Footprints in Fine White Ash
By Michael Kozart
The day Darlene pulled up to Jack’s, she was facing a night in a shelter or the car. She had searched the county for an affordable room. Rents were soaring. This was the last resort.
It was a ranch home, with crumbling chimney and faded pink aluminum siding, out of place on a rural road with vineyards and mansions. Darlene knocked on the screen door. “Jack Elmer? We spoke on the phone.”
There was cursing and he appeared: sweat stains, stubbled jowls, a clump of masking-tape around the angle of his glasses. He looked her up and down.
“Is the room still open?” she asked.
Jack opened the door. Inside, there was the strong smell of cannabis and pork fat. Down a dim hall with dusky carpet, he gestured to a room. “Thousand, first of the month. Take or leave.”
Darlene flicked on the light: the bed was a stack of three mattresses; the walls, peeling; the floor, buckled. But it was all hers, or could be. “Five hundred, in exchange for work, fixing and cleaning,” she said.
Jack scratched an armpit and walked up the hall. “That includes toilets.”
Darlene started with the kitchen, cleaning out the fridge, scrubbing tiles, digging butter knives into cracks, shaving tar from linoleum. She threw away the mealy table and replaced it with one of glass and steel from the Goodwill.
It wasn’t long before Jack figured out the right location to lean against a wall and study her butt.
“Need something?” she asked.
She had a part-time boyfriend named Ron. They might have lived together, but for his slips into drugs and steady unemployment. Good looks made up the difference. If he came by, Jack would back off.
Ron came by on a Friday evening—flowers for Darlene, handshake and toothy grin for Jack.
“Cut the Father of the Bride crap,” Darlene said to Ron. “He ain’t my father.”
They left for dinner and a movie. When they returned, the flowers were in the garbage disposal, stems up.
“Fucking allergies,” Jack said, next morning.
Darlene knew about dementia. She saw how her father went. The early signs—pacing before dawn, letting the faucet run, sleeping with the TV on. Jack was a sitting duck. Some become pleasantly demented, others, she knew from experience, paranoid.
“Touch me, Jack, and I swear I’ll call the sheriff. That will be it.”
Six months went by. Surfaces scrubbed or replaced. Junk hauled away. Walls adorned with calendars and secondhand artwork. A rusty wheelbarrow converted to a planter with a hardy geranium. Jack grew quieter, more reclusive, which was no problem. The problem was hygiene, or lack thereof. Darlene laid out soaps and towels, which Jack ignored. Finally, an iron within arm’s reach in case he grew angry, she said to him, “I’m leaving unless you take a shower.”
That evening, Jack showered. The next morning, he had razor bites on his moon face. “Does this mean we’re married?” he laughed.
Fire season came early, in August, thanks to an unusual lightning storm that lit dried brush. Their part of the county had not burned in forty years.
The blaze licked forward. Mule deer left tidy footprints in the fine white ash. Smoke led to health warnings: stay inside. Then came evacuation orders. Police sirens blared high-low. A rim of red crept over hills, two miles to the west. Air tankers swooped down, dropping orange retardant, ruining the grape harvest.
“Jack, it’s time.” Darlene said.
He was sunk in a recliner, an old National Geographic on his lap.
“They’re taking in folks at the fairgrounds,” she said. “We need to leave.”
He said nothing, staring ahead.
She was packed and ready. At one point, she sat in the driver’s seat, waiting for Jack to emerge. She went back inside. He had the TV on. Later, wet towel around her head, she hosed down the sides of the house. Cinders fell, leaving clumps of charred weed in the yard. The smoke was too thick to tell how far away the flames were. Fire trucks flew past in urgent caravans.
By morning, the blaze had stalled, halfway through the neighboring vineyard, thanks to cooling temperatures and a fog layer from the coast.
During the fall, a son from L.A. visited, unannounced. He drove Jack to Santa Rosa to meet with an estate lawyer and left before dinner. He gave Darlene a phone number, in case of emergency. “He probably shouldn’t be left alone, what with the mini strokes.”
What would you know about mini strokes? Darlene thought.
That night, Jack dumped the wad of paper with notary seals in the trash. “Fucking parasites,” he said.
In the winter, Jack died in his sleep, a heart attack. Darlene found him in his recliner. “He left peacefully,” she told the son, over the phone.
He said she could stay until the place went on the market. “You have somewhere to go, Darlene?”
“I’ll get by.”
On a nightstand by Jack’s bed, she had discovered the envelope, her name in blue ink. Inside, a note and the combination to a floor safe in a closet—the only place Jack had refused to ever let her clean. He never trusted banks with his money.
“Because you stayed behind,” was all he wrote.
