Category: Fiction (Page 1 of 2)

Book Review: Joe Hill’s “Strange Weather”

By: Xach Fromson

Joe Hill is no stranger to short fiction. His short story credits go back twenty years and includes the 2005 collection 20th Century Ghosts. After last year’s incendiary success with The Fireman, Hill returns to the form with Strange Weather, a collection of four short novels offering a panoramic view of humanity in scenarios that range from the fantastical to the all too real. Across all four stories, Hill excels at immersing readers in a full sensory experience that takes readers on unique journeys. The tightly written prose wastes no time in ratcheting up the tension, foregoing any trappings of the slow-build, existential horror in favor of rapid-fire pacing that never lets up.

The first of the short novels is the only one previously published. Originally titled Snapshot 1988, the title-shortened Snapshot offers a complicated look at how memories change over time, and how much they play a part in determining who we are, as well as who we become. Right away, the narrative drops the reader in on a retrospective from the present, of a particularly notable August 15, 1988.

Hill introduces Shelly’s husband Lawrence by writing his dialogue in a South African accent. It’s a stylistic choice that can help deepen the aural quality of a story, but to me, it seems a little stilted. Writing the dialogue in accents is something that appears several times across the four short novels, and it’s done with both consistency and skill, but it’s something that reminds me I’m reading a story instead of immersing myself in it. Your mileage may vary.

Another thing that Hill does very well with Snapshot is he creates and maintains the sense of retrospect. Michael tells the story from some point closer to the present, looking back on these events with no fourth wall, occasionally acknowledging the reader and making us complicit in the results of the story. Chapter two opens with Michael including the reader in a “we” statement as he explains to us that, at age thirteen, he was fat. “Not ‘big boned.’ Not ‘sturdy,’” he says to us. He’s fat, and by including the reader in that passage, he absolves us of having to feel shame or guilt. After all, we as readers didn’t call him fat, he did as a character, and he brought us along on that decision. It’s a neat trick to pull off. But neither Michael nor the story wastes time on talking about his weight; there are strange things afoot in this suburb of Cupertino, California. Michael encounters The Polaroid Man and immediately thinks of him as The Phoenician. This man has a camera that looks almost like a Polaroid, but not quite, and the photo it takes somehow seems to rob its subject of a memory. As Michael is coming to grips with this, he’s delving into his own memories and realizing that Shelly Beukes was more a mother to him than his own mother was, creating a tight parallel narrative of Michael replaying more of his own memories as Shelly suffers from losing more of hers. That reversal plays out in the story, as Michael assumes the adult responsibility of protecting Shelly against The Phoenician. After the final confrontation, Michael takes the reader through the intervening years between 1988 and the present, filling us in on the details of his journey through MIT and into Silicon Valley, where his experiences with memory play a critical role in the adult he turned into. It’s a cunning horror story paired with a coming of age narrative, growing beyond the confines of both.

The longest of the four short novels is the second one, Loaded. This time, Hill takes us from a single, first-person narrative, to an ensemble story told over two decades in Florida. It begins with a 1993 killing of a Black teenager by a police officer, long before the Black Lives Matter movement drew a constant national spotlight on that kind of event. The story then jumps to 2013, where twenty-year-old Becki shoots her boss-turned-lover when he won’t leave his wife for her. At this point, the title of this short novel becomes self-explanatory, though if you’re looking for the supernatural here, you won’t find it. Loaded isn’t about a possessed gun, and you won’t find the disembodied spirit of a serial killer floating from one person to another. Instead, the story focuses mainly on two characters. Randall Kellaway is a security guard going through hard times, nearing the end of his rope, and more than a little on edge. Alicia Lanternglass is a reporter who, twenty years earlier, witnessed the police shooting of her cousin Colton. When Becki shoots her boss, Kellaway responds, and the narrative shows just how easily a bad situation can get worse when he discovers that he not only killed Becki, but also a Muslim woman holding her baby. Once he’s committed that one act, things quickly spiral out of control for Kellaway. Hill does an excellent job of withholding moral judgment on his characters, never painting them as villains in their own heads. Loaded works as a meditation on American society and our relationship with guns, mental illness, and perpetuating cycles of violence. While Lanternglass is portrayed as the closest to morally pure, Hill deftly pivots back to Kellaway’s point of view, showing him as a dark, flawed man who sees only the best in himself and is willing to protect and defend that self-image through an escalating series of dire circumstances. Yet even he is not without sympathy, in the form of his relationship with Jim, an old Marine buddy. The two of them share a comradery rooted in their shared experiences, and Kellaway is the only person who sticks by Jim’s side after he’s paralyzed. This side of Kellaway, the devotion and loyalty, humanizes him as he descends into the story’s ultimate conclusion, which is left open to the reader’s interpretation as to the nature of gun ownership and gun violence.

Hill then returns to the fantastic with Aloft, which stands apart from the other three because it’s almost not a horror story at all. There are moments of horror, but this reads as an adult fantasy story tucked neatly between darker tales. The main character, Aubrey, is more afraid at the beginning of the story, before he jumps out of the skydiving plane, than he is when he lands on the impossible semi-sentient cloud that he spends the bulk of the narrative inhabiting. Frequent use of flashbacks keeps the story from going into I Am Legend territory, giving the reader healthy doses of dialogue and character interaction. The flashbacks trace Aubrey’s journey of self-realization, each episode replaying in his brain while he’s stranded atop a cloud that conjures up white puffy versions of whatever he imagines. He’s never really terrified of the cloud or of the possibility of dying on it, so the reader never feels the life or death stakes of Aubrey’s predicament. Instead, we get to explore this bleak, monochrome skyscape with something hidden in the center. Aubrey’s journey inward to the center of the cloud mirrors his inward journey into himself. His enlightenment, rather than hoisting him aloft, is what brings him back to earth.

With Rain, Hill brings back the feeling of a classic horror/science fiction story, creating a world where the skies over Boulder, Colorado begin to rain nails. This story is also told as a retrospective, but not from some indeterminate point in the future like in Snapshot. This is more immediate, and the perspective serves to bring the reader “up to speed” on the narrator’s back story. We learn about how Honeysuckle lost her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s mother in the first squall of lethal nails (and I will note here that I won’t make a claim as to how well he captured the voice of a lesbian woman—I’ll leave that to more qualified reviewers). As the phenomenon spreads, the world rapidly unravels around her. Rather than place this in an alternate reality, Hill brings the politics and social ethos of Donald Trump into the story, tackling issues of homophobia, racism, bigotry, and globalization head on. Honeysuckle’s mourning of her girlfriend Yolanda is complicated by the rain of nails spreading globally, gaining strength as it spreads. Word comes in that the nails are now the size of spikes and are going through sheet metal. Trump blames terrorists in Georgia (the country, not the state) and threatens a nuclear strike. More locally, Honeysuckle finds that the chaos of an apocalyptic event makes people feel free to act on their baser instincts. There is both violence and benevolence in the people she meets, as well as attempts to maintain order in the face of the unknown. Ultimately, her journey from Boulder to Denver and back helps her uncover the source of the mysterious rain of nails. The story ends on an uncertain note of the future, whether this is, in fact, the end of all things.

Hill’s ability to create visceral, immersive worlds transports readers across the four novels seamlessly. There’s no bleed-through from one story to the next. Each set of characters are complete individuals, and each narrative voice is distinct from the others. His tight use of language and steady pacing draw us in, holding our focus and attention through to the end of each story. One could easily read each of the four short novels in a single sitting. And if you’re able to, I recommend it.

TCR Talks with Helena Echlin and Malena Watrous

By: David Olsen

When I found out that Helena Echlin and Malena Watrous, two instructors I’ve taken classes from at the Stanford Online Writer’s Studio, were collaborating on a YA novel, I was curious about their work. When I heard what their book was about, I was even more intrigued. A book about “mean girls with superpowers,” sounded entertaining and original. The protagonist, fifteen-year-old Laurel Goodwin, wakes up to find her older sister, Ivy, missing from their shared bedroom and is forced to team up with mean girls from Laurel’s high school to find her.

After reading the book and seeing all the amazing reviews online, I caught up with the authors, who graciously agreed to do a brief interview for The Coachella Review.

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Book Review: Laurent Binet’s “The Seventh Function of Language”

By: John Flynn-York

Laurent Binet’s first novel, HHhH (short for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” which, translated, means “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”), was a fictional reconstruction of the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. The novel’s narrative fluctuated between past and present, history and story. In the past, Heydrich rises to power in the Third Reich, committing unspeakable atrocities along the way, while two operatives—the Czech Jan Kubiš and the Slovak Jozef Gabčík—plan to kill him. In the present, the narrator grapples with this story and how best to write it, drawing on books, museums, and other references to recreate it in detail. The brilliance of the book came from the tension between these perspectives. What does it mean to recreate history? Can we understand the way historical figures understood things—that is, can we get inside their heads? Can we ever know the truth? In other words, HHhH was as concerned with what it means to tell a story about history as it was with the historical events themselves.

Binet’s new book, The Seventh Function of Language, similarly takes its inspiration from a real event: the accident that claimed the life of the semiologist Roland Barthes. Out of this incident, Binet spins a madcap tale of intellectuals run amok that is by turns wildly entertaining, mildly frustrating, and intellectually captivating—and only sometimes faithful to the historical record.

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Tansy’s Rapture

by Carolyn Divish

On the morning of the rapture, Tansy McClellan lay on the trailer’s scruffy carpet like a slab of old meat. Her toy cradle—a childhood artifact that had been used more often for X-rated Barbie and Ken sessions than sleeping baby dolls—hovered in the air above her head. The wooden frame, cocooned in thick layers of orange yarn, was barely recognizable as the thing that had been ignored for years in a corner of her childhood bedroom. Four months ago, her mother brought it to the trailer, as if now that Tansy was herself a mother, she’d want it. She’d rolled her eyes at her mother’s sentimentality, but now, it was the only thing keeping her real baby from rising up to the ceiling.

Motionless on the nasty carpet, Tansy was unsure what to do next. Every dumbbell she owned, all the kitchen pots filled with water, milk jugs full of gravel, shampoo bottles, scraps of lumber, anything heavy she could find were tied into the coils of yarn. It was a desperate attempt to tether the cradle to prevent it from drifting away, and still it floated above the floor like a parade balloon in the center of the trailer.

The tube television played the same continuous loop of people floating away that it had been playing all night. The newscaster, a blonde with hair cemented into a bob, announced that the president had asked all citizens to remain indoors while the nation’s top scientists determined what to do about gravity’s selective failure.

“GSF, as it’s being called, is happening worldwide, but we still have no answers.” The blonde’s voice played over an image stream of religious kooks holding signs reading “Rise to Meet Your Maker or Stay Inside and Be Damned” and “The Time is at Hand!”

Inside the toy cradle, seven-month-old Julie slept quietly, her body pressing up into the yarn. As Tansy sat up to watch, Julie pulled a tiny fist to her mouth, leaving a ripple of yarn in its wake. Tansy laid a soft hand on the yarn. The crib bobbed like a boat on the water.

“So beautiful,” she whispered, touching a finger to Julie’s cheek through the yarn web. The sleeping infant with her curl of hair and flawless skin was as perfect as a magazine photo.

The TV hissed and screeched as it cut out to static. It was last thing that had belonged to her ex, Ron, and its constant failure to perform was yet another reminder of him. Sometimes slamming the side would fix it, mostly it didn’t.

“Fuck you, Ron,” Tansy mumbled as Julie’s eyes flew open. “Wherever you are.”

When Ron took off to Alaska to live out his Ice-Road-Truckers dream—because “Them guys know real men don’t get tied down to daily grind bullshit”—all she could say was good riddance. The poorly executed tattoo of his face was easy enough to cover up. A horn and a cover of grey converted Ron’s twisted grin and close-set eyes into a rhinoceros, which she rather liked even if it did have an odd smile. All that remained of the asshole Ron Chance was a half-broke TV, a rhino grinning manically on her shoulder, and a newborn. In this part of rural Indiana, only the tattoo was hard to explain.

“Hush, pumpkin.” Tansy gently swayed the cradle up and down, left and right, back and forth, and idly hummed a lullaby.

Julia Marie Destiny Chance had put Tansy’s life on the right track: no more weed, no more drinking, no more dancing at the titty bar (although that last one was not entirely her choice). Instead Tansy had begun working at the Wal-Mart and had opened a bank account. She intended to be somebody now that she was someone’s mother.

Julie’s fleshy cheeks crammed into the opening. Her mother’s tune had caught her ear. It was the one Tansy always hummed, a hair band oldie that played at the club a lot, but Tansy felt a chill spread down her body. She realized she was humming “The Final Countdown.”

The TV static cleared to the opening trumpets of the morning show and a series of sound bites. A home video of teenage girls giggling as they tumbled above their living room couch, kicking off the popcorn ceiling. Footage of a New Jersey commuter train crash, inside pressure lifting it from the rails and bursting the sheet metal open like a microwaved hot dog. The crib rose higher and Tansy had to stand.

“This will all be over soon.” Tansy brushed a finger against Julie’s cheek. Julie turned to catch it in her mouth. “And you and me will keep on keeping on. Just like we’ve always done.”

The first news story featured a clip from the International Space Station. Astronaut Sergej Demitriov had filmed dawn over Earth’s western hemisphere. Clouds of dark flecks rose like soda bubbles. Sergej said it was impossible to tell what happened to the flecks, but it seemed that they just disappeared before reaching the edge of the atmosphere. He promised that once fellow astronaut Yen Ling reported for duty, they’d have more answers.

“Mr. Demitriov, is Mr. Ling there?” the reporter demanded. “The American people need answers.” He tapped his papers against his desk, an action meant to convey his seriousness, but only amplified his fear.

“He’s gone,” Sergej Demitriov mouthed.

The TV cut to static again.

Julie spat out Tansy’s fingertip and flailed against the prison of yarn, crying “Ma ma ma ma ma.”

Tansy ached to hold her daughter in her arms and feel the soft baby rolls against her body. When a fat tear rolled down Julie’s reddened cheek to the yarn, Tansy’s heart shredded. “I can’t, pumpkin. You have to stay there for your own good.”

Julie’s head twisted, searching the yarn for a nipple to latch to. Each time her head turned, the pencil dot of a freckle at her temple winked through the opening and the weights knotted at the end of the yarn swayed and clinked. Cold water splashed from the pans onto Tansy’s bare feet.

“Shhhh, honey. Shhhh.”

“Ma Ma Ma.” Julie’s cries escalated, but it was the pouted lip that was the final straw. The quivery earthquakes that shuddered the baby face. The wrinkled chin folds.

Tansy’s breasts tingled with letdown.

Gravity or rapture or alien fucking apocalypse, Tansy couldn’t stand the separation anymore. The overwhelming urge to hold her baby, coded in the DNA of every cell, was stronger than breathing. She was willing to risk everything to feel her baby’s skin next to her own.

“Mama’s coming,” Tansy’s voice cracked with tears.

Tansy scissored through the yarn with sharp chops, pushing her daughter down out of the way. As the weighted cradle clattered to the floor, Tansy caught Julie with both arms, folding her tight against her chest. The same force that pulled Julie upwards buoyed Tansy so her toes barely clung to the carpet. Bending over her daughter, she tried to think herself heavier, imagined herself a dead weight anchoring Julie to earth.

With one hand, Tansy freed a breast and Julie latched to it, a snapping turtle motion, stretching the nipple out impossibly far like the night in Jamie Shock’s shop when Tansy’d had it pierced. The guy had pulled it roughly, pinching it between his fingers before punching the post through. She’d been proud that she hadn’t cried. A year later, in the hospital with Julie, she had removed the piercing to breastfeed, and then bawled. Cried and cried in the hospital bed.

