Quarter After Eight Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Robert J. Demott Short Prose Contest
Judged by David Haynes
Girls Are Always
Allison Field Bell
To the Rescue
We Don’t Two Step No More
One Must First Establish a Relationship with the Reader
Please Continue to Be Patient
Leah De Forest
The Manic Pixie Dreamgirl Stops Dyeing Her Hair
All We Have Left
Who am I today
Sometimes I have to
Rosalynde Vas Dias
Saturn Leaving Capricorn
food porn from the 70s
Sam Herschel Wein
A Love Supreme
Dante Di Stefano
A Matter of Degrees
Lauren K. Carlson
What Are the Odds
Harrison Park, Edinburgh, 1960
Brocade A woven fabric with an elaborate or raised design. Usually woven on a draw loom that holds threads together. We lived on the second floor in Chicago before moving to Texas. Our place had huge windows and Mom hung heavy dark brocade curtains in the living room to help with her migraines and keep the sun out. They appeared to me as a broken woven pattern. I later inherited her migraines.
Broken In school, they described families like ours as broken, but we were simply, apart, aparte. Not together. Having been together, and now not.
Merriam-Webster lies: 1. violently separated into parts.
2. damaged or altered; 2 a. having undergone or being subjected to fracture.
Fractured The way I survived, was filing away, filing away, filing away scenes.
To be able to continue to enjoy cartoons, Spiderman, summers in Mexico, sheets I wrapped around my waist, willing my thighs to disappear, my eye sockets to dry, my body possessed.
Not me. Not in a room. Outside tia’s house in Mexico, where the bell flowers on the Esperanza grew red like fire.
Flowers On the last day of fourth grade my best friend gave me the 50th anniversary Better Homes & Gardens baking cookbook. It was the happiest day of school since I had been in Texas.
Mariana knew I loved baking. Inside the front cover, she had written we had to stop being best friends. I made a blondie brownies recipe that summer. It was the first summer I wished the earth would swallow me whole and take me to a different world. There was a patch of tiny yellow flowers in the field in front of our house I wished would grow over my thighs, grow into my mouth, grow in my eyes, make my thighs disappear, taste my ugly brown skin, take my ugly long limbs, transport me to a different world.
Snakes As we move up and down Edcouch and Elsa through the years, we move into a house in front of the Catholic church on 107 in Elsa. It’s tiny and Mom sleeps in the living room. There’s a fire pit in the back yard we never use. One summer, my brother Sammy falls out of a tree and breaks his shoulder blade. There are little grubs coming up from the kitchen floor. I try to sing along to one of Mom’s songs as I’m cleaning the fridge, she gets mad at me for some reason, and I never do it again in front of her. A snake appears in the bedroom I share with my two brothers and sister. I first thought it was a prank but realize it’s a real rattlesnake that came in through the window. My older brother comes and kills it with a shovel. There’s a tree growing in the front of the house with tiny dark blackberries. Tia Belen says they are fine to eat. I don’t die.
Redacted summer files So many summers of wanting the earth to swallow me whole. If my hair is in the drain, and the drain leads to pipes, am I already in the dirt.
Marriage Texas law permits those 14 and older to marry with the consent of their parents. He was 32 and practically a stranger when he asked me to marry him. I do the thing where I just don’t speak. We were standing outside of my best friend Nena’s house in Mexico. It was after a church service. I wasn’t allowed to wear pants. He was shorter than me. The narrator in my head said run. I wanted to grab some chips and salsa with crema with Nena before I had to go home with Dad. It was late, the night was cool, and I was 17. My cousins tried to convince me it was a bad idea. I said, it would get me out of the house. They said, have you seen him? I weighed the pros and cons in my logical Vulcan brain. The next day we went to Texas for two weeks. When we went back to Cerralvo, he was engaged to a pretty lady from church with long reddish hair. Her parents made pan de elote and would sometimes visit my grandma. The pretty lady deserved better.
5 I had no choice but to start fighting everyone in fifth grade. There was one girl I came down hard on. In another timeline, we might have been friends. She had an asymmetrical hairstyle and wore a Prince t-shirt with one lace glove. But I was made of loud hate and there was nothing left. Too many fractured files. This was my least favorite timeline.
Dot matrix printer A process of printing by which a print head makes impact on a ribbon, tiny dots create letters and illustrations. Loud. In Monte Alto, Dad bought a dot matrix printer from Radio Shack. I had to write letters for his church which he dictated. I set it up in the tiny room next to the bathroom. It’s cramped and tiny and I sweat through my clothes. We have one fan that we move from room to room. I’ve never seen a computer or printer before. It uses paper that is not quite white. My cousins next door are having one of their loud parties, barbequing again, with so many people over, and a piñata. The noise, smoke and people make me dizzy and sick. I go back to the little wooden shed we are staying at and start printing on the slow slow printer F-U-C-K M-A-R-T-I-N-E-Z. The first word finishes as one of my uncles comes over and wants to know why I’m not at the party. He looks at the not quite white paper in my hand, while the printer is still loudly slamming away like a telltale heart. The earth did not swallow me but time did seem to slow down and all the sounds magnified. He tells me to go get a plate of food and never mentions it to anyone.
Matrix An environment or material in which something develops. Connective tissue. I write my mom a letter made up entirely of Mexican songs, of love lost and abandonment and betrayal. I can’t remember if I sent it. Those filed have been lost and locked up. In Mexico during Sunday school, they say adulterers are going straight to hell, and look straight at me. I still can’t wear anything but skirts but make my dad buy me some ugly chunky black shoes. I’m sleeping in the bed my grandfather died in and I have terrible dreams of monsters and demons and devils. Sometimes they are children trying to kill me. Sometimes I can’t wake up and dream my dad has red eyes and I figure out too late it’s the demon version.
Drive Dad starts letting me take the station wagon to Nena’s house when I’m 14. It’s parked inside the backyard fence at Grandma’s in Cerralvo and I don’t know how to reverse yet, so Nena comes over, takes it out and I drive it over to her house. There’s two ways to go to her house. Through downtown, the 8 or 10 blocks where we have to go through el centro and the busy district and a bunch of stops. Or I can drive through the outer roads, where it seems the road can just drop into nothing because it’s high and thin on the side of the mountain. But you can see the trees so beautiful and the sky and mountains go on forever in the distance and it might just be worth it if we fall.
Naming of my parts My mom wanted to name me Ruth. But Dad said it was the sound a pig makes, rut rut.
What difference it made, I don’t know.
Té de jamaica Beneficios para la salud, como una bebida medicinal para la migraña. Tea made from the hibiscus flower for migraines. Mom would tell me to make dark jamaica tea when she’d get her migraines every few months and close all the windows in her room. Dad said reading so many books would make her go crazy and mad. Books, I inherited this too, from Mom.
Madness In the first few months in Texas, we stayed with one of my aunts in Elsa. They had an open garage and a room attached to it they kept locked. I said my first NO. Kaleidoscopes had already been implanted in my brain. Mom and Dad were going to another nearby city on some errand and I didn’t want to stay. I hid in the back of the van and didn’t let them know until an hour or so in the trip. Was it so very bad for me to stay hidden?
Dreamscape Dream and landscape, abstract land. In Chicago, my dad turned the attic into a room for me and my sister. We lined up our dolls against the wall. One night my tallest doll tried to choke me. No one believed me. But it was real. One day, two of my bestest friends from church came over. We buried broken glass in the backyard, next to the tomato plants, as treasures. It was just a broken glass bowl, but the pieces looked so pretty in the sun.
WHO AM I TODAY
I have forgotten how to draw
rain from the tongue
My words wander toward edges
that can’t be found
Eyes stare deep into the haze
of late summer flies
And still so many wild lives
Sound through the dark
Inside this dark, Oh this
house that is my heart
SOMETIMES I HAVE TO
Bury the birds in my head or the emp-
tiness in my hands. Other times I ab-
stain from the field. Did I say abstain?
I meant abandon— from the hollow-boned
field, birds in an up- roar over what’s real.
Did I say birds? I meant words
wandering the dis- owned fields,
mul/ti/ply/ing like days set down in snow,
making of our shields a bodied mirror,
I meant making of our bodies a yield
to the full-throated winter, my bone-caged
heart not a good-bye but a thread of stone
snaking through the dead leaves, I meant waking
through the griefs, I meant I leaf, I think, I
pine, and what’s buried in me is another ring.
My father did not build the ark
to correct measurements, but to his own design
large enough for unwanted kittens, my sister and I
pushed in wheeled wooden boat attracting neighbors,
sleight-of-hand trading their attention
to the boat’s belly, fat with our cat’s offspring.
I’ve kept the boat and the animals he made me,
before bad-back and life’s interruptions ceased production.
To my menagerie of unmarried cow, two lions, two zebra,
I’ve added my dog whose purpose now, to sleep
beneath roses. In case of flood I’d bring roses,
along with celibate sheep, and barren sow, every kitten
our loose calico weaned. One-eared fighting dogs,
coyote, desert bat, peahen and cock. The bisexual geese
will bring swan lovers, their cygnets,
along with a dung beetle who never found his mate.
Barb-armed blue dragon sea slugs sleep on the hull.
No cries of the unworthy below only the music of bowhead
whales for the lovelorn sloths’ slow dance.
Come in threes, come in droves, there is room
in this ark revised, no doves sent out,
we don’t seek land, we’re drinking the rain.
My father’s boat would not save me.
After Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin
When we listened to the universe
our ears were bent by a black hole
we were compressed, imploded,
collapsed upon ourselves with recent grief
for every star. A pin prick. Pain in our sky.
A woman in black leather plays
the sound of a black hole eating
another shadow. A man you interview
speaks of exploring Mars, and you imagine
him exploring. You’ve collapsed on yourself.
It isn’t the death you’d imagine,
the attractive woman in leather
pants says, You aren’t sucked
in, you are bent around.
Bismuth lights. That’s how you imagine
it. The blue of your first crush’s eyes
the purple of your prose, the pink.
The woman is in red, and black
holes. Soles of leather boots, click
a new image. This is a graph
of measured waves. It comes
that way, this feeling, of cosmic
unmooring. The wanting to be
sucked into shadows and crushed
no one knows
what’s on the other side
she says, there could be entry
to other universes.
We may never
have these firsts again.
My husband has called
the pest controller again. The man tells me not to worry
about the bees on my brain.
After Spring Equinox they begin to settle down. They reproduce less, they know the days
are shorter, and since bees are mostly women
their intelligence doesn’t surprise me,
but the sensation of their legs on my ear drum still does.
The controller suggests I smoke to calm them, and I won’t lie, that appeals to me,
but I’ve got Royal Jelly between my ears, and a loyalty to my humming
If a bee falls to pavement
it can be saved.
Offer sugar water. rest.
Open your mouth
to invite the weary one in
to join the hive, hanging from lungs, turning
saliva to honey, infestation so sweet,
I seal my doors with wax.
PLEASE CONTINUE TO BE PATIENT
Leah De Forest
For breakfast that first morning I swallowed the piece of gum I found in the stupid lady pocket of my work pants. The gum was fruit-flavored, watermelon if I had to guess; calorie-fucking-free. After a night on hard dirt among disoriented, irritating humans who’d farted and wept and shuddered in their “sleep,” I was ready to be up and active.
There was also a degree of gum-guilt involved.
The sky was a hot orange, about twenty minutes before sunrise, crisp heat crackling in my sinuses. There were about two hundred of us evacuees inhabiting the rest area in a fairly random fashion. I mean, we were hemmed in by a tall temporary fence across the exit road and a ring of parked buses and police cruisers behind us, but within that: not a lot of structure going on. Over time, we would become—not so much organized, as fractured into clumps. But this was the just first morning.
Happily, I had only to step over about twenty ad hoc sleeping forms before I found what I was looking for. A teacher-looking type, curled up alone, with one of those mini water bottles clutched in her fist. She offered no resistance.
I drained the bottle in a few gulps.
When it all started I’d been at my reception desk, headset straddling my skull like a smile. “Please hold,” I chirruped into it. “I will direct you momentarily.” I don’t mind admitting that I hated that job, absolutely spittingly despised it, but in this economy, what are you going to do? Spend your waking hours wearing too-tight pants behind the reception desk at a mid-sized biotech that specializes in anti-aging treatments, that’s what.
So, I was working away on my Wednesday tasks when things began to rumble, pens sliding off desks and windows whooping in their frames. We were directed towards the exits and the waiting buses that had been arranged for us fortunate few, since through some sort of sciencey magic they’d been warned. It was their priority, they told us repeatedly, to get us to safety.
They succeeded, I guess. The fires and blackouts and collapses hit the ones left behind.
As an experience, I can’t say that I recommend the events of that day. The truth is I felt utterly hopeless. But doesn’t every pop psychologist and annoying aunt say it’s important to focus on the positives? Practice gratitude. So how about this: those buses had some comfy seats. Deep red velour with fine blue stripes. I can still feel the shorn softness against my fingertips. On a slightly less positive note, I was seated next to Janine from Sales, who clearly wished she was sitting with her work husband, James, but was too uptight-polite to admit it. On she went on with her usual chatty shtick about my skincare regime. Her voice got these little sharp upticks in it. Jesus. I stuck my Air Pods in and pretended to be listening to a really smart podcast about politics.
The traffic was just starting to bank up on the freeway when a cordon of cops waved us out of the right lane and into this Vista Views rest area. We got out to stretch our legs, explore the parking lot/nature and use the limited bathroom facilities. There was one busload full of baby boomer music festival goers, all long gray hair and rumpled green T-shirts with CityMusiCMoveMent across the pectoral/tit area. They were dressed as you’d expect, low-crotched pants and idiotically kind smiles. Another bus contained most of the staff of BioMoodMed; one bus had what looked like a charter school group on it (I would later learn they were community college freshmen on their way back from vol- unteering at a soup kitchen, hence the matching red polos); an- other, a bunch of white dudes in suits (management consultants mostly). The fifth bus was half-full of city sanitation workers who spoke in low voices and laughed more than was comfortable. There were also some genuine randos in there, people who were walking past when the buses were loading. Among them was one girl child. She moved sharp-like among the crowd, eyes wide with unaccustomed attention. I felt her, you know? Under the pressure of all those stares.
I stuck with my colleagues, not because I liked them but I guess because my chimpanzee brain was trying to keep me safe. This turned out to be a boring choice. A debate erupted about managing the collective charge on our phones. The networks had been down since we left the city, which was not unexpected, nor was the fact that constantly searching for service was going to hasten battery death. I was willing to bet that some people (Janine) had packed portable chargers and at that point it seemed likely we’d all be back online soon, so I really wasn’t into the heatedness. True, it would’ve been best if the group agreed on a roster: one person could leave their phone on for say thirty minutes at a time, so we’d know if the network came back up. But what, Alicia from Accounts asked, if some networks came back and others didn’t? How would we know then? It became clear that we each wanted to be the one who left their phone on and also be the one whose battery lasted until there was an opportunity to charge it again. Therefore, no cooperation was to occur. Given the circumstances, this shouldn’t have been surprising. And yet it was. For a few seconds we all had our eyes open a little wide, eyebrows raised. Like, huh.
I’m plenty addicted to my phone (Candy Crush ftw!), but the truth is I didn’t much need it for connection with other humans. My family was back East, having gathered on the Vineyard for Grandma’s eighty-fifth birthday, where they ate too much Whole Foods cake and talked about everyone’s careers and babies (Auntie Kay had posted liberally about it on Instagram, #grateful). Given the glee with which I’d delivered my You’ll have to party without me RSVP I didn’t expect to hear from anyone soon, unless they wanted to know if I was dead or not, and I’d already marked myself safe on Facebook before the network fritzed. I did have a few new friends who weren’t absolutely ambivalent about my welfare, but they all had small children. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that once people reproduce, their ability to give a shit about anybody else’s anything is significantly reduced. I admit to some petulance about this. A few years back I tried to get in on the experience, blaming some (fictional) failing contraception for a (fictional) unplanned pregnancy. Unfortunately I let the lie go on too long, into the fifth month. Fuck me though if it wasn’t warm in the glow of all that texting interest. What are you doing to do, how are you feeling, is there anything you need. Screw that deadbeat guy, you’ve got this. There were even casseroles. Chicken! Garnished with parsley! It was all fun and love until my friends dropped me. In the three years since I’d been rebuilding, volunteering at library story time, and briefly joining a local singles group. I wasn’t in it for sex, but for female friendship.
