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in Fiction/Issue Two

There are no rooms, no houses, no neighborhoods or cities to which you can escape. The lack is in the mind and it can’t be filled. The third-floor apartment underneath the 4th Avenue flyover overlooking the man asleep in the alley, is the same as the Upper West Side apartment, is the same as the four-bedroom ranch-style in Houston. It is an ugly world, and the only love to be found comes from stumbling backward into some.

This is a story about hope.

Bathrobes are for widows and sexual predators. This bathrobe is standing in my doorway, shuffling worn slippers on the third-floor carpet. She gives me a red velvet cupcake baked by her granddaughter whom she raises when her daughter cannot. She is not beautiful, in age or in defeat. She is not worried or broken. She is a woman who has lived a life and found herself in a Bridgeland apartment underneath the flyover to downtown.

“My granddaughter loves to bake. I told her we were baking for you today. It’s red velvet.”

The absence of her top two teeth is marked by a few vertical creases from her upper lip to her nostrils. We are friends because I hold the door for her when she comes back from the gas station with milk.

She leans to the left, looks into my apartment, down the hallway. “My friend lived in there for 15 years, you know. She got too sick to take care of herself. She’s in a home in Bowness now.”

“Thank you,” I say. I can’t remember her name so I ask what red velvet is.

“I don’t really know,” she says. “My granddaughter is in grade four.”

“That’s great.”

“I take care of her now and then.”

“I hope she likes it.” I mean both grade four and being cared for.

The conversation evaporates, turns into the dust, becomes grime in the grout between the cinderblocks.

“Well, thank you again,” I say and slowly close the door on her. She leans her head in pace with my slow closing, chasing the longest possible look down my hall.

I have moved in defeat and fear so often and so quickly there is nothing left. The apartment is empty. There is a twin bed and a desk in a bedroom. Though I am capable of great affectation, this is just an empty life. I don’t have it in me to hold onto objects. My head though–I count the bumps in the textured bedroom ceiling to fall asleep. It is the least harmful way to collapse.

There are two girls, my daughters, in a condo up by Nosehill, an ugly park with an ugly name – a blank mound of prairie above the important parts of Calgary. It is nature’s ugly, but the subdivisions crushed up to and surrounding it are the city’s brand of one-upmanship, a competition between Calgary and God for oblivion.

In Houston, in a bed, I woke in the night, dog, cat, first baby, wife in a king-size bed I could never to seem to afford new sheets for, afraid that I could not save anything wrapped in those sheets.

What needed saving? Another daughter born, a relationship that wasn’t even comfort, just a destructive distraction from the general terror. So many years later, I am thankful to her for leaving because I did not have the guts to do it myself. What’s worse, learning the evil you’re capable of or learning the misery you’re willing to receive?

But there are two girls. What to say, that I love them, that I seek to protect? That they bring joy, make me smile, that I like to watch them watch the world? That I can imagine future heartbreaks and disappointment and that it hurts me? There are no new ways to say I am thankful for their living in this world and also fear the possibilities of those lives.

Red velvet cupcake on the counter by the sink. The forks and spoons are in the drawer with the checkbook and the junk mail. The man asleep in the alley hasn’t moved since my first cigarette. Red Velvet cupcake on the counter by the sink. Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side. Take a shower, get ready.

In time, my girls will ask me questions about what I did and didn’t do and why: life, divorce, moves and money. I make most choices today based on those coming questions. But the money is gone, the career is gone – too many moves. Can I say it? Would they believe me? Is it true? I followed them as far as I could: to Calgary, and when they moved to Edmonton, I simply could not go. To live for anyone else is bankruptcy – moral, emotional, financial. So the girls are in Edmonton and I am in Bridgeland.

They have visited. Spent the night on the floor between comforters left over from previous moves. Hearts and circles on one, birds on the other. We woke and walked to Luke’s Drugmart. They found a $35 candle. I told them to put it back. They have been to dozens of Broadway shows; their playground was all of Central Park. In Bridgeland, the candles cost too much.

The apartment is empty, but the mirrored medicine cabinet is newly full. Toothbrushes, Scope, Crest 3D Whitening, baking soda. The fight against coffee, nicotine, age, and poverty rages. What does my mouth smell like? What does it taste like? I’m too old to taste like candy, and did I ever? After the first tooth brushing, floss, then mouthwash, then the electric toothbrush. It is an extravagance, scrub the tongue, reveal the flesh under the cigarette film. Rooftop Reds are really American Marlboroughs, they tell me. If it is a lie, it is one I am still willing to believe. Mouthwash again. Exeunt.

I walk to the living room window naked, but the nearest neighbor’s window is across an alley and a parking lot. A bottle picker pushes his cart down the alley, past the sleeping man. I think to bag the empties and toss them to him from the balcony, but I am naked and so instead take a few steps back from the window. Your innocence is intact! Bottle picker! You have been saved! At what cost?! Cans!

I contemplate the phone, study the man asleep under the power pole. I mark the location of his socked foot, stripes, against a stain on the fence. He may not have moved in four hours. If you aren’t moving by 6 PM, I will save or bury you. There was a time when I didn’t understand people who drank alone, and then suddenly there was a time when I did.

The Starbucks down the alley across Edmonton Trail is filled with the men that eventually turn into bottle pickers and alley sleepers. They come from the Drop-In and Rehab Centre across the river, across Langevin Bridge, but they still own something that connects to free wifi.

If you tell a lover you cannot offer anything other than what is already known, they won’t believe you. That’s just how love works, it is the lie of possibilities.

The shopping cart rests in front of the dumpster in the alley. The bottle picker has strung a blanket between the dumpster and the fence leaning around it. He stands behind the blanket. His naked arms stretch above to the sky, not a sun or a moon, just all of it. The arms descend below the blanket. The hands return, one splays and stretches, feeling its limit, and the hand holding the shirt flicks the cloth carelessly over the fence into the alley. This scene is not possible without a Chinook coming warm off the Rockies. A car will pass soon to press the shirt into the dirty pavement, and Edmonton Trail does not end in Edmonton, but only a few more miles down the road in an industrial park on McKnight Boulevard.

I have seen that free form of undressing before. A younger body in a northern California mountain stream. Skinny-dipping! Goddamned skinny-dipping. There are free moments in life – but night kept coming and it gets cold in the mountains. It’s 5 PM, the bottle picker and I making moves. But I am the only one with a cupcake.

Oh, but it wasn’t a promise to the girls, just a hint of one. Does that make breaking it the larger sin?

Attack the hair – a hair attack! Run clippers with a #1 comb across the scalp, #2 for the mustache, a smaller machine for the ears, nose, and the wisps that big brother didn’t remove on the shiny runway down the middle of my skull. Not a lot of gray here, but not a lot of hair either. It is possible that I have more hair on my ass than on my head.

 

I take off my glasses to shave my head, am blind and so just close my eyes and run the machine erratically. Like life, the only method is the sheer amount of time spent on the endeavor. If you run a machine across your scalp for ten minutes, what could possibly remain? If you live too long, what is there left to believe in? Black hairs collect on the vanity and in the basin, they stick to toothpaste stuck beside the faucet.

I believe that I have unnaturally dirty ears.

Zits and fingers. The hunt for blackheads, white heads. Running a finger over little hills not yet discolored topography. Fewer now at 43 than 16. Though, not quite as loud as then, they still sing to me. You’re a little bit ugly. In the mirror, I hum back. Keep on the sunny side always on the sunny side. Fuck you, zits.

“You have questions. I have answers. You may not like them, and they may not be right. But I want to try and answer them,” I’d proclaim in the car just after pickup on visitation Saturdays. In those first Saturday morning minutes, I am false confidence, a lecturing adult cloaked in certainty because to show them what I don’t know is also a form of abuse, perhaps. Do I drive them to an empty apartment and point out the living room window? See that man asleep in the alley? I don’t know how not to become him. My father died a homeless alcoholic at 53. There is no strong reason to believe that I will become homeless. But if I can make it to 53 indoors and sober, that may be a simple, beautiful win. I can’t imagine they need to hear that.

So many face-to-face fights, so many phone fights, so many fights in front of the girls. So many accusations – all sprouted from fact. But they grew into a rain forest I couldn’t navigate. Why do I refuse to get a good job, they ask. It’s because I don’t want one, I know they’ve been told. Do I explain the price of a barrel of oil and its impact on a vulnerable economy to a 10 and an 8 year old?

One kind of question at one time so close to being able to be asserted: will you date – will you marry? “Marry” held so long and lifted so high in unison it sounded like “merry.” Little girls and their obsession with pairing off! I gave an honest answer: I couldn’t think of anything more frightening. I still can’t.

And finally, “why won’t you move with us to Edmonton?” But the answer isn’t because I don’t love you, and any conversation that starts from there is as incomprehensible as the world.

Trim the pubic hair? Groom the netherworld? For what? A few gray sons of bitches! Fuck you pubes! I can be cruel to myself, but not that cruel. This may be a cemetery, but I am no groundskeeper. Unruly bush, you remain!

A shower to stop the neck from itching and to soften the fingernails. They grow in spurts, I am certain. I will throw them on a spreadsheet and measure, but how? Day One: Cut. Day Two: Long. Day Three: Longer. Day Four: A little longer. Day ?: Too fucking long. And I disappear in showers. The heat, the water raining down and then steaming up, I am gone for twenty minutes. Not happy, absent. Dry off standing in the tub and then sit on the toilet seat to cut fingernails. In grade ten, a cheerleader told me while I was getting my ankles taped for basketball that I had ugly feet. I have not owned them since.

Sometimes, you don’t get to choose what you’re going to carry. So when you do get to, and if you can, put that shit down. Is that advice or child abuse? And, Jesus Christ, what’s safe to pick up? This life cannot be about avoidance, and it is 6 PM.

Dress. Keys. Finally, a spin around the apartment checking the emptiness for what might be forgotten. Window. The sleeping man is gone. He lives. Good luck, brother. The changing man, the dumpster man, the bottle picker is gone. His cart remains. He has hung a painting on the fence. I threw it in the dumpster yesterday. Left over from the last tenant, it had leaned against my small fridge for four months. Nothing special about it. It was a painting an old woman would have and couldn’t give away or keep when she went to the home in Bowness. The skinny dipper didn’t want it but has found a place for it.

Lock the door, down the steps, into November. Into the Tucson, bought for transporting girls on Saturdays. Down the alley, across Edmonton Trail North to Edmonton Trail South. It is just dark enough that the street lights are on. Right on Memorial, keep it slow under the bluff, no time for the radio. There is no courage there. Red light under the Centre Street Bridge, guarded by lions. There are lions in stories that I have read in pleasure and terror. Sunnyside Bank Park, the war Memorial. Crosses and stars in rows by the road. They are lit by portable flood lights hooked to generators, fenced temporarily in orange plastic netting. A passing wall of ugly, and behind: Cops, soldiers, Girl Guides, families milling.

Right on 5A street. To the end past the rink. Then left on 3rd, row houses, hundred-year old temporary worker’s houses. A bike on the roof of one. Bought cheap in the 70s and 80s, occupied by those who loved the neighbourhood enough not to sell in rising markets. The next block, the south side, an entire block filled with apartment buildings. Someone died, someone sold and the wood-framed houses toppled into brick apartments. But the neighborhood is not yet lost. Past 7th to the even numbered side of the street. Park in a spot for what, the seventh time? Turn off the car, close the door, up the steps. The light is on in the kitchen, candles in the living room. Take the steps quiet enough to prevent the dog from barking. Knock because there isn’t a bell. The dog barks. Waiting for the opening door. Waiting, waiting and then I say, “I’ve been thinking about this all day.”


Mike Jones is a short story writer living in Calgary. He’s working on a new collection of stories, wondering what he learned from trying to write the last collection.

UPON READING FUKUYAMA’S LINE //THE END OF HISTORY WILL BE A VERY SAD TIME// by Michael Sheehan

in Fiction/Issue Two

My house, this place and body,

I’ve come in mourning to be born in.

– Wm. H. Gass

//CONSEQUENTLY EVERY HUMAN ACTION//

The last attack was a mall; now this nail parlor they were talking about in those studio-hushed tones on the commute news. Pixelated images of lines of ducked heads crossing a strip mall parking lot appeared and then dissolved on the windshield’s lower right frame[1]. Police were saying the shooter was no threat to the public, that the shooter was dead, that the shooter had shot himself and three others, not in that order, killing two and seriously injuring a third.

The commute was slowed because of lane closures, which MTRAK[2] called “routine maintenance” on the windshield’s lower left. Canton’s car jerked, stuttered, like a hitch in the invisible chain pulling him to work. He looked up from his synthetic cappuccino. SAMi said, “I’m sorry. It is a bit bumpy.” The words “Poor Connection” flashed briefly onscreen.

“It’s fine,” Canton said.

“I’m sorry. I could not understand what you said.”

“Nothing.”

“I’m sorry. I could not understand what you said.”

He knew better than to repeat it. There was another jerk in the car’s forward motion, and he could see looking out that the cars around him were, in uneven rhythm, stuttering forward as well. The images on the screen briefly froze and the music slipped into a pulse’s repeated beat, a stuck note. The revolution of a white rectangle—followed by the ring of fading remnants—around a circle indicated the system’s brief buffer, then his personalized playlist resumed.

Canton tapped on the screen, swiped left, left, right, brought up the picture of his wife, Antietam, and their son Raleigh, the two of them beneath cherry blossoms, Antietam holding him up, his pudgy wristrolls, his hand reaching up to touch and crush and tear away the synthetic sakura petals, the Obama Monument out of focus in the background.

It was easy to love a picture, to tap the throbbing heart icon along the picture’s frame, to proclaim his feelings on social media, but it was harder to love the reality behind or outside this image. Things between he and Antietam had been strained since Raleigh’s birth, the easy independence they’d had before had become a tense need for each other, a sometimes bitter resentment of the other’s even momentary freedom. They were tired all the time, and Raleigh was nearly 18 months old now. After Antietam started sending him links to listicles with titles like “Ten Things You Need to do to Save Your Marriage After Children,” and “The Five Things Divorced Couples Say They Wish They’d Done,” and “The 52 Most Important Steps to Being Happy Parents,” they had agreed six weeks ago to take a test online that would tell them how in sync they were across various datapoints: wants, needs, goals, values, triggers, regrets, hopes, dreams, wishes, emotions, and love language. The test was multiple choice, with questions either vague or narrowly specific and boxes you could tap and fill with a glowing checkmark.

They had scored terribly.

Their wants and needs were unfit and unmet; their hopes, goals, dreams, and wishes were aimed in opposite directions; their triggers overlapped slightly, but were linked to different particular parts of their daily lives and routine; their regrets and emotions had the most overlap, but still their score was only in the 80th percentile for compatibility; they spoke different love languages. They had no recent intimacy, no shared affection, no postparenthood sex. Their financial statuses were similar but how they felt about their statuses differed.

For almost a week after they’d sat side by side tapping checkmarks and discovering they were far apart in all the ways that counted, they didn’t speak or communicate other than terse texts and sporadic snaps about renewing the ecodiaper subscription and downloading an app that could quantize Raleigh’s growth rate. But then Antietam started sending him links to articles with titles like “Recovering Romance,” and “Ten Tips to Improve Your Love Life After Children,” and “What Couples Who’ve Stayed Together for 30 Years Say is the Key to Their Happiness (Hint: Sex),” and “Positions for Parents NSFW,” and “Sex After Children, A Primer.”

So without needing or wanting to say more or discuss it too directly (for fear of thereby ruining the emergent intimacy in its infancy), Canton sent her a calendar invite to “watch Solaris,” which had once long ago been their secret code for sex when within earshot of roommates. She accepted the request, he ordered an ubersitter, opentabled an 8pm at LeuvenSpoonful, her favorite Belgian bistro, and after sharing two 75cl bottles of Brasserie de Rochefort (a red-capped 6 they were not that into and a green-capped 8 they both enjoyed), they slipped out of their street clothes and into their oculi rifts and had intercourse for several minutes before falling asleep.

Her watch alerted her the next morning that she was pregnant, but she didn’t say anything. Though she didn’t know it, Canton had linked their healthstats (a privacy setting of their healthbook profiles), and so, sitting in his car his watch notified him of her labwork’s results, congratulated him on the happy news. Forget that it was illegal to have two children without a religious exemption, this was a Trojan horse they’d unknowingly downloaded in their attempt to troubleshoot their marriage’s post-progeny bugs.[3] They were trying to alter the algorithm that found Canton was not the answer to Antietam’s search, and vice versa. They wanted to get out ahead of the autocomplete that negged their unasked question, “what happens after?”[4]

And so how would they face the fact of this future?

Despite the abnormal system glitches and turbulence, he arrived and SAMi slotted the smartcar into his assigned space and he stepped onto the peoplemover and then elevated to his office.

 

//FROM SOME ACT OF THE IMAGINATION//

Canton’s building, albeit unfinished, was the third living building to be installed in the National Harbor. Tiktaalik rose out of the harbor’s water—which it fed off for energy and which it also dynamically responded to as sea levels rose over time, its supports a sort of proto-leg that could extend, raising or lowering the building’s harbor-edge—several stories into the sky where its feathers and fins circulated to capture wind and condensation, its solar scales sucking up what sun there was when there was sun. Though the building boasted an alien vision of the city’s space, his company’s offices within it were obscenely atavistic, structured and run like 19th century clerk’s offices, where the fe/male and agender employees were stationed at smartdesks not near windows—the building’s solar efficiency meant no natural light made it in during daylight hours; the sui generis power lit phosphorescent wall panels instead all along the terra nullius out beyond the company’s quadrangle footage—and expected to arrive and work an eight-hour shift despite years of research and studies and advocacy that the 21st century economy made most sense when based on digital workspaces, flexible time, a multi-device driven interface across employees without corporate overhead or polluting commute mileage, etc. Nonetheless, the baseline expectation was a minimum of 24 and an average of 32 hours a week in the office at the desk, though Canton would’ve preferred not to.

There was a persistent piss-inducing burble from the aquaponic and the hydroponic elements of the building, which were integrated into the open spaces of the building and so were pretty much all throughout the areas Canton passed to get to his desk. There were, as yet, no fish or plants being farmed here, since the design was still not fully constructed; it was just water circulating in tanks within the walls. The building’s feathers and fins were static and harvested nothing thus far. It was a big, expensive, strange structure that mostly sat functionless and awaited funding.

 

#thesiege had reached Canton’s office sometime during the night. Their servers had been surrounded by ransomware, all their information held hostage, and so there was no work to be done all morning as Canton sat near the streaming screens[5] that paralleled the ribbons of bioluminescent flora as a transhuman team of network security was google-eyed with diligent coding, trying to break through, to reach the imperiled information, their magnetic-implanted fingers spasming slightly over screens like they were tapping invisible strings, vibrating messages through air and space. Most of the time these magnetic fingers were only useful for collecting paperclips and sensing the grid yawing through the walls, or so they’d tell you, the ecolectricity and the quantalytics humming in the air above. As for the origins of #thesiege, pretty much it was anyone’s guess. Divine dispensation was almost as likely as the Chinese government or like some zombified noname working for hourly wages in a squat Russian office park someplace.

Because the bioluminescent lighting took time to glow and gradually increased in intensity during the day, the first notice was what seemed to be slight blurring or marking, spotting, blemishes on the walls’ bioglow. This made the process of revelation that much more mysterious, as it seemed almost as if the figures and the text were emerging, the words being written, the images being drawn. The walls themselves were alive and so it should not have been possible to write on them, to change the uniformity of their luminescent emissions, but there it was: scribbled, repetitive drawings of horses, of hyena, aurochs, of even a megaloceros, lines and lines to convey motion, strings of dots or maybe a primitive star chart, an exacting simulacra of Lascaux or so it seemed, and then one floor up and on the other side of Tiktaalik’s living lobby the blemishes resolved into trim lines then into letters in a fine, digital font, words sprawling across and down and all over the wall’s evolving light:

//All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?//

Elsewhere arose:

//Whoever is the wisest among you is also a mere conflict and cross between plant and ghost.//

And then the third emergent bit of bioluminescent blemish read:

//What does your body proclaim of your soul? Is not your soul poverty and filth and wretched contentment?//

Finally, the dying light spelled out:

//The last man lives longest.//

It was viral, whatever it was. Language as infestation, some sort of deep hack, a malware, an expedited process of evolution, history rearising. But how did they hack the organisms living in the walls? How did they infect this pure and simple ecology with the memory of human progress?

It had to be part of #thesiege[6], though nothing like it had ever been described in other attacks. Any answer other than that was, well, what could it be?

 

//LANGUAGE IS A VIRUS FROM OUTER SPACE//

Though at first it was open to everyone, the Deep Space Initiative had had to put a filter in place after the crash. Like any AI or bot or open comment stream[7], trolls had porned it up, clogged the intended message with hatespeech and rape threats, violent historical references reduced to abstractions—Hitler, Nazi, ISIS, KKK—that for whatever reason still held power. So they threw all of those messages out and invited the public to create an account and apply to have his/her message included, and then only after a multi-step user identification process and a couple layers of content screening could any hoi polloi project his/her voice out on the unmanned probe in the hope that someone would find the simple mechanism that would contain the millions of messages from Earth and be able to access its information. The idea was an update or a reboot of the Voyager Golden Record, but democratized and crowd-sourced and crowd-funded, since there was no longer any federal support for space missions, especially those that merely acted as a time capsule. The messages would be transmittable in Morse, in all the world’s active languages (and two or three dead ones), and in binary[8]. It was maybe a ploy, since all visitors to DSI’s site were repeatedly offered the chance to donate to the mission and help DSI launch the Salviati probe and there was no guarantee—in any meaningful sense—that any message would ever actually be included, or even really that there was any rocket with the technological capability to make the trip. Sitting at work, holding a multiverse inside, chaos, a dancing star, unable to express it or ever explain it to any other person, Antietam got a link in a msg from her coworker, and shortly thereafter donated to the mission, sending first the equivalent of $3, or 3USDE, via Ethereum and then 5USDE and then 3USDE again. What she found was it wasn’t about the message being delivered, ever being received—because there was that issue, too, the overwhelmingly remote possibility that the universe contained any thing at all that was capable of hearing her voice in any language many years from now across a great distance—but really just the expression, the telling. The compressed recording of her voice, along with who knows how many others, would be adrift for tens of thousands of years before it passed by the nearest star. By the time any being could be believed to find it, the recordings would be from long-dead persons of a probably long-dead civilization, but still it was an attractive idea. She couldn’t help herself. It was, for one thing, a deeply hopeful act, a statement of her belief in the existence of a future, even if one she wasn’t in and would never know. But she wanted to believe. She wanted to believe. She wanted to believe.

 

 

//STANDING APART FROM THE GENUS OF MORAL ACTIONS //

By the afternoon of #thesiege, even the streaming screens were glitching. They could do no work. Then, right before rush hour, three suicide bombers hit DCA, which meant no street traffic within a two-mile radius of the Capitol and the White House, no Metro, flights redirected to Dulles and BWI and beyond. Canton was stuck on the George W Bush Parkway, with glitchy service compounding the traffic overloading the MTRAK and causing large-scale system crashes. His car had not moved more than a few feet at a time in the last half an hour.

He tried to send a message to Antietam, telling her how he was stuck and would be late because: bombing. The progress bar stayed stuck at around 80% along the bottom of the windshield; finally the words “Message send failure” flashed across his screen.

The luminous golden dome of a Scientology Temple hung like a gibbous moon above the tops of trees. It was easy to mistake its shape for a mosque, though there were no more mosques other than in ruins in images out of the caliphate or on the Arabian peninsula.

You couldn’t help but think sometimes that these transit bombings and attacks were less about the immediate impact and more about shutting down the whole system for a day or more. It’d be curfews and no public gatherings, business closures all over town, etc. The transit hits seemed more systemic than personal, despite the high tally of in-situ casualties.

His only choice other than a night in the narrow swivel seat at the center of the smartcar was to take the car offline and try to selfdrive it via surfaceroutes. He restarted the car and began navigating it along the wide rim of the MTRAK and finally down the steep ramp. Now that he was down on the ground below the compression on the MTRAK, he slowly piloted the smartcar across the rutted debris and through empty streets. He had selfdriven before, but never in this area, never so close to his office. He continued on along the broken roads until he saw rising before him the grim skeleton of Bezos Stadium, the coliseum shape of it, grayblack against the dull sky. Matte striations of filtered light slipped through the spiral parking structure that had been built beside it in an age of optimism and dumb profiteering. Concrete columns intersected the rays of grainy light beneath a low, flat ceiling that pressed down, seeming to occlude the sky, the horizon available as a dissipating edge, where the light blurred into nothing.

He was headed home to Antietam, to Raleigh, and to the potentiality inside her. But there was more than system glitches acting as impediment: the data had said they were not a match. When they looked at the hard, quantified, measurable reality, they were not supposed to be sharing any life together, and there was no future for them to grow into. They could do a deeper dive into the data but it didn’t seem like that would matter. He knew this was irrefutable, was solid as anything around him right then, that when they stacked their individual data side by side the answer was plain: there should be no them, they should not be together (married or as parents), someone had to act responsibly in the light of the data they’d already received and so it should be him and so he should leave—but he didn’t want to. The truth of their incompatibility was as evident as the massive concrete shape he’d pulled up alongside, and maybe all the Message Send Failures were fate signaling to him, but for no reason he knew he felt a push against it inside, a welling up of something that seemed only capable of saying no.

No.

It was an impossible position, to know what was right and yet to not will it.

He was only able to get the smartcar up the first two floors of the garage before its heat sensor showed red and he had to stop. He walked the third and fourth spirals, walked out finally onto the roof and into the olivaceous sunshine. From here, Canton could see the ruin of the east, the renatured north, the turbulent sea to the south. A flock of birds was disturbed out of the wilds where the National Arboretum once was, the collapsed capitol columns somewhere in that overwhelming green, that vast reclaimed landscape bracketing the busted beltway, the neighborhoods fallen into the void, somewhere sunk in the understory.

This was the province of the poor in all its reality. He had many times heard what the lives of those in the ex-exurbs were like, left out in the storms that passed and ravaged, but here he could see the tops of the trees that shaded them, if anyone really lived out there at all.

It was strange. There was no noise. There were sounds, but there was no noise.

The river people on the Anacostia, if there were really any left there after the floods, were nowhere to be seen. The only sign of them was a desolate kibasha that floated gracefully in a calm pocket of the water’s whitecaps near the wooded shore of Kingman Island. The wilds continued as far as he could see, encircling the enclave that is DC, demarcating it from the corrupted places far to the east occupied by those pushed past Fairlawn and Woodland and Skyland and out toward Lincoln Cemetery and beyond[9], along the edge of the District’s diamond shape, past the irregularly tall boundary stone, one of the final markers of the map which was completed in 1791 and whose history, albeit overgrown and forgotten, was still signified by these hidden, dirty pillars.

