leaned against the deck rail and watched me clip stems. The new deck was made of redwood, solidly constructed and reinforced. It didn’t creak like the old deck, which the flood had swept away. Joplin had designed the new one himself. His heavy shadow fell across the patch of dirt where I kneeled. “Perhaps…” he began. But he stopped, waiting for me to look up, and his jaw clicked back and forth with contempt, as if grinding his cruelty between molars, parsing out the taste of triumph.

“Spit it out, Jop,” I said. “Or don’t. I don’t want to hear it.”

“Perhaps they died of shame.” Backlit by the sun, his curly hair blazed around the edge of his face.

After the flood I took up gardening. Not immediately after the flood. First, there was the unfathomable, paralyzing feeling of loss, of everything having been destroyed by water and silt. Next came the dispute with the insurance company, which consumed our attention and jolted us back to life. Once that was resolved we began demolition, clearing, rebuilding.

“We’ll start over,” Joplin said. The insurance paid for furniture and new appliances, some clothes, an entertainment center.

“I don’t know where to begin,” I said. It wasn’t what I meant.

When I began to plant things Joplin said, “That soil’s no good.” I was opening packets of seeds that had arrived in the mail. “New topsoil’s what you need.” The insurance hadn’t covered topsoil. It hadn’t covered a lot of things.

Before the flood we bought things. Buying things made us happy. We budgeted for the things we needed, and with what was left we enjoyed life. We bought a boat with an inboard motor. We bought an extra car, a two-seater, convertible, with leather interior. We traveled to other continents and returned with trinkets and art to remind us of where we’d been.

One storm is all it took. One rising river, one weakened levee. Twenty-two years of things, washed away in one cleansing flood.

“I want to buy you something,” Joplin said one night after receiving his first post-flood commission. “Something special.”

“Can we not do this again?” I said. “Can’t we put it to something practical?”

“What’s with you?” Joplin asked.

“Nothing’s with me,” I said. “I’m afraid to grow fond of things. That’s all.”

“What are you, turning Buddhist?” he said. “Non-attachment and all that?”

“Don’t make fun of the Buddhists,” I said.

“I’m not making fun of Buddhists,” he said. “I’m making fun of you. You’re being ridiculous.”

I didn’t want to argue. “I saw fuchsias at the nursery.”

Joplin bought me a fuchsia. After three weeks its tender branches were bone white and brittle.

Now the dahlias were dead, too. “This flood,” I said, looking to the clump of earth in my hands, “it’s still killing things.”

But Joplin had crossed to the other side of the deck, where he looked out on the once-green yard. “My pool,” he said. “We’ll dig it here.”
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Rich Seeber lives in northern California with his partner and various pets. E-mail: rseeber[at]mac.com

Magic Lanterns

Fiction
Mike Malloy


You want some coffee? Some kind of crazy mocha thing? I like going to this place because you’re more or less expected to get the gayest possible coffee drink. And I don’t mean gayest in some kind of derogatory way. Like, look at this Raspberry Mocha I bought—this drink has sex with other drinks of the same gender. And I’m fine with that. But there’s no point in pretending that this is a heterosexual caffeinated beverage.

So you want to hear the story about me and Claire? She’s pretty, right? Short cherry blond hair, eyes the color of green ink just before it dries. She dresses in that cool “I used to be a punk back in middle school” kind of way. She can look casual, or like a gypsy, or like a pirate. But a casual pirate.

She’s short. Petite. Even a little fat, actually, but in the kind of way that makes you want to put your arms around her so much that if she’s not there you feel the absence of her body across your chest and hands, as if your skin is still accustomed to a garment you just removed.

I was in love with her. Am in love with her. I probably always will be in love with her, although it’s difficult to know these things for sure. Sometimes I feel like the private eye in a film noir movie—somebody cool, like Robert Mitchum. My girl’s been gone for such a long time, but someday soon she’ll come back into my life and slowly events will bring us together again. But I’m not to that part of the story yet. She and I don’t talk much, at this point. The dramatic events that will bring us together again haven’t occurred.

In the movie of my life I’m currently living in the backstory, the bits the audience will never see.

I think Claire lives in Minneapolis now. I can’t imagine her in snow. She used to always wear these denim short-shorts with patches, the kind that show a lot of leg but somehow don’t seem dirty. They seem innocent, the way Claire always did.

