Prose


by Christine Leclerc

“Oh my God. It’s too hot in here,” said Mr. Smith, his voice bouncing in all directions off the walls of the bathroom stall. Tucking his shirt into his flannel pants frantically, he came out of the stall.

“What is this? There are too many people in here. The heat’s rising by the second. You take the kids on field trips to the toilet now?”

“I just wanted to show them what I’ve done with their art work.”

“Oh, the drawings! Kids,” he said, turning his eyes on them, “it’s my only joy since the food they serve in this place brings me here so often. Now get out before I die of heat stroke!” One of the children began to cry at his abrasiveness, so he tried to apologize, “Oh, I’m sorry little girl.” They were already capering out though, except for the child he had upset. She was trudging and preferred to look at the taupe tiled floor instead of accepting his condolence. Offended by this, he added, “Hey little girl, nice toosh.”

I wasn’t going to say anything in front of the kids, so I glared at him abhoringly instead, and followed them out into the hall. They visit with us at the residence once a week, a group of ten, to keep the seniors company. Sometimes they go for walks in the garden together with the residents. Other times, like last week when it rains, they stay inside and draw for them. That’s where the stuff in the washroom came from. It was my idea to put it up in there; a deglooming effort. Their visiting seems to please everybody, except for Mr. Smith. He always manages to have one of them in tears by the end of the visit.

He spent the rest of his afternoon telling dirty jokes to our female residents, who were invariably unamused. Then he moved on to playing chess with some of the sourer men. I approached him at dinner to deliver the apologies he felt he deserved. One for the invasion of his precious privacy, and another for the evil eye. I wasn’t going to apologize twice though. I’d lump the two into one. I went to the end of the dining room table he was sitting at. He had been served and was already eating when I got to him. “I’m sorry about what happened in the washroom today,” I said.

He knew that I hadn’t meant it, but grinned anyway. Having gotten what he wanted, he told me to forget about it. I hate when he does that. Every time I apologize, he acts like as though he hadn’t been bitter about the supposed injustices I’d administered him. As though he hadn’t been cursing me in his head: ‘that disrespectful bitch’, ‘that smiling fraud’, all day. He must realize how ridiculous he is. If I don’t apologize before he goes to bed though, he curses me out loud the next day, and rallies his chess mates against me. “Are you enjoying your dinner Mr. Smith?”

“It reminds me of my wife. She couldn’t cook for shit.”Maybe it had something to do with who she was cooking for. “Is she dead?” I inquired spitefully.

“No, that’s why I’m here alone. Yes she’s dead! Don’t you think she’d be here with me if she weren’t. Couldn’t cook and diabetes. Those were her only faults.”

“Is that what she died of, diabetes?”

His thoughts trailed with the gravy over a mound of potatoes and mingled at the base of a rubbery chicken breast. He heard me though and answered after finishing his thought, and swallowing a gravy sopped piece of bread. “No. Not really. Some little bitch did her in.”

I disregarded this comment, figuring it completely ridiculous, and asked him how old she was, meaning his wife, when she’d died.

“Five,” he answered, thinking that I had meant ‘the little bitch’. What an incredible man. But not being wholly vindictive, I figured I may as well humor him and allowed him to exorcize the incident. “A five year old killed your wife? Really Mr. Smith.”

“She did, and she was a bitch. None of the other kids in the neighborhood would play with her because they thought so. We used to live in one of those town houses. You know, the ones that are stuck together in rows of six or eight, or whatever. Where your back yard is everybody else’s backyard, except that they pretend privacy with eight foot fences. Anyway, all the kids used to come to the backyard and play horse shoes with me summer afternoons. That, while the little bitch would crochet on the front porch with Rachel and our cat Winston. I used to ask the kids why they hadn’t invited Emily to play horse shoes with us, and they’d say that she didn’t like them. They didn’t like her either. She was too bossy, they said. So Rachel taught her to crochet and the little bitch kills her. Some gratitude.”

“What’d she do? Stab her with a crochet hook? Strangle her with yarn?”

“No, I was getting to that. This isn’t a joke you know. That little girl was always bringing sugared papayas around with her, to snack on while she crocheted. And Rachel was a serious diabetic. She knew that she wasn’t supposed to eat that kind of stuff, but when Emily offered those things she couldn’t resist.

One day I went in to get the kids some freezies to cool off; you work up quite a sweat throwing shoes around in the sun, you know. I checked the front to see whether Emily was with Rachel and Winston to offer her a freezy too. The lesions on Rachel’s legs had been getting worse for a while, but she’d just say that she couldn’t figure out why when I asked her about them. Rachel was laughing at some childish anecdote that day when I saw them together. She really was a beautiful woman, even at seventy. Had a hearty laugh. But she was eating those damn papayas. So I didn’t give Emily a freezy, and I didn’t go back out to give the other kids their’s either. Do you know what I did? I went up to my room and cried like a big old baby. We’d been married fifty-two years, and I’d just realized that I didn’t want Rachel to die.

At supper that night, meatloaf, I asked Rachel about the papayas. She didn’t try denying anything. And I’d never told Rachel what to do before then, but that night I told her that I didn’t want her eating those things anymore. I went on to tell her that if her self-restraint was so weak, I didn’t think that she should see that little temptress anymore either. When I was done she threw her head back and laughed. “It’s the little pleasures,” she said, “that make life worth living, Kenny.” Little pleasures my ass. So she kept on eating those papayas all summer long. I should have told that Emily to stay away is what I should have done. So Rachel died that fall you know.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah well, so was that Emily. One morning the next summer I was sitting on the couch with Winston and the doorbell rang. Emily had come by to call on Rachel. So, I told her ‘Rachel’s not home because you killed her.’ She just stood there with her little knees shaking in her blue dress and her lip quivering. Then she dropped a package on the porch and ran home crying. Never apologized. It said M s. Smith on it. I picked it up and tossed it onto the couch when I got back in. Never opened it myself, but Winston eventually got his claws into it. She’d made Rachel some useless round lacy thing.”

“I don’t believe you! How could you say that to a little girl.”

“It was true.”

So I let him eat the rest of his meal alone, turning my attention to more deserving residents. Whenever I start to feel a bit of sympathy for him he, Ugh! He was the last one out of the dining room that evening. Having finished his meal, he moved into the T.V. room and threw obscenities at poor actors until he went to bed.

The next morning I noticed that he wasn’t up for breakfast as usual, so I went to check on him in his room. He was lying in bed with his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes closed. It looked like he was practicing for when he died. He swallowed every now and then though, so I knew that he wasn’t really either dead or asleep. I asked him why he wasn’t coming to breakfast. No answer. Maybe he expected another apology; for the way I’d left at dinner the day before, but I wasn’t going to do that. “Mr. Smith? Can I get you something?”

“I’m not hungry. I want to go outside,” he said opening his eyes but not turning them on me.

“You really should eat.”

“I want to go outside I said. Did you hear me or not?”

“Fine.” So I got his sunglasses and sunscreen off of the dresser, and his bowler from the closet. Meanwhile, he got out of bed and dressed himself rheumatically. I had to insist he wear the accessories, “so that you don’t get a sun stroke,” I told him. He refused to put them on himself, but allowed me even to apply the sunscreen without resistance.

We walked out arm in arm so that Mr. Smith could avoid falling. Once out in the garden at the back of the residence, I asked him what the matter was.

“She’d be so ashamed if she saw me now,” he said, holding faster to my arm as he spoke.

“Who?”

“Rachel. The way I live. I’m too scared to enjoy much.”

He didn’t trail on from there, so we went to sit on a bench in the shade of an old birch. Once sitting he removed his hat and glasses. He then closed his eyes paying close attention to something. A song encased memory. And right then he looked so desolate that I began feeling sypathetic again. I let my head fall onto his shoulder and closed my eyes in the throws of what seemed to be an early morning affinity. For a while we listened each to our own songs. He, to the one’s in his head, and I, to the peculiar regularity of a breeze lolling wistfully on trembling leaves.

Birds began to flap in their bath at the center of the garden. That’s when he began humming a tune and tapping it’s swingly beat on my forearm gently. I giggled.

“I was once the greatest jitterbugger in Montreal you know,” he said. “I’d have liked to have seen that.”

“You’re right, I can’t dance like that anymore.” At that I lifted my head and opened my eyes. He was looking to see me squirm.

“I didn’t mean. . .”

“No, it’s okay. It’s true, but I can still do the slow steps.” He rose, walked around the bench and came full circle, as if he were making an entrance. Bowing his blue eyes to me, he asked, “Did you like that song Miss?”

“It was lovely,” I said.

“So are you Miss. Say, you don’t happen to like dancing do you?”

“It depends.”

“On what Miss?”

“On the person I’d be dancing with.”

“Well, I’d certainly like to dance.” He invited me onto the lawn offering his right arm. “Would you?” He asked. I accepted thinking what a charming man he must have seemed in those days. We revolved round the bird’s bath cheek to cheek. He hummed a slow song as we went, the birds in the bath simmering down to listen. The sky was so blue, and it all seemed so innocent. A perfect, perfect morning for spinning softly, but all that soon dissolved.

The sun started getting to him so we dawdled back to the bench. We gathered his things and he said that he was ready for breakfast. “You’re difficult when it comes to the asking,” he said, “but thanks for that dance anyway. Hey, guess what?”

“What Mr. Smith?” I could feel it coming. I knew he’d ruin it.

“I hadn’t had the jollies in fourteen years. Heh, heh, heh.”

by Chris Bigelow

I open the door, and her bloodshot, weary eyes re-focus on my face. I haven’t seen her for three years. I don’t know why, we simply lost contact as our lives moved inexorably apart. But in high school and for some time after, you couldn’t pry us apart with a crowbar. We talked about everything, from science and history to our deepest, darkest secrets. I never hid anything from her, and she never hid anything from me. No limits existed for us, anything went. She was my best friend, the best I ever had. And then, after college, we faded from each other’s lives. I heard from her by the occasional letter, but never talked to or actually saw her. She told me she had found a boyfriend and in a later letter informed me they had move in together. She told me she had found happiness, and that made me think about how I live alone in this ratty apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan, working a crummy day job just trying to stay alive. But tonight she’s turned up here, at my door, the snow still melting into her hair, her eyes wide and desperate. I haven’t seen her for three years.

But I recognize her immediately and my face lights up as I exclaim her name. Then I see her for the first time. Cold, wet, ragged… Broken. Miserable. She smiles a tiny smile and then her face sort of twists and she says she needs a place to stay. I instantly offer her my home for as long as she needs it. She smiles crookedly and looks down at the floor as I bring her inside.

She takes a shower (I order her to, to warm her up) and after we have coffee and talk. We catch up on old times. I tell her that I broke up with my longtime girlfriend, Alice, about six months ago. I had dated Alice since high school, and my friend remembers her and comments on how she had once thought Alice and I would get married. I smile sadly, hiding the sting of regret that shoots through me, and shake my head. We were too different, I say. She wanted too much out of life. My friend smiles again, and I notice her black eye. I look away quickly, not saying anything. I ask her how her boyfriend is. She doesn’t say anything for a while, and then tells me she left him a month ago, after living with him for two years. I wonder where she’s been staying. She shrugs and says her mother’s. She hates her mother and more than once said she would never return to her house. I don’t comment.

