Category: Current Issue (Page 1 of 10)

The Thought Doesn’t Count

By Emily Hageman

CAST OF CHARACTERS
Rebecca – 20s, dry and sarcastic
Tim – 20s, sentimental and warm

At Rise
There is a chair in the center of the stage with a sock monkey seated on it. After a beat of the audience just looking at the monkey, TIM enters. He looks occupied–but his gaze softens on the monkey. He sits and tenderly takes it into his hands, stroking its lumpy little head. REBECCA enters, just as distracted as he was.

REBECCA: (picking up from whatever she’d been saying before.) I didn’t even tell you the worst part.  So not only did his breath smell like a toilet, but he had mustard on his shirt.  And it was like–right there.  Like how did he not see that?  Maybe he’s like a vampire and he can’t see himself in mirrors.  Seriously, he is the most disgusting–

(REBECCA stops when she notices he isn’t listening.  She steps closer–and sees him with the monkey.)

REBECCA (cont.): Dude, if I was you, I’d put that thing down.  I’m betting that it is super haunted.

TIM: Who gave this to us?

REBECCA: Somebody who wanted to summon Satan into our house.

TIM: Bec.

REBECCA: What?  That thing is hideous, Tim.

TIM: I think it’s cute.

REBECCA: Yeah, that’s what it wants you to think.  Next thing you know it’s eating your intestines.

TIM: Well, that is thoroughly gross.  Thank you for that.

REBECCA: I’m sorry, I know I’m acting weird, it’s just that–my husband is giving googly eyes to a stuffed monkey.

TIM: Hey.  He came onto me.

REBECCA: So he’s a murderer and a homewrecker.  Should have known.

TIM: Did Stacy send it?

REBECCA: Probably.  Your sister has the tact and subtlety of a menstruating hurricane.

TIM: Charming.  She was trying to be nice.

REBECCA: Yeah, I hope she succeeds next time.

TIM: Okay, okay, lay off.

REBECCA: Here, give it, I’ll put it in the box with the others.

TIM: We don’t have to put it all away, do we?

REBECCA: Come on, babe, there’s plenty of monkeys in the jungle.

TIM: Why don’t we just leave this one out?  For next time.

(A moment.)

REBECCA: I’d rather not.

TIM: Becca.

REBECCA: Sorry.  Jealousy has overwhelmed me.  Give me the skanky monkey.

TIM: When are we going to talk about it?

REBECCA: (clipped) I don’t know.  Sorry, I’m not gonna schedule it.

TIM: Bec.

REBECCA: Don’t.

(REBECCA steps away.  After a beat, TIM sneaks the monkey around her shoulder.)

TIM: (goofy, high-pitched voice that he continues to use) Hey, Rebecca.

REBECCA: This is officially the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

TIM: I love you.

REBECCA: No, just kidding, this is.

TIM: Tim’s sorry that he was being pushy.  We both know what a loser he can be.

REBECCA: Yeah, and his butt did look big in those jeans.

TIM: Good thing Tim didn’t hear you say that.

REBECCA: Right, good thing.

TIM: He doesn’t deserve you, you know.

REBECCA: Mr. Bananas, are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?

TIM: Meet me beneath the coconut tree.

REBECCA: I couldn’t possibly.  It’s nothing personal, I just don’t date unevolved guys.

TIM: Darwin is always letting me down.

REBECCA: Sorry that this wasn’t a fairy tail.

TIM: Oh, wow, that really gave me paws.

REBECCA: You’ll get over the rejection.  No need to be a chimp about it.

TIM: Sorry, you’re just a great girl… illa.

REBECCA: That was weak.

TIM: (back to normal voice) I ran out.

REBECCA: It’s okay.  All the puns were driving me bananas anyways.

(They sit and look at the monkey.)

TIM: Let’s name him.

REBECCA: Chauncey McBiggleston, the Earl of the Outhouse.

TIM: Very nice.

REBECCA: I’m not done.  The third.

TIM: (taps her forehead) What is it like up here?

REBECCA: You ever been in a Chuck E. Cheese on a warm June evening?

TIM: Must be exhausting.

REBECCA: You have no idea.

TIM: Shhhh, be quiet, brain.

REBECCA: Stop it, I hate you.

TIM: Why don’t we name him Liam?

(REBECCA is immediately moving away from TIM, angry and closed off.  A moment.)

TIM (cont.)Rebecca.

REBECCA: Nope.

TIM: Becca, baby–

REBECCA: Nope, shut up.  I need to be extremely pissed off at you for the next minute.

TIM: I didn’t–

REBECCA: Shut up and let me have this

(A moment.)

TIM: I don’t want to push.

REBECCA: Then why are you?

TIM: Because you’re hurting.

REBECCA: I’m always hurting, Tim, it’s nothing new.

TIM: Not like this.

(A moment.)

TIM (cont.): Me too, you know?

REBECCA: We’re not doing this.

TIM: Becca, I wanted him too.  More than anything. Please, just talk to me–

REBECCA: Tim, shut up, you do not want to compare wounds with me.

TIM: Just because I’m not hurting as much as you are doesn’t mean that I’m not in pain too.

REBECCA: I know that, okay?  But our pain has nothing in common–and I’m not ready anyways and you said you would wait until I was ready.

TIM: Yeah, but I didn’t know it was going to be a month.

REBECCA: Oh, I’m so sorry, have I thrown off your grieving calendar?

TIM: Becca, stop it.

REBECCA: Excuse me?  You don’t get to say that to me.

TIM: What, so now I have to earn what I say?

REBECCA: Yeah, you do.  Because I’ve paid for my words in blood.  And there was a lot of it.

(A moment.)

REBECCA (cont.): (suddenly, forcefully) You shouldn’t have told your stupid sister.  Everyone knows you’re not supposed to tell anyone in the first trimester.  And all those freakin’ cards–and they kept coming even after everything–those stupid Hallmark cards with their stupid glitter that got everywhere.  And I didn’t want to throw them away because–if I did that it would mean that he really was–

TIM: I’m so sorry, Bec.

REBECCA: (crying) No, no, I’m sorry, because–well, before I knew, I was drinking coffee and–and I had few drinks–and I know it was my fault because I wasn’t being careful and I–

TIM: Becca, Becca, no, no, no–it wasn’t–no–

REBECCA: Please just say you forgive me.

TIM: It wasn’t your fault, how could you even think–

REBECCA: Please just say you forgive me.  Please.

(A moment passes where TIM is left not knowing what to do.  Eventually, TIM goes to REBECCA and kneels in front of her, wrapping his arms around her waist.  He presses a kiss into her stomach.)

TIM: (to her stomach) I forgive you.

(TIM stands and takes her face into his hands.)

TIM (cont.): And I love you.  You know that?  I love you so much, Rebecca.

REBECCA: I killed him.

TIM: No.  He died.

REBECCA: What if I’m broken and I can’t.?

TIM: Then we’ll find another way.

REBECCA: You should be with someone who can.

TIM: Don’t tell me what to do.  It drives me bananas.

REBECCA: (smiles reluctantly through her tears) I already said a banana one.

TIM: Oh, really?  I thought it was vine.

REBECCA: So weak.

TIM: Really?  I thought it was cool.  Kind of sock and roll.

(REBECCA picks up the monkey and holds it up to TIM.)

REBECCA: Look at him.  He’s done with your monkeying around.

TIM: Chauncey’s done?

REBECCA: Liam.  Liam’s done.

(They embrace intimately, the monkey between them.)

TIM: But we aren’t.

REBECCA: We aren’t.

END OF PLAY


Emily Hageman was born in California, raised in Colorado and now lives in Iowa. Emily’s one acts, short plays, and monologues have primarily been performed in Northwest Iowa, but have also been performed throughout the United States as well as internationally.

GWENDOLYN

By: Dylan Schifrin

CAST OF CHARACTERS
Alex – 25 years old, recently suffered from a devastating breakup. Wants to absorb himself in his work and avoid all human relationships, but ultimately falls for Gwendolyn.
Gwendolyn – A cactus brought to life in Alex’s mind. Very sweet and simple at first, wants to be with Alex and comfort him. Progressively becomes manipulative and cruel to Alex.
Louie – Alex’s friend, got Alex his job at Scratchopolis. Affable yet over the top at times, wants to help Alex move on from his breakup. 26 years old.
Honoria – Robotic, logical, somewhat arrogant. Dislikes human interaction, but secretly craves a level of intimacy. 30 years old.

SETTING
Alex’s office at Scratchopolis, a company that manufactures and distributes backscratchers.

TIME
The Present

SCENE 1

SETTING:Alex’s new office at Scratchopolis, a backscratcher company. There is an office chair and a desk with a phone and a computer on it. On the wall there is a poster depicting a backscratcher with the slogan “Scratchopolis: Ditch Your Itch!”

AT RISE: We hear a phone ring, and lights come up on ALEX, sitting in the office chair. He answers the phone.

ALEX: Thank you for calling Scratchopolis, home of all your backscratcher related needs. How may I assist you?
       (pause)
I’m sorry you’re not satisfied with the Itch eradicator It’s our top of the line model. May I ask what difficulties you’ve encountered, sir?
       (pause)
It burst into flames?
       (pause)
Look, how about I just send you a new one?
       (pause)
I’m glad we were able to work this out. Thank you for calling.
      (ALEX hangs up and looks around nervously before quickly picking up the phone again and dialing a number. He waits a bit and then begins nervously leaving a message)
Hi, Katie? Hi. I guess you’re not home now. I know we aren’t supposed to, you know, talk. But just ‘cause we broke up, there’s nothing wrong with checking in, right?
      (he gets a call on the other line)
Gotta go!
      (he switches to the other line)
Thank you for calling Scratchopolis. How may I assist you?
       (pause)
I’m sorry to hear you lost your backscratcher, ma’am.
       (pause)
No, I don’t know where it is.
       (pause)
Ma’am, please, calm down. Watch your language–oh, you found it. Ok. You’re welcome. Bye.
       (he hangs up, then quickly redials Katie’s number)
Hi Katie. I forgot to say…this is Alex. So, uh, anyway, call me back, if you want.
       (he hangs up, but immediately redials Katie’s number)
It’s me again. You’re probably wondering how I’m doing. I’m doing great. I bought an ottoman.
       (pause, ALEX picks up a little object shaped like a hand from his desk and begins to manipulate it)
Anyway, I’ll see you soon. Wait, I guess I won’t. But I’ll talk to you, maybe. You know, probably. So…bye. I guess. I mean…it’s Alex.

       (ALEX hangs up)

       (HONORIA enters stage right)

ALEX: Hello?

HONORIA: You’re new here.

ALEX: Yes.

HONORIA: I don’t care for change, Alex.

ALEX: Oh, you know my name.

HONORIA: Your deductive skills are commendable. Now let us proceed to the topic at hand. I wish to present you with a proposal.

ALEX: (uncomfortable, lamely) A proposal? You’ll have to buy me dinner first…(he laughs nervously, HONORIA stares at him expressionless)
You were saying?

HONORIA: Every workday at precisely 10:14 I depart from my office for a brief 3.75 minute break where I consume five-eighths of a banana and some nonfat ice milk. The shortest route to the kitchen from my workspace is through this office. I feel you must know this lest you become startled by my daily commute.

ALEX: So, you’re going to come through my office every day?

HONORIA: I’m afraid you have no choice, Alex. Cutting through your office shaves roughly ten steps off my commute both ways. Assuming one step takes approximately 0.5 seconds, that’s five seconds saved per day, translating to 1300 seconds, or 21.7 minutes, saved per year. Now, to the second topic at hand.

ALEX: There’s a second topic?

HONORIA: Mr. Delafontaine has requested I improve my relations with my coworkers. He feels I am unable to connect to others on a personal level and am inept at understanding various social cues.

ALEX: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. You know, I had a cousin who-

HONORIA: (abruptly cutting him off) During every morning trip to my break I shall say, “Good morning, Alex,” and you shall respond, “Good morning, Honoria.” Upon my return trip through your office, I shall bring up a common topic of conversation. We shall discuss it briefly, and then I shall exit. Is this clear to you?

ALEX: Sort of.

HONORIA: My break is starting. Good morning, Alex.

ALEX: Enjoy your break.
(HONORIA stares at him)
Is something wrong?

HONORIA: (annoyed) I must insist you stick to the prearranged agreement. Say “Good morning, Honoria.”

ALEX: Oh, right. “Good morning, Honoria.”

(HONORIA stares at him for a bit, then exits stage left)

(ALEX continues to look at the magnet, when suddenly LOUIE enters stage right)

LOUIE: Hey, Alex! Welcome to Scratchopolis, buddy!

ALEX: (startled) Oh! Hey Louie.

LOUIE: What’s wrong?

ALEX: I just met someone named Honoria.

LOUIE: We like to play a little game around the office called “If Honoria Sees You, Run Like Hell.” Remind me to teach you the rules sometime. Anyway, tell me, how’s your first day as Executive in Charge of Quality Control?

ALEX: I’m still settling in. I can’t believe I already have an executive position.

LOUIE: Yeah, we use the term “executive” pretty loosely here. Steve, the unpaid intern, is Executive in Charge of caffeine retrieval.

ALEX: Well, thanks, Louie, for recommending me for the job.

LOUIE: No problem, pal. You needed a fresh start. And nothing can give you a fresh start like the nation’s third most successful backscratcher company. Hey, I almost forgot your office-warming present!

(LOUIE runs off stage right)

ALEX: Present? Louie, you didn’t have to-

(LOUIE returns with a sad-looking cactus)

ALEX: (CONT’D) Oh. You got me a cactus.

LOUIE: Last night it hit me that I hadn’t gotten you anything for your new office! So, I wrote “buy Alex gift” on my hand so I wouldn’t forget. But it must have washed off in the shower or something, because in the morning, the only letters I could make out spelled “Blift.” “What the hell does Blift mean!?” I thought. It was the scribblings of a madman! But then, when I was cutting through the alley on the way to work, I remembered! Blift! Buy Alex gift! And–just my luck–I saw this beauty, sitting all alone in the alley next to a urine-soaked mattress. It was fate.

(LOUIE plops the cactus down on ALEX’s desk)

ALEX: Uh…thanks.

LOUIE: It’s just that you both could use a little love.

ALEX: It looks like it could use a little sun, too.

(ALEX takes the cactus and places it on the window sill)

LOUIE: (catching sight of the hand magnet) Oh, no. Alex, don’t tell me you still have this!

ALEX: (uneasy) Louie, please don’t touch that.

LOUIE: I thought you were trying to get over Katie. Keeping her gifts won’t help that!

ALEX: It’s the only thing I have left of her.

LOUIE: Whatever. But tonight, I want you to come out with me and some people from the office.

ALEX: I don’t know, I mean I have to go home and, you know, throw out some expired yogurts–

LOUIE: Come on. It’s been forever since you’ve felt any kind of joie de vivre.

ALEX: Sorry, Louie.

LOUIE: Fine. But at least promise me you’ll forget about Katie.

ALEX: I can’t promise that.
(he clutches the hand magnet)

LOUIE: Oh God, you didn’t leave her another message, did you?

(Suddenly HONORIA bursts in stage left)

HONORIA: Chinchillas are the softest rodents and have been hunted nearly to extinction. What are your thoughts on this matter?

LOUIE: (annoyed) Hello, Honoria.

HONORIA: (to LOUIE, not looking at him) Don’t try to engage me. I haven’t the time for multiple discourses.

LOUIE: Looks like it’s my lucky day.

(LOUIE exits stage right)

HONORIA: (as soon as LOUIE is gone, to ALEX) Your thoughts, please.

ALEX: What?

HONORIA: Your thoughts. On the chinchilla matter. I’m trying to have a conversation, Alex. Remember our agreement.

ALEX: Well, I guess that’s pretty sad, that they’re hunted and all.

HONORIA: Goodbye.

(HONORIA exits stage left)

(ALEX types something on his laptop, then stands up and gets a cup of water from the water cooler. He drinks half of the cup and pours the rest on the cactus. ALEX then exits stage right.)

(While Alex is gone, the cactus on the windowsill transforms into GWENDOLYN, a young woman in a green dress. She sits on the windowsill, where the cactus was, with her feet in a large cactus pot. No one can see or hear her but ALEX.)

(ALEX enters stage right and sits at his desk.)

GWENDOLYN: Psst. Hey! Alex!

ALEX: …Who said that?

GWENDOLYN: I did. Over here.

(ALEX turns to GWENDOLYN and looks at her in disbelief)

GWENDOLYN: (CONT’D) Hi there.

ALEX: (after a pause, calmly) Oh, look. The cactus is talking to me. Hm, either I’m dreaming, or this is what a mental breakdown looks like.

GWENDOLYN: You’re not having a breakdown.

ALEX: Oh, ok. I’m dreaming, then.

GWENDOLYN: No, you’re not dreaming.

ALEX: What? How is this even possible?

GWENDOLYN: My name is Gwendolyn.

ALEX: Cactuses have names?

GWENDOLYN: It’s “cacti.”

ALEX: I thought it was “Gwendolyn.”

GWENDOLYN: No, I mean the plural of cactus.

ALEX: What’s the plural of cactus?

GWENDOLYN: Cacti.

ALEX: Oh. Definitely a mental breakdown.

(he rubs his temples)

GWENDOLYN: Sorry. I should have realized this might be confusing for you.

ALEX: You think?!

GWENDOLYN: I apologize if I scared you.

ALEX: (warily) So…have you always been able to talk?

GWENDOLYN: I’m not sure. I’ve never tried before.

ALEX: Then why am I the lucky guinea pig?

GWENDOLYN: I guess I haven’t really had anyone to talk to before. People tend to keep their distance from you when you’re a cactus. It’s all the spines, probably.(pause)
I liked it when you watered me. It made me feel good.

ALEX: Well, uh…you’re welcome. You looked a little thirsty.

GWENDOLYN: I was.
(then)
Can I trust you?

ALEX: What, you mean not tell anyone what a talking cactus says? It’s a pretty safe bet I’m gonna keep this to myself.

GWENDOLYN: Thanks. No one’s cared for me before. That’s what you’re doing, right? Taking care of me?

ALEX: I guess. It’s no big deal.

GWENDOLYN: Well, that’s a start.

ALEX: Start to what?

GWENDOLYN: Our relationship.

ALEX: What do you mean?

GWENDOLYN: Don’t you want to be friends?

ALEX: Uh…sure?

GWENDOLYN: (smiling) Thanks. I’ve never had a friend before.
(beat)
I’m sorry about Katie.

ALEX: (defensive) How do you know about Katie?

GWENDOLYN: I heard you and Louie talking. I’m sorry she broke your heart. Do you want to talk about it?

ALEX: No. Especially not to a plant.

GWENDOLYN: Alex, we’re friends now, remember? You can trust me too. What happened?

ALEX: (stares at GWENDOLYN for a moment, then gives in:) What the hell. Katie and I had been dating for a year, and everything was going great. Then, one day while we were playing miniature golf, she turned to me and said that I just wasn’t enough for her anymore. Who does that during miniature golf?!

GWENDOLYN: I’m sorry, Alex. I’d hug you, but, you know, spines.

ALEX: I gave her everything. I was kind, I listened to her, I made her soup when she was sick, I drove her to the DMV, I drove her mother to the DMV, and when her cat ran away, who do you think scoured the neighborhood all night in the rain, only to come back and find Peaches asleep on her face? I did everything I could to make her happy. And it still wasn’t enough.

(he picks up the ceramic hand magnet)

Before it happened, she made me this little ceramic hand. She made one for herself too, and she put magnets in them, so that when they were finished, we could stick them together. Our two hands, forever touching.

GWENDOLYN: (moved) That’s so sweet.

