Posted by Rusty on September 12, 2015
The hibachi chef balances a green pepper on the end of a spatula. There’s a metallic clank as the pepper arcs—a perfect trajectory—into Stephanie’s open mouth. The chef bows.
“That’s amazing,” Stephanie says, brushing her breast against my arm. “I would love to do something amazing.”
“I read somewhere that they bring these guys from Japan on work visas. Most of them come here for the experience, work a year and return.” I fill our small ceramic cups with warm sake. In the dim lighting, you would never guess Stephanie and I are seventeen years apart in age. Last semester, she was one of my composition students at the community college, a fact that shames me. A month ago, the day after my divorce was finalized, I saw her at a downtown bar. After several drinks, we went back to my small studio apartment, and we’ve been dating since. But I’m too old, and she’s too pretty. Like a cramped man treading water, I’m waiting for the inevitable end.
I turn forty tomorrow and will spend the day with my teenage son, so this is Stephanie’s celebration with me, her treat. My colleagues and my ex-wife believe Stephanie is a cog—my ex-wife’s term—in my midlife crisis, but she is more than that. While we’ve had more sex in the past month than I had in the last decade of my marriage, it is more than that, too.
“There’s something I need to tell, John,” she says. She stares at her fingernails, long and lacquered red with rhinestones on the tips.
“Here it comes,” I say and brace my face for the slap.
The hibachi chef makes a volcano-shape with thick slices of onion and lights the hole filled with grilling oil. It explodes in a terrible cloud of flame.
“I’m not breaking up with you,” Stephanie says as if it is a question and tucks a blond strand of hair behind her ear. “But I need to tell you something.”
Relieved, I tenderly touch her soft cheek with my fingertips. “Is it bad?”
“It’s not good,” she mumbles, still staring at her hands.
The hibachi chef scoops the rice for the stir fry onto flattop grill and mixes in the vegetables while clanking out a steady beat with the spatulas.
“I’m almost forty years old,” I tell Stephanie. “I guarantee whatever you have to say will not surprise me.”
“I was in a porno,” she says in one unpunctuated breath.
I stand corrected: She just shocked the shit out of me, and I’m not sure why. As a teacher, I’m aware that her generation sends compromising images of themselves over their phones with the nonchalance of shoulder tap. There is a generational insouciance to showing everything private into any willing lookers, to exposing their bodies they’re property of the public. Nothing is imagined anymore.
“How did it happen?”
“I answered an ad online,” she says, touching her nail to her lips. “The guy who placed the ad, some rich man from Nashua, told me that the video was for his private collection, and it would never get out. He paid me a lot of money. But I was younger and naive, and I believed him. But it’s out there, and I wanted you to hear about it from me before anyone else.”
“Can I watch it?”
“Are you joking?” Her eyes are wide with horror, her hands now balled into tight fists, nails tucked. “Why on earth would you want to watch it? I thought you respected me more than that.”
“I do,” I say—for the second time in forty years. And suddenly I have this horrific image of my fourteen year-old son watching a video clip of his father’s girlfriend suck the oversized penis of a disembodied man whose face never appears on scene. And when the hibachi chef holds up a clear plastic squirt bottle and yells “Sake?” I open my mouth and he fills it with lukewarm rice wine. I try to swallow it without choking, but I spit it up like an infant on the front of my shirt. Ashamed, I turn to Stephanie and try to shrug, but she will no longer look at me. And who can blame her?
After dinner, the staff will sing a birthday song in Japanese, a waitress using a gong, as the people in the hibachi bar clap along.
Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester, New Hampshire. He is the author of three collections of poetry—Not So Profound (Green Bean Press, 2003), Teaching Metaphors (Sunnyoutside Press, 2007) and After the Honeymoon (Sunnyoutside Press, 2009)—a collection of short stories, Frostbite (GBP, 2002), and several chapbooks of fiction and poetry. A chapbook of short prose pieces titled Hangover Breakfasts was published by Bottle of Smoke Press. For more information, visit his website at http://www.nathangraziano.com/.
Posted by Rusty on September 12, 2015
“Evil walks beside you. Evil sleeps beside you.” AC/DC
I am the county lineman, relaxing in my La-Z-Boy, waiting to be paged for an emergency. They need me for the juice.
“Tommy, make sure you pick up any—”
She’s talking about cleaning again. Janice, my wife of thirty-five years, is a wealthy woman. Well—she will be—when her crooked as a crone’s back daddy, dies and leaves her every dime he’s ever stolen. But I won’t get my hands on any of it. I pay for everything while she shoves all she can wherever she can. The most I’ve ever seen from her people is this damn mausoleum we live in—but don’t live in. We don’t go upstairs unless it’s for entertaining. She reminds me frequently that it’s her house. Her name’s on it. Not mine. I finally got used to the lack of light in this basement. I don’t need it. By God I turn the light on—like Zeus.
When we got married, her daddy built us the biggest house in Saxon County. People look up to you for that sort of thing around these parts. Janice was the catch. She had five showers before the wedding. Getting married and showcasing domestic bliss is the highlight of a Saxon debutante’s existence. Yes, when there is a wedding, Janice is there to support and judge accordingly. I have to kick through piles of wedding books on my way to the recliner or the ten-year-old broken down couch every damn day. All niceties go upstairs for entertaining the church crowd and anyone else who admires business office framed pictures and stiff funeral parlor finery—the kind that makes you sit up straight and listen to the hostess. Janice has the upstairs cleaned twice a week and the basement once. Sometimes she cleans like a mad woman on her hands and knees—on top of all of the other cleanings. We’ve had a lot of turnover in maid service. When Janice visits her friends’ houses she always takes a deep breath to check for mold. Her nostrils flare, and most of the time a self-satisfied smirk appears, letting everyone know that she’s the cleanest.
She’s talking about someone right now on the phone, putting herself up high, tearing down another. “These rough people. How do they stand to live like that,” she says. I know she’s shaking her short spiked head. She don’t look too bad from afar. She has a southern neatness about her. She wears a lot of blush and eye make-up just like her pageant girls. She’s a top county judge. Always on stage. Always competing.
Ding, Ding, Ding. Oh, please be her.
Text message for Tommy: “I understand,” she said. Come on over.”
I better stretch and go to the bathroom. Janice is still yakking on the phone. Maybe she didn’t notice my excitement. I shouldn’t have popped up that fast.
Alone in the bathroom. No time to brush my teeth. “I’ll take a swig of this.”
Janice threw the bathroom door open. “Why do you need mouthwash to work on an emergency? What’s the real problem?”
“I’ve been burping up that damn garlic pizza I ate for lunch. I hate that I’m gonna miss supper, but I reckon there’s a shortage over in Shelby.”
I try not to look at her, but I’m in front of the mirror. Her raised painted-on eyebrows are making me uneasy. But I gotta get out of this place tonight.
“You better not be lying, Tommy Tackett.”
I move toward the toilet and unbuckle my pants. She shuts the door on that one. Anytime I unbuckle, Janice takes off.
“I can’t wait to get home to you. You keep the bed warm.” She’s long gone down the hall. I bet she’s rolling her eyes. Oh well. A little splash of this. Suck in this. I still got good hair. Gal is gonna love pulling on these curls.
# # #
She opens the door to her single wide trailer lighted by candles.
“You look good, Little Missy. Why are your eyes so big? You that happy to see me?”
Her eyes are as big as quarters. If only Janice could see them. She’d pluck them out and stick them in her gigantic piggy bank, pink and fat like the point where her cheesy thighs rub together.