He could see, too, to the south, the collapsed v of the Whitney Houston Memorial Bridge, the litter of shattered stone that was the congressional cemetery, and he could see the smoke still rising over DCA.

And there was Tiktaalik, an enclosed and isolate ecosystem, an anthroposystem, a holon. Since construction on it first began, where Buzzard Point Park had been, the shore had receded far enough that now it looked as if its body were poised out over the water, it looked as if it were walking into the waves, returning to the water, abandoning life on land.

 

ENDOSYMBIOSIS

“You can’t have two at a time,” the waitress, Daytona, said. “You need to either finish that one or I can take the bottle.”

“I can’t just order another now?”

“It’s the law.”

“Here,” he finished his draft Moon Shot hefeweizen obscenely in front of her. “Sorry about that.” He offered her the glass.

“So you do want another one then?”

The models advertising Vitalis are arranged around the Oscar-winning actor who played Batman in one of the many bad versions, though he won the Oscar for his role as the shipcaptain taken hostage by Libyan pirates in the Mediterranean, who on screen was cold and steely-eyed and outlasted their graphically-depicted torture until a Special Ops team in Mesa Verde and a quartet of synced drones over open ocean had executed the pirates with simultaneous headshots, only wounding the captain in his chest, neck, arm, and leg (though in reality the captain reported his captors had treated him with almost deference, that he had seen in them a crushed humanity, the result of the world’s depraved indifference toward their extreme poverty and the violence that had ravaged them and their families and communities in the years since the Arab Spring, that he had felt the dramatic dronestrike that had saved him was an illustration of the problem, the distance that allowed us to be so uncaring and detached from the real lives of these very desperate men), but the models are laughing and drinking (one a highball, one a snifter, one a beer, one a bourbon, one a champagne flute, one a German stein, one a weighty wine goblet, one a fusion cocktail) as the Oscar-winning actor described the benefits of Vitalis, ending on the dubious but repeated tagline, //Live. Forever.//

“Yeah, that’s why I,” but she cut him off and turned back toward the circular bar with its faux-wood trim and the stadium-style three-sided chandelier of curved screens, each showing a different sport’s game. Canton’s line of sight was almost directly centered on the asymptotic edge where two screens never quite converged; he could see a flattened basketball game’s flurried progress into the fourth quarter and a Holbein’s skull of a classic tennis match, the 2008 Wimbledon final. Drafts were 1.99USDE and the frozen breaded cheddar-stuffed jalapenos were half a dozen for 3USDE. A newsfeed crawled across the two screens describing another passenger flight hacked by cyberterrorists and crashed into the Indian Ocean.

After standing on the stadium and surveying the lost landscape of the north and the east, Canton selfdrove in no particular direction, trying to let the surfaceroutes lead him. They led him to It’s Always Five O’Clock Somewhere and its Happy 24Hour drink and app specials.

And what would he tell Antietam? Should he go home, face her, or should be begin to be gone? He didn’t have any sense any more what would happen when he left this bar. He was suppurating in a feeling he couldn’t quite pin down, that what he wanted was subsumed by the data, that his life from here out would only be ever more determined, his role in it ever more reactive, passive, a smartcar merely sensing objects and knowing when to stop or go, with no sense of itself outside of the system.

He was a body made of many moving parts, a complex system of chemical and biological interactions, all quantified and trackable, all datacaptured and uploaded to apps and enmeshed in the paradisal cloud, the #neverforgetting info atman; from the moment of birth onward he’d been an ecological site for whole eons of bacterial development; his CNS and skeletal architecture did the acting, the motion, the movement, kept his body motile in space. And here in the franchise bar in the strip mall just off the exit ramp from the MTRAK, this was his environment, his own ecological site, that on which he fed and drank, the light that helped him navigate, hid his shame, the circulated and temperature-controlled air he breathed and that allowed his business causal to be a comfortable second-skin. But where, exactly, was he? If his body could be quantified, both internally and externally, as integrally connected to a vast and depersonalized system, where exactly was what made him him? It was a stupid question, and he understood why they didn’t allow two beers at a time, for fear of soul-seeking, maybe, the tennis match long since ended with a collapse to court and a handshake, autographed balls being lobbed up into the stands, their luminous color tracing the arc of their disappearance.

And so then who was he? What did he want?

He did not want these discount beers, was only ordering to make himself feel like he was here at Happy 24Hour for a reason, making the best of bad traffic service and another system-failure-inducing strike but really each beer was a twofold way of not facing forward, not looking at himself in the Check-Ur-Self-B4-U-Wreck-Ur-Selfie™ mirror and not considering what was the future he wanted[10], what was the world he wanted to step out and into? And would he be able to shape that world or only ever be shaped by it?

 

//NOT A BODY, BUT THE ACT OF A BODY//

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//My unhappiness is like a lead apron laid upon my chest. The x-ray sees right through me, my alien bones, my glowing architecture, the self beneath my self, these lines of light, but no light gets through my unhappiness, no radiation, no feeling but the weight of it pressing down, a dark imprint against the light within me.//

//So much about my life feels already past, so little about the future feels like it is my own, like my will can do anything now but want.//

//And now: new life. I know it should be happy, but I can’t help feeling or fearing a displacement of my self. After Raleigh, I felt changed, like I subtended his self. I occupy the place between these two, one son born and another to come.//

//Law of identity: I can’t be two people in the same body. I can’t be different from myself and the same with another. Law of non-contradiction: I can’t be me and not me.//

//I am become nothing, nothing, nothing.//

//A whole soul growing inside me, my womb an ecosystem unto itself, sustaining life, but the dual nature of my soul’s self takes away from or dilutes me, I. My identity is twinned, is reliant, is aligned—a moon orbiting another life, governing its tides, and watching over it as it sleeps.//

//And why send these words to you at all? To have an impact on existence, project my words and my will outward, shape or at least smudge the future? Maybe a little. Even if far away, even if not for me. I wanted to think about a future, send a message out, not to my unborn son but a message of my own, private but preserved, a truth that may maybe never ever be heard, but one which would outlive me.//

//I can’t communicate it to Canton, can’t say how I feel, because how do you name this feeling? How do you reject the binary—mother/not mother, self/other—and occupy the space between? How can I quantify this love and this desire to assert my soul’s self against the pull of the waves washing over?//

//I heard an astronaut describe being in space, in total darkness, the complete lightlessness that must surround my voice now. These words, wherever and whenever they are, can become a part of everything. Forever free.//

//I can only imagine you,

can only believe

despite knowing better that

my words

can reach you, that

across time and

across distance

you and I

are

here

together,

connected,

these words are your words,

in your head,

whoever you are,

wherever you are,

whenever you are.

And maybe that is enough.//

 

 


 

Michael Sheehan has been an editor for DIAGRAM and was Editor in Chief of Sonora Review, where he curated a tribute to the work of David Foster Wallace. His work has appeared recently in Electric Literature, Agni, Mississippi Review, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere.

 


  1. In the screen’s lower left, the models are playing football, and as the speaker describes the side effects of Vitalis the one-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback zings a tight spiral up and out of frame before it descends neatly back into the hands of a body that crosses close in the forefront. The models rejoice in unconvincing bro dances. This is happiness? Adult men, men in their 30s at a minimum, the MVP himself probably 60 by now, these men gather in an urban park and zip passes at each other and grapple like linemen in their cotton shorts and unmarked sneakers? Huzzah, the models toss up their hands. Great catch the models might cry; great pass. It is a luxuriated image—this historyless propaganda, selling a nostalgia for a past and a present, neither of which exist—these models, this urbane setting, the idyll fantasy that a Super Bowl MVP quarterback would have a group of beautiful bros in workout clothes gather on Sundays to play touch football.
  2. “Invariable and uninterrupted service.”™
  3. if [every human action is an event]
    if [every event has a cause]
    }[every human action has a cause]
    if [every event with a cause = ¬free]
    }[human action = ¬free]
  4. what happens after death
    what happens after we die
    what happens after divorce
    what happens after love actually
    what happens after love never dies
  5. In a streaming window at the screen’s lower right, The Xtreme Rescue Team had roped up to climb the chiseled face of exposed granite that had once been deep under the glacier. The actual foot of the ice was someplace in a high fold between the choppy Himalayas, even smaller this year than last, which was maybe why the two tourists got trapped out there. They’d been on a Vanishing Ice day trip, which was only supposed to be a three hour tour, but somehow out on the ice things had gotten complicated and two days later, out of water and food, they were huddled together above the moulin the tour leader had disappeared down. It may have been an obvious mistake (made from too much comfort with the shifting landscape of ice, causing the Norwegian national to forget the ice did not consider itself a tourist destination) or something else; though the science wasn’t there to back it up, there were suggestions that the glacier had opened up beneath them or that it had widened rapidly, that the flow of the water through the picturesque Grand Canyon they’d hiked up to to take selfies by and which terminated in the abrupt descent at the mouth of the moulin had increased so much that the ice was melting off by the minute and the geography slipping and deflating and changing even as the tour guide had set his first cramponed foot down on the ledge above the water disappearing into the disappearing ice, to offer his guests a human-sized comparison for scale. When the XRT found them and interviewed them—on the ice for the effect of it, rather than just getting them down (because that was how the show imposed drama—and ad breaks) low enough to be loaded onto the Spinning Spool, which was a poorly-designed drone and no improvement on the helicopters it had replaced up at high altitude, since the spinning spools of its name and their flight’s reliance on the Magnus effect meant a pretty turbulent descent down and more often than not a crash landing—they described the accident as:
    TOURIST #1
    I didn’t see him fall.
    XRT [LAZER]
    Did he slip? He didn’t call out?
    XRT [TANK]
    Probably couldn’t hear him from this heighth. Height. Is it height or heighth?
    TOURIST #2
    It was like, he just blinked out. He was there and then he wasn’t there. Nothing else happened. He didn’t fall, he just, it was, he blinked out.
  6. By May of 1863, the citizens of Vicksburg, dug into their clay caves, were down to eating mules, horses, and dogs. Ulysses S. Grant, who successfully oversaw the siege, would later write “I now determined…to incur no more losses.”
  7. Decorated dickpicks and face swaps, twitter rants and twitter feuds and twitter storms and hacktivisim. Social media psychology experiments and hashtag activism, the balance between oligarchy and consumer culture, the myth of agency. Technology as inhibitor, technology as mass convenience, technology as infantilization, technology as facilitating passive response. Uploaded consciousness and the quantified self, the digital soul disembodied.
  8. After Antietam, a Proclamation:
    //  Whereas, на twentysecond день सितंबर के, in anno Domini un sol mil de vuit centenar de seixanta per i la de dos,
    מנשר הוצא
    من قبل الرئيس
    de los estados unidos, enthaltend, 다른 것들 사이, zifwatazo, 以机智:
    01010100 01101000 01100001 01110100 00100000 01101111 01101110 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01100110 01101001 01110010 01110011 01110100 00100000 01100100 01100001 01111001 00100000 01101111 01100110 00100000 01001010 01100001 01101110 01110101 01100001 01110010 01111001 00101100 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01111001 01100101 01100001 01110010 00100000 01101111 01100110 00100000 01101111 01110101 01110010 00100000 01001100 01101111 01110010 01100100 00100000 01101111 01101110 01100101 00100000 01110100 01101000 01101111 01110101 01110011 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 01100101 01101001 01100111 01101000 01110100 00100000 01101000 01110101 01101110 01100100 01110010 01100101 01100100 00100000 01100001 01101110 01100100 00100000 01110011 01101001 01111000 01110100 01111001 00101101 01110100 01101000 01110010 01100101 01100101 00101100 00100000 01100001 01101100 01101100 00100000 01110000 01100101 01110010 01110011 01101111 01101110 01110011 00100000 01101000 01100101 01101100 01100100 00100000 01100001 01110011 00100000 01110011 01101100 01100001 01110110 01100101 01110011 00100000 01110111 01101001 01110100 01101000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01100001 01101110 01111001 00100000 01010011 01110100 01100001 01110100 01100101 00100000 01101111 01110010 00100000 01100100 01100101 01110011 01101001 01100111 01101110 01100001 01110100 01100101 01100100 00100000 01110000 01100001 01110010 01110100 00100000 01101111 01100110 00100000 01100001 00100000 01010011 01110100 01100001 01110100 01100101 00101100 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01110000 01100101 01101111 01110000 01101100 01100101 00100000 01110111 01101000 01100101 01110010 01100101 01101111 01100110 00100000 01110011 01101000 01100001 01101100 01101100 00100000 01110100 01101000 01100101 01101110 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01101001 01101110 00100000 01110010 01100101 01100010 01100101 01101100 01101100 01101001 01101111 01101110 00100000 01100001 01100111 01100001 01101001 01101110 01110011 01110100 01110100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01010101 01101110 01101001 01110100 01100101 01100100 00100000 01010011 01110100 01100001 01110100 01100101 01110011 00101100 shall be then thenceforward and forever free//
  9. Lincoln’s body, when last it was seen, after several exhumations, was still recognizable thirtysome years later; his gloves had rotted, his suit had mouldered down in the grave, but his beard and hair were intact, his mole was there, too, his face badly bruised even then from the way the bullet had broken his bones. It was like he was a mummy, it was like he was a ghost, it was like he would remain, forever, some semblance of himself just out of sight, just underground, his existence not ended, his soul and body still one yet, somewhere.

10. Merleau-Ponty:

  1. History flows neither from the past nor to the future alone: it reverses its course and, when you get right down to it, flows from all the presents.
     2. The flesh is at the heart of the world.
     3. True reflection presents me to myself not as idle and inaccessible subjectivity, but as identical with my presence in the world and to others, as I am now realizing it: I am all that I see, I am an intersubjective field, not despite my body and historical situation, but, on the contrary, by being this body and this situation, and through them, all the rest.
   4.  If this world is a poem, it is not because we see the meaning of it at first but on the strength of its chance occurrences and paradoxes.

Lost at Sea by Sarah Ann Strickley

in Fiction/Issue One

IF YOU WERE TO COME UPON OLLIE BARON in his habitual throne at Catbird’s and ask him how he found himself shacked up with that waif prostitute and lingering on the brink of sure eviction, he’d likely blame the woman’s talent for thrift. Though she came to him with only a bag of skimpy clothes and a box of knick-knacks salvaged from the shipwreck of her life, Sky was a dollar stretcher of the highest order. She took what little cash Ollie could spare out of his monthly VA checks and spread it as far as it would go, haunting the manager’s markdown rack at the neighborhood Fiesta, clipping coupons out of the weeklies that landed in their box, scoring packaged castoffs in the dumpsters ringing their complex. She spread a red-checked tablecloth over the old trunk that served as his coffee table and laid out scavenged feasts for him in little plastic dishes meant for candies. The woman earned her keep, he often said.

Of course, she was also a helpless drunk. All that scrimping and saving and savvy homemaking was in service of the drink. At the end of the week, they took what was left of the cash and they partied. She matched him shot for shot, blow for blow, and then they held each other in their hangovers, the din of Houston highways lulling them into a kind of fractured bliss. One day, he kept telling himself, he’d slow things down and get a handle on his finances, his life. Until then, they were having fun together, weren’t they? Sky, a boomer hippie who’d named herself after a New Age radio station—SKY.FM—cast the arrangement in spiritual terms. “We’re going with the universal flow,” she said. “It would be unnatural to question it.” She also said it would kill her if she had to go back on the streets.

As Ollie’s barroom audience was never surprised to learn, it wasn’t possible to support two heavy drinkers on a paltry government check in the Montrose, a neighborhood in the midst of a cultural renaissance, as the real estate assholes phrased it—at least not for long. After eight months of scrimping and blowing, the rocks began to show in the universal flow. The weekend party money came out of the bank and then it came out of the rent and then they were flat broke. Ollie reached a bitter stalemate with the landlord. The problem, from Ollie’s perspective, was the young professionals moving into the complex. They were willing to pay more, and Ollie couldn’t compete. New, useless-to-him amenities kept appearing—wireless, covered parking, workout room—and then a letter about a hike in rent. The problem, from the landlord’s perspective, was Ollie’s tendency to pay rent on his own timeline, if at all. Pay up or get out. It wasn’t a humane position, Ollie thought. Without the cash for a deposit on another place, where were they supposed to go?

 

 

After a protracted voicemail battle, he decided to change the game and make a hand-written appeal to the landlord. He wanted to hit him on a human level. Veteran to veteran, do you really need to do this? The swift response was an eviction notice with a yellow, Post-It addendum: Veteran to veteran, pay up or get out. Sky let the paper drift to the carpet and said, “Game over, Ollie bear. What now?” Within a week, maybe less, some goons would show up to remove them and their possessions. By force, if necessary. They’d seen it happen to others like them and knew it as inevitable. With nowhere to go and no money in the bank, there was nothing to be done but wait. The thing between them would end. She’d go back to hooking, and he’d go wherever washed-up drunks went (he did not yet know where that was but he had a pretty good idea) and that would be it. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t say it. He couldn’t tell her it was over. And that was his burden, his guilt. He was the grand equivocator. The man who refused to make up his damn mind. He would pay for it, of course, but not nearly as much as she would.

“If they want a showdown, we’ll give them a showdown,” he said.

He resolved to sit on the porch overlooking the courtyard they shared with the other tenants, passing a bottle with Sky, watching grackles pick at the St. Augustine ringing the base of a fountain. He could call it making a stand, but it was more like awaiting a sentence. Soon, they’d be on the streets. Until then, why not sit back and enjoy the scenery? 

Two days in, no goons had materialized and they were hesitating on the edge of an epic bender. It was hot on the porch, the first flare of summer burnishing the backs of their necks, and out of nowhere Sky decided she wanted to put her feet in the ocean. “I’m boiling out here,” she said. With only a half-tank of gas to last them through Ollie’s next check and eviction bearing down, it wasn’t a good idea. He knew they’d never make it to the coast and back if they hit any traffic. 

She said, “If I could get my feet in the water, I know my hands would stop shaking. I’m so nervous sitting here.” 

He didn’t know what to say to that, grand equivocator that he was, and so he loaded a few things into the truck and told her to get up, he was driving her skinny ass to Galveston. The tangle on the feeder route had him sweating, but about ten miles outside Houston, the highway loosened its snarl and he made good time. 

“Look at this,” said Sky as they parked at the seawall. She held her hand level. “Already better.” 

It was overcast on the beach, furnace of the sun obscured by thick, lilac gauze, which meant at least they wouldn’t have to lacquer themselves as often with their cheap sunscreen, which was as thick as clay, more poultice than lotion, and impossible to rub in completely. Ollie was conscious of the unnatural whiteness on his chest and arms. He saw it on Sky’s face and knew his must look the same. Clownlike. Fortunately, they had no one to impress. They were middle-aged and broke. Invisible to the naked eye.

“I’m going to perfect my backstroke,” he said. 

He ran and made a show of diving into the waves for Sky, who sat on a tattered bath towel and clapped for him. She cupped her hands to her mouth and shouted, her words lost to the bash of surf. Be careful! or Have fun! It was one of those, he was reasonably sure. He let the current ferry him diagonally to the buoys just to see how deep the water was out there—he wasn’t a risk taker in the water, but he liked to know his limits—and was surprised to find a humped sandbar beneath his feet at the outermost edge of the swimming area. When he stood at the top the water was only waist high, which made him feel gigantic; he felt tiny when he turned to face the limitless sea. 

The water was so calm out there. Like a bath. He had the fleeting thought that they could live on the beach for a while. If they caught any hassle from police or locals, they could get a little boat and drift in the water by night, sleep on the beach by day, as though sunning. Then he remembered the hurricane and what it did to his old apartment. His preparations were few: He stood the couch against the window in the living room, and he made duct-tape X’s over the others. It wasn’t enough to keep the glass from crashing through. In the end, he bunkered in the plastic bathtub. When he looked up to see the room filled with the green light of exploding transformers, the ceiling tiles fluttering like nervous mouths, he knew he’d made a mistake. He should have run when he had the chance.

He breathed salt and spit. Took in the bigness of the water, cruise ships idling, distant barges shimmering in the heat, and admitted to himself that the best place for Sky now was in the women’s shelter. He knew she’d resent him for leaving her there, but it was the best he could do. Their problems had outgrown his capacity to manage them. He was like a child trying to fly a jet. Who could expect him to keep the thing in air? When he returned his focus to the beach, he found Sky sitting right where he’d left her at a distance of about fifty yards. A pack of young men had materialized nearby. He knew they were loud by the way their arms moved. Big, sweeping gestures. They shoved and punched each other. Goofed. The way Sky hunched and angled her body away from them told Ollie she was scared. She folded herself up like a box, attempting to disappear inside.

It was a familiar scenario. Sky was a magnet for bad luck, and there was no shortage of disrespecting men in the world, some of whom recognized her from the streets. Usually it was a loudmouth in a bar, but recently they’d been overrun in the park by a pack of skater kids who’d mistaken Sky for a girl their own age and tried to chat her up. She was thin, with hips like an adolescent boy’s, and she wore low-slung jean shorts that showed the jut of her bones. With her big sunglasses and flirty pink headscarf, she could pass as a coed, but she was only a few years younger than Ollie’s fifty-five. What are you doing with that old guy? they asked, which elicited her trademark raucous laugh. It was her teeth that gave her away. Broken and stained. No high-school kid has teeth like that. The boys responded to her wide-mouthed guffaw with horror. Watch out, man, it’s got an old bitch face! Get a fucking dentist, why don’t you? 

Ollie charged, but Sky grabbed his shirttail. 

“They’re kids,” she said. 

The skaters pushed away, and that was the end of it, but Ollie knew the incident had rattled Sky. She wondered what they would have done if she’d been alone. How would they have punished her for their mistake? This time there were five boys, and even from a distance Ollie could see that he’d have a tough time managing them if it came to that. They were fit. Athletes. Their arms and necks were ropy, their waistlines lean. Ollie was a solid man who knew his way around a fight, but his heart was a fatty bulb that had failed him once already. He knew the boys were talking to Sky because they were all facing her, lined up like soldiers before a supplicant captee. For her part, Sky looked back at Ollie across the water, her gaze fixed to his position on the sandbar, and waved him in with both hands. Come on, come on, she seemed to be saying. He had to get to her quickly if he was going to save her.

Diving, he forced his body under the water with heavy strokes of his thighs and came to the surface with sea foam wrinkling in his ears. For all that strain, he’d only managed to make it a few yards closer to shore. The rip current was like a treadmill set on mad dash; he could run it all day and get nowhere. He shook the water from his head and dogpaddled as he watched one of the boys reach down to Sky and grab her by the wrist. A second dive he understood instinctually as ill-advised was even less productive. Sky was standing now, and one of the boys had her by the elbow. Her legs looked like a bird’s, unsteady and knobbed. Ollie didn’t know if he could make it to her before they had her in the water. Once they were out there, who knew what could happen? The waves were rough, the undertow strong. She weighed ninety pounds and didn’t know how to swim. She’d be halfway around the island before anyone knew she was gone. And then what would he do? Drive home alone? 

He took a chance and dove parallel to shore, hoping to sidestep the treadmilling churn. The move put him downshore, but at least he was closer to land. A fourth and final thrust left him panting and exhausted on his hands and knees in the shallows. He had at least thirty yards to run up the beach to reach her and then who knows what kind of fight ahead of him. 

*

THE FIRST TIME OLLIE TOOK SKY TO THE BEACH,  they had the money for a decent liter of Polish vodka, and halfway through it she confessed she had two kids out there somewhere. That was the way she phrased it, and she ran her hand up and down along the horizon line over the water. He didn’t know whether that meant the kids were living somewhere out there in the world or that they’d passed on and become part of the great unknown. Both possibilities seemed equally plausible. Sky was a hippie and liked to make metaphors about the earth. She was also viciously secretive about her life before her fall from grace. 

“Do you think about them?” he asked.

“Of course I do. They’re my kids.” She glared at him. “Jesus. What kind of monster do you think I am?” 

The bottom of that particular bottle wasn’t far off. Then she dragged him to a cheesy beach bar where her chin met with the corner of a wooden deck. He thought she was gone when he picked her up limp from the floor. Since then he’d seen her come close to death twice—one other accident with alcohol and a month where she was off food—and he’d wondered about those kids. If they were alive, was there a way to contact them and should that be done? Would they want to know about their mother? Would she want them to know about her? As for his own kids, they were married with children of their own now and preferred not to know the details of his decline. If he wanted to see how they’d react to the news of his death he could probably deliver it himself. I’m a friend of your father’s, here to inform you of his tragic death. So extreme was his dissolution that they’d be unlikely to recognize him. 

Ollie had never been a saint, but he’d always more or less aimed at decency until an embarrassing series of work-related disappointments had soured him on the 9 to 5. He was a shift leader at an auto parts enterprise, then he was a cashier, then he was a stock boy, and then he was cleaning the bathrooms and vacuuming between aisles. All because the new manager had caught him with a flask a few times. The pissant couldn’t fire him (Ollie’s allegiance with the owner went back to their Navy days) but he sure as hell could make him want to quit. Ollie took to dressing in his uniform and reporting to the bar instead of the shop. He told himself he had his pride—or something like it. 

He sold his house and everything in it and resolved to ride his savings and monthly checks as far as they would carry him from that measly existence. Within five years, he’d become a stranger himself—the kind of man who drinks a Mickey’s on the way to and from the liquor store. When Sky came into the picture, he regarded his transformation as fundamentally complete. He was off the rails. You can’t call yourself a decent person when you invite a prostitute to live with you out of convenience. No matter how nice she is, no matter how resourceful, if her willingness to sleep with you is at all tied to your willingness to compensate her, you cannot claim to live a decent life together.

If he could imagine his death, he reasoned, he was ready to face it. Going out defending a woman would be a noble way, perhaps the best exit he was likely to muster. Even if she was a hooker. Despite his internal moral preparation, the gang of boys were white noise and hairy ankles in the water around him before Ollie knew what was happening. Why had they come to him? Disoriented, he managed to throw himself into standing position. “Stay away from her!” he said. 

One of them grabbed him by the arm. “Whoa, man. Take it easy.” 

“You keep your hands off!” Ollie crouched, bottom submerged, and prepared to strike anyone who came near. 

The boys backed away, hands up. “Whoa there. We’re trying to help you.” 

“I know how to fight! I’m not afraid of dying, are you?”

“We’re a soccer team,” one of them said, flabbergasted. 

The absurdity of the exchange knocked Ollie out of his fugue. It was then that he registered Sky standing ankle-deep down the way. She was perfectly fine, intact, her hands extended, mouth agape, whole body saying, What in the hell are you doing? 

“You’re not here to fight me?” he said. 

The boys shook their heads, bewildered. At that point, Ollie realized he had some work to do to avoid creating a bigger scene or drawing unwanted attention. He thanked the boys for trying to help him, offered them hurried wet handshakes, and asked if they planned to go out in the water. “Take it from a crazy old man,” he said. “That undertow is stronger than you think.”

“OK, man. Got it. We’ll be careful.”

