Tag: fiction (Page 1 of 7)

Book Review: The Blue Ticket

by Ioannis Argiris

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh is set in an alternate reality where teenage girls are sent to a lottery building to receive a white or a blue ticket. If the ticket is white, the girl is destined to marry and have babies. If the ticket is blue, the girl has an IUD installed, and she is not allowed to have babies. Instead, blue ticket women are free to live their lives, becoming independent.

We lined up, waiting to pull our tickets from the machine, the way you would take your number at the butcher’s counter. The music popular that year played from speakers on the ceiling. Just gravity enough. Just ceremony enough. Not necessarily such an important thing, after all.

Blue Ticket is about free will versus societal control. The idea of tradition versus progress in ideals and values is at the heart of the story, and at times it will have you rooting for and against the protagonist.

We meet Calla, a blue ticket woman who can work whatever job she wants, be with whomever she pleases, and is free to live whatever lifestyle she chooses. But Calla is curious about and wants something she cannot have—a baby. We see her struggle to grasp her identity as a blue ticket woman, yet we hope that she can break through at times to grow.

I saw this sort of woman everywhere once I started to look. I had counted myself among their number, and then one day they seemed like secret agents out to seed the word of independence, of pleasure-seeking and fulfilment. Isn’t this good, they said from beneath the canopies of nightclub smoking areas, from tables where they sat alone, from cars and train carriages and beds, some in elegant suits or other uniforms to show their importance. They made impressive things and spent their time on worthwhile pursuits and I had been one of them, and the togetherness had sometimes felt like being one of a flock of lovely birds pushing through the hot space of the sky, and it was good, that was the thing, it was really so good, but now there was something happening to me, and I found I had little control over it.

Doctors are assigned to neighborhoods to ensure that both white and blue ticket women are staying on course per society’s rules. Calla confesses to Doctor A that she is restless and that nothing and no one seems to fulfill her in the life she’s been given. She later meets R at a bar, a man who takes interest in her, but who also sleeps with other blue ticket women. Calla dreams of settling down with R and being his white ticket woman, having a baby, and seeing him push a pram with their newborn. Calla removes her IUD, continues to sleep with R, and eventually gets pregnant. Calla asks R if he ever wants to be a father, and he dodges the question. She confesses to Doctor A that babies have a power over her. That the first time she saw a baby, she had to run to the nearest private space and hold in a howl until it subsided. She questions: What makes a mother? A father? What was she lacking? She compares herself to a baby—“all sensation, no discipline. A broken engine thrumming with need.”

After she breaks the news to R, he accuses her of scheming and asks why? Calla says he wouldn’t understand, but R counters with, “‘[Y]ou have an emotional disease.’” Devastated by R’s reaction, Calla seeks help from Doctor A to discuss what’s happened. The idea of having a want that goes against society’s structure can be hard to process, but we all face similar decisions in life—whether you want to marry outside of your religion, or fall in love with someone of the same gender, or leave family to travel across many lands to pursue a career. What Sophie Mackintosh shows us in Blue Ticket is the strength of someone who is willing to die to fight for what they really believe in—a commitment tied to values that don’t align with everyone else around Calla.

Doctor A performs an ultrasound and informs Calla that she’ll be reported. It’s unclear what happens to blue ticket women who do get pregnant. Calla is on edge, all alone in her house waiting for the worst to happen. And this mystery creates a tension throughout the novel—on every next page you fear Calla might get caught. The next morning, an emissary drops by Calla’s house to provide her with gear—a tent, a gun, and a map—a signal that she must leave society.

Alone on the road, we see Calla balance survival between two worlds. Her old life draws her into bars only to be found out as pregnant and stigmatized for it. She runs into a young teen who just received her blue ticket and who asks Calla for help. Calla, seeing her younger self, gives the teen her car and sets off on foot into the forest. Calla’s journey continues on the road, along the coast, and finally at a border crossing—as reflected in the book’s sections. Calla is in full blown survivalist mode up against the raw terrains Mackintosh dreams up and continues to be tested for the fate she’s chosen. The tension rises when we learn that Calla has been given no prior knowledge about the transformation the body undergoes during pregnancy and finds both comfort and disdain as it happens. At the border, she’s visited by people from her past and has to make hard decisions to live. The novel’s tone can be lonely and cold, primarily because it’s about enduring in a society structured against the protagonist. However, what the author delivers is the hard reality of what it feels like for women to be given predetermined roles they must play in society. The author challenges us to think about whether we really are in control of our lives.

Sophie Mackintosh’s first novel, The Water Cure, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018.


Ioannis Argiris is based in Oakland, California, and is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing through the Low Residency program at UC Riverside. He is currently working on his first novel and also his first graphic novel. You can find him online on both Twitter and Instagram.

Book Review: Daughters of Smoke and Fire

by L.A. Hunt

Author and activist Ava Homa sets out in her powerful debut novel Daughters of Smoke and Fire to describe for the reader what statelessness feels like. She does so with visceral prose and a narrative that never flinches from the harsh reality of living in a country that does not recognize one’s ethnicity, and in fact punishes an ethnic minority for their native regional roots. Homa writes in her Afterword,

Kurds are often the majority among political prisoners and suffer the most vicious torture. Kurdish regions have been intentionally kept underdeveloped, resulting in entrenched poverty and all the trauma and trouble that follow the plague of poverty.

Homa’s work of fiction, an homage to Farzad Kamangar, a Kurdish elementary school teacher, is also a literary event. It is the first novel to be published in English by a female Kurdish writer. The story, set in Iran, depicts how oppression, political persecution, and racism work to destroy one Kurdish family. The narrative focuses on Leila, who dreams of being a filmmaker and giving voice to the story of her people, and her younger brother Chia, a teacher who aspires to a becoming a human rights lawyer and delivering his community from cruel anonymity to an acknowledged existence.

Leila struggles with her university entrance exam scores but is desperate for filmmaking classes, so she makes monthly installment payments on a camcorder. She feels a need to become film-literate: “I had a strong urge to document my little joys, partly because I had an irksome fear that they would be short-lived and partly because I wanted to be able to replay beautiful moments over and over again.” The camcorder also serves to remind her that her dreams are allowed, even when the actions of those around her crush them regularly. Chia, always the supportive and encouraging little brother, tells her, “Dreams matter, Leila gian. Desires matter. Take them seriously.”

When Chia goes missing, Leila fears the worst and sets out to find him. When she discovers he has been arrested and sentenced to death for documenting the government’s crimes against humanity, she sets in motion a series of events that may have a catastrophic outcome. In the middle of the journey however, Leila finds a sense of camaraderie from families of other political prisoners and thus discovers a purpose for her films that she could never have predicted. She is determined to tell Chia’s story, to create a legacy not only for him but for her people.

Homa is a talented storyteller, and her characters are vibrant and complex. Leila’s mother and father are bruised, damaged individuals and imperfect parents, which illuminates Homa’s dexterity for creating characters that are authentic and genuine. In addition, she uses shifting point of view to tell the story of the Kurdish people. While the subject matter is vast and multifaceted, she deftly creates dialogue that is precise without seeming expositional and that always rings true as a reflection of her characters.

Homa doesn’t mince words when it comes to the way Kurdish women are treated. She confronts cultural misogyny head-on by placing Leila in situations where she must suffer the brutality of a society where women have no rights, voice, or power. Leila describes the weight on her shoulders as “heavy beneath the daily cruelties of living as a woman.” Kurdish women must always defer to men and are constantly subjected to a double standard. “Women came in only two types: whores or dutiful slaves to their families.”

