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“A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cub, or, The (Bear) Catcher in the Rye: The Coming-of-Age Saga of a Homosexual Hipster in Portlandia” by Daniel Granias

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cub,

or,

The (Bear) Catcher in the Rye:

The Coming-of-Age Saga of a Homosexual Hipster in Portlandia

By Daniel Granias

1. BEARRACUDA

 

User ID:                           BigBadBareBear

Height:                             6’3”

Weight:                            280 lbs

Age:                                   37

Ethnicity:                         White

Status:                              Single

Identify As:                     Bear, Muscle Bear, Daddy, Dom/Top

Looking For:                   NSA*, Casual Encounters, Twinks**, Boys, Chasers, Subs/Bottoms

About Me:                      i like stanky pits, bubble buts, and using my nightstick to teach boys ur lessons. Bottoms only, no fatties. Tested neg….

User Online:                   2 hrs ago

Located:                           3.9 mi away

A cold drop of water crawled down my forearm and hung by my elbow—overflow from the mix of condensation from my well-whiskey soda and the nervous sweat that had accumulated on my palms. Deep bass thuds bounced their way through the speakers and subwoofers mounted every three feet around the club, obliging me to bob my throbbing head and pout my lips in such a way that I could look like I was as chill as the last remaining ice cube dissolving in my cocktail glass.

BigBadBareB…                                                                                                                   Me

At 9:02pm, BigBadBareBear said,

“hey sexy”

“Hey man!”

“you going to Bearracuda tonight?”

“Is that the party at Branx?”

“yeah u goin”

“I’ve heard about it, some of my friends

are going, I might check it out!”

“i will look 4 u there.”

“What’s your name?”

[BigBadBareBear is no longer active]

 

I lied. My friends weren’t going to Bearracuda. At the time, I didn’t really have any gay friends to go anywhere with, much less a bear party. I was in my last semester of art school and lived in the suburbs. I’d been following talk about Bearracuda over the few online communities to which I subscribed, including OBA, the Oregon Bears Association, Bear411.com, and Grommr, the new social networking site for chubs & chasers, gainers & encouragers.  After much deliberation and soul-searching turmoil, I took a shot of Peach Schnapps (the only alcoholic substance in the house), buttoned my single designated slim-fit “going-out” shirt, and boarded the inbound bus to downtown.

Sucking down my second bottom-shelf cocktail, I found myself excessively grinning out of amusement and discomfort instigated by my surroundings.  Immediately I recognized two distinct facts: I was clearly one of the youngest and smallest people in the room, and I didn’t know a single well-padded soul in the house. I found myself barricaded by plaid flannel walls of bear backs, a salt and pepper static screen of furry fronts, and a bumper car ball pit of bulging bellies. I had never been more excited and awkward at the same time. This was definitely crossing itself off my bucket list as either one of my most awesome solo flight adventures, or one of my stupidest mistakes yet.


2. You’re Talking About Men, Right?

Given that there is a crapshoot chance that a reader may not have any preexisting knowledge of the bear community, let’s start with the basics:

According to Ray Kampf in his book The Bear Handbook: A comprehensive guide for those who are husky, hairy, and homosexual (and those who love ‘em), a bear boils down to “the right size man with the right amount of hair who is willing to do things that Jesse Helms says are wrong.” If it can’t get put any more simply, bears are gay men who are big, furry, and like to cuddle. They are the counter-counter culture to the gelled, tanned, buffed, and polished GQ cover boy drinking Jaeger bombs and dancing in cages at Boxxxes. Unlike the Radical Faeries, bears re-embrace masculinity and share an overlap (but not an entire correlation) to the Leathermen, according to Peter Hennen. Where those distinctions segregate is another chapter in another story, but a highly important one to read nonetheless.*

User PDXButchBear checked you out 6 mins ago

User DomLeatherBoots checked you out 19 mins ago

User Twinktastic checked you out 2 hrs ago

User BigBadBareBear checked you out 4 hrs ago

 

Bears are a jovial bunch and celebrate their girth and gayness equally. A layperson could be intimidated approaching a group of bears—which would appear very similar to a Harley Davidson bike gang, or a rugby team, or a Santa v. Paul Bunyan convention—but if given a moment, they would overhear a conversation such as,
“Oh my stars, I made my husbear a pineapple upside down cake for our three-year beariversary and it was dee-lish! I caramelized some extra sugar on top with the blow torch form Steve’s motorcycle shop and it worked perfectly! And you should see the new side table he got for our foyer! 19th century Dutch teak!”

Bears also date back as far as gay culture has been out and proud. You can bet that there were bears at the Stonewall Riots pounding ass (not an entendre) and then cleaning house with a 15% non-toxic bleach solution with blue rubber kitchen gloves (best to leave that one to those in the know).

Do not be alarmed or confused by the mention of other mammalian species, either. Within bear culture you will find cubs, otters, wolves, silver foxes, grizzlies, polar bears, etc. George Mazzei first put bear identity in public writing in his July 1979 Advocate article, “Who’s Who in the Zoo?” Since then, there have been countless bear clubs, organizations, hanky codes, websites, and now smart phone apps that categorize and define the hirsute realm of homosexual homo sapiens.

3. The Mentorship of Cockrates to Gayto, Part One

User ID:                            MatthieuBooBoo

Height:                              5”11”

Weight:                             180 lbs

Age:                                    31

Ethnicity:                          Mixed/Multi-Racial

Status:                               Single

Identify As:                      Bear, Cub, Vers/Bottom

Looking For:                   Friends, Dates, Relationship, Casual Sex

About Me:                        I’m a Taurus that likes art, sports, nature, and photography. Chill, down to earth (signs!) and looking for same. Neg 4/12.

User Online:                   5 mins ago

Located:                           <250 ft away

Not knowing what to do with myself after approximately twelve minutes of head-bobbing and hand-wiping, I dodged and weaved around the bombastic obstacles between where I stood and the edge of the bar so as to put my glass down and look like I was occupied with the slightest task. Through the crowd, several lumbering superiors made eyes at me, the most mal-proportioned and dermatologically challenged even waved. For fear that any of these men could be BigBadBareBear, I dropped my head and proceeded to return through the crowd of bellies, backs, and butts towards my thoughtful spot. There, waiting for me, was a not-so-bearish fellow with a welcoming and surprisingly non-threatening smile on his face that, without speaking, said, “What the hell are you doing here?”

Matt was slightly larger in build than I, dark featured and olive skinned in an ethnically ambiguous complexion, flashed a charming smile wrapped in a black, neatly shaven chin strap, and had a look in his eye that was somewhere between curiosity and deviance. He wore a tight black tank top with a bear claw printed on the left side of his chest; his torso was softly sculpted, marking a healthy balance of barbells and burgers.

“You need anozzur dreenk!”

“What?” I wasn’t used to attempting conversations in loud clubs with guys who were either drunk, foreign, or both.

“You can’t just stand here with nossing in your hand or else ze ozzurs will zeenk you want ZEM to buy you a drink, and you don’t want zat.”

“No?”

Matt tipped his head and glared at me, “No. And you see zat bouffet table over zaire?” he pointed to a long table set with disheveled bowls and plates of indulgent treats like ruffled potato chips, cakes, cookies, snack mixes, etc. “You DEFINEETLY don’t want to eat ANY of ZAT!” Matt was short for Matthieu, and I had met probably the one and only French bear cub in the bar, much less the whole city. And he had taken it upon himself to educate me on the way of the bear party, which I didn’t quite know how to appreciate.

“Well, what are you waiting for?”

“I’m out of cash.” I told Will I hadn’t anticipated the overpriced cover charge upon entry and spent my last four dollars on my empty cocktail.

He scoffed, “Fine, I will buy you your next drink, what is it?”

“What happened to not trusting guys here to buy me drinks?”

“Zey are not me! Now, what is zees garbage you are drinking?”

And so MatthieuBooBoo threw his tenderly toned arm over my shoulder and shoved and dragged me through the crowded club for the rest of the night introducing me to some of the most boisterous and follicularly endowed bears I had ever encountered. Now, I knew what bears were like in theory, mostly from subgenre web communities and video channels that I’d surf in the comfort and solitude of my twin-sized bed, but here I was, very up close and extremely personal, in a claustrophobic club bursting with bears in the most excessive and highly textured flesh. As the beasts they were, the bears could smell my freshness, my fear, and my folly. Tomas, a musty and rotund Belgian with red suspenders, grabbed my hand, lifted his shirt, and encouraged me to give him a thorough belly rub. Perched on the bar behind Tomas, like two neckless owls scoping the crowd left and right, sat Jacques, a squat, silver-haired French Canadian with a bright smile who kindly introduced himself as a professional chocolatier, alongside his squinty-eyed and open-shirted partner André, who baked in patisserie. They greeted me, assured me that Tomas was harmless, then turned to each other and resumed eating a doughnut together in a most unspeakable way.

User BigBadBareBear checked you out 25 mins ago

It was then that I noticed the go-go dancers. Again, this was not an unfamiliar concept: scantily clad and well-sculpted showboys dancing on a box or in a cage with an expression of utmost nonchalance on their faces. Except this was Bearracuda, and the 300+ lb jock-strapped go-gos undulated as if a Chia pet and lava lamp had crossed genetic codes. The sight was disturbingly hypnotic, like watching a Military Class M561 Humvee try to tow a beached manatee back to sea.

Finally, after tearing myself away from the go-go bears, I turned around to find Matthieu making face with Tomas, hands and elbows and bellies and knees and toes, knees and toes. I was afraid to look, but I then saw Jacques and André continuing their doughnut practice, sans doughnut.

User BigBadBareBear checked you out just now.

“So how was your night? Crazy?” asked my cab driver on the way home.

“Not what I expected, that’s for sure.” I said.

“It’s funny how you learn to get used to that.”

4. A Burgeoning Virgin, or, Why Come Out of the Closet When It’s Full of Such Fabulous Clothes?

 

User ID:                             VuVashaVuVasha

Height:                               6’1”

Weight:                              250 lbs

Age:                                     43

Status:                                In an open relationship

Identify As:                       Everything and nothing

Looking For:                     Sharing the love of the earth that supports us

About Me:                      My chosen name is Vuvasha, I practice

Pranic Healing and brew my own

Vuvasha’s Kombucha; I am also a

Professional Manscaper and Resident

Photographer for the Cub Cleaners.

Call my direct line for service info at

XXX-XXX-XXXX

User Online:                   45 mins ago

Located:                            2 mi away

 

It should be pretty clear by now that this was not only my first time out at a bear party, but it was really my first time out out at a club party to any degree. I’d been out of the closet since high school (thanks to a surreptitious cover of being really into WWF Wrestling and Motorcycle Digest), but my being gay mostly served as the target for my own queer humor and sarcasm, and a persuasion to watch Project Runway with all the girls in my dorm. It wasn’t until that year of the February Bearracuda that I attempted to take the leather studded reigns of my sexuality into my own hands and bull-whip my soft and un-touched Asian ass out into the foray.

I was a newbie (noob, noobie, nube, etc.) as explicitly defined by Greg Berlanti’s 2000 D-rated camp classic The Broken Hearts Club:

 

The new millennium also introduced America to Queer as Folk, an overacted Showtime melodrama—and I was Justin Taylor, the blond, baby-faced estranged gay runaway art student who falls in with a group of self-loathing Philadelphian thirty-somethings. Like a good member of the young American public, I soaked up this media exposure like an all-natural oceanic loofah and constructed my identity around it. I expected to have five friends exactly as cliché as each cast member from whatever sitcom or movie, although every character is essentially written so that any self-righteous gay man has all five or six circulating within his gym-going, camera-clicking, rugelach-baking, web-designing, comic book collecting headspace, kept warm and cozy by his cable-knit angora stocking cap. I wanted to have the feisty female “fag hag” attached to my hip like in the 1999 NBC series Will & Grace, which was the first time I saw a gay man exhibit everyday qualities in his life, stabilized by his redheaded Lucille Ball-esque roommate. And so did the majority of the people in the room at Bearracuda, as it was granted that almost every gay man who grew up with a television was keyed into the homoerotic subtext of everything from The Odd Couple to Bert and Ernie to Batman and Robin. But for a practically post-collegiate newbie in 2012, times had changed, predominantly due to the Internet and smart phone technology.

User ID:                             YrBBJoJo

Height:

Weight:

Age:                                     

Status:

Ethnicity:                         

Identify As:

Looking For:

About Me:

User Online:                   Now

Located:                            1,372 mi away

YrBBJoJo                                                                                                             Me

At 1:56 am, YrBBJoJo said,

[PRIVATE PHOTOS HAVE BEEN UNLOCKED]

[TuesdayTaurus is no longer active]


5. The Mentorship of Cockrates to Gayto, Part Two

 

MatthieuBoo…                                                                                                             Me

At 10:17 am, MatthieuBooBoo said,

“Where did you go?”

“Home. You guys looked busy.”

“We were having fun, yes. I also wanted you

to have fun.”

“That’s how you show it?”

“Of course, what do you expect?”

“Something less awkward?”

“Don’t be stupid, sex is meant to be

awkward. We’re going to the Eagle

tonight. I’ll pick you up at 9.”

The Eagle is the place for “Portland’s Mature Men” to enjoy themselves, drink scotch, smoke cigars, and watch gay porn on hi-def screens that supersaturate the pre-tanned models to a shade of burnt orange that pennies envy. As if that’s not enough, that night was the biggest L.U.R.E. Party* of the season. Upon entry, I was greeted by a hulking and giggling gingerbear (readhead w/ redbeard) that stamped my wrist and squeezed my hand with his leather-gloved paw.

