By Matthew Duffus
Pants and shirt pressed, tie tucked between the third and fourth buttons, he pedaled into the March wind. Once around the town Square, he dodged traffic and cut down a side street that would dump him onto the main quad in plenty of time to turn in the work he’d spent the weekend compiling before his 2 PM Calculus I lecture. His advisor had warned him not to go down the rabbit hole of Rajnipal’s Third Theorem, but after two years of proofs and equations, he was about to come out the other end. He’d be famous—reasonably so. Not cover of Time famous, but well-known enough to snag one of the ever-dwindling number of tenure track jobs on offer at flagship institutions.
Just as he squeezed the handbrake in preparation for the turn onto University Avenue, a car door swung open before him, followed by the chatter of a cell-phone-holding coed. “Can you believe she wants me to pay for the dress myself? I mean—oh my God, something hit me!”
His handbrake death grip could not avert the inevitable. He hit the door hard enough that it gave a little on its hinges, creaking as his front tire crumpled, the bike cartwheeling over the door as he began his flight. Before him, he saw a sewer grate and the unforgiving concrete of a handicap-accessible curb.
He’d been in the air for thirty seconds when he realized that the time it had taken him to work out his inevitable point of impact exceeded what should have been the length of the trip. Even thinking it seemed foolish, childish, like his nephew, who’d wailed when his Buzz Lightyear costume hadn’t come with gravity-defying abilities. The laws of nature to the contrary, was it possible that he—no, he couldn’t be. It was ridiculous to even consider the F-word. No matter how theoretical his field of study, he couldn’t find any rational reason to believe that he was actually flying.
Fifteen feet off the ground the wind picked up, stinging his eyes and causing him to squint, even though the sky was depressingly overcast. He finally had his limbs under control again, the pinwheeling of his arms reduced to an embarrassing flapping motion, his legs kicking at the air as though he were swimming. Climbing higher, he reached the tops of the magnolia trees lining University, from which vantage he could see the expanse of athletic fields before him and the academic buildings beyond the welcome arch. At ground level, the campus felt cluttered, but from high up, he marveled at the network of sidewalks, the uniform architecture of the various Centers, Halls, and Schools, and the verdant expanses of the Grove and the Circle, bastions of tailgating that, for him, were mere obstacles on his way across campus. Towering above the world like this he felt as though he were receiving a rare glimpse of the Whole.
Wishing to reach higher, he slipped his satchel over his shoulder and across his chest, letting it drop without sparing a moment for the fate of those below. He watched it fall, end over end, until the clasp released, spilling the contents into the air. A gust of wind caught the binder, pages and pages of work that represented the best of what he’d thought and done over these past two years ripping free, surfing the current like tiny windsurfers. He laughed at their dispersal.
Rising higher, he discovered that he could, if not control, at least influence his ascent with the slightest adjustment of his hands. Pinned to his side, he worked his palms up and down like the flaps of airplane wings. Applying the same logic, he cocked his head to the left a few degrees and found himself making a wide, arcing turn away from campus and back toward the scene of his liftoff. The young woman was still there, waving her hands at the two Campus Safety Officers opposite her. One of them held his bike—crumpled carbon fiber that he’d given no thought to since the accident—while the other took notes, alternating her attention between the coed and the crowd of bystanders. None of them noticed him circling above the scene like an enormous bird of prey.
He emptied his pockets of keys, wallet, and phone, tossed them toward the crown of the nearest tree, and aimed higher. Though he was afraid of heights and only flew to get to the occasional academic conference, he thought nothing of the fifty feet that separated him from the ground. He craved fresh scenery to match his fresh perspective, so he swung around again and headed for the country club golf course, where he could indulge his newfound appreciation for open spaces.
The course was crowded with post-lunch players zooming along cart paths and driving balls into the air, and he swooped down on a foursome on the fifteenth green, called, “I’m the Birdman of Oxford,” and flew off to a chorus of amazed curses. Regaining his altitude, he raced golf balls through the air while stunned players looked on. “Beware the ghost of Darl Bundren,” he cried. Within minutes, course attendants had appeared in burgundy button-downs, wielding brooms and rakes.
At the local airport, he did loop-de-loops around a yellow Piper, ignoring the frantic shooing motions of the plane’s two occupants and the buzzing of the single propeller. The plane climbed higher, and he matched its course and speed, offering a shaky thumbs-up that caused him to wobble and drop a few feet before leveling off once again.
Darker clouds had collected over Lake Sardis. Once he was away from the Piper’s hum, he could hear thunder in the distance. A new life had opened up for him. He’d rent himself out for children’s parties, dressed as Superman or Ironman, and make appearances at state fairs. Forget the Blue Angels. Everyone would want Flying Man. If only he knew how to land.
Your Name is Harmony
By Chellis Ying
She slips out of her handcrafted walnut bed with the $1,200 Egyptian cotton sheets, and tiptoes to her master bathroom. She covers herself with a pillow, keeping her eyes steadily focused on the boy asleep in her bed. When she reaches the bathroom, she gently closes the door, where once safely inside, the events of last night come flooding back to her. She remembers: this person in her bed thinks she’s 26.
Yesterday, she was on her way to a corporate fundraiser, when a GPS mix up sent her to the parking lot of El Toro Loco. She immediately knew that she had driven to the wrong place, but was inexplicably drawn to the neon green lights that flashed, “SALSA SALSA SALSA.” An electronica version of Oye Como Va blared out of the bar’s windows, and she was twenty-one again, brought back to that summer after graduation when she took a road trip to Mexico with her college boyfriend. They had bronzed their skin on the beaches, learned dirty phrases in Spanish, and subsisted, happily, on pastor tacos and Tecate beer.
The next thing she knew, she was sitting at the Toro Loco bar, sipping on tequila and stuffing her face with chile rellenos. Nothing about this place was connected to her day-to-day life of meetings, deadlines, and pilates classes, and yet she was within a seven mile radius of her West Hollywood home. An elderly Mexican man, who spoke no English, patiently taught her the uno-and-dos-and-uno-and-dos dance steps, holding her hands firmly within his calloused fingers. The night progressed. The lights dimmed. The music blared louder. The dance floor filled with shaking hips and flicked wrists. The energy around her unleashed a dormant passion for movement and melody. She was passed from one partner to another, and spun and spun on the dance floor until sweat and tequila dripped from her skin.
