Welcome to The Other Stories podcast. This is your host, Ilana Masad, and today I’m speaking with… well, no one but you, listeners. Last week we aired the last interview from The Other Stories for a while, maybe forever, and starting today, we’re going on an indefinite hiatus. Before I say goodbye for now, though, I want to wrap things up a little bit.
I started this podcast in the last days of 2014 because I missed talking to writers. I had just graduated college a few months before, podcasts were still kind of a hot new thing, and I wanted to make a space where writers without a platform could share their work and engage in conversations as deep as the ones they might have had in their MFAs or undergrads or with their writing groups or only in their heads. I wanted to be a kind of Terry Gross or Deborah Treisman for emerging writers.
I don’t know if I succeeded at that—I don’t think I’m nearly polished enough—but I do think that a ton of amazing conversations happened over the last five years since the show launched in April 2015. Some numbers: We’ve aired 272 episodes, which means we’ve featured at least 280 authors (a few episodes, our attempts at live ones, featured multiple writers), some of whom had never published their work before, others who were well-established.
We’ve always been a tiny team—myself, Mike Cahill our inimitable producer and composer, and a rotating cast of wonderful interns. I know this show and my work failed in many ways—including rarely being able to pay those inters, the tremendous delay in getting back to people about submissions, a website that is not nearly as updated as it should be—but I think that we succeeded in many ways too. Over the past few months, since the start of the pandemic, in fact, our listenership grew! To any of you who are newer to the show, and to those of you who are longtime listeners, I want to assure you that our back catalogue is not going away. The site will stay up as will the hosting for the audio itself, so there’s a vast catalogue of weekly episodes you can dive into if you wish, more wonderful stories and novel excerpts you can explore.
I’ve chosen to go on indefinite hiatus for a few reasons. First, the failures I mentioned, and others, have been weighing on me for a long time, and there are enough things I don’t know how to fix that I’d rather quit while I’m ahead, before those failures begin to weigh too heavily on the show itself. Second, and more to the point, I’m tired and burned out—not due to this show but due to my terribly work-life balance in general—and I want to stop before resentment might creep in. Third, and this is a bit of a silly reason, about a year after we launched another podcast out of the UK started up and it’s ALSO called The Other Stories, which led to much confusion, especially as they became very popular and so we got a lot of queries from people trying to reach the horror-and-sci-fi-narrated-stories podcast rather than the -all-fiction-of-varying-genres-interview podcast. Check that show out if you’re into horror and sci-fi though! Finally, there are so many things I still want to do and so many places I want to put my energy, and so it’s just time for a change.
It’s not without a lot of sadness and grief that made this decision. But more than anything, I’m grateful that we were able to do this for so long. You all kept it going, really, with your support and enthusiasm. Thank you, each and every one of you, for listening, for submitting, for being guests on the show, for being supporters and champions of it. It’s been so good sharing a space with you.
And now, for the last time in a while, we are The Other Stories podcast. Our composer and technical director is Mike Cahill who also puts out music on Spotify under the name Catlofe – cee ay tee el oh eff ee. Thank you for listening, have a great week, happy holidays, fuck the patriarchy, dismantle white supremacy, eat whatever you want, and love each other. Peace.
The following excerpt from Zigzags by Kamala Puligandla is published with permission from Not a Cult Press.
The Obvious Combination of Beef Stew and American Cheese
Richard saw himself in me since the day we met, which was something I had never been able to shake. At the time, Georgie and I had just moved into an apartment together in Edgewater.
“I’ve got a job as a cashier!” she came home and announced one afternoon.
It was Halloween that day, and the job struck me as a trick. “How?” I asked. “Where?”
“It’s a hippie-dippie restaurant with a store and a bar. They were totally impressed that I lived in China, and they said they liked my scarf.” Georgie fluffed her hair up in front of the mirror and adjusted her pashmina. “I start tonight. Everyone’s so nice. They invited us to a Halloween party, can you believe that?” she asked. “I need to wear an exciting costume that will also hide my excessive amount of nervous sweat.” We eventually settled on Waldo’s Pregnant Wife, and Georgie told me to stop by the bar at 10 when her training was over.
“Friend potential?” I asked her.
“Oh yeah. High potential,” she replied.
I liked the sound of that. I’d come to Chicago in the first place because of Georgie. When she returned after a two-year fellowship in Kunming, China, I wanted her to move out West with me but she wouldn’t. “The fam is in Chicago and I can’t leave the Summertowns,” Georgie insisted. This surprised me. My family had good taste, and we generally enjoyed each other’s company, but since we were kids, the idea was that my sister and I would strike out on our own, to discover the world for ourselves and make our own place in it. My mom had made it clear that only in a severe pinch could I live at home after college.
Georgie had grown up in Chicago and knew plenty of people, so I decided to move in with her. I didn’t know anyone else. I spent my days on the computer, editing and writing inane articles about the kinds of skills one could expect to acquire with a vet tech degree or where to find online courses in soil science. It was both comical and depressing to break down every career into a series of concrete steps so web readers would believe that if they just stuck to the prescribed path, they too could become successful neurosurgeons and film directors. “5 Steps to Becoming a Successful Writer” was the name of one article I’d been assigned that day. I’d had to put down my coffee mug in order to laugh maniacally for a minute.
That night around 10, I showed up at the Heartland Café in my best rendition of beef stew. I’d taped construction paper vegetables to a brown shirt and fashioned a foil cap to look like a pot lid. As soon as I walked through the screen door, I was confronted with Georgie, in her blue knit cap and striped shirt. Her palms were pressed into the counter, and she was blowing at the longer side of her bangs. I was impressed that she’d managed to keep her pregnant pillow in her shirt for the entire shift.
“What’s going on?” I asked casually.
“Oh my god, you scared me!” she said, jumping back. “I thought you were another customer and I was going to have to tell you we were closed or that we can’t do the ginger dressing gluten free. Hey, Nikki?” she yelled over her shoulder and a skinny woman with frosty blue eye make up appeared. I wondered if it was a costume or if she always looked that way.
“Georgie, don’t forget to take out the cash for tips. That’s what this stack is doing over here.” She pointed with a pen that she stuck in her mouth and wandered back over to the bar. “And don’t forget that you have to do all of the credit card transactions too,” she called, and picked up her blue drink. “That’s the stack on the other side.”
Georgie stared at me with wild eyes and I knew that I would be going to this party alone. “I’m not doing well,” she confirmed. “I’ll join you later.”
I walked over to a stool at the bar, and Georgie addressed the young servers who were taking off their black aprons. “Hey guys, this is Aneesha. We live together,” she added.
I ordered a whiskey ginger and looked up at the large dusty buffalo head on the wall. The bar seemed like a standard dive. The vast beer selection was scrawled on a chalkboard, and an empty stroller sat idly in the corner. The wall behind the bar boasted a fantastic clutter of license plates and photographs of the Heartland across the decades. My dollar bills stuck to the surface of the bar when I paid for my drink, and I realized this was exactly the place where Georgie was qualified to cashier.
“Hey, I’m Whitney,” said a girl with very curly hair. She was writing in her receipt book and accidentally brushed my boob with it as she walked past. “Oh!” She grabbed my shoulder. “I’m so sorry.” I was struck by the contrast between the firmness of her grip, but how lightly her pen rested between her fingers. She paused to take a better look at me. “Are you beef stew?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, excitedly. “I am. I’m so glad you could tell.”
“Great costume. I’m American cheese.” Whitney gestured at the piece of yellow foam she was wearing over her shirt. “I made the flag bloomers myself, so they’re a little funny. You’re coming to this party, right? The foods should hang out together.”
“Naturally,” I said.
“Good.” Whitney added her receipts to the pile Georgie was working through and took the stool next to me at the bar. “What are you drinking?” she asked, which led to a conversation about our shared love of whiskey, temporary tattoos, and the boys’ section at Target. Whitney was the kind of queer who didn’t look especially queer unless you were queer yourself, and that was something I always liked.
She took me with her when the group headed down the street to an apartment, where someone named Heather was going to give us a ride to the party. I found myself standing at a granite island, watching a girl divide the last of a bottle of gin into a dozen plastic cups. She was wearing a glittery leotard that I very much admired.
“Hey, do you know who Heather is?” I asked.
“I’m Heather,” she said. “I live here. You must be a new person. Why don’t you take one of these drinks? Nice touch with the foil hat, by the way.”
That’s when Richard walked in, sporting slippers and a bathrobe. He nuzzled the hell out of Whitney’s hair, picked up one of Heather’s gin and tonics, and sipped it elegantly, pinky in the air.
He cocked his head to the side and watched me watch him. “Who are you?” he asked, as if my presence were a mild insult.
This reaction was closer to what I had expected of the night. I’d tagged along to my share of parties, and mooched off a number of friend groups, but I had rarely felt so welcome to do so.
Whitney reappeared just in time to offer an apologetic introduction. “This is Richard,” she said to me.
“Aneesha,” I said, shaking his hand.
Richard raised his eyebrows at Whitney then grinned at me. “It’s a pleasure. Everyone’s been saying there’s a cute new cashier at the Heartland, and you’re about as adorable as a koala.”
“Oh, no. That’s my roommate, Georgie,” I answered.
He motioned between Whitney and me. “So that means you two are new friends.”
“As of two hours ago,” I offered.
Richard looked amused, and smugly drained his cup. “Alright, well done.” Then he moved on. “I can’t decide what to be tonight, hence this horrific nightmare.” He gestured to his loungewear. “I have some options, but I’m not married to any of them.”
In the end, Richard decided to dress up as a coke addict from the ‘80s. He wore an over-sized thrift store suit, which Heather and her friend Amanda had apparently bought for him, and spent an unbearable 20 minutes applying Vaseline and baby powder to his upper lip. Right as the group was about to leave for the party, he ran off to his apartment, saying that he just couldn’t bring himself to go out wearing a silver belt buckle and gold watch, that he needed to change. The car ride required us to jam into the back of Heather’s car, but nobody seemed bothered.
“Make room for me,” Whitney said, as she climbed onto our laps in the backseat.
I had no idea where we were going or what kind of party we were in for, but I had to admit I felt I was in solid company. Heather was dressed as a glittery Jazzercize instructor, Amanda was going as a businesswoman with an oversized cellphone, her boyfriend, Sam, had made a cardboard and long-underwear Batman outfit, and Whitney was wearing the foam cheese pull-over with homemade American flag bloomers. Then there was Richard. He annoyed me. His pinched face, his brashness, his touchy grabby comportment, and his less-than-inspired costume. I never expected to be friends with Richard.
At the giant loft party, I watched Amanda and the cardboard batman get close, while Heather flirted with an Alex from Clockwork Orange. Meanwhile, Whitney and I downed drinks and chatted up strangers. She also hardly knew anyone there. We jostled on the dance floor, side-stepping loud girls in roller skates, and I sensed a playful glowing chord being struck between us. Her touch on my back was gentle when she asked me to get her a new drink, and there was a loose “baby” tacked onto the end of her thank you. In a haze, Whitney and I took a cab home together. I sat in the back seat, my hand on her thigh, her head on my shoulder, when suddenly, Richard materialized in the front. “Play nice girls,” he called and winked as the two of us slid out of the back seat.
Even as I followed Whitney into her apartment, I hadn’t seriously considered that this is where the night had been leading. So often, these were the kinds of interactions that meant I’d made a new best friend. Richard, however, had known all along, and even Whitney was cool and casual as she poured me a glass of water. “You’re welcome to spend the night if you’d like,” she’d offered.
Richard still brought up his presence in that cab from time to time. “I knew something was happening there.”
“Nothing even happened that night,” I’d told him time and time again. “I had a glass of water and walked home.”
But he knew I was lying, and I think he preferred not knowing exactly what to picture. “Of course. How polite and gentlemanly you are, Aneesha.”
The truth of that night, I kept to myself. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t original. Not even Whitney would have remembered that she took both of my hands, led me to her bed, and pulled me on top of her. We were both still wearing our coats and bags and even though I was straddling her, our fingers on each other’s faces, I recalled the sensation that we were still so far apart. I was exhilarated by how sharply her lips tugged at mine. But as quickly as it began, Whitney’s gin-soaked mouth went slack and lazy, and I pulled away from her.
“Hey, Whitney,” I’d said, holding her cheek in my hand. She’d mumbled and turned her nose into my palm. I jumped off of the bed, and chuckled to myself as I unlaced her boots and pulled them off. Then I adjusted my scarf, pulled up the collar on my coat and left her to sleep. It was too unexpected to take seriously, but on my walk home I purposely attempted not to replay anything in my head, to keep the details fuzzy. I had an active imagination and a bad habit of falling in love faster than was comfortable for anybody.
It was then I had to acknowledge that Richard, the crass stranger with a goopy upper lip, had seen something familiar in me, some part that I hadn’t entirely recognized myself. He would never be able to fully explain what he was doing in that cab, but I got the impression that he’d been in my position before, and I wondered what else about me he knew that I didn’t yet.
Kamala Puligandla is a writer and editor in LA. She writes autobiographical fiction and essays on queer love and futures, aka she steals from her friends’ lives. Her novella, called You Can Vibe Me On My FemmePhone, is forthcoming in Jan 2021 from Co-Conspirator Press and she is currently the Editor-in-Chief at Autostraddle.com. Kamala is well-known for her contagious laughter, her iconic hairstyle, and her easily undone heart. Zigzags is her first novel. Find out more about her at her website.
Music by Catlofe
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The below excerpt is from Daughters of Smoke and Fire: A Novel © 2020 Ava Homa. Published May 12, 2020 by The Overlook Press, an imprint of ABRAMS. Excerpted with permission by the publisher.
Daughters of Smoke and Fire – Chapter 5
When the first rays of light slanted through my slatted blinds the next morning, my head no longer pounded, but my limbs protested when I tried to move. Snarling and groaning did not make me feel better. All night I’d dreamed that a man in a black suit was trailing me wherever I went. Mr. Bad Luck, my family’s legacy, scoffed at my failed attempts to outpace him.
The house was eerily quiet, which meant my parents were either still asleep or had already left. I went downstairs to the basement studio, now converted into Chia’s bedroom, which was bright with curtainless windows. He’d papered his walls with posters of Che Guevara, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. No thinker would rebuke Chia for his greasy hair. He was yawning, scratching at his faint shadows of facial hair, and solving physics equations from the open textbook on his desk.
Needing a distraction, I ironed his khaki shirt and pants that I had laundered the night before, as I had done religiously since he was nine. With each year that passed, Chia was praised at home and school for his intelligence, and I was blamed for not being as clever and as neat as he was. I was good at erecting my gallows.