Given my feelings about women who reproduce, you might be surprised I want them as friends. Well, I’m drawn to them. Also, they’re socially handicapped, unable to get out much and subject to social pressure to model friendliness for their offspring (even when said offspring are too small to notice anything beyond their own slimy fists). Such women are sufficiently open to conversation that we can get past the usual barriers (viz., my face). These new friendships were still a few months shy of the search-for-you-in-a-disaster phase, but I thought my evacuee situation might speed things up. Pity = something to talk about = warm feelings.
I don’t think any of us saw that giant fence coming. We’d been at Vista Views for almost an hour, milling around and squinting at the sky and the struggling trees, trying to see if we could get a clear look at the city (we couldn’t), when a couple of guys showed up with a tow truck. They pulled this tall temporary fence across the mouth of the parking lot. A ripple of what-the went through the crowd. Some cops stepped in front of the fence and megaphoned at us to wait.
I wasn’t the only one freaking out. Janine sweated through her pink Oxford shirt and James was rubbing his temple so insistently that thin smears of blood sprouted along his hairline. Janine had two little kids and an actual husband somewhere out there (James just brought coffee and expressed an interest in her weekends) and as she kept semi-shouting at the cop who had the misfortune to be semi-nearby, she needed to know if they were okay. I couldn’t help pointing out to Janine that she might find it helpful to show some concern for the actual child sitting in the dust right over there, and she said, “Pardon me?” in that menacing tone people get, so I arranged my face accordingly (even smile, downward pressure across the brow). One of the community college kids—he was cute—came over to ask if I was okay. He called me miss.
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’m used to it.”
The kid (his name was Colin) stood a respectable distance away and racked his brain for something to say. Soon enough we got separated by a bunch of MusicMover boomers swaying together in some sort of mutually supportive (?) motion. They weren’t singing, at least. I remembered that kernel of wisdom from—oh yeah, it was Kimmy Schmidt, the Unbreakable one from Netflix—that a person can endure anything in ten-second increments. I breathed slowly and adjusted my poorly designed purse (why do they make women’s everything so goddam small?) on my shoulder. It was another twenty minutes before one of the cops— short, stocky enough that you wouldn’t fuck with her—raised the megaphone back to her mouth. Now, I can’t be assed doing the math, but that twenty minutes represented a lot of ten- second bits. Thirst was making them feel extra long. I hadn’t brought my water bottle (what did they mean, telling us not to stop to bring anything on the buses? And what was my problem, actually listening?). The cop cleared her throat and the sanitation workers ambled up closer to the fence, as if: what? It was about to slide open? My officemates frowned officially at them (something about business-casual attire makes people feel they own the rules, I don’t know). There had been, the cop announced, a delay. The buses would stay off the road for a short time. We would need to be patient.
This could have meant a number of things. As I said to my office-mate Frank (who had just then sidled up, too close), for a start, it represented a failure of infrastructure planning.
“I mean,” I said, “at the very least they should’ve anticipated that a city built on a fault line would require roads that can handle a mass evacuation. During Katrina almost five hundred people died in their own houses. Drowned or crushed, I guess. Meanwhile Canada can move thirty-five thousand people to save them from wildfires. I mean come on. Where’s our American ingenuity?”
Frank nodded, clearly hoping to formulate a clever response.
“In this case, unfortunately,” I went on, “we’re looking at a lot of deaths. Either on the road out there: perhaps there’s been a massive pile-up. Or back in the city. Maybe even inside the Earth itself, I don’t know, some kind of quake or giant sinkhole that’s sucked people up.”
Frank’s eyes went rounder and he remembered he had to go ask John about stationery.
It was going to be a struggle, adjusting to this new real- ity. If we weren’t going to get back on the buses, we were … to stay where we were. Which was very nearly the definition of nowhere. A rest area with an undersized rotary in the center of the parking lot. Around that, a wide patch of earth cut through with random walking paths. A single (concrete) picnic table with a shaggy woman lying on top of it, and that kinetic-looking kid (wild red hair, denim shorts) bolting away from it. If this was the here where we were to stay, and we had no cell network, we could … sit? Talk? Scary-watch the cops? A group of us Bio- MoodMed-ers settled for shit-talking some bus drivers who had taken themselves off to one side to smoke and had, it was noted, been driving with a degree of recklessness that they had failed to follow through on when the cops showed up. Which is to say, at least two of the buses (ours, and the community college kids’) might have avoided the blockade. If the drivers hadn’t been such incompetent shits, that is. I made appropriate noises of agreement for probably ten minutes—the shared outrage was a warm hug— and then my guts began to rebel. Like, a big-time adrenaline-fueled explosion was on the horizon. I scooted to the bathroom.
You never really anticipate how the bodily realities of a situation like that—hunger, thirst, a thwarted need to shit— come to inhabit almost every corner of the experience. You’re so in your body, at the mercy of your emotions. I think I speak for a lot of us that day when I say that our dominant feeling was a shaky wow. Like you see terrible scary shit on the news all the time, and you know you’re supposed to have emotions about it— empathy etcetera—but the fear you muster is faint at best. You know you’re supposed to be quietly moved and driven to action, like you might donate twenty bucks to an emergency fund, but mostly what you know is, that isn’t happening to me. I’m sitting here on my sofa eating yogurt or carrot sticks or (on a good day) peanut m&ms, and I’m thinking huh and I’m thinking yum. Like I realize that makes me a massive disappointment as a human but I don’t think I’m so far outside of the norm. I could see it on a lot of the faces that day (especially in the bathroom line). Distress, obviously, fear, disbelief, I can’t believe this is happening to me. And then, get this: a little bit of excitement. Like, finally, this is happening to me. I’m the one.
Naturally enough, the toilet had no seat. Just a hard (warm) ring of metal that I was, I gotta tell you, enormously grateful to rest my desperate ass on. Under normal circumstances, I avoid public toilets. I have a horror of other people’s germs, and the specific smell of other people’s digestive systems—well, it’s been known to make me explode at both ends. (Yeah, sure, gross. As if you’ve never needed to shit and throw up at the same time, occasionally in public). Unfortunately for me, someone else had gotten there first: there was a lot of vomiting going on in the next stall over. Also some weeping. (The smell, in case you’re curious, was corn and vinegar and bad meat.) I would soon learn that the vomiter was the kid. Rose, her name was (is). She was in there without her momma, which I would later realize was not all that unusual for her, since for reasons known only to her, Rose Sr. had abandoned the picnic table and was at that moment scratching her initials into one of the perimeter trees. Rose Jr.. was about a week away from turning nine. She’d been on vacation with her mother in the city, and luckily/unluckily for her, they were passing by the management consultants’ bus when it was found that they had a few spare seats. “What else were we going to do?” Rose Sr. would say to me later.
Rose and I were in there for so long that people started banging on the doors. I moaned. She moaned. I passed her some toilet paper under the stall divider, and I saw how small and skinny her fingers were. Delicate, oh, disgusting were we, but eventually we were done and I helped her get soap from the dispenser (it was almost empty and required some brute force). She was small enough that I could rest my elbow on the top of her little red head, if I wanted to, but I didn’t. The sight of her sharp little shoulder blades did things to my heart; the dirt behind her ears made me want to weep.
“Thanks, lady,” she said.
I want to say she had a sweet lisp and missing front teeth but the big new ones were partway through, and they looked sharp.
“I’m going to find my momma,” she said, and I followed.
Rose had a fast-bobbing gait and a gift for laughing at things that definitely weren’t a joke (“I still can’t find my mother! Maybe she’s gone!”). When we found her mother near the big old tree, Rose stood placid as the cussing washed over. “I had to go to the bathroom, Momma. This lady helped me.”
I could tell Rose Sr. didn’t like me much, but mothers usually don’t. Okay, the ones I sucked up to at the library learned to tolerate me—but I did stuff for them. Like pretend to give a shit about the baby-spittle-balls in their thousand-dollar strollers. The kind of mother Rose Sr. was—older, less needy, alert to the world’s bullshit—hasn’t got much time for a person like me. I can be hard to talk to, for a start, by which I mean I’m a bit defective, by which I mean I’m a disappointment. But, you’ll say, it sounds like you do okay. All chirrupy at your reception desk. Well, my mother helped me get that job. And work is not real conversation, is it.
No personality needed.
Another thing that some mothers (including mine) find difficult about me is that I’m uncommonly beautiful. I realize how this sounds. You think I’m boasting, that gorgeous women aren’t supposed to realize how attractive they are. But I challenge you to explain how anybody can fail to notice the kind of attention I’ve been getting my whole life, especially on first acquaintance. People are dazzled. They go from my eyes (deep brown) to my nose (narrow at the bridge, softly pert at the tip) to cheekbones (they require no explanation) and mouth (symmetrically plump lips, orthodontically aligned teeth) and you can almost see the geometry calculation in their heads.
Like they realize if they folded a photo of my face, it would divide precisely. I’m a mirror image of myself. Between that and my appropriately proportioned breasts, butt, and waist, they think—you can see it dawning—that is one beautiful woman. I imagine you think I enjoy this attention. The truth is sometimes I do. Being a cisgendered, heterosexual, unusually beautiful woman has its advantages. I never want for sex with men, for one. Crowds have a way of making way. Old ladies say funny/warm things to me in department stores, like, “Darling, if I had a face like that…” And men are often—not always, but often—chivalrous. Like Colin, you know. That kid would have piggybacked me all the way back to the city if I’d asked. The truth is also, sometimes it’s exhausting. I step out the door and my face feels heavy with the attention. Plus it will shift—it won’t disappear, but it will definitely change—the moment I open my mouth.
So anyway, that day by the tree on the perimeter of the parking lot, the bark gleaming with fresh sap in the outline of R J M, Rose Sr. sized me up.
“Thanks for bringing my baby back,” she said, sliding a possessive hand over Rose Jr.’s shoulder. “She’s fine now.”
Rose Sr. had clearly had a rough life. Her paper-thin skin rumpled the way super white faces do when they’ve seen some sun. She must’ve grown up in California, or somewhere sunny at least, to amass all those forehead freckles (including some suspicious-looking ones; uneven borders and a bit inflamed—hey, I read the brochures in the doctor’s office, okay?). Rose Sr.’s gray hair was home-cut tufty and she wore this kind of accidentally-
Anthropologie dress with sunflowers splattered across it. I stood there watching her for a few moments, hands hanging by my sides, sweat sliding down my spine. She squinted at me, turned Rose Jr. around and patted her skinny ass, which was a sign for the child to take off. Rose Jr. took a couple of steps towards the parking lot and bent down to shovel dust into the mesh of her ratty green sneakers. In her little short shorts and Care Bears T-shirt: oh, my heart.
“Do you have enough food?” I patted my pockets, I guess hoping to indicate via the superior quality of my clothing that I had access to non-existent resources. “Is there anything—do you need any help?”
Rose Sr. looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “I said we’re fine.”
Rose Jr. kept shoveling.
“I could—find you some water, or—” “You could just move right along.”
I didn’t want to leave. I can’t really say what told me that Rose Jr. wasn’t safe—beyond our immediate circumstances, I mean, which were obviously not without peril—or why I felt she couldn’t trust her mother. The best I can offer is that apart from her obvious distaste for my face and her evident struggle in keep- ing up with reality, Rose Sr. reminded me of my own mother. I mean not in looks or circumstance—my mother is sleek, a lawyer, with aristocratically gray hair and a widely respected, dead hus- band—but in the kind of coldness, disregard she had for her kid. Who sends an eight-year-old off alone to throw up in a crowded rest-stop bathroom? (Who sends a bed-wetting ten-year-old off on her own to a three-week summer equestrian camp? Refuses to come to the phone when the kid finally convinces the staff to let her call home? Says the experience will toughen her up and teach her how to get along in the world?)
Asshole mothers, that’s who.
It’s not that I didn’t, in the end, give my mother almost as good as I got. I bit the therapists she sent me to, and if I learned that I’d been referred through that carefully curated professional network of hers, I made sure to draw blood. All I ever wanted was a bit of love. Lord knows she gave it out enough at her ladies’ power lunches, on and fucking on about degrees and awards and remodeled kitchens with those big fucking elephant-trunk faucets or whatever. I swear to God once a week she sat me down and gave me The Talk: all my genuine advantages and it was so important not to throw it all away. You know what I think? When I was small and beautiful she could pass me around like one of her awards, shiny and decorative and testament to her brilliance. When I was older I started to fail. And learned to bite.
In any event, that first night at Vista Views all three of us— we were a kind of group, Rose Jr., Rose Sr., and me, even though I’d had to leave them by the carved tree hours ago—went to “bed” hungry and confused. I picked out my bit of dirt, lay down and got that kind of whoop feeling in my skull. You know, the sensation that reality has just smacked you in the side of the head? It wasn’t like my actual thoughts had changed. As far as my conscious self was concerned I was still in the huh-what- the-fuck phase. But my reptile brain had hit the red-alert button: i.e., a panic attack. I had been getting them since Uncle Simon’s SUV clipped me on my fifth birthday. I’d had one of those cakes that looks like a ballgown skirt with a doll’s torso on top, and there’d been a bouncy house as well as low-sugar party favors for my guests to take home. Unfortunately Uncle Simon was (is) an alcoholic, and partway through I noticed him leaving (he was just going to buy more beer), so I ran out to give him his bag, and we lived on a slope, it was a very nice Boston street, and the car clipped me on the leg and then clonk on the side of my head. It wasn’t his fault, he was drunk, and my kid-skull was barely dense enough to make a sound. My mother found me lying on the grass, my head going whoop-whoop-whoop. Hello panic. She drove me to the hospital and considering her position and Uncle Simon’s employment situation we kept it to ourselves, told the nurses some story about a loose bit of garden equipment and he paid for my first year at Bard.
I lay on the dirt in the dark, brain going whoop and failing to tune out the people around me whispering and crying and saying impossible things like, “Really we should be grateful” and “All I want right now is peanut butter ice cream.” By morning, tears had plastered dust on my face and my clothes were crunchy from the sweat-mud that had gathered under my waistband, around my neckline, and cuffs. I dug in my pocket for a tissue, and that’s when I found the chewing gum, manufactured and soft inside its white paper wrapper. I held the pink strip of it between my filthy fingers and admired the pillowy softness, the uniform dusting of the fake sugar, the subtle striations down its length. It had come from a long strip of other extruded gum, but right then it was a precious individual, a saliva-inducing tooth-soothing thing that I chewed for a couple minutes before it occurred to me I might have shared it and by then it was too late because I’d swallowed it.
After draining the teacher-lady’s mini water I headed towards the bathrooms. A lot of people were still asleep. A handful of MusicMovers were curled in a hemp-filled clump near an overflowing trash can. One woman—I shit you not— clutched a tambourine to her chest, held it there hard as a teddy bear. Janine and James were sitting nearby, cross-legged in the dust, facing each other, foreheads touching. Janine was looking at her phone screen like she wanted to eat it. I edged over towards them, thinking I might tell Janine that since there was no cellphone signal, it was possible her family were out there and doing just fine, eating cookies or whatever, or if they were dead their father was probably with them. But James saw me coming, gave me a fuck-off look. Okay, sure. I went around the line of community college kids—the way they were laid out, they looked almost like a long-jump dare—and refilled the mini bottle at the bathroom block. I had this happy thought of finding Rose Jr. cozy in one of those bright-colored hammocks that people take to parks, wrapped in a sleeping bag and with something precious in her fist. I didn’t care what it was, as long as it was special to her. The picture in my mind, it made me smile, so naturally enough when I saw the reality—stretched out, starfish-like, on clumped grass, no mother in sight—I was sad. Her mouth was just a little bit open and she twitched her nose in her sleep. Elbows, knees. Lumpy as beads on a string. I woke her gently and she looked for a second like she was going to punch me. She sat up and took the water bottle. I said, “Hey, let’s go out for a walk,” and she said, “Sure.”
She didn’t ask where we were going.