CRACK went the woven leather bull whip on the floor as four men that looked like Tom Sellek in leather gear prepped the “participant” for his public demonstration. On the other side of the bar, a big black bear that looked like Mr. T shook the chains on his Hispanic show pony** that pranced on bent knee and hoofed at the air.

“Just wait until ze Pride Festival in ze summer.” Matthieu whispered in my ear as he handed me a beer. “Come out back.”

User DomLeatherBoots is <250 ft. away

User BigBadBareBear checked you out 8 mins ago

I was surprised how comfortable I felt as I slid through the dark bathroom hallway, through a scummy plastic curtain, and onto the back patio, to be greeted by our French chefs as well as other familiar members from last night’s debaucheries. My comfort came from remembering the cab driver’s comment from last night: expect the unexpected. At this point, I was beyond a full-immersion curriculum and had essentially been thrown into the center ring at the circus where bears dance with elephants and leather-clad clowns pull bizarre things out of bizarre places.

Later we were joined by none other than the trainer and his pony boy, panting and sweating but smiling and embracing his A-Team partner. I asked them how they got started in this practice, and the trainer, who’s name was Todd, started, “Well, Fernando and I met at Sunday mass at the Laurelhurst St. Mary’s Parish back in ’82 and there was this flyer for a retreat…”

Matthieu led me to a quieter corner.

“You see? Nothing to worry about here.”

“Are you kidding?” I was bewildered at every bit of absurdity around me.

“Look, you’re safe with me, and even not with me, as long as you are smart, and you are smart, so zare is nothing to worry about!”

“How can you say that?”

“What? Are you saying you are not smart?”

“No, of course not.”

“Zen zare is nothing to worry about. Now shut up and finish your beer.”
DomLeatherB…                                                                                Me

At 11:42 pm, DomLeatherBoots said,

“Hey stud.”

“Hi, look I don’t mean to be rude or

anything, but I’m not really interested.”

“I understand. Have a good night, sir.”

[DomLeatherBoots is no longer active]
As the night went on, I was brought into a group of men who were not only as big as bulls, but wore their entire hides over their shoulders. Just as I was about to get swallowed into a cave of cigar-smoking Husky Harleys, Matthieu crammed through and bolstered me out the patio door and back into the bar towards the exit. “Let’s get out of here, ze smoke is making me noxious! Are you hungry? I know a fantasteek place!”

In all my life, I’ve eaten at Taco Bell maybe twice, but the year that I knew Matthieu, we must have made at least a dozen late night pit stops chomping cheap chimichangas after all manners of events from Amateur Drag Night at Embers to the ballet to the Bear-ly There Underwear Party to my thesis graduation show in the Pearl District. To this day I never want to eat another fast food taco ever again.

6. Luncheon of the Bearing Party

User ID:                             JacquesDilettante

Height:                              5’6”

Weight:                             190 lbs

Age:                                    44

Status:                               In a relationship

Ethnicity:                          Mixed/Multi-Racial

Identify As:                      Cub

Looking For:                    Friends, Bears, Cubs

About Me:                        Chocolate is love, so come share our love!

User Online:                    3 hrs ago

Located:                            3.8 mi away

JacquesDile…                                                                                       Me

At 1:32 pm, JacquesDilettante said,

“Hello Daniel! We are so looking forward to

you joining us for dinner this evening!”

“Thanks! I am too! Would you

like me to bring anything?”

“Just your wonderful smile!

What kind of wine do you like?”

Jacques and André lived in a lovely home they remodeled several years ago with a spacious porch that overlooks the St. John’s Bridge. By the time Matthieu and I arrived they had already laid out an aperitif platter of fresh cut fruit, cheese, and charcuterie, and were just pouring the wine. Hugs and kisses were in abundance, and I was also introduced to Scott, an incredibly sized Nebraskan grizzly bear with a laugh that rang through the river valley. Scott also lived with Jacques and André, but to what level of involvement I left unquestioned.

As the sun set behind Portland’s southwest hills, André bounced up and scurried inside, shouting back, “It’s time for dessert!”
I looked at Jacques, “No doughnuts.” He winked back at me.

“Not tonight anyway!” Wailed Scott and the entire St. John’s neighborhood vibrated from his tumultuous guffaw.

André waddled back outside carrying a plate of homemade macaroons and truffles; hanging from his neck, a beautiful, shining black SLR camera of a model I’d never heard of before bounced off his hairy, exposed chest.

“Don’t tell customs!” André bit his nails mischievously. “Now, with Daniel as a new member of our family, we must take a picture with him!”
“But—I—”

CLICK And so my bewildered, chocolate-smeared face ended up on their photo family tree, an actual maple sapling from which they hung framed photographs of all their friends, bear and non-bear alike. There were photos of Jacques and Scott in Paris, Jacques and André in Hawaii, André and Scott in New York, and other couples, individuals, and groups of the most colorful persuasions shot from locations atop metropolitan skyscrapers to posing like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” in front of barns and cornfields.

“You see? And some day this tree will grow, and we will tap it for the syrup, and it will be the sweetest nectar of love and life!”

 

7. Caution: Wet Floor

 

VuVashaVuVa…                                                                                           Me

At 3:03 pm, VuVashaVuVasha said,

“Have you ever been to Steam?”

“I’ve heard of it, but never been there.

I always thought it was kind of sketch?”

“It can be, but doesn’t have to be

if you’re smart about it.”

“I do like a good sauna…”

            At the end of our Wet Hot Abearican Summer, Matthieu met some guy from the suburbs and nobody’s heard from him since. André, Scott, and Jacques said that’s what he does, and he may or may not come back, but not to take it personally. It’s been almost a year now, and the only thing I regret is not getting Matthieu’s opinion on SteamPDX.

Steam is your quintessential local men’s bathhouse, as every city needs at least one, two if it’s seriously competitive about its market. Bathhouses were especially big back in the 60’s and 70’s when gay men had to keep their illicit activity under wraps, so to speak. Incidentally, the men that were trolling through the dark halls of Steam on this particular day could all very well have been the same men doing such activity circa 1969. One gets used to admiring male bodies of aesthetically appealing proportions thanks to both public and private media, and Steam is where everyone else hides (although it’s hard to hide when the only approved attire is an equally malproportioned bath towel). But there I was—at the ready—my penultimate test of courage, exploration, and sheer skank. But I knew the signals, and when one hunched, sagging, toothy, and string haired piece of leftovers gave me the “come hither” finger wag, I said “no thanks” and told him to get his precious ring somewhere else!

User BigBadBareBear checked you out just now.

[User BigBadBareBear BLOCKED]

 

            As I pedaled my Schwinn hybrid roadster home from the bathhouse, the unusually cloudy summer Portland sky dripped a small shower onto my glasses, refracting my perception of the world into dozens of topsy-turvy micro-spherical lenses. The fresh humid air was a bright contrast to the heavily menthol-infused vapors in the dark bathhouse sauna. I checked SteamPDX off my mental bucket list of adventures in gay Portland, shook my head, and ditched the whole list in the running gutter on Northeast Broadway Avenue and biked home.

 

User ID:                             TuesdayTaurus

Height:                               5’8”

Weight:                             150 lbs

Age:                                     26

Status:                                Single

Ethnicity:                           Asian

Identify As:                      A person?

Looking For:                    Friendships with the right chemistry

About Me:                        Hi! I’m a working artist in Pee-Dee-Ecks; I enjoy

a good nightcap after a long day in my studio!

Some words that I like:

Trail, Kale, purl, beards, beers, crafts, laughs, vests, vino, vinyasa, matsah, and gazebo.

Some words that I don’t like:

Smoke, coke, corporate, late, or ‘another mate’

User Online:                   Now

Located:                            0 ft away


* NSA: No Strings Attached

** Twink: A young gay male of slender build and boyish features, typically blond, with little to no body or facial hair, often effeminate and/or juvenile in nature.

* Hennen, Peter. Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen: Men in Community Queering the Masculine. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008.

* L.U.R.E. Party: Leather, Uniform, Rubber, Etc. (i.e. Fetish Night)

** Show pony: Pony play is a popular role play in the BDSM world, historically noted as the “Aristotelian Perversion,” as Aristotle evidently took pleasure in being ridden like a horse. This particular trainer attempted to adapt his show pony’s name to “Hair-Ass-Throttle.”

© 2013 Daniel Granias

“Seeds” by Pamela Russell Bejerano

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Seeds

By Pamela Russell Bejerano

LUKE

I stand in the Food Emporium parking lot, stupefied that I could spend 17 years of my life running away from a place and five minutes crashing back into it. I force my Italian leather shoes to move, feeling like the out of towners we used to call spotted OWLs (spotted, because you could spot them a mile away, OWL meaning Outsider Without Land). Instinctively I wander back to the bakery and laugh when I see the same old doughnut case filled with the same old three flavors – chocolate, glazed and maple bar. Definitely not Voodoo Doughnuts.

“Well I’ll be gosh-danged,” a familiar but wrinkled face says to me, “if it isn’t little Lukey Stephens, back from the big city. Oh honey,” her voice suddenly changes as she walks around to the front of the case and takes my arm. “How are your parents holding up, what with all that going on and all?”

Mrs. Appleton, manager of the bakery and town gossip control center.

“All what going on?” I say, curious to know what the talk is.

“Oh you know,” she whispers in my ear, looking around to make sure no one and everyone can hear, “that stuff with the b-a-n-k.”

“They’re fine,” I say, not encouraging her. All the farmers out here have ‘stuff’ with the bank. “How about one of those doughnuts,” I ask, desperate to be out of her grasp, and out of this store.

“Plain glazed,” she asks, her voice returning to normal, “same as always?” She drops my arm and waddles her oversize self around back. She hands it to me with a napkin. “This one’s on the house.”

Before I can thank her a voice hits me.

“Don’t eat that.”

I turn and see yet another familiar face, this one showing no wrinkles. “Jordan Hughes,” I say. “Still bullying the boys, I see.”

And still a farmer. She wore the Wrangler jeans better than any other girl in school, and somehow even made baseball hats look sexy. That, too, hasn’t changed.

To my only partial surprise, she rips the doughnut from my hand and slams it on Mrs. Appleton’s clean counter.

“Why don’t you tell him what you put in those doughnuts now, Mrs. Appleton?”

“Jordan,” Mrs. Appleton says, “your mama would be ashamed of you acting this way.”

“My mama died of cancer, remember?”

Jordan’s stare turns back to me and I suddenly feel 16 again under her sharp, green eyes.

“Nice shoes,” she says. “You look like a spotted OWL.”

“Thanks,” I say, amazed that I still get tongue tied around her.

She is gone and Mrs. Appleton at my side. “You never mind her,” she says, forcing a new doughnut on me. “Stop by again, soon, and tell those parents of yours hi.”

When I am around the corner I toss the doughnut in the garbage, unwilling to face the wrath of Jordan if she appears again. She does, this time in front of me at the checkout stand.

“Fifty-three-sixty-eight,” the clerk says as I walk up. I realize it’s Joe, from high school, and I say hi.

Jordan looks over the pile of groceries then hands him back a bag of flour. “Take this back,” she says, and hands him a $50 bill.

“Jordan,” I say, “I’ve got $4.” I reach into my wallet but pull my hand back when I see the look on her face.

She is out the door before I can find my tongue and a word to say.

 

JORDAN

I throw my grocery bag in the back of my truck. I want to get out of here before I hit something, or someone. Luke Stephens back in town can only mean one thing – his parents are selling. His parents sell, we’ll be next. I turn around and there he is, leather shoes and all.

“Jordan, I’m sorry,” he says.

“For what?” I say, wanting nothing to do with this slick spotted OWL. “What are you doing here, Luke?”

It’s not really a question I want answered, so I climb in my truck and slam the door.

“I was hoping we could – ”

I gun the engine, cutting him off and pull out of the parking lot. By the time I get home, I’m still mad. I slam the door on the truck but catch the front screen door with my boot, not wanting to startle my dad. He is in the living room, looking at me with the blank stare I’m starting to get used to. “Hi dad, it’s Jordan,” I say. I set the groceries down and walk to him. “Jordan, your daughter.”

“Jordan?” His brows furrow at me. “My goodness, when did my little girl get so grown up?”

This is the last conversation I want to have right now.

“You need anything?” I say, standing and heading in to the kitchen.

He doesn’t answer, but I bring him a glass of water.

“Anybody call while I was out?” I ask.

He wouldn’t remember even if they did, but I ask anyway. I’ve tried to get him to quit answering the phone, but he forgets. Still forgets mom is gone, too, and that happened ten years ago. Back in the kitchen, I flip through the mail. My breath stops when I see the large envelope, the one with Oregon State University in the upper left corner. I go back in and turn on the TV, knowing it will keep dad from wandering into the kitchen. Back in the kitchen I pull out a stool and sit, slowly, staring at the envelope and trying to muster the courage to open it. If the tests are confirmed, the trouble I thought this farm was in is going to be nothing. Thing is, I know the answer, known it in my gut since I found the seeds in our cornfield last month.

I take a deep breath and rip open the envelope. My hands shake as I scan the letter. I see it, there, in the third paragraph.

Genetically modified.

Immediately I grab all the papers and hide them in my room, under my sports bras in the bottom drawer. I take a long, hot shower, willing the news to float off me and down the drain.

