Wren Sees the Future
Tiny bird, brown feathers, quivering with song. Wren has long
presaged the end of time. She knows the Welsh used the same
word for her as for druids; but only druids, of course, sacrificed
humans. Wren fights no such battles. She searches for bugs
in the hedges, resists singing a mournful song, though she knows
the boys want to kill her, want to bring her body back to the village
like a totem for a prize. Male wrens are the nest builders,
but our Wren knows better. She wills her hollow bones strong,
builds a nest in a tall oak tree: Boys and druids be damned.
She doesn’t have the patience to dwell on trivialities between
her songs. She moves on. She knows, for example, where to fly
when it gets cold and just how to find sustenance, can hear
the susurration of insects in the hedge. This is not memory,
this is prowess, sinews of truth feathering from her heart to her pink
feet. She doesn’t remember when the boys started hunting her,
cannot recall why, even though she saw it coming, even though
she understood in her marrowless bones that protest songs can’t
always keep the predators away. She keeps singing.
TASHA GRAFF lives and writes on the coast of Maine. Nominated for Best of the Net in 2016, her work has appeared in such publications as THRUSH Poetry Journal, English Journal, Rust + Moth and From the Fishouse. Her chapbook Similarities is available from Finishing Line Press.
The Carpathia, 1912
The survivors of the Titanic were picked up by a steamship called the Carpathia, where they resided for three days before landing in New York.
The night after, Noël ascends
to the deck and sits in a slender-
backed chair to cut up a blanket.
It’s quiet. The water is tucked
tight around the ship, lapping
only a little, like they’re afloat
in a wineglass that someone
everything fades to
the in-out of a borrowed needle
as she sews a shirt for a baby
who was also saved. When a man
on the crew brings her a chipped
cup of coffee she says thank you
and lets it sour. Last night
she scooped an oar
through a fury of cold water
and sang she’d keep on
o’er crag and torrent, till
the night is gone. Even then
she was unsure. In the end
salvation means she makes
a row of stitches and snips
what hangs loose
then repeat. The shirt coming
together in the way things do.
Meanwhile, the clouds rise
and glow. She didn’t think
survival would be like this.
So bearable. So full of light.
ANNA KELLEY is pursuing an MFA in poetry at Syracuse University. She is a reader for Salt Hill. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Citron Review, Literary Orphans, Up the Staircase Quarterly, CICADA, Split Lip Magazine, and others.
You bolted out of our bed naked, grabbed a suitcase, stuffed it with my shoes, shirts, tags
sticking out like tongues, then picked up that heavy case over your chest--
and for a single unforgiving moment before you threw the case out the back door on the
bare winter soil, you looked like a man lifting his child in play.
By then, in the back of the kitchen drawer, each night the rat tilled through his nest of stray
hair and paper scraps, restless, turning up night breath.
And in a dream—constant like the sinking of Venice, and clear like a fog-cutting sail--
we watched the sun rise over the serrated edge of the pinewoods. In damp moss a door
stood, wall-less, a crying mouth without a face. A barefoot child walked through it,
dusty in a new daylight,
and we listened to the shadow child’s call—first your name, then mine—a terrible yip and
whine, then a slow crooked whimper that backstitched our days.
DANCE OF LILITH, MISSISSIPPI DELTA
I watch her upturned nose, the twitch
of her wolfish mug, wine-wild limbs,
her hair combed with ravens shifting
in flight, and I think of the swift-dark
of nocturnal woods, the earful of river,
its rush, tumble-roll, skim and shiver,
the fall of its heavy skirt. My body
is a hoarse tune, a crackle of branches
trampled underfoot in a bootblack,
four-legged night. The needle scratches
There’s a hellhound on my trail,
a hellhound on my trail, and her hair
sweeps across the knots of her back,
brushes the wide clearing of its saddle,
under a sky that’s no longer a simple black
but coarse and heavy as a salt kettle.
ANDREA JURJEVIĆ, a native of Croatia, is the author of Small Crimes, winner of the 2015 Philip Levine Prize. Her poems, as well as her translations of contemporary Croatian poetry, have appeared in journals such as Epoch, TriQuarterly, Best New Poets, The Missouri Review, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of a Robinson Jeffers Tor Prize, a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and a Hambidge Fellowship. Her translation of Mamasafari (and other things) from Croatian will be published by Diálogos in 2018.
keeping someone a secret makes them inevitable.
you will do anything to avoid--
in the act of being forced
underwater in the neighbors’ pond,
her whispered cries of escape muffled by
her own hand over her mouth.
you would avoid it
but the dead have you in their pocket.
you did not know that the tremor of force provides such a force
that your head is vibrating with
someone laughing or coughing
this land of ghosts and amulets where
the dead keep count.
you want to believe that the clock is meaningful,
but still, you have nothing to say to the night layered on night,
the blood spattered towel,
and where he rammed your head twice into the windshield of his car.
it doesn’t matter who raises their hand to strike the other,
you know some things are only true
when they are spoken aloud.
JILL MCELDOWNEY is the author of the chapbook "Kisses Over Babylon" (dancing girl press 2016). Her work can also be found in journals such as Vinyl, Corium, Fugue and others.
TWO NIGHTMARES IN MY CAR ON ROSEWOOD
A shadow figure outside the Ford’s locked door.
He jiggles the handle
hey can you drive me to Santa Clarita
I said no I have been drinking whiskey
which was a lie
he said let me in
I did not
When I wake for a walk in the middle of the night,
clothes bunched on red benches under streetlights
like someone had been there
I call my ex
I can't stop thinking about you
shadows float from her eyes
understand: we lived
in the cave of each other
under orange streetlights
blankets hang from headrests
to drape me from the world
JAMES CROAL JACKSON is the author of The Frayed Edge of Memory (Writing Knights Press, 2017). His poetry has appeared in FLAPPERHOUSE, Rust + Moth, Jet Fuel Review, and elsewhere. He has won the William Redding Memorial Poetry Contest and is founding editor of The Mantle. Find him in Columbus, Ohio or at jimjakk.com
The Bobcat excavator is back on the flatbed, foundation dug,
they are pouring footings for the addition to my house.
The young man who wheels and dumps barrow after barrow
of cement soup into a maze of trenches wears a shiny black
side arm. Maybe he’s headed to a rough bar after work and
wants the protection, or thinks he might have to stop
a carjacking, his or someone else’s. What good would it do
to shout over mounds of dirt and heavy gray rivers, to say
what—that I don’t allow firearms on my property—that I’m
puzzled as to why he wears a weapon among the fallen fences
and rusted swing sets of my neighborhood’s interlocking
backyards? The sun starts to set between the trees, rays drill
down into a floor of dead leaves. Soon bats will flit between
limbs to feed. We used to lie on our backs at dusk, toss pebbles
in the air, watch the small flyers swoop in anticipation of a morsel
of moth or mosquito, veering away at the last second, they fell
for the trick, again and again. The man has disappeared, a dull coat
forms on the cement surface. By tomorrow night it will harden
into various casts of the earth, imperfect, unchangeable.
JANE CRAVEN lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and has worked in systems development and as the director of a contemporary art museum. She was recently accepted into the North Carolina State University MFA-Poetry program and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Texas Review, The Columbia Review, Tar River Poetry, and Atlanta Review.
GAIL GOEPFERT, poet and photographer from Illinois, is an associate editor at RHINO Poetry. Her chapbook, A Mind on Pain, was released in 2015, and her first full-length book of poems, Get Up Said the World, will be published in 2019 by Červená Barva Press. Recent publications include Crab Orchard Review, Florida English, Jet Fuel Review, Kudzu House, Rattle, Minerva Rising, Ekphrastic Review, Olentangy Review, concīs, and Room Magazine. She was a featured poet in Blue Heron Review and the Aeolian Harp Series anthology of poetry folios. More at gailgoepfert.com
Casinos were a death trap, and Em thought everyone should know that. The room was huge, any possible exit hidden behind the twists of the cosmic carpet. Slot machines beckoned with flashes of bright fortune, their sound nearly drowned out by the pounding bass of loud dance music. There were hundreds of them, stacked against the walls and arranged in small clusters of noise and light. The electronic clatter of coins rang out from every corner. The racket was nearly unbearable, the way out unclear. Anything at eye level swam in neon, cigarette smoke wafting towards the high ceiling, receding away into the dark.
It was just after nine on a Tuesday night in one of the oldest casinos in Atlantic City, and the room was filled with the elderly and infirm. Some had pushed their walkers up directly to the machines, abandoning them alongside once firmly seated in the high, pleather chairs. A graying nurse, still in her scrubs, read a beat-up paperback next to a man in a wheelchair. The man’s left hand mechanically pressed SPIN again and again with little interruption. Across a small aisle, a woman slept at her machine, her head back to the ceiling and her mouth yawning open.
At nineteen, Em was the youngest person in the room by entire decades, caretakers included. She wondered if the noise of the machines and music was amped to pierce the hearing aids of the room. She wondered who the casino was holding out for with the Top 40 music, what sudden generational shift they might think possible. She wondered whether anyone had ever died in this room, quietly leaning until a forehead pressed on the betting buttons forever. It all seemed fairly likely.
Her grandparents had been in bed for an hour. They were not quite the neon devotees that the blue-haired around Em now were. They got frustrated when they lost a twenty without a win, would declare the whole process a bust but for the comped hotel room. The three of them slept together in the one free room, Em taking the bus down from New York to see her grandparents and take advantage of a failing industry’s generosity. Her grandparents had won little, eaten dinner at the aging casino’s food court, and gone to bed. They said they loved the whole trip anyway, were so glad she was here. They asked her if she was enjoying herself on four separate occasions. They asked when she might bring a boyfriend on one of these trips, promising to even spring for multiple hotel rooms in the event of such a surprise. Em desperately needed a beer.
She’d come down to the casino, too young and too broke to avoid it. She could have paid for a beer at the bar, maybe been carded and found out, or she could sit at a machine and pretend to play. A beer would appear at the cost of the waitress’s tip, a dollar bill on a plastic tray, no ID required. Em never played on these trips with her grandparents, thinking the money wasted and the whole enterprise really fucking depressing. She preferred to cheer them on, help them pick the lucky machines, drink the seven-and-sevens the waitresses brought her grandfather. The ungambled cash her grandparents insisted she remove from the ATM weighed down the pockets of her jeans. She was not a gambler. If she had to choose a vice, she was – at best – a drinker. It was more efficient at pushing problems away, and it was cheaper.
She paced the casino, seeking a penny slot machine. She wanted the most beer for the least investment, the least interaction with the casino itself. Em could have joined a table game on the far side of the room, where the players tended more to middle age, but she didn’t know how to play and knew the stakes were considerably higher. She scanned for an empty seat in an empty row. She hoped to be more than fifty feet from a walker and a smoker. Everything about the place made her anxious, a feeling she largely reserved for class presentations or dorm parties with new people. Here, it felt like everything was absurd and anything was possible, and it unnerved her.
From behind her, a voice rose over the clatter and bass: ‘Hey, this one’s hot, if you want.’
Em turned toward the voice, and a stranger gestured towards the chair beside her. She was younger than the others, but not by much. Em guessed mid-fifties, but the range could have been far more expansive. Her hair was streaked with gray and close cropped behind her ears, as close to a men’s cut as a South Jersey barber was likely to give. She wore dark Carhartts, a blue sweater that did little to hide her heavy chest and beer gut. Her face was wrinkled like she had spent her whole life in the sun, her eyes tilting down at the corners under the weight of heavy, lined lids. She held a drink in her hand, clear liquid in ice, no bubbles. Water or vodka.