“Don’t you want to read some Tolstoy, Leila? Leave that iron. The pants are going to get wrinkled again soon enough,” Chia said, head resting on his palm. He was always dismissing chores as a waste of time, convinced that he had so much else to do for this world. Yesterday he’d said, “Why should I make my bed when I have to sleep in it again tonight? I could spend that time each morning reading about the rise of fascism and World War II. So ridiculous that the battles fought by wealthy countries are called ‘World War’ and poor countries’ fights are ‘tribal war!’”
I made creases with the iron. I had been trying to serve my family, eradicate filth from our home, but nothing I did was ever enough. Nothing I did could make my parents praise me, make my brother notice my sacrifices, or even make God save me from “sorrow and fear,” as advertised in the holy book.
The siren of an ambulance broke my train of thought. Light shone through the mullioned window onto Chia’s gray bedding. A copy of War and Peace was lying on his unmade bed. “Did you really read all twelve hundred pages?”
“It was a great read.” Chia chewed his pen cap. “Did you read the copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four I gave you?”
Steam rose from the iron. I did not look at him, but I could picture him pointing a finger at me as he spoke, his usual gesture. I had tried reading it, but Orwell’s dystopia was my—our—reality. I needed books that offered escape, not ones that held up a mirror to our suffering.
“I slept in this room on that bed with Shiler and Joanna the night you were born.”
“What’s eating you, Leila?”
I made myself busy folding his pants. “I miss Shiler. I hardly see her these days.”
“What is it really?”
“Your window is filthy,” I announced. “There’s a pile of clothes I need to iron for you.”
I expected Chia to roll his eyes. Instead he got up from his desk and stood before my ironing board. “That’s not all, is it?”
With that question, my teenage brother smoothly removed my mask. I broke down. “I didn’t make the list. I’m never going to get into a university I can afford, and if I do, it’ll be of no use. I’ll end up like our father. Or worse, our mother.”
“Oh, come on. So what if you didn’t get in this year? You don’t have to do military. You can study for next year.”
“All I want from life,” I sniveled, “is to have a college education so I can have a decent job. Make films, tell our stories.”
“Stop it with the self-pity already. I’m sure you’ll get in next year. You have a year to prepare. Start tomorrow.”
I searched his eyes. He believed what he was saying. I put the tips of my fingers into a bowl of water, splashed drops on his shirt, and resumed ironing. I pressed down hard on Chia’s shirt, close to scorching it. For a moment I considered holding the hot iron against my face until it melted through my skull and burned away my disillusionment.
“Do you ever think you and I ruined Baba’s life?” Chia asked when I’d finished.
“Why?” I unplugged the iron.
“I don’t mean deliberately. But look, I was born the day his town was gassed.” He scratched his neck.
“Well, I wasn’t.”
“You know how he wanted to name you Nishtman, but the government banned it?”
“Nishtman was the girl he loved in high school and wanted to marry.”
I wondered about this girl who had been called Nishtman, homeland, named after an unrecognized, unofficial, yet beautiful country. I imagined her with inspiring hazel eyes, full of hope, full of courage. “Was it my fault it didn’t happen?”
“No, no. She decided to join the Peshmerga fighters, and Baba was accepted into Tehran University, so he decided not to follow her. A decision he must have regretted a thousand times, I suppose.”
Peshmerga: those who face death. What a brave girl. An educated dreamer at a time when women weren’t supposed to be either. I imagined her holding her head high and walking with a grace that lent her incredible charisma. But Nishtman the girl, just like nishtman the Kurdish homeland, was unattainable. “So she chose the weapon and he picked the pen. And both failed.” I sighed. “Mama said she died.”
Chia shrugged. “Technically she ‘disappeared.’ It looks like the powerless in this world are doomed to defeat regardless of what means they pick to fight. And yet resisting and losing is better than dying silently, no?”
“What does that have to do with us ruining his life, anyway? If he wanted to name me after her, he must have loved me or had hopes for me.” In Baba’s room in the attic was a poster of a man in Kurdish clothing, holding up a picture of a young girl killed in the genocide, showing all that remained of her to the photographer. “I suppose he hoped I’d do something for our people, and I want to—you know how much I want to make films to share our stories—but so far I’ve amounted to nothing.”
“Baba was doing okay before I was born.” Chia wasn’t listening to me. “The eight-year war had just ended, and he had hoped to take us back to his hometown of pomegranates. But I was born, and his town was gassed. You were conceived, and his house was raided.”
“He told you about the night he was arrested? When was this?”
“Oh, a while ago.”
I stamped my foot like a child. “Why didn’t you tell me? I want the whole story, every detail, verbatim.”
“Why?” He arched his eyebrow up at me from the floor, where he was twisted into some yoga pose, his spine ramrod straight, his palms touching.
“Because Baba never shares anything with me.”
Chia unwound his legs and stretched. “You better get comfortable.”
According to Baba, the very minute Mama informed him she was pregnant, they heard a series of loud knocks on the door. The clock chimed five as the pounding on their door reached a crescendo. Two bearded plainclothes policemen burst through the front door. “Saman?” the taller one demanded. “Alan Saman?”
Baba felt himself starting to shake. “What’s this about?
“You’ll find out in Evin,” said the first man, a giant whose tobacco-stained teeth gave him a cruel appearance.
“Do you have a letter from the court?” Baba asked.
The man punched him in the stomach. “Here’s your letter.”
Mama pushed in front of her husband, arms crossed modestly over her nightgown. “Please, sir, this must be a mistake.”
“Yeah, we hear the same thing in every house,” said the other man, who wore glasses above his scraggly beard. “We trust the Ettela’at more than we trust you.”
The mention of the Ettela’at, the Islamic Republic’s intelligence service, would strike terror in the heart of any civilian, law-abiding or not. Baba’s mother, whom everyone called Dayah, pleaded, “Please, sir! Take me instead.”
“My husband is innocent!” Mama insisted shrilly.
“Cover yourself, woman,” the agent with the crooked teeth shouted while the leering one adjusted his glasses.
“Get out of my house.” Baba shoved the bespectacled one toward the door, but five more plainclothes agents with Glocks rushed into the apartment, ramming Baba against the wall. At a gesture from the giant secret policeman, the agents began to search the rooms of the house, rifling through drawers, scattering papers, breaking everything in their wake. The two who had first come to the door handcuffed Baba.
Dayah threw herself at the leader’s feet. “For the love of God, don’t take him. He hasn’t done anything. Take me instead,” she pleaded in Kurdish. Of course they did not understand her language, nor would they have cared if they had.
“Let go, Dayah gian. Please. Let go. Let go,” Baba begged his mother.
One of the men kicked Dayah in the chin. He spat, “Kafar”—infidel—and kicked the crumbling old woman again, this time in the chest. Baba growled, shoved the man, and bent before his mother, unable to wrap his handcuffed arms around her. One of the armed men bashed his gun against Baba’s temple. He tasted his own blood. Dayah’s trembling hands rested on his cheeks.
The secret police discovered two banned political books in the house that night, which became the only evidence of Baba’s supposed crime, earning him four years in prison without a clear sentence and repeated torture for information that drew the map of a nonexistent country on his back.
When Mama brought Dayah to the hospital, the old bleeding woman was ignored because she wore a Kurdish dress and couldn’t speak Persian. Her heart stopped beating while she waited, waited to be treated, waited for her homeland to be free, waited for her son to return. Incarcerated as he was, Baba couldn’t hold a funeral for his mother or bury her beside her husband in Halabja as promised.
Ava Homa is a writer, journalist, and activist specializing in women’s issues and Middle Eastern affairs. She holds an MA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Windsor in Canada. Her collection of short stories, Echoes from the Other Land, was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Prize, and she is the inaugural recipient of the PEN Canada-Humber College Writers-In-Exile Scholarship. She was born and raised in the Kurdistan Province in Iran and now divides her time between Toronto and the Bay Area. Daughters of Smoke and Fire is her debut novel.
Music by Catlofe
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The following is excerpted from Brad Fox’s To Remain Nameless (Rescue Press, 2020) and is reprinted here with permission.
To Remain Nameless – Excerpt
Only immediate family, the triage receptionist said. Your friend can wait right here. It’ll just be a minute or two.
Tess watched Laura about to protest, with her flushed face and heaving belly. How can you argue with a woman in labor?
A nurse stood at the swinging doors, trying to lead her patient back into the examination room, but Laura planted both feet and turned to Tess:
You promised you won’t let them give me an epidural, remember? I want to feel everything.—Tess nodded, brown hair falling in her face.—I’m sure I’ll ask for drugs. I’m scared and weak, but don’t listen to me.
As the nurse started to lead her away, Laura pointed at the piece of paper Tess held in her hand.
I’ll ask, Laura said, but you have cotton in your ears. Remember: I want to feel everything.
The doors to the examination room swung shut, leaving Tess under the buzzing lights of triage. She looked down at the paper. Across the top it read LAURA VALERIO BIRTHPLAN.
And there it was, item number one: I am a weakling and a coward.
Tess laughed out loud as she sought her bearings, alone now for the first time in days. Laura a coward and a weakling. How could she ever believe that? But she’d never felt a labor contraction, had no idea how intense it could be.
She dropped down into a black vinyl chair against the wall. The room empty except for the triage receptionist, now talking on the phone with a big smile across her face. Immediate? Who was more immediate than Tess? She felt the cold, air-conditioned air through the loose shirt she wore. She crossed and uncrossed her legs, head still reeling. She looked down at the sparkling tiles.
Labor, she thought. Now it’s starting.
Once in the village above Aswan there’d been a woman in labor, and as they waited for the midwife the woman made such strange noises that Tess walked out into the whitewashed alleyways and paced up and down, stopping in front of the old tomb to ask the dead sheikh what that sound could be.
And now Laura. Laura at 39, who abandoned Tess in the Istanbul office to come back and nurse her own mother on her deathbed, to sit uncomplainingly as her mother wasted away, after working through crisis after crisis, war and famine and bullshit development assignment, now she was in triage, asking for drugs. Give me drugs!
Tess stood back up and took a step toward the door. There was hardly room to pace in here. Her body was awkward and she wished she could be inside with Laura. Wished she knew what there was to do. Wished she’d learned everything there was to learn. What had the Egyptian midwife known? Surely there were things to do in this situation that didn’t involve inserting a tube into your spine. Laura had begged her to be here. Laura who had never asked her for anything:
It’s a pain unlike any other. That’s what I hear. Please be with me.
But I don’t know anything about it, Tess told her. I don’t know anything.
It doesn’t matter. I want you with me. You have to be there.
So she flew from Ataturk airport and landed at JFK and five days later here she was: 7:48 pm, twelfth floor of St. Luke’s Roosevelt, just down from Columbus Circle. Five days and it was like she’d been excised from her life, could hardly remember what awaited her: the caseload, the swelling camps, the endless state of emergency. All that was far away and she was here in this waiting room too small to pace in, pushing her knee against the black vinyl of the chair. The triage nurse gabbing away on the phone and Tess could understand every word. Could not not understand, really. That was closer to the situation. Back in the US, here in this unfamiliar New York, everyone all around speaking her language. When she landed she thought they must be speaking to her. A colleague or a voice over the phone. Did you find out where they’re being held? And how long is the extension? After five days she still wasn’t used to it. Found herself turning her head involuntarily on the street. Who said that? Who was that? Suspicious, a little paranoid. Relax, she told herself. This is your home country. You have every right to be here. It’s important to Laura. And these friendships formed in such conditions, that had lasted this long, it’s important to hold onto something. What else did she have? She had to be here, to be a true friend, at least. If Laura was going to cry and suffer and birth a baby in New York, then she would come. Couldn’t very well leave her alone. The guy was supposed to be around somewhere but Tess still hadn’t seen a sign of him, whoever he was. Laura too proud to push him, probably. But she could ask Tess and she knew Tess would come if she could. And she did. And she had.
But Tess hadn’t expected the triage nurse to make her wait here in the waiting room. Just a minute or two. They lie, Tess thought. She listened for Laura screaming her head off in the next room, about to give birth, for God’s sake, to bring new life into the world. To add another version of herself. Madness. In this country, empire crumbling, waters rising, Manhattan turned over to bankers and tourists. And this receptionist on the phone. Where did she live? Her slight Caribbean lilt. Parents from Trinidad or something. That melody. People of this city, this hemisphere. Never heard that accent in all the places she lived. Did she ever hear that beautiful Caribbean lilt on the streets of Istanbul? A Bronx accent among the doctors in Kosovo? There was a guy from Harlem in Macedonia, what was his name? Richard Bright, or something like that. Or who said he was from Harlem. Who knows where he was from. A white man from Harlem with his bald head and yellow eyes. With his straight spine and his very correct way of speaking. Flattened, stilted, any character hammered out. Like he’d been printed out or was an iteration of something. Later he said he lived in Utah, or somewhere. Montana. Had moved out west from Harlem to teach survivalism. They were sure he was some kind of agent. Everyone was supposedly some kind of agent but Richard Bright with his survivalism and his hammered-out accent was maybe more likely than others. How long had it taken him to learn to talk like that? Perfectly stilted and proper, and underneath, menacing. Is that how they talk in Utah and Montana?
Back home in Kansas City, her half-brother Max used to tell her about his neighbors in the southern suburbs with their big smiles and their clipped lawns and their children locked up in the basement, body parts buried in the backyard.
Eat the liver, Richard Bright said. If you’re trapped in the mountains and the only food is the body of another person, eat the liver first. That’s the most nutritious part.
When she met him the way everyone met in those circles, Tess thought he was a horrible asshole. But that didn’t stop Laura from going to bed with him. Or had it? His shiny bald head bobbing up and down. Go for the liver.
One thing you could say about Laura. She’d always wanted to feel everything.
Laura had gone from contract to contract, even quicker than Tess, had been at it longer, too. Liberia, Congo, Kosovo, Brussels, Egypt, Istanbul, finally back in New York. And maybe Tess was forgetting something. Certainly she was. What a horrible life, Tess thought. Always in a white 4×4, with instructions to do something that defied common sense and humanity. Always a new language and new geography, new prejudices, new things to be ignorant of. In order to organize the digging of latrines. Pass out plastic sheeting. Source chlorine gas containers. Organize labor. Assess security. Water security. Food security. Public health and hygiene. Food and nonfood items.
Laura was the one assigned to orient Tess when she flew from Sarajevo to Skopje in 1999, the bombs of the NATO airstrikes already falling on Kosovo just fifteen minutes’ drive to the north. Laura picked her up at the entrance to H2O headquarters, that huge pink building with its ridiculous columns. Some gangster’s idea of a mansion. A provincial gunrunner, sanctions breaker, or something. Now housing the headquarters of an American aid organization, country directors and logisticians and GIS officers. Evil men, Tess thought. Everyone was evil that summer. Except Laura. Who explained the situation and the work to Tess as they drove out to Stenkovec, the first big refugee camp along the border.
They don’t want more Albanians to cross over, Laura said, because they’re afraid they’ll never go home. They’ll swell the Albanian population, which is already like thirty, forty percent, and then there’ll be a secessionist movement here, too.
