Men I have Given a Fish
By Rachel Rodman
“What do you think?” I asked him, heart in my throat.
He gave me a wan smile. Then, leaning forward, he gave the plate that I had so carefully prepared a sniff.
“It kind of smells like fish,” he admitted.
He had enjoyed our date to the Aquarium. So, for our one-week anniversary, I wanted to go big.
Making a pilgrimage to the Sea Witch, I secured for him dominion over all the fish in the ocean.
In exchange for my soul.
As we stood on the dock, I showed him how to flutter his fingers so that, in a gesture of obeisance, a thousand fish would erupt from the water at once.
He was certainly surprised.
“Does this include the dolphins?” he asked finally.
“No,” I said.
“Oh,” he said wistfully.
After my diagnosis, I gave him a call.
“I have salmon,” I told him. “You probably have it too.”
“Salmon … ?” he said.
Over the phone, I could almost hear him unzipping his khakis.
And—with a curse—confirming it.
“It’s not curable,” I said. “But with medication … ”
“Salmon?!” he repeated.
“You would starve if you didn’t have me!” I said.
“I set the table,” he said defensively.
“You sat down at the table!” I said. “That’s different!”
“English,” he said, and shook his head, playing up his accent because he knew exactly the effect it would have on me.
Inimitable l’s, beautifully exotic vowels.
And again I was lost.
“More fish?” I said, and my voice cracked a little.
“Bones!” he cried, spitting out the first bite.
My eyes filled with tears.
“Many animals have bones,” I tried to explain, after I had taken a breath. “Even humans.”
“Maybe you do,” he said.
I fought for him. Across the galaxy, from one of the great dark pools where time went slow, I drew forth an ichthyous beast. When I cudgeled it, its brains spewed, bright against black.
“I have conquered,” I said, laying the great corpse at his feet.
“Ah,” he said.
“From its bones,” I said, “we will build our marriage be—”
“I’m sort of with Kathleen now,” he confessed.
With an apologetic shrug, he pointed to a set of antlers on his wall. “She brought me a deer.”
“It’s got eyes,” he said uncertainly. “And it’s looking at me.”
As if he wasn’t used to that.
“Look back,” I whispered.
“I brought you something extra,” I said to my accountant, interrupting a meeting he was having with another client. Over his desk, I passed him the still-warm bundle.
Our hands brushed.
“It’s trout,” I whispered.
He smiled … and explained he was allergic.
Then he introduced me to his boyfriend.
His diet consisted mainly of Soylent.
“That looks … nice?” he said, his eyes going very big, as I set the cod bake next to his glass.
“But if you want me to eat that,” and here he laughed—an increasingly familiar, I-just-don’t-have-time-for-that laugh—“I’m going to need you to liquefy it.”
Then he looked back at his phone.
I tied him up.
I teased him with a fillet of tilapia, first bringing it close and then moving it away.
“Give me!” he said, writhing delightedly. “Give me!”
His—admittedly gratifying—excitement aside, none of this was actually my favorite.
“My turn,” I said later, poking him lightly. I thought, with growing warmth, of the pair of swordfish I kept in my nightstand.
But he was already snoring.
“Would it be okay,” he asked one evening after a bass dinner. “That is,” and here he coughed, beginning again, “if—ahem!—you were to show me where, in the pond outside, you’ve deposited your eggs, might you permit me to ejaculate on them?”
I was silent for several beats.
“I’m not actually a fish,” I said finally.
“Oh,” he said.
He scarfed down his plate of marlin. He even asked for seconds.
But he never called.
And he never answered mine.
“Fins are fun,” he admitted, after I sighted him in the window of a Burger King and ran inside to confront him. “But in the long term … ?”
Then he took another bite of his cheeseburger.
Blue eyes, dark stubble.
I often did him favors.
Lately, though, things had gotten out of hand.
I peeled off my ski mask. I dropped my bag of break-in tools: lasers, chisels, dynamite. Then, unzipping my jacket, I withdrew the ancient fish fossil he had requested, Primoquaticus urgenitus.
It was worth millions.
“I’m probably going to prison for this,” I said.
“I’ll visit you,” he said.
“Will you?” I asked.
Outside, police sirens wailed.
“Maybe,” he said.
None of my relationships ever lasted.