ALEX: We worked together, but being around her was too painful, so I had to quit my job. Luckily, Louie was able to set me up here.
(then)
Wow, it’s getting late. I better get home.

GWENDOLYN: (disappointed) Really? Oh. Well, I’ll be here, I guess.

ALEX: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…thanks for listening.

(ALEX starts to exit)

GWENDOLYN: I like listening to you. Oh, and Alex–
(ALEX turns back and looks at her)
–thank you for the water.
(ALEX exits)

BLACKOUT

 

SCENE 2

SETTING: Alex’s office at Scratchopolis.

AT RISE: ALEX enters stage right, hangs up his jacket, and turns on the light. All of a sudden:

GWENDOLYN: Good morning, Alex!

ALEX: AH!

(Pause)

GWENDOLYN: I hope you didn’t forget about me.

ALEX: I tried to by taking lots of medicine.

GWENDOLYN: Remember how we talked about Katie, and how we’re friends now, and that you can trust me?

ALEX: Oh. Right. We’re friends now.

(ALEX sits at his desk and begins inspecting a backscratcher)

GWENDOLYN: You don’t want to be more than friends?

ALEX: …What?

GWENDOLYN: Well, if you don’t want to…

ALEX: Like a relationship?

GWENDOLYN: We have a relationship. But I was thinking of something more.

ALEX: You mean a romantic relationship?

GWENDOLYN: If you want.

ALEX: I’m sorry, Gwendolyn. This is really weird.

GWENDOLYN: Oh. I should’ve known.

(GWENDOLYN is sad, ALEX sees her and is moved)

ALEX: Look, I don’t know if I’m ready to be with another woman.

GWENDOLYN: I’m not a woman. I’m a cactus.

ALEX: That doesn’t make it less weird.

GWENDOLYN: All I want is to be with you so we can take care of each other.

ALEX: (pause, touched) I just can’t handle being hurt again.

GWENDOLYN: (re: her spines) I won’t hurt you. Unless you touch me.

(GWENDOLYN reaches out to ALEX, ALEX impulsively reaches out to touch her but then, seeing her spines, he grabs a backscratcher and touches her hand with it. They have a moment together)

(Suddenly LOUIE enters stage right)

LOUIE: Alex! Where were you!?

ALEX: (startled, drops his backscratcher) Here, why?

LOUIE: You missed the meeting!

ALEX: Wha-what meeting?

LOUIE: The entire company was there to hear your report, and you were a no-show!

ALEX: Oh my god! No one ever told me!

LOUIE: This is a complete disaster! Boy, is Mr. Delafontaine furious with you! And now I look like an idiot for recommending you!

ALEX: I’m so sorry! This job means everything to me! What am I gonna do?

(LOUIE starts laughing)

ALEX: Why are you laughing?!

LOUIE: Oh man, I really got you!
(he sees the look of pure terror on ALEX’s face)
Alex, I’m just kidding!

ALEX: I thought I was going to lose my job! Why would you do that to me?

LOUIE: Now breaking up with Katie doesn’t seem so bad, does it? You’re welcome!

(HONORIA enters stage right)

HONORIA: (not looking at either of them) Good morning, Alex.

ALEX: Good morning, Honoria.

LOUIE: Good morning, “Gonorrhea”.

HONORIA: You misspoke. My name is Honoria.

LOUIE: Oh, so the “G” is silent.

HONORIA: (to LOUIE): If in past encounters I have conveyed the impression that I enjoy your company, said impressions were fraudulent.

(HONORIA exits stage left)

LOUIE: Hey, I wanted to show you something.
(LOUIE rolls out a blueprint revealing a detailed drawing of a backscratcher)
I drew up blueprints for a new backscratcher model. It has a reinforced carbon fiber arm, a solar-powered scratching mechanism, and, through my addition of an extra finger, its productivity is increased by 20%. This is going to revolutionize the entire industry. Can you feel your heart pounding with anticipation?

ALEX: Yes, because you almost gave me a heart attack earlier. What did Mr. Delafontaine think of it?

LOUIE: I haven’t told him yet. But when I show it to him, I’ll finally be promoted out of the sales department and into–
(his eyes aglow)
–mid-level management. This is my big break.
(then)
Hey, you missed a fun time last night. We got kicked out of three different bars.

(ALEX grabs the hand magnet and starts squeezing it)

ALEX: Sorry I wasn’t there.

LOUIE: You really need a good time like that. You gotta put yourself out there. What are you doing tonight?

ALEX: I’m busy.

LOUIE: Calling Katie?

ALEX: (defensive) No. I have a date.

LOUIE: (incredulous) Oh, yeah. Right. You have a date. What’s her name?

ALEX: Gwendolyn.

LOUIE: Gwendolyn? You couldn’t have come up with something more believable?

(GWENDOLYN looks at LOUIE angrily)

ALEX: It’s true! Her name is Gwendolyn. And it just happened.

LOUIE: Wow. Well, that’s great! You gotta introduce me to her.

(GWENDOLYN begins frantically miming “no way” to ALEX)

ALEX: I don’t know…she’s kind of, uh, shy…

(ALEX’s phone rings)

LOUIE: Well, if Gwendolyn does exist, I’m happy for you, pal. You should bring her when we all go out and celebrate my promotion!

(LOUIE exits stage right. ALEX answers the phone)

ALEX: Thank you for calling Scratchopolis, home of all your back scratcher related needs. How may I assist you?
(pause)
No, ma’am. Our backscratchers are unable to treat crippling depression. You must’ve misread the label.
(he hangs up)

GWENDOLYN: Did you really mean it, Alex? Are we dating?

ALEX: I just said that to get Louie off my back.

GWENDOLYN: (disappointed) Oh…
(pause, then:)
Well…do you want to?

ALEX: I don’t know. Do you?

GWENDOLYN: I do if you do.

ALEX: This is crazy. I mean, we’re two different species.

GWENDOLYN: So? Lots of mixed couples are very happy.
(pause, ALEX looks at her)
I won’t leave you like Katie did. You can feel safe with me.
(referring to her pot)
I’m not going anywhere.

ALEX: That sounds nice.

(beat)

GWENDOLYN: Now that we’re dating, would you mind putting Katie’s magnet away?

ALEX: (picking up the hand magnet) Um…

GWENDOLYN: Please? It would mean a lot to me.

ALEX: (he thinks about it) Okay.

(he drops the hand magnet in a drawer and closes it)

GWENDOLYN: That’s better.
(then)
I don’t like how Louie treats you. That joke about the meeting he played on you was mean. You don’t need people like that in your life.

ALEX: I guess he did go a little too far. But he was just trying to help me.

GWENDOLYN: Don’t you wish there was some way you could get back at him?

ALEX: Get back at him? What do you mean?

GWENDOLYN: I know what you should do, Alex.

ALEX: What?

GWENDOLYN: Steal Louie’s backscratcher model.

(HONORIA suddenly enters stage left)

HONORIA: Genetically modified organisms are a much-debated subject in today’s modern society. What are your thoughts on this matter?

ALEX: Honoria, this really isn’t a good time.

(HONORIA stares at him)

Fine. I think more research should be done on genetically modified crops. Happy?

HONORIA: Joy is an illusion. Just stick to our arrangement.

(HONORIA exits stage right)

ALEX: (CONT’D) (to GWENDOLYN, aghast) You want me to steal Louie’s model?!

GWENDOLYN: Well, don’t think of it as “stealing”. Think of it as “liberating” it from someone not as worthy. Show it to Mr. Delafontaine and say it’s your idea. Then you’ll get a raise and a promotion!

ALEX: I can’t do that to Louie!

GWENDOLYN: Then do it for me.

ALEX: I don’t know…

GWENDOLYN: You have no ambition, Alex. Don’t you want a promotion?

ALEX: I’m already an executive!

GWENDOLYN: So is Steve the intern! Besides, all you do is inspect backscratchers and converse with the insane!

ALEX: Come on. This is a criminal act!

GWENDOLYN: I thought you cared about me, Alex.

ALEX: I do care about you. But this is morally wrong. I can’t betray a friend. He gave me this job. He gave me you!

GWENDOLYN: He found me in an alley! Besides, I’m your more-than-friend. What matters more to you: him or me?

(ALEX is silent)

You have to do this. You deserve that promotion more than Louie does. And deep down, I think he knows it. I believe in you.

ALEX: You do?

GWENDOLYN: Yes.

(pause as ALEX contemplates his course of action)

Oh, and Alex? Maybe you can use the raise to buy me a new pot? A nice, Italian one? With a polka-dot pattern?

ALEX: Sure, Gwendolyn.
(then)
Whatever makes you happy.

(ALEX exits stage left)

BLACKOUT

 

SCENE 3

SETTING: Alex’s office at Scratchopolis.

AT RISE: ALEX is sitting at his desk, perhaps with a new jacket to indicate his promotion. GWENDOLYN sits happily with her feet in a new polka-dot pot. LOUIE enters stage left and looks resentfully at ALEX.

ALEX: (nervously) Oh, hi, Louie.
(LOUIE just stares at him)
What’s up?
(LOUIE doesn’t answer)
Louie, let me explain–

LOUIE: I know exactly what your deal is: you’re a back-stabbing double agent from our competitor Scratch-Co, sent here to uncover Scratchopolis’s darkest secrets for your own nefarious purposes!

ALEX: What? If I was from Scratch-Co, why would I have shown your model to the head of Scratchopolis?

LOUIE: Enough with your mind games, Alex, if that is your real name. I don’t have to stand for this! I have dignity!

(LOUIE stomps his foot and a large amount of backscratchers falls out of his jacket)

LOUIE(CONT’D) I was going to assault you with those, but now I’ve lost the element of surprise.

ALEX: I know what I did was terrible, Louie. But please–

LOUIE: We were friends, Alex! I trusted you. And if that doesn’t mean anything–

ALEX: It does!

LOUIE: I never want to see you again! You’re scum!

(HONORIA enters stage right. LOUIE starts to exit stage right and encounters her. They both freeze)

LOUIE: (CONT’D) (disdainfully, to HONORIA) You!

(LOUIE exits stage right)

HONORIA: Good morning, Alex.

ALEX: Good morning, Honoria.

(HONORIA exits stage left)

ALEX: (CONT’D) (to GWENDOLYN) What was that? You said deep down Louie would think I deserved it!

GWENDOLYN: Please. You wanted to believe me. Besides, you still got away with it, didn’t you? What’s the problem?

ALEX: I’ll tell you what the problem is! Louie thinks I’m scum!

GWENDOLYN: Well, maybe you are.

ALEX: What?!

GWENDOLYN: I don’t like how you keep inviting Honoria in here.

ALEX: Inviting? She invites herself! It’s part of her “social interaction proposal”.

GWENDOLYN: I think you’re spending too much time with her, Alex. This is supposed to be our space! Our sanctuary!

ALEX: Don’t tell me you’re jealous of Honoria!

GWENDOLYN: Do you think she’s prettier than me?

ALEX: Of course not!

GWENDOLYN: Flattery won’t save you this time, Alex. You need to assert yourself! When she returns you have to stand up to her and tell her never to come back here again.

ALEX: Why would I do that? Sure, she’s annoying, but she’s not hurting anyone.

GWENDOLYN: She’s hurting me. I thought we promised to take care of each other. But if you don’t want to anymore…

ALEX: No! I do!

GWENDOLYN: If you really loved me, you’d get rid of that thing you call Honoria. I’m the only woman in your life.

ALEX: Woman?! You live in a pot!

GWENDOLYN: And you live in the past! I thought you wanted to move forward. I thought you wanted to make me happy.

ALEX: I can’t keep pushing people away!

GWENDOLYN: The only thing Honoria cares about is herself. You’re just a means she uses to improve her hopelessly awkward social skills.

(A pause as ALEX absorbs what GWENDOLYN is saying)

ALEX: Fine. I’ll do it.

GWENDOLYN: Good. I knew you’d see things my way.

(HONORIA enters stage left)

HONORIA: The sensation of touch results from the repulsion of the electrons between two surfaces. Therefore, true contact with anything is technically impossible. What are your thoughts on this matter?

ALEX: Honoria…can I talk to you?

HONORIA: Yes. That is our agreement.

ALEX: No, I meant talk to you about something other than electrons.

HONORIA: To deviate from the selected topic?

ALEX: Yes.

HONORIA: I don’t know what you did to Louie, but his broken emotional state filled me with a satisfying schadenfreude. Therefore, I shall allow you to deviate temporarily.

ALEX: Honoria, I hate to do this, but I don’t think you should pass through my office anymore. The truth is, I lose work time due to our conversations.

HONORIA: Interesting. So, in my attempts to maximize my social productivity, I have caused you to sacrifice your work productivity.

ALEX: Exactly. I hope you understand.

HONORIA: I understand. I respect your opinion and furthermore withhold my disappointment that our conversations have not been a pleasure for you as well. Goodbye.

(HONORIA begins to exit stage right, but ALEX stops her)

ALEX: Wait, are you saying you’ve enjoyed talking to me?

HONORIA: Yes. Mr. Delafontaine was right about social interaction. It can be an enjoyable experience.
(pause, then somewhat sorrowfully)
Upon my next visit I was to ask you, “What makes you happy,” and you were to reply, “Truly it would be a crime not to hear your magnificent answer first, Honoria.” I was then to respond, “Human interaction has proven an enjoyable experience,” and you were to finally reply, “never have my ears been tickled with a grander response. Brava, Honoria.”
(beat)
But I won’t detract from your productivity any longer. Goodbye.
(HONORIA begins to exit stage right, then turns back)
Oh, I almost forgot. I overheard Louie saying something about getting you fired.
(ALEX’s phone rings)
I suspect that phone call pertains to the situation. Goodbye.
(HONORIA exits stage right)

ALEX: (answering the phone) Hello? Yes, Mr. Delafontaine?
(pause)
I understand. Thank you for everything.
(he hangs up)
(then, devastated)
Well, Gwendolyn, I hope you’re happy.

GWENDOLYN: Happy? How could I possibly be happy?! How will you provide for us now?

ALEX: This isn’t my fault! Stealing Louie’s model was your idea.

GWENDOLYN: It wasn’t my idea for you to get fired!

ALEX: And Honoria did care about me. So did Louie. But now I’ve lost both of them.

GWENDOLYN: So? You don’t need them. I’m the only one you need.

ALEX: You?! You’re just a cactus!

(GWENDOLYN pauses for a second, then retaliates viciously)

GWENDOLYN: What are you going to do now, Alex? Who’s going to hire someone who would willingly steal a fellow employee’s work?

ALEX: You manipulated me!

GWENDOLYN: You could have stood up for yourself! What are you, jobless and weak?

ALEX: Gwendolyn, stop!

GWENDOLYN: (bitterly) Maybe you could ask Louie for another job–oh that’s right, Louie hates you. Well, maybe you could try Honoria–oh wait, she hates you too. Hey-maybe you could ask Katie to help you out! Oh, wait, she’s hated you from the start.

ALEX: Gwendolyn! Please!

GWENDOLYN: I can’t believe you didn’t foresee any of this. You must be jobless and weak and stupid!

ALEX: GWENDOLYN! SHUT UP!

GWENDOLYN: I know exactly what Katie meant, Alex. You’re just not enough. And you never will be.

ALEX: I AM ENOUGH!

(He pushes GWENDOLYN out of the window; she screams, and we hear a crash. The lights immediately come down)

HONORIA (O.S.): Alex? Alex?

(Lights come up to reveal ALEX slumped over at his desk)

(HONORIA enters stage right)

HONORIA: Are you dead? Because that wasn’t part of our arrangement.

ALEX: Honoria…you came back. I could really use a friend.

HONORIA: Well that’s unfortunate. I’ve been assigned the task of escorting you out of the building. Now please gather your belongings.

(ALEX continues to lie pathetically on the floor)

Are you quite certain you’re not dead?

ALEX: Fairly certain.

HONORIA: Good. Now please hand in your Executive in Charge of Quality Control ID badge and follow me.

(she starts to leave)

ALEX: Ironic, isn’t it? That I was Executive in Charge of Quality Control, when I’m such a mess.
(HONORIA turns back)
I’m defective. I should be thrown in the reject pile with those deformed backscratchers that look like they’re giving you the finger. I feel terrible about what I did to Louie. I lost control. I thought working here would help me get over Katie. I thought it would help me move on with my life. But I guess I couldn’t outrun my demons.
(he looks out the window that he pushed GWENDOLYN through)

HONORIA: You’re babbling.

ALEX: I’m sorry, Honoria, for what I said. If I still had an office, I would let you pass through it whenever you wanted to.

HONORIA: No, Alex. It is I who is sorry.

ALEX: (sitting up) What?

HONORIA: When you requested that I not pass through your office anymore, I started to contemplate my interactions with others. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my social skills are not what you might call “normal” or “even remotely appropriate.” Faces move so quickly. I think someone looks happy, so I say something, but then all of a sudden, they’re mad, or annoyed, or sad. People push me away all the time and I don’t know why.

ALEX: It’s not your fault. Your social challenges aren’t something you ask for. They’re something you’re born with, like…like spines on a cactus.

(he stands up)

HONORIA: You know…spines are often utilized in nature for protection.

ALEX: You shouldn’t have to protect yourself. If people can’t accept you for who you are, then it’s their problem. Not yours.

HONORIA: I had hoped that my experiment with social interaction would have allowed me to become close to you.

ALEX: Really? You still could.

HONORIA: I better stay on task of escorting you out of the building before your inevitable tazing by security.

(ALEX begins gathering his things)

HONORIA: (CONT’D) You never answered my discussion question.

ALEX: What was it, again?

HONORIA: I asked you, “The sensation of touch results from the repulsion of elections. Therefore, true contact with anything is technically impossible. What are your thoughts on this matter?”
(pause)
If touch is fundamentally just repulsion, then why even bother trying to connect with people? What good is intimacy if the conceit of it is false?

ALEX: (holding and manipulating the hand magnet) We all want intimacy to some degree, and the thought that it might not be real is scary. But believe me: there is something real there. Maybe the individual atoms themselves don’t touch, but there must be something in the space between them. Maybe it’s love–you can’t quantify that. But you have to be open to it by embracing the people who accept you for you, and letting go of those who don’t.

(ALEX places the hand magnet on his desk)

HONORIA: …Thank you, Alex. I was going to ask you a question about tapeworms, but I think I made the right choice.

ALEX: (finishing gathering his things) Ok, I’m ready to go.

HONORIA: You forgot something on your desk.

(she starts to retrieve the hand magnet)

ALEX: Leave it.

(He takes her hand; a spark of light flickers between their hands)

BLACKOUT

END OF PLAY

 

Dylan Schifrin is a playwright and musical theater writer from Los Angeles. He is currently a senior at Yale University. His work has been distinguished by the Blank Theatre Company, the California Young Playwrights Contest, the Foundation for New American Musicals, and the National YoungArts Foundation as a 2016 Finalist in playwriting. Check out more of his writing at www.youthplays.com or at his website, https://dylanschifrin.com

 

The Color of Heartache

BY: Ann Kathryn Kelly

In my garden, one of the first of my summer plants to push up from the ground in late May, after the spring bulbs have gone by, is my “bleeding heart.” My sister-in-law, Jane Ann, an avid gardener, divided hers soon after I’d moved into my first home years ago. She’d whacked it down the middle of its root ball, after its flowers had dropped and its leaves had yellowed, and brought a large hunk of it in a plastic grocery bag to my door.

Fifteen years on, I’ve taken it with me to a new home. That piece of Jane Ann’s bleeding heart—as close to her own as anything could be, given her devotion to plants—has landed in several of my friends’ gardens, as I follow her lead of whacking and dividing. It propagates and charms grateful recipients with its delicate beauty.