Which seems like there already is, Tess said. She’d been following the situation for months.
Laura had arrived a few weeks before from Kinshasa and had no idea about the former Yugoslavia. To Tess it was home. She’d already been working in Bosnia for three years, had flown in from Sarajevo where she’d lived with her brother the last two, before that Banja Luka. It felt like hers by then. Not only her little apartment on Tahčića Sokak, but the language she called Bosnian or Serbian or Croatian depending on who she was talking to, or it was just your language, sometimes even ours. Laughing at the inside jokes of her Bosnian friends, the bands and movies, remnants of the old multiethnic socialist utopia. Even Vardar, the name of the river they passed on the way to the border, she’d never seen it but knew the name from old songs. It was swathed in a glow of associations Laura wouldn’t understand.
But all that faded as Tess saw three women trudging up from the edge of the forest toward the razor wire barrier a hundred meters downhill. She watched Laura interrogate the guards at the checkpoint and envied her ability to keep calm as the sullen Macedonians shrugged, and more men, women, and children gathered on the slope.
I should write my questions in lipstick across my breasts, Laura said. Then maybe he’d pay attention.
Tess and Laura were friends by the time they drove back into the city, before Tess started her contract and they were up at dawn to run from site to site through the blazing heat of the summer. Then nights drinking cold wine on the top floor of the house up on Vodno with its balcony overlooking the kidney-shaped pool next door. Sitting there after the endless days, cursing the clenched throat of Tony Blair as he promised more aid. Until the unbearable heat would finally subside under the whir of the Apaches that hovered above downtown.
We should go on strike, Tess said. Tell them fuck your relief budgets, we’re not going to fight your war for you.
Laura nodded and smiled as she refilled their glasses:
Exactly. Let everyone starve. Then they’ll understand.
It was the first time Tess had been under pressure like that, but Laura had believed in her right from the start—You can do this, Laura told her. You’ll be great—when Tess had never seen real conflict before. The Dayton Peace Agreement was already in effect by the time she got to Bosnia. The work in Sarajevo was just pushing through process, return and resettlement. Then everyone rinsing their heads in the basements and bars of the city. But now Tess found herself in a situation that was really happening, right now. Adrenaline shot through her veins as she and Laura raced around in those white 4x4s, out to the camps along the border, kept an eye on the black market networks in the western mountains, occasionally escaping for a mad dash to Ohrid, DJ sets in caves and pink trout flipping in the lake, then in a rush back to the office to grab gear, corral staff, meet engineers, assess landgrades, as fields filled up with more and more tarps and tents.
The backup in no-man’s-land, rainfall on fetid corpses, until the borders opened and people came across so fast they couldn’t build camps fast enough. Tess ended up in mountain villages, bribing mukhtars to house the overflow. They’d fix the road, build a school, whatever, but please, she said, house these people they have nowhere to go.
Until the bombs stopped dropping and everyone came down from the mountains and the camps cleared overnight. No one knew what was happening, if there would be mines and booby traps. But the refugees didn’t care, they headed home as fast as they could, and the camps vacated overnight. Now there were new problems across the border: poisoned wells, unsafe houses, the dead and injured to be tended to, returnees settling scores, vengeance, more killing and confusion.
Max showed up from Sarajevo, Laura headed to Prishtina, and Tess stayed on in Skopje to administrate logistics. Her boss in DC called in with details for endless invoices.—Sign, sign, sign! he told her. We need to get those supply lines moving!
She signed order after order, huge shipments of lumber and medical equipment and vehicles. For weeks she signed whatever came across her desk.
Sign! her boss told her.
Only when the CIA auditors scheduled a meeting, and her boss’s line in DC went dead, did she realize he and the local procurement officer had been collaborating on an embezzlement scheme. Tess was implicated and finally fired because of her signature on all those invoices.—Sign, sign, sign!—The adrenaline now froze in her veins.
As she and Max packed up the house on Vodno, Laura called in on the sat-phone from Prishtina, describing columns of Serb tanks, soldiers flashing nationalist symbols as they paraded toward the border with Serbia proper, toward the small towns and isolated villages where Tess would find her next job. Contracts one after another. Meeting Laura again in Cairo, then in Istanbul where they’d be colleagues in the late 2000s, those murderous years that seem quiet now because they came before all the uprisings.
To be here, finally, trying to stay calm in this reception area. Tess pictured Laura in triage, contracting in front of the doctor.—Give it to me, doctor. Please. I can’t stand it anymore.—It had been building up all afternoon. Tess heard her as the sun cracked the blinds early that morning—Uuuuuunnnnh—the winces and moans of pain penetrating her disturbed sleep, curled up next to Laura in Laura’s double bed, in Laura’s mother’s double bed, where her mother had recently died, surrounded by boxes of photos and trinkets, the few things left behind. And now Laura was about to bring a new life into the world.
It’s amazing, she told Tess. Life and death and death and life. But I wish my mom could have at least seen the baby. Held it just one time. But no. It was good for her to go. So much pain toward the end.
Now this was a whole new kind of pain, Tess thought. All the period cramps she’d ever complained of. Nothing compared to what Laura was going through.—The drugs, doctor. Give me the drugs!— She pictured Laura sitting on a hospital gurney, hands pressing on her knees.—Uuuunnnh.—The moans and cries that had begun in the morning and grown in intensity through the afternoon. Back in the apartment where Laura leaned over a big purple exercise ball. Squatting over the ball and moaning, her belly hanging low toward the ground and her throat full of those noises, her face far away, or nowhere. She looked up at Tess with her eyes unfocused and her lips just drooping like her belly.
Then all at once it would stop, the strange look on her face would pass and she would be totally normal again.—Wow, that was a good one.—The smile returned to her olive face.—It’s so good that you came, Tess. I couldn’t do this alone, you know. It’s really happening. I wonder if it’s time to go to the hospital.
There was a rule: five, one, one. Five minutes apart, they last one minute, for at least an hour. When it got like that it was time to call a cab. Get her downstairs and into a cab and to the hospital.
Oh. Oh. Oh. Please, Tess. Call. It’s time.
Tess held the overnight bag they’d packed with toothbrushes and changes of clothes. Also the car seat the hospital had told them to bring in order to take the baby home, which was perhaps the clearest sign of what was happening. The seat that had to be filled. Tess took Laura’s arm over her shoulder as they made their way out of the apartment. Stopped in the hallway so Laura could breathe. Waiting for the elevator. Interminably waiting for the elevator, until—ding—they waddled inside and pressed L.
Enclosed in the tiny space. Gravity pulling out Laura’s breath. Tess still and calm for a moment until—ding—the elevator came to a stop and in walked a woman and a little girl.
Laura turned her flushed and sweating face toward the woman. Mrs. Lefkowitz.
Oh dear. Are you ready?
Laura continued facing her neighbor, whose face froze in expectancy. Laura’s lip hanging, saying nothing as the doors closed and they rode together to the lobby. The doors opened and Mrs. Lefkowitz stalled for a second.
You first, Laura practically shouted, then turned her forehead to the door and breathed while the woman gathered her daughter and moved out of the way.
I always hated that woman, she said into Tess’s ear as they finally stepped into the lobby. Fake fucking cookbook writer with her recipes. Out the door and into the cab and the cabbie not reacting in the slightest to the moaning and panting coming from the backseat as he drove the few blocks uptown. The afternoon light as they rounded the corner off 10th Avenue to get to intake.
A moving van backed up, its reverse warning beeping maniacally. Oh, oh, oh.
Until they were out and into the harsh lights of the entrance to Roosevelt Hospital. The guard slouched at his desk. And they were into the elevator, a big slow aluminum-walled elevator and up to the twelfth floor and into triage, to this room where Tess stood now, with her knee against the vinyl of the chair, trying to steady her breath and calm her nerves.
The triage nurse reappeared from the back room, now followed by a woman in a white coat:
This is Dr. Shen. She’s Ms. Valerio’s doctor.
The doctor smiled at Tess.
You can follow me, the doctor said. She’s been admitted.
And is she medicated?
Lord no, she wouldn’t hear of it. I asked her how she was doing, if she wanted to be hooked up to the pain medication, but she told me under no conditions.
Brad Fox is a writer currently quarantined in Peru. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Guernica, and The Whitney Biennial. His novel, To Remain Nameless, was published by Rescue Press in 2020. He has worked as a journalist, researcher, and relief contractor in the Balkans, Mexico, the Arab World, and Turkey.
Music by Catlofe
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The following story from How to Walk On Water and Other Stories by Rachel Swearingen is reprinted with permission from New American Press.
Boys on a Veranda
He had never paid attention to the woman across the way before. Now he caught himself holding his breath as he watched her, his tea turning cold. Their brownstones were so close together he could peek through his curtains into her dining room. She must have been about his daughter’s age, in her mid-thirties. She rarely had visitors. Instead of sitting down for a simple bowl of soup or salad as he usually did in the evenings, the woman set the table each night and lit a candle. Then she brought out a silver platter stacked with what he discovered were picture postcards.
She separated the cards into stacks, lifting them one at a time and gazing at the pictures or bringing them to her nose. From what he could tell the backs of the cards were blank. When she finally found a satisfactory one, she set it on her plate. She ripped tiny pieces from the corners as one might tear crumbs from bread. She placed them in her mouth one at a time, closed her eyes and chewed.
He considered knocking on her door. It would be easy enough to discover her apartment number and get into the building. But he was retired and must stop thinking like a psychiatrist, and besides, what pretense would he use? He simply missed his daughter. His story would shock the woman across the way, or encourage pity, and he didn’t want that. Three illnesses in less than two years. His wife given just six months. She refused chemo. And then their daughter. It was an impossibility, but she too was diagnosed, and within months of her mother’s death she was gone as well.
It was all a sad joke. When he felt the lump in his neck, he laughed out loud. No one would believe this in a movie. He didn’t refuse treatment. He went through it all, accepted the volunteers’ rides back and forth from the clinic, the deliveries of groceries and medications. He had lost his hair years earlier, and unlike his wife and daughter invited no looks of recognition at what he endured.
His appetite had returned, but everything had a chemical flavor. When he watched the woman across the way, his mouth watered and he drank his tea to wash the bitter taste from his tongue. He was sixty-eight and in otherwise good health. He had sold his practice, and now met friends for coffee or took walks along the lakeshore. He was not one to travel, though his wife had begged him for years to attend more conferences and take her with him. She and their daughter traveled together—Paris, Crete, Maui, Buenos Aires. By the time they decided to travel a last time, to Venice, they had given up on him and didn’t even ask him to come along.
Books no longer interested him, but he tried to read a novel. His apartment was too silent, even with the cat and the television. As he watched the woman across the way, he remembered the postcard his daughter sent during that trip—an impressionist painting of three boys on a veranda overlooking the sea, in blues, pinks, reds, and yellows. The boys held a toy boat. There were sailboats in the bay behind them. The painting was by a Finnish artist and had nothing to do with Venice, though the inscription was in Italian. He remembered thinking about this, how it wouldn’t have seemed strange to him that it was Finnish if it had come from an American museum with an English inscription.
One evening when the woman set her table, he set his own. He boiled water for tea. It was good tea, from a canister he found outside his building with a note that said free and for your happiness. His next-door neighbor told him he was suicidal to drink it. “What if it’s poisoned?” But he took the gift as a sign that things would get easier. He watched the bundle of tea blossom in his cup. He washed a place setting from his wife’s china set and found a half-burned candle in a drawer in the kitchen. He fetched the postcard from his daughter and placed it in a serving bowl. The cat hopped onto the table to watch.
At night, it was more difficult to observe the woman without being seen. He opened the lacy curtains a few inches. It was almost like they were having dinner together. He thought she caught him staring, but she was gazing into space. He read the back of his postcard: Well, we made it. See, Dad? No nosedive into the ocean. We’re going to eat our way through the city. Mom said to tell you not to take every meal at the diner, and also she’s going to have a brief affair with a gondolier. Ha ha!
He tore off a corner. In everything that medicinal flavor, but it was comforting to know that in this case it was due to dyes in the paper. He closed his eyes and tried to remember the smell of his daughter’s hair when she was two. He smelled salt water and sea air instead, a psychosomatic response.
He turned the postcard over and left the table. The woman across the way practiced a ritual of loneliness, and he had wanted such a ritual too. He found it amusing that he was like so many of his patients, that he could feel like an orphan at his age. He went for a walk, past the park where the old played Bocce. He refused to think of himself that way, as one of the old. He walked all over the city and when he returned home his cat wrapped herself around his leg and begged to be fed.
Unlike her, he could no longer bear routine.
He’d have to find someone to look after her when he went away.
He had a phobia of flying. He had denied this to his daughter and his wife, had told them that travel was unnecessary once you realized that every place was essentially the same. He pretended a Buddhist sensibility. They had never believed him. Now he bought a ticket to Venice.
He leased his apartment to a conscientious intern on rotations at the hospital and asked him to take care of the cat. He tucked the postcard into his pocket and packed a bag with a few changes of clothing. He’d stay just long enough to gaze at the sea and put his feet in the water. And he wasn’t afraid this time. He felt none of the familiar lack of air and space in the plane, nor the downward pull of gravity. When the flight attendant delivered a plastic plate with chicken and half-frozen carrots, he was surprised that there was, for the first time in months, no aftertaste.
At the airport in Venice, he chose the poorest most disreputable looking taxi driver and careened through the city to the very hotel where his wife and daughter had stayed. He didn’t know what room they had booked. His was on the second floor above the street, away from the canals and the ocean. That evening, he rode a gondola and dined out on shellfish though his guidebook warned against it.
In his suitcase he had packed a rope and instructions for his body. He would spend one more day and one more night, and then he would step off a chair and it would be over. He liked the simplicity of his plan. At a café, he ordered a bottle of Chianti and sipped it at an outside table. A jewelry vendor with large jowls and a neck laden with gold joined him. “A pretty necklace for the wife?”
He bought the cheap, gold necklace and put it into his pocket with the postcard. He offered a glass of wine to the vendor and listened as the man spoke in fragmented English about the many places the psychiatrist should visit. Everything acquired a pretty blur. Under the table, the psychiatrist pulled out the postcard and tore off a bit and popped it into his mouth like a pill, washing it down with more wine. Down the street a woman played guitar and sang the blues. She was American, not Italian. Her voice was ordinary, but a crowd gathered nonetheless. On his way out of the restaurant, he dropped the necklace into her case.
