Charles Hayes, a Pushcart Prize Nominee, is an American who lives part time in the Philippines and part time in Seattle with his wife. A product of the Appalachian Mountains, his writing has appeared in Ky Story’s Anthology Collection, Wilderness House Literary Review, The Fable Online, Unbroken Journal, CC&D Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Zodiac Review, eFiction Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Scarlet Leaf Publishing House, Burning Word Journal, eFiction India, and others.
By The Sea
Arching its neck over the undulating highway to feed from the other side, an orange dinosaur fittingly forms a gateway for my passing, a secrete portal to new things in a world of vivid color. In awe of this unexpected find, I smile and look aside at the jungle flashing by. Along its face smiling heads of scaly creatures look out to welcome me. Huge friendly eyes, shaded by leathery furrowed brows, seem to say, “What took you so long?”
Turning to Bill to share my joy, I exclaim, “After all the looking, I have finally found it!” Bill is undisturbed to part from his muse and turn his mask of calm my way. Simply meeting my eyes, he knows, yet he needs not say. Turning back to his muse and calmly tooling the little VW through the herds of prehistory, Bill drives on.
In the back seat Rocky laughs and says, “Danny tried to set me on fire.” Looking back between the seats, I see that Danny has lit a cigarette, its blood red swirls of smoke flashing tracers from the rear window sunbeams. Immune to Rocky’s claim, Danny returns my look and shrugs. Rocky immediately forgets his outcry but likes the attention anyway. Scrunched together, excitement in their eyes, like Bill, they are watching. I watch too. And together, the miles suck us in.
For a moment the late autumn sea leaves me a child standing in the middle of an empty slate dump, grey expanses running to steep hills of leafless timber. Then, I am here again, as slate grey seas kiss a cumulous scattered sky.
Danny squeals and dances in the surf while I and others sit in the sand, our sneakers wet by his dance’s reach. Suddenly across the tableau of what seemed untouchable for so long, a string of pretty girls parade, all enjoying the ancient interest of our smiles, yet bemused by them a stitch.
Wildwood by the Sea blesses our short stay as another portal begins to close. Still whooping and high kicking the curled white froth, Danny does not see. Grinning at this sight, like a silent monk, I wait. It will not be long now.
Ula Klein is a professor of English literature and women's and gender studies at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, TX. She has been writing fiction since a young age, and she has recently completed a novel. She has published a short story entitled "The Yellow Wallpaper" at In-flight Magazine and various non-fiction pieces in the online magazine Revolvist. She has also published scholarly articles on representations of eighteenth-century female cross-dressers in British literature.
He watched her from behind, running on the treadmill. Her long hair was tied in a school girl’s braid down the length of her spine. It bobbed back and forth in a snaking shape as she pushed herself further and further on the winding tape.
In the privacy of her own bedroom, she stepped out of her clothing, sweaty. She pulled the tight, second-skin jog-bra off her body. She barely slithered out of it, breathing hard again once she managed to tear away the Lycra from her chest. She stopped for a moment to cup her breasts in her hands and massage them. Those Walmart bras. Made so tight.
She was Russian, he knew it. She had their determination as she pumped the life out of the treadmill. Maybe she had trained for the Olympics back in the motherland. Ice skating? No, she was muscular and sinewy. Her calves were flat and stretched and her ankles far from slim. Her shoulders were square. No, she wasn’t delicate enough for a Russian ice skater. Something else.
Then there was the hair. They prized their hair, even if it was thick and wiry, as long as it was long. Long like a little girl’s. He had heard her speaking with an older woman. The Russian flowed out of their mouths like the burble of water in a stream pushing over rocks. It was like wind in the leaves. All he had ever learned of Russian was from a foreign exchange boy at school: suka, dupa, huy s tebya. Curses. They had giggled together in the boys’ locker room, shoving these words at imaginary girls or their fellow hockey teammates. He tried to think of Russia, but only managed to conjure up an image of Siberian tundra: wild, flat, barren.
Now she slipped off her shorts and socks in one swift movement, throwing them down on the ground at her feet. Finally her underwear, soaked from the workout. She smiled at the breeze she felt between her legs. Release from fabric and heat. She stood naked in the dim light of forty watt light bulbs. Her hair was still in the long plait down her back. She reached back to touch the ends. The hair was strong and heavy, and she hadn’t cut it for about ten years now. Her husband, like most Russian men, liked it long. She remembered a girl she had gone to the Science Academy with who had never cut her hair in her entire life, not even once. At the age of twenty this girl had had hair on her head from when she was a child.
She picked up a bobby pin from the nearby dresser and deftly wound the braid up on her head. Poking the pin in the right spot, the whole braid was immobile. She looked back in the mirror. If she widened her eyes a bit, she could catch a glimpse of the washed-out blue of her irises encircled in dark black. Her eyebrows, like her hair and eyelashes, were of a medium reddish-brown. Freckles of nearly the same color ran across her nose and on her forearms. Her skin was a color some people in her family boastfully called alabaster. Now it was pink from exertion. She admired her own strength. Her biceps were noticeable even when she wasn’t flexing. Her stomach was flat, the muscles pulled tightly into themselves. Taut. It was one of her favorite words in English: taut. Tautness. She sucked in and became even flatter than before. Yuri appreciated her strength and hardness; she had not let herself get fat like most American women and many of her husband’s patients at the clinic. Tatiana was his forty-year-old trophy wife.
Yes. Taut. She ran her hand over her stomach once more, walked into the bathroom, turned on the water and stepped under the hot stream.
Michael couldn’t take his eyes off her. He watched as she picked her way around the machines after a half hour on the treadmill. She worked on her arms and legs, but she spent the most time on her stomach. He always wondered how her hair never got in the way. There it was, that long braid, day after day. It taunted him, just like she taunted him with her workouts. After the machines, thirty more sets of crunches in various positions. How did she manage it? The idea of an athlete returned to him. Her baggy clothing enveloped the shapes he hungered to see. His fingers itched to trace the pattern of muscles that must surely push through the skin of her abdomen. How prominent was her clavicle? How deep was the canal of her backbone on her back?
This was the third week he had been observing her. She was there every time he came. She must work nearby. 5 p.m. found her on the treadmill. At exactly 5:30 he knew she would be on the machines and at 6:30 she would be down on the mats doing her crunches as an aerobics class dictated one-twos in the background. Often she had earphones connected to an ancient Walkman. One day she was a no-show. He felt the nausea of disappointment making its way up his esophagus. He worked out in the hope that she would show up again. Almost a week passed with no sign of the Russian. Her friend was there, but not her. He imagined her run over in the street somewhere, her plait stretched out behind her. Or what was worse, he saw her under her big, fat Russian husband as he fucked her, the red braid wrapped around her body like a vise, teasing him in his imagination.
Finally one day the water fountain was out of order and he went further down the hallway to another one. Pausing by the pool observatory deck, he saw her, swimming in straight lines up and down like a machine. He felt the joy of the converted. He had been given a second chance. He watched her through the thick glass, smelling the clinical chlorine on the other side. Butterfly, freestyle, backstroke. Like a pro. Now he knew. She must have been a swimmer. The next day, he was practicing his strokes as well.
They lay in bed. Only on the weekends did they enjoy this luxury. Yuri worked all night on the nightshift at the clinic. They paid him double and after ten years, neither of them minded. They had sex because they should, and with Tatiana’s long braid flaccid across the pillow, they could imagine they were twenty years younger, back at the Science Academy in Stalingrad. Well, now Volgograd. Tatiana lay on her stomach next to her husband. With a lazy finger he traced the knobs of her back, now perfectly straight. Next to it, a scar that stretched the length of her back. She despised this scar. This one and only but undeniable imperfection on the life craft of her body. She turned instead on her back and guided his hand onto her perfect stomach.
“Smotri,” she said. “Taut.”
“Taut.” He repeated the English word, opening his large palm wide to encompass as much of her stomach as possible. Like the American basketball players he watched sometimes holding the large orange ball in one hand. “Don’t you think you are ‘taut’ enough?” he said, switching back into Russian.
“If I stop now, I will become another fat American for you to treat,” she said, attempting playfulness. It sounded like a threat.
It was four in the afternoon. She was meeting Yuliya for tea. Yuliya’s mother had recently come over, bringing a samovar with her from Russia. “You’re sure you don’t want to try Yuliya’s samovar?” asked Tatiana, knowing the answer. “Aleksey will be there, too. Not just us girls.”
Yuri turned over onto his stomach. Weekends were to be spent in bed in his opinion, whether it was with his wife’s accompaniment or not. “No, no. You go. I might go out later with some of the guys for basketball.”
Tatiana felt, for a moment, that they were strangers linked only by a common history.
Michael’s stomach churned the whole weekend with anticipation. She was never there on the weekend. On Monday he walked the entire gym to see where she was. He wasn’t stalking her. Never. He simply knew that if she met him, she would want to get to know him. He wasn’t a bad person. He didn’t want to hurt anyone, after all.
Yet he was obsessed with the braid. When she swam, he could see its outlines under the cheap elastic swim cap. He wanted to see it undone. He wanted to rake his fingers through it, to see her naked with it undone, the red-brown hair falling over her breasts. Now he had seen her in the swimsuit and he knew the definition of her body. The tautness of her stomach, the scar down her back. It was her secret reason. She hadn’t been an Olympian. She had had scoliosis—a curvature of the spine. When he saw the scar, he went home to find his Mayo clinic reference, to find out why someone would have such a hideous red scar down her back. When he realized this, he wanted her all the more. He wanted to touch the scar and run his finger down her back, along the lonely flat piece of skin that flowed between the scar and the spine. He wanted to be that piece of skin. He wanted his tautness and her tautness to come into hard contact, the planes of their bodies intertwining. When he got up the courage to swim in the lane next to hers, and he felt the waves from the water that she energetically pushed away hit his face, he felt as though he had come into contact with an intimate body part of hers. After all, the same water that enveloped her body now floated up to his. It engulfed them both. It was like being in the womb together, enjoying the inbred closeness of twins. For a moment he felt he would be too weak to swim at all that day. When she came back around however, he started to swim along with her. He even kept up with her for four laps and felt he had had something of a success that day. After that she kept going at the same clip, and he retreated to a leisurely breaststroke, happy that he could be so close to her at all.
The hair always got wet under the cap. Even the innermost part of her braid, tightly pressing against her head, was wet and greenish from the chlorinated water. Clean but horrific, she thought of American pools. She remembered some of the murky green water from twenty years ago in Stalingrad. Volgograd, she corrected herself again. Her mother didn’t even bother. They had changed all the names of the streets. No more Lenin Streets or Red Army Avenues. But her mother still called them by their old names. It was too hard to change. She began pushing the 99 cent plastic comb through her shampooed hair. The woman next to her had three different bottles in the shower as well as a pink plastic webbing that she used to rub shower gel all over her body. Tatiana snorted at this wastefulness. Soap was soap. She showered quickly out of habit, from her swim team days. She had never been one to joke around with the other women. She hadn’t done it when she was young and now she was too old to smile and crack jokes with women who complained they could not understand her. She pulled on her sweats and a loose flannel shirt from Good Will over the grayed bra. Maybe time for a new one.
She knew that their penny-pinching was really not so necessary. Yuri sometimes encouraged her to go and shop. “Just go and spend some money! We both earn enough,” he would say. But old habits died hard. Shopping malls were an enigma to her, too full of things: colors, shapes, useless objects. Besides, they were saving up. Saving up for ten years?, she asked herself. Yuri would never return to Russia. But why not? Tatiana dreamed of a large house in the countryside of the village where she had grown up, not far from Volgograd. With a garden, a dacha and a swimming pool, she said to herself.
She walked out of the locker room still combing her hair. It caught on a tangle and she tried to work it out. In the end she tugged at it with frustration and a small bundle of knotted hair drifted to the ground.
He didn’t examine it until he got home. He couldn’t stop himself from shooting furtive glances over his shoulder in the autumn twilight. The days were getting shorter and shorter. Maybe she went home for Christmas? Something in his mind seemed to recall Russians not having Christmas. Or maybe later than everyone else? He couldn’t remember. He should have watched that documentary on Russia on television. Well, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t her heritage that he wanted to fuck. At home he got out a magnifying glass and put the hairs under it in the bathroom. They were reddish-brown, slightly blonde at one end, dark brown at the other. Surprisingly soft—he had always thought they would be wirier. He rubbed them against his face. He imagined he was brushing his cheek against her hair. Her soft red hair and her hard body next to him. He wanted to shove her against a wall, hold her immobile, pull the rubber band from her hair and have it fall all around the two of them, enveloping them in a reddish-brown dream. The color of dried blood, he thought, trying to get the image out of his mind and return to her hair and her, alive, pulsing with life just like on the treadmill. What did she want so badly? What was she running from or toward? It occurred to him, right before he came, that on a treadmill, you couldn’t run from anything and maybe she, like him, was simply stuck.
She got home. Yuri was already gone. She saw a note scratched in his horrible Cyrillic on the refrigerator. This week and the next he was working double shifts, starting at 5 p.m. Double shifts. Double shifts with that girl he had taken up with. Some young Russian girl just off the plane in America. Tatiana did not really care. It was she that Yuri paraded around, not Nadia. Nadia had two squalid little brats in her ratty apartment. They had never met. Thank god. She opened the freezer and took out a plastic bag with some frozen pelmeni. She put some water into a pot and turned the burner on high. It wasn’t working again. She hit it a couple of times with the palm of her hand. Finally she hit it so hard that a shower of sparks spewed up into the air, a couple of which landed on her hair. They sizzled and died. She slapped at her braid with a cloth lying on the counter. Nothing happened. She turned off the heat and moved the pot to another burner.
She looked somewhat in awe at her hair. She sat down on one of the hard plastic chairs in their kitchen and pulled the rubber band off the end of her braid, slowly pulling her fingers through the hair to loosen it. It was still wet from the pool. Probably why it hadn’t caught on fire. Up closer to her head it was already dry. A part of her scalp was sore from where she had pulled at the tangle. Her scalp had always been unusually sensitive. It reminded her of when she was a child and her grandmother used a rough wooden comb to pull through the tangles of summer wind. Her hair had always been tangled and full of snarls after days of running around in the forest with her older brothers and their friends, rough housing and swimming in earthy lakes. Her grandmother had no mercy for her or her hair. It was one thing Tatiana had never learned to endure.
He had to speak to her. That night he decided. On Friday he would wait for her. The gym was too sacred. The fitness center, the machines, the pool especially, radiated a holy silence when she was there. He knew her name now. Tatiana. The older woman had called at her the other day, “Tatiana!” and she had magically turned around. He kept saying it to himself at night, over and over again. Tatiana. He would take out that little knot of reddish hair and rub it lightly over the edges of his ears; his neck; his nipples. It was delicate and tickling. There was nothing to it. Just wait for her to show up, like clock work. Simply say her name, Tatiana. What she would say or what he would say next didn’t seem to make a difference. What would happen after that? He couldn’t imagine. Would she rush into his arms right there on the street? Would she give him a blank stare? On the other side of the wall he could hear his neighbors having sex. Friday it would be him.
He paused for a moment. The feeling of furtiveness and guilt crept back into his mind. Was it really so strange for him to want this meeting? To be entranced by her hair? To lovingly caress the little tangle that had been pulled from her head? Michael wondered at himself for a moment. He tried to remember what he was like two months ago, when Tatiana hadn’t been a part of his life yet. There had been a boring, predictable rhythm to it. Work, gym, weekends at the bars. This was excitement and intensity and sensuality. People met all the time for affairs with strangers. Maybe it wouldn’t be just a one-night stand either. It could be more, eventually.
Michael’s mind turned back to the logistics of it all. He didn’t know how they would end up at his place, how to explain it, would she want to? No, of course she would want to. No one who worked out like she did was happy with their life, their job, their husband. Her husband was probably fat and hairy and drunk on Russian vodka all the time. They make them get married so young, he thought. That was it. She couldn’t make it as an athlete, so she married some guy who had prospects of getting out of the country. Now she was here and stuck. Did they have children? It occurred to him with a jolt. Somehow, though, he didn’t think so.
He fell asleep that night with her hairs wrapped around his fingers. Tatiana.
She saw him waiting for her outside the gym one day. He must think I’m stupid, she thought. But she knew what he wanted. It wouldn’t be the first time and certainly not the last someone would approach her. Or that she would accept. In her mind she already knew how things would be with him. He would finally talk to her after working out next to her for weeks. Casual. Let’s go for coffee. Why don’t they just say ‘Let’s go for a fuck?’ and get it over with? she wondered. She was the quiet surrendering Russian woman. She undressed for them, let down her hair, let them do whatever it was they wanted to do in bed, and she got rid of them in time to change the sheets before Yuri came home at 8 a.m. But as she approached this young man, she could see something in his face. Something hungrier than usual. She feared it for a moment.
“What do you want?” she asked him. Maybe he liked ferocity.
He looked dumbfounded. Maybe not so sure of himself as American men liked to think they are. He was young: much younger than any of the other men who had approached her before. Maybe it could be different this time, she thought. He looked like he was in his twenties. She wasn’t afraid of him any longer. She could hear his breathing as he dashed to catch up with her. She led him to her car and drove him to the small suburb where they had a patchy lawn and paneled house. He seemed unsure of himself, picking lint up off of his shirt and then feeling silly about throwing it down on the car seat. He held on to it instead, not knowing what to do with it.
