Category: Fiction (Page 1 of 4)

The Blackout

BY KELLY THOMPSON

Annie rummaged in the black purse on her lap that she was relieved to recognize as her own and located a small lipstick mirror. She stared into it, moving it around the contours of her face, able to see only two rectangular inches at a time, but the pieces fit, yep, she was pretty sure that was her. She groaned. It took her a few minutes. Wish it wasn’t me. A black lump of self-hatred rose in her throat, bile.

Momentarily, she was distracted from her self-disgust by the plastic tumble of photos falling out of her wallet, the bright faces of Sara and Becky peeking out from elementary school backgrounds. She reminded herself to put some updated photos of the girls in her wallet. They were both in middle school, almost high school now. Smiling at their noses, covered in freckles, their credulous cornflower eyes, Annie slowly folded the photo holder back into the wallet and rummaged again.

Nothing in her purse revealed what day it was, nor did the blue square of airplane window 

next to her. Glimpses of the grids and rectangles, the squares and geometry of a large city emerged beneath the wing and clouds. Was that New York? How the hell, she wondered, had she ended up on a plane approaching New York City?

She was sitting on the right side of the plane in a window seat. Next to her, in the aisle seat, sat a man she didn’t recognize. He seemed relaxed in spite of the small space he occupied, knees jammed into the bulkhead in front of them, and he was holding a glass containing what she guessed was Coke. Rum and Coke, maybe. She eyed the drink with a mixture of disgust and desire. What she really needed was a drink.

“Everyone!” her seatmate suddenly said, making a sweeping gesture that took in all the people on the plane. “Each has a story. You think?” He looked at Annie expectantly.

Annie had no idea what he was talking about. Perhaps they had been having a conversation, this man and she. He seemed eager to talk. Perhaps they had been talking for the past hour. Or could it be days?

She stared at him. His eyes gave away secrets, but none that could help her. Indigo eyes, eyes so dark they were not brown, not the color of chocolate, not even black. They were the color of a clear midnight sky unpolluted by light. For a moment, she thought she could see through them to nothing and it scared her. She quickly looked down and away. Was she supposed to answer his question? Yes, we all have a story, she thought, and mine at this point does not appear to be ending well.

The seats around her were that of a typical airline. No clues, really, to help her figure out how she got there. No sign of her boyfriend, Shane, anywhere. It was not her first blackout by any means and she knew, by now, that she was coming out of an alcohol-induced blackout. She searched the perimeter of the crowded seat for a newspaper, a calendar, something with the date. That would at least tell her how long she’d been blacked out. She grabbed a wrinkled edition of the Sky Mall tucked halfway underneath her and between the seats. Fall 2001, she read.

Memory came back, as through a door. She remembered opening the gift, a coffeepot Shane gave her for her fortieth birthday. Oh my god, she thought. I’m forty. The last thing she remembered was that fucking coffeepot and the clarity that came with it. Shane didn’t love her.

Thank god the kids were—oh shit—what the fuck day is it? Annie turned to the man next to her, grabbing his arm.

“What time is it?” she asked. She had been supposed to pick up Sara and Becky at Logan Airport right after her birthday. They had agreed to celebrate together when the girls got back from their summer visit with their grandparents, her ex-husband’s parents. Though his parents were in the picture, the girls’ father was not, and she hoped he never would be, uninvolved, shitty father that he was. Well, I sure fucked it up, didn’t I? At least I’m not as bad as their father.

The indigo-eyed man evidently didn’t have a watch. Annie had to ask again.

“How much time do I have?” he responded with a question, pleased with himself, as if he had told a joke.

“Never mind. What’s the date today? September ninth?” Annie fumbled in her purse, checking for her credit card, her driver’s license. She imagined Sara and Becky standing at the airport with a stewardess, looking frantically around for her.

The date he could provide. “No,” he said. “Not the ninth.”

Helpful son of a bitch. She remembered pouring a shot, just one more; it had been September 9, Sunday. The day of the coffeepot, she thought wryly. That’s how my fortieth shall be remembered from this day forward. How much time have I lost?

Annie looked down at her feet and then at the man with the eyes. She was wearing brown oxfords she didn’t recognize.

“Do you know what I got for my fortieth birthday?” she asked him, his pale blue sweater coming into focus. He was wearing black dress pants. Not usually my type, Annie thought. Dark hair. Definitely foreign. Good-looking. She did go for good-looking. No. No way I’m with this guy.

“What you got for your birthday?” He was polite, spoke broken English. Annie was convinced he knew her, although she could not place him. He looked familiar. Saudi Arabian?

I don’t even want to know. An old friend of Annie’s had once been involved with a group of Saudi men, had prostituted at the time, though she called it something else. Dating. They paid well, Nancy assured her. Annie had been tempted. Those were hard times. Raising the girls on a grocery checker’s salary. Whatever happened to old Nancy? she wondered. I should look her up. Call her.

“A coffeepot. A fucking coffeepot,” Annie said. Goddamn it! Don’t cry.

Indigo Eyes looked steadily back at her, waiting.

“From my boyfriend. I mean, what kind of guy gives a woman he loves a coffeepot for her birthday when they’re not even married?” she finished. Her eyes welled up and she rummaged through the purse, looking for a tissue. Of course, this guy wouldn’t get it.

He leaned toward her. “You don’t remember.” It was a statement.

Annie felt a surge of anger. So what if she didn’t remember? She glared at him.

This had happened to her before, only she had come out of the blackout in a bed, next to an unfamiliar man who was soundly passed out. Gathering her clothing, dressing quickly, a ridiculous short leather skirt and tube top, she crept out of the room, only to discover it was necessary to pass through the living room, past two children watching cartoons in their pajamas and the woman ironing beside them. Well, at least I’m dressed this time.

“No. I don’t remember a goddamn thing, OK?”

He smiled. “Thanks be to God,” he said, sounding kind. He reached to pat her knee, then stopped himself.

She swiveled in her seat, looking at the couple behind her, their faces too close to read through the thin crack between the seats. Seeing only that they were elderly, she leaned over in the other direction, looking past the man, at the people across the aisle. They sat curiously silent, frozen and grim. They were holding hands, she noticed. The woman’s knuckles were white, face pale.

The girls had loved Shane, almost as much as she did. He drew caricatures of them and their friends, made up silly songs on his banjo for them. Why do I pick these guys? She thought she was making better choices in men since getting clean and sober. Admit it. You thought it was your Higher Power’s will that you and Shane be together—a reward for staying sober.

Indigo Eyes undid his seat belt. “Excuse me a minute,” he said, getting up.

Annie nodded, as she realized something was wrong. For the first time, she tuned in to her gut. Something was definitely wrong. Much more wrong than waking up in a blackout even, certainly worse than getting a coffeepot instead of something romantic, like jewelry, from Shane for her fortieth birthday. What could be more wrong than having a relapse?

And yes, now she remembered taking that first justified drink, a drink that sent her into the thousandth blackout of her life after three years of hard-won sobriety. How important Shane’s transgression had seemed. How big. How distant and small it seemed now, how far away, how long ago. She had no idea how long ago, but she knew it might have been as long as several days. She remembered how the coffeepot, revealed in its box as she ripped the giftwrap away, had touched some wounded place deep inside her, had stood for all the ways she was never, ever good enough. And never would be.

“I thought you would like it! I make you coffee every morning!” Shane had screamed, then threw his cup, barely missing her head. She cried. The minute she saw the coffeepot, it was over. Her insides twisted. The belief, or rather idea or wish, that he loved her was debunked.

Now, Annie’s stomach hollowed. She leaned her forehead against the tiny airplane windowpane. She tried to remember where she had been, who she might have been with, but she knew from experience that you can never retrieve the time lost in an alcoholic blackout.

Whatever she had done, it would be revealed slowly, if at all. Sideways looks from friends. Neighbors not meeting her eyes. A credit card bill. Years ago, if she’d been drinking with a friend, the friend would fill in the blanks for her, sometimes hooting, “You don’t remember strip-teasing—a dollar for every article of clothing you took off?” Shaking her head.

But Annie had stopped drinking with friends a long time ago. By the time she got sober, she had progressed to drinking in isolated binges, sending the girls off to see their grandparents, locking herself up in the house, afraid to leave, afraid of what she might do.

The man with the indigo eyes had vanished. The plane shifted and dropped, losing elevation. Eerily, the plane lit up as though the sun had appeared from behind a cloud. Annie was relieved. We must be landing. Though she hadn’t heard the usual announcements for passengers to fasten their seatbelts. Maybe they were in a holding pattern. At least they were approaching New York City. She would rent a car and drive to Boston, hopefully make it before the girls were supposed to fly in.

She had an urgent need to pee and undid her seatbelt, pulling herself up just as the plane banked sharply, throwing her back against the window. Glancing out, she thought they were still awfully high for a landing, buildings loomed.

As she rose again, murmuring, panicked voices rose at the same time, an ominous hum, broken by unintelligible mutters. She had vaguely noticed the restless noise all around her rising but had been too self-absorbed to pay attention. Now, standing, still shielding her eyes, what Annie saw was incomprehensible.

The people seated across the aisle, the woman with the white knuckles, moaned and the man next to her had his arms around her, rocking. The dark-eyed man appeared from behind the first-class curtain in the aisle just front of Annie, holding his hands, palms facing out, next to his head, repeating something Annie could not understand in what sounded like a chant. Annie thought of Becky, sticking her thumbs in her ears, waggling her fingers at her sister, Sara, babbling nonsense, a little monkey. What is he doing?