Released, they seemed to leap fifty yards in one bound. They had a raft with them, a little red beer cooler. He watched these items get smaller and smaller until they were colored shapes in the gray water. When they reached the sandbar he’d just left, they waved back at him. It was much farther out there than he’d realized, spearing diagonally away from the buoys. He could see what it must have looked like to Sky, him standing way out there, lost in his thoughts. She probably thought he was afraid to move, stranded. It was very brave of her to ask the boys for help. He was surprised she’d risked the interaction. When he reached her on the beach, he didn’t know how to explain himself. For some reason, I thought I was in a fight for my life. 

“What happened to you out there?” she said. “We thought you were paralyzed.”

He was still a little drunk; that was half of it. The other half was his ballooning sense of doom. How long could they keep living like this? How long could they hang on to each other? “I was thinking about the ocean,” he said. He could see she was unsatisfied with that response. He added, “I was thinking about how big it is. How dangerous.”

She sighed and touched his shoulder, still white with lotion. “It is very big,” she said. “There’s no denying that.”

“Those boys are a soccer team,” he said. “Did you know that?”

She snorted. “Their t-shirts had the name of it. The Scooters or something.”

“They thought I was nuts.”

“Are they wrong?” she said. She handed him a towel. “Here,” she said. “Let’s get situated and try to enjoy the rest of the day.”

He spread his towel next to hers on the sand and leaned into it. “It’s rough out there,” he said. “I hope those boys are careful.”

“Sometimes I think you need a drink and you’ll worry less.”

He wasn’t sure if booze was the problem or the solution, but he didn’t resist when she lifted a flask to his lips. “It’s the bad stuff,” she said. 

He let the sting linger in the back of his throat. “I know a good place to get shrimp,” he said. “We should stay sober enough to bargain on the way home.”

“Shrimp sounds good,” she said.

“We could both do with some protein,” he said. 

Ollie closed his eyes and listened to the ocean’s percussive prattle, disrupted only by Sky’s hand on his thigh, which meant she was ready to pass him the flask. Soon he was imagining himself as a piece of driftwood and Sky as a bit of seaweed flung on the beach. No one would notice them. They’d blend into the scenery. There would be no trouble, and the afternoon would pass into evening and they’d gradually transform back into themselves and make the drive in good time—no traffic—and then they’d sit down at the coffee table and make a plan for themselves, no joke. He’d propose marriage if that’s what it took to pin things down. Even if she didn’t say yes, it would bring them closer, introduce some clarity. They’d both know this wasn’t one of those things you find in a bar and maintain until the bender is over. 

*

HE KNEW ONE OF THE BOYS WAS LOST IN THE UNDERTOW as soon as he heard the helicopter. It pulled him out of his stupor as though lifting him with a tow wire. He saw the whole scene—the mortified teammates, the red cooler bobbing in the sea, the lifeguards coming to shore empty-handed again and again—before he opened his eyes. He didn’t expect to find Sky in the water. She was up to her waist, leaning into the waves and yelling a name—Brandon, Brandon—as though the kid were lost in a grocery store and not the wild, raucous expanse of the sea. He heard the bad whisky in her rasp and saw it in the shifting, uneven panels of her face. He saw the horror contained in her open mouth: the boy was out there somewhere. 

There were others gathered nearby on the beach, and Sky’s behavior was upsetting them. Two women in floral swimsuits held their hands over their mouths, and an older man, his wet trunks clinging to his legs, seemed to have just given up chase. “She won’t listen to me,” he said. “I honestly think she’s drunk, if you want to know the truth.”

“I’ll take care of it,” said Ollie. 

He was slow to find his footing in the water. The low position of the sun told him he’d been out for hours. The air had cooled, and the wind had a new violence to it. For a small woman, Sky could be strong and ruthless when agitated. In his present condition—hammered and reeling—he knew better than to try to touch her. He settled for standing nearby in the water.

“We need to keep a lower profile, babe,” he said. He tried to shake salt out of his head, get his bearings.

“They want to give up,” she said. She pulled a skein of stringy wet hair out of her face. “They say they don’t have the resources to keep the chopper and the boats out there past dusk. Can you believe that?”

It was sad, a sign of the times, the deflating pocketbook of a self-defeating nation. He’d seen a thing about it on the news, the infographic of empty coffers, the strained emphasis on personal responsibility. How can you do your part? If the water’s knee-high, it’s time to get dry. Don’t take unreasonable risks in the water. A travesty, to be sure. But yelling into the waves wasn’t going to bring the boy to the surface. “It’s messed up,” he conceded, “but what are you going to do?”

“It’s a person’s life!”

He held his arms out to her. “Come on,” he said. “Please. I’m in no state to deal with this.”

She dismissed him with a flap of the hand and went back to her work, tossing out her tattered flag of a voice and bracing herself for each wave. Meanwhile, he tried to do damage control on the beach, bumbling and burping through successive rationalizations. “The kid’s a relative,” he said, swell of whisky bile rising in his throat. “A nephew. You can see why she’d be so upset. Besides, she’s off her medication. It was making her jittery.” Lies weren’t getting any traction, so he made oddly truthful confessions. “She’s staring down the barrel at homelessness,” he said. “You might think you can protect her from herself, but you can’t.” 

It wasn’t five minutes before a white Coast Guard truck rolled up and the tanned hulk inside leaned out the window to ask if there was a problem. The older man who’d spoken up before stepped between Ollie and the truck and said, “That woman out there is drunk. I think you’d better get to her before you’ve got another drowning on your hands today.” Just like that, Ollie found himself on the outside of a situation he knew himself incapable of handling. 

And so it was that he simply stood and watched as two lifeguards moved toward Sky in the water. He watched her understand their purpose and try to outrun them, try to fight. He saw her call out to him, even heard a scrap of his name in the wind. But this wasn’t a gang of kids he could pretend himself capable of fighting off; it wasn’t a bill he could skirt or a notice he could ignore. Sky was in the process of casting herself out to sea and he was simply watching the long arch of a fishing line in the air. Like a spectator or a witness. Like a stranger to her. And so he observed as they pulled her by her armpits through the waves, her sunglasses tilted windows in the fading light of the sun. He stood by as they finally thought better of their strategy and each picked an end. As she passed, writhing and kicking in the air, she pleaded with him. 

“Ollie, tell them you know me. Ollie, tell them you’ll drive me home. Ollie, baby, help me out here.”

He said nothing; worse, he turned his head. When a cruiser pulled up, cops grinning at the spectacle of this tiny woman, lifted high like a prize catch, he walked away.

*

HE HAD BEEN RIGHT TO WORRY about the gas in the tank: there wasn’t enough to get him home, which put him walking along I-45, a dangerous prospect even in the full light of day. It was after midnight when he finally reached the apartment and he’d never been more sober in his life. The strewn clothing that slowed his pace as he walked through the courtyard was his own; he noted Sky’s wardrobe brimming in the communal trash as he ascended the stair. He was not surprised to discover the locks had been changed, but the miracle of an open kitchen window startled him. Even more shocking was the good fortune of the tallboy sitting upright in the crisper drawer of the fridge. The decision to cash the whole can right there didn’t come hard. The beer was revelatory in its coolness. It was saving his life.

*

IN THE TWO MONTHS Ollie spent on the street, dragging a black plastic bag of scavenged belongings behind him, Sky flitted across his mind whenever he chanced to sight a skinny figure loitering in an alleyway or standing in line at one of the downtown shelters. Word on the street was that she’d spent more than a month in lock down for drunk and disorderly and walked out to nothing and no one waiting for her and nowhere to go. How a body recovers from that kind of treatment, Ollie didn’t know. In his darker moments, he pictured a bitter end for Sky—a drainage ditch somewhere near Galveston, one of the more ramshackle XXX establishments on the feeder routes. In lighter moods, he figured she’d go bad penny on him, and he’d be forced to explain himself and answer for his sins. In either case, he felt suitably mortified by his culpability, but could not for the life of him imagine a better path for himself. What was he supposed to do? Go down with her?

 

In a couple of weeks, he’d have enough savings to get himself back into an apartment of some kind, to re-orient his navigational system toward decency again, perhaps even crawl back to beg for permission from the pissant to scrub Auto Barn toilets. But until that happened he was busy with the daily pressures of maintaining his drift. Homelessness was hard work in Houston. You had to wake before dawn and remove yourself from sight, and then you had to keep moving from one place to the next. The fast-food joint, the bus station, the park. 

Out of respect for the institution and a fear of becoming yet another cliché, he resisted holing up in the library until the winter rains ruined the good thing he had going at the little dog park downtown. Then he settled into a carrel and passed the time reading newspaper archives. He planned to start with the first day of his dissolution and work up to the present. He was only a few days into this job when he spotted Sky at a water fountain. His arms rose involuntarily to embrace her. It felt good to see someone he knew, even if it was someone who might want to roast his balls. A subtle shake of her head told him to check himself. Of course, of course, he mouthed and settled for a double-handed wave, which she returned. 

He couldn’t say she looked good. She was as scrawny as ever, and there was a dullness to her clothes that told him they’d been washed again and again. But her manner was light and easy, and a spark lit her eye. 

“I wondered when you’d finally roll in,” she said, outguessing him. 

He sat with her in a carrel for the better part of an hour, small talking around the issue, and then finally told her he was sorry he’d failed her on the beach. “It’s no excuse, but it was all a little too much for me to handle,” he said. 

She grimaced, but the sourness around her mouth was quick to fade. “I don’t hold it against you,” she said. 

She was lying, he knew, and it was the reason they’d never share more than this moment together. “That’s nice of you to say even if it isn’t true,” he said.

The thin line of her lips crinkled and she squeezed his hand. “Anyway, it was story with a happy ending.”

Ollie was capable of imaginative thinking, but he failed to see how this particular ending could be construed that way. “Whatever you say,” he said. “I guess I’m glad you can see it that way.”

“Wait a minute, you really don’t know, do you?” she said, her knee thrumming beneath the desk. “About the boy?”

He’d bite. He owed her at least that. “The boy?” 

She smiled. “Wait until you hear this.”

The story she unfurled for him then was the one he’d tell and retell in the future bars of his life, knowing full well that no one would believe him. Like all the best bar stories, the improbability of the thing was its most crucial component. The point was that it couldn’t happen. That’s what made it so compelling. 

According to Sky, the cops had her in the back of the cruiser for an hour while they wrapped up the search efforts. She was silent the whole time. Cooperative. Docile. They decided she wasn’t a problem or a threat to the peace they were trying to keep, so they let her go. They looked at each other, shrugged, and flung open the door. She couldn’t believe her luck—she had a warrant for failure to appear on a prostitution charge, which they would have known if they’d run her name—and scurried over the dunes before they could change their minds and throw her in jail. 

Once she got to the seawall, where she expected to find Ollie waiting for her in his truck, her luck seemed to change. She sat there a long while—longer than was sane—before she realized he wasn’t coming back. He was gone, probably forever. The thing between them was over. But before she could morn her shambling love life, she had life-and-limb issues to consider. First, she was stranded forty-plus miles from home. Second, she was broke. Not a dime on her. And finally, she was sand-blown and dressed for a heat wave. It was going to get cold near the water, where, in all likelihood, she’d be sleeping for at least one night. Her body fat percentage was in the single digits and she hadn’t eaten all day. 

She decided to try to steal something that might improve the odds of her survival. So despite the fact that she had only just emerged from the rear of a Galveston PD cruiser, she scoped a lonely Jeep with its top down and reached inside for a blanket. Underneath was a full bag of soccer balls, and she realized it might be the drowned kid’s ride. Sure enough, his name, Brandon, was embroidered on the bag beneath a big red seven. There was a certain symmetry to this turn of events. Sky was the last one on the beach to hold out faith that the boy might still be alive, so maybe in a convoluted way he owed her a safe place to sleep in return. At least that’s how her reasoning went. She certainly wasn’t doing him any harm by tossing the bag of balls into the passenger seat, slipping beneath the blanket, and falling asleep in the back.

Then a dream came over Sky like a coma, the deepest and most restorative sleep of her life. She dreamed a dream so rich and complex that she could barely contain the intricacies of its flowering upon her subconscious. She saw a figure hovering over the water and it told her, lift your head and see the truth. Sky emerged from her magical sleep and raised her head like an obedient visionary, only to spot Brandon as he walked—

careening and drunk in his swim trunks—along the seawall. He was alive. Undrowned. He was carrying a tattered case of Coors at his side like a suitcase and listing in circles. He’d been off drinking all along, Sky gathered, and his friends had only misremembered him in the water. Now he was too drunk to make sense of the vanished sun, the strange absence of the scene he’d left hours before. How had the day passed without his awareness of it? This was an experience Sky understood. This kind of situation was well within her purview. She went to him, arms open.

“I’m looking for my friends,” he said. “I think they may have left me.” He began to weep, his shoulders bowing. “I lost my phone and my wallet and I think there’s something kind of wrong with me.” He opened his mouth and let vomit fall into the sand, dropped his prize suitcase of beer.

“Don’t you worry, honey,” she told him. “We’re going to get you fixed up.”

The next thing was to get the boy into the Jeep and then get the Jeep to the hospital. These were tasks she accomplished with supernatural ease, for the boy was pliable in his weakened state and the keys were (miracle of miracles) still zippered into his side pocket. She had no compunction about going into his trunks to find them there. 

“You had everybody looking for you,” she told him. “Your poor momma’s going to want to give me a medal.” 

He let his head fall back on the black vinyl headrest and wept. “Does she know I was drinking? I’m supposed to be at my cousin’s while she’s in Ft. Worth.” He vomited again. “But I lied.”

Sky had to drive quickly, though the speed sent her hair flapping wild in her eyes and numbed her hands on the wheel. She blazed straight up to the emergency-room doors and leaned heavy on the horn. “I have the boy! I have the boy!” she shouted. 

Nobody responded until she calmed down, walked inside, and told the admittance nurse she had singlehandedly saved the drowned one, the one from the soccer team. 

The nurse eyeballed her. “You say what now?”

“He’s in the Jeep, right goddamned there. Go and see for yourself if you don’t believe me. Brandon.”

And there he was, head lolling to one side, but alive, a beautiful cherubic symbol of resilient boyhood. To Sky’s thinking, she’d raised Brandon from the water with the pure power of her magical dreaming. As they wheeled him belching away, she blew him a jubilant kiss. 

“When you wake up, I’ll be right here,” she said. “I’ll be waiting for you, honey.” 

She spent hours in a state of awe, pacing the waiting room. He was fine, they said. Slated for a good stomach pumping, but fine. They’d want to talk to her about what happened, they said. How did he get the booze, who was with him in the hotel room? The police were on their way, the news crews already circling the corridors, they said. She thought of the boy’s mother, en route from Ft. Worth and thanking her lucky stars her son was alive. Maybe the mother would give Sky a place to stay while she got back on her feet, a room in a suburban basement or a small apartment over a garage. She’d settle for a warm cup of coffee, a pair of socks or shoes. But the police, the news crews. They’d dig up her warrant, and her whole history would come like rotten seawater from a bilge. Nobody wants a whore lingering around thwarted tragedies. They’d blame her for the boy’s delinquency, slap her with fines she couldn’t pay, lock her up. 

“Who are you, now?” said the admittance nurse. “Some kind of friend or something?”

“Nobody,” said Sky. “I’m nobody.”

In a panic, she made an excuse about needing to use the bathroom and fled to an unlocked employee lounge where the coffee was warm, the creamer plentiful and easy to pocket, and bunkered for the night. When the sun came up through the dusty aluminum venetians, it didn’t take long for the local news to break into the morning show on the television: Lucky Number Seven, Alive and Well. The nurses in the room with her tsked and clucked when they saw Brandon’s beat-red, beatific face on screen. 

“Can you imagine? He’s off chasing tail and his mother thinks he’s dead,” said one.

“I’d murder him,” said another.

“He should at least pay the bill for those helicopters.” 

The boy looked green on the wide screen. “I don’t remember how I got here,” he said into a bulbous microphone, “I think an angel must have driven me.”

His words pinioned Sky. Every molecule in her body pulled her toward the boy, but she saw with startling clarity how she’d kill the image of the angel if she came forward and revealed herself. “Can you imagine?” she said to Ollie, pointing to her mouth. “This maw on the local news?” 

He could not. In fact, there with her in the library, he could not imagine her anywhere but where he’d first found her: in a leaning highway icehouse with no running water and a rooster roped to guard the latrine where she sometimes turned tricks—the furthest place from heaven one woman could get and still be in Texas. And yet, hadn’t she always been sweet to him? Hadn’t she feathered his nest like a preening mother bird? 

“It doesn’t seem fair,” he said. “You should get what you deserve. Try to find that boy and tell him what you did for him. If you called him over the phone, he wouldn’t ever have to see you.”

She released her throaty laugh on him one last time and then folded like a sheet of paper. “What’s fair?”

Sometimes, in his beery telling of this part of the story, Ollie has Sky flash him a wry smile, a gotcha grin that implies she has taken him for a ride. The unbelievable truth, the God’s-honest if you really want to know Ollie’s version of it, is that she never told a lie. That kid really did survive. Ollie found him on five separate front pages of Galveston County Daily in the library archives. And the boy, Brandon, did talk about a guardian angel coming to save him—in his dreams, a shimmering mermaid with a pink kerchief in her hair. 

“I mean, how else do you explain a boy with twenty beers in his system getting to the hospital in one piece?” Ollie would say. 

If the rhetorical question set off a round of speculative guessing—his was an audience that regularly consumed massive quantities of cheap beer, drove home, and lived to tell—he often put that all to bed by asking a series of related questions: “OK, but if you’re that kid, why don’t you get into your Jeep and sleep it off? Better yet, why don’t you climb back into bed with the Budweiser bikini who got you into all this trouble in the first place? Her hotel room was fifty yards away. Last place you’d want to be is in the hospital answering questions. Am I right?”

He was always right. And once he’d silenced the twittering of the disbelievers, he’d turn contemplative and sigh. “You know, if I hadn’t walked away from Sky when I did, she wouldn’t have been on that beach to find that boy, and we wouldn’t be sitting here having this debate. Mark my words, that kid would have turned up dead, drowned in an inch of water under the pier, and his mother would have had to deal with the tox report.” There was a certain way of telling the story that made Ollie seem like the hero, the unknowing trigger of a dozen benevolent turns of fate, but he didn’t like to put on airs. He was, at heart, a humble man—the kind who had learned to accept his own insignificance in the larger scheme of things. “It’s sad it had to end that way between me and Sky, but it was for the best. I hear that Brandon kid really turned himself around. Graduated summa cum of his class or some shit.” His eyebrows high, he’d sometimes offer a little flourish of the hand or time his final pronouncement with the downing of his last inch of beer. “And that,” he would say, “is the legend of the angel of Stewart Beach.” 

*

OLLIE NEVER SAW SKY AGAIN. Instead, he re-animated her in the bar whenever he felt lonely for the past. Like any committed drunk, he had his pet recursive loops and Sky was almost always in heavy rotation—especially when there was new blood in Catbird’s. As time wore on and the terms of the storytelling inflated and contracted, he had to wonder if the Sky he imagined when he told the story still matched the Sky who’d held his shaking hands that first night at the icehouse and told him she had a cure for that. “It’s called love,” she said, “and it works real wonders.” In the end, though, maybe what mattered was that someone remembered her at all.


Sarah Anne Strickley is the author of the short story collection, Fall Together (Gold Wake Press, 2018). She’s a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowship, an Ohio Arts grant, a Glenn Schaeffer Award from the International Institute of Modern Letters, and other honors. Her stories and essays have appeared in Oxford American, A Public Space, Witness, Harvard Review, Gulf Coast, The Southeast Review, The Normal School, the Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and earned her PhD from the University of Cincinnati. She teaches creative writing and serves as faculty editor of Miracle Monocle at the University of Louisville.

There Is No Danger Here by Katrina Denza

in Fiction/Issue One

WE WERE EXHAUSTED FROM THE TRIP. I tried to nap but couldn’t still my mind. Serenity had immediately closed herself in her room and I wondered if that meant something. When I knocked, no answer. I nudged the door open, expecting to find her earbuds in but she was sleeping. Her brown hair fanned out on the pillow, cheeks flushed with fatigue or dreams, lips parted. She could almost be my daughter, but she belonged to Richard, not me. Never me. My own daughter had wide-set gray eyes, sun-freckled skin and a mess of brown curls that used to frustrate me if we were in a hurry, always twisted into stubborn little nests. I stood in Serenity’s doorway and considered lying next to her on the bed to listen to her breath move through her body, to take in that sleeping girl smell to which I was no longer privy. Instead, I backed out of the room. 

 

*

RICHARD WAITED FOR ME ON OUR BED.

“Join me,” he said. 

Ignoring him, I walked over to the window and opened it wide to the smells of Rome: bread dough; diesel, sewer. I undressed in front of the open window, my nipples stiffening in the cool air. Bells resounded from the cathedral near the river. When I turned around, Richard was staring at me, his desire apparent. I lay next to him. He touched my body as if it were his, as if its very existence was for his pleasure. His arrogance excited me. I knew this made me a bad feminist.

“What do you think of her so far?” he asked me, his fingers writing unknown words on my back. The words stopped as he waited for my answer. 

“I’ve haven’t known her long. One flight over the ocean.”

“Bright girl. The best of me.”

“Children usually are.”

“Are you jealous?”

“Why would you ask that?”

“I’ve dealt with that kind of thing before.”

I was jealous, but not in the way he probably meant. I was jealous his daughter still inhabited his world.

“She has a sharp sense of humor,” he continued.

I hadn’t seen it. In fact, she appeared to be entirely humorless. 

 

*

THE FIRST TIME WE MET was in the airport the day before. She looked like a model; thin, dark-eyed, with long brown hair dyed blonde at the tips. She smiled without her eyes and when Richard introduced us, she barely took me in, irrelevant as I was. 

We stood near our gate; our flight wouldn’t board for twenty minutes. 

“Daddy, did you bring the Xanax?” Serenity’s voice was sandpapery.

Richard dug through his briefcase and tapped two pills from a bottle into her palm.  He looked at me. “You want one?”

There was a time I would’ve had my own bottle of those little white miracles, but no more. I told him I was going for coffee. When I returned, I bumped into Serenity and coffee leapt out of my cup and onto her jeans. 

“Oh my god!” Serenity stared at the stain as if doing so would make it disappear.

I apologized and handed her my napkin. “I didn’t burn you, did I?”

She lifted her eyes to me. Disdain, thick as butter. 

“It’s not a big deal,” she said, though of course it was.

I watched her toe off her knee high boots and step out of her jeans. Underneath: silky black boxers. People around us snuck glances.

“What? I’m not wearing wet jeans for eight hours on a plane,” she snapped at her father.

“Get something from your suitcase.”

“This is the empty one. So I can shop, remember?”

Serenity slipped her boots on, adjusted her black sweater so it nearly covered her boxers, and wheeled her empty suitcase toward the crowd now gathered to board.

“Fucking shorts are so high you can almost see her butt,” he muttered to me.

I shrugged. “It’s what they all wear.”

“You being an expert and all.” He gestured for me to precede him toward Serenity.

Don’t think him an asshole. I hadn’t told him about my losses.

 

*

RICHARD HAD BEEN MY NEUROLOGIST.  A couple of years ago, long past losing my husband and daughter, I’d have these episodes as I was falling asleep in which I was fully awake and cognizant yet unable to move. Sometimes I’d hear a susurrus in the air above my head; could have been my own pulse but it sounded like ghosts conversing. He explained the mechanics of sleep paralysis without patronizing. The episodes went away as he said they would and the next time I saw him was at a fundraiser. Three of my paintings were being auctioned off for a non-profit started by a friend. Richard took the seat next to me and under his breath delivered inappropriate comments that should have made me blush, but instead, made me laugh. That was one of things that excited me about him: his ability to say whatever he thought without self consciousness or embarrassment, his ability to reach out and grab what he wanted with only his words.

 

*

LATER THAT EVENING, after the three of us strolled the streets around the Trastaverre, we were back in the flat, Serenity, watching Italian TV in the living room, and Richard and I in our room, freshly warm from the shower. I stood in front of an ornate mirror smoothing lotion over my body. Richard came up behind me and circled my clit with his fingers before slipping them inside. Sex with him was nearly always wordless and I discovered I liked it that way. It was like stepping in and out of another dimension. We talked before, after, but not during. Sometimes he whispered commands, do this, do that, but that wasn’t conversation. Sometimes I noticed him circling me like a predator does with prey. My husband had been so polite. Polite only got me so far. Richard pushed me onto the bed, face down. He was rough and quick before starting on me with his hands again. Polite never felt transcending.

 

*

OUR SIGHTSEEING AMBITIONS BEGAN WITH BONES. A set of cement steps led to the door of the Capuchin Monk Crypt. No tickets were required; a wooden box near the entry held donations of pastel Euros and metal coins. Richard and Serenity read the museum board while I made my way through the crypt. Four rooms; in each, dun-colored bones decorated every surface. Bones formed flowers around chandeliers and lacy designs on walls and ceilings. In one room, whole skeletons lay on stone beds as if merely asleep. Remnants of people, castoff shells. Bones were the positive space left after the negative lifted away. My husband and daughter were cremated. It might have been a comfort to have evidence of the people I lost. Some tangible proof that I had loved and been loved. 

 

*

ONE AFTERNOON, near the end of our stay, Serenity and I took a table outside a café. It was a gorgeous, blue-sky day, warm enough to not need a sweater. Richard’s daughter had finally begun to open to me, to see me as a person with potential value and our conversations were no longer as awkward. From where we sat we could see the Capitol; the word ROMA in red and yellow roses on the front lawn.

When the waiter came, I ordered a red and two glasses. Serenity lifted her brows. 

“It’s legal here,” I said.

“I’m not arguing.” 

After the wine appeared, her face relaxed, brightened, as she poured a glass for me then herself. That afternoon I learned of her friends, what music she liked, heard about the boy who told her she wasn’t much to look at and then a couple of weeks later grabbed her ass at a party. Her hair was pulled back into a pony tail and some of the pieces around her face had come loose. I wanted to touch her hair, tuck the pieces behind her ear. If she were mine, I wouldn’t hesitate.

The waiter delivered our meals and when he left, Serenity said, “My father really loved my mother. She broke his heart.”

“He doesn’t share things like that with me,” I said. “It’s not that kind of a relationship.”

“No past? More in the now?” She smirked, but in a good natured way. “My mother fell for a younger guy who ended up dumping her.”

“It’s not my business.”

She shrugged, took a sip of wine. “Just trying to tell you why he can be sort of a dick.”

“I don’t have any problems with him,” I said. What I didn’t say: I didn’t mind that he was sort of a dick. It’s what I wanted at the time.

 

*

OUR LAST FULL DAY we took a train to Florence to see art. It should have inspired me, all that art, but my desire to create more of it remained underground.