So we talk about people we knew in school. We talk about the obsessive kid who used to follow us around. We talk about all of my friends, who she never really got along with. We mention in passing the crazy bisexual guy that used to annoy her with all his perverse tales. We talk about the irritating perky girl that nobody liked but everyone was nice to. We talk about how the obsessive guy and the perky girl got married last year (they printed it in the alumni newsletter), and how their kids will be abominations. We shoot the breeze, nothing deep. We laugh, but not too hard. The awkwardness and oddness of the situation prevents it. She says, with a big fake smile, how nice it is that we can just pick up where we left off all those years ago. I see her lying and wonder.

So I ask her why she came to me. We had always prided ourselves on directness. She smiles sadly and says she knew I would ask eventually. She explains, and I hear her voice catch slightly during the telling. He had hit her and so she left. I had figured as much but still it hurts me. I say her name softly, and say I’m sorry (well what can you say to that?). She shrugs. How long has this gone on? I ask. Just the once, she tells me. See, they were in the kitchen and he got mad at her for one reason or another, probably an unpaid bill or just sheer male aggression, so he punched her. And she left. She gazes proudly at the table. She tells me that she can’t stay with a man who hits her. She gingerly touches the mark under her eye. I notice that she has another bruise on her cheek, but I don’t say anything. I’m good at that, concealing what I feel and think. We both are.

We started finishing each other’s thoughts the day we met. I mean, we sort of knew each other before but just in passing. The obsessive kid introduced us and we talked for an hour, completely leaving him out. We had this connection that we likened to telepathy. We had gone through a lot of the same shit as kids, and we had a lot of the same outlooks on life. I don’t remember us ever arguing, because we never disagreed. When we moved away to college we wrote each other long, complicated letters full of the subtle mind games we both loved. I remember her strength most of all. She had it in abundant quantities. I knew of her delicate fragile nature, but she kept it hidden away, protected it with her tough skin. Nothing could hurt her. Not even me.

We watch TV for a while, commenting to each other about how inane the shows are. Someone makes a halfway suggestive joke, the audience roars with laughter. We’ve seen the pattern before. We find a hockey game to watch. I got her hooked on hockey back in high school My favorite team was the old Hartford Whalers. We actually saw a game together once, much to my parents’ displeasure. They never liked her. They thought I cheated on Alice with her.

Eventually we get bored and start talking, so I turn the sound off. She wonders if it’s really all right that she’s here, that she’s staying. She says she wouldn’t have come here if the situation wasn’t, well… Desperate? I fill in. Yeah. I wonder if her mother threw her out. She hesitates for a fraction of a second before nodding yes. She’s lying to me. I used to catch her in these kinds of lies all the time. But I’m not as bold as I once was, so again I say nothing. My mind begins piecing the fragments together, though. I try not to dwell on it as we talk about old times some more, and then about my old girlfriend (which is painful, but it’s something to talk about), but I do anyway. I can’t help it. I hate seeing her like this. She’s lost a lot of what I loved about her. Her strength, her will, her spirit. All exhausted. I can tell, even though she puts on a damn near convincing show, I can still still see through her. No, I just need a place to stay for a few days, then I’m going to get back on my feet. Just a few days. Really. I’m fine.

When I was a senior in high school and she was a freshman in college, she came down to the school to see me for a day. We both graduated from this big New England prep school that we loathed but had attended anyway because, despite its flaws, it was still a damn sight better than the public schools. It was a Saturday. We talked for a while, wandering around campus and then driving to McDonalds’ for some food. When we returned to campus I started pouring my guts out to her about some awful thing I had done with Alice a few months before. She reassured me, which is an understatement. She said I was the most kind, caring person she’d ever met, and several other things that almost reduced me to tears. I had never, ever heard such things said about me by sincere lips. Right then, I felt what I wished I felt for Alice some days, what I so feared feeling for her, but there it sat. Clear. Strong. Love. I told her, and she just sort of stared at me for a minute. I meant it. She meant it when she said it back to me a second later. But I had to give it a condition. I said I didn’t, couldn’t love her like I loved Alice. This was different; non-sexual. Like friends love each other, you know? Of course, she said. I understand. I feel the same way. She gathered me into her arms then, and we sat there holding each other forever, trembling with raw, fresh, unpredictable emotion. At that moment, I forgot about Alice.

It’s getting late and she wants to sleep. I have a chair that folds out into a twin bed so I put a sheet and a comforter on it for her. I go into the bathroom for a few minutes, when I emerge she’s sitting on the bed in her underwear, her face buried in her hands. She’s not crying, but she’s close. I ask what’s wrong. She looks up and tells me how nice I am to her. I sigh and ask where she’s really been for the last few weeks. She looks away and mumbles how she wishes she could act better. I hand her a robe I found in the bathroom that’s pretty clean, she pulls it on. She tells me she’s lived on the streets, that she couldn’t go home and she’s been trying to find me for two weeks. She tells me that she has no friends left to stay with, so she walked from where she lived with her boyfriend to the city. He lives in Connecticut. It’s winter, and cold as all hell. She tries to reassure me, saying she stayed in shelters and churches, but I’m not happy and it shows. She tells me she’s not sick. She tells me she’s feeling fine, actually. She says it wasn’t so bad. I nod and say good night to her, not believing but not saying anything.

So I leave her and retire to my room, where I take my mind off of things by reading a book. At one in the morning, I finally turn out my light and try to sleep. I listen for her breathing, but she’s too far away and I worry instead. I wonder if she snores. I think of her out on the streets for that month, out in the cold, and I shiver. It must have cost her something terrible to get here. Why had she travelled through cold and snow, on foot all the way from Fairfield, Connecticut to New York, just to find me? Maybe I’m still the only person she trusts. Maybe she figured I would shelter her when no one else would. We may not have seen each other in three years but that remains, I suppose. She knows I’ll shelter her. I’m a safe haven. Funny, I never really feel safe in this place. I don’t exactly live in the best neighborhood, but I know that’s not the issue.

I hear a noise, and automatically think burglar or worse. I think of her asleep on the chair. What would a random intruder do to her? I sit up in bed, determined to do something. Before, I would have been confident that she could take care of herself. Now I’m not so sure. Time and brutaility have changed her. My door opens and a figure walks in, but she’s no intruder. Her eyes, reflected in the dull yellow streetlight filtering through the window, overflow with a need I can’t begin to express. She says she doesn’t want to spend any more time alone. She was wondering-? I reach for her gently, and guide her into the bed. She suddenly butts her head against my chest and holds me tightly. I stroke her hair for a while. She keeps saying it was awful, it was awful, over and over again. It was so cold. I was so scared. He was so awful, I didn’t think I would get through it.

I love you.

Save me.

I had to save myself from her. Our relationship started leaning more and more towards what Alice and I had, not surprisingly. We had become more than just friends. She once asked if I would kiss her, just out of curiousity, and I did. After that we kissed more and more often, and eventually I realized that when my lips touched hers I felt the same things I felt when I kissed Alice. We never talked anymore, we just held each other and kissed, trying in vain to recapture what we had discovered that first time. We rationalized that the first time was so strong only because of all the pent-up emotion we released into it, but still.

We only slept together once. One time, my parents had gone to see my ailing grandmother, leaving me at home alone. I stole the car and headed up to her college in Massachussetts; a two-hour drive but worth it. I spent the night in her room, holding on to her. We didn’t do anything really sexual, just pressed against each other; although the temptation was there to go further we never really got around to it.

That night I discovered that I loved her more than I ever loved Alice, and that scared me. You see, I thought Alice and I would get married someday. I thought the gods had arranged for us to be together for the rest of our lives, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that. The next day, I finally made a decision, and chose Alice instead of the fantastic, powerful love I had felt that night. All for the sake of a marriage that lay so far in the future I couldn’t even begin to concieve of it. I hated having to break the news, but she accepted it. She understood. She always understood.

My best friend stayed strong throughout it, and there were times after that her strength propped me up when I needed it. She always had that quality in her. I can take care of myself, she always said. When she turned up at my doorstep I knew she had lost that, and where a beautiful, capable woman had once stood sat a trembling little girl.

She lies in my arms, her breathing even and light. I stay awake, wondering. She shifts and I find myself confronted by her luminous eyes. Can’t sleep? she asks with a smile. There is so much sadness in her smiles that they make me want to cry. I can’t either, she says.

What did he do to you, I wonder aloud. What did he do to steal away the strong, independent person I knew? Her face twists again and she starts to cry. I’ve never seen her cry. I don’t think she ever did, during all the time I knew her in high school. Not once. But now she sobs and her tears ran down my chest as she tries to hide it from me. I run a hand over her cheek, drying it, waiting for her to regain control. I ask if he had hit her more than once. She nods. I ask if he’d been doing this to her for as long as she’d lived with him. She shakes her head. Before that, she says. Way before.

I wonder why she stayed with him so long. She tells me a couple of things, like she was afraid to leave him because she thought she’d never have another shot at marriage or at what she wanted most, children. She says the thought of being alone again terrified her, and, above all else she feared him. But she says she loved him and needed him.

But you finally left, I say. She nods and I see a bit of her old fire, not yet quashed by the pain and terror. I tell her that she can stay with me for as long as she wants. I tell her she’s always welcome with me, that I’ll never hurt her.

I tell her that I want her to stay. She settles back into my embrace and sleeps. I mean what I say. I won’t hurt her because I can’t. I feel nothing but hatred and anger for her boyfriend, the ogre who stole my beauty’s soul away. I know why she came here, she came to find herself again. We once said that we were as alike as two people could get without being the same. Being together was like being alone, we used to say, and, coming from two career loners, we meant it as quite a complement. It still held true. She came to see me so she could regain some of her strength. I have precious little to give, but I’ll share it with her. I can’t not. I fall asleep listening to her heartbeat thud through my chest.

Alice and I had loved each other, at least I’m pretty sure we did at some point. Ours was one of those crazy first-time high school romances that for some reason went a lot farther than it ought to have. We had known each other for only a few weeks when we started going out, and so our entire relationship had built up within the confines of romantic love. She had all sorts of grand delusions of flowers and proms and little candy hearts and teddy bears; the stuff ‘real’ romance consisted of. I never quite bought into all of that, an outlook which generated not a little bit of friction with her.

She hauled me up out of the most depressing period of my life. I wandered around for the first year or so of high school wearing lots of black and without a happy thought. I had what self-help books call “low self-esteem”, which is a fancy way of saying I loathed myself and my life. After I met her and realized that she needed me just as much as I neeeded her, I put on a white shirt for the first time in years. I was a budding writer/poet at the time, so the symbolism didn’t escape me. For a while she made me feel like the luckiest man in the world. She had a way of making me happy when we spent time together. I thought nothing better could exist, until my friend came along one-and-a-half years into it, and showed me love and closeness like I’ve never felt before or since. With Alice, the sex may have been great, but in other areas she lacked sadly.

But I loved her. We said often that someday we’d be married; both in high school and when we met up years later after graduation. Losing her hurt. She said she wanted more from life than I could give. She wanted a husband with a steady job (I work in a bookstore for peanuts) and a nice house in her rural hometown. For a few months I just sat around pining for her, missing her touch and her constant companionship. Until my friend showed up, I thought I’d do anything to have her back. Now, I’m not so sure. It’s the same old question from high school; which one? But this time I don’t think either of them would accept if chosen. The first, Alice, is gone, away with someone else. And as for the other…

It’s morning. She’s up already, making some sort of breakfast, which surprises me. She never seemed like the hausfrau type, before. She’s battling the stove with a spatula when I get to the kitchen. A large black ant, she explains, had crept onto the toast. Did I still want the piece? She smiles. I smile. We stare into each other’s eyes for a while and then she looks away. Thank you, she says. For what? I wonder. For existing, she replies. I shrug.

