Portrait of a Young Woman During Quarantine
By Darcy Casey
Ten at night and the woman’s stomach rumbles; sleep is impossible when her insides have so much to say. She turns under her blankets, a crocodile rolling in a kill’s final moments, but nothing dies except her resolve. She peels the ruined blankets from her body, careful not to wake her husband. From her guts rises a more insistent growl. The stomach, itself a cavernous brain, knows where she is going and is glad. She walks and, reflecting on the day, is pleased to realize she has not eaten a full meal. But wait: can this be true? She considers. It is true.
What she has eaten:
1. Three scraps of crust from a picky toddler’s PB+J. These scarfed while standing over the sink, scrubbing burned eggs from the griddle as she compiled a meeting agenda in her head, which was to be written down later on a mostly-not-used napkin.
2. One chunk of scrambled egg, found on the counter like old money in a pocket. Still moist. Eaten during a video chat. The new hire with the neat goatee said her lunch looked scrumptious. She imagined him in his underwear, the kind with lipstick kisses or palm trees. Something loud, obnoxious.
3. Part of a sandwich from dinner at five. The larger part stolen by the dog while she went to the door for a delivery of toilet paper.
End of list.
But wait: she could count the coffee, too.
4. Half a cup of coffee, tepid and black. There was no milk. She had been mixing the powdered kind for the toddler, which was drunk with puckered baby-girl lips and eyes suspicious of the taste. The woman would have finished her coffee, only it went missing by nine. She thinks of it now and it is like a first love—better remembered than in the moment.
Luck escorts the woman down the hallway and into the kitchen. Her hands crack open the refrigerator door but then the luck is gone—her husband’s voice rings out. He speaks with her best interest in mind, reminding her that midnight snacking is the main culprit contributing to her fleshy thighs, her turtled metabolism.
It isn’t midnight, she says, but she closes the refrigerator, her stomach commanding her onward. She opens the pantry, a stealthier option, and plucks a packet of ramen, bringing it to her like a flower. Piece by piece she consumes it, wary always of the noisy plastic and the snap of dehydrated starch. Maybe she wants to be caught. Thinking of the husband, she feels she is reckless, a bandit. Rebel of the Quarantine. The foil packet is abandoned to a dark corner of the counter, evidence for tomorrow. Leaning against the refrigerator, slumped and mascara-less, she crunches the uncooked noodles and her stomach gurgles its praise.
Gone is the ramen. She swipes crumbs onto the floor, noting with indifference the growing balls of dust peeking from beneath the island. During her silent creep to the bedroom she sees a strange colored mass in the hallway and stoops to study it. Cat vomit. Her husband’s breathing is even and slow.
She goes to the hallway closet and, opening the door, discovers her long lost coffee mug. It is the temperature of a corpse. She moves it tenderly to the side to procure a bottle of industrial-strength liquid and an old towel with bleach stains and holes. Will she be able to clean without turning on the light?
No, but flicking the switch in the hall does not disturb her husband’s secure slumber. She turns toward the vomit, hesitates. In the hardened mound are two perfect, toddler- sized footprints, more pristine, more detailed than any plaster mold she had tried but failed to create. She considers going downstairs to get puzzle resin. It would be easy to drill a hole, thread a ribbon and hang the clump in a window or on a tree, like those gingerbread ornaments that fill holidays with the scent of cinnamon.
A shame. She scoops the dried mass and scrubs the foot-tracked smears, throws the rag and half-digested kibble into the trash. She will have to check baby-girl’s feet. But tomorrow, tomorrow. The morning brings meetings with executives and for now, she needs sleep. The woman goes to bed and closes her eyes. Her husband snores, and the coffee mug is once more forgotten in its closet coffin.
Everything We’ll Die Before We Say
By Laura Bailey
Everything I own is speckled with vomit. Throwing up is messy, and I’m still not as good at it as I’d like, though I can barf simply by tickling the cleft of my tongue with my fingernail, which also smells like barf. By now, all I have to do is touch my gums and my Adam’s apple bobs in anticipation, my mouth sluices with saliva that feels gelatinous, sticky, unhealthy, like something a cancer patient might secrete from all the chemicals in her body.
Vomit stains my six pairs of Jordache jeans, even the white double-striped ones, the neat rows of stitches like tiny teeth marks running up my legs. The top two buttons of my oversized oxford cloth shirt, borrowed from Dad without asking (so basically, stolen) are stiff with my saliva, like maybe I was a teething baby and Dad held me against his chest the last time he wore that shirt.
Maybe I even spit up on him. Ha. Ha.