So, as we walked together along the pier, hand in hand, I was already feeling doomed.
But then, spray-painted on the sidewalk, I sighted the old adage, “Give a man … ”
and it suddenly occurred to me:
Had I been going about this all wrong?
“Would you like to go fishing?” I blurted.
“I’ve never—” he said.
“I have a second pole,” I told him, pointing toward my distant trawler. “I can … teach you.”
He stared at me.
“I’d like that,” he said, and smiled.
And I wondered, that smile.
If this time, maybe.
By Fabiana Martinez
Victor used to believe, perhaps he still does, that our ceremonial sitting on the wooden bench whenever we went for a walk after dinner was our private ritual. For him, it had started the evening he finally moved in with me. That evening in which, despite his happiness, our clumsiness was enough to push us out of my apartment. I imagine that he proposing the walk was his way to delay our first discussion, the inevitable moment when he would light his first Gitanes in my grandmother’s living room that now belonged to me and had become Victor’s official place in the world. That first of many nights, we walked measuring the cadence of our steps, breathing the threads of the fado notes that continue to float on the streets of Alfama, way after the weekend and the tourists are gone. Victor saw the bench, nailed on the sidewalk in an eternal struggle against the inclination of Rua do Vigario, and pulled my hand. I accepted his invitations more out of tiredness than of kindness and avoided the look of the worn-out wood and the ancient blotches of green paint on the boards.
We sat and immediately looked up at the building in front of us, across from the ancient cobblestones that had not suffered the flames of the old fire of Lisbon and its atrocious modernization. The spectacle of multiple balconies and windows under the feeble light of dusk offered to us the kaleidoscopic joy of those many untold lives, secluded behind curtains, shutters and wet clothes hanging like dead birds from the verandas. Victor lit his first cigarette after sunset and I inhaled his relaxed fall into pleasure. That night, like many more in the future, we played the original game of dictating the past and future of the lives inside the yellow building, existences secured by tall green doors and guarded by the enormous dog cloistered in the farthest balcony of the second floor. I wonder if our game was more a naive trick to hide our own impossibility to create a solid story for ourselves than the innocent narration of destinies that we offered to the unknown inhabitants of the street. We gave actions and names, bestowed sorrows and joy without compassion upon the twenty families inside the building. Sometimes we did it in Portuguese and sometimes in French because that was my weakest language and my secret way to instill in Victor the conviction that this seance under the stars only belonged to him.
But veils are fragile and the smoke of a cigarette could envelope the air like a hypnotic traitor. Like the sweet smell of unburned tobacco turned tart after its first contact with the flame, thus my heart turned to remember. And a fateful whisper that only the big dog and I could hear repeated intermittently: you were here before Andréia. This is not a handover to a man who loves you. This is a hand down. He thinks it is a ritual. You know this is a sad tradition, darling. Someone else smoked on this bench before and assigned lives next to your smile. He smoked a different brand. He had a completely different accent and the irremediable power of torching your heart.
Anywhere But Home
By Bruce Johnson
Larry Ebeler and his wife were right outside city limits when his high beams caught the glint of the other car, about a half-mile off, sitting in the ditch by the side of the road. He was trying to get back to their house in the country quickly and discreetly after two Long Island iced teas at dinner. Cops were cracking down on drinking and driving, which was good but inconvenient. Not everyone could handle their liquor like him.
The other car’s dome light was on. He slowed down, and the bumpiness of the gravel road woke Maureen, who had been napping beside him. “What’s this now?” she asked. “Abandoned car?”
“Can’t be abandoned. The light’s on.”
“Don’t stop. It could be a robber.”
He laughed. “Why would a robber be sitting by the side of the road?”
She didn’t respond at first. “There’s no need to laugh,” she said finally.
They came to a stop and Ebeler put the hazards on. Maureen rolled down her window. The other car’s windows were already down, and inside were two teenagers smoking cigarettes, a boy and a girl.
“You folks all right?” Ebeler called out over his wife.
The boy watched him through the smoke. “Yes sir,” he said. “Just fine.”
Something in the boy’s bored tone bothered Ebeler. “What are you doing out here? You should put on your blinker.”
“We ran out of gas,” the boy said. “We were getting ready to walk to town. There’s no reception.” He held his cell phone up as if to demonstrate.