In the morning, it rained. He took his coffee in his room before the open balcony and threw bread to the pigeons. Then he went down to the lobby to wait for his ride to the beach. By the time he reached the sea, the rain had stopped, though the sky remained muddy and not at all like the sky on the postcard. He took off his loafers and his socks and waded into the water near a group of teenagers bodysurfing. A gull circled and dove. He sat down and let the waves soak his trousers and watched sand and water pour through his fingers. The last time he had waded into the ocean was during a semester-long residency in California. He had a lover there, an Irish colleague with perpetually sunburnt skin, and they sometimes spent weekends rollicking at the sea. He eventually came clean to his wife about the affair. It had taken fifteen years for her to forgive him, and he sometimes wondered if this was the reason she hadn’t asked him to come along to Venice.
The teenagers were laughing and when he looked over, one was mimicking him by sitting in the waves and crying into his hands, which sounded especially pathetic in an Italian accent. The psychiatrist stood and walked out of the water. Just you wait, he thought. Your time will come too. His anger surprised him, but so did his embarrassment as he pulled himself from the waves with his pants sticking to his legs. He had lost all sense of propriety, and a part of him was proud for he had always concerned himself too much with the opinions of others.
When he reached his hotel room, he pulled out what was left of the wrinkled, waterlogged postcard—a distant bay, a few sailboats, the red of a boy’s beret. He tore off a piece and was about to place it in his mouth when he remembered the patient who had to be restrained in her bed to keep her from eating the bed railings and even her own hands. He hadn’t truly understood her until then.
He turned the paper scrap over and read the words tomorrow Ferrara. He couldn’t recall his wife or daughter mentioning anything about a town called Ferrara.
That evening on his veranda, he listened to music from a dance club down the street and toyed with the rope in his hands. He couldn’t find a sturdy place in the room to hang it from, and he wouldn’t subject the tourists below to such a horrific display. He made a noose and tied the rope to the shower bar. He moved the chair underneath and climbed onto it. When he stepped off, he found that he had tied the rope too long. It hung slack around his neck. He adjusted the length and tried again. This time the bar ripped from its mounting. He catapulted forward and hit his head on the sink, and imagined the hotelier discovering him collapsed and unconscious next to the toilet. A tourist from Chicago. A psychiatrist no less. Tied a rope to a spring-loaded shower bar. He thought of the many stories he had heard over the years, from patients and doctors alike. If he had succeeded there might have been an autopsy. Belly full of linguini with clams. Cancer survivor. Who would they have contacted for next of kin? He could fill volumes with stories of botched suicides and unclaimed bodies, some so ridiculous you couldn’t help but laugh.
He wiped the blood from his forehead and went to bed.
In the morning, he turned over the stained pillow. Then he looked up Ferrara in his guidebook. It was just a short train ride away. He packed his things. He coiled the rope and stuffed it into the wastebasket under the desk.
At the train station gift shop, he purchased some envelopes and notecards, along with a black and white postcard of a girl waiting for a train with a schnauzer on her lap. Then he stood before the railway map and remembered how his daughter had poured over maps at the dining table when she was a child, tracing her finger from one town to the next just to hear herself pronounce foreign cities. He read aloud from the map now and heard her voice: Ferrara. Malabergo. San Giorgio di Piano. He sat down on a bench and scribbled a note to his renter to deliver to the woman in the apartment across the way. When he was tired of traveling, he would return home and visit her. Tell her I will send others, he wrote. Tell her this is for her happiness. Tell her the next one will be full of color with something good to eat.
Rachel Swearingen is the author of How to Walk on Water and Other Stories, winner of the 2018 New American Press Fiction Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in VICE, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, Off Assignment, Agni, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2015 Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction, a 2012 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and the 2011 Mississippi Review Prize in Fiction. In 2019, she was named one of 30 Writers to Watch by the Guild Literary Complex. She holds a BA from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and a PhD from Western Michigan University, and teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.
Music by Catlofe
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This story below was excerpted from The Invention of Love by Sara Schaff and reprinted here with permission of Split/Lip Press and the author.
The End of the Workshop
For the first evening of class, The Professor asked his new graduate students to bring in one page of their favorite piece of writing. The students had to prepare a little presentation about why they’d chosen the piece, and that particular writer. The Professor had been giving this assignment for over two decades, and he had liked it initially because the students liked it, and because it often informed their discussions for the rest of the semester. But the reason he still liked the assignment was because he no longer listened while the students talked, and the three-hour class passed by without him needing to prepare anything in advance.
Because he did not listen, he had no sense of how hard each of these new students had deliberated over which writer to talk about. They wanted their responses to feel genuine, yet smart. They wanted their admiration to feel real, and to inspire admiration in their classmates and in their professor, too.
He was not famous, and yet they still believed he was powerful. He had the largest office of all the faculty, and the nicest classroom, with wood-paneled walls, and a large, round wooden desk. All of their other classes were in narrow, fluorescent-lit classrooms, at tables they could barely all fit around.
The students did not yet know that this professor did not care who their favorite writers were, but it would soon become clear.
What these students would also learn, from graduate students who had been in the program longer, was that The Professor had once been almost famous, but had been discovered, after his first successful book, to have little actual talent beyond seeing a manuscript through from beginning to end. (A talent they would, themselves, appreciate in a few years.) And so he feared the talent of others.
The talent of his male students, that is. As for the talent in his female students—he did not fear that at all, because he did not see it. He believed that eventually his female students would marry and have children and possibly teach writing in college, maybe even publish a book or two that would sit quietly on the shelf of a used bookstore somewhere in the country, next to other unremarkable novels by women and forgettable men. If he knew one true thing about his female students, it was that they would never be called geniuses.
One of his female students was talking now about the writer she most admired. Outside the tall windows, the sky took on a burning, golden hue. For the first time that evening, The Professor kind of listened. This student was very pretty. Not especially young—thirties, he guessed, but she had the look he liked: pale, full mouth, dark and thoughtful eyes, the kind of face that was approachable, smiled easily, and was, therefore also unlikely to tell him to fuck off.
Hearing the name of the writer she admired—a woman, a contemporary of his (English, not American)—he let out a chuckle.
The pretty student stopped talking. “Excuse me?” she said.
She looked confused, poor girl. In his most gallant voice he said, “Please. Continue.”
She did. She read the page from one of this writer’s novels—not the most famous one, and not one The Professor had read, but one he knew about. The other students seemed to murmur in admiration of the writing, too. They laughed at the funny bits. He did not laugh, because he did not find the bits funny.
Usually, on a first day of workshop he’d simply watch the pretty students’ mouths. He’d allow his eyes to settle on a girl’s breasts, then imagine what it would be like to fuck her. Before fucking her, he might first tell her about the many students he’d slept with, in his distant past. “Oh! You don’t believe me, but I still have their love letters!” he would say, and it was all true. He knew he looked old to them. But once he’d been young and handsome and everyone had said he was going to be the next Great American Novelist.
Normally, he’d allow himself to simply drift away into these pleasant memories, but tonight he felt a new and unexpected irritation behind his eyes. The writer this girl loved—there was no other way of saying it—was famous. Revered even, in some literary circles. And not just as a fiction writer, but as a philosopher. She was a Dame, in fact, and he had once met her at a conference at Harvard. Quite a handsome woman, good figure. But an unattractive haircut, totally unbecoming and boyish. While drinking her glass of bourbon (neat), she had looked past him, through him, and addressed all her remarks to Seamus Heaney, whom, The Professor believed, was also overrated.
He chuckled again.
Then he realized the room had gone silent. He was still staring at the pretty student’s impressive breasts. So he blinked and took off his glasses and cleaned them with his pocket handkerchief and cleared his throat and knew he had to say something. He normally didn’t say much as students went around on the first day with their favorite writers, who were the writers they wanted to become, or who they wanted their peers to think they might become; even he could see that.
He felt he should say something to this poor girl, warn her off such misguided aspirations. He patted the book in front of him, the book he planned to read from at the end, the big finale. It was a hardcover, the dust jacket removed, so no one could read the title or author’s name. “She could have used a better editor,” he said. “Just pages and pages of draff.” He paused, tapped his book again, grinned suggestively. “But a wild drinker, wild life. I could tell you stories!”
The room was quiet. He cleared his throat.
He nodded at the next student, a broad-shouldered Asian-American man who awkwardly lifted the book he’d had his thumb pressed into this whole time, saving the page, waiting for his moment to read and talk about this particular page and these particular words. He looked first, very briefly, at the pretty girl. And then he began to speak in a voice that was too loud for the room.
The Professor could still tune him out. He thought again of the well-regarded writer he’d just maligned. He did not regret maligning her. But a glance at the pretty student’s face and he could tell he’d hurt her. Her mouth was turned down, her eyes averted. For a moment he felt badly, but then he thought her hurt could turn out to be useful.
He was powerful. But not, when he examined it, in the way he wished to be powerful. He knew famous writers, and he knew rich people. He and his wife were, in fact, very rich, and lived in a beautiful house and traveled frequently to Paris, where they had a second home. The combination of these facts gave him the kind of sheen of the near-famous, the power of proximity. He could get away with what he wanted to get away with because of the idea he might introduce people to either fame or fortune or both. He had done so once, many years ago—with a young writer who had received many awards—and so the suggestion remained (whispered in the halls) that he could and would do so again. He was just waiting for the right one. This girl might do.
He scanned the room. Eight men. Four women. It wasn’t a great ratio for him. The boys looked energetic and hungry. They’d all get together after class to talk about workshop and to drink. He suspected they liked to throw back a few. The women—aside from the pretty one? One was too old, one very fat, and the last one, in the seat closest to him, but with one empty chair between them, was Black.
In her twenties, a beautiful age, but skinny as a blade of grass, no tits to speak of, with a thin, hard mouth.
When it finally came to her turn, he listened long enough to hear her say the name of her chosen writer, and the name at first delighted him—because he knew this man well—then irritated him immediately after.
For it was the name of the man he’d once been compared to most often: lauded New England novelist, master of prose, who The Professor knew for a fact—everyone knew—was a terrible womanizer, even though his third wife was incredibly beautiful, a former student, and totally unsuspecting. The Professor admired this writer, envied him, felt flashes of rage anytime he heard good literary news about the old man with the charmed life. He’d done some therapy about it, mostly unhelpful.
The Professor was rarely compared to the Charmed Writer anymore. In fact The Professor was never compared him anymore, or to any other writer, living or dead.
Without him realizing it, something had shifted in the room. This skinny girl had shifted it.
“I mean, yes,” she was saying. “It’s a gorgeous piece of writing. It’s the story that made me want to become a writer.” She paused, looked around the circle, eyes scornful the moment they glanced at The Professor, and continued, “But when I look at it now, I can see it’s just bullshit. It’s good writing—”masculine” writing, they like to say. But it’s empty. All the women in this novel are just vessels for the men’s sexual desires. They’re not real.”
There were some nods of agreement, even from the male students.
The Professor felt his irritation kick in again. “But that wasn’t the assignment, was it?” he said.
Her gaze pierced him. “Pardon?”
“The assignment was to talk about a writer you admire, a writer whose work you love.”
She smiled. Ever so slightly. When she smiled, he found her lovely.
“Well, I did admire him,” she said. She spoke slowly now, confidently. And as she spoke, she radiated a glowing curiosity—which The Professor only recognized as beauty. “And now I don’t anymore.” She looked at him without blinking. “I thought that was an interesting way to consider the assignment: how what we love changes because what we understand changes.”
The pretty girl agreed. “I love that idea. Who knows where we’ll be when we graduate from here, what our writing will look like, who our favorite writers will be?”
One of the male students, a tall man with too much hair, said, “Plus, he’s a total racist. Have you all read the story about the—”
Students were already nodding vehemently.
Now The Professor felt he had to come to the defense of the Charmed Writer, who he disliked, but whose name did not deserve this kind of attack. The man was a Pulitzer-prize winner!
“He’s a really remarkable man, very progressive. His second wife was Chinese.”
The girl who’d first attacked the Charmed Writer proceeded to—he couldn’t believe this—to laugh.
“Good for him,” she said, still laughing. And then she looked straight at him, and her smile faded. He felt her loveliness retreat. She did not look away. Suddenly he felt too hot, the pain in his lower back flared. He looked down at his shirt cuffs and rolled them up, taking his time. Something else radiated from her now, and he thought it best not to name it.
“Well!” he said. He had to bring things to a close. “I suppose it’s my turn now.”
And so he patted the book in front of him, the one he would read from. “I won’t tell you the writer’s name. Perhaps you will be able to guess.”
The pretty student exchanged looks with the skinny one. He didn’t want to examine the look’s meaning.
Initially, he had planned to read a passage from The Sound and the Fury, the book that had made him want to become a writer. But this afternoon while browsing the shelves of the neighborhood secondhand bookstore, he’d changed his mind.
And so he began to read the opening from his very own first novel, the best book he’d written, and honestly the favorite one he’d ever read:
“The end came unexpectedly for Edward. For everyone else, it came as no surprise.”
The Professor paused. He looked around the table and knew, without a doubt, that his students were not listening to him.
He tried not to mind. He still found the words a beautiful surprise. He sometimes liked to read them out loud, sometimes to his wife, when she would let him. (“A triumphant first book,” a critic had written. The same critic who later said, about his third novel, “A dull little portrait of bourgeois domesticity.”)
The Professor had heard the words of his first book as music when writing them and still wanted others to hear them in the same way. Yet he knew they did not. Because today he had found ten copies—four of them signed!—at the bookstore that he visited once a month with the express purpose of torturing himself.
This music was the opposite of torture. Reading his happy first book—a first edition he’d purchased today for $10!—was like falling in love for the first time. No, it was better than falling in love. As good as the first time he fucked an undergraduate student in his office, her huge tits in his hands, his mouth, her knees splayed on his velvet loveseat. (The second time she had cried and kept her clothes on and left right after.) He could remember the color of her hair (red), but he couldn’t remember her name.
Oh, there was so much he did not remember! So much he did not know! For example, he did not know that wanting something desperately did not guarantee having it. He suspected as much, but he did not know it bodily, because for his entire life he had been given so much in exchange for doing very little, and this was a poor lesson for art.
Even after all these years of teaching, he did not know that wanting his students to revere him would only produce in them unintended effects: boredom, disrespect, and in the worst and most frequent case, hatred.
He could see that in the near future, and for the rest of the semester, he would approach the pretty student at campus literary events and tell her how pretty she looked, how flattering her blouse looked, and then make excuses to touch her: her arm, her hair, her pretty tits. These he would touch through a clever technique he had devised. All the girls wore scarves these days, and he would hook his fingers on either side and slowly adjust, so his hands would graze the contours of a girl’s chest.
Alas, he could not see that everyone he tried this with understood what the trick was. And he could not see they warned each other about it. He could not see that though the pretty and polite student would not report him to the administration for his trick, the skinny student would, after watching him perform it on others.
He already suspected that his irritation with this student would soon turn to disgust. He didn’t suspect that in just two months, another faculty member would confront him about the behavior she reported, the behavior everyone knew about already but only now felt they could talk about (because they had to or else: possible lawsuit). His response? He would tell his colleagues how terrible the skinny girl’s writing was, even though it wasn’t. Far from it! It terrified him how good her work was, and how little he understood it.