Also stained are my Sergio Valentes, and the Gloria Vanderbilts with the tiny, gold-stitched swan sailing off my back pocket, riding the crest of a dark blue wave that’s the curve of my ass. A big wave, a tidal wave, which is the problem, which is why I throw up, and why I steal Dad’s shirts, or buy my own shirts too big and my jeans too tight. When I wear my clothes like this, I feel like I’m not the size I really am. When I pull on those snakeskin-tight jeans my bottom half becomes small and exact, tightened into clearly defined outlines, no more lumps or wobbles. When paired with my huge shirts, my top half—the half that contains my heart and breath—becomes large, foreboding. I am two different people whose best halves I’ve cleaved together, stacked top on bottom, and only then do I feel right-sized.
I wear my puffy gray ski vest to dinner every night, Dad seated on my left, Mom to my right, and my brother across the table. My brother’s tiny, precise smirk the only acknowledgment I’ll get—it’s the only time I’m seen, and I can’t look away—that smirk contains everything the four of us will die before we say: The stains on my jeans, my stiff collar, my breath that smells like rot no matter how much I brush and gargle, the tiny dollops, like wet cat food, that I’ve forgotten to wipe off the back of the toilet, the fact that I’ve lined the pockets of my ski vest with a plastic baggie into which I pour my glass of two percent whole milk. My wrist hurts from these contortions, and I’m amazed that I do this, every single time, without spilling a drop. Moreover, I’m amazed that my parents ignore it. Then I remember that I’ve made them ignore it; I’ve made them scared to death—it’s another thing I can control with food. I can steer our family to heights of fear and confusion and denial that make me want to giggle, and maybe I do giggle, do I?—as I sit and pour my full glass of two percent full fat milk into my pocket, and Mom takes another bite of salad, and my brother smirks, do I belly laugh out loud? If I do, nobody acknowledges it. We stare at our salads. It’s spinach, dark as a golf course lawn, because Mom’s worried about Dad’s high cholesterol.
I wear a retainer. It too, is coated with hardened stomach acids, which bleach the pale pink plastic into translucence, like the inside of a baby’s ear, or a shell you’d pluck from the ocean sand. I remove it before I throw up, but those acids are tidal, they never cease coating my mouth. I rinse the retainer often, and after I throw up I rinse my mouth and brush my teeth before I insert it again, but my mouth is still coated with the sweet taste of victory. The dentist tells me I could lose my teeth if I don’t stop, and he’s right. Shannon, a beautiful, chopstick-thin girl at school with skin even whiter than mine, has gray teeth like old bones, or long, brittle fingernails, and the blood vessels in her eyes pop every night, she tells me, after she throws up her dinner. Anyway, Shannon sneezed once in class, and a molar popped out of her mouth and skittered across her desk.
Mom takes me to a cardiologist, not acknowledging why I, at 15, must visit a cardiologist. Like everything else in my family, the reason is both understood and not understood at all. The cardiologist is an old lady, and she tells me that I’m at risk for cardiac arrest. She demands: Do you want to have a heart attack and die? At your age? Do you? Do you?
Mom and I just stare at her, speechless. It’s like this old lady cardiologist has just said everything we can’t say, and I know that for this one crazy moment—a crazy moment that Mom and I both hope somehow, miraculously continues after this visit—I know that for this one crazy moment, Mom and I both are both wondering the same thing: Does this doctor mean the throwing up will kill me, or every other thing in our lives that breaks our hearts?
By Anthony Keers
Sydney sank into the sofa to a depth that would require a motivational miracle to surface from. The spring sun was beaming through the window with an unfamiliar intensity that caused areas of his T-shirt to moisten. Holding a refrigerated beer can bought from a brewery going out of business, he watched the afternoon news as they reeled off the day’s grim death totals. It was two weeks since the Prime Minister had issued a nationwide lockdown to protect the public from a deadly virus.
“Sydney, can you come ‘ere for a second, please?”
The question came from the kitchen with a tone that almost certainly didn’t require an answer. He tightly gripped his beer can with nervous anticipation as he frantically wondered what he had done. The lockdown had forced him to move into his girlfriend’s house and isolate together, only two months into their relationship. He knew things between them were prematurely fragile, like the initial burn of a candle wick before the flame grows to lighten up a room. He leaped from the sofa and quickly walked toward the kitchen.
“Yeah? Are you all right?” asked Sydney, placing his beer can on the kitchen table.
Jessica was standing next to the dishwasher, with one hand on its handle and a facial expression Sydney hadn’t seen before. She hunched over and pulled open the door to show a mass of dirty utensils and white porcelain plates that were spattered with food like abstract paintings. Frying pans lazily lying over cups, glasses rolling around on the top shelf. Realisation washed over Sydney’s face.
