With Binoculars and other stories

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WITH BINOCULARS

Marth inherited thirty grand. It came in the form of direct deposit, a small percentage of his grandmother’s estate. A cancer of the inside put her away. In memory, Marth spends Tuesday evenings in her presence. Her legs are crossed. She holds a slim cigarette. They sit on beach furniture. She’s widowed, and enjoys straw hats, colorful drinks, and the company of her growing grandson. She tells him, “One day, you can spend it all,” while Marth scratches at the sand, wishing for the sun to disappear completely.

***

He needed a few things now–a new wardrobe (white high tops, black denim, silk button-ups [he will not wear this clothing in the sun]), a 4×4 truck that can dismantle the dunes, a home stereo with the latest Tom Petty record, a pawn shop pistol to ward off intrusion. He put himself ahead on rent. He quit his janitorial job and erased all debt. His friends were friends again. Carrie, his ex, forgave him. She claimed passenger in his new ride. The radio worked perfectly, the FM band bright and clear. Together, they visited someone who recently returned from a spiritual journey in South America. This person sold red brick hash. They were having a good time, devouring sweet smoke. They drove around the strip and yelled at people on the street. At stoplights, they held small conversation with folks driving hot rods. Marth said their engines had “a very fine pulse.” They visited Wolf Photography and Optical, a store on the strip. Marth wanted a pair of binoculars to see what was ahead. Carrie pointed at a camera behind the counter, and Marth shed a few fifties from a rubberbanded bundle. She pointed again but shot a camera this time around.

She photographed the clouds. She photographed alleyway-neon. She photographed Marth gripping the steering wheel of his new truck. He was proud of this truck. She photographed stray dogs with long dry tongues. She photographed people with blurred tattoos and disfigured hair. She photographed the chrome pistol he kept in the glove department. Why not?

He eventually took her to a spot where a horizon of blond grass led to the ocean. “This place is important and filled with peace,” he said. They shared the Pacific until Marth thought of his pistol. He handled it freely, yipped into the air, and fired the gun for the sake of heathen freedom. Carrie photographed this. Camera ablaze, pistol ablaze.

When out of ammunition, Marth remembered the binoculars he purchased at Wolf Photography and Optical. He brought the device to his eyes. Everything magnified, he watched the curved grass tilt in the breeze. He watched critters move in the sand. He watched the diamond ocean and gazed at the sun until it weakened, the star making a slow dip into darkness. In that darkness, he couldn’t see anything except the moon, so he focused on its landscape, its lunar silver, its craters. Carrie asked what was he staring at? With the binoculars, he told her imperfections could be something good, that flaws somehow forgave the earth of its carelessness, that this day was over.

LUXURIOUS THINGS

I told her I wanted to inhale the polish vapor from her toes. She ignored me. I told her I wanted to kiss her limbs as she toodle-a-doo’d around the house in nothing but a pair of drawers. She ignored me. I told her I wanted to conceive a pair of twins with her, and at the last second, decide against the idea. She stormed off somewhere in the house, this cruel ritual of us, and she ignored me.

In a meltdown, I purchased a car, a Buick-make, big-white luxury thing, two doors. “You don’t want to go with four?” I asked.

“This is what I like,” she said. “Driver only. Passenger only. And a struggle to get in the backseat.” Hand on a cross, that’s what she said, and a struggle to get in the backseat. We gave it a test drive, made our way around the neighborhood. She waved at boys on the sidewalk and said she dreamed of leather interior.

“Should I park in the garage?” I asked. “To get a feel?”

“Don’t even try,” she said, “just keep driving.” Bound to her in chaperone-form and doomed to lose a couple grand.

The dealer wore aviator sunglasses, his face glossed in sweat at the thought of a sale. He wanted me to sign fast. He said there were a number of couples, just like us, waiting to arrange budgets around this ride. “Believe me,” he said, “the interior is dandy. You’re getting a deal.” She liked that, the thought of a deal, a man identifying her needs. She smiled at him good. I felt a pinch of pure jealousy. Goddamn him.

Driving the car home, I accepted everything. Passion runs until its empty, a drought land. I’m to the point where hearing her piss in the toilet causes frothing at the mouth. Madness in the midsection. Damaged, I’m to the point where I trade money for a shot at household skin. I’m to the point where I drive, drive, drive until I make it to the garage. I’m to the point where being ignored is physical pain. I’m to the point where I’ll propose anything for a feel.

PATERNAL STONE

To calm myself in nervous situations, I force my mind to visualize the shape of an arrowhead, a symmetric vision. I know where it comes from. The one I had when I was a kid. Gray-colored stone, a treasure in a decent collection, smooth and jagged at the same time. Either my father or stepfather gave it to me. It’s foggy.

My stepfather was responsible for most of the collection. He came home with a hunk of obsidian one afternoon, volcano glass from the center of the earth. He found it after digging a ditch for the city. The best backhoe operator in Lexington, he was paid overtime to drag mysterious waters around town. A jailbird once confessed to putting an eighteen year old beauty queen into a waterhole, but my stepfather found nothing except silt and junked tires. One time, he bought me some tiger-eye onyx at the Casey Jones Train Museum. He told me this kind specifically was good luck, so I stuffed them deep into the pockets of my denim cut-offs and hoped for the best. Mom would receive a miniature fortress of crystal quartz as an anniversary gift for their two year. Then she went back to bed. A few months later, she was awake and re-gifted it to me. I put it on my nightstand and made a habit of touching the crystal every morning before school.

But that perfect arrowhead, it could’ve easily come from my real father when he roused me from sleep early in the AM. This was the small window of time when he wasn’t divorced. He woke her, said we were going for a Huddle House breakfast and then yardsales. She didn’t come with us, and we didn’t go to a yardsale. We stalked Pinson Mounds and looted the former ceremonial site of the Chickasaw tribe. Dad told me to be quiet, we could get in trouble, a federal offense, thrown in prison.I remembered thinking the mounds were little mountains with oak trees.

In October, I wore a black windbreaker. The sun came in, moments before dawn, and I followed the grim reaper tattooed on my father’s elbow, the insignia to a motorcycle club he was in debt to. He dug his fingers in the grass and dirt, picking pieces of pottery, translucent chert, and hammer-rocks. I wondered if the native phantoms would come at us with tomahawks and warpaint. But the Chickasaw were a peaceful tribe, and we left the mounds with our Huddle House to-go bag filled with theft, a true father and son moment. Months later, he set up a tent in the parking lot of the local fairgrounds, selling the artifacts for as much as twenty-five dollars a pop.

Yeah, the arrowhead came from either my father or stepfather and disappeared in the same fashion. My dad could’ve taken it with him when he left, something to remember me by, a good luck charm for the highway in front of him. He needed it as he fled to Florida to escape an assault charge. I can almost recall him coming into my room, thinking I was asleep, and putting the perfect arrowhead into his military backpack. Or I gave it to him personally when I ran outside, hearing the crank of his ’79 Harley Knucklehead. I told him, “Take this for the road. Come back when you can.” His leather-gloves accepting whatever was in my hand. I want to believe this happened.

The vanishing could also be blamed on my stepfather. I left in a hurry. Things had turned strange–bills weren’t paid, no electricity in the mornings. He began staying in the shed after work, pulling all-nighters. Strange men appeared with cruddy teeth. My mother was awake and found cut-up straws in the washing machine. I was blamed.

Later, my stepfather’s backhoe entered a no-dig zone, piping busted. The city gave him a piss test. He failed, couldn’t be trusted with a backhoe no more, lost his job. We needed money. He liked crystals so much he learned how to make them in the shed. More men in mesh ball caps with scabs on their elbows appeared. Paranoia brewed. My mother slept. So I packed a bag, touched the quartz on my night stand, deserted everything.

Now, to calm myself in situations where I’m in the dark, where isolation is full, the edge near, and there’s nothing left but meditation, I think about that symmetric arrowhead, the color of an overcast sky, something that could fit in the palm of my hand, serrated, sharp, and I always come to the same idea, the same question: Who do I blame?

 

 

 

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The Lieutenant Gets the News

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Stoplights change for no one, casting their colors yellow, red, green, yellow, red on streets patched with the night’s snow. The Lieutenant watches the intersection from the hospital, third floor, his gown rubbing against his bandaged knees. The stoplights are new, hung a week ago by Army Corps engineers. Across the street an unfinished parking garage rises below a billboard advertising a phone number, rebar whiskers poking out of the cement. The Deputy Inspector General and the local Chief of Police argue in the windows’ reflection. They are projected on the window against the outside dark, trembling in the eternal morning of overhead fluorescence. DUI, vehicular homicide, two victims in critical care, is this a popular narrative of post-invasion regrowth? that an American Lieutenant cant even obey a stoplight? police belts rattling in the hallway. Soon they’ll cuff his ankle to the bedpost.

“I have an idea,” the Lieutenant says, turning. “Where are the cars?”

“Being towed,” the Deputy Inspector General says.

“Where?” the Lieutenant says.

“It’ll never work,” the Chief of Police says. “Whatever you’re thinking, it won’t work. We have to come clean here. We have to make an example of you.”

“To some police impound, I don’t know,” the Deputy Inspector General says. “Why?”

“Go get them from impound, put an IED in the car that’s not mine, blow it up,” the Lieutenant says. “I barely survived a car bombing.” He turns to the Chief of Police. “There’s your narrative.”

“If the people of this city hear rumor of a cover-up, and they will, it’s my head that’s going to roll,” the Chief of Police says. “I can’t have that.”

“IED,” the Lieutenant says, looking at the Deputy Inspector General. “Car bombing. Happens all the time. Won’t even make the news. Just another car bombing.”

Car bomb. Car bomb. IED. Car bomb, the words spiral in on themselves, harden like diamonds. Repetition leading toward some molten core of language. Fixed words, unbreakable words. The Lieutenant imagines telling his wife, Lydia, I barely survived an IED attack. A car bomb went off. Look, heres a picture of the burned up car. And she will believe him. And the memory of drunkenly running the red light will break apart in his own mind like dry leaves in a clenched fist.

The streelights change red, green, and an American dressed in military utilities appears out of shadow on the sidewalk, bootprints trailing behind in the snow, a stack of newspapers bundled under her arm. The Lieutenant watches the American carry the newspapers to the intersection, where one car, now two, slows to unroll a window.

