The Best of The Rag

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The Best of The Rag
THE BEST OF THE RAG
EDITORS
Seth Porter and Dan Reilly
DESIGNER
Krissy Porter
www.krissythedesigner.com
COVER & FEATURED ART
Alex Eckman-Lawn
www.AlexEckmanLawn.com
COPYRIGHT © 2014 BY THE RAG
www.raglitmag.com
THE ARTIST
The cover and all art inside this issue is by Alex Eckman-Lawn. Alex
is a veteran of The Rag; he created the cover for The Rag Issue 3 and
his work was also featured inside The Rag Issue 2.
Alex is a Philadelphia-born illustrator who works in the gutter and
sleeps in the sewer. His work has appeared in comic books, on
album covers, book covers, t-shirts and posters. He is currently hard
at work trying to burn his name into the ground and pull the sun
out of the sky.
You can see more of Alex’s work on the web at www.
AlexEckmanLawn.com and on Instagram: @alexeckmanlawn.
EDITOR’S NOTE
by Seth Porter
It has now been a little over 3 years since we spawned The Rag.
It could be due to transitioning from being a single guy with a
girlfriend, an apartment, some cats and one neurotic dog, to being
a married guy with a house, a child, some cats and one even more
neurotic dog, but three years seems like a long time. Most of these
stories I first read during a pre-parenthood time that I can no
longer even fathom. So, while there’s nothing inherently magical
about a 3-year anniversary (and I didn’t fly to New Yory City to
take Dan Reilly out to eat and buy him a leather jacket or a diary,
which according to Hallmark are fine 3rd-anniversary gifts), these
pieces seem suitably distant that it makes sense to revisit some of
our personal favorites from our first five issues.
We have a few goals for releasing this Best Of issue. For one
thing, we think all of these writers deserve more exposure, and by
making this available as a free download, we can hopefully give
that to them. We also want to give readers a chance to get to know
us better and hopefully get them interested in reading more of
what we offer, and we want to give writers who might be interested
in submitting to us a chance to read some of the stories that we
particularly enjoyed.
We’re often asked by writers to more clearly define what we’re
looking for. The reality is there is no prescription for literary taste.
We could give you some very general ideas of what is and isn’t
appropriate for The Rag, and tell you we like “transgressive” work
and something you could call “literary entertainment,” but we don’t
know specifically what we’re going to like until we read it, and even
those broad categories draw more limits than we would like. Most
of all, we prefer to be surprised by an author and forced to expand
our boundaries. For example, reading a story that casually talks
about a woman getting extreme plastic surgery while running a
vague business doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but then there’s
Olivia from Issue 5, which is about those things, but also has a
mysterious, creepy tension that commands your attention.
That said, I would define the first 6 stories here as being
typically Rag-ish: characters operating beyond moral and often
legal boundaries, and the twisted humor that’s especially prevalent
in D-Gen and Dirty. The last 5 are Rag-ish stories for more
subtle reasons: the perfectly unsentimental sadness in The Leaves
are Falling, the psychological battle raging inside In-World, the
culturally apt Notes to a Future Me and possibly the only kind of
love story we will ever publish: Memento Mori.
If you’re getting set for your first exposure to the world of The
Rag, one thing to note is that while our normal issues don’t have
predetermined themes, through the curation process we always end
up with stories with characters and themes that build off of each
other. So, if you enjoy a story like Yes, Officer, you might very well
enjoy it even more if you read it along with the other stories in our
Issue 5, where you have a variety of characters involved in morally
suspect endeavors, which may get you thinking further about the
actions of the narrator, Officer Hastings.
Whether you are new to our world or revisiting some of these
stories like we are, we hope you enjoy this collection as much as we
do. You can purchase the current and past issues of our magazine
on our website store and on Amazon, you can read what other
people have to say about us on Goodreads, and you can follow us
on Facebook and Twitter.
CONTENTS
ZEKE STARGAZING
by Rachel Kimbrough
D-GEN
by Timothy Ghorkin
1
13
DIRTY
by Patrick Million
33
THE BEST INTENTIONS OF GOODY ABSHIRE
by Wes Trexler
48
THAT THING WITH THE DOG
by Ben Schwartz
59
YES, OFFICER
by John Woods
81
THE LEAVES ARE FALLING
by Tony Zito
100
IN-WORLD
by Joel Higgins
107
NOTES TO A FUTURE ME
by Kristin Kearns
126
MEMENTO MORI
by Stefanie Demas
138
OLIVIA by Philip Zigman
156
THE END
172
ZEKE STARGAZING
by Rachel Kimbrough
Mom’s rule was Dad couldn’t drink until 11 a.m. Really, though,
Dad could have gone on a lifelong bender. She couldn’t do
anything about it. Mom spent her last decade on a paisley blue
chaise behind Dad’s recliner in the living room. Neuropathy killed
the feeling in her hands and feet, decaying blood and tissue dusting
her extremities coal-black.
Mom fought the weight gain up to about 250 pounds. She
used to take me and Jake and Jamie on daily walks, fumble around
with us during driveway basketball games, eat salads instead of
Whoppers. But gain she did anyway, the difficulty of everyday tasks
increasing until one day she decided not to do anything at all.
That’s when she made Dad’s alcohol rule. She needed him to
be coherent for at least a few hours when he got home from work.
He complied. He became less of a man and more of a physical
extension of her.
I have exactly two memories of Mom when she could still walk.
In one, she’s heavy but not yet morbidly obese. She’s hustling away
from my stroller and toward the neighbor bitch, who’s akimbo in
her own front lawn, standing over Jake. The neighbor bitch had
just beaten little Jake with a leg she’d unscrewed off a side table
for something he’d said to her son. Mom’s rushing at her—boobs
flopping, back fat jiggling—until she’s in the bitch’s face, screaming
and shoving until the bitch retreats inside. Mom presses Jake’s
crying face against her bulging belly and gets us both inside.
In the other one, me and Mom are home alone. Jake and
Jamie are at school, and Dad’s at work laying carpet. She’s playing
Tracy Chapman on the stereo. She plants each of my feet on hers
and leads us in a mistimed waltz around the kitchen. We’re both
laughing. Ancient history.
Dad was a sweet drunk, the kind whose primary giveaways were
foggier eyes and wider grins. Before Mom lay down and never
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got up again, he used to work 14-hour days. He’d come home six
nights a week smelling like industrial dust, carpet glue and Jim
Beam, scoop me up onto his lap and fall asleep in his recliner in
front of the TV. I’d try to stay awake as long as he did, groggily
half-comprehending football games and C-SPAN and Christmas
sale commercials where this kid opens a gift box and a puppy pops
out.
When Mom started needing someone to do everything for her,
Dad cut his hours down to eight per day and got his cousin Mick
to stop in once a day to serve Mom her lunch and meds. We’d been
poor even before Dad started working less. After that, we were
despondent.
Anyway, when I started going to school, Mom got bored with
no companion. She saw a classified in the paper Mick had dropped
off for dachshund puppies, ten bucks a pop. She called the number
and the next day Mick picked up one of the puppies and brought
him home to her.
The day Mom got him, we kids arrived home from school just as
Dad pulled into the driveway. Dad stepped inside onto a pile of
shit. Mick had put down a newspaper for the puppy to go on, but
he was a dumb shit, not at all housetrained. Three other shit piles
lay on the carpet in the living room.
She beamed at us from the chaise, her dog nestled between her
shins, and said, “His name’s Zeke. Isn’t he cute?”
I loved Zeke for about five seconds. He looked like a big hot
dog and gave me a valid reason to use the word “wiener.” I stepped
over the shit piles and offered him my hand to sniff. The damn
dog bit my index finger, hard. I yelped, pulled my hand back and
whacked him on the head, for which I received a whack from Ma.
“He’s just fucking teething, Jesse, Goddamnit,” she said.
“Simon, clean this shit up. The stink is making my eyes water.” Dad
retreated to the kitchen and returned with paper towels while us
kids put our school things in our room.
We tried to play with him for a while before Dad made hot
dogs for dinner. Zeke sat perched on Mom’s belly while she ate,
accepting bites from Mom’s greasy fingers when she offered them.
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She cooed at him when he bit her fingers, breaking the skin, and
said, “Oh, thank you,” as he licked the blood away.
The next day, Zeke was the only one there when we got home
from school. We stood in the doorway, unsure what to do about
the chaise we hadn’t seen unoccupied for three years, bowed in the
center from bearing the same weight for so long, color mottled
from open or healing bed sores.
Jamie told me and Jake, “Stay right here,” and stepped around
little dog turds to the foot of the chaise. A large dark stain began
where Mom’s feet would have been, trailed over the side, and ended
on the floor in a sticky blackish circle. Zeke appeared through the
kitchen doorway, leapt up and sniffed the stain, tail wagging, then
looked up at Jamie and whined.
Jamie continued to Dad’s recliner. She reported that Mom’s
house dress was draped over the back of the chair, cut through from
top to bottom.
Jamie said, “Go to our room. Don’t step in any poop on your
way there. I’m gonna call Mick.”
Mick told Jamie there had been an accident and Mom and
Dad were at the hospital. He came over and gave us a ride, led us to
Mom’s room. We walked in as Dad told the nurse, “I can’t get it out
of my head. The image is just stuck, and I cannot get it out.” His
broad shoulders blocked our view of Mom.
Jamie said, “Dad!” and he turned to greet us, granting us a full
view of Mom, heavily sedated, IV drip in her arm, her leg slung up
above her heart. She was missing a foot.
Mom had had a bloody toenail shortly after Mick left, she said.
Considering she was nearly half a ton, she could only just see the
toe and definitely couldn’t reach it. Her neuropathy ensured that
the busted digit didn’t hurt, so she opted not to worry about it until
someone got home to bandage it. She flipped the channel to a court
TV show, fed Zeke a little roast beef from lunch she’d found tucked
in the folds of her arm, and fell asleep.
Zeke began to lick her wounded toe, as he’d licked her bleeding
fingers the night before in order to earn her loving coos. He licked
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until the blood was gone, but then it bled some more.
So he licked harder, and the skin started to pull back from the
toenail, releasing an even heavier flow of blood. The flap of skin
became less and less attached until it hung on by a thread. He
lapped it up into his mouth and downed it like a chunk of hot dog.
The blood flowed freely now, and he licked furiously to keep
up. When his impending defeat in the race was clear, he found a
way to stay ahead: eat the source of the blood flow. He grabbed on
to the skin at the rim of the wound with his teeth, yanked a strip
completely away, and ate that one too. Soon, he’d gone through the
whole big toe.
He ate through the ball of her big toe, then through the balls
of her other toes, then through the line of other toes now swinging
away from her foot like a door on loose hinges. He discarded the
bones to the side as he went—treats for later. Zeke licked blood off
his snout between consuming strips of skin like string cheese. Mom
didn’t wake up.
Dad came home early. He opened the door to see Zeke
gnawing at the bone sticking out from where Mom’s ankle should
have been, a pile of bones sitting where Mom’s foot used to be,
blood seeping into the chaise and running down to the floor, a fleck
of tissue resting on the bridge of Zeke’s wet snout. Mom woke up
to Dad shouting, “Oh my God, Barbara, the dog ate your foot.”
Mom woke up a little later, said hi to us and showered us with
kisses when we came close enough. She said, “Simon, get my Coke
and smokes,” and complained when the nurse informed her there
was no smoking inside the hospital. Dad brought her the drink
and settled in the chair next to her bed. Mick took us home shortly
thereafter. He stayed the night with us, took us to school, and drove
us back to the hospital after school.
When we arrived, a doctor was talking to Mom and Dad in
grave tones. We stood just outside the door, pressed against the
wall.
“Ordinarily we might simply do what we could to ensure the
ankle healed properly and then send you home,” he said. “But
considering how long the wound was exposed to the interior of a
4
dog’s mouth, the chances of infection are considerably increased.
We may have to amputate your leg to the knee.”
“Oh, well, you know, these things happen,” Mom chirped. Dad
smiled weakly at the doctor, whose mouth was slightly agape.
“Yes … The other factor is how the neuropathy in your other
foot has progressed. You will likely never be able to use that foot
again, and will almost surely have to have it amputated, too, within
the year,” the doctor said.
“Might as well take care of it while I’m here.” Mom
chuckled nervously when the doctor simply looked at her for an
uncomfortably long time.
“What will you do with the dog?” a nurse asked.
“Nothing. It wasn’t his fault,” Mom said. She teared up,
sobbed, “He’s just a puppy. It’s my fault.”
The medical staff left. Mom turned on the TV to a courtroom
drama.
Mick was late picking us up that evening. Jake and Jamie were
asleep, curled up on the chair next to Mom’s bed. I couldn’t sleep
through Mom’s snoring. I sat on Dad’s lap on a folding chair, head
leaned back against his chest. I tilted my head back, looking up at
him, at the TV images distorted through his thick glasses.
My class had been learning about manners that day in
kindergarten. I asked Dad, “Why doesn’t Mom ever say ‘please’
when she tells you to do things?”
He regarded me intensely, eyes doughy and bloodshot, brows
bunched together.
He stared at me that way for a few moments, lips quivering
like he was either about to say something or cry. But he didn’t say
anything, or cry, either. He looked back up at the TV, watery blue
images floating ghost-like, trapped between layers and layers of
prescription glass.
The following Christmas, Dad and Jamie made our holiday dinner
out of what they could find in the cupboards. They served us nobake cookies, popcorn, a nonperishable casserole mishmash and
eggnog on the living room floor between the Christmas tree and
Mom’s chaise. Jake and I had been lying on our backs beneath the
5
tree looking up at the string lights. We brushed cobwebs from the
fake branches out of each other’s hair and eyelashes.
Most of the presents were wrapped and under the tree, except
the one Jake and I planned to wrap for Mom. We were excited
about the prospect of opening things, not so much about what was
inside the paper.
Us being dirt poor, the family had started a gift-giving tradition
before I was born. Instead of Mom and Dad buying us things
and then having to feel guilty when those things inevitably broke
or went unappreciated, each person in the family would wrap an
item for every other family member. The item had to be something
the recipient already owned, something the giver felt the recipient
didn’t appreciate enough.
Two years before, Jake had wrapped for me the Cabbage Patch
Kid that had been gathering dust under the bunk bed most of the
year. The previous year, I’d given Mom what used to be her favorite
pair of shoes. That didn’t go over so well.
So, everyone usually had four things to open, one from every
other family member. The Christmas after Zeke ate Mom’s foot,
Mom had only three since one was from both me and Jake. We had
to wait for everyone to go to bed before we could wrap it.
The other tradition the family had started was to open
Christmas gifts at 4 a.m. in order to get a few hours of legitimate
family time in before Dad started drinking. With Mom’s 11 a.m.
rule, that gave us seven hours of family time a year. More to the
point, with our 9 p.m. bedtime, that gave me and Jake seven hours
to do our wrapping and make sure it was secure.
Dad tucked us in at nine and settled down in his recliner in front
of the TV. Mom was already snoring by then. Jake waited a few
minutes before he climbed up to my bunk to wait out Jamie and
Dad. We whispered our plan out until we heard Jamie snoring.
We climbed down from the top bunk. Jake gathered the
supplies we’d slid under the bed while I tiptoed out to check
whether Dad was asleep. He was. I went back and gave Jake the
all-clear, and then set out to gather the present. Jake took the scotch
and duct tape, scissors and wrapping paper out to the backyard, to
6
the square where light poured out from the kitchen window. While
he did that, I sought out Zeke.
Zeke lay curled up where Mom’s shins should have been, pressed
up against her two stumps. I grabbed him around his middle and
slowly pulled him away. He made that squealing growling yawn
noise that dogs do and arched his back, stretching as I eased him
off the chaise. He pawed at his eyes as I stood frozen, watching and
listening for any sign that Mom or Dad had stirred.
I carried Zeke out to the back yard where Jake was waiting and
then went back inside to make sure every door and window was
closed in case Zeke barked.
We didn’t have much of a plan, but Zeke was shivering, so we
just got started.
At first we started with his legs.
I held his front paws together while Jake unwound a strip of
duct tape and bit it off. Zeke was hopping around on his back legs,
dancing and nipping at my hands. Once Jake began to wrap the
tape around Zeke’s front legs, the damn dog bit my hand again.
I cried out and Jake told me to shut up. A new plan was in
order.
Jake held Zeke close to the ground by the scruff of his neck
and clamped his jaws together while I wrapped his snout with duct
tape. That way, he couldn’t bite at us or the tape, and couldn’t bark
either.
After that, Jake flipped Zeke over onto his back and held his
back legs far apart like he was doing the splits so that he couldn’t
kick at me or flip over and run away. I got another strip of duct
tape, held his front paws together and wrapped them up at the
elbows so that he looked like he was praying.
When I let go, he pumped his front legs around and started
yelping. The complaints were muffled, but his pain was apparent. I
reexamined my taping job and saw that the tape was sliding around
a little, pulling his hair out in places as it shifted. I pointed this out
to Jake and asked whether this was a good idea.
Jake said, “He just needs to stop moving,” and told me to hold
7
Zeke for a second. Then he ran off toward the big tree and returned
with a thick stick.
He said, “This might scare you, but don’t worry. I’m just going
to make him sleep until the morning when Mom opens him.” Then
he bopped Zeke on the head a few times until the dog went limp.
One of Zeke’s ears got torn open from that beating. Jake taped
it up with Scotch tape while I bound Zeke’s back legs in duct tape.
Then we put a strip of tape over each of his paws and nails in case
he were to wake up and try to claw his way out before morning.
We rolled out a long strip of wrapping paper, stretched Zeke
out as much as we could without pulling his hair out around the
duct tape, and simply rolled him up. We ended up wrapping him
in something like seven layers of wrapping paper.
Jake twisted an open end and bunched it up, and we used duct
tape to hold it closed. It didn’t look as good as we wanted it to, but
it got the job done. I closed the other end.
When we were done, we heard Zeke whimpering from inside the
package. Jake was nervous about that, so we left Zeke just outside
the back door in case he got loud enough to wake anyone up. Jake
said he would go bring Zeke inside around 3:30.
While Jake found a place to hide Zeke, I went inside and
changed clothes and washed the hair and blood and mud off my
fingers and arms. When Jake came back inside, I told him to do the
same.
We buried our laundry at the bottom of the basket in our room
and both of us climbed up to my bunk with a flashlight, Jake’s
Batman watch and an Uno deck to pass the time.
Around 3:30, Jake climbed down to get Zeke while I woke
Jamie up to make coffee for Mom and Dad.
Jamie and I went into the kitchen just as Jake poked his head
through the back door and told me to come outside. I joined him
on the back step. He was holding the present. He said, “It’s pretty
stiff.”
So we brought it in and took it up to my bunk and wrapped
it up in a few blankets to try to warm Zeke back up before Mom
opened him.
8
A few minutes before we woke up Mom and Dad, we got Zeke out
from the blanket cocoon and put him under the tree, near the base
so he would be the last present to open.
Jake got Dad up and I woke up Mom. Dad lumbered over
to the tree, saying, “Well, let’s see what we got here.” He plugged
in the Christmas lights and plopped down to the floor as Mom
propped herself up on one elbow as much as she could. We kids sat
down and Dad got out one present for each of us except Mom for
the first round.
We always went youngest to oldest, so I opened the first one,
from Jake. My Dr. Seuss book collection. Jake opened his Stretch
Armstrong doll from Mom.
And so we went around, taking turns until there was nothing
left but Zeke. Dad dragged the package out by one bunched-up
end and flopped it on the chaise in front of Mom. Dad started to
pull out his pocket knife to cut the paper open, but stopped when
we protested.
He sighed a little, but humored us. He got his finger under
the topmost layer and unwound, unwound, unwound while Mom
made jokes about our lack of wrapping skill.
She and Dad were still laughing at that until Dad stopped laughing,
stopped breathing for a second. His hand had hit fur, just a little
patch peeking through. He sat there goggle-eyed. Mom kept
chuckling for a minute. She said, “What is it?” coyly until she
noticed he wasn’t frozen with excitement.
Then she said, “What is it?” more urgently and craned her neck
to see what we’d given her.
She caught a glimpse of short fur. Her elbow gave out, her
head plopping back down on the pillow with a whoomp, all the air
rushing out of her. She and Dad shared the same vacant expression.
We sat there, fidgeting in anticipation. I was unsure whether
we’d done something really good or really bad.
Dad started to finish unwrapping Zeke, right there in front
of Mom, real slow, still with the dumbfounded expression on his
face. He peeled back the last layer completely, exposing Zeke’s
9
underbelly. Zeke’s face and rear were still concealed in the bunchedup duct-taped ends.
Mom’s chest hitched. She screamed, and then used her free
hand to try to pull Zeke out completely. We saw then that he’d
shit and pissed and thrown up everywhere. All those fluids had
frozen, making the wrapping paper impossible to remove neatly.
Everything was starting to thaw out, opaque, runny liquids
dripping between the folds of wrapping paper onto Mom’s chaise.
The hair on Zeke’s appendages was ripped out around where
the tape was, the innermost layer of wrapping paper torn in places.
There were two spots on his back legs where the skin had ripped
off in long strips. Zeke’s vomit had covered his face completely.
His eyes were glazed off-white with the frozen puke. The strings of
Christmas lights reflected in the sheen there, turning his eyes into
constellation maps for us to decipher.
Mom just went on screaming. There was no question anymore
as to whether we were in trouble. Jake and I cringed, preparing for
punishment.
Dad said, “Hush, Barbara.”
Mom’s screams slowly became words.
“You fucking kids, what the fuck is wrong with you? Simon,
ground them, no spank them, no beat them until they can’t move,
fucking Goddamn kids, that dog is the only thing I’ve loved since I
got him—“
“Hush, Barbara.”
“—I’m here all alone all fucking day, Zeke is the only one
who—”
“That’s enough, Barbara.”
“Why aren’t you doing anything, Simon? Get a towel or a box
or something, for Christ’s sake—”
“Hush, Barbara!”
Mom’s head snapped back a little like she’d been slapped. She
stared at Dad for a minute and then resorted to crying silently. Jake
and I were afraid to look at either of them, too afraid to move or
run. We looked at our hands in our laps.
Dad stood, took Zeke from Mom and carried him to the
10
kitchen sink. He came back with a towel and some air freshener to
try to take care of the mess in front of Mom. He told Jamie to go
back to bed, kissed Mom on the forehead and said he would bury
Zeke out back later. He spread the towel out where Zeke-as-present
had been and told Mom to go to sleep, too.
So then it was just us: me and Jake and Dad.
Dad picked each of us up, one in each bear-arm, and took
us over to his wide recliner. He sat down with us there and we
snuggled up on either side of him.
He said, “Do you understand what happened to Zeke?”
Jake said yes, but I said no. I actually did understand, but I
wanted to hear what Dad said. I just wanted to hear him talk to us.
So Dad explained consequences and death. He talked about a
snake he cut open once, and how he found his father shotgunned
to death in the alley behind his business. He talked about the
Holocaust and crime rates in the city and cancer.
He talked about Mom’s diabetes and Jamie and what will
eventually happen to everyone, including us. Sitting there with
him, curled into his soft side with his arm around me, feeling the
rumble of his voice against my warm cheek, I fell fast asleep.
AUTHOR BIO: Rachel Kimbrough is a writer and single mother
who writes short horror stories and nonsensical narrative nonfiction
somewhere in the Midwest.
Zeke Stargazing was originally published in The Rag Issue 5.
11
12
D-GEN
by Timothy Ghorkin
“Give me your money, or I’m calling the cops.”
Confused and terrified, the girls immediately begin unclasping
their purses.
Here I am again extorting a bunch of rich college kids for
money—this time it’s girls and for underage drinking. Most people
wouldn’t expect the scion of America’s ruling class to be dumb
enough to fall for a scam like this one. These kids are supposed to
be smart—reflective of the cunning and wherewithal of America’s
most ruthless white-collar criminals. They should be on to me by
now.
But heredity is meaningless without the context of
environment, and this is what happens when you’re raised in an
environment completely removed from the inherent cruelty of the
world—you learn nothing. You’re a born victim and your naïve,
unconditional respect for authority has bent you to the will of a
man who makes $9 an hour.
That’s me.
A bachelor of arts, four years in my field and now I’m a security
guard. This is what happens when you’re trying to make your way
in the world during the biggest economic crisis since the Great
Depression.
I know I’m not the only one. Everywhere I turn it seems
someone is getting fucked somewhere. It’s like the entire world is
running bad. Tsunamis, oil spills, earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns,
cholera, unemployment, inflation. Greece is offering a 98% yield
on their treasury bonds. And then there’s me, trying to take money
from the kinds of girls I’d rather be taking innocence from. It
smacks of austerity.
I don’t actually enjoy this. I tell myself that I wouldn’t be
doing this if I didn’t have to. I also wouldn’t be a security guard
if I didn’t have to. In fact, I wouldn’t really do anything for $9 an
hour unless I absolutely had to. So maybe there’s a lesson in social
13
equality here—maybe not. But who needs dignity when you’ve got
minimum wage.
As the girls dig deep for the cash, I can already see that one
of them has over 200 bucks on her. Adrenaline is immediately
dumped into my bloodstream.
One of the them looks up at me with sad, puppy-dog eyes and
offers an excuse, “All I have are credit cards,” she whines.
“How many?” I ask.
“Um ... ten?”
“Listen,” I scold her, “Do you want to pay me, or do you wanna
get locked-the-fuck-up? That means jail, sweetheart.”
Tears begin to well up in her eyes and her lower lip quivers,
“But I really don’t have any cash, I swear,” she whimpers.
“Well, I’m sure you can get a cash advance. There’s an ATM
right over there.”
Suddenly a glimmer of hope lights up in her expression and she
smiles like everything might be ok after all. “Oh, right.”
“I’ll stay here with your friends. If you bolt, I’m taking them all
in for underage drinking. That’s a felony in this state; that shit goes
down on your permanent record.” She immediately begins trotting
off toward the ATM in those short little choppy strides only $600
stilettos can allow.
As I’m patiently leaning against the ungodly expensive granite
wall of the humanities building, waiting to get paid, a campus cop
rolls by. I wave to him and he nods back with approval, as though
I might actually be doing the right thing. “And they say chivalry is
dead,” I mumble under my breath.
All four young ladies just stand there perched up on their toes
in their little black heels, trying to understand just what the fuck is
going on, though none of them say a word. This is typical though;
the richer and whiter they are, the fewer questions they ask.
The tight little number in the $600 pumps comes trotting
back in less than 5 minutes, with what looks like over a thousand
dollars gripped in her tiny, French-manicured claws. “Holy shit!”
I accidentally blurt out in front of them. Before allowing them all
to catch on to the possibility that none of this ever had to happen
I snatch the money from her soft little hand. My eyes are like
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Frisbees. “Thanks!” and I begin to walk away. As I vacate, I can hear
them all whispering, “What the hell was that?” and “What’s that
guy’s problem?” and so on.
But any moron can see it’s pretty clear what my problem is. I’m
a white, educated heterosexual American male in his prime and I’m
a fucking security guard. My problem is that I’ll never attain the
social status required to get close enough to fuck you—that’s my
problem.
Tonight I’ve successfully exploited one of the fundamental
rules of the system: no act of pillaging goes without a rebate. Ask
the Rockefellers. It just so happens, that I’m getting mine from
their granddaughters tonight—and when I’m done, the sharks in
Atlantic City will get theirs, then the drug dealers and pimps, and
round and round she goes. This is our way of life—one massive
derivatives market. A zero sum game. Nothing created, nothing
lost. Just the fruits of some dead generation’s efforts changing hands
over and over—ripened, bruised and ultimately spoiled by the
cycle. In times like these it’s hard not to wonder when this great
whirlwind of seemingly endless supply will finally lose momentum.
We might all indeed have to get real jobs again.
But for now it’s time to go to Atlantic City and give it right
back to the fuckers. Tonight’s score totals over $1700. That’s one
buy-in for the $5/$10 no limit game. If I can run it up to $10-15k
I can drop down to $2/$5 and take another shot at playing poker
for a living, or maybe just take a few months off from work. Why
would I try anything else—look for a marginally better job, or
try to “improve” myself? What the fuck for? I’m blue collar. Part
time. Limited tort. I’m not exactly prone to assume overwhelming
responsibilities. I take the path of least resistance.
D-Gen Transit
The last train from 30th St. Station to Atlantic City leaves at
midnight. It will get me there just in time for all of the wasted
drug dealers and gang bangers at the Taj. Since I have a few extra
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dollars in my pocket, I decide to take a cab to 30th St. As soon as I
close the rear passenger side door, the man behind the wheel starts
barking at me about “end times.” Here we fucking go. “It’s comin,”
he says. “You can see it in people’s faces. It’s in the wind. But as
long as you one with God, everything gonna be alright.” He turns
his head and looks back at me for 5 solid seconds while speeding
onwards, and I’m about half sure that both of us are going to be
“one with God” by the time this cab ride is over. I tell the goodhearted, insane man not worry about God, but to watch out for the
people—particularly the ones on the street. I know his situation is
different from mine, in that I’m coherent and sane, but something
horrible inside me says he might be right.
I end up nervously paying $20 for an $8 cab fare and sprint
toward the dented brass doors of 30th Street Station. 12:01 a.m.:
All aboard the degenerate train to Atlantic City. The only lights at
the ends of these tunnels are neon and fluorescent, masking the
darkness or the mid-day sun so you have no idea what time it is.
You could have been here for days, weeks even. The place you’re
going to is the only place in America where the bartenders don’t
wear watches.
No one on the degenerate train is happy to be here. It’s full
of casino workers, drunks and deadbeats like me who can’t afford
to drive. It’s not like a jetliner to Las Vegas, where everyone in the
cabin is talking with excitement, perfect strangers glad-handing
each other, musing over good times and the sick rolls they had last
time at the craps tables.
The degenerate train holds no bounds for sorrow and despair.
The majority of these people are going to be playing slots. No one
says a word to anyone. There are no well-dressed, beautiful, whiteass people on this train. We all just sit and frown and sulk in the
reality that there is no turning back because this is the last train out
and there’s no way home for another 8 hours. You now have no
choice but to gamble all night long. You’re stuck here till daybreak.
I didn’t even change out of my security guard uniform. I don’t even
care.
When I get to the Taj I’m immediately seated in the $5/$10
no limit game. I turn off my phone so the ol’ lady doesn’t call
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and break my concentration—complaining at me, reprimanding,
judging, forcing bad vibes into my ears, my brain, down my spine
and into the cards in my hand.
As soon as I sit down I notice the game is packed with some
serious action; they’ve put a $5,000 cap on it rather than the usual
$2k. Half of the players at the table are drug dealers. 3 Sharks. 2
Nits who ran good earlier in $2/$5, and me, the only dumb mother
fucker trying to take a shot with one buy-in.
In less than ten minutes I’m heads up with this white trash
drug dealer from Northeast Philly. When I saw him sit down I
noticed he had a diamond-studded belt buckle in the shape of a
human skull. He’s got a black Phillies cap on and he’s sporting one
of those thin chinstrap beards. He clearly has money, but judging
by his dress sense, his vocabulary and his 5 cell phones laid out on
the rail in font of him he doesn’t exactly work for Goldman. He’s a
different kind of criminal: the kind that goes to jail.
Anyway, I just flopped top pair with the nut flush draw, which
is eons ahead of his shoving range. He leads into me for an over bet
of $200. I raise him 3x. He snap-shoves, which is less than a minraise to cover me, so I call.
The dumb bastard turns over mid-pair. A wave of relief washes
over me. My hand is actually good, and I still have a flush draw if
some bullshit hits the Turn.
The Turn is a blank so I exhale another small sigh of relief. Just
one more pull, and I’m home free. I’ll have over 4 grand. That’s
enough for a down payment on a new, used car.
But I’ve forgotten one of the fundamental rules of luck: you
can never get it when you need it. The dealer pulls the River and
suddenly there’s a sharp sting resonating through my face, neck and
fingertips as I see his third 6 hit the board.
I lose.
I tell him “nice hand,” and quietly get up to leave the table. He
doesn’t say anything or even look up at me—just drags the pot like
he doesn’t even give a shit about winning $1700 in 30 seconds. He
probably makes that much a day destroying kids’ internal organs
with the ibuprofen in them Yellow Buses he sells. Must be nice.
It’s now just after 1 a.m. and all my money’s gone. I have $20
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left, which is enough for a plastic pint of vodka and a train ticket
back home. So I go grab the pint at the liquor store and take the
Jitney back to the train station. 6 more hours till boarding time.
I buy my ticket and take the seat furthest away from all the
bums, waiting to make sure no one’s looking between sips so
I’m not asked to share. As I go to take my first piss in the station
bathroom, there’s an emaciated bum bathing in the sink, with a
14” limp dick hanging about 3 inches from the floor. Jesus Christ.
The sight of it makes me feel queasy. Threatened. Scared. Some
irrational fear rises up in me like he might strangle me with it if I
let down my guard. I’m really not the insecure type who worries
about his manhood, but I mean if a guy can’t make it in the world
with a 14” limp dick, then where does that leave me? I hurry up
and get the fuck out of there without washing my hands.
After coming back from the bathroom and reclaiming my seat,
I see another crazy fuck getting into an argument with a fellow
degenerate over a cigarette. The crazy fuck asks if he can have one.
The d-gen says no. The crazy fuck states his case—that the only
thing he wants in the world right now is “just one lousy fucking
cigarette,” because there’s nothing else in his life that’s remotely
within his reach. But the d-gen sticks to his ruthless capitalist
upbringing—“They’re my cigarettes, and I have the right to them
because I paid for them,” and so on. Then the d-gen tells the crazy
fuck to go fuck himself. So the crazy fuck pulls a little pocket knife
and stabs the d-gen about five or six times in the abdomen with it.
The d-gen and his cigarette hit the floor and the crazy fuck picks up
the smoldering butt from the ground. Inhales. Thanks him for it
before causally vacating the station.
I guess this is where I’m supposed to call the cops. I call the
cops and they arrive with a default ambulance in tow, which I
totally forgot to request. So I tell my drunken version of the story,
and the whole scenario kills about 2.5 hours easy, so I relax and
finish the rest of my pint on the bench. The cops and the bleeding
d-gen are all gone, so now it’s just me and the bum with the python
dick. Before I know it, it’s 6 a.m., and the first train out comes
rolling in. Out of nowhere, all of the same faces that got off with
me last night come filing back into the station. We’ve left our
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money here, so now it’s time to go back home.
At the end of the line, I’ve discovered that I’ve passed out in my
seat as the ticketer smacks me on the foot to wake me up. “Last
stop,” he says without looking back as he passes. I immediately
check my pockets to make sure no one had picked them while I was
sleeping, then I begin to panic as I reach in and find nothing. After
a few seconds of frantic searching I stop and remember that I had
nothing when I got on because I lost it all, which sends a weird,
mixed feeling of relief and despair all at the same time.
When I step out of 30th St. Station it’s pouring rain and I’m
completely sober. This was not supposed to happen. I was hoping
the bus ride back would be a drunk one with a rising sun. But I also
realize that I don’t even have enough money for a bus token. Time
to walk home.
The Ol’ Lady
I’m fairly certain that my ol’ lady would leave me if either of us
could afford it. We have a lease. It’s sort of like a marriage, but one
that has to be renewed every year if you’re still into it. But even
then, we live so closely from paycheck to paycheck that I doubt
either of us could really scrape enough together to afford the first,
last and security deposits to get our own places, or even a truck
rental for that matter. So we’re stuck here. Together.
It wouldn’t be so bad if she would just fuck me once in a while.
No foreplay, conversation or dinner. Just opens her blouse, pulls
down her pants and takes a warm fleshy seat right on my hog.
That’s all I want, just once a month. But then I hear shit like ...