It was late when we boarded the train back to Rome. Serenity and I grew ever closer and Richard didn’t seem to like it; perhaps didn’t like that his compartments were so easily bleeding into one another. He fought for my attention, texting me things like:

I want to make you wet.

His sexting used to have an effect, used to heat my body into some kind of life. On the train though, it was a distraction from what really lit me up: Serenity. Serenity’s chatter about what she wanted to do after high school, her opinions about the sculpture and the art she’d seen, her movie recommendations. I drank her in, parched. 

The train lurched to a stop.

Two men in uniform ran through our car, Italian voices crackling on radios. 

Serenity looked to her father, then me. “What’s going on?” Her voice high with stress. 

A conductor entered our car and ordered us to leave the train immediately. In Italian, French and English: “Leave your bags, leave everything and depart the train.”

We disembarked and made our way with the crowd to a large field. The silhouettes of industrial buildings stood tall and dark against the purpling sky. People talked rapidly in languages I couldn’t understand. 

Serenity shivered, her teeth clicking together. 

After a while, a couple from Canada shared what they knew: a man from Tunisia claimed to have a bomb on the train, but neither the police nor the dogs found anything. 

I could see Serenity allow relief to fold into her body; then, quiet sobs. Richard was still scanning the situation, trying to figure out what next. 

I gathered his daughter into my arms. Her hair smelled of rose shampoo. Her heart beat hard and fast in the side of her neck. I rubbed circles on her back and said, “It’s going to be all right. Everything’s fine. There’s no danger.” I told her over and over she was safe, rocking my words into her body, though I understood how wrong it was to think any of us is ever safe. Still, it was a necessary lie. A lie a mother might have told. 

There’s no danger here.

 


Katrina Denza’s stories can be found in REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, The Jabberwock Review, The Emerson Review, Storyglossia, New Delta Review; The MacGuffin, Confrontation, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot, elimae, wigleaf, Pank, and Gargoyle #57, among others. In 2011, Katrina was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Currently, she’s working on a collection of stories: Desire is a Willful Beast.

Burial by Joy Clark

in Fiction/Issue One

THEY SAID IT WAS A SIGN OF GOD—all those dead folk coming up from their final rests, coming instead to rest in the branches of sugar maples, caught between QwikStop pumps, stranded lonely in fields of washed-away cornstalks. Birdy believed that recognizing signs of God was one of her gifts—the Spirit’s fruit—born alongside humility, patience, and a need to serve. She’d seen signs from God in all manner of strange places—bulbous clouds, a child’s finger-scrawl on a dirty car—knowing just when to raise a hand and say, The Lord is trying to tell us something here.

In her church’s parking lot, folks gathered under FEMA’s white tents for a few gallons of water, a box of MREs, some pull-tab cans of beans. Birdy didn’t need the extra help—she was a full twenty-five miles from Hardin, and her home—despite loss of power—slipped through the floodwaters fingers. Instead she showed up as a volunteer, walking around the clustered groups to offer a word of prayer and a cup of hot coffee from the carafe she brought with her.

She happened upon a group saying just what she had been thinking: that the flood waters washing up all these graves meant something. A kind of message, characteristic of the cavern-forming, chariot-sending, dead-raising Big Miracles God that so many people had lost sight of lately.

“Can I pour you some coffee?” she asked, stepping inside their circle. “You know, I had just been thinking the same thing. We know the Lord is with us in Missouri, but could be there’s a lesson to learn…”

“Are you with FEMA?” asked a woman who looked old, much older than Birdy, who noted her stoop and her wheezy breathing. 

“I’m just hear to serve,” said Birdy. “Offer prayers, blessings, you know.”

One of the younger men in the group took her proffered coffee, dumped the coffee out onto the asphalt, and sunk his teeth into the Styrofoam so that it left marks. He walked off like that, chewing the foam.

“He’s pissed. His daddy was in that cemetery,” someone said, as an explanation.

Birdy felt an inner light, a peace and clarity which she knew was given to her for a purpose. “The Lord has always had hard messages for his people.” She looked into their eyes, hoping to watch the light come into their faces. “He sends us loss so we may understand His loss, His son who died, to bring us closer to Him. The dead around us is a sign that we will rise again—a message of hope and restoration. We make think Hardin is dead and buried right now, but it will be pulled up from its grave!”

From the looks of them, she knew they were religious folks—they had been talking about God just as she stepped in, and two were wearing cross necklaces, gold catching the light. But the way they looked at her now, or rather, they looked at one another instead of her, made her wonder if she missed something.

Then, one of them—the older one—made eye contact.

“You have anyone buried there?”

“No,” admitted Birdy. She felt strange about the turn this conversation was taking, strange that they might ask about her own dry bed, stashes of flashlights, generator running when she needed a hot shower.

“Just think, you idiot,” said the woman, “Think if it was you!”

Birdy didn’t know what she was supposed to think. The group dispersed without saying anything more to her, some with their arms around waists, some walking so close that their shoulders bumped. Two-by-two, thought Birdy, just like the Ark. The summer floods had turned them into animals, little mysteries with their own secret grieving. 

Birdy set the carafe on the ground. If they wanted nothing of her gifts, she would bring them elsewhere. The Bible said so—depart from that place, shake the sand from your feet. Sometimes grief just did that, she thought, it hardened hearts and closed minds.

Still, while she was driving home, she couldn’t help wondering: if what was me? what would be me? Would Birdy have buried someone or been buried herself? Would she have been swept away? Would she have been the flood, running rampant, desperate to get to the ocean?

Foolish, she thought.

But she didn’t go her usual way home. She told herself it was because half the roads were closed anyway, or because it was the aftermath—a rare day of sun—and she might as well drive a little further, enjoy the temperature, listen to the gospel radio still crackling.

That’s how she found herself at the floodwater’s edge. She knew she was trespassing, even though no one was out to stop her. She walked. It was dark water, contaminated with the neighborhood it had swallowed. Each rooftop she passed, barely poking through the surface—mangled and leaning, she felt curious about. What would happen to them? Trees had been stripped of their lower branches. Little human artifacts floated everywhere: rags of clothing, cassette tapes, hamster homes, pop bottles, purses. What would the contents of her own house look like, floating around amongst the trees and rooftops? 

She waded out a little bit, just up to her knees. She told herself she felt that there might be something important for her to find, some reason God had brought her to this place. But something drew her farther into the water. It was sunlight-warm around her thighs. It didn’t smell rotten, like she thought it would, but strange—smelling of everything at once. There was so much water in the world. It hurt her mind trying to think of it—the way the oceans connected continents, connected bodies, sustained life.

She tried to redirect her thoughts to God, to the Bible, but her reflection was there in the water, right in the midst of all the destructed and dead. Murky, of course, because water hid entire alien worlds, birthed alien worlds. It stole corpses with one hand and homes with the other. It wasn’t right to think about things God had hidden, so she tried to think instead on Christ’s Baptism. The water rested at the bottom of her ribcage, her feet brushing against strange objects in the dark as she moved carefully forward, thinking of the dove, the light from heaven. During her own baptism, at eleven, she had prayed to begin again. It had been crucial then, going into junior high lonely. A person like a blank space, praying to be colored in, finally. That’s what baptism was for, what water did—no! she reminded herself, that’s what Christ’s blood did. Blood, not water, gave second chances. 

It moved around her, disturbed by her body. There was a bit of a current that she hadn’t noticed before. Strange, she thought, to be tugged by the water’s arm, extended all the way from the Missouri River. Now covering her breasts, now rushing at her legs, now lapping like a pet at her chin. She moved into it, surprised at how close it felt to dancing, pulling her one way, and another. How intimate. How like being completely held, sustained by the holding, the way you could only be before you were born.

 


Joy Clark is a MFA candidate at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, AR, and she graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University in 2015 with a B.F.A. in Creative Writing. Her work can be read in places such as Juked and Oblong. In 2017-2018 she was awarded the Walton Family Fellowship for Fiction.

Grand Opening by Billy Longino

in Excerpts/Fiction/Issue One

“No funny stuff,” I tell the bird.

Across from me on the train, catching a ride into Bela Lugosi Station from Monroe along the southbound rail of the Γ Line, one of those blind and featherless Metro pigeons is nesting its ample dark meat into the reupholstered LuvFoam®-cushioned seating. Fowlspreading, the bird has claimed the entire doorside seat as its own territory. The LuvFoam® kneads and massages its rump while a sassy voice from the seat compliments the firmness and curvature, arousing a few soft murmurs from the bird. 

“Oh, do I have a fantastic feeling about today!” the seat says, hitting deep tissue now. “You are going to own it, girl. Really going to make an impression at the office!”

The train hits a dogleg in the tunnel and sends me swaying on the strap. I say, “You listening to me, pal?”

The bird wiggles its tail stump and settles in for the long haul.

Nearby, a human passenger shoots me a sidelong look of civic concern and moves further down the aisle. 

“Don’t fool with me. I know what you’ve got up your…” I eye the animal top to bottom—a short trip. I really need a new job. “…sleeve.”

The bird doesn’t give a single coo. It doesn’t even acknowledge my existence. No respect for the badge. I’ve been on the force fourteen years and I can see this pigeon is a vandal, a lowlife veteran of the transit system. No passengers have bothered to shoo it off the seat. It’s too risky. The MTA advises its ridership to maintain distance since the pigeons are classified as biohazards. It’s better for everyone involved. As a species, these subterranean vagrants seem to live in a state of permanent diarrheic panic. Even if this one pigeon has found peace in the validating undulations of the LuvFoam®, any sudden movement and its startle reflex will throw open the gastrointestinal floodgates. But this bird is holding back, biding its time. I can read the premeditated malintent for MTA property in its eyespots. Either that or constipation.

In the Metropolitan Transit Authority Police Department, one of the realities of the job rookies pick up on early is the fact that ninety to ninety-five percent of all criminal activity you’re likely to step into in the Metro—incivilities, violent incidents, quality of life violations—can be traced back to something or someone being backed up. 

Police brutality is no exception.

And it so happens, the train my partner and I find ourselves riding on the Γ Line this morning, a century-old Chrysler express called the Ameristream, is running twenty-nine minutes behind schedule.

In a situation like this, as a transit cop you must be at the top of your game. You shut off your prefrontal cortex, which no good cop needs anyway. You let your suspicions roam. Your glands and training will handle all the heavy lifting. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted by specious profiling. 

I give the pigeon one last, professionally honed I’ve-got-my-eye-on-you-pal sort of look, let go the strap, and head off down the car to find the Lud. 

The a.m. crowd is packed into the Ameristream, providing for a generous 0.4 of the 0.7 square meters of Urban Isolation Space recommended by the Fair & Pleasant Commute Act of 2277. We’re so scrunched it’s like being swallowed whole by a hairy protoplasm. The commuter mass jitters and sways under the bank and sway of the train. Pores reek with the eggy musk of high blood pressure. The tap-squeak-tap of my cop boots on the nonslip flooring parts the spazzy, overly caffeinated amoeba so I can wind between the straphanging deltoids, carryon luggage, and protruding pseudopods of posteriors and foopas to reach the back of the car. 

A pinnacle of patriotic wartime train design, the Ameristream is a masterfully economical deathtrap constructed of outdated Chinese plasteel, painted the color of freedom, and going senile.

In lieu of customary route info or freshly brewed morning block talk shows, the window displays inside the Ameristream are cycling through a mishmash of recordings from the train’s external sensors of previous trips it has taken through the Metro, hours, days, years, or decades before, while the train’s AI narrates.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll be so kind as to lend your gaze to the right side of the car,” the train asks its captive audience, calling up a blank expanse of lightless, vacuous tunnel on the displays, “you’ll be seeing the Gamma Line only days after it was first bored! Can you guess how many tons of bedrock were removed in its construction? Kiddos?”

The train bearhugs a hard curve not shown on its displays and swings the straphangers outward like pendulums. I grab a pole with one hand and something fleshy with the other that squeals until I let go. On the left side of the car, just above the snoozing, aseptically hairless head of a guy in a slick, stainproof medical professional’s onesie, several displays are linked together and running in reverse. Their timestamps tick down. Otherwise it’s impossible to tell the difference between them and those running forward. Destination/point of departure—everything is terminal in the Metro. Alpha or Omega.

“Wait, wait, wait. Or is that the Xi?” the train says. Its tinny, busted out voice hovers over the cramped headspace. The right-side displays go static. “That Gamma footage is here somewhere. Ha, ha. Just one second, folks…”

A springy flute-fraught muzak picks up on a few of the speakers. The train doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going. Passengers sigh and leer at their phones and watches or stare into the dead space of augspecs. But no one panics. No one so much as maintains eye contact for more than the socially allotted two seconds. Dementia in our modes of conveyance is one accepted reality of underfunded public transportation. Nothing’s out of the ordinary.

Today is Monday.

 

I find the Lud planted at the rear door of the car leaning against a sadistically placed stanchion and muttering over the morning’s Delinquistat® report on his phablet. He’s been at it since before we left the stationhouse. He broods the way only a sergeant with a looming pension is allowed to brood. A few million generations of runaway primate brow evolution worked overtime, pegging away weekends and holidays, to produce a glare of this magnitude. 

“What’s eating you?” I ask him. 

The Lud grumbles unintelligibly under his mustache and keeps staring at the alphanumeric jibber-jabber of the report.

The neon smear of a station flashes by on the left-side displays. It isn’t Lugosi but there’s no other stations between it and Monroe. The train offers no comment. The muzak toots on.

“Okay, Lud, look if this is about the uniform… I didn’t have any choice.” I unzip my jacket and pluck the collar. “See, it’s still got all the starch in it. If you want, I’ll hand-scrub every sweat stain and trace of my DNA out of it before I hand it back over. So long as I don’t have to hear you…”

He glances up and scans the crisp, pristine crease of the collar. His lip curls.

“Or not hear you complain about it, as it goes.”

He grunts and turns his beady eyes back to the phablet.

Without warning, the train jerks. A noise like the end of the fucking world cranks through the passenger car. The whole carload—except for the Lud, who simply steps one foot into it and braces himself—is flung forward. Passengers toss themselves into a leggy scramble to stay standing and/or seated. I save a napping skell from skittering across the floor out from under a seat with my boot and cling to the stanchion for dear life.

The Lud never looks up.

About half a second later, the Ameristream skids to a stop. Every display shows an arrival in perfect unison, even those running in reverse—departures coming in like mirror images, commuters out in the stations years ago embarking and disembarking backwards as if the universe has somehow come back around. But not a single station onscreen is Lugosi. The train has no idea where it is.

The loudspeakers cut off the muzak and crackle. The Ameristream announces, “Here we are! Safe and sound. The time is now uhhh… Thank you for riding the Metro! And remember, when you ride with Chrysler, you ride the future!” 

The doors slide open and the Ameristream’s passengers erupt outward like a clotted mass from a slit jugular, a manic coagulate of bodies pumped along the Metro’s darkened arteries and through its congested heart. The onboarding and offloading passengers flow past one another like a transfusion.

The pigeon lobs itself from its seat, strolls calmly ahead of the crowd, blind and entitled to its right-of-way, narrowly avoiding footfall after footfall, and leaves behind a happy little splatter of guano across the LuvFoam®.

“Mother…” Life is beautiful. “…fucker.”

Without a word, the Lud holsters his phablet, rolls up his sleeves over his Neaderthal forearms, and hauls himself bodily into the crowd.

I step in behind him, resigned to my fate. It’s another day on the beat.

In the MTAPD, beats are freeform. No rhyme or reason in methodology dictates a patrolperson’s path through the Metro. While Lugosi is a common stop on our beat, the Lud and I can conceivably, if never in practice, take our patrol anywhere underground. Most days, each cop will have his or her own primary assignment—a fixer, a train patrol, or a special assignment—but we’re free to improvise. The idea is so officers can, according to the MTAPD Patrolperson’s Essential Handbook & Guide to Subterranean Law Enforcement, 15th ed., Vol. 2, “respond dynamically to the economic, cultural, and criminal ecosystems for which the Metro’s nonlinear transit architecture provides niches.” But it also offers plenty of opportunity to Fuck Around.

Which is a big plus since Fucking Around is the unofficial modus operandi by which we beat cops familiarize ourselves with the ever-rotating cast of users on our patrols. 

And nobody is better at Fucking Around than the Lud and me. When we Fuck Around, it’s professional.

The second the hardworn soles of my boots strike the platform I catch a squirmy knot in my stomach of that fishy sort of insidiousness for which a transit cop develops a special gland after about a decade on the beat, after any hope for promotion and better pay have soured and fermented into what’s called—for lack of a better term—damn fine police work.

Call it a hunch. Call it instinct. Call it experience.

Call it a feeling in the gut.

Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s just something I ate. Maybe it’s that stinging nettle, pineapple, and Chickenoma® chimichanga I had for dinner last night at Tía Bruja’s Hex-Mex Cantina and Grill casting a blight on my middle-aged kishkes.

Whatever it is, it’s been building all morning.

I’d arrived at the stationhouse around 6:45 and immediately pigeonholed myself into a stall in the Locker Room. I breathed deep intestinal breaths, my stomach inflating and deflating like a baby’s, and attempted to separate my atman from my bowels. This is a little trick Colleen from our district’s psych squad has been pushing on me during lunch hour meditation sessions, which Captain Loomis ordered me to attend Tuesdays and Thursdays so as to maintain and regulate my duties. Meanwhile, of course, while I’m refining my downward-facing dog and arriving at whole new strata of enlightenment with my corpse pose, the Lud’ll be in the Squad Lounge porking down whole bentofuls of whatever slopping, calorie-rich rations his wife Maria packed him for lunch. Nothing fazes the Lud. You could punch a clock by the son of a bitch’s bowel movements. I had it on good authority—namely his wife—that the Lud drags himself home every evening on the Λ Line, steps through his apartment door, kisses Maria, pats his daughters’ heads, one by one, tallest to shortest, all six of them, and drops a prepackaged, heftily masculine load before sitting down to dinner.

The thought of it only made me all the more constipated.

At half past seven I’d given up. While everyone else on the morning tour was in Roll Call, I slapped together a uniform from fragments piled at the bottom of my locker. White socks, off-white tighty-whities, black pants, black boots, black hat, narrow black tie (permanently noosed for emergency exits), black carbon fiber cuffs, black whomper, an MTAPD Service Issue MetroCard, phablet, and badge. I couldn’t find a shirt so I took one out of the Lud’s locker and threw a windbreaker over it to hide the sergeants’ stripes. 

Whompers are these spherical nonlethal parametric sonic emission and oscillation resonators which the MTAPD provides its transit cops as opposed to authentic, death-dealing phalloid ballistic armaments the likes of which the surface police pack. The idea is to limit potential harm to bystanders, but we make do, nonetheless.

I flipped over the badge and it snapped an up-to-date animated holopic, measuring my facial expression for heart rate, surface skin temperature, and estimated colonic pressure, all to calculate a general aura of intent to commit brutality—part of the department’s Measure Your Transit Officer’s Psychological & Emotional State 24/7 PR initiative. It caught me mid-swallow. I don’t know how long I stared at the pic, trying to determine if I represented a fascist threat to civil society. But there I was, distilled and codified into a three-by-five pattern of municipally owned pixels: Officer Ariel Josef Eichel, MTAPD, District 19, badge no. 188K7. I appeared lanky, shoulderless, and goat-necked. According to the date on the badge, yesterday had been my birthday. I’d turned thirty-eight. In the pic, my throat bobbed and bobbed like I was choking on something I could never bring myself to say.

But what’s worse, what really sets my innards into self-destruct mode, is that it’s clear to me the Lud feels something too.

Coming off the train, my partner drops a hand on his whomper and casts his beady, browbeaten eyes at the other users. He cases them for the slightest probable cause for suspicion. The lip hairs of his broomy, well-groomed copstache ruffle like the feelers of a deputized sea creature brainlessly sifting particles of criminality out of the Metro’s tepid waters.

The Lud hmmphs.

“Hmmph?” I say.

“Hmmph…” says the Lud.

It’s the closest thing to a word I’ve heard him utter since we left the One-Nine. It comes from deep in the throat. Prehistoric. Pre-language. A clacking of small rocks in a cave. It is the hmmph of humanity burning itself for the first time on fire of its own design.

His phablet piiings. He draws it, reads over the message, taps a response, and holsters it again without telling me what it says. He eyeballs the crowd like an old west sheriff scanning the bleak horizon. I stand blinking at him, waiting. He claps me on the shoulder once and beelines for the escalators.

Users take one look at the Lud barreling down on them and frantically mine their purses and pockets for their MetroCards—verification of legitimate usage of the Metro, legitimate behavior, legitimate existence. 

Whereas I’m about as hardboiled as a plastic Easter egg stuffed with Laffy Taffy and rub-off tattoos, Sgt. Jeffrey Ludinski is a real cop’s cop. He operates on a subconscious casserole of beat cop machismo, an invertebrate’s lack of self-awareness, and a brand of mustache shampoo (for body and shine) which I swear is mutagenic, long ago wiring his copstache to his brain. He stands a head shorter than me, but he’s bulky, big-wristed, and built custom for the job. His father was a cop, his mother a dispatcher. It is a union so cliché that in a billion-billion parallel universes it would still only ever produce the Lud.

Before we’re even halfway across the platform, he’s has slapped a dozen or so hasty summonses on the all-too-suspecting ridership. The summonses are for offenses ranging from Criminally Misjudged Attempt at Ranged Disposal of Litter to Improper Engagement with Third Party-Sponsored Transit Artwork, when a guy wiped his frittata-sopped hand on a bucolic mural of aboveground parklife.

But the Lud’s not smiling. There’s no pep in his patrol, no pizzazz in the way he pecks out infractions on his phablet. A pitiful lack of cruelty underlies the tenor of his lectures on civic responsibility. His mustache is lusterless.

Along the northbound rail of the platform, a Ford economy class pulls into station. Over the station intercom, the bloodthick, disembodied voice of Bela Lugosi announces, “Ze time isz nyow eight forty-five. Sank you for riding ze Metro!”

Around the platform the user lifeform frizzes and frays, splitting, budding, and reproducing exact copies that board trains or hop onto the escalators. Under the brutal regime of numbers, all are swept along. Occasionally, individuals will take form, coalescing into shape, and wander off, confused and becoming somehow alone in the swarm. They gaze like stroke victims into the tangle of colored lines on Metro maps, drooling paralytic wonderment. The trains are antlike blips traversing the corridors of a hive. A few users locate something there, possibly themselves, possibly some likewise nameless thing they’ve lost, but others only blink and mutter, finding themselves nowhere and everywhere all at once. Each and every individual eventually dissolves, anonymously, back into the crowd. All the city’s collateral lives, with their ten thousand destinations and ten thousand points of departure, thread and overlap in the Metro. And the Lud and I weave among them. The Lud zigs while I zag. We slip like a loose strand in the users’ knotted itineraries, threatening to either unravel it or hold it all together. After fourteen years on the job, I’m still not sure which.

As far as I can tell I witness no felonies, no pickpocketing, no opportunistic stabbing or groping. Flow and setting inertia are optimal. Zero turbulence, acceptable levels of idleness. The stampede is casual. Users remain as calm as barbiturated MooCows® rolling eagerly to slaughter and inevitable burgerdom. By the MTA Hub’s standards, the traffic in Lugosi this morning doesn’t measure Heavy or even Mildly Burdensome, but it isn’t exactly Light or Stressfully Brisk, either. The station appears firmly planted in the goldilocks zone of public transportation. On a morning like this, an explorer from another planet might mistake the Metro as being inhabited by intelligent lifeforms.

I follow the Lud around a pillar obscured in the advertisement glow of a holographic bottle of Johnson & Johnson anti-itch powder being sprinkled liberally on the upturned pink rump of a giggling newborn. On the other side, a cadre of enviroflagellants are placing pamphlets full of bullet-pointed warnings against pscyhometeorology and the city above’s Climate Control Apparatus on a fold-out table. After they flash us their MTA-issued License to Proselytize, the Lud gives them the nod and they carry on. They strip off their matching sky-blue t-shirts—ones with puffy raincloud logos—and set about to whipping themselves with cats o’ nine tails lashed together out of hyperactived thermoelectric fibers while chanting demands for a 70% chance of scattered and thunderstorms and a corrective citywide dose of inhibited self-worth on Thursday afternoon.

There is such an edge to the normality in Lugosi this morning I could cut myself. So, of course, the Lud is having none of it.

He hits the escalator two steps at a time, bounding, heaving with flatfoot conviction, and strong-arms his way over anyone riding peacefully toward the concourse. Something’s up. An undercurrent of nervousness guides our beat. Something in the Delinquistat® report, something I missed during Roll Call. And it’s waiting for us on the concourse. 

I step one foot onto the escalator, then the other, and ride dutifully in the Lud’s wake. The well-way is brimming with holograms of company mascots. Lombardi the Ludicrust Pizza LampreyTM showers me with buy-one-get-one-half-off coupons on feta- and calamari-stuffed crust mediums. The Nudelreich NudelfürherTM hails me with glorious free samples of Überspätzle®. Wally the WalrusTM, wearing his fur-lined arctic explorer’s getup, offers both of us a chance to win a personal concert from urban baroque sensation Charelz the First on the luxury-class Aston Martin DB9000 Des Moines, courtesy of Wally’s Winter Wonderplace, an arcology up in Sector 58 shaped like an iceberg. The Lud hikes right through the hologram, not giving it a second thought, while I wave Wally aside, saying, “Yeah, yeah, sure. Sign me up for two, whatever,” without considering the consequences. 

The escalator dumps us right into the thick of the Lugosi Station concourse and my blood and bowels both run cold.

Gaping before us, the scene foretells unfathomable doom. Fog seeps over the concourse from a median of wintered, artificial plantlife. Stone and half-timbered franchise storefronts line both its sides and the broad, gothic mezzanine overhanging it, all to compliment the motif of ruined opulence in the Transylvania Trails super-tenement above Lugosi Station. The Lud staggers out into the rubber, cobbled thoroughfare, hand on his whomper. Strobing like a beacon in the fog along the molded arc of a Craft-A-Crotchling custom fertilization clinic’s signboard is a hologram reading GRAND OPENING TODAY! 

The clinic’s pink doors have been folded apart to warmly welcome the squirmy queue of customers besieging the pale, mucoidal film of a force field that blocks the narrow slit of the vestibule. In half an hour, they will be loosed inside to be fertilized and/or implanted with Craft-A-Crotchling’s latest line of designer spunk and ova. The storefront emerges out of the faux medieval stonework like a portal to another plain of existence. 

I hang back in the midst of the user flow and take it all in. I draw my phablet, hand trembling, and open up the morning’s Duty Roster. The Lud mutters to himself and paces in a tight, mean circle, his mustache aflutter, before working his way along the non-compliant ruin of tents and sleeping bags the customers have abandoned in the middle of the thoroughfare. The pressure is building. He can’t hold it in much longer. Giving the Craft-A-Crotchling, and with it the Metro, the city above, and the entire felonious universe, a single all-encompassing grunt like, You don’t think I know what’s going on here, bub? the Lud plants himself in front of the clinic’s vaginal entranceway with all the conviction of a judiciary tampon and says, “Mary, mother of God.”