“What should Mama do?” she asked.

She clung to Julie, uncertain whether she should let herself rise with her daughter or let her go. What if the kooks were right and everyone left on Earth was damned? She didn’t believe in heaven or hell, but was she certain enough to stake Julie’s chance at happiness? On the other hand, would a good mother release her infant to float into the sky to face an unknown fate helpless and alone?

“Oh God, Julie. I don’t know what to do.”

Tansy’s toes lost their grip on the carpet, unable to withstand the force. They bobbed upward together, Julie’s body rounded with baby chub, and Tansy’s sinewy one bent over it. Tansy’s feet brushed the table lamp’s cracked shade as they passed, knocking the light off center and casting a rocking light around the living room.

Julie’s only answer was to smile.

Tansy knew what her own mother would say, if she could have called her. It was the same bit of sage advice she had given for every circumstance of Tansy’s life. “You only get one chance, Tansy Mackenzie McClain. Don’t screw it up.” She never offered how to avoid “screwing it up.” Each time, Tansy’s decisions didn’t work out, her mother reworked the same bit of advice as a perfect scolding. “That was your one chance, Tansy Mackenzie McClain, and you screwed it up.”

Tansy’s back bumped the ceiling near a damaged patch that had leaked during heavy storms. The trailer looked so strange from up here. The piles of messes, dishes in the sink, heaps of dirty clothes, the dust she hadn’t seen, the general shabbiness of her life, all the minor details she’d never even noticed.

“This was where we lived.” Tansy cupped Julie’s head. And brushed her lips against the baby cheeks. “You made me happy, little girl.”

This life was already in past tense. She could feel the tears coming.

“Don’t screw it up now, Tansy.” She swallowed her fear. “Time to make a good choice.”

Pinned between Julie’s upward force and the trailer’s ceiling, she had little room to move. Julie’s position, wedged into Tansy’s chest, made it nearly impossible to draw breath, but Julie continued to suckle, unaffected by the building pressure. Tansy stretched a toe toward the recliner. If she could snag her toe in the recliner’s ripped upholstery, she could pull them back to the floor. She could buy time to think.

The crack was sudden, a rifle crack resonating inside her chest. Tansy held her breath, waiting to feel the pain of broken ribs or a hole in her abdomen. Julie screamed with delight as they broke through the rotten roof. Tansy shrank from jagged fingers of roofing metal, but the fine edge caught her, scratching a red line down her calf. Stifling a squeal, Tansy scrambled to center her weight over her daughter.

She winced as droplets of blood swelled from the cut, but there was no time to think of small hurts now. “I guess I’m in it for the long haul, pumpkin. Hold on tight to me, okay?”

Tansy felt giddy as the remnants of her life fell away. She’d never noticed how snug it had been. Now the horizon stretched out and her sense of freedom expanded to meet it.

She could see Mrs. Kerby, the town gossip, hanging damp underwear on her backyard line. The town square was crowded with fire engines and police cars as Mayor Campbell hosted a meeting of first responders. To the east, the Victorian farmhouse, Tansy’s childhood home, hid behind an enormous oak, her rope swing still attached. At the modest bungalow next door, Candy Bledsoe’s junker Plymouth reclined in the driveway, a jack holding up its front end. A million years ago, they were best friends, before life sorted them into nerd and stoner, and Candy went to college. At the end of Boatman Road, the Super Wal-Mart loomed over its enormous parking lot, the largest building in the town with a parking lot to match.

“No work for me today.” Tansy doubted she’d even be written up. Today wasn’t a day anyone would care, good choice or not. “No Wal-Mart for me ever again.”

Tansy glanced upward. No pearly gates, but no alien ship either. An hour before, the sky had been full of people on the currents. Now the sky was empty except for the two of them. The tail end of The Rising, the last people from Earth who would learn the truth, but she was far too high to worry about what was in store. She had no choice but to believe that it would be good.

“Mama loves you.” Tansy shifted to place a kiss on the tiny freckle at Julie’s temple.

The shift in weight made Julie squirm. She made whimpers of discomfort as she tried to wriggle away.

“Honey, stay close to Mama.” Tansy looked at the ground now so far below that she could barely identify the ribbons of roads and cars traveling like a stream of ants, and her stomach seized with terror. She squinted up once more, and still saw nothing but the blazing sun. “Just a little further, pumpkin. Mama doesn’t mean to hurt you.”

Below, the familiar whoosh of cars, sirens, text alerts, background chatter faded away, and for a while, the only sounds were the two of them breathing and the air swirling over their heads.

“Just you and me,” Tansy cooed. She knew she was holding Julie too tight, but she couldn’t quell the fear bubbling in her belly.

Thin air beat against her ears drums and tortured her lungs. Below her, Julie’s ribcage strained for air. Using what energy she could muster, Tansy tightened her upper body to give Julie more room to breathe. It brought back memories of dancing on the pole at the club.

“Whatever’s gonna happen, it better happen quick.” Tansy forced a laugh. “Mama’s arms are getting tired.”

For no reason Tansy could tell, Julie’s face crunched up. The corners of her mouth pulled deep into a frown and her eyes squeezed shut.

“Shhh,” Tansy tried, but Julie wouldn’t be calmed.

The long intakes of air, marked by empty voids in the sound, hurt Tansy the most. The deep suck of those infant lungs preparing to push out a flash of a wail, no longer than a burp, pierced her heart. The baby face twisted and coiled, going red with a distinct bluish tinge.

“No.” Each word required a full breath. “Julie.” Tansy felt light-headed. “Stop.”

She had trouble remembering why it was important that Julie stop crying, only that it was very important. And then the clouds parted and she saw the ground impossibly far away. So far away, she no longer recognized it, but not yet far enough to create the familiar blue and green marble.

Julie’s wails were fewer and her breaths more pained. Her face more blue.

Tansy desperately wanted to cradle her baby in her arms, to soothe the crying and feel the comforting warmth against her chest. To smell the baby smell, a fresh human unblemished by life’s knocks.

Her chest muscles were quivering. Her body was soaked in sweat from the heat as well as the effort. Her fingers clung to the baby flesh more tightly than she wanted.

Somewhere overhead, the Space Station circled with Sergej Demitriov watching. The pair of flecks intertwined. A mother and daughter, the last of The Risen—one true Risen and one just along for the ride—coasting into the atmosphere soon to meet whatever fate lay ahead.

At least, someone would be a witness.

Writhing under Tansy’s hands, Julie’s face contorted. The cries were weak grunts now, her face blue-grey. Her ribcage fluttered, mining for oxygen in the rarified air. Wriggled against her mother’s grip, she struggled for air, space.

Tansy let go.

Her eyes locked on Julie’s beautiful curl at the crown. The freckle on her temple. The daughter who would have everything she’d never had. And that she would have given anything for.

Tansy only wished her own mother could know that when it counted, Tansy was a good mother. She hadn’t screwed it up.

She wished Ron could see her too. She’d love to see the look on his face when he saw that his tattoo sexpot was a better mother than he’d chalked her up to be. When they had been waiting in the clinic’s office—her in the paper gown, him thumbing through the hunting and fishing magazine—he’d said, “This is the right thing. You’re not the mothering type. You’re too much about you.”

So she had walked out, paper gown and all, even though she knew Ron wouldn’t stick around to be a father to their baby.

Tansy grinned like the armored rhino tattoo on her shoulder, now blistered and burned, but still smiling that cockeyed smile. With the wind buffeting her back, she watched Julie’s speck disappear in a blink. One second a tiny baby rising in the clouds, a helium balloon released to escape gravity’s inevitable suction, and the next, gone as if she’d never been there.

 

Carolyn Divish is an Indianapolis-based writer. Her work has appeared in Jack and Jill Children’s Magazine, Silver Birch Press, Punchnel’s, Mythic Indy Anthology, and elsewhere. She received an MFA from Butler University and worked as Prose Editor for Booth.

Not the L.A. in My Mind

By Andrew Roe

I know blood. The types, the variations of color and presence and absence. It’s what I look at all day long, the way an accountant looks at numbers, the way a butcher looks at meat, the way a painter looks at paint.

Phlebotomist: It was a job that paid well after I graduated from high school, a path that did not require a college education, that also got me out of my parents’ house (a mother, a stepfather, no siblings). And it was the first thing I was ever actually good at. So it stuck (ha ha). Then I just kept going.

Arms, veins, skin. I don’t see faces anymore. The people I see are not people. They are arms, veins, skin. I sterilize. I draw the needle. Insert. Extract from them what I need. Next.

Because I’m good, I take it personally if I miss the vein, if it takes more than one attempt. The rest of the day, and sometimes beyond, will be tainted by my mistake. I can’t let it go.

Phle-bo-to-mist: A lot of syllables, too. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, either.

When my coworkers have patients with thin veins or they’re having an off day or they have someone with tremors from Parkinson’s, they call me in.

“She’s our Terminator,” they say, and before the patient realizes it, it’s over, I’m out, I’m gone, who was that gangly frizzy-haired woman in the white lab coat?

That was me.


“Stab ’em and tag ’em,” my coworkers like to joke, but I don’t.


The lab has its regulars. Lots of people getting chemo who need their blood monitored on a recurring basis. Even with them, with these sad, old, bald men and women, I keep my distance. I can’t. I just can’t.

Today, I have a full schedule of appointments and the waiting room is also overflowing with walk-ins. An army of wheelchairs and walkers out there. Complaints about the lack of seats and space and the outdated reading material: copies of People and Sunset and Oprah from three, four years ago. A lone plastic plant in a large pot occupies a corner, like it’s being punished, a dunce plant. That universal smell common to all waiting rooms: sterile, chemical, mortal. I call out the name of my next patient. I read names all day and don’t remember a single one. Male or female, I don’t even notice. The patient follows me back into one of the exam rooms. Sits down. Rolls up his/her sleeve. Arms, veins, skin. Sometimes trying to make small talk, but more often that’s not the case. I put out a pretty clear vibe.

But it’s hard not to notice the particularities of this patient. He—yes, the patient is male—is young, and that’s fairly uncommon. He has long shaggy black hair, presumably dyed, reluctantly combed. Black t-shirt, black jeans, black backpack slung over his shoulder. A floral tattoo blooms on his left forearm. Pasty vampire complexion. He looks like he could be in a band, or wants to be in a band, or should be in a band. And he’s lanky, lean like a tree out in the desert. He slouches in the chair, crosses his arms, and stretches out his legs, crossing his ankles as well, like he’s the smartest kid in class and isn’t having any of it.

He’s talking, too.

“So this is what you do, blood,” he says.

“Pretty much,” I say.

“Nine to five, dealing with blood,” he marvels, looking around, surveying the order, the minimalism of the exam room. “That’s cool.”

“Not really.”

“I don’t always take my meds.”

“Oh. Why not?”

“I don’t like to be predictable.”

I rub his non-tattooed forearm with an alcohol swab, find the vein, massage it gently, noncommittally, with my thumb.

“This won’t hurt a bit,” I say, which is more than I usually say.

“I bet you say that to all the boys.”

He smiles, and I can tell this is somewhat of a rarity for him, rare like an eclipse or a Nick Drake album. As a result of the smile, his mouth seems pained, and so the expression quickly disappears, back to the neutral, safe.

Then we’re done.

“That it?” he asks.

“That’s it.”

“Cool. I’ll see you next week.”


That night I dream about the patient who looks like he could be or wants to be or should be in a band. I don’t remember what he says or does, or why here’s there. But he is there. He is in my dream. He has crossed over.


My coworkers at the lab are almost all women. Older than me, harder than me, although lately I’ve been feeling like their hardness has been rubbing off on me—you know, the osmosis thing. They complain about children and husbands, boyfriends and celebrities. Someone or something is always disappointing them. It’s their default state.

The only guy is Salvador. Sal. Rumor has it that he’s either gay or vegetarian.

“Could he be both?” someone once asked.

“It’s possible, I suppose,” someone else said. “Anything’s possible this day and age, which you could say is one of those Catch-22 deals. Could be a good thing, could be a bad thing, anything being possible. Depends on your life view.”

“Life view?”

“Hell. You know what I mean.”

“No. I don’t know what you mean.”

“Well I’m not going explain it now, not here.”

And like most conversations at work it eventually drifted off to another topic, someone started talking about something else, the phone rang, there was an emergency, a sample got mixed up, the UPS guy came, something. And the now-dead conversation never got resolved.


During the week that follows, I find myself thinking about the new patient way too frequently. Why? I wonder. Why this person? He’s probably a year or two younger. Several inches shorter than me. Mildly reminiscent of an actor whose name I can never remember. Not someone I would ever conjure in my mind.

But he doesn’t come that week. I return to my apartment at night, carrying him home with me. The heat arrives. Temperatures hovering near one hundred. Fires farther north, one in Santa Clarita and another in Santa Barbara. One evening I visit my mother and stepfather, my monthly trip to Norwalk, a short drive from Whittier. The house is smoky, cough-inducing, cluttered. Often you have to move something if you want to sit down.

My mother tells me, in great detail, about her latest urinary tract infection. She explains how she had called her Internet company to complain about a recent price increase and now she believes they are purposefully slowing down her Internet service. Randall can’t enjoy his nature videos as much anymore. There’s lag. The videos help him fall asleep at night.

Toward the end of the visit, after we’ve also covered ailing family and annoying neighbors, she informs me that she will not, as planned, be retiring next year. She can’t afford it. She’ll be working at least another five years, maybe more.

“I may never retire at this rate,” she says, lighting another cigarette. “Randall’s 401(k) has been practically wiped out. The bills aren’t going anywhere, we’re not going anywhere. Just so you know: There’s no nest egg here. Don’t be counting on that. Just to be clear. We don’t live in that kind of world anymore. You work hard all your life and this is what you get.”

On Friday, it’s a coworker’s birthday. We have cake, sparkling cider. Primarily middle-aged people holding paper plates and using plastic spoons because they are no more forks. I haven’t told anyone my birthday. And they never ask.

My last patient of the week says she’s afraid of needles. Without realizing it, I put my hand on her shoulder. The patient is a woman. I notice.

“This won’t hurt a bit,” I say. “Promise.”


My annual job performance review: I am highly skilled. I am admired by others. I am seen as a potential leader. Coworkers value my input. They would also like to see more of this, for me to be more communicative, less solitary. We are a team, after all. It would be nice if I embraced that more. I sign a piece of paper, agreeing to all this. It’s the same as last year and the year before, the same as it’s been the past six years. Except that now I get an extra vacation day per year.


I call out his name the following Tuesday afternoon, and he’s there this time. He takes a seat in the exam room. My hands trembling. Why? How am I going to do my job and extract his blood?

“I missed you last week.”

Had I said that? Had I meant missed as in our paths did not cross as expected, or missed as in missed, longed for, was disappointed by his absence?

“I told you I don’t like to be predictable. Ouch.”

“Sorry.”

“Last time I didn’t feel a thing.”

“Sorry. I’m trying another vein.”

“Do people usually watch?”

“What?”

“Watch the needle go into the arm, accept the pain, embrace it, or look away, close their eyes, pretend it’s not happening?”

“I never really noticed.”

“You could run with that: ‘There are two types of people in the world, people who watch their blood being taken out of them, and those who look away.’”

“There. All done.”

The last time I didn’t find the vein on the first probe was over a year ago, my streak ended.

“Are you from here?”

Another first, asking a patient a personal question.