 “Allahu ahkbar. Allahu ahkbar. Allahu ahkbar.”

“I told you, John!” a scream, sobs. “Please, God.” An increasing hum filled Annie’s head; her ears buzzed with higher and higher frequencies, as though a beehive had been disturbed. She couldn’t tell if the buzzing came from inside her head or out. Her eyes blurred, and her arms stiffened, fingers cramping into claws.

The thought occurred to her, I’m going to die.

At almost the same time, she and the dark-eyed man, now standing next to her, spoke. Annie felt confused; her legs weren’t working.

“I can’t breathe.”

He was looking directly into her eyes, a question in his.

She could not look away, unable to answer. Something inside grew and her entire body responded, yes, in answer to his unspoken question, the most important question, she realized, of her life. Yes! Annie’s body answered, every cell in her body filling up with energy.

A yell emerged from her gut, through her chest, and out her throat in a pure release, then lightness, and Annie heard herself laugh. Yes! The yes engulfed her, growing larger and larger; she was floating, the cramping left her arms, and every question, every puzzle, all confusion dissolved, even as her bowels loosened.

Yes. I want to live. How had she never really known this?

She stared back at the man. He chanted intently, still looking at her, yet past her, at something she could not see.

“What?” she said, or thought she said. “What? I got drunk and I’m on a plane that’s going to crash. It is, isn’t it? Why?”

The man grabbed her arms, the arms she threw up to hit him with, pummel him, repeating only the phrase, “In-sha-alla. In-sha-alla.” She flailed at him, her clenched fists seeking a target, screaming. She tried to spit at him, but her mouth was empty of saliva. Arms and voice weak, she crumpled, and his arms folded around her, almost gently, as a terrible roaring surrounded them, a fierce wind they could not see.

Annie heard a child crying and it was as though every child in the universe cried at once. Sara. Becky. She fell into the man, her knees buckling, and he fell with her, still whispering, “In-sha-allah,” and Annie allowed herself, just for a moment, to feel comfort in the strange words, the unfamiliar arms, the momentary touch of another.

Though she had no idea what the man was chanting, Annie’s voice joined with the dark-eyed man’s, his crooning, “In-sha-allah. In-sha-allah.”The two of them held on to what was in reach, each other, another human being.

“Ma-sha-allah,” he said, and Annie felt the wetness of his face against hers.

“Ma-sha-allah,” she said.

 

Kelly Thompson has been published or anthologized in Guernica, Electric Literature, Entropy, Oh Comely, The Rattling Wall, The Rumpus, Proximity, The Writing Disorder, Witchcraft, Manifest Station, 49 Writers, and other literary journals. She is also the curator for the popular “Voices on Addiction” column at The Rumpus.

 

Book Review: Susan Henderson’s “The Flicker of Old Dreams”

BY: A.m. Larks

Isolation and ostracization feature heavily in Susan Henderson’s latest novel, The Flicker of Old Dreams. The setting is Petroleum, Montana, population 182 and decreasing, “Those who’ve heard of Petroleum are often surprised it’s still here. The town is primarily known for what it no longer has: oil.”  In a town this small, the people of Petroleum are required to be interdependent upon one another because the trains have stopped running, there is no cell service, and the winters are long and harsh. “This view of Petroleum is picaresque as the community, every single member, it seems, helps to shovel what they can.” And in part, this view of Petroleum is true: “The festival is less a celebration than a day to prepare for the upcoming snowstorms. Today neighbors will weatherproof homes, share tools, supplies, and labor.” “One of the neighbors with a snowplow attached to the front of his truck scrapes up and down the streets. This should make it easier to get to the highway.” The people who stay in Petroleum are committed to community and interdependence: “This is the life we commit to here. That we cannot rely on others. That no one can reach us so we better help ourselves.” However, in any social group, there exist dissidents. The Flickers of Old Dreams explores what happens to two such “outsiders.”

Read More

Quickenings

By: Mathieu Cailler

1

At seventeen weeks, Larissa can feel her baby kick. Sharing food and water, flesh and blood has bonded her with her boy. With every ounce of added weight and new curve appearing on the ultrasound, the more aware she becomes of the world around him. She wants society to be perfect, and even though it never will be, there are still some things she can control.

2

Mr. and Mrs. Chaffey were generous people. They called Larissa daily, fetched her groceries, and, one time, even bought her new pillows and a water filter. “Anything for you,” Mrs. Chaffey always said. But as weeks turned into months and months became trimesters, Larissa’s premonition returned. The orange chrysanthemums she’d gifted them had started it all. Whenever she entered the Chaffeys’ home, she noticed the flowers on the tabletop, their petals drying and resting at the base of the pot. Why was it not being watered?

It upset her, but she tried to move forward. Her intuition was her greatest gift, though—

one, much like her cheekbones, that she’d done little to deserve. There was that time she changed meeting spots with a friend because she had an inkling of fear, and something did happen: A kitchen fire overtook the entire restaurant, killing one. She also had a premonition with a well-renowned photographer on a shoot in Brooklyn, and later, after the ad was shot, he’d invited her up for drinks, pinned her wrists above her head, and tried to kiss her. She’d managed to free herself by sinking her teeth into his right ear, then hurried down the fire escape.

3

She enters the waiting area, plops in a seat, and squeezes her duffel between her sneakers. She only has the one bag, stuffed with a week’s worth of clothes and a bunch of hotel-sized toiletries. It’s not much to show for two-plus years in America, but she’s had to act fast. Modeling happened in spurts—a gig here and there—but the world of go-sees and catwalks and cigarettes for dinner was never her thing, so she found work as a nanny. But when Caio, her brother, got sick, she needed more money, and a friend told her about the Chaffeys.

4

Just a simple transaction, Larissa told herself. She read over the Chaffeys’ contract, even had her friend whose English was superior comb over the thick paragraphs. I can do it, she thought. It will get Caio the help he needs as he waits for a kidney transplant. She thanked God. With Him she still spoke Portuguese: Obrigado, Deus.

5

While digging through her purse for a piece of gum, Larissa notices her blinking phone. She has two messages. The first one is from Mrs. Chaffey: Hi, Larissa. Hope this finds you well. How are you? Just calling to check in. Haven’t heard from you in a couple days, and I know you haven’t been feeling all that well. Is there anything I can do? Anything at all? Are you okay with money? I think I told you—yes, I’m sure I did—about the appointment with Dr. Thatcher on Wednesday. Remember we moved the time from 11:30 to 10:30. Do you want to carpool with us? We can pick you up on the way…

Larissa hangs up as an announcement pops from the loudspeakers. Her heart gallops. She taps her right foot on the ground and repeatedly brings her knees together and apart.

6

For four months now, these guttural pains, these notions have stayed with her and intensified. As she approached the Chaffeys’ home for another check-in, she saw Mr. Chaffey yell at a boy for riding his bike too close to his car. She tucked behind a neighbor’s cypress and crouched down. The timbre of his scream was menacing, and what worried her most was how gentle he was once she buzzed the doorbell, fetching her water and an orange—even peeling it for her, in one long coil—with a smile on his face. He’d gotten so skilled, Larissa thought, at camouflaging his rage that even she’d missed it at first—Mrs. Chaffey was still oblivious, or maybe just resigned—but now Larissa could spot it, flickering just beyond the rims of his blue irises, like pilot lights, always burning.

7

At twenty-seven, Larissa has known and seen plenty of pregnant women, and they’ve always been quick to let her know how difficult the process could be, but so far Larissa has enjoyed the course. Morning sickness hasn’t been an issue, and routine moments, like making herself farofa, seem to carry extra importance, as she cooks for two. She especially likes when she can feel her baby’s movements—which her doctor calls “quickenings”—while someone is chatting with her. Her baby always strikes the same spot, an inch left of her belly button, and the whole time, she smiles, thinking, You don’t know what’s happening inside me. It’s like she and the baby speak a tacit language, one in which only the two of them are fluent.

8

Just two days ago, Mrs. Chaffey and Larissa spoke and laughed, discussed cravings and kickings. The phone rang, and Mrs. Chaffey chased it down, her bare feet pounding on the hardwood floor, rattling the dishes in the buffet. “Coming! Coming!” she said, as if her words would somehow carry to the caller. Larissa sipped her herbal tea and stared out the small kitchen window over the sink. Mr. Chaffey was gardening in his pajama bottoms, no shoes, and bare-chested. He leaned against a sharp shovel, whose blade reflected a spot of sun.

The symptoms of her foreboding returned: Coolness oozed over Larissa in the usual progression, starting at the small of her back, spiraling outwards to the top of her spine till it reached her neck, making her shiver. Her stomach simmered, and she dumped the rest of her tea into the sink.

Minutes passed.

She was wrong.

And glad.

Just as the presentiment lifted and relief began to overtake her limbs, a garden snake that was no wider than a shoelace slithered through the backyard’s deep dirt grooves, away from Mr. Chaffey. Without hesitation, he tracked it down, plodding on bits of dry soil. Curls of rich dust floated upwards. He closed in on the snake as it neared a thicket of rosemary. Just before the snake could reach safety, he cocked his shovel back and speared the bright green creature. He managed to cut the snake in almost perfect halves, and both segments quivered for a few seconds before falling still.

Saliva pooled in Larissa’s throat. She couldn’t swallow.

