The text below is copyrighted 2020 by Donna Miscolta, from the short story collection Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, published September 21, 2020 by Jaded Ibis Press, submitted with permission from Jaded Ibis Press.
Excerpt from “Guided Tours in Living Color,” a story from Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories
The Blue Boy. Angie stared at the painting, understanding it was a masterpiece, feeling the weight of its history, feeling also the weight of all she didn’t know about art and history and the world, feeling as if the weight could squeeze her heart.
In the Huntington Gallery, she and her classmates stood before Gainsborough’s opus fittingly awed as they knew they should be. Some felt required to chorus their worship or at least their own hip assessment of a pompous boy in blue glad rags. “Cool,” they said, nodding, heads tilted. “Mod,” someone snickered. But in the echo chamber of the hushed gallery, only the “ooh” and “ah” sounds were picked up by the walls and ceiling to be shot back into the air and in their ears, its tenor changed to something ghostly and disturbing as if contesting their sincerity. Some of the students giggled and moved on to the next painting. Other visitors glided in to fill their spots, prepared to appreciate art better than a bunch of high school kids, despite their being Kimball Park High’s best as Mr. Otto often told them, even if at times, it sounded like a plea.
Mr. Otto’s tradition was to take his Advanced Language Arts and Literature class to Los Angeles for a weekend to be exposed to its cultural and historical sights. All year, Angie had looked forward to this trip, her first real trip away from Kimball Park and into a world of big ideas, expansive buildings, and exalted accomplishments that made her feel ridiculously small and under-schooled and impatient to catch up. She was anxious too about her procrastination of the assignment due in just a few days.
“Consider this your magnum opus,” Mr. Otto had weeks ago told Angie’s class, referring to the eleventh-grade English requirement to write an autobiography. The meeting of his bushy eyebrows signaled his uncompromising seriousness, which required Angie to hide her eye-roll behind her book. When Mr. Otto caught an eye-roll or a smirk from one of his students, his hurt was so apparent it made them all squirm. It seemed that a grown-up should be able to suffer adolescent eye-rolls with greater self-possession. If Angie had any goal in life, it was that.
When she thought of her life thus far, the last thing Angie wanted to do was commit it to paper for Mr. Otto to read and grade. What experiences worthy of inclusion in a form as self-important as autobiography did a sixteen-year-old in Kimball Park have? Especially the sixteen-year-old that was her—Angie Rubio. It’s not as if she hadn’t tried to have experiences. They just seemed elusive or inconclusive. And now she was expected to package them in a neatly inked, three-hole-punched narrative. She wondered now if she was meant to include something about Blue Boy in her autobiography, with whom, at the moment, she was utterly baffled.
Nudged aside by the newcomers, she studied the painting from the periphery. It was European, so it was supposed to be important. She looked at the question on the mimeographed sheet Mr. Otto had passed out on the bus. “What can you say about the light and color in Gainsborough’s most famous painting?”
She stood like a spy off to the side of the knot of people and listened to them murmur about the painting in knowing, assertive terms, which wrapped themselves around the nib of her pen as she scribbled in her notebook. “The background is dark except for the patches of yellow at his back so that the blue boy appears to emerge from the painting with wings. The different hues of blue give the richness to his clothes. The light on his forehead and cheek warm the sullen mouth.”
It didn’t matter that the words weren’t exactly hers. She believed she might have been thinking them. They were just buried deep inside her or floating around in a random sea of inklings and ideas that were waiting to coalesce. She wandered past other paintings, her eye registering them only fleetingly, her mind still occupied with the color blue, with the seemingly winged boy, with the push and pull of dark and light, near and far, balance and asymmetry, and with the looming deadline for her autobiography. She settled herself on a hard, low bench and scribbled and scratched out and scribbled again until she was satisfied that, among the blots and do-overs, there were sentences that combined to make sense, maybe even a story.
The summer I turned five I watched my father remove the training wheels from my bike, thinking how forlorn they looked tossed on the grass. I straddled the bike, my feet planted on the sidewalk. My father held the bike while I moved my feet to the pedals and lifted my bottom onto the seat. I was balanced only because of my father’s grasp.
“Pedal,” he said.
I pedaled and the bike wobbled.
I remember my father’s hand on the back of my bike seat, a cigarette in his other hand. His sandals thwacked the sidewalk as he jogged alongside me, the bike still wobbling. I knew he would let go and I waited for it, waited for the fall. I didn’t expect that tiny moment when I was balanced on my own and I felt something close to flight, but also abandonment. When I crashed to the earth and lay on my back, my head just scraping the trunk of a tree, I listened to the wheels of my bike spin on their own, humming without a care. I stared at the blank blue sky, then watched a bruise blot my elbow. My father came and picked my bike up and held it for me again. Sullen, I picked myself up and pretended to limp. He pretended not to notice. This time I pedaled hard and away from him—for just a moment longer than the last time.
When the students had been asked to raise money for their trip to L.A. by selling chocolates, they groaned at the intrusion on their time. Angie hated selling things, though she did manage to coax Nelda into buying most of her allotted inventory for her clients. Nelda had found her calling as a real estate agent and her sudden and undisputed success had allowed her and Little Eddie to move to a charming house near the beach within bicycling distance to a private school.
Angie’s trip to L.A. was measly compared to the trips Little Eddie took with his class (botany tours on the Baja Peninsula, Broadway samplers in New York City, New Orleans blues festivals) which didn’t require selling boxes of mixed chocolates with gooey insides when most people preferred nuts.
When the class failed to sell the requisite number of chocolates, putting the trip in jeopardy, jelly-hearted Mr. Otto came through with his personal funds to make up for the students’ shortfall. Although his generosity was met without overt graciousness, Angie for one, was grateful, if also embarrassed at Mr. Otto’s softness for his students, his weak desire to give them something they hadn’t entirely earned.
The Huntington was the third stop on their tour that first day. They had begun with the Farmer’s Market and its famous clock tower inscribed with “An Idea,” under which they took turns posing for photographs. Angie was the last to take her place under the sign, by which time everyone else was wandering off to another part of the market. She was embarrassed when Mr. Otto offered to snap the photo. She handed over her camera and stood pigeon-toed, one hand clasping an elbow behind her back, looking past Mr. Otto’s ear, not wanting to look directly into the camera, but also hoping to achieve a faraway look suitable to the caption that would appear above her head. After Mr. Otto clicked the shutter, she mumbled a thanks and took back her camera, trying not to make contact with his furry hand.
Then came a quick visit to Grauman’s Chinese Theater where they measured their feet against those of Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. The students briefly acknowledged the authentic Ming Dynasty Heaven Dogs guarding the main entrance, only because they were the subject of the question on Mr. Otto’s History and Culture of L.A. worksheet.
After the students completed their worksheets of the Huntington art gallery, they scattered like marbles through the various gardens on the property. They played a rowdy game of hide-and-seek, concealing themselves in or behind trees, statuary, or copious-leaved shrubs. Angie had not been invited to play and so walked the gardens alone as squeals of discovery burst alongside a path or in the distance across a bridge or a pond. It was time to get back to the bus, but Angie, seeing no-one else heading in the direction of the parking lot, continued to stroll the manicured paths. Her last sighting of a chaperone was of Mrs. Wiekamp in the gift shop being rung up for items that Judy had plonked on the counter. Before that, she’d seen Mr. Otto heading into a men’s room. She’d last observed the other chaperone staring into the depths of a gargantuan tropical plant. It was Ms. Otto, Mr. Otto’s sister. She insisted on Ms. rather than Miss, which made the students snigger at the made-up word. Even Angie, who believed in the reason behind the new abbreviation, felt unsure at the sound that came from the back of her throat, a deep hum that itself felt rebellious. Of course, Mr. Otto called her Bernadette. She called him Billy.
Angie was in the Shakespeare Garden at the pomegranate tree from Romeo and Juliet, whose lines she could still recite from ninth-grade English when she saw Mr. Otto darting down the path toward her. Even from a distance she could see the pitch of his eyebrows making a steep climb toward his hairline. He was like the White Rabbit, checking the time and muttering, Oh, dear.
“Angie, where are the others?” he asked, panting. She could tell he was working hard to contain his irritation. She wished he would just explode in anger. Sometimes she feared for his heart. Feared the mess that would result from his ruptured insides.
“I don’t know,” Angie said. “All around.”
Just then Ms. Otto strode up. She was robustly built like him but imposing not so much for her size but for her no-nonsense manner, which contrasted with her brother’s shy dithering. Lacking enough parent volunteers, Mr. Otto had recruited her to help shepherd the students from place to place and to keep them out of mischief, which she did by appearing suddenly out of nowhere to gesture them back to the fold or send a searing glance into their midst or lasso them with a whistle, which she did now by putting two fingers to her mouth and piercing the air.
“Really, Bernadette,” Mr. Otto said.
A moment later Angie’s classmates began materializing on the paths that intersected with the one where Angie stood with Bernadette and Billy Otto. The Ottos herded them all back to the bus, its engine idling with Judy and Mrs. Wiekamp and Silvia Rico already aboard with packages on their laps.
“Goodness, we thought we’d lost you all,” Mrs. Wiekamp said.
When they were settled in their seats, Mr. Otto remained standing as the bus made its way through the parking lot. His face was grim, his hair wild from all his herding and scurrying and stumbling. They waited for his lecture, a proper dressing-down. They watched his mouth open and snap closed. They listened to him sigh as he surrendered to their stares and sat down without a word.
They ate at Bob’s Big Boy for dinner. When their stomachs were heavy with fried and creamy foods and hunks of pie for dessert, they checked into a motel where they split into pre-arranged groups for room sharing.
While Angie hadn’t necessarily looked forward to sharing a hotel room with Judy, Silvia, and Judy’s mother, she had convinced herself that it would be an opportunity to reestablish if not a friendship, perhaps a comradeship. At least goodwill. Or what she really wanted—acceptance. But when Angie lined up behind Judy and Silvia as Mrs. Wiekamp fitted the key into the lock, Ms. Otto popped her head out of the room next door. “Say, I have an empty bed in here. Send one of your girls over so you’re not so crowded in there.”
Angie waited for Mrs. Wiekamp or even Judy or Silvia to say four in a room was not a crowd, they were just fine, thank you. But Mrs. Wiekamp, having finally jiggled the key enough to unlock the door called out, “Thank you, Bernadette!” and went inside, followed by Judy and Silvia and the closing of the door.
Angie picked up her overnight bag and shuffled next door. She stood at the doorway, not knowing where to put her bag, wondering if she should claim a bed. Ms. Otto had disappeared inside the bathroom, so Angie waited though the noisy swivel of the toilet paper dispenser, the flush of the toilet, and the running of the faucet. When the bathroom door opened and Ms. Otto emerged, Angie studiously absorbed herself in the watercolor on one of the walls.
“What do you think?” Ms. Otto asked.
“Oh, the painting?” Angie said, feeling stupid at having been caught pretending interest in motel art. “Well, it’s not Gainsborough.”
Ms. Otto hooted. “Pick your bed.”
Angie dropped her bag on the one nearest her, though she would’ve preferred the one nearest the bathroom.
“Well, I’m going to read before lights out. You’re welcome to the TV. It won’t bother me.” She stretched out on the other bed and rested a fat book on her stomach, which rose with each breath just audible above the street noise.
Angie didn’t want to watch TV with Ms. Otto in the room reading some important book. Anyway, she needed to work on her autobiography. She sat at the little table under the big globe of light that hung on a chain from the ceiling like a misplaced moon. Unsettled by the idea of “lights out,” she wished she could let it shine through the night, imagining that somehow Ms. Otto would be able to discern her thoughts in the dark, see through the black curtain of her dreams and find them lacking. The way she herself found her words lacking as she intermittently and with great effort scratched some onto the page. Through her start-and-stop scribble she heard the occasional turn of the page by Ms. Otto’s index finger. The anticipation of that soft flick stalled her thoughts, so that amid the many inked-out lines, only a few survived intact.
At my First Communion party, I received a child’s prayer book, a scapular, and a rosary. I used these piously for a while, the way I was taught by the nuns in their black, floor-skimming robes. I went to confession regularly, the way I was made to in that airless, darkened closet. I recited my penance and fasted before communion, my hunger a perfect, round pit. But I told nobody about the giant black hole that was opening up between what I said and did, and what I actually and truly believed.
At ten, Ms. Otto took her tall, large-boned self to do a bed-check of the other rooms. As if that would guarantee anything, Angie thought. She wondered what the other kids had been doing in their motel rooms—watching TV, telling dirty jokes, sneaking a beer or a joint, carving their names on the underside of the table, already stuffing the tiny shampoo bottles in their luggage. Whatever they were doing, they would continue to do after Ms. Otto’s curfew check.
With Ms. Otto out of the room, Angie peed, changed into her pajamas, and brushed her teeth, skimping a bit on her molars in her hurry to finish her personal hygiene while she was alone. By the time she heard the key in the door, she was in bed with the covers up to her ears pretending to be asleep. It would’ve been too embarrassing to exchange goodnights with Bernadette, which is how Angie had given herself permission to refer to her roommate.
