Grocery Shopping With My Dead Mother
By Jodi Freeman
Under the store’s florescent lights I see that this handwritten recipe for Chicken and Dumpling Soup is as fragile as dry butterfly wings. The creases are as good as rips. The page is the color of rancid butter, dotted with grease marks, marred by years of being folded into fourths and stored with 3X5 cards and Good Housekeeping clippings in the unremarkable yellow plastic box.
I snuck my mother’s recipe box out of my father’s house with the other kitchen items I took to my first on-campus apartment. Not that he wouldn’t share it with me, but he would have insisted the artifact itself remain safe at home. I didn’t trust myself to explain that I’m hollow and imagine my mother’s food will fill me. Everyday things that will hold my skin to my bones. Won’t articulate that these recipes may be the letter she never left, explaining what I needed to know about being a woman that she didn’t live to tell me.
Standing under these cool blue lights I know that I’ve made a terrible mistake risking this page with the looping handwriting to the dangers of the living world. Straightaway I am certain that I should simply transcribe these recipes into my computer and enshrine the originals. As if saving bits and pieces will keep my memories whole, even though tokens fade.
The abrupt cold of the refrigerated case stacked with packaged meat creeps up my nose. Exhaling I sort through the limp weight of the clammy opaque bags of whole chickens, searching for one between two-and-a-half to three pounds. None are more than a titch under five, most significantly more. Will adjusting the recipe spoil the spell? How can everything have transformed so much in a decade that chickens have routinely doubled in size?
An impression of my Mother’s form, like the shadows on a negative, teases my peripheral vision. The image of her compiled from photographs and descriptions, having lived with reproductions longer than with the flesh and blood woman. Like reading the book after seeing the movie, scenes that never existed on celluloid unfold in my head with the actors playing their parts so clearly I’d swear I saw it.
I have enough experience of these sorts of visits to know that I’ve conjured her by force of will, and that my magic is only strong enough to maintain shadows. If I turn my gaze directly on my Mother’s shade she’ll vanish—lost in the reflection of the florescent lights in the over-polished floor.
There in the produce section of the QFC I press that old paper to my nose, breath deep, and it makes me sneeze. All I smell is dust and sourness, there is no scent left of my mother, her kitchen, or the red Bic felt tip pen she used to record these directions.
In a Shakespeare class I took one rainy winter quarter, the professor started the course by explaining that freshmen at MIT are commonly required to demonstrate, by mathematical proof, that in every breath a person can take on the planet there is some fragment of the air Julius Caesar expelled saying his last words. There are many millions of oxygen molecules in one person’s lungs at any given time, and the idea is that Earth is a singular entity, and no oxygen, or energy, will ever escape from it. The eager young professor, in his jeans and polka dot ties, seemed to think that the text would be more alive if we students knew we were breathing some of the same air that Shakespeare himself exhaled while playing the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Instead, my thoughts got stuck on how poor hygiene was in Shakespeare’s day and how bad his breath must have been.
I’m not sure if this was the first time it occurred to me that a person does not have to be long dead to have their words, final or trivial daily utterance, merge with all breathable oxygen. This same air continues to cycle around the planet, a sort of reincarnation to believe in.
Surely being her daughter there is some of Mom’s breath still in my lungs, some of her in the pores of my skin. I imagine that I can smell her. But I don’t remember her scent, her human smell that would linger on her pillow, or in the clothes she’d worn.
Instead I remember the names on her perfumes: Charlie!, Shalimar, Chole. Fragile concoctions turned sour and biting by the time I’d found them tucked away in the bottom drawer of her dresser. Long lost by the time I found courage enough to search for traces of her, long after I’d forgotten the sound of her voice.
I try to impress my mother’s shade by my choice of produce; I weigh potatoes in my palms, smell the onions, test the suppleness of the carrots before placing items in my basket. I choose the same brand of baking powder she used, Arm and Hammer.
I do not look at other shoppers.
As an example of my independence I put both Lucky Charms and Captain Crunch into my cart. I walk the aisles pretending to be absorbed by the high stocked shelves, my cart gliding past other shoppers engrossed in their errands or by their own ghosts.
She will only come to me where I am forced to remain respectful and silent. In pubic she escapes my questions: did all her church-going earn her a coupon for admission into heaven? Why did she tell me that lie about bubble gum staying in your body for seven years if you swallowed it? How cooled is just slightly? How much milk is a bit? Exactly which potatoes are medium sized?
I won’t disturb our fragile agreement. She can only haunt me when I ignore her, and in life or death Mom would have nothing to do with a woman muttering in the cereal aisle.
SEVENTH INNING STRETCH
By Chuck Augello
The ball, white leather and red-stitched, spins toward home plate, and of course, I swing and miss. Fifteen games and I have yet to make contact, not even a feeble foul tip. Coach Simmons shouts encouragement, you’ll get ’em next time, Richie, and teammates, knowing they are stuck with me for another three weeks, mumble “good try,” hoping Coach rewards their sportsmanship with ice cream after the game.
That morning my father whispered his shame as he poured the coffee and gobbled his eggs.
“What’s wrong with him? I have to lie at work, tell people he got a hit instead of four strikeouts. I’m not expecting Derek Jeter out there, but could he at least make contact? Is that asking too much?”
“Big deal,” Mom said, displaying what I’ll soon label her “you asshole” glare. “He sucks at baseball. Who cares?”
In the bleachers Dad cheers loudest for Tommy Hollenstein, slugger supreme, giver of Indian burns and slaps to my head in the school lunchroom whenever the teachers aren’t looking. But Tommy’s swing is picture perfect: watch the ball in its glorious arc soaring toward the left-field fence.
On his feet in the middle of the bleachers, Dad pumps his fist, shouts “Atta-boy!” and “Did you see that? Did you see that?” He slaps high-fives and tips his cap as Tommy jogs across home plate.
Only Mr. Reed seems unfazed. Ten feet from the first-base foul line, he stands alone in his blue windbreaker and green fishing hat, smoking a cigarette and gazing at the whitetails gathered in the grassy patch beyond the concession stand. Last year his son Dave was bicycling home from a game when some woman in an SUV, texting her husband to pick up the dry cleaning, didn’t see the bike, didn’t see anything until Dave’s head was already smashed under her tires.
In tribute, we all wore our uniforms to the funeral. No one has the heart to tell Mr. Reed to go home.
Fingers crossed, I hope Billy Weber makes the third out so I don’t have to bat again, but Billy’s sharp ground ball finds a hole between first and second, and there I am once more, aluminum bat resting on my slumped shoulder as I trudge toward home plate, red helmet rattling against my forehead as someone on the opposing bench shouts, “Easy out.”
In the stands Dad is chatting with Mrs. Simmons, the Coach’s wife, his face and body turned away from the batter’s box as if he cannot watch the horror of another hopeless turn.
“Eye on the ball, Richie, eye on the ball,” Coach says, my heart pounding beneath my uniform, my throat as dry as infield dirt. Please God, I think, let me get hit by a pitch. A hard thump on the thigh or chest seems fair trade for the chance to have Dad see me standing on first base.
