Category: Fiction (Page 1 of 8)

Mouth Bucket

By Vanessa Mancos

At night, we must remove our mouths. We leave them in the mouth bucket on the front porch until dawn. The new law that dictates this was put into affect effect after the demonstrations.

The demonstrations: ecstatic airing of our grievances, many small globs into one big one. They did not care for that.

When the mouth buckets arrived to our homes, we had to practice taking our mouths off a few times before we really understood how. It’s tricky, you know. A mouth doesn’t just jump off your face because you ask it to. You have to grab your lips with both hands and sort of twist it around a bit before it slides down with a slimy pop. It does hurt at first, but as with all types of pain, after constant repetition, you forget your discomfort.

The discomfort: a searing hot iron held against the outline of your lips, down your throat, to the direct center of your heart. The pain shoots blue light across your eyelids until you come to, standing over the bucket with everybody else, wondering how you all let it get to this point.

And there’s no gaping hole where your mouth used to be, like you’re thinking. Almost instantly the skin smoothes over, like a slick and tender scab. I have taken to holding my fingers across the space like I am about to puff an invisible cigarette then humming loudly, using the vibration to get the feeling that I still exist.

Of course, you worry about your mouth out there all night. Sometimes it snows and you have to place your mouth over the fire to thaw it out for a few minutes before reattachment. Sometimes there are animals: raccoons, coyotes, your neighbors. There have been a few mouth thefts, but they assure us they are looking for them. I am not sure if they mean the mouths or the thieves. At this point we are all getting used to living without our voices.


Vanessa Mancos is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her surrealist fiction and humorous personal essays have appeared in NY Tyrant, Hello Giggles and Memoir Mixtapes. She currently works as a television writer, was a finalist for the 2019 Esalen Emerging Voices Fellowship, and has appeared as a storyteller on the critically acclaimed live show and podcast Mortified! In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, hanging out with her fluffy Calico cat and finding new and inventive ways to destroy the patriarchy.

Clarinets and Milkyways

By Gay Degani

Sally was in Mrs. Lee’s fourth grade class at Marshall Elementary, the third school she’d attended in four years. Her father, a restless, impatient man, insisted she was old enough to walk the five-and-a-half blocks from their rented house to school: “What are you, chicken?” This was long before parents got arrested for letting their kids wander the neighborhood without adult supervision.

The only thing Sally worried about was the goose two doors down. When anyone happened by, the bird charged the picket fence, honking furiously, bobbing its head in and out, in and out. Sally pretended she was Annie Oakley sneaking past a gang of desperados as she tiptoed through the ice plant along the curb. Still, she covered her ears.

There was a little market on the way to school at the corner of Playa Street and Avenue A. Her mother gave her some change to buy candy for the walk home. Sally preferred Milky Way to  3 Musketeers. She liked to bite around the bar, removing all the chocolate first, then suck the sticky, sweet caramel off the top, and pop the light, malted nougat into her mouth—yum! But sometimes, after school, she’d walk across the Pacific Coast Highway (something she was forbidden to do) to the Frosty Freeze. Sometimes a dipped ice cream cone was worth the risk.

In the winter, the sea air had a tangy flavor that lingered in her nose. She could taste the cold salt wetness on the back of her tongue, and even though she wore a heavy sweater and knee socks, the chill still crept up under her plaid skirt. Girls wore dresses or skirts and blouses then, cotton in fall and spring, wool in winter. A slip usually took care of the itchy wool, except at the shoulders and underarms. Sally scratched all day at her neck and limbs, her body a stinging pink.

She walked to her appointments since Dr. Bridge’s office was on her way home from school. Her mother met her in the waiting room, the two hugging before the receptionist took Sally back to the doctor’s office.

The doctor’s office had toys and a table with paper, crayons, and paints. Sally liked to draw flowers along a fence, sand castles on a beach, the combative goose next door. One time, Dr. Bridge placed an inflatable clown in front of her. Almost as big as Sally, it had red hair winging out on both sides of his head and a red ball for a nose. Dr. Bridge told her she could hit it, kick it, hug it, paint it. Sally hesitated before giving Bozo a tentative punch, but Dr. Bridge encouraged her to get mad, to let go, so Sally kicked and slapped until she was out of breath, then she asked if she could really paint it, and when the doctor nodded, Sally smeared his face brown and covered the rest of him in yellow and purple and red.

The school brought in Mr. Harris, a music teacher, and offered fourth graders music lessons. Sally chose the clarinet. She thought it would be easy because her mother loved Benny Goodman and they’d watched him play on TV. Plus, she liked the sound of the clarinet. It had a deep tone that settled into her chest in the nicest way.

No extra rooms were available for the lessons because of baby boomer overcrowding and because no cafeteria had been built at the school, they had their lessons outside the classroom in the hallway. There were four clarinets, two flutes, and two piccolos. They were doing scales when Sally, wanting to be just like Benny Goodman, moved her clarinet up and down and side to side, trying to get into a rhythm as she’d seen him do while playing “Sweet Georgia Brown” in a black-and-white movie on Channel 9.

“Stop, stop, stop!” the music teacher hollered. He asked Sally what the heck she thought she was doing, scolded her for having the “wiggles,” told her to hold the instrument still and focus on the notes. She wanted to disappear, run away, but knew she couldn’t. Face burning, she managed a choked, “Yes, sir.” They started again. Sally focused on the notes, holding her arms tight against her sides, barely blowing into the clarinet.

In the class room, Mrs. Lee was teaching a unit on music, famous composers, the orchestra, and all the different instruments. They listened to Mozart, Beethoven, and John Philip Sousa. After a week, Mrs. Lee lined up cardboard pictures around the room in the chalkboard trays, each with an instrument carefully depicted. She asked if anyone could name them. No one raised a hand. From her desk, Sally glanced at the clarinet, the flute, the piccolo, waiting to see who would stand up. The room crackled with nervous rustling. She eyed the tuba, the trombone, the trumpet, and her hand went up.

Mrs. Lee’s face lit with a smile. “Sally, you want to name some of them?”

Sally blushed. Didn’t stand up. Mrs. Lee said, “Just get us started. Please?”

Sally’s throat clogged as she made her way to the beginning of the display. “Drums.” “Symbols.” “Triangles.” She continued until she had identified all twenty-six pictures and finished to a burst of applause. Mrs. Lee was surprised and delighted. So was Sally, her head dazed, body thrumming.

On the way home, Sally bought two Milky Ways, sat on the curb in front of the market, and, as the cars whizzed by, gobbled down the candy bars  in two bites, She licked her fingers, and grinned in triumph.


Gay Degani’s work has received  Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions nominations. Her work has also placed or received honorable mentions in contests. Her story “Something about L.A.” won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. She has published a full-length collection, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Books, 2015), a short story collection, Pomegranate, and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). She occasionally blogs at Words in Place.

Dig

By Sarah Sheppeck

Edward coughed as the 507 to Oak Ridge slowed to a stop in front of him. The bus shuddered as it struggled to break, belched thick gray exhaust toward the cars behind. He gestured to the woman standing beside him—an attempt to indicate that she should board first. She shook her head, put up her hand in silent protest, but boarded ahead of him anyway.

Edward followed, tapping his boots against the bottom step of the stairway to dislodge some of the dirt. He dropped a handful of meticulously counted change into the collection slot and took a window seat behind the driver, slouching a bit in an effort to make the best of the molded plastic chair. The plexiglass barrier behind the driver’s seat reduced Edward’s leg room, but he liked this spot. No one else ever sat near the driver, and Edward valued his peace.

Today, though, a man boarded at the next stop and took the aisle seat directly beside him. Edward straightened, made a show of looking around the mostly empty bus, as if to make clear to the man that he could have chosen a seat absolutely anywhere else. The man simply smiled. Edward gave him a curt nod, leaned his head against the window, and closed his eyes.

He dozed for maybe two or three minutes. His thoughts drifted to a sunny, cloudless day. He saw lush, green trees and blooming wildflowers. He also saw headstones. In front of one was an older couple, maybe in their early-to-mid seventies, dressed in black and holding hands. They were crying.

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Book Review: All This Could Be Yours

By Jenny Hayes

Jami Attenberg’s novel All This Could Be Yours takes place largely over a single day, a day which Victor Tuchman—a pretty terrible man— spends mostly unconscious and near death in a New Orleans hospital. The book bounces around between the points of view of the family members and various others who come into the scene—sometimes only tangentially—near the end of Victor’s life. This structure gives the book a loose, kaleidoscopic feeling, with a consistent narrative tone that keeps it feeling cohesive; the prose is clear and rhythmic, conveying each character’s point of view while occasionally interjecting its own.

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The Mortimer Chronicles

By: Mary O’Connell

Mortimer’s Magnificent Monday

It was my husband’s idea to make Mortimer both an omniscient narrator and a tender hooligan who drinks bourbon and frequents the Gentlemen’s Club by the interstate. I preferred a brooding Mortimer writing bitter, aspirational entries by the light of the moon: Dear Reader, Cursed be the maniacal God that made me a plush toy! Ah, Mortimer! Ah, humanity! Etc.

Mortimer is a toffee-colored teddy bear, the former star of a preschool literacy project called Book, Bear, and Basket. Each week a child in my son’s class took Mortimer home in an old rattan Easter basket and recorded his adventures in a loose-leaf notebook. The pages were preprinted with inane headings for each day of the week, and some freakshow parent with a flair for jaggedy, haunted house calligraphy had written The Mortimer Chronicles on the cover. The teacher sent the book, bear, and basket home with the preschool kids in alphabetical order. Our son Logan didn’t get his turn until late March, so we, the Wyckoffs, had many entries to enjoy.

Dear Reader,

Today Mortimer and Jonah folded used aluminum foil into shiny origami dinosaurs! At naptime, Jonah made a blanket for Mortimer out of an old cloth diaper; Mortimer really enjoyed the feel of recycled, organic cotton next to his fur. After a quick hibernation, Mortimer woke and helped Jonah and Jonah’s mommy make tuna casseroles to take to the homeless shelter. The delicious smells coming from the oven made Mortimer bear-y hungry! The Parmesan cheese bubbled to the top in the shape of a cross; Jonah’s mommy thought that might be because we were doing the work of the Lord. The Less Fortunate members of our community will soon have some yummy in their tummy! Oh, and we also read tons of books! A kidlitpalooza! When Mortimer asked why we read so much, we told him that it was because the Hinkle family chooses NOT to have a TV; big, big blessings everyone!

“Super-size my blessings, Jesus!” my husband hooted, dropping the Merchant Ivory accent he’d used for his dramatic reading.

It was Monday night and Logan was already asleep. Technically, my husband was helping fold the laundry, but he was taking extraordinarily long pauses to read from The Mortimer Chronicles; I had folded ten washcloths to his one. Mortimer was squashed beneath a couch cushion, his head poking out.

“Check it out,” my husband read. “Today I went to a peace rally at Pilgrim Park. I do not understand war, and sometimes I, Mortimer, wonder what is wrong with human beings.

He put the back of his hand to his forehead, stricken. “Sometimes, I, Greg, wonder why each and every preschool parent has to be such a total cliché.”

“So says the editor who keeps alerting us to grammatical mistakes,” I stage-whispered to Mortimer.

“Here’s a good subtitle: Tales of White Privilege. Also, I’m seeing a lot of viewpoint confusion. Is Mortimer or the child supposed to tell the story?”

“Obviously, the parents are writing from the viewpoint of the bear.”

My husband held out his hands to me, palms up, as if about to offer some great gift. “I nominate you to be our unreliable narrator!”

“There’s a surprise.” Already I had the image of Greg kicked back on the couch watching Steven Colbert next to an unfolded basket of laundry while I labored over writing this inane bullshit at the kitchen table. I certainly did not pause to consider my husband’s corporeal tenderness: his bony feet propped on the ottoman, his hands rubbing his face, the prickle and scritch of fingernails against a five o’clock shadow.

He cleared his throat dramatically and read: “Today, Mortimer and I skipped the art museum and went to the biannual Nordstrom’s shoe sale! I bought some hot pink Ugg boots! Mortimer said, ‘Lila, those boots will look oh so stylin’ with your Lily Pulitzer watercolor dress—’

“—Like, oh my God!” I gave up the ghost of resentment; I stuck out my chest and flipped my hair. “I so totally thought these were The Mortimer Chronicles, not Chicken Soup for the Soul of Sorority Bimbo Mommies from Hell.”