The next morning, while Bernadette tidied her side of the room and hummed “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” Angie dressed in the bathroom. Angie’s mother had bought her some new outfits for the trip. They were ill-fitting as were most clothes Angie wore, sagging off her shoulders, bagging around her waist, drooping at the crotch. And while not exactly ugly, neither were they mod or hip or cool. Angie knew her mother meant well and she did appreciate the gesture, but her mother’s taste in clothes were not her own, though she had yet to determine what her own taste was. She only knew it did not include striped pantsuits. Nevertheless, they were folded neatly in her overnight bag. Her mother had laid them out on Angie’s bed the night before the trip and Angie had packed them, liking the idea of new clothes to match the new vistas Mr. Otto promised awaited them on this trip.
In a sudden fit of optimism about the day, Angie had decided to wear one of the pantsuits. She chose the navy blue with red pinstripes. The pants were loose at the waist and slack in the butt, but not excessively so. The jacket covered or at least camouflaged a bit the failings of the pants. Or was it the failings of her butt? Either way, Angie thought she had adequately addressed the hitch in her wardrobe. She raised herself on her tiptoes to try to see the full effect of her outfit in the mirror above the sink. Navy-Blue Girl, she pronounced herself. With red pinstripes, she added, as she offered the mirror a sullen smile.
“That’s a very fine ensemble,” Bernadette commented when Angie came out of the bathroom.
“My mother bought it,” Angie said, wanting to dissociate herself from any responsibility. Even with the few steps she had taken across the bathroom threshold, Angie felt the roominess of her pants at her waist and her bottom. Loose was better than tight, she assured herself. Though she did have to wonder why pants didn’t exist that fit her just right.
“Well, ready for another big day in the big city?”
Angie nodded, hoping it would be a big day, mind-blowing and revelatory even. She followed Bernadette out of the room, feeling the slouch of her pants with each step.
The problem with not being in a room with any of the other students, aside from the obvious one of being left out of any unchaperoned shenanigans, was Angie couldn’t see what the other kids were wearing. Now as they gathered for breakfast at the nearest Bob’s Big Boy, she could see that with the exception of Judy and Silvia, all the other kids were casually dressed, not even school-clothes casual, but play casual. Nobody else was wearing an ensemble. Judy and Silvia were wearing A-line shifts and lightweight cardigans. Angie hung back so as not to be noticed. She realized she would have gone unnoticed had she worn something they’d all seen before. Sure, they would’ve seen her. They just wouldn’t have noticed her the way they did now with smirks and sidelong glances. She was glad when they were all seated in the restaurant and most of her was hidden by the table. She wished she could sit there all day, except that she found herself sitting next to Bernadette as if they had overnight formed a club of two.
“Well, Angie, you were quite industrious last evening.”
“Yes,” Angie answered. She could not let on to her teacher’s sister that she was furiously trying to finish a class assignment. She put a forkful of scrambled egg in her mouth to discourage further expectations of conversation from her.
“And you make a very agreeable roommate.”
Angie nodded. “You, too,” she mumbled through a mouthful of egg.
On the bus Angie, still feeling conspicuous in her pantsuit, sat alone, though she wasn’t the only one. Some of the kids who had stayed up late despite bed checks and lights-out curfew had eaten breakfast with their heads in their plates and were now spread across the bus seats catching some winks. Mr. Otto, his eyebrows in a panic, nevertheless pretended not to notice, while Bernadette every so often would exclaim in an operatic pitch at some landmark or attraction (look, another Bob’s Big Boy!), startling them out of their snooze. They were headed to Occidental College for a tour. None of them had ever heard of it.
“Looks like a bunch of museum buildings,” someone said when the bus pulled up.
Mr. Otto stood at the front of the bus. “You’ll be applying to college soon. Think about what you want in a college experience. Here’s your chance to ask questions.”
“Where’s the bathroom?” someone asked, inducing guffaws from the bus and a pained what’s-the-use shrug from Mr. Otto.
Really, what’s the use, Angie thought. Most kids at their school who went to college ended up at the local state or junior colleges. This college was a million miles away.
Mr. Otto had them count off into two groups for the campus tour. There would be no freely roaming students here, no need for Bernadette to whistle them back, no need for Mr. Otto’s face to bulge with suppressed fury. Before he released them to the tour guides, Mr. Otto warned them in his deep, beseeching baritone, “Remember who you are. Be good representatives of your school. Make your parents proud.” He watched them file off the bus, his eyebrows slanted toward each other as if grasping for reassurance, his eyes bulging with hope and encouragement at the students who slid past him, indifferent to his clenched face. Angie found herself mincing her steps to minimize the distraction of her waistband that hovered rather nonchalantly above her nearly nonexistent hips.
Mr. Otto trailed one group and Bernadette trailed the other, which was Angie’s group. Despite the discomfort caused by her outfit and the snickering that followed her, Angie moved to the front of the line where Judy Wiekamp and her mother were already swamping the guide with questions while managing to insert casual mentions of Judy’s GPA, extracurricular activities, and leadership potential.
Jessica, the guide and herself a student, bobbed her blonde head and smiled, her teeth a perfect complement to the gleaming white buildings of the campus.
Angie wanted to casually drop her own GPA into the conversation, though any references to her extracurricular activities would consist of her attempts at figuring out how to have extracurricular activities. As for leadership potential, she could always claim to be a leader in the follower department. Though when it came down to it, she was rather bad at following as well. She was a drifter, she decided. Like tumbleweeds or dandruff. Propelled by wind or gravity, or someone else’s momentum.
They visited the library, a dorm, the commons, and an empty classroom where they were invited to have a seat. Angie slid into one of the chairs, thankful for a moment to partially conceal herself and her pantsuit beneath the desk. She tried to imagine herself studying here in one of these gleaming buildings amid gleaming students like Jessica.
Bernadette sat down beside her. “Does it feel like a fit?”
Angie straightened, then slumped, then straightened again, her pants sliding around her waist as she did so. “It’s just a chair.”
“I mean, all colleges have chairs.”
“Bernadette,” Angie said, and then blushed. “Ms. Otto,” she began again, “which college did you go to?”
“Wellesley. In Boston. A women’s college.”
Angie nodded at these three facts as if they meant something to her, though, really, they were as familiar to her as the white porticoed buildings with red tiled roofs that surrounded them, the kind seen on picture calendars of the Italian Riviera.
The tour guide was leading them out of the room. Angie waited until the others left, then hitched up her pants and drifted after them, turning back once to look at the empty seats, trying to imagine herself there, a college student amid other college students, but the empty seats refused to be populated.
Donna Miscolta’s previous story collection, Hola and Goodbye, won the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, an Independent Publishers award for Best Regional Fiction, and an International Latino Book Award for Best Latino Focused Fiction. She is also the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, lauded by Antonya Nelson for its “pitch-perfect prose.” Recent essays have appeared in Atticus Review, McSweeney’s, and Los Angeles Review. Her work has been supported by grants and fellowships from 4Culture, Artist Trust, Bread Loaf/Rona Jaffe Foundation, Jack Straw Foundation, and Seattle Office of Arts and Culture. She has been awarded residencies at Anderson Center, Artsmith, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Hedgebrook, Mineral School, Ragdale, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Whiteley Center. Her new book is Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories.
Music by Catlofe
Donna Miscolta Donna Miscolta Donna Miscolta Donna Miscolta Donna Miscolta Donna Miscolta Donna Miscolta Donna Miscolta Donna Miscolta
The following excerpt is from Half by Sharon Harrigan. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2020 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.
We wedged Mom between us. Her sharp hips bore into ours as we sat on the hard pew. She nodded toward the blizzard raging on the other side of the stained glass and said, “It’s your dad.”
“He’s making it snow?” As identical twins, we spoke in unison. People responded to us, at least, as if we did.
Mom chewed her index finger and kept quiet. We took that as a yes. Apparently, she was still claiming Dad controlled everything and the weather, even though we had just flown in for his funeral. “Preposterous,” we told each other with our shoulders and palms. Whether we meant the weather part or the funeral part, we didn’t say.
The eulogies droned on. Ms. Rosen, our fourth-grade teacher, swished up to the pulpit, butterfly tattoos sagging under the stretched skin on her now-ample arms, charm bracelet tinkling. She praised Dad and God in the same sentence.
Next came Wild Pete, Dad’s old buddy from his days of leading hunting tours in Alaska, his squirrelly mustache muffling a gruff voice. He told the origin story of Dad’s nickname, Moose. We had heard tales about Pete all our lives but had secretly suspected he wasn’t real.
Our childhood best friends described a man whose beard never grayed, whose shot never missed, who was “always there.” Always where? we asked in an internal voice that sounded more like the snarky teens we had been than the thirty-year-old moms we were now.
We had prepared nothing. Mom could barely stand up, let alone speak, but we, the daughters, should have represented the family. That’s what everyone’s eyes on us said. A young man with a slender purple tie and a square of hair on his flinty chin glared from the other side of the aisle.
Mom sagged against the wooden pew. Her face, already slim from a lifetime of dieting, turned gaunt. Her still-dark hair—so thick that even in middle age she had enough to pile it high, goddess style, on her head—seemed to thin by the minute. A tiny lily tattoo wilted on the back of her neck. Even the beauty mark above her lip shrank.
Our five-year-old sons, clutching plush hedgehogs and snapping their bow ties, sat on our other sides. Next to them, our husbands, lost in an incense fog. Tears would have been a relief, but we dammed them back.
“Marco.” We said it so low it might have been telepathy.
“Polo,” came our reply, barely audible.
We reached over Mom to knock knuckles on each other’s thighs. We fingered the single earring we each wore, a diamond stud. As long as we shared this pair, these secret codes, we thought we couldn’t fall apart.
At the reception, Wild Pete almost tore off our hands, pretending to shake them. Breath thick with chaw, he said, “You’re the ones who killed him.”
We slipped from Pete’s grip, pushed outside, and leaned against the wall near the church basement steps, eyelashes weighted with snow.
“We didn’t,” we said.
Then, “We did.”
“How could he say such a thing?”
“You mean, how could he know?”
We had to hold each other’s coats to keep from falling with the snow. Gusts swirled at our ankles, and snow hooped around our hips. We braced against the scratchy gripping brick.
“Why did we do it?” we asked each other.
“Because of what he did to us. Every year of our lives.”
We couldn’t live with ourselves if we thought we had killed an innocent man. A jury of two, we had to decide if Dad had deserved what we had done to him. The only evidence to review was our childhood.
We clutched each other’s hands for heat, our bodies so close we could imagine we were attached—“Siamese”—the way we had pretended to be so long ago. Spines in fetal curve, we rewound the tape of our lives in our heads, starting back at the age our own boys were now.
“Remember?” we said.
We had never meant to hurt anyone.
We wanted to crawl back in time. Even then. We were only five, but that wasn’t young enough.
The more we played this game—hovering outside our parents’ door after dinner, trying to hear their mysterious bedroom sounds while pretending we didn’t—the more we wanted to be babies again. Or even to slip back into our mother’s belly, the way we slid into her bed those nights when Dad was away on a hunting trip.
“I’m half years old,” we said. “How old are you?”
“I’m half, too.”
At first we meant we had been alive six months, just half a year. Later, half no longer stood for anything. Half empty, half full.
We babbled and baby-talked, the way our own children do now when they don’t want us to understand. Our friend Nevaeh had a baby brother, and he was always sucking at his mother’s breast, so we knew milk was food, milk was love. No one ever said, “Make the baby kiss his own damn boo-boos.” No one gave him boo-boos, either.
We were twin girls, dark bangs cut crooked across our foreheads with the blunt scissors sometimes used for discipline. We listened through the hollow-core door as the mattress squeaked, wondering why our parents were jumping on the bed. They never let us.
We were locked out of the one private room in the house. We wanted to walk in on them now, the way we liked to sneak in on Mom when she tried to escape from us in the bath, slinky and slippery as a mermaid. But even if the door hadn’t been locked, we wouldn’t have dared, not with Dad in there. He was a lion escaped from the zoo. He could hunt us down and eat us in our sleep. He roared, and all his subjects scattered. He was king.
“I’m so little I can’t walk,” we said, floundering on our bellies, flapping our arms.
We said, “I can’t even talk,” then “You’re talking now,” and “No, I’m not. You’re reading my mind.”
As identical twins, we had our own identical language. We understood each other’s taps and scraps of song, our code for “Ignore the sounds behind the door.” We pressed noses to knees, legs bent crisscross applesauce on the dirt-brown shag, which meant: “We can’t do anything to help her, anyway. We’re too little.”
We lay on top of each other, like the puppies we saw at the pet store. Our dog, Rex, had to live outside, and we weren’t allowed to snuggle him in the house the way we were nuzzling each other now. We wanted to buy him a sister or brother from the pound, the way we had once thought our parents bought us from the hospital, two for one, on double-coupon day.
The bouncing on the bed became a pounding beat. It shook the floor and squeaked like something breaking. “Earthquake,” we said. “Quicksand.” We meant “he’s big and she’s small.” She was so thin she could have slipped through the metal bars of a cage. If she wanted to.