“Why don’t you throw it out the window?” she suggested. She was suddenly aware of her accent, the way the t’s came out harder than in American English. He cracked the window open and threw out the ball of lint. “How old are you?”
“26.” His voice was that of a tenor and it broke half way through the word. After a moment of thought he added, “How old are you?”
He couldn’t believe he had just asked about her age. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be! He was supposed to be suave or at the least confident. Instead she was driving him in a beat-up station wagon that smelled of cigarettes. Her husband, he thought. Every so often he felt surprised by the fact that he was there at all, that she was there, that they were sitting there together fully clothed after having seen her curves so intimately exposed at the fitness center. He would have liked to make out in the car when they pulled up into the driveway, but she got out immediately after pulling up the handbrake. It was a manual gearshift, he noticed as he slipped out of the car with his gym bag. They took the back entrance into the house. He felt strange to be there in her house. They were supposed to have gone to his place. He wouldn’t be able to stay as long as he’d wanted to.
“My husband is at work until the morning,” she said, as if reading his mind. “Do you want tea?”
He nodded awkwardly. He wasn’t thirsty and certainly not for tea, but something in her voice made him feel like the question was a command. As the water boiled and she walked around the kitchen in decisive strides, he looked around the small living room and kitchen. Pictures from ski trips—recent ones. Her husband was a thick blond man. Thick, but not fat. Probably capable of killing him if he found him with his wife. Nearby were some matrioshka dolls lined up like colorful, bulbous soldiers next to the television set. An old looking stereo stood on another shelf next to tape cases with Cyrillic on them. Visotsky and Yuliya. Russian classics. He didn’t know that though. Instead he looked over at the bookshelves. Mostly textbooks—biochemistry, anatomy, biology. Some medical magazines on the yard sale coffee table and the upholstery unraveling at the edges of the couch that used to be blue but was more gray now than anything else. Grey, in fact, was the overall feeling of the whole interior. There was a fine coating of dust on almost everything. He wasn’t sure why he was there looking at this shitty house. He felt for a moment as if he were a potential buyer looking at a house with his real estate agent.
He walked back into the kitchen. They were in such close proximity now. He felt stiff and unsure. He looked around the room but the whole time he was trying not to think about her and her braid and how close they were to doing whatever it was he had wanted. The walls in there seemed sticky. He tried not to touch anything. She poured some water into mismatched mugs. One of them was from St. Petersburg.
“Is that where you’re from?” he asked.
She felt pity for him all of a sudden. He seemed so young. He could almost be her son. Almost. She could see he was nervous. She couldn’t believe that this was his first time with a woman. No. It had to be something else. She studied him carefully as he sipped gingerly at the hot tea. His face was handsome although still babyish with dark eyes and delicate eyebrows, high cheekbones and fine, curling brown hair that managed to shine even in the kitchen twilight. His lips were the most boyish part of his face: a pretty pink color and perfectly molded. Like Raphael’s angels that adorned Hallmark stationery in those malls she hated. Now those lips were arranged in a frown of uncertainty. His body was lean and muscular. He looked as if he had played some sport in school. She had seen him often in the gym, lifting free weights, occasionally running. She had noticed him in the water alongside her the week before. Definitely not a swimmer, although he could probably pick up the necessary tricks to make him better. They sipped their tea for another moment. Then she stood up and walked over to the closet to take her shoes off and slip on some knitted slippers. She brought Yuri’s slippers over to the boy.
“Here, they’re my husband’s.” She watched him take them gingerly and she couldn’t stop a smile from creeping over her face. He slipped them on and she decided they might as well get started. Her fleeting feeling of pity dissipated when she remembered how he had wanted this. He had approached her.
She walked into the living room and closed the curtains. She took off her shirt and pants. She had still been in her clothes from the lab. Finally he came over also, slowly realizing that she wasn’t coming back into the kitchen. His mouth fell open when he saw her.
The whiteness of her body embarrassed him. He felt like she was making a mockery of him with her husband’s used-up slippers. They made a sad flapping noise as he walked around the kitchen. He still had the mug of tea in his hand. Old Lipton’s. Everything about the house and the situation seemed tawdry to him. Then he saw her small breasts moving up and down as she breathed in her plain cotton bra. Immediately he felt the same excitement he had felt when watching her on the treadmill from behind. Her underwear was practical and cheap and the waistband came up just under her bellybutton. And that stomach. Just as strong and flat as he had imagined. And now only a couple of steps separated them.
Suddenly she gave a leap and ran up the stairs only stopping once to look back to see if he was getting her game. He felt a carnal thumping in his chest and realized he was supposed to follow. It would be a short game he decided. Suddenly, he felt he couldn’t wait any longer. He wished for an instant that they could have indulged in some erotic fantasy: handcuffs, doctor’s visit, feather boa. But it would have all ended in the same thing. It would have ended in this, he thought, kicking off the insulting slippers.
He ran up the stairs and heard her heavy breaths ahead of him only egging him on. He attacked her on the bed, ripping at her bra and underwear while she fumbled expertly with his belt. But he didn’t want it like this. He wanted to take her clothes off first. And he wanted to see her hair, tousled and undone. He pushed her hands away from his belt buckle. He finally got her bra off and her underwear around her ankles. She still had her socks and knitted slippers on, which he found erotically endearing. He knew she was already wet and waiting for him, but he had to find it. He had to find that part of her back and dig his fingers into it. It was that fluid piece of skin between the bumps of her spine and the ragged red scar that ran down alongside the spine, a pink river of former pain. He had pictured it so many times. Now he couldn’t see it, but he could feel it. He pushed his fingers into it as if by pushing harder, his hands could simply permeate her body to go straight through her. To feel her from the inside. She let out a small yelp of pain and only after a moment he realized he had drawn blood with one of his fingernails.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he repeated. She just shook her head and tried to reach up to undo the pin that kept her hair at bay.
She didn’t know why she had decided that this time would be different. Different than the other men who wanted to take her out to dinner and ply her already willing mind with wine. Then at their place they would passionately kiss her mouth and stroke her body her before finally consummating the union of two strangers. Maybe it was this one’s youth. Maybe something in his face. Maybe the fact that really, she was tired of working all day long in the lab, working out, coming home to nothing, and eating frozen pelmeni while her husband screwed some blonde ten years younger than her only to expect her to spend all weekend by his side in bed. Except when she was heating more frozen pelmeni for him. Maybe this was what a mid-life crisis was. Maybe this was revenge. Her lover was younger than his. Her lips curled at the thought.
In the living room, out of her clothes, she had felt the naked air on her arms and she had wanted to run. She hadn’t worked out that day. Now she had pent up energy. She wanted to explode somehow, in some way exert herself.
Now the pins in her hair were driving their way slowly into her skull. She could not wear her hair down in the lab where she worked. Her whole head hurt as the boy got on top of her and pushed her deeper into the pillow. He had stuck her in her back with one of his perfectly-formed boyish nails. She had watched him sipping the tea. His nails looked manicured. Not like her hang-nailed ones. Yuri always claimed he liked his women raw, no paint, no makeup. Bullshit, she thought, trying to reach for the boy’s belt buckle. He moved her hands away. So she went back to trying to pull the pins out of her hair.
She had put a lot of them in that morning because some hairs in the back had fallen out right before she had gotten in the car to drive to work. Last minute attachments. Now her head was tired from having them in the whole day. The boy was getting excited she noticed, yet still his pants remained zippered. She could feel herself getting ready. She didn’t really care about those pins.
He was in control now. It was his game now. He pushed and pulled at her lips and stuck his tongue down her mouth until it seemed he was kissing the back of her throat. His hands clamped down on her arms: he wanted her at his mercy. He freed one of his hands to pull at the hair pins himself. He wanted to have that hair cascade down her body, just like in his dreams, his fantasies. The little bunch of red hairs he had been holding even that morning was long forgotten. He had the real thing in front of him now, and he wanted to have it come down over his face and into his mouth. He wanted that tight plait to be his.
But the pin wouldn’t come out. He began raking his hands through her hair pulling at anything and everything that came through his fingers. She began to protest.
“Let go! Let go!” she shouted. “Pusti menya!”
Why couldn’t he stop? It angered him that the pin wouldn’t come undone. He felt fury come over him. This wasn’t how he had imagined it! This wasn’t right. He had been imagining each moment right before it happened but instead, nothing had happened as he had imagined. There was no fire of passion between them. There was only his hunger and her anger; his obsession and now, her pain. He couldn’t stop himself. He wanted her hair. The hair that had taunted him with its beguilingly youthful look. So innocent-looking. Except she wasn’t innocent of anything. The harder he pulled, the more he felt justified.
The pain from her head only increased with each tug. The stupid boy had stuck his hands in the side of her head. It would be impossible to dislodge the pins that held everything together like that. She felt anger start coursing through her veins. She was obviously not going to have a good fuck that day. Her scalp was sore from all the tugging, and he wasn’t stopping. Even her neck felt rattled and whip-lashed. He was so preoccupied with her hair, it was like the rest of her didn’t exist.
She remembered suddenly about the burner that hadn’t worked the other day. How she had hit it so hard, it had spewed sparks onto her wet hair. It seemed to her suddenly that one of her prize possessions which was either over-valued or under-valued by the men around her, was simply one big problem. And this boy was another problem. But she knew how to deal with him. She felt a surge of energy. It wasn’t even angry any more. She simply knew she was going to stop whatever was happening. Finally all that time at the gym would amount to something other than sparks.
He was pulling harder and harder. With each pull he just knew the pin would come out and it would all come down around the two of them and they would finally...they would finally what? He didn’t even know any more. His hand was getting more and more tangled in her hair. He wanted to come but he couldn’t go inside her now, not like this. Not all tangled and out of order. Suddenly he felt himself being lifted off her. He landed on the floor with a thud. She was up out of the bed. her underwear back in place. Was she going to go on top of him? He started to smile up at her at the thought. Before he knew what was happening, he felt her fist coming down on his left eye. Then on his lips. Then on his nose. Again and again and again.
Yuri got out early that night from work. He was back at home around 5 a.m. He lay down next to Tatiana. She slept on her back. He pushed up her top and placed his hand on her stomach.
“Taut,” he said.
She opened her eyes.
“You’re back early.”
And they lay there, awake together. Yuri thinking about how beautiful his wife’s body was, although he preferred that of his mistress who was young and a bit plumper. But certainly, he was proud of Tatiana’s body. All the guys at the clinic wished their wives had bodies like hers.
Tatiana was thinking about the boy. She couldn’t imagine his boyish face anymore. Not the way it had been in the kitchen, before she had changed it to the color of a red beet borscht. She certainly didn’t feel sorry for him now, and she hadn’t earlier when she had driven him to a nearby park and thrown him out of her car, bruised and bleeding. She had been proud of herself. She was strong enough to beat up a young man. Then she had gone back to the gym and worked out twice as hard, twice as long.
When she got up to go to work, Yuri noticed something different about Tatiana, although he couldn’t tell what. When he woke up in the afternoon and went to take a piss in the bathroom, he noticed a pile of reddish-brown hair lying on top of some tissues and dental floss in the bathroom trashcan. He shook his head, spit into the sink and went back to bed.
Michael Marrotti is an author from Pittsburgh, using words instead of violence to mitigate the suffering of life in a callous world of redundancy. His primary goal is to help other people. He considers poetry to be a form of philanthropy. When he's not writing, he's volunteering at the Light Of Life homeless shelter on a weekly basis. If you appreciate the man's work, please check out his book, F.D.A. Approved Poetry, available at Amazon.
The Revocation Of White Privilege
I was walking to my dealer's house, putting miles on these Converse All-stars, when the sincerity of my movie star smile began to dwindle. I know a miserable asshole when I see one.
It was contempt at first sight. Not even my white privilege could've saved me from the tumultuous road ahead.
The sexy blonde haired, blue eyed, college student who destroyed my imagination with her promiscuous attire, also destroyed my soon to be chemical smile with her malicious comments.
The confrontation was inevitable. I tried to walk past, but she wouldn't permit it. The minute I said excuse me was the minute she smacked the cup of coffee out of my left hand, stood on her tippy toes to be at eye level, and put her index finger on my right temple as she said,
"You got a little dick, and you're taking up all the sufficient jobs, fuck you!"
I batted her fragile finger out of my face like it was an annoying insect, took a step back as a precaution, and spoke the words,
"Fuck off with all the presumptions, I've never had any complaints by all the woman who have frequented my reproductive organ. And by the way, I'm also an unemployed sponsored poet, bitch!"
"Black lives matter, little dick!" replied the self-loathing college student.
I was shaking my head saying, "Nobody ever said they didn't! Take a walk already! Time is precious!"
She refused to relent. Her lecture persisted as white people drove by in Audi sports cars screaming out their windows, "Black power!"
I reached in my pocket for a smoke, sparked it up with my white lighter, and thought to myself, maybe I should start watching CNN. The indoctrination is among us!
"Honky scum!" screamed the annoying woman. "Using a white lighter is racist! You fucking disgust me! I bet you're voting for Trump, huh? You wanna make America white again!"
I ended up pushing her into a conveniently placed puddle, ironically enough, on her left side, in a attempt to mitigate the harassment. That's when she screamed rape, and began to compare me to Christopher Columbus.
I yelled out, "White lives matter!" as I pursued my original goal of attaining sustenance.
About a block up from the latest disaster is when a white guy drove past me in a black Subaru, throwing a chocolate milkshake at my face. Luckily for me, I'd seen it coming, and ducked just in time. I heard the words:
"Affirmative action won't save your white ass, motherfucker!"
In a fit of rage, I took off after the Subaru driver in the middle of the street, screaming obscenities. My aggravated assault charge kept on driving. Freedom was mine, but at a heavy price I could not afford.
I made a left turn onto Washington road when an older couple walked past me. I overheard the old man saying he didn't ask to be white. I remember the old woman saying something about Obama being the best president of all time, even though his mother is on the wrong side of the fence.
At this point there was only a block separating me from my ideal destination, away from the madness. I decided it would be safer to jog the rest of the way. There was no telling what could transpire in this predominantly white, self-loathing neighborhood of Mt. Lebanon.
Perspiration was building up on my back, when a car of angry white males pulled over next to me. For the love of a god who doesn't exist, why must I be singled out?
"Get over here, nigger!" yelled the delusional white guy wearing a Michael Jordan jersey.
I was attempting to catch my breath, inspecting the white skin tone of my body when I replied, "Bro, you obviously have me mistaken for someone else."
He pulled out a crowbar from the backseat of his car and said, "You're going down, nigger!
I ran head on into the moron who was prohibiting my path, punched him in the throat, and maneuvered through to my destination. No courtesy knock included. I let myself in.
Joey came to the hallway wearing a black FUBU shirt. He was definitely startled by my disregard of etiquette.
"Mario, what the fuck man?"
"Dude, I'm sorry, but every self-loathing citizen in Mt. Lebanon wants a piece of my white ass! What the fuck is going on?"
"It's old news now, man. The end is near. CNN has persuaded the white race to self-destruct because of our past transgressions. No big deal, man."
I threw my hands up in the air, over my head saying, "What the fuck do you mean, no big deal? This is fucking ridiculous!"
"Cool down, man. Have a seat, and enjoy what's left."
That's when Joey got up to answer the door. He brought back another consumer who happened to be black.
I took a look at the new gentleman I've never met before, and made my introduction.
He gave me an apathetic gaze, and said, "Can you get your nigger ass out of my seat?"
I balled up my fists and replied, "How about you go fuck yourself?"
Joey offered him backup by saying, "Mario, things have changed in the past twelve hours, if you didn't happen to notice. What I need you to do right now is pay attention. Get it through your little head. We're the niggers now, okay?"
My old friend anger was back again. I couldn't believe what was happening!
"Fuck you!" I said. "This isn't right!"
"Actually it is." replied Joey. "We must atone for the sins of people we've never met. Now get your nigger ass up or I'm not serving you. Your white privilege has been revoked!"
I stood up to make my purchase, reassuring them that these FDA regulated drugs are a product of the white man. Then I pulled out my iPhone to sign into Facebook, also crediting the white man for these convenient inventions.
Joey put his head down in shame. The black guy gave me the finger.
I made a post on Facebook that said: If you're not gonna kill whitey, the least you could do is boycott his inventions! Within five minutes it went viral.
I used Joe's bathroom as a drug haven, snorting line after line off his white porcelain sink. Then I felt the first narcotic shit of the day building up, so I decimated his toilet and didn't bother to flush.
I was feeling better, but inadequate to what was, before all this self-loathing prevailed. I decided to leave. Not before slamming the door though, screaming out,
"No white guilt, only white pride! Turn off that television! It's a product of the evil white man!"
It was like a different world once I stepped outside. Discarded iPhones, and cars were everywhere.
That Facebook post really did go viral. It proceeded to get worse as I made my journey back home. All I wanted was a Big Mac at McDonald's, but that establishment along with all the others are now a distant memory. This was two months ago.
The human race is slowly slipping into darkness, literally, due to the boycott of whitey. To me it's incomprehensible.
