The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels – Excerpt
On Sunday we go to church, like we do every Sunday. Like every Sunday, my husband sits beside me. We’re in our usual spot—five rows back, center aisle. Our daughter Jess sits in the row behind us next to my mother-in-law Lettie, who never misses a service.
The church is small and old. Behind the pulpit and on either side of the building, stained glass windows fracture the morning sun into shards across the dark walnut pews and the maroon carpet, reflecting in the gold plates where we drop checks and dollar bills.
“Look around! God’s light shines.” Reverend Clay reads his part from the bulletin. He stands in the same place where my father used to.
We dutifully respond: “The darkness disappears and gives way to light.”
The congregation is sparse, glaring gaps of emptiness. This is how it will be through spring and summer. Now that Easter’s over, people have absorbed enough religion to carry them through to Christmas. Birth, death, resurrection. Those are the days people remember.
Reverend Clay lifts his arms and we rise as one. The old widow Anita Brewer plays the opening chords to “How Great Thou Art” with great passion, her eyes squeezed shut like she’s in pain. It’s one of Lettie’s favorite hymns, and I hear her from behind us, drowning out everyone within a three-row radius. She is off-key, practically shouting, Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee. Travis glances over, the edges of his bristled mustache curling up, his eyes saying, That’s just how my mother is, what can you do? I try returning his smile, but my mouth feels stiff, like my jaw is wired shut. A son’s first love is always for his mother, that’s what they say isn’t it?
Travis rests his hand in the middle of my back. He smells clean and minty like mouthwash. Sundays are the only days I see him dressed up. For him, this is just like any other Sunday. He doesn’t know about the letter from our son. Back at the house, folded up in my jewelry box, it is my secret, my cross to bear.
When the hymn ends we stay standing, except for Anita, who remains seated at the organ, her twiggy fingers now still. Someone coughs, then the crinkling of a wrapper. The reverend holds out his cupped hands in supplication and looks up: Let us go forth in peace, may God be with you. He sounds muffled and far away, like I’m sinking underwater. The letter came on Friday. After I read it, I wept. I prayed to God to give me an answer.
We bow our heads. I keep my eyes open. The faded, thinning carpet. My navy flats, Travis’s dress shoes with the tassels. His hand still on my back. He stands close to me, breathes easily. A soft, sad silence thumps in my head. I will have to tell him. When? There will never be a right time. Reverend Clay says, Amen.
“Well, it’s about time,” Lettie says. “Get you something to eat.”
She’s set out cold cuts, potato salad, and a cherry pie.
Travis and Jess act like they’re starving and pile up their plates, then go out to the backyard to join the others. I linger in the kitchen, and Lettie studies me.
“You look a little peaked.”
“I’m fine,” I say.
She makes a dismissive clucking sound, meaning she doesn’t believe me, and lights a menthol. Lettie’s a stout, strong woman who raised three sons mostly on her own, and now she’s a grandmother and great-grandmother. Her bouffant black hair and dark, penciled eyebrows make her blue eyes look even more striking, but the caked-on makeup gives her the look of a washed-up Grand Ole Opry star. She’s traded her church dress for knit slacks and a short-sleeved pink blouse that shows off her pale freckled arms. Gaudy fake rubies—clip-ons—sparkle from her ears, and her thick fingers are studded with rings.
“Last night I had a dream about him,” she says in a low, secretive voice, and every receptor in my skin rises like a thousand candlewicks suddenly alight and burning. Nobody else in the family ever mentions Brian, only Lettie—and whenever she says his name, a thin, delicate fissure cracks my chest, bones splintering like dry wood.
For a second, I wonder if Brian also sent Lettie a letter, but, no, she would have told me—Lettie can’t keep a secret. She’s described her dreams to me before, the signs that tell her Brian’s okay and he’ll be coming home. I’ve always ignored her premonitions, but now I want to know.
“What happened?” I ask.
“It’s fuzzy.” She draws on the cigarette. “He was a little boy, and he was telling me some story, you know the way he used to do, laughing and his hands flying around.” She stops. “Well, I don’t remember. Sometimes he just comes into my mind.”
“I know,” I say.
“It’s been so long since we heard anything.”
I pinch the insides of my crossed arms so hard I wanted to cry out. “I’m sure he’s fine,” I say. “He just lives a busy life.”
My voice sounds strange and hollow like someone else is speaking through me. Lettie takes another drag and sets the cigarette down on a glass ashtray.
“I better go on out there. You coming?”
“In a minute.”
After the screen door swings shut, I pick up the burning cigarette and taste the sourness of Lettie’s lipstick, probably one of the many tubes leftover from her Avon days. When Brian was little, she used to take him along with her to sell makeup and creams and perfumes. Maybe he spent too much time with her. She was too soft with him, Travis said, loved on him too much.
The backyard buzzes with conversation and laughter. I settle into a green and white striped lawn chair between Liz and Carol, my sisters-in-law, and as we catch up, Jess, who is much younger than her cousins, plants herself on a quilt, cooing over Allie, Gus and Pam’s six-month-old. Travis talks to Paul and Wayne about work, and my nephews Matthew and Kyle toss a green foam football with their sons, while their wives, Sherri and Lisa, also Chester natives, smoke cigarettes and complain. I always thought Kyle in particular would end up dead or in jail by twenty-five, as wild as he used to be, but here he is: a father and husband, alive and healthy.
It was the bigness of the Jacksons that drew me to them. They took me in without hesitation, sweeping me in as easily as a river would a leaf or a twig. Everything about their way of living was new to me. I grew up in a house of quiet. Mother in her room or at the kitchen table, reading historical novels. Father busy at church, writing sermons or ministering to his wife. At the Jackson house, the TV or record player or radio was always on, sometimes all three at once. Lettie raised her three sons on her own, after her husband died in a car accident when Travis was three years old. Lettie doesn’t say much about him, just that he was a good man. She never remarried, never even dated again, as far as I know.
Everyone in the family lives nearby. Carol and Wayne in a little brick ranch on the outskirts of town, and Paul and Liz in a double-wide. Travis and his brothers, and his brothers’ sons, all work at P.T. Gas & Electric, the same place where their father once worked. After their father died, Wayne and Paul helped take care of Travis, and he credits them for teaching him how to be a man.
After a while, Wayne’s voice dominates, as usual, demanding everyone’s undivided attention. My neck stiffens, preparing myself for his vulgarities—Travis is always quick to defend him, says he doesn’t know any better—but today Wayne just tells a tedious story about a boss who gave him trouble (he claims) because Wayne knew more than he did, one we’ve all heard before.
“Yes, he treated you bad,” Lettie says. “I remember.”
Lettie is one of the kindest souls I know, but when someone does her or her family wrong, she doesn’t hold back. Even a minor slight by a store clerk can set her off. She doesn’t yell or throw a fit, but she’ll say what’s on her mind. She holds grudges.
“Told that son-of-a-bitch to stick that pipe where the sun don’t shine.” Wayne smiles in his surprisingly charming way. The oldest brother, he has black hair and deep-set dark eyes that make him look like he’s always a little bit hungry. He’s strong with wiry muscles, and rides a motorcycle, and, like most of the men around Chester, he’s rough around the edges.
Carol smiles at Wayne, bored—she’s heard the story a hundred times. Back in high school, Carol used to be wild: cutting classes, smoking in the bathroom, nipping whiskey out of a flask. But over the years as a mother and now a grandmother, the wildness has disappeared like muscles lost under the folds of flesh. She’s put on at least twenty pounds in the last two years.
“I remember him, he wasn’t from around here,” Paul says. “Didn’t stay either.” The middle son, chubby, with shaggy hair and thick eyeglasses, Paul is the most easygoing of the three. He reaches into the cooler and hands Liz a beer. “Here you go you, baby,” he says. After all these years, they still hold hands.
Travis pulls down his baseball hat to shade his eyes. My husband was different from his big brothers, had ambition. While they skipped classes and smoked cigarettes and drank too much, Travis made good grades, and played baseball and basketball. He was a clean-cut, all-American kid. But after the war, he stopped talking about going to college or trying to work his way up to foreman. He didn’t say much about Vietnam, except, It’s hell over there. I used to watch the nightly news with Lettie, both of us quietly terrified as Walter Cronkite gave his report. The number of the dead rising and rising, and no end in sight.
“Sharon, we ought to go on a girls’ shopping trip soon,” Liz says. “Lettie, you want to come with us?”
“You know me,” she says. “Shop till you drop.”
Conversations float in and out like too many different radio stations playing at once. The sun is beginning to set, and I feel chilled. From the center of town, a passing coal train blasts its horn.
Lettie mentions Wayne’s upcoming birthday, and the attention swerves back to him. “Fifty,” Paul says. “Brother, you’re getting old.”
“Hell, I’m still not as gray as Travis,” Wayne says.
“I don’t know about that,” Travis says. “Mom, you think you ought to take him to the beauty shop with you?”
“Well, Annette sure knows how to hide the gray,” Lettie says.
“Should I get a perm too?” Wayne pretends to fluff his hair. “Won’t that look good?” he says in a falsetto.
Everyone laughs, and, encouraged, Wayne keeps going, talking about getting his nails done, looking pretty. His pretend lisp gets louder, as if he’s shouting into my ear, and everything turns too bright—the green lawn, the black of Lettie’s hair. Jess doubles over with laughter.
“Wayne, you seem a little too comfortable, if you know what I mean,” Travis jokes.
I don’t know if I’m angrier at Wayne or at my son for putting me in this situation. The flash of brightness fades and the voices start to sound normal again. But my heart races, my mouth tastes strangely of blood. This wasn’t supposed to happen. They were the ones with the troubled kids: teen pregnancy, jail, school suspension. Travis and I were different from his brothers and their families, and so were our children, who we believed would go to college and find good jobs, get married and give us grandchildren, and live close by. They’d live happy lives like the kind you see on television. We felt protected from tragedy and looked forward to the future, a glistening river of possibilities.
Once you know something, you can’t un-know it.
I first heard about the disease two or three years ago, mentioned on the news, and I remember seeing it come up on a TV show, some hospital drama that Lettie had on. I still remember how I felt when they said the character was gay: everything in me went still and I started chattering, it didn’t matter what came out of my mouth, I just needed to talk over the TV, block it out, cover it up. Since then, of course, you can’t escape hearing about the gays or the disease, especially after Rock Hudson died last year. The preachers say it’s a punishment from God.
Now I have this letter, a half page written on yellow legal pad paper. He said in the first line, There is something I need to tell you. The word AIDS printed carefully in capital letters. He’s been in the hospital already. Didn’t want to worry us. He’s doing all right, he says, he feels stronger. The letter was shockingly direct, but also vague. It’s been a while, and I was thinking maybe I’d come home to see everyone. I’d like to see the family. How is Sadie doing? I wonder if she’ll remember me. His phone number was written below his signature. He was waiting for us to call.
A few years ago, Brian sent a picture of himself with a man. They had their arms around each other. Brian looked healthy, handsome, strong. Hair curled around his ears, crooked teeth, blue eyes. Head tilted to the side. His smile was big. Then, this man. Older than him. Tall, muscular. Black. Later, Brian told me that his friend was dead. Didn’t tell me how he died, but now I know. It was him. He infected my son.
Alone in the kitchen, I hear my husband and daughter upstairs, the creaking of the floorboards. I’ll tell Travis about the letter tomorrow. Let us have one more night where nothing is changed.
But when I walk in the bedroom and close the door behind me, I can’t hold onto it any longer. Travis pulls on a pair of blue plaid pajama pants, his T-shirt crumpled in a ball on the floor.
“I have to tell you something.”
He raises his eyebrows. Pants on, no shirt. His chest hair curly and thick, silver as pencil shavings. “What’s wrong?”
I open the jewelry box, which used to belong to my mother. It sits on top of the dresser like a white cake. I open the lid. Inside, pink silk lining, the faint scent of stale perfume. There are two layers, and the letter rests on the bottom, folded in thirds. I take it out. Hand it to him. His face wrinkles with confusion. He opens it, barely glances at the writing, and closes it. Doesn’t read it, doesn’t want to know. There is a tremor in his voice.
“What is this?”
He holds up the folded letter away from him, a piece of evidence he doesn’t want to see. But I want him to read it: why do I have to explain? As I glance away, I catch sight of our reflections in the mirror, our drawn, worried faces, how naked and vulnerable they look, and I quickly turn, don’t want to see. The light is low in the room, a dull yellow, and everything seems old and worn: the pale blue carpet, the beige bedspread with peach and blue flowers. I hear Jess, opening the bathroom door, closing it.
“It’s from Brian,” I say.
Travis holds the letter towards me, wanting me to take it back, but I don’t.
“He’s sick,” I say, and as soon as the words leave my mouth, as soon as I let them go, my bones turn to mush, I have to sit. My legs fold, the mattress holds me up. “He has AIDS.”
Travis is standing in front of me, so I have to look up to see his face. The skin around his eyes crinkles, as if he is staring into the sun. His eyes are light blue, like glass canning jars. He cocks his head like he misheard.
“He has what?”
His tone is incredulous and sharp, like he thinks I have everything wrong, and a rush of anger spreads through me like a fever, gives me the strength to stand back up.
“AIDS,” I say, then say it again, louder, getting myself used to the word. “He has AIDS.”
Travis doesn’t understand. Staring blankly. Of course, he knows about it—he’s heard Wayne’s jokes, he’s read the newspaper articles, heard the preachers and politicians. But, like me, he has ignored, deflected, refused. He drops the letter on the bed. Still, disbelieving. An accusatory tone of voice: “What does that mean?”
His pajama pants hang low on his hips and he is wearing white tube socks, and now I wish I told him before he started getting dressed for bed. The anger dissipates from my body like a dying light. He looks old and childish at the same time. He looks scared.
“Brian’s sick,” I say. “He could die.”
Could die, would die. The words swell inside me like a bruise. A disease of the blood, a disease that people catch. People die from it. People, what kind of people. He doesn’t ask, I don’t say. It is quiet except for the ticking of the alarm clock, but outside these walls, the noise is normal and good. Jess running water. Jess brushing her teeth. The lid of the toilet. Bathroom door, bedroom door. Jess climbing into bed, pulling up the covers, closing her eyes. Her heart beating. Healthy, alive.
“He wants to come home,” I say.
For a moment, a band of light, hope, twitches across Travis’s face: his son is coming home. The son he loves, the son he carried in his arms. Then he remembers. Shaking his head, he takes a step back, further away from me, in the shadows, the way he used to disappear after he came back from Vietnam. He was the same man, a good man, except quieter—sometimes he vanished from conversation, eyes fevered with memories he wouldn’t share.
“Is that even safe?” he asks. “For him to be here?”
He crosses his arms over his chest, letting go of nothing, making me do all the work.
“It’s not contagious,” I say. “Not by touching.” Stop. Don’t want to think about the ways it is spread.
Travis rubs his jaw, thinking. His eyes hooded, protected, downcast. He is studying his socks. How clean, how white.
“They don’t know for sure,” he says. “There’s a lot about this they don’t know.”
He wants me to agree with him, to take everything back, to apologize, to keep things from changing. I am close enough to touch him, but I don’t. I hold my arms at my sides, heavy and dense like they’ve been packed with mud. My legs still feel rubbery, and my feet are weak, useless things.
“He wants to come home,” I say.
The pause of silence that follows is not quiet but hot and panting. Travis looks up. “So he only wants to come home when something’s wrong,” he says, his voice swollen with anger and hurt and guilt and accusation. All of the same feelings in me. He is hurting, I am hurting.
Travis goes over to his side of the bed. Him on one side, me on the other. The bed a mountain between us.
“How sick is he? Does he just want to come here for a little bit, or stay here until…” He trails off.
“I don’t know.” My voice is sharp and prickly. But I understand: we’ve already been through so much. Travis, sighing, sits heavily on the bed, his back to me. I return the letter to the jewelry box, close the lid. I don’t know how to fix any of this.
I change into my nightgown, and get into bed. Travis lies on his back, staring at the ceiling. His chest is wide and strong, and I remember when we were young, how easy it was to sleep with my head right there, to curl into him, holding on until we grew into a single body. But now to slide up beside him like that feels awkward and forced. I stay on my side. Why is it up to me to do the talking?