We pretended we were in a crib and couldn’t climb out. We made believe we were still at the hospital after being born and there was some hope another family might take us by mistake, the way the cashier sometimes gave Mom the wrong cigarettes at Lucky Seven.
Mom made animal noises on the other side of the door, dog shrieks, worse than our whimpers when Dad punished us for breaking a glass or sharing a secret. We wanted to save her but were stranded on an island the size of this hallway, and if we stepped out we would drown.
We half-wanted to open the door. We leaned into it so we could feel the vibrations of Mom’s cries.
We pressed so hard, our heads pushed the door in, and we fell forward. But no, it was Dad hovering over us, wearing only boxer shorts, his huge hairy hand on the knob. He was on his way to the bathroom. “Kids!” he yelled, stepping on and over us, his bare foot catching our footed pajamas, “Get to bed!”
To Mom he said, “Don’t you teach these girls about privacy? What about manners?”
We could see through the legs of his boxer shorts as we lay on the floor facing up. “It’s not her fault,” we almost said. We didn’t want him to make her squeal again with what we couldn’t have imagined was pleasure. But we didn’t talk back.
Mom pulled the covers over her naked breasts. She flicked her fingers to shoo us away, so we scampered off to our room.
“No fair! Daddy gets milk,” we said to each other after crawling into our twin beds and pulling rubber ducky blankets up to our chins. “Milk is for babies!”
We dreamed a kiss on our foreheads, and, like magic, Mom appeared between us, dressed again in her T-shirt and jeans. “Good night, sweets!” she said.
“Why were you naked?” What we wouldn’t say, what we didn’t dare, was, “What did he do to make you scream?”
“Your dad likes me that way,” she said, turning red. She seemed unhurt, not like Rex when he had made the same sounds she had made in bed.
“We like you that way, too,” we said, and stretched our arms to pull her under the covers.
“You’re way too old for that.” She tore herself from us, far out of reach. “You’re my two big kids. My two eyes and ears. My too, too much.”
We could see her breasts shining through her T-shirt as bright as the moon in the dark of our room. We imagined her nursing us as we lay in the crook of each arm, safe on her lap, skin touching skin.
“Enough.” And when she pressed a finger over her lips, Dad appeared like a ghost in the doorway.
“Why are you babying them?” he said. Then they vanished, the room dark and quiet till we heard their bedroom door close again.
“Why does the sun rise every morning?” we asked.
We answered in a fake Mom voice: “Because your dad likes it that way.”
“Why does it get so cold every winter we freeze our butts off?”
“Because our butts are too big?”
“No, because your dad likes it that way.”
“Why is the sky blue? Why does the devil have horns? Why does fire burn?”
“Because your dad likes it that way.”
We spread our palms on our foreheads, over Mom’s kiss so it seeped through our skin to those places—in our ribs or hips, ears or thighs—where Dad had kicked us on the floor. Our pale skin would swell like purple gumdrops the next day, and Mom would say, “No short shorts for you,” worried the neighbors wouldn’t believe we fell off the bed or bumped into the furniture again.
Dad’s words echoed in our heads: “Why do you make me teach you the same lesson over and over again? Why didn’t you go to bed after dinner like I told you to?”
We couldn’t answer why we didn’t learn our lessons. Why we didn’t pick up dirty clothes, why we forgot to call him sir. Why did deer run into traffic? Bugs fly into light bulbs?
We lay in the beds we had made for ourselves, half awake, half asleep. Half innocent, half guilty, half understanding everything he said.
Sharon Harrigan is the author of the new novel Half. In a starred review Booklist said, “Fans of Jeffrey Eugenides, Andre Dubus III, and Jane Smiley will adore Harrigan’s suspenseful, lyrical, and consuming exploration of two difficult lives, intertwined… Raw and powerful, Half will stay with you.” Publisher’s Weekly said, “Harrigan’s bold stylistic choices and memorable voice lend the novel a sense of mystery and magic, well suited to the themes of childhood fears and adult disillusionment. Riveting and inventive, this is a cut above the average coming of age tale.” Foreword Reviews called Half “gripping” and New York Journal of Books calls Half’s point of view “astonishingly effective.” Sharon is also the author of the memoir Playing with Dynamite. She teaches at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she lives with her family.
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Sharon Harrigan Sharon Harrigan Sharon Harrigan Sharon Harrigan Sharon Harrigan Sharon Harrigan Sharon Harrigan Sharon Harrigan Sharon Harrigan Sharon Harrigan
Excerpt used by permission from Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). Copyright © 2020 by Jenny Bhatt
I am going to disappoint you. You probably know it when you spot me in the check-in line. Some part of you knew it even when we first met.
My memory of that meeting, fifteen years ago, stabs sharp as ever. Icy Chicago winds blew you and your friends into the cramped Hyde Park bar where I worked evenings. You pressed in closer over the counter and the wet leather smell of your jacket reminded me of my landlady’s butterscotch lab. Your face, under that snow-wet ginger hair, flushed bright pink as you tried to catch my attention.
I placed a beer pitcher before you and held out a hand.
You smothered it with both of yours, saying: “How ‘bout some curry and naan with that, babe?”
The laughter that rose around us was like the scraping back of a thousand chairs. It bothered you that I did not join in. You did not know how many curry lines I got in a single night.
As the light dimmed in your eyes, I pointed at the maroon phoenix on your T-shirt and smiled, “U of C?”
After closing, when you offered to walk me to my apartment, I nodded because my loneliness, after two long American months, was swishing and foaming inside me like a bitter brew.
A month later, your ex-girlfriend stopped by. Looming tall next to me in the bathroom mirror, her fake tan darker than my skin, she spat: “Stay away from my boyfriend, you black bitch!” It took two of her friends to drag her away.
I wiped my face and laughed hard because how can you take someone seriously if they cannot even get your ethnicity right? Still, I poured the next drink with an arm that shook like it had a life of its own.
When you found out, you were annoyed I had not come to you right away for help. We were lying on the pullout in your shared apartment, wide awake past midnight because of the noises across the hall. I sat up in the dark, clasping myself tight across the knees—a part of me thrilled at your protective claim over me and the other part upset how this had been your first concern. Raising my voice above the other racket, I said I never wanted to see her again.
We had been together for six months before your parents visited. They invited me to your birthday dinner at that Navy Pier restaurant where the vaulted wood-beamed ceiling was like the inside of a rowboat. Thick lengths of rope dangled everywhere with odd-shaped shipyard bits reclaimed and trapped in elaborate knots. Lake Michigan, with its wavering reflection of the Chicago skyline, dazzled through floor-to-ceiling glass.
Your mother kept sighing how she loved Midwestern summers and I understood where you got your secure charm.
Slashing his nearly raw steak so the juices ran over the greens, your father interrupted her, “What’s that British movie we watched some time ago? The soccer thing? Doesn’t she look just like that Indian girl?”
I bent my head low over my plate, searching for a cherry tomato to place into my arid mouth.
Though there was mock frustration in your tone, a kind of delight danced around your lips as you said, “Dad. She’s nothing like her. They don’t all look the same, you know.”
Your mother winked at me as if at a clever joke. She poured everyone more red wine and her diamond and gold bracelets clinked like she was dropping precious coins.
But it was the time you did not speak that got to me the most. I had come early on my night off to surprise you with a long-promised home-cooked dinner. Letting myself in, I heard your two buddies in the next room.
One said: “Hey man, how come you’re dating out? Know what I mean? Could have at least given the old neighborhood a try first?”
The other: “Quit hatin’ on him ‘cause he’s got an exotic Indian princess while you’re jackin’ off to porn.”
I held my breath for the one voice I needed to hear. Instead, the air filled with the sound of you all hooting as if a favorite quarterback had scored a touchdown.
That night, your lips and fingers running all over my body gave me little pleasure. Perhaps sensing my lack of patience, you finished quicker than usual. Afterward, rather than wrapping myself around the shape of you as always, I rolled as far away as I could.
Next semester, it did not take you long to find someone new. I saw you together once in Campus Market, basket filled with frozen Indian food. With hennaed hair and tiny cut-off shorts, she seemed both exotic and whitewashed enough for you. When I locked eyes with her, she looked away first.
So here we are: doing exaggerated double takes, talking like we are competing in an awkward-off, pretending we have never looked each other up on Facebook. I see the ring on your finger as you stroke the one on mine.
We glance at the colorful streams of people flowing about and laugh about how time has marked us both. You ask me to join you while we wait for flights to different destinations. Brandishing our phones, we share pictures of our spouses and children, proudly mentioning their accomplishments.
Sipping coffee from white china, I silently recall the way you would tease: “If you had my babies, they would be café au lait gorgeous.” It makes me shiver, this old sensation of being stripped of everything except what you desired.
We rise to leave. Your face crimsons like the first time, that flickering hope lights your eyes, the edges of your lips dance upward again. You close the space between us and whisper: “I should never have let you go. Do you wonder?”
I stare for a beat, then disappoint you with: “No.” And walk away.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and reviewer. She is a Contributing Editor at PopMatters. Her debut short story collection, Each of Us Killers: Stories, is out now with 7.13 Books. Her literary translation of Dhumketu’s best short stories will be out in December 2020 with HarperCollins India. Her non-fiction has appeared or is upcoming in, among others: The Atlantic, NPR, BBC, Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, The Millions, Electric Literature, PopMatters, Scroll.in, and more. One of her essays was published in an anthology, Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World. Her fiction has been published in Amazon’s Day One Literary Journal, Gravel Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Hofstra’s Windmill, Eleven Eleven Journal, Hot Metal Bridge, Jet Fuel Review, Kweli Journal, Five:2:One, The Indian Quarterly, York Literary Review (UK), The Nottingham Review (UK), Litro UK, The Vignette Review, etc. Her short stories have been nominated multiple times for Pushcart Prizes and the Best American Short Stories anthology. She has been a Best of the Net Anthology finalist. Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas.
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Jenny Bhatt Jenny Bhatt Jenny Bhatt Jenny Bhatt Jenny Bhatt Jenny Bhatt Jenny Bhatt
The following is excerpted from Scorpionfish, reprinted here with permission of Tin House. Copyright © 2020 by Natalie Bakopoulos.
Scorpionfish – Chapter 3
I admit that I don’t always see the things people say about Athens—it’s dirty, it’s chaotic. Sometimes I’m not even sure what people are talking about. It’s a city. There’s traffic. If anything, people are always sweeping the sidewalks and washing the staircases. But after the sea that day, the freshness of the breakup and the sting of those photos, Athens felt like an assault, like all its violations were announcing themselves to me, questioning my decision to be there—the traffic stopped everywhere and people honking their horns, frustrated in their cars. Every car, it seemed, confined couples and lovers bickering over the route not taken; or sitting silently, the passenger staring at their phone and the driver at something ahead they could not see. I noticed all the boarded-up buildings, the closed businesses. I ducked down a side street and passed a young man in a blue-and-black flannel shirt rolling up his sleeve, his other friend watching, waiting. Sure, you might have run into a person strung out near Omonia, wandering around the Archaeological Museum, far before this new crisis. I distinctly remember Haroula telling me, when I was eighteen, in English, as if this could not be uttered in Greek: Watch out for junkies. Yet unless I was in a particular neighborhood at night, I never really noticed, but Nefeli, who seemed to absorb the shame of the entire nation, claimed people shot heroin on the streets the way Americans walked around with their giant cups of coffee. If my American friends had said something like this I would have bitten off their heads.
And wouldn’t this be the same in any city? But I admit, it was jarring against the backdrop of those grand neoclassical buildings, that architectural trilogy. And I admit I had my blind spots with this city, a city people either Orientalized or romanticized, two versions of the same sin. Even though it was the city of my birth, perhaps because of it, I was surely guilty of both. There’s no such thing as perfect vision, true, but how to rid oneself of blindness?
As I walked through the last of the traffic I was relieved to be walking alone, moving freely between the cars, up the sidewalks, through the park, and up along the side of Lykavittos, spared most of the mess.
Back at home, I went to my balcony. I think I was hoping to find the Captain, but his apartment was quiet. Around ten, I heard his key in the door and soon after I smelled cigarette smoke. I stepped out onto the balcony and waited until he registered my presence. A shift in his seat, a change in the air. Kalispera, Captain.
He returned the greeting. I heard the ice clink in his glass.
When I was a child my mother would pour her first drink immediately after her classes. She’d make me dinner and pick at something herself. My friends’ family dinners were an endless source of fascination. Mothers who ate at the table! Or my best friend’s mother, who always washed dishes while her husband and four girls ate; another lived only with her mother and brother, and after school her brother made us chocolate chip pancakes for dinner as he drank beer from a can. He was seventeen, usually shirtless. I loved him deeply.
“Were you close with your mother?” I asked.
“Very,” the Captain said, as if the forwardness of my question were routine, as if we’d always spoken this way.
“I’m fascinated by people’s mothers. But I was most comfortable in the houses where they felt invisible,” I said. “Or crazy.” As a young girl I had had the sense that it was my duty to take care of my mother, not the other way around.