The white male throughout time has given his creations to the world in order to make it a better place. To repudiate that, is to renounce our existence. What's really mind blowing is that people would rather die, than show acknowledgement. Now all we're left with is nostalgia.
An era when lights flickered, toilets flushed, free porn was on the internet, and Woody Allen movies were on the television.
J. Andrew Goss is a writer and artist living in the wine country of the Missouri River Hills. His work has appeared in Lunaris Review, Indiana Voice Journal, and Entropy Squared.
Flickers and Remains
The solitary neon sign perched above Carmike’s Tavern had been plagued with a constant flicker since the day it was hung for the grand opening. Through the magic of small town boredom, the light’s erratic glow transcended its crippled status and was now considered a hallmark of the riverfront district. This town made a habit of celebrating its brokenness. Elliot sat at his usual corner table at the far end of the bar where he could watch the light flicker and pulse as the remaining gas inside struggled to fulfill its purpose. There was something about the light’s longevity that comforted him. Despite being in a perennially defective state, Mike, the bartender and proprietor of Carmike’s, still refused to replace it—mostly due to his miserly nature. Still, Elliot took comfort in knowing something so broken could still be useful.
Carmike’s sat mostly empty, which was typical. Aside from Elliot and Mike, the only other person was a man in a dark leather jacket that Elliot didn’t recognize but he knew the type. The man had come in, chest puffed out, didn’t look around much, and sat down at the bar and began ordering shots of tequila. The stranger downed three rounds in rapid succession, and after each he regarded the bartender with a “My dude, thank you,” in a slick, southern drawl. After a few minutes for the drinks to take effect, the man began to look around and take stock of the bar as if he hadn’t remembered where he was. Elliot tugged on the bill of his camo hat, settling it low over his eyes, and prayed that the man wouldn’t notice him. A lofty prayer since they were the only two patrons in the bar.
Elliot felt the familiar itch on his left foot but made no motion to scratch it. Instead, he downed the rest of his Jameson and hoped the burn would dull the sensation. Some itches just can’t be scratched. His arm fell back onto the table heavier than intended, causing the empty glass to clank loud enough that the man in the leather jacket turned to look at him. The house phone rang behind the bar and the man turned back around at the noise. Mike answered the line and kept glancing over at Elliot. The man strained to hear what was being said but Mike’s whispers were drown out by the Allman Brother’s streaming out of the old, worn out jukebox.
Mike grabbed the bottle of Jameson from the rack and maneuvered his way around the bar toward Elliot and filled his glass again. The entire event came together like a well-rehearsed skit, nobody saying a word. Elliot simply tipped his hat without saying a word and Mike returned to the bar.
The man at the bar raised his eyebrows and chuckled obnoxiously at the scene. He glanced at Mike, then to Elliot, and back at Mike again. The bartender shook his head at the man, as if to say “Just leave him be” but the man rose from his barstool and made a straight line for Elliot.
“That’s some trick. I am the only one at the bar and I’ve got to practically beg for my drinks,” the man said in a thick, Texas accent. “The name’s Boyd.” The man stuck his giant paw out and let it hang in the air.
Elliot drew in a slow and steady breath, wishing the man would just leave. Even in a dive bar in a one-stoplight town, he couldn’t find peace. “Elliot,” he replied but made no motion to shake the man’s hand. After a long moment, the man retracted his hand and took the seat across from Elliot.
“I’m guessing you’re a local, right? What time do the ladies start showing up?” A smile covered the man’s face but Elliot could see through it. It was the kind of smile a man makes when he is intentionally trying to disarm you.
“Look, I just want to drink alone. So if you don’t mind…” Elliot let the sentence hang in the air as he motioned toward the bar where the man had been sitting.
“Woman problems, huh?” the man said. “Hell, I got ‘em too. Don’t we all. So what is it? Wife not putting out? Found out about a side piece or something?”
Elliot slid his right hand under the table and into the side cargo pocket of his pants, where it rested on the handle of an old .38 service pistol. The steel was cold and the revolver’s wooden grips were worn smooth from the decades that his father had carried it on duty. The pistol and a two-packs-a-day habit were the only things that he inherited from his father.
Elliot ran his thumb along the ridge of the grip, as if the weapon were some worry stone that could calm his nerves. The action proved effective as Elliot felt the heat that flushed through his body dissipate. He pulled his hand out of his pocket and placed it back on his drink.
“I don’t want to be rude but I would like to drink alone,” Elliot managed in a calm, even tone. Again, he gestured for the man to leave but he knew where this was heading.
“You don’t mean to be rude? First, you don’t shake my hand. Then you refuse to even…” The man stopped talking when Elliot stood from the table. With a slight waver to his first step, Elliot started toward the restroom without acknowledging the man. “What’s that guy’s problem?” Elliot could hear the man say over his shoulder.
Once in the bathroom, Elliot splashed cold water up onto his face and stared at the mirror but a grey-yellow film blurred and distorted the glass. He knew his reflection was there but his mind was in another world. He began to feel the hot, humid desert air beating down on him. He could sense the weight of his helmet and vest as he leaned against the sink. The faint, familiar noises started to come back to him and just as quickly they vanished. The dull shadows and blurs of his involuntary reverie were replaced by the bathroom’s cold blue lights and bleach smell.
A large hand on his shoulder spun him around. In a fluid motion, Elliot raised the revolver and leveled it at the man in the leather jacket. Elliot could see the man say something, his mouth moving imperceptibly fast, but his ears were ringing too much to hear the man’s plea. Elliot looked beyond the man to a picture on the wall of a man in a plaid shirt and tan cargo pants. The man in the picture was sporting a long beard and holding a revolver straight out in front of him. The man looked so familiar, he thought.
Elliot stepped out of the front door of Carmike’s and under the electric crackle of the pulsating sign. Clouds hung still in the air and reduced the moon’s light to a dull glow and the air smelled of rain. Elliot looked left in the direction of his house, only a half hour walk away. Teresa, his wife, was sure to be up pacing the living room. He hadn’t told her he was stopping for a quick drink. He turned right and started up the sidewalk, every step taking him farther than where he should be. He walked with an unnatural limp to his step not uncommon of patrons leaving the tavern at this hour. Anyone watching would think he was just another drunk stumbling out into the night. Except the streets were empty, with no one to see Elliot stagger along.
Elliot made it ten paces out the door and turned to look at the flickering sign. That damn, half broken sign. What was it clinging to? It should give up and just fade out already. Elliot braced himself against the old brick building, stooped down, and grabbed a large chunk of broken concrete. He hurled it at the sign, missing wide right. He tried again and missed again. Over and over, he slung rocks at the sign not once getting close. Maybe it was the whiskey throwing off his aim. Or some deep part of him that couldn’t let him do it.
“You’re useless,” he shouted at the sign. Then he turned headed off into the night.
As he approached the Christopher S. Thompson Memorial Bridge, a slight drizzle began to fall. The soft rain created a fuzzy halo around the streetlamps, whose yellow glow did little to illuminate the somber night. Despite the rain, Elliot trudged along up the gradual incline of the bridge. He knew what he had to do. There was no turning back.
Under his feet, the Missouri River flowed eastward, its muddy water barely visible in the dark night. Elliot’s fingers gripped the railing and he leaned out farther than he should have. He stared hard down below trying to judge the distance but the darkness made it nearly impossible. He moved his left leg forward and it banged against the lower guard rail, sending out a metallic ring of metal on metal. The sound was sharp and Elliot realized just how quiet it had been.
He shoved his hand into his cargo pocket and rooted around until his fingers wrapped around the revolver’s grip. He pulled it free and without even looking at it, he threw it as far as he could out over the water. Even as it flew through the air, he clung to it. It was his way. He didn’t have the fondest memories of his father, but the revolver was all he had left. Now it was gone. A pain shot through Elliot as he realized that this last piece of his father was gone. Still, he knew he couldn’t keep it. It was far too dangerous to have around.
Elliot stayed that way for several long minutes and stared out into the ink black water. He kept thinking he could see the revolver suspended in the air but knew that it was impossible. It was down at the bottom by now. It’s strange what the mind wants to see, he thought. Anything can become reality if you mind believes it.
An amber glow slowly lit the old metal braces of the bridge around Elliot. He turned to see a pair of yellow headlights coming up the bridge. Just before the it reached him, the car burst out in a magnificent display of blues, reds, and whites. The light show was accompanied with a short blip and squabble of a siren being momentarily turned on and off in rapid succession.
“Great,” Elliot said to himself.
The car came to a stop about twenty paces away and, even though he couldn’t see anything behind the blinding spectacle, Elliot sensed the door opening. His suspicions were confirmed when he heard the officer call to him.
“Sir, please back away from the railing. You have every reason to…” There was a momentary pause. “Jesus, Elliot is that you. What the hell are you doing here?” The officer was Patrolman Robert McAllister, or Little Robbie as most people in town called him in part because his enormous size and the fact that his father’s was also named Robert. In grade school, Elliot took Robbie, who was a year younger, under his wing and had taught him the ropes on the playground and how to write test answers in places on the desk so that teachers wouldn’t see. Over the years, the two became inseparable up until Elliot enlisted. Elliot hadn’t seen him since he got back in town and he didn’t want to see him now.
“Just go away,” mumbled Elliot.
“What? I can’t hear you man, just get in the car out of the rain,” Robbie said, now standing halfway between Elliot and the car.
Elliot knew there was no getting out of it. “Yeah. Okay.” As they walked back to the car, Elliot looked back out into the open expanse of darkness above the river. He knew he should feel something more, but he didn’t know what it was. It was as if there were too many emotions so he just shut them all out.
Once they were inside the car, the officer wiped his face with a towel and then handed it to Elliot who took it and just set it onto his lap.
“Damn, Elliot, it’s good to see you. I meant to catch you after the parade but it was pretty crazy. I drew the short straw and had to pull crowd security for the whole damn thing. I bet Teresa is glad to have you back. Hell, we all are.” The officer killed the lights and started across the bridge. “So how’s it going, man?”
Elliot didn’t say anything. There was something that hung in the air. Not tension. There was no bad blood between the two but there was something that kept Elliot from attempting to talk. It was as if the two spoke completely separate languages. Elliot wanted to tell him about everything, but he couldn’t find the words to even start. Elliot felt like the man sitting next to him, his lifelong friend, were somehow a complete stranger now.
Sensing the awkwardness in the air and wanting to fill it with anything, Robbie said, “I’m sorry I never came and saw you in the hospital. Teresa told me not to make the trip. That you would be home soon anyway.” He paused. “I just want to say that I am proud of you. For everything. You got a raw deal. And I guess thanks. Thanks for your sacrifice. It means a lot to the people here. And to me.”
It was weird to see such a large, powerful man open up this way and Elliot was tired of having the same conversation with people. No matter how many times people thanked him for his sacrifice or his service, he didn’t know what to say. There was a time when he felt proud, but that pride had slowly faded over the years and was replaced with a bitterness that only few people could relate to. People’s thanks meant little to him nowadays and for a while Elliot would tell people as much. His sharp responses would usually be met with a shocked expression of someone being betrayed. Soon, their taking offense became meaningless to him as well. Now when people thanked him, he wouldn’t say a word. If it made people feel better to thank him, he would let them. He just didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. He glanced at Robbie for a minute and said nothing.
Robbie could now see the state that Elliot was in and the smell of the whiskey was unmistakable. “Hey, Elliot. What were you doing on the bridge? You weren’t going to, you know, jump, were you?”
Hearing Robbie ask made Elliot want to shout out in open defiance against such an accusation. But would he be lying? He hadn’t thought about it while he was clutching the rail. Looking back now, there was a definite pull on him. A longing for the water below. It’s violent, swift current so enticing both for its steadiness and its perpetual change.
“Look, you don’t look so good so I’m just going to take you home to Teresa. I know you wouldn’t have jumped, man. I can’t imagine what you are going through. Just know that I am here, brother.” The officer turned the car and headed toward Elliot’s house. They rode the rest of the way like that, two foreigners unable to break the language barrier between them.
Standing at the end of his driveway, Elliot stared at his two-story brick colonial and marveled at how foreign it seemed. The house before him had been the base camp for all his childhood adventures, where he would escape from during his teenager years, where his father’s wake was held, and most recently, where his wife lay sleeping. Still, the towering structure seemed so estranged to him. It might as well have been a medieval castle, with its century-old oaks standing guard over the impenetrable fortress.
He trudged along the path, up the wide steps, and onto the porch. Twice he dropped his keys as tried to unlock the front door. He eased the door in a few inches and listened for Teresa. Nothing. He slowly swung the door open just wide enough to slip inside, and turned to close it behind him. Suddenly, WHOOF, WHOOF!
“Damn it, Gunner! It’s just me!” he whispered to the German Shepherd that had watched his every step from the bottom of the staircase. If Teresa wasn’t awake before, she certainly would be now. Gunner came up and, recognizing his owner, nuzzled up against his leg. “Not now. Go lay down.”
There was no point in covert actions now so Elliot walked to the kitchen and grabbed a glass from the cupboard, filled it with water, drank the entire contents in one massive gulp, and then performed the whole act a second time. He moved about the kitchen, performing several meaningless tasks, anything to avoid going upstairs. Which was strange because going upstairs to be with his wife was the only thing he really wanted to do. He wanted to curl beside her and forget the world had ever even existed.
“Elliot, baby, is that you?”
“Yeah, I’ll be up in a minute.”
“Don’t forget to take your pills. Doc said you shouldn’t miss a dose.” Bless her heart, he thought. She was one hell of a woman and the most selfless and sincerest person Elliot had ever known. After he had been evacuated to Germany, she had flown out and never left his side through the entire recovery. Months of grueling physical therapy and joint manipulations. She had been there the whole time. Stood by him. She was a true partner.
“Sure thing,” he said. Elliot picked up the pill bottle off the window sill behind the sink and held it up. He rattled the pills around inside, pulled one from the bottle, and tossed it down the drain. What the hell was one little pill going to do for him anyway. He went to set the bottle back and thought of Teresa again. He pulled another pill out and downed it with a yet another glass of water.
Elliot made his way upstairs and with little struggle managed to get himself into bed next to Teresa. As soon as his head hit the pillow, she rolled over and put her arm across his chest.
“You been drinking?” Teresa asked. There wasn’t the slightest hint of accusation in her tone, more curiosity than anything.
“Yeah, I had a few drinks after work. In town.”
“Really, I called Carmike’s and Mikey said you weren’t there.”
“Oh, I ran into Robbie. We downed a couple at his place. He drove me home.” Elliot didn’t know why he lied. Teresa wouldn’t have cared if he was at Carmike’s. She never rode him about going out because she knew he wasn’t the type to mess around.
“Good. He said he wanted to catch up with you.” After a short pause, she continued, “You know, when you were in the hospital. I mean right after. He called almost every day to see how you were. You boys catch up?” She curled her body tighter to his, like she was trying to anchor him down from floating away.
He wanted to tell her how awkward it had been trying to talk to Robbie. How awkward this entire life seemed now. “Yeah, we just shot the bull for a while.”
Teresa lifted her head and kissed him on the cheek. “Baby, I want to ask you something but I don’t want to you to get mad.” Her tone became flat, serious.
How could I get mad at you? he thought. “Okay, shoot,” he said.
“I was packing up some of the old winter clothes today and I noticed that your dad’s gun was gone. Did you move it? I thought it was on the top shelf in the closet.”
Elliot’s heart began to race. He wanted to tell her about everything. About the jerk in the bar, the bridge, how he lost control of himself. How could he lie to her? This beautiful, understanding woman. He wouldn’t lie anymore. He was going to tell her everything. That was the only way he would be able to cope with this strange new world he found himself in. He needed her to understand. Yes, he would tell her everything.
Elliot rolled over to face Teresa and said, “I got rid of it last week. I sold it down at Jacob’s place.” The words sounded like they came from someone else.
“But you loved that gun. It was your dad’s.”
“I just didn’t want it in the house. You know…”
“Oh, ok. Maybe we can go get it in the morning if it’s still there. Robbie can hold onto it for a while. I know how much it meant to you.”
So understanding, he thought. So compassionate. He desperately wanted to tell her the truth. “Yeah, maybe tomorrow.”
Patricia Boomsma is an Arizona lawyer and a recent MFA graduate from Queens University of Charlotte. She was an articles editor for the Indiana Law Review, and an editorial assistant for Qu magazine. Her publications include a book review in New Orleans Review and an article in the Journal of Modern Literature. Find out more at http://patboomsma.com/.
Fire and Ice
Not so long ago, a small desert town at the base of a range of high mountains decided to expand its tourism business by holding a rodeo and skateboarding competition on the same weekend. The town sent notices far and wide, hoping to attract the great horsemen and skaters of the land. They told of the glories of competition and the beautiful women in the contest for Mountain Queen.
