ADELAIDE FOUNDERS / FUNDADORES
Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine Stevan V. Nikolic & Adelaide Franco Nikolic
Revista Literária Independente Bimensal
Year II, Number 8, July 2017 EDITOR IN CHIEF / EDITOR-CHEFE
Ano II, Número 8, julho de 2017 Stevan V. Nikolic
ISBN-13: 978-1548732097 [email protected]
ISBN-10: 1548732095 MANAGING DIRECTOR / DIRECTORA EXECUTIVA
Adelaide Franco Nikolic
Adelaide Literary Magazine is an independent
international bimonthly publication, based in New GRAPHIC & WEB DESIGN
York and Lisbon. Founded by Stevan V. Nikolic Istina Group DBA
and Adelaide Franco Nikolic in 2015, the maga-
zine’s aim is to publish quality poetry, fiction, BOOK REVIEWS
nonfiction, artwork, and photography, as well as Heena Rathore
interviews, articles, and book reviews, written in Jack Messenger
English and Portuguese. We seek to publish out- Ana Sofia Pereira
standing literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry,
and to promote the writers we publish, helping Scott Morris
both new, emerging, and established authors
reach a wider literary audience. We publish print CONTRIBUTING AUTHORS IN THIS ISSUE
and digital editions of our magazine six times a
year, in September, November, January, March, Mike D’Angelo, Jan Marin Tramontano, Elizabeth
May, and July. Online edition is updated continu- Gauffreau , Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt, Michael Mohr, Anna
ously. There are no charges for reading the maga-
zine online. Villegas, Michael Onofrey , Kay Merkel Boruff,
Thomas Vollman, Dana C Verdino, Jim Meirose,
(http://adelaidemagazine.org) Kevin Wiggins, A.R. Bender, Veronica Ordway,
Charlotte Freccia, Read Trammel, Dan Berick, To-
A Revista Literária Adelaide é uma publicação ny DAloisio, Ben Inks, Victor Bade, Wayne Hall,
bimensal internacional e independente, localizada Jose L Recio, Elizabeth Brewer, Tabatha Jenkins,
em Nova Iorque e Lisboa. Fundada por Stevan V. Rebekah Coxwell Colin Wolcott, Caleb Dudley,
Nikolic e Adelaide Franco Nikolic em 2015, o ob- Melissa Moore, João Bernardo, David Mecklen-
jectivo da revista é publicar poesia, ficção, não- burg, Kelly Smith, James Buchanan, Rachel A.G.
ficção, arte e fotografia de qualidade assim como Gilman, Brendan Lau, Apoorva Purohit, John L.
entrevistas, artigos e críticas literárias, escritas Stanizzi, Viswanath Gurram, Zac Pingle, Cameron
em inglês e português. Pretendemos publicar Kenny, Cassidy Senefelder, Connor Fitzpatrick,
ficção, não-ficção e poesia excepcionais assim Susan Kay Will, Sarah Kohrs, Patrick Erickson, An-
como promover os escritores que publicamos, drea Jurjevic, Maria João Marques, Boris Kokotov,
ajudando os autores novos e emergentes a atingir Mignon Ariel King, Tomas Sanchez Hidalgo, Jere-
uma audiência literária mais vasta. Publicamos my Gadd, Gareth Culshaw, Dustin Pickering, Kay
edições impressas e digitais da nossa revista seis
vezes por ano: em Setembro, Novembro, Janeiro, Merkel Boruff, Clay Reed, Sam James, Evyn
Março, Maio e Julho. A edição online é actualiza- McGraw, Hailey Cragun, Simon Perchik, Andy J
da regularmente. Não há qualquer custo associ- Hale, Sandra Kolankiewicz, Jessica Alverson, Lisa
ado à leitura da revista online. Brognano, Emily Eigenheer, Georgia Eugenides,
Samantha Kriney, Bryan McCormack, Gabriella
Garofalo Mark Young, Chase Spruiell, Judah Cri-
celli, Gabby Shaulis, Julianna Bjorksten
CONTENTS / CONTEÚDOS
EDITOR'S NOTES ACTION HERO’S EULOGY, By Ben Inks 110
BIMONTHLY, By Stevan V. Nikolic 6 CHRONICLES OF THE GODS. By Victor Bade 116
ADVICE FROM MR. WHISKERS, By Wayne Hall 121
FICTION / FICÇÃO THREE BLACK BIRDS, By Jose L Recio 126
SHADOWS IN EMPTY ROOMS, 8 THE DOLL FACTORY, By Elizabeth Brewer 129
By Mike D’Angelo CONNOISSEUR By Tabatha Jenkins 133
THE MOON GARDEN, 13 HIM, By Rebekah Coxwell 135
By Jan Marin Tramontano MÈI MEI / YOUNGER SISTER, By Colin Wolcott 142
THE STORY OF HENRY: CHAPTER & VERSE, 17 THINE ENEMY, By Caleb Dudley 148
By Elizabeth Gauffreau MEDIUM-RARE, By Melissa Moore 153
ROOT, By Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt 22 A FOTOGRAFIA De João Bernardo 158
MARILYN MONROE. FAT GIRLS. DEATH. FREEDOM RECREATION, By David Mecklenburg 160
By Michael Mohr 28 (IN)SIGNIFICANT OTHER By Kell Smith 163
LITTLE BITS FOR DINNER By Anna Villegas 34
THE CLOCK, By Michael Onofrey 44 NONFICTION / NÃO-FICÇÃO
THE PLANE RIDE, By Kay Merkel Boruff 50 CRISIS HOSPITALIZATION DISCHARGE 168
BOOTS, By Thomas Vollman 58 By James Buchanan
LOLA, By Dana C Verdino 62 HOW TO MAKE LOVE AND BREAK KIDNEYS 170
CLUB DE RÉSURRECTION By Jim Meirose 67 By Rachel A.G. Gilman
THE CLIFF, By Kevin Wiggins 68 TAME THE DARKNESS INSIDE YOU, 177
STARR: A LOVE STORY, By A.R. Bender 74 By Apoorva Purohit
REPARATIONS, By Veronica Ordway 80 SUMMER 1961, By John L. Stanizzi 180
YOUNG ENOUGH TO BE AFRAID, 86 ON PSEUDONYMS, By Viswanath Gurram 183
By Charlotte Freccia EXOTIC FLOWERS, By Zac Pingle 187
SIGHTSEEING, By Read Trammel 93 A SHUT IN PLACE, By Cameron Kenny 194
TWICE A WEEK THE WINTER THOROUGH 101 FAMILY PICTURES, By Cassidy Senefelder 200
By Dan Berick FIGHTING, By Connor Fitzpatrick 202
ALMOST ANYTHING GOES, By Tony DAloisio 107 COAL DIRT , By Susan Kay Will 204
POETRY / POESIA LIVE LIFE BECAUSE, By Samantha Kriney 265
(DIS)AMBIGUATION, By Sarah Kohrs 206 BREATHING, By Bryan McCormack 267
IF THE TRUTH BE SAID, By Patrick Erickson 208 BLUE GRASS, By Gabriella Garofalo 270
MARKO POGACAR’S POETRY, 211 THE PROPAGATION, By Mark Young 272
Translated by Andrea Jurjevic INSTINCT, By Chase Spruiell 274
POEMAS DE MICHAEL SPRING 214 WITH HER, By Judah Cricelli 278
Traduzido por Maria João Marques GROUND LEVEL, By Gabby Shaulis 280
SERGEY CHERNYSHEV’S POETRY 216 OFF-BEAT, By Julianna Bjorksten 282
Translated by Boris Kokotov
NOW I SEE, By Mignon Ariel King 220 INTERVIEWS / ENTREVISTAS
HOMAGE TO ORWELL, 223 TIMOTHY ROBBINS, A POET - 285
By Tomas Sanchez Hidalgo Shortlist Winner Nominee of the
ONE WEEK DAY WHILE WALKING 225 Adelaide Literary Award for Poetry 2017
By Jeremy Gadd
WATCHING THE SUN GO BY 227 BOOK REVIEWS / CRITÍCAS LITERÁRIAS
By Gareth Culshaw TOSCANINI: MUSICIAN OF CONSCIENCE 290
SHUDDER, By Dustin Pickering 229 By Harvey Sachs
THE ASIAN SHOPKEEPER, 231 THE CHILD By Fiona Barton 291
By Kay Merkel Boruff TAKE OUT By Margaret Maron 292
THE PUSH, By Clay Reed 235
FISHING LOCK NESS, By Sam James 238 NEW TITLES
A SIMPLE PROPOSITION, By Evyn McGraw 241 E FICOU A TERRA de Carla Ramalho 293
HIGH PLACE PHENOMENON, 246 EU, DO NADA de Isabel Tallysha-Soares 294
By Hailey Cragun SUDOESTE de Olinda P. Gil 295
HALF IRON, HALF OAK, By Simon Perchik 248 SOMBRAS de Patricia Morais 296
TURN AWAY, By Andy J Hale 250 O NÓ DA CULPA de Filipe Batista 297
THE WIDOW’S SON, By Sandra Kolankiewicz 252
VISITOR, By Jessica Alverson 254 Front cover photo:
CHASM, By Lisa Brognano 256 Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo, Torres Vedras,
WHO AM I, By Emily Eigenheer 258 photo by A.F.Nikolic
SACRIFICE, By Georgia Eugenides 262
Stevan V. Nikolic
Here we are with our first bimonthly issue. It was writers, thirty poets, and a dozen nonfiction piec-
a necessity. When we started Adelaide literary es, one to two author interviews, six book re-
magazine two years ago as a quarterly publica- views, and up to six new title presentations - is
tion, we never dreamt that it would ever turn into what we put out in each issue.
three-hundred-page periodical. Lo and behold,
not only that it turned into three-hundred-page July issue brings to our readers quite interesting
publication as a constant and standard format, and exciting assortment of authors and writings.
but our last quarterly issue (Summer 2017) we Few very young contributing authors surprise
had to release in two volumes of three hundred with the maturity of their poems and stories. And
pages each in order to catch up with the number again, maybe it’s not that surprising. After more
of accepted submissions. than forty years of wielding a pen, I still think that
the best poem I ever wrote was the one pub-
I may again face criticisms and hear questions like lished in 1973. I was just fifteen years old.
“OK, you have quite a few quality submissions,
but can you phase them out, limit the number of In this issue, much like in the previous one, we
submissions per issue, and have your authors wait have several excellent translations: poetry by Cro-
longer to be published? Would that be so bad?” atian poet Marko Pogacar, translated by Andrea
Again, my answer will refer to our mission state- Jurjevic; three poems by American poet Michael
ment “to promote the writers we publish, helping Garcia Spring, the winner of the 2017 Adelaide
both new, emerging, and established authors Literary Award for Poetry, translated into Portu-
reach a wider literary audience.” If we make our guese by Maria Joao Marques; and poems by Rus-
writers wait a long time to be published, how sian poet Sergey Chernyshev translated into Eng-
would that help them to reach “a wider literary lish by Boris Kokotov.
audience” or to promote their work?
For the end, I would like to express my heartfelt
The only solution I could see was to publish the gratitude to all authors who took part in the 2017
magazine more often. And that is exactly what we Adelaide Literary Awards Contest. The contest
are doing right now. Six issues per year, one every was a great success. We ended up with a wonder-
two months, instead of four quarterly issues, will ful Anthology as a lasting testimony of the win-
do a job. I hope. However, if that doesn’t solve ning entries. My congratulations go to all finalists,
the problem, we will go monthly. shortlist winner nominees, and winners. The hon-
ors were well deserved.
To satisfy those who constantly ask me to set up
some limits, I am happy to report that we already
have a template we follow. Works by thirty fiction
M. Cid D’Angelo
There’s Pat Methany on the radio: misty music His long roads and her late night work. Shadows
somehow in the somber glow of the dash lights. A in empty rooms.
lonely train chugs through the tune and the truck-
er recalls the depths of warm summer nights, There’re snow shards against the windshield and
watching a 13” black and white television screen a long stretch of early morning hours before his
on the VHF channel – long before cable – watch- rig. The far hills have a shadowy blue light, some-
ing as the stars glisten and the sleeping world how, over them, so it’s not as black as it should
turned; the sound of a train’s horn far away, drift- be.
ing in from the lost horizon. Alone with Katerina,
the gray half-glow on her face, fresh from wait- On the northern road at night, it gets so
ressing after the drudge work of endless noth- dark the universe is only miles away. When you
ings; the keys to their passionate world inspired make the trip often, you get to know the ranches
by reruns of sci/fi and horror movies and fatigue. and the working girls in them, and they have
Oh, and that that train so far away, so far far Clint’s name on a chalkboard in the back near the
away, and the horn smoothing in through the bar at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch. He feels spe-
open window. cial. He’s not a blundering in and out sort of guy,
you know, and they know; he tarries for awhile
The radio stations are only temporary; they fade whenever he’s around and it gets to be like that
and vanish after so many miles. There’s comfort old TV show where everybody knows your name.
in that – a strange comfort. He doesn’t know why
he feels that way. One’s lucky when a country It’s set up like a bed and breakfast. It’s
station nearby is playing some good instrumental comforting; it’s not like some trashy dive bar or
music without a brash Honky-Tonk noise and es- nightclub with girls dancing on poles or in retail
pecially when there’s not a Christmas carol. Good windows showing off themselves like hardware,
luck with that. There’s Hank Williams Sr., maybe not like the brothels in Europe. He’s seen those
some other Grand Ol’ Opry singer, and maybe and don’t ask him why or how.
Marty Robbins, even. There’s rarely anything
good on. They lay on their stomachs next to each
other, smoking, he and sunny-crowned Darly.
Katerina. She’s pretty, so very pretty, that she’s way out of
his league in the natural order of things. If he’d
Pancakes with grape jelly, screw the syrup. met her on the street, or a singles bar, or a love-
match dating website, she would have nothing to
Sex in the early Sunday light. do with him. He knows this.
When are you coming home? So what’s it like?
You never know. What is what like?
Being what you are, with so many guys? they made it gambling, or they have some inher-
itance. Most guys are squeamish if you come right
You think that since I’m a whore I have a out and tell them you made your money as a Ne-
long chain of guys every day? vada whore.
Mmm. It’s hard to move down those roads with Darly,
because she’s a ghost in her way. Can she, at
As if this is McDonald’s? those lonely times, away from the profession,
away from her johns and johnettes and anyone
No. Nothing like that. else who rules her world, sit in a cloistered apart-
ment, low on rent because she’s saving up, and a
Everyone thinks that, though. floor heater – again, she’s saving up – and all
those big numbers in her bank statement aspiring
Yes, maybe. for that magical day when, like a chrysalis, she
emerges as someone human? Clint wonders,
I have one or two nights a week. though, if Darly lies there in a wide open bed at
night because she’s single, and if she cries in the
Oh. dark, listening to old Waylon Jennings like his
mother had after she’d divorced those years ago.
A john here and a john there, but nobody I
don’t know. Somebody like you. Darly.
There’s gotta be that first time. Darly, lemon-gold, creamy like vanilla and straw-
berry ice cream; the princess and not the empress
Yes, you’re right, but it’s not as often as because she’s never grown up, not fully; the ca-
you think. tastrophes of her nun-like life jumbled up around
her as a convent because she’s holy and …,
They smoke. They watch The Walking
Dead on the flat screen. … does she have friends there? In her temporal
hometown? Or is she in hiding like the other
Some of the other girls make good money and women who work at the ranch?
they have plans.
Since she’s a ghost, he wonders, does Darly have
They do? other ghosts haunting that apartment with her?
Sad, displaced, disquieted, and hopeful ghosts as
Sure. They want families and children too. she is?
So, they have plans? She’s. Saving. Up.
Mmmm hmm. Of course they do. Do you have plans?
Like what? Mmmm hmm. Of course I do.
A family. Haven’t you been listening? Like what?
Nodding. A family. Haven’t you been listening?
Most of us make a good amount every month. We He wonders if Darly watches the snow on her
buy a one year lease in Reno or Battle Mountain, window pane on gray days and dark nights, like
you know, and we serve it out and quit. Move he does the snow on his windshield in the depths
away. Find a husband. of Christmas.
Oh. Streams of lights move out and beyond the dark-
ness. The early morning commute; Clint supposes
A girl has to live for the future. The alternative is they’re either miners or working at a government
depression and suicide. installation somewhere. Area 51. There are some
It never sits right, you know, meeting some guy
and settling down, especially when you’ve made a
good amount of cash and he doesn’t know where
it came from. I think some of the girls lie and say
strange off-the-road settlements in the Nevada them she’d been a manager of Kiss from a long
desert. Mercury for one, but that’s in the south; time ago, before they’d been big.
Rachel in another, and of course there’s Auburn.
Auburn has a winding course of the I-80 and some I’m thinking this is it, Clint.
broken up wannabe canyons, but it feels like a
down-home sort of place. You’re thinking what is ‘it’?
Kat said something about never wanting to I’m going to kill myself.
be a rural-type of girl. Some people need that ex-
tra kick of coffee and smog in the morning. No you’re not. You’re just going through a
When he’d proposed, he’d written all the
pros and cons on a bulleted list for her conven- Nobody gives a fuck about me, Clint.