“We need to tell him something,” I finally say.
He turns toward me, his face sad and scared and pale, and I feel sorry for him, sorry for us. When Brian left, Travis said it was his choice—we were not the guilty ones, it wasn’t our fault. He was strong then, maybe too strong. He made me believe everything would be okay, and I want that again, for Travis to take charge, to do the right thing: I will stand by him.
“I don’t know what to do,” he says.
I hold my breath as he reaches over and turns out the light. He rolls on his side, away from me. In the dark, where he now feels safe to tell me his fears, his voice sounds husky, strange.
“If he comes back,” he starts, and I stay as still as possible, hollowness thudding through me. “What will people—”
I force myself to speak, just to stop him from talking. “He’s our son,” I say. It is the right thing, but even as I say the words, they sound easy, rehearsed, false.
Travis says nothing else. Neither do I. But the decision has been made. We have to let him come back home and I must bury the unspeakable thought: I wish I’d never even opened the letter. I lie next to Travis for what seems like hours, until finally his body softens, his breathing slows. He’s been awake all this time. Both of us staring into the dark, not touching, not talking. When his breaths turn to snores, quietly, I get out of bed, go downstairs. I shuffle my feet into my tennis shoes, dig the cigarettes out of my purse. I’m a smoker again.
I walk into the backyard. The wet grass brushes against my bare ankles like pieces of velvet and soaks through my tennis shoes. The Dennisons’ hound is quiet, but the night insects sing and hum, calling each other. The moon is almost full and the sky is clear and everything glows under the silver light: the towers of trees, protecting our still house.
Travis’s words, spoken in the dark, ring in my head as I strike the match. He asked the same question six years ago when Brian left this family and all he knew. This isn’t supposed to happen, we raised our kids right, we weren’t perfect but we were good, and now here I am sneaking out in the middle of the night and our son, five hundred miles away, is dying from what is in his blood, dying because of what he did, dying because of what he calls himself, and what if he comes back here and what if people find out the truth, then what will happen to us? What will people think?
Carter Sickels is the author of the novels The Evening Hour and The Prettiest Star, which was recently released in May 2020. He is the recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, and has been awarded scholarships to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, VCCA, and the MacDowell Colony. His essays and fiction have appeared in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, and BuzzFeed, and he is the editor of Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity. Carter is Assistant Professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers Studio Low-Residency MFA program.
Music by Catlofe
The following excerpt is from Empire City: A Novel by Matt Gallagher. Reprinted by permission of Atria, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2020 by Matt Gallagher.
Empire City – Excerpt
Mia Tucker remained blindfolded. Someone to her left moaned and said they felt dizzy. A charging handle of a rifle was drawn, metal tonguing off against metal. A voice spoke to the moaner and to the group at once. “No. Noise.”
Like most pilots, the military had sent Mia to SERE school. Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. She’d learned how to live off the land in any environment, from the Siberian tundra to the Amazon. She’d built smokeless fire pits from scratch. She’d killed a bunny with a trap made from sticks, gutted it with a belt clip, and turned it into kebab. She’d been waterboarded. None of that would help in a New York City ballroom seized by a militia of disaffected war veterans.
But the school had also included a sitting session on persuasion and influence. Most of the class slept through it, delirious at the chance to be off their feet for fifty minutes. But not Mia. She’d fought off the siren song and listened, because if there was anything worse than being a prisoner of war, it was being a woman prisoner of war. She’d wanted to know it all.
Two guards began speaking to each other. They talked low, wary of the ballroom’s acoustics, but not low enough. Mia bowed her head and homed in, like she was lost in benediction.
“This place is nice.”
“Rich people, man.”
“Yeah, I know. But still. See those chandeliers? All gold.”
“Think of how many of our people could be helped with just one of ’em. Keep focused.”
“Yeah.” A minute or so passed. “Ever seen anything like it before, though?”
The other voice considered. “Assad’s sun palace in Syria. Before the wogs blew it up.”
“Damn, you was over there then!” The veteran laughed. “You’re even older than I thought.”
“We were winning when I left. Then you trigger-happy bastards came along. The Found Generation, shit. You all messed up everything.”
They went back and forth like that, arguing about who had screwed up the Mediterranean Wars worse, when, and where. Thirty years of everlong war meant a lot of different iterations of it. They’d mentioned the sun palace. Mia racked her mind. The high palace had been in the hills surrounding Aleppo. The crescent palace lay in the center of Raqqa, near restaurant row. The state palace dominated what remained of Homs. The water palace floated alongside the island of Arwad. The sun palace, though . . .
“Idlib,” she said out loud, surprising herself. No turning back now, she thought. This is the right approach. For me. For them. For her.
Jesse hadn’t said so out loud, but Mia knew he wanted a girl.
“What was that?” The militants had heard her.
“Idlib,” Mia repeated. “The sun palace. I walked through the rubble there during my tour. Must’ve been amazing before the truck bomb.”
Through the threadbare of her blindfold, Mia saw the two men approach. What kind of group plans out something this complex, she wondered, but skimps on blindfold costs?
“You a vet?”
She nodded. “Army. Helo pilot out of Fort Sam Damon.”
Mia sniffed. They thought she flew cargo. “Black Hawks. Mostly ripping through the Morning Isles, hunting down the last of the Greek radicals.”
That impressed them enough for her blindfold to be removed. The Morning Isles campaign had a reputation. She looked up to find two men of average stature and slung rifles, bafflement splayed across their clay faces. If they shaved their face stubble, they still could’ve been posting guard at any American outpost across the world.
“Bosses didn’t say anything about other vets being here,” the one who’d been admiring the chandeliers said. He looked like he should’ve been delivering Mormon pamphlets house-to-house, Mia thought, not committing terror. “Only rich people and generals.”
“How do we know you’re speaking truth?” the other guard asked. He was older, and wore the sad, dumpy face of someone who joined the military only to find the same assholes who’d made up his small town were everywhere. A short, barbed mustache would’ve framed his face had it been even.
“Tap my right leg,” Mia said. “Think a citizen has one of these?”
The leg clinked.
The older militant crossed his arms, and nodded. He’d figured her out, finally. “Officer,” he said.
Mia thought about lying, but quickly decided not to. Soldiers smelled out lies like hounds.
“Don’t hold it against me,” she said, offering just a hint of a smile. “You two worked for a living, I’m sure.”
The old joke landed. The militants asked about her deployments and units, she asked about theirs. They asked if she knew their old officers, and she did, a couple of them. She asked about the war tattoos covering their forearms, where they got them, what they meant. They told her. She asked if they’d had a hard time since getting out. They had. She asked if they’d loosen the cable ties around her wrists. They did. The younger one asked if she had a boyfriend. She said that she did, a husband, but left out the pregnant part. Babies scared boys. The older one asked why she’d come to the event tonight.
“Because I believe our government would benefit from having more people with military experience in it,” she said. “Who have skin in the game. We used to behave like a republic. I think we should get back to that.”
“What do you do now, ma’am?” he asked, dumpy face creasing out into corners. He was probing, still. Probably made a good barracks lawyer, Mia thought, explaining to his fellow joes how leadership was plotting against the regular soldier.
“Finance,” she said. “Middle management.” If she didn’t get control of the conversation again soon, they’d find her name and look her up, and then this little gambit of hers would backfire entirely. They’d believe a Tucker granddaughter would fetch a fortune. They wouldn’t be wrong.
There was a short cry to her left. Someone tipped forward and landed on their shoulders and forehead, forming a body caret. The two militants looked at each other, then at Mia.
“See if she’s okay,” Mia said. “I think that’s an older person.”
They helped the woman up, taking off her blindfold and binding her wrists in her lap, so she could lean back against the wall. Mia thought she recognized her—a college professor and civil rights activist who’d written a book about ethics, citizenship, and the International Legion.
In the midst of chaos, Mia thought, there is also opportunity. Some famous dead person had said that.
“You should get her water,” she said, loud enough for the two militants but also for the other hostages. The woman was aware but disoriented. “And maybe a wet towel? It’s really hot.”
The younger one took a step toward the bar but the older one stopped him. “Hey, officer. You’re not in charge here.”
Some of the other hostages were stirring and began grumbling; through their pantyhose blindfolds they could see the two armed guards looming over the professor, either feeling bad for her or feeling jealous that she’d been able to set her back against the wall.
“You’re in charge, absolutely,” Mia said, recalling from the SERE class the importance of projecting deference. “Just trying to help.”
“Given how this could look. Like, media-wise.”
The older veteran’s nostrils flared. “Explain.”
“You have been very professional. But say this turns out to be serious, heatstroke, a concussion or something. Older black woman, mostly white vets . . . you know how reporters are. They might make it – well, racial.”
“We’re trying to recruit more people of color.” The younger militant looked upset. “It’s hard, though.”
“I’m a doctor.” One of the bound hostages spoke up. “I can check on her!”
The hostage next to him said, “Stop. You’re a dentist.”
“Everyone calm down!” the older militant shouted, pointing his rifle into the air. “We got this.” He looked back at Mia. “The Mayday Front supports people of all colors, creeds, and orientations. We work for the good of all warfighters. For anyone who’s done their part.”
“I know that,” Mia said. “But will citizens unfamiliar with your movement?”
Choice passed through the militants like wildfire. Soldiers loved to complain about the decision making of their sergeants and officers. It was a proud tradition, one ancient as battle itself. But Mia had seen this quizzical look before, many times. They either rose to the moment or they didn’t.
“We should let someone check her out,” the younger one said, putting his hand on the other’s shoulder. “The ma’am, she’s right. This could go bad.”
“We should’ve brought walkie-talkies,” the older one said, mostly to himself. “No one ever listens to me.” Then he said he was going to find their medic to treat the professor, which really meant asking someone else for guidance.
“Watch them close,” he told the other militant. “Back in ten.”
And just like that, Mia Tucker cut down the enemy force by half.
Former U.S. Army captain Matt Gallagher is the author of the novel Youngblood, published in February 2016 by Atria and a finalist for the 2016 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. He’s also the author of the Iraq memoir Kaboom and coeditor of, and contributor to, the short fiction collection Fire & Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Esquire, The Paris Review Daily and Wired, among other places. A graduate of Wake Forest University, Matt also holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University. He lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn and works as a writing instructor at Words After War, a literary nonprofit devoted to bringing veterans and civilians together to study conflict literature. Empire City, his second novel, was published in April by Atria.
Music by Catlofe
The following is excerpted from Vanishing Monuments by John Elizabeth Stintzi, published by Arsenal Pulp.
Vanishing Monuments – excerpt
I wake up in my car in the parking lot outside the home, Mother’s Leica still around my neck, its old Summar lens folded into the body and capped, gut filled with the roll of film I’d been failing to fill for the last two months. Film that’s empty because nothing of note came my way. No idea. No image. No body or variation in my psyche that needed to be pasted onto the reactive plastic. Nothing came to me but the old, thick fog of dissociation, the feeling that I was not myself, and if I were, I’d rather be dead.
My neck itches from the weight of the old leather strap. My packer and binder and clothes sit tangled beside me on the passenger seat. When I parked here last night, I didn’t make a pillow out of anything; I just leaned my seat back and closed my eyes and eventually opened them to today rising into the grey sky.
Morning in this new place, clutched by the same old place.
It isn’t raining right now, but it will. I open the door and stand beside the car, stretching, breathing out my popping muscles, shaking out my stiff legs, straightening the dress that feels wrong.
All I want to do is give up, get back into my car, and drive away. Turn on my phone and text Genny: just kidding! be back soon. But I know that I won’t be able to make it. I’ll just slow down and turn around again, get back here and turn around again, again and again. Slowly making it through the labyrinth of back and forth before my inertia surrenders to here. To her.
As I walk toward the home, the time between myself and Mother shrinks. Her camera hangs at my belly like a pit. The door opens and there’s a nurse at a desk, in scrubs that are not supposed to look like scrubs, in the same way this home is not supposed to look like a hospital.
“I’m here to see my mother? Hedwig Baum?”
“Oh, of course,” she says, standing up behind the desk and handing me a clipboard where visitors sign in. She’s short, a good foot shorter than me, hardly taller now than she was sitting down. “She woke up a little early, but she’s usually sharpest soon after waking,” she says, while I finish writing a name that doesn’t quite fit over me—Allie Baum—and put the clipboard down. I follow her down the hall. She walks so slowly.
“How long has it been since you visited again?” she asks.
“Sometime around Christmas,” I say, because it’s a shorter sentence than: Never.
“Well,” she says, quiet, as we inch along a hallway of closed doors and cold tiles. “She’s changed some since then, as you know. She has more difficulty hearing, especially lately, so you will want to talk a little louder than last time. But you will want to make sure to use a conversational tone. She responds better to tone. We also cut her hair, so don’t be alarmed. She was having trouble with it being so long— getting it tangled up in things, tying it up in knots, trying to braid it. Things like that.” She stops, looks up at me, smiles in a way that is supposed to feel warm. I don’t tell her that Mother had never once braided her hair. “It’s a lot more manageable now.”
The door is open a crack, and beside it is an aging piece of card stock printed with Mother’s name.
“Thank you,” I say, trying to place a smile between us as I stare over her to the door. I start to move around her toward it.
“Would you like me to come in with you? Help you? I’ve worked with Hedwig a long time, and I know all the little tricks to get her to notice me.”
I grab the door handle before that girl starts to panic, tries to tell my body to run away. “I’m fine,” I say, forgiving her duty with a half wave of my free hand. “I still remember all the tricks.”
I push the door in.
When I think about Mother, the first thing I remember is her body. Small chested, a dim scar on her belly from where I blew through her. Tall. Her long bright hair—brighter than mine. As much as I try not to, I can see her in my height in the mirror. Which is why I don’t own a full-length mirror. Which is why I avoid them. Why I rarely try on clothes in a store.
When I think of her in motion, I imagine her body doing yoga. I imagine it through the bars of the vent between her studio and my bedroom.
After her body, I remember the feeling of her presence, the gravity she held in our creaky house. The gravity of the noise and the silence both, depending on the year, the month, the day. I remember being pulled back to that house after those long expeditions at night with Tom. Every time—every time but one—finding her there. Waiting up for me. And every time, not a single word between us.
What I don’t remember is the sound of her voice. I’ve been trying not to. It’s easier to believe she never said a word, that she was mute, than to think of her falling in and out of her muteness. First, because of the electric storm of depression. Now, because her brain has lost so much of its charge.
But as I’ve driven closer to her, I’ve heard her a little. Not the words themselves but her voice stacking upon itself in an unintelligible cacophony. Into static.
I walk into Mother’s room, and there she is: a silhouette against the grey light of the window. She’s sitting in a chair in a baby-blue blouse, and her hair is very short—manageable. Her back is to me. I don’t know if she’s actually looking out the window, and if she is, if anything is registering. I’ve never seen her stare out a window from behind before; I only ever saw her staring out a window toward me, at night, waiting for me to come home.
My eyes adjust from the dimness of the hall. I squint, try to make a distinction between her skin and the light. The door behind me closes with a click.
I approach, slowly, counting down the tiles between us. As I get closer, my memory of her body minimizes to meet reality. She’s so small. Her shoulders are like wire clothes hangers, her wrists like thumbs wrapped in wrinkled pink leather. Her scarred hands are two collections of raw, bubbled webs. They’re wriggling on her lap, the only part of her that’s moving. When I stand over her, I can see that she’s wearing a restraining belt that keeps her from getting out of the chair.
I stand over her for a while, taking her in, fascinated and hurt. Time has brittled her. Twenty-seven years gone, turning her long hair blank white, letting it be chopped off for convenience, to make her seem more put together. Letting it all be thrown away. No strand of hair on her head was there ten years ago. I imagine the nurse from the front desk, armed with scissors and grasping those long, drawn-out strings of Mother’s dead cells. I imagine her clipping them all off.
I look down at Mother and I can smell her, that clean, hospital soap smell that lacks any breath of humanity. I could move my hand four inches and touch her shoulder. Just four inches and I could break through decades of gone.