Somehow the Lieutenant knows that the papers contain the news of his crime. The news is spreading. The somnolent and forgiving night is breaking. Soon they’ll cuff his ankle to the bedpost.

The Lieutenant walks past his hospital bed, brushing the Deputy Inspector General and the Chief of Police in the doorframe, and strolls down the hallway to the stairwell where he descends three flights to the lobby. A bell chimes as the hospital doors slide open and he plunges barefoot into snow up to his shins. He bounces on his naked heels and clutches himself. Fine snow melts in his eyebrows.

The American is walking down the middle of a salted street connected to the intersection in a tunnel of yellow headlights, pressing the newspaper against car windows. Shadowed faces behind the car glass, lit by glowing radios.

“Yep.” A man speaking Arabic stretches his arm out to the American, wearing a chechia, a dollar flapping between his fingers. “Doesn’t surprise me a bit.”

“And he’ll get away with it too!” A man beside him in a green car with purple-tinted windows, the front bumper dented, talking through the passenger window. “Let me get one of those.” The American plucks two papers from her stack and accepts the money. “Just watch. He’ll probably get a promotion.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me.”

The lights change, the cars swim past, dark ice sloshes under tires. Cars collect on the intersecting street.

“Do you believe it?” An old man in a pick-up truck, waving the American over. “Makes me sick, thinking about those poor people.”

“And they just finished construction on that road!” A man wearing a thawb in a covered convertible, the rag top peeling off in strips. “Put the stoplight up last week! And he just mows through it like nothing.”

“Think he’d drive that way he were in his own country?”

“Who knows.”

The lights change. The American takes the old man’s dollar and walks to the sidewalk, the unfinished parking garage behind her.

“It’s not true!” the Lieutenant screams from across the street. “What you’ve written in there! It’s libel!”

Cars collect on the intersecting street. The American presses the newspaper against their windows. The Lieutenant runs to the yellow-painted curb and across the stopped traffic, headlights blinking out behind his body, the gravel below his feet slick and lambent.

“Stop that!” the Lieutenant says, reaching for the American.

His feet go out in front of him, gliding upward. He lands on his back, breaking the fall with his elbows. The American drags the Lieutenant to the sidewalk. The lights change. Cars pass, watching. Cars collect at the red light. The Lieutenant stands, the bandages on his knees hanging off, their pads sopped with blood, and spins the American into the light of the hospital. It is his wife, Lydia, her helmet drooping over her delicate face, the strap cinched around the soft pouch of skin below her jaw.

“What are you doing here?” the Lieutenant says.

“This is my paper route,” Lydia says. “My Colonel assigned it to me.”

“Paper route?” the Lieutenant says. “When did you join the Army?”

Honks.

“Take him down!”

People are screaming in Arabic from their car. More honks.

“Fuck him up!”

“Now wait a minute,” the Lieutenant says. He puts a finger on Lydia’s chest. “No charges have been filed against me. Nothing’s been proved.”

Honks. The Lieutenant can’t think too well over the honks, but he senses that the people in the cars want to see violence. Blood. Carnage. Blood justice. They’re impatient because the lights will change soon, yet no one is getting out of their car. Lydia swings her fist. The Lieutenant falls. The lights change. Cars race further into the city. Silence gathers with the descent of red brake lights.

The Lieutenant wipes his bloody nose.

“Why did you hit me, Lydia?” he says. “Do you believe what it says in that paper?”

Lydia crosses the street to a glowing gas station, the diesel pumps covered over with plastic bags, and waves the newspaper at the cars filling up. The Lieutenant follows. He is cold in his hospital robe, can feel the individual movements of his bones. He taps Lydia’s shoulder.

“Come on, Lydia,” he says, laughing. “You can’t believe that crap. Come on, tell me you don’t think I’m a murderer. I’m over here building roads. You know who puts these stories out there? The enemy. You know that. You’re a member of the United States Army now, for Christ’s sake! What are you doing spreading this crap anyway?”

An Arab man at the gas station removes the nozzle from his Tercel, dabbing it on his fuel cap, and waves Lydia over. She walks to him and he opens the passenger side door for her and she sits in his car while he pays for the gas.

A tow truck stops at the red light. Two cars are hitched behind, one angled above the other. On bottom, a Nissan pick-up with smashed windows and missing its truck bed. Just raw frame and axles behind the cab like a fish eaten to the bone up to its head. On top, its tires turning in cages, the Lieutenant’s car, a dented hood but otherwise unscathed.

The lights change and the tow truck turns into the unfinished parking garage. A bell chimes and the hospital doors slide open for the Deputy Inspector General. He crosses the street, something wrapped in a t-shirt in his hands, and disappears into the parking garage. The Lieutenant watches the Arab start his car and pull out of the gas station with Lydia. They idle behind the red.

“Now wait a minute,” he says again, walking to the center of the intersection. “Now everyone just hold on a second. Things are happening way too fast.” Snow is steaming on the tops of his feet. Cars with a green light honk as they surge past him. “I understand that I did something wrong. I killed some people with my car. At an intersection just like this one, just up the road a little. At an intersection that I put in the request for myself.” He points to the stoplight swinging on its wire. “This very stoplight was my idea! I was trying to bring you people some good infrastructure after the invasion. I thought it was the least I could do.” The Deputy Inspector General runs out of the parking garage, sprinting down the sidewalk away from the intersection. “But I realize now…well, I guess I thought that because I built the roads I didn’t have to bow to the laws of traffic. I thought those laws were for the people I’d built the roads for. But that’s not how a civil society works. We all have to yield, or else…Lydia, if you’d just get out of the car and let me explain. I realize now…”

The Lieutenant feels the ground below him pulse and the parking garage breaks apart into a thousand seismic plates of concrete and rebar, the three-story structure replaced for an instant by an orange flame that licks and swells and falls over the rubble. The Lieutenant crouches and palms his ears. The lights change. The fire from the parking garage devours the sidewalk grass, spreads brightly across tire tracks and oil drippings on the road. It climbs a telephone pole, melts the overhead wires. The bulbs of the streetlight burst and fall on the hood of the Tercel barreling toward him. He sees Lydia in the passenger seat, her knuckles on the dashboard.

“Precisely right!” the Lieutenant says, closing his eyes, bracing for the hit. “Obey the lights! Obey the lights!”

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Three Prose Poems

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1 of 5  

What I Am Paying For Now Is What I Lost Then

She bows her head at the memorial wall, trying not to cry and crying. A pale yellow handkerchief in hand. She still sort of expects him home. Her man. I miss you more than you know, she whispers. This is her first time at the memorial, and it crushes me like it does her under the terrible weight of time and love, and everything feels broken and witnessed.

Days later back at home she’s putting on coffee. Out the kitchen window it’s field and blizzard all the way to Alberta. Out there in the nothing there, a small Indian crew works the pipeline. She can just barely make them out. In time they will bring oil through here and pay her more. An old company man named Johnny shows up at the door, his long hair perfect silver and black, pulled back.

I know she hates she wants him. As he says hello some snow shoots in and he watches it melt

on the floor. Then looks at her and frowns, an unsaid apology. The envelopes have been light, he knows, but winter in Saskatchewan has slowed work. It’ll be longer still now that the politicians are involved. For her lease on the land and minerals, he wants her full bounty to come. Apologizes, out loud this time.

He drives out to where the Indians are digging, wrenching, and digging more. They see him and take a break, all huddled against the wind and smoking. He shouts something then his ponytail breaks loose and his hair goes up into the wind like horsetail on fire. He’s no oil man, mother says. He only runs the line. She goes to the sink, empties the coffee and rinses her mug. Outside the storm blows bigger, growing the windrows, striking north where there is no work to be done, nothing at all to be improved on. Johnnie and his Indians disappear in it.  I’ve been here since he died, she says. What’s changed?

Older now. More worry. More lying.

About stupid things—health, eating, money. Worry forever when you’re young, she says. You don’t want it lingering when you’re old. She stands at the window and searches the dark spot in the snow where the Indians were.

There’s nothing to bring him back, poor soul, I know that! she promises. Then silence for a moment. You’re a fine woman, she says and doesn’t explain. A fine girl. He’ll come back to you soon. For a long time, I sit there and wonder about after I lost Scottie, before I told mother he was lost, before I told anyone, when I was pretending he was gone off with his father for the weekend, before we searched for three weeks, three days and two and a half hours, finding nothing but quick-burning prairie, and above us, floating, embers and ash pushed by some unclear, stewarded pressure, maybe from above.

I wonder about how, after all the time I missed, I could ever be something other than a daughter for her. I know the answer because I know my heart is the laziest thing about me, and I know she will love me like this until the earth at last has her. And I’ll always, in some way, be saying goodbye.

And My Good Son Tends To His Fables, As Does His Father

We should be helping each other out, you know? No more of this my father’s a drunk, and yours hasn’t touched you in a meaningful way in years. Our mothers are coincidentally blind, and we are siblingless. And all the lousy family stuff. We can ask perverse questions on end and shoot nonmetaphorical holes entirely through each other. Can try, like our first year, to bring a child, yet the cosmos presses on, unpermitting.

So like cabbies on Halstead at night hustling under the rain, or any of our tit-surgeon friends throwing dark parties up in the room where Farley died, we are no different, no better. Trying and failing to help ourselves. And this is the problem: the Hideout is open in Chicago, quiet, but we don’t like hearing each other talk.

But there is still love here. When I stumble into you, the understood other, and you inch a toe forward, nudging your way, I am solid, sold by your movement and stung to death with fear. Fear of what the burnt white carpet or broken travertine in the bathroom might provoke in the mind. Of how neither of us is guilty, so no one can blame us. We can’t even blame ourselves.

On another night we go back to Pilsen, melt our cellphones stovetop, TIG the doors, and paint shut windows forever, have the whole apartment done up in white, because it’s the color of silence. Though black might be more appropriate, denying sight and suggesting the absence of things like it does.

And we really try reading for a change, smart books making you talk (brag) about your knowledge of the human heart as a place full of courage, where the strange and the most singular

and most inexplicable that Rilke talked about lives. To say nothing of God. Then we’re on to the manuals. Ones on woodworking, beginning masonry, circuitry, and thermonuclear dynamics, just in case the world, the real one, not the one of this poem, goes to shit for real.