Homa also dissects the cultural phenomenon of Kurdish women setting themselves on fire as an act of both bravery and rebellion. That these women have no other recourse but to leave this world to end their suffering is a haunting image that persists long after the last page has been read. Chia explains the self-immolation to one of his students: “Women who lost all reason to live wanted their internalized burning rage to manifest on the outside too. A dramatic death testified to an agonizing life.”

An interesting point about the shifting point of view and the focus on women in the novel: Homa chooses to examine only the men in her story, not the women. Leila is the vehicle through which much of the narrative is developed, but the choice to give Leila’s father and brother a voice with their own first-person point of view chapters feels incomplete. While the chapters shed light on their experiences and offer insight into their characters, not examining Leila’s complicated mother is a lost opportunity for the reader to understand what drives her character to make the interesting choices she makes in the novel.

Ultimately, Daughters of Smoke and Fire transcends Kurdish oppression, and Homa knows there is a sense of belonging and universality for all oppressed people:

The rain splattered down after a loud thunderclap. I lifted my face and palms to the sky. I wasn’t alone, I saw then. People in Rwanda, Bosnia, plantations, and indigenous residential schools in North America were standing shoulder to shoulder with the Kurds.

Ava Homa’s voice is necessary in a world that lately seeks to divide instead of unite.


L.A. Hunt resides in Los Angeles where she spends her time studying the craft of writing, working on a YA novel, and creating/pitching TV pilots and screenplays. She has worked in education for twenty years as both a teacher and administrator and hopes for a future where her students will forge their own paths and right the wrongs history has inflicted upon them. She is a current MFA in Creative Writing fiction major and screenwriting minor in the UC Riverside Palm Desert Low Residency program.

Book Review: The Duchess of Angus

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Margaret Brown Kilik wrote her coming-of-age novel, The Duchess of Angus, in the early 1950s, but the manuscript remained her secret until it was discovered by her granddaughter, Columbia University English and Comparative Literature Professor Jenny Davidson, after the author’s death in 2001. Things like this happen more often than one might imagine. My own grandmother Rubye left behind a handwritten memoir of her life growing up during the Dust Bowl era in Oklahoma. During all the years my grandmother encouraged me to write, she never once mentioned that she wrote, too, in secret. What compels a woman to hide her writing? Having read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own at least a half dozen times, I have some theories. But what I do know is this—when a manuscript such as Kilik’s is discovered and published, it is a cause for celebration. It fills in a void, it gives us something we didn’t even realize we were missing, and the world is richer for it. When such a book is also as charming, as deftly-layered, and as funny as The Duchess of Angus is, I feel duty-bound to shout it from the rooftops.

The Duchess of Angus is written in the first person and gives readers a gorgeous, highly-textured time capsule of life in San Antonio, Texas, during World War II. Jane Davis, the novel’s protagonist, is home from college and is looking forward to enjoying her summer. She finds a job at Joske’s, a department store, when “[f]or an hour or so one morning, [she] looked about for something that was not too demanding.” Jane could easily advance at Joske’s but does “not care to assert [herself] even that much.” Instead, Jane envisions a summer of leisure, spent going on dates with soldiers stationed at the nearby base, “loll[ing] the days vaguely reading or walking about … perhaps coming to life for a few hours at night.” Besides working at Joske’s, Jane “enrolled in a poetry course and drank a lot of beer.” A girl after my own heart.

As far as dating, Jane chooses to go out with men who don’t demand too much of her either, for instance, one man she doesn’t even like very much: “[I]t was relaxing. … I don’t give a damn what he thinks about me,” Jane says.

The hub of the novel’s activity is the Angus Hotel, an establishment run by Jane’s mother, Martha. The Angus is not much more than a flop house, but it is populated with a colorful cast of characters that make it Jane’s favorite place to hang out on a weekend evening, “some lonesome people who had been thrown together by the war,” with a “system of etiquette more complex than that of a royal court.”

Jane’s older stepbrother, Jess, lost his right foot in the war and now lives at the Angus, collecting disability. He has a way with the ladies, including Mira, a stray Jess brought home to the Angus one night when he found her at the bus stop, out in the rain, come to town to find her military husband. Lillie Du Lac is Jane’s mother’s best friend. She rents a room at the Angus, runs a nearby sandwich shop, and pines for her ex-husband, Colonel Rainey W. Howell, who has remarried to a wealthy society matron, Eunice Estes.

The action starts over breakfast at the Angus, when Jess sees Wade Howell’s engagement picture in the morning paper and comments on her attractiveness. Wade is Eunice’s daughter, the Colonel’s stepdaughter, and Jane brags that she knows her a little—the girls work together at the department store but are barely acquainted. Lillie urges Jane to befriend Wade, for intel purposes, and Jane obliges to garner Lillie’s favor—she seems to look up to Lillie and to admire her sharp edge.

Author Margaret Brown Kilik

Kilik’s Wade Howell is beautiful, sophisticated, and wealthy. She is reminiscent of Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly, down to the dark sunglasses—Wade is unhappily but resignedly engaged and is a beauty who does what she pleases and doesn’t care about the opinions of others. “I found Wade Howell posed before a display of antique silver,” Jane says. “Dark hair, dark glasses, white dress—the cool lady of mystery on the hot streets of a southern city. She looked satisfied.”

Jane is nothing like Wade Howell, she decides. She is merely pretty, is decidedly not sophisticated, and is poor, although she wears her poverty like a badge of honor because her family weathered the Depression.

What then did we have in common? We had the same cynical attitude, which set the tone for our entire relationship. We were not burdened with the pretense of enthusiasm. We were not taken in by the small pretension of phonies. And above all, we were not at all certain that life as it was mapped out for us was worth living.

Wade turns out to be less sophisticated than she initially appears, a woman who, “after three bites of a hot enchilada melted into a veritable puddle of amorality ….” She soon lures Jane into all manner of trouble, and the summer is no longer relaxing. Wade starts by introducing Jane to Mrs. Gordon Nickerson, who recruits young ladies to socialize with the local soldiers as an act of patriotic service. “‘You’re just what the cadets are looking for.’ I wasn’t at all convinced of this, and it occurred to me that the methods for screening young ladies to entertain our young men in uniform were sloppy.” As Jane is pulled further into Wade’s world, and Wade eventually invades Jane’s, Jane increasingly longs for her books, her naps, her “delicious privacy.” “The merry-go-round was slowing down,” Jane thought, “but the carnival would start up again tomorrow.”

Jane is a delightful protagonist on the precipice between childhood and adulthood, not quite ready to let go of one or to grasp hold of the other. Her dry humor is delicious, and her evenings spent socializing in San Antonio are magical. On the Saturday night before Easter Sunday, Wade offers a woman at the marketplace ten dollars for her entire inventory of crepe paper eggs. “[W]e were piled high with Easter eggs. We each carried two shopping bags full of them, and some were tucked in our pockets and pocketbooks. I even had two pale pink ones, Wade’s idea of course, tucked in my bra.” As the evening progresses, Jane receives a sweet kiss from a soldier:  “As he pressed against me, I felt the paper egg break in my pocket, and all the rest of the night, confetti seeped out through a tiny hole in my dress and left a crazy trail around the city.”