My plant was in full bloom the first week of June when news broke from a French village that Anthony Bourdain—famed chef, author, and “Parts Unknown” cable news star—had committed suicide. On June 8, 2018, a shocked world tried, as they do with tragedies, to make sense of it. Many of us had allowed ourselves to think we knew Bourdain because he showed up in our living rooms each week, all rugged good looks and real talk, to dish about exotic street food from the world’s dustiest corners.

We don’t know anyone, certainly not celebrities and often not even those in our families, fully. Their demons. Their fragility.

Never fully.

***

The summer I was diagnosed with a bleeding brain tumor, Jane Ann would stop in every night to see me during those lost months as I weighed options. She and my brother, Pat, lived several streets away. I’d hear a knock at my door after the dinner hour, like clockwork. There she’d be, holding her Shih Tzu, Penny, whose toy legs had given out again during their walk because Penny was more doll than dog. It was easier, Jane Ann would explain with a wave of her hand, to carry her. Penny seemed to agree, her chocolate eyes radiating gratitude, a cream-and-tawny powder puff panting between yawns.  

That summer, Jane Ann bore many offerings to my door. Tupperware containers of homemade soup. Lasagna in tinfoiled trays. Flowers that spilled over the fence running the length of her Victorian, cut within the hour.

Peonies. Daisies. Roses.

Deep red roses.

Her daily visits kept me engaged when all I wanted was to come home from work, pull the shades, ignore the phone, and escape into the TV or my bed. If I didn’t see anyone, I wouldn’t have to talk about what was going on. I wouldn’t have to work up my courage to schedule the surgery I needed to save my life; a surgery that would turn into almost twelve hours face down in the OR between a head vice as my skull was sliced open.

Jane Ann, a registered nurse who worked with kidney dialysis patients, watched with my family my decline across June. July. August. I felt her eyes on me each night as we visited. The only thing she pushed those evenings was Penny, into my lap, and fistfuls of flowers, into my hands. Bright spots were few that summer, but what glimpses of light I grasped for often included Jane Ann somewhere in the frame, among those who surrounded and lifted me.

As my strength flagged, my surgery date loomed, and fear engulfed me, she drove back the dark with flowers vibrant and voluminous. Ruffled blooms—purple, pink, white—exploded from her grip. In a fresh-cut bouquet of dahlias, one flower, dwarfing the others, sprang from the middle; butterscotch in its center, surrounded by a band of sunshine yellow and tipped in white. Georgia O’Keeffe would have had her work cut out trying to capture the specimen before me.

“That’s gorgeous,” I said, pointing. “And huge. What is it?”

“Dinner plate dahlia.” Jane Ann smiled and leaned in for a whiff.

Her centerpiece lived up to its name, large enough to hold a salad. Smaller dahlia varieties surrounded it. She removed from the vase on the dining room table the wilted roses she’d brought a week earlier and plopped in the latest selection with fresh water.

Jane Ann was happiest when doing for others.

I’d developed “foot drop” from my brain tumor, a neuromuscular disorder that starts out as weakness and leads to muscle paralysis, as nerve signal communication from the brain to the foot is hijacked. I couldn’t lift and flex my left foot, and dragged my toes. I’d gotten a brace.

It was bulky, impossible to get my shoes or sneakers over. Jane Ann stopped by one evening soon after I’d gotten the brace, and dropped a shoebox on my dining room table. I’d told my family I was considering not wearing a shoe at all on my left foot. The brace’s sole, however, was smooth as a baby’s ass. If I didn’t fall from foot drop, chances were great I’d land on the floor as I swayed around shoeless, the brace’s plastic sole like a banana peel.

“I saw these at Walmart, Annie.” She flipped the lid open, while Penny panted patiently by a table leg.

My face fell when I pulled the sneakers from the box. They were bright white, vinyl, extra wide, with two Velcro straps. A thick rocker heel. The size of pontoons.

“It’s bad, I know,” Jane Ann said. “But, look, you only need to wear one. Wear your regular sneaker on the other foot.”

The sound of ripping Velcro, as I tightened and retightened straps, filled my dining room. Penny’s ears flicked and turned with each rip, like radar antennas.

After a pre-op procedure weeks before my surgery, a cerebral angiogram to map my brain’s blood vessels and give my surgeon the full picture he needed prior to surgery, Jane Ann and Pat converted their dining room into a bedroom for me. I needed to be near a bathroom on the first floor, something my house lacked. Jane Ann pushed their dining room table into a corner, had a bed brought in, carried a TV into the room, and kept me fed and watered for three days until I could climb stairs again without risk of opening the cut to my femoral artery.

She took me to a hairdresser days before my surgery, after she and my mother agreed a pixie cut might be nice. There was no reason why I couldn’t have style, they said, though it would be shaved seventy-two hours later.

As I recovered in a rehabilitation hospital, learning to walk, swallow, and grasp objects again, Jane Ann planted rows of tulip bulbs along my driveway before she left for her winter in Florida. When spring came around and I was again living independently in my house, my driveway erupted into a palette of pastel splendor. I had a Monet watercolor outside my door.

She’d never mentioned to me she had planted them the previous autumn.

“I wanted you to see a rainbow when you got settled in your house again,” she later said.

The tulips bloom and re-bloom. Year in. Year out.

***

Days after Bourdain’s suicide, my news feed crowded with reminders that it was a bathrobe belt, that the world had lost a legend, that his body was stuck in France due to bureaucratic red tape, I read:

After a battle with French officials over his remains, Anthony Bourdain’s body has reportedly been cremated and his ashes will be flown home Friday.

My stomach churned as my eyes moved down the page. This man, who meant something to so many, flown home in pieces. Like cargo.

Like Jane Ann.

***

One year and thirty-seven days after a neurosurgeon returned my life to me, after my family buoyed me above lashing waves that pulled me toward its undertow, after Jane Ann used up everything in her garden and her heart to bolster me through what I was sure would end me, she ended her time with us.

On Thanksgiving Day, 2010, we boarded a plane; Pat, my mother, and me. In Pat’s suitcase, stowed in the overhead bin, Jane Ann’s ash-filled urn sat tucked between shirts. We were flying back from Pat and Jane Ann’s winter home on Florida’s Gulf Coast to their primary residence in southern New Hampshire, to bury her in her girlhood hometown where her elderly father still lived.

Our generous Jane Ann, reserved until she knew you, until she trusted you, but then opened her house, wallet, heart to anyone needing help. Jane Ann, friend to all animals. Our princess of perennials.

She hadn’t left a note.

We don’t know anyone, fully. Their demons. Their fragility.

Never fully.

***

I had my bathroom gutted to the studs last winter. My carpenter stopped in on a spring day to wrap up. While I had him, I asked him to hang a framed, stained glass window from a chain. I’d gone with vintage black and white tiles on floor and walls, chrome fixtures, and lots of frameless beveled glass. A splash of color, I felt, would finish it.

Ruby red, royal blue, pear green, violet, gold; jeweled pieces splay across the window in a mosaic, creating a vase-filled flower arrangement, each bloom outlined in lead.

When Mike finished, we stepped back. A spot in the middle of my chest started to ache. It was Jane Ann’s window, one she’d bought in an antique store years earlier. The center flower, a rose, glows scarlet when sunlight streams in.

It’s the color of a heart. Of heartache.

Of knowing we once had Jane Ann in our lives, and recognizing that we have pieces of her, still.

Like when the rainbow of tulips push through the earth each spring, or the bleeding heart blossoms in my garden, its red, heart-shaped flowers ending in teardrop petals that drip from arched stems and nod to me on a breeze. Like when the sun shines through the stained glass window, Jane Ann’s window, with its riotous burst of flowers.

***

A plant’s stalk, strong enough to carry the weight of blooms—some small, but others at times as big as a dinner plate—can be easily broken. Sometimes, from a battering rain. Sometimes, rough handling is all it takes to snap them.

Certain flowers are too fragile to last. They break, and they’re gone.

When we’ve had them in our gardens, however briefly they bloom, the space they leave behind is never filled the same way, even as other varieties open their petals to the sun.

 


Ann Kathryn Kelly lives and writes in New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. For 40 years, an undiagnosed tumor bled in her brain. She’s writing a memoir about how the tumor controlled who she’d been all her life, and how a dangerous daylong surgery freed her from its grasp. Ann volunteers with a nonprofit, leading writing workshops for community members living with brain injury. Her essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Barren MagazineUnder the Gum Treethe tiny journalWOW! Women on Writing, and elsewhere. Connect with Ann on Twitter and Instagram: @annkkelly

 

Screen Memory 2: “How Proud They Are of You”

BY: Allen M. Price

My father pulls into the parking lot of the Dragon Restaurant and leaves our 1971 tan Buick running while he goes in to pick up our Chinese dinner. The spiteful, cloudy night sky spits on the windshield. In the parking lot, there are only a few cars around and no other people. Bored, restless, sitting in the car alone, I look at the dashboard for a moment, then slide across the leather bench seat. Curiously, I place my small hand on the automatic gear shift on the steering wheel, playing with its movements.

Suddenly, the Buick starts to roll in reverse.

I release the gear stick. With my eyes darting around, I turn to see the car moving backward toward the streetlight. The faster the car speeds, the faster my little heart races. Tears drip from my wide-open eyes, but no sound comes from my mouth. Faster and faster the car rolls down the hill of the parking lot.

Boom! The car hits the streetlight.

The stench of fear permeates the inside of the car. Tears fly every which way. Snot runs down my chin. I shudder when I see my father come running, my heart banging against my rib cage, praying to God he don’t whip me.

But instead of anger, he opens up the passenger side door and asks, “You all right, son?” his voice trembling. He pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket, bends toward me, and wipes my tears and snot. He then hurries to check the back of the car and works to unwedge it from the streetlight. When he returns, his hands are bloody and black, and I cry even harder.

He picks me up and puts me on his lap.  

“It’s all right, son,” he says, clearing his throat as he speaks. He clears his throat even when he doesn’t speak, making me wonder if something’s wrong with him.

“You’re okay,” he says, and even chuckles a bit. “You remind me of me when I was young. Always getting into things, minding others’ business. It all right, son. You keep on keeping on. It’ll get you far in life. I stopped asking questions, wanting to know about things, how things work.

“My mother told me, when I was about eleven, she say, ‘School ain’t gonna help none. What you need is work. Get a trade—that’s the only way a black man get ahead in the white world.”

“My mother didn’t like having all us kids,” he continues. “She didn’t want no bother in helping us with school. Six boys, five girls. We all big and strong, but ain’t none of us got an education. Hell, if it weren’t your mother, I probly wouldn’t have graduated high school.

“I want you to become somethin’.”

He stretches his arm out to pull me close to him, making me jump, still afraid he is going to hit me for what I did.

“I ain’t never struck a living thing,” he says. “You ain’t gots to ever worry ’bout me hitting you. My mother beat us down when we got in trouble. My pa, too. He’d get the belt, tell me take my clothes off, take his thick black leather belt off, and whoop my ass good.

“I never got mad ’bout it, though. Bible say, honor thy father and mother.”

He pauses, then says, “I don’t know if I’m long for this world, but I sure is making sure I’m be ready for the next.”

He puts his large hand onto the gear shift and pulls the dented car out of the lot, the smell of the Chinese food filling the car as we drive down the dark streets. We pull into the dirt driveway of our house, and he turns off the engine. No longer sad and scared, I now feel sorry for him.

I don’t say a thing.

“I know you’re gonna do well, son,” he says, staring up at the dark, leafless trees in our backyard. I notice something in his eyes. A little water forms in them.

I can see that he is scared.

“With God’s help, you gonna make somethin’ of yourself, maybe be a star,” my father says, looking down at me. “And when you come back home, all the trees all around this house will stand up real tall to show you how proud they are of you.”


Allen M. Price is a writer from Rhode Island. Screen Memory 2 is part of the memoir he is writing and has spent time working on with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Harding. Excerpts also appear in The Fourth River (chosen by guest editor Ira Sukrungruang) and Jellyfish Review. He has an MA in journalism from Emerson College. His fiction and nonfiction work appears or is forthcoming in Sou’wester, Cosmonauts Avenue, Gertrude Press, Columbia Journal, The Adirondack Review, Tulane Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. His chapbook ‘The Unintended Consequences of Haitian Reparation’ appears in Hawai’i Review.

Into the Daylight

BY: Jackie Pick

I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me to go to the Women’s March. My rage doesn’t burn — and I think it’s supposed to. My story is a nesting doll of small indignities and capitulations, populated with tiny monsters that scatter in the daylight. I’ve packed away transgressions into a small, icy sepulcher in my memory. Marches seem like something other people do, people whose rage runs red hot, people who’ve survived more, worse, or bigger.

I grab the three pink pussy hats a friend of mine had knit and asked me to distribute in her absence, and I stuff them in a Ziploc bag. My ride to the train station arrives, and I jump in the car, my feet girded by the black Doc Martens that make me feel tough, before I can convince myself this is a bad idea.

***

I had a piece of plywood I wedged into the track of the cheap sliding glass doors of my ground-floor apartment. Most days, my second-floor neighbor sat in a folding beach chair on his small deck, listening to the country music station on the outsized stereo speakers he ran out from his apartment. He’d sit and watch people come and go from the parking lot. He flicked cigarettes and empty beer cans onto the ground near me as I went by.

He asked where I worked and what I did as I lugged my briefcase to and from the car. He asked what was for dinner when I carried groceries into the house. He asked why I had so many groceries. He asked if I was making dinner for my boyfriend. He asked if I had a boyfriend. He asked why I was so early or so late that day. He laughed when I reacted and he laughed when I didn’t react, a laugh that made my skin pull in tight.

I tried to vary my schedule, but he was always on his porch and always ready to probe and punctuate our encounters with a small rainstorm of Marlboros and Coors. He had done nothing other than toss things in my direction and laugh and ask questions.

It was worst at night if I came home after nine.

“Where’ve you been? On a date? You’re not usually out this late on a weeknight. You’re usually home by six.” I pulled out my phone and pretended to dial a number as I walked to my front door.

I was uncomfortable with him and uncomfortable with my discomfort. What was the problem, really? He probably was just messing with me. Maybe I was paranoid and humorless. Maybe he just needed me to be nicer. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so scared and just engaged him in conversation. Still, I kept the blinds drawn and the plywood lodged in the sliding door track.

“You’re not very friendly,” he said, an empty can whizzing past my head. “Bitch.”

I was 22.

***

The wooden benches in this train station hold only a handful of marchers this Saturday morning. Hopefully, this is not an omen—a small march will feel like surrender. I hope that all of us get over our collective election anxiety, fight the urge to cancel, and show up.

I didn’t bring a sign. I’ve carried a lot in the last few years and I don’t mean symbolically. Babies, bags, books. And burdens, I suppose. They all make my arms and body ache. These are my inane thoughts and I wish the tiny coffee shop in this tiny train station were open. I’m tired. That’s the burden of womanhood. We’re tired. We don’t get to rest much.

One bench over, two women discuss their strategic wardrobe choices based on the marching they had done forty years ago. Layers. Fanny packs. One of them quickly eyes my heavy boots as she wiggles her toes in her sneakers.

We board the train, carefully avoiding the corners of the homemade posters jutting out into the narrow aisle. The cars are reassuringly crowded and will overflow by the time we arrive in Chicago. The train is loud, but not uncomfortably so. It’s all chatter, overflowing and warm. Conversations bob and weave and skitter around like squirrels, avoiding direct mention of the purpose of what we’re doing today.


***

My first kiss occurred freshman year in high school, taken as payment for a ride home from an upperclassman. He was fast to lock the car doors and fast to scoot over. This transaction with its unwelcome probing tongue would forever be my first kiss.

Still, I thanked the boy for the ride because I needed him to unlock the car door.

I ran that story by the graduate school professor who’d assigned “Write about your first kiss.” His brow furrowed, and he suggested I try the other option, “Write about a milestone in your life.” I wrote about getting my first bra. During class, the professor dismissed my piece as “whimsical.” After class, he called me into his office, a small chilly space suffocated by ragged piles of books and towers of papers teetering on the edge of every surface. He recommended significant rewrites to the essay, especially for the men in the class who couldn’t relate to this topic. He made it clear, carefully, that if I didn’t want to change the piece, we could explore other options which perhaps I’d like him to explain, at, say, a coffee shop or his apartment. I defaulted to sassy and funny, deliberately hearing his words as a joke to give both of us a way out. I made every single change to the essay he recommended and skipped office hours for the rest of the term.

I was 24.

***

The willing, giggling, joyful squishing to make room for as many women as possible warms the train. There is laughter across the seats, across the aisle, grandmothers to daughters to grandchildren. So many of us have a strange expression on our faces, a weird concoction of joy smeared over unexpressed rage.


***

My daughter’s fat, beautiful curls tumble down her back. The whorls are magnets. More than once I’ve stepped in to keep people—almost always men—from touching them. Someone’s friendly grandpa, the bagger at the grocery store, a boy at school. When I become my daughter’s barricade, these men or boys or their mothers blink at me and tell me, oh so patiently, that they only had the best intentions, they meant nothing by it, she’s so pretty, what’s the big deal. I take on the full weight of another rejected man instead of it being heaped on my daughter.

These men, I’m told, are too old to change or too young to understand. As I don’t know the exact moment in time men can accept that any touching of my daughter is by invitation only, I err on the side of caution and roar it to all of them. Full-throated and incurious. I can rage under a maternal sigil.

My daughter brushes her hair furiously several times a day to straighten it. Without pointing it out to her, I have let my hair go naturally crazy curly-whirly. She seems unimpressed by my gesture of untamed sisterhood, especially when people reach out to touch my hair.

She is 6.

***

With every new passenger carrying bags, signs, or children, the train expands like something magical. There is room. We make space. There is only one man on the train, older, magnificent, confident. I catch myself mentally praising him for not taking up more space or air than anyone else. For being equal. 

***

My son clambered into our car after school, grousing he’s not “sportsy,” the word acrid in his mouth. Eventually, the details tumbled out. At recess, a boy had pegged my son with a rubber playground ball and said, “You’re out, you little bitch,” to a chorus of laughter from classmates. The boy delivered this burn in a sing-song; my son retold it in a monotone, his ears reddening as they likely had during the second inning of a kickball game everyone but he will soon forget.

Clumsy and sensitive to the narrow edges of his own competence, my son gets entangled in rules and his own feet. He keenly suffers the consequences of his missed plays and overwrought arguments with classmates about fairness and boundaries. He is aware down to the cellular level what they called him.

“Did you tell a teacher?” I asked, trying to keep my voice level.

“No.” His voice is ice.

He knows the system is rigged against the small, the different, and the bitches with their never-ending complaints. He’d done the sticks-and-stones calculations.

When we got home, he asked me not to say anything to anyone about it, then left the room to devour a dystopian book where disaffected teens in futuristic combat gear save an unjust, cruel world by breaking things apart in the light of day.

He is 10.

***

On the way to Grant Park, throngs of us stop at cafes to get coffee. There are long lines for the restrooms because some things never change, even in a cultural movement. Three women behind me in line voice regret that they don’t know how to knit because they want hats. I give them the ones I’ve been carrying. We take a picture to send to my knitting friend. We put away our phones, grab our coffees and shout, “To the March!” Everyone in this cafe whoops in giddy response, even whoever is in the tiny bathroom probably cracking her elbows in the walls like I did when I tried to move around in there.

***

It was always in cramped arenas: supply closets, front seats, offices, folds of theater curtains, and classrooms. Too many men cornered me and sloppily mashed their unwelcome lips on mine, taking the no from my mouth, their fingers clamping in my hair to adjust my face to angles that worked better for them. Taking my shock as a yes. Taking my hands on their shoulders as drawing in rather than pushing them away. Taking my fear as permission. Taking my being alone as an invitation. Taking my youth as the reason they couldn’t control themselves. Taking the risk. Taking for granted we do the calculations.