Prissy Priss from Kiss didn’t know if Clint would
Oh good, she’d told him, this makes it easier for believe her or not. After all, he’d seen her wasted
me to tell you why I’m not going to marry you. before, so wasted she’d almost killed herself do-
And she had gone down the list with a red marker. ing some stunt, like trying to do a trapeze walk on
None of this will work, she’d said, crossing out his the top of a five-story building. He’d seen her so
points. I’m mentally handicapped. I’m depressed. wasted on Quaaludes she’d had her stomach
I’m depressed all the time. That’s what’s wrong pumped on more than one occasion.
with your list and why we can never be married.
Everyone in the band doubts Prissy Priss had ever
But they had married. They had, despite been the manager of Kiss, but again, no one has a
her warnings and despite his absences. way to call her out on the boast.
Oh, but now the road ahead, bogged down What are you going to use?
by the early morning snow and the cars and the
where-are-you-going-tos. Where are you going Uh? Sleeping pills, most likely.
to? It’s Christmas. Shouldn’t you day-trippers be
home? But let’s face it, she hadn’t liked being asked. She
didn’t approve of … planning.
There are other truckers too, of course,
weighed by the slow traffic and the bottleneck. You know that statistics show that women
Salt Lake City isn’t getting any nearer, it seems. will kill themselves with sleeping pills rather than
For once he’s happy, if indirectly and frivolously shooting themselves in the head, right?
so. It’s because of the uppers and the caffeine
pills, he muses. If he does half a bottle, there’s a What?
chance they’ll kill him, and sometimes …,
That’s a woman’s vanity for you. She’d
… sometimes that seems all right. rather go out looking good.
The windshield wipers are slapping time That’s so sexist you misogynistic bastard…
because the early snow is in harmony with the I’m serious, Clint.
radio. He remembers Janis Joplin and wonders
what a harpoon is inside a dirty red bandanna. So am I. I pay a lot of attention to statistics.
Like the fact that most people who first threaten
Mmmm. Mmmmm. Mmm. Music. The boys in the to kill themselves generally just need a little reas-
band Clint sometimes throws down with come surance. Nobody wants to kill themselves.
and go in his mind because they are so far away
right now; and come to think of it, their manager I will.
too. Prissy Priss from Kiss because she’d told
You won’t get any sympathy. Me and Kat
and the boys’ll make it a point not to even show
up at your funeral.
And that’s the way to lay it down.
When they’d all met a day later, at IHOP,
the front door blew open and in strolled Prissy
Priss from Kiss – eyes dilated and as big as dinner
plates – looking like she’d been ran over by a mix-
Fuck all y’all! She’d exclaimed, and in one
motion, she’d flopped forward in a terrible som-
ersault on the dining table and lay there spread-
eagle, blinking under the lights.
No one truly cares about me, Clint. No one
truly loves me beyond their eyes.
So, Clint supposes suicide isn’t really her
cup of tea after all.
Somewhere far away the memory of a mocha-
skinned beauty awaits him for long hours that
come too late. Poetry from dead lips. Falling verse
in between strips of cold, cold logic.
One of these days, Clint, I’m going to be someone
I’m not a pianist, I’m a music sheet turner.
Don’t look at me like I’m useless! Some-
body has to turn the music sheet!
There’s a little bit of a ghost story there,
with her. Not that there’s anything weird or
creepy, not like the movies; an echo of a person,
a shade, a fleeting gossamer sheen on the sunny
window for all Clint knows. The shadow of her
eyes, a shadow in an empty room, and the follow-
ing stretch of blank emptiness of times like this
when the huge sky is ebony and infinite and the
thousand count of fireflies beyond the earth’s
embrace shine in their own sentience.
Ah, yes, waxing poetic. A long-hauling
trucker with a load of plastic garbage for some
automaker, and he’s waxing poetic. Driving the
long stretches will do that to even the most jaded
and illiterate because there’s so much to think
Space aliens in the far south and the con-
stant war between the Maple Leafs and the Cal-
gary Flame or some such. She’d told him – Cana-
jun-Blooded Katerina – nothing really MATTRESS.
Hey there, ghost girl, he’d say only half-
jokingly, the amount of energy you spend roaring
over Canadian hockey and idle musings about About the Author:
things that don’t concern you, they could bottle it
and replace electricity, you know. Or at least solar M Cid D'Angelo has been published in diverse
power. You know how that’s a pipe dream. literary journals such as Third Wednes-
day, Midway Journal, decomP magazinE, Silk
Kat once wanted him to read to her Robert Road Review, and Eureka Literary Magazine. His
Frost’s poem about death, that famous one from novel Dead Reckoning was published by J Elling-
a long, long time ago. Even up to a few weeks ago ton Ashton Press and placed among the Top 10
he never truly knew how apt it was. Snow in the Finalists for Best Horror Novel in 2015 by Predi-
woods is somehow more haunting than just snow tors and Editors.
on the open road.
That was the graduate commencement
speech at logical school – that’s a laugh: logical
school. Kat had gone to a prestigious school for
gifted children. And you know how unsettling that
was? She’d said. Having some Phys Ed coach as
the keynote speaker reading a poem about death
at your graduation?
It’s been a little more than a year now, and
sometimes you wonder, you have to wonder,
how time can move so fast.
Oh, but forget that right now. Forget it because
the light is stagnant in the pools of gray and black
and shadow, even as the world sleepily, drowsily,
moves somewhere beyond his sight in the dirty
seamless sheet despite the flickers of snow.
Waiting for Santa. It happens every year, you
know, and no matter how many times one experi-
ences the stark death of the oncoming winter, it
always seems like the first time.
From where he drives, he can see the
blankness, en blanc, of the wintery infinity.
There’s at least a foot of snow on the shoulders
and it’s piled higher on the roofs and against the
walls of the morning buildings along the highway.
The world is morning, always, in its way.
The road goes ever ever on; the straight
flatland and nothing now but the expanse of his
own forlorn company. It’s everywhere.
It’s more than a year since she’s been
THE MOON GARDEN
Jan Marin Tramontano
Jillian stood in the kitchen. She put her coffee Aunt Emma made this. Aunt Emma made that. Let
cup in the sink and leaned against the counter. me show you what your Aunt Emma made when
“I’m sorry, Blake, but it’s sick. If I were you, I’d be she was your age, Chelsea. It creeps me out and
choking on the ‘Emma’ cookies you eat every shortchanges you. What’s worse, Chelsea thinks
year. It would be better for all of you to just move she has a real Aunt Emma who’s going to pop in
Blake scowled at her. “Think about it. One day, “Jillian…”
she was my healthy, big sister. Then, from what
seemed like a flu, we watched her fight for her She stiffened. “I’m the one who has your back.”
life when she should have been at dances, da-
ting.” “This isn’t about me. It’s about my poor mother
whose only daughter died.”
Jillian sighed, looking squarely at her husband.
“All I’m saying is that after all this time, there has “Just do what you have to do and come home. I’ll
to be another way to acknowledge the anniver- try to cook a decent dinner tonight.”
sary. This ritual sends the three of you careening
down a tunnel.” “Can hardly wait.” Distracted, he kissed her and
Blake muttered, “This is the first time I didn’t go
to the cemetery with them.” She watched him walk to the car. No wonder just
being alive is enough for you. Want something,
“Maybe you could skip the whole deal. Blake.
Think about all the time your parents spend fo-
cused on her instead of you.” Blake pulled up to the house he grew up in, a blue
Dutch colonial with black shutters. A graceful ma-
“Jillian, that’s heartless and totally unfair.” ple shaded one side of the house. He sat in the
car for a minute looking towards the sprawling,
She softened, “Blake, I’m sorry your sister flawless moon garden his parents planted along
died. I can’t imagine what that must be like for all the driveway fence line. Neither his mother nor
of you. But it’s enough. She’s been dead for years. father ever called it Emma’s Garden, yet there it
From all the Emma stories I’ve heard, she’d hate was. White flowers bloomed in all the growing
all this. And that garden. Why didn’t they just seasons—spring daffodils. tulips, lily of the valley,
bury her in the front yard?” moving in summer to roses, phlox and peonies, to
fall white spider mums and clematis— draping
“Stop right now. Maybe if you could bring your- the post and rail fence. In all the years since the
self to be nicer to my mother, maybe she’d…” garden was planted, Blake’s parents never al-
lowed a weed to sully the enriched soil nor would
Jillian huffed, “She makes me want to scream. If it they leave a spent blossom.
made your mother happy to see Chelsea playing
with the old toys, it would be one thing. But she As time went on, Blake wanted to mow it over
doesn’t. She doesn’t remember all the fortresses and scream at them to stop. But he never said a
or towers you built with those blocks. Instead, it’s word.
He grabbed a bakery box from the passenger seat “I miss her too, Mom.”
and went into the house, banging the screen door
shut behind him. “Mom?” Blake picked up the pencil and started the puzzle.
His mother slid it away from him. “No sir, that’s
“In the kitchen.” mine for later.”
Dressed in the black sheath she wore to the fu- “Didn’t anyone ever teach you to share?” he
neral and every anniversary since, his mother sat quipped.
at the table. She hadn’t aged much since the day
Emma died but her hair, still shaped into the She picked up her cup, peered at him. “We never
same neat bob, had turned from brown to silver. get any time to talk anymore. What’s new with
Blake strongly resembled her—they had the same Chelsea? How are you? And Jillian?”
thick hair, penetrating sapphire blue eyes, narrow
nose and wide, warm smile. But today, she wasn’t “Chelsea’s speaking in paragraphs. She loves that
smiling and her eyes were swollen and dull. A alphabet book you gave her. A is for Albany.
puddle of cream floated in her coffee and the Every time she recognizes somewhere she’s
newspaper neatly folded in quarters to the cross- been, she’s squeals, ‘We went there, didn’t we,
word puzzle was blank. Daddy?’ She is a very happy child.”
She stood to give him a lingering hug. “And Jillian? Is she… um, happy too?”
“I was in the neighborhood so I thought I’d drop “She’s great. The teaching job at the ballet school
by.” is good for her.”
“Liar.” His mother faked a smile. “But is it good for you?” she mumbled.
“Busted.” Blake exhaled and poured himself a “What’s the problem, Mom? Come on, out with
mug from the pot. “Sorry I didn’t go to the ceme- it.”
tery with you. I got hung up at school,” he stam-
mered. “But I stopped by Leona’s to get Emma’s “She doesn’t know how lucky she is. Every day
lemon cookies. Even they remember. She had a with that little girl of hers is a gift. And all she
box ready for me no charge.” cares about is the career she wishes she had. I
want to shake her.”
“They didn’t remember. No one does. I called
them earlier this week.” “Mom, I wish you’d try a little harder with her. I
know you were hoping you’d find a daughter in
“Mom.” whoever I married. Maybe that will happen in
time.” He looked out the window. “After Emma
“On the good days, Dad would stop at Leona’s to died, I was flailing. All through high school, it was
buy them. Emma was apologetic when she could all about Emma —the next test, a new
only manage a bite. It’s enough I would say. Taste medication, your nightly sobbing. Then, it was
the sweetness.” over. She was gone and I was at college with no
one but myself to think about.”
“I know, Mom. Where’s Dad?”
He wrinkled his forehead. “When it was
“He’s out back mending the hammock.” She happening, I couldn’t wait to get away. But
shook her head. “You should have come with us. afterward, I was in a complete fog. That is…until I
Nothing could be as important.” met Jillian. Like Emma, Jillian was vibrant,
focused, strong. She brought me back to living.”
“I can go to the cemetery any day. It doesn’t have
to be today.” Blake flashes to the first time he saw Jillian. The
image of her walking across campus fighting the
“But we always go on this day as a family,” she wind—long silky black hair flying behind her, her
said, her mouth drawn. lithe body holding the ground—is still sharp. She
marched as if she knew exactly where she was
Blake shrugged and opened the box. He handed going in life.
his mother a lemon frosted cookie. “To Emma.”
“Why doesn’t it get easier?”
Jillian was exquisite and he fell hard. And so did that we don’t know much about living. I don’t
she. “I’ve never known anyone like you, Blake. know about you but I’m still content with a day
Not many would be willing to put up with all the when nothing bad happens. When I come home
time dance takes.” from work, I think I hold my breath until I see Jil-
lian and Chelsea are okay. I’m glad she’s not like
“It’s who you are, Jillian. I get that. It’s not a prob- that.”
lem for me.”
“I can’t talk about this now. Today isn’t the day
His roommate was surprised they were a couple. for that.”
Steve held his hands, palms up, moving them off
balance, “Easygoing, normal guy versus tight- “Maybe it’s just the right day for it.”
assed, snobby ballerina. It’s a no-go, buddy.”
“Blake,” his father walked in, interrupting them.
His childhood friend, Mindy, merely asked, “Why “Hi, buddy. What have we here? Ah, the cookies.”
would you settle for second place?”
“Yeah, Dad, enjoy them because I just made a
He never saw it that way and more importantly, decision.”
understood Jillian was his lifeline. He was eager to
make her dream his. And when it all fell apart, “What’s that, son?”
when she didn’t become a soloist in a major com-
pany, he was all that was left. “It’s the last time I’m bringing them. And it’s the
last time you’re ever going to have one either.
Snapping back, he heard his incredulous mother Emma would hate this. Keep the morbid garden if
exclaim, “You married her to feel alive?” you have to but it’s time to just start remember-
ing Emma with happiness. Not this.”
Blake sucked in a breath, “Of course, it was more
than that. I’m just trying to give you some con- His father frowned, “If only it were something you
text, Mom. Some understanding of what drew me could just decide.”
to her. Maybe we’re so impaired by Emma dying
“It is, Dad. Think of it this way. If Emma tasted
one of these cookies, she’d be honest. She’d say
Leona’s forgotten something. They don’t taste
right.” He took another bite and screwed up his
face. “Nope. ‘Still yucky,’ as Chelsea would say.”
Blake’s mother laughed, “You know something is
missing. I thought it was me. The thing Emma
liked was the sweetened lemon and these are
tart. I wonder if she changed the recipe.”
“So now, you come empty handed, hoping for
your mother’s chocolate chips?”
“Leona’s Bakery has a whole case of goodies to
choose from or maybe next time I’ll bring Chel-
sea. She’d love to start baking with you, Mom. Or
maybe you could teach her to cook. Jillian could
use all the help she can get,” he smiled, thinking
about her tasteless repertoire.
His mother frowned. “I’m sure Jillian would just About the Author:
love that. She still hasn’t figured out there’s more
to life than dancing.” Jan Marin Tramontano, is a poet and fiction writ-
er. She wrote three poetry chapbooks, Woman
“Irene, stop.” Sitting in a Café and other poems of Paris,
Floating Islands: New and Collected Poems, and
Blake chuckled remembering the cookie disaster Paternal Nocturne and one novel, Standing on the
for Chelsea’s birthday. She insisted that Jillian Corner of Lost and Found. Her second novel is
make homemade cookies like the other moms. hopefully in its final round of edits. Her poems
Jillian bought slice and bakes thinking that would appear in her poetry collective’s anthologies, Java
be good enough. They came out uneven—some Wednesdays. and Peer Glass Review. She’s had
thin ones burned, the thicker ones raw. Chelsea poems, stories, and book reviews published in
was stricken when she saw them. ‘Mommy, what numerous literary journals, magazines, and news-
happened?’ Her lips began to quiver. When Blake papers such as Poets Canvas, Up the River, Chron-
started to laugh so did Chelsea and they all threw ogram, Women’s Synergy, Knock, The DuPage
them one by one into the trash saying goodbye, Valley Review, and Moms Literary Review. In ad-
ugly cookie. Jillian saved it by buying beautiful dition, her poems have won several poetry con-
pink frosted cookies and taught the kids a dance. tests.She belongs to the Marco Island Writers
Association, served on the board, as program
“I’ve got to get going.” He quickly hugged his par- chair and contest administrator of the Hudson
ents and grabbed the bakery box. Valley Writers Guild She is also a member of Po-
He stood in the front yard surveying the garden.
Blake crumbled the cookies in his hand and
spread them for the birds. Crushing the box, he
looked at the white stillness of the garden. A sud-
den burst of anger rose up in him and before he
realized it, Blake walked through the bed and
trampled the peonies. Bending over, he pulled a
cluster of zinnias from their roots and picked up
the flattened dahlias. He stared at them wonder-
ing what to do next. He could bring them to Em-
ma’s grave or perhaps, give them to Jillian. But
imagining the look on her face, maybe he’d just
go for a long drive and toss them wherever he
THE STORY OF HENRY:
CHAPTER & VERSE
When Francis strolled into Carney’s Restaurant from his forehead in tight waves. His rumpled
for his morning coffee, a newcomer sat at the wool jacket, too heavy for the warm June morn-
counter having coffee and doughnuts and reading ing, smelled of bacon grease.
the morning paper like a regular. Newcomers
being rare in town and rarer still at the counter of Henry pulled a blue cigarette packet from his
Carney’s Restaurant, Francis craned his neck to pocket, shook one out, and lit it with a wooden
see what paper the man was reading. The Bur- match which he fished out of another pocket. He
lington Free Press. A good sign. dropped the match into his empty coffee cup and
blew out a stream of tobacco smoke so strong the
Nixon in an election year being too entertaining waitress behind the counter flapped her hand in
for anyone to miss, Francis waited until the new- front of her face and clicked her tongue in annoy-
comer had finished the editorial page before in- ance.
troducing himself. “I’m Francis Boudreau. Are
you new in town?” “What are you smoking there, Henry, old tires?”