I wonder aloud if she’ll ever go back. She says she won’t. I tell her to say it again, and she does, but I don’t believe her. She wants to go back. She needs to see him again. She wants the kind of love and affection she thinks only he can give her. She wants children. I stare at her. So who do you want more, yourself or an idea? I ask.

She turns off the oven, throws away the toast, and sits down to think.

A couple of days pass and she tells me she’s going back. She says she really does love him and her life isn’t so bad, she just needed some time away. Some time alone. I don’t like this and tell her so, but she wants to go back anyway. She says she has to face up, she can’t keep running away forever. I think that she had some pretty damn good reasons to run away but again I say nothing. What can I say? I mean, I could remind her of what she said that night, but she’d probably just go quiet again. She doesn’t want to talk about that night.

So on a rainy Sunday we pack ourselves into my beat-up old Mazda and drive up to Connecticut. He lives in Fairfield, in this little house on a halfway-pleasant street. We don’t talk during the car ride up, and all I say to her as she gets out is to call me. Let me know if things are all right. She nods, squares her shoulders and walks up to the house. I sit in the car for a few minutes and then drive away, feeling more helpless than ever.

I go to a bar and nurse a beer while watching a hockey game. Eventually the barkeeper implies that I ought to either buy another beer or leave. So I leave, and drive around Fairfield and whatever other towns I can find for a while. I don’t want to go home. I know that everywhere I look I’ll see reminders of the past few days. She had regained bits and pieces of herself, I had begun to see her re-emerge from her shell. I have fallen in love with her again. I know that he’ll hurt her again. I know this type of man. I can’t stand the thought of him hurting her. What’s worse, I can’t stand the thought that she won’t fight back. She always used to fight back. He can break her. I can heal her. She can make me whole.

I should not have let her go.

I drive back to New York and sit around for a while. I think about charging back up to Fairfield, grabbing her and spiriting her away to safety. But I know that won’t work. She hates knights in shining armor, and I know she’ll just laugh or hate me and eventually end up back with him anyway. So I sit on my bed and cry for her.

I go to work the next morning. My boss is in a bad mood and tells me that I need to reshelf the entire Sociology section in the former Gardening section, which he’s moving to where all the books about sex are now. I start working and find a book about battered women. I stare at it for a while until my boss comes over and tells me to read on my own time or else. I know he won’t fire me. I’ve been here longer than he has. He needs my help to run this place. But I obey anyway and shelve.

I walk in the park. I walk down 5th Avenue, the whole way, and then turn around and go back to the park where I catch the subway home. It’s late again. I get home intact and check the answering machine, hoping she’s called. She hasn’t. My mother has, wondering where I’ve been and telling me that she’s probably going up to visit my grandmother next week, would I like to come? I erase the message.

It’s three in the morning and I’m suddenly wide awake. The phone is ringing. I run to get it, not bothering to put my clothes on. When I answer it, not daring to hope, all I hear is a dial tone.

I write her a letter. I can’t help it, I have to do something. I tell her that she needs to get out of that relationship, it’s killing her, eroding her personality, can’t she see that? I tell her I still love her, that I always will. I tell her to trust me. I ask her to at least call me. I flip a coin to decide whether or not I should send it off. ‘No’ wins but I send it off anyway.

Alice calls. This shocks me, I’m not prepared for it and stammer senselessly into the phone for the first few seconds. She says she wants to see me. She says she’s not happy with her new boyfriend. She says she wants to come back. I had dreamed of this very moment countless times, I had planned to make her feel really guilty for leaving me and string her along, giving in to her pleading eventually but with a certain healthy amount of reservation, but I just say yes instead. We set up a date. She likes dates, with fancy food and nice clothes. I hate them, but I’m hardly in a position to object.

So I see Alice a few nights later. She hasn’t changed. She laughs and giggles, she makes overly cute remarks. Alice has never really grown up. I had hoped that going off to college and eventually fending for herself in the ‘real world’ would accomplish this, but for some reason she’s stayed like this. A child in so many ways, her shortcomings more accented with age. I feel sorry for her. Sometimes.

Maybe things have changed. I try to coerce her into a serious conversation, talking about children and the future. I make a remark about an idea I have for a novel, and she changes the subject. She always does. It’s not that she’s not interested, she just changes the subject a lot. So I change it back. She changes it again.

I get frustrated and start to say something direct. But I bite my tongue. What, she asks, was I going to say? I shake my head and tell her I just had something in my throat, ignore me. So she talks about her parents.

I picture that house in Fairfield. I picture what that pathetic excuse for a man must look like, what he must do to her. I see the bruises again, I wince.

Alice talks about her friends and tells me this really funny story about one of them. I laugh, but not too loudly.

I feel her tears soak through my shirt. I feel her head butt against my chest. I hear her telling me how horrible it was, how awful he was, how she couldn’t live that way anymore.

Alice says I look distant. Alice asks if I’m all right. I ask her if she really, really wants me back. She says she thinks she does and wonders if I want her back too. I shrug. I don’t know, I say.

I see my friend, my love, walk up to that house. I remember Alice leaving. I excuse myself for a second, saying I’ll be right back, don’t worry. I enter a bathroom and pull out a weathered old bicentennial quarter.

Now you might think that this decision would take me months, even years to sort through and resolve. It did before. But not tonight. Tonight I do what I should have done years ago: I flip a coin. Heads, and I take Alice home tonight. Tails, and I drive to Fairfield.

It’s heads. I stare at it on the back of my hand and feel my heart break. I blink. Understanding rushes in, and I smile softly.

After I drop a teary Alice off at the friend’s house where she had dropped her suitcase, I tear off northeast towards New England. I don’t know what I’ll do when I get there, but one way or another I’m bringing her home with me. I’ll tell her, You don’t have to be afraid anymore. Not with me. I love you. I can’t stand the thought of you here. If you want love and affection, I can give it to you. If you want children, I’ll raise them with you. If you want a husband, I will wed you.

I make decisions with coins, true. I flip a coin and see how I feel. The decision has just been made. Do I like it, or hate it? It’s a good way to sort through all the crap and get right down to the real issue; did I want the boring, unfulfilling but proven-to-work relationship, or the closeness and wonderful comfort of a relationship that might never be? But I think it will be. I know my friend well enough. My heart sings. I feel like I’m free for the first time in years. I feel the night scream its music around me, filling me with energy, power, resolve… I smile, and then I grin, pounding the steering wheel in time to the radio. Headlights whiz by, streaking gashes of white light, blinding, rushing, blazing like twin suns then gone, past.

by A.Y. Tanaka

Eleven-fifty-five a.m. I get a head start. The boss says it’s okay. I drop the clipboard, fat with charts and calculations, on the pile of planks that’ll do for a desk, and walk down the ramp off the machine floor past the timeclock the boss says don’t punch, past the worker’s cafeteria where the boss says he’d better not catch me, out to the street that’s empty except for the Blue Moon lunch wagon pulled up to the curb outside the worker’s exit. Joe’s not the driver today, so I keep going.

The Singer repair manual’s stuck in my back pocket.

Jill’s Diner’s one block south, but I don’t know who Jill is. The sun cracks your eye, you don’t want to go there anyway, eat there anyway, the concrete stretches out — ends at Jill’s with black coffee. No sugar, no cream, I stir anyway.

And check out the manual, read snatches when I can or when I’m in the mood. It’ll come in handy if a feed dog, bobbin crib, bull cam or field coil breaks or drops out or burns up and I’m the one around who knows a thing about it.

Stir the black coffee and think. The girl near the lake who wanted nineteen dalmatians for her birthday, that’s what she said. A nice and noble gesture, if her folks don’t raise a fuss. The mess all those dogs make, and where do you get nineteen friends to get rid of them to.

And big gestures never do the job. They leave you out of money and a fool because a real man — thick to the brim, cute in a rough sort of way, self-confident — won’t need to waste his fuel on a love bribe of nineteen anythings for a flighty almost nineteen-year-old. All he’d need to offer would be himself, enough to charm the pants off any almost-decided girl near the lake. Those girls are known for fast undressing at the bell, but who knows the bell? There’d been no guarantee of a thank-you for the dalmatians.

No business talking love to her. It wasn’t love, just reaching for straws, for some/any kind of okay. So I took the ring back and tucked it behind the underwear in the bottom drawer.

Stirring time’s recovery time, black-no-sugar cupfuls of pick up, dust off, start all over.

Why I’ve got the manual. Right now I’m looking for a used machine to take apart and put back together and all-around tinker at home with, teach my fingers something. If the boss knew about it he’d shake his head. First off, kid, it’s not your specialty. Second, you’re in so deep, too late to change sides. Third, you’re too valuable — Who else can I get to take the heat for me, for these few lousy bucks?

Sorry boss, there’s no career track for lightning rods; the whole job’s an illusion. What’s real is when you keep those machines humming and stitching and happy they don’t just pay better, they love you for it. The girls love you for smoothing their way to bonus points. The boss loves you for being more valuable than his son-in-law.

. . . Stirring and brooding about last night (or the night before, or last week), the girl I saw ten minutes ago (or yesterday, or ten days ago) at her machine in the factory. Dark eyes, dark smile, dark message. The girl no one was supposed to kiss, who I kissed one night in the warehouse and whispered things to, who let me kiss her even when she knew, she said she knew, we weren’t supposed to.

When it wasn’t the warehouse it was behind the bushes next to the factory after the late shift, or in the park. Never my apartment. She didn’t feel safe, I didn’t know why. (They call it a studio, used to call it an efficiency. It isn’t, it wasn’t.)

She’d tell me, and it was almost a threat, “We can’t fall in love.” And echoed and echoed herself, ruining everything. It sounded like “*You* can’t” — all my choice and she didn’t count for anything. “Don’t pretend you don’t know why.”

Expecting trouble was her job. Mine too, didn’t know it.

(The manual says, “If, when servicing a machine, you find the needle in backwards, call it to the operator’s attention before you remove it. The average operator otherwise will not admit to inserting it improperly.”)

At work our eyes met too many times and stayed too long. If you felt like it you guessed why. It reached the boss, who knew cracks have to be caulked right now or the whole chunk falls out. He walked me near the deaf lady’s machine (it didn’t matter) and warned with steel-sad eyes not to let the whole chunk fall out.

I was smart enough not to tell him to mind his own business, smart enough not to listen to him. Nothing showed. I had the clipboard, fat with charts and calculations — not deep, just confusing — and wandered through the factory copying down production figures like I was disappointed, entering bonus points if I really had to, pretending to find fault. (That was my job, to be hard to swallow.) She had her machine, that hummed with contentment, but it couldn’t be because of me. I knew me.

(The manual says, “It is often helpful, before setting up a servicing schedule, to observe the operator work the machine. How she inserts and removes the material, how she strokes and releases the pedal, may indicate future malfunctions.”)

. . . Stirring the black coffee like Captain Queeg rolled his metal balls. Will I grow up (grow up?) to be Queeg, and will they mutiny . . .