They took as much as they dared, as much as they thought I owed them for the prize of their attention. I’d won, they’d imply. I’d won their affection, their attention, their heart, their inability to control themselves. My prizes were self-imposed silence and avoidance if I wished to continue.

After all these years, they run together, these men, their faces, their hands. Old, young, angular, jowled, all somehow cloyingly tentative under their brazenness. They ask as they grab as though asking matters.

I distracted myself with doing near-perfect work, because maybe if I were perfect (or nearly so), the success would be all mine, entirely divorced from sloppy lips and sausage fingers. Perfection meant my job would be safe.

Probably.

I was 25. I was 40. I was 32. I was 14.

I was paying my dues.

***

Hundreds of thousands of us make our way to Grant Park. My feet ache. This one is my own damned fault, unlike the time when a radiologist told me that “maybe if you ladies stopped wearing high heels you wouldn’t get neuromas.” I needed to go through him to get approved for foot surgery, so I didn’t tell him that my neuroma was a pregnancy complication. I don’t think he’d really care anyway.

***

We pack the park and spill over. We overflow. Several thousand of us wave to the news helicopters flying overhead.

Everyone is telling her story to one another or in small groups or on a platform into a microphone. Stories of opportunity, access, health care, poverty, child care, racism, prejudice, freedom, rights, advocacy, representation, and reform.

Stories from women who’ve been sharing their stories for years and generations and not enough of us have been listening.

Stories so mighty that they refuse to curve gently around anyone else’s discomfort.

Women’s stories.

I catch some of the quieter stories murmured in the crowd. These stories, like mine, are populated with little monsters that hide in small spaces and don’t always scatter in the daylight. These monsters didn’t appear in 2016; they’ve lived for ages. We’ve only now stopped locking them away out of fear they are hysterical, ugly, or loud.

They are our stories.

We are timeless.

 


 

Jackie Pick is a former teacher and current writer living in the Chicago area. She is a contributing author to several anthologies, including Multiples IlluminatedNevertheless We PersistedSo Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About MotherhoodHere in the Middle, as well as the literary magazines The Sun and Selfish. Her essays have won commendations from the Mark Twain House and Museum Royal Nonesuch Humor Writing Competition and the WOW! Women on Writing Nonfiction Essay Contest. Jackie is a contributor at Humor Outcasts, and her work has been featured on various online sites including MamalodeThe HerStories Project, and Scary Mommy. A graduate of the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, Jackie co-created and co-wrote the award-winning short film Fixed Up, and was a member of the 2017 Chicago cast of Listen To Your Mother. She can be found on Twitter: @jackiepick or her website, jackiepickauthor.com.

 

I’ve Got Dreams He’ll Never Take Away; or, I Know My Childhood Molester Is Reading This. He Has Read Everything I’ve Ever Written. He’s Always Looking For His Name: It Starts with a B

BY: C. Russell Price

I collect holy books
and burn them
in the backyard
roll in what’s left
until I am a painted god.
This is not my normal
narcissism. This is what I look like
when I’m trying to save myself.

-Kayleb Rae Candrilli

What you are about to read are not anecdotes to warrant pity or sympathy—this is what comes from sharing your trauma. You do not know, no matter how well you know the recipient, how they will react. The first time I told my hardest truth, I was nineteen, sitting beside my then boyfriend at a university drama production that incorporated Postcard Secrets sent in by the student body. The curve of my S is distinct, and my M’s are godawful. The card hit the screen: I don’t know if I’m gay because I’m gay or because I was molested. He dumped me that night.

When my mental illness came around full force eleven years later, my coworkers treated me like a leper. You can’t catch bipolar, Brenda from Accounting. The distance these folks put between us after I shared an uncomfortable intimacy made me hesitant toward any form of closeness with anyone. I shut down—I checked out. I brought home random men from bars because they were not worthy of me or my body’s history. I save the scars for someone I want to see me in my full post-pre-in-process train wreck self.

When writing about trauma, I’m constantly redefining intimacy. I have no problem speaking about my molestation or the damage inflicted upon my grown body by a physically abusive partner, or my body’s eventual betrayal: I have trouble saying that I am worthy of another’s affection no matter how wounded I am. I am. I am. I am. I am. There is no avoidance of what we bring to our work, whether it be metaphorical repression or outright confession. What will come of your sharing will come. In knowing yourself, you will know those others, those clingers, those who love you, but not with “all that” coloring your life. Once something is said, it cannot be taken back. I have a nasty fucking habit of screaming.

The intimacy and exactitude of writing is like no other: I’ve said what I mean to say—any ambiguity is of the reader’s volition. I am expressing perfectly clearly how this all feels, all this… this. I will never stop writing about this because I will always be grieving.

Consider what follows your only advice from me: writing about trauma without an outlet of activism or rebellion is wallowing—it is licking the throat of emotional waste or physical suicide. I am still here because there were things done to me that I cannot undo, but rather rectify. If this sounds like a call to arms, sister, it is. Suffering in silence or acting as an unspeaking witness aids only our oppressors and abusers. You can try your damndest to forget, but the body never erases an eternal wound.  I am exhausted by the myth of survival being about breathing and good therapy—my survival is messy and controlled by capitalism. I break dishes in my alleyway because the copay is exorbitant. I drink, I smoke, I know what the fuck I’m doing. Fuck your matcha, fuck your yoga, fuck forgiveness. Kill your local rapist.

The Apocalypse is the one time in which my defects are acceptable: a point in which we’re all struggling (collectively) feels almost blissful. If everyone’s losing their goddamn shit, girl, you look pretty mellow in comparison. The inevitability of Armageddon chills me out. My writing and my life are haunted by what awaits me—a genetic predisposition for chaos, a little revolt lurking for me just around the bend, the tick-tock of my body saying: little fool, you cannot stop me. Your comfort is not my concern.

What will come will come no matter how much good karma I harvest. That is the real fuckery of trauma. It is always looming, floating, ready to snap in the most unlikely circumstance: the way a hand grazes, a peculiar pronunciation, a strain of Old Spice, the food dead-eyeing you in front of a lover who cooked it just for you.

My molestation stopped when I discovered binge eating. I would eat shredded cheese by the pound—the fatter I made myself, the less touching happened. No one noticed I wanted to be wallpaper so I wouldn’t be asked a goddamn question. No one cared, not even me, until I realized that my whole body became covered in stretch marks from such a forced metamorphosis. You cannot say a family member is molesting you if you’re chipmunked with meatloaf. The number of men I’ve loved who’ve seen me fully naked or with whom I’ve shared a meal I can count on one hand. I will not feel sorry for wrecking something to ensure self-survival. I will leave the second I feel a threat or the hint of pain. I carry a pocket knife at all times and I’m not wary of arson. When a stranger is groping me while I’m fist fucking him for my sexual reclamation, if he gets a peek of my pink rivers and is *so compelled* to ask about the all-over scars, I say bear attack, I say house fire, I say this is what I look like now for saving myself then.  

Somedays I glow with all this hurt. It is not victimhood vibrating—it is my god, a refraction of what a privilege it is to have made it this long semi-unscathed.

Surviving is not a pissing contest. It is a flash mob, a surprise proposal in the middle of a busy Lowe’s every time your personal history doesn’t take you out. I will carry this forever, a chorus behind everything I create.

I feel no shame in the ways I have found liberation: sex work, body modification, falling foolishly for man after man after man, experimentation with drugs, having the hard conversations with people I love—if they love you, nothing is a hard conversation. By now you will know what staying around means, the hey-you-ok? care they take, the hand hold while you sob, triggered, in a poetry reading. The look you’ll learn to look for.  

Do not get it twisted though and forget that the effects of your trauma are particularly codependent on surviving under a capitalist white heteropatriarchy: your lot in life aids or abates your chance of survival. Acting otherwise is negligent to the particular suffering that happens to the most marginalized identities. You can afford therapy? You can afford your meds? Good the fuck for you. I can’t.

I am saying this publicly for the first time: my molester pays my rent rather than facing a life sentence because I don’t make a living wage. Call it an agreement. Call it radical vengeance. Whatever. It is not explicit, but the extradition, the prosecution, the hassle of it all keeps him paying, keeps me from just letting his wife receive an hour-long recording of him confessing. I want him sobbing I’m sorry (out of fear rather than atonement) as my ringtone. I want the phone to ring all fucking day.  He has a family now, a lovely car, a lovely wife with a lovely wealthy family, in a lovely Atlanta suburb. I take a Xanax if I even think I am going to be touched. Sometimes the taste of salt sends me spiraling back to being told open up, go ahead, everyone’s doing itthey just aren’t telling you.

What shame wants is darkness, so bring out the fucking spotlight. I want the dream ballet despite the murder. I want a musical reprieve for my body. My blunt history about all this has made me a lonely person, that’s fucking all. Either take it at damage discount or move along; I am not writing for your voyeurism. I am writing my own salvation. All of this is not an erasure, but an overwrite, a yes AND you didn’t give up. We love trauma when it is fiction or distant or buried in an episode produced by Dick Wolf. We love the act of witnessing, but only at arm’s length.

Reader, there is in you a rattling of self-imposed repression. You, who will not know what happened to you because you have since thought of that moment as a film dissolve. I’m sorry for what you’ve been made to forget in order to survive. But you cannot ignore the echo once it starts. And your not writing about your trauma is a way in which your abuser continues abusing you. Your silence protects them.

When the world turns on you—because someone came into the scene with ill intentions, because a friend or lover or could-be lover takes you for granted, because when you wake up you know you’ve been sleep talking, and you have said something unconsciously that has always been there—you have to get back to the fucking work. You sit your gorgeous, fat ass down at that desk and you deathgrip your favorite blue pen. You write because someone out there is howling just like you. Imagine it: our shared harmony, our miraculous kinship, rooted in such brutal discord.  


C. Russell Price is a genderqueer Appalachian punk writer originally from Virginia but now lives in Chicago. They are a Lambda Fellow in Poetry, Ragdale Fellow, Windy City Times 30 Under 30 honoree, essayist, and poet. Their chapbook Tonight, We Fuck the Trailer Park Out of Each Other was released by Sibling Rivalry Press. Their full-length poetry collection oh, you thought this was a date?!: APOCALYPSE POEMS explores sexual assault survivorship and queer liberation. They are currently at work on a collection of essays, Everyone’s Doing It; They Just Aren’t Telling You.

How to Dissolve Cat Feces

BY: Mindela Ruby

It’s midnight and I’m googling the word Squacquerone. I saw it in a pizza review earlier today. The surplusage of vowels and consonants caught my fancy.

Often, before turning in, I scoot between home office and TV nook, browsing the web, chuckling at comedy, breaking the Rule of Insomnia Club about No Device Light At Night.

Just one quick search. Or two. Then bed. No worries. I have limits.

WeAreItaly.com identifies Squacquerone as curd cheese, cottage cheese, basically. With Italian phonics on overdrive for a name. Connection to minestrone? Calzone? I wonder.

Cheese curds on pizza might be a good thing, but lately I am begging off dining establishments, even casual eateries. The better half and I have been subsisting on less than half our average income for over a year, ever since his major consulting contract fell through.

In retrospect, I see now how my long obsession with esoteric foods was elitist, even wasteful. The idea of gastronomic indulgence suddenly stings like a strong injection.

The current mainstays are beans and rice, homey and frugal, if not thrilling.

Desk lamp light knifes my cheek. Spendthrifts among our social circle don’t think twice about their multiple costly pastimes—chef-y eateries, stage plays, art collections, home remodeling, exotic voyages, while I, relegated to bargain-counter culture, try googling “free events bay area.” Eureka! Philosophic talks at Claremont Library. Oakland Museum’s $5 Fridays. The university’s free noon concerts at Hertz Hall.

Anne Lamott once called life a “not ideal system,” sweet and desperate at the same time. My iMac cursor winks, tempting me to scour the net for other nectar out there.

But the blue light being absorbed by my eyes could be kindling a chain of negative biologic reactions: Short blue light waves, deficient delta brainwave production, impeded pineal gland function, reduced melatonin supply, incapacitated sleep, depressed mood. I read online about this domino effect another night.

Downstairs, my husband noisily cranks open the deck door, to let Wallace, our Maine coon cat, in for the night. The latch clunks. The thud of the shutting door jolts the ninety-five-year-old house. I take the tremor in the beams as a cue. The hour is late. Enough computer and cable TV.

The bed linens, from different sets, don’t match, the odd sheets and pillowcases that haven’t yet ripped beyond thread and needle repair. Their worn softness invites my legs to unbend.

For those who struggle to fall or stay asleep, a sleep hygiene practice has benefits. I follow the guidelines religiously. No caffeine after noon. Cool, quiet bedroom. Keep regular sleep/wake hours. Alcohol intake at a minimum.

The iPad, however, I can’t quit. It comes to bed at my peril, navigating so lithely that I willfully disregard the toxic pep of its diode-emitted light.

Almost immediately a sonorous rumble rises from our older son’s former bedroom below. Between periodic wakings and shufflings to the toilet, my husband snores down there without compunction. In our bed-sharing days, I’d shove his shoulder to get him to stop snoring. These days his own apnea snorts awaken him. The mister’s aging adenoids and bladder are not conducive to my sleep—or his.

We’d bicker, sharing the master bedroom. My spouse and I have quantified the cost of old age differently. Fear of destitution in our waning years drives me to frenzied nagging about his dwindling income years shy of full Social Security eligibility.

More unnerving than the Spartan budget is witnessing my mate’s fire extinguish. He appears to have lost the determination to live his best life. I think it too soon to be put out to pasture. He’s always enjoyed the latitude to pursue his ambition as he sees fit, and to give up prematurely seems unfair, to both of us. How much better it would be to end his professional career strong. To ramp up his self-esteem. Maybe sell his business, like he has fantasized, and score a small but useful nest egg.

His lack of drive irks me and hampers my compliance with the dictum Never go to bed angry. Spooked by the possibility of an unfunded future, I feel sour and can’t issue a fake goodnight, let alone an honest one.

Life has a way of kicking you, too, when you’re down. A string of physical debilitations has tripped me up and siphoned precious money; a nasty urine infection’s the latest. Peeing, I think we can all agree, should not induce tortured shrieks.

My doctor prescribed Cipro, a household-name antibiotic since the post-9/11 paranoia about Anthrax attacks. The pharmacy bagged my vial of pills with ten photocopied pages of black box product warnings. Among the less common side effects of taking this drug is spontaneous rupture of Achilles tendons.

Each tendon is dear to me, especially Achilles, the only one whose name I know. My one reliable pleasure is trail walking with friends, healthy and cost-free. Since the first swallowed Cipro tablet, I’ve walked on eggshells, scared of losing the option of these hikes. Random twitches in any ligament send my blood pressure spiking. I sit up against the pillows. On the prowl for counterevidence, I google “Cipro side effects.”

A practical rule for keeping calm, especially at night, is Don’t Read User Comments on a Medical Website. These contributions are anecdotal. Never data based. For all we know, every detail on such sites is fictitious. Nevertheless, fired by stupidity, I click WebMD.

“This drug nearly destroyed my life and continues to haunt me daily,” goes one of the User Reviews. “I almost went blind from it and now can no longer eat gluten.”

It isn’t hard to dismiss the long shot of blindness. But gluten intolerance? That would be catastrophic. Whole grain carbs are the staples of our household nurture, a holdover from the diet-for-a-small-planet fad.

I’ve already suffered, because of tooth pain, a months-long privation of my favorite gluten, crunchy toast. Oatmeal and yogurt demand minimal chewing, but with these substitute choices, mornings suck.

The tooth trouble is more fallout of our economic duress. As another cost cutting measure, my husband subscribed to cut-rate Medicare supplemental vision and dental coverage. “Teeth cleaning only $10!” he crowed. His mission to spend less across the board makes sense in a Calvinistic or environmental way. Inevitably, though, downsides rear their ugly heads.

Frankly, it’s mystifying that the scholar I first met during our respective doctoral programs at Berkeley isn’t fazed in these later years by the derisive Yelp reviews of his new Delta Care dentist, whose handiwork customers refer to as incompetent and shoddy. Every dentist on our budget plan, in fact, gets low ratings from ex-patients who warn newbies to seek treatment elsewhere or purchase different insurance.

One night last year, this stranger-called-my-husband sponged the kitchen counter as we discussed dentistry options. “Those Yelp comments aren’t based on actual treatment people received from her,” he said, squeezing the sponge out at the sink. “Patients are biased against her Iranian accent.”

“According to who?”

“Her.” He dried his hands. “She does have a curt, academic manner. But I like it.”

I could not get past the red flags. Even after Dr. Yazdad satisfactorily installed a dental crown in my husband’s mouth, I postponed my own appointment.

Eventually my teeth grew mossy, my gums inflamed. Still, it didn’t feel right, given our cramped cash flow, to shell out $160 for a hygienist visit. Thus, I reluctantly submitted to a $10 cleaning with Dr. Yazdad…and survived.

Seven months later, I returned for repeat and rinse. At the second appointment the dentist noted that tooth 31 in my mouth, a molar causing no pain, was dangerously cracked. “You could be teaching a class,” she said in a thick-tongued accent, “or eating at a restaurant. Maybe your tooth breaks. No warning. Could be uncomfortable.”

I considered telling her I don’t eat at restaurants but kept mum. Maybe fatigue made me vulnerable to her melodramatic scare tactics and hard sell. I signed on the dotted line: $985 for a porcelain crown.

Over the subsequent weeks, Dr. Yazdad botched two attempts to install a crown. The first crown didn’t fit because, she admitted, her mold was faulty. The replacement crown, which she defiantly pronounced pear-fetly-made, felt more wrong. For weeks I couldn’t bite down on that side of my mouth without pain. Contact with simple room-temperature water spawned excruciation. In my opinion, Yazdad’s careless zeal to avoid the cost and embarrassment of another misfit crown caused her, on the second try, to damage the base of my tooth with over-aggressive drilling.

The ordeal that ensued required a dozen office visits. Every time the crown came unglued and fell out of my mouth, a huffy and defensive dentist awaited me. To take the cake, seeing as how I’d fallen for it once before, she tried the charade again.

“This pain in 31 you speak of…You are confused.” She pronounced “pain” like “pen.” “My crown is good. It’s the other tooth that hurts you.” At my request, she applied permanent glue to promote better settling. She squinted after thrusting the crown into my mouth. “You fix the next door tooth. Then, no problem with pain.”

I ignored this, scheming to escape the trap of her malpractice and ineptitude. My problem with “pen” persisted. An out-of-system, out-of-pocket dentist hired for a consultation hypothesized that the nerve might be getting irritated by the banging of my slightly uneven bite. He smoothed down the high spots on 31 and sent me off.

His fix failed. The best option, ultimately, was a root canal. I asked the endodontist about the crack in the adjacent tooth 30. His high resolution x-rays showed no deleterious crack there, nor in 31. I’d saved $300 on two cleanings but was forced to pay $1,900 in damage control.

Before long, more bad juju struck: Wallace vomited on my husband’s laptop keyboard: $350 repair. Skimming thousands from our retirement fund to cover untoward expenses left me drained and shaken, like the victim of an uncontrolled bleed.

To this day, my teeth continue to need attention. Have I faith that any reputable dentist miraculously joined the Delta Care provider team? No. I pull up the company’s homepage on the iPad anyway and let my eyes run down the list of dental practices. Already juggling Enterococcus, involuntary thrift, Ciprofloxacin risks, and my usual migraines, another quandary is more than I can bear.

So I swipe the iPad off. Despite the substantial exposure to display light that I’ve had, one miracle happens: as the nightstand lamp goes dark, slumber whisks me away.