“No, I’m from somewhere else. The other side of the country. I came here because my grandmother lives here and it was Los Angeles and I had expectations and I needed somewhere to go. I didn’t realize Whittier was Whittier.”

“Not what you expected?”

“Not the L.A. in my mind. That’s for sure. Suburbs are suburbs. I could be anywhere here.”

“There’s downtown Whittier, the older part. That part’s a little different. They got brick buildings and stuff.”

“All I see is Chevron, Starbucks, McDonald’s.”

“What would you like to see?”

“Something that’s not this.”


When we’re finished, Trevor—that’s his name, Trevor—asks if he can stay a while.

“Here? In the exam room?”

“Yeah, here with you. For a few more minutes. It was so quick.”

“Well, OK. Just a little while, though. There’s a waiting list.”

“A lot of people need to have their blood taken. Job security, right?”

“I guess.”

“Are there ever times when you just don’t want to go to sleep?”

“What do you mean?”

“When you know you should shut your eyes and sleep but you don’t? You just keep reading or watching TV or whatever, or thinking, and somehow it makes you more alive than you usually are, during the rest of the regular day?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“I’m on one of those jags right now. Not sleeping much. Thinking a lot. Making progress in a bigger picture way. Do I need to go now?”

“Probably.”

“All right, he says reluctantly. Until next time, Sylvia.”

“How did you know my name?”

“Your nametag.”

That’s right. I wear a nametag.


Later, getting close to my last scheduled appointment of the day, I call out the name Mary Hornbach. An older woman shuffle-walks toward me. She is white-haired and fragile like balsa wood. Liver spots have fully colonized her hands. There is no going back.

“They want to start me on radiation again,” she confides as I prepare her. “But my white cell counts have to be higher. I don’t know if I can do it again, the radiation. It feels like your bones are being ground to dust.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too. I just hope the counts stay low. Do what you can, OK?”

I take her blood. Whatever Mary Hornbach wants, she should get. I hold her hand and tell her I hope the counts are low, too. I’ll do my best.


A few months ago, we were instructed to call patients clients. You didn’t help a patient. You helped a client. This was after the lab was purchased by a larger company, VitaCorp, spurring rumors of layoffs and closures. The speculation has since died down, though, and no one calls patients clients.


There is a wraps place, California Wraps, a chain, two blocks away from the lab and decent, and once a week, on Wednesdays, I go there for lunch instead of bringing it and consuming my yogurt and carrots and leftover tamales in the break room. I order the same food, drink the same drink. Habits are comforts. And my comforts are rare, so I try not to feel too guilty about them. Because it’s still blazingly hot today, I drive.

He’s sitting on the sidewalk, crisscross-applesauce, camped out to the left of the entrance, writing in a notebook, his backpack open and leaning against him, outfitted in his usual uniform of contrarian black.

“Hey, it’s the blood girl. I almost didn’t recognize you without your white jacket. Do they make you wear those?”

“It’s not optional.”

The Radio Shack next door has closed, which I didn’t know about until now. There’s a note posted in the store window, thanking customers for their twenty-three years of support.

“I get it,” he says. “The jacket gives a certain effect, for sure. All official, all medical-ly. You interested in buying me lunch?”

We go inside California Wraps and I buy him lunch. He devours a Corleone Italian Wrap, chips, a chocolate chip cookie the size of a small baby’s head. I offer him the rest of my Sea Breeze Salad, and he eats that, too.

“Do you want to know why I’m coming in to have my blood drawn?”

“It’s up to you.”

“It’s boring.”

“That’s OK. You don’t have to.”

“Everything’s boring. Especially the truth. But the truth is, I’ve got this rare blood disease, one of those one in a million deals, lucky fucking me. I found out last year, before I moved out here.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I have to get transfusions every once in a while. It’s called PNH. Stands for paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria.”

“OK, wow.”

“Basically my red blood cells break apart like prematurely, and there’s hemoglobin in my pee. And so one of the dangers of that is, is blood clots. Thrombosis. The shit I’m learning. It can also mess up your bone marrow.”

He pauses, which is something he doesn’t do often. I notice a trace of little-boy-ness still informing his face, or at least I can picture him as a boy, riding his bike, swimming in the summer, bliss in his world-greeting expression before something else took over.

“Sorry. That’s kind of heavy. And here we are just eating our lunch on a Wednesday afternoon.”

“That’s all right. I’m glad you told me.”

“Have you ever been to The Knight’s Inn?”

“No.”

“It’s a bar. They do music there sometimes. Rebel Yell is playing there tonight.”

“Oh yeah?”

“It’s a Billy Idol tribute band. The guy sounds just like Billy Idol.”

“Cool.”

Had I said cool? Yes, I had.

“I need to get going. And I’m sure you’ve got blood to take. Maybe I’ll see you there? Thanks for the food and everything. I’ll pay you back.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I will. I’m good for it.”

“I saw you writing something. In a notebook. When I first saw you.”

“Lyrics. Or a poem. I can’t decide which. Maybe it’s both. I just like to write shit down.”

“Cool.”

Yes, I’d said it again.


The sign actually says Ye Olde Knights Inn. The singer for Rebel Yell is well past fifty, also weighing at least fifty pounds more than Billy Idol. Wearing leather and sneering and jumping around on the small stage like a spring continually coming unwound. What is obviously a wig, blonde and spiky. He could be Mexican. But his voice is just like Billy Idol’s. He’s got that down. At the bar I order a vodka tonic. Then another. I guess it’s my drink, because it’s always what I order at bars, even though I’ve never made this concerted, seemingly important decision. I find myself wondering: Had he been waiting for me in front of California Wraps or was it a coincidence? Purposeful or random? Fated or pure chance? And can you ever know the difference? I don’t see any sign of Trevor, and I wait and sip, sucking on melting ice cubes, at the bar, at a table, talking to no one, and when the band starts playing “White Wedding” for the third time I leave.


“I’m sorry,” Trevor says when I draw his blood again. “I went to take a nap and then I fell asleep. I’d been up a long time. I’m really sorry. How was Rebel Yell?”

“He sounded just like Billy Idol.”

“Told ya.”

These past weeks I’ve gotten to know his blood better than anyone else’s. It’s velvety red, full bodied, hypnotic. I hold the vial and examine it longer than I do the other vials, the other blood I contend with every day. What can it tell me? What can it show me?

He notices me staring, and I feel my cheeks and chest surge with my own variation of red. I label the vial, sign the paperwork.

“I don’t think I can stay at my grandma’s anymore.”

“You’re moving?”

“Maybe. Maybe San Francisco. Maybe Portland. Somewhere where there’s more soul. It’s not really my grandma’s place, per se. It’s her storage space. Storage America on Whittier Boulevard. A few months after I moved out here, she fell and broke her hip. My parents had to put her in a home and so all her shit had to go into storage and I had to move out. So: Storage America. Did you go to school for this? I keep meaning to ask.”

“There’s training, a certification process.”

“And you get the white coats.”

“Yes.”

“Maybe you can get me one some day.”


Everyone at work receives an email. About half of us are instructed to go to conference room A, the other half to conference room B. There’s been talk of naming these rooms for years, something more original and catchy than the first two letters of the alphabet, but no one has ever come up with anything. So: A and B.

“My name is Gloria Jenkins,” says a woman we’ve never seen before, “and I’m your HR representative for VitaCorp. The rest of your coworkers are in another room, being told of some organizational changes. If you are in this room, if you are here now, you are not affected by these changes.”

Gloria Jenkins continues to talk for another five minutes, offering details and reassurances and guidance on how to interact with our affected coworkers, and when she asks if anyone has any questions, none of us asks any.

People in conference room A have kids, families, houses, responsibilities. I have none of these things. Yet I am in conference room B. Salvador, Sal, gay or vegetarian, or both, is in conference room A.

We disperse without comment. We get back to work, take more blood, because there is always more blood, empty glass vials waiting to be filled.


But he doesn’t show up the next week or the week after that, and I am—what? Forlorn. A word I’ve never used to describe myself before, and maybe never will again, but it feels right at the moment: Yes, I am forlorn.

People come, people go, entering and exiting our lives, beckoning us, whispering here, whispering there, and it’s up to us to listen or not listen. There’s the belief that we are nothing but atoms (or molecules) adrift in space, and everything is random. This seems right to me. So anytime we collide with another atom (or molecule), and there’s impact, definite impact, definite touch, we should be grateful, there should be gratitude for and acknowledgement of this small—that is, large—miracle. This also seems right to me.

On Saturday morning, I try to sleep in but it doesn’t work out. Veins of sunlight stretch across my sheets, the heat of the day already beginning to assert itself. My apartment is quiet, except for the occasional footsteps above me: a couple that goes to the gym together, who shop at Trader Joe’s together, whose names I don’t know. It’s disconcerting to live so close to them, only a few feet away, and not know who they are. They once had a party and Guns and Roses blared until 2 a.m., “Sweet Child o’ Mine” playing over and over, as if the song would provide a vital clue if it was played enough times.

After lying here for an hour, I give up and get out of bed. Laundry, errands, other weekend occupations await. I will call my mother to tell her I won’t be coming over and Randall will answer and there will be that long pause as she dramatically walks to the phone, all this effort on my account. I will hear the lighter spark, ignite. I will not ask why I wasn’t allowed to attend birthday parties when I was child. I will not ask why Randall or how come she doesn’t talk to her sisters. I will allow her, temporarily, her platform to voice her latest disappointments and grievances. She is like an isolationist country that knows no other way to be.


“Hi,” I say to the guy working at Storage America.

“Can I help you?” he replies in a voice that clearly does not want to help me or anyone else.

“I’m looking for someone. He has a storage space here. Or his grandmother does, and he’s kind of staying there, or living there, I think.”

“You mean Vampire Guy?”

“Yeah.”

Storage America Guy looks like he just woke up, even though it’s 2:30 in the afternoon. A giant can of Rockstar Energy Drink is within reach on the counter, behind which he stands, tall enough to be a basketball player, a long E.T. neck and a significant slouch.

“The payments hadn’t been made in months,” he says. “We had to kick him out. Plus it’s like illegal to live in a space anyway. So we locked him out and then he got all jacked up about it and threw a stapler. Legally the stuff is ours if you don’t pay. You sign that shit away. But people don’t read the fine print when they sign the agreement.”

“He was just living in there?”

“The owner doesn’t give a shit. But then sometimes he does. It’s hard to figure.”

“Did he say where he was going? Did he leave anything behind?”

“Whatever’s in the space. Like I said, he was locked out. You can take a look if you want. Take what you want. We’re getting rid of everything tomorrow.”

The smell inside the storage space hits you hard: musty and farty, that of a trapped body slowly secreting its regrets. Trevor had laid out a sleeping bag toward the back of the space, which is roughly 12-by-12 and overrun with boxes, an old dresser, a hanging mirror, a few framed paintings (boats, ocean, sunlight), a stack of photo albums, a vacuum cleaner, rolled up throw rugs, garbage bags full of clothes and shoes and household appliances. All very old and grandma-y, so I assume everything belongs to his grandmother. Next to the sleeping bag (you have to skirt the left wall to reach it) is a line of prescription bottles, three in all; I pick them up one by one: something for his red blood cells, but also Abilify and Wellbutrin. Inside the sleeping bag I find a notebook.

I flip through the notebook, one of those spiral ones like you use in high school. The pages are filled with doodles and sketches, ramblings and descriptions. One entry narrates his trip from Pennsylvania to California and describes the people he encountered along the way—a diabetic out-of-work farmer named Norm, a woman named Vanessa who claimed to be related to Dick Cheney—and another outlines an idea for a movie. It takes place in the future, and it’s about a young man who refuses to take the pill that everyone in this futuristic society is forced to take, and after the description there’s a line in all caps, underlined, that says: HAS THIS ALREADY BEEN DONE BEFORE? SOUNDS FAMILIAR. NEED TO CONFIRM. IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE TO HAVE AN ORIGINAL IDEA ANYMORE? HOW CAN YOU TELL, VERIFY? ALSO NEED TO CONFIRM. On one of the last pages, I read this: “Went to the blood place, met a girl.”

The notebook almost falls out of my hands. There I am. In the notebook. There. Me.

Went to the blood place, met a girl.

I was the girl in “met a girl.” I doubt that’s ever happened before, but there it is in Trevor’s chaotic, childish handwriting. It stuns me. Such a simple thing, but it’s like all of a sudden, there I am, placed in the world, seen, remembered.

I decide to take the notebook with me. Also the pills. Then I pull out the white lab coat from my purse and drape it over the sleeping bag where his body would be. I imagine the shape of his body there, inside the jacket. I imagine where he could be, right now. I’m thinking: on a bus, on a train, in a car, in motion, somewhere else, away from here, away from me.

“Thanks,” I say to Storage America Guy on my way out. “And he didn’t say what he was going to do, where he was going to go?”

“Nope. He was too busy throwing the stapler.”

“Do a lot of people end up leaving stuff behind like that?”

“You wouldn’t believe.”


My apartment darkens and I don’t flip on the lights. It is still Saturday and tomorrow is Sunday. Somehow I’ll fill the time until I go back to work on Monday. Since there are less people, there is more work. But no one complains. For so long I’ve thought of my job as a calling. But now I’m not so sure.

I turn on the Addiction Channel and it’s that show about addicts who also have the names of famous people: Michael Jackson, Tony Bennett, Julia Roberts. There’s a person about my age named Jackie Kennedy who’s confessing how she hid her heroin use from her mom for years. “I was surprised,” the woman says, “at how good I was at secrets, at telling lies. I was kind of proud of it, actually. I almost got as much of a high from that as I did from the drug.”

The notebook sits on my lap, the pills on the end table next to the sofa.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a man, another person, but I guess that’s often the case, the cliché. Someone comes into your life and everything feels different after, skewed in a significant way, a good way. It could also be a trip, a book you read, a movie you see. Or a health scare or a family secret or a spiritual epiphany. But usually it’s a person who gets you to this place of openness and awakening and renewal, and sometimes that person continues on with you and sometimes they don’t. You are alone again but you have seen the possibility of not being alone. Just to know that I could get that close—that was enough, that was a start.

Finally I switch on the lights so I can read the notebook again. A man in a diner in Yuma, Arizona, who cursed out the waitress because she reminded him of his ex-wife. A dismissal of his parents, of all the zombies out there, the United Drones of America. He’s scared that he has this disease, this thing he’ll have to carry through the rest of his life, which will be a shortened life, a marked life. Bob Dylan is overrated. The Beatles are underrated. Squeaky Fromme was part of the Manson family. The vapor trails left behind by planes certainly look different these days, the white exhaust lingering longer in the sky, but he doesn’t believe in the conspiracy theories about chemtrails. You have to be vigilant about your defiance. It’s so easy to give in, give up.

Did he know the impact he had? Maybe he’s already forgetting me, or has completely forgotten me. But then: Went to the blood place, met a girl. Maybe—in San Francisco, in Portland, somewhere—he will think of me, wonder what if, wonder about the possibilities like I am now. There is so much that is beyond me, an ocean of mystery and uncertainty. So much water in which to swim. Or not swim. And there is no more nest egg. We don’t live in that world anymore. But did we ever?

The name on the prescriptions: T. Niederbach. I remove one pill from each bottle. The first is small, white, round, efficient; the second even smaller, a soothing baby blue, more rectangular. In my hand, they look magical. Like magic beans in a children’s story. I swallow them and lie down on the sofa, then wait for the effect, wait for the difference.