A few minutes later, after a conversation where neither Ebeler nor the kid, Thomas, was happy with the outcome, Thomas rolled up the window and pulled the key from the ignition.
“The fuck you say we were out of gas for?” Cheri asked.
His heart was pounding. “What was I supposed to say? We’re out getting drunk in the middle of nowhere?”
Earlier Cheri had stolen some Old Crow her mom kept under the sink and put it in an empty Coke two-liter that gave the liquor a slightly sweeter taste. This was now resting half drunk on the passenger floor mat. Cheri and Thomas were both eighteen, been dating two months, but they both lived at home so if they wanted time alone or time to drink it had to be somewhere else, anywhere but home.
Cheri was right, though: that was a dumb thing for Thomas to say. Because the man had replied the only way he could, that he would give them a ride to the gas station so they could get some gas and bring it back. Reluctantly, they got into the other car. The man introduced himself as Ebeler, his wife as Maureen. Ebeler had an empty gas can in the trunk, because of course he did.
They rode in silence. Everyone was mad. Thomas that the car had stopped, Cheri that he said that about the gas, Maureen because of Ebeler’s testiness, and Ebeler at the sheer inconvenience of it all. He could smell that liquor stink from the back seat, and it was obvious they weren’t of age. The Ebelers’ house was on the way to the gas station, and Maureen asked to be dropped off. Ebeler obliged, now even angrier that their date night had been so uprooted.
At the gas station, Thomas moved at glacial speed filling the gas can—dragging his feet over to the pump, sliding the card into the reader twice before it took, fumbling with the keypad so slowly it was like he’d never seen numbers before. When he sloshed gas onto the cement, it was all Ebeler could do not to drive off and leave him there.
On the way back to their car, Ebeler drove in a rushed, huffy silence. The Long Island iced teas had left him drowsy, unalert. Thoughts of Maureen, probably waiting at home ready to give him an earful, tugged at the edges of his attention. Thomas was looking out the back window at the corn stalks flitting by when he noticed Ebeler start to drift across the yellow line.
“Hey,” Thomas said, alarmed, “you all right? You’re in the middle of the road.”
Ebeler, furious, swerved back into his lane. “These roads are wide open,” he said.
Thomas wasn’t sure what he meant by that. Ebeler flipped the turn signal on when they neared 120th, and Thomas had to remind him that no, it was the next one. He looked at Ebeler’s eyes in the rearview. They were soft, old, unfocused.
When they got back to the car, Cheri shuffled over to the passenger seat while Thomas dumped gas into the tank. It was already half full. Ebeler waited in his own car, still running, impatient gaze fixed to the dark road flanked by tall trees.
Thomas got in and started the engine. He rolled down the window.
“Seems good,” he said to Ebeler. “Thanks.”
“Are you okay?” Ebeler asked. “To drive, I mean.”
Thomas lit a cigarette. “Are you?”
Ebeler didn’t answer. Instead, he shifted into gear and drove off, tires throwing gravel.
Cheri picked the whiskey up from beneath the seat. “You want some more?”
“No,” Thomas said, “I do not.” He put the car in drive and pulled away from the side of the road, mind empty, barely aware of Cheri beside him. He tried to quell the urge he felt deep in his bones, the urge to just drive, drive, drive. He got her home and kissed her goodbye, then glanced at the clock on the dash as the front door closed behind her, pissed at the Ebelers for spoiling the whole night, at the taste of whiskey still stuck to the back of his teeth, at himself for not getting any action. Most of all pissed that where he was going seemed just as unappealing as where he was.
Even the Birds Were Silent
By Adina Davis
In late July their yard was full. The robins who built their nest beneath the deck screeched warnings at them whenever they stepped outside. A pair of cardinals called to one another through the dogwoods, the female quietly brown and orange-beaked, the showy, crimson male. There was a Carolina wren who hid in the lilac bush and broadcast an old tale: cheater, cheater, cheater, it cried. There were the chickadees, whistling. There were the squawking crows, thick as omens.
In early August there was blood and blood and blood. I’m sorry, the doctor said. There’s no heartbeat.
They went home empty.
I’m going to sit here in the sunshine, he said. He slid the deck door open and plopped into a chair. She lowered herself onto the chaise. Her belly throbbed. There was nothing to say so they said nothing. Even the birds were silent. The day passed and the next one and, somehow, the next. No robins, shrieking. No wren, gossiping. One evening they went to a barbecue held by friends and he flirted with a girl named Cookie.