“My body doesn’t work like that.” And “I’m not just some fucking
hole for you to stick it in.” Then, swirling some warm cheap vodka
in a thrift store coffee cup I say something stupid like, “Come on
baby, I know you’re not just some hole for me to stick it in ... you’re
actually three holes for me to stick it in.” Door slams. And I’m left
wondering if she’d still be here had I only said two holes. Whatever.
She’ll be back. She doesn’t really have a choice. She’s financially
enslaved to be my girlfriend.
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Anyhow, none of this is in any way her fault. I really am like
an autistic child when it comes to relationships. So long as I have
someone to curl up to at night after drinking off the dismal reality
of my day-to-day existence, and so long as I can get at least one
handjob every 2.5 days, I’m good. I seriously don’t need anything
else. I don’t need anything “deeper” or someone truly “special.” She
doesn’t have to be fucking gorgeous or unbelievably charismatic. I
don’t really even need to ever talk to her. Just pay half the rent and
let’s screw once in a while. Why can’t it be that simple?
So I have a girlfriend and I don’t get laid and I’m a security
guard. What are my options? Someone to share a lease with who
will occasionally fuck me if she’s wasted enough. Unlimited access
to internet pornography and cheap alcohol. That’s about it. I keep
telling myself, “It’s only temporary.” But we in Philly. And Philly’s
a lot like prison: there’s a lot of black dudes, everyone’s stuck here,
and there are NO girls.
It takes almost an hour and a half to get back to my apartment, and
I’m so soaked I had to grab one of those little plastic baggies at the
dog-shit-clean-up station on the corner of one of the newly hypergentrified neighborhoods just to keep my phone from getting wet.
When I finally get back to the apartment, I try to open the door,
but I’m blocked by something dense and hard.
And this is the truth: You know your ol’ lady is unhappy when
you come home in the morning and she’s passed out behind the
door, face first on the carpet marinating in her own piss, her phone
stuffed into a container of left-over Chinese food. I pick her up,
peel off her pissy jeans and toss her drunk ass onto the bed, then
walk out to the living room.
I check the time on the computer since I don’t have a watch
anymore. It’s 9 a.m., which means the Cambodian deli is open,
which also means I can get a 40. Time to raid the change jar. “Malt
Liquor” is a generous, perhaps misleading term. There is absolutely
no malt or barley in this shit at all. It is diluted corn liquor with
seltzer bubbles. That’s what you get for $2.50. You also get plenty
drunk on two of them if you can finish them before the bottoms
get warm.
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So I run out to the deli still dripping with rain water, and as
I purchase my two 40s with a fist full of quarters and dimes, the
Cambodian behind the bullet-proof glass shakes his head at me
in disapproval as he takes my money—looks at me like, “What’s
your excuse, white man?” Like if he were only white, he would do
so much more with his existence in this country than what I’m
doing with mine right now. Before leaving I decide to splurge and
buy a 50-cent bag of hot cheese popcorn. The mere thought of the
shit I will produce after putting all of this garbage into my body
sends a shiver up my spine, and then the Cambodian man looks at
me with sympathetic eyes, like I might actually have some sort of
neurological disorder.
When I get back to the apartment I go into the bedroom to
check on the ol’ lady, and the entire room reeks of drunkmouth,
which means I know she’s still breathing. Suddenly, sick and twisted
thoughts begin to work their way into my head, as I wonder what
the boundaries of rape actually entail. Is it still rape if you’ve been
with her for 4 years and she’s passed out drunk? She probably wouldn’t
care. She might actually prefer it that way, if it keeps me off of her for
a few more waking days. In a brief moment of clarity I decide to not
rape her, and slam the door closed in self-disgust before walking
back out to the living room.
I reboot the computer and begin watching some stupid,
pro-manatee documentary on Netflix as I drain my first 40 like a
Gatorade after running a marathon. I’m not even listening to the
words in this film—just watching the fat, complacent creatures roll
around happily in the water, occasionally getting totally fucked up
by some white trash Floridian in a motor boat—gallons of blood
muddying crystal blue waters like a torn-open oil rig in the Gulf
of Mexico. As I’m rounding the corner on my second 40, I notice
the bottom is still ice cold, and the twinge of a fast and dirty drunk
begins to rise up inside me. I can feel my thoughts turning to
complete garbage. I pause the manatees, as I now officially don’t
care, and begin pounding nonsense into Google.
Do boobs float?
Why am I like this? Is it because I was born in the 1980s to
a single mother? Spent my childhood smoking cigarettes on the
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devil’s backbone instead of playing little league? Raised in a dark
living room lit by a TV that sat on the floor. Shitty video games.
AIDS, Madonna, Reganomics. No Cold War, no hard times to
force me to worry about and cherish the endless possibilities of
what the future might bring. Just 10-year-old shag carpeting left
over from the ‘70s and plenty of junk food, carbonated sugary
beverages and TV. Where did this world come from? Who signed
off on this shit? I look around every day and watch how people
behave—in traffic, at the bar, bullshitting each other at work,
drinking 64-oz. sodas and eating fast food right over open bags
pinched between the knees. I see all of this and I just wish to Christ
gray aliens would come down here and take my ass away to some
far more sane and advanced civilization, where there’s no such thing
as money or security guard jobs or traffic or other people—just sex,
beer and technology.
These sorts of thoughts have been occurring a lot lately and
it’s probably not a good sign. Almost every morning after work, I
just sit there alone with my 40-oz. of shitty corn beer, just waiting,
hoping the fucking aliens will take me. But every time I wake up
there’s no spaceship, or truth, or unfathomable technology—just a
digital alarm clock buzzing in my face and a horrible pressure in my
bowels.
I finish up my second 40—the last ounce just as cold as the
first—and scarf down all the hot cheese popcorn before heading
to bed. I stumble back into the bedroom where the ol’ lady is still
passed-the-fuck-out, but this time I can’t smell any drunkmouth—
not because she’s stopped breathing, but because for the past hour
the same smell has been right under my own nose. So I curl up next
to the half-alive body, jam my pelvis into her rear end, and give up
once again, defeated.
The Suite Hotel
The Suite. This is my job. It’s about 33.333% of why I hate my
life—it’s no coincidence that it consumes a third of my day.
The Suite might be one of the worst places to work in America.
Companies like these are part of an increasingly-popular Labor
22
Capital paradigm, where the unstated mission is to exploit
cheap labor in order to cut expenses and inflate the bottom line.
Companies like these go out of their way to hire from a broad
spectrum of cultural backgrounds and ethnicities, operating under
the guise that they are a bastion of equal opportunity employment.
They tout a diverse and progressively multi-cultural staff, where
every employee has an equal chance at success.
The real motive behind this paradigm however, lies in a
pessimistic assumption that pulling from a broad spectrum of
ethnic backgrounds will pose social barriers between workers, in
which case they will be less likely to have common values and will
therefore be less likely to coalesce and form labor unions. It’s all
part of a broader scheme to save money, maximize utility and make
more money.
For instance, once they hired security, they fired the bellman.
So I’m a security guard in one respect, but guess who’ll be
delivering your towels and blankets if you ring the front desk
after midnight. This way The Suite gets a huge discount on their
insurance by planting a deterrent, and at the same time, eliminating
5% of their entire staffing expense. This of course means they have
me running around like a Mexican, delivering pillows, sheets,
candied mints and whatever other bullshit a drunk, annoying South
Jersey hotel guest can think of at 2 in the morning. What’s worse
is when a guest looks through the peephole and sees the security
guard instead of the bellman, they immediately get nervous and
forget to tip.
It’s Friday again, and just like every night, I park my shitty car
way in the back and roll into the hotel lobby about 10 minutes late,
secretly hoping that one day they’ll use it as grounds to fire me, but
as far as I can tell no one in management even knows I exist—I’m
just another write-off come tax season. I casually clock in and head
back to the front desk to stare at all the girls I’ll never fuck, then
Dave from engineering comes waddling through to give me the
lowdown on the degenerate scum they’ve packed into this place for
yet another god-awful Guido wedding reception.
“Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you tonight,
buddy. I saw one kid from the wedding party all gacked-up on coke
23
or crank or whatever the hell the kids are on these days. When he
came through a few hours ago I could actually hear the sonofabitch
grinding his teeth. He’s a big, ugly bastard, too. So be careful.”
“Great,” I tell him.
“Also,” he says. “You’re on fire watch tonight because floors 5, 8
and 10’s smoke detectors aren’t working.”
“Fuck ‘em. Let ‘em burn,” I say under my breath as I stare at
some hot, over-tanned young lady in 6” candy apple red high heels.
“Huh?” he says.
“Nothing. Have a good night, Dave.”
After milling around the lobby, waiting for the hotel manager
to leave, I run up to the second floor where all the empty “salons”
are and lock myself inside to take a nap. In just minutes I’m fast
asleep and dreaming of a better life, then almost immediately I’m
awakened by the squawk of the Walkie. “Security, come in.”
“Go ahead,” I groan.
“There’s people stuck in the elevator.”
What the fuck! How?
I sit up, slap myself in the face a few times to wake up and
then “spring into action.” I casually walk downstairs to the lobby,
“Where are they?” I ask Mindy, the Jamaican-night-auditor-chick.
“They stuck between floors 4 and 5.”
I grab the key and run up the stairwell to the fourth floor and
manually open the exterior doors with the elevator key.
“Hello, can you hear me?” I yell into the giant steel trap—the
interior doors look like a massive iron safe.
A bunch of youthful, annoying voices yell back, “Hello! What’s
going on in here? What’s happening?”
“Um ... you’re all stuck in the elevator,” I say.
“Oh my God! Not even funny right now, bro. What the fuck!”
and so on.
“Hold on.” I tell them between laughs, “I’m going to try and
get you out.”
“Hurry, it’s so hot in here. Oh my Gawd, we can barely
breathe.”
I try pulling the doors apart with my hands but they’re too
heavy, so I run down to the engineering room and grab a crowbar.
24
I run back up the stairwell and by the time I get there I can hear
desperate sobs from inside the massive steel cage. I pop the crowbar
in and pry it to one side, and the doors come flying open. Everyone
gasps for air, and all the girls who had been holding it in for the
sake of enclosed mass hysteria immediately burst into tears. As I
stand to one side I’m watching these idiots file out of the elevator
and it seriously looks like one of those circus cars where like 40
clowns come out of a 2-passenger vehicle. These morons actually
just stuffed 12 people into an elevator where the maximum load
capacity is 5 patrons. There’s even a big sign that says so, staring
you in the face as you enter.
One of the jockish-looking douchebags decides he’s going to
approach me about the situation even though I’ve just saved his
worhtless fucking life. “What the fuck took you so long, bro?”
“Apathy,” I say casually as I shrug and pick the dirt from my
fingernails.
“What? Are you fucking serious? I’m going to talk to your
fuckin’ manager tomorrow, dude. I’ll fuckin’ have your job, bro.”
I blurt out in laughter at him as rage fills up in his eyes, “Go
ahead.” I tell him. “Why don’t you also tell them that you broke
their elevator by ignoring the maximum capacity sign inside the car.
I’m sure they won’t mind billing you for the damages.”
“Fuck you,” he tells me.
“Have a nice night,” I say.
All of the morons in the elevator were apparently from tonight’s
wedding party—all dressed up in big fluffy gowns, tuxes with tacky
silver threading in the vests. What a buzzkill it would have been
for the bride and groom had I just left them all to die of CO2
poisoning right there in the elevator. But if I decide to change my
mind later, I hear the fire alarms are broken on floors 5, 8 and 10
tonight.
Extorting Again
Spring is here again, which means the school year is over. This is the
most socially poignant time of year: it’s when all the kids unload
their expensive Ivy League trash all over the streets after cleaning
25
out their campus apartments and all the poor people from West
Philly come out of the shadows to pick through the mounds of
half-broken Ikea furniture and empty beer kegs in hopes of finding
a few partially-functioning electronics, old DVDs or slightly
outdated audio equipment. Trickledown Economics. Whoever said
Reagan was a financial charlatan clearly missed this demographic
evidence. Since most of the kids have gone back home, the
University cuts back on security presence in the summer and as
a result, the few kids that stay here for the summer semesters are
generally unprotected—from me. And they’re usually drunk. This is
actually the best time to practice my craft—the traffic is low, but so
is the risk and the pickin’s are prime.
I cast my net and I mill around a relatively active frat house
near a six-pack shop. Almost immediately, I spot a small group of
clear pushovers. These kids never knew it, but they’ve had it coming
their entire lives, and they’re all clearly underage.
I stop them cold with a hand in their face, like a traffic cop.
“Alright, here’s how it breaks down; it’s a $300 fine for underage
drinking and a night in the tank—that means jail—and it all
goes down on your permanent record.” I can hear the pre-law kid’s
asshole tighten like a shipyard’s rope. “Or ... you can each cough up
the dough right now and I won’t have you busted.”
Tonight’s score has only afforded me enough for about 2 buy-ins in
the $1/$2 game—fucking academic scholarships. I’ve been having a
bad month in general so I’ve recently dropped down in stakes. The
sustained losses have been screwing with my head. I’ve been having
horrible thoughts lately—wondering things I shouldn’t, like, “How
many buy-ins is my car worth?” Last night when I went to get
Chinese food I swear to Christ I heard the Chinese man behind the
counter ask me if I wanted “Donk Sauce.”
When I get off the train, instead of taking my 2 buy-ins to the
$1/$2 game like I’d originally planned, I decide to take another
shot and buy-in short for $2/$5.
Why not?
In less than half an hour I’ve already 3-bet myself into a pretty
nasty spot. Heads up with some wiry black dude wearing a pair of
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ugly shades that reflect every visible color of the electromagnetic
spectrum. I attempt to look into his eyes to get a read, but all I
can see is the fear in my own face reflecting back in his tasteless
Oakleys. “I’m all in,” I say with the conviction of a seasoned
Catholic priest.
“I call,” he says.
Fuck.
Here goes another payday and a night spent in the fucking
train station. As I stand up ready to leave, to my surprise I hit
runner/runner and take down a pretty decent pot. 4 hours later, I’m
up over a thousand bucks. So I decide to call it quits, telling myself,
there’s no fucking way I’m spending the night in the train station
again. That shit is for losers, and tonight I’ve won, goddammit. So I
grab a room.
I haven’t been laid in over 6 months, so resisting the hotel’s
adult movie selection isn’t even really an option right now. I jack off
about three times, try for a fourth, but fail, and in a stint of postmasturbatory shame I decide I need to get drunk. Just to help me
sleep. The bar’s too expensive and I want to keep my money so I zip
up and make for the nearest liquor store, which is only about three
blocks from the casino. I take the elevator down to the lobby, and
on my way toward the exit I see several floor and security personnel
attempting to restrain a 65-year-old man from strangling one of the
black jack dealers. It’s way too early in the morning to cope with
this kind of information—4:30 a.m. and apparently there’s still
plenty of action.
Within two hours I’m so drunk I can’t even sleep. I’ve got the
squirms and the spins so bad I feel like I’ve just eaten an entire
bottle of baby aspirin—not enough to kill me, unfortunately, but
enough to feel utterly poisoned. As I sit there drooling on my
pillow watching the sun get higher and higher from the little crack
in the curtain, my stomach gets even sicker with the apprehension
of what the day will bring. The housekeeping lady will be knocking
on my door in less than 4 hours telling me I need to leave. I’ll
have the whole day ahead of me to deal with trying to get home,
arguing with the ol’ lady and attempting to function at work later
27
in the evening with a pain in my head and a burning in my gut.
I go sit on the toilet and light a cigarette in attempt to induce the
diarrea that will inevitably come so I won’t have to deal with it later.
Planning ahead. But of course nothing happens except for the onset
of yet another goddamn anxiety attack. In a panic I find a pen and
paper and a used a piece of gum stuck to the underside of the hotel
room desk. I use the gum to stick a $100 bill to the back of the Do
Not Disturb sign with a little note that reads—“just 3 more hours,
that’s all I need.”
Sarah
I’ve been dreaming about her again. This is never good—my
subconscious needling me over a woman I’ll never have. She didn’t
have big naturals. Her legs and ass were not that great—she had a
reader’s body. But her smile—the only time I’ve EVER jerked off to
just a woman’s smile—and that is how you know it’s love.
I asked her only once, and when she said “no” I staged a
drinking strike—it’s kind of like a hunger strike, but where you
refuse to stop drinking until your demands are met. For 72 hours
straight, I drank and called her office and emailed her, informing
her of the severity of the situation as it escalated. It got to the point
where the cops and EMTs had to get involved and I was rushed off
to like an emergency detox clinic. My parents had to fly in all the
way from Dallas, a restraining order was issued—not a good scene
at all.
Everyone on campus heard about it too. It really fucked her life
up for a while, because she was under review for tenure at the time.
Yes, she was an assistant professor and I was a student, but hey, love
is love even in the context of a total cliché. I thought the whole
ordeal was totally punk rock and equally romantic, but like always,
my efforts ended in epic disaster.
I tried. And failed. But that’s what I do. I’m fucking good
at it. It’s like an art form. I fuck up with such rigor and arduous
veracity—with such original style—it makes winners feel like
winning all the time is fucking gay. It makes them feel unoriginal
and dishonest with themselves. The personal sacrifice and risk of
28
humiliation involved in my art is so brutal, so socially reckless,
other guys can’t even fathom doing some of the shit that I do.
But she was worth it—she was made for me and she fucking
knew it. So I made society judge her for not being true to herself,
by poisoning my body and putting her in the limelight.
This is the END
I’m over 30 minutes late for work because I-76 is jammed to the tits
with unmoving automobiles—the radio says something about an
overturned tractor trailer and a bus full of kids. So I’m just sitting
there amongst the tens of thousands, seriously contemplating
suicide because my air conditioner’s broken. In front of me there’s
an old, shit-beaten Toyota Tercel, just like mine, with a bumper
sticker that reads ABORTION = LESS TRAFFIC.
It’s funny because it’s true.
When I finally get to work, I discover there’s another god-awful
wedding reception tonight. Tonight is also, incidentally, the day
of “The Rapture.” Jesus was supposed to come down from heaven
today and save about 3 million people and exterminate the rest of
us, but I guess he never came, because my ass is still here and not
even Jesus could love the people at this wedding reception.
From outside the banquet hall I watch the bride and groom as
they walk from table to table showing themselves off to their family
and friends. I look around at all of these married couples and it
floors me to realize how much I have nothing in common with any
of them. The differences are staggering. Is this what human love
actually looks like? I couldn’t even fake this kind of shit. Maybe
that’s why I have trouble fitting in—I’m no good at bullshitting.
Car salesmen, business people, even store clerks seem to play it off
legit. But I just can’t hack it. It’s like the entire world just doesn’t
“get me.” It’s impervious to my subtle humor. No one to laugh with
or share a cerebral moment. They just stare at the TV, as I’m left to
laugh hysterically at my own jokes.
At work today, Dave from engineering told me that he pulled
his back out on the job. I told him that I didn’t blame him. He
didn’t get it. He just stood there, hunched over the front desk,
29
staring off into the hotel lobby television, drifting away into
Cable space. People often say when they get divorced that their
relationships were missing the “little things.” Well it’s the “little
things” that humanity and I are missing.
And so tonight I have decided to divorce myself from all of it.
I’ve had enough. It’s over.
Tonight I’m going to do something so horrible... so
unimaginably heinous... and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop
me.
Tonight I’m going to shut down the electricity to this entire
fucking hotel in attempt to ruin this couple’s wedding. This will
send a message to the fire department that all the alarms have been
tripped, and when they call the front desk to see if everything’s
ok, no one will answer because the phones will all be dead after
I cut those off too. With a building this size, 2 entire counties of
firefighters will be notified. There will be at least 6 fire trucks on the
scene.
Man, if rain on your wedding day is ironic, I don’t even know
what the fuck this is.
The bride and groom walk out onto the center of the dance
floor as the DJ fires up yet another shitty John Mayer song. That’s
my cue. I walk back through the emergency stairwell, down to the
panel room where the massive buzzing transformer thrones and
bombards the second-floor guests with its leaking, high density,
cancer-inducing electrons. I stand there and gawk at the power I’ve
just assumed, as I place my hand over the black, rubberized lever.
Then, like a huge pussy, I begin to have second thoughts.
Maybe it’s no one’s fault but my own. Maybe life really is what you
make of it, and everyone has their own responsibility to find happiness
within themselves. Maybe it’s really none of my business if others
around me are happy with a world that I perceive as completely fucked
up and unfair and corrupt. And maybe the whole social-contract-thing
really is for everyone’s benefit, and no one deserves to be fucked with just
because some loser can’t find his way in the world.
But then, standing there with every ounce of remorse and
empathy oozing to the surface of my consciousness—just as I begin
to remove my hand from the lever—I hear the bass rhythms of the
30
fucking Electric Slide from the wedding party thrumming in my
ears and deep in my chest. My face instantly tightens up with rage.
I look up into the security camera, place my hand on the lever and
pull it down.
In an instant. Darkness. Silence. Peace.
As I casually vacate the premises, the father of the bride
comes running out after me into the parking lot. He’s screaming,
“Security! Security!” I completely ignore him and continue
walking as his tone becomes increasingly authoritative. “Ex-cuse
me! Security!” So I rip off my big yellow security windbreaker and
throw it on the ground as I head for the rear of the parking lot
where they make all of us park our rusted, beat-up, shitty little cars.
And I can already hear sirens off in the distance.
Tonight I’ve decided that I’m going to get wasted one last time
and in the morning I’m going to leave my ol’ lady. I will finally do
what she’s wanted me to do for the past 6 months. Like a chore
that I’ve been too lazy to get around to, like fixing the goddamn
dishwasher. When she finally comes home from work a warm wave
of comfort will flow through her. She will spread her arms like a
bird, throw herself onto the bed and smile knowing that tonight
it’s all hers. There will be only small gray dust piles where my few
things used to be—the only evidence that I was ever there, easily
swept away and forgotten. And like that, I’m gone.
I’ll need 4 six-packs to get the job done right.
With my uniform shirt and badge still on, ready for damage, I
head for the six-pack shop, the only thing open this late. It’s nearly
midnight and there’s hardly any action save for a sad little frat party
on the corner near my destination. I decide to walk by, and as I
stroll up to the façade, God himself drops some moronic, plastered
sorority girl right into my lap like fucking manna from heaven.
Stumbling wasted onto the street, all by herself, she looks up at
me and I glare back. As she tries to dart past in a panic, one of her
heels snaps like a toothpick underneath her—stops her dead. She
can’t be more than 19 years old. I would know.
She looks up at me again, teetering back and forth and whirling
about under drunken, uneven feet. I can see worried thoughts
swirling around inside her boozed-up skull by the way her eyes
31
nervously dart back and forth. And this is what every scavenger
must feel like when they’re lucky enough to find wounded prey.
She tries to make a run for it by brushing past me, sticking her
nose in the air like the way her mother undoubtedly taught her.
Not a fucking chance. I stop her cold by stepping in front of her
and pressing my palm into her shoulder. The authority I’ve just
assumed floors her, leaving her speechless and paralyzed with fear.
My heart races and the adrenaline starts teasing at my nerves. She
tries to avert my gaze by looking down, so I put my face in front of
hers so she’s forced to look at me. “You’re in big, big trouble, missy,”
I scold her. “You’ve been drinking and you’re clearly underage.”
She looks up at me like I just told her something about herself
that’s so odious—so ugly and true—it could cause her heart to
seize. She looks into my eyes, groping for mercy. And when she
finds none, her bottom lip starts to quiver and the mascara comes
raining down like a waterfall of wet ashes.
It’s all over.
What once belonged to Daddy is now mine.
AUTHOR BIO: Recently recovered from hard times, Tim is now living
‘The Life of Reilly’ in New York City as a croupier in an underground
card room. He works 3 nights a week, which is apparently enough
to sustain a relatively carefree and degenerate lifestyle of drinking,
gambling and writing. He is currently 2/3 of the way through his first
novel, which explores American poker culture and the insustainability
and absudity of the American Dream. He can be reached at
[email protected] to field any questions or complaints about his
work.
D-Gen was originally published in The Rag Issue 2.
32
DIRTY
by Patrick Million
“Goodbye Larry.”
Larry heard the rental car pull out of the sandy driveway as he
felt the back of his neck. His mullet was already starting to form. It
was pasted to his neck with sweat. A black, upside-down flame job.
He had been on the Saint John’s River for two and a half
months. He and Emily came down for her mother’s funeral. Emily’s
mother had conveniently died in early June, a week after Larry
finished grading his students’ theses. She died of throat cancer, and
the double-wide she left them smelled of the Marlboros that had
done her in.
At the wake, which took place at a riverfront bar, the nerve
center of a trailer park/marina called the Cactus Key, Larry’s wife
got drunk on Crown and Cokes and stuck her tongue down the
throat of her high school sweetheart in the hallway that led to
the restroom. Larry found her there, pressed against a cigarette
machine, staring dreamily into the eyes of Hank, the foreman at a
local fernery and driver of a brand new Chevy step-side.
Both Hank and Emily assured Larry that it was the liquor and
heightened emotions that come along with a loss like this.
“All bets are off.” Hank smiled knowingly at Larry, fanned his
callused fingers around Larry’s neck and ordered him another beer.
Larry looked at them both and thought about Florida being one big
aquifer. Even though the past is safely underground, it still bubbles
up now and then. It bubbles up sweet and cold and refreshing,
purified by time.
As Hank was justifying his and Emily’s inappropriate behavior
with provincial rhetoric, Larry scanned the room, uninterested.
He noticed a couple in the game room who had been watching
the whole affair. An occasional bartender Larry would later know
as Lonnie, a short man of about 30 with a button nose and a dark
mustache, stood behind Dawn, a skinny woman of about 50 with
dishwater-blonde hair, orange skin and a missing incisor. Lonnie’s
33
arms were threaded through her armpits, his fingers fanned across
what looked to be augmented breasts. They had mischievous,
almost threatening smiles on their faces.
After he left the bar Larry showed no sign of distress except
for sitting up the rest of the night at the double-wide, flipping
channels on the TV. Outside the sliding glass door, the ferns of
Central Florida whispered to each other, nudged each other and
occasionally doubled over in laughter at Larry in the light of a
crescent moon. He heard them and told them, aloud, “Shut up,”
before finally falling asleep.
Emily was very pleased with Larry for the next few days as he
showed no signs of resentment. To the contrary, Larry became
super relaxed, hardly getting dressed during the day, drinking a lot
of beer, letting his summer preparations for fall classes slide.
But when Emily mentioned the return flight, Larry promptly
said, “I ain’t goin’.”
There was a long pause before Emily said, “What?”
“I ain’t goin’. Stayin’ here.”
“I thought we agreed to have my cousin Pete sell this dump. I
don’t want to come back here. I spent twenty years waiting to get
out.”
“I just got here. And I’ll figure out how to catch me one of
them big catfish sooner or later.”
Emily sat down on the plastic-covered sofa and stared at Larry
in disbelief.
“Are you making fun of me? ‘Cause if you’re making fun of me,
it’s not very goddamn funny!”
Larry shook his beer can. “Beer me.”
“Beer your goddamn self. And while you’re at it, you can fuck
yourself too!”
Larry once picked up a notepad she had used for a grocery list.
Before the list of Italian parsley and organic milk were a few pages
journaling a trip to Italy she had taken a year before she met him.
One particular passage detailed how the trip to Sicily was three
hours by train, “but it would give me all the more time to stare
34
dreamily into Lorenzo’s eyes and drink the 1998 Sangiovese we
picked up at the little market near the train station.”
Larry was touched by her earnest attempts to rise above the wet
t-shirt contests at spring break, the flip-flops, the drunken, enraged
father, the beaten up pickup trucks and the image he had of her,
lighting a Marlboro Light, head tilted to one side, bare shoulders lit
by a steamy, white sun.
He watched her now through the window of the double-wide
as she left. She was dressed smartly. She wore linen clothes suitable
for traveling away from her roots.
And she smelled like Fendi perfume.
She pulled away down the hard packed sand, muttering,
certainly thinking of Lorenzo or Hank or anyone better than
him. He let the blinds flip back into place. She really came far, he
thought. Except for that temper.
For the next few weeks, he lurked among the ghosts of Emily. He
walked down the dirt road to the shack that she had pointed out to
him.
“That’s where I had my first kiss,” she said.
He imagined the smooth country boy, trembling, teasing,
moving toward her in laughter, until their laughter combined into
one muffled, sweaty moan.
Larry watched the girls at the Cactus Key game room,
laughing, joking, drinking beer, watching each other shoot. Their
boyfriends with baseball caps turned backward stood behind them,
their hands clasped around their girlfriends’ navels. Boyish chins
with soft blonde hairs resting on tanned Southern Girl shoulders.
“Fuck the bitch.”
“Excuse me?” Larry said looking up from a bowl of pork rinds.
“I saw it,” said Lonnie, drawing a beer for Larry, “and I could
tell it wasn’t arranged.”
“Arranged?”
“Your old lady. Wasn’t cool. Better she’s gone.”
Larry took a sip of his beer. Between the beer and sympathy, he
felt a flow of relief pour over his ribs and stomach.
Yeah … Fuck ‘er.
35
“Come hang out with us some time. We go down to Blue
Spring, to Key West. They know how to party down there. Hell
yeah.” Lonnie poured himself a drink and downed it.
Larry felt as if he had taken a baby step over the threshold
of the culture in which he now lived. And it was without Emily’s
guidance.
Lonnie’s relief showed up. Lonnie saluted Larry.
“Catch you on the flip-flop.”
Back in the double-wide, Larry stared at a college graduation
portrait of Emily. It was in the headboard above the bed they shared
for the last time. She was the first one from her family to attain a
college degree.
A panic seized Larry.
He called Emily’s cell. No answer. He called it again and it
immediately defaulted to voicemail. He called three more times.
Nothing.
Larry cracked open a bottle of wine and gulped. He stepped
onto the deck and found half a pack of Emily’s cigarettes wedged
into a potted begonia. He lit one. Then he called the next number
in his cell.
A sleepy voice answered, “Hello?”
“Hello Holden,” Larry said.
There was a moment of silence. “Jesus Larry, where the fuck
have you been?”
Larry told his friend what had happened.
When Larry was finished, Holden asked, “Are you coming
back or aren’t you? What are you doing, Larry?” Larry said nothing,
peered at the wine bottle and then took a good long drink. “At least
put in for a sabbatical,” Holden said. “There might still be time.”
Larry knew what he was doing. He knew what he needed.
He knew that at one brief moment, if not several, Emily was
comfortable among the pines and blue crabs of Florida. He knew
that somewhere inside her, the drawling, sunbaked, unfettered men
of the river were at least a psychological building block for what
makes a real man, if not the whole criteria. And he possessed none
of their qualities. But all he said was: “Gator. Must be a ten-footer.”
36
Larry swigged from a second bottle of wine, staring down the red
eyes that peered out from the river.
“Larry, I’m going to explain something to you. First of
all, you’re not going to learn anything there. And it is virtually
impossible to assimilate completely into a culture. Don’t give me
any crap about this being some sort of social experiment. Secondly,
the difference between a redneck and a peasant is dignity. Peasants
are stewards of the land they live off of. Rednecks don’t give a shit.
They kill and dig and raze and give the impression that they’re good
country people, but they’re not.”
“Aw don’t give me that shit. There are plenty of evil, drunken
motherfuckers in Tolstoy and Chekhov.” Larry lit another cigarette
off the butt in his fingers. “And you ended a sentence with a
preposition.”
A long silence passed.
“So she’s gone for good then?” Holden asked.
“That’s what she said.”
“And you’re there for good?” There was another long pause.
“Larry,” Holden said. “Larry, you are what you hate.”
Again, the only response was silence.
“Goodbye Larry.”
Larry took more broad gulps of wine. Then went back to
calling Emily’s number back home. He finally left a message: “I’m
sorry.”
He pressed the phone off. He drained his third bottle of wine,
standing in the living room of the double-wide. “I’m sorry I’m not
the man you wanted.” He smashed the phone with an empty wine
bottle and collapsed into the smoky couch.
Larry picked up a piece of the phone, the sad little keyboard
template. He took another swig of wine. He looked toward the
sliding glass door, toward the river, toward the thick, Southern pine
forests.
“And why did he do this stupid thing you ask? Mr. Alligator?
You want to know? Because he looked into the void of her heart
and saw it vast and impenetrable. He knew that his soft life was not
near enough for her. He did not have the gallantry, the ribaldry,
the Know of her Southern counterparts. And when they both
37
found this out, it was too late.” Larry addressed the reptiles floating
just outside the sliding glass door, but all that stared back was his
reflection in the glass against a backdrop of night. He threw the
template as hard as he could against the glass. He leaned back in the
sofa. “Too-oo late.”
The next morning he walked onto the deck with his coffee and
his liver pressed against his rib cage. He thought about Holden’s
contention that it was impossible to become a part of a different
culture. It occurred to him that if this were true, that would mean
that Emily was still a redneck. And it bothered him that she was
readily accepted in his circle of academia while he felt lost among
the pines and alligators. He tried to ignore the suspicious glances,
the slight air of hostility. Dueling Banjos often played in his head.
There was a small alligator, about four feet, on the beach
beneath the deck. He found a cigarette butt in the ashtray with
Emily’s lipstick on it. He held it a moment, studying it in the
morning sun. He threw it toward the gator, as if it were kibble. It
only blew back toward him.
He walked inside and made a Bloody Mary. He flipped on the
TV and watched the Today show for a while. He wondered how
Katie Couric would look in cutoffs and a tube top.
In the background behind Katie Couric and her special guest,
John Grisham, was Dean & Deluca. A powerful urge to wander
among the exotic culinary treasures of Dean & Deluca overtook
him. He thought he might be the only one for a hundred square
miles who knew which aisle one could find capers wrapped in
anchovies. Or a jar of sofrito. Larry wondered how John Grisham
would look with a mullet.
He shut his eyes hard and tried to stop this reverie. He knew
that it was dangerous, especially in this stage of his journey, to have
second thoughts.
If Jane Goodall had second thoughts, the chimps would have
smelled it and dismembered her.
He stood up, swirling the ice cubes in his Bloody Mary. Just
look at what happened to that poor Grizzly bastard up there in
Alaska.
38
He took a long pull off his Bloody Mary and felt the back of
his neck. His mullet was in full blossom.
He stared out the window at the cheap, rusted bicycle he
bought at what looked like a house that was continually having a
garage sale. He thought about the girl he saw the day he bought
it; a tanned, barefoot reckless girl buying Coors Light in the Food
King, her baby waiting impatiently in the car seat of a rumbling,
smoking, rusted Gran Torino.
Larry’s fascination with the culture to which he was trying to
assimilate was reenergized. His mission was clear.
He slid into his flip-flops, packed a fishing rod and a six pack
and took off down the white sand road to a cove he’d found while
riding his bike the previous week. He had to navigate some brush
and pines and keep his eyes peeled for alligators and snakes, but
he had seen swells in the water that suggested that the danger was
worth it.
While his attention was focused on tying his hook, he didn’t
notice that his feet and legs were overrun by fire ants. After several
moments of hopping and swearing, Larry popped his first beer and
threw his first cast.
While watching his bobber, he couldn’t stop feeling fear and
discomfort. He imagined footfalls, noticed vegetation bending
unnaturally, imagined dying from snake bite or alligator attack
and thought of how his body would never be found among the
sawgrass and reeds. If anyone ever came to look for it. The meat
of his body, flayed open by strong jaws, would be pink against the
unrelenting green. And he would stay pink in the humidity until he
finally succumbed to black and purple—a look of horror and pain
stretched taut across his sunbaked skull.
After an hour of having his bait removed from his hook by
these seemingly mystical fish, Larry was down to one beer and
about to call it a day. Off in the distance, he heard an outboard
motor getting closer and closer until the 30 feet of fiberglass blazed
from behind the point as the noise from the motor ceased. The
nose of the boat came to rest on its own wake as waves began to lap
39
at the shore.