I step into the batter’s box and assume the stance, looking out toward the pitcher’s mound, where Jordan Skunda grips the ball in his mitt, waiting for the Ump to give him the sign. The windup, the pitch—I move not a single muscle as the ball pops into the catcher’s glove for strike one; two more and I can slink back in ignominy, my game complete. But the second pitch is dirt-wild, bouncing toward the backstop as Billy Weber takes second base, the go-ahead run now in scoring position.
“Drive him in, Richie; you can do it, kiddo, eye on the ball.”
The third pitch is ball two, and for a moment I think Skunda might walk me, but the next pitch is straight down the middle, strike two.
“Gotta swing the bat!” Coach yells, and there goes Dad, waving to Mrs. Simmons, skulking off toward the parking lot as if his real son were playing elsewhere, dazzling the crowd with his big league swing.
I clutch the bat so hard my fingers throb, waiting for the Ump to call strike three.
Billy Weber bounces off second as Skunda winds and delivers, his long arm extended as the ball flies from his hand. In my head I am already walking back to the bench in defeat, yet my body, as if driven by an undiscovered reflex, projects the bat in motion and by some random accident of physics, ball and bat collide.
It’s only a dribbler, a weak pool shot back to the pitcher’s mound—I’m tagged out ten steps from home plate. Yet I’ve made a contact—a first!—and Coach shakes my hand as I head back to the bench, teammates shouting, “Way to Go, Richie!” Even Tommy Hollenstein slaps my shoulder with good team cheer.
Yet where is Dad? He’s vanished from the bleachers, out of sight. Having fled the scene of my anticipated flop, he’s missed the whole at-bat.
The next inning Coach replaces me in right field. Bat and glove in hand, I go off in search of Dad. Mr. Reed, his sad eyes still gazing toward the deer, whispers, “Nice job, Richie,” as I pass. His voice is soft and choked, as if he hasn’t spoken since his son’s funeral.
In the unpaved lot our Toyota is parked in back, distant from the other cars. Already I’ve decided to lie.
“Three pitches, three strikes,” I’ll tell him. “The bat wasn’t even close.”
As I approach the car I see Dad in the driver’s seat, eyes closed, his face blissful. Then Mrs. Simmons appears, the top four buttons of her blouse undone, her blonde hair tied back as she bobs up and down over my father’s lap.
When I swing the bat it’s majestic, aluminum against halogen headlights. Smack! Side view mirror—smack! Front bumper—smack!
Mrs. Simmons screams as Dad zips up his pants, glaring through the windshield. Finally his son has made contact. At work the next day he can brag it was a home run.
By Niles Reddick
A rural Southern drive can be beautiful, if one focuses solely on nature—the forests, rivers, creeks, hills, and more, but more often than not, we passed through small towns that seemed to be moving more toward ghost towns and it was depressing. A two-pump filling station had become a secondhand thrift store next to a wood shed that leaned, and flaking paint read “Fred’s Produce: Vidalia onions, Pecans, Florida oranges.” I imagined the words in patriotic blue and red on a white background that likely attracted hundreds of visitors per year and offered Fred enough to eke a living on his small farm, tithe ten percent to the country church, and send his daughter to Auburn with federal Pell grant assistance so she could get a degree in business, join the rising tide of brain drain from rural communities to become the likes of commuters in a never-ending wave of traffic in Birmingham, Atlanta, Nashville, or any of the other ever expanding cities of activity, where jobs are plentiful for newly graduated and high-rent sky rises are ready to drain what money is earned.
“Wish that stand was still open. I’d love to get some pecans and maybe some Mayhaw jelly,” Ashley said. “Make great gifts this holiday season.”
“Yes, that would be good,” I responded. “Y’all need a restroom break?” I asked, looking into the rear view mirror at my two teens. One had headphones on and was listening to his own music, and the other teen was humped and staring at her phone. I wanted to tell her she might get stuck like that over time, the way my mother told me my face might stick in a certain position when I made faces. My teens used to have more identity, more communication skills, and more sense; now, however, the love, respect, and admiration they had for us had turned to eye rolls, comments of our stupidity under their breath, and talk of college and moving far away from us.
Ashley said she didn’t need a restroom break, but the teens never responded. All of a sudden, the two teens would rise from their drunken teen stupor, like whales coming up for air, blowing, and blurting out “How much longer?” or “I’m bored” or “Why do we have to go to relatives?”
“If you’re bored, do aerobics,” I directed. “Listen to the beat of the music, keep time with your butt cheeks. I’ve been doing it for over an hour now and feel great.” I didn’t answer how much longer because that was dependent upon multiple factors, and I didn’t answer why we had to visit relatives because I honestly didn’t know. It just seemed the right thing to do.
“That’s stupid,” my teen daughter said. I used to refer to her as Amelia, but since becoming a teen and entering this drunken state, I just refer to her and my son Anthony as teens. They’re in cocoons, becoming something positive and beautiful when they finally emerge, I hope.
As I see the speed limit sign and slow the vehicle, we entered yet another town on the verge of ghostliness, a town in need of a Lightning McQueen, something famous to come along and rediscover its forgotten fame and fortune in a Doc character, something that will repair its streets, resurrect buildings, and bring new life. The town has a Native American name I couldn’t pronounce, like the creek we crossed on the cement bridge just out of town, and I think it’s ironic so many places have native names, but the ones who gave place names were driven from their lands so long ago. Everything changes and contrary to my long planted grandmother whose mantra was “It’s for the best,” treatment of Native Americans, wars, poverty, and even her own cancer weren’t for the best.
I saw an old man wobbling back and forth along the road’s shoulder, saw him mumbling to himself, shaking his fist and yelling heavenward, and I figured this holiday season he’d found solace in a bottle of Mad Dog.
“Is that man drunk?” Ashley asked.
“Appears to be.”
As we approached, he toppled over into the ditch. “Aren’t you going to stop?”
I eased the car to the shoulder. I grabbed the cell, called 911, explained what I’d seen, approximately where, and she told me help was on the way. When I stepped out of the car, I yelled toward the ditch. “You alright?”
I heard a cough, giggling, and he said, “Them clouds is moving. He might’ve heard me.”
I knew better than to move someone who’d been hurt. “Can you get up?”
“I can do whatever I want,” he said. “It’s a free country, but nothing’s free.”
He couldn’t see me, but could hear me. “You Jesus?”
“No, just someone passing through.”
“You come out of them spinning clouds? An alien?”
“No, I’m not an alien, but I’ve got help on the way.”
“Don’t need no help. I’m tougher than everyone here.”
I saw the ambulance coming, turned, and waved, and they pulled off onto the shoulder. I pointed to where the man was, and they said, “Sometimes we get calls to get him and other times, we think he sleeps it off in a ditch. He’ll sober, piddle around town, and get drunk again when his checks come next month.”
On my way back to the car, I heard him. “Y’all see that damned alien? Knocked me in the ditch.”
“Ain’t no alien here,” said the paramedic.
I got into the car, gave a brief summary to Ashley, spoke to the rear view mirror that they were missing life, and drove on to the next ghost town.