“Certainly looks that way,” I tell him.

  He glares back in my direction, beads of sweat huddling between his hat band and brow, but he’s looking past me. “Whaddya make of that?”

Across from the clinic, a chipper gathering of skinny youths, bedecked in loincloths, are holding hands and forming what looks like a prayer circle under the polystyrene boughs of a bare black oak in the concourse’s median. They close their eyes and sway and hum. Nearby they’ve strung handmade crucifixes depicting a profoundly browed Jesus nailed to a megalith along the lower branches of the fake oak. A sign offers the crucifixes for sale at $29.99 a messiah—a real steal, I guess.

“Paleochristians?” I say. “A Craft-A-Crotchling might fit on their protest agenda. Probably have to keep an outrage quota to maintain tax exempt status.”

“We should let them burn this place to the ground.”

“I have serious doubts, Lud, on whether they get enough sugars in their diet for any severe rabble-rousing.”

“It’s unnatural,” says the Lud.

“Not eating grains?”

“No, I mean…” He waves a hand back at the clinic and its customers. “Whatsamatta with making babies the old-fashioned way, you know? It’s tried and true, to say the least.”

“Like rutting in caves?”

“If you ask me,” he says, but I knew better, “what these people really need isn’t no baby.”

I wait. A beat passes, and I give in. “Okay, Lud, so what do they need instead?”

“Huh?” He looks at me, genuinely confused. “Search me, Ari. I’m not their fucking marriage counselor or their priest. All’s I’m saying is the last thing they need is any ill begotten Franken-spawn.”

“Ill begotten…? Lud, all right, forget it. Just tell me what the fuck we’re doing here.” I flick through the Duty Roster, searching for our assignments. “This says we’re supposed to be on train duty today—on the Ford K9000.”

“It’s not due in Lugosi for another hour. Gandy and his rookie, whatshisname…Benezi, were assigned fixers for the grand opening,” he says. “But they called in. Psych leave. Both of ‘em,” he says and shrugs. “So I reassigned us and put Dougal on the train.”

“You reassigned us.”

“I reassigned us.”

“To a fucking grand opening.”

“Uh huh.”

“Psych leave?”

“Gandy’s mother passed away.”

“Again?”

“Last time was a false alarm, Ari.”

“But he held a funeral… I sent flowers!”

“He says he got her mixed up with somebody else,” the Lud says. “Says he didn’t even know his mother was still alive until she died. You know how those retirement arcologies can be. The one my old man lives in has got so many geezers roaming around…”

“Are you saying they’d lost Gandy’s mom?”

“Half the time you can’t tell who’s who in the place and neither can they, not even themselves.”

“That’s because you never visit. No one does. Gandy probably forgot what his mother even looked like.”

“Ari, I’m not one to bemoan the state of elder care in this fine city, you know. Nor the depths of sleaze Tom Gandy is willing to dig himself through to get outta work. But I do know we got a job to do. So,” he says, drawing his phablet and stylus, “plan’s the same as always. We protect,” he says, pointing his stylus at the customers and protestors in turn, “and we serve, whether they like it or not.”

So as the Lud brings down his size twelve-and-a-half boot of justice onto the line of expectant mothers- and fathers-to-be, I zero in on the Paleochristians’ refreshment cart.

Pipe music swells over an exo-temporal radio pulling a tachyon feed straight out of the Late Pleistocene, adding a Lost World ambiance to the gathering at the edge of the median’s woodland. A campfire crackles and extinct animals caterwaul in the prehistoric wilderness. When I approach, a Caucasian twenty-something male wearing a headdress of papier-mâché bird feathers and a Hugo Boss loincloth cut to minimum legal coverage offers me a cup of cocoa.

Before I even have the opportunity to ask, he assures me the cocoa belongs to a genetic lineage untampered with by human cultivation. Non-allergenic. The cup itself is a cacao shell hollowed out by hand and by stone, he says, so it’s clearly legit as fuck. 

“Sir,” I say, “are you attempting to bribe me with a hot, unsweetened beverage?”

He jerks the cup back, scalding himself. “Whoa, no way man, I… I mean, please officer,” he says and holds the cup out ceremoniously, “accept this offering of my tribe’s goodwill toward the MTAPD.”

I can smell the man’s unbrushed teeth when he smiles.

“For all the sacrifices its warriors, such as yourself, are asked to make whilst defending our Metro’s uhh…trailheads.”

“Trailheads,” I say. I take the cup and sip it. “I like that. Trailheads. Not so much the part about sacrifice.” The drink is sugarless and so hot it tastes like liquid brimstone.  “Mmmmmm…” I smack my tongue in an attempt to defibrillate my taste buds.

“Pretty tasty, huh?”

“Very primordial.”

“You do my tribe a great honor. It was my ex-wife’s recipe.”

“She must be proud.”

He weaves his fingers together solemnly and rests his elbows on the refreshment cart between us. “Please, tell me what it is this humble servant of the Chieftain of Man can do for the transit police this blessed morning.”

He identifies himself as Chief Len of the Tribe of the Providential Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid but I run his MetroCard for good measure. The MTA database has the chief’s real name as Lenny Russel, 34, “self-employed” but previously a “gastroneer” for Hoobajoob Wholesome Foods at their arcology upsector. Currently, he is receiving his Basic Municipal Income at an address in the Sweltering Brooks tenement complex in Sector 66 just above Danny De Vito Station. A parent’s place or an ex-lover’s, I imagine. Probably not his real address but being a transit cop, it’s none of my business where a man hangs his loincloth at the end of the day so long as he’s not letting anything untoward slip out of it on his daily commute.

While I’m running the chief’s info, I give other tribespeople a once over. The female members are industriously crushing flowers picked from the parklands into a colorful goop and painting their pulpboard protest signage with pithy sayings. Huddled together underneath a NO URINATING ideogram among a copse of evergreens, the men converse gravely, passing a single cup of cocoa among themselves. Every few seconds, the top half of one of their painted faces pops up from the huddle and gazes across the thoroughfare at the line of Craft-A-Crotchling customers like they’re a herd of plump gazelle. Either they’re planning an act of terrorism or what they’re going to hunt and gather for lunch later. Both seem like probable violations of the transit code.

“All right, Chief,” I say. “Can I call you Chief?”

“Yes…”

“Tell me if I’m not mistaken here, but…” I almost take another sip of cocoa, out of a cop’s habit to imbibe whatever hot beverage happens to be at hand, but think twice. “Chief, I’ll get to the point.”

“Please, officer.”

I narrow my gaze to measure his level of snark and unconsciously drink the cocoa. “Chief, I feel like it would be a violation of the rights ensured the citizenry of this city by such-and-such article of MTA policy for me to cite you and your fellow tribesmembers for this demonstration of your beliefs.”

“An honorable decision, worthy of your station.”

“So I’ll assume,” I tell him, “by the fact that you’re a man of the cloth, however scanty said cloth may be, that all the appropriate forms and permissions and sacrifices have been filled, filed, and offered unto the MTA to make this all legal.”

“Ehh…”

“Good, good.” I drink the cocoa. “I want you to do just one thing for me, then, okay chief?”

“For you…” He gazes at the nametag poking from underneath the jacket. “Sergeant Ludinski.”

“Eichel,” I tell him, zipping the jacket, and tap my badge, which projects my holopic. “Just Officer Eichel.”

“Officer Eichel,” the chief says, opening his palms to me, “for this honor you do us, I would offer my only daughter to you in marriage upon the day of her first blood.”

A swig of cocoa U-turns up and out of my nostril and I nearly double over. “A simple ‘thank you’…” I cough. “…will be just fine, chief.”

I take another sip to drown the cough. Above us, the fiberglass needles of a spooky pine beat softly in the busy air. Pigeons coo in the Styrofoam undergrowth. 

I nod over at the Craft-A-Crotcling. “So just one more thing,” I say and swallow. “You see my partner over there, Lenny?”

Only the Lud’s ass end is currently visible to us, poking between the flaps of some customers’ tent.

“Yes?” Chief Lenny says.

“Then let us simply behold…”

The Lud’s tossing belongings haphazardly out into the concourse. Blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, toilet paper, sacks of waste, carryout and delivery canisters, nanofridges, natural sunrise alarm clocks. He flings out a couple toddler-shaped bipedal Your Motherhood Starts Today!TM soligrams. They wail and babble on the floor in tantrums. The constructs have been preloaded with Craft-A-Crotchling’s fall catalogue so parents-to-be can test drive phenotypes—like blue eyes, red hair, or a grandfather’s nasal structure coupled with his mood disorder—before committing to an embryo. The soligrams would be easily mistakable for real human offspring if it weren’t for the hammer and screwdriver-crossed vulva logo of Craft-A-Crotchling stamped onto their foreheads.

 

Lying face down on the floor tiles behind the Lud is an elderly woman in handcuffs. She calls the Lud a cave pig. An older gent, who I guess is her husband, paces around her, his hands worming in his pockets. A young woman shouts at the Lud from her firmly held spot in line—daughter maybe—and demands to know if the elderly lady is being detained. She threatens to have the Lud’s badge if he doesn’t answer.

Briefly, my partner backs out of the tent, sees me looking his way, yells, “Got myself a three-three-eight-seven over here, Ari!” and dives back into the tent.

Where patrolleth the Lud so goeth the law.

“Now,” I say to Chief Lenny, sipping hard on the cocoa, “I want you to keep everything nice and lacking in holy war over here. Because trust me when I tell you, chief, that you do not want that cave pig will piss on your powwow so fast you’ll wonder who danced the rain dance.”

Chief Lenny pokes a finger in his ear and digs around. He flicks out something organic. “So whassa three-three-eight-seven?” he says.

Needless to say, I don’t have a clue. 

Having the Lud around these fourteen years, I’ve never really bothered memorizing transit or police codes. Sure, the ones we get on a regular basis I’ve picked up involuntarily. They’re burned in, crystalized, got their own synaptic routes, almost spinal. I respond to them on reflex. Things like an eight-seven-eight (Disorderly and/or Raucous Commuters), a twelve-oh-twelve (Unauthorized Lifeform in Right-of-Way of Train), an oh-nine-thirty (Body of Unknown Character Found, Unclear Cause of Death), a five-two-five (Biochemical Spill of Anonymous Origin), a ten-eight-forty (Unsavory Homo sapiens troglodytes Transient Activity), or a two-two-two (Large Bothersome Flock of Pigeons), plus a handful of others—robberies, muggings, pickpockets, unsanctioned graffiti, etc. But no human brain should be able to call up every code in the MTA database willy-nilly. That’s the jurisdiction of panhuman intelligences like the Metro’s disembodied ego Central or the MTAPD’s dispatcher. Either that, or you could be a cop who, all through his childhood, listened to his dead mother’s voice call out codes over his father’s police comm. That’d work, as well. Then again, I’m not entirely convinced that the Lud has a human brain, per se. 

I find myself sipping cocoa, again, as I check the MTAPD Infraction Index on my phablet. The three-three-eight-seven is listed under a section heading with the lively title of Transgression against the Grain of the Moral Fiber of the Universe, which spans a range of criminal endeavors including, but not limited to, cannibalism, the use of weaponry banned by the 2197 Reunification Treaty of Topeka, and the offering of a payday loan service. In what way the Lud is interpreting this is beyond my capacity for judiciary sadism.

“You know what, don’t get your loincloth in a tizzy over it,” I tell Chief Lenny. “It’s police business. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”

I cradle the cacao shell and sidle my way through passersby across the thoroughfare. The second I leave, the tribesmen swarm their chief. It’d take one underachieving rookie—or an MTAPD veteran the likes of Tom Gandy—not to smell something other than cocoa brewing, but between the Paleochristians, the Craft-A-Crotchling customers, and the Lud, the bits of pineapplely Chickenoma® and stomach acid rising in my throat tell me to worry the most over whatever it is the Lud’s plotting. Call it experience.

“So what’s the deal?”

The Lud’s elderly detainee blinks up at me. She looks like a geriatric turtle with her neck craned up under her osteoporosis hump. Her freshly permed hair is full of pluck. She and her husband have to be pushing hard on a century—clearly not wealthy enough to afford complete age reversal therapy but they’re on a telomerase regimen, at the least.

“You cave pigs make me want to vomit in my mouth!” she yells.

“That makes the two of us,” I tell her as I watch the Lud scavenge the tent for probable cause.

One of the soligrams toddles into my leg and calls me ‘Dada.’ I kick it hard and it slides off into the thoroughfare. The elderly detainee’s husband hounds in right behind the Lud, nodding to everything my partner is saying. The younger woman calls this “a miscarriage of the law.”

The perps’ names are Martin and Loma Lopez. According to the database, they live in a well-to-do tenement in Sector 12 called Sarasota Coves. It’s a swank place, a cluster of geodesics enclosing sweeping artificial beachfront. Clothing optional. Healthy pensions, not.

“This was supposed to be a beautiful day!” Loma squirms on the floor. “We were going to design our grandbaby this morning!” Her mouth puckers, jowls quiver, and her eyes well up, all on cue. “My dead son’s son! We never have this trouble with the surface police—the real police!”

Martin coughs hard and glares at his wife.

“Lady, you climbed down into this hole yourself,” I say.

“Please, please, please just leave us alone,” the younger woman begs from her firmly held spot in line. “My dead husband was a cop!”

The words DEAD and COP hang in the air like they’ve been printed there. The Lud crabcrawls out of the tent, looks up at the words, and snaps his head in her direction. “Who’s a dead cop?”

“My husband.”

“Your husband.”

The tears tremble in her ducts. “And so was my father-in-law,” she says and points at the old man, who is suddenly seized by an acute coughing spell. “But he’s retired now. My husband, he… he… he died in the line of duty.”

“In the line of duty, even,” says the Lud, standing and needlessly brushing himself off.

“We had his sperm frozen when he graduated from the academy,” she says, “just in case.”

The Lud eyes the old man. “A cop, huh?”

He hacks up a lung, or three.

The Lud struts past the old man up to the widowed daughter-in-law. There’s a wiggle in his index finger, like he’s twirling a vestigial billy club. He lifts his head a bit and tightens his mouth, as if he’s about to let the mustache do the talking. 

He says, “Where was he assigned?”

“Thirty-seventh…” she says.

“Thirty-seventh,” says the Lud. He glances at me. “And you’re telling me he died on the job?”

She sniffles in affirmation.

The old man staggers toward the woman, wheezing.

The Lud cocks his mustache, ready to fire. “See that’s funny,” he says.

“It’s,” she says, eyes brimming, “funny?”

The Lud scratches the back of his head, letting his hat fall a bit forward, and glances down the line of customers like he’s embarrassed. A couple behind the widow look excited, thinking they’re about to move up in the queue.

“Funny,” the Lud says, “‘cause the Dirty-Sevent, as we call it down here, hasn’t lost a man in forty-eight years. I should know,” says the Lud, “the last man killed in the line of duty was my own father.”

I check the time. We haven’t even been on the beat for an hour and the Lud is already going full Lud. It is going to be a long fucking day.

Hands in prayer mode, the widow brings her bare arms to rest on her childless bosom. “He…” she says, her voice catching in the pit of her throat. “My husband and father-in-law weren’t cave— weren’t, I mean, transit cops,” she says. “They were surface police.”

The old man stops coughing. For a second I think he’s died. He swallows hard, looking a bit woozy.

“Martin,” the old lady says, “are you feeling okay?”

The Lud turns on the elderly couple and draws his phablet and stylus so fast they seem to pop into existence. “Well, well,” he says, “this changes everything of course…”

“It does?” the widow says.

“For fuck’s sake, Lud!” I throw myself between my partner and his perps. “Your father didn’t die in the line of duty. Retired, fat, and miserable as he is, he’s still kicking. What’d these people do in the first place anyway?”

He nods at the daughter-in-law. “She didn’t do a thing, but those two…” He points the long accusatory stylus of the law at the husband and wife. “Their Sojourning Seniors Season Couples MetroCards are three days expired.”

“Three days expired?”

“Three days, Ari.”

“That’s your three-three-eight-seven?” I look deep into the beady hollows of his eyes. Soulless, pitiless. “How exactly, Lud, is an expired MetroCard a Transgression against the Moral Fiber of the Universe?”

“Against the Grain of the Moral Fiber of the Universe, Ari.”

“Oh, I am sorry.”

He shrugs. “I was gonna just slap ‘em with a Notice to Renew on Punishment of Nine Months Pedestrianism, but accounting for their age, I thought it’d be cruel and unusual. Then the old bag,” he says, “starts to giving me lip,” he says, “so I’m thinking Conspiracy to Exploit the Fair & Pleasant Commute Act of 2277 for the Purpose of Unfair Ridership Advantages. But, you know, the three-three-eight-seven seems like a happy middle-ground.”

“Cannibalism. That’s your idea of a ‘happy middle-ground’?”

“It carries a more lenient minimum fine than Conspiracy to Exploit.”

Before I spit out cocoa and whatever reflexive obscenities are appropriate to the situation, a deep dull bell tolls nine times over the station intercom, like one in a Transylvanian castle belfry, and Bela Lugosi announces, “Ze time isz nyow nine uh’clock!”

The line of prospective parents outside the Craft-A-Crotchling issue forth a collective, pent-up animal squee. They hop and bunch like an epileptic millipede. Before either the Lud or I can register what’s happening, the force field barring the clinic’s entranceway powers down with a low wooooooooooommm—a sound like I imagine a life-altering epiphany would make—and droves of women, and some men, rush forward to be inseminated like it’s going out of style.

Speaker drones hover over the entrance and swell and thump with Charelz the First’s revamp of The Blue Danube as a hired performer in a powered exosuit shaped like a giant newborn, with blond hair twisted up in a unisex swirl, does a running knee-slide out of the clinic’s birth canal and initiates a breakdance. The performer’s face pants and reddens and heaves between the suit’s puckered, nipple-ready lips. The head on this thing is massive. An encephalitic subspecies of human. The neck is weak. The head bobbles with the rhythm. I wonder if this being is representative of one the designer phenotypes Craft-A-Crotchling is rolling out this morning. The end result of selection by parental one-upmanship in the baby genius department. The oncoming ruling caste of toddling super-geniuses able to jab color-coded 4-dimensional stars, hearts, fishes, and tesseracts through corresponding 3-dimensinal holes in a Fisher-Price Baby’s First Topology Sorter®.

Behind this nightmare a platoon of eager family planning clinicians stand along the clinic’s opening, attempting to control the flow of customers inside. The widowed daughter-in-law is in near panic, turning between her former in-laws and the Craft-A-Crotchling, but in the end, she opts for the next generation and powerwalks straight for the vulvar entranceway.

Maybe the Lud is right. Maybe we should let the Paleochristians burn the clinic to the ground.

Oh shit. The Paleos…

“Ari! Ari!”

“What?”

“Snap out of it. Time to drift off later,” says the Lud. He drags his elderly perp to her feet. “Protect! Serve something!”

From the opposite side of the thoroughfare comes a hornblast.

I turn and see Chief Lenny climbing one of the plastic oaks, an animal horn pressed to his lips. He puts all his non-fatty cardiological might into blowing. The trumpeting reverberates down the concourse as the tribeswomen line up along the median and shake their flowery protest signage: THE WOMB IS NATURE’S SACRED TEST TUBE and IF JESUS HAD INTENDED US TO DESIGN BABIES HE WOULD’VE MADE REPRODUCTIVE SYSTEMS WITH DROP-DOWN MENUS!

The tribesmen, on the other hand, are nowhere in sight.

I cover the cacao cup with one hand to keep from spilling and ford the stream of Metro users moving down the thoroughfare. For their credit they just go about their business, ignoring or simply not noticing the Paleochristians or the Craft-A-Crotchling customers. I scan the median for movement. Nothing but a lifeless wall of plastic plants all similar shades of gothic. 

“Tribal warriors,” I say to myself in hopes that naming my prey will actualize the hunt. Maybe they’ll come to me. “Tribal warriors. Batshit zealots with a primitivist fetish. Batshit zealots with a…”

And that’s when it hits.

A crawly ichthyoid thing flops over in my stomach and dies. My colon lurches. My diaphragm heaves. Neither end knows whether to open up or pucker shut. My gut and my head churn. My intestines knot. My brain uncoils and loosens. It squirms along my esophagus. Vomit slides up the back of my throat while the velvet autumnal leaves in the median surf along the currents of conditioned air blowing from vents hidden in the undergrowth. This plastic forest writhes. Layer upon layer of careful hues reveal themselves like the slow, complex rainbow of a blackened room. Depthless, entangled, evolving. The plastic displays all the symptoms of authentic plantlife. They breathe and bask. The untapped soulstuff of polystyrene. Synthetic beings conjured from the selfsame polymeric soup as all other creatures but eons dead and process manufactured. Chief Lenny toots his maddening horn from the treetop while the tribeswomen hold hands and throat sing guttural hymnals in sync with the open-handed drumming on the exo-temporal. The melodies ripple over me. Scenes of quaint Ice Age cave life play in my brain. Lazy Saturdays spent mowing or watering the front grassland. Children chasing the megafauna down by the glacier. The good ole days when men were barely taxonomically men and women were wild animals to be dragged by bone-knotted ponytails and over whose affections a guy might club out the brains of his best friend since third hunt with his brand-new Black & Decker Rock-Tied-to-a-Stick-with-Catgut®.

My eyeballs trace the ageless kilometers of what could only be my arm, to where the cocoa inhabits my hand. The chocolate liquid steams in its organic cup like a Precambrian ocean pregnant with lungless ecosystems.  The cacao shell the vessel of the world. 

I attempt breathing. Fishlike. Newly amphibious.

I take a breath through my skin. I take a breath parsecs deep and it becomes abundantly clear to me, in a true volume of clarity inflating my chest cavity, that the fucking paleos have spiked their cocoa with a hallucinogen. 

“Oh,” I say, dragging out the sound, “fuuuuuuuuck me.”

And in this moment, at the intake, the warriors of the Providential Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid break from the treeline.

They charge past in slowmo, whooping and frothing, infused with cocoa. Avatars of a prehistoric manger-born god of battle. Each of them wields a noodly weapon—probably a leftover of the Perpetual War scavenged from some forgotten underground cache—with a mouthlike killing end that squirts forth warmly glowing splooge whenever one squeezes its ammunition bladder. Globs of this discharge strike the customers and clinicians and splatter, plastering them to the walls of the clinic’s storefront.

One hits near the Lud and glues his boots fast to the floor. He’s yelling curses at me and pointing down the thoroughfare.

I turn, following his indicating finger, and the concourse expands endlessly away from me—so far that the distance is darkened like I am peering into the span of a reflection’s reflection. I blink and stretch my eyelids, attempting to shutter out the limitless geometries. Then I see them… The elderly perps are hightailing it in the direction of the Φ Line platform, the old lady still in her handcuffs.

Somehow the Lud slips out of his boots and foots it after them down the thoroughfare in his socks, his whomper drawn. He spins back and looks me dead in the eyes. His mustache evolves and crawls over his face. He—not the mustache—says, “Ari! You hold down things here until I get back. I’m gonna nab these two collars.”

“Lud! Lud, they’ve poisoned me!” I tell him. “I’m tripping my fucking beytsim off over here!”

“Just call for backup if you can’t handle it,” he says. “Once I catch these bastards I gotta take one mean piss. Be back in two shakes of a jiffy.”

“Can’t you hold— Two shakes of a what?”

The Lugosi concourse bristles with war whoops and screams. A crowd of gawkers have gathered along the concourse, sipping coffee and snapping pictures. 

Working their way along the corridor into the clinic’s uterine customer service lobby, Chief Lenny and his tribespeople have left a wake of quivering limbs and heads and torsos stuck-fast in the jellied emissions of the weapons dripping from the walls and pooling across the floor. The men fire indiscriminately while the women sing.

I am soaked in sweat and itching. I drop the rest of the half-empty cacao shell into a trash receptacle, out of habit, and something squawks bloody murder. A pigeon leaps out, flapping its useless wings, its featherless skin smoking with hot chocolate. It skitters across the thoroughfare, cooing angrily, threatening lawsuits. I strip off the windbreaker and draw my whomper from its holster. Protect and serve, I tell myself, possibly out loud—it’s hard to tell at this point. “Protect and serve…” 

The whomper hums in my head, ready to scream.

On the intercom, the station AI says, “Ve are uhxperiencing non-standard foot traffic near ze Gahmma Line escalator. Be uhdvized, evuhryzing will be okay. Do not wuhrry. Zank you for riding…”

The motherly reassurance of the Metro’s announcement drapes over me like a calming blanket. I let myself feel the groundswell of trains beating paths along the darkened Γ and Φ Line tunnels beneath my feet and I breathe. 

“Pleeze be uhdvized,” Bela Lugosi repeats, “evuhryzing isz fine.”

I follow the Tribe of the Providential Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid down the Craft-A-Crotchling’s birth canal.

On either side of me and above, the pink walls and ceiling throb and glisten with a mucosal sheen—a fussy veneer of sexual tissue dribbling with viscous weaponized mucilage. Out of the cooling discharge the outstretched limbs of victims flail and grasp at me, exposed heads heaving for air and pleading for release. I flatten myself against the spongy wall, sucking in, and slide along just out of their reach, saying, “Don’t touch me. Shh, be quiet. Nothing to see here. Shh.” Even the giant baby has been ensnared. The exosuit’s pistons whine as the occupant fights to break free. Its beheaded helmet piece looms like a prehistoric egg from the goop nearby. Out from the concourse, animals wail lasciviously over the Paleochristians’ exo-temporal. The canal is swamped with body heat. I am shedding sweat. Animal fear. Primal bafflement. Spinal contingencies. Hives break out along my throat and shoulders, pricking down my belly, firing off nerve endings at random. Invisible protohuman hairs prickle all over. It’s just a histamine response, I tell myself. It’s just the drug. Deadened action potential. I grip the whomper tighter and it vibrates. The weapon sings. I slog down the corridor, following the ragged and ulcerous throat-sung hymnals of the tribeswomen. Every step forward my feet pool, spreading like gelatin, elephant-like, tremendously heavy. I begin to stumble, feeling the urge to crawl. The Oedipal squirm back into oblivion. The womb that waits on the other side of dying. The Metro grows darker behind me the deeper I plunge. I remind myself I was born of a C-section—there is no metaphor here.

This is the inside of a store. Suspects ahead of me. No backup. 

I proceed with caution.

 

 

 

From the concourse, a news drown sweeps down the corridor at breakneck speed, panning over the scene, beaming distress citywide. It corkscrews and flies around me, turning its all-exploiting eye on my willowish, drug-flustered being.

“The name’s TED-X33L, reporting for The Morning Commute. What’s the lowdown? Any comment on the situation…” Its lens focuses on the nametag of the uniform shirt I’m wearing. “…Sgt. Ludinski?”