My husband flipped the page. “As Sid Vicious once said, now for something in an entirely different vein: Pippa enjoyed a sublime afternoon with Mortimer, playing violin and tromping through the apple orchard. And, then, Pippa, named not, as most assume, for Pippi Longstocking, but for Pippa in the Robert Burns poem—

“Pippa! There’s nothing especially poetic about that creepy little whiner in Van Gogh barrettes, and her mom’s this wheatgrass-and-Pilates crackpot who wears a T-shirt that says Mother by Choice.

“And yet, Pippa’s mother, the mother by choice, has sent forth the muse. Tonight I will take over the Chronicles; tonight I shall be the scribe!” He gave up the ruse of folding laundry and settled back on the couch to write, chuckling, and later completely cracking up, here and there, as he read it to me:

“Dear Reader, Logan was not named, as most assume, for the venerable Boston airport, but for the brilliant purple pancake syrup at IHOP called  ‘Loganberry.’  Logan (henceforth referred to as Loganberry) had a delightful day with Mortimer, blah, blah, blah, but now that young Loganberry has retired to his chambers for the evening, it is time for Loganberry’s parents to, in the immortal words of Missy Elliot, ‘ Get their freak on.’

Welp.

Mortimer’s Terrific Tuesday

 Dear Reader,

Today we had an unexpected guest! Time for a tea party with mugs of milk and boysenberry muffins!

Ode to the sweetly mundane: Greg worked on the taxes and I took Logan downtown for a treat. Clouds of whipped cream topped off our hot chocolates; tiny dark chocolate stars dusted the saucers. Bliss, bliss, bliss. We listened to the Smiths on the drive home, that ancient, dreamy magic of the sharp-chinned and sensitive Morrissey before he turned into a sweaty old racist: “Ignore all the codes of the day; let your juvenile impulses sway.” Greg loved to mock all the forty-something hipsters with their Smiths gear and tragic lack of self-awareness: “Slap on a MAGA hat with your Hatful of Hollow hoodie, and you, my aged friends, are good to go.” But I had once loved Morrissey like a brother—I have no actual brother—and was a bit more sanguine. “‘Nothing gold can stay,’” I always told my husband, as if Robert Frost had specifically predicted Morrissey’s anti-immigration screeds.

Logan and I were still a half block from home when I saw my husband pacing inside our lit garage.

When I pulled into the driveway, he yelled, “Call Michelle!”

I rolled down my window. “Michelle?”

“Michelle!” He flung his hands in the air, disgusted. “Jesus!”

Logan leaned forward in his car seat. “Michelle Jesus?”

“But I don’t know any Michelles,” I said.

“You pretty much have to know a Michelle. Because her son is having an asthma attack, and she’s on her way over here to borrow fifty bucks for an inhaler.”

When I unbuckled Logan’s car seat straps, I remembered. Oh, yes. Michelle was a woman in the Beethoven Babies class I’d taken with Logan when he was not yet a year old. The class attracted the stereotypes who enroll their infants in educational classes:  elderly mothers (see also: Logan’s mom), hippie chicks who carried their babies in cloth slings, suburbanites with Kate Spade diaper bags, and groovy young mamas with their ironical glances and extensive body art. And then there was Michelle. She smelled a little smoky and her son wore rompers patterned with monster trucks and American flags. But because I am forever on the lookout for the Lonely One, and because I refuse to pick my mom-friends based on the allegedly nonexistent American class system, I didn’t snub Michelle. I had been to Michelle’s house for a play date: she served homemade ginger snaps and there was a vase of fresh pink roses on the kitchen table, but she also had a jittery, loud husband who, at eleven o’clock on a weekday morning, was gorging on Kraft caramels and watching Judge Judy.

I hadn’t seen her in over three years, but in minutes there she was, knock-knock-knocking on the back door, blonde and cat-eyed and skinny. She was nice enough, quick to tousle Logan’s hair. “Hi there, punkin’ pie.” But Michelle’s own asthmatic son was not with her. My husband and I exchanged a nervous, neutral smile: Was the little guy chilling at home? Wheezing on his own? Mortimer, perched in his basket on top of the refrigerator, looked askance: This is bearrrry peculiar, people! And because we never seemed to have any actual money in the house—nary a greenback!—it was decided that my husband would drive behind Michelle to the ATM and withdraw fifty dollars from our account.

So Logan and I waited at home. I gave him a bubble bath while Mortimer watched from the towel rack, and then we popped popcorn and cozied up on the couch to write our entry. When I bit down on a hull and cracked an old silver filling, I thought, Fifty bucks, come back!

Dear Reader!

Tonight I went to a café with Logan and his mommy. The stars were out—real ones in the sky and in chocolate sprinkle stars in our hot chocolate! If happiness is warmth, then I am blazing. Mr. Mortimer is on fire, people!

I had mocked the other entries, so it seemed only right to give the Yus and the Zimmermans some enjoyment.

“Don’t forget about Michelle,” Logan said sternly. He looked very schoolmarmish in his chenille bathrobe. “That was part of our day, too. She was nice. She called me pie.”

And so, I started over in a wavering hand—a very eighteenth-century pen-and-parchment look—telling my tale of our delightful visit with an unexpected guest.

Mortimer’s Wacky, Wonderful Wednesday

“I didn’t even know her husband was with her until I was at the ATM punching in my code and I saw a tiny dragon head reflected in the Quik Cash screen. It was an iguana! The goddamn iguana was riding on her husband’s shoulder like a pirate’s parrot.”

The previous night my husband had arrived home too grouchy about his induction into “The First National Bank of Greg” to tell me about his little adventure, but now he was sweet Chatty Cathy with plasticine morning breath from his Invisalign. Logan was snuggled between us in bed, snoring softly, snoring beautifully, really—the heavy, honeyed breathing of the archangels.

“And the iguana was yawning! A slow-motion yawn, his jaw opening millimeter by millimeter. Her husband scratched the iguana under its scaly, iridescent chin and said, ‘Ivana Iguana is sleepy. She needs to start gettin’ to bed a little earlier.’”

“Poor Ivana Iguana! Did she even mention the whereabouts of her asthmatic child? I can’t remember his name—“

“Mama Bear?” Logan’s eyes were still shut, his froggy breath on my cheek.

“Good morning, my sweet boy!” Had anyone else ever loved me so dearly?

Well, yes. Someone had.

Logan said, “Papa Bear?”

Greg snuggled close to our son. “Baby bear,” he said, and then reached for me. We held hands over our curled-up son. Oh, that lost triune joy before showers and breakfast and hey, where’s my dinosaur folder and hey, I thought you were going to buy half-and-half, and hey, let’s go, let’s get moving, look at the clock.

Greg and I traded e-mails and calls all day, sharing free advice from friends and co-workers. The verdict was in: We had probably not helped an asthmatic child, but “enabled”—Aargh! The elbowy, new-age poison of those three syllables!—an adult with an addiction problem. Everyone was in clever agreement that they would not have given Michelle cash; they would have called her bluff by saying, ”Meet you at the pharmacy.”

But what did my husband and I know of addiction? In college our bliss was drinking black and tans and dissecting Bill Callahan’s lyrics; as adults we worked for a university press and enjoyed public TV. And my personal “Just Say No” piece de resistance? I’d been suckered by the revival natural childbirth movement and birthed Logan drug-free in a zinc tub at the Women’s Center.

Wednesday’s chronicle looked a bit drug-addled, though: My husband took another turn and wrote it in swollen, circular letters. He used pastel felt-tips, matte and sweet. His words were Jordan almonds.

Hey Kids!

Here’s a bon mot from my play pal Polonious Panda: Neither a borrower nor a lender be! Unfortunately, Logan’s mommy and daddy do not follow this wise counsel. But, hey, if old Mortimer bear ever needs fifty bucks for heroin or girlie magazines, he knows where to get it! Wheeze, wheeze! Meet you at the pharmacy!

 Mortimer’s Thrilling Thursday

It was early morning, the sky dark-dove gray, when Michelle called, wanting another fifty dollars. My husband stammered, “Um, well, huh, that’s …” and then offered up his panicked wax-museum smile when he mouthed the words, “It’s her!

I took the phone from him and whispered, “Michelle?”

“Hi sweetie! Thanks for picking up the phone! I didn’t want to just pop over—”

“What?” I looked at the digital clock:  5:17.  Outside, the newspaper delivery van revved up the street, headlights blasting our bedroom window.

“Listen, angel, I know it’s late, but I’m going to need another fifty dollars for groceries and, um …” She paused as if choosing the perfect word, and then sang it out, her voice canary-sweet and slicing the syllables. “Pet-ro-le-um.”

I stumbled out of bed with the phone in my hand and went downstairs to pace around the living room. “Look, Michelle, I want to be nice about this but—”

“—Because I’ll sign an I.O.U. I am more than happy to sign an I.O.U.”

“That’s okay. I mean, Michelle, this is actually kind of unusual, you asking for money, because we just had that one class together—I mean, I totally enjoyed that, we totally hit it off—but my husband and I can’t just hand out money, because we live on a tight budget—”

Michelle let out a constellation of tense giggles. “Heh, heh, heh! Is that why you have a Mercedes SUV?  Heh, heh, heh!  Because of your tight budget and all?”

I looked out the living-room window. The van I’d heard was not the orange newspaper delivery van, but an old white van idling in front of our house. I did not tell Michelle that it wasn’t a Mercedes she was seeing in our driveway, that our SUV was actually a Subaru Ascent. Softly, I hung up the phone.

Dear Reader,

It certainly makes for a long, melancholy day when one rises too early! I was up with the chickens and this stuffed bear is one tired cookie. How I would love to hibernate with my family, to empty my mind of all sorrows, both present and looming, and fall into the dark, sweet safety of sleep.

The sun rose, dolling up the house with pale lavender light. My husband and I ate breakfast and had the mother of all whisper-fights.

“You’re always too nice to people,” he hissed. “It makes you a freak magnet. It’s fine to be a one-with-the-people Walt Whitman­–type when you’re childless, but snobbery is a good thing when you’re responsible for another human being. I can’t believe you ever took Logan to their house.”

“Responsible for another human being, right! It was a play date when he was a baby! He was in my arms the whole time. And you’re the one that drove to the ATM to get her the money.”

He wolfishly went at his Nutri-Grain Eggos, lowering his face to the plate. Eventually I heard a guttural, syrupy, “Whatfuckingever.”

“Because,” I said, “we both thought we were helping a child with asthma, do you recall?” I jammed in a bite of waffle and was about to say, Furthermore, you’re the one who fell in love with the Subaru Ascent in black cherry with charcoal interior.

But then Logan raced into the kitchen in his space ship pajamas, holding Mortimer by the leg. “Waffles? Yum!”

Mortimer’s Freaky Friday

Logan was in his car seat, listing off his dinner requests. “Sausage and eggs. No, fish sticks and chicken nuggets. No, what I want is hot dogs. Hot dogs, mama!”

The road was bumpy, crumbling red brick; when I glanced in the rearview mirror, I saw Little Lord Atkin’s curls bobbing along—Oh, Logan’s spring-shine dark locks!

I was thinking of my son’s hair when I looked at my smiley-faced self in the rearview mirror. The last few seconds of my old life were spent noting the flesh-cross of wrinkles between my eyebrows—how it looked like the jaunty little x in Botox, and I was thinking that I should stop plucking and disguise it with my junior high unibrow, and I was also remembering that it was my night to cook, wondering if I could get away with grocery store hot dogs or if I’d need to make a special trip to the Health Mart for Soy Pups and whole-grain buns—Greg was always such a weenie about a proper, organic dinner. And so there I was, turning onto our street, thinking about the pink-skinned palette of easy dinners—Soy Pups vs. Oscar Meyer—when Logan said, “Mommy?  Mommy! Look at our house! Why is the door open? Why is the door open? Why? Mom?”

Dear Reader,

I went with Logan and his mommy to Vallano’s Pizzeria and ate scrumptious sausage pizza. We colored our dinosaur menus with waxy crayons and drank mug after mug of frosty cold root beer. The owner even plugged in the dusty old player piano so Logan and I could watch the piano keys moving all by themselves: Magic! We heard a rueful rendition of “Greensleeves” and then snapped to attention for “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Next, Logan’s mom said we could order dessert. Well, say a triumphant hello to Spumoni ice cream!

