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“Yellow of the Sky” by Clara Pratt

Yellow of the Sky

Clara Pratt

It was something like the time – only a few years ago, though I was barely grown then and wore a flower in my hair – that I’d tried on sunglasses at Gethsemane Second Hand, and they had set a film of soft yellow over the ceramic mice and knitted baby hats and boxed jigsaw puzzles, and all the other unhomed knick-knacks I examined. And it was something like the time I had fallen asleep at four o’clock the afternoon following an all night solo Dr. Who marathon and woken up to the last remnants of sun on the horizon, and everything was lit up just for a moment in the eery pressing glow of light getting in one last flare before the earth snuffs it out. And it was sort of like the world had gone to sleep and woken up to some other world where the sky and all the objects beneath it bled into one another, soaking each other into one big swampy soup, and even the air was yellow with it.

I leaned out over my balcony and looked down at the sandy plastic floor of the kiddy wading pool with a little built-in curve of slide and the potted periwinkles all wrinkled and desperate for water. No children played. No couples strolled. The only sound was the electric hum that fills the gaps between noises.

I noticed I was pushing and pulling on my glasses, bringing them up and down my nose in a rhythm that felt a little too close to frantic. Stop it, I told myself. Be rational for goodness sakes. But a part of me had already donned a starched white lab coat and was studiously working on a list of words like apocalypse and biological warfare.

So the knock was a relief this time.

Tom would knock a certain way on the wall that separated his balcony from mine whenever he could hear me moving around out there. It was our secret knock, which he figured was tapped to the beat of “Stuck In the Middle with You.” I didn’t hear the resemblance, and I didn’t ever do it, either. It was not an ideal situation, in my opinion, living next door to my ex, and I was not inclined to knock any sort of greeting, humorous or otherwise, on our shared wall. The last man who had lived there had been a heroin addict with no front teeth who had minded his own damn business, no knocking on walls.

But it was the only low-income housing in town, and when the food court at the Coast Spruce Mall had shut down for good and Tom lost his assistant manager job at the A&W, he had been forced to take the first apartment on offer.

I grabbed the balcony rail near the wall and leaned over to where we could see each other, dry flecks of peeling blue paint sticking into my T-shirt and crumbling under my hands before tumbling to the yard below like a mess of giant pencil shavings.

“Tom,” I croaked, this having been the first thing I’d said that morning, “what’s going on with the sky? Why is everything yellow?”

He was looking smug, so I knew he had the answer. Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered asking, since I was usually the one with the answers, and he was the one who didn’t waste any time wondering about things. If he didn’t know why things were yellow that day, he would have been on his way to Barton’s Gas right then for a pack of cinnamon gum and an extra long pepperoni stick, not wasting time wondering about it.

He leaned an elbow on his side of the rail, cocked his blond head at me and narrowed his eyes. “Forest fires.” As if the words were delicious to him. “There’s three separate fires burning over in Ladston and the smoke rolling in is making everything hazy. They’re evacuating homes on the north side, but everything south of Siskin Lake is still fine.”

I nodded, relieved because it was a hot, dry summer and forest fires could now replace all the more terrifying words on my list. I mentally jotted it down beside the now crossed-out nuclear meltdown, just below change in Earth’s orbit spiraling planet closer to Sun. Still, though, I didn’t like the heavy feeling that this yellow sky was hanging just above my head, ready to drop.

“Siskin…” Tom pretended to muse, drumming his fingers on the rail. I could always tell when he was pretending to muse because he never thought out loud like that. He liked to have whatever he was going to say thought out ahead of time, so he could say it just right. “Good swimming at Siskin,” he went on, furrowing his brow in a masquerade of thought. “Ali’s parents just got back from camping out there, and they told her you can see the smaller fire right across the lake. They said when they were leaving this morning there was a helicopter just coming in to start putting it out.”

I waited for him to get to his point and he waited for me to get it on my own. The problem was, I wasn’t very good at getting points, so we tended to spend a lot of time in silence, each of us waiting for the other to speak.

We stared at each other, and I could hear his two obnoxious pet pigeons cooing inside his apartment, and in the stillness it seemed like the sound was coming from Tom. They were doves, he always insisted, not pigeons, but I knew they were dirty birds someone had trapped in a parking lot and given to him.

So we stared, and the pigeons cooed like gargling ventriloquists, and the yellow air filled our throats, until finally I got it and blurted, “Let’s go to Siskin Lake and watch them douse the fire,” as if it had been my idea all along.

***

I dodged through the parking lot toward Tom’s old forest green Subaru. Tom always laughed at me for the way I moved, either in crowds or around cars, because I was always dodging or darting. But I had learned to move swiftly like this, whisking my body from here to there at all kinds of odd angles in a bid for survival. It wasn’t easy being the mousey type.

It was one thing to be short and stocky, full around the middle and taking up as much ground as a taller person would. But it was another thing entirely to be short and skinny. When you were short and skinny, you were barely there at all. When you were short, skinny, and quiet, with long, limp hair and wire rim glasses, you faded so far into the background that no one could see you standing there. I was so short, so skinny, and so quiet that I risked being trampled or run over everywhere I went. And so I dodged.

Tom pulled open the door for me because it was rusty and didn’t always move the way you wanted it to. This time it swung downwards before swinging outwards and Tom had to use both hands to set it in place. When I sat down he tried to reach in and pull the seatbelt across me, but I swatted him away.

“Get out of here, weirdo. I’m not a child.”

“You didn’t bring anything,” Tom said as he tried the key in the ignition. It took a few sputtering turns to get the engine going. “How about a bathing suit? Or are we skinny dipping, baby?” He grinned wickedly.

“I don’t want to swim. I just want to see them fight the fire.”

“Yeah, but, Zofie,” he coaxed, “it’s Siskin Lake. It’s beautiful.” He turned onto Hazel Street, heading for the Hazel Street Mall. “You know, I’m not driving us out there just to see some stupid fire. I want us to have fun, Zof, like we used to when we were together. It’s not about a goddamn fire; it’s about being together.”

He parked in front of the mall and I waited, again, for his point. I didn’t understand why we were going if not to see the fire. I didn’t know what kind of fun we could have way out of town at Siskin Lake that we couldn’t have hanging around our own neighborhood like we always did.

“Come on,” he pleaded, heaving the passenger door open again, “Walker’s will have cheap bathing suits, and I know you love shopping there.”

Walker’s was a discount department store and the only chance someone like me, who worked part time at a donut shop, had at buying anything brand name. And I did love shopping at Walker’s. It wasn’t that I cared much about labels, but walking out of that store with a shirt or hat that I knew was not designed for donut-baggers made me feel mischievously rich.

The sizes in Walker’s were never in order from large to small or small to large. You had to dig your hands into the racks until you were up to your elbows in spandex and polyester, and any garment on a hanger marked two might really be a fourteen. But Tom sifted patiently through them all, checking the tags and mumbling to himself.

“What are you saying?” I asked. “I can’t hear you over the noise.” There was a sale going on, and I was having to dodge around again to keep from getting bowled over.

He turned to me with a sheepish smile, holding a bright orange bikini. “I said you’d look hot in this.”

“Who cares?” I took the plastic hanger and plopped it back on the rack. “Who am I hoping to impress in some skimpy bikini? With the fires, we’re likely to be the only people there.”

“Zofie…” He put his hand on my arm. It felt sweaty, and he looked like he was pretending to muse again, so I shook him off and circled the rack to have a look at the suits on the other side.

“How about this one?” He held up another bikini.

“Ick, too sexy. Too tiny.”

“Like you.”

I whacked him with the bathing suit I’d just decided on and headed for the changeroom. It was a one-piece, black and plain, with a high-cut back that left plenty to the imagination. Tom hated it but wouldn’t tell me why.

“It’s just not what I was expecting,” he said.

The car didn’t have air conditioning, and I turned my window crank round one way, then the other, trying to get it open enough to have a cool breeze on my face but closed enough to keep from getting big gulps of smokey air, which had begun to taste like ash as we headed out of town.

“That’s never gonna work,” Tom said. “Just roll the window down and suck in that smoke till you’re used to it.” He chuckled. “Too bad you’re not a smoker like me. My lungs are loving this!”

We were the only car headed north on the whole entire highway; I felt like we were Thelma and Louise driving right off a cliff, except no one was chasing us. Why were we headed straight for the danger while others got ready to flee as the fire swallowed up their homes and black smoke suffocated the yellow sky that had threatened to suffocate me? Maybe I was doomed to always make decisions like this one, decisions that could only end badly but seemed to be the only option at the time.

Tom turned on the radio and we sang along to “Bad Moon Rising,” just the right song for driving right smack into a fire. We were on a straight stretch of road with no other cars around, and Tom closed his eyes as he sang.

“You’re a lunatic,” I said.

“Karaoke, remember? Who was it – Everett?” He scoffed. “That guy can barely keep up with the songs, he’s so slow reading the words. He can’t even read, that guy.”

Yes, Everett had sang it, poorly, two nights ago at Gensou Karaoke, the Japanese karaoke cafe with rooms to rent so you could sing in front of only your friends while the lyrics popped up over images of swaying palm trees and beaming Japanese girls on screens built into the wall. Afterward, you could go into the lobby and buy Cream Soda or purple bubble tea and have your picture taken in a Purikura booth, which turned your picture into stickers covered with colorful cartoon hearts and animals. Everett had wanted his picture taken with me, which sounded fun, but just as the machine snapped he had grabbed me by the shoulders and kissed me full on the mouth.

When he saw the kiss sticker, Tom had acted annoyed. He had told Everett it looked stupid and that he had ruined the picture. Then Tom’s girlfriend, Ali, had gone into the Purikura booth with a guy none of us knew who was there with another group. Tom had gotten really angry then. I could see it in his mouth because he always pushed the left side of his lips together when he was angry – just the left, as if he had a cigar sticking out the other side.

Now, as I watched the empty highway wind on ahead of us, listening to Tom sing along with The Traveling Wilburys in the soft, wavering voice of someone who doesn’t really know the words – singing about how everything was alright – I wondered about Ali. I wondered what she looked like today, two days later, and whether she was alright.

Tom sang “Blowing In the Wind” next, low and sweet. I liked listening to him, and I liked the way his hair curled above his ears and the gentle way his head moved with the music.

He had been doing “Brown Eyed Girl” that night when Ali slid close to me on the padded bench and asked me the question I had hoped I would never have to hear.