“Now, you wouldn’t have known this so it’s not your fault … but I have a certain way I like to stack the dishwasher,” Jessica said, pulling out a frying pan which knocked against a few mugs on its way out.
“You need to put the frying pans on the bottom. The glasses go on the top UPSIDE DOWN along with the cups so that the water doesn’t collect in them,” she continued. “The plates go from largest to smallest on the bottom, with the large ones placed on the outside. The knives and forks go into two different compartments.”
Displaying an apologetic veneer, Sydney moved closer to get a better look as Jessica continued her demonstration.
“I’m sorry,” Sydney said, holding his arms out to his side. “I didn’t realise you were a fan of Tetris.”
As a nervous reaction to a tense situation, Sydney laughed softly as he watched Jessica’s head move slowly side to side. Sensing her reaction, he walked behind her, moved his arms around her waist and placed his chin on her shoulder.
“I’m really sorry … the joke was terrible,” Syndey said. “Sometimes I say stupid things when I’m a bit nervous. Now you have shown me the correct way to do it, I promise I’ll do it right next time.”
“I know it’s a weird thing to talk to you about and I’m sorry you felt nervous,” replied Jessica. ”It’s just I have a certain way and it slightly irritated me when I saw it like this.”
“I’m sorry,” Sydney repeated, nodding in understanding.
He lifted his head up and turned her around. Leaning in, he kissed her with a passion emulated from their first date. Walking back toward the table with a false sense of a Kintsugi master, he picked up his beer. Upon leaving the kitchen, he grinned and looked back at her.
“You do know that water splashes everywhere in there … so, really … it doesn’t matter how you fill it.”
“Piss off,” she said, holding two fingers up whilst walking toward the bathroom.
Slumping back into the living room sofa, Sydney took a sip of his tepid beer and continued watching the news. In bold, red lettering displayed along the bottom of the screen it read the Prime Minister has the virus and is being moved into hospital.
“Jesus,” he thought. “What next?”
“Sydney, can you come here again, please?”
By Rimma Kranet
During Yom Kippur my mother’s recently widowed friend brought her mechanical cat to dinner. The evening dragged on to the flat sound of chewing, slurping, and the loud smacking of lips, tongue against pallet and so forth.
The mechanical grey cat with its pink nose made spontaneous purring sounds as it lay stretched out on the shelf to the left of the table. Every once in a while our guest would reach for it, placing the grey fluffy toy on her lap, petting its fake fur, and addressing it with endearments. In return the cat moved its ears and once the timer allowed it, rolled over and raised its pink fleshy toy paws so as to expose its stomach to more caresses.
The conversation turned to dogs, stray dogs, and eventually to homosexuals.
I asked our guest why she did not just get herself a real cat … instead of ordering one from Amazon. She answered that she had no time for a real pet, and that she had purchased this toy one because when she came home from work and walked into an empty house, she liked the idea of something breaking the silence. A mechanical meao.
Several months later the widow and her cat made the move from a cramped apartment in West Hollywood to a two-story condo in Redondo Beach.
From the upstairs bedroom window, perched on her new lofty mattress, she could see the ocean. In the early morning the widow liked to go for a swim. Beach towel in hand, she gently made her way to the water, scooping the damp grains of sand underfoot with her toes. In her one-piece bathing suit, her rubber swimming cap clinging to her unruly cluster of grey permed hair, the widow flung herself into the oncoming waves, ducked under, and swam out.
The water was cool and dark. It reminded her of the Black Sea where as a young girl she had spent her summers. Only now her legs felt numb. Like buoyant twigs thrown about in the current. She stretched out her arms and with large strokes started to count: “One, two, one, two, one, two … ” her head to the side, her eyes closed, her mouth filling with the taste of the ocean like a relentless flow of salty margaritas. It made her lightheaded, drunk.
The lifeguard on duty heard her calls for help and having paused just long enough to let his eyes focus on the horizon, saw the widow’s pale, thin, flailing arms.
When she regained consciousness, she was in a hospital bed, lungs filled with fluid. Her lips chapped, a parched mouth, and wooden tongue.
Her only son made the trip from Seattle just long enough to see that she was alive.
“I have work,” he said, and was gone by the end of the following day.
During the next few days the small cellular flip phone he left her as a means of communication burned from the heat of her cheek as she pressed against it with ardor, and with a relentless enthusiasm, recounted her misfortune. With a trembling voice she retold the story over and over.
My mother marveled at her good fortune. “She could have drowned. Some guts she had to go swimming in the ocean at her age.”
After three weeks the widow was released from the hospital.
