By David Galef
Maggie and I lived in a prim white house at the intersection of Maple Road and Main Street, and when she left to teach every morning, I’d stay home and stare out the front window because I lost my job at the bank. It’s a busy crossing, particularly when children are walking to and from Fielding Elementary School, where Maggie once taught fifth grade. The crosswalk is marked by a plastic stop sign in the middle of the road, with a capitalized warning for cars to stop for pedestrians. Yet drivers zoom by, narrowly missing people. I’d bang on the windowpane occasionally, to no effect. I don’t like that kind of response, as Maggie well knew. After enough mornings, I left the house and crossed the street, taking my time. I crossed back again. I waved my arms, getting in the motorists’ faces, forcing them to stop.
A few were nice about it. “Sorry, I didn’t see you.” Or they’d have the window shut, but mouth an apology.
Others weren’t so penitent. “What the hell you think you’re doing?” Or they’d give me the finger.
Some treated me like a child, with a warning gesture. Or they’d start to give me a lecture about how I should always look both ways before crossing the road. Maggie kept saying I should exercise restraint, that I might still have my teller’s job at First National if I’d been more polite. I had several replies to that, once bottled up, but no longer.
“So you didn’t see the sign?” I asked a woman in a Honda Civic.
“Yes, but you have to look before crossing.”
“I do. And I’ve got the right of way. Am I right, or am I right?”
She shook her head in exasperation and inched forward. But I just walked even slower. I had plenty of time. Maggie and I talked about this in the evenings: what to do with the time I had now. She reached out to smooth what hair I have left, but I jerked away. She said she was worried about me. I hate being patronized. I clenched my hands not quite into fists.
Every once in a while, some driver really yelled at me, and though Maggie never liked when I raised my voice, I started shouting back. It was an odd conversation because they knew they were in the wrong, but were still pissed off.
“Look, I didn’t see you, okay!”
“What do you mean? I was waving my arms and calling out!”
“The sun got in my eyes, asshole!”
“So you can’t see, and that’s how you hit people?”
The driver cursed at me and roared off.
Now it’s Monday, not quite nine a.m., and already I’ve had words with the drivers of a Fiat, a Ford, and a Subaru. Around three in the afternoon, I’ll do it again, and again and again, though I should probably be afraid about getting struck by a vehicle. Or someone getting out of a car to hit me. I want you to know: I never, ever hit my wife. I’m not that kind of guy, and anyway, Maggie’s bigger than me. By the time she got home at four, I was back in the house, making coffee. I yelled, that’s all. I provoked her, as she’d say. Point of fact, she took a poke at me.
I wish I didn’t get such a kick out of interfering with traffic. It doesn’t speak well for me. At least, that’s what Maggie would say if she were still around.
She left last week in our Civic, gunning it past the crosswalk.
By Martha Keller
A pack of early morning commuters pushes past me and darts down the salt-stained pavement. From the ground, the skyscraper looks like an otherworldly obelisk enshrouded by fog. I first entered the skyscraper nearly twenty years ago. In the years that followed, my hair has thinned and faded. My clothing selection has shifted from fabrics that cling and gather to fabrics that flow and hide elastic waistbands. Each time I step inside the elevator and punch the 73rd floor, I feel like a lost astronaut boarding a command module covered in panels of curling wooden laminate.
Some days I close my eyes and let the gravitational pull tug at the loose skin around my face. I’m Sally Ride or Judith Resnik rocketing into the starscape instead of a cubicle that smells like bleach and soy sauce.
In high school, a history teacher we all made fun of once told me I looked like Judy Resnik. Sexy Judy Resnik who played Mozart and made missiles and told a camera that she wasn’t afraid before she climbed aboard the Challenger shuttle and transformed from glossy lips and olive skin to subatomic starlight on live television. Decades later, I still remember the explosion. Flames swallowed those rocket boosters in one long greedy gulp until all my tenth grade classmates and I could see was a cloudy outline of fire and jet fuel that looked like a broken starfish crawling away from earth.
The elevator door slides open. I wind my way through the hallway to my pod and find a tween girl with tangerine hair twirling in my chair, legs swinging in figure eights above the gray carpet squares. My boss has a gaunt runner’s face and talks to me like he has a hard time remembering my name. He says the Canadian clients are waiting in the water view conference room. Tangerine belongs to a bald man from Ottawa who said he hoped a week in Chicago would help his daughter forget that her mother hated her life so much that she left them two months ago and took the dog.
“Watch the kid,” my boss tells me before he disappears. “This won’t take long.”
The kid spins faster and faster until her hair is a halo of angry orange. Her legs pump against my desk with such compact violence I worry the plywood will splinter.
Six ceiling tiles away, my neighbor taps her French manicured nails and waits for me to contain the oscillating chaos so she can return to her artificially lit pod where photographs of grinning blond-haired grandchildren greet her at eye-level.
“Where are your pictures?” Tangerine slows to a twirl. The only mementos lining my desk are empty cans of diet soda and piles of plastic cutlery.
“Who needs pictures with this view?” I whisper. The hallway on either side of me is a mirror image of plexi-glass and bankers’ boxes and dour faces on headsets.