It was not in my husband’s nature to forget to lock a door. I stayed in the car with Logan and called the police on my cell phone. The dispatcher offered up increasingly absurd suggestions: “Has the wind perhaps blown open the door? Maybe one of the neighbor’s dogs nosed the door open? Did your husband go for a drink after work?”

“No, no, no,” I said, frantically daydreaming an entirely different husband, a rakish day trader buying White Russians for rummy blondes at the Jet Lag Lounge. Thinking me shrewish and paranoid, the dispatcher finally agreed to radio a call for the police to check our house. And then I drove to the pizza parlor.

Soon enough this would make me sound pretty bad: Was I really so hungry for pizza just then? The two detectives who questioned me later thought I might be the One. (They were not, incidentally, the chubby cop/foxy cop combo of TV reruns. Through the haze of my fresh shock, I thought, Bring me Jimmy Smits.) I explained that, when I couldn’t reach my husband at work or on his cell phone, I wanted to do something normal to calm myself.

And so, to Logan’s delight, we spent three hours at Vallano’s, joking around with the elderly waitstaff in their dandruff-dusted polyester tuxedoes, mowing down sausage pizza and spumoni ice cream, and quite purposefully omitted from the chronicle, also eating pastel bouffants of cotton candy and turtle cheesecake. I told the detectives that I left out the multiple desserts because I didn’t want to alarm Logan’s know-it-all teacher with my nutritional laxity. (The detectives exchanged a wary look that I found unprofessional.)

I turned my phone off; I wasn’t ready for an official update.

And yet I knew that I was leaving my old world behind: community potlucks and Montessori-school fundraisers and the League of Women Voters and all my shimmering, cruelty-free lipsticks. Soon I would care about nothing but Logan. Like the sickly bright refrain of an old Abba song, “I knew, I knew, I knew.” I did not spend the evening at the pizza parlor in purgatorial hopefulness. Already I was at the helm of the ship with my stomach full of stones. All I could do was hold my little boy’s hand and watch the shore disappear: Goodbye! Love you! Right from the start, I loved you! Living at the dorm—a Post-it note stuck on my door: Do you want to study later? It’s cool if you don’t. Whatever, Greg. I loved you loved you loved you loved you.

I already knew—not completely, not yet—that my shocked sorrow was not temporary or anecdotal, but in fact the stark and shitty landscape of the New World.

The fake flicker of electric candles lit up Logan’s face while he looped around the player piano singing, “‘Yankee Doodle went to London just to buy a pony. I am that Yankee Doodle Boy!’”

Mortimer’s Super Saturday

Dear Reader,

Simile is a crock of shit. Metaphor is pointless.

My husband’s murder was a sort of miracle, the horrifying opposite of the happiest day of my life: Logan’s birth. I spent the hours staring at my baby’s turnipy face and thinking, Today is Wednesday. On Tuesday, Logan did not exist in the world. And now he is in the world. Here he is in my arms. Happiness rose in my heart then, a Technicolor swell of lilacs, sweetness distilling and expanding with each of my baby’s soft breaths.

My husband was eating frosted brownies with his co-workers when he laughed at a joke and upended his dessert plate, staining his pants. He was home changing clothes when Michelle and her husband broke into our house through a basement window. They confessed to driving him to the ATM, where he withdrew two thousand dollars because, as Michelle would say in court, “We asked him to. He was really nice about it.”

They drove my husband out to the country.

My husband always hated the sound of gravel crunching under the tires, and I thought this terribly persnickety of him, although now it seems like pure premonition. Michelle, or perhaps her husband (which one? They have turned against each other. Surprise.), shot my husband and left him in a soybean field. Then Michelle and her husband drove on to an acquaintance’s house to buy more crystal meth. The acquaintance’s name was Destiny Frankenstein. (In court, the last syllable was, to my disappointment, pronounced with a long e.). I also learned a few things about Michelle’s life. She’d started out like me, a basic girl from the suburbs, before bad things happened to her and she sought escape in synthetic pleasure. She had been somebody’s baby once upon a time—somebody’s hurt little girl in pigtails swinging a lunchbox—before she became the agent of my husband’s doom. I worried that juror number nine, a young-looking twenty-one-year-old wearing a Jonas Brothers T-shirt and cut-offs, would feel a burst of sympathy for Michelle—as I had—and hang the jury, but Michelle was found guilty.

In any case, that knowledge belonged to the future. Saturday was the Day After, with the harshly apocalyptic horror of telling Logan, with a parked patrol car leaking oil Rorschach hearts on the driveway, with Mother Nature—the leafy super-bitch—not showing her respect, not showering us with blustery gray rain. Saturday was clear and lovely. Fresh. Sunshine from the kitchen window lit up the Granny Smith skins in the recycling tub next to the kitchen sink—ahhhh!—but lodged next to the tart and chartreuse brilliance of old apples was a baseball-sized wad of lint. My husband was an ardent recycler and stripped the lint trap of the clothes dryer daily. Because he knew this lint recycling made me want to stab myself, he did it on the sly, balling the lint in his fist—an eco-rat with his cheese. I dreamed up a postmortem greeting card embossed with swirled golden letters: Kudos on saving the lint!

I hadn’t slept on Friday night, and planned to keep a vigil on Saturday night and every night thereafter, believing sleeping would be disloyal to My Guy, as if I were a bouffanted Ronette and my husband a dozy Christ who might be resurrected by my fatigue. But Logan and I spent the night at my parents’ house, and my mother gave me two Valium. The first tablet left me in twilight hysteria, shocking myself over and over, sleeping for ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch only to wake and not remember why I was in my childhood bedroom with my son in the canopied twin bed next to me, his arm curled around Mortimer Bear. Hey but, where’s… Hey, but where’s…

And so, I crunched up the other Valium. And then I fell and fell and fell into the slow-jawed yawn of the iguana.

Mortimer’s Sunny Sunday

More fun in the new world: I did not think to pull the college student manning the children’s department at Dillard’s aside and whisper the reason my son needed a suit, and so he asked Logan, “Whatcha gettin’ all duded up for, little man?” And in the dressing room, Logan clutched Mortimer and studied himself in the mirror—the pin-striped suit made him look like a beauteous shrunken stockbroker—and said, “Mommy, do we have to give Mortimer back, too?”

The fluorescent lights tinted the half-moons beneath our eyes a pale, Martian blue. From the speakers in the ceiling came the haunted, skinny voice of Karen Carpenter, singing, “We’ve only just begun.” I remembered the drunken freshman night I met my future husband, how he’d said, “You look like the lead singer of Bikini Kill,” and how my heart floated right up.  

My thoughts were a blur of come back to me, but I was the adult; I was in charge. So, I squatted down and kissed my son on the nose. “We’ll never lose Mortimer,” I cooed, by way of ineffective consolation.

“Yes, we will,” Logan said, pulling away. “Kendall Yu gets to take him home next week. It’s her turn.”

“Kendall is not taking Mortimer,” I said. Because, really, the world pretty much owed us a teddy bear. “Kendall will want you to keep Mortimer. Mortimer belongs to you now.”

“Really, Mom? Forever?”

I rebounded that magical word and shot it back to him with a fulsome smile, as if—there now!—our lives were sweetly settled, as if I were wearing a reindeer sweater and slicing pumpkin bread, fresh snow speckling the kitchen windows.

“And the basket?”

“Sure, the basket! Of course!”

“And the book?”

“Yours, baby. It’s all for you.”

And then I started swallowing all my ragged tears and Logan whispered, “You’re okay, honey. You’re okay.”

***

That night in his sleep, Logan said, “Dad!” with the brightest, warmest relief, then fell back into his agony of see-saw snoring.

I held him in my arms while I wrote a final entry in the Mortimer Chronicles:

Dear Reader, It must be acknowledged that Logan’s parents had a baby primarily for aesthetic reasons: they were getting old, forty almost, and feared becoming the childless couple with the folk art collection and NPR tote bags. Additionally, they saw the people yelling at their children at Pizza Hut and knew they could do a far better job. It was easy to imagine the longing looks they would get from the general public when they strolled their baby down the street, for their future parental selves would be soft-spoken and intelligent, kind and slim. Such crappy people deserve a bratty little Britannica Junior, but instead they got the sunshine miracle of Logan. One night when baby Logan was only a few days old, his mommy woke to find his daddy at the window. He looked radiantly happy standing there in the silver-blue moonlight, holding his baby.

My Dearest Reader, this is where we found our surprise happy ending: with you, Logan, with your baby face an open moonflower reflected in the windowpane, with Dad stripped of all his sour fears of sentimentality, stripped clean of his ironical composure, saying, “This must be heaven.”


Mary O’Connell has published a short story collection, Living with Saints, and two YA novels, The Sharp Time and Dear Reader. Her most recent essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Lit Hub and Longreads, and her short fiction has appeared in several literary magazines. Her essay Writing the Monsignor (Longreads) was selected as a notable essay in the 2018 Best American Essays collection, and her short story Limbo! Limbo! (Idaho Review) received special mention in the 2016 Pushcart Prize anthology. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

Ten Items or Fewer

By: Rachel Pollon

I scanned the generic bottle of acetaminophen, the supersize bag of adult diapers, the sleeve of plastic barrettes, and the travel-sized tube of hair gel. Then, looking up to make eye contact, I announced the total to the woman standing in front of me fishing through her handbag. Her cellphone was cradled between her left ear and hunched shoulder. She mouthed “Sorry” to me, then said into the phone, “Yes, I got them. Just keep him in the bath.”

Behind her a man coughed and asked if any other registers could be opened. I told him we were short a person this morning, that someone had called in sick. I pointed to the manager’s kiosk. “You can talk to him.” The man and another woman in line craned their heads to look, but the manager wasn’t at the kiosk, or in the vicinity, so they decided to stay put and take their chances with me.

I get the feeling people think I’m judging them for what they buy. I’m not. I’m noticing, sure, but not judging. I’m conjuring stories using the evidence supplied to me. It makes my day more interesting, and, honestly, it’s just in my nature.

The woman at my register found her wallet and handed over a credit card. I asked if she wanted a bag. She nodded awkwardly, her phone still attached to her shoulder. I could have told her it was ten cents extra, but because of the adult diapers for, I assumed, the person in the bath, and the acetaminophen, I imagined, for her, I kept it to myself and didn’t charge her. I have yet to hear that management is counting the plastic bags and figuring out their loss-gain averages. Fuck the management and fuck plastic bags. We’re all going to die strangled by them regardless of whether or not we charge ten cents.

I secured the woman’s acquisitions in the contraband bag and handed them to her. She said into the phone, “Unless I hit traffic, I’ll see you in twenty minutes. Sing to him, he likes it,” then smiled at me apologetically and mouthed, “Thank you.”

It occurred to me that she could have been speaking to a nanny with a toddler in a bath and had accidentally bought adult diapers, but it wasn’t my place to intervene. I was merely the gatekeeper.

The woman moved off and the man behind her took his place in front of me, slapping shoelaces, Triscuits, anti-fungal foot cream, and a sympathy card onto the counter. I was definitely going to charge him for a bag. Maybe I’d keep the dime. Drill a hole into it and wear it dangling from a chain, a reminder of my power.

I picked up the anti-fungal cream and said, “Delicious on a cracker.”

He smiled and said, “You must see some things.”

I pretended like I wasn’t glad for the camaraderie. He was just going to leave—why get invested?

The next customer had a boring, straightlaced look. Probably on her way to a midlevel job at a corporation that shits on the everyman for fun and profit. Possibly in Human Resources, wondering why she never applied for the positions she was trying to fill, watching the world go by while she sat at her desk, giving others opportunities she could have taken herself. She slid an unnecessarily expensive bottle of water in front of me. She must’ve been very thirsty to stop in only for that. Maybe she was casing the joint, plotting an illicit joyride to counter her anesthetized existence. I almost held up my hands in mock terror.

Just as I was about to scan the water, she stopped me and said she wanted to buy some scratch tickets. “Five dollars’ worth.”

Maybe the jolt from the almost impossible happening was what she was after.