Four sisters lived on a ranch to the north of the mountains. Paula was the most beautiful of these sisters, and she was a finalist for Queen. The sisters decided this would be a fine place to meet handsome and athletic men. So they packed up their RV with their best sequined dresses, fringed jackets, boots, and their most flattering swimsuits. The sisters trimmed the ends and braided Paula’s white-blonde hair, pumiced her feet, polished her nails, pitched in for a lovely blue dress. Paula and her sister Emily took turns driving the Silverado pulling the trailer with Blizzard, Paula’s elegant Appaloosa, and Misty, the family’s Quarter Horse. Their two sisters followed in the R.V, and set up in the campground near a group of men drinking beer around a fire pit, just close enough to walk to the arena and just far enough to avoid the brawls that inevitably occurred nearer the canteen. Paula and Emily drove to the stables, gave the horses food and water, brushed their coats, saddled, and mounted them for a ride around the arena. Paula sat up straight, thrusting her breasts forward, as she held Blizzard’s reins. The second time around, she bent down and whispered “Let’s show them!” into Blizzard’s ear, squeezing the horse’s sides lightly with her legs. When they passed the stables, Paula knew all eyes were on them.
Dark clouds blocked the white tops of the mountains, and grey threads of rain dropped halfway to the ground to the west, the air still too dry for anything but virga. Cold was coming. Blizzard shook her mane happily as Paula scratched her withers on the final cool down, glad to postpone the summer heat a while longer.
A handsome man approached. “Afternoon, miss,” he said. “My name’s Darren King. Can I help?”
“Thank you for your kindness, but no,” she said, not looking up as she brushed Blizzard’s sides.
“I expect you’re here to be our next Queen,” Darren said. “I know I’d vote for you.”
Paula looked up and smiled. “And are you one of the judges?”
“No. But I intend to win, and think it would be fine to share the stage with you.”
Emily joined them, a cat circling at her heels.
“This is my sister, Emily.” Paula said. “And this is Darren King.”
“And yet you haven’t told me your name,” Darren persisted.
“Paula,” she said.
“We best get back,” Emily said. “Our sisters will be wondering.”
“More beautiful ladies?” Darren asked. “It’s a good thing I have friends.”
“Do you now?” Paula asked. “Maybe we’d like to meet them.”
“We’ll be at Bulls’ Bar tonight. We’ll see you there.”
“Maybe,” Paula said. The cat followed them toward the campground, but turned to hiss at Darren as a final goodbye.
The clouds hung low, sleet fogging the windows of Aylain’s Escalade. She hoped the roads would dry in time for the street luge tomorrow. Or maybe not; she laughed a little at the slapstick scene that popped into her head of racers skimming haphazardly down a slick mountain road. Aylain loved the speed, the danger. Rodeos were fun, too, and winning the Rodeo Queen contests, which she pretty much always did. What she didn’t like were the dusty, crowded, stinking campgrounds and their communal bathrooms. Her cousin Ricky took their horses, and actually wanted to stay there. Good for him. She searched for a decent hotel where the judges might be staying, and not too crowded with retired rodeo riders and their fat wives. She considered the vehicles in the lot a good way to tell. Too many motorcycles were a no go; she was looking for nice F-450s or Ram 2500s, anything a wealthy horse breeder might have.
She pulled into the parking lot of a Dash Inn that advertised free breakfast. Perfect. Flowering red oleanders lined the front, shading a lizard that squinted at her as she passed, its webbed feet poised, ready to strike. The high school boy who checked her in could barely speak. She had that effect on men of all ages. When she asked where was the best place to go dancing, “Bulls’ Bar” was all he said.
“And where might that be?” Aylain asked sweetly.
“Just down the road about a half mile,” he stumbled. “It has a neon sign, and huge horns on the front door. You can’t miss it.” He slid her key toward her.
Aylain settled into her room, spreading bottles of moisturizer and make-up across the counter. She brushed her hair until a haze of red surrounded her head that looked like fire in the mirror. Loose, she decided. She pulled on her jeans, chose an emerald blouse and red boots. No jewelry tonight.
The crowd seemed to part as Aylain arrived, men offering her a place in line as women scowled. Once in, Aylain drifted toward the band, ignoring many offers while she scoped the club. That’s when she saw her, the girl in a white Stetson standing very close to a fine-looking man in a plaid shirt and tight jeans. Paula. Was there no getting away from her? They’d gone to the same high school, alternated the same boys, traded turns for the various queen contests – the only woman who was any real competition. Paula’s companion was suddenly the most interesting man in the room. Aylain kept out of Paula’s line of sight. Surprise always gave an edge.
Aylain accepted a beer from a man who too quickly asked if she wanted to leave with him. She did not. Eventually the man in the plaid shirt came toward the bar, and Aylain followed. When he noticed her, she could feel his interest. She smiled, then turned toward the bartender.
“What are you having? I’ll buy,” he said.
“Rolling Rock,” she said. “Thank you.”
“I’m Darren King,” he said. “What’s your name, pretty lady?”
“Aylain,” she said quietly, close to his ear.
“I need a smoke,” Darren said, leading her out a side door. He pulled out his cigarettes, tapped the pack against the wall, pulled one out and offered her one. She shook her head, but made sure she was in the path of his smoke.
“Luge starts tomorrow; will you be there?” he asked.
“Absolutely!” she said.
“Need to rest up tonight, but how about we get together after that?”
“And here I thought you were a cowboy.”
“Oh, I am. A cowboy with many talents.”
Aylain nodded, and gave him her warmest smile.
“Can I walk you to your car?” he asked, as they headed toward the door. “I came with my buddies, so need to round them up.
“No; I’m good,” she said.
Darren lifted the edge of his hat, then turned. Aylain watched him as he walked slowly toward Paula, shaking hands with a number of cowboys on his way. Rest up my ass, she said under her breath, a slow burn rising as Darren pulled Paula onto the dance floor.
The morning rose clear, with fresh snow on the mountains. Darren kissed Paula’s cheek as he put an arm in the leather jacket covering his black racing suit.
“Good thing it’s cool today,” Paula said, pulling at the tight material surrounding his leg. “I’d hate to wear that thing in the middle of summer.”
“What’s up for you today?”
“I’ll take Blizzard for a run, then hang out with my sisters.”
“Have fun,” he said, throwing his sled and helmet next to him in the cab of his truck.
The curved road up the mountain was blocked, only one lane open for the shuttles. Hundreds of cars were already parked in a field, and Aylain stood with clutches of people standing at a makeshift bus stop, her long red ponytail moving in the wind.
“Helene! So glad you came,” he kissed her on the cheek, and put an arm around her shoulder.
“Wouldn’t miss it. Got here as early as I could. And it’s Aylain.”
“Beautiful at ten at night and at six in the morning, no matter how you pronounce it.”
Darren warmed standing next to her. He sat behind her with all his gear on the ride up, his arms crossed on the back of her seat. Hay bales lined the street, many with banners advertising equipment sellers and the Downhill Racing Federation. A huge arch formed of hay bales and balloons marked the starting line. Raptors circled the sky, often dipping down to see what was happening to their usually quiet mountain.
“I need to do a couple of practice runs,” Darren said, pulling on his gloves. “See you later?”
“You will,” Aylain said, heading toward a stream of people with steaming paper cups in their hands.
The day was a blur of speed. Darren easily qualified, with lesser riders careening into hay bales in front of and behind him. At noon he joined Aylain at a picnic table in the sun. A little boy threw bits of bread toward the gathering ravens. Aylain’s face glowed.
“Someday I’m going to try it,” Aylain said.
“Nothing like it,” Darren said. “I love horses – love training them and riding them - and the rodeo, too, but this is, well, a rush. At every corner I think I’m going to fly off the edge. A roller coaster with no safety features.”
Paula nodded. “My uncles have racing thoroughbreds. Maybe that’s where I learned to love speed.”
“Have they run the Derby?” Darren asked.
“Sure. And I got to wear some pretty great hats,” Aylain said.
Darren took her ponytail in his hand. “It would be a shame to hide this lovely hair,” he said, then kissed her.
Paula arrived in time to see this tender moment. She had sensed something this morning, and now she knew. Darren kept touching the redhead’s face and hands. A cold knot built in Paula’s chest, and a plan for revenge began to form. She pulled up her hoodie, got in line for the bus, then watched out the window as it turned around and headed downward. She saw the redhead kiss Darren and walk toward the shuttle line as he walked toward the course. As Aylain neared the bus, Paula recognized her, and a little bit of fear chilled her. Paula did not like to lose.
The Queen contestants had been interviewed, gave their speeches to the judges, over a month ago. Now the finalists would model their finery. Darren stood along a back wall in the shadows near the entrance to the town hall. He’d watched Aylain and Paula arrive with a growing sense of dread. He knew he’d have to choose.
“Aylain!” Paula said, hugging her like an old friend. “It’s been too long! I see life has been treating you well. And what a beautiful dress. The sequins really work on you.”
“Paula, what a surprise!” Aylain said. “And you’re just as beautiful as you were in high school. This will be like old times.”
“Our glory days, for sure,” Paula said.
“It will be great to compete again,” Aylain said. “I’ve always said competition brings out the best in people.”
The other women moved away, patting their hair or pulling at the fringe on their dresses or a loose thread where a bead should have been. One started rubbing at her boot, hoping to shine away a scuff.
“Your attention please!” The Mayor, a burly man in a bolo tie, stood at a microphone on the dais. “Let’s give a hand for this year’s finalists for Mountain Queen. They are all winners! They have already won over the judges with their poise, intelligence, and knowledge of horses. Now our judges have the difficult task of deciding who will be Queen”
The small crowd, made up mostly of local ranchers and cowboys hoping to find a date for the night, clapped half-heartedly during the speeches thanking the judges and everyone else for all the time they spent organizing the event. More men, and a few women with small girls dressed in frilly western attire, drifted in until all the chairs were full.
The applause grew when the Mayor began introducing the contestants, who climbed the stairs, pirouetted, then stood to the side as the next one was introduced. But there was a notable gasp, almost a stutter of silence when first Aylain and then Paula entered. Aylain wore a green that matched her eyes, Paula was in blue with seed pearl fringe that rustled against her matching boots. Little girls pulled on their mothers’ hands, pointing.
“Aren’t they all lovely?” the mayor asked the crowd, and much clapping and hooting ensued. “See them again tonight at the arena where they’ll demonstrate their skill with their horses.”
At the rodeo grounds, the contestants, now in more serviceable clothing, lined up on their horses just outside the arena gate. They followed each other in, waving at the audience as they circled, smiling their flashiest smiles. Paula and Blizzard did a two-step during their salute. Not to be outdone, Aylain and her sorrel Paint, Blaze, did a kind of fast spiral, Aylain standing at each salute. During their individual routines, each contestant went to the center of the arena, walked her horse in a tight and then a large circle. The best riders moved quickly, their horse stepping high and sure, their dismounts acrobatic. Paula received standing applause and foot stomping as she entered. Aylain came tenth, to an equally enthusiastic din. As Aylain began to dismount, a cat jumped from the fence in front of her and hissed, causing Blaze to stumble and Aylain to hesitate, just for a second.
They waited restlessly, until finally the Mayor’s voice boomed across the public-address system:
“And this year’s Mountain Queen is,” the Mayor paused for effect, “Paula Hau! Come on, Paula. Take a turn around the arena for us.”
Paula mounted Blizzard, holding her reins with one hand and waving with the other. Darren leaned over the edge, throwing flowers to her.
Aylain burned. She was sure Paula had sent that infernal cat to distract her. The ground began to rumble and move, and Blizzard reared up as a mound of earth sprouted in front of her. Darren pulled himself over the sides of the stands, and grabbed Blizzard’s reins. Children screamed and the stands shook to fall. Those nearest the exits ran, while those in the middle pushed forward. Officials urged calm until another, stronger quake collapsed their tower, cutting electrical wires and sparking fires in the hay.
Ricky quickly covered Blaze’s head. He’d parked near the stable, so he and Aylain loaded their horse into the trailer. Fire caught the dry brush and burned towards the stables. Ricky threw the truck keys to Aylain. “Get them out of here,” he yelled, running to help with the remaining animals. A glow and a cloud of smoke rose from the long dormant volcano in the middle of the nearby mountain range. Fire trucks, paramedics, and police began to arrive in a jumble of flashing lights and sirens. Aylain put the truck in gear, and pulled out of the lot ahead of most of the terrorized crowd.
Darren helped Paula dismount, then they ran toward the trailers. Bursts of flame illuminated an unblinking iguana along the path. Paula stayed with Blizzard while Emily and Darren went to rescue their horses.
“Wouldn’t you know it?” Paula said to Blizzard. “The time I finally beat that bitch Aylain, and it will always be known as the year of the fire.”
Blizzard shook her head and snorted in agreement.
As Paula waited, she saw rivulets of red snaking down the mountain. Their ranch was on the north side! She pulled out her cell phone and dialed home; no answer. Fear chilled her. They had to leave! She called Emily.
“Can’t talk now, sort of busy,” Emily screamed into the phone.
“The volcano!” Paula shouted back.
“The volcano! It’s erupting! Mom and Dad don’t answer!”
Emily swore, and Paula heard her explaining.
“Darren says just go. He has room for my horse,” Emily said. “Go! Keep calling.”
By now the exits were clogged with cars, trucks, trailers, RVs. Suddenly the earth moved again. Car alarms added to the general din of sirens and screams. Paula called her other sisters, hoping they had already left with the RV. All she got was a disembodied voice saying all circuits were busy. She pounded the steering wheel. They were all going to die. She rolled down her window, stuck out her head trying to see around the truck in front of her. A drop struck her head. Then another. The icy rain soon came down so quickly that Paula could no longer see the cars surrounding her, but it seemed the areas of orange were getting smaller. After about a half hour the torrent slowed, and Paula bolted out of the truck. Paramedics were pulling people from under collapsed grandstands, while police and cowboys were trying to cover the injured awaiting transport. The Mayor had a bullhorn, and was telling everyone that the exits needed to be kept clear for emergency vehicles. As Paula approached the stable, she saw Emily and Darren standing under an eave wrapped in a blanket, kissing each other.
Paula asked a police officer if there was any word about what was happening at the volcano.
“The volcano?” he asked. “That hasn’t made a peep in a hundred years.”
Paula pointed at the widening orange rivers in the distance.
The officer ran toward the command station, gesturing and nodding with two other men.
Her dad answered this time. No, they weren’t leaving. Their side of the mountain was still covered in snow. Just a little smoke cutting through the moon.
Aylain careened into the parking lot of the Dash Inn just as the rain began. She put her jacket over her head and sprinted inside to collect her things. She stabled the horses about twenty miles out, then drove aimlessly for a while, finding herself closer and closer to the volcano. How beautiful it was, even from this distance. She heard the roar of a landslide, saw the billowing tower of ash with fire and sparks bursting upwards into the night sky. She drove to Ghost Lake at the base of the mountain, as near as she dared get. The snow that always covered the top was gone; rocks and trees and ash slid down its sides. The moon peaked out with decreasing frequency, and soon the only light came from inside the mountain. Melted snow joined the ash and downed trees into a mountain stream, then sped into the lake. She must have dozed, waking as the haze lightened. She went toward the lake, dead fish and broken trees lapping at its sides. Undeterred, she covered her mouth and nose with a scarf as she listened. All she found were a family of ash-covered deer lying like toppled lawn ornaments.
Emily seemed not to notice Paula’s silence on the drive home. The ash cloud made it difficult to see, just a vast expanse of grey and a strange quiet. When they reached the north side of the mountains, they discovered the rain had become a snowstorm, and the roads toward their ranch had not been plowed. They pulled into a diner. Everyone inside stared at a television as video of the eruption played and replayed. Ten known dead. Many more missing. Animals and trees in the path of the lava wiped out.
Suddenly a picture of Paula flashed on the screen followed quickly by pictures of fire trucks and smoldering buildings.
“Fires broke out just after the Queen was crowned at this year’s rodeo,” the reporter said. “Three know dead and hundreds injured. Sadly, many horses had to be put down.” The scene shifted to the Mayor kneeling next to a wide-eyed mare.
“Long live the Queen,” a woman said.
The newscasters’ perky sad voices began reporting about the snow, how accidents on the interstate had killed seven, and thirty-four more had been airlifted to the local hospital. Much of the area was without power. The newscast flashed an aerial of the mountain range showing pure white on the north and east, smoldering grey with patches of orange on the west and south.
“Won’t be much coming from the orchards this year,” one of the truckers at the counter said. “Snows came too late.”
“Better snow than fire,” another said.
Paula drank her coffee slowly, hoping the roads would clear soon.
Joe Oppenheimer was a professor of mathematical social science at the University of Maryland. He retired to write fiction and poetry. Oppenheimer assists a writers' group in a center for the homeless in Maryland. We published his flash fiction, Bus Rides and Destination, in August. He has also published poems and stories in Chronogram, Corvus Review, Foliate Oak Literary Review, and Faculty Voice. Still more of his writings and biographical information are available on his website: http://gvptsites.umd.edu/oppenheimer/id43.htm.
Thursdays, we meet in the back of Rita’s Hot Stuff BBQ shack. It sits a few miles north of Austin, just east of the Braker Lane Bridge that goes over I-35. We push tables together to sit as a group. Rita gets up for the occasional customer.
We’re all grateful to Rita. She set up the Hot Stuff Writers’ Workshop. Even if I’ve eaten dinner at home, I buy a Shiner, or an Uncle Billy’s and a slice of pie. Everyone does. Regulars who don’t get home for dinner get one of Rita’s great pork sandwiches and a brew. We’ve come to fix em for ourselves and leave the money by her register.