The hot machine was a penny slot, and there wasn’t a cigarette or walker in sight. Em sat down, a flush of recognition blooming across her face. The stranger smirked, not quite a smile but inviting somehow anyway. Em tried to return it with a nod of thanks, but her face felt hot and tight. They both turned back to their machines, Em still fighting for a neutral expression.
Twenty inserted, the slot’s buttons blinked to life. Em pushed SPIN. The machine spun, a seven, two bars, FREE GAMES, a cherry, an orange. Nothing. She avoided looking at the stranger beside her, who had not pressed a button since she sat down. Em scanned for a waitress, her stomach rolling.
The stranger caught her looking. ‘You want a drink? You even old enough to drink?’ she chuckled. ‘I’m Charlie, by the way.’
Em pushed SPIN. Cherries, a seven, a shiny seven, another seven, two bars. A thirty-cent win. She tried to match her levity, show some level of control. She wished she could subtly put a palm to her face, see if the flush had cooled. ‘I only came in here for a beer. I hear they don’t make you pay and they don’t card. An underage drinker’s dream,’ She had always been able to joke, and she knew that the joke was not an answer. She was glad for the bright machine, for somewhere to look that was not Charlie’s lined face.
She raised her eyebrows. ‘Oh honey, they always make you pay.’
She drained her glass, held it in the air. The waitress appeared from behind the Wheel of Fortune row, and it seemed that everything must be just that easy for Charlie. The waitress wore a green-sequined dress, so tight her breasts pushed over the fabric. Em could see the indentation where her underwear cut into the flesh of her hips.
‘Another for me, and a beer for my friend here.’ The waitress turned from Charlie to Em, scanned her from boots to crown. Em could guess what she was thinking. Two sevens, a beer, FREE GAMES, a cherry. She smiled, not unkindly.
‘What kind of beer?’
‘Bud Light’s fine.’
The waitress nodded, took Charlie’s empty glass. ‘Be right back, ladies.’ Charlie’s smirk stretched painfully at the word. Em watched the waitress go, her hips swinging as she scanned the room for others still capable of drinking alcohol that would not mess with their medication. Em wished she had ordered three beers at a time, downing them one after another somewhere near the bathroom, and then returned to this scene. She wanted to be braver.
Charlie absentmindedly pressed SPIN, still facing Em. Em turned to her machine, SPUN herself. Nothing from the machine adjacent, but Em’s clattered manically. She had won six dollars and ten FREE GAMES. The slots spun without interruption. Em and Charlie watched the winning numbers in silence. Twenty-three dollars was the final tally.
Charlie whistled. ‘I told you it was hot.’
‘Yeah, seriously,’ Em said. Her body felt too overwhelming, like every nerve ending was standing at its own personal attention. Her throat felt too full and her leg hair prickled beneath her jeans and she was too aware of the vibration of the music and the electricity in the air. The words wouldn’t just tumble from her mouth like they did so easily at parties at home. The lights were too bright and she had to think about everything. ‘I’ll split the winnings with you,’ she finally said, a beat too late to sound natural, ‘like a finder’s fee.’
Charlie raised her eyebrows again. Em heard how it sounded, only after the words were out of her mouth. The insinuation lay thick in the air between them, Em’s embarrassment sliding over everything like a thick gloss. She’d meant only what she said, the money Charlie’s due for selecting the lucky machine. It was how her grandparents split winnings. She didn’t know how to take it back, or if she wanted to. Charlie looked at her, but Em wouldn’t meet her eyes. She wanted to walk away, but didn’t know how. She fidgeted in her chair, crossing her legs to try and quiet the ache.
The waitress arrived, depositing their drinks into the thick fog that enveloped them both. Charlie pressed SPIN again to keep up appearances. Em stuffed her hand in her pocket, peeled two dollars from the crumpled bunch, and laid them on the plastic tray balanced on the waitress’s hip. She took a large swig of her beer, draining a third of the bottle as the waitress turned to leave.
‘To your good health and generosity then.’ Charlie raised her glass in Em’s direction, nodded, took a sip. She looked quite relieved. Vodka then. Em tipped her bottle back. The cold liquid soothed her throat. She was happy for something to hold. Charlie watched her mouth.
Em raised her bet to 50 cents, just to see. She hit SPIN. Nothing this time. The waitress had cut the tension, and Em felt like she could breathe again. The music seemed quieter. She uncrossed her legs. She SPUN again.
Charlie sat back from her machine, watching Em’s, watching Em. She crossed her arms, sipped her vodka with an intentional, passable attempt at nonchalance.
‘So what happens if you spend all these winnings you owe me?’
Apprehension danced back into Em’s chest like a small animal, turning circles before settling in heavy to stay. SPIN, and as each column stopped spinning with a clang, Em’s body pounded with the suggestion. Nothing again. She avoided Charlie’s gaze, even as she felt the stranger searching her face for answers. She didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing. She felt trapped by her own incompetence. Maybe with three more beers, she would know what she wanted. Everything would feel duller and farther away, and perhaps then she could know.
From the corner of Em’s eye, Charlie settled forward, her shoulders hunched and her head cocked slightly to the side. She spun the skinny cocktail straw in her vodka. Em wondered for the first time how old she was, how drunk she was, how long she’d been sitting at this machine, waiting for something like this. If Charlie had done this before, and it seemed like she had, Em wondered why she hadn’t waited for another beer, or insisted on vodka for them both.
‘You got some ideas?’
She wanted more time to think. She’d considered this situation before, but everything was different than what she’d imagined. She wondered why no one had yet sat at the third machine aside her, even when her machine had lit up bright and spun widely with FREE GAMES. When her grandparents played, that drew onlookers, hoping to draft off some of your luck. Other than the waitress, there had been no one. Em avoided Charlie’s stare, glad for the flashing machine in front of her. She SPUN – two cherries, a seven, an orange, a bar. She wanted to leave the casino, walk the entire length of the boardwalk twice, and call a friend. Maybe then.
‘I’ve got a hotel room upstairs, if you want.’
Em was surprised by the sudden, naked suggestion, as if Charlie had grabbed her by the waist and pointed toward the exit, for all the elderly to see. Her head swiveled back to Charlie, finally. The older stranger still spun her cocktail straw, her shoulders collapsed and rounded like a skier on a steep slope, in preparation for something. Her blue sweater pilled at the collar. She met Em’s eyes in nearly a squint, patiently waiting for an answer.
Em had only had sex with three people in her life, and that was if she was being fast and loose with the definition. She had blown her high school boyfriend in the back of the school auditorium, everything about his penis seeming fair less impressive than expected. A year and a half later, sex with the first girl, the one against whom everything else was measured. And then, six months ago, her first one-night stand with a girl she met at a dorm party, disappointing in itself, but thrilling in story form. She had walked home from the other girl’s dorm at three in the morning, Manhattan all lit up and bustling despite the hour, and every step felt like a revelation. She was young and queer in New York, and she could be wanted. It could be easy.
She tried to imagine sex with Charlie, even as the silence after her question grew too long. She imagined a quiet ‘yes,’ and then an awkward elevator ride up to a sad hotel room that smelled like cigarettes. Small bottles of liquor from the minibar, maybe a joint if Charlie was the type and Em was lucky. Or maybe Charlie would skip that stuff, tell her to remove her clothes the minute she entered the room. It almost didn’t matter; every path forward ended in her sneaking back to her grandparents’ hotel room in the early morning hours. She would smell like sex, and she would try to hide it until they dispatched her to a bus, back to the city.
‘I should get back upstairs – my grandparents will be waiting for me.’ She knew it was cruel, and so Em tried to look Charlie in the eye as she said it. There had never been another option. The baldness of it all was unforgivable.
Charlie sat up, steeled, and returned to her machine. Her face did not fall so much as set, no resignation or disappointment visible at all. If she felt humiliated, Em would never know. She said nothing in response, pressing buttons on her slots. Coins clattered.
Em pressed CASH OUT, and the slot machine spit out a paper slip. $40.55. In the world of electronic slots, this was a killing – she’d doubled her money. Em drained the remainder of her beer in one swig, left it next to the machine. She left the paper slip on the shelf as well, pushing it closer to Charlie.
‘Your finder’s fee,’ Em said, and she looked up. Her face was hard.
‘I don’t need your fucking pity money.’ She turned back to her machine, pressing SPIN with a force that echoed in the set of her jaw. Em turned to go, leaving the slip on the shelf. Charlie ignored her.
As she neared the exit of the casino, Em turned around. She could still see the hot slot machine, its buttons still flashing and beckoning. No one sat at it yet. Charlie was gone, slipping out some other way amongst the machines and cashiers and elderly. The cash-out slip remained on the shelf, along with the empty beer bottle and the half-empty glass of vodka and ice. Em went and retrieved the slip, the shame and the desire and the smell of the abandoned vodka cementing into nausea and an inescapable need to be anywhere else. She made for the exit without cashing the slip.
It was after ten as Em exited the elevator and keyed into her grandparents’ hotel room. They breathed heavily, like old people always seem to, in the light bleed from the hallway lamp. She felt for the bathroom door and slipped inside. She shut the door and turned on the light. Her skin was yellow in the fluorescent light, the bags under her eyes deep and blue and lined. She turned from the mirror to the white toilet. Em dropped the cash-out slip into the bowl and flushed. She watched as the white paper spun and broke apart in the water and disappeared from view. She crawled into the bathtub, hugging her sides. She waited for the ache to grow quiet.
TAYLOR CLARKE is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter @taylormclarke
Caitlyn settles in the space she has made for watching, nestled down deep by the trunk of the rowan. Over time, she has worn her own path to the house, through the ferns. Tonight the woman and the man are at home. They are eating in the dining room, placed opposite each other at the table, the window lit like the windows of the pretend, plaster buildings in the folk museum. From this distance, their movements remind her of the motion of the museum’s mechanical dolls, leaning forward or back, their arms raising with a glass or loaded fork. Their mouths open and close, telling nothing. All the time she watches, her air pistol rests snug against her back pocket, sitting in the holster she made for herself in sewing class. It hangs from her belt under her coat and allows her to feel like a cow girl.
Since the time last year when she first found the place, when the police were called out, she has been visiting the house in secret, making her own route that loops down into the valley and up again instead of using the road. That first time, she’d been too obvious, she’d settled herself in the barn where the owls live. To hold a baby owl is like clutching a goblin – she would like to do it again. But the barn doors are shut fast now with a fist of a padlock and a gleaming chain, especially to keep her out.
What they’ve not done, though, is padlock the house. The back door has only one deadlatch cylinder lock and the key for that is kept under a stone frog on the third step.
Caitlyn has taken to visiting the house when they are out, letting herself in, pretending it is her own home, that she lives there by herself and never has to go back anywhere else. In the bedroom, she likes to put on the woman’s lipstick, wild pink colours that make the inky patches under her eyes stand out darker. In the kitchen, there is always an open bottle of something sweet, port or sherry or orange liqueur, and she likes to pour herself a generous measure into a coffee cup. She’ll sip her drink slowly, striding about the hyacinth-scented living room, running her fingers over the furniture. Licking the stickiness from her lips. Sashaying. When she has finished drinking, she always rinses the mug out with lemon liquid and leaves it back on the dish rack, untouched.