Tangerine snorts out a laugh that surprises us both. My neighbor with the golden-haired grandchildren eyeballs us like a teacher who’s afraid of kids and their secrets.
“There are better chairs,” I say. “Faster ones.”
Tangerine follows me to a vacant conference room. She presses her face against the window and stares down at the snow globe of powdered skyscrapers and one-way city streets softened by fog.
“Do you have kids?” Tangerine asks.
“Nope,” I answer.
Her back is to me. Her shoulders are all out of proportion with the rest of her body. She’s broad and long-limbed in a way that’s hard to outgrow.
“Did you want them?” she asks.
This time I don’t answer. Tangerine fills the silence by tapping her head against the glass. Her hands twitch, and I fight the urge to reach for her fingers.
“My mom’s scared of heights,” Tangerine finally announces. “She’d hate it here.”
My mother was afraid of heights too, but she was more afraid of being alive. The last time I held my mother’s hand was the same day I watched Judy Resnik and the other astronauts vanish in a cloud of gas. I skipped the Principal’s assembly and spent the afternoon kissing a boy whose pinched face reminded me of Micky Dolenz. When I walked inside the house that afternoon, the air was thick with aloe and baby oil. Upstairs my mother had left the bathroom door open. Her arm hung palm side up over the edge of the tub. I collapsed on the linoleum tiles and clasped her wrinkled fingers. I can’t recall if I called for her one last time or tried to pick her up. I remember how the bath suds lapped her pinkish skin. I remember the water was still warm.
I kick a faux-leather chair in Tangerine’s direction. She flops down and spins in lazy circles. I still think about pretty Judy Resnik and my mother in their final seconds. I wonder if they had time to say goodbye to barbecue and pawprints and the sound of bare feet slapping against an asphalt road in August.
My boss texts me and says Tangerine’s dad is waiting in the lobby downstairs. I walk her to the elevator and watch the doors slide open. Suits on cell phones stream out. Tangerine steps inside the elevator alone. She folds herself inside the farthest corner; her face reddens and quivers like she can see all the loneliness that’s coming.
In the final moments before she died, Judy Resnik talked about cabin pressure and heat. She survived the explosion and lived for a few more seconds.
I block the elevator doors with my arm and stand next to Tangerine.
Jump, I shout.
Tangerine watches me through wet eyes and a curtain of coarse hair.
Jump. This time I grab her hand. We lift off into the air while there’s still time to feel the floor give way beneath us, still time to feel the possibility of weightlessness.
By Ron Hartley
The way the young singer milked her vowels facilitated the way I consumed my drinks. I was concentrated on the exotic distance between her eyes while the rest came into focus: the bronzy skin of an ethnic mix, the abundant fall of a braided ponytail, the star motif of a shoulder tattoo.
“Don’t know,” the bartender said when I asked about her name, so I tried to think of something extra-terrestrial and Venus popped into my head. The set ended and Venus mingled but didn’t seem glued to anyone. I gave up my bar stool, edged my way through a forest of bodies and came up behind her, wondering how to talk to a goddess.
“Squeak,” I said to the ponytail sticking in my face, and I began to move around her. “Squeak,” I said to the star tattoo, and I got more frontal. “Squeak,” I said to the plunging neckline, and I could swear Venus looked at me with a hint of complicity in her eyes.
“I’m too withdrawn,” I said. “I need to be more squeaky so people know I’m there.”
“Well, you’re there all right,” she said.
“My shrink says squeaking will make me feel more connected.”
“Shrink? Meaning you’re crazy.”
“Yeah, totally,” I said, feeling the need for more 120-proof encouragement. The bartender was crazed, but when I yelled, “Squeak,” he came. “Gasoline on the rocks,” I said, looking back at Venus.
“I’m good,” she said, but I could tell she was ready to bail.
I scrambled for words and said something about being a singer’s agent and having a connection to the New York City music scene, a bit of a mislead since my friend’s band worked the Hoboken circuit across the river and I was a copywriter by trade, not a talent rep. But part of squeaking is pushing the boundaries, especially when the only other erotic thing I had going was brainstorming on panty liners at an ad agency.
Venus was suddenly possessed by a smile filled with innuendo. She said something about needing a lift home after the last set, something about an apartment in Trenton. “I’ll sing you some songs,” I think she said, but the booze was burning her words and I was trying to hold off an elephant-size urge to take a piss. I slurred an “excuse me” to go to the head but tripped over some dude’s big foot and fell flat on my nose.
In the men’s room I tried to keep my fire hose spray in the general direction of the urinal while staggering in place and holding a tissue to my bleeding nose. Minutes later I was careening off a wall into an obstinate waist-high barrier. When I asked where the bar was somebody said I was leaning on it. The scene was a blur but I panned the faces in the crowd as best I could and didn’t see Venus. There was nothing else I could do but howl over and over for her like an arctic wolf in the night until a three-hundred-pound bouncer gave me a bear hug to stop the howling and threw me out.