“Ludinski?” Right then, training kicks in like excrement of a gland. It’s an old feeling, a cop feeling. It sputters to life out of a decade long coma. The pulsing organic architecture, its psychic overflow, becomes a terrain to be crossed. Reality’s crude and viscid dullness darkens the surreal pastels. Simple and manageable, entirely external. Third person. Zero conscience except for what the media provides. “Right. The name’s Ludinski. Listen, pal, you’ll wanna stay back. Police business.”

“Righty-o, sergeant!” the drone says.

It drops to a low-angle shot behind me, allowing the clinic’s birth canal to be framed between my knees. I see it as if I’m looking through the drone’s lens myself. 

I glance back at the drone and yell down the corridor, “Stop! Police!” to solidify any Resisting Arrest charges with media evidence and trudge ahead, whomper primed.

The lobby is lined with an abundance of intersecting fallopian hallways. More victims are glued to the floor and walls. 

After a few minutes, I stumble upon a lone paleo warrior squatting on his sculpted glutes at the entrance to a showroom filled with demo fetuses suspended in vats, knees splayed and warcrying, as he fires his noodle-gun at the people hiding inside. Thinly decayed teeth line the tribesman’s gums. He laughs so wide I’m afraid I might fall in.

He doesn’t notice me. I tiptoe up to the archway and brace myself against the wall. I turn my head sideways to keep reality from sliding back off. I hold my breath and level my whomper at him. Sweat runs down my face. The angles curl and wave under the tide of cocoa washing back over my brain. I measure the space between us. It’s either a few footsteps or a lightyear. I squint one eye to aim and wait for the dead, careful space between heartbeats and squeeze the whomper’s rubber ball-grip…

And a deafening pulse of non-lethal soundwaves fires right back in my face.

The single flat whomp of the shot plasters me against the wall and reverberates through the clinic and back out into the concourse. A green flash strikes like a light bulb burning out inside my skull. I fold up on the floor and stutter and spit and slap at my bleeding ears.  No ringing. My ears are fried. My head swells, the skull bone becoming the rind of a melon. Gelatin grey matter sloshes in my brainpan. Bile roils up my throat, between my teeth, and I retch. Blood and stinging nettle and chunks of pineapple and Chickenoma® blow out all over the Lud’s uniform shirt.

At some point, between the wall and the floor, it occurs to me, the thought wiggling into shape, that I was holding the whomper backwards. 

Whose fucking idea was it to make the goddamn things spherical in the first place?

The Paleochristian tribesman stares down and levels his weapon at me sprawled on the ground. 

I say, “You’re underrrrrrr arrest, fuckface. Drop the…thing!”

He lowers the weapon, blinks at me, and hops over my body, scampering off deeper into the clinic to join the others.

I try to roll up and position my body to a pursuit vector but end up grawling toward a glowing red EXIT hologram. The news drone hovers around me, its lens focusing acutely on the blood, snot, stomach acid, and cocoa draining from my mouth, nostrils, ear holes, and tear ducts, while I pull myself across the lobby one arm at a time outstretched like an elastic, corn syrup-filled latex tube. 

A heaviness seems to infuse the air as I cross the uterus. My lungs weigh me to the floor. It’s like breathing vaporized lead. The Metro. My brain. The gross weight of the entire city above arches over me, all threatening to cave in. Everything recedes. The birth canal extends darkly toward the concourse like a Metro tunnel. I attempt to pull myself upright, finding feet at the end of my legs. 

And I laugh. All that’s left is laughter. It wells up and takes over. 

Each guffaw a yawning gulf punctuated by heaves and stutters. The news drone encapsulates everything in its massive and singular eye. I stand giggling in the black pit of its gaze, my enlarged gourd tottering on my fragile neck, held upright on useless noodles of limbs. I chuckle and slide down the slick vaginal lining of the wall to the floor but never seem to reach it…

I lose all context. I am set adrift in amniotic nonsense

Everything fractures, expands, and differentiates. 

I am bundling, compartment by compartment, into unconsciousness—the infused cocoa lets me feel every cerebral region fold up and close down. My tongue lolls like a dead cat, slaked with fur. 

When my eyes open again, without my telling them to or even suggesting it, I find myself staring up at the Jovian bulge of a low-hanging crotch on a pair of crisply starched transit cop uniform pants.

“Lud,” I say, a headache blooming in my skull. “Lud, I think they got away. We should… What are you doing?”

He pulls a Rezzipen® out of my neck. A cool liquid crawls through my veins as a stream of medical nanites hulk out my liver and kidneys and run my body through a hyperdrive detox to cancel out the cocoa’s mystic poison. I vomit again, all over the Lud’s uniform—not the one I’m wearing.

He stares down at the puke covering him. “Maybe I should be asking you that,” he says and lifts me to my feet. 

He half-carries/half-drags me out of the Craft-A-Crotchling’s entranceway, slipping every few steps in his socks, and sets me down on a foam chunk of gothic ruin in the median. Beside me, cuffed to one another around the trunk of a plastic palm, is the elderly couple. Blood seeps from the man’s ears and nose. A paramedic is stuffing living MediSponges® up his nostrils but they’re soaking up fast. The thoroughfare and Craft-A-Crotchling are crawling with Spillage & Sanitation crewmen in orange, form-fitting Tyvek® coveralls. They’re spraying down the noddle-gun ammunition with solvent. It fizzes and dissolves, the sharp vapor escaping through the station’s ventilation ducts.

“Your friends are holed up inside still,” the Lud says. I have to keep my eyes level with the steady plane of his mustache to keep from falling over. He jabs a thumb back at the clinic. “Some negotiators from the Terror Management Squad are inside cleaning up.”

“Hostages?” I ask him.

“If only it were something as fun,” he says. “They’re just trying to get them down off of whatever it is they doped you with. The TM sergeant said something about upgrading the situation to a five-nine-seven.” H watches me blink at him. “Mass Existential Trauma of Terroristic Origin brought on by Biochemical Weaponry,” he says. “Self-induced in this case. Probably end up flushing them out with nanites before it’s all said and done.”

“I’d hate to be the poor fuck who has to write this up.”

 

“Oh?” he says and smiles. I hate it when he smiles. It’s unnatural, like he’s just showing you his teeth. “All of those,” he says, drawing his phablet and tapping open a viewscreen, “are your collars.” He hands me the phablet and thumps the nametag on my shirt. “Congratulations, Sgt. Ludinski.”

On the phablet is what might be the thirtieth straight replay on The Morning Commute of me marching into the Craft-A-Crotchling with my weapon drawn and whomping myself in the face while the words SGT. LUDINSKI OF THE MTAPD ON THE SCENE OF THE GRAND OPENING OF THE CRAFT-A-CROTCHLING IN LUGOSI STATION THIS MORNING WHICH HAS PROLAPSED INTO CHAOS rolling across the screen underneath.

“Prolapsed…” I say. “Fuck me.”

“I gotta say,” the Lud says, “this Ludinski is a helluva cop. Despite having whomped himself on a live newsfeed, he somehow managed to make sixteen arrests. It’s fucking commendation worthy if I say so myself.”

“Well,” I say, tossing him the phablet, “it’s an honor just to serve.”

He slaps me on the knee. “Just hold tight. I gotta run these measly three-three-eight-sevens, sergeant.”

At this point, news drones have swooped in from all directions, picking at the crime scene’s carcass and taking testimonials from the cast of witnesses and victims still loitering about. The victims snuggle under trauma blankets and drink nostalgic comfort beverages. I must’ve been out for a while. The elderly perps’ ex-daughter-in-law is telling TED-X33L and The Morning Commute’s thirty million viewers about her “late husband’s wish” for a blond, curly haired, mathematically gifted, athletic, aesthetically dimpled, kind-hearted, broad-chested and broad-shouldered, never depressed or disagreeable, strongly chinned, resilient, well-adjusted, deeply voiced, blue-eyed, and entrepreneurial son, who would never, ever abandon his mother in times of need, had been stolen from her by the Paleochristian maniacs and incompetent MTAPD patrolmen. Tears trickle over her ample, newsworthy widow’s cheeks. 

A Spillage & Sanitation crewman walks over to me, drops my whomper into my lap, and says, “Here you go, pal. Think this might belong to you. It was in a pile of crap we found.”

“Yeah,” I say. “Thanks a ton.”

I pull whole strands of gunk from the weapon’s resonator. The discharge has lost its warmth and glow but not its potency for stickiness. It stretches between my fingers like doughy snot. Yesterday had been my fucking birthday. I like telling myself I forgot. I didn’t forget. All day yesterday I paced in my apartment wearing nothing but the ceremonial garb of a pair of day old briefs, pretending to have forgotten and hoping someone, the Lud or even Tom Gandy, would call so I could demonstrate my forgetfulness, my lack of sentimentality, but no one did. Self-pity is best left a hermit’s hobby. Thirty-eight years old. Fourteen of them spent on the fucking job. Half of my life. As a kid, I would dream of being a transit cop. I would ride the trains alone or stand on platforms for hours after school and peer into the tunnels, into those new winding caverns and the prewar fathoms of the Old Metro so stuffed with mystery, with its abandoned stations decaying in the depths like ghost towns and its unknowable mutant lifeforms prowling its spans of endless night. It was a borderland full of promise. It was like looking at manhood through the eyes of a pubescent boy. And here I am looking back and wondering if I ever arrived. Nowadays, being a transit cop is all I dream about. Paperwork, procedure, protocol. The flame of adventure has guttered. Transit infraction after transit infraction, day in and day out. A lifetime of predictable outcomes is the outcome of a predictable lifetime. Black hair has become salted with gray. All our promised tomorrows lie at the head of a long ruin of other tomorrows. The end of the line. Frontierless middle-age. My great-uncle’s receding hairline in the mirror. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. At the end of the day, the Lud has six daughters and a wife waiting for him at home. I have tonight’s rerun of The Continuing Adventures of Captain Guy Nebulon! and a delivery canister of leftover Chickenoma® chimichangas. The Metro taketh. It doesn’t give anything. I screw open my whomper’s casing. There’s noodle-gun goop in the circuitry and gumming up the woofers. I hop off the foam block of castle wall and walk across the thoroughfare. Some truants are watching the scene from the mezzanine and trying to spit on a couple of Spillage & Sanitation guys hand-scrubbing the gunk from under the Craft-A-Crotchling’s clitoral awning. I toss the whole whomper into a waste receptacle, through a hole labeled HERE.

The trash can thanks me for my civic virtue.

After finding his ruined boots in the solvent the Lud continues throwing the book at the elderly. He stands in his socks and quotes violations and ordinances while the old man nods gravely and his wife prods and pokes at potential loopholes in the seamless fabric of transit law. I consider walking away. I consider handing my badge and my cap device to the Lud, telling him, “So long, partner. I quit. I’m done,” and letting him settle this three-three-eight-seven, and all Metro’s million Crimes against the Grain of the Moral Fabric of the Universe on his own. 

But right then, just as I’m about to take what might as well be my first step off the beat in fourteen years, the Lud’s dead mother calls our names over the police comm.


Billy Longino lives in Texas with his wife and two children.

The Death of Woundworth by Avee Chaudhuri

in Fiction/Issue One

Not being a scientist or a reader of National Geographic, I don’t really know what constitutes a “minor ecological catastrophe.”  But yes, I am responsible. I gave the order: burn everything, and I did so to protect my intellectual property as well as that of the Palestinian Film Board, which generously agreed to finance my live action adaptation of Watership Down. They wanted a parable about liberty and statehood, and I have always been a fan of the novel. Despite the ideological overtones of the project, I am generally indifferent toward the conflict between Arab and Jew. I took the helm solely because of the technical challenge. The Palestinians do not have much money and could not produce a film with expansive computer animation, hence the need to use real wildlife and to shoot on location.

What has also been referred to as a “modest genocide” in the newspapers hinges entirely on my choice of assistant director. The film itself was viable and remains viable, and would have been brought to utter, timely fruition had it not been for Professor Gregor Ritzenthaler, PhD, former chair of the North Carolina Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. To be brief, the man is a disgraced and drunken zoologist, although the region’s foremost expert on the Leporidae family. I see in him now something of a tortured genius and an unpleasant, reluctant saint. But when I first met him at a TGI Fridays in Durham, he was friendly and outgoing. It was a Wednesday morning, about half past eleven, and he was on his eighth or ninth boilermaker. I should have been alarmed by this fact, but instead I was charmed by his knowledge of rabbit society, the inner workings and brutal politics of warrens and harems, breeding grounds, places of exile, defeat. It was operatic.

But Ritzenthaler showed up to the first day of filming drunk on Knob Creek and released all of the rabbits. Once he sobered up on a loaf of sourdough bread and a thermos of blackcoffee, it took him a full day to traipse through the marshes and recapture most of the principal cast. We had dinner that night in my trailer, and he apologized in full and promised to switch to a lower proof bourbon. At the time I believed this to be a fair and reasonable compromise. 

The role of General Woundworth went to our largest rabbit, but he was docile and diffident on camera, not at all keeping with his characterization in the novel. In order to induce the appearance of despotism and rage, we fed General Woundworth four ounces of espresso and his heart promptly exploded. The look in his eyes was terrible. Dr. Ritzenthaler did not forewarn me of this possible outcome. The animal rights activists learned of Woundworth’s demise and began to picket the set and commit small acts of sabotage. More rabbits freed and anamorphic lenses smashed to bits. It may be unpopular to claim outright, but a single, German-engineered anamorphic lens is worth a thousand Woundworths. 

There is no justice in this world. My tormentors were somewhat organized and adequately funded. They were occasionally ruthless, and one night they kidnapped Ritzenthaler as he was exiting a local tavern in the company of a known prostitute. Did she lure him into their hands? Was she a part of it? They wanted me to stop filming in exchange for the professor’s safe return. I refused to negotiate, certain they couldn’t harm a fellow mammal. But dear God, what they did to him was much worse. It was perverted and sanctimonious. A letter dated four months ago from those bastards records their attempts to sober up Dr. Ritzenthaler, much to his horror, by feeding him a diet of milk thistle and organic honey. Of course I contacted the police, but the detectives I spoke to were entirely apathetic. Ritzenthaler was a known drunk and a lecherous troublemaker, and they were glad to have him off the streets and away from their genteel country brothels. Fate had thrust into my unassuming orbit a manic scientist, a listless constabulary, and a cadre of mediocre terrorists.

Without Dr. Ritzenthaler around to advise me on the flurry of lovemaking scenes in the film’s third act, they turned out clinical and frank. Absolutely joyless. I had hoped that the musical score could add a subtext of romance and power to these empty trysts, but I ran out of money to hire a proper composer. My nephew, who is my ward, began writing and recording music on a keyboard synthesizer as per my instructions, but it was not very good. The horror of General Woundworth’s death, those grimacing eyes, that death rattle, the sight of his body being caressed by the expiable Dr. Ritzenthaler, who wept like a lunatic, all of these horrors in rapid succession must have destroyed my nephew’s artistic sensibilities. His atonal concertos did not suffice.

Ritzenthaler’s eyes were once roguish and delightful, but that all changed. Halfway through the scheduled shoot, on a large hill overlooking the set, under the aegis of the setting and torpid Carolina sun, he appeared at dusk with an army of militant vegetarians behind him, forty pounds lighter from the denial of Knob Creek and fried haddock and broiled liverwurst. Our eyes met from across the field and his were dull and humorless. He’d been converted or lobotomized. Sobriety made Professor Ritzenthaler sinewy and agile, with a chest like repaired and burnished Alexandrian marble.

Still, I will always try

to remember him as a tender, supportive and much flabbier man. Whenever I expressed self-doubt in the privacy of my trailer, he’d calm me down with a glass of whiskey and a rendition of “Nessun Dorma.” He had a lovely singing voice. When I was deeply, profoundly troubled and couldn’t sleep he’d make a soothing balm out of crushed methadone, fiber glass and Vicks VapoRub and apply it to my lower back. It left quite a bit of scarring but it worked and I had pleasant dreams of a finished film and a lavish, fully catered premiere in the West Bank.

But that’s when I gave the order, when I saw him standing astride that hill. With Ritzenthaler leading the charge, they attacked us with paintball guns and attempted to seize our equipment. I escaped narrowly with some of the film and my nephew, but we didn’t have time to go back for his keyboard synthesizer. He was devastated. As a way to assuage his tears, I told him he wasn’t a very good musician and therefore retrieving the instrument was not a matter of urgency. He has responded to my logic with a ruthless and indefinite period of silence.

What little I salvaged of the film is rough, extremely rough, without color correction or computer effects. Many shots still include myself and Dr. Ritzenthaler shepherding the tranquilized and chemically aroused rabbits on our hands and knees, placing them into phalanxes, arranging them beside conspiratorial camp fires, forcing them to confront or make love to one another or to assume the stance of a tyrant, trickster or messiah. In spite of our bellies and hangovers, there is a natural harmony and litheness to our movements as quadrupeds, and the rabbits are so drugged and insentient that they seem to harbor some love or at least Darwinian deference for us, like newborns for their mothers. We look like a family in the dirt and mud, among grass and longleaf pine, immortalized in 70 mm film while under the distant lights of Ursa Major. I note this wearily and wistfully with each, obsessive viewing. But Ritzenthaler and I will be erased in the post-production process, and the rabbits will effectively be orphaned.

 


Avee Chaudhuri is from Wichita, Kansas. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fluland, Gemini Magazine, FLAPPERHOUSE, Dead Mule and Prairie Schooner. 

Did You Check the Appendix? by Ethan Chatagnier

in Fiction/Issue One

People always asked Dana what the set of Lost City was like. She never told stories, but she had a mental script of what she’d say if she did. If you want to know what the set of Lost City was like, she’d could have said, know this: there’s a take of the famous deli scene in which the producer, Doug Reimer, his mind in a state of civil war between cocaine and alcohol, wandered in front of the camera naked from the waist down. There were lots of crazy stories. People said hookers swarmed the set knowing they could trade favors for background or extra work. They said it was the biggest migration from sex work to SAG membership in film history. They explained the weird sound modulation in certain scenes with tales of boom operators being fellated or cunnilingled while tape was running. Bobby had a cocaine buffet next to the cold cuts, of course, and Dom Perignon decanted into plastic pitchers and flower vases. Each of Bobby’s sets was said to match the tenor of the film he was directing. Walk Through Harlem was lean and mean just like its antisocial protagonist. His later movies were elegant, bombastic, as was the catering for them. But perhaps that’s all better explained by the pressures of budget, Walk having been made by a nobody who it then perched on brink of great fame. Lost City, then, was frenetic either because that was the script and the energy radiating off the actors, or because now there was money and no one had yet learned how to hogtie it. 

Most of the legends about the Lost City set required the kind of credulity usually only found in teenage boys. But in regards to the story about Doug Reimer, there was video evidence, and Bobby would trot it out whenever the crowd count at his house dropped below twenty and he wanted to engineer an atmosphere of intimacy. That was his flaw: not being content with being applauded in the auditoriums, needing instead to be loved by anyone in his parlor. Roberto Cazadores on credits and statues. Bobby to anyone who’d ever removed their shoes in his foyer. Reimer’s face wasn’t in the shot, but you could tell it was him, Bobby liked to say, from the way the thumbish little dick barely emerged from a sprout of tan pubes that looked just like the hairdo of Bob Ross. Reimer categorically denied it was him, but also lectured anyone who came into his office about how easy it was for an ungroomed situation to make even a big dick look small. He did everything short of issuing an official press release saying so. “If you can’t tell by the pubes,” Bobby would say, “take a look at the shirt. There are pictures of him on set in that shirt.” And if there was anyone in the crowd still doubtful, he’d pull a magnifying glass from his junk drawer and put it over an exposed shirtsleeve. The cufflinks were engraved DR. Then he’d put the magnifying glass over the dick and say, “Look, now it’s normal size.”

Dana had seen the routine more than anyone. Whenever someone asked how they met Bobby started sounding the opening notes. She’d been on set a few times a week for soundtrack consulting, and she’d had whole conversations with him without him noticing her. He hadn’t checked into her face, but she’d seen how he checked into the music, his pupils wandering left as he imagined the scene the track might overlay. She’d been right next to Bobby when Reimer made his accidental debut.

“Jesus,” Bobby muttered, “It’s like somebody’s big toe.”

He craned his neck to see who was laughing next to him and saw Dana. If he’d looked at her before without really registering her, now he focused in on her face with too much intensity. It produced the same effect as the tightening of an aperture, blurring the depth of field behind him. She couldn’t keep up the laughter then, not under that kind of scrutiny.

“That’s a great fucking laugh.”

She’d been told that before. Men had called it a throaty laugh, a husky laugh, a sexy laugh, but as many had said it crossed some line, that it was a man’s laugh. They meant that she laughed with a man’s confidence. They meant her laugh had a power to wound them. She could see him. He was looking at her now and trying to figure out if she was beautiful. Her eyes were big like an ingenue’s but heavy-lidded like Proust’s. Her mouth was wide, her lips full, giving her a smile that looked superimposed. She walked that line too: half beautiful, half buggy. And here was Bobby Cazadores trying to decide whether he wanted to fuck her, which meant that he did. Men always wanted fuck a woman if they couldn’t decide whether she was beautiful or ugly. They had to know that they could. 

Bobby smile wasn’t small either, and he lit it at her.

“Can you scream?”

“I’m not easy to creep out, so bravo.”

“Give it a shot.”

“Should I have a set rate for this?”

“Come on.”

She asked if he could at least pretend to stab her. He grabbed a nearby microphone and went through the old Pyscho routine. When Dana let loose her scream it paused the set. PAs stopped walking with half a heel on the ground. Crew members at the sandwich table let their mouths hang open, showing wads of roast beef. Doug Reimer, still half-naked in the deli set, looked at her with eyes that seemed like they might never blink again. Screams were common enough on set from actresses in scene, from drug freakouts, from crewgirls getting goosed, from young actors when assistants spilled drinks on their costumes. Usually no one even seemed to notice. Bobby laughed.

“That’s a great fucking scream. You an actress?”

“Soundtracking.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Well, you’ve got a role in this film now. When Sancho Panza here sobers up I’m gonna give him a task that makes his head turn red like Donald Duck’s.” The actress who’d been cast in the role of Anna was a huge disappointment. The key pivot in the script was when Anna laughed at the male lead’s stammer and he returned in the night to brutally rape her. But the actress was playing it too demure: the laugh a little tinkle, the screams merely loud sobs. “You can laugh, you can scream, you got the part.” 

So she found herself across from Lee Canesa, who’d been nominated for a leading man Oscar for Walk Through Harlem. They told her where to stand and how to hold her wine glass. Bobby told her how to lean forward, offering the camera an alluring glimpse of cleavage. He said he’d wave his hand when he wanted her to laugh. Lee was absent while they did all this prep, sequestering himself from the plain details of moviemaking to preserve his concentration. He marched onto the set, standing opposite Dana and behind an antique chair, resting his hands on its polished knobs, and Bobby immediately called action. 

It was a funny story, Lee said, his attention not on Dana but on the classically beautiful blonde to her right. He radiated bound energy. He was volatile, overwound. It was a very, very funny story, if you believed it. And he went on to start a story about leave in Vietnam and his platoon going to visit a cathouse. The more he told, the more intense he became and the more bemused his audience’s faces. As he approached the climax of the story, a sadistic smile creeping onto the left side of his face, he hit the stammer: “And the Vietnamese gggg–the Vietnamese ggi. Ggggg–the gggiii–”

Dana wasn’t watching Bobby. She feared that if she looked in his direction she’d look right into the camera, but she supposed this was the moment, and she began to laugh. It started with her dry, throaty laugh, and as Lee bore into her with violent eyes it turned into a near cackle. It was almost a real laugh. It didn’t feel like pretending. Lee slammed his fist on table, quieting everyone, which wasn’t in the script, and stormed out of the scene. After a moment of stunned silence, Dana began to laugh again, and this time it was fully real. It began stifled, resisted, then returned to the wild pitch that had banished Lee from the room, and she looked around from face to face of the other actors as if wondering why they didn’t see the humor.

Bobby called cut and began a slow clap with his hands over his head. The other principals looked at Bobby and then at each other. The hot blonde gave her a little golf clap and a smile that, from a professional actress, should have been a lot more convincing. Dana thought about retreating to the little dressing room they’d given her, but she reminded herself that she didn’t care about acting. The record label she repped didn’t even know she’d signed on for the role, and truth be told music held a lot more magic for her than film. She went to the sandwich table instead, piling together a big stacker and wolfing it down in big bites. Then she made a second that was almost as big and ate it a little slower. So maybe she did care.

As fast as she thought she’d eaten the sandwiches, by the time she looked up the set was on break, meaning almost everyone had snuck off to the bars. Some lowly clerks swept up lettuce off the floor. One or two diligent PAs sat at tables making notes or calls. Bobby’s assistant was waiting patiently a few feet from her side, cradling an empty clipboard in the crook of his elbow like a tour guide. 

“So,” she said, brushing croissant crumbs off her cheeks. “Am I fired?”

“Are you kidding? He wants to take you to dinner.” 

 

*

ON THEIR DATE, BOBBY WOR CHUNKY glasses that he didn’t wear on set. Glasses that would later become his trademark. His tooth-stuffed grin flicked on and off his face. His broad cheeks already looked tired from the effort. It was sweet and unexpected how much he wanted to impress her. Whereas she felt completely at ease, here across the table from the famous, or almost famous, man.

“That smile is trying to sell me a used car.”

“You don’t want me to smile?” He made a comic frown.

“I want you to take direction. Smile like a non-psycho.”

He laughed and it was more natural. Then the waiter arrived and he tried to order for the both of them. Spaghetti with clams cosentino for the lady. A ribeye for him and with clams cosentino on the side. Did she like steak? “No clams,” she told the waiter.

“Tell her,” Bobby said. “They’re the best.”

“I don’t even like clams.” 

“Who does?” Bobby said. “But these are great.”

“The confit, please,” she told the waiter. “And if you bring me a clam I’ll kick out your kneecaps.”

The waiter left and Bobby slouched in his chair, sulking. He said she could try one of his when the food came, and if she liked it he’d order another for her to take home. She pinned her eyes to her fork, knowing an eye roll would be too much for him.

“The whole insecurity-bravado thing is tired, Bobby. Just relax.”

He slouched lower, sulking harder. She took pity.

“So what’s your real last name?”

“What do you mean.”

“Come on. Cazadores? The Hunter. The exact name every man would choose?”

He smiled sheepishly.

“Not even my agent knows.”

“Ah, so you’ll make me feel special if you tell me.” 

He leaned across the table and whispered it to her. 

“That’s a perfectly fine name.”

“Perfectly fine for a grocery clerk.”

“You think you’re too good to be a grocery clerk?”

“All grocery clerks think they’re too good to be grocery clerks.”

“My dad was a grocery clerk for thirty years.”