Kilik’s novel has been determined to be largely autobiographical, written fifteen years after the events described in the book took place. Kilik thus fills a time capsule with the life of a young woman in San Antonio during World War II and gives readers a rare glimpse inside the mind of a 20-year old living in 1943:

We were in the midst of a war. We were living as nearly as possible at a constant peak of excitement. There was a song in our hearts in those days. True, it was a melancholy song. But an affected melancholy tempered by confidence. And we enjoyed everything about it.

… I was very much aware of the time, the place, and the moment.

The book is a time capsule, too, in terms of the political and social climate of the times. The manuscript is contextualized with the inclusion of an introduction by Davidson called “The Discovery” and two essays: “Streetwise” by Char Miller and “Beyond Adobe Walls: Anglo Perceptions and the Social Realities of San Antonio’s ‘Mexican Quarter’” by Laura Hernandez-Ehrisman. Because of its value as a historical document, Davidson chose to edit the manuscript with a light hand. She explains her decision to leave the manuscript relatively untouched in her introductory piece.

Because Davidson chose not to edit her grandmother’s work developmentally, what we are getting is in essence the author’s first draft. In that sense, the work is brilliant. There are rare places where, had the author had the opportunity to work with an editor, the manuscript might have been improved. For example, in places, the transitions in time are somewhat clumsy or confusing—I am thinking in particular of the passages where Jess and Mira reminisce about their meeting. But overall, in terms of voice, story, and character, this manuscript is a miraculous example of getting it right the first time. The book is charming, funny, and an enjoyable read. It comes together well in a satisfying ending that I won’t spoil for you, except to say that it stands up next to other classic coming of age novels that I count among my favorites, like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.


Leni Leanne Phillips is a writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. She is pursuing her MFA at the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Leanne is currently at work on her first collection of short stories and a memoir in essays based on her experiences growing up in California. You can find her at lenileanne.com.

Book Review: Ornamental

by Kit Maude

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” James Joyce’s protagonist famously says in Ulysses. Reading Ornamental by Juan Cárdenas, a rising star on the Colombian literary scene, one begins to suspect that he took Stephen Dedalus’s statement about history quite literally. Goodness knows that Colombian history has its fair share of nightmares (what country’s doesn’t?), and many find their way into this sparkling novella, explicitly or otherwise.

The novel begins with the personal notes of a pharmaceutical scientist as he tests out a new drug on four female subjects. The opening scene is nightmarish, even before one begins to consider the personality of the scientist or the setting: a converted hacienda, both functional and idyllic, evoking The Island of Doctor Moreau or Gregory Peck’s colonial headquarters in The Boys from Brazil. The book quickly assumes an episodic format, alternating the observations of the callous, misogynistic doctor with the vivid hallucinations/memories of subject “number 4” while on the drug (which, apparently nullified by testosterone, only works on women). As the relationship between the pair develops, Cárdenas begins to introduce other characters and themes: the scientist’s wife, a conceptual sculptor who eventually plays a willing part in a ménage à trois, the owners of the laboratory, bald twins who at one point turn up with spider monkeys to act as security guards at the facility, and descriptions of the architecture in the unnamed but recognizably Colombian city, against a foreboding backdrop full of surreal tableaux and imagery. In spite of the scientist’s calm demeanor and smug satisfaction with his lot in life (like an artist, he reflects, he can invent new drugs at his leisure), violence and disaster never seem far away, although when they hit, it turns out that we’ve been misdirected all along; the real horror, in this story at least, is both graphic and right under our noses.

Taking his lead from contemporary Latin American greats such as César Aira or Mario Bellatin, in Ornamental, Cárdenas presents the reader with a dense but vivid series of reflections about art and its relationship with society and politics, as well as the damage that patriarchal society habitually wreaks upon women. When the scientist’s wife says that graffiti they see from their car window should be erased, is she expressing an aesthetic opinion or yearning for an act of cultural violence? What are the tangible effects of the enormous pressure placed on the female form throughout the history of art? How does capitalist greed distort the simple desire to pursue happiness? In keeping with this approach, Cárdenas has no qualms about asking readers to disregard their expectations of a conventional narrative in favor of an appreciation of the series of vivid visual and intellectual set pieces that flow throughout the book, vignettes that combine beauty with the grotesque, tenderness with violence, absurdity with suffering. As he does so, the allusions and references proliferate—it’s an ambitious burden to place on a hundred pages or so of prose, and there are times when it feels heavy-handed or just doesn’t work. The plot line involving gangs of women roaming the streets in search of the wonder drug reads like an afterthought, and there are some issues with the male gaze that could do with further wrestling.

But at its best, Ornamental is exhilarating in its audacity and absorbing in its intellectual vigor, for instance during subject number 4’s extraordinary revelatory monologue toward the end. This is when the translation by Lizzie Davis really comes into its own. Through Davis’s skilled translation, the clear-eyed albeit bizarre stream of consciousness is conveyed with a flow and lightness of touch that could have easily been lost. Davis also provides a useful postscript outlining some of the themes of the novel and exploring the ways Cárdenas uses language to reflect the contrasts in perspective, background, and character of the different protagonists, just as the evolving architecture of the city, with its growing slums and abandoned office towers, tells a story of its own.

The theme of surface transformation, painting over indigenous carvings with religious imagery, or quite literally changing one’s skin with plastic surgery, recurs throughout the text. It is summed up by the colonial refrain, “Tear down the idols and raise the icons,” which is repeated by subject number 4 several times. In Cárdenas’s Ornamental, however superficial such transformations might appear, their consequences run nightmarishly deep.


Kit Maude is a translator based in Buenos Aires. He has translated dozens of Latin American writers for a wide array of publications and in addition to The Coachella Review writes book reviews for ÑOtra Parte, the Times Literary Supplement, and World Literature Today.

Book Review: Parakeet

by Ioannis Argiris

The opening of Parakeet by Marie-Helene Bertino starts off as a wild dream state for Luna, a young bride-to-be. Her dead grandmother manifests as a parakeet in a hallucinogenic vision and urges Luna to reconcile with her brother before her wedding day. We meet Luna at a dilapidated hotel on Long Island, trying on her wedding dress, as her grandmother inquires about family and traditions. But when Luna brushes off her grandmother’s request that she make amends with her brother, her grandmother—the parakeet—defacates on the wedding dress, forcing Luna to plunge into an unusual journey. The novel delivers an honest connection to family, through the lens of the theater, that makes for a great read.

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Already Dead Things

by Stacy Bierlein

Outdoor education was a thing the parents liked. Kids should know how things grow, they said. Children want to take care of things, we agreed, to be individually responsible. If the cabbage actually survived we took it to a local food bank. This time, though, the rabbits got in.

Was something wrong with the soil? a little girl wanted to know.

No, I said, the rabbits were hungry.

I didn’t explain that they probably came down from the cemetery at the top of the hill, displaced by a digging of graves. In our perfectly constructed greenhouse everything that should have been green was dead. The Lahiris had endowed the new greenhouse. Two of their sons were alums and five of their grandchildren were here. It all should have been very nice but I had forty kids in there with me, my second graders and Ms. Frothmeyer’s first graders, staring into empty planters, scattered soil, absence. It was pathetic.