I wasn’t flirting, he said. I was being friendly. One of us had to be.
No cardinals, dueting. No chickadees, trilling. In the dark a different orchestra played, crickets and tree frogs, and when the night slid into morning yet another kind of music: the rhythmic chirp of chipmunks, a squirrel scolding the neighbor’s cat. There was his phone, ringing. He left their bedroom to answer it and though he spoke quietly, she heard how he said hey in the same intimate tone he once used with her.
Outside there was the grumble of a passing truck and inside the low moan of the refrigerator. She curled around herself and wondered about the birds, how they had vanished so completely.
To Springfield With Love
By Peter Klein
Posted Tuesday, March 19
My lovely wife Mildred and I are new to your lovely town. The cake you left on our doorstep filled us with such joy. How could you possibly know how much we love walnuts. The frosting brought tears to our eyes. That you cared to reach out to us with such sweet loveliness.
I have an urgent problem.
My cactus does not thrive here. I love my cactus. I’ve had him for over sixty years. (Yes, he is a definite He. Don’t ask me how I know, but I do.) My dad gave him to me right before he and mom died in a car crash. I was thirteen and alone. All I had left was my cactus.
My cactus saw me through many difficult times. When I didn’t know where to turn, I’d go sit with him. When 9/11 came, I had friends who perished, but my cactus was there to console me. Brad, our son, God bless his soul, may he rest in peace, went to serve in Iraq where his armored vehicle ran into an IED. The worst day of my life, and who helped me get through it all? You guessed it. My cactus. Always strong, green and prickly, proudly growing an inch or so every year. He is over seven feet tall now, and weighs more than a hundred pounds! But, for some reason, I don’t know why, he has turned yellow and the branches are soft and droopy like squash left too long on the counter.
I am beside myself.
Any ideas, anyone?
Your (new) neighbor Ron (with love).
Posted Thursday, April 11
Such outpouring of support.
Springfield is apparently home to many cactus lovers. I am so grateful—so many caring friends and neighbors.
Your suggestions helped: Derek—I moved my cactus into a sunnier spot as you suggested, as the sun here is not as strong as further south. Miranda—I fed him some Miracle Turbo Tubes and what do you know? He seems to be pulling through, even producing a pup or two, thanks to all your help and prayer. I know you’re all rooting (ha, ha, pun intended) for him. I hope he will be with me, supporting me for years ahead.
Something else, Mildred doesn’t want me to tell you, she is such a private person.
We, Mildred and I, had another mishap. Her cancer seems to have returned. I know you’ll be praying for us. I’ll read your posts before I put my hands on my poor Mildred’s abdomen. I’ll channel the healing from your posts to me, then on to her.
Ron (with love)
Posted Tuesday, May 7
(You really rock!)
I am happy to report that my cactus is better than ever. He is producing so many pups he is going to outgrow his room. I am going to have to make a hole in the ceiling. Not kidding! Or buy a new house. For now I am savoring the moment.
Mildred is going through a tough time. The chemo makes her sick and she has lost all her hair. The infusion room is so depressingly empty. They don’t even have a plant. I offered them a pup from my cactus, I am fortunate to have so many. As yet I have not received a reply. I hope the doctors know what they are doing.
A wonderful new idea just came to me! I am going to take a few pups and make soup for Mildred.
What do you think?
Posted Wednesday, May 29
My Mildred is gone from this world. Not even my cactus soup could save her. But thank you for all your incredibly helpful suggestions: Miranda—I know adding baking soda helped Mildred get through to where she was going. I saw it in her eyes. Derek—Thank you for the iodoral supplements that made the tumors of your piglets disappear.
The doctors were useless. If you get sick, stay away from doctors. They dissed my cactus soup! Do they even know about love? As if my cactus could harm the one I love. I will miss Mildred but I know I still have my cactus.
Thank you, Springfield.
Love (always) Ron.
By Nisha Shirali
Three hours to go until my grandmother’s memorial on the Ganges. My family members—twenty of us—squeeze into a bustling restaurant in Varanasi to eat lunch. The smoky smell of cremated bodies drifts through the air, making me put down my fork.