Dried and dressed, I slowly make my way downstairs, trying to keep my knees from buckling, trying to think what, if anything, I’ll tell my dad.

“Well, I’ll have to think about it.” My father’s voice floats up the stairway, and I am now running down into the kitchen.

“Dad?” I say.

“I’ll call you tomorrow.” He hangs up the phone and turns to me.

“Dad, who was that?”

He reaches up to pat my shoulder, like he used to do when I barely came up to his waist.

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head about this, honey. You let your mama and I take care of the farm. You just focus on school and keeping that Luke boy in line.”

“Luke? You remember Luke?”

Alzheimers, the doctor told me, makes a person go back in time. Eventually my dad will even stop remembering me. It scares the hell out of me, his thinking Luke still lives next door and I’m chasing after him like we’re both 12. Scares me almost as much as the letter hidden up in my drawer.

 

LUKE

I drove all the way out here yesterday to help my mom and dad sell the farm, help them retire early out in Astoria, like they had always dreamed about. But today I can’t do it, and I find myself telling the bank manager that we will have to think about it some more. He stands and shakes my hand, telling me he’ll be here when we change our minds. I’m mumbling to myself, trying to figure out what I’ll say to mom and dad as I head out of the bank.

“Did you sell?”

I almost drop the papers at the sudden sound of the voice. Jordan stands by the front door, a thick, legal sized manila envelope in her hand.

I shake my head. “No, actually.”

Her eyes narrow at me. “Your parents changed their mind?”

“I did.”

To my shock she asks me if I want to have dinner.

We end up at the bar on the edge of town, sitting in the booth in the back corner, a mountain of nachos and two cold beers between us. I fight the urge to wipe the sour cream off her cheek. She beats me to it, using the back of her hand.

“You heard about the Oregon wheat farmer?” she asks. “The one that found genetically modified seeds in his crop?”

“Yeah.” I know the story, but I decide to lead her on a bit, wondering what she was doing at the bank. “My dad sent me the article. I didn’t understand what the big deal was, though.”

She narrows her eyes at me. “How is it your grew up here and don’t know shit.”

“Ha,” I laugh, wiping my face. “I’m an animal trainer; believe me, I know shit.”

Jordan laughs. “I heard that rumor, but I didn’t believe it. Seriously?”

I nod. “Did you see the movie True West?”

She smirks at me in reply. “You mean at the megaplex they built for all us farmers?”

“See, who doesn’t know shit now? It was a box office smash. Anyway, all the horses in the movie were mine.”

A smile appears on her face for the first time. “Little Lukey the Horse Whisperer, a big Hollywood hot shot.”

“Ha, far from it. Anyway, back to the farmer?”

The smile is gone from her face and I take a drink of my beer, uneasy under the sudden weight of her stare. She finishes hers and waves the bartender for another round. My beer is still half full so I bury my face in it again, as if catching up will make me feel less like an OWL. The bartender comes and deposits two more beers along with hamburgers the size of my head. When he’s gone, Jordan sits forward and rests both elbows on the table, staring at me. “You heard of Monsanto?”

“The big, evil corn company? Of course I have. What’s that got to do with the wheat farmer?”

“You remember those seeds they tried to force farmers to use that were genetically modified so they couldn’t reproduce?”

“They lost that battle. FDA wouldn’t let them use the seeds.”

She takes a bite of her hamburger, this time leaving catsup on her cheek. I resist wiping it off and hand her a napkin instead. She makes a face at me, but uses it.

“They made them anyway; that’s what got into this farmer’s field. You saw what the price of wheat did when they found out?”

I nod. So far, this is nothing new. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Monsanto owns practically all the corn grown in the country. They make sure corn and corn syrup are in everything, including Mrs. Appleton’s doughnuts. But it’s not just food. Want new spark plugs? They’ve got corn syrup.”

“C’mon, spark plugs?” I didn’t know this.

“Spark plugs, fabric sprays, hand sanitizer. Probably even in this drywall,” she says pounding the wall above her head. “Make sure corn is everywhere, and you control everything.”

“I thought Coke owned everything,” I say, trying to lighten the mood.

“Monsanto owns Coke. Pepsi, too.”

I sit back in my chair. “What’s going on, Jordan? What are you not telling me?”

Suddenly her eyes turn red and she looks away. When she sits forward again, there are tears welling in her eyes.

“I sold.”

It takes me a minute to register what she said.

“Sold? But…”

“I need to tell you something, neighbor to neighbor, but you have to swear to God in

heaven you won’t tell another living soul, not for a few days, at least.”

“Okay,” I say, weakly. “I promise,” I add with more assurance.

“I found their corn seeds in our field, out on the back side.”

“Back side, by the coop?” I ask.

She nods. “I traced the coop. Guess who owns the company that owns it?”

“Monsanto.” I didn’t know this either.

“When word of this gets out, our farm is ruined. You could very likely get dragged into it, too. That’s why I’m telling you. You need to sell, now.”

We sit in silence and finish our beers and hamburgers. It takes us a fourth beer to finally change the topic. We start talking about friends from high school, and where they all ended up.

As if on cue a bunch of them start showing up. Jordan and I end up staying until closing time, drinking and laughing with everyone. When the bartender kicks us out, Jordan and I slowly wander out to the parking lot where I walk her to her truck, trying to ignore winks and thumbs up I get from a few old friends. Finally they leave, and she turns and looks at me from under her hat.

I can’t help myself and take her face in my hands and kiss her. I hold her there, knowing a black eye is likely to follow when I pull away. To my absolute delight, she kisses me back. We end up on a dirt road a half mile from the bar in the bed of her pick-up truck. The only thing that peels me from her side is my beer-filled bladder, forcing me to find a tree to relieve myself. As I button up my jeans I hear the sudden roar of her engine. I take cover as dirt flying out from under her tires hits the tree. When I walk back out my smashed cell phone sits in the tire track.

 

JORDAN

I’m wishing I had my hat to hide under as I lock my rental car and head into the Food Emporium. I’m amazed at how much the town has changed in a year. It’s possible I am the one that has changed, which is evident when Mrs. Appleton doesn’t recognize me.

“What can I do ya for, hon?” she says, standing behind what I realize is a new bakery cabinet.

“Mrs. Appleton, you have a new case!” That’s when she recognizes me.

“Jordan? Jordan Hughes, is that really you? She waddles around the case and gives me a big hug, then holds me at arms length. “Oh my, but don’t you look quite the world traveler!”

I smile. “I wouldn’t call South America the world.”

She takes my hand in hers and pats it. “I am sorry about your papa, love, and your farm. Never did get a chance to tell you that. Your papa was such a good man, did so much for our community.”

“Thank you,” is all I can say.

“You here to stay, or you just visiting?” she asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, so sweet of you to drop by.” She pats my shoulder and returns to her station behind the doughnut case. “You be sure, now, to head out and say hi to that Luke. He’s got quite the operation out there, you know. All kinds of important people come through here now, Hollywood people. And do they like their doughnuts! That’s why I finally got me this new case.”

“You must have switched back to sugar,” I say, teasing her.

“Matter of fact I did.”

I drive my rental car slowly out to Luke’s. He is the reason I came back, mostly to get an explanation for what happened that night since my dad never could tell me. When I pull up, I hear voices out in the barn, so I head over that way. When I step in I see Luke standing with some other men, holding a horse. The horse shakes its head at me, and that’s when Luke sees me.

“Wow,” he says, walking towards me with the horse. “Didn’t expect to see you here. Jordan, this is Hoof. Hoof, this is Jordan.” Speaking to the horse, he says, “She’s a nice person, just don’t leave your cell phone or doughnuts unattended and you’ll get along fine.”

“Yeah, about that,” I say, glad to get to the point.

He looks at me with a raised eyebrow, apparently waiting for an explanation from me. Fine, I’ll start. “Your cell phone rang while you were peeing. It was my dad.” He says nothing, again waiting. “I answered, said I was your secretary. He said he was ready to sell.”

“And he should have,” Luke says.

“Yeah? Why’s that? So you could build a bigger animal farm out here?”

“I knew about the seeds.” He pauses, letting it sink in, which it finally does.

“You knew? How?”

“You remember Heath, the Principal’s son?” I nod. “He and I went to Oregon State together. He works there now, in the ag program. He saw your report and called me, told me I needed to get out here and convince everyone to sell our land as soon as possible. I offered to buy yours because the bank told me they’d pay me triple if I could get it and sell with mine. Said a big corporation wanted to expand in the area but only if the two pieces of land came together. I planned on giving the profit back to you. I explained it all to your dad, but…Jordan, I had no idea he was sick. I’m sorry.”

“Monsanto,” I say.

He nods. “I didn’t know until you told me that’s who owned the coop, the day you ditched me. That was a long walk back to town, by the way.”

“Please, the bar was a half mile – ”

“And deserted.”

“Serves you right. You should have talked to me about buying the farm. Not my dad.”

He smiles and nods his head. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t sell,” I say, stating the obvious.

“My folks did. They sold to me, and I moved my business out here.”

I pet Hoof, not knowing what to say.

“I think he likes you,” Luke says.

“I think you need better names for your horses.”

“Agreed! My handler quit last week. He was the one that named all the horses.”

I hold the horses head in my hands. “Semilla,” I say, looking her in the eye. “I think that’s a much better name than Hoof, don’t you?”

“What’s it mean?” he asks.

“It’s Spanish. It means ‘seed.’”

“Semilla,” Luke says. “I like it. I don’t suppose you’re looking for a job?”

I pet the horse again and smile.

© 2013 Pamela Russell Bejerano

“Unconditionality Clause” by James Kennedy

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Unconditionality Clause

By James Kennedy

The first thing anybody would notice about this room is how horribly the furniture clashes with the room itself. The room is walled with Victorian patterns and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Yet, the furniture looks like it was purchased at IKEA.

Tim is here with his ten year old son and their psychiatrist, Dr. Barbara Jae. Today is the every-other-Thursday that comes twice each month. Tim keeps hoping that the next month will only have one Thursday. This wasn’t his lucky month though and neither was the last. Tim never tires of talking about his only child Dominic, but when his son’s sanity is being analyzed it takes the fun out of it. Especially when it is that he and the doctor can plot against him for the sake of his ‘proper development’.

Dr. Jae really has been a blessing for them though. Sometimes Tim feels like he is the one who needs the therapy. Being a single parent should automatically qualify any person for free therapy. He remembers his mother doing it with far less money than what he makes as an engineer. She hadn’t even had a vacation until she retired and moved to the beach. Dominic spends the summers with her and she is convinced it’s the doctor who needs help. In her eyes Dominic is just too smart to be understood by the lay people of the world. Clearly he is a genius, albeit at times a seemingly evil one, but a genius no less.

“So Dominic, it’s almost time for you to go visit your grandmother for the summer.” Dr. Jae gives her usual half grin on a face painted in pleasantries. “Are you excited about visiting your grandma?”

“Of course, I’m a kid. I have to be excited about visiting my grandmother.” Dominic gives an over exaggerated roll of the eyes while throwing his hands up.

“You don’t have to be excited” says Dr. Jae.

“Yes I do.” He drags the word do out for no less than a full second and through a full octave. “There is all kinds of stories, and songs, and poems, and they are all about grandmas and how much us kids love them.”

“Yes, but how do you feel about visiting your grandmother for the whole summer?” She puts the extra stress on ‘you feel’.

He pumps his hands out from his shoulders and saying “I just told you”. He gives a big release of breath and says again “there’s the stories, songs, poems”.

“Okay, I understand Dominic” Dr. Jae gives a small chuckle. “Have you been good lately or have you gotten into trouble?”

Tim butts in and says “oh boy did he get into trouble”. Tim does his best not to look condemning. He doesn’t want to be that father. “He almost poisoned the kid next door. We’re lucky his mother didn’t find out, she would have called the police.”

“What happened?”

“Well, there is this kid next door named Edward” Tim begins.

“He’s super fat!” Dominic bows his arms out in front of him and puffs his cheeks out. He wobbles side to side in his chair.

Dr. Jae doesn’t reward this with a comment or a look and stays focused on Tim for the moment. “What happened with this Edward?”

Tim gives sideways grin to mask the embarrassment. “He tried to get Edward to eat a doughnut that he had sprayed with can of Raid. I don’t think it was enough to harm the kid, but just the idea of it got me pretty worried.”

Dr. Jae looks at Dominic, who has given up on the fat impression. “Do you like Edward?”

“Yes, he is one of my friends” replies Dominic in a dry tone.

“Why did you give him the doughnut?” she asks.

“Because he was sad that his mother stopped giving him candies” he replies.

“Why did you spray pesticide on the doughnut?” she asks.

“Because I wanted to see if he would still eat it” he replies.

“Did you want him to eat the doughnut that had pesticide on it?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Why did you want him to eat the doughnut with pesticide?” she asks.

“Because I wanted him to fail” he replies.

“Did he eat the doughnut?” she asks.

“He tried but his mom ran out and said ‘don’t eat that!’ and knocked it on the ground.” Dominic gives a boyish laugh and then does a little impersonation of Edwards’s mom by scowling and poking the air with his finger.

Dr. Jae proceeds to ignore this impression and asks “Why did you want him to fail?”

“Because he thinks he is smarter than me.” Dominic begins to look a bit vindictive. “He needs to know that it isn’t true.”

“Do you want to hurt all your friends?” she asks.

“No” Dominic says. “I don’t really want to hurt people, I just want them to be good for me.”