I took her to the main part of the human clump. She sipped at the water, carefully screwing the lid off, then back on. We stood there a moment, the two of us. Not quite touching. I hesitated about asking the cops for food, since I didn’t know what kind of stuff her mother might be into. One of the bus drivers was nearby, so we went over and I asked him, in case, you know, he had some extra stuff packed in his bus. He looked at me a beat too long and then at Rose and shook his head, no. I’m pretty sure he did have stuff in there, because when we left he was staring at the bus door. I felt like a heel for not sharing the gum. But Rose seemed happy with the mini water. I noticed a gray haze wisping up from the direction of the city, took a deep breath and gripped Rose’s hand. Her skin-grit was soft and dry.
We were wandering past a group of management consultants (their suit pants thick with dirt) when three cops gathered at the center of the temporary fence. The middle one stood with her feet planted wide, shoulders squared. She brought the megaphone to her mouth.
“Ladies and, uh … hello,” she said. Her voice scratched through the speaker. “Please continue to be patient.”
Two hundred grimy faces turned towards her, waiting. Well, good for us.
She had nothing more to say.
It wasn’t until that afternoon that I seriously considered stealing Rose. Well, taking care of her for a while. Somewhere safe. By what should have been dinner time, we were seeing the beginnings of factional clumps—as I said, up till then, there hadn’t been much of a system in place. You could feel the collective heart rate rising, getting jagged. Some festivalgoers had joined up with a few of the community-college kids to make a backpack wind-and-weather barrier over by the trees. This was smart because the day had been warm. I mean we were all root-less without access to a weather app, but it was June, so we could easily have been heading for some days in the high 80s, or hotter.
Another group had set up a tent in the middle of the parking lot rotary—those baby boomers, I guess they go through life prepared—and were sharing the space with a few of the management consultants, who sweated through their white shirts but exuded a semi-soothing sense of being in control. That group was taking turns (I swear, it was like they had a roster) to lobby the megaphone cops for food and situation updates. Their optimism was irritating. The sanitation people had split into groups by gender—yes, women manage trash too—and appeared to be drawn to the spaces nearest the buses. The drivers kept to them- selves, stayed near the cops. My fellow BioMoodMed-ers were scattered across the encampment.
Rose and I wandered through the goldening light, and I told her stories. Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, The Three Little Pigs. Pretty sure I messed up most of the action, but she didn’t seem to mind. She listened with one ear cocked towards me, eyes focused forward, tracing the path, the horizon, the crowd. Little pig, little pig, she echoed under her breath, and then did these big melodramatic huffs, panning from left to right, ha ha, blow it all down.
She had to let go of my hand for those parts, but I didn’t mind.
If by that point my stomach had that hollowed-out, hungover feeling, it was fair to assume other people were hangry/desper- ate too. Certainly it wasn’t any place for a kid. Rose was about to see adults be crap not just as individuals, but en masse. Because hanging over the top of all those smaller groups was this grow- ing tinder-spark of a divide: the panickers versus the deniers.
Some of the panickers had already disappeared, run into the woods behind us, presumably thinking they were going to walk all the way to the city. Or away from it. (Whatever.) One woman had run at the cops and got cable-tied for her trouble. James, clearly a born panicker, was edging with his bloodied ears to- wards the perimeter every now and then. But his dog-eyes drew him back to Janine, who had wrested control of her emotions
and was taking on a leadership role with some deniers. That group was a mix: two sanitation workers, a single baby boomer, two management consultants, a handful of BioMoodMed-ers and Colin. They had arranged a circle of stones in the dirt, even put some wood in there, as if they were going to light a fire (and cook what? the dead rat from under the bin?). Rose and I edged over. Janine was talking through wet teeth about how employ- ers were going to need to rally resources for employees in the weeks and months after the disaster. Janine—who had stuffed her phone visibly in her cleavage—jabbed her finger at the dirt and said all companies would really need to step up their game on childcare. BioMoodMed had made all these promises when
they’d hired her. She drew a map in the dust, demonstrating how BioMoodMed could fit a day care between accounting and pro- curement. “We don’t need a goddam staff lounge,” she insisted. “We need affordable, accessible childcare. For all.”
The members of her group nodded and Colin gazed up at me with puppy-dog eyes.
I’ve never been great at groups. It’s not only that I struggle to relate to people, although they are confusing (I could set aside time each week just to wonder at the fact that How are you is not in fact a question). It’s this gathering thing. It’s unnerving even in normal times: one minute you’re all a collection of bodies inhabiting the same space, and the next you have needs in common, and somehow from that you’re meant to magically enjoy the same stuff. Not only that, but you’re supposed to agree that the world is more one way than another—and that this is either exactly right or an utter disaster. What the fuck? Now you’re all on a boat rowing urgently upstream or cheering on the goddam Red Sox as if you knew a single actual individual player out there on the distant field, invested in the emotional truth of how some dude swings a stick at a ball. As if you could actually be in his mind in that moment, feel it with him. But you’ll lose interest in that asshole the minute he misses a hit, or swings the wrong way, or you have to get home to take a shit.
The truth is I’m not so great at individuals, either. But for Rose I was determined to try. If the cops were still a no-go, I
figured we might attempt the next-best thing. Those baby boom- ers had brought a tent, maybe they had some snacks too. I mean the fact that the management consultants were near the en- trance to their tent—like sentries of corporate America—did not inspire a whole lot of confidence, but then again, white-shirted young men were my core demographic. I took Rose’s hand, light as a feather against my palm, straightened my shoulders and calibrated my smile. “Hey there,” I said, doing my best to sound soft and unaware of all the stuff that was going on with my face, “How are you guys doing, Rose here and I, we were just wonder- ing, um, if you—”
From inside the tent, the opening lines of “Sweet Caroline.” The singers were a mix of men and women: a single soprano, by the sound of it, the rest of them tenors. I mean they weren’t professionals, but they knew what they were doing. They nailed that song from the get-go: where it began, with that lilt on the n, and just like that for a moment I was back at Fenway, ten years old, swaying along to Neil Diamond and my mother, even my neat-and-tidy mother, belting out the words. It threw me off, to be honest. A lot of strong emotions slung through my body and I forgot, for a moment, to keep my face all I don’t know I’m beautiful. Management Dude Number One shrugged towards the tent and looked back at me confused, while Number Two took a seat on the little camp chair, chewing on something he pulled from his pocket. I rearranged my face and turned to Dude Number One and said, “It’s just that Rose here and I, we’re hungry. We could really use some help.” You could see he was relieved, this was a script he knew, this was a face belonging to a body he wanted to … well, I didn’t feel right about finishing this thought, given Rose was standing right there. The singers were belting out the chorus and Dude One’s expression softened and he said “Yeah, I know, it’s terrible isn’t it” and then he made a face that sug- gested he’d go inside and ask the boomers but didn’t want to interrupt their song. They were really sticking with the script, going the full three minutes and so we just stood there smiling at each other. I knew better than to say any more word-like things that would jeopardize our chances of getting food.
Finally, the song stopped and Dude One went in, leaving us with Dude Two, who glanced briefly at my breasts before taking another bite of what I could now see was beef jerky. Dude One tried to speak in a low voice but of course we could hear every word. He asked them if they could spare anything at all; they said who for; he said a woman and her kid; they said well maybe, of course; they rustled around with some plastic; Dude One came out with a crumpled brown paper bag and thrust it at me while Dude Two got up and took his turn to pester the cops. Rose grabbed the bag and said “Thanks” in the sweetest little- girl voice I’ve ever heard. Dude One opened his mouth and then closed it again. From inside the tent, the opening lines of “Song Sung Blue.” Rose and I beat a quick retreat.
The bag contained three saltine crackers and about a quarter cup of trail mix. I took three almonds and gave the rest to Rose. She wolfed that shit down, straight from the bag to her mouth.
I wondered if there was a thing about telling kids not to eat too fast, or encouraging them to share or save some for later, and then I remembered we were stuck at a rest area during what might well turn out to be the end of the world, so I left her to it. My stomach clawed at me and I tried to think of it as an opportunity for weight loss. I wasn’t much convinced but my belly was very f lat. You have to take the wins when you get them, celebrate every victory, as my mother likes to say.
Somewhere around dusk the wind shifted enough that we could smell fire from the city, that acrid smell of burning buildings. It felt unfair, this intrusion of definite destruction. Doom, doom, beat my heart (over the top? Maybe. Accurate? Yes). As the plume darkened and blanketed half the sky one of the panickers (a boomer wearing a flannel shirt) detoured from his perimeter run and headed for Janine’s group. A shriek went up as the man’s bare feet barreled through the dust.
“Calm the fuck down!” shouted Colin, standing in front of the group, arms folded across his soup kitchen T-shirt. Oh, the baby, he wasn’t nearly tall nor heavy enough to pose any barrier to Mr. Crazy Panicker and his momentum. Colin went over quick smart, his sneaker soles rising up into the air, his ass sliding into the dirt.
Now Janine stood, arms in the air like some kind of calisthenic traffic cop, shouting, “WHAT are you doing?”
The guy stopped, of course, because Janine is a woman and white. Mr. Panicker stood there like a block, his body all tense, fists clenched.
“Calm down,” Janine shouted. “There is no need to panic.” “Fuck you,” the man bellowed, “there IS.”
They were maybe three feet apart. The cuff of the man’s pants rested uncertainly in the dirt. Bow-legged. Afraid.
“Just-take-a-look at what’s going on around you,” the man said, briefly taking on a podcaster tone. “It’s too late for PTA meetings, too late for hope.”
You can see the problem. People adapt differently to new information. In ideal circumstances, we need time to rearrange the frameworks. While things are still wavering—until reality has snapped to grid—we cling to that first gut reaction. We’d had, what? a day? And although a lot of people would say the warning signs had been flashing, well and truly fucking blaring, for years if not decades, the truth is that until you’ve passed that bright invisible line, other realities, better, nicer outcomes, are still possible.
Mr. Sir Panicker was having none of it.
“You all have to wake up,” he shouted. “Sitting there calmly like goddam sheep, with your—with your stone circle and your invisible dinner.”
“We are awake,” said Janine, taking on a mommy tone. “We are simply trying to take care of each other. When we—when we get home, we are still going to need strong institutions. Jobs to go to. Think how grateful we are going to feel, for supermarkets, for drivable roads. Schools, and—”
“Fuck your, fuck your SCHOOLS!” the man shouted, and I gripped Rose’s hand extra tight. “You can take your sweet-lady- ass gratitude and shove—”
Colin leapt up and tackled the guy to the ground. They scuffled, belly to belly, grunting and grabbing each other’s forearms, wrists, chins. Their dull almost-blows reminded me of plasticine.
After a few minutes of this the cops showed up and pulled their guns, like they’d done the math and realized that there were ten of them, two hundred of us. The boomer crawled up out of the dirt and let out a tearing sob. A cop grabbed his wrists.
“Come on, man,” the cop said. “Let’s go somewhere and cool off.”
Janine slipped her suit jacket around Colin’s shoulders and held him, arms outstretched, in the parental posture of there now. Over by the police cruisers the cops made a show of giving Mr. Panicker the low-and-stern talk. Palms rested, fingers twitched over the dark places where their guns nestled.
That night I settled myself closer to the Roses, about five bodies away, close enough that I’d hear Rose Jr. if she called out in the night. The stars were stupid sparkly in the half-sky. I brushed some stones out from under the small of my back and thought about my mother, who as you have most likely intuited I did not much like and who, I am certain, never liked me. You’ll want me to blame her for this, to get angry and cry, say that I never had a chance to grow properly because I was denied her love and attention as a child. But think for yourself a minute.
Maybe I’m just a jerk. Maybe she was depressed or otherwise broken, maybe she got a class four tear, which means, all the way from vagina to asshole, when I came of her twenty-eight years ago. You don’t know. I haven’t told you enough that you can judge.
What I will say is that people are hard work.
In and around that parking lot an hour’s drive from the city, two hundred people tried to figure out how to wait, or survive, or sleep, or something. I gave up on rearranging the stones and crept over to Rose. Her head rested next to my elbow; I took off my shirt and draped it over her small form. In my mind I floated out over all those humans. Glowering. Crying. Dreaming.
The cellphone networks came back up early the next morning. People rushed the buses to take turns with the charging stations, clutching their screens, laughing, screaming, crying. The cops moved with fresh purpose, their radios crackled, they slapped each other’s shoulders. The college kids hugged and cried, blasted dance music on their phones. Janine crouched in front of one of the bus wheels, her face frozen. I sat with the Roses and took it all in. It was Rose Jr. who took my hand and led me towards the buses so I could charge my phone. She lay on one of the seats, twirling her legs in the air,
while my phone woke up. The dusty screen swarmed with news alerts and emergency notifications. Gray rectangles clamored over one another, full of yellow exclamation points and words like DESTROYED and TOLL. I realized then that I did not want to know what had happened. I wanted for it all to have un- happened. For the Earth to suck everything back into its own mouth and for my friend Jane, the only one who had messaged me, to be telling me something other than that her two-year- old’s leg got busted by a falling tree.
Outside the air began to thud and we realized—look, see, on the horizon—a helicopter was coming. Rose and I ran out with the crowd, hands up, fingers splayed. They threw us bottled water and protein bars and it all tasted good and sweet. I gulped and peeled salty skin off my lips. With calm but pleading intention I arranged my face and pulled Rose to the front of the crowd. They were going to choose us, me and Rose. I knew they would and they did. It was too loud to hear much of anything and I saw Rose’s mouth moving but I just pulled her closer, those little bones, we’re going to be okay I shouted and lifted her up onto my hip. She weighed almost nothing and her breath was hot on my shoulder and then there was this sharpness that clamped. Reflexively my arm released. Rose slid to the ground and in the second I had to glance at my shoulder—bite-shaped blood soaking through—she was gone. Lower, deeper into the crowd. Rose, I cried, and in the excitement one sanitation worker saw us get separated, her face registered my pain in an open-mouthed O and then she got pushed out of view. One of the helicopter guys, so robust in his clean black flight suit, held his hand out to me. I pulled myself into the chopper and he boosted me up, his palm to my waist. All these imprints on me, points of contact. I clicked the buckle and tightened my harness. The rotor thundered and the trio across from me (one boomer and two community college kids) tried to make eye contact. I turned to the window.
From the air, two hundred dot-like faces. A swinging bridge.
I jammed a peanut butter Lärabar in my face and gagged gently on joy. The helicopter listed to the left, pulled us towards the water-blue sky.
Mine was a complicated satisfaction.
Rosalynde Vas Dias
Who was who? I was blue
and loyal to blue, I had a way
of worshipping one thing, visible or not.
Ultraviolet you were enticing. No
question. But look, I stood in front
of paintings of indigo horses. I hunted
turquoise scarabs. What did you ever do
anyway? I read about my mother
pigment—you just dodged about,
some shite light I couldn’t discern anyway.
The streets sparkled with broken bits
of cobalt bottles. I was everywhere too.
SATURN LEAVING CAPRICORN
Saturn leaves on the most ordinary winter day.
Saturn leaves me bruised, leaves me
bleeding into bras I once found pretty.
Saturn leaves me in bandages,
an ice pack on my purple breast.
Almost Christmas. December’s crackled loneliness.
Lit tree in the corner. The sky is a white sweep.
I sit under a blanket I used as a little girl in Ontario.
Saturn leaves me without a mother, miles from
where I once lived. Saturn leaves me
with a man I did not know when Saturn first arrived.
Saturn leaves the snow blowing sideways,
scattering in all directions like a shattered mirror,
or fragments of a wine glass I just broke.
I broke it last night, in fact. It slipped out of
my hand and then, as with all broken things,
some part of my mind defied logic, wished
to reverse it all, go back in time.
A person dies the way a glass breaks.
Saturn leaves me with less of myself,
eight breast tissue samples of me gone,
and my love asleep in bed, unaware Saturn has left.
Three years was a long time to host Saturn,
cruel instructor who taught me nothing and everything.
When Saturn leaves, I am thinner and older.
When Saturn leaves, I know it might be away for so long
that I might not be here when it returns.
The snow is as cold as waking, as warm on my skin as sleep.
What won’t they expect?
What’s too even? What’s too equal? What’s too
“I love you” sounds like going away for a long time.
You are eight hours ahead, on a different
continent, so I say “I love you” and hope it sticks
on you like bubblegum in your ponytail.
I define loneliness as the rusted-out chains of
bicycles left in the snow.