Morning came and a blob of milky bird shit splattered itself on my windshield. I was belly-up on the front seat of my car with swollen-shut nasal passages. “Damn,” I said to the steering wheel, thinking about all that Jamaican rum, and me, a guy who couldn’t stay sober on lemonade. I struggled to sit up and looked out at the empty parking lot: at white lines on blacktop, a chain link fence, a dumpster. I looked to the sky for reasons to live. The white clouds were tinted pink from a low sun in the east. Something about a goddess, another planet and Jersey kept trying to coalesce. “Venus,” I said to the sky, and the night before came back like pieces of broken glass.
I blew it big time with Venus: no last name, no contact info, no nothing. It occurred to me that maybe I slipped her one of my agency business cards, so I reached for my wallet to look and only two of my last three cards remained, meaning there was a chance Venus could reach out to me, if only to get an update on how my nose was.
As if on cue an alert sounded in my jeans pocket. I pulled out my phone and thumbed my way to messages. There was a lamebrain text from someone called Star. “Squeak,” was all it said, so I hit delete and kept scrolling, but there was nothing from Venus.
Later that day I was out in the middle of a lake trying to row off the rest of my hangover. I thought the cold spring-fed water would be therapeutic for my nose so I got naked and dove in. I let my plunge take its full measure down about seven feet where I spread-eagled and hovered.
The nether world around me was murky and still except for a lonely striped bluegill passing by. If I let my body drift upward on its own it would eventually surface, hopefully before I lost consciousness. It was the kind of soul cleansing exercise I had often done in the lakes of my life.
Halfway up I could feel my lungs laboring, but I was having an epiphany. Maybe I could somehow find a way to retrieve that deleted text and end up promoting and making love to a galactic goddess named Star, like maybe I could write Pulitzer Prize winning copy for Greenpeace and save the planet. But truth has its own component of bliss and soon the vastness of breathable warm air was upon me. My first inhalation was so fervent and loud that listeners on the shore might have thought someone was trying to suck the sun out of the sky.
By Luke Rolfes
Nikki, who should have died a long time ago when Spring Breaking in the Virgin Islands with her girlfriends, tells people she had her heart replaced with a pufferfish. This isn’t true at all, but she did have a heart attack on the beach at Coki Point. A St. Thomas boy had given her a drug laced with something or other, and her heart stopped for more than a minute. (She knew she shouldn’t have eaten the drug, but she was trying to be young and carefree.) This doctor, a resident islander with dark skin and dry hands, had a defibrillator in his truck, and he came sprinting over when he heard the sound of female screaming. The scene played out almost like in the movies, except that when the tense music crescendoed and Nikki’s eyes burst open—not dead after all!—she was surrounded by strangers and topless (her swimsuit had been ripped down by the doctor). There was an electrical burn on her right breast and left ribs, and she immediately sat up and vomited on herself.
No, the heart attack didn’t kill Nikki on that beach. She lived on—the shittier, damaged heart replaced with a spiny pufferfish that lives inside her chest, slowly flipping its translucent flippers and swimming in place amongst the rest of her internal organs.
Fast forward a few years. Nikki graduates from college and takes a job in Denver as a marketing coordinator for a company that makes high-end carabineers and other various mountaineering equipment for the super-serious alpine and rock climbers of the world. Nikki, in turn, has sworn off alcohol (except for special occasions) and any kind of drug from strangers. She, herself, becomes super-serious about mountain climbing, and, with a few co-workers, summits twenty-two of the fifty-eight 14,000-foot peaks in the state of Colorado in less than twenty-four months.
Reaching the top of the world, like anything else, can become an obsession.
One of her co-workers, when Nikki crawls inch-by-inch to the crest of the boulder tower that marks the summit of Sunlight Peak (widely considered the third most difficult climb in Colorado), touches her arm. When she turns to look, she finds the strangest expression on the co-worker’s face. They are both lying stomach-down, clinging to the rock—neither one very good at bouldering. He tells her in a breathless voice that he is hopelessly in love with her and has been for some time. She listens to everything he has to say, and they kiss there on the summit block of Sunlight Peak because what else is she supposed to do? They are the only ones on the mountain. His mouth tastes like Powerade and peanut-butter Clif bars, and she never says anything about loving him back. Because she doesn’t. She isn’t sure she loves anybody in that way, or if loving another person will ever feel anything but artificial.
What feels real though is standing for a moment on weak legs at the top of each peak. Realness is taking in the endless panorama around her and breathing thin air. It’s real when the pufferfish within her ribs frantically fills and collapses, and re-fills and collapses again.
Her fish never causes her any pain or numbness, nor does he ever fail her. He is, without question, the best heart she’s ever had.
Red pill, blue pill
By Kenneth Hinegardner
I had that Robert Palmer song going through my head about sneaking Sally through the alley and it all made sense at the time even though nothing really made sense at the time. But I guess that’s what happens when you look for clarity in a world capable only of ambiguity. That’s why I recommend self-medication. At least you know what to expect and I’m hardly ever disappointed.
I was looking for the Holy Grail—black market reds and blues—which as you know are carefully controlled substances, state issued and really fucking fun but also important for a productive, working population. They’re just never rationed in the right quantities. I had taken my last red the night before knowing full well there was no blue to counter the mania, the forward propulsion that was driving me at this moment to this place looking for someone named Lenny the bike guy who I was told had what I needed.