And oh how we both love aeronautics! Enough to watch the 8911 British Airways from Manchester to O’Hare explode all over the Near West Side. It’ll be on TV, stunning all the Brooklyn young made such easy talc by spectacle, when a passenger, not an official one, a baby, falls on a bit of gas tank and goes right through the top four floors of your building, landing in the living room, in your already cradled arms.

And of course we keep it! And he, the baby, being ours, is a quick learner and toys for hours on end with our gunshot knees and hearts. Little tyke gets blood and bits of denim everywhere, under his fingernails, inside ears, on the soft curve of his eyelid, deep in his ass crack, and it will not go away until we put him on the counter like a man and put a bullet through his head.

Because we love this baby. Because we teach him this carnival time and pillowy humanity we have only just begun to revel in ourselves. And because he’s not even a real baby, only a cheap way to get inside each other.

Something Profound In My Throat Forcing The Maudlin Hydraulics Of The Heart

It could have been in this bar that Dylan’s whole heart fell under his best friend’s hammer, all called out as he was, his enemy stilted and with their heads stout in the same cloud as us a hundred years on, reciting everything we know about juniper berries and indie rock and roll. Nothing about us, nothing beyond us, only your accidental hair in the sun like gossamer bunting, the heart inside of you hidden in the sand between the Mumbles and the Bay. You, you there with the sterling eyes and the Cullian Diamond for breasts, entire enough to fill fine china platters. It’s hard to imagine a baby girl suckling them, or under a Florida moon, my red-mouthed boy having them. Drinking you in is like wading out deep with the cod hopping in the laverbread, the current cloudy green and feathered warm, the stroke of diesel and sex in the water, the old fishermen watching with zazen plaintiveness and hard won winter money. Like the Ibis, you’re out there, moving surely in and out of the illusion of light, down and out of the dark waters, certain that no harm can come up on you. Next morning as you clean the jets in the tub, I go through your phone, some letters, the condoms and hairpins in your drawer, all the time thinking how easy it is, after a decade spent losing, to make you love me, how easy it’s become to say every word just right. To call you an Ibis. You went outside to play with your little black cat, which I’d forgotten on the way back to the killing yards. By this time (and we should really try this again sometime) you’re talking but still not speaking to me, so I go out for you, bold with some great, Western truths to tell you. Listen and remember how awful it was before I came to you, nearly as fucked as it is with me now. We, as if this is the first time, shoot up on your doorstep, two in the morning and your father holding the needle and the flame. All is forever present and forever known. Even my cancer eating you, if it has to be, is perfectly in place. And all day I will weep because I can’t help from laughing. We have such bad coins in our sockets, making it easy to say you don’t want children until you think about (remember) not having them.

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Phantom Limb

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The first thing Teddy said to us was, “Kids, I’ll take you where you want to go, but I sure as hell won’t be cleaning up after you.” Teddy was our favorite cab driver because he never asked questions. He didn’t look twice at Pete’s BB gun or my open liquor bottle.

We took cabs to big parking lots and shot seagulls with Pete’s BB gun because neither of us had a drivers license. Pete’s dad didn’t want to teach him to drive and Pete never bothered to ask anyone else. I didn’t have a license because my mom was afraid of drunk drivers. “It’s always other people you need to worry about,” she said.

Pete had some money saved in a bank account for college from when his grandfather died, and by the time we realized we were too old to be shooting seagulls, we had used almost all of it on cab fare.

When we told him about the bank account Teddy said, “Well, an investment is an investment, I guess.” His upper lip was sprinkled with a few scraggly hairs that looked like they were there by accident. We didn’t know much about Teddy, just that he drove a cab and he liked the smell of his cigarettes more than the taste. He never told us to stop shooting birds. Sometimes I saw him squint his eyes when Pete pulled the trigger, but I figured if it upset him that much he could drive away. He rarely did. He usually waited there in the parking lots.

Art by Claire Whitehurst

Art by Claire Whitehurst

Pete lost his arm lighting a car on fire in seventh grade. Now he has a phantom limb and a shitty attitude.

He and his little brother siphoned gasoline from their dad’s lawnmower into an empty coffee can and waited in a roadside ditch for the neighbors to leave the house for mass. After breaking matches for ten minutes, he got in the trunk of the car. When it finally ignited, some gasoline that spilled onto Pete’s shirtsleeve went up with it. And as Pete struggled to dampen the fire crawling up his sleeve, his little brother accidentally slammed Pete’s arm in the trunk.

It’s weird because Pete’s dad was born without an arm. The left one. Same arm as Pete. They joked that it was hereditary because one of them was ashamed, I think. Though I’m not sure which one.

“I bet Teddy has been sticking it in the same bitch for forty years,” I said. We’d spent the afternoon hooking up an old wood paneled television in Pete’s garage. Pete twisted the antenna around for almost an hour before we got a picture, and even then it was fuzzy and distorted. We could only get some Spanish soap opera channel and it didn’t have sound.

“No fucking way,” he said, “I bet he’s got a girlfriend half his age. I bet she wears those lacy little thongs and makes him prime rib every night for dinner.” Pete put his cigarette out on the floor.

“Do you think he always wanted to drive a cab?” I asked.

“I don’t know, probably. He probably went to college and got straight A’s but realized it was bullshit. I bet he flipped his professors the bird and walked out,” Pete said.

I didn’t think Teddy was who Pete thought he was. That night when we got into his cab, I noticed that he never seemed to really look hard at anything, like his eyes had been glassed over by something he’d lost somewhere between picking up strangers and dropping them off. Teddy seemed to have moments with things, but not much else.

The first day we went out with Teddy, we didn’t know where we were going. We asked him how big a circle we could make with fifty bucks and he just started driving.

Pete leaned out of Teddy’s cab door, looking at the sky. I watched his head dart back and forth at the birds swooping down in front of us, pecking at crumpled Burger King wrappers, cartwheeling cellophane from cigarette packs. Pete made a silencer out of an egg carton. It made me nervous.

“They’re lost, you know,” Teddy said, following one of the gulls.

I didn’t say anything. I twisted the cap of my whiskey on and off.

“They think they’re flying over the ocean. They’re lost. People can be lost too,” Teddy said.

Pete’s twisted, plastic stump arm quivered. Maybe he just wanted to see something die.

Pete didn’t really talk about his phantom limb often, but he made it clear when it was bothering him. In a parking lot once, he yanked at his knotted shirtsleeve until it was nearly ragged. His eyes flashed at me like he was daring me to mention it, but I didn’t say a word, just twisted my hands around in the pocket of my hoodie.

It was nearly ten below. Teddy had left us in the lot a couple hours before. His shift was up and he told us he had “bourbon and a bed full of women” waiting for him at home. We hadn’t seen a gull in an hour, but neither of us wanted to go.

“It feels too short,” he said, looking away. He was still pulling on his sleeve. I tried not to look at him or the space where his arm should be. “Sometimes I feel like my arm steals from other people’s arms. It doesn’t remember what it’s like to be an arm. It has to pretend to be someone else’s.”

He kicked the rifle on the ground in front of him. It spun like a rotor.

I stared at the gun and thought about what would happen if it went off every time the muzzle passed my ankle. He kicked the gun again.

We’d go to Walmarts, Home Depots, Farm and Fleets, IKEAs. I was in charge of calling Teddy, otherwise Pete would shoot birds until there weren’t birds to shoot, or until he was dead.

Once, Teddy drove us to a grocery store lot we’d never been to before and Pete landed a BB into the wing of a seagull within the first five minutes. It struggled to stay airborne, winding around in the air before it landed two parking spaces away. Pete went to look at it.

I took a swig. Teddy coughed a handful of phlegm out the window. “It’s all about perception,” he said.

Pete walked into the span of the headlights. He waved to Teddy with one arm and then the phantom. Teddy waved back with both arms, as if signaling for help, before leaning back and sitting still, moving his focus back and forth from the birds in the sky to the birds at our feet.

1 of 6  

Breaking Pierpont

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1 of 12  

We heard about the storm a few days before. A hurricane coming in from down south off the coast of Mexico. The remnants were heading up the coast. Each gust was whiplash from that southern storm. Travis was stoked about the high surf advisory. The city wasn’t. They were closing off all the beaches. I told him if he went, I would go.

Travis threw his can into the fire. Tony took his pocketknife and punched a hole in the bottom of his own. He chugged and covered his chin with foam.

“This fucker’s not going, Trav. Doesn’t matter what he said last week, he won’t be there tomorrow.”

“He said he’d go, Tony.”

Waves pounded the shore. Even here in the Cove, where jetties cut the surf, they were getting serious. I drank my beer. Sand floated in with the swill and I felt it on the back of my tongue. The bonfire lit up the sand that surrounded it, and the three of us faced our fire. Tony burped. Our eyes squinted from the heat while our backs felt the cold bite from the foggy marine layer that crept up onto the beach. A waxing moon shone through the clouds every once in a while. Out on the horizon, faint in the fog, the oil platforms’ emergency lights looked like Christmas bulbs. I shivered and drank my beer. The wind was getting stronger.

“That fancy fucking school doesn’t leave Nick any time to surf.”

“Nick can handle himself,” Travis shot back. “Right?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m going.”

I stared at Travis’s beer can in the fire. The color faded off the aluminum.

“Fuckin’ right,” Tony said. “See you cocksuckers at five.”

Tony got up, stumbling for a few wobbly seconds. The beer can curled in the heat. Wind swept the flames.

…………

It was four-thirty in the morning. I hadn’t slept. Cheap beer churned in my stomach. Dad was asleep in his room. Not wanting to wake him, I grabbed my wet suit and climbed out of my bedroom window. The rain was coming down hard and the wind blew it into my face. Sneaking around to the front of the house, I waited on the porch. In a few minutes, I saw Travis’s pick-up. I strapped my board down on top of his, and then ran through the rain and climbed in the passenger side.

Water slid down the inside of the window, down the door, puddling at my feet. The clouds had eaten up every last star in the sky.

We drove straight through Pierpont. As we passed Tony’s street, I asked Travis where he was.