Tonight, the couple are in so there is no visiting the house. The wind is up and she is cold already, crouched by the rowan tree. She may pick up tics and have to pluck them out later, obese little full-stops clinging to her ankles and midriff. But the rain has stayed off. A white owl swoops and flies into the barn through an opening near the roof. She pulls out her air gun and dusts it with the sleeve of her coat.
Readjusting her position in the ferns, she takes aim at the window of the dining room, first at one bright face, then at the other. She imagines that if she assassinates one of them, gets a good clean shot to the forehead, she will take their place. The house will be hers, and so will the bulky car, and the shining bottles of nectar-drinks, and the barn where the owls live. She will never have to go back and the oil-coloured bruises on her thighs and biceps will vanish permanently, exchanged for clear, unblotted skin.
She stands up, exposed, and straightens her arms out in front of her, both hands clasping the gun, posing like a hit man in a film. The faces in the window turn towards her.
There is a second where all gazes meet and then without naming her intention to herself, she pulls the trigger. Her eyes squeeze shut at the same moment and there is a bang and a scream and the sound of cracking glass.
She opens her eyes and finds a white spiderweb of lines has appeared in the middle of the lit window and the two faces are still there looking at her. She’d thought the pane would shatter and fall like sleet but she has not broken through the glass at all, the faces behind it are still intact.
They stare at her for a moment and then they are moving from the dining room, the hall light is on, and then the back door is open and she can hear the woman shouting, ‘You witch, you little witch.’
She runs down through the ferns, into the slope of the valley. She moves blindly, trusting the ground not to break her ankles. She thunders into the woods, evening-birds flapping out of her way. She keeps running, her heart and her feet beating at the same pace. The wind has become wilder, the trees hiss and shake. As she gets deeper into the woods, she begins to grin and she keeps going and she knows for sure that the woman is right, she is a witch, and she is making the trees bend and snap to her own will. The woods bow and tremble to her power. She must be a witch; she has been all along.
ROSE MCDONAGH has had work published by BBC Wildlife Magazine, Gutter, SmokeLong Quarterly, Labyrinth, Fairfield Review, Mslexia, the Guardian online, The Eildon Tree, Brittle Star and New Writing Scotland. She read at Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2017 as part of their Story Shop programme. Her literary agent is Sarah Williams at Sophie Hicks Agency. She is on twitter @rose_mcdonagh
It wasn’t squeamishness on my part. I was well-used to the idea that my father now slept with women who weren’t my mother. But to his credit he had always kept his new single life safely to himself, and my memories of him as a sexless, inconsequential loner were allowed to survive mostly intact. So when a strange female voice called me from his house, the feeling I had was more of a gentle fracturing, a crack spreading across the polished pane of my immunity.
I was at a party my friend Altaf had thrown against the will of his girlfriend Gemma, who had just published a chapbook of poems with a local small press. We were on their tiny roof garden, facing west over London. A summer evening with music. I had to strain to hear the call.
‘This is Richard?’
‘You’re Richard.’ Her voice was firm, rehearsed. ‘My name’s Lena. Do you know who I am?’ I heard the ghost of an accent – Scandinavian? German? – in the upswing at the end of her name. Len-ah.
I told her I didn’t know anyone called Lena.
‘Well, I’m a friend of your father’s and I’m very worried about him,’ she said. ‘He and I live together, do you understand? We live together, but he hasn’t been here, back to the house, for more than a week, Richard. I want to ask you if you’ve heard from him.’
I was lying in a deckchair under a pergola strung with pink fairy lights that muted the glow of the city beyond the roof. The sky was a bright pale orange and the sad little squares of light from still-active offices made the skyscrapers, in silhouette, look like bombed-out ruins that the sun shone through. I didn’t speak.
‘I’m sorry, Richard,’ she said, her voice losing its composure slightly. ‘I know I’m calling you out of nowhere and we’ve never spoken before and you think there’s not a reason to speak to me now, but I’d say this is urgent. Your dad – helps me – in lots of ways; I need him here. Please.’
‘He was down here about a week ago,’ I said. ‘I haven’t heard from him since.’
I was surprised at how easily she’d gotten me to give this information out, so I overcompensated by hanging up before she could ask me anything else. For a few seconds I felt guilty, which made me indignant. The sun was now all the way down.
A girl from the publisher – a friend of Gemma’s, who’d given me something chalky and yellow to swallow earlier in the night – appeared proffering beer.
‘And how are you feeling?’ she asked.
‘I’m okay. Weird phone call just now’
‘I guess my dad’s girlfriend? Or the woman he lives with anyway. She says he’s disappeared.’
The girl swallowed the rest of her drink and pulled me out of the chair onto an empty part of the roof that had – by mutual, silent consensus – become a dance floor.
‘Okay, Rich, here’s what we’ll do,’ she said. ‘I promise we’ll talk about that properly tomorrow. And now you promise not to think about it anymore tonight. It’s a party and I want everyone to have a good time.’ She squeezed my hand and kissed me hard on my cheek, close to the eye. Tomorrow. We started dancing.
‘My name’s Cate by the way.’
I did stop thinking about it. I stopped thinking about anything and danced. The pink lights were floating down from the bare rafters like moths. The fluorescent squares of the office windows were stacking up in patterns in my head. The whole city was calmly fading to white.
I had told Lena the truth; my father had, to my astonishment, been in town a week earlier.
He had an exile’s hatred of London, and hated every other English city for living in its shade. In the five years since I’d moved down he’d visited just once for a hot and noisy weekend that had ended with us rushing him to the station a full three hours before his train was due.
His most recent visit had been different. He’d called me from a payphone in King’s Cross station (he hated mobiles too) and invited me to join him at a pub he remembered nearby. When I got there, he was sitting by the window, looking very bald in a rhombus of slanting sunlight. We embraced.
‘God, this place is different. They used to pass round a collection tin for the IRA in here,’ he said happily. Then, turning his intense smile on me, he asked how long it had been since we’d seen each other face-to-face.
‘I can’t remember,’ I said. It had been eighteen and a half months. I’d schlepped out to his house on Boxing Day to give him a bottle of scotch and we’d eaten frozen pizzas in front of the TV.
‘Long enough anyway,’ he said. ‘And this is going to have to be a short visit – another train to catch. Let’s have some lunch.’
‘Well, okay, but–’
‘I know, I know,’ he said. When he stopped smiling, his features slid measurably down his face. ‘I’m seeing an old friend, down on the south coast, all very last minute. I didn’t have time to call you. Look, I didn’t even pack anything.’
He waited for me to glance under the table to confirm the absence of a bag.
‘Now,’ he said, getting up, ‘we’ve got some sandwiches already ordered and on their way, I’ll get a round in and it’ll be a nice time.’
The table was strewn with the coffee-stained wreckage of a weekend newspaper and a small fan of train tickets, which I picked up and started to shuffle through. He’d worked his way down the country on slow trains with weird changes, towns I’d never heard of. The last ticket, however, went direct from London to Penzance and the train left in half an hour.
‘You can have the rest of that paper,’ he said, setting down two headless pints.
‘Dad you’ve got to go, look at the time.’
‘And you’re going to Penzance? That’s, what, a five-hour journey?’
‘Five and a half,’ he said proudly, scooping the tickets into his pocket. ‘I suppose we’ll have to do this better next time, won’t we? But look, you get two chicken clubs and two drinks, and–,’ fishing in his pocket, ‘–twenty quid from your dear old dad.’
He hugged me through my protests, and then he was gone. The food, when it arrived, was terrible.
Cate, who had been snorting into her coffee during my story, now put her cup on the floor and wrapped herself around me again. It was too hot for sheets or clothes and our skin stuck together eagerly wherever we touched. The room was sun-bleached and salty, like an empty beach.
‘This is nice,’ she said. The inside of her thigh was still damp and slippery where it crossed my hip and I started to pull gently on her calf until she smiled and slid on top of me. ‘Don’t you want to talk anymore?’
‘We’ve been talking,’ I said, tracing a finger down her breastbone.
‘Don’t you want to talk about what happened next?’
‘I don’t know what happened next,’ I grumbled. ‘I mean, fucking hell, I’d rather not know what’s been going on between them. And if he was in any trouble that I could help with, he could call me. He does call me now and then.’
‘Alright, well, I’ve fulfilled my promise. Now I need to talk about something else.’ She held my hands still on the tops of her buttocks. ‘That stuff I gave you last night, did you like it?’
The visuals had died down after a while but the high had been clean and sustained. I remembered dancing with Cate and Altaf and Gemma, and then Gemma reading from her book amid a palpable tide of love and appreciation from her guests. There’d been much kissing and hugging and promises to call when Cate and I had left, and when we’d arrived back at my flat we’d fucked fiercely for what felt like a long time. I’d woken up clear-headed, with a normal pulse, feeling, more than anything else, healthy.
‘So, you’d do it again?’ she said seriously. She was examining me closely, like she had the night before when she’d given me the stuff.
‘Shit,’ I said, unwittingly shrill. ‘Are you dealing?’
She rolled off me with a sigh and climbed the three steps into the bathroom.
‘No, Richard,’ she said over her shoulder, ‘I eat and pay the rent with all the money I make printing poetry books.’
She closed the door and I heard the shower spit into life.
I lay a while, staring after her and trying to think of a way to dispel the impression I’d just created of myself as prim and naïve. Maybe I could barge in there and bend her over against the wall and–
‘Towels?’ she called.
‘Big drawer under the sink.’
I lay on the bed.
When she was finished she got dressed quickly. The weekend, naturally I supposed, was a busy time for her, but before she left she told me about a friend’s band who were playing the following night. She’d kissed me on the forehead and said I should come. I pulled at her t-shirt and kissed her on the mouth. She said she had to go.
I had expected I would become a journalist after university, but had taken a job writing product overviews for a directory company. I worked from my flat and picked my own hours and if anyone asked I told them I was a freelance copywriter.
I was sitting up late, writing about industrial air compressors, when Lena called again. The comedown from the night before was setting in, and I was drafting and editing the jokes I would make about it when I saw Cate. I had a shining headache and a giddy, plunging feeling in my stomach that I thought could just have been excitement. When the phone rang I snatched it up straight away.
‘Richard, are you busy?’ Her voice was looser now, less controlled, and the accent came through more strongly. I guessed she’d been drinking.
‘Isn’t it Saturday?’
‘For another twenty minutes it’s Saturday, yes.’
I decided that whatever she said I wouldn’t hang up this time. I could handle her. If necessary I could deliver a few withering words to shut her out for good.
‘You are writing, I think. He calls you Our Southern Correspondent. Do you know what he calls me?’
She laughed. ‘Very good, but wrong. He calls me The Import, like a car.’ I heard ice cubes rattle and a little satisfied sigh. ‘This is probably not late for you, not in London. Yesterday I heard music–’
‘Yesterday you interrupted a party.’
‘And didn’t I apologise?’ she barked. ‘And didn’t I explain that it was serious? Oh, he told me you were like this, that you were a difficult boy. He keeps you here on speed dial, number four, but says you don’t talk because he can’t please you.’
I breathed. ‘He called me though. We had lunch together.’
‘Yes, I suppose you did,’ she said, her voice evaporating. I pictured the little terraced house, modest from the street but with views down the valley from the back porch, every room stuffed with books, the upright piano, the collapsing grey sofa. I saw the shape of an old woman on the hall phone, lit weakly from behind, slumping her shoulders.