Compose the stretcher frame for your canvas of
poplar and wood glue, with spring clamps and a
corrugated fastener gun. Measure the lengths and
mark them with pencil. Attach the staple gun to
the air hose. Do not touch the trigger.
Spread glue along the rabbet in the frame with the
pad of your index finger. It will sneak around and
fill the crease of your cuticle. Wipe the glue from
your finger on the bottom of the molding. Place the
molding flush to the stretcher bar with the ridge
sloping toward the broad side. Clamp the pieces
together securely with clothespin-style clamps.
And the angels said, “Do not be afraid!” and the
shepherds feared anyway, in between wondering if
they might just be dreaming.
What did the sheep think? The real Biblical sheep,
not just the kids in cotton ball suits crawling hands
and knees on the sanctuary carpet, envious of
the angels’ golden pipe-cleaner halos.
Before we encircle the sanctuary with artificial
evergreens, we lay the garlands down each aisle
and on our knees, straighten the wire branches.
After, we vacuum the shed plastic needles.
You and I splatter each other’s inboxes with one-sentence emails.
You: i’m going to hug you a lot
Me: good i’m going to hug you a lot back
The words seem vulnerable without punctuation.
I’m waiting for incarnation. For Jesus in metaphor.
And for you, you of rosemary soap and oddly
spaced toes and Special Effects Deep Purple hair dye.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
Put one staple in every six inches along the
underside of the glued and clamped frame. Take
the clamps off once the staples hold the pieces
together. Wait for fifteen minutes while the glue sets.
Joseph’s hair looks like Beethoven’s. Mary has
Virginia Woolf ’s sunken eyes. The donkey’s tail
broke off when my father was a child. I set them in
a plywood stable, halved like a dollhouse, a nail set
in the peak of the roof for hanging the angel, her
bare feet slipping out from beneath her pink robe.
The shepherds and unhung angel wait backstage,
the wise men and their camels on the dining room
table. I leave the baby and manger in the box,
wrapped in off-white tissue paper, to appear on
Christmas Eve together. We do not get to see the
empty frame of the manger because the infant Jesus
has been hot-glued to the hay.
I hate emailing you my poems in place of leaving
them on Post-it Notes stuck on your pillow.
I miss your loose-jointed handwriting, each letter a
broad, straight-lined frame. You wrote back in
pencil on cherry blossom patterned stationery and
always ended with Love you! Underlined.
I know you don’t miss my scribbly handwriting;
half cursive, half print. “Impossible to decipher,”
you always said. “Just read it to me.”
Stamps cost you two euros apiece.
Better email than nothing.
Measure exactly. Mark the point of each angled cut
on the top of the bar. Position the miter saw at 45° and
make certain the blade locks. Breathe in for
three, out for six to stop your hands shaking.
Lower the saw. Squeeze the trigger.
One. Two. Three. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
Mr. Legvold lets the kids sit in the shovel of his tractor,
raised above the cab like the bucket of a
Ferris wheel, our legs dangling into the December
sky while he pulls the hay wagon around the frozen
cornfield. The coldest part: where the back of my
knees meets the metal lip of the bucket meets the air.
I keep finding pieces I want to show you.
Doors are like canvases. Both rest on frames. Both
represent space and offer passage.
Peel open the numbered cardboard door on the
advent calendar. The silver glitter from the snow
on the stable roof rubs off onto your fingers. Snow
in Bethlehem and bundled blond shepherds place
Jesus’s birth in a Minnesotan tableau. The sheep
smile, politely interested. But inside, what you find
will be small and bright and stick on you like
waterproof mascara or a perfectly timed wink.
“I miss you” sounds like three carseat-bound kids
in a minivan wailing “Are we there yet?” every
three minutes. [No. No. No.]
When I was six, I noticed that Santa’s handwriting
looked exactly like my mother’s. He too made the
loop crowning his cursive capital D’s backwards
and tucked the flourish inside the outline of the
letter. Once they even used the same candy cane
striped wrapping paper. But my two brothers and I
pretended to believe because we didn’t want to hurt
our parents’ feelings.
Compressed, longing fits though doors sideways
like a mattress. It stains like walnuts and oil paint
and Sharpies. It fits me like my old prom dress,
pale gold satin, plastic-wrapped in my closet, the
way Minnesota wears winter: a majestic
inconvenience. It sounds like waking up to Dad
raking the snow off the roof at six-thirty in the morning.
I miss [love] the way you wear too many
bracelets at once and flail your spaghetti arms
when you talk and when you ask a favor, you
always begin, “How much do you love me?”
I’m waiting for a candle framed in each window
and songs sung in the dark. And for making wishes
on eyelashes, make-believe, making pillow forts
and making messes, with you.
Assemble your frame. Glue the inside angles of
each cut together so that a few narrow drops—
just the right amount—ooze out onto edges. Wipe
with a damp rag. Secure each of the corners with a
spring clamp. Shoot a corrugated fastener into each
miter joint using the corrugated fastener gun.
Joseph was a carpenter.
Set the complete frame flat to dry overnight.
Three camels for three wise men. [Are we there yet?]
Icicle strands of twinkle lights hem the gutters and
snowplows bury driveway skirts. It may never stop
snowing. White paint begins to bury the trees and
I fear that soon there will be nothing to see save
the ends of bare arms and sky. [Are we there yet?]
Winter’s a trap.
Stretch your canvas with stretcher pliers and the
heavy-duty stapler. Start with one staple in the
middle of each side of the frame, pulling each side,
then its opposite. Fold square corners like bed
sheets and gift-wrap.
Cover your canvas in fluorescent-white gesso.
Wait for it to dry and stiffen.
Imagine what you will paint on this trackless snow.
When you come back, will you still squeak and
yank the comforter over your head when I wake
you on Saturday mornings by pelting you with
Will you still remind me how to get out of my own
head when thoughts snow me in?
What if you don’t?
Paint your canvas as if it were a door. Paint your
canvas like an already-forgiven mess. A bedtime
story about a lost wedding band and rhinoceros
skeletons. Paint your canvas like a bonfire. To be
Paint your canvas as you would unwrap a long- awaited gift.
In the winter, I used to wake up in the middle of
the night because I could hear nothing. I’d lean out
from my cloud-pink down comforter and tug the
curtains at the foot of my bed open to watch the
snow trickle down in the spot under the streetlight.
It only gets that quiet when it snows. Winter
insulates in layers. It piles up. Ice. Snow. Ice. Snow.
So much ends up underneath.
Mittens. Scarf. Coat. Sweater. Shirt.
Long Underwear. Underwear. Skin. Internal organs.
Space. Line. Color. Form. Shape. Texture. Value.
Wash the oil paint off your fingers with Dawn dish
soap, lemon scent. After wiping the brushes against
newspaper and dipping them in Gamsol, wash the
bristles between your thumb and the bar of Ivory
soap. Hot water works best.
Advent comes from the Latin verb advenire, to come
to, and adventus, arrival.
I’m waiting for a renaissance. For a Savior born.
Another blank canvas. For you to come home and
what’s buried to reemerge.
Winged vestiges, midwinter ephemera, wary interiors.
Waiting [painting] is like trying to build a
cathedral out of cardboard. Somewhere between
illusion and impossible. Reliquaries. Leftover
saints. From outside, in the dark, stained glass
looks like splayed wings.
I’m waiting for one more day [door]. Another
painting. And for your doodles in the margins and
you singing in your sleep.
And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped
him in bands of cloth and, laid him in a manger because
there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields,
keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel
of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord
shone around them, and they were terrified. But the
angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.”
[What happens next? Are we there yet?]
FOOD PORN FROM THE 70s
Sam Herschel Wein
salad leaves caught in the hairs of the stomach.
Cherry tomatoes swirl around the hairs
of the ass. who knew a curved zucchini could be used round the neck to pull a man’s
mouth to your feast?
He pulls all the way to the tonsils, a creamy sauce poured in for texture.
Food provides incredible texture.
In all my years, I’ve never seen bananas looking riper.
A sonata plays from the piano as drums build to
the ultimate crescendo.
I’m a crescendo too, a bag of shrimp chips next to me and
a bottle of silicone lube next to that.
And you, man with a mullet, you accidentally invited both your lovers for dinner,
and the situation got
a little sticky, the grapefruit circling your nipple
while your pubic hairs swim in chocolate syrup, begging
for musky tongues.
Your foot clutches a vine of grapes and you look right to my eyes, kick through
that devilish fourth wall, and exclaim,
I’m a feast.
And I’m ravenous.
Here they go with Fred driving the stick shift home, Kim driving the family van home, Jerry driving the wedding coupe to his honeymoon home, and Jenny driving a rental away from home via the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry. Kim in the van is following behind Fred in the stick. The stick’s swerving and spinning across all lanes and back and Kim’s thinking there goes the husband to the stick, goes the son to wedlock, goes the daughter to the Chi-Cheemaun. Kim’s saying this to Jenny on the phone, the way she typically is with her doomsday voice. Jenny in the rental on the ferry is picturing the airbag exploding in Fred’s face. She’s thinking that’s that, party’s over, turn around and, what, go home? Where’s Jerry? Where’s Jerry every time?
Fucking weddings. Finally Kim’s saying thank God it’s just the stick but Jenny’s unsure what God’s going to do with a thing like a stick. The ferry’s docking and wheels are coming out of the vessel’s belly like a marching band. Jenny’s starting up the rental. Jenny’s idling. Jenny’s rolling. Jenny’s roaring.
Something is always in transit:
A package I wasn’t expecting. I break
tape with a dull knife, surprised at the opening
My mother doesn’t ask who.
Says, Marry an entrepreneur,
a man, & because
that conversation is always
happening, I pull her away
with simple facts: 1 million seconds is approximately
12 days. 1 billion seconds, around 31.7 years
Somewhere in-between the two marks the time
she & I have spent watching women
in pretty, glittery packaging
stroll down a flat, staged universe.
We wait for the light-skinned woman to appear, MISS
PHILIPPINES slashed across her chest
My mother looks up each winner:
MISS PHILIPPINES 2018, Catriona Gray,
born in Australia (1994) to an Australian father
of Scottish descent & a Filipina mother.
Miss PHILIPPINES 2015, Pia Wurtzbach,
born in Germany (1989) to a German father
& a Filipina mother
We celebrate ourselves, washed
in stage light. I don’t need to tell you a thing
about the beauty we are subjected to,
or that joke about mail-order brides. I won’t tell it.
We need our people to be taken seriously.
The American Psychology Association says colonial mentality
is essential to understand the psychology of contemporary Filipinos
and Filipino Americans. In 2015, Pia Wurtzbach, MISS
PHILIPPINES, speaks at the mic
held near her throat:
I think that the United States and the Philippines have always had
a good relationship with each other. We were colonized by the Americans
and we have their culture in our traditions even up to this day, and I think
we are very welcoming with the Americans,
and I don’t see any problem with
[U.S. military presence in the Philippines] at all.
What my mother remembers of Citizens Army Training (CAT)
during martial law is the fatigue
she had to wear. And the heat.
What my abuela remembers of Revolution in Cuba
she won’t tell me. She lights cigars on the porch
where my grandfather used to sit, smoke disappearing itself
I send a package to my abuela in Rosemead, knowing
it will reach her. The new Amazon distribution center is just
one town over, in El Monte—next to the train tracks that carry
fewer goods these days;
near the old Pup ‘N’ Taco where my father worked in high school,
serving tacos, hot dogs, & pastrami sandwiches
because what could be more American
than the establishment turning into a Wienerschnitzel, years later,
or how I can’t Google what that Amazon warehouse
used to be—its history erased between all the job postings at
the fulfillment center
which, just last week, allowed dozens of vans to line up
Temple City Blvd in the early morning, blocking the only entrance
to my abuela’s residential street, meaning
she can’t get in or out.
this rain on top of that road that cloud on top of this sea this
river on top of that stone that leaf on top of this puddle that
willow on top of this seed this swallow tearing the top of that
sky into snow those daisies in that blue vase I meant to get
for you & I will I promise I will those daisies with everything
everything everything taking it all in now I see it now I do I do
I do how they won’t they won’t ever stop singing thank you how
I’ve missed you thank you thank you
brown leaves an oak keeps.
Warm ragged weeds seeds
not a real warm a chickadee’s acrobatic scramble
a spatial season fallen fallen fallen.
Moments rise fallen fallen.
On a pine moths and such
more chickadees gather
sleek lines forward,
election results! milkweed pods
set to explode!
colors watched far,
Over the lake
mind H thought
False summer will tempt winter
hot chickadee heart
Canadian juncos arrived,
find seeds a warm, old, new president,
Nov. 7, 2020
I ask Ren to carve a peace symbol into my tombstone even though we’re the same age and Ren is more likely to die earlier than me given Ren’s maotai problem and resistance to exercise to which I say, you can’t predict bad luck and I’ve always had bad luck, which Mom claims is because she gave birth to me upside down even though natural-birthed babies are supposed to emerge head first out the vagina, popping like bubble wrap, the harbinger of all the misfortune I’d bring, and yet you kept me,
I tell Mom since she complains a lot for someone who could’ve left me with my grandparents and their flock of pigeons and oily, pigeon noodle soup, grease gripping the xian mian like super glue, flipping my stomach until I barfed, because making peace means ignoring all those nitty gritty details, even the blow- horn-blaring ones Ren says will one day kill me—biking down hills without breaks, ice skating on lakes that haven’t frozen over completely, hopping in local strangers’ cars who offer meals at their houses—which is why I’ll die first even though I eat all of my bok choy and Ren gorges on Popeyes, although perhaps not yet, not until I’ve found a nice plot of earth to stick a stone and a pretty jar for my ashes, prepaid with my card so no one gets lazy because “she’s dead, she’ll never know,” a first and final resting place for after I eject an upside down baby, after Ren drives me to the grocery store so we can pick up daisy leaves and shoots as I wait for an opportunity to unearth all the pillbugs in the backyard with my fingers, clawing through the soil like those bird women who are too ugly to bare their faces.
The day my girlfriend Shenandoah went missing, Nate and I’d started drinking early. It was raining—hot, summer rain—and Nate and I put together some homemade rain gear and trudged our way to the store to get beer. By the time Shan got home for her lunch break we were laid out on the couches, ready to take naps for the rest of the afternoon. Plus, it was still raining. It was like the outside world was encouraging our behavior.
“Look at you,” Shan said to me. “Are you naked?” “No,” I said, rustling around. “There are shorts on.” “It’s not even noon.” She shook her head. But she was
laughing. My girl. “I haven’t even eaten yet.”
“Are you hungry?” Nate asked. Shan sat down next to me on the sofa. She touched my arm, I remember. “We went to the store,” Nate finished.
“It’s a rain suit,” I explained.
“You wrapped yourself in an old plastic tarp.”
“This is a garbage sack,” Nate declared, standing to model. “I just put holes in it.”
Nate was my oldest friend, a tall man who was up for anything. We grew up playing ball in the middle of C Ave, just a few streets over from where I lived now. He was the guy who would come over at seven in the morning, or two in the morning, if you said you needed him or promised it would be fun.
“Okay, Chief.” He called everybody Chief. “Give me two shakes.”
Before Shan went missing, there was more going my way than ever before. Now, afterwards, I know it with this sense of hyperawareness that makes me wish I could go back. Not because I could change anything, but just so I could pay attention.
Nate turned on the television. Shan ate a sandwich, then she snuggled in next to me. She wiped water off me with a blanket.
“Can I borrow your car?” “But you’re warm.” “Where are your keys?” “Sure,” I said.
“Mine’s shaking still. I just want to make sure I get back.”
I got the keys and walked her out back. Our cars were parked side by side in the backyard, looking cleaner and shinier than ever.
“Home at three?” I asked. Shan smiled.
I gave her my keys and she got in. I was still pretty drunk at this point, but I remember she didn’t answer me, not really. She got in and put her seat belt on. It divided her breasts nicely and I looked for awhile. She saw me looking and put her third finger on her chest. She didn’t look sad or anything; she just looked like herself. But that was it.
“Okay, I gotta go,” she said. “C’mere.” She tilted her face towards me.