It was Lonnie’s boat. Larry saw Lonnie spring from the captain’s
chair. He was wearing a mullet, a yellow Livestrong bracelet and
a neon orange thong Speedo. Lonnie knocked over his Budweiser
as he grabbed for a nickel-plated .38. He shot off six rounds at
something in the reeds, yelling “Hot damn!”
Dawn came on deck wearing nothing but a pair of unraveling
cutoffs. She lit a Kool. Lonnie reloaded.
Lonnie put three more shots in the water. He spooked a blue
heron with his shooting and the heron’s flight path went right over
where Larry was standing. Lonnie shot at the heron, sending bullets
cracking the air over Larry’s head. Larry hit the dirt. He hit the dirt
in the same fire ant mound that had tormented him earlier. He
jumped back up, hopping, swatting, yelling obscenities.
Lonnie ceased fire. He peered off the bow, past the blue cloud
of gunsmoke.
“Wha tha hayell?”
“Hello!” Larry waved a hand speckled with little red ant bites.
“What the hell you doin’ here boy?” Lonnie asked as they got
him on deck.
“Thought I’d catch me a fish.”
Lonnie looked at Larry’s tackle. He took the bobber in his
hand, then he peered up, looking at Larry like he had just caught
him telling a lie. “You should be usin’ a jig.”
Lonnie went to the cooler, tossed Larry a beer and swatted
Dawn on the ass. “Only thing you’re gonna catch out here is a gator
bite. Ain’t that right honey ass?” Lonnie sat in his captain’s chair.
He cracked open his beer and a blob of foam flopped into his belly
button hair. “Caught me a gator on that spot you were standing
about a year ago.”
“Fuck!” Larry leaned down and swatted some more ants he had
overlooked.
“Poor thing. Why don’t we take him on up to Blue Spring
Cove?” said Dawn.
“Good idea.”
Before Larry could say anything, Lonnie started the engine and
let it open, full throttle. Larry fell off balance and his face bounced
40
straight into Dawn’s bare, orange breasts.
The boat rose up like a giant fiberglass erection. The gun
skidded across the deck and Larry wondered if it would be like the
movies when all a gun had to do was be dropped or bumped or
kicked to discharge.
They bounced past the Cactus Key. Justin was on the deck,
putting up a banner that read: “Budweiser True. Welcome Bikers.”
Lonnie’s scrotum bulged out of his Speedo: profane, hairy,
pink, glistening. Dawn smeared Hawaiian Tropic on her breasts.
She did this with grace and ease, even as they skipped across the
choppy river.
Lonnie slowed the boat as they approached the cove and then
gave a little serpentine flourish to his path. The boat came to rest on
crystal clear water and trolled to a spot near a shady beach.
Lonnie dropped the anchor and immediately jumped into the
water and began playing with a blue crab. Dawn picked up the .38
in her thumb and index finger as if it were a dirty diaper or a dead
fish. She put it in a compartment. She shook her head, muttering,
“Boys with toys.” She poured herself a tall Crown and Coke in the
12:45 p.m. sun and offered Larry another beer.
Lonnie was just a few feet off the boat, in the water. But
when the orange, topless woman with a tear in her cutoffs right in
the fold of her buttocks offered him a beer, Larry felt the steamy
weight of Lonnie’s absence, of his wife’s absence and of his stint of
celibacy and blood began to swirl in his groin. There was a world
of difference between being on the deck of a boat and thrashing
around in the water below it.
Larry grabbed the beer, took a long pull and watched Lonnie
dive down deep again to play with the blue crab. Larry realized he
wanted to be the type of man who could disembark a boat without
as much as a fleeting thought about whether his woman was safe
with whom he left her on board.
Or, Larry thought, as he snuck a peek of the glistening pubes
that snuck out from under Dawn’s cutoffs, he wanted to be the man
she wasn’t safe with. He wanted to be the man who would push her
down, grab the throttle and send the gargantuan, fiberglass boner
gliding toward Cuba.
41
Larry pounded himself into a four beer buzz, realized he was
neither man, stripped down to his boxers and jumped into the clear
water of Blue Spring.
They passed the afternoon in the cove, swimming, drinking,
eating Fritos, listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and smearing mud
on themselves from a large puddle that bubbled up a few yards
inland. As time passed and more alcohol was consumed, playful
touching—between all three of them—occurred with greater
frequency. Toward the end of their visit to Blue Spring, Larry swam
off a few yards by himself, sat in the shade of a palmetto tree and
allowed himself to fantasize about Dawn.
In just a few minutes, Larry was on the verge of a deep sleep.
He had a massive erection bursting out of his boxers.
He was to the point in his drunken dream where Dawn said
“Fuck me” after a superhuman blow job when he woke with a start.
He realized he had actually heard the words “Fuck me.” He
looked behind him on the shore and saw a couple walking back
inland. The man, dressed in linen and wearing expensive looking
leather sandals, held a cooler. The man shot a glance back over his
shoulder at Larry. It was a very angry and disgusted glance. The
woman, also smartly dressed, shook her head and stared down at
the sand, a beach bag slung over her shoulder. It was one of those
canvas bags from an organic super market.
He looked down at his deflating boner, flipped it back into his
boxers and swam directly back to the boat.
“We should probably head back now, you think?” Larry said,
panting and wet on the deck.
Dawn lit a Kool. Lonnie passed Larry a joint.
“We was talkin’ the same thing,” Lonnie said, holding in the
smoke from his last drag. Larry took a hit. Dawn winked at him
and Lonnie swerved the boat out of the cove and aimed it straight
for the mound of green on the horizon where they all lived.
Larry was again on the verge of sleep when the boat rumbled
up to a dock. He was jerked awake when Lonnie barked, “Grab
that line, boy.”
Larry staggered onto the dock and tied up the boat. Dawn
42
stepped down and squeezed Larry’s ass as she walked by. Lonnie
flipped up the boat top and threw his thumb up. He didn’t need to
say anything. Larry saw the dark clouds like a nuclear holocaust and
the jolts of lightning bearing down on them.
The screen door clacked and Larry realized he wasn’t at home.
Lonnie was still in his Speedo. Larry was still in his boxers.
They entered the trailer. It was decorated with guns and stuffed
animals and beer posters with scantily clad women on them. Dawn
was not in the living room.
Lonnie got two beers out of the fridge, handed one to Larry
and sat down in his recliner. Larry sat on an old mustard-colored
plaid couch with fraying armrests. The trailer smelled like wet dogs
and rotten shitake mushrooms.
Larry noticed a Mickey Mouse phone sitting on a plywood
cable spool.
Lonnie tuned the TV to That 70’s Show and they watched for a
moment.
“That redhead is fine,” said Lonnie.
“Sure enough,” said Larry, stroking his mullet.
Larry caught a glimpse of Lonnie’s hand, ever so gently
gravitating to the bulge under his bright orange Speedo. He ran his
finger along the stitching, parting his thick black leg hair. A large
clap of thunder rattled the fixtures in the trailer.
Lonnie popped up from his seat and Larry was momentarily
relieved that Lonnie was no longer threatening to masturbate.
This relief was quickly dispelled when Lonnie leaned over and
popped a tape into the VCR.
The familiar, fraudulent sounds of porno replaced the
fraudulent sounds of canned laughter. Lonnie sat back down,
expressionless.
“You seen this one?” asked Lonnie.
“Uh. No.”
An average looking man received fellatio from two women on
the 15-year-old 19-inch Hitachi. The average looking man said
things like, “Slurp that popsicle, bitches.” And “Oh yeah, you’re a
sick little one aren’t you?”
43
These were things that Larry normally would have found funny.
Lonnie’s fingers went all the way this time, groping violently
under his Speedo. Larry took a long pull of his beer. His heart beat
hard. His face got red.
“Whyn’t you go see what Dawn is doin’?” Lonnie threw his
thumb back and motioned his head.
Larry immediately did what Lonnie suggested. He stood up,
walked to the bedroom and found Dawn masturbating on an
unmade bed.
He took down his boxers, feeling sand still in the cleft between
his scrotum and leg.
Shortly after entering Dawn, he felt a hard hand squeeze his
right buttock, then forcefully stroke his lower back.
He saw it was Lonnie. Larry moved his body, trying to shake
away Lonnie’s touch. Lonnie took the hint and moved around in
front of them and masturbated. He bit his lower lip and made the
same comments as the average looking man in the porno.
Larry finished quickly, pulled up his boxers and staggered into
the living room. He sat back down on the couch and finished his
beer.
He heard Lonnie growling, “You like that? He came in ya good
didn’t he?” The rain came down hard and Lonnie’s profanity was
exceedingly caustic to Larry’s ears compared to the pleasant sound
of the strong rain hitting the metal roof.
Lonnie soon came into the living room. His face was flushed
and serious. He was wearing a silk robe with a large red dragon
embroidered on the back.
He stopped the porno and put the TV back onto a sitcom.
They watched for a while, but Larry’s attention was focused on the
sound of the rain, which slowly ebbed. He tried to break the silence
by pointing to the Mickey Mouse phone. “I like your phone,” he
said.
A few very long seconds passed and Lonnie finally looked at
the phone.
“This old thing?”
Lonnie stood up and picked up the phone by Mickey’s legs.
“Old lady bought this at Disney World two years ago. Quit workin’
44
last year.”
He regarded it a moment, then brought it down on Larry’s
head.
A sick, off-key ring lingered in the air until Lonnie set the
phone back down in the little trapezoid where dust hadn’t collected.
Another clap of thunder rattled at the far end of the trailer. The
noise made Larry’s head hurt. There must have been a little nut or
screw on the bottom of the phone. Larry felt his head. There was an
inch long gash, a fleshy fault line already seething thick, hot, sticky
blood. Larry brought his hand down and looked at the tips of his
fingers. Lonnie sat down in his chair. His lips were thin and tight as
if he were trying to ignore something that was making him mad.
Larry stood up slowly and fell back into his chair. Lonnie didn’t
look at him. Larry tried again. Once standing, he wavered like a tall
building in a strong wind.
“I guess I’d better go,” Larry slurred. “It’s getting late.”
Larry stood there a moment awaiting a response. Then he
pushed out the screen door, a light rain still pelting the river. He
got his gear out of the boat, looked up and saw some blinds snap
back into place.
He headed up the road of hard packed sand. The rain fell
in pulses, mixing with the blood on his scalp. It streamed, faint
crimson, down his shoulders, dripped off his mullet and landed in
the center of his back.
A billboard along the side of the overgrown, steamy road
announced, “True Southern Hospitality: The Cactus Key! 5 mi”.
Larry had a long way to go.
AUTHOR BIO: Patrick Million grew up in Texas and published his
first short story in 1992. He has since won various fellowships and
residencies for his fiction. Like many writers, he had a brief, turbulent
affair with Hollywood and in 2009, in conjunction with Badgerdog
Literary Publishing, he founded the Rose Million Healey Writing
Award which benefits Austin area high school writers. He now lives
quietly in Pasadena, CA.
45
Dirty was originally published in The Rag Issue 1.
46
47
THE BEST INTENTIONS OF GOODY ABSHIRE
by Wes Trexler
There’s at least a hundred and fifty plants in the back of the truck,
each one a felony in West Virginia, and we know it. It’s the thing
we’re not talking about. In fact, Goody’s not even talking; he’s
singing.
“It’s a hard, haard life … when you’re livin’ on deep fried food.”
He’s driving this shit-brown Mazda pickup, trying to teach
me the lyrics to his newest song. Sounds like Hank Senior doing a
Chicago bluesman voice, or Lightnin’ Hopkins on two hits of Lou
Reed. I love the distraction.
It’s about 1 a.m. and drizzling as we make our way east down
Highway 50. One headlight’s out, the inspection sticker’s dead,
and the clutch is quickly going vestigial, so, hey, why not sing?
After a couple cycles I join in on the chorus, trying to harmonize in
falsetto.
“It’s a hard, haard life … when you’re livin’ on deep fried food,”
we sing.
We’re partners, me and Goody. Not in the new, political sense
of the word. More like the John Wayne sense. This is what partners
do: they dress in camo and haunt the backcountry all summer.
They haul eighty-pound bales of peat moss through two miles of
mountain briars. Partners dig three hundred holes in the woods
with hand shovels and carry backpacks full of water over and over.
They plant by moonlight like guerrilla gardeners, year after year,
whether they make a penny or not. Mostly not.
We’ve been partners on and off since I was about eighteen.
Really though, we go back further than that. Goody’s family and
mine are commingled in a bastard, Appalachian kind of way that’s
sort of irrelevant right now. No point in laboring the details on that
score. But, our parents used to hang out in the seventies. By that I
mean they used to mainline tainted Sissonville crank together.
It’s raining full on now as we continue down 50, and I’m
worried about the cargo. It’s all wrapped tight, but the last thing
48
we need is extra water weight. The shit is totally fresh, moist and
stinky and straight out of the ground. The whole score this year,
yanked prematurely in an emergency harvest. This is not how the
scheme was devised. Nobody drives with wet shit. Dudes camp out
like Rambo in the woods with tarps and canned soup and shotguns
watching their crops cure just so they don’t have to drive with fresh
shit. But not us. Not this year. I’ve got a paper due tomorrow:
twenty pages on Barry Stroud and Cartesian skepticism.
This is a tenuous business, hauling shit back and forth from
Mon County down to Jackson all the time, but Staddlerville’s no
place to grow. Southern Jackson’s a lot more remote, and we know
the land. We know all the dead-end dirt roads, all the power line
cuts, every southern-facing hilltop and abandoned barn in the
county: our front-line.
We went down at the end of April after the last heavy freeze
and put out clones and seedlings. Hundreds of the fucking things,
as many as possible in patches of fifty or sixty. That’s always been
our M.O.: some for the deer and termites, some for the junkythieves and some for the Federales. If there’s any left come October
it’s like we’re stealing it from them.
This morning we drove in to check on the crops—a daring
but necessary daylight mission to gauge ripeness. When we hit the
woods it was like the salting of Carthage. Total destruction. ATV
tracks, toilet paper in trees, empty holes. We’d been bing’d. We
could tell by the way the woods were trashed that it was federal.
Helicopters had been involved, ground crews had been radioed. I
could see it in my mind—four-wheelers, machetes, drawn guns,
watering mouths, expensive boots.
They got all but three patches. The survivors weren’t ready, they
needed two more weeks, but we had to uproot and retreat. It was
premature product or nothing, and under the circumstances there
wasn’t a lot of time for courteous debate on the subject.
We bundled it all up in tarps and hid out at the old Sugar
Creek shack. We knew the sticker was bunk on the Mazda, so we
waited till dark to travel back to Mon County. The dead headlight
was God fucking with us.
And this is one true thing: you haven’t lived till you’ve jumped
49
out of the roadside bushes in broad daylight with six-foot bundles
of felony time under each arm. You haven’t died till you’ve reached
that first Interstate on-ramp with a truckload of fresh religion and
no hope at all.
Nobody does this. The shit is mostly water before it’s cured,
and it stinks like sewer gas. And if you haven’t had time to trim
then it’s mostly stems and leaves and stalks: useless chaff. But the
Federales don’t see it that way, and they’ll weigh it up all the same if
you give them the chance.
This is totally not my style. Goody knows driving’s never been
my gig, he knows I can’t handle riding around with shit like this. It
makes me sick. The stress fucks with my brain chemistry. Every car
looks like a Brown Bear in the rearview. Every mile is a thousand
petit mal panic attacks, but I put on the front, and I sing along.
“It’s a hard, haard life ...”
Here’s the point—Goody Abshire, Beef Ro Mien, Rat Boy,
Sam Sneed, G-Mar, Ol’ Red—all one and the same. He grew up
in the junkyard on Fisher Ridge. His mom was married to Punkin
Hicks who ran the Kentuck Wrecker and had about twenty acres
of rust and busted glass spread out in the holler below his house.
Goody’s house.
When he was young he used to walk through the rubble and
tetanus and hike down the ridge to catch the school bus on Sugar
Creek, partly because it came an hour later down there, partly to
avoid being picked up in the middle of the junkyard.
Things weren’t too hot for Goody; he was Punkin’s actual, noshit, redheaded stepchild. Punkin’s been a Jackson County staple
as long as I can remember, always dressed in axle-greased camo
overalls, even in the summer. Got that rub of Copenhagen or a
wad of Levi Garret in his jowls, spitting his drool-tar at the ash
door on the wood stove in the winter. He once went to auction and
bought half a singlewide trailer and towed it out to the bottom at
Sugar Creek. The damn thing’d been cut longways about middle
and had some half-ass add-on swinging from the side. What a man
would plan to do with something like that is a noble, Appalachian
mystery.
One time Goody told me his first memory was of Punkin
50
jabbing him in the ass with a poker from the wood stove. Burnt
through his diaper, scarred him. To this day he wakes up screaming
crazy shit in the middle of the night once or twice a month.
None of that matters too much though, because Goody is
a positive thinker. He was born that way. You can’t beat that.
Poverty can’t beat that. Recklessness, abuse, excess, criminal
tendencies: nothing can beat that. Positivity’s the feather in his
cap, like a karmic trump card, always on reserve. And we need it.
Highway 50 is the gauntlet, a low-profile four-lane road that cuts
through northern West Virginia, connecting I-77 and I-79. It
comprises most of the trip between Sojackco and Staddlerville. It’s
a notorious enforcement trap, but if we can make it to Clarksburg
and back onto the Interstate we’re liable to survive the mission.
Acknowledging the situation for what it is, I think this is strictly
impossible.
Goody’s new song loses steam after about twenty miles, and we
sit quietly for a few seconds, staring at the void, our eyes darting
around the darkness, searching for the green flash of a wayward
deer’s eye or the holographic glint from a cruiser’s shield decal.
In that second my heart skips. Oppressive paranoia thrives in the
steady hum of a road-bound Mazda pickup. But only for a second.
I have to say something, so I say, “I’ve got a paper due in less
than twelve hours.”
“You always got a paper due.”
“Did I tell you what it’s about?”
Goody shakes his head.
“EWS,” I say. “External world skepticism.”
He lobs me a weary side-look, like he knows he’s going to hear
about it whether he asks or not.
“It’s awesome. You defeat someone’s argument by claiming they
can’t prove anything until they’ve shown the external world exists.”
“What do you mean exists? It’s the fuckin’ world, man.”
“Right. But, how do you know you’re not hallucinating?”
“Cause I’m driving a truck on the highway, and you’re sitting
there talking about your paper, and we both know it.”
“You could dream all that. Or maybe God hates you. Just
tortures you with the world. You’re going around like, ‘Hey this is
51
my life,’ but really you’re stuck on the membrane, you’re just twodimensional.”
“Look. You wouldn’t wonder for long if I reached over and
stomped your toes into the floorboard. You’d know for shittin’ sure
you had some broke toes.”
“If God can do anything, though.”
“You don’t even believe that,” says Goody.
“Ain’t got to. Just have to write the paper like I do.”
“Science fiction then,” he says.
“Yeah. I have been reading a lot of those Krishna books
lately.” A second later Goody hits the rumble strips and veers
off the pavement for a second. He whips it back onto the road,
overcompensates, and swerves all over the lane. “Holy shit,” I yell,
“what the fuck, dude?”
“Sorry! I was just … not paying attention. Your fucking
theories.”
I turn and look back to see if anyone noticed Goody’s little
stunt. “Ah, Jesus,” I say. “I think that’s the Cheese back there.”
“What?”
“Five-Oh, man, I swear, look at the shape of the headlights,
that’s a Crown Vic.”
“You’re buggin’ out, man. Ain’t a fucking cop. You can’t even
barely see back there.”
“Dude, I can tell. How fast you goin’?”
“Don’t know,” says Goody. “Speedometer’s broke.” He grins.
We drive on in silence. I’ve got my eyes glued to the side-view.
After a few moments there’s no light show, so I chill.
“You shouldn’t waste your time with philosophy. No one wants
to read that shit, anyhow,” says Goody.
“It’s my major.”
“Change your major,” he says. “Write some stories.”
I pause for a moment. I do have one in mind, but I shouldn’t
tell Goody this one. It’s about Punkin Hicks and a pea-green VW
Microbus. It’s about Punkin driving his wrecker head-on into my
uncle’s van, trying to kill him for sleeping with Goody’s mom again.
That’s a great story, I mean, I’ve got to hand it to Punkin, he really
had physics on his side, and those vans don’t have any crush-zone,
52
but my uncle Chuck Manning—Crazy Chuck, Crazy Manning—
he was so junk-numb and grizzled already that a little head-on
barely phased him.
While I’m daydreaming about rear-engine Volkswagens that
steady hum creeps up in the silence and hits me again, gives me
acid reflux. I say, “I got one. It’s about two dudes in West Virginia
that get nabbed with a truckload of fresh shit.”
“You shouldn’t talk like that. You shouldn’t even think like
that.”
“Why not? You know there ain’t no way we’re gonna live
through this. They probably got warrants on us in Jackson County
right now.”
“That’s bull, they got no way to pin us to those crops, they
coulda been anybody’s.”
“Not home yet.” My reflux is talking now. “I always knew you’d
get me in trouble someday.”
“I’m not gettin’ you in trouble. You knew what you were gettin’
into.”
“I never said I would ride with this much shit. I never agreed to
that. You know I can’t handle hauling like this.”
“That’s just the way it turned out,” says Goody. “Just buck
up. If we’re nabbed we’re nabbed, I mean, fuck it, fate’s fate. You
just decide what you gotta do and do it. I can’t live my life like the
fucking law wants me to.” He says the word law like it’s profane,
like it leaves a bad aftertaste on his tongue. “I can’t let all these
other people decide what’s right for me. This country’s run by
fucked-up, negative people. Christian people like my aunts. Those
women, always worried about everybody’s business, won’t even let
their kids watch the Smurfs. Think it’s satanic. Those people don’t
know how to live any better than I do. If you wanna live in a world
run by people scared of Smurfs then fine, but I’m serious about the
revolution.”
He knows the conversation ends with the word revolution.
That’s how we got started in all this. The revolution. Over-Grow
the Government. He thinks everyone who smokes it should grow
it. If they did we’d have no problems, the law would dissolve,
and we could start using tractors. If people weren’t so easily ruled
53
by fear they could live how they pleased, not how they’re told to
live. I know his arguments. They’re actually my arguments, but
he has a lot less to lose than I do. I’ve got Gina waiting for me
at home in Staddlerville, expecting us back hours ago, anxiously
contemplating the multitude of possible scenarios. And Goody
doesn’t comprehend fear the way I do. He doesn’t feel it. To me,
fear is physical, not philosophical. It’s a reflex. You can’t overcome it
anymore than you can a sneeze or a hiccup. But like I said, Goody’s
got his A-bomb: positivity. It beats rock, paper, and scissors.
Positivity beats fear, doubt, regret. Wish I had it. Wish I was born
with it.
He starts singing, “It’s a hard, haard life … when you’re livin’
on deep fried food.”
I try to harmonize. I try. I don’t know shit for harmonies,
but Goody’s a natural, he drags it out of me. Like Ozzy and Bill
Monroe riffing on a Carter Family hymn.
Goody’s been making up these songs as long as I’ve known
him. Yoko Ono Cult; Smokin’ Roaches; Killin’ Old People; Vote
for Satan; Bungholder Glasses; Got That Itch; Don’t Take My
Herb (Away from Me); Freedom, USA; Peanut Butter Narcotic
Breakdown; Jerry’s Finger. One tune after another. Back in the day
when we first teamed up we’d claimed these abandoned farmhouses
out in the red clay and burnt trailer parts of Southern Jackson. His
was a kind of shack out on Sugar Creek—an old throw-together
built from recycled barn wood. The flood of ’95 knocked it off its
sandstone rock foundation, so the floors were all warped, and the
roof was more tar than tin. But it had electric.
Down the holler from the shack old Punkin had a dead trailer
crammed full of auction junk. We ransacked the joint and brought
a carload of 16mm schoolroom projectors back to the shack. Classic
booty. This is what we did: we plugged as many mics and guitars
as possible into the projectors and cranked them all the way up.
Those things were like distortion amps with their own light show
attached. We’d press record on Goody’s four-track, take a hand full
of what we called our “multi-colored plethora,” then record allnight bluegrass-punk jams until we could smell burnt plastic.
The multi-colored plethora. This was essential. A seemingly
54
bottomless collection of mood pills, painkillers and muscle
relaxants—anything we could scrounge up from the Pizza Hut
wait-staff or the fry cooks at the Hershey Bar where Goody was
bartending. Blues, yellows, light blues, white-crosses, greenmeanies: whatever, and in whatever combination.
We blew out projector after projector and cauterized every
available brain cell. Sometimes we’d get so much shit plugged in at
once the whole shack would hum and pulsate with juice. You could
keep beat on the floorboards, play the light switch like a Theremin
all night long, until you saw a puff of blue smoke.
That was our sound back then: Blue Smoke.
But late at night, pre-dawn, after we’d spent our rage and
the plethora had laid us down, when only one projector was still
flickering, Goody would pluck a few worn out strings, and from
the top of his head he’d create these perfect lyrical melodies, these
humble little songs, little stories, little psalms of secret hillbilly
mantras and burnt plastic ballads.
That was a few years back, though, before Gina came up
here, and we’ve refined our scheme since then. For one thing
we all moved out of Southern Jackson County, out of our mud
holler squalor, and into a two-bedroom rat-hole in Staddlerville.
I’m not being dramatic. Killing rats is a chore, like mowing the
grass or shoveling snow. It’s an improvement nonetheless—indoor
plumbing, heat, other luxuries. Besides, I had to go back to school
eventually, and my worldly renunciation in the woods was just a
put-off, a distraction.
Now, I study philosophy and Goody’s enrolled in the
horticulture program. By that I mean he takes as many student
loans as he can and attends class as seldom as possible. He’s been
through it all before at the University, and failed, but he still
holds that faint glimmer of hope that he might somehow wrestle
a meaningful diploma from the bastards. Given the reality of our
situation, that seems unduly optimistic, and not a little irrelevant.
So, I go on reading dead Germans, doubting my own existence,
and he practices horticulture, after a fashion. At the moment the
incongruities of that arrangement are starting to show.
“Yeah, I’m digging that song. You got it stuck in my head,” I
55
say. “When we get home we should pull the four-track out, lay it
down real quick.”
“Right,” says Goody.
“What? We haven’t done that in forever.”
“Well, you know. Gina.”
He’s got a point. She never complains out loud, but when we
start plugging the P.A. in, bouncing feedback across the house in
the middle of the night, she makes it pretty clear how she feels.
We roll on toward Clarksburg and the rain turns to a fine blue
mist. We’re getting so close to the Interstate I start to let my guard
down. The hum feels soothing now, and I get the feeling we might
make it. We might remain free men for another day. We might get
out of this and get the chance to risk it all again next summer. I
start to relax for a moment, to feel the hum vibrating the headrest,
and then the impossible. The inevitable. I see the strobe light in the
side-view mirror. Blue-blue-red blue-blue-red.
We’re both so stunned we can’t even speak: him because he
can’t believe it’s happening, me because I can’t believe it didn’t
happen sooner.
In less than a heartbeat I feel the warm flow of dread and
adrenaline emanate from my sternum, like antifreeze overflowing a
hot radiator. My toes are the first thing to go numb, then my lips,
but my ears start burning and my forehead splurges sweat droplets.
This is it. This is what it feels like just before you spend ten
remorseful, suicidal years in prison. I can see it happening, like a
series of Polaroids in sequence: here’s me getting booked; here’s
Gina not able to make bail; here’s my public defender asleep at the
proceedings, crashing hard from a weekend ginder binge; here’s me
getting charged five years later for mailing written death threats
from jail to the Governor, and to Barry McCaffrey and his wife. I
can see this all with pure clarity, with more lucidity than I’ve had in
years. It’s as clear and real as that stroboscopic fanfare, bleating ever
closer from behind. Blue-blue-red blue-blue-red.
As he speeds right up to us my heartbeat synchronizes with the
lights. I feel a pain in my breastbone, like a punctured soul.
I look at Goody. His eyes have gone out of focus, like a dead
deer moments after catching a heart/lung shot, before the rigor
56
mortis sets in, a look of total disbelief. Like he can’t believe I was
right. I always say, “There’s no way we’ll get away with this,” that
we’re destined for the regional pen in Wood County, and he can’t
believe I’m finally right.
Goody takes his foot off the accelerator and starts to downshift,
preparing to pull over, then, inexplicably, before he even grinds the
clutch, the Fuzz pulls into the fast lane and blazes right by us in a
souped-up Crown Vic Interceptor. As he passes he burps the siren
twice, and a jolt of juice shoots through my neck, makes my left eye
twitch.
For a second I swear I can smell burnt plastic.
Goody’s eyes stay locked on the ether. The fire in my breastplate
pulsates, and we ride on in grievous silence, with the steady hum of
the road, fifty more miles to Staddlerville.
AUTHOR BIO: Wes Trexler is a writer and musician in Brooklyn, NY.
He is over-educated, under-loved, and only has one restraining order
issued against him so far. He currently lives on his ex-wife’s couch and
plans on letting someone less honest write his bio in the future.
The Best Intentions of Goody Abshire was originally published in
The Rag Issue 1.
57
58
THAT THING WITH THE DOG
by Ben Schwartz
The house feels as empty as always, though Evan is here. She has to
step over his backpack to get in. She figures he’s downstairs, doing
whatever he does when he retreats there immediately after school.
Her keys rattle on their hook, and she slides her shoes off, balancing
the groceries. Flora steps around the detritus of their living room
into the kitchen and stands before the basement door.
She immediately recognizes the sounds from the basement as
dog sounds. Squeals, whines and quickly silenced barks leak up the
stairs. A scratching of claws across concrete. They don’t own a dog.
They don’t have any pets, and Evan is down there with a dog, and
that isn’t as shocking as it probably should be. Flora thinks of all the
diagnoses, knowing that of the two creatures downstairs, it is not
the boy who needs her concern.
Flora still holds the groceries at the door and puts off yelling
down. She listens. Maybe it’s only a loose neighborhood dog, snuck
in through an open window. Evan could be upstairs, or outside.
Maybe the dog is now ripping through boxes of still-packed books
and shitting on the old couch. That would be a relief. She has
been too permissive, she thinks. It’s not the excuses she makes up
for Evan—it’s the believing them. As though they aren’t her own
fallacies.
Just as Flora is about to turn and leave the basement door,
to think about how to approach this new development, the dog
sounds are completely silenced. Evan calls up the stairs.
“Mom? Is that you?”
“Hi. Were you expecting anyone else?”
“No.”
“Okay,” Flora says.
“Mom?”
“Where did the dog come from?” There. She just says it.
It’s quiet, two people breathe in separate parts of a house. And
one dog, apparently.
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“I found him.”
Flora doesn’t answer. Pausing usually works better than
speaking with Evan.
“On the way home from school.” His voice rises a pitch when
he says, “We could keep him in the basement.”
Flora needs to ask, “Why would we keep a dog in the
basement?” but hopes it goes unanswered.
Evan turns on his pleading, nice-boy voice, and she is actually
glad to hear it. It hasn’t been around for a long time. Even though
she had sworn that if she heard it one more time, asking for one
more toy, or one more show before bedtime, she would scream, it
was still nice to hear a little bit of the old Evan. And she is a sucker.
A permissive selfish pushover.
“He’s really nice and I can come home every day, right after
school and take care of him before the doctors.”
“What kind of dog is he?” Flora feels herself folding, avoiding
the one thing they should be talking about.
“He’s kind of small.”
“I’m going to make dinner.” The bags grow heavy, sinking in
her arm.
“I’m not really hungry. I didn’t even eat lunch.”
She shifts the groceries.
Evan says, “I had to meet with Dr. Glowen.”
“During lunch?”
“Mom, I always meet with him during lunch.”
Then why the hell does she make him sandwiches every
morning, and what’s happening to them? “I’m going to make
dinner.”
Flora walks to the counter. She hears Evan say something, but
ignores it. Everything she should be saying back is too heavy to
float between floors. This is how they talk, his disjointed phrases in
response to her occasional cowering questions. Her silence at their
appointments—it comes home.
One of the doctors, maybe the one with the scarves, upon
hearing of Evan’s time spent in the basement, had said it was a good
thing for Evan to have his own space, “Where, for him, anything
is possible!” The other doctors had stared, shocked at the horrific
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implications of that statement.
She’d like to say, to someone, that this all started after Quint
left. That Quint is to blame. She would also like to believe that.
Flora would like to believe many things. One being that Quint left
not just because of her, but because of this.
She’d been the one to explain their new situation to Evan. That
his Dad had left. It didn’t go well in exactly the opposite way from
what Flora expected. Evan kind of shrugged and pursed his lips, in
a way that suggested Flora had told him they’d arrived too late to
see the movie he wanted to see. Then he hugged her. For the first
time since toddlerhood, he initiated a hug. She accepted, surprised
at first, then, and it’s occurred to her since that this is the moment
where she really screwed up, she cried and clung to him. She could
feel him pulling away, then hanging in there, waiting for her to
release him. He patted her on the back and finally parted, and
went, for the first time, down to the basement.
Flora shoves jars aside in the fridge, pushes full grocery bags
inside, and gets a glass from the cabinet—not a wine glass, but
a short cylinder glass—and looks around for the bottle of wine.
Swearing softly, she realizes it’s now behind the grocery bag in
the fridge. She excavates the bottle, more of a jug, really, the kind
with a loop on top that your finger fits through. Listening for any
noise from the basement, not terrible dog-squealing noise, but
any which may indicate that Evan is coming up, she pours to the
rim of the glass. She takes a big sip, lowering the level of wine to
one more associated with a casual evening drink, rather than a late
afternoon secret. It’s good, and she decides to sit and finish it before
she starts dinner and engages in what is surely going to be a long
conversation over the many reasons, touching on both the practical
and the evil, why they cannot keep a stray dog in the basement for
Evan to torture.
Evan eats holding his fork straight up from the table, unused. His
other hand holds the food inches from his mouth; he pecks at it,
methodically ripping off chunks and chewing. The food enters at
the spot where his hair stops, hanging just past the tip of his nose,
hiding his eyes. Flora watches him, pretending she has just now
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poured this glass of wine, in the proper glassware now, to have with
dinner. She pretends he would notice either way. When there seems
to be some sort of pause, when an equilibrium between the amount
of food on the table and the space left in Evan’s stomach has been
reached, she speaks.
“So. Tell me about this dog.”
“Lucky,” he says and Flora almost laughs.
“Okay. Lucky. Tell me about Lucky. Where is he now?”
Evan speaks through another mouthful. “In the basement.
What night is it for TV? Are your shows on?”
“Is he loose?”
“I put a rope from his collar around one of the posts. I gave
him a sandwich.”
“He has a collar.”
Evan swallows and shrugs his shoulders to the ceiling, holds
them there. “He’s a dog.”
“Evan, honey, if he has a collar, that means he belongs to
someone.”
“Not technically.”
Flora pauses hard against this bit of reasoning, and decides not
to take it head-on. It’s too late for a lesson in sharing toys.
“Is there a name on the collar?”
“Like his name, or you mean a family who owned him?”
Flora hears the phrase “a family” in that question, and that
catches her up, implying that they are not one. She also hears the
past tense “owned”, implying that Lucky is now here to stay. Just
as if the decision has already been made. This all has the feel of
strategy, as if she’s playing a role of Evan’s devising, and the thing
that makes her realize this is that he just slipped up.
He shouldn’t have said “owned.” He needed to wait and twist
it until everything appeared to be her decision. He knows it, too. If
he sees that she caught this ripple in their usual bargaining routine,
it will release a lot of acknowledgment into the air between them.
It will show him that she is aware of how manipulative he is, but,
more so, that she allows it to happen. Flora always permits his
manipulations to work, letting them work through to whatever end
result he had in mind when he first opened his mouth, and then
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quietly pretending that she has been fooled.