He could not see that in spite of his treatment of her, that she would flourish. But not in his workshop, and not in the program. That would prove a disaster for her—alienating, isolating, sleepless—and it would take years to recover. Years in which she would barely write or talk to other writers. Instead, she would hop from job to job: ESL instructor in Korea, copywriter in Seattle, textbook editor in Chicago. But eventually she would gather up the dreams of her former self, sit herself down every evening after work for twelve months straight, and she would write it all: all the terrible and beautiful things in her body and mind, and she would use them to conjure a story that would make her readers weep from joy and recognition and relief.
By then, The Professor would be long retired, and living a life many would envy: expensive and comfortable vacations, beautiful grandchildren, all the time he wanted to write. And oh, he would write. But he would not be happy. Especially the first time he opened the newspaper to see his former student’s name on the Bestseller list. Though he would have forgotten her long ago, her name would ring a little warning bell. And he would be especially unhappy, though still unable to pinpoint why, when he saw the cover of her book in the window of his favorite bookstore in town (not the secondhand one). And when the program invited her to campus to give a reading, the current director would invite him in his capacity as Professor Emeritus, and he would attend, expecting a little pleasant fawning from current faculty and staff, but as soon as he saw his former student sitting in the front row, radiant and holding her glorious book, surrounded by young admirers now studying in the program, he would feel immediately ill and have to call his wife to bring the car around.
For now, though, he was delighted: reading his favorite novel aloud to an audience. He finished reading one page, and then he read another. He could recite the words from memory, but he enjoyed the way they looked on the page: a permanent record of his former mind. He suspected that the students who were pretending to take notes were merely writing their own future novels. But he did not care. He read until he couldn’t anymore, until his eyes were too tired and his voice was thin and the sky outside the tall windows had gone completely dark.
Sara Schaff is the author of The Invention of Love (Split Lip Press 2020) as well as a previous collection of stories, Say Something Nice About Me (Augury Books 2016), a CLMP Firecracker Award Finalist in fiction and a 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Award Finalist for short fiction. Her writing has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Gay Magazine, The Missouri Review (BLAST), Yale Review Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, LitHub, and elsewhere. A graduate of Brown University and the MFA program at the University of Michigan, Sara has taught at Oberlin College, the University of Michigan, and St. Lawrence University, as well as in China, Colombia, and Northern Ireland, where she also studied storytelling. Sara lives in the North Country of New York State with her husband, the poet Benjamin Landry, and their daughter. She is an assistant professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh.
Music by Catlofe
Sara Schaff Sara Schaff Sara Schaff Sara Schaff Sara Schaff Sara Schaff Sara Schaff Sara Schaff Sara Schaff Sara Schaff
The following is an excerpt from Jillian in the Borderlands by Beth Alvarado and reprinted with permission from Black Lawrence Press. The excerpt was first published in Eleven Eleven, Summer 2014.
The Dead Child Bride
In which Jillian encounters the dead child bride and is thus saved from the clutches of her neighbor, Mr. Wiley.
Angie O’Malley stood on her porch with her daughter and watched as Wiley drove up. This was in the desert, a thorny landscape of hallucinatory heat where the prickly pear drill their spines into the caliche and hope for rain, where immigrants from regions south seek refuge and snowbirds sunshine, where bureaucrats ban books and brown skin and birth control, where companies design sleek missiles and pour solvents into the soil, where on streets lined with small stucco houses cowboys shoot their guns in noisy celebration on the Fourth of July, and where the bodies of dead girls are sometimes abandoned in alleys. Once only the arms were found; once a seven-year-old was knocked off her bicycle and abducted; once a two-year-old was stolen through the window of her bedroom. Such was the climate and the atmosphere.
Angie had heard that Wiley was just a workingman. He had pulled himself up by his bootstraps from a dusty dot in Texas to this small plot of lawn circled by chain link. Here he could hunt to his heart’s delight and had once followed a deer all the way into Mexico, going against human traffic, avoiding the Minutemen, stepping over the invisible borderline, until the deer, next to a small lake, had stopped and tilted its head to taste the wind. It was an oasis, really, tall trees and dappled sunlight. Birdsong. No wonder the deer was so calm, protected as it thought it was by international law. But Wiley took aim and then, afterwards, he shouldered that carcass and slunk back across the line. If anyone stopped him, he would just say you can’t cross what you can’t see. At least that was his story. And he was going to stick by it.
When Wiley pulled his truck into his driveway, he tipped his cowboy hat in Angie’s general direction, and said, “How’s your daddy,” which she thought odd, since her father had been dead for years, but then she remembered Wiley was a Texan and they had unique ways of speaking there. When he said “daddy,” maybe he meant her ex-husband, Bobby. Or maybe he was talking to her daughter, Jillian, but everyone on the block knew Jillian couldn’t talk. It suddenly occurred to Angie that it would be just like him to set his sights on Jilli, even though she was still just a girl. Hadn’t he romanced his own seventeen-year-old son’s fourteen-year-old girlfriend? Hadn’t he married her?
Angie had heard these stories from Mac, her across-the-street neighbor, who appeared on the front porch daily with tales of woe. Yes, Mac was the neighborhood collector of sorrows. In another country, in another century, she would have been a professional wailer, but here and now she was just a snoop and a dispenser of advice no one wanted to hear.
Angie watched, her arms folded, as Wiley stepped into his house and then, only moments later, back out. He was wearing his cowboy boots and a pair of Speedos. He threw the head of a dead deer into the yard for his dogs to gnaw on and began to mow his grass. Clouds, like large dark turnips, rose in the sky.
Angie and her sister and me, we’re sitting at her kitchen table. It is hot, as in h-o-t, hot. Sunlight melting like butter down the sliding glass door. What with only a swamp cooler and it being July, it’s probably muggier inside than out there under the mulberry trees where the kids are. I’m keeping my eye on Jillian—she’s been known to pinch. Not that I haven’t taught my own kids to fight back. Whatever. It’s that kind of world. Anyways, Angie and Glenda and me, we’re talking about May-December romances because Glenda’s husband Steve has just run off with a student in his first period geometry class. Glenda’s thinking about calling the girl’s parents and the principal, the school board, and the newspaper.
“Add the police to the list,” Angie says, and turns to me. “Don’t you think so, Mac? And the TV news and America’s Most Wanted!”
Not one to take sides, I shrug.
“He wrote me a letter,” Glenda says. “On ordinary notebook paper. Just torn out of a notebook. In pencil.”
How sad is that?
I remind them how Wiley, next door, he’d done the same thing. “But,” I say, “I’m not sure you can call it a May-December romance if the guy’s over forty and the girl a teenager. Plus the girl had first been his son’s girlfriend and he had stolen her away.”
“Steve thinks they’re soul mates,” Glenda sighs. “That’s what he wrote.”
“Soul mates? Now he’s going to have cell mates,” Angie says, and we all laugh although I can tell Glenda’s hurting. She finishes off that Chablis like it’s soda pop.
“He left it right there on the kitchen counter. Where Stevie Jr. could have found it.” Glenda lights a cigarette. “But, you know,” she makes her eyes all squinty, “I can’t remember what I did with it.”
“Burn it,” Angie says, then changes her mind. “Give it to the cops.”
“No, save it for later,” I say. “A little bit of guilt can go a long way.”
I tell them how Wiley first allowed the girl to move in with his son, but the parents showed up and dragged her out of there by the hair, all kinds of drama, including broken windows. And then a few days later, Wiley married her! “Of course, that night we could hear the fighting and yelling. Wiley was beating his son up, saying, this hurts me more than it hurts you. And, why do you make me do this? And, you ungrateful little bastard. In the morning, when the kid moved out, he had a black eye.”
Angie looks at her sister. “What do you do with a dad like that?”
Glenda shrugs. “I haven’t told Stevie Jr. anything yet.”
We look at her. We look at one another. She’s taking this pretty hard.
“When do you think he started sleeping with the girl?” Angie asks—about Wiley, I guess. Not Steve.
“¿Quien sabe?” I say.
Angie gets up to open another bottle. It’s past five, the shadows growing longer. Soon it’ll be time to feed the kids.
“And only a few days later, she set fire to the inside of his house,” I say. “Almost gutted it.”
“In the letter, he included a list of my sins.” Glenda sighs out a lungful of smoke. “But what were they?”
“Sins!” I refill her glass and mine. “Eff him.”
“I heard Wiley had the girl committed,” Angie says. She takes a long look out the sliding glass door to make sure the kids aren’t being mean to one another, as they will be when left to their own devices, especially if one of them is different. “What was his son’s name?”
“Johnny? Ronnie? Tommy?” I say. “Whatever. He has blond hair to his shoulders.” I look with meaning at Glenda. “A nice looking kid, really, if you go for the young ones.”
“Hmm,” Glenda smiles.
“Tit for tat, I always say.”
“Make sure he’s legal,” Angie says.
We raise our glasses and the blood orange that is the sun gets caught there.
“Jilli. Jilli Bean. Wouldn’t you like an itty bit more lunch, sweetie? I made you those frogs on a log you love so much.” Jillian turned off the volume on One Thousand and Three Horrible Ways to Die, a show she was never supposed to watch. She hated it when her mother called her Jilli and she hated it when she talked to her like she was a baby. Mom, I’m not stupid, I’m speechless. That’s what she would have said except for she was speechless.
Why was I born now? she’d intuited to her Maker on that fateful day of her birth, why not in the Good Old Days when she could’ve churned her own butter and milked the cows, although not in that order, and then gone out into the wilds with her handsome hunk of a husband who looked like Clint Eastwood when he was Rowdy Yates on that old Netflix show, when she could have been abducted by an even handsomer—if you went in for the ambiguous ethnic type, which she did, since she was one herself—Indian played by an Italian, a renegade who would ravish her as much as she wanted to be ravished and then when her husband rescued her, he wouldn’t even care because, hello, she’d been ravished and he would love that little half-breed baby just as much as his own tow-heads.
Why now, why in this day and age, she’d wanted to ask, while the mists of heaven were still in her eyes and so for an infinitesimal split-second she could see ahead to the next day when, on her way home from school, she would encounter Wiley next door, well-named because he was so wily, as in Wile E. Coyote, and not a hunk, not by any stretch of the imagination, ethnic or otherwise. She’d seen ahead to the deer’s head in the yard—this is why she would stop and look. The deer’s head. It was a portent. And she knew she would look into its eyes and see alarm there and then the deer would say to her, so clearly, “Do not go into that house, Chick-a-dee. Wile E. is one sick puppy.”
But at that moment, her split seconds of omniscience would end and, like the rest of us, she’d be left in suspense. What did the vision mean? Was it a warning, telling her not to go into the house, telling her she could alter her fate? Or was it simply a sign that she was fated to go into the house?
“Curiosity,” the Deer’s Head would tell her, “curiosity is what killed the cat.”
Not one to ignore a talking Deer’s Head but sure of her own agency, Jillian crept up to the sliding glass door and peered in. There she saw the Child Bride zipping around the kitchen, running her hands through the plates and glasses, trying to knock them off the shelves. When the Child Bride heard Jillian at the window—or perhaps she just sensed Jillian’s presence, such are the powers of the dead—she turned and her hair rose away from her head as if a big Costco fan was blowing and just then Jillian could see through her and realized that the Deer’s Head had done her a solid: old Wiley was one sick puppy but, too late, he was standing on the other side of the glass. He slid open the door: “Why hello, sweet thing. Wanna come in?”
“Don’t eat any of those pills,” the Dead Child Bride warned her, via some sort of strange telepathy, “or drink anything he gives you.”
Jillian closed her eyes and remembered all the episodes she’d seen of One Thousand and Three Horrible Ways to Die in case there were any hints there for her to save herself. But which episode? Death by Impalement? A javelin through the eye? Where would she get a javelin? Death by Decapitation? Not likely. Death by Electrocution, a possibility, since every house had electricity, and then she remembered the one where the guy who was out on parole got an apple shoved in his mouth, he was tied up, trussed up like the pig that he’d proven himself to be. Death by Dominatrix, she thought it was, but she’d closed her eyes so she didn’t know exactly how he died, only that it was an excruciating death which seemed, in her opinion, a fitting way for Wiley to die, too, being as it was like Biblical, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and all that.
And then, as if both the Deer’s Head and the Dead Child Bride had seen her thoughts, when she opened her eyes, that was indeed the scene in the kitchen. The Deer’s Head had gone inside and was floating up near the ceiling shooting lasers from its eyes which somehow pinned Wiley to the wall and the hands of the Dead Child Bride now moved so rapidly as to be only a blur and Wiley’s open mouth had a waxy tangerine stuffed in it. His eyes were bulging out and, behold, unbeknownst to anyone, one of his eyes was glass and it popped out and rolled across the floor to the open door where Jillian was standing.
“Run!” the Deer’s Head said to her.
“Run,” the Dead Child Bride said, “Run!”
Jillian picked up the eye, which was still warm and slightly moist, and ran.
The Dead Child Bride has not always been dead. She remembers, when she was little, how she loved to sit on the lip of the tub before her bath and tip her head back and feel her hair fall down her naked back. She used to move her head from side to side so she could feel her hair like a waterfall or like a big feather; she moved her head so she could tickle her own back, so she could give herself goose-bumps. She remembers other intensely pleasurable things: cherries bursting in her mouth, cold sweet ice cream, the smell of earth when she made mud pies with her brother, the buzzing bees in the lazy garden, running with her strong strong legs, riding bikes, riding in the car with the windows down, wind wind wind wind whipping her long dark hair all around. And thus it was when she died, a wind came and lifted her and she could see, as if she were flying over the whole world, all the other dead child brides—although not all of them were dead, and not all of them were children, and not all of them were brides: a little girl who had been taken through her bedroom window; a woman’s head sticking out of the sand, men gathered around her, arms raised, stones in their hands; women in courtyards, their voices rising in grief; women in apartment buildings, five locks on every door; girls in cars, girls in bars, girls in shopping malls, girls in army uniforms. It made her dizzy.
And now Jillian. And now, again, Wiley. The Dead Child Bride, her heart is cold, she freezes him. She manifests her face as it is now, a skull, the smooth bones, the eye sockets, one caved in where he hit her. “The orbital bone,” she says to him, her voice frosty. “Can you say that, Wiley? Or-bit-al?” She comes so close to him that he can feel the ice in her voice, he can feel that she is not afraid, and then her hair, her long black hair which, in death, has been growing longer and longer, her long black hair, strong as silk, it reaches out like tentacles and strangles him. It is that easy.