The newcomer nodded, then hesitated briefly
before he spoke, as though deliberating over his Henry chuckled and offered him the pack.
choice of words. “Henri Parlideau. Henry. I did-
n’t think I’d get a job this soon, Father. Yesterday “Galois?” Francis said. “I haven’t seen those since
was my first day in town.” The newcomer ges- the War. Where did you get them?”
tured over his left shoulder with his doughnut. “I
found an apartment, too. In the Ben Franklin “I just got back from France. After I retired from
block.” The Boston Globe, I spent a year looking up my
family.” He scraped a fleck of tobacco from his
“It’s good to meet you, Henry,” Francis said. tongue with his little finger. “I’m still thinking in
“Where are you working, if I might ask?” French.”
“Bernie O’Brien at The Standard gave me a job as Francis motioned to the waitress, who grudgingly
a copy editor.” Henry took a bite of his doughnut, poured him more coffee. “I tried learning French
chewed, and swallowed. “I was afraid I was going when I first moved to the North Country, from a
to have to work for one of the Loeb papers.” French-Canadian nun. But I must have started
too late in life. I learned by rote. I never really
“Bernie’s a good man,” Francis said. knew it.”
“I don’t know him well,” Henry said. “I just Henry nodded and tapped his cigarette against
met him yesterday, when he gave me the job.” the ashtray. “According to the research, that’s
He grinned, showing square, tobacco-stained true of most people. I’ve been fortunate. Think-
teeth. “Do I look that down on my luck?” ing in another language alters one’s perception of
reality, you know.”
“No,” Francis said, “not at all.” He looked at Hen-
ry more closely, a man in his mid-fifties, with Francis was about to ask how when the waitress
a strong jaw and iron-gray hair that swept back pointedly presented each of them with his check.
Henry picked up his own and Francis’s, and paid his shoulder. “I’ll get us some ice water, and we’ll
for them both while Francis was still protesting. talk.”
Out on the sidewalk, the mid-morning sun shone Francis and Henry became friends. They
hot and bright. Henry took a drag from his ciga- had both grown up in Massachusetts, in suburbs
rette and shrugged off his jacket. “I suppose I outside of Boston, although, as it turned out to
don’t need to stand on ceremony in Carney’s Res- Francis’s surprise, twenty-five years apart, not the
taurant, do I?” fifteen he had initially thought. They had both
been in World War II, Francis as an eighteen-year-
Francis shook his head. “Ah . . . no.” old private too nearsighted for the infantry, Henry
with his knowledge of languages, in the 0SS.
Henry motioned toward the Ben Franklin store.
“If you’d like, we can continue our conversation Each morning when they met at Carney’s for
at my place. It’s just upstairs.” coffee and doughnuts, Henry had a new story to
tell, a new insight to give, and after a few months,
Francis looked at his watch. He needed to work Francis began to confide in him. At times, he told
on the budget to prepare for a vestry meeting at Henry, he truly wondered if he were the wrong
seven o’clock that evening, although, if he were pastor for this parish. His congregation could be
honest with himself, he could work up the figures so mean and petty that he just did not know what
with little difficulty, usually in less than an hour. It to say to them. He related the story of how an
was working out the presentation of them for the Altar Guild member had called him at ten o’clock
vestry members that was so worrisome. “Do you one Sunday night to berate him for the lack of
think we could make it another time, Henry? I symmetry of the flower arrangements on the al-
have a vestry meeting tonight.” tar during the service that morning. And what had
he said to her? He had told her he was sorry.
“Certainly.” Henry slung his jacket over one
shoulder and emitted a plume of blue tobacco Sometimes, Francis said, he doubted if he
smoke over the other as he opened the glass door could ever reach them, if he could ever make
leading to the apartments over the Ben Franklin them understand that the work of the church is to
store. “Apartment lB. You’re welcome anytime.” ease the suffering of others. They refused to do
any outreach work for the poor, and, what was
Francis did not take Henry up on his offer the fol- most confounding, they did not want him to, ei-
lowing day, as he had hospital calls, or the day ther. It was undignified, they said, beneath him,
after that, as he had counseling appointments, or beneath them.
the day after that, as he had nursing home calls.
Henry would listen and agree with him and
When Francis arrived at Apartment lB a week then repeat the words Francis said to his children:
later, the door was half open, clarinet music play- You must do what you think is right. And his own
ing from a radio inside. Francis recognized the words would comfort Francis, coming from some-
tune: “Frenesi” by Artie Shaw. He rapped lightly one his father’s age, if he had lived, someone who
on the door and pushed it open. The apartment wanted nothing from him, who called him by his
was a large one-room efficiency with a towering given name and didn’t ask for money or for guid-
ceiling and not a single window, painted an un- ance or for surcease of guilt.
natural shade of green that had been popular
during the 1930s. An oscillating fan set on a card Henry’s job lasted less than a year. Then Bernie’s
table looked to be about the same vintage. The old linotype machine gave out, and he couldn’t
entire room was filled with boxes, some opened, afford to keep Henry on. “That’s all right,” Henry
some still sealed. In the midst of the boxes stood said, when he told Francis. “It was just something
Henry Parlideau, arms akimbo, stripped to the to pay the rent. I can always go back to my ca-
waist and sweating like a stevedore. reer. I can freelance.”
“Come in, come in,” Henry said. “Of course, you can,” Francis said. “You’ll never
“I’m still unpacking my books.” run out of things to write about.”
Francis stood uncertainly in the Henry had to give up the apartment in the Ben
doorway. “Come in, Francis,” Henry called over
Franklin block and take a room at the Quincy Ho- bought him some dinner. As he watched Henry
tel. “I can store some of these books for you, if eat, he could imagine him alone in his room,
you like,” Francis said as he helped Henry pack. sitting by his shortwave radio for hours, reposi-
“I’ve plenty of room at the rectory.” tioning the makeshift antenna, carefully adjusting
the dials, straining against the static and the ebb-
“Thanks, Francis, but I’d just as soon take them ing and flowing of vowels and consonants to find
with me, even if I have to leave them packed.” a language he could remember and understand.
Six months later, Francis got a call from Kevin With some difficulty, Francis found Henry another
Gauthier, the owner of the Quincy, telling him place he could afford, a tiny one-room apartment
that he was going to evict Henry. in a tenement in Richford, where Francis was pas-
tor of a second parish, the apartment seemingly
“Why?” Francis said. “If he’s behind in his rent, made over from a storeroom, the back street on
maybe I can help. How much does he owe?” which the tenement was located having become
an enclave of the poor, hidden from the view of
“The rent ain’t the problem, Father,” Kevin said. tourists passing through town on their way to Jay
“He set his room on fire this morning. I–” Peak to ski.
Francis interrupted him. “What happened? Is he On the day Francis helped Henry pack up his
all right?” things at the Quincy, Henry gathered the pages of
the article he had been working on since losing
“He’s fine. He weren’t there when it happened. his job at The Standard, and, sitting on the edge
He hung a wet towel on the wire he’s got strung of the bed, put the pages in order. He then found
from that damn radio of his and left the room. a blue pencil on his nightstand and read through
The radio was on, and the towel caught afire. the pages of the article, stopping every now and
This weren’t the first time, Father. He’s had three again to mark on a page with the blue pencil.
grease fires in the last two months. I’ve got to When he was finished, he held the sheaf of pa-
evict him, or they’re gonna cancel my insurance. I pers out to Francis.
thought you’d want to know.”
“Here, Francis, I would like you to read this, if you
“Will you give me a week to find him another wouldn’t mind. It’s not quite finished, but I think
place? I’m coming right over.” it’s at the point where it could use a read-through
by another set of eyes.”
“All right, Father, but he’s gonna have to take his
meals out. I’ve got his hot plate.” Francis felt flattered, particularly given the fact
that Henry had just bluelined it before giving it to
When Francis arrived at Henry’s room, the door him. “Thank you, Henry,” he said, folding the pa-
was open, and he walked in without knocking. pers in half and tucking them into the inside pock-
The room smelled of smoke and burned plastic. et of his suit jacket. “I would be happy to read it.
The windows were still open, and the sheaf of I’ll look forward to it.”
typed papers Henry kept on the table next to his
typewriter–the article he’d been working on since That night, after the supper dishes had been
he’d lost his job–was scattered on the floor. Hen- washed and his wife and children were in bed,
ry sat at the table with his hands resting on top of Francis pulled the article out of his jacket pocket
the radio. He looked up as Francis entered the and began reading. The article was an account of
room. “I think the fire shorted out my radio.” He Henry’s last trip to France, with descriptions of
took his hands from the top of the radio and obscure little villages, amusing anecdotes of col-
twisted one of the dials. “I don’t know what to orful characters, the surprise of incongruous fami-
do.” His face sagged, and for the first time since ly resemblances, and Henry’s sense of glee
Francis had known him, he looked his age. throughout his trip that he was so easily able to
pass as a native speaker of French. Henry also
“Do you want me to take it to the shop?” Francis spent some time describing the numerous cafés
said. “Get an estimate on it?” he had visited and the conversations he had
engaged in. His description of one café seemed so
“Would you, Francis?”
After Francis carried the radio down the stairs
to his car, he took Henry into the dining room and
close to Carney’s Restaurant that Francis stopped there is always a certain sense of ritual in prepar-
and reread it, stopping again when he realized ing food or drink for a guest, Henry moved as
that the friendly priest whom Henry was describ- slowly and deliberately as he did to keep his
ing could only be himself, right down to his wire- hands from shaking.
rimmed eyeglasses and vestigial Boston accent.
But surely, Francis told himself, it is not an un- Francis had to move Henry four more times over
common occurrence for a writer to misplace an the next three years, and with each move, Hen-
image in time, the connections among events, ry’s hair grew a little whiter, his walk more
especially the events of one’s own life, sensory halting, his speech more hesitant. Each time Fran-
and visceral rather than chronological. What did cis went to visit him, the sheaf of papers next to
strike Francis as uncommon about Henry’s writing the typewriter had grown a little thicker, and each
were some decided quirks of grammar and usage time, Francis found an excuse not to read what
–indiscriminate commas, nineteenth-century cap- Henry had written.
italization, inverted syntax, transposed semico-
lons and colons–as though he were a schoolboy The phone call from the police came on a Sunday
who had tried the night before a test to make up afternoon in March, as Francis was writing his
for weeks of inattention in English class and sermon for the following week, in longhand, the
gotten the rules all jumbled. first draft. How could the police call him now, he
thought, when he was writing a sermon? How
Now that Henry was living ten miles away, Francis could they expect him to drive to Saint Albans,
could no longer stop by when he walked to Car- tears stinging his eyes, curses burning in his
ney’s for his morning coffee or when he did his throat? How could they expect him to identify
other errands around town. He began stopping in the body, with so little face left to identify but
to see Henry once a month, cringing when he who else could it be but Henry?
realized that he was visiting Henry on the same
day he made his monthly calls to shut-ins– Francis made the funeral arrangements that
emphysema sufferers tethered to oxygen, elderly night, sitting at his desk in his cluttered office at
women crippled with arthritis, and those poor the head of the stairs, his head aching, his hand
unfortunate souls whose brains were so addled on the telephone. After his matter-of-fact conver-
by age they could not be left alone–then in the sation with Bill Demers, the town’s funeral direc-
next moment telling himself that he had not add- tor, he suddenly wanted pallbearers. He wanted
ed Henry to his list of shut-ins; he was just visiting them very badly, six men in dark suits, dignified
an old friend when he had the opportunity, care- and reverent, carrying the casket with measured
ful planning being a necessity in a household with steps and downcast eyes. He called each member
two adults, two teenagers, and one car. of the vestry and half the congregation, but none
would do it.
Each time Francis visited, Henry would spend
most of the time preparing coffee for him: run- Francis performed the funeral service in an empty
ning water from the tap into a battered saucepan, church, with only his wife in attendance, Henry
centering the pan on the stove burner, measuring having few relatives in the States left alive, and
coffee grounds into a French press, setting cups, the one who agreed to come, a nephew in Balti-
spoons, napkins, and sugar on the table, opening more, calling the night before to say he had the
a half pint carton of cream and carefully smelling flu and was unable to travel. Francis’s children
it before placing it on the table next to the sugar, had timidly asked to attend the funeral, out of
pouring the boiling water into the carafe, slowly some feeling of obligation Francis did not quite
depressing the plunger, and, finally, pouring the understand, but he did not want them saddened
coffee into the cups on the table. After the first by the sight of him and their mother alone in the
few times Francis watched him do it, he was musty church with the casket, his voice cracking
struck by how ritualistic Henry’s preparation of and echoing against the damp plaster walls.
the coffee seemed, each movement so deliberate
and thoughtful, almost Eucharistic. However, it The day after the funeral, Francis received a tele-
did not take Francis long to realize that, although phone call from Henry’s landlady, who pointed
out to him that no cleaning service in town would
touch the scene of a suicide, it was not the job of
the police, and it was his responsibility in the first
place for talking her into renting to an incompe-
tent old man who clearly had no business living
on his own.
When Francis and his wife arrived at the apart-
ment, the color left his wife’s face when he
pushed open the door and she smelled the blood,
but she worked by his side all day. When the walls
and ceilings were clean, the nightstand and head-
board scrubbed, the ruined mattress carted to the
dump, Henry’s personal effects packed and load-
ed into the car, the landlady politely informed
that the job was finished, they drove home and
went to bed with no conversation passing be-
Henry’s note had been addressed to Francis, the
language simple and lucid, the letters in perfect
alignment, each key of the old Underwood hit
square and true.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Gauffreau is the Director of Individualized Learning at Granite State College in Concord, New
Hampshire, where she teaches critical inquiry and portfolio assessment of experiential learning. Her fic-
tion publications include short stories in The Long Story, Soundings East, Ad Hoc Monadnock, Rio Grande
Review, Blueline, Slow Trains, Hospital Drive, and Serving House Journal, among others. Her poetry has
appeared in The Writing On The Wall, The Larcom Review, Natural Bridge, and several themed antholo-
gies. Liz holds an MA in English/Writing from the University of New Hampshire. Learn more about Liz's
work and her take on the writing life at http://lizgauffreau.com.
The elm had to go. It had been diagnosed and and the removal of the Christmas tree. He
determined—Dutch elm disease. The broad guessed he would soon return to the real estate
branch with the rope swing was already yielding office since there was no reason not to. He sold
yellowing and twisted leaves, and they had begun houses much like his own in neighborhoods like
to drop and coat the ground. The elm was one of his—with lawns and maples and voluntary elms.
a kind among a small cluster of maples—a volun-
teer from six decades earlier, swept in on a late Conroy rarely spoke during meals, but listened as
June gust, was Conroy’s guess. Seventy years was Lizbeth filled Eliot in on his condition. “You
Lizbeth’s estimate since she had taken the time to shouldn’t mistake your father’s silence for in-
measure the trunk, but they had only lived in the difference,” she had explained. “He listens to us
house for twelve years so neither of them could and he cares about us, even when he doesn’t tell
be certain about how and when the tree took us outright,” she told him. “Isn’t that right?” she
root. would say brightly to her husband as she laid her
palm across his hand. Despite his wife’s smile,
Conroy had been diagnosed too. He had been Conroy was slow to respond to her normally in-
prescribed an antidepressant—citopram or citozil fectious joy but eventually managed, “That’s true.
or some such medicine—the mildest form the That’s true.”
doctor knew of since he was convinced that his
was a case of seasonal disorder, the “winter “I have plans for that spot, once the elm’s
blues” rather than clinical depression. It was true gone,” she said enthusiastically that afternoon.
that Conroy slept most of the day, and it was true
that he lacked the energy, even after long stretch- She had been repeating that for months—
es of sleep, to complete simple chores like mow- something about a formal garden—hydrangeas
ing or pruning. And even though it was true that and irises and a carefully planned border of box-
Conroy hadn’t sold a single house, even a month wood and phlox. She had gone so far as to meas-
before his diagnosis, there was no documented ure and mark out the section of the yard with
history of depression in his family. Conroy’s pine stakes and red twine. Conroy wasn’t in-
mother and father rarely laughed and, in fact, he different to the garden, and with the help from
could rarely detect any expressions of joy toward the stakes and twine, could even visualize it—the
each other or toward their son. Yet, they seemed deep green sprigs and the lavender clusters. He
content, and even on the days when his father fell could just as easily see the rope swing he had
into despair, he managed, stoically, to persevere. slung over the elm’s large limb that stretched
The doctor did not consider his condition to be toward a maple. That was three years earlier
clinical depression either. Within two weeks, when Eliot was five, and Conroy was more ambi-
Conroy’s medication had begun to do its job, and tious. He had pulled the plans from the web, a
he began to feel some level of energy returning. site called Newtoparenthood.com. Lizbeth had
He fell into his previous routine of showering and been a regular visitor to the site from the start of
shaving and sitting at the breakfast table with his her pregnancy and had continued to read articles
wife and son. He succumbed to holiday chores to him about prenatal care—nutrition and vitamin
around the house—the breaking down of lights sufficiency, methods of delivery. Even though the
articles from the April issue often contradicted
the articles from the March issue, she shared the over and tied off from the broadest branch. He
information with unwavering confidence. She imagined the handsaw sliding through such a
read advice columns about prenatal care. After broad trunk, but he saw no need to reconsider
Eliot was born, she continued to peruse blogs for the girth of the tree.
advice on food preparation and safe home envi-
ronments—electrical hazards and water hazards “Your legs might stay that way,” Conroy said.
and bedding hazards.