Looking at her reflection now, she knows that this boy in her bed won’t believe that she’s 26. She has crow’s feet around her eyes, sunspots on her nose, and with each year, her skin sinks a little off her cheekbones.
That week, she had turned 44, and had seen a fertility doctor about freezing her eggs. The idea of motherhood had always repulsed her, and yet here she was mourning the loss of something that had never been.
She brushes her teeth, applies foundation, and sighs a breath of surrender. She opens the bathroom door, dressed in her sexiest silk robe bought during a sales trip to Japan, and finds the boy awake, sitting on the edge of her bed. He looks at her—his gaze traveling her body, her face. The wrinkles.
“Did you sleep well?” she asks.
“Like a log.” He shimmies his hips into his skinny-legged jeans. “Your digs are real sweet.”
“The place was a mess when I first bought it, so the renovations have been a huge pain—work permits, plumbing codes, uneven foundation, but eventually, I found a great contractor and now it’s all been worth it.” Her nervous rambling reminds her of the 22-year-old intern she had interviewed to be her assistant.
“What do you do again?” The boy studies her face in the light. His eyes flicker a moment of surprise. He proceeds to put on the rest of his clothes with the carefree nature of a guy secure with his body. He is skinny with straight arms that reveal less muscle definition than her own. His face is not classically handsome with the scratchy remnants of acne scars and facial hair that sprouts in uneven patches. But he has caramel-colored eyes that peer at her inquisitively.
“I’m the VP of Marketing at an ad agency.” This title, which she spent years investing in, for the first time, sounds like some made-up position.
But he is impressed. “Cool.”
He pulls a shirt over his pale chest. He stops. He furrows his brow and squints, thinking real hard about something. Then shouts, “Harmony! Your name is Harmony.”
Her name leaves his lips, vibrating through the air, undulating through sound waves, connecting to her ears, diving towards her cerebrum, and piercing the inferior frontal cortex of her brain, which analyzes and compares this sound to all other remembered sounds; and like a song of worship or pure joy, it triggers her nucleus accombens to overfire with pleasure sensors. She is filled with the odd sensation of déjà vu, and the awareness that this is how her name has and always should be sung—with surprise, naivety, and self-reward.
“Cool name,” he says, “Very zen.”
“Do you want breakfast?” she asks, not wanting him to leave.
“Maybe some other time.”
She picks up his jacket from off the floor and grips it with her fingers, feeling the outline of his wallet, a rectangular cell phone, and a small tube of chapstick. “Do you need a ride?”
“I’ll take an Uber,” he says.
While the boy ties his shoes, she reaches into his jacket, pulls out his wallet, and quickly slips it into her robe.
“Do you want to go dancing some time?” She asks, thumbing his wallet in the silk liner of her pocket.
“I’m at the bar every Friday.”
“Cool,” she says, a word that she never uses.
When he leaves, she doesn’t escort him to the front door like a proper host. Instead, she stands there, her bare feet grounded to the floor, and takes out his thin wallet, which is stained with sweat marks. She tears apart the Velcro flap to find his driver’s license. She traces the sharp edges of the plastic card, reading that Jesse Linder from Wisconsin turned twenty-two last week.
Twenty-two. So many years ago. She is awed by the miraculous nature of passing time—her youth, her pains, her regrets and her bliss, but most of all, holding Jesse Linder’s driver’s license, she thinks about the way he had said, “Your name is Harmony.”
Looking for Business
By Paul McDonald
He decided to take the shortcut home from the pub through the red light district. At first he worried about safety, but felt it was worth the risk because it cut his journey time by a quarter; besides, beer made him brave. He’d heard all about it from his mates—dozens of women stood on street corners, or walked the various alleyways that crisscrossed the area. They waited to be propositioned by the blokes who drove by, or they’d do the propositioning themselves to the men passing through on foot: “Looking for business, Sir?” If the men were interested they’d be led to the tower block of flats that rose huge and grey at the heart of the district.
The first time he took this route home he was paranoid about being approached. He felt sad they should have to sell themselves, but worried about the correct way to decline a sex worker without causing offence. He reasoned that it was rude to ignore them altogether, or to keep his eyes fixed on the pavement. He also didn’t want to offer a simple “no,” fearing that this might seem too brusque and judgemental. He wouldn’t want a woman to think that he was rejecting her because of her looks, or because he deemed himself too good for her.
After much deliberation he decided on the phrase: “Not tonight, but thank you.” This was possibly a little wordy—he’d reflected long and hard on whether to include the word “but”—yet it seemed polite and non-judgemental enough not to offend, either on moral or aesthetic grounds. He would say it with a smile too; he was good at smiling. Indeed, people often mentioned how pleasant a chap he was on account of his smile.
Approaching the red light district on that first night he was apprehensive. He’d rehearsed his line, “Not tonight, but thank you,” over and over in order to get the tone right: now he felt he could perform it with just the right combination of conviction and courtesy.
As soon as he was in range of the district he noticed two women on the first corner, and saw them each proposition a man who was walking twenty yards ahead. The man ignored them both and continued on his way. How rude! He was glad he’d taken the trouble to prepare something sensitive. However, the closer he came to the women the more nervous he felt about the imminent encounter: he had such butterflies that he worried he would botch his lines. As he reached them he braced for the inevitable question, “Looking for business, Sir?”
But it didn’t come. They ignored him completely. He assumed they must’ve failed to see him, but a few yards further on he encountered another, and exactly the same thing happened: she propositioned a guy who passed her first, and then totally blanked him. As he walked on this happened twice more, and the last one didn’t merely ignore him—she looked him up and down by way of appraisal, and then ignored him!