The girl stands silent with her arms hanging to her sides. “You sure are a skinny thing.” I wrap my hands around her waist and then run them down her bony outer legs.
She’s nervous. I love it when they get nerves.
“It’s that shit I snort. I’m trying to quit.”
I smiled at her the way I’d smiled at Janice when we courted years ago. Women love the Tommy charm. “Well, Girl. What’s it gonna be?” I touch the side of her petite, make-up free face. She looks good in candlelight. She don’t smell fake.
“Do whatcha gotta do and turn my juice back on.” She closed her big eyes tight.
I plunge my tongue in her smoky mouth and walk her backwards until we hit something bedlike. I can see Janice’s nostrils flaring now. I love the smell of filthy clean.
Deana Hays' work has appeared in Fried Chicken and Coffee and The Southern Women's Review among other literary journals. Her book of poetry, Fits of Wrath and Irony, was published by Finishing Line Press. Her author profile can be found on Amazon.com.
Posted by Rusty on September 4, 2015
I was at a funeral the other day. This last month has been rough on my family. Distant cousins have passed in car crashes and from cancer. Closer ones committed suicide. My uncle was the latest to go. Officially, it was a stroke, but really, he had so much methamphetamine inside his system the pressure just mounted—bursting inside his brain, like carbonation shook hard.
His last words, as he sat down on his son-in-law's couch were, “I can’t get it all straight.”
He never closed his eyes. Everyone shaking him—eyes wide open as we waited for the ambulance.
Here is my confession.
At the cemetery, with my oldest daughter asking what happens when it gets full, I found a story. It was the worst kind of guilt. The awfulness of sorrow mixing with the greed of discovery.
Capturing details in my head, I cataloged the outfits of my husband, cousins, brothers, and uncles. They dressed in mostly black buttoned-up dress shirts. Some wore slacks, some jeans. All in their work boots. They buried my uncle. The women watched, held our sobbing children, and wiped our tears on tops of their freshly washed heads.
The giant mound of dirt, from the hole dug by hand that morning, was lined by men holding shovels on all sides. They moved as one. The shovels in the back tossing dirt to the front. The men in the front filling the hole. They didn’t talk. It was habit. Instinct. A lifetime of the same motions. They knew to wear their work boots. They knew to bring a hammer. They carried the rhythm of fifteen shovels inside their chests. My uncle’s oldest brother nailed the coffin shut.
I was next to his second wife. She leaned into my side sobbing. I took her weight and didn’t budge. I was a rock, holding solid. Whispering, “I have you. I won’t move.”
But a part of me was lost in the details. How do I write her flooded, thick-rimmed glasses and the broken corner of the marble gravestone next to her feet? Should I mention the weather?
I was caught in the tale. The rhythm. The sweat from my husband mixing with his tears sliding down his neck. I know exactly how it tastes when I kiss him there. Showers never wash those things off.
Clumps of clay. Rich dirt sticking to everyone’s shoes. What are all the synonyms for soil?
How do I show, not tell, what it’s like to constantly lay to rest chunks of our hearts?
I tried to ignore it. Leave it at the edge of the cemetery. But it followed, trapped on my shoes, buried beneath the surface and caked with the dirt of us all.
At home, it salted my dinner. Warmed my cold beer. Steamed my bathroom mirror as I stood under the spray of hot water. Finally, late at night I wrote it down. My husband found me—shoes by my computer, mud on the keyboard.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
I told him, “Trying to get clean. Showers never really wash the stories off.”
Sloan Thomas has work in Revolution John, Star 82 Review as well as Word Riot and SmokeLong Quarterly under the RS Thomas.
Posted by Rusty on September 4, 2015
“Take another look at how I do it before you try.”
I watch where my uncle holds the cigarette between his fingers. There’s oil and grit holding black at his knuckles. The sky looks like rain. For my birthday, he’s shown me how to replace eight spark plugs, change the oil, and we’re changing the air filter now. Uncle Jeff is always working on something when he comes to the house. Says this is where his tools stay, so he’s got to drop by now and then, check up on them.
I take the cigarette from his hand and pull harsh smoke, cough till my stomach cramps, and spit runs over my lip.
“Careful what you wish for,” Uncle Jeff says. He lifts his chin to check the sky. “You can take one more drag, but that’s it. Then get that piece of gum in your mouth.” His nose has a flat spot at the tip just like mine. Both of us have a head of unruly curls. “Figure it’s going to dump on us if we don’t hurry it up,” he says.
My head swims a little. I look at my shoes, stained where oil has darkened the laces. I don’t really want another drag, but I begged for it, and it’s my birthday wish, so I sit and breathe through my nose while my temples pound and sweat slicks behind my ears.
“You see your momma coming, you let that cigarette drop and cover it with your shoe. Here,” he says, handing me a wrench. “This way it looks like you’re doing something.” The heart that looks like it was drawn with a magic marker peeks out from under his shirtsleeve. There are letters on it, like when Todd Mills and I went steady for two weeks last year and my notebook got covered in hearts with plus signs separating our initials.
Uncle Jeff always makes sure to come by on my birthday. He doesn’t show up for Mom’s, so I get the feeling that he must like me more. Two years ago during Thanksgiving dinner, I asked my grandmother why Uncle Jeff didn’t come eat with the rest of us. She looked at me like I’d just asked her why her dead husband didn’t pull up a seat at the table. Guess maybe she likes Mom more than Uncle Jeff. Not a picture of him in the whole house either.
The year I turned ten, he brought me a bike with three gears. It rusted up pretty bad cause I left it out in the rain.
Last year Uncle Jeff taught me how to oil the chain and clean the rust off, so I could ride without all the squeaking. He also gave me a few swallows of beer because I said I wanted to try that too. Mom threw a fit. Slammed the door on her way out of the kitchen. Came marching over to the garage, her pant legs swishing, poked her finger so hard against Uncle Jeff’s chest that he hollered and jumped back. He tried to laugh, but she wasn’t having any of it.
They sent me off to the kitchen, so I made the door slam. Uncle Jeff waved his hands toward the ground, but Mom just got louder. She balled her fists. “Did you just?”
I watched out of the window. You can see the whole backyard and halfway into the garage. Heard him say that I was growing up so fast and ought to be introduced to things the same way his daddy had done for him. Mom reached back and grabbed a handful of air before she slapped him so good it took the tan out of his face. They stood still for the longest.
Uncle Jeff pulled up his shirtsleeve and pointed at his tattoo. “You and her,” is all I could make out. Mom turned her head to the sky and ran her fingers under her eyes. The sun was out. I ran out when Mom came back in. He kissed the top of my head and left.
“Happy birthday, girl.”
So when I asked him a dozen or so times if I could try a cigarette for my birthday this year, he got to looking up at the house. He put a five-gallon bucket up by the front bumper and told me to take a seat, to sit still and keep my eyes peeled. Said a few puffs wouldn’t kill me, but my momma might.
My eyes peeled and listening for that screen door to slap the frame, I take a look at the clouds gathering up. I hold the wrench. My fingernails have grease smeared where the sparkly silver polish has chipped away.
Uncle Jeff pulls an RC Cola out of the cooler in the trunk of the MG. The top pops off with a blast. “Take you a drink of this,” he says. “Settle your stomach.”
“How come you don’t have kids?” I ask cause he seems like he’d be a great dad.