“Fuck Tony,” Travis said. He didn’t look at me. Cones shone out from his headlights. He stared into the storm. “If Tony tries to get out there he’ll fucking kill himself.”

I couldn’t get past what Travis said. Tony had always been the better surfer, had in fact taught Travis when we were just groms surfing beach breaks at Mondo’s. Just three shits splashing on hand-me-down boards. If Tony couldn’t handle what we were about to do. . .

“What makes you think we won’t?” I asked.

Travis picked up a Red Bull he had stashed away in the glove compartment. He cracked it and drank half in a quick gulp.

“Travis?”

“Look, if you don’t want to do this then get the fuck out at the next light. We need to get onto that pier before daylight breaks.”

The wind blew and the engine revved high and then low as Travis shifted gears. Our surfboards rattled in the bed. I tasted vomit in the back of my mouth.

The road curved along the beach, unlit by a sun that wouldn’t peak over the coastal mountain range for another hour, but the sky was turning blue-grey. It was that pre-dawn hour when the grizzly older surfers show up on the promenade with cups of hot coffee. They’re almost always there, like the sea gulls and the squirrels and the morning cold. But they probably hadn’t been there that morning. They wouldn’t stay to see the sea like liquid mountains rising, cresting and crashing.

We parked under the freeway, no other cars around, and Travis stared out to the beach. He looked passed the uninhabited bike lane and beyond the gulls trying to make headway against the storm, and into the breaks, tirelessly pounding the pier and the shore. He raised the Red Bull and finished the can. His face was tense, angular. He turned to me, and he said, “The fuck you looking at, fag?”

I couldn’t stop. My bottom lip dropped, and I tried to either answer him or look away, but I couldn’t decide what to do, so I didn’t do anything but stare.

“You’re either doing this with me today, or you can just stay the fuck away from me, okay?”

“Travis, I don’t–”

“I’m serious.”

“I’m just saying, Tony probably had a good reason for not coming, you know?”

“I don’t give two shits about Tony. He didn’t want to come. That’s his fucking deal. But you said you’d do it. You can’t just take off and come back every once in a while for a couple drinks just because you feel guilty. I know you’ve got your own shit to deal with at that new school, or whatever the fuck ever, but it was us first. OK?”

Neither of us spoke for a moment. The freeway hung above us. We normally heard more traffic, but that morning it was still. I didn’t know if it was the storm muffling out the cars, or whether we were just as alone as it felt.Travis was so focused on getting out there. No matter what. And he was right. I told him I’d be there. So I sat in his truck,and listened to the rain pour. Travis had kept every promise he’d ever made to me.

“I said I’d do it, Travis.”

“I know you did. Get your fucking board.”

…………

The pier was raised up above the promenade, and it funneled the wind, which blew cold stinging rain in our faces. The wood stairs up to the pier were slick, and our boards nearly flew out of our hands the whole way up. Travis’s board was 6’8, Creamy white. Mine was 7’0 and yellow. Travis had shaped both of them in the shed behind my place out of a couple Clark Foam blanks that my dad got in trade for an H-VAC job. They were both a little heavy from older, thicker polyurethane, but Travis spent weeks sanding down the blanks, getting the rocker to match an Al Merrick board he’s always liked, mixing the resin, glassing the boards. They came out gorgeous, even though the fiberglass and the foam were starting to separate on mine, and air bubbles had formed on the deck. At the top of the pier, there was a chain-link fence rocking back and forth, a bold DO NOT ENTER sign slapping the links. From up on the pier, the wind was almost unbearable.

Travis went first. His toes gripped the fence. I tossed his leash up over, and he used it to pull his board while I lifted it. The wind caught the board and it rocked in my hand. Still hanging on the other side with one hand, Travis slid it over the top. The chain link scratched the glass. He jumped and landed, board in hand, flat-footed on the other side. He helped me get my board over before I started climbing.

I pulled myself up the fence. But it shook back and forth more violently the higher I made it. From the top I could see out to the end of the pier. The flag had been taken down from the flagpole. Familiar smells wafted: dead fish, bird shit. The ocean grumbled beneath us, telling me to go the fuck home.

I’d never surfed waves like this—ones that could bash your head into the pilings of the pier, hold you under and drag you out to sea. Tony was right. I hadn’t been surfing much. Not since school started. Foothill wasn’t the type of place you could sneak away from during third period. Campus security actually cared whether or not you were there. My teachers noticed if I was gone, and the work was hard enough that I couldn’t afford to miss class. Besides that, there were different social pressures. While my teachers had some faith in me, the other students placed bets on how long I would last. Travis and Tony and me were from De Anza middle school. Not that middle school should determine your whole life, but it usually does. Kids like us didn’t get accepted to Foothill. We weren’t supposed to have futures. Except that I had gotten in to Foothill. I threw my name into the lottery and got accepted into that fucking magnet school. Travis and Tony ended up at Ventura High. They surfed every morning, usually without me.

I climbed down and grabbed my board.

As we walked, I watched the whitecaps spray through the planks of the pier. Rainfall battered us and the boards. The ocean surged and plunged between the beams.

“When you jump, don’t land on top of it. Just toss the board away from you,” Travis yelled.

“Yeah, okay. But what if it snaps.”

“Swim like hell.”

We were three quarters of the way down the pier, the beach behind us and the ocean roiling below. I turned to look and saw what I could make out of Ventura. The hazy coastal range soaked up the rain. Porch lights and a few neon signs. Everyone I knew was asleep except for my dad. He was probably just getting into his truck to drive up over the Grade. Then he’d put in his eight union hours fixing H-VAC units and come back home to sleep. He must have half expected me to be in school that day. The sky was turning a brighter shade of morning grey, merging into the grey of the sea. The surf rolled, rabid with foam.

A squall rose and my board shot out of my hand and smacked into a bench. I chased it down and knelt beside it to check for dings. The ocean surged and I felt it—felt the water wallop the pier—felt it rise between the slats—felt the pier tremble. I slipped. My board smashed against the side rail.

Travis strode to my board and grabbed it with his free hand. It was still in one piece. I stood up. He handed it back to me. The Channel Islands were washed out and so were the oil platforms that bore into the ocean between the islands and where we were on the pier. From just off the left side, at the end of the pier, Travis told me to hold his board. Then, he gripped the banister with his two rough hands and he leapt over the side, landing on the outer edge of the pier. He took his board from me without saying anything.

I looked over the railing, scared shitless. Travis shouted at me, instructing me to put my board by him so he could try to keep it in one place. I did as I was told. Then I made my way over the railing. My feet stuck on every slat along the way. But once I stood on the other side, I felt like at least I knew what I was going to do next. The wind was dying down. The rain was more of a mist. Travis looked out to where the waves were coming in. He said, “Just remember to paddle. Stand up as quick as you can. It’s nothing but a gnarly fucking wave.”

Maybe I was numbed to the experience by then. There was this monstrous thing rolling toward us. It was foamy, but not yet starting to break. That’s what’s really scary about a large wave: it has almost no shape far out to see, and it’s almost impossible to tell what it will finally end up being until it hits the shelf and stumbles, rising ten, twenty feet and collapsing with the sound of thunder. So we watched this hill, large but not yet ominous, until it reached the shallow water and raised up. Travis didn’t move, so I didn’t move. It wasn’t until it was under us, when the peak of the wave nearly touched our feet,that reality set in. Because just as unexpectedly as the water had risen, it receded, leaving a twenty foot drop below my feet and the thrashing beast crashed, and the railing seemed like it would shake free of the pier.

“Set’s coming in.” Travis looked at a succession of ripples off in the distance and handed me my surfboard. They were about to hit the land-shelf and build on themselves. Travis just gripped his board in one hand and leapt off the pier. His body receded beneath me and he threw his board out in front of him; it spun like a white leaf in the wind until it stopped short, caught on the leash. They both landed in the water, and sank. The board popped up first, then Travis’s head. He paddled away from the pier. I couldn’t let go of the railing. Travis set up on the wave, paddled into position and got under what had become a monster, and I watched, not yet realizing that another wave was coming my way, breaking high enough to thrash over the top of the pier.

I gripped the rail tightly when that second wave hit, and felt wood cut into my arms. It was like hugging a serrated knife. My board went over, a quick drop stopped by the leash. It’s weight, or maybe just shock, kept me from pulling myself up and over, or from reaching down to undo the leash. I knew that if I let go I would be a piece of seaweed slapped against pilings, or just another mussel drowned in the brine, except that mussels don’t drown.

I hated Travis for everything that was happening. He knew I couldn’t do it, and he sure as shit knew Tony couldn’t. This was stubborn suicide. As I tasted the salty brine in the back of my throat I thought about Tony, probably checking the surf report as we spoke. Travis knew Tony wouldn’t come. But he also knew that I would. He expected me to be here, just like he expected both of us to either graduate or drop out of school together. Maybe, since he knew that wasn’t going to happen, he wanted the two of us to go out at the same time. He didn’t care if the storm crested into a wave that sucked up the whole city. He needed me and him on the same side.

The rocky basin of the shore became visible as the tide sucked back the sea. When I looked down, I could see the pilings clear to the sea floor. I clung to the railing and tried to get back over, but I couldn’t get a good footing. As I turned to the horizon and saw the growing blue-green wall of water blend with the grey of the sky, my knees gave out again. Heavy rain battered the face of the wave.

With the surfboard velcroed around my ankle I couldn’t climb back over the railing. The wave barreled toward me, alive and unstoppable, a howling wall. I followed the line of the wave and saw a speck rising into the curl. Travis was paddling. He wasn’t setting himself up on the wave. He was hauling heavy ass trying to make his way beyond it before he went over the falls.

I squeezed the railing and fumbled to undo my leash, but my fingers were numb and the velcro strap kept slipping in my grip. My leg blurred when I shifted focus to Travis, who was completely upside down, his body contorting to the curl of the wave, his hands releasing his board’s rails. That was it. He’d go over the falls and disappear into the sea, a busted ear drum denying him even the ability to know up from down. That’s what had happened to even the best surfers who pushed their luck. But more often it seemed to happen to guys like Travis, for whom surfing was it. It was either die a brutal death on one last ride, or live long enough to become one of the grizzly old men drinking AM-PM coffee during the dawn patrol, remembering the times you didn’t go out, when you should have, when you might have died the right way. It could’ve happened to Tony, and it was about to happen to me. I thought back to all those mornings the three of us paddled out by the Pierpont schoolhouse, practicing cutbacks on mushy waves, lighting bonfires. It was hard to think back to when it started, but I remember that sickening knowledge that it would end, a knowing that I fully understood when I got that “Congratulations, You’ve been” letter from Foothill. I wanted to jump into the water right then and go through the wash with Travis. Who cared where our corpses washed up?