By the time he arrived home his mind was racing with potential interpretations. Did it reflect well on him perhaps? Was it that they saw instantly that he wasn’t the type to go with sex workers? He hoped it was because his sensitivity and principles shone through his eyes, or his gait, or his smile. But was it something else? Did he look too poor to afford it? Did he seem too square—too much of a goody-two-shoes to walk on the wild side with a lady of easy virtue? Or worse, was he ugly? Could none of them stomach the idea of having sex with him, even for money? Surely not: he’d had some girlfriends …
He must have checked himself in the mirror a hundred times before he finally went to bed that night. As he lay sleepless beneath the blankets he continued to turn the incident over in his mind. Before he finally slept he had resolved to change certain things about his life. Tomorrow he would have a haircut, and he would go into town to buy some new clothes. Then in the evening he would take the red light route again and see if it made a difference. If not he would try something else: perhaps an earring, or tattoo. If that didn’t work he would adopt a different attitude: a more aggressive walk, perhaps, or a sneer. Also he needed to smile less. He had begun to feel that he smiled so much that people didn’t take him seriously.
By Saturday Night
By Jade Wallace
On Friday night, I’m at an end of semester social gathering with my classmates. I’m one of two people there who is sober. When the tipplers go out to dance off their drunkenness, I stay at home with the other temperate to watch a movie. It’s got a title with the word “ruby” in it. I don’t think it’s film about a jewel heist. Five minutes into the cinematic adventure, I’m staring at my scarlet nails, wondering whether the girl I’m sitting with wants to cuddle with me like I want to cuddle with her. I have grandiose dreams. I’ve been trying not to like her for two semesters because first I thought she was straight and then I heard that she was already in love with a woman.
By Saturday night I’m on the bus heading back to her apartment. I don’t know what she wants, but I can guess. I’m on the phone with my boyfriend, telling him I’m nervous, I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m no virgin but I’ve never been with a woman and I’ve never been with anyone who didn’t prove their love for me first. Still I knew from the moment she said “you should come over” that this statement was true by any interpretation. I had a choice, but it was only a poor one. I can forgive myself many things, but there would be no reconciliation between my courage and my reason if I told her no and went home instead. I don’t even ask her any of the questions that perhaps I should have about her girlfriend, or her health, or her heart. The landscape has faded into a cinematic, monochromatic lack of colour. And my red lipstick, the red Christmas lights in the bar where she first called me, the thin red cloth of the shirt I will slide up her back, are all but beacons in colourless dark, markers of my inevitable landing.
As I knock on her door, I think, finally my efforts to pantomime a gay stereotype in order to broadcast my availability have proven their merit. I think about how roundabout fate is, how months ago I drunkenly and confusedly kissed the guy she used to fuck. I don’t know how or why the scattered constellation of coincidences finally aligned in some coherent pattern that led me to her doorway. But here I am.
I barely have my boots off when she stands in front of me, asking to kiss me. And I’ve got my hands in her hair before I’ve finished saying yes. Tall and staggering as an Amazon, she carries me to her bed. I want her to hurt me in ways I never let men touch me. And she does not disappoint.
When she sleeps and I cannot, I try to remember the lines of her back, wonder what her tattoos can’t tell me in the dark.
By Sunday morning, I am coloured with bruises that even scarves won’t conceal. Somehow I’ve always wanted more than sex. I’ve wanted adoration, existential subtext, or some kind of other effable benefit. But I feel like I can be alone now in my awe of her. I grin vaguely at the train window, which mirrors a person I’ve never met, but have waited years to become. In the aisle, some joyful sprite sways with the snaking of the subway. She has seashell ears and sapphire lines in her silver hair. She makes me unafraid to grow old.
By David Lohrey
About 18 months ago, whilst in Saudi Arabia, a man came on to me at a faculty party. I was living on an all-American residential compound in Jeddah on the Red Sea, a place set up by the US military contractor Raytheon which sells and maintains the Patriot Missile systems. 85% of the residents are employed in the military sector, single men for the most part, but some with families. Most work on the local bases, and then there are the miscellaneous compound workers, and finally the humble English teachers, in Saudi for the high salaries and low cost of living, who teach basic conversation skills to local cadets from 4:30am, right after reveille, to prayer time just after noon.
That night there’d been a party, 20 or so guys, maybe 2 wives, homemade booze: local “vodka,” bathtub wine and beer on tap. Lots of heavy drinkers. The party’d thinned out, maybe it was after 11. There were 3 of us left: myself; a top-heavy guy with grand biceps in a tight T-shirt named Chris; and Tony, a married guy who had come alone—an Italian-American from Connecticut, dressed as usual in teaching attire, smart-casual, without his classroom tie.
This was not too soon after I’d arrived in Saudi, 4-5 weeks or so. I was 56, Tony about 44. He was built like a tank, rock-hard upper-shoulders, no give. I’d patted him on the back once and it was like hitting the back of a classroom chair. He’d arrived drunk and, as I learned later, had a reputation as a mean drunk, someone to be avoided. He spent most of the evening looking for something more to consume. He’d been fine at first, friendly and relaxed, but as others started to leave, he seemed to become more restless and fell into a funk. Eventually, he wandered over my way and we started talking. We were just getting to know each other. I knew him from our three-man carpool organized by military security due to recent terrorist attacks against foreigners. We’d been instructed to vary our route, avoid caravans, and to keep a low profile. Many of the guys were tense, bored, or lost. Nobody was fine in Saudi Arabia, as people said, but Tony seemed troubled.
Wracked with guilt, he told me the story of his having watched passively while his old bodyguard mates back in New Haven had beaten a man to death. Someone had told me that Tony had once been a member of a group of heavies working for the syndicate or something as an enforcer. This had been his job while in college. He began to tell me that he hated himself for being unable to stand up to the bullies, his colleagues, who took pleasure in hurting people. He hated himself for being weak. He called himself a pussy.
He and the goons were debt collectors. They’d go out and break the fingers or legs of men who owed the loan sharks money. The other guys, he explained, got rough and loved it. He never stepped in, although he insisted that he did not participate. He watched as they beat guys, broke their arms, or shot them in the balls, all the while laughing their asses off. He got very emotional and the room felt very small as I listened. He was angry and got angrier when I tried to express sympathy. “You don’t know me.” Finally, after a bit, I pathetically offered words such as, “God forgives you” or something to that effect, in the hope that he would calm down and go away. He stared at me for a second. “Thank you.” He looked like he was dying. Finally, he stepped out onto the balcony for a smoke.