By Tammy Zhu
The chive and pork dumplings my family made filled our kitchen with a steamy warmth. My dad would lead our Sunday tradition when he pulled out the dented aluminum tub and started kneading dough with his large, rugged hands. Flour flew into the air like pixie dust every time he pressed. That used to be the only time he took off his wedding band.
Next to him my mom, who smelled like hospital scrubs, stirred cooking wine, chives, ginger, and ground pork in a giant porcelain bowl. An uncontainable sweetness bubbled from her mixture. Stories of old college classmates bounced between my parents like ping pong balls. Mom looked up at Dad when she talked. Dad brushed her arm every time he wanted her attention, leaving trails of chalk-like flour all over her forearm.
Across the counter, my talented, straight-A brother Kevin, with his skinny arms, rolled a wooden pin across chunks of dough, transforming them into thin stretched ovals. He let me try a few, his palm guiding my hand back and forth over the rolling pin like we were ironing the creases out of an old t-shirt.
Our dumplings came off the stove so plump. Their insides gushed with soup. “Slurp it all in, Kathy,” my family would remind me. The goal was not to lose a single drop. On Dumpling Sundays, we forgot about how we couldn’t move into a three-bedroom, how much more money we needed to save for Kevin’s college tuition, and how Mom, even after three years at the hospital, was still getting paid less than her new coworkers who just graduated from U.S. nursing programs.
When I was in seventh grade, Mom told her boss that she was getting too many graveyard shifts for how little she was getting paid. A few days later, her boss told her that the hospital didn’t need her services anymore. After Mom lost her job, she lost her sense of self. She started speaking in a high-pitched squeaky tone as if she were a cartoon rather than a real person. She started referring to herself in the third person. When we asked her for help on homework, she ran her fingers through her thinning hair. She used to be so sure of herself, plucking the pencils from our hands, saying, “Let me show you how.” She talked about applying to other hospitals, but she never did.
Dad kept working his day job at the lab, but picked up evening shifts in other labs, washing tubes, wiping counters, cleaning refrigerators. He came home later and later. Mom had nothing left to be happy about, and soon that became Dad’s fault. She picked more fights with him. She accused him of losing respect for her. You don’t see me as an equal anymore.
Dumpling Sundays exploded with Mom’s grievances. When she stirred her mixture, she stirred up all the fury, insecurity, and resentment that simmered inside her and flung it at my dad like paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas. Back when Xiaoxi didn’t have a job, her husband applied to jobs for her. What do you do for your wife? If your wife still mattered to you, you would help her around the house instead of come home at 9 p.m. If I had opened my eyes wider, I would not have married you.
Dad took it all in, like the shots of cheap bai jiu that he downed with more abandon. Kevin would massage Mom’s shoulders, which silenced her for a minute. The flour imprints disappeared from Mom’s forearms. But we kept pressing the dumpling wrappers together as though that might glue my parents back.
A year later, Kevin left for Cal State Long Beach, since we couldn’t afford Berkeley. Mom drilled deeper into Dad like an unstoppable power tool. On the Sunday before Lunar New Year, the ultimate dumpling holiday, Mom said, as she carried a plate of freshly wrapped dumplings to the stove where Dad stood, “I was thinking of volunteering at a convalescent home.”
Dad replied, staring into the pot of heating water, that we could use the income from a paying job, with Kevin in college and me going to college in a couple of years.
Then Mom asked, “Why can’t you think of me for once?” Tears fell onto the dumplings on her plate. “Why can’t you love me anymore?”
“I do,” he said, “but it’s never enough.” He ventured on, “I work three jobs. What else do you want me to do? You’re not the only unhappy one.”
He took the plate from Mom’s hands and smashed it onto the tiles between them. Shards flew everywhere, cutting the tops of Mom’s bare feet. She took half a step back and stared into the space between her and Dad, not meeting his eyes.
“Fine,” she whispered, “I’ll leave.” Her lips trembled as if she were afraid of her own words. “Then you will be happy.”
She ran to the bedroom, emerging minutes later with a compact suitcase.
“Ma,” I yelled from the other side of the glass shards splayed across the Minesweeper tiles of our kitchen floor, “don’t leave.”
But I was too late. The front door shut. I watched through the fogged kitchen window as Mom backed out of the driveway, her headlights blazing through my watery eyes.
For the last year, it’s just been Dad and me in the house. When I emerge from my room after doing homework, he has chicken and green beans waiting for me. I ask if we can have dumplings this weekend. He says he can buy some from the restaurant down the street.
Next year, I’m going to college. After college, I will have my own family, and we will make dumplings. I will invite Kevin, Dad, and Mom. They will eat my dumplings. And my dumplings will heal them. Mom will move back to the house with Dad. And we will get together on Sundays again and make chive and pork dumplings.
Through Difficulties to the Stars
By Roberta Beary
My ears are underwater but I hear the Creep banging on the door. I lift my head. Birdie, do you need help washing your back? Mary, Mother of God, make him leave and never come back. No, I don’t. Go away. Did I forget to lock the door? That’s crazy, I checked a zillion times. The knob turns halfway. Birdie, is the water too hot? Be careful you don’t burn yourself. I wish he would drop dead. Leave me alone; I’m trying to take a bath. A person is entitled to some privacy.
After that I don’t hear anything. I lie back and close my eyes. I’m Ophelia, my long, curly brown hair flowing in the water. Instead of drowning, I grab two dingy white towels, wrap myself in one and use the other as a turban. I love how I look in the medicine-cabinet mirror, all movie star glamorous.
The Creep must be gone by now, but still I undo my turban and brush my hair, counting to 100 three times. I wrap myself in Mom’s fluffy pink robe, which is strictly off-limits, and toss the towels on the floor. Also strictly off-limits. Unlocking the door, I swivel my head like the girl in The Exorcist. He’s gone.
Now that I’m fifteen, I’ve got a lock on my door. It works, too. The Creep yelled about it, but for once Mom overruled him. I get dressed, with a bra, even though I’m philosophically opposed to bras. You can’t be too careful when the Creep’s around. Which is always. I wear my favorite top, the one for highest grade in Latin. It says ad astra per aspera. Which is also the stupid state motto.
Stupid towels and stupid pink robe. I run to the bathroom and hang up everything. I even fold the towels to hide the dingy side. Taking the stairs two at a time I peek in the kitchen. Through the screen door I see Mom in the backyard smoking her Virginia Slims. She started up again when The Creep moved in. He’s outside too, asleep on the plastic lounger. My favorite spot when it was just Mom and me.
I walk to Mom and stand so close our arms touch. Mom pulls away and takes a long drag. Joey her poodle is in her arms. They’re always together, ever since Mom caught the Creep giving Joey a kick. I’m going for a ride, Bye. Mom nods her head. Joey licks Mom’s hand. She gives him a kiss. Grabbing my bike from the garage I hit the Caddy’s back fin. The Creep’s got on his mean face. Trust him to see everything. I look for Mom, still puffing away. Those cigarettes will kill her. Bending down, I rubberband my cuffs. Stay away from those boys in the park, Birdie. They’re up to no good. And mind your new bike. He acts like it’s his. So what if he got it for my birthday? Drop dead, I say. Watch that mouth, Birdie. Starting to unbuckle his belt.