Eager for a revival of toast love, come morning I cycle thin-sliced Vital Vittles’ Russian Rye three times through setting number 5 on the toaster. The crisp slices get slathered with almond butter. My mug of tea sits steaming on the dining table. This long-awaited meal is predicated on the assumption that tooth 31 is healed well enough to eat my favorite breakfast with fearless abandon again.

The crust splits under pressure from my incisors. My tongue repositions the sharp edges to allow my molars to grind the lump of seared bread to a paste. There’s no pain, maybe because I’m chomping hesitantly.

My taste buds gleefully register the flavors of grain, earth, citrus, carbon, and bruléed sugar. As I swallow, my husband blunk blunks up the stairs from his basement office. He carries Wallace in his hands and drops her like a bowl of black feathers onto the chair beside me.

“You entertain her,” he says.

I wash down gritty toast residue with tea. My husband retreats to the basement to, I hope, dig us out of our fiscal hole.

Wallace’s little feet wobble on the seat cushion. Her facial expression looks if not offended then at least unconvinced about this chair and this room, neither of which she chose for her morning nap.

Preoccupied with my meal, I dip the ragged crust edge into tea. Small pleasures mean everything these days.

Wallace manically licks the base of her tail.

When my lips close around my third mouthful, there’s a faint sound, a tumbled chink on the wood floor, something tiny falling down. Wallace, with a feline’s refined hearing and reflexes, jumps off the chair, pounces to the landing spot, sniffs at the fallen object, gets it in her mouth, and elaborately jaws the toast crumb.

“Good girl,” I murmur. “Kitty floor vacuum.”

The dropped morsel is gone. Wallace sits on her haunches and purrs. Taking a deep breath and lifting my mug luxuriantly, I notice something off about my wedding ring. I put down the mug and examine a small dark spot on the gold.

Where one of my wedding band’s very small round pavé diamonds should be, a hole stares back. With a start I realize what happened. That faint sound of something hitting the floor was the diamond.

“Fuck!” I yell. “Fuck!” I stomp my foot. Wallace gallops, startled, into the living room, claws scrabbling and clicking on the wood floor. I drop to my hands and knees and search around the table leg. All I find is the small wet spot where her mouth made contact. “Fuck!”

Blunk blunk blunk ascends my husband. “What happened?” he calls.

“Why couldn’t you leave the cat downstairs?”

“Why are you on the floor?”

I tell him.

“Wallace wouldn’t eat a diamond.”

“I saw her!”

He scratches his cheek, not wanting to get sucked into this melodrama.

I wail, illogically, “I can’t even enjoy my first toast in ages without my ring getting ruined!”

“Let me see.” My husband sinks to his knees and grabs my hand as if my testimony can’t be relied upon. The hole, though small, is a glaring imperfection. Once before, a diamond disappeared from the same area of this ring. It’s possible the replacement gem has now been lost. The cost to acquire and reset a stone was $200 ten years ago. Present prices could be steeper, exactly when money is tighter. Another hurdle.

My husband pops up, slips to the kitchen and returns with the dust pan, broom, and long flashlight. He hands me the flashlight and sweeps under the table. “Shine the light so we can see what’s down here.”

“I told you she ate it!” I stand and switch on the light anyway. Oh, the futility.

“Just in case,” he mutters, holding the dustpan under the beam of light. Dust, generic flecks of matter, a shard of napkin, cat fur, human hair illuminated in sharp relief. No diamond.

I set down the flashlight, wrest the ring off my knuckle, and place it on the table. “I won’t wear it like this. Makes me feel pathetic. Along with everything else that’s going on.” Tears fill my eyes.

“Don’t worry. Wallace will shit it out, and I’ll retrieve it.”

“That’s disgusting. Plus you’ll never find such a small thing. If only you didn’t bring her upstairs.”

“She was distracting me from prepping for an important call.” Determination on his lips, my husband retreats downstairs.

I stare at the toast. The glistening almond butter smells acrid. Many “important calls” have led nowhere. Optimism’s in short supply. In my peripheral vision I see Wallace glare distrustfully. It’s true my husband and I have roofs over our heads and food in the cupboard, as do our adult children, and we should appreciate these blessings and not get bent out of shape over privileged troubles. But contentment’s at a premium. We’ve become people of limited means, making trade-offs all the time, demeaned and tight.

I pick up the half-eaten slice of toast that thrilled me minutes ago. My appetite’s faded; I drop the food. In short order my husband blunk blunks back. I can’t look at him when he enters.

“I searched e-how for recovering a jewel from pet excrement,” he said.

“Are you kidding?” I say.

“I couldn’t find instructions, but I came up with an idea on my own.”

“I don’t want to hear.”

“The next two or three times Wallace poops in her box, I’ll scoop the turds into a jar, add hot water and let them dissolve. I’ll strain the liquid, and there will be your diamond.”

“Do you realize how sad that sounds?”

“It’ll clean up. That’s what matters.”

No matter how gross or outlandish the mandatory efforts, my stubborn husband must execute his plan. More than saving the replacement cost of an almost microscopic diamond, he wants to prove he’s right. I pick up my tea but leave the toast, ring, husband, and pet behind.

Maybe black cats truly are bad luck. As I climb upstairs, my husband blunks the other direction to his basement phone call.

I drop into my office desk chair and automatically lay fingers on my wireless keyboard. The computer I booted up and signed onto straight out of bed hums companionably, but, uncharacteristically, I don’t feel like typing a thing. I feel caged and don’t see the point. My income as an adjunct professor is a pittance by Bay Area standards. A rush of self-pity makes me dizzy.

An old friend recently commented, “Your problem is, you have rich friends.”

She’s right, though not the way she thinks. I’m not vying to keep up with the landed class. I wish our acquaintances were more willing to function at our level, be more creative and open about time spent together. Life is more than orchestra-level tickets and fusion bistros.

Our change of fortune dredges from my subconscious a lifelong fear of being at risk. In recurring dreams, I am scared to wit’s end by the destruction of the house I live in. In some nightmares, a monster ocean wave bashes my house to smithereens; I lose all grounding. Or the walls of where I live spontaneously bow and gape apart, poor upkeep and treacherous chance to blame. Windows pop out of frames, leaving me coldly wind-whipped and unprotected.

Straining cat shit raises the specter of destitution and vulnerability that I’ve grappled with, at least symbolically, my whole life. What I crave isn’t luxury. It’s security.

My keyboard rests on a funky wood shelf my husband fashioned and custom-fitted to my 1940s metal desk. Along its painted edge I notice a pebble, a chunk of gray the size of a pin-head. About to pinch it with my fingertips to deposit into the trash can, I tilt my head and see light glittering colorfully off the pebble. It’s the diamond, a faceted wonder of miniaturization barely visible to the eye.

Wallace ate a toast crumb after all. I wrap the impossibly small treasure into a tissue and carry it down two flights.

My husband’s desk is an old 1920s work bench left intact when we moved in many years ago. The mood between us remains standoffish. “Behold.” I unwrap the tissue. The diamond looks like a balled gnat at the bottom. “So tiny.”

“Where was it?”

“On the narrow space next to my keyboard. It could easily have fallen off and been ground into the carpet, and me none the wiser.”

It’s 8:40 a.m. We exchange exhausted looks.

Spared. For now. In this minuscule way. His mobile phone sounds its marimba ringtone. Maybe this prospect of his will be the one that bites.

***

The jeweler hands me the monocular eye loupe. In my avoidance of expense, it’s taken five months to bring my wedding ring in for repair.

“Move the lens up against your eye,” the jeweler instructs, “then bring the ring up to it.”

I squint at the complex engineering of gold and pavé diamond in the viewing field, intricate workmanship unseen by the naked eye. My ring under magnification looks garish and busy, not the elegant concept I’ve worn on my finger for decades. There’s no missing the hole that under the scope looks as gaping as it has felt in my gut.

She says, “See how the prongs alongside the hole are snapped off? Compare them to the intact prongs at the other diamonds. The things that look like little claws. Also notice the scuff marks. Your ring must have scraped against a rock.”

“Uh huh,” I say, trying to recall what hiking excursion marred this one piece of finery I have to my name.

“If struck on a hard surface, even accidently, prongs can loosen and eventually snap off and release a diamond,” the jeweler says.

I hand the loupe back. “Amazing I found it.”

Behind the counter, she smiles politely but clearly does not consider my feat noteworthy. Like when I conference with college students and explain their pronoun agreement errors: they are astounded to understand something routine and mundane to me, the technique of inserting a plural pronoun to agree grammatically with their plural antecedents.

I hand the ring to the jeweler, who fumbles and drops it on the glass counter. The bauble clacks conspicuously. We both cringe and pretend that didn’t happen to my keepsake, bought thirty-three years ago on Fifth Avenue when I was in New York for an M.L.A. conference. The jeweler takes out her order pad with carbon-duplicate pages and scribbles the job’s parameters.

I’ve been wearing a substitute ring of inexpensive pale jade my mother picked up at a tourist stand in China. The placeholder wedding band has advantages. Smooth jade doesn’t catch on sweaters and delicate scarves like my prong-y gold band does. Nor do I worry about the cheap ring getting damaged, lost, or stolen. But I don’t feel legitimate when I wear the shlocky stand-in wedding ring.

“Sometimes,” the jeweler says, perhaps concluding from my face that cheering up is in order, “customers come in with diamonds they happen to find in their houses. It turns out the diamonds don’t fit the carried-in rings and brooches. They’re the wrong diamonds! Funny, huh?”

We both laugh, though her humor irks me. How can there be so many lost gems lying on people’s floors? It’s preposterous. My only diamonds are the specks in my wedding ring, the nineteen arranged micro gems and the one in a plastic baggy, together totaling 0.3 carats in weight. The single minute dislodged stone will cost at least $100 to be professionally reset.

We complete the paperwork. I leave the shop, happy to be fixing my ring at last, happy to be walking. Four months ago, my husband dropped a heavy library book on my bare foot. Written by an author we saw on Real Time With Bill Maher, Democracy In Chains aimed its sharp book corner squarely down on my metatarsals and left me with a contusion that prohibited me from walking for weeks. Although the bruise disappeared, pain from the injury flares up now and then and threatens: the freedom to walk can disappear at any second.

Far and away more destructive than this injury is my anger about letting myself become financially dependent on a man. A long time ago, I made a calculation that over the long haul hasn’t added up. It’s not my husband’s foundering consulting career that’s failed me. I failed myself by not seizing the promise of feminism or the power of self-reliance. This regret is a slow-release poison that I keep on the QT.

My friend, a divorced attorney, waits on the sidewalk, half a block up Solano Avenue. I break into a jog, anticipating the coming distraction, knowing I’m about to hear the latest secrets about her unrequited devotion to a married man.

The January sky is the celebrated hue of energy’s power to destroy: natural blue wavelengths can cause macular degeneration—damage to the retina—and literally lead to blindness. It’s another secret about our crippling world that I read about, one unsettled midnight, not long ago.


Mindela Ruby holds a PhD in English from University of California. Her recent writing appears in Marathon Literary Review, WomenArts Quarterly, Rivet: the Journal of Writing That Risks, and the anthology Unmasked. Her poetry has been Pushcart and Best of the Net nominated. A former punk rock DJ, she has published the novel Mosh It Up (2014). She is the Creative Nonfiction Editor of Ragazine.

Fairy Godmother

BY: Amy Eaton

Phoebe drives a 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with a black hard top. Two door. Her dad owns a body shop and he’s custom painted the car for her the same shade of rusty orange as her fake suede coat. When Phoebe started coming around, my aunt was living with us. My mom had been hospitalized for a serious lupus flare, and my aunt stayed on for a little while. She saw the orange car pull up in front of the house, watched Phoebe get out of the car, then rolled her eyes, muttering “Jesus Christ. Even her car matches her coat.” My aunt returned home to New Hampshire soon after Phoebe’s coming around became a regular thing.

When I get in the car I have to squish myself around the passenger seat to get in the back. I never sit by the window, but situate myself on the hump in the middle instead. I lean forward, shoulders braced on the back of both the driver’s and the passenger’s seat, my head jutting in between Phoebe and Mom.

I listen to their conversation, which is almost always boring, about people at The Bank where they work, or about Phoebe’s family. They never talk about our family, just hers. Everything is about her. I listen to the conversation like it’s a tennis match, eyes to Phoebe when she speaks, back to Mom when she speaks. Mom cracks jokes and Phoebe twitters, smacking Mom playfully on the thigh while she drives and rolling her big eyes charmingly. I’m just as funny as Mom and I try to interject sometimes, to join in, but it almost always falls flat and I’m back to being the third wheel, awkward and burdensome.

“She’s really beautiful,” Mom tells me later when we’re home alone, “like Mia Farrow.” I don’t know who that is, but Phoebe has large blue eyes and her nose and chin make her look a little like an elf. Mom thinks Phoebe’s clothes are elegant: A-line skirts, blazers, pantsuits, flowy patterned scarves tied fancily around her neck—everything in oranges and golds and shades of brown. She changes her hair a lot: pages, bobs, pixies, shags, dyes it blond, brown, a different blond, with makeup to accentuate this month’s look. Phoebe is elegant and classy, Mom says. I figure Mia Farrow must be one of those old movie stars that is really boring.

They are a lesbian couple, Mom explains. Or, she says, other people might call them dykes or lezzies or lesbos or lezzes or lesbian lovers. Mom tells me she’s in love with Phoebe, and while this is fine, I shouldn’t tell anyone. Not my friends or teachers, not Dad or his family. They wouldn’t understand. Dad’s parents would take Mom to court, deem her an unfit mother, and take me away to live with them in New Hampshire, and I wouldn’t be able to live with her anymore. I might not even be able to see her. So, I don’t tell anyone.

It is 1974. The words “faggot” and “lez” are tossed around as jokes and insults frequently. I freeze inside every time I hear these words, wanting to fade into my surroundings, become invisible, praying that no one can see my terrified expression beneath the mask I constantly wear thinking it will protect me from having my life turned upside down.

My babysitter, a heavy Irish Catholic woman with a red bouffant, pink lipstick, and a bad tooth, raises an eyebrow at me when I’m sitting on her front porch with my nose in a book instead of playing Red Rover with the rest of the kids in the vacant lot next to her house.

“Your mom and Phoebe,” she says while she waters the hanging plants on the porch. “They’re just really good friends, right?” I am a horrible liar, but I have no choice.


“Yes,” I say, looking intently at my book, “really good friends.”

She snaps her gum, cocks her head, and looks at me piercingly while she crosses the porch. I move my feet off the railing so she can water the spider plant in front of me. “Uh- huh,” she smirks slightly. “Really, really good friends.”

***

Before Phoebe, it was just me and Mom. Before Phoebe, there were occasional boyfriends and other single mom friends with kids my age, who were my dearest, bestest friends. Before Phoebe, my dad could come over to the house and hang out—even spend the night once in a while, not just pick me up or drop me off. Before Phoebe, Mom sang along off-key to Helen Reddy’s “You and Me Against the World” while vacuuming the living room. Before Phoebe, there was a relaxed hippie lovefest feel to our home that I adored—discussion rather than rules, open doors, a beanbag and butterfly chair in the living room, a blasé attitude about nudity. But then Phoebe visits Mom in the hospital when she’s sick with lupus and starts coming around our house when Mom gets out. We see friends less and less because all of Mom’s spare time is spent with Phoebe.

Phoebe is jealous. She shows up frazzled at the door, arguing while Mom tries to calm her down after the landlady, who is also a friend, has come by to visit, and I hear Phoebe upset, saying, “I wonder—what did she say to you? What were you wearing when you answered the door? Were you dressed? Is she in love with you?” I hate shutting the door to my room, but when she gets like this, I do. It’s exhausting to listen to. Even though my parents haven’t been together since I was two, Phoebe insists they legally divorce, which neither of them really have the money for. She does not want my father allowed in the house, not even on the porch when he comes to pick me up or drop me off when he has me for the weekend. Phoebe chips away at the life we had before until it’s just her and Mom and me. I walk in to Mom’s room without knocking one evening to ask a question and I’m reprimanded sharply with, “Maybe you don’t care if the entire world sees you naked, but Phoebe does!” I suddenly feel ashamed for something I’m bewildered by and walk back to my room without getting my question answered.

After Phoebe, it’s really just her and Mom. I don’t fit in anywhere.

***

Halfway through third grade, we move in with Phoebe. “The apartment’s very modern!” Mom tells me, trying to get me excited for the move, never mind that I’m a huge fan of Little House on the Prairie and all things old. It turns out that Webster Court is newer than our old house, but really, it’s just a fairly shitty housing development on the other side of town.

I change schools. I know no one. I have always been a loner, but I have never been this lonely. The kids at Webster Court and at school seem tough and they scare me. Everything scares me. Our apartment is on the second floor near the alley. The buildings, cookie cutter four-unit boxes, form a cul-du-sac that butts up to the the Susquehanna River. Terri Blazek and Lisa Hart, two sisters close to my age, live on the first floor across the alley. From my bedroom window, I can see into their kitchen. Lisa is in my class. Sometimes we walk to school together. Lisa’s quiet and always looks half asleep, but Terri’s loud and tough with wiry red hair, and I’m careful around her. Their drunk grandma sometimes stays with them and fights with their mom or maybe the mom’s boyfriend. The mom is skinny with long blond hair and heavy eye makeup, and she always looks tired. I think she’s pretty. Her boyfriend is slender and dark skinned with a low, soft voice. When Grandma is there, I hear her yelling, the sound of bottles opening, racial slurs, glass breaking, Lisa and Terri’s baby brother crying. Lisa looks exhausted at school when Grandma’s there. I want to say something to her, but I don’t know how.

There are fights at my house, too. On bad days, when Mom and Phoebe come home from working at The Bank, they go straight to their room and shut the door. Nobody asks me how my day was, nobody checks to see if I’ve done my homework before I started watching crappy TV on our tiny eight-inch set. I turn up the volume when I hear yelling and crying through the door. At some point, Phoebe storms out of their room and out the apartment door, threatening to drive into a tree or off a cliff. My mother chases after her, frantic, yelling her name, pleading when she runs after her out the apartment door, downstairs, and outside. I keep watching Star Trek, pretending I don’t see or hear anything, but after this happens enough times that it’s no longer a shock, I just think, oh please oh please oh please oh please just let her do it already. But she doesn’t, and sometimes they make up by the time Mom makes some dinner. Or sometimes we all act like nothing’s weird, and eat spaghetti with Ragu while watching Sonny and Cher.

***

Mom sees Terri crawling out of her bedroom window and decides she’s a bad influence. She forbids me to play with Terri or Lori. Terri knocks on my door after school when I’m home alone with the dogs and asks if I want to come out. I open the door as far as it will go with the chain lock on and tell her I can’t, I’m no longer allowed to play with her. She steps back, confused and then pissed. “Well, I’m going to beat you up then!” she yells and hits the door hard. For what seems like ages, kids will run up the stairs, bang hard on our apartment door, and then run back downstairs and out the building, all before Mom and Phoebe come home from work, and it’s just me and the dogs, who are useless. Terri’s in fifth grade. Fifth graders get out of school ten minutes later than us third graders. I run home every day after school so she won’t get me.

It’s my job to walk the dogs. I have to walk them in two separate trips. My dog, Zan, is a spastic, scruffy handful that Mom and Phoebe gave me for Christmas last year, even though I was quite clear that I wanted a cat. “He’s a Cockapoo!” Mom told me, gleefully chuckling at the obscenity of the word. I am mortified. If anyone asks me what kind of dog he is, and they inevitably do because he looks like a freak, I have to say both “cock” and “poo,” to perfect strangers, or worse, kids that may want to beat me up. Phoebe’s dog, Jody, an ancient black Pekingese, has a harness instead of a collar. I walk the dogs by the river past the flood wall, where I am out of sight from the neighborhood kids. When I don’t see anyone watching me, I take the Peke for a little ride. I spin around and around, raising and lowering her leash like she’s on the flying swings ride at an amusement park. Her tongue sticks out between her teeth and her eyes glaze over. Her paws stick out straight like she’s a zombie. I tell myself she likes it.