I don’t move. I stand in her soft shadow and forget completely what she used to smell like. I’m muddled as to how precisely her hair used to tumble down her back. Suddenly unsure what colour her hair used to be. Standing near her like this, silent, I hear my heart beating and realize the cacophony of her voice is gone.
Mother’s old camera hangs off my neck. In the perfect dark of the camera’s head the film stands dormant. The camera’s eye jammed shut, capped, and collapsed into the body. The camera is a promise, weighing down at my belly, the thin leather straps digging into the sides of my breasts. As I breathe in, the camera gets closer to Mother. As I breathe out it gets closer to me.
I step back, quietly, even though I’m sure she can’t hear me. I’ll come back tomorrow. Someone in this body will. I turn and walk back toward the door, and as I go, I can sort of remember her again. As I near the door to her room, I remember my little hand buried in her tight palm, remember walking back from the liquor store with an empty wine box on my head. As I get back into the hall, I remember the smell, just a little, of chemicals and sweat and her when she came out of the darkroom, exhausted but sometimes smiling. The darkroom where faces, bodies, and angles all began to appear on wet, blank paper.
At the nurse’s desk I somehow tell her, “Mother is asleep right now” and make for the door. Mother is asleep, her eyes open. She’s enjoying letting the day into her head.
As I step out the door, into the cool air, I remember when the car stopped outside our house that morning and they carried Mother in— the man from Selkirk and Tom—to the bed where she would mumble. I remember the heat of the sun on my skin as I stood there on the lawn and watched. I wasn’t wearing shoes. The dew was nearly gone, but the grass was still cool. I could smell it. Mother’s hands were limp and one of her slippers sat empty on the sidewalk.
The light rising in the grey eastern sky is a false prophet. I get in the car. My bones fit back into the lumps of the seat better than they fit my body, as Mother’s camera floats on the waves of my uneven breathing. As I put the keys in the ignition, I remember the man handing me Mother’s keys and a bag of her personal effects—her purse, her Nikon with her fast 85 mm lens, her small coat—and telling me that she should not drive, but that someone should go and pick up her car from the Downs. Then, he handed me a bag filled with her medication.
I turn on the ignition, crank the heat, and drive, slowly, out of the lot and toward her house, away from the home where Mother is unaware that I just stood behind her, that I was only four inches away from her. I pull away from the home, south, toward the place where I grew up and ran from, the dark from which my light-thirsty stem grew wide, seeking the warmth of the sun. The horizon to the southeast of the city is dark and tall and endless. Widening. The waters of the Red and the Assiniboine are high enough, but more rain is still coming to drown us out.
History is, too.
John Elizabeth Stintzi is a novelist, poet, & teacher who was born and raised on a cattle farm in northwestern Ontario. Their work has received support from the Canada Council for the Arts, The Watermill Center, and has been awarded the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers from the Writers’ Trust of Canada and The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize. Spring of 2020 saw the publication of both their debut novel Vanishing Monuments (Arsenal Pulp Press) and their full-length poetry debut Junebat (House of Anansi).
Stintzi’s work has been published throughout the United States and Canada, in places like Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead (see: Magazine Publications), and Best Canadian Poetry. They are also the author of two poetry chapbooks: Plough Forward the Higgs Field (Rahila’s Ghost, fall 2019) and The Machete Tourist (kfb 2018). They currently live with their partner—as well as a dog named Grendel—in Kansas City, where they occasionally teach writing. They are also the resident design ghost at Split City Reads.
Music by Catlofe
The following story is excerpted from You Will Never Be Forgotten: Stories by Mary South. Published by FSG ORIGINALS, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by Mary South. All rights reserved.
Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy
If you’re reading this page, chances are you’ve recently heard that you need to have a craniotomy. Try not to worry. Although, yes, this is brain surgery, you’re more likely to die from the underlying condition itself, such as a malignant tumor or subdural hematoma. Think of it this way: insomuch as being alive is safe, which it is not, having a craniotomy is safe. We fill our days with doing laundry, replacing our brake pads at the auto shop, or making a teeth-cleaning appointment with the dentist, in the expectation that everything will be fine. But it won’t. There will be a day that kills you or someone you love. Such a perspective is actually quite comforting. Taken in that light, a craniotomy can be a relaxing experience, rather than one of abject terror.
What Happens During a Craniotomy?
Nearly all operations begin with the creation of a bone flap so the doctor has an opening into your brain. This opening will be sealed shut at the end with wire or titanium plates and screws. Beneath the bone are the three meninges, connective membranes also known as the mothers: the dura mater (hard mother), arachnoid mater (spidery mother), and pia mater (soft mother). After we’re past that triple embrace—like the Moirai crones of myth that spin, measure, and cut the thread of life—we’re at the precious substance of thought. The blush of living brain has been described as resembling the inside of a conch shell or a crumbling marble quarry. To me, it’s like the revelation of brine and meat after shucking an oyster. Beyond that, what happens during a craniotomy depends on the type of surgery. A translabyrinthine craniotomy, for example, involves cutting away the whole of the mastoid bone and some of the tunnels of your inner ear.
Is It True I Will Have to Be Awake During My Craniotomy?
Some craniotomies require you to be conscious. When a tumor makes itself comfortable with a good book and a blanket in front of the fire of your eloquent cortex, which controls language or motor functions, we give you prompts indistinguishable from online banking security questions. Certain surgeons fancy themselves as early explorers, sketching out crude cartographies of the thunderous Badlands, the twists of the Amazon, the jagged coasts of Jutland brainscapes. I like to think of the organ as an ancient manor or primordial motel and myself a plumber, electrician, or stonemason reading a blueprint of where to find the stairways, hidden chambers, fuse boxes, boiler, septic tank. It’s a Versailles of the id and ego with a fleshy, well-manicured hedge maze.
Won’t I Be in Pain If I’m Awake During My Craniotomy?
You will be awake for a short interval during the craniotomy. Also, there are no pain receptors in the brain. What you might undergo are moments of aphasia or synesthesia, like Kandinsky hearing his paint box hiss or Schubert visualizing E minor as “a maiden robed in white with a rose-red bow on her chest” when he heard chords struck in that key. The hallucinations aren’t as enchanting. You think you have it bad enough getting brain surgery, then suddenly the OR is covered in roaches. A woman once met her long-lost twin. She didn’t have a long-lost twin. There was also the estate lawyer who decided that his entire surgical team was trying to kill him and wouldn’t stop screaming, “You’ll never make me talk!” Reports of out-of-body experiences aren’t uncommon. I’ve heard it feels as though you are watching your own handwriting uncoiling from someone else’s pen.
What Will My Brain Be Like After My Craniotomy?
It will go on with its braining, provided we got all the cancer or your growth was benign. If you have a tumor that has seeded itself throughout your cerebrum like an aspen grove, however, or been diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme, you will have a different kind of recovery.
In such circumstances, your craniotomy will be followed by radiation. We might even implant some wafers in your head and light you up like a plug-in bust of Christ. Patients tend to squeeze out at most another year after this; vigorous or younger individuals can last a smidge longer. What occurs next is this: fatigue, mood swings, muscle weakness, confusion as to the purpose of a toaster. Family and friends drop by to tell you that you’re an “inspiration” or to utter phrases about “the indomitable human spirit.” There’s the wearing of wristbands and ribbons and the guilt donation of a dollar to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society or other cancer research organizations at the grocery store or pharmacy. Positive social media updates about your progress or how the tumor “may have killed a couple of brain cells but can’t kill your sense of humor” will proliferate. Chemo makes you lose weight. Steroids make you gain weight. You spend hours on internet medical forums, lament the hours spent on internet medical forums, then spend more hours on internet medical forums. You vow to quit the internet altogether and immediately spend more hours on internet medical forums.
Later: constant nausea isn’t relieved by medication because it’s caused by cranial swelling. Thrush invades your esophageal tract like you’re a neglected fourth-grade science project. Incontinence, memory loss, the inability to wield utensils. Epiphanic moments and inexplicably beautiful solitary hours are devoured by rage. The joy of sunlight, the decency in rain; the hatred of sunlight, the disgust at rain. Your long-suffering, Florence Nightingale spouse grows distant. Neighbors avoid your house in fear they will have to engage in small talk with you or your family. There’s discussion of Kübler-Ross’s Stages of Grief and where you might be—when in doubt, choose “Bargaining.” Manically, you sort through storage boxes in your attic or basement and, also manically, sort through memories. Diets, tonics, acupuncture sessions, and other alternative holistic methods are tried. You ingest so much flaxseed, but flaxseed can’t cure everything.
Much later: Pain pills are increased to straight-up morphine to, finally, liquid morphine that’s absorbed inside the cheek because you’re too tired to sit up or even swallow. Hospice workers visit who seem like they’ve been sent straight from the choirs of seraphim; hospice workers visit who you want to punch in the face because they talk about “wanting to give back” or “observing the whole range of the human condition.” Your spouse or mother or child caretaker is overwhelmed by a crying jag at the sight of a newly delivered commode chair. Your spouse or mother or child caretaker gives you a haircut and you feel fully afraid and not just numbly afraid as you watch your thin hair on the floor get swept away. Your spouse or mother or child caretaker, if artistically inclined, draws your likeness while you nap. This likeness won’t be completed and is left, parchment edges curling, with only one wide turtle eye. Plan on being brought outside for a last trip to see the migration of geese. A dry fever calms you and shuts down all your bodily systems. You breathe harder and harder until you stop.
A few families have even claimed that reckoning with a fatal diagnosis strengthened their bond. I’m here to tell you that dealing with the brain and its illnesses is comparatively simple. It merely requires a good mechanic. What’s trickier to work with is the mind. There are symptoms that cannot necessarily be mitigated with hospice care or a prescription, such as when your spouse informs you that, even though you are a brain surgeon, he is too depressed to leave the house and pick up the boys at school or walk the dog. Perhaps you’re not as understanding as you should be, seeing as marriage to a female brain surgeon is like winning the devotion of a unicorn. Instead of him telling you that he won’t be able to attend the parent-teacher conference, you should be telling him that you won’t be able to attend the parent-teacher conference. You should not be the one to clean up golden retriever feces off the kitchen floor.
What Are the Complications That Can Occur from a Craniotomy?
Ability to understand language but not to speak. Ability to speak but not understand language. You might become the relative who throws the turkey at holiday dinners. At least it’s not as bad as trephination. Doctors in the Dark Ages used to create burr holes to relieve pressure or remove mental illness, meaning you’d have a permanent open wound in your head, but when they were done, they let patients keep the round piece of bone. Men and women wore the bone around their necks as a charm to ward off evil spirits. I bet it also came in useful for scaring the hell out of one’s nephews.
The worst complication I know of is when an ENT stuck a probe up a patient’s nose and punctured the blood-brain barrier because it was unusually low. Each time the patient took a breath, oxygen siphoned into his cranium and couldn’t escape until he herniated his brain into the vertebral canal. There lurk beastlier medical boogeymen, such as super-gonorrhea or the strain of MRSA resistant to known antibiotics. Eventually, you may not be able to get a rhinoplasty for fear of dying from a staph infection.
If that was blunt, that is because I have been dulled. Today, I had an emergency surgery on a senator for an arteriovenous malformation (a congenital tangle of blood vessels—a Gordian knot of gray matter) who could shut us down based on his demands for Medicare cuts, then got dragged to the emergency room for a thoracic burst fracture, and meanwhile I’m buzzed nonstop with requests for consults. I’m also forced to fetch my own fresh frozen plasma. On top of it all, I drew the short straw to write this FAQ page for our website because, our director said, we want it to have that personal touch. Now that I am single, I’m also the sole guardian at home (or not at home) responsible for getting a couple of adolescent boys who are both flunking math to stop watching porn or playing video games and do their homework. My apologies if my bedside manner comes across more Groucho Marx than Mother Teresa.
Why Should I Choose St. Teresa of Ávila Hospital for My Craniotomy?
The Department of Neurological Surgery at St. Teresa’s has been recognized for decades as one of the foremost specialty centers that focuses on the brain and spinal cord. Surgeons from all over the globe come to learn about the latest minimally invasive—and the latest maximally invasive—techniques. It’s deliberate that Saint Teresa of Ávila happens to be the patron saint for headache sufferers. Tales from hagiographies describe her mystical trances wherein she would feel herself be stabbed through the heart and out her intestines with the fiery golden lance of God, causing excruciating spiritual torment. Hospital halls are built for suffering. Teresa’s mantra was, “Lord, let me suffer or let me die.”
Can You Tell Me About Your Surgical Team?
Though I wouldn’t necessarily call us a team, I did fill in as pitcher so the hospital could participate in league softball playoffs. Dr. Jay Katz couldn’t make it because he had a Whipple. Jay is a terror both on and off the mound. He can remove half a patient’s pancreas without having to pee. I’d have to rig myself up with a catheter. Dr. Amy Benson is our go-to skull-base surgeon. She recently returned from maternity leave. Now the only thing we hear about is the coltish softness of fontanels, the magical myelination moment of development when her baby recognized—I mean really recognized—her face. Maybe I’m just jealous she has a child who recognizes her face. Dr. Chen, our primary pediatric specialist, decided to retrain from dermatology after his son died of an astrocytoma. I’m very sorry Dr. Chen’s son died of an astrocytoma, and I’m sorry that we’re compared to the example of heartbroken-but-nonetheless-resilient goodness set by Dr. Chen. Then there is Dr. Steve Stevens, who has a decent name for a nemesis; he is the director of neurosurgical operating rooms at St. Teresa of Ávila and once left a sponge behind in a patient’s brain. Do not permit a man with essentially the same first and last name to operate on your spine, his forte, the most lucrative specialization in our field.
As for me, I have a totaled Lexus, the academically indifferent sons, an acute condition of plantar fasciitis, a touch of alcoholism, and the no-longer-toilet-trained golden retriever. But you don’t really want to know this, do you? It’s like when you were a kid and you ran into your teacher parting the mist on some veggies in the grocery store and it dawned on you, “Wow, Mr. Wilson must have to move through linear time.”
You’re Kind of Angry, and That’s Not Very Professional. Is Everything Okay?
I feel betrayed by the brain. The brain is more or less the same in everyone; there is the Broca’s area, that cul-de-sac of speech in the arcuate fasciculus, and there is the hippocampus, that seahorse of memory, nestled in the temporal lobe. But when you think of the color red, do you picture the insistent primal red of an emergency vehicle or the deep burgundy of an aged wine? If I asked you to visualize a chair, would you picture an ornately carved dining chair or a plush recliner? Similarly, I thought my husband was predictable; I knew which entrée he would order at restaurants, which jokes would elicit a laugh. Then I found my husband in the garage after his suicide by gunshot to the head, and our relationship no longer made sense. I assumed I had known the locations and boundaries of things, where he tended to take off his shoes, the weekend afternoons he liked to be left alone. The older brother he used to idolize had overdosed. My husband was sad, and after a while I became exasperated with him, because I assumed that I understood where the edges of that sadness were. Now I wonder: when I am resecting a brain to prevent seizures, for example, what am I even attempting to fix?
Have You Ever Thought About Not Being a Neurosurgeon?
It’s absurd that I apprenticed and studied for my entire youth to help others live longer so that they can continue to melt the Polar ice caps while enjoying party subs. Still, I am rather fond of my rongeurs, my retractors. After a while, everything becomes routine. My favorite part is when we’re offered up sheep corpses to test prototype drill bits.
Unless you’re Saint Teresa and have taken holy orders, you feel the despair of the clinician, particularly when working with children. Suturing peach fuzz or reopening a bone flap to drain the cerebrospinal sap of a girl with brain swelling leaves a bittersweet existential aftertaste. I sobbed in a supply closet, the first real, gulping sob since I was an intern, after I accidentally nicked the sinus of a toddler with epilepsy and saw the blood drenching my scrubs down to my shoe covers. “I’m trapped,” I remember muttering, and not merely because I was huddling in a locked supply closet. There’s a dissociation from yourself, similar to what patients report feeling upon that first tug of anesthesia. When I was removing a pituitary recently, I had the thought, what if I abandoned my sons and simply worked at the food court in an airport?
How Are You Going to Move on from Your Life?