I have this vivid memory of her sitting next to me on the couch and stretching her legs across mine so she could lie down. I think I must have acted like I was annoyed, but thank God she didn’t take me seriously and move her legs. I used to balance my hand inches away from touching her.

Did I ever tell you about the time we got together to watch It’s a Wonderful Life for the last time? The last real time, I mean. The last time that would count. It’s a Wonderful Life was number four in Claire’s top five movies of all time (she was a big Republic Studios buff actually, but of course she also had an abiding affection for Frank Capra). She told me that It’s a Wonderful Life would no longer count as the same film after Donna Reed died and disappeared from all her scenes in the movie.

That was in ’86, when Donna Reed was dying of pancreatic cancer. At that point the movie was already pretty well shorn. There was no Mr. Potter, no Violet Bick, no Ma Bailey, no Mr. Gower. No Peter Bailey, no Sam Wainwright. No Bert, no Ernie. Every one of those actors had died.

When Clarence, the angel second class, tried to recite a litany of all the people George Bailey had helped, the sum appeared far more paltry than it must have seemed back in 1946, when the movie premiered.

Oh, and incidentally, by ’86 Clarence was already dead too.

With all those characters missing, you might think that Claire would have long before decided that It’s a Wonderful Life was no longer a coherent movie. But it still had Jimmy Stewart, and it still had the love story. She said every story is basically a love story, and the rest is just the side stuff. Family ties, friendship problems, personal crises: nothing but coleslaw dumped near the cheeseburger and fries that is true love.

That was her metaphor, not mine.

She’d say things like that and your heart would feel like Humphrey Bogart’s must have in Casablanca, when Ingrid Bergman first appeared in Rick’s Café Americain. Words would form in the back of your throat, would scratch and tickle the skin there the way the smoke from Bogie’s cigarettes would. But you’d never say those words to Claire.

At least, I didn’t.

In the movie room of my suburban tract house Claire sat on the big blue couch. It was the kind of couch you’d never buy, but once it was in your possession you would also never throw this couch away. The walls were covered with movie posters—Angels with Dirty Faces, The Philadelphia Story, Out of the Past. It must have been about seven o’ clock.

When I slid the Beta tape into the player Claire was sprawling on the couch with her feet on the glass-topped table. She was trying to sit in the most disorganized, space-absorbing fashion possible, in the hopes that this would upset me. She had a Pepsi bottle in her hand that looked sweaty with moisture. She was smiling, the corners of her pink-painted mouth curved upward like a reel of film spinning up around the bottom of a spool. Claire was always in motion.

I pressed the square play button on the side of the TV and the clunky RCA box groaned into life. It was the kind of VCR that snatched the tapes from your hands like it was a friend who was mad at you but wasn’t going to say anything. Somewhere in that plain box little mechanical arms unwound a long spool of inky black film. The pixels on the screen assigned themselves grayscale tones. The film’s corporate logos flashed by and then came the credits, a litany of names, the people mostly deceased. Claire applauded when James Stewart’s name flashed up.

“Still among the living,” she said. “Humanity one, God nothing.”

“I’m not sure that’s how that works,” I told her.

“How else would God keep score?” she asked.

“Well, if Catholic school taught me anything (which it didn’t), it’s that the score is God: negative one, humanity: a bajillion, because Jesus died for our sins.”

“James Stewart was born without sin,” said Claire. She puffed her cheeks out and bulged out her eyes, then let the air escape from her mouth, deflating her cheeks. She grinned a goofy grin.

“You’re weird,” I told her. I used to get this incredible urge to tap her nose with my finger. This usually happened when she was being especially cute, which to me meant that she was being especially Claire-like.

I tapped her nose.

In the movie, Clarence, who was not present, was learning of George’s life from God, who was not present. For a while the movie simply showed a view of the stars. Then it flashed to George and Harry as kids, sledding down an icy hill. Young George and Young Harry were still in the movie. Those actors were still alive in ’86, though I don’t know if they are anymore. Come to think of it I don’t think I’ve seen the movie at all since that night with Claire.

“George still gets to save his brother from the ice hole,” I told her.

“But for how long?”

“I suppose he could save Harry from death, but not disintegration. It’s a real shame considering what a war hero his brother was,” I said. “He saved every man on that transport.”

“Every man on that transport died!” cried Claire, theatrically. She slid still further back into the couch, so that she was almost horizontal. She stretched out her arms and yawned theatrically. Her arm was behind my head on the couch—not wrapped around me, but in a position where it could.