I heard the Captain exhale. Shift in his chair.
“The nights my father was gone, playing bouzouki in Greektown, my mother watched television in the den and drank. Sometimes I confused her cries with those that came from ER on television. I would wander from my room, where I talked on my princess telephone to friends, and stand at the door like a sentry. Sometimes she realized I was there and the cries stopped, the bad dreams. Maybe drunken hallucinations. I don’t know. When my mother began sleeping in that room for good I told my child-self that she liked the television, which my father did not.”
Even then I had known the power and comfort of a good, solid lie.
“Those nights, when she stopped the bizarre mix of conversation and terror-stricken cries she’d have with herself, I was released from my duty. But I never went back to my bedroom. I’d fall asleep in the high-ceilinged living room, watching television—Saturday Night Live or a movie or those ridiculous nighttime soaps that I stupidly loved. In that large room I felt safe on the couch but terrified to move, to pass the den door, afraid my mother would stir from her drunkenness and say something unintelligible or mean. So I’d remain on the couch until my father returned from his nightclub and carried me up to my room.”
The smell of tobacco in his shirt pocket had signaled that I was off duty and could collapse into childhood again.
“My mother never got over leaving Greece,” I said. “She left for my father.” I know now my mother’s excitement for a new life, those last days in Athens, had been a manic state of denial. “Each visit back was painful to her, yet being away was even worse.”
“The scourge of the exile,” the Captain said. “Not being able to forget.”
“My mother existed in two places but lived nowhere, whereas my father existed in two places and lived everywhere.” I am sure my mother had moments of happiness in Chicago, but I don’t remember them. The closest I could remember was when she puttered around in her small rock garden in our yard, or sat in the early autumn sun, reading. On the island, things felt a little better, but I think she was always thinking of the moment she’d have to leave.
The Captain didn’t say anything, but I could feel him listening, as if he’d been listening to me for years. He did not ask many questions, and I liked him for this. It was not aloofness or disinterest. Something else. A sense of space, not distance. It occurred to me right at that moment that everything with my mother had been performance. But pain all the same.
My parents, and me by proxy, were not always aware of two worlds but were always aware of themselves from the perspective of the other one. It seemed that the traits of my personality were always viewed as a product of my Americanness, not my Miraness. For instance, I was nearly always on time. My parents’ sense of time, which I do not attribute to their Greekness but to something else, infuriated me as a child. I was late to school plays, to school, to birthday parties; I was often the last to be picked up. My father would begin lathering his face to shave at the time they were supposed to be at a dinner.
“What time is it there?” my parents would ask a relative when they spoke, as if the rules for time elsewhere moved forward of their own accord, that those eight hours were as arbitrary and changeable as my mother’s moods. The only time they kept sacred was the evening weather report, before which my father would angrily hush any conversation or noise, as if our quiet obedience would ensure the early arrival of spring, and the nightly Lucky Lotto drawings broadcast on WGN.
But their dual identities were clear. When in Greece, they saw things through American eyes, and when in America, through Greek eyes. My father flourished like this. He loved it, he fed off it, he became a larger version of himself. But my mother, I think it slowly killed her. She was displaced in Chicago, and when she was back in Greece she felt a more acute, sad kind of displacement. She didn’t exist fully formed in either place, and she slowly melted away.
Had I said all this out loud, or to myself? I was suddenly sleepy, but when I said goodnight to the Captain and fell into bed, sleep would not come. The bed felt hard, and I tossed and turned, my eyes wide open. But I must have slept eventually because I woke to the sound of a woman’s screams. First I lay there, unsure if I was dreaming. I suppose I’m still not certain—there is a small chance it was a dream, and for many consecutive nights in that apartment I’d awake completely confused. But even as I say as much, I feel my guilty conscience: I could no longer blame the disorientation of jet lag, or even a new space. And because of this I cannot shake the feeling of shame that accompanies this confession: lying in bed, unable to even move my arm to reach for the phone, sheer terror surrounded me as a woman screamed for help. I could have immediately dialed the police, I could have gone out to the balcony and called to her. Maybe even if I had made my presence known, the assailant would have run. Maybe she was with a lover, an episode of violence unfolding right in front of their home.
Her screams for help were clear and deliberate. Voítheia. Help. And they became more frantic, more terrified, more muffled. They were from a living body, they were not my imagination, but I could not move.
Finally, the silence released my limbs and I was able to tear myself out of the bed and onto the balcony. I called the police and explained to them where I was. I called out to her.
But I was too late. The night had swallowed her up.
The next night, I asked the Captain about the screams. Though he slept with his balcony doors open, he said he had not heard a thing. The ship made him a light sleeper, he added. Always ready for an emergency.
“You really heard nothing?” I asked.
“Not even the cats,” he said.
I wasn’t sure where the screams were coming from. Lykavittos? Near the stadium? Sometimes what sounded like music from a party in the next building was coming from the park that was a fifteen-minute walk away. But I know these are excuses that I make because of the helpless shame of lying in my bed, my shoulders pinned down by fear.
“Are you okay?” he asked, finally. “Mira?”
I realized sleep had taken hold in the chair and I’d been dreaming of driving around with large green-and-turquoise sea charts I could not read, trying to place one into my eye like a giant contact lens. I told him this.
He laughed, a deep, gentle laugh. “You remind me that I haven’t paid attention to my dreams. I’m probably having them but my sleep has felt blank.”
“That sounds wonderful. I’m often teaching in my dreams, about to lecture on a subject I know nothing about.”
He was quiet. I wasn’t used to talking to someone who didn’t interrupt each sentence. I continued. “Except suddenly I’m bartending, my boss complaining about the wrong drink, words spilling out of her glass, across the television screens while I fumble with a tiny lock on luggage, or try to dial a phone number.”
“Me, driving a car into the water and sinking; or worse, watching my kids drown and not being able to help them. Of water, of blindness, of rock.”
I was quiet, trying to imagine his kids. Twins.
“I’ve never told that to anyone,” he said.
“Terrifying.” The woman and her scream came back to me. But it had not been a dream. “So hard to explain.” I paused. “‘A dream cannot exist in words.’”
“From Maria Nephele,” I said.
“Elytis.” He seemed disappointed. Elytis bored him, he said. The sun, the sea, we get it. He spoke a bit more but I felt drowsy, suddenly sleepy.
Later, I woke draped with a white blanket that was not mine and a vague image of him handing the blanket to me, a quick glimpse of his face. I rose from my chair, went inside, and flopped down onto my bed, feeling an odd rush of euphoria.
Natalie Bakopoulos is the author of Scorpionfish (Tin House, 2020) and The Green Shore (Simon & Schuster, 2012), and her work has appeared in Tin House, the Iowa Review, the New York Times, Granta, Ploughshares, and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She’s an assistant professor of creative writing at Wayne State University in Detroit and a faculty member of the summer program Writing Workshops in Greece. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
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Natalie Bakopoulos Natalie Bakopoulos Natalie Bakopoulos Natalie Bakopoulos Natalie Bakopoulos Natalie Bakopoulos Natalie Bakopoulos
The excerpt below is from the book The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey. Copyright © 2020 by Margot Livesey. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Here is what happened one Monday in the month of September, in the last year of the last century. Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan Lang were on their way home from school. Usually they took the bus from the larger town, where they attended secondary school, to the smaller town, where they lived, but that morning their father had said he had an errand to run and would collect them. So they waited beside the school gates, and watched the bus depart. After fifteen minutes, with no sign of the familiar car, they began to walk along the road that led to their town. They each wore a version of the school uniform: a white shirt, black trousers, and a black pullover. Expecting their father to appear at any moment, they walked fast, making it a game to see how far they could get before he pulled up beside them. They left the last houses behind. Hawthorn hedges and an occasional ash tree hid the fields that bordered the road. Through one gate they saw a herd of cows; through another, rows of barley. The afternoon was warm and still; only a few leaves fringed with brown hinted at autumn. Gnats hung in listless clouds above the tarmac. Zoe was the one who spotted something through the hedge. She had a gift for finding things: birds’ nests, their mother’s calculator, a missing book, a secret.
“What’s that?” she demanded, stooping to peer through the tangled branches. The flash of red could have been poppies bordering the field, but the poppies had already lost their petals. Before her brothers could answer, she turned and ran back to the gate they had just passed.
Matthew and Duncan watched her go. Zoe brought her knees high and pumped her arms. Last sports day she had won the quarter mile by almost three seconds. As she reached the gate, Duncan, without a word, took off after her. A car sped by, the smooth engine noise undercut by a harsh rattle. Matthew looked at the sky, mostly blue with a fortress of cumulus clouds in the east, and gave up on being the responsible one who waited for their father. The two bags, his and Zoe’s, banged against the metal bars of the gate as he climbed over and jumped down onto the rutted ground. The field had recently been harvested, and circular bales of straw lay randomly across the dull gold stubble. In the middle of the field stood a magnificent oak tree in full leaf. He caught up with first Duncan, then Zoe.
From a distance it was still possible to believe that the boy was asleep, lying on the grassy border between hedge and stubble. “Christ,” whispered Zoe.
The closer they got to him, the slower they walked. None of them spoke. Glinting bluebottles and smaller flies circled the boy. His hair was dark, his skin very pale. He wore a deep blue shirt, a color Duncan would later call cobalt, black shorts, and what appeared to be long red socks. At the local private school, the younger boys wore bright red knee socks, and for the briefest instant, Zoe thought Oh, he’s in uniform. A few steps closer, and she grasped the nature of the red. His eyelids were pale with a delicate tracery of veins. Everything that happened, they all three later agreed, was only possible because of those closed lids.
His chest rose, fractionally, and fell, fractionally. With no one to tell them what to feel, they did not cry out, or exclaim.
Zoe tiptoed forward, knelt down at a cautious distance, and leaned over to touch his bare arm where it emerged below his shirtsleeve. His skin was reassuringly warm. He was a little older than her. Eighteen. Perhaps nineteen. “We need to get help,” she said.
But she was not going anywhere. She was gently stroking his bare arm.
Except for his clothes and his scarlet legs, Matthew thought, the boy could have been an illustration in a Victorian novel: The Weary Harvester. Rest after Toil. The Dreaming Poet. He told Duncan to go back to the road and stop a car. “Tell the driver someone’s hurt,” he said. “He needs an ambulance.”
Duncan had been staring at the boy, committing him detail by detail, color by color, to memory. Now, reluctantly, he acknowledged the inevitability of being the youngest. He ran back along the edge of the field, scrambled over the gate again, and stood by the side of the road. In a well-organized world this would have been the moment for their father to arrive, driving, as usual, a little too fast.
The first car, black, sleek, ignored his frantic waving. So did the second. The third car, baby blue, the antenna bent at an awkward angle, slowed. Duncan stepped into the road, ready to explain. The man behind the wheel—he too was wearing a white shirt—was staring at him through the dull windscreen. And then, just as the car seemed about to stop, it accelerated, swerved around him—he glimpsed the number plate and a dent in the rear bumper—and disappeared. It would have stopped for Zoe, he thought. Or even for Matthew. He shouldn’t have let them send him to do this. But he had, and the beautiful boy was depending on him. At the sound of another car approaching, he planted himself in the middle of the road.
For a few scary seconds the car hurtled toward him. When the driver braked, he bent down at the window. “We found a boy in the field.” He pointed behind him. “He’s hurt.”
“Hurt how?” The woman pushed up her sunglasses as if the emergency demanded naked sight. Her eyes were a color Dun- can could only call colorless.
“I don’t know. My brother says he needs an ambulance.”
“Don’t move him. I’ll phone 999. Leave the gate of the field open so they’ll know which one.”
She did a U-turn in the gateway, and headed in the direction of the town.
Back in the field his sister was still stroking the boy’s arm, his brother kneeling on the other side of him, fanning away the flies with a blue school notebook. They did not speak as he approached; he sensed they had not spoken during his absence.
“A woman’s gone for help,” he said, and knelt beside Zoe. His shirt had pulled loose as he ran, and the hem grazed the grass. “What’s the matter with him? Did he fall?”
“Maybe,” Zoe said. While Duncan was summoning help, she had noticed that the boy’s shorts were torn in several places: two holes in one leg, one near the waist, one in the other leg. Last autumn her mother had lectured her and her friend Moira about how, at fifteen, they had to be careful. “Don’t walk around alone at night,” she had said. “Don’t accept lifts from strangers. If a grown-up starts behaving oddly, find an excuse to leave.”
“Oddly how?” Zoe had asked.
“Making remarks about your appearance, touching you.” Her mother waved her hand. “Making you feel weird.”
Alone, she and Moira had giggled away the warning, but now her mother’s words came back; she tried not to think about the torn fabric—what made the holes, what lay beneath. From beyond the hedge came the sounds of a car approaching, disappearing, then another. “Do we know him?” she asked.
“I don’t,” Matthew said. As he moved the notebook, the flies retreated with almost military precision and, with the same precision, returned. Everything was warm and frightening. The boy was alive, which meant he might die. He was not sure Zoe and Duncan understood that.
“Maybe he looks different?” Zoe persisted. “Perhaps we’ve seen him at the shops, or on the bus?”