Eliot looked up at his father, then stared past him
“I never realized there were so many toward his mother as if searching for confirma-
threats in the world,” she told him. “I never real- tion of his father’s claim, searching for the truth.
ized that the world was such a dangerous place.”
“Your father’s joking with you,” she said as she
Having grown up on his family’s dairy farm flipped through her issue of Homes International.
north of Ashland, Conroy saw Lizbeth’s observa- “He knows better than that.”
tion as naïve. He had heard about children
younger than Eliot falling to injuries or death. Conroy did know it wasn’t true. He had sat like
“Died of blindness,” was how his father referred that for hours himself, when he was a boy—while
to one young boy. He’d fallen into a pond at the he filled in cartoon pictures of Jesus and Moses
lower pasture of his family’s farm one afternoon and Lazarus in his Sunday School coloring book, or
while Holsteins were drinking from it, lapping up finished up his history reading Mrs. Jordan had
the same water he was drowning in. Conroy re- assigned for class. Conroy knew it wasn’t true,
minded his father of this and he wasn’t sure why he said it, so he accepted
his wife’s notion that it was a joke, even though
“Got to have your eyes open,” his father none of them smiled over it. Eliot’s eyes shifted
replied. “Drowning was way down on the list of from his father’s to the saw.
what killed that boy,” he said.
“What about Jitters?” he asked
Even though it had been years since he last did
farm work, Conroy still felt comfortable cutting Jitters had died nearly two years earlier, his neck
down trees, having sawed and harvested their broken when the Marks’ dog forced his head
Christmas tree from the previous three seasons— though the screen of the rabbit hutch. Conroy
last year, a six foot Douglas fir from Spruce Valley had cut the timber for the hutch frame with the
Farms. So on Wednesday morning, he sat on the same handsaw. It was new then.
edge of the sofa with his saw in hand. He had
tucked the cuffs of his gloves into the sleeves of He had wanted to spare his son from the grisly
his jacket. His scarf was wide enough to cover his details and never told him what had killed Jitters.
neck and his turned-up collar. But he was dead, and the two of them had buried
him beneath the elm. They had lined one of his
His wife stared at him with her wide eyes and half wife’s shoe boxes with dropped leaves and laid
-smile. Jitters inside the box. The reds and golds stood
out against the rabbit’s gray fur and curled be-
“Are you up to this?” she asked. neath his ears. That night, Eliot created a drawing
of Jitters, lying still against the backdrop of elm
He didn’t answer, and he was perplexed by her leaves. In the drawing, Jitters fit into the box per-
concern after urging him to return to his daily fectly with room for his long ears and feet to rest
routine. on, and a pillow of leaves beneath his head. In
reality, Conroy had had to adjust Jitters to fit the
“Sure,” he said, and pulled down the back of his dimensions of the box.
Lizbeth had explained to her son what became of
Eliot sat on the carpet, his legs folded beneath things buried in the soil. She told him about the
him, his feet and ankles splayed gently to each science of decomposition. She explained the con-
side. The tip of the handsaw rested against the sequences of moisture and heat and darkness on
sole of Conroy’s boot and the carpet fibers. The paper and bark and flesh. Conroy wasn’t
hand grip reached his knee. He thought about sure how much Eliot understood. Hell, he didn’t
the elm—the broad trunk, the rope swing looped
understand it all either. When they covered the maples. They dug deeper, each with his own
Jitters with the shoe box lid, Conroy had spoken shovel from opposite ends of the hole.
about spirit, since he had a better grasp of grief
than science. Now, Eliot was older. They were all “This the right spot?” Eliot asked as he paused
older. Conroy could see that. And there were with a shovel full of soil.
things to be done—tasks to be completed, Liz-
beth’s new plantings to take root. Conroy leaned on the handle of his shovel and
stared into the elm. He followed the line of rope
It was only wishful thinking to imagine digging leading from the branch to the wooden plank of
down to the exact spot where Jitters was buried, the swing. He squinted into the space between
but Conroy leaned his handsaw against the gar- the plank and the base of the trunk, eyeing the
den bench while his wife revisited the science of distance between the start of the hole and the
decay. Now, Conroy returned to the door holding roots that ran along the surface of the soil.
“Looks about right,” he said, although he knew he
“Let’s do this,” he said to Eliot with his new-found couldn’t be sure. “Let’s not get our hopes up,” he
energy. said. “We may find something or we may not.”
“I’d have had it dug by now,” he thought to him- He didn’t know if Eliot believed him. Conroy was-
self. “I’d have had it finished,” he thought, and n’t sure he believed it himself—whether it was
nearly spoke it out loud, as he carried the shovels the remnants of his depression that colored his
across the yard—past the flower beds, past the thinking, or some new understanding of the
brick work, past the rabbit hutch that still stood, world. Somehow, it all seemed inconsequential,
its frame tilting toward the yellowing limb and the but for his son’s sake, he approached their task as
rope swing. Even as Eliot sprinted past him to if there were some meaning to it all.
stand, waiting at the base of the elm, Conroy
knew it to be true, especially with his medication “It’ll be worth it either way,” he said. “At least
taking hold. He could have had it dug in a matter we’ll know, which is a lot better than not know-
of hours—no, minutes. He knew how to perse- ing—always wondering.”
vere—even when there’s no joy in it—especially
when there’s no joy in it. He learned that much Eliot’s spade, although smaller than his father’s,
from his father. bit deeply into the earth with the speed and agili-
ty that his father lacked. Conroy paused now and
A layer of leaves had covered the grass and had then feeling the need to measure his progress.
blown and mounded against the elm’s trunk. He eased down the tip of the measuring tape.
Conroy began to clear the leaves with the tip of Twelve inches. He could tell that his son’s end
his shovel. Eliot shuffled through the dry leaves was deeper even without using the tape.
to the shed and returned with a rake.
“Let me catch up,” he said, and began shoveling
“Here,” he said, and he pulled the leaves away again. Eliot watched as the hole gradually wid-
from the tree trunk and from his father’s boots ened. Dry dirt loosened and slipped down the
and shovel. incline and back into the hole.
As Eliot raked the leaves, Conroy’s wife stood at A blue ring jutting out from the tumbling dirt
the window. From such a distance, Conroy could- caught Eliot’s attention, and he gently pulled on
n’t ascertain the focus of her attention or the sub- it. Half a tea cup emerged from the dirt—not the
ject of her concern—her husband or her son, the kind of cup his father used, which was tall and
emerging hyacinths or the dying elm, the newly round like a snare drum. He kneeled down and
staked plot or the decaying hutch. He wanted to scooped through the dirt with his cupped fingers.
know. He squinted toward the window, but she Another half-cup slipped downward. He fit it
walked away before he could clearly make out against the portion with the blue ring. The jagged
her mouth and her eyes. He leaned into his shov- edges matched.
el and began to break through the grass and the
surface of the soil. Eliot heaped the leaves under Conroy stopped digging and stared into the hole.
He compared his side of the hole to his son’s. He
was nearly down as far, but not far enough yet,
since neither of them had reached Jitters. He of permanence—in spite of the thick timbers driv-
didn’t remember the hole being this deep. And en deeply into sand and soil, lifting that beach
he could have been off target with the exact loca- house beyond the dangers of rising tides.
tion, it being marked by only the memory of its
relationship to the position of the rope swing. He Eliot continued to unearth shells—clams and
couldn’t be sure of the condition of the cardboard mussels and scallops, sand dollars.
either, or the flesh and the bones.
“Look at this, Dad,” and Eliot handed his father a
Eliot held out the two cup halves—one in each thin blue shell.
hand, but Conrad didn’t see this as bringing them
any closer to Jitters. He puffed and groaned as he Conroy dropped his shovel and took off one
stabbed his shovel into the dirt. He scraped the glove. He held the shell up toward the sky. Rings
metal face against the sloping sides, but Eliot’s of blues and whites were visible through the
attention remained on the porcelain fragments. translucent shell. Tiny chips surrounded the edge
Yellow leaves scattered across the opening and where soil and stone had worn through. Beneath
drifted into the hole. the afternoon sun, he could see the shadow of his
fingertips under the lines of color.
In the curve of the hole, Eliot uncovered a sea-
shell—charcoal and gray and white—with scores “Think there was ocean here before houses?”
and ridges on the half-hidden surface. This trans- Eliot asked as he crouched and touched the sur-
ported Conroy’s thoughts even farther from faces of the small collection of shells.
Jitters’ grave, and he began to envision the beach
house—the bungalow raised up on timbers that “It’s more likely they were brought by people
had been driven deeply into the sand and the soil. than by the ocean,” Conroy said. He handed the
He had almost purchased the house. The ocean shell back to his son.
was as far as he could travel from his family’s
farm, and the shifting sand suited him fine. He “Mom will know,” Eliot said, and he continued to
had climbed the stained wooden staircase. He gather the pieces of porcelain and seashells as he
had wandered through the small bedrooms and shoveled. Conroy tried to keep up, but the hole
the galley kitchen. He had sat on the thin cush- became increasingly uneven.
ions of the maple-framed sofa and the corner
chair. He had studied the lackluster prints on the Eliot retrieved a box from the house and placed
far wall of sunrises and surf, and the clustering of his assortment of porcelain shards and shells in
conch shells surrounding the souvenir ashtray on the box.
the end table beside the arm of the sofa.
“I’ll let you catch up,” he said to his father and he
“Everything’s included,” the salesman had told carried the box toward the house.
him, as if it were a selling point, as if polished
shells and ashtrays and seaside prints and used “What about Jitters?” Conroy called out to him.
furniture were items of value instead of the bur-
den of someone’s past life, which is what Conroy “I’ll let you catch up,” his son repeated, and he
knew them to be. He stood by the bay window maneuvered the box through the mudroom door.
and stared toward the horizon, toward the grassy
barrier dunes and the uncombed shoreline. He Conroy stared into the uneven hole. He put on
could hear the persistent surf, even through the his glove and tucked it into the cuff of his jacket.
walls and windows of the house. He had almost He began to dig again. As he reached the depth
purchased the house, but he didn’t. In the long of Eliot’s hole, he could make out the feathered
run, he could not bring himself to face the coast edges of gray-green paper, then a thicker layer of
each morning, like some ancient mariner, a de- cardboard deeper yet. He kneeled down and
scendant at the edge of the world. reached into the hole. He scooped the dirt away
with his gloved hand, then brushed the dirt from
This was before Eliot, even before Lizbeth, when the lid and from the sides of the box. His breath-
he had little vision of the future, and no concept ing deepened as he grabbed Eliot’s small shovel
and speared the soil pressing around the box.
Once all four corners were uncovered, he cradled
the bottom with his forearm and carefully lifted it
out and set in on the layer of leaves that had asked Conroy the same question, but didn’t be-
blown back toward the elm. Exhausted, he folded lieve him.
his torso over his tucked legs and rested his fore-
head on his arm. Dust rose from the rim of the Conroy stood quietly holding the stained and
hole as he breathed. He pulled himself up to his dusty shoe box as if it were a gift or an offering.
knees and examined the box. Aside from ex-
pected dampness on the corners, it was surpris- “What about Jitters?” he said. He imagined his
ingly intact. voice with either anger or energy, neither of
which he had felt for some time. He could sense
He set the box on a scrap of wood plank from the his blood rising to his skin, flushing to his face and
garden shed and carried it toward the house. He his throat and his chest. But his movements dis-
stopped at the window and watched his wife and played no such energy—his hands and arms and
son gathering together chunks of buried treasure lips less energetic than the blood beneath them.
from beneath the elm. He was suddenly con- His wife and his son barely reacted to his words.
scious of his task that, until that moment had
been confused with cutting down trees and dig- “Are you interested?” he whispered, and he won-
ging holes and gathering blue and green cups and dered if he had spoken the words at all. “What is
saucers, now scattered across the table. It was it?” he said.
Jitters’ grave, and it was Jitters whom he had
greeted each morning, before and after his death. He couldn’t locate the center of his anger, any
He had meant to tell Lizbeth. Now she was as- more than he could locate the center of his grief,
sembling found porcelain into something recog- but he imagined it burgeoning even as his voice
nizable, something complete. But what about a remained subdued. His movements, too, were
grave disturbed, he wondered. What does one subdued, and he could only imagine the violence
do with such a thing? within his soul. He was moved to sweep the
shells from the surface of the table, to toss the
Inside, he stood by the table where Lizbeth sat half-cups to the floor, to shatter them against the
with their son as he laid out chips of the porcelain wall—the ornate representations of the previous
he had gathered from the hole. He was arranging family, of history. He imagined crushing the sea
them by color and by size. Lizbeth counted out shells beneath his boots—the remnants of the
the rings of porcelain spread out before them. impermanent shoreline, the shifting sands. He
“One, two, three, four, five,” she counted. imagined destroying it all. But all he could do was
Conroy conducted his own count—one for this raise the shoe box and hold it out to his wife and
man, one for this woman, one for this daughter, his son. He lowered it again and lumbered out-
one for this sister. Or were they only used for side
special occasions, for entertaining, for guests vis-
iting on holidays? That’s what his wife would He lowered the box onto the garden bench and
have used them for, he thought. They might have sat beside it. He picked up his handsaw and
been for a family dispersed, as fragmented as the wiped the dirt from the cold surface. Staring out
cups spread before them. at the elm, he thought about the job he had set
out to do that morning. The sun was still high,
Eliot was suddenly drawn to the box of shells, and with plenty of light left to get started. But the
he flitted from shells to cups, from puzzle to puz- grave digging had tired him out more than he
zle, lacking the perseverance to stick with one realized. There was still the shovel in the yard,
thing was how Conroy saw it. History to family to and there was still another grave to dig. He
mollusks to graves. Perhaps Conroy expected too closed his eyes and breathed deeply. There was
much of a nine-year-old boy whose potent and time to wait for his son. Conroy was tired, and it
scattered energy led him from one discovery to would take two of them to dig the new hole. His
the next, one event to the next. What else could palm grazed the lid of the shoe box. For a mo-
he expect? ment, he thought about opening it, but there was
time for that too.
“Think there was ocean here—before houses, I
mean?” he asked his mother as he flipped
the translucent shell to the inner surface. He had
About the Author:
Jeffrey Ihlenfeldt’s work has appeared in numer-
ous publications including Story Quarterly, South-
ern Humanities Review, Ascent, Quiddity, and
Adirondack Review. He was two-time finalist for
the Fulton Prize in Short Fiction and has been
nominated for Best of the Net. His website is
MARILYN MONROE. FAT
GIRLS. DEATH. FREEDOM
It was the summer of 2009. I'd been hitchhiking the worst offense, in their Canadian eyes, was my
for about three months. I'd met Matt in New York DUI from seven years ago. Back then, when I'd
City, at the cheap hostel on West 125th Street, been 19, I'd passed out at the wheel and had
Spanish Harlem. He'd come from Austria, had plowed into a tree. I walked away unhurt, but I
traveled around Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and landed in Ventura County Jail outside of LA and
then flown to San Francisco, first time in the USA, got my first (and only) DUI. They said I had to wait
bought an old used motorcycle, buzzed it across a decade after getting a DUI to enter Canada. That
the country to New York. I'd dropped out of col- would put me at 29. I was 26. Tough luck. They
lege again—San Francisco State—and had driven liked Matt and allowed him in—after all, he was
with a friend across the nation to her father's European—but he said No, he'd stay with me.
farm in Rhode Island. After a week I'd thumbed Good guy Matt was. Precious new friend.
out to Boston and then finally to New York. Matt
and I met that first night, when he'd walked out So anyway, all of this is to explain why we'd
to the porch of the hostel and, with his nasally turned around at the border and had thumbed
Austrian accent, arms wide in a V-shape, an- along the same old twisty highway and had ended
nounced, "I'm going drinking: Who's coming with up going in reverse direction and had finally land-
me?" ed in The Forks.
A month later, here we were, in a little river raft- The Forks was right along the Kennebec River,
ing town in northern Maine called The Forks. We which wound through half of Maine. The old high-
were only about two hours south of the Canadian way—U.S. 201—ran along the western edge of
border, Quebec to be precise. Actually, if you the town. The town sat right where the two riv-
want the whole truth—and I know you do, you ers—Dead River and Kennebec—forked, com-
greedy Reader—we'd already tried to walk across bined, morphing from the two branches of a
the border and go into Quebec. The original slingshot into one river: Kennebec. There was
plan—mine for months before meeting Matt— mostly green, stinky forest everywhere and you
had been to walk across the line and then thumb could hear the lazy push of the river and you
west along the southern border of Canada all the could smell the wet earth, the minnow stink, and
way back to B.C. and then head south once more you could hear and feel the rumble of the plowing
into the United States, through the Pacific North- eighteen-wheelers bashing back and forth on the
west, through Washington and Oregon and into highway.
my sacred and lovely California. My home. Where
I was born and raised. My lover, my best friend, There was a local company—big cabin structure—
my worst enemy. which offered a massive green lawn for campers.