Terri finally gets me. I have to take out the garbage and she and a bunch of kids are hanging around the carports by the dumpsters. I throw the garbage in as fast as I can, Terri rushes me, and I bolt, but not fast enough. Just as I open the building door and get to the worn-out red-carpeted landing, she catches up to me and punches me hard in the back. I sprint up the two flights of stairs, terrified.

“Yeah!” I hear her yell. “You better run!” I’m crying by the time I shut the apartment door, more from shock than from actual pain. Mom looks at me.

“Terri hit me in the back!”

Her eyebrows squinch together. “You go tell her I want to talk to her.”

“Mom! I can’t! She’ll kill me!”

“She won’t kill you. Go outside and get her.”

I trudge back downstairs. Standing close to the door, I see Terri.

“Oh, you’re back for more?” she taunts.

“My mom said she wants to talk to you.”

“What?”

“She wants to talk to you.”

Terri begrudgingly agrees. When she follows me up the stairs, she says, “If she tries to hit me back, I’ll flush her down the toilet.”

Mom doesn’t yell or threaten her, but does talk to her, informing Terri “We don’t hit people.” Somehow it’s effective and, just like that, the ban on hanging out with Terri and Lisa is magically lifted.

***

Mom calls Hal, Phoebe’s dad, and tells him he needs to come and get his daughter. She has a child to raise, she says, and Phoebe is not okay. Hal comes with a truck and moves her out of our apartment. A few months later, our old landlady lets Mom know our old apartment is available and we move back to our old house. I am overjoyed to be at my old school, with my old friends, at home. The break up, sadly, is temporary and although we never live with her again, soon enough, she is at our house or taking Mom for coffee at the Argo or the Spot or the Park Diner, where they sit for hours and hours and talk. I skip it whenever I can. She spends Christmas with us.

Christmas is overwhelming. Phoebe’s done well at The Bank, getting promotions and she is generous with gifts for both me and Mom to the point of making me uncomfortable with the bounty of such materialism. Every year there is more abundance. Boxes from Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s with Jordache jeans, shirts from Brooks Brothers for mom, matching sets of towels or cookware. A trip to London and Paris for the two of them one year. It goes on and on and every year it’s more materialistic. Mom gets all soft eyed and gushy, swoony with appreciation, some childhood void in her finally being filled. It feels wrong to me and I’ll basically hate Christmas the rest of my life.

Phoebe is promoted to an officer at The Bank and goes back to school—first to the community college, then the state university. She wears big glasses when she studies at our house while Mom does her laundry, makes her instant coffee and ham and cheese sandwiches. “Stay out of her way,” I’m told. “Shut the door if you’re going to play guitar. Don’t distract her.”

***

I tell. I don’t mean to, but I tell. I’m in eighth grade art class at the new junior high when two girls eye me across the room, conferring with each other till the one with the blue eyes, perky face, and bobbed hair comes and stands in front of my desk. Her name is Melissa.


“You want to sit with us?”

I move my stuff to work alongside them. The other girl, Kara, has huge tinted glasses with a K in the corner and long, wavy brown hair. They invite me to a party at Kara’s house that coming Friday. Mark Quattlebaum will be there, they tell me. The band is going to play. I don’t know who any of these people are, but I go.

In a few short weeks, Kara and Melissa and I are inseparable. The idea that we would not spend our weekend nights together sleeping over at one of our houses is suddenly unfathomable. We talk about everything that is important to fourteen-year-old girls trying to figure out what exactly is important in life while we smoke clove cigarettes: who’s cute, who’s pretty, poetry, music, is it possible to survive a nuclear holocaust, what drugs and alcohol have we tried, what drugs would we never try, how many boys have we kissed, what else have we done in that department.

“My dad’s an actor,” Melissa says. “We know a bunch of gay people from the theaters he works at.”

Kara says, “Oh, that’s really interesting. My mom knows some gay women from the Women’s Studies department at the university.”

I haven’t said a word. Kara and Melissa notice my silence and Kara says, “What about you, Amy? Do you know any gay people?”

Time freezes. For six years I’ve never breathed a word of the truth about my home life to anyone. I look at each of them, think about what they’ve just said, and I nod.

“Who?”

“My mom.”

They stare at me. I have just become way more interesting.

I confess to Mom that I’ve told my friends that Mom and Phoebe are a couple, explaining how I’m sure it’s not an issue for friends who have parents that are actors and university professors. Mom’s face goes kind of gray and the muscle by her jaw pulses. I know she’s frightened, but she tries to hide it from me. Phoebe is furious. She doesn’t speak to me for weeks. When Kara’s mother picks up Kara from my house, Mom is anxious and distressed. I’m not sure if this is because Kara’s mom is clearly drunk, or that she’s eyeballing Mom like she’s an interesting specimen.

***

I’m sixteen when they really break up. She’s been a part of our life for almost a decade. Phoebe does it over the phone. I hear Mom’s voice rising in pitch, trying to reason with her and finally saying in wounded dismay, “After all this, to use my illness against me, that is just the cruelest thing.” They argue and argue and it’s like being a kid at Webster Court again. In my head, I am willing Phoebe to just go, get out of our lives. When she actually does, I am thrilled and terrified.

Mom walks to The Bank where they both still work. She walks home after work. I sit in the dining room doing my homework, listening for the bell on the gate to tell me she’s home. When I hear her steps on the porch stairs, I open the door for her and catch her as she collapses on me, sobbing, exhausted from keeping a brave face and dodging questions all day. She cries as I hold her, rocking her back and forth. When the crying slows, I walk her to her room, tuck her into bed, bring her water, and let her sleep till I’ve made us some dinner. I do this day after day for weeks. It’s awful.

A few months later, when Mom is doing better, I decide that I should maintain a relationship with Phoebe. Or try. We are family in our peculiar way despite my resentment of her endless need to be the center of Mom’s universe. We’ve always joked that she’s not my stepmother, but my fairy godmother.

When I got my ears pierced when I was fourteen, I confided in Phoebe, hoping she’d have my back since ear piercing had been forbidden.

“Oh shit,” she said when I pulled back my long straggly hair to show her. “Okay, leave this to me.” She somehow convinced my mother, who never drank due to her lupus, to have a glass of wine with dinner. Mom was swiftly buzzed.

“Amy has something to show you!” She signaled me to move my hair out of the way.

“Oh, babe!” Mom wailed. “You’ve mutilated your body! Ohhh, noooo… Oh, hon… They look very nice.”

Phoebe handed me down her high heels until my feet grew larger than hers and helped me do my hair and put on makeup for dance recitals. She passed on her old clothes to me, which, while not quite my style, were still nicer than most of the things I owned.

I call Phoebe and ask if we can get together. She sounds pleased and tells me to meet her at the Argo Diner, a place she and Mom would go for coffee.

When I show up, she asks me a few perfunctory questions about school and my life and then launches into a monologue about her parents, her job, her brother. I never get another word in. She pays the check and we leave the diner. “I’m so glad we did this,” she says and leans toward me for a hug, which feels awkward. She’s never been affectionate with me. And then she kisses me on the lips, not a peck that missed my cheek, but a real, actual kiss. I am trying to figure out just what the hell is going on when she pulls away from me and walks to her car. She drives a black Mazda RX 7 these days. I realize there is nothing to hold on to. As far as she’s concerned, I could be my mother. I’m a fill-in. I never contact her again.

***

Phoebe marries an Italian guy who looks like a giant grasshopper, all long elbows and knees—a grasshopper with a serious coke problem. I run into them when I’m seventeen, barhopping at a skeevy dance club. She gives me a nod, implying that she won’t blow my cover. The grasshopper looks at me quizzically. She leans over and whispers something to him and he gapes at me, bug eyed.

She is arrested for embezzlement in 1984. Mom is eating dinner and watching the news, lounging in the beanbag chair.

“An officer at the Binghamton Savings Bank has been charged with embezzling funds of approximately $100,000. Sources say she spent the money on clothes, a sports car, and a close female friend,” says the news anchor. Mom rolls out of the beanbag chair onto the floor and wails, “I’ve been slandered! I’ve been slandered!”

I sit on the floor by her and rub her shoulder. “They never said your name. It’s not slander if they don’t say your name.” I don’t point out that it’s not slander if it’s true. When we look around the house, we realize Phoebe has given us almost all of our belongings. Our dishes, silverware, glassware, our cookware, our bedding, most of our clothes and shoes—they’re all birthday gifts, Christmas gifts accumulated over the years. It’s all stolen.

She writes Mom from prison, saying she’d always wanted to confess to Mom because she knew Mom could make her stop. Mom was the kind of person who would walk back to the grocery store still carrying heavy groceries if she realized she’d been given fifty cents too much change. Mom would have helped her make it right, her letter says. This pisses me off. I want her to stay out of my mother’s life. I’m leaving for college and I’m afraid to leave Mom. She’s dating someone new and has found some friends in the local lesbian community, but I fret as if I’m the parent and she’s the child. I don’t want to leave her all alone. I’m worried about how she’ll manage on her own.

During my freshman year of college, Mom calls me at school with the news that Phoebe’s out of prison and she’s pregnant. Not too long after that, the grasshopper ODs at O’Hare airport.

Phoebe has a baby girl. They move to Las Vegas, which seems fitting. Las Vegas, that great mirage in the desert built on stolen money.


Amy Eaton is a writer, director, and performer living in Chicago. Her work has recently been seen in Fillet of Solo, MissSpoken, and Write Club Chicago, where she is a three-time victor. She is currently at work on a memoir.

STONE, WATER, FIRE

BY: Patience Mackarness

Fire was essential to their weekend plans because the child with them was a known arsonist.

While the adults carried supplies into the house, Peter stood under the mantel and looked up the blackened chimney. He pointed to an ancient chain hanging over the hearth and asked, “What’s that?”

“It’s where they hung their cooking pots in the old days,” said Gwen. She set a crate of wine on the oak table next to Maureen’s multipack of cigarettes. 

“Are we doing that?” Peter asked.

“No, there’s a gas stove now,” said Gwen. “And we won’t need a fire indoors as it’s so warm. But we’re having a bonfire tonight.” She and Maureen exchanged glances.

Peter and Maureen went off to explore the little wooded stream valley while Gwen set out chairs and a table in the garden. Once home to hill-shepherds, the cottage was built of the grey slate found all through North Wales. Its garden was separated by a dry-stone wall from rough grassland roamed by wild ponies and sheep. No other buildings were visible. The evening light was all green and gold: bright moving leaves on the taller trees, dusty-golden shafts of sun below. The hill facing the house was in shadow, but the sky above it was a pure and limitless blue. Gwen, who had adored this outlook since childhood, breathed slowly and felt the familiar stealing-in of a peace touched with awe.

Maureen and Peter came up the hill, stepping over tussocks of marsh-grass. Maureen, a chain-smoker for forty years, breathed hard. Peter had found a long stick and was using it to lash at bracken and nettles. He was a small, wiry child, straw-haired and pale of skin.

Gwen poured red wine for herself and Maureen, Coke for Peter. Maureen sighed, leaned back in her chair, lit a cigarette, and took a great luxuriant swallow. “Your place is fuckin’ lovely, Gwen. I could stay here all week.”

Peter rocked his chair, gouging the grass.

“Bit different from Liverpool, isn’t it, love?” said Maureen. This was an understatement; the street where they lived had no grass or trees, and its backyards were more notable for trash than flowers. “Listen how quiet it is,” she said. “Everything’s dead old, too. Gwen’s nan lived here for years. Didn’t she, love?”

“My great-aunt,” said Gwen. “Yes, all her life.”

Peter went over to the pump by the back door and tried to work its rusted handle. There was a screech, followed by an ominous, terminal clank. The boy gave Gwen a sideways look, both sly and challenging. It was a look she, and their neighbors, knew well.

“That old pump must have been a pain in the arse,” said Maureen heartily. “Just think if you had to go out there every day for your water. In winter too.”

“It was even harder when my great-aunt was little,” said Gwen, picking up her cue. “They went all the way down the hill with buckets. Like Jack and Jill,” she added, though she doubted that nursery rhymes had featured much in Peter’s short life.

“To the river?” Peter asked, returning to his Coke.  

“No, a spring. That’s a place where the water comes right up out of the ground, so it’s better to drink than the stream water.”

“I want to see it,” said Peter.

“I—don’t think it’s there any more,” said Gwen.

Peter, who rarely looked adults in the eye—whether teachers, police officers, or his mother’s succession of sinister boyfriends—fixed Gwen with a steady pale-blue stare. He demanded, “Where’s it gone then?”  

“I mean,” said Gwen quickly, “it’ll be covered with brambles and nettles and stuff.”

“There’s snakes, too,” put in Maureen. “Poisonous ones.”

“No, there aren’t,” said Gwen. She gave Maureen a stern look, meant to remind her they had agreed not to lie to Peter this weekend. “But the spring’s probably so overgrown, it would be hard to see.”

“We can find it,” Peter said. “I’ve got me boots.” Maureen had bought him a pair of Wellingtons especially for this trip, the first he had ever owned. She had also equipped him with a small backpack, a waterproof jacket, and a toothbrush.

Gwen looked at Maureen, who gave a little nod.

“All right,” said Gwen, “we’ll look for the spring tomorrow. There won’t be time tonight. It’ll be dark soon, and we’ve got to build our bonfire.”  

Plenty of their neighbors in Liverpool thought the weekend project was misguided, mad, or both. “Why are you taking him away to Wales?” demanded Kitty, who lived next door to Maureen. “He breaks windows, he starts fires, he leads other kids into trouble. Why not take the good kids, the ones that deserve it?”  

“Because he’s family,” Maureen said shortly. She and Gwen were sitting on Maureen’s front doorstep with glasses of wine. Kitty stood on her own step, arms belligerently folded, looking down at them.

“And because Peter needs it more than the others,” said Gwen. As Kitty was a churchgoing Catholic, she added, “Like the Prodigal Son.”

Kitty pursed her mouth, as if to say that a mere Protestant had no business quoting the Bible at her. “And why are you calling him Peter? Everybody calls him Hobsy.”

“Hobsy’s a bad-boy name,” said Gwen. “We want him to leave that behind.”

At that moment, the child himself passed on a rusty bike, pedaling along the street with a mob of young children running or riding behind. Kitty sniffed. “You’re wasting your time with that one. He’ll end up in prison, soon as he’s old enough.”

It was true that ten-year-old Peter Hobson was a local legend. Everyone had seen him running over the roofs of parked cars, scrambling up drainpipes, lobbing bricks at feral pigeons, or smashing the windows of empty houses. Gwen herself had found him crouched in the back alley with a lighter, about to kindle a heap of garbage, and had chased him off. But as Maureen said, people like Kitty were also keen to blame him for things he hadn’t done.

“Ol’ bitch,” said Maureen under her breath, after Kitty had stalked back into her house. She’ll never understand that kid.” She topped up Gwen’s glass, lit another cigarette, and leaned forward, the way she did when she had confidences to share. “Him and me are the same—we don’t take shit from anyone. It’s like when I was a kid, in the tennies.”

“Tennies?” Gwen’s Scouse vocabulary was growing, but she still needed Maureen to translate for her at times.

“You know, the old tenements in town. Back then, we had to fight for everything.”

“Yes, but lighting fires—”

It’s how he gets people to notice him, isn’t it? The police, and the other kids, and everyone else round here. That fuckin’ useless smackhead mother of his. She’s off her head half the time, but he still idolizes her.”

“You’re a psychologist, Maureen,” said Gwen.

Peter helped them collect wood for the fire. He was too small to swing the axe, but he liked breaking dead branches by jumping on them. He watched gravely as Gwen showed him how to build a bonfire in the approved Girl Guide manner. Then he struck a match and lit the center of the little wigwam carefully, standing well back while the flames took hold.  

Later they burned an old armchair, its covers chewed and stained by the mice that overran the empty house in winter. Gwen and Maureen carried it out between them and tipped it into the bonfire’s red-hot core. It was then that Peter let out a kind of whoop, so loud and sudden he even seemed to surprise himself. Gwen thought he should be dancing round the fire, like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. Instead, he stood staring and staring as the chair shot yellow, hissing flames up into the dark.

“I hope,” Gwen murmured when the boy had gone for more wood, “he’s not in a police station some day, and they say, How did you come to burn that house down, Peter? And he says, I just lit it the way Gwen showed me. Maureen cackled.

By ten o’clock, the bonfire had burned low. When Peter yawned, Gwen saw that some of his teeth were black. She must remember to speak to Maureen; maybe the hopeless mother could be persuaded to take him to the dentist.

Peter and Maureen slept upstairs in the front bedroom while Gwen had the little room below, the one Great-aunt Miriam had used when she couldn’t manage the stairs any more. There were a few minutes of murmuring voices overhead, then the house went quiet. Gwen sat up a while, in the room they used to call the parlor.

Little had changed since the long-ago visits, which had felt to younger family members like entering a book by Enid Blyton. The furniture was heavy dark oak—cage-backed chairs and a Welsh dresser, the long table still smelling faintly of ancient beeswax—making the room resemble a badly curated heritage museum. Neglected by Miriam’s nieces and nephews, its joint owners, the house’s decline tracked that of the old lady: solitary and inexorable, punctuated by visits from affectionate but busy relatives.

In the morning, the sky was clear. They had breakfast in the garden, Maureen inhaling the glorious views along with her first cigarette of the day while Peter was devouring a bacon sandwich oozing ketchup.

“You’re hungry this morning,” said Gwen.

“Isn’t he?” said Maureen proudly. She had told Gwen the fridge at Peter’s home was empty, that it was a fuckin’ disgrace, and she often had to feed him herself. “So you’re not his actual grandmother?” Gwen had asked, trying again to map the sprawling Scouse tribe that was Maureen’s family.

“Fuck, no,” said Maureen. “His dad was me cousin’s stepson.” Maureen adored her own children and grandchildren, but she also had a fondness for needy strays. These included Peter—and Gwen.

When breakfast was cleared away, Gwen said it was time to find the lost spring, and Peter jumped up so fast that his chair tipped over. While Maureen poured her second cup of coffee and lit her fourth cigarette, the other two put on their boots. Gwen gave Peter gloves and loppers. She carried the scythe, which, like the axe, was too large for him to use. She pushed away the disturbing image of an adult Peter, six feet tall and swinging a well-sharpened blade.

They picked their way down the slope into the valley. Although everything was more overgrown than in the storybook summers when Gwen and her cousins had scrambled about with shrimping nets and muddy knees, the spring was not hard to locate. Underneath dense bog-willows was a miniature jungle, where reeds and marsh flowers grew, tangled in thick vegetation that scratched and stung. Out of it twisted a thin brown channel.

Gwen told Peter to cut off the willow branches that reached nearly to the ground, and she used the scythe on brambles and nettles. They worked mostly in silence, Gwen saying from time to time, “Are you all right there, Peter?”—the boy responding with a nod or a grunt. If a branch was too thick to cut, she noticed that he would neither leave it nor ask for help, but worried at it with the loppers until it yielded or until she came to give him a hand.

The idea for this weekend had, naturally, been Maureen’s. One evening at the start of the summer vacation, when the hard-nut kids of the neighborhood were running in packs with the boy Hobsy at their head, as usual, Gwen told Maureen about the cottage. How remote it was, how she and her cousins had always thought it magical and the little old lady a sort of benign witch. How through the misery and confusion of her own divorce, and the ill-planned move to Liverpool afterwards, this house had been her refuge, the place that had saved her from total despair. She was going to add, “You saved me, too,” because it was true; without Maureen she would still be wounded and lost, a stranger in a city of alien voices and alien customs. But Maureen’s mind had skipped ahead; she said suddenly, “You know what?”