The alley where I was to find Lenny was partially obscured by a row of fetid dumpsters, and as I stood there gaining courage and breathing in the stench, wondering if this was a smart move, Mr. Palmer’s song switched on in my brain. Okay, here I go. I was most definitely sneaking through the alley—but without Sally. I don’t even know a Sally.
I could embellish the story, but I found Lenny pretty quickly. His garage door was wide open. I found him working on a derailleur assembly for a hunter green Schwinn Varsity 10-speed that was upside down in a work stand, pushing a pedal with one hand and changing gears with the other. So I took it that his name was not code for something else more nefarious.
It took a moment for Lenny to recognize that I was standing there, his focus so intense, that I was able to watch him and gauge him without giving up anything about myself, my frenetic state, in return. Or so I thought. When he finally did look up to see me, he was not surprised or taken aback, and asked if he could help me in a casual voice. I told him that I had that same bike when I was a teenager, pointing to the Schwinn. Lenny nodded slowly in acknowledgement, never taking his eyes away from the bike and the task at hand. Except mine was blue, I added.
At that he looked up at me, squinted his eyes, and took me in from head to toe. He asked again if he could help me with something.
I’m looking for Lenny, I said. I was told he could help me get something not easy to find. He looked at me with raised eyebrows. So I said, like that blue Schwinn I was telling you about. He laughed, said he had exactly what I was looking for.
So Lenny did come through with the blue pill I so desperately needed, but it came at a cost. In addition to the excessive price of the single blue, I rode away with the hunter green Schwinn Varsity that Lenny had been so diligently working on. Small price to pay for such an opening, I figured. And it does save on Uber costs. Now whenever I’m in need, caught short until the beginning of the month, I just pedal to that alley and see Lenny.
Which is what I’m doing right now. The wind is blowing through my hair and that song by Mr. Palmer is playing on repeat in my mind and I’m feeling like a teenager once again. It feels like I’m flying, I’m flying and for a moment I can’t remember which color I’m chasing down.
What Used to Feel Like Impact
By Michael Clark
The first thing I thought of when I heard about what she did was the last time we had sex. I’ll admit that neither of the two were my best moment. But that’s the thing about Kota. She has a thousand ways of taking whatever you’re feeling and transforming it into the opposite emotion. This is true, even after she died, so she stays with me in the present tense. The present moment. Walking through doors and walls and memories just to flip the temple tables in my head without stopping to explain what she’s doing.
Just passing through is her aesthetic now that I think about it. All of ours if I want to let the darker pressures push in for a bit. But I don’t usually, which is why I thought about sex with Kota rather than mass murder. Call me weak if you want.
Our last time together started like most of the moments I find myself replaying now: with me stepping on a landmine inside of Kota I’m pretty sure she put there herself. We were in the kitchen of her apartment—hers because she refused to let me call it ours even though I’d been living there and paying the rent since the first night we met seven months earlier—and we were laughing. I don’t think I’ve even smiled since the place became a crime scene I’m not allowed to leave.
I don’t remember what we thought was funny, but we did and she was laughing in that way that made me let my guard down more than she liked. I guess I should have learned that about her more quickly. As we were catching our breath, I told her that we were living the lyrics of an old Bare Naked Ladies song, right down to sleeping on a futon her parents bought her. When I said it, she pivoted away and walked to the door.
“I only have that futon because they’re dead,” Kota said, her hand resting on the doorknob.
“I wasn’t saying, well, whatever it is you think I was saying. I was just, Christ, Kota, I didn’t even meet you until after they were gone. I was just, whatever, making a joke.”
“You’ve been here long enough to know I don’t bring them up.”
“I think you overestimate how much you’ve actually let me know you.”
She turned and smiled at me without showing her teeth and it felt like a gesture of pity. Then she yanked the door open and walked out leaving it standing open. I followed and watched her walk down the stairs that were just beyond our door before slamming it shut and logging into my work account to look at stock markets in countries I don’t even trade in. When she came home six hours later, I was still in front of the computer. She said nothing, took my hand, and led me to the bedroom. I smelled bourbon on her breath but couldn’t care that she was drunk at two in the afternoon or that we’d fought or that she’d walked out without so much as telling me off. All I cared about was that I was back in her orbit, the subject of her unnaturally heavy gravity, and when she turned and grazed my neck with her lips I crashed into her like the space shuttle on reentry.
At least that’s what used to feel like impact. Now I’m not even sure we ever existed in the same galaxy.
I was not occupied enough to avoid this moment in which it came down to Marigold and I taking very slow walks and looking at the sky and saying, Mmmm no good can come of these homeless dogs.
It was summer and everyone was busy with their families or their lovers or both. Me? I was being productive at home by not being at home. Walking with Marigold, a nonagenarian, around aimlessly under drizzle clouds. I was Marigold’s sort-of helper but mainly she wanted me to walk around outside with her to protect her from unsavory animals.
This may have had something to do with having nobody in my life, causing me to relate to my new old friend, Marigold, ninety-five and hardly able to breathe without a bellows.
It was about the wheel of time, spinning and landing on someone else’s life. How each day and each night tasted wrong since Edwin left for a man named Edwin. Yes, they had the same name, same spelling. Almost funny, or very funny. Canned laughter in my mind, at this point.