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Book Review: Rodham

by Amy Reardon

Today in America 2020, it is four months until the next presidential election and nothing is certain except our ever-growing regret that we did not elect the most qualified person for the job when we had the chance. But why not? And would it have made a difference if Hillary Clinton were not attached to Bill?

Enter Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld’s sixth and boldest novel yet, a fictional story of Hillary’s life trajectory had she followed her own bright star instead of her husband’s. Delicious in its fantastical rewriting of history, the book’s most irresistible pull lies in the promise of the parallel life. For don’t we all secretly fear a better life might have been just around the corner, if only we had been brave enough? But the novel’s true brilliance lies deeper, in Sittenfeld’s examination of one key question: why didn’t we elect our first woman president in 2016? Was it her … or was it us?

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It Was N, in the Closet, With Her Coping Mechanisms

BY: MARISA CRANE

N comes into school late, spinning like the Tasmanian Devil because J told her to and J knows best and honestly she thinks J could use a shave, but she won’t tell him that because he’s sensitive, plus last time J borrowed her weird uncle’s razor he didn’t put it back and she got a spanking for touching things that aren’t hers because of course she knew better than to blame it on the man no one else can see.

She learned that the hard way one summer afternoon while drawing J’s home planet on the sidewalk in front of her mom’s apartment with the chalk she’d stolen from the corner store where the man with the strange accent hums songs she’s never heard before and follows her around while pretending to rearrange the shelves. Anyway, J told her all about the place he was born and the bad ideas that grew from the ground like towering trees and N drew them all, every single one, because J said she was the most wonderful artist on both her planet and his and she believed him just like she believed her daddy when he said he’d Be Right Back. Her mother said  daddy ran up a tab he couldn’t pay at the Red Fox Motel and now N doesn’t know where he is but he certainly isn’t Back. J told her that on his planet back was a synonym for alive and she cried for four hours straight while her mother made Steak-umms and talked on the phone in a voice softer and silkier than her own.

 

The man on the phone was not her good-for-nothing husband, the man who, despite failing to commit to anything longer than a bar tab, repeatedly assured her he didn’t have the up-and-leaving gene, yeah right, as if any man had ever kissed a woman without also imagining how tired that very same kiss would become in just two years’ time. 

When N’s mother hung up she knelt down on the gray carpet next to N and hugged her but didn’t ask what was wrong—she could hardly manage her own shit. There was a reason the flight attendants always urged you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else, even if that someone else was your daughter, even if that someone else looked sad and spooked around the eyes, and anyway, her oxygen mask must have been defective, ill-fitting, perhaps it had been designed to fail—her husband (or is he now an ex?) would call this victimization, he filed everything she did under victimization, it was the new hip term husbands passed around sacred husband spaces to justify their husband tempers. She, too, wanted a word for this thing, this fucked-up thing that happened to her and then kept on happening to her. She needed to lie down for a while.

 

The next day N was working on her intergalactic drawings when her mother found her and smacked her in the back of the head: Where did you learn these things? her mother asked. J told me about them, said N, cowering, still clutching a blue piece of chalk which had been reduced to a nub. Who the hell is J? her mother asked. N looked to her right, to the space where J sat pretzel style on the sidewalk, his straight black hair sticking out through the hole in his backwards hat, wearing a smile that looked nothing like her mom’s when she watched her grown-up shows or even her dad’s back when he still played airplane with her, balancing her body on his feet while she stuck her arms out to the side and pretended to fly. But she knew it was a smile nonetheless, just barely meeting the qualifications, because his teeth were showing and the corners of his mouth were turned upward, but don’t get it twisted, there was nothing pleasant about his expression.   

An imaginary friend taught you about dildos? her mother asked, trying to mask her own smile, one that absolutely meets the qualifications, failing to hide it, mixed signals for N who’s rubbing the back of her head. He’s not imaginary, said N. Look, he has dark brown eyes, black hair, ripped jeans, a black t-shirt. He’s a teenager. Teenagers can’t be imaginary, said N, convinced that her mom could see the boy-man with the bad ideas plopped down on the sidewalk with nowhere to go but wherever N goes. You’re a bit old for this, don’t you think? asked her mother, smearing one of the flying dildos with the toe of her sneaker. No, I’m not too old for a friend, said N, standing up and wiping off her pants but only succeeding in adding to the mess of chalk on her pants, a rookie move, she knew better but was frazzled and disturbed by what she could only interpret as her mom’s cruel and unoriginal prank.

It’s half-way through first period when N shows up, spinning spinning spinning while J laughs laughs laughs, and the teacher immediately calls her Therapeutic Support Staff, Z, to come deal with this child because Z knows how N gets, knows that if she comes into school like a tornado, she’ll leave having destroyed anything in her path. J tells her she can stop spinning and she collapses onto the carpet where the teacher reads stupid books almost none of the kids care about, except for maybe the asshole boy that’s always picking fights with N, according to N, but a lot of kids are always picking fights with N according to N. 

I don’t know why you make me do this silly stuff, she says laughing, high-fiving J, J who is now donning a black cloak and fangs, the real kind. Help, please come down and deal with her immediately, the teacher says into the phone. What’s that, J? N asks, recovered enough to stand up. Oh okay, okay, I will, she says, running to the back of the room where she crawls inside the coat closet. Look, N is crazy! yells someone who may or may not pick fights with N, we’ll never know. 

 

Shut up, a muffled yell comes from the closet, and some of the kids giggle, some cover their mouths with their hands, a few stomp their feet, and the teacher wants to leave, wants to know if she can call in sick when she’s already at school, wants to travel back to the exact moment she accepted this job and set her decision on fire, no, wants to travel back to the exact moment she decided she wanted to become a teacher and slap the word out of her mouth like the worst cuss word imaginable.

Ignore her, she just wants attention, the teacher says, and the kids seem temporarily satisfied by this assessment, they pull out their sloppy paper-stuffed folders, pass in their addition and subtraction homework, for the most part try to pretend a girl isn’t hiding in the closet talking to herself about about about about …. What is she saying now? Oh, that motels may or may not be separate planets inhabited by dreams that have died and floated out of children’s heads. Dream graveyards, she says. She keeps saying a person’s name. A man’s. She says it like he’s there, sitting in the closet, making it all make sense.

 

Z arrives and the teacher exhales so sharply Z’s worried the teacher may huff and puff and blow the whole room down, which she supposes wouldn’t be so bad, then she wouldn’t have to hike up her pants and crawl into the closet made for tiny coats and tiny backpacks and look absence in its carved-out eyes, then she wouldn’t have to pretend to know what to do with all that despair, how to spread it out so it doesn’t smother its owner, too smart for her age, observant, overexposed. 

What are you doing in here? Z asks once she manages to get down on the floor and peel through the hanging coats like layers of skin the little humans left behind. Hi, Miss Z! I don’t know. J told me to come in here so I did. I like it in here, says N, patting the ground and looking around as if she’s already decided the closet will make a nice home. Oh no, not J. He’s back? says Z. He never left, Miss. What else is he telling you to do? she asks, well aware of what N is capable of when she’s under the influence of J. Oh, all kinds of bad things, N grins, her eyes widening. Like what? Z presses. Today he says I should punch that asshole boy. He said some shit about my daddy the other day and J says we can’t let him get away with that, says N. You know what I’m gonna say to that, says Z, already tired, already depressed about N’s circumstances. I don’t wanna hear it, Miss. That boy needs to pay up, she says, punching her open palm with her fist in what Z assumes is supposed to be an intimidating gesture but looks more like she’s ready to flatten some Play Dough, and Z considers the idea that the body is smarter than the mind, that it knows when it’s being deceived and acts accordingly.