 

Andrew Roe’s most recent book is Where You Live, a short story collection. His debut novel, The Miracle Girl, was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. His fiction has been published in Tin House, One Story, The Sun, Glimmer Train, Slice, The Cincinnati Review, and other publications, as well as the anthologies 24 Bar Blues (Press 53) and Where Love Is Found (Washington Square Press). His nonfiction has been published in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon.com, and elsewhere. He lives in Oceanside, California, with his wife and three children.

Horses

by Rachel Pollon

My family and I have this ritual. Once a month, Teresa, my wife, my second one, and my kids, from the first one, make the trek from the valley to come meet me at my office in the city, and we have dinner. We treat it like it’s a big deal. Don’t go to any chain restaurants. It’s all very exotic. Afterwards, we let the kids pick who they want to drive home with. Hannah’s hand went up before her brother’s this time, and she chose me. Truth is, the winner always picks me. I don’t say this to sound like an asshole. It’s simply the truth. I’m not sure if their stepmother notices or not. I’m not sure she cares. It is what it is.

Hannah sat shotgun. When she was younger I’d let her sit on my lap and steer while I drove. Steer in quotes. Of course I had my hands on the wheel. I’d only do it in safe situations. On certain off-ramps that I was well acquainted with or when we entered the cul-de-sac that led to our home. Now she was too big for all of that. Besides she got her grown-up fix sitting up front. “Side by side like Bonnie and Clyde,” I said, realizing the comparison didn’t entirely fit. The rhyme was tight though. That much was clear.

We cruised the boulevard heading west. The sun intermittently took out my sight as it made its way down, slipping in and out from behind the high rises and palm trees. It stayed light too late this time of year, in my opinion. Stretched out the already long days.

I guess we were both feeling restless. Hannah reached up to open the sunroof and I started hitting buttons on the radio to find a song we both liked. She was still at the age where she’d listen to my music and seemed to by osmosis make out the lyrics to everything.

The weekend before, we were driving somewhere, another family outing, both kids in the backseat, and “Satisfaction” came on. Hannah was singing along, only slightly flubbing the words, “…I can’t get no satisfaction, I can’t get no girly action….”

Her stepmother sort of laughed at her and asked, “What’s he saying?”

Hannah, more self-conscious then, said, “He’s frustrated because he can’t get what he wants.”

That she seemed to get the overall gist of the existential dilemma the song’s lyrics raised pleased me. All she was missing were subtleties and she had plenty of time for that. Her innocence, to have that clean of a slate, I wanted to wrap her up, put her in my pocket and not let her out until the coast was clear.

A commercial came on so Hannah turned down the sound. We’d veered on to the 405 by then, heading north, back towards home. I started thinking about the obligations that were on our agenda for the weekend. None of them what I’d choose to do with my free time. We hadn’t passed Sunset yet. I had an idea.

I told Hannah I needed to make a quick stop and see a friend.

“It’ll be fun,” I said. “He plays piano and sings.”

She got quiet and her face started to form that worried expression she was prone to inhabit. Her eyes searched me like her mother’s used to. No one tells you that. No one tells you that once you have kids you’ll always be looking at the person you made them with. Like a ghost that haunts you, reminding you who you were and what you did.

“He’s an old friend,” I continued. “He’s been wanting to meet you.”

She began chewing her pinkie nail.

“We’ll pop in, hear a couple songs.”

She asked if we were going to a bar.

“It’s a restaurant. They play music in the bar area,” I said.

“Teresa says when you don’t come home at night, that’s where you go and meet women.”

“I don’t know why she tells you those things,” I said aloud but also under my breath. “That’s adult stuff, between her and me. Not for you to worry about. We’re going to see my friend. It’ll be fun. Besides, I think I left something there last time I visited.”

Hannah started to tear up. She’s a sensitive kid and unfortunately has taken a lot of the familial discord to heart. Ever since her mother left—and I tried to instill that it was because of me, not her and her brother—she’s been in a suspended state of raw. I wish for her sake she could shut some of it down. Life is full of so many disappointments and things that are out of our hands. The only thing I know for sure is we’ve got to find a way to transcend.

“I’ll see if the hostess found my sunglasses, you’ll have a Shirley Temple, we’ll hear a couple of songs, and then we’ll go,” I told her. “You can make a request. That would be cool, right? It’ll be an adventure.”

I pulled off the freeway at Sunset and backtracked east towards the strip. Hannah wept quietly through most of The Who song about the squeezebox, even though I was singing along with it hoping she’d join in. I hated that the weekend was kicking off this way but I figured it would turn around once we got inside and she experienced the scene. She used her sweater sleeves to wipe her eyes until I handed her my handkerchief. I asked her to take the wheel while I took off my sport jacket, in an attempt to distract her, then reminded her it was Friday night and she didn’t have school the next day. By the time we pulled up to the restaurant she was sedated, seemed to have exhausted herself.

The valet greeted me and asked, “Who’s this? Is this the pretty little daughter you’ve told me about?”

I put my hands on her shoulders and introduced them. “Hannah, this is José.”

Her eyes met the ground as she shrugged and mumbled something resembling an exhale.

I told José that she was tired. “We’re just going up to hear Bobby sing one song.”

“Oh,” José said, “Hannah will like that.”

I’ve climbed the stairs to the restaurant lounge more times than I could possibly remember but climbing them with her made them seem strange, more substantial. Leaving was usually the problem, not arriving. It started to take on a sort of funhouse feel. I’d forgotten how dark it was inside. And how it’s all adults.

When we reached the top, Candace, the hostess, embraced me with a hug and a kiss.

“Hey, handsome,” she said. Then she looked down. “Is this your girl? Hi, there. I’m Candy.”

Hannah started the crying again. I told Candace that Hannah was learning to play the piano so this could be inspirational for her. Hannah’s glasses dropped to the floor while she was attempting to dry herself out. I reached down to pick them up and would have kept them for her but it suddenly hit me that she wouldn’t have been able to see in the dimness.

Off to the side, Bobby was at the piano. He was in the middle of the last chorus of a jazz rendition of “Baby, It’s You.” Candace escorted us over to the bar, just feet from the piano, and Hannah and I climbed up onto our stools. She was momentarily enthralled with the scene. Bobby smiled at me, then Hannah, and sang the last few lines directly to her. After a smattering of applause, he told the audience he was going to take a short intermission. A Spanish-language version of “California Dreaming” began to play over the sound system.

I asked Hannah if she wanted the Shirley Temple. She did. “Extra cherries.” I ordered it that way and then a Vodka Gimlet, no sweet, for myself. The bartender must have been new, or worked only weekends, I’d never met him before. He was a little standoffish. Which is fine. We didn’t have to be friends, no illusions here. I introduced myself and Hannah, he gave a sort of terse smile, said his name, which I now forget—Mitch? Kevin?—then got to work on our drinks.

Bobby came over and as we shook hands he said, “This has got to be Hannah.”

The bartender placed our drinks on the counter and I handed Hannah hers. She began sucking it down.

“Your father has told me so much about you,” Bobby said, “but I forget how old you are.”

“Eight,” she said with the straw still in her mouth.

“Eight is a great age,” Bobby said. “Better than forty-eight, I tell you that.”

I asked him how the night had been going, how the crowd was.

“Pretty good, pretty good.  It’s still early.”

Hannah slurped down the last of her drink. “I’m done,” she said, kicking her heels against the legs of the barstool. “Time to go.”

I wasn’t halfway through my gimlet. I told her we’d come all this way, that we should hear at least one of Bobby’s songs. “He’s having a little break but he’ll be back at the piano soon.”

Hannah started tearing up again, then crying. In a burst. By the light of the bar I could see that her eyes had grown puffy.

“Hey, hey,” I told her, “Here are your extra cherries.”

The bartender slid the entire container of maraschino cherries that he kept on the counter towards me.

She tried holding back her tears and began gasping a bit.

Bobby chimed in, “Hey, what song would you like to hear, Hannah?  I’ll play whatever you like. You like ‘Up, Up and Away’?”

She shook her head “no” and continued the waterworks. I downed the rest of my drink and signaled for another. I put my arms around her and pulled her onto my lap.

“You want to show everyone how well you play ‘Heart and Soul’?” I asked her.

It was all she knew how to play besides “Chopsticks” which we all know would only serve to give everyone a headache, and “Greensleeves” which no one enjoyed hearing in any setting.

She looked towards the piano like she was considering it.

“Hey, you know who sat in that seat last night?” Bobby said. “The very one you were just sitting on?”

Hannah turned her face into my shoulder.

“Raquel Welch. Raquel Welch sat there. She drank a White Russian and she requested ‘The Look of Love.’”

This made Hannah start crying harder for some reason and now she was causing a scene. People were looking at us, wondering what was going on.

I took a mouthful of my new drink and told her, “Stop. It’s fine. We’re fine. We’re leaving soon.” She continued to shake into my chest.

“You’re no fun at all,” I said.

She let out a muffled wail and I could feel her tears and saliva on my neck.

Bobby said he was going back to the piano.

I grabbed some cocktail napkins and turned Hannah to face me.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. You’re fun. It’s just, this is Daddy’s fun and I wanted you to enjoy it, too.”

I picked up my glass. “Here, I’ll finish up and we’ll go.” I threw back the rest, showed her I was keeping my promise, as she stained the napkins with her tears.

Bobby, back at the piano, started tickling the keys and said, “This song is dedicated to Hannah.” He started a tune that sounded vaguely familiar, but it was too late. I moved her from my lap onto Raquel Welch’s stool, paid the tab, then helped her to the floor.

We made our way down the long, dark stairway. When she saw the opened door at the bottom that led outside, she stopped sniffling. José gave me a nod as I handed him the ticket and he went to retrieve the car.

I do this thing sometimes. It’s internal. I look out at the world like I am a horse. I see the world through a horse’s eyes. I traverse the pavement with an imperceptibly slow gallop, like a horse might, picking up steam in my mind, my mane blown back by the breeze my movement creates. I move past people, taking them in, but not truly. We don’t connect on any real level because we don’t understand each other. I feel other and they barely notice me. I started doing this when I was around thirteen. Our family was breaking down. I didn’t want to be there. It soothed me, was my escape, it cleared a path. I never told anyone. It’s hard to get just right. And anyway, some things are just ours.

I told Hannah I was sorry she didn’t enjoy the place like I hoped she might. She said she was sorry, too. Which broke my heart a little. I wanted to tell her more. That one day she’d get it, one day she’d understand.

She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. “I didn’t want you to get in trouble,” she said blindly to the sky.

“Too late for that,” I wanted to say. But instead I pulled her close and she sunk into me, wrapping her arms around my waist.

“You forgot to ask about your sunglasses,” she said with a hint of being on to me.

I regretted mentioning it. “Yeah, they’re probably at the office anyway.”

I pulled out a smoke.

“We’ll pick up some ice cream on the way home,” I told her. “A little something for everyone.”

She asked if she could light my cigarette. I struck a match, bent down, and handed it to her. She sparked me up then closed her eyes to make a wish and blew out the flame.

“Don’t tell me, or it won’t come true,” I told her.

“I know,” she said.

Then we held hands silently and waited for the car.

 

Known to hardcore aficionados for her early works on the bathroom walls of Taft High School in Woodland Hills, California, Rachel Pollon’s writing has evolved more recently into paperback form: an essay (“Change For A Ten”) in The Beautiful Anthology, and two pieces (“The Job Interview” and “Middle School Preparedness Tips”) in the book Teen Girls’ Comedic Monologues That Are Actually Funny. She can further be read on The Nervous Breakdown, TheWeeklings.com, and her website that houses all these and more, SeismicDrift.com.

Blessed

By Susan Taylor Chehak

The snow has come early this year. They’re saying it’s going to be a terrible winter. The climate has been having a tantrum from all our neglect, all our abuse. Global warming, is that it?

I’m in mourning, so in a way I welcome the freeze. It seems like it’s going to fit in with my grief just right.

I’m lonely, that’s what.

And I’m a little bit sorry too.

I’m not even fifty yet, and that’s much too young for this feeling that maybe the end is here. The end is near. That I’m reaching a limit of some kind.

And I wonder sometimes whether that makes me happy in a way. Does it?

I am a weaver. That is, I have recently become a weaver. I call myself a textile artist on my cards and on my website, which is a blog that hasn’t been updated for months now. I don’t remember the password. But it doesn’t matter.

I used to sell my work in a gift shop in town, and for a while I was able to eke out a living that way, just enough to pay the bills. Now I don’t even need it anymore, so what’s the point? I have more than enough to pay the bills. My ship has come in by way of an inheritance that changes everything.

So I could be happy. That security might be enough.


The woman from the gift shop has called. Old Mrs. Daugherty. She wants to know about the Christmas things. When will I be bringing them in? And: I can’t wait to see what you’ve done this year!

Mrs. Daugherty is a dear old woman with a lovely little shop that smells like flowers and spices and caramels and cream.

But I have nothing for her. I’ve stalled. There’s a barely-begun green linen dish towel gathering dust on the loom.

It’s the same color green as a bottle of red wine.

I pour a glass.

I lie back against the pillow.

I turn up the music.

I close my eyes. Ah, yes, I think. This. Ah, this.


Last summer it was all very different. It was all all right. I can look back now and think: There. Right there. That’s when it all began.

What all?

All this.

The beginning of the end.

I’m sure I can put my finger on the exact moment.

It was the Fourth of July weekend. The Sunday before the holiday, and there was to be the usual pancake breakfast at the fire station. My brother wanted to go. I’d have been happy to cook for him myself. We had fresh eggs from the market. I could’ve made a fruit salad.

The kitchen was dazzling with light. There was a bunch of gaudy flowers from the garden nodding in one of Mother’s crystal vases on the table. Summer was at its first height and all those days lay before us.

But Patrick got antsy. He wanted to go places. He wanted to see people. He was grinning like a puppy, and would have gone on his own without me, so I folded the newspaper, put on my shoes, ran my fingers through my hair.

I was wearing a new red blouse. Blue sweater. White shorts. I was trying to be patriotic, but Patrick was all in dull, dark brown. His mind was on the pancakes.

And afterward maybe we could stop in at the antique mart? He wanted to look for more of the weird saltshakers and books that he collected, as well as the old portrait photographs.

These had become his passion lately. He shuffled through them like playing cards. I asked him why and he shrugged: Dunno. I just like to look at them, I guess.

The place was crowded because I’d dawdled, and so we were late and the line was long. Patrick took a spot at the end, behind an elderly couple. She was scrawny in a white lace dress. He was bent crooked in suspenders and a white T-shirt and old blue jeans two sizes too big for him. The line moved slowly. Someone was twanging at a banjo somewhere out of sight.

The firemen and their families were serving up the food. This was real Americana. Patrick loved it. I was hot and dizzy with hunger in the heat.

There was a portable toilet at the edge of the lawn, but there was also a line for that, so I had to wait a bit first. When I came back I could see that Patrick had moved forward some. He was making progress at least, while enthusiastically conversing about nothing with the pair of geriatrics ahead.


And here’s the moment, as I get closer.

I can look back with confidence now and say: Then! That was when.


A cloud drifts over the sun, and everything seems to go to black and white and gray, and Patrick is laughing at something the old woman has said when this guy comes up close behind him, shaking his fist. He raises his middle finger, pumping it in anger behind Patrick’s back, behind Patrick’s head. Then as this guy turns away, he’s face to face with me and he says: I fucking hate that fucking guy.

But why? That’s my brother.

And he leans in close. His breath is hot in my face: Well, then I fucking hate your fucking brother.

Like a slap.

I told Patrick. I pointed at the guy, who was elbowing his way away from us through the crowd. He looked back over his shoulder just once to glare at me before he disappeared.