“You must be a gambler,” I said. “Those are some unlikely odds.” I had some experience in this arena.

“We take our fun where we can get it,” she said.

I wanted more for her.

“Good luck,” I said. I almost slipped her an extra one. But if she hadn’t returned it upon realizing, I would’ve been disappointed by her dishonesty. Then again, maybe if she’d won, she’d have come back and shared her spoils with me. It was all too complicated and weighted. I couldn’t hold her responsible for the moral fabric of the human race. I was glad I suppressed the urge.

She didn’t want a plastic bag. She smiled and read my name badge. “Have a nice day, Ginger.” And even though she probably learned to do that in Human Resources school, it felt sincere.

Gary, the shift manager, came over to my register and told me he found someone to fill in for Amelia, the one who called in sick. “Carlos will be in in forty-five minutes.”

I was ambiguous about this development. I needed help—I couldn’t ring up the entire store myself—but the last time I saw Carlos, I’d broken off with him.

Carlos and I had been engaged in what you could call a confusing friendship. Both of us were married, so it was easy to feel like it wasn’t becoming what it was until it did. I wanted him to arrive in forty-five minutes. I needed backup, someone to field some of the burden. Which is what, I suppose, Carlos did for me in our relationship: offered support, lit things up, introduced ease. He was my human resource. I know, it seems too perfect that I’d bring it back around to that, but sometimes life works that way.

I’m not saying anything original when I tell you that it began innocently enough. And that I thought I was being nice to him, not the other way around. He was in a tough place, had just lost a steady, well-paying job, and this was one of three he was handling to keep his family afloat. He had a wife, a three-year-old son, and a newborn daughter named Felicity. I felt like that name said a lot about Carlos. His outlook. At first I was mostly just sympathetic to his situation. I’d listen. It’s not that his problems were more difficult than mine, but somehow hearing about his struggles offered me a reprieve. Empathy is a lifesaver that way. Over time we got to know each other better, and I’d offer to finish up his inventory stocking or count his register if he needed to leave early to get to his next job—whatever little things I could do to help.

When Carlos first found out that my husband and I were apart, he encouraged me to try to understand why Keith did what he did and to make sense of what happened so I’d make the right decision, so I wouldn’t have regrets. He reminded me that I married Keith for a reason and that that reason still lurked, however deep down inside.

Keith had been away for over a year, and he’d be back home in six months with time served, if he could keep up his good behavior. Good behavior was hard for him. It was as if he knew his life wouldn’t amount to anything grand and had to make whatever he could exciting, dangerous. Rules were there to be broken. Right and wrong were fun and games as far as he was concerned.

Early in our relationship I was completely under Keith’s spell. I was young, and he was a man who’d experienced life in ways that were mysterious and foreign to me. He got by doing odd jobs. He was a doorman at a bar—that’s where I met him—a handyman, made deliveries for a pharmacy, and cleaned pools. Occasionally I would go with him on his jobs. He’d either have me wait in his truck or, if he knew no one was home, I would join him. On pool jobs, he’d tell me to enjoy myself on a lounge chair, as if it was his to offer, while he scooped leaves and pine needles from the water’s surface.

One particularly hot day, after the initial cleaning but before putting in the chemicals, Keith told me to get in. I thought he was playing, but then he said to me in a most dead serious tone, “Go on. I want to see you in this pool.” It felt like we might never have this opportunity again, so I did it. I lifted up my dress so it wouldn’t get wet, hugged it against my chest, and stepped down onto the stair that allowed the water to envelop and kiss my upper thighs. We both liked it. Keith walked over to an alcove in the yard, opened up the mini refrigerator, and pulled out a bottle of rosé wine. He twisted off the cap and brought it to me.

“I don’t think we should,” I said.

“It’s fine. They won’t miss it. You deserve this,” he told me.

I stood on the step, twisting myself subtly to and fro, sipping from the bottle. There was only a hint of sweetness. It tasted refined.

Keith watched me from across the pool.

“Rosé is your drink,” he said. “Same as your hair color.”

I put the bottle up to my head. If my friends were there, we would have taken a picture. Keith didn’t do that. Evidence.

Our relationship continued like this—Keith setting the tone, me along for the ride—until his troubles inevitably caught up with him. You can’t skim off the top of life forever, taking what isn’t yours, without tripping up eventually and paying the price.

On the days we worked the same shifts, Carlos and I took our lunch breaks together. With the fifteen or so minutes left after eating, we’d take a walk around the block to get away from the fluorescent lights and the constant loop of popular hits from days gone by piped in over the sound system.

On those walks we existed in the present. We’d talk about what we wanted for our lives.  We talked about our families, of course. I think that helped us believe our relationship was virtuous. It was as though I gave Carlos a higher purpose in his new, less than ideal, employment situation. His words and teachings about forgiveness and loyalty were aimed at keeping my heart open to my marriage, but instead they opened my heart to Carlos. I don’t think that was his intention, but my need for love tapped into his inclination to give it.

Carlos told me about a sermon he’d heard. The priest talked about kindness, how kindness keeps you on the playing field. He said if you aren’t kind, you could find yourself untethered and alone, detached from society entirely. It was that sort of thinking that brought us together. A little kindness never hurt anyone, Carlos had said. I wasn’t sure if he was still quoting the priest or winging it.

On one walk, when we were making room for other people passing by, Carlos put his hand on my upper back near my neck. It was the first time I realized what was happening. I looked up at him reflexively and placed my hand on his lower back, almost for balance. We let go and moved on, but when we rounded the corner to the next street, the quiet block on our route, Carlos stopped, turned to face me, and said, “I’m sorry I touched you.”

“It’s all right,” I told him. “Things happen.”

“I’ve wanted to for so long,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” And with that, he pulled me close. “I just want to hold you,” he said. He felt solid and vast, like a treasure chest buried at the bottom of the sea.

When we unfolded from each other, Carlos took my hand for the first time. Slipped his smooth, warm palm against mine, like a puzzle piece pressing into place. We held on like this until we reached the corner where people and traffic returned. Then we let go and walked the rest of the way, our hands in our pockets, side by side.

“Cleanup on aisle lines-have-been-crossed,” I thought about announcing over the store intercom when we were back inside. But, of course, I didn’t. I hung my jacket up in the employee locker room and went back out on the floor to begin the second half of my shift.

Gary opened one of the registers to help while we waited for Carlos. I was ringing up a customer who was causing a line to build because she couldn’t decide which scent of deodorant she wanted, when Carlos arrived. I tracked him as he entered through the automatic doors. He’d gotten a haircut. It was shorter than I’d ever seen him wear it. An elderly man on an electric scooter exiting at the same time almost drove into him. Carlos managed a quick spin out of the way, threw his hands up, and laughed, then looked at me from across the room and shrugged. Seeing him made me want to cry. The deodorant woman asked me my opinion, and though I was now firmly thinking about how I would miss spending time with Carlos, I indulged her. She put the Geranium Harvest up to my nose. Then the Raspberry Fields. They smelled artificial, like an off-brand lollipop. It was a no-win situation.

“What sign are you?” I asked.

“Taurus,” she said.

Having no real knowledge of astrology but thinking the idea of a new bounty ahead sounded nice, I said, “Get the Geranium Harvest.”

The rest of the morning passed quickly after I took over the ten-items-or-fewer register—my favorite. Though most shoppers tended to come in for fewer than ten items anyway, the people who chose this line moved with more purpose. I forgot myself in the customers’ needs. It was a relief, a sort of at-work paid vacation from myself. By the time the midday shift arrived for our lunch break, I’d surrendered. I felt light.

Carlos came into the break room seven minutes after I did.

“You want me to go somewhere else?” he asked.

“It’s fine,” I said. I moved my lunch bag to the side to make room.

“We’ll figure this out,” he said. “Our big pictures will lead the way.”

I considered what my big picture was. It was a blank canvas. I knew nothing.

We decided to share our bags of chips with each other, pouring them out on a napkin to combine and eat at will.

“Are you working this weekend?” I asked.

“I’m trying to pick up longer shifts at the restaurant, so hopefully not,” he said.

“Your hair looks good,” I said. I wanted to touch it.

“Thanks,” he said. “It was time.”

We ate in silence for a few moments, then Carlos said, “That corn chip looks like a shard of glass.”

I picked the shard up, inspected it, used it to draw an X over his heart, then put it in my mouth.

“Ow,” Carlos said, then popped open his Sunkist and drank.

On a normal day, we’d have headed off on our walk. But it wasn’t a normal day. I told him I needed to run an errand. He knew I was lying, but we were both okay with it.

Outside, the cold air hit my lungs like it was trying to erase me. I exhaled with the force of a move I learned in the self-defense class Keith insisted I take when he went away.

I noticed a woman in the parking lot walking toward me, waving. I wasn’t sure the wave was for me, but as she got closer, I realized she was Carlos’s wife, Estée. I didn’t recognize her at first without her children, but once she got close enough, her vivacious and unburdened self, traits I chalked up to her faith, shone through. It’s funny that they call faith believing, when really it seems to be a sort of against-all-odds-and-evidence deciding. A leap of decision.

“How are you?” she said, giving my arm a little squeeze.

“I’m good,” I said. “About to take a walk to break up the day.”

Estée explained that Carlos had forgotten his hat at home and would need it for his night job valeting cars.

What a nice wife, I thought. I wasn’t sure I would have taken my husband his hat. I might have let him suffer. Or assumed he’d acquire one somehow. Beg, borrow, or steal.

“Did Carlos tell you about the wedding we went to yesterday?” she asked.

“He didn’t,” I said.

“Oh, it was gorgeous. This church—floor-to-ceiling stained glass. And the ceremony was so heartfelt. I told Carlos we should renew our vows.”

A small part of me wondered if a small part of her was telling me this for a reason she didn’t want to think about.

“That’s a nice idea,” I said.

The concept upset me on a couple of levels. The obvious one, Carlos wasn’t mine to commit to. And also, I wasn’t sure if, given the opportunity, I would renew my vows with Keith.

“I told him we could have the kids there, you know? I think it would be really special.”

She then seemed to remember my situation.

“I’m a romantic,” she said like it was something to be ashamed of. I never understood why people apologized for their greatest desires, pretended they didn’t want what they did. As if that would protect them from disappointment.

“Me too,” I said.

She moved next to me on the sidewalk to get out of the way of traffic.

“I’ve kept you long enough,” she apologized. “Go.”

“He’s inside,” I said. “Last I saw, in the break room.”

“You’re an angel,” she said when we parted, and I wondered if she meant the kind that hovered in the sky, gazing down at us, looking for worthy targets, excuses to shoot their bows and arrows. Or something else entirely.

I headed off on my walk. I pushed out the cold air and breathed in a prayer I’d received in a fortune cookie once. “Don’t give up, look up.”

But instead I looked down and noticed on the sidewalk various pieces of trash. Collecting in the corners against buildings, hugging the sewers. You rarely catch people in the act of littering, yet here it all was. What if they were lost items, not discarded? A beige plastic bag flapped in the steadying wind, half wrapped around the leg of a bus stop bench. I pulled it loose and inspected it. It was blank. I took it with me and continued on, filling it with everything I could along the way.


Rachel Pollon is a native Los Angeleno. Her writing has been published in The Coachella Review, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and The Weeklings. Her work was included in The Beautiful Anthology and Teen Girls’ Comedic Monologues That Are Actually Funny. Her website is SeismicDrift.com.

Resting State

By: Maddie De Pree

I am half-watching it on my laptop while I eat. He is delivering the State of the Union, the Vice President sitting behind him. And then, in the middle of his sentence, both heads burst all over the Speaker’s white suit. She blinks, touches the spatter of blood on her face. Then, chaos—the Secret Service barrels into view as Representatives scream and duck under their seats. The cameras keep rolling, but the sound cuts out. Commotion and dead air.

I stare at my laptop for several seconds, waiting for something—an announcement, a noise—but the screen stays quiet and small. Looking at it, I have the uncanny sensation of watching bugs in a jar.

I turn to the cat, who is sitting next to me on the couch.

I think this may be a joke, I say.

He kneads a cushion with his paws.

I close the laptop then reopen it. I pace back and forth. And then, because I can think of nothing else to do, I pick up the cat, walk onto my porch, and stand there holding him in the cold. Gradually, other doors open—one by one, up and down the street—until we are all silhouettes in our doorways, looking out at one another in the dark.