Marigold, up the street, with nothing but a parakeet, Marigold would understand if she could hear well enough but she had lousy hearing so I didn’t try to explain, just told her when something was a menace to her health or safety for example when new people with dogs moved in across the street, I warned her not to go outside alone, only with pepper spray or a weapon or with me next to her.
She laughed (she had a great sense of humor) and she sometimes cackled on for minutes which felt like serious overkill, but it was as if her laugh switch had been turned on and there was no off switch.
The haystacks of postcards she got from great-grandchildren (or at least some people who claimed to be her great-grandchildren but were now grown up and living in exotic places) were piling up in her foyer. I wasn’t her cleaning person in any formal way, she didn’t pay me, but I did dust off her letters for her and I offered to read them.
Many of the postcards these relatives sent had no character. They just bought the cards to get it over with. Hell, I thought, Marigold must be loaded, and they did not want to be left out of her will when she died.
It made no sense to confess to Marigold about what I had done, but I confessed that I’d lifted her amber pin. The one in the shape of two lovebirds.
“I stole it from you, you see,” I said.
I told her that I needed it. Admitted how I just couldn’t keep pace with the world and had started to take things from the people I loved, even Marigold.
She hugged me. I could feel the hollowness of her bones. She was almost gone.
“This isn’t your fault,” she said, in an invisible, high-pitched voice that only dogs could hear. “You have always needed a rescue animal.”
By Marie Anderson
Bang! Bang! Bang!
I look up from my mystery novel. The clock on the fireplace mantle shows it’s almost midnight. Too late for anyone reputable to be pounding my front door.
A voice shouts, “Let me in, Cyrus!”
The voice sounds familiar. I hurry to the door, look through the peephole. Stagger back. No! It can’t be!
I look again. The man swaying on my front porch looks like my next-door neighbor. He’s gripping a baseball bat. But it can’t be Bruce.
“Who are you?” I shout.
“You know who I am, Cyrus!”
“You’re dead, Bruce! I knelt yesterday in front of your open casket at Modell Funeral Home!”
He slams the bat into my front door. I hear wood crack. My door? His bat?
“Let me in, Cyrus!”
I run to my bedroom, lock the door, and grab my phone to call the—
Wait. Bruce is dead. I’d prayed over his embalmed corpse yesterday, thanking God for ridding the world of the jerk who’d (1) disturbed my sleep with his loud parties; (2) had an affair with my ex-wife—before she was my ex, and (3) poisoned my beloved Taco for trespassing one too many times on his precious property. He’d denied it, but I knew he’d murdered my sweet old cat.
Was I dreaming now? Hallucinating? Or was the thing on my porch really a ghost?
I set down my phone. No need to call the cops just yet. Cops can’t protect me from dreams, hallucinations, or ghosts. Can I really be imagining this whole thing?
But now my doorbell rings, followed by pounding.
I open the wall safe in my bedroom, remove my gun, and run back to the front door.
“Who’s there?” I yell. “And you should know I’m holding a gun.”
“Open the door, Cyrus. It’s Bruce. I have something to give you.”
“All you’ve ever given me is grief. Anyway, aren’t you supposed to be in the next world?”
Strained laughter. “Not yet.”
“Who was I looking at in your casket yesterday?”
“That would be me, Cyrus. Your neighbor.”
“So why aren’t you enjoying Eternal Rest, Bruce?”
“Well, it’s complicated, buddy. I need you to—”
“I’m not your buddy, Bruce! And if you slam that bat into my door one more time, I’m gonna open the door and shoot a bullet right into your murderous heart.”
“Murderous? It was just a stinkin’ cat, for god sake! And I’d told you plenty of times to keep that thing outta my property. That beast was eatin’ my tulips. Crappin’ in my garden. Scarin’ the birds.”
I fling open the door. Point the gun at his beady blue eyes. “So it was you who murdered Taco!” I press the trigger. Pow! Bruce staggers back, smoke hisses from the hole in his forehead.
He shakes his head. “The living can’t hurt the dead, Cy.” He hands me an envelope. Addressed to me.
“Open it,” he says. “Open it or this bat will be kissin’ your right cheek. You should know that the dead can hurt the living.”
I glare at him, but I tuck the gun in my pocket and tear open the envelope.
Inside are crisp hundred-dollar bills, ten of them. I look at Bruce. Smoke is still hissing from the bullet hole in his forehead.
“Cy, buddy, I need you to go to bat for me. The Big Coach says I gotta make amends before he lets me join His Team. So this money is to compensate you. $650 for your cat, $300 for your sleepless nights, $50 for your ex-wife. Take it, tell the Big Coach that you forgive me, and you’ll never see me again.”
“Go to bat for you? Forgive you? And only $650 for my cat?” I scatter the money at his feet and grab my gun. “If you need my help to bat your way into the next world, Bruce, me forgiving you is gonna cost you a lot more than a measly grand. Let me put it this way. I’ll forgive you only when I know you’re burning in hell. Permanently.” I point the gun at his head. “Maybe I can’t kill you, but I can make your face look like Swiss Cheese.”