Mr. Chaffey turned her way but didn’t bring his eyes toward the kitchen window. A gleam shone off his face—an air of pride, like he wanted people to take notice of his accomplishment.

9

She presses her phone to her ear and listens to the second message. Again, it’s Mrs. Chaffey. Hi, Larissa. It’s me. Not sure if you got my other message. Are you okay? I have to admit I just stopped by your place and used the spare key you gave me. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t sick or something. You weren’t there, and it was pretty early in the morning. I tidied up a bit, too. Sorry, just couldn’t help it. There were lots of towels on the floor and clothes scattered everywhere. I even put a load of laundry in for you. Hopefully, by the time you get home it’ll be done. Anyhow, call me.

Larissa gazes out the large window that showcases a sunlit runway. Jets are stationary one moment, then blasting forward and lifting into the air. Wheels tuck back into the planes’ shells instantly after takeoff. Pilots don’t give themselves second chances. They know the engines are capable. They know physics is on their side. And if tons of steel and fuel and people can soar across the atmosphere, rip through clouds, and evade the sun, then maybe, Larissa thinks, this is possible, too.

An airline employee who wears a cocked beret pinned into her brown locks speaks: “At this time, we’d like to invite our premier fliers, service members, and families with small children to board first.”

With her phone in hand, Larissa gets up and leans against her seat. She wiggles her numbing toes and plucks her ticket from her purse, where her fingers also come into contact with a sharp piece of paper. It’s her copy of the contract from the Chaffeys, crinkled and creased, the words gestational surrogate are bolded as well as 80,000 dollars. She wraps her phone in the document and drops them both into a trashcan, savoring the pop as they strike an aluminum can. She knows it’s someone else’s sperm, someone else’s egg, but she believes—and always will—that biology comes second to humanity.

Brazil is not far now. The smell of pork fat in feijoada and the bright punch of motorbikes’ gasoline feel close. She can see Caio’s chin dimple and her mother’s chipped smile.

“Now boarding passengers in Group B,” the woman says. “Group B.” Larissa heads to the front of the line, clutching her duffel. She hands her ticket to the attendant, and the woman drags the barcode across the scanner. The beep is sharp and rings in Larissa’s ears. “Have a nice flight,” the woman says. “And congratulations.”

Larissa smiles, stands tall, and begins the long walk through the loading bridge.


Mathieu Cailler’s poetry and prose have been widely featured in numerous national and international publications, including the Los Angeles Times and The Saturday Evening Post. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he is the recipient of a Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction and a Shakespeare Award for Poetry. He is the author of Clotheslines (Red Bird Press), Shhh (ELJ Publications), and Loss Angeles (Short Story America Press), which has been honored by the Hollywood, New York, London, Paris, Best Book, and International Book Awards. His newest book, May I Have This Dance? (About Editions), was recently named poetry winner of the New England Book Festival.

East China Sea

By: Art Hanlon

The Able Seaman

I left home in the dead of winter with a forged birth certificate, four dollars and change, and the clothes on my back three weeks after a Christmas morning in which my mother and grandmother confronted me in the living room next to the artificial tree and told me there were to be no presents that year. I could have hardly cared less; I was soon to be sailing to China like my great, great grandfather, the master of a clipper ship in the tea trade.

My mother and grandmother were clearly troubled because they let time slip through their fingers and somehow forgot (forgot?) to buy presents. I stood by witnessing their distress with a lofty sense of all the worldliness I had attained since quitting high school, wondering how my standing in the neighborhood could have somehow eluded them. I wasn’t indifferent; I was aloof, pitying. They hadn’t even noticed when I dropped out of high school in October, one month into my junior year. The expression of concern in my mother’s eyes vanished as she realized I hadn’t been hurt by the absence of presents. She stepped to the small plastic tree propped up on a sideboard and began writing out a check for $25, telling me I could use it to buy whatever I wanted. She seemed disappointed and irritated by my inappropriate placidity as she leaned hard into the checkbook with the ball point. I was more of a mystery to my mother than I was to my grandmother. My grandmother, a math prodigy whose gift had been neglected, stood behind my mother, her lips slightly pursed in agitation, her brow furrowed with impatient concern for both her daughter and her grandson.

“Even a gun?” I had an undeveloped sense of irony, but enough to visualize an audience for that remark, like Pete Meagher, my erstwhile best friend who lived across the street, lately a foot soldier in the Madison Street gang, or characters pulled up from books or down from the movie screen. Late summer, September, back to school at a Tuesday Novena during an afternoon of sun showers, the hot sidewalk outside hissing as the rain hit the asphalt, Brother Robert, in his black suit, who taught earth science and mathematics, stood at the end of the pew with the “cherry stick,” his cure for classroom antics, regarding me over the bowed heads of my murmuring classmates. He noted my refusal to kneel, my silence, my boredom. I stared back, not afraid to let him see my rage, making my defiance and hatred of his oppression obvious, while the rest of the student body sang hymns and chanted prayers. He stood in the aisle, slapping the side of his leg with that gnarled rod in response, his expression full of promise.

When Brother Robert moved off, I had a moment of mild panic over the disbelief and resistance I had set in motion. What I was leaving behind? Would I be pursued? As I stared through the prismatic cloud of sun-stained incense rising before the church windows, I swore I could sense the Archangel Michael, Aries’ medieval Christian incarnation, backing away. I, who had taken his name at my confirmation, envisioned his wings, so bat-like in their hinged, articulated metacarpals, their webbing of thin velvet membranes still holding the shape of my body, folding with the sound of an umbrella snapping shut. I felt the palpable withdrawal of his protection, heard his bowstring droning like a dulcimer above the sound of the boy choir as he abandoned me to the shadows. The phantasmal coil had been cut, maybe forever.

I had been freed, released, dropped, fired, let go, liberated, whatever you want to call it. I could not afford to be afraid. Walking with me at midnight on Catalpa Avenue, a neighborhood street, the night following my Novena vision, Pete Meagher pulled a loaded revolver from a shoulder holster hidden inside his jacket, a Ruger single six .22 caliber “flatgate,” with its Bisley grip and hammer. He was desperate to show it off. And with good reason. You had to admire the nasty beauty of its blued barrel and cylinder, the varnished walnut grips, the empowerment, the authority vested by its lethality. It contained so much—promise—I don’t know what else to call it. For me to even see Pete posing with this peacemaker in his hand, his fingers curled around the grip, forefinger resting on the trigger guard, was enough to send a rush of cascading imagery tumbling from the cave of my imagination, starting with the Conquistadores in shining carapaces of silver pictured in my elementary school history book, mingling with the Redcoats and the frontiersmen in buckskin, the pioneers, the cowboys, the Seventh Cavalry, onward glorious history to San Juan Hill, Sergeant York, the images ascending all the way to the flag raising on bloody Iwo, and then downhill from there—lately to Charlie Starkweather, Huey Long, Charlie Anastasia—the question of how far downhill still unimagined.

“Let me see,” I said.

Pete hesitated for just a moment but then gave a little shrug and angled the pistol grip in my direction. I took the revolver out of Pete’s hand and pulled the hammer back, swiftly, before he could react, and snapped a shot off at a streetlight with a serrated metal shade over a 150-Watt bulb. The bullet drilled the shade bing before hitting the pole, raising splinters and a little cloud of dust. The light didn’t even flicker.

Pete took one hop and ran, leaving me standing with his revolver in my hand, the sound of the shot still echoing, the smell of cordite and creosote in the air mingled with the dank odor of the rotting autumn leaves lining the gutters. I didn’t know why he took off; nobody living on the street opened a door or raised a window. I should have been afraid; the fact that I was not might have been a warning sign. The next day I found Pete slouched along the cyclone fence in Madison Park and returned the gun, sidling up to him and handing it over so not to be seen by the others. As a precaution against impulsiveness, I had unloaded the bullets the night before, but he wouldn’t look at me or even speak to me as he snatched the pistol away, not even checking to see if it was still loaded, and stuffed it inside his jacket, still leaning into the pocket of wire cyclone fencing formed by years of slouching teenagers. He had known all along I wasn’t sidekick material.

My mother gave me one of her patented looks of utter disgust and finished writing the check, giving her signature a final underlining scrawl. I was at the age where I understood the link between antagonism and subversion. And yet, I wanted her to say she knew I was only joking, to laugh, innocent of my intentions, which might have been enough to tip my aspirations in another direction, but of course, the instinct to antagonize ran in the family. Behind my grandmother, as if in ranks on the sideboard and leaning on the mirrored shelf, were photographs of herself with her parents. Arranged behind that file of crisp photos were sepia photos of their parents, including, within a yellowed, oval cardboard frame, a daguerreotype of my great, great grandfather, Michael Cummins, in bowler hat and frock coat, the sea captain and professional conversationalist standing on the steps of a Booterstown row house in the shadow of University College. He had given up sailing tea clippers right after the Great Tea Race of 1866. He had lived in China, in London, and Dublin, and was ready to embark for a settled life in the New World. And it had come to this… I could hear him saying if he should suddenly arrive in our house as a haunt. The walls were bare, not even calendars to mar the timelessness of childhood, nothing at all except for the crucifixes in every room. Living with these women, these familial remnants, it was easy for me to sense that at least one twisting skein of the family yarn had unraveled and gotten somehow stranded in America and, after one or two generations, just kind of petered out—the sons ending their lives prematurely on southern battlefields, at sea, or in knife fights in Brooklyn alleys, in barrooms, by their own hand following financial disaster, or as confirmed bachelors living so long and so bereft of consequence they just faded away in the care of sisters or nieces; the daughters changing their names as they became absorbed into other families. Unlike his brothers, Michael Cummins’ profession protected him from conscription during the Civil War. Family stories told about Captain Cummins—how his ship had been one of sixteen clipper ships in the Tea Race, leaving Foochow, China in May, sailing around the Horn of Africa and arriving in London in February. My real father, long gone from the family, was a bookie who hung out in a Flushing saloon. It was the sea captain I was said to favor.