We kept watching the movie like that for about ten minutes or so, until Claire asked me to pause it, saying she needed to get some popcorn. I hit the pause button on the boxy remote control and she got up, moving her arm and its attendant opportunity away from me. She walked into the kitchen and I pretended not to check out her ass, then felt like a dirty old man—although at that point I was, what, seventeen? Maybe eighteen, but barely.

I got up and followed her into the kitchen. She had already put the bag in the microwave and was watching it slowly inflate. I stood behind her, her back turned to me. I had an incredible urge to put my arms around her and grab her breasts, and pull her close to me, and kiss her neck. Her hair would smell like nectarines and she would smile as my lips touched the skin of her neck. She would coo slightly as I spun her around to kiss her on the mouth.

With a beep the microwave shut off and she removed the bag of popcorn. She took out a blue plastic bowl and filled it with the popcorn, and we returned to the movie room.

The movie played on, and George Bailey wished he had a million dollars.

“Hot dog!” he cried. Mary and Violet Bick came into Mr. Gower’s drug store and ordered ice cream sundaes. George peevishly prepared them and Mary asked him which was his bad ear. He told her and she whispered into it:

“George Bailey, I’ll love you ’til the day I die.”

As he did so my arm, more or less on its own, reached around Claire and pulled her close. She made a high surprised noise and dropped the bowl of popcorn on the ground.

“Oh, dammit,” she said, and pulled away from me, off the couch and onto the floor, to pick up the popcorn. I got off the couch with her and picked up some of the spilled kernels.

“Claire,” I said.

“Yeah?” she responded, not looking up. I wanted her to lift up her head and look into my eyes. If she did I was pretty sure I could say or do anything. As it was though she just kept picking up the kernels. So I decided I’d do something I saw in a movie once.

As she reached to pick up one of the kernels I reached for the same one and took her by the hand, draping my fingers over hers. Her skin was cool and soft. She looked at me.

Imagine the first motion picture: a horse running, still images strung together to create the illusion of motion. Our minds fill in the gaps. I think that’s how it is with life: a series of isolated, self-contained, infinite moments, strung together with the illusion of time by our needy brains.

Maybe Claire is really just another girl. Maybe she is not the reincarnation of Clara Bow, Veronica Lake, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn all in one. But in the projection room of my mind she is still huge, the 50-foot woman (emotionally speaking), like a tiny frame magnified by the light of a projector into something that flickers forever on a blank impressionable screen.

I dated Claire for seven months after that. Once during those months of happiness (for me at least), she told me that she was sad she’d have to break up with me.

“Why will you have to do that?” I asked. She explained that people either break up or get married, and she didn’t want to get married.

“There are just too many people to date out there,” she said.

“It’s not like I just proposed to you, you know,” I said.

“Consider this a preemptive strike,” she said.

Funnily enough, that night we watched It’s a Wonderful Life for the last time, Donna Reed must have died halfway through our viewing, because Mary disappeared from the film. But George did what he always did, stuttered and hemmed and hooted in his Jimmy Stewart way, as if she were still there. To love absurdly and completely, inexorably, without fear of loss like that. To behave the same way if the woman is there or gone. He must have been the happiest man in the world.
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“I was born and grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, influenced equally by the city and the woods. I spent my time exploring, getting to know eccentric characters, and watching many movies. Currently I attend Vassar College, where I’m a junior studying English and History.” E-mail: mimalloy[at]vassar.edu

The Cigarette Rebellion

Fiction
Heather MacPherson


Part 1: “I can’t date a smoker.”

…in which boy meets girl

“I can’t date a smoker,” Mark says, turning his knit cap around and around in his hand. He doesn’t sound apologetic, simply matter-of-fact. We’re sitting on the front porch of my apartment, which is the first floor of a multi-family. I just pulled my pack of Marlboro Lights from my purse, lit one and took a drag. At that point, Mark made his feelings known.

I can imagine all the kids from the Truth commercials pausing in their earnest sketching of chalk outlines and jumping up and down in wild triumph. I hate those kids.

I look at the cigarette quickly with a smoker’s shame. As always, this shame quickly turns to anger. Can I put the cigarette out on the back of his neck and still make out with him afterward? I glance at the white skin of his neck protruding thickly from his white striped polo shirt, a polo shirt that stretches pleasingly across his broad back, which is now slightly stooped. His elbows and solid forearms rest on jean-clad thighs as he plays with the cap between his knees.

He’s just too good-looking to scar for life.