My mom, Sonali, bends over the table poring over the notes of her speech. She hadn’t seen my grandmother in eighteen years: my entire life and then some. She doesn’t know if she’s going to say good things or bad things at the memorial. I told her to say all the bad things.
Sipping chai that fogs up their glasses, my grandmother’s sisters discuss her death. Her maid found her crumpled on her bathroom tiles two days ago, prompting Mom and me to take the next flight to India.
My aunties’ chatter is a chutney of Hindi and English that I can only taste in bites. They agree that my grandmother was a hero. She accepted the burden of her late husband’s business and made it soar. She raised two children on her own, until Mom left for Canada. At least she had her older son Vimal to rely on, they say. I roll my eyes.
Two hours left. We shuffle through a gold-tipped temple, depositing flowers and rupees to guarantee Ma’s safe arrival in heaven. Thoughts tumble in my head on a spin cycle.
Do I wield my words like a weapon and say she left me home with a nanny while she worked into the night? That the nanny’s boyfriend touched me with rough, callused hands in dark places? That Ma split my lip open when I fell in love with a Muslim storekeeper’s son? That she ignored most of my phone calls from Canada for the last eighteen years?
Or do I smile and say what a wonderful mother she was, that we chatted all the time? Isn’t that what I always do, conceal burning flames with a blanket of dishonesty? It’s a tough habit to shake, after growing up in India.
Nina, who stands out in a cropped top and high-waisted jeans, pipes up occasionally with inspirational quotes. “Mom, you gotta stand up there and speak your truth. Stand in your sunshine. You’ll feel better afterwards.”
Back in Canada, I pleaded with my husband Haider to tell me what to do. He regarded me with wise eyes behind wire-rim glasses, not wanting to take a side. Without him here, I feel lonely and timid, like a child crouched in a corner at recess.
One hour left. My stomach cramps, trying to digest the street food I stuffed in my mouth earlier. I want to go back home to Canada, but also want to keep hearing stories of my grandmother.
An aunty turns her frizzy head to me and observes I’ve put on ten kgs since the last photo she saw. I open my mouth to tell her to bugger off, but Mom intercepts me with a gentle pinch on my arm.
Half an hour left. We walk to the river, brushing past vendors selling roasted peanuts and postcards of the Ganges. From my aunts’ synchronous squawking, a quiet voice emerges. Leila, the youngest sister.
Her delicate fingers circle my wrist as she whispers: “Your mother, in the hospital, told me to tell you she was sorry. She did her best, you know. She was alone and scared and upset that you left.”
Sorry. The word drips through my nerves like honey, bringing peace to the parts of me that ache for Ma’s love, that ache to forgive.
Is late better than never?
Fifteen minutes left. We’re at the river now, where the setting sun colours everything orange. Uncle Vimal stands on the bank and looks grim as he holds a silver pot of my grandmother’s ashes.
Nearby, a pot-bellied man dips into the water to cleanse his spirit, a woman in a thin sari mops her cow with a cloth, a group of three children chase each other. Hardly a peaceful resting spot, but I suppose it mirrors my grandmother’s chaotic life.
Mom’s face is stained with tears as she pours ashes into the water with her brother. I feel a burst of anger. Even in this moment I can’t forgive, scenes conjured in my mind from stories overheard.
It’s time. Vimal booms for everyone to gather for the speeches. He wipes a tear from his grizzled cheek and thanks Ma for raising him with an iron fist and making him a successful businessman.
An aunty nudges me to go next; I decline. Leila goes up and mumbles through a mouthful of tears that Ma saved her from bankruptcy.
My hairline is damp with sweat and my wool sweater itches my neck. I focus on a half-moon saffron boat floating nearby, wishing I were in it. Vimal hisses at me to at least say a few words.
I meander to the river line and blink at twenty pairs of judging eyes. I swallow down the bile that threatens to spill out. My eyes rake over the hateful scribbles on my notepad as I open my mouth to deliver the public beating.
Then a drop of rain falls, and another drop.
Moments flicker in my mind like scenes from a sputtering old TV.
Quiet moments nestled in Ma’s lap watching movies. A wild Ma, screaming and pummelling the man who molested me. The gold ring she pressed into my palm before I left for Canada.
At the last minute I change the shape of my words to say “Ma, I’ll miss you. I forgive you.” And I mean it.