‘Didn’t he leave a note? Something?’
‘It would do no good, I think.’
‘I’m going blind, Richard’ she said flatly. ‘Do you think I would call my lover’s son if I could read a note? Do you think I would even be here anymore, in this house? I’m not a girl, I would not humiliate myself like this, pressing buttons in the dark, speaking to your father’s dentist, if I could still see my hand in front of my face.’
We were silent for a while. The ice cubes rattled on the line. I read the first sentence of my article over and could make no sense of it, like a book in a dream.
‘In the summer we sit in the garden in the evenings, you know the wicker seat? We share a bottle of wine and he talks to me about the light in the valley, the sun going down. I close my eyes, and pretend I’m just closing my eyes.’
I lost count how many times I threw up that night. Whenever I tried to lie down new waves of nausea crashed over me and sent me reeling back to the bathroom. Pain strobed behind my eyes when I retched and left behind blooms of throbbing neon that swerved across my vision so violently they made me dizzy and sick all over again. The tiny window was grey with morning light when the last of the spasms passed, and the room stayed still when I closed my eyes.
I woke up on the rug by the shower at five in the afternoon. While I was asleep, my body had redistributed the sickly jabbing feeling from my stomach into the muscles across my back and arms, and I trembled with the effort of pulling myself upright and into the shower. Cold pain still radiated inside my head. I was due to meet Cate in two hours.
I decided to walk along the canal, thinking it would be cooler and quieter than the street, but it was clogged with bikes and pugs, and pedestrians were forced into a single-file trudge along the extremes of the path. I had the same desperate, exhausted feeling I used to get when my father would take me for long walks by the river behind his house. Any time spent out of the city when I was a sixteen was a cruel deprivation, but it seemed to me that his motives for dragging us out on those slow, mostly silent afternoons came from a place inside of him that was utterly alien and perverse. The outings were of a piece with his decision to move out of the family home, to leave teaching for a job in a garden centre, to whitewash himself out of his own life.
Eventually the path broadened into the entrance to a park, and I hurried through whorls of barbeque smoke to the pub. Moving from the street into the dark of the barroom, I felt my pupils ratcheting open painfully.
She was standing with a man who carried a guitar case high on his back. They were in the middle of the bar crush, but looked perfectly insulated from it. She was holding his forearm and looking intently at him. I watched her lips form, unmistakably, the words ‘I promise’.
Eventually she broke away and began a complicated circuit of the room, speaking first to a tattooed girl lugging drums onto the little stage, then to a group of older men who sat tightly around a table full of empty glasses, then on again. She gave everyone she talked to an immense hug.
‘Cate,’ I called as she was passing my end of the bar.
She spun to face me and planted her feet squarely, with false gravitas. ‘Richard.’
I took a step towards her but she didn’t move, and I realised then that there was no going near her anymore. I thought of myself in bed the previous morning, grasping after her and pulling her down to me like a drowning man.
‘Hi, Cate,’ I said. ‘Uh, are you – selling?’
We went out into the garden and she lit cigarettes for appearances. Then she fished a tiny baggy out of her sock and slid it into my hand.
‘That’s thirty,’ she said, and I handed the money over without saying anything. I wanted to tell her that the stuff was poison, that she was going to end up killing someone.
‘What should I call this?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. They bring it in from Europe somewhere, so it’s got this weird name,’ she said. ‘They’ll probably just make something up, something sparkly, y’know –’ she held up a fist and flicked her fingers out a few times to simulate a pulse of light ‘– that’s what everyone says.’
‘You’ve not tried it?’
‘What? No, I’m not a fucking idiot.’ She stood up and smudged out her cigarette. She was looking back into the pub. The band was tuning up.
‘She called again,’ I said. ‘Lena. She called last night when I was working.’
‘The woman, the one who called me.’
‘The woman who called you called you? Well, that’s hard to argue with.’ She started across the garden. ‘Call Gemma if you want any more, she’ll pass it on.’
Back in the park the sunset was so advanced that it was hard to find a spot that wasn’t smothered in the elongated shade of the trees. The last of the picnickers were breaking camp, balancing their rubbish on the overflowing bins. It was Sunday night after all; the edge of the coming week was there among the shadows.
But not for me. I sat on a log by the boating lake and slid open the baggy and shook its contents out onto my tongue.
The sky in the water was wide and naked and very pink.
I called my father’s house. The voice on the line sounded sleepy.
‘Close your eyes,’ I said. ‘I’m going to tell you what I can see.’
RICHARD WOOLLEY was born in 1985 and grew up in Doncaster. He lives in London with his children and works as a legal journalist. He has previously published one very short story online at The Pygmy Giant.
Rollie showed up to class late. He slid into his chair, thizzing. He’d been thizzing every day for a week. He started tapping his nails on the desk. He yanked at the purple Mardi Gras beads dangling from his neck. He scratched his thin, wispy goatee. Acne scars marked the side of his face, and he looked completely strung out. But give the guy a break. You would look that way too if you had been on a pill for seven straight days.
Up in the front of the class, Mrs. Christopher was talking to him, asking where he’d been. I didn’t know where he’d been, but I knew that it didn’t matter. Wherever he was coming from, he wasn’t going to say.
‘Rollie! I’m talking to you!’
He finally glanced up. ‘Sorry, Mrs. C. I overslept.’ He grinned like a Cheshire cat, which is to say he grinned and bared his teeth with slightly psychotic wildness. Mrs. Christopher must have felt his look too, because she dropped the subject and continued teaching about aequus, alter, ago, and other Latin derivatives.
Rollie ripped out a piece of paper from his journal and huddled over his desk. He started drawing, scraping away with his pencil. I leaned in to look at what he was doing, then felt his right eye rotating toward the back of his skull, watching me watch him. I shifted and turned away.
Tammy Winston sat three rows in front of me. I was fine staring at her. Even from the back, her hair has serious sheen. Even from the back, she’s a sight.
‘Look,’ Rollie said.
He slid his drawing onto my desk. It was a stick figure lady sucking off a stick figure man with an enormous cock. The lady had two large circles for boobs and a hairy vagina. It said ‘MRS. CHRISTOPHER’ across the top.
I laughed because I knew I was supposed to, and handed him the drawing back. Mrs. Christopher saw this transaction. Sometimes, I guess, I’m pretty indiscreet.
‘If you’re sharing notes, Rollie, share them with the class,’ she said, and marched over, sticking out her hand. For a moment I thought Rollie looked scared, but maybe that’s just because I was scared for him. Rollie popped the paper in his mouth like a pill. He chewed it down, making loud throaty sounds. When he finished swallowing, he showed his empty palms.
I went to a party with my girlfriend, Maria, that Friday. I dropped by Rollie’s house to purchase an eighth before I picked her up. His mom was around, so he had me come through the alley. When I got into his room, there was a girl lying asleep in his bed. She was a younger girl, and I recognized her from a couple of Westside parties. She was always falling over drunk, always wearing black plastic frames with cut out lenses. She wasn’t wearing those now. She had the covers pulled up to her neck, and I doubted she was wearing anything.
Rollie had my eighth bagged and resting on a scale. The digitized device read 3.9 grams. The homie hook-up, he said, although I knew that the scale had probably been tampered with, and he was serving me a scant eighth. Beside him was a large glass bong packed with a mole and he passed it to me. I immediately thought of Maria, thought of the bitching I’d receive when I picked her up with bloodshot eyes, thought that she wasn’t wrong when she said it was weird to spend an evening in the shadows of a party, stupefied, hood up, arms folded across my chest.
I shook my head. ‘I’m good.’
‘For real? You’re eyeing it though.’
People like Rollie are out there getting it. You and I, we dream of doing lawless things, but they actually exist in a universe with no boundaries. It’s hard not to appreciate their untamed authenticity. It’s hard to tell them no, and turn into an actor in their eyes.
I shrugged. He laughed and punched me on the arm, a collision of bone against bone that was certain to leave a bruise.
The bowl burned bright and layers of smoke filled the glass, changing from milky to yellow to brown. I cleared the bong and exhaled a cloud. My head unscrewed like a bottle top. My body fizzed and collapsed into something stale. For fifteen minutes I lay motionless, burping up smoke lodged at the base of my lungs. Rollie watched me, cackling. I stared at his television screen, set on the NBA 2K homepage, listening to a song that repeated on a loop.
Maria was as pissed as always when I picked her up, and we sat outside her mom’s apartment, arguing in my dad’s car, while she kept threatening to break up. We must have sat there for nearly an hour, going nowhere, before we finally agreed to drive to the party. Eventually, I guess, the sheer exhaustion of fighting defeated us both.
The party was at her friend’s house, and on the drive I let her jockey the radio. In our argument, I had said some hurtful things about the company she kept. I was always saying hurtful things, and she was always telling me that it might do us both good to take time apart. I liked to tell her that she was talking crazy, and if she really loved me, it wouldn’t matter if we went the whole night without communicating. But she kept saying something between us had gone missing, and it sounded like regaining this something required rules and sacrifice. Still, Maria was beautiful, and I knew I had it incredibly good. She could’ve been with whomever she wanted, and I suppose she picked me because I had a future and a good family. My parents had immediately welcomed her with open arms. She told me we reminded her of the way a real family should be. In her house, things weren’t so good. Her mother wouldn’t touch her. Her father lived in an Ashram abroad.
The plastered voices came roaring at us two turns in the road before we pulled up to the Hollywood Hills home. I parked behind a line of cars on an undivided windy street and squeezed Maria’s hand. I truly did care for her, and knew I would never do something to fuck us up. Not for another six months anyway. Not until April, when Maria would go to visit friends in New York, and I would fuck Samantha Adler on a tile-bathroom floor, drunk, and without a condom.
When we entered the party, I tried to make nice with Maria’s friends, but found this taxing. They were drunk and loud. They wore long skirts, and bangles, and danced around barefoot. They blasted Miike Snow and chain-smoked Turkish Silvers. They’d been bouncing between social happenings since they were fourteen, and half of them were recovering coke addicts. Worst of all, I knew that when she was with them, Maria became one of their kind. There was a side of Maria I didn’t know, and this threatened me. Her friends shared a history with Maria that I couldn’t touch.
I walked to the kitchen to pour myself a drink. Most nights I visited a liquor store that didn’t card and bought a pint of vodka to set me right. With my sense of smell shot and all, things don’t taste so bad, and I never need a chase. But after the fight with Maria, there hadn’t been time to make a pit stop.
I half-filled a plastic cup with Smirnoff, and watched the host, Chloe, dance up against a male friend. Chloe was dick-hungry, according to some guys I knew. Maria corroborated this rumor by fearing that Chloe’d one day try to fuck me. I swore to Maria I wouldn’t. I even expressed my disgust at the thought. Of course, from that point on, I had begun to observe Chloe with a small spark of interest. Sometimes, I thought, we shared intoxicated secrets with our glances.
I started to force the alcohol down, thinking that if I got a little cross-faded later, I’d zone in and still be okay to drive.
Powerful hands clasped down on my shoulders from behind. I sloshed my drink on my shirt and spun around. Rollie stood there sniggering, a high-pitched hee-hee-hee, and slithered a hand from his waist into the vacuum of space between us.
‘Oh, whassup?’ he said.
I met his hanging hand with my own. ‘What’re you doing here?’
‘My boy Hector’s fucking some chick and she told us to come.’