He watches me from the back of the car and cracks open a can of beer. Pulls heavy from it. His eyes water like he’s got dust in them.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“I’m twelve now. Practically a teenager.” I take a long pull from the can of RC and then take a little puff from the cigarette. I open my mouth and let the smoke float out. “How’s that?”
My mother clears her throat.
“Get in the house, now, ” she says.
I look at her, then Uncle Jeff, then the kitchen door. I never heard it open or close.
“Now, Missy,” she says.
Uncle Jeff sighs. Lowers his head. Mutters goddamnit.
I hand the wrench off to him as I pass.
“Sorry,” I say.
“Happy birthday, my sweet little girl.”
That’s when the rain comes. But not one of us dares to move.
Jonathan Kosik has had work published by decomP, Monkey Bicycle, Glossolalia, Clapboard House, Bartleby Snopes and had short stories included in two collections published by Burrow Press: Fragmentation, and Forget How You Found Us.
Posted by Rusty on July 20, 2015
Discover Card Ending in 8093
By Bud Smith
I’m kicking it with my cousin, Chris, and he says, “Get this, other day I found a credit card at the gas station, just laying there.”
“And you maxed it out.”
He smiles as he rolls the blunt on the coffee table. “No, man, it wasn’t like that.”
I lean back, a spring stabs me in the shoulder and his dog smells like shit.
“Found the lady on Facebook,” he says. “Just sent her a message before you rolled over.” I’m impressed. He’s got a kid on the way. It makes me proud of him that he’s going to return the card.
“She got a little weird when I told her some of the details.”
“I charged a pack of cigarettes and a 30 pack on the card. I said I’d pay her back for that, or she could consider it a reward.”
“Ah shit.” I’m fidgety, I almost get up and leave. I just got off parole. “Cops will be here any second.”
“Shut up. You’re a—” But there is a knock on his door. He shuts off the stereo. He freezes and so do I. Outside I hear wind ripping through the evergreens. I hear the whine of the porch swing. I hear the rain slapping on the roof of his Chrysler that doesn’t run.
The knock again. “Chris?? You home? It’s Angela. Let us in.”
The dog lays under the table, maybe dead. Chris gets the door and two girls walk in from the rain. They’re both in black hooded sweatshirts. I don’t know either, Angela sits down in Chris’ spot on the couch next to me but me and Chris don’t say anything, we’re too busy looking at Angela’s friend, because when she pulls down her hood, she’s got two shiners and a split lip.
“Hi, I’m Lucy.”
I shake her hand. Her nails are black, but mostly chipped.
I stare so hard at her and I don’t even say my name because I want to ask her a million questions but I don’t know where to start.
So I just say, “You guys wanna smoke?”
Hahaha, that’s why they’re here. WTF.
Chris gets everyone a beer out of the fridge, and I pop it, and sip it, I don’t realize it’s from the 30 pack from the credit card he “found.” But he wouldn’t steal a credit card just for beer and cigarettes, so I do believe his story. He’s a good enough guy. He sells weed. The best people I know sell weed, just chill people, who don’t want to be bothered with oppressive things like bosses or having to work any specific day of the week or a time schedule or whatnot. I gotta quit my job, soon.
Angela asks Lucy for ten bucks for gas. Lucy passes over a twenty dollar bill. Angela says, “I like the way you got your hair cut.” Lucy doesn’t smile, but she says, “Ahhhh, that’s nice of you.”
We kill the blunt. We kill a couple beers a piece. When I come back from the bathroom, Angela is sitting on the back porch while the dog walks around the mine field of the back yard. And accidentally it’s just me and the Lucy, I don’t know where Chris is.
“Who did that?”
“What? My face. His name’s Don.”
“Thought you’d say some shit like you fell into a door knob.”
“No, no door knob. No basketball. Just an ignorant motherfucker.”
She shrugged. “I don’t want to get into it, that okay?”
“I just met you, it’s personal.”
“He your boyfriend?”
“Well it doesn’t matter. Only thing that isn’t complicated is how I’m gonna kick his ass.”
Chris walked back in the room. “Whose ass you kicking?”
I’m standing now, I’m all amped up. “Guy who did that to her.”
“Aw shit! That’s a good idea,” Chris says, and that’s why I like him so much, he’s always down for jumping somebody if it’s warranted. I’m putting my coat on and Chris gets the hint, he grabs his coat too.
“You’re going now?” Lucy asks.
“Yup, right now.”
She’s actually smiling now. Her eyes look all bright. “Wow.” Lucy looks at the clock on the wall. “He’ll be getting off the bus by Dinosaur Liquor in a few.”
She shakes her head. “Lost his license. Regular bus. She describes his army jacket. Says he has blue Nikes. Says he’s got a goatee. Apparently we can’t miss Don, and we’re so amped up, me and my cousin are running down the street out into the rain and we’ve left the girls just sitting there in the house.
“Gonna whup this bitch!” I say, running backwards, the street light lights us up orange.
Chris says, “Let’s light this boy up!”
Dinosaur Liquor is about ten blocks away, but we’re there like it’s two and then standing in the rain waiting at the bus stop.
“Where’s this bus?”
We eventually sit down on the bench and wait. Chris says, “Probably shouldn’t have left those girls alone in the house.”
“What could they steal?”
“You never know what some people could do. Could be stealing the copper pipes right out of my walls.”
When he says that it’s funny because I once got too screwed up with Chris and we’d busted out twenty feet of a tiled wall in a seasonal restaurant and only scored eighteen dollars worth of pipe.
“That lady did write back,” he says.
“What’d she say.”
“Mail the card back immediately, blah blah blah, or she’s calling the FBI.”
“I got her, man.”
“Melted the credit card on the stove while you were chatting it up with her.”
“Melted it? That was dumb. They got your info already. The emails and stuff.”
He tapped his head, meaning, ‘he’s smarter than the cops’. “Deleted the emails, amigo.”
The bus has pulled up and we don’t notice till it’s pulling off. But the only guy that got off the bus, is definitely our boy! He’s got a bounce in his step. Don, the bitch beating punk, in his lame army jacket and bitch blue shoes. Chris stands, I stand, but Don bounces along, grooving to his own groove. He slips right into Dinosaur Liquor, into the white lights.
“Oh this is even better.”
I don’t get why. But when I see our boy at the counter, I know why. The cashier is giving him a paper bag. It’s Wednesday night. Don must have a job. Don must have just got paid. The bag could have vodka. The bag could have gin. The bag could have blackberry brandy. Whatever it is, we’ll be finding out soon.
Back at Chris’s house, Lucy is sitting on the couch when we walk in.
I’ve got the paper bag in my hand, which may be broken now. And there’s blood on the bag, but it isn’t mine. Chris is still laughing. He’s got a cut above his eye, but it’s not bad.
“What happened?” she says.
“Fucked him up.”
“Angela had to go to work. I didn’t want to sit in the car.”
“You’re fine just there,” Chris says.
I set the paper bag on the table. I reach in and grab the neck of the bottle.
A fifth of good whiskey gleams in the light. Lucy turns the stereo back on. I pet the shivering dog.
Bud Smith works heavy construction in New Jersey. His books are the novels Tollbooth, and F-250; along with the poetry collection Everything Neon. Recent writing has appeared at TheNewerYork, decomP, Smokelong, Word Riot. He lives in NYC with his wife who just hung a jackalope on the wall. www.budsmithwrites.com
Posted by Rusty on July 13, 2015
by Gerry Wilson
Sunday mornings when Mama sleeps late my older sister, Charlene, and I clamber over her in the bed like pups nuzzling for a teat. Mama swats at us and says, Leave me alone, but finally she gives in and takes our shivering, scrawny selves under the covers. Our daddies have moved on by then. We don’t have the same one.