It was a year’s worth of rent, and then some.
Darlene left after one final sweep-through. She locked the door and chucked the key in the vineyard. The sky was gray, rain approaching. She expected mud and puddles. “Leave the shoes outside,” she would have said to anyone who came and went. Life was full of things beyond her control. Dirt on the floor wasn’t one of them.
By Carol McGill
Arabella works the night shift at the 24-hour supermarket. She got some pretty intense leather boots her first winter there, after trekking home through 4am snow in Converse one night. She prefers the walk in summer. Sometimes it coincides with the dawn.
When she gets inside, she leaves her boots on the mat. She opens her grandma’s door a crack and listens for her mangled breathing. Arabella stays awake just long enough to bring her nan tea and toast in bed, then she sleeps till late afternoon.
She took the job when her nan got sick, the year after she left school. It had been a short-term solution, some quick cash. It could be worse. Arabella enjoys the early evenings on her days off, when she has dinner with her nan. Her school mates come for cans in the park round the corner, when they’re able. She has a tiny bit of money to spare. One payday, she impulse buys a sparkly silver swimsuit online. When it arrives, she examines every inch of herself in the mirror, squeezing her own flesh and twisting her own hair, then folds it back into the tissue paper and hides it at the back of her wardrobe.
It makes for a weird social life. It fucks with her sleep schedule so that she’s up most nights. There are so many hours to kill between waking and sleeping, when nobody else is nocturnal. At first she moped around the house, binging TV shows and scrolling the internet and eating noodles. These days Arabella goes to a lot of night clubs. She’s actually sober more often than not; she just wants the company. She’s taken up smoking because it’s quieter in the courtyard, and easier if she has something to do with her hands.
She gets into strange conversations with men. She goes home with some of them. Mostly she grits her teeth when they call her “little lady.” Arabella never takes them back to her grandmother’s house. One morning, cutting cable ties on newspapers at the shop, she sees the headline Modern Loving: young people’s dating lives affected by living with family longer. She almost laughs, though it’s not really funny. That’s me, she thinks, a modern lover.
One night as she’s stacking shelves, her manager offers to move her to the day shift. Arabella has been in this job for nearly two years. She says no. Now she can’t imagine what she would do with herself if she became a daytime creature. She’d have to face the real world. To end this pause which has extended into eternity.
The next week Arabella meets a guy she actually likes in a bar. She tells him her name and he nearly shouts, “No way! That’s the name of my favourite song. You have to let me buy you a drink now.” It’s a terrible line, but she decides to let him buy the drink because she likes his mouth. She surprises herself when she gives him her number the next morning.
Lucky for him, he calls her the first time at 7pm on her evening off. Her nan will be in bed soon, an endless night stretching ahead. She says yes. He picks her up at sunset. When she opens the car door the light is behind her, and he says, “Jesus. The light like that, you look like an angel.” It’s another stupid line. She still likes to hear it.
He starts to take her on drives most nights that she’s off.
He’s a little older, has a little more money. He likes to buy her things. He gets her a cheetah-print coat. She thinks it’s tacky, but doesn’t like to tell him so. Instead she keeps it at his place, wears it over her underwear. Arabella bought the beautiful new underwear herself.
They smoke in his bed and, especially if she’s had a bad week, she gets him to tell her his plans. He wants to run his own business someday, own his own house. A dog but no cats. Two boys, and a girl to spoil. A wife. When he talks about the wife, she never gets the sense that he means her. The way he looks at her feels too intense, too immediate.
He has money and a good job and someday, he’ll probably have all the things he wants. It all sounds like fantasies to her. It makes her feel panicky about her own life, if she thinks too hard, but she still likes to listen. His voice makes his daydreams easier to touch than her own.
He talks a lot of crap. He compares her to galaxies and constellations. His voice gets almost worshipping when he does it. She never knows how to react, what to do with her face. It’s awkward. It makes her feel weirdly detached from herself. She goes home to her grandma and makes the tea and looks at her own hands, tries to figure out what he sees. There’s a disconnect between the woman he talks about, and Arabella, who cleans grease out of the oven, and plays board games with her nan. Who has a bad ankle, and plucks her grey hairs whenever she finds them.
They go to the beach one night and she wears the silver swimsuit. She was excited to get the chance, excited to take it out of its wrappings. He’s obsessed with it. He talks about her entering his mind and soul. He’s really into science fiction films—they were never her thing—and he keeps talking about some character from some seventies movie. Keeps wanting to touch her, touch the suit, put his hands inside it. Arabella has a weird night. She can’t sleep, afterwards. She sneaks out of his apartment at 5am, binning the swimsuit at the end of his street.