Ten minutes later, he was back, standing in the middle of the room. His eyes were fixed on me. “You are the sexiest man I’ve ever met.” He went on. I was handsome. He loved my tongue, the way I put down our colleagues. He found my bald head a turn-on. “Why don’t you follow me to my place? We could have a lot of fun.” There was a pause. That, followed by a stunned silence. I think I sort of chuckled and wondered out loud what could be sexy about not having a head of hair. He ignored me. He was really quite fixed on the whole thing. “Let’s go right now.” He began to unbuckle his belt. He looked grim. The atmosphere was in fact so heavy I wasn’t sure if he’d wanted to show me his penis or beat me with his belt. One might have burst out laughing, but somehow we all knew that laughter would have incited violence.
Suddenly, Chris jumped up and called a halt to the proceedings. We all moved to leave. “Time to go, let’s go, it’s been a long night.” We were out on the stairs in no time. Everyone went home.
The next day, Chris told me that Tony couldn’t remember anything from the night before, so he told him what happened. When we saw each other he attempted to apologize. He was sincerely embarrassed. I told him to forget about it.
Over the course of the next 18 months or so, we continued in the same carpool, had lunch or coffee together, went out to dinner with his Yemeni wife, the hairdresser. I rarely spoke of the matter. I never again accepted an invitation to a party if I thought Tony would be there. I learned that I had not been his first or his last. He was a troubled man, an alcoholic, and had jeopardized his job on many occasions due to his behavior in the compound. He and his firecracker wife attended my farewell dinner. The next day, he wrote an email. It began, “David my David.”
So Much Missing, So Much Gone
By Mary Saliger
He’s too thin, hasn’t eaten well or eaten much. I’m sure of that. Or maybe it’s just his buzz cut that leaves too much of his face exposed. He’s young, too. Maybe Kenny’s age or only months older. Not even 22 if I had to guess.
He stands before me on the front porch, about eye level. Neither of us can look away once the door is open in response to his knock. My chest tightens, like when I pull the thin Christmas ribbon taunt and hard around the gift, securing the wrapping paper. Tight like that. My breath stalls. I look away from him, behind him. I see on the street in front of my house the Marine Corps staff car. There’s someone in the driver’s seat, waiting for the young man in case he needs assistance. Ready to help him. I can’t catch my breath, it’s gone now. My eyes return to him. His skin is yellow from the malaria medication. I know because it’s the same stuff Kenny has been taking. I have the letter.
“How long were you there?” I ask abruptly, thinking if I speak first, I can shut him down, turn him around, send him on his way to another house. There are toys like that, advertised on TV. You wind them up, set them down, and they stagger off in whichever direction you want.
“Just finished my third tour, Ma’am,” he says nervously. He has something to say to me, but I won’t let him.
“How long have you been home?”
“’Bout a month.”
What else can I ask? My mind is stuck. The gears won’t turn, a thought won’t form. No words so no sentences. He needs to say something but I don’t want him to ever speak again. We stare at one another, an impasse.
He straightens his shoulders, prepares to tell me. This all happens in seconds.
It’s November and Thanksgiving has already come and gone. Do I have anything left to make him a sandwich? He’s too skinny. His uniform clings loosely to him, the collar too big, the shoulder fabric shifts and puckers when he fidgets. Odd that it’s always clothes that shrink but in his case, he has shrunk. I look down, see his fingers. His hands clench.
“Ma’am? The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you that your son, Kenneth Thornton, was reported missing in action in Laos. He was shot down over a remote area of mountains. There is an ongoing investigation to determine whether or not your son survived the shoot down. Once the investigation is complete, you will have full access to the report.”
He memorized that. Just inserted a name. Any name. Why Kenny’s? The cold from outside is rushing past him into my house. I feel the same chill when I dive into the river, but I always grow accustomed to that after a few strokes. But not now. I need to be warm. I need to feed this Marine, need him to stop speaking. I gesture him into the house. I still can’t breathe. He hesitates, his hands twitching, fingers touching each other frantically.
Then, like freed howling beasts that I can no longer contain, the screams begin. From out of my mouth, I see black, ravenous birds emerge and take flight. They flap and clatter out of the opened front door and soar into the sky, darkening it.
The Marine looms large over me as I sink down, down, down. The soldier whispers to me, holds me. I continue to fall. There is no bottom, no floor to this. I close my eyes, bow my head.
From somewhere, a shrieking continues.
Then, voices, neighbors I think, or angels. I can’t see, my eyes squeezed shut. I’m pulled up, drag-walked over to a place of pillows, pads, cushions. I collapse into the sofa like a bag of clothes, a donation for the Salvation Army to collect later. From far away, I hear a competitive yowl, similar to the one in my head but it wails louder and longer.
Soon hands touch me along with murmuring sounds. I’m upright again. I am lifted and laid on a high, padded metal platform. My eyes remain closed, black against any of this. A brittle, hard-starched sheet scratches me, then a blanket of weight is placed on top.
Then, clatter and motion. I am cold again. I am outside. The ambulance gurney rattles a bit as we drift down the driveway, a controlled movement, no slippage or risk to me. My eyes finally open. The sky is slate-gray and miserable.
“What?” The attendant leans down to me.
“The Marine. Where is he?” I can’t allow that yellowish young man to speak to anyone else ever again.
“He’s in the house, Ma’am. Waiting for your husband and daughter. You just rest now, okay? We’re going to take good care of you. Just relax now.”
Under the sheet and blanket, I resist. I clench my fists like the soldier did. I am tight again, rigid. I won’t relax while that young man is in my home, telling his lies. Maybe his colleague has joined him by this time. Doesn’t matter. I will oppose them both on behalf of everyone in my family. Don’t let them speak to Ned, I silently plead.