Later, the men who come and go are not even step-daddies. The summer I’m eleven and Charlene is fourteen, there’s a man who sticks around until Mama catches him with his hands on my sister. Mama swears off men after that. She reads the Bible and weeps. Her lamentation, she says, for her sins. We girls are marked by her sins, she says. I, Lura, was born with dark mark son my neck like fingerprints as though, Mama says, the devil had hold of me and didn’t want to let me be born. She says Charlene’s mark is her beauty.
By the time Charlene is sixteen, she wants to drop out of school and get a job, but Mama says, No, you’ve got to finish. I don’t want you girls turning out like me.
I want whatever Charlene wants. I am her shadow and she tells me to go away, but I don’t. At night I wake when she gets up and goes to the window and stands there, naked, looking out. I wonder what she sees, or if she sees anything at all. I wrap a quilt around her. Go back to bed, I say. Go to sleep.
At dinner on the grounds after church, Charlene shuns the boys and stands off to the side in the shade. She sucks her thumb the way she used to when she was a child and dances in one spot, like she hears music nobody else can hear. Her hair, pale, glossy gold, long, and curly, falls about her shoulders and moves with the breeze. That hair alone is a beacon of temptation, Mama says. At home Charlene sings little songs she makes up in her head. Whatever her eye falls upon becomes a song in that moment and then it’s gone. I ask her why she won’t write them down and she says they aren’t meant for anybody else to hear.
Until she meets a man named Otha Sparks who plays guitar in a band.
Where’d you meet him? Mama asks. Somewhere, is Charlene’s answer.
The first time Otha comes to the house, his dark hair is tied back in a long ponytail. His skin looks weathered like he works outdoors, the tips of his fingers callused from playing. He wears earrings. A tattoo shows below his rolled-up shirtsleeve. The part I can see looks like the tips of feathers, and I yearn to see the rest. He follows Charlene around with a little black machine and records her songs.
The second time he comes, he brings his guitar. Mama has washed her hair and put on a flowered dress and her boots made of finely tooled leather. She cooks dinner, but she and I are the only ones who eat. Charlene and Otha snuggle on the couch, his arms cradling her and the guitar, his left hand over hers on the frets, moving her fingers to make chords, their right hands joined, strumming. Mama watches like a guard dog. I close my eyes and sway to the music, moving my lips, forming words without sound because I cannot carry a tune.
Otha books Charlene at a bar in Memphis. A gig, he calls it. It’s small, he says, but it’s a start. Charlene practices on the guitar, but her rhythm is wrong. Even I can tell that.
Otha says, Don’t try to play, Charlene. Just sing. And so he strums along when she sings.
Sometimes he stops and scribbles in a notebook. The recorder is always, always on.
Otha tells Mama he needs to take Charlene to some clubs. She ought not to get up there before a crowd the first time, he says, without having seen what it’s like.
She’s under age, Mama says.
Otha puts his arm around Mama and says, I’ll take care of her.
He and Charlene stay out late. I’m awake when she slips into her bed, singing softly, but I can’t understand the words.
Otha buys Charlene a red dress, shiny with sequins. When she tries it on, it skims her body like light.
Mama goes to her room and comes back with the boots. Try these on, she says to Charlene.
The afternoon Otha picks Charlene up to go to Memphis, she says, I can’t go, Otha.
Stage fright, he says. It’s natural, your first time.
He practically carries her to the car. Mama and I watch them go. I blink at the bright sunlight reflected off Otha’s rear window.
He brings Charlene home at two in the morning. Her eyes are red and swollen and she storms off to our bedroom and slams the door.
Mama says, What’d you do, Otha?
He says, Don’t look at me, I didn’t do nothing. She wouldn’t even go up on the stage. She said she didn’t have a song in her head.
At home, though, Charlene sings. Her songs have always been quiet little things, almost whispered, but now sometimes she bursts out singing. Mama says it’s like some people speak in tongues.
One night Otha brings a computer to the house. We gather round while he puts in a CD. Out comes Charlene’s voice, only it doesn’t sound like her.
Audio-engineered, Otha says.
Charlene claps her hands over her ears and leaves the room.
Otha gets Charlene another gig at a roadhouse across the state line in Alabama. She’ll do fine, he
says. That first time was just jitters.
But they’re back early, and he has tight lines around his mouth. He paces our living room
and lights a cigarette. It happened again, he says. She couldn’t sing. Or she wouldn’t. He gets in his car and speeds away. We don’t know it then, but we won’t see him again.
It’s September. Charlene refuses to go to school. I have to go and Mama is working, so Charlene stays home alone. I ask Mama if she’s worried about Charlene and she says, No. If I had a dollar for every man who’s left me, I’d be rich.
I get home from school one afternoon and Charlene is gone. She doesn’t come home that night or the next. When she shows up, I think Mama must be too scared by how Charlene looks to yell at her because Mama puts her to bed. That night, Charlene moans in her sleep.
I’m scared, but eventually, I fall asleep. Sometime in the dark hours of morning, Charlene calls out, Mama? Mama? Mama comes in and snaps on the overhead light and Charlene is standing there with blood streaming down her legs, her eyes large with fear, her bottom lip trembling.
Oh sweet Jesus, Mama says. What have you done?
Charlene spends a few days in the hospital. When she comes home, she hardly speaks. There are no songs. After a couple of weeks, Mama makes her go to school. Kids snicker behind Charlene’s back, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She moves through the world like she’s the only one in it. Nights, she goes to bed early and turns her face to the wall. I crawl in beside her and tell her everything will be all right, but she pushes me away.
You don’t know, she says. You don’t know.
I guess I don’t, I say.
But I want to.
One morning I wake and Charlene’s not in her bed. Mama sits at the kitchen table, crying.
Mama’s suitcase and most of Charlene’s clothes are gone. Mama’s boots are gone too but the sequined dress hangs in the closet.
I think I know where Charlene might go. Someplace quiet, where her songs will come back to her. When I tell Mama I believe I could find Charlene, she touches the marks on the side of my neck.
No, she says and folds me in her arms. Rocks me. Holds on. And then she’s singing one of Charlene’s little breathless songs. Mama’s voice is clear and soft.
Little sparrow with one bruised wing,
Sweet bird, who taught you how to sing?
Who made you fall
And stopped your song
And never picked you up at all?
Rise up on your unbroken wing
And sing, sweet sparrow, sparrow sing.
I push Mama away. How do you know her song? I say.
I wrote it down, she says.
She cradles my head against her breast, I feel her beating heart. She sings the song again, and I join in, my flat voice a whisper, calling my sister home.
A seventh-generation Mississippian, Gerry Wilson grew up in the red clay hills of the north. She is a recipient of a Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship for 2015. Her short story, “Mating,” won the Prime Number Short Story Contest 2014 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other stories have appeared in Prime Number, Good Housekeeping, Blue Crow, Halfway Down the Stairs, Arkansas Review, and Crescent Review. A retired teacher, Gerry is currently working on a new novel and writing short fiction.
Posted by Rusty on June 29, 2015
The Last Picnic
Mister Dodgson’s brow was moist.