The walk home isn’t that much more dangerous than her walk back from the shop.
(Author’s Note: This piece draws inspiration from the song Arabella by the Arctic Monkeys.)
By Anne Anthony
Girls Get Periods Every Month
While we sit together on the floor to watch my sister’s cat give birth inside the linen closet, my mother explains, “That bloody mess spilling out is the afterbirth. Parts of her that hold the kittens inside. The same thing will happen to you every month when you’re ready.”
The cat howls, her pain unmuffled by the sheets on the shelves. I am eight, home sick from school, and when Tiger Lily eats her afterbirth, I hope that I’ll never be ready.
Keep Your Mouth Shut
My older sister, the story goes, screamed bloody murder when she first got her period. No one told her to expect a toilet bowl filled with blood. “Shrieking like she was dying,” my mother says and laughs. “And then you, no one ever knew anything about your monthly visitor.”
The day after the fourth-grade health class teacher shows “the movie” and hands out the “readiness boxes” to the girls, my daughter becomes a woman at the age of ten. She comes running out of the bathroom excited and smiling, holding a tampon from her box, asking for instructions.
I age ten years with her questions.
Never Buy a Dog That Looks Like a Rat
I promise my daughter the long-desired dog when we move into a rental house that allows pets. We go to local shelters and find old dogs abandoned by their owners, or too untrained, or unfriendly to young children. On the way home, we stop at a pet store.
She wants a Chihuahua.
I say, “They look like rats.”
She wants a pug.
I say, “They look like pigs.”
Outside in a pen are English Springer Spaniels and I stop. “How about one of these?” When she nods, we go inside, and I ask to hold the brown and white one with the big spots. He falls asleep in my arms; she scratches his ears. She overhears a woman say she might pick the one we have and name him Measles.
“Mom, we have to save him from that name,” my daughter says. He sleeps on the back seat all the way home. She names him Luke.
Stay Out of the Sun or You’ll Get Burned
My daughter and I wander the tourist shops when she turns and says, “I hate this.” I thought she was having fun. Her hair is braided with tiny shells that clink together when she walks. Maybe the noise is getting to her. Maybe it’s making her not sound like herself. Maybe she’s hungry. Her eyes trail the neckline of my blouse, “You’re too old to wear that.” I tell her to have a seat, that I’m going to keep on, and that she’ll need to wait until I loop back. I’m tired, wouldn’t mind sitting, but I can’t stand her.
Never Pick at a Scab
Luke lies on his side on the floor. A circular welt rises on his belly, pushes upwards, until Luke’s skin splits open and a raging hornet slips out. It’s the first of dozens that leave the busted boil. Tiny flapping wings storm the room filling the air overhead with a deafening buzz. I call for my husband, pick up a wash cloth to press against Luke’s wound, but we see his body split open, his insides empty, barren.
I wake drenched in the sweat of menopause.
Stand on Your Own Two Feet
My older sister crouches on her hands and knees on the floor next to the dental chair, its seat too high to anchor her butt. She has fallen off, head first, and can’t right herself, her shoulders and hips unhinged by rheumatoid arthritis. The dentist and his assistant guide her gently into a sitting position and consider how to return her to the chair. She can’t stand on her own. While they debate what to do next, she slides sideways smashing her shoulder against the tile floor. They pull her up. Someone calls Transport, a team of two that will move her with a hydraulic lift into the chair. While waiting, I sit behind her, both hands against her shoulders to keep her upright. She has twitched since birth with mild cerebral palsy, and the crackle of her joints feels like the crinkle paper inside a dog toy.
Make Good on Your Desires
I’m sitting in a tattoo parlor watching an Asian woman take a needle to my daughter, permanently inking her inner arm. The buzzing clicks on and off and when the woman’s done she takes a photo, pleased with her work. Five years before, my daughter conceived the design during a high school field trip to Walden’s Pond, bringing home an autumn leaf that dripped burnt orange, yellow, and bloody red.
Three years later, the same woman inks a flight of birds up my arm, starting from the thin scar on my wrist, forgiving the impulsive girl, the child, the engraver of this ancient carving.
Always Keep Your Bedroom Door Locked
The mattress at the edge of my bed sinks as someone sits down and leans over my blanketed body. Moonlight strikes an angle that reveals someone with gray hair. The woman’s face is shadowed and says nothing, but I know something has happened or will happen, something bad, and she is here to tell me.
Later, I am certain it is my dead mother.
Know When to Let Go
Our 14-year-old Luke can no longer stand, his joints crunch together, refuse to hold him up so my husband lifts him and carries him outside. He whispers in his ear, “Good-bye, old friend.” He brings him into the back seat of the family car, next to our daughter who left work early to ride with him on his final drive to the vet.