Tim hates when she starts jotting little notes. He interjects “He has a little girlfriend.” Dominic smiles broadly at this. “A family just moved in across the street. I believe they said they were from Zambia. Dominic cringes if anybody else touches him, even his grandmother or me, but that little girl puts stickers on his face and gives him kisses on the cheek and he just stands there and takes it with that same stupid grin.”

Tim is smiling just as broadly as his son. He reaches over and gives him a little nudge on his arm and a manly-man’s look. Dominic just sits and continues to smile. “They even let him play over there with her for a few hours if I have to work late or if school gets out early.”

His son Dominic was recently awarded the title of sociopath by Dr. Jae after a scare over a picture that was either very red owls or bloody human torsos. He had been worried that his son might be one of those children who turn violent as a result of trauma that he saw either on 60 Minutes or Oprah. Luckily a mother that runs off isn’t quite the kind of trauma to cause that. Instead, it turns out that his little Dominic was a sociopath. It turns out Dominic wasn’t trying to be hurtful with his picture, but see how his dad would react to something so uncertain.

He still doesn’t know if it was red owls or not. Tim just hung it on the fridge next to his stack of report cards full of high Bs and low As and tells people they are monster space owls. Dominic always plays along with whatever thing he comes up with. That always makes things a little easier.

Dr. Jae asks Tim “have you two had any extra time to spend with each other lately?”

Tim perks up and says “Yes, the school had a teacher’s day. That means no school for him so I brought him to work with me. I got to introduce him to everybody. He was very social. It was nice to see him interacting with so many people.” Tim is now glowing with the kind of pride a parent should have when talking about their ten year old.

“Did you notice any inconsistencies in his discussions?”

“Only one. He seemed to tell every man he met he wanted to be a fireman and he told every lady he wanted to be an animal tamer.” Tim does his best to make that sound as innocent as possible. Dr. Jae’s brief facial expression tells him that is a ‘potential indicator’.

“Afterwards we were driving home and saw a garage sale” Tim says in an attempt to change the subject to something more positive. “Dominic found some old Dungeons and Dragons books there, so we got those. He was fascinated with them and spent the whole weekend reading through them. He reads amazingly well.” He begins to glow again. “Best four dollars I’ve spent on him to date. I spent four hundred on his Xbox and games. And he barely touches those.”

The fact that his son chooses reading obscure books over video games is a good thing as far as he is concerned. It’s his new favorite thing to tell the guys at work. He listens to the other guys complain about how their children spend hours a day on video games, and then when they kick them off they’ll just sit there messaging their friends on their phones. That’s when he reminds them that his son actually reads and it practically takes a natural disaster to get him out of a book he really likes. The guys will say stuff like “I might need your kid tutor mine in the future” and “let me know if you’re looking to trade yours in for a lazier model”.

“So, Dominic, you like to read.” Dr. Jae often uses his love for books to pick up useful bits of information. Information that can aide in manipulating him into obedience. A lot of awkward child sociopaths grow up to be successful adult sociopaths, but it takes good parenting. A good psychiatrist helps too. “How often does your dad buy you books?”

“Whenever I ask him to.” Dominic smiles as he says this. He loves it when people respond to his words with actions. He loves it more than books, candy, or anything else. “There’s only one book he refused to buy me.”

“Which book was that?” she asks.

“The Parent Trap.”

Dr. Jae gives Tim a quick glance. The message was clear, probably a good choice not to buy that one.

“Where do you normally read?” she asks Dominic.

“In my room.”

“Is that your favorite place to read?” she asks.

“Yes, but I saw a picture of place I think is better.”

“Where is that?”

“It was a really old red barn in the middle of a cornfield.” He gets a large smile. “The cornfields went on for infinity.” He drags out the last word so long it’s enough to make Tim laugh.

“Is that where you want to be Dominic?” she asks.

He nods big with a scrunched up facial expression that says ‘ooh yeah’. Tim knows this as the ‘we are guys’ look. Appropriate for all moments of awesome guy stuff. It is moments of expression like this that are the norms as far as Tim is concerned. Dominic isn’t running around being crazy all the time. He never has to raise his voice or tell him when to go to bed.

Dominic acts normal most of the time. He is a bit anti-social, but he can play well with others so long as the others aren’t too mean. These sessions often seem like a cruel and unusual punishment for a child that is only manipulative and impressionable. And really, what child isn’t a bit manipulative and impressionable.

Maybe Dominic is really just being all the child he can be. But he has been to enough of these meetings to know what kind of response that will warrant. Dr. Jae would tell him if he was normal he wouldn’t be trying to be all the child he could be, he would just be the child he is.

He doesn’t care though. He loves him. That’s the flesh of his flesh and the blood of his blood. This pragmatic son of his isn’t some little weirdo. He may have something wrong with him, but he knows his son is bigger than the problem. He knows his son is so much more. This is his boy, his first born son, his only child. This is his legacy.

“Dominic, wouldn’t you get lonely being out in the cornfield?” she asks.

His face shifted to absolute neutrality. He leans a little forward and his eyes widen. He asks “When do you feel lonely Dr. Jae?”

Dr. Barbara Jae knows not to answer this question. She has also made sure that Tim knows not to answer these kinds of questions.

Tim also knows this is going to be a lifetime of effort to raise this child. And worth every second of it.

© 2013 James Kennedy

“The Conversation” by Devan Wardrop-Saxton

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

The Conversation

By Devan Wardrop-Saxton

Pregnant with someone else’s baby, Melanie stands outside her boyfriend’s hotel room with a bouquet of flowers and wishes it would rain. In the movies, it rains in scenes like the one she’s sure is about to start, it pours down and dampens and amplifies everything. It hammers on roofs and windows and walls, it drowns out apologies and coaxes out forgiveness, it furnishes desolation and comfort in equal measure. If it would only rain, she is sure she would feel more angry than sad, more determined than resigned. But the sky is its usual hollow blue, the sun is a thin, unimpressive wash over the peeling paint of South Dakota’s loneliest motel, and instead of knocking, she just rests her hand against the door, as though the wood itself could give her the strength to finally break the news to the man she’s leaving behind.

She’s named the baby Max. It’s too early to know yet if it’s a boy or girl, but she figures if it’s a girl then she’ll grow up tough and if it’s a boy he’ll grow up goofy, and that’s a hell of a lot better than what most of the kids she grew up with got. Most of the kids in Danford grow up tired and mean, done with the world before it ever got a chance to prove itself to them. Either that or they hunch into themselves until the day they can leave and never come back.

She has to keep reminding herself that the collection of cells inside her is not even really a baby yet, though the pamphlets in her bag disagree. She understands the science, she can see the unfathomably small images in her head, but there’s understanding and then there’s knowing, and despite herself, Melanie is sure of this baby, sure enough for names and plans. Sure enough to leave.

She raises her hand, curls it into a fist, and steadies herself.

She hesitates. The flowers were a stupid idea, she realizes. She brings her hand back to her side, leans her wrist against her hip self-consciously. Only girls get flowers. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, picking through the plastic-wrapped carnations at the supermarket to find the ones that still looked like they had come out of the ground. Only four dollars for I’m sorry in red and white, a pretty apology that now looks more like an insult. She stares down her peace offering, the petals suddenly offensive, and wishes for the thousandth time that she’d thought things through.

If she’d been thinking, she would have brought him something better. If she’s honest with herself, though, then she knows that if she’d really been thinking, she wouldn’t have gone to the bar that lonely night and sat herself down where she could see Jackson Sutter undressing her in his mind. She wouldn’t have taken the drink he ordered her, and when he came over and asked her if there was anything he could do with the same self-sure voice he’d had ever since the fourth grade, she wouldn’t have cried.

She was surprised she didn’t cry after, when the door latch clicked open and Jackson stepped back out of her life as smoothly as he’d stepped in. She thought about praying, but that felt too close in a world where she felt so far from everything else, and in the end she just got up and locked the door. She lay in bed, eyes closed, until the dull morning light seeped through the blinds, and then there was nothing but another day of waiting in the same old dead-end town.

For a week she got dressed, she worked the diner, she came home and stared at the life she had finally allowed herself to hope for, yellowed and curling into uselessness. She got undressed, she laid in bed, she closed her eyes. She didn’t sleep. Mason called her once, like he did every week; she said so little that he asked what was wrong. Nothing, she said, stretching a smile across her tired face, hoping it would fit and that he would hear it as happiness. Just tired, that’s all. I miss you too. Love you. Bye.

She borrowed Missy’s car, drove up to Aberdeen where she was one of thousands instead of one of hundreds, and bought the little pink box she’d been dreading, thinking that it contained more significance than anything disposable ever should. She did pray, then, slumped between the sink and the toilet, her feet pressed against the door. She didn’t look for a long time. And when she did, it all came clear in her mind: she knew.

She still did what she thought was expected of her. She still went to the clinic, she still filled out the forms, she still listened to the options. She didn’t tell her parents. She didn’t even tell Missy, her first phone call when her dad had moved out. Melanie had barely looked at her, just thanked her and took off. She filled the gas tank on the way home and left the keys in Missy’s mailbox. It was the least she could do.

All she had thought of, in the bar, in her dark apartment, in the diner, in the car pulling into the clinic’s parking lot, was Mason. Mason, coming back in a week and a half. Mason, whose broken silence on the telephone was worse than what she had braced herself for, worse even than the yelling that followed and the badgering insistence of a dial tone when he hung up on her. Mason, only a plywood door away.

She knocks.

She regrets it almost instantly, a cold wave of fear spreading from her sternum down her arms and leaving her fingers trembling. She can hear him moving; she imagines him shuffling blankets to the floor, pulling his shirt over his head. His footsteps, slow and heavy on the carpeting. Her hand jumps unconsciously to her stomach; she jerks it back to her side. She wonders that there was a time when she didn’t have to remind herself to breathe.

“Melanie.” He’s standing mostly behind the door, but she can tell he looks the same as he always looks, rumpled hair and lumpy sweater hanging off his skinny chest. All the bluster and anger she’d readied herself for deflates, just like that, and her heart leans toward him the way it always does when their eyes meet. Today is different, though; his eyes are shuttered up. Her words crack on her tongue; she realizes she’s still holding the stupid carnations.

“I brought these for you,” she stutters when her voice stumbles back, thick and dry. She doesn’t hold them out to him.

“Thanks,” he says softly. Melanie can tell he means it; any other day she would be relieved, but today she is just empty. He almost smiles, but then the hurt washes back into his face and he looks away.

“I just wanted to‒”

“Come in, then,” he says, even quieter, and Melanie swallows the words that stick in her throat and nods. Mason reaches beside her, and for one brilliant, painful moment Melanie thinks he’s going to take her hand. He takes the crinkling plastic bouquet instead and lets the door swing open behind him as he shuffles back inside.

It isn’t much. His suitcase, open on the table. The bed near the door, still pristine, and his bed, unmade, an untidy clump of blanket having slid to the floor. The TV is on mute, football highlights flashing bright across the screen. A box of doughnuts and a napkin crusted with crumbs sit on the bedside table. Melanie sinks into a chair and reads him in the things he has left behind.

He fills a paper cup with water and tries to set the carnations in it, their long stems uncooperative. He settles with leaning them against the television. Melanie closes her eyes for a moment.

“So,” he says. She opens her eyes and he is sitting on the bed across from her. He seems to have run out of words; he knots one hand in the blanket and doesn’t look up.

“So,” she says, trying to make it sound like an agreement. She can’t tell if it works. There is nothing to say, there is everything to say. “How was the training course?” Her voice rings false, even to her. He looks up sharply.

“Christ,” he sighs. Silence. “It was fine.”

“Oh.”

“It was great, actually. They’ve finally got me started on training the dogs, I’m not just cleaning up after them anymore.”

“That’s nice,” she says, trying to mean it. Mason almost smiles again. She thinks about what this conversation could have been only a few weeks ago, and the thought makes her want to bolt. She takes one shaky breath at a time, and the feeling fades to an ache. Mason stares at the floor.

“Do you mind if I…?” she asks, already reaching for the doughnuts.

“Don’t eat that,” Mason mutters. She hesitates. “You’re supposed to be eating healthy, aren’t you?” he says in the smallest voice, his eyes settling on everything in the room except her. “For the baby,” he adds unnecessarily, his voice even smaller. The word baby, in his mouth like a broken promise, hits and buckles her knees; she is grateful to be sitting. At once, the enormity of it all crowds out everything else and the conversation feels like it’s already happened, like she’s looking at it from a distance of years. Boy Max, girl Max, just a cluster of genetic information, a little nothing steadily becoming a something, then becoming a whole person, a person who will go out into the world and be talked to and misunderstood and loved by people Melanie will never know. She looks at Mason and tries to find words for the caved-in little man in front of her: thank you? I’m sorry? I love you?

“Just one’s okay. I think,” is what she says. Mason does smile then, though it’s a worn-down, sad-eyed smile, like he’s forgotten how.

“I guess.” She takes a doughnut and breaks off a piece. It’s only a little stale. Mason clears his throat awkwardly a couple times. “I got you something.” He jumps up from the bed and rummages around in his suitcase.

He thrusts a tissue papered bundle at her.

“Mason, I‒”

“Listen, just listen for a second, okay? I… this is really hard. Melanie, when you called me‒” He stops, rubbing his forehead. She wonders if he will cry. He takes a deep, unsteady breath, his eyes closed, as Melanie picks at the ragged edges of the tissue paper. “When you called me, I… I couldn’t… I couldn’t think about anything,” he says solemnly, still standing in front of her, his hands folded like he’s delivering a eulogy. “But then, I… well, open it.”