Travis vanished, and the massive wake of the wave came down. The white-water exploded into the air, catching my board and snapping my leash. The pier shook. The rail came loose and I fell into the ocean, rolling towards the shore. It was like being hit by a car, that sudden unexpected impact knocking your head against everything near you. It was like being swallowed. It was like being chewed up. It was a feeling that all those fucking kids at Foothill wouldn’t know. Even the ones who did surf wouldn’t understand. If we died, nobody would mourn our futures. This would be our legacy, as stupid and shitty and futile as it was, it was as good as Travis figured things might get. A story his friends, those future grizzly old men, would talk about until they died their unexciting deaths.

The wave slammed me against a rock jutting out of the sand. All that was left of my board was the leash around my ankle. When I rubbed my hand through my hair I saw the long streak of red across my palm. I was close to the entrance of the pier. Travis was lying motionless on a stretch of pebbles about fifty yards away. The rain pelted our bodies, and the tide kept rising up, tugging at Travis’s body.

The ocean still churned up deadly waves as I struggled to my feet. Even if I wanted to help Travis, I couldn’t move fast, or easily.  Each rumbling crash made me nauseous. Every muscle ached.

A piece of my surfboard washed up near him. Two feet of nose, where his signature was preserved under the glass. The three of us were in my dad’s shed when Travis wrote that signature with a carpenter’s pencil. “You’re a fucking artist,” Tony said. And in fact, Tony was the first person to surf both the boards. Travis said he wanted to make sure they weren’t shit. The first time Tony stood up on one of Travis’s boards, it was a type of precision none of us had seen before. Tony dropped in and the wave barreled over him, one of those forever tubes that you remember for the rest of your life. Travis wanted to give Tony that board, but Tony thought I should have it. “It’s perfect,” he said. “But it’s an inch too short for me.”

I started walking toward Travis’s body, but then he stirred. His arms quivered as he put his palms down and lifted his torso. Travis looked at the piece of my board, then down the beach, at me. He picked up the fragment and chucked it into the sea. His own board was intact further up the beach. He lifted it over his head and walked back to his truck.

I walked along the side of the bike path, rain beating down and the wind slapping my face. When I got up to the parking lot, Travis had driven home without me, but Tony was there with his Corolla. “You guys are fucking retarded,” he said and drove me home.

1 of 12  

Aviary

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I killed The Teenager. That was a mistake. I’m a thief, not a killer. You rob a house, and a dead body is the last thing you want to leave behind. That’s why people I know refuse to carry a gun. It’s not like it’s against some robber’s code or anything – it just makes things easier. Why give the cops a reason to look harder. If everything goes smoothly, fine. The cops look around a few hours and let it go. But a gun? Cops get paranoid, thinking you’re out there waiting. If not that night, then some other night. Why make them worry? Skip it.

The Teenager’s house was a two-story brick mansion. I stepped through a bedroom window in the back. The bed was made. The closet doors and dresser drawers were closed. There weren’t any dirty clothes lying around. This wasn’t like my house or any other house I’d ever seen. I kept walking.

The interior spaces were wide and quiet and soft and filled with cool clean air and sunlight. There was leather and silk and mahogany and velvet and oak and all kinds of other solid, comforting things I didn’t know what to call. No one was home – perfect. Then I started wondering why anyone would ever leave such a place. Its perfection was hypnotizing. There were lights in the ceiling!

I remembered I had a job to do. I went through the motions of burglary and gathered artifacts for my return to the hot cramped world. I suppose a gun was there in the middle of everything, and I guess I picked it up.

Turning the corner I met the staircase.

As kids we didn’t have stairs. Not even to the front door. My father made a short step stool so my sister and I could reach the sink. It was white, with my name in blue on the bottom step and my sister’s in pink on the top. We started banging our shins on it one day, so it ended up under the sink. Don’t know where it is now.

The Teenager startled me. She appeared on the stairs in a long black shirt, and we stared at each other for a minute. The buttons on her shirt were made to look like the planets. Mercury at the top and Pluto all the way down there.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s a great shirt.”

“Who are you?”

“The shirt guy.”

“You’ve got a gun.”

“Actually, I have your gun. I found it with the shirts.”

She stepped onto the floor and backed up toward the kitchen. “You have my father’s watch. All my mother’s jewelry.”

“Right. It’s for an insurance appraisal. Every couple of years the value of the household items needs to be updated in order to keep the policy updated and so prices of the insured items can by synchronized with the market value of the same items in case they were to be stolen. And since we insure the home, we also have a key, and your parents said it was okay to just let myself in.”

The Teenager looked at the front door and we could both see the chain still hooked from the inside.

“They wanted me to make sure I came in through the side door so as not to arouse suspicion from the neighbors. So I came to the bedroom straight through. I’m sure you heard me.”

“What’s in your backpack?”

“Credentials. Shirts. A business card. Sheets of paper…with business estimates…technical stuff.” I tried to act nonchalant by waving my hand in the air, exhaling, and looking off into the upper right corner of the room. When my eyes returned to The Teenager, she had her phone out.

“What are you doing?”

“Calling my parents.”

“They know I’m here.”

“Okay.”

“So don’t bother them.”

“They won’t mind.” She put the phone to her ear.

I grabbed her wrist and pulled the phone away from her head. “Don’t make trouble.”

She writhed and with her entire 120 pounds tried to pull away. But I held tighter and pulled her close and mouthed the words “drop the phone.” Instead of following instructions, however, she managed to bring her right foot straight up into my crotch before running into the kitchen.

Doubled over and gasping for air, I managed to stumble after her. I heard The Teenager behind the beveled pantry door, planning my incarceration.

I flung it open and pointed the gun at her. She yelped, turned, got lower to the ground and stuck her arms straight out in front of her, locking her elbows so hard it looked like they were about to pop out their socket. And she started screaming.

I told her to shut up.

She just closed her eyes tight and yelled louder about the police. One of her outstretched hands still held that phone, like it had superpowers that would stop a bullet. It didn’t.

She fell back under the shelves along the back wall, then stopped moving. A couple of cans rolled my way. I put them and the gun in my backpack and left through the side door. I walked slowly, changing streets a few times until I found a nice path that led into a thicket overlooking an embankment leading down to the boulevard. I stopped there and dumped my backpack. That’s what happens when you use a gun. You end up losing everything. I couldn’t keep the backpack or anything in it. I had to take off my shirt, too. All that stuff tied me to the crime. Now I had less than when I went into that damned house. I left it all right there in a thicket and then slid down the embankment and landed on the sidewalk beside four lanes of traffic.

All the way home I kept thinking about that pantry, and the way The Teenager sat hunched up in the back. As a kid, I would sit in the back of my grandmother’s pantry reading the dates on the preserves on the back shelves, wishing there were a trap door to the crawl space under the floor. I don’t know why I did that. A trap door sure would have helped The Teenager, though.

Years went by and I put The Teenager behind me. I try not to dwell on the past. Eventually I got a job unloading trucks at a freight company. Those long kinds of trucks you see going by you all the time on the highway. The ones with tires as big as your car. Sometimes they have a lot of lights on them at night, like the circus has come to town. Or is on the way out.

I had this foreman I called Hitler. Hitler came up to me with this box one afternoon and asked to see the bottom of my boot. He wanted to see if the tread on my boot matched the tread mark on the box. It did, of course, because everyone in the warehouse wore company-issue boots. I guess they were thinking ahead.

Hitler fired me in front of my co-workers. He did it this way: me powerful, you weak. It rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m trying to let it go. The job was hot and boring, and I was getting some backaches and shoulder pains that were starting to get on my nerves. I didn’t look for a new job straight off. That’s not really my style. I relaxed. I took a few days off and sat by the pool at the center of my apartment complex.

I met a girl there. I’m handsome. We hung out that afternoon then got drunk. That night we had a good time and after that I slept okay. Not great. Something made me uneasy. It was this girl I was next to. She slept like she was dead. She didn’t move all night. A couple of times I put a mirror in front of her nose to see if she was breathing.

To wake her up I had to pour a glass of water in her face, and she wasn’t even upset about it. Like it happened all the time. I don’t know how she gets up when she’s alone. Maybe she’s never alone. After that everything was fine. I guess that’s just the way she is. She walked out onto the balcony, took a deep breath and said, “the birthing of the new day heralded via the gigantic yellow star.” She actually said ‘via.’ She was really out there. And she wasn’t about to let me get any more sleep, either. She jumped right on it like nobody’s business.

Next stop, two coffees served on oversized bongos in front of a hip guitar store. Last night’s entertainment sprinkled in a fourth pack of sweet and low then banged the spoon against the cup like she was calling in the ranch hands for chow. Me? I’m a gentleman. After touching the coffee to my lips, I tucked my pinky back into my fist, tried not to think about Hitler, and asked Eva about her plans for the day.

Yep, you heard me right. Eva. The image of her and Hitler bursting into flames while lying next to each other on the cold concrete floor of a bunker somewhere over there flashed through my head. But then the bunker filled with smoke and the excitement was over. What was left? Eva. Leaning over her cup. Scooping chunks of curdled cream out of her coffee with the curved underside of one of those overlong nails of hers. I tried to make it sexy somehow. It didn’t work.

She told me her plans, but I was thinking of her smoldering remains, so she had to repeat them. Work. City aviary. I didn’t know what an aviary was, but she said it was near the ocean so I was all for it.

When we got out of the car, I found out what an aviary was all about. Bird prison. I told her I didn’t want anything to do with it and left in a hurry. She said something behind me but I didn’t turn around. I didn’t ever want to see her again. I wished she didn’t know where I lived, and, as I turned the corner of the building, I started thinking of ways to make that wish come true. Why had I taken her to my room? Now there’s an extra person who knows me. What can she find out? What am I going to let slip? I had to get rid of her.