By James W. Davidson, Jr.
He was already lying in bed. She stacked her pillows then slid her legs into the covers, snatching the cigarette he had been presenting her. She held it with her lips while adjusting the pillow at her lower back.
He waited until she got the pillow just right. Then, he struck the lighter for her. She sucked until a bright orange glow throbbed and smoke danced in an upward stream.
He lit his cigarette.
They blew smoke over the plaid bedspread.
Both were wondering whether to smoke slowly or suck their cigarette down and fire up another.
“Surprising your parents was awesome,” he said. “I think they were more surprised than me.”
“The booties were perfect!” she giggled. “I thought I would have to spell it out, but then their faces exploded! And at the same time!”
“Incredible. We should’ve videoed.”
“Who’d have thought, best Christmas present they ever got was baby booties from their daughter?”
His smile crumbled.
“How many are left?” she asked.
He crunched his cigarette into an ashtray on his nightstand, sweeping the pack as he rolled back toward her.
“I can’t smoke four more,” she said. “I’ll have one more.”
“Then we toss them.”
He handed her another cigarette. She lit it with the burning end of the one she was finishing.
“It’s going to be hard,” he said.
She nodded, her eyes folding in his direction.
“Really hard,” he said.
“We’ll make it together.”
He drew on his cigarette, glancing at her belly, still flat. The only clue of his coming fatherhood was the pregnancy test he’d pulled from his stocking that morning. She’d told him she’d kept the secret for three days, impossible as it was. She wanted to give him the best Christmas present ever!
“Let’s look up names!” She said.
“Not tonight, Sweetie.”
He rolled over to ash. He stayed there, his back to her, gazing over the eggshell wall, still unpainted for the five years they’ve lived in the tiny brick ranch with no garage. Two gallons of sandstone paint had been waiting on the floor for the past three years. He hated the burden of that wall, but he was always too tired from laying brick six days a week.
Their house had only three bedrooms. One they used as an office. The other would become a nursery, tossing guests out into the living room on a futon or air mattress.
“Nothing,” He said. “Just tired. Exciting day, emotionally overwhelming, plus driving all that way to see your parents. I just need to relax a while, clear my mind.”
He stabbed the cigarette into the ashtray.
“Okay,” she said. “I love you.”
“Love you too,” he said, leaning back for a kiss.
Within minutes, she was out. Her breathing sounded like a light purr. Her face was peaceful, her curly blonde hair covering its side like a blanket, her tiny lips puckered as if demanding another kiss.
He wanted to kiss her again. He wouldn’t chance waking her, though.
How did she fall asleep so easily? She must not have a single tortuous thought. He suffered thirty to forty-five minutes of ruminating every night before drifting off, his head like a computer that must decode the day’s activities before shutting down.
He eased off the bed then tiptoed to the porch with the cigarettes. The air was a bit bitter, a slight scent of wet grass and rotten eggs. It was also warm—too warm for Christmas, and dark. He couldn’t see their cars parked in the driveway just ten steps away.
A lone streetlamp hummed from its post two houses down. His eyes were drawn to the soft-white glow. It was the only bright spot in the shapeless darkness. The more he glanced at the light, the more he thought about his life. He wasn’t ready. He hadn’t prepared enough. The void his father had left him was still unfilled, unhealed, the problems unsolved. He didn’t know what it meant to be a man. How could he teach what he hadn’t been taught? How would he prepare his child for life when he was still learning by trial and error?
The light grew beautifully, majestically, a diamond radiating in a stockpile of coal. Its luminance had swelled, permeating its glow throughout the translucent twilight. The outline of his Chevy truck emerged. Then, the edges of the old oak tree, too thick to even wrap his arms halfway around, appeared too.
Gavin would be a good name. He also liked Scotland—for a girl. She’d mentioned Scotland long ago, and he’d always thought it was unique. He also liked Finnegan for a boy. They could call him Finn.
He took a cigarette from the pack and struck the lighter. The bright flame forced his eyes to close.
When he looked into the darkness again, the streetlamp’s luminance had withered back into that tiny, humming lantern that seemed to be backing away.
He drew on his cigarette. An orange blaze and crackling encroached the space between him and the retreating bulb. He closed his eyes for the next drag, exhaled the smoke.
When he opened them again, the masked world was coming back. He saw smoky fog glossing from far behind the streetlamp. The Chevy’s outline and the tree’s edges eventually returned too.
He flicked the cigarette, barely smoked, into the yard. Sparks erupted like tiny fireworks on the grass.