Patrick was calm. He said simply: He must have thought I was someone else. And then he was smiling again, like it was nothing. While I searched the faces, trying to find that one, to memorize it so that if I ever saw it again I could ask someone: Who is that?

I don’t remember much else about the day, except it rained that afternoon and the garden went limp. We didn’t stay long at the breakfast. By the time we got to them, the pancakes had gone cold.

The guy must have thought Patrick was someone else.

But I couldn’t stop worrying it: What had happened? Why had he said that anyway?


Mother had died earlier, in the spring. She went easily, peacefully, if dying can be peaceful. Anyway, she didn’t struggle, she succumbed. And there was a smile on her face, though Patrick insisted that was just some kind of rictus setting in.

I visited the cemetery now and then. Patrick didn’t know. I didn’t dare bring up the subject of heaven or an afterlife or a better place or anything else so comforting or kind. He wouldn’t have had any of that, especially not from me. He used to only just roll his eyes at such drivel, as he called it, but after Mother was gone he got to slamming his fist about it, which made me worry for the crockery.


He was even more insufferable than usual when it came time to divide up our mother’s stuff. The booty, he called it, with a pirate’s swagger and sneer. His strategy was to pretend he didn’t care and, seeing when I had my eye on something, he’d take it for himself before I got the chance. I knew he’d just get rid of it, but I figured I could always go down to the thrift shop, find it there, and buy it back. I picked up on his tactics pretty quickly, anyway, and was able to distract him pretty well, so in the end I got the loom and the other craft supplies that had supported Mother’s hobbies.

He laughed at that too. Woman’s work, he said. Busy hands, he croaked. Pretending to be the devil, raising his fists up over his head, looming over me and cackling: Heh heh heh.


My brother Patrick was only eighteen months younger than me. We’d been close as kids, or so the story went. My memory is vague. But there did come a time that I can clearly recall when he turned his back on me for good. When the rage and revulsion first boiled up in him and spilled over onto me. Mother tried to explain it away by blaming a boy who came by and became Patrick’s friend and told him: You can’t play with girls. Especially not her. Your sister.

Later that same boy turned on Patrick too, but Patrick forgot that and continued to protect his self-esteem by keeping a safe distance from me. All I had to do was look at him too hard or for too long to send him off into conniptions.


But this was all so long ago. And we were orphans now, alone in the world, and so we needed each other, loved each other, didn’t we?

We’re blood! I said.

And he collapsed at that. Like a balloon with the air squeezed out. Or anyway he seemed to.

That’s when he told me he’d been kicked out of his apartment for something he did or didn’t do. I don’t know. It wasn’t clear and I didn’t press. He wanted to come and live with me. And wasn’t that how it should be? Neither of us was married, though he’d had a wife once upon a time. She’d left him and there’d been no children. And I’d always been on my own.

When I was drunk, I said: I need you.

But he was drunk too and a little deaf, so when he answered: What? I corrected it. We need each other, Patrick. You know we do.


The truth is, I enjoyed his company. I really did. At first, anyway.

He drank beer; I drank wine. He thought I was fancy. I thought he was crude. And each of us was envious of the other. He of my education and my manners. Me of his ease and his carelessness. He, my restraint. Me, his freedom.

In the beginning this made for lively conversations, which soon enough soured into arguments, and then began to sink to all-out fighting as our long days and nights together wore on.

Mornings we were sheepish. I apologized. He was glum, mad at his own self most likely, but I felt his self-loathing turn outward onto me. And so we twisted and turned in the fickle winds of our own misunderstandings.

He left the kitchen a mess, but blamed me for it. Because I was too fussy, he said. Claimed I couldn’t wait five minutes but had to have it all spruced up right now.

He napped.

I cleaned.

He was lazy.

I was industrious.

In the end he stopped talking to me altogether, and then his silence filled the house so I thought I was going deaf.

This was not how it was supposed to be.


I stood in the doorway and watched him sleeping on my couch. The TV was on without sound. I listened to his breathing, heavy and slow. When he snorted it shook him so he dropped the TV remote. Which woke him up. He opened his eyes. They were very blue, always had been. He looked at me and that was when I knew: he’d become a stranger to me. I felt his footsteps shake the house when he walked down the hall to the bathroom.


What followed then were days and days of silence. His silence, which he kept, his lips so firmly closed I soon enough quit trying to break it for him with words of my own, flowing out, then slowing, slipping, stopping. What was the point? He was a brick, hard and square and no entry point that I could see. So I shut my own self down too, and then we were two bricks in front of the TV, at the table, going up and down the stairs, or passing in the hall.

And then one day I was off on my own at the grocery store to pick up some of his favorite foods. There was to be a football game on TV that night. I thought I’d stock up for it—chips and cheese and beer—and put a spread out for him that he wouldn’t be able to resist. I was considering: Why not fatten him up? Let him be a brick in a chair and let it creep up on him, the pounds, the blood pressure, the cholesterol, the stress.

I went from the shelves of chips and cookies to the dairy cases at the back.

And there he was, in the aisle, sweeping: that angry guy from the pancake breakfast. I recognized him immediately, though he looked younger somehow. I reached past him for the 4% cottage cheese and a bottle of whole milk. He didn’t seem to know who I was, and I didn’t tell him.

I paid for my groceries and went out to the parking lot, and while I was there I accidentally-on-purpose dropped my bag so the glass broke and the milk spilled and the rest of it went rolling off every which way. Someone called for the guy with the broom, and he came out to help me salvage what I could. The manager wanted to replace my damaged goods, no charge, but I said that wouldn’t be necessary. The guy helped me into my car. He patted me on the shoulder and he said: Now you be careful, ma’am. And: You take care of yourself. And: You have a blessed day.

As I drove away I saw him with his broom; he was sweeping up my mess.


When I got home there was Patrick, the brick. I put away the groceries with great care. Then I went up to his room and tore into his things. Then I went back downstairs and I told him, very carefully, that if he did not leave—Now!—I was going to call the police and have him forcibly removed.

Patrick made it worse by complaining that he had nowhere to go.

That’s not my problem! I said. And: Find someplace. And: Don’t you know anyone? And: Don’t you have any friends?

I thrilled at the way he cowered before me, how he shielded his eyes with his hands, how his whole body trembled, how his mouth puckered, how he sucked air in and out like a fish.


What Patrick did have was our dad’s tent and sleeping bag and his own pillow and a kerosene lamp. It would just have to be enough. He piled the wheelbarrow with all that and his clothes and his saltshakers, books, and photographs, and he pushed it across the lawn and off into the woods behind the house. Later, when it was dark, I saw the light of his lamp and knew he’d be all right.

I felt bad, but not that bad.

I lay in my bed and thought about the guy at the store. Maybe I’d go back there again tomorrow to look for him. Maybe I’d tell him who I was. Maybe I’d say: Hey, I fucking hate my fucking brother too, and we’d have that in common, maybe enough for him to want to invite me out for dinner or across the street for a drink.

While out there in the woods, Patrick was setting himself on fire.


First he was running across the field and bellowing my name. Then he was in the yard and rolling in the grass.

I’d taken a sleeping pill, so what? I’ve read that sleep is important for proper brain function, especially as we age. Anyway, maybe it took me a while to get down there. And when I did, at first I didn’t understand what was going on. I thought he was drunk. He was bawling like a baby. I didn’t know why and I didn’t know what to do.

Sometimes I wonder if he might have been all right if only I’d taken him seriously right from the start, but I’ll never know because I didn’t. I was so angry. I thought: Let him rot. I turned around and I went back upstairs and I left him where he was. I put plugs in my ears and a mask over my eyes and went right back to sleep.


In the morning I looked out the window to see that he was still out there in the grass. Passed out, I thought with some contempt. I’d already decided my brother wasn’t my problem anymore, so I left him as he was for a while, considering it a kindness to let him sleep it off there in the soft grass in the shade of the willow tree. But when two hours went by and I stared at him long and hard but he still didn’t stir and he still didn’t wake, then I began to have this feeling, it crept around all over me, and I couldn’t shake it, so I put on my robe and I fixed a cup of coffee to take out to him, with a splash of whiskey, the way he liked it.

But when I opened the door and smelled the smoke…

It wasn’t that I knew, exactly. Only that I began to know. The knowledge came over me like a shadow from the woods, and my mind went blank and all sensation shut down while I was standing over him and saying his name: Patrick? Then, louder: Patrick?

I dropped the coffee. I ran back to the house. I called 911.

The ambulance wailing. The neighbors watching. Paramedics and policemen. All that.


We went out into the woods then and found the collapsed tent and the overturned lamp and the charred sleeping bag and the empty beer cans and all his other stuff. The policemen shook their heads and said it was a lucky miracle my brother hadn’t set the whole woods and grass and house on fire while he was at it.

I guess I am blessed, that’s what.

 

Susan Taylor Chehak is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the author of several novels, including The Great Disappointment, Smithereens, The Story of Annie D., and Harmony. Her most recent publications include a collection of short stories, It’s Not About the Dog, and a new novel, The Minor Apocalypse of Meena Krejci. Susan grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, lives occasionally in Toronto, and at present calls Colorado home.

The Pit of the Groove

By lance duncan

These days, you don’t go out often.

This isn’t new. You’ve never been one for busy night streets packed with bodies, or for bars. Or for piling onto a crowded couch and watching some random junk on a TV. Even going to the movies has never had much of an appeal for you. But somehow it’s different lately.

Lately, you find that sometimes, when you’re not having a great day, when you see people together who are happy—smiling, laughing—the emotion that arises in you is not envy, or jealousy. Rather, it’s simple hate.

This doesn’t happen always. It’s recent. And rare. But you catch yourself in it, once, twice, and it feels like slipping into the pit of a groove dug out by repeated daily habits, a consistently chosen rut carved out by choices that—while they always seem like good ideas at the time—have distinctive side-effects.

You like to take walks at night. You always have. But recently, you’ve found that the increasingly cold air—which initially you dreaded, being unused to living in a colder, higher climate—is something that you appreciate, look forward to, as an excuse to wrap yourself in a jacket and gloves and a comfortable hat, sturdy boots, all of it insulating you, holding in your heat, but also—and more importantly—forming an additional layer against human observation and potential interaction, a barrier reinforced by the darkness, which makes all walking encounters fleeting ones, occluded, governed by different animal rules of engagement and eye contact. In the cold night your essence is contained. Unbeheld.

When you walk at night you walk reliable paths, nearby ones that are comfortable, although you would like to change that, to walk longer and farther away.

When you walk, if it’s not too late, you look into the lit picture windows of the familiar houses you pass, seeing people alone, or in groups, or people in groups, alone. In one house, always two big TVs alongside each other, two guys playing different video games. In another, four or five cars always parked, parallel, slanted into the drive at an angle driven across an empty dirt yard. The people in this house are in their front kitchen always—young, professional-looking, busy inside the large glowing windows, together in the room but almost always looking down, at a table, their faces lit by laptops.

At this house and others with signs of heavily shared space you sometimes stop, briefly, and think a while about this rut of your life, about your walks at night, about the inertia of your choices. You consider these people who chose to live together, to commune their energies, combine their thought-forms, to work together to create domesticity: something that sustains them all, something that takes a contribution from each and creates a greater whole. You doubt you could live like that now, in a house that small, with that many people. You don’t like the way the word “domestic” sounds.

You think also that that something that nurtures those in the domicile takes something away from each, diminishes each individually. You imagine a life overtaken by the chatter of shared minds, insipid inside jokes, debates over chores, constant human noise. You think about how the place you live in is like a castle now, fortified and controlled, alone.

You think of that thing that nurtures and sustains, that domestic bubble of safety, security—(you’ve read that lonely people heal more slowly, have poor sleep, higher rates of heart disease)—you think of how you are such a picky, prickly individual now, and you feel the rut of the groove grow slightly deeper with each step you take down the chilly sidewalk of the nighttime street. Hidden bunnies run away on all sides.

Once, months ago, where this same street meets the main arterial of your crowded college town, you paused on a night walk at the squat office building there, looking in another window lit up by a nighttime cleaning crew, a ground floor office framed. A picture of a life.

It stung a small bit to gaze in, to see a person’s world confined. It was a woman’s office, her white sneakers waiting on the floor, her mousepad worn down at the edges and depicting a pastoral country scene in fall. The green fabric arms of her chair, threadbare. On her walls: paintings, a house on a picturesque broken seaside cliff, an old barn falling apart, slowly being reclaimed by the land. Wishful pictures of what human life could—should—be, instead of, on her desk: lotion to ward off the too-dry climate, a flat computer monitor, an adding machine. A well-used stapler. Rolodex.  Pictures of her family, who are elsewhere.

The computer monitor had been left on for no reason, glowing solid blue at the Windows login screen, diodes slowly burning away, and attached to the inside of the thick office window, dangling from a metal spiral carefully fastened with wide pieces of translucent tape, three crystal-clear plastic snowflakes hung in varying shapes, their forms glowing from within, animated luminescent blue by the screen. The accidental beauty of this—the cold purity of something so cheap—surprised you.

You hike in the mountains alone, at dusk, and coming back down the trail, past the dry brush and scrub that climbs to the tree line, your mind mixes up the image with a picture you’d seen earlier that day of a witch, a simple pagan one, rendered in rough realism with digital ink, wearing a peasant dress and carrying an armful of herbs across a field, face downcast, her back to the trees, returning home cradling a bit of the primal, preparing to do her work with ingredients gathered, necessarily, from beyond the pale. For you that image mixing with the real, with the actual dry mountain field, is like sex, and the shape of a story forms in your mind. On the final leg of your walk an image appears of a black satin devil, lounging on mountain rocks, body lithe like a mountain lion, discovered by the surprised witch-girl and then tutoring her in dark arts, lessons of rites and herbalism, preparing her to take his demon seed into her belly. In your head this story writes itself.

But at home, it does not gel. You procrastinate. You print out the image of the witch, color on glossy paper, and cut off the white edges. You put it up on the wall—in the room where you want to write and feel guilty for not writing, and avoid, and where the idea of writing now feels like an enforced chore—with double-sided sticky squares you bought at Target. You expect inspiration to flow from this witch, like a totem. The witch sits on the big empty wall in a stippled sea of pale blue. Then at some point when you are not there, the picture falls off. When you visit the room, you are surprised to find it is gone. The absence—the blank white back of the image staring up from the floor—feels like a judgement.

You decide to go back to the mountain again, at dusk. On your favorite day of the year, no less—the old holy day of darkness and graves. Witch day, if any day is. It feels right. You start to catch the edge of the feeling you had before, start to feel the sense of the wildness that is both totally empty of the human and totally full of the natural, non-calculating alive. Deer cross your path, a surprise. But you don’t stumble upon a black Satan on the rocks.

Then, taking a break, lounging on a boulder with a sandwich, you look down at your own black jacket and realize it was you who you were looking for here the whole time.


Sometimes, lately, when you interact with others or merely talk to yourself when alone at home, you find your own words a surprise. Some things you say you find you didn’t think at all, and sometimes they make you laugh, your own voice speaking aloud some observation, some comment, that seems to come from an other, inaccessible, compartment of your mind. You begin to feel acutely sometimes that the narrative you think to yourself about your life is a story you write, an explanation afterward—that the action of it is something entirely else, something carried out by the same part of you that speaks your words aloud.