He growls and hefts the bat. “Say goodbye to your cheekbones!” he shrieks. He swings the bat, I duck. fall, the bat cracks into the door, just missing my skull. I can’t get up. Shock and fear freeze my muscles. Bruce swings the bat down toward my head, but suddenly a piercing yowl sirens the air. A missile of white fur launches itself at Bruce’s throat. The bat clatters down. Bruce grips the thing at his throat. I‘m sprawled on the porch deck, stunned as the two struggle. And then Bruce manages to yank the fur creature off, but his throat is gone, and from the hole where his throat had been, white steam hisses and hisses and Bruce fades and fades until, finally, there’s nothing left of him but wisps of steam, and then those too, disappear.
My cat, my bad boy Taco, yawns, and begins to lick his paw and clean his face.
“Thank you, buddy,” I murmur. “I guess the living can’t hurt the dead, but apparently the dead can hurt each other.”
I sit up, reach to rub his ears, but my hand disappears right through him, like I was petting a cloud. He must feel something, though, because he begins to purr. Taco gives me a blink of his yellow eyes, then slowly begins to fade. Soon all that’s left of him is his purr, and then that too fades away.
I rub my eyes, shake my head. Was this all a crazy dream? But no. There’s the crack in my front door, a Louisville Slugger by my feet, and ten c-notes scattered around.
I pick up the money. I’ll donate it to the animal shelter where I found Taco when he was a kitten. Taco would like that. I hope.
Failure to Thrive
By Roberta Beary
The yelping interrupts my favorite pastime. Lifting my double chin with both thumbs until it’s completely gone. I look good with no double chin. Not as good as Sue. She’s a 10, right out that movie. Starring the blonde. Who was too young to consent. She and the director ran to Germany so he wouldn’t be charged. Her mother must’ve been mortified.
Yelp yelp yelp. Yelp yelp yelp. The bathroom window’s dirty but I can see dark, rolling clouds. A few red leaves cling to the shivering maple. Yelp yelp. I know Sue won’t stop barking until I pick up. I slam the bathroom door, follow the yelping to the bedroom. Reach for Teddy on the bed. He’s still a 10. Original button eyes and no shiny spots. He finds his favorite spot, on my tummy. I swipe green and put on my cheerful voice. As fake as my press-on nails.
— Hey, Sue, thanks for remembering our birthday.
— What the hell took you so long to pick up, Sis? The phone rang 24 times. I counted. I’m calling because I figured you’d be alone today. I’m not counting that dumb stuffed animal.
— I was in the bathroom.
— God, you spend half your life in the can. Lucky no one’s around to hear you slam doors. You need to learn how to close a door. It’s embarrassing. Like that stupid bear you sleep with.
Now I know something’s up. Sue never calls on our birthday. That’s Mom’s job and Mom always calls me first. She says it’s because I don’t have anyone else in my life. On account of my failure to thrive ruined my looks. Sue got all the nutrients when we were babies. It happens sometimes with twins, Mom says.
— I saw a missed call from Uncle Bill, Sis. He left a stupid birthday message.
I can tell Sue’s rushing her words, like she does when the vodka flows at her house. I wonder how many she’s had. I give Teddy a quick pat on his tummy so he knows I’m not ignoring him.
— Listen, Sue, that fucker better not call me. If he does I’ll tell him I remember. What he did. I swear to God, I will.
— Not that again, Sis. This needs to stop.
I close my eyes. See the black hairs on his fingers. Dabs of sweat on his upper lip. The stethoscope looping his neck. Now take a deep breath. Oh, I spy two juicy butterballs.
— Never told you? You were right there, Sue. That time Mom made us go to Uncle Bill’s for my heart murmur.
— I guess you think he did something.
— Did something? He unbuttoned my school uniform right in front of you. Put his stethoscope on me. Stroked my breasts up and down with his fingertips.
— I never saw any of it. And if I did, I’ve pushed all that stuff out of my mind. You should, too.
We both go quiet. I can hear Sue fumbling around. A drink being poured. The clink of ice cubes. I do my focused breathing until I hear her take a sip.
— Happy birthday, Sue. Thanks for calling.
— Don’t hang up yet. If Uncle Bill calls, let it be, okay? Like the song. Remember?
Now she’s singing Let it Be. Even though Sue slurs the words, her notes are pure. My voice sounds like shit.
— That was for you, Sis. Happy Birthday. I love you.
— Yeah, me too, Sue. Bye.
I swipe red. Put Teddy face forward in his snuggly. He likes his head peeking out, resting under my chins. It makes him feel safe.
In the bathroom Teddy and I look out the window. The street is littered with dead leaves. The maple looks as welcoming as Mom did the last time I saw her. It was in church. I got up in her face and whispered what Uncle Bill had done. She didn’t answer. So I whispered louder. She still didn’t answer. She just lay there surrounded by lilies, with her mouth stitched shut.
By Robert Pope
As a young Marine lieutenant in Okinawa, I spent rare free days exploring fishing among the islands. I grew up in New Orleans and had a passion for any kind of fishing, from fly fishing to ocean fishing. I spent several summers with a commercial rig before I graduated from college. I miss those days, but I had an experience among the islands of Okinawa I have never forgotten and have told very few, and only when I am very drunk.