She laughed at his oh-shit face.

“I’m just fucking with you. My dad was a studio musician.”

Finally, he gave her a smile that was in the middle. 

After sex that night, she curled against him and asked how much he thought she could sell her story for: a night with the next top director. It depended on fluctuations in market, he said, and it was a tough market to speculate. Hold onto a vintage bottle of wine, maybe the price skyrockets, maybe it goes to vinegar. Oh, she said, this vintage was sure to increase in value. It was all anyone in town could talk about. She didn’t understand, he said. Being almost famous was the peak. Almost famous was more famous than famous-famous. There was still an impossibility of expectation. Trajectories had been sketched and all that was left were limits.

“Are you talking about me? Almost famous for laughing Lee Canesa offstage?”

“Lee was impressed. He usually hates actresses. Actors too, but actresses even more. Can’t live up to the scene, he says. But I heard him telling some people about your scene. Said your laugh made his character feel real anger. Said his character almost really wanted to–”

“God, don’t say it.”

She laughed and he did too, and then he went pensive. It was the first she noticed this trait, the way a minor happiness tended to roll downhill into some kind of worry or sadness. “When you tell people about tonight, feel free to exaggerate things a little. To, you know, round up.” She took his face in her hands, a cheesy movie gesture, which is what she sensed he wanted.

“I don’t sell stories. I don’t even tell stories.” 

Which held true. People always wanted to pump her for Doug Reimer stories, for stories about Bobby and Lee and the sets of all those movies and the parties, but she never dined out on them. They were things whose value disappeared when shared. They were the closest thing in Hollywood to chastity. Less a wine in her cellar than a fire in her hearth. It was Bobby who loved to pass it all around–not their personal business, but everyone else’s. She and Lee were the only ones spared from his gossip, and Doug Reimer was skewered as much as possible. She knew the cues. 

Now when someone asked how they met, she’d short circuit the routine by saying he’d never been able to resist her after he’d filmed her rape scene. This made him red in face, humiliated and angry. He shouted very seriously that it wasn’t a funny joke and it wasn’t true  and he didn’t appreciate it. She’d laugh loudly enough for everyone to know that it was only a joke, and he’d calm down and be at her hip again within ten minutes. She liked this routine better. She loved how easily it flustered him. They were married and in love; she was allowed to enjoy pissing him off now and then. Besides, it was still nicer than pointing out that the difference between Bobby’s dick and Doug’s could be found in the catalogue of minor differences.

 

In truth, he’d been very gentle about the rape scene. He spent the week before it was scheduled to film explaining how emotionally damaging it could be. No one would blame her for backing out, he said. All her predecessor’s fury at being dismissed would dissolve if they called her back. Or rather, her agent would convert the fury into a sizeable bonus. And during the filming, he asked her after every take if she needed a break until Lee yelled at him to stop it before his character crumbled to shit. She assured him she was fine. She laughed and joked when the camera wasn’t rolling. 

“Bobby,” she said. “It’s not real.”

Not that there wasn’t a certain discomfort in Lee charging on scene at her like a PCP freak, or that it didn’t hurt when he grabbed her hair and rubbed her face on the carpet. Not that she liked his big intense face breathing and sweating on her from inches away. But it did help bring out the real screams, ones louder and purer than at her impromptu audition. And damn did it feel good when, on three different takes, she got to smash him in the head with a stereo speaker. It made for a long day, establishing her initial measured resistance, then her crazed, panicked fight, then her besieged turn inward, all with back-and-forths to makeup to cover bruises and scrapes she and Lee had given each other, and breaks to replace prop speakers and lamps. They had to call in a carpenter to fix a bed frame that was not supposed to be broken. When Bobby finally called the day, Lee gave her a look of disgust and stormed off the set as usual. As usual, when young crew members passed along his praise, she didn’t know how much they were just being kind. 

When the film wrapped, Lee came to see her. He was kind and apologetic. He said he usually talked with people before shooting began. He’d done so with the actress Dana replaced. He could get intense when he was staying in character but he had to keep those walls up. Having a friendly chat with a character he was going to assault was just too much. 

“Holy fuck,” Dana said, laughing. “I thought you hated me.”

“No, you seemed very nice. Bobby certainly likes you.”

“People told me you’d had a thing with the lady before me.”

“Well, people say all sorts of shit.”

“Or I thought it was my acting.”

“No, you were fantastic. You got me angry as I needed to be. Really impressive stuff.”

She mostly believed this was him being gracious, but when the reviews started coming in she combed through all the reviews for mentions of herself. Her name never appeared without the word Newcomer before it, and some reviewers called her performance simplistic or rote, some said raw and unrestrained, some said overwrought. But they all talked about the transformation Lee’s character effected before and after his scenes with her. They all believed it viscerally, which meant she had made it believable. 

 

*

SHE READ THE REVIEWS OF ALL HER ROLES. They took more note of her after Bobby gave her a bigger role in his next film. They took even more note after everyone in town had come to their wedding and drank their champagne. That 80s wedding dress, big shoulder bows and lace. It made the gossip pages, which she didn’t give a fuck about but read anyway. But even before the wedding it was clear she had a career in acting. She told the record label to take her off the payroll but they insisted on keeping her on it and filled up her mailbox with CDs anytime Bobby was in pre-production. 

She thought of those years as her real-estate years. Even before their engagement, she’d started pouring her paychecks, both from the movies and the record labels, into the mortgage on her little bungalow. Bobby asked her to move in after three months, and she had, but she’d kept the bungalow as a rental and poured the rental income into the principal too. It was paid off in three years, and she used it as collateral to buy a three-bedroom that had come on the market down the street. She was happy living with Bobby, but who knew what would happen in Hollywood? He might turn out to have a coven of models on the side. He might have some kind of irremediable dildo addiction. 

“She’s got a real-estate habit,” Bobby would say at dinner parties they hosted, the way rich assholes said their wives had horse habits. 

“Real estate is a better investment than the stock market, Bobby,” Lee chimed in one night. “Look at the historical trends. There’s nothing more reliable.”

“Investments. Who needs them? Just keep making money.”

“Jeremy invests your money same as mine.”

“You’re fighting a losing battle,” Dana said with a laugh. “Just let him say the dumb thing he wants to say.”

“Thank you, Dana,” Bobby said. His smile on and off like a lightbulb. She’d embarrassed him. “She has a real estate habit. It’s better than any of my habits.” He raised his wine glass. The guests raised theirs, waiting for a more interesting line of conversation.

He fucked her especially passionately that night, holding her wrist against the headboard and her ankle against his neck, turning his head to bite the back of her calf. He said he wanted to fuck her in every room of the house. He said he wanted her to feel him inside her for days. He said other things that only failed to be gross while their hormones were up. He flipped her over and took her from behind, holding her hair in his fist. He told her he  wished there were duplicates of her. He told her he wished there were duplicates of himself. 

“Sorry if I got a little weird,” he said ten minutes later. 

“It happens.”

“Wine.”

“Et cetera.”  

They smiled at each other. His genuine smile lived mostly in his eyes.

“I really do want to fuck you in every room of the house.”

“I think we have.”

“I want to fuck you in every room of all your houses.”

He’d been thinking about the joke since before they’d gotten started. He’d maybe been thinking about it since dinner. So was the passion an act? That was a bit obvious for Bobby. His psychology worked in ways he didn’t understand. Besides, he was a terrible actor. She’d seen him try to give his actors line readings. She’d seen their faces in response. 

“Sorry,” she said. “I have renters.”

“You know, I only think about you when I fantasize. In my younger relationships I’d fantasize about everybody I knew. Sometimes women I just saw on the street. Even in the beginning of our relationship, if I’m being honest. But now it’s just you, every time. It doesn’t get me off otherwise.”

“What a weird and kind of sweet confession.”

“It’s what I’ve got to work with.”

He curled against her and she put her arm around him.

“You think we’ll last forever, Bobby?”

“I think we’ll die eventually.”

His films were already preserved in special archives. Pictures of him making those movies were already in books housed in the Library of Congress. He might not die so easily. There might be a place in there for her as well, there in his movies, there in his books. Oh, you didn’t see me there? she thought. Did you check the appendix?

 

*

WHILE HE LOOKED BETTER than ever when he was awake, his almost black hair flecked with silver, his more mature face less goofy behind those thick glasses, those who called Bobby a genius might find it harder to do so if they ever saw him napping: slouched back on the couch, his face slack as a deflating air mattress, his mouth melting like a Dali clock. Nights like that were more common now, with guests gone or maneuvered out to the pool, and Lee and Dana and Bobby chatting until Bobby passed out at some pathetic hour like 8 p.m. 

By the time West of Gomorrah had come out, and Freight, and House of Mirrors, it wasn’t 1980 anymore. It was even worse. They’d given Lost City the Oscars Walk Through Harlem should have gotten, including one to Lee. Then having felt they made up for their error, the Academy decided they’d been charitable and snubbed Bobby’s next three films. They were better, more adult, but he already had an audience looking for boyish energy. Bobby had been right: almost famous was the peak. And Lee? He was paid more now but praised far less. He was pulled again and again into roles that were bad duplicates of ones he’d played before. Critics said his career now consisted of doing bad impressions of his younger self, and they were partly right. They were both called geniuses, but with a retrospective tone that suggested their era was already written into the history books. 

Her own acting had become a specific tool, like a hammer or a jigsaw, that directors could use for a specific purpose. She could have done more, she knew, if they’d let her. She’d kept it a secret that she thought she her talent was equal to Bobby’s and to Lee’s. She didn’t know if she’d call it genius, but she’d seen what they did closer than anyone, and it was no subtler, no more sophisticated, than her own work. In truth, acting wasn’t that hard. Forget all that method crap. Just give it an unreserved hundred percent and don’t overthink it. But you could sell that for two thousand dollars at a weekend seminar.

The three of them had all settled into grooves on which one could comfortably coast downhill. Bobby was sleeping right next to her when she brought it up to Lee.

“How many more years do you think we’ve got?”

“Everyone gets a little resurgence. They need to forget about you before they can remember you.”

“No, Bobby and me.”

Lee raised his eyebrows, then motioned with his head to the dining room table, where they’d be out of earshot. Going was unnecessary, as Bobby faked sleep often enough that Dana knew all the indicators, but she followed him anyway and sat down across from him. 

“You guys having trouble?” 

“No, we just—it just feels like there’s an expiration date. Like something’s starting to smell.”

“If you can describe your marriage as something that’s starting to smell, I’d call that trouble.”

“It doesn’t smell.”

“You said it, not me.”

“Don’t tease me.” But it was better than what she’d expected: scolding, chiding. Disappointment. “Nothing’s wrong. We fight less and less all the time. We’ve been happy. It’s just this weird feeling, like if this was a movie, you’d sense where it was going. That that’s the arc.”

“It’s that Hollywood thing. We’re spoiled people. All the joy, the excitement, the surprise. We’ve been allowed to expect that it would continue.”

“Fuckin’ A, man.”

“Fuckin’ A.” He got up and grabbed two Post-It notes from the desk under the phone. “You write down a number of years and I will too.”  They used their hands to cover what they wrote, then traded the notes. Lee wore some genuine shock when he read hers. He’d written eleven. She’d written three.

 

*

FIVE. And that five made it twelve years in all. They knew people who’d gone through three marriages in that time. Maybe it would have felt like less of a failure if her parents hadn’t been divorced, if she hadn’t been so eager not to repeat their mistakes. Her parents’ marriage had suffered under a lack of resources. How could she have known her own would suffer from too many? Maybe it would have felt like less of a failure if she hadn’t seen it so far off, creeping like a glacier. 

Of all her properties, she moved back into the bungalow she’d lived in before Bobby. What did she need beyond a one bedroom? Built-in bookshelves, a sitting porch with bistro set. Updates to the bathroom and kitchen before she moved in. Cozy life. All dangers came from wanting more. She’d never told Bobby, she’d never even told Lee, her secret: that she’d always planned, if they divorced, on taking nothing from him. When Lee visited, it was clear he took a little too much pleasure in the humility of her place, weighing it equally against all the time he spends in mansions, thinking it made him grounded. She helped him sell the story to himself, making him meatloaf, making him chicken ala king, from her mother’s recipe folder. 

“I’m an A-List landlord,” she told him. “Sometimes it takes a while to find your true vocation.”

“Many never do,” Lee said. “I’ve always wondered if I should have been a maid.”

“I can really see you as a postman.”

“I’ve never played one.”

“It would cut too close.”

He was joking but she was fairly sure she was not. Every spring she did the exterior paint on one of her houses, did it on her own with rollers and overalls. Not for the first few years, of course. It had taken three before the press stopped bugging her and Bobby for the details of their marriage and their split. But after a few years she was no longer enough of a Star to be Just Like Us! She hired a landscaping crew to put in and tend flower boxes. She bought nice front doors. She’d raised the equity of the whole block. She could snake a toilet and little gave her more pleasure. 

She told Lee her line about the Stars Just Like Us. If they ever saw him driving his Camry, she said, they’d be all over him. “Tell me the truth,” she asked, “did you buy that car just for when you came to my place?”

“I drive it any place I need camouflage.”

Ouch, she thought. He didn’t even notice. 

Bobby had never been by her place. Not inside, at least. She was fairly sure she’d seen his Audi creep by on occasion. He called, though. He called neurotically. Had she heard this new band? What did she think of Sean Penn these days? Was Kiel Grant the next Lee? Don’t tell Lee I asked. And always when he when casting, did she want a role? He worked hard not to seem perfunctory. She wanted different kinds of roles these days, she said. Translation: I don’t want to see you. How much easier would it have been if he had simply switched to models? Not that she was jealous; she’d left him. But it would have been flattering to think that after her he’d given up on any pleasures higher than the carnal. Instead he had his non-marriage to his literary critic, a woman older than he was, grayer than he was, more interesting than he was. She had even thicker glasses and a seemingly infinite variety of scarves. More interesting than Dana was? And wasn’t this the worst thing about aging, the way every sentence seems to end with a question mark?

There was Bobby’s voice again, buzzing through the old hard plastic of her landline phone:

“I want you for this role,” he said. “I’m not offering it to you, I’m begging you to take it.”

“I’m a landlord.”

“Nice try, Clark Kent.”

Oh, that felt good. It felt damn good. 

“I’m happy, Bobby,” she said. “Don’t fuck it up.”

“Can I ask you a question?” 

Here it came: did it ever feel bad, drinking your morning tea looking off the porch at a row of dingy trash cans? Boringly lamenting to yourself about how you couldn’t paint your neighbors’ houses? Walking around the three and a half small rooms of what most people would call a starter home? Battling ants, moths, roaches and calling it a noble struggle? Remembering a little too frequently that last line of Candide: “All that is very well…but let us cultivate our garden”? The floor squeaks here, but not there. Did it ever feel bad, throwing out the entertainment section before sitting down with the newspaper? 

Of course not, she thought, and please don’t ask again.   

 


Ethan Chatagnier is the author of Warnings from the Future, a story collection forthcoming from Acre Books in September 2018. His short fiction has won a Pushcart Prize and has appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, Glimmer Train, New England Review, the Cincinnati Review, and other journals. He lives with his family in Fresno, California.

Nonrefundable by Casey Gray

in Fiction/Issue One

I KNEW SOMETHING WAS WRONG before the gate clanked shut. Every pot and bowl and piece of tupperware in his place had been filled with water and placed in the yard, and a thirty pound bag of kibble had been cut open and laid in front of the dog house. Inside, fast food bags stuffed with fast food bags littered the kitchen counter and the coffee table. That huge TV was on, some show about snipers: a breakdown of their weapon systems and the surprising amount of math involved in killing a person from a mile away. Apparently, it isn’t the curvature of the earth that needs to be accounted for; it’s the rotation. We forget sometimes, for years at a time, that it is spinning. But when I touched my son’s face I could feel it spinning. His skin was rubbery like an old carrot. I walked outside, looked up, and expected all the birds in the world to fall out of the sky at once.

Two rust-colored grackles landed on the rock wall, contemplating a dive for Rocky’s kibble. I walked back in for the leash, into the smell again, and my heart broke for that hounddog, strangely, before it broke for my wife or my son or myself — just lying there in that tarpaper doghouse with his dusty snout poking out into the June sun, smelling his best friend turn with a nose a thousand times more sensitive than my own.

When Ben was very young, just learning to stand, he fell backwards and his head made a horrible thud on the hardwood. And he just lay there, stunned, without any idea what to do. It wasn’t until he saw the pain in my face that he began to scream. And that’s how I felt. That’s the only way to describe it. Until I saw Jackie’s face, I felt like a little baby who didn’t know how to hurt. Her face broke, smashed like some fine porcelain thing that could never be glued back right. And in that moment, I swear to God, everything in the world went high into the air and came down on my head.

If pain can take away pleasure, can pleasure take away pain? That’s why we decided to go on the cruise anyway. We told our families that it was because it was too late to return the tickets, which was true. We couldn’t tell them everything, of course. I’ve lived fifty-six years, long enough to stop expecting people to understand. Jackie needed to die just a little bit. And then gradually come back to life. There’s no reason to suffer any more than you have to. There’s no reason to feel any more than you have to when all you feel is panic. She needed the pills. It was anesthesia. She might as well have been on an operating table.

 

*

THERE WERE TWO TIT PRINTS AND, further out, two hand prints on the glass elevator that must have been fresh. A small cult of people in pressed, talcum-white uniforms wiped the ship down constantly.

“Fake,” Ron said.

“How can you tell?” Jackie asked.

“I think I see a vin number,” I said.

Ron licked the glass. “Titty flavor. I’ve got a weakness.”

We descended onto the gilded promenade deck, which was filling with passengers in immodest swimsuits and white robes. A Filipino cleaning woman boarded when we got off, and we watched her wipe the glass as the elevator floated away.

“Imagine the DNA on that towel,” Ron said. “We could freeze it and repopulate after the apocalypse.”

“For Christ’s sake, Ron,” Beth said.

“I’m sorry. It’s pathological.”

“We weren’t going to come,” Beth said. “Ron’s been a mess since Ben died. He tries to hide it, but he’s very sensitive.” I slapped at his dick with the back of my hand and called him sensitive. We all had a laugh. The first call we made was to Ron and Beth. They helped raise Ben for the first ten years of his life, before they moved to Oklahoma City. And we had helped raise their girls. We met when we moved into adjacent duplexes and the integration was total: sex, sleep, dinners, parenting. I like to think we weren’t the swinging type. Ron was in law school and Beth taught middle school. I had just dropped out of a PHD program in geology to start my rock wall business and Jackie… Maybe Jackie was the type. Just the kind of beautiful person who fell in love with everyone she saw. And I can assure you, as the man who has known her and loved her best, that it is the hardest way to live.

The chef from the TV show Jackie watched had a restaurant on the American Odyssey. He had dyed blond hair with a black stripe down the middle, hotdog-pink skin, wrap around sunglasses, and gave off what Jackie called a “rapey vibe.” There was a strong contingent of guys on the ship that could have been mistaken for him in a lineup. They tanned for weeks before they boarded and shaved their pubic hair clean off to make their cocks look bigger. We avoided them. They fucked like they were being filmed: all porno-tricks, no tenderness. The nubiles and the truly beautiful ones, they didn’t know anything about tenderness either. They looked at us like flies in the pudding. I loved the old hippies who walked around with all day Viagra hard-ons poking out of their robes. They remembered light touches.

The cheeseburgers were obscene. They came wrapped in butcher paper in a wicker basket. The chef had pinned three gherkin pickles and three chèvre stuffed olives into each with cellophane tipped toothpicks. The brochure called it, “The first four-star restaurant with booths and paper napkins.” The fries were laced with truffle oil. The beef was kobe, allegedly. In international waters, you could say anything was anything.

“This place looks like a diner after too much plastic surgery,” Beth said. The front end of a polished ’57 Chevy was mounted on the wall like game, and the vinyl on the booths was tight and new and flecked with metallic sparkle. The coin slots on the retro chrome jukeboxes were ornamental. Nobody carried change or folding money. We carried seacards on lanyards; that’s how they got you. A dollar a song. None of the money was real until you got home. I chose A-6 — “Only You (And You Alone)” by The Platters — to belt through the din and swiped my seacard through the sensor.

“I wonder how many of these young people have even seen a real diner,” Ron said. “Not just some nostalgic recreation. You can’t even smoke in here. When we die off it will just be nostalgia for nostalgia.”

“I worked in a real diner when I was seventeen,” Beth said. “The Del Rancho in Clinton. The old waitresses — well, they seemed old to me then — used to talk about how it was before the interstate took over Route 66. Eccentric drifters. Traveling vacuum salesman you’d get to know, the kind that wore dress hats. So maybe it’s always been that way. Maybe there’s never been a real diner, or there was just one real diner, like, in Mesopotamia, and all the diners since are just copies of copies of copies. God, I had a body that could make a freight train take a dirt road then. I never knew men were like that.”

“I miss smoking at the dinner table,” Jackie said. “A cup of coffee and a cigarette after a big meal. People talked then. I haven’t had a cigarette since I was pregnant with Ben.”

“That kid was special,” Beth said. “Bighearted. He would have made such a good father. It might have even saved him.” Ron was eating a grilled chicken salad with no cheese and balsamic vinaigrette on the side. Their white robes were open down to the waist. Ours were three sizes too big and cinched above our clavicles.

“You guys hit the tanning bed pretty hard,” I said.

“Beth got me the tanning bed last Christmas. If I don’t get a decent base going, I’ll burn to a crisp.”

“You look great,” Jackie said.

“We’re doing the paleo,” Beth said. “This is my cheat meal.”

“It’s great! You should do it,” Ron said. “Steak, chicken, eggs, bacon — it’s on the table.”

“These new meds are going to blow me up,” Jackie said. “I can already feel it happening? I’m hungry all the time.”

“You look great.” Ron read the jukebox and Beth picked at her burger.

“How are the girls?” Jackie asked.

“Good,” Beth said. “Kara is in law school. Beck does art and lives with her girlfriend. We love her to pieces.”

“Karen is like the son I never had. She got me into woodworking,” Ron said. “I made a coffee table.”

“I don’t think you’re allowed to say that,” Beth said.

“What? I don’t think she’d be offended.”

“Alana is working in hospitality for the Native American casino,” Beth said.“We got to meet Smoky Robinson!”

“Can you believe Smoky Robinson is still around?” Ron said.

“I saw the pictures on Facebook,” Jackie said.

“Of course celebs are coming in there all the time. And there were so many we would have liked to meet. She has to be professional about it, you know. But she knows how we feel about Smokey. Such a nice man.”

“Ben would have been a great father,” I said. “My father left purple marks, and you’d feel it in your head and neck for days after. I never laid a hand on Ben, but I scared him with my voice, and I scared him with my eyes. I scared him on purpose. He would have been better than me. He would have found a way to teach his kids without scaring them.”

They watched me eat the entire burger and pick my teeth with my fingernail.

“I’m tapping out,” Beth said.

“That’s Kobe beef,” I said. “Have some respect. These cows got sake massages every night. They probably had names.”

“I couldn’t possibly finish,” Beth said. I took her leftovers to our cabin and let them rot in the mini fridge.

 

*

THE INTERIOR CABINS WERE MORE AFFORDABLE, but the sun gives vitamins and wavelengths that incandescent bulbs can’t replicate. Staying in the belly of the ship too long could make you feel like a frog in a shoebox. Jackie had her head on my shoulder and her little hand on my heart. Passengers darkened the stripe of light under our door with their feet. Her breath on my neck was a comfort.

“It’s hard to imagine them in that fucking tanning bed. Calling their asses glutes. I don’t know why it bothers me so much. These meds wipe me out. I’m mostly here for the food at this point. If I have to watch them eat grilled chicken all week, I’m not going to be able to enjoy anything.”

“It feels strange to be on a cruise like this under the circumstances.”

“What’s strange about wanting to be around all of this love, Kenny?”

“Love doesn’t smell like suntan lotion and lube. This is something else. Let’s be honest with ourselves, finally.”

“This is love. You can’t feel it? All around us? You can’t see it? The act of love?”

“I’ve seen a lot of pierced genitals. I saw a man with a T-shirt that said ‘Pee on me.’ I don’t think it was a joke.”

“It’s still love, Kenny. Children are being conceived all around us. Life. There is no wrong way. Chicken nuggets are still food. Who knows what the fuck is in them. But they’re delicious.”

“Pajama party!” The light pushed in first. Ron was dressed in white terrycloth robe that seemed to gleam against his thin, nutbrown body, and Beth was wearing an aquamarine negligee that pushed her breasts to her neck and covered her stomach. I wanted to hold her loose, mother-of-three belly skin to my face like a hot towel. If I have a fetish, it’s mom bellies.

“If you feel like being alone, we understand,” Beth said.

“The more the merrier,” Jackie said. “More of everything.”

“We’ve got to start coming on these every year again,” Beth said. “I feel so much older than I did on the last one.” Ron kissed his wife and grabbed a handful. We went on the swinger’s cruise every year during the boom years from eighty-eight to two thousand and eight. After the crash, the intervals between cruises became further and further apart. I put on the requisite robe and silk boxers. When in the common playrooms, it was considered courteous to fuck on the robes. And to use them to wipe down the weight-bench upholstery on the angular furniture when you were done.

“What are you going to wear, hon?” Beth asked.

“This.” Jackie was wearing a threadbare Hardrock Cafe sweatshirt and purple velour sweatpants. She put on a pair of red, duck-down slippers that made her feet look like speed bags. “It’s chilly up there. You’re going to be wishing you had these.”

 

*

THE WASHED-UP BANDS on the early cruises had been replaced by DJ Skrill. The stern of the ship was an open coliseum, and the lights and lasers whirled and pulsed like they were connected to his turn tables. I liked to dance, but I didn’t like the way the young ones looked at me. It was cute to them, or it was sad to them. Jackie wasn’t hung up like me, about getting old, about our guts and our hair density. This lifestyle was her idea in the beginning. One day, after afternoon margaritas with Beth, she asked me, ‘What’s the most honest way to live?’ It made sense, not having to conform to society’s moral code. Stress positions are considered torture under the Geneva Convention.

We found a table and Ron put a round of fruity drinks on his seacard.

“I like it,” Ron said.

“What?” I asked.

“The music.”

“What’s to like about it?”

“I never wanted to be the kind of man who stopped listening to new music after thirty. I swore I’d never let that be me.”

“Do you like it, or do you want to be the kind of man that likes it?” Beth asked.

The DJ called the sexy pajama contestants up to the front of the ship and Jackie stared at the frayed sleeve of her sweatshirt.

“I wish we had some blow,” Ron said. “Remember our first trip? We got lit and shared a beautiful night with a twenty-year-old bartender named Adan.”

“This blue drink tastes like blue,” Jackie said.

“One of these kids has to have blow. Come on, beautiful,” Ron said to Jackie. “Let’s show ’em how it’s done.”