She says she needs the writer’s group to preserve her self-image. Says she’s a writer first, then a BBQ cook. But that might just be backward. I mean she’s got some of Texas’ best BBQ. And that’s saying something. I’ve seen her make her sauce: she starts with a can of Heinz, but she cooks it up with garlic, chipotle, and red onion. Sometimes she adds beans, corn. Even a touch of cider to sweeten it if the peppers get too hot. Not that Rita can’t write. Bein’ a graduate from Rice, ’n all. She’s good.
We’ve got regulars and those who just come every once in a while. Usually us core members show up, but most of the cast of characters are episodic. Alain Poutine, our youngest member, is core. The second week in July, as usual, Alain Poutine, was seated at the table by the time I got there. Imagine someone called Alain Poutine in Texas. Well, his kin had to come from Louisiana, ’cause no one west of the state line would name a kid Alain. Anyhow, he always makes the most incisive comments on our writings. He’s south of thirty, but wiser and more insightful than any of the rest of us.
Hot Stuff has very few rules. But Rita says no one’s to read for more than 8 minutes. She’ll cut you off before you get 2000 words out. But one time in Spring, someone came in with some sort of fable. After about 10 minutes, James butted in with some non-sequitur like, “Rita, do you have a Dos Equis?”
“Hush your mouth, James,” she said. “Why do you gotta always be such a crude cowboy? Can’t you listen to the story till it’s over?” Rita clearly liked what she was hearing and wasn’t having any of those limits she imposed.
With somewhat unstable attendance, and Rita’s rules, the workshop has never been a good place to read longer pieces such as novels. A novel dribbles out over months. None of us can maintain a novel’s longer arc. Criticisms then get restricted to things like grammar. So most of us bring stories, snippets, and poems.
A week last February some guy called Nathan came by our meeting. He introduced himself, “I’m the fiction editor from Brown Dirt Press. We need some good stories to sell to the schools. You’d get 10% so if you’re getting any good ideas about middle school stories, you contact me. That’s Brown Dirt - in Austin. Ya’ll be sure to send me any of your best writings.”
We hung onto his words. I mean, we all want to earn our bucks writing. That’s why most of us write. He must have come because the reputation of Hot Stuff had grown. And it only grew ’cause the criticisms one gets here are high quality.
Or maybe it’s the BBQ. Maybe that’s what inspires all of us. We cherish the days we don’t have dinner before the meetings. Those sloppy BBQ sandwiches on hoagies. The sauce gets over everything above your belt when you squeeze the hoagie to take a bite. Always a mess. Maybe we try to write better to ‘earn our place at the table.’ Anyhow, there’s been a steady increase in the quality of what we’re writing. By last winter the readings were pretty respectable.
If criticism is the elixir, Alain has a lot to do with it. He’s the pro. His critical skills haven’t yet translated into any pubs. He’s got nothing in print. I don’t know if he’s even got a real job. Whenever I attend, and I’m pretty much core, I’m surprised to find Alain has brought a chapter of his novel to read. Most of his chapters take more than a month to read. But that doesn’t daunt him. After seven months, in August, we were somewhere deep in Chapter Five.
In contrast to his criticisms, Alain’s novel never rises to the level of maturity one could expect from someone who gives out such solid comments. Rather, his writing is all slam bang – macho violence. Strippers and whores find themselves emotionally tied to murderers, rapists, and extortionists. His pages have no rounded characters, no physical descriptions. Flowers, trees, wall paper, colors, are replaced by calibers, corpses, stilettoes, and stranglers. By Chapter Four, the casualty list included three drug dealers, two users, a pimp, a stripper, a night club owner and an accidental stray or two. The inventories of weapons employed, causes of death, and the like were also staggering.
Alain knows he isn’t writing literature. He says he’s writing ‘social realism’ – reality as he lived it. He says he’s his exhuming his youth. It’s a period he only recently left behind. He says it was a time of sex and violence. But who knows anything about Alain really?
I called Rita once about Alain. I said, “Alain must be writing much better stuff in secret than the shit he’s reading to us.”
“You think so? I never really thought about that.”
“Well how could he be writing that crap and giving us such good feed back?”
“Maybe he’s sending us a cry for help.”
That observation might have been prophetic, but I didn’t see it that way and answered, “Maybe it’s just fiction and he’s wanting us to identify with the characters in his novel.”
“Who knows,” Rita closed.
We didn’t. But I envied those lost years of his: his adventures – consequences be damned. Those brushes with death gave him experience, something to write about. I coveted his abandonment, his courage to do something more, something different with his life.
It was the third Thursday in August. I was lost in my thoughts about a futile day at the office, and was driving directly home from work. My malcontent was leading me to consider alternative lives.
Summer rain in Texas usually isn’t but when it is, it’ll be fierce. And comes on in an instant. That evening’s storm sure lived up to that rep. It made the commute brutal. I hated it. Visibility was crap. The road was slick. Traffic hardly moved, even in the HOV lane. I turned on the radio, flicked around to get some report on what was causing the jam. Nothing. I settled on NPR’s news program.
An approaching siren on the inside shoulder brought me back to my current coordinates. As the ambulance moved ahead, the traffic began to snake forward. I forgot my day dreams, and started to move to the right, the exit lanes. The six o’clock NPR news was ending. Then I realized it was Thursday: Hot Stuff night. Now I was in a rush to get to Rita’s place. It was too late to go home for dinner and still make the writer’s group.
I called home to say I was going directly to the group and would get something at the Shack. I didn’t expect a full house but when I got there the parking lot was almost empty. I opened my brief case, checked out the poem I’d printed out a few days earlier. “Super Heroes” – a topic dear to my heart even if far from my world. I was proud of it and looked forward to Alain’s comments. I folded it and put it in my wallet, and stepped out of the car. I was pleased that I had braved the weather to read my short poem.
The shop’s hinged sign above the sidewalk “Hot Stuff: Best BBQ in Texas” was swinging wildly. Once inside, I found myself alone in the Shack with Rita. She’d been sitting there alone with a disc of grinder-man blues filling the spaces around her. I sat by her at our table. Rita began her oft told tale of loss. She warmed up to her story, how she had gone to New York, to escape the claw of Texas. And to write poetry. I took an Uncle Billy’s lager out of her cooler, and fixed a pulled pork plate. Then dropped a twenty by her drawer. I knew what was coming next, her father died. Then she had to run the place to support her two siblings and her mother. She pined for the freedom of Gotham.
“You know Tom, this writer’s table loans me sanity. It’s my closet of dreams. Once a week, I open it.”
Her misplaced loyalties and deferred dreams brought me back to my own ruminations. But I answered, “Rita, your too hard on yourself. It isn’t everyone who can run the best BBQ shack in central Texas, and a writers’ group.”
Another beer, another riff on the story, and the storm got worse. By the fourth or fifth beer, it was clear, no one was coming, not even Alain. Damn him.
August 31 was another bad commute, but a more normal workshop. Except, of course, Alain’s absence. I still had my folded poem, “Super Heroes,” in my wallet, but without Alain I wasn’t going to expose my poem. No one could remember a time when Alain missed two meetings. About half way through the meeting, Elroy said, “Let’s contact him. Just to say we miss him.” But we realized we didn’t know how to contact him.
A few days later, the Austin American Statesman ran a headline above the fold: “Unidentified Local Man Kidnaped: Held for Ransom.” There was a photo with it. The picture was blurry but resembled Alain. So I read it. Some anonymous group mailed the picture to the paper claiming they were holding this guy for ransom. More information would be forthcoming. It gave me chills. They identified the man as a 45 year old from Austin. I was relieved to note the age, but the resemblance worried me.
Rita saw the same picture and called straight away. “Did you see that photo on the front of the paper today?”
“Sure looked like Alain,” she said.
“It was pretty blurred.”
“That pic could have fit half the young men in the state,” I said.
“Maybe. Couple of guys coming in for coffee and pie. Gotta run.”
And that was it. For a few days. Then a follow up. The paper had received a note identifying the man in the picture as Alain Poutine. This caused immediate concern. Rita called again.
“They’ve got him. We’ve got to help,” she insisted.
“But it doesn’t quite add up, does it? Our Alain isn’t 45.”
“How many Alain Poutine’s do you think are out here? Let’s at least find out where ours is.”
“OK, on Thursday let’s try again and see if anyone knows how to find him,” I suggested.
“Till Thursday then. Unless something comes up.”
“OK, anything new and we’ll chat.” But there was nothing new to go on and Thursday came without a call back from Rita.
Thursday I figured things would be OK. Nothing else had run in the Statesman. I again brought “Super Heroes;” but Alain didn’t show up. I didn’t recite my poem. No one had a clue how to contact him, and we were worried. Googling “Alain Poutine Texas” gave no hits. No one even knew the color of his car. We decided then and there everyone had to share contact information with all the other group members. We each wrote down our particulars and Rita said she’d put it in an email for all of us. But that didn’t get us any closer to Alain.
I was reluctant to open Friday’s paper but there was nothing. By Tuesday, I was relaxed. Some fanciful tale that our Alain was on vacation had replaced the rankling ugly possibility that had monopolized my head. I was whistling a tune when I walked out to grab the paper to read over coffee.
A page one headline immediately jumped out at me: “Kidnappers Turn Killers: Slit Poutine’s Throat.” There was a big color picture of a man lying, face down, in a pool of blood. It sure could have been Alain. I had to unfold the paper to get the story. Alain was dead. The story gave some sketchy background: some pimps caught him at a night club on the South side of town. The reporter had done some digging. Now they said he was 47 years old. Born in West Texas, he was a high school drop out, a drifter, a low life who hung out with gangsters. His mother had died when he was an infant. His father was interviewed. He said “I ain’t never expected much of Alain. But he sure could’a turned out better.”
I was devastated and even afraid to go back to the workshop on Thursday. But I did, with my poem. I pulled in, grabbed a Modelo, looked around. Alain, of course, wasn’t there. Elroy started by remembering Alain. “He was the only pro we had.”
Nikki added, “the rest of us don’t even know grammar.”
“We should have put up the ransom.” Rita said.
“Who’s got that kind of cash?” added James.
“What are we going to do?” I mused. We discussed what this meant for the rest of us. How would we ever get the kind of criticism that we had come to expect? No one read. No one even admitted to bringing anything to read. Rita said, “Let’s hold a memorial service right now. Beers all around. Pie too.”
The next week was real strange. The weather was beautiful. It often is when the heat breaks in early autumn. My work at Blue Frost had been commended by the vice president for finance. Everything was going well. I was going to get a bonus. I might even be given a desk in an office with a window after the holidays. Going home, I had an easy commute. It was followed by a good dinner with Ann. The kids were strangely affectionate, and I was lulled into a sense of acceptance and pride in my small accomplishments. I left for the writer’s group as usual.
I decided to read my poem even in the absence of Alain. I wasn’t the first to arrive. I took a piece of Rita’s sweet potato pie; left a fiver by the register. We sat around the table, and asked who was reading. I said I was. I reached into my back jeans pocket and took out my wallet. Just as I unfolded the now somewhat old page, the back door to the shack banged shut. I looked up at the noise, and was shocked to see Alain walking toward us, fully intending to take a seat at the table. He was tanned, as if coming back from a holiday in Baja or someplace. He looked healthy but had a long bandage across his throat. You could have heard a pin drop. Even Rita was speechless. He came over and smiled.
“Sorry I’m late. Hope you all didn’t miss me these past weeks. Rita, I’ve gotta have me a pulled pork sandwich if you don’t object. I’m hungry as a bear.” I looked at Rita. She didn’t make a sound. He went over and fixed his meal himself. No one moved.
But as he started his sandwich, Elroy said, “Where you been?” And that just broke the ice. Everyone yelled out questions, like “What’s with your throat?” “Are you from West Texas?” “Is your mother dead?” and statements such as “We thought you were a goner.” And then came the last one, “You aren’t 47, are you?”
Alain didn’t answer any of them. He just took his seat like he always had been here, like nothing had happened. Rita said, “Well, Tom are you gonna read or are we gonna all just piss in our pants waiting?” I read the poem. It was about an old guy who once had a tattoo of Superman on his bicep. It had gone flabby. There was a moment of silence.
Then Alain jumped up and yelled at me. “That’s was the most anti-male piece of shit I ever heard. Who the hell are you, you cowardly chicken-livered bastard? Real men don’t just go off to die, getting flabby and weak. They take their chances. Grab their opportunities. Take viagra and fuck till they die. They struggle for meaning. They don’t just take the same old same old. God, what a shit message.”
I had nothing to say. This had been my day. Someone shouted “Welcome back man, we missed you, that’s for sure.” Then there was great rejoicing and everyone toasted our resident guru’s return. Me? I got up, took a beer, and welcomed him back along with everyone else.
Ariel Andrew is a twenty-five-year-old writer based in San Jose, California. She is pursuing her master’s degree in creative writing with an emphasis in fiction from San José State University. Her work has been featured in Number One Magazine. She is originally from the Midwest, and she graduated from the University of Missouri, Kansas City in 201
Aaron threw up his hands, his unassuming gold ring glinting faintly in the dim light of the bedroom.
“I’m not saying he’s a good choice,” he said. “I’m saying that she’s not a good choice either. I’m trying to find the lesser evil. What will hurt us the least for the next four years.”
“Eight,” Lucy said. “The incumbent always gets it. In eight years, we’ll be in our thirties. These are formative years.”
“I can count, thanks,” Aaron said. It had been a long night, full of circles and planes of existence that didn’t quite touch, so they yelled at each other instead. Aaron and Lucy had been married for two years, relatively young newlyweds for their crowd. Millennials. Aaron would say it, even if Lucy refused to acknowledge the term, dodging any label with negative potential.
Aaron didn’t blame Lucy. She’d had a rough go—a conservative Christian upbringing that told her she was inferior but in a good way. Sexism in every variety. He hated how men looked at her sometimes, as if she wasn’t the intelligent, ferocious meteorite of a woman he’d married, but something flat. Something round.
Aaron considered himself on the better side of maleness. Pro-choice, anti-rape culture, never said cunt except that one time, when he was drunk, when he didn’t mean it.
But Aaron couldn’t open the favored candidate of his generation with open arms. The lies mattered, he thought. It’s insulting her intelligence as a woman to believe her, to chalk up those emails to her motherliness.
“No, what’s insulting is that you’d even look at the alternative,” Lucy said. She had moved from the bed to the cheap spinning chair by their Ikea desk. The chair twitched no matter how hard Lucy tried to be still, dominant, calm and domineering.
“All I’m saying is she’s already fucked up big time in the Cabinet,” he said. “He hasn’t had a chance to do that yet.”
“You’re fucking kidding me.”
“I’m not saying I agree with him at all. I think what he’s said is disgusting. But I don’t trust her. Not after Benghazi. Not after the emails.”
“You sound like a Fox News puppet.”
“You sound like a liberal media puppet.”
“Liberal media? Oh give me a fucking break. He’s a rapist, Aaron. He’s a rapist and a sexist and a racist. And people don’t give a fuck. They have arguments to counter these statements.”
Lucy looked at the ceiling. She was making her hard stare, the cutting glare saved for the rare moments when she held back tears.
“I didn’t think you were people,” she said. The tears came anyway. The spinning chair started vibrating with her silent, repressed sobs.
“I’m not people,” Aaron said. He hated when she cried. But he was furious with her, for not even bothering with his words. He was so angry that she had blocked him out, only listening to her own rage, the rage reflected in the women she knew, the women she didn’t. “I just don’t think she’s right, either.”
Aaron looked down at his blank mail-in ballot, the thick slices of paper that had started this whole argument. Lucy was voting on election day. Aaron savored his anger. She probably just wanted a sticker.
Lucy stomped into the shower, where she could cry freely. Aaron started filling in his arrows, the left-pointing signals that told him who he was, what he thought of his wife, if he was a worthwhile human being.
Lucy had been in the shower for twenty minutes when Aaron sealed the envelope. He went outside to drop it in the box, flick up the rusted red flag attached. That always made him feel so American. Here is my opinion, waiting to be collected and measured, it said, on the corner of a cul-de-sac where I rent a three-bedroom house with five other people. Here I am, performing my duty, scraping by. Alienating my wife for what?
Lucy was a heavy sleeper, especially after she’d been crying. She was fast asleep when Aaron came back in. Four hours later, when the gray light of dawn just made enough contrast visible to tell our differences, he heard her move. She got out of bed silently, barely leaving a dent where she’d been. She slipped on her shoes and left the bedroom. Aaron tried to breathe quietly, as if his quiet breath could compensate for the conversation that had ruined their night.
Lucy came back after a few minutes. She slipped into the twelve inches of bed farthest from him, keeping her body rigid and sideways. An hour later, she slipped out of the foot of bed she’d left for herself and went to work. Aaron laid in bed for some time, hearing his alarm bleep insistently. Then he got ready and left. As he pulled his beat-up nineties sedan out of the cul-de-sac, he saw that the mailbox flag was down.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is a recent alum of Oregon State's MFA Program. He won Bayou Magazine's Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, Prairie Schooner online, and Bellevue Literary Review. He currently works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
I knew the look. When blood not only pours from a man’s head, but rather cobwebs across his face. The proverbial crimson mask. Insides on the outsides. A man dying by degrees.