Her loyal friend the violinist would drive her home but had no time to socialize, as he was late for a rehearsal with the LA Phil on the other side of town.
He left her in front of her house in a sluggish state, keys in hand, and sped away.
Her body swaying, the widow slowly climbed the stairs to her bedroom. Out of breath, she leaned on the doorframe and looked up to see a sliver of ocean reflected by the light, gleaming through the window.
Meao. Meao. The grey tail of the mechanical cat brushed against the bedspread as it moved back and forth.
The widow smiled lovingly at the plush toy in front of her and marveled at the long life of the rechargeable batteries.
By Kate Lunn-Pigula
Don’t sit next to me.
Too late. He wears a dirty blue shirt, khaki waistcoat, white foundation and red lipstick slashed to his cheeks.
The bus sets off again. ‘Why. So. Serious,’ he whispers in my ear. Shiver. Smile out of discomfort. Fellow passengers return to their phones.
‘I can’t wait to show you my toys.’ His hand on the metal rail of the seat in front, trapping me.
‘I’m not interested in your toys, but thanks.’ Look out of the window. Ignore. Adrenaline fires through me. I smile as much as I can, try to neutralise him.
He frowns. Stares at me.
He reaches into his pocket. Maybe he will get his toys out, stab me right here on the 85. He produces a roll of police tape, white and blue, rips it taut and twists it around the metal handle of the seat in front. Rip. Rip. Police Line—Do Not Cross. A police scene before there is one.
My scalp prickles. The bus swims. Breathe in, breathe out. Not again.
‘Introduce anarchy and everything becomes chaos.’ He smiles, still winding the tape. ‘I’m the agent of chaos.’
I’m going to die.
A gruff male voice behind me. ‘It’s actually, “Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.” ‘
We turn around. A mild middle-aged white man is speaking.
The man beside me is offended. ‘I’m an expert,’ he whines.
‘You’re not. It’s also I’m “an” agent of chaos. He isn’t “the” agent.’
The man beside me deflates. He gets off at the next stop, leaves his roll of police tape crumpled around metal. The world comes back into focus. Dry-mouthed, I thank the man behind me.
‘I hate people misquoting Batman,’ he says, smug.
Exhausted, I don’t know how to reply.
Where Kings Lie
By Yongsoo Park
The clerk at the township office asks us how many plots we need. I answer, “Two.”
But my father promptly corrects me. He suddenly wants ten plots, not just for him and my mother, but for everyone in our extended family, including a distant cousin and her husband; my wife and kids; and my brother and his future wife, even though there’s no such person in the pipeline.
The pragmatic bean-counter in me can’t help but frown at his extravagance and his desire to play the big shot. In his mind, he’s the patriarch in charge of ensuring the welfare of a large clan when in fact, we’re a small family and no one is looking to him for anything, especially not posthumous tending.
Soon, he and I are arguing. About the plots and everything else. To her credit, the clerk doesn’t seem the least bit fazed. I imagine that she must witness a lot of family drama from her unique vantage point.
After a lot of back-and-forth, my father finally agrees to buy just six plots. He tells me in the tone of a piqued child that it’s okay if my brother and I choose not to be buried there. Having unused plots around him will give him and my mother more space to rest in peace. Ancient kings in Korea had burial plots the size of entire mountains. I so wish to throw that back at him and tell him we’re not in Korea and he is no king, but refrain from doing so. As exasperating as he can be to me, he is, in fact, a frail old man in his 80s who still needs his son to play interpreter for him.
After my mother pays for the plots and a deed is drawn up, we head home. Despite the drama, my parents seem pleased. I’m relieved to check one more item off the to-do list. I’d delayed it for far too long. As we pass the cemetery on the way, my father asks me to stop so we can take yet one more look at their plots. I oblige him. L15 to L21. Six adjacent plots on a sunny hill overlooking a small man-made pond. This is where they will be buried. Their final resting place, where I’ll come with my children and regale them with stories about their kooky grandparents who gave up their youth and a middle-class life in Korea to become eternal foreigners in a country that could never live up to their lavish expectations and dreams.
As we get back in the car, my father asks if I have time to go with him to pick out a proper headstone and reminds me for the nth time that we must get a large headstone. Small headstones are likely to get stolen in desperate times. I tell him we’ll have to do that some other day. I have to rush back to the city. It’s almost time to pick up my children from school.
By David Bassano
It didn’t look like a prison to me. It was cluster of low green concrete buildings on the edge of the forest, with cars parked in a rough field out front and chickens and pigs wandering the perimeter. It was surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, with Indians in their traditional clothes lined up at the gate with plastic bags of food for their relatives.