He would go back to school. He’d enroll at the community college, take classes after work. He’d go straight from the jobsite in mortar-smeared clothes if necessary. He’d study English and philosophy and psychology and whatever else helped him understand this world that had been so cruel to him. He’d earn something worth inheriting, something more than just a living.
He would paint tomorrow to keep busy while fighting the urge to smoke.
When he reentered their home, he stopped. They could name a boy Scotland too.
By Jess Koch
Ella found him in the woods near the pond and plucked him from beneath an oak tree. Abandoned by his mother. His roots dangled like crooked infant legs. She carried him home, sat him on the recliner by the window in the living room where the afternoon sun could find him.
He had the face of a toddler framed by light green leaves instead of wisps of baby hair. His arms and legs transitioned from olive skin to roots.
Down the hall, Ella opened the blue door across from the bedroom for the first time that year. It smelled like it always had. Baby powder and clean sheets. Sterile and vacant. She took some clothes from the dresser, still folded with tags.
The tags went in the trash.
The clothes fit the plant baby well enough, though they hung loose where his roots were thinner than baby wrists and ankles.
“I’m having some friends over tonight with their daughter,” Ella said as she did the last button. “A dinner party. They’ll be so excited to meet you.”
She thought she might name him Finley. Finn for short. The name she would have used if—yes, Finn, she decided, looking at him in the sunlight. Finn was right.
Ella prepared dinner while she watched Finn over the breakfast bar. She watched his eyes follow birds and bugs as they flew past the window. She watched him grasp at them with his little root hands as if he could reach right through the glass.
She smiled as she stirred the dough, as she kneaded it into the counter, as white puffs of flour floated in the air like smoke. She smiled until her cheeks hurt because it had been so long since the muscles in her face moved that way. Then she rolled the dough into little rounds, put them in neat rows, slid the tray into the oven. The biscuits were her specialty. Cheddar and scallion. With a pinch of coarse salt sprinkled on the top of each one.
The guests arrived twelve minutes late. A postcard on her stoop of white teeth and pink cheeks. Georgia passed Ella a bottle of wine. Beaux tipped his hat. Alice pinched her mother’s hand as she peered around the doorway.
“Come in, come in. Beaux, you can put your hat on the hook there. Georgia, this is a lovely wine.” Ella sat on the arm of the recliner, put her free hand on Finn’s head. “This is Finn.”
The guests paused in the entryway.
“What is it?” Alice spoke first.
“Where did you find him?” Her mother spoke second.
“By the pond,” Ella said. “All alone.”
Georgia crouched by her daughter and rubbed the girl’s back. “Honey, that’s a plant baby. They live in the woods.” Ella thought she might say something more, but Georgia just looked up to her husband.
“It’s nice to meet you, Finn,” Beaux said.
No one moved.
Ella scooped Finn up and led the group into the kitchen, put Finn in the highchair at the head of the table.
The food was already set out in an impressive spread. A roasted chicken, vegetables heaped into colorful bowls, the biscuits steaming in a basket. They sat and Ella poured wine for the adults and milk for the children from a crystal pitcher.
Food was served and eaten. Light conversation exchanged. Bellies filled.
Alice poked at crumbs on her plate with the tongs of a fork.
Finn had not eaten anything.
“Finn, darling,” Ella cooed. “What’s wrong?”
Alice dropped her fork on the plate with a sharp clang.
“I don’t think they eat that kind of food,” Georgia said. “The vegetables, maybe, but not chicken.”
“Yeah, my cousin hunts in the woods up north and finds them sometimes,” she cleared her throat. “Says they like bodies of water. Streams, swamps.”
“Ponds?” Alice asked.
“Ponds, too. Their roots soak up things in the water.”
“Nutrients,” Beaux offered.
Georgia nodded and slid the bangles on her wrist up and down her arm. They clinked together. “Say, how was that date last week?”
“A dud,” Ella said as she spooned Finn a steamed carrot. His lips stayed closed.
“That’s too bad, he was the lawyer, right?”
“A boring lawyer.”
“All lawyers are boring.” Beaux chuckled into his wine glass.
“Boring might be nice.” Georgia reached across the table and put her warm hand on Ella’s. “After everything last year.” Georgia said it to Ella but was looking at Finn.
When her guests left for the evening, Ella got Finn ready for bed. She bathed him, dressed him in spaceship pajamas, laid him in the crib in the nursery. She kissed his cheek, turned out the light, but left the door open. Just a crack.
In the morning, she could tell something was wrong. Finn’s leaves were yellowing at the edges and he cried and cried no matter what she did.
Ella took pails into the woods out by the pond. She filled them with murky water that swirled with black bugs and green slime. Salamander eggs. The pond water sloshed as she carried the buckets back to the house, into the bathroom, and dumped them in the tub.