His eyes flick up to meet hers, so full Melanie has to look away. She opens the present gingerly, careful not to rip the paper. A little plump square of soft white cotton.

She turns it over, unfolds it. A shirt with two green felt owls stitched onto the front, a shirt so small it could be a punchline. For all of its obvious sturdiness, it feels impossibly delicate in her hands; she has a sudden, irrational desire to gather it up safe and hide it somewhere.

“I didn’t know, boy or girl,” he says.

“It’s way too early for that,” she says.

“Right,” he says, and Melanie sees the sort of father he would have been in the earnest shyness of his voice. She sees him and her heart folds in on itself.

“Mason, I can’t ask you to‒” she says, not sure of how she wants the sentence to end.

“I don’t think I could,” he whispers after a moment. She’s not sure if what she feels is relief or regret.

“Okay.” Mason doesn’t say anything more, just curls his hand tighter in the blankets and keeps staring at the floor. “I’m leaving,” she says, finally. “I’m driving out to Aberdeen, be with my Dad for a while.”

“Okay.” It is only a small disappointment that he doesn’t acknowledge how long a while could be. There doesn’t seem to be anything she can say, and Mason looks like he’s simply given up. She stands, clutching the tiny shirt close to her.

“Mason? Thank you.” Those aren’t the right words, they don’t hold enough to be the right words, there aren’t enough words in the world to mean what she wants to say, but they’re all she’s got. Mason just turns away and cries.

She eases the car out of the parking lot. The sun is a little stronger, the sky a kinder blue. Off in the distance, past the silos and the cornfields, the dead-ends with the houses she’s known since childhood, the day is already warming up. She takes the turn for the interstate slowly, thinking about Mason’s crumpled face and wondering if that’s what her father will look like when she pulls into his driveway this afternoon. She wonders if that’s all she is now, a lonely woman who crumples up the people who love her. There are no prayers she knows for this, no words that come to soothe her and reassure her of a better, brighter day on the horizon. There is only the improbable, fragile wonder of life in search of a beginning, and the uncertain promise of a road ahead.

© 2013 Devan Wardrop-Saxton

“The Transplants” by Konner Knudsen

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

The Transplants

By Konner Knudsen

Sometimes, still, the thing I long for the most is to remove my shoes and socks and plant my feet into freshly tilled soil. Even as a small child, I am told, I would tug and stretch at those tight toddler socks with puppy print or Power Ranger logos and run rampantly toward the nearest garden or potted plant. “No, no!” Mom would shout, “Don’t get your feet dirty again!” But I was never one for listening. I would jam my feet in-between blades of grass or directly into the exposed earth and wriggle my toes until they disappeared into the dirt. My brothers called me crazy, my sister said it was gross, my father would talk about how “boys would be boys” and tell the same story about how he once ate a fifteen inch earthworm for only four dollars.

My grandpa was different, the one who lost a leg in “The War.” A war that was only ever explained to me years later in textbooks and History Channel documentaries. Once, when I was nine, with feet buried to the ankles next to my grandma’s rose bush, instead of yelling at me to “stop playing in the garden,” or to “quit getting so gosh-darn dirty,” he just plopped down right next to me.

He didn’t say anything right away, just took his time getting comfortable. He removed his shoes and rolled up the cuffs of his jeans. The foot that I always thought he might have stolen from a mannequin rested sockless next to the lawn gnome. The other sock he took his time removing, rolling it down and popping it off with a sigh leaded with both arthritis and relief. He wiggled his toes in the air and plunged his callused old foot into the dark damp earth inches away from mine.

“You know, this ain’t so bad,” Grandpa said with a chuckle, “It’s sort of like burying your feet in sand at the beach, huh?” I nodded and smiled. “Yeah, I was quiet too at your age, and that’s okay.” We sat for a while just like that, in total silence, our toes creating tiny earthquakes on the mounds that enveloped our feet. Later, as he refused my help, and struggled to stand up on his own, he looked at me with kind but intense eyes and said, “Never let anyone convince you to be normal,” and slowly he walked back into the house.

* * *

I first met Em at the community garden. I was watching her over-water tomatoes from behind a row of thickening corn. She was like a piece of art that you can’t pull yourself away from because there is some intangible thing that causes you to run your eyes along all its lines and search for hidden patterns in the brushstrokes. Three piercings in one ear, two in the other, a stud in her nose, maroon lipstick, unnaturally faded jeans and a zombie Captain America t-shirt. She was some form of punk and I looked like a bad REI add that spent too much time in the garden.

Suddenly she turned to me, put a hand over her brow to block out the sun and said, “Hey Scarecrow, are you just going to stand there and scare off the birds or can you help a girl out?”

I was stunned at first, and embarrassed thinking that she knew I had been standing there for probably what was a creepy amount of time, but I managed a smile. Stepping around a cornstalk, I stuttered, “What… What exactly do you…need help with?”

“Watering the tomatoes. Next I am going to move on to the strawberries, although. . . I have never watered them before, figured you could show me the right amount.” She talked while still raining water from the green plastic watering can on the already soaked tomatoes.

“Have you watered tomatoes before?” I asked, failing at not sounding like a jerk.

“Umm, no not really,” she nervously smiled, “Am I drowning them ?”

“Just a little bit,” I lied.

“Oh. . . My bad,” she said, handing me the watering can and holding out her other hand. I awkwardly shook it and she said, “I’m Em.”

“Danny,” I said, moving toward the strawberries trying not to think how if it rained that night all of the tomatoes would be done for.

“Yeah, you live in number twelve right ?” Out of the corner of my eye she was gently pulling down a leaf on a corn stalk.

“Yup, how’d you know ?” I tried to focus on the plants, feeling the leaves with tiny holes in them, hoping I wouldn’t find too many more the next day.

“Oh, ha! That sort of sounded stalkerish huh? I just moved in with my friend Alex who lives in seven.”

“Alex . . . Alex . . . is that the dude with the beard who always wears a black Peacoat ?” I knew it wasn’t, that guy lived in number six. I just wanted to contribute more to the conversation.

“No, My friend Alexis. She is blond. Usually seen in nursing scrubs or pajamas with pink bunny slippers. Still listens to the Spice Girls. Says you are always barefoot like you are right now.” She kicked at some dirt underneath her Vans, the dust hit my heels.

“Oh her. At least she doesn’t blare Justin Bieber  all day like the sixteen year old that lives next door to me.” I tried to avoid the comment about my feet, even though I only really went barefoot in the garden. She laughed and walking through the corn loudly hummed the tune of the pop stars famous song “Baby”. I was never a fan and judging from the way she laughed I guessed that she wasn’t either. I set down the empty water can and followed her into the corn.

“Holy shit!” Em called out, “I didn’t know there was this much space up here, it’s a whole freaking cornfield. ” I caught up with her at the railing where she slumped against the bars to watch the people on the streets below. “When I came to the city,” she turned to look at me, “the last thing I thought I would see is a bunch of corn growing on top of some old apartments like this. I mean this entire roof is just covered with plants.”

“Yeah,  I sort of helped out. Before I moved in here this roof was just boring grey concrete, there wasn’t any railing either. This took a whole lot of soil.” I didn’t tell her how I had convinced the other tenants to petition the owner, and moved bag after bag of dirt up to the roof by myself.

“I’m not surprised, you seem to have a real green thumb.”

“I guess,” somewhere inside of me a brave and foolish Danny thought he would take a chance and ask, “Would you want to get coffee sometime, I know a good place. Well this is Portland and here everyone knows a good place for coffee, but I promise my place is really good,” I felt like I was rambling. I rubbed the back of my head and stared at the ground.

“No. I can’t. Sorry,” she said, looking back to the busy streets below, “I have a boyfriend.”

It was sudden, it was unexpected , and I had no idea how to properly backpedal over the desperate jump I had taken. “Just-friend coffee then?” I said, instantly wanting to bury my palm into my stupid face. I thought of climbing over the railing just to escape the embarrassment.

Em laughed and pushed away from the ledge, “Sure, maybe some time we will have Just- Friend Coffee.” Walking back through the corn she waved without looking back, “See ya around Scarecrow.”

I finished watering the strawberries and sat down by the tomatoes not caring If I got wet at all. I wanted a ridiculously large anvil or grand piano to materialize out of nowhere and come crashing down on my head.

* * *

    Grandpa’s casket was carried by five guys who fought the war with him. One of them only had one arm but I remember him carrying his share of the weight. During his eulogy he told the mourning crowd the story of how they met in a military hospital,  how they would joke about  being willing to give an arm or a leg just to see home again.

Before the Cancer progressed too far Grandpa told me that after he was gone, I should consider heading north. He told me, “Maybe Seattle. I think you might like that town, good earth, soft grass.” But I never made it past Vancouver. He would tell me to move around like he did, like a tumbleweed. In his life he had moved from South-East to North-East to South-West. I never asked why. His last words to me were, “Head North, try the soil, plant something for me.”

I left the night after his funeral, packed a bag and hopped on Highway 1, took it all the way to Newport before heading inland. It was my first great road trip and in Oregon it seemed all roads led to Portland. As if the city itself was one big strange heart that all the States life flowed from and came back to. It was the right place for me to lose myself for a while.

* * *

My roommate Johnny didn’t need to ask what had happened when I started moping around the apartment and watching the street from the window. Instead of asking anything at all he waited until he could sneak up and peek over my shoulder to ask, “Which one are you in love with, Nurse Barbie or the chick who looks like she is trying to be Tank-Girl?” He didn’t give me a chance to answer, “Ha, who am I kidding we both know it isn’t the Barbie.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I shrugged, “She has a boyfriend,”.

Jamming what must have been half a maple bar into his mouth he said, “So what?”dropping crumbs from his mouth onto my shoulder.

I brushed them off and nudged him away, ” I’m not like that.”

“Eh whatever, at some point we are all like that. Do you need a ride to work?”

I nodded while I watched a leather jacketed, spiked collar, green-mohawked anarchist toss Em over his shoulder and carry her into the building.

“Let’s go man, quit staring out the damn window, plenty of other weird chicks in Portland. Hell, Comic Con is coming up if you really want a Tank-Girl you can probably find one there.”

* * *

Johnny had gotten us jobs as Groundskeepers at the Oregon Zoo. It was peaceful there before the crowds arrived and the babies started wailing and bored teenagers snuffed out cigarettes on my grass. The Zoo was so much better without people.

At first I was afraid to go inside most of the enclosures, even if the animals were in other areas or distracted by their trainers. But I guess someone had to clean up the lions shit, literally. It turned out it was the un-caged animals I needed to be careful of.

One day we witnessed one of the rabid  peacocks attack a little boy and knock his snow cone out of his hands. The worst part was that the little boy, scratched-up and crying, kept on trying to pick up the snow cone but his mom just kept slapping his hand away shouting, “No don’t eat that! It’s dirty!” and was beginning to drag the kid away from the scene by the arm. A park official trapped the peacock in a tree where it made that awful cawing sound while opening and closing its plumage as if to show it would attack or shit on anyone.

As we watched this crazy lady yell at her child I whispered to Johnny that the mother, “belongs in a cage more than any of these animals.” And unfortunately for me this lady had librarian-level hearing and almost got me fired just for saying that. Luckily for me I had worked wonders for the green spaces around and inside the enclosures and was deemed “too valuable” to get rid of. This gave us a good laugh for a month or so because the week before one of the Bird guys got fired just because he couldn’t get the damn owls to do anything during the day. They would just sit there on their perches and mechanically turn their heads slowly to examine nothing. They wouldn’t even chase after the feeding mice with vigor. They were really quite boring.  The messed up part was, the new guy they hired after him couldn’t get them to do anything either. And they were talking about firing that dude too. Yet they were dying to keep me, a glorified landscaper, even though this lady bluffed at a lawsuit before storming away when other bystanders threatened to call Child Protective Services on her.

Really we spent most of the time at work pretending to clean wherever a feeding was taking place. Sometimes we would get into debates about whether or not it was humane to keep certain animals in captivity, and some of the customers passing by would join in. Johnny and me disagreed on everything except Polar bears. They were probably better off in the zoo, but that was only because he had shown me a documentary about the ice caps melting and Polar bears drowning because of it. Apparently a polar bear can swim forty miles. . . forty miles and their habitat has shrunken so much they still drown.

* * *

  Months blew by and I felt myself slipping into an Arctic depression watching Em leave with that guy almost every night and coming back wasted and banged up. I was just glad her roommate was a nurse. Sometimes I would see her at the rooftop garden and avoid asking about the bumps bruises and bandages that she claimed to get from “Mosh-pitting”. I couldn’t shake the feeling that he did it, and that made me want to destroy him.

She would ramble about some crazy band’s music inciting a violent clash, or some “Bitch” that tied razorblades into the shoulders of her leather jacket, and I would daydream about what I would do to her boyfriend if I had proof he was the one who was hurting her. I’d envision his destruction animalistically. Remembering how I had seen chimps tear apart  heads of lettuce, or  tigers play with their already macerated prey, or how even the gentle elephants enjoyed crushing the giant pumpkins they were given to entertain crowds near Halloween.

I wanted to be with Em. She knew I liked her and she had been avoiding me because either she felt bad or liked me a little bit too. Every day that I went to work and watched the animals sit in their lonely cages I felt a little less free myself. I was sure I could never be with her the same way that they could never be back in the wild.