And I was meant to sail the East China Sea. Figured maybe it was in my blood, so striking for Able Seaman on a freighter was what I originally planned. I was ready to go, but even given the power of my tractive dreaming, I almost changed my mind about shipping out when I saw The Gatekeeper centered in the clerk’s window at the seaman’s union hall. John Framer, the name written on his nametag in grease pencil, looked as if he had spent his entire life at sea and had only lately been forced into a desk job. Why was I so disappointed in this…this…clerk? Did I expect to find him wearing a tricorn, a patch over his eye, a parrot on his shoulder? When I appeared in his window, a single eyebrow shot up and merged with the channels ribbed across his forehead. I was beginning to learn how experience sculpts the body to express its life. He, in turn, looked at me as if he were about to shuck an oyster. I presented my credentials, which is to say, my forged birth certificate. He looked down at the worn page with the smudged over-typing without touching it. “What’s this?” I wondered if he could tell how young I was. Fifteen.

“I want to ship out on a freighter.” I affected a tough, streetwise demeanor as I spoke. I had that shit down cold, but my confidence wavered when I heard a few chuckling voices behind me. Framer seemed to smile, but I really couldn’t say. Who could tell the meaning behind the single quiver of a lone facial ridge, one among so many? He pushed the paper back with the finger of one massively calloused hand, the fingers yellowed with nicotine, the extended fingernail hooked and thickly ridged with fungus. He coughed once with a kind of pneumatic, phlegm-flooded chuff from deep within his leaky respiratory system. “Yeah, well….”

Instantly, I realized how little I had to offer, and my tough demeanor melted away. I felt like snatching back my laughable credential and running for the door, but to my surprise, Framer’s face lit up. “You promise not to break anything on the ship if I give you a job?”  He kept shooting glances over my shoulder at the group behind me, his face full of something significant but unidentifiable to me. I was too hopeful to take his tone and his remark as ridicule. In my head, I was already standing lookout watches on the flying bridge of a tramp steamer headed for Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Kobe. I thanked him politely just as his secretary called over to tell him he had a phone call.

“Wait here,” he said. As he turned, the lower part of his face cracked into something that just might have been a smile, and I decided not to give up hope. Instead, I remembered how excited I felt when I exited the subway early that morning and found a line of merchantmen leaning on the wall outside of the union hall as if too landsick to stand up straight. They had seen so much of the world, and I hoped I was about to do the same. Where, I wondered, could I find the same kind of Navy-blue pea coat and watch hat that some of them wore. Once inside, the hall was so quiet I thought the entire cavernous space—capacious as an armory or an airplane hangar—was deserted until I began to hear little coughs and throat clearings from the benches. Blue cigarette smoke hung suspended in the cold white light filtered down through chicken wired windows high on the walls. In a railed enclosure behind the counter and just before the door to Framer’s office, a woman sat slowly typing behind a desk. The clacking of the keys echoed through the hall. A cloche hat with a floral cluster tacked to its curved brim hung over the reference books lined between two metal bookends atop her desk. Framer hung up the phone and waved me past his secretary’s desk and into his little hotbox of an office. The radiator in the small office was on full blast and every few seconds it would give out a metallic knock and drip a few drops of condensation into a tin pie plate on the floor a few inches under the valve. Framer sat behind the metal desk, his hands folded on the desk blotter. The desk was clear except for a black telephone and intercom console, a pen set in the center, his empty in/out boxes and a single ashtray with a lit, half-smoked butt balanced on the rim. He took out a folder from the file cabinet. “I might have something for you. We call it the Guano Express, and it goes to the Caribbean and back hauling sh…, ahum, fertilizer.” Framer examined me across his desk, his eyebrows raised as if inviting me to say something. It was an awkward moment. “Sounds like a real shit job, huh?” He laughed at his own remark.

“Not really,” I said.” Not that funny. Anything, anything, just get me on a ship. I had gone to a Catholic high school and could humor the worst of those holy bastards. Framer was just another gatekeeper.

“Well, if you want to go to sea, they need someone who’s good with a shovel.” Smoke from his parked cigarette curled into the air. Expressionless, he continued to stare at the paper in his hand. I quickly assured Framer I had shoveled snow every winter since I could walk and was a very good shoveler indeed. Framer’s pause lengthened, and he pulled a speck of tobacco out of the corner of his lip. Then he turned his head and spat thpp into the air over his shoulder.

“There’s only one little detail.” Another drop of water hit the pie plate. “This is a special job, so I want you to bring something to the ship when you go. It’s important, the ship can’t go anywhere unless you do this.”

“Sure.”

He paused again, shifting the papers in the folder and, for an endless stretch it seemed, visibly shifting the gears in his mind. Oh no, I thought, second thoughts are going to kill me here, but then his features settled into a resolve that I found encouraging. Hope did not die on its slender vine.

“Go down the street to the tavern on the corner.” He turned his head to the side. Thpp. His cheeks looked not exactly unshaven, but rather as if they had been plucked and scalded, and pinfeathers were all that remained. His head swiveled back. “It’s run by a retired deck ape, an old shipmate of mine; ask for Mickey.”

“Okay…”

“Tell Mickey you need a bucket of steam to bring back here. Myra ran out of steam this morning, didn’t you, Myra.” His secretary looked up from her desk and frowned hatefully at her boss.

Framer didn’t even try to suppress his laughter, spluttering, tripping over his words. “It’s for the coils,” he said. “On the ship, the guano ship. Why do you think they call it a steamship company?” His last laugh, wet, plosive, was more like a sneeze that wouldn’t come, and the effort hardened his wrinkled face into a scrimshaw of amused misery. I remember thinking this was exactly what he would look like when he had the heart attack that would kill him. That thought was little consolation while I listened to the subdued chuckling from within the shadows outside the office door. He’s at it again, I heard someone say. What made them think I was dumb enough to fall for that archaic trick? I could see there wasn’t going to be any ship—that I never really had a chance. Framer was just trying to make his day a little less boring. He was a real comedian of the proletariat, full of bitter, depression-era solidarity with a class that had been almost completely rasped out of existence—for me, in an instant, life as per my imagination became more B. Traven than Joseph Conrad. I wanted to take my leave with as much rudeness as I could muster, so I stopped at the railing to cast back what I thought would be a final devastating remark: “What happened to your Parrot, Sinbad?”

He didn’t even look up from the paper he was reading, so all I glimpsed looking back to see his reaction were his foreshortened, disintegrating features—the encysted cranial dome, a brownish mole on its left temple, the greasy strands of grayish hair pushed behind his ears.

“I ate it.”

On the Myrtle Avenue line, I leaned on the window as the train made its way over the elevated tracks to the Fresh Pond Road station. I felt a cold meanness rise from the region where it is said the encaged heart resides. I would get into a fight tonight at Madison Park. I would start it. Win or lose, I would have no friends left when I was finished.

When the train approached the Wyckoff Avenue station, I glimpsed a military recruiting booth, as narrow and tall as an outhouse tucked almost completely down under the elevated platform on Myrtle Avenue, and I had one of those moments in which you see an opportunity that can be grasped, but only if action is taken immediately. I rushed off the train just before the doors closed, went through the turn-styles, and down to the street. The Marine recruiter’s office under the ‘el station resembled one of those guardhouses at the border between two countries with a tradition of mutual suspicion. A poster of the famous Joe Rosenthal photo of the flag raising on Iwo Jima hung in a narrow window. Underneath the poster, a slogan: Nobody likes to fight; but somebody has to know how. The Marine sergeant, an athletic all-American type, wore the Marine dress uniform, sky-blue trousers, a long-sleeved khaki shirt with three stripes on the sleeve, and a tie. The brass buckle of his web belt was polished. His jaw was angled like the iron blade of a snowplow. He took off his peaked hat and sat down, gesturing me over to a chair next to his desk. He was a big man, and the size of the outhouse he had to work in was not proportional to his size. I wondered if, when his work was done here, his quota filled, the recruiter would collapse his intricate folding box of a recruiting station and hand carry it like a salesman’s suitcase to the next neighborhood. I decided it would be hilarious to just ask him exactly that. Ten seconds after my wise-ass question and a few other choice remarks, the recruiter told me I was a punk but that I just might have the right stuff. He invited me to take a day to think about what I was doing and come back to his little house in the morning to take the mental test; although, he doubted I could pass it.

That evening I put Japanese Koto music on the hi fi, lit a candle on a bench by the wall opposite my bed, and turned out the lights. From the cabinet, I took out the I Ching and a little statuette of Kuan Yin I bought in Chinatown and centered it on the bench. I lit a stick of incense, placing it on a small, bicycle hubcap upended in front of the statue, and sat cross-legged on the floor. I took out three coins, juggled them around in my cupped hands, and tossed them to the floor. I wrote down the results and tossed the coins five more times. I tossed all changing lines; sixes and nines. When I finished, I looked up the Hexagram: ChunDifficulty in the Beginning.