I knew that look. It’s just that I’d never felt it.
It’s easy enough to bleed in a wrestling ring. Hard-way cuts when someone’s knuckles catch your brow just wrong or you knock your head against the back of a man’s skull. Hell, every day a million office works must papercut their thumbs and dribble blood over the papers they’re pushing.
But getting color means opening a cut wide enough in the right spot to flow into sweat, all at the right time. That’s the art form.
I asked if Cowboy Sam would do the honors. He shook his head. Never ask another man to cut you. It’s messy business and that’s how people wind up deformed.
So I had to do it myself. After he sent me careening into the ring steps outside the ring and as he flexed to draw the attention of the crowd, I buried my face in my arms and retrieved the razor, hidden in the tape wrapped around my fingers.
There were two ways to blade. Lateral slices or digging and twisting.
I’d heard the latter left bigger scars, so I dug and I twisted. I dug and I twisted. I touched my forehead and couldn’t feel the blood. So then I dug and slid the blade between two of the initial dig sites.
Then—then, I felt it.
I felt my face hot and wet. Cowboy reared back at the sight of all that blood. The crowd fell silent. Then Cowboy set to wailing on me. Wide-arching, windmill forearm clubs on top of my head. Shots to remove any doubt that he was a killer. Shots to communicate that I was not only being bested, not only beaten, but slaughtered.
I grew light-headed. Walked the tightrope between pretending to stagger and realizing my legs were rubbery, and I had trouble focusing on Cowboy.
He pulled me in close. Want to go home early?
I didn’t answer. Forgot how to force words from my vocal chords. But Cowboy understood. Hit the spine buster into the Boston Crab.
Afterward, while I was turning a white towel red and wet and hot, I asked Cowboy how he’d known I was hurt. How I might tell for myself if another man were playing dead or truly on the cusp.
Cowboy had himself a good laugh. Kid, you’re not that good an actor.
HAVE IT ALL
When I was a kid, when I was just starting to understand what commercials were, I nonetheless had trouble telling the difference between the show and the ads. Call it a short attention span. Call me stupid. I couldn’t follow the thread of most shows more than a few minutes—forget about the space between scenes.
I wasn’t much better at reading either. Always losing my place and rereading the same line over and over again, until I figured I’d read it enough times I’d might as well have read a whole page, so I turned the page and got more lost and wondered why anyone bothered with this frustration, this waste of life.
So, I got it when the old wrestler, Cowboy Sam, talked about his son—his youngest, from a girl he didn’t even attempt to marry, having learned his lesson three times by then. He sent the girl a check once a month and stopped in to visit when we were passing through or near their Iowa town. Had dinner with them all, read the kid a bedtime story or goofed around with him with his stuffed animals.
This time around, the kid was older than Cowboy would have imagined. Older than his calculations allowed for and he wondered if it had been one year since his last visit or three. And all the kid wanted to do was watch TV.
Four years old now, Cowboy said. And he stares. I told her she’s got to get that kid outside.
But Cowboy had succumbed to it. Sat on one end of the couch, the mother on the far side, their child in between. The kid pointed at the TV. At a bright red sports car. He says, Want that!
New York Nick Nettles chuckles. Sounds cute. He was never reading Cowboy right. Read him even worse than me.
Materialistic, that’s what this boy’s getting to be. But that ain’t even the worst of it.
Because the next commercial was for wrestling. And Cowboy beamed. Started to tell the boy that’s what his daddy did for a living, thought maybe he’d teach the kid how to put him in a miniature Boston crab, a cobra clutch. That he’d tap out his bit meaty paw, the size of his son’s whole little back, in mock-submission.
You think the kid listened to me? Hell no. He pointed again, when Jeff Hardy did a senton off a ladder, and said, Want that! Like all of us were toys he could own. Play things. That’s the kind of son she’s raising.
I thought to explain my own childhood confusion between ads and substance. That maybe it was better the kid understood some things were advertisements and for sale, rather than accepting it all as story to consume.
But Cowboy wasn’t going to hear that. That’s how kids get started on thinking they can own people, on thinking they’re better. It’s parents like that setting the kid in front of the TV to watch it all. Watch it from their ivory towers. Dance, monkey, dance!
He was in a state. Best to let him talk it out for himself. Talk out the anger. Talk until his mouth was dry and he was more angry about that and got up to get some water.
And his mother, do you think she corrects him? No! She laughs. Messes up his hair and tells him—actually tells the kid!—he can have it all.
She found us wrestlers at a diner. A place that played James Brown on the jukebox and seemed to look for any excuse to smother an order in whipped cream—Betsy Biggins’s hot fudge sundae (fair enough), New York Nick Nettles’s milk shake (OK) my root beer (a little over the top), the side of Fireman Phil Styles’s fresh fruit platter (he sent it back, which made us all groan because etiquette dictated that none of us ate until the veteran with the longest tenure was fed, not that that stopped him. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he sent it back just because it’d make the rest of us wait when we were starving).
She came up to us and, in my bleary-eyed state, concussed from superplex Phil had given me two hours before, I mistook her for a manager who’d come to apologize for the delay, and I thought we might land a discount on something.
But no, she was too pretty for to be a manager working the swing shift at a twenty-four-hour diner. Didn’t have the tell-tale bags under her eyes. I followed the pinstripes on her blazer to her skinny jeans.
I’m writing a series on the psychology of wrestling. She was talking directly to Phil. Fair, because of all of us, he was the closest thing to a star.
Nick was the one to call her out. You know we’re all wrestlers. He flashed that big city grin full of pearly whites and scooted inwards, butting shoulders then hips with Betsy until he had her all the way into the booth, so the there was room for this reporter to sit with us, next to Nick, across from Phil.
This reporter started dividing her attention between Nick and Phil. She read the both of them right. Noted Phil was such a big star that she’d heard all about him, and she wasn’t even a wrestling fan. Touching Nick’s arm more than she needed to, touching him every time he talked.
Our waitress brought back Phil’s fruit, the cantaloupe and honeydew and pineapple chunks bare now. She bought the reporter her salad, too, chopped up iceberg, tomato wedges, and a dipping cup of honey mustard.
By the time we’d finished eating, it was settled. Phil would stay in touch with her on the phone and get her backstage when she wanted to meet up with us. She offered to pick up the tab for the night, but Nick interjected himself, said he was getting the check for everyone. I do this all the time. It feels good to take care of people.
Betsy snorted, barely stifling laugh, and I had to cover my mouth with my napkin as I cracked up myself.
But the reporter bought it. An eager, blushing schoolgirl, her lily white skin tinged pink. She gave his bicep a squeeze this time. She called him a gentleman and she got up to leave.
One more thing. Phil stopped her in her tracks. I’ll be reading everything you write about me, and if I sniff out something I don’t like, that’ll be the end of this arrangement. Do you understand?
She nodded. I’ll treat your story with the utmost respect.
Phil watched her. Studied her. Then shifted his eyes to Nick. It’ll be the end of this arrangement and I’ll break pretty boy over here’s arm.
She didn’t know what to do with that. Maybe she didn’t care so much about losing Nick, or Phil, or any of us as long-term interview subjects. But to be responsible for someone else getting hurt—that’s a burden most people don’t carry day to day.
Nick didn’t say anyting. Though Betsy watched him with a wide-eyed stare, as if starving for a confrontation. He put his head down and went on sucking down the last bits of his milkshake.
When the reporter was gone, Nick dared to eye Phil. You didn’t have to do that.
No. Phil ran his big index finger around the inside of Nick’s glass, gathering up a dollop of whipped cream on it. I suppose I don’t have to do much of anything.
DC Diamondopolous is an award-winning short story and flash fiction writer published worldwide. DC’s short stories have appeared in online literary magazines: Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket, Fiction on the Web, Eskimo Pie, Five on the Fifth, Five 2 One and many more. DC’s stories are also in print anthologies: Crab Fat Lit, Blue Crow and Scarborough Fair. DC won second place in the University of Toronto’s Literary Contest for 2016 for the short story, Taps, and won two Soul Making-Keats honorary mentions in 2014 for the short stories, The Bell Tower and Taps. DC was the grand finalist winner for the short story Billy Luck at Professor Punks Defenestrationism literary site for 2016.
Leaves of Grass: An Apothecary
Assembly woman, Brenda Bustamante stepped from the taxi onto Market Street in the Castro District. The rainbow flag rippled and waved like a proud declaration atop a pole above the gay metropolis. San Fransisco was a long way from Brenda’s hometown of Bakersfield, and the Castro further still, when it came to politics and lifestyles.
The cool spring breeze lifted the lapels of her blazer and swept her auburn hair off her face. She gazed across the street to her destination, a place she didn’t want even the cabdriver to know.
Since that night, at her best friend’s son’s graduation party when she ate from the wrong—or in her case, the right—batch of brownies and wrapped several in a napkin for later, she drove home, staggered into bed and for the first time in years fell into a fathomless sleep for almost eight hours. Best of all, she woke up without a hangover, unlike the pills her doctor had prescribed. With her intense workload and ambitions for higher office, sleep was crucial. After talking with Tony, she decided that edible marijuana was the answer, and with a medical license, it was legal. She drove all the way from Bakersfield to the central coast to get her permit. If her constituents back home knew, even the more liberal ones, they might vote her out of office.
She had never smoked, cautioned her three daughters about cigarettes and drugs. She did have one addiction, sweets, especially cookies and cake.
Brenda found a cure for her insomnia. And gosh darn it—she had every right to buy it.
She waited at the crosswalk. Her research, the knowledge of all aspects of cannabis, made her aware of the medicinal benefits. When she went online to Weedmap, she found more marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks in the city. Further information revealed the best places to buy edibles were in the Castro.
Brenda had one day to purchase her medicine and drive to her apartment in Sacramento.
She passed young men and women in the crosswalk wearing T-shirts, jeans and Giants’ baseball caps. Before going into politics, they reminded her of her students at Cal State, Bakersfield. No different, except that the men held hands with each other, and so did the women. There were heterosexual partners with children, and, at the bus stop, an older Asian couple quarreled as the breeze carried a notion of how close she was to the sea.
She recalled that ugly time during Prop 8 when yellow signs blotted homes and church lawns. It sickened Brenda how people’s ignorance incited fear.
So, when marriage equality became the law in California, she rode in a float as grand marshal in the Pride Parade. Her three girls cheered and waved rainbow and American flags as she passed by sitting on a bale of hay in a restored 1930 yellow Ford pick-up truck waving to the spectators. She never imagined being in a parade could be so much fun.
Brenda headed toward the neon green cross on the facade of the building and a black awning with gold lettering, Leaves of Grass: An Apothecary.
By the open door, stood a security guard with a tattoo circling up his neck.
“Rip offs!” a man yelled.
The guard stepped in front of the door.
“You can buy this shit for twenty bucks at the corner of Hayes and Pierce. Rip-offs! Suckers!” The man staggered away.
Noise from trolley buses and cars clanked over metal plates that covered wide tracts in the street. Passersby chatted on phones. A homeless girl foraged through a trash bin. One man picked up after his dog. The brisk air currents rushed through the city washing it clean, except for the mad and the hungry. As a politician, Brenda felt responsible. Driven by obligation, she saw herself as a statesman, and forced herself to be ruthless toward her goals.
“I need to see your permit,” the guard said.
Brenda reached inside her purse. Her fingers fumbled for the paper. Excited by the unfamiliar, she pulled it out and steadied her hand to keep the paper from shaking.
“Go on in.”
The smell of dried cannabis overwhelmed her. She knew what marijuana smelled like, but this was more pungent, like a crop that had just been harvested.
“Is this your first time here?” asked a young man standing behind a narrow counter in the foyer.
“Yes.” She glanced around the dispensary. A mural of the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz, and cable cars circled the windowless, but well lit store. Glass counter showcases lined both walls with shelves holding hundreds of jars of cannabis. Vintage medical cabinets interspersed between the counters combined the old with the modern. Stairs led up to a loft. The place appeared organized, clean, no bongs or paraphernalia that she’d heard about in the funky head shops of the 1960s. The employees were young and clear eyed.
“I need to see your certificate and license.”
Brenda pulled the documents from her purse.
“You’ll need to fill out some paper work,” he said handing her a form.
It instructed her to keep all cannabis out of the reach of children and away from pets. Never drive when using. Upon purchase, store in the trunk of the car.
She signed her name.
“You can go in now.”
Brenda hesitated, unsure of where to go.
A young woman approached her. She wore a close-cropped Afro and held an iPad. “My name is Venus. Can I help you, ma’am?”
“Yes,” Brenda said. “Thank you.” She relaxed.
“What’s your medical condition?”
“I have insomnia. But I don’t want to smoke.”
“Our solutions and edibles are upstairs. Follow me.”
They went up the steps to a room where the words--Do anything, but let it produce joy. Walt Whitman--was painted on the back wall in a flowing script. A glass-enclosed counter with shelves of assorted foods, an antique cabinet, and a refrigerator in the corner took up most of the space.
“Carrot cake? Is that what that is?” Brenda asked peering into a shelf.
“Yes,” Venus said resting a hand on Brenda’s shoulder. “But only eat a sliver, or it will send you on a vacation you hadn’t planned.” Venus went behind the counter.
Brenda smiled. “No, I wouldn’t want that. Is it fresh?”
“All our pastries are.”
“I’ll have several pieces of the carrot cake.”
“I’ll cut them into slivers. You can store what you don’t eat in the freezer.”
“And the muffins?” Brenda asked.
“Banana or pumpkin.”
“Both. I’ll need enough to last me several weeks.”
“Okay, but cut them into quarters. I’ll give you a printout of all the directions.” Venus typed on her iPad then went behind the counter.
Brenda gazed down at the first floor.
In walked a man who looked like her distant cousin, State Senator Ray Bakar, right down to the Stetson, cowboy boots, vest and beer gut hanging over his turquoise belt buckle.
“What about lemonade and tea. We have cocoa, too?” Venus asked.
“Plenty of each,” Brenda said. She looked down at the man in the cowboy hat. He was a match for her cousin on the Basque side of the family. But it would be inconceivable for Bakar, a gay bashing family value's hardliner, to be in a cannabis dispensary and preposterous for her adversary to be in the Castro. But then, no one would believe she’d be there either.
“Since you’ll be medicating at night, how about decaffeinated tea?” Venus asked.
“That would be perfect.”
Brenda stared below. The man took off his hat, and mopped his bald head with a bandana. “Oh, my God,” Brenda whispered. It was Ray!
With her eyes on her cousin, she reached inside her purse for the phone. Turning away from Venus, she held the camera at her waist and snapped several pictures.
“I parked along a side street, is there a back exit?”
“Only for emergencies.”
Perhaps she could slip past Bakar without him seeing her. “Do I pay here?”
“No. Downstairs.” Venus went to the cabinet. “You bought a lot so we’ll give you a Leaves of Grass carrier bag.” She opened the cabinet door and took out a black bag with gold lettering and a sketch of Walt Whitman.
Brenda had her hand on the railing when a man walked in, went up to Bakar and kissed him on the lips. She gasped. Astonished. She covered her mouth and braced herself against the railing.
Brenda glanced around the store, for cameras, for anyone who might catch her. Like a gunslinger, she reached for her phone and filmed the two men as they nuzzled and held hands.
The conservative back-slapper, the ranter—“Save our children from the perverts!”—liked men and was a pot user himself.
His hypocrisy appalled her.
Brenda tucked the phone in her purse. Her discovery cast tremendous possibilities. She could expose him. Ruin his career. Or, use him.
She watched, floored, by the tender way he caressed and kissed his boyfriend’s hand. His manner was so unlike the brash cousin she knew.
What she witnessed was a man recklessly being himself. The pathos brought back memories of when Ray’s older brother died of AIDS. The community shunned his family. Ray and his younger brother endured beatings and bullying. Then, in his junior year, Ray shot up to six foot three. The intimidation stopped. He joined the debate team and discovered a talent for wrangling.
Now she knew why Ray never married. “Too busy!” he announced. “Spend all my time working for my constituents.” He became a respected figure in Kern County and a persuasive speaker, even if what he said was drivel. Although the insight brought compassion, Brenda found him a coward.
“It’s ready,” Venus said holding the Walt Whitman bag.
They went down the stairs. Brenda thought about her own deceit, traveling four hours and spending the night at a hotel to buy marijuana.
With her eyes on her cousin, she stepped onto the landing. He leaned against the counter, next to his boyfriend with his arm around his waist. So natural. How long had they been together?
She walked over to the register, paid for her medicine, and thanked Venus for helping her.
In seven years as a politician Brenda learned to shovel manure and throw it on opportunity. A vote for her bill, equal pay for women, came up at the end of the week. Now, she had something to fight with. As her youngest daughter would say, sweet!
She strolled up to Bakar holding the handles of her bag. “Hello Ray,” she said as if she had run into him at the county fair.
His arm snapped to his side. He gaped at her. His round face a fluctuation of red, crimson then scarlet.
He never called her that. He was as phony as Frank Underwood.
“I’d never take you for a pothead.”