And it seemed to quiver each time he sighed or forced the coagulation of words at his throat. For it was clear to Alice, who walked aside him, that he was trying to impart something formal as they walked back up the manicured path toward Christ Minister, but all he could do, Alice noticed, was tremor. For when Mister Dodgson finally did speak, his voice, which sounded as though dried-up carrion had lodged itself within, was quite grave.
“I love you… Alice” he said, stopping near a spray of Lily of the Valleys, which seemed to blush at the words.
Alice was taken aback, for Mister Dodgson was much older than she, and could not possibly comprehend the effect of his own language. Yet she always thought herself that rare breed possessing world-weary eyes and a sensibility much advanced for girls her age; one who, through books of an historical nature, acquainted herself with precise regalements describing the fateful wives of King Henry VIII and their untoward outcomes, and therefore could not be so easily dissuaded by anything poor Mister Dodgson might say. And though it was uncharacteristic of him to lavish such words uponher, she tried to reason his untimely though piteous display of mawkishness.
Before that afternoon, she had only known Mister Dodgson to be seized by torrents of sympathy over other, seemingly un-concerning things, if not all together repentant over the most inconsequential details to which only he seemed to regard, such as a maiden flower he had accidentally crushed under foot, which he then placed, with gingerly devotion, into the leaves of his trusty book (for he always had a book at hand), and then seemed to toil about in something nearing genuine remorse over the severing of it from its grassy bed. On one occasion, in midsummer, when he had invited Alice, as well as Lorina and Edith, along for a rowboat ride about the Isis, Alice was keen to the surge of emotion just under the ripple of Mister Dodgson’s voice when he discovered that the book he had given Edith, the youngest of the three sisters, had taken a spill overboard. Upon watching it sail open-faced away from the boat, Mister Dodgson christened the book “Ophelia” and, Alice suspected, in order to disguise his tenuous nature, spun a wonderful tale of how Ophelia’s ghost would waken from her marshy grave whenever Edith entered a dark library. And though Edith was a lover of books, as was Alice, she forbade herself from ever stepping foot into the dark vaults at the Christ Church library after that. So potent were Mister Dodgson’s tales…
Though Alice would have to agree that her fondest memory of Mister Dodgson happened only earlier in the year. He had been particularly animated that day, and, Alice recalled, was overthrown by a bout of suppressed elation at the fortuitous discovery of a dragonfly’s corpse, which sat, petrified through and through by the elements of nature upon the tip of a whitethorn shrub with its wings, fragile as an ancient leaf, perpetually out splayed at its sides. He held it, she remembered, with the most delicate of hands, against the tawny July light, and told a long and tragic tale of how the creature had once been the Prince of Whitethorn Land; and whose birthright it had been to slay the local dragon once and for all, for only then could this gallant Prince make claim to the seat at his father’s throne. But when the Prince, that one lithe of frame and fair of skin, failed in his appointed mission to slay the beast, take his seat on the throne and provide an heir by finding a bride, he was, in no un-gruesome terms, banished from the land from whence he was born and condemned to live out the rest of his days un-betrothed within the dishonorable anatomy of a dragonfly as a means to remind him of his unheeded duty to the people of Whitethorn Land. When the tale came to end, Mister Dodgson thought it best they have a funeral for the insect Prince and, after wrapping it in a lily pad fished out from the Christ Church pond, buried it with all the ceremony deserving of a make-believe Prince. Though, she realized, the tale bespoke no apparent sense of moral, it, like all of Mister Dodgson’s tales and queer gestures, bore a poetic sense of doom for which she knew and liked him best.
Was it not for that melancholic nature which moved Mister Dodgson to stammer out those four words just moments previous? she wondered as they wound their way back up the lane from their spot beneath the willow at the pond like so many afternoons before. It was, she decided, looking toward the backside of the menacing Christ Church façade just ahead; it was the reason he became so stirred to emotional articulation, and for that peerless and noble regard for all things small, delicate and worthy of capturing in a poem or a book as he did that July when they buried the dragonfly Prince under a patch of grass in the gardener’s cul-de-sac of bridewort and spear thistle. Yes, he is noble and peerless, she thought as she stopped before him, alighted her bright and ever-watching eyes upon his and said,
“And I love you, Mister Dodgson.”
For there had been a long silence between them since he had spoken that precipitous sentiment. And the lack of words seemed to throw some diaphanous butterfly net over them as though they two were the only two of their known species who had been caught by the larger, darker force that were his words. And, despite the sea of difference in their age, she felt she knew him well enough to surmise that he would carry the weight of what he had spoken until it pained him to do so, that is until Alice could somehow alleviate his torment in her own way. Thus she had; and for a moment, that peculiar sense of ceremony Mister Dodgson was so well at crafting darted hither and thither about them as though the net had been lifted, as if the moment had been so thick and tangible that it congealed itself into a small, winged thing—a dragonfly Prince of sorts, newly risen from its lily pad grave, and come to make claim to the crown of Whitethorn Land.
“Thank you, Alice,” said Mister Dodgson, as they stood under the Christ Church façade, which seemed to be eavesdropping on their awkward farewell.
“It was a lovely picnic. Have a good evening Mister Dodgson.”
But as true as Alice had been in her sentiment about their outing, she was glad that it was behind her, and thought it best that she find some plausible excuse to decline his invitation in the future.
That evening, she lay upon her bed as though she were cast adrift some windblown heath, feeling the Night’s tide crush over her, where she pondered the events of that afternoon as she always did in the shadow-dance of her room. And as she gazed ahead, into the canopy of her four-poster, she thought something quiet queer as though it had not been she who had thought it: ‘A three-worded phrase with my name attached to it. “I love you, Alice.” How little those words do for a flower that will wilt and wither with time…’
Then, in a breath, she turned over onto her side and seeped far into the watery chasm of sleep where all the world of secrecy and bewilderment awaited her.
When not slaying Dragons, Falconhead uses Dragon’s blood to write poetry, short stories and plays. His work has appeared in Emerge Literary Journal, Antiphon, Naugatuck River Review, FictionWeek Literary Review, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Wilde Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Thick Jam, Poetica Magazine, Camas: The Nature of The West, Thin Air Magazine, Glitterwolf, Whistling Fire, Two Hawks Quarterly, Rock & Sling, Adanna Literary Journal, Deltona Howl, and Green Wind Press’s “Words Fly Away” Anthology, among others, and is forthcoming in several other publications.
Posted by Rusty on June 16, 2015
Dad says we can go anywhere. I’ll be gone soon, and he wants to spend the day with me. I choose Splashville Waterpark in Maine. We had so much fun the last time we went, Dad, Maggie, and me. My favorite slide was a yellow and black striped funnel slide where the three of us sat in a giant tube and sped through a tunnel into the main part of the slide, shaped like a funnel on its side, where we rocked back and forth from one side to the other until we finally exited into the splash pool. I remember at the end Dad exclaiming, “Holy shit!” and Maggie and I laughing, because for the first time our father felt like our friend.
In the car, I ask Dad if he remembers the slide. “Not sure, Kit,” he says. “How long has it been? Eight years? Nine?”
“Eight. Maggie got her hair hennaed right before she started high school. That was eight years ago.”
“Right,” he says, nodding. “That’s right.”
Mom doesn’t come because she’s busy exterminating, not that she would come anyway. Maybe she would have, years ago, back when she still went to lunch with friends and colored her hair, when she and Dad still touched each other. She bought all new linens and mattress covers for the beds, and today she’s using her stiff new cleaning brush to scrub the mattress seams before vacuuming the house head to toe. It doesn’t matter to her that Joe from Bedbug King told her the house is clear.