Instead: “Oh,” is my snappy retort. I can’t bring myself to apologize for smoking. I’ve been smoking far longer than I’ve known him. This is only our second (and apparently last) date—but I put the cigarette out in the crack between two peeling slats of the porch.

“I like you, Anna. But, I hate cigarettes. I hate the smell and taste. It’s also really bad for you. It’s a deal-breaker for me.”

I don’t know what to say so I say as much. I cross and uncross my legs. I run my hand through my hair repeatedly as the silence stretches well beyond awkwardness. Mark has the air of someone patiently waiting for something he expects to happen. I am more floundering in the silence like a flopping fish. That cigarette would be lovely right now.

“I can quit,” I hear myself say and am completely shocked by it. I can quit? What the hell makes me think I can quit after five previously unsuccessful attempts? I’ve been trying to quit since I was eighteen. That’s ten years of failure. But now I appear to be completely motivated by his green eyes, long lashes, full lips and taut, lean body. That’s right. I am in the fullness of lust. He is literally the best-looking man I have ever been on a date with. Frankly, I’m confused as to why he’s interested in me at all. But, hey, who am I to question the whims of the beautiful? We are all merely trying not to drown in their inconsistent waters. It’s their world.

“Good!” Mark slips his cap over his dark brown hair, claps his hands crisply (making me twitch in the process) and jumps athletically to his feet. I stagger to my feet as well, rather less athletically, and smile pathetically. Mark leans in quickly and kisses me soundly on the mouth. I stumble backward slightly. He smiles. “I can taste that cigarette. I’ll call you.” He disappears from the porch, into his reasonably-expensive-model car and down the road without a glance back.

I feel like I should be standing in a cloud of dust left in his wake.

Part 2: “Do you really need that cookie?”

…in which boy meets girl’s mother

Mark and I are holding hands. We hold hands a lot. I have no idea if I am uncontrollably grasping at his hand or if it is a more natural occurrence. Probably the former. We’ve been together six months. I am totally in love with him. What’s not to love? He’s a 30-year-old marine biologist. He’s strikingly muscular, dizzyingly masculine, intelligent, and well-read. He works out more than regularly and eats far better than I do. I have not fully expressed my ardor. A man this attractive has no doubt been showered with exclamations of love.

I did quit smoking when I met him (mostly). For all intents and purposes, I am now a non-smoker. I used the patch. It works surprisingly well, although I find myself so emotionally unstable that I am constantly hiding tears brought on by any and every possible thing. It’s quite intolerable, really, considering that I have never before been a particularly weepy woman. I sneak a cigarette now and then when I see my friend Amy.

For example: three months into our relationship, Mark made an innocent comment. I was wearing a tattered pair of jeans and hooded sweatshirt. Granted, when Mark and I met I was always dressed to the nines, but I just don’t have the kind of interest in personal grooming that other women have. However, Mark met me in my brief and inspiring period of effort.

That day we were going to the zoo. I’m not terribly interested in animals but Mark loves them and so we were going. Mark picked me up. I could tell he was less impressed with my appearance than usual. I figured it was safe to be sloppy at the zoo. Apparently not. Mark was dressed, as always, in his usual uniform of khakis and a polo shirt. His hair was neatly combed. He even had a jacket on, the kind with the patches on the elbow, ironically making him look like he should have a brown pipe clenched between his teeth.

We kissed momentarily, his lips softer than mine, strong aftershave wafting from his freshly shaved cheek. He smiled warmly at me. “You know, I love when you wear skirts,” he commented sweetly.

The observation sent the hot sensation of tears shooting to my eyes. Damn nicotine withdrawal, I thought. “Excuse me. I have to go to the bathroom.” I turned away almost unable to control the wobbling of my chin and lips, precursors of the coming storm. I reached the bathroom with tears streaming. The mirror reflected my reddened eyes and nose, even more pronounced against my pale Irish skin and red hair. “Get it together,” I murmured to myself. So, he likes me better in skirts. All guys like girls in skirts and makeup. What’s the problem? I thought.

I wiped my eyes, flushed the toilet, blew my nose and calmed down. I slipped into my adjoining bedroom quickly and changed into a white skirt and emerald blouse, donning flip-flops. “Ta-da!” I exclaimed, grasping the doorjamb and posing. Mark stood at the front door where I’d left him. He smiled beatifically.