Eventually, I call Lia, who picks up on the first ring.

Hey, I say. Can you believe this?

She pauses, and I wonder if she is standing on her porch too, breathing in the same Atlanta air.

Yes, she says.

***

I wake up to my phone vibrating with news alerts. Apparently the Speaker was sworn in late last night, but no one knows much more than that. A Vice op-ed reads, “I Don’t Know What The F*ck Just Happened, But I’m Honestly Kind Of Psyched.” The Washington Post simply reads, “What Now?”

The dean emails all of the professors to tell us that classes are cancelled for the rest of the week. I email my physics students and tell them that their lab is cancelled too. Immediately, a student responds: awesome!!!! I send back a thumbs-up.

After I drink my coffee, I spend an hour scrolling through Twitter. People have been making content all night—memes and threads, plus several accounts weighing in with their measured takes. Recordings crop up every twenty minutes, then get removed for violating Community Guidelines.

i didn’t see it, someone tweets. what was it like?

Like two water balloons full of red paint, someone replies.

***

I decide to drive into Little Five Points, though I haven’t been in over a decade. Unlike the rest of the city, it hasn’t changed much in that time—it has the same grungy storefronts, the same gum-covered telephone pole. In front of the Zesto’s, I see two people praying.

I park my car on a side-street, then wander into a vintage shop and sift through a bowl of soft plastic keychains. The sticky note on the counter says they’re from the 1970’s. I pick one up and read the words printed on its surface. HAVE YOU SEEN ME LATELY? And on the other side: I’M TRYING TO FIND MYSELF. 

How much? I ask the shop attendant.

Ten dollars and fifty cents, he says.

I toss it back in the bowl and walk across the street, into a store that sells crystals. The cashier looks up when I enter, then goes back to scrolling through her phone. She looks older than my students, though she’s several years younger than me. Apart from the two of us, the shop is empty. I turn toward her, then pick up a crystal and roll it over in my fingers. Quartz shot through with threads of gold.

I wonder if they’ll store the Speaker’s suit with Jackie’s, I say.

The cashier looks up from her phone. The walls are lined with plastic bins of stones, organized alphabetically: Black Tourmaline, Blue Lace Agate.

Ma’am? she asks.

They have Jackie O’s pink suit refrigerated somewhere, I say. The one from Dallas. With JFK’s blood all over it.

Right, she says, and resumes her scrolling.

As I walk back to my car, I think about a woman I dated in grad school—a New Age-y lesbian who was aptly named Sage. We were lying in bed one evening when she told me that the energy of my apartment was off. She said that too many intense emotions could create holes in a space’s aura. This, she said, was likely the reason for the off-ness.

I don’t think I believe that, I told her.

She shrugged and flipped onto her side, away from me.

You don’t have to, she said, and turned off the light.

I waited until she fell asleep, then cried. I remember sobbing raggedly in the dark, covering my mouth with my open palm to avoid waking her. I did this often, and to my knowledge, she never woke up. She was a heavy sleeper.

During this particular crying spell, she rolled toward me in her sleep and draped her arm around my waist. An unconscious motion, heavy and warm.

This is what I think of as I drive home. People dreaming, reaching for each other in the night.

***

Lia and I are on her back porch, drinking wine while wrapped in a blanket. Though it is midnight in early February, we are warm—Lia’s husband is wealthy, and he has paid for outdoor heating. But he isn’t around tonight. He’s traveling for work, and their five-year-old, Ollie, is sleeping inside. I lean forward and uncork another bottle of wine.

Can we just say it? I ask. Can we be glad that he’s gone?

I’m going to, Lia says. She pulls up Twitter and dictates a tweet while she types it with her thumbs: Rest in hell, piece-of-shit bastard.

She swallows a gulp of wine and hits send, then looks out at the dark. We sit there together, thinking in different directions. After a few minutes of silence, I speak.

Do you remember the fire in the dorms? I ask.

No, Lia says. She reaches for the bottle and tops off her glass.

It was sophomore year of undergrad, I say. Someone passed out and knocked over a candle. Our whole floor was burning.

Lia stops pouring.

Did that really happen? she asks.

Yeah, I say. Some firefighters pulled us out through a window.

Lia corks the wine and pulls the blanket tighter around us.

I don’t remember that, she says.

We lapse back into silence. Beneath the warmth of the blanket, I start to nod off. I can feel Lia’s body next to mine. Then, a noise: Ollie opens the sliding door and walks onto the porch in his footies, scrubbing his eyes with his fists. Lia straightens.

Honey, it’s late, she says. Why are you up?

Ollie stands in his pajamas and looks at the floor, one little fist still working away at his eye.

Sorry, he says. I thought I was asleep.

***

When I get home the next morning, I see the cat crumpled on my doorstep, stiff and bloodied and dead. I stand there, stunned. Someone has drawn a long gash from his belly all the way to his throat. The blood has soaked through the fibers of my welcome mat and stained the wood below. I step over the mess to get a garbage bag, then sob as I roll him in the mat and place the bundle by the curb. Inside, I text Lia: Someone gutted the cat. 

Jesus, she replies.

I run to the kitchen and vomit in the sink, then pour myself a glass of water to drink while I cry. The water is slippery with dish soap and I shudder. It makes my mouth taste sudsy. Too clean.

***

For the rest of the day, I do nothing. I walk around the house eating corn chips, then wrap myself in a weighted blanket that I bought on Black Friday. I sleep on the couch and reach for the cat, then cry when I remember that he isn’t there. I write an email to Lia and delete it. I stay up late and tweet, I am awake. Below it, someone replies with a GIF of a baby dancing.

In the middle of the night, I wake up with a thought that I haven’t had since childhood: I want to go home. But I open my eyes, and here I am.

***

We are on Lia’s back porch again, huddled under the blanket in the dark. I look over at her and see that she’s packing a bowl. She lights it and inhales, then hands it to me. We pass it back and forth until there’s nothing left to smoke.

My phone dings with a Twitter notification. Earlier, someone started a thread of the First Lady’s “best mourning outfits.” So far, it includes a pink skirt-suit and a white sheath. I thought it was funny, but when I showed Lia, she said it made her depressed. I stare at the notification until the screen goes black. Then I lean forward and look out at the trees, standing tall and alert in the cold.

What are you thinking about? Lia asks.

A physics experiment, I say. Young’s double-slit. It’s a basis for quantum mechanics.

Sounds complicated, Lia says. Her eyes are closed.

All you need to know, I say, is that a guy named Young fired a single particle and observed it going through one of two slits. Not both.

Uh-huh, Lia says.

But the particle showed evidence of having gone through both slits, even though he only saw it go through one, I say. It’s a breakdown of objective reality. It deals with what might happen rather than what is.

Lia snorts then moves closer under the blanket. I feel the high humming through both of our bodies, connecting us like a single thread.

It’s a big deal, I say. It means that there might be multiple outcomes for the same event. Multiple realities. But we’ll never know, because we can only observe our own.

Lia giggles.

Ha, she says. Double slit.

We sit together quietly after that. At some point, she tips her head onto my shoulder and leaves it there. I look down into her face, inches from my own. I touch the tip of my finger to the dark fringe of her eyelashes. She wrinkles her nose and smiles.

Hey, I say. Who would you sleep with? If you could sleep with anybody.

Hmm, Lia says. Maybe the guy who plays John Oliver.

You mean John Oliver? I ask.

Yeah, she says, and we laugh and laugh and laugh.

Somewhere in the laughter, Ollie appears on the porch. He says something, then says it again. He wavers before us like a mirage. We stop laughing, wipe the tears from our eyes.

What was that, Ollie? Lia asks. What did you say?

I said it smells like the woods out here, he says.

That’s right, honey, Lia says, and yawns. Ollie walks over and climbs under the blanket, between us. He curls up against Lia and buries his face into her side. She pats his head absently. I can feel his feet pressing against the side of my thigh.

What if the new president dies? Ollie asks. His voice sounds muffled beneath the blanket.

That won’t happen, says Lia.

But what if it did? he says.

I look at Lia. She looks back at me, then turns away.

We’d get another text alert, she says.

***

The next evening, Lia hires a babysitter and meets me at the bar. It’s hosting an unsuccessful karaoke night—a handful of people are drinking, but the only one singing is a pasty man reading off lyrics in a flat monotone. Since no one else is interested in the mic, the karaoke man performs song after song after song. By the time he finishes his fourth number, Lia and I are drunk, laughing, and talking about nothing.

After a few more drinks, I hear the karaoke man distantly speaking into the mic. Seconds pass, and I realize that the bar has gone silent. When I look up, I see the karaoke man glaring at us from across the room.

Stop laughing, he says again.

I look at Lia, then back at the man.

You two in the corner, he says, and gestures at us with the mic. You’re laughing at me. Stop laughing.

Jesus Christ, Lia mutters, then yells at him to piss off. The karaoke man blinks. Someone snickers. The bartender walks up and places a hand on his shoulder, says something into his ear. Someone even offers to buy him a drink. But no one can comfort the karaoke man: he is suddenly furious, inconsolable, and he storms into the dark alone.

After he’s gone, Lia and I split another drink. We make some more jokes, but none of them sound funny anymore, so we give up. Something has shifted in the air; the atmosphere has sobered, and people drift into the parking lot to go home.

Outside, we stand between our cars, huddled together in the dark. Lia has wrapped her scarf around her fists; she forgot her gloves at home, and her knuckles are red with cold. I take off my hat and pull it over her ears.

We could go to my place, I say.

Lia removes the hat slowly and hands it back to me. Beyond the stretch of the parking lot, cars whip by.

I can’t, she says. He’s getting back in the morning.

As I weave my car back to my neighborhood, I think about the haircut I got last week. I’m always nervous in salons, and this time was no different; I sat in the chair, flushed and sweating, as if the stylist had discovered everything about me and disapproved of what she’d found. For her, though, it must have been mundane—she covered me with the polyester cape, fastening it too tightly around my neck the way they always do. When she fluffed my hair loose, I stared at my reflection and imagined her cold fingers slipping through my hair and under my scalp, straight to the smooth, white curve of my skull. 

So, she said. Tell me what you want.

Images slide around me while I drive: ungraded tests, a car flipped onto its side. The body as an eggshell, the mind a runny yolk. And Lia: Lia in my kitchen, lying in my bedroom, prying me open gently, mouth moving in rhythm, saying I love you, I love you, I love you. 

Tell me, she said. Tell me what you want.

I pull over beneath a streetlamp and rest my head against the wheel. The light is too bright, and I close my eyes against it, feel the world glowing red through my eyelids. I picture the veins in my body as a map, a web of roads winding nowhere, the cars stacked bumper-to-bumper, moving too slowly to make any difference. I count my limbs and sigh. On some neighboring street, a siren sounds.


Maddie De Pree is an undergraduate student at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction has appeared in a variety of print and online journals, including The Thing Itself, Mikrokosmos, and Zoetic Press’ Viable chapbook series. She is a Best of the Net nominee for her story, “Vidalia,” which was published earlier this year in The Gordon Square Review. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of PHEMME Zine (www.phemmezine.com), an online platform that publishes marginalized authors and artists.

Maggie’s Heart

BY: BRAD GLENN

“You can’t go in there, mister,” Jakob said. “That’s Maggie’s room.”

“I know. I’m looking for Maggie,” I responded. It’s customary to answer a patient by name, but I didn’t know his yet. It was only my first day at the facility. I barely knew which floor I was on, much less any of the patients’ names. There were one hundred and twenty of them. Sixty care workers, on-site therapists, case managers, and doctors. I was a nurse. I knocked on the door—barging in on someone, even when they’re institutionalized, is inappropriate, except in the case of emergency.

“You’ll be sorry, mister,” Jakob said. “Maggie’s a witch.”

I smiled, more of a conditioned response than anything, and the door opened. The girl who opened it must’ve been twenty, maybe twenty-five tops. She had all the visual characteristics of Down’s Syndrome: her eyes were slanted up slightly and bulging, flat bridge of the nose, and her tongue seemed too large for her mouth. She had black hair cut in a blunt bob and wore a black dress. She did look a little like a witch, but in a harmless way.