After I took out that pituitary, I found myself driving to the mall. Both of my sons had after-school vandalism and weren’t going to be home until late. Escalators that were past the point of caring about anything, a feeling I identified with, stitched me up several floors in a department store until I arrived in the blissful sauna of fabrics that was the section for evening gowns. An emerald-green dress covered in sequins with a plunging neckline was the first to flash to my brittle attention, and I looped it over an arm raw from surgical soap. In the changing room, as I was determining, “My boobs probably cannot handle this,” a female voice, perfectly pitched in helpfulness, had to inquire, “How are you doing in there?” When I opened the door, she fluttered into an excited clap and said, “It looks so great on you! Really brings out the color of your eyes.” I told her my eyes are brown. “Of course,” she recovered immediately, “but I can see ocher, almost amber flecks in them when you’re wearing that dress.” Did I want her to gather up some others that I might like better? She resembled my mother, who had raised me by herself and been so proud of my reliable profession and my reliable husband, who had worked odd jobs to support us — she had been a waitress and a secretary and a stockist of blue jeans — but forty years younger, reincarnated and karmically forced to work retail for eternity. Though maybe that was my dumb imagination too sentimental from bereavement.
The twenty-something reincarnation of my mother brought me a strapless golden dress of stiff satin that curved like a bell but with a slice cut out of it at the front, as if my legs were the clapper on display. “Absolutely not,” I said. She brought me a dress that was layers of frothy raspberry tulle. “I’m the human embodiment of a smoothie.” She brought me a duchesse-silk bustier dress that was hand- beaded with pearls and lacy corsages that looked like crumpled baby fists. “They don’t look like the hands of ghost babies to you?” She brought me a classic black sheath dress with a slinky train that shimmered royal neon blue, so it felt as though I were nearly constantly tripping on an electric eel. “Is this for a special occasion?” she asked. Such information might give her a clearer idea of the best ensemble for my needs. “It’s for the Medulloblastoma Ball,” I replied. “Is that a new start-up?” A variety of brain tumor, I explained. There was no Medulloblastoma Ball; I had invented it on the spot, and the fake event conjured pictures of globular brain tumors in formal wear awkwardly holding each other at the waists during a slow dance in a junior high gymnasium.
“I hope you don’t personally know anyone affected,” my retail mom said, with that concerned-from-a-mountaintop look surgeons use when they’re giving bad news but they don’t want to hug. “My husband died from a medulloblastoma,” I lied, and she came down the mountain in what appeared to be genuine sympathy. She must have realized she was going to have to hug. “My intuition homed in on a sad aura around you,” she whispered into my hair while hugging me. “I am sad,” I agreed and became preoccupied with the thought that she might spot errant gristle nestled in my bun. Despite the most herculean of hygienic efforts, it’s funny where you’ll find tissue—your hair, the corner of your lips, in your bra. “When did you last make the space for self-care?” she pressed on. “I can’t mourn my dead husband with pedicures or spa treatments,” I protested. No, no, that’s not what she meant, but she could let me in on her secret if I was interested. Her secret, she continued without waiting to find out if I was interested, was to take one ordinary action—pouring a glass of water, or peeling an orange—and slow it down, slow it way down until it becomes almost unbearably beautiful, then recite to herself, “I am alive.” It’s a trick of your nervous system that speeds along the process of allowing psychic wounds to heal. In response I said something like, “I guess I am going to buy the sparkly green dress that brings out all the not-green in my eyes for the totally legitimate brain cancer dance.”
Did You Take the Advice of the Department Store Reincarnation of Your Mother?
I wore that emerald gown out of the store, and I was wearing it when I bought a case of cheap sauvignon blanc, setting the alcohol on top of my balled-up scrubs in the passenger seat, and when I got home, I wore the emerald gown as I uncorked a bottle and slowly, ever so slowly, poured the liquid into a glass and took a sip. Conclusion: I felt the same amount of boring PTSD. Operating in the emerald gown would be so glamorous, I mused, provided I had matching hairnet and face mask accessories also studded with emeralds. Wouldn’t it be fun to cut into a brain, adorn it with gems, and then cover that diadem back up with the patient’s skull? A surgeon could remove a tumor but replace it with a sapphire or ruby. The emerald gown and I let the golden retriever out to take a shit in the middle of the driveway, then the golden retriever, the gown, and I lay in bed, where I drank the rest of the opened wine. Since my husband killed himself, the golden retriever sleeps on his side while the dog bed on the floor remains empty and disgusting. That dog bed has probably been disgusting for a while, but only now that the dog no longer uses it do I find the dog bed beyond repulsive.
My sons returned and yelled for me. “I’m in the bedroom,” I yelled back at them, and they located me in the bedroom. “What do you think of my new dress?” I asked. They were standing extremely still, too still for teenage boys, which meant they were either afraid that they would be told to do something or afraid of something I would do. “I hate it,” the elder son unambiguously passed judgment. “Yeah, it’s ugly,” the younger confirmed. “You’re right. It is hideous,” I said, rolling the depleted wine bottle against my leg and listening to the sequins ting. “What should we do with it?” “Run over it with the lawn mower,” Elder proposed. “Throw it in the pool!” exclaimed Younger. “To the pool!” I decreed, stripping off the dress, at which they made gagging sounds and averted their gazes, then I slowly, ever so slowly, just to mess with them, donned a robe also slept on by the dog. That time I did feel an increase in tranquility, so my retail mother’s advice did work. “Goodbye, you worthless overpriced knockoff dress I spent money on for no reason!” I shrieked as I hurled the dress into the pool. The dress pirouetted elegantly in the jets like a jellyfish or a severed mermaid tail. Water was the proper medium for dresses, I decided. Celebrities at the Met Gala should promenade down the red carpet and into an enormous fish tank. “Toss whatever you want into the pool,” I told my sons. Were there exceptions, rules, items that if lost to the depths would later make me mad? “Do your worst,” I said, then added, “as long as it won’t electrocute us.”
What Else Did Your Family Throw in the Pool?
A nine-iron, a leftover jar of marinara sauce, medical textbooks, my son’s calculus textbook, which I remembered he is failing, my other son’s history textbook, which he also is probably failing, my dead husband’s button-down shirts, a couple of pork chops. Our filter buckets are often clogged with snakes, frogs, and tiny lizards—a chlorinated witch’s cauldron—so a pork chop, I reckoned, with its plush padding of fat, could make a welcome life raft for some desperate gecko. In went a hammer, a basketball, and a single leather glove, as though we had challenged the pool to a duel. A Nativity set was sacrificed, and drowned, too, were childhood action figures, those superheroes and supersoldiers, intriguing me as to what they might bring as gifts to round out the frankincense and myrrh. Additional flotation devices for the geckos in the form of couch cushions were hurled, and under them I made a note to check for untold quarter, booger, and, most important, benzodiazepine treasures. The gross dog bed was chucked, so for good measure I pushed in the dog. We laughed at him as he paddled around the obstacle course of our crap in that terribly inconvenienced yet gentlemanly manner of swimming dogs. When the boys carried out the framed photo of the four of us from the foyer with their father’s arms around each of them, I said, “Okay, stop now, that’s enough.”
Is There a Piece of Hope You Can Impart to Readers of These Frequently Asked Questions, Something You’ve Learned from Staring down the Naked Occipital Lobe or Losing a Patient to a Random Basilar Aneurysm or Hearing the Nurses and Residents Change Shifts for the Night, the Various Rhythms of the Hospital, or the Suicide of Your Husband, or Trying to Reach Your Sons by Ruining Your Belongings in the Pool?
Read these answers once again, but very slowly. Recite to yourself, “I am alive.”
Mary South’s debut collection of short stories, You Will Never Be Forgotten, was published in March by FSG Originals. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, American Short Fiction, Conjunctions, Guernica, BOMB, The White Review, and NOON, among others. She lives in New York.
Music by Catlofe
The following is excerpted from the novel The Distant Dead by Heather Young. Copyright © 2020 by Heather Young. On sale June 9 from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
The Distant Dead – Excerpt
To get to Marzen from Lovelock, you took Interstate 80 thirteen miles east to the Lovelock-Unionville Road. Then you drove south through three miles of sage and sand, climbed into the foothills of the Humboldt Range, and took a nameless dirt road that forked to the right halfway up Limerick Canyon. This road rose through more hills furred with sagebrush until it ended in a small, square valley where a few dozen buildings huddled together. Only when you were upon them would you see that they sketched a town: a smattering of houses and trailers, a general store and a bar, a small school, a fire station, and a church the size and shape of three shipping containers welded together with MARZEN BAPTIST painted in red letters on one side.
Two hundred and seven people lived there. Eighty-four men, seventy-six women, and forty-seven children. Most of the men, and some of the women, worked at the open pit silver mine farther up in the hills. Their fathers had been miners, too, and their grandfathers, but they knew the ore would be gone long before their children could punch the clock. They didn’t talk about this, though. In Marzen, you took your problems one day at a time.
The town had no police force – its citizens managed the occasional drunken fight just fine on their own — so the fire station was where you had to go if you wanted to report a dead body. Jake Sanchez was the volunteer on duty the morning of March 14, which for him meant watching The Price is Right on the black and white television with his feet on the desk. He didn’t notice the boy in the doorway until the boy said, “Jake?”
Jake put his booted feet on the floor and turned the swivel chair to face him. He knew him, of course. His name was Absalom, though no one called him that, not even his mother. One night, after last call at the bar she ran, she’d told Jake she picked it because she sang in the Baptist church’s small choir and loved the anthem “When David Heard.” O Absalom, my son, my son, it went. Would God I had died for thee! Her own son had no father to weep for him, so she’d decided to name him after King David’s favorite son, whose father beat his breast upon the walls of Jerusalem when he heard Absalom had fallen in battle. Of course she’d known her boy couldn’t really be Absalom, not in a town like Marzen, so she called him Sal. She’d died nine months ago, and sometimes Jake wondered if he was the only one left, other than Sal and the uncles he’d been sent to live with, who knew her son’s secret, unspoken name.
“What are you doing here, Sal? Did you miss the bus?” When Marzen kids finished fifth grade the Pershing County school district sent a bus to take them to Lovelock for middle school. Sal had started sixth grade in the fall. Jake looked at his watch. It was just after seven-thirty; the bus had left fifteen minutes ago.
Sal didn’t answer right away, and Jake peered at him more closely. He hadn’t liked it when Sal was sent to live with his uncles. Gideon and Ezra Prentiss lived three miles outside town on land that had belonged to their family since the Gold Rush. They were pariahs of long standing, thanks to family history, a reputation for violence, and rumored criminal enterprises that, depending on who was talking and how imaginative they were, included cattle theft, meth cooking, drug running, and money laundering for the Russian mafia. Since Sal had moved to the Prentiss place he’d grown thinner and he always looked tired, but this morning he looked even worse than usual. He was pale beneath the tawny skin that was the only clue to his father’s identity and his shaggy dark bangs flopped into eyes that were sunken with exhaustion.
“I found a dead person,” he said.
Jake rocked forward. “What?”
Sal’s shoulders twitched, as though he thought Jake was going to grab them. “I found a dead body. Up the hill a ways.”
“Holy shit.” Jake stopped and got himself in hand. He was wearing the uniform of the Marzen Volunteer Fire Department, and despite the game shows he took that responsibility seriously. He turned off the television. “Is it a skeleton?” No one in Marzen was missing that he knew of, and every once in a while somebody turned up the bones of a miner or a settler who’d taken a wrong turn on the way to California.
Sal hesitated. “No.”
“Do you know who it is?”
The boy’s dark eyes slid sideways, to the station’s refrigerator. There was a sign taped to the door that warned of terrible consequences if food was left in there too long, or if anybody took food that wasn’t theirs. “I think it might be my math teacher.”
“Your math teacher?”
“There’s a car. I think it’s his.”
Jake didn’t know what to do. He looked around the small station for help, but of course there was none. Leon Petrelli wouldn’t relieve him until two. Maybe he should treat this as a medical call, he thought. Marzen was small enough that its fire department volunteers doubled as paramedics, and Jake was even more proud of his EMT license than he was of his fire department uniform. He could take the ambulance up there, see what Sal had found. He wiped his palms on his pants. “Okay, why don’t you show me.”
They drove up the dirt road that led from the town to the Prentiss place. Jake figured Sal had found the body on his way to the school bus, and sure enough, about a mile along they came upon an old brown Corolla parked just off the road, and Sal told him to stop. Jake walked over to the car. He knew better than to touch it, but he looked inside. It was empty.
He walked back to where Sal waited beside the ambulance. All around them the foothills of the Humboldt Range rose in bristly mounds, treeless and dry. To the right the land sloped up toward a rocky cliff that threw man and boy into shadow. The wind pushed Sal’s Denver Broncos sweatshirt against his thin chest. It was cold in this high desert country in March; the tops of the mountains were still white with snow.
Sal turned and led Jake up the slope. They climbed in silence, through sagebrush that snatched at their pants legs. When they reached the top the ground dropped into a seasonal wash that ran along the base of the bluff. A cluster of acacia trees stood there, their canopies lifted to the sky like open palms. They were the only trees Jake had seen since they left Marzen, and the dense little grove spoke of shelter, of safety. Of a place to hide.
Sal stopped. The wind whipped in the sagebrush and the gray-green leaves of the acacias, and moaned as it curled among the hills. There was a smell, too, faint but insistent. Tangy, ripe, burnt. Far above, two chicken hawks floated in lazy circles, their wings tipping in, then out, then in again.
Jake looked at the boy. His eyes were closed, his shoulders drawn in tight.
“Is it down there?”
Sal nodded without opening his eyes.
“Wait here.” Jake pressed one hand against his belly, tucked in his shirt, and walked into the wash.
When he reached the grove of trees, he didn’t see the math teacher right away. He saw the careful ring of stones that made the fire pit, and the ashes piled in the center. Around it lay trees that had grown and died and fallen, their corpses blackened in the long, quiet decay of desert things. At first, Jake took the math teacher’s body for one of these. Only when he saw the empty vodka bottle and the children’s jump rope did he see what was left of the man. Then Jake, too, closed his eyes.
* * *
Heather Young is the author of two novels, the award-winning and Edgar-nominated The Lost Girls and The Distant Dead. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, a Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Workshop, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop. She lives in Mill Valley, California, where she writes, bikes, hikes, and reads books by other people that she wishes she’d written.
Music by Catlofe
The following is excerpted from All the Things We Never Knew by Liara Tamani. Copyright © 2020 by Liara Tamani. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins Children’s Books.
All the Things We Never Knew – excerpt
Rex is leading me across his backyard by the hand. When the lawn ends and the forest begins, he doesn’t pause. But it’s dark. And who knows what’s in there.
I stop. “Umm, where are we going?” I ask and fold my arms across my chest like it’s cold, even though it’s pretty warm.
“Come on. You’ll see. Trust me.”
I don’t move. I feel like I’m the star of a scary movie and the audience is screaming, Girl, don’t do it.
“I come back here all the time. You’ll love it,” he promises.
The audience is still screaming, Don’t listen to him, girl. Not unless you want to die! And to their point, what good can come out of walking into a dark forest at night?
Rex reaches into his backpack, takes out a big flashlight, and shines it into the woods. “See, just trees.” He lights the ground. “And dead leaves and shrubs and fungus. No boogeyman.”
“What about snakes and raccoons and whatever else lives in there?”
“We’ll be fine,” Rex says, and shines the light at our feet.
In protest, I take a deep breath and let it out slow and loud. But when he grabs my hand, I start walking again.
After a few minutes, we reach a clearing with a wooden picnic table. “You brought this out here?” I ask.
“Yeah, it used to be in the backyard at my old house,” he says, and takes out a long, red lighter, like Daddy uses to light the barbeque pit. He hands me the flashlight and lights two tin citronella candles sitting on the benches, one on each side of the table. Then he takes a blanket out of his backpack and arranges it on top of the picnic table.
“This is actually pretty cool,” I say, admiring the setup.
“You better listen to your boy,” Rex says, smiling, and climbs up on the table.
I climb up, too.
And now we’re lying on top of the table with our pinkie fingers linked, looking up at the crowns of tall pines reaching for a patch of star-sprinkled sky.