The gurney stops. I hear the ambulance doors open. I am lifted.
Overhead, I see the black birds that I had freed. They are cawing to one another and multiplying. They are circling, creating random patterns that will only grow thicker and wider until their darkness completely obscures the heavens.
By Nod Ghosh
I can hear Uncle Jack coming.
The tang tang tang of his cane on the pavement says he’s almost here. When the tapping stops I run to the door to let him in. Jill tugs on her lead and then follows Jack into our house.
He’s brought delphiniums for Mother, and there are cigarettes in a tin for Father. We start making demands as soon as he hangs his hat on the peg. He’s not even started his cup of tea.
‘Sing us the Mock Turtle’s song,’ I shout, pulling the sleeve of his tweed jacket. It smells of pipe and the dogginess of Jill. Mother puts a plate of custard creams out, and sips on her tea.
‘A war story. Tell us about fighting the Germans.’ My brother Terence makes the phaewww-rat-a-tat sound of gunfire, showering me with spittle and excitement.
‘Ringa-ringa-roses,’ Molly yells out. My little sister pulls at Uncle Jack’s arm, and rubs her wet nose onto it. She leads him to the circle of pink flowers at the centre of the rug, where we all hold hands and sing. We turn slowly until it is time to fall over. Uncle Jack rolls on the floor with the rest of us, even though he is a very old man. He laughs like a car horn, a honking sort of noise that makes me giggle.
Uncle Jack makes everybody happy. He sings, plays cards and tells stories. He folds paper hats from yesterday’s Echo, creases the pages so they flutter like sails. My brother stands tall and straight with a broom over his shoulder. He tells us it is his bayonet.
‘Watch me march,’ he says, ‘I’m going to be a soldier like you.’
‘War’s not a game,’ Uncle Jack says, and Terence’s face collapses into a frown.
‘But,’ my brother continues, until Father signs hush with his finger, and he doesn’t say anything more.
After Uncle Jack leaves, I talk to my father about the war.
‘Do you wish you’d been old enough to fight the Germans?’ He was only a boy when the war started.
‘It’s hard to say,’ he replies, and I don’t know what he means. In my mind’s eye the Germans are solemn, dangerous men.
That night I dream about parachute landings and bombs.
The day Mother tells us about Uncle Jack starts like any other. It is sunny, and there are thousands of birds tweeting in the garden. She sits the three of us on the brown sofa and says, ‘I have some bad news.’ The lines on her face say more than her words.
‘Is it about the war? Are we at war again?’ Terence asks. His lips are stretched like elastic bands across his teeth. I wonder if he desperately wants the answer to be yes.
‘No,’ Mother says. ‘It’s nothing like that.’
‘What is it?’ I ask. I’m a little frightened.
‘This might make you sad,’ she says, ‘but Uncle Jack died yesterday.’
‘Was he shot by Germans?’ Terence asks.
‘He died of old age.’ Mother says.
Molly leaps up and winds around our mother’s legs like a cat. ‘When will he come to see us?’ she asks.
‘He won’t, Molly.’ Mother cups my sister’s hand in hers. ‘When people die, they’re gone forever.’
That night Uncle Jack’s ghost visits me. His medals are pinned to his tweed jacket.
‘What’s heaven like?’ I ask.
He smiles and nods, but says nothing.
‘Are there Germans in heaven too?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ he says.
‘Do they wear medals too?’ I ask. But Jack can’t hear me. He’s vanishing down the heaven street, with Jill a shadow behind him.
By Peter Jordan
On a secluded beach two men sit on green fold-up fishing chairs, half-finished bottles of Bushmills at their feet, long barreled shotguns across their laps.
Barney Hughes, a Catholic, joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary back in the 80s when the paramilitaries were shooting Catholics just for being Catholics. It was the old RUC back then, now it’s the Police Service of Northern Ireland, abbreviated to PSNI. Barney served in the force for thirty years as a constable before taking the redundancy package with fringe benefits that the perfectly accurate psychiatrist’s report accorded him.
Billy Dobbin, a Protestant, joined the new PSNI to work with police dogs after taking a university degree in zoology. For the past ten years he has worked with cadaver dogs. His job is to find dead bodies. Now he’s on sick leave, receiving cognitive behavioural therapy, abbreviated to CBT.
Barney is currently five-three up in the seagull-shooting contest.
By Pat Slattery
The fisherman fished a section of the river near his home on most days, weather permitting. The heron lived on a small island in the middle of a wide part of the river. It also fished the river every day, irrespective of the weather. The fisherman knew he was in competition with the bird. There was an important difference, he thought. He fished for pleasure. The bird fished to eat.
He looked forward to seeing the heron. It was blue/grey in colour, long-legged, with a long neck that became S-shaped when the bird drew its head close to its body. It was beautiful, the fisherman thought, an elegant creature. He had never been able to get closer than twenty or so metres of it. As he walked along the river he would see it standing on the edge of the bank, motionless, its long neck stretched over the water. As he approached it would take off, its huge wings making a faint bell-like noise. It would alight some twenty or thirty metres from its original position, repeating this several times until eventually—as if tiring of this—it would fly across to the opposite bank and disappear. Then after the fisherman had gone a reasonable distance, the heron would re-cross the river behind him and continue its search for a fish.
He wondered if the bird was male or female. For some reason unknown to him he liked to believe it was male.
The fisherman usually fished a dark, deep pool in a narrow part of the river where he had caught many fish. There was, he knew, at least one large pike in this pool. He had hooked it once but it had escaped, biting through his line with its fearsome teeth. He dreamed of catching this fish; it would be a triumph. The lads who also fished the river would envy him.
The heron had also seen the big pike!
One morning the fisherman was walking towards the pool, which was about a mile from the road. He was disappointed to notice there was no sign of the heron. Maybe it has gone to another part of the river, he thought. He’d grown to feel affection for this solitary bird, even if he and it were in competition. Then, as he neared the pool he saw it, on a small clearing from which he usually fished. Its head was down and he knew it had caught a fish. He got to within ten metres of the bird before it noticed him and flew off to the opposite side of the river.