After she drove off, I got in her car and curled up in the backseat. It just seemed like the thing to do. I lay there listening to the rain on the roof. I remember thinking how nice it would have been if Shan didn’t have to go back to work, if we could have just stayed together on the couch all afternoon. But Shan was practical. She was never late for work. She paid her bills, got up at the same time every morning. When she prayed at night— because she did—she mostly offered up prayers of thanksgiving. I’d never met someone like Shan: that grounded, that sure.
That’s why I never would have seen it coming.
When I got back inside Nate and some stranger he knew were listening to old rap albums and smoking pot. I joined in.
The man had brought more beer and we drank that too.
Other people might be working, I thought, but it’s our day off. We should do what we want.
We sat there until it got close to dinner. Then the man went home and I remembered my legs, still wrapped in plastic.
“Good idea,” Nate said as I started cutting them out with a scissors. “Want me to do your other leg?”
“With what?” I only had one pair of scissors.
Nate went into the kitchen and came back with a small knife. “No,” I said.
“It’s serrated. It won’t hurt. I’ll keep the blade up.” “No.”
“Jeez,” he said, sitting back down on the sofa. “I’m just trying to help.”
It was then that we started talking about Shenandoah. We noticed she wasn’t home when she said she would be, but now that it was after five we put it in words and let it come out of our mouths. Now her absence was loose and in the room with us. It didn’t feel good.
Shan and I had been dating for three years and had been living together for two. It had been a long time. I wanted to get married, but she’d been married before and told me to wait. Her last marriage was good for awhile, then it got real bad.
“I just want to enjoy this,” she said. “I want to make sure we’re sure.”
“That you’re sure,” I said. “We’re sure,” she emphasized.
So sometimes we were good and had Nate and his date of the week over for dinner and cards, and sometimes I did dumb stuff like wrap myself in plastic and walk to Hy-Vee in the rain. But even when Shan and I were fighting, even when we had our moments, she always came home after work.
At six I started making calls. I called her work, her girlfriends. At seven I called her folks. Nate got up and put a frozen pizza in the oven. He handed me slices while I kept making calls. At eight I called the police, who said they couldn’t do anything until more time passed.
“She’s in my car,” I said. “Does that help?”
“Do you want to report a stolen vehicle?”
“Can you look for that right away?”
“Yes. What kind of vehicle is it?”
When I got off the phone with the police I called more people: friends, family. I went through Shan’s address book and started with the people who lived closest to us, then moved further out until I was sending messages all across northeast Iowa, up to parts of Minnesota. If someone didn’t answer I repeated their number over and over again in my head and tried to picture the person in my mind. It calmed me. It made me think there were lots of people out there, all looking for Shan, all together on this rainy night.
At midnight Nate said, “All right. We got to get out of the house.”
“But she might call.”
“If she does, she’ll call back. Hell, people are going to be calling all night.”
“Where are we going?”
“Do you have her keys?” Nate didn’t have a car but he was a much better driver than me. He was careful. And right then, wearing that garbage sack shirt, he was surprisingly rational.
Shan’s car looked like it always did: full tank, clean floor mats, alphabetized music collection. I opened the glove box. I looked through her cassettes. I don’t know what I was looking for—a clue, something—but I didn’t find it.
“We’re gonna drive her route. Just look for your car, or her, or anything. She got a flashlight in there?”
She did, of course. Whenever I needed something she had it. There was sunscreen in her glove box. Matches. A deck of cards. How could she be lost? How could she not be prepared for something?
We drove down 1st Avenue, into the belly of Cedar Rapids, past the payday lending place, the rent-a-center, the gas station. There was a car in the Little Gem diner parking lot with a flat tire and a black garbage bag taped over the back-passenger window. The bag rustled in the breeze.
We pulled over. For awhile there Shan and I went to Little Gem every Sunday night. An old woman with long grey hair, Dorothy, would wait on us and I was hoping she was on tonight. She knew us.
Dorothy stopped cleaning the counter when we walked in.
She called me by name. I introduced her to Nate, who apologized for wearing a garbage sack shirt.
I told Dorothy everything. We’d never had a personal conversation before but suddenly I felt very close to her. I told her about Shan’s routine, about how long she’d been missing.
“I’m sorry, Hon, I haven’t seen her. She stopped by a couple of times last week, but not today. I’m real sorry.”
“What’s she look like?” A man got up from his booth and came over. I showed him a picture from my wallet, one I took at a barbeque. Shan hated the picture because she thought she
looked greasy, but I thought it was perfect. She was my everyday beauty.
“Nice-looking girl. You could put it up on the bulletin board with your number.”
“Have you seen her?”
The man shook his head. He called his friends over and they looked. There was a whole group of us now, crowded around Dorothy. I wanted to take them all out with us; I wanted to invite them all to my wedding. They carefully passed Shan’s picture back and forth, trying not to leave fingerprints.
Dorothy gave me a piece of paper and some thumbtacks. It was strange leaving the picture behind, but Dorothy told me there’d be people in and out all night. I’d be sure to get calls.
“Write about your car, too,” she said. “Put that all down.” “We’ll say a prayer for her,” one of the men said. Nate shook
We stopped at every open business between home and work, talking to whoever was around. I didn’t have another picture of Shan, so Nate drew her face on the back of receipts, on napkins.
At the Sip ‘N’ Stir they let him draw her face in pen on the wall behind the bar.
“This way people’ll see her,” the bartender said.
Nate made more sketches on whatever paper people had in their pockets. It was amazing, the way he could pull Shan out of paystubs, matchbooks, to-do lists. It just took a few lines and there she was: her eyes, her hair, like that’s where she’d been hiding all along.
When we got outside it had stopped raining. Nate and I got back in the car and went past the railroad tracks, the lake, the Quaker plant that stood like a beacon in a cloud of oat- smelling fog.
“Becca went missing one time, you remember her? My old downstairs neighbor?” Nate looked over at me. He was trying.
“Shan isn’t Becca,” I said.
“She was gone for like two days.” Nate pulled onto 380 and fired through the curve. It was the middle of the night, and we were the only ones on the road. “We called the cops, her family, the whole bit, and turns out she was just over at Tony’s on a bender. She was across the street the whole time.”
“You think Shan’s just out drinking.”
“Didn’t I tell you this story? Tony was that guy who always wore overalls.”
“She’s not across some street. Something’s—” “Hang on,” Nate said. “Hang on.”
We pulled out of the bend and there was an eighteen-wheeler stopped right in the middle of the lane. Nate parked on the shoulder and a man came running over to us, his eyes wild.
“He jumped. The kid just jumped in front of me. You gotta help him.”
I’d seen dead people before, at funerals and in hospitals, but never out in the world. This was a young kid, maybe twenty, with a huge gash in his side that made him spill out over the highway like a deer. I could still see his hands, his sneakers. I just sat there in the car, looking.
But Nate got moving. He found a blanket in Shan’s trunk and threw it over the kid, then took his garbage bag shirt off to cover the kid’s hands.
“Oh, man,” the trucker said, leaning on his cab. He was shaking. I went over and sat down next to him. We just sat right down in the middle of the road.
“That’s his car there,” the trucker explained, pointing. “Kid was standing next to it, watching me come. I thought he was going to flag me down, but he didn’t so I kept going.”
The man shook his head. “But he had that look, you know?” He nodded at me, looking for understanding. “I’ve felt it, too.
That was this kid. He was going to jump but by the time I knew it my truck was right in front of him and there he went. He was timing it.”
A few weeks ago, the local news did a piece on mental health and suicide in Iowa. Shan and I watched the story, then turned the TV off and sat in the dark. We were already in bed. I told her I knew what that feeling was like.
“Well, not exactly. I’ve never wanted to do it. But I’ve wondered. Like when I get to the top of a flight of stairs, I’ll think: I could just lean over…”
“I’m not going to kill myself or anything. It’s just realizing I could, you know? That there’s an option.”
I couldn’t get it right. About how being on the edge of something can be hopeful. You realize your own power, and then you choose to come back.
“It’s kind of beautiful,” I said. “Coming back isn’t beautiful.” “What do you mean?”
“That’s not it. What’s beautiful is letting go. It’s letting all this go,” she waved her hands in the air. “Complete and total freedom. That’s beauty.”
It was her face that made me nervous. She was so calm, so sure. I asked if she wanted to talk about it, but she just smiled and kissed me goodnight. We never talked about it again.
Sitting there with the trucker, I started thinking Shan wasn’t missing, that she was just where she wanted to be. But I wanted to keep believing something else: that she’d been kidnapped, or was trapped somewhere, or something else dramatic and unlikely. Those options, terrible as they were, were better than the truth.
Nate paced around the body, guarding it. He had a tattoo of a falling star across his left breast and one of the Morton Salt Girl on his bicep. Out in the cold wind, they both seemed a deeper blue.
That’s when we heard sirens, saw the blue and red lights off in the distance.
I patted the trucker on the back and he nodded. He nodded again and again.
“I know,” he said, like I’d told him something. He wiped his face with his sleeve. “I know.”
Dante Di Stefano
Sometimes on an ordinary Tuesday in October I might find myself thinking about how John Coltrane undoes the universe with his horn | & how amazing | even if you’re not a jazz fan | that one solitary striving album could say everything there ever was to say | and ever will be to say | in the whole vast uneverlasting history of art & poetry & music | the history of my heart is there | a manifest destiny of desire is there |the face of my two-month-old son is there | in utero | in stereo | in ultrasound 3D | & suddenly I am chanting to myself my three-year-old daughter’s middle name like a CD skipping or like two records scratched back and crossfaded| jubilee jubilee jubilee | we live in a time of biblical plague & incremental apocalypse | & the logic of Abraham at the altar with the raised knife spirals up through my news feed | when I close my eyes I see the American present rewind into a pointillist rendering of the bust of Frederick Douglass someone mistakes for Albert Einstein | all our narratives clip off & cluster back adjudicating the space between twilight & nightlight & midnight moon | circling through hospital hallways & back again | to the cleave & heft of pandemic | the masked Now | & if I could say one thing to my wife | to you | dear reader | it is what Coltrane said again & again | in different registers with different reeds | which is | when I let go of what I am | in the manner of Lao Tzu & Saint Theresa of Avila & Rumi | I become what I might be | which is love rage love amidst the undertow | which is an unending orchard of jubilees & an immense mesa you might gallop through on the way to no showdown | which is yes & yes & kiss & infinite variations of wildflowers | asters & Queen Anne’s lace bouquets & coneflowers & wild cosmos & chicory & oxeye daisies lining the ditch of my throat | the perpetual unaccountable season of bloom in the gut you call a poem | the lark & sparrow & pigeon in the belly with their swoops & coos breaking into melody | & I think about a coworker who told me the days are long but the time is short | meaning make the most of this time when your kids are young & you are still strong & moving like note after note from lip to brass to blessing the air & unraveling the atoms inside God’s left eardrum & right lung | but there is nothing new under the sun | Ecclesiastes is a note that Coltrane idled on too | & sometimes a poem is just a momentary arcing déjà vu | & sometimes to even open the mouth is to wade through the muck of cliché & opinion & division | & sometimes a life is just day after day soloing into the atmosphere | & sometimes life is just so much so what & whatever | & still | & still | I am still | & more than anything I am grateful for this life unfolding at this time in this climate on this earth in this parsec of interstellar space | forever is a riot | an eon | a millisecond | the whorl of an uncatalogued fingerprint | a most wanted list | a warrantless wiretap | a RICO case involving endless grace | a weird nightmare I wake up from when I pray | carbon emissions & warlords & dead presidents & indictments & glacial melt & misogyny as national pastime | & the subtext & the retweet & the parsing of light from a distant star | & the semantics like a supernova | like a vesper turned to curse | like the necessary backbone of a whisper | like urge & gambrel of the blue sky & heartbeat & ache written in the common meter on the back of an envelope & hidden in the attic of the brain along with dove eggs & other little low heavens | & I keep skittering back to Amen | to acknowledgement | to resolution | to pursuance | to psalm | jubilee jubilee jubilee | family is a rootless prayer | a poem | beginning with what everything ends as | ending where it all begins | the music of what matters most | Amen & all of life | my wife my daughter my son my dog & you dear reader | the umlaut over the “e” at the terminus of a name that contains all of literature | the unsayable unsaid | earned communion | a cold no fire could warm | as if in sudden head-lessness | these meager words | an enormous yes
A MATTER OF DEGREES
Lauren K. Carlson
How much I want to be good. The care with which I cut
apart rings sold with six packs of Diet Coke. Nonetheless, how
my ancient aluminum motorboat sinks in the lake. Takes on more disaster
than I, numb, can bail. How the water rises within until the boat’s rim
forms a silver lip and the sinking like a throat’s darkness. Gentle swallow.
My mother laying my brother to sleep in his crib, gentle like that. From shore
someone just watches. I remember I wave and I want. Not with my head
above water, something else. My voice sharing this story with you.
Is it too late? When goodness subsumes, what will I wave? A charged wire,
a tentacle, a net, a gun? Maybe to cooperate, we’re too far gone.
This person and me. This person and you.
This person and the person near them, near us.
During the late Meiji period,
Japan publicized its hybrid West-
East period rooms filled with Japanese
art objects, an eclectic mix, to signal
“tradition,” while the emperor visited
various residences (wearing shoes)
to bestow global imperial power
on the burgeoning nation-state.
In this way, the country is said
to have self-orientalized its artwork,
a show of ambivalence, an archipelago
caught in the growing pains of a rapidly
expanding globe—we’re here,
we’re powerful, too. I think this narrative
is mine, as if my body were historicized
into an era of 20th-century capitalism
& nationalism, my mycorrhizal DNA
invading every ocean. This must be why
I dreamed of Guangzhou yesterday,
my great-grandma’s kiss resting
on my forehead, sweat transforming
my face into a facsimile of the future:
untraceable dirt. Where have I been
but a reflection off a colonizer’s gun,
the opium burning in a bootstrapper’s
pipe? Any connection to my past
can be found in Said’s writing, an I
attempting to insert itself into a story
1,000 times lost via signification,
Derrida-style. Imagination is all I have
when history gives me nothing. Percent
this, percent that, but my blood burns
for a vigil full of ghosts. I want to know
who I am, but I only find my father’s
grave. Am I already dead? Researching
Chinese culture, a piece of puto
in my mouth, I arrive at the valet lot
of nowhere. I’m forever gutom. Yes,
I breathe, I eat. & yes, my soul is right:
I’ll never repay my debt of bones.
Our father is gone, but for some months his arms haunt the apartment, thumping about like two dachshunds. It must be the rest of him can’t hear us calling them to heel, or that the dead receive new names somehow, so the arms go on toiling at his old chores—sanding the cat’s claw marks from the buffet, unclogging a slow drain—with thumbs blackened by their own blind hammer strikes. For weeks his arms are simply a tripping hazard, until one day we come home to find the kitchen sink taken apart, its pipes littered across the tile like some child’s train set. Decanters tumble. The cat’s tail goes missing. We hope they’ll retire, but come spring the arms scribble at his desk, incorrectly filing the family taxes. How difficult to say no thank you to deaf hands, but we do our best spraying them with water. They seem frightened wet, perhaps because we know he never learned how to swim. Once we put the sink back together, bathing his arms turns bloody. The faucet sputters worse than before and the limbs flail blindly to shut it off, often hooking us with an elbow or knuckle. We only do it because of what happens afterwards, when our father’s arms turn docile, cocooned in towels, and for a short while we can hold a part of him. In the end, he becomes an ordinary ghost, as present and distant as air. These days, you can find one arm sporting an orange apron, selling bolts at the hardware store across town. The other moved to Wisconsin, where things are more German.
ROBERT J. DEMOTT SHORT PROSE CONTEST
Each year during the month of November we welcome contest submissions for prose—of any genre—under 500 words. This year, David Haynes served as contest judge. We’re pleased to share the following pieces with you.
ROBERT J. DEMOTT SHORT PROSE CONTEST WINNER: GIRLS ARE ALWAYS
Allison Field Bell
Doing things in cars with boys. Not all girls, not all boys. But I am always. I was always. This moment for example. I am in the back of my car, the beat-up Volvo station wagon my mother passed down to me when I turned sixteen. I am in the back of my car, and there are tan leather seats with worn spots like wrinkles where sand accumulates from my drives to the Pacific.