I followed his eyes across the room. A couple of guys with beanies and gauge-earrings leaned over and whispered into female ears. I didn’t know any of them.
‘Wanna burn one?’ I said.
‘Sure. I’ll match.’
We stood out back on a patch of earth that sloped down a hill into the canyon. The smog had dulled the stars, so they looked kind of burned out and sleepy. I felt a sudden sense of shame because my observations seemed maudlin. I racked my brain for something entertaining to say. Rollie must have felt the strain too, because he nudged me, and started performing smoking tricks to fill the dried-up space.
His new girl, the one with the plastic glasses and hair the color of oil, approached us. She reached up and scratched Rollie’s head.
‘Can I have a hit?’
‘You got weed to throw down on the next spliff?’ Rollie said.
She batted her eyes at Rollie, then turned to smile at me. ‘Not with me.’
‘Then fuck off.’
I felt the violence in Rollie’s voice chase her into the house. He turned away and spat on the ground, sweeping October coldness into our human cluster. ‘Was she serious?’
When I got back inside with Rollie, I found Maria looking for me.
‘You promised me you’d be social,’ she said.
‘Relax,’ I said. ‘I can still be social.’
‘You’re blitzed. I hate it when you smoke with him.’
‘I’m not blitzed. I’m just a little faded.’
‘I hate him.’
‘He’s a character.’
‘I hate him.’
‘C’mon. Let’s go see your friends.’
We rejoined the party, and I silently suffered, cursing the unfamiliar male cling-alongs who shot me looks I didn’t like and, I assumed, masturbated with Maria in mind. At some point, Chloe came out of a back hallway screaming that some of her mother’s jewelry was missing. One of Chloe’s male friends cut the music and stood on a table. He yelled at everyone and the exits were blocked. People were made to line up. The girls opened their bags, the boys emptied their pockets. The search party came up with nothing and things soured fast. We said our goodbyes and left.
On the drive home I talked dirty to Maria, confident that I had enough substances in my system for a prolonged fuck. I told her how hard I was, that I wanted to hold her tits and do her from behind, that I wanted to have her in her schoolgirl outfit on the kitchen counter. When we got back to her Mom’s and slipped into bed, she told me she was too tired to give it a go. I tried to guide her body into it, but she slapped my hand away.
‘What’s wrong?’ I said.
‘I don’t like your friends.’
I snorted. ‘Feeling’s mutual.’
‘You hang out with assholes.’
‘You hang out with frauds.’
‘Rollie’s a rapist.’
‘He rapes girls.’
I grabbed her arm. ‘You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.’
She pulled her limb back but I held on.
‘Let go of me!’ I released my grip and she massaged her wing. ‘I’m going to have a bruise,’ she said. Then she rolled over. ‘You’re all so violent.’
‘This is bullshit,’ I said, and went to go sleep on the couch.
That night I dreamt Rollie and I were running away from faceless men. We were on a conveyer belt, thousands of feet above the ground, and I was certain if our pursuers caught us we’d be thrown to our death. I woke and thought about the time I got jumped. I was fifteen, and two out of towners, both fucked up and looking to pick a fight, attacked me on the street. They sucker punched me in the eye and the stomach, and when I went down, one of them brought their heel onto my face. They shattered my nose along with most of the olfactory nerves in my brain, and my sense of smell hasn’t ever been the same.
While I was in the hospital, Rollie somehow found out who these kids were, and where they were staying. He rounded up a crew and advanced on the destination, clomping two bricks together. He stood outside of the house, and shouted threats. One of the bricks went through the window, but no one came out. Word was, the cocksuckers had caught wind of the mob and split town.
In the morning, Maria and I both apologized for the previous night, and chalked our antics up to an overflow of alcohol. Over a cigarette on the balcony, I asked Maria to explain her accusation. She told me that a ways back, before we dated, Rollie and Chloe had briefly hooked up. One night, when they were both blasted, Rollie fucked Chloe. She was too drunk to resist, but also too drunk to consent, and she lay there silently crying, while he had a go with her. I thought about a younger Chloe, too bombed to turn her head, lying below Rollie’s naked body, filled with his unwanted D.N.A.
‘Jesus Christ,’ I said. ‘Why didn’t she report him?’
‘I don’t know. She said she didn’t want to.’
A strong breeze hit us sideways. I pulled Maria close to me and held her there.
‘What?’ she said.
‘How’s your arm feeling, love?’
She took a drag of the cigarette and let the smoke out slow. Then she showed it to me.
‘No bruise,’ she said. ‘Everything's all right.’
Luke Silver is a recent MFA graduate in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. He is a Pushcart Prize Nominee, Best Small Fictions Nominee, and Shirley Jackson Award Candidate, and his work has been featured most recently in After the Pause, The Matador Review, and BOAAT PRESS.
I watch him from behind my tablet, so he won’t notice my critical eye. Oh, who am I kidding, he wouldn’t notice anyway. He’s never noticed anything without me explicitly saying, ‘Notice this,’ and even then it usually takes at least three or four times before he realizes I mean it.
He makes two pieces of toast like he always does and slathers them with a layer of butter then a layer of strawberry jam like he always does — like his mother always did — and I bite my tongue like I always do because everyone knows a husband getting fat is more tolerable than a wife trying to tell a husband how to live.
The coffee maker dings and when he turns his head toward it I watch wisps of his messy hair shake in the sunlight coming in through the window. I used to call that his ‘morning hair’ years ago, as I tousled it and whispered how cute he was. I can remember this logically, as a fact, but not emotionally. Once he hit forty, his ‘morning hair’ became ‘all-day hair’. I brought it up once and he claimed his hair had ‘changed’, that this mess was now suddenly beyond his control, that it was in no way the result of a change in habit, a lack of regular haircuts, a discontinuation of daily brushing.
He pours his coffee and then plops a chunk of butter into it. This is a new routine, part of an effort to become healthier. Something about good fats. Apparently a lot of young people are doing it, and bodybuilders. They also eat pounds of raw vegetables and exercise hours per day, but he hasn’t picked up those habits, only the butter. Oh, and supplements. He has begun taking supplements by the handful. And demanding I only buy grass-fed beef. All in all, he’s gained what I’d estimate to be another five pounds from this health effort, and spent over five hundred dollars. The only other change I’ve noticed is his hair’s growing even faster.
He sits his mug and plate down next to me on the table, then begins opening his dozens of supplement bottles. I try to pinpoint when he became abhorrent to me. The earliest I can remember is our tenth anniversary. We hadn’t had sex for four months — the longest we’d gone in the prior ten years. I rented a hotel room and brought a twelve-pack of beer and some racy lingerie. It worked; he got in the mood. Unfortunately, the drunker he became, the less turned on I felt — his breath stunk of the beer and he pawed at me roughly, misinterpreting my hesitations as playing hard to get, a planned part of the sexy night I had staged.
He swallows his first supplement of the day, complete with a vocal sound that actually sounds like the word ‘gulp’. He’s placed a second plate on the table, covered with pills. He has two mugs of butter coffee, as one mug will not provide enough liquid to wash down the pills. I wonder how much of this is my fault. Don’t other wives do things like schedule their husbands’ haircuts, remind them to groom better? Should I have said something right away, the night in the hotel? ‘Slow down,’ or ‘More foreplay, please,’ or ‘Let’s go brush our teeth.’ Am I simply being too hard on him? My hair is going gray and I don’t dye it; there are wrinkles around my eyes.
He swallows the last pill then moves his palms together, as if wiping them off, looks at me, and says the first words of our Sunday: ‘All done with that.’
JAY VERA SUMMER is a Chicagoan living in Florida. She writes fiction and creative nonfiction, and co-founded weirderary, an online literary magazine, and First Draft, a monthly live literary event in Tampa. Her writing has been published in marieclaire.com, Proximity, LimeHawk, theEEEL, and Chicago Literati.
When Gary went into the bedroom Kate was sitting with her ear pressed against the bottom of a tumbler. The open top of the tumbler was pressed against the party wall.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
‘It’s going to start,’ she said.
‘What’s going to start?’
‘The people next door and their damn noise, that’s what’s going to start.’
‘I can’t hear anything.’
‘Then shut up and listen.’
‘Why would I want to listen? We’ve got noisy neighbours. Lots of people have noisy neighbours,” he said.
‘This is how it starts. This is how it starts every time,’ Kate said.
Gary put ear plugs in as he got into bed and asked, “How? How does it start every time?’
It starts with a curse. Or the chink of a glass. Or the hiss of a can being opened. Or a laugh. Or a guffaw. Always there are guffaws. A man shouts, another shout, another man, a scream. A woman’s voice. Slowly it rises, all the time it rises. Everything now, every assertion, every reprimand, every accusation, every riposte is clearly heard, but none of it is intelligible, none of it can be understood or translated because the words are deranged and have taken on new intonations and adopted new meanings. It will not end until exhaustion or the grey light of dawn is encountered. Then it will fade; it will slip into a tense and expectant slumber for a short time before some encroachment intrudes upon the fragile peace to stir the ashes of anger and recrimination or madness and only when this latest episode ends in an outrage of violent abuse or physical injury will a dangerous, fearful silence descend and she will sink into a dark and fitful sleep until she hears again the first curse against God, against humanity, against the world.
Kate got into bed and lay awake listening to the murmur of voices through the party wall.
‘It’s always the same, it’s like a diabolic formula,’ she whispered.
‘Stop listening, put your ear plugs in and go to sleep,’ Gary said.
Kate put her ear plugs in, but as she lay there in the dark she could feel the different timbres of sound vibrate through the bricks and plaster of the party wall that separated them from the house next door.
She woke at five thirty. She had slept almost four hours. She took out her earplugs and listened and heard the low listless drone of voices occasionally punctuated by a cough or a low grumbling groan. And then she heard a woman’s cry of passion. She lay on her back listening for a while and then put her earplugs back in and turned on her side and tried to sleep but couldn’t.
Gary got home early from work that afternoon. Before having a shower or laying out clean clothes or making his lunch for work the next day, before doing anything else, he put a tumbler to his ear and pressed it against the party wall and, concentrating hard, listened. He removed the tumbler from the wall several times before putting it back and listening again, until he thought he was sure he could hear Kate amongst the welter of voices on the other side of the party wall.
JAMES COFFEY is a retired Civil Servant who lives in Coventry, England.
It was six o’clock in the evening and the kids were at her mom’s for a sleepover. The night was open wide, spread-eagled before her; she and Jimmy could stay up as late as they dared. Laura had her head in the fridge, looking for the tonic water. She found the plastic bottle in the back, behind the pickles. It was flat, but she made do. She splashed some into a glass, cut it with equal parts gin and ice, threw in a slice of lemon.
She heard Jimmy pounding up the stairs. He leaned in through the door frame and held up a Ziploc bag. ‘Look what I found,’ he said. Jimmy was still wearing his old Megadeth t-shirt which was nearly translucent with age.
‘I wish you wouldn’t wear that shirt,’ said Laura. ‘I can seriously see your nipples right now.’
‘You don’t like my nipples?’ he asked. ‘My nipples offend you?’
‘No, Jimmy. I love your nipples.’ Laura took a sip of her drink and sat down at the kitchen table. ‘Never mind. What’s in the bag?’
‘I found some pot in the basement.’ Jimmy ran a hand through his dark, sweaty curls. ‘In that box with the passports and the kids’ birth certificates. It’s from Kim and Caleb’s wedding – you remember, right? We never got a chance to smoke it.’ He took the shrivelled green buds out of the bag and examined them in the late-afternoon sunlight.