After 45 minutes’ pedaling I quit. Check if the hospital’s called. Your old man’s a goner, he’d whispered when I’d visited. Blue gown open, a gift he’d saved for me. I shut down the phone, park it on the treadmill. Turn on the trail video. Focus. Breathe. Run. Ad astra per aspera.
By Richard Stuecker
Jon turned the car south out of Kentucky, south through Memphis down toward New Orleans. We drove the downstream flow of the Mississippi, Eliot’s “brown god.” “Sullen, untamed and intractable,” Jon quoted from memory.
It was daytime when we pulled into Oxford. And Oxford meant Faulkner. And Faulkner meant Light in August. I had read it my last spring semester.
“His novels hurt my head and I get lost in those long, long sentences,” I said.
“Yoknapatawpha,” Jon said, extending the word out in a languid Southern drawl with tinges of his Ohio flat accent.
“Yok-na-pa-taw-pha,” I said even slower, dragging it out further with more of a Kentucky rural sound—well, what I thought of as a Kentucky rural sound.
“Snopeses and Satarises and Compsons, right?” I asked.
“Yeah, barn burners and spotted horses counted over and over and a bear.”
“His writing feels like this part of the South in all its lan-gor-ous, lan-gor-ous-ness, lan-gor-o-nic-ity,” I said.
“What? Langorousness? Langorousnicity? Really?” Jon smiled at me but he said it like he couldn’t believe what was dripping out of my mouth. He spoke in pure Ohio.
In the student union at Ole Miss we chowed down on some mystery meat, whose recipe seemed to be used at every campus cafeteria we visited. We got to like it. Jon started a conversation with our tablemates—a boy in a plebe shirt and madras plaid shorts and a girl he might have been dating or hoped to date. Jon and I might have hoped to date her, too, but we would be moving further south in an hour or two.
“You can call me Candy. Everybody does.” Candy’s hair was bright red and fell down her shoulders in ringlets. Her skin was a delicate pink, like my grandmother’s hand-painted porcelain. I was a sucker for redheads.
“They call you Candy because of your hair?” Jon asked.
“My daddy named me Candace. Candace Ann. This is Chip.”
“I’m from Kentucky,” I said, “But Jon here is a damn Yankee—he’s from Dayton, Ohio.
The cafeteria was nearly empty with students carrying their trays to a line of tray racks near the kitchen and Black women moving from table to table with a bucket and rag cleaning them.
“Nice to meet you two. Candy, we need to get moving, girl.” Candy ignored him.
She moved closer to us. Chip followed her.
“What’s your major, Jon?” asked Candy.
“Maybe English Lit like my buddy Ric here.”
I smiled at Candy, trying not to beam at her, and asked, “You?”
“Art. Art history for sure. Maybe design.”
“Pre-Law,” Chip looked at me, annoyed.
“Back home Chip comes from a family of lawyers,” Candy said.
“Where’s ‘back home?’ ”
“A little further south.”
“Duck Hill,” Candy offered.
“What sort of law?” I asked.
“Just torts so far.”
“Chip’s going to protect us from the Nigs,” Candy whispered looking around and right at one of the women cleaning tables.
“The Nigs?” Jon asked.
“More of them than us,” Candy said. She moved closer to Chip, rubbing her fingers along the fine dark hair on his muscular forearm. Chip smiled as though abashed. He, too, looked around.
“Plenty more,” said Chip. “Civil Rights law is gonna change everything down here, all our traditions.”
“I see,” I said, looking over to Jon.
“Politically speaking, they could out-vote us once they all register.”
“Change the whole complexion, you might say,” said Jon.
“It’s all football down here, ain’t it?” I changed the topic. “How’s the team gonna be this fall, anyways?”
“Fine crop of frosh coming in.”
“Any Nigs?” I asked and smiled at Jon.
“As a matter of fact, yes, two in fact. First time. We could use some Black studs. Those boys are built. Heredity, I guess. I hear one is lightning quick and the other can take down a QB just before he sees him coming.”
“I hear there’s a quick White player coming who was All-State in three sports,” Jon said.
“Faulkner,” he said.
“Never heard of him.”
“Fleet Foot Faulkner?” I asked. “Wily Bill? He’s a little guy and maybe a little scrawny on the field, but he’s wily, all right.”
“Yok-na-pa-taw-pha County,” Jon drawled.
“Really? Where’s that?”
“It’s kinda like here,” I said. “Jefferson’s the county seat.”
Chip looked at Candy, confused.
“He sure is a barn burner,” Jon said, “You better look out for him.”
By Ben O’Hara
Billy was waiting eagerly for me when I got there. I untied the boat and heaved it towards the sea, wincing at the tightness in my chest and trying to ignore the blood pulsing behind my eyes.
Finally, I felt the welcome icy bite of the water at my knees. Billy had already taken up his customary position at the bow as I hauled myself in and started the engine. It spluttered into life.
I looked at Billy. He was sat on his haunches, staring out at the azure expanse that seemingly stretched on for infinity, with his head tilted up in an inadvertently regal pose.
I chuckled and, as we slowly advanced, I began to feel more at ease.
I’d been suffering with panic attacks ever since Val had passed away five years ago. I led a happy life, no doubt. I often enjoyed a pint down the local, I had this boat and this small beach pretty much to myself, and I spoke to my son Justin regularly even though he lived in Australia with his family. When I was on my own, though, I’d feel Val’s absence keenly. I’d be reading the newspaper in my armchair and then suddenly the silence would press in and the tick, tick, tick of the grandfather clock would magnify. My heart would start thumping until it felt as though it was trying to escape and then my throat would constrict and then …
Billy would be there. He’d pull at my trouser leg with his teeth and gaze at me with those rheumy eyes, his endearingly jowly face, as if to say you know what we need to do. That was why he was my best friend, my saving grace now that the love of my life was waiting for me in another one. In the cloistered confines of my cottage and the small village I lived in, it was easy to forget the vastness of the world. The sea and the horizon were so mighty that they gave the impression of being beyond comprehension. This might intimidate some, but not me. It was as though that yawning space absorbed all my grievances and made me feel normal again.
I cradled my head back against the stern, switching off the engine, and we floated there, the water sloshing up against the wooden hull. The sky was gunmetal grey, the air taut, but each panic attack seemed to tire me more and more now. I could feel my eyes drooping.
The boat bucked. The sea heaved underneath us. Billy hopped down from the bow with a whimper. The sky above was much darker, the clouds in turmoil. The wind beat against my face as I looked round with the dread. I could still make out the shore, we hadn’t been dragged out too far, so I couldn’t have been asleep for long, but I’d been an utter fool to not recognise that the surly weather had been a sign of worse to come. My blood ran as cold as though I was trapped in the depths beneath us already. Billy was confident when he was on the boat, but …
Why do you take it with you? Bleedin’ Bulldogs can’t swim!
The voice of one of the old boys from the pub was whipped away violently on the wind, like a hand swatting it away. The sky bellowed down at me and now this wasn’t the world that granted me solace, but one that wanted to consume me.