I examined the hexagram. Nine at the bottom: Pondering and pondering: one should find helpers.

Six in the second place: Many difficulties. Present time is auspicious for change; perhaps the military.

Six in the third place: Lost in the forest, the superior man gives up the hunt.

Six in the fourth place: Good fortune; students will find favorable job. I hadn’t really planned on joining the Marines.

Nine at the bottom: One should seek helpers.

I turned my attention back to six in the second place: Present time is auspicious for change; perhaps the military.

We’d given a lot to the wars of this republic: a great grand Uncle, Edward Cummins, in the Army of the Potomac killed at Brandy Station; another Cummins on the Confederate side, Grandfather Michael’s brother, George, not seen or heard from since leaving Ireland, showing up in New Orleans only to be killed in Kentucky, both brothers drawn to the cavalry, neither brother aware of the other in the opposing army. A distant cousin, a Houlihan, was blinded by gas at Belleau Wood. My mother’s first cousin Jimmy Cummins died on Omaha Beach. My father’s brother, Patrick Houlihan, was at Corregidor and spent the war years doing forced labor as a prisoner of the Japanese. According to my grandmother, Uncle Patrick was not at all the same person when he returned. If you are death’s accountant calculating over a spread of years, the battle deaths may not seem so much, but if you compress the generations of your own family so diminished, counting up those who have paid the price and slipped away, the butcher’s bill, as U.S. Grant called his casualties, adds up. Such arithmetic compels a certain vested interest in the goings-on of the republic.

The chances of a war breaking out gave me pause, and as crazy as I was in those days, experiencing combat was definitely not one of my burning aspirations. I spent a few tortured hours in my room trying to make up my mind. The cold war had forced a stalemate between the two major belligerents. In three years, I would be eligible for the draft, and by then, the current period of non-hostility might well have run its course and kindled something more dire. The sooner, therefore, I got the military out of the way, the better. I was well aware that the timing of my enlistment might work favorably in terms of my own survival. And so, a most beguiling irony occurred to me: from a certain perspective, it could be said I was consciously and presciently playing the odds in the great roulette wheel of our national life and had, therefore, come upon the most obtuse form of draft-dodging ever devised. That was a winning perspective, so appealing on so many levels that I was able to make up my mind. I turned back to the I Ching hexagram; the first four lines of the hexagram were so apposite, significant and persuasive, seeming to answer my needs so thoroughly, that I paid scant attention to the last two lines: Nine in the fifth place: plan carefully; caution forestalls trouble. Six at the top: He paces back and forth on horseback; He sheds tears with blood!

 

The next day, the recruiter barely glanced at my birth certificate when I handed it over. He put it to one side, rotated in his chair, pulled a folder out of the filing cabinet, rotated back, and slid the test booklet across the desk. He maintained his severe impassivity when I told him about my union hall misadventure but cracked a smile when I said I wanted to live a life of adventure. That I wanted to sail the East China Sea, like Jack London, like Martin Eden, like my great, great grandfather. He took my fantasy talk right in stride, and I detected neither cruelty nor irony when he shrugged and said “You’ll get there.” His expression allowed me to interpret his unexpected remark as a vote of confidence. The test, a simple multiple-choice exam, was surprisingly easy. Any high school senior could have passed it. It took me about twenty minutes to work it through. “Didn’t take you very long,” he said when I handed it over, insinuating that my final score would suffer because I had rushed through the test. He put the answer template over my answer sheet and proceeded to grade the results. His scrutiny, when he glanced up, made me uncomfortable, but his gaze was appraising, not penetrating, and that allowed me the latitude to believe I still held some mystery for him—I was still an unknown, possibly malleable, quantity as far as the Marine Corps was concerned. “By Jove,” he said as he raised his head. “You passed.”

In the morning, I sat up in bed after lying awake for most of the night. The room smelled of stale incense and vomit. I had puked up quantities of cheap wine after staggering through the door long after midnight, my knuckles scraped, an egg of pure bone pushing up from the ridge over my eye. I didn’t know if I had won anything, but after the preliminaries, I had come out swinging with an inspired resistance full of virtuous resentment and a satisfying anger so deep and so unspecific that I had to wonder where it all came from. I had gotten my wish. I no longer had any friends.


Art Hanlon was born in Brooklyn, New York. After serving in the Marine Corps, he attended the University of California at Berkeley, taking a bachelor’s degree in American history and English, and a master’s degree in journalism. He worked as a newspaper reporter, a country blues musician, a theater set carpenter, a technical writer, and a book editor before returning to the University of California, Riverside, Palm Desert for a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and writing for the performing arts. While at Riverside he was the poetry editor for The Coachella Review. He is currently an associate poetry editor for Narrative Magazine. His song, “Spokane,” won first prize in the 2005 Tumbleweed Music Festival in Richland, Washington. His work has appeared in Surfing IllustratedArt Access, and Narrative Magazine.

Los Angeles Stories

By: Stephen Elliott

 

Los Angeles 1

The cafe is on the other side of the hill, not even a far walk. The tables are wood slabs bonded in a blue steel frame. The tile is blue and white, and, contemplating the floor while drinking coffee, I realize there is no wrong way to lay the pattern; turn them any direction and they’ll match, one after another. Any way you want.

I moved here because I thought I was someone else. I wrote a script about an action hero that wants to retire. I made short movies about a taxi driver. I went to meetings and asked people for jobs. Someone suggested I could be a checker at Costco. 

I asked a friend over email if she thought it was too late for me to get into advertising.

“I think I’d be good at it,” I said.

“Yes,” she replied. “You’re probably too old.”

I’m forty-six.

“How is the movie business?” she asked.

“With or without me,” I replied. 

We didn’t have much in common anyway.

I like to think of a television show called Television Show. It opens with a surgeon operating on a person in a round room with stadium-style seating. The patient is in real trouble. The surgeon is a good, capable man. But he’s perhaps wrong about something. There are a lot of closeups on people’s eyes. 

We cut outside the operating room and there are students watching the procedure on a video feed.

Her hand snakes up his leg and he pretends not to notice. Years ago it would have been the boy pressing his palm inside the girl’s thigh, but those days are over. Maybe that’s good. Anyway, as the Polish say, “Not my circus, not my monkey.’

I don’t know if the patient lives or dies. It’s a real cliffhanger.

Yesterday I saw Gizelle and we went to a vegan restaurant for dinner. We ordered soup and spicy eggplant. I recommended lentil quesadillas and she recommended I get a therapist.

“Therapy is expensive,” I told her.

“Depends what you can afford,” she said.

We drove through all the neighborhoods north of downtown. We took three highways and lots of side streets. I ran out of things to say, so she put on music.

“How are you doing?” she asked.

She played Flight of the Conchords and we sang along as we drove south on I-5 facing the sky scrapers, the insurance buildings, and the Ritz-Carlton.

That was the end of the night. Before that, over dinner, she’d told me about voices, connections she could make, when to listen and when to turn a deaf ear. I told her I regretted everything. She asked what I meant. I said that this moment was on the horizon my entire life. I was going to regret my choices no matter what they were.

“Unpack it for me,” she said. 

I told her I wished I had stayed in one place. But instead I jumped, as if from a burning building. My past was always right behind me. And it was unbearable.

“And that’s how I ended up here,” I said.

“That’s not how I see you,” she replied.

Los Angeles 2

Earthquake Weather.

It rained last night, something it never does here. And today the sky is full of tall white clouds but otherwise clear and blue, so it’s possible, from the East Side, to see the cumulus perched like hats above the Santa Monica mountains.

After the 7 am meeting I followed Dale Anne across the wet street to smoke. I like her. She paints her nails ten different colors and has tattoos on her knuckles and she makes me feel calm. She said she met her boyfriend in rehab.

“I tried not to,” she said. We were leaning against the Elliott Smith mural; the building felt like a block of ice. “I was engaged to my girlfriend at the time. But after I got clean I didn’t know her anymore. Then I realized I never did.”

“I had a relationship like that once,” I said, referring to her boyfriend, not her girlfriend. “We were engaged but I really wanted to marry her family.”

“You don’t get to do that,” Dale Anne said, exhaling.

I’ve been thinking about getting a gun but there is a ten-day waiting period for a gun license in California. I called a store in Nevada and they said I couldn’t buy a gun with an out-of-state license. I thought it would be quicker to get new ID. I thought by the time I got the license, I wouldn’t want a gun anymore.

“Did you get any work done?” Dale Anne asked over the phone.

“Some,” I said. “But it isn’t worth much.”

“You’re not very good at conversation,” she said.

“I’ve only lived here ten months.”

“Keep going that way, you won’t make it a year.”

We discussed getting together someday, without a meeting. Just to talk. But we didn’t make definite plans.

In college a creative writing teacher told me if you keep writing about something long enough, you’ll come to the end. She said every story is a love story or a story about loneliness. She said writer’s block was just another idea. She said the best poets all wrote criticism.

When I finished college, I moved to Chicago and took up heroin and dancing. That’s what I said at the meeting when it was my turn to share.

I said there was no trajectory, but when I got out of the hospital the walls of my rented room were a different yellow than when I went in.

I said the best thing about those days was how difficult it was to get a plane ticket.

Dale Anne said they got Ryan Seacrest. “We got him.”

I already knew about it but wanted to hear her explain. We must’ve been bored talking so much on the phone, pretending we were in recovery.

She said his former assistant alleged he’d grabbed her by the vagina.