Oh what’s that, J? You think N should come out of the closet and go upstairs with Miss Z to talk about feelings and other crazyyyyyyyyyy things, says Z, holding her hand behind her ear and leaning toward the space to N’s right, hoping that she chose correctly so N won’t know she’s a fraud incapable of seeing J. What, he didn’t say that! No way, says N, shoving the space to her right, yes Z guessed correctly, yes Z does a mental fist pump, will take whatever success she can get, and then N stops, listens closely, and says, Oh my god, you did say that. You’re nuts! You know this lady’s a ghost right? she says as she begins to crawl out of the closet. I’m gonna let that one go, says Z, poking herself in the arm, reaffirming her reality or something like it. J says you look like a packing peanut, says N, laughing. Awesome, thank you, J, says Z, who gives the teacher a nod and points toward the ceiling to communicate that she’s taking N to her office and the teacher smiles like she just got the word that children were cancelled forever.

 

Upstairs N plops down in a chair and begins rolling backwards around the room and saying, Wheeeeeeeeeeeee, and asking J to speak up. J who still smiles that unsmiley smile, J who clears his throat and mutters, J who doesn’t actually have a home planet, J who until now hasn’t unleashed the worst of the worst, J who until now has been earning her trust, J who prepares to become a real boy by telling her a new truth, quickly pounces on Z, wrestling her to the floor, then ties her hands behind her back, gives her a quick kick, and sticks a gag in her mouth. J grabs N’s chair, spins her around so she’s facing him, and before she can say a thing, he tells her that the only way her daddy will love her again is if she jumps off the 5th Street bridge and learns to fly. 


Marisa Crane is a queer, non-binary writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, F(r)iction, Hobart, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Our Debatable Bodies (Animal Heart Press, 2019), and she serves as a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, she currently lives in San Diego, California, with her wife.

No Good Place to Die

BY: SHELLIE RICHARDS

Lester Suggs’s brows sank lower and lower with each passing second, as if the full weight of what he was about to do was resting right on top of his temple. One eye twitched as he slumped against the truck window. He methodically stroked his cheekbone with his index finger and bounced one leg so that the cab of the truck shook in time with his movements. He took the plastic bottle from the glove box and emptied several chalky disks into his hand. He tossed his head back and swallowed two Tums—whole.  

“You’re supposed to chew ’em, Lester. Damn.”

“I know that, you crazy bitch. And you know how I hate them fruity-flavored ones. I told you to get me the minty ones. You don’t listen. Never did.”

“Uh-huh. You the one that don’t listen, Lester. Ever since your daddy died, you been nothing but a little horse’s ass. You don’t respect nobody and you don’t listen to nobody neither. You need a good ass-kickin’. Boy, I wish your dad—”

“Shut up. You hear me? Shut your mouth. Maybe if you’d been more than fifteen years old when you had me, you’d have had the sense not to have me. So shut up.” 

Lester tucked the nine-millimeter into the back of his Levi’s and shot her a final look that said: Don’t screw this up. Jackie Suggs did what she was told and kept both hands on the wheel of the old Ford truck. She’d wait for his signal and pull up to the front door. “If that damn Mercedes ever moves,” she muttered.

 

But Sharon Waters was planted at the curb, watching the beads of rain that formed on her windshield gather into larger droplets that slid down the path of least resistance until they disappeared into the abyss beneath her car hood. Occasional shards of sun broke through the rainclouds, and a beautiful rainbow settled somewhere on the east side of the town, near where she and Bernard had lived in their 1920s bungalow for twenty-five years. Glorious years, she thought, and at the same time: Rainbow be damned…sun-shower be damned… oleanders, damn, damn, damn! The surge of bitterness jerked her back into reality. At that moment she didn’t care about the sun-shower or the oleanders…she didn’t care about anything anymore. She wished, in fact, that she might simply hold her breath until she suffocated and died. Then, she thought, then she might have peace.

So she sat in the shiny, black Mercedes sedan at the curb of Trustmark Bank, trying hard not to breathe. She pressed her lips to conceal the quiver and focused on the lush blanket of pink rose blooms that lined the sidewalk. She blinked to keep any tears from escaping when she heard Bernard sigh. He reached over and squeezed her hand, as he’d done so many times during their twenty-five years. She knew Bernard was too weak to walk very far, and so she had pulled up as close to the door as she could.  

“I can do this,” he told her. “It’s thirty feet to the door. I’ll be right back, okay?”

Sharon nodded. She couldn’t speak. She watched him tremble while he opened the door, but he stood up strong and straight, gave her a wink, and walked into the bank. 

Bernard was dying. Her sweetheart. Her true north. The other half of her soul. Her best friend in the world. Who else did she have? She and Bernard shared everything and had shared everything. The fact that they didn’t have children magnified this point. They’d wanted kids, but when they found out Sharon was unable, Bernard stood by her, resolute in his love. They were a family of two, he’d said. Through all of their trials, Bernard had been the glue that held everything together. When her mother died, Bernard made all of the arrangements so she could mourn quietly. On their tenth anniversary he’d taken her to Africa on safari, a dream she’d had all of her life. And when her dog, Jet, was bitten by a poisonous snake, Bernard rushed him to the all-night vet and was right there with her, and when they had to put him down, he’d held her up. Always, he’d held her up. Her favorite music on the radio, her favorite dinners, her favorite vacation places.  He’d spoiled her all of these years, and now bone cancer threatened to take him away. Sharon had cried for a week. She didn’t eat and slept only from exhaustion. Bernard assured her he was a fighter. He’d beat this one way or another. “I’m not leaving you, Sharon. Not for a second. Not for God, not for the devil, not for anything or anyone. I’m here. I’m staying. You’re stuck with me.”  

Now their time was running out. She thought again of his words: “You’re stuck with me.”

The words rang in her head, and she played them over and over again. They had sustained her then as they did now. But the chemo and radiation had been rough, and each time they thought they had it, it cropped up somewhere else: lungs, liver…and now Bernard’s heart was surrounded by cancerous tissue—his big, beautiful, super-sized heart. They’d promised to be together until the end whenand if, he always threw in—it came. But Sharon knew. And so did Bernard.

 

Lester Suggs couldn’t stand it any longer.  

“That bullshit Mercedes ain’t movin’! Fuck this crap. I’m going in.” Before Jackie Suggs could utter a single word of disapproval, he was halfway to the door.

“Damn fool,” she mumbled. “Damn fool.”

Lester entered the bank and took one look around. He ran his hand back and forth over his bald head and fingered the tattooed base of his neck. He could feel where Jeanette, his ex-girlfriend’s name, appeared in large, military-green, gothic letters. Maybe he’d take some cash from today’s job and have it removed. He shifted the red bandana over his face and fired a single shot toward the ceiling.  

“Everybody down! Get the fuck down now!”

They did as they were told. All except one. 

Bernard. Still standing, he turned, shaking and pale.

“What’s-a matter with you, pal? Can’t you hear? I said, get the fuck down!” 

Lester’s voice bellowed, filling the tiny bank branch in a way that scared the patrons breathless. 

All but Bernard. He was breathless already.