I pulled frantically at the engine cord. It gave a desperate whine, then I realised that that was Billy and he was rubbing his head against me for reassurance.
“It’s okay, Billy lad, it’s okay,” I said shakily.
The engine was a goner. I seized the oars, gritting my teeth together and pulling back, but my power was feeble and pathetic compared to the colossal entity that held us captive. We were lifted up so high with the next wave that I felt my stomach drop sickeningly as we crashed back down. There was an ominous crack. Billy yelped.
Built for a river that boat Alf, not the bloody sea, chortled another voice over his pint of ale.
It does me and Billy fine, we only go out when it’s calm …
“You bloody fool!” I moaned.
The oars were sucked ravenously from my grasp, I cried out in despair and then we were aloft again, a blue giant lifting us up with a bloodthirsty roar to cast us asunder. I was drenched and choked up the briny sea and then I heard him. It had taken him; his eyes bulged as he struggled to stay afloat, the next wave was coming.
I leapt in and the water deviously soaked into my big coat, dragging me down. I howled, and it flooded my lungs. The cold seared through my brain. Billy yelped and yelped in terror and I couldn’t reach him. I tried to scream.
The next wave slammed down.
Sand was in my mouth. I spat it out weakly, barely able to move. The surf washed up plaintively behind me. I blinked. Through watery eyes I saw our boat’s smashed remains on the rocks at the end of the beach.
“Billy,” I sobbed.
I thought of the way he’d rest on my lap when we watched TV, the way he’d sit dutifully next to me in the pub, the way he’d sit on the bow as though he owned both the boat and the sea, the way he’d nuzzle my hand when he knew I was missing Val.
“I’m sorry … ”
Tears burned down my cheeks and my chest tightened. There was no relief at finding myself alive, only desolation.
But then I felt something wet against my hand. Then my ear. Then my cheek. He snorted and sniffled, weak but barely able to contain his joy. I took him in my arms as he tried to lick my face, laughing and weeping.
I stared at him. He averted his eyes, of course. Locked his eyes on his penny loafers, the old black ones with the worn-out heels. That’s what cowards and lousy dads and unfaithful husbands do. They hide their eyes in their shoes. When they lie.
The thing about saying he had sent me flowers “lots of times, baby,” when I can count to two perfectly well and I know how to stop if something never gets to three, is that he had the chance to say he never bought HER flowers. “Not once,” he could have said. “Because she isn’t you, baby,” he could have said. “She could never be you. Because there’s only one you, baby, and there ain’t a candle in the world she could hold next to you … ”
But he didn’t say that. He said, “But Emma, I’ve sent you flowers too, like, lots of times, and I love you. It was just an accident. A one-time thing. Please. You shouldn’t feel bad. It wasn’t your fault.” And then he averted those eyes and looked at those shitty old shoes and I knew it wasn’t an accident.
So I decided to go see this girl, this new “baby” whose address was put on the sender lines by the florist instead of on the recipient ones. Lonnie. Some kind of redneck name. Probably short for Lonette or some such. Bless her heart. She didn’t know about me, I’m sure. Sort of like that Amber Frey woman who was so enamored with that lizard named Scott Peterson. Anyways, so I get to 249 Travers Lane and take the deepest breath of my life. I push the doorbell and it ding-dongs inside and I think about running away like a kid on a prank. But I stand there, all resolute, and wait, surprised by my courage, or maybe disgusted that I even care about a woman who jumps right in the sack just because an uninspired man like my husband sends her flowers.
So the door opens and there’s this man, this poor sap who clearly doesn’t know about the fling his wife is having with my husband. Or maybe he did. He had a sad look on his face. His mustache looked wet, sort of like he’d been crying. Still, I said I wanted to talk to Lonnie right freaking now. A dark expression entered his eyes. “I’m Lonnie,” he said.
I stared at him. “What did you say?”
“I’m Lonnie,” he said. “And you’re Emma.”
Well, I tell you honestly, I was speechless. I gathered my strength and took an even deeper breath than the one thirty seconds ago. When I spoke, I knew my life was going to change forever.
“Lonnie. Are you … in love with my husband?”
Lonnie stood there. He looked in my eyes, like he was searching for something. I don’t know whether he found it, but then he spoke, almost in a whisper.
“Emma, I know who you are.”
I took a step back. “No,” I said. “You don’t.”
“Emma, we miss Janie. Today’s the anniversary. You know that.”
The poor man was crazy. Don’t you see he was crazy? I decided to leave. I almost made it down the steps.
“Emma, it wasn’t your fault.”
I stopped and turned around on the bottom porch step.
“We believe that, Emma. We know that. We really do. You know, Barb and I always take pictures of the flowers from you and Bob. Every year we take pictures. We pretend the flowers live forever with us. It means a lot. We forgave you a long time ago, Emma. It happens every day in America. Janie ran out for the ball, and you—”
“Tell your wife to leave my husband alone!” I said. He was a clueless sack, changing the subject like that.
“Emma, please. You’ve got to see someone.”
“Tell your wife to stay away from my husband or I will KILL her. What kind of name is Lonnie for a woman anyway?”
I got him good on that one. He was married to a floozy who couldn’t leave the neighborhood men alone. He looked down at his shoes, just like my husband. He was a defeated man. I could go now.
As I stepped over the curb to cross the street and walk the four blocks back to our corner of Spruce and Travers, I felt sorry for the poor man. He just didn’t know about his wife. I’ve heard it said if she’d been a better mother their daughter would still be alive. Sure, they can sit there and eat their Cheerios together every morning, but they’re over. Bob and I, though? We’ll recover, because that’s what full-on love does. It comes back. It remembers the good things. It forgets Lonnie, just like it forgets bad mothers who don’t keep their Janies in the yard. Love roars back, sending lots and lots of flowers.
And it will not be interrupted by memories of bad things.
By Steve Gergley
It’s Sunday morning, a few minutes after dawn, and I’m alone at the kitchen table with the obituary of the first man I ever loved. The house is gray and silent and chilly at this hour, and the only light in the room is an orange-gold needle of sunlight knifing across the far edge of the table. Because of this I have to kneel on my chair and slide the newspaper halfway across the table in order to make out the words on the page. I know I could very easily solve this problem by walking across the room and turning on the lights, but I don’t want to disturb my wife, Karen, who is sleeping with the door open just a few feet down the hall.
Though this obituary is the first public announcement of Joe Warner’s death, the news is not a surprise. While talking to Mom on the phone last night, she threw up a classic death flag:
“Drew honey, do you remember a Joseph Warner? My friend Wilma said he graduated with you.”
Right then I knew. The only time Mom asks that question is for births and deaths. If it’s a girl’s name, it means she just had a baby. If it’s a guy’s name, it means he’s dead. Despite this knowledge I played along, pretending I didn’t know exactly what she was going to say.
“Yeah, I used to be friends with him back in high school, but I haven’t talked to him in like twenty years,” I said, waiting for an anguished groan or a pinched sob to bubble up in my throat. But after a few seconds, nothing came. I didn’t feel anything.
“Well, he passed away yesterday. Thirty-six years old. Very sad.”