Matthew was still shaking his head—that the boy’s life might have touched theirs only made the idea of his death more frightening—when Duncan spoke. If Zoe was the one who found things, their little brother was the one who noticed them: the different yellows of two egg yolks, the way a person’s lips twitched when they met him, the first snowdrops pushing up through the frosty grass, the curve of a dog’s eyebrows. Matthew had asked Zoe once if she thought Duncan was better at noticing things because he was adopted. No, she had said, because he’s Duncan.
Now Duncan said, “I’ve seen him before, but I’m not sure where.”
Looking at the boy, he too thought of a picture, a painting his art teacher had shown him of a wide-eyed, cream-colored bull climbing into the sky with a girl on his back. Zeus had courted Europa by breathing out a saffron crocus from his dark nostrils. Who could resist a flower born of such sweetness? Not Europa. She had clambered onto his back, thinking to ride him around the meadow, garland him with flowers, only to find the bull carrying her skyward toward unknown terror, or unknown bliss. Had something like that happened to the boy?
“If his eyes were open,” Zoe said, “I bet you’d remember.”
If his eyes were open, Matthew thought, we would not be kneeling here. He would be in pain, and we couldn’t bear it. How long had they been here? Ten minutes? Twenty? He glanced over his shoulder at the nearest bale. Last autumn he and his friend Benjamin had carried a ladder out to the field behind Benjamin’s house, climbed up onto a stack of bales, and shared a beer. It had been oddly satisfying, sitting on the prickly straw, watching the lights of the town appear. Now, still fanning the boy, he edged closer. His left knee landed on something soft: a spiraling strip, maybe eight inches long, of brownish apple peel. He tossed it in the direction of the oak tree.
“You’re going to be all right,” Zoe said.
The boy gave a small sigh. His lips moved. The sigh became a word.
Each of them caught it. No more words followed.
Two swallows swooped past, skimming the air above their heads. Briefly Duncan imagined the scene as if he were riding not on a bull but on the back of one of the birds, looking down at the boy lying in the grass, his blue shirt and black shorts and red legs ending in black trainers, slightly dusty, pointing at the sky. And the three of them in their white shirts, kneeling beside him, keeping vigil. When he descended again, it was with a longing to memorize every detail of the boy. He had seldom had license to examine another person so closely. Years later he would remember him more vividly than men and women he had loved, friends he had adored.
His hair was shoulder length, wavy, the brown of soil after rain; his forehead was high; his nose straight with an almost invisible bump at the bridge; his nostrils, against his pale skin, were faintly pink; his lips were parted, the upper a little fuller; his ears, shell- like, lay close to his head; the left had a tiny dark hole in the lobe. A thin silver chain lay across the hollow between his collarbones. He wore a watch, the black leather strap faded and cracked. His hands were open, palms up, his fingers gently curved.
Duncan was still itemizing the boy when there was a commotion in the road: the sounds of a vehicle stopping, doors opening, voices, and then three men hurrying down the edge of the field, one carrying a stretcher.
No one had mentioned the children, and no provision had been made for them. One of the paramedics called “All right there?” over his shoulder as they hurried toward the gate with their burden. “Fine,” Matthew called back. By the time the three of them reached the gate, the ambulance was gone.
They half walked, half ran, the rest of the way home. Something enormous had happened. They hurried past the sign for their town, the primary school they had each attended, the church, the pub, and the corner shop, past the houses of their neighbors, past the blowsy yellow and white roses in their front garden and through their blue front door. As it closed behind them, their father, Hal, appeared from the kitchen, an apron around his waist, a dish towel dangling from one hand. He was a blacksmith or, as he sometimes joked, an artisanal metalworker, and usually got home earlier than their mother to make supper.
“Where on earth did you get to?” he said. “I waited at the school. Then the caretaker told me you were walking home. I didn’t see you on the road. Did you get a lift?”
His blue eyes were more amused than annoyed, but as Zoe and Matthew took turns recounting what had happened, they darkened. “Wait a minute,” he interrupted. “This boy, he’d been taken ill? He’d had an accident?”
Zoe described the holes in the boy’s shorts, the blood on his legs.
“I think someone stabbed him,” Matthew offered.
“Stabbed him?” Duncan said. It hadn’t occurred to him to wonder how the boy came to be lying there, but Matthew must be right. Someone had made the blood spill down his legs.
“Did anyone phone the police?” Their father was looking at each of them in turn as if, collectively, they might be to blame.
Duncan said he hadn’t mentioned the police to the woman in the car. “Was I meant to?”
Still holding the dish towel, their father said he thought he’d give the station in Oxford a call, and stepped over to the phone.
At supper, the five of them sitting around their round table, their mother, Betsy, made them tell the story again. “Thank goodness you found him,” she said. “Who knows what might have happened.”
“He’d have died,” said Zoe severely. “We have five or six quarts of blood in our bodies. If we lose five or six pints, we die.” She glared at her plate, the meek fish pie and green beans. Then, turning to her brothers, she said, “Do you think the person who attacked him was still there? Do you think he saw us?”
Separately and together, each of them considered: Had some- one been lurking behind one of the bales? Peering down through the leaves of the oak tree?
“Someone could have hidden behind a bale,” Duncan said, “but I don’t think they did.” The field had felt the way their house did after Arthur, the dachshund, died: empty.
“And didn’t you say he’d been there for a while?” said their mother. She was a solicitor, who dealt mostly with family law, and an ardent advocate for children’s rights.
It was true, Matthew thought, the boy looked as if he’d been lying there for hours, but none of them had actually said so. Their mother, like the witnesses she so often complained about, was making assumptions. “But why would someone want to hurt him?” he demanded.
Their parents exchanged glances.
“Maybe he got in an argument,” their mother suggested. “Maybe he stole something?” Her eyebrows rose toward her reddish-brown hair; people often thought she dyed it.
Duncan put down his fork. No one with such shell-like ears could be a thief.
“Or maybe”—their father too was imagining the scene—“it was about sex.” He was the parent they could count on not to worry that they were too young to hear certain things. The x of “sex” tinkled against the salt and pepper shakers.
At the school Christmas party last year Matthew had kissed Rachel in the cloakroom for forty-five minutes. He had had other girlfriends—three of them—but they had in no way pre- pared him for the astonishing discovery that bodies, his own, another person’s, could be the source of such endless pleasure.
“What your father means,” their mother said, “is that there are people who are wired differently, who get a thrill out of doing bad things, but they’re very few, and far between.” She was still wearing the suit she often wore in court. Duncan claimed it was the color of old potatoes.
“We’re not children.” Zoe speared a green bean. “We know about perverts. Some person, some man, dragged the boy into a field, or got him to follow him, and then he stabbed him. That person could be living in our street. He could be walking past our house right now.”
On the word “now,” the doorbell rang.
Margot Livesey is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Mercury, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, The House on Fortune Street, Banishing Verona, Eva Moves the Furniture, The Missing World, Criminals, and Homework. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vogue, and The Atlantic, and she is the recipient of grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. The House on Fortune Street won the 2009 L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award. Born in Scotland, Livesey lives in the Boston area and is a professor of fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her new novel, The Boy in the Field, is out now.
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Margot Livesey Margot Livesey Margot Livesey Margot Livesey Margot Livesey Margot Livesey Margot Livesey Margot Livesey
The following is excerpted from The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes, available now from Oneworld Publications. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.
The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes
The night the Chief died, I lost my father and the country lost a battle it wouldn’t confess to be fighting. For the no-collared, labouring class. For the decent, dependable patriarch. For right of entry from the field into the garden.
Jurors were appointed to gauge the casualty. They didn’t wear black. Don’t they know black is flattering? The truth isn’t. They kept safe and silent. I didn’t. When is a confession an absolution and when is it a sentencing, I’d like to find out. I suppose there’s only one outcome for souls like us—heavy-going souls the like of mine and the long-lost Chief ’s—and not a good one.
But I’ll lay it on the line, if only to remind the People of who they are: a far cry from neutral judicial equipment. Determining the depth of rot that’s blackening the surface can’t always be left to deities or legislators—sometimes what’s needed is to tie a string around the tooth and shut the door lively.
He was a bright young thing. My brother, Cormac. His mind was a luxury. The face was rationed, it must be said, but there’s not a body with everything. Part t-rex, part pelican. Picture that menace of features! Close-eyed, limb-chinned, skin thick as the red carpet he imagined laid down beneath his wellies. Tall as the door he expected to be let in. When he was twelve, he looked twenty. The mind was ahead too, as I said. The odd girl went in for such a harrow of a fella (the odd girl and not the even) on account of his brains and chesty conduct. Not that he was liberal with his cleverness. But there was the atmosphere of it, knowing at any moment something you’d say would be turned inside out like a child’s eyelid to traumatise you, to show you the violence behind it that you never meant, or maybe you did.
As I say, I didn’t resent him his mind. Early on, its potential was fearsome, but he cached it away too long, until it curdled. He could have his intellect. I had the looks. The Chief ’s mud-coloured locks, yellowing now like a stack of cut grass drying out for haymaking, hey! Square skull, cultured nose, the kind of eyes that might be described as pea and mint soup, best served cold. I was shorter than my brother by a foot, but divvied up as good as David. I’d the emotions of every girl in the County Roscommon over a barrel. A fact he found hard to swallow, in spite of—or maybe because of—the pelican chin. Excepting gobshites, I liked people. And I was well liked—for no good reason, far as Cormac was concerned. I’d zilch to contribute in the way of knowledge or guile or points for the home side, and sure, how else can a person be of use? Sport lent him an absence note for the farm work that needed doing. For the care work. For the life sentence. His absence meant my containment. Stay put, Hart, he was telling me. Stay a mile wide of my circle.
There’s only so many circles in a town the size of a souterrain. What I did and said reflected on him, so he wanted the sticks brushed from my hair, the charm wiped o my face. He wanted me capable of summing sums and changing tyres. To be mad on mechanics—Newtonian and Fordian both. To know a stock option hadn’t to do with cattle. But I wasn’t after his or his boyos’ approval—that panel of experts. Where we’re from, infants get swaddled in hessian sacks. I never bought into an alternative reality, no matter how low the interest rates limbo’d for the new millennium, no matter how you could go the whole way to Dublin on a test drive and, if you weren’t satisfied, no one would lambaste you or demand a tenner for petrol. Cormac did clinch a deal with the new reality. Nothing daft: he didn’t barter his youth, as many did, for a barge on the Shannon or a conservatory extension or an interior decorator or a rotary milking parlour or a personal stylist. No. He wanted a college education. A new way of life, less like subsistence—one that didn’t stink of fear and survival. A challenge that called for grey matter and not gruntwork. He did fast maths on how the island was transfiguring—one of them scenarios like if a train is going at such-and-such a pace in the direction of a stone wall but it’s absolute gas craic on the train, what are your options?
Caoilinn Hughes is the author of The Wild Laughter (Oneworld 2020) and Orchid & the Wasp (Oneworld 2018), which won the Collyer Bristow Prize, was shortlisted for the Hearst Big Book Awards, the Butler Literary Award and longlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and the International DUBLIN Literary Award 2020. For her short fiction, she won The Moth International Short Story Prize 2018 and an O. Henry Prize in 2019. Her poetry collection, Gathering Evidence (Carcanet 2014), won the Shine/Strong Award and was shortlisted for four other prizes. Her work has appeared in Granta, POETRY, Tin House, Best British Poetry, BBC Radio 3 and elsewhere. She has a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and she was recently Visiting Writer at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
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Caoilinn Hughes Caoilinn Hughes Caoilinn Hughes Caoilinn Hughes Caoilinn Hughes Caoilinn Hughes Caoilinn Hughes Caoilinn Hughes Caoilinn Hughes
The following is excerpted from Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes. Copyright (c) 2020 by the author and reprinted with permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.
Prologue – Winter 1999
One minute, La La joins a flock of geese, skating across the lake as they fly overhead, and the next, squeak, crack, she plunges into darkness. Her snowsuit inhales icy water and clings to her, weighing her down and threatening to pull her under. Though she tries to tread water, her skates are too heavy. She opens her mouth to scream, and the lake rushes down her throat. Just when she thinks she’ll drown, she sees her mother. “Mama,” she gurgles. But the woman who calls herself Mother turns and skates away. Frigid black water tugs at La La’s ankles, pours concrete into her muscles. She goes under.
Still and cold, it’s the loneliest place she’s ever been. Too dark to see anything that might thrive there. Perfectly silent until the sharp bark of a dog cuts through the water, summoning her back. Maybe help has arrived. Remembering swim lessons her father gave her, La La gathers her strength and frog-kicks to the surface. Ten feet away, a black dog awaits her. She swims toward him, reaching the edge of the hole in the ice. Hands on the white mass, she pushes as hard as she can but can’t raise herself. She frog-kicks again, desperate to stay above water. The dog howls. Urged on by the animal and no longer alone, she presses her arms against the surface of the ice but lacks the strength to lift herself out.
Exhausted, the cold stiffening her muscles, she waits to sink again. But this time, she doesn’t go under. The arms of her jacket have frozen to the ice. That’s all she remembers.