I waited in line. They stamped my hand at the booth, and inside they searched me, and then I passed into the courtyard. This was a maze of chain-link fencing that formed squares of thin grass with inmates idling like cows in a pasture. They no longer asked me for money.
Then came a brick building like a storage shed. A bleached pink-patterned curtain covered the doorway where I announced myself. It was dark inside, with heavy Indian rugs over the earthen floor. Roberto slept on a bundle of blankets. Flies crawled over everything.
“You want some café?” he asked when I entered. He was tall and thin with sparse black hair. He hadn’t shaved.
“Por favor.” I laid my plastic bag by the bedroll and sat against the wall.
He had a small hotplate with an extension cord that went out the doorway to heat the water for instant coffee. I’d brought more with me.
“How are classes coming?” I asked.
“They’re fine. I’m in Economics now.”
“I brought you the book you wanted,” I said, drawing it from the bag. He was in a program through one of the local technical schools, as if a half-Indian with a record could ever get a good job.
“Ah, good!” He leafed through the dog-eared pages with interest.
“How have you been eating?”
“I’m out of oranges.”
“I brought you some.”
“Don’t get sick.”
He was engrossed in the book, squinting at the pages in the dim light. I drank the coffee silently. Some days he didn’t want to talk, so I waited to see.
He’d been picked up while walking home late at night from a temporary job unloading trucks in Chamula. The cops went past him in a white pickup, then stopped and backed up. There were four of them in the bed with rifles and they dropped to the ground. There was nowhere to run, with flat fields to either side of the road. Roberto knew the script. This play was staged every day in Chiapas. They asked him a few stupid questions, then handcuffed him, took everything from his pockets, which wasn’t much, and sat him in the bed of the truck.
They held him in the municipal jail for five days, without letting him call his family, then transferred him to the Centro de Readaptación Social Numero 5. After six months, the deputy director finally informed him that he had been found guilty of homicidio and sentenced to thirty years. Roberto asked why there’d never been a trial, and the director told him that he had signed a confession while in detention. Of course, you can appeal and ask for a public defender, the director told him, eyeing him pointedly. Roberto had already seen what happened to prisoners who made trouble, and anyway the public defender would demand a bribe Roberto couldn’t pay. If he’d had money, he’d have paid off the cops in the truck. The real murderer had already done that, but they had to bring somebody in before the family of the murdered man complained to the press about the lack of progress in the case. That’s when they’d spotted a pobre walking along a road alone.
Two years later, Roberto’s wife divorced him to find another man to provide for the family, and the family stopped bringing him food and medicine, which was expensive and took all day on a bus to deliver.
I was his nephew, and I lived in San Cristobal, so I’d stopped by every two weeks for the past ten years with plastic bags of food and limones, because they kept the best without refrigeration, and he could cut them with a plastic knife and squeeze them into water to stay healthy. Sometimes I also brought vitamins, but they were expensive.
We chatted for a while about the little things before he remembered:
“Mariella’s birthday is the twenty-third.” She was his daughter. “I was wondering if you’d do me a favor? I want you to give her a doll as a present. I remember her always with a little worn-out doll. She never put it down. Tiny little girl with big black eyes and hair like black silk with a worn-out doll. I wanted to make a new one for her out of old sheets, but I couldn’t get the scissors and needle. The guards wanted too much.”
I looked into the coffee mug.
“Would you do that for me?”
Mariella was now twenty-five, with a daughter of her own.
“Thank you, joven.”
“It’s nothing, Roberto. I’m sure it’ll make her happy.”
I waited along the pitted road with several others for the bus back to town. Readaptación. I wanted to laugh, but didn’t. Well, it’d be a real shit for him to give up now, after so many years, I thought. One more lie in this place doesn’t mean anything. Just keep him alive until he can come home. Then we’ll worry about readaptación.
Man of the House
By Dona McCormack
The year’s ’77 and boys can still do the bullshit I do and stay out of jail. My stepfather Richard can wrap his beet-red hand around the base of my neck, toss me down two concrete steps behind the Indian Beach precinct. No one blinks at Richard’s discipline. He’s a good guy, offering me a hand after he plants me in pavement.
“I got it. I’m bloody,” I say and show him my gooey palm, like the blood he sees on Mom every day. I push myself up and brush my hands together to get rid of the gravel and grit. Richard’s light eyes glint and he points at his Buick. I get in. The air feels dense. Richard gets behind the wheel and spicy aftershave mingles with breathless heat. My stomach tosses. I crank down the window and hang my face out.
“Finally. You show some discomfort. Good. Your mother shouldn’t be the only one. She’s going to kill you, you know.”