“Who are you?” she asked

“I’m Darren. I’m your new nurse.”

“No you’re not. My nurse is Jenny. She’s a girl.”

I could tell she had difficulty making the “S” sound, but that she’d had plenty of speech therapy. Twenty-three years at Silver Hill hospital taught me to keep an eye out for things like that.

“Yes! Jenny is so good that they gave her a more important job,” I said. “Jenny is now in charge of all the nurses, so they hired me.”

“Jenny is pretty. Jenny has blond hair.”

“Yes. Well, Jenny asked me to come and talk to you. Medical stuff. Nothing to worry about. I promise.” Maggie let me into her room.

She shouldn’t have been there, in all honesty. She could’ve been in a facility better suited for her. With a bit of support, she could’ve even had an apartment, lived on her own. Instead, someone dropped her here, and she slipped through the cracks in the system. Maybe her parents couldn’t cope with her, and I don’t mean to blame anyone, but it’s still sad. I could say that for a lot of the patients here.

“You’re old,” she said.

“I’ve been doing this a long time.” Her room was small—they all were—and most of the space was taken up by the bed, which was probably older than I was. There was a rickety bookshelf fastened to the wall and a bureau, which Maggie had covered with crow feathers and knickknacks. There were a couple of chairs by the bookshelf, so I sat down.

“You have a lot of books in here.”

Most were kids’ books. Halloween themed. There was also a dusty old jar on the bookshelf. Homemade pickled beets. I looked at them, my clipboard in hand in preparation. “Oh, that’s a nice jar. What’s in it?”

I don’t know why I asked her that. They were beets, and the patients aren’t allowed to have food in their rooms. I was busting her, but I really didn’t need to. Sure, it was food, but she obviously wasn’t eating it. Rules are rules, I get that, but I could’ve just been straight and told her that she wasn’t allowed to have food in her room.

“I can’t tell you.”

“You can’t tell me what’s in the jar?”

“Maybe when I know you better.”

Then together we filled out the questionnaire. We had to complete them once a week to make sure all her medical issues were documented and taken care of. Down’s patients are prone to leukemia, heart defects, compromised immune systems. Some have sleep apnea, constipation, obesity, dementia. But often people with disabilities hide their medical issues, so they’re afflictions go from bad to worse. Monthly checkups are critical. Like the weekly questionnaires: yes or no checks, rate each emotion, scales of one to five. Really, it told us very little, but it’s a paper trail, due diligence.

After a half-dozen more patient questionnaires that morning, I finally sat down in the staffroom. My wife made me a bag lunch, just like she did when I worked at the hospital, the exact same meal: baloney and cheese on a Kaiser with mayonnaise. Pauline didn’t like mustard. There was also an apple and a yogurt. I swear, it’s the same lunch I ate when I was a kid going to school, if you replace the yogurt with a cookie. Yogurt was too adventurous for my family.

“Temp?” a woman chirped as she sat down at my table.

“What?”

“Just here for the day? Filling in?” she said. She was wearing pastel pink scrub pants with a flowered scrub top.

“No, it’s my first day. I’m a nurse.”

“Oh,” she said, and I could see the confusion on her face—she was wondering why someone in his fifties was having a first day at work. I wondered the same thing. But then her fake smile returned and she said, “How exciting! We don’t get a lot of men in nursing.”

“Yeah, it’s still mostly women.” I’d had that conversation hundreds of times. That and the one where people use the term “male nurse” over and over, as if you’d use the term “female nurse” or “female teacher,” or “female police officer.” Well, I guess people do say “female police officer” all the time.

“Have you met with Reinhardt?”

“Yeah… I mean no, I’m scheduled to see him this afternoon.”

Mr. Reinhardt was in charge of the facility. He was a burly man with a thick mustache and sideburns straight out of the seventies. He wasn’t part of my hiring process, so when I saw him walking around in his doctor’s jacket I assumed he was a doctor. He wasn’t. He was an administrator.

I thought we were going to sit in his office, but when I arrived for our meeting, he rose out of his ergonomic office chair. I didn’t know the brand, but it wasn’t within my wage bracket. He greeted me with a firm but slightly sweaty handshake and suggested we tour the facility while we talked. Or he talked. Mostly about himself, to be perfectly honest, except when he gave me advice, as if I were a young nurse in his first position.

“You have to remember,” he said offhandedly while he checked his buzzing cell phone. He flicked his thick thumb across the screen a few times then continued. “You have to remember, the patients are not your friends.”

We passed through the medical wing, and he pointed out the most expensive pieces of technology, ensuring that I knew the cost of each item. It was nowhere near what I was dealing with at the hospital, but it was adequate for the size of the facility, I suppose. I thought that it would probably be a better use of funds to replace some of the flickering fluorescent lights in the hallways, or put some carpet down so the place didn’t seem so institutional, but I held my tongue. “You see,” he continued. “We have to restrain the patients. We have to discipline them, perform medical procedures on them. Sometimes they don’t understand, and you don’t want them to think that you’re their buddy. You’re not. You’re here to provide for their medical well-being. That’s the job.”

“I know, Mr. Reinhardt.”

Doctor Reinhardt when we’re out here,” he said. “Where were you before you came here?”

“Silver Hill.”

“Yeah? Good hospital. Old though. You got laid off then?”

“They don’t throw you a going away party when there’s fifty of you leaving. But luckily, I was only out of work for a month, and the union took care of me.”

“Good man, Darren,” he said, slapping me on the back.

The rest of the day went pretty smoothly. I wasn’t in the medical wing, so mostly I checked up on patients, put on Band-Aids, that kind of thing. One patient’s colostomy bag was infected, so I sent him to the medical wing. He wasn’t happy about that. I never learned his name. He was just Room 206 to me.

That night my wife made perogies and pork chops, and I told her about my first day.

“Sounds nice,” she said. It was crunch time at her office, so all the accountants were working overtime. Not Pauline, though. She kept regular hours regardless of what was going on at work. She was good at her job, so she always managed to get everything done, and done well; even at dinner, I could tell she was counting totals, double checking numbers in her head.

“Yeah, it’s just work. Same as the hospital.” She stared over my shoulder and forked at bit of perogy into her mouth.

“One of the patients is a witch,” I said, goading her. She wasn’t listening at all. I could say anything.

“Oh yeah?”

It was about a week later and I was getting used to the place—I knew enough of the facility to do my job effectively, and was starting to remember the names of my patients, a couple of other nurses, and, of course, admin—when Maggie stopped me in the hallway. “I know your secret,” she said, again, struggling with the “S” sound.

“Really? What’s my secret?”

“You’re a vampire.”

I laughed. I guess with my receding hairline it kind of looks like I have a widow’s peak, but otherwise I don’t look like a vampire. I have a paunch that started growing when I turned forty, and I don’t think vampires wear glasses.

“So I’m a vampire and you’re a witch?”

“Yeah, but I won’t tell anyone. We have to watch out for each other.” She smiled at me, her bottom lip sticking out, and I smiled back. A real smile.

That afternoon, after my baloney and cheese on a Kaiser, I heard screaming when I passed her room. Her door was wedged open, and the unit manager was trying to calm her down. Maggie had flipped the chairs over and pulled she sheets off her bed.

“She does this all the time,” the case manager said, her jaw clenched. I hadn’t seen this woman before. I would’ve remembered her by the stench of her home perm. “Get a sedative.”

Injecting a sedative was common. I’d done it a million times over the years, but Maggie didn’t seem that bad. Patients freaked out all the time, and when I worked in the ER, we always had to sedate people. The procedures were set, certainly, but that day, something just came over me—I didn’t want to stick this poor girl.

“Maggie,” I said. “Calm down. This isn’t worth it.”

She kept screaming and hitting her fists against her bed.

“Maggie, please. You have to calm down.”

“Jesus, just poke her already!” the case manager commanded, her voice piercing.

Still Maggie wailed with tears streaming down her face. She was so loud that the other patients came out of their rooms to watch.

Then, inspiration struck. I don’t know where it came from—probably desperation—but a song jumped into my head.

Wake up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you,” I sang. Old Rod Stewart song. I hadn’t thought of that song in years, or of Rod Stewart in general, but there I was singing “Maggie May” word for word. Maggie hit her bed again, but kept her fists on the mattress. She sucked in a few breaths, whined as she exhaled. I kept singing, louder, and making sure to punch up her name.

Maggie looked at me with trails of tears still wet on her face, but she was smiling. I finished the chorus, smiling my most comforting smile.

The perm-haired case manager gave me a look of disgust. When it comes to the patients, she was higher up the authority ladder than the regular nurses, and I’d disobeyed her. I probably had ten years of experience on her, but those things don’t matter in the medical field.

“Did you write that song?” Maggie asked me, rubbing snot on her sleeve.

“No. It’s Rod Stewart. He’s a singer from the seventies.”

“Did he write it for me?”

“Maybe,” I said, righting a chair. Maggie was still smiling and staring at me.

“Keep singing it.”

I finished up my day uneventfully, and after dinner that night I told Pauline the story. She laughed at the thought of a Rod Stewart song calming the girl.

“I used to sing, you know,” I told her.

“Well, I’ve seen your guitar case, but I’ve never seen you open it.”

“Yeah, I wanted to be in a band when I was in high school. I used to play along with the radio. Dr. Hook, Peaches and Herb. I used to do my homework with my guitar on my lap and whenever a song came on that I knew, I’d play along and try to figure it out. I even had a songbook for Supertramp.”

I had had a band. Well, not a real band. We never did anything except sit in my parents’ basement and make up songs. We used Tupperware and margarine containers for drums, and my parents’ old piano, which was in terrible need of tuning. Those were good days, hanging out with friends. I never found time to hang out with friends much after I got married. Didn’t really have any friends.

“I remember Supertramp. Never listened to them though.” She laughed.

My fingers itched. I remembered that feeling, the anticipation of playing a song. I put down my fork and placed my fingers on the frets of an imaginary guitar, seeing if I still knew how to form the chords. I jumped from a D to a G without hesitation. It was still in my head.

I went down to the basement that night to find my old acoustic guitar, but I ended up just moving boxes around and reorganizing.

The next day I ate lunch in the cafeteria. Aides would eat with the patients, sometimes feeding them, orally or through tubes, but the nurses tended to stick to the staffroom. Honestly, I was just tired of the nurse chatter: complaints, mostly, about the boss, the doctors, the caseworkers, and the patients. They even complained about the families, which was odd, as I rarely saw any families visiting the facility.

“Whatcha eating, Nurse Darren?” Maggie said, standing beside my table. She was wearing one of her long black flowing dresses was carrying her tray.

“A bun. Apple. Yogurt. Just a regular lunch.”

“We get spaghetti.”

She stood there for a moment, and it clicked that she wasn’t just asking me about lunch. “Would you like to join me?” I said.

She set her tray on the table and smiled, wide. Then she calmed, hovered her hand over her meal, and closed her eyes. After a moment, she opened them and dug into the mass of noodles and sauce with her fork.

“What was that about?”

“Magic stuff,” she said, mouth full.

After that, I never ate in the staffroom. I’d sit, and Maggie would join me. Sometimes other patients would join us, the high functioning ones. We’d laugh and joke around. One day I even left my lunch at home on purpose so I’d have to eat cafeteria food. Okay, that was a mistake. They were serving stew that day, and it was incredibly salty and slimy, but I still enjoyed eating with the patients.

Then Reinhardt called me to his office. I hoped admin wouldn’t be as petty and micromanaging as they were at the hospital.

“I’ve noticed that you’ve been eating lunch with the patients lately,” he said from his high backed leather chair. “Now, I don’t need to tell you about fraternizing with the patients.”

“I’m making connections, Dr. Reinhardt. It just makes the job easier if they know me and trust me. I need to be in contact with them more than once a week for their questionnaire.”

“You know what these girls are like, though. They have the minds of children, but the hormones of an adult. I don’t want any of them taken advantage of.” He raised his eyebrows. At me.

“What the hell? I’m ten years off of my retirement! I don’t want anything from the patients here. They’re half my age! Why would you even think that?”

“I’m just making sure. Litigation is expensive.”

“Dr. Reinhardt…” I stammered. This never happened to the female nurses. Just me. I couldn’t make friends here, couldn’t let my guard down. In this female-dominated field, I was immediately suspect.