“Zofie,” she had whispered tight against my ear. She had been drinking earlier that evening, and her breath was as thick and palpable as if she’d pressed her cheek to mine. “What was he like when you were dating him?”

Brown-eyed, I had thought immediately, nervously. Talkative. Faithless. Mustached. Working. Grey shirt.

 

Anything but what she wanted me to say.

 

But the liquor had loosened her lips, and she’d answered for me. “He hits me sometimes.”

 

Okay, I had thought. That’s okay then. Because at least sometimes was better than most of the time. Just like when I had been with him and told myself that most of the time was better than all of the time. Now I wondered what Ali looked like today because I knew what it was like to go home with him angry. Did she have a black eye, bruises? Had she tried to cover it up with thick foundation? Even I had gone overnight from tomboy to the girl who wears far too much makeup.

I could have warned her, I knew, but instead had imagined him loving her far more than he’d ever loved me. Maybe I had missed the point.

 

“Shit.” Tom whacked the steering wheel with the heel of his hand, making me jump and turn away from him. “That was the wrong exit; now I don’t know where the hell we are.” He pulled over. “There’s a map in the glovey, see if you can find which exit goes to Ladston. Shit!” He hit the wheel again.

 

I ran my fingers over the map, searching for the Ladston turnoff and Siskin Lake, my glasses sliding down my nose on a trickle of sweat. I found it, one exit behind us. I guessed we had both been daydreaming and missed it.

What had he been thinking about? Probably not all the mistakes I had made in our relationship: my unintentional coldness, my inability to understand his advances, my silence. Yet here I was – not a liar, exactly, but a concealer of truth, pretending the day was fine when I couldn’t stop wondering what he’d done to her.

 

When I looked up from the map, his face was over me, glowing with the yellow that had invaded all things, the corner of his mouth turned up on one side and a bit of white teeth showing through.

 

“What?”

 

“Zofie, I was just thinking…” He stopped, putting on a long, fake muse.

 

“You were thinking what? For goodness sakes, Tom, finish your sentences.”

 

“It’s not so bad taking a wrong turn now and then.” He put his hand on my shoulder and did this tickly thing I’d always hated. He was looking right into my eyes with some sort of goofy look I couldn’t place. “It happens all the time to the couples in the movies, doesn’t it? They make the best of it, though.”

 

“Yeah,” I said, “and then the backwoods psycho comes along with a machete and slaughters them, if they’re lucky. If they’re unlucky, they get to go back to his lair for a round of torture first. Come on, quit being weirdo-starey-guy and let’s get out of here before someone cuts our faces off to make masks.”

 

It wasn’t until we were back on the highway that I got the point. By then it was too late to let him kiss me, or even to wonder if I should.

 

***

 

Here the sky was deeper and lower, and stepping out of the car was like stepping into the glow of a steady flame. The afternoon heat stopped us in our tracks as we headed for the lake, so we changed course for the washrooms and got into our bathing suits.

 

His swim trunks were navy blue with a drawstring and sat extra low on his hips. Above were the dip of his belly button and the blond fuzz of his chest, two parts of him I remembered down in the tips of my fingers. But I didn’t want to want him now.

 

As we walked barefoot through the grass, to the crest of a small hill overlooking Siskin Lake, Tom turned and winked at me. “I thought you didn’t want a sexy bathing suit. Guess you can’t win ’em all, Zof.”

 

And suddenly, I saw it. Across the lake, in the middle of a small mountain, a great plume of white smoke rose and expanded, dissipating into the sky above. A white helicopter descended slowly until it hovered several feet above the lake, low enough to dip what appeared to be an orange bucket hanging from a line into the glittering water. And I saw, too, why Tom had taken me here: he wanted us to be together again.

 

And I wanted him. I wanted him without the hitting. I wanted him smiling and singing “Blowing In the Wind” with his eyes closed. I wanted him with his big, hard hands tied behind his back like a prisoner.

 

After dipping its bucket in the lake, the helicopter circled the fire, little jets of water spraying out from the bucket to wet the surrounding forest. Then, it flew directly into the rising smoke like some suicidal insect, hovering for a moment before releasing its water into the very center of it all. The water didn’t look much like water, but rather like the shining silver of a mirror hanging solid and suspended in the sky before it vanished, completely and without warning.

 

“Like a moth to a flame,” Tom said as we watched it descend for another scoop of lake water. He was saying it now, I knew, because he had thought of it when the helicopter was flying into the smoke but had been chewing the words around like cinnamon gum until he was sure he had them just right. Then he turned to me. “You’d come back to me, wouldn’t you, Zofie?”

 

“That depends,” I said. The air felt smokier and every breath seemed to come with a mouthful of ash. I could barely get the words out. “How’s your anger these days?”

 

His silence was no surprise to me. I had caught him off guard, I thought, and now he was preparing the perfect answer. But it appeared I had missed the point again because when he did speak, it was as if I hadn’t asked anything at all.

 

“Remember when we went to the wrong address for that Christmas party? And there was a party going on there, too, so we stayed anyway?”

“Yeah,” I laughed, “and we were so under-dressed! Everyone was in their party clothes and wondering, ‘Who the hell are these bums eating all the fancy cheese?’”

“And remember when I took you to that Ethiopian restaurant for your birthday, and it was so spicy, and we had to eat with our hands?”

Yes, I remembered, but he had it wrong. We hadn’t gone there for my birthday; he had taken me out to make up for getting physical the night before.

“I knew you would love it, though.”

Yes, if nothing else, there was that: he knew me well. I might have been short and skinny and barely there at all, but Tom could always see me.

The helicopter was in the smoke again, releasing another solid-looking length of water. Somewhere below the treetops was an inferno only the pilot had laid eyes on and it was trying to ignite everything in its path. And the cloud of smoke rose unchanged as the helicopter went down for more water, another futile attempt to tame the beast we couldn’t see.

More than anything now, I wanted that damn fire out. They were getting nowhere with the dinky little bucket and it was driving me mad. As I watched Tom smile against the ash I was choking on, sucking it all in like it was nothing but a cigarette, my frustration spilled out of me and I shouted, “Oh, come on, just put it out!” into the glowing air.

I realized I needed to get out of the sun. There was a playground behind us, and I sat down in the strip of shade offered by a metal slide.

The helicopter continued in its circle: dipping, spraying, dumping, round and round like a dog in a spirited game of fetch, its determination far greater, I thought, than its impact would ever be. But after a while, it appeared that the smoke was thinning. Tom turned to grin at me — “Look at that! Your shouting worked, babe!” — and I maneuvered myself further under the slide, knocking something off the edge as I went.

The lake was quiet, and I could hear the hum that fills those silent gaps growing louder.

Then, all of a sudden, Tom leapt to his feet, and he was yelling, “Oh, shit, Zof! Wasps!” and I was on my feet, too, banging my head with a metal thwang on the edge of the slide, and we were both running, but Tom was running for me. He made a move to scoop me up in his arms, but I popped him a good one on his cheek and shouted, “I’m not a child, weirdo!”

So he grabbed my hand instead and we ran screaming down the sandy shore and threw ourselves off the dock and into Siskin Lake. All the way under, all the way down.

Under water we were different – silent, cheeks too bulgy, eyes too gaping, hair fanning out from our heads like waving fronds of seaweed. Under here we didn’t know each other any more than we knew that the sky was yellow or that Walker’s was having a three day sale. We were just two uncommon creatures with hands like flippers and little bubbles slipping from our noses.

When we came up for air the wasps were gone, but the smoke was thick again. It stretched to the sky like a desperate hand reaching for rescue, its wispy fingers grabbing at the thick air. It didn’t seem to have gotten the point yet: there was no rescue, but neither was there annihilation – just the steady movements of a helicopter and a bucket, going round and round.

© 2015 Clara Pratt

“What’s Not There” by Christina Lissfelt

What’s Not There

Christina Lissfelt

There is a man who stands at the door. You don’t know him.

It’s night, a peculiar venue. Why is this man standing at your door? You thought you saw a shadow earlier, creeping around the house, the black top of a bare head rising briefly outside the window when you were in the bathroom. Now you are awake, you can’t sleep. Thoughts are too crammed and coalesced in your mind for rest to be found with any immediacy. Instead, your thoughts are free to wander, for the fear to abate, for possible scenarios to come through your head like a movie reel with no ending.

You’re probably not going to answer the door. The man is too strange. You peek out the window. The lights are on in your house. The man must know you’re awake. He must still be waiting there. But why so late? What could his business possibly be?

No one is there. The porch light is on, illuminating an empty doorstep. You check again, leaning forward in your seat, checking the corners where someone could hide. Light floods the porch; combined with the streetlight right across the street, it’s brighter than the day out there. Someone could hide in the shadows of your porch. There is a small brick patio with lawn furniture, a few chairs and a glass-topped table for your neighbor to entertain his Turkish family and friends. But you don’t want to check. You’re naked anyway, too vulnerable. The night is too hot. Even the air conditioning has you off guard for a moment, a sneeze that gives you pause.

I wonder who the man was…

 

 

 

 

The feeling when you wake up in the middle of the night to make love and you’re not smoking a cigarette right afterward. It’s been a few years since that habit was indulged. Or maybe last summer.

You’re awake, a whale, lolling about on the sands in your living room, the cool breeze from the ceiling fan above ruffling your face and you’re smiling your bright whale smile, alive and well. The air is cool, the air is the water you swim in, and you wake up enthusiastic for breakfast in the morning and singing with a soft moaning deep in your throat in this class called Community Kirtan, where the leader sings out and you sing back, waves of sound that ascend, like the wind is rising, echo through the room painted blue among you, among the people, the harmonium, harrr-mo-niiiz-ing to the sound of Lokah Samastah Sukinoh Bhavantu, and it’s a rock concert to the gods of the East, Hare Krishna, Jai Radhe, Govinda Radhe, Om Gum Ganapati Namaha. You’re singing to the elephants and the blue skinned boy who jams on his flute, and all the pretty ladies with their lovely eyes outlined in kohl and the stars are dancing on their faces in joy. And the beautiful men too. Everyone is beautiful in the East. You the whale are singing, floating in the sea, you don’t even have to move, just swaying. Just feeling this quiet joy in your heart, the knowledge of being happy when you sing.