“I heard you.” Bernard’s voice sounded confident. 

Lester pointed his gun toward Bernard’s face, hoping a little intimidation might do the trick. He needed to get this guy on the floor and fast. He didn’t want the rest of the customers thinking he was some kind of pushover pansy. He waited for Bernard to lie down like everyone else. On the floor to his right, a young mother and her boy, maybe five or six, wrapped their arms around each other. Across the lobby an old lady, pasty white, passed out, a young college student spilled her coffee when she went down. There were two female tellers, and the bank manager—this should be an easy job. Easy-peasy.

Lester waited.  

 

Bernard stood tall and still. He glanced around the bank at everyone lying in the floor and then through the tinted doors at Sharon.  

This could be it. This could be the end. This could be the place he’d die. Not in some hospital room where your light goes out while you’re staring at the institutional, aqua-colored tiles, or at home where the last thing you see is your favorite chair from the bed you shared with your spouse of twenty-five years—breathing lavender and vanilla pillowcases—and you curse your situation while waiting to die. There was no good place to die. Not really. This was as good as any. A bullet traveling two thousand miles per hour straight to the heart wouldn’t take long.  

Ironically, he’d come in to collect his will from the lockbox. Now he had some nut job shaking a gun at him. He and Sharon were on their way to plan his funeral, literally, and here he stood, looking down the barrel of a beautiful, shiny Glock. Go ahead. Do it. Kill me. Shoot me. Shoot me in the heart. Shoot me in the cancer. Make it quick. Save me the trip to my attorney’s office. 

The thought of it all was so incredulous, so ridiculous, that Bernard began to laugh hysterically, and the only sound filling the tiny bank branch was not that of Lester Suggs’s deep, gravelly voice, but that of Bernard’s high-pitched, maniacal laughter. He laughed so hard that he had to grab the counter to steady himself. It was invigorating. In fact, Bernard couldn’t recall a time in the last few months he’d felt so alive as he did, looking down the barrel of the nine-millimeter and laughing at the obscenities of the crazed redneck wielding it.

“Hey, pal! What the hell’s your problem? I said, get down!”

Bernard laughed even harder, choking until he finally spat at Lester’s feet. A perfectly round, scarlet-red ball of sputum hung from the edge of Lester’s alligator-skin boot.

 

Lester stared, simultaneously mystified by the ruby-red pearl on his boot and his nemesis, who continued to laugh even harder and crazier than before.  

What was this bullshit? And what was this red goo crap hanging from his brand new, alligator-skin boots? C’mon, Lester. Man up. Stand up to this. Do something! Lester looked from one bank customer to the next, grinding his teeth to conceal his nerves. What was this a-hole doing? Damn! He’d just wanted to rob a bank. Should have been an easy job—a small bank on a slow day with hardly any people around, and now here he was and it was all on the line ’cause some freak decided he wants a fight. He could walk away and risk getting caught, or he could smack down this crazy fuck ruining his day. He tried to think it through but his thoughts were tangled. He wasn’t even sure of his own name. How could he pull off this bank robbery if he couldn’t even remember his own name?  

He looked at Bernard more closely. He was a small guy, and his clothes hung off him like maybe they belonged to his big, fat brother. His skin was yellow and he looked sickly. Lester’s grip on his gun softened at the thought. Suddenly, though, he was jerked back into reality.

“You came here to take something that’s not yours, right? Am I right? Take me, asshole! Take me. Shoot me. C’mon! Kill me right here. You want to take something that’s not yours? That how you get off? Go ahead, take my life!”

Bernard bellowed like a madman, and Lester was suddenly more than a little nervous. He felt fear creeping in like a distant thunderhead building strength. But he was also transfixed. Who was this crazy? Lester wanted to check on the other customers, but he couldn’t—his gaze was locked. Bernard’s fury and rage sucked Lester in with such force that he felt like a rubbernecker at a freak show. What began as a robbery was now a carnival.

“You hear me? You’re nothing but a thug. A common thief. Someone who thinks he’s somehow entitled to other people’s things—their money, their livelihood, their stuff that they earned!” Bernard’s rant was a crescendo of insults.

“That how you got those fancy boots, huh? You steal those? You’re a loser. A nobody. Nothing. A big, fat zero!”  

Bernard screamed so hard his face went purple, and his body lurched forward as if the sheer power of his voice required the strength of his entire person. Instinctively, Lester swung at Bernard, knocking him to the floor.  

Lester turned to confirm that the other bank patrons were still down. He’d been so mystified by Bernard’s rant and ruby-red sputum, he’d failed to make sure everyone else was behaving like normal people behave. Everyone was down, still. Good. Check. Check. He didn’t need this freak giving them any hope of pushing any alarms or making any phone calls. Who was this crazy? Lester’d had girlfriends who weren’t this messed up. And this guy was a runt. He’d had hunting dogs—beagles—that were bigger.

Lester turned back toward Bernard, who’d gathered himself, and was headed toward him full bore. Before he knew it, Lester went down, busting his head on the travertine floor as a single shot went off into the ceiling.

 

“C’mon, tough guy! C’mon! What happened to ‘get the fuck down,’ huh? Now who’s the big guy? Now who’s down? C’mon! Kill me! Get up and kill me! Right here, big guy!” Bernard beat his fist to his chest. Right here. Right here in the cancer. Do it, Bernard thought. Bernard thought he heard Lester mumble “crazy fuck,” just before he passed out amidst the applause and screams of the other bank patrons.

Later that afternoon, still dizzy, still shaken by the onslaught of first responders, followed by the din of sirens and breaking glass, Sharon sat by Bernard’s bed at St. Catherine’s Hospital, as she had so many times before. She watched carefully as the physician flipped through the ER chart…waiting.

Bernard furrowed his brow and Sharon’s heart sank.

“That was quite a show, Bernard. I’m impressed.” Then, checking the IV drip one last time, he looked at Bernard and patted his shoulder. “You’re gonna be okay, Bernard.”


Shellie Richards is a research editor and teaches science writing at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN where she lives with her family. Her work has been published in The Chaffey Review, The Cream City Review, Bending Genres, Oatmeal Magazine and Bartleby Snopes (winner, story of the month) among others, and she has a forthcoming essay in BioStories. She is a member of AWP, the Porch Writer’s Collective, holds an MA in English (writing emphasis) and is currently working towards an MFA.

Big in Japan

By: Billy Minshall

You should never tell a lie. Except when you should. 

“How could this have happened in the school parking lot? No one heard glass smashing?” my mother asked.

She surveyed my VW parked beneath our carport; the driver’s side window demolished. My mom, the spitting image of Sally Field in the film Norma Rae.

“I don’t know. I told you. I walked out to the car after school and there was glass everywhere. I left some loose change in the console so someone must have seen it and decided to break in. I mean, I don’t know what else to say.” 

Her brow buckled. “But why would someone smash the driver’s side window of the car in broad daylight? If they were going to break in, why didn’t they use a coat hanger or something?”

“I don’t know, Mother. I’ve never broken into a car before. Maybe it’s because Volkswagens are airtight, and you can’t jimmy the lock with a hanger or a slim jim” 

She considered me carefully, then the car, then me once more.

 “Well, I’ll report it to the insurance company.” 