Laura finished her drink and stood up to make another one. ‘Are you sure it’s still good? Isn’t that, like, four, five months old?’
Jimmy shrugged. ‘It’s not ideal, but it’s what we’ve got. I don’t have a lot of potheads on my contact list right now, so it’s this or nothing.’
‘I’m not sure that’s better than nothing. It looks like a shrivelled little turd, doesn’t it?’ She came up behind him and leaned over his shoulder for a closer look. ‘Looks just like those little turds we found in Brady’s room the other night. Remember, when he pooped on the floor?’ Brady had taken to pulling down his pants and his Pull-Ups and hiding them in his toy bin so he could run around the house naked.
‘Yeah, poor little guy. He’s still constipated, isn’t he.’ Jim was breaking up the buds and sweeping them into a little pile on the kitchen table. ‘It’s because all he ever eats are those breadsticks. We just need to be strict with him, you know. No breadsticks until he eats some real food: some meat, some veggies. That parenting article I showed you, it’s all about being consistent with shit like this. Anyway,’ Jim stood up and kissed her hurriedly on the top of her head. ‘I’m going to 7-11 to buy papers. I’ll be right back.’
While Jimmy was gone, she turned on the shower. She used the good, smelly soap, washed her hair and shaved her legs. Steam filled the bathroom, and Laura stood for a long moment beneath the pulse of hot water with her heart and head beating in her ears. Grabbing a towel, she stumbled out of the tub and wiped the steam from the mirror with the heel of her palm. She fished out her lipstick and her black eye-liner from the bottom of the drawer. Laura laid it on thick, smudging her eyelids with her right index finger while intermittently adding some eye-shadow. She got that smoky look she used to wear back when she wore make-up.
Laura leaned against the sink and stared at her fractured reflection in the steamed-up mirror. ‘Fuck yeah, baby. Let’s get wasted.’
She came back to the kitchen ready to leave, and found Jimmy sitting in the same chair. He had an open pack of rolling papers, a dismembered cigarette, and a messy joint in front of him on the table. ‘I cut the pot, so it shouldn’t be too harsh. Come on,’ he grabbed the joint and a lighter and stepped into his old sneakers. ‘Let’s go smoke this, and we’ll go out right after.’
It was early May, and the snow had finally receded in the afternoon’s steady sunshine. They stepped around the sopping, semi-composted mass of wet leaves covering their lawn. Jimmy lit the joint while Laura walked around the yard collecting plastic toys and throwing them into the deflated kiddie pool. He took a drag and coughed. ‘Ugh. It’s pretty rough.’
Laura took a sip of her third drink. She took the joint, inhaled, then screwed up her face, coughing and hacking. ‘That’s awful. That’s definitely bad. Just throw it away, Jim.’ But he seemed intent on getting high, even a little bit high off some stale pot. While he smoked and coughed into the chill, Laura watched the clouds move against the darkening sky.
They went back inside and Jim disappeared into their bedroom to get dressed. Laura leaned against the kitchen table and sipped her gin. Through the blinds, she could see the pale orange beginnings of sunset. She sat down and passed her glass from one hand to the other. Laura watched the colours darken to scarlet streaks, then to a bruised plum bleeding to blackness. Finally she set down her empty glass and went to look for Jim.
He was sprawled face down on the bed, still wearing his sweatpants and his Megadeth t-shirt. ‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
‘I’m sorry, baby. I have a killer headache.’ He mumbled this into the pillows without opening his eyes. ‘I just need to lie down for a little while.’
‘I told you not to smoke that pot. What did you think was going to happen?’
He said something unidentifiable, and Laura stormed out of the room, paced up and down the hallway twice, then burst back inside. ‘This is bullshit, Jim. We were supposed to go out tonight. We never do this. I’ve been waiting all week. All month, actually.’
He rolled over and leaned on one elbow, squinting against the hallway light coming in through the open door. ‘I’m sorry. I wanted to go out tonight too, sweetie. I just can’t. I feel like my head’s being ripped in half right now.’
‘Well, I still want to go,’ she said, but she couldn’t quite hold on to her anger. Jim looked pale, and his eyes were red and watery. But she had a dress on, and lacy underwear. Her face felt heavy with make-up. She was three drinks in.
‘You should go. Really. Just give me a call later.’ He rolled back over and buried his face into a pillow.
Laura left her husband at home and walked into the biting cold. She was too drunk to drive, so she walked towards the train station, scrolling through the contact list in her cell phone as her feet carried her forward. It was nearly dark now, and the air had a fresh chill to it that she could feel in the prickling of her bare arms. She scrolled past the names of people who had moved away to Toronto or Vancouver, those she’d lost touch with since the kids were born, those she’d never been close with in the first place. She was on the platform when she dialled a name.
‘Hi Jocelyne? This is Laura.’
‘How’s it going?’
‘Pretty good, I guess. Just got home from the gym.’
‘Oh yeah? Good for you. I haven’t been to the gym in ages.’ Laura was pacing the length of the platform. The neighbourhood was dead silent and she was the only one waiting for the downtown train. She could hear the swish of traffic on the other side of the highway divide and the hum of the electric lights beaming down onto the platform. ‘So, Jocelyne, do you want to get together? We could catch up, go out for a bit.’
The other girl paused before answering. ‘Yeah, ok. I’m free Tuesday night, if you want to go for coffee.’
‘Actually, I was thinking tonight. You live downtown, don’t you? I’m on my way there right now. We could meet up in half an hour.’
There was another pause. ‘I don’t know. Tonight?’ Laura sucked in the cold air and released it slowly. A headache was beginning to creep at her temples. ‘I guess we could do that.’ The other girl’s voice sounded far away, and Laura realized she had let the phone droop down below her ear.
‘Great,’ she said, adjusting it with one hand and massaging her forehead with the other. ‘That’s really great, Jocelyne. I’m looking forward to it.’
They met in a bar that Laura had gone to once, many years ago, with a guy she’d met at a Halloween party and had gone out with a few times before they’d gone their separate ways. She remembered his name – Mathew – but nothing else about him. What had he looked like? What colour were his eyes? Had he been short? Did he have a lot of body hair? She was thinking about this and sipping a gin and tonic when Jocelyne walked in and waved.
They talked about work: The photocopier was still broken. Wasn’t it weird that Jason got that promotion even though he was clearly incompetent? Olivia had her baby. It was a boy.
The bar filled up slowly with shadowy bodies that were indistinguishable in the poor lighting. Jocelyne ignored the beer she had ordered and watched Laura finish another drink.
‘You want to get food?’ Laura asked.
‘I don’t know,’ said Jocelyne. Her shoulders were bunched up and her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, her fingers scratching incessantly at the label on her beer. ‘Actually, I can’t eat bar food,’ she said. ‘I’m on a diet. I already had dinner, so I’m fine. Order something if you want, though.’
‘No, that’s ok.’ Laura’s face felt too hot, and a shapeless yearning born of gin and restlessness was beginning to form at the base of her skull. She began to stare at the flickering tea light on the wooden table. ‘We should go do something,’ she said to the tea light. ‘Let’s go do something crazy. I don’t know. Let’s go to a club and dance.’
‘I don’t like clubs,’ said Jocelyne. ‘They’re all really seedy, you know. Full of perverts. It’s getting late, anyway. I should get going.’ She shrugged.
Laura shrugged too. They paid the bill and said goodbye.
Laura walked alone down the busy downtown street. People passed her in small, laughing herds. Cars blinked past. She walked by a restaurant’s open patio where young people were laughing, their glasses clinking and their garble of conversation rising into the fresh-aired night. Laura looked up. There were four lonely stars scattered wide apart on the canvas of the night sky.
She walked for a long time, and then sat down on a bench. A few bodies bustled past. There was music playing nearby, wafting from a small cafe. It was an old French song she knew by Edith Piaf, and the singer’s melancholy voice drifted through the late evening. The streetlights reflected off the pavement in rippling shades of white. Laura swayed a little, Edith’s voice humming in her hazed-up mind. She looked at her white hands, her chewed-up fingernails. She stared hard at her hands, and then she stood up abruptly and ran, her shoes clicking on the sidewalk, and nearly collided with a group of teenaged girls who walked in a cloud of perfume. Laura wove between them and ran down the block, back towards the train station. She could see herself in the dark glass windows of the downtown shopping malls: alone, in her short dress, her hair tangled above her head like a messy halo. Her face was dark in the mirror, her smudged eyes darker. Laura saw herself, and she kept running.
She was back on the train heading home. It was almost empty. There was a tattered-looking older woman sitting across from her wearing at least four large shawls, each one layered over the other. Two Asian boys sat near the front of the train, next to a skinny girl with a backpack propped up on her knees.
A homeless man got on at the next stop. He had an knitted hat pulled over his thin hair, and he smelled strongly of something…of mint. ‘Hey, Marjorie,’ he said to the shawl woman in a raspy, slurred voice.
‘Heya, Harold. Good night?’
‘Yeah.’ He didn’t sit down, but swayed with the rocking train as it tunnelled forward. In his coat pocket Laura could see a bottle of Listerine. His hand would flutter toward it every few seconds, but never settled.
The train stopped. ‘Ok. See you around Margie,’ he said. He staggered back out through the open doors, and the train left with a lurch. Laura swayed and listened to the rush of the wind. She looked up at the woman across from her, at her small, shiny black eyes sunk deep in her soft face. The train squealed on the rails. Laura started to shake her head from side to side, side to side, as if to dislodge a demon that would not give, its little claws sunk deep in the soft tissues of her brain. ‘Oh, man,’ she whispered. She was feeling nauseous again, too drunk, too unsettled, unsteady. ‘Oh, no. No, no.’
‘Whatsa matter, dear?’ said the older woman. She sounded like a kind woman; she had that sort of voice.
‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’ said Laura. It came out harsh, like a sob, even though her eyes were dry. ‘What kind of person am I?’
‘You having a bad night?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ Laura breathed. She turned to look directly at the woman, who kept rearranging her dirty shawls. ‘I’ve got these two little kids, you know. But some days I just don’t know if I’m together enough to have kids. And maybe I don’t want to be together. Maybe I need a little piece of this, I don’t know, disarray in my life.’ Then she thought of the homeless man and his bottle of Listerine, of his raw knuckles and his wind-scarred face. ‘But not too much disarray,’ she said. ‘Not for real. It’s just all in my head, just a feeling I grasp at every now and then.’
The old woman nodded very slowly. She put a soft, fleshy hand on Laura’s knee. ‘I have four of my own,’ she said. ‘Grown now, off living their lives. I know what you mean, hon.’ In the windows, the blackness whirred by behind her, scattered with blinking lights.
Laura nodded, her whole body rocking on the plastic seat. ‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ she said. ‘I just don’t have anyone else to talk to about these things. And you’re so nice. You’re just so nice.’ She paused for a moment, staring at the windows, at her own grey reflection blinking back at her. ‘You know, I’d be all alone without them. Without Jim.’ Laura could feel the alcohol coursing through her body in quick, disorientating pulses. The whole train was stuffy and humming as it shot down the tracks. The skinny girl had gotten off. The Asian boys were talking in low tones and avoiding her gaze. ‘Why do I keep running from them?’ she asked the older woman. ‘For what? For this?’ She lifted her hands and gestured generally at the empty train, at the dirty streaks on the windows and the grey night behind them.