The partly eaten fish was in the clearing, and it was not the usual small-to-medium size he had often seen the bird eating. It was an enormous pike. He immediately felt angry: this should have been his fish, the best catch of his life. He looked across to the opposite bank, where the heron was standing watching him. He picked up a stone and was about to throw it at the bird.
You bloody thief, he thought. This is my fish. I’ll bring down my gun and shoot you.
Then his anger gave way to amazement and admiration. How did the bird manage to get the fish out to the bank? How did it kill it? After a few minutes he turned and began to walk away from the pool. He turned towards the bird, raising his hat, and said aloud, “I congratulate you sir, you are a better fisherman than I, and deserve to be left in peace. Good day to you.”
By Paul Gray
The Kingfisher alighted on a branch overlooking the river and sighed. Its beautiful plumage—the envy of the avian world—mattered not a jot to it, and if you’d informed it that its name in the Romance Countries was The Halcyon Bird and that its history in myth, legend, and fable happened to be second-to-none, it would have shrugged. All it knew was that feeding time had come round again, with the ‘nipper’ squawking its head off at home.
Downriver, a movement caught its eye: a fisherman sat, his line dangling in the sluggish current. The Kingfisher sniffed its disdain. “Disgustin’,” it opined. “Stickin’ a metal hook into a fish’s gob, then draggin’ it out and batterin’ it wiv a club. ’Ow barbaric! Gawd knows”—it was an Essex Kingfisher, this one—“’ow they treat their kids. Probably the same!”
Below, the angler tossed a generous handful of maggots into the water and reclined. He had a jolly, peaceable sort of face, and the smile with which he noted the gathering of the mid-afternoon rain-clouds proclaimed contentment itself.
“Cam on! Cam on!” The Kingfisher’s impatient eye blazed furiously into the watery depths. So far, he had seen precisely nothing of nutritional value to a growing young ’un. And then—Ah! There! Unmistakably a flash of silver! There, by those reeds. The bird craned forward, quivering slightly, inconceivably tense. “I spy wiv my little eye,” he intoned ominously, “somefink beginnin’ wiv ‘S’! Coo—ee!” He called, “Daddy’s ere!” What happened next was pure science-fiction: a blue flash, a faint ‘plop’, and an instant re-materialisation on the branch. Now, however, a large Stickleback thrashed between the viciously clamped-down beak. The Kingfisher threw the human Attila far below another look of malediction, and then, with violent whip-lashing movements of its neck, proceeded to smash the fish’s head again and again and yet again against the hard wood of the branch.
Below, the fisherman felt his line grow suddenly taut.
“Oh, so you wanna play, do yer?!” snarled the Kingfisher. Its prey, brains and fluid seeping through its shattered skull, was yet wriggling for its life. “Awl right – try this for size!” The Kingfisher stabbed its razor-sharp beak straight through the fish’s eye, repeating the motion numerous times in a sort of mounting frenzy. Each time he did so the fish’s mouth opened and shut, opened and shut, opened and shut. Withdrawing its beak, the Kingfisher stomped on the fish’s head, nicked a tiny incision just below the nape, and wrenched, tearing the skin off in its entirety, spines and all. At last the fish lay still. Panting, the Kingfisher leaned forwards and ejected its hideous beak-full of skin, brains, and cranial fluid. “Now to get it ’ome,” grated the bird. “An’ gawd ’elp the kid if he dares to say: ‘Oh Dad, not fish again!’ ”
The fisherman, with incredible tenderness, eased the hook from the mouth of the fish—a small Barbel—and slid it carefully back into the stream, watching it dart gratefully away. What was that? A flurry! He glanced up. “Bless my soul!” It was a Kingfisher! A Kingfisher flying out of a tree—with a fish in its jaws! Oh, glorious sight! The angler sank back onto the trestle-chair and reached for his packet of sandwiches, his joy complete.
“Ah, the peace of nature,” he sighed, munching steadily, still vaguely haunted by his capture of the Barbel. “I suppose our Human mode of life must seem very, very barbaric indeed compared with ITS gentle ways … ”
He pulled on his hood as the gathering clouds broke at last, and the rains came.
Foo Dog Hiss
By Ingrid Anders
Get it together, May. Even the most patient husband has his limits. As if reading her mind, one of the little foo dog statues on the sidewalk looked up at May and blinked. The pair of stone guardians flanked the entrance to the Chinese massage parlor, with its colorful foot chart in the window. May had never really noticed it before—the foo dog nor the storefront. She steered the stroller inside.
While May’s feet soaked in warm brine, she imbibed the scents of sandalwood and jasmine. The reflexologist asked, “Where are you uncomfortable?”
He lifted her bewhiskered calf from the tub and bandaged it in cloth. Then the other leg. He clasped each foot with both hands. White fireworks exploded on the backs of May’s eyelids. She woke up to the reflexologist scraping the balls of her feet with a small, wooden paddle. The baby slept soundly beside her, unlike at night.
That evening, as May paced the bedroom with the noisy bundle, her husband looked up from the dog-eared sleep-training manual and remarked that May wasn’t stooping.
A week later, when May rolled up to the reflexology salon, the same foo dog chirped and flicked its tail at her. The stroller felt lighter as she maneuvered it around the folding room divider just inside the door. As May nestled into the red, upholstered lounger, the notes of erhu and dizi stroked her ears.
“Where are you uncomfortable?”
The reflexologist raised May’s smooth legs, one by one, from the bath and swaddled them in towels. He kneaded her calves through the consoling fabric. She closed her eyes and floated away on orange waves. May woke up to the reflexologist rapping her toes with little wooden hammers.
That evening, as May nursed her daughter, her husband beheld her over his steaming coffee mug and remarked that she was smiling.
The next week, May’s legs steered the stroller directly to the little stone lion, which jumped up and nuzzled her ankle with its cheek. Inside, the bamboo stalks bowed to her from their bronze pots. May’s polished toenails dove into the tub.
“Where are you uncomfortable?”
May pressed her lips together. “My libido.” She woke up to the reflexologist suctioning flaming glass balls to her heels.