But I was getting all worked up. I had been lucky once, so forget it. She was just a woman. I was going to forget about her, like she was going to forget about me. That was the way the normal world worked. I was well on the way to talking myself down, so I tried to notice the little things around me. Focus on the ‘be here now’ idea one of my hippie girlfriends used to talk about.

Weeds along the side of the aviary on my right. An electric meter. A crushed green water pistol. Short yellow poles on my left, strung through with cable to keep cars from hitting daydreamers.

The sidewalk continued past the aviary and emptied into a parking lot. Steel cables and dandelions poked through crumbling concrete tire barriers and buckled asphalt. The wind picked up and when the traffic died down, I could hear breaking surf and seagulls. Beyond the line of condominiums, restaurants, and gift shops there was undoubtedly an ocean, which is what made me want to come with Eva in the first place, though I couldn’t remember why anymore.

The only way to reach the beach was to go through one of the bars or restaurants separating me from the beach. I picked one called SandyBoys. SandyBoys was having an identity crisis, trying to be both a family restaurant and bar at the same time. There were a few arcade games in one corner, with some oversized booths for families of six nearby. A sports bar in the middle with eight TV screens, undersized beer mugs, and wicker baskets filled with peanuts every five feet. The bar was a long, glass-topped pine structure that stretched about forty feet before it made a sharp, ninety-degree turn into a darker, windowless section with its own restrooms, low music, and late-afternoon desperation.

I ordered a double bourbon and water from Nicholas. He wore a nametag. Over to my left, on the other side of the small array of arcades, was a glass door and a wall of windows, through which I could see a patio filled with customers and a wooden walkway – or boardwalk or pier, whatever the right word might be.

Nicholas placed another double bourbon in front of me. There was a woman sitting alone in the swanky section with her back against the wall moving her wine glass around in a circle with her fingertips. She wasn’t waiting for anyone, but she wanted to give that impression by looking at her phone once in a while. There was a father in the arcade having a lot of luck on the Le Mans game, his son tugging at his sleeve and the man shaking him off. The other dads gathered around the machine and stared into the screen, cheering driver dad on.

To make SandyBoys more interesting, there was a small section behind the bar dedicated to sailing. On a four foot square piece of blue velvet atop a small refrigerator rested a framed photo of a schooner, a brass lantern, and three brass contraptions I had never seen before.

“Nicholas.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Could I see one of those thingamajigs down there?” I pointed to the brass thingamajigs.

“No sir, I’m afraid that’s against company policy. Can I get you another bourbon?”

“Sure.”

Nicholas refilled my glass without having to move, or so it seemed. I inquired about the brass instruments, this time regarding their purpose.

“I’m not really sure, sir. I know they’re called sextants. I think they tell you where you are, or align the planets, or help you position yourself by spotting planets at night. But I’m not really sure.” Nicholas glided away to another patron.

I thought if I ever stole anything again it would be a sextant, even if I wasn’t sure how it worked. There was some kind of mystery about it that attracted me. It looked too sophisticated to be just a glorified compass. Could you use it on land somehow? Could it locate a portal?

A little girl began singing behind me. She sat in a booth with her family and she was singing a catchy little tune in the voice of a cat. I turned and listened. The only words were “meow.” When it was over the little girl said, “And that’s how a cat sings.”

I added, “In the shower!” I also clapped. I thought I was being nice. The girl smiled. The father wasn’t so appreciative.

“This is a private conversation, buddy.”

I moved closer to the door leading to the beach. I could still hear the little girl, talking about her new gymnastics mat and all the moves she could do, a lot more than Mary Ellen and how no one will believe her that Mary Ellen is a liar. I couldn’t help but laugh, thinking what fine talk that was for a bar.

I glanced over and the father was coming out of the booth and heading my way. I stepped out the back door and onto the deck. There was a patio with tables and umbrellas and customers and that long boardwalk stretching way out. I kept walking.

There were seagulls all over and they made that seagull sound. They don’t chirp or tweet like a normal bird. It’s more like the noise of a crow. Not as mean sounding, maybe. As I kept going, I noticed that the boards on the walk were laid end to end, instead of side to side. I thought that was unusual. It seemed to be at the time anyway. It’s the kind of pattern that would give the illusion of greater distance. I wondered why somebody would do that. I was going to look it up one day.

The gulls kept swinging around, sounding like monkeys now. Monkeys flying from branch to branch, in wide arcs and sharp dips, from one imaginary vine to another. Flying over the beach, in an aviary with sand. Monkey prison. When I reached the end of the boardwalk I grabbed the railing. The tide was out. Twenty feet below was wet sand the color of coffee the way I like it. The wind hit my face as I looked toward the horizon, where the gray of the sky matched the color of the water in a long wide flat line which my eyes followed and then my head tried to catch up with and then I don’t know what happened, but I suspect it had something to do with the bourbon.

I landed on my side in front of the rail with a good view up the boardwalk toward Sandyboy’s. The Meow Girl came out. The wooden door closed and she stood in front of it, calling the birds, arms stretched out in front of her as the birds whirled and screamed above.

I got up and walked toward Meow Girl. The door opened, hitting Meow Girl in the back. She stumbled and fell on the ground. My instinct was to run toward her, but I didn’t. Her mother picked her up and the two of them and the father walked back through the door. I watched it close behind them.

I stumbled through the backdoor of SandyBoys, past the kids in the arcade and landed on the nearest barstool. Nicholas remembered me and what I preferred. A few sips later I remembered all that brass. I moved a whole gulp down the bar, in front of the sextants. A child’s plaything, maybe? No. Maybe it was in Peter Pan. On his boat in the sky, where I saw one once. Sure. After Peter comes through the window and takes the children away from their toys.

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FOR SALE: BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN: UNABRIDGED AND UNCENSORED.

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For sale: baby shoes, never worn— the beginning of the great big goddamned dirty lie.

I was born in the mountains—Anytown, Appalachia—the son of a seamstress and a coal miner. The Depression was on and things were tough. Though I was just a baby, I still remember.

Sometimes, I think memory is my curse.

The first night it happened, Ma showed up drunk at suppertime again, eyes crazed and fixed on the only thing left to sell in our cabin: my baby shoes.  Pa had given up the bottle on account of the hard times, but Ma had taken a turn for the worse. This was before she started in on the Sterno; before the townsfolk had taken to calling her “Hellfire Martha.”

Pa rose from the table.

“Martha, no.”

“Goddamnit, Henry, I brought that baby into this world—made them baby booties myself—and I’ll sell ‘em downriver just the same.”

Thunder growled somewhere out over the mountains. Pa spat.

“His footsie wootsie’ll get cold, Mama. Cain’t get much for a pair of used baby shoes, no how.”

“We’ll put an ad up in the papers,” Ma said. “Claim the goddamned shoes are brand new. Never worn. I’ll figure somethin’ out. Now you jess get the fuck outta my way.”

The advertisements for never-worn baby shoes touched some kind of nerve with the people. It was right curious to Ma and Pa, but they never much stopped to question it, what with all the money coming in. After the first ad went up, Ma got a big check and a letter in the mail, blessing her soul and insisting she keep the baby shoes. Ma went on a three-day binge with the money, damn near drank herself to death— Pa couldn’t help but join in. When the whiskey ran dry, they came back for my brother’s shoes. Then our cousins’ shoes. Then the neighbors’ babies’ shoes.

Word soon got out, and the baby shoes boom set in. Those parents who would not sell had their babies’ shoes stolen by those who had. Quiet as silk they crept into our rooms, breezing in and out like the windblown curtains.

People tinkered with the words in the advertisements, trying to increase returns—For sale: baby shoes, brand spankin’ new and For sale: baby shoes, clean, stylish. For some reason, only the never worn version seemed to work.

Poet and writer folk were the most reliable sells. You could buy a pair of baby shoes from a Sears catalog for 35 cents, claim they’d never been worn in the classifieds of The New York Herald Tribune, and flip ‘em to a bleeding-heart playwright in uptown Manhattan for 5 bucks.

There were flowers, tear-stained condolences, expressions of admiration for optimized narrative compression. Ma and Pa couldn’t make heads or tails of what half the poet and writer folk were going on about. All they knew was that times were good.

“They kin talk all they want about suggestions of grief and weary resignation and all that kinda’ shit, long as they keep the fuckin’ fire goin’ in our bellies,” Ma and Pa would say. Once all of our feet were stripped, the town’s parents began crafting the baby shoes themselves.

Those ones really had never been worn, though not in any tragic sense.

Eventually, the townsfolk— worn out from all the carryin’ on, hands atremble from the liquor shakes— pressed us into labor: we were babies making baby shoes, and then not wearing them. Finally, Old Man Jenkins— out riding his jolt-wagon one night, drunk off the proceeds from his granddaughter’s slippers— crashed through the feed fence and lost us the whole mule team. It was official then. The coal business was dead.

The town’s livelihood clung to our naked soles.

As it started with the poets and writers, so it ended: rumor had it some smug writer in a New York City restaurant copied our ad out on a napkin to win himself a wager, impressed all the poet and writer folk real special. Soon the ad was being printed and re-printed across the world. Cut the legs out from under the market.

Toward the end, it was mostly young people buying the baby shoes, in ironic fashion.

People have often asked me why our parents did not sell our toys and our clothes, too. Why not For sale: rocking horse, never used, for instance, or For sale: Onesies, never worn (which would have made for even greater concision).

Truth was, our clothes and toys made for better kindling.

We were babies, stripped of shoes. We were mountain town toddlers with scraped feet. We were alive. Over time, the truth has been lost. But now, perhaps, the real story will live on, so that if ever they try it again—if they come once more for our shoes in the night— together, we will cry out.

We will kick.

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O Holy Night

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Codder stared at the backboard. It was stamped with the mark of the NBA, a player in white silhouette, mid-dribble, driving, feet together like a slalom skier. He heard the ball thud hard off the board, watched it scud across the driveway and vanish into a flowerbed by the garage. Codder’s sister whistled and kicked a pinecone. “We gotta get on it,” said Bonnie. “Mom said we’re eating Mexican in like an hour. She has nightmares if she eats past 8.” Codder nodded, shot Bonnie a bird, and walked to find the ball.