This has always been my secret spot. Even at my old house, when there was just a tiny backyard with two cedar elm trees. This table, the trees, the stars, this stillness—they’ve always been there for me. And now Carli is here, and it’s like I’ve introduced her to my best friends and they’re vibin’. And it’s making me feel closer to her than I’ve ever felt. Like even if we were butt-naked having sex, I doubt I’d feel closer.
“Crazy that there are more trees on Earth than stars in the Milky Way, isn’t it?” Carli says, her voice soft beside me.
I was already looking up at the stars, but I look closer. At all the bright spots peeking out from the darkness. At the giant pines stretching toward them. “Are there really?” I ask, wondering why I’ve never come across that fact.
“Yeah, there’s something like three trillion trees on the planet. But scientists estimate there are somewhere between one hundred and four hundred billion stars in the galaxy.”
“Word? I never would’ve guessed that. Especially since fifteen billion trees are chopped down every year. Did you know that almost fifty percent of the trees on the planet have either been cut down or died some kind of way since humans have been around?” I ask, offering up my own facts.
“Really? I knew all the Amazon boxes had to come from somewhere, but fifteen billion? Dang, at this rate, our stars are going to start catching up to our trees.”
“I know, right?” I say, feeling my insides grin because I’m sitting in my favorite place talking to my favorite person about one of my favorite things. I didn’t even think Carli was into trees like that. She acted like she barely cared about the magnolia dying outside of her dad’s house. “Who knew you were into trees?”
“I’m not,” she says, bursting my little bubble.
“So, you’re into stars then?”
“Well, kinda. But I’m more into random facts. I like collecting ones I find interesting and putting them up on my walls.”
“Yeah, I saw all the stuff in your room. It’s dope. You must not let Cole take pictures in there because I’ve never seen your walls on his feed.”
“Cole and his Instagram,” she says, like she’s rolling her eyes. “Yeah, no pictures of my walls allowed.”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m afraid of them losing their magic.”
“Yeah, I’ve always found magic in small, random things . . . in thinking about them . . . in piecing them together . . . in seeing what they may have to say about big, important things.”
“What do they say?”
“A lot. But nothing, really. I don’t know. I mean, my walls still have a lot to tell me. And I can’t have them out there speaking to everyone else before they even let me know what’s up,” she says, and laughs a little.
I love talking to Carli like this. It’s like I’m inside her mind, hearing how it works. “So what are you waiting on them to tell you?” I ask.
“Everything,” she says.
“Everything like what?” I ask, remembering her necklace. It looked magical. I sit up on my elbow and reach for it. Rub my thumb along the curved left edge, where the raised crescent moon sits cradling a sun in the form of a cut-out circle. From the circle I slide my thumb along the engraved rays that reach toward tiny raised stars on the other side. It’s like she has the whole universe dangling from her neck.
“I don’t know. Just everything.”
“Everything is a lot.”
It feels like she’s kicked me out of her mind. I want back in, but I don’t know which words will get me there. So I lie back down. Don’t say anything.
And neither does she.
For a long minute.
Then she shifts around on the table. “I can’t see you,” she whispers. Her words—after our long, dark silence—feel like a spark.
I roll on my side to face her like she’s facing me. “I can’t see you, either,” I say into the blackness. There’s only a sliver of a moon tonight. And I’m not sure when, but our candles went out.
“But I’m here,” she responds.
It’s weird. In the darkness, it’s almost like we don’t have bodies. Like we’re spirits in the night. “You know I come out here to feel closer to my mom,” I say, imagining Mom’s spirit floating around us through the trees.
“I can see that. Out here, it’s like we’re closer to God or the Universe or whatever you want to call the mystery of all there is. And I guess your mom is a part of all that now.”
“Yeah, I guess she is,” I say, thinking about Mom’s soul leaving the Earth, traveling out of our solar system, out of our galaxy, and on and on through the stars forever.
Carli puts the palm of her hand against my chest.
“My father blames me for her death, you know,” I say, surprised at how easy the words glide out of my mouth. “I mean, he’s never said it, but he’s pretty much ignored me my whole life. And I always knew why. Then he went off and sold our old house. The house my mom lived in, my biggest connection to her, without even telling me first.”
“Oh my gosh. That’s awful. I’m so sorry,” she says.
“It’s okay. We’re cool now.” I try to reassure her. “Actually, you know that video your dad made?”
“Well, I sent it to my father, and afterward he came to my game. Like, for the first time in my life. And he’s been to a couple more. And we’ve been talking more. And he’s been out of his room more. He used to stay in there all the time when he was home. I rarely saw him. But now we’ve even chilled on the sofa a few times. Oh, I forgot to tell you. We want to hire your mom to help us make the house more of a home.”
“Wait . . . wait,” Carli says. “You mean your father basically ignored you your whole life and sold your mom’s old house, but now, just like that, everything is cool?”
In the darkness, her words almost feel like my own. The ones I’ve been shoving back down inside myself every time they try to rise up. But out here, I can’t push them around. “No. I mean, it’s surface cool, but that’s it. We haven’t really talked or gotten deep about anything, yet. And to be honest, I’m kind of afraid to. Afraid of everything that might come up. . . .
Liara Tamani lives in Houston, Texas. She holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College. She is the author of the acclaimed Calling My Name, which was a 2018 PEN America Literary Award Finalist and a 2018 SCBWI Golden Kite Finalist, and All the Things We Never Knew.
Music by CatLofe
An earlier version of “A Better Law of Gravity” appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of Arts & Letters Journal of Contemporary Culture (Georgia College & State University) and is included in the collection The Beauty of Their Youth (Wolfson Press, 2020).
A Better Law of Gravity
[The old Frankie] agreed with Berenice about the main laws of her creation, but she added many things: an aeroplane and a motorcycle to each person, a world club with certificates and badges, and a better law of gravity.
—Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding
It was the summer after her first year of college, and FJ, who no longer wished to be called Frankie, was listless and blue. College had been disappointing, and home was worse. But then one morning things turned interesting.
It began, that crazy green August morning, when her sister-in-law Janice pulled into the driveway. She drove a Firebird, only a few years old. Jarvis’s new car.
“Mark my words, he’ll notice it’s gone well before he notices I’m gone,” Janice said that morning, twitching in neutral outside the little suburban house.
Aunt Pet was in the kitchen cutting up a chicken when FJ woke to the sound of the engine and walked outside. She was still in her gym shorts and ratty old T-shirt, sleep caked in the corners of her eyes, and she approached the Firebird tentatively, wondering who could be inside.
“Get in, squirt,” Janice said, “before the old battle-axe figures out who’s out here.”
And FJ had two thoughts in quick succession then. The first was that this must be what they meant about what happened when Janice didn’t take her medication. The second was just a fleeting picture, one that came to her from time to time that summer for no apparent reason: her roommate’s dried-up washcloth hanging on the rack on the back of the door of their freshman dorm room the preceding year. She climbed, barefoot and already sweating at nine in the morning, into the passenger seat of Jarvis’s new-to-him Firebird. And then they were gone.
“Just a blip on the screen, too fast for their old pansy-ass radar,” Janice was saying, whipping around a curve. She punched in the cigarette lighter and rummaged in her bag. “Here,” she said and handed the bag to FJ. “Get out my cigarettes. And help yourself.”
She will never call me Frankie, FJ thought, as they ripped out of the driveway. She doesn’t even know who I am right now.
Was it maturity on her part, that is the ability to see things more clearly, FJ wondered, glancing sideways at her sister-in-law, or did Janice look more desperate than desirable these days? Hadn’t she aged more than she should have since her wedding six years before? She’d grown bony and dark under the eyes and become a chain smoker with a harsh, hacking cough. “Jarvis says sometimes she forgets to take the medication and then they’ve got some trouble on their hands,” Aunt Pet said one night after dinner, to which FJ’s father had replied in his customary way, leaving the table and sitting down with his newspaper.
Still, despite a lingering sense that her father and her aunt had the idea something was wrong, FJ might have gone on seeing all of this as a side to Janice she’d simply had no reason to know about. Except for the conversation when they stopped later that morning for breakfast.
They were in a diner in a town that FJ didn’t know, and when she pulled her dusty bare feet up to hide them under her suntanned legs on the vinyl seat of their corner booth, she felt glad the place was filled with strangers.
It seemed like everyone, not just Janice, was smoking; the blinds were pulled against the white hot morning sun, and the smell of coffee and cigarettes and the buzz of conversation surrounded them in a pleasant, muffling cloud. The waitress brought tall glasses of water and filled the coffee cup that Janice had turned over before she’d even slid into her seat. FJ opened her menu and started to relax, thinking to herself that maybe she and her sister-in-law would start doing this more often, just head out on a Saturday morning every now and then for a nice drive and breakfast in a new town. Maybe they’d finally get to know each other a little better. FJ relished the idea of having this woman—the woman she’d so adored and dreamed of when she was a sad and troublesome child—as a friend. Maybe even a close one. But then they started talking.
What FJ said was “Well, it’s been some time since we’ve seen each other, Janice.”
And what Janice said went something like this: “Yes, yes, the little girl is gone and grown and aren’t we all glad of that? And well you thought it’d all come out different in the end and so did I but then the end has yet to come. And all of this”—she waved her hands around her face, the restaurant booth—“is all the same whatever time it is. We’re coming loose is all. We’re coming loose.” And she laughed and lit another cigarette, nearly dropping it, lit, in her purse when something else occurred to her. “But all’s not lost on the radar screen! We’ll keep on driving, driving, driving till his old rubber pecker gives up trying. Oh yes. Oh you thought, didn’t you, that it would be like Miss America in a bathing suit in the snow. A mountain in the snow. But it’s bloody. You are bloody. It comes out between the cracks. Slow like it’s melting.”
She leaned across the table then and FJ could smell her smoky coffee breath when she whispered, “Believe me. Just do believe me. You’re still just a little girl at heart, but you should know enough to believe me. Our blood is melting all the snow.”
And FJ didn’t know what to say to that so she picked up her menu, then thought of something and said, “Say Janice, you know I left the house without a dime. I didn’t know we were going out for breakfast.”
“Going out for breakfast! Is that what we’re doing?” Janice let out a whoop of laughter at the idea, and other people turned to stare. She reached in her bag and pulled out a man’s wallet.
“Taken care of. On me, on the house, on your brother’s goddamn blood-soaked house. It’s all the same, money. Where it comes from. Order what you want.” She shook a lit match at the menu. “Have an ice cream soda and a hamburger if you want! Out for breakfast!” She leaned back and dissolved in a fit of laughter.
FJ went ahead and ordered scrambled eggs, and she was a few bites into them when she again remembered her aunt’s remark about the medication. She thought about saying something, just a casual question about whether Janice needed to take any of her pills or anything, but just then Janice’s expression changed. The dim light of the diner seemed to be too much for her. She shielded her eyes with her hand and sank into the booth, and with a cigarette dangling from her lip she said in a whisper, “I guess you know he beats me up.” And FJ stopped eating and put down her fork.
Back in the car, FJ felt afraid for the first time that morning. It wasn’t Janice’s driving; they were cruising through the little town at a nice safe speed, and Janice seemed calmer than she’d been in the diner. But still, FJ had the feeling they were moving far too fast.
“If it’s all right by you, kiddo, I believe I’ll head back onto the highway. The American interstate system is a miracle, don’t you think? All those miles and miles of road and it’s up to you to keep it going. If you want to you can drive and drive forever. You never have to stop.”
FJ cleared her throat and started to speak but stopped. Then she opened her mouth again and said, “Well whaț about going to the bathroom?”
“Well, yes, the bathroom, gas—but then it’s all in your control. What I’m trying to say is, there is then no demonic red light or eighty-eight sided sign to flash in your face and terrorize you and say stop now, not when you want to or you need to, but right now.”
“True, true,” FJ nodded, very much wanting Janice not to get too excited.
“I don’t know about you but there is something about an eighty-eight sided, fire-engine red stop sign that can almost make me weep. Because I’m just afraid of what might happen.”
“If you stop, you mean?”
“Yes, if I stop. For too long.” Janice grabbed FJ’s hand then and held it. “There have been times, little one, when I have stopped my car at a red stop sign and just looked at it and thought to myself, well all right, I’ve stopped, and what now? I’ve just sat there at that stop sign feeling like I’ll never move again, and in fact I may not even remember how to breathe once I let out the breath I’m holding onto right now, and . . . .” Her eyes glazed over as her voice trailed away; she seemed to forget what she was saying.
Then suddenly Janice turned back to the road ahead. “Put it this way, squirt.” Her voice had more of its earlier edge, but she kept on holding FJ’s hand. “It’s important to keep moving. You’ve got to, if you want a chance at staying off their radar. Stay away from stop signs. They might look harmless but they’re wolves in sheep’s clothing. There for our safety my ass—they’re traps.”
And then there it was again, FJ’s roommate’s dried-out washcloth, dusty blue with frayed edges. FJ thought suddenly of Berenice and caught her breath. From the time they’d moved out of the house in town and Berenice had quit working for them, that year after the awful scene at the wedding and after her cousin John Henry died, the year FJ turned thirteen and left something behind, almost like an umbrella or a pair of gloves but harder to put a finger on than that, she’d hardly thought of Berenice and John Henry at all. She simply hadn’t let herself think of them.
But during the first semester of her freshman year of college she cried herself to sleep at night with a queer sort of longing for both of them, for the housekeeper from her childhood and a snot-nosed little boy with bad eyesight. They were all she had in the world, her audience and her counselors for all those endless summers until she turned twelve, until the summer when she threw herself at Janice and Jarvis’s feet after their wedding, begging them to take her with them, to take her anywhere—a scene so shameful to her that it seemed in the end there was nothing to do but turn thirteen and get on with things, to turn her back completely on the child she had been. On Berenice and John Henry. On all their talk and dreams. Even on her own name. She spent her high school years in hiding from the brazen, disgraced girl she’d been as Frankie, and then at seventeen enrolled, in a kind of sleepy fog, at the state university campus near her home.
Each morning that year, jerked back to the cold reality of her sterile freshman dorm room, she opened her eyes and stared straight ahead at that God-forsaken, dried-up washcloth. She had never seen her roommate actually carry the thing to the bathroom, though clearly it had been used at some point.
During the entire second semester she and her roommate might have spoken five sentences to each other. FJ finished the year with a C average and without ever calling Berenice, though she’d thought at times—often alone at breakfast in the early morning—of doing so. Now, at the beginning of August, it wasn’t clear whether her father would be paying for her to return to college, and it also wasn’t clear that FJ even wanted him to.
He beats her up, she thought then; she says he beats her up. And FJ wondered why it was that she believed this desperate, manic woman immediately, almost instinctively—that she didn’t have the slightest doubt that this was true.
Cars were speeding by them. FJ looked at the speedometer and saw that Janice, who was lost in some thought or another, was going twenty miles an hour. She squeezed Janice’s hand tighter and looked out her window at the patches of brown grass.
In her dreams of college she had walked from left to right on the movie screen of her mind, over lush green lawns and into ivy-covered buildings, to hear scintillating lectures about Michelangelo and Tennyson. But in fact the buildings were new and the desks were scratched with graffiti and she walked from right to left over hot concrete most of the time. In her classes she watched filmstrips and dozed. There was not a single college party—the boys all drunk and red-faced, the girls rolling their eyes and pretending to be stupid—that she’d enjoyed, and every time she went to the library she grew frightened for some reason, and she felt an overwhelming need to go to the bathroom.
Now she felt as unmoored and bewildered as she had ever been. For the time being though, sleeping late into the summer mornings and spending the afternoons on a chaise lounge in the back yard with a novel had been a way to forget about it all for a while. But now here was Janice, talking crazy and driving worse, bringing it all back with her eighty-eight-sided stop signs and her hacking smoker’s cough and a husband, FJ’s own brother, who beat her up. Yes, of course FJ knew what Janice was talking about. She’d been held up at one of those bright red road markers for the better part of a year.
Gradually she realized that Janice had begun to cry.
“What is it, Janice?” she asked her then. “Are you okay?” And she patted the hand that held her own.