Back and forth she went, carrying water, filling the tub until it was so deep and so dark that she couldn’t see the porcelain bottom. Couldn’t see where her blood had stained the cracks from before.
Then she brought Finn to the bath and stepped in. Her dress sank into the dark water as she slid down. She held Finn to her chest as he cried. This time, she would stay there forever, if that’s what it took.
By Lorette C. Luzajic
Luigi is talking. He is almost a hundred, and might make it there. Listen, he says. This. How soppressata is made. He spears some slices, slippery with fat, with a toothpick and passes them around. First, boil the pig-head for a few hours. Use the best meat, including the tongue. The casing must be wide and squat, not cylindrical, and traditionally flattened between two planks. The best soppressata is born from thriftiness and gratitude to the fallen beast—leaving no waste to spoil. Regional spices differ. Garlic and cloves may be crushed under mortar and pestle. Salt is key. Peppercorns are king. Spicy versions are popular, with intense chiles permeating the meat. You can flavour the fat with nutmeg and juniper berries, like gin. Salumi does not just mean salami, he explains. There is this, there is cotechino, there is prosciutto, there is nduja. You will need crusty bread and chunky olives and Roma tomatoes and gherkins. You will need wine. Luigi watches us chew, pours out more from a taverna decanter. He grew the grapes himself, fed them to ferment, and to the pigs we are now eating. He has never heard of vegans, or the word charcuterie.
By V.J. Hamilton
I’m taking over from Ronette, ever since she had to drop all her clients. I start off with this lady. Mary. She’s happier now that I’ve cleaned her up. Doesn’t recognize a soul anymore, ‘cept in a fleeting way. Her books are all there on that shelf over there, the ones she wrote, I mean. I looked at one, once.
I been working as a personal care provider for sixteen, seventeen years. Next year I’ll retire. Oh yeah. Simon will get me full time then, lucky man ha. I’ve already got my passport, I plan to do some travelling. Pompeii, that’s what I want to see. People were buried alive there under a volcano. But Pompeii’s not for him, no sir; he says he don’t want to budge.
Mondays are my worst day, you know. I have to go over to the Community Living place. The units there are all bachelor apartments. I was given Joe, who is just an old drunk. If he’s too drunk, I don’t want to take the risk of getting him in the shower. With my luck, he’ll fall down and break his wrists, and then I’d be having to help him do everything—and I mean everything, including the wiping—for the next six weeks.
Ronette first gave Joe to a different personal care provider but she couldn’t handle him. She was a young thing. Didn’t know what do with an old drunk. Exposing hisself and all. I mean, whenever I walk into Joe’s place it seems he’s got six, seven friends there who’re just sitting drinking with him all day. That’s all they do. I says, “I’m only here to see Joe. Everyone else has to leave.” And then I stands there, my arms folded like this and wait. They mind me, yes they do. The guys move into the hallway and wait.
That’s what you gotta do, clear them out. But the last girl—well, Joe was drunk and his friends were all there too and giving her the look and she could see that he’d already wet hisself and needed a shower and clean clothes but no one was taking heed of her. So she reported him, and now he’s no longer her client. He’s mine.
Oh sure, Joe’s place is a mess. You can’t tell what the original color of the kitchen tiles is. There’s smear marks at arm’s height on every wall ‘cause that’s how Joe holds himself up in his place. But I’m just a personal care provider. Someone else cleans the apartment, once every few months, I’d guess.
On Mondays I visit the 600-pound man. Ronette gave him to me more’n a year ago. He’s 62 and still alive; imagine that. Diabetes and oxygen, but still kicking. He gets a sponge bath. It takes a long time to wash all that skin, I tell you. He’s in a wheelchair, of course, and that makes it trickier. Fortunately, I don’t have to do his bottom. That’s his wife’s job.
After the 600, I have Garby. He asks after Ronette, which surprises me, ‘cause she hasn’t been here for months. I tell him it’s not good, her blood counts are way down. All her clients, and Garby’s the only one that still asks after her.
Garby is short for Garwood. I kind of like that name but he sure don’t. “Garby’s just like garbage,” he says to me. “That’s what they thought of me,” he says. I guess he means his parents. Garby’s smart, he’s memorized entire scripts of his favorite TV shows. He’s much better now that he’s on his meds. Schizophrenic, you know. Big guy. When I go in there, first thing he does is, click: locks the door. Might spook another girl, but not me. No. He’s pretty easy. I don’t have to give him the shower, I just have to take him to it and make sure that he does it once a week. And he doesn’t do it unless someone shows up to say, “Garby, take a shower.” I step into his bathroom and then, click, he locks the door again. Yeah, I feel a little strange when I hear the click and I think about how big he is. But he’s a pussycat really. He had a girlfriend once, you know. She was also in Community Living. Bigger’n he is. She beat him up one time. The staff could hear what was going on, but she beat him up so he lay right against the door and they couldn’t get into the room. Garby’s body was blocking it, you see.