But the old woman wasn’t listening anymore. She had gotten off the train and Laura hadn’t even noticed.
As Laura walked home from the station, it began to snow in small, hard flakes that peppered the wet sidewalk. The front door was unlocked. She kicked off her shoes and left them in a heap next to the shoe rack. The lights were on all over the silent house. She flicked them off as she walked down the hallway past the bedrooms. The kids’ rooms were empty. The Mega Blocks were all piled into their box. The stuffed animals were still in the hamper where she’d thrown them that morning. The beds were stiffly made, the blankets tucked neatly into the sides. She brushed her teeth and made a half-hearted attempt to wash the make-up from her face, smearing dark rings around her eyes.
Laura slipped inside the warm cocoon of blankets and moulded her body against Jimmy’s. He stirred, grunted. She buried her face in his warm back, and inhaled the smell of him. She felt okay. Jimmy rolled over.
‘Hey,’ he muttered. ‘Hey, are you ok?’ he was awake, his pupils swelled large with fading dreams.
‘Yeah,’ Laura kissed him on the cheek, on the mouth. ‘I should’ve stayed home with you, Jim.’
‘Yeah?’ He scooped her against him and Laura felt herself winding down, her jittering heartbeat slowing, her mind floating away towards sleep. ‘I’m glad you’re back,’ he whispered.
As her thoughts lingered on the edge of consciousness, she heard the song again from the cold downtown street, that old-fashioned, sad song from a different time. Laura’s mind drifted, and she gave way to old fashioned dreams.
DINA LYUBER is a writer from Canada. She is currently living a nomadic lifestyle while traveling around the world. She writes short stories as well as experiential travel narratives.
The day after Irene's doctor tells her she's dying, she walks down to the Family Dollar and buys three packages of neon yard sale tags and a king-size Snickers bar.
‘You having a sale, Miss Irene?’ the cashier asks, a wad of bright green gum between her teeth. A small photo of a pigtailed girl hangs from her name tag.
‘Nope,’ Irene answers, taking her bag. On the way home she peels open the candy, chocolate liquefying in the July sun, and eats it in five huge mouthfuls. She whispers a few words of farewell to the diet she has been on for fifty-seven years.
At home, she washes her hands and spreads the colorful tags across the kitchen table. With a felt-tip pen and faintly trembling script, she begins to label and price everything she owns. Her son will appreciate her efforts when he flies in from Virginia to sell off her estate. Nothing is worth much, not to anyone else, and she smirks a little, imagining her daughter-in-law, Marjorie, fresh off the plane and picking through Irene's double-wide for antiques to hock.
Brass mantel clock: Wedding gift from Bud and Trudy Taylor, 1961, $3.
Kodak Brownie camera: Doesn't work, still cute, $1.
Wooden chess set, each piece a different farm animal: Belonged to my sister Clarice, $2.
Drawer full of cheap costume jewelry – a few sparkling brooches and strand after strand of chunky plastic beads: Help yourself, Marjorie! Sell what you don't want!
She opens a cabinet under the small kitchen island, removes a cardboard box and lifts out thirteen newspaper-wrapped dishes. She unswaddles each, slowly revealing a child's tea set, her own: Blue Willow pattern, Made in Occupied Japan printed across the bottom of each piece. Irene has watched enough Antiques Roadshow to know that this is the most expensive item she owns. She imagines Marjorie's hands unwrapping each dish, her long pink nails and Irene's mother's wedding ring.
‘Nope,’ she says.
The cashier at the Family Dollar greets her when she enters. Irene walks straight to checkout and places the box on the counter. ‘A tea set,’ she says. ‘For your little girl.’ She buys another Snickers bar and walks home. She eats it on the couch with Wheel of Fortune on the television, her feet on the coffee table, and the roomful of tags waving gently like wildflowers in the ceiling fan's breeze.
The urge hit her the instant the birds’ feet hit the dirt, the burn in her bladder that had become as familiar these last months as her swollen arches and stretched skin. ‘I gotta go,’ Jules whispered. Crouched beside her in the dirt, Rocky wiped sweat from his forehead with his fist. ‘I gotta pee.’
‘It’s just starting,’ Rocky said. He swiped his brow again and gestured toward the circle, where a colorful rooster the other men called Bruiser kicked up a cloud of dust.
The brown bird – Plato, the one Rocky put the last of their money on — didn’t look any different from the chickens Mimi and Pap had kept out back when Jules and Callie were girls; in the last years though, when Pap wasn’t really Pap anymore and the cancer ate Mimi up, there’d been nothing but stray cats wandering the property.
‘Two minutes,’ Rocky said. He looked at Jules with those brown eyes, shiny and open as saucers. ‘You can hold it two minutes, right?’
Her fingers played on the watermelon in her lap, growing more tremendous every second. She nodded. One more mine, then we’ll pack up, head home. Fifty more miles, we’ll settle down for the night. He was always counting on the next thing. ‘His own personal delusion,’ Callie would say. Behind the ramshackle farmhouse, just off the two-lane road, she was pouting in the Skylark. Well, let her be pissed. After the night Rocky’d had playing cards, they needed a win.
In the pit, the birds pecked and lunged, flew at each other with their claws. Bruiser, the bigger one, had swaths of red and blue feathers knitted through his black body; he was some special type of Alabama fighting bird, and everyone was betting on him. But not Rocky.
‘This philosophical one, he’s a ringer,’ Rocky had assured Jules an hour earlier. They were standing behind a CoGo’s where they’d stopped for her to pee. ‘Overheard those two in the cowboy boots talking about it inside. I got a feeling about this one.’ Callie snorted from where she sat on the hood of the car, and Rocky gave her the finger without turning his attention from Jules. ‘Please, baby, please?’ He planted a kiss on Jules’ belly button.
‘Kill him!’ hollered a sunburned kid in hospital scrubs. ‘Kill him!’ He was kneeling in the dirt in front of Jules, neck and ears on fire, his scalp practically pulsing from its own heat. The boy couldn’t have been much older than Callie, not yet out of high school; even so, his green uniform comforted Jules, who hadn’t seen so much as a Rite Aid since they’d left Tuscaloosa two mornings ago.
Feathers and dust and the whoops of men mingled in the air, as the life in Jules’ stomach rearranged itself. Wetness spread through the space between her legs. ‘Shit,’ she said. Across the road, a few haggard trees bent into each other. A roadside squat would be par for the course for this trip, but she didn’t welcome the opportunity to relieve herself before an audience of hooting men, and getting from here to there would probably take the length of the fight and then some. Either way, she’d have to send Callie into the suitcase to fish her out a clean pair of underwear, if there were any left. Their last load of laundry had been nearly a week ago, just across the Tennessee border, after the doctor at the free clinic in Chattanooga promised Jules her contractions weren’t the real thing.
Now here they were, sucking in the stench of chicken shit, overripe soybeans stretching out on either side of them, with no sign of the coal that had lured Rocky from Pennsylvania. Not like it mattered much at this point. He hadn’t applied for a single job in four days. ‘Coal’s dying,’ is all he said yesterday morning when Callie pointed out the sign for the No. 7 mine. He gripped the steering wheel hard till they came to a Texaco where he climbed out and talked low to an attendant with a Crimson Tide cap hiding his eyes. Then fifteen minutes later they pulled into the mostly deserted lot of a joint called The Driftwood, and Rocky emptied every pocket onto the driver’s seat, plucked out the silver and green.
‘We should’ve gone home when Kentucky was a bust,’ Callie said from the back seat once he disappeared inside.
‘We’ll set down somewhere before school starts up, don’t worry,’ Jules said.
‘Fuck school. I’m sick of driving around all summer with this loser.’
Jules thrummed her belly. From the rearview dangled her ’13 tassel; Rocky’d been the picture of excitement the day they graduated. Not because of the ceremony, which he skipped, but because it was his first shift in Emerald No. 1. Now, three years later, Emerald was closed down, just like the mine where Pap loaded coal for thirty-seven years, till he started forgetting his hard hat and ear muffs, asking the foreman when lunch was, over and over again.
‘Go for the throat!’ shouted a man in red cowboy boots. He edged toward the roosters up on tiptoes, like a dancer. The colorful one was limping, and the other one, Plato, leapt on him with a giant ‘squawk!’ Everything went quiet for a moment.
‘Oh shit!’ said Rocky.
‘Oh shit,’ said Jules.
She shifted, the dirt beneath her suddenly wet. ‘Oh shit, oh shit!’ Rocky bounced into the air. ‘I did it, Jules!’ He pointed toward the pit. ‘I did it for my girls!’
That had been her one test: she’d fibbed to Rocky about the baby’s sex. When he shook his head, she turned away so he wouldn’t see her eyes cloud. But then he said, ‘Coulda put money on that. You, Callie. Now this one. Can’t get away from you goofy birds,’ and rubbed her little belly the way he might muss the hair of a kid brother, if he’d had one. And in that moment Jules understood that though their road would be full of potholes, they would ride it together, their little son between them.
Jules heaved herself to her feet. A dozen paces away, Rocky was gesticulating at a small, muscled man with a black bandana knotted around his hair.
‘And I’m telling you I got four hundred coming,’ Rocky said.
‘Rocky, it’s time.’
‘You think I’m stupid?’ said black bandana.
‘The baby’s coming.’
‘I know, babe. Just a minute—’
‘I’m not gonna use certain language on account of your lady,’ black bandana said, ‘but there’s no way you won with that bird straight legit.’
‘What? Like I gave him some fucking chicken potion?’ Rocky moved his hands in loops like a magician.
‘I’m saying you had some kind of insider information is what I’m saying.’
‘For real.’ Jules glided her belly toward Rocky’s frantic fingers. ‘It’s time.’
He stopped choreographing the air and stepped back. ‘Wait. It’s what? That doctor said two more weeks? Just one more minute, baby.’
But Jules knew what she knew. She needed to get off this farm, away from these strange birds and rabid men. By the chicken coop, the sunburned kid was spitting tobacco, counting his money. ‘The hospital,’ Jules said, nearly out of breath when she reached him. ‘Where’s it at?’
‘My water broke. My baby’s coming. Isn’t there a hospital?’
The boy started running. After about thirty feet, he turned around and called, ‘Yeah!’ and came back to her. ‘Yeah, come on, my truck’s right here.’ He helped Jules over the pebbly drive and into the passenger seat of an old pick-up. All the while, behind her, Jules could hear the angry squawk of Rocky and the man in the black bandana.
‘My sister.’ Jules pointed ahead of them, down the road to the Skylark, its door hanging open, Callie’s tan legs sticking out into the grass. ‘I need my sister.’
‘It’s a good forty minutes,’ the kid said, steering the truck off the shoulder. ‘But I’ve done it in thirty.’
Soon the three of them were headed west on Rt. 82 toward St. Mary’s in Pickens. Callie ran through the breathing exercises from the doctor in Tennessee; the kid clutched the wheel with fiery hands, eyes never leaving the road. ‘Where the hell’s Rocky?’ Callie finally asked. She turned right then left, as if she’d just missed him.
Jules reached up to the rearview. Behind them, the weak light of some anonymous headlights poured into the growing dusk. Something in her back gripped and twisted, like a fist, and Jules nodded, just barely, at the mirror. ‘There,’ she said. Then she closed her eyes, pressed her palms into the dash, and braced herself against what was coming.