She has become good at giving in to his requests at exactly
the right point, maybe just beyond the amount she was willing
to acquiesce. Which, if she is considering keeping that dog, has
already been far too much. If she didn’t play this role, she would
need to tell Evan to stop pulling his crazy shit on her. And Flora
knows that is never going to happen. He will never stop pulling his
crazy shit on anyone.
“Is there a name on his collar? Any name?” Flora says, too
quickly to allow any more realizations to pass between them.
“No. It’s just a collar. It doesn’t say anything.”
“An address?”
“Nope. I think it’s just a collar. He needs a home.”
“Why would a dog have a collar with no name or anything on
it?” She takes a sip of her wine, the glass nearly touching the bridge
of her nose.
“I don’t know. To grab him or something, I guess.”
Flora nods at that possibility, suppressing the thought that
crazy is contagious.
“Ooh,” Evan says, perking up. “To put a leash on him!”
“So somebody took him for walks, right?”
Evan picks up a roll with both hands and bites it from the top.
“It’s just a stupid collar.”
“It’s okay,” Flora says, without any real surety. He’s right. The
fact that there is a collar is very far from the real issue. They both
know Lucky belonged to somebody else, the thing they’re talking
about is how much Flora really cares about whoever lost Lucky,
because Evan clearly doesn’t. Flora thinks she may be too tired to
care about another family and their lost dog.
“So, I can have him?” Evan turns happy, drops food onhis
plate.
“Evan, no, I don’t know.”
“You said okay.”
“Not to that. Not to the whole thing. I don’t know if it’s okay.”
“For tonight? Then maybe I can make signs or something. You
know, to hang on the telegraph poles.”
“They’re telephone poles. No one has sent a telegraph for a
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century.”
“For tonight?”
“Are you done?” Flora indicates his plate with a wave of her
wine glass, spilling a red splash between them, across the table.
They both look at it, reading what they can from its shape.
“I’ll make signs tomorrow. I swear.”
Flora exhales. “Can you clean up dinner?”
“Thank you! I’m gonna go tell him!”
“After you clear the table.”
Evan has never cleared the table. She has never asked, and the
fact that he is doing it now is acknowledgment she has given in, but
that it’s tenuous—it’s going to require something of him. It’s nice
to finish her wine while her plate is being taken away. Things can
change.
Usually after dinner they watch TV together. She always lets
him choose, and holds back her comments about the trash they
watch. Evan inches closer to the screen for every car crash, every
autopsy, and always guesses how each killer will get caught. They
never speak during the TV hours, and after about half a hard-boiled
mystery, Flora flips through a magazine or starts a book for the
umpteenth time. Tonight though, through tacit understanding,
Evan goes to the basement to tell Lucky the good news, and the
couch is for her alone. And her wine. She scans through channels,
stops at a movie that is just starting. Judging by the soundtrack and
hijinks of the first few minutes, Flora feels tonight’s TV watching
will be murder-free. She settles against the cushions, letting her
glass rest against her thigh and belly.
Flora wakes during a commercial with no idea what time it is,
feeling as though she’s been asleep for a while. She runs fingers
across her head, looking for an elastic, then remembers that her hair
is too short for that now. She sits.
Is Evan in bed, she wonders, reaching through couch cushions
for the remote. When the TV is silenced, there’s nothing except the
dark living room. She rubs sleep from her eyes and tries to clear the
wine from her head. Something has happened today, something
with Evan. There’s a skittering from the basement; her heart jumps.
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Someone is here. Her first instinct is to run upstairs to Evan’s room
and do something, protect him. A banging rises from downstairs,
then a high yipping bark, which is quickly silenced.
That’s it. The dog. Flora stands, suddenly unsure of the layout
of her own living room. In the dark she can’t see the low table or
the chairs or all the crap on the floor, so she just stands and listens.
There, there’s something. Silence. Again. A subdued thudding.
Silence. Again, quicker now. She curses as she realizes it’s her own
body—her heart and breath amplified with the night and fear.
Her head clears from the sudden waking. She makes her way to
the basement door, passing the clock on the kitchen stove. 11:43.
I need to lay off the wine before dinner, she thinks. This is way too
late for Evan to be up, never should have passed out on the couch
like that. Flora lifts the door at the top of the stairs as she opens it,
to silence the squeaky hinges. A harsh light from an unshaded bulb
creeps up between each step. She sees each stair silhouetted against
the glare. Dust motes float through lines of light, from existence to
invisibility and back.
Claws skitter on cement and it is not a playful sound.
Not the quick direction change of a dog fetching. A sound, a
vocalization of sorts, comes quick and harsh. There is a moment
of noise, of scuffle, where human voice and dog growl are mixed
indistinguishable. The dog’s yelp rises separately. Flora moves onto
the landing, her body striped by light slicing through the stairs.
Kneeling, she cranes around the right angle of the staircase,
her curiosity outweighing her indecisiveness. Peering around the
narrow post from the stair base to the ceiling, she realizes that
she has not set eyes on this dog. On Lucky. Flora stretches herself
down three stairs. Still hidden. She reaches out to the post and
lowers her feet slowly to reach the point where the stairs turn. She
tries to remember what she pictured, a small brown mutt maybe,
something harmless, so she can compare it to what she is about to
see.
Whatever she had pictured is disappeared by the smooth
cowering black and white bulk, on its haunches, head lowered,
mouth curled, growling, defending itself against something out of
her view. Evan.
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Flora leaps the final few stairs and the dog flies at her. Maybe
she screams, she covers her face. She doesn’t hear a thing but when
she lowers her hands the dog is on its side, twitching the two legs
that are off the ground, trying to raise itself.
“Mom! What are you doing down here?”
Flora doesn’t take her eyes off the dog, still on the floor, trying
to get up. “I—it’s late. I came down.”
“Go back upstairs.”
She hears a depth in Evan’s voice and turns to him. He holds
a wooden broom handle with both hands, like a spear, over his
bare shoulder. He’s shirtless, ribs showing intermittently with each
breath. She can see his hips above his jeans, which hang well below
his belly button, just above hints of darkness. His face is shiny
around bright eyes, his nearly white hair tucked behind his ears.
“Evan. What are you doing? Down here, what are you doing?”
“Just go back upstairs. I’ll go to bed in a couple minutes.”
“I don’t know—don’t think this is okay,” Flora says. She can’t
look at her son—just watches the dog get up and return, limping,
to lay by the couch. Evan has opened a clearing on the dirty floor,
moving all the boxes and unused junk against one wall. The washer
and dryer, broken for months, covered with laundry she forgot was
down here, rest against the far wall, across from him. The middle
has been cleared out, like a playing field.
The dog works itself to growling, head raised, focused on Evan.
It drags forward on its front paws, one black, one white, and begins
to raise its haunches, hips working slowly, as if in pain. Its jaws
lower, to bark, teeth bared, and in that instant when growl becomes
bark, Evan blurs into the empty space and the only sound is a
hollow whack. Lucky is silent. Flora stares at her son, standing in
the exact spot as a moment ago, as if the attack never happened, the
broomstick held aloft.
“Go back upstairs. Mom. I’m getting ready for bed.”
Flora turns her head, body frozen, between the boy and the
dog, undecided on which to be scared of. She takes a step toward
Evan, her hands rising to touch him. Evan moves faintly back. The
unshaded lamp on the floor beside her is blinding. It casts odd
shadows on the ceiling—the three of them garishly enlarged and
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misshapen.
“Evan, you shouldn’t do this. I can’t say this is okay, Evan.”
He shifts back into his original spot, eying the dog, stealing
glances at Flora, as though protecting her from Lucky. But maybe
the other way around. The dog marks each of their movements with
twitching eyes and lowered head, tongue hanging out over teeth.
His eyes, looking up over his spotted brow, appear wide enough to
take it all in. Pleading, he looks to Flora. There is a rope from his
collar stretching to something behind Evan. She begins to step to
the dog, to comfort him, maybe send him out the basement door,
which has its window covered with one of Evan’s childhood sheets,
decorated with baseballs and bats.
Flora inches sideways beside a post, in front of the lamp,
to block some of the glare, thinking it could calm things. Her
movement draws the dog’s attention and it follows her with its
head, hunching up its hindquarters and growling. Evan snaps at it
without looking.
“Lucky! Sit! Shut up!”
“He’s fine. He’s fine.”
“Mom! You need to train a dog. Everybody knows that.”
“Not like this, Evan. I don’t think you understand.”
Evan lowers the broom handle, holding it with both hands
across his chest, still ready to strike.
“Go back upstairs.”
“Evan. No.”
“We’re fine down here.”
If she didn’t think the dog would leap at the sound, Flora
would laugh. So surreal, she thinks she may still be passed out on
the couch. With the light behind her, everything appears slightly
more subdued and manageable. “I don’t think so, honey. I don’t
think Lucky is happy.”
“He needs to learn,” Evan says. “He’ll be fine. You don’t
understand.”
“What don’t I understand?”
Evan shrugs and rolls his eyes, as though he can’t even begin to
explain to her all the things she doesn’t understand.
“Tell me. Evan, tell me what I don’t understand.”
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“That you need to go upstairs.”
The dog begins growling in earnest. Flora looks down at him.
He’s now almost back on all fours. She can’t see how long a rope
he’s on, doesn’t even know if he could reach her if he leaps. She
watches the dog’s muscles work beneath its mottled skin. She’s
captivated by the series of flexings it uses to raise itself. Lucky steps
to her, lower jaw dangling, eyes wild, rimmed red against white and
black fur. She sees blurred shadows shift on the opposite wall, and
assumes Evan is moving to strike again, and this time she waits for
it, wanting it, needing this dog to stop advancing, to be away. To
drop.
The noise of the broom handle striking the metal post at her
side shocks her to jumping, forcing her eyes from the dog. Through
the dust raised by the blow, she sees Evan, all bare skin and shadow,
hair hanging over his face, inches from her. His stick is pushed
against the post, slid against her side, stopping her from moving
back, the dog keeps her from moving forward. Evan ignores Lucky
completely. The dog pulls at his rope. Flora can feel the heat of
his breath, his spittle, on her legs. She cringes and makes to step
behind the post, but is stopped by Evan and his stick, which he
slams forward and whacks against the post. Again. Again. Without
looking she pushes against it, but he doesn’t give. The dog’s claws
scrape at her shins and she may be screaming, but over the barking
and Evan’s rhythmic pounding on the post she can’t hear.
Evan finally relents his pressure, and Flora falls backwards onto
the steps. The dog pulling at his rope, rearing on its legs, reaching,
is going crazy, barking and drooling, but unable to get at her.
Evan stands above her, the broom handle raised; he fills the space
between her and the dog.
“You should go upstairs,” he says. “To your room.”
“Evan! I don’t know what you’re doing—”
“You can’t. Go to bed.”
His voice is so firm, so foreign. Her first instinct is to obey. She
backs up the stairs, using her hands behind her. Evan is standing
between her and the light; she can only see his silhouette. At the
top of the stairs she closes the door and collapses against it, aware
of her breathing and the kitchen, trying to remember, of all things,
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what they had for dinner and if she did the dishes. Then she
remembers. He did the dishes so he could go down and play with
the dog.
Flora covers her ears, leans her head back. She’s crying more
from the sudden fear, and now the silence, than the actual events.
This whole thing is so far beyond what she is ready to deal with,
what she thinks she is capable of, that actually going down there to
stop it is out of the question. She cannot call for help. Who would
she call? She hasn’t spoken to Quint in over a year, and calling now
will only prove a weakness to which she is not prepared to confess.
Those little emergency cards the doctors give her—she tossed them,
thinking their professional concern an unnecessary overreaction,
maybe some sort of legal requirement to cover their asses. No, Flora
cannot see herself dialing a number and explaining the situation.
She cannot place the blame anywhere but on her own shoulders.
They will take the day off tomorrow. They will go downstairs
at first light, when they should be getting ready for school and
work. The dog will be sleeping, and they will open the basement
door before going upstairs to eat breakfast.
After breakfast, when they are sure the dog is gone forever,
Evan’s contrition will be evident. It will be like when she and Quint
were young, after a night of too much drinking. In the morning
they would remember nothing but vague feelings of anger and
guilt, neither of them sure which they had a right to, and their
situation would eventually warm to natural conversation and
then laughter and they would be stronger for the forgetting and
forgiveness.
Flora puts the incident behind them, just another thing that
mothers and sons have between them. Nobody else’s business,
like how old Evan was when he stopped wetting the bed. And
soon, Evan won’t even remember. She’s sure Evan has no memory
of when he stopped wearing those big kid diapers to bed, he just
thinks it was never a problem and that he’s a normal kid, which is
exactly what her job is—to allow him to keep thinking that. In the
context of long-term adult memory, tonight will be only a blip. It
will occur to him someday, shamefully, and he will wish the best for
that dog—what was his name?
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Flora brushes her teeth and leaves the water running, knowing
that Evan can hear it flowing through pipes over his head. He’ll
know she’s going to bed. He’ll follow soon, maybe even letting the
dog out for good on his way upstairs. In bed, she shakes her head
at the clock, can’t believe it’s that late. The alarm remains set, a
reminder for Flora to call them both in sick, and half believing their
sicknesses to be the truth, she fades away from the basement and
into sleep.
Flora scrapes a spatula across the pan, pretends she can flip the
eggs without breaking the yolk to form perfectly fried circles. She
hasn’t woken Evan. She will go get him when breakfast is done.
She arranges the plates and puts them in the oven to warm. She’s
even dug out the pitcher and filled it with orange juice. She has
called her office and his school, told the same lie to both and felt
even better about it the second time. This is perfect, she thinks,
just what they both need, and it’ll be perfect. Flora has measured
the coffee well and considers the pros and cons of offering Evan
a cup. The thought of both of them sipping coffee while all their
responsibilities, but one, fade with the day is appealing. She may
even call off their afternoon appointment.
She slices the toast into triangles and slides the plates into the
oven. Upstairs, she knocks lightly on his door.
“Evan? Wake up, you don’t have to go to school today. I called
us in sick.”
There is nothing from the other side of the door and Flora leans
her ear against it before knocking again. She listens for the sounds
of Evan rolling in his sheets, twisting them around him until they’re
balls around his legs. She knows the sounds of his sleeping and
waking in ways she will never know the details of her own habits.
“Ev, it’s morning. I made breakfast.”
The door is hollow and feels insubstantial beneath her hands,
light enough to fall open with a breath. When she pushes through
to his room, it is silent and light, revealing Evan’s empty bed and
floor, clean of yesterday’s clothes. The bathroom is equally empty.
She considers taking out her plate and having breakfast, allowing
him his morning, but remembers her mission to bring them
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together. That was the whole point of the phone calls and the
cooking; if she eats alone, they have nothing.
Flora arranges the plates on the table—the toast, eggs and
bacon approximating smiley faces—and stands before the basement
door, afraid to open it, unsure of what she will see or say about it.
She inhales, opens the cellar door, and exhales, hoping to slow her
heart.
The unshaded light still shines, the glow absorbed by the
morning’s tendrils working past the sheets on the window. She
times her steps with her breaths, thinking her own internal noises
will cover other sounds. Flora stands straight before she rounds the
sharp corner where she’ll be able to see Evan’s clearing. She closes
her eyes, opens them, and walks down.
Evan is on the floor, curled into a small crocheted blanket,
legs pulled into his bare chest. His face is free of any pain or stress
and it breaks her heart, seeing this difference. She hasn’t realized he
could still look this way and immediately wants to pet him, to feel
the soft curve of his cheek quickly, before any stubble appears. She
steps toward him, nearly crouched, when she hears the growl.
Lucky is spread out on the torn green couch, the rope hanging
in a loose coil to the floor. Twisted onto his side, hind legs spread,
he reveals a full set of balls. He quickly performs a roll onto his
belly and raises his head, his eyes split between Flora’s face and her
hand reaching out to touch Evan. Flora freezes. Evan’s hand shoots
neatly from under the blanket and grabs her wrist.
The three of them hold their poses, waiting for one to break the
tableau. Evan pulls Flora’s arm down, and she clenches against him.
Lucky twitches forward, ready to pounce. Evan uses his mother’s
arm to raise himself to kneeling. Lucky growls, his tail switching
against the cushions. Flora is frozen. She imagines the feel of sharp
teeth against her cheek. The weight of the dog.
“Morning, Mom,” Evan says. He releases her arm and stretches
out his limbs, she hears the pops as his muscles unclench. He
drapes one arm over Lucky, who, excited by the touch, wriggles and
grunts, rubbing his large jaws against Evan’s face. “Good morning,
boy! How’d you sleep? Good?”
Evan uses both hands to rough up Lucky’s face, flipping the
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dog’s ears around and accepting wet morning greetings. Flora
watches, slack-jawed, as they wrestle on the couch. Evan eventually
pins the dog on its back, its legs spread wide in submission, and
holds him there until, at some signal, they pop up. Evan slaps his
thighs and the dog jumps up, tongue dangling, and Evan flings
open the basement door. Breakfast forgotten, Flora leans on the
door frame. The sunlight creases her eyes, she shades them with a
shaking hand, and watches the boy and dog run around the yard,
looking for sticks to throw and catch.
“Ms. Essence? Can we speak for a moment before you guys go?”
Dr. Shinen says, adjusting her scarf.
Flora touches Evan’s shoulder, pausing him by the office door.
“Evan, why don’t you go wait in the waiting room?” The doctor
says and looks at Flora, as though expecting her to second the
opinion.
Flora says nothing, but nods at Evan when the doctor repeats
herself.
“Sure. That’s what the waiting room is for, right?”
“Exactly, Evan. That’s a funny joke!” Dr. Shinen looks around
at the other doctors. Their faces suddenly light up, like they just got
it.
“The waiting room, yes, for waiting!”
“Ha!”
Evan looks around the half-circle of helpfulness. “It wasn’t
really a joke.” Then he leaves, his hand reaching back through to
shut the door.
Dr. Shinen shifts her scarf around her shoulders while the other
doctors clear their throats, waiting for her to begin. She pats the
knot at her chest and looks up.
“Well, Ms. Essence, Flora. I don’t know what to say.”
“Me neither,” Flora says.
“Now that he’s waiting,” she looks around, “in the waiting
room, let me ask you again, has anything changed at home?”
“Nothing more than we talked about already.”
“Because we see marvelous changes. In Evan. Just marvelous.”
Flora pushes her purse behind her, smoothes her shirt over her
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belly. “I asked him to start clearing the table.”
Every doctor’s head in the room drops and notepads raise, duly
recording this overlooked detail. Flora imagines them planning
their radical new table-clearing cure-all for craziness. She pictures
the book cover: a table setting with fork, spoon, plate, and bloody
butcher knife.
Dr. Shinen finishes jotting with a hard tap of pencil on
clipboard, and says, more to herself, “Hmm, you didn’t mention
this in our meeting.”
“Didn’t seem important.”
“No, no, sometimes these things don’t.”
“What things?” Flora says.
“Oh, little things.”
Flora senses there is something being hinted at, that they feel
she is holding something back from them. They are right, of course.
With no discussion, neither she nor Evan mentioned the addition
of Lucky to their household.
“Little things,” Flora says. “I guess you never know, right?”
“So true! Not even we can always predict what will work.
Right?” Dr. Shinen feigns humility and looks to her cronies to do
the same. They echo her sentiment.
“I guess you never know.”
“It’s marvelous.”
“It is that,” Flora says.
Dr. Shinen nods and Flora wishes she would just say whatever
it is she wants to say.
“Ms. Essence. We’d like to meet more often.” Her eyebrows
imply that, of course, this is the right thing to do.
“I don’t see how we could find the time.”
“Well, we were thinking maybe just Evan. Evan could come in
alone.”
“Oh, I don’t know about …” Flora searches for one reasonable
justification for why this is a bad idea, one that doesn’t rest solely
on the idea that Evan would tell on her.
“We think it would be best.” Dr. Shinen’s nod is mirrored by
the small half-circle behind her.
Flora can’t think fast enough to make an excuse so agrees,
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saying that she supposes Evan is old enough to walk over by
himself, and, really, that was her concern, at first, whether he would
be okay to walk over by himself.
Dr. Shinen’s eyebrows understand, even if her scarf needs some
readjusting to settle well with this new idea.
In the waiting room, Evan is sprawled across the couch,
flipping through a National Geographic. A man and a woman are
squeezed together on the opposite chair, staring at him. Flora
pauses in the moment before Evan acknowledges her and wonders
how those strangers see him. Are they scared? She can’t tell if he
appears to be a normal teenage boy, with his long hair and ragged
shirts, or if everything is obvious. It occurs to her that he hasn’t
mentioned another person in months. Not a possible friend, not an
enemy. Nobody. He looks up from the magazine and smiles.
Dinner dishes are cleared. Evan has run upstairs, but Flora knows
she’ll see him run past in a moment. He’ll be carrying something,
and she won’t be able to see what it is. Sometimes he brings a bag
down there. Often he holds something along his side, just out of
her sight. The dog has been in the basement for a month, maybe
a bit more. After the first week, she received a flurry of calls from
his school, all shocked and ecstatic with the positive changes they
see in Evan. Each one placing the credit in their own laps. Yes,
Flora thought through each conversation, it was definitely that
point system you set up that really helped him turn the corner. Oh,
yes, signing his behavior chart has changed things immensely. She
thanked each of them. It’s been quiet since then.
Flora hears him come down the stairs in leaps, only touching
them three times before he’s on the landing, cornering into the
kitchen. She swallows her wine, gets ready to speak before he heads
downstairs.
“Evan. Honey.”
“What?” He’s angled strangely, holding something away from
her. “What?”
“How are you doing?”
“I’m going downstairs.” He looks almost frantically at the door,
back at Flora. Stands straighter.
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“Is anything better, for you? Are things better?”
“I’m fine.”
“School?”
“I’m fine.”
“Yeah?”
“Mom,” Evan says. It’s not an answer or a reassurance, just a
plea to be left alone. To go downstairs. To Lucky, waiting.
“Have you fed him today?”
It’s the only direct mention of what is downstairs she’s made for
weeks.
“Earlier. He eats in the morning. Like you.”
Flora smiles. “Everybody eats in the morning.”
“I like dinner better.”
“Yeah. I guess I do, too.”
“It’s better,” Evan says, looking for anything else to look at
besides Flora. “Can I go downstairs?”
Flora sips from her wine, in a regular glass. “Say hi to Lucky for
me.”
“Okay.”
“Maybe we could take him for a walk tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow is Saturday?”
“Tomorrow is Saturday.”
“Maybe.”
“No, it definitely is,” Flora says and gets no flicker of smile
from her joke. “Saturday, I mean.”
Evan squeezes out a contorted smile. He stands there, making
that face, and Flora turns away, bringing her wine with her.
“Go ahead,” she says.
If he regularly takes Lucky outside, which he must, because
Flora doesn’t smell dog shit, then it has to be before she gets home.
It occurs to her that she has never even bought dog food. Evan
must be feeding him. She assumes he does. The dog is still alive.
Lucky never makes a sound, though she hears plenty of movement
when Evan goes down. No barks, just scurrying.
Flora carries her wine into the living room, sits with the
remote, and turns the volume up until she’s sure Evan can hear it
downstairs. When she’s finished her glass, she pours another from
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the jug at her feet. The TV shouts at her, but her ears are focused
across the house. No sound carries up the stairs. When this glass is
empty, she thinks, I will go downstairs, and see just what the hell is
going on down there.
When her glass is empty, she fills it again. When the bottle is
empty, and Evan still hasn’t reappeared, she drops the glass in the
sink. She sits with her back against the basement door, cradling the
empty wine jug.
Flora hears Evan’s voice, but not the words. He keeps up a
constant soothing stream. Every minute or so, there is a scuffling
sound and Evan’s tone rises sudden and harsh before dropping back
to a monotonous drone. Flora tries to imagine what game Evan
thinks he is playing. She wonders why he has never asked for Lucky
to come upstairs, why he doesn’t want her involved with him. Is
this dog his idea of a friend? Maybe it’s more a hobby for him.
Hobbies are healthy. She imagines decades from now when she
will look back on his childhood as some dark aberration among his
achievements. She wonders what Quint would think of that. The
idea of Quint realizing he missed out, that he gave up, braces Flora
enough so that she is ready to go downstairs.
This time, this first foray to the basement since the morning
she found Evan sleeping down there, Flora is prepared. She opens
the door with confidence, disregarding the squeaky hinges, and
steps straight down, pausing only at the point where her head will
pass under the ceiling and she’ll be able to see everything. She’s
crouching, and puts the glass jug down on each step before stepping
down, then carefully places her foot beside it.
She hears Evan bark, “Sit!” and looks down the last few stairs
until she sees his legs. He stops there, quiet, his head out of view.
Neither of them move until Lucky starts whining. Evan’s feet
turn and disappear; she hears him talking to Lucky and the sound
of a dog collar clinking.
“Evan?” she says. “Evan, can I come down now?”
“Come.”
The lamp has been moved on top of some boxes, and Evan
has dug up the shade, so the cement floor and bare ceiling appear
warm. Evan is outlined by a blue glow seeping around the bed sheet
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curtain. Lucky is sitting up beside him, tongue hanging out. He
looks significantly less threatening. Maybe he’s smaller, maybe Flora
is simply prepared for the sight of him.
Evan is shirtless. He’s not holding the broomstick, but one of
his hands is behind his back. Lucky is panting, inching forward on
his butt the way dogs do when they want to run but know they’ve
been told to stay. The dog and boy look at each other, turn their
heads in unison to take in Flora. Look back at each other. Evan
stares back at Flora. Lucky watches him. The burden is clearly on
Flora to begin any conversation. She is in their space.
“He looks good.”
“We’re working on it,” Evan says without breaking eye contact.
“That’s good.”
“He needs training.”
Flora crouches and pats her knees. The wine jug dangles, her
thumb through the ring. She holds her hands out to Lucky. “Come
here, boy.”
Lucky pushes off his hind legs, makes to leap the few steps
between them. In mid-air, before his front paws can touch cement,
he appears to freeze. He is yanked back before his front paws can
touch the concrete. He lands hard on his side with a thud and a
whimper.
Evan must have pulled back on the rope, she thinks. That’s
what he was hiding behind his back. But she traces Lucky’s rope
back to the door handle; Evan isn’t touching it. It was set up so
Lucky couldn’t get to the bottom of the stairs. Lucky hops back
up, desperate now to get to Flora. The dog scrunches back on its
haunches and prepares to make another leap. Flora backs away
from the stairs, feeling behind herself as she works around the
perimeter of Evan’s clearing.
As the dog is about to leap, Evan’s arm strikes from behind his
back. He is holding a small baseball bat. Flora recognizes it as the
souvenir he got when he and Quint went to a game at Fenway a
few years ago. It’s small, no more than a foot. Evan wields it like a
billy club, neatly clipping Lucky on the back of his neck. It doesn’t
seem to hurt the dog at all; it simply stops him from leaping. Lucky
returns to his spot at Evan’s side and looks up at him, awaiting
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guidance.
Flora is frozen. Her hands start to hurt, and she realizes how
hard she is clenching them. The weight of the empty bottle pulls
at her thumb. Slowly stretching her fingers out straight, she looks
across the basement at the two of them. They both look expectant,
but about different things. Lucky wants to play, or at least interact
in some way. Evan wants Flora out. Gone.
“You guys okay?” she says.
“I’m fine.”
“Are you coming to bed?”
“I thought tomorrow was Saturday.”
“It is.”
Evan nods. “I’m going to stay up a little longer.”
“It’s late.”
“You can go to bed.”
“I know,” she says.
Evan looks confused. Then why don’t you go? Just go, his body
says, making almost imperceptible jerks, the bat now hanging in
the open.
“Evan. Come to bed. It’s late and it’s time for bed.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday.”
“Yes. It is,” Flora says. “And you need to go to bed.”
“Why? Because you say so?” Evan flinches forward. The
miniature bat swings against his leg, hitting himself above the knee,
on the back of his thigh, above the knee. Flora watches it.
“Because it’s time for bed. Because this is enough.”
“Because you say so?”
“Evan, I’m not scared of you.”
The bat stops swinging, and Evan stands straighter. Lucky’s tail
swishes, hitting Evan in the heel. The dog’s eyes arch up to him,
pleading for the word to send him across the floor to Flora. She
takes three steps forward.
“I’m not scared of you, either,” Evan says.
“That’s good. You shouldn’t be,” Flora says, bringing the bottle
behind her. Her arm stretches back until the heavy glass rests
against her butt. She crouches again and taps her free hand against
her knee. “Come here, boy. Come on, Lucky!”
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The dog is twitching forward, wanting to go, but held back by
dumb loyalty. It whines and stares up at Evan, inching forward, its
ass sliding along the cement. Evan flicks his head toward his mother
and the dog takes off.
Its front paws are thrown between its hind. Lucky is big
enough to clear the space in two good leaps, and Flora keeps up her
welcoming dog chatter. She watches him push off strong haunches
and come to her, their eyes meeting, his tongue flung behind him.
Drool falls and darkens the gray floor.
Above the oncoming dog Flora sees Evan raise his bat, but
she is faster. She starts her swing before its front paws touch the
ground. The wine bottle, when it connects with the dog’s head,
makes a solid thunk, and this time, when the dog hits the floor,
there is no movement.
Flora’s thumb hurts, stuck in the glass ring as it was, and she
removes the bottle, lets it hit the cement. She hears the loud, dull
clang and watches Evan rush to the still dog.
“Go to bed, Evan. We have a busy day tomorrow.”
AUTHOR BIO: Ben Schwartz lives in New Hampshire with his lovely
wife and two boys. He’s a recent graduate of Southern New Hampshire
University’s MFA program, where he completed a novel The Drift of
it, Everything. Ben works at the local Alternative High School, where
he hopes the kids don’t keep dogs. If you want to reach him, feel free to
write him at [email protected]
That Thing with the Dog was originally published in The Rag Issue 3.
79
80
YES, OFFICER
by John Woods
The world would be a better place without certain people.
Becky Pickens presses a frozen bag of peas against her welted
face. Blood smears her chin and neck and drips from her nose. She
tilts her head back and pinches her nostrils and keeps saying she’s
sorry for the trouble. She hisses painfully when I ask her to please
sit down. Her face is so warped, terrified, I forget she’s only twentyfour. That she’s a classmate and old friend.
The neighbors called it in. A retired couple feeding birds
granola in the yard. The terrible screaming and yelling from next
door, but no cries for help.
The man she’s with, Randy Melvin, cleans dishes at Annie Kay’s
and sometimes buses tables. Sometimes sells meth out the back
door, but I’ve never caught him. There’s a time for everything.
Now he leans against Becky’s refrigerator with his thick arms
crossed, fish and bear tattoos spiraling his biceps. He picks at his
teeth with a fat McDonald’s straw and seems bemused that I’m still
standing here.
“She pressing charges?” He spits a fleck of something to the
linoleum.
“You know she isn’t,” I say.
“Well?”
Becky stares at the plastic table, then faces the sink, which is
filled with dirty dishes smeared with flaky egg.
I slowly walk forward and move to place my hand on her
shoulder.
“Don’t touch her,” Randy says.
“I’m okay, Brett. Goddamnit.” She smiles because she has to.
It’s still a pretty thing to see. “I really am.”
“Who’s picking up Morgan from school?” I won’t stop looking
at her.
“Me,” Randy says. “Don’t worry.”
Morgan’s dad left town two years ago, when she was about
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five. He went down to Texas to work on an offshore rig. Sometimes
he sends up money. Sometimes Becky doesn’t hear anything for
months. Randy was always more than happy to fill the space.
“What happens when he starts going after her?” I say.
“I aint going after shit, Hastings.”
She wipes snot from her lip. “I won’t let nothing happen to
her.”
“Does self-preservation never come to mind?”
She sits up straight, raises her head. “I may got problems, but
I’m still a good momma.”
“Oh hell yes you are, Baby.”
From the corner of my eye I see Randy wink at me. My face
burns. In my world this wouldn’t have to be endured and tolerated.
It simply wouldn’t exist. I’m supposed to be an Officer of the Peace,
yet I can’t think of anything more tranquil than dragging this
waste of sperm to the landfill, grinding a gun against his face, and
blowing his brains out into a sewage ditch. Rid the world of him
and his future progeny.
“Need anything else, Officer? Some coffee?” He struts across
the room and rattles some mugs. “We apologize for the disturbance.
Wasting your time.”
I close my notepad. Rest my hands on my belt and let my
fingers brush the revolver’s grip. There are many choice words I
could say to him, but all would reveal my intentions.
Instead I breach boundaries and seize her chin and tilt her face
up to mine. I can see Randy twitch and stutter without action. Her
wet eyes shake. I tell her, “You deserve what you allow.”
Outside that little house on Walton Avenue I find people staring
at me. Mr. and Mrs. Fitzpatrick, who called the station. The
Schneiders and Doans and Rockwells. They all heard it and they all
know.
It’s a cold December afternoon with a bright heavy sun. My
favorite kind of day. Coats and steamed breaths. Sharp eyes and red
cheeks. I nod at them all before stepping into the cruiser. I can tell
they want to ask me questions, like Paul Doan with his three little
kids across the street. Lacy Schumacher with her frail physique,
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her husband missing in Afghanistan. I wonder what their thoughts
might be on legalized firing squads.
I’m sleek with hard features. Taller than most. I don’t hide my
eyes behind sunglasses. There’s this image people have. The bored
and lazy and stupid provincial town cop. I don’t fit the bill, they all
know. It scares them. Makes them wonder more than they should.
I radio in. The dispatcher, Molly, tells me there’s a fire alarm
drill out at the Barnesville High School. Traffic needs directed. I
wave to Randy who watches me from parted drapes.
I’ve been an officer for almost four years in Barnesville, my home
town. It rests along the stark Appalachian foothills two hours from
any city. I don’t consider myself an Ohioan.
The police station is in the same municipal building as
the mayor’s office. Red withered bricks and rusted shingles, a
prominent white cupola. There are five other officers employed
by the village and none of them are women. Cory Durum and
Sam Murphy sip instant coffee at the back desk and munch on
organically fried fritters from Patrick’s Diner. They watch the
morning news on FOX. Manicured commentators with boisterous
voices cover the protests on Wall Street. Riot-geared police corral
grungy college kids.
“I’d love to get in on that,” Cory says.
“Which side would you be on, Hastings?” Sam arches back to
see me better at the locker. His gut rolls over his pants. “Would you
join your hippy brethren?”
“Don’t harass the man for getting an education,” Cory says,
not glancing away from the images, the pepper spraying and
flailing batons. Shouting kids with signs and angry minorities
with bullhorns. Spiked hair and baggy clothes and puckered faces.
They all suspect the country has been hijacked by an international
banking elite poised for world domination. As far as I’m concerned,
this is indisputably true. It is an accusation not without precedent
or merit. But you don’t fix the world with sophomoric catchphrases
and privileged perceptions towards global human rights. Fantasy.
“You know which side I’m on.” I ruffle Sam’s hair and snatch
the fritter from his chubby hand.
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“Fucker.” He grasps like a petulant child and almost falls from
his chair.
Cory nods astutely at the television. “God, I’d love to crack
open a yuppie skull.”
I bite into the greasy dough and wiggle my finger at the screen.
“They’re doing it wrong. Supposed to clench the back of the neck
and then kick out the knees.”
“What happened to rubber bullets?” Sam says.
“To hell with rubbers,” Cory says. “I’d kill the first mongrel
that got in my face.”
A pretty blonde reporter starts interviewing a New York
business owner. He discusses the sanitation problems outside
his storefront. The vandalism and fearful atmosphere harming
commerce. He references legislative means by which to gain lawful
petitions and stresses the importance of productive civil discourse.
“I’d do her,” Sam says.
The commercials start for arthritis medication and erectile
dysfunction and vacations to Disneyworld.
“How’s Becky Pickens?” Cory stands and wipes crumbs from
his chest. Combs his black hair in the microwave’s reflection. “That
asshole still fucking her with sharpened carrots?”