“I thought he was gay,” I said.

“What does that have to do with anything?” she said.

“Fine,” I said.

There was a corroborating witness but also an independent investigation citing insufficient evidence. Already there were boycotts planned and E! was handing out talking points for the red carpet.

“We’re taking over,” Dale Anne said. She must have sensed I wanted to get off the phone because she asked if I had a few more minutes. It was already 4 pm and the sky was swelling for another downpour.

She wanted to tell me about a dream she’d had. She said she’d woken under arrest, like Joseph K. in The Trial. She worried she would never learn what the charges were.

“I had a dream too,” I said, and she murmured in a disappointed tone.

“OK,” she finally said.

“I was being chased.”

“What did you think about that?” She sounded like she was trying to teach me a lesson, or lead by example. For a moment I wished I knew how to surf. How to disappear. How to commit.

“It’s just the medication,” I told her. “It’s the meds.”

Los Angeles 3

An editor told me never to set a story in a coffee shop. “There are too many cafes,” he said. “When I enter a coffee shop in a story, I stop reading.”

At the time I rewrote the story to take place in a bagel shop, but, fifteen years later, I’m not sure it mattered.

Yesterday I met Paul at the Cafecito Organico on Hoover. I told him about a heist movie. “It’s like Point Break and Narcos,” I said. He mentioned a book he liked. I said I had a couple of TV show ideas. I was surprised by his clear complexion. He looked young, even with the bright red beard and baseball cap. You knew right away he was from somewhere like Ohio. I wanted him to save me, but I played it closer to the vest. It was strange to think that between the two of us, I was the one most likely to go to church.

Paul mentioned a website and I nodded. I wouldn’t confirm or deny. He didn’t know the things I didn’t want him to know, but how long could that be maintained? I didn’t want to think about the weather.

“I just want a job,” I said. I assured him I’d like to sell something original, even though it wasn’t true. I was trying to slip under the radar. Get inside without being noticed. Working for other people wasn’t a skill I’d cultivated, and the opening was small, but that’s what there was.

I wrote a story and I avoided mentioning any cafes. I knew a couple of women visiting from Japan and I picked them up from the Burbank Airport. At my apartment they showed me pornographic pictures they’d taken in San Francisco and spoke to each other in Japanese.

I was reminded of an old girlfriend from the time I lived in San Francisco. Her name was Jolene and she was a terrorist. When I told her I’d been accused of rape, she said there were a lot of ways to take that. I told her the truth was a choice, and she didn’t have any better grasp on it than the NRA.

Then I thought about the Russian Revolution, the second one, where the Bolsheviks slaughtered the Mensheviks. And the Iranian revolution where the Islamists slaughtered the Marxists. It’s just human nature, I thought, sleep closing in. The enemy of your enemy is rarely your friend.

I fell asleep like that, my friends watching porn and speaking Japanese, the coffee table littered with cartons of vegetables and cups of tea. Tomorrow we would all go to Disneyland. One day at a time.


Stephen Elliott is the author of eight books including the novel Happy Baby and the memoir The Adderall Diaries. He is the writer/director of the web series Driven. His article Silicon Is Just Sand is being developed for a series at A&E. His first movie, About Cherry, premiered at the Berlinale and was released by IFC in 2012. His newest movie, After Adderall, was the closing night film for the 2017 Slamdance Film Festival.

LA Fourmi Faim

By Valerie Miner

It’s a sunny April day at Le Marché d’Apt, the oldest continuous market in Europe, held chaque samedi for over 900 years, a market that has seen many young people grow into old people. Today, it’s crowded with local shoppers, as well as villagers from nearby towns and perhaps a score of foreign visitors.

Ah, yes, there he is—Thierry.

Thierry has driven over from Ménerbes, out of habit, even though Mireille has been gone nine months. He begins shopping, as she always did, at the Arab stalls, because the excellent produce is better priced and because so many French people spurn these women in hijabs and men in djellabas. He already has most of what he needs for the week, but it’s never a genuine Saturday if he doesn’t chat with Fazad at his Halal poulet stall. He also looks forward to the weekly lecture from Hortense about her olives. Since the fromage stand is adjacent to Hortense’s, who can blame him for selecting some tome de montagne and his favorite, sinful epoises, for Sunday lunch? Just as he advises patients to go lightly on the fromage, he requests modest portions.

A doctor in a small Luberon village for forty years, generous and attentive, Thierry is cherished by his patients. Work is fulfilling. But le weekends are hard. Empty after Mireille’s death, as would be expected. Thierry enjoys the exchanges with the garrulous vendors and sometimes with the occasional neighbor.

 

Nearby, two young women, Jessica and Hailey, are grinning, elated to arrive at the height of morning commerce and conviviality. Hailey insists that they also visit the vielle ville nestled behind the walled buildings. She wants to visit the 11th-century Cathedral, 18th-century Bouquerie, and 16th-century Tour de l’Horloge. She is hungry for the legendary fruits confits but worried about her splitting-at-the-seams suitcase. Jessica, grateful for her friend’s travel acumen, follows any itinerary as long as Hailey agrees to stop at least twice a day for café et croissants ou pains et confitures.

It’s right here, by the cheeses, that they notice one another. Or don’t, depending on your point of view, your degree of candor.

Jessica, tired of Hailey’s dithering over the fruits confits, glances at the attractive silver-haired man in the tweed jacket and red muffler, pricked by recognition, no, rather by a vague intuition. Shouldn’t someone his age wear a hat in chilly weather? Monsieur is studying the cheeses intently. Before he looks up, Jessica turns back to Hailey and advises against the candied fruits.

American voices carry, and her accent startles him. This lovely young Asian woman reminds him of a long ago friend. There’s something familiar about both these jeunes femmes, both wearing jeans and sneakers; the short-haired one in the pink parka and the other with long red locks shimmering over the shiny pillows of her black down jacket. He observes their closeness, the teasing and laughter, sensing he’s known them longer than they’ve known each other. He has to restrain himself from welcoming them to France. Ridiculous. Always a reserved man, he’s startled by this oddly sociable impulse and immediately turns down toward the linen stall. He promised his daughter in Sydney an embroidered table cloth.

“Of course, you’re right,” sighs Hailey. “But aren’t the glittery colors—those brilliant reds, oranges, yellows—tantalizing?”

“Yes.” Jessica nods, distracted by the old man threading his way through the crowd. “Maybe they’ll sell them at Duty Free when we leave in May. Fresher that way.”

Hailey points to the next stall—“Yum, look at that soap—which we also won’t buy today—lavender, rose, lemon verbena. Oh, smell them!”

 

Thierry carries his shopping bag into the new café recommended by Fazad. La Fourmi Faim. So many places are named for La Cigale, he feels an odd, underdoggish sympathy for the small bistro. He chooses a place at the back corner of the patio, ideal for watching the Saturday crowds.

“Regardez!” Jessica exclaims. “La Fourmi Faim. Remember La Fontaine’s fable?” She remembers Grandma reading one fable each night—in French and English—all of them before kindergarten. Sometimes she thinks this is why she studies folklore.

Hailey reviews the agenda: the Tower, cathedral, shops. She checks her watch.

Jessica frowns. “You promised—a croissant et du café—at the market.” She takes Hailey’s hand, then notices the old man chatting to a waiter. “Come,” she tugs her friend. “This table looks perfect.”

Thierry, recognizing the voice, looks up and can’t help smiling.

Bonjour!” Jessica tries to sing the greeting the way French women do, fluting the last syllable.

Bonjour à vous!” He pauses, about to say Mesdemoiselles, then remembers his daughter’s lectures about sexisme. “Bonjour, Mesdames.”

As the waiter takes their orders, Thierry regrets his lost solitude. But these two do take him back.

Nordic Lena—oh, those stunning blonde de fraise locks, served him in a tavern on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. Lena loved his “exotic accent.” She explained that the street was named after that 17th-century Père Hennepin. A few years older than Thierry, Lena had her own apartment and quite modern ideas about free love.

The girl in Seattle had a delightful name. “Ping.” Ideal for her petit frame and bright almond eyes.

She explained, “In Chinese, ‘Ping’ means ‘peaceful’ or ‘fair’ or ‘apple’ depending on which of my aunts you consult.” She spoke fluent French, as well as Mandarin and English. Ping showed him the Pike Street Market, Green Lake, the Space Needle. He often suggested stopping for a chat over tea or coffee.

Ping promised something more enticing than free love: a rendezvous in Paris the next year, when she would study abroad. It was a long twelve months of letters; hers in his language and his in hers. Thierry’s English improved immeasurably, as did his optimism about the future.

 

His reverie is broken by a voice, “Pardonnez moi, mais nous avons besoins de direction à la gare routière convenable.”  

He can’t help himself. He knows it’s rude, that he should allow her to continue in French, but he feels the strain in her voice. And it’s been two or three years since he’s had a proper conversation in English.

“Yes, I’d be happy to direct you. By the way, my name is Thierry Boucher.”

“Jessica Miyasaki,” she says.

Miyasaki, he knows, is a Japanese name, and he wonders why this girl brought back Ping so palpably. He covers his disappointment with a gallant, “Enchanté.”

“I’m Hailey Gulbrandsen. We’re grad school roommates in Minneapolis, but Jessica is from Seattle.”

Jessica grins, “I’ve trained her to say that. Seattleites are super-chauvinistic.”

“Ah, Seattle—Mount Rainier. And Minneapolis—Père Hennepin.”