But Janice yanked her hand free then and slapped the air where FJ’s hand had been, “No, I’m not all right, I’m loose as a goose, I’m a firecracker ready to go off, a loose cannon aimed at the outer zones of the universe. If I can just get there, if I can just fly a little farther out, I’ll be off their screens for good. You’ll see, kiddo, I’ll fly right off the map and then they’ll never get me back.”
“Who?” FJ asked, even though she knew Janice had to mean Jarvis. And for FJ there was her father, Aunt Pet. Everyone who seemed to like her best when she was quiet and out of the way. And hadn’t she once talked about a similar feeling with Berenice and John Henry, seated around the kitchen table with the playing cards spread out in front of them? Everybody feels caught, she had said that day (and she winced, remembering Berenice’s reply—“I’m caught worse than you is”). But to her it seemed more like everyone—and most of all she herself—was coming loose.
“All of them, the psychiatrists, your brother, my parents, the whole bloody shebang,” Janice said as she grabbed her open handbag off the floor. For another cigarette FJ assumed, but instead she pulled out a bottle of pills.
“It’s these, squirt. Watch out for these things.” She shook the brown bottle, rattling it in FJ’s face. “They’ll pin you down with these.” She threw the bottle in FJ’s lap.
“It’s this they’re after,” Janice went on, pointing at her right temple. “It’s the top that’s spinning up here, spinning so hot and fast they can’t get a hold on it, but not because they aren’t trying, oh no. I’m spinning right out of their grip but they’re desperate to get to that hot spot at the middle. The tropical zone. The psycho-tropics.”
Janice giggled then, pleased with her pun, and FJ laughed, too. “The psycho-tropics,” FJ repeated. “That’s clever.” She put the bottle of pills in her shorts pocket and said, “I hate to tell you this, Janice, but I have to pee.”
This was true, she did in fact have to pee, but besides that, FJ was getting very nervous. The more Janice talked about her spinning top of a mind the faster she drove. Yes, FJ did remember feeling loose, too, when she was a kid. But right now the fact remained that at the line about the psycho-tropics, FJ looked over to see the speedometer needle coursing well beyond the speed limit, to sixty, seventy, eighty, and beyond. And at that point she looked closely at Janice and admitted to herself that yes, in fact, she felt afraid of being as loose as that.
But by this time Janice was mumbling to herself—more about not stopping, about what might happen if she did—and it was clear she’d forgotten FJ was even in the car.
“Not this time!” she hissed as ashes from the cigarette at the corner of her mouth drifted onto her skin-tight T-shirt and the bare, downy skin of her arm.
“Not. This. Time.” By now her voice was barely above a whisper, but she pounded the steering wheel furiously with each word.
And even though Janice had taken her foot off the accelerator now and the speedometer needle was on its way back down, FJ knew that all she could do was close her eyes and brace herself, grit her teeth and hope for the best, because like it or not, Janice was flying somewhere else right then and it didn’t matter whose car it was or who was in it. So that when they rolled off the highway and finally smacked into a tree, the only thing that surprised FJ was the silence afterwards. In those silent seconds she had time somehow to think of Luxembourg, the time when Janice and Jarvis were going to be stationed in Luxembourg, and it was a pale, pale blue in her mind, cold blue like ice, and she had a picture of Janice in a blue dress and blue shoes, the palest baby blue—the same baby blue as FJ’s brand new set of Samsonite luggage, packed and piled in the corner by the door the night before she left for college, and the same sad baby blue, she realized then, as her roommate’s stiff, dry washcloth, hanging so forlornly on the back of their dorm room door. Still hanging there today for all she knew.
FJ heard a whimpering then and looked over to see Janice hunched over the steering wheel, her shoulders shaking, her long, thin arms covered with goose bumps. Sweaty wisps of hair curled over her ear and a faint blue vein showed through the soft skin at her temple. She looked, FJ thought, like a little girl.
“Janice?” FJ said.
Janice looked up at her and blinked. “He’s gonna kill me now,” she said. Her voice sounded small and hollow.
Later, when a policeman arrived, they sat on the slope above the road. Janice was still sniffling, and FJ stared at the crushed front end of her brother’s Firebird and tried to see the blue she’d seen before, but couldn’t. As the officer got out of his car and lumbered up the hillside she fingered the bottle of pills in her pocket.
He’d just opened his mouth to say something, probably to ask, “Y’all all right?” but before he could get a word in, FJ blurted out, “It’s all my fault. My daddy won’t let me get a driver’s license so I begged her to let me drive my brother’s car and now look at what I up and did.” And she shook her head and rolled her eyes and tried to look remorseful, but because she knew she’d long since lost the skill of lying like an actor on the stage, she finished up by burying her head in her arms, which she’d wrapped around her sweating knees.
The policeman didn’t say anything for a minute, and FJ could feel his and Janice’s bewildered eyes staring at her, but she kept her head down and her eyes closed until the policeman finally cleared his throat and said to Janice, “Well, all right then, ma’am, do you reckon we can find the registration and insurance and put in a call about this?”
For just a second Janice sat there, and then she pulled herself up to her knees. FJ turned her head a tiny bit and watched through squinted eyes as the policeman helped her up. Then, before she walked over to the car with him, Janice reached down and put her long, thin arms around the tight little ball FJ had made herself into, and she kissed FJ on the top of her head.
“Lovely little Frankie,” she breathed in FJ’s ear. And right then FJ felt strong enough to hold the whole world in place with her very own arms.
When they’d walked away to the car FJ pulled her head up ever so slightly and reached back into her pocket for the bottle of pills. She pulled off the top and poured them out there on the hill, and seeing those bright green pills in the red Georgia clay made her think of Christmas, of a whole other season in a whole other place, cold air and the smell of pine and the heat of a thousand or so candles. Christmas in Luxembourg maybe, or anywhere at all. She could go anywhere at all, she thought.
She smoothed two handfuls of dirt over the little pile of pills and pulled herself up from the ground then, and she walked over to join Janice and the policeman beside the Firebird. Seeing Jarvis’s new-to-him Firebird in such a state made her want to laugh. But remembering her role she held it in, and she worked to make her face look sorry.
Joyce Hinnefeld is the author of the short story collection Tell Me Everything and the novels In Hovering Flight and Stranger Here Below. Her new book, the story collection The Beauty of Their Youth, is the latest title in the Wolfson Press American Storytellers series. She is a Professor of English at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, where she directs the Moravian College Writers’ Conference. Learn more at her website and Facebook page.
Music by Catlofe
The following excerpt from The Distance From Four Points by Margo Orlando Littell is used by permission of the University of New Orleans Press, 2020.
The Distance From Four Points – excerpt
There was only one voicemail. One single, unpromising voicemail in response to the ad Robin had placed for the empty apartment. A woman, who said, “Calling ’bout the listing,” and gave a phone number. No one answered when Robin returned the call, but she left a message inviting the woman to visit the property at four that afternoon.
Unsure if anyone would show up, Robin arrived early to turn on the lights and wipe the new countertops. She waited anxiously by the front window. It didn’t matter who came—as long as they left a first month’s rent behind. She would not ask any questions. She needed this woman, whoever she was, to say yes.
A beat-up Camry pulled to a stop in front of the duplex. Robin smoothed her hair, plucked a piece of brown leaf from the carpet. She stood and looked out the window once more.
“Oh my God,” she said. The voice on the message had been so ordinary, a local woman making apartment-hunting calls. But it wasn’t just any local woman coming up the walk. It was Cindy Sweeney, more than twenty years a stranger.
Cindy was on the porch, preparing to knock. She wore makeup that was too dark for her complexion. She had long, fried hair. Hair that would be just as sticky and stiff as it’d been all those years ago if Robin were to touch it. She was big—tall, big breasts, big bones—and she filled the space around her in a way that seemed to dare Robin to tell her to step aside. Cornered, Robin froze. She wanted to deadbolt the door and run out the back, but she couldn’t. Winter was a bad time to hunt for tenants, and the possibility of 1118 ½ sitting empty until spring was very real. Robin did what she had to. When Cindy knocked, Robin opened the door.
There was a flash of surprise and immediate recognition. “Robin fucking Nowak,” Cindy said.
“Right. Ray Besher. Your moneybags husband. Heard about that.”
She said it without thinking, the words rousing challenge, even triumph. You think you know me? You don’t know anything.
Cindy squinted, appraising. “That why you’re back in Four Points?”
“You think I’d be here if I had a choice?”
Cindy dismissed the question with no more than a loud exhalation. “So this place is yours.”
“I’m getting some things in order before going back to Mount Rynda.”
“You too good for us?”
Robin was freezing by the open door. “You still want to look around?”
“I’m here, ain’t I?”
Neither woman spoke as Robin led Cindy through the living room and into the kitchen. With new carpet, tiles, and counters, both downstairs rooms were nicer than most Four Points rentals, but Cindy made no comment. Upstairs, the two small bedrooms were in worse shape: stained beige shag carpet, crooked window blinds, bare bulbs. With three strides, they were in the bathroom at the end of the hall. Discolored bathtub, no shower. An old white porcelain sink over exposed plumbing.
“This place is a shithole,” Cindy announced.
Back downstairs, they stood under the harsh overhead in the living room.
“It’ll be me and Amber moving in here,” Cindy said. “Keep to ourselves, pretty much. You won’t have a problem with us.”
“My daughter. Thirteen. Eighth grade at Sacred Heart.”
For weeks, Robin’s daughter, Haley, had suffered at school from a girl named Amber’s cruelty. Of course Haley’s tormenter was Cindy Sweeney’s daughter. Robin almost laughed out loud.
“I really don’t think—”
Cindy cut her off. “I’ll be straight with you,” she said. She draped her long ponytail over a shoulder and twisted the ends around her fingers. “I’m in a bad situation, okay? Trying to get out and start over. I don’t have a lot of choices here. You as my landlord? That’s bullshit. Fuck it. Fuck you too. This is what it is.”
“Someone else came by already,” Robin said. She smelled cigarette smoke when Cindy scoffed. “And you’re a smoker. It’s a nonsmoking property.”
For a long moment, Cindy looked at her, and Robin looked back. Mascara-clumped lashes, pockmarked cheeks, the skin across her collarbone wrinkled and limp, old before its time. The yinzes, the ain’ts, the fucks. If Robin closed her eyes, she’d see sixteen-year-old Cindy, the coin-flip side of this woman standing in the living room. Against all odds, she needed something from Cindy Sweeney: her money, what little there was, and her assurance that, under her watch, nothing calamitous would happen to this apartment. There were other people, surely. If Robin waited long enough, she’d find someone else. But she couldn’t wait.
Cindy rustled through her purse. “Here’s the first month,” she said. “Four hundred. You want to count it?” She extended a secondhand envelope from a credit card bill, the jagged flap resealed with a piece of scotch tape. Robin shoved it into her pocket.
“There’s a nun next door.”
“She won’t bother me.”
“She’ll know who’s coming and going.”
“I don’t want her to be—uncomfortable.”
Cindy took one step closer to Robin. “I work at Walmart,” she said. “Got it? That’s what I do. I work the fucking register. Sometimes I work all fucking night because we’re open twenty-four fucking hours. You want my nametag? A pay stub? My timesheet for the shifts I pull while you’re sleeping like a goddamn princess?”
“I just had to say something.”
“You just had to say something. Bet you’ve been waiting to say something for a long fucking time.”
A moment passed. Robin asked quietly, “Do you know who lives in that house now?” Every memory she had of Cindy was wrapped in that basement. That hulking specter on Whistlestop Road.
“Hell no,” Cindy said. “You should drive by now you’re back.” She turned to the door. “We’re the same, you and me,” she said over her shoulder. “I’m a ‘team member’ at Walmart, you’re a fucking slumlord. A fucking slumlady. Don’t worry about the nun. Nuns love people like us. They have to love the sinners the most.”
The door was too hollow and cheap to properly slam.
* * *
It was fully dark at 4:30 p.m. when Robin left Nettle Street. Even though Haley was waiting at home, Robin skipped the turn that led to their rental and wound toward the river, to the house on Whistlestop Road she used to share with Cindy Sweeney and Cindy’s mother, Rochelle. She turned onto the street as though under a spell.
Past two boxy, unkempt houses and a prefab ranch with a collapsing side deck stood the house she sought, the last on the left. Three stories of dirty red brick, two windows sloppily boarded on the second floor, the attic windows missing entirely. A large, bowed picture window, a hole shot through the right-hand pane, overlooked a wraparound porch littered with broken bricks, cracked cement, and pieces of old wooden railings. The second-floor bedroom windows looked down onto train tracks. A turret bulged along the house’s right side. In the fall, the turret window revealed a sea of red and gold, the tracks and the Youghiogheny River winding through in ribbons of bronze and onyx. On the front door fluttered a white notice: CONDEMNED.
Robin saw herself: sixteen, climbing out of her beat-up white Mazda, indigo-black hair loose to her waist, slouching up to the porch where Rochelle would push open the screen door and say, “Cindy’s in the basement. Go on down.” Twenty-seven years ago. As clear as yesterday.
Robin remembered too well what went on in that basement. But she wasn’t willing to revisit what had happened in one of the rooms upstairs, the room where her infant son had slept. Memories of the sex work—when they arrived, unbidden—nauseated her. Thoughts of Trevor stopped her breathing.
Wind gusted. A shingle from the roof cartwheeled to the ground. She tasted blood. She’d bitten through the skin behind her lower lip. It hurt, but she kept the broken bulb of chewed skin between her teeth.
As she started the car and moved her hands to the steering wheel, her left elbow hit the lock button, firing a quick loud crack. The noise roused dogs in the house across the yard. Two tall black Dobermans threw themselves at the fence, jumping and barking, straining against the strips of blue tarp woven through the chain link.
A light flickered in the kitchen window of the old house, weak as a candle flame. Nothing but a nervous illusion—the reflection of a star. Robin K-turned the car and left the house behind.
A week later, at two in the morning, Sister Eileen called about a commotion at 1118 ½.
“I think you better come,” she said. “I don’t want to call the police.”
There was no way to know how long she would have to be gone. Robin shook Haley gently.
“Haley. Haley, wake up.”
She wrapped a coat around Haley’s shoulders as they headed to the car. By the time they got to Nettle Street, Haley was more alert.
“What happened?” she said.
“Not sure. Sister Eileen called.”
They were silent as they made the turn, the heater blasting.
Robin pulled to the curb. “Stay here. I’ll find out what’s going on.”
Haley curled in her seat, trying to sleep again. Robin got out of the car and locked the doors. The lights were on throughout the duplex, clearly showing that the downstairs windows on Cindy’s side had been broken. Robin heard another splinter and crash from the back of the house, and Cindy’s shouting from inside.
“Fucker! Get the fuck out of here, you asshole!”
A scrawny man in jeans and a tank top ran around to the front, a belt in one hand and a beer in the other. When he saw Robin, he hurled the can at the front of the house, jumped into a pickup, and squealed away. For a long moment, Robin heard nothing but the fizzing puddle of beer on the porch. Then Cindy Sweeney yelled, “Fuuuuuccccckkkk!”
Robin knocked on the door, nodded at Cindy when she answered wearing purple plaid boxers and a t-shirt. The living room was a jumble of piled furniture and boxes shoved against the wall. On the couch was Amber, wearing a Hello Kitty bathrobe, her arms around her knees. The living room and kitchen, where Robin had laid new carpet and tile, were full of broken glass.
“Watch yourself,” she said, nodding at Cindy’s bare feet. “What happened?”
“Finally got my stuff,” Cindy said. “Then Clyde came over and smashed the windows. Like I told you—a bad situation. Shit.”
She didn’t blame, didn’t cry, didn’t apologize or excuse. Because of this, Robin didn’t feel angry. She didn’t point out the hundreds of dollars she’d have to spend on new windowpanes, new paint. She didn’t howl that these unforeseen expenses were destroying her hope of fixing up her other apartments as soon as possible.
All she said was, “I have some duct tape in my car. You and Amber unpack those boxes. We’ll cover the windows with the cardboard. You’ll freeze tonight otherwise.”
Outside, Sister Eileen was sopping up the beer with paper towels, a plain cotton bathrobe over an ankle-length nightgown and sneakers.
“Sister Eileen,” Robin said. “I’m so sorry about this.”
Sister Eileen rose. “Can I do anything inside?”