“She’s a stupid girl,” I say.
“I’m telling you,” Sam says. “One night Molly’ll get a call from
two counties over. Be little Becky saying she just pulled a Loretta
Bobbitt on old Randy. And we’ll be out till dawn searching hay
fields for the fucker’s pecker.”
I shake my head. “No. She’s a stupid girl.”
Cory stirs himself more coffee and tucks a Celtic cross necklace
inside his black uniform. “He could hurt that kid. One of the
others up on Walton. We need to just send his ass to county.”
“I’ve stopped him after he leaves work,” I say. “Searched the car
twice. Nothing.”
“Smart bastard,” Sam says.
“Well, he’s not stupid.” Cory smacks his jowls and tilts the mug
knowingly. “Don’t mean he’s Pablo Escobar.”
“We could plant something,” Sam says.
“We won’t have to,” I say.
84
When the news continues it’s the entertainment portion. We
all stare as if entranced. Young flesh in tight clothes. Hairstyles and
lifestyles that may as well be alien.
“Who the hell is this Gaga?” Cory says.
“A symbol,” I say. “I don’t know.”
“She’s hot,” Sam says.
“Maybe if she didn’t have all that crap on her face,” Cory says.
“Why’s she got all that stuff on a pretty face?”
“Shit,” Sam says. “She could be eight hundred pounds with
a paper bag over her head, I’d still rod her. Say I went at it with a
superstar.”
I sip my coffee and wonder if Randy Melvin owns a gun.
“Would you do Oprah?” Cory says.
“Oprah?”
“Yeah. She’s big. Not too pretty.”
“Jesus,” Sam says. “You don’t never stick a Twinkie where a HoHos been.”
“All these celebrities,” I say. “I just don’t understand it. Maybe
we aren’t supposed to.”
“I can’t stand this Bieber kid either,” Cory says. “There’s nobody
for a boy to look up to anymore”
“Oh he takes it up the poop-shoot for sure.” Sam laughs and
his whole flabby body jiggles. “I want to know where he’s going to
be in ten years. Flipping burgers at McDonald’s.”
“That boy doesn’t have to work a single day for the rest of his
life,” I say.
We all check the clock along the wall. The Presbyterian
Church’s bells ring four times. We must patrol the township. Cory
hoists his belt and tucks in his shirt and gives one last look at the
television, protest coverage again. “All those fucking shits need to
get a job.”
Sarah’s waiting for me at the window. When I come in I hoist her
under the arms and twirl her giggling around the room. Her little
ribs are frail so I set her on the ground and tickle her gently until
she’s near crying.
Whitney sweeps piles of thick hair from the pantry. She’s an
85
independent hair dresser but calls herself a stylist. Has a surgicallooking chair by the window and a deep sink for shampooing. Goes
through seven clients a week, give or take. Chatty ladies who feel
somewhat privileged to be in our house and share town gossip with
an officer’s wife.
Sarah clasps onto my leg like an impish koala. I drag her into
the kitchen where I lift the pot’s lid and smell succulent meat.
Whitney makes a stew like no other. She swats at me to put the lid
back and kisses me while Sarah pulls at my pant leg.
“Your mom came by today,” Whitney says. “Dropped off some
tapes. Muzzy something.”
“VHS?”
“What do you think?”
“Padre! Padre!” Sarah pulls at my belt and starts climbing.
“Goddamnit.”
“Inside language now, Officer.”
“God, dam it.” I ruffle Sarah’s red hair.
“She brought their VHS,” Whitney says. “Hooked it up in the
living room. Been watching it all afternoon.”
My parents tried to make me a prodigy. Never really knew of
what. At age five they would put me in front of the TV to learn
German and Italian and Spanish from a fuzzy demented cartoon
giant named Muzzy. A great deal of linguistic knowledge stuck. Not
so much the Spanish, my least favorite. Other cultural elements
became indelible.
“I never thought my kid would be bilingual.” Whitney jumps
up with her hands before her mouth as if in prayer. Her fiery hair
is wild and curly, almost feral. If Sarah weren’t here I’d take her on
the linoleum and ride her in the leather seat till she sprayed like a
heated cat.
“Alright, you.” I hoist Sarah up until we lock eyes. “Hast du
Hunger?”
She shakes her head and smiles. “Nein, Padre.”
I frown, then nod slowly. “We’ll work on it.”
“I can’t say anything.” Whitney stirs the pot melodramatically
and readies some bowls. “Soon you two smarties will be talking
behind my back.”
86
I leave the ladies downstairs and go to the bedroom to
undress. Close the curtains. Before the mirror I study myself as I
meticulously dismantle the uniform. Hang the shirt neatly, remove
my combat boots and pants. Drape the belt stocked with handcuffs
and pepper spray and .357 revolver over the desk chair. I now
have dark stubble. I shave every morning because I appreciate my
firm jaw and think men should appear non-ape. My hair dirty
blond and my eyes an amalgamation of hazel and blue and green
depending on the light. My primary reason for joining the town
force instead of the state troopers was that I wanted to wear a jet
black uniform. I tuck my pants into my boots.
Whitney left her fitness magazines piled on the bedside table.
Her yoga mat rolled up in the corner. Nail file in my pen jar. I
breathe evenly and sit naked on the bed. Listen to them laugh
beneath the floorboards.
Married five years though I’ve known Whitney my entire life.
Throughout high school she slept with most of the varsity football
team. After I graduated from Oberlin, I returned home and found
her walking by herself one night, stumbling along the railroad
tracks with a bottle of Malibu Rum. We threw rocks at stray kittens
and shattered the bottle against a passing freight car.
We fucked in the abandoned paper mill atop moldy cardboard.
She ripped out a tuft of my chest hair while I bit open a mole
bleeding along her neck. Afterwards she said making love had never
been so sweet. She is a tortured woman who believes in redemptive
powers. Considers me a savior of sorts. While I am just a man who’s
jettisoned all illusion.
I pull the gun from its holster and set it on my lap. Most
officers don’t carry revolvers anymore. Too slow and not enough
rounds. But they’re accurate and reliable, durable. Will fire every
time without incident. I know myself well enough. That I would
be calm and steady, a focused indifference, and only need one shot.
And with a caliber like the .357, it wouldn’t matter where I hit.
Nobody’s standing up after that.
“Brett?” Whitney’s calling from the stairs. “You want cornbread
or a roll?”
I holster the revolver. “Whole wheat roll?”
87
“You know it, Baby.”
“I’ll take two.”
“Fatty.”
The only indication that I’m formally educated: a thin
bookshelf by the window replete with the thinking of Western
Civilization. The tedious Plato and Aristotle. Foolish Locke and
Hume. Some pondering theologians: Lewis and Calvin. Human
awareness is a linear progression obstructed by the desire to balance
escapist ideals with absolute reality. To reconcile freedom and order,
choice and control, Christian Morality and Natural Law. For the
strong and willful this seeking inevitably leads to a true viewing of
the world. The top shelf is reserved for Nietzsche and Hobbes and
Russell. And I no longer doubt or question the primacy of man.
I wear flannel pajama bottoms, tan slippers, and a Guinness
T-shirt to the dining room table. The stew steams before our
faces. We do not say grace, only a brief silence before eating as a
family. I help Sarah with her napkin, tuck it in her shirt and pull
her hair back from her mouth. The meat is tender, gamy. I chew
thoughtfully and smile wide.
Whitney grins. “Yeah? Good?”
“This isn’t beef.”
She almost wiggles in her seat. “Mrs. Carpenter brought by
two tenderloins. Fresh from this morning. Said Walter got it right
through the heart.”
I love the taste of deer. It melts into your veins with energy.
It’s an amazing thing to eat an animal that was running free only
twelve hours before.
“It’s leaner,” Whitney says. “Better than beef.”
“Are we eating Bambi?” Sarah slurps broth from her spoon.
“Probably, Honey.”
Whitney eats tiny bites. “I need lean protein.” She shakes her
head and slaps her hips. “If I were being hunted for food, this is
what they’d say, ‘Oh, she has sizeable drumsticks. Let’s eat her.’”
I laugh at my wife and tell her she’s ridiculous. That she’s
beautiful beyond measure.
Sarah’s eyes widen. “Who’s going to eat mom?”
“Cannibals already ate her,” I say.
88
“Nobody’s going to eat me, Sweetie.” Whitney glares at me.
“She doesn’t even know what that is.”
Halfway through the meal Whitney tells me how she and my
mother talked about our eighth grade spelling bee. How I almost
won, second to last, before I misspelled “Apocrypha.” Whitney then
recounts to Sarah how I tripped coming down the stage, fell on my
face to a snickering crowd. Bloodied my nose.
I smile. Eat and swallow. I remember her sitting with a bunch
of boys who were all laughing at me. That’s alright. I do not hold
grudges, and I am not easily offended.
Sarah’s little hand reaches out to hold mine. “It’s okay, Dad.”
“It wasn’t funny,” Whitney says. “We all felt so bad for him.”
“Yes. I missed out on the state championships. Much to my
father’s chagrin.”
“Oh, Baby. I don’t think he was grinning.”
Sarah smacks her gums. “This deer ist sehr gut!”
In the afternoon I see Morgan waiting along the curb outside the
elementary school. The buses have already left and Carly Sanders
sits with her and plays a math game with raised fingers. Morgan
has dark hair like her mother, knobby knees and big ears. I turn off
“Horn Concerto No. 4 in E Flat Major” and then roll down the
window.
Carly brushes back her hair and smiles with crooked teeth.
“Hey there, Officer Hastings.”
“This little lady need an escort?”
Morgan peers in at me uncertainly, looks to her teacher and
whispers something.
“How long she been waiting, Carly?”
“Oh. About thirty minutes.” She speaks softly to Morgan,
reassuringly. Then looks at me and winks. “She says she’s not
supposed to ride with strangers.”
I laugh and open the passenger door. “I’m not a stranger. I’m a
police officer. Hop in, Sweetheart. I’ll take you home.”
Morgan pulls up her pink backpack while Carly walks her over.
“Don’t forget to study spelling. Write the ones you don’t know five
times each. Have your mommy quiz you.”
89
“Thanks for sitting with her, Carly.”
“Where is that loser anyway? This is the third time.”
I shrug and help Morgan with the seatbelt. I hate when people
speak as if children can’t hear every word. As if they can only
understand when you address them in a soft condescending voice.
When we pull away I can already tell Morgan won’t say a word
to me. She looks around the cruiser, touches the knobs and radio.
I drive us through McDonald’s. Upon seeing the golden arches she
sits up in her seat and licks her lips. I buy her a chocolate sundae
with nuts and sprinkles. I get myself a black coffee and take off the
plastic lid so I don’t ingest leached carcinogens.
She thanks me and eats quietly. Glances out the window often
and studies my uniform.
“Does he ever hit you?” I say.
She’s seven years old and should have no idea what I’m talking
about. She stops eating her ice cream and stares at the dash.
“He hits your mom. Does he ever hit you?”
She tightens her mouth and looks out the window. “No.”
“Does he try?”
“She don’t let him.”
“So he tries.”
She takes a small bite. “Sometimes Whandy’s nice. We play
with the cabbage patches.”
I feel the back of my head tingle. My skin hot. I take a sip of
coffee and wave to Russell Timmons, who’s pushing a shopping cart
piled with empty beer and soda cans. “Does he try to touch you? In
bad spots?”
“I got hiding places. Mom shows me.” She kicks her feet over
the floor. “We going home?”
“Do you want to go home?”
She watches me from the corner of her eyes like I might be
playing a trick.
“Yes. I’m taking you home.”
Narrow gravel streets and stray dogs. Rusting cars entwined
in snowy weeds. Silent porches and empty yards where kids used
to play. I wonder where they all are. The sleds and snowmen.
Neighborhood snowball fights. What this town would look like
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without television, for just one week. I try to think of long alternate
ways to reach her house but there are only so many roads.
When I pull in front of the house I put the cruiser in park and
face her. “You and I are going to have a secret. Okay?”
“Okay.”
I take a sticky note from the glove box and write my cell phone
number. “You take this. Whenever you’re scared. If he ever starts
hurting your mom, you call that number. You can use a phone,
right?”
She nods carefully. Slowly puts the paper in her coat pocket as
if it were very heavy. Her mother comes to the porch with a plush
robe wrapped tightly around her chest. She smokes a cigarette and
won’t look at me.
Morgan sits absolutely still. A few moments. Then she adjusts
her backpack strap and gets out. She looks at my face for the first
time. “What you going to do?”
I purse my lips and sigh. “Well, Sweetie, I figure I’ll eventually
just execute Whandy with a hollow-point to the cranium.”
She squints at me. “I don’t know what that means.”
I drive beneath a red dusk. My favorite time. Everyone going home.
Closing the stores. I watch the streetlights snap on, a thing I doubt
many people actually notice. I stay on Main Street, so that anyone
can see I am still on the clock long after Sheriff Wharton has gone
home to his pseudo-mansion on Vine Street. He’s one of these old
school types, the sanctity of law and order, Jesus-given virtue and
such. Believes good people don’t need much policing. Despite his
pious rhetoric, he doesn’t seem to have any qualms about pocketing
money from the town treasury or taking bribes from Demont
Coal, a foreign coal mining company that’s recently invaded the
region to steal our resources and poison our water. Strip mine
rural vistas to lunar wastelands. The same song and dance with any
American town being raped like a third world village. It’s just sad
and pathetic. If one is going to put his reputation and “soul” at risk,
it ought to be for something meaningful. To do goodness through
badness. Many professions don’t provide such opportunities.
We’re supposed to wait outside the Elks and Veterans’ Lodge
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and stop drunks from getting in their cars. Our mere presence a
deterrent. Once I hid behind the dumpster and let this old timer
who’d stormed Normandy shuffle into his driver’s seat. He’d
vomited along the wall and dropped his big mesh cap sewn with
badges and unit numbers. I watched him drive off and followed
him from town to the back roads snaking along the outskirts. Made
sure he wouldn’t hurt anyone. He could barely stay on the road.
I drove off and left him, rolled down my window and listened to
Mozart and thought about things. Soon got the radio call. Ten
minutes later I watched EMTs scrape his brains from the pavement
like raw ground chuck from a skillet. He’d hit the tree going about
seventy. It was a nice car, Volkswagen Beetle with fishing lures and
shell casings dangling from the rearview.
It’s been over a week. And my little informant, Morgan, hasn’t
called.
In the morning I take Lester Coggins to the drunk tank for
pissing in the middle of Main Street, his bony legs straddling the
yellow line. I don’t charge him with indecent exposure. He’s just
an unstable Vietnam veteran who lives along the railroad tracks in
an abandoned bungalow. He tries to be Socrates with me, speaking
through the iron bars, asking what the difference is between him
relieving himself and an Amish buggy’s horse taking a shit in the
middle of the street. He’s got me there. After he sobers up I drop
him off at the Catholic Church so Monsignor Wilcox can give him
shelter or food or guidance. Communion wine.
I drink three twenty-ounce coffees from McDonald’s. Yell at
kids for skateboarding outside the nursing home. Throw two of
them in the back seat and take them back to the Middle School.
Confiscate their boards and set them on fire outside the dump.
I drive by Becky’s house three times. Randy’s truck in the
driveway. I park and watch and wonder if I’m becoming too
irrationally fixated.
Cory texts me and says, “dude their are tons of hottys at dollar
general.”
At the town park I drive around the lake and watch ducks glide
along icy water. I eat a hamburger from Patrick’s Diner. Chew on a
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mint and spin the revolver’s loaded cylinder.
Cory texts me and says, “holy shit when did shoving bath salts
up your ass to get hi become a thing!? lmfao. fuck is wrong with
kids, man.”
I drive by my parents’ Victorian home and pull into the
driveway but don’t get out. They turned my room into a library
annex for my father’s study. I put on the siren and speed out
through the lawn and then turn off the siren two blocks later.
The hospital calls the station because Demont Coal dynamited
without calling ahead. A surgeon accidentally cut an artery. Sheriff
Wharton tells us to do nothing. Tremors continue throughout the
day.
Cory texts me and says, “better go past patrick’s, bud. See who’s
sittin at the counter gummin cold coffee.”
The sky is sunny, but gas-like trails cloud the air.
Becky sits at the counter. Her face is swollen with blue-black
veins. Her hair is matted. Where she’s sitting, anyone can see her.
Everyone does.
“You pressing charges?” I say.
She shakes her head and brushes her hair down, concealing the
wounds. “What the fuck are you talking about, Hastings?”
I take the stool beside her. Feel the other patrons watching us.
Bearded men in overalls. Hard women with eyes like stones. “What
kind of passive aggressive shit is this? You think the town will lynch
him from the clock tower?”
“I’ve taken up kickboxing,” she says, pointing to her face.
I drum my fingers, sit back and study her. I notice she has
ridged eyebrows like a Cro-Magnon. “I sincerely hope he kills you
next time.”
She looks at me disgustedly, stutters while tears brim her eyes.
Then she stands and pulls on her hat. Throws on her parka and
pulls up the collar and rushes out the door without finishing her
coffee and grilled cheese.
As I stand to leave people talk at me but I can’t hear what
they’re saying. I think some are laughing.
Outside Becky crawls in a dented Toyota Matrix. Morgan sits
in the passenger seat with a pad of paper and pencil. She’s writing
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words five times each and has a bloody mouth.
After a hearty supper of salmon and wild rice and broccoli, I read
Hansel and Gretel to Sarah while tucking her in to sleep. She asks
me to keep the door ajar because she’s afraid of witches. I tell her if
anyone ever tried to hurt her I’d throw them in an oven.
Whitney does yoga in the living room. She does downward
facing dog and stretches in ways that pain my testicles. Before
showering she jumps on my lap and grasps me and says she wants
another child. Her face is sweaty and she smells wonderfully savage.
So we fuck quietly in the shower under cold water and what doesn’t
stay within her crusts like rubber cement along her thighs.
Lying beside her warmth and listening to her sleep, I recount
the trajectory of my life. Almost thirty. Listen to the wind against
the eaves. The furnace’s hum. And I figure, Oh why the hell not?
It’s about time I caught up with myself.
I wait two days until I have the night shift. It will take less than
twenty minutes. In cold such as this Barnesville becomes desolate.
Few people driving. Nobody walking. Behind Annie Kay’s I park
beneath a busted streetlight. Feet away from Randy’s truck and the
stoop where he takes his five minute breaks.
I leave the engine running. Mozart off. I wait here longer than
I’d like but soon he comes out as expected. He’s without a coat and
still wears a filthy white apron. Before he can pull out his Zippo I
rush him. He smirks and raises his arms while the cigarette wiggles
in his lips. He’s built heavier than me and when I jump two steps
and clasp his neck he almost throws a punch. A shocked hesitation
is all I need and then I’ve spun him around and kicked out his
knees and twisted his wrists upwards. He tries to pull free so I drill
my boot into his back and cuff his hands with a plastic zip tie.
“Alright. Alright.” He spits out the cigarette and smiles under
shaggy hair. “What I do?”
I jerk him to his feet and push him off the stoop. His feet drag
through snowy gravel. He asks me who pressed charges. He tells me
I don’t have shit on him. When we get to the cruiser I give the lot a
quick glance. Nobody’s watching.
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“I aint been Mirandized, Officer Hastings.”
From my coat I pull out a black trash bag and quickly shove
it over his head before pushing him in the caged backseat and
slamming the door. He’s now shouting and flailing around. The car
shakes but I can’t hear him. I take a few steps back and inspect the
dim windows.
I drive across East Main Street. No cars in any direction. I keep
my headlights off and go downhill past the water tower, the quiet
neighborhood by the cemetery. I glance at the clock on the dash. It
took all of two minutes.
“What the fuck are you doing, Hastings? Can’t breathe in here,
man.”
I think about his boss and coworkers waiting for him. How so
much can happen in two minutes. As if he were never even here.
“Well.” He rests his head back. “Got to go back and tell them
I’ve been abducted by Clint Eastwood.”
I put on my headlights.
“You’re going to get me fired, Hastings. Then I won’t have any
income. I’ll have to collect a welfare check. Disability, maybe. Food
stamps. That what you want?”
“I’m not too concerned about it.” We drive past the high
school and track fields. The hay-swept earth beneath the Quaker
Meeting House. Almost to the back roads.
“So, what do you fucktards have in store for me? Piss on me or
something? Throw me in a cell and pretend like there’s a swarm of
rats in there or something but it’s really just cats?” He laughs and
kicks the seat. “Seriously. What are you doing?”
I turn the wheel. I watch the dark road parting.
“I don’t know anything about meth,” he says.
“I don’t care about meth. It kills worthless people faster.”
He’s silent for a few moments. “Shit. I know she didn’t say
anything to you.”
“She didn’t have to.”
“Is that what this is about? Really?” He leans forward and rests
his head against the grate. “Come on, Hastings. Like you aint never
wanted to smack your wife in the mouth.”
“I get my wife flowers all the time,” I say. “Without reason. Put
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them in a vase and everything.”
“Soak ‘em in rubbing alcohol?” He sighs. The bag inflates,
deflates, like a giant black lung.
“What about Morgan?”
“Tiny version of a future whore.” He reaches his fingers
through, tries to tickle my neck. “But you already know that.”
I roll down the window. Stick my arm out and part my fingers.
“Well, I’d be a liar if I said those thoughts were unfamiliar to me.”
“Yeah. You got to watch your little one. Don’t you?” He sits
back. His head turns as if he can see out the windows. “All I got
was a blowjob. A toothy one. After prom. That’s the best I got from
Whitney.”
“Many others got a lot more.”
“That must be real tough to deal with, Officer.”
“No. Not really.”
He adjusts in his seat. “I will say this, you’re a hard
motherfucker to peg down, Brett.”
I drive past a no trespassing sign and follow the utility road.
Death’s head warnings for sulfurous water. There is no moon. The
trees appear nakedly mangled beneath black clouds. I watch exhaust
coil in the red taillights.
“Where are we going?” he says.
I pull alongside a ditch where heavy equipment once stood.
I turn off the lights and see distant halogens glowing behind the
strip-mined hillside. I leave the cruiser and walk carefully to the
edge where I shine the flashlight. A slight muddy incline, then
nothing. Darkness. I toss in a rock. No sound or echo. I toss in
three more. This excavated earth will be buried and forgotten. His
head will rupture within the bag, preventing blowback and cerebral
spray, and then he’ll simply topple down.
When I open the door he says, “You know I can sue you. This
is unlawful. Whatever you bastards got planned.” He stands when I
tell him to stand. “Think about that.”
I lead him forward as he complains about the cold. Tripping
in the snow. How he can’t see anything. I tell him to trust me. We
don’t have far to go.
At the edge I tug on his apron so he’ll stop. He just stands there
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with his hands behind his back. Wind ripples the bag. I had wanted
to say something profound, meaningful, quote something. Give
him reasons and justifications. But I feel quite dispassionate about
the whole thing.
“You know, Hastings, I really do love the bitch.”
I pull out the revolver and aim at his face. “You think you
know what power is.” I thumb back the hammer. The chambers
rotate, cyclical, metallic parts assigned to a sole order and function.
“But you don’t.”
In the morning I make fried eggs and bran muffins and sausage
links. Halved grapefruit and pitted dates. Whitney and Sarah rub
sleep from their eyes and join me at the table. I eat two servings of
everything. Three cups of black tea with organic local cream, couple
spoons of sugar. Afterwards we build a snowman in the sunny
yard. Sarah kisses my cheek and laughs in my arms. Her little heart
pounds beneath little ribs. Whitney watches us dotingly. I am aware
of my breathing. I am alive. Happy.
Two days later Sheriff Wharton invites me out for coffee
at Patrick’s. He squeezes into the opposite booth, sets his huge
hands upon the table. He discusses the coming year. Nostalgically
recounts his tenure as sheriff. Speaks fondly of retirement. Says he
feels out of touch, left behind. Says there are not many qualified
options within the district, but that everyone understands a local
candidate is best. He bluntly suggests that my higher education
trumps my comparatively brief time within the profession. I say
that sounds about right. We shake hands and he pays for my coffee.
I stay at the window and watch well-dressed Demont Coal
representatives pass in a foreign SUV. They sleep at the local bed
and breakfast. They smugly point at the town they’re ruining. They
smile and nod, wave at me. I stare long enough, and then wave
back. My hand still smells like gunpowder.
Later in the afternoon Becky calls the station. His absence is
confirmed by Annie Kay’s. I meet Sam and Cory in the lot. We pace
around Randy’s truck as if it’s explosive. The doors are unlocked.
We search the vehicle, beneath the seats. We scratch heads and
shrug shoulders. Sam bends down on one knee and reaches under
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the tailgate, along the spare tire beneath the bed.
“You fat mongoloid,” Cory says. “What you doing?”
Sam soon grins and pulls out a plastic jar of men’s
multivitamins. He removes the cap and pours little glass-like shards
into his hand before licking one delicately. “Oh yeah,” he says.
“Crystal.”
Cory and Sam rush into Wharton’s office and start proposing
theories. Meth wars. Other dealers taking out competition. Some
guy in Bethesda had a trailer mysteriously blow up on his property.
Wharton rubs his temples and asks if there’s even a damn body.
I say I’ll head over and question Becky.
Before I even park I see her leaning in the doorjamb, as if
waiting. She appears freshly washed. Wears a dress despite the cold.
Hair pulled back. She crosses her arms and watches me carefully.
Her broken face somehow stunning. I don’t get out of the cruiser.
I don’t expect her to. But she does. The faintest smile. Then she
shuts the door. And I start wondering if maybe I should give the
fairer sex more credit.
Acquiescence is really all I require.
I drive past peaceful houses. Sunlight bladed through trees.
Though I never felt wayward, I have a renewed sense of self, of
purpose. Despite their cowardice and stupidity, perhaps I can
actually reach these people. My view can be proliferated. That is
such a wonderful thing to consider.
It gives me hope for a better world.
AUTHOR BIO: John is a native of Appalachian Ohio and a junkie
for sound fiction. He began seriously writing when he was seventeen,
driven by a nebulous desire to “contribute meaningful literature to
the world.” He tells himself that as long as he keeps writing, his skills
may actually catch up with his ideals. He is a 2009 graduate of
Ohio University’s Creative Writing Program, a friendly recluse, and a
reluctant misanthrope. Now twenty-six, this is his first published story.
And he is very grateful. He is currently finishing a collection of short
stories and revising a novel.
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Yes, Officer was originally published in The Rag Issue 5.
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THE LEAVES ARE FALLING
by Tony Zito
This house, with the huge maples, five of them, this is the place, he
knows it and she knows it, there is no wanting to disagree, there is a
sudden end to advancing the agenda through the medium of house
hunting. House hunting is the continuation of marriage by other
means, means other than sex and spending and talking, although it
will surely end in spending. What is the agenda here? It is sleeping
together and raising children, getting things and doing things and
going places together. This is what is anticipated. If it looks like the
young couple can’t manage some part of it, then someone ought
to object, someone should step forward and say very bluntly, “You
mustn’t do this unless you are willing to press the agenda.”
There are hidden things in the agenda, not posted because no
one has written them down. An item having to do with who will
be sadder when something is lost, an item concerning who will
play the role of Anger when the couple’s interests are threatened,
a motion regarding whether it is the man or the woman who will
feel more abashed at the other’s successes. All of that is tabled
during the house hunting, when there are endless opportunities for
subtle family business. She may say, “This room—your study? You
couldn’t fit half your books on these shelves,” meaning of course
that she wants it for herself. He may say, “The detached garage may
not work like you think it will,” by which he means to assert certain
tools and supplies will nonetheless have to be kept inside the house
itself.
But at the place with the maples, they say very little. It’s spring
and the branches are still studded with buds, the leaves are a month
away. It’s easy to imagine a jigsaw of twilight slowly growing here,
each new leaf inserting its patch of shade. The coolness, the vaulted
space beneath the massive crowns, the moss. This is going to be great,
they say. This is going to be great.
Sometimes the agenda can be amended abruptly, as when
fifteen years ago, the doctor had said, Never. In the bedroom of
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their second floor apartment, the husband finds her weeping, a
thunderstorm that will not depart is circling her heart. She sags at
her vanity, cupping her abdomen as though to hold herself together,
not trusting the zipper of staples which makes her look like a
stuffed toy, repaired rather than healed. A few minutes ago she had
been flinging her maternity clothes, scattering them around the
room. He could be holding her but she does not want him to. He is
at the open window, he can feel the wind blowing wrong, blowing
out, it will suck everything out of the room, the maternity dresses,
the night stands, the bed, it will empty the closets, leaving a clean
swept cavity. Never!
A second modification ten years ago. The doctor had said,
Degenerative disk disease. The husband was thirty then but in the
MRI his back looks fifty. The doctor had said, Never.
For five weeks he lay flat on his back, waiting for feeling to
return in his right leg. Things they no longer do together: canoeing,
bicycling, discussing adoption. Deleted from the agenda.
But his back has not hurt him for some time now. It wasn’t the
orthopedists who helped, nor was it drugs, but a chiropractor had
made him well, handled him for fifteen minutes one evening, and
told him, “Go home and take a nap, you’ll feel better.” He woke
after two hours on the couch and the pain was gone.
In June, they move in. There’s a lot to be done: turning a
garden, putting in a mail box, mowing and raking, up on ladders,
down in holes, the place needs work. Work. By August he is tired,
his back has begun to hurt again after years without pain, which
creates a panicky wish in him for the impossible, to make time turn
back just one day, just one! She comes home from running and
finds him down on his back again. That is what she tells her mother
on the phone, “No we can’t come this weekend, he is down on his
back again.”
She will do the work now. A few leaves have fallen and for
the first time as she looks up she grasps that the leaves are like
bodies she will have to take care of, hide away without benefit
of ceremony, like the overabundant corpses following a disaster.
There is a procedure for this: gather the leaves and pile them on
the tarp, drag the tarp down to the street to form a moraine along
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the front, watch the sucking trucks with their long black trunks
and baleful operators come by every Wednesday morning through
Thanksgiving, consuming the leaves at curbside, occasionally
choking on a fallen branch.
An hour or two this Saturday and next, maybe a half hour
after work now and again, and by the time the trees are stripped
there’ll be just one lazy morning needed to polish it off. But would
it be too discouraging to see newly reclaimed lawn buried within
hours by the unabated avalanche of the dead? All right then, a mass
funeral, two eight hour days once all the leaves are down and that’s
it. But what if the snow comes early and she is forced to let the
leaves lie? Think of the agony of having to clear the heavy, meltsodden leaves in April, of having to expose the scabrous turf, think
of the expense of aerating, slicing, re-seeding. No, better to keep
after it every day.
He tells her, we can hire a couple of boys to do it. He has been
up and around a little, able to work briefly at his desk, but certainly
in no position to remove leaves. He hides in the house, down
on his back, not wanting to see her labor the thing down to the
street alone, bent forward at full strain, one arduous step at a time,
stopping to sigh and breathe, and again, and stop, and again. He
is no longer a boy. Why is she still a girl, jogging, going shopping
with her girlfriends, raking after work until dark, while he is down
on his back? She has no injury he is aware of, no torn muscles, no
bulging disks, no battered ligaments. He no longer has any friends,
not counting her, of course. His pain is here, where is hers?
She likes to get the roadside pile going again as soon as she gets
home on Wednesday, then add to it day by day until she’s got a
long ridge, a mottled whale rising from a yellow-green sea, waiting
for the next visit from the vacuum truck.
We can hire some kids to do this, he pleads, sure that it must be
hurting her. Not at all, you’re the one with the bad back, we’re not
wasting money on this when we have so much else we need. Well,
by next weekend I’ll be able to help. Are you insane, the Doctor said
never, now look what’s happened. Just let me do it.
He sees two boys raking in the neighbor’s yard, fourteen,
maybe fifteen years old. How much to finish ours? They estimate. A
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hundred bucks, he tells her. A hundred bucks, just like that? It’ll be
done by Sunday, just forget it, will you? And don’t let me catch you
with a rake in your hands!
It’s been three weeks since they’ve spent any time together, she’s
been out there every spare minute trying to get rid of the leaves,
and they just keep coming, a deluge of leaves, a torrent, thank
god for the vacuum trucks or where would they be, trying to bag
all of it? He can estimate the total weight she will have hauled by
the time it’s over. A basket full is around ten pounds, twenty or so
baskets to the tarp, sixty tarps full for the whole job and that’s six
tons, what else weighs that much, an elephant? The Pentagon, the
Western Hemisphere? She just gets stronger, he swears he can see
the tightening in her abs since the raking began.
He has gained six pounds. The chiropractor is not helping.
By the time he got to the chiropractor that first time, the injury
had been three years old and it probably just happened to coincide
with the natural healing process. He’s taking anti-inflammatories
and lying on ice, which is getting him through the work day but
that’s about all. The lower he goes the more manic she becomes.
Work, rake, jog, sew, install a coat rack, update the photo albums,
paint the dining room, her day is impossibly long, fifty or sixty
hours worth of busy, busy, busy, somehow warped into twenty four,
like one of those science fiction houses that’s a tollbooth from the
outside but a mansion once you’re in it.
Where does she get the room for it, and what is she filling
up on, that’s what he wants to know. Some of it is coming out of
him, there’s a little pit growing in his stomach, an empty place that
eating does not fill, not that he doesn’t try. He’s up another two
pounds between Monday and Friday, when he makes a last attempt
to reason with her. Please, please, please let those boys help! But she
is implacable.
His back is surely sixty years old now. Hers must be that of a
teenager, the X-rays would cause a sensation at an orthopedic
conference. “Look at this, Doctor, isn’t that astonishing, the discs,
the vertebrae so pristine, the whole back is like a shoe that’s been
resoled.” They are nearly the same age, born only two months apart,
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but from the start his body has been stealthily aging faster than
hers, a secret they had not known they shared.
The noose of winter nights is tightening around the daylight
now. Clouds like a crocodile’s belly ripple the late afternoon sky,
dark clouds hammer the horizon. Standing at the bedroom window,
he sees that the world has stopped. Every leaf is motionless, fixed in
an impossibly complete absence of breeze or tremor. She is poised
in mid-stroke, forming an arch which begins at her feet, bridges a
mound of leaves and ends at the rake’s tines. But wait, her shoulders
are quaking. What will he hear if he opens the window? Crying,
laughter, silence, the sound of the wind blowing wrong, dragging
him out to be swept away with the debris. By the time he gets to
the door she is in the shed. He calls her name from the porch.
What’s wrong?
“This is killing me,” she tells him.
“Of course it is, that’s why I thought we should hire those two
kids. Can’t hurt them.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“What then?”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, honestly I don’t.”
“Please, please.”
“Well, I thought you meant the raking, all the work around
here now that I’m down—now that my back is hurting again.”
“I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about this house. What
is this house for, anyway?”
“What is it for?” He’s completely flummoxed by this obscure
testimony to misery. She is tired and shriveled and hopeless,
slumped on the bottom step, cuddling her shoes in her lap.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to say,” he admits.
“Those boys, they knocked on our door while you were out.”
“And so?”
“They still ride bicycles.”
“Still on bikes, yeah. I figured them maybe fourteen, fifteen
years old. Didn’t they seem like good kids?”
“Sure, great kids. I don’t want to waste money on them, I told
you that, why didn’t you tell them?”
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“I did, but I guess they’re ambitious, they just wanted to take
another shot at it, I guess.”
“Another shot at it! Another shot.” She places one hand across
her eyes, as though the very idea of trying again were unbearably
shameful and sad. He can’t understand what’s hurting.
“I don’t understand. I don’t know how to help you.”
“Of course you can’t help me. I don’t want you to help me.”
He is in the same place he was when she began to speak,
watching her through an archway. He wants to move closer but he
does not. There is something he is trying to remember but the pain
in his back drives it off. Of course he can’t help her.