“Make sure that you always keep the door open. Understand?”

I left the office both furious and ashamed, though I had done nothing wrong. It was decent enough advice, and really, I should always keep the door open when I’m alone with any patient. If anyone were to accuse me of something, I doubt even the union would have my back.

I don’t even remember choosing to be a nurse. There was no moment when it struck me that nursing was my calling in life. The recession hit, and jobs were scarce. I needed something stable, and nursing seemed like a comfortable path. There were times I liked it, even felt exhilarated, like when I worked in the ER. It was a rush, but I was a young man back then. Not looking at fifty in the rearview mirror.

As it happens, that was the day for Maggie’s health questionnaire. I’d nearly memorized the entire seventy-five questions, and I think that Maggie had memorized the answers too. Halfway through, I stopped.

“Maggie, what were you so upset about last week?”

“She tried to touch the jar. Only I get to touch the jar.” Maggie hung her head, hid her eyes behind her bangs. “She said I couldn’t have it in my room.”

“Well, the rules do say that you can’t have food in your room. You can’t get mad at her for following the rules.”

“It’s not food.”

“Okay. It’s not food.”

She looked up at me. “Do you want to know what it is?”

“If you’re ready to tell me.”

“It’s my grandmother’s heart.”

It was beets. You could tell it was beets. You could just look at it and see the beets in there. It wasn’t a human heart by any stretch of the imagination. I’d seen a human heart. There was no heart in that jar.

“I took it from my mother,” she continued. “After my grandma died, they all went to her house and took her stuff. They didn’t bring me. When they came home, I saw this in the boxes of stuff. I knew what it was, so I took it.”

“Doesn’t your mother see it up on the shelf?”

“She doesn’t come here.”

I didn’t push it any further. When you’re dealing with patients, especially ones who are institutionalized, you learn right away not to bring up family. I continued on with our questionnaire, with Maggie answering questions before I’d even finished asking them. It was routine, but Maggie seemed unhappy.

She cheered up, of course. It was like happiness was her default emotion. I saw her bouncing down the hallway later that day, black bob swinging back and forth, black skirt rippling with each step.

Then, a week later, she didn’t come down for lunch. Jakob joined me, rolling all of his food into little balls between his fingertips before eating them. Lorraine, who won silver for swimming in the Special Olympics, joined us too. And her boyfriend, Oliver, who shared his dessert with her. Sharing dessert was huge at the home.

I went up to Maggie’s room to check in. It wasn’t her questionnaire day or anything, but I was the nurse and could justify checking up on a patient. I heard her coughing from outside her door and knocked, but she didn’t answer.

“Maggie,” I called. “I can hear you in there. Can I come in?”

She didn’t answer, so I knocked again. She grunted, which I took to mean she didn’t mind if I entered.

Maggie was sitting up in her bed, leaning back on a pillow with her crow feathers spread out on the bed, along with some stones and old tarnished jewelry. She was hacking, and it was coming from deep within her chest.

“Maggie! You’re sick.”

“Just a cold, silly,” she said, her voice hoarse. She coughed again, harder this time.

“You know you have to be careful about these things.” I rushed my wrist to her forehead and felt her fever. I’d have to actually take her temperature, but I already knew this wasn’t just a cold. The nurse in me was telling me it was pneumonia.

I called the medical wing to let them know I was coming down, and then I got Maggie a wheelchair.

“I don’t want to go to the doctors, Nurse Darren,” Maggie pleaded. “They put needles into me.”

“They won’t put needles into you this time. They’re just going to keep you warm and make sure you’re safe,” I coaxed. “Anyway, needles aren’t so bad. The thought of the needle is worse than actually getting one.”

“Can you stay with me?” she asked.

“I can visit, but I have to take care of a lot of people. You see everyone I take care of.” While I helped her into a wheelchair, I felt her small body shivering. At first I thought it might just be shaking chills, but when I wrapped a blanket around her, I saw she was crying. “Maggie,” I said. “It’s all right. It’s just the doctors. They’re nice.”

It wasn’t working. She was scared and sick and it probably felt like she had no control over the situation.

Wake up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you,” I sang. “It’s late September, and I really should be back at school.

A smile crossed her face. She wiped away her tears and pulled the blanket close to her body. I got behind her and pushed her chair.

“Keep singing!” she called out. I sang, and it felt good to sing, my voice growing more confident as she laughed.

“Louder, Nurse Darren! Louder!”

I kept singing all the way down the hall, patients and staff turning to watch as I belted it out, Maggie laughing and coughing the whole way.

When my shift was done, I visited her in the medical wing. She was asleep, swaddled up in her bed. The doctor confirmed that Maggie had a compromised immune system, so pneumonia was serious. I sat with her for a bit, but she didn’t wake up. She was sedated. They gave her a needle after all.

Pauline made beef Stroganoff for supper that night. She always lightens up on the pepper because she doesn’t like her food too spicy. She was telling me something about a woman at the firm who wore a bright purple dress to work, and apparently that was somehow scandalous, but honestly I wasn’t paying attention.

I pulled out the guitar that night. It was amazing how quickly my fingers remembered where they were supposed to go, pulling out chord progressions I hadn’t thought of in decades. I could still play “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty flawlessly. It’s kind of amazing what the mind can do.

I checked on Maggie first thing in the morning, and she wasn’t getting better. She was coated in a layer of sweat, but shivering even wrapped up in her blankets. Her cough had turned into a deep gurgle, and she hacked up balls of phlegm into a silver medical receptacle.

“Oh, Maggie. Oh, you poor thing,” I said, sitting on the bed beside her. She leaned against me, curled up.

“Nurse Darren. I hate this.”

“I know, Maggie. I know. It’s terrible. I feel so bad for you.”

The room was miserable, with a view of a brick wall out the window and the stale smell of sickness in the air.

“Can you get something for me? Something from my room?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said, and then I waited through another coughing fit.

“I have a ring on my altar. It’s magic. If you bring it to me, I can get better.”

The doctor heard this and rolled his eyes.

“Of course,” I said.

As it turned out, she had eight rings on the bureau that she called her altar. I had to unravel bits of wool from some, but I gathered them all up. I ran them under rubbing alcohol to make sure there wasn’t anything in all those crow feathers that would aggravate her condition, and took them down to her.

Her eyes lit up when I came in. I had all the rings cupped in my hands, sparking and bright after the alcohol bath. I spread them out on the blanket, and she picked out a silver ring with a green gemstone. Well, it was probably glass, but she thought it was a gemstone. She put it on, and her body seemed to relax.

“Thank you, Nurse Darren. You’re a good nurse, for a vampire.”

I stifled a laugh. After all that, it was delivering a magic ring that made me a good nurse. I held her hand for a moment, told her that I had to work, and then went off on my duties.

The day passed monotonously, more Band-Aids and questionnaires. I’d been nursing for more than half of my life, not including nursing school, and this was where it had brought me. I tried to think about going back to the ER, but those years were long gone. I couldn’t even consider it. So I kept my mind on my work. Room to room. Behind my thoughts, “Maggie May” looped in my head, over and over, never actually interfering with my work, but always on the periphery.

When the day ended, I checked in on Maggie. She was sitting up in bed, smiling. She wasn’t sweaty anymore, wasn’t shivering.

“Damndest thing. Fever broke just before noon,” the doctor told me. “If it was actually pneumonia, it should’ve taken weeks to fight this off, but she’s already on the mend. Must’ve just been a virus.”

“Nurse Darren!” Maggie called. “You saved me!”

I smiled at her. It was silly, all of it, really. I only brought her a trinket. But she believed that it was magic, and she fought off pneumonia. Most people, even those with average immune systems, take weeks to recover. Months. Not Maggie. She defeated it with the belief that a magical ring was going to make her well.

“You know, I was really sick.”

“You’re still a little sick, Maggie. You still have to stay in bed.”

“Well, I might feel better if you sang to me.”

I sang her song three times before I told her that I had to leave. She wanted me to stay, but it was my night to cook, so I had to get the beef rib roast into the oven and the potatoes wrapped in tin foil to bake. I waved at her and left for a perfectly uneventful night at home: Pauline, distracted by work, again, while I plucked away at my guitar in the basement, trying to remember how to play songs.

When I got to work the next morning, they were cleaning out her room—Maggie’s heart stopped in the night. They told me that she’d had heart problems, and I knew it was common for patients with Down’s Syndrome to have heart defects. Maybe the pneumonia put a strain on her. Maybe it was just time. She was twenty-four, so the fact she lived that long with her heart condition was miraculous enough.

I went home. I didn’t check with the office, didn’t ask Reinhardt. I just went home. I went home and I laid in bed, and I spent a couple hours crying, then looking up at the ceiling lifelessly until that damn song started playing in my head again. I gave in and went downstairs to pick up my guitar. I brought it and the guitar stand up to the bedroom and set up the stand next to my bureau. I carefully arranged my fingers on the frets to form an A chord and strummed it a few times before singing quietly to myself, switching between the G and D chord.

At four o’clock, I took a quick shower to clean off my face; by the time I was finished dressing, Pauline had come home.

“Darren. You’re home!”

“Yeah. Tough day. I came home early.”

“Oh, poor you. You’ll have to tell me over dinner…” Her voice trailed off as she looked up at the bookshelf. “Is that a jar of beets on our bookshelf?”

“No, it’s not beets.”

“What is it?”

“I can’t tell you.”


Brad Glenn is an author from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Since graduating from the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria, he has been a special award winner for the BC Federation of Writers and has published short stories and articles. He is a member of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta and leads the writing group the Inkhorn Society. He has self-published a book of short stories entitled Lemons on Venus and a novel called The Real World Monitor. During the day, Brad is a teacher, a dog owner, and a husband.

 

Laundry Day

BY: SHANNON ROBERTS

Every Sunday Leisha went to Aunt Bri’s apartment to do the laundry. She’d hop on the 6 train with her Ma and her brother, Dwayne. She and Dwayne carried bulky laundry bags while Ma carried her phone and clicked at it with acrylic nails. Ma was usually talking to men—every few weeks, Leisha would peep over Ma’s shoulder and sleuth out a new name. She always got scolded for that.

By the time the three of them arrived at the apartment building, Leisha’s arms were sore from the weight of the dirty clothes. They walked up the entrance steps, passing two men smoking on the stoop. Ma entered the door code to the building’s entrance. “Bring those to the basement and then come up,” she said. “You remember the apartment code?”

“Yup!” Dwayne said. He headed to the basement with Leisha behind him, the heavy laundry propelling them downstairs.

When they got there, a man wearing a robe and slippers was folding his clothes. He peered at the two of them over his glasses. There were five washers and dryers and the only one not being used was beside the man. Dwayne and Leisha stepped over puddles on the concrete floor and threw their bags on top of the washer.

They’d been carelessly filling the bag during the week, so it toppled over. Leisha couldn’t catch it in time before some of her shirts and socks fell out, along with a bra: polka dot with excessive padding.

“Gross!” Dwayne shouted. He darted upstairs while Leisha scrambled to hide the cheap bra and escape the man’s eyes that found their way to her chest.

She caught up to Dwayne on the fourth floor where he stood in front of Aunt Bri’s apartment door. He mumbled, “What the heck was the code again?”

“Move, I’ll put it—”

He slapped her hand away and puffed his chest. “I want to do it.”

She told him the code.

“There they are!” Gary B. proclaimed when Dwayne swung the door open and pranced in. Gary B. was Aunt Bri’s boyfriend. From his seat on the couch, he reached for the remote to lower the TV volume. He was watching a boxing match. The ring girls announced round five in their metallic bikinis. Ma and Aunt Bri tore the coupons from flyers at the kitchen table.

Gary B. didn’t waste a second to flatter Dwayne. “Would you look at that! A new haircut, D? You’re going to have to fight off all the girls!”

“Watch him be just like his Granddad,” Aunt Bri said laughing, “You know he was a roadrunner, right?”

“What’s that?” Dwayne asked, a smile crawling to his face, anticipating a compliment.

Ma held up an irritated hand and said, “Oh, never mind. No son of mine will be like him, taking care of none of his kids.”

Aunt Bri muttered, “It was only a joke.”