The crowd of my mother’s friends and family sighs in unanimous relief. Nina glares at me, her mouth an upside down U and her eyebrows knitted in a V. Her disappointment creates a fresh ache in me, but I know she will forgive. I wing out my arms and welcome the rain, the new chapter, the absolution.
By Pamela Gwyn Kripke
Sometimes, I wonder what would happen if Brad’s wife died. Early, I mean, not when she became old. It is a terrible thought, I know, but the idea enters my head anyway. It’s not that I wish for this to happen, for her to engage a parasite on an overseas trip or suffer a stroke or careen down a mountain on a scooter, because who would wish that for another person, particularly someone loved by the person you loved. Or love. Who knows which. Brad told me in a phone call during my divorce that had he not been married, we’d be a pair, within seconds. Nanoseconds. So I think about his being married and what an annoyance that is.
Other times, I think that I will just wait until his wife does die. At the natural time. The older time. This is the more respectable way to think, and I feel like a better person thinking about it like this, though it does present an enormous swath of time in which to twiddle one’s thumbs. Brad and I will be 90, maybe. She is of good stock. Hearty. An athletic upper body, I can tell from the holiday cards. At 90, we will combine households, share toasting ovens and fingertip towels. We will set up framed photos of our children on bookshelves and mantels. We will walk to town, wearing hats. We will be old but will not think that we are.
Meantime, my friend Sally wants me to go out with a man she knows. She says that he is the kind of man whom I would like: honest, brainy and handsome. Who wouldn’t like a man like that. I know, though, that even honest, brainy and handsome men have needs and wishes that require attention from a woman, should that woman decide to have more to do with him than have a Cobb salad in a restaurant. I am too busy waiting for Brad to deal with all of that, a meal, a second date, an intermingling of any kind, and I think that even talking with this man would simply be unprincipled. Sally says that I should go and just have the salad.
“This is not a moral decision,” she tells me.
Sally works with men and farms them out to her friends who actually want to meet them. Plenty of women want to do this. After the fourth time that she mentions it, I agree to go out with the man, Alan. My daughters also urge me to go out with Alan. I’m thinking that they, as teenagers, think that it will be amusing for them if I go through with it, though they insist that the date will be good for me, whatever that means. Good. Insane term.
“And wear a dress,” Sally says.
The man has a stunning and tiny car, I see through the window, not that I care about cars or know about them. But this one is like a baby toy. I don’t know how I will fit, and I am quite small.
I open the front door.
“Hello,” I say, noting the tan dress pants. Man pants, at a moment squealing for khakis.
“Gwen?” he asks.
No, Susanna. Wrong house.
I can’t figure out how to get into the tiny car. It feels as if I should go head first, like a dive from the side of a pool. I am an incompetent swimmer, and I dive only from the side of a pool, never off the board where the earth sags. I put my left foot on the floor but think it an unwise stretch for my right anterior cruciate ligament and draw it back onto the curb. Alan waits, holding open the door. I smell gardenias, or jasmine, coming from his torso, and a heavy dose at that. One summer, I had a job selling men’s accessories in a department store and had whiffed many a sample vial of cologne while no one bought accessories. Alan’s scent may have been a hybrid.
“One sec,” I say, switching my bag to my other hand and shifting my weight.
“Sit first,” he says.
“Then swing your legs in.”
I am tempted to end the date there, bent in half, my rear end searching for the seat. I hold onto the roof and the armrest and feel the surface underneath me, finally, grabbing with my third hand onto my head for cover. Fortunately, I don’t take Sally’s sartorial suggestion and instead, wear jeans. Alan shuts the door and walks around to the driver’s side. Positioned so close to the pavement, I can see his calves through the window. In one choreographed and well-honed movement, he curls and swivels his tall body into the seat, contracting involuntarily like a jellyfish or a Martha Graham dancer. To look at him, and his ample midsection, you wouldn’t think he’d be able to fold himself and enter his own tiny car so effectively. He must have inhaled to reduce his girth, taken a huge breath on the street before crumpling up. He grabs the wheel, flashing a weighty gold watch and teeth to match his snowy locks. He does have pretty teeth, I must say.
“You all set?” he asks.