Things they no longer do together: work, touch, talk. Stricken
from the agenda. By Thanksgiving he is sleeping on the first floor,
to avoid having to go up and down the stairs. He carries pills and
pillows with him everywhere, downs sixteen ibuprofen tablets a
day and dreams about the miracles of arthroscopic surgery, a magic
wand they can stick in him and, voila! The pain goes away.
There is more to do outdoors right now, the storm door is
leaking, there are bees in the fascia, there are rotten clapboards, the
steps to the back porch are unsafe and the mulberry tree is leaning
on the neighbor’s fence. But the time of year for these things has
passed and he can’t do them anyway. She is not doing anything
now.
The leaves will huddle under the snow, he’ll find them come
spring, heavy and rotten, confetti transmuted into sodden wads. If
he avoids snow shoveling and lets his back heal, he’ll be ready, he’ll
go out there to bag the remains, trying to make out a future in the
scabrous patches underneath. When he’s done he’ll find her in her
chair, book folded shut in her lap, motionless. He will ransack his
life, their life, for any scrap of new business. His mouth will hinge
open, nothing will come in or out. They will adjourn.
AUTHOR BIO: Tony Zito teaches physics, mathematics and astronomy
at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY. He is the
mathematics coordinator for the Bard College Prison Initiative, a
privately funding program offering bachelor’s degrees to inmates in the
105
Mid-Hudson Valley of NY. When that’s all out of the way, he manages
to eke out a few words of fiction, while crossing his fingers it doesn’t
come out sounding like stuff he’s been reading. He lives, with his wife
Pat and two children, in a suburban house with vinyl siding the color
of an unpainted model airplane. Before taking up physics, he worked
in the non-profit performing arts industry as a manager, publicist and
fundraiser.
The Leaves are Falling was originally published in The Rag Issue 2.
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IN-WORLD
by Joel Higgins
Cynthia’s hands gripped the rubber handles. Her husband, Ethan,
slumped over in the wheelchair. She pushed gently forward,
glancing down at the top of her husband’s head, wondering if he
were smiling.
It was not an abnormal night. Cynthia had returned home
from work to find Ethan in the office, lost in-world. She had
touched his shoulder and waited for him to remove the apparatus
they had built three years ago. Once he had taken off the goggles
and reached his arms out, she had removed him from the office
and took him into the dining room where they ate a bucket of fried
chicken together.
And now dinner was over. At this point in their nightly
routine, she would usually take him into the bathroom in the
hallway and help him bathe. But tonight Cynthia found herself too
exhausted to muster the energy, so she decided to place him back
in the office. She stopped as she passed the bathroom and leaned
down.
“How about we skip the bath tonight,” she whispered.
Ethan straightened his posture, glanced over his shoulder, and
nodded. Cynthia saw the small smirk etched on his mouth and
contented herself with her decision. Ethan would stay in-world
tonight.
Once in the office, she drew a deep breath, walked around to
face him and slowly slid her right hand beneath his bony legs, while
her left braced his back. She heaved upward and took Ethan with
her. She walked the few feet across the office and gently set him
down into the office chair.
Out of breath, she gasped, “I love you.”
“Yeah,” he said.
Cynthia watched as he put the apparatus on his head and
turned on the computer. She flipped the light off on her way out
and looked briefly back at her husband, then unclasped her silver
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earrings as she walked down the hall, into the bedroom, and sat
down on their cold bed.

It’s weird, the things that trigger reflexes, like the sudden urge to
visit your childhood home when Christmas commercials start
running, or the impulse to jump when you’re standing on top of
a skyscraper. For me, it’s the urge to sing while it’s in my mouth. I
don’t know why it’s come over me, all of a sudden, but it has.
I’m in the garage with the gun down my throat. The radio on
the workbench has started playing a Pink Floyd song. Or maybe
it’s Bowie. I think it’s Floyd though, the guitar sounds whiny or
transcendent—I can’t really tell. Or maybe that’s Bowie’s voice. Or
maybe it’s Neil Young.
Anyway, I’m on the garage floor with this thing in my mouth
and it just crashes down on me, I should sing “I Feel Pretty”
from West Side Story. Cynthia would get a kick out of that. So, I
walk over to the workbench and make sure the vocal command
application’s running. Then I lean up real nice and animated-like
against the wall. This is going to be good.
“Record.”
I shove it in my mouth and my finger slips. I’m too excited.
I nearly blew my head off too early. That would have ruined
everything.
“Ah fwee pehhy, ow sah pehhy. Ah fwee pehhy eh whehee eh ghay!”
I slam my finger down on the trigger and little bits of what had
formerly been me dangle in the air, sparkling like Christmas lights,
then stars, then pinholes in a curtain, then nothingness.
The gun clatters to the floor and fires another shot upon
impact, blasting a hole through the garage door. I log back in beside
the gun and pick it up, taking a moment to assess the damage. As
I’m looking through the hole, I have an idea. I look down at the
gun. I put the barrel up to my nostrils and breathe in. I drop the
gun and walk to the workbench.
“Access C underscore second home garage smells,” I say to no
one.
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For the rest of the night, I work on getting it right. By the
morning, the shotgun smells real. I email Cynthia the video of my
exploding head so she can have a laugh at work. I log out and take a
look at the clock. Thirty minutes until she wakes up.
I thump out of the office chair and crawl across the carpet until
I get to the wheelchair. My arms burn as I pull myself up and into
the thing. Cynthia usually does this. Once I’m in the seat, my arms
quake. I make my way down the hallway and into the bedroom.
Looking at Cynthia, I think about making her a nice breakfast,
maybe some French toast, she loves French toast. Then I remember
that the syrup’s in the top of the cupboard. I creep into bed and
think about kissing her cheek, but she’s still got a few more minutes
of sleep and I’m sure she’d want that more.

The small, white house on Luther Road looked like a spotlight
against the night sky. The lawn was overgrown and all but dead,
the hedges hadn’t been trimmed in years, the gutters had filled with
debris from an overhanging sycamore tree. If a neighbor had been
walking past this house on this night, however, they would not have
been surprised by any of this.
Inside the house, Cynthia Rutledge was tapping her foot,
waiting for her husband. She stood for a few minutes, sighed
heavily, and hovered over Ethan as he sat in his computer chair.
Finally, Ethan removed the pair of wired goggles from his eyes. He
looked up at the huffing Cynthia, then reached out his arms and
clasped them around her neck.
The house, from the outside, appeared remarkably normal to all
who strode past, save for the poor lawn care habits of those inside.
And, for the most part, it was exceedingly ordinary. However, as
with most houses on similar streets, there were any number of
secrets that clung to the walls.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these secrets was the nature of
Ethan Rutledge himself. It had been some years since anyone in the
neighborhood had seen them together. In fact, it had been some
years since anyone had seen Ethan at all. This was so much the
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case that the local school children had taken to inventing stories
about the man behind the opaque shades. The children would ride
by on rusted bicycles, daring each other to approach the windows.
Occasionally one would, and they’d return to their friends swearing
to have seen the ghost of Ethan Rutledge within the dim light of
the small house.
Of course, Ethan Rutledge was not a ghost. Ethan Rutledge
was paralyzed from the waist down. A car accident he had been
in with Cynthia three years ago had caused the injury. And, since
then, Cynthia had done everything in her power to help Ethan
come to terms with his lot in life.
And so, on this night, when he clasped his arms around her,
it was not out of affection or love—it was a simple, recurring
arrangement where she would lift him from the office chair and
place him into his wheelchair.
After she set him down, she rolled him into the dining room,
which maintained a permanent state of disorder due to Cynthia’s
inability to find the time to clean it. She rolled him right up to the
table and, together, they ate dinner, which on this night was a fast
food hamburger and fries. Ethan avoided her gaze as Cynthia ran
her chewed fingernails against the linen tablecloth.
“I watched the video.” Cynthia said.
“Oh,” he responded, appearing slightly more animated than
moments before.
“I don’t understand.”
“What?”
“Why would you send me that? Was it supposed to be funny?”
Ethan slumped back down into his chair and toyed with the
soggy bun.
“I didn’t think it was funny, Ethan,” she continued. “I thought
it was cruel.”
They finished dinner and Cynthia made her next day’s lunch
while Ethan stared at his reflection in the dining room window.
Then, she wheeled him to the hallway bathroom and helped him
into the tub. She washed his legs and his buttocks, taking special
care not to rub the sores, which were becoming all the more
frequent, too firmly.
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Ethan had barely spoken at dinner. And now, in the bath, he
wasn’t speaking much either. In fact, Ethan hadn’t spoken more
than a few monosyllabic words to his wife in quite some time, in
the real world anyway. And, despite all she lost in the accident,
Cynthia missed her and her husband’s conversations more than
anything.
There were entire weeks, in fact, during which the only thing
Cynthia truly desired was to hear her husband’s opinions on the
news, or listen to one of his extended rants about the wonders
of marathon running, or to hear him recount the story of how
they met. Before the accident, they spoke often of telling their
children that particular story. Ethan used to tell it to her frequently
so he could work out its intricacies, in an effort to maximize its
effectiveness on their would-be children. But, now, Ethan could
never find it within himself to oblige his wife’s conversational desire
and she could never find it within herself to ask it of him. And so,
it should be no surprise that when he felt the bubbling in his groin,
he should try his best not to speak.
Cynthia had turned from the bathtub to the sink, brushing her
teeth as he soaked in the tub. She stroked back and forth, seeming
to fall asleep as she did. She caught a glimpse in the mirror of Ethan
shifting in the tub. She stopped brushing for a moment.
“You alright?” she asked.
There was no response. She continued brushing. The sound
that came from the tub next struck Cynthia in places she had nearly
forgotten existed.
“Cynthia,” Ethan gasped.
Her toothbrush plummeted to the sink, seeming to cause a
seismic ripple upon impact. She turned slowly, all the feelings of
her husband before the accident creeping into her mind, making
her face flush to a deep red. She remembered the rushing of the
wind blowing through her hair as she and Ethan rode through the
mountains with the convertible top down. She remembered how
he used to say her name. She allowed herself to believe, if only for
a single instant, that when she had turned fully, her husband might
leap out of the tub and hold her, apologize for his selfishness, and
promise to take her far away from the small house on Luther Road.
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What was actually in the tub, however, was something quite
different. Ethan had lost control of his bowels. The tub was filled
with a murky, brown liquid with slivers of fecal matter bobbing
on top. She took a step backward, resting her hand on the sink.
Immediately, her mind moved to the best course of action. She
must go into the kitchen and get a trash bag, cover her arms with
it, and return to help Ethan out of the tub before seeing to its
cleaning.
As she darted out of the bathroom, she had not even thought
to look at Ethan’s face. He struggled to keep himself still, hoping
that it would cause Cynthia not to see him as much as she saw
what he had done. This worked remarkably well, so much so that
Cynthia never saw the single tear that crept out of Ethan’s eye, nor
his bottom lip as it trembled in shame.
It took some time, but eventually both Ethan and his accident
had been take care of. Cynthia changed into her nightgown and
helped Ethan into his pajamas. She rolled him into the hall and
stopped just outside the bedroom door. Beyond the door, at the end
of the hall, Ethan’s office waited for him. Cynthia walked around to
face him, leaned down and spoke in a whisper.
“Where do you want to be tonight?” she asked.
Ethan motioned his head toward the office. She nodded,
pushed him into the office, and helped him into the chair. As she
left the room, she thought about telling him that she loved him,
but he had already put the goggles on his head. She sighed, then
began removing her silver earrings as she inched down the hall.

I’m sitting on the stool in front of the workbench, twirling a
screwdriver between my index finger and thumb, and something’s
not right. The weight, I think it’s the weight. The handle should be
heavier, I think, thicker at the hilt, stouter. I make a mental note to
correct this later. I start pacing back and forth across the concrete
floor, drawing crop circles in the sawdust.
The radio’s playing Queen. It’s Bohemian Rhapsody. I try
singing along a bit to the Scaramouche part. That bit always makes
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me want to sing.
My legs feel good tonight. I jump and jog a little and thrust my
right leg onto the workbench, stretching forward onto it. If things
were completely right here, I’d feel the burn of my muscles as I lean
forward. If things were right here, I wouldn’t be able to rub my
forehead against the underside of my calf. But, things aren’t right
here, not yet anyway. I’ve got so much to do.
The bullet hole in the garage door will need repair. I should
have done that before I came in, but it can wait. Beyond the hole,
there’s darkness, the most pure darkness you’ve ever seen. The kind
that only shows up in spaces of non-creation, the kind that’s only
where things aren’t or haven’t yet been.
I decide to jump a little more. The neighbors would think I’m
crazy if they saw me right now, hopping up and down around my
garage. But, the neighbors can’t see me, not here.
As I jump, the thought that these legs won’t be enough creeps
into my consciousness. It’s been a long time since I didn’t know
what to do here. I think about putting some new reflex or detail
into my legs, but decide that the amount of time it would take isn’t
worth the payoff—not tonight anyway.
It hits me like a needle plunging into my temple. I duck below
the workbench and pull out the black tin box. The box is a replica
of my grandfather’s. He gave me his just before he died. He said,
“Ethan, I keep everything that matters in this box. I want you to do
the same.” I told him I would. I lost the box. So, I made a new one
here.
I put the box on the workbench and open it. There’s nothing
inside at first, just an empty black space with a cobweb in the
corner, a nice touch if I do say so myself.
“Forty-nine,” I say.
Sparkling white lights fill the chamber, and the box is suddenly
alive with moving photos. I installed the password in case Cynthia
ever tried to open it. In retrospect, it was a pretty pointless
safeguard.
I thumb through the pictures and stop at the one I want. I take
the photo out and throw it against the garage wall. It multiplies in
size, filling the entire wall. I lean back and cross my arms.
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“Play.”
A younger man, the number “49” stitched in large white
letters on his shirt, runs down a long stretch of asphalt as other
marathon runners whiz by. The broken yellow finish line tape lies a
few hundred feet in front of him. Cynthia’s voice cheers behind the
camera. He stumbles a bit, sweat gushing from every available pore.
Cynthia screams.
I can’t help myself, watching the younger me struggling to
reach the line.
“Come on, you fucker! Come on,” I scream at the wall.
The young man regains his balance and forces his way forward.
It never gets old, watching him. It’s like watching yourself in the
Super Bowl. He’s feet from the finish line when his left ankle gives
out.
“Don’t you give up, you son of a bitch!”
The younger man claws his way across the line and I jump up,
screaming as loud as I can. The image on the wall collapses back
into a photo and falls on the workbench. I collapse with it, panting
and wheezing.
I laugh for a while on the cold garage floor before it creeps
in. I think it’s pain. But, it could be regret. Or maybe guilt. I’m
not really sure. But, whatever it is, it brings with it something like
crying. You can’t really cry here, I never thought to add that. But,
inside, that’s kind of what it feels like. My gut spasms and I think
my nose is probably running on the outside. There’s something
warm on my cheek, but when I rub it, there’s nothing there. It’s a
lot like crying, but it’s a lot like nothing too.

“Don’t you give up, you son of a bitch.” The sound burst through
the thin bedroom wall. Cynthia woke and bolted down the hall.
She cracked the door open slightly, the light from the office
momentarily blinding her. When the haze cleared, she saw her
husband in front of his computer, fully wired in, arms in the air,
yelling at nothing.
As she cleared her throat, intending to wreck his pre-dawn
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party, something caught her eye. His left leg seemed to twitch.
Cynthia gasped and took a step back, then inched forward. Again,
a hint of movement appeared to creep down his leg. She raised
her hand to her mouth, unsure if she might join her husband in
celebration. Instead, she watched and waited, floating just behind
him, eyes locked on what was supposed to be dead.
Cynthia stood behind him all night and watched, only leaving
when she could tell he was coming back. She darted out of the
office, down the hall, and lay down in their bed. She listened
through the wall as he struggled to move from his computer to
the wheelchair she had left nearby. She grimaced as she heard him
plop onto the ground. She wanted to help, but decided not to. She
considered telling him what she had seen as she heard him finally
nestle into his chair. But she thought better of it, closed her eyes,
and pretended to sleep.
When her alarm rang, twenty minutes later, her husband was
sound asleep beside her. Normally, Cynthia would have been tired.
But today, the excitement of the news she would tell her husband
upon her return from work kept her alert. She showered, dressed,
had her breakfast, and left the small house on Luther Road.
When she returned ten hours later, Ethan was wired in. She tapped
him on the shoulder, waited for him to come out, and commenced
with their evening routine. After his bath, Cynthia did not bother
stopping in front of the bedroom. She didn’t stop because tonight’s
activities weren’t her husband’s decision. She didn’t stop because she
had, throughout the course of her day, created the perfect venue
for sharing the news with her husband. She rolled him to the office
door, then walked around to face him.
“Can I come in with you tonight?” she asked.
Ethan lit up in a way she hadn’t seen in years. He nodded in
quick, ecstatic pulses. And, when he threw his arms around her so
that she could lift him from the wheelchair to his computer desk,
Cynthia believed that for once, he might actually be embracing her.
After he was secured, Cynthia turned and scooted in front of
her own computer. She put on her own goggles and slid a disc into
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the computer.

The garage is different somehow. I don’t really know what it is.
Maybe it’s darker. I think the lights might be a different color.
Maybe.
Cynthia bursts in and scares the shit out of me. She’s giggling,
haven’t seen that in a while.
“Do you like it?” she asks.
“The light? You did this?”
“That’s not all I did.”
Suddenly, the wall behind the workbench fades away and
behind it there’s this table with candles burning on top, surrounded
by the untampered darkness. The candles are good, but they’re
missing that little heat halo that you see on real ones, the ghost of
the flame that dances above the actual fire. The table’s got a white
sheet over it, also very nice, but as I get closer, I notice the thread
count’s a little blurry.
“Have a seat,” she says.
I move to the table and sit. Something’s not right here.
Something’s off. I don’t know what it is. She probably had to whip
all this stuff together at work, a quick job, which would account for
the candles and the thread count. But there’s something else.
“Do you like it?” she repeats.
“Yeah. You do this at work?”
She nods. I take a moment to survey the black around me. I
love this blackness. There’s nothing more pure in the world.
“There’s more,” she says.
She claps once and the darkness sparkles with tiny radiant
pinhole lights. They get large quickly until we’re completely
surrounded with a rudimentary blueprint. I get up from the table
and move to the wall, running my hands along the blueprint replica
of the garage that’s replaced the darkness. We drew these together
years ago. Only now, there’s fresh pen marks on the top wall. Now,
there’s an entire other room drawn called “Creation.”
“Creation? What’s that supposed to be?” I ask.
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“Our new room. I thought it up last night.”
“At dinner?”
“No.”
“When?”
“It’s for us to make things in here. We could design it to
maximize creativity, put in an easel and maybe a few bookshelves or
something. You could stay in longer and change things as you go.”
What is she talking about? I wouldn’t have to come out as
much? To the side of “Creation,” there’s another small room labeled
“Ex”.
“And Ex?” I ask.
“Exercise. Like a gym room. You could design some machines.
Maybe run a little.”
It’s hard to discern the truth behind someone’s eyes when their
eyes aren’t real. I’m sure as shit trying though. But, it doesn’t work.
She looks at me with the same glare she designed years ago, when
we built this place together.
“Listen, Ethan, I want to apologize for something.”
I sit back down at the candlelit table. She stands and paces
around the now-blue room, locking her hands into little webs as
she speaks. I can tell she’s trying to show concern and, if she had
spent more time working on herself, she’d be able to. But, without
the right facial movements and body language, she looks more like
an evil mastermind about to spill her master plot than a concerned
wife.
“We designed this place after the accident as a refuge. We
designed it so that you’d have somewhere to be free. And, we
always had plans of expanding it beyond one room. I know digital
architecture’s not really your thing, so it’s really my fault that we
haven’t. I’m sorry for that.”
There’s something soothing in her speech. It takes me a while
to nail it down. Jesus. She’s practiced this. She didn’t even practice
her wedding vows. She just blurted them out, snorting between
nervous laughs while I looked on a little embarrassed, but mostly
enamored.
“But, there’s more than that. We’ve sort of given up on each
other lately, haven’t we?”
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“What do you mean?” Stupid question. Stupid fucking
question.
“Well, I leave you here because someone has to pay the bills. I
go off every day and I work and I come home and I wonder every
night why you don’t really talk to me anymore outside. I think I
understand now. You gave up on me, because I stopped believing in
you. I want to fix that.”
“How?”
“For starters, we’ve got a little money tucked away, so I put in
my two weeks’ notice this afternoon. We should be okay for a few
months anyway. I want to take care of you while you work.”
“On what?”
“On the new rooms, darling.”
She finally turns to face me. She puts her hands down and runs
her fingertips along the top of the table. It doesn’t sound much like
skin on wood, more like a pen on plastic. She must have really been
in a hurry when she made the table.
“Why do you want them done so badly?”
“I think they’ll be good for us. And, I’d like to help you with
them, if that’s alright.”
She gets up and moves toward me. She scoots me and my chair
back a little and sits in my lap, resting her head on my shoulder.
“I’ve missed you, Ethan,” she says. She lifts her head and
glances around the garage, then back at me. “I’m ready to finish our
home now.”
She nuzzles back into me and I swear, for a moment, I can
smell her hair. That’s it. That’s what’s different. She’s wearing a
scent. It’s something floral. Or spicy. Nectar maybe.
Whatever it is, it makes her hard to resist. I look down at her
and see the core of the woman I always knew, the woman I married
before the accident and the complications and the garage. My
beautiful little Cynthia, curled up in my lap, smelling like lilacs and
looking right inside me.
“I’ve missed you too baby,” I say.
We sit there for a long time. I lose track of the hours, she
usually keeps me on track with the time here. Occasionally, I
reposition to see if she’s still awake. Every time she smiles up at me,
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eyes wide. A few times, she mouths, “I love you,” and I do it too.
I sing to her a little. I haven’t sung to anyone in a long time. I sing
“Bridge Over Troubled Water.” She likes it.
Time floats on in an endless wave, bouncing off the walls.
Finally, when I’m sure it’s at least noon out there, she gets up,
walks to the other side of the table, and sits down. Her expression
changes from the one she wore in my arms to something her design
is having trouble with. This tells me that whatever she’s feeling is
outside of the range of emotion we initially put in her avatar.
“Ethan,” she says.
“Yeah?”
“What were you doing in here last night?”
What’s she getting at? What does she care what I was doing?
Still, it’s hard to resist that smell, that hair, the wife I forgot existed.
“I was watching some old videos.”
“What kind?”
“Why?”
“I saw your leg move last night.”
“What?”
“I saw your leg move twice last night while you were in here.”
It doesn’t take long for me to connect the dots. She thinks
she sees my leg move, she gets all hopeful, she goes to work and
schemes, she comes up with an exercise room so she can try to
reproduce the results, she aims to cure me, so she plans this night,
right down to the smell of it.
I don’t know what to say.
“It’s okay honey,” she says, moving in to comfort me. “Did you
know about your leg?”
“What?”
“Did you know you could move it? Has it moved for you
before?”
“No. Well, not since—”
“Ethan,” she looks through where my eyes would be if they
were here. “Ethan, we can get it back now,” she reaches down and
grabs my hand. “We can get it all back.”
She pulls me in and holds me and strokes my hair and kisses
my cheek and says things about happiness and love and marriage
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and children and holds me and none of it’s real and none of it’s real
and none of it’s real. My face is contorted when she finally pulls
away because you can’t really cry here and none of it’s real anyway,
so why would you want to?
“Are you okay Ethan?”
“I would like some time to think, if that’s okay,” I whisper.
“Of course, honey, take all the time you need. I’ll be waiting
for you when you’re ready. Okay?”
I nod. She sparkles into nothingness and fades back into the
real world. I look around the garage. I kneel down and run my
fingers through the sawdust on the floor. I tell the workbench
to shut down the blueprints and the table and the badly-drawn
tablecloth and I sit on the cold garage floor.
And, nothing feels right. I get the shotgun and I run my fingers
along the barrel. I decide to stay here until something feels right
again. I decide to stay here.

In the ensuing two weeks, Cynthia Rutledge only left Ethan and
the office to handle matters of survival and hygiene. Her husband
didn’t leave the computer once. She removed his pants and
underwear and placed a bedpan beneath him to catch his urine.
Any other bodily functions had to be cleaned by hand. She ate very
little and didn’t bother devising a way to feed her husband. She
believed he would come out when he needed food, or else he’d faint
and she’d force it in him.
Every day for two weeks, she glared at his leg. After the first
day, she even set up a video camera to record her husband for the
few moments when she left the room. She never saw, in those two
weeks, a single movement below the waist.
Seeing no other option, Cynthia Rutledge went in-world.

I’m finishing up when Cynthia pops in. I happen to be facing her
log-in point, so I get to see her reaction as she looks over what I’ve
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done. She logs in and looks me up and down and then her face gets
all weird. I think it’s grief, but I don’t really know.
“Why would you do this to yourself?” she asks.
“Nothing else felt right.”
“I thought … Ethan, I was just trying to be happy again.”
“I know.”
“And you’re going to stay like this?”
“This is me now Cynthia. This is me and nothing else feels
right.”
She puts her hand to her forehead and freezes, logs out. I roll
forward in my digital wheelchair and run my hand through her
dematerializing form.
“I love you,” I say to no one. “I’m sorry.”
As she fades away, I look around the remnants of the garage,
now a large, square room with every visible space covered in
handicap stickers, and wonder what I’ve done and why I’ve done it.
I wonder if it even matters here or there. I wonder if Cynthia would
think it’s funny or tragic or wonderful or nice or cruel. Once these
thoughts have spider-webbed their way through my digital cortex,
I see to the wheelchair, hoping I can make it feel more like the real
one.

Grief-stricken and defeated, Cynthia wrote a long note, taped it to
the inside of the front door, left two silver earrings on the entryway
floor, and fled the little house on Luther Road.
Ethan Rutledge remained in the garage they’d created for four
days after Cynthia’s departure. It wasn’t until the constant streaming
scent of sawdust was interrupted by a more pungent odor that
he finally removed his goggles. Even then, he did so with great
caution, afraid that she might be waiting just behind him. Once he
had looked around the room and found he was alone, he took stock
of himself. His entire groin was covered in bodily waste. He shifted
slightly and a small pocket of the aroma was released. He gagged, a
small burst of vomit spilling out of his mouth and trailing down his
chest.
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He began the agonizing crawl to the wheelchair, made more
agonizing by the fact that his muscles hadn’t moved in nearly three
weeks. His elbows, from resting on the office chair, were raw, as
were his wrists. Once he finally made it to the wheelchair, he rolled
into the hallway bathroom, stopping when he noticed a small note
hanging from the front door.
He decided the note would have to wait, and he entered the
bathroom. He cleaned himself and his wheelchair with much
difficulty. Hours later, when he finally emerged, he made his way to
the note, read it once, wadded it up, and tossed it on the entryway
floor.

I roll across the living room, the bright light from the window
washing over me. As I approach it, the brown grass in the front
yard seems to ripple, like waves of sand undulating across a dune.
It’s lovely until I get too close. Then, the dune reveals itself to be
what it is—dead grass in the front yard, nothing more.
Reaching the window, all I can do is stare from my
uncomfortable chair as dirt swirls are kicked up in the afternoon
wind. There are no animals. All the responsible citizens of the
neighborhood are likely working, since they clearly are not home.
There’s no sound except the gentle kick of the air conditioning unit
coming to life. It’s just me and the dune grass dancing with the
dust.
Down the road, something moves. I scoot forward in my chair
to catch a better glimpse. It was something red. No, orange, I
think. Maybe blue. I hope it was something blue. Maybe it was a
blue bicycle being ridden by a neighborhood boy, anxious to see my
ghost. I straighten my hair and mash down my pajama top collar.
Blue materializes into an older man – a postman. He’s walking,
stretching his legs, breathing in the morning around him. He
whistles a little, I think. He walks down the sidewalk, stops, puts
something in a mailbox, continues. When he gets to our house,
though, something changes. The whistling stops. He reaches his
hand to the brim of his hat and gives it a slight tug downward as his
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eyes meet the ground. He shuffles his feet a bit, then approaches the
mailbox next to the front door.
It didn’t occur to me that I was visible. I was so caught up in
his happiness, so envious of his shine, that I almost didn’t catch
him staring at me through the window. His arm is outstretched,
clutching a few limp envelopes.
“Looks like nothing but sun today,” the postman says.
I don’t know why the urge comes over me, but it does. I slick
my hair back a bit, shift in my chair, and smile. The man’s arm falls
slowly to his side. Then, he smiles back at me.
He holds up the mail and points to it, his way of trying to get
me to open the door, to talk, to make a friend maybe. I shake my
head. He smiles a little more, then opens the mailbox and slides the
mail inside. He waves before turning to walk away. He stumbles a
bit and I crane my head further into the windowsill and watch him
regain his balance, straighten, and walk away to the next house. I
grip the wheels on my chair, feeling the machined, metallic pulses
emanating from the guts of the thing. I slide slowly back, letting
my lower back nestle into the blue cushion. I push my chest out a
bit and tilt my head back, drawing a deep breath. I turn my neck
side to side, enjoying the pops and cracks.
As I stare out the window onto Luther Road, something
silver catches my eye. I see two earrings I know well lying on the
entryway floor. Images of Cynthia run through my mind, memories
still intact, the perfect life we almost had. I think maybe I’ll open
a window and let the fresh air circulate through the rooms. I think
maybe I’ll try cleaning the house. I think maybe I’ll stay out of the
office a while. I nearly fall out of my wheelchair as I bend over and
cradle the earrings in my palm. I run my long index finger over the
sparkling surface and, as the cool metal warms from my touch, I
think, “Maybe.”
AUTHOR BIO: Joel Higgins was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1986
into a single-parent household with two older twin sisters. He spent
the majority of his upbringing in what used to be a small town west of
Nashville called Dickson. He initially went to college in Knoxville, TN
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and studied theater, but soon became disillusioned with relaying other
people’s stories, so he left school and spent the next four years attempting
to understand his creative disillusionment.
This understanding would come while reading William Gibson’s
Neuromancer. The speculative nature of that novel sent him down the
path to creating his own stories. He went back to college to study fiction
writing. While on his second stint in college, he was introduced to the
philosophical and speculative works of Don DeLillo, Margaret Atwood,
Neal Stephenson, Junot Diaz, Percival Everett, and many other authors
who have proven formative in his still-burgeoning career.
The sorts of stories he enjoys reading and writing are those
concerned with speculation and are usually narrated in visceral
and interesting ways. He relishes the chance to filter very large ideas
into small and personal circumstances that are focused primarily on
character above plot. He experiments constantly, investigating new
narrative techniques, varying perspectives, interesting technologies, and
virtually anything else he can get access to that may push his writing
to new and exciting frontiers. He is also a massive movie fan and has
recently ventured into the world of screenwriting and directing.
In-World was originally published in The Rag Issue 3.
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125
NOTES TO A FUTURE ME
by Kristin Kearns
Wife A is definitely not mine. I began to suspect her back in Week
Two. Wife B is neck and neck with Wife C, whose breasts feel best.
The contract requires that I make a statement every fifteen
minutes. Every fifteen minutes Ed comes in with the box and puts
it over my head. A camera inside the box records my thoughts.
Meaning what I say about my thoughts, not the thoughts
themselves. A Confessional, it’s called. A throwback to my Catholic
days.
“Definitely not Wife A,” I say. The Confessional is soundproof
and padded, but still I whisper. She’s in the kitchen with me,
making mac and cheese. “She uses the word ‘simply’ when she
argues. The fact that she argues at all is telltale. My wife just walks
away. Also, the way she drinks wine. My wife refills her glass when
it’s still got wine in it. This one finishes a whole glass.”
I give the signal to Ed. Ed removes the box and gives me a
thumbs-up, which he always does and is affirming, even though
he doesn’t know what was said in there. He repositions me where I
was standing before the box was dropped, across the counter from
Wife A. The oval of her face through its mesh mask with the A on
it makes me thirsty. A mirage of a face.
The show’s producers want immediate reactions to everything,
which is why the Confessional.
“I simply think you could have more balls,” says Wife A. The
mesh mask has a voice scrambler built in. Talking to the Wives is
like talking to Darth Vader. I think they could have manufactured
a less terrifyingly ominous voice, but they probably wanted it all to
be a little sinister. Which it is.
“What should I have done? Beat the guy up?”
“He overcharged you. You can’t let people take your money like
that.”
“Fine. I fucked up. I should have gone over there and fucked
up the cheese guy for charging me sixteen a pound.” I enjoy saying
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swear words, knowing they will be bleeped out. Think of the things
you could say, if life were bleepable.
She stirs the mac and cheese. The placement of her legs
indicates that she is irritated. She hasn’t added salt. I think my wife
adds salt right away, to everything, but maybe only to some things,
and sometimes at the end.
In addition to the Confessionals, I keep a Log. Each night in my
Log I write my mainly banal observations of what makes my wife
my wife. The Log has a lock and is kept in a locked drawer in my
desk. I suspect Ed has keys. I’ve never owned a desk with a locked
drawer before. I’ve never owned a lockable diary before. It makes
me feel like a ten-year-old girl.
Tonight I have written, “Wife A can’t quite get her legs over my
shoulders during intercourse. She is not as flexible as my wife. Plus
she is too much of a cat person.”
Is it creepy to sleep with a masked wife? It is. Do I sometimes
have the sensation that I am sleeping with a prisoner of war in the
Middle East? I do. Why am I doing this? I am doing it for my wife.
Why did she want to do it? I don’t know. It likely is connected to
her fitness frenzy, her new expensive haircut, her repetition of the
phrase “You have no idea who I am,” and the way when I make a
joke she rolls her eyes and wanders out of the room. I can’t see the
eye rolls now. Because of the mask.
A cat showed up at our door mid-Week and Wife A decided to keep
it. It is gray and well groomed. I’m thinking the producers set it up,
as a sort of uninspired plot point. The cat likes to sleep on top of
the washing machine, although Wife A tries to drag it to bed. She is
always picking it up, and it’s always struggling to get down and she
keeps saying “Ow” and pulling its claws out of her chest and then
continuing to hug it. Wife B basically ignores the cat. Wife C treats
it respectfully but keeps her distance, like the cat is a sultan and she
hopes to please. The Wives alternate days and the weird thing is
how they adapt to what’s changed while they’re gone.
A month before filming started, my wife went away. They took
away all her clothes and jewelry and scattered Post-its. I do not
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know what she did during that month.
How hard can it be to identify your wife? Very hard. My
wife got into Hollywood shape for the show and they have found
extremely realistic body doubles. The major problem is people can
change. People can surprise you. What I think makes someone not
my wife may in fact be what my wife has always wanted to be.
I have bought a box of chocolates as a test. I offer a chocolatecovered cherry to Wife B. Wife B says, “I hate chocolate-covered
cherries.”
“Fuck. I thought so.” Did I think so? I don’t know. I might
have thought she loved chocolate-covered cherries. It is mainly
unclear to me what I think anymore.
We are being paid a nice sum for this show. It would be enough
to put a kid through college if we had one. If we win, we get an
additional sum, plus an all-expenses-paid second honeymoon. If we
do not win, i.e., if I guess wrong, my wife gets the additional sum,
all in her name. It’s anyone’s guess whether she’ll share it with me, if
I blow it.
The best thing about the show, for me, is how glad I’ll be to get
back to real life. With my wife and her face and all its expressions.
I’ve written this down in my Log. When I write these kinds of
notes I feel as though I am writing to a future me.
On weekdays my wife is at work and I have the house to myself,
except for Ed and a cameraman who hangs out in case there’s
something to record. On the show and in real life I work from
home, optimizing search engine results, which means I have no
coworkers to give me shit when the show airs next season. My real
wife works in a lab, and her coworkers all consider this as she does:
a fascinating experiment. I don’t know what the other Wives do all
day. I picture a sterile waiting room with a poster of a baby dressed
as a plant. The Wives flipping through magazines. Masked.