It came on sticky and sweaty, another morning with no promise anywhere. You could feel the rust grow on our highschool- surplus lockers. I climbed the ramp to the machine floor and plowed my eyes as cool as could be through the sewing section, around the rolled, flat, folded, stacked imitation leather, plastic near the windows, paper down the middle aisle. Routine. (Why play cool when everybody knows? Maybe not everybody, or your cool head will make them forget.) She wasn’t there.

The get-ready bell rang. Three minutes later the start-now bell rang. For the first hour her machine sat shrouded and lonely like a new gravestone. Then Mae brought a girl down from real leather to work on it. She had a dull look on her face, and was clumsy, but nobody noticed.

I made two morning rounds, two afternoon rounds, bounced numbers off the hot and bitter people on the floor, hard to tell who or what I stepped on or bumped into. Late afternoon, I knew I’d have to take the wrong bus after work, down to her place. Was it a rooming house, apartment house? I didn’t know. She was always warning me to stay away if I didn’t want to get hurt, don’t get any weird-adventurous ideas, don’t think you’ve got to Know me just because — warned me she’s the only one the old wood stairs don’t groan about.

I finished checking the hour’s production on the pasting girls (you have to paste the stays and ribs before you fold and sew the gussets, at least on most of those orders), almost moved on to the folding girls, when the last pasting girl — the quiet one I never spoke to — waved me back to her table.

“Won’t see her no more,” she whispered as her paste brush danced across the paper leather. “Took the plane.”

I tried not . . . It showed.

“Plane? Where to?”

She shrugged, didn’t know. (She knew.) Getting even. (What for?) Protecting me. (Protecting me?)

You can’t run after a plane. Took off already. Can’t run after, waving your arms like a damn fool.

I stumbled off the machine floor as easy as you can with the building shaking. I grabbed a bunch of pencils from the locker and broke them in my hands, one-by-one . . . two-by-two . . . It didn’t work. I wanted to kick — The lockers, the stiff gray bank of them, asked for it. But anything I kicked would bang and ring and echo and everyone would hear and everyone would know.

The pencils, like straws.

The walk to Jill’s Diner takes longer, the repair manual makes the pocket sag (must be the extra pages), the sun cracks your eye more than it used to. The food’s terrible, but you already knew that. The coffee’s stronger, cream and sugar make it worse. I still don’t know who Jill is.

by Glenn Turner

Suffering from the summer afternoon heat as the sun danced her way across the sky, Davy trudged his small way with an older brother towards Charity, the nearest town. A crossroads actually. Originally built as a railstop for farmers and a maintenance headquarters for Southern Pacific, the town slowly died after the railroad closed its shop and station, becoming a near corpse with a grocery store-gas station, a rusty water tower, a few occupied houses, one ghost, and its name.

As the boys entered the town limits, guilt added to Davy’s discomfort. Mom had firmly ordered them to stay out of Charity. “Take your bottles to Sam’s in McKinny,” she had said. “Sam knows you and will treat you right.”

She glared over her flour board at two of her sons, rows of rising bread hinted at the biscuit dough her hands were about to bully, her black hair gray with flour dust which coated her redish-brown skin now white like their father’s. “Eddie, are you paying attention to me?”

Only five and blindly obedient, Davy had given no thought of going elsewhere, but Eddie, defiant from the womb, had convinced him to take their bottles into the nearer town. “It’s closer,” Eddie had said, “and the road to Charity is paved. Besides, she’ll never know.” Davy felt attracted to deception and to the shorter trip and agreed. Now they pulled the rusty Radio Flyer wagon along the dirt shoulder, the blacktop being tacky from the sun, moving carefully as to avoid chipping the glass pop bottles they had spent all morning collecting off the highway’s right-of-way.

Each whizzing-by car frightened him. He continuously glanced back to the farm. Near the horizon, he could see grandpa’s faded red barn sticking up against the cloudless blue sky -its repose unbroken by Sputnik or Echo, the tin roof bright, and the seven-bladed windmill lazily spinning in the breeze, and he imagined hearing its metallic groaning, pumping water into the cypress water tank.

Without looking for danger, they crossed under the blinking yellow light suspended over the dead intersection and dragged the wagon to the grocery’s door. An R. C. Cola sign with chipped paint clung to the screen door that complained squeekily as Eddie pulled it open. Davy yanked the wagon through. The bottles rattled.

Inside, the grocery was comparatively dark and cool. A swamp cooler, smelling of mildew and rot, futility attempted to chill the air. The ceiling was high, the lights off. Behind the tall register sat or stood, Davy could not determine which, a bald man wearing a sleeveless T-shirt. Tufts of white hair sprung from underneath his collar and armpits. He looked somewhat old and soured, like the way the room smelled. The room was silent but for the spin and whoosh of the swamp cooler. The bald man did not move as Eddie approached the counter.

“What-d’ya two want?” the bald man demanded.

“We’d like to cash in our bottles,” Eddie answered as the agreed-upon financial spokesman. Davy pulled the wagon to the counter.

The bald man lifted himself from a stool to peek over the counter at the wagonload of bottles. So he was sitting, thought Davy. The bald man leaned on callused elbows. Davy wondered if the counter held matching holes for his elbows.

“Well, what-ya waitin’ for? Bring ‘em behind the counter.” The bald man frowned with impatience. “Don’t stand there like a fence post!” Eddie waved his younger brother forward with the wagon. The bald man snatched the wagon handle from Davy’s hand. It hurt. Davy felt his mouth dry up a little. This place is not nice he thought. Sam was much nicer than the bald man. The bald man disappeared in a back room.

“Damn! You boys didn’t even sort the bottles.”

He heard the glassy chink-chink as the bald man sank each bottle into its wooden carton. Eddie posted himself in front of the register. Davy moved nervously moved to the candy isle, looking for Milk Shake candy bars, his favorite, and soon lost himself in sugary greed.

The bald man reappeared.

“Well boys. There’s six bottles at two cents, twelve at three cents, and twenty-three bottles that I don’t carry and cain’t buy. So. Let’s see. That’s furty-eight cents.” Grabbing the handle of the register, the bald man smiled and said, “Make it fifty cents. I’ll take the other bottles off yer hands.”

He yanked the handle. A bell clanged and a faded No Sale popped up. Fifty cents! thought Davy. Is that all? They had worked so hard.

“No Sir,” said Eddie.

“What wuz that?”

The bald man’s face jumped from benign to fury. Davy stepped back, but Eddie stood firm.

“Give us our bottles back. We’ll go to McKinny, to Sam’s. He buys all our bottles.” The boy’s voice was shaky but sure as much as a ten-year-old’s can be. The bald man’s face grew red.

“You little son—-”

“These boys giving you trouble, Charlie?” came a reedy voice behind them. In the open doorway stood a ethereal form, black against the backlight. It took a step. The door slapped as Davy, eyes locked on the shape like a bird’s on a snake, watched the man silently glide closer. He was thin and sweaty. A heavy black leather belt wrapped his skinny waist, from which hung a gun, and a tarnished badge tilted limply forward over a chest pocket. Davy could not look at the man’s face, only at the gun.

“These here boys,” Charlie whined, face now innocent, “tried to steal some candy. When I caught ‘em, they accused me of takin’ their pop bottles. Snotty liars!”

“That’s not true, Deputy.” said Eddie. “Those are our bottles. Me and my brother spent all mornin’ pickin’ ‘em up off Highway 24.”

Deputy yanked a limp handkerchief from a shirt pocket and wiped his forehead. He turned his body square with the boy.

“Get out,” he said, with the calm authority of a badge and gun.

Eddie held his ground. “I want our bottles back.”

Deputy hung sweaty thumbs inside the gun belt and leaned over them. “Boy, I said git.” Deputy learned over them.

Davy began blubbering, “I want my wagon.” He sniffed and rubbed his nose. “I want my wagon.”

Charlie the bald man shoved the wagon out from behind the counter, barking Eddie sharply on the calf. Charlie grinned.

Whimpering, Davy pushed open the complaining door for his brother.

Deputy removed his hat. “I know what you are and I don’t want to see you boys bothering decent white folks again. I done told your grandpa to keep you red niggers outta this town.”

Outside, the white sun hit them hard.

“Gimme something cold,” they heard Deputy say.

“It’s on me,” was the reply. “We shoulda killed ‘em all off a hunnerd years ago.” The door slapped shut.

Eddie clenched and unclenched his fists nearly the entire way back. “I’m not a red nigger,” he repeated to himself like a litany. “I’m not a red nigger.” Davy simply cried.

At the farm house, Eddie made him stop weeping and washed his face at the well, for he had no intention of letting their mother discover what had happened to them. Davy parked the wagon under the back porch. He avoided his mother the remainder of the afternoon. After their afternoon naps, he watched Eddie march to the barn, to play with the puppies he thought. He followed, finding his brother playing with his model bi-plane. the puppies were sleeping.

“I’m going to be a pilot, just like grandfather Elliot,” Eddie said.

He zoomed the plane high over his head and then made it dive, like their white grandfather must have done to the Germans in World War I, and he dashed to the hayloft. Davy wanted to cuddle a puppy, but he felt it wrong to wake them.

He ambled inside the house. His brother’s ruckus could be heard from the barn. He climbed into his grandfather’s chair which looked out westward through a window through which he could see ordered rows of thriving cotton run alongside a harvested wheat field now lying fallow. Heady, masculine pipe tobacco smell mixed with Old Spice clung to the chair. From the kitchen, along with the happy sounds of dishes being washed, came a old song. It was his grandma in Cherokee, who had a song for everything. His mother’s unhesitating voice responded with another song. They soon sang in unison. As the scent of the pipe permeated his mind, the rhythm became a drumming in his ears. Its beat, first in counterpoint with the rhythm of his own blood, soon synchronized. The blood pounded in his ears louder and louder. He caught a snatch of Eddie hollering in the barn, but as the red sun touched the black horizon, casting long red shadows out from the black direction and separating the house from the barn, he heard nothing but the beat, beat, beat of drums, growing louder until all else was drowned out.

by Steven J. Frank

He wasn’t quite sure when his watch had become dislodged, or where it might be. But that would be as good an excuse as any. He’d go back later, maybe tomorrow, knock on her door and explain. Then she couldn’t possibly tell him to get lost.

The morning air was lush and it made him drunk. His coat was too heavy, his shirt felt grubby, and his crotch stung like a salted war wound. The smell of her room lingered under his nose. He knew exactly where he was, which way he needed to walk. The streets were unfamiliar but recalled; he’d memorized them as he’d driven her home along them two nights before. So far he’d only missed one class. A miracle. She never liked to miss class, she’d told him.

Avoiding injury was becoming an effort. Sprays of swollen cherry and magnolia buds crazed the sunlight. The worn brick sidewalk, already slick with late-March mud, upwelled around every tree. She tried not to miss class, she’d said, because her father liked to ask questions. He told her the last time he’d heard his own father’s voice was before they reassigned him to the Gulf the previous summer. Both of them had gone on and on like that for who knew how long, talking ridiculous, he described the blind roar of night maneuvers at the Johnson airbase, she tried to mimic the look on her father’s face the afternoon he discovered her in bed with a glass of wine, a Laura Esquivel novel and no clothes. Her eyes seized his when he spoke, as if his every word were precious and yet completely beside the point–no more than prelude. Her eyes seemed to know something he didn’t.

And, later, the rest of her–rangy and glorious, the pale dormroom light spread across her like the last moments of sunset on a beach.