We walked in, signed up and set out our tents.
But, alas, that plan fell through. They didn't like Immediately we met some river guides, young
the look of me: Haggard, tattooed, scraggly beard, men and a few women in their early twenties,
unwashed, pack on my back, walking across the slightly younger than us, who were from all over
border, of all things. Not driving but walking. the country—Iowa and Tennessee and Arkan-
Clearly, I was up to no good, they decided. But sas—who started talking to us, asking us ques-
tions: Who were we?; what were we doing here?;
did we want to come drink with them later to- Less than an hour later we arrived at the cabin
night? with a 12-pack of PBR cans. There were several
people lazily sitting on the porch, one on a swing,
We answered their questions and said that, yes, drinking brew, mostly also PBR, which they'd
we would like to come and drink with them. One picked up from the same place. There surely was
of them, Jed, a young man with broad shoulders only that one spot in town to buy beer.
and a drum-tight stomach who wore green flip-
flops and a red T-shirt that said, "RIVER GUIDE 4 As we rose up the creaking wooden steps to the
LIFE" told us to come to his cabin up the hill at 7 porch, nodding to people, Jed walked through the
PM, and to bring beer. He said there was a liquor open door.
store, Andy's Liquor, down the road a ways. We
nodded, smiled, shook a few of their hands, and "Hey guys," he said jovially. "Ah. You brought
said thanks. beer."
Matt and I sat around on the green sloping hill, We walked inside and he directed us to the kitch-
watching the lazy river pulling brown veiny leaves en. People were everywhere, sipping from red
and sticks down with the current, and we closed plastic cups and from cans of beer, yammering,
our eyes against the sun and we sighed and yelling, laughing. It all sounded like garbled lan-
smiled and didn't say a word. It was one of those guage. You couldn't really tell what anyone actu-
moments. We were young, travelling around on ally said. It just sounded like "blah blah blah."
our own, thumbing rides, free. We didn't have
jobs or girlfriends or responsibilities. We had We set the beers in the fridge. There was a lot of
nothing holding us down. We could do whatever beer already in there. I snagged two of them be-
we wanted. Matt had left a fiance and a good fore closing the white fridge door, that thrum-
engineering job back in Austria. He'd taken all his ming sound, and then the suction pulled the door
savings out and decided to travel the world. He'd closed. I handed Matt one and popped mine
suddenly realized, according to him, that getting open. We grinned at each other like thieves,
married and being stuck with a serious, well-paid which we were, of a sort, and then we glugged.
job at 26 was not his ideal. He still had life to live. First beers of the night.
Me, too. I'd left the Bay Area, San Francisco. Sure, "Well gentlemen," Jed said beside us. "Have fun.
I had a girl. She was trouble. A girl I'd met at a Enjoy." He walked off. We laughed, me and Matt,
bar. And then of course there was Rachel, the one at the fact that Jed hadn't engaged us in conver-
I'd travelled Europe with, fallen madly, deeply in sation, how he'd simply directed us to the fridge
love with, moved to San Francisco from San Diego and then left.
with, had my heart broken by. But she's another
story for another time. Right now I was on my The rest of the evening isn't much to talk about. It
own, alone and powerfully free. That word— was boring. The usual: Meeting random people;
freedom—floated around my lips like honey. the occasional cute flirty girl; drinking many
brews; the night growing later. The cabin was
I woke up. I'd fallen asleep in the hot bright sun. I small and claustrophobic. People stepped out to
saw that Matt was still asleep, lightly snoring. The the porch where you could hear the cars swishing
sun was low and sharp, arrowing shafts peeping back and forth on Highway 201. There was a silver
through the willow tree leaves along the river. guard railing along the road; I watched it once in a
The sound of the river reminded me of a thou- car's yellow projecting headlight beam.
sand backpacking trips I'd taken, starting with the
first one ever, with my father, when I was eight or Things got interesting around 2 AM. Two things
nine years old, in the back country where I grew happened. The first was the fat woman with the
up outside of LA. This feeling blew some sad lone- Marilyn Monroe tattoo. The second was the LSD.
ly grumbling into my heart and I almost felt the
desire to cry. No. Correction. I did feel the urge to She was short and dark-haired (she had lovely,
weep. Why did this happen? It came sometimes long, curly dark hair, down past her shoulders)
at the most random and chaotic and unhelpful of and had these short pudgy legs and thick monster
times. thighs and this fat torso with a wiggly pouch of a
belly and a wide, wobbly chest. Her black T-shirt
of thin cotton stretched like a vast desert across She lifted the shirt entirely. It was a tattoo of Mar-
her body, trying to contain it. ilyn Monroe, that famous photograph of her on
the streets of New York, her dress blowing up
There were half a dozen men surrounding her, in around her from the grate below. Marilyn
the corner of the living room, near a burgundy blushed, her palm at her mouth, her sexy pose,
leather couch, which piqued my curiosity. What big-breasted, blond, sharp-featured, everything
was it about this woman that had intrigued them? opposite of this woman here, in real life. The
Why weren't these skinny, tall, good-looking men bearer of the tattoo. You could see the wide, scar-
ignoring her, the fat, unattractive elephant? But like stretch marks along her torso, even along the
then, as I stepped closer, I realized the problem. tattoo itself, the skin having stretched and
She wasn't bad looking. In the face I mean. Her stretched to accommodate the expansion, like
face possessed the plain beauty of a former mov- the Bering Strait from Russia to Alaska, which the
ie star, a sexy young starlet. But it was round and Asians had once taken, slowly, to get to North
too big, oversized, due to her weight. Were these America by. The Great Diaspora.
men sucking down alcohol as rapidly as they
could, hoping to then convince themselves, in a Right as I was working up the courage to speak to
drunken stupor, that it was alright to give the her, Jed called from out of nowhere, saying, "Hey
elephant a go? Frankie," and one of the men turned his head,
slugged his brew, and trudged off. His buddy fol-
I stood next to the half circle of men, elbowing my lowed him and soon a new song started on the
way in. Two men on either side took sips of PBR stereo—Break on Through by The Doors—and the
and stepped aside for me to enter. Some circus other men turned and walked off, too. It was like
show this was. I took a hefty chug of my beer and magic. Suddenly it was just me and her, as if God
realized it was nearly finished. I was good and had planned it that way. I couldn't believe it. My
buzzed by this point. Close to drunk. Very close. luck. I blushed. Coughed. Cleared my throat. Con-
sidered walking away I was so embarrassed now.
The woman was tugging her thin black T-shirt up. But no! I couldn't walk away. Not now. Not with
Why I didn't know. She pulled it up about a quar- this turn of events.
ter of the way and I glanced up at the mens' eyes
and saw a mix of pure disgust and total glee. A "I'm James," I said.
thunderous crack of shame rushed through me.
Here we were, quietly mocking this poor girl. And She smiled at me, sticking a yellow straw from a
why? Because she was overweight, not the pic- cocktail glass I hadn't known she'd had into the
ture our debilitating, conventional society paints corner of her mouth and sucking. "Julianne."
for our women to be? Wasn't that wrong? Hell, I
knew what it felt like to be mocked, to be made "I like your tattoo," I said.
fun of, to be taunted. To be loathed, to be hated,
to be scorned. All my life practically. She sucked on the yellow straw again, even
though there was clearly nothing left in the drink,
She pulled the shirt up even higher and I saw the only wet ice cubes, half dissolved. Her eyes nar-
beginnings of an ink-colored tattoo on her left rowed flirtily. "I see you have several of your
side. It was on her torso, sort of midway between own."
her back and flabby, hanging stomach, which
hung like a failure, like some dark talisman. And I looked down at my arms, as if noticing the faded
yet. And yet, I felt slightly turned on, slightly ink for the first time. I smiled. Nodded. Blushed
horny. Back then I slept with all kinds of women. once more. I said nothing.
Skinny blondes I'd met at bars. Cocaine-drenched
beach bunnies. Whacked-out drunk chicks. And She shook her head to the right, quickly, snapping
yes, fat girls, sometimes, when I was loaded some dark hair out of her eyes with a palm.
enough. Right now I wasn't loaded enough. But I "Listen. Come over tomorrow night. Cabin #4, by
was getting there. But would one of these men the restaurant. Yellow door. Late. Around mid-
get their first? night."
She wrote something down on a piece of paper—
I have no idea where the paper or pencil came
from—and handed it to me. It said, "Julianne" by a big oak tree facing the highway. It was a
and had her phone number. I folded it and stuffed warm late August morning. No cars passed on the
it into my back pocket. road. Too early. You could hear the rushing river.
You could smell the smoke from nearby chim-
"Don't forget, lover-boy," she said, and then neys. You could feel, sense the thick foliage and
walked right past me. nature round you. Mentally I felt like my life was
zooming ahead, that I was driving some spaceship
Had that really just happened? Like that? Like a that only I could fit into, only I could see. I felt
scene from some movie? It had seemed real and happy and alive and thrilled to be a human being
yet surreal, like a dream. How odd. How bizarre. and to be here! On Earth!
But I felt good. All the men had walked away and
she'd chosen me. Maybe it had been fate. Maybe The sun was just beginning to stalk above the
the men had been ashamed, embarrassed. May- craggy mountain peaks far, far in the distance. A
be they'd left it to me, the foreigner from out of light morning fog danced just above the ribbon
state who had no qualms about embarrassing road. I spotted that silver guard railing and some-
himself. In theory, at least. one, I think it was Jed, had the idea of getting his
BB gun and shooting cans from the railing. We all
I realized then that I was drunk and had no idea agreed, non-verbally, and someone, I don't recall
where Matt was. I decided to go looking for him who, snagged a few PBR cans and placed them
and for another beer. neatly, side by side, on the rail. We hadn't seen a
car. Hadn't even heard one. We each shot at the
It was about two hours later, roughly 4 AM, that cans. No one hit any of them. Finally one of us
the second thing I told you about happened. The did, and his dinked the guard rail and ricocheted.
LSD. Almost everyone had gone home. I was still
at the cabin with about three or four other guys, Then Jed decided to go get his .22 rifle. I'd never
Jed among them. Matt had left earlier, back to used one before. The idea excited me. I grinned,
the camp site at the sloping green lawn. I'd found deep, like some sorrowful gorilla.
him talking to some river guide about what it was
like to live in The Forks and to take people down He walked out carrying the thing. The PBR cans
the river. sat there on the railing, daring us. Some sunlight
shown on the rail, just a few sudden glints, and
Jed and I and two other guys walked down a furry the light bounced off the aluminum cans, half
-rugged carpeted hallway. We walked into a blinding you.
room. I was definitely drunk now. I could walk
fine, but I knew I was slightly slurring my words— The .22 made a loud cracking sound, much louder
we all were—and I knew I'd have a hard time and more serious than the BB gun. This was an
trudging back to the camp site. actual, real gun. A weapon that could do damage.
At last it made its way to me. I held it, cradled it
Jed reached under the bed in the room and pulled like a baby. It was hard and heavy in my awkward
a shoe box out. Inside of the shoe box was a bag- arms. Somebody said, "Shoot it, man."
gie. It was filled with little multicolored tabs. He
pulled a few of them out. So I got my hands around it properly and held the
thing and I lifted it to eye level and aimed it at the
"What's that?" I asked. cans. Steady. I squinted and had the rear of the
gun, the butt, against my right shoulder. I had my
He grinned. "Acid." index finger on the trigger. The safety was off. I
stared hard at those cans. I wanted a direct hit. It
I held my hand out and he placed some in it. I was silent all around me. Nothing moved, nothing
lifted the tab and put it in my mouth. It started to stirred. I felt my heart beating in my chest, so
dissolve. The others did the same. loud I thought maybe everyone else could hear it,
About 45 minutes or an hour later the stuff hit. It
was powerful. I realized soon that it was much On the count of three, I told myself. Three. Ok? I
more powerful than I'd originally understood. It didn't answer myself. One. I waited, paused a
must have been close to six in the morning when beat. Two.
the three of us finally walked outside and stood
I heard the distant rumble of a truck, surely one Later that night I walked down to the one restau-
of those eighteen-wheelers. Screw it. Just shoot. I rant in The Forks. I was feeling sad because Matt
jammed the butt of the gun back securely into my and I had agreed our time had come to an end.
shoulder, squinted, aimed as tight as I could, said His US visa was set to expire in a few days so he
THREE, and fired. had to get out of the country. We'd planned on
Canada so we hadn't thought we'd bump into this
Right before a big-rig truck—SAFEWAY scrawled issue. But alas, we'd been rejected from Canada.
in red capital letters across its white side—passed Well, I had. That day he'd flipped a coin. Heads,
by, the bullet dinked hard against the railing, he'd go to South America. Tails, he'd fly home,
knocking one of the cans over by sheer force, not finally, to Austria, face "real life." The plan was in
because it'd hit the can directly but because it the morning we'd get up and thumb south to a
had shaken the rail just beneath it. fork in the road. East would take him to the air-
port. West would take me the 3,000 miles across
Then I felt some warm wind and heard a loud America to my destination: California. We only
crack. The bullet had ricocheted and slammed had tonight left. So I looked for Julianne.
into the tree behind me.
After a while of stumbling around, and getting a
When I turned and looked I saw the bullet lodged little lost, I found the small cabin and the yellow
about an inch to the left of where my head had door and #4. The door was mustard yellow and
been two seconds before. I flipped around and very faded. I stepped up to the door, heard my
stared at Jed. His mouth began forming into a heart pattering, gulped back the terror, double-
smile and mine did too and so did the other two checked with myself to make sure this was the
and soon we were laughing, hands-on-knees right thing to do, and then knocked.
howling with laughter. It was hilarious. The gun.
The railing. The fallen can. The truck. The rico- She opened the door wide and smiled. A single
chet. The bullet in the tree. My head, almost lamp by the bed was shining down, a sickly yellow
blown clean off. Ha-ha-ha. Ha ha. hue. She gripped my collar and pulled me in, lock-
ing the door behind us. I immediately felt scared
But then, slowly, as the sun began to rise more, and ashamed and used. But part of me liked it.
and as more cars began to swish back and forth
on the road, I started to understand how danger- She started getting undressed. "Take your clothes
ous it had been, how I'd almost gotten a bullet in off, sailor," she said.
the head, how I could have died, too high on LSD
to even care. I stopped laughing, licking my dry, I didn't speak. I got undressed. We sat on her bed.
chapped lips, and they stopped laughing, too. We She whipped a blue Trojan condom out and told
all stood around in a semi circle, mouths drawn me to put it on. I was amazed to discover that my
tight, serious, not a drop of humor among us. dick was hard as rock. I slid it on and then scooted
over to her. We kissed and soon our tongues
At last Jed said, "We better put the gun away." were fiercely massaging one another and then my
hands were rubbing her big, fat, flabby tits and
And just like that we all dispersed. then she flipped the light switch off and it was
totally dark and I was on top of her and I put it
So you want to know what happened with inside and she was very tight.
Julianne, huh, the fat girl with the tattoo? Ok, I'll
tell you. After the acid we all split up and I drunk- As I rocked like an animal up and down, and she
enly, highly walked down the road, found my tent moaned delightfully, I glanced up and saw a sky-
and passed out. I woke up later that day at light. The sky was a dark blue, not quite black,
around 3 PM, exhausted and hung-over, wrecked and there was a smattering of stars out. The Milky
emotionally. I recalled the gun incident and Way. It was spectacular.
cringed. Jesus. I was so stupid, so irresponsible, so
pathetic. Shame rolled through me like beer. Like I came inside the condom and laid all my weight,
heroin in my veins. I felt filled by it. And lonely. half of hers, on top of her massive body. We
Then I remembered about Julianne. She'd said to breathed deeply together. I was still inside of her.
come over "tomorrow at midnight." Which meant Slowly, it fell out, weighted down by the cum.
tonight. My little secret. Julianne and Marilyn.
"Ok," she said. "Get off. You have to leave. You then he swung open the door and started to get
have to leave." in. But right before he did he glanced back and we
caught eyes. I smiled. He smiled back. We were
I lifted my head from her giant, soft breast, some young. Alive. Free.
flesh pillow. "Really? Are you serious?" We moved along the road, each going our own
way. One going east. One going west.
A silence. Then: "Yes. I can't have you in here. My I thought of Julianne in the darkness, her voice as
husband will kill me." if from the bottom of a well. I longed so incredibly
for that kind of love from a woman. Maybe that
I lifted my chest off her body. "Husband?" bullet should have hit me, killed me dead. Maybe
I should turn around, go back, find Julianne, be
"I'm sorry," she said into the dark. with her, really be with her.
I thought about these things as we plowed west,
I got up off of her, cleaned, washed my hands in the driver not saying a word, the seats bouncing
the tiny bathroom, got dressed and left. Not a when we hit bumps, the smell of diesel exhaust,
word. Not a kiss. Not a "thanks," nothing. and the knowledge within me present that things
would never be the same again.