I thought of a zoo lion rejoining a Pride in Africa and lazily waiting for some dude to show up with two raw steaks, that guy never would show up and the lion would waste away. I thought that even if I had a chance with Em I would probably fuck it up. Some nights I would find myself staying up till two or three AM just to go to the Garden and lay down under the cornstalks, barefooted and press the bottoms of my feet and my palms into the earth. I wanted the soil to take me in, to be of some use to someone or something. To be a part of something else. I would return to bed just before dawn with dirty feet and just enough willpower to rise and go to work.

* * *

I was half asleep on the roof when I heard sirens race toward my building. I prayed that they would zoom past us to somewhere else. That Em would be okay, that she would be safe. It was her, and it was his fault. He did it, well, he tried to do it. Later I found out that Alexis had gotten back from her late shift at the hospital just before she would have been too late.

In a way, I soon decided, it was everyone’s fault for living with and accepting the denial. Pretending we didn’t see that the kind of wear and tear Em was getting had to be more than just extracurricular activities in underground night clubs. Alexis came to my apartment that night and told me everything that happened. Maybe because she knew I had seen it coming, or maybe because she knew I would care more than anyone else.

Mohawk guy was dead. I didn’t get to be the hero but he got what he deserved if you ask me. Judging by the details Alexis was too shocked to tell me I figured the little blond nurse knew exactly how to stop an abusive boyfriend. Medical training turned deadly force. Which arteries to slice, what organ to puncture and how. In my mind the whole struggle played out like a fight scene from Sherlock Holmes, except a larger part of me understood that Hollywood could never capture the real brutality the world was filled with. Every action movie we ever watch is only really a grown-up version of Cowboys and Indians.

The horror of reality was written all over Alexis’ face that night. She had cold eyes, not because her flame was out but because she snuffed someone else’s flame and didn’t feel bad about it. When Em came back the next week the two friends embraced as survivors of the same battle. They didn’t need to discuss their nightmares. Time would bury them.

* * *

A month later Em came to find me in the garden. I was picking a ripe tomato off one of the plants that she had drowned the day we met. Our small talk was awkward but funny and I tried not to stare at the thick bandages on her arms, or the bruises on her neck and face. When I finally made eye contact I was a little shocked.

“Em, you took your piercings out? All of them?” She smiled, and I noticed her lips were a slightly lighter shade of red. Something in her eyes was different too, but I couldn’t place it yet.

“Yeah. . . Old lifestyle wasn’t exactly working for me,” she rubbed the bare part of her upper arm and stared down at her shoes, the ground, then back up at me, “Sometimes you just need to make some changes about yourself right?” She asked licking at a cut on her lower lip.

“Only if you want to,” I said, subconsciously digging my toes into the dirt wet from morning rain.

“I think I want to go by Emma now,” she said, reaching down and undoing one of her shoelaces, then the other. She put a hand on my shoulder to support her balance and kicked both off. Balancing on top of her shoes one foot at a time she removed her short socks and tucked them away together. She wiggled her toes down just like I do, as if she had watched me do it a thousand times. She took a deep breath and exhaled, “I have wanted to know what this feels like for so long, you have no idea. It actually feels nice,” she said closing her eyes and tilting her face towards the sun. I did the same. We sat in a serene silence for a comfortably drawn out moment. I dropped my eyes and looked out over the city.

“So,” she said, recapturing my gaze, “Do you still think you know where the best coffee place is?” And I finally recognized her look.

“I actually remember hearing about a pretty good one.” I thought back to the night I drove North, how my eyes reflected in the rearview mirror.

“Oh yeah? Where at?” Emma grinned at me. It was the look of someone who needed to move on, to relocate.

“Seattle” I said grinning back, feeling a breeze pick up and whistle through the corn. I shook the dirt off my feet.

“Okay” she said playfully nodding, “But I need to let you know something. . .”

“What?” I played along, holding out a hand to pull her out of the dirt with.

She accepted, swooping her socks and shoes off the ground before standing slowly to let my curiosity build, “I definitely do not go all the way to Seattle for Just-Friend coffee.”

As we laughed I thought about how I finally felt like I was a part of something human, something beautiful and real. And I realized that some people, like Emma and me, are just meant to migrate now and then. Destined to be pulled in whichever direction the road takes us. Brave enough to pack a bag and leave everything else to fire and mulch and strong enough to plant our roots wherever we land.

© 2013 Konner Knudsen

“Brown Snake-Eagle” by Sarah Busse

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Brown Snake-Eagle

By Sarah Busse

Sidney Lendon’s children had all outgrown zoos, while he had not. When he brandished the freshly purchased map of the United States in January and announced that “this summer, the Lendons are going to road trip around the US!” his announcement was met with only lackluster enthusiasm from his two children, and a knowing glance from his wife. When he cleaned out the Motorhome, tucked inside its small storage bay, sweating as he tried to navigate the tiny hallway between the pushed-in dinette table and the sharp corner of the slab of Formica that served as a kitchen counter, his wife came in and sat on the edge of the double bed.

“What will we do on this road trip?” she asked.

“Well, that still takes some planning,” he’d said. “We could fit in some visits to your folks, maybe your sister in Des Moines. We could get a Disney fix, stop in Disneyworld or Disneyland. Maybe both!” He was dusting the cabinets. With every sweep of the washcloth, a fine powder came drifting through the air. He fought the urge to sneeze.

“And you’ll go to your zoos,” she finished his unsaid thought.

He shrugged and tried to make it seem nonchalant. “If there’s time. You and Marley and Curtis could come with.”

“There’s only so many zoos they can take,” she murmured, and Sid felt his heart do its familiar sink.

***

As Sid pressed the button that would release the pop-out from its stays, the now familiar whine filled the air. He felt a chill creep down his spine as he checked the Motorhome blocks, looked at measures for the pumps, then fired up the tiny stovetop to make bacon for breakfast. They’d pulled into Little Rock around 3 AM. Lisa, Marley, and Curtis had all been asleep. The chills had started around then. Sid couldn’t seem to shake them.

Lisa emerged from the bathroom and lifted an elbow to allow Marley, their thirteen-year-old, to speed past her and shut the bathroom door behind her. “Woah!” she said with a laugh. “Where’s the fire?”

“She’s been complaining about you using up all the hot water,” Curtis, fifteen, said from the couch that doubled as a futon. He didn’t look up from his cell phone as he continued.  “Same complaints as back home.”

“Play nice,” Lisa warned.

“Hot water shouldn’t be a problem,” Sid chimed in. “I checked the pumps this morning. Everything’s fine.” His reassurance was met with silence.

“What are everyone’s plans?” Sid asked, as the first piece of bacon sizzled in the pan. He had to speak over the fan, which he’d had to turn on full blast so that smoke wouldn’t drift up and trip the fire alarm.

Curtis shrugged and sighed. Lisa was quiet a moment. “Not really sure,” she said. “I don’t think any of us slept very well. We might just take it easy, do some grocery shopping. I think a movie came out yesterday that the kids are interested in seeing.”

Sid felt himself getting frustrated. “Well, we only have three days here. Don’t you want to see if there are any museums? There’s a dam a short drive from here. Curtis could get some practice in, drive us all in the Jeep there…”

Again, silence.

“I’m just kind of tired,” Curtis said, and let the sentence flop.

“Me too!” came Marley’s voice from inside the bathroom.

Sid sighed. He knew it came out too loud, too exasperated, by the way Lisa shot him a look over her small, light-up vanity mirror, which she was using to apply her makeup.

“Well I’d like to do something today.” Sid felt his sentence again lead into silence, and felt his frustration mount.

“Go ahead and go to the zoo, Dad,” Curtis said. “We know it’s what you want to do.”

Sid swallowed his disappointment, and another chill, as he slid the first few pieces of bacon onto a paper towel-lined plate. The grease soon soaked the towel straight through.

***

Walking up to the ticket counter for the Little Rock Zoo, Sid felt five-years old again. The wrought iron front gates, “LITTLE ROCK ZOO” printed ominously in black, the little iron Rhino figure touching its nose to the top of the “R”: it was all the same.

Thank God he didn’t recognize the woman behind the ticket counter, although he didn’t know why he would. “BECKY” her nametag read. She had red hair, pulled into a ponytail. Her bangs were plastered to her forehead with sweat.

“Welcome to the Little Rock Zoo!” she chirped, her voice crackled slightly from the speaker. “Are you here for Four Dollar Friday?”

“Um, I guess,” Sid managed. He pulled four wrinkled, one dollar bills from his wallet and passed them to Becky through the metal bowl, cut out from the glass partition.

“Thanks!” She said, and ripped off the ticket, passing it to him in the bowl. Sid nodded, stuffed the ticket into his pocket along with his hands, and walked into the zoo’s entry plaza. Giant, colorful canvas tarps stretched across the amphitheater directly ahead of him. When he was a child, they hadn’t existed. Or had it been under construction the last time he’d visited? God, was that a long time ago. He still felt the arms around his midsection, lifting him so he could better see over the guardrail for the wolf exhibit — his favorite animal. He could still feel his eyes grow wide over a stick of cotton candy proffered to him, a pink translucent cloud smelling of sugar and leaving his fingers sticky.

A violent chill swept down his back, and he visibly shivered. It was the dead of summer, and people were pouring in from the zoo’s front gates around him, like a stream divided around a boulder. Women pulled their kids away from him, probably seeing that he had no kids clinging to him, and probably seeing the frightened, tight look around his eyes.

Sid forced himself to walk forward. Clockwise. Travel the zoo clockwise, and don’t skip an exhibit. That was his method, how he explored every zoo. Every one since he was five and last left this one.

The antique carousel warbled its carnival music as he passed. Parents stood beside toddlers strapped onto the plastic seats of garish horses as they swooped up the curve of the carousel’s unique path.

“Look at this picture, Sidney! See all the horsies? This picture was taken almost forty years ago!”

 

He could anticipate the chill this time, and let it quietly pass. That picture was probably still there, on the same plaque set in front of the queue. Now it would have been taken over eighty years ago.

A woman, dressed in a zoo employee uniform — red shirt short sleeve shirt over a long sleeved black one, and black pants — pushed a large cage through the plaza, smiling at the children suddenly craning their necks to see what was in the cage. Through the slits punched in the tough plastic casing, Sid saw two unblinking, black eyes, and the top of a heart-shaped face.

Without another thought, Sid followed the employee as she wheeled the owl in its cage down a narrow path, past the Lorikeet exhibit. Only when she paused to unlock a gate labeled “EMPLOYEES ONLY,” did she turn and see him.

Her expression flashed with annoyance and then suspicion, but she quickly masked it. “Can I help you?” she didn’t move to retrieve the keys clasped to her belt. Briefly, Sid imagined that this is how she might approach a frightened animal: no sudden movements, calm voice.

“I’m sorry!” All of a sudden, Sid was horrified. He’d followed this woman from the main flow of zoo traffic. She must have thought he was going to attack her. “I just-it’s been a while since I’ve been to this zoo. My babysitter-” He swallowed past the quick lump in his throat. “That was my babysitter’s favorite animal. A barn owl, right?”

“Right. This is Lola.” She tapped the top of the cage lightly. Lola shuffled inside.
“I’m just feeding her before our first Birds of Prey show at eleven.”

“Of course. So sorry about this. I don’t know what I–like I said, I just thought it was a barn owl,” he started stepping backward, and took his hands out of his pockets. See, look: non-threatening.

 

“Mom!” a young girl’s voice reached them at the same time. They both turned to the source: a young girl, younger than Marley, rounding the curve from which they’d just traveled. Her long brown hair was pulled into two braids that lay against her bony shoulders. She wore glasses and scuffed corduroy pants. She carried a well-worn, large hardcover book in both arms, hugging it to her chest. Detailed, pencil drawings of birds graced the cover.

The girl stopped upon seeing Sid. She tilted her head and squinted at him.

“What is it, Emily?” the employee asked.

“I told Dennis that he was an Oriole and he said he wanted to be a Lorikeet! I told him he didn’t get to choose and he shoved me!”

“He did? Well, where is Dennis now?”

“With his dad. I went right over to him at the amphitheater and told him what Dennis did.”

“Honey, I told you: you can’t just get people in trouble like that! You come to me, and then I will take care of it.”

“But I did come to you.” Emily looked confused. Her head was still tilted to the side and she looked back at her mother, unblinking.

The employee sighed, then suddenly seemed to notice Side again. “I’m sorry sir–”

“What’s your name?” Emily asked.

Both Sid and the employee looked back at her.

“Honey–” the employee began.

“No, it’s alright,” Sid said, putting on a smile, still trying to seem non-threatening. He turned to Emily. “My name is Sid.”

“No, you’re full name.”

“Emily!” her mother said, admonishing.

“Sorry. May I ask you what your full name is, Sid?”

“Um, it’s actually Sidney Everette Lendon. If you wanted all three,” Sid said, taken aback.

“You ‘re a Brown Snake-Eagle, Sidney Everette Lendon.” Emily said, still clutching the book to her chest, still looking at him with her head cocked to the side.

“Really?” Sid said. He crouched down and winced. When had his knees and back begun to hurt at the same time? When had he begun to feel old? When he walked through the front gates? “I would have expected a crane, or a…what’s that other tall one? A heron.”

“No. You’re a Brown Snake-Eagle.”

“Well, I’m afraid I don’t know what that is,”

Emily looked up at him incredulously. Sid realized he was talking to her the way he would a five-year-old — soft voice, smiling face, almost in that sickly way people talk to pets — and Emily clearly wasn’t buying it.