I say nothing. I know what Richard did to get me out of this without a charge. I heard the Indian Beach PD Patrol Sergeant call my stepfather, Sarasota PD Weapons Sergeant—he made the call right in front of me. When Richard walked in, they hugged like it was Christmas. I never got my phone call; not that I would’ve used it, because my stepfather’s right about my mom.
She suffers. And my life of crime already runs too long.
“You know what she was doing today until I called her from the station and told her I was bailing you out?”
“You called her?”
“Oh yeah.” He sounds satisfied and I feel gross.
Richard shark-grins. “Told her what you did, too. Want to know how upset she was?”
Unshed tears burn my eyes. “I don’t want to hear any of this.”
“Well tough shit!” Richard hits the brakes hard at a red light. Our rear end fishtails and swerves back. I brace the dash and press myself into my seat. Richard glares at the red light. His jaw works. He starts driving and says, “Remember those stupid mud—”
Oh shit, the mud baths.
“—baths she’s been swearing would make her feel like a new—”
That’s today? I even …
“—woman, the kind that kicks cancer’s ass and lives to see—”
“Eighty,” I say.
Richard glances at me, then back at the road. “Right.”
Neither of us speaks until he pulls into our long driveway. Mom steps through the screened front door onto the crooked cement patio. Her legs glow a healthy tawny thanks to regular trips to the beach. She still wears her bikini when she walks beside me at the water line. Doesn’t try to hide her white colostomy bag, says she wouldn’t if she could. “Losing my shit equipment a foot at a time, my boy. Don’t have the guts to eat anyone’s crow.” I feel brave just walking beside her. I eat every bite of stringy bird those other beachgoers strew upon us and I’m grateful she doesn’t smell it on my breath. I go with her to the beach every time she asks. Because she also stands in the surf and flaps her shit bag and says, “Nothing squeezing,” and raises her hands to the sun and says, “I’m glad it’s not skin cancer I got.” And it’s not, at that. There she glows, indeed.
“Where would you like to go?” Richard asks.
My stepfather has gotten me out of a dozen scrapes and I’m not even a junior in high school. Yet, I can’t make sense of what he just said. “What did you just say?”
Richard sighs. He looks at my mom. Waves. She throws him a dazzler and waves back. He smiles too, a real one. He looks back at me and it disappears. “Where would you like to go?”
“Richard … I … ”
“I wanted you to see your Mom before you made this decision, Leonard. Now, I’ll give you five-hundred dollars and take you wherever you want to go—”
“But I’m a—”
“Oh, really? Were you going to say ‘kid’? A kid career criminal. Conning. Check kiting. Running gambling games at school. Leonard, you’re enterprising. Take that talent and apply it, you’ll be fine.”
“What’s my other choice?”
Richard hikes a thumb at my mother through the windshield. She’s smiling, and she waves. I lift my hand.
I say, “You mean she—”
“Look, forget that, we both know she’s dying.”
My stomach revolts. “She could—”
“She ain’t getting better. After this shit you pulled last night, I told her I was getting rid of you. Putting you somewhere safe, where you couldn’t fuck up what’s left of her life. But no. She wanted me to bring you home.” Richard’s face swells red and his lips tremble. I press myself against the passenger door, preparing to flee.
“I even said that if you come back here, it was over for me in this family. Sick of being your janitor, kid.”
“Is that what you call taking care of my mom?”
He grits his teeth. “Not scared of her shit bags kid. It’s your bullshit ruining my life.”
I stare at my mom. She’s not smiling anymore. “Your other option,” says Richard, no longer my stepfather, “is stay and be the man of this house. Your mom’s constant care should only be a thing for another year, and that’s being optimistic.” My eyes start to burn. “Then you’ll be free and clear.”
I imagine I can see my mom’s hazel eyes, all the different colors. She clasps her hands below her chin. Her colostomy bag creates an outline against her shirt. I see her as she is, not my mom. And I know. Richard will stay in it with her. For six months. Or until she’s eighty.
My mom smiles at me again. Her expression shifts. Worries. She dims. I wonder how to make five-hundred dollars buy me into adulthood.
BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA
By Christian McCulloch
The bell on the tramp steamer called out into the thick fog.
A single bell from the buoy off to starboard resonated.
Somewhere there were stars beyond the grey blanket.
The ship nosed forward. The bells spoke to each other.
Mor’thn pulled the collar of his oilskin closer and spat into the dark night that stretched before him.
Lights began to appear in the fog. Dimples at first, then pinholes in a grey mist, and all the while the double-knock from the rocking waves. Ka-long! Ka-lang! It felt like a log being pulled along a slow river.