Jackie and Ron looked ridiculous on the dance floor — an old man in a bathrobe and and old woman in sweats and puffy slippers — dancing to house music under lasers blasting in artificial smoke.

“How is she doing?” Beth asked.

“She can’t stand for me to leave her side. I have to shit with the bathroom door open.”

Beth embraced me with her cheek on my cheek. She reached inside my robe and gave my penis a light squeeze. Jackie was able to mimic the ass-trembling squats of the younger women on the dance floor. She told her sister, Graciela, that it was a swinger’s cruise, so I’m sure it was whispered around. It was difficult carrying the shame around for the both of us. If it had been her who died, and I (as her recent widower) decided to go on a swinger’s cruise two thirty two days later, I would have been thrown in jail for murder. It’s all the evidence they would have needed. It was humiliating. I did not want to be there. But when your wife, who has spent more days in bed than out lately, says that she wants to get out of the house, see the sun… When she says she is ready to feel absolutely anything other than what she’s feeling on dry land, even if it’s guilt…When she begs you to go on the cruise, to engage with her in every type of distraction possible, there is only one thing a good husband can do.

Jackie pulled her hands into her sleeves on her way back to the table.

“It is chilly out here,” Beth said.

“I told you it gets chilly at night,” Jackie said.

The young ones were fellating in the disco cages, fucking against the walls, dancing like washing machines filled with cowboy boots. A deluge of pink soapsuds filled the dance floor, delighting the revelers, who blew them at each other playfully and used them to cover their genitals. I remember wishing that it was bleach.

“It’s like this never-ending autopsy. Except you’re not weighing the organs; you’re weighing every mistake you ever made, everything you’ve ever done or failed to do, every pain and indignity you could have spared him,” Jackie said. “If I could have turned everything that hurt him into sharp little obsidian rocks, I would have swallowed every one.”

“I know you would have,” Beth said.

“But you can’t do that. It’s the hardest thing about being a mother.” Jackie’s eyes did that thing — where they focused on some far away nothing — over the railing, over the sea, into the starless night. My father used to stare off into the TV like that sometimes. It scared me. As a child, it seemed like he was staring through the tubes and the transistors, through the beaming signals into broadcast towers. He never talked about Korea. I’m not even sure he ever thought about it. But there were times when he seemed to be two places and no place. I can’t explain it. We knew not to talk then. We sat in front of our TV trays and did not dare to chew our food.

“That girl is the spitting image of Monica Tidwell,” Ron said. “I bought a ten dollar Playboy from Steve Garrison when I was twelve years old. This was the seventies. My allowance was two dollars a week.”

“What a savvy little businessman. I bet that kid’s a millionaire now,” Jackie said.

“It was the best investment I ever made. I’ve never gotten as much pleasure from any amount of money. I was so terrified that my brother or my mother would find it that I buried it in the yard next to the hydrangea. I’d dig it up once a week and try to burn every curl of Monica Tidwell’s auburn bush into my memory before I put it back in the ground.”

“You couldn’t sneak it with you to the bathroom?” I asked.

“Do you know how many times my mother caught me jerking off? I lost count. She could sense it. And she could open any lock in the house with a bobby pin. She started timing my showers. Busting in. She tried to have me committed.”

Ron seemed hurt when we laughed.

“I’m not kidding. She drove me to Langley Porter, the same hospital she was a patient. I had to look at a bunch of ink blots and pretend they weren’t vaginas. It’s not like I was doing it at the dinner table. She was the one breaking in trying to see it.”

Beth held Ron’s hand and Jackie rubbed gentle circles on his back. I had watched Jackie and Ron make love more times than I could count, but that light hand on his back filled me with a jealousy I can’t explain.

“She waited until I was out of law school to kill herself,” Ron said. “And I know that wasn’t easy. We were married. Kara was a baby. I think she figured it was too late to really fuck my life up at that point. I spent my whole life trying to make her just — smile. God. Just to get a genuine smile out of her. I taught myself magic, how to imitate Johnny Carson and Sammy Davis Jr. You can’t make anyone want to live, Jackie. We thinks that’s our job, for the people we love, to make them want to live. But sometimes you can’t be enough, you can’t fill them up. It’s not your fault, and, goddamn, it’s not Ben’s fault either.”

“Do you remember holding your babies for the first time?” Jackie asked, removing her hand from his back and tucking it back into her sleeve. “Do you remember how empty they were? How light? That first weird black-tar poop? Because they didn’t even have any bacteria in their intestines yet? No thoughts? Just empty? I don’t need a reprieve. Not from you.”

“I’m so sorry, honey,” Ron said. “One day you’ll find a thing to tell yourself, something that works for you, and it will help.”

“Stop crying, Ron,” Beth said. “This isn’t about you.”

 

*

RON COULD STILL SNIFF OUT THE PEOPLE WITH COKE; that’s how we wound up back in Oscar’s suite. The room had lemon-cream walls with dark wood accents, fresh white flowers, and a sliding glass door that opened onto a small outside deck. Oscar was a pudgy, recently divorced tropical fish dealer from Tampa who must have been in his early thirties, and he had boarded the ship by himself. It was his first swinger’s cruise, and Ron had found him sitting at the bar, flummoxed and unsure how to infiltrate the scene. He was a member of the ship’s saddest contingent: awkward men who wanted sex but were unsure how to go about getting it, men who were under the misconception that the “swinging” conceit would make the process easy and straight forward. Oscar didn’t have any coke to sell, but he snuck on a little to party with. He was stingy with it, but it was nice of him to share at all. Ron had wrangled three more people into the party with the promise of cocaine: a dreadlocked couple from Portland who talked about Burning Man incessantly, and a female college professor covered in regrettable spring break tattoos. They were in their late thirties, old enough to understand that the bodies we were showing them were inevitable. I ordered a bottle of rum on the seacard and Jackie shared a few bars of Xanax.

The four of us made love on the sofa. When Ron and I got into each other, Oscar seemed out of his depth. He sat across from us on the end of the bed, tugging on his limp cock while the adjunct professor rubbed her ass on it to no avail. He said, “I’m sorry. That lady looks like my mother,” indicating towards Jackie with his eyes.

“Excuse me,” Beth said.

“I’m sorry. My mom has the exact same haircut.”

“You should have stayed at home and jerked off to the brochure.” I stood up to say it, so that he was eye to eye with my fully erect eight-inch penis. I wanted to put him on the floor and pull his arm until I heard a snap.

But Jackie took his face in her hands. “I bet you she’s a real sweet lady. I bet she loves you more than you can ever know. I bet you she’d die if anything ever happened to you.”

Oscar pulled his covers over his naked lap. “She is a sweet lady.”

She ran her hands through his thinning hair and kissed his sweaty forehead.

 

*

MY HIPS MOVED AGAINST HER like the waves lapping the starboard side of our docked cruise ship. The heavy curtains to the promenade were open. Outside, through open windows, bodies–two, three, six at a time–moved in and out of each other like wind-up toys in the dramatic lights and lines of the gilded deck. A man about my age, balding like a neglected lawn, tugged at his tiny cock. A young couple lay in bed, nude, eating giant gourmet cheeseburgers and watching something funny on an iPad.

Their eyes flipped past our room like a billboard on the highway, to younger, tighter bodies — to a woman attempting to insert a third finger into her husband’s anus. I don’t judge. That’s the one universal rule on the ship. Each couple has their own rules. There are soft swap couples who only do oral, couples who have to be in the same room. Most couples have a safe word. Ours is goldfish.

From the outside, our lovemaking must have seemed joyless. But sometimes it isn’t about hitting the spot and making it gush. It can be anything when you know your partner well enough. It can be ecstatic; it can be scary, and it can be a comfort.

 

*

I COULD FEEL THE SHIP LEAVING PORT, could feel the water under us getting deeper. Ron walked into the cabin wearing a souvenir T-shirt and holding a wood carving of a native with a giant penis that curved toward the sky like a drawn bow.

“Fertility god. He reminded me of you, big guy.”

“Thanks.” I laughed, stared down at the penis dangling out of my robe, and thought about the beautiful boy it helped create. I could feel the weight of him, five months old, snoring lightly on my chest while I watched football. I looked at Jackie, who was staring blankly at her feet poking out from the comforter, and I hated her for a moment. I wanted her to carry it, just for a little bit — what life we had left: the bills, the laundry, the questions, the casseroles and the deli trays and the plates of cookies that arrived at the door with well-meaning friends that I had to talk to, had to make feel appreciated, had to reassure that they had done something, consoled us, made us feel better. I wanted to be too weak to be there for her. To be the one who got to lock myself away. I wanted to take all of her pills and watch TV until they wiped me clean.

“Aruba was so beautiful,” Beth said. “The beach was like baby powder.”

“The moon is fucking huge right now,” Ron said. “You’ve got to see it.”

The wind on the bow was cold, and the black water was far down. A full moon glinted off of a million swells. Couples passed us hand in hand, wrapping their robes together to break the wind.

Jackie took off her sweatshirt and draped her breasts over the railing.

I imagined infant Ben dangling from her right breast and over the dark water like a fish on a hook.

“He’s everywhere now,” Beth said. “Nothing dies. I really believe that.”

“Everything dies,” I said, and immediately regretted saying it.

“Then where does it go?” Beth asked. “The feelings and the thoughts? The everything that isn’t meat?”

“Where does the light go when you flip the switch?”

“The energy is still there, Kenny. Even if it isn’t lighting the filament. The light just goes out of us. Dissolves into the universe.”

“I can’t feel him,” Jackie said. “Even when he was at school, or far away, I could feel him existing. Like there was a compass inside of me that was always pointing right at him. And now it’s just spinning and spinning.” She was looking into the water, though the surface where our eyes stopped. Like she could see the very bottom, and like she was at the very bottom, looking up at us.

“The moon is huge,” Beth said.

“The moon is always the same size,” I said.

Ron climbed onto the bow, threw his hands in the air, and yelled, “I’m the king of the world! What? Someone had to do it.”

I hung my head over the rail, over the passing black water, and I felt the universe split. I was holding on to the rail for dear life, and I was tumbling over it. I heard Jackie scream and saw her reaching for my falling body, and I felt her cold little hand inside my robe, scratching my back. I felt her dry hair blowing into my mouth, and I felt the great ship’s wake spinning me like a blender.

“Goldfish,” I said.

“Come on, my love,” she said. “Let me take you back down below.”

 


Casey Gray teaches writing at New Mexico State University. His work has appeared in Ploughshares and his first novel, Discount, is available from overlook press.

A Love Story, Finally by Kafah Bachari

in Fiction/Issue One

 

THE MINT PASTE FACTORY WAS CLOSED. Still, the lights hummed and flickered greenish white in the smoke filled night.  Sayeh knew it would be in her dreams again along with the Boy and Florescent Green No. 5, that silhouette she couldn’t unimagine, and the smell of cut mint bleeding out of her.  Everything but refreshing.   

She’d fallen in love, miserably, incrementally, with the Boy from the Department of Paste Texturization, when he’d spent one month among them, as part of his Onboarding, watching the girls add Florescent Green No. 5 to great spinning vats of crushed peppermint and spearmint.  Sometimes Florescent Green No. 5 would stain her hands and then his hands, and sometimes when she stood naked before the bathroom mirror she’d see streaks of it across her secret places and the sight of the green glow would fill her with an unmistakable longing to be with him again, for Time to be something malleable that could be bent to a girl’s will.  

The Boy’s Onboarding training eventually took him to another part of the factory, probably to the Department of Packaging, where the girls were plumper and not as bright, she thought.  Maybe he’d remember her fondly.  But that’s all she’d ever be to him, a memory made of a girl, a soft stroke of color, and a faint fragrance of crushed mint.  

The mint paste factory was closed, and as she walked away for the night somewhere else A Life Unlike This One glimmered; a father and a mother, plaited hair and a pink frock, a school with a brick red façade, the great glow of morning sunshine, a soft pillowy woman whom she called Ms. Teacher.  But it was only a glimmer, a small burst, and then a fading away.  A Life Unlike This One was Before the Unmanned, which, if you saw it in time, looked like a great broken wasp bird searching the endless blue, peddling in hopeless circles, for the thing no one could give it enough of.  A broken thing with an enormous want.  Like the Thing Mistaken for Love. Like how she wanted the Boy and thought her love for the Boy was an immutable heartsickness that would last for an entire miserable lifetime. That was the audacity of new love.  Foolish enough to want Forever.  Foolish like the Unmanned searching in the sky.  

 

*

SHE TOOK THE PEACEFUL VALLEY A-5 Bus home.  The lights in the street weren’t working, they hadn’t ever worked, and neither were the lights inside the bus working.  This was OK because this was what was Expected.  The apparatus of lighting was installed but the electricity never arrived to ignite the tiny places where the flames were supposed to go.  Everyone inside could see the starlight outside and no one worried about what things might get in the way on a dark road.  Everyone but the workers of the mint paste factory were already home, inside where undulations of sura-sura smoke kept the cold far and away where it smiled harmlessly like the feeble thing everyone wanted to believe it was, so it was.

Sayeh left her coat on when she arrived.  What used to be a Mother and a Father sat around a coal fire.  The sura-sura smoke a recent memory on their breath.  

“There is dinner on the stove.” A Mother’s mouth with no teeth said. The Unmanned had taken a Mother’s teeth as well as a Mother’s two sons. Sayeh didn’t think of what the Unmanned took as her brothers because when she found the rubble in the garden where the sura-sura grew there was only Delam’s left shoe and Velam’s Baseball FUS cap.  Naturally, they’d gone away to make their fortunes or find their fame like all the boys in the village wanted to do.  Delam and Velam were great adventurers and Sayeh chronicled their achievements in her Book: birth, survival of the Great Year of Snow, able to climb up the rusted façade of the old Merk tank in the Great Field Beyond the School and touch the bottom of the moon, able to laugh continuously from the moment sunlight touches the leaves of the Big Sura-Sura stalk until the sunlight touches the leaves of the Little Sura-Sura stalk, able to find the best and the biggest oranges for Sayeh to eat, able to help a Father gather enough fire wood to sell to the FUS combat men to keep a Mother cooking hot meals for three months straight every autumn and spring, able to tell stories about the places they would take Sayeh and a Mother and a Father when the war was over and the roads opened again, able to keep the cold away, able to keep the cold away, able to keep the cold away. 

Sayeh kept her coat on. Delam and Velam would come back. 

But the others in the village gathered in the garden near the place where the Sura-Sura grew and had a different idea about the baseball FUS cap and the shoe.  Everyone came and screamed and wailed and cursed the Unmanned.  It was all Silly and Wrong, as far as Sayeh was concerned and Sayeh was mad at Silly and Wrong.  Sometimes Silly and Wrong would come and blame the Unmanned and other times Silly and Wrong would come and take the school girls to the Great Field Beyond the School but not to touch the bottom of the moon.  Once, Silly and Wrong came for a father and told him he should be ashamed to have a daughter in the mint paste factory.  But a Father can tell Silly and Wrong to go away, something a Mother can’t do.  

The day Delam and Velam left their shoe and hat behind, Silly and Wrong had had too much Sura-Sura.  Sayeh yelled to them that her brothers were fine.  One day they’d come back for Sayeh and a Mother and a Father and they’d all go somewhere where Sura-Sura wasn’t what you did to survive work at a mint paste factory and memory. 

But most of the things Sayeh wanted to say she couldn’t.  

Sometimes even if she knew something was The Right Thing it would sit at the base of her belly and refuse to come out, afraid of the way Silly and Wrong would see it in the peculiar light of the mountain valley where Sayeh lived with a Mother and a Father, and where unlike any other place in the world, the Sura-Sura grew strong in the soil beneath which lay things the FUS Combat Men were after even if what they told the People was that they were in Pela to help Keep the Peace. Sayeh didn’t remember what Before was like, but even so she thought maybe what was needed in the Mountain Valley was for the FUS Combat men to Share the Peace, to parcel it out along with food and vaccines, among the People, even Silly and Wrong, and maybe the Unmanned too.    

When the night was over and morning arrived Sayeh went back to the mint paste factory.  The road was covered in light snow.  The bus was late, which meant it wasn’t coming.  Sayeh walked because that was what you did when the bus was late.  Silly and Wrong were standing around doing nothing.  They were waiting.  It seemed that is all they always did, wait around for some action.

“Hey Sayeh Joon, what are you doing?”

“Going to work, what are you doing?”

“Waiting around for some action,” Silly or Wrong said, she could never tell them apart.  

She didn’t know if they were brothers or friends.  They always appeared together and she didn’t remember ever seeing them configured in another other way but waiting around for some action, except that in the time Before, they might have been called by different names, Sayeh couldn’t be sure.

When the mint paste factory’s hazy façade came fully into view Sayeh saw the Boy from the Department of Paste Texturization.  He was getting out of a car driven by someone who was probably from her part of the village.  The Boy was still lovely, the way she remembered him, with FUS style belted pants and a shirt with buttons and a pocket.  He carried a briefcase that said, “Minty and Fresh,” like the other boys from the fine families that helped the FUS in Pela and as a reward became the families whose boys could work in the Department of Paste Texturization and carry around special brief cases and wear pants and shirts that said without speaking, we are just luckier than the rest of you, aren’t we?  We just happen to be here, where it is warmer, and you just happen to be there, in the cold.  One day you might be here so don’t complain too loudly. You’ll hear your own bones break before we hear your cry for help.  

“Girl joon, come here.”

Sayeh obeyed.

“My mother needs a girl to help in the house.  Go see her.  You aren’t a factory girl, joon.”

“It’s good working here,” Sayeh said, and because she was feeling brave, “Boy joon.”

He smiled without showing his teeth.

“You aren’t a factory girl, joon, but you aren’t a marrying girl either.  Go see my mother.  She needs a house girl.”  

House girls helped the Woman of the House with the Keeping of the House.  House girls drew open the curtains to Let the Light In the main salon.  They swept the marble thresholds clean of dust.  They made sure the tea didn’t boil.  They kept the secrets of the Woman of the House in safe places where their husbands and son wouldn’t find them.  House girls never went to college or married boys.  They fell in love from the closet or the pantry or in the garden long after everyone had gone to sleep.  House girls earned no money, just the right to eat and sleep in the family home.  They became a fixture of the family.  Tied to their fate, passed down to the family’s children, until they became very old and quiet and were allowed to pass peacefully into Another World or be Returned to the village from where they came, changed and estranged, and with an air of superiority from a life among the Upper Class. House girls ate three meals and wore what the Woman of the House didn’t want.  Families that could afford to keep a House girl didn’t keep Sura-Sura in the garden and their sons didn’t go missing on adventures or leave a shoe or a FUS cap behind.  The Sons of Families who kept House girls went to work for the Department of Paste Texturization at the Mint Paste Factory or as Cultural Liaisons for the FUS Men from the Authority or became College boys who became professors (“Freedom through Knowledge”) or translators (“Freedom through Engagement”) or Generals (“Freedom through Conquest”) depending on the political persuasion of their family.

The dagger of the Boy’s kindness didn’t pierce her coat or the fair skin beneath it.  She wasn’t any kind of work girl.  She was Delam and Velam’s sister.  She was a brothers’ girl. 

“The work here is good.”

And the Boy smiled without showing his teeth.  

Inside the factory Sayeh pulled her regulation coverall over her coat.  The Factory Super gave her an extra large coverall so that she could leave her coat on; as though putting up with her eccentricity would earn him the Right to be Loved in Return.  Sayeh didn’t know if the rules of mathematics worked in Matters of Love.  As far as she could tell the equations were all lopsided and nothing added up properly on both sides.  The Factory Super was an effete man, tall and angled to the left, but not otherwise crooked, just odd.  Sayeh would never love him the way she loved the Boy. But she relied on his kindnesses, and came to think of him as belonging, in some small, rare way, to her, as though the afflicted belong to each other by disposition.  

“Girl joon,” the Factory Super said, “the mint has arrived from Surastan. Can you unpackage it today, so that it can be crushed tomorrow?”

“Are the roads open again?”

“Long enough, this time, for some goods to pass.”

If the roads to Surastan were open enough for mint to pass, Sayeh thought, maybe Delam and Velam could steal Safe Enough passage to Return and come Home from their Adventure.

“Not long enough for people to pass, Sayeh,” the Factory Super said.  

When he walked away she forgot to count the echoes of his steps and looked at the clock on the wall instead, it’s time moving forward in fixed calculations.  The blade in her hand sunk effortlessly into the cheap plastic tarp covering the mint bundles and the smell of spearmint and peppermint burst into the air and burned Sayeh’s eyes for the rest of the afternoon.  

 

*

IN THE FAR PLACE WHERE THE MEADOW CURVED downward into a deep valley before rising up into the Great Mountain, Delam and Velam blinked their eyes open for the first time in a fortnight.  They’d been Blown to Bits by the Unmanned and Reassembled.  The Men who Fight from Behind the Great Mountain had found their pieces and painstakingly replanted them into fertile earth so that they might enjoy a second life in the Great Mountain Country, where no FUS Combat Men had yet arrived.  They’d done a fine job, except that Velam thought his hands might have been mistakenly planted with Delam and Delam suspected Velam had his much loved perfect ears.  In any case, upon gaining consciousness, their first thoughts, after their first blinks and first tears, were to wonder aloud about Sayeh and a Mother and a Father.  And the Greatest of the Men who Fight from Behind the Mountain assured them that the odds were one day they’d be Blown to Bits by the Unmanned and brought here to be replanted and assembled with some parts missing and some parts replaced.  “But how many times can a person be broken before they break?” Delam and Velam asked aloud. 

And the Greatest of the Men who Fight from Behind the Mountain shrugged.  “Not all of what is planted in this place can grow.” And Delam and Velam knew Truth when they heard it, even if their ears were on wrong.  

   “Can we go back?”

“Oh yes,” said one of the men, “you may always go Over the Mountain but it is harder to come back each time, to be replanted and reassembled, to grow.  Each time the fractures are greater, more deeply felt.”

“We must go back.”

“One more thing.  Going back means you must fight.  No FUS men will allow you to pass from this place.  If you go, you must go with your weapons drawn.”

“We’ve never fought.  We’ve never used weapons.  We will walk.  We will speak to the FUS men and tell them we are only Returning Home.”

The Greatest of Men who Fight from Behind the Mountain laughed.  Great rolling laughter.  The kind that shook the firmament above and the ground below.  The kind that wasn’t because something was funny but was because something was deeply sad, irrevocably broken.  Delam and Velam looked at each other and saw fear, for the first time in their boy lives.  They thought of Sayeh.  She would be waiting.  She would wait for them to Return.  They thought of a mother and a father in the haze of smoke from a homegrown Sura-Sura cloud.

“We will Return.  We will talk to the FUS men.  We will make them understand.”

“Speak with this,” the Greatest of Men who Fight from Behind the Mountain gave Delam and Velam a large egg, reddish and warm to the touch, “if your tongues cannot save you.”

There was a path that cut its way through the Great Mountains.  It was filled with jagged stones and boulders, trees high as heaven, and a canopy of leaves and vines so gnarled and tangled that in some places it was night, even in the day.  Delam and Velam and the Red Egg and a basket of bread weaved tenderly through the path.  It would have been more convenient to be blown to bits by the Unmanned and reassembled in the lush meadow of the Valley of the Great Mountains than to endure this treacherous journey.  Delam and Velam nodded together as they walked, sharing the thought and the hardship, leaning on each other when the ground became uneven or if the canopy opened up to the high heat of a noon day and it seemed there would be no water to drink for years.  But there was water.  Here and There a stream would bubble up from the rich heart of the softened earth beneath them.  And Here and There something would be provided, an apple, berries, some nuts.  They gathered their small treasures and sat Here and There in clearings or in the cool shade and shared their meal as the Red Egg sat beside them and watched.  Sometimes it buzzed or vibrated gently.  Delam and Velam would pat it, gather it in a bed of leaves, calming it into a kind of wide-awake sleep with their sing song voices and their benign observations of the Observable World.  

“It’s got no eyes but it watches.”

“It’s watchful and waiting.”

At night they found high branches in which to make crude nests to sleep in.  Below they could hear the slither and creep of Things that Wake in the Night.  They held each other and the Red Egg between them.  

“If anything comes for us, the Red Egg will stop it.”  And it was true.  The Red Egg vibrated gently until Delam and Velam were lulled into a kind of deep asleep sleep.   When they woke up the world looked new in the sunshine above the canopy.  They could see Peaceful Valley in the distance and the bright blush of the Sura-Sura stalks and the smoke rising from the Mint Paste Factory and in some places a FUS tank or a checkpoint and the lazy movement of horses and carts and people going about the beginning of a day filled with a limited handful of possibilities.   

“If we keep to the East we will come upon the Great Field Beyond the School.  Then we will be home.”

“If we arrive at first light, the FUS Men will be changing guard and they may miss our passage from the end of the path to the beginning of the field.”

“We should leave the Red Egg behind.  We should bury it at the end of the path, so that we cross the Great Field Beyond the School as children and not fighters.”

They buried the Red Egg when they reached the end of the path.  The day was still some hours away and the light from the starlight struck the glint in the improvised stone they used as a shovel, to carve a place deep inside the earth for the Red Egg to be laid finally.

“We can’t take you with us because if we are caught you will be taken first.”

“First they will take you and you may be exploded or explode.”

“Here you will be safe.  You will stay warm.  You will remember your time with us like a peaceful dream.”

The Red Egg hummed approvingly.  It wanted the earth, deeply.  But not for the reasons Delam and Velam gave.

They entered the Great Field Beyond the School and saw that the moon hung low there, as it always did, and if they had time they might have climbed a tree to touch the bottom and laugh as they had but that childhood seemed very far away and what they rushed towards and hoped for was to make it across Without Detection and find their way Back Home just as Sayeh was just getting up and the smell of burning Sura-Sura was heady like the new morning fog.  And that is just what they did as the Red Egg waited patiently like time before clocks for The Right Moment when it could crack open and bloom purple and white fire into the clear air above and show its truest love to the men whose bodies it craved. And what is love more than a devouring; a thick smoke that smells of cherries and hay that cools your hot fears and says everything will be quiet again if you breathe deeply in to; or a conflagration the likes of which you’ll never feel but once in the embrace of the one you loved first so many centuries ago; or the thing that pulls you towards the Great Field Beyond the School one morning when the meadow in the new light reminds you of the home you left behind to serve the FUS and you mistake the tick tick for your own heart beat—and it might as well be your own heart ticking in the soft earth of a strange land—when you find yourself full of love for the thing that craves you completely, and without judgment, and for once you step upon Creation without fear and say no farewell longer than an abrupt sigh. 

 


Kafah Bachari was born in Iran and raised in Texas.  Her writing focuses on issues of memory, myth, identity, religion, and history within Iran and the Iranian American diaspora.  Kafah is currently at work on a novel which follows the lives and fractured memories of a Baha’i family from Tehran.  Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, the Tin House blog, and elsewhere. Kafah lives in Pearland with her husband, two sons, and their dog. 

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