Whenever I go to Garby’s he tells his friends I’m his ‘special girlfriend.’ That’s why he has to get into the shower, see. Because of me. I don’t care. Whatever will get him in and out of the shower. I don’t know if he still has that mean girlfriend, but I just hopes and prays he’ll never introduce me that way to her.
I’m looking forward to retirement next year. Seeing Ronette, who’s just fifty-three, made me decide to retire soon’s I qualified. Simon says I need to keep working, keep some cash flow. Can’t run off to Pompeii for good, he says. I told him about the people of Pompeii, you know. I asked him again if he won’t come, and he just laughs. Asks me if I plan to clean them, too.
I just want to go and look at these people frozen in time forever. In their beds, in the middle of the night. Faces turned toward me and for once, I don’t have to care.
The Old and The New
By Andrew Hughes
When I came back from the war I moved into a little apartment downtown. In the mornings, I ran past the theaters and the churches, in the afternoons I ate in the cafes, and at night, when I lay awake on my stiff little futon, the city lights and the sounds of late night misfortunes kept me company.
In the evenings I drank at a bar called the Black Kettle. It was a no nonsense kind of place, no shot girls, no gimmicks, nothing extraneous, just a short beer list and a patio full of men with leather skin, blue jeans, and bloody lips. These were rough guys. They had seen more than they wanted and now they wished to be left alone.
The bar was located mid block between a taco joint and a used bookstore. That night, as I sat on the patio drinking PBR, the bookstore staff wheeled a microphone, a stack of lawn chairs, and a portable stage down their entrance ramp and into the yard. An hour later, a crowd arrived. It was open mic night.
Poet after poet took the stage and my head began to ache. I expected for Black Kettle’s patrons to erupt in a chorus of complaints and mockery but there was nothing except for polite nods and clapping. Once or twice I even saw a tear sparkle in crusty, strained eyes.
A poet finished bleating out a love poem to his ex girlfriend that started with “I don’t know why I never showed you my sensitive side.” I crushed my empty can and lit a cigarette. If you were going be a hack, I thought, at least do it with a big shit-eating grin, not fake tears. A waitress came by and I ordered another round. The poet bowed deep and the audience awarded him a chorus of snaps. I grunted and puffed my smoke.
Next up was a child. Not a real child, he’d probably broken into his teenage years, but not much older. A self appointed protégé. He ascended the stage with an electric guitar and an amp and for a moment I was hopeful that a power rock chord would rip through the streets. The boy plugged in, brushed back his long raven hair, picked up the mic, and greeted the crowd. My hopes were shattered. He had a voice like a piccolo. The waitress delivered my drink and the boy kept talking. “My name is Kenneth Burr. I’m here to entertain you, but we’ll see how that goes. If you know the words, sing along. If not, that’s okay, I’m used to singing alone.” The crowd let out an empathetic sigh. I took a drink.
Kenneth began to play soft, gentle chords. He hummed and sang lots of la la las. It was a song about never wanting to grow up. How he wanted to stay in his room all day. I wanted to leave, but I still had the fresh beer. I looked around and the men on the porch were nodding along. What was happening to them? Didn’t these fuckers fight in Vietnam?
“So don’t say,
So don’t say,
That it’ll be happier when I’m older,
Because in my heart, I’ll always be young.”
Kenneth bowed his head, his hair falling forward like a veil. “Thank you. It’s so nice to get some response. I’m used to singing to my cat. He doesn’t talk much.”
The crowd laughed and I got up to go.
A man in a wheelchair came down the sidewalk, shirtless and hollering. It was a rickety, decrepit old chair that matched the man’s physical form, missing an arm, busted frame, held together by threads. On stage, Kenneth had just begun his second song with a bubblegum pop sigh. The man sped through the yard, kicked a wheelie, and sailed up the front ramp.
“Wooo!” He hollered and waved his arms. “Play some Zeppelin, boy!”
I felt a moment of sympathy for Kenneth. Here was a kid thrust into a confrontation that he didn’t understand. He was shell shocked, but he forced a smile and continued to strum and sing. The crowd had turned and were watching the homeless man.
“You not hear me, you two bit faggot?” The man spat through the holes of his missing teeth. “Play me some fuckin’ Zeppelin or I’m comin’ up there.”