“You’ve done enough.”
“I want to help.”
Robin sighed and said, “Alright. Let me get my daughter.” When she looked at the car, Haley was awake and gazing back. Robin retrieved the duct tape, and together they walked inside.
Robin and Cindy fitted flattened cardboard boxes jigsaw-style over the windows, and Amber and Haley pressed long strips of duct tape along the edges, cutting the tape with a pair of dull kitchen scissors. Both girls were in their pajamas and robes, with tangled ponytails and tired faces, as though this were a sleepover. Sister Eileen swept the broken glass and vacuumed the floors again and again.
The house was cold when they finished, smelling of damp cardboard. It was almost four in the morning.
“Shouldn’t we call the police?” Sister Eileen asked.
Cindy shook her head. “It’ll make it worse.”
“I saw him take off his belt—his pants nearly fell down,” Sister Eileen said. “Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, is he?”
“I should’ve known,” Cindy said. “Two fucking years. Story of my life.”
“God has a plan,” Sister Eileen began.
“Even in this. Especially in this.” Sister Eileen bowed her head as she walked to the door.
Once the nun was gone, Cindy ushered Amber to bed. When she came back downstairs, she seemed defeated, nothing at all like Cindy.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a low voice. “Shit like this is why you didn’t want me here, and you’re thinking you got proved right. Same old fuck-up Cindy Sweeney. You’re wrong, but fuck that. We can be out by next week.”
“You don’t have to leave,” Robin said. “This wasn’t your fault.”
“It’s my fucking mistake. Like always.”
“We’ll figure out the windows, somehow.”
“Somehow.” Without anything else to offer, Robin turned to leave.
“Amber’s taking this hard.”
From behind her, Haley said, “I won’t talk about it at school. Amber doesn’t have to worry.”
They didn’t speak on the dark ride home. Robin wanted to touch Haley’s cheek but instead kept her hands on the wheel. Robin felt a kind of peace, a kind of thankfulness. All those months of searching and now, here, grace.
Margo Orlando Littell grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Mid-Atlantic Fiction. Her second novel, The Distance from Four Points, comes out May 28, 2020. She lives in New Jersey with her family.
Music by Catlofe
The following is excerpt from The Resolutions by Brady Hammes, copyright © 2020 by Brady Hammes. Used by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
So far to go and so little light to guide him. The sun was almost down, the trail fading quickly. He was returning from town, slightly drunk, enjoying the high of human contact, his first in almost a week. He’d left camp early that morning to recharge the equipments’ batteries at a restaurant owned by his colleague, Laurent, but the drinking had interfered with the mission and he’d forgotten to grab the batteries before returning to camp. This just meant he’d have to go back tomorrow, which would be Thursday. Or would it be Friday? No idea. What are days anymore? he wondered. Long stretches of loneliness, he answered. He then counted the letters in loneliness: 10. One zero. One is the loneliest number, he sang to himself, then laughed because its loneliness was nothing compared to his. “What’s lonelier than a man living alone in the forest?” he asked aloud, but there was no one around to answer. Precisely, he thought.
Jonah had come to Gabon four months earlier to assist Marcus, his thesis advisor at Vanderbilt—a quiet man with tenure and no family, his lifestyle the kind that afforded six-week sojourns into the forests of West Africa. Marcus had spent the past decade studying the vocalization of forest elephants, planting ARUs—Autonomous Recording Units—in the trees to capture the elephants’ communication. As his research took shape, he convinced some of his behavioral ecology students—Jonah being one of the more eager—to help analyze the hours of recordings. Jonah spent countless days staring at spectrograms in the lab, extrapolating some very interesting things and relaying those things back to Marcus in the field. They linked the sounds they recorded with the behavior they witnessed, shedding light on the relatively unknown complexities of elephant communication. Jonah and his colleagues drafted what they referred to as The Elephant Dictionary, a compendium of their findings, a sonic key to the elephant dialogue. Their work began garnering attention—articles in scholarly journals, followed by an increase in funding—and Marcus offered Jonah a position as a field assistant, a welcome relief from the grinding tedium of lab work. But shortly after Jonah arrived in Gabon, Marcus contracted malaria and returned to the States, leaving Jonah to spearhead the research. There was talk of sending someone to assist him, but it was difficult to find anyone willing to abandon university life for one spent in the forests of Gabon.
He looked to the sky. Maybe rain? Rain might be nice once he was back at camp, settled in for the evening, drinking what was left of the duty-free scotch he’d picked up at the airport in Paris. He watched a wire-tailed swallow swoop past his head and land on a tree branch. He nodded at the bird, bid it good day. The bird chirped something that sounded like his name. “How can I help you?” Jonah asked, but the bird didn’t respond. He wondered if he misheard the bird. Or perhaps the bird misspoke. Better to pin it on the bird, he thought. Or maybe there was a third option. Maybe the bird just said Jaja, which would make more sense because Jaja wasn’t a word, just a bird sound. “Am I losing my mind?” he wondered aloud. “No,” he answered. “You’re just lonely.”
It was nearly dark when he finally returned to camp, which was nothing more than a two-person tent pitched in a small clearing. He had no electricity, no running water. What he had was a whole arsenal of electronics—laptop, DSLR camera, ARUs—all of which, without batteries, were essentially useless. He powered up the camera to find that he had three bars left, enough for an hour’s worth of shooting at most. He decided he’d get up early tomorrow, make the trip back to town, retrieve the batteries, email his sister. He’d arranged his flight home so that his layover in Paris might coincide with Sam’s, who had planned to fly from Moscow on the same day. They had discussed trying to arrive at Charles de Gaulle around the same time so they could wander around the city together, try to see as much as possible before the final leg back to Chicago.
He wasn’t particularly close with his sister, but he had hoped this impromptu rendezvous might change that. He attributed their distance to the five-year age difference, but the truth was that they didn’t have that much in common.
But still, he thought, the idea of home stirring his heart. It’ll be nice to see them, my family.
* * *
Jonah fired up the butane camp stove and set water to boil. He emptied a package of noodles into the pot and watched the last bit of color drain from the sky. He had expected this extended bout of solitary living to result in some kind of enlightenment, but most of his thoughts were occupied by images of nude women doing dirty things. He’d kept a journal for the first month, but abandoned the idea when he finally got around to reading what he’d written. It was mostly a lot of uninspired musings about how distant everything seemed, how disconnected he felt. He was certainly no writer and looking back at those old entries made him cringe at the teenage drama and hyperbole. No shit, he thought, of course you feel disconnected, of course everything seems distant. You live alone in the forest.
His camp was six kilometers from Franceville, the closest thing to a proper town. The train ride from Franceville to Libreville, the capital and location of the only international airport, was somewhere between ten and sixteen hours, depending on the condition of the track and the mood of the conductor. To say that he lived in a remote part of Gabon was inaccurate. It was more like camping on the moon.
He removed the noodles from the heat and strained them into a small plastic bowl, then added soy sauce and settled in for the only dinner he knew. His diet had been reduced to that which didn’t perish: lots of pasta and oatmeal and dried fruit. On trips to town he’d sometimes treat himself to meat—smoked fish or Laurent’s famous poulet nyembwe—but the longer he lived without it, the harder it became to stomach. He’d grown up backpacking with his father and was used to living for days in the wild, subsisting on trail mix and protein bars, but life here was a prolonged version of that, without the daily change in scenery and the calming assurance that a warm shower was only a few days away. Now he bathed in the stream if he bathed at all. He worked alone, ate alone, slept alone. He’d always assumed he was built for a life of solitary scientific inquiry, but now he wasn’t so sure.
At thirty-one years old, Jonah had spent the past twelve years in academia, rarely venturing outside the confines of campus. His time in Gabon was the longest he’d spent away from libraries and lecture halls, and though he was loathe to admit it, he was beginning to suspect this expedition was an effort to shirk the responsibilities of graduation. His dissertation — “The Grieving Patterns of West African Forest Elephants” — was due in two months and he had very little besides a title and fourteen hundred hours of raw data. For the past few months, he’d been observing an elephant calf named Kibo, whose mother, Jonah worried, had been killed by poachers, and he planned to compare the sounds Kibo made when alone to those he’d produced when accompanied by his mother. He suspected the elephant was mourning.
During his time in the forest, Jonah had become interested in the phenomenon known as emotional contagion, where a calf mimics the emotional state of a fellow distressed elephant. He’d witnessed instances of an elephant placing a trunk in another’s mouth, a soothing gesture that suggested they were capable of radical empathy. Demonstrations such as these were rare among animals — the behavior, until now, witnessed only in apes — and Jonah hoped to prove that elephants possessed similarly complex cognitive abilities. It was good, important work he was doing, but it was also lonely work, the kind that drove a man to drink more than he should and talk to birds and forget the batteries for his electronic devices. He’d arrived in Gabon with a clarity of purpose and, although he’d lost some of that focus in the past few weeks, his commitment to the elephants was steadfast. He resolved to do better in the new year.
After dinner, he grabbed his water purifier and walked to the stream to pump drinking water. The trail was well worn and even with only a splinter of moon, he made his way easily, as if walking half-asleep to the bathroom of his childhood home. With the sun down, the jungle orchestra began firing up: the hooting owls and burping frogs and the guttural, orgasmic moan of the tree hyraxes. It was a place where life was heard more than seen, a chorus of disembodied sounds raining down from the forest canopy. For all the discomfort of his lifestyle, he’d become rather attached to this small part of the forest and would miss it once he was gone. His plan was to return to Chicago for Christmas, treat himself to a couple weeks of easy American living, then return refreshed and ready for work. But with Marcus no longer in the ﬁeld, the grant money was in question and there was the very real possibility that his departure would be permanent.
When he reached the stream, he pumped two bottles full of clean water and began hiking back to camp. As he approached his tent, he heard what sounded like footsteps. He stopped, set the water down, turned off his headlamp, and crouched in the leafy growth of a maidenhair fern. It was quiet for a moment, then he heard it again, unmistakably footsteps. He grabbed a stick and approached camp, unsure what kind of damage he could inﬂict but certain he would ﬁnd a way if that’s what it came to. As he got closer, he heard the sound again, but the footsteps were quicker now, fading into the forest. He scanned the tent with his light and noticed that his camera was gone. “Motherfucker,” he muttered.
He circled the perimeter of the camp, but the thief had vanished. Poachers, he guessed. After discovering a battleﬁeld’s worth of massacred elephants last year, the president of Gabon dispatched a military unit to make periodic sweeps through the parks, hoping their presence might slow what had recently become an epidemic. Jonah was skeptical. While the poaching in the forests around his camp did subside, he suspected they’d just been chased to other corners of the country. The ivory trade had been raging for years, and Jonah held no illusions about the government’s ability to eradicate it, so his goal was to protect, by whatever means necessary, his own small jurisdiction. Marcus had given him a Beretta 9mm before he’d left, but Jonah, thinking the danger had subsided, traded it for beer and groceries with a man in town, an exceptionally shortsighted decision he now regretted.
He crawled inside his tent, slid into his sleeping bag, and tried not to think about the possibility of the poachers returning to cut his throat. He tried not to think about what that would feel like, all that blood pouring forth, the days and weeks his corpse would lie undiscovered while jackals snacked on his decomposing body. He tried to think of more pleasant things, like single malt scotch and breakfast burritos, but his mind kept circling back to the image of his lifeless corpse seen from above, by a helicopter or a bird of prey or the eye of God. Realizing this was an unhealthy kind of thinking, he grabbed his notebook and headlamp and began drafting a letter that he hoped would shepherd his thoughts into sunnier pastures.
He awoke the next morning grateful to be alive. He stepped outside and breathed in the new day, which, even at this early hour, was already choked with a suffocating heat. He ate a breakfast of oatmeal and bananas, then washed it down with a cup of instant coffee. Life here was lived in the singular. He had one bowl, one cup, one spoon. He had a three-foot length of rope that doubled as a clothesline and a belt. He had a dishrag that he sometimes used on his face. He owned twenty-three items, twenty-two now that his camera had been stolen.
He shouldered his backpack and set off for the bai, the forest clearing where the elephants gathered each day. A nest of clouds shielded him from the sun and the hiking was easy, almost enjoyable. When he arrived at the bai, he saw a few dozen elephants slurping water from puddles that had sprouted from last night’s rain. There were several familiar faces: Goldie and her youngest calf, an ornery, bowlegged runt Jonah had nicknamed Scooch; Rango and her two babies, neither more than a few weeks old; and Silver Ears, whose semi-translucent ears gave her an extraterrestrial appearance. Jonah climbed the stairs to the observation deck, a wooden treehouse perched thirty feet above the forest floor. Without his electronics, his work would be limited to what he could record with his eyes. He did a quick head count, twenty- three, and noted the attendance in his journal. The numbers had been slowly declining over the past few weeks— fifty- eight on November 27, forty- four on December 4— and he hoped this was a statistical anomaly rather than a fundamental change in visitation rates. Either way, it was an alarming trend and he would have to come up with a way to explain it to Marcus when he got back to the States.
When Jonah was eight, he attended Zoo Camp at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. He and three other second graders were assigned to a “creature-teacher” named Eric. Most of the creatures Eric taught them about were the kind Jonah had seen on his grandparents’ farm— goats, box turtles, barn owls. They were fine— all animals were special in their own way, Eric told them— but it wasn’t until they visited the elephant enclosure that Jonah felt he’d encountered something truly magnificent. It wasn’t just their size, which he’d learned about in books, but the grace with which they moved, the elegance of something so large.
After high school, he studied conservation biology at Boston University. The summer after his junior year, he took his first trip to Africa, volunteering at an elephant sanctuary in Kenya. The organization’s mission was to rehabilitate orphaned elephant calves to the point where they could be reintegrated back into the wild. Jonah was initially tasked with menial jobs like shoveling manure, but in time he learned the basics of animal husbandry and was eventually assigned to the nursery, where the youngest, most fragile calves were nursed back to health. Most of the elephants that arrived had been orphaned after their mothers were killed by poachers. They were usually found half-starved and wandering alone through the savannah, and it was the job of people like Jonah to help them through this intense period of mourning. Toward the end of his time in Kenya, he was assigned to a three- month-old female calf named Laki. She’d been found standing next to the decomposing body of her mother, dehydrated and on the verge of death. Jonah spent that first night lying alongside Laki, rubbing his hand along her back, waking every few hours to feed her from a bottle, trying to impress upon her the understanding that she was safe now, that she was loved. It was the closest he’d ever felt to any kind of paternal instinct, and during the long dark hours that he watched the animal sleep, he imagined finding the man responsible for Laki’s grief and smashing a rock against his head.
The sun was nearly gone when Jonah heard the trumpet call and saw a family of elephants emerging from the forest. He spotted the matriarch first, but something about her slow, halting movements seemed strange. She stopped every few feet as if she’d smelled some-thing offensive, then continued carefully, like a soldier navigating a minefield. It seemed like she was trying to camouflage herself in the forest growth, but when Jonah grabbed his binoculars and looked closer, he noticed that it wasn’t her massive body she was trying to conceal but her tusks. It was both shocking and heartbreaking. Not only did she associate the human scent with poaching, but she seemed to be cognizant of the reason someone would want to kill her. He’d never witnessed such behavior, and it was a stark reminder of the intelligence of his subjects, as well as how dispiriting their situation had become.
The matriarch led the others to a shallow pool, where they slurped mineral water percolating from the ground. He grabbed his notebook and jotted down some observations, the names and faces that were familiar to him, as well as those that were not. He was relieved to discover Kibo standing beneath his mother, whom Jonah had assumed was dead. A dozen more soon filtered in, and now there were close to forty, an encouraging increase from the morning’s count. A few of the younger ones locked tusks, roughhousing, while the adults congregated in little subsets, drinking and socializing in the manner of good-natured suburbanites. It was a festive scene, full of bonhomie and goodwill, one that reminded Jonah of a spirited forest block party. As he unfurled his sleeping bag and settled into bed, he paused to savor the moment, how fortunate he was to spend an evening with such noble and sentient creatures.