Mor’thn licked his lips and waited for the harbour lights. He was in no hurry.
He had a cargo of ermine pelts. Soviet stoat. One thousand. One for each day of the journey. He’d sewed the very finest for her by the light of the oil lamp. With each stitch, he’d counted the hairs on her head. He felt her skin under his fingertips. He’d rubbed his face in the fur and thought of her naked.
The boy would be five or was it six now? Yes, it had been a long, long journey. He waited for the next set of bells.
The darkness spoke to him as the silhouettes slipped past.
The Third Mate had had a name. To Mor’thn that was the end of his knowledge of him, He’d embarked, his name added to the list of crew members.
He would not be disembarking. What had happened on the empty sea no one knew or was prepared to say; a fight, perhaps? A disagreement over duties? A jealous rivalry? A debt that had to be paid in full?
Life on a tramp steamer had a ‘Frontier’ sense of right and wrong, especially when it came to Justice. In someone’s opinion, justice had been served. That was an end to the matter.
But retribution was not justice. How could justice be served in an empty sea? No witnesses, no evidence, no mitigation, no statements.
Now Mor’thn must explain to the Agent. An investigation would be undertaken. For whom? The missing Third Mate? His family, if he had one? For the Company? Not the ship’s company, that was for sure. For its own sake?
The crewman, if not in the wrong, was part of a flawed equation. Most likely founded in wrongdoing. None had come forward with complaints of injustice. No one had come to him to be judge or mediator. Whatever had happened would’ve remained in the dark forever had he not stumbled upon it. Now, he’d have to delay his homecoming to his beloved wife and child. Where was the justice in that?
To the crew, the matter was concluded. The man’s name had been taken out of the book of the living. All it would require would be for Mor’thn to remove his name from the manifest. His solution, in line with the crew—the Third Mate never existed!
But there was an empty bunk. None had bothered to make it up. He’d have never known if he hadn’t asked why.
No one had lied or made excuses. They’d simply shrugged. Uncommitted. All it had taken was a look to heaven and a turning-away. Hands washed clean, responsibility washed away like the Third Mate somewhere in the empty sea beyond Alaska.
So, why not do the same?
Once the tramp steamer docked, the crew would scatter to the four winds. There’d be no one to point out his oversight. None to judge him.
What if … just this once? Mor’thn wondered.
No one would thank him. Not the crew. Certainly not his wife. The boy was too young to understand and by the time he’d be old enough the matter would’ve been long forgotten; a name out of mind, a reckoning out of reach.
What sense did it make? None. But one small, unattended tear in the net was all it took. There’d be no bounty. Now, it was a mutiny in Mor’thn’s mind.
Who’s to say who’s right, who’s wrong? Let salty seadogs lie! Where was the profit? Where would be his homecoming celebration? All it would take would be a stroke of the pen and he could feel the stroke of her forgiveness on his cheek; the chance to stroke the body he’d been denied.
The man was gone! There were the living to consider. It served no useful purpose. It would anger the Charterer and delay his rightful share.
Whatever he decided would be law. He was the Law on the empty sea.
He had a duty to those present, also those not present, the Agent, the investors, even the tax-gatherer. Bureaucracy is a tidal wave.
In times of trouble, it’s all hands on deck (Third Mates excused).
And if it were to come to light, Mor’thn could always account for the oversight (a man overboard?) by the pressure of doing his Duty. Duty? Was Duty akin to conscience? Shipmates, perhaps, not brothers. At the end of the day, am I my brother’s keeper? Do I owe him anything?
No. Mor’thn didn’t owe any man. He was willingly in the debt of his woman. For her, he’d lie to the Crown, make a pact with the Devil.
”And what of the missing mate?” asked Second Master Dankhov, looking up from their chess game.
”I guess he went for a swim and didn’t wish to return.” Mor’thn sucked his teeth and castled with his king.
”He’d have been dead in ten minutes if he wasn’t already when he pitched over the side,” said Dankhov, removing a stray chess piece to prepare an avenue of assault from the bishop.
”A man his size could last an hour or more,” said Mor’thn, not believing it.
Mor’thn reasoned that he had two more opportunities to reconsider before the cock crowed in the dawn and he’d stand before the Agent to give full account of the incident.
By then he’d have made up his mind. What was the right thing to do?
Overmatch by Pizza
By Cyan James
We drill. We do burpees in the desolate dark of 0430. Slam our faces into grass and frigid dew during pushups, some SGT in the background yelling “Get low! Get your faces IN THERE! Like you’re eating out the best pussy you can imagine. Sorry, I mean eating out a goddamn WAFFLE CONE!”