She sighed and pulled the book from her chest, then flipped a few pages until it was right where she wanted it. She turned the book around and pushed its pages toward him.

“A Brown Snake-Eagle,” she said. On the page in question was a brown eagle, drawn with mottled brown and white feathers, with a bushy collection of feathers on its head. The artist had drawn it from multiple sides: perched, in flight, head on, and finally stretching its claws out to capture a small gray mouse.

“Well, uh, thank you.” Sid said, clearing his throat. Not sure what to make of being compared to a fluffy eagle, he let a silence stretch between them.

Emily turned the book back around, then shut it. She clutched it to her chest again. “Mom’s a Harpy Eagle, and Dave is an Osprey. That’s mom’s boyfriend.”

“Emily,” her mother cautioned. Emily rolled her eyes in response and ran back down the path, her braids swinging loosely behind her.

“Don’t get me started on what’s behind her calling me a harpy.” The employee said. Sid turned, surprised to see a smile on her face. “Luckily, she doesn’t quite get that one yet.”

“She uh, reminds me of my own kids.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, they, uh–” are difficult as well? Give me attitude? “They latched onto things as kids too. With Curtis it was space. Marley loved horses.”

“Mom!” Emily came careening up the path again. “Are you going to feed Lola?”

“Yes I am.”

“Can I come help?”

“Of course you can.”
“Can Sidney come, too?”

“No honey, Sidney is–”

“Can he come watch? Just behind the fence? He can sit where the kids on field trips sit when they watch.”

“Emily,”
“Please?” Emily lay it on thick, cocking her head again and smiling, looking angelic.

Her mother looked at the watch on her wrist and sighed loudly. “Fine. You show him where to stand though.”

Emily looked genuinely pleased. “Come on Sid!” she said, beckoning to him with one arm.

Her mother reached for her keys and  unlocked the gate. As she pushed Lola and her cage, Emily began to babble behind her.

“So what’s a harpy, then?”

***

As Emily’s mother — Justine, she’d told him — began chopping meat and measuring supplements into a bowl, Lola, released from her cage and into a larger enclosure complete with branches for perching, hopped and lightly hooted occasionally, eyes on the food intended for her. Emily chattered constantly to Sid, sitting on a bench behind a rail a good dozen yards away from the bird enclosures.

“Mom’s a trainer. She works with the birds in the show and she even gets to wear a microphone and talk to the audience, telling them all about the birds’ tricks and what they’re like in the wild. Lola is actually from Arkansas, born in captivity on a farm that also uses the owls to keep vermin from their cornfields.”

Cornfields. Goddamnit.

 

Sid felt himself harshly, forcefully, thrown back in time.

He was seven. Ava had taken him to the corn maze and pumpkin patch an hour from his house. He’d fought with her in the car, saying he was too old for a babysitter. She just laughed and continued to joke with him, but looking back now, what really danced in her eyes was pain and hurt at his comments.

They pulled into a gravel parking lot, the tires crunching to a stop. He’d hopped out before her, determined to prove that he didn’t need her help. Not with anything.

“You want to pick out a pumpkin first? Or do the maze?”

He shrugged.

“Let’s do the maze. It’s supposed to close down in a couple of hours so they can turn it into a haunted corn maze. We don’t want to get caught up in that!” She tugged on his stupid hat with the orange pom-pom on the top that his mother forced him to wear when he went outside. Therefore, Ava insisted he wear it too. He shied away from her touch.

“Haunted corn maze would be cool,” he muttered.

Ava rolled her eyes exaggeratedly. “Okay tough guy. Stick around while I get us tickets.”

Sid immediately wandered, standing on the edge of the pumpkin patch and looking out over the undisturbed cornfields waving into infinity past the orderly rows of gourds and the sharp edge of the maze. He peeled a trampled ear of corn from the mud at the patch’s entrance. He lifted it up to sniff. Did it still smell like regular corn? Or would it smell dead, like something other than corn.

“Don’t eat that!” Ava laughed as she approached.

“I wasn’t going to eat it!” Sid felt his ears redden. “I’m not a baby!”

“I know that, Sid,” she said, pursing her lips. Her cheeks were pink from the cold, her hair long and loose around her shoulders. “Still friends?” she stuck out a hand, an old game of theirs: handshake then fist bump to reestablish the peace. He gave her a halfhearted one of each.

“Try this instead,” she said, and held out a small white paper sack, speckles of grease staining the bottom. “They were selling apple cider doughnuts. I bought us some.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled, still trying to act tough. But they were good. He wolfed two down before they got to the entrance to the maze, and Ava handed him a napkin to wipe the cinnamon sugar from his face and hands.

“Let’s split up!” he said, as soon as they were past the ticket taker and rounded the first bend. Corn had been removed and replaced with a fine layer of hay. Many feet had trampled it to mix with the mud. Their boots sucked at the ground as they walked into a broad clearing, three paths open before them.

“No, Sid–”

“Come on, Ava!” He hated the whine in his voice. “We can race to see who can get through it first!”

“Sid, no!” her voice sharpened, and Sid stopped, anger rising in him immediately.

“Listen,” she said, bending over to get level with him. He hated it when she did that. “We’ll go through it together. But it’s going to be super easy to get lost in here – it’s a maze, that’s what they designed it to do! But I won’t hold your hand if you don’t want me to.”

“I don’t,” Sid said, quickly.

“Okay,” she straightened up again. “Which way do you want to go?”

Without a word, Sid began to trudge into the middle passage. Ava followed dutifully behind. She followed silently when he picked the next three turns, when he answered the first trivia question and led them to the right, when they were met with a solid wall of corn, a sign cheerfully boasting “TRY AGAIN!” planted in the muck.

When they got to a fork, Ava stopped him. “Okay, how about this: I’ll take one way, you take the other. But we have to keep in contact.”

“We should have brought walkie talkies,” he said.

Her face broke into a smile. “Good idea! We’ll do that next time. But for now let’s stick to an oldie but goodie: Marco Polo. So when I call ‘Marco,’ you have to say ‘Polo,’ right back, got it?”

He nodded, suddenly a little excited.

“But don’t play any tricks,” she held up a finger. “You have to say it back. If I get too far away and can’t hear you, I’m going to double-back until I can. We’ll take it slow. Deal?”

Another handshake. Another fist bump.

“I’ll take left, you take right?” Sid nodded, and they struck out.

Every few seconds, a “Marco!” would sound and Sid would reply.

“Marco!” came Ava’s voice, somewhere to his left.

“Polo!” he hollered.

“Marco!” this time further away.

“Polo!” he said after a moments hesitation, after getting confused where the path was truly going.

“Marco!” Ava said, a little closer.

“Polo!”

“Marco!” Ava said, and suddenly rounded a corner to end up in front of him.

“Oops!” she laughed. The path shot off again in three directions.

“I’ll take this one,” she pointed to the left.

“I’ll do this one,” he said, and pointed to the right one.

Ava raised an eyebrow. “Either of us gets too far away, we double-back, okay?”

“Okay,” he said.

“Marco!” she called a few moments later. Sid responded with a yelp, the mud having sucked his boot from his foot momentarily.

“You okay?” came the faint inquiry.

“Fine. Polo!” he said, as he stuffed his foot back into his boot. She’d sounded further ahead, and he hurried to catch up.

“Marco!” Still up ahead.

“Polo!” he pressed on, walking as quickly as he could without slipping.

“Marco!” The path must be veering even further to the left.

“Polo!” he tried to shout louder.

“Marco!” her voice sounded closer. Sid felt himself grinning.

“Polo!” he said more quietly.

“Marco?” she hadn’t heard him.

He let the moments drift on.

“Sid, you promised! Marco!” her voice drifted higher into a warning.

“Sid!” came her more panicked cry. Sid thought she was behind him by now.

“Polo!” he called. Moments passed, and his boots sucked away in the mud. He came to the fourth trivia question. When had they passed the second and third? Unless Ava had passed them and hadn’t said anything.

“Ava!” he shouted, “I found question number four!”

Silence.

“Polo!” he cried, then after a few tense seconds. “Marco?”

“Ava?” he shouted, louder. He felt sorry for teasing her earlier. He should have said “Polo!” right away.

A rustling came from his left, and he whipped around to meet it. A family with two small children came into the clearing. They were laughing. “Is this number four?” the father asked.

Sid didn’t answer him. He turned and ran, slipping in the mud down the path he had just come. All the while he was trying to retrace his steps, he called out “Polo! Polo! Polo!”

When he arrived back to where they’d first met up, there was no sign of her.

Without hesitation, he started down her path, the left one. It was less familiar, and twice he fell on his side in the mud, streaking his jacket with brown.

“AVA!” he was finally screaming. “Ava where are you?”

Nothing. With even more panic, he noticed the darkening sky. He really didn’t want to be stuck in a haunted corn maze. He was just kidding before.

Wait for her. That was always her rule. If they got separated, wait somewhere they’d agreed on. But they hadn’t picked a spot in the corn maze! Sid thought of the aerial view of the maze she’d shown him on the website: the corn cut into shapes, a witch on a broom, an owl to her left, with extra bends and turns in the empty spots. He’d boasted that it would be no sweat: he’d get out of there in no time.

So he slipped and slid back to where they’d separated. He sat, regardless of the mud, and clenched his arms around his knees. He was crying, snot pouring out of his nose and onto his jacket when a man with a flashlight came trudging past.

“Hey! Kid, what are you doing here? You lost?”

He’d cried even harder.

When his parents arrived, he cried again. Three times in one night. But he couldn’t find it in himself to feel like a baby. The owners had taken his coat so they could wash it the best they could, and given him a wool blanket to wrap around his shoulders. The wool was itchy on his skin and the hot cocoa they’d given him had gone cold. When he pointed to Ava’s car, still parked in the gravel parking lot, he could see his parents’ faces go paler, saw his father detach himself from then to call someone.

***

“Sidney?” Emily’s voice broke through. He looked at her blearily.

“This is a Harpy Eagle,” she said, pushing the book toward him, acting as if he hadn’t been ignoring her. “Doesn’t it look like mom?” It was a giant, gray and white bird. The author had taken great pains to illustrate how the feathers on the top of its head stood up when it was startled.

“Yeah, it does,” he said, not really seeing it. “Thank you, Emily, for showing me what your mom does, and your book…” He felt like he was stumbling over himself when he got up and turned back to the gate.

“Sidney?” Emily was calling to him. Justine turned to them from Lola’s enclosure gate. The owl was hopping on one leg, and let out a sharp hoot, impatient.

“Thank you,” he stammered.

They’d brought him into the kitchen after school one day. They’d sat him down at the table where he ate Pop-Tarts for breakfast and did his homework each night. They explained that someone very bad had taken Ava, and they’d found her. He’d been so excited. Then they said that someone very bad had hurt her, and that Ava wasn’t going to be coming back.

Marley had understood death when her guinea pig died in the fourth grade. Curtis learned it at an earlier age, when they found him trying to revive his beta fish, who had somehow jumped out of its tank while he was at soccer practice. But Sid learned it with Ava.

He trudged aimlessly around the Little Rock Zoo. Orangutans, giant tortoises, the penguins; he disregarded his own clockwise rule.

At eleven, he sat woodenly on a bench, watching the Birds of Prey show, as Justine spouted facts about the birds. When the kids near him shrank back from the low-flying birds, he felt the whoosh of their wings and glanced briefly overhead, unfazed.

He left the amphitheater slowly, looking around him without seeing things. Mothers again tightened their grip on their children. What’s so scary about me? He thought. I’m not the one you should be worried about.

The smell of doughnuts and the sound of his own children playing Marco Polo sent those chills down his back still. Years later, when he felt he was ready, he did a Google search on her. Ava Thurston. Found November fourth in someone’s front yard. Suspected to be the fourth victim of a serial killer they’d never found. The Autumn Reaper, they’d called him.

It never seemed like Ava. The smiling school picture they put on the FBI websites and news articles. Sid remembered her taking him to the zoo, to the wolves, holding him around his stomach so he could see the animals better, the smell of her rose shampoo, her spearmint gum.

“Mr. Lendon?” Sid turned. Justine stood there with her hands on Emily’s shoulders. “Emily was hoping we’d track you down. We were just short of calling over the zoo’s loudspeaker for you.”

“You were,” Emily said. “I knew he’d come to the show. He said Lola was his favorite.”

Justine gave her a stern look for talking back. Emily held out a piece of paper.

Sid saw his hand reach out and take it. Bringing it closer, he realized it was the page from her book. The bird that looked like him. The Brown Snake-Eagle.

“Thank you, Emily,” he said, touched.

“You’re welcome,” Emily said, suddenly shy. She escaped her mother’s grasp and strode away.

“You should feel lucky. She doesn’t deface her books for just anyone,” Emily said. She gave him a smile, an awkward wave, and was gone.

Sid didn’t dare crease the page. He brought it out to his car in the parking lot and placed it carefully on the passenger seat. When he got to the Motorhome, he took it out and placed it in between the pages of a dictionary, an aid for Boggle and Scrabble games, and one of the few books on the scant shelves in the Motorhome’s interior.

He grabbed the last Coke from the fridge and tried to think if Ava drank soda. If she ate healthy or snacked on junk food.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it Sid” she asked. The barn owl blinked at them balefully, and Sid felt as if it were looking straight at him.

 

“It’s scary!” he said, gripping her hand tighter.

 

“No,” she said, almost sitting so that she was eye level. “It’s beautiful. Barn owls are so useful to farmers, and look! Its face is the shape of a heart!”