Beth Alvarado, who has written extensively about her experiences as a Euro-American woman marrying into a Mexican-American family, has spent most of her life in Arizona. The darkly funny tales in her fourth book, Jillian in the Borderlands, feature visionary experiences, ghosts, faith healers, a deer’s head that speaks, a dog who channels spirits of the dead—and a young woman whose drawings begin to create realities instead of just reflecting them. Alvarado’s essay collection Anxious Attachments, an Oregon Book Award winner, was long-listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Art of the Essay Award. Beth is also the author of Anthropologies: A Family Memoir, and the short story collection Not a Matter of Love, winner of the Many Voices Prize.
Music by Catlofe
Beth Alvarado Beth Alvarado Beth Alvarado Beth Alvarado Beth Alvarado Beth Alvarado Beth Alvarado
The following is excerpted from The Redshirt; Copyright © 2020 By Corey Sobel. Reprinted here with permission of University Press of Kentucky.
The Redshirt by Corey Sobel
I was raised in Sillitoe, Colorado, a suburb in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, ten interchangeable square miles of sagebrush, strip malls, cacti, and ticky-tacky subdivisions. My parents both worked administrative positions for the same multinational mining company that employed most of my town, and like virtually all our neighbors we were as pale as the snowy peaks visible from my bedroom window and Christian in a perfunctory, most-Sundays sense—Roman Catholic, to be exact.
Such relentless uniformity magnified the smaller differences between people, which is how a white-bread kid like me got singled out as a weirdo. It started with my voice, a faint, airy, tentative thing that my classmates mockingly transformed into a lispy soprano and that the adults who called our house would mistake for a little girl’s (failing to stifle their laughter when I corrected them). Raising my hand in class, yelling out on the playground, even saying good morning to the school bus driver could lead to humiliation, and by second grade I had developed a quiet, watchful manner to limit my exposure. In the way these things go, it was my quietness, and not the bullying, that prompted my teacher Ms. Munson to call Mom and Dad in for a conference one autumn afternoon. Ms. Munson informed my parents that “Miles displays antisocial tendencies”—which, in a town that prides itself on sunny friendliness, was like saying your son’s got a horn growing in the middle of his forehead.
My parents scrambled to find a cure. They conscripted classmates into play dates, but since those kids were often the same ones who bullied me at school, the sessions just led to more alienation. A halogen lamp was set up in the corner of my bedroom on the theory that I needed more light, but all the lamp got me was scalded fingers when I tried removing the bulb. I was taken to something called a “friendship specialist,” a charlatan who conned my parents out of a sizeable chunk of their modest salaries via hourlong sessions in which I practiced things like shaking hands or making eye contact.
The next, worst remedy came after I sat for a state-mandated aptitude test that spring. Ms. Munson called my parents in again, but this time she was all smiles as she showed off my unusually high test scores and pronounced that the real root of the problem was that I wasn’t being challenged enough by my classwork. It was Ms. Munson’s recommendation that I skip a grade, and my parents, blinded by the pride of having a gifted son, didn’t consider the questionable logic that led my teacher to her conclusion, nor the disastrous implications of me going from being the meek, weak-voiced kid in class to being the meek, weak-voiced kid who was also a head shorter and a year younger than his peers. Which is precisely what I became when I was advanced to the third grade.
At this point, a lot of kids in my position would have thrown up their hands and cultivated rich interior worlds to compensate for the exterior one that insisted on misunderstanding them. But I was an only child, and the last thing I wanted was more alone time to crawl even further inside my wormy brain. Beneath my shyness was a burning desire to be accepted, a sharp hunger to homogenize. And in Sillitoe, Colorado, the easiest way for a boy to do that was to love football.
Organized ball started in fourth grade, and I spent the preceding summer reading Sports Illustrated articles and counting down the days until my first practice. When the holy morning finally arrived, Mom took off the first half of work to drive me to my state-mandated physical. I doubt a pediatrician has ever had a patient more eager to drop his drawers and cough as her cold hand cupped his testicles. Then we visited a sporting goods store downtown, where I obtained a jockstrap as big as my face and the first cleats of my young life, low-cut Nike Sharks the color of tar. My parents switched duties at noon, so that Mom headed to work while Dad drove me to a municipal park with the Rockies’ Front Range lording over it. When we pulled into the parking lot, I begged Dad to stay in the car—I wanted to show off my independence to my new teammates—and as I stepped alone into the hot, dry August afternoon and crossed the parking lot in my cleats, I felt like an astronaut taking his first steps on Mars. My confidence lasted until I spotted my teammates on the practice fields, the same kids who bullied me at school, including Gus Mintaur, an ice-eyed Aryan who was in the habit of “accidentally” pouring milk down my back in the cafeteria. I began wishing, desperately, that Dad was close by.
A whistle was blown and we took a knee around our head coach, Frank Johannsen. Coach Johannsen was redwood tall and just as mightily built, with a broad hairy chest that imposed swirls through his T-shirt’s fabric and gray cloth Champion shorts that showed off calves so big I was put in mind of a National Geographic photo of a boa constrictor that had swallowed a deer whole.
I didn’t catch much of his opening speech, distracted by Gus and the other kids who were looking at me and whispering. Johannsen ordered us to form a line for warm-up sprints, and as we did, Gus made a crack about the supposed tightness of my shorts. I looked over at the parking lot, where Dad had gotten out of the car to watch us. I could run over and tell him to speed us away from this horrible place. I could beg him and Mom to homeschool me and never say the word “football” again. But then the whistle sounded and I was sprinting in my gangly boyish way, my anxiety receding a little bit more with each step forward. I wasn’t at the head of the pack, but I wasn’t bringing up the rear, either. I was right in the middle, happily absorbed into the thudding, gasping masses.
I was made an outside linebacker. I took to the position fanatically, and within a few weeks Coach Johannsen was bringing me magazine profiles of greats like Lawrence Taylor and Junior Seau, loaning me hand-labeled VHSs of all-time college and NFL games, staying after practice to work with me on stance and footwork. Dad was delighted I’d been singled out, but Mom grew suspicious of a man with no wedding band showing her son so much individual attention. One Sunday, she invited him over for dinner to get a closer look, and her fears were quickly allayed. Coach Johannsen was simply exhilarated to have found a player so precociously obsessed with the game, and by the end of that dinner Mom had gone from worrying my coach was a pedophile to insisting he come over again the next Sunday.
These dinners became a weekly tradition, and over the course of that season we learned Coach Johannsen’s improbable story. He grew up in a Montana town too tiny for a traffic light, the youngest son of a ranch manager. His two older brothers dropped out of high school to work with their father, and Coach Johannsen would have followed suit had he not been encouraged by his high school’s football coach to put his unusual size and strength to use in another way. He started playing eight-man ball and became a legend in the area, feared by opponents and cheered by a town that didn’t have much else to cheer for. Toward the end of his senior season, a University of Wyoming recruiter drove up from Laramie to watch him play. The fantastical stories the recruiter had heard were true, and the man was so impressed by Johannsen’s performance that he offered him a scholarship in the school parking lot after the game.
Rapt, I listened to Coach Johannsen tell how he went on to be the first person in his family to earn a college degree and, more important, a four-year starter named All-American in his final two seasons. He was selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the New York Jets and signed a contract for more money than he’d thought a man could earn in his entire lifetime. But then his ascent mysteriously, abruptly ended. Coach Johannsen never made it to New York. In fact, he only got as far as Sillitoe when he pulled off the highway and found work as a number cruncher in the accounting department of the same mining company that employed my parents.
Why in God’s name would someone forgo such fame and fortune? Coach Johannsen was an amiable sort, gracious and exceedingly easy to talk to, but on this subject he became what you might call warmly diffident. Whenever my parents tried prying into why he’d quit the game, he would just smile in a way that said he didn’t mind at all that they were asking, but he had no intention whatsoever of answering.
I was stumped myself. Rejecting the NFL was like refusing the gift of flight.
By age twelve my pulse started racing at the oddest moments—whenever gym class ended and it was time to hit the showers, or when the warm weather returned and my male classmates resumed wearing T-shirts and shorts. A group assignment would be announced in biology and I would find myself in a lose-lose bind: if I was partnered with the boy I wanted to be paired up with, I would become unhelpably nervous when we worked together, thereby reconfirming my reputation as a weirdo; but if I wasn’t partnered with him, I would fall into a quietly violent funk that ended only once I developed an obsession with a different boy. Then there were the magazines. I’d been keeping a collection of my favorite back issues of Sports Illustrated in a blue trunk in my bedroom since I was seven, and since that age I had happily spent hours alone in my room rereading articles about football’s greats. But as I got deeper into middle school, the magazine’s photographs took on a new significance, and now when I lay on my stomach in bed looking at, say, the photo of a tennis star whose shirt had lifted in mid-serve to expose bronze belly hair, I would start imagining the coarser hair that curled beneath the elastic band of his shorts.
My body’s inner upheavals were compounded by outer ones. I had a tremendous growth spurt the summer before eighth grade, six inches and twenty pounds in just three months. This explosion coincided with daily weight-lifting sessions overseen by Coach Johannsen at our local YMCA, and by the end of the summer my body’s soft meadows and gentle valleys had transformed into hardpan plains and sheer cliffs. My voice started changing, too, deepening in fits and starts like a 747 making its final descent through a nasty storm. My metamorphosis caused a dramatic reversal in my social prospects, making me someone boys wanted to befriend and girls wanted to date; and yet I knew that caution was paramount in a town where “faggot” and “fairy” were the epithets of choice. So rather than turn into some big man on campus, I became an amiable cipher: I was friendly with male classmates but didn’t trust myself enough to develop any real friendships, and I went on enough dates with girls to avoid suspicion but used the Catholicism I bought less every mass as an excuse to squirm out of anything sexual.
Realizing I was gay placed me in better stead than many preteens like me, kids who also lived in little conservative towns in the heart of the heart of this country, but my self-knowledge only led me to face the next, even bigger quandary. I was indisputably gay and indisputably a football player, and yet all I had to do was look at the swimsuit editions of those same Sports Illustrateds or listen to my teammates argue over which of our cheerleaders had the best tits to know that “gay” and “football player” did not equate. It was like the transitive law I was learning about in math class, in which A=B, A=C, and so B=C—except that everywhere I looked, everything I heard, everything I was taught was telling me B could never, ever, equal C.
I hoped, prayed, that this irreconcilability would change—but for now I funneled all my passions into the game, and at thirteen was rewarded with the glorious experience of seeing my talent for football catch up to my enthusiasm for it. I was the only freshman at Sillitoe High to make varsity, and by the fourth game of the season I earned a starting spot, the first freshman in a decade to do so. As the weak-side outside linebacker, I led our team in tackles, sacks, and interceptions.
My profile continued rising in our town, and soon started to expand beyond it. One Saturday afternoon toward the end of the fall semester, I received a letter with the University of Colorado’s address on its upper left corner and the school’s leaping buffalo mascot beneath.
I was impressed by how you played your butt off in the fourth quarter against Highlands Ranch. That’s the kind of heart we look for at the University of Colorado.
That spring, I was nodding off in the back of my history class when I was slapped awake by a loudspeaker announcement summoning me to my head coach’s office. I leapt out of my seat, knowing there was only one reason why this would be happening, and when I reached the coach’s office at the back of the gymnasium I found a hastily shaved white man in khaki pants and a polo shirt with the University of Utah’s logo stitched to the right breast. The Utah coach extended his hand to greet me, and I knew to keep my whole body rigid for what came next: not merely a handshake, not only a greeting, but a sanctioned form of groping in which the coach would simultaneously squeeze my hand like a fruit he wanted to juice and use his other hand to pat me first on my right trap muscle, then on my shoulder, then encircle my arm with his fingers so he could touch both biceps and triceps. He was testing my musculature, seeing whether this boy was made of the man-stuff that’s a must for this game. He nodded, but then asked the dreaded question.
—What’s your weight?
I was beginning to appreciate the world-historic injustice of skipping the second grade. It had made me a year younger than the players I was competing against for a scholarship, made me a good ten pounds too light for an outside linebacker—and this regardless of the fact that under Coach Johannsen’s supervision I was eating a daily fourth meal we called “superdinner” and drinking wretched sludgy protein shakes whenever my stomach had the slightest vacancy. In theory I could have lied to the Utah coach about my weight, but to have lied to a coach was unthinkable to me in those days. So I told him the truth and watched the light die in his eyes.
—Well, he said, trailing off. You still got some time to grow.
I did have time, and did grow over the next year—not to mention having another excellent season—and yet remained undersized and watched as the quality of the programs sending letters to my house and emissaries to my high school grew more obscure. By my junior year, panic began setting in. Now college coaches were allowed to call me on the telephone, but as fall turned to winter, and then winter to spring, I only received calls from programs from the lower divisions, 1AA and 2, places I wasn’t interested in.
Senior season, I was selected first team All-County and second team All-State. Letters arrived by the dozen, and I received calls from coaches almost every week, since they were unrestricted for seniors. But the only scholarship offers were from 1AA and 2 schools, and to the consternation of my parents I declared I would never consider anything other than a D1 ride and would attend college only when I was in possession of one. I knew my parents needed the financial help more than ever, but I also knew, knew, I was D1 caliber and was convinced that to choose a school in a lesser echelon would have been to deny my destiny.
At last, mercy. The night before the final game of high school, I received a phone call that, while not ending with a scholarship offer, did end with an invitation to make an official campus visit that coming January. The call was from the King College Monarchs, about which I knew precisely three things: 1) King was in Blenheim, North Carolina; 2) it was one of the best academic schools in the country; and 3) it was the very worst football program in all of Division One.
Barrel-bottom King’s program was, I felt like royalty when I took my official visit that January. The first plane ride of my young life was on the college’s dime, as was the hotel room I stayed in that weekend—a Marriott suite where I was greeted by a gigantic cookie cake welcoming me to KING FOOTBALL COUNTRY and a queen-sized bed that would have taken up every inch of floor space in my room back home. Recruits were treated to feasts of fatty proteins and sauce-slathered carbs, given personal tours of King’s weight room, film rooms, and locker room, and on Saturday morning led down a long dark tunnel that opened onto King’s horseshoe-shaped stadium, where we’d stood on the 50-yard line and watched our names flash onto the Jumbotron screen while an announcer’s voice boomed out an imaginary play-by-play in which we each made epochal tackles or touchdowns on behalf of King. But what made all this more than a just glorified getaway was my meeting with George Zeller, King’s newly crowned head coach. Coach Zeller, at last, granted me my heart’s greatest wish—an offer of a full scholarship. Unlike the other recruiters, Coach Zeller had seen an upside in the fact that I was still only sixteen.
I signed my Letter of Intent the first Wednesday of February, and that weekend we had Coach Johannsen over for a celebratory dinner. Mom was already becoming nostalgic about me leaving for college, and that night she served dishes I would miss when I was away—beef stroganoff, potato and mushroom casserole seasoned with French Onion soup powder, bread pudding with golden raisins. Dad all the while nattered on ecstatically about my new teammates (who he promised would soon become my best friends) and Coach Zeller (the man guaranteed to lead us to the promised land).