In the morning we got up early, ate breakfast in
town, nodded in the direction of the river guides, About the Author:
of Jed, and then started walking together south, Michael Mohr is a Bay Area writer, former
in the direction of that fork in the road, the fork literary agent’s assistant and freelance book
neither of us wanted to fully acknowledge, be- editor. His fiction has been published in the
cause it meant the end of our time together, the following: Freedom Fiction Journal; Full of Crow;
end of our travelling as buddies. Sal and Dean. Fiction Magazines; Tincture; Flash: The
Kerouac and Neal. Something like that. We International Short Short Story Magazine;
hucked our packs onto our backs and felt the Aaduna; MacGuffin; Gothic City Press; Alfie Dog
strong breeze and the lovely sunshine of late Au- Press; Milvia Street; and more. His blog pieces
gust. We smiled against the wind and walked have been included in Writers’ Digest, The
along the road. Matt stuck a thumb out and I did Kimberley Cameron & Associates [literary
too and before long we got a ride. agency] blog; the San Francisco Writers
Conference Newsletter and MASH.
We landed at the fork sooner than we'd thought
we would. Not minutes later—I swear to God—a
truck pulled up for me, an old green Ford from
the 80s. I nodded to the driver, hucked my pack
into the open bed with a thump and then walked
over to Matt. We hugged hard, deep, our arms
thwapping each other's backs.
When we detached I said, "Thanks, man. Take
care. Keep in touch. Nice to know ya."
"You, too, buddy. Be safe. Don't get into too
much trouble," he said in his Austrian accent.
I hadn't told him about Julianne. Some things
don't need to be said out loud.
I got into the passenger seat of the Ford. An old
man with a fedora was driving. He nodded to me
and I strapped my seatbelt in and he punched the
gas and we lurched forward, west, toward my
beloved California, like some long-lost lover,
some distant desert oasis.
When I looked back, incredibly, I saw Matt huck-
ing his pack into a gray Buick, going his way, and
LITTLE BITS FOR DINNER
My big brother’s romantic history includes a se- “Don’t do it.” He puts the folded napkin on the
ries of reasonably tolerable partners (except Ma- table, signaling new topic.
rianne: anyone sporting blood red fingernails on
purpose is disqualified from the get-go), women “Because…” I learned all kinds of nifty con-
who have been, for reasons dark and Oedipal, versational gambits in my stay at New Dawn Re-
gently left in the dust. My beautiful brother Lyle covery Center. And while I may be a recovering
doesn’t mean for these women to love him with alcoholic for life, that doesn’t mean I don’t have
such purity. They just do. When their time is up, certain skills. Insights, like. “Because…”
they let themselves slip gracefully from his spell
without drama. Most, especially those local to “Because,” Lyle tells me, whispery, “you
Bakerville, retain a sincere fondness for Lyle of know I’m seeing Elizabeth again.”
which I remain the beneficiary. Lyle himself is an
introductory practicum in the Zen philosophy “Elizabeth.”
lacing his speech, walking proof that attachment
is the origin of all suffering. Lord knows he’s cate- “Elizabeth.”
chized me well on this point. Which is why, when
I can’t seem to tackle the subject of Elizabeth Until Elizabeth, I worried for Lyle’s aborted ro-
with him, I put myself on high alert. mances. He has had plenty, my sweet landlord
Barbi a favorite dating back to Lyle’s high school
“Barbi loved it that we had her to Aunt career twenty years ago. Since he didn’t stick
Amy’s for dinner over Christmas,” I say hopefully. with any of them, all of Bakerville offers specula-
“She’s such a sweetheart. Isn’t she?” tion aplenty as to the exact nature of Lyle’s rela-
tionship irregularities. Once, sitting right in this
Lyle turns his knife blade to the inside of very booth in the Home Run, old Norma Cathcart
his empty plate, lines it up with his fork. “She is assured me it was going to be all right even if Lyle
indeed.” My brother, Mister Manners, focuses on was “homosexual” because Heavenly Father,
the etiquette of utensil placement postprandial, whom Norma knows intimately since her very late
trying not to listen to me. -life conversion to Mormonism, will make him all
better in the hereafter. Providing he abstains, of
“Could we have dinner again, just you and course. I cut Norma some slack seeing how she
me and Barbi and Aunt Amy?” and her husband Walter and their succession of
Queensland Heelers were neighbors to my daddy
“I know what you’re doing, Bonita.” Lyle and mama forever. Walter always lets Norma do
quarters one of the cloth napkins distinguishing the talking, yet there’s something irresistible in
the Home Run Café from every other eatery in his gruff silence. If Walter can forgive Norma’s
Bakerville. We may be mountain folk, but we do becoming a Mormon, I can forgive her mistaking
have standards. At least Libby, the Home Run’s my brother for gay.
owner and one of Lyle’s past-life romances, has
standards. My own suppositions about Lyle’s terminations
were, I always believed, far closer to the truth:
“I want you to know what I’m doing.” that my big brother suffers the same abandon-
ment complex as I. I was a brave seven, Lyle a
wise sixteen, when our mama suffered a surprise “I’ll call you about dinner.” Lyle hugs me to him.
death on the freeways of awful Los Angeles. “No nicknames.”
Whatever we two were supposed to become was
revised by Mama’s death. I’d like to ask Heavenly “No nicknames.”
Father about that some day.
“The junker going to start?” My brother
“Look.” Lyle flattens his darling long hands points to my Toyota.
on the table. “You don’t know Elizabeth.”
“Yeah.” I hug him once more. “If it
“I know about Elizabeth.” doesn’t, I’m a mechanic, right?”
“Bon.” Lyle cocks his finger at me. “You make “Of great renown.” He kisses my head.
things up. You make people up.”
I watch Lyle’s rear lights twinkle down
“It’s true.” But I only use the material I’ve Main Street and out of sight. I wonder how many
been given, just to fill in the gaps. It’s not a inventories it will take to figure out what makes
crime. It’s a hobby, something to occupy the me so certain Elizabeth is a bad moon rising.
thirsty dead zone between my mechanicking jobs
at the Tune-Up Shop. “I do too want him to make a commit-
ment,” I say to Barbi.
“You called her Little Bits to her face.”
We’re eating the vegetarian Chinese take-out
“Yes. I did. I made amends.” Barbi insisted on. For our standing Friday night
dates we ordinarily claim the back booth at the
Lyle sighs. “You made your amends.” He Home Run and order something homemade and
fishes in his pocket for his wallet, lays some bills recognizable from Libby’s menu. That means by
on the table. “I don’t think they were as sincerely the end of the meal Lib has joined us and, like the
intended as the ninth step requires.” three weird sisters we were meant to be, we are
saving the world from troubles large and small.
Being a psychic twin to an only sibling ten Libby’s gone off with her husband and little girls
years your elder is super. It means someone’s to visit in-laws somewhere down south, so Barbi
always riding herd on your delusions, slippery has chosen tonight to decide habits are meant to
though they are. be broken.
“If you say it often enough, you live it,” I “This is terrible,” Barbi complains. She stabs a
recite. “I’m trying.” long deep fried thing with a single chop stick and
holds it up like a flag. “Lib doesn’t have to worry
“Sister Most Beloved.” Lyle stands. When- about the competition.”
ever he calls me Sister Most Beloved, I know all is
forgiven. “Why don’t I bring Elizabeth to dinner. “He thinks I like finding fault with his girlfriends.”
Soon. You and Aunt Amy.” I eat a mouthful of fried rice. It looks like fried
rice. “He thinks I’m glad when they don’t pan
“We tried that once. Before Marianne. out.” I think it’s fried rice.
“Don’t give any of this to Mister, Bon,” Barbi
“We’ll try it again.” warns. “MSG and cats don’t mix.”
“Okay.” “It’s really only Elizabeth I find serious fault with.”
Lyle and I walk side by side into the dark January Barbi takes the fried rice from me, stacks the half-
of Main Street. I get a homesick aura when my empty cartons into a pyramid, lifts herself from
brother unlocks his car to head down the moun- my living room floor, and schleps the whole mess
tain to Stockton. It’s backwards, I know, because to the kitchen sink. “I believe, if I’m not mistaken,
I’m the one who hasn’t left Bakerville, except for that you found a few faults with Marianne. If I’m
my season at New Dawn. Watching him leave not mistaken?”
blows a cold wind through the big hole in my or-
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” apply full-strength Lysol to something greasy.
“Do cats need baths?”
“So what’s wrong with this Elizabeth?”
“Not this one.” Barbi cuddles Mister.
“She’s mean.” “He’s fat, but he smells good.” She caps her hand
over Mister’s head and squeezes. “They love this.
“To?” It reminds them of their mama.”
“Lyle.” I uncross my knees and make a lap for “Look,” I say firmly. There are no distracting rat’s
Mister. “She speaks for him, like he’s a deaf mute nests in my tiny apartment, not now, so I return
or something. Steps on his sentences.” my energies to Lyle. “He’s never revisited his
girlfriends before.” I pull my sweatshirt from the
“Lyle doesn’t need anybody to speak for him.” back of the love seat and fold it. I fold Barbie’s
sweater, too, and line up our shoes at the slider
“See? A person who doesn’t know that is not to the tiny cement patio linking Barbi’s apartment
fully present.” to mine.
Barbi reclines on the love seat that serves as my “Lyle’s an old soul, kiddo.” Barbi sounds
living room. Her legs are hanging off the edge, like she’s falling asleep.
but she looks comfortable. She’s on her feet six
days a week cutting hair and plumping egos at “True. In lots of ways.” I slump onto the
Miss Barbi’s Hair Palace on Main Street. I like to edge of the love seat and slide my way down to
think spending time with me is restful, but that the floor.
may not be the case.
“Since when have you had any influence
Barbi holds her arms straight up and waves them, over his affairs, anyway?”
like an upside down pumpkin bug. “What does
he see in her, then?” “Lyle doesn’t have affairs. He has—“
“That’s what’s scary. I can’t answer that.” “—Serial heartaches. He gives them to
“Lyle knows his own mind.” Barbi lowers her
arms and crosses them over her breasts. “Yes! Abandonment patterns. He relives
them. Until Elizabeth.”
Barbi raises herself on an elbow. Mister
“Stop what?” gives us a perky snarl and hops off the love seat.
“So he’s getting back with Elizabeth—“
“Assuming the burial position. Here.” I jump up
and plop Mister on Barbi’s stomach. “Pet the “The meanest thing.”
“—to break the pattern?”
“You mean as in evolving?” Working
“How many months now?” Barbi loves mile- “We can’t know, honey.” Barbi flaps open
stones: birthdays, graduations, promotions, anni- her folded sweater and drapes it over her shoul-
versaries, A.A. chips. ders. “I’m beat. You need to figure out General
Hospital by yourself now.” She pats my head.
“I stopped counting.” “Good night, Mister,” she calls. “Night night,
“Is that good?”
I don’t watch General Hospital, but my
“Counting isn’t required. Meetings are. Aunt Amy does. Has done for twenty-seven faith-
You want a pillow?” ful years since her twin babies died before I was
born. I will take up Barbi’s suggestion: only in the
“Yes, please.” soap opera world do women exist who would do
I get a pillow from my bed and stuff it un-
der Barbi’s head. I am gripped by an uncommon
compulsion to tidy up, do bushels of laundry or
the kinds of things I am certain Lyle’s Elizabeth attach too deeply to plants that are meant to sac-
would. Aunt Amy can give me some pointers. rifice themselves.
My aunt told me to come straight back I set aside the few green tomatoes our Christmas
into her vegetable garden, where she’ll be pulling cold didn’t turn to mush and begin on the sweet
up last summer’s tomatoes and squash and pep- peppers. Aunt Amy’s raking behind me, tidying
pers. I’m to help, as always. I get to decide the ground for the load of steer manure Walter
where next year’s green beans and sunflowers Cathcart will haul over from his barn.
will grow. They’ve been my share in the garden
since I became a little girl with a dead mama, “Auntie?” I ask when all that’s left are the zuke
when Aunt Amy stepped up and traded her own plants. “What do you think of Lyle’s Elizabeth?
secret world to stand alongside Lyle as one of the The one he was with when I came out of New
two constants of my life. Dawn?”
“We picked a beaut of a day for out with My aunt stills her rake. She settles the ball cap on
the old,” Aunt Amy tells me when I find her be- her head, absentmindedly reaching behind her
hind the compost heap, an empty wheelbarrow neck for the shorn braids. I wonder if their miss-
upended beside her. She’s wearing a Tune-Up ing weight gives her phantom pains. When I was
Shop ball cap over her newly cut hair. Twenty- released from New Dawn, I hacked my own hair
seven years my aunt lived without cutting her down to stubble. Sometimes I think I still wear it;
hair. Then in one fell swoop delivered by Barbi, then I walk by a mirror and see myself, a ghost.
her tresses went off to Locks of Love, courtesy of
the Magi. Lyle, who prefers his only remaining “Whatever I think of Elizabeth, Lyle’s bringing her
kin to sport sadhu-length manes, still hasn’t re- up for dinner next week. You’re to attend.”
I finish arranging the last zuke skeleton on the
“A beaut.” I grab the wheelbarrow handles and wheelbarrow. “I’m supposed to make something
straighten it up. “Where am I headed?” to go with dinner. Welcoming, like.”
“Tomatoes first.” My aunt cocks her head at me. “What am I hear-
ing in your voice, Bonita?”
I trundle the wheelbarrow to the rows of
wiry, wilted tomato vines. On the hills behind The wheelbarrow almost tips when I put it into
Aunt Amy’s house, the leaves of the oak trees reverse, but we make it to the compost heap. I
glisten in the first sunshine showing itself since pretend not to feel the sharpness of my aunt’s
early December. Six or seven of Walter Cathcart’s question.
heifers are grazing on new grass. Their sleek au-
burn coats couldn’t glow any brighter if Barbi had “Bonita?”
given them a shampoo at the Hair Palace.
“She’s not nice to him,” I complain, offering my
Aunt Amy wants to uproot the tomato vines her- hands to my aunt so she can wrestle the muddy
self, but I won’t let her. Who knows when a gardening gloves from them.
stroke is lurking, biding its time, waiting for a sun-
ny day to deceive a person into letting her guard “She’s not nice to him or you don’t want anybody
down? I borrow my aunt’s flowered gardening to be nice to him?” Aunt Amy flaps the muddy
gloves and pull the vines up, relishing the feel of gloves as clean as she can.
my boot heels grounded in good earth, the tight-
ness of the soil holding the roots, the release that “You think I’m jealous? Of Lyle’s girlfriends? Of
follows my backward-leaning weight. This is why Elizabeth?”
Aunt Amy loves her garden so: the willingness
with which plants submit to the demands of the “Don’t sputter, Bon Bon. Calm yourself.”
season. Chopping wood and hauling water,
Lyle would say by way of explanation. You can’t “I want him to find a nice girlfriend.” I kick a
clump of earth. “I want somebody in this family
to reach happily-ever-after.”
Aunt Amy steers me up the back porch steps.
“Don’t cry, sweetheart.” She bends to pull off
her boots and makes a show of checking her and her old TV. She reads The Economist stem to
watch, a cheap heavy-duty man’s Timex that stern each week without fail. Just as her sister,
matches mine; we bought them together on a my mama, did, she considers the library to be as
rare shopping excursion to the Rite Aid store in necessary as the grocery store or the post office.
Jackson. “Just in time for General Hospital. We’ll My aunt is a person of class. Why she would
have hot chocolate. What do you say?” choose to rub shoulders with the dimwits from
ABC when she doesn’t tolerate such shoddy be-
When Mama died, my Daddy did his best to mend havior from anyone but a blood relative like me is
our family, but truth be told, he wasn’t up to the a mystery.
task. Lyle went off to Poly soon after, and Aunt
Amy mothered me with a generous, selfless ec- “That’s that.” Aunt Amy gives me her full atten-
centricity. To this day I am grateful for the cast tion when her soap is over. “Why, exactly, are
and crew of General Hospital. I remember the you concerning yourself with Lyle’s Elizabeth
characters as a flock of overdressed, sentimental- now?”
ly-spoken cretins against whose sordid expres-
sionism my own novice grief paled. They became I stretch my legs, then pull them back under the
my closet relatives, embarrassing and foolish and quilt covering us.
impossible to divorce. When the winters were
bitter cold, Aunt Amy and I would snuggle togeth- The fire has burnt down to ashes. I’ll need to
er on her front room couch, bolstered by pillows stoke it and the kitchen woodstove both.
smelling of Jergen’s lotion, covered by quilts.
Often, hypnotized by the intolerably repetitive “Bon? It’s Barbi, isn’t it?” Aunt Amy stops my
plots, Aunt Amy would unleash my hair and give it fingers from pulling
one hundred strokes. Then I would redo her
braids, too, brushing them out and fastening at loose threads on the borders of the quilt.
them with the plastic baubles from my own col- “Barbi’s a strong woman, sweetheart.”
lection. We went entire episodes without speak-
ing, healing ourselves to the unorthodox thera- “I know.”
peutics of the doctors and nurses of General Hos-
pital. “She doesn’t require your services here.”