I am in the back of my car with a boy. A boyfriend. And we are on a residential street in Sebastopol parked uphill along an arc of a curb. There is a streetlight I stare at from the window behind the driver’s seat. The streetlight is a rotten golden color. Street- lights remind me of cities, especially New York. And suddenly I am thinking of the Ninja Turtles. Or maybe it’s Batman. Some bad-guy fighting city-dwelling character from my childhood.
Except my childhood never really ended because I’m still laying here thinking of animated men while my boyfriend unbuttons my jeans. He slides them down only enough. I am still staring at the streetlight. There is that familiar pain and then he feels the inner part of my thigh with his hand, pauses. I imagine what he feels: raised lines, sweeping arcs in my flesh. Like a topographi- cal map of self-destruction. I don’t know how things progress from there. I know the bits of sand stuck to my skin, a vague ache where his body weighs down the loop of my jeans so they dig around my knees. There is a streetlight, and I can feel it snap and shudder against the night. And then he is pressing hard at the thigh with his body, cupping the side of my jaws with his hands. “Don’t do this anymore,” he says. “I’m not trying to fuck Frankenstein,” he says.
I don’t know what I say then, but I can’t stop with the streetlight. I think about how strong the glass must be. To weather storms and wind and sun. I wonder how and where the current comes from, who changed the bulb last. Do you even change streetlights like that? I imagine a large ladder. A man with his hands on the light source. A man fixing something bro- ken. A man with gentle hands. A delicate untwisting. A bright yellow light.
ROBERT J. DEMOTT SHORT PROSE CONTEST FIRST RUNNER-UP: THE FRIEND
Paul lives in an old farmhouse that had to be moved three miles south on a flatbed truck when the interstate was built. The nearby highway sings, especially in winter.
One day in November he is in the attic, looking through boxes of photos. They brim with seventy years of blurry, dark pictures, many of people he does not know. He is holding a picture of a July family reunion—one he remembers as clinging in fear to his mother’s dress—but in this picture he is smiling. Perhaps the patterned fabric of her dress transposed itself onto another memory: a new life is forming inside of him, a parasite, using the same fear and sharp joy as the old. Particularities of memory singe and cross. Does the former order matter?
The attic is still. Cold slips through the old windows.
There are a few copper leaves left on the tree outside. They are curled like a hand, or a goddess. When he was small, he went to a museum with his mother. Transfixed by the dim and quiet, his attention became syrupy and slow over the ancient jewelries from Greece, Rome, Egypt. When he turned around, the room was filled with people he did not know. The small window at the end of the gallery showed the lapis of nighttime. He cannot remember how he found his mother.
A small gray hand emerges from a pile of quilts to his left.
The hand pulls a tiny, broken body into view: an apple-sized head with wrong-put eyes, listing, a crooked neck, two muscular legs, soft gray fur. It is almost human. The right eye swings to look at Paul.
When he was five, in the backyard of this same house, he saw a snake swallow a toad whole. Four black eyes blinked and two did not, and he ran through the twilight grass to tell his mother. When he got to the porch he could not get the words out. You’re too old for this, he remembers thinking.
The creature follows him in irregular beats down the stairs and into the indigo kitchen. Paul opens the fridge. Light cuts across the floor, and the creature heaves towards it. Paul watches the creature’s ragged back move, too quickly, its small-right- hand-paw kneading the cold tile. There is something wrong with the creature’s left arm.
Paul’s fingers drag like a loose net through the fridge. He offers the creature scraps: a bowl of water, a leaf of lettuce, a crust of pizza. The creature eats all of it. The creature does not look up at him. When he wrings an apricot in two, reaching the pitless half to the creature, its small gray fingers wrench handfuls out of the asteroid-fruit. It is full of sweetness; it is mealy on his tongue. They sit in the moonlight of the fridge, sharing fruit, until the creature collapses into his open palm. He is surprised by the head’s weight, and how gentle it was when the neck broke.
ROBERT J. DEMOTT SHORT PROSE CONTEST SECOND RUNNER-UP: TO THE RESCUE
To the man in the news who pried a rabid bobcat from his wife’s shoulder with bare hands, Where are you? Where are you, with your concealed-carry permit registered to Happy? I am certain a man named Happy would never address me as Poochbelly Karen, even behind my back. I am certain Happy would give Poochbelly Karen a kidney without so much as a pause to check his wallet, should she have to ask. What is wrong with me? No one to carry a plate of brownies, no hand to bite when mad with grief.
ROBERT J. DEMOTT SHORT PROSE CONTEST FINALIST: WE DON’T TWO STEP NO MORE
& last night Avery says to me that my daddy is doing the ancestor’s work & since I don’t believe in much I hold onto that because this morning the sun broke through the clouds again & I am feeling something regal in my veins. My heartbeat is elevated but maybe that’s the high blood pressure talking or last night’s impromptu grief dance party still working its way through my system & we found a way to have a great time playing throw- backs without listening to that r*bert k*lly bullshit & found a way to three-step around my grief in a contemporary waltz where for a minute I forgot that I was supposed to be creating not suffering, thinking not procrastinating. For a minute my responsibilities flew from my fingertips as my arms swung from the windows to the walls surrounded by that pitch black almost winter solstice darkness & all the pent up energy grief lust anxiety leaked through my pores. Maybe the ancestors realized I needed a break & so they baptized me with debilitating grief for one day, an important day, my daddy’s birthday, where I was dancing not crying under a full moon in Gemini at the edge of the Illini prairie.
ROBERT J. DEMOTT SHORT PROSE CONTEST FINALIST: BUGS BUNNY
My dad had been a carpenter in Sacramento for a year when my mom decided we should join him. The weeks after we’d arrived, I spent the meat of my days working with him as his garbage boy. We would wake up in the placenta gray of dawn; it was summer, the sun would eventually open its mouth and hound us into cover, but the days were always cold before anything else. If my mom was up early enough to make breakfast, she asked my dad what his day would be, where the job was, when he’d be home.
Otherwise, he was quiet, and I knew to be in the passenger seat by the time the truck’s engine turned over.
One day he asked me what I wanted for lunch. In Mexico I’d watched Tatiana, a show about a pretty lady with a purple skirt and stars on her cheeks. Once, on the show, a person in a chicken suit came on and told us to eat at Quentoqui Frai Chiquen.
I told my dad the name. He said ok, and we drove to a square white restaurant and got in line for the drive-thru. My chest tightened at the difference between the boy-voiced, laughing white chicken I remembered, and the business—with hazy windows, on an asphalt lot, with impenetrable U.S. customers— I saw through the windshield. I asked my dad if he was sure this was right. Si, he said, and pointed at the first big letter painted crimson on the restaurant’s side. Quentoqui, he said. Then the next letter. Frai, he said. And the last letter. Chiquen. The name I’d heard on Tatiana had not been a name, but English.
I looked out my window, away from the menu. I resigned myself to the embarrassment of having to ask ¿habla español?, our charades at the register if they didn’t. It was the barrel my mom and I stared down whenever we bought McDonald’s.
The moral that I should only ask for places with names that I understood burbled in my head. We pulled up to the drive-thru speaker. It garbled out gibberish that sounded like it came from deep underground. My dad said some noises back, cut into the same length and tones as the speaker’s. We moved along.
At the window a pale black-haired lady in uniform opened and closed her mouth and my dad handed her some cash. She gave him two white boxes in a thin, see-through plastic bag, which he handed to me. He got us back on the road. I waded through the bumps of our moving truck to confirm that the bag really had pollo frito y papas, that my dad really had ordered food, from Americans, in perfect English. He noticed my eyes on him, and gave me a slight smile, his brow still furrowed, his day still ordinary, not knowing that was the first time I clung to him.
ROBERT J. DEMOTT SHORT PROSE CONTEST FINALIST: FORECLOSURE
I have lived in two cities: Kalamazoo and Tegucigalpa, both named in languages wiped away by colonizers. The name Kalamazoo may mean boiling water, or its meaning may have been lost or distorted by white colonizers. One of the possible meanings of the name is mirage. The name Tegucigalpa may mean silver hill, or it may mean a place where royalty lives, a place of sharp stones, a meeting place, or colored rocks.
Tegucigalpa is the capital of a former Spanish colony. Some buildings were so old that the glass was thicker at the bottom of the windowpane because the amorphous solidity of glass allows it to slowly melt over time. Later I would learn this is a lie told by tour guides to exaggerate the city’s age. Glass is an amorphous solid, but renaissance glass making produced uneven panes, and the windows were stronger with the thick side placed at the bot- tom of the window. The windows were not old enough to melt.
As a child, I played along the shore of Lake Michigan, and I knew the lake could kill me. I slowly poured wet sand from my hands to build drip castles. This was on land stolen by my ancestors five generations before my birth. I knew to swim parallel to the shore if the current pulled me away. Some indigenous land rights activists advocate for granting legal personhood to bodies of water.
We moved to Tegucigalpa because my father taught at a bilingual Christian school and brought my family along. I don’t know what motivated my parents to move from Kalamazoo.
As a teenager, it was an adventure. Then the scales fell off my eyes, and I saw the triple horror of whiteness, Christianity, and capitalist exploitation, like a three headed serpent attacking Central America, only it wasn’t a serpent, it was us.
Back in Kalamazoo, the paper on the exam table crinkled underneath me. The doctor seemed rushed as he handed me two pills and a paper cup of water. I spent $475 of my federal student loans on those pills because Medicaid in my state did not cover abortions. Then I had a baby because I couldn’t afford another abortion, and I couldn’t find a birth control that worked for me. Like Lake Michigan, I drowned some children and spared another at random. I was a force, a rage, I was a glass lake.
Now when I walk in Kalamazoo, I pass by two cities, the city I see in front of me and the city I remember. Walking south on Burdick Street, I pass an empty lot that once held a house where I slept some nights. The house belonged to a friend before it went into foreclosure and the city tore it down. There are gaps in my life too, where nothing stands but memories or possibilities. I want to imagine what could have been and write myself a future free from the violence of the past.
ROBERT J. DEMOTT SHORT PROSE CONTEST FINALIST: ONE MUST FIRST ESTABLISH A RELATIONSHIP WITH THE READER
Dear Reader, you seem to not have shaved anything, not anything at all. You walk around out there, thinking you’re not trapped in a box. When you think you’re being stealthy you sound like a marching band thrown down the stairs. When is the expiration date of your eyes always on me? Again and again I am placed in the holy light of calendars. Couldn’t you look at anything else? When was the last time your feet did not touch the ground because your father lifted you? Don’t act like you love me. Don’t act like you had a father.
Dear Reader, if you like plot it means you are afraid to die. Sometimes I lie and say to you that I have never read a book that I have, in fact, read. And this is because I know there’s a good chance, thinking that I have not read that book, that you will read that book to me, aloud, for my edification, all night long.
Dear Reader, whenever you read to me, in my mind I put on the smallest dress. I do not want to die wearing this fast food restaurant t-shirt I’m wearing. Not like my fathers and my father’s fathers. The hand jobs, in those days, were never elective. You said to me once that you were sad. We were out in your back yard, watching the bounce house deflate. Again the birthday party had been planned on the wrong day. So here’s my only advice, which works for any situation: close your eyes, like I do, and think about the saints.
Dear Reader, when I met you in the forest you were afraid of the forest. Bird feathers clumped around your exit wound. You and I, so quick, had a baby. We planned a succession of birthday par- ties for that baby. It was standing over there. God, it even looked like a baby. I tried to hold your hand but, as always, your foot got involved. I was on the wrong side of history. When I said “two peas in a pod” you pretended to think I said “two Petes.” It was August, and there wouldn’t be anything left to love by September. It was the summer of two Petes, one of whom had your phone number, one of whom has your rain slicker. “When will we ever tell the same lie?” you asked me. Come back, dear reader, you sweet romantic. I’m your own true system. No longer will I speak ill of the dead.
ALL WE HAVE LEFT
The light is different in Ohio.
I don’t know if you know that, but it is.
I watched it pour through the glass pane and waver across the knotted, wood floor. It looked like water, rippling and wet. It seemed more real than any other light I’d ever seen, so lovely that it hurt. I wanted to catch it up in my arms, to stitch myself into it so that it could never leave me. Instead, I caught the skin on the back of my hand between my teeth and bit down—a tic of longing.
This was nothing new. I was often falling in love with things that were defined by their inability to love me back. But I was feeling especially unrequited just then. It wasn’t the divorce, although that ache still simmered. No, I had decided to avoid that heartbreak for the time being, brushing it aside to focus on a more recent rejection. It was a relief, actually, having a new wound to obsess over. And such a simple one too: I loved someone, he didn’t love me. It was nothing like the slow, messy crumble of my marriage. This fresh heartbreak was sharp and sudden, a bolt of energy after years of lassitude.
That morning, I had gone along with dad to the Grey House under the pretense of helping him fix it up for the new tenant.
So far, I had just been drifting between empty rooms, looking at the light on the floorboards, letting the heartache settle. The Grey House had belonged to my grandmother, Lily, and for as long as I could remember it had smelled like grief. It was a scent so particular that I could conjure the memory of it from anywhere: its hollow dustiness rising from the woven rugs, the mealy ache of it wafting from the wooden cupboard in the corner of the kitchen. The house was empty by then, all her old furniture cleared away, but I could still feel famine looming in the air.
Lily’s eccentricity and devotion to her small town were canon in our family. Once, she had chained herself and her children to a historic building to stop it from being torn down. Her doggedness was also legendary: using her unwavering determination, she had rerouted a freeway that was slated to cut through the town. There was a certain level of fame, or infamy, that she enjoyed—whether out of respect or fear, everyone in that town knew who she was. I had always felt a certain amount of obligation to keep up this pretense to people outside my immediate family. I learned to nod and smile when people who knew and loved Lily only as an intrepid, plant-loving crusader assumed I knew and loved her the same.
When I was a child, Lily’s oddities had seemed, at worst, tiresome. But as I collected stories from Dad’s childhood—the knife brandished during an argument, the time an electrical cord was used as a whip—I began to see that she was not merely eccentric. There was a live wire inside of her, that life source that we all have, but frayed and flickering. Lily did not grow up with the language to describe mental illness, and she became the kind of maze that people create when they are just trying to survive. I was raised to respect, even admire, her courage and persistence. But I couldn’t accept the way her suffering had caused others to suffer. What did I care how many buildings she’d chained herself to? That didn’t mean she was a good person.
By the time I was in college, I was convinced that she harbored a particular spitefulness towards me. I took to calling the end-of-summer outing she always planned with my sister Hannah and me the Executioner’s Dinner, because of the quiet hostility I knew I would face. I once tried to trace her ire back to an inciting incident and concluded that it boiled down to one Christmas when I had made the unforgivable mistake of forgetting to send her a thank you note. The injustice of it all was that Hannah was the one who’d forgotten. But I had taken the blame. As punishment Lily wrote me out of her emotional will, and I salved my wounds with the knowledge that we were nothing alike.
We lost Lily to dementia, a slow disease that draws out all poison. By the time she was diagnosed, I had moved away and I made it a point to let her forget me. A whisper of regret, easily drowned out, told me to maintain a relationship with her. But I was busy trying to salvage another relationship, and she died in the midst of those slow-motion months between married and divorced. As the vacuum of grief opened up in my life, the regret grew louder, and I longed for some history to reclaim me.
Whenever I pictured the stories I’d heard of Dad’s childhood, growing up in the shadow of his mother’s chaotic and bizarre behavior, I saw them happening there in the Grey House. But the earliest ones had actually happened in the Red House, just down and across the street. I could see it from where I stood, in the front room, when I leaned up against the windowpane and craned my neck. I gazed down the street, all lined with daylilies starting to wane in the August heat, and studied the small strip of red that I could make out above the lilac bushes.
I’d only been in the Red House one, maybe two times. To the south, it faced the ravine, thick with last fall’s leaves and lichen- covered trees. To the east: the towpath beside the river, and beyond that the train tracks.
From the window of Dad’s childhood bedroom, you could see those tracks and glimpse the slow-moving river. With a breeze through the trees, you could probably just make out a grassy strip on the far side of the tracks. It was there, just a few months before, where the heartache I’d been nursing that morning began.