Coach Johannsen pinged between Mom and Dad—alternately sentimental and ecstatic. Up to then, the fanciest outfit I’d seen him wear was a pair of faded blue jeans and a stretched-out polo shirt, but that night he was in dark slacks, a pressed white oxford shirt, and the gold Wyoming class ring he kept polished to a high shine. He hugged me more times that evening than he had in the decade I’d known him, and when hugging wasn’t an option he would watch me with a pride so intense I’d have to look away. He’d brought three bottles of merlot, and over the course of dinner I watched his teeth darken with the wine.
My parents called it a night, leaving Coach Johannsen and me to sit at the table. Soon Coach drifted into the past, reminiscing about his own freshman year of college, how Laramie had seemed like the fanciest place on the planet. He told me playing-days stories I’d never heard, as well as about the thrilling, out-of-body experience of sitting in his off-campus apartment while he got the call about the NFL draft. I perked up, thinking I would finally learn why he hadn’t played for the Jets; but when Johannsen finished talking about the draft, he just grew quiet and licked his lips, staring at the three empty bottles arrayed on the table. Suddenly, he pushed back his chair and stood, steadying himself by holding onto the table’s edge. He asked me to drive him home.
A blizzard had swept through the state earlier that week, and though the strong Colorado sun had melted away most of the snow, the storm system wasn’t quite done. Violent gusts lashed the long blond grass that lined the roads’ shoulders, ripping tumbleweeds from their roots and sending them skittering across the pavement. The wind knocked my dad’s small Dodge Colt from side to side, forcing me to white-knuckle the steering wheel. Coach Johannsen calmly watched the dark shape of the Rockies fill the windshield as we drove west.
I thought I heard him say something.
He used the hand crank to roll down his window. He lifted his face to the cold air, wind blasting through his thinning red hair.
—You’re going to show people when you get there, he finally said. It’s like Zeller told you. You are . . . you’re a diamond.
We pulled into his condo’s parking lot, where leftover sand laid down for the blizzard whirled in little eddies. I parked in front of Coach Johannsen’s unit.
—Were you listening? he said.
—Yeah, Coach. I’m a diamond.
He unbuckled his seatbelt, but only so he could face me more fully.
—You can play at King. And you can go to the League. But listen to me, Miles. People are gonna tell you college is when you’re supposed to open up. That . . . that you can be the person you can’t be at home. Bullshit. There are no second chances in football. You have one chance.
He was holding up his index finger to reinforce that number—one.
—Do you want me to help you get upstairs?
—Listen to me, goddamn it!
He paused, breathing hard.
—You got the rest of your life to be what you are. Life is long. Too fucking long. You just keep making football your love. And love—love can come after.
I realized I was clasping the steering wheel so hard my hands were starting to tremble. Every time I thought Coach Johannsen had intimated he knew I was gay—a glance, an oddly slanted laugh—I had dismissed it as wishful thinking. He would hate me if he knew, would never talk to me again, abandon me, scorn me. But he knew. He’d known. And understanding this now was at once exhilarating and dreadful. Exhilarating because he seemed to be telling me he wasn’t disgusted, that he was willing to sit and breathe not eight inches from where I sat and breathed, that he had been my greatest advocate for years even though he’d known. And dreadful because I had been convinced I was an expert at hiding myself and was now being told I was anything but—that I was giving off signals that were invisible to me or, worse, had fooled myself into thinking weren’t signals at all.
—Yes sir, I said.
I released the wheel and softly exhaled, hoping he would sit with me for a while. But he opened the door and gripped the top of the frame with both hands, clumsily hauling himself out of the car. He slammed the door and stuck his fists into his pockets as he hunched through the wind.
I remained parked there, trying to decide whether he had meant to slam the door.
Corey Sobel is a graduate of Duke University, where he was a scholarship football player and received the Anne Flexner Award for Fiction and the Reynolds Price Award for Scriptwriting. He has reported on human rights abuses in Burma, served as an HIV/AIDS researcher in Kenya, and consulted for the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations. He has written for numerous publications, including HuffPost, Esquire.com, and Chapel Hill News. He is the author of The Redshirt.
Music by Catlofe
Corey Sobel Corey Sobel Corey Sobel Corey Sobel Corey Sobel Corey Sobel Corey Sobel Corey Sobel
WVU Press has granted The Other Stories podcast permission to reprint Gwen Goodkin’s story, “The Key,” which appears in her new collection A Place Remote.
I have a couple friends in school who are latchkey kids like me. We all know—better than the kids who spend their afternoons with someone—what it’s like to be scared of our own houses. A creak, a sudden knock, the snap of an icicle will send us running. Where to, we aren’t sure. We just sprint. The big difference between me and those friends is that all of their parents are alive. I’m the only one whose dad is dead.
My friends and I get on separate busses at the end of the day. We wave goodbye as we ride away from each other. I’m on the bus headed home and just caught sight of the crooked pine at corner of my street. Every time I see that tree, my body starts a countdown for the exact number of seconds I need to get to the bathroom. I move to the empty seat behind the driver so I’m ready. I stick my hand inside my coat to unfasten the key from the safety pin and—I can tell by how quickly the pin moves, how thin it feels—the key isn’t there.
I hurry down the steps of the bus and cross the street. The cold makes the bones in my hands hurt. Fresh snow covers this morning’s dull snow. It looks stiff and tricks me into thinking I can step on it, that, sure, I can take the shortcut across the yard—but I drop through. The skin of my ankle is wet. The wind is a burn.
I check under the rock and—no spare.
I’m on my front porch and I have to go so bad that I can’t hold it anymore. I grab a handful of pants and underwear and force it up my front so I can walk. I reach for the door and try the knob, even though I’m sure it’s locked. The knob turns. I pull my hand away, like it’s been stung.
Did I forget to lock the door this morning? I’m not completely sure because this morning seems like any other. But then I remember—Jimmy, the push-ups. I was in a rush. The urge to get to the bathroom is so strong I feel like I might throw up.
I open the door a crack, then a little wider. I search the dim for movement or a noise, but the house is quiet and still.
Before school today my brother and I were in the kitchen and his muscles were out. Even though it’s winter and Mom calls herself the heat miser, Jimmy refuses to wear a shirt. He says he’s hot. I say he’s showing off the muscles lined up on his stomach like straight teeth.
“Dawn,” he said. “Watch.”
He put an arm behind his back and did some quick push-ups against the table. Then he switched.
I looked at him like I couldn’t have been more bored. “Big gym test today?”
He stood up and flexed, smiling huge, pleased with himself. He pulled a box of cereal from the cupboard and poured in a mouthful. He went to the fridge, got the milk and opened his lips just wide enough to add some. I checked the clock. Six minutes ’til the bus. Jimmy ate and smiled, milk running down the side of his chin.
“Who needs a bowl?” A piece of cereal flew from his mouth and landed in front of my orange juice.
“Gross,” I said. “I have to leave now or I’ll miss the bus.”
I washed my glass in the sink and set it on the dish towel.
He was blocking me. I could’ve gone around, but if I did, he’d get annoyed and tease me and then I’d really be late.
“Whatever you do”—he chewed and chewed until he finally finished, then jabbed his finger at the front door—“do not open that fucking door when you’re here alone.” He wiped his chin. “Got it?”
He jiggled the window to make sure it was locked. “And don’t forget the key.”
About a month ago when Mom found me rinsing the hem of my pants in the laundry sink, she said, “Can’t you wait ’til you’re inside to go?”
“I do wait.” I sprayed stain remover on the hems and rubbed. “Sometimes I forget the key and I hold it for as long as I can, then I just can’t anymore. That’s when I go behind the bush.”
“What if someone sees you?”
“No one sees me.”
Then she said, “It isn’t that difficult, Dawn—to remember the key.”
She didn’t care about the key really. She only cared that her boyfriend, Mitch, and the neighbors knew her kids did dirty things like pee outside.
When Mitch moved in, Jimmy gave him a chance. They watched hockey together and talked about football. But little by little, Mitch started to act like he owned the place, like we were living in his house, instead of how it really was. First we couldn’t eat macaroni and cheese for dinner because Mitch didn’t like cheese, and pretty soon the only thing on TV was the news. Then what I think really set Jimmy off was that he took Jimmy’s parking spot and Jimmy had to start parking off the alley in the back.
I complained to my brother that I didn’t like Mitch being there. Jimmy only shrugged and said he wasn’t home much and he’d be gone soon enough so what’d he care? But I knew my brother. Jimmy and Mitch pretended not to notice each other, but really they were like a pair of wrestlers circling, waiting for the first one to make a move.
One night after dinner, I passed Mitch reading the paper at the kitchen table and went in the bathroom. Just as I was pulling up my pants, he opened the door. I dropped and crossed my arms over my lap.
“Sorry,” he said, shutting the door. “I didn’t realize you were in here.”
When I came out, he was back at the table reading the paper like nothing happened. Jimmy was at the sink washing a casserole dish. He glanced up at me. He knew same as me it was no accident. He went back to scrubbing and I made my way to the family room. Soon Mitch wandered in, sat in his chair, and turned on the news. Then Jimmy came in with his jaw twitching, went straight for the remote, and changed the channel.
It seemed like Mitch was going to let it pass, but then he said, “It’s time for the news. Switch it back.”
“What’s so important that you have to know?” said Jimmy. “Isn’t there anything else on TV? Dawn doesn’t need to see this junk all the time. Murders and gas station robberies.”
“Do you pay any of the bills in this house? Because I do,” said Mitch. “I pay the cable bill and that means I will watch whatever I want. Turn on. The news.”
“Oh, you pay one bill and think you run the place?”
Mitch leaned over and snatched the remote from Jimmy, who stood next to Mitch, arms crossed, smiling down at him. Then Mitch opened his can of pop.
“Diet pop is for pussies,” said Jimmy.
Mitch jumped up from the chair, grabbed Jimmy by the T-shirt and slammed him against the wall.
“Do not call me that,” Mitch said.
I saw in Jimmy’s eyes he was going to beat Mitch to hamburger.
“Do it, Jimmy,” I said.
They both looked at me.
Jimmy saw his chance and got an arm around Mitch’s shoulders, kicked his legs out from under him, and slammed him on the ground so hard I heard the breath leave. Jimmy put Mitch in a headlock and started choking him, and Mitch bucked backwards in quick jerks, like a dog trying to escape its collar.
Mom rushed in from the kitchen and smacked Jimmy’s head over and over, coming at him from both sides until he had to let go to defend himself.
If she weren’t our mom, Jimmy would have punched her. He had his fist cocked like he was going to, but the thinking side of him snapped together and he realized it was his mom he was about to knock out.
I watched them, held tight, and a whisper came out of me that I couldn’t stop. “Do it.”
None of them heard me—the three of them were all shouting and arguing. Jimmy said if Mitch ever touched him again, he’d kill him.
“What kind of kids are you raising here? Threatening to kill me?”
Jimmy turned to Mom. “He walked in on Dawn in the bathroom. Tried to pretend it was an accident.”
“It was an accident.”
“No it wasn’t,” I said. I was enjoying this. Revenge. Finally.
“You’re lucky Mom stopped me,” said Jimmy. They were moving closer to each other, like the fight was about to start all over again. Mom got between them.
“You know what? I don’t need this shit in my life.”
“But you do need a house and you sure found yourself a good, free one here,” said Mom.
“Free,” said Mitch with a sneer. “You should pay me to put up with these kids.”
“We’re done,” said Mom.
“Yes, we are,” said Mitch. “He needs to leave. Why don’t you go to one of your buddies’ houses for the night? Get out and see what it’s like on your own.”
“I think we all know who’s leaving,” said Jimmy. “And it isn’t me.”
Mitch bent down, grabbed the remote, switched the TV back to the news, and sat down in his chair.
Jimmy and me looked at Mom, waiting for her to do something. She just threw up her hands and shrugged.
“Oh, no,” said Jimmy. “Nope. You got two choices, Mitch. Leave on your own or wait ’til the cops get here.” Jimmy grabbed the phone and started dialing. “Hi, yes,” he said. “There’s a guy in my house who beat me up and he’s—”
Mitch rushed Jimmy. “Hang up that phone.”
Jimmy sprinted across the room, away from Mitch. “He’s trying to do it again.” He gave them our address and ran outside.
Mitch yelled at Mom, “I can’t believe you let him get away with that! If I was his dad, he’d’ve had his skull cracked a long time ago.”
“The cops are going to be here soon,” said Mom.
Mitch could see where things were headed. He grabbed his keys and slammed the front door so hard he shook the house.
A couple nights later I woke up to Mom and Jimmy whispering in the hall.
“What kind of noise was it?” said Jimmy.
“Like . . . ,” said Mom.
I got out of bed and peeked through my door. Jimmy’s bedroom light was on. Mom was wearing her thin, blue nightgown, the one that shows too much. I wished she would give the nightgown away or throw it in the trash.
“Like a pop can opening,” she said.
Jimmy and Mom stared at each other. Mitch. Every night after dinner, the TV then, sss-snap.
Jimmy held a knife. The handle was the color of my ugly garnet birthstone. The blade was curved and speckled with rust, which told me it was Dad’s, pulled from the deep of the basement.
Jimmy started toward the steps.
Mom caught him by the arm. “No. Don’t.”
He twisted free and moved slowly downstairs. Mom followed. I looked behind me at my dark room and suddenly it seemed like the best place for a bad person to hide, so I got out of there.
The pop can was on the kitchen counter. Mom’s back was against the wall with the phone in her hand. “I’m calling the cops.”
“No.” Jimmy checked behind the couch. “Not yet.”
“The can isn’t open,” I said. Someone could have set it there and forgot. I picked up the can. “And it’s warm.”
Jimmy came toward me. His eyes were mean, like when I open his door without knocking. I backed away. He grabbed the can from my hand. “It’s diet,” he said. “Who drinks diet?”
I wanted to say Mom drinks diet, but I kept my mouth shut.
He pointed with the knife. “Next to Mom. Go.”
The reason Jimmy acted so tough this morning was because of yesterday. Yesterday I went in the house and started homework right after school. I do that when I have the key. Soon as I got up to make a snack, the phone rang.
“Guess who this is,” said a man.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I thought hard. “I can’t.”
“I have a sore throat. My voice is different. That’s why you don’t know who it is.”
I kept quiet.
“Now do you know who it is?”
He turned his face from the phone like he was talking to someone else. “Mitch?” he said. “No . . . not Mitch.”
“I’m hanging up,” I said.
“No. No, I’m just joking with you,” he said. “It’s Mitch.”
“You don’t sound like Mitch.”
“Like I said, I have a sore throat.” He laughed for no good reason, and then asked, “Do you ever get sick?”
I didn’t answer. It was a stupid question.