As soon as we leave the garden and come inside, “I know. It’s not Barbi, anyway.”
the sun loses itself behind a wall of dismal clouds
blown in from the west. Aunt Amy’s front room is “Can you let Lyle and Elizabeth find their
almost dark except for the light cast by her old own way?”
“It will be Elizabeth’s way.”
“I guess I don’t need to ask what’s happening,” I
say when we’re settled on the couch, slippered “Lyle’s choice,” Aunt Amy says simply.
feet tucked beneath us, mugs settled on the ce-
dar chest. Lyle may talk a fine Buddhism, but Aunt
Amy lives it, without any of the hoopla or multi-
“You’ve got a moustache,” she tells me. She syllabic fine-tuning of the formally anointed.
traces my lip with her finger. “You’re a smart girl,
Bon Bon. You can always figure it out.” I slip from the quilt and stand. “I’m bring-
ing wood in,” I tell my aunt.
Of course she’s right. You can’t make choices for
“Shusssh.” My aunt points to the screen. other people, no matter how much more percep-
tive you mistake yourself to be. The people you
I’m somewhat of an expert on addictions, yet I’m love most have to muddle on by themselves
not quite sure if Aunt Amy’s devotion to General through simple sadness or bad love or alcoholism
Hospital qualifies. She watches nothing else. She while you sit on the sidelines, fingers crossed,
owns only a cheapo radio with abysmal reception waiting for them to come around. You need to be
there when they do. That’s the thing.
If I am going to make any purchase in Elizabeth’s
affections, Barbi says, I should make an effort to
dress respectfully for the dinner Aunt Amy will be
cooking for the benefit of my brother’s date ex- which she conducts conversation to areas of her
actly two hours from now. I took off early from own expertise or experience. I do not like her
the Tune-Up Shop to shower and make myself technique of feigning incompetence for Lyle’s
presentable, but I’m not trendy enough to deter- benefit. I do not like the hard vivacity of her
mine what presentable is. My ordinary wardrobe voice. I do not like—
is jeans and T-shirts, sweatshirts and tennis shoes.
I could wear one of the two dresses I own, except “This is not going well, Mister.” I rouse myself
the black one needs ironing and the other would from the sullen stupor I’ve induced. “Snakes in
require stockings or tights or some leg wear I my head. I’m racking up a tab of amends, little
don’t own and refuse to buy. buddy.”
Barbi has lent me some pants. After I roll Mister Snakes, once they go to ground, are hard demons
off the gray slacks I’ve laid out on my bed, I use a to wrestle.
length of duct tape to dab his white hairs from
them. I have a new sweater, too, in the calico “There you are, sweet girl,” Aunt Amy says to me
colors of the Shetland pony Norma and Walter after I stomp my feet on the back porch and wait
used to keep in their back pasture solely for my for the kitchen door to open. She kisses my cheek
delight. A person would have to study it closely and takes the brownies. “Perfect. I have full-fat
to find evidence of Mister, lucky for me, because vanilla ice cream for these.”
my cat has returned like a bad penny, curling his
fat, shedding self into fetal shape on top of the “You are beautiful,” I tell her. Her dark hair
sweater. glows, denying her age. For once she’s not clip-
ping it back with one of my leftover plastic bar-
“You’re headed for the glue factory, Mister,” I tell rettes. She’s wearing dangly gold earrings that
him, squeezing his head the way Barbi does. might have come out of a head shop in the sixties.
“You’re headed for the taxidermist’s.” In a crisp white blouse and new blue jeans, my
aunt could be a cover girl for AARP. “You are
I check my watch, then lie down on the bed and stunning.”
arrange myself next to Mister. The butterscotch
brownies I baked before work are stacked prettily “And yourself?” Aunt Amy spins me around, gives
on a wooden tray I borrowed from Aunt Amy. I me an exaggerated up-and-down. “Would hip be
left a small plate of them on Barbi’s counter. I the word?”
hope we’ll eat them together after I get home
tonight. Aunt Amy will not want to dissect the “Never hip.” I laugh. My aunt has the right spirit:
dinner post mortem, but Barbi might. I need to wear your most attractive self when marching
get to my aunt’s before the guests of honor, but into quicksand. Look like you’re having the time
the mesmerizing rise and fall of Mister’s fat tum- of your life. “What can I do?”
my is so soothing I coil myself around him like an
untied ribbon. “Not too much, Bonita. Table’s set, dinner’s in
I need to take personal inventory.
I sniff. “Zucchini risotto?”
1. I do not want to go to dinner with Lyle and
Elizabeth. “Yes, m’am.” Aunt Amy pauses, as if she’s sud-
denly forgotten her script and has to improvise.
2. I do not want Lyle going to dinner with “Lyle said nothing fancy, so nothing fancy it is.”
“I love your risotto. Lyle loves it. It was Libby’s
3. I do not like Elizabeth. I do not like the best-selling special last summer.” If Elizabeth
thought of her. I do not like the particulars of doesn’t crow about my aunt’s dinner, Lyle will be
her, the way her eyes inevitably stray to my feet exiled from our family, sparse though its numbers
and express disdain for the grease-stained tatty be.
Nikes I wear. I do not like her oversized necklaces
nestling themselves into her shiny cleavage, “It will be a good meal, Bon.” Aunt Amy touches
always on display. I do not like the manner in the cloth on the kitchen table, as if to bless it.
“Let this unfold as it will, shall we?”
“Yes.” Elizabeth follows, and Lyle follows Elizabeth. I
bring up the rear. Right about now I’d like to give
“And don’t you look spiffy!” my brother a flat tire, except his cowboy boots
make that impossible. I’m debating a wedgie just
I frown. “Barbi’s pants. This birthday sweater as Aunt Amy points us to our places.
“Norma. You’ve not worn it yet?” “More wine, Elizabeth?” Aunt Amy lifts the
bottle. “More cider, Bon?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Wear it more, sweetheart. Make sure Norma
sees you wearing it.” “Yes. Thank you.”
“Could I go over now? I’d like to see Walter. And My aunt fills Elizabeth’s glass. Lyle fills mine. He
Queenie.” I pretend to dart for the door. won’t look at me.
“Bonita.” “Do you ever think about going to college,
Bonita?” Elizabeth asks when she’s settled a nap-
“I’ll be good.” Aunt Amy has set the table with kin in her lap. I watch her sigh, the heave of her
three wineglasses. A water glass, my albatross, is bosom decorated by some slinky gold figure, a
placed at the fourth setting. “I promise.” skier or a witch on a broomstick, I can’t tell.
When a family gathering includes a certified re- “Not really.”
covering alcoholic, the cocktail hour gets truncat-
ed to a bottle of white wine for the sober three “You’re a reader, Lyle tells me.”
who aren’t in danger of spinning out of control
and a glass of sparkling cider for the handicapped. “We’re all readers.” I pass the basket of French
I like sparkling cider, actually: it tastes like apple rolls to Lyle. “It’s congenital.”
juice and pop mixed together. This is what I tell
Elizabeth when she asks me if I prefer red or dis- “Bonnie won the gold for best English student in
like all wine. high school,” Lyle adds. “She’s a smarty pants.”
“I’m an alcoholic,” I tell her. Lyle and Aunt Amy “I’d be happy to walk you through admissions.”
seem to hold their breaths. “I like sparkling cider. Elizabeth is some kind of dean at the college in
It tastes like apple juice and pop mixed together.” Stockton. Some kind of ad-min-is-tra-tor. “If you
“I work,” I say.
“I’m sorry, Bonita,” Elizabeth says. A tremor of “You can work and go to school, too.”
worry disturbs her forehead, finely glazed with a
sheen of undoubtedly exotic skin toner. “I did “I’ll think about it.” I wait for my brother to bail
know that. Lyle told me. I should have remem- me out, herald my qualities, the rarity of a female
bered.” mechanic with shade tree instincts.
I shrug. I pass the cashews to Aunt Amy. “We “Elizabeth, will you pass the salad, please?” Aunt
don’t dwell on it, anyway,” I lie. Elizabeth doesn’t Amy intervenes. “Bonnie made butterscotch
need to know that I—and by extension Lyle and brownies for dessert, Lyle.”
Aunt Amy—live my alcoholism, its history and its
absence, day in and day out. “My favorite,” my brother says. “My all-time fa-
“Of course not,” Elizabeth murmurs. She’s modu- “I thought you liked chocolate brownies,” says
lating her voice, forcing it shrink-soft, atonal. The Elizabeth.
only possible suspect to have leaked the particu-
lars of my inventory of the early evening is Mister “Them, too.”
the rescue cat. Even a drunk on a bender would
not find this plausible. Elizabeth looks at me, eyebrows raised, as if I am
a willing confidante. “He told me he loved choco-
“Let’s eat!” Aunt Amy rises from the couch and late brownies.”
heads for the kitchen.
“I’m sure he did,” I say before Aunt Amy’s foot “Bonnie’s a self-starter.” Lyle is trying. It pains
has time to press itself on mine. I’m wearing flats me to see my big brother, a gentle man by na-
I borrowed from Barbi. When Elizabeth’s gaze ture, made helpless. The stiletto heels on
makes her way down to my feet, she’ll be thwart- someone’s bruising shoes have tacked him to the
ed. I know for a fact Lyle pretends his sweet floor. He is not a doormat.
tooth, even for my butterscotch brownies, but I
keep mum. I am plumb out of new topics. Con- “I’ve never understood,” I say, waving my fork at
versationally bankrupt. Elizabeth in a violation of all statutes of etiquette,
“why talent, or skill, or intelligence is required to
Lyle begins to say something about Aunt Amy’s be—“
garden, whether the risotto is spiced by her ore-
gano or rosemary or both. “I just assumed that—“
Elizabeth interrupts. “I have a good recipe for “—certified, licensed, or credentialed.” A chunk of
rosemary bread.” She touches her napkin to the rice drops from my fork onto Aunt Amy’s table-
corner of her mouth. “Very easy.” cloth. “Oops. Sorry.” I scoop the morsel up with
my dessert spoon and lob it onto Lyle’s plate.
“Aunt Amy makes—“ Lyle begins. “Don’t you find, Elizabeth, that we live in a totally
“I could give it to you, Amy.”
“—the best challah—“
“Take Libby. She was Lyle’s first high school girl-
“Rosemary bread would have gone wonderfully friend? She owns the Home Run Café? She de-
with this meal.” cided she’d like to run a restaurant and, voila, the
Home Run gets rave reviews in Frommer’s.”
“—in the world.”
“Aunt Amy bakes the best bread.” I echo Lyle and
help myself to a second serving of risotto, even “Or Barbi? She was Lyle’s second high school
though I wasn’t hungry to begin with and am be- girlfriend? She owns her own salon. Miss Barbi’s
ginning to suspect I may be in for a long spate of on Main? Before cosmetology school, Barb knew
fasting. “Nobody bakes bread like Auntie.” how to do hair so well, they made her an instruc-
tor her second week there. People drive fifty
“I’m sure the rosemary bread is as good as you miles to pay for one of Barbi’s cuts.”
say.” My aunt doesn’t, I note, ask for the recipe.
“That’s not the—”
“Did you take any voc tech training before your--”
Elizabeth pauses, as if the word for what I do “My point is that a lot of people, maybe most
eludes her vocabulary, “--your current job, Bon- people, really learn their stuff either after school,”
nie?” here I look pointedly at Lyle, “or without school.”
I lift the sparkling cider bottle, wave it dangerous-
“No, I didn’t, actually. “I followed Dickie de Vane ly close to Elizabeth’s glass. “Unless they never
around for a couple of months. Apprenticed, learn it all.”
“But Lyle has—”
Lyle begins to explain. “Dickie de Vane is—“
“Sure, Lyle has his hoity-toity engineering degree.
“So you don’t have a certificate?” He’s told you that all the theory he memorized
and dumps into AutoCAD programs is poor prepa-
“Not exactly.” ration for the real world? Real buildings? On the
ground? He’s shared that with you?” I gesture to
“License? Credential?” Elizabeth is looking wor- my stricken brother for confirmation.
ried. She’s thinking that the engine beneath the
hood of whatever gas-guzzling SUV she drives “He—”
may have been tampered with by a host of drool-
ing club-footed village idiots. The very idea “Has Lyle ever played his guitar for you, Eliza-
seems to have put her off her feed. She pushes beth?”
her plate away and reaches for her wine glass.
“Not so—” “A word of advice?
“He plays a terrific guitar. My brother is the most “Okay.”
wonderful guitarist nobody knows.” I need to
catch my breath. My words have winded me. “Give Lyle a call. Not now. In the morning.”
“He taught himself. It doesn’t mean he isn’t
good.” I’m not feeling very sober, either. “He “Here are your shoes.” I slip off Barbi’s flats and
could have been a professional studio musician. hand them to her. “And your pants.” I unzip
Without lessons.” Now I’m panting. “Whether or Barbi’s pants and step out of them.
not people are formally educated has next to
nothing to do with whether they’re good at any- “Tomorrow would have done, Bon.”
thing. School doesn’t make a person any better
than the next guy.” I bow my head. “So no, I did- “No, it wouldn’t. I need to return these right
n’t go to school.” now.” I head for the slider to make the cold rush
through the patio to my apartment.
Aunt Amy stands and begins to clear plates. She
faces the kitchen counter with her back to me, a “Sweetie?”
familiar trick: I can’t see you, so you don’t exist.
Lyle straightens the serving spoon in the risotto. I turn back to Barbi. My legs are freezing.
If I didn’t know that I’d just ruined this family din-
ner by breaking my vows of temperance, I would “You look like a skinny little kid. Don’t break my
say that my brother looks more bemused than heart.”
upset, as if the punch line of a complicated joke is
finally making its laborious entrance. Elizabeth is “Yeah.”
fingering her necklace, pulling it away from her
skin, letting it drop. “Don’t break Lyle’s heart. Give him a call.”
“I apologize,” I say, extricating my legs from be- It’s Lyle who calls me. I’m feeding Mister, practic-
neath the table, heading for the door. “My name ing the impossible task of living one day at a time,
is Bonita.” I bow. “I’m an alcoholic.” which means there’s not supposed to be a lot I
can do about last night and what Elizabeth must
“You may as well have been drinking,” Barbi tells think of me, bolting from my aunt’s dinner table
me. “I don’t want you to feel any worse than you as if the banshees were on my trail.
should, but it might have gone over better if
you’d been tanked.” “Bonnie. You need to speak when you pick up the
phone, say hello or good morning or something.”
Barbi’s buried in her bed, the blankets pulled up My brother doesn’t sound angry, just belea-
to her chin. I wish I’d stayed in my own bed with guered, a teacher discovering his prize student
Mister and my butterscotch brownies, never ven- throwing spit wads at Thomas Jefferson’s portrait.
tured into high society at all. Everybody knows I
have not been properly socialized. I have proved “You’ve reached 654-3253. Please leave a mes-
it time and time again. sage after the beep.” “Not necessary, Bonita.”
“I apologized.” For the twentieth time, I pace “Okay.” I inhale. “I’m sorry for going berserkers
from Barbi’s bed to the door and back. at Aunt Amy’s.
Barbi nods her head. “Easier to ask forgiveness, I’m sorry for my rudeness and any harm I may
huh?” have caused you and your—Elizabeth.”
“It could have happened on General Hospital.” “She’s not my Elizabeth.”
“Don’t say something like that to Lyle, honey.” “Fine. Plain Elizabeth.”
“Certain public behavior is criminal.” We have a long silence together, just me
and my brother breathing. Before New Dawn,
“Yours?” hearing my brother breathe was the only thing
that kept me from doing even worse things than
“Elizabeth’s!” drinking myself into oblivion. We have a long
history of breathed conversations.
“Yes?” About the Author:
“Do you remember the song Ma used to Anna Villegas is a fifth-generation Californian
sing to us when we were sick? When she’d turn who lives in Nevada City, California, where her
the couch into a hospital bed?” family settled during the Gold Rush. Her pub-
lished work includes essays, poems, short stories,
“And make us our own bowls of layer Jell- newspaper columns, and three novels, but the
O?” short story remains her favorite form. “Little Bits
for Dinner” is from What Doesn’t Kill You, a short
“And lay out the Scrabble board on the story collection in progress.
“And take our library book orders?”
“What was that song?”
“She made it up.”
“Yes, she did. She told me. She made it up
just for us. For you first, actually. I inherited it.
“Do you remember it?”
I do remember the words to our mama’s
composition, reserved for bouts of sickness or the
midnight terrors, her spells for keeping safe her
beloved children. I sing them to him, my darling
brother, in a trembly voice sounding nothing like
our mother’s. At 6:30 in the morning I sing to
him, an incantation of grief and forgiveness, the
libretto to which we live our flawed but penitent
By Michael Onofrey
A corrugated awning, extending out from the side When the weather’s bad he sits in the cab of his
of the warehouse, provides shade. Mid- pickup truck.
September and hot, and it’ll remain that way for
another month. But still, people take their breaks With Marlene’s arrival at Danny’s picnic table in
outside. Maybe because they want to smoke or mid-August, Danny’s “alone” status changed for
maybe because the warehouse has no windows the afternoon break. In addition, Danny started
or maybe because they want to be sociable be- participating in fifteen-minute conversations with
cause other people take their breaks outside. The Marlene on a Monday-through-Friday basis,
six picnic tables and their accompanying benches which, by nature of the situation, meant private
under the corrugated awning get a lot of use. The conversations because only Danny and Marlene
tables and benches are anchored to a slab of con- were outside from three-thirty to three forty-five.
crete because sometimes there are fierce winds.