Yesterday, she thought she spotted a bedbug on her pillow and cried. Dad went to inspect. “It was a piece of black thread,” he said to me like it was a punch line. I laughed to make us both feel better.
“Bedbugs are teeny, Mom,” I told her. “You can’t even really see them.”
“That’s not true, Kit,” she said. “I’ve researched this.” And she had, for several hours a day on the computer for the past three weeks. At the breakfast table, she told me signs to watch out for: blood stains on sheets or pillowcases, spots of excrement on mattresses and walls, itchy red welts on my skin. As I did my homework at the table after school, she told me places bedbugs could be found: in mattresses, box springs, bed frames, headboards, even carpets and curtains and dresser drawers! “I’m not crazy,” she told me.
Before this, it was lead paint. Before that, mercury vapors. I can’t say for sure when things changed; who really can?
At the park, Dad and I rent a locker and stuff our bags and clothes and sandals into it. I wear my new red bikini with the push-up top. I can’t remember the last time Dad saw me in a bathing suit—two summers ago? Three?
“Sunscreen?” he asks.
“Sure.” Dad squirts lotion into my hands and I rub it on my shoulders. The sunscreen smells like the beach and it reminds me of being a kid. Dad turns away. I wonder if he realizes the way boys look at me now. Strange I hadn’t thought how this moment would feel earlier; when I’d looked at in the mirror this morning, I was too excited by the fullness of my breasts to think about what Dad would see.
“I want to find the yellow and black funnel slide,” I tell him.
“We’ll get to them all,” he says.
We get in line for the first slide we see. Dad grabs me a tube and bops me on the head with it. I screw up my face in mock objection. It’s weird without Maggie here, but we’re determined to make it just as fun.
The line spirals up a big set of stairs to the top of the slide. There are lots of little kids holding their parents’ hands, groups of teenage kids flirting with each other—no other teenage girls with their dads.
“Are you excited for the big move next week?” he asks.
“I guess so,” I say.
“Do you like your roommate?”
“She seems nice.”
“And you registered for classes?”
“Yeah. During orientation.”
Two guys waiting in line on the steps above us hear Dad mention the name of my new college and turn around. They go to a rival school the next town over, they tell me. The one doing most of the talking eyes my breasts in my red push-up top. I think he’s cute; I’m not really sure though. Maggie says if you don’t lose your virginity in high school, then you have to lose it your freshman year of college, or people will think you’re weird. I wondered if the guys think it’s weird for a teenage girl to be at a waterpark with her dad.
On the way down the slide Dad hollers “Yeehaw!” like he used to do on rides when Maggie and I were kids, and I hope those two guys can’t hear him. I laugh along with him though, because I really do want to have fun. The slide goes by so fast considering how long we waited.
“Do you think Mom’s okay?” I ask him as we move on to the next slide.
“Not sure, Kit,” he says.
I had a dream last night that bedbugs were all over my room. They looked like daddy longlegs, and they crawled all over my arms and chest and face. I told Mom about the dream this morning.
“I wish you hadn’t told me that, Kit,” she said. “I don’t know why you’d think I wanted to hear that.”
The next slide requires a double tube. I sit in front and Dad puts his legs on either side of me. His toes are hairy. I try to remember the last time I went sledding. Dad yells “Yeehaw!” on the way down again, and I wish Maggie were here.
After two more slides, we take a break for lunch. I’m tired, and I can tell Dad is too. Dad gets two slices of pizza and I get a banana.
“You don’t want anything else?” he asks.
“I’m not hungry.” I don’t tell him that I don’t want to look bloated in my new bikini. Boys have been looking at my breasts all day. It makes me excited for college, where I can wear those tank tops Mom hates. Where I can have sex with boys, maybe.
We sit outside under an umbrella. I watch an older guy smoothing sunscreen onto the shoulders of a pretty freckled woman at the next table.
Dad sighs. “I’m going to miss you when you’re gone.”
I turn to look at him. “Are you and Mom going to get divorced after I leave?”
“Not sure, Kit,” he says.
After the lead paint but before the bedbugs, Dad told me he wasn’t sure he and Mom would stay together. Mom told me she and Dad were going through a “rough patch” but they were going to “work things out.” I can’t remember the last time they slept in the same bed. I’m not sure whom to believe.
Once we finish lunch, I want to find the yellow and black funnel slide. We use a map to find it at the edge of the park, but it’s not like I remember. It’s red, not yellow and black, and the funnel part is smaller than I imagine. Maybe this isn’t the slide I remember at all.
It doesn’t matter, because the slide is closed anyway. The lifeguard tells us the pH levels of the splash pool are too high.
“It’s contaminated?” I ask.
“It should be fixed within the hour,” the lifeguard says, but I don’t want to go on the slide anymore.
We move on. Dad and I ride down one more slide, and he doesn’t shout “Yeehaw!” this time.
“Up for more?” he asks me.
“I think I’m done,” I say. He looks relieved. We return to the car.
On the ride home, I wonder if Maggie knows how bad things have gotten. How lucky she is, to live so far away. I wonder if I, too, will stop caring so much once I’m gone.
“Did you have fun today?” Dad asks.
I smile and say, “Yeah, just as fun as last time,” and he smiles, too, even though he knows it’s not true.
“Why don’t you call your mother and tell her we’re on our way home?”
I take out my phone, trying to remember when she became “my mother” instead of Mom. I call her, and I can’t tell if she’s sad or okay. When I hang up, I suddenly remember and I exclaim, “Dad!”
“I remember where the yellow and black slide was!”
“It wasn’t at Splashville. It was at Water Nation in New Hampshire. You, me, and Maggie went there right after she got braces. Remember?”
His eyes are far away. “Not sure, Kit,” he says. “Not sure.”
Corinne Sullivan lives in Bronxville, where she is an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College. She has been published in The Allegheny Review and has work forthcoming in Rougarou, Saturday Night Reader, and Knee-Jerk Magazine.
Posted by Rusty on May 25, 2015
Thanksgiving, 3:00 AM, End of the World
by Robert Hinderliter
Six months later our city is still burning, dark beasts still shuffling through the streets, and last week you came home with a forked tongue. Bifurcation, you called it, your voice husky with painkillers, your mouth struggling to form sounds with its new mangled occupant. You stuck it out for me to admire: ragged stitches down each side of the newly peninsula’d flesh, blood beads slowly forming. Soon, you told me, you’d be able to move both sides independently, watch them curl around each other, dart out to taste the air like a serpent. I turned away.
“You’re as bad as the creatures,” I said.
“Oh,” you said, “I’m much worse.”
This is the life that is left for us. Six months ago the earth split open with a terrible roar, and the horrors from below spilled to the surface. Savage creatures as big as cars, black-furred, razor-clawed, mouths packed with teeth made for sawing and piercing. And with the beasts came a poison wind, a deathly exhalation from deep in the earth that erupts into flames in the lungs, burning its victims from the inside out.
The weak and indecisive died quickly. You were neither. You loaded your shotgun, strapped on a gas mask, and joined the Hunters. When the goal of fighting the beasts proved hopeless, the gang turned to pillaging and robbery. The old laws, you told me, were for the old world. You bring home food, and I cook it silently. I don’t ask where it’s from.