When this phenomenon occurs and you’re alone, it’s an amusement. Around others, it bothers you. On one night you go out, drink, talk to many people, and you find, perhaps because you’re drunk, that the part of you that observes seems completely cut off from the part that speaks, and is very unamused by your predictable banter. It’s probably partly just a negative mindset, a trick of perspective, alcohol being a downer—but you find your own words boring, trite, rehearsed—lines that play out as if being read directly from a record groove. And you get that same uneasy feeling you had on a walk: that this is a groove you’ve carved out yourself, and that it goes a bit deeper each time it plays, becomes more sharply inclined, so that the patterns of your speech, the angles of your relation to others, become more rote, flow downhill, and require more of an effort to climb out of.


On another night, on a walk, you stop at an empty basketball court on the crest of a hill, its flat expanse littered with the windblown debris of some catered plastic party, black discs of disposable serving dishes in piles spreading out, halfway-empty water coolers clustered together in the middle of the court as if for warmth, capped with nested plastic cups. The water you drain from a cooler and drink in amusement slaking your thirst, but tasting sour, plastic—unwholesome. A waning but bright moon in the hill’s open sky, illuminating the flattened wisp of something more like mountain mist than a cloud.

On the way back home, you walk by the small office building, and you’re greeted with a surprise. The light of the woman’s office is off, as usual, but tonight she has left her computer on a screensaver running—an endless slideshow of photos. Each image lasts for four seconds, and the next is random, obviously on shuffle, in no coherent sequence. You keep telling yourself you’re about to leave but you watch it for fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. Your legs start to get stiff. But the images don’t repeat. Most of the neat writerly assumptions you had made about this woman’s life bear out.

At first, in the mix of photos, you don’t know who the woman is, but slowly the certainty of her identity emerges, despite the pictures featuring dozens of different people, many of whom reappear. The woman is older than you imagined, perhaps in her early sixties now, and she has a soft, kind face, often smiling. She seems bemused. Along with her you recognize her husband, a cheerful man with a beard who gains some weight over the years. In many of the older photos the woman is young—in the 1970s or 80s—or middle-aged, in ones clearly from the 1990s, full of artifacts like denim dresses and neatly-banged hairstyles. You realize the stark inescapable reality of the fashion trends of decades. Pictures of children in Christmas photos taken in the early 90s, no doubt some relations of hers, look almost identical to ones you know very well of you and your own sister, sitting in front of a fireplace in just the same way, the girls wearing excessively frilly dresses in a style now long-abandoned, one you had taken to be a unique choice of your mother’s, but no. Just a trend. Images of a child’s birthday party, probably from the late 80s, and Disney party hats you think you recognize, the style all so familiar, not belonging to your past, or really to this woman’s, either—to both, but neither. Something monolithic, in all of this. The pictures of members of her family at Christmas, in the mid or late 1970s. Exactly like the ones you had seen of your older cousins, your aunts and uncles and your parents and grandparents, in the years before you were born. Not slightly alike—exactly. Different people, different rooms, but everything is the same. The way the men sit, legs casually crossed. The way wrapped gifts are held on laps. The expectant expressions of adults who for a moment are free to be children—happy, excited, grimacing and narrowing their eyes at bad jokes just told. All of this you saw before and mistook as unique, as a ghost that was yours. You know with certainty that this woman does so as well—that to her these photos represent the very meaning of her family, what makes them unique, the very meaning of her life. All the photos of tiny blonde girls she cherishes—daughters of family members, haphazardly flowering with age as the sequence of images randomly progresses. All of the photos of adult men and women, certainly dead now, who were already old in pictures of  1970s weddings, wearing enormous glasses with square frames, one of the women with a hairstyle nearly identical to one your grandmother had at that time.

You shift your posture as you feel your neck and your legs become stiff, locked-in, the randomness of the display process making the procession of images oddly addictive and impossible to step away from, presenting a completely unpredictable gift of the past at exact intervals. You are overcome with the banality of it. You see every possible thing you could expect: every corny photo taken with heads and arms in fake stocks at an amusement park, the sepia dressed-up Wild West family photo that cost fifty dollars, a middle-aged woman very pleased on the prow of a boat, countless children at play, adults posing with props making various predictable jokes, photos posed by signs at natural landmarks, endlessly more young blonde-haired girls. Other girls who are older, overweight, not conventionally attractive. A young boy asleep in a stroller, looking as if he was caught passed-out drunk. A baby in a high chair, identical to all other such babies, its grinning face and bib smeared with food. Many wild animals, but never in wild environments.

You watch all this for long enough that the novelty wears off, overtaken by a sense of total cliché, of the absolutely predictable, and then somehow through the randomness and the pure saturation of images the whole thing becomes completely novel again, each image unrelated to the one before but essential to the whole, and you find yourself wanting to see one that is some kind of capstone, some summation, before you pull yourself away. But that image does not come, and aside from the realization that some of the woman’s family members must be in the military there is merely more repetition of the predictable same, and eventually, on an image of green Spring plants, you turn your head and walk away.

It occurs to you not as you walk, but as you write about it later, that the hundreds of images you saw of this one woman’s life, the life-sketch you made based on the still image of her office lit at night, are the essence of the domesticity you dread. While watching the parade of images, after a while, the main feeling you had, despite all the clear ties of love and family, was a kind of sheer disdain at the predictability of being human, the same emotion you feel toward the inscribed patterns of your own mental grooves—the tendency toward the repetitive, the comfortable, that which is sanctioned by routine, and also the influence of the invisibly all-pervasive, which—like the fashions in those old photos—affects you, contains you, whether you realize it or not. You can’t escape the completely encompassing feeling you had that the pictures of the woman’s life could have been from any woman’s life of her age and economic station, in America, and the complete surprise that the pictures of her family’s past were ones of your family’s past. Exactly.

And none of that is what you want, for yourself. For things to already have been written. You want to imagine. You want your own unique, individual life, one in which you make your own meaning, or rather, divine the true meaning that exists already in the world, but in an individual way, from your own singular angle, purified by the filter of your own mind, not trickling in from a broad perspective watered down and subtly, constantly foisted upon you by the endlessly grinding machine of society with its too-soon-stale but incredibly universal trends and styles. Somehow, you think that being a real individual, keeping your identity contained, being fiercely creative, will avoid these grooves. If you fight against this machine hard enough. But you know, at the same time, these grooves of your own. And you can see—did see—looking at this woman’s world, that there was something trite, banal, predictable, and utterly human missing from your own, and that it was love.

You resolve, with not much reluctance, to take fewer walks at night. You think that, rather than meeting yourself in the dark, dressed in black on a mountain rock, you’d rather meet someone else. And you know, from experience, that in the bright light of the sun the whole world intrudes, stimulates the mind, and quite often can shock you right out of a rut, especially—and almost always—if that light comes along with the glow of another person’s smile. Maybe, when you see that smile yourself, in your own way, it’s no longer a cliché.

 

Lance Duncan is a graduate of the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Colorado Boulder. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, where he writes fiction and nonfiction and is also working toward a career as a speaker. This is his first published story.

Twister Party

By Cris Mazza

He’d gotten a postcard six months or so after she got married, which was six months or so after the one night he’d had with her. Which wasn’t even a whole night, and they hadn’t “had” everything, just the parts that could have told her how he felt, if she’d wanted to hear him. Tone deaf to his caress, his quivering need held in abeyance, his fingertips pleading, six months later she was married to someone else. Six months after that the postcard:

February 2, 1981  Dang, Cal [he could hear her hard, squeaky laugh] we were such kids, such babies. Someday you’ll see and we’ll be able to be great friends. I needed stability so I could go after what I always wanted. Found out I need psychology and animal behavior classes if I’m going to be an animal trainer for the movies, and even a pro who’ll take me on as an apprentice. Learning and watching and always practicing, like you did with your sax. Don’t abandon it, Cal.
X

It. What she didn’t want him to abandon. Of course clearly she meant the sax. Otherwise, if it was something else—the it containing everything he felt about her—she would have provided her new address. That it, the real it refused to be abandoned.

In 1981, when he got the card, he didn’t feel like a kid. He didn’t even feel young, although he hadn’t yet acted out of wretched acquiescence. (Wretched in 1981 was jargon for horny, but eventually it returned to its original meaning.) By 1982 a woman with two kids who was supposed to be a one-nighter, a road gig as they said in the band, was living with him in the equally wretched desert where he found work in a music store, taught lessons and fixed band instruments.


One night in 1995, when the cops got there, they found the living room furniture a little askew, the TV trays totally upended, dishes from dinner on the carpet. But in the kitchen there was a carnage of the watermelon on the floor, more dishes—broken ones—and the knife meant to split the melon standing upright, its point buried in the cutting board. They also found Cal on the front lawn, locked out of the house. The cops, male and female, took turns, one inside, one outside, asking the same questions. “Are you okay? Are you hurt anywhere? Do you want her arrested?”

Yes, no, and no. Sticks and stones….

 Worthless piece of shit.

“How’d she get a 200 pound man out the door against his will?”

“I didn’t fight back.”

“Good idea.”

“Yeah, I just went the direction she was pushing me. I knew she’d calm down.”

“What was the fight about, sir?”

“I won’t send any more money to the… kids.”

“Your kids?”

“Actually… hers.”

“You could decide not to press charges, but if it got worse, you couldn’t stop us from arresting her.”

“It was just dishes, and… I moved my horns down to the shop.”

The cops, of course, didn’t understand that.

He walked around the block, eight p.m. temperature still in the 90s. When he got home, the kitchen was cleaned, the garbage taken out to the cans at the side of the house. She was, by this time, his wife, and was making ice cream sundaes with root beer. He wrote a check for $150 to the twenty-five-year-old burnout.


The stepdaughter’s name was Trinity. In September of 1983 She was having a birthday party, the first one to have boys. September, like June, July and August before it, still damn hot. But she wanted a piñata out in the yard, and Twister in the living room, with music. No other baby games, and good candy in the piñata. She nixed Cal’s idea of including small school items like new pencils or pens.

“Hey Trin, how about some movie tickets, or McDonalds gift-certificates?” Her mother called her Trin. Her girlfriends called her T. Cal could guess where the boys would take that.

“Why not just put a whole stereo and a couple of records inside?” he said.

“You can butt out,” the girl said.

“We’ll need you to swing the piñata,” the woman said. Her name was Virginia. Her girlfriends called her Virge or Virgie. Cal didn’t. He used the whole thing, to emphasize something he was trying to get her to understand, or if there was any reason he needed to get her attention during dueling idiocy with the girl instead of (what he usually did) just butting out.

When he’d first learned the girl’s name—at some point after the supposed-to-be-a-one-nighter with her mother but before moving together out to the desert, maybe even when Virginia was introducing her daughter to him (on a so-called date arranged by Virginia after the supposed-to-be-a-one-nighter when she kept calling him because she’d gotten his number from the band’s female singer, and he figured what the hell…)—he’d said, “Trinity. That’s interesting.” He wasn’t sure if maybe there was a church reason, but didn’t know if he cared enough to ask.

“It’s because when she arrived, we became a Trinity, a threesome.”

“I thought there’s an older brother,” he’d said.

“Yes, Angel, so with Trinity we became three.”

“What about…” Then he’d decided not to ask. And by the time he knew about the man, Merle, who sent the child-support checks for the girl, it was no longer in his head to ask about the trio thing. At least Merle was the same man who the boy went to visit in Las Vegas every weekend. Cal wasn’t sure where the bus fare came from. But he wasn’t looking too closely at the bank statement in those days.

Virginia had had a job. He’d thought she’d had one when she was hanging around his gigs, but it turned out that was an assumption based on, well, people had jobs. She said she’d been a casino cocktail waitress in Las Vegas. At first, living with him in the Imperial Valley, she’d worked at Kmart for about a month. They let her go, she said, because the other women talked about her in Spanish behind her back and she wasn’t going to take it. Did that mean she quit? He didn’t ask. But he did inquire, “How do you know they were talking about you if they were speaking Spanish?”

“That’s how they are,” she said. “They also run into me with grocery carts in the store. On purpose, I know it.”

Cal’s friend who owned the music store where he worked once got his brother’s catering company to hire Virginia as a freelance party waitress. She was too slow, Cal’s friend said, and she tried to tell the bartender he was making the drinks wrong. When she applied to be a teacher’s aide at Trinity’s school, Cal discovered she hadn’t quite finished high school. But in those days school districts actually paid parents or retired people as the crosswalk guards or playground proctors. Then she suddenly stopped doing that after a few weeks. “Trinity didn’t want me there,” she’d said.


At her party, Trinity wore the tight designer jeans she’d requested for her birthday. Neither Trinity or Virginia responded to his inquiry: Had she sat down in a bathtub of blue paint?  Trinity had a two-page magazine spread of Brooke Shields, wearing those same jeans, taped to the wall of her room. But instead of the flowing silk-looking blouse Shields wore—buttoned only between her smallish breasts, falling away to show her flat suntanned stomach—Trinity chose to wear a halter top. Some of the other girls wore tanks or sleeveless tops, one of them with leg warmers and a miniskirt, but none of them were as physically developed as Trinity.

“Are you letting her wear that?” he’d whispered to Virginia in the kitchen.

Virginia shrugged. “She’s old enough to dress herself.”

Virginia had fixed Trinity’s long hair so her face looked small in the middle of a big ratty mess. It was one of Virginia’s styles, except she wore a wig. That was probably why Virginia’s hair didn’t change much, but Trinity had hers in a messy, sweaty ponytail after the piñata. Cal had executed his assignment manning the rope, raising, lowering and swinging the smiling black-and-red bull-shaped piñata while each blindfolded kid took three or four swings with the souvenir bat Cal had gotten as a kid on bat-night at the ballpark but had never used. All three boys, black, Latino, and white, were skinny shrimps compared to Trinity, but as quick as her with cliché kid-talk, awesome and radical, killer and badass. They each wore a T-shirt with some big words or nasty-looking cartoon. One of them — the black one, or maybe Latino/black — had a cap like a cab driver mashed onto wet-looking curls and big aviator sunglasses he had to take off when he was blindfolded. While the kid whaled away, Cal could smell whatever goop had been used to make those wet-looking curls. No one touched the piñata (a few almost clobbered Cal or each other).

“Let them hit it,” Virginia shouted. So they all had another turn without the blindfold, and in five or six swings, the bull was tufts all over the yard, the kids scrambling together on the ground on hands and knees, greedy bastards trying to get the most for themselves. One seemingly younger little girl with short dark hair who’d come in a dress with a sailor collar—maybe someone’s little sister or one who hadn’t kept up with her classmates—stood to the side of the jumble of arms and legs, hair and feet and hands. So Cal went inside (taking his now scuffed bat), grabbed the last box of the chocolate bars he’d hidden away after loading the piñata, and dropped it whole and unopened into the dark haired girl’s sack.

When Twister started, Trinity said, “We don’t need you for this,” then turned the stereo up. Kool and the Gang. Now Trinity was wearing the cab driver cap. Cal went to the kitchen for a beer. At some point, when four or five kids were snarled up on the Twister mat, Cal happened to look through the kitchen’s pass-through window and saw a boy sink his teeth into the bulge of Trinity’s halter top.

Cal went down the hall to his bedroom. The bedroom he shared with Virginia. In a ritual he used to do at gigs, he peed, holding his dick with one hand while his other hand held the beer bottle to his mouth, trying to pee as long as it took to swallow the rest of the beer. What a boor he’d been then. A dirtball. And yet in some ways not dirtball enough, since he’d had to be stoned in order to finally fuck one of the women who hung around at gigs and then ended up living with her, raising her children. A spineless dirtball jellyfish with a dick, and now probably just a jellyfish.