“I’m not,” she said. “The THC helps me sleep. Is that why you're here, Ray?” she asked. “Because you can’t sleep at night? I can understand why.”
She held out her hand to Ray’s boyfriend who looked like a much younger version of Ray minus the cowboy getup. “I’m Brenda Bustamante, a cousin of Ray’s.”
He glanced at Bakar. “Yeah, Ray’s mentioned you. I’m Martin.”
They shook hands.
“I’ll meet you outside, Ray,” Brenda said.
She left the dispensary.
Gusts of wind rustled her paper bag. Leaves drifted from the street lined trees. She remembered a closed sign in a photo shop with a recessed doorway and an awning. Brenda went up the street and waited.
Bakar walked toward her, his swagger replaced with hunched shoulders. His face sagged like a sack of guilt. He was a real grizzly, wide as a side of beef. When they’d meet in the halls of the state capitol, his deep voice bellowed out arguments to stress his opinions. She tried to have an exchange, but Ray never took a breath. He had the lungs of a whale.
Now it was her turn to talk.
He stood next to her in the doorway facing the street. “No one will believe you. It’s your word against mine.”
“I filmed you with Martin. I took pictures, too.”
He sucked his teeth. She felt his anger roll off of him like a tumbleweed. He took a step forward, snatched his hat in his hand and whipped it across his thigh.
Brenda didn’t flinch but her heart did. She remained poised in the hollow of the entrance, watching as he lumbered down the street, stop and pace. She wondered how he could hurt so many people to protect his lie.
Ray adjusted his hat, gave a yank to his vest, looped his thumbs in his pant pockets and came toward her.
“What’s it gonna cost me?”
“You’re going to vote for my bill. And persuade two other senators to vote for it.”
“I vote for your bill, they’d all know something is up.”
“Oh please, Ray. You can come up with a reason.”
“I’m dead if I vote for that bill.”
“You’re more dead if they find out your gay.” She had him. But he was still family. “I remember the hell you went through when Mike died. The way you and Larry were picked on.”
“Oh, Jesus, Brenda,” he said turning away. “Do you have to bring that up?”
“Isn’t that the crux of it? The hiding?”
He confronted her. “You aren’t? You came all the way from home to buy pot in the Castro. You could have at least ditched the pumps and the pressed slacks for jeans and tennis shoes.”
That was true. She was prone to overdress, but what a jerk. “You’re a phony, Ray.”
“So are you.”
“I should come out and tell my story,” Brenda said. “It could help others. But don’t think you can spin what I saw. I’ll send the film and the pictures of you and Martin to the press. I’ll post it on Facebook. You vote for it, Friday. And get me two more votes. That's all I need. Cousin or not, I’ll expose you.”
He crossed his arms and loomed over her. “I could come out before Friday. Then you’d never get the vote.”
“Do that. I’ll still send the pictures to the press. Everyone will know why you came out.”
They both remained silent in the alcove of the doorway. The wind hissed. Buses and cars sputtered down Market. A woman’s laughter floated on the air like notes from a musical instrument. The sun half above the hills the other half descended toward the sea. The moment Brenda shared with her cousin, a moment so charged became a noise all its own.
At last, he looked at her. She expected anger, instead she saw sorrow. “Your family was always kind to us, not like the others.” His voice just above a whisper. He stared across the street at the shopping center. “I had cancer. I’m okay, now. Forty years old. I’ve lost all my hair, high blood pressure, yup.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Ray. I want my girls,” Brenda said, “all women, to have the same rights, the same pay for doing what men do.”
Ray listened. He shifted his weight. Hitched his shoulders. Crossed his arms.
“If you choose to come out, you’d have the support of my family. I promise. If you don’t choose to come out, and you get my bill passed, I’ll never ask for another favor. You have my word.”
“The vote’s only five days away. What happens if I vote for it but can’t get the two other votes?”
“People owe you, you have power, charm them. You can get two votes.”
“But if I can’t.”
“Then the deal’s off.”
Ray snickered, then exhaled through his mouth.
“You know, Ray, during that horrible time,” Brenda said, “I remembered your mom, how she went to the PTA and told them to help stop the bullying. What she must have gone through, losing her eldest boy and then treated like an outcast.” She took a step closer to her cousin. “When they cut your father’s hours, your mom took a job. Bet she didn’t even make minimum wage.”
“She was the heart of my life,” Ray said.
Brenda lowered her gaze. She now knew how hard it was for him to be honest.
Martin came toward them holding a white paper bag. His shaved head along with his beard started to grow a five o’clock stubble. His expression vacillated between concern and hope.“Can I join you?” he asked with a lopsided smile.
“Of course you can,” Brenda said.
Martin looked at Ray. “You were always worried you’d be outed. You’re lucky it was your cousin.” He glanced at Brenda’s bag. “You must’ve bought a lot to get a Walt Whitman bag.”
Brenda smiled. “I don’t like to smoke and I have a weakness for sweets.”
“Did you get the carrot cake?”
“I got a chocolate chip cookie,” Martin said. “I’m getting fat. But they have a genius baker.”
“I’m hungry,” Brenda said.
“Me too. Cafe La Folie is just down the street.” Martin gestured in the direction where the rainbow flag brandished its colors at the foothills of San Francisco. “They have the best crème brûlée.”
“I like it with a really thick crust,” Brenda said. “You know, where it’s hard to crack.”
“Let’s have dinner. I’ll save us a table on the patio.” Martin took off.
“He’s a nice young man.”
“Yup, he’s a keeper.”
“Let’s go break some crème brûlée.”
“Ah, I need to lose weight.”
“We all do. What else is new? C’mon Ray,” Brenda said taking his arm.
Justin Permenter is a writer of short stories, flash fiction, and poetry from Bryan, Texas. He earned a B.A. in Russian from Baylor University and a Masters of International Affairs from the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M. He currently works as an Admissions Counselor at TAMU. A voracious reader, he lists Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, John Banville, and William Gibson among his favorite sources of inspiration.
His first story, a prose poem entitled "Ghostsong," was published online in January 2016 at 365 tomorrows.
“How are you feeling today, Mr. Russell?”
The doctor’s voice purrs with simulated concern. He stands at the foot of the bed with chart in hand, face chiseled into a remarkable facsimile of kindness, conversing with the patient in soft, sympathetic tones. Dr. Lin is the living embodiment of medical professionalism, compassion without warmth, clinical and detached, the friendliest android ever assembled.
I linger silently in the doorway, awaiting my summons to enter. Men and women in a pastel-colored scrubs and white lab coats weave in and out of the room, hovering and flitting around the patient at center stage like a ballet troupe before exiting stage left. Slowly I am growing attuned to the intricate rhythms and complex choreography of the performance. Schedules and routine are the very lifeblood of the hospital, and I know how essential it is to wait for my cue.
From my vantage point at the threshold only the lower half of the patient’s bed is visible, its occupant little more than a pair of feet, two tiny peaks rising from beneath a saffron blanket. A jumble of disembodied syllables forms a response to the doctor’s query. I cannot piece them back together into words.
“Very good, very good,” Dr. Lin’s eyes remain fixed upon the patient’s chart. “Mr. Russell, do you remember our conversation yesterday? About the clinical study?”
Another mumbled reply, followed by an expulsion of air from weak, exhausted lungs.
“Yes, that’s the one. I have a young man here who would like to ask you a few questions, if you’re feeling up to it? Are you feeling well enough to speak with a visitor, Mr. Russell?”
I hear no answer. Dr. Lin turns to me and nods, beckoning with his free hand. I step forward with a protective smile draped across my face, a shield against the reflex of revulsion which inevitably follows an encounter with the smell of disease and decay. Inside the room the walls are a tapestry of beige and eggshell white. Shades are drawn respectfully over the window– a small lamp on the corner table provides the only source of illumination. It is, like so many other rooms I have visited today, a funereal scene.
The pallid figure lying prostrate upon the bed comes into full view. At first he appears to take little notice of me. Only his eyes betray any awareness of my existence. He fixes me with the stare of a hunted animal, two watery, reddened orbs sunken deep within the apertures of an all-too-prominent skull. The patient’s hair, once a handsome blond judging from the framed family photograph at the bedside, has faded to a thin, sickly white. His chart lists an age of sixty-seven, but this shriveled, animate corpse could easily belong to someone a century or older.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Russell. My name is Evan. I’m an intern with N-Formatics Data Services. We’re currently assisting our partners in a qualitative clinical study...,” the script rolls mechanically from my lips, “Would you mind if I ask you a few questions today? I promise it won’t take more than a few minutes of your time.”
But how precious, those few minutes? I wonder. Death has a tendency to rearrange one’s value systems.
The patient nods feebly, pointing a cadaverous, liver-spotted hand toward a chair in the corner. I draw the chair closer to the bed and sit down, while Dr. Lin takes this opportunity to make a discrete exit. Moments later he is replaced by a nurse in blue scrubs and a pair of comfortable-looking sneakers. She leans in close to touch the patient’s shoulder, whispering gently in his ear in an accent I cannot place– Filipino maybe? I wait for her to finish making adjustments to the intravenous morphine drip which protrudes from the patient’s left wrist and runs like a serpent up the emaciated arm to a plastic pouch dangling from a metal stand nearby. Satisfied with the performance of the IV, the nurse proceeds to examine the computer attached to the bedside. I begin to suspect her real reason for lingering here is to keep watch over me, to ensure I do not unduly burden or harass the ward under her charge. Her presence is of little consequence, really. I recognize the importance of boundaries.
I glance down at the clipboard resting in my lap. Eight short questions on a single piece of paper comprise the extent of my duties here today. Basic biographical data– age, gender, date-of-birth, medical diagnosis– has already been obtained from the patient’s consent form, but for ethical considerations the rest of his identity must remain anonymous. I press on with the next section of the script.
“Thank you for agreeing to speak with me today, sir. Before we begin, I’d like to remind you that your participation is completely voluntary, and you may decline to answer any question or decide to withdraw from the study at any time.”
This is no empty promise, mind you. The subject matter of our little survey often proves too sensitive for some participants. In more than one instance I have found myself forcibly ejected from the room by a family member who did not share my employers’ enthusiasm for clinical research. The hazards of being an unpaid volunteer and all that.
For a moment, I fear my subject has fallen asleep, but at last the remnant of the human being once known as Eugene B. Russell turns his head wearily to the side and blinks twice. I interpret this as a sign of approval.
“Mr. Russell,” I continue, reading from the first question on the list, “Do you believe in the existence of the soul or the spirit?”
A weak, tremulous voice whispers a reply, brittle as newly formed ice on a window pane. Once again my ears cannot ascertain the shape of the words. I lean in closely, nostrils filling with the odors of sweat and stale sheets and fear.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Russell, could you repeat that, please?”
The patient draws in a deep breath, a herculean effort which seems to demand all his remaining strength.
“Yes. Yes, I do.”
“Thank you, sir,” I make a note of the response, then move down the list to a supplemental question, “Do you believe the souls or spirits of the dead can still communicate with the living?”
The phrasing of this particular line of inquiry always manages to derail proceedings for a bit, and today proves to be no different. I spend the next several minutes attempting to navigate a range of interpretations of the word “communicate” inconveniently overlooked by the survey design team at N-Formatics. During this exchange I must take care to avoid making any inferences which might betray my own personal feelings on the subject at hand. There are a number of reasons why many statisticians despise working with qualitative data. I feel I could now write a dissertation on each of them, and probably add in some new contributions of my own.
At last, we manage to reach a satisfactory response. I take in a deep breath and exhale. Onward to Big Number Three...
“Mr. Russell, do you believe in god or any form of divine being?”
Another shift change.
After a cursory briefing, the morning team, eager to put some distance between themselves and the twelve hour stint just completed, hands off to the day crew. From my post near the lobby I can observe all the comings and goings inside the oncology wing of this great medical beehive. A week has passed, but the hospital staff has yet to fully acclimate itself to my presence, the foreign object standing aimlessly in the hallway like so much arterial blockage. For my own part, I cannot help but feel like an intruder, an impediment caught in the gears of a complex but highly-efficient machine.
I was never really drawn toward a career in medicine. To tell the truth, hospitals have always given me the creeps– all that concentrated suffering and death– so one can imagine my level of enthusiasm when I discovered what exactly this particular assignment would entail. N-Formatics is simply fulfilling its end of a contract, of course. The larger study, the real scientific stuff, is being conducted in laboratories and research campuses all across the country, places like Philadelphia and Chicago and Orlando where people with PhDs in white lab coats gather around expensive, high-tech machinery and nod knowingly to one another as measurements roll in on long scrolls of computer paper. Or so I imagine it, at least.
What are they studying, you might ask? Well, to put it bluntly, they’re studying death. As reasonable a topic of academic interest as any other, I suppose. For something so commonplace you’d think we would know a lot more about it by now. The study itself seems to be a bit of an ad hoc conglomeration of biologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, and even a handful of representatives from disciplines on the outer fringes of academia. The word “interdisciplinary” gets tossed around out a lot. These “doctors of death,” as one medical journal so sensationally labeled them, monitor brainwave activity, cellular decomposition, breathing patterns, anything and everything to try to figure out just what goes on inside our bodies during those last few moments between existence and oblivion. As far as I can tell, the medical specialists care very little about the subjects’ religious beliefs or opinions on the afterlife or any other such trivial nonsense. The psychologists and sociologists, on the other hand, eat that stuff up. Their branch of the study focuses on the psychological and emotional process of dying, although strange as it might seem, there appears to be a bit of a shortage of human volunteers for the aforementioned experts to observe. That’s where we, or more specifically, where I come in.
If you ask me, there’s nothing scientific at all about my contribution to this little enterprise. Anyone with a couple of basic methodology courses under their belt can spot the biases and flaws in our survey design from a mile away. I’m talking about a veritable buffet of measurement and processing errors here. I interview an average of ten participants a day, which comes out to around fifty respondents per week, spread across five different hospitals selected at random by the program. The survey itself is little more than a series of “yes or no” questions, the responses to which are simple enough to convert into binary data. So far, so good.
But the problem is, the bigwigs at N-Formatics don’t intend to stop there. They want participants to elaborate on their answers, to share their life stories with me, Evan the Idiot Intern. My employers are mainly interested in the terminal cases, those poor souls whose remaining time on this earth is measured in weeks, or even days. In the past month I have witnessed the hideous effects of lymphoma, leukemia, cardiomyopathy, atherosclerosis, hepatocellular carcinoma, and a litany of other Greek and Latin plagues more terrible than anything contained within the pages of mythology. Day after day I sit beside these dying invalids, attempting to record the summation of all their beliefs and hopes and doubts and fears, down to the most trivial and embarrassing detail. I pity the poor bastard who has to find a way to code all of these meandering anecdotes and digressions, probably another unpaid sucker just like me, trading his sweat and sanity for course credit and a check-mark on a degree plan somewhere.
Oh don’t get me wrong, I pity the patients as well. It’s not as if they asked for some twenty-something jerk in a suit to come barging in on their private misery, looking to pry into the deepest recesses of their hearts and minds while a brigade of doctors and nurses pries into their bodies. I bombard them with consent forms and waivers and non-disclosure agreements, of course, all signed by the participant under a sedative haze or by family members too numb with grief to fully comprehend the words on the paper. Enough legal protection to keep us from getting sued, but not enough to make me feel any better about it.
I approach the central oncology desk, pleased to find Brittany seated at the computer. I’ve managed to memorize the names and faces of most of the nursing staff by now. Alisha, Devonne, and Maribel are all working toward their OCN certifications and tend to draw the overnight shifts– they exist for me primarily as names on a dry-erase board. But the regular daytime personnel are more familiar. There’s Carla, the head nurse and designated ass-kicker for the entire third floor– not to be trifled with under any circumstances. Stacy, Joanne, and Vernadette are the veterans, cool under pressure and lightning-fast on their feet. But Brittany is my favorite. Her soft brown eyes flicker with latent mischief hidden behind a pair of black-rimmed glasses which reveal a sense of fashion more art student than medical. A hint of a rather elaborate tattoo protrudes from one of the long sleeves she wears beneath her scrubs, igniting visions of deviant sexual appetites. She greets me with a smile that could cure cancer.
“They haven’t run you off yet?”
I offer what I hope is my most charming grin, somewhere between confident and shit-eating, “Oh you’ll never get rid of me. I hear they’re setting me up with my own office tomorrow.”
Brittany rewards this bit of cleverness with a sly wink, then turns her attention to an open folder on the counter beside her. I remain standing awkwardly at the desk for a moment, trying to come up with something else interesting to say. Finally, I settle for business.
“Hey, do you know if 3205 is available now?”
She consults an entry in the computer log, “Hmmm...the patient is back in his room, but it looks like there may still be some family in there with him.”
“Ahh. Guess it can wait until tomorrow, then.”
“Well, if so, you’d better get here early. We’re sending him home in the morning.”
“You mean he’s in recovery?”
Brittany looks up from the computer screen and shakes her head slowly.
Room 3205 is located around the corner, down near the end of the hallway. I remove the clipboard from my briefcase and shuffle through consent forms for the appropriate file. I manage to locate the form I’m looking for just as I reach the doorway. The information I find there pins my feet to the floor in mid-stride.