Later she learns: a man and woman arrived to skate. They found the dog keeping watch, La La unconscious, attached to the ice. On her cell phone, the woman called emergency services, who rescued La La. The dog bounded into the woods before anyone could reward him. No one knew whose dog he was or where he had come from. It wasn’t until La La was being loaded into an ambulance that her mother returned. She had gone to get help, she said.
From under warm covers the next morning, La La hears a dove coo-coo to its mate. The bird’s heart thrums with excitement. When her own pulse takes up the beat, La La doesn’t know what to make of it.
1 – Fall 2015
In Exam Room 4, La La rubs the silky muzzle of a Labrador retriever named Duck. A woman who looks to be in her thirties pales as she points out a lump on the Labrador’s side, but focusing on the dog, La La barely notices the owner’s anxiety. She takes a history and performs an exam. Soft and moveable, the growth is probably a harmless lipoma.
“What do you think?” the woman says.
La La knows better than to offer a diagnosis before the resident has seen the patient. “I’ll get the doctor.”
With a twenty-two-gauge hypodermic needle, Dr. Mun extracts cells from the lump. Though nowhere near the tip, La La feels the prick as it goes in. The doctor shows her the cells under a microscope, then gives the owner the good news. It’s a benign fatty tumor, just as La La suspected.
Pleased to give the dog a reprieve, La La remembers why she loves her work, even the general practice rotation, which others find dull. Her exhaustion from working twelve-hour days fades.
Color returns to the owner’s face. “I don’t know how to thank you both.”
“We’re glad to help,” Dr. Mun says. When La La is silent, the doctor clears her throat. She turns to La La expectantly.
“Glad to help,” La La parrots, already thinking about her next patient.
An hour later, La La prepares to place an IV in a border collie’s cephalic vein. The dog must have eaten peanut butter biscuits in the waiting room. They make La La’s tongue feel sticky and thick. She shaves a spot on the dog’s front leg and scrubs the site with alcohol and chlorhexidine before inserting the needle. She can hardly believe in less than a year she’ll be graduating and seeing patients of her own. When the phone in her pocket goes off, it isn’t the ringtone for her fiancé, Clem (“Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News”), or her father, Zev (“Run, Daddy, Run”), so she puts it out of her mind.
Treating a nervous, aging poodle, La La scratches above the dog’s heart and feels a pleasurable ache in her own chest. “You’re a champ, Gordie,” she says, after drawing his blood, but the dog doesn’t look at her or otherwise seem to hear.
She walks the poodle to the waiting room, where a man in a navy suit reaches for the leash. “He never greets me at the door anymore,” he says, his voice quavering.
“He’s not a butler,” La La mutters.
“Could be his hearing. He is an older dog.”
In the break room, a tofu and avocado sandwich in one hand, La La finally taps the phone message. Hearing John O’Bannon’s voice, she stops chewing. O’Bannon is an attorney who represented Zev and La La in a burglary case when she was a teenager. “Sorry to tell you this,” he says. “Your dad was arrested. Bail hearing is tomorrow at ten. Why don’t you stop by this afternoon? I’m still at 329 Carson, second floor.”
La La’s throat tightens around a lump of bread. She taps the message again. At the word “arrested,” she squeezes the sandwich, her fingers punching through the whole-grain bread. Zev can’t go to prison. He’s the only parent she has left; she can’t afford to lose him. The sandwich falls apart, avocado streaking the industrial tabletop. Gathering the pieces, she stumbles to the trash and drops them in. She e-mails Dr. Mun that a family emergency has come up and she’ll be out that afternoon. She would tell the resident in person but doesn’t trust herself to speak.
“They’re charging him with burglary,” O’Bannon says. The lawyer has aged. His cheeks sag. The pores on his nose are big enough to house a fly. “I’ll need a ten-thousand-dollar retainer. But it’s going to cost a lot more than that before it’s over.” Sloppy piles of official-looking papers rise on his desktop. Crime is as popular as ever.
La La’s knee bounces. She wishes O’Bannon brought a dog to work, the kind to lay its muzzle in your lap. “What did Zev say he could give you?”
“When he heard the DA was asking to set bail at fifty thousand dollars because a victim was in the hospital, Zev said he’d have to rely on a public defender. He can barely scrape together the seventy-five-hundred-dollar fee for the bail bondsman.”
La La isn’t surprised. What little extra money Zev had, he gave her to help with veterinary school tuition. Though she can’t afford to pay O’Bannon, either, she hates to turn the case over to a public defender. As a teenager, she watched them in the courtroom while she waited for her own burglary case to be called. They leafed through client files as though they’d never seen them before.
She would ask Clem for the money, but he disapproves of Zev’s occupation, and besides, what he earns as a chiropractor barely covers their bills. There was a time she would have raised the money herself, breaking into the homes of the wealthy—some people have more than they need, more than anyone should—but she promised Clem she was finished with that. La La thinks briefly of her mother. She has no idea where Elissa is or if she’d be willing to help. “Give us a few days to figure something out.”
The lawyer drums his fingers on his lips. “I suppose that would be okay.”
As La La gets up to leave, she sees, on O’Bannon’s desk, a studio photograph of a harried woman and three robust boys. It’s a different family than the one he used to have. Round two, she presumes. Or perhaps the boys are his stepchildren, cared for by a host of mothers and fathers.
Growing up, La La had only Zev. Her mother disappeared when La La was eight. Four years later, La La buried a pair of white cotton underwear at the bottom of the hamper because a constellation of mysterious brown stains convinced her she had an accident. Discovering the panties, Zev said, “You’re a woman now. No need to be ashamed.” Though it was ten at night, he drove to a supermarket and bought sanitary pads. Returning home, he bleached the underwear.
The next day, Zev arranged fruit—two lemons, an avocado, and loose purple grapes—on a table and demonstrated how a woman’s reproductive system worked. “Pretty clever design,” he said. He told La La it was one of the few things his mother had taught him in case he had a daughter. After Zev walked La La through two monthly cycles, they ate the grapes, and Zev made guacamole. “If you have cramps we can warm up a hot water bottle,” he said, while he mixed the garlic and avocado.
La La scooped a dollop of guacamole onto a chip and opened her mouth. “Delicious uterus,” she said, after she swallowed.
“Gourmet,” Zev said.
When La La was thirteen, Zev accompanied her to a department store to buy her first bra. “Treat her nice,” he said to a salesclerk, slipping the woman a twenty.
“That’s my job, sir,” the clerk said, but she stuck the folded bill down the front of her shirt and brought half a dozen bras to La La in a communal dressing room. La La faced a corner while taking off her shirt. She slipped her arms through a bra and struggled to hook the back.
“Here, let me do that for you,” the woman said. She yanked the clasp closed, then turned La La around and tugged on the bra straps to adjust them. Her fingers were clammy. La La selected two bras just so she didn’t have to feel the woman’s hands on her again.
As she rode home with her father, she kept her eyes on the department store bag in her lap. She wondered what it would have been like to shop with Elissa, instead. Her mother’s absence, familiar and heavy, squeezed the air from her lungs.
Zev caressed the back of her head with his hand. As if reading her mind, he said, “Not many fathers get to help their girls buy their first bras.”
La La clutched the top of the bag, trying to keep from crying. “You didn’t help me. That woman did.”
“I guess she wasn’t your first choice.”
“Sorry about that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” La La said.
The bag slid off her lap. Zev took her hand, and she let him, just that once.
Years afterward, when La La was in high school, Zev pleaded guilty to a burglary they committed together, so that the charges against La La would be dropped. Never mind that it had been La La’s fault they were caught.
He was never exactly a candidate for father-of-the-year, raising her to be a burglar, homeschooling her, and isolating her from other kids, but she can’t afford to think about all that now.
R.L. Maizes is the author of the short story collection We Love Anderson Cooper and Other People’s Pets. Her stories have aired on National Public Radio and have appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and have aired on NPR. Maizes was born and raised in Queens, New York, and lives in Boulder County, CO, with her husband, Steve, and her muses: Arie, a cat who was dropped in the animal shelter’s night box like an overdue library book, and Rosie, a dog who spent her first year homeless in South Dakota and thinks Colorado is downright balmy.
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R.L. Maizes R.L. Maizes R.L. Maizes R.L. Maizes R.L. Maizes R.L. Maizes R.L. Maizes R.L. Maizes R.L. Maizes R.L. Maizes
The following excerpt from The Black Kids, copyright © 2020 by Christina Hammonds Reed, is reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers.
The Black Kids – Chapter 5
Lucia and I stand in line at Western Union behind a balding Russian man with really long ear hair like my old piano teacher. Save for the television in the corner, it’s quiet, eerily so, and I try to keep my feet perfectly still so my sneakers won’t squeak on the linoleum. Sometimes when I have to pee really badly or when I can’t make a sound, I pretend that I’m a runaway slave and I have to be very still, or else I’ll be discovered. It’s fucked up, but it works. Usually this place is a swirl of tongues and transactions, like waiting at the airport, but without any of the excitement of going somewhere. There’s always some baby fussing while some mom screams “Get down from there” at some kid, which sounds pretty much the same in any language. Today, it’s just me, Lucia, and the bald man.
Together, we watch as a crowd pulls a white man from his truck and begins to beat the shit out of him. His long blond hair swings from side to side as he staggers, disoriented, with each blow. In a different world, he’d be a lead guitarist rocking out, not a broken construction worker tumbling. A man flashes gang signs at the helicopters hovering above. They’re not even ten miles away, but it might as well be a whole different country. There are my fancy school and my fancy neighborhood, and then there’s this. The television flickers in fragments across the Russian’s head as he shakes it. He turns to look at me angrily.
“See?” he says.
Lucia places her body between the two of us.
“No hablar con el,” she says.
The man returns to the screen.
Lucia speaks to me in Spanish when she doesn’t want white people to easily understand what we’re talking about. She taught me when I was younger, and then as soon as we got the chance to study languages in school, I chose Spanish. And anyway, it’s LA; if you even half pay attention to the city around you, you’ll learn it by osmosis. It’s not like it’s a secret language, but it’s easier for her and easy enough for me. I’m sure to everyone looking at us we’re an odd pair, a lanky black teenager and a tiny Guatemalan, always together. Lucia’s favorite cashier is Jose. If he’s working, everything goes smoothly, and they joke and laugh in Spanish about how he’s going to marry her.
When she’s done, she kisses her fingertips and places them on the envelope before sliding it across the counter, where Jose converts it to a textbook for Umberto, guitar lessons for Roberto.
Today, Jose isn’t in a joking mood.
“El mundo en que vivimos.” Jose sighs. His eyes are fixed on the television screen, where the news shows images of a man slamming a slab of concrete down on the truck driver’s head.
“Sí,” Lucia says.
Jose’s hair is the dark of an oil slick at night. He’s younger than Lucia, and Mexican, not Guatemalan. He lives with his cousin and abuelita in a small house in Highland Park with three bedrooms and a bathroom, and if you climb up on his roof, you can see the city on a clear day. He sounded like a real estate agent when he told this to Lucia.
“I’m going to own my own business,” he said last week, a declaration of intent.
“Doing what?” she said.
He wants to own one of those places downtown where they sell cobijas San Marcos and clothing and key chains and Coca-Cola in glass bottles.
The San Marcos blankets are super plush and have different designs on them like cute kittens and majestic lions and Strawberry Shortcake and the Dodgers. A few weeks ago, Lucia took me downtown and had me pick one out. The air downtown is always the color of a nasty loogie, but I like the buildings because they’ve got character. Which is why I also love the blankets.
The one I chose had a white tiger on it, lounging like a queen.
“You take it with you when you go to college,” Lucia said, and it was like she was preparing us both for goodbye.
“I wish I could take you with me to college,” I joked, and we laughed, but then I felt kinda bad ’cause it made it seem like Lucia was my personal servant.
When I was younger and had a nightmare, I would walk downstairs to Lucia’s room and crawl into bed with her, and she would tell me stories about her boys, and her country, and the handsome but very bad man-devil she divorced before she ran to the United States. He did unforgivable things, she said, for what he thought were the right reasons. She used to think so too, until she didn’t. And so he became the villain in my bedtime stories. “Tell me about Arturo, who lives in the house by the bridge,” I’d say.
Jose is not like Arturo, I say to Lucia. Jose is a good man.
“What’s a good man?” Lucia sighs. “They’re all good, until they’re not.”
But I see the way she looks at Jose, like maybe she’d like to sell cobijas and clothing and knickknacks and Coke in glass bottles with him. Like maybe she could sit up on his roof, cuddle up in a blanket, and watch the fireworks over Dodger Stadium. I can see her dreaming up their life together and deciding maybe they could be good. I wonder if she’s going to tell him today that she’s leaving soon.
Although I try not to watch, my gaze finds its way back to the television screen. The truck driver lies on the ground in a halo of his own blood and hair. Nobody goes to help him. The police are nowhere to be found. Some man walks up, takes the wallet right from the truck driver’s pocket, and runs off. Finally, the truck driver gets to his knees, and another man comes up almost out of nowhere and appears to kick him in the head. I feel myself wince.