Back in the kitchen, I scan his obituary for the cause of death, but it isn’t listed. This doesn’t surprise me either. Then, as I look up from the paper and stretch my aching back, a few memories of Joe Warner pop into my head: the time during study hall when we snuck into a library supply closet and made out until the bell rang, the day we skipped school and drove around singing Weezer songs in Joe’s corvette. Remembering these, I close my eyes and brace for the tears, but still they don’t come.
From the hallway I hear the screeching electronic buzz of Karen’s alarm. Just before the sound cuts off, I slip back into my chair and glance out the window.
Karen and I have been married for a little more than three years. We actually graduated high school together back in the nineties, but we never knew each other until I approached her on Facebook a few years ago. Though she makes pleasant company, I only asked her out to cheer up my mom, who fell into a wine-fueled depression after my dad died four years ago.
My mom and I have always been close. Before I got together with Karen, my mom had always asked me when I was going to settle down with a nice girl and give her a grandchild to spoil. For years I’d been building up to finally admitting the truth about myself, but once my dad died, I lost the heart to tell her. And then, after watching her leap out of her chair and squeal with joy the first time Karen walked through her front door, I decided to keep up the charade. That way, at least one of us would be happy.
In the four years we’ve been together, Karen and I have had sex exactly twice. I think for most women that would raise suspicions, but for Karen, it hasn’t been a problem so far. Six months before we started dating, Karen was divorced by her childhood sweetheart, a man she later told me she had loved since she was eleven years old. Ever since that divorce, she has gone to weekly therapy sessions to work through a number of issues, including depression and low libido. Over this same span I’ve had affairs with seventeen different men. Maybe this makes me a bad person. I don’t know. I just know that I’ve been pretending to be someone else for so long, I can’t really feel anything anymore.
For the next fifteen minutes, as my wife stirs in our bedroom, I watch a wad of thick white clouds slide in front of the sun and choke the gold light from the sky. By the time Karen trudges into the kitchen a few minutes later, the room is even more gloomy than it was when I plucked the damp newspaper from the porch forty minutes ago. Now she flicks on the lights. From here she gives me a sleepy, “Morning Drew,” and swashes across the tile to the coffee maker. As she lifts the plastic lid and inserts the crimped filter, her bony fingers smoothing the crinkling paper, I remember the touch of Joe Warner’s hand against my cheek: the tingling drag of long, soft fingers, the delicate way he used to cup my chin. Moments later a hard wet welling rises in my throat and I suddenly feel like I’m going to burst into tears over the loss of this man I once loved. But before I can think another thought the feelings are gone, buried in the back of my brain with the rest of my bones, and in an instant I’m myself again, or at least the version of me that exists in this life.
Now I close the newspaper and turn to my wife, who stands at the coffee maker with her back to me. Still dizzy from the emotional whiplash, I take a deep breath and finally decide that it’s time. I just can’t pretend anymore.
My voice trembles as I start to speak.
“Do you remember that kid from high school, Joe Warner? I think he graduated with us.”
By Elliot Greiner
After I finished peeing I called the number on the bathroom stall. There was an answer before the third ring.
“Who is this?”
I paused, but figured there was no harm in using my first name. I realized that I hadn’t expected anyone to pick up. “Ronnie.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Is this Joyce?”
“Yes, what? Who are you?”
“Answer me,” she said. I looked at the writing next to the number. Even though I knew I shouldn’t say it, I couldn’t think of anything else. Really, there’d been no component of thought to this, just the blind hope of connection. I could feel my voice waver as my mouth forced out the words.
“I’m just calling for … ”
“Just for … a good time.” I coughed, gritting my teeth. For a moment there was silence.
“Is this a joke?”
Was it? I wasn’t sure if it had been written as one, but in my drunkenness it’d seemed like an opportunity to talk to someone and distract myself. However, now, hearing the ugliness of these words cut into me like a knife. Kara’s face suddenly flashed back into my head, the memory of her touch prickling my skin. I felt sick. “Yes. A shitty shitty joke.”
“Are you with Rob?”
“No. I don’t know a Rob.”
“Is that you, Russell?” Her voice shook, and I got a bad taste in my mouth. I stared at the graffiti, how it curved around the toilet paper holder in violet lettering. I hated myself for calling. A week ago I was lying in bed next to Kara—a week ago I would’ve never thought that I’d be drunk and alone in a Buffalo Wild Wings on a Sunday night. “Is Rob there?”
“I don’t know Rob, or Russell.” This was true, but Joyce started to cry anyway. When she spoke next I could hear a film of mucous break across her voice.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Tell him I’m sorry. I fucked it up. I’m sorry. Is Rob there? Can I talk to him?”
Reflexively, I looked around the bathroom. “He’s not here. I really don’t know him.”
“Then how do you have my number?” That was a good question, and I realized that maybe Joyce didn’t know that her name and number were advertised in a toilet stall; that it might never occur to her that she could have been a victim of such vandalism.
“I found it.”
“You found it?”
“It doesn’t matter.” I stared at myself in the mirror, marveling at how fast the conversation had worn away at my four rum and cokes.
“How do you have my number?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know Rob. I’m alone.”
“Please,” she said. “Please, tell him. I’m sorry.”
I’m not sure why—I think it was the way her voice elevated, like a wounded songbird’s—but I started to cry too. I thought about what Kara was doing right now. Maybe she was also sad, finally realizing that this whole mess was a mistake. Maybe I should just hang up and run to her apartment.
“I’m alone,” I said. “I really am.”
“I don’t understand. I … just don’t.” Joyce’s sobbing grew harder and I leaned against the sink. I thought about telling her about how pathetic my situation was. Would it make her feel better to know that I too had been left, that even worse than her I hadn’t even made a mistake—unless being honest and trusting and naive counted as one.
“I’m sorry I called, I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ve been left too you know. My girlfriend and my roommate—”
“I swear—did Rob put you up to this.”
“Then … just. Fuck off. Just fuck off.”
“Listen,” I said. “Hold on.”
“No, fuck off.” I tried to speak but the line cut away, leaving me to the din of commotion beyond the bathroom door. I shook my head and put my phone back into my pocket. The air turned thin, the light around my peripherals dimming to shadow. I dry heaved into the sink just as a man stepped inside.
“You okay bud?” We locked eyes through the mirror. His fingers were gripped around the top of the stall door, rocking it from side to side.
“Fine,” I said.
“All right.” He nodded, and I could hear him start to pee as I dried my face with a paper towel. I wondered what he would be doing later—going home to a wife, a girlfriend? Or maybe he was the type happier left independent, however that worked.
I wiped my hands on my pants and went to the door. Anxiety rippled harder through my gut, my mind firm with the idea that it might never end. It was all I could do to follow each breath into another, wondering if somewhere Joyce was doing the same. The thought of her calmed me, but as I made my way out of the bathroom I knew it wouldn’t last. Whoever she was—whoever she actually was—I’d never know. Really, the one thing that I did understand was that her pain was the only consolation I’d get; the firm knowledge that there was someone else on this planet just as lost and severed as me.