He stepped lightly on the bed’s dark pinestraw, trying to avoid the spot where Breakfast was buried. It had been almost two years since their mother had run over Breakfast, Codder and Bonnie’s first pet, one night after picking Codder up from babysitting the Vermillion twins. “It’s the twins’ fault!” Bonnie said, still wearing her Molly Pitcher costume from the school play that day. Her fingertips were orange from Cheetos. Everybody cried, except for their father, who dug the cat’s grave.

Codder had demanded that they bury Breakfast in an antique chest an aunt had given him. The lid of the chest showed a nautical scene in bas relief, a golden clipper battling a Kraken, the sea roiling.  “That thing’s valuable,” Mr. Woodmuff said. But they let it go- it was his cat, he’d loved it, and he could bury it however he wanted. Before closing the lid on Breakfast, Codder had placed a stiff five-dollar bill under the cat’s tail.

After groping for the ball among some ferns, he felt it, placed it in his left hand, and heaved it into the night as hard as he could.

Bonnie was yelling for him to “hurry the hell up.” She’d always been an unconvincing cusser. One afternoon, Codder had been in the backyard, practicing his serve. He hit the ball into the greenbelt running behind the yard and jogged to retrieve it.

As he got closer to the tangle of trees and brush, he made out Bonnie, crouched and with her back turned, in the middle of an azalea thicket. Codder stopped and listened. Her blond hair was involuted like a nautilus. He couldn’t see her face at all. Codder imagined her turning around, and having hair for a face. Then he heard Bonnie whispering.

“Shit.”

“Fart.”

“Dick.”

“Dingleberry.”

“Cooter.”

“Piss.”

Bonnie said the words gently. Then she paused, and Codder saw her shoulders rise as she breathed in.

“Asshole.”

Bonnie hissed the first syllable, and exhaled the second into the leaves until she ran out of breath. It took her ten seconds to say it.

Codder joined his sister in the garage, where she was waiting beside the murmuring refrigerator. “You know I heard you cussing in the woods that time,” Codder said.

“Which time?”

“You did it more than once?”

“I don’t anymore. I was calling the God of Nasty. He was asleep underground. The more words I said, the less sleepy he felt. ”

“Jesus.”

“Let’s make the tape so we can listen to it on the ride.”

Bonnie picked up the tape-recorder from the concrete slab, opened the refrigerator door with her free hand, reached in a jacketed arm, and plucked out a Diet Rite White Grape. Still holding the recorder, she opened it with her front teeth, took a loud sip (mostly air) and passed the can to Codder. Bonnie distended her cheek with her tongue, and pressed down the ‘Play’ and ‘Record’ button at the same time. Then they sang.

They sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with feeling. They sang “Good King Wenceslas,” slurring when they got to ‘Wenceslas’ because they didn’t know how to pronounce it. Bonnie was off-key on “I Saw Three Ships.” Mid-song, Codder snatched the tape recorder from her and hit ‘Stop.’

“What else is there?” said Bonnie. They thought about it while the refrigerator buzzed dissonance.

“What was that song that Miss Ingrid always sang on Christmas Eve?” said Bonnie. “Don’t know,” said Codder.

“The one that gave you boners when she sang it?”

“What?”

“I heard you say it to Sylvester.”

“When?”

“When you were playing ping-pong in his basement.”

“You weren’t even there.”

“I was too. I was spending the night with Rose. The air vent goes up to Rose’s bedroom.”

Codder looked out into the yard. “It’s ‘O Holy Night.’ But I didn’t say that.”

“Yes, you did.”

They sang “O Holy Night.”  Bonnie intoned the high note on ‘oh night…DIVINE’ with seismic vibrato, but managed to hit it with startling accuracy. Codder thought it sounded beautiful, but didn’t tell Bonnie. They rewound the tape to hear Bonnie sing the high part again. Codder pressed ‘Play,’ and Bonnie finished her White Grape, head thrown back. They listened. “I didn’t know you could harmonize like that,” Codder said.

 

Codder put the tape in his pocket just as Mr. and Mrs.Woodmuff emerged from the house and into the garage. Everybody got in the station wagon. Codder and Bonnie were in the backseat, and stared at the mannequin in the garage. Three years ago, Bonnie had caught their father hauling it from the trunk of his ’92 Pontiac Bonneville. He’d put it in the garage, and had dressed it up for every holiday since. The mannequin was clearly female, but their father had sharpied in a five o’clock shadow to prove it was male. Its facial expression was frozen in what appeared to be adrenalized terror. Neither Codder, Bonnie, nor their mother ever asked him about it.

This past Halloween, Mr. Woodmuff rented an expensive gorilla suit, and spent an entire afternoon struggling the mannequin into it. During the summer, it was granted a “reprieve” and stayed nude, except for on the Fourth of July, during which it was draped with an American flag, one breast left exposed.

This Christmas, it was dressed in crimson and white St. Nicholas robes, a preposterous beard, and Papal hat.

“Put in the tape, Dad,” said Bonnie.

“What?” said Mr. Woodmuff.

“The tape we made.”

“You made a tape? Of what?”

“Christmas,” said Bonnie.

“We’ll listen to it after we eat,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

Mr. Woodmuff caught Bonnie’s eye in the rearview, and screwed up his face. “Keep your eyes on the road, Bill… precious cargo,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

Quetzalcoatl’s Folly was the Woodmuffs’ favorite restaurant. In the waiting area, Codder and Bonnie always looked at the framed photographs of the softball team the restaurant sponsored every spring. Each year, the team’s “MVP” had signed the photo, in sweeping cursive, filigreed with hearts. Bonnie read aloud: “Rhonda Armbruster,  MVP, 1993.”

“Which one’s Rhonda, you think?” Bonnie said.

“None of them look real athletic,” said Codder.

“They look pretty sad to me. And pimply.”

“Maybe they’d just lost.”

A hostess wearing a sombrero covered in lit Christmas lights showed them to their table. An extension cord ran from under the hostess’s skirt to an outlet in the wall by the kitchen. The waiters wore Santa hats, faded to pink, that bunched up around the ears and foreheads.

“Bonnie, I saw you practicing your basketball tonight,” said Mr. Woodmuff,  navigating a particularly large chip into his mouth.

“Dad, you dripped salsa on the menu.”

“That’s why they’re laminated.” He blew a raspberry into his forearm.

“Don’t do that,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

Mrs. Woodmuff went to the bathroom. Mr. Woodmuff ate another chip. “What I was going to tell you, Bonnie—and you too Codder—was what our guest speaker said at the Lion’s Club meeting yesterday.”

“Was it about lions?” said Bonnie.

“It was about basketball. And it goes a little something like this,” Mr. Woodmuff said. “He said that there was some study where there was Group A and Group B. Group A practiced shooting free throws for like an hour. Group B just imagined that they were shooting free throws for an hour. After the hour was up, everybody in Group A shot twenty free throws. Then everybody in Group B shot twenty free throws, for real this time. The guy said that the folks in Group B, the ones that sat in the gym and just thought about shooting free throws, only did slightly worse than the other group. Or maybe it was slightly better. I can’t remember. I’ll call Dino in the morning and ask. He does the minutes.”

“I think you told me they did worse,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“Maybe so, maybe not. Dino’ll know for sure.”

The waiter came and took drink orders. Mrs. Woodmuff ordered a margarita. “Make that two,” said Mr. Woodmuff. Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians sang from the wall-speakers. A woman in heels and a sequined blouse tripped over the hostess’s extension cord, overcorrected, and crashed to the floor.

“You know what I was thinking about today?” said Codder.

“No,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“Remember how Breakfast always had the crustiest nipples?”

“We’re at the dinner table,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“It’s cause she was always pregnant and up to her teeth in milk,” said Bonnie.

“I’m going to talk to the Kleinpeters for a minute,” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“She was always pregnant, it seemed like,” said Mr. Woodmuff.

“But we never saw any of her babies,” said Bonnie. “I wonder what she did with them. She’d be huge fat one day and then like the next day she’d be skinny again. Do you think she took them to the woods and killed them cause she didn’t want to take care of them?”

“Who knows,” said Mr. Woodmuff.

The waiter appeared and asked for orders. “My wife will be with us in a moment,” said Mr. Woodmuff. “But as for me, I will not be enjoying an entrée tonight, for I have filled up on chips.”

Back in the car, Codder pulled the tape from the pocket of his jeans, and thrust his arm, tape in hand, into the front seat. “Put it in.”

“Put what in?” his mother said.

“The tape,” Codder said. “You said we’d listen to it on the way home.”

Mrs. Woodmuff, in the passenger’s seat, didn’t look back. She raised her arm from armrest and opened her palm.

They listened to the tape. Codder and Bonnie grinned, but didn’t look at each other. The recording was scratchy. When they got close to their house, Mr. Woodmuff didn’t slow down.

“What are you doing?” said Mrs. Woodmuff.

“I want to see the lights,” said Mr. Woodmuff.

“You’ve seen them a million times.”

“Want to see them again.”

On tape, Codder and Bonnie were struggling through “Good King Wenceslas.” Mrs. Woodmuff leaned her head against the window and groaned. “Take it out,” their mother said. “Turn it off. It’s making me nauseated.” Mrs. Woodmuff never said “nauseous,” only “nauseated.”

“The tape’s making you sick?” said Bonnie.

“You don’t like the sound of your spawn in perfect harmony?” said Codder.

“Yes. No. Cut it off. I’m serious.”

Codder and Bonnie cackled. Mr. Woodmuff turned the tape off, and pulled into the driveway. Mrs. Woodmuff held her hand out over the center console, and Mr. Woodmuff squeezed it. They went into the house and turned on the television. “I’m going to bed,” said Mrs. Woodmuff. “I think I’m going to throw up.”

At midnight, Mrs. Woodmuff groped her way into the bathroom. Without turning the light on, she shut the door, and lifted the lid of the toilet. Something large crept up her esophagus. Mrs. Woodmuff parted her lips, and pale light, like an emanation from a dying star, illuminated the embroidered hand towels above the toilet. She clapped a hand over her mouth and the room went dark. What felt like a banana covered in fur inched  past Mrs. Woodmuff’s uvula and onto the back of  her tongue.