During the day, when you’re gone, I sit by the window in the living room and look out over the ruined city. Smoke in the distance, pick-up trucks with beds piled with bodies passing on the street below. Sometimes a black shadow stalks across the sidewalk, claws clicking on the cement, head twisting from side to side, sniffing the air. In the evenings you come home always drunk, often high, occasionally with a new tattoo, red and raw, on your back or arm. And finally your tongue. Your voice, now wet and lisping, is hideous to me.
Today is Thanksgiving. Or rather, yesterday. It’s 3:00 AM, and you haven’t come home. It’s raining. The only light in the city is a fire in the window of a distant building. A cat is screaming wildly, as if it’s being pulled apart.
I remember our first Thanksgiving, eight years ago, when your parents flew in from Maine and your dad kept spilling rum on the reclining chair and making comments about my weight. I suppose I was a little heavy then, but you told me I was carrying it in all the right places. Your mom had picked up some sort of virus on the plane and was blowing her nose every ten seconds and stuffing the tissues between the couch cushions. It was the first time I’d met them.
In the kitchen, I had a terrible time getting the turkey into the oven. I’d bought a new pan to accommodate a large bird, and it turned out to be an inch too wide. I had to tilt it to make it fit, but then the turkey started to slide, and in my panicked overcorrection I burned my arm on the oven door. I cried out, and you stopped mashing the sweet potatoes and rushed over to help. Together, we managed to cram the pan into a stable position and slam the door shut. It took you a minute to realize I was crying.
You took me by the hand then and led me past your belching dad, past your sniffling mom, past the window where I am now, and into the bedroom. You shut the door behind us. From outside, we could hear your dad grumbling over the sound of football on the TV.
You lowered me onto the bed and lay down beside me. You pulled me close against you, pressed your cheek to mine. I was sobbing by that point, great silent heaves. You stroked my hair and whispered in my ear. “It’s okay,” you said. Your voice was so gentle then. It was a sound I longed for. “I love you,” you whispered. Again and again. “I love you, I love you. I’ll love you till the end of the world.”
Grady “Golden Arm” Ramirez came out of nowhere at age 19 to take the ’73 season by storm. A late growth spurt turned a scrappy kid with middling potential into a tall young man with a left arm like a rocket launcher. Twenty-five wins, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young Award, a 102 MPH fastball, 83 MPH change-up, and a knee-buckling 12-6 curve. He had a crooked nose, bright brown eyes, splotchy cheeks from acne only recently cleared up, and was just cocky enough to seem genuine instead of arrogant. Everyone loved him. Seeing his face made you feel good things about baseball, and even about the country, and that ’73 season it was impossible not to see his face.
His rise was as unexpected as it was remarkable, and he swung a lot of money the wrong way for a lot of dangerous people. A dozen preseason prop bets were busted before July. There were threats of violence. Those were discordant times. One day he found a crude sketch of a severed arm taped inside his locker. A week later, a hacksaw was delivered to his home. The fear got to him. He didn’t try to hide it.
After a few off games, his coach suggested he see a clonologist. They took his DNA, grew a replacement arm in the lab. Muscle strength and fast twitch fiber measurements came back identical. A perfect copy. They kept it on ice in a secret location, and Ramirez played on with a little more peace of mind. For the rest of that season and all of the next he was lights-out. Nearly unhittable. By then the money was riding on him, so he had no more amputation threats.
But in his third season his arm began to give. Same old story – too many innings too young. The losses started to pile up, and his ERA was strapped to a jetpack. The dangerous people were not pleased.
Ramirez’s mind turned, inevitably, to that arm in deep freeze. He made inquiries at the League Office, but they informed him the replacement could only be used in the case of foul play. His on-field decline continued. He told reporters he felt like his life was ending at age 21. He lost weight. His brown eyes weren’t so bright anymore.
One day mid-season he missed two practices in a row. An assistant coach went to his house. Ramirez’s car was in the driveway, but no one answered the door.
The police found him in the bathroom, left arm tied with rubber tubing, hacksaw on the floor. He was slumped in a chair with vomit down his chest. Preparing for a home amputation, he’d overdosed on pain pills.
Grady Ramirez is discussed today mostly as a cautionary tale, but I still sometimes go back and watch highlights from that ’73 season. He still holds the records for most wins and lowest ERA for a rookie. His third game of the season, a one-hitter against the Mets, is one of the most joyous athletic performances I’ve seen.
There he is, this 19-year-old kid fresh into the Majors, just blowing smoke past one of the best lineups in the game. Grinning after every out, knowing he’s got his whole career ahead of him to make batters look like buffoons. In the ninth inning, even the Mets fans were cheering. We were all feeling good about baseball, good about the future. That left arm whipping through the air. It was beautiful.
Robert Hinderliter’s writing has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Hobart, and other places. He teaches English at Chosun University in Gwangju, South Korea. Another story set during the same events as “Thanksgiving, 3 AM, End of the World” has been published by decomP and can be read here: http://www.decompmagazine.com/athousandfires.htm
Posted by Rusty on May 19, 2015
by Claire Hennessy
Once upon a time is how stories begin. One day. . .one night. . .once at a party. . .
Many stories begin at night. The inhibitions slink off into the shadows.
“You’re so pretty,” she says to the boy, red-lipped, long-legged and giddy in heels.
He gleams, his teeth white in the dark. His mouth on hers. Sucking the life out of her.
This is how you do it. Not the vampiric draining of the neck. The kiss. The air is pulled out. The lungs collapse.
She falls into his arms. This is what they mean by falling for someone.
He carries her home. The perfect gentleman. Pulls aside her knickers and puts his fingers inside. Then kicks off his trousers. Thrusts in and out. Her head rolls back. Her eyelids shut.
Later he will burn the body. Fire and soot. It takes so much kindling to ignite a fire large enough to eat a whole girl.
For now he moves a finger down her cheek. “You’re so pretty,” he says.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, creative writing facilitator, and editor based in Dublin. She is the author of several novels for young adults and children, and is currently working on a collection of short fiction for adults, supported by an Arts Council bursary. She can be found online at www.clairehennessy.com or on twitter (@clairehennessy).
Posted by Rusty on May 11, 2015
By Tiff Holland
She made me stay with her that summer. That sounds ridiculous—my mother made
me, a grown woman, stay with her that summer, but she did. She’d signed me out of
the psych ward just in time to finish my final papers, graduate magna cum laude
among the cherry blossoms. Dad flew in from California and offered, wanted me,
even, but we both knew his dark efficiency would finish the job I had started. So, I
went with Mom, her name on the forms in-case-of-emergency, next-of-kin and,
finally, under-supervision of.
She gave me the bigger room, the queen sized bed that filled it, sideways, facing the
lake. She took the brass daybed in the other room, the only piece of furniture she
owned from before. We shared a bathroom with two doors, that might have been
called a Jack-n-Jill in a ranch house or a split level like the Brady’s but in that house
in that neighborhood that had started as cottages and shacks, weekend places back
when the lake was the center of a low-end amusement park that burned, every stick
of it, to the ground, it screamed “plumbing added post-construction.”
I didn’t want to be there, of course, but I didn’t want to be anywhere.
One of Mom’s customers sold her the house for twenty thousand even, including all
the furniture and appliances, dishes and linens, the manual lawnmower stored in
the shed in back, the size of an outhouse with a scythe hanging from a nail.