My mom went inside to get ready for her part-time job at a local health food store. The door to our rented ramshackle house slammed behind her. We’d been through a lot in the past year and a half. My stepdad, Russ, was a truck driver who filed for divorce after meeting the “love of his life” in Tennessee. My mother picked up a second job to make ends meet, and now she was rarely home and hardly ever slept. She was exhausted.

 

Mrs. Seagull was my high school drama teacher. She smelled like incense and frequently reminded us that she and her husband, Bob, met at Woodstock. He was a theatre professor at the university. He also hosted Kaleidoscope, a local talk show that was televised live every weekday morning from the Towne East Shopping Mall.

One day Mrs. Seagull invited Bob to our class. He told us that a Japanese company was coming to town to film a commercial and they needed extras, all-American types. The producers were holding a “look-see” at the university on Wednesday at one o’clock. Since I believed myself to be the epitome of all-American, there was no way I was going to miss this opportunity. Mrs. Seagull said it would be excellent experience.

“You’ll need permission to get out of school for the audition. Do you think your mom will be okay with that? I’m happy to talk to her if she has any questions,” she said.

 “I’m sure my mom will say yes,” I said.  

Another giant lie. My mother couldn’t stand Mr. and Mrs. Seagull. When I told her that they met at Woodstock, she rolled her eyes. “So, what? Half a million people were at Woodstock. Who cares?”

Obviously, my mom had no clue how awesome this was. 

“Well, I think it’s amazing,” I said.

“Honey, do you even know what Woodstock was?”

“Um, yeah, I’ve seen the album cover. It was about peace and love.”

“It was about doing drugs in the mud. Mrs. Seagull’s probably still on drugs.”

My mom had other issues with Mrs. Seagull, like her East Coast dialect (“It sounds fake”) and her vegan lifestyle (“What does that mean?”). It didn’t help when my mom discovered that Seagull was not their real last name. 

Months earlier we’d studied Anton Chekov’s The Seagull. Near the end of the play, the character Nina blurts out, “I’m a seagull.” While reading this aloud, my sandalwood-soaked drama teacher burst into tears. 

“I’m so sorry,” Mrs. Seagull said in her faint, East Coast accent. “I think it’s best if I just share with you why I’m crying, rather than pretend I’m not upset.” 

She confessed that decades earlier while honeymooning in Cape Cod, she and her husband accidentally hit a seagull with their Dodge Dart. The bird got tangled beneath the car and was mutilated. The newlyweds were devastated, so shaken that they legally changed their last name to Seagull. It was their attempt at reparation for taking a life from the Universe. I thought this was the most beautiful gesture ever. When I shared the story with my mother, her irritation turned to rage. She spoke in tongues. She levitated. 

There was no way I would be allowed to leave school to attend an audition sanctioned by the Seagulls, so I decided to leave my mother out of it. I wrote a fake note with a forged signature and excused myself from class. 

 

My handsome friend, Hector, and I left school around lunchtime and went to the audition together. I drove my 1973 white Volkswagen beetle out of the school parking lot to the nearby university campus. We could see the road through the rusted floorboards of my dilapidated car, which had belonged to my mom before she bought her Buick. Since it was just the two of us after my stepdad left, it was a pretty big deal that my mom could afford both cars. In fact, she’d saved up for months to make that happen. And I couldn’t have been more grateful—I loved that car. The seat fabric in the VW was a product of its time, with brilliant psychedelic blue-green waves that appeared to be hand painted within the confines of their black leather borders. I didn’t care that the driver’s side seat was torn to bits and chunks of yellow foam puked from the seat’s guts, littering the floorboard, falling through the cracks

 Hector and I stopped for a hamburger across the street from the university. We sat in a sun-soaked booth that looked out at the university lawn, bathing in our freedom and talking about the audition, speculating if appearing in an international commercial might make us famous. When we returned to the car, I reached into my front right pocket for the keys, but they were not there. I searched my back pockets. Nothing. Through the shut driver’s side window, I saw my shiny keys glistening. They dangled from the ignition and smiled in the noontime sun shower.

No way.

Hector jerked at the passenger door, “What, dude? We’re gonna be late!”

“Look,” I said. 

Hector peered into the car. “You’re kidding.”

Tears flooded my eyes. I was embarrassed that I’d made this mistake in front of my handsome friend.

“Well call your mom. I think I have a quarter for the pay phone,” Hector said, digging into his front pockets for change.

“I can’t call her. I’m not even supposed to be here,” I said.

“What are we going to do?” he asked.

“I guess we have to break in. The thing is though, Volkswagen Bugs are airtight,” I said.

“Is that really true?”

“I think so.” I was flustered. “Don’t you remember The Love Bug? When Stefanie Powers drives Herbie into the Bay and they float? It’s because Bugs are airtight.”

“Why do you remember that? Plus, your floor is so rusted out there’s no way that thing is airtight anymore.” Hector laughed. I didn’t find any of this funny.

“Don’t you know how to break into a car?” I was desperate. 

“What, because I’m Mexican?”

“Because you work at a garage.”

“Let me go see if they have anything I can use to jimmy the door open.” Hector returned to the restaurant. 

I waited in the parking lot, pacing and plotting. I pressed my face against the smudged glass and saw Hector at the counter talking to the cashier. He looked at me from the other side of the glass, another dimension, and shrugged, defeated. This couldn’t be happening. I couldn’t call my mom. What would I tell her? I wasn’t allowed to leave school for any reason without her permission, not even for lunch. The audition was in ten minutes and I was not about to forfeit my chances at international recognition. I scanned the parking lot and spotted a rugged-looking middle aged guy in flannel heading to nearby Bronco.

“Excuse me, sir? Do you have a hammer?”

 

We arrived on time and were instructed to have a seat in a very fancy waiting room. They called me in and the door opened. Three Japanese men sat behind a mahogany desk.

“You like Hard Rock Café in Orlando?” one of them asked. He had a Polaroid camera.

I glanced down at my T-shirt. I hadn’t known what to wear, what “all-American” looked like. Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts were all the rage at the time and made me seem well traveled. Orlando, though not New York City or Los Angeles, still revealed I’d been to Disney World. I bought the shirt when we had driven to Orlando on a whim the previous summer. Our drive was long and hot and my mom tried to make me laugh, singing along to Johnny Cash in her new used Buick, while I read a magazine article about ex-porn star Traci Lords. 

“Austin, what are you reading?” my mom asked. She was irritated that I wasn’t singing with her, so she snatched the magazine out of my hands.

“Mother! What are you doing?”

“Oh, whatever,” she looked down at the magazine and read the title of the article aloud: ‘Nobody Loved Me.’ Oh, brother. That’s why she became a porn star? Because nobody loved her? Give me a break.” My mother rolled her eyes, then laughed, then tossed the magazine out the window.

“Hey!”

“Honey, lighten up. We’re going to Florida.” 

“You’re going to get a ticket for littering.” 

I stared out of the passenger window for the rest of the drive.

 “I just have the shirt,” I told the man behind the table.

“Smile.” A Polaroid camera flashed. I said goodbye, left the room, and Hector went in. He emerged minutes later, his head held high. We got into the VW and went to a gas station, where the two of us tried desperately to vacuum the broken glass from the car seats before I took him home.

 

A week later, my mom received a phone call while I was at school. She told me that I had been selected as an extra in a commercial. Wiped out as usual, she scanned our freezer for something to eat. Finding nothing, she grabbed a Hostess apple pie off the top of the stove.

“When did you audition for a commercial?” She devoured the pie.