When I pushed on the bathroom door the noise of the bar hit me like a wall. I walked to the front and saw that the snow had settled into smooth piles by the road. Stepping outside I shivered, zipping up my jacket. In the distance a train bellowed, a car honked its horn. I turned left down the sidewalk and headed for home.
By Patience Mackarness
Morning arrives without sun, a raw moist dawn spreading over Commercial Road. It’s a cement-grey pedestrian precinct, thrown up in the hasty overconfident Sixties. Its multi-storey car park once bagged an award for Britain’s Ugliest Building.
In a recess smelling of piss—the long-unused delivery entrance of a long-defunct department store—there’s a heap of cardboard and damp sleeping bag. Some empty cans of extra-strength lager. A disposable coffee cup containing two copper coins. The cup’s lid, inverted and filled with cigarette butts. A half-eaten cheese sandwich, still in its ‘Working Lunch Meal Deal’ wrapper. And not quite hidden in a sodden fold of the sleeping bag, a platinum ring with three small, square-cut sapphires.
In a while, when it’s lighter and the Saturday morning stallholders start moving in, the sleeper will stir. He’ll open first one red gummy eye, then the other. The ring’s brilliance, its uncanny blue fire, will be the first thing he sees, and he will lie still for a while, gazing at it.
He won’t wonder how it got there—not till later, when his head clears—nor speculate that this could be someone’s idea of a spiteful joke, perhaps the hot-dog vendor who has it in for him, who last week poured a cup of cold coffee over him and laughed. He won’t tell himself that a vagrant walking into a pawnbroker’s is more likely to leave with a police escort than a pocketful of cash. He won’t, quite yet, realize that he has seen the ring before. And only much later will he imagine someone standing there in the dark, recognizing his blotched features, even under the grimy beanie hat, even in sleep. Taking the ring off and putting it down, which she can bear to do, rather than meeting his eyes, which she can’t.
A complicated pregnancy
By Annette Edwards-Hill
‘Your blood pressure is 150/95,’ said the midwife. ‘You need to pack your bags and go to the hospital. You need to know you might be having the baby tomorrow.’
‘But I’m not having a baby,’ I said. ‘I’m having a kitten. I don’t want a baby.’ My voice grew louder, shrill, a caterwaul.
The midwife’s laugh was more a bark than a meow: ‘Oh, kittens. You’ll be in for a lovely surprise, dear.’
Outside the day was grey and dull. I sat at the bus stop and watched as the bus pulled up. The driver stopped and looked at me, full, overflowing. ‘I think I’m just in time,’ he said. ‘I’m not having my kittens until tomorrow,’ I said, ‘at the earliest.’ He drove away.
I walked home. A light drizzle fell on my face. ‘I only wanted a healthy kitten,’ I cried.
I dreamed of my own mother that night. She cradled me in in her arms, then lifted me to her face, licking my neck. ‘I could never have kittens,’ she cried. She slept curled around me, her light breaths a purr in my ear.
The next day at the hospital I peed in a jar and strained my nostrils for the smell of cat piss. But my urine smelt like tea and dirt.
They strapped a monitor to my belly and I listened to a single heartbeat. ‘A litter of one is unusual,’ I told the nurse. ‘Not around here,’ said the nurse. ‘We don’t see many multiples.’
The baby was tiny and covered with soft dark fur. She wasn’t born in a sac and she didn’t have a tail. She looked at me with dilated eyes and meowed softly.
I lay on my side and let her pull at my nipple with her gummy mouth. I closed my eyes and imagined half a dozen tiny mewling creatures drinking me dry. I softly licked the baby. She tasted like old blood.
By James Cato
I was supposed to feel joy growing a fetus. On the contrary, I’d been waiting to barf since our linguini and meatball entree. Outside was tropical storm Ernesto. The tempest matched the tumult in my belly (trying not to think about vermiform noodles). I’d sent my husband to bed. He’d meant well but his swallowing/sniffing/murmuring/patting my shoulder—that made me sicker.
They said (with their gums showing) that I’d love the fetus more than life itself, but those hormones hadn’t kicked in yet or something. I was supposed to feel joy with a meat melon intent on climbing out of its cave, my skin, and dragging with it everything I cherished (ability to run/hide/relax/ignore). Tonight the fetus was digging tunnels through pasta with a salad spoon. Two virulent stomach squatters, and both would come out, and I just wanted to stop thinking about queasiness.
It was during this sort of infinite, pain-tightened existence that I heard water in the house. There was already the hollow machine gun plunk on the gutters but this sound, which didn’t snatch my attention but rather floated over me in a way that I knew it had started before I noticed it, was a vicious hose into a tuba. Different. And it was emanating from the basement. The basement, where I kept my prized Cyclic-Action-Eco-Aquarium.
This aquarium: in essence, a 75-gallon fish tank, but with three species of fish (guppies/cardinal tetras/ blue acara), two color-swirled painted turtles, ghost shrimp, and pond snails. There were two substrates (volcanic sand/pea gravel), then crystalwort, corkscrew grass, duckweed, and filamentous algae. It was a perfectly functioning ecosystem that didn’t need anything but an occasional water top-up. The shrimp ate algae, the guppies the shrimp and plants, etc. It was a work of fine art.
So when I became aware of the sound a spelunker-shock ran down my spine and splashed into my gut. I fought the anhedonic urge to ignore the threat and wobbled down the steps, which are carpeted in the same TV-static color of the rest of the basement. The light switches are at the bottom of the stairs, meaning I stepped into the water without seeing it first, a shock of cold sucking above my knee. The water was really high. I smacked on all three switches, front/back/stairwell, and saw a wonderland.
In a way. You see, a self-sustaining aquarium needs a specific amount of light, and I’d found the G-spot on the floor beneath the fire escape hatch, which received marbled sun from 1100-1500. Floodwater had been gushing in through that hatch for who knows how long and my Cyclic-Action-Eco-Aquarium had gone live when the flood-rise exceeded the tank rim. Guppy shoals darted around my soaked pajamas. A turtle basked atop a bobbing cushion. There were shrimp pirouetting and snails kissing and turquoise scales and fluffy aquatic plants below my husband’s wall-mounted mancave plasma, and it was gorgeous. I was alone witnessing an ecological jailbreak.
I waded around the still-filling room with plants catching on my feet, laughing insanely, sloshing this way and that, plucking up hilarious floating items (diaper box/solo cup/decorative plastic skeleton). The lentil-shaped duckweed clotted and climbed my legs and the nibbling animals followed. By the end of my lap through the basement the ecosystem was trailing me like a new prophet in my sticky plant dress. I was singing and giggling and it was then, as a goddess of creatures in a cave of modern appliances and new life, that I vomited spaghetti marinara, long dead snakes of pasta alongside saucy splatters, and they fled the thickening red, abandoning the plants, and I finally felt better.
By Nancy Bourne
Chest out, head high. Arms swinging. Drawing easy breaths. Finding my stride. New sneakers, snug on my feet, bouncing smartly off the packed dirt. Wind tugging at my hair, loosening the pins, blowing the strands forward, in my face. Sweat stinging my eyes.
I breathe Douglas fir, Bishop pine. I could run for hours, up mountains, in sand. Is this what they call runner’s high? Something about endorphins? I’m moving. Round the bend. Hairpin turn.