Karaoke, when you don’t drink, can be liberating, not quite like stepping from a cliff. (And did you know, karaoke means “empty orchestra” in Japanese? No orchestra, no live components except you, the only living thing up there? No one but you and the voice you sing with.)

It’s evening, a few months ago when you’re out with these strangers from out of town who know your friend in Portland, and out you go, out out out, catching rides with strangers courtesy of a handy addicting new app called Uber (and you used to think it was a purple taxi service). There’s a sake and sushi bar Uptown off by Oak Street, around the corner there you are.

Well shit, what do you sing? Usually it’s a sad song, or a love song. It goes perfect with the theme for the evening; there are a few jocks in attendance with their equally sporty girly sidekicks (or girlfriends), a lonely disgruntled couple seated in a booth near the front door that plan on leaving in a minute, and then you and your two friends. You’ve been getting along well, old chums from the same can. They’re not too enthused about karaoke, wincing at the three-minute diva up there pouring out her heart into a Madonna re-rendition “Like A Virgin.” Still, you’re excited. Encouragement enough. No booze to get your throat open for the right and left-wingers.

What’s the theme again? What are you going to sing?

You sit there at the open end of the booth, cheering on the three girls that have gone up in neon track garb to sing “If you wanna be my lover you’ve gotta get with my friends. (Something..) friendship never eeeennnds.” And that’s the way it is. I can see you’re torn. Scared to make a fool of yourself, that you’ll be too soft or sound tone deaf to your discriminating audience, or fuck it, get off your bum and sing us a song tonight because we already feel alright.

“Are you going to sing a song?” Toni asks, chomping on that Spicy Edamame across the table. This guy – he is one of the most loving and lovable people you will ever meet. He should be the definition for Love in the dictionary. He’s not from around here, moved into town around the same time Monica came here from Ohio. She sits next to you, darling “wife” and dear friend. Toni’s got big, poofy brown hair that curls and explodes around his face and hangs past his shoulders. He also rocks belly shirts, even when his is hanging out and free. He’s not bothered by it, and he’s wearing a sweater since it’s cold tonight.

“You should go up there to sing a song if you really want to,” he says.

“Y’all want to sing with me?” you joke, grinning.

He leans back in his seat, glancing at the disgruntled bartenders who’ve had to deal with this all night. “Well, not that I have anything against it, but I’ll decline. It’s really not my thing.”

Monica shakes her head. “Yeah. You can go up there if you want to though. We’ll cheer for you here,” she says. Gives a smile, glad that it’s you and not her willing to put yourself out on a shoestring.

You keep turning your head around, back between them and the stage, smiling and self conscious.

Monica giggles, taking a sip of your beer. Deliberating. You go up to the bar, where there’s a computer with a mouse, old school Windows 98, no keyboard or touchscreen so the name of a song or artist has to be put in one mouseclick at a time, and Monica’s at your shoulder, going over names with you, and she and Toni have given you a song to sing, a request from them, and now’s your time and your nerves are twisting your stomach up for you, but you sip your beer, your hand shaking, and you go up to exchange the cool glass for a microphone to put your lips to.

It’s Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks. Your ears are red, your face is heating up by degrees, you’re not sure if anyone can hear you since you can’t hear your own voice over the speakers, but you sing anyway, waving your body around like a buoy rocking on the waves after a ship has passed by, your right hand glued to the microphone because you’re afraid the sweat will cause it to zooop right out of your hands, but you’re singing it out, up there on that tiny stage with the lights not quite in your face.

Your eyes glance between Toni and Monica giving you thumbs up at the booth, the drunk group near the bar looking like they actually enjoy your singing, and even your server, who Toni has cheered up since y’all sat down, is smiling. You feel kind of stupid, but you love it, it’s so cheesy.

Let’s go out to the laaake Eaaarlll

We’ll pack a lunch! And stuuuuuff you iin the truuunnk Earll, hey!”

 

And for a grand finale, before the night is over, a triple duet –

A whole neeew world! A dazzling place I never kneeew!

But when I’m waay up here, it’s crystal cleear, that now I’m in a whole new world with youuu.”

 

You’re helping the drunker tongues who can’t keep a tune by singing both parts, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes laughing, while Toni and Monica look ready to leave (after we finish that spicy edamame though).

Then the music is gone, the night is dripping in sweat, and we’re walking along Frenchmen Street. It’s a hot summer evening, the less you wear the better. There’s a different tune playing tonight, spilling out from the bars along this one section that seems to be overflowing with the effluence of tourists. They come in their summer dresses, cut off at the ankle or the knee; black is a popular shade of darkness, orange and red, deep blues, gold. Clanging jewelry, large purses, strapless, plunging off the breasts of the women who walk by, their heels as high as cliffs, about to fall over, they have to keep walking so as to not fall face first to the pavement, the concrete with the piss and vomit of these bent tourists, couples and groups, and the water that fell, rain that cleaned the streets for a while, left things smelling great before people came out again in their numbers to stride back and forth, crowding the sidewalks.

You walk along in the late evening, around ten thirty at night, alone, dressed against whatever going out code there is for everyone else: no dresses, no skirts, toe shoes that keep you pressed to the earth, an old t shirt with a videogame logo and jean shorts, loose hair falling over your shoulders and sweat, since the night is hot and the air is dense with the water that coalesces and you can’t keep it off of you no matter how many showers you take.

You’re looking for someone, but you don’t want to admit it.

Through the crowds you walk with a blank stare, not quite stony, observing, watching with a keen eye, swiping your gaze back and forth for one familiar face out of a whole ocean. You’re not swimming, you’re diving through these throngs, searching for a teardrop that was mixed in with the rain. You’re not expecting to find much. Instead you feel a hole in your gut, there’s a leak inside of you and you’re bleeding onto the street, walking along like it’s nothing, rubbing your stomach because it hurts a little, but otherwise you pretend not to notice, mostly forget about it, even the wetness that slides down your leg. The night is steamier than your blood.

There are seven or eight clubs on this street; the Apple Barrel, the Spotted Cat, Blue Nile, Bamboula’s, Vaso… You’re checking them all with your blank face and your faraway eyes. You’re a neutral. There’s jazz, rock and roll, rollicking good music, the sounds filling up the tiny one roomed bars, and at the Spotted Cat, wow what a crowd! It’s packed with people, and the musicians are scrunched into a corner right in front of the window, and the trumpet is singing and careening all over the place at the top of its lungs, and you watch the drummer counting the beat and looking at the player with peace of mind and pride, being there in the moment with his band, his brothers, and you are separate, outside looking through the glass…

He’s not there. He’s not anywhere.

There’s a flatness in the air all around you. You find it hard to find inspiration to do anything… You turn around, looking down the street, and in the crowd inside of the Apple Barrel, sitting at the bar, you take pause, and a kind of shock comes over you, and a great sadness… Someone turns, someone you know only too well, and you feel your heart beat quicken with a sudden jerk, skewered, and the blood is coming faster now, roaring in your ears, and you walk in jerky motions to the doorkeep sitting on a stool, praying that you haven’t been seen, and praying that you have… Walk past the guitar player and the drummer, who both look at you with expressions of tiredness, of a sort of misery and dejection born from their line of work, hustling, and always tired, on edge, wondering if they’re going to make enough in the three short hours between now and closing time… You glance by, and you see them, seeing you, and what can you say? “I’m sorry”?

You walk past, feeling as though time has slowed down considerably, as though a crack has opened and you might break if you walk a step further. You saw Jon at the bar, your old “flame,” really an ex boyfriend. You loved him dearly, but it was a downhill fight. Tears are waiting in your eyes, ready to bust down the door and pour down your cheeks. You weren’t expecting this, one shock to the heart after you already had your heart broken so soon.

Things quiet down in your hearing and you see the face of Jon turned towards you, holding a beer in his hand, about to take a sip, and he pauses, solemn in his gaze, remote in his acknowledgement of you. You pause at the doorway, taken aback by his eyes, which you’d forgotten for a while – light blue like a clear sky in your dreams, with green like the light turf of a childhood summer – and he puts down the beer, raising a hand to you, open palmed, a wave. Farewell? What? No.. You want to run right up to him, grasp his hand and hold it down, keep him there to ask what the hell is he doing here? But you’re too stunned and then you take a step, then another, and there’s a wasteland between you, nothing but dying grass and decaying hands that peek through the earth, and you want to cry out to him! But it’s too late, and you watch as someone passes in front of him, and he’s gone. The seat is empty, and you are left feeling emptier, bereft, and helpless.

You realize your hand is held out in supplication, and the musicians are giving you a weird look, wondering if you’re on something, yet there might be a hint of empathy in their looks, but you turn away, too embarrassed to look them in the eye as you turn away and you turn right around and walk out of that place, a hand up to your face as you struggle against the tears starting to fall down your face like bricks from a crumbling house, and you begin to run, down the street, past the gazelles in their short black dresses and their hooves of varying height walking hesitantly and appalled at one another, their beaus taking up the rear because they couldn’t keep up with their audacious gaits, ready to go and get angry by the end of a shitfaced night. It’s in everyone’s face as you walk by them, even when you can’t look them directly in the eye; shared tensity, not altogether comfortable as they needed to move, keep moving, keep going, and something ugly and treacherous stirs beneath their attempts at easiness with the drinking and the music, but no one looks really happy. Just unhappy trying to get happy.

You end up at Walgreen’s that night, walking down the street, walking past a woman singing in a deep rough voice, like the rocks along the Mississippi River; “I don’t need a husband, to tell me what to do.” She was still singing when you came back and got your bike. The French Quarter is too uncomfortable at night to stick around for long. There’s no fun, just a few familiar faces and a deep stirring that tells you to go home, but you ignore it.

Bitch where were you when I was walkin’?”

You were walking with your bike down Decatur, ducking into Walgreen’s for some cigarettes to smoke in Jackson Square. Maybe your friend the fortune teller is there, and he’ll let you play on his phone again while he throws quips at the ladies with their purses clutched tight to their naked thighs, trying to induce them into finding out about their love lives or their futures in mainstream society. These bullshitters ride by every night in their high heels, and you don’t know how to feel about them. You serve coffee to people like this and sometimes they surprise you with a bit of their personality that instantly warms you to them or makes you want to back up to the wall to keep away from their artificial venom and their need for that number one drug that keeps the whole world running on a clock that ticks too fast. Nothing will stop the need or the craving.