ASHLEY KUNSA's creative work appears or is forthcoming in more than twenty journals, including Sycamore Review, Los Angeles Review, and Bayou Magazine. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT. You can find her online at www.ashleykunsa.com
Her best friend Jasmine had once, when they were twelve, told her that she was ‘white passing’. It wasn’t something she’d easily forget. Because of what she believed then, she’d taken it as a compliment. But she wasn’t so sure now — of what it meant. Wasn’t so sure of who she was, anymore.
The whiskey bottle needed to be placed inside the reusable fabric grocery bag that was always kept on the back seat of their shared family car. It needed to be placed into the reusable bag and she needed to remember to carefully discard the receipt — tear it until the store’s recognizable logo became unrecognizable, until the receipt became so many tiny pieces of so much black ink on white paper, and then throw it into the trash in the upstairs bathroom that she was responsible for cleaning every week, whose trash she alone took out. If anyone asked, as she made her way up to her room with the reusable fabric grocery bag that was always kept in the car, she’d say she’d just bought some snacks for herself and herself alone.
Snacks she wanted to make sure no one got to before she could have at them. It was an excuse that always worked, that was always followed with the command to make sure to place the reusable fabric grocery bag back into the car afterwards. It worked because of how often she’d complained as a kid that all the snacks were eaten by her brother and sister before she could get to them, because of how often her mother had in exasperation told her to just keep the stuff in her room if she didn’t want anyone else to get at it.
She felt her phone vibrate in the back pocket of her jeans as she took the grocery bag with its clandestine whiskey bottle out of the car. Hope flared up in her heart. But she knew better. She tried to extinguish hope with practicality, with the reality that was always so bland. It was probably just a notification from some app that’d connected to the house’s WiFi. It was probably just a text from Jasmine. It was probably nothing to do with him. But hope was resilient, and try as she might, she couldn’t snuff it out — it remained beneath all the probable and bland reality like the cloying scent of hurriedly decaying flowers that lingers as a ghost in a funeral parlour after everyone and the dead have gone.
The hope would remain ablaze until she checked her phone, which she decided not to do until she’d got to her room. Until she’d got her whiskey safely to her room. Until after she’d had some of the whiskey. To soften the blow, to lessen the pain of the crash — of hope falling to the ground from its colourful place in the clouds.
Nobody was about as she got into the house from the garage. She heard the whooping and applause of the TV in the basement, in front of which she could be certain her mother and father sat silently. So she had safe passage to her room.
‘Where are you from?’
She knew he would ask her that. Even before he walked up to her, even before she watched him watching her. When she first laid eyes on him across the room, the beer in his hand, talking with that guy Sammy. Sammy, the friend of Jasmine, whose birthday party this was, whom she didn’t know, whose apartment downtown Jasmine had to almost drag her to because ‘Come on, it’d be a fun way to celebrate the end of midterms!’ She knew that he, six feet tall with his curly blond hair and blue eyes, would ask her that. Because they always did.
‘Just down the street,’ she’d said with a laugh in her eyes. Because she knew what he meant, the kind of answer he’d wanted.
In her room, safe, she lit a Bath & Body Works candle — Leaves — to mask the sour alcoholic reek that she was about to unleash.
When she was younger, a child, and she’d watch mesmerized the beautiful actors and actresses drinking in a movie, a TV show, she’d wonder that alcohol must be so delicious. Because of the relish with which they would sling back a shot, drain a bottle. Their voices would get wet, as though a massive thirst had been quenched. Their eyes would gleam and begin to glow and they would get so happy.
She was fooled completely, taken in by the magic. And was thoroughly disappointed by the reality of it all when she was sixteen and her sister let her have a sip of her own clandestine stash in her room. In the dim, dreamy yellow glow of her sister’s bedside table lamp, the rhythmic roll of the hushed alternative rock like lazy waves swelling out of her iPod dock. She didn’t find the whiskey to be delicious. It stung her throat and made her eyes water. It felt like what she imagined it would be like to be punched in the face. She wondered why people drank the stuff, until she found out for herself.
And so she needed coke. To wash the whiskey’s taste from her mouth. Or, at least, eclipse it — burn the inside of her mouth in another way.
She tiptoed down the stairs that always creaked, no matter how careful she was, to the kitchen, where she paused. The relentless clangor of the TV remained relentless, nothing creaked. She went to the fridge, eased its door open, took out a can of diet coke and went back upstairs. The stairs still creaked, but it could just be the house moaning in the early-November winds.
The thing was, she wasn’t supposed to drink. It wasn’t a matter of being allowed, of permission. She was twenty and she could buy her own liquor, however much she wanted. It was a matter of ought.
You didn’t drink in this household. This Muslim household.
You were to ignore father’s drinking, because of his sadness. You were to ignore and not try to understand the sadness, because he didn’t want you knowing about any of it, because he wasn’t supposed to have any of it. Because he was the unassailable head of the household. And you were to pretend like it didn’t scare you when he came home drunk and tried to pretend he wasn’t.
Silence was easy enough as these were things, his drinking and sadness, that took place out loud — his booming steps tripping through the house, on their way to the TV, the acrid smell he left behind, the sobs never successfully muffled — at nighttime. Impressions a good night’s sleep would flagellate out of your system. But the fear wasn’t easy and, like veins carved by tributaries in stone, it never went away, no matter how hard you tried to forget, it was always a skip of a heartbeat, a door’s slam away. You just didn’t speak of it. And you most certainly didn’t drink in this household.
It was only when she got back into her room whose air was leaden with the loud perfume of Leaves, that she noticed the difference — in the air of the house. The air outside her room, beyond her closed door, still smelled of food. The curry prepared a few hours ago for dinner. And in her room was the heavy candle scent. If she was anyone but herself, she wouldn’t smell anything but Leaves. But she was herself, and beneath the ingratiating stink of the candle lay languorously the curry scent. It wasn’t going away any time soon.
He’d told her that he’d text her when he was outside her house. But she didn’t give him her address exactly. She told him to stop two doors down, so no one in the house would see him behind the wheel. She didn’t tell him why, though, and he couldn’t know anyway. Her family lived in a townhouse on a street of townhouses, and, if he asked, she’d make up some excuse as to why she left from the back door instead of the front, and walked up to his car from around the street, past the unbothered facades of the tall houses.
She’d told her mother that she was going to a friend’s birthday party. ‘Will you eat?’ her mother asked, in Urdu. It was Saturday and she could hear the TV on in the basement, her father sat silently in front of it. And her mother was preparing dinner — biryani, whose telltale fragrant medley of scents loved more than anything else to cleave onto hair and clothes and not leave until the next wash or laundering.
The scent told her, before she could even ask her mother, that she was making biryani, and so she wore a hoodie over her blouse before she left her room. And she told her mother that they’d have dinner at a restaurant. Her mother didn’t say anything. So she slipped quickly out through the back door.
It wasn’t any use, though.
‘You smell like Indian food,’ he said as she climbed into the passenger seat of his car. If she was in a joking mood she’d say that it was actually Pakistani. If she was younger she’d be horrified so much so that she’d cancel the evening. But she was neither. She just flung the hoodie soaked through with that smell of fried onions and warm spices onto the back seat of his car, rolled the window down so that the notes of her white gardenia perfume would float over to him, and asked him about his work.
She knew nothing much about him — this was only the second time they’d physically met, having settled on the date and time and place over text, having texted only casually over the course of the week since Jasmine’s friend Sammy’s birthday party.
‘What exactly do you do?’ And he said something that she forgot as soon as he’d got done saying it.
He didn’t ask why she came from behind the houses.
If she was younger she’d be horrified.
When she was younger she was horrified by her food’s smells. Lunchtime made her stomach hurt. From the anxiety, the apprehension. What if the others smelled her food? No matter that she could smell theirs — their food was normal, she thought. Normal because it was the kind of food the people in movies and on TV ate. No matter that whatever her mother had packed would be something she liked to eat. What if they smelled her food? She didn’t want to explain what it was she was eating. She didn’t want to say the words, the names of the food to her classmates who wouldn't understand them, to whose ears they would sound foreign. What if they laughed at her?
So one day she asked her mother to pack her some kind of a sandwich for lunch. Her mother was confused. She offered up the excuse that sandwiches weren’t as messy to eat as rice and curry. Her mother asked her what she wanted in the sandwich. She was six years old. She hadn’t eaten many sandwiches. She told her mother to put butter between two slices of white bread. Her mother was confused. But her mother eventually obliged.
One day at school she opened her lunchbox that smelled of nothing, that wasn’t warm with a hot meal, to find two unevenly-stacked slices of bread. There was nothing in between them to hold them together. She ate the dry bread, pretending for her apparently indifferent classmates that she was eating a whole sandwich and enjoying it. At home, she asked her mother — politely, respectfully — if she had been very tired that morning. Her mother said that she hadn’t. And so she told her mother that she’d forgotten to put anything in her sandwich. It was just bread. Her mother said plainly that they’d run out of butter.
‘Oh,’ she’d said. She didn’t complain. She didn’t make a fuss. She was just grateful that her food hadn’t smelled of anything at lunchtime.
Her best friend Jasmine had told her that she was white passing. But lying next to him, his white body blushing pink and red, exhausted, she knew that she couldn’t be. She saw the yellow and olive in her skin, and she saw the pink in his. His body bathed in the orange light of the setting autumn sun that made his face look alien, disappeared his blond eyebrows and eyelashes. She’d never been with someone like him. Someone white — normal because he looked like everyone in all the movies and on all the TV.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked. Again.
‘My parents are from Pakistan.’
‘That’s a weird way to put it,’ he said.
‘I was born here.’
‘Your family isn’t Muslim?’
‘My parents are,’ she said. She didn’t know if she could explain it to him. She didn’t know if she should, tell him about how she had slowly but persistently elided her background from herself, neglected the religion over the course of her adolescence. How she was losing the language, its words pulled at by a Western accent whenever she spoke to her parents. She didn’t know exactly why she did it, why she didn’t try to hold on as her mother did. Why she tried to shrug it all off. It just wasn’t something the people in all her favourite movies had, and she so wanted to be like those people — beautifully blond and confident and powerful and far away from where she was.
No, it was too soon to tell him that. She didn’t want to ruin the moment.
‘You know,’ he said, rolling to his side and placing his arm across her chest. ‘When I first saw you I thought you were Indian. I guess I was kinda right.’
‘They’re two very different countries,’ she said. And she got up and started to get dressed. ‘Will you take me home now?’
He didn’t mention dinner as he drove her home through the purple haze of the windy evening and she didn’t ask. She always had her mother’s biryani. If anyone at home asked, the food at the restaurant wasn’t any good.
But back in her room, she began to worry. Had she been too rude to him? She began to worry that he would never speak to her again.
She’d had about a third of the bottle and felt ready enough to check her phone. She picked it up, held her thumb over the home button that would light it up, stared at her face that seemed bleary reflected back to her from the black screen. Then she laughed at herself. How stupid this all was, she thought. She touched the button and the lock screen lit up and there was the notification of a text from him.
Hey sorry if i offended u the other day, didn’t mean to!
She smiled at herself and poured another drink into the paper cup that she would discard carefully. In the trash in the bathroom that she alone was responsible for cleaning every week. Hopeful again, she found it too much of a bummer to think right now about how she wasn’t sure of who she was, anymore.
ALISHA MUGHAL's work has appeared most recently in Queen Mob's Teahouse and The Fem. She has a BA in Philosophy from the University of Toronto and currently resides in Canada. She was born in Pakistan.