I had so much damn fun, even went spearfishing with my friend Fujio, who knew more about everything than I did. We took his boat out among those islands until we found a spot where no one would find us. I do not mean we used spear-guns, though we did another time. He instructed me to throw the spear like a hunter. Stripped to shorts, thigh deep in water, sometimes deeper, we drank and laughed while I pitched the spear until I got the big, slow-moving grouper we had for dinner on the beach.
He had a small boat he let me take out a few times by myself. I had been tempted by an old net fashioned from silk thread that hung on the cabin wall. His father used to fish with the net in the old days and bring in quite a little haul, right on that boat. Fujio explained it all. I thought I knew everything I needed to know. I had an abundance of confidence in those times, but it was a day of variable weather, overcast and dark one moment, clear and bright the next.
I cast the dark, old net in bright sun, brought it in under deep shadow. It might have been late to be out in such conditions, but I thought I might not have this opportunity again. I had a haul so big I couldn’t get it on board. I let it hang until all those beautiful silvery fish swam away. Full disclosure, I drank a fifth of bourbon straight from the bottle. When I got it together to cast the net again, this time in full overcast, it began raining lightly. It ratcheted up in intensity quickly, so I slipped off my shorts, as they bound movement.
Rain got heavy enough it rattled my brain. It had gotten dark enough that I turned on a spotlight attached to the exterior of the cabin so I could see what I brought in. As rain pummeled my head and shoulders, it occurred to me I ought to get in before I couldn’t see where I was or wound up in a hurricane. When I pulled in the net, I had a few sleek tunas, beautiful fish, looking as if they had been designed by Japanese engineers, all bright and shiny like something made out of metal and built for sliding fast through water, crazed arrows changing direction like you might expect smaller fish, minnow and anchovies.
I fastened the near side of the net to the boat, holding the other side in my right hand when I saw an unexpected creature among the fish, a small Japanese woman with black hair and eyes, small, pointy breasts. Everything about her sank in my brain. In another moment, she was terrified, and the terror was mutual. It was the hatred in her eyes I found most disturbing. She gasped in the net like a dying fish. Couldn’t have been much over two feet long, bottom half like a fish, the scales black. When she opened her mouth, I saw a row or two of sharp, pointed teeth.
My scalp twisted and gripped my skull tightly. I let out a guttural shout, out of my control. Her body stretched, shivered, her face went into rictus. I leaned over the side, reaching for her, but as my fingers grazed her side, she sank her teeth onto the knuckles of my first three fingers. I let go of the net and the captured fish returned to the sea, and with them the fish-woman. Rain ceased; clouds parted. I stood in a thick sunlight that precedes dusk in that region, gawking at the bright red blood running over my wrist.
Next time I saw Fujio, my hand bound in bright white bandages, I explained what happened as clearly as I could. He had the look of one stricken. He moistened his mouth with a gin and tonic we drank on the patio of a bistro. Fujio is tall, I should have said this before, with extremely long hands and face, eyes so brown they look black. He told me I had met Yamada Hanako, a woman turned into a fish for scorning every man or woman who ever loved her. That terrified me, but in my dreams, I see the hurt from which her condition grew, and that grieves my very soul.
HEAVEN and ANGELS
By Warren L Jones III
I wake up to the sound of the D & H train on its morning run through the village. I have slept under the old railroad station building again. Several empty bottles of Tango lie next to me. It seems I may have done this before. The premixed screwdriver is handy for those of us needing immediate results. I recall leaving the one-room village liquor store with my friend George. Each of us carried a paper bag with our treasure. I do not recall anything after slipping under the loading dock and unscrewing the cap.
Dim light is coming in through the open seams of the worn siding and I look around expecting to see George’s prone figure not far away nestled in its own pile of empties. This is one of those times that my friend must have wandered off to his own party. I can taste bile and blood and booze, and I spit and fart at the same time. I roll over, grunting not in pain, but in response to the question I’ve been asking myself lately. How did this happen again?
As usual, the grunts provide no answer.
I continue my roll out from under the influence, blinking as the rays of an angry sun slap my face, putting in two more cents. I should have quite a bankroll of pennies by now but then remember where the money has gone.
As I orient myself to my surroundings and begin my daily trudge toward Crupe’s market, the ancient store owner with his dangling cigarette is emptying yesterday’s garbage into the dumpster and blows smoke through his rotten potato nose. He spots me and swears a greeting. The look on his face contains equal amounts of pity and disgust. I watch him go into the back door and I hustle over to the container. As usual there is a white wax paper package with expired bologna toward one corner. Mr. Crupe remembers me when I swept and stocked and showed the promise of younger men.
I finish my repast and encounter good old Mrs. Cudney as I amble out from behind the dumpster. Her look of horror cancels out my bologna grin and I belch my own special good morning. She taught me in both kindergarten and first grade. I was sure I had been held back and felt she prolonged my suffering by not explaining looping to my satisfaction. I believe she still eats children.
My hunger once again eased by Mr. Crupe’s kindness, I begin the slow walk down my very own green mile toward one of the few businesses left in my village that will allow me entrance. Altamont Liquor is barely 15’ by 30’ and yet holds enough joy and sadness to keep many of us wanderers abuzz with excitement, or at least abuzz. The excitement comes when credit is no longer available.