You want to keep it simple, just some cigarettes, a need to give in the to the vice since you feel like you are out of your skin and pretty and alone tonight. You’re not the master of reality, not feeling slick while listening to Panda Bear through your tiny headphones, which you take out so you can talk to the cashier while you hand over the money to buy a death you can control. That’s how a friend put it once.

Dazed, wandering around the aisles, wasting time walking at an exaggerated pace to glance at the things sold in a department store like this. Some shit’s at a discount, like the Valentine’s Day candy and St. Patrick’s decorations near the front of the store. There’s also small space heaters you wish you’d had back in February when the bathroom was an icebox at 6:30 am while you took a shower. They sell the heavier booze at the front, and beer alongside the Gatorade and Coke in the cold fridges. The other isles are full of every day utilities; questionable supplements you have no interesting in buying but will look over anyway, foot pads and creams, joint aches, candy, packaged food you remember buying when you were in college, postcards and t-shirts, one piece summer dresses, bagged snacks, kitchen implements, beauty supplies, hair ties and brushes, toothpicks, hair combs, eyelash curlers, cuticle fixers, hair dye, tabloids, newspapers, magazines, art supplies, notebooks which you can’t help but pour over, pens and paper clips, water bottles and other charming accessories, travel supplies, miniature sized, cigarettes and batteries, car chargers and wall plugs, phone cases, more candy. (Please, why more candy?)

You get the cigarettes at check-out, pay the tired woman behind the counter who probably wishes for better places, and say a quick thank-you when she good-byes you; “Thank you for coming to Walgreens.” You want to leave now; it’s late, and the later things get, the shadier people seem, and you see the homeless vagabonds and so-called bums sleeping on street corners and on the steps of businesses, setting up camp while you’re on your way, feeling a faint sense of guilt when you see them, but you smoke your cigarette and keep on passing through, a guest really, no more a part of this town since you’re a transplant; but this fucked up place with so much life and dirt, fallen stars and gritty teeth, seeking their start in the French Quarter, seeking a place elsewhere in the solace of this city that claims its own, and it has claimed you for a reason, whether you like it all the time or not is not your choice, and you live here because this is where your heart, and even though there is darkness there is also a light here that guides you, so you can’t feel down for too long before something else will take you by surprise, whip you off your chair and onto the street, pull your hair and wow you with its infinite ability to constantly fucking amaze you, cause life does that, and where you live has a role in your life, and New Orleans fucking took your pants off and now here you are, struggling to keep those pants on and to take a deep breath at the same time, but life is breathless here.

The first time you stood in this city, taking it in for what it was, you were drunk and clasping at a balcony rail, gripping it like it was the only solid thing in your life, and you were smoking a cigarette and it was in your hand, half gone like the the night and the sweeping beauty of the life below, and you were talked to on three sides, keeping track of your drink and where you deposited your ash at the same time, intoxicated by the air and the people, the drink an added bonus since you were underage and a guest, and how the hell were you so lucky? But you looked down on a guy dressed in black below smoking and whistling to himself, and you wondered what the song was, and you were smiling at yourself because hell, this could be your town and someone said you were like a local already.

And then you lean too far, off the rail, the balcony rail broke, and you clasp it in your hand, holding it as you fall to the street, and you’re falling into the street, and there’s a parade below, Mardi Gras floats skimming by on an ocean of people intoxicated with the unreality of it, and they’re throwing shoes at you in gold and glitter, a stream of beads that threaten to drown you in the wash of unending color, and you’re alone while you fall…

It’s like a river that won’t stop its course. And you were straining to hold yourself back, hold back the loneliness, holding back yourself. Now there’s damming those feelings, and you let loose in a torrent, finally letting go…

© 2015 Christina Lissfelt

“What Nettie Knew” by Tonja Lanette Blizzard

What Nettie Knew

Tonja Lanette Blizzard

Trudy and Gail with their teased up high blonde hair, high-waist Levis, and red-painted lips, stopped their nearly over flowing shopping buggies for an update on any new gossip floating around town; never noticing taking up the entire aisle at a discount department store which was located in the middle of the small town of Archdale.

“Can you believe she left him after all those years of being married? She just walked out!” As Trudy spilled out the report, Gail opened her mouth wide like a baby bird being fed every word.

Nettie was thrilled the day her father-in-law called to say the car was hers if she wanted it. His daughter refused to be seen in the old bucket of bolts as she called it and would wait until something fitting came along. She usually got what she wanted if she held out long enough. But Nettie could not be happier. The olive green 1971 Ford station wagon was just what she and her babies needed to go grocery shopping and church on Sundays.

People in town and at the First Church of the Southern Baptist became familiar with seeing Nettie and her babies in that station wagon. It did kind of stick out being so much older than what other people drove, Nettie knew. But the title was in her name and that’s all that mattered to Nettie. She taught her children to like the station wagon by giving it a name—Olive. Olive was an answer to Nettie’s prayers. It took every bit of 45 minutes to drive down the old curvy dirt road Nettie lived on to get to the main road and another 35 minutes into town. Very inconvenient to live out that far.

Nettie never knew where her husband was or how to contact him in case one of the children became real sick. She did everything her husband wanted. She prayed; called out to God for peace, comfort, guidance, wisdom, and even staying past service one Sunday to ask Pastor Porter if he thought a wife had to stay married while her husband had sex with other women.

“Yes you do Nettie, and keep on praying for him. And one more thing. Never let him see you with curlers in your hair.”

Nettie found that disheartening but obeyed.

Nettie kept her hair bleached blonde just the way her husband liked it. She made sure after giving birth she could fit easily into a size five. Because her husband called Nettie a fat ass each time she was pregnant, she knew losing the baby weight was must do. Nettie’s Mama told her a good wife will make her man happy. As long as she did what pleased him Nettie’s husband would take care of her.

Nettie was born and raised in the South. As a Southern girl, to not have a husband is as shameful as breaking one of the Ten Commandments. So Nettie was married and pregnant as early as sixteen to get that expectation of her out of the way.

The whole marriage thing was a bit more disappointing than Nettie was led to believe. It seemed to her the only satisfaction was in loving on her babies. Nettie is a loving soul, tender and sweet. She had enough love in her for many more babies. Sex was so very seldom since her husband stayed gone. Nettie poured her young life into her children. She was married to a man but she had no husband. Nettie was always ready and willing to cater to her husband when he showed up. On the holidays she would cook all his favorites and tell the children to go give Daddy a hug.

She gave birth to her first born not knowing where her husband was. It was a difficult labor because the baby was too large for Nettie’s first birth. There wasn’t time for a C-section because the baby’s head was crowning but got stuck. Determined, Nettie pushed hard as she knew how, tearing herself badly even past the doctor’s cuts. But the 8 ½ pound baby girl was born and crying taking to Nettie’s breast as if she had done it before!

The birth of Elizabeth went much smoother. She was a smaller baby weighing 7 pounds, 11 ounces. Nettie reached for her, calling her beautiful, as she slipped from her body into the doctor’s steady hands. Her husband angrily walked out saying “Damn, another girl!” Nettie answered her concerned doctor’s question, “Yes, I am alright. May I have my baby?” Elizabeth had a full head of dark hair and darker skin than her sister. She was sweet and calm nursing gently from Nettie’s milky nipples.

After nearly a year had passed, the two girls were crazy over one another. Elizabeth was laughing when Chloe peeked out at her from the couch pillow. She still managed to keep Nettie’s nipple in her mouth loosening her suction while she laughed. As Nettie wiped the corner of Elizabeth’s mouth the front door flew open, giving Nettie and the girls a scare.

It was Nettie’s husband; home and stinky drunk. With dirty clothes and staggering walk he lunged for Nettie slurring “C’mere you!” Nettie tried to hold Chloe along with nursing Elizabeth because everyone was alarmed and afraid. With Elizabeth still at Nettie’s breast but now crying and Chloe screaming pulled in close by Nettie’s free arm, her husband forced himself down onto Nettie, tearing her nightgown and raped her there and then on the living room couch where just a few minutes earlier Chloe and Elizabeth were playing and laughing.

Nettie could only hold her girls as her husband said, “I want a son this time you hear me! It better be a son!”

It was quick. It was violent. Once he had stood and fastened his jeans, Nettie got up slowly with legs shaking and with her two girls, went to the bathroom. She ran a bath, placed Chloe in the tub, stepped in carefully with Elizabeth in her arms. Just sitting, softly praying, “Please God let this be a boy.”

Nettie brought her third baby into the world barely arriving to the hospital in time. She named him Charlie, a 10 pound baby boy.

That was it Nettie thought. I gave my husband what he wanted. She thought for sure her husband would stay home with a newly born son in the house. The day Nettie and baby boy Charlie came home from their stay in the hospital his sisters admired their brother curiously like he was a present under the Christmas tree. Nettie watched as her husband held Charlie and kissed him on the nose. She pumped her breast milk into a bottle so his Daddy could feed him. “Naw, I ain’t doing that.” He said and walked out the house. Nettie put Charlie to her swollen breast and heard the truck drive away.

Four days later, when Nettie picked Charlie up for his 6:00am feeding she heard her husband’s truck door close. She could smell the alcohol and cigarettes long before he came into view. Nettie’s husband was home drunk, sex filthy, and crab infested like usual. Having a newly born son in the house changed nothing.

Nettie was thankful for so many things. Her children were healthy and strong. They gave her joy when she felt low. As they grew Nettie would take them out in Olive to explore new places. The library was a happy place. Nettie enjoyed reading to her children as their faces glowed looking at the pictures. She made gingerbread people-cookies with her children standing in chairs they had pushed up to the counter to get their tiny hands into the dough.

Nettie’s house was smack dab in the middle of a cow pasture on 10 acres of country land. There as a barbwire fence that divided off an acre which the two-story four bedroom house stood. The master bedroom took up the entire second floor and had French doors that opened to a balcony that overlooked all the rest of the land and cows. The balcony rail was wide enough she could set potted plants on for the children to water and watch grow. Even though each child had their own bedroom downstairs, somehow Chloe, Elizabeth, and Charlie ended up all sleeping in the same bedroom together or else upstairs with Nettie. This is how they grew up. Nettie’s children were her life.