The awning is substantially secured as well, as are It’s an auto-parts warehouse and it’s situated in
trashcans. When it’s windy people don’t take the Mojave Desert in the vicinity of Victorville. I-
their breaks outside. There’s a lunchroom inside 15, main route between Los Angeles and Las Ve-
the warehouse. Vending machines are in the gas, is nearby. From the picnic tables under the
lunchroom. There are no vending machines out- corrugated awning a view of widely spaced creo-
side. sote on the desert’s pan can be seen. On one of
those first occasions when Marlene joined Danny
Danny and Marlene purchase instant coffee from at a picnic table, Danny used the word
a vending machine and go outside, a Thursday, “appreciate” in referring to the view.
three-thirty in the afternoon, no wind. A large
thermometer on the shady side of one of the “From here,” said Danny, “we can appreciate the
awning’s supports registers eighty-eight degrees. desert.” He waved a hand/arm to indicate. Mar-
lene seemed to take an interest in this remark, for
Danny and Marlene take their afternoon break she half-smiled. Perhaps the half-smile indicated
thirty minutes after everyone else because Danny amusement.
covers “will call” and Marlene covers the phones
while everyone else is on their break, which is Marlene is thirty-nine years old, Danny forty-one.
from three o’clock to three-fifteen. Marlene, This has been established, for they’ve talked
though, only started covering the phones for the about their respective ages. In the past month
afternoon break since she got back from her vaca- they’ve talked about a lot of things—living ar-
tion in mid-August. Before that, Mark Bane cov- rangements, job satisfaction, divorce, eating and
ered the phones, and he still does for the morning drinking habits. They’ve also talked about Mar-
break and for lunchtime. Mark, though, never lene’s vacation, a two-week European sojourn. In
ventures outside. Mark utilizes the lunchroom, Danny’s five years at the warehouse this was the
which means Danny’s alone for the morning first time he heard of someone from the ware-
break and for lunchtime because he covers “will house going to Europe for their vacation. Most
call” for those times too, the same as he does for people vacationed closer to home, if they vaca-
the afternoon break. Danny always goes outside. tioned at all. Thus, Marlene’s European vacation
was moderately big news, and it was only
“moderately big news” because truly big news “Why do you smile like that?”
was when someone got arrested for beating his
wife nearly to death, case in point Tom Finn. Not “I fell off a swing when I was four years old. A
only was that “big news” but it also created an nerve in my neck got pinched, or so I was told.
instant job vacancy. Another example of “big- The left side of my face can’t move. It’s paralyzed.
news”-slash-“instant job vacancy” was when Car- Whenever I smile or laugh, the right side moves,
ol Faye got in an automobile accident on but the left side doesn’t.”
Pearblossom Highway, a head-on collision, which
resulted in Carol’s death. Drama of a shocking “Oh . . .” Marlene responded with hesitancy, but
nature was what constituted “big news.” Mar- then said, “You know, I think this is the first I’ve
lene’s trip to Europe was only “moderately” big seen you smile. Could you do it again?”
news. Nevertheless, it initiated comment.
A prominent feature of Danny and Marlene’s
“Hey, Marlene went to Europe for her vacation.” break-time conversations was that they never
went beyond fifteen minutes. Morning and after-
“You mean like France and those kinds of plac- noon breaks were fifteen minutes long, and they
es?” were timed by the warehouse manager, Phil Kent.
Phil employed a cooking timer. A button on the
“Yeah.” wall near Phil’s desk set a buzzer off in the lunch-
room and outside. Phil was diligent. Even for two
According to what Danny heard from people in people, Phil timed the breaks. And so, Marlene
the warehouse, Marlene had visited London, Am- and Danny’s conversations were often severed
sterdam and Paris, and in those cities she took in due to Phil’s diligence, which in turn put a fifteen-
the art, as in fine art, by way of famous museums. minute cap on Marlene and Danny’s conversa-
But during that first week when Marlene came tions. The next day they sometimes picked up
out to take her break with Danny at a picnic table, where they had left off the previous day, but
Marlene told Danny that she had gone to Greece, often they didn’t, forgetfulness or the urgency of
which was where she spent her entire two-week a new topic coming to bear.
vacation. Danny noticed the discrepancy right
away and was about to bring it to Marlene’s Another development, or consequence, of those
attention, but Marlene continued on without fifteen-minute conversations was that one topic
pause, perhaps purposely, by saying she had gone would often drift, or knife, into another, no single
to a couple of Greek islands and had found the topic or subject fully explored. Perhaps, subcon-
beaches on those islands “marvelous.” On the sciously or consciously, Danny and Marlene felt
heels of “marvelous” there came a half-smile, pressured to get in and out of a topic quickly. Be-
after which Marlene brought her cup of instant yond that, though, skipping from one topic to
coffee to her pinkish lips, which had flecks of another, while merely skimming the surface of a
dried skin embedded in pink lipstick, for the cli- topic, was how people usually talked, television
mate of the Mojave Desert encouraged chapped and maybe the Internet having spawned this sort
lips. Danny’s lips, too, were chapped, but there of communication. Danny was acutely aware of
was no lipstick. this superficiality, for it was one of the reasons he
no longer had a television. Danny’s “no TV” status
Marlene raising her cup of instant coffee and was nearing the end of its fifth year, for it had
looking at Danny while she sipped prompted Dan- begun just after Danny moved from Los Angeles
ny to raise his cup of instant coffee and sip. So in to the desert. A fragmented conversation be-
response to the two versions of Marlene’s vaca- tween Marlene and Danny had touched on this.
tion, Danny was mute, for he intuitively deemed
it more interesting and more prudent to remain “No TV? Really?”
silent, especially when he saw a look of collusion
on Marlene’s face. After swallowing their respec- “Yeah.”
tive sips of instant coffee and placing their paper
cups back down on the table, Danny half-smiled Another consequence relating to truncated con-
himself, which caused Marlene to look at Danny’s versations with Marlene was that Danny would
countenance with keen interest, for Danny’s half- often continue these conversations in his head
smile was crooked on his face.
while driving home from work. He might also con- Just to make sure he was hearing right, he said,
tinue one or more of them at home while eating “Mate with more than one male at a time?”
dinner or washing dishes or bird watching from
the diminutive patio next to his single-wide mo- “Yes. It’s the next step up on the pleasure ladder
bile home that was on the backside of a huge without reverting to contraband or alcohol.”
mobile home park. A chain-link fence, marking
the perimeter of the mobile home park, was Danny was looking at Marlene’s average-looking
fifteen feet away from Danny’s abode, which face with renewed interest, for it seemed that a
meant that Danny had an unobscured view of the significant shift was in motion.
desert, save for incidental chain-link. In effect, it
was pretty much like the view from the picnic “But of course not everyone prefers this,” Mar-
tables under the corrugated awning next at work. lene said. “Personal predilection, social taboos
and so forth.”
Also, on weekends, there’d be the past week’s
five fifteen-minute partial conversations to mull Marlene was more articulate than Danny had
over. Since Danny kept a cat he would sometimes figured. He watched her raise her cup of instant
verbalized his thoughts in the cat’s presence, coffee to her mildly chapped lips.
Marlene the subject of those thoughts. The cat
seemed a good listener. Perhaps Marlene did this At six-two, Danny was rangy. He thought of him-
as well, for she kept a cat too. This had been dis- self as “average,” as in “regular,” “a regular sort
cussed, briefly, Danny and Marlene, each with a of guy,” and he thought of Marlene in the same
cat. way, “a regular sort of gal.” Marlene was an inch
or two shy of six feet, so the term “rangy”
Part of Danny’s thinking about these break-time might’ve fit Marlene as well. In Danny’s mind,
conversations encompassed assumption, which, assumptions churning, there was something
on occasion, would swell into full-blown stories about Marlene’s torso and the fullness of her lips
featuring Marlene and Danny. This, in itself, was and the slight bulginess of her eyes that brought
not surprising. Nevertheless, there was the dan- large areolas into Danny’s thoughts. Probably
ger of assuming too much, of building things up. there were certain things about Danny that trig-
So, to remedy this, Danny concluded that what he gered assumptions on Marlene’s part regarding
needed to do was to ask Marlene out on a date. how Danny might look with his clothes off. These
Dinner at a quiet restaurant, for example, would kinds of thoughts were only natural, or “normal.”
not only lift the fifteen-minute time limit, but
would also provide a congenial atmosphere for Danny and Marlene had average-like jobs and
exploring possibilities beyond assumption and average-like pickup trucks and average-like looks.
speculation. In other words, Danny wanted to They were middle-aged, which also suggested
make things real. “average” or “regular” or “normal.”
He has mentioned getting together after work, Danny raised his cup of instant coffee.
maybe dinner, “or something like that,” and is
waiting for Marlene’s reaction/reply. “Naturally discretion is important,” Marlene said.
“I wouldn’t want you to invite anyone from the
“I thought you’d never ask.” warehouse. You know how things are here, every-
one talking in a juvenile, narrow-minded way.”
This came with a half-smile on Marlene’s face,
which put a full smile on Danny’s face, albeit a Danny swallowed his sip of coffee.
crooked one. Danny was about to pursue the top-
ic, but Marlene picked up instead. “Individually, people here are okay, but as a
group, particularly when they get to talking, it’s a
“I like to mate with more than one male at a time. different story,” Marlene said. “I think I’ve men-
If you could get a friend or two . . .” She half- tioned this. You’re taciturn, and that’s one of the
smiled again. reasons I started covering the phones during the
Danny had thought he had considered all contin-
gencies, but now he understood that he hadn’t. Danny nodded, a conversational response, yet
there was also the acknowledgement of arithme-
tic, as in putting two and two together. The only
stumbling block was “taciturn.” Danny was pretty
sure Marlene hadn’t used the word “taciturn” see that she had survived the day, for there were
before, for if she had Danny would have noted it coyotes in the area that sometimes got people’s
and would have looked it up in a dictionary at pets. He was also happy to see the cat because
home to make sure he understood its meaning. she was waiting for him, or seemed to be, kind of
like someone waiting for him to come home. The
“A couple of your friends,” Marlene said. “That’s cat’s name was Audubon, which was kind of a
what I have in mind. You know, maybe a pizza, sit joke, for the cat was interested in birds, but fortu-
around in your living room, get acquainted, and nately it never got any, or at least none that Dan-
then . . .” ny had seen. A pair of ravens that frequented the
area were out of the question regarding feline
Danny nodded as if to signify he was getting the prey, too big and too fierce, and the same for a
picture. roadrunner that dashed about just beyond the
chain-link fence, too big and too quick and too
A raven cawed from out of the hot sky. There smart. White-winged doves inhabited the locale,
were two ravens that hung out in the vicinity of sparrows as well, but in the immediate precinct of
the warehouse. Obviously it was their territory, Danny’s mobile home those birds were scarce.
male and female, a couple, for that’s how adult Mice? Yes, Audubon would sometimes show up
ravens were, a couple staking an area and de- with a mouse. Lizards, too, were playful game for
fending it. Danny had determined this with the the cat.
aid of a pair of binoculars that he employed dur-
ing his thirty-minute lunchbreaks, sandwich and The cat’s backstory began with the backstory of
cup of instant coffee at hand. On a couple of oc- the single-wide, both of which were tied to Danny
casions someone had come out from the ware- fleeing the San Fernando Valley, which was the
house to ask him a job-related question and had same as fleeing his divorce, and then showing up
seen the binoculars and had asked Danny about at his friend’s mobile home in the Mojave Desert,
them, which was how Danny was awarded the a little over an hour’s drive from what haunted
moniker: “The Bird Man.” A glancing thought said Danny in the eastern sector of the Valley. There
something about more arithmetic: “The Bird was a job opening at the auto-parts warehouse
Man,” eating lunch alone under a corrugated where Danny’s friend, Rudy Davies, worked. Rudy
awning, sum of which resulted in “taciturn.” was old friend from the old neighborhood in the
East Valley. Danny could sleep on the couch in
“I can’t think of any friends who’d . . . I don’t have Rudy’s single-wide until Danny found a place. A
any friends around here.” month after Danny’s arrival, though, Rudy left for
Las Vegas. A friend of Rudy’s, a contractor in the
“You don’t? You mean, you don’t have any painting business, needed workers. The money
friends?” was good and Las Vegas was a lot more exciting
than Victorville. Maybe Danny wanted to give
“Well, I have some friends in the Valley, the San production painting in Vegas a try as well? No,
Fernando Valley, but they’re married and have Danny didn’t. Danny liked the normality of the
kids and . . . You know, they’re settled down.” warehouse job. He also liked the quiet of the un-
developed desert as it nudge up against the back-
“So?” side of the mobile home park where Rudy’s single
-wide was spotted, vacant spaces on either side of
He was stalled, and it seemed he needed a rerun Rudy’s space.
of “So?” Running it through his mind to ascertain
ramifications took a couple of moments, after “Oh, sure,” Rudy said. “You can make payments.
which he looked at Marlene, who looked at her I’ll sell you the single-wide cheap.”
Two days after Rudy’s departure, Danny found a
Danny had plenty to think about on his way home kitten stumbling around on the pebbled ground
on that noteworthy Thursday in mid-September. near the chain-link fence, a blistering August
Fortunately there were only a couple of roads to afternoon. The cat was a tricolored calico, female.
navigate, traffic light. He drove as if on automatic. Danny had the cat spayed and she eventually
His cat came out from under the single-wide
to greet him. He was always happy to see the cat,
became Audubon in conjunction with Danny’s the binoculars. Conclusions and answers and solu-
newfound hobby—bird watching. Danny was tions were elusive, except that he really didn’t
changing—open meetings at AA, binoculars and have any friends he could ask to participate in
Audubon field guides, TV unplugged. Rudy this. So what was he to do? Walk around the mo-
showed up one weekend in October to take the bile home park with the purpose of meeting
set off of Danny’s hands. These lifestyle changes someone and saying: “Hey, how would you, and
seemed natural in the way they evolved in the maybe a buddy of yours, like to come over to my
wake of Danny’s divorce, which coincided with place for pizza and I’ll introduce you to a woman
escaping the East Valley and its car alarms, pit who likes to ‘mate with more than one male at a
bulls, backyard parties, and helicopters in the time?’ No alcohol or drugs, though. Maybe some
night with searchlights. Insistent bumper-to- iced tea or ginger ale. There’ll be a supply of con-
bumper congestion on freeways was left behind, doms.”
too. Simplification and downsizing were the gen-
eral formula of Danny’s new regimen. Within six Cups of instant coffee, awning overhead, three-
months he felt the benefits of the makeover that thirty in the afternoon, weather a rerun of the
had taken on the posture of an adventure. But day before, but now it was Friday.
there were drawbacks, such as aloneness, which
occasionally morphed into loneliness. Boredom as “I thought about what you said yesterday, and I
well made itself felt. Thus, the adventure had its really can’t come up with anyone who might want
challenges, and in meeting those challenges there to participate in what you have in mind.”
came bird watching and reading and drawing and
watercolors. Danny felt he was pursuing sanity, She sips her coffee.
yet if he were to tell people at the warehouse
about this, “sanity” wouldn’t have been the diag- “You know, I was thinking of maybe dinner, like at
nosis. that Szechuan restaurant over by I-15.”
He sat out on the patio with a glass of iced tea She looks at him.
and a pair of binoculars and the cat. A lingering
pastel sunset stretched across the sky. The day’s “We could talk and . . . Well, you know . . .”
no-wind status remained. In about a month it’d
be fall in the desert, vivid shadows, pleasant tem- “We’ve been talking for a month.”
peratures, wonderful air.
“Yeah, I know, but it hasn’t been real talk. It’s
Weren’t all the hints and innuendoes there— been . . .”
clothing optional beaches, open-minded people,
fun, nature, naturist? What could Danny have “What do you mean, it hasn’t been real talk?
been thinking about? We’ve covered just about everything. What else is
there to talk about? Don’t you think it’s time we
Before going out to the patio he had gone to a moved beyond talk?”
bookshelf in his living room and had looked up
“taciturn” in a dictionary. He also looked up “Yes, and that’s what I have in mind—dinner at a
“naturist.” nice restaurant, the two of us, and . . .”
Yes, he had been thinking of erotica, but his ver- “Ah, huh. Well, I’ve expressed my needs and de-
sion of this involved romance—dinners, movies, sires. What more is there to say?”
vacations, plans. They had so much in common,
Danny and Marlene. But now . . . Funny how eve- He sits, and he has this feeling he’s about to
rything Marlene had said was coming together speak.
differently now. A different story was emerging
and Danny was trying to adjust to it, but it wasn’t Marlene raises her cup of instant coffee. Danny
easy. He would need to change in order to ac- raises his cup of instant coffee. They sip. They
commodate this new version of Marlene. lower their cups. Marlene’s gaze goes out toward
Stars began in the eastern sky. He hadn’t lifted
“It’s going to be nice weather in about a month,”
Danny says. “Fall in the desert—it’s my favorite
time of year.”