His shoe slapped against the toe of the curb rising above the brick sidewalk, nearly pitching him into the street. Idiot, he cursed silently. No one ever stopped at that stop sign. He could have been killed. And what if? How would she react to news of his poor flattened carcass? With devastation? Or secret relief? He’d left because he didn’t want to look like a wuss, asking if he might stay. But also because of something he sensed–a departure time wordlessly announced, mutually understood. If he hurried now, didn’t kill himself, he might just make it to his next class.

He stopped dead. No notebook. No problem set, no answers, no clue. What was he thinking?

–Hi Daddy.

Thinking about that conversation was what. He couldn’t get it out of his head. As if she’d been expecting the call.

He was supposed to be in college so he could make something of himself and possibly deserve the long-term attentions of someone desirable. Someone with a full-time father on active duty. He was quite sure he was supposed to be in college and going to classes and studying something. There were classroom buildings just a block away up the hill. He’d met her in one of them. But he felt somehow disoriented, like a visitor, not part of the day-to-day. People would be wondering about him by now. Maybe he would never see her again because it had happened so fast, and he knew how things that sizzle also tend to sputter. He could picture her sympathetic frown, the furtive glance up and down the hall, the door closing.

At least two of his roommates had no classes until afternoon. If he went back now to get his notebook, one of them would say he looked like shit, and with raised eyebrows tell him, but maybe a good kind of shit and smack his knee at his wit. And when he said nothing the other would push back his glasses and say oh, do forgive, we are too coarse and vulgar to learn of your amours. And the envy and unanswered curiosity would sharpen an edge into their voices.

He’d felt a sullen terror watching her speak with her father. She had no regional accent but her old man was supposedly this big-shot judge in Birmingham. Tried to talk with his daughter about Breughel and Bosch, but her clipped responses gave her away.

–Yes, she finally answered, drawing out the word with a conspiratorial smile, eyes downcast. Then she stared at him. Suddenly he felt scandalous. He wanted to drape something over her.

–A little, I guess. Taller.

Trying to reconstruct the other end of the conversation: Does he look like me?

–Oh, I would imagine so.

Is he a good catch? Of upstanding character? A Godfearing Christian? Lily white like me?

Is he irresponsible? Does he trip over curbs and forget his notebooks and alienate his roommates and drive a faded black Escort with one wheel in the grave …

–No, I expect he’ll drive me to dinner somewhere.

The car. Where had he left the car?

Across the street from her dorm was where he’d left it, he realized at once. He couldn’t go all the way back at this point. He’d miss still another class. Besides, someone would see him and tell her what an idiot he was. He’d just leave it there, along with his watch and his pride, and hope the car thieves were more discriminating.

–Actually, that’s where we went last night.

Then,

–No, Daddy, no pizza for us. (Crossed fingers, clenched-eyed shrug.)

No, daddy, no pizza for at least another twenty minutes, she might have said. They’d just ordered. The man was evil in his recollections of youthful abandon and its rituals.

–Still your daughter, remember.

That’s what I’m afraid of. (Together they stifled a laugh.)

Ahead of him was the parking lot of the building that contained the room that would host the class he, as a good catch of upstanding character, should be attending. People threaded through the double doors from the left and the right. All carried notebooks. Their voices silenced by distance, they moved in a processional that seemed somehow manufactured, television with a broken volume control. The building was broad with sandstone panels beneath the windows. They caught the sun like mirrors. He found a lawn bench between a pair of stringy acacias, sat down and studied the tableau with a hand shielding one eye from the glare.

He couldn’t remember exactly what she’d told him about that Laura Esquivel book but it had struck him as remarkably clever, well worth the effort to recall exactly. And the distracted expression she reflexively got when her hair fell in front of one of her eyes, the right one, and she had to pull it back behind her ear. A detail he would have to commit to memory if she decided to dump him. He was laying down now, face warm against the sun, the air indolent. Through the red veiny sky of his eyelids he imagined figures flinging themselves through entrance doors, one after the other, mechanical in pursuit of their destinations.

He didn’t know why he felt so unanchored and removed. As his mind began to quiet, he decided maybe he had no solid evidence he’d be dumped after all–even though he wasn’t always responsible, not Godfearing, not even a Christian, certainly not unusually tall. She herself was not free of flaw. Not with morning breath that could launch an F-16. He was immobile, savoring the ecstatic disconnect, soaring in the wonder of no place to go.

by Kimberly Nichols

It is Monday night and I am making my round of angel calls; making sure all my friends are still intact. Jerry is okay and so is Billy. I dial Seth and expect the worse. He answers on the third ring. I can tell he’s on bed. At eight o’clock, that’s not good.

“Why are you sleeping?”

“I’m coming down.”

He refuses to lie to me.

“Is that where you’ve been for two days?”

“Yes,” he says, “I ran into Nixon and he hooked me up. Oh.”

I hear a ruffling of bed sheets. I can visualize him dirty and full of goosebumps under the covers in his sweaty pad without electricity. It’s the middle of another torrid summer. I hear a small sniffle with female notes.

“Do you have a girl there?” I ask.

“Remember that girl I told you about? The stripper?”

“Maya?” I ask, “The one whose father made her watch pornos while he shoved his dick down her throat?”

“Yes.”

“Do you like her?” I inquire.

“She says I have the most beautiful eyes she’s ever seen,” he announces proudly, “So I had to sleep with her.”

I hang up so he can sleep after he promises me that he’ll come over later. He says he’ll bring Maya; just another dot on the beaded string of strange oddities he parades through my life on a fleeting basis.

I wait for hours and they finally show up around midnight. Maya doesn’t look anything like a stripper. She is sweetness gone grotesquely awry. Young with a reddish bob, she’s dressed in baggy, drab clothes over light freckled skin. I tell Seth to lie on my couch and rest and Maya and I go into my office to talk. She wants to see some of my work.

All writers are bleeding in front of strangers and Seth, being my biggest fan besides my lover Jack, has been boasting to great lengths. I give her a stack of raw prose and she’s silent as she reads.

I start to think about the rich. If I were rich, I’d serve tea with my literature out of creamy milk glass pitchers with tiny cookies on the side instead of here with two Diet Coke cans and an overflowing ashtray on the floor. The rich always have crushed ice, rattan, tabletops and time. I have tap water cubes, garage sale tapestries, no tabletops, a poorly paid waitress job and my soul. They have fuchsia flowers with leaves that wilt into spinach-like form; chair legs that twist oddly like burnt trees and blondes. I have weeds that grow wildly out of dirt in my backyard, chairs they break and get repaired over and over and bleach that can be utilized to my roots if I feel the desire to be some lounge lizard’s wet dream. They have any life. I have pores. My pores are my art.

It’s three a.m. and I sit here listening to Liz Phair sing,”Šcuz secretly I’m dead”. Our humiliations are kept under the covers. I create art with my own small deaths. Art as urinal. Courtney Love sings about a plastic doll, malleable in the heat of male hands and when I read Sassy (the magazine with great intentions) at age fifteen, I ran to Wal-Mart for a bag of Goody barrettes after seeing them in a fashion ad. Now Liz is singing about an x-ray man and the secret positions she sees in his head as he looks at other chics and I realize why girls like me never find understanding. We know there is truth but we don’t want to hear about it. The soul twin lover, the panic and confusion stemming from the abstract of love- something that carries so many connotations that we’ve been programmed to embrace and reject and, sadly, accept. Coldness ahs become so trendy that we deny innocence. Instead, we share it with a world that coins us psychotic for being real. We get rid of insecurity through an icy, cold stance or a job that involves taking off our clothes. We are keen on male minds because they have become our best friends. We bond our common faults and flaws into the common bandage of humanity yet the knife is still as sharp as it slips between our thighs.

“The shape of his naked eyes as he came..” Maya reads from one of my poems.

“The only time guys are naked unless they love you.”

“Not always,” she says softly.

I’ve known her four an hour and we’re already on the same wavelength.

“But,” I announce, “The more naked they get, the more scary it feels.”

She doesn’t reply.

Why can’t we all shed our clothes? It would be so much easier to accept our mortality but we can’t stop thinking that we’re all unique. It’s all we cling to. A psychic once told me that no matter what happens it could be labeled growth in some form. The more naked we get, the scarier it feels. Why?

“To be cold used to be my goal,” I explain, “but it was impossible because my heart overruled.”

“Why cold?” Maya asks, crawling down on the floor beside me, creasing into perpendiculars, the lines of her olive green corduroy pants, “Why not just stop editing and say what you mean? What about honesty instead of plastic, manufactured emotions?”

A veneer of purity is alluring but tough to maintain.

“I don’t view cold as plastic,” I say, but more of a defense mechanism.”

I can’t believe this 20-year-old fresh-faced angel in front of me is a stripper. Her peaches and cream skin match the Victoriana she idolizes and writes romantically of. But abuse, I know from experience, warps girls into strange caricatures.

I continue, “Why care when someone walks out your front door? Why not just numb your ego in the first place?”

“Boring.”

I sigh, “But sometimes necessary for the weak kneed.”

“You,” she says sadly, tucking a strand of raw umber hair behind a diamond studded ear, “have been at the wrong places at the wrong times. You have a wonderful lover now and should stop looking for when the bad things will occur.”

I hand her a cigarette and light it. I say, “It isn’t about what’s already happened to me. It’s the anticipation of potential hurt if I become totally naked. Like the torture we put ourselves through if we suspect a lover is cheating until the day we find him inside of he and then it is so simple to walk away. The fog of anxiety is what stings, is what I can’t get away from.”

There’s a way never to be anxious,” she says in a whisper so that Seth won’t overhear from the other room, “there’s a recipe for monogamous unity if we’re willing to accept the ingredients. We all idolize the monogamous mind, the commitment in words and none of that matters. We should allow for our minds to explore but give more credit to the monogamous body.”

“But.”

“A monogamous physicality is simple if we don’t expect it in the mind. Can we do that?”

“I wonder what test we are ultimately qualifying for?” I say.

She laughs, “Life is SO navigable.”

“I don’t know if I agree with that,” I say.

“Neither do I,” she admits, “but I have to.”

She sprawls out like a cat on my carpet and takes a sip of soda. “I can tell you’re in love because you are analyzing things before they’ve even had a chance. This is probably the first time you’ve ever let someone truly into your heart. I have done it a thousand times so I am more relaxed about hurt then you. I envy you.”

She stands to leave and I try to make out the shape of her career beneath the thick ply of her sweater.

I used to think I could make that decision. To be cold or not to be. Thought I could slip on an attitude like my purple Birkenstocks. I was wrong.

Seth knocks on the door and then enters, “Hey VioletŠI want you to draw me a tattoo. I want it diabolical. Burnt trees and a sexy blonde. I want them to merge but be definite.”

We girls are good at blending with fire.

I turn on the radio and another male singer fills me with hope.

by Janalee Chmel

Chris is fine, I say to Jennifer.

We are in a coffee shop halfway between our houses. Jennifer and I meet once a week to unload on one another. So far, today it’s been my turn. Jennifer is eight months pregnant. I am telling her about my New Year’s Eve with Chris.

I mean, Chris isn’t real happy with her life these days, but she’s making do, I guess. You know Chris. She’s tough.

Jennifer waves for a refill on her coffee and nods at me. She’s the only one who might understand, so I decide to risk it.