 Think fast

“They came to our drama class.” 

“Why did they choose your drama class?” 

“They wanted all-American types and Mr. Seagull is an acting teacher at the university” 

“Of course this involves your hippie-dippy drama teacher.” 

“You know what, never mind. Can’t you be excited for me that I was actually cast? This is a big deal.”

“All right, fine Austin. I don’t have time to argue with you. I will drive you there. They said they’re filming this weekend and they’re going to pay you seventy-five dollars for the day. I have to go now or I’m gonna be late for work.” 

My mom threw the pie wrapper in the garbage and put on a green and tan apron that read Health Nutz.

“You don’t have to come with me,” I said. 

“I’m going with you or you’re not going.”

“Why?” 

“Because I don’t know who these people are and because you are sixteen and I am your mother. And because I said so.”

“I hate you sometimes.”  

“Well I hate you too. What do you think about that? I guess we’ll just hate each other in the car.” 

 

That Saturday we drove to a nearby farm to film the commercial. Wardrobe provided an ill-fitted Wrangler shirt and a cowboy hat that was too small for my head, and the director paired me with a young woman in a pink gingham dress. We linked arms because we were told to and hung out by a picnic table, then spent the rest of the day walking back and forth behind the star of the commercial, take after take. We were told that this guy was a big star in Japan. He stood five feet from me, holding the product: a yellow snack that was shaped like a tornado. The star was handsome and he smiled a lot. The director encouraged him to make silly faces because, apparently, he was funny.

After walking behind the Japanese heartthrob for eight hours, I was sunburned. I lined up with the other extras to collect my pay for the day. Ten minutes later, I reached the front of the line where a man in the back of a U-Haul truck handed out the day’s wages. He gave me three twenties, a ten and a five, stapled together. I grabbed it from him and that was that. My sun-scorched face ached from a day of incessant smiling and nodding. I spotted my mother’s Buick in the parking lot nearby.

“Well, how was it?” my mother asked.

“You know it sucked.”

“Why would I know that? I’m just asking a question.” 

“It was fine, Mom. Okay?”

“Okay,” she looked at me and touched my cheek. “Wow, honey, you’re really burned. We’ll get you some aloe when we get home.” 

I jerked away from her. “I’m fine. That stuff doesn’t work anyway.”

“Ok. Would you like to drive?”

“Um, no.”

“Fine Austin. Just sit there and be miserable.”

We drove home in silence.

 

The summer before, after Russ left and before we went to Florida, my mother made time to give me driving lessons. Our house was adjacent to a swath of vacated warehouses that were surrounded by empty streets. With no traffic to disturb us, Mom repeatedly demonstrated how to drive a standard transmission.

“You have to release the clutch like this.” She raised her left foot.

I zoned out, stifled by the summer heat and annoyed by the sound of her voice.

“Are you watching, Austin? Come on, pay attention.”

“I am. God.”

“Look bud, this is no picnic for me either. You have to learn to drive. Now come on, you try it.”

I tried to drive that stupid car, but I couldn’t. It stalled every time I released the clutch. Laughter was my mother’s default response to stress. When she laughed at me that day, I jumped out of the car and stormed up to the passenger side.

“You know, I understand why Russ left you.” 

There it was.

Her eyes flickered. My mom stepped out of the car; a gust of wind cut through the suffocating morning.

“And why is that, Austin?” 

“Never mind.” I turned and walked away.

“No,” she grabbed my left shoulder and jerked me back toward her. “If you’re so smart then say what you need to say. Right now.”    

“You scoff at everything. You think you’re better than everyone.”

“Don’t talk like that to me. I am your mother.”

“Yes, and I am your son. That is my job isn’t it? You have two jobs to keep us fed and my job is to keep you entertained,” I said.

“Oh, give me a break. You know how many kids your age wish that they had a car? We can’t afford anything and you have your own car. Yeah, I’m just a horrible mother.”

“You can’t talk about anything without tearing it down.” I couldn’t stop. “Jesus, not everything in the world is stupid and not every person who is different from you is bad. You’re so judgmental.”   

She laughed again. “Go run around the block and get rid of your frustration. Blood-pressure head.”  

I stormed off. I could hear her calling after me. My ears were hot. I wanted to run, I wanted to leave, I wanted to burn everything to the ground, I wanted to leave my body. I wanted to die, but really, I wanted my mother dead. She got us into mess after mess. Three marriages and we always ended up broke and exhausted, searching for a way out, for a solution. The tears came, but there was no way I’d let her see me cry. I wiped my face and looked back toward the car. There she was—Sally Field smoking a Kool—standing next to the driver’s side of my car with the door open, blowing her cigarette smoke over the roof of the dilapidated VW. 

Not long after that, I finally learned to drive.

 

Monday in Mrs. Seagull’s class everyone wanted to know how the commercial shoot went.

 “What was it like filming the commercial?” Hector asked. He hadn’t been cast. 

“You didn’t miss anything. It was actually kind of boring,” I said. 

Mrs. Seagull nodded in agreement. “Yes, it’s true. Film work can be so tedious. Very different from the stage. Are they going to send you a tape of the commercial?”

“I didn’t ask.” It hadn’t occurred to me.

“Who knows? You could be big in Japan.” Hector laughed. 

 

My mom and I lived in an area known as Planeview, a so-called “instant city” that had been constructed during World War II. Planeview was meant to be temporary housing for workers at the aircraft plant. It was designed to be demolished. Now, half a century later, the sun descended on rows of blue-green shacks that were never meant to last.

I pulled the VW into our gravel driveway, got out, and shut my door. I looked at my driver’s side window, which my mom had repaired just two days after I had smashed it. Good as new, like it had never happened. I walked in and my mother was watching Designing Women. I sat down next to her on the couch. After a moment, Delta Burke delivered a zinger and we both laughed out loud.

“Hey, thanks for getting the car window fixed.” I meant it.

My mom was quiet. She reached for a Kool and lit it. “You’re welcome. Insurance paid for it so that’s good.”

Another silence. Dixie Carter ranted on the television.

“You know I can get a job too,” I said. 

Then she smiled. No one smiled the way my mother did, not ever in the history of time. Inextinguishable light. 

“It’s okay sweetheart. We’re gonna be all right. You focus on school. I got us into this mess and I’ll get us out. Okay?” She took hold of my hand.

“Okay.” I smiled back. Then I said, “I don’t hate you.”

 “I don’t hate you either.” 

My mom put out her cigarette, went into the kitchen, took a pair of scissors out of the junk drawer then snipped a leaf from the aloe plant on the windowsill. She knelt down in front of me and extracted the clear and cool salve from the leaf and onto the tip of her right index finger. 

“Look up sweetheart,” she said. 

My mother applied the elixir carefully, cradling my face with her left hand and dabbing my blistered ears and sunburnt cheeks. She coaxed the leaf once more.  

“Close your eyes.”

Cool relief beneath my eyes and gentle pressure on my eyelids. 

Now the healing could begin. 


Billy Minshall is a writer and actor whose weekly column “Hunt & Peck” appeared in Gay Chicago Magazine. His essay “Chrysalis” chronicled his work as a health educator in Chicago’s Cook County Jail and was published in Positively Aware Magazine. Billy earned his undergraduate degree in English from Northwestern University and holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts from UCR Palm Desert. He lives in Long Beach, California, and is working on a novel.

 

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