He was almost back down the hall bringing the beer bottle to the kitchen when the Twister game broke up, apparently because the cabbie hat fell off Trinity’s upside-down head so another girl picked it up and put it on her own head. Some names were called. Bitch and ho. Hands slapping at each other’s faces in girl-fight posture he’d seen too many times at club gigs, bodies so far apart only their upper arms can reach each other. “Where’s Trinity’s mom?” he asked the dark-haired girl with the sailor collar, sitting at the kitchen table with the eviscerated store-bought decorated cake and four or five plates of smashed cake pieces.

“She said she was getting something she forgot from the car.”

In a junk tray on the pass-through windowsill, Cal kept an old sax mouthpiece still holding a frayed reed, specifically for times like this, although usually for bouts between Trinity and Angel, or Trinity and her mother. (Virginia and He’s-My-Angel never fought.) Cal tongued five pig-squeal bleats. A burst of laughter, hoots and exclamations. Maybe the fight was already over anyway. Someone turned the music up. Hall & Oates. Two of the boys came into the kitchen for more cake. The bathroom door slammed. One of the boys said, “She tweakin,” then slid his eyes sideways toward Cal, ducked his head. The dark-haired girl was no longer at the table. When Cal went back to the bedroom to get away from the thumping funk, one of the other girls was in there, looking at the dresser, the top of it where boxes and bottles sat. Not his shit.

“You lost?” Cal asked.

“Uh, where’s T at?”

From the living room Virginia called, “Girls, Cal brought some new records from the store.”

Like hell he had.

But Virginia had six or eight albums fanned out on the floor, the Twister mat kicked aside. Journey, Foreigner, Styx, Genesis, The Go-Gos, Duran Duran, Motley Crue, Black Sabbath…  maybe the whole top-sellers rack. Four or five of the kids were on hands and knees sliding the albums around on the carpet, flipping them over to see the photos and songs listed on the backs. Cal couldn’t see Trinity out there. “Let’s have a dance, I can still shake it up,” Virginia said, over the top of the Hall and Oats still playing. She ripped the cellophane off an album and stopped Private Eyes with a screech of the needle across the grooves.

The dancing started, Virginia bumping hips with some of the girls, and Trinity literally leaped back into the room—from her bedroom? The bathroom?—the cabbie hat perched on her back-to-big-and-loose ratty hair, and now also the aviator glasses screening her eyes. The wet-curled boy, who’d arrived wearing both, danced tentatively, while Trinity boogied in a circle around him. Maybe if he had his hat and glasses back he’d start to get down, but was an undressed Superman without them.

In the kitchen, Cal started throwing away paper plates, plastic cups and spoons. The plates and cups had pictures of E.T. riding a bike, thick and waxed, used once and piling up in the trashcan. He looked through cupboards to put the rest of the unused ones away and found two different drawers plus a cupboard crammed with paper plates and cups, from a stack of a thousand plain white ones, to Valentine, Christmas, Easter and Halloween themed plates, plus sets with pictures of balloons or stars, some not opened. While looking, he also found a cupboard with no less than ten boxes of prepared cake mix.

A car passing in the street rattled the manhole cover. On reflex Cal looked out the window and saw the dark-haired girl sitting on the raised brick garden box that separated the front porch from the driveway. The garden box had one bird of paradise plant, most of its fronds dead or broken. Cal was only renting this house and had asked the owner to pay half the water bill if he took care of the lawn. He hadn’t had a chance to do anything with the gardens, but maybe fixing them up would be another way to stay out of the house an extra hour or two on weekend mornings before he went to the music store where he fixed band instruments.

The dark haired girl was picking tiny weeds out of the garden box, making a little pile of them on the brick edge where she also sat, her bag from the piñata beside her. Cal had bundled the trash and come out the front door. “Dancing not your thing?” He put the trash bag down on the porch, on a bench that was there with two other trash bags waiting for a trip to the container around the side of the house. The porch area, tucked between the house and the garden box, also collected blowing trash from the sidewalk and street.

“I guess not,” the girl said, not looking up from plucking the spindly weeds. From the house, either thumping of the bass or feet on the floor. The screeching, whooping voices inside were all female-pitched, but then again, these boys hadn’t started changing.

Cal cleared his throat. “You’re a friend of Trinity’s?”

“I guess.”

“Well, she invited you, didn’t she?”

“I guess so.”

“How do you know Trinity?”

“I help her with math.”

“That’s nice, how’s she doing?”

“Okay I guess.”

A breeze hit Cal’s face, cooling his sweat. Over his head, a sign Virginia had hung there squeaked a little. The sign said Cal & Virgie. In script, cut into wood, then varnished. When the dark-haired girl turned and looked at him, for the first time since he’d come onto the porch, she likely wasn’t looking at that fucking sign, but said, “You’re not her dad.”

“No, I’m not.” Then he wondered if she’d said that to mean he shouldn’t be asking questions about Trinity. But she’s all of what, eleven years old?  He picked up the trash again, then picked up the other two bags. “Guess I’ll get these where they belong.” And who was he explaining his actions to?

When he came back, the girl was just sitting there, as though waiting for him. She smiled a little. Didn’t she? Cal said, “Trinity’s copying your math homework, isn’t she?” The girl’s smile faded. Cal almost touched the top of her head with his index finger as he passed to go back into the house, but stopped his hand at the last second. He paused in the doorway, then turned back, went back. Cleared his throat again. “Did she say she’d hurt you if you didn’t let her use your homework?” He noticed the girl was holding the little heap of weeds in one cupped hand. She didn’t close her fist. She also didn’t answer and wasn’t really looking at him, although she’d turned to face him when he’d spoken. “If she did,” he said, “tell your parents, or the principal. Tell someone.” He waited, but she didn’t move. “Do you need a ride home?”

“My mom’s coming. I called from inside.”

“Here,” he said, extending his hand beneath hers. She tipped her palm and dumped the snarl of wilting weeds into his.


By the time the last kid was gone, the indestructible Twister mat was torn and three records were in five or more pieces. “We didn’t want to dance to them so we danced on them,” Trinity gasped. She’d seemed to be laughing or hiccupping for an hour, still wearing the wet-curled boy’s hat.

Cal got his car keys from the kitchen so he could go to the music store. “Can you take these back and say they were broken when we opened them?” Virginia asked. He pretended he hadn’t heard and kept going into the garage, glad for the excuse to spend a Saturday evening in the repair shop, because he’d given up the daytime hours for the party. He’d more than once told Virginia (usually when she asked why they didn’t go out dancing anymore, as if they ever had, unless she counted hanging around at his gigs) that, since he worked day hours in the music store, nights and weekends were when he had time to devote to his repair business. Even if he was really just sitting there listening to his records (most of which he kept there) on the music store’s stereo system. And thinking. He took care of himself there. It was nice if he didn’t have too much of a backlog of instruments to repair, so could focus on just the right image. He didn’t keep a picture of her, as she directed him to remember her. It wasn’t that private. But sometimes, just seeing a girl of about that age, the age she’d been when he saw her every day, scratching her bare shoulder while she looked at something in the display case. Or if he’d spotted a couple dancing at one of his (fewer lately) gigs, and the girl was a lot shorter than the guy, and sort of draped against him like a ribbon. Even, rarely, one of the models they used in Playboy might appear more vigorous than languid, have a wry smile, austere eyes that impaled him, short dark hair. It was not necessarily if a woman or model looked similar, but the way she looked at whatever she was looking at, some glint of expression, a sharpness that hid something deeper and heavier, and, admittedly, in Hustler a girl might be looking with layers of deep meditation at a guy’s cock, or over her shoulder with smoky complexity, locking eyes as he fucked her. But, really, once he closed his eyes, he didn’t need the staged bare genitals.

Sometimes he did both, fixed a few instruments, then had his “alone time.” And was able to not be back home until Virginia was already in bed, on her side against the wall. He could steal in and lie still, and sometimes even have another session of alone time when he woke, somewhere after midnight, and began the wake-doze slide toward five a.m. Daytime was much too busy, even if he was home, the kids were usually around, phone ringing, music playing. Hell yeah, he made thin excuses—the kids would hear, he was tired, he didn’t feel well—until the thinness was on the verge of transparency and he had to give it a go, often faking a finale if he knew he was losing it, or after he’d figured it had been long enough to be enough.

No he didn’t pretend Virginia was someone else. How would that even be possible?  The basic ingredients weren’t just a wet place to put it. He knew other guys really got off fucking anyone who would fuck, the anonymity or the variety putting the fencepost in their dicks.  Maybe he’d already had the biggest hardon he would ever have—how many years ago now, almost three?—one he hadn’t used that night, and it wasn’t novelty or big tits or contortionist positions that caused it.

Now it was only this: Turrentine or Coltrane or Brecker on the stereo in his shop. An oscillating fan passed by his face in slow rhythm, cooling sweat that prickled between passes, until later when the sweat would run crooked rivulets through his chest hair. Not a reverie just to see himself with the saxophone, himself on the stage or in the spotlight, himself speaking the mood with his reed, his horn, his breath and body. If it’s him playing, he plays for her. She comes into the club. She feels it in the way the horn phrases the tune into emptiness and longing. In subtone or with a hard core, burbling runs or sharp tonguing, vibrato growing wider, slower, or a deathcry scream. She would stop, framed for a moment in the open door, only a silhouette, except the sax player can’t see, plays with his eyes closed. The door gently shuts, like an eyelid dropping before sleep. In darkness, she can see the sax player in the low floods on the tiny stage. Stars occasionally glint from the sax’s bell. Dark backs of heads between her and him. Sometimes someone gets up, a black human shape blocking the sax player from her for a moment. But laughing, talking, glasses clinking don’t cover what his horn is saying. She’s still there by the door during the last two or three block chord changes, when his playout utters his ultimate plea. His last note is held, throbbing, and he opens his eyes and meets hers.

So he took care of himself.

Afterwards, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m going to have to, pounded in his temples like a tune entrenched in his head. He said it to her postcard, which he kept in a drawer under scraps of cork sheets. He didn’t have a photograph. He didn’t need one. He said it to the sideways look she might give him, and the way she would probably say Dang, Cal, who are you apologizing to… or for?

It feels like cheating.

Isn’t it what happens when people are married? You must obviously know I’m not a virgin.

You don’t love me, so it’s not cheating for you… even though… even if you’re… even when you’re… somewhere else.

The sad smile, the dull glaze in her eyes before her gaze dropped away from his, the heartbeat of silence before her eyes returned, the almost imperceptible shrug. He finished before he’d slid the straps of her tank top over her shoulders.

But felt he should apologize, again, remembering he would have to do it, next time Virginia brought it up. He tried to explain, while he had a cigarette, outside the closed-and-locked music store:

Sometimes I can tell it’s coming because she’s been crying. Or if she’s still up when I get home. She might have a story about one of her friends dissing her, not being invited somewhere, her sister receiving a surprise delivery of flowers while at work. She wants to be hugged. I know it. Sometimes I manage it beside her, sideways, one arm across her shoulders for a few seconds, the usual everything’ll-be-okay bullshit. If that doesn’t snuff it, the next thing will be her hand on the back of my neck when she takes my plate after dinner or my coffee mug after some TV show is over, then comes back from the kitchen and uses both hands, starts to massage my shoulders. Even though it does feel good, I don’t let it go on too long. I usually get up and go outside for a cigarette. I know I should quit. But, really, why? Maybe it’ll all be over sooner if I don’t. When I go back inside, she’ll be done with the dishes, if I was on a dinnertime break. I can either go back to the shop, or find some work outside. I’ll be so sweaty and tired when I come back inside, instant sleep will be more honest, and defensible. But I know I can’t hold off forever. Things are getting too hot. Not in a good way. It might defuse some of the poison. Some of the rage. Some of the fear. No, I’m not afraid. Not of her. Not really. The money… the kids… what does it really matter? So why do I have to appease if I’m not afraid? Just so it’s all peaceful or at least neutral… until it’s over. That’s all. To do the thing required. Believe me, though, I don’t want to. I have to.

Every time the next time loomed, the sick anticipation was what probably made him remember the last time. Virginia had used a different signal, a new one. It had been a Saturday evening before Cal went back for a stint at the shop, she told him she was making huevos rancheros Sunday morning, so plan to sleep in and let the aroma awaken him. But it hadn’t been an aroma that woke him. Virginia put his Stan Getz with Oscar Peterson CD on a portable player and had come into the bedroom with it playing. When he’d opened his eyes, the CD player was on the floor by his nightstand, Stan was still playing the head of “I Want to Be Happy.” He didn’t see Virginia. But almost immediately had felt the bed jiggle as she’d gotten on from the other side, then moved up against him.

“No one’s home but us,” she’d whispered. He was on his side. Her hand crept under his top arm and onto his stomach. Just muscles and nerves reacting, like an anemone, the curl of his body closed tighter, his knees tucked up higher. She’d started kissing the back of his neck. Two choices were squirming sideways and falling off the bed, or turning backwards and flailing to knock her away with an elbow. He’d remained static. The mantra became get it over with, get it over with. Her hand was pushing its way down below his stomach. His tight fetal position blocked access. But how long could that last? It could have easily ended in a completely different kind of exchange if she’d gotten her hand on him, found him flaccid, and then it stayed that way even after she started fondling. It had been imminently obvious what he had to do.

He’d rolled slowly, dislodging her arm and hand. Then, face to face, she could move her kissing to his mouth. He opened his lips enough but didn’t use his tongue—he never had with her, he knew what she would consider his m.o. in that department. Likewise there was never any touching breasts, sucking nipples, he hadn’t ever even encouraged complete undressing. Probably the first time, the time that was supposed to be the only time, he’d been so horny he was raging and ready simply because of the unexpected opportunity, the shots he’d downed, the weed, the whole stranger-sex mystique.

His own hand had pushed down to his crotch to do what was needed to get hard.  And tried to do it without her knowing what he was doing. In fact, it seemed the rhythm, the motion wasn’t familiar to her. Apparently she really did sleep through it, those times he’d been too lazy to get up and go into some other dark room at three a.m. to have an alone-time session. Even odder, (or maybe fortunate but he hadn’t felt very lucky at the moment) the position of her pelvis was such that the back of his hand was coming in contact, and she’d ground herself there, perhaps assuming that was his goal.

She’d started vocalizing softly. He was taking longer to get it up than he was accustomed. He needed an image, a story to follow. But it seemed so wrong to bring X into it. Wrong to X… and wouldn’t anyone agree also wrong to Virginia?

That kind of thought stream naturally hadn’t helped. But his dick knew his hand, and something was happening. In his bathroom drawer he’d stashed some condoms when he’d starting knowing the time was coming. Not just to prevent pregnancy but to prevent evidence that he wouldn’t finish. He had to get a condom on without her realizing what he was doing. He gasped, “Just a sec, my bladder’s bursting” and surged out of the bed, into the bathroom. He did pee, because she would hear if he didn’t, then worked a little while longer with an image of X when they were sixteen that he hadn’t brought up in this kind of situation  for a while. That worked to get to the point where the condom went on. When he’d returned to the bed, thankfully, Virginia had rolled to her back, so moving to the final stage was not only accessible, but it would’ve been too weird if he hadn’t.

Propped up on his arms, eyes shut, he’d realized he’d been counting his thrusts when numbers in the thirties were pounding in his head. Then he’d consciously counted into the forties and decided it was enough. Breathing a little more rough, he’d stopped moving, tensed his body, let his head drop and hang. He stayed still, again had found himself counting, and this time when he got to twelve, he withdrew. He’d removed himself from the bed as well, returning to the bathroom to wad the condom in some toilet paper and discard it. She had no reason to paw through the trash, but still, he’d been in his underwear out in the garage emptying the bathroom trash into the big container, even tying off the bag, when Virginia had come to the kitchen to start huevos rancheros, which turned out pretty damn good.