Jennifer, Chris’s work is so tough. You wouldn’t believe what I saw her do. It brought up all kinds of memories, I say.

I study Jennifer a moment to decide if this is too much for her, or us, right now. With what we’ve been through in the last year, supporting one another has been like two kids deciding who plays invalid and who plays nurse.

But I tell her.

Well, I spend the day, that day, December thirty-first, alone in Chris’s apartment because she works from seven to noon. I drive her to the clinic at seven so I can have the Jeep all day. Not that I know anything about Phoenix to scout about on my own.

So, anyway, I drive her to the clinic and I say, Tough day ahead? I know it is. She got a call the night before while we were having beers on her living room floor. Some tech telling her she has a surgery first thing. She’s never done one of these kinds before so she wanted to get to work early to read up on it.

I didn’t sleep a fucking wink, she says as we’re driving. You know how Chris is.

Good luck, I say when she gets out of the Jeep.

I’m really nervous, she says. I’ll need a beer later.

We’re ready to bring in the new year, you know. We both hated ‘96.

Jennifer says, did anyone have a good 96? I was so glad to see that year go.

I nod and say, You and me both. So, anyway, I spend the day waiting for noon. I watch a little TV and walk her dog. I don’t do anything too exciting. I’m just happy to relax a little. Gives me time to think about all the other shit. You know, Jennifer, I never think about it. Even that day. Even when I tried.

I wonder if I should bring this all up again. Jennifer’s probably sick of me talking about it. She’s nodding at me as if it’s OK to go on.

Jennifer says, You need to learn how to think about this when you’re alone, Denise. Maybe then you’ll cry. She pauses and shrugs, then says, Maybe not. I still cry a lot and it makes me feel better. You’re different.

I wonder, does Jennifer want me to think about it alone so I stop bugging her? At eight months pregnant now, though, shouldn’t Jennifer be feeling better about the miscarriage? Yeah, right. Shouldn’t I be healed? Your mom is supposed to die before you; your child isn’t. But, I decide to go on. This has been the nature of our friendship all year.

So anyway, I try to think. Don’t think. Shower and head to the clinic at 11:30. I want to see Chris in action. You know, Dr. Chris! Our Dr. Chris! You’d love seeing her there. She’s so in-charge.

I walk in and there’s an older woman with a little, old dog on her lap, and a girl, I guess about my age, only she’s got an engagement ring. Bitch!

Jennifer smiles and I see her absently fiddle with her ring.

Just kidding, I say. Who, me? Bitter? Moi? The girl is sitting there with a puppy that’s just out-of-con-trol! I’m telling you, that dog needed less caffeine. Speaking of which, where’s our refills?

We both look up and the waitress scurries over with the pot.

So, the receptionist comes out from the back and the older woman starts to stand up, but the receptionist looks at me and this other girl and asks us into a room right off the waiting room. We, this girl and I, both laugh and say we’re not together.

I’m Denise, I say. Chris’s friend.

This woman says, Oh, like she’s all happy to see me and tells me she’s Katy and I can go in back.

I wander back. There’s this funny parrot. I say hi and he — like on cue — takes a shit! You know, maybe Chris taught him that trick.

I wouldn’t doubt it, Jennifer says laughing.

I keep walking back. There’s this fridge where they have one of those word games stuck all over the door. You know? With one word on each piece and you move the pieces around to create sentences? There’s sentences up there like

BITE ME. DOGS DO

and

I GET WET

and

DANCE WITH A MONKEY

I smile cause I know Chris definitely created a couple of those. Can’t you see her doing that? That’s so Chris. It’s kind of strange seeing the stuff back there. Like seeing the back of a stage set with all the ropes and pulleys. The main room back there — you can tell the public, the owners, don’t go back there because there’s bagels on one of the exam tables. It’s pretty big. Two of those silver metal tables about waist high. A couple of big cages stacked near a wall. And there’s a couple of rooms off this room, and a hall going back. I just wait in that main room. I feel like an intruder, you know? The table with the bagels has a book on it open to a page about neutering dogs whose balls haven’t fallen all the way. No, really! Didn’t I say that? That was the surgery Chris was all uptight about.

Seriously? Jennifer says. Oh, Chris must love that!

The diagrams in the book were hysterical! I suppose they’re not if you’re a vet, but Chris did say that ever since the asshole dumped her, she’s found quite a bit of humor in neuters. And satisfaction.

At this point, I haven’t seen Chris yet but I hear her with hyper puppy and engaged girl. Laughing. Joking. Just a check-up, I guess.

Well, I have to go to the bathroom so I wander down that back hall and find one. There’s this map of the Grand Canyon on the wall and Big Bass Fishing or some other kind of magazine on the back of the toilet. Kind of funny.

Anyway, when I’m done, I go back up the hall and there’s Chris. She’s standing next to the open exam table. That old woman’s little dog is on it but the woman isn’t there.

Hi there, Dr. Horst, I say, all chipper and happy to call her doctor, you know?

Hey you, she says, but not real up. I’m still in the doorway to the hall. She goes to a drawer between the two tables and pulls out a syringe. She sticks it in her mouth and pulls the cap off with her teeth. You know, like you see doctors do on TV. Like it’s a pen cap, or something. So natural. I smile at her and she leans back against the cabinets. She’s filling the syringe with this pink stuff — looks gooey, not watery. Like a clear lotion, or aloe. Yeah, like pink aloe gel.

I walk up to the dog. He looks a little old but he seems nice enough. I mean, he doesn’t seem aggressive. I get up close to him and I say, what’s the prognosis, doc? Even though I hate that word — prognosis. I hate the word doctor, come to think of it. Not one M. Deity could keep my mother from withering away before my eyes. They act like life is so discardable.

Jennifer jumps in quickly, like she’s heard me say that before — she has — and says, They’re not all bad, you know. You should let go of some of your anger, Denise.

I only nod. This is the crux of my story. I can’t get diverted into that topic now. I lean in toward Jennifer a little and continue.

So, anyway, I said, what’s the prognosis, doc? And Chris says to me, I’ve got to put him to sleep.

No, Jennifer says, and sits back.

I wonder if Jennifer can see it coming. I sure didn’t. I go on quickly.

I just back up. I don’t say anything. I wanted to save him, Jennifer. I wanted Chris to save him. I mean, he was alive. He was breathing. He looked at me when I walked in the room. His owner was probably just down the hall waiting for some prescription, I bet.

I wonder if I’m telling this right. Does Jennifer get it?

What determines that, Jennifer? Life. I mean, I guess to Chris it is all scientific. She can think it’s over even when a heart’s still beating.

As soon as I say that, I remember Jennifer’s words last year. Its heart just stopped beating. That’s all they can tell me.

Jennifer is looking past my shoulder, but she looks back at me knowingly. We’ve gone over and over the concept of death. I was there when cancer finally stopped Mom’s heart. Jennifer says she knows the moment her child died inside her. Those events were separated only by two weeks.

I go on.

Lungs sound like shit, Chris says to me. She tells the tech standing there that the dog collapsed twice last night.

But still, Jennifer. What is it? Chris is a scientist. She sees it all as biological systems — functioning or not functioning. But isn’t there more to life? When does death really happen? Is it a system shut-down or more? And what does that pink stuff do? Help things along or force it?

I’m not making myself clear, I say.

Jennifer says, I understand. You know I do. Life isn’t scientific.

I nod in agreement. Jennifer says, please tell me what happened.

You sure? I say.

I think so, she says.

Chris, she walks up to the dog and the tech holds his little leg out and Chris sticks that syringe in and squirts all the pink stuff in and the dog — he immediately relaxes. He just relaxes. Like my mom did when she took her last breath, Jennifer. Just like something left her. The dog was the same.

Chris goes out to talk to the woman who I suddenly hear sobbing. I am so curious to look at her. I want to see it on someone else’s face. But the tech, she’s wrapping up the dog in a towel and I can’t leave. I have to watch. I realize I don’t know what they did to Mom’s body right after. I was in the kitchen. Did I tell you about any of that? They arrived after we called and I didn’t watch. I might have been on the phone with you. I probably was.

The tech puts the dog in this plastic bag. A yellow plastic bag, and I remember the zipper. I heard a zipper that night, Jennifer. I totally forgot it until that day with the dog and then suddenly I remembered the zipper! They put her in a body bag. My mom. In a body bag.

I bring my coffee mug to my lips, but taste nothing. I’m pushing too hard. For what?

Then, Jennifer leans across and puts her hand on top of mine. There’s a tear in her eye. Why can’t I do that?

She says, you need to finish this.

I turn my hand over to hold hers and I go on.

The yellow bag, it … the tech knots the top and holds it up off the table with one hand. It’s full and round at the bottom, I say.

Like a stork carrying a baby in a blanket, Jennifer says quietly.

Yeah, but not moving, I say. Just a round lump.

We stare at each other. I finish the story.

But then, so the tech says, to the doggie freezer! and walks back down the hall.

I’m stunned. I bet they put Mom in a freezer, Jennifer. They froze Mom.

Jennifer nods knowingly. One hand rests on her sizable tummy.

by Larry W. Van Guilder

Our fear and fascination with powerful storms is timeless and universal. Thus, the storm is a familiar vehicle for addressing the dread of isolation shared by many.

By six-thirty that evening, Mary could see the storm move from its crouched position on the horizon and begin making its way east. Watching the gray clouds darken into shades of purple and grow taller and more ominous, she felt the familiar stirrings that approaching storms had aroused in her since childhood. Rain, the crash of thunder and lightning, an angry sky, and trees bowing and swaying to the will of a freshening wind called to something deep within her. An eldritch world, she thought; beautiful, but lonely.

The gathering storm evoked memories of her mother, and the day she died. Seven years old, Mary had not understood the inexorable workings of cancer. The disease had reduced a strong, beautiful woman to a caricature of her former self, weak and skeletal.

A surreal haze had long surrounded many of Mary’s memories of her mother’s last day. She could not recall the doctor’s arrival, although she remembered him reaching down to stroke her hair as he left. Faces of neighbors, aunts, uncles and cousins had blurred into a featureless array of talking heads, each one mouthing a well-intentioned platitude. But Mary had never forgotten the savage storm that had erupted in late afternoon. She could still hear the cries of nervous livestock as the storm approached; she could still see her father kneeling by her mother’s bed, oblivious to the thunder and lightning breaking over their heads. While the mid-summer tempest clawed at the old farmhouse, she watched her mother’s breathing slow, then stop, as if the storm itself had claimed the woman’s spirit as it passed. She had never felt so terrifyingly alone and abandoned.

Another storm came slashing its way across the broad farmlands later that summer. Even now, a quarter-century removed from that day, she recalled how her loneliness and sorrow had begun to fade as the storm approached. In her child’s view, the storms which had taken her mother were somehow bringing a part of her back.

The wind continued to rise. Mary opened the screen door and walked onto the front porch, drawn by the increasingly vigorous dance of the slender pines lining the road. She inhaled deeply and smiled at the scent of approaching rain, opening her arms and stretching her slim frame to embrace the wind like an old lover.

A clattering sound turned her around, and she frowned at the peeling old shutters that framed the two front windows. Widening strips of weathered gray peeked through a brick-red covering. Like the house itself, they were long overdue for some scraping and a fresh coat of paint.