On Saturday morning, May’s husband burrowed his face into the back of her neck. “I’ve missed you.” They could hardly wait for the baby’s naptime. At ten o’clock, May pushed husband and stroller out the door. Together, they danced along May’s weekly walk to town.
Sadly, the little foo dog statues were not outside the massage parlor to greet them; the colorful foot chart was gone too. The door was boarded up and a small crowd stood before it.
“This place?” said May’s husband. “I always thought it was a brothel.”
“I’d say spies,” said someone else.
“Definitely illegals,” ventured another. “Sent back where they belong.”
And though she could not see it, May heard the little foo dog hiss.
By Steve Cook
She swept into my life one night on a northerly wind, or perhaps it was the hiss of air escaping a burst car tyre. I patched it up, the emergency kit in my glovebox finally coming in useful, and then offered her a coffee. Two days later, we were still finding excuses to orbit each other until we collided, hot bodies moving in incense-scented darkness.
There was something a bit … fey about her. A sharpness to her features, the way her eyes seemed to glimmer with a light all their own, and the ears, of course. Pointed. She swore it was a family thing, and sure enough her mother, glimpsed in austere pictures, was the same. I was too head-over-heels to notice, too busy enjoying the way the streets felt more alive when we walked them, hand-in-hand.
Being part of a magician’s stage-show, she was out a lot performing or practising. That first week, she showed me over a dozen feats of magic; the Cup and Balls, the Needle Through The Thumb and something called Glorpy. I laughed like a child, and then was slightly disappointed when she showed me what was going on behind the curtain.
“You don’t like the magic?” she asked.
I managed a half-grin. “Of course I do.”
“I guess … magic is best when it leaves me guessing, thinking maybe it’s real.” I leaned forward, into the aura of indefinable oddness that surrounded her. “I am grateful, though. Thanks for … for sharing this part of your life.”
We made love that night, more than sex; an intimate partnering that was worth so much more than everything before it. By week three, I was spending longer at hers than mine.
The more time I spent with her, the more I started to notice the oddities. She smelled incredible, like a woman should smell: her hair of cat-fur and comfort, and her body of the warmth of hot sunshine on the beach. She was impeccably clean, but in all our time together I never saw her shower. Then there were the family photos.
“They’re all very … smart,” I said, looking along the row of unsmiling faces. The men, their thin frames draped in long, flowing robes; the women, resplendent in ball gowns and fine jewellery. I looked around her cramped apartment, its clutter everywhere, and then back to the beautiful castle or manor house background. “And you say this was at a wedding?”
“Oh no, sorry. That one was taken at my dad’s house,” she said, and then plucked it out of my hands. “Wanna see a trick?”
She showed me something I later learned was called the Inexhaustible Bottle. On command, the empty bottle of hipster coffee we’d bought earlier that day suddenly produced water. Beer. Soda. A thin stream of something she promised wasn’t urine, but my nose said otherwise. Whisky, and we toasted the magic.
She didn’t tell me how it was done, and I loved her all the more for it.
Ultimately, the time came when we argued, a flaming row that turned ugly as fast as the tips of her ears turned red. Tiny irritations erupted into meteors that crashed down to earth, digging craterous scars into our emotions. After the bombardment I left, angry. I’ll never know what she was thinking, but I was already mulling over the idea that I should apologise.
I went back, hours later, a peace offering in hand. A tiny charm, made of iron or some other dull metal, bought from one of those stalls at the market she loved so much.
She stared at me, then at it. “You really don’t understand me, do you?” She scowled. “You told me once that you liked magic that left you guessing how it was done. That still true?”
The sting of her voice made me wary, but I nodded.
“Well then. Abracadabra,” she said, and disappeared. There was no crash of thunder, no musical sting. A few leaves drifted to the ground, rapidly changing from green to brown.
I blinked, then laughed, the release of tension finally getting me. “Good one,” I said. “How the hell did you do that?”
The empty apartment mocked me, my own voice echoing back.
An hour I stayed, becoming steadily angrier again at what was clearly a childish attempt to avoid talking it out. When I left, I slammed the door.
I didn’t hear from her for a day, but after two worry overcame all else. I went back to her place and knocked. A big man in a wifebeater and boxers answered the door.
“I … I’m looking for a girl, she lives … ” I looked past him. The room beyond was completely different, brown, like all the vivid life and colour had been sucked out of it. Gone was the shelf of interesting rocks, arranged not in size but in a pattern she’d said represented her soul. Absent was the bed, the long draping canopy that had covered it replaced by a bare bulb that shone dirtily. Gone too were the pictures, replaced by a porn mag and five cups that might have once contained coffee but now just held mould.
The man looked at me staring over his shoulder, pulled a face, and shut the door.
It wasn’t just the apartment. Her pink car wasn’t parked in her usual spot; our regular coffee shop staff just shrugged their shoulders; and, most damningly, the magician she was apparently working with just looked at me blankly, then shook his head.
I walked back through streets that now seemed darker, dead or dying, caught in the simple knowledge that I had been wrong. Knowing how the trick was done didn’t invalidate it or cheapen it, but instead made you appreciate the magician more, their skill. I knew then that something magical had passed through my fingers, a chance to see behind the curtain.
But it was too late. She was gone from my life, as if by magic.
By Amy Braun
In addition to melted ice cream dripping from a tipped cup, there was a puddle of brownish yellow liquid, and a strange odor.
“We’re closed,” I said to the back of her head. Her white hair was stiff and bent like sea grass. Both of her hands were curled into fists. One clutched a plastic spoon.
Her face reminded me of the antique doll displayed at the Historical Society next door, except her lips were parted as if something had startled her. Her practical shoes slipped when I touched her shoulder. Afraid I would knock her out of her chair, I backed away.
Nothing. She simply wasn’t.
I took CPR last year in school, but didn’t pay attention. Besides, I get paid to scoop ice cream, not to save people.
In a normal New Jersey town in 1987, dialing 911 would bring an ambulance. But Ocean Grove, New Jersey is nicknamed “Ocean Grave” because it’s not normal. The town entrance is chained from sunset Saturday to sunrise Monday. The “day of rest law” has existed since it was a Bible Camp.