I watched as the scene materialized before me, unfolding like gilded wings. Once again, I was looking at myself in the reflection of the man’s sunglasses: blue cotton, loose curls, so hungry I could have devoured him then and there. Like a wasp, he hovered before me in the Ohio heat: dazzling, beautiful, impossible not to touch. Perhaps the sting of rejection was inevitable, a law of nature. But what did I care for the laws of nature? I was ferocious and hungry. Over and over, I returned to that moment beside the train tracks, alarmed by my willingness to be stung again.
I should have recognized Lily in this dogged pursuit, in my unwavering conviction that I could change the course of nature through sheer force of will. We were all tangled up together: the man, that town, my belief that I could force longitudinal lines to meet—and Lily was the cord binding it all.
She was the reason I met him, that man-turned-wasp. He had first arrived in her life decades ago, when she befriended his older brother while teaching abroad in Poland. Later, when his family moved to the States, Lily was there: shoring up the holes of culture shock, stitching his family into the fabric of ours. Until finally, on the day of her memorial service, I would end up on that narrow strip of grass along the train tracks with him, a man who had grown up to be all blue hues and bone fragments, all the words I’d ever wished someone would say to me. All because of Lily. Standing there beside him, I was gripped by a wild hope that he was her final gift, a bridge back to the self I had lost. Later that night, while I lay awake trying to memorize each detail of the day, a text from him lit up the darkness of my bedroom. As I reached for my phone, I felt a flicker of delight in the universe again and wondered if I owed Lily a thank you note after all.
But all her gifts were both great and terrible. Those train tracks would have warned me if they had been able to speak. I didn’t know it, but they recognized who I was when I stood beside them, eating my heart out over a man who was never going to love me back.
When Dad was three or four, his nap was always interrupted by the passing of the train. Instead of sleeping, he would wait at his window for the first sign of its approach. It started as a tremor in the floorboards, a quiver of sound in the air. Then, the bloom of smoke and the roll of thunder as it surged through town.
“It was alive,” Dad told me. “It was a dragon.”
He explained that the train had been the most important thing in his life. He said it as if he knew it was hard to believe— how could a train come to mean so much? But of course, I knew.
In Lily’s precarious orbit, the laws of time and space meant nothing. Love that had been there one moment could be gone the next, seemingly without cause. Rage, not gravity, was what kept the planets spinning in the Red House.
Living like that teaches you to fall in love with scarcity, because it’s all you really have. I knew this because I’d spent five years in a black hole of a marriage, burning through my reserves until there was nothing left to eat but me. It taught me how to sense a famine in the air before it arrived, to feast for months on the memory of a wasp’s sting. Of course, I, the girl pining over the light on the floorboards, understood how you could come to mistake the sound of a train for love.
Dad told me that one day, instead of sending him upstairs for his nap, Lily dressed him in a little velvet suit. It had originally been purchased for him to wear to a funeral. Together, they marched down the road into town. It was a short trek over the bridge, across the slow-moving river, and down to that grassy strip beside the tracks. Dad said that there was some excitement humming in the air when they arrived: a crowd, the press. That’s when Lily told him they were there to watch the very last run of the train before it was retired. It was a funeral after all; they were there to watch the dragon die.
Dad was inconsolable. How inconvenient this must have been for Lily, the protagonist of her small town. It was supposed to be a grand, memorialized occasion. She was going to parade her velvet-clad child in front of the cameras, to beam and pose, and congratulate herself for having the foresight to be a part of history. And there her child was, having the audacity to be heartbroken.
The light clung to my hair when I wandered out to the yard, ridding me of the grief-heavy air of the house. When I reached the garden, I walked the perimeter once, looking for an entry point through the dilapidated chicken wire fence. Everything was so overgrown by brambles that the normal passage was inaccessible, but I found a small opening near the back and maneuvered my way inside. If Lily had still been alive, it would never have been let go like that, all rambling and wild. But I thought she still seemed very much a part of the wildflowers and tomatoes, determined to go on existing in spite of it all.
Lily had lived by an ever-changing code of rules. Anything that challenged her was met with swift punishment. She would never have tolerated the sting of a wasp. For daring to humiliate her, it would have been crushed beneath her foot. She would have tilled it into the earth and salted the ground. Whatever she couldn’t control, she ignored, hiding it away behind the walls of the Red House, burying it there in the garden.
But this control was an illusion. You can bury a carcass, but it will still be there, leaching into the ground. It will resurface in the smash of a plate hurled against a wall, in the extension cord turned whip, in the 6-year-old alone at night learning to make pancakes from a box. In fifty years, the smell of it will still cling to the house.
I was tempted to leave it at that, with Lily as the villain: both executioner and undertaker of the Red House. But by the time I was standing there in that garden, asking the soil to explain itself, I had learned that people could be two things— loving and cruel—at once.
The truth was complicated and painful. To unravel Lily was to risk unraveling myself, the fabric of a carefully constructed lie that we weren’t the same.
I was told that I resembled her, that you could catch her face in mine: a haughty little quirk of the lips, an eyebrow raised in defiance. “Good genes,” she would have called it, her eyes pressed shut, her nose raised in a mime of primness. But I knew it was more than our bone structure. We had the same disregard for the laws of nature. We both refused to accept realities that we didn’t like, so caught up in what we wanted something to be that we missed seeing it for what it was.
I had spent that whole summer trying to orchestrate a romance with that man who didn’t love me back. The odds of us ending up together beside those train tracks at Lily’s memorial felt both impossible and inevitable, a glittering opportunity that I couldn’t help but reach for. And neither could he, at first. But you can’t trap a wasp in your hands without it stinging. With each throb of that rejection I could feel Lily’s wildness in me, a raging desire to punish what I couldn’t control.
As I stood in the garden, I watched gilded wings hover around a patch of black-eyed Susans. In a rush, the day at the train tracks came back to me again: the smell of hot tar on the railway ties, the way his mouth formed vowels, that feeling quivering in the air between us. I wondered if the wasp had merely been a honeybee—a creature that stings and dies.
Perhaps that was punishment enough.
When dad told me his story of the train, he explained that it had come back to him in vivid detail one day at the Grey House. It was after his dad died, after his mother’s memory had begun to fade. He had been sorting through some boxes when he came upon an old record of train sounds. This had been Lily’s olive branch, a gift she gave him after that day by the tracks. She felt bad when she realized how much the train meant to him, but even Lily couldn’t resurrect dragons. It only made things worse, and eventually it drifted to some forgotten corner, buried in a box for Dad to find years later.
He said that while he stood there holding the record and grappling with all of Lily’s great and terrible gifts, he heard the sound of the train rolling through town.
Was he having a psychotic break?
But he wasn’t imagining it. The train had been restored at some point as part of a scenic railroad. I could see him standing in the front room of the Grey House, sunlight pooling on the floor.
If I had been given a choice about who to take after, I would not have picked Lily. Her brokenness spilled over onto all the people that she loved. But she also gave us many gifts. I knew that her determination to keep trudging through suffering and chaos was the same force that had propelled me through my own. She was not a creature that stings and dies, and neither was I. I owed it to her, the fact that I was still standing there in her garden, wrestling with the laws of nature—lonely, yes, but alive.
So what if I am all I have left? I am ferocious and hungry.
There will always be enough of me.
My old boyfriend, no, my lone flame,
what’s his name, I don’t know
how to categorize the genus of the past,
genius as he made himself out to be,
someone my therapist would label as “complicated,”
he was nowhere near as easy
as identifying a male cardinal in the bare branches
of a forsythia when it’s snowing,
red kinetic energy waiting for me
to fill the feeder and side-eyeing the chickadees.
My former lover had a cardinal as a pet,
not a pet pet, but not as feral as one would expect
for a windowsill facing the deep woods of Maine
on which he sprinkled black oil sunflower seeds
at dawn to lure his cardinal down from its roost
in the cedar grove. Every day it banged
its grosbeak on the panes, demanding more,
every morning since 2009, seeds, seeds,
we slept in seeds, walked on seeds like hot coals
on unsuspecting bare feet, seeds that found
their way into the seat of my jeans,
the seams inside the soles of my All Stars.
He kept a 20-pound bag by the bed, cracked
the window when he heard the high-pitched cardinal
song until all I could see was red. From the apple tree,
opposite the meadow, we always knew
how to find each other, one of us trying to fix
dinner, him under the hood. That winter
everyone searched for nourishment.
When field mice claimed the seeds
he set traps and they snapped into the startled quiet
and suppressed appetites of the night.
Easy does it now, he said as he raised the window,
chucked out the limp mice bones dismissively
let the grey puffs pile up. When all was said
and done it was hard to leave but also, it wasn’t,
I packed my stuff with steady resolve
that came out of nowhere, no, from somewhere
deep in the brambled cradle of truth. I found
seeds months later in the crevices of my books but
whatever, I’m in the city now, with shepherd’s hooks
of my own, listening through the thicket
of sparrows and finches and crows
for the little bup bup the male cardinal makes
when it’s happy, I’ve heard it,
it’s January, everybody is hungry.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS
When I start to pee rust, I’m convinced
it’s coming from my heart,
but I can’t find the light
after the nurse hands me a cup
to collect a hot sample
though as much as I try, the lavatory
in the clinic is a cold void,
even once inside, waving my arms
for any sort of motion sensor
to illuminate things, like, once and for all.
The elderly faces of some other patients
are now facing me expectantly
from the opposite side of the waiting room
as I stumble around in the dark, one leg
holding the door ajar and desperate
for anyone to show me where
the goddamn light switch is
so I can awkwardly pee on command in peace,
aim all my pain into the cup’s tiny opening
then wait for my name to be called
out from under this buckle. Can’t I
shuffle the deck and draw again,
can’t I chew up the weak winter sun
and emit a sillage of bruised jasmine
and mystery despite the cramping,
despite any changes in my diet / drinking /
lack of consistent exercise and particularly
despite the inevitable question:
is there any chance you could be pregnant?
of which the answer is immaculate,
what are the odds of the Pope himself
picking the cherry-popping Mega Million
Power Ball-winning miracle of miracles
in my sorely lacking in any sort of fucking
ghost schooner of body docking again
at that old harbor, throwing an anchor
into the sea of unmarketability until finally,
an old woman rises from a bench
next to the nurse’s station and shows me
the light switch is on the outside.
One of the men my mom dated when I was a kid was named Randy, and he had a mustache. I never really liked him. He seemed like a typical hick boomer, and I had no idea why she was into that. One day Randy showed up to our annual Christmas Eve party, and he was missing his mustache. There were mutterings about how he had hid behind it for a long time and attended a self-improvement seminar. My mother nodded along approvingly. Until then, I had no clue that she was so obsessed with the idea of men hiding their vulnerability behind facial hair. I was young, and wasn’t even aware that a person could hide behind a mustache, so this was big news to me. I knew she’d been dragging him to these seminars that she swore by, so it all really came together. If a man was to make a sacrifice like cutting off his mustache and reveal his upper lip to the world, then he must really be doing a lot of work on himself, and really growing as a person. This must be why my father kept on his mustache until the day he died.
THE MANIC PIXIE DREAMGIRL STOPS DYEING HER HAIR
For once, she wants to meet somebody who’s just as interesting as she is.
She’s tired of pulling meek loners and aspiring sociopaths out of their shells. She’s tired of adding zest to lives. Of rescuing saps from doldrums. She wants to meet someone at a good place. Someone not in crisis. Someone at the start of their rope instead of its end.
She wishes she could stop attracting these figures altogether, but they find her like a bad cold. She’s not looking for a project, yet at every turn, there he is, a puppy in a rainstorm, scratching to come inside. More often than not, before she realizes what’s happening, she’s Just what the doctor ordered!
She has no desire to be philosophical. Or profound. Or for her wisdom to come off as surprisingly practical. Or clever. Or out-of-the-box. Why not simply wise?
She’s tired of the phrase Live a little! She’s tired of unorthodox for unorthodox’s sake. She’s not interested in anything too normal, but once in a while, she’d like to fit in.
She wants more than a brief scene that explains her backstory, some trope built on a cliché hammered together by typecasting. She doesn’t mind the awards buzz, but is secretly disappointed it’s for Supporting instead of Lead.
She’s had her share of bad relationships—there’s that backstory—but it doesn’t mean she has to settle.
And she certainly doesn’t want to be as saved by the encounter as the schmuck she’s saving. How does solving his problems make her life any better?
Some of this is on her, she knows, how she projects herself. There’s no reason, at her age, to dress like she does. What’s with all the flair? Why so much jewelry? And so many tattoos! Her normal hair color is blond—the one everyone wants—but it’s been tangerine with blue streaks more than half her life.
Then there’s her apartment. Above an exotic pet store? What adult actually chooses that? And her décor? Picture frames without pictures. Drapes made from concert tees. A kiddie pool filled with goldfish in the middle of the living room. Lava lamps. Alphabet magnets. Foibles the pet hedgehog. What is she, nine?
She wants to wake up, put on clothes, and get on with her day. Live her life. Be a functioning adult. But as soon as she sets foot in public, there he is, some lump of meat staring at her, shuffling over for a nervous chat. If she runs away, another man, a different lost soul, presents himself. There’s always another around a corner. Or in a shop. On a subway car. She thinks they might outnumber the rats.
If she locks herself in her apartment, men knock on her door, their cars broken down outside, their cats missing, asking if she’s registered to vote. She believes she has a homing beacon inside her, or maybe she gives off a pheromone—she’d say “magnet,” but it’s not like her, no matter how hard she tries, to be cliché.
It saddens her, to her core, she cannot escape any of this. It is here fate. It’s her curse. It’s her new idiom.
With considerable effort—and a modicum of hesitation—she alters her personality, appearance, and outlook. She starts by barricading herself in her apartment, not answering any callers, no matter how hard they pound or for how long.
Next she wears pedestrian clothing, normal-cut jeans, blue, matched with plain sweaters and button-downs, solid colors from the basic Crayola eight. Her outfits cover most of her ink, save the dragonfly on her ankle, which she deems acceptable—who doesn’t have one tattoo?
She removes her face piercings and all but one stud in each ear, the ones in the center of the lobes. She limits makeup to foun- dation. She lets her eyebrows come in. She stops dyeing her hair.
Bland, but herself, she emerges. Immediately, she’s surprised by how she’s received—or not received. No one looks at her. No one waves hello. No Anxious Andy confronts her on her stoop. On her way to the market, she’s elated: She’s her own person!
Walking the aisles, pushing her cart, she’s able to simply shop. She can’t remember when she’s been this focused. Dinner? Check. Essentials? Check. Something to help her celebrate?
Check, check, check.
Soon, however, her focus gets her thinking: She’s never made it this far and she doesn’t know what to do next. Do I pay for these things and take them home? Of course she does, she knows, but it’s still feels foreign to her—mainly because she’s never done it before.
Confusion leads to anxiety leads to melancholy. She’s abandoned who she is. She’s lost herself. She feels alone.
Ready to check out, she dams tears. She finds a line, waits behind a family buying too much cat food. All she’s put in her basket is a frozen chicken dinner, a single roll of toilet paper, and a bottle of Chablis; she’s been in the store over an hour. When it’s her turn, the cashier asks for payment and she realizes she’s left her money at home. She exits the store, barely able to contain herself. As soon as she sits on the bus bench on the corner, she lets loose. She cannot remember ever being so sad.
As she wails, a man sits next to her, hands her a bag, and says, “I believe these are yours.” Inside the bag are the chicken, TP, and wine.
“I didn’t pay for these,” she says. “I left my gigantic purse at home.”
“No worries,” the man says. “I always say, life’s too short to worry, but if you have good booze, it’s just exactly long enough.” She stops crying and stares. What the hell does that mean?
“I’m Domino,” the man says. He holds out his hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
She shakes Domino’s hand. He crosses his legs and begins to fidget with his fingers, whistling “Tomorrow” from Annie. In less than a minute, he produces an origami dragonfly and presents it to her.
“Thank you,” she says, and holds the gift in her palm.
Domino has long, curly hair, but on top, it’s sculpted into a fauxhawk, dyed green with purple highlights. He has seven piercings in the ear she can see and hoop between his nostrils.
On his neck is the tattoo of a wizard, the kind wearing a pointy hat with stars and crescent moons. He has a curly-Q mustache, red, its natural color. He’s wearing a plain white T-shirt, but over it, rainbow suspenders, like Mork. The clips are attached to a red plaid kilt. On one foot he has a black combat boot and on the other, a blue flip-flop.