She turned back to the advancing storm just as her brother Gene pulled his red pickup into the drive. As if on cue, the sky opened and heavy raindrops began to pelt the front yard, igniting tiny explosions of dust on the dry earth. She shook her head and grinned at him, then cupped her hands to yell.

“Don’t you have enough sense to get in out of the rain?”

From inside the truck Gene placed a hand to his ear, then shrugged and opened the door. The wind caught his baseball cap, sending it tumbling toward the road and leaving his balding head open to the rain as he sprinted for the porch. His feet slipped on the rain-slick porch, and Mary laughed as he grasped the porch railing for support.

“And what’s so funny?”

“Oh, just my big brother slipping and sliding through the rain that he doesn’t have the sense to stay out of.”

“Look who’s talking.”

Mary looked down at her soaked dress and noticed for the first time that she was as wet– wetter –than Gene. She placed an inquiring hand to the top of her head, then grinned wryly and drew a thick strand of sopping, brown hair across her forehead as her brother chuckled.

“I didn’t realize I was getting wet. You know me– ”

“Yeah, I know you, Miss ‘Storm-Lover.’ Well, come on girl, let’s get inside before we both drown.”

Mary took him by the hand and opened the screen door. Inside, she turned for another look as the storm’s fury increased. At the sight of rain blowing horizontally through the screen, Gene nudged her.

“Better close the other door, too, unless you want your furniture floating around.”

She nodded, and nudged the door closed.

“I better get these windows,” Gene said.

“Leave them open just a little. So we can hear it better.”

Gene smiled at her and shook his head in feigned despair, but he was careful to leave each window cracked open about one-half inch.

“Happy?”

“Gene, it’s not that I ‘love’ storms. I guess it’s more like a fascination. I feel closer to Mom when a storm passes. I have for years.” Gene said nothing, and she continued. “Now, what in the world brings you over here this afternoon. Don’t you have a farm and a family to tend to?”

“Can’t a brother come and see his sister when he feels like it?” “You were just here the day before yesterday.”

“Well, I the truth is, I had to go into McMinnville anyway, so I just thought I’d stop and say hello on my way back.”

She clucked her tongue disapprovingly. “Gene, Gene. I love you with all my heart, but you are and always have been a terrible liar.”

Gene’s cheeks reddened beneath his leathery tan. When he didn’t answer, Mary walked over and hugged him, standing on tiptoe to reach his shoulders.

“You worry about me far too much.” She stepped back and kissed him lightly on his cheek. “But, thanks.”

He shrugged and looked out the windows. “Storm’s getting worse.”

Mary followed his gaze. “Yes, isn’t it wonderful?”

Gene rolled his eyes. “Wonderful? It won’t be wonderful when this old shack blows away one day. Listen to that wind, Mary. Hell, you can feel the frame shaking. Why don’t you– ”

“Move back with Dad?” she finished for him. “Or maybe in with you and Carol and the kids?”

Gene shifted his gaze from her face to the floor. “Might not be such a bad idea. At least until you decide what you’re going to do.”

Mary smiled at his discomfort, but answered him gently: “What I’m going to do is stay right where I’m at.”

“But, Mary– ” A brilliant lightning flash followed by a deafening peal of thunder erupted overhead before he could finish. In the wake of the thunder, the wind’s shriek increased and the rain flailed the old house even harder.

“Jesus! That was close!” He peered cautiously out the window.

“I’m here, and I won’t let the big, bad storm hurt you,” Mary teased.

“Very funny.” Gene turned from the window and tried to ease back into his pitch. “I was going to say that you can’t keep up the farm forever now that, well, you just can’t. It’s too much.”

“It’s OK to say that Ray is dead. It’s been two years.” Mary went to the window and grasped his arm. “Life goes on. I loved him, I still love him, and I miss him. But life goes on,” she finished in a near-whisper.

Gene fixed his eyes upon the slashing rain as he spoke. “But you’re so… so alone up here, Mary. We all worry about you.”

“Alone?” She savored the word for a moment. “You and Carol are three miles up the road, Dad’s place is less than that, and I’ve got nearly a hundred head of cattle and sixteen geese to keep me company right here,” she finished, smiling.

He turned to her grimly, then laughed in spite of himself. “Geese? I give up.”

“Good! Now let me get you a towel and a dry shirt before you drip all over my floor and catch pneumonia to boot. And while I’m at it I’ll change, too.”

Mary plucked a towel from the linen closet, then walked to her bedroom. She changed into dry clothes, then opened her ancient, over-sized cedar chest and rummaged for one of Ray’s old shirts. At the sight of the worn, red and black plaid pullover she stopped. A packrat from youth, she found disposing of anything a challenge, and all of her husband’s clothes, books, even old movie stubs, could still be found in various caches throughout the old house.

She lifted the shirt from the case and pressed her face into the fabric. Through the pungent cedar, she could still smell Ray, and her eyes glistened briefly before she admonished herself: Get a grip, Mary!

“Here you go.” She tossed him the towel and the shirt.

“Thanks.”

She watched him strip off his wet shirt and dry himself vigorously.

“Not too hard,” she said, pointing to his thinning hair, “you’ll rub off what’s left.”

“Ha, ha, ha.”

“Don’t worry, bald is sexy. Or hasn’t Carol told you?”

“Not lately,” came his muffled reply, as he struggled with the pullover.

She walked back to the window. The storm had not abated in the least. “Gene?”

“Yeah?”

“Remember what you said a minute ago? About being alone?”

“Yeah.”

“Well… oh, never mind. You’ll just laugh at me, anyway.”

“What is it?”

She turned and gave him an appraising look before continuing.

“Well?”

She watched the twitching pines for a long moment before answering. “Alright. But you’ll just think it’s crazy.”

“I can’t think anything unless you tell me what it is.”

“OK.” She went on, slowly. “Since we were kids, since Mom died, I guess, whenever it stormed I imagined that I was the only person left alive in the entire world. See, when a big storm like this comes, it’s easy to feel that way. I mean, right now, for all we know we’re the only people left alive. A storm like this isolates you. I don’t know, maybe it’s because all that power just makes you feel so small and insignificant, as if it might just take you away, or take everyone else away. It’s just you, the wind, the rain, the thunder and lightning. The rest of the world may as well not exist. You’re alone, just you and the storm. See?”

Gene stared at her.

“Well? Haven’t you ever felt that way?”

“No, I can’t say that I have.”

She turned to him and shrugged. “See, I told you that you’d think it was crazy.” She continued, pointing a taunting finger in his direction: “On the other hand, you have no imagination.”

“I have plenty of imagination and I don’t think you’re crazy. I just think you spend too much time by yourself.” He stooped and peered out the window again. “Man, is it ever getting dark. When is this thing going to pass?”

“Maybe never.” She gave a ghoulish chuckle. “But in the meantime, I’ll turn on some lights.”

Gene watched her switch on the living room lamps. “There you go with that crazy talk again.”

“Crazy? I thought you just told me I wasn’t crazy?”

“I didn’t mean it in a bad way. More like silly than crazy, I guess.”

“Oh, now I’m just another silly woman? I think I’m insulted.”

Clearly exasperated, Gene opened his mouth to reply, but the blinding sear of lightning trailed by a roar of thunder that shook the house cut him short, and he jumped back from the window in alarm.

“Dammit!”

“Close, huh?”

“Too close!”

Mary returned to the window.

“Listen, Gene.”

“To what?”

“Tell me what you hear.”

“Nothing but wind and rain. Hell, I can barely hear you.”

“That’s right. Nothing but the wind, the rain and the thunder. You can’t hear one thing that would indicate there’s another living soul on earth but the two of us, right here. And even if we weren’t here, the storms would come and go just like they always have. Do you think storms pay one bit of attention to us? Does the storm care whether we exist or not?”

Gene grimaced. “Are you going to start that again?” He paused. “Anyway, storms don’t think.”

Mary pushed away from the window and faced him. “Sorry. Too much imagination for my own good. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m not upset.”

“You sound like you are.”

“No, I just… wait a minute. I’ll put a stop to this.” He stepped over to the television and bent down to turn it on.

“The television? In this weather?” Mary asked.

“I’m only going to turn it on for a minute, just to prove to you that the whole damn world hasn’t gone away.”

He tugged the on/off switch and the television crackled to life. They watched as the picture tube gradually grew brighter.

“Well, it may be raining outside, but it’s snowing on channel 4.”

“Let me try channel 9,” Gene answered. “It should come in better.”

Snow.

“Storm’s probably knocked out some transmitters. If you would have let me put that satellite dish in for you last spring like I wanted we wouldn’t have this problem.”

“Don’t give me a hard time about that satellite dish. I didn’t need it then and I don’t need it now.” She stepped around him and turned off the set. “And we don’t need this either.”

Gene glared at the lifeless television as if the machine had betrayed him.

“Now,” Mary began, “what was that about proving– ”

She didn’t finish the sentence, interrupted by the loudest crash of thunder and lightning since the storm had erupted. As if he were bathed in strobe light, Mary watched her brother twist jerkily away from the television and tumble to the floor. In the darkness that followed the flash, the living room lamps flared brightly before extinguishing.

“Are you alright, Gene?”

“I’m OK, just slipped. Where are your candles or your flashlight?”

“Don’t move, I’ll find something.”

Mary groped cautiously through the dark living room for the entrance to the hallway. Guiding herself with one hand on the wall, she came to the utility closet and opened the door. It took several minutes of fumbling through the untidy storage area before she found the candles, two old brass candlesticks, and a box of wooden matches.

Gene had regained his feet when she returned with the lit candles.

“Sure you’re alright?”

“Yeah. Never have liked storms. Not since…”

“Not since Mom died? I know. And I guess I got you spooked with all that stuff about, you know, being the ‘only ones left.’ Sorry.”

“Forget about it.” As she tried to read his expression in the flickering light, he went on: “Hear that?”

“What?”

“The storm. I think it’s passed on.”

She listened, startled to realize that she had not noticed the quiet before now. Mary handed one of the candles to her brother and walked carefully through the dimness to the front door. It opened upon damp stillness.

“I better call Carol.”

“Yes,” Mary agreed, then added: “Do you think the phones are working?”

“Only one way to find out.” Gene carefully placed his candle on an end table and picked up the telephone receiver. “Got a dial tone.”

Watching, Mary nodded.

Seconds ticked by before he replaced the receiver. “No answer.”

“Well, maybe it’s not working on your end.”

“I guess not.”

Mary paused, then said: “Try Dad.”

Gene picked up the handset and dialed the number. In the dead, calm stillness of the room she could hear the ringing in the receiver. Finally, reluctantly, Gene hung up.

Fighting back a sudden, choking panic, she said, too quickly: “The phones are probably out everywhere.”

“Then why is this one working?”

“I don’t know. But we don’t even know that our call is really going through, do we? I mean, just because we hear it ringing doesn’t prove it’s connecting, does it?”

Gene didn’t answer right away, apparently considering her explanation. “I don’t know, Mary.” Then: “I better go.”

“Wait! I just had an idea.” She walked past him to the phone, picked up the receiver and began dialing.

“You aren’t the only one who likes to ‘prove’ things.”

“Who are you calling?”

“Just wait, this ought to show that our calls just aren’t going through.” The phone rang once in her ear, clicked, and a meticulously annunciating female voice said: “When you hear the tone, the time will be seven-twenty-nine… ”

She slapped down the receiver. Not even the flickering candlelight could hide the mounting fear and confusion on Gene’s face.