Then to everyone’s surprise Nettie’s husband took her to Buddies. Buddies was Archdale’s hotspot. No other place like it for hanging out with the drinking and partying locals. Her husband was a regular at Buddies but this was Nettie’s first time. People were sitting in booths along the wall with tables covered with glasses—some empty, some full. There were round tables and chairs in the middle of the dimly lit smoke-filled room. There was a DJ over in the corner with a mirrored lighted ball spinning colors on the ceiling, walls, and floor. There were more women there than Nettie had ever seen gathered together, more even than church or the grocery store. Many women smiled and waved at Nettie’s husband like they knew all about him.

The DJ began telling everyone that this was a special night—singing karaoke. People cheered and clapped. Directly across from where Nettie was seated a man whistled louder than ever should be done in a closed space, causing Nettie to cover her ears.

What a lively place this is, Nettie thought as her husband handed her a margarita.

On a crowded dance floor she moved to the music twisting those hips of hers turning round and round, singing karaoke like her childhood days singing to her Daddy’s guitar playing. That’s the way Nettie’s husband liked her. That’s the way he wanted her to be, with three conditions. She only went out with him. She only drank with him. He returned her to her housekeeping, church going, and motherly self the next day. What Nettie knew was one day she was going to leave.

Nettie knew that God did not expect her to live a loveless life. Somehow Nettie knew God would give her a way out. A path to travel on and a better life. This is what Nettie knew.

On her 42nd birthday, her babies—adults now, Nettie drove Olive out of Archdale. She no longer blamed herself for a husband who didn’t love her. And to Nettie he was never a husband. He was now the ex. Looking in her rearview mirror at the town getting smaller as she drove away, Nettie drove past all that was. Nettie was driving to her future. No matter how late in life, everything felt fresh and new.

© 2015 Tonja Lanette Blizzard

“Troy” by Edee Lemonier

Troy

Edee Lemonier

I work in the Women’s section at Nordstrom at the mall.

That’s a lie. I work at Nordstrom Rack at the outlet. Not even real Nordstrom. Not even the real mall. I hate working this section for two reasons. First is the manager. I smell her before I hear her. It’s like she thinks she has to try every perfume they sell downstairs. Gives me a headache.

She yells to me from Misses. “Laurie!”

Actually, name is Laurel. I concentrate on getting all the hangers evenly spaced. Cleaning up the clothes racks are the best way to fake being busy. Plastic squeaks against metal poles. Somebody put a size eighteen dress in with the tens. I can’t blame the women who do that. It’s only wishful thinking.

There’s a karaoke contest right outside the downstairs entrance. Drowns out the fountains and the screaming kids and the annoying manager.

“Laurie!” she yells. Now she’s only four feet away. The perfume cloud she drags around like Pig Pen and his dirt sets the hair in my nostrils on fire. Her name is Madalyn.

“What’s up, Marilyn?”

“Madalyn.” She smiles. “Guess who’s next in line for that karaoke thing?”

I shrug my shoulders. Responding would require a deeper breath than I’m willing to take in her presence.

She doesn’t wait for an answer. “Troy. How cool is that?” She smiles big, all teeth, like she forgets I dumped him a few weeks ago.

“Lunch, Laurie.” She sings it. Manager Madalyn spins me around by the shoulders and pushes me toward the big entrance. “I already clocked you out.”

* * *

Troy. The second thing I hate about working here. He works in Men’s Shoes, opposite end as me, but I can see it from here. Don’t get me wrong, he’s pretty hot. Dark eyes, dark hair, not much taller than me, muscles, but not too bulky, and a great ass. I’ve caught him staring a few times.

We run into each other at employee meetings. A couple months ago he walked in and sat backwards in the chair in front of me. Straddled the seat with his arms folded over the plastic orange top. He stared at me and smiled, didn’t say anything, waited for me to talk. So I said, “Hi.” From then on he told people I was the one who approached him.

He cleared his throat. “So, uh, a bunch of us, uh, a bunch of us from shoes and housewares is going to see the new Katniss movie tonight. Wanna go with us?”

I should have said no, I should have said no, oh holy hell, I should have said no. But those eyes.

“Cool,” he said.

He showed up alone. “So, uh, the guys, uh, the guys punked out on me, man. Just you and me, kinda like a first date. That okay?”

I should have said no, I should have said no, oh holy hell, I should have said no. But those tight, tight jeans.

At the concession stand he bought popcorn and soda. A napkin floated to the floor when I pulled a bunch from the holder. That was the first time I noticed the shoes. He was wearing those awful chukkas. Hush Puppy boots. Whatever they’re called, I hate them. When I was fourteen my mom had a boyfriend who wore those things all the time. He made me call him Uncle Mason. Made me sit on his lap.

Troy stepped in front of me before I stood up and I got an eyeful of ass. He turned to hand me a drink and I got an eyeful of crotch bulge and I didn’t give two shits about those hideous shoes. After the movie we went to his place to drink whiskey and get stoned. We started making out, I stuck my hand down his pants, and then I straddled him right there on the couch. The next seven weeks were just booze, bowl, bang.

* * *

I’m almost to the escalators and the karaoke emcee announces Troy’s name. I stumble into a rack of scarves. They’re soft against my arm.

To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before. “This was our song.” He says over the intro, all dramatic like he’s gonna cry.

If by “our song” he means the song that was playing when we were sort of propped up against each other on a dance floor, drunk off our asses from tequila, him grinding the hard bulge in his jeans against the bone in my crotch and leaving it bruised and me lonely, and kissing me just as hard with boozy pot breath until my teeth vibrated, then okay. It was our song.

Outside, Anna from lingerie is smoking unfiltered Camels. I bum one and light up.

“Hey,” says Anna. “Didn’t wanna watch, either?”

I take a long, deep drag. She went out with him for a few weeks back in March.

“Like, how come you guys broke up and stuff?” she asks.

I exhale hard. “Aw, you know. Same shit.”

“I hear ya,” she says. “I gotta get back in. Here. Take one for the road.” She hands me another Camel, goes inside.

Truth is, there were so many reasons to ditch him. Little, shallow things, like how milk pooled at the corners of his mouth when he ate cereal and how he put toenail clippings in coke cans. Medium-sized, warning sign things, like how he started every other sentence with my mom says and how he thought college was for losers and how his idea of dinner on a date involved a drive-thru.

And then big things. Like how at the five week mark I walked into his apartment and found him naked on the living room floor with Missie Lambert from Cinnabon. “So, uh, me and Missie, uh, me and Missie was thinking maybe you’d get nekkid with us, but I wasn’t sure. How ‘bout it, babe?” That would have been a deal breaker for anybody else. I was pissed he’d underestimated my drive for summer sex. I stripped down and dove in. He was pissed because me and Missie made him leave. We locked him out of his own apartment.

* * *

I smash the cigarette against the concrete wall and go back up to the second floor entrance to watch the rest of the American Idol wannabes. The balcony rail is cold and rough where the paint is starting to crack.

Not the real Nordstrom, not the real mall.

They’re down to one guy singing his heart out. Open Arms. Troy is sitting in a special section for contestants. It’s roped off by pink and blue streamers, like the organizers stole it from a baby shower. There’s a streamer stuck to Troy’s right shoe.

That’s really it, you know. Why I dumped him. Those stupid, stupid shoes. Like how he’d walk around a puddle. “So, uh, the swede, uh, the swede will get discolored. Don’t wanna ruin ‘em, ya know?” Or how he had them all lined up by color against the wall next to his bed. Any idea how hard it is to have decent sex when those ugly things aren’t more than a foot away staring at you? It’s just wrong.

You’d think working in the shoe department and getting an employee discount he’d have better in his closet, but no. Three pairs, three different colors. No, make that four. He’s clearly wearing a new pair. He’d been saving up for the black leather. Same as Uncle Mason’s.

So yeah. I dumped his ass.

I’ve got fifteen minutes left on my break. I’m heading over to Cinnabon.

© 2015 Edee Lemonier

“The Ghost of the Spire” by Joe Vance

The Ghost of the Spire

Joe Vance

“Let me get this straight.” He coughed, a bit theatrically, hand cupped at his mouth. Gathering himself. Trying not to offend me, though everything in his demeanor was patronizing.

It wasn’t just the incredulity, but the concern in his features. Like I needed help, but not the kind I was asking him for.

“You don’t believe in ghosts, but you think a ghost killed her.” He stroked his moustache, probing me with his faux detective gaze. “I need you on the record if I’m going to reopen this investigation. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. I realize you’re dealing with a lot of grief, but you have to meet me half way.”

I met his gaze, unwavering. “I believe there was foul play of a kind I can’t explain. That’s how I would word it. I don’t need another investigation, I just want permission to view the tape.” At this point I looked down. “For myself.”

The security guard scribbled something on his legal pad. “Have you considered that you might regret this?” His chubby face brightened to a red, painful-looking hue. He reached out a meaty hand, impromptu, and clasped it on my shoulder from across the table. “Some things can’t be unseen, son.”

Not only did he think he was an FBI agent, but my father as well, apparently. I gave him what I thought was an appreciative smile, and felt relieved as the weight of his hand fell away.

“That’s what they’re saying, I just want you to know.” He oozed certainty, this consummate chief of mall intelligence. “The kids. Younger than you, I mean. The kind that more or less live here, you know the kind.”

I did know the kind. Knew them well at this point. They were punks.

“I know they’re just punks, but the story is that the ghost of the Spire murdered your girlfriend.” He sputtered. “Sorry, your ex-girlfriend. And now I’m thinking it’s you who’s gotten this started. These tales. You need to think about her family, son.”

I wasn’t going to belabor the nuances of love with a mall cop who couldn’t remember my name ten minutes into a conversation about my dead girlfriend. Excuse me, ex-girlfriend. But the ex, mind you. The one against whom all others will be measured. You cannot inventory the contents of the heart with Facebook statuses, no matter what the mall urchins whisper behind my back.

“I think about her family all the time,” I said. “One more reason why I’m here. I know she didn’t kill herself. And no one else was around, apparently. So she either fell, or…”

His face inflated even more, like a puffer fish. Expectant.

“I don’t think the ghost of the Spire murdered my ex.”

The truth is, I did. Because when every other possibility falls away, at least all the emotionally accessible ones, you go ghost hunting.

I needed my Exhibit A. “Please let me see the tape.”

He unfolded his arms. “The tape was the property of the state. Now that it’s been determined a suicide, it’s settled, as much as that might hurt.”

He rose from the table, twisting his mouth in a constrained way. Like an awkward uncle. “You couldn’t see it then. You’re not a relative or a spouse. Now it’s property of Spire Inc., which probably means the same thing.”