Kenneth stopped singing but continued to strum, staring at the dirt in front of the stage, beads of sweat running down his face.
“I know you can hear me,” the man shouted and reached for an empty coffee mug on the porch rail.
The door behind him opened and the shopkeep stepped out.
The homeless man snatched the mug, reeled back, and hurled it at the stage. The porcelain missile soared through the air, struck Kenneth in the head, and knocked him backwards. The strumming stopped and the shopkeep dove for the man but he was already soaring down the ramp, kicking up a wheelie, and speeding off up the sidewalk, laughing and howling.
The shopkeep took chase as the audience rushed to the stage to check on the fallen singer. I watched as the man soared past the entrance to the Black Kettle, where two men reached for him with slow, inebriated movements. He swerved to the side, still cackling. I walked to the entrance as the man reached the end of the street, left the sidewalk, sped into traffic, and was flattened by a city sewage truck.
I ran with the others to the corner but he was already gone. The wheelchair had been vaporized and the man lay crumpled and bloody, his shattered jaw propped in a shit-eating grin. Sirens filled the air. I left the rubberneckers and went back to my beer. On the stage, whether out of great cruelty or great compassion, Kenneth knelt, with a bleeding scalp, and strummed the opening chords to Ramble On.
Riding the Waves
By Charline Poirier
Virginia Woolf’s head breaks out the surface of the water. She breathes in.
The sky, a black brushstroke, looks the same above the turbid water as it did beneath when she had curled up on the riverbed. Since then, tides have cradled her body all the way to the English Channel. She faces Calais, but is drawn to England. Scanning the starless French horizon for fighter planes from the Second World War, she takes a step backward toward Dover beach.
Her ears, full of water, ring with whooshing, splashing, hollow trickling, as they have ever since 1941, when she gave herself fully to the currents of the Ouse River. Muffled screams, glugging groans like organ music, hushed spraying, blanketed explosions, pebbles and aquatic plants ruffled, and the subdued brushing of bodies moved by undisciplined currents make up the underwater language she has mastered.
Crisp thunderclaps—a storm is near. Waves thump on her chest and shoulders. Her Wellington boots, sunk in mud, steady her. She angles forward like a boxer. A prudent step backward. She must reach the shore and complete the autobiography she has left unfinished in the top drawer of her desk.
“How I interest myself!” she once wrote in her diary.
Her fur coat feels light. She puts her hands in the pockets. The seams have frayed and the rocks she had once secured inside have escaped. Her reading glasses are missing too.
The wind swirls; the water churns, a vacuum underfoot. She slips under. A voice gurgles in her ears, a rumpled texture. As her head emerges again the voice whines, a fluttering breeze against a window that seeps through the pane’s cracks. She cannot make out the words.
Another step back, getting closer to the notebook.
The incoming waves pound her like heartbeats. She mustn’t lose her balance again. The snap of branches on the berm brings her back to Monk House—large towels smelling of seaweed and sand, stretched on a clothesline.
A wave sprays her face. She blinks, blinded.
By her grave, a Japanese tourist is mouthing a passage fromThe Waves opened on her lap. “And in me too the wave rises. It swells; it arches its back.” This is not what Virginia wants to be reminded of—she yearns for a scream, a ferocious wailing over the thunder, over the winds, over the other things no-one else can access, a violent sound that will shatter the bell jar that has imprisoned her. But the howling is caught in her lungs, burbling up in tiny gas bubbles that bounce between her ears, like a tennis ball on a court in Kensington.
Outside Monk House, Vanessa smacks the King of Hearts down on the threadbare cloth covering the garden table, and smirks. Lytton, on Virginia’s right, legs crossed, his chair tilted against the house, a cigarette burning between his long fingers, watches them play. He rests the cigarette on the windowsill, removes his spectacles and polishes the round lenses with a white handkerchief. In front of her, on the edge of the dewpond, the intertwined elms she and Leonard named after themselves. Virginia’s back is to the open door. A jagged crack in the sky. Inside, a whisper passes between Leonard and Clive over the clinking of dishes.
Something about me.
Fat drops on the tablecloth. She tries to make out what the men are saying but the sudden pelting of rain crushes the words spoken in the kitchen. Vanessa shrieks and grabs her cards. She runs for cover under the roof extension. Her back flat against the wall, she barely clears the sheet of rain. The bottom of her dress is soaked.
Images clutter quickly, flashes of madness, all scenes watch through a magic tank. The way only writing makes anything exist.
The walking has gradually gotten easier. The water is knee-level. The rolling vibration of pebbles has sharpened. She is close to the wrack line. Rain spatters viciously on the top of her head.
Cover your head, silly girl. You’ll catch your death.