Something hard smacks against my leg. I trip and fall on top of it. Something alive. It’s warm. Blood’s all over the place.
I drag myself up. Bulbous dark eyes stare at me. My chest hurts.
I look at the animal, stretched across the path, blocking my way. Nothing moving but its head.
“Get up,” I say.
It doesn’t move. I nudge its backside with my sneaker. It stirs.
Head full of antlers. Danger! I back off, unzip the pocket in my shorts, take out my cell. I type in Humane Society. My hands are shaking.
“You’ve reached the Spotswood County Humane Society. We’re sorry we can’t take your call at this time. If this is an emergency, call 911.”
I punch 911.
“I’m afraid this isn’t the kind of emergency we handle. Call the Humane Society.”
It’s watching me. “Get up, you,” I say. It doesn’t move.
I need help.
I start to climb over it. A leg kicks out. No go.
I look around. Steep hills on both sides, poison oak. I grab low bushes, rocks, roots. Up I go. It watches.
I inch my way past it, slide on my bottom to the path beyond.
It points its antlers at me.
Finally. Out of the woods. Panting. I ring the bell at the first house I come to. Nothing. I knock, I ring. The door opens. The man looks like he just woke up, black hair sticking up in all directions. Wonder Woman printed on his t-shirt.
“An animal.” I’m panting. “Back there. With anthers.”
“A deer? Woods are full of ’em.”
“I knocked him down. You have to come.”
He stares. “Are you okay?”
“We need to get him up.”
“Look, lady. You don’t look so good. Why don’t you come in for a minute and rest?”
“We’ve got to do something. Now!”
He disappears and comes back with a woman. She’s in a long skirt that flops over her wedge heel sandals. Dangling earrings. Blonde pigtails. Snake tattoos all over her arms.
She’s looking at me real hard. “Is there somebody we can call?”
“I tried,” I said. “We just need to get him on his feet.”
“The animal. Didn’t he tell you?”
“Okay,” the man says. “We might as well see what’s up.”
Back on the path.
When we round the hairpin turn, I cry out, “Here!”
“Where?” The woman in blonde pigtails is looking at me.
I look at the ground. “They’ve moved it,” I say.
“What?” the man says, staring at me.
“Somebody’s taken it.”
They keep staring at me.
“Poor thing,” I say. “All that blood. I really hurt him.”
“Only blood I see is on your pants,” the man says. “Look at your knees.”
“Let’s go, honey,” the woman says. “You need to sit down and rest.”
She takes hold of me. I hit out at the snakes crawling up her arms. Strong hands lift me up.
Back at their house, they sit me in a deep chair. Scarves are hanging on the walls. All kinds of colors.
“I have to go,” I say.
“Hang on here, honey,” she says, kneeling beside me and wiping my knee with something wet and warm. “You’ve had a hard day. Just relax.”
“The animal,” I say. “What happened to it?”
“It’s okay,” she says. “Don’t worry.” She puts a bandage on my knee.
Someone’s talking on the telephone. “Have you lost anybody up there? Old lady here claims she knocked down a deer.”
“Somebody’s coming,” the woman says. Her voice is soft. “They’ll take care of you.”
“No!” I yell. “They don’t get it. I have to go.”
I’m out the door, my arms are swinging, my sneakers are hitting the path.
I’m a runner.
By Ernesto Reyes
Diego was in the third aisle stocking canned beans when he heard the front door open and the sound of someone coming in. Without having to leave his station, however, he knew by the emerging and overwhelming smell of cigarettes and the sound of feet dragging, who it was.
Once the smell of cigarettes worsened and the sound of dragging feet began to slow down, Diego put a pause to his stocking of canned goods and walked towards the counter. Viola was already there.
She was leaning forward on the counter, squinting her eyes as if she were taking an eye exam, trying to figure out which cigarettes to get. After a few minutes, Viola muttered to herself, “No. I shouldn’t. I really shouldn’t,” and started to tap her index finger frantically on top of the counter. Then she said, “Fuck me”—and dug her hands into her pockets and dumped a pile of dimes and pennies on the counter. Diego looked at her.
“Get me a pack of Virginia Slims, please?”
“Sure,” Diego said. “That’ll be $4.60.”
Viola tried counting as fast as she could, but because of this she kept losing track and had to start her count over a few times. Diego then placed his hand on the counter, and said, “That’s fine. I’m sure it’s all there.” He reached for the Virginia Slims and placed the long, thin pack on top of the coins.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much.” She grabbed the pack of cigarettes, tore off the cellophane, took her green BIC lighter out, and placed a stick in the corner of her mouth. Diego tried waving off whatever foul odor remained behind. He then swept up the coins with his hand and started to count. Once he added up the sum, he reached into his pocket and took out a dollar bill. He then placed the dollar and all the coins into each tray inside the cash register, and went back to stocking.
Viola came in again almost a month later. Diego was already at the counter, tearing up cashed-in lottery tickets when she came in.
Not dragging her feet but walking normally, she approached the counter and glanced at the display of cigarettes, looking specifically at the Virginia Slims; she had an unusually crisp five-dollar bill in her hand this time, which she seemed to have a tight grip on. After a few seconds, however, she loosened her grip and began to nod and shake her head as if she were in a serious argument with someone, and then she sunk her head to the palms of her hands, resting her elbows on the counter.
“Is everything okay?” Diego asked.
“Yes,” Viola said, clearing her throat. Diego nodded. “Well, no. No, everything is not okay.” Diego, who was trying to iron out the wrinkles on his waist apron on the side edge of the counter, paused—as did she. “I’ve realized that I have a smoking problem.”
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and said this again but with more confirmation in her voice. Diego, after slowly taking off and cleaning his round-shaped eyeglasses, looked at her and gave a half-hearted shrug.
“I didn’t think I had a problem,” she said. “I mean, Jesus Christ, my whole family smokes—my brothers, my sisters, my aunts and uncles. My father always had packs lying around the house. I had my first cig when I was 14. I didn’t think anything of it until I met my boyfriend. When we started dating, he told me he didn’t smoke because his dad died of lung cancer, but that he didn’t mind that I smoked. When things started getting more serious, however, he tells me: ‘Viola, I think you need to stop with the cigs.’ Stop with the cigs? Okay. I’m not all sure why, but this got me mad. It honestly shouldn’t have, but it did. Anyway, I laughed it off and said, ‘Okay, I will.’ I looked at him in the eyes when I said this. He kissed me and never brought it up again, and I thought that would be the end of it.” She then looked down. “Last week, we were out for lunch, and I told him I needed to go to the restroom, but actually I went outside to smoke. Then he comes outside to take a call from his mom. I’ll never forget his look when he saw me. Never have I seen so much disappointment in someone’s eyes. He didn’t say anything. But he didn’t have to. His look told me everything. With just that one look. I guess it’s when they don’t have anything to say is when it’s really serious.”
Diego, thinking of this, cocked his head and shrugged once again; he then started dusting the counter and went back to tearing up lottery tickets.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to unload all of that on you,” Viola said.
“No worries,” Diego said. “We gotta let it out sometime.”