 

Sid was quiet, and only hugged her neck in response. She laughed and wrapped her arms around him too, grunting as she lifted him and stood.

 

“You’re getting too big for this, little man! Soon you’ll have to carry me!”

 

That got him to laugh.

 

The sound of voices nearing the Motorhome shook him out of it this time.

His wife and kids topped the hill. Sid watched as Marley laughed at something Curtis was showing her on his cell phone. Lisa reshouldered her purse and squinted through her glasses to peer at what they were looking at. Robin, Sid thought. Blue jay. And a snowy owl.


© 2013 Sarah Busse

“Untitled” by Peter D’Auria

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Untitled

By Peter D’Auria

When we asked him what he wanted for his funeral service, my uncle Frank made only one request. We had clustered at the side of his hospital bed in a little knot, my mother, father, and I, and my mother explained how the doctor had said in his delicate doctor-way that it was maybe time to start thinking about the funeral arrangements.

“All I want at the service,” my uncle said, scratching his patchy-bald head, “is for Sean to say a few words.”

“Are you serious?” said my mother.

“Oh no,” said my father. “No no no.”

Uncle Frank shrugged in his hospital gown. “Look. You can stick me in whatever cemetery you want. Burn me, bury me, both, I don’t care. Just let Sean give a little speech.”

“Even if we wanted to do it,” said my mother, “which, for the record, we don’t, there’s absolutely no way they’d allow that.”

“Sorry,” said my uncle. “That’s my dying wish.”

On the drive back to our house, I asked my parents, “Who is Sean?”

Sean, my parents explained, was Uncle Frank’s African Grey parrot, whom he had in his possession when he returned from his yearlong trip to Japan twenty-five years ago. “Parrots live a long time,” said my mother.

“Why does he want a parrot to speak at his funeral?” I asked.

“Beats the heck outta me,” said my father.

“Frank’s always been a little…off,” said my mother.

Ashburn was a small town of about 5,000 people, wrapped on all sides by cornfields and soybeans; it was the kind of town where you grow up knowing everyone in your graduating class, in many cases knowing them a little bit more than you would like. I’d had the same best friends since elementary school, the same crushes since middle school, and the same

Uncle Frank lived across the state, outside of Norwood, but they had transferred him up north because of the oncology department at the Cleveland Clinic.

Except for a yearlong period during which he had gone AWOL in Japan, returning 20 pounds lighter without notice, Uncle Frank had worked with animals his whole life: at a pet store, as a trainer (briefly) at Cirque du Soleil, at the Audubon Society tending wounded birds. My uncle had, over the course of his lifetime, owned (“kept” might be a better word) six hundred and three animals. The first of these had been Harrison, the turtle, whom my uncle had rescued when he saw the reptile about to cross a busy road, an endeavor during which it would have been surely smashed into shards.

“I was in middle school when he brought Harrison home,” my mother told me. “I remember he taught it to shake hands.”

“No way,” I’d said.

“I kid you not,” my mother said.

As Uncle Frank’s only living family, we inherited everything when he died a few days later. He had passed away in his sleep, the nurse told us, very peacefully. The next day my parents drove the pickup down to Norwood and came back with the bed filled with his possessions. Sean rode in the backseat, his square cage covered by a cloth. “I’m hopeful,” my mother said to me, “that the funeral won’t be a disaster after all. Sean didn’t say anything the whole trip.”

I was excited to meet Sean, and to hear what he could say. In his own way, he was sort of regal, with an upright posture and a red tail like a cape. But when I introduced myself, he just bobbed his head and remained silent.

“Can you say anything?” I asked him. “Do you speak English?” Sean just scratched his head with a scaly foot and blinked his little yellow eyes.

“I bet he doesn’t even know how to say anything,” my father said, watching my attempts, “and Frank is just making some joke.”

The funeral was held in Ashburn, my parents reasoning that even if it was held in Norwood, nobody would show up anyway. Including the priest and us, there were only seven people at the funeral (eight if you counted Sean, who spent most of the service in a covered cage by the doughnuts and cookies). We had opted for a modest open casket service. Aladdin’s Bakery, on Buttercup road, had provided refreshments.

It all went smoothly. The priest, who seemed bored, gave a little speech about grief and comfort. My mother went up to the podium and said that Frank had been a man of great kindness and generosity, especially to animals. When she had finished talking, she paused for a moment and I wondered if she was going to adjourn the service then and there and ignore Frank’s wishes. But she leaned down to the microphone again.

“As per Frank’s last request,” she said, nodding to me, “there is someone else who is going to say a few words.”

I brought the covered cage up the aisle, through a wave of murmuring and stifled laughter, and set it on the podium. My mother, a strange look on her face, pulled the cloth off and opened the door.

The audience watched in silence as Sean hopped to the doorway of his cage, looked around, and fluttered onto the podium. I wondered briefly if he was going to fly away. But instead he shuffled up to the microphone. My mother reached over and bent the adjustable microphone neck down towards his beak.

We watched. The audience watched. The whole room was silent.

Sean bobbed his head up and down, and then—

“Rain all this week,” he said. “Rain, rain, rain.”

Prior to his illness, we had heard from Uncle Frank maybe twice a year, through short, businesslike phone calls, and we saw him practically never. I do remember one occasion, though, many many years ago, when we passed through Norwood returning from a road trip and spent the night at his house. I guess that he must have had Sean at that time but I don’t remember seeing him. Frank was working at that point for the Audubon Society and had three injured great horned owls living in his shed. I remembered that my parents, exhausted from driving, had fallen asleep immediately, but I was wide-awake after doing nothing but stare at the passing cornfields all day. Frank had taken me outside to see the owls, which were perched like little statues in the shed, and he had taught me how to mimic their calls. We spent half an hour calling them up at the stars until my father had yelled for us to shut up.

On the way back from the funeral, while Sean, his cage covered again, sat next to me in the backseat, my father said, “You know, I think that was a great success.”

“Frank shouldn’t have let Sean watch the weather report,” said my mother.

“I’m just glad he didn’t teach him how to swear,” said my father.
Sean remained silent for another week (during which, contrary to his prediction, no rain fell) until one morning when he started to speak Japanese. We were sitting down to breakfast when Sean rattled off a long stream of unintelligible syllables.

“Parrot’s broke,” my father said, pointing a thumb towards Sean’s cage.

Sean said it again.

“Quiet, Sean,” my mother said.

“Wait, say it again,” I said.

Sean bobbed his head and repeated himself.

“I think that’s Japanese,” I said.

We went still, spoons of oatmeal halfway to our mouths. Sean rattled off the syllables.

“I’ll be damned,” said my father. “That must be the weather for Japan.”

Sean’s bilingualism was excellent news because it gave me an excuse to invite Lauren Yukimura, who had moved from Japan in the fifth grade and who was hands-down the most beautiful girl in school, over to my house to translate. I intercepted her at lunch the next day, as she was on her way to sit with her friends, all of whom were nearly as beautiful as she was.

“Hey, hey, Lauren,” I said.

Lauren turned and got a strange expression on her face, not unlike the one my mother had had when she uncovered Sean’s cage at the funeral. “Yeah?”

“Can I ask you a favor?” I said.

“What kind of favor?”

“Can you translate something from Japanese for me?”

Lauren frowned. “Well. Okay.” She looked down at her brown paper lunch bag. “I guess. Do you have it with you?”

“Uh, no. It’s…” I explained the situation.

There was a long pause while she stared at me.

“Are you serious?” she said.

“I am. Really.”

“You’re not gonna do something creepy when I get to your house.”

“No! God. I just wanna know what it’s saying.”

She gave me that look again. “All right. Can we do a week from today?”

“That’s fine,” I said. “Perfect.”

“I’m only doing this cause I’ve never seen a parrot before,” she said.

That night I came downstairs for a midnight snack to find my mother sitting at the kitchen table. Sean was there too, outside of his cage, shuffling on the tablecloth and pecking at crumbs.

“Mom?” I said. “Are you all right?”

“Nothing to worry about,” she said. “Just spending some quality time with Sean here.”

I pulled a cookie from the jar and poured a glass of milk. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

“Not at all,” said my mother. “Sean is not really a great conversationalist.” Sean bobbed his head and bit a chunk out of my cookie.

“Hey, don’t eat that!” I said. “You’ll give me bird flu or something.”

Sean cocked his head at me and repeated his Japanese phrase.

“Did Uncle Frank speak Japanese?” I asked.

My mother shrugged. “I don’t know. We were never close.”

“How come he went to Japan for a year and didn’t talk to anyone?”

My mother shrugged again. “That’s Frank for you. Any more of those cookies?”

The next morning the cage door was open and I panicked for a moment before I saw that Sean was sitting on my father’s shoulder.

“There’s a bird on your shoulder,” I told him.

“Yep,” my father said. “I think he likes it.”

“Rain all this week,” said Sean.

“Have you gotten anything else out of him?” I asked.

“Just the weather forecast,” said my father. “And his little haiku.”

I went to the fridge to get the milk. When I got back my father was feeding him little bits of toast from the palm of his hand. “Toast,” my father said loudly. “Sean, toast.”

“Rain, rain, rain,” said Sean.

We started the laborious process of going through Frank’s things. At first it seemed to offer clues to the mysteries of Frank’s life. But eventually it became clear that the clues pointed to one thing: Frank’s life had been as mundane as everybody else’s. He had owned a surprising amount of faded furniture and boring clothing and a few framed pictures of landscapes. I kept expecting a samurai sword, or an ancient Japanese scroll, but they never appeared.

“There’s gotta be something missing,” I said.

“This is it,” my father said. “Sorry.”

“We’ll figure it out when Lauren comes over,” I said.

We discovered that Sean liked most human foods, except for peanut butter, which caused him to shake his head back and forth and clack his beak together. We discovered as well that he could not really fly, but only flutter from one perch to the next. The day before Lauren’s scheduled visit, I got home from school to find my Sean sitting on the back of a chair, bobbing his head, and my father, very excited about something, sitting across from him.

“Stephen,” he called when I came in, “check this out.”

“What?” I said. “What is it?” I imagined Sean spilling the beans on the mysteries of Frank’s life, revealing the location of some hidden Japanese treasure.

“Sean,” said my father, and held up a piece of bread. “Sean, what is this?”

“Rain, rain, rain,” said Sean.

“Sean,” said my father, “what is this?”

Sean rattled off his Japanese phrase.

“No,” said my father. “What is this, Sean?”

Sean shook his head back and forth. “Toast,” he said.

Lauren’s beauty seemed even more extreme in our house, normally messy anyway but especially so that day due to Frank’s possessions scattered throughout the living room. Even my father seemed affected by her radiance. “Nice to meet you,” he said stiffly when I introduced them, and he shook Lauren’s hand.

We took Sean out of his cage and carried him to the kitchen table and we all sat down.

“He’s really pretty,” said Lauren. She held out her index finger and Sean nibbled it. She laughed. Although her beauty was as radiant as ever Lauren seemed different outside of school, less distant. I was suddenly euphoric. There was an electric excitement in the air. We were getting to the bottom of the mystery.

“You just have to get him talking,” my mother said. “Come on, Sean. What have you got to say?”

“Toast,” said Sean. “Rain all week.”

Lauren laughed. “Sean, do you speak Japanese?”

“Rain, rain, rain,” said Sean.

“No, come on, Sean,” I said. “You do speak Japanese.”

“Toast,” said Sean. “Rain. Toast.”

“You can do it, Sean!” said Lauren.

“Rain,” said Sean, and then he finally said it.

We all looked at Lauren.

She stared at Sean for a moment, and then looked up with a sad sort of smile.

“He can count to ten,” she said.

Two nights before he died, Sean revealed that he knew how to say one other thing. It was my father’s fiftieth birthday, about a week after Lauren’s visit, and we were having a party. Sean was wandering up and down the table, pecking at cake crumbs, and my parents were fairly drunk.

“Well, Sean,” said my mother, draining the last of her wine, “do you have a speech to give on this momentous occasion?”

Sean fluttered up and perched on the rim of my mother’s wineglass. He shook his head and then said, “Sorry.”

We stared at him.

“Sorry far away,” he said.

“Sean,” my father said slowly. “Are you giving a speech?”

“Sorry so far away,” said Sean.

“Is that…” I said.

“That must be what Frank taught him to say!” said my mother.

“That’s it?” I said.

“Or part of it,” my mother said. “Maybe he forgot the rest.”

“He must have just messed it up at the funeral!” I said. “Maybe we asked the wrong question, or said the wrong thing.”

“Frank should’ve just written a letter,” my father said. “I mean. Don’t get me wrong, Sean. You’re great. But what kind of speech was that?”

“Sorry,” said Sean.

Sean died the morning after the next. He was an old parrot, the vet reminded us, and we didn’t even know exactly how old. My mother wrapped him in newspaper and tried to put it in a shoebox, but he was too big, so I went to Aladdin’s Bakery and bought half a dozen doughnuts for four dollars and asked them for a big box.

I invited Lauren to the funeral and to my surprise she showed up, arriving in a stunning black dress. She gave me a long hug, after which I had to take a number of deep breaths.

We all congregated at the graveside and watched as my father placed the box into the little hole he had dug.

“You were,” said my father, “by far the best parrot I ever met.”

“We’ll miss you, Sean,” my mother said.

“You were a good bird,” Lauren said.

“Rest in peace,” I said.

We took turns piling dirt into the little grave. When we finished we stood there for a few moments, eating doughnuts, looking at the little pile of earth. It started to rain softly.

© 2013 Peter D’Auria