“Because when I get sick I want to feel better.” His breath was loud in my ear. “Can you do that for me, Dawn? Make me feel better?” His voice changed. He wasn’t joking anymore. “I know how you can make me feel better, Dawn.” He sucked in air through his teeth.
How did he know my name? He wasn’t Mitch and he knew my name. I made tight fists and tried hard as I could not to cry. I hung up the phone and backed into the corner and looked around the room.
The front blinds were open. I dropped to the floor and crawled. I tried not to cry, but everything was coming out when I breathed. I reached for the cord and pulled the blinds closed. What if he was outside watching me? He saw me close the blinds and knew where I was. I tried to stop crying and I tried not to scream, but I screamed and screamed.
“What’s going on?” The stairs shook as Jimmy ran down.
“You’re here?” I screamed.
“I came in the back,” he yelled.
“He’s coming to get me!” I screamed.
“Who?” he shouted.
I screamed and screamed. “The man on the phone is coming to get me.” I didn’t want to cry in front of Jimmy. He needed to know I was tough. “He said he was Mitch, but he wasn’t.” I took a breath. “He said my name.” A sob caught in my throat. “He knew my name.”
Jimmy’s face relaxed and I saw he wanted to hug me like when he was young. Then his eyes got mean. “It was him.”
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t.”
“He had something to do with this. Trust me.” He pulled up the blinds and stared out the window and said, “I’m going to make him pay.”
I wiped my eyes. “How?” My voice was flimsy. I hated the sound of it.
“Beat him senseless.”
“Sure,” I said.
He looked straight at me. “You don’t think I could?”
“I was the enforcer in hockey,” he said, quiet now. “You know what that means, right? It was my job to beat guys up. My only job.”
I pushed a hand against the wall and stood. “Then go do your job.”
I’m standing at my front door, searching the dim, waiting for Jimmy to answer from his room upstairs.
“Jimmy?” I say again, louder.
If he’s home, he’s in his room. After Dad died, Jimmy shut himself up in there, like if he stayed inside, he could make life stop. He could close the door and everything would stay like it was and never change and the bad stuff couldn’t get in. But now I know—better than Jimmy, even—the bad stuff always finds a way.
Jimmy doesn’t answer and now my body recognizes that a bathroom is close.
I step through the door, out of the cold. The heater starts, and a breeze of air flows through the vents. I climb the stairs still holding my pants and barely make it to the bathroom, but I do and the relief is like coming up for air after a long swim. Just before I walk into the hall, I stop myself and listen. I wait a few seconds, then move toward Jimmy’s room. His door is almost shut, but not latched. I push it open, holding my breath.
He isn’t here and I’m sure I’m alone, so I go to his closet and sit on the floor with my knees pulled in high. All I can think is that tomorrow I’ll have to come in by myself again, wondering. Even if I have the key.
Directly in front of me is Jimmy’s hockey stick. He stopped playing a couple years ago, right after Dad died. Just put his stick in the closet and never got it out again. I reach for it. It’s bottom-heavy and weird to hold because the stick is square, not round, and all corners.
I step out of the closet and swing it, hitting an imaginary puck. The stick clips Jimmy’s lamp and a chunk of ceramic lands on the nightstand with dust crumbles around it.
The stick rights itself in my hands, the toe always wants to point down. I stare at the gap in the lamp—and then I swing. I’m smashing the lamp to pieces and I can’t stop. The lightbulb, the shade, the metal ring at the top. I’m breathing heavy, realizing what I’ve done and adding up how mad Jimmy’s going to be at me, for being in his room alone, for breaking his lamp, for daring to pick up the stick, for being alive, because, really, that’s what he’s mad about, that we’re all alive, especially him—when the door creaks open.
The blood pulses in my cheeks and suddenly my head feels like it might pull away from my body and float. I cannot pass out.
I push my back into the corner and hold the stick as tight as I can. I check the window and calculate how fast I can get it open and jump out.
“Dawn,” he says. “I want . . .” He’s searching for the right words. “I’m here to apologize.” He moves a step toward me. His face is a mess of bruises and cuts.
“Don’t come any closer.” I lift the stick so I can swing it like a bat.
“A buddy of mine—not even a good buddy, just a guy I know really—thought it’d be funny to call and mess with you,” says Mitch. “Last night he told me what he did and I . . .” He lifts his hand. It’s taped and two fingers are puffy and purple.
Yesterday after the phone call, after Jimmy and I had stopped yelling at each other, he left the front room and I followed him. He grabbed his keys.
“You’re not leaving me here alone,” I said.
He looked at me, picked up the phone, and dialed. “Hey. Is your sister home?” He listened. “I’ll be over in a few minutes with Dawn. You gotta help me with something.”
He took me over to his friend Pete’s house and left me with Pete’s sister, Molly. We watched TV on their couch without talking ’til Jimmy and Pete came home, energy popping off them. Jimmy’s knuckles were scraped up and bloody. Pete kept sniffing his nose, like he’d suddenly developed a cold, but I saw dried blood in one of the nostrils. On the drive home, I asked Jimmy where he went.
“None of your business,” he said.
“How did you get in?” I ask Mitch.
“The door was open,” he says. “I knocked, but no one answered.”
We stare at each other. I haven’t moved an inch.
He lifts his hands and says, “That’s all I wanted to say.” One hand is bandaged and the other is holding something with the last three fingers. He takes a step back like he’s surrendering or something and Jimmy comes up behind him and gets him in a chokehold. He grabs for Jimmy’s arm, but Jimmy isn’t going to let go this time and he’s pulling Mitch backwards towards the ground. Mitch’s eyes close and he slumps. Jimmy lets him drop.
“Is he dead?” I ask, panicked.
“No, just passed out.”
Jimmy looks like he used to before Dad and everything else—boy eyes and a standstill jaw that’s quit the constant flexing. I’m sure he’s going to hug me, and it makes me happy that my brother is back, the one who used to play games with me, the one I used to watch cartoons with on Saturday mornings, just the two of us, quiet, eating cereal. I’m proud that I know my brother better than anyone else.
“Give me the stick,” he says.
“Why?” My breath is coming fast. I’m scared of what he’s going to do. “He said he didn’t do it. He said he beat up his friend, that’s why his hand is like that.”
“Don’t be stupid, Dawn,” he says. “Give me the stick.”
“No,” I say. “Just drag him down the steps and leave him outside. Or throw him out the window.”
Jimmy bends down and picks up something from the carpet next to Mitch’s hand. He comes toward me holding it straight out in front of him until it’s practically on my nose.
I remember now. Yesterday. I put the spare back under the rock before I went inside.
“He’s a liar, Dawn,” says Jimmy. “I beat the shit out of him last night. And he came back here for revenge—on me—by messing with you.”
Outside the snow is falling big, like the ground is pulling it down faster than it wants to drop. The night Dad died, the night of the car accident with Jimmy, it was snowing. Slower, though. Icy. Mom and I left Dad to wait for Jimmy after his game. How many times have I wished we’d switched cars? If Dad had taken me home instead of Jimmy, he’d still be alive. Or maybe I should have stayed at the rink with Jimmy. Of course, it never would have happened like that. Mom and me, Jimmy and Dad. There wasn’t any other way.
I blink and Jimmy comes into focus. “Maybe you shouldn’t do this,” I say. But we both know it can’t be stopped.
“You should go,” he says.
I expect Jimmy to snatch the stick out of my hands, let his anger burn red on my skin, but he lifts it so easy and light, like we’re on the moon and nothing has any weight.
Gwen Goodkin is the author of the short story collection, A Place Remote, published by West Virginia University Press. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has won the Folio Editor’s Prize for Fiction as well as the John Steinbeck Award for Fiction. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.
Music by Catlofe
Gwen Goodkin Gwen Goodkin Gwen Goodkin Gwen Goodkin Gwen Goodkin Gwen Goodkin Gwen Goodkin Gwen Goodkin Gwen Goodkin
The Marks of Aegis
(First published in Third Point Press)
The first nice thing I ever did to my body was tear it open.
Before then, my standard cruelty to myself was taking things in that hurt and holding them there. I said yes when I meant no: at work, at dinner, in parked cars. I tried to annihilate myself through abundance, absorbing and sloshing and wallowing along. I wanted to be swollen with misery.
When I couldn’t make enough of my own troubles I took on other people’s. I swallowed or inserted or injected some friend’s wretched situation and the accessories of their wretchedness, and in there they stayed, building up in the junkyard of abuse under my smooth young skin. God, I had great skin.
It got to be that one day I was tired. I could not tell want from habit. There weren’t friends left to take on troubles from, and the work was done, the plate empty, the cars driven home and tucked away in roomy garages beneath sleeping families.
Well, I’m practical when I’m nothing else. I got out my box cutter and I started making ways out. I sliced along the planes of my skin and squeezed until everything on the inside that ought not to have been there was on the outside again. I expected to recognize each individual trouble, but everything had melded together into a civilization of its own.
I cleaned it up with my best detergents, slowly and methodically. A whole city emerged. All the people I had used had formed alliances with one another, built striking homes from the rough materials I’d left them with. Their culture may have started in filth but it had changed and grown. Their buildings floated and spun in slow orbit of one another. Every wall was a doorway and every stair a hall and every window a skylight or escape hatch depending on the rotation of the structure at given moment.
I called it Aegis and admired it, and thought about maybe putting it back inside me to keep forever. It was a really beautiful place with so many inhabitants who deserved that beauty. I thought I deserved a little beauty, too. But when it started to float higher and away I saw that it didn’t need me anymore, and I decided to end our association on more gentle terms that it had begun. I opened the window and sent it on its away, crying as it swept into the breeze. Aegis is still out there, thriving I think.
Then it was done, so I closed myself back up. When I ran through the first aid kit I used the sewing kit and when I ran through that I used the soldering iron. Then I took a very long, very hot shower.
Some people see my stitched and bandaged gashes and my cauterized holes and say, there goes a bitch who has really fucked herself up for good. There goes a real mess. They think they’ve seen a tragedy. But these people don’t know the first thing about scars. They’ll never understand how I could be so proud.
My Noise Will Keep the Record
(First published in Paper Darts)
My home is a witch’s lung or a giant’s heart. Puckered cracks of plaster snake up the walls from a half-century-old renovation. It palpitates from the constant drum of the interstate highway just beyond a courtesy swamp once planted, then neglected, as a sort of apology for the highway. The swamp thrives, reclaims detritus for the realm of bioorganisms, while I am increasingly cybertronic.
I can tell who a structure is for without signs or directions; I feel it by gut instinct, in the motors where I once had guts. In my home, I understand my environment as myself. Most of this city is not for me, and would rather I not visit or approach, even the building I work in. I discern this without a single word of law or custom, although I press my employee badge to the fob reader and am permitted inside. A body knows these kinds of things from experience. Eventually, even Pavlov found that when he heard a bell he had the overwhelming urge to feed a dog.
I can see my house, a faint dark spot on the horizon, from the top floor of the high-rise where my job is headquartered. It’s a bulbous wand of brushed steel and tinted fiberglass, carving a shadow out of the sunlight on the surrounding blocks, standing for progress. Progress looks like Godzilla’s vibrator.
I’m standing before the south-facing conference room window and looking for calm in the river that bisects the city. It’s a rainy afternoon and there’s only a dedicated few joggers along the riverside walkways, some of them wearing the personal assistant devices that we manufacture. It looks like a necklace―a collar, really, but officially a “token” on a “smart strap”―but you train it to your speech patterns and can ask it anything, give it a name, and it tracks your vitals and sleep and finances and shopping preferences, things like that. Lots of other companies make similar products. Full-flesh people buy them at great cost and wear them around, voluntarily, and their stats come to me and the hundreds of other temps who process it.
I am going to lose my job. I’ve taken too much sick time and our contracts have terms, even though the project seems to have no deadline. I asked one of the data scientists―the real employees with advanced degrees―how long it would take to use all the information we’ve received since the launch, if we all worked our hardest on it, and he laughed and said four thousand years and counting.
My supervisor enters the conference room behind me and closes the door. Her engagement ring catches the light and I can’t look away from it even when she starts talking. It’s a princess-cut Martian diamond. It’s not even that beautiful, but it is distinct, and cannot be mistaken for an easier, commoner, or more earthly stone.
My supervisor cornered me on my first day and said that we had to stick together as “diversity hires.” She gently uptalks as she enumerates my failures to stay healthy, so that I cannot refute them without seeming like a hothead or a liar.
In general, I say that I love difficult people. I am protective of us and will rationalize our survival tactics. It seems very subversive until I’m beneath it.
Now she is asking me if I understand the finality of the terms and conditions. I say yes, I do, and I thank her for her time, and leave the conference room to return to my workstation.
There, I dip my hands beneath a laser switch and my stenotype hums and flickers to standby. I set to work on my transcription queue, already behind because of the meeting. I clamp the audiochaw between my teeth and minute-long sound clips play off the server and resonate inside my skull with perfect clarity. Some are silence or background noise and I mark them as such in the metadata. What interests the company most is human speech. I listen to shards of conversations, arguments, bedtime stories, foreplay and climax. I transcribe them verbatim, with screenplay notes for tone. Each hand-tailored recalibration improves the software’s algorithm. Our devices are always, always listening to their users.
The raw files are chopped and shuffled in the queue to limit our investment and knowledge of their origin. Schizophonia in lieu of eavesdropping. I type the words but I barely comprehend them. The process is half automatic, like a polite conversation or a prayer or a pledge of allegiance.
At the end of this day I come home to a handwritten letter from my landlady, inviting me to her unit for her eighty-fifth birthday, and to let me know she’s retiring. The house is for sale.
I will attend the party. I will even bake the cake. She let me stay after my parents were gone, after my accidents and augments; welcomed my friends and lovers as they became my roommates, never asked when there was turnover. I will feel grateful to have been permitted to remain for so long. I’ll wish I could love her in a vacuum where that sentiment exists apart from the facts of ownership and non-ownership.
Suppose the new management company is polite and offers me dibs after the demolish and renewal, three times the most money I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ll ask if I can pay in my remaining organs until I’m an appliance with a face and they won’t find that very funny. Full flesh never do. They’ll skip straight to the terse legalese. I’ll keep telling jokes because my grief is all dried up. I’ll even say my grief has been replaced with a synthetic and they’ll see me out the door to the sidewalk where the whole block is turning inside out. A pair of full flesh will move into the new building with their personal assistant devices. No matter how vulgar their throat strings, their voices produce valuable data while my own just makes noise.
The body is plastic, remembers long after it’s grown, severed, augmented. You can have that phantom sensation for a whole neighborhood. A cityzen is one who keeps the memory of a specific place long after it’s been demolished for high rises. My noise will keep the record, with nowhere else to go.
Julian K. Jarboe is the author of the collection, Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel. They live in Salem, Massachusetts.
Music by Catlofe
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