When Ma wasn’t around, Aunt Bri and the rest of Leisha’s aunts and uncles would go on and on about Granddad. Their memories of him were so vivid, it was as though he were alive just yesterday. They’d name all of their half-siblings and speculate that there were more they didn’t know about. They told the same old stories, but no one ever got bored.

Except for Ma. She’d only mention Granddad after a glass of wine or two. On rare occasions, she’d show Leisha his photo, kept in the Bible. “It’s always on John 1:9,” Ma said.

The photo was grainy and had a water stain, but it was all they had to recall his face. Ma told Leisha that he had held her a few times, not that she remembered; he was gone before she could walk. In the photo, he basked in the summer sun wearing a wife-beater and a smile. He looked more like Leisha than Ma—his skin was the same smooth caramel, and their eyes both gleamed bright. He looked happy but confused. Leisha wondered if he was drinking when the photo was shot.

“He’d pour this much vodka and only this much juice. When the glass went up, it only came down when it was empty,” Aunt Bri liked to recall. Sometimes Leisha recited that one to her friends, but not the other stories. Never the ones about her half-aunts and half-uncles, or that her Granddad was a “playa-playa.”

Leisha didn’t see her friends on the weekend very much after they moved to the apartment that didn’t have a laundry room. She didn’t mind going to Aunt Bri’s because it was a little nicer than where she lived, but it was too cramped when Gary B. showed up.

“You look pretty with your hair like that, Leisha,” Aunt Bri said, but Leisha knew she was just being polite since they fussed over Dwayne’s hair and hers was stuck in two frizzy buns. She wasn’t pretty like the other girls in her class. Boys her own age never noticed her.

But she caught Gary B. looking at her, licking his dry lips. “Can we go to the park?” Leisha asked.

Sometimes Ma would let her go to the park, but only if she brought Dwayne. He was younger, but a boy, so he could protect her. He was the last person she wanted to spend more time with, but at least she didn’t have to listen to them boast about him any longer. Besides, when he was with her, the jerks hanging out on the street didn’t look at her so much.

But no guy on the way to the park was creepier than the man who lived in her apartment building. Whenever Leisha encountered him by herself, he’d call her beautiful or gorgeous. Once he offered to buy her dinner, but he didn’t invite Ma or Dwayne, so she said no. All he said when Dwayne was with her was “hello.”

On their way to the park, Dwayne walked on the side closest to the street where cars sped by. Buses blared their horns and pigeons flew away when they got too close. Uncle Clay told him to always walk on that side when he was with a female. It was the right thing to do, but it forced Leisha closer to the bums who hung out on the stoops.

“Lookit, another one.” Dwayne pointed at a new coffee shop called Beans & Do’. “How much more coffee do they need? It all tastes the same anyway.”

A girl exited wearing a denim jumper. Tucked under her arm was a skateboard, and she held an iced coffee with her free hand.

“What’s with those White girls and those styles?” Dwayne said.

Leisha punched him in the arm and glared. She sneaked a look to make sure the girl didn’t hear him. “Pipe down, shorty.”

“Look who’s talking? I ought to start wearing stuff like that.”

Dwayne wore a hoodie that was a size too big, sweats, and mud-stained Converse. All hand-me-downs from their cousin.

“No use wasting good clothes. I’ll save you the trouble of tossing them,” Ma had told Aunt Joanne with a shrug. But when she hung them in Dwayne’s closet, she seemed relieved. Later that day she’d told Leisha, “Got to make it seem like you’re doing them the favor!” Ma admired the Nike sweatshirt Dwayne ended up wearing almost every day. Then she looked at Leisha and her smile vanished—none of the cousins around her age were girls, so Ma had to spend money on her clothes.

A couple in their twenties turned the corner. The guy wore a white T-shirt that was probably more expensive than it looked; the girl had a piercing in her nose like a bull. Leisha gasped when saw the outline of the girl’s nipples pressed into the cotton of her blouse. Her breasts bounced up and down with each step.

When Leisha started growing…those, she didn’t want to wear a bra. Because it meant they were real and that they would only keep growing. Instead she wore tank tops under her shirts and lots of layers. But when it was too hot to hide under a sweatshirt, her classmates asked, “What happened to your bra?” The small hills and highlight of her nipples were too much to ignore. They were neither edgy, nor fashionable. She had to resort to wearing bras that ended up in her laundry bag.

“Uncle Clay says that White people think they created those styles, but they just stole ideas from Black people.”

“Whoever came up with them is stupid,” Leisha said.

“Well, I ain’t complaining. Next thing we know, maybe everyone will be topless.”

She punched him in the arm.

“Ow! PTS much?”

“God. It’s PMS, you asswipe.” Leisha made sure no adults heard her say that.

“I’m telling Ma!” he shouted, his voice jumping in octaves. They both knew Ma was always harsher on her.

“Whatever…” Leisha hoped that he’d forget by the time they returned.

The park was always smaller than she remembered There were monkey bars, a jungle gym, and a row with four swings. Everything was new. Leisha liked to fantasize that it was all hers when no one else was there. That it was her backyard, like families had in the suburbs. The blacktop had bright blocks of green and red. The paint wasn’t even chipped yet.

Leisha pushed the metal gate open and Dwayne jetted past her and launched himself onto a swing. He took flight, willing it to go higher and higher, but it wouldn’t ever be enough for him until he was in the clouds. Leisha figured he could. He could make it all the way up there, but she’d never leave the ground.

A group of older teenagers sat at a table smoking cigarettes and playing on their phones.

Leisha abruptly changed her route and ducked down under a frog statue. If she pulled her knees in and tucked her head, it was big enough to hide her from the view of passersby.

She always did like the frog statues. There were also seal and hippo statues, but the frogs were solemn, like overseers protecting the perfect new playground. Day and night, they watched with wide eyes. The hippos looked as if they’d rather be frolicking, like the seals who endlessly laughed and clapped. They hadn’t a care in the world.

Ma didn’t understand about the frogs. When Leisha told her about them, Ma had said that frogs were “witch’s puppets.” But how could they be evil? They always made her feel safe.

Last Thanksgiving when all of her aunts, uncles, and cousins were at Aunt Bri’s for the holiday, Leisha sneaked to the park once the grownups were too drunk to notice or care that she was missing. As soon as she left the building, she found Gary B. on the stoop, smoking with a can of beer in his hands. He always drank more than anyone.

He slurred, “How you doin’?” and the stoop suddenly felt so small. The smell of beer and gin oozed from his pores. Through the open window of the fourth floor, she could hear her aunts and uncles howling with laughter. Her heart thudded and her skin crawled, getting sweaty because, she realized, she was alone with Gary B.

She tried to slide past.

“Give me a kiss,” he said. Then he leaned in, not toward her cheek, but to her lips.

She turned her head quick enough for him to miss. She didn’t look back when she ran down the block wiping his saliva off her cheek with the crew neck of her shirt.

A dad and two boys entered the park. The teenagers shuffled uncomfortably before putting their cigarettes out and gathering their things. The man looked at her and Dwayne and smiled. They were probably new to the neighborhood.

The boys were about her brother’s age and joined him on the swings, making the fourth one look terribly lonely, as the only thing moving it was the wind. They challenged each other to go higher.

The dad leaned against the jungle gym and watched, and Leisha wondered what her own dad looked like. Sometimes Ma’s boyfriends would visit, but they never stayed long. Which was fine. She never liked them very much anyway. Leisha stared into the frog’s stone eyes considering what it would be like to have a man in the house every day. Would he protect her?

Ma always had bad things to say about her own dad, Leisha’s Granddad. One night when she was on her third glass of wine, she told Leisha something she would only tell Aunt Bri. “I know that bastard left with all of the money for his other wife’s kids. If he left the money for us like he said he would, we would be able to afford a real apartment.” She pulled her lips in a tight line and her cheeks began to flush, but that might have been from the wine. “Forget it. Forget I said that.” She huffed, went to her room with the glass, and slammed the door. Leisha heard the lock click.

Leisha hoped that what Ma said about Granddad wasn’t all true. Her aunts and uncles always found him to be funny, but also thick-skinned. He drank a lot, but it seemed like he could do anything despite that. Nothing scared him. Leisha didn’t tell Ma, but from what she’d heard, she thought he was kind of cool.

Leisha watched her brother go as high as the swing would allow, watched him jump. He stumbled and winced, but didn’t let out a cry—that wouldn’t be manly. Uncle Clay called him a wussy the last time he whined. Dwayne held back wails as he kicked Leisha’s leg, but not hard enough for her to retaliate. “I’m done. Ready?”

“Fine.”

“Did you see how high I went? So much better than those kids.”

“Yeah, you’re alright.”

“Just ‘alright’? Why don’t you hop on and show me up, then?”

Leisha considered it for a second. The thought of flying, untethered by a bra or by perverse eyes watching until she flew out of sight.

“Let’s hurry up. I want to sneak up on Ma and Auntie with their girly talk. I’ll race ya!” Dwayne said.

He took off. Leisha didn’t even speed up.

Gary B. was smoking on the stoop when she got there. Dwayne was hunched over with his hands on his knees, catching his breath. “What are they talking about today?” her brother asked, like an elderly woman gossiping about young people.

Gary B. laughed and looked up toward the fourth floor. “Wouldn’t you like to know? Probably just the boring stuff anyway. Money, cleaning.” He shrugged. “Now tell me about that basketball game…”

Leisha had been there. Her brother’s team lost, but he scored on a penalty and got a three pointer. Big deal. Ma was swiping on Tinder for most of the game until that one shot.

When she entered the apartment, Leisha overheard Aunt Bri and Ma in the kitchen, “It won’t be like this forever. You’ll get a better job, or maybe a new boyfriend…” Leisha closed the door quietly behind her.

“It was a joke, that last date,” Ma said. “He had nothing interesting to say, and when it came to the check, his card declined! He paid in cash, whatever, but that was humiliating. Then, he had the nerve to ask if I wanted to come over. Ugh.”

Every once and a while, the girl in their apartment building would stay over with Leisha and Dwayne. Ma would say that she was going to dinner with Aunt Bri. Leisha always said, “Ok,” but she knew Ma was seeing some guy.

“You can’t make that stuff up!” Aunt Bri laughed. “Any luck with that job search?”

It was silent for a moment. Ma must be rolling her eyes. “It’s slow. No callbacks. I just need someone stable for a little while so I can get on my feet. You know, get some new clothes, get my hair done…”

Leisha’s heart sank when she realized that someday she’d have to go on dates with men. They’d want her to go to their house, alone. She pressed her back against the door.

“That’s your prerogative, you know.”

“Well it’s not so easy for me,” Ma said. “At least you have a man to take care of you.”

“That’s not even what I meant. I’m just trying to say that…”

The door hit Leisha when Gary B. and Dwayne pushed though. Patting her shoulder, Gary B. gave her a knowing look before announcing: “The gang’s all back! Enough of your girl talk.” She followed Gary B. and Dwayne into the kitchen where the two ladies were drinking wine.

“That was fast,” Ma scolded. She was ready to give Aunt Bri a piece of her mind.

“It was long enough,” Aunt Bri said. “Why don’t you get the laundry, Leisha?”

They never asked Dwayne to fetch the laundry. Leisha went downstairs alone to move the clothes to the dryer: the bras that suffocated her chest, Dwayne’s hand-me-downs, and the clothes Ma wore to attract men.

While she threw the wet clothes into the dryer, she imagined herself on the swing, kicking her legs and pushing herself higher and higher. Even higher than Dwayne. Instead of looking her up and down, the men would applaud, and so would everyone else. The loudest cheer would be Ma’s.


Shannon Roberts is a social media ambassador for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She received her bachelor’s degree from Manhattanville College where she was also a student-athlete. Her short story “Lifeline” was published in NAILED Magazine. She enjoys practicing yoga and early morning fitness.

 

TCR Talks With Catherine Ryan Hyde

BY LEANNE PHILLIPS

Twenty years ago, Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel Pay it Forward became an international best seller. [1] The following year, the film adaptation debuted at number four at the box office its opening weekend. The book also spawned a social movement promoting kindness, optimism, and faith in humankind. Hyde has since published thirty-six books, including a young readers’ edition of Pay it Forward, two dozen novels, and a book of travel photography based on gratitude. Her most recent novel, Have You Seen Luis Velez?, was published in May of this year.[2] A new novel, Stay, will be released on December 3, 2019.[3]

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