“What?” asked Gwen warily. She had learned that You know what? signaled one of Maureen’s Big Ideas.

“We should take Hobsy there. Just me, you, and him. Get him away from all the shit, give him a fuckin’ big dose of nature. That’ll straighten him out.”

Gwen, who in her teaching career had organized plenty of trips, brought up the question of parental permission, and Hobsy’s behavior, which his headmaster described as “challenging,” and the possibility that he would burn the ancestral cottage to the ground. But Maureen, who was unstoppable once gripped by a Big Idea, had answers ready. “His mum’s always saying she can’t cope with him; she’ll be made up if we take him off her hands for a bit. Hobsy’s good as gold with me. He never gives me any shit. And he can light fires there, proper fires, can’t he? Get it out of his system.”

The neighbors were skeptical, but Maureen was sure she could deal with them. “I’ll use me psychology, won’t I?” Kitty might be a lost cause (“Hobsy could grow wings and a halo, that bitch would still swear he’s the devil”), but most of the others could be brought round. Anne from the next street, who had a soft spot for Peter, was told he was a lovely lad who just needed time and space to bring out the good in him. Tommy, two doors down and retired from the Army, was told the weekend would be filled with discipline and structure. “We’ll have his day all planned out, Tom, plenty of chores, everything at the right time. And six o’clock’s the time for me wine and me ciggy, har har!” Those who still doubted would, Maureen said confidently, come round when Hobsy returned from Wales a changed boy.

By the time Gwen and Peter uncovered the spring, a wet and gleaming mudhole, they were nettle-stung, bramble-scratched, and spattered with mud. The hole filled slowly with rich brown liquid. Peter stood silent, staring down. He said nothing, but Gwen guessed he was disappointed.

“Well, we can’t drink from that the way it is now,” she said. They went up to the house and fetched jugs to use as bailers.

“Fuckin’ell,” said Maureen, “look at the two of you! You look like you’ve gone ten rounds with a pig.”  

They scooped mud from the spring and, to make it more well-like, lined it with blocks of slate they found stacked behind the house. With another child, Gwen would have tried to make this educational. She would have talked about quarrying, shepherding, the hard and solitary lives of Great-aunt Miriam and her forebears among these hills. But Maureen had warned her against trying to educate the boy. “Forget you’re a teacher for now, love; you’ll just turn him off. Him and school don’t get on, trust me.”

Gwen did trust Maureen. She had trusted her since the day, nearly a year ago, when a mob of children laid siege to her house. Gwen’s accent, posh London with a touch of Welsh, signaled her foreignness to the neighbors and especially to their kids. In bleaker moments, she wondered if they smelled her fear, like river piranhas attracted to a leaking wound. In the first few weeks after moving in, her car was scratched, trash dumped on her doorstep, poorly spelled graffiti scrawled on her windowsill. That particular day, a gang—some of them only eight or nine years old—crowded round her front door, jeering and hooting. Gwen tried talking to them, but they only yelled louder and pushed in closer. She retreated inside; they hammered on the door and windows, and she feared stones would follow. It was then that Maureen, whom Gwen had spoken to only once in a short exchange about bin collections, came charging along the pavement like a bleached-blonde avenging angel. “Ey! That’s me friend’s house, now piss off!” To Gwen’s astonishment, the kids dispersed like a flock of urban starlings, even their small leader, the boy they called Hobsy. And they never came back, for Gwen now had the protection and friendship of the character most neighbors called Mo, the local champion to whom Kitty referred sourly as Queen of the bloody street.

There was some truth in that, for everyone knew Maureen. All local life—deaths and family feuds, births and break-ins, people leaving and people moving in—were her personal business. Most of all, Gwen saw how she made the kids her business. “I love ’em,” she said, her voice sentimental and slurred while she and Gwen shared their now-customary bottle of red wine one summer evening, watching the life of the street from her low front wall. “They’re little bastards, but I love ’em all.”

Gwen, though she failed utterly to love the kids, went along with Maureen’s Big Ideas for keeping them occupied and clear of trouble. The two of them organized litter picks and flower planting, street parties, pavement art with colored chalks. Neighbors called across the street, “You’re doing a boss job there, girls!” and congratulated them on how much cleaner the area had become, how much safer the old people felt in their homes. Gwen, too, felt safer as Maureen’s friend. More, she started to feel that she belonged in Liverpool.

Only Hobsy never joined in. He would hover, waiting for the adults to go indoors, then try to reclaim his position as gang leader and mischief-maker-in-chief. Maureen took his resistance as a challenge because she hated to fail and because, to her, Hobsy was the prize of prizes, the child she wanted most to save. “He’s a lovable rogue,” she said to Gwen. “You know what?”

“What, Maureen?”

“I’m going to tame him.”

By mid-afternoon, after a lunch break for sandwiches, Gwen and Peter finished their well chamber. It was more or less square, with three slate block steps leading down. The blocks did not fit together precisely, and fine dark mud seeped in, making the water grainy and brown.

“Now, we leave it to settle,” said Gwen. “We’ll come back tomorrow and see if it’s clear.”

They went back up the hill, Gwen wondering if their shared labor constituted a bonding exercise. As they stood together at the sink, rinsing the last of the mud off their hands, the boy pointed to an old sheet of paper pinned to the wall and said, “That’s me dragon.”

On their way here, in a roadside café, Maureen had bought Peter a keyring. The fob was a lump of slate, to which was glued a metal disc enameled with the white and green of the Welsh flag, the red dragon commanding the middle. Looking closely at the paper, its curled corners held in place by rusty thumbtacks, Gwen saw that Peter was right. The sheet had faded to the same dirty yellow as the wall, but the creature, once scarlet and now pinkish, was unmistakably a dragon passant, with its clawed foreleg raised, its arrowed tongue stuck out. She said, “Oh, yes! One of my cousins drew that when he was quite small. I remember how pleased my great-aunt was. She must have kept it all those years.”

Maureen and Peter—whose energy was inexhaustible up to the moment he collapsed—had an early night, but Gwen stayed up again, breathing the atmosphere of the house and her own past.

Some children’s books stood on the oak shelves, alongside Great-aunt Miriam’s cookbooks and family Bible. The books were old friends, though blotched and brittle with time. She took down The Silver Sword. On its yellowed paper cover, a rough-headed boy, the orphan Jan, stood amid bombed rubble, his box of treasures clutched to his chest. Gwen knew suddenly that Peter, in another time and place, would not be a criminal nuisance, but a hero. He would scale walls, scavenge for food, slip past Nazi guards, maybe lead his own tribe of Lost Boys into a post-war future of safety and hope. More hope, perhaps, than he had in twenty-first-century Liverpool.

These thoughts could not be shared with Maureen, whose love of her city was proud and fierce, who would be outraged to hear it compared to a war zone. Nor could Gwen say, “Remember The Silver Sword? Or the kids going feral in Lord of the Flies?” For Maureen had been a mother at sixteen, a grandmother at forty, and there had been little time for reading.  

Maureen was up first on Monday morning, watching the dawn with childlike wonder and her usual cigarette. After breakfast Peter and Gwen checked the water in the well, finding it clear and icy cold, floored with fine brown silt. A few leaves and dead insects floated on top, but Gwen showed the boy how to dip an empty Coke bottle upside-down, then turn it upright so the water bubbled in clean. He stood up, holding the bottle like fairy gold.

“Try it,” said Gwen. “It should taste great. Really pure.”

Peter tilted the bottle and took a cautious sip.

“Is it good?” Gwen asked.

“It’s all right,” said Peter gruffly, and then he was off, bounding up the hill, calling, “Come and try me water, Mo!”

“I don’t do water, love,” said Maureen, but under Peter’s expectant stare, she poured an inch into a wine glass and sipped. She suppressed a shudder, nodded slowly, and pronounced it “fuckin’ good water.” “You done a good job there, love,” she said. “Come on, give’s a hug.” And Peter did. Over the top of his head, Maureen gave Gwen a look of misty-eyed triumph.

They went for a long walk that last day, taking sandwiches and following footpaths and pony tracks higher and higher until they could see the peaks of Snowdonia piled up, hazy and far off. Gwen marveled again at the boy’s persistence. He never complained of tiredness, and whenever Maureen wanted to rest, he would fidget until they got moving again. His color was better than when they had arrived, and Gwen thought his cheeks had filled out too.

When Peter was brushing his teeth that night, Maureen said softly, “It’s working.”

“Do you think so?”

“Fuckin’ right I do. Getting him away from the shite at home. All the open space. Giving him proper jobs to do, like the wood, and that well of yours. It’s calmed him right down.”

“For now,” said Gwen. “But he’s had years of neglect and running wild. One weekend won’t fix that.”

“It’s a start. You know what? We should bring other kids here. The scallies, the ones that’re always in trouble.”

“Well, that’s not happening,” Gwen said firmly. “My nerves wouldn’t take it. But there are organizations that do that sort of thing, you know. Youth clubs.”

“Not like this,” said Maureen. “Not the way you and me have done it with Peter.”

“Sign up as a volunteer, then,” Gwen said quickly. “Show them how it’s done.”

“Fuck off, Gwen,” said Maureen. “You’re not turning me into some fuckin’ youth worker, so don’t try.” This was an old discussion, frequently rehearsed on the sidewalk over wine, and much enjoyed by both. Maureen believed in handling problems locally, without involving the authorities, most of whom she dismissed as “a waste of fuckin’ space.” Gwen would counter that to get things done you had to work with the system, follow the rules. Maureen would say, slyly and provocatively, “Rules are made to be broken, Gwen,” and describe local crises she’d averted through deviousness and well-crafted lies. She boasted of the time she’d stopped one of Peter’s worst arson sprees by telling him the back alley was strewn with addicts’ needles. No fires were lit for weeks afterwards. Gwen found it hard to argue with this and rarely tried. She had learned that friendship with Maureen meant adjusting her own moral compass, a few points at a time.

Peter came out of the bathroom in his pajamas. Maureen asked, “Sleepy, love?” Peter shook his head. “Want to go out and look for shooting stars then?” said Maureen. But the boy wandered over to the bookshelf. He seemed to be scanning the titles, and Gwen held her breath superstitiously when his hand brushed The Silver Sword, but it was C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books that drew his eye. He took the boxed-set down carefully. Maureen said to Gwen, “You don’t mind if Peter reads your books, do you, love?”

“Of course not,” said Gwen, though she wasn’t sure how well Peter could read.

Peter took the seven books out of their box, laid them on the carpet in a fan shape, and asked, “What’s this one?” On the cover, a dragon-headed ship flew before the wind with full sails and streaming pennants, white foam around its bows.

Gwen said, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Three children go on a long sea voyage in a world called Narnia, where there’s magic and animals can talk.”

Peter touched the figurehead with his fingertips.

“On one island,” Gwen said tentatively, not sure if she had his attention, “a boy called Eustace gets turned into a dragon.”

“How?” asked Peter.

“He falls asleep in the dragon’s cave, on top of its treasure, thinking greedy thoughts. And when he wakes up, he’s a dragon himself.”

Peter picked up the book and, not looking at Gwen, handed it to her.

“Um, do you—I mean, would you like me to read a bit?” Gwen asked. Peter nodded. Over his head, Maureen’s eyes went wide. “Come on then, sit down.”

Peter sat formally upright between them on the couch. His tousled hair smelt of woodsmoke. His eyes stayed on the ship until Gwen opened the book, then moved to her face.

She read about Eustace’s transformation into a dragon. How, without language, he struggles to show his shipmates who he really is. How he becomes useful to them, lighting their campfires with his burning breath.

“Fuckin’ good, that,” Maureen remarked, yawning. “I’d never need to worry about losing me lighter if I had a dragon at home, would I, love?”

When they reached the part where the lion Aslan plunges Eustace into a magic well and turns him into a boy again, Gwen hesitated. She had always found this episode a little too blatantly Christian and wondered if Peter would lose interest once the dragon was no longer in the story. But he listened intently, right up to where the Dawn Treader sails away from Dragon Island and into the East. Gwen closed the book and said, “That’s the end of the chapter, Peter. But you can borrow the book if you like.” Peter shook his head and went slowly up the stairs to bed. Maureen, mouthing an astonished Fuck! over her shoulder, followed him.

As they got into the car on Tuesday morning, Maureen said, “It’s boss here, I could stay forever. Couldn’t you, love?” But Peter had gone silent, bundled into his new jacket in the back seat, with his dragon keyring in one hand and a bottle of spring water in the other.  

As a child, Gwen had hated these departures; they were like leaving Narnia for the dullness of the ordinary world. Now, driving away from the house along the stony track, she was flooded with grief again.

On the way home, they visited a slate mine made over for tourists. Gwen assured Maureen it would be fun and nothing at all like school. They watched the grandsons of old-time quarrymen deftly splitting roof slates, followed a guide through lamplit caverns, and skirted a lake glowing with colored lights. Maureen breathed, “Wow, fuckin’ magic!” while Peter held her hand, wide-eyed. In the flickering light of a replica miner’s lamp, their guide recounted the legend of two dragons, one red and one white, doing battle for the soul of Wales in a subterranean cavern. The red dragon of the Celts triumphed, incinerating the white dragon of the Anglo-Saxon invaders with his fiery breath.  

When they took Peter back to his mother’s house—front yard piled with binbags and smashed furniture, doorbell broken, dirty net curtains sagging in the windows—no one came to the door. Gwen waited in the car while the two of them stood outside, the woman in her denim jacket, the boy with his backpack, knocking and knocking. Eventually they turned and came back to the car, Maureen rolling her eyes at Gwen: No surprise there. Bitch.

“Peter’s coming back to mine for a bit, aren’t you, love?” she said when they climbed back into the car. “Just till your mum gets home. We’ll have beans on toast.”

September came, and with it, the frantic activity of a new term. Gwen had little time to call on Maureen or sit out drinking wine in the street, and she rarely saw Peter at all. She wondered if their intervention (a word she could not use with Maureen, who would have snorted “Why don’t you speak fuckin’ English?”) had had a lasting effect. Parents of other kids at the boy’s school reported little change. They spoke of vicious playground fights and frequent truanting. But in their street, gang activity and vandalism did seem less. “That’s because Peter’s calmed down,” Maureen said confidently. “Yesterday he came to my door with a bike someone had robbed, asking if I knew whose it was. He used to be the one robbing bikes. Isn’t that boss?”

Gwen agreed that it was boss.

“And when he’s chilled, the other kids are chilled too. You know what?”

“What, Maureen?”

“There’s more things we can do with those kids. Street parties. Planting flowers. And a muriel, like they’ve got in Toxteth.”

“A what?”

“You know, one of them big pictures on the wall. The kids help paint it.”  

“A mural.

“That’s what I said. We could do a dragon, a big red fuckin’ dragon. Peter’d be made up. I bet he’d join in with the others too.”

“That would be brilliant.”

“Gwen?”

“What, Maureen?”

“We did it. You and me.”

One night in early October, Gwen was woken by an explosion that shook the house. It wasn’t in their street, but it was close. She was bone-tired, and there was school in the morning, so she stayed in bed, knowing she could get the news from Maureen later. But a blaring of fire engines followed and a skirl of police sirens, so she put a jacket over her pajamas, went downstairs blinking and groggy, and opened the door. Maureen was on the step, fully dressed. In the orange streetlight, her face looked unlike itself, drained of color, fearful.

“It’s Peter,” she said. “I fuckin’ know it’s Peter. Come on.” She set off running.

“How do you know?” Gwen cried, hurrying after her. “What happened?”

“Shit happened,” panted Maureen. “The usual shit, only worse. His mum got took into hospital last night. She’d got herself some new feller, some drug dealer. They had a fight, and he hit her so hard he broke her nose.”

“Shit,” Gwen echoed.

“Soon as I heard that, I knew. I thought, it’ll all kick off now. Hobsy’ll get the bastard back. She might be a bitch, but she’s still his mum.”

They came to the cross street that junctioned with their own and turned the corner. Two hundred yards along, by Hobsy’s house, a car was burning. Fifteen feet high, the flames lit the street from end to end. There was fire on the ground too, spilled petrol snaking over the tarmac toward a dumpster that overflowed with garbage and building debris. Seconds later, with a quick throaty whoosh, the whole thing was alight. A listing wooden fence beside it caught fire; the flames streaked along the fence like a trail of gunpowder, heading for a rickety shed half-collapsed against the house wall. People stumbled out of their doors, hammered on those of their neighbors; there were shouts and screams, scared voices and excited ones.

The fire engines had already arrived, and as Gwen and Maureen drew closer, two giant hoses deluged the car and dumpster with Class A foam. Black smoke bellied up from mounds of frothing white. One hose was turned on the trails of burning fuel, another on the busily crackling fence and shed. Bulky-suited firemen tramped along pavements and into yards, pursuing secondary fires.

Tommy, the ex-soldier, was standing by the roadside in a little knot of neighbors, arms folded and mouth set hard.

“Who was it, Tom?” Maureen asked, though she knew.

“That Hobsy,” said Tommy shortly. “The car belonged to his mum’s feller, the dealer. Someone saw the kid put a petrol bomb under it.”

I heard the feller was in the car,” said a man standing by Tommy.

“Oh, fuck,” said Maureen.

“He got out,” the man said, and added, “Too bloody bad.”

Tommy grunted, “It’s attempted murder anyway. He’s too young for prison—they’ll put him in Redbank first. But he’s on the road now.”

Maureen drew a sharp breath, ready to stand up for Hobsy as she always did, but from behind them, Kitty’s voice said triumphantly, “I could have told you what would happen if you took him away to Wales. Try to help scum like that, they laugh in your face.”

“Fuck off now, Kitty,” Maureen snapped without turning.

Police officers were moving along the street, shining torches down alleyways and up the sides of houses.

“They’ll find him,” said Maureen. “Course they will. Where’s he gonna go? He’s ten fuckin’ years old.”

“I can see him,” Gwen said suddenly.

“Where?”

“Up there, look.”

Where their street branched off, a small dark shape moved swiftly over the roof-slates, clambering up toward the chimneys. As they watched, it straightened up and balanced, arms spread, along the topmost ridge of the terrace.

“Bloody monkey,” said Tommy with something like admiration. “Where’s he think he’s going now?”

“Peter!” Maureen bellowed, off again at a run with Gwen following. “Come down off there. You’ll break your fuckin’ neck!”

The small figure hesitated, wobbled, turned toward them. At this distance, and in near-darkness, they could not make out his face. Most of the police had heard Maureen shout; now they converged, torch beams bobbing, on the littered alley from which Peter had begun his climb. Two officers ran round to the front of the terrace. The senior fireman gave rapid orders to his team. Overhead, Peter moved steadily forward. Three more houses, three more rooftops, and he would reach the vertical cliff that was the gable-end.

All eyes were on the child now. Police, fire crews, neighbors, late passers-by. Maureen’s hand gripped Gwen’s arm painfully. Those below knew this could only end in one of two ways. Upturned faces showed their fear, wonder, horror, anticipation. Gwen knew what Maureen was seeing: a small broken body on the tarmac, a memorial stone in the cemetery, Our little angel at rest.

There was no third way, but still Gwen’s mind reached up to where the child stood poised on the ridge, black against the faint orange of a city sky, arms wide as wingtips.

For a second, she saw what he saw, felt what he felt: the chasm below, the power and the rage, then a graze of bronze claws on roof-slates, a swoop and a rise, a leathern-winged torpedo out of darkness.

She thought, We did it.