“Oh, my,” Jessica laughs. “He was a Franciscan Recollect there. How did you know?”

“As a student, I was inspired by the strikes in Paris, then headed to your country to explore la contre-culture. I took a Greyhound from New York to Chicago, just in time for the crazy Democratic Convention. Then to Madison. Minneapolis. Missoula. Finally Seattle. Everywhere people were so hospitable.”

“Ah, the reverse of our trip,” Hailey declares.

“Yes, forty-five years ago.” He looks wistful.

Forty-five years, thinks Jessica. He doesn’t look that elderly.

Soon, somehow, they are at the same table, ordering plus de croissants and chatting about international travel.

Thierry, wary of being intrusive, distances himself with the safe, intergenerational question, “What do you study at university?”

“I’m in the social work program,” says Hailey. “Jessica’s doing her Ph.D. in literature.”

Thierry nods, then smiles at their bright, open faces. “Poetry or novels?”

Je ne sais pas.” Jessica feels tongue-tied. Explaining “folklorist” to people is complicated.

The waiter brings fragrant croissants with fresh coffees.

“Who are your favorite writers?” He persists gallantly.

“I love Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami.” Struggling to come up with a French writer, she remembers slogging through La Peste. “And naturally, Albert Camus.”

“Camus! Excellent taste.” He’s delighted. “Did you know Camus lived not far from here in the village of Lourmarin?”

“Really,” Jessica blushes at her fib.

Hailey watches, braiding the tassels of her shawl. She remembers Jessica’s tormented week reading La Peste.

Thierry can’t believe he is saying this. “If you’d care to see Lourmarin and make un petit tour du Luberon, I would be happy to drive you about and bring you back to the Apt station.”

Hailey drops the end of her shawl. “Oh, thanks so much. But we can’t intrude on your day.” She tries to catch Jessica’s eye. “I’m sure you have better things to do—with your family or your work.”

“I’m a doctor and no longer schedule Saturday hours. My children are continents away. And my lovely wife died nine months ago.”

“So sorry for your loss,” Hailey murmurs.

“Yes,” Jessica adds. “How very hard. I can’t imagine.”

Of course, she can’t imagine. The early years struggling to be accepted in Ménerbes, the joy and terror of raising two children, the sadness when they left for university and opposite ends of the earth. The relief of having the house to themselves. Decades of mostly happy days, of passionate and cozy nights. Dreams of the trips they would take in retirement. Dreams. He still sees her at night, feels she’s holding tight, and then he wakes.

He realizes they expect a reply. “Thank you” is all he can manage, holding back surprising tears. Grief assails him at such odd moments.

“A doctor,” Jessica nods to Hailey, as if to reassure them both that he is a safe, responsible man. “What is your specialty?”

“Family practice, as you say. Not the most lucrative, but for me the most interesting.”

“William Carlos Williams, an American poet and fiction writer, had a family practice.” Hailey reports neutrally, kicking Jessica under the table.

Jessica ignores her.

“Thanks so much for the invitation, but we do need to get back to the hostel this afternoon.”

Jessica studies her friend. “We’ll be fine, Hailey. We have our cell phones. I’ll call the hostel and tell them we’ll be a little later than we thought. This tour sounds awesome. Please, let’s join le docteur for a couple of hours.”

Thierry is troubled. “Discord between friends! What calamity have I caused? Perhaps you would like to discuss this privately? I must collect something at the shop. Why don’t I do that and return for your decision?”

“Sure,” Jessica says. “And why don’t you leave your groceries here. No sense in lugging them around.”

Mireille always told him he was an innocent. Of course, Hailey might be worried for her safety. He’s a complete stranger to them, despite the curious affinity he feels.

They watch him thread through the market crowd, waving to vendors and shoppers.

Jessica pleads, “He’s a harmless old man. A doctor. Someone who reads literature.”

“Hitler had a huge library.”

“Oh, come on.” Jessica sips the last of her café, craving another cup.

Hailey sighs heavily. “I don’t mean to be unfriendly, but I was looking forward to exploring together with you today. The Tour, the Cathedral. I love talking about our discoveries over dinner. Now you want to add a stranger. I don’t know. Aren’t I enough?”

Jessica winks and squeezes Hailey’s hand, “You know you’re my BFF.”

Hailey pretends to search her wallet for something.

Jessica feathers her blue black bangs. “He’s lonely. His wife just died. His kids are far away.”

“But Jess, he looks at you in this intense, I don’t know, weirdly intimate way.”

“I’m sure he’s fine. Besides, we have the kazoos.”

The kazoos were Hailey’s inspiration. Whenever they hitched with a driver who tried to make a move in the front seat, the girl in the back would pull out her kazoo and start to play. The sound was so ridiculously irritating that the driver would recover his manners. On the downside, they were usually dumped at the next exit.

“OK,” Hailey relents. “Let’s be careful, though. One of us should be following along with GPS.”

“Oh, Hailey, you are so careful.”

Of course, I’m careful with the love of my life, she wants to say, doesn’t say, may never say. It’s enough that they have this month together. That they’re returning to their sweet apartment in Uptown. Enough for now, anyway.

 

Strolling back from the hat shop, Thierry shakes his head at his forwardness. What’s got into him? An exquisite young woman in Seattle almost half a century ago. What are sentimental memories compared to his fortunate, loving, long marriage with Mireille?

At home, he aches with grief in their empty bedroom, kitchen, and garden. How can he live the rest of his life without her? These sorrowful days, he cringes at condoling nostrums he has offered patients over the years: grief groups, travel, time.

Time! This is the most painful. The first weeks and even months were numbness. Now, each day he feels as if his flayed skin is exposed to caustic rains. Sleep is almost impossible. And waking is a bitterness—especially after those nights when Mireille visits him: they are sharing breakfast or walking on a Sunday or shopping in Apt. When he awakens, he drops into a deep cold well. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot materialize her sweet self. So, lately, he bounds from bed at dawn, goes to the café, and arrives at the cabinet an hour early, much to the distress of his nurse, who has begun offering motherly advice about self-care.

Thierry runs his fingers over the fine reweaving in his grey Harris Tweed cap, a gift from Mireille for his twenty-fifth birthday.

“Oh, no, I will look like an old man,” he burst out laughing, then watched her face fall. From then on, he wore it every day—autumn, winter, and spring—even as he became, if not an old man, an older one.

He shall be convincing when he lies to the young ladies, saying he’s absentmindedly forgotten an afternoon engagement.

Jessica waves as he approaches the café.

He tips his hat.

Before he can beg their pardon with his fabricated commitment, Jessica is chattering, “We absolutely insist on contributing to the gas.”

Momentarily baffled, he finally declares, “Ah, l’essence. Mais non. Lourmarin, ce n’est pas loin d’ici.”

“Still, we insist,” Jessica continues.

“It’s what friends do at home when they travel together.” Hailey resolutely supports Jessica. Possessiveness can kill a relationship.

Friends, he’s nonplussed. Until now, the girls have been more like apparitions.

 

Soon the three are ambling along the cobbled streets of Lourmarin. The golden buildings gleam after yesterday’s storm. In every direction, they enjoy views of greening hills and manicured farms.

The sun is full; they shed their jackets.

Thierry wishes he had worn a newer shirt, the blue one Mireille gave him for his birthday.

Hailey thinks Jessica looks super in her purple turtleneck.

Thierry points across the valley toward the rival village and recounts long ago battles between the Catholics of Bonnieux and the Protestants of Lacoste.

“Like the North of Ireland.” Hailey frowns. “Crazy. When did hostilities end?”

He admires the passionate curiosity of both girls. So wise and secure, just as when he was on that Greyhound.

Ping boarded the bus on the last leg of his All-American Tour. He willed her to sit next to him and she did. Of course she loved his French accent. And when she responded in his own language, he was just mildly surprised. Such is the entitlement of the young.

“Tell us more about your American odyssey,” Jessica says. “What were your favorite places?”

Not missing a beat, he declares, “Minneapolis and Seattle.”

“Ah, the Norwegian Corridor.” Hailey giggles.

He looks confused.

“You picked our cities to please us,” scolds Jessica.

Mais non.” He blushes, remembering warm, sweet kisses from Lena and Ping. “Not at all.”

“Ah,” Hailey jokes, “but you had a girl in each port, eh?”

“Would you care for a coffee?” he stalls.

Once the steaming cappuccinos have arrived, he realizes he hasn’t talked this much in ages.

“So?” Jessica says, teasing. “What about your romantic conquests?”

Thierry blinks. Why not tell them? Mireille understood he’d been with others before her. Maybe she didn’t know his deep and guilty ache for Ping, but she understood his early flings; they’d both enjoyed aventures in their youths.

“Lena in Minneapolis.” He smiles, suddenly recalling her generous breasts.

“Lena?!” Hailey says. “Are you sure that was her real name? Minnesota is rife with jokes about Lena—with Sven and Ole, our archetype bumpkins.”

He shrugs. “And Ping in Seattle. We were to meet in Paris the next year, but she got engaged. I stopped writing out of what I imagined to be chivalry but now know to be pride.”

“How sad,” Jessica murmurs, finishing her café.

“That was a long time ago. Another world. I had a fortunate life with Mireille and our daughters and my practice and…” he pauses, sweeping his hand across the pastures flecked with pinking fruit trees and beyond to the dramatic mountain ridges, “the beautiful Luberon.”