The lady was moving to a nursing home. She would never need any of those things
again, and she loved Mom in a way many of her customers, the Beauty Shop Ladies,
did. All those weekends in Mom’s chair, I guess, her teasing their hair, listening,
bringing them only slightly stale donuts and coffee in bone china cups that used to
be part of her special-occasion only collection before Dad left and she sold The
I was in the hospital when Mom asked me whether or not to do it, move from her
post-divorce apartment to Summit Lake, like I was in any shape to give advice.
I said, “Where else are you going to find a house for twenty grand?” Reminded her of
the young man’s voice overheard from her apartment screaming: help me, help me,
please, God, help me! Just the week before.
So she closed. There were no closets in the bedrooms. Mom kept her outfits on a
clothesline in the abnormally damp basement. I kept underwear in a plastic bin
under the bed, my folded jeans and t-shirts on the bookshelves on the sunporch
downstairs among my philosophy texts: Kant and Kierkegaard, Hume, Nietzche and
Heidegger. Mom wanted to throw them away.
“These books. These books are what did this to you,” she said more than once,
although she had other opinions, too, what was wrong with me, molestation, vitamin
deficiencies, the time she, oh my god, dropped me on my head, forceps, genetics from
my father’s side of course, opinions she had shared with me almost nightly by
telephone before my admission.
When she was at work I would open my books, which smelled like me, me before,
the pot mom didn’t know about, my brand of laundry soap, crumbs from my peanut
butter sandwiches. I’d scour my own high-lighting for clues to how my brain
functioned before the lithium. When my eyes got tired, I sat on the old-lady furniture
and watched the console television. I ate cold leftovers from original-model pieces of
Tupperware, with no burp left, and took long baths. Some days, I sat on the bed in
my temporary room and watched the lake through the windows. Once or twice I
saw someone pull himself up on a surfboard, yank at a rope attached to a sail before
taking a jumping fall into the water.
I left the bathroom doors open when I bathed. While Mom was at work I walked
downstairs in my underwear to get clean clothes. I was a ghost, no one could see me
behind the screens and draperies, the windows never-cleaned. Even if I shut a door,
Mom always came in, without knocking or calling out. She went through my room to
the bathroom, saying it was faster, although each had a door and the rooms were the
same size long-ways. She thought nothing of opening the bathroom door, sitting
down on what, to my disdain, she called “the pot,” and starting up a conversation
while I soaked, as if I were the hairdresser and the toilet were the styling chair, as if
Once, she walked in just as I was getting out. I’d taken the towel off the bar but not
yet pressed it to my body. She stopped in the doorway.
“You have such a beautiful body,” she said, really looking at me for the first time in
years, before hitching down her hose and underwear. “You should be happy.”
“Thanks,” I said, slipping back into the water, as if it were murky or full of bubbles,
some place I could hide.
Posted by Rod on May 4, 2015
A PAIR OF SOCKS
Maddie pokes around in the refrigerator with one hand and, with the other, scratches the back of her leg at the hem of her nightgown. She has mismatched socks—one yellow with a white ribbon, one red with Christmas trees. I pat my pockets for my phone, but I’m in pajamas. The phone is upstairs, charging. Too bad, it would have made a cute picture—not that she’d ever let me share it.
“I’m starving,” she says. “I didn’t like that spaghetti squash.”
As I move through the kitchen to the stovetop light, I compose a status update about the sadness of a father’s rejected spaghetti squash. The shame, the disappointment, the squashiness. I switch on the light.
Maddie turns and sets a plastic tub on the counter then catches the refrigerator door before it closes. She takes out one of the green wine bottles we use to chill water. I frame an imaginary photo of the island’s tile countertop with the blurred green spout of the bottle in the foreground and the Tupperware and a stack of junk mail in crisp focus. Beyond them, the haze of the kitchen bleeds into shadows around the dining room table.
“Puberty sucks,” Maddie says, and she places a cast iron pan on the stove. The burner clicks and blossoms into yellow flame. She looks at me. “What?”
I take a brown banana from the fruit basket and peel it. Then I point at her feet. She drops her gaze and smiles—another perfect pic, forever lost. She drizzles olive oil into the pan.
“You look worried,” she says. “Or mad. Are you mad?”
I bite the top of the banana. It’s soft, too full of flavor. I sift the flesh through my teeth, swallow, and make a mental note to search for an article on the chemistry involved in the changing flavor of a ripening banana.
Maddie pries open the plastic tub and pours the chicken curry into the pan. I eat another bite of banana. She opens the cupboard and takes down two glass tumblers, which she fills with water. She sets one in front of me. I slide it back from the edge of the counter. She shakes her head.
“Couldn’t sleep,” she says. “My tummy was growling.”
She gives my cheek a quick peck and turns away to stir the curry. She smells like shampoo. The scents of coriander, cumin, olive oil, and turmeric rise from the pan.
“I’m OK,” she says. “Nothing really happened.”
I take a third bite of banana, and it’s too much. I spit the bite into the sink and run cold water to help the garbage disposal. As it grinds away, Maddie sighs behind me. It’s odd, the way her sigh cuts through the din. I try to take stock of her Facebook posts from recent days, searching for clues. She’s had volleyball, the SAT and Zac Efron on her mind, as far as I can recall. She scrapes chicken curry from the pan onto a plate.
“Want some?” she asks. I wave her off, and she scoops out the last of the curry. “If you’re going to grill me about it, don’t bother.”
I stand there and try to figure out what “it” could be, what grilling I should be doing, what questions won’t shut her down.
She gets out yogurt and spoons it onto her curry then plucks a sprig of cilantro from the windowsill planter, tears the leaves, and sprinkles pieces on her yogurt. Then she stirs it all up.
I go to the utility drawer and take out the quarter-inch Allen wrench, while Maddie stands at the island and eats. I flip all six dining room chairs onto the table. They’ve grown loose and wobbly.
When I finish, they’re sturdy, and Maddie is done with her curry. She puts her plate in the dishwasher then rinses the pan and positions it on the drying rack. She puts the plastic tub back in the refrigerator then takes a deep breath and turns to me.
“He didn’t touch me, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
I put the wrench in the drawer and wipe my beard on my sleeve.
“OK,” she says, “fine. He tried something. But I wouldn’t let him. Can we just not have him over to the house anymore?”
I hold out my arms for a hug, but she says goodnight and walks upstairs.
So I pour scotch into a glass. The clock says it’s past one. I get a clean towel from the drawer and wipe the sink dry. Maddie comes back down and sits on the bottom step. She watches me put away the olive oil, the saltshaker, and the yogurt. I set the water bottle in the sink and the spatula in the dishwasher. Then I switch off the stovetop lamp. Moonlight seeps through the windows. I sit by Maddie on the bottom step and put an arm around her. She wipes her face on my shirt.
“Don’t say anything,” she says. “I mean, nothing happened. He just made me uncomfortable. I stood up for myself. You’d be proud.”
I go to the laundry room and come back with the other red sock with Christmas trees. I kneel, lift her foot, remove her yellow sock, and slide the red one over her foot and around her ankle. When I’m done, she raps her knuckles on my sternum and relaxes again. I sit beside her, and she leans into my chest. After a while her breath slows. A column of moonlight angles down from the stairwell window. The silver light cuts across Maddie’s legs. Her knees shine like dinner plates, and her feet fade into the shadows.
Eric Bosse is the author of Magnificent Mistakes, a story collection published by Ravenna Press. His work has appeared in The Sun, Zoetrope, Wigleaf, The Collagist, Frigg, Fiddleblack, World Literature Today, and Matter Press. He teaches writing at the University of Oklahoma.