“Bet you’re wondering where my matching shoes are,” Domino says.
“Sure,” she says. She was not.
“Me, too,” he says. “Don’t fret: I’m not alone. There’s another guy, somewhere out there, wondering the exact same thing.”
She laughs harder than she wants to: She has a distinct, nasally cackle, not at all part of her new, anonymous persona.
A bus pulls up to the stop and Domino stands to board. “Aren’t you coming?” he asks.
“No,” she says. “I don’t need a bus.”
Domino looks down at the bench, up at the BUS STOP sign. “I was just resting,” she says. “I don’t even know where this bus is going.”
The bus driver beeps her horn, instructs them to get on or to not get on. Domino blocks the doors from shutting.
Passengers inside the bus groan.
“Come on,” Domino says. “Wherever we go, consider it an adventure.”
“I don’t know,” she says, not moving.
“Live a little,” he says, extending a hand. “Could be just what the doctor ordered.”
HARRISON PARK, EDINBURGH, 1960
After a photograph by Robert Blomfield
of course the swings are gone :: this twilight fog
descends, graying hedgerows like the webs
an agent’s hands swat from a rotten rafter
to see across a rotted barn :: and what
to make of barren schoolyard gloom besides
another absence between squeals, such bruised
and splattered knees :: one bench and chin-up bar ::
the shrouded towers of these tenements
where distant kin I cannot name retreat
into staticky radios, cheap ale,
their every supper broth :: of course the marms
have stripped these slanting frames to empty hooks ::
unlooped each icy chain so no soul creaks
two tiny pumping legs across the moon
So, naturally, piles of arms. Arms multiply in the distance, come into sharp focus nose-to-forearm. Supermarket fresh, but not an armless cadaver or even speck of blood. All seem adultish: yea-long, fingernails painted the dull tones accompanying age, needle holes. Perhaps the children burrowed underground.
Perhaps the children were seen as single arms waiting for the dry lightning to schism. Class rings, spray-tan tinted brace- lets, wedding bands—a golden diapason that would deafen all but thieves. An arm flops fish-like, a browning trout without a brook in sight. The heat begins to fill our eyes. We scuttle toward one giant arm using the earth as shoulder, a gnomon
providing refuge. It’s not our fault, but how much longer until it is? Sun soldered stiff in the sky. We could settle in this shade, plough the dust with rigored hands, let others know we tried. Maybe the question isn’t what to do with all these arms. Maybe it’s whether the fist-clenched blade over yonder is hot enough to cut and cauterize simultaneously. Maybe it’s whether arms prevent. If you carry the backpack. If you love me. Forgiveness requires this much: flat-faced supplication, someone to hold me up by the hair. Someone that says the feeling of arms is better than the real thing.
I was the one who had to protect the children from the fire. Ashes clung to their bright faces; the gray dust crusted over their lips. They stood too close to the rising flames like swim- mers through tides in the wind. As moths cast filtering shadows over their hair, they were paralyzed by beauty of the burning until their eyelashes were singed away. It was my fault. I should have been watching them more closely. They were my responsi- bility. The house was hers. The children were mine, as was she. I fed them and cooked for them and tried to keep the house clean. But I was a terrible cook and a rotten housekeeper, and an even worse mother figure—I see that now.
And all this time, I was missing my sister Sophie so much. I wondered where she had gone, if the old woman knew, if she was just testing me. Had our fathers abandoned Sophie the way they abandoned me, dumping her on the side of the road like the pregnant stray I was?
The kitchen smelled of garbage, nectarines growing soft in large white bowls. The bruises on the smooth, bright skin fright- ened me in the mornings when I poured cereal and milk into smaller bowls and set them out on the large table in the dining room for the children to eat. The old woman took her breakfast on a red tray with painted black birds. Their gold-jeweled beaks gleamed in the faded sunlight in her room, but only in the late afternoon. She preferred the night; that was when she was most awake. She went to bed at dawn because the sunrise was the last thing she wanted to see before she shut her eyes.
I never trusted her. Her explanations didn’t make sense. If she loved the sunrise so much, she should have loved the sun. She had to keep moving through the house, all through the night. The children had to be locked in their rooms. I didn’t know why. She had to keep going in to check on them, or else she would send me.
Because she didn’t like to be left alone for long periods, I never got much sleep, especially in the months I didn’t realize I was carrying my child. The old woman was a big talker, but only at night. During the day, she was usually a woman of few words. But when it was dark out and the two of us were alone in her lighted rooms, she kept asking me questions about my life
I didn’t want to answer or didn’t know how to. She kept ask- ing about my family—my parents, my sister, and my child. She pointed to my belly, laughing. If I didn’t understand what had happened, how could she? Even if she could understand, she had no right to know about us.
I had two mothers and two fathers and one sister named Sophie. That was all anyone needed to know about my childhood, or maybe that was too much. Because it was nobody’s business anyway, and I think the facts speak for themselves: we never bothered anyone, so why should anyone have the right to start bothering us after we left each other behind? We were a family, that was all. A family to ourselves, not some mystery for the old woman to solve. It made me sick, the way she was. She held the details of our past like so many oddly shaped pieces of the old jigsaw puzzle of the Sistine Chapel ceiling she could never quite put together on the mahogany coffee table in her living room.
The puzzle grew dusty, dulling the clouds and the blue sky. Because of the children, there were faint teeth marks on some of the pieces they had chewed on in boredom during rainy days when we couldn’t go out onto the muddy fields. Some of the jagged pieces were disintegrating because she held them too long and too tightly when she grew nervous. The painted cardboard soaked up her sweat until the angels’ faces stuck to her skin.
She held out her hand to me once, palm face up. I saw all these faint, tiny faces looking back at me. I think the puzzle must have belonged to her grandmother, and maybe some of the pieces were missing or had been lost then thrown away by people who didn’t know what the puzzle pieces were when they found them. The whole thing needed to go out with the trash.
The morning I gave birth, I was hungry soon after. On an eggshell plate embossed with daisies, I arranged oatmeal lace cookies in the pattern of a star. Even though I wasn’t a fancy cook, I took pride in the cookies I baked and the sandwiches I assembled with care. I liked to watch the children eat, especially when I could tell they were enjoying their food and I felt like I had done a good job.
All through our haphazard dinner in the family room, the eight red phones in the other rooms would not quit ringing while the old woman, the children, and I ate our tuna fish sand- wiches. My child was just learning to walk, and phones made me nervous. They never brought good news in that house, so that the old woman often let them ring throughout the night.
After pouring more iced tea for everyone, I sat back down on the high wooden rocking chair so that I could have a good view of everyone in the room. I wanted to see their faces.
I wanted to watch them chewing because my child was not like the other children. She was the one the others left behind. They saved the broken cookie for her and took the rest for themselves. She ate alone, in the corner behind the cherrywood desk, away from the lamplight and the circle of girls. My child lingered in the shadows, staring, her watery eyes fixed on the old woman’s eyes as the old woman swallowed with a twisted mouth. My child swallowed the same way. Both of them took an- other bite and chewed with obvious distaste, exchanging glances that seemed to suggest the tuna fish was rancid. My child had Sophie’s eyes. I named her Sophie.
My child once went by another name, but she goes by the old woman’s name now, and I refuse to say it. I won’t have it uttered in my presence. In fact, my child is not a child anymore. She is a woman now, and she does not know me.
I heard a low rumble like the train yard loading cars, thun- der overhead. Chandeliers swung above us, shedding dust, long leaded crystal drops clanging together.
“The children,” the old woman whispered, looking up at the ceiling as the lights flickered, “what have they done now?”
She reached out for my hands, halfway rising from her chair.
In the yellow lamplight, her ruby rings flinted like embers re- vived by the wind. Sparks of red light drifted off her jewels and the backs of her hands, her blue veins barely visible through pale skin.
“Why are children so evil?” she asked through hiccups.
For the most part, the children had only seen bad things or had bad things done to them. They were given up by their legal guardians because they knew too much, and somehow the old woman and I were supposed to save them from what they knew. We were supposed to make them forget, or teach them to re- member in a different way.
The girls loved to escape their rooms and jump rope in the night. When I first heard the thunder, I knew the young ones would soon begin to stir and the house would be wide awake with their laughter.
Why were the old woman’s hands so cold? As she held me, I thought she might have recently bathed in ice. Her rings felt like a grate behind a snowy window. The veins on the backs on her hands were growing more distinct, poking farther through her, like blue rivers branching into tributaries beneath her skin’s smooth surface. Her wrist bones were also prominent. I felt her pulse quicken under my thumb as she examined my fingers and pulled my hands closer to the lamplight.
I tried to explain, again, why Sophie ran away. “‘My father’s going to kill me,’ she said to me.”
“But you didn’t believe her?”
“I thought it was just a figure of speech. I asked her, ‘What have you done?’”
“‘Nothing,’ she said, ‘at least not that I know of.’”
I heard the children’s footsteps thromp-thromping overhead as particles of the old ceiling began to drift down, white plaster powder raining on our hair. The boys were out of their rooms, on the loose, running wild, roaming the halls like vandals. They would break into the storage rooms again, looking for paint cans. Then they would paint words across the hall. The same words painted and erased and painted over: WHY and WHY and WHY splattered across the walls, the letters growing larger and larger, closer and closer together, until the words had no meaning. It was my favorite word as well as theirs, so I had sympathy for what they were doing. But it terrified me to see it written that way.
The boys had been sent to their rooms as punishment for killing a small sparrow hawk, and while I buried pieces of the broken bird, the boys set a couch on fire with a magnifying glass and sunlight coming through the window. It was always just a matter of time before hell would break loose. There was no heaven beneath that house, although there was hell above us in the children’s rooms.
“Sophie is dead,” the old woman said.
That was the morning she found a baby raccoon hung in a tree but couldn’t figure out how any of the children had escaped their rooms the night before.
“Don’t say that. Why did you say it?” I asked.
There was no reassuring her that what I had done wasn’t wrong, even though I claimed Sophie was still alive. But what did I really do? All I did was nothing. All I did was not believe her when she said her father was after her and she had to leave. I didn’t believe anyone because I was a liar. Sophie wasn’t a liar, but everyone called her a bitch because she dared to speak the truth and told her father something he didn’t want to hear, something about me I wouldn’t understand until I saw my child’s eyes gazing at me. My child had Sophie’s eyes, the eyes of her father.
“You shouldn’t have let her go. Is there a spider on my knee?” the old woman asked.
“I don’t think so. No,” I said, because I’m a liar.
“I feel little legs crawling. My body is playing tricks on me again.” She laughed in a sad way, “Probably because I used to do tricks with my body. I made it do what I wanted it to, whether it wanted to or not. The pain was a warning, and I ignored it.”
I wanted to tell her as much, but I knew she wouldn’t believe me. Her arms and legs often fell asleep when she was wide awake, so sometimes she couldn’t move them. She felt a prickly tingling like hundreds of tiny needles were sticking her hands and feet as she revived herself, and the rest of her body awakened.
“I’m new again,” she used to say to me after one of her epi- sodes. “It’s like I’m learning to move for the first time.”
Every now and then, the children found her in the halls, crawling along on her knees, clinging to the banisters with one hand, making her way to wherever she thought she was going. Sometimes the children worked together to gently lift her and carry her to me so I could put her in her bright silver wheelchair and they could take turns pushing her on the ramps. But most of the time she could walk, or even dance, on her own.
When I heard a sound like glass shattering above us, I wondered if the big mirror had broken or if the milk-glass lamp had fallen, darkness enveloping a section of the upstairs hall.
The voices hushed, and for a moment the house was quiet. Then the laughter began again.
“Do you think the children know who you are?” she asked. “They know enough,” I whispered, realizing I would always be the nanny.
“We don’t know what they know.”
Besides my girl, the youngest was a girl named Isabelle, two and a half years old. The eldest was a boy named Hunger. He had recently turned seventeen, and I was sure that he was in love with me, but I was bound and determined not to be his lover. Even though he was only two years younger than me, I was in charge of him and the others, and that was the way it would stand.
My child no longer called me Mother. She called me Zoie, and sometimes I thought she hated me. There was nothing I could do to make up with her, even though I had no idea how or
why our relationship had deteriorated so suddenly. I loved her more than I loved myself, but that wasn’t saying much. There was no one I loved less than me.
Now I see the way I broke her, believing the other children just because she had a different story when I found her locked in the wooden box or tied to a chair, alone in the dark room.
While the other children played together in the hall, I knew there was something wrong because she wasn’t with them, and she wouldn’t come when I called her. When I asked the others where she was, she wouldn’t look me in the eye.
The old woman had no idea what was happening, especially during the day. The children seemed to adore her, or at least pretended to, and that was enough for her.
How many children were there? And where did they come from? Tracing their histories was a long and sad imprecise pro- cess like tracing the water that made the rain. They came alone to the house sometimes, dropped off in cars that stopped briefly by the gates then sped away along the dirt road to the highway where Sophie haunted me in shadows of women hitchhiking.
People like us became strange families created by chance disguised as misfortune. Where one family disbanded, another began as desperate people clung together. Some clung to each other too long and too hard until they forgot what it was like to live apart. Friends became sisters, lost their identities to each other, girls growing up to be slightly different versions of the same woman. When Sophie and I said we were sisters, it was no lie, although it was not the truth as some people know it.
After Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias”
travel to 7-11 for lifesaver rings against the evaporate
hue on the nails of our impossibly smooth and childish hands
cig sunk between the bird and pointer in a half daylight
basement, dye-shattered, pined out here in no bus land
come this far out fat lip on the blue-tinged big slush
if we weren’t stuck here like used stamps all ideation
lined mags of famous musicians who’d probably kill to fuck us
and yet we are the gyre at the center of all potential creation
queens of birth control to whom all possibilities swarm
and die in arms re-read the liner on B. Sabbath
plaid couch in suburbs hell a regulated freeze warmth
where beauty mocked our youth in deconstructed nun habit
jeans, and fuck despair. Dreams writ in camels smoke cut glass
every AEIOU blown to naked futures wrecked and alone and crashed
I’m only as good as my cursive, as my plasma. An electric fence is between me and my reward. Just one anomaly and my induction’s off. An unassisted bliss is disobeying one illegal order at a time. Of permutations some say some are truly useless and they prematurely fold. Their branches braiding snakes, it’s one if subterranean and ten if subterranean and raining. Who’s a mad dog? You’re a mad dog, yes you are.
Because I hate to write and run I stay and play. I countenance no vacuum. At deception’s edge all emanations blend. An asteroid contains no rage. As I look over my right shoulder, I’ll be walking backwards. Damn the planet and the plan. Had my agenda more than fifteen items, I might love to contradict sequentially. What do I have to hide? The cheap may safely gaze. Of cylinders the ends identify so some are little toruses and some Klein bottles. First the horses, then the driver, then the passenger may fade.
Michael Alessi is a native of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. He is the author of the short fiction chapbooks Call a Body Home (Mason Jar Press) and The Horribles (Greying Ghost). His work has appeared in Mid-American Review, Passages North, The Pinch, The Cincinnati Review, and Ninth Letter, among other journals. He holds an MFA from Old Dominion University and is a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati.
Michael Buckius is a writer and filmmaker from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He earned his undergraduate degree in film and media arts from Temple University and his MFA in creative writing from Northern Arizona University. His work has appeared in Triquarterly, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, The Maynard, and Ghost City Review, among others. His first full-length collection, Mustache in Plain Sight, will be released in March 2022 through Tolsun Books. He currently teaches at Arizona State University and lives in Phoenix.
Josh Bell teaches at Harvard University and is the recipient of an NEA grant. He is the author of the poetry collections No Planets Strike and Alamo Theory. Fiction-wise, he has recently placed work in Black Telephone, Ninth Letter, Peach Mag, and Hobart.
Lauren K. Carlson is the author of a chapbook, Animals I Have Killed. She is a spiritual director and mother of three. Find her work in Waxwing, The Rumpus, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal. For more, see laurenkcarlson.com.
Anna Chotlos’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hotel Amerika, Passengers, Split Lip, Sweet Lit, Hobart, Complete Sentence, and Hippocampus Magazine. She is a Ph.D. student focusing on creative nonfiction at the University of North Texas.