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Mini Sledgehammer October 2018

We love the discordant nature of this month’s prompts and the winning story that came out of it. Nice job, Tovia!


Prompts:
Character: A Buddhist monk
Action: Trick-or-treating
Setting: A wine bar