THE END


Patience Mackarness lives and writes partly in a cottage in Brittany, France and partly in an elderly VW camper van. She spent many years in Liverpool and has also lived in Portugal, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Her work has been published by many literary magazines, including Brilliant Flash Fiction, Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, and Peacock Journal.

Show, Film, Franchise

BY: Nicholas LaRocca

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

For my fifteen minutes, when I was the talk of the town, everyone was saying I was being anti-heroic, revolutionary, symbolic, that my tunnel was a metaphor: the underground, a shot across the bow to warn the powers-that-be of the tenuous control they have over a world full of chaos—filled to the brim with the raging proletariat. Part of this mythology is my own fault. I shouldn’t have gone on the Today Show with my high mind and artistic ideals, my shtick. When Katie Couric asked me to spell out the nature of my protest, my answer about “the surface and the underneath,” which has been viewed on YouTube over three million times (eat your heart out, Lisalette), was the please-stroke-my-cock rhetoric of a young man full of deceit, bravado, and seductive modulation, as in, Here’s what I think Lisalette, that gorgeous pre-med, would want me to say.

So let this be my confession.

 

I was working across the street from Chase Sub-Regional Headquarters, Boca Raton, at Oasis, one of the finer gas stations in all of America. Columns of rock face supported the spotless canopy. There was a service bay, where, for $199.99, your car could be made to look fresh off the factory floor. The whole works was backed up to a bucolic greenbelt that faded into Susan B. Anthony State Park.

I was on janitorial and maintenance duty. Sophia Russo, big and chesty and rough around the edges, managed me, and Lisalette, petite and darkly Colombian and facetious, was paid to flirt shamelessly at Register 2 and deride my baseness in a friendly enough way that I wasn’t able to take offense. I don’t blame her; who wants a nineteen-year-old non-stud hanging around? Razor bumps on his neck, thin shoulders, teenage moods still flashing, morphed as they are into pseudo-intellectual weirdness. Maybe my mother. Maybe.

I spent most of my time mopping the entrance; there were days when a Florida downpour meant the CAUTION—WET FLOOR sign was never put away. From the front doors, I had a view beyond the gas station pumps across the service street to the Chase building, four stories tall, with a branch on the first floor fronted by a blue sign like an opiate. Chase. It was a command. You’re driving by, and a sign tells you, “Chase.” But chase what? Since this was Boca Raton, the answer was easy: Chase the white boat on the crystalline water.

“Chase the white boat on the crystalline water,” I said to Lisalette.

She had a sideways, sarcastic mouth, as though she were always chewing on her cheek. She looked like a native princess. Her hair was in a halo braid that morning, and her lipstick was the color of a new bruise. She looked at me like I was losing my marbles.

I said, “The bank you were mentioning—”

She said, “What are you talking about, Car?”

Carmichael Moltobetti. Car.

“The sign across the way.” I had effected a lisp, a rasp, and a drawl all at once. I sounded as though I was on the wrong medication. “The Chase sign. What do you think they want us to chase?”

There were two customers in the store. One was browsing antacids. The other was making coffee. He grinned at her, she asked him which creamer he preferred, and I resented them both. In his grin, I saw my father: derisive, supercilious, superior. In her response, I saw my mother in her maiden years: seduced, ripe-to-be-abandoned.

“I was just making a joke, Lisa.”

“That’s not my name, Car. Is that all?” she asked the man with the coffee.

***

Later, in the break room—it was pouring outside, business was slow, and Reginald had taken over the register—I got nervous and started telling Lisalette about a fungus growing on my back. “It’s like athlete’s foot of the back.”

“Jesus. Go get some Lamisil.”

I didn’t think someone so pretty knew what Lamisil was.

“I can’t spray it on my back.”

I wanted her to spray it on my back. I’d have paid her all the money I had in my Chase account to spray it on my back. “I sprayed it in my face by accident. It tasted like tea tree oil.”

“Car, c’mon, mop. It’s wet up front. Someone’s gonna slip. Sophia will be here at two, and if she sees any water, she’ll throw a fit.”

“Are you sure you want me to mop?”

I really don’t care.”

She was trying to eat something that had green vegetables and brown rice in it. She was a fitness buff; her Instagram was all bikinis in the lowering sun until you wanted to stab yourself, and her captions were about inner beauty, finding it, accepting it, internalizing it, preaching it, dying for it.  

“I can be a tremendous conversationalist,” I said.

She looked up from her phone and made a face like you would at a pile of dirty dishes.

I said, “I need to confess something.”

Think of when you hit the gas pedal in a slow car just to see what little horsepower it has.

“Car, please—”

“I think you’re beautiful.”

“No, no, no. No, no. No, no.”

“I look at your page. I have your page in my search history. I pull it up.”

“Stop.”

“I just want your permission. I love you.”

She got up with her food and went away.

I knew that as she walked away, she was trying to obliterate me. Women had done this to me my whole life. She was using her mental powers, which contemplated Lamisil, to erase me from her consciousness.

But I had plans for us, and that night, I talked with her—meaning, as I paced my room, I went so far as to make believe she really was there. To my mind, convincing myself I was hallucinating rather than fantasizing made me a true artiste—troubled, dark, sick. She sat on my bed with her legs under her. She was fidgeting because she wanted to make love to me. But I wasn’t ready to grant her the privilege.  She first needed to hear about my genius.

“You need to be reeducated,” I told her. “Remade.”

“By the thoughts you think and the dreams you dream.”

“I’ll take mercy on you. I have a kind heart. There are thousands of beautiful girls, Lisa.”

“I know.”

“It’s pathetic to see anyone use beauty as though it was earned.”

“I know.”

“Flourishes. You’re only flourishes and retreats. You know, there’s a sort of writer—all style, no substance. Reading them is like having your colon scraped by a disenchanted Nazi.”

“You’re magnificent and strange. I know that now.”

“I’ve written a television-show-slash-film-slash-franchise, Lisa. Why do you seem so surprised? It’s going to rival Disney. I’m going to prove that I am that rarest of sensibilities who entertains, moves, touches, humors, and provokes all in a single episode.”

I hadn’t actually written anything more than notes in a cow-patterned composition book. I showed her the book, but I didn’t let her open it. I told her I used a composition book—rather than a computer—because I was symbiotically connected to language and needed to feel my words on paper. “Like braille,” I said, though I’d never felt braille. “Words are an extension of my aesthetic rather than a medium for it, like Hendrix’s dissonant tones. I have so much to teach you.”

We talked on, and our love was etched by our confessions. She lauded my brilliance and admitted to being intellectually submissive. I saw in her shining eyes how long she had yearned for a man of my capabilities. I told her—in poetic language, for this was the climax of the fantasy of the hallucination—that with her loyalty buttressing me from self-destruction, I would be able to endure the slings and arrows of lesser creatures though they be the gatekeepers of the castle. “With you by my side, I will find a true champion of my genius, Lisa. An editor, a producer. New York. Hollywood.” I was on the other side of the room. I was sticky with sweat—my armpits, my chest, my lower back. The room was musty. The fungus on my back itched so badly I had to use the right angle of the closet wall to scratch myself. “They’ll fly us out. We’ll go arm-in-arm. They’ll thank me for merely existing, for bestowing my genius upon humanity, my intellectual heft, my unrivaled talent. They’ll know you’re the wind beneath my wings. There will be cocktail parties, attendees present to glimpse The Me, to steal a moment with The Me. Threesomes, fivesomes, twelvesomes. Orgies. With you on my arm!”

She pouted because she wanted me all to herself, but I smiled in a patronizing way. “All experiences serve to enhance my creativity. It’s your duty to support them.”

“Yes.”

“My creation will be our empire, Lisa.”

“Mine, too?”

“Of course. I love you.”

“I love you.”

I made my way to the bed. I sat beside her.

“Greatness is your fate,” she told me. “A reeducation of everyone.”

“Of women,” I said.

She climbed on top of me. “As long as I’m yours.”

I slid into her. She leaned over me. I studied her face. I met her Mayan eyes, and there I saw the rain, the sunlight, the mountain range.

“Let’s be vast together,” I said. “I am your god, and you are my muse.”  

 

“This is your first and last warning. If you make one more comment to Lisalette, one more comment that is, to quote our handbook, ‘sexual or romantic in nature,’ because she has clearly expressed her discomfort with what you said yesterday, I’m going to fire you. Understand?”

This was Sophia, the next morning. The night before, I fell asleep in my clothes, a sweaty mess, and dreamed of eating Lisalette’s pubic hair, a bowl of it like squid-ink angel hair pasta—it’s mouthfeel attractive and slick.

It likely goes without saying that when you dream about eating someone’s pubic hair, it’s a little embarrassing to have your boss tell you to keep your mouth shut around the very person who would have supplied the hair in the first place. I walked out of Sophia’s office, hurried down the hall, and went right back to painting the men’s room door.

All morning, I had to tell men to use the women’s restroom. I felt uncomfortable doing so, as though my recommendation would be mistaken as harassment. But I wouldn’t leave my hallway. I couldn’t. Lisalette was on Register 2, and I was too ashamed to share the same space as her. I had this feeling she knew what my fantasies were—not just that I was in love with her but precisely what I thought about and had imagined talking to her about last night.

I applied several more coats of paint than I needed to. I painted the hell out of that door. Like the guys in the service bay, I made the door look new again.

Sophia found me around lunchtime. “Last coat, Car. Take your lunch, and then I want you back on the mop.”

“And so it shall be.”

“Excuse me?”

“I shall mop the store in a manner that befits Oasis, that brings to our little place of work disinfection, sanitation, and cosmetic restoration. Here in Boca, these are the three fundamental elements of life—like water, oxygen, and sunlight to the rest of the world.”

“You’re ridiculous,” she said.

 

All afternoon, Lisalette was on Register 2, and I was mopping, dusting, swapping, noting, inventorying, mopping, noting, and mopping. I carried out my menial tasks in a fugue-like state. Criminals talk about blacking out during the crime. They’re trying to argue that you’re not you when you’re stabbing someone. Turns out nobody buys it.

But does anybody think about it? Because the criminal is merely being imprecise, in this manner: when you give in to the primordial darkness of destruction and fury, you actually mean to say, “Pardon me.” Because there is something like a blackout happening, some turning up the dial until every synapse is firing and the most extreme action is the only action left.

You’re the Super-You. You’re The You.

But you’re not in a zone like some batter who keeps pounding it out of the park or some basketball hero sinking everything he shoots. Those people are in the “positive zone.” I’ve been there three times and only when writing—though never when writing my show/film/franchise. I’ve written three essays about my truest feelings: one about my mother’s preference for my brother, how close they are, how she still, a little perversely, cuddles him on the couch; one about my father, a pediatrician—rare, for a man—who lives in Miami and sends us checks and dates waitresses; and one about being a loser and pretending to embrace it when, in fact, it hurts like chemo. Writing all three essays, I was in the positive zone, feeling the hand of God.

But there’s a negative zone. The entire time I was digging my tunnel, I was in the negative zone. I was digging mindlessly; what I was doing in the present, the actions I was committing, were rarely part of my consciousness. I would come back to the here and now and think, Hey, look what I’ve done! Way to go, Car! But for the most part, I dug on and on thinking about all the heroes who have floated through my life, whose heroism hardly touched me, including my father, who takes care of everyone else’s children, and my mother, a destroyer of worlds, and Lisalette, who could have shown me kindness and affection. I had confessed in the break room, had told the truth, which is more than I can say about most young men, and had earned her derision. There’s a direct line from that to my lies on the Today Show, as obvious as the line of my tunnel from the woods behind Oasis to the Chase Sub-Regional Headquarters.

    

The night Sophia threatened to fire me, I returned to Oasis. I parked down the road, where it dead-ended just after the entrance to the Chase lot. I had stolen a yellow workman’s vest from the storage room at the gas station. It even had the name Oasis across the breast in glow-in-the-dark yellow lettering. I had bought a hard hat at Harbor Freight. And a Maglite. I looked official. Had you driven by me—and why would you, unless you were a member of the cleaning crew that took care of Chase—you would have thought me gainfully employed at the task. Not only would you not have disturbed or questioned me, you would have admired my grunty toil.

I was pretty brazen about it, you know. I was far enough from the gas station that in my hard hat, in a different uniform than I wore to work, even Lisalette and Sophia, T.J. and Reginald, and all the others at the gas station couldn’t recognize me. And though one or two people from Chase who came by the station for coffee eyed me a little askew, there was no way their cognition went beyond, “Why is someone working by the woods at this late hour?”

It should have been a risk. Except it wasn’t. So it turned out there was an upside to being Car the Conditional. The Nobody Man. The Human Embodiment of Purgatory. Half-Italian, half-Peruvian, but really a tenth of this, a fiftieth of that, until I was the melting pot, until I had assimilated all that our giant economic collaborative had to offer: an American in America being American, searching for a way where there is no way.

In I went and down I dug. I was surrounded by mud, by dirt, by the strange cake batter under Boca. Some nights I didn’t shower. I went home exhausted. My body was fine, but my mind, racked with thoughts of vengeance and destruction, was worn down to a thin filament, and I fell into bed managing only to kick off my boots. The first few nights inside the tunnel, I got a disoriented feeling. I was in a fixed place doing a fixed thing, but the spinning of the earth was suddenly unfixed, and I could count on nothing, not even Time.

I deeply resented Disney. All those tenuous lives, all those strategic villains, all those happy endings. A lie. I resented Steve Jobs, too. I not only resented these corporations and founding men, I wanted to see them fall to pieces. I wanted their dark secrets laid bare to the world. I wanted them to break down, to die of shame. In I’d swoop, all deus ex machina. But I would not go easy on the world. My franchise was going to black out the sun. My signature endings were going to be nihilistic dogma engineered to teach the world’s children the futility of effort in the grander scheme of a meaningless life.

Early on in my digging, I said to myself, “I can’t contemplate her. I don’t.”

But then something wonderful started to happen. A change came over me, a new way of looking at things. With every inch I gained, with every foot of progress I made, I was earning my confidence. Try as they might, the Sophias and Lisalettes, the T.J.s and Reginalds, had never done anything like I was doing, hadn’t the patience nor the drive nor the ambition nor the fortitude nor the stamina. My life had taken on a clear and present purpose. Like a fighter in training, every meal I ate, every moment of sleep I got was dedicated to improving my performance as I dug my tunnel.

The dirt got into my pores, my nose, my teeth. I thought about my meeting with Sophia—my shame, the sad terms and conditions of my meager employment. I thought about the bathroom doors at Oasis. I’d painted those doors nine times, yet I’d only been working there eight months. So every .88 months, I had to paint the doors, to both bathrooms, which destroyed the myth that women are gentler than men. Both genders subverted those doors. There was a steel plate on each door that customers were supposed to contact when pushing them open so that the paint didn’t get smudged with hand goop. And these were not small steel plates. They were a good two feet by eighteen inches. You had to try to miss them. But people did.

Early in the dig, I was sure people had pushed open those doors from the center and worn down the paint out of sheer ignorance as to what the steel plate was doing there. I figured they were just dumb shitbirds. A little further in, I decided they had opened the doors the way they had to subvert me. They had deduced that because I was the man with the mop, I was low-man-on-the-totem-pole, and the responsibility to paint would fall to me. Some customers had seen me painting. We had quite a few regulars, including many who stopped by just to visit Lisalette. I was convinced these regulars hated me. I had, at the time, the kind of face you wanted to punch. It was my eyes, mere slits, with which I confronted the world in a scornful way. I was Holden Caufield, though my confessional sensitivity had been subsumed by sexual fantasy, and I was nineteen, not sixteen. Punching me was all but acceptable in the eyes of man and God.  

I’d wanted to burn Oasis to the ground, to stand across the street in the Chase lot and watch the fire with everyone else, knowing I’d lit the match. But just beyond the median of the street above me, as though the median represented my coming of age—my crossing over from one place to another and, in that way, my graduation from one version of Car to a better, more precise and insightful version—my energy flipped. I came to understand that it doesn’t feel good to lay your hand on a steel plate; wood is a more sensual, tactile experience. That’s why the hand reaches instinctively for wood. You’re not doing it on purpose, but it is sensible. It’s sensual. It’s touch.

I felt the cool, moist earth on my hands. I could hear, when it was quiet enough—when it was very late, past midnight, and there was little noise coming into the tunnel—water rushing underground, the high water table of South Florida. If there were a cave-in, it would start below me, not above.

I would put my ear to the floor of the tunnel and listen to the water. I would think of being down there with Lisalette. No hostage. No lover. All of a sudden, a friend. We’re sitting in the dark and chatting about Lamisil. The water is running under us, the world is running over us, cars are moving along the service street above. We’re eating nachos from the gas station.

She says, “I’m sorry.”

I say, “No worries. I’ve dug on.”

She was the surface. Boca at street level. Send the Google car around and she’s what it captures. But I was the water underneath, the dangerous water moving on its own, a current no one sees and only a few get close to. To get to me, you’d need an ultrasound.

Then one night, I did no digging. I sat deep in my tunnel with my legs under me. My head was bowed because the tunnel was not tall. I thought of where I would have been if I’d been on the surface: almost across the street. A grand calm washed over me. I saw myself in the years to come, tunneling through life, excavating my way through the years. For the first time in a long time, I felt hope. I saw the faces of heroes and heroines who had denied me entrance to their castles. I gave them entrance to mine—Dad, you may enter my tunnel, and you, Mom, and you, my brother Charles, and you, Lisalette.

I scurried out of the tunnel. I’d never been so scared in my life. It was just my luck that I’d be smothered before I got to act on my new feelings. When I got to the surface, I breathed in Boca. I breathed in the Chase building, Oasis, the lights, the cars on Glades Road up ahead at the intersection. So many people, at this late hour, were hurrying home.

 

That morning, before my shift, I bought my mother, father, and brother cards and candy. Valentine’s Day was coming. But I couldn’t wait. I gave them the candies and the cards. And I gave them each a trowel!

When I’d written the cards, I was in the positive zone, even the card to my father, who hadn’t been a good father by any measure but money.

I went further. I drove to Miami. Down off the highway, the city was a tunnel, with skyscrapers like walls and no roof, just sky. There were Lisalettes everywhere—in sports bras and leggings, short shorts, sundresses. Everywhere I looked, every turn I made, hundreds of them, all looking ragged to me, as though if I were to get up close to them, I wouldn’t even smell the raw earth of my tunnel but the decay of decadence pitched against age and time, media against purpose like a duel until the very cells of the body are worn down to a malignant dust.

All that surface noise. All that surface beauty. I turned down the street of my father’s clinic. The blacktop was cracked and potholed. Everyone was going everywhere. I understood they couldn’t stop. But I could tell them, if they wanted to listen—it isn’t you: your class, your type, your phylum. Flowing below you are thousands of people like me. Most of us suffer in quiet desperation. We’re underground when the cave-in starts. I was one of the lucky ones. I made it out. Alive.


Nick LaRocca’s stories and essays have recently been featured or are forthcoming in The MacGuffin, Flint Hills Review, Blue Lake Review, Canyon Voices, Euphony, Crack the Spine, Valley Voices, The 3288 Review, The Flagler Review, Outside In Magazine, Steel Toe Review, South85, Per Contra, The Milo Review, and Mason’s Road. Work from his early twenties appears in Rush Hour: Bad Boys (Delacorte Press) and the Beloit Fiction Journal. His short story “Gestures” (Lowestoft Chronicle) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for Fiction. His short story “Understandings” was nominated for Best of the Net by Wraparound South. He has just finished the novel A Guinea Street Punk in Greenville Park. Interviews of Nick are available online in The 3288 Review and Wraparound South. He is Professor I of English at Palm Beach State College, where he teaches creative writing, essay writing, and literature.

 

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