 

By the time they are driving to Ménerbes, Hailey has relinquished her suspicions. This kind, lonely man seems genuinely interested in each of them. He clearly loves sharing his stunning countryside.

First, a stroll around the top of the village to admire the dramatic spectacle of still snowcapped Mont Ventoux, the graceful vineyards with their bare, dark gnarled wood. And, of course, the grand estates peeking from behind wrought iron gates, as well as bizarre houses built into the old caves of Beaumettres.

They wind up sitting al fresco at La Veranda—6pm, still light and warm.

Thierry stretches his arms wide around the early evening. Time for an aperitif, he thinks. But the girls are young. How young, he’s lost the ability to tell, especially with foreigners. He orders a chamomile. Hailey does the same. Jessica asks for a farigoule.

“Yum, I taste thyme, orange, lemon, and something, something else?”

Anise,” says Thierry, regretting more than a little that he did not take his favorite drink, a pleasure he has forgone since Mireille’s death. Still, he must remain sober to drive them to Apt. Surprisingly, he is no longer tired. He could go on and on, as if he were a young man.

The guest room, indeed the whole house, has been creaking forlornly these months. They might enjoy a few nights in a real home. He wants to invite them but knows better.

Hailey is delighted with the charming town. “Jess, we should have stayed here instead of the other side of Apt. Ménerbes is the prettiest village we’ve seen.”

“Ménerbes doesn’t have a hostel, remember?”

Thierry leans back, listening. Perhaps they are waiting for an invitation. What harm in asking? He’s spent his life being too cautious. He could have flown to Seattle and proposed to Ping. He finishes the tea in one gulp, as if it will sustain him, and ventures, “Mireille and I have/had a comfortable guest room. You’re welcome to share it for a few nights…if you like.”

“Oh, no, we couldn’t.” Hailey’s flushed face belies her protest.

Jessica looks pensive.

A beat later, Hailey turns to her best friend. “Hey, why not? If Thierry is sure we’re not imposing.”

He shakes his head graciously, astonished by how fast his heart is beating. “No imposition at all. You are free to come and go as you please,” he says, completely refreshed. How wonderful to have the house occupied by more than memories. He hasn’t felt this lighthearted in a year.

Hailey grins. “What a treat. To stay in a real French home.” She wonders if their room will have a double bed.

Jessica clears her throat.

His spirits plummet.

She ignores Hailey’s disappointed sigh. “Thank you, Thierry. But our bags are at the hostel. It’s OK to return late in the day, but to miss a night would be taking beds from people who want them. Merci encore, vous êtes très gentil.”

“Oh, Jess, come on. We’ll pay them for the night. We can get our bags tomorrow and….”

He has stopped listening. Studying the dusky sky, he sees that suddenly the day is gone. “Jessica is right. I am being impractical. Of course, you have your plans.”

Sensing her companion’s disappointment, Jessica adds. “Maybe next year? Hailey and I are coming back. We never got to see the Bouquerie and the Tour de L’Horloge. Do you have Internet? Are you on email?”

Certainly, he’s on email. Does she think he’s a dinosaure? Unreasonably, he feels annoyed, abandoned. Yawning, he manages, “As you like.”

So, it’s definite. Hailey’s heart lifts. Next summer again. And who knows what will happen in the seasons in between.

Thierry notices that the blond girl is glowing despite her disappointment.

Traveling back to Apt, through the shadowy evening, the three chat in Français and English and Franglish about the next stops on the young women’s journey—Montpellier, Barcelona, Madrid.

Although he yearns for more of their company, Thierry feels invigorated, having shared the lively afternoon.

In Apt, from the train platform, they wave exuberantly—Lena and Ping—across forty-five years.

 

Thierry sits in his study bent over two creased black and white photos from the 60s. He switches to the bright faces on his cell phone. The young are getting younger. And he? He’s slipped into the wrong story. How can he be this age? He’s the same as always, with some small improvements. Of course, for his new friends, the idea of mortality is even less credible. Everything is possible and the future is a long road ahead.

Beep. He’s startled by an email alert. Then another. Facebook “friend requests” from Hailey and Jessica. How absurd! How sweet. How interesting.

He pours another farigoule. Bad to indulge, but it’s been an eventful day.

He presses a few more buttons and the Facebook page emerges—a blue and white site busy with pictures and words and cartoons. A search function emerges.

Tentatively he spells out her name.  

But she is not any of the Ping Lees or Lee Pings in Seattle. Perhaps she’s too old for Facebook, too sophisticated. He doesn’t dwell on the other possibilities.

Instead, he opens the Greyhound ad—even though he knows this is called clickbait. Does he use the Internet, indeed.

Apparently, the American coach now is a luxurious vehicle—with wifi, individual electrical sockets, and contoured seats. They’ve removed a row to provide extra leg room. That’s something an old man can appreciate. His eye is caught by a photo of Bison grazing in a lush green field. “Wyoming.” A stunning, exotic world with gigantic mountains and wild rivers and antelope. He’s never seen an antelope.


Valerie Miner is the award-winning author of fourteen books, including novels, story collections, and a memoir. Her latest novel is Traveling with Spirits. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, Salmagundi, Ploughshares, Triquarterly, The Georgia Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Gettysburg Review, Southwest Review, and many other journals. She has won awards and fellowships from The Rockefeller Foundation, the Fulbright Commission, the Jerome Foundation, Fundación Valparaiso, Bogliasco Foundation, the Australia Council Literary Arts Board, Brush Creek, MacDowell, Yaddo, and various other sources. Her work has been translated into eight languages and has been broadcast a number of times on BBC Radio 4. She is a professor and artist in residence at Stanford University. Her website is www.valerieminer.com. Her email is vminer@stanford.edu.

Summer 2018


Mathieu Cailler
Fiction Quickenings

Chelsea Catherine
Nonfiction | Pockets and Corners

Frannie McMillan
Poetry July 4th

Bonnie Watts
Poetry | What

Carol Guess
Drama The Incident

Emily Townsend
Nonfiction | The Innocent Non-Threatening White Young Woman

Lucas Cardona
Fiction My Magazine Life

Michael Seeger
Poetry | Passing Storm

Carolyn Núr Wistrand
Drama | Watchwomen

D. Gilson
Nonfiction | Last Will and Testament: A Mad Lib

David Starkey
Poetry | Five Arguments in Favor of My Beatification

Art Hanlon
Fiction | East China Sea

Nels Hanson
Poetry | Calendar

Elizabeth Bruno
Poetry | Skinny-Dipping

Stephen Elliott
Fiction | Los Angeles Stories

Andrea Hoag
Nonfiction | Our Breasts: A Love Story

Carolyn Supinka
Poetry | First (Found) Fig

Stephanie Kaplan Cohen
Poetry | Suicide

Valerie Miner
Fiction | LA Fourmi Faim

Danielle Joy Foley
Poetry | The Beginning and The End: A Love Poem with 2 Parts

Bonnie Lykes
Nonficiton | Developing World

Liska Jacobs
Interview | TCR Talks with Liska Jacobs

The Coachella Review is a literary arts journal published by the University of California, Riverside–Palm Desert Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts.

 

The Greater Good

By: Liz Warren Pederson

Nathalie called me— called me!— to discuss her deathwatch project. She said the technology is there but the market for hardware is iffy at best, especially coming from a startup. She said there was no point launching from the inventor’s country of origin because socialists lack ambition. She said the inventor had only come to her because his full-time employer didn’t think the IP was aligned with its core values. The plan is to use a crowdfunding platform for market validation and to attract first-round investment. She said a courier would bring me a prototype so I could test it. Then she sighed. “Jay. Manufacturing will be like passing a stone.” That she called at all just goes to show how “compelling” she thinks this is for the American market. It was only the third or fourth time we’d actually spoken in the year I’d worked for her.

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Book Review: Geoff Nicholson’s “The Miranda”

By: D.M. Olsen

Some might consider Joe Johnson’s situation a crisis. He just quit his job as a torture expert for a covert government agency called the Team. Joe also just divorced his wife and moved into a remote home three hours north of London, where he intends to walk the circumference of the earth from the privacy of his backyard. He plans to walk a small, circular path twenty-five miles a day for one thousand days. However, as Joe quickly finds out, and as the compelling narrative unfolds, privacy is the last thing afforded by Joe’s new house. He is surrounded by nosy neighbors, a philosophical mailman, and a band of skinheads who invoke a turf war with the veteran torture artist. And, of course, Miranda.

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TCR Talks with Tyler Dilts

By: Felicity Landa

Tyler Dilts spent his childhood investigating police work, hoping to one day follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he found himself to be much more interested in writing about crime than pursuing a career solving it and has since become the author of five books on crime fiction, including the Edgar Award nominated, Come Twilight, and the forthcoming, Mercy Dogs. His chilling and sometimes terrifying novels explore the complex and haunted characters of the Long Beach homicide department and the murders they solve. Dilts’ Long Beach Homicide series has gained quite a following amongst crime fiction fans, Long Beach natives, and many others. “Someone told me to set a couple of long-term goals, for motivation,” Says Tyler Dilts. “So I set some goals that I thought would be impossible to reach,” he told me when we met in L.A. to discuss his upcoming novel. “I thought, I’m going to sell a quarter of a million books, and I’m going to get nominated for an Edgar award. And in the last year, I’ve realized those goals weren’t as unrealistic as I thought.” He laughs, “I’m still in shock that those things have happened. Having so much success as a writer still baffles me.”

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