Getting down on all fours, she closed her eyes, reached into her mouth with both hands, and pulled. Water splashed from the bowl. Mrs. Woodmuff , blinking droplets from her eyelashes, looked into the toilet.  Nestled inside were three tiny kittens. A thin opalescent caul partially obscured their silvery blue bodies. Each had eyes as big as saucers. The kittens stared up at Mrs. Woodmuff. She flushed. The kittens circled around the bowl; light flickered on the ceiling. They were still there. Mrs. Woodmuff took the plunger from behind the toilet.

***

Codder woke up in the middle of the night, sort of. In his half-sleep, he’d heard repeated thumping coming from the backyard. The sound continued, thump then silence. Codder went to his window. The garage light was on and he could see Bonnie in the driveway. The light reached just shy of where a free-throw line would have been. She flung the ball at the backboard with both hands. It missed the goal entirely, and sailed into the black yard. When Bonnie came back to the line from the dark, she didn’t have the ball. She raised her empty hands and flicked her right wrist. Codder heard a thud and saw the backboard shiver. Then Bonnie sat down Indian-style at the edge of the light. He couldn’t see her face. Codder watched his sister for a few minutes, then went back to bed.

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The Shouting Ghost

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“Hey! … Hey man! …  … HEY MAN!”  That’s all I hear at night in this god damned haunted house. The realtor said “Are you ok with haunted houses?” I said “Haha, sure!”  And I was “sure”, I mean, that’s what I thought! I mean, she could have been joking which would be fine, and even if she was telling the truth, I thought, Yeah sure! Ghosts are neat! I’ll live with ’em, they’ll probably scare me sometimes but it’ll be really interesting and neat! Friends’ll come over and we can stay up late, giggling and getting scared together. Or if I had a lady over she’d get scared and then jump into my arms! “Yes! I love GHOSTS! Let me buy the house already..”

“Hey! … Hey man! … HEY, I’M DEAD MAN!  …

                                                                                       HEY!!!”

What a jackass… I’m so mad. Not neat at all this fucking ghost. I’m not an impatient person, I tried to work with him, tried rapping with him about subtlety… I said “Why don’t you try whispering “Hey I’m dead man.” sometime? Why don’t you wear a sheet and peek at me from keyholes or between the banister on the stairs. Jackass just stands on my coffee table in his dumb… sports team hoodie.

“Hey!! … Hey I’m a dead guy! HEY I’M A DEAD GUY! Hey!

                              HEY!! I’M 

                              DEAD!”

“I KNOW! Christ, I know.” Maybe, if I understood sports more we’d get along. Maybe if I put on a football game he’d sit down and pantomime eating a bag of Doritos. I’ll try it…

“Alright Jackass I’m putting on football, you happy? Tell me you’re happy, please just say.. “I’m happ-

“HEY!”  …

“… Go on… say your crap.”

“HEY!!!  HEY! MAN!  … HEY! …”

“GO ON!  SAY YOUR CRAP!  SAY YOUR CRAPPY MANTRA YOU BASTARD GHOST!  SAY THAT DUMB THING YOU PROBABLY SAID RIGHT BEFORE YOU DIED SO YOU WERE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT FOREVER!”

“HEY!  HEY MAN!  … HEY I’M SO DEAD… THAT WHEN THEY LAYED ME IN MY COFFIN… I SAID… ANYONE HAVE ANY ROBITUSSIN!?  IT’S A COUGH SUPPRESSANT!!”

“……   whaaaaat?!”

“HEY! HEY MAN I’M SO DEAD… I PUT EMBALMING FLUID IN MY RICE KRISPIES TO PRESERVE THE CRUNCHINESS!”

“…. wow.”

“HEY MAN! I’M SO DEAD YOU CAN PUT ME IN A LASERDISC PLAYER AND WATCH A COLLECTION OF TEN SECOND CLIPS SHOWING OFF ANIMALS FROM THE SAN DIEGO ZOO!!!”

What the hell is happening? Maybe, because I yelled at him he’s trying to switch up his routine? This is amazing. I love this.

“HEY!! HEY MAN!! I’M SO DEAD DONALD TRUMP LAYS ME ON TOP OF HIS HEAD EVERY MORNING AND COMBS ME EVERY NIGHT!!! I’M HIS TOUPEE!!!”

“Thank you Shouting Ghost, you’ve made me the happiest man in the world.”

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Detective

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“How much do you charge?” Granger said.

“For what?” she said.

“To follow a guy.”

“What kind of guy?”

“A guy like Cowboy Bob.”

“What’s the angle?”

“I just want to know everything he does, everything he says.”

“Is that all?”

“See, I stopped doing things at some point. I don’t do things. In writing, the preference is for characters who do things. I want to turn Cowboy Bob into a character. As a character, Cowboy Bob will appeal to a certain demographic. In particular, I trust, the distaff side, who form a much more active readership than their male counterparts, according to respected surveys.”

“You want me to follow somebody around so you can make pages out of him. That the gist?”

“Sure. You provide the raw material of a life, I fashion it into art. In addition to your fee, I’ll thank you in the acknowledgements section.”

“What about Cowboy Bob? You plan on thanking him? In your little acknowledgements section?”

“That doesn’t seem wise. This would be strictly between us. You and me. A professional arrangement. I assume you have some sort of confidentiality clause in your contract?”

“I’m no rat, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“By the way, my last acknowledgements section wasn’t ‘little.’ It was over thirty pages long. I’m thorough, and I think you’ll find I’m grateful in a perceptive and extremely flattering way.”

“So you’re going to basically take this guy’s life without his permission and crap all over it.”

“Oh, he’d never know. Not in a million years. See, by the time it hits the page… see, what we writers do is… well, I don’t know. I don’t have any idea.”

“You spin straw into gold.”

“That’s it.”

“Some poor schmuck should feel lucky to be immortalized by you.”

“Well, he wouldn’t know, but sure. The great part is it works equally well if his glamorous bad boy persona is all a sham and he spends his free time reading The Bridges of Madison County out loud to his comatose grandmother. I want to get that straight right up front. You don’t have to worry if the material doesn’t seem exciting enough to you. That’s where the power of fiction comes in.”

“I spent some of my childhood near Portland, Oregon. My grandmother made pickles in the washing machine.”

“Uh-huh.”

“So is that yours now? That part of my life?”

“It’s already filed away up here.”

“I want to be my granny. That’s my goal.”

“You want to make pickles in the washing machine?”

“I don’t have a washing machine.”

“You could do it at the laundromat.”

“You know, I’ve always wanted to dye clothes at the laundromat. But I don’t have the balls.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“How do I know you’re not a weirdo?” she asked.

Granger didn’t answer. He was a weirdo!

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Bikini Lines

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IMG_8383

Painting by Claire Whitehurst

I am frantically shaving my bikini line with a dull razor. Coarse black pubic hairs and blood everywhere, but I keep going. Have to hurry. He will be here soon to pick me up.

I am changing my clothes (need to remind myself: try not to try too hard) but can’t look like a slob. There are bits of tissue stuck all over the nicks where I shaved. I am so itchy down there, I did not do this properly but it’s too late. I am throwing something lacy over the bloody, stubbly rash I’ve created. College is hard when your parents are Asian immigrants and frat boys in the south think you’re a foreign exchange student. This guy was wasted when we met; he thinks I was a white girl that dyed my hair black, but I have to ignore that and seize the moment cause this is what youth is supposed to be like, right? Carpe Diem, like they said in Clueless.

Girls in the sorority house living room are giving me advice. They are telling me to not tell any of my long-winded stories or talk too much. Also, laugh so he knows I know he’s funny. Don’t get offended and bitchy if he tells a racist joke. Use a condom. Open up my throat. Take a Claritin for my allergies so I won’t snore. Steal one of his t-shirts. I tell them, don’t worry, I shaved my bikini line.

tumblr_m5l2etyVvi1rwgbgfo1_1280I don’t tell them that I don’t understand how to “open up my throat” and that my orthodontist says I have a small mouth and low-producing salivary glands. I silently wonder if that will really be an impediment. The one time in high school with my ex-boyfriend, I didn’t know about opening up my throat and I was drunk so I think my teeth hurt him but I couldn’t feel anything and all I could think about was this Cosmo article about imagining eating a popsicle when you’re going down on your man, but he just kept saying, Ouch, and then my jaw got tired because it’s really nothing like eating a popsicle, so I stopped and went to sleep. But I was seventeen then, I was young, dumb, and you know the rest.

I am chugging a solo cup full of boxed wine and popping a Claritin for my allergies. Sarah Beth said it would be more fun if I am buzzed. Now I am racing up the stairs to brush my teeth. Crest’s spearmint and Franzia’s Chillable Red taste so terrible together. I gag while brushing my tongue.

We drive to his apartment in a giant black F150 truck. At his place, he tells me a joke on his couch about cows, or at least I think that’s what he said.

Painting by Zoe Carnes-Douglas

Painting by Zoe Carnes-Douglas

I ask, What? twice and then say, I don’t get it. I can’t understand his southern drawl. He calls me a city gal. There is a moment of uncomfortable silence, and then I kiss him to distract from my terrible misstep of not laughing at his joke about maybe-cows. His saliva is on my chin, I mean, I know its not mine because I don’t produce that much saliva, and I want to stop to wipe it but I think that might derail the make out and he’ll start telling jokes again that I’ll forget to laugh at.

We move to the bedroom. His sheets are green and brown camouflage. Before I can stop myself I say, Where’s your bed? I don’t see it. He doesn’t laugh but says good one. He says he’s surprised I can see anything with those chinky eyes of mine. I guess this means he knows my hair isn’t dyed. He says ching chong ching and asks if I know what he’s saying. I tell him no. I wish I could say something more cutting, but it is all so cliché that I can only say no.

I ask him where the bathroom is because I suddenly feel disgusting and need to look at myself in the mirror, and he says last door on the right at theend of the hallway. I walk to the end of the hallway but don’t stop and walk down the stairs. I am walking in the dark along Nicholson Avenue. I am walking, my legs are mechanical. I am walking away and I feel embarrassed but think, maybe I shouldn’t feel embarrassed, but that doesn’t help the embarrassment. I am disappointed I did not steal a shirt, I am disappointed I wasted a Claritin, I am embarrassed, I am disappointed, disappointed.

I stop at the pharmacy to buy Neosporin for my bloody bikini line and walk home.

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