“Good!” he cried and clapped his hands together resoundingly. This gesture, although it sounds mildly retarded in nature, was more a charming expression of pleasure. Luckily, it has never appeared in the bedroom, where Mark is adept, brooding and silent. My girlfriends call this intensity. In any case, I knew that I was clearly going insane from the loss of my cigarette crutches. So off we went to have a wonderful day in the sun, surrounded by the stink of animals.

Now I hold Mark’s hand on my mother’s front stoop, three months later. This will be their first meeting. I’m not concerned. My mom has always been impressed with credentials and Mark’s are impressive: never married, solvent, young, and well-spoken. He’s a shoe-in for my mother’s approval. She’s been counseling me to marry a rich man practically since I arrived squalling into the harsh hospital light.

I imagine she ripped me from the doctor’s hand, slapped my butt herself and whispered in my ear, “Marry up, Anna, marry up.” It was probably the same scene enacted by her own mother and great-grandmother before her on some dusty potato farm in Ireland. Tradition, that’s what the O’Learys are all about.

My mother, Christina, answers the door of her modest ranch-style dwelling with the most beneficent of smiles. She practically curtsies before us, holding a heaping plate of chocolate chip cookies. “Come in! Make yourself at home!” she exclaims, reminding me somewhat of Maureen O’Hara. Is that a faint Irish brogue I hear? My mother was born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island and has never stepped one foot in Ireland. You know, I love her even more for her weirdness. I’m sure I’m supposed to be embarrassed.

“Hi, Mom,” I say following her voluminously skirted backside into the white-tiled kitchen. Mom hugs Mark enthusiastically and sits at the kitchen table, placing the cookies in the center.

My mother is a black-haired, green-eyed, rotund hurricane of lovability. How I came out so embittered and red-headed is a mystery to me. I never knew my father so no comparisons can be made there. In fact, there aren’t even any pictures surviving my mother’s fury when he departed a week after my birth. This I learned from my Aunt Helen because my mother has never spoken of it. She has also never re-married. She was “close” with a number of women though, which of course, she would never admit to.

“Sit, please,” she says sweetly. “I’ve heard only wonderful things about you, Mark.”

Mark and I sit at the table. “Well, Anna has only told me wonderful things about you as well, Ms. O’Leary.”

“Please, call me Christina,” Mom suggests pleasantly.

“Christina,” Mark echoes. He tells my mother about the trip we’re planning in February to Key West. As he’s talking, I reach for a particularly large and gooey-looking chocolate chip cookie at the center of the flowered plate.

“Do you really need that cookie?” Mark interrupts himself to ask. “I mean, go ahead if you want. But, you’ll just have to work twice as hard at the gym.”

I freeze, hand dangling in the air over the plate, glancing at my mother. What was once the sweetest smile shifts into something almost imperceptibly feral. Her eyes glow glassily. Luckily, Mark is looking at me. I can read my mother’s mind; images of dealing with me and my brush with bulimia in high school clicking through her head. Click — suspicious gagging noises — click — therapist — click — crying.

“No, no. You’re totally right.” I withdraw my hand and quickly change the subject. I can see my mother’s favor is possibly lost irrevocably. I end this visit prematurely and plan to convince her of his concern for my health at a later date.

Part 3: “I’m not dating her.”

…Viva la revolucion!

It has been an awful day at work. I have been repeatedly harangued by my manager, Justin, for a mistake I made earlier in the week. I mean, Justin? Seriously, who is even named Justin besides Mickey Mouse Club members and pederasts?

Justin has been flapping his abnormally large and protruding gums at me for a half an hour, sprinkling his diatribe with phrases like “career goals” and “team player.” I am paralyzed by my inability to support myself without this job. Otherwise, Justin would have long ago had my size nine broken off in his ass.

Please, baby Jesus, help me not to interrupt his stuttering with a well-placed uppercut. Give me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, courage to change the things I can… wait a minute. That’s the A.A. prayer! I’m obviously losing my mind. Where is a cigarette when I need it? I blot his voice and hateful visage out with the over-powering thought of withdrawing a slim, white Marlboro Light from its comfortable dry home, sliding its papery softness between two fingers, bringing the lighter up (how mesmerizing is that flame?) and inhaling deeply of mildly painful, rage-allaying smoke.

I can’t smoke though, can I? I’m not allowed, I think bitterly. In other, more rational moments I am actually glad to have quit smoking. I no longer constantly smell like smoke. I’ve felt healthier and presently much less likely to immediately drop dead from the cow farts and bleach I’ve been told repeatedly by commercials are in cigarettes.