I rose too. We were done here, it seemed. He ushered me out of the room with a paternal paw on the small of my back.

I looked behind me for just a moment, at the screens. They lined the entirety of an enormous wall, every one displaying a crisp, black-and-white scene of tranquility. The commercial status quo buzzing along.

Except for the one, an anomaly flickering among the others. Its image was the balcony, cordoned off. The iron railing looked treacherous to me now. I had leaned on it with her maybe a hundred times.

“I’ll let you know first thing Monday morning,” he said, closing the door and breaking my trance. “But I wouldn’t get my hopes up. There’s no valid reason to allow it. Ghosts, or whatever unexplained phenomena, don’t count.”

Dejected, I trudged through the Spire, always odd at closing time. The bustle dying by degrees. The footfalls of customers, assimilated into the collective noise by day, took on a singular quality now. They echoed off the walls, themselves distorted in a fluorescent light that now seemed gratuitous. This place did not sleep. Not truly.

When you left the Spire, you left civilization, for it was the alpha and omega of this ghost town. Its existence was a contradiction, this sleek, massive shopping mall in the heart of nowhere. And yet flock to it the residents did, with money summoned out of shadow.

To exit the Spire at this time of night, you had to leave through its crown jewel, the Quickness discount department store. Its sales were to die for. That was one of a growing number of its tag lines. Its profits accounted for more than 80% of the mall’s revenue. It was so successful that it spawned a chain of such stores in malls the world over. Even more than the Spire itself, Quickness is the greatest success story this town has ever known. The only success story.

So when Emily told me that she was going to take a break after high school to work as a cashier at Quickness, to save up money for college, it seemed a respectable decision. When one year became two, well, there was a recession going on. But when two bled into three and I watched her solidify into a fixture under those fluorescent lights, I became restless.

I mean, you can’t put off life forever. And I found myself doing that. For her. Staying in a dying town I had vowed to leave as soon as I was old enough to conceive of the notion. I worked in a factory for three years, and I despised it. I left work every night with bile rising in my throat. Then I would go to the Spire, and up the escalators past intricate maps and garish sale signs and zombie greeters, to the Quickness.

There I would find Emily laughing with some mouth-breathing customer, good-natured after eight hours of drudgery that should have been driving her mad. Eventually I snapped. For the both of us.

The night I drew my line in the sand, the night I put a deadline on our arrested development, was typical enough at first. The custom was to party in the employee break room after closing. This was against policy, something to which our dutiful security agent must have turned a blind eye. I am convinced there are cameras even in there. The Spire is nothing if not adequately surveilled.

We sang karaoke, one among a rotating set of mundane pastimes. Anything to drown out the sadness. If anyone were actually quiet, especially in the preternatural calm of the Spire afterhours, they would have to confront their own broken dreams. No one’s going to do that, so we mimed played-out songs on a karaoke machine “requisitioned” from the Quickness audio department.

The one thing that made it worth it was her. That night she sang “Bohemian Rhapsody.” She hit every note with effortless precision, swaying, drunk yet graceful. She was so happy, and so beautiful. But too content. Watching her there, shining amid such ruin, I wanted to weep at the tragedy of it.

She belonged on a stage in Manhattan or Los Angeles, playing to sold-out crowds. She deserved the universe, and she was settling into a comfort zone-sized coffin. Her empty friends enabled her steady decay. It made their own rot seem permissible. I drank far too much and told her all of this, in those words.

We stood alone, my hands clammy against the cold of the iron railing. The endless empty storefronts of the Spire fell away beneath us, floor after floor after floor.

She made some excuses, things I had heard before. Things I had even begun to tell myself in moments of weakness, when the hum of the factory’s engines didn’t seem so oppressive. I told her if we did not move within the year, I would go without her. That I loved her, but I had to.

We both had tears in our eyes, thickened by intoxication. She said that I was asking too much. That to issue such an ultimatum meant I did not love her. That we should break up.

Neither of us wanted this. Even as I agreed, I felt the pull of that perverse magnetism that compelled us together.

I felt it pulling me back to her as I rode the elevator to the ground floor of the Spire. I shot down the bright, empty floors at a speed that seemed to dwarf its day-time velocity, and I looked up through that glass capsule at her. A solitary figure, a beautiful ruin teetering over the balcony, fading away into a silhouette.

That’s all I can bring to mind now, even as that magnetism still drives me toward a dead girl. Just her silhouette, despite the years of intimacy. That, and a picture in my head of her mangled, splattered corpse strewn about the bottom floor of the Spire like a piece of performance art. A thousand different flavors of crimson, lovely even in death. I never saw her body, but if that scene exists I am certain it has been repurposed as some sick commercial for Quickness. For the Spire. For this house of consumption and death.

The legend of the ghost of the Spire began at its inception, when it was no more than a skeleton of mortar. I passed by it every day on the way to school, marveling at the possibility. The raw act of creation. But the construction workers, once stoic in their jackhammering, began to drop away like flies.

They had to overhaul the construction, hiring a separate company with a gilded safety record. The deaths and mutilations slaked off, but not entirely. And although the building was completed, fortified upon that sea of blood, the ghost did not relent.

The disappearances and acts of random violence at the Spire are themselves becoming the stuff of legend, launching our town’s per capita crime rate into the stratosphere. We make a lot of dubious “Top Ten” lists on the internet, mostly thanks to the ghost.

Or so the gutter punks who never leave the mall would have everyone believe. They cornered me, breathless in their starchy, still-tagged clothing, exhorting me to believe. That Emily was clearly the ghost’s latest victim.

I love her. Not in a wistful way. I still actively love her. So when they said that to me, their eyes huge and buoyant, my skeptic’s heart at last began to melt.

It’s always the ghost’s fault.

I’m staying in this town. I knew that the second I learned of her death. That there was no moving forward, ever, now. I might even get a job at Quickness. And if I am going to be one of them, I should join them in their belief as well. It must be the ghost. Because otherwise it’s me, and I can’t abide that. I can’t have her sweet blood on my hands.

On Monday morning I sit in the waiting area of the Spire’s security complex, a fortress unto itself. Listening for the familiar, husky breathing of its chief official.

The police investigated thoroughly. Their forensics team examined her corpse. We have people of some skill on hand, attracted by the mounting death toll. White knights, riding in with their cavalry to tell me she killed herself. I don’t think so. They aren’t looking for the right clues.

Their protocol is confined by reason, as mine was before the specter of this place lodged itself in my bones. They search only as the light permits, when they have to probe the shadows. Things unseen.

“Good morning,” I say.

He shuffles into the room, and despite his panting his face is a chilly white. He never looked at the tape until now, it occurs to me. Only the police did.

He grabs my hand abruptly and places a zip drive in it. When he does this he curls my fingers about it, ensuring my grip is tight.

“Go home and watch it,” he says in a voice that is half whisper. The assuredness that was his trademark has fled him. He is fat and scared. A protector of a house of blood, and he has only now realized it.

I am scared too.

“Do not tell anyone,” he says, enunciating each syllable as if I were a child. “The police, I think they were paid off.” His breath is so shallow I worry he might faint. “It’s Spire. They don’t want any bad PR. Any more stigma. They’re burying this, and they’ll bury us with it, if they have to.”

I stare at him as I backtrack out the door. Afraid of what’s in my hand, but afraid of him, too. That he might be insane. That this detective stuff has gone to his head.

But as I close the door and make my familiar trek through the Spire, I think perhaps he is right.

I can feel the pulse of its evil heart, even now in the day time. I can see the opiate spell it places upon its victims, the far-off look in their eyes as they try on shoes, stuff pretzels in their gaping mouths, and salivate on each other among the benches.

The unnatural light is fiercer than ever. It sears into my eyes, demanding fidelity. I dart into the Quickness discount store and buy a new phone. It’s my fourth one this year. How it shines. I think that the ghost is happy. That maybe he’ll call me soon. Or at least text.

I do not think I will watch the tape. To do so would be to blaspheme against this temple that is my only source of succor. If I exorcise its dark heart, its infrastructure might crumble entirely, and we would all fall with it into the black earth.

We would join her.

And as much as I love her, I cannot do that. I am too busy to die. I am saving up for college. Or a new tablet computer. I can’t remember which.

My shift starts soon. If you’ll excuse me, I must clock in.

© 2015 Joe Vance

“The Things That We Touch” by Anna Doogan

The Things That We Touch

Anna Doogan

The light at Checkstand Two was perpetually broken. That meant that a decent part of Tina’s shift was spent waving down the customers impatiently shifting their weight at Checkstand One and inviting them into her line.

“I’m open over here.”

The customers would look up then, hesitate just a moment before making eye contact with each other and sorting themselves out without words. You first. No, you. Please, I insist. Then a few of them would shuffle over to her line, the fluorescent light of the discount department store making them look more gray and haggled than they might outside of the store’s double doors. Gray like crumpled newspapers, cold steel and storm clouds, passing rains.

“Find everything you were looking for?”

She asked each time, even though she didn’t particularly care if they had found what they needed or not. She probably wouldn’t see them again. The question was standard practice and helped her earn the paycheck every other Friday. And anyway, it seemed a ridiculous question—the thought that anyone would possibly find what is was they were truly looking for among the crowded and dusty aisles of Stark’s. A cavernous miscellany of jumbled items, unused pieces reduced and priced to sell. Unnecessary belongings waiting for someone to take them home, wrap them in memories, stitch them into stories. Memories and stories that might sting someone under their skin in just the right way one day, choke their throat with emotion and wistful thinking when they remembered. Until then, they’d sit awkwardly on the white metal shelves, gummy red stickers advertising dollars and cents.

Today, the small woman with the curly white hair shook her head.

“Do you have any more of these?”

She held up a tiny porcelain figurine shaped like a mouse, wearing a green sweater and boots. Tina wiped her hands on her black Stark’s apron and took the figurine from the woman, turned it over in her hands.

“I can check.”

She turned around and called to David, the sulky manager with the greasy blond ponytail and permanent scowl.

“Do we have more of these?” She held up the mouse in his sweater and boots. A chunk of curly brown hair flopped into one eye and she smoothed it back up into her bun.

David wrinkled his forehead and frowned. He shrugged his shoulders, his plastic nametag clicking as it brushed against a button on his shirt.

“I’ll look in the back.” He slunk away to scan the dark shelves in the back of the store.