“Go out with me?” Jose says. It’s the first time he’s said it for real and not just as a joke.
On the television, the man drags himself into his truck and tries to drive away. The people at the intersection continue to throw anger at passing cars. From up above it looks like somewhere I’ve driven through a thousand times, but also somewhere I’ve never been. I bet my dad would know where it is.
“Okay,” Lucia says softly to Jose, and I look over at her because she’s going home to Guatemala and what’s the point of even going on a date when you’re gonna leave, but maybe that bloodied truck driver made her forget, or maybe he reminded her why she left. Or maybe being around Jose makes her think she might want to stick around a little bit longer.
Jose completes the rest of the transaction in silence.
On our way home, as we cross the street, Lucia reaches for my hand like she used to when I was little, and even though I haven’t done so in a long time, I hold it.
By the time we get home, the city is burning. The buildings are stripped bare, and people yank the guts through their skeletons.
Lucia hands me a small envelope.
“The Katzes said it was accidentally delivered to them, and they kept forgetting to bring it over.”
“You open it,” I say. My heart feels like it’s going to fall right out my chest and splat right on the kitchen floor.
“It’s your future, mija.”
The envelope says my future has been wait-listed.
I want to cry. I’m in at other schools—really good schools, even—but Stanford is the school I want. Close to home, but far enough away to be some other me. Somewhere I can briefly stop being a sister and a daughter, but only an hour’s flight away in case Jo needs me. I don’t know for what, exactly; maybe in case her broken brain delivers a rough uppercut and she needs me to pull her up, squirt some water in her mouth, ice her bruises, and tell her to keep fighting. I need to be somewhere I can still feel the ocean, my ocean, in my hair and skin. I’m convinced Stanford is the only place I’ll thrive. I want to throw up. I want to disappear. I want to crawl into a hole with embarrassment. I feel all of these things and burn up in their atmosphere as I hurtle down.
Lucia pats me on the thigh. “Everything’ll work out alright.”
Instead of crying, I watch.
Up goes a shoe store.
Up goes a laundromat.
Up goes a TV repair store.
Up goes a mattress store.
Up goes a liquor store.
All of it goes up.
My mother calls me from her car phone. “It’s going to be a while. I’m going to try to take the 101 to the 405 and see if that’s better. I’m afraid to get on the 10.”
My father calls me from his car phone. “I’m okay. I’ll get there when I get there. It’s bad. Really bad. Stay home, okay? Promise you won’t try to go out with your friends. Not tonight.”
I call Jo from our living room. The phone rings and rings, and I’m afraid she’s not there, but she is.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“Of course I’m not. It’s so wrong. I’m so tired of this shit. They had the goddamn evidence right in front of their faces. It was right there, Ashley! I mean, they don’t fucking see us even when they’re looking right at us.” Usually when Jo goes on about one of her causes, it feels so far away—like she’s angry because she knows she should be and not because she actually feels that shit in her kidneys. But this . . . this feels different. Even I feel it somewhere in my innards, pulsing.
“You should come home,” I say, “until everything’s blown over.”
“I’m not leaving Harrison here alone,” she says. Stupid Harrison. Just because he maybe survived tetanus doesn’t mean he can save her from everything else.
“Just bring him here with you!”
“I’m not subjecting him to Mom again after what happened at dinner.”
“Is it him you’re really concerned about, or you?” I say.
She doesn’t respond.
“Jo . . . don’t do anything stupid, please?” I think of her handcuffed to her high school flagpole, fighting for brown people halfway across the world. She spent her suspension calling our local congressperson. Jo’s the kind of person who would accidentally find herself in the middle of somebody else’s riot.
“Dude. What the hell, Ash?”
The phone clicks, and then my sister’s gone.
Christina Hammonds Reed holds an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. A native of the Los Angeles area, her work has previously appeared in the Santa Monica Review and One Teen Story. The Black Kids is her first novel.
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Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed Christina Hammonds Reed
The following is excerpted from An Ocean Without a Shore; Copyright © 2020 By Scott Spencer. Reprinted here with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
Mornings Were Difficult
My name is Christopher Woods, but just about everyone calls me Kip. Soon, I’m going to be finding out what the judge has decided to “give me,” though it’s really what will be taken away, such as the right to sleep in my own bed, retire and rise on my own schedule, go to the movies, take walks, drink wine, and just about every other of life’s pleasures, heretofore taken for granted. It would have been less stressful if sentencing had come immediately on the heels of the verdict, but it might be a good sign that it wasn’t. Despite the encouraging words of counsel, I knew from the start that a not guilty verdict was a pipe dream, and, while the lawyers continue to be insistently, almost insanely optimistic, it’s quite likely there’s a lot more than a slap on the wrist in store for me.
I recently read a report written by an Israeli novelist about his six months in a coma following a head injury in the Six Days War, a dreamy, often phantasmagoric record of the visions he had while hovering between life and death. I am certainly not comatose, and instead of visions I am beset with piercing and exact memories, but I do feel as if I am hovering between two distinct states of being— my life in New York City and my impending incarceration. It must be said, however, that in the ways it matters most, I’ve been something of a prisoner my entire life.
But being a prisoner in a cell of your own design and acting as your own warden and parole board is at a considerable remove from a real penitentiary, and as I await my sentence I have decided my life took its first turn toward the present disaster on March 12, 1997. I had been out late the night before with a woman named Laurie Kaplan, whose father was a client at Adler Associates, the small investment firm where I worked. Laurie was an actress, currently in a Sam Shepard play, though in real life she was sunny, endlessly optimistic. She was my date for an AIDS benefit held at the St. Regis hotel, a dinner followed by an art auction. I spent $22,500 on a small Kiki Smith sculpture, after which the entire ballroom applauded, a sure sign I’d spent too much. I didn’t mind; it was a nice piece and a good cause—I wasn’t making huge amounts of money, but I gave regularly to that particular AIDS organization, tithing myself in accordance to the precepts of the only church to which I belonged, the Church of Not Acting Like a Selfish Jerk. I got Laurie home to her sublet on Ludlow Street about midnight and was back in my place on Charles shortly after that, read for a while, and was asleep by one thirty.
Only to be awakened four and a half hours later by a phone call. Mornings were difficult for me, increasingly so as I aged. Running out of time and all that. The rising sun a blow to the heart. Another night has passed, with kisses unkissed, confidences unspoken and left to wane, wilt, wither, and die. You do your best to perk yourself up. You remind yourself that things could be a great deal worse. You are living well, you enjoy your own company, still holding at your college weight, season tickets to the Met, so many consolations. But sadness can be sneaky, and sometimes upon waking you feel a certain degree of devastation. Wallflower’s lament, unrequited love, etcetera etcetera. You get used to it. It’s like living through a war. Or waking up every morning horribly overweight, which I’m not, or waking up homely, which I am, sort of. However, on the morning this story begins, I didn’t have time for my usual longing, and my rituals of unrequited love began to change, as if the Twelve Stations of the Cross had been suddenly supplemented with a thirteenth.
I should mention that a phone ringing in the dark did not come as a total shock to me. I was a good and grateful employee of Adler Associates, and part of what you agree to when you are overpaid by an investment firm is your boundless availability. It was wearing me out, the lack of proper rest. I was not alone in this. We were all of us old before our time. Not worn- out like lumberjacks or ironworkers. Our aging was subtler, the kind that goes with doing work that is essentially meaningless. Usually, upon waking and tending to my bodily needs, I gazed at myself curiously in the mirror over the sink, like a hypochondriac taking his own temperature or checking his blood pressure, feeling his pulse, listening to his heartbeat. I wondered if, as Orwell had warned, I had acquired the face I deserved.
My father was blessed with good looks, but I favor my grandfather—my eyes are too close together, and nothing about me is in quite the right proportion. No one has ever directly told me I was ugly, but I personally would never be attracted to someone who looks like me. Okay, we won’t call it ugliness. Lack of beauty. And it has had an effect, though I’ll never know how much of an effect, never know what my life would have been as a handsome man. I did the usual things to improve my appearance once I started making money. I ate well and kept thin. Exercised. What I couldn’t do was sleep eight hours a night, and I looked older than my years.
I picked up the phone. “Kip Woods here,” I said, as if I were on my third espresso, tracking the London Stock Exchange on my laptop.
“I figured you’d be awake,” Thaddeus said.
I checked my watch: 6:13 in New York, 11:13 London, 19:13 in Singapore.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“No. No. I’m half out of my mind. I’m sorry. I know it’s early.”
“It’s fine. What’s going on?”
“It’s this house. I’m going to lose it.” His voice, usually so smooth, aged in the cask of his own nature, was this morning strident, harsh. “It’s what’s holding us together up here. I can’t cover the taxes and the place needs a ton of work. Roof, chimneys, fireplaces, grounds, you name it. This house is goddamned historic and when I bought it I assumed a responsibility. I was going to be the one to keep it up, not screw it up.”
I have known Thaddeus Kaufman since college in Michigan. I was the editor of a fairly nutty lit magazine called My Heart Belongs to Dada, which the University of Michigan’s English Department blindly and benevolently funded, and Thaddeus had submitted a couple of conventional short stories to me, stories that had no place in my magazine, which existed primarily to celebrate experimental writing. I was far more drawn to Thaddeus than to his stories and I took and published what-ever he gave me. He was tall, graceful, and casually seductive.
The University of Michigan is vast and most of the people you go to school with you never really get to know, but even there in overpopulated Ann Arbor, Thaddeus managed to give hundreds of people the impression that he held them in the very highest regard. Whether he did or didn’t actually feel that way remains a mystery to me, but one thing I am sure of is that Thaddeus courted approval and affection as if he were amassing it for some impending future of solitary confinement. You’d see him on campus with his arm around some woman, or draped over the shoulder of a male friend. With his floppy long hair and sly smile, you didn’t know what to make of him. He greeted people with kisses on the left cheek and the right, like some French general or a socialite. At any rate, I took his lousy stories and we’ve been friends ever since, though the friendship has never been played out on a level field. It would have been ridiculous of me to even dream he could ever give me as much thought as I give to him.
“Sell the house,” I said. “It’s just an asset. Dump it. Move to the city.” I was more than hasty. I was unkind. He didn’t really like the city, and his wife basically detested it. Add in children, dogs and cats, and the half million wild birds Thaddeus fed throughout the year. Some of the birds seemed to recognize him, landed on his shoulders, ate out of his hand. He thought they came to the windows and glared at him if the feeders were running low. Who doesn’t want to feel like St. Francis from time to time? That house had become the center of his life, and as his career faltered (to say the least) and his hold upon the house became more and more tenuous, his attachment to it became more intense, just as a lover will crank up the heat of his own ardor if he senses his partner’s passion beginning to cool.
The house was in Windsor County, about one hundred miles north of the city. Thaddeus and Grace had owned it since he’d sold a screenplay for a great deal of money back in 1980, when his ambition to write stories and novels was on life support, and he tried his hand on a movie script, a thriller about students in a made-up Middle Eastern country who take over the U.S. embassy. As luck would have it, by the time Thaddeus’s screenplay went out, Iranian students had occupied our embassy in Tehran, and four studios competed for the rights to Hostages. The occupation of the embassy went on for 444 days, but the auction of Thaddeus’s screenplay was concluded in a matter of hours.
That house! Houses like that are like dope habits—they only get more and more expensive. Thaddeus’s and Grace’s names were on the deed, but you’d have to say that the tables had turned and now the house owned them. I don’t think Grace cared as much as he did; she had different priorities, different secrets. I warned him from the beginning not to buy that place— for reasons that were both selfish and sensible. I didn’t want him to move out of the city, but I also believed that the house was a poor investment—150 years old, in lurching disrepair, fourteen rooms, a few inhabited by creatures ranging from the meekest mice to masked, marauding raccoons, plus seventy acres, where the mice and the raccoons summered, along with deer, coyotes, wily red foxes, and the occasional bobcat. The house had a name: Orkney. Out of Walter Scott. “Writers don’t live in houses that have names,” I warned him, but my tone was probably too casual, too jokey. And there was no changing his mind, no magic words, no stunning insight that would bring him to his senses. He was determined.
The New York City he and Grace had come to know was a city up for grabs, teetering on bankruptcy. But it was also a hell of a lot of fun for those willing to take risks. Which they were not. Whatever seductiveness and open-door policy Thaddeus had pursued in Ann Arbor was nowhere to be seen in New York. Tiny apartment, no view, no light, not even a color TV. He and Grace spent their lives in isolation. They could just as well have been living in a cabin in the woods, except they rode the subway to work every morning. It was love at its worst, in many ways. The city pulsated around them but their eyes were locked on each other. Oh, and what a little Crock-Pot of frustrated ambitions they kept at a steady simmer. No one liked his writing and no one liked her painting. Did I forget to mention Grace thought of herself as a painter? Well, I wasn’t the only one who failed to take that into account. Anyhow, there they were in their union of failure and resentment and suddenly Thaddeus had his weird success. I wondered if they moved out of the city so they could ignore the fact that he was on the rise and she was going nowhere.