I balance my purse on my knees and do not answer his question. My nails are painted the same pink as Brad’s wife’s nails are, in the New Year’s card. I determine the aroma to be the gardenia, after all, the flower of the Mafia. The engine revs up and instantly, the microscopic car zips out into the street. The world seems cockeyed from the passenger seat. My neighbor’s house looks purple and misshapen, a home for faeries. The oak canopies now make faces and reach at me. This will be my one and only date with Alan, the Alan who is not Brad, I decide by the end of the block. Not even the end of the block.
BREAKFAST AT THE LAKE
By Patience Mackarness
Three swimmers crack the skin of ice at the lakeside, wade out through reeds in a pink-streaked dawn. Andy, the novice, is fully wetsuited. His breath comes fast and ragged as icewater finds the space between neoprene and flesh. Tim and Morag are in Speedos, fine mud squidging between their toes.
In 1988 a stretch of the River Aire flowed apocalyptically backwards for three days, filling old open-cast mineworkings and creating a chain of lakes. A giant, defunct crane with caterpillar treads still stands by the car park, overlooking the largest lake. Owls nest in its jib and bucket.
Morag and Tim have been ice-swimming for three winters. They’ve learned to control the gasp reflex, which can stop hearts. Breathing steadily, they submerge—thighs, hips, shoulders—and swim to the centre of the lake, savouring the endorphin rush and glowing skin. Soon there will be the fleecy comfort of their dryrobes, the sensual pleasures of Morag’s hot chocolate and Tim’s freshly baked carrot cake. As of last Christmas, they can also look forward to a warm shared bed.
On the shore there’s a young willow, a forgotten pair of goggles hanging from one branch. Known for historical reasons as the Knicker Tree, it features in many evocative images on social media. There are gold sunsets too, and rose dawns, and lines of bobbing, reflected heads. Rapturous Facebook posts describe improved mood and circulation, stress reduction, libido boost, and homemade cake.
Last Christmas morning, the cavalcade of swimmers wore Santa hats and antlers, woolly caps with mouse ears, a plum-pudding balaclava. Morag had a sexy-elf outfit, Tim a reindeer head with fluttering eyelids. They both agree that was when they knew.
Open-water sites can get political: the anglers hating the wild-swimmers, the birders hating both, tetchy Council officers and police showing up armed with written complaints, by-laws, health’n’safety regulations. Tyres have been deflated on occasions, broken glass scattered at favourite swimming spots. But here at the lake, the wild swimmers litterpick daily, and help the RSPB wardens repair an artificial cliff where sand-martins nest. Dog walkers call Rather you than me! to the hearty souls breaststroking out from the shore; birdwatchers wave as they pass on their way to protected nesting sites. Think Camelot, think Kingdom of Heaven, a watery paradise of co-existence and cake.
Andy peels off his wetsuit and reaches for the thermos, stuttering, “Well, it’s not the Blue Lagoon, but it’s fabulous. I’ll be back.” Tim hands round slabs of carrot cake. The sun’s up, the grass wet and green except in hollows where it’s still frost-white. The martins burst from their sandholes, skim the morning glitter.
By David Henson
He sits on the edge of his bed. The device implanted at the base of his spine beeps three times. His legs stand him and perform three deep knee bends. His legs then pace him across his matchbook apartment to the bathroom and, a little while later, to the closet.
After he dresses, he’s stepped to the refrigerator. Food stocks are running low. He hopes his legs will take him to the market before long. He gulps a liquid meal and makes a sandwich for lunch.
His legs convey him to the door. When it opens, he wings out his arms to keep from exiting. He relents after a stab of pain from his implant.
His legs convey him out of his quarters and onto an elevator. As it drops, his stomach rises, and he tries to imagine Ferris wheel days from long ago.
Outside he’s hurried down a crowded sidewalk. Occasionally someone cries out, most likely from trying to resist going to wherever their legs are taking them. He arrives at a bus station, and his legs board him onto a vehicle.
He’s a seated mannequin for several stops until his legs disembark him and stride to the factory he’s assigned to.
He’s taken to a control panel where he keys in codes and presses buttons all day. He glimpses what appear to be large steel plates as they transfer from one enclosed section of an automated line to the next. He’s never seen the finished product. He thinks that might be for the best. Occasionally a siren blares, and the line grinds to a halt. Men and women crawl into the belly of the machinery. Sometimes the line restarts before they all make it back out. He hopes he’s never put on a repair team.