Justin finishes his sermon for now and dismisses me to my cubicle. I see my co-worker and work-friend Amy’s bleach-blond head creeping from her cubicle and toward the back door. She has to sneak quietly from view to have her cigarette. If Justin sees her he will quickly try to give her something “highly important” to do to prevent it. Although smoking is not expressly verboten at this company, Justin has appointed himself the cigarette Nazi. I imagine that he’s probably a secret member of Truth. He probably stays hunched over his keyboard at night, beating off to the stories of other triumphant members who managed to cajole, threaten and in other words, harass and shame smokers into quitting. I’m going to follow her. I look up and down the gray-carpeted aisle of cubicles. No sign of the cigarette Nazi. Rising quietly, I shuffle off behind Amy.

Outside in the humid August air, with the sun beating down, Amy is nowhere to be found. I let the door close behind me and round the building. She’s on the side of the building, facing away from me. “Hey,” I say and she jumps sharply.

“Oh, hey,” Amy says, smiling. “You know, I have to hide on the windowless side of the building. Justin is too lazy to walk around the building. God help me if the smoke drifts in someone’s window. There’ll be hell to pay.” Amy laughs her irritatingly loud gunshot laugh and takes a drag of her cigarette.

“Can I bum one?” I ask, and Amy complies. We’re basically friends, Amy and I. I’m just not going to hang out with her after work. During work, though, we’ve exchanged intimacies that would indicate to her that we are life-long friends. This is not the case, but there’s no reason to tell her that.

“How’s Mark?” she asks.

I lean back against the rough stucco of the building and light the cigarette, the relief of smoke filling my lungs perhaps worth premature death.

“He’s fine,” I say. I’m clearly not talkative now and for once she respects that as we lean and smoke in the sizzling sun (perhaps getting skin cancer as we speak, oh my).

Mark and I have been together for a year now. We’ve been discussing moving in together a lot recently. Actually, I’ve been discussing it a lot and Mark has been assuring me repeatedly that he does want to move in together but that now is not really the time. He’s up for a promotion. He needs to focus on work. But he gave me a key to his apartment a few months ago. I suppose he expected my need for cohabitation to be sated by that. It hasn’t been. I’m almost thirty years old. I would like to have some brats torturing me for the rest of my life, sooner rather than later. He’s really pissing me off, to be frank. But, I’ve never been good at ultimatums. They tend to fizzle and die before they’re out of my mouth. I’ve always tried so hard not to push. I want Mark to want to live with me. I’ve been biting my tongue for weeks. I see him when he wants, cook him dinner, listen to his endlessly boring marine biologist stories; I always wear dresses and skirts; I work out five times a week; I do my goddamn makeup on a daily basis; I even quit smoking for him. Yet, he’s not ready to move in with me? What more can I do for him?

The dirty, bitter taste of smoke in my mouth tastes like a tiny rebellion. Rebellion tastes good.

I resolve to quit my job in this moment, as my feverish sucking has reduced the cigarette down to the filter. I’ve hated this job since the day I got it. This soulless office job with its ego-crushing lectures has been ruining my life. We all get so attached to the sameness of our routines, don’t we? I’m so determined to be a bill-paying respectable citizen that it’s as if I am incapable of leaving this job. This job is my prison.

I crush the cigarette beneath my high-heeled boot and then look at the boot as if it has betrayed me. This boot hurts like hell! The toes are pointy. My toes are not used to this kind of restriction. Before this year I never even wore high heels. I reach down and unzip my boots, take them off, and pitch them into the nearby woods.

“What are you doing?” Amy asks, seemingly highly disturbed by my impetuousness.

I reach under my knee-length pencil skirt and yank my pantyhose down. We are well hidden between the building and the woods. Mosquitoes are buzzing by curiously, shying away from the insane woman’s blood. Now Amy is blushing furiously and averting her eyes.

“I’m quitting this job, Amy. Have a nice life.”

I stalk back toward the office, rocks digging into my bare white feet. No sooner am I through the back door then it seems I am at Justin’s office door. I practically kick it open but then calmly close it behind me. Justin has the phone pressed to his block head and he is frozen with his rheumy chocolate eyes wide. Anger flashes in his eyes and he leaps to his feet. “How dare you?” he says, his inner southern diva coming out.

“You’re a prick,” I say sweetly, smiling. I feel so wonderfully calm. I know I may regret this in the morning. But, for tonight, the food is good, the sex is great, and I’ll get tested next week. “I quit.”