When I learned that the name Orkney came from The Pirate, an all but forgotten novel by Walter Scott—oh, excuse me, Sir Walter Scott—I tried to use the ridiculousness of that to dissuade Thaddeus, but the Sir Walter Scott–ness of the old place was hardly a drawback for him. It was a plus. Could have been early imprinting. His parents owned a bookshop in Chicago, where a complete set of the Scott novels was perpetually for sale, somehow symbolizing culture and the finer things in life, with leather covers, marbleized endpapers, and gold leaf on the spines’ raised bands.
Orkney’s version of leather bindings and raised gold bands was Tudor roses and fleur-de-lis, a cavalcade of sconces, a minstrel’s gallery, and lancet windows, many with stained glass. Three staircases, one to the north bedrooms, one to the south, and the third to yet another staircase, this to the third floor, a mean little warren of cramped rooms, meant for domestic staff. Thaddeus, whose idea of happiness had once been to have a story accepted by The New Yorker, now sought joy in a house full of people he could feed and entertain. I realized that his avoidance of social life in Manhattan had come from his feelings of failure. But now, he could give more because he had more and he liked that more to be seen. A little tacky, perhaps, but as suspect motives go, quite easy to forgive.
At Orkney, he could be a kind of upstate Gatsby without the terrible longing, a contented Gatsby who actually has married his Daisy. But there was something else— a vision of a new kind of life that Orkney would give them, the land, the fresh air, the Hudson River. They would have a spiritual life, some-thing deep and lasting. Nature would imbue their lives not only with beauty but with something deep and renewing, as if their souls could thrive on photosynthesis. He’d already abandoned literature—or perhaps he thought he was just putting it aside for the time being, while the money was coming in—and he thought: If I can’t write like Tolstoy, who’s to say I can’t take a stab at living like him? What an idea! Thaddeus would be like Levin on his many acres—but a new, hipper Levin, one with the exuberant appetites of Vronsky. How did he ever think that would work out?
Orkney didn’t have serfs, but the house had come with a caretaker, who had been living for fifty years in a yellow clap-board house on the property, hidden behind a swell in the land and thirty oak trees. The caretaker’s name was Phillip Stratton, but everybody called him Hat. That caretaker was Thaddeus’s undoing. When Stratton was injured preparing the grounds for one of Thaddeus’s parties by stringing up lights high in a tree, Thaddeus, compassionately, egomaniacally, sawed off a piece of his property and gave it to the old guy.
The gesture had its ludicrous side, but if you loved Thaddeus this would only make you love him more. Wanting to be liked can bring out the best in you. No? Now the caretaker was buried in a nearby cemetery, and Jennings Stratton, Hat Stratton’s son, lived in the yellow house with a wife and two children. Even if I were to convince Thaddeus that the best— the only!— thing for him to do was unload Orkney, it would not be as easy as it ought to have been. He had complicated it in a moment of stricken largesse, and now another family was living in the center of the property, sharing the driveway, having visitors of their own, and sometimes enormous parties that rumbled on for forty-eight hours, with tents pitched and bonfires lit, horseshoe tosses, pig roasts, sing-alongs, and dancing.
Grace often attended the caretaker’s parties, but Thaddeus never did. He’d stay at his desk, tucked into one of Orkney’s seldom used north-facing rooms, as far from the sounds of the festivities as he could get, working furiously on screenplays that suddenly no one wanted to pay for, trying his best not to think about Hemingway’s line about how people go broke, gradually and then suddenly.
Scott Spencer is the author of 12 novels, two of which were finalists for the National Book Award, including, most recently An Ocean Without a Shore, as well as Endless Love, Waking the Dead, A Ship Made of Paper, and Willing. He has taught at Columbia University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Williams College, the University of Virginia, and at Eastern Correctional Facility as part of the Bard Prison Initiative. He lives in upstate New York.
Music by Catlofe
Scott Spencer Scott Spencer Scott Spencer Scott Spencer Scott Spencer Scott Spencer Scott Spencer Scott Spencer Scott Spencer Scott Spencer
The following is excerpted from Shiner by Amy Jo Burns. Copyright © 2020 by Amy Jo Burns. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Shiner by Amy Jo Burns – excerpt
It started with a burn, just like the stories of Moses my father used to tell. Moses, he said, was nothing more than a shepherd hiding in the hills until he scaled a mountain and found a flaming bush. Then he was never the same. My father had a tale just as magical, a story of his own origins as a man of God. He loved to tell it as much as my mother wished she hadn’t ever believed it.
For as long as she was alive, she never told me her own story. I used to hear her whisper to her best friend, Ivy, that she wished she’d been known as anything other than Briar Bird’s wife. I hated this about our life in the hills—mountain men steered their own stories, and women were their oars. I asked once if my mother had seen what lay beyond the bluffs, and she led me to the peak of our fields that overlooked the ravine behind my father’s snake shed. In the distance I could see two razorback stone ridges rise from the trees. All my life these mountains had watched over me. My mother knelt beside me, put her arm around my waist.
“There are two ways to see a mountain,” she said as she shielded her hazel eyes from the sun. “The view from the top and the view of the top.”
Ivy came behind her, three of her boys at her back. “From the top of our mountain, the hills of West Virginia bow at your feet,” she said. “But from the bottom, you bow at theirs.”
My mother caught a wisp of her dark hair as it danced in the wind. Her braid fell past the waistband of her skirt, where she tucked the pearl‑handled switchblade that Ivy had given her long before I was born. Ivy pressed a hand to my mother’s shoulder. Their accord was unspoken, haunted by promises they’d sworn to keep.
Everything changed when Ivy caught fire. That morning, not long after my fifteenth birthday, I had spied my first summer fox from my bedroom window. The fox pranced in the morning sun as I waited for Ivy’s scowl to appear on the horizon, her blond hair trembling against her shoulder. Ivy was the only woman who knew how to reach my father’s hideaway beyond the pines. We lived on the mountain’s western ridge, just below the razorbacks and the highest knolls for miles, a stretch of meadow called Violet’s Run. Ivy hiked the snarled hill to our cabin every day, because she and my mother could not survive without each other.
It had been that way since they were girls. Theirs was the same life lived twice over, though Ivy had four boys and a husband, Ricky—who was whiskey‑sick and dope‑drunk, my father liked to say. Ivy and my mother had grown up together, gone to school together, fallen in love together. This bond was the only thing my mother had that I envied. I wanted an Ivy of my own. My father envied it, too.
“Bread and Ivy,” he said with his preacher’s smile. “That’s all your mama needs to survive.”
My father buried himself in the things he loved—his snakes, his woods, his wife. Every time Ivy visited with her boys, he retreated to his snake shed by the cliff. He couldn’t bear to share my mother with anyone—not with Ivy, not even with me.
Ivy came early enough the morning of the burning that she had to walk by faith to find the cabin through the fog. We lived at the top of a slick dirt path, and our gray roof faded into the dying trees above it. No outsider had ever found our road, hidden behind a swamp and a stand of balsams. My father liked it that way—being half there, half not. The cabin tilted on its beams, ready to be raptured. Even without a breeze, the house’s bones moaned.
It was June, and I waited for Ivy at the window as I always did. When she and her three youngest boys crested the hill, I ran outside to greet them. Yesterday they hadn’t come. My mother and I waited all morning before we ate the corn bread and molasses we’d prepared and folded up the picnic quilts we’d laid for the six of us to sit on in the tall grass. I wanted to know why they’d left us alone, but Ivy looked in no mood to be asked. Her skin glistened with sweat, and she made no sound as she headed toward the back of the house, where my mother stirred a drum of soap.
My mother liked to keep her hands busy. She made soap, made dresses, made waves in the creek water. Those hands calmed only at dawn, when she’d stand in our field and stare at the horizon as if she expected Jesus himself to cross it. My mother was restless, and Ivy was the only person who could still her.
At the front of the cabin, Ivy’s boys stared at me.
“Where did you go yesterday?” I asked. “We waited till noon.” Henry, Ivy’s second‑oldest, shrugged.
“Nowhere,” he answered as he looked past the house toward the lean‑to my father had built at the edge of the ravine. “Can we go in the snake shed today?”
“They ain’t playthings,” I said. “You know that.”
“You’ve taken one up, haven’t you?”
I shook my head. “Not once.”
Ivy’s third son, Job, turned toward me. “You scared?”
“I don’t get scared.”
“Liar.” Henry touched the rattail at the back of his neck. “You’re scared of gettin’ bit.”
“Henry.” I straightened his collar as Pony, Ivy’s youngest, toyed with the end of my braid. “If you’re so brave, go knock on that snake shed and look my father in the eye.”
Folks hated looking at my father. A bad storm during his boyhood had blighted one of his blue irises. He’d gone legally blind in his left eye, but folks still believed he could see. He didn’t care what other people thought. He kept his serpents in boxes. They stank and needed to eat the living in order to survive. We had five of them.
“People at school down the mountain say you’re strange,” Job said. “That your daddy keeps you locked up with the snakes.”
“I ain’t so strange,” I said, even though I was.
On the first Monday of the month, my mother and I went to town for groceries with the tithe money my father earned from preaching. Our shopping list never changed—flour and cornmeal for bread, beans, milk, and canned oranges and peaches. Chicken legs and sugar when we could afford it.
Every trip into Trap was a catapult through time. My father obeyed the rituals of snake‑handling law, which meant he pretended we still lived in the 1940s instead of the age of the internet and all the things people did on their cell phones that I couldn’t understand. Back then, George Went Hensley had convinced mountain folk that taking up serpents was the one true way to worship God. Daily, my father lifted his serpents to the sky and uttered a prayer in tongues that no one could interpret. His face looked euphoric and eerie as he babbled. He did it at Sunday gatherings with twenty people watching, and he did it alone in his shed, where I spied him from the scant window. He didn’t need an audience with money to worship his God, but we did need that money to live. More than a half century had passed since snake‑handling fever had swept through our hills, and now fewer than a hundred snake handlers remained across the country. No one believed in the power of taking up serpents anymore. Bitterly, my father claimed they believed in the power of prescription pills instead. The offering he collected on Sundays amounted to a fistful of quarters and a bare spread of dollar bills. It was never enough.
Once a month Ivy drove us to Trap in her old Pontiac. I sat in the back with Pony on my lap for forty minutes of twists and turns.
The stares began as soon as we spilled out of the car into the Shop ’n Save parking lot. Mothers, children, loggers, cashiers. They squinted at the pleats in the skirts my mother had hand‑sewn for me from her old dresses. Their eyes tripped over the length of the French braid running down my back.
“It’s sad, keeping her locked away on that mountain,” I once heard a woman whisper to her grown son as he stifled a laugh and took a picture of me with his phone. I didn’t even know that a cell phone could take a photograph until I flinched at the flash.
Now, in front of our cabin, we heard Ivy scream. Pony let the tail of my braid slip through his fingers, and I sprinted toward the sound. Until then the groans I knew were spirit‑filled and Sunday‑strong as men and women called out to God. But this was the sound of real affliction. It was pure, and there was no God in it.
When I rounded the house, I saw my mother’s best friend kneeling at the fire. Smoke twirled above her as the flames caught her dress and hair. My mother’s soap pot had spilled hot lye and grease down the front of her. Ivy swayed in the still air. Her braid transformed from blond to flaring orange to black.
“Briar!” my mother called out for my father.
I ran to the spigot. I filled a pail of water and doused Ivy’s back. Her whole body hissed. Her scream limped to a sob as the flame surged. My mother tore her skirt and pressed it against Ivy’s front. Her face contorted, but she made no sound. Ivy fell backward, and my mother looked up. Her brown hair fell from her bun as Ivy writhed beneath her.
My mother’s head snapped toward me. “Wren!” she yelled. “The boys!”
It was too late to shield their eyes. Pony hung on my skirt, and I felt Job’s hand on my back. His chest whistled as he tried to catch his breath.
Ivy started to convulse.
“Run as fast as you can to the snake shed,” I told Henry. “Knock, but don’t open the door. Tell my daddy to come quick.”
He stood, petrified. He was just as afraid of the shed as anyone else was.
“Take your brothers inside the house and wait for me.” I touched his arm. “Stay away from the window.”
I took off for the shed, about fifty paces from the cabin. On its far side, a patch of rocks guarded the ground before it pitched off the cliff. The shed presided like a dark lighthouse over the rippled hills beneath it.
“Daddy!” I screamed.
When I reached the lean‑to, I kicked the door with my foot. “Daddy!”
I hefted the latch and flung open the door before stooping to get inside. My father was fast asleep against the far wall, his legs sticking straight out in front of him. A patch of golden hair had fallen in his eyes, and it sparkled in a shaft of sunlight.
I crouched and clapped my hands in front of his face. Startled, he came to. His bad eye was a disk of white in the dark.
“What is it?”
“It’s Ivy,” I said. “She’s burning.”
Amy Jo Burns is the author of the memoir Cinderland and Shiner, a novel. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, Ploughshares, Gay Magazine, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, and the anthology Not That Bad.
Music by Catlofe