Mid-day, his legs walk him to a room with squint-bright lights. He sits and eats his sandwich. He and others in the room are silent. They’re allowed to talk, but it’s too easy to stumble onto a topic that provokes pain. Sometimes from their implant; often from their memories. His legs stand him, do three deep knee bends and return him to his station.
Toward the end of shift, his heart races. He believes it’s payday. He thought it was yesterday, but must have miscounted. He holds his breath when his legs stand him. The exit is left, the pay corridor right. He chokes back a sob when his legs turn him to the right.
As he walks down the corridor, he passes others who are exiting. Many wipe their eyes with the backs of their hands. He’s positioned at the end of a line and shuffles forward until it’s at last his turn.
At the head of a queue opposite him is his wife. Their legs bring them close enough to extend their arms and touch fingertips. They talk about the lives they once had and about the teenage daughter they haven’t seen since they all awoke with implants and were marched in different directions. They speak carefully. His arms begin to throb from their own weight; he fights to maintain contact with his wife. When his legs about-face him, he shouts until burning in his spine turns his protest into a shriek.
As his legs conduct him to the plant exit, he closes his eyes to better hold his wife’s face in his mind. He fears her image will fade as his daughter’s has.
Fresh air tells him he’s out of the plant. Growling buses announce he’s reached his stop. He keeps his eyes closed when his legs board him onto a vehicle and when they disembark him at the station near his high rise.
As he advances down the sidewalk, he hears a voice cry “Dad.” His eyes snap open, and he glimpses in his periphery a girl headed in the opposite direction.
He shouts his daughter’s name as he and the girl continue moving apart. He twists at the waist and contorts his neck. The girl is trying to look back, too. He can’t be sure it’s her. More people come between them. Risking being trampled, he throws himself to the ground. A wave of walkers flow around him. He rolls onto his stomach and with his forearms and elbows drags himself in the direction of the girl. He doesn’t get far before tentacles of fire reach throughout his body, even to the fingertips that gave him so much joy a short time ago. He goes limp. The pain recedes as he cooperates with his legs and stands.
When he punches his thighs, his legs make a little skip as he walks. He knows they’re mocking him.
Soon he’s back in the high rise and at his door. It opens. After he enters, it locks him in. His implant beeps three times. He’s free to move about his quarters till his legs resume control in the morning.
By Veronique Aglat
When a man as exemplary as Peter McCann says he needs your help, you listen. You tell your girl to take a hike, you grab your doomsday bag, and you flounder not. When Lieutenant McCann, who saved your life many times, motions you to follow—you follow.
Of course, you know he has become a strange man, one who would never use the word beauty when pulchritude would fit. Yet, with all the loyalty you can muster, you step into his footsteps, into a muddy cornfield, where he shows you another man, tied up like a hog. You don’t ask questions because you know he’s made up his own language, which falls somewhere between Yeats and Eminem, and you understand neither.
Still, he tries to express what he expects:
“Attenuate when you pink, dear John, we prefer he doesn’t sing us a dirge.”
And he hands you the knife with the ebony handle, the one he uses for hunting. In the silver moonlight, you see the terror plastered on a symmetrical face, infinite and ageless. The neck is muscular, but you remember how to kill silently, with one deep puncture and a rip of carotid and vocal cords.
When it’s done, you take the tactical shovel from your bag, and you dig under Peter McCann’s flashlight beam. Just another corpse to bury, one who makes you feel nothing, unlike many others.
And you go home, try to lead a normal life, which of course you are incapable of doing, unlike Peter McCann, who continues farming his land, loving his daughter. You remember the pigtail picture the Lieutenant carried in his helmet, innocent buck teeth. The daughter has become a successful woman afflicted with a constant thirst for Sex-on-the-beach; the drink, and the other kind. You see her at the bar tonight, where you are trying to drown out the sound of bombs in your head.
You see the men she flirts with because she has a type. Tall, big, handsome but rugged. You follow her to the deserted beach; it’s almost November, and you can’t believe she’s going to fuck this dude outdoors. It’s windy and dark, but you know how to summon your night vision; you keep your eyes closed sixty seconds. When you open them, there are three forms on the beach: one is lying motionless, two are arguing.
“Wherefore the harangue?” are the words the sea wind carries to your ears.