No ambulances, no police or coroners either.
So, I locked the front door, put my hands around her waist, and pulled her away from the window. The leg of the chair screeched against the tiles.
Then I ran to the toilet and threw up.
Once my nausea passed, I opened the door to the walk-in freezer and pushed the lady and chair inside. Then I pushed the table in and put the empty cup on top of it. I folded her arms so she appeared normal.
I slammed the silver door and leaned against it.
I poured hot water, soap, and a capful of bleach into the industrial-sized bucket. Floor tiles shined.
To the beach I ran.
Splashed my arms and legs. Black water danced before me.
Strange, but no one stopped me.
I stripped. Tossed my clothes.
Lifting my breasts, I let them fall. Water hit and left repeatedly. Sand pulled me deeper.
I rubbed my palms down my legs and bent over completely, allowing my hair to move in the water like seaweed.
Those old folks all look alike, eat alike. One scoop of vanilla. Plain. In a cup.
Maybe I should have warned my boss about her.
Her dead eyes were soulless.
I stretched up and discovered I was buried to my knees. I left the hole and curled into a ball on the lifeguard stand with my arms inside my sweatshirt.
Didn’t sleep much.
The next morning I walked north along the low tide. They opened the gates outside the town. I could hear the cars on Ocean Avenue. The sun’s reflection lengthened. The waves erased my footprints, smoothing what remained into bumps.
At the edge of Asbury Park, on the foundation of the abandoned Casino building, someone spray-painted “The Boss” in cursive letters. Years from now, I think, the ocean will win. The letters will fade. I ran my fingers along the wall and took to the wooden planks.
Each morning, I met my mom for our morning walk after she completed night shift at the Lake House nursing home.
Seated, reading the newspaper, and leaning against a turquoise wall. I remember she was barefoot. A newspaper was spread out between her legs. The white roots in her black hair suddenly seemed out of control.
“Morning,” I said weakly, through a swollen feeling in the back of my throat.
She put her finger on the article she was reading and looked up at me. There were tiny lines by her eyes. “Morning.”
“How are you?” I asked.
“Fine.” With effort, she stood and put the paper under one arm. She added quietly, “We lost one.”
“Mom, we did too!”
“At the ice cream parlor?” She chuckled and grabbed her sandals.
“Uh-huh. Found her at the end of my shift at a table.”
“Oh honey. That’s your first cadaver, huh? You okay?”
I turned and walked away.
“It is an honor to be there when someone dies you know,” she added. We walked beneath the peeling CASINO sign and entered the dark building that divided the towns. Our shuffling feet echoed.
Just over my right shoulder there was an orange and black NO TRESPASSING sign nailed to wood in the front window of a vacant store. Someone had painted eyes on the wood that blocked the door. I counted five different shades of blue before I realized my mother had walked on.
We walked for several blocks in silence, stopping next to the rock jetty on Atlantic Avenue. Mom waded into the water slowly as foam swirled around her ankles. Fishing boats on the horizon continued south.
Only about two weeks of that summer remained, so I left my mother there and ran down the beach, breathless.
“Honey, wait!” She wailed.
And now, here I stand on that same beach, thirty years later, a mother myself, clutching the urn of Mom’s ashes. I am pacing the water’s edge, trying to find that exact spot where she stood the morning after I saw my first cadaver. I can still hear her shouting at my back as I ran away, “You can’t run from death. It catches up eventually.”
I should have looked closer at that dead woman in the ice cream store to prepare me for this moment, but nothing can. I open the lid and drop what remains of my mom into the sea.
The waves crash around me and pull her away.
Five Under Ten
By Stephen Ryan
A bang on the door, followed by three more. The woman ignored them, head in trembling hands as she sat on the damp bathroom floor. She looked up at the mildew that dominated the room. Hours of scrubbing them had been in vain. Everything she had done lately had been in vain. Five toothbrushes stood in an old spiderman plastic cup on the left hand side of the sink. On the right side, her own solitary brush stood alone, bristles worn down in a faded mug that proclaimed her the best mum in the world. She looked for her escape.
‘Ma … Julie hit me,’ came the shrill voice from behind the door. ‘I’ll be out in a minute,’ she said in her calm, singing, lullaby voice. A voice that the children were familiar with, telling them everything is okay once it’s said with a soft lilt. But even she couldn’t fool herself this time. And to top it off, her Peace Lily was dying. Wilting—drooping into the cistern instead of arching up to the artificial light overhead. It was a present from her mother-in-law, a message in plant telling her things will get better.
Another bang on the door. She glanced weakly towards the window. The flat was on the seventh floor of a decaying, dank eight-story high-rise. She could open the cracked window and let gravity take care of everything. She noticed the dusty pill box sitting on top of the shelf. And the scissors sitting neatly beside the box. The screams from outside distracted her.
‘Ma …. will you please come out?’
‘I’ll be out when I am ready,’ she snapped, her voice now a little less calm.
She placed her trembling hands on the cold floor and pushed herself onto her knees before standing. She took four, then five unsteady steps until she reached the sink. She would soon find out. The instructions said to wait four, or was it five minutes? But that was over an hour ago. The woman stared into the mirror. ‘Look,’ she prompted herself. She was running out of time; heads to be brushed, teeth to be cleaned.
‘Ma, will you please come out … we have something for you.’
It was the voice of her youngest child. She remembered having the same feelings when she found out he would be arriving. However, every worry lifted and evaporated when she first held him, smelt him, kissed him. She smiled at this memory, probably the first she smiled in her own company in a long time. Other snippets came flooding back to her, memories of her other four children. Bite-sized memories most would dismiss, but to her they were everything. The result of the pregnancy test now seemed irrelevant. There would be tough times ahead regardless, but somehow the voice behind the door reminded her she would be okay; they would be okay. She turned and opened the door.
The five children stood in a line in the small hall way, the youngest holding a cup with a long crack running down it, filled to the brim with milky tea. There is a crack in everything, she thought. That’s how the light gets in.
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