He started hurriedly for the door. “I have to go.”

“Gene! Wait!” She rushed to catch up as he took the porch and the steps in three long strides and ran to his truck. He had his keys in the ignition before Mary got to the pickup’s door. He rolled down the window as he turned the key and the engine sprang to life.

“I’ll call you as soon as I get there.”

“Promise me you will,” Mary said, still struggling for breath.

Gene nodded and shifted the truck into reverse.

“Wait, Gene! Listen, all this stuff, the phones, the television, my crazy talk. It’s all just a weird coincidence. I mean, the storm just shook us up, that’s all. You know we aren’t alone out here!”

When he didn’t answer, Mary grabbed his arm and pointed to the dash: “The radio! Try the radio, Gene!”

He twisted the dial with nervous fingers, from one end to the other. Static.

“That’s AM. Try FM!”

Nothing.

“I have to go, Mary.”

“Call me as soon as you get there.”

He nodded.

“Better yet, come back yourself and let me know everybody’s alright.”

She wasn’t certain that he heard her last request as he backed the truck down the wet driveway. She yelled again as he reached the road and turned his truck toward his home: “It’s just the storm! We’ll laugh about this tomorrow! It’s just the storm!”

She watched until she could no longer see the truck’s taillights. Back indoors, with the candle to light her way, she went to the bedroom and pulled a windbreaker from her closet. She put on the nylon jacket and decided to wait on the porch until Gene called or came back.

Outside, the air was cool, but humid. Thinning clouds backlit by a full moon covered the sky from horizon to horizon. As the minutes passed, she found herself thinking, improbably, of a Jimmy Buffet song, “If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me.” Gallows humor, Mary, she thought, and leaned her head back against the porch railing, closing her eyes.

In the cool air, exhausted by the events of the evening, she briefly nodded off. Minutes later, she couldn’t tell how long, she awoke to coaxing light, and opened her eyes to the full moon, radiant and complacent. The storm had left a clear sky in its wake, and only the steady drip of water from the house’s leaking gutters disturbed the silence.

She went back into the house and dialed Gene’s number. No one answered. She tried her Dad. She hung up after the twelfth ring.

From the bedroom dresser she took her car keys. She blew out both of the candles at the door and walked over to her old Ford at the edge of the driveway nearest the house. After five minutes of fruitless cranking, sure that she had killed the battery in the process, she gave up and opened the car door, leaving the keys in the ignition.

Mary hesitated at the end of the driveway. She stood quietly for a time, looking and listening for the sights or sounds of traffic from either direction, but nothing disturbed the night’s post-storm tranquility. Dad’s place is closest. But I might need Gene’s help. At last she turned toward her brother’s home, and stepped off with sure strides toward uncertainty, alone save for her shadow on the moonlit country road.

by Vasilis Afxentiou

It was either children or starve. The place is Athens, the time an autumn Friday, my stratagem short, like the attention span of youngsters. They change ruthlessly quick. But memory is indelible with me. It toys cruelly with things, perhaps, best slighted.

Daphne McTass is the case here, and the pranks these same children play on her, and which I take a very dim view to.

“I’ll have no part of it,” she said, with that voice of hers, this morning about ten, to my proposed practical experiment. Daphne is a sin–voice and all. Curly raven hair ripples to her narrow shoulders and spills over a deep forehead, around cyan-blue, sightless, Egyptian-almond eyes.

“Terrible thing to do. They’re a wily generation granted. Kids with compounded problems. But then, you don’t know what it’s like.” Daphne shifted in her chair uneasy. The teacher’s lounge was deserted, but for the slight, old and rickety cleaning woman dusting off the old shelves filled with antiquated English-learning texts and audiovisual apparatus we use.

“But you,” I said, “could teach them. One day forfeited, to see for the rest of their lives.”

“It’ll be like tying their hands behind their backs, and educating them to use feet and toes in their place. What’s the sense…”

I was considering Daphne’s eloquent disagreements when the bell fractured our fruitless sortie.

It’s Saturday, noon probably. And I dither nonplus through once familiar thoroughfares. A good Samaritan volunteers, grabbing my elbow and with encouraging snippets whisks me across Amalias Avenue and up the curb, says good-bye, abandoning me quickly to my fate as though sightlessness was a fresh strain of aids virus.

The notion does not abandon me.

I hear familiar traffic growling by and feel the cool drifts upon me from the National Garden to my left. I identify as I teeter along wafts of sharp pines and the pungent pass of oaks and a swirl of minty eucalyptus.

In my dead reckoning, twice I’m snatched curtly from harm’s way. The first, a speeding bicycle. The second, a procession of police cars frenziedly climbing onto the sidewalk heading most likely to the Zappeion building where (as I read in yesterday’s paper) the E.C. metro-extension delegation is to meet today for further subsidy allocations.

I am neatly deposited on a park bench–foreboding whispers ebb and flow all about me. My orientation is decimated. I reach up to the dark pair of glasses–No! I tarry, it has to last over the whole weekend. Instead, I press the gauze pads taped on my eyes more firmly against their sockets. “To the ancient knoll,” I whisper, defying a bark of instincts from inside.

Tap, tap! Tap, tap!

It is a comforting sound that of the walking stick ahead of you. You get the illusion that you can actually hear compressions and expansions in space. That an obstacle in your path of way will alter their expected cadence to alert you.

Yes. It’s a different world. You see sounds. Fertile in smells and lip-licking dusty flavours, Daphne. Tap, tap!

Clack, claclack!

Ah, metal. I know this exact spot of the road. Two days ago I passed it. All dug up, replacing old sewage pipes. Solid metal sheets had been laid over the deep trenches for automobiles to get across. The knoll is ahead and to my right.

Daphne, Daphne, you love them too much. Why so much devotion to strangers’ children? Is dedication your seeing organ? Do you find your way in that infinity of darkness of yours by it? The little cuspids will rip your unlit world into dimmer slits. Show them a glimpse of it, if nothing else, and they’ll gasp to be rid of it. And marvel at your courage.

I already do.

And half a day has only gone by. Two for me. A full school day for them. Attention span will swell like a sail, I guaranty you that. They will not forget it. And they will love you for it. They will give accounts of it down to their grandchildren.

And I to mine–

Ah, firm pavement, good. Do it, and you’ll earn their respect in no time.

Tap, tap!

“But the idea is monstrous,” she kept insisting.

Children can be monsters, if you allow it, Daphne. There’s that little spear chucking hunter, Jack, in all of them. He’ll stick you unmercifully come the chance. The restless imp is biding its time. Tie its eyes, one day only, and it will see for the rest of its lifetime, Daphne.

“I’ll have no part of it.”

But I will… will provide her with indisputable facts of non-damage. The analogy of this test should prove enough. An adult survives the perils of the city’s core, unaided by his most vital of senses. You are too giving to them.

“It’s simply the unordinariness of my situation. Open curiosity of children. That’s all.”

More. You are the voice of midnight, that is a heart–if I ever heard one–speaking. The face and body of a ripe woman, that’s never been–that which is bread and water to all women since time out of mind–vain.

Tick, tick!

Dirt? Dirt where there should be pavement? And this queer silence. A tomb vault is less inert. There, at least, one would hear the rasp of a centipede, or the scratch of a beetle. The hub of a city should gallop with noise!

Tick, tick!

Daphne, your starless universe begins to undo this man’s wit. Am I being cursed for my manner of boldness? To end all of it should be simple. Ah, but you have suffered through it since birth, and I to give up in a bit more than half a day’s progress?

I…I cannot. What may lie beyond these two covers of my eyes ties my arms to my sides. At least, what abides behind them is what I make it to be. I can forge a hundred explanations with my brain for the event taking place right now. Each one a grown man’s reasonable explication. A dream even. But if I were to strip the pads off, the hundred conjectures would collapse into one certitude. I will be shorn of the freedoms you possess, Daphne. Be poor, almost naked, with just a single one.

Tick, tick!

Plotch, plotch!

What have we here? A puddle? A lake? The Bering Straits?

“He-e-ey!”

A voice amid the–! “Ye-e-es!”

“You are a tourist?”

“A tourist, my good man?”

“You are crazy–oh, I am sorry. Wait there. I will help you.”

“Who might you be, sir?”

“Senior Inspector Engineer, Manos Gotsis. Ehh! I have told them that these new metro shafts will become a trap, if not guarded twenty-four-hours. They do not listen.”

“Shafts, Senior Inspector Gotsis?”

“I am almost there. Phew! Give me your hand.”

“I don’t understand–”

“You are, sir, thirty meters under Omonia Square.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“On your left are two thousand volt cables. On the right scaffolding around a well ten meters deep.”

“How?…”

“In front of you, the city’s main sewage network–another four or five meters of a river of wastes–that empties a kilometer off the coast of Piraias into the treatment plant.”

“How?…”

“And you have a guardian angel.”

“Daphne!”

“Gotsis, sir. Manos Gotsis.”

“Oh, course, Mr. Gotsis. Merely referring to a colleague that’s also a guardian angel of a sorts…children are her specialty…”

“Watch you head.”

“…and bafoons that think they know what seeing is all about…and try to change the world by proposing that each and every one of us should experience at least once that night of nights…”

“Ah, it must be sad not seeing.”

“Sadder things, Mr. Gotsis–seeing, yet blundering around blinder than a odd bat.”

I’m not much of a teacher, particularly on Mondays.

And I take to the ends of the Earth every so often because children are in a way invariant: under a fixed shadow of growing pains. Autumn in Athens, winter in Catania, spring and summer in Siberia–they’re all the same. Day to them comes always after night. A night that is simply vast and petrifyingly menacing to a tot alone in a room evil-thick with darkness.

But enough of darktime (plenty of it, too, in their checkerboard teens). “Who in God’s name would want the babes all to be righteous Ralphs? How many do you know of who would want love hatching from an unforgettable day that starts off with darkfall!”

“Just one won’t be an agreeable number then?”

This time, and I don’t know why, I alarmingly poise at his soft-spoken so-silly query.

“Just one?”

Could I, I would venture for this man into raw seeing light, a whole existence of days–dawn to dusk–were he to behold for one eye blink the woman in me in love.

However, I only and plainly nod a simple yes.

by Rebecca Tompkins

In the sixth grade I let a girl named Rose dig her finger nails into my arm until they broke the skin and I bled. I did this to prove that I never cried. A pack of lip glossed girls watched the whole trial.

Even though none of them liked me, I always played their games at recess. They surrounded me and Rose began, softly and tentatively at first, then more forcefully, to press her polished claws into my fleshy arm. Right before she broke the skin she looked up at me, she knew she was close. At first I thought that she would stop, that she couldn’t do what the others all hoped she could. Then she tightened her grip on my wrist, licked some of the sweet shine from her top lip, and pushed through the skin. It wasn’t painful enough to cry for, more of a slow burn, but I cried anyway. The pack saw what they had come for and began to drift away in twos and threes toward the foursquare courts and the jungle gym. Rose kept her grip on my wrist and stared down at the holes in my arm.

“Why did you take it?” she asked in a whisper.

I smiled at her and rolled the sleeve of my blouse down over the marks.

“It’s okay, it doesn’t really hurt.” She let go of my wrist, still looking hard at my arm. I gazed in the direction of the foursquare courts. “Do you think they’ll let me play?” She was already moving toward the others and didn’t answer. I lifted my arm and saw a dark moon pushing through the fabric.

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