Usually, coming home late, he didn’t have an urgent unease. But that night, after the party, after midnight when he got home, Virginia was awake.

It was dark, but he could tell Virginia was sitting up. He turned away, pretended to be feeling for the light just inside the bathroom door. The dim bathroom light was the only one he used, mornings getting up before dawn and coming to bed after her in darkness. If she was asleep, he didn’t even worry about how loud his pee hit the water or the toilet’s flush, but tonight tried to do both more softly. Just before he turned out the bathroom light, he saw Virginia still had her wig on.

Cal sat on the side of the bed, his body in the shape of a question mark. From behind him, Virginia asked, “What’re you doing?”

“Taking off my socks.” His socks still on his feet, his feet on the floor, his hands on either side of his legs on the mattress.

Virginia shifted, maybe getting closer to him. “Didn’t today make you think?”

Cal couldn’t think of an answer.

“Babes, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Six or seven horns came into the shop today.”

“Oh. But didn’t today just make you think?”

“Okay, what was today supposed to make me think?”

She was closer behind him. “Birthday parties! I wish we could have a birthday party every week, but that would mean Trin is growing up too fast.”

“What is she, eleven going on eighteen?”

“I know, girls are such sweet wild things.”

His sudden intake of breath might have sounded like a sigh. He cleared his throat to cover.

“Babes… don’t you think… I think you need a child of your own.”

Cal hadn’t moved, and she hadn’t touched him yet. He swallowed, clutched the edge of the mattress a little harder. When she shifted even closer, the old box-spring groaned and the mattress noticeably sank in the spot where he sat, which would help her to slide against him. He could stabilize it by lying down on his back, but didn’t think there was room now.

All the furniture had been Virginia’s, taken when she’d moved out of her husband’s house. She’d wanted new stuff and said, “You shouldn’t have to use that asshole Merle’s dresser, Merle’s sofa, even Merle’s bed.” Cal had said if they still worked, then why throw them away?  He didn’t say that whatever Merle had done in this bed meant nothing to him, but Virginia seemed to believe it should, because she’d said, “I’m a different person now, I’m not the woman who slept in this bed before, I’m like that goose who’s been born into a whole new world.”  Earlier that day Cal had told her about a music lesson he’d been giving where the kid came in using the same bad embouchure every week, and Cal taught him how to do it right, and every week he came back doing it wrong again, “like a goose who learns where the food is and every day can’t find it again because he’s born into a whole new world.”

He realized her bizarre suggestion was still hanging in the air, as though he were considering it. “Let’s just raise the two you have.”

“No, Cal, you really need a child of your own. Every man needs his own child.”

“Can’t every man decide for himself what he needs?” Cal tapped his socks on the shabby shag carpet. Virginia also wanted new carpet, and he knew it wasn’t unreasonable. Every room was a different disheveled color, with stains and decades of dirt.

“Sometimes you don’t know until you have it. It’s what you need. Let’s start trying. Let’s—”

Cal stood before she could drape herself over his shoulders. “I think Trinity needs your full attention. Did you know she makes other girls—”

“Cal, this would be for us.”

He propped himself against the wall with one hand and stripped his socks off his feet. “I don’t think anything needs to be changed. We’ve got enough to deal with as it is.”

“I just feel it’s right, babes, I just know it’s what you need, I just… do.”

He held his socks in one hand. The clothes hamper was at the foot of the bed, beside the dresser. He thought his walking over there, lifting the lid, placing the socks in the hamper, and taking the four steps back to where he’d been standing probably seemed like acting. But when he got back to where he’d started, he said, “I’m not sure you’re able to be objective about this kind of decision.”

“It’s easy for me to be objectionable.”

Cal was standing in the dark beside his bed, still wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He felt himself nodding. He imagined a burst of brittle laughter. Dang, Cal.

Virginia was half reclining on her hip just about where he would have to lie down if he were going to sleep tonight. “Really, trust me, a child in your hand is worth… well, you don’t know because you haven’t… you need your own, Cal, you just do.”  Virginia rolled a little more to her back, one knee still bent. She lifted the wig’s longish curly hair out from under her shoulder and laid it on the pillow. “C’mon, babes, c’mon, trust me, come here with me, let’s… tonight.”

“I’m not…” Cal muttered.

“What, babes?”

“I’m tired, Virginia. Horns have stacked up at the shop while I was playing around here today. Move over.”

He was lying down, covered up, open eyes staring at the closed bedroom door, with Virginia back on her side of the bed. He could feel the telltale vibration, hear the occasional sniffle. He realized he was still dressed in jeans and T-shirt. A piece of shit, still fully dressed, lying in bed beside a woman he’d asked to come live here with him.


Some years later, in the spring—February in the south-central California wasteland—a bird pecked at the windows of his house, sitting on the sill, tap-tap-tapping, painting the sill with purple shit. Two, three, four different windows, all day, rat-a-tatting. One morning, Cal was cleaning window screens, because the major form of precipitation here was dust. He also washed the sills, a job not tacitly included in the screen-cleaning task that had been not-so-tacitly requested of him. But it would have been difficult to ignore the plum-and-black splats of shit and pretend the chore was complete. The screens were drying propped against the garage door, the windows cranked open, so the bird achieved its life’s wish. It was finally in the house. And, inside, realized this was not what it wanted at all.

Cal caught the bird in a sheet, put it in a cardboard box. He drove it twenty miles away, into a state park in the desert. When he opened the box, the bird, wings somewhat tattered from its hours up against the window glass, flew instantly, gone in a fluttering second, the force of its departure knocking the box out of Cal’s hand. Gone so fast he barely could follow the directional line of flight. But thought, perhaps, it was—by accident, just fluke—the route back to town.

Later, the screens back in place, the windows shut, the bird returned, tapping, not knowing why it so fixatedly wanted this thing it wanted, this thing that has frayed its feathers and bewildered its instinct, this thing that upon achieving led to imprisonment, darkness, and miles of flight, only to return and want it again.

He looked it up. It was a male brown-headed cowbird. Instead of spending its time with a mate, building a nest and making hundreds of daily trips back and forth with bugs to stuff down the pre-fledglings’ throats, the male cowbird had time to spend pecking at windows because the female, producing up to a dozen eggs a season, laid them into the nests of other, usually smaller, birds. Industrious sparrows, doves, towhees, catbirds. The cowbird hatchlings grew faster, frequently crowded the bio-kids out of the nest and occupied the step-parents’ time and resources. Why wasn’t it the duped, dutiful sparrow or dove pecking with aberrant wretchedness at his window?

In the room where Trinity used to sleep, Cal got his saxophone out, sat on the bed fingering the keys, but didn’t put the mouthpiece between his lips.

 

Cris Mazza’s newest title is a real-time memoir titled Something Wrong With Her chronicling the 25-year journey to reunite with a boy from her past.  She was also co-producer, writer, and lead actress for a feature film, Anorgasmia, a fictional sequel to that memoir, a groundbreaking blend of memoir, documentary and fiction. Mazza has sixteen other titles, including her first novel, How to Leave a Country, which won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction, and the critically acclaimed Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? She is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Our Little Angel

By Susan Henderson

I was four when I saw my first dead body. Pop had always kept a do not disturb sign to the embalming room. And beneath it, because I needed reminders for what the words meant, he’d drawn a frowning girl. It was a sign that told me, No, Mary. Not now, Mary. I’m working, Mary. Go on, Mary.

And so I sat, as I often did, on the steps, staring at the large swinging doors where Pop disappeared for hours. This was only the beginning of a lifetime of feeling as if I were waiting to be invited, included. Me on one side, something more on the other.

Most times, as I sat in this spot, I’d listen to the sounds of whirring machines, rolling wheels, drawers opening and closing. But this time, as I sat in my nightgown and slippers, the room on the other side of the sign was quiet.

I don’t remember tiptoeing to the bottom step, only recall my feet itching to move. I had not made a conscious decision to disobey the sign. I was simply outside of the swinging doors and then I was inside of them. The room was cold, the shiny floor tiles continuing up the walls.

In the center of the room was a gleaming metal table, its surface lumpy and draped in a sheet. My gaze landed on something curious at the edge of it. I stepped my foot inside the perfect square of one tile, and let the other land beside it. It was the strange and powerful scent that drew me deeper into the room, a scent I’d known all my life from my father’s hands.

At any time I could run back through the swinging doors and up the stairs to the part of the house I knew. That is what I thought as I began to skate, zig-zagging around the edge of the room, my slippers making a shushing sound across the floor.

Oh, but the feeling of skating through the shiny room where I wasn’t allowed, the feeling of my impulses triumphing over the sign, it all thumped through me like a song turned up loud in Pop’s hearse. I skated with my arms out to the sides. I skated round and round the table, close to the great lump, then away toward the white cabinets, then close to the shiny tray covered in shiny tools, then close to the wall.

When I finally stopped, I saw up-close what I had been trying to convince myself I could not possibly have seen: a foot. A bare foot—waxy, the color of an unpeeled potato with dark hairs on the big toe. And I thought of questions I was in no hurry to answer: Why was there a foot lying on the table? Who did it belong to? And what else was under that sheet?

I let the white cloth brush against my arm, but that was all. Water gurgled through a pipe along the ceiling, and the swinging doors suddenly seemed very far away. When the room quieted again, I heard my name, just a whisper. Mary. I looked to the toe as if it had spoken to me. The voice grew louder—Mary—and when I turned to run it was right into my father.

What relief to fall into his arms, my cheek against his plastic apron. I felt the warm weight of his thumb on the tip of my nose, his indication that I was in trouble but not very much. I was now safe to lower my shoulders, to breathe out. Because this was why I had come downstairs: to find him. To ask if it was time for breakfast and if I could have the pink cereal.

He lowered himself, apron crinkling, until we were at eye level. He cupped my chin and asked, “Would you like to touch the foot?”

I looked into his face, dented and nicked from a rough boyhood, his front tooth twisted, some hairs from his eyebrows curling up while others curled down toward his eye. With a smile both unsure and protective, he waited for my answer.

When I nodded, he took my hand, just the way he might if we were headed to the store or the swimming pool. We stepped closer to the table.

“It’s all right,” he said. “This fellow won’t wake up.”

Slowly I reached forward. When I hesitated, he nodded his approval. And I touched the foot. It felt like a trout we’d caught and kept in the cooler. I broke out into giggles, hysterical non-stop giggles.

When I could breathe again, my question felt squeezed tight. “Is there only a foot under there?”

“No, Mary. There’s more,” he said, his voice deep and steady as when he read me a bedtime story. He pulled the sheet upward to expose a yellow, bruised slab I only recognized as a leg when I saw the coiled hairs. This time, laughter exploded through my closed mouth, the sound strange and wet. I poked my finger into the doughy flesh, slowly allowing my mind to connect this leg, this foot to my father’s work. Maybe this is someone my father will help bury.

“Is there a hand?” I asked.

I kept my poking finger extended, as if to keep it far from the rest of me. Pop was already reaching beneath the sheet. When he lifted the wrist, the dull yellow fingers curled forward. Though he held it still for me, I would not touch it.

The hand, somehow, made me understand that the body had once been a living thing, a hand like Pop’s, something that held a mug of coffee in the morning, that petted my hair when I was close by and being a nuisance. I shook my head fiercely and stepped back from the table, losing a slipper, the shock of cold tile rocketing through my foot.


It was after midnight when Pop and I sat at the kitchen table eating pink cereal.

“Just because you’re hungry,” he told me, “doesn’t mean it’s morning.”

The room felt unfamiliar with its black windows, the heat set low for the night. I prodded at my cereal, watching the pink slip away into the milk. I had never noticed it doing that in the daytime, maybe had never eaten it slowly enough to discover that the thin pink coating was all a trick, as if everything in my world was not what I’d thought. I let my spoon sink into the bowl.

“I suppose it’s time to call it a day,” Pop said.

He took my hand and helped me rise from the table. He guided me through the darkened first floor, past the teal-colored velvet that partitioned off the parlor. Past a clouded mirror and plastic flowers. I watched my wool slippers climb each step to my room. I had not spoken for some time and remained silent as Pop kissed my forehead goodnight and closed my door.

I was glad to be under the covers again, my father’s footsteps creaking down the hallway to his room. But as I lay there with the nightlight casting my walls in orange, it seemed my thoughts would never again be as simple as the ones that had woken me up that night. I felt alert to every shadow in the room, every noise, and through the bedroom wall, a woman’s voice, sharp with disapproval.

“You’re just coming to bed?” she asked.

There were many of these women over the years who tried to sneak in and out of my father’s bedroom without my noticing.

Pop’s answer was soft-spoken, contrite. If he’d ever had an excuse for working into the night, forgetting time, forgetting his latest girlfriend, he’d already used it up.

“And what was Mary doing awake at this hour?” the woman asked.

The door had closed, but I could still hear the staccato of her words. “Cereal? Your workroom? A foot? Touched a foot!” And when Pop, finally raising his voice, argued that I’d soon get used to it, the high-pitched voice asked, “Do you understand what a strange child she’ll be if this ever becomes normal to her?”


After that night, I couldn’t forget the bodies in our basement, two stories below my bed, one story below the kitchen table. I began to notice the rhythm of the work that went on in our household. The phone call. The arrival of the body beneath the sheet. Pop’s late nights in the basement. The house filling with old men in suits, hunched like crows, and old women trembling in pretty hats. The sound of someone weeping in my father’s arms and his soothing, matter-of-fact voice.

It must have been a relief for him to finally show me his workspace, to end the exhausting dance and trickery he must have engaged in to keep it hidden from me. To my father, this was honorable, tender work, nothing I must be shielded from, though, clearly, the woman I’d overheard that night would have liked him to keep it from me a good while longer.

Their relationship was serious enough that she occasionally tidied up our house and kept an eye on me as he worked. She cleaned in knee-length dresses and my father’s mucking boots, which she liked to wear because they were several sizes bigger than her feet and she could step into them even if her hands were full, moving from room to room with rags and sprays and handfuls of our dirty clothes and dishes.

She dusted around us while I sat beside Pop on the sofa, choosing casket fabric from the fat three-ring binder. I loved to touch the swatches of taffeta (though customers always chose polyester). My favorite colors were named after flowers: buttercup, orchid, peony, magnolia. I loved to open the tackle box, where he kept makeup. He let me paint thick, putty-colored grease on the back of my hand.

The woman—I don’t remember ever giving her a name—helped wash it off. She scrubbed too hard. Later, she scrubbed the house with bleach and sprayed with Lysol to cover up what she called the smell of death. After, she laid down in a dark room, complaining of headaches she believed were from the formaldehyde and my father believed were from the cleaning products.

She came into my room one day, maybe her last, wearing my father’s boots and carrying a stack of folded clothes. She sat on the bed, holding the laundry and watched me at play. I folded sheets of tin foil into shiny metal beds and placed my plastic dolls on them. I whispered words like Glory and Our Little Angel, then draped them in Kleenex. I played wearing latex gloves, powdery inside, loose on my hands. And this woman who would not last much longer in our home, mouth open as if to speak, held the stack of clothes close to her chest. She said nothing and I could feel the shame of the strange child I’d become.

 

Susan Henderson is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award. Her debut novel, Up From the Blue, was published by HarperCollins in 2010, and her new, still untitled novel (of which “Our Little Angel” is an excerpt) will be out in Spring of 2018. Susan lives in New York and blogs at the writer support group LitPark.com.

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