Joshua T. Betancourt. Age: 20. Diagnosis: brainstem glioma (terminal).
Son of a–
I lower the clipboard and step back, unprepared to face what awaits within this particular tomb. A strange, nauseating sickness tugs at my insides. Twenty years old? An adult on paper, perhaps, but little more than a kid in reality. Too young to even buy a beer legally, but plenty old enough to die from a malignant brain tumor. In what kind of world does that seem fair? Then again, human beings and God have never really been on the same page when it comes to fairness or justice. Sometimes I wonder if we’re even reading the same book.
I look up to the clock mounted on the wall. Nearly four p.m. I’m expected to be back at the office by five thirty to submit my daily report. It’s now or never.
Jesus Christ, Evan, don’t say things like that.
I approach the half-opened door cautiously, rapping the knuckles of my free hand against the painted wood. Inside, the drapes are open. A man in his mid-forties with hair the color of gunpowder is perched at the windowsill, silhouetted by the rays of the afternoon sun. He stares absently out the window, his gaze unseeing and distant. One hand is raised to cover a trembling lower lip. Nearby, a middle-aged woman sits at the bedside. Rivulets of tears stream down her cheeks, while her shoulders twitch periodically in the throes of deep, silent sobs. A gaunt figure lies next to her beneath the familiar shroud of a hospital blanket. I cannot bring myself to look directly at him.
“Excuse me, Mr. and Mrs. Betancourt?”
The woman’s eyes plead with me to deliver them all from this senseless tragedy, to tell them the good news that everything is okay, there’s been some kind of mistake. You can all go home now. But the man in the window knows me for what I am– an intruder, an interloper, a parasite. I can see the anger begin to take shape at the corners of his mouth.
I recite the script, unsure of what else to say, “I’m sorry to interrupt. I’m with N-Formatics Data Services. We’re assisting our partners with a qualitative-”
The man silences me with a glare of pure contempt, “Go away. My son doesn’t need to be bothered right now.”
My voice trembles in reply, “I apologize, sir. I... promise not to take more than a moment of your time. I believe Dr. Lin gave you some information about our study earlier?”
Mr. Betancourt rises to his feet in challenge and points at the door, “I said ‘go away.’ We’re not interested in your little survey.”
Suddenly a frail voice calls out from the bed, “Dad, it’s alright. I don’t mind.”
The boy’s father hesitates, caught between the impulse to fling me headfirst from the room and a desire to accommodate the wishes of his dying son. After a moment, he returns to his station at the window, crosses his arms skeptically across his chest, and stares at me in silent hatred. He has, at last, found someone to blame for all of this, a focal point for all the pain and rage and unremitting despair. I shift uncomfortably beside the bed.
“Do you mind if I sit, Mr. Betancourt?” I ask the patient uneasily. Mister? I am five years older than he.
“Of course. Call me Josh, by the way.”
“Josh, thank you. I’m Evan,” I extend a hand as I sit down beside him. Josh’s bones and knuckles are painfully visible just beneath sallow skin. He no longer has the strength to grip my hand, but merely brushes the tips of his fingers against the palm.
“Are you part of the staff here at St. John’s?” his mother inquires hopefully.
“No, ma’am. We’re a contractor with the hospital. We...help gather patient data...,” suddenly I am at a loss to explain what exactly I am doing here.
Josh’s father snorts derisively from the window, while his mother leans back in her chair, confusion and concern etched across her sorrow-worn face.
I look to the clipboard for assistance, attempting to recover, “Mr. Betancourt... Josh... thank you for agreeing to speak with me today...”
My mouth forms the words I have read hundreds of times to hundreds of patients, but my thoughts fixate upon that skeletal handshake, the paper-thin voice, the sunken craters which encircle a pair of listless green eyes. Pale green, like my own.
Finally, I abandon the script altogether, “Josh, they want me to ask you some questions about...about how you feel about what you’re going through. The questions can be kind of tough, so if you’re not feeling up to it...?” I suggest, hoping, pleading with him to let me off the hook.
“It’s fine. Ask away,” he says instead.
Deep breath again. Just get it over with and get out of here.
“Okay. Josh, do you believe in the existence of the soul or spirit?”
Josh draws the blanket up to his neck, coughs softly, then glances over to his mother.
A pen scratches on paper. A simple negation, yet nothing could be more complicated. There were times in the past when I myself might have given the same answer. It’s not as if I am currently much of a practitioner of any kind of conventional faith. But I simply can’t bring myself to concede this final point, to give myself fully over to the materialist view of the world. Over the past few weeks I have observed that belief in the existence of a soul tends to persist stubbornly, tenaciously, even when all other religious convictions have been cast aside. Wishful thinking, perhaps, nothing more than the fundamental desire of all mortal, sentient creatures to somehow endure beyond the grave. In my own mind, Death, for all its cruelty, pales in comparison to the awful finality of nonbeing, the cessation of light, of life, the absence of what once was but is no longer, and perhaps, shall never be again. And yet here before me lies a young man, a mere boy dangling over the very precipice of eternity, who fully accepts the possibility of his own extinction.
Mrs. Betancourt’s brow twists in upon itself in disbelief, “Joshua...”
Josh extends an arm from beneath the blanket to touch his mother’s wrist. The protest dies on her lips.
I avert my eyes from this wordless exchange and skip ahead to the third question, “Thank you. Josh, do you believe in god or any other form of divine being?”
Mr. Betancourt cries out in indignation before I can finish the sentence, “Just what kind of bullshit is this? Are you one of those Jehovah’s Witnesses or something?”
His wife shudders beneath the impact of the expletive, “Stephen, please.”
“I’m just saying, Nancy, what right does he have to come in here and ask questions like that to a boy who’s...?” he trails off, unable to speak the final word aloud.
I don’t disagree with him. I have no right to be here whatsoever. But what good is talk of rights and privileges in a situation like this, anyway? Doesn’t his son have a right to live? Isn’t that far more important than privacy? Fate has already trampled upon the only right which really matters. What’s one more small injustice in the grand calculation?
“Mr. Betancourt, I can assure you, we are legally prohibited from disclosing our participants’ personal information or identities. Everything we record here today will be kept strictly confidential.”
We, we, we. But there is no “we.” I don’t belong to N-Formatics any more than I do to the hospital staff. In another month I will be back at the university, immersed once more in the comfortable domain of classrooms and mid-terms and essays and late night study sessions. For now, I merely play the role of observer, a conduit, a piece of film upon which an imprint of a human life is made. I carry them with me inside this briefcase, these fragments of hundreds of souls bound up in imitation leather. But Joshua Betancourt doesn’t believe in souls.
“Dad, just let me speak,” Josh’s voice is soft, but resolute. “For once in my life, just once, I want to be honest about what I believe...”
Mr. Betancourt holds his hands palms outward in silent surrender. He looks away again, refusing to meet my gaze. There is a history here, an unspoken tension between father and son which leads to places to which I am unprepared to go.
Instead, I cautiously repeat the question. Josh answers immediately this time, with conviction, “No. No, I don’t believe in god.”
I wait for the young man to continue, to offer some further justification for this position, to rail against the absurdities of religious faith or decry the injustices performed in the name of various deities, but after almost a minute of excruciating silence I simply record the answer and press on.
“Do you believe in any form of afterlife?”
His eyes grow distant for a moment.
“No. No, I do not.”
Mrs. Betancourt begins to sob once more. This time, Josh winces visibly. He has managed to push the knife deeper into his mother’s heart, the one I have been twisting ever since I first set foot in this room. Is it not enough that she must endure the loss of her son? Must she also surrender all hope of a heavenly reunion?
The clipboard is my refuge, “Do you consider yourself to be a practicing religious person?”
Josh coughs harder, a raspy, jagged rattle of phlegm which contorts his entire wasted frame. Mrs. Betancourt places a hand upon his head, lovingly stroking the scalp denuded by chemicals and the ravages of radiation. I wait for Josh to regain his breath.
“I...I used to go to church pretty regularly.”
“But not anymore?”
“No, not for a couple of years now.”
“Have your views on religion or spirituality changed at all since your diagnosis?”
To my surprise, he smiles, “You’d think so, wouldn’t you?”
I offer no reply. We –that word again– are discouraged from leading the participants toward any particular answer.
Josh continues, glancing occasionally at his father still simmering in the windowsill, “No, I had my doubts long before life dealt me this lovely little hand.” Strangely, his words contain not a trace of bitterness but rather a curious detachment, as if he were delivering testimony before a jury, recounting events merely witnessed rather than experienced. His demeanor, much like his body, resembles no other twenty year-old I have ever encountered.
“It’s hard to say when everything changed, really. There was never any single event that destroyed my faith. I tried to make it work for a while after high school, kept on repeating the words I’d heard so often in church, other people’s words, trying to convince myself they were my own, and then...I don’t know, one day none of it made any sense anymore,” Josh furrows his brow in concentration, “The Bible says ‘when I was a child, I talked like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ There’s a lot of truth to be found in that verse, but in the end, I guess it just led me to realize it was religion I needed to put away.”
I write furiously, eager to escape this room, to be free from the malevolence of Mr. Betancourt and the perpetual anguish of his wife, to run as far as I can, far, far away from this corporeal reminder of the fate which awaits each and every one of us. Only two more questions stand between me and the exit door.
“Josh, do you believe that life has a purpose or higher meaning?”
The meaning of life. Go ahead, Josh. We here at N-Formatics can’t wait to hear you solve that one for us!
Suddenly I can no longer avoid his eyes. It as if I am gazing into my own reflection across a vast, incalculable distance. When he speaks, his words resonate with a strange new vitality, “I think we tend to confuse ‘meaning’ with ‘permanence.’ It’s probably a natural instinct, rooted deep inside our brains. Cling to what will last, what will endure, and discard the rest. But nothing lasts. Nothing is permanent. Nothing, not even the universe itself. So I stopped going to church, stopped reading my Bible, stopped praying. A year later I got sick. Some people saw a connection there…”
I can almost hear Mr. Betancourt’s jaw clenching tighter as Josh continues.
“…but to me, it just seemed to be confirmation of the obvious.”
“And what is that, Josh?” I ask.
“That it doesn’t matter what you choose to believe. It won’t really make that much of a difference to the outcome. There’s not some Great Scorekeeper in the Sky deciding who lives and who dies. Life, from what I can tell, is pretty random. Things happen to good people just as often as bad ones, and it’s up to us to assign some kind of meaning to it all after the fact. When I was a Christian I spent so much time focused on eternity... Heaven, Hell... questions of ‘what comes next?’ and ‘storing up treasures for the Kingdom’ and all that. I think if people just stopped for a moment and took a look around, they’d see that life itself is the meaning. Life is the purpose. And yes, maybe when we die, our purpose dies with us. But just because something doesn’t last forever doesn’t mean it never had value in the first place.”
Hot tears spring insubordinately to the corners of my own eyes. This is wrong. This is sick. There is no justification for any of this, this farcical interrogation on the doorstep of Death, this final blight upon the uprooted flower of youth. I can barely read the words of the final question.
“Josh...are you afraid of dying?”
Now he draws very still. The blanket seems to swallow him. Josh swims in puddles of fabric, his withered body sinking into the bed’s embrace, receding, fading away. When he replies, all the strength seems to have evaporated from his voice.
“Of course I’m afraid,” he whispers, “Anyone who tells you they aren’t afraid to die is lying to you and to themselves. It’s a pity, really. We’re capable of so many...so many beautiful emotions. And in the end, most of us depart this life so full of fear–”
Another wave of coughing snatches the breath from his lungs. I am aware of a presence standing at my side, a heavy hand upon my shoulder. Mr. Betancourt hovers over me. He does not speak, but his expression says clearly, Enough. Time for you leave.
I tuck the clipboard and pen into my briefcase, my hands shaking uncontrollably as I fumble with the latch. I start to say something, but Josh’s coughing has not subsided. Mrs. Betancourt cradles her dying son in her arms and whispers words only a mother can speak. She has no time to look at me as I depart.
I pause once more at the threshold, wiping my eyes with a jacket sleeve. I turn back to find the eyes of Josh’s father once more. I can only mouth the words.
Outside in the frigid confines of the hallway once again, the blood comes rushing to my head all at once. I feel as though I have just survived an artillery barrage. A surge of grief, unbidden and inchoate, fastens like glue to the back of my throat. Suddenly I hate this place, the doctors and the nurses and the patients and the families and the machines and the cold, crushing sterility of it all. I hate this goddamned job. More than anything I hate the bastards who sent me here to wallow in other people’s suffering.
I stagger into the lobby, punch-drunk and bewildered, rubbing my hands against throbbing temples. Brittany catches my eye at the nurses’ desk. The sight of her face brings me back to earth for a moment.
“You look like you could use some fresh air,” she says, a hint of concern dancing around the edges of her greeting.
“I think you’re right,” I mumble softly.
She tilts her head toward the elevators down the hallway, “I’ve got a break coming up in just a sec. Meet you downstairs by the front doors in ten minutes?”
I nod without hesitation. That daily report can go straight to hell.
I wait outside for Brittany near the main entrance, next to the bronze statue of St. John of God– now there’s an epithet for you. When at last she comes bounding, almost jogging through the automatic doors, the first things I notice are her shoes, a pair of neon pink sneakers sheltering two tiny feminine feet.
I point down, “Those are nice.”
She grins as she settles in beside me, a rhapsody of full lips and adorably imperfect teeth. “Thanks. They tend to be a little more relaxed with the uniform regulations once you’ve been here a while.”
“Yeah,” is all I can muster.
She quickly identifies the source of my distraction, “Had a rough interview, I take it?”
“I can’t...I just...,” I struggle to find the words. Speech is elusive at the moment, meaning even more so.
“It’s alright. There’s no need to be ashamed. It can get pretty overwhelming in there sometimes, believe me.”
“Honestly I don’t know how you guys do it, day in and day out. I think I’d go crazy having to be around all that misery all the time.”
“I guess you won’t be needing that new office after all, huh?”
We share a much-needed laugh. She leans against the side of the building, one leg raised and folded beneath her like a flamingo, “So...you’re a research assistant, right?”
“Just an intern, actually. One of the requirements for my grad school program.”
“Ahh,” Brittany raises both eyebrows. I cannot tell if she is impressed or disappointed, “What do they make you ask the patients on this survey of yours?”
I shake my head in disgust, “Nothing important, really. Just a bunch of questions which don’t have any answers.”
A flicker of flame catches my attention. I turn to see her with lips pursed, igniting the end of a slender cigarette with a small, compact lighter. She takes a deep drag, removes the cylinder from her mouth, and turns her gaze toward the parking lot as she exhales a long plume of smoke.
“Answers are overrated, if you ask me,” she says. “People tend to avoid going to the doctor, not because they don’t think they’re sick or anything, but because they can’t stand the thought of knowing something’s wrong. It’s the certainty that bothers them, I think. As long as they don’t know for sure, they can go on pretending they’ll live forever.”
I lower my head to stare at the pavement, “Do you mind if I ask you something?”
She turns back to look at me, “Is it about the cigarettes?”
Suddenly I see a vision of our future together. I see Brittany standing beneath the vaulted ceiling of an old stone chapel, the caramel tresses of her hair caught in beams of warm sunlight through stained glass, a bouquet of cherry blossoms and pink amaryllis in her hands, a long flowing veil trailing behind her like a ship’s wake on the ocean. I see children, tiny pink bundles of baby flesh, stuffed animals and lunchboxes and trips to the zoo and first cars and graduation gowns. This is where I say something incredibly profound, something powerful and life-affirming and deeply poetic, something to forge a connection which will last a lifetime. But I have misplaced my script.
Instead, I smile weakly and continue to stare holes into the asphalt beneath my feet.
“It’s okay, everyone asks about them.” Her face is now wreathed by dancing contrails of smoke.
“It just seems strange...for someone in the medical profession, I mean,” I suggest, hoping I haven’t once again crossed an invisible line somewhere.
“Quite common, actually,” she declares, “I know I should quit. Honestly, I don’t even remember why I started.”
She smiles again, then takes another long, deep drag, “Just another one of those questions without any answers, I suppose.”
This is the moment. It is my cue to speak, my opportunity to dazzle her with the sheer breadth of my intellect, to buckle her knees with a fusillade of confident masculinity and irresistible charm. Say something, you idiot! “Can I call you some time? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you want to go out for a drink this Friday? Will you marry me?”
All I can think of are Josh’s hands.
It is Brittany who must break the silence, “Well, I should probably get back to the desk. It was nice talking with you.”
She discards the spent remains of the cigarette and departs without another word. I stare at the back of her head as she crosses the short distance between the statue and the front doors. Her hair shimmers, radiant in sunlight, just as it did in my vision. She never once looks back.
I remain standing against the wall. Alone with my thoughts once more, I study the ashes of Brittany’s cigarette as they smolder on the pavement. Should I follow her? Would she think it’s weird? What else is there to say? I fear the moment has already passed, soon to be dead and buried alongside Eugene Russell and Josh Betancourt and all the rest.
But that’s the thing about being alive. There’s another moment coming up right around the corner.
After another minute or two of deliberation, I tuck both hands into my coat jacket pockets and approach the hospital entrance. The automatic doors slide open to greet me.
Inside, the air is cool and inviting.