Tina turned back to the woman, the porcelain mouse still warm in her hand. Suddenly waiting in the awkward silence of strangers searching for words. She scanned the line of customers. Arms loaded down with folded sweaters, marked down pillows, ice cube trays. Shaggy footstools and frivolous apple corers. Poorly fitting slippers, hand weights that would never see the light of day.

A woman in a red turtleneck sighed and tapped a foot, juggled the plastic wrapped bedding set in her arms.

“So…do you collect those?” Tina asked the woman with the mouse, attempting conversation to break the silence. A man in line impatiently thunked his heavy garden Buddha sculpture to the ground, frustration and sweat beading on the surface of his salt and pepper hair.

The woman nodded. “For my grandchildren,” she said, wrinkled lips cracking into a smile at the connection.

Tina nodded, looked at the woman’s pale blue cardigan buttoned over her thin frame, her knobby knuckles reaching for her wallet.

“I like to have something for them when they visit.”

She opened the wallet, held out the photograph of three children posed around a rocking chair. Tina looked at their hair styled into braids and ribbon twists, their missing teeth. Those poses of hands on shoulders, chins tilted at just the right angle into the camera flash.

Tina turned over the mouse in her hands, scratched at the price tag with her fingernail. Someone pays to have these things, she thought. Small shreds of connection, instant threads of family.

David reappeared from the back just then, his mood turned sour from energy spent rummaging the crowded back shelves.

“We’re out of those things,” he called loudly over his shoulder, moving on to the gardening area and more interesting matters.

Tina nodded, then shrugged an apology to the woman as she folded her grandchildren’s photos back into her worn brown leather wallet.

“I guess we’re out.”

“Okay then,” the woman said. She handed a soft five dollar bill over the counter.

Tina punched buttons on the register, made change in coins. Tucked the mouse figurine into a small paper bag, folded over at the top. Stories in objects, she thought. Fragments of fear stuck to a yellow teapot. Scraps of old sadness folded into blue linen napkins. Years of grief in the stuffing of furniture, heartache coming unstitched on the edges.

“Here you go.” She pressed the bag into the woman’s hand, thought about her giving it to her grandchildren the next time she saw them.

“Thank you.” The woman walked off. She moved slowly, but stiffly, Tina thought. Like a jagged edge, rigid reeds emerging from water. Tina didn’t stop watching until she was out the door.

Hello?” The voice cut sharply, made Tina jump in her skin. She blinked at the next customer, a woman with a splintery bob haircut, a pile of lacy bras over her arm. She raised an eyebrow at Tina, antsy.

“Hello, sorry.” Tina rang up the items and removed the hangers, the impatient clicking of the woman’s nails prickling on her skin.

“Find everything you were looking for?”

The rest of the customers flowed through after that. A child with a thick mystery novel, his brown eyes shining with excitement. A woman with a set of matching washcloths, barely looking up from her cellphone while paying. Two men chatting animatedly about organic gardening. Two neckties, a hammer, and a red egg timer between them.

Tina looked up at the clock, minutes ticking steadily towards quitting time. She was about to loosen the knot in her apron when a vaguely familiar voice floated past.

“Tina?”

The woman had dark hair flowing over her shoulders, rippled with streaks of gray. A black fleece zipped up to her throat. She was close to Tina’s age, maybe older. Tina studied the lines of her tanned face, frantically tried to place her.

“Sandra. I’m Jake’s sister.” Her eyes were heavy, little half-moons of fatigue settling underneath them.

She set her packages down on the counter. A lopsided stack of packaged underwear and fitted sheets. Two lint rollers.

Sandra! How are you?” Tina smiled, started scanning the items into the cash register, grateful for the recollection forming in her brain.

Jake’s sister.

Tina and Jake had dated for one summer, years ago, after high school. The heat swelled and spiked that August, the hottest in decades. People talked about the dog days of summer, and Jake and Tina laughed and made wishes on Sirius the Dog Star when it rose and set with the sun. Speckles of constellations, the brightest star in the night sky. And the days and nights of that summer were muggy and humid and sultry, and they stayed wrapped in each other. Sweat on their salty skin, always touching, poetry dancing on bodies.

Sandra had already been away at school then, although she came home to visit occasionally. Tina had always envied her swagger and confidence, her black boots and eyeliner. Even though she didn’t talk to her much, sometimes when Sandra would whisk away into her room, Tina would catch a glance of her world. Morrissey piping out of the stereo, posters of places around the world that Tina dreamed about visiting.

After the break up, Sandra and Jake’s family felt distant to Tina as she gradually grew apart from them. Those summer evenings and memories slipping away. A soft fraying rope. Grains of sand glittering, scattering on wind.

But now, here Sandra was again in front of her. It had been years since Tina had thought of Jake. The ex. Ex seemed like such a funny word now as it rattled around in her brain. A life so far off and removed, old associations. The broken webs formerly interlaced with another.

“How is everything? How’s your family?” Tina asked, shaking open a plastic bag to hold Sandra’s items. “It’s been so long.”

Sandra’s jaw was tense, held hard like granite. Her dark eyes flickered with a wave of something that felt wrong, unsettled. Tina wondered if she had overstepped some invisible boundary by asking.

“You don’t know.”

She didn’t say it as a question, but more like she felt sorry for Tina.

Tina shook her head, her stomach twisting to a sickening knot. She set down Sandra’s things in slow motion, suddenly not wanting to hold someone else’s underwear when receiving bad news. Something so intimate, that clinging against skin, thin fabric.

“Jake is dead,” Sandra said softly, her voice tripping over the last syllable. “He was killed last year.”

Tina felt the breath jolt in her chest like a punch. She opened and closed her mouth, but no words came out.

“I thought you knew,” Sandra was saying.

Behind Sandra in line, a woman clutched a floral printed ironing board, raised up on her tiptoes to get a better view of when the transaction would be finished. She cleared her throat loudly.

Tina nodded, forced herself to keep ringing up Sandra’s belongings. “I hadn’t heard. I’m so sorry.”

The two women looked at each other, grief hanging raw and unpolished between them.

“It was a car accident,” Sandra whispered as she paid for her sheets and underwear. “A drunk driver. Up on Montgomery Road.”

Tina knew the way that road curved softly before jutting out sharply like a hip. She thought of smooth bone snapping, crashes that broke like ocean waves, spinning metal and tires under indigo sky. Late summer constellations, limp bodies counting last breaths.

“I’m so sorry,” she said again. She had no other words to offer. She handed Sandra her bag and change, their fingertips brushing. Tina wished that she had something to give other than home goods on sale.

The woman with the ironing board lost patience.

“Are we here to exchange pleasantries, or is someone working around here?”

Tina drew in a sharp breath, felt the fiery urge to snap something nasty, but Sandra put a hand on her arm.

“I need to get going.” She gave Tina a weak smile, the skin around her eyes crinkling. “It was good to see you.”

The words tumbled out of her mouth like rocks, and they both paused there awkwardly. Both knowing that it wasn’t really true. The brief recognition of their faces triggering waves of fresh wounds, tiny undoings.

Sandra walked out of Stark’s, never looked back over her shoulder. The woman paid $19.99 for the ironing board and told Tina to keep the change. The line at Checkstand One looped and wrapped back to the shelves of pots and pans. Tina waved a hand in the air.

“Open over here,” she called, gesturing them to her burnt out light.

She stepped out of the bathroom ten minutes later, cold water splashed on her face. Into the employee lounge where she pulled off her black apron and folded it, placed it in her backpack. Punched out her timecard on the clock.

Her co-worker Sarah was outside on the narrow balcony, the only designated smoking area for employees. She waved Tina over.

“Another day, another dollar, right?” She pulled a fresh cigarette from the pack, held it out for Tina, even though Tina reminded her every day that she didn’t smoke. “How was your shift?”

Tina shook her head at the cigarette, then leaned over the balcony railing, watching cars pass below, slipping in and out of lanes. Scattering off to their various locations, like leaves along the sidewalk, new ashes over the ocean.

There were smeared handprints along the railing, and she tried to match her fingerprints to them, wondering about the people who had stood there before her, hands in the same places.

“Same old, same old,” she said finally with a shrug, deciding against telling Sarah about the news she’d received.

Sarah turned her back to the wind, cupped her hand around her lighter as she tipped her head to the side to inhale.

“Yeah.” She ran a hand through her spiky black hair, a stripe of purple streaking the bangs. “Hey, want to go out with us tonight? We’re singing karaoke at Wildcat.”

Tina shook her head, letting go of the thick metal railing. “I’m going to have a mellow night. Thanks anyway. See you tomorrow?”

Sarah nodded without speaking, sucking on her cigarette. She exhaled and the smoke curled into a halo behind her head before disintegrating into the air. “See you tomorrow.”

Tina tossed restlessly that night, partly from sticky heat and partly from her raveled thoughts. She’d slip into half-sleep occasionally, turbulent dreams that felt tense and unsettled. Images without words, faceless strangers. Mysterious music, short phrases of movement. A glove in a box. A hairbrush on a table. Weeping willows swaying in the wind.

The glowing numbers of her bedside clock read 3:34 when Tina got up for a glass of water from the kitchen. She filled the glass from the faucet in the dark, the hum of the refrigerator buzzing through the otherwise silent kitchen. She sipped the water as she leaned against the black counter, her mind wide awake.

She remembered something just then, set the glass down on the counter with a clink. Bare feet padding down the hallway, her hair loose and billowing around her pale nightgown. She went directly to the bedroom closet. Standing on her toes, she shuffled boxes around on the top shelf, pushed back piles of sweaters.

The black shoebox, the one with the sale sticker on the side, all the way at the back of the closet. She pulled it down and set it on the bed, lifted off the lid.

She had almost forgotten about it, and she lifted the objects from the box one at a time, feeling them in her hands. A stack of letters tied with a thin leather cord. The bud of a rose, petals crisp and dried. Two stubs of tickets to The Pixies. A white envelope of Polaroid photographs. A wooden bracelet painted to look like a zebra, her favorite animal, two pointed ears and a face gently carved into the wood.

He had hand carved that bracelet for her, painted it himself, tied it into a box with a piece of twine.

“Each zebra’s stripe pattern is unique,” he had said when he put it on her, like she didn’t already know.

She had put it in the box after the breakup, tucked away with the letters and remnants of things that she didn’t want to touch for a while. Pushed away behind boxes and stacks of old books.