Justin sputters and gasps, clearly shocked beyond measure. I turn and walk from his office as he continues to eject half-formed thoughts. I laugh as I collect my few belongings from my desk. A week ago I cleared my desk out—just for a fresh start, I told myself. Now I think I must have known this day was coming. As I flip open my cell phone with one hand, I wave to my ex-co-workers with the other and they wave back. I definitely detect some envy and some judgment. I pass Amy in the hall.

“I’ll call you,” Amy cries as I fly by.

“Sounds great!” I exclaim. Mark’s cell phone goes directly to voice mail. I know he won’t be thrilled at this development. I’m sure he’ll be really unhappy, in fact. But, he’s the first person I can think to tell. He’s my boyfriend, after all, the man I assume I’m going to marry. Why is his cell phone off anyway? I try his office and his secretary tells me he’s out to lunch. I glance at the cell to determine the time. It’s a little late in the afternoon for lunch. I’ll just go to his house.

I drive down the street humming and feeling free. I can feel reason and depression tickling the edge of my consciousness but I firmly ignore it. His car is parked in the driveway when I arrive. I’ve never used my key before. Why not now? Slipping the key into the front door of his townhouse, it seems as though the clicking of the lock resounds in his front hallway.

Time stops for a moment. In the front hall is a bra, lying in the middle of the hardwood floor. The smile drops from my face. That son of a bitch. There is, in fact, a trail of clothes leading through the hallway, up the stairs and to the bedroom. I know because I pick these slatternly clothes up as I go, following the trail. The bedroom door stands open.

There on the bed is, as expected, Mark on his back positively beaming with lustful happiness as a naked blonde straddles him. I walk into the room unnoticed (for there is an excessive amount of shrill screaming going on and both participants have their eyes clenched shut). I see the woman’s purse partly spilled on the floor and protruding from it is a pack of Marlboro Lights.

I drop the woman’s clothes on the floor and walk straight over to her purse. I am absolutely dazed by the fact that this woman has cigarettes in her purse. Mark doesn’t date smokers. I’m also amazed that Mark hasn’t opened his eyes yet and that I feel completely numb to this situation. Watching these two have sex is like watching a porno wherein I am unfamiliar with the players. I pluck the cigarettes and lighter from the floor and hoist myself noiselessly onto the low brown bureau, crossing my legs.

The scratch of the lighter igniting finally makes Mark open his eyes. He lets out a bark of surprise and flings the woman from him. The woman rolls off the side of the bed hitting the hardwood floor with a loud thud and a sharp scream.

“Don’t stop on my account,” I say taking a drag of the cigarette and blowing it in his general direction. “I thought you didn’t date smokers,” I comment idly.

“I’m not dating her,” Mark says, pulling the covers up around his waist.

The blonde pops up from beside the bed, disheveled and looking frightened. “What?” she angrily asks him.

Mark flushes.

I walk over and calmly, quickly, burn several small holes in his $150 sheets, all very near his crotch. He howls and protects his manhood, rolling off the bed on top of his bedmate.

“I quit,” I say and leave.
pencil

“I was born and raised in Newport, RI but currently reside in East Providence. I have a BA in creative writing from Roger Williams University. I am currently a real estate appraiser and writer.” E-mail: foots[at]rocketmail.com

You Can Bury Me in This Dress

Flash
Aubrey Rose Murrin


The newspaper didn’t get delivered anymore, so he stopped at Convenient. He stood in the corner, next to the magazines and flipped through the local Times to the obituary page, and there she was, wearing her favorite dress: his mother. Of course, the color of the dress, a light, rosy pink, did not come through in the newsprint, and her corsage was cropped out by the newspaper’s art department. But it was still her smiling at him from behind her glasses.

“You can bury me in this dress,” she said the day the photo was taken, while she admired the way the sequins caught light from the church dressing room’s overhead bulb. “It’s just gorgeous. I feel like Jackie O.”

“If only we had some big sunglasses,” he remembers saying as he pinned the corsage on her dress—but it was drizzly, so it would not have mattered much.

Now nothing from that day remains: his marriage, the corsage, his mother.

The morning after she died, mere hours after Father McNulty had given Last Rites, he drove her car to every shop in town to find a replacement for the dress she wore to his wedding. Her weight had dropped so much, she couldn’t be buried in the original; two of her would fit in that dress now.