That thought has me groping into my pocket to pan for gold. I hit paydirt as my search produces a crumpled ten dollar bill. There is a god in heaven and I will go to church. I step up my tempo, my course now set. Mr. Lape has been the liquor store proprietor for as long as I have lived and knows my history and my particular preferences. I look forward to our meeting once again.
Now on my way, I see a familiar, disheveled woman leaning against one side of the phone booth. Helen Becker’s left leg is missing as the result of decades working with chemicals in the shoe repair shop around the corner. She scowls a silent warning in my direction, attesting to my poor choice of lifestyle. I have two legs. I win.
Main Street meets Prospect Terrace and old Route 146 coming down from the hilltowns and by long habit I check in all directions and cross safely for the 8,487th time. Just a few more hundred yards and there I’ll be. Back in the saddle again. Anticipation mixed with indigestion fuels my last steps. The bell tinkles as I enter and the bright neon lights reflect off the bottles and Mr. Lape’s sparkling eyes.
A Good Lie Is Still a Lie
By David C. Metz
I see you up on the stage in the charcoal custom suit, the kind you order in pairs from a place in Hong Kong. The powder blue shirt and red power tie are from Nordstrom’s. You cut a commanding figure and you know it: a tick over six feet, still possessing the sleek build of the college athlete you once were, thick black hair tinged with gray, piercing blue eyes. You crisscross the stage with practiced grace, stopping to gesture or toss off a one-liner, smiling as laughter ripples through the audience. Laughter is important because your topic is deadly—quarterly results and the next quarter’s forecast. You deftly operate the power point clicker to build the slide show on the giant screen behind you, numbers and bits of jargon appearing and disappearing in sync with your words, a deft form of digital magic.
Later you hold court at the bar. Lite beer in hand, you listen, laugh, mix banter with concise replies and comments, the kind that cut through the bullshit. There is always lots of bullshit. People form a semicircle around you, waiting for their turn to speak. They lobby for a deeper discount, guarantee the deal will close this quarter if you can knock five more points off the final price. Others want to brag about a deal that closed but you beat them to it, congratulating them before they can open their mouths, offering a shoulder clasp to go with your firm handshake. You know everyone—name, location, accounts, alma mater, favorite sports teams—and in many cases, the names of their spouses, partners and kids. No one stands by to prompt you, you just have a gift for retaining this stuff, like some people can memorize batting averages or recite the Gettysburg address. Still others just want to hang out, to catch a smile or a kind word, to absorb some of the energy.
Sometime after eleven you slip away. “Nothing good ever happened in a bar after midnight,” you told me once. A get-acquainted dinner, just you, the new worldwide head of sales, and me, the lawyer assigned to your staff. We discover a few things in common: both from the Midwest, both raised Catholic. (You still are, I am not.) Both love football. (You quarterbacked your Division III college team to the national championship game your senior year.) You tell me about taking your family sailing, putting your daughters and son to work on your thirty-foot catamaran. Cruising the Caribbean is a long way from changing tires in the Michelin dealership outside of Columbus. Family is everything, you tell me, another thing we have in common. At some point I understand you are working me, selling me, but I don’t mind. I want you to trust me; I want you to like me. My job is easier if you do. And even if it weren’t, I am not sure I could resist. From what I have observed, no one can.
You tell me about your early days in sales. A road warrior: on a plane Sunday night, back on Friday. Time away from your family that evening phone calls cannot replace. Business dinners, night caps. But always back in your room well before midnight.
There are women, there have always been women, some locals, just hanging out, others are like you: in sales, road warriors, trying to find balance. As you move up in management, they report to you, are part of the semicircle, waiting for the smile or kind word, absorbing the energy. You know some are available. You develop an instinct. But your wife deserves better. You have to have values, you tell me. Otherwise, you can’t survive on the road.
When the complaint comes into Human Resources, you call me. I have to explain that I work for the company, I support your team, but I am not your personal lawyer. I hate having to say it.
The words feel dry and hollow as they leave my mouth. Then you ask if I can be your friend and I am quiet for a moment before saying I can try.
The complaint does not go away. An outside law firm is hired to conduct interviews. Everyone on your staff is on the list. Sitting in a high-backed black leather chair in the conference room, I tell them what I know, which is that I have never seen you make a pass or an inappropriate comment. I don’t tell them you are a faithful husband or a devoted family man, because I only have your word on that. And here is what else I don’t tell them: about a rare night before any of this started when you hung out in the bar past midnight with a group of us, all guys, and someone mentioned the complainant, and someone else said, “I’d do her.” I was standing next to you and saw your eyebrows raise and the slight shake of your head. Nor did I tell them about the evening you held court in the bar after your presentation, seeing the complainant waiting for her moment like all the others crowded around. She was striking in her dark slacks and cream-colored silk blouse, her auburn hair loose around her shoulders. I watched you shake her hand and squeeze her shoulder. You spoke briefly and as you disengaged, I saw your fingers brush against hers for just a tick, an eye-blink. Then she left. Ten minutes later, you did too.
I rationalize saying nothing because I know nothing, not really. Turns out, I can’t resist. I find myself in the space where you live: between what you say and what you do, where a good lie is still a lie.