Paul and Lisa come over from across the street to see my masked
Wife and to hopefully make it onto television. They are supposed to
act as if everything is normal. As if whoever the Wife is when they
are here is the real wife, and not wearing a mask. They do a pretty
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good job at it. They have signed an affidavit swearing not to supply
me with information or guesses. At my request, Wife B has made
my wife’s special meatless meatballs that taste exactly like meat.
Paul and I stand around the kitchen while his wife and my
Wife sit on the patio enjoying the sunset, which is not visible from
our backyard. Basically, the sky darkens.
“How’s the sex?” Paul says.
“It’s good. I mean, it’s good with all of them.”
Paul shakes his head. “Three women. Fuckin’ A. And she’s okay
with it?”
“I mean, it’s in the contract.”
Behind the cameraman Ed is making a sign like he’s cutting
his throat. We’re not supposed to talk about the logistics of the
show on the show. So I don’t tell Paul that it doesn’t count if all
three women are masquerading as one. I don’t tell Paul that this is a
stupid idea for a show and will probably be canceled within the first
week.
The meatless meatballs taste less like meat than usual. Strike
against Wife B. After dinner we play Trivial Pursuit. Maybe the
producers can create tension out of who collects the most wedges.
We are in the middle of sexual intercourse when Ed comes in with
the box. He always looks determined when he comes in with the
box during sexual intercourse. A man on a mission. I sit up. He
puts the box over my head. “Wife C feels the most real.” I am
slightly out of breath. “Her flesh has a rubbery quality, not in a bad
way. Firm and elastic. In addition, when she sleeps she sleeps on her
left side, which is also I think true of my wife.”
“What do you think about all this?” I ask Wife C, after Ed
removes the box and gives me the thumbs-up and walks out of the
room in a sort of amazingly perfect straight line. She is on her back
with her knees bent. Her nipples and crotch will be blacked out
for television. Her masked face seems to look at me. I can hear her
breathing, Darth Vader-like, through the mesh. “About me sleeping
with, you know.”
“Other me’s?” Her modulated voice sounds amused.
I nod and say, “Yes.” A side effect of her wearing a mask is that
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I forget that she can see me.
“Sweetie, it’s better than you sleeping with women who aren’t
me.”
I get up to go to the bathroom. While I am in the bathroom, it
occurs to me that my wife never called me “sweetie.”
But I liked it.
Every morning I do my a.m. Confessional. Then I make coffee
and take the first cup to the back patio, which looks onto a lawn
the size of a pocket. Behind that is a stucco wall the same beige as
the exterior of our house, which is the same beige as the exterior of
every other house on our block. I sit on a white plastic patio chair
and feel like I am outside. There are no flowers and very little green
but outside is outside.
The screen door slams behind me. I figure it’s the cat, so I don’t
turn around. Half and half makes coffee iridescent. My fingers have
hair on them and so do my toes. These are details that convince me
that my life is my life.
A woman is standing in front of me. She’s my wife’s height and
build but she is not my wife. Her hair is not the color of my wife’s
hair. Her face is not my wife’s face. Seeing a face on a woman in my
backyard is shockingly refreshing. “I’m not supposed to be here,”
she says.
When I stand up the patio is warm on the soles of my feet. This
woman’s clothes are not my wife’s clothes. My wife has never worn
a dress that makes her look like she lives on the prairie.
“Are we being filmed?” I ask, wondering if I should hide my
eyes to keep from violating the contract. “Is there a camera hidden
somewhere? Or in your dress?”
The day is hot and the grass smells damp from the earlymorning sprinklers. “No, sweetie.” She lifts up her dress. I keep my
eyes mostly on her face. She is not wearing underwear. Her pubic
hair is exactly like my wife’s.
“I wanted you to see my face.” She touches my cheek. “I want
you to think of me while you make love.”
“To which one of you?”
She smiles. Her face, to be honest, is not beautiful, but it is a
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face. I set my coffee on the plastic patio table and touch the face.
She holds her dress up and closes her eyes, smiling. I close my eyes
too. My fingers trace her forehead and almost poke her in the eyes
and move to her nose and then they’re touching nothing. I open
my eyes. Her dress is back down and she’s heading for the screen
door. When she reaches it, she turns and winks.
I raise my hand. The screen door flaps. The cat comes out and
starts prowling the lawn like it expects to find something living, to
hunt.
She called me “sweetie.” Wife C called me “sweetie.” Therefore,
Wife C is not my wife.
For the purposes of the Confessional, my logic is this: “Wife C
called me ‘sweetie.’ My wife never called me that. I’m thinking Wife
C isn’t the one.”
I think I might get disqualified if they find out about the
unmasked woman. Unless they planned it like they planned the cat.
When Wife C is next up I try to tell whether there is anything
conspiratorial about her. I imagine the unmasked face on her
body. Then I try to imagine my wife’s face on her body but I can’t
remember what my wife looks like, exactly.
Monday night of the Final Week, Wife B is at yoga when Paul
drops by. We have some beers. Paul puts his second empty bottle
on the floor by the trash, which signifies recycling, and says, “If you
guess wrong, what happens?”
Ed isn’t around to make his throat-slitting motion. I don’t
know where he is. It should be a relief, time off from Ed, but
instead it’s like standing with your back to a wall, except someone
took the wall away. The cameraman’s in the corner, casually filming
with one arm. He makes no attempt to stop us from discussing the
rules.
“It’s more of a systemized determination.”
“Oh yeah?”
I push at the beer bottles with my toe to line them up. One
falls. We should get an official recycling bin. “It’d be pretty hard to
make it up to her,” says Paul. “If you’re wrong.”
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I like Paul. He’s a good guy. My wife also likes Paul. She always
says, after he leaves or when I mention him, “I like Paul.”
“Everything’s hard to make up to her,” I say. “Somewhere back
I did something I can’t make up for. It seems like. Some kind of
original sin.”
“Knowledge,” Paul says. I shake my head, thinking he means
knowledge is a bitch, but then he goes on, “Knowledge. That’s the
original sin, right?”
It might be the beers but it seems to me a revelation. “Fuck,
man. You’re right.”
Paul and I stare at the city of bottles that’s grown up around
the trash. Then Paul heads for the front door. The cameraman and
I accompany him. Watching him walk down the driveway with his
hands in his pockets, I have this memory of when my wife and I
were first dating and she wouldn’t sleep with me yet and I had to
go home at two a.m., feeling like I’d been kicked out of paradise. I
want to call Paul back for another drink. It’s been years since I woke
up with a good hangover.
Ed is approaching the house, holding the Confessional,
followed by the cat. Paul’s made it home. A light comes on in his
front window. I close the door and do my Confessional and after
the Confessional Ed does not give me the thumbs-up, which makes
me feel off-kilter. Then Ed speaks, which is not a usual thing for Ed
to do.
“Look Bud,” Ed says, holding the Confessional by its handle.
“I wanted to say.” He looks uncomfortable. Like someone’s poking
him in the back, forcing him to tattle.
There’s a knock on the door. Ed does a thing like he’s toeing a
line in the sand.
At the door there’s a big guy with a little girl. The girl’s got a
bow in her hair and is holding up a stack of pink fliers. “Sorry to
bother you,” says the guy, “but we’ve lost a cat.” He rests his hand
on the girl’s head. She flicks his hand away and checks to make sure
her bow’s okay.
“We’re going around the neighborhood to see if anyone’s found
it.”
“It’s a he,” says the girl. “His name is Muffin.”
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Even Xeroxed in neon pink, I’m sure it’s our Found Cat.
“Muffin, huh? I don’t think I’ve seen him.”
Her dad pries one of the fliers from her hands and hands it
to me. The girl’s staring in at the cameraman, who’s sitting crosslegged by the fireplace, which has a permalog in it that gives off a
pretty realistic flame and heat in winter. I’m worried the Found Cat
will come out of the laundry room but he doesn’t, and they leave.
As I turn, I glimpse myself in the gilt entryway mirror and look
away fast. Ed’s got both eyebrows way up.
“What?” I say.
“You’ve got their cat.”
“Well I thought it was a twist.”
“But it’s theirs.”
“Maybe not. Who knows? I’m thinking the producers planted
it.”
“But they didn’t,” Ed says.
“How do I know that?”
“I’m telling you, Bud.”
“You don’t tell me anything, Ed. You’re the guy with the box.”
He narrows his eyes like he’s sighting a gun. Then he aboutfaces to the laundry room, which is where he generally hangs out
between Confessionals. I wonder if Ed will be glad when this is
over and he can return to his house and stop interrupting people’s
private lives. I kind of suspect that he won’t.
On Day Twenty-Three I whisper in the vicinity of Wife C’s masked
ear, as she stands at the dresser taking off her necklace, “I’m falling
in love with you.”
She presses against me. In my ear she whispers, “Sweetie, I
know.”
It’s a smart thing to say. We’re miked. What I want her to say
is whether she’s my wife, which would make the Unmasking easier.
Whether she loves me and, if I choose her and she is the unmasked
woman, will she take the place of my wife? If my wife leaves?
I cook dinner on Day Twenty-Five. Kind of a chicken Marsala but
without Marsala or any type of wine. Afterward Wife B says:
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“That was delicious, sweetie.”
On Day Twenty-Eight Wife B is out of bed by the time I wake up.
I go downstairs to make coffee and do the a.m. Confessional. The
a.m. is kind of like meditation. It centers me. Although I miss the
thumbs-up from Ed.
The cameraman is leaning against the closed laundry room
door. I raise a hand in greeting. He trains the camera on me with
the lens cap on, as a sort of joke. I make a face of appreciative
delight and ask if Ed’s ready.
The cameraman shrugs. He has on pajama-like pants and a
shirt with a patchwork skull on it. Below the skull it says GONNA
BONE. He removes the lens cap and trains the camera on me,
moving aside just enough so I can get to the door. I can hear the
washing machine humming. I open the door.
It’s the drier going, not the washing machine. A Wife is
perched on top of the drier with no clothes on, her masked head
flung back. Her legs are hooked over the shoulders of a naked man.
The naked man even from behind is Ed. He’s got a crew cut and
intensely good posture. The laundry room light is off.
I’m pretty sure this is a plot point, bona fide, not like the cat,
which I don’t let out anymore, in case the real owners see it. It’s got
a litter box that stinks.
The cat’s not in sight.
Ed’s ass is muscular, like a sculpture of a male ass.
The Wife’s legs look very long wrapped like that, and tan in
the dim room. Seeing the Wife’s body rocked and pumped by Ed
makes me feel like a kid. Out of my league. I try to say something.
The Wife’s head turns. It seems like her head is turned backwards
but it’s the mask that’s backwards. The back of the mask is in the
front, a blank black oval. What am I going to say? Hey lady, are you
my wife? Ed is boning her. It’s real. He doesn’t turn or drop pace.
It’s Wife B’s day but I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s Wife B or
what that might mean.
The Confessional is on the floor next to a pile of laundry,
which I think is clean. I grab the Confessional like that’s what I
came for and I back out of the laundry room, bumping into the
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cameraman. My heart is gnashing. My head’s a wad of cotton. The
cameraman steps aside and I stride, trying to look purposeful, out
of the house, down the driveway, across the street without looking.
I pound on Paul’s door but no one answers. His car’s not in the
driveway.
At the side of Paul’s house there is a narrow sort of outdoor
hallway that leads to his backyard, identical to mine. I lean against
the wall and put the Confessional over my head.
I say some bleepable words. The red light indicating RECORD
is not lit and I do not know how to light it. My head is trying to eat
the rest of me. In my mind my wife is fucking Ed and it is her face
on top of the body. Then it’s the unmasked woman’s face on top of
the body and I feel as though I’ve lost everything.
Remotely through the Confessional, I hear a car speeding
by. Then squealing tires. I take off the Confessional to see what’s
happening. What’s happening is there’s a car stopped in the street
and a cat halfway under the front wheel. There’s no blood and
it looks like some fake stiff cat. I almost can’t tell it’s the cat, the
Found Cat, except I know it is.
But it’s okay. It’s okay, because who would do that? They
wouldn’t show that on TV. In a second the cat’s going to get up and
the audience is going to breathe a sigh of relief and clap and look
around and say, “I knew they wouldn’t actually kill the cat.”
The cat does not get up.
It occurs to me that technically, none of this has happened yet.
It can be edited out. There’s plenty of time. We’re not set to air until
January sweeps.
But the cameraman’s not getting this. He’s still inside with Ed
and the Wife. The driver’s out of the car. I expect it to be somebody
coincidental like the cat’s real owner but it’s a guy with slicked
hair and a tight T-shirt on his way to a date or something, and he’s
holding his head like he’s trying to pull it off his neck, and he’s
saying “What the fuck man, what the fuck,” like he can’t believe
someone’s not calling Cut.
AUTHOR BIO: Kristin Kearns is a fiction writer and freelance editor.
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Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines including
Opium, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction. She lives in
Portland, Oregon, and is working on a novel. Find her online at www.
kristinkearns.com
Notes to a Future Me was originally published in The Rag Issue 4.
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137
MEMENTO MORI
by Stefanie Demas
I
On average, 4,750 Japanese people die on golf courses annually.
They’re big golfers, the Japanese. I don’t know why. I’ve never been
very interested in golf, though it does appear to be a clean sport,
as sports go. Just one long, quiet slice of the club. No mess. But in
reality it’s different—there’s more to it. I suppose it’s all that time
between holes, all that talking—makes it not really a sport, more
of a social event, and I’m not really one for social events. But I do
like the neatness of it. I am a very neat person. Take my house for
example. My house is not a large one. Big enough for two people
if those two people share a bed. I never brought Nicholas to my
house. That’s where they would immediately look, I knew. I’d
had other men over, but they always seemed too big for my little
house. It’s just one bedroom, a small kitchen with no table—just
an extension of counter with four stools—and separate living and
dining rooms. There are lots of windows, though, because it is
important for me to be exposed to as much sunlight as upstate
New York is willing to offer. But regardless, it is a small house and
it is therefore so easy for it to get cluttered and dirty. It takes a lot
of work to keep it clean, and I work all the time at it, but I have
developed a routine of constant cleaning that I perform without
even noticing. For instance, I keep only a small garbage container
in my kitchen, so that any trash I have is collected in this one pail,
and every night, before I prepare for bed, I tie up the bag, walk it
outside and dispose of it in the larger metal trash can. It is very easy
for me, now, to keep everything in order. I have always been able to
develop good habits quickly.
II
I did exactly three under the speed limit as I drove towards the
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funeral parlor, so as to not arouse attention or suspicion. It was
2:30 in the morning and getting pulled over wouldn’t have gotten
me in any serious trouble, but it would have been a bad sign. I don’t
believe in many things, but I do believe in signs. There are always
signs before everything—good and bad. You just need to know that
you should look for them and respect them. I used to miss the signs
but later I’d look back and find them and realize that they were
always there. I learned to always respect the signs. Getting pulled
over would have been a bad sign. It would have meant I’d have had
to turn around.
The car was just as cold as the November night surrounding it,
but I didn’t put the heat on. I like being cold. I didn’t wear a coat,
just a sweater, so I could feel the sharpness of the air sliding beneath
my clothes and scratching my skin. Every few minutes I shivered,
tight and involuntary and enlivening. Shivering is good—like
being cold, it makes you remember you’re alive. Sometimes you
need little painful reminders of life. And then there’s that spastic,
orgasmic release letting you know you’re alive but that if you keep
this up, you won’t be. Stay out in that stabbing numbing cold for
too long and that’s it, but for now, you fool, your body will do what
it can to warm you up. It’s the same principle as sweating when
you’re too hot, but heat doesn’t do it for me the way cold does.
It’s too messy, too degenerative. The cold is a preservative. Freeze
your moments, your leftovers, your memories, your bodies. Heat
them and they’re destroyed. But regardless, in the end it’s all about
homeostasis. Everything must be balanced. Do what you will, try to
swing yourself as far as you can, pump your legs as hard as you can
but gravity will always pull you back down. The world and your
own body want you to stay somewhere in the middle. Signs are the
universe’s shiver. They’re telling you that you’re okay now but that
you should stop. Keep going and you’re an idiot. You were warned.
It was a Wednesday night. The wake was scheduled for
Thursday. Good thing it was a Wednesday night, because there
were fewer people around as I drove down Broadway. Saratoga is
a funny town. You’d expect it to be more rural than it is. Thursday
nights always get busy downtown, but Wednesdays are the last
chance you get to go unnoticed. Alfred and Sons was up on
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North Broadway, a few blocks past the stretch that runs through
downtown. There were a few people out on the street, since the bars
were still open. Some people go out to drink regardless of what day
of the week it is. I have always thought that the weekend seemed
more appropriate, but I have never been one to go out to do my
drinking. I’m much more of a private drinker. I’ve heard that’s a
dangerous thing to do, drinking alone. It’s a warning sign. I’ve
told you that I believe in signs, but I believe only in my own signs.
Signs are like diets, you need to find what works for you, and some
textbook warning sign of impending alcohol abuse was not a sign
for me.
I knew I’d have to leave my car behind, and I knew it was
a small thing. A car really is so insignificant when you consider
everything, but it’s hard to consider everything, especially from the
driver’s seat of a red Saab 900 hatchback. The idea of leaving that
car really got me feeling something. That car had been with me for
longer than most people had, and I loved it, because I believe it’s
possible to love inanimate objects. I think it’s all easier when things
can’t love or hate you back. But no matter how you fold the seats,
a stretcher wouldn’t fit easily into a Saab—I knew I had to take the
hearse. Nicholas was more than a car. I had worried, though, about
what to do with my car. I didn’t want to leave it outside the funeral
home because it would make it too easy for them, but I knew they’d
realize it was me, quickly. I had a feeling that people knew more
about me than they let on.
That morning I had told Mr. Alfred that there was a family
emergency and that I’d have to go to Pennsylvania for a few days.
I apologized for the late notice, and he wasn’t happy, but I said
something about my little sister and her husband having “trouble.”
I didn’t say it explicitly, but I made it sound like abuse. Domestic
abuse is one of those issues that people seem concerned about,
but no one really takes any action. It rarely garners the outrage it
deserves, but it does get a lot of sympathy. Or maybe it’s pity. Either
way, Mr. Alfred gave me the days off and didn’t ask questions. I do
not have a kid sister in Pennsylvania. I do have an older brother and
I don’t know where he is right now and I didn’t know where he was
that Wednesday morning.
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III
I was five years old when I remember seeing death for the first time.
I knew even then that I was interested. It was afternoon in late
autumn, I don’t remember when exactly, but I do know that it was
cold though not freezing. I wore bright green gloves that stretched
tightly around my fingers with elastic bands that cinched at my
wrists. I must have taken the school bus home, as I did then, but I
don’t remember anything about the ride that day. Here’s what I do
remember, though, here’s what’s important: I remember standing
on the front steps of my house, having rung the bell, waiting for
my mother to answer the door. She took a while, sometimes. On
the school bus, I would see other kids’ parents waiting for them
at their stops. Some of them would even take their kids into their
arms and carry them up the drives to their homes. I thought that
was silly. At five, I thought myself too old to be carried. But my
mother was not one to hold me, nor was she one to wait at my bus
stop. While I stood alone on the front steps I heard a noise behind
me. It was a soft tiny noise like one from a cartoon mouse, but
when I turned around I saw that it came from a sparrow hopping
towards the steps. Something was wrong with its left side—its leg
was curled up so tightly that at first I thought it was missing, and
the wing above it stuck out from its dull little body and twisted
upward. I watched the bird hop. I don’t remember what I thought
right then. I imagine I thought it was sad to see something so
crippled, but maybe I didn’t think anything. Maybe I just watched.
And then the cat was on it. I didn’t even notice it approach, it was
just there, all hissing mouth and swatting paws. I didn’t scream.
When I would think about it later, I would think it odd. Shouldn’t
a little girl scream when she sees a cat kill a bird like that, so close?
But instead I walked towards it. Perhaps I thought I could help,
though now that seems unlikely. Now, I think, I was intrigued.
Scared, the cat ran away, leaving the bird behind. I knelt over it.
That little bird was a ripped up bloody mess. One wing was totally
severed and lay a few inches removed from the rest of its body,
where torn bundles of things that should have been tucked deep
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inside were outside, spilling across the feathers. I will not say that
it was beautiful. Beautiful wouldn’t be the wrong word, necessarily,
but it would give you the wrong idea about me. I will say that it
was natural. Maybe I can say that it was exquisite in its naturalness.
The feathers, both pale and wispy, and those damp and stained a
deep brown; the blood rich and thick; and even those surprisingly
bright almost orange inner bundles—they all blended in with the
ground where it had fallen. It complemented perfectly the crunchy
leaves and dry dirt. It was as though the world expected that bird to
die, as though a little space had been planned just for it. I removed
a neon green glove, reached out my hand, and touched the soft
feathers first, and then, slowly, ran my finger along its body until
I reached the ones soaked in blood. It was warmer and silkier than
I had expected—not at all sticky. That bird, hopping pathetically
towards me, had been tragic, but now, with its life gone, it was no
longer sad. Dead, it was almost lovely. When my mother came to
the door, she saw me squatting over the body and she came and
stood over me, looking down at me without saying anything. Bird,
daughter, mother. I would not have been surprised had she, in turn,
reached out a finger and run it curiously along my hair. Maybe she,
too, would have discovered something. But she stood silent and
motionless, and when I turned around and looked at her, it was
then that I began to cry. My tears were warm and soft and full of
life. We can bury it, my mother said. And she got a small gardening
shovel and we dug a shallow hole and pushed the bird inside of it.
But she was mistaken. I cried not for the bird. I cried for myself, for
my mother, for having been caught.
IV
I parked a block before I reached Alfred’s, on the opposite side of
the street. When I turned off the ignition, I took a deep breath
and looked at myself in the rearview mirror. Sometimes I stare
in the mirror just to remind myself of who I am. It’s easier than
you’d think to forget what you look like. Sometimes I pivot over
my bathroom sink so that my nose is just inches from the central
mirrored door in my medicine cabinet, and I open the two side
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panels so that my reflection multiplies. I can see myself from every
angle. I can see what other people see when they look at me. I am
not pale. My face is not gaunt. I am thin but my face is full and
healthy. My skin is deep taupe blended with pink and there are
just enough light brown freckles dotting the narrow bridge of my
nose to prove that I do spend time outdoors in the sunlight. My
eyes are like seaweed—dark green, glossy and submerged. And my
hair hangs just below my shoulders in wide waves that could be
mistaken for light brown but are really dark blonde, as is evident
when I find stray hairs on my pillowcase or rinsing down my
shower drain. I do not think that most people see me for what I
am. My flesh is a vibrant disguise.
Alfred’s Funeral Home sits on a corner, making it twice as
imposing with its two faces of heavy stone walls and columns
embracing the darkened wraparound porch. Painted a forest green
and accented with slate shingles and black shutters, the house
rises high in a series of peaks and turrets. Beside the concrete path
leading to the steps, on the manicured lawn, is a sign, short and
wide, beige with black cursive writing, sedately announcing, “Alfred
& Sons, Funeral Parlor, since 1942,” though the sign is a bit of
a lie, since this Mr. Alfred is a son of one of the sons mentioned,
and his son and daughter are uninterested in the funerary business.
The house is an image from a storybook, and the inside fulfills
the exterior’s promise with mahogany wainscoting, oriental rugs,
textured golden wallpaper and tightly stuffed furniture, but I
entered through the basement and skipped this comforting interior.
The family was two stories above me, most in a pill-induced
slumber, but I took my precautions, closed the door gently behind
me, and turned on only one lamp rather than the overhead lights.
Nicholas lay on a stretcher, covered with a fresh white sheet. He
had just been completed earlier in the night. When he first came to
me, Nicholas’ skin had been pulled taut over the jagged ranges of
his bones. Each rib was its own summit, his clavicles and sternum
formed an armored plate, his hips rimmed the delicate bowl of
his shallow abdomen, and when turned over, I could see that his
shoulder blades had begun to form themselves into wings. His face
was drastically molded with soaring cheekbones but sunken cheeks,
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a brutal jaw, and eyes already collapsed into their sockets. But
something had been visible there beyond that sad distress. There
was still some longing—he was not yet peaceful. I knew there was
something more he needed. Nicholas was not done being cared
for. I held my breath as I took hold of the sheet and tugged it away
from him. He had been prepared and was now ready to come with
me. It was as though he had been dressed for this journey—had
donned a suit for our first and endless date. His eyes were closed,
his hands, folded. He was patiently waiting for me. He finally
looked peaceful, but his smooth and hairless skin and his thin body
were not hidden. I could tell he needed something more—that he
needed me.
V
I fastened the straps around Nicholas, pulled the sheet back over
him and rolled the stretcher slowly through the swinging doors
and out to the parking area, pocketing a set of hearse keys on the
way out from the hook beside the doors. Loading a body into a
hearse may seem like a two-man job, but even a person as tiny as I
am can do it alone. You just push the stretcher into the back of the
hearse and the legs fold up beneath it on the way in. The way out is
trickier because you need to make sure that the legs click into place
or else everything will collapse. When Nicholas was securely in the
back, I got into the driver’s seat and pulled the door in but did not
allow it to close.
Driving, especially that cumbersome tank, always reminded
me of how small I was. I had to adjust the seat every time I got in.
All the undertakers were men—not especially tall, but men—and
inevitably larger than I. Let me tell you—I am small. I stopped
growing when I was fourteen and reached five foot one, and since
then I have weighed ninety-four pounds in the morning. I’ve always
been very Spartan with my diet, so I probably don’t weigh much
more at night, but I’ve never weighed myself at night. I put the car
into neutral and let it drift forward down the gentle slope of the
driveway. Only once I got to the street did I close the door, start the
ignition and head down East Ave towards 87.
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VI
Nicholas William Singer—OBERLIN, OH—Nicholas William
Singer, 25, previously of Saratoga Springs, NY, passed away this
past Thursday, November 18, 2010, after a courageous battle with
cancer. Born on May 13, 1985, he is the son of Peter R. and Jean
L. Esposito Singer. Nicholas attended Saratoga High School, where
he was a member of the Honor Society and a starting pitcher for
the baseball team. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio, where
he majored in Anthropology. Helping to manage an organic farm,
Nicholas resided in Oberlin after graduation. He had dreams of
traveling the world while conducting archeological digs. In addition
to his parents, Nicholas is survived by his brother, Joshua, of Glens
Falls; his sister, Hannah; a nephew; and many aunts, uncles, and
cousins. Nicholas will be waked at the Alfred and Sons Funeral
Home in Saratoga Springs. The family kindly suggests donations be
made in Nicholas’ name to the American Cancer Society.
VII
My parents had bought a cabin on Schroon Lake when my brother
was young. We went there a few times when I was little. I’ve
seen photos and my mother told me about it when I asked, but
I remember only a few images as though they were flashed across
a screen in my head. I remember looking up at the slats on my
brother’s top bunk as dusty light pooled at the foot of my bed. I
sat on a fading white wooden step, my bare feet digging into dirt,
and a sturdy orange snapdragon grew from where the step met
the ground. There was a dock, glimmering water surrounded by
deep trees, my mother’s arms, a laughing father, crying brother.
My mother kept the cabin but we hadn’t been back since I was five
and my father died. It’s the only place I could think to go where
Nicholas and I could be alone, where they wouldn’t come to look
for us. My heart began to pump in my ears as I turned onto the
entrance ramp for the highway, Nicholas safely waiting behind me.
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VIII
It was not the fanfare surrounding death to which I was attracted,
but it was difficult to find death unadulterated. I first began
working at Alfred and Sons so I could see the bodies like that
little bird’s, so still, before they were cleaned and processed and
painted for viewings, or worse yet, burned into pebbles and dust.
My first body, Leon, my only body before Nicholas, was fresh like
that. Untouched and bloated and bloody. But as I worked there I
realized that there was something alluring about embalmed bodies.
After they’ve been washed and shaved, after their jaws are wired
shut, their eyelids hooked down, all orifices sucked clean and
sewn closed, and all blood drained and replaced with that warm
pink liquid, they became superhuman in their cleanliness. We’re
decadent in our preservation. Enshrine them in glass, let us bow
before them, for they are perfect! Soon, even the foggy smell of
formaldehyde began to excite me. Pumping embalming fluid was as
arousing as draining blood. This wasn’t life we were trying to pump
back through the veins—it was continuance. We are not trying to
fight death—we are paying it homage. In life we change constantly,
we are unpredictable, but in our chemical deaths we are stagnant.
What I had failed to realize when I touched the ravaged sparrow
was that unpreserved dead bodies are just as active as living ones.
When I climbed atop Leon and pushed against him ever so slightly,
my weight hardly enough to throw off the balance, blood began
to spill from his mouth. So dark and unexpected against his cold,
ashen skin. I leaned forward and put my lips to his and tasted his
life. His blood was soft like thin syrup. It coated my face, dripped
from my chin, pooled onto his chest. It was not disgusting. It was a
necessary fluid of sex. He was energy. He was active. He would not
remain.
Decomposition is fast and blind but preservation is reliable.
You’d think that once a person dies, that’s it, they can’t get more
dead. But that’s not true—bodies are always getting deader. Until
we step in and halt it—prevent it, never, but put it off indefinitely.
Exhume them to see. Evita! Evita! Evita! An anomaly? Impossible.
A testament to our powers! Past popes line the Vatican as though
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it were a dormitory, and we kneel at their plastic bodies and pray.
And are the kneelers wrong? Do we call them sick? Are they unfit?
Disturbed? What about the widow who kisses her husband’s waxy
face, clenches his frigid hands, as he lies in his cushioned box? How
do we define that kiss, those touches? As love. As nothing unusual.
And never, never would we call it by that name. How can we namecall and persecute when the distinctions are so shaky?
IX
I was caught once with Leon, and I think the comfort of being seen
was what emboldened me to take it further. I was alone, standing
next to his naked, puffy body. Looking at it, I could see what it
once was. I knew his skin was not this dirty grey but was rather
a milky chocolate, and his stomach was not originally distended
but was taut and muscular. He was twenty-one. Died after a swim
meet. Won a race, got out of the pool and collapsed. He had a
swimmer’s build—broad shoulders tapering into narrow hips. I felt
attraction like I had never felt before. I lifted his hand with both
of mine. When Antonio, the night cleaner, walked in, I had Leon’s
right ring finger in my mouth. There was no way I could hide what
I had been doing. Antonio closed his eyes, shook his head, and
turned to leave. It made me think that this was not unusual. Maybe
he had seen this before. Maybe he had done this, too. I knew he
would not tell. I knew I could go on.
The following morning I watched as Mr. Alfred embalmed
Leon. I assisted only briefly, with the superficial things. I massaged
the rigor mortis out of Leon’s muscles, concealing my arousal. My
body tingled, and my breath was caught at the top of my throat,
but I hid it all. Just touching Leon while Mr. Alfred watched
felt illicit. I did nothing that should arouse suspicion, but still, I
think he knew. These people have a way of sensing it. It’s not that
uncommon to be like me if you’re in the funerary business. But
here’s what I think. I think that it’s not necessarily that people
like me are drawn to this profession, but that once they enter into
it, people find that little something inside them. Death doesn’t
have to be surrounded by the stigma in which we shroud it. These
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bodies are people, we realize. They are sad people whom no one
else wants to touch, and, in my own way, by touching them, I’m
helping them. I’m showing that I’m not afraid. Last week, Nicholas
was a young, suffering boy. Just months before that he was shining
with life, but in an instant he became repulsive to people. Now
he belongs in a ghost story. He is an object of terror, but I am not
terrified. I am caring for him. Try it. Work with these bodies for a
while. The first time you see one you’ll think it impossible that you
could ever find it attractive, but just wait. Soon, you’ll be learning
their stories with each caress.
I didn’t go to Leon’s wake. I stayed in the morgue while his
family and friends publicly mourned upstairs. It was two days of
constant visitors—cars were two deep on the street around the
home and there was a line out the front door. Leon’s father was a
reverend at a local church, and the entire congregation, as well as
all of Leon’s classmates, showed up. That night I vacuumed the
showrooms and left the machine running as I opened Leon’s casket.
I needed something from him to keep. Vacuum still on to cover my
activity, I snuck into the office to borrow scissors. Carefully, I lifted
Leon’s left leg and cut a piece of his suit just behind his foot. It was
about an inch long and half as wide. The suit was a fine black and
the lining was a pinstriped satin blend. I tucked my right forefinger
between the two pieces of fabric, checked behind me, and slowly
kissed Leon. His lips were solid and it seemed that they pushed
back with an intensity matching my own. I don’t know what I
would have been capable of doing right then—something drastic,
I’m sure—but as we kissed the power went out. Was it caused by
the energy that flowed between us? Is that what tripped the circuit,
cut the vacuum and turned off the lights in half of the first floor? It
had to be. My stomach jumped, and, afraid of what was happening,
I shut the casket.
Leon’s cemetery was just outside of town, and had existed
before the high school and shopping center surrounding it were
even considerations. At first his family would visit, and they still
do occasionally—on his birthday, the anniversary of his death,
mother’s and father’s days—but I am the only one who went every
day. Every day for over a year I visited Leon, and every day I cried:
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thinking of him so lonely down there and me so lonely above,
thinking of what could have been. I was dating a hammer of a man
at that time—large and dull and very adept at inflicting blunt force.
We had been going out for a few months when I met Leon. When
he and I used to have sex, I would imagine him dead. I would
create the rigor setting into his limbs; I would pretend his body was
cold and still; I would turn his sweat into a dewy condensation. But
the illusion couldn’t hold. And soon this hammerhead noticed that
I went missing for some time each day. He made assumptions and
pounded and pounded and pounded at me like I was a nail he had
to make flush with the surface, and then we left each other’s lives
and I continued to visit Leon, keeping him firmly in mine. When
I met Nicholas, I knew that I could not let some dirt separate us so
finally.
X
I hadn’t been to the cabin in nineteen years, and it seemed an
appropriate place to go with Nicholas. No one would be there in
the other cabins in November. My mother had given me the keys
a few years back and told me it was there if I ever wanted to use
it. I had thought about going up there once, before Leon, with
the hammer boyfriend, but it seemed too dangerous. Tiny cabins,
too many trees and not enough people. What if he began to bang?
But Nicholas would enjoy it because Nicholas and I needed only
each other, and it was best for us to be alone. Nicholas and I would
be together in the bed my parents shared. We would be alone,
together. We would light a fire in the wood stove; we would hear
the wind beating at the cabin’s walls; we would watch the leaves
crackle and fall from their branches and soft breeze-born ripples
lapping at the sandy shore. We would be preserved.
XI
There weren’t many cars on the Northway, though there were
more than I had imagined. I had thought that it would just be us,
but there were a few other cars and a truck every hundred feet.
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The trucks sounded like whales as we passed them in the night.
With the radio off, we could hear that their deep rumbles were
accompanied by low, mournful cries—a searching call through the
dark ocean expanses. My heart wanted to break for those trucks,
my eyes wanted to cry for them. For whom were they searching?
Whom had they lost? Whom did they need to find? I had found all
that I needed and he was waiting for me, just a few feet away. My
body tingled just thinking about him, being so close, just thinking
about where we were headed and what we would do. The road was
all lonely cars surrounded by dying trees and I maintained my speed
through it all though my mind flew. I had never been with Nicholas
in the same way I had been with Leon. And even with Leon, it was
not what one would consider proper sex. I hadn’t had the time with
Leon to figure that all out. I had read about these pumps, or even
simpler, a rod, that could be inserted to make sex more lifelike, but
I hadn’t crafted anything. It didn’t seem too difficult, though. But
even without it, just being with them gave me feelings I could never
get otherwise. I reached into the pocket of my jeans and pulled out
the cuff of Leon’s pants I had clipped so many months ago. It was
considerably more faded now. It was frayed along the sides where it
had been cut and the silk was noticeably dirtier and worn. I slipped
it around my right index finger and rubbed the silk against my
thumb as my hand embraced the steering wheel. It was like liquid
between my fingers flowing with my slight movements. I felt the
strokes up my arm. It felt like Nicholas would feel against me. The
trees rose, noble but unstable, alongside my car. They were dying
rulers. The king is dead! Long live the king! They would fall but
return within a matter of months. It’s all cyclical. They respond to
the world around them. Everything works together in its balanced
way. We’ll swing so far into winter that it will be difficult to see
out, but then—surprise!—the fallen leaves and melting snow will
nourish the soil, animals will wake from their slumbers, claw out of
their thawing graves and come alive once again. The birds that had
disappeared will come home for another year.