He found one at what he remembered was his mother’s favorite shop, Cullins’ Cottage, though she could only ever afford a dress from there every year or so. It was so expensive he had to charge it, but it was nearly the same color, with beads instead of sequins, which he knew she would find more appropriate. He liked how the fabric felt delicate, and noted that despite this, it felt durable. When he heard the final pull of the protective bag’s zipper, he thought about just how long this dress would need to last.

After he left Cullins’, he brought her old dress to a secondhand shop on Andora Avenue. While the owner, Hattie McBride, was on her way to the counter from the mending station in the back, she waved in a hurried way. She carried a tomato-shaped pincushion; his mother had the same one.

One look at her eyes told him that even though it had just happened, she’d already heard the news. Springston was that small. He remembered why he had left.

He placed the dress next to the register and patted it once, shouting back to her, “That is all, Mrs. McBride, but thank you much.” With one raise of his hand, he waved goodbye in a way he hoped appeared stoic.

The beep of the video game next to the convenience store’s newspapers startled him. It sounded like a hospital monitor. He wondered when these thoughts would stop.

He folded the newspaper and picked up another.

It wasn’t until he was back in her car, smelling her lilac perfume, that he remembered his mother wouldn’t need a copy.

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Aubrey Rose Murrin grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She writes both fiction and poetry, attempting to document every moment, every image, and every conversation in this mysterious, special, and fragile world. Her most recent full-length project, Photo Synthesis, is a collection of ten fictional short stories based entirely on found photographs, giving new life to these abandoned memories. She currently lives, writes, and walks her dog, Cooper, in Pennsylvania. E-mail: aubrey.murrin[at]gmail.com

Advice for Travelers Going to the Southern Hemisphere

Poetry
Candy Shue


Remember,
the toilets flush counter-
clockwise, Down Under.
The sky is completely
upside down and backwards.
You can see the Southern Cross,
the Southern Crown and Antares,
the red beating heart of Scorpio,
hidden from us in the North.
Stand on the outer edge
of the Milky Way and look
toward the dead center
of the cosmos. Realize we
are not the Middle Kingdom
of the galaxy. Try not to
keel over when stricken
by vertigo.

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Candy Shue’s work has appeared in VerbSap.com, Pif Online Magazine, Washington Square Review, Paragraph, the Booksmith Reader and other literary journals. She lives in San Francisco where the weather is cool and blustery, and can be reached at ceshue[at]earthlink.net for weather reports and other interesting factoids.

Three Poems

Poetry
Linda King


fortune teller

every day begins as language stretches itself
your dog-eared books    alphabet blocks
maps that name you home

the cat curls into an oval of necessary ambiguity

separate each element    birth    water    womb
sounds with no source

your story is everyone’s story
sad assortment of letters
prizes on cereal boxes

it is not fear that flutters inside you
but a fire of language
one that will have what it wants
its punctuation is ashes

all root systems
eventually decompose

 

Howling in a High Clearing

Where the light collects
where the adjectives are distributed
make no promises.

The disorder of things
is always a lateral arrangement
buttons too big for the holes.

There will be a busy rain.    It will not be
a solution to this day.
You were the child who tasted snow in summer.
No one can tell you what darkness is.

The moon doesn’t know the scent of you. Somewhere
a beast breaks free of its harness.
Open your bag of names. Stop gagging
on the words you want to put back.

What did you expect—
did you forget
that you are subject
to vertigo?

 

coffee at night

you are meant to remember the prior story
everything at the edge
sleep is the moment after rain

this silence is how you write breathing
the moon understands
a paleness    something like words

your father’s misery was thin as a whisper
white quiet woods    footprints in ashes
long dirt road to the farmhouse

you have been misled
none of this needs explaining
unfasten the deadbolt night

even false things are breakable
cloud formations in walled gardens
cold wind in the sod house

leaves let loose of their branches
the myth remains
it’s what keeps you up tonight

now    all edges and angles
you are fond of forgetting
that push out of childhood

the dog and pony show for your mother
get on the scale    tomorrow there will be
porridge and brown sugar for breakfast
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Linda King is a Vancouver poet/workshop facilitator whose work has appeared in numerous literary journals in Canada and internationally—Event, Prairie Fire, Room of One’s Own, Other Voices, Quills, Monday Night, Envoi, nthPosition, Wicked Alice… The poems submitted here are from a full-length manuscript, working title Every Attraction Has a History. E-mail: lindakits[at]shaw.ca