* * *
Jonah awoke with a butterfly on his face, which he interpreted as a good start to the day, though a moment later he saw it swallowed by a toad and was forced to reexamine the omen. He put together a quick breakfast, then collected the ARUs from the trees, which required some elementary ropework he’d learned during an introduction to rock climbing class back at Vanderbilt. He had two hundred hours of new media to decipher during his time in Chicago, and he hoped there might be something in there that would jumpstart his thesis.
He packed up his equipment and started back to camp. His flight left in a little over a week, and his plan was to spend the intervening days collecting data before heading back to town, where he would catch the train to Libreville. It was a lot of traveling, but he knew it would be worth it once he was back in Chicago, surrounded by deep-dish pizza, cold beer, and the familiar faces of his family.
He found her in a dry riverbed, bathing in a pool of her own blood, surrounded by Kibo and four other grief-stricken elephants. They paced circles around her, laying their trunks on her collapsed body in the style of a funeral procession. Though he was a good twenty yards away, there was no question it was Kibo’s mother. Once the elephants had disappeared into the forest, Jonah approached the corpse. Her face had been removed by crude machete work and the rest of her body lay rotting in the sun, sizzling with flies, emitting an odor that made Jonah’s stomach buck. He considered trying to conceal the corpse with palm fronds, but the vultures were hovering overhead, and he knew it was only a matter of time before there would be nothing left but clean, white bones. He snapped a few photos for evidence and then, fighting back tears, continued back to camp.
Brady Hammes is a writer and documentary film editor. The Resolutions is his first book. His short stories have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Guernica, The Rattling Wall, andBeecher’s. He lives in Los Angeles by way of Colorado and Iowa.
Music by Catlofe
“Get a Grip” is excerpted from I Have the Answer: Stories, copyright 2020, by Kelly Fordon. Originally published in Bartleby Snopes magazine. Excerpt courtesy Wayne State University Press.
Get a Grip
Maura Elliot finished cleaning up the TV room and brought some dishes down to the kitchen sink. When she looked up from the soapy water, she saw that May Keane, her zany neighbor, was waving frantically to her from the kitchen window across the driveway.
May Keane lived next door with her mother Suzanne and her entire life seemed to consist of walking to CVS and back, anywhere from four to six times a day. The word on the street was that May Keane had addled her mind with drugs when she was an undergraduate, but none of the neighbors had ever asked her mother, Suzanne, directly.
Each time May Keane left the house, she sported a jaunty canary-yellow beret and a bright pink pocketbook, which she gripped tightly as if warding off assault. Maura had no idea why everyone called her May Keane and not simply May, but it may have been because sometimes when May Keane wandered off in the wrong direction, Suzanne could be heard screaming, “May Keane! May Keane!” from the doorway as if May Keane was six, not closing in on fifty.
Maura waved back to May Keane and then looked down fixedly at the dishes. When she looked up a couple of seconds later, May Keane was still waving, so she waved again half-heartedly and moved away from the window. She would finish the dishes later when not under surveillance.
Later, that morning Maura stood at the side door saying goodbye to her children as they got on the bus. She had not left her house in four months. She’d been fine for a little while after Howard had deserted her, but then, one morning, when she went to the door, she found she just could not go through it. It had been the same every day since.
It was possible to remain sequestered because of grocery deliveries and her oldest son, Mike, who’d acquired his license a year earlier. Mike loved driving and never balked at carting his little sister Liz around, especially when Maura paid him so well to do it. Mike and Liz were so caught up in their own high school dramas that sometimes Maura wondered if they even realized she was housebound. They knew that their father had moved out, but they seemed to operate under the notion that if they said nothing about it, it wasn’t real. Maybe they were just relieved not to be subjected to his mood swings any longer. In either case, neither one had asked her a single thing about him since the day of his departure when she had briefly explained he would be working out of the Dallas office for the next few months.
Today, she did what she’d been doing every day since her agoraphobia had set in. She took out her endless to-do list and attacked the house. She cleaned, she mopped, she descended into the depths of the basement and sifted through fifteen years of detritus, sorting and discarding as much as she could. While she worked, she hummed along with WMJZ, the classical music station.
For ten years before she’d gotten married and had kids, she’d worked as an architect at Cole Redding. Now the only place she would allow her mind to go was into the buildings she’d designed. While she worked, in her mind she was roaming the rooftop garden and atrium at the Marygrove plant admiring the ceramic glazed bricks, the neoprene gaskets they’d used in lieu of caulk, the futuristic water towers. Other than future and past designs, she refused to contemplate anything else except the next task at hand. When she ran out of chores, she made up more—washing the walls, unearthing and polishing the never-used silver.
For the most part, this was the same way she’d operated during the late stages of her marriage. If she did not want to hear what Howard was saying, she could carry on whole conversations with him without processing a single word. It was as if someone had drilled a hole in the base of her head so that his words dripped out like water from the bottom of a flowerpot. What he was saying—that he wanted to leave, that he loved someone else, that he felt like he was “self-actualizing” and she was not—washed right through her leaving no residue at all.
Around 11 a.m., the doorbell rang. Maura heard it, but she was nearly finished with her final load of laundry. Assuming it was the UPS man, she ignored it. But then it rang again. And again. And again.
“Shit!” she muttered, tossing a pair of balled-up socks into the basket. Who could be that rude? She located her button-down sweater and put it on over her T-shirt, buttoning it up to the collar. She smoothed out some creases in her khakis and put on her loafers. Then she hurried downstairs and opened the door.
It was May Keane. She was clutching the pocketbook and peering repeatedly over her shoulder. Without acknowledging Maura, she threw open the screen door and scurried past her into the house.
“The meeting is starting,” she called out, sounding frantic. “Should have started at 9 a.m. You’re late! Sit down. Sit down. Wait! You better make coffee. Did you get the pastries? Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!”
Maura was alarmed, but she talked herself out of it almost immediately. After all, she had no reason to believe May Keane was dangerous. She’d lived next door to the woman for five years without incident.
“May Keane,” she said. “There is no meeting going on here. I think you are mistaken. Where is your mother?”
“She went to the land of Costco, where all of her dreams come true,” May Keane said, walking quickly on into the dining room. Maura followed her. In the dining room, May Keane took a seat at the table so that she was facing the wall. Maura continued around to the other side of the table to get into her line of sight.
“Would you like something to drink, May Keane?” Maura said. She needed an excuse to leave the room and call Suzanne from the kitchen.
“Yes,” May Keane said, “I’d like a jasmine tea with a side of lime or cucumber, if you have it.” She placed her purse on the table in front of her but kept her hands clasped tightly around it.
Maura went into the kitchen and located Suzanne’s cell phone number on the list taped to the refrigerator. Suzanne answered breathlessly on the first ring, as if accustomed to emergency calls.
Suzanne sighed as Maura told her what was going on.
“Well, that’s a first,” she said. “Normally she doesn’t like to interact with people.”
This was true. May Keane had never spoken to Maura before. Sometimes she seemed to recognize Maura and the kids, and other times she hurried past them looking terrified, as if they were wild animals on the loose.
“I’m in the checkout line at Costco,” Suzanne said. “I’ll be there as fast as I can . . . it’ll probably take me twenty minutes. I’m sorry. I know you have your hands full as it is. Just humor her.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just, in her world . . . I guess what I’m saying is . . . just go along with it . . . she has an active imagination.” The answer was so disjointed that Maura was reminded of a supposition she’d made about Suzanne, whose thin hair blew this way and that in the wind, and whose outfits were always mismatched, oversized and dumpy looking. The supposition was that living with the daughter had unhinged the mother.
Maura went back into the dining room. She’d forgotten about the tea, but May Keane reached up to take it anyway.
“Thanks so much,” she said, taking hold of the imaginary cup, simulating a stirring motion and then leaning down to make loud sipping noises.
“Delicious. Just right! You did it perfect!” she said.
Suddenly, her head whipped around. “You hear that?” she said. “They’re here! They’re here!”
Before Maura could react, May Keane backed up, scraping her chair on the wood floor.
Maura winced and followed her to the door, inadvertently catching a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror. With the rings under eyes and her black hair pulled back into a bun, she looked like a nun.
“It’s a man,” May Keane said. She was on her tiptoes peering through the peephole. “I think it’s your guy.”
“My guy?” Maura asked.
“Your guy who lives here,” May Keane said.
“I don’t have a guy anymore,” Maura said. Howard had left her for his malnourished, bucktoothed secretary. It was a pathetic story, so cliché that when people asked what happened, she lied rather than tell them the stupid, sordid truth.
May Keane opened the door, and of course, there was no one there. But Maura’s heart had done a little flip as the door swung open, and she immediately chastised herself for having any anticipation at all at the thought of seeing Howard.
“Come in, come in,” May Keane said, waving an unseen person into the room. “Have a seat in the dining room. The meeting is just about to start. Isn’t it great to see him!” she said, as she passed Maura on her way back to the dining room.
“Who?” Maura asked.
“Your man! Your man!” May Keane said.
“My man is not my man any longer,” Maura said. “He lives in Texas.”
“So, what are you doing here in Michigan?” May Keane said to the empty dining room chair where the imaginary man was presumably just taking a seat.
She cocked her head and listened for a minute. Then turned back to Maura and whispered, “Who’s he talking to on that cell phone anyway? Seems to me he ought to pay more attention to the people standing right in front of him, you know?”
Maybe May Keane had picked up on Howard’s cell phone addiction; maybe she had been watching her neighbors more closely than Maura had realized. If she’d known that, she definitely would have shelled out money for the expensive plantation shutters.
May Keane sat down at the dining room table and looked over at the spot where invisible Howard was sitting. Maura looked down at her watch. Fifteen minutes until Suzanne rescued her. She really wanted to get that laundry done. After that, her plan had been to finish re-grouting the basement bathroom shower stall. It had been an ambitious undertaking for one day, even without an interruption of this magnitude.
“Oh! There goes the door again!” May Keane said, popping up.
“I don’t hear it,” Maura said, then remembered Suzanne had warned against insisting on reality.
May Keane hurried to the door and looked through the peephole.
“Good God!” she cried, flinging the door open.
“Who’s there?” Maura asked.
May Keane didn’t respond. She gaped open mouthed at the door. Then she stepped aside and waved another hallucination into the room.
“Who’s there?” Maura asked again.
“Stedman forgot to let the dogs out,” May Keane whispered to Maura. “That’s why she’s late.”
“Oprah?” Maura asked, stifling a short, nervous giggle.
May Keane put her arm up in midair, around what she must have believed to be a shoulder. “I watched you every day, Oprah,” she said. “Every single day. Why’d you go off the air? Huh?”
When they reached the dining room, May Keane pointed to one of the empty chairs.
“Maura’s man! Maura’s man! Hey you! Get off that phone! Oprah’s here!”
May Keane pulled out a chair. “Would you like me to get some coffee?” she said to the empty seat. She cocked her head then turned to Maura.
“She doesn’t drink coffee. Do you have some peppermint tea?”
Maura nodded and headed to the kitchen. Once there, she stood next to the oven. She felt a bead of sweat trickle down her back. She thought about a church she’d read about in Belgium designed with thin sheets of steel to give the illusion of transparence. When viewed from different angles, the church disappeared completely. The architects said they were exploring the idea that not seeing something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Perhaps they’d like to hear May Keane’s thoughts on that.
“Doorbell!” May Keane shouted.
Maura didn’t move.
“I’ll get it!” May Keane called.
Finally, the thought that May Keane might actually be dangerously unstable and burst through the swinging door with a weapon propelled Maura forward.
She peeked into the foyer where May Keane was once again on tiptoes at the peephole.
“Holy Mother of God!” May Keane shouted. “It’s Thomas Jefferson! Come quick! Come quick!”
Maura continued through the swinging door pretending to carry a tea set into the room.
“Thanks so much for bringing the tea.” May Keane pointed to the table. “Just set it down right there.”
Feeling foolish, Maura pretended to put the tray down in front of May Keane.
“Help yourselves everyone,” May Keane said in a high formal voice before turning to the empty seat to her left.
“I really like those pantaloons and that cravat,” she said. Then she waggled a finger at Maura. “Sit down. We can’t start without you.”
Maura hesitated. She wasn’t sure where all the people in May Keane’s mind were sitting. Finally, she chanced a chair on the far left.
“Thomas Jefferson! Holy shit,” May Keane said. She nodded a couple of times as if in answer to something, then got up and moved to the chair at the end of the table.
Once there, she pounded on the table.
“Excuse me, madam,” she said in a low gravelly voice. “I’ve been called to this gathering and have traveled a great distance to be here.”
Maura glanced at her watch. Five minutes until Suzanne returned.
“Who is leading this meeting?” May Keane called out. She looked at Maura, then cocked her head again.
“Your man says he doesn’t have all day,” she said.
Maura grimaced as if she’d actually heard him. Get those kids in gear! I don’t have all day. Forget your hair. I don’t have all day.
“This small girl cannot be the leader of the movement,” May Keane said in her Thomas Jefferson voice, pointing at Maura. Then she jumped up and moved to the Oprah chair, where she shouted back in a higher voice. “She can be the leader and she is! She is!”
Maura tried to inhale, but it felt like she was sucking through a cocktail straw.
“Your man says he hopes marriage is not on the agenda. What do you have to say to that?” Her eyes narrowed as she waited for Maura to respond.
“I am honored to have you all here,” Maura said.
May Keane got back up and moved into Jefferson’s seat. She banged on the table again. “As our enemies have found, we can reason like men, so now let us show them we can fight like men also.” Then she bolted up and walked stiffly over to the window where she stood staring out at the empty street. She clasped her hands behind her back in a stance that really did remind Maura of an elder statesman. Maura remembered a quote she’d once read from Thomas Jefferson: “Architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.”
“The question is,” May Keane shouted, turning away from the window. “Are we going to participate in the politics of cynicism or the politics of hope?” She walked purposefully to Maura and clapped her on the back. Maura felt her heart catapult into her mouth.
May Keane strode back around to the other side of the table, sat down, and took a BIC pen out of her purse. Then she began furiously scribbling on the thick protective pad covering the mahogany dining room table. When she was done, she cleared her throat.
“I have drawn a smiley face,” she said, looking at Maura.
Maura stared at her.
“Hold the applause,” May Keane said. Then her mouth opened into a big O again. She turned to Maura.
“Your man is saying that you are fat!”
Maura said nothing. In truth, weight was the least of his complaints. He’d called her old, ugly, done in. He’d told her he was more attracted to the cat. The last time Maura had left the house was the day her friend Carol had taken her to Nordstrom to have a makeover. When the makeup artist was working on her, Maura had made what she’d thought were just a few harmless self-deprecating remarks about how much she hated her crow’s feet and her neck and her jowls. Finally, the girl had put down her makeup brush and put a hand on either side of Maura’s face.
“Get a grip!” she said. “You’re beautiful!”
Carol had nodded in agreement. Instead of inspiring Maura, the speech had done the opposite. Every time she’d tried to leave the house since, she heard the words in her head—get a grip.
May Keane stood up and pounded on the table. “We have real enemies in this world. These enemies must be found. They must be pursued, and they must be destroyed.”
“I don’t know if we need to go that far,” Maura said.
“Change will not come if we wait,” May Keane shouted. “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for. We are the ones we seek.” She walked over to the empty seat and simulated picking something up. “Let’s go, Mister,” she said.
Maura watched as May Keane made yanking motions. She dug her heels in and leaned back. She tried to scoot the chair out, to no avail. She looked like she was playing tug-of-war. She wiped her brow and said, “Whew!” over and over again.
In May Keane’s mind, there was an enormous immovable object in the chair where Howard once sat. How many nights had Maura sat across from him, wishing him gone? How had she forgotten that?
May Keane slumped over on the floor breathing loudly, then she wiped off her hands and kicked the chair over.
“Ya! Ha!” she yelled. She took hold of the imaginary object and began dragging it backwards toward the door. If May Keane had been on TV and only her face were visible, Maura would have been convinced she was straining to lift a piano.
Maura stood up. “Let me help you with that.”
Kelly Fordon is the author of an award-winning short story collection, Garden for the Blind (Wayne State University Press, 2015); a poetry chapbook, The Witness, which won the Eric Hoffer Award for the Chapbook; and a poetry collection, Goodbye Toothless House.
Music by Catlofe