XII
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How is my story any different from a fairy tale? In the original
Sleeping Beauty the prince doesn’t even know that she’s sleeping,
he thinks she’s dead, but she is so astoundingly beautiful that he
can’t help himself and he “plucks from her the fruits of love.” And
still she does not wake! It’s only when one of the infants she births
nine months later sucks the dreaded piece of flax from beneath her
fingernail that she is roused. And then we changed it, made it so
it’s only a kiss with immediate resurrection. But still, I can’t be the
only one. There has to be a little of this in all of us. There’s a grain
of truth in everything. We all want to be rescued as we passively
wait. We all want to be the brave and fortuitous heroes. We are all
initially attracted to beauty over everything else and beauty doesn’t
vanish with one’s last breath. There has to be some truth to it, but
surely everyone doesn’t feel like this. Everyone can’t feel this guilty
stabbing like a serrated blade dragged continuously throughout
their body. Everyone else can’t possibly hurt like this.
How could they stand to bury Snow White when her cheeks
were still so rosy? When she still looked so alive? And peering
through the walls of her glass coffin, the prince falls in love. A love
true and pure and unmitigated. A love that requires nothing else.
Back from death comes Snow White. Death seems so transitory.
It is rare that one dies without complications. What is death but a
beautiful illusion?
XIII
The energy from Nicholas wouldn’t stop. I drove in a trance. The
road, the trucks, the trees, they all seemed like a backdrop to me
and Nicholas and what was building between us. Schroon Lake was
still miles away and I knew that we would make the car explode if
we just kept going like this. We had to do something. I pulled off
at the next exit and drove until I reached a small wooded road. It
was too late and too dark for anyone else to be around. I couldn’t
stop shaking as I turned off the engine and climbed between the
seats into the back. I pulled the sheet off Nicholas and ripped off
the straps. I got on top of him and firmly kissed him on the mouth.
I ran my lips all over his face and down his neck. I lifted his hands
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and ran them softly along my body. Nicholas was cold. My body
shook under his touch. He was warning me, and I knew what to
look for, and I knew how to respond.
XIV
The wicked stepmother eats what she believes to be Snow White’s
liver and lungs. Her savagery is a kind of selfish compassion. She
attempts to bind them, to bring something of this worthy rival
into herself. Isn’t that what motivates all consumption? We’re just
looking to fortify ourselves in some way. And while I may be just
as selfish, I am far less vicious. I don’t look to hurt or harm. I don’t
look to consume and destroy. Really, it’s an overwhelming love. It’s
no less real than any other love. For me, it’s more real than anything
else I’ve experienced. Nothing else ever felt like this. These bodies
strengthen me. It’s a Dante-esque obsession that we no longer see
as lovely and passionate. I will follow my Beatrice into no afterlife
because she has gone nowhere that necessitates following. Nicholas
was lying there, peaceful and beautiful. Life is love and love is touch
and Nicholas was smooth and cool under my small hands. He sent
me tingles and shivers. He reminded me that I am alive.
Was it mutual? Did he feel anything? I can’t say yes with any
certainty, but can we ever really claim to know what anyone else
feels? What I know for sure is that something passed between us.
Something as sharp and bright as a sword’s blade. I know that in
that piercing moment we were connected, more connected than
I had ever been with a living body. Sex with the living has always
made me feel so isolated. There’s too much thinking, too much
wondering what to do and say, if it would be acceptable to do and
say what you’d like. It was different with Nicholas, and with Leon
before. With them, I did not worry. I knew what to do, for both of
us. There was this sonic boom that would pound in my head and
prevent me from hearing anything else. It was his energy, as if in
some way, he was showing me what to do.
XV
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We didn’t have much farther to go, I realized as we got back onto
the Northway. Just a few stretched miles of pavement and we
would be there. The trees grew densely along the sides of the road.
I was not in a rush: I simply needed to be there, at the cabin, with
Nicholas. This box could not contain us any longer. I wished for
the ability to teleport. I wanted to place us where we needed to
be, and then I wanted to stop time and just exist with nothing else
but Nicholas. I was worried about the time we had left together.
Nothing would be long enough. The sun was beginning to touch
the tops of the trees’ bare branches. I wondered who would notice
I was gone, and I realized that they would notice Nicholas was
missing before anyone missed me. Who would first notice the
missing body? What would they tell his family? How long would it
take for them to realize it was me, and how long would it take for
them to find us?
I pulled off the exit to the lake. Driving into town evoked no
childhood memories for me. I could not recall making this drive
with my parents and brother years ago. Everything was unfamiliar,
though not unexpected. The day was awakening. The sun was
ascending. The few birds still remaining were visible in their Vs,
flying to some place warmer and more alive. The town itself,
however, slumbered. We passed a general store, a laundromat, a
diner, a gas station and a Chinese restaurant, all of which were
closed. There seemed to be no other stores on the street. The turnoff
to the lake was on our right, and we snuck down a long isolated
street to approach it. The trees were not as thickly packed as I had
remembered, but maybe that was because I had only gone up in
summer. Now it was solidly autumn, and the leaves had all fallen
from their branches. Nothing around us seemed to be living: the
naked trees, the hard earth, the blank sky, the sleepy town with its
absent inhabitants. Everything was resting, waiting for something,
for some sign that it was okay to wake up. They could read the
signs, too, and they knew that it was not yet time.
AUTHOR BIO: Stefanie Demas is a graduate of Skidmore College.
Her work has appeared in New York Press, Hunger Mountain and
Lemondrop, among others. She is from Brooklyn, New York.
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Memento Mori was originally published in The Rag Issue 5.
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155
OLIVIA
by Philip Zigman
Well, see, the thing was: my nose was absolutely perfect. The doctor
said it himself right as I sat down in his office, though he wasn’t the
only one who said so, nor the first, not even close. A lot of people
said it to me, pointed out how beautiful my nose was, how perfect
a nose I had. As if I didn’t know, hadn’t looked at it every day in
the mirror. The nose was perfect; there was no disputing that. To
do anything to it would have been to offend god, the creator—so
said the doctor—to slight someone who had clearly done his best
work on the solitary nose that sat in the center of my face. The nose
itself had nothing wrong with it. No, the problem was that it was
a tad too big for me—a bit off, scale-wise—not in terms of its own
proportions, not alone, but on my face, and even on my body. And,
of course, this wasn’t even by very much. The nose was not so big
as to be absurd or comical. But it was too big. I knew it, and others
did too. Perfect, but a size too big for the rest of me.
So I visited the doctor about this, about all of this, and he
was, of course, completely awed by its perfection, as I said, but
agreed that it was a size too big. But to alter the nose, to toy with
perfection, as he called it, even to scale it down and keep the
proportions exact, was not something he wanted to do. No, that
was not something he was willing to try. For he was no god, and
slight error, even the slightest error, was not only possible, but
likely. And then what of perfection?
So, he said—because touching the nose was unthinkable, was
something he refused to consider—he had an idea. Now, he said
to me, this wasn’t an idea he would share with everyone. Even if
someone were in my exact situation—which is so terribly unlikely,
but say she had the perfect lips or breasts or eyes—well, even then
he would not necessarily propose what he had in mind for me.
Because, for one, I had money of my own. And second,
he said, equally important, if not more so, was that I was not a
dimwit airhead deadbeat who had such a lack of character and
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fortitude and inner strength so as to be a black hole for those traits,
swallowing them up from those around, not to hoard for oneself
but to simply extinguish. No, I was a woman, still young, no
doubt, but with experience, a personality, work ethic, perseverance,
and—well, you know, just not one of those.
So, because of this, says the doctor, he has a proposal, one
that doesn’t toy with perfection but can still straighten out all the
proportions. But it will take lots of work—and money, lots of
that—and, mostly, time and endurance, endurance on my part—
near superhuman strength, he says.
Oh, I’m ready! I can do it. Just tell me, tell me what you have
in mind, I say to him.
He tells me—whispers almost, actually leans forward and tells
me his little secret. And I’m floored by the genius.
And I’m so excited that I can hardly move, yet I somehow
make it out of his office and into my car and drive home. It’s a
miracle I didn’t kill anyone because I don’t even remember how I
got home—I was in a stupor—but next thing I know I’m home,
an empty water bottle on the counter, some of the water having
dripped out of my mouth onto my shirt, and I’m holding the
phone, calling Jacques, and I’m telling him that I’m taking some
time off for medical reasons, and that he’s in charge, and that no,
it’s nothing serious, but it could be a few weeks, or months, but I’ll
keep him posted and to just keep things running smoothly, and he
laughs when I say that shouldn’t be too difficult.
And after I get off the phone with Jacques—still I don’t know
how I am doing all of this, it’s like an out of body experience—I
call the doctor’s office, and he picks up, says he saw my number and
wanted to take the call himself, and I book my first appointment,
for the next day. And I ask if he’ll be ready, and he tells me he
already had it planned, had penciled it in but was just waiting for
my call to confirm, and he tells me not to eat for the rest of the day
and to be there in the morning. I say: eat? I couldn’t even think of
eating right now, couldn’t even eat if I tried! Then I hang up and
put the phone down, and I take a bath—I have to—and I finally
start to come down.
I have to be out for the first surgery, but he describes it to
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me in detail before he starts and again after it’s finished, once I
come to. It’s a fairly common procedure, he tells me. Well, really
it’s two procedures, but they’re normally done together, to save
money, he says, then he laughs. First what he did was a cheek
augmentation—a slight one, of course—and at the same time, a
small implant in my chin, a thin layer contouring the whole thing.
Once I’m out, and I’m out quickly, he tells me—before I even
get from one hundred to ninety-nine, I’m gone—he makes two
small cuts, incisions, on the inside of my mouth, near the gum line
on the top. From there, he says, it’s simply a matter of sliding the
implants into place on top of my cheekbones. Then, for the chin,
he makes another small cut inside my mouth, this time on the
bottom. For some people, he says, he’ll slide an implant down into
the chin, just like he did for the cheeks. But because he wants such
a slight augmentation here, to get the proportions just right, he
uses a syringe to inject the polyethylene onto the chin bone, where
it hardens instantly, and this allows for more flexibility in size and
shape.
And that’s it! There’s nothing else to it. He’s finished in under
an hour—he’s incredible!—and I’m woken up and see him staring
down at me, making sure everything moves properly when I open
my eyes and move my mouth, and he smiles, very pleased with
the work. He tells me to keep my head up, and I say, up? but I
normally sleep upside down, and he laughs and tells me to use three
pillows and to ice lots, and he gives me a prescription for the pain.
I feel better after a couple of days. I’m already starting to eat
solid food, but the doctor doesn’t want to rush things so we keep
the second appointment for two full weeks after the first.
By the time I go in for the second procedure, the swelling
is completely down, I mean completely, and there’s no redness
or anything, and the receptionist, who’s replacing the girl who’s
normally there, can’t even tell I’ve had work done on my face. But
she does notice my nose and pays it a nice compliment, says that
my nose is absolutely gorgeous and she hopes I’m not in to have
any work done on it, and I laugh and say: not quite.
I have to be put under again, for the second one, and after I
wake up, the doctor tells me I was out before I got to ninety-nine
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from one hundred. And again he’s smiling at me when I open my
eyes, happy with the work and how it all looks, and once he brings
the chair up and hands me a mirror, he explains the surgery to me.
It was a forehead augmentation, he says, and I tell him that
my whole face is getting augmented, and he laughs but says that,
basically, that’s what’s happening. He made a thin incision at my
hairline—so thin I couldn’t even really see it right afterward in the
mirror, except there were the stitches so I knew where it was. And,
like the cheeks, he had a very thin implant made, thinner than
usual, and he slid it in. He slid it in on top, to raise the forehead
a few millimeters, not to bring it outward, he says, because that
wasn’t necessary. And as a bonus, he says, the procedure gave me
a slight face lift, because when he stitched me up the skin had to
cover the implant too.
Then, he says, since I was already under and he wanted to
balance the outline of my face after the first procedure, he put small
implants along my jaw line, almost joining the chin and the cheeks.
What he did was the same as the first procedure, with cuts inside
my mouth and sliding the implant out, under my skin, on top of
the bone, until they were settled into place on the bone. And that
was that, he said. Two down, already.
He tells me my face is almost done, that there’s only one more
appointment for the face, when he’ll do two procedures at once.
Then he’ll do my ears, but later, and he says I won’t even have to be
under for that. And already I can see my nose fitting in better with
the rest of my face in terms of size, scaling, proportions.
While I recover from the second surgery, I call Jacques to tell
him that it will be at least a couple of more months before I’m
back and to make sure that everything is fine with him and work.
It isn’t, he says, not that it’s all suddenly gone bad, but there are a
few problems. And even though I’m healing well—my face, that
is—and the swelling is down and there really aren’t any scars, I’m a
bit shy about going out, especially to work, as a work in progress,
with not even my face complete and balanced, so I take care of the
problems from home, over the phone, which isn’t too hard except
my cheeks and jaw get a bit sore after talking for more than an
hour, so I work a bit slower than usual.
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And because the doctor wanted to make sure my body was at
full strength throughout, he gives me a month off after the second
surgery, so that’s a month of me staying in and eating takeout—
which is fantastic—and solving some problems over the phone and
talking with Jacques and reassuring him that it’s fine and I’ve taken
care of everything, and I tell him repeatedly that he’s doing a good
job. Great job, I say, sometimes, but he says, no, no, and even if I
insist, he is sullen on the phone, so I try to remember to stick to
good job, which he accepts, normally.
The third time I’m under takes longer than the first two times
combined. When I come to, I can’t see anything because there’s
a bandage over my eyes, which I have to keep on for two days,
but the doctor has his hand on my shoulder as he brings the chair
up and that helps me orient myself in the room. He asks how I
feel, and I try to answer, but my mouth is numb, and my lips feel
weird, and he laughs in a friendly manner and reminds me that he
did a lip enhancement just before waking me up, so I may have
trouble talking for a few hours. He tells me that he hardly injected
anything, that it was just a slight enhancement, that he only used a
quarter of what he normally uses on lips.
Before the lips, the reason I was out was so he could perform
a procedure on my eyes—or a couple of procedures, he says, to be
more accurate. He tells me that neither is very common, but that
he’s observed each being done before and they went very smoothly
on me.
First, what he did was add a thin layer to my sclera. That’s the
white stuff of the eyeball. He tells me it’s called scleral padding, and
it’s basically just a thin layer of plastic on the front of both eyeballs.
And because he did the forehead work before, and that gave me the
slight face lift, it exposed the plica semilunaris and lacrimal caruncle
just slightly—the red stuff on the corners of the eyes—so that
gave a little opening for the padding to fully cover the front of the
eyeball. That is, everywhere except the cornea.
What he did for my corneas, he says, was give me permanent
contact lenses—non-prescription, of course, because I’ve never had
trouble with my vision—so that the cornea would be flush with
the padded sclera. And, he says, smiling as he tells me, he had the
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diameter of the irises and pupils increased just a bit in the lens, a
fraction of a millimeter, so that they would be in proper proportion
to my nose.
After I get out of the chair, the nurse walks me into the waiting
room and, surprise, he says to me, she’s coming home with me, to
help me around the house for the two days until the bandages come
off. And I ask him who’s going to help him for those two days, and
he tells me not to worry, that he’s got a replacement coming in from
some agency, and that Stacy, the nurse, wanted to help me out, and
he wanted her to, since I’m such a good patient of his, and I laugh,
my lips starting to feel better, and he laughs too and walks us to the
elevator at the back of the waiting room.
Stacy is, for the most part, good company, except she chews
really loudly, or maybe it just seems loud to me, because my eyes
are closed, and you know what they say about taking away one
sense and the others being enhanced—or augmented, ha—and
also she talks a lot on the phone to someone named Barrett, and
I can’t tell if it is a man or woman, a lover or friend, but their
conversations are, I must say, so inane, and she always hovers
around me while having them—I don’t know why. Otherwise, it is
nice to have her around, to help me bathe and dress and even eat,
which is hard to do by myself at times, and we both laugh when I
miss my mouth with something.
When she takes the bandages off, I can’t believe how good
everything looks—my whole face. The eyes, by themselves, look to
me as they had before, but then when I look at them in relation to
my nose, I can see that he’d made them slightly bigger, just slightly,
and that they fit my nose much better. And she stays for dinner,
then leaves, giving me a big hug and saying that she’ll see me soon,
which she will, because my next procedure is in two weeks, and she
also reminds me to keep my eyes closed lots for a few more days.
Before I know it I’m back at the doctor’s office, and my face is
nearly finished, says the doctor, and it looks incredible, as good as
he could have hoped for, and it fits my nose much better, so well,
and it’s time to move on to the rest of my body. What he is going to
do, he says, is a couple of things. I say that he is always doing two
things at once, that he is quite the multi-tasker, and he laughs, and
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Stacy does too, and he tells me that he’s very careful not to overly
traumatize my body and that performing two or three procedures
at once, when possible, reduces the total convalescence period and
discomfort.
He tells me he is going to start in the middle and work his way
out, and he starts by doing an old-fashioned boob job. He tells
me he is going to add five-eighths of a cup to each breast, that he
doesn’t have to worry about making them symmetrical on top of it
because they already are, which is quite uncommon, he says.
Once I’m out, he makes a small incision on the underside of
each breast, getting under skin and the breast, along with a few
layers of the chest muscle. Then he pushes the saline implants into
place, inside the muscle, and makes sure both are secure and level
before stitching the muscle up, which locks the implants in place.
Since he’s already working on my chest, he extends the
incision under my right breast, contouring the natural shape of the
breast towards the center of my chest, getting under the muscle
completely, giving him access to my sternum, where he works with
a camera and creates a half-inch wide cavity in the center of the
bone, along most of its length. He does this by cutting through
the midline of the bone, then slowly pulling both halves apart
with metal forceps and inserting a sort of wedge to keep the cavity
intact. He then uses the same incision, the original one, to access
my bottom rib on the right side. Here, he first removes a bit of
cartilage, which he sets aside for later, for my ears; then he removes
the one rib, the last floating rib. Then he shapes the rib—like a
sculptor, for real—shaving it down just slightly, but making sure
to keep the blood supply to it intact, to ensure a successful graft.
And once it’s the shape he wants—which, he tells me, takes almost
a half-hour of work to achieve—he slides the bone, the former rib,
into the incision, across the right side of my chest, and secures it in
the cavity in the center of my sternum, adding a half-inch of width.
The whole thing takes more than four hours, and when I wake
up I’m lying in a different room, bandages wrapped around my
chest, and my chest aches, but more than that, my head not only
aches but feels empty, and my eyes feel like they are so deep in my
head I can touch them if I put my hand behind my head, onto the
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pillow. I press the button that’s in my hand and Stacy comes in,
and I tell her about my head and she tells me not to worry, that the
aching is from the drugs to put me to sleep, and the emptiness and
weird feeling in my eyes is the morphine, and she gives me a bit
more and tells me to relax, enjoy.
I come to a couple of hours later, and my head feels a lot better,
and the aching in my chest hasn’t gotten any worse, may even feel
better, because of the morphine. I press the button and Stacy comes
back into the room. She tells me she wondered when I was going to
wake up and asks me how I’m feeling and tells me I’ll be on my way
home soon.
The doctor comes in to examine me and tells me everything
looks fine, and my chest looks incredible, that the width will fit my
nose, that the breasts were only slightly augmented and will look so
natural, and he tells me that my sternum will be sore for a couple of
weeks, and that he’s prescribing some calcium pills to help the bone
grow in fully and also some painkillers, obviously.
I spend a couple of weeks on the couch in front of the TV,
mostly lying down, my chest aching but nothing that I can’t handle,
can’t deal with. I buy some things from the shopping channel—one
of those automatic vacuums, a set of moisturizing creams, a highquality sound system with innovative speakers that distribute sound
so as to facilitate its reception by human ears—because I’m bored,
mostly, and I can feel my bone growing back, the bone being
absorbed and integrated and getting stronger.
I start to go for walks after that, because the doctor told me to
stay active, as active as I can, so I walk around the block, around
my neighborhood, and then call Jacques to check in and see how
things are going. He tells me that everything is fine, and I can tell
that he’s lying, but only slightly, and that there are likely only minor
issues, nothing he can’t handle, or shouldn’t be able to at least, and
that even if they aren’t handled they won’t be the biggest issues so I
don’t press him further, and we just chat for a bit, and he asks when
I’m going to be back, and I tell him it will be a few more months.
He asks me again what exactly the matter is, and I reassure him that
it’s nothing serious, that it’s nothing he needs to worry about, and
he’ll find out when I’m back, which won’t be too long, and I tell
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him to call if there’s anything.
I go in for an x-ray because the sternum is an important bone
and the doctor wants to be sure that it’s healing well before he
continues the work. I get a call the next day, from Stacy, and she
tells me that the bone looks great, looks strong, and the doctor is
happy, and I can come in the next day for the next procedures,
which, she says, I won’t have to be put under for.
I talk to the doctor while he works on my ears, augments them
slightly, uses the cartilage he took from my rib cage to increase their
size a tad. He tells me that my chest looks great, that the added
width is basically perfect, that my nose looks even more perfect
now, if that’s possible, that it’s fitting so much better, fits my face so
well and now my body too, the core of it.
After he is done with my ears, he tells me he is going to
perform a muscle lengthening procedure on my abs and lower back
muscles. He explains that he needs to do both, to balance them out,
balance my body, and that even though he widened my chest he
didn’t have to do so to my upper back because it was just slight and
won’t cause a dangerous imbalance and, well, there’s no nose on the
back of my head, so he didn’t have to make my back wider. And I
watch him make fine incisions in my stomach, after he has frozen
me, and he says he is going to make small cuts in the muscles and
pull them gently, extend them slightly, and that I need to stretch
while they heal to ensure the extensions hold. Then he turns me
over and does the same to my back, makes several tiny cuts in the
muscles and pulls them gently, and before I know it he stitches me
up and I step off the operating table, and he tells me to really be
sure to stretch and that he’ll see me in three weeks.
I have some trouble stretching, at first, because of the soreness
in my chest, from my sternum, the bone that’s growing and
healing. But after a week I either am more flexible or my sternum
is doing better, the soreness dissipating, and I’m stretching as much
as the doctor told me I need to. But then I notice my ears in the
mirror one day, and something about them seems off, is not quite
right, and I call the doctor and he tells me to come in at the end of
the week.
And when the doctor looks at my ears he agrees that the shape
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is not quite right, that the cartilage didn’t heal, didn’t settle just
right, and he fixes them on the spot for me, removes some cartilage
and uses a bit more that he’d kept from my ribs, and shapes the ears
again. He tells me not to worry, that it happens sometimes, that
touch ups are part of it, and I tell him it was just my ears and they
look great now, and he tells me, as he walks me to the elevator, to
call if there’s anything else and that he’ll see me next week and that
we’re getting down to the wire, close to the end.
Apparently I’m out once again before I get to ninety-nine, from
one hundred. Stacy laughs when she tells me this in the recovery
room. She tells me I’m the perfect patient, that I’m out right away
and they can get straight to work. Then she smiles and gives me
some morphine, and I’m out again for a few more hours.
When I wake up the second time, Stacy calls in the doctor.
He asks how bad the pain and discomfort are, and I tell him that
they are not so bad, and he smiles and says good, that there should
be some but it should not be unbearable. He looks at the circular
pieces of metal sticking out of my arms, one above and one below
the elbow on each arm.
Then he lifts the blanket and looks down at my legs, at the
metal pieces above and below each knee. He tells me that the
pieces, the little disks, are attached to screws, that my nurse will
turn them slightly each day, and that is how the real lengthening
will happen.
He tells me that the screws—strong, durable metal—go into
my bones.
What he did was cut through my bones clean, with a saw,
through the long bones in my arms and legs—one bone above each
joint and the two below, in my shins and forearms. He tells me that
the new procedures are much more refined, that it is only a small
incision on the surface, that the bone is cut in a very clean manner,
broken in two, and a metal piece is inserted, and it’s shaped like a
tampon applicator, almost, he tells me, then a screw is connected to
that, and the screw is connected to the disk-like piece on my skin.
He shows me, on my left forearm, how the disk is locked, and
how it can be unlocked and turned, and every five turns is about
one millimeter of lengthening, which is how much should be done
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each day, starting in a week. He doesn’t turn it, he says, because the
procedure adds several millimeters initially, simply by cutting the
bone and inserting the rod properly, inserting the rod to ensure a
small gap between the bone tips, for the new bone to grow in and
fill.
And because he is lengthening the bones above and below
the joints—not just doing one bone, which is more common,
but which would leave the proportions off, in the end—twice the
amount of lengthening has already taken place as normally would
have, and the rest will only take about three weeks.
He leaves me to rest some more, and when the doctor comes
back he has with him another nurse, a nurse he knows very well,
he says, and who will come home with me for the next month
or so. The metal rods in my bones are super strong, he says, and
I can walk if I feel like it, and use my arms too, but if I’m more
comfortable in a wheelchair it’s okay too, because it’s only for a few
weeks, and that by the end he would have added about a centimeter
and a half to each limb, maybe a bit more to the legs.
The nurse’s name is Maribel, and even though her English is
fine she doesn’t speak too much. But that suits me fine, it is a nice
change from Stacy, I have to say. And the first few days after the
surgery are not so bad, the pain not being as bad as I thought it
would be. And Maribel helps me feed myself and pushes me around
in my wheelchair.
After the first few days I stop watching TV, and the weather
is gorgeous so I spend a lot of time outside. Maribel pushes me
out in the morning and then sits in the living room, just behind
me, where she can see me through the window and hear if I call,
and she watches her Spanish television shows with the volume way
down so it doesn’t disturb me. And once a day, normally around
noon, she unlocks each disk, one by one, and turns each one five
times, and it makes a faint clicking noise with each turn, and the
five turns will lengthen my bones by a millimeter, will push the
top of the rod out, which will push the two ends of my bone apart
just slightly. But, to be honest, I don’t really feel anything when
she turns the disks, don’t feel my bones moving. I just feel the disk
turning, the screw through my skin, and hear the click for each
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turn.
And I sit in my wheelchair in my back yard, watching the
water in my pool, watching how the water moves, the different
ways it will move when there is wind, how a gust will only disturb
the water in a small corner or section of the pool. The doctor had
told me I could walk or swim or exercise, but the most I ever do
is sit by the pool with my legs in the water, which I do after my
stretching with Maribel. And with my legs in the water, I try to
mimic the different effects the wind has on the surface, the different
patterns it creates, and I think about how I could redo the back
yard, what I could put where, and I think about how I will look
when everything is finished, how my nose will look, how it will fit,
how it will be more perfect even, maybe, and what people will say
and think when they finally see me, see everything. And it is a very
spiritual period for me, I think, those few weeks, by the water, in
the yard, while my bones grow—are pulled apart just slightly each
day and regenerate, grow together, to touch, to fill the gap.
Once the length that the doctor wanted is achieved, I go back
to see him with Maribel. Even though I am able to walk, I prefer
the wheelchair, which I sit in until I get into his office, then I stand
up and walk over to the seat in front of his desk. He tells me that
I am halfway through the bone distraction, that the surgery and
lengthening were the hard parts.
He removes the disks and closes the wounds, and they are so
small that I am hardly even able to tell that the screws were there.
Then he sends me home for the new bones to consolidate, to grow
full and strong, and, he says, in about eight weeks he will take out
the screws and rods.
Before we leave his office, Maribel asks me if I wouldn’t rather
leave the wheelchair behind, and I give her a hug and tell her that’s
a good idea, and we get Chinese takeout and watch some Spanish
soap operas that night with the subtitles for me, and I have a great
time.
I call Jacques while my bones are consolidating and help him
with a few things from home, and I’m able to call some other
people and iron issues out from home, and things are back running
smoothly, and I tell Jacques I’ve been thinking about starting up
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in Asia, starting operations there, and that we would need to add
some new space to the office and maybe another person or two,
and to look into that and get back to me. He asks, again, when I’ll
be back, and I tell him a few more months. And he tells me I keep
saying that, I keep saying a few more months, but that it’s been a
lot more than that. So I tell him that I mean it this time, and he
tells me he’ll believe it when he sees it, and I’m excited to get back
to work, to see everyone, for them to see me, for me to see what
they think, what they say.
And I find a movie theater that is close to my house, where
they play old movies, movies I haven’t seen since I was little, or
movies that were before my time. So I start going to their 2:30
screenings, because those give me something to do in the middle of
the day, between lunch and dinner. I can walk in at 2:30, just as it’s
starting, and slip into the back row, into a seat all by myself, in the
dark, and watch the movie. And I’m the first one out when it’s over,
when the credits roll, and I pick up takeout on the way home.
The physiotherapy gets more intense as the consolidation winds
down, and Maribel is so good at coaching me, at pushing me,
and I start to swim in the pool almost daily, and I’m no longer on
pain killers anymore, and I feel perfect, so good, as if I hadn’t had
anything done to my bones at all.
Just when the weather gets unpredictable, is no longer perfect,
when I start to wake up to rain occasionally and can’t sit out
in the back, I go back to see the doctor. He tells me that I look
great, incredible, that the length is just what he wanted, that the
proportions are amazing, that he’s so happy he didn’t just do one
bone on each limb, but all of them. And he’s smiling broadly when
he tells me that it’s almost over, that he’s almost finished. And I’ve
been so strong, he tells me, through the whole thing.
He puts me under to remove all the screws and rods. When
I come to, he laughs and tells me I don’t have to worry anymore
about setting off any metal detectors at the airport. Stacy laughs at
this, because, she says, her mother just had her hip replaced and
every time she flies, which is often, she sets off the metal detectors,
and even though she is an old woman from the Midwest, the
security guards get suspicious, and well, are thorough in their pat
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downs.
I look at the stitches above and below my joints on each limb,
and there are only two in each place, and the doctor tells me not to
worry, that scarring will be minimal, if anything, and that there is
only one procedure left, one more, and that he’ll see me in a couple
of weeks, in no time.
The last procedure is also a sort of bone distraction, so I have to
be put under. And even though it’s not quite as big, the doctor says,
in terms of the bones and risk, it will take longer because of the
number of bones to lengthen.
What he does is lengthen each one of my digits, about three
millimeters per digit, he says, maybe a bit more for my fingers,
maybe four for those.
Like he did for my long bones, he makes a small incision
and cuts through the bone, clean through, separates it into two
pieces. Then he inserts a small titanium pin, connecting the two
pieces, keeping them a short distance apart. He does this to the
metacarpals and long phalanges, about two millimeters of space for
the metacarpals and one for the phalanges.
When I come to it feels again like my eyes are on the back of
my head, on my pillow, and I know it’s the morphine, and Stacy
gives me a bit more, and I’m out again. When I wake up the second
time, my head is still aching, but my hands and feet aren’t too sore,
and the doctor examines them to make sure they look fine.
He tells me that the titanium pins are very thin, that it won’t
take long for the bones to grow into the small gaps but the pins
are there until then, and that the pins will stay in me for good. I
ask about airports and he smiles and tells me not to worry, that
the titanium won’t set anything off, and the pins are so small that I
have nothing to worry about. I ask about the pins, about how many
he put into each bone and how big, and again he tells me it’s just
one pin and they are very thin, but also super strong, and I’m so
tired that I fall back asleep, without any help from Stacy.
Maribel comes home with me, pushes me in the wheelchair
through the waiting room and into the elevator, then into the taxi,
but she leaves the wheelchair in the taxi and I walk up to my home.
I’m wearing modified walking boots so there’s very little, if any,
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weight on my toes, and I’m able to walk without much trouble or
discomfort.
My hands are swollen for the first few days, so Maribel has to
help me like she did after the long bone distraction. Except that I’m
able to walk, am not in a wheelchair this time, have my walking
boots which aren’t too difficult to move in but which I have to take
off every now and then to expose my feet and legs, and also to do
my exercises, which Maribel helps me with.
And I call the doctor’s office because the pain is a bit much,
in the tips of my fingers and toes, and he tells me that I’ve simply
gotten used to the painkilling drugs—tolerance, he calls it—and
he’s happy to up my dose a little. I’m also taking more of the drugs
to help with the bone regeneration, because my body could be used
to those too, and it’s important for my fingers and toes to grow
back strong.
By the end of the first week the pain is under control, and
decreasing, and aside from the fact that I have to wear the walking
boots, I’m able to function almost normally. Maribel tells me to
do everything as I normally would, that there’s nothing to worry
about, that the titanium is strong and I just have to be careful
to move slowly. But I find that I sometimes wonder, while I’m
watching TV or reading or on the computer, if the metal pin is
really strong enough, or if it’s centered properly in the bone, and I
worry, quite vividly, about my fingers especially. I imagine the metal
sliding out, or falling out, or bending at that little point where
there is no bone around it, or just my bone bending downward, not
at the joint but in the middle, between joints, where he broke the
bone, that little empty space that’s there, the pieces just succumbing
to gravity. Maybe a finger just snaps while I’m holding my mug,
if I don’t hold it properly, with all my fingers, close enough to my
palm.
But that never happens, obviously, and I imagine the bones
growing, all of them at once, like a race—who will get there first?—
and the painkillers take care of the discomfort, for the most part,
and I wait for my appointment with the doctor, so he can check
everything. And I try, as much as possible, not to look at my hands,
because even though they are the right length, they aren’t healed
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yet, aren’t full inside, so I don’t allow myself to think that it’s over before it actually
is.
So after the first two weeks I don’t really look at my hands or feet, including
when Maribel helps me with my exercises, and for the next month I wait for the
bones to fully grow back, to fill the spaces, to complete the lengthening, then it’s
time to see the doctor, and I’m standing in his office, naked, in front of the mirrors,
in front of the three mirrors that form a half-hexagon, and he just smiles, and I smile
too, and he says, from really close, from just behind me: you know, you have an
absolutely perfect nose, it’s incredible, it’s the most perfect nose I’ve ever seen. And,
he says, you know what, it just suits you, suits you so well.
And I have to agree with him, because it really does fit much better, I can see,
looking in the mirrors. But I can’t say anything because I’m a bit emotional at that
point—not really because of what I went through but because I’m so happy with it
all, how it looks, how it feels. And he takes a single picture, from the front, to put
next to the before picture, even though, he says, he doesn’t think he’d ever be able
to propose this procedure again, would ever meet someone in my situation who’s
also able to do what I did. But who knows? Maybe, in thirty years, another woman
will come see him with a perfect nose sitting on her face, right there in the center,
but despite its own perfection it will be just a size too big for her face and body,
or a half-size, even. Then, maybe, those pictures will come in handy. And he says
that if she’s a woman like me, a woman able to do what I did, endure all the work,
then maybe. And the work, the work—I must say, and I could see, looking in those
mirrors—is quite near to perfection—as close as you could get, I imagine, as close as
he or I could have hoped for. But he never promised perfection—in fact, he couldn’t,
and that’s why he didn’t touch the nose, wouldn’t under any circumstance do that.
So it’s not quite the perfection of the nose, obviously, but I think it’s quite close,
quite near to perfection. It’s close, don’t you think?
AUTHOR BIO: Philip was born in Montreal and now lives in New York City, where he
studies philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is currently
working on a novel.
Olivia was originally published in The Rag Issue 5.
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