She held it now, felt the smooth sides of the sanded wood, noticed the delicately painted details of the zebra’s black eye, the curve of the bracelet like a winding mountain road. Tried it on and felt the weight of it one last time before setting it on the windowsill above the bed. She’d be able to see it from time to time. Pieces of things that were lost now.

She climbed back into bed, the early morning sky rising with shades of periwinkle and black through the windows. A single thread of sunrise beginning to peek across the room, moving shadows. Her black apron hung over the back of a chair, ready for today’s shift. She thought about last images that might come just before death. The final memories on skin. Warm gravel and damp earth, bloodied pavement and moist night mist.

All of the things, Tina thought as she finally drifted off towards sleep. So many things.

Framed paintings with crooked brushstrokes, the artist distracted by a model’s mouth. Earrings in a crushed velvet box, a child sorting through them like pennies. The wide golden leaves of a sunflower, picked and left on a front porch in apology.

Love notes folded into thirds, buried underground where lightning has already struck. The last of the good china plates, passed down through families.

And there were soft pages of lyrics passed between lovers, and words that felt wet when they slipped off of tongues.

© 2015 Anna Doogan

“The Merry Go Round” by Nicole M. Bailey

The Merry Go Round

Nicole M. Bailey

I came back to Little Tree to live with my brother, Grover. We’d decided to move our father into a home. Not because he was old, but because he’d been a drunk for over thirty years, and his brain amounted to a pile of ooze inside his skull. My brother had dealt with enough over the years, so I came home. I thought I could help him make ends meet. I knew he couldn’t afford Dad’s room at Vida! – neither could I – but at least we could split the mortgage, and maybe I would figure out what I was going to do with myself.

My brother managed the discount department store in Little Tree known as Acheson’s. Acheson’s had almost everything you needed as far as clothing and housewares. The nearest Sears or JC Penney was an hour away, which made Acheson’s convenient and necessary. Grover offered me a job at the store while I looked for something permanent. I’d been a legal assistant in a small law firm, but Little Tree had only one law office, and it wasn’t hiring. Besides, I hadn’t really enjoyed that type of work. Coming home was going to be a fresh start for me. That’s what I told myself.

I’d been home for two weeks when I met Linda. She came in to Acheson’s with her boyfriend, Russell, one Saturday while I was restocking the Fiesta Ware. Grover was behind me with a clipboard counting the dishes as I unpacked them and arranged the display in a happy, ceramic rainbow.

“I’m looking for one of those juicers,” she said. Linda had a nasally voice with an unnatural pitch.

Grover turned around, and looked over his glasses. This small gesture made him look much older than his twenty-eight years. “Hey, Linda,” he said flatly. “Hey, Russell.”

Grover shifted his weight to his heels, a subtle nervous habit I recognized.

“What kind of juicer?”

She was reapplying a terrible shade of orange lipstick. Her hair was a faded lilac, and the eyeliner on her left eye was smudged all to hell. “The one that’s always on TV – what was it called, Russell?” Russell’s phone was inches from his face. He didn’t answer. Linda turned around and slapped the phone out of his hand. “What the fuck?” he said. Linda smiled and said, “Baby, what was that juicer called? The one on TV?”

He bent down to grab his phone, and said to the scuffed linoleum, “How am I supposed to know?”

“I think you’re asking about a Nutribullet,” I said. Grover turned to me with relief. “Would you show Linda where the Nutribullet is?” he said.

I nodded. “Follow me.” She looked to be in her thirties at least. She was wearing a potent citrusy perfume that itched my throat. Russell trailed us. As we were winding through the department store, Linda said, “You must be new around here.”

“Not really,” I said. “I was born here. I moved away for a while. Grover’s my brother.”

“Oh, you’re Elaine.”

“Yep,” I said and pointed to my name tag. It was a sarcastic gesture, but she didn’t get it.

“Is this what you’re looking for?” She chewed on her bottom lip, studying the box and the surrounding juicers. Russell’s head was down, his thumbs flying across the screen of his phone. No one answered my question.

“Well, I guess if you need anything else, you know where to find me.”

I walked back to Grover, puzzled. “That was weird. What was that about?” He did not look at me. “It’s not important.”

“Come on tell me.”

He sighed and took off his glasses, pinching the bridge of his nose. My brother was so clean-cut he looked like he walked off the set of Leave it to Beaver. Not a hair out of place, not a wrinkle anywhere. “I’ll tell you later. Let’s finish this and get out of here.”

At the end of our shift, we climbed into dad’s muddy, dented pickup.

“So…” I prodded.

“The thing is Linda’s kind of my ex.”

I couldn’t help it. I started to laugh. Grover rolled his eyes and yanked the truck into gear. “I knew it,” he said. “I can’t tell you anything.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I said, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand.

“You dated her?” I tried to keep disdain from my voice. I heard it anyway.

“A year ago,” he said.

“What happened?”

“You might have noticed she’s a bitch,” he huffed.

“Yeah,” I said, “but what happened?”

During my fifteen minute break earlier that morning, I was thinking about the way we’d left our father at Vida! a week before. No one was more relieved than Grover to have Dad out of the house. Dad’s mind was so deteriorated I was convinced he was not a wet brain but rather in an advanced stage of dementia. The doctors at Vida! and my brother assured me that this was not dementia. His mind really was goo. His coherent moments were unpleasant. My dad was calling Grover “Pussy Pants.” Since I’d been home, my father had not used Grover’s name. I determined then that something must have really gone off the rails while I was gone. Grover was the kind of person who kept his emotions balled up in his fists. I couldn’t ask him where this new name had come from. Even as we left our broken down father in his new home, his face so worn, his nose a red beacon, he’d called out after us, “So long, Pussy Pants. So long, Sweet Pea.”

“The Linda story is a long story.” I got the feeling he wanted to talk about it anyway.

“Let’s hear it.” He cleaned his sunglasses with his Acheson’s polo shirt, and put them on his face with a deliberate flick of his wrist.

“Fine. You know the Merry Go Round?”

The Merry Go Round was a well-worn establishment in Little Tree. The bar was filthy, the floor sticky, and it wasn’t common to leave before midnight. Linda was starting to make sense if this story began at The Merry Go Round.

“Well, they’ve got a karaoke night now. I was pretty into it. Don’t make that face, Elaine. We both were. I mean every Friday and Saturday that’s where me and Linda were – singing karaoke. It was a nice release. You weren’t here. You don’t understand how bad Dad was getting. He could barely put a spoon to his mouth without dribbling everywhere and mumbling some goddamn nonsense.

I was spending a lot of time with Linda, sleeping at her place. I started to feel guilty because I was pretty sure I’d come home to him dead. Then I started hoping I would come home to him dead. That’s beside the point. I’m talking about the karaoke. We would pick some songs during the week and practice our asses off. We would bring the house down! I mean it – we were very popular. All the sudden, Dad stopped drinking. Maybe something inside him was waking up. Maybe he felt his own mind slipping. He hadn’t had a drink in two weeks!”

Grover was so earnest his voice had a tug to it. The longer he talked the less I wanted to laugh. Inside my throat, the little pebble I carried around grew into a boulder. Grover pulled to the side of the road. I suppose he was getting emotional. He was difficult to read, his emotions opaque and distant, but there was a tension rising in the car so unfamiliar I was haunted by it.

“So why’d you break up?”

“One afternoon, we stopped by the house so I could check on Dad. I was trying to encourage him, keep him accountable. I’d also been policing the house for booze. I wanted to help him. My phone rang. It was my salesclerk, Jerry. He’d stepped out for a cigarette. The shit head locked his keys inside the store. So I told Linda to go in and check on Dad while I went all the way back to the store and let that asshole in.”

Grover took his hands off the wheel. He opened and closed his hands. Maybe part of my brother’s impenetrable personality was the result of his name. A name like Grover did not go unpunished in Little Tree. It was our father’s name.

“I was gone an hour and a half at the most. When I got to the house, I saw Dad and Linda on the balcony.” Grover scratched at a blister on his palm.

“What? And it didn’t collapse?”

The balcony off the second floor bedroom was an addition my mom demanded over twenty years ago. Our Uncle Bud added it to the house. Uncle Bud wasn’t exactly a professional and the balcony was deemed unsafe around the time our mother left to live with her sister in Los Angeles.

“Yeah, they were on the balcony, six shot glasses and a bottle of Early Times lined up in front of them. Dad was leaning on the balcony rail and hollering gibberish as I came up the drive. I was so angry. I was sweating. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe I trusted her, maybe even loved her. And him! Where had he gotten that booze? Still a mystery to me. And yeah, Linda’s trashy, and she’s crass, and the karaoke thing was dumb. Still, I enjoyed it. For a little while, it was nice. When I saw her up there drinking with him, something in me snapped.” His voice had gone low and cold.

“What did you do?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

“Well, I went up the stairs and out onto the balcony. Dad was bent, leaning over the rail and trying to tell some joke, I guess. Linda was giggling like an idiot. It happened so fast, but the next thing I know I was holding the son of a bitch by his waist over the railing. Linda was behind me screaming and clawing at my shirt, trying to stop me. I kept dangling him over the rail. I wanted to drop him like a sack of rocks. I was shaking him out like he was full of change. And all the while, the only lucid thing to leave his gummy lips was, “Go ahead and do it, Pussy Pants.”

My brother had taken his sunglasses off. He was squinting through the windshield.

“I wish I would have dropped him.”

Two times in my life, I’ve been at a literal loss for words. Once on a camping trip, my father was drunk and angry because we’d been playing while we were supposed to be packing. He got in the car and left my mom, Grover and me behind. I remember the truck squealing and swerving away, the sound of the creek singing behind us. When he came back an hour later, I wasn’t sure what to say to him. I wasn’t sure I would ever know what to say to my father again.

In the silence of this moment – as my little brother told me about the time he tried to drop our father off the balcony – it wasn’t that I could not understand him any longer, but that I truly did.

“I guess you broke up with her after that?”

“No,” he said. “She broke up with me.”

“And the karaoke?”

“Not anymore.”

Grover started the truck again and pulled back onto the road. I thought about offering to sing with him at The Merry Go Round some time. But how could I make that offering? We passed flower beds, children on bikes, and dogs tethered to yard stakes. I wondered how different life could have been if our father was someone else.

Sometimes there isn’t a right thing to say. Sometimes you can’t have a fresh start.

© 2015 Nicole M. Bailey