We put on rucksacks. Do twelve-mile rucks. Up the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire and New York. Down the mountains. Over the green hills, over the breaks in the green where granite shows through.
Sit on logs for lunch. See what MRE misery lies in store. Chem-heater smoke pungent and green through the undergrowth. Nuclear lime green of the electrolyte drinks. The bartering that sets in, you give me this I’ll give you that while the crows beady-eye us for treats.
Sweat and broken toenails. Always bring moleskin for the scraped-open places that’ll fester on feet. Bring duct tape. Always take care of your feet; always think first of the feet of others, think of them like they’re damn horses. Army hooves. Soldiers snorting out snot. Cropped manes. Rolling eyes.
Mostly we wonder where it’s all going. We’ll go to Iraq; we’ll go to Afghanistan. We’ll get desert sand in our teeth and won’t be able to brush the flavor away, worse than garlic. Eye-blistering sunsets, sand crusts in the corners of our eyes. Big question is: what’ll we do when we get there?
Everyone wants to be tip of the spear. Pointy end. Most of us are the tail. The support. The logistics and the cold chain, the pit burners, junk haulers, food sloppers, maintenance crew, radio carrier, supply depot clerks, checkers of dials and knobs and settings, checkers of checklists and submitters of paperwork and eaters of the Subway subs and the Burger King burgers. Waiters, mostly. We wait. War is whoever can win a brutal wait.
So we’re on another ruck.
Oh, wait till you see what the guys in R&D have done this time!
Does it blow up?
Then shut up.
Oh, but you’ll like it!
So we ruck all over Vermont and we ruck all over New York. Gritty boots. Sweaty ACUs. Stop for water. Stop for feet. Stop for lunch.
Get into our rucksacks. Get out our knives. Slice open the brown plastic the green plastic the tan plastic of that industrial stuff they use to encase each and every goddamn component of an MRE. Finish lunch and you have a dead animal’s worth of plastic piled up around your boots. Gotta pack it back out they say. The plastic wrappers and matches and the little salt packs the pepper packs the Tabasco the hand wipes the napkin the mint in a wrapper the toothpick.
Cut open the main meal, a new one, scientist food techs watching us.
Square of bread substance with the sauce. Rounds of orange-oily meat on top.
The enthusiasm is from the scientists who have won their war against pizza. Behold pizza MREs! Real American pizza, crust-as-good-as-American-thighs, sauce as red and thick as a patriot clotting out, and pepperoni chunks true as anything bought for a dollar from the gas station back home.
Their eyes big and glistening as their pepperoni circles.
How, the scientists ask, does it make us feel?
Like football and apple pie?
Like morale so righteous it’s like dropping iron in the gym just to hear the clang of sheer talent?
Like Apocalypse Now when the Iroquois Hueys ride over the thunder of Wagner’s Valkyries and breakfast is napalm?
Like when you have leave and go see your lady with her face made up prettier than at the wedding and the two little kids wear star-spangled banner dresses she made herself and she reaches for you in the car and inside the front door and then you lie down on the bed but for some reason even though she smells like vanilla and peaches you can’t get anything going and your throat is too parched to even apologize and you lie there losing and losing and feeling like a lukewarm chunk of gristle coughed up the throat of war?
Like the biggest screaming hard-on for ass-hauling around hot third-world sand?
Like where is the ice and the snow?
Like when your MOS is typing? Or pantry-stocking?
Like when you don’t want to be a cliché so you make little pretty paintings from mud and dust and vegetation bits and then stomp on them to keep them to yourself?
Like when she sends nude pics? Like when she doesn’t?
Like wondering if your good boy chocolate Lab has forgotten how you smell?
Like when you hate the other soldiers you were stuck with but you also miss them?
Like pit sweat?
Like she made you chocolate chip cookies with the walnuts like you like but they got crushed and stale in the mail?
Like thirty pounds of ceramic plating and UHMWPE on top of everything else?
The stomach, they tell us, it matters!
Everyone, the scientists say, but like it’s a question, likes pizza?
And this is performance pizza. Vitamins. Minerals.
And it’s good. Finger licking.
We would eat it every day.
But now we know we’re headed for a makeshift job in the waiting war way behind the line where we’ll eat makeshift pizza on adventurous days and Subways/BurgerKingburgers/FOBfood on the regular days and we’ll gain fat weight and say intemperate things about hajjis while we turn the volume to 11 and make jokes about babies dying and then stop ourselves because that’s not appropriate …
Mostly the problem is that pizza will be one of the best things we’ll look forward to in plastic.
Mostly the problem is that everyone is trying so hard.
Mostly the problem is that pizza cannot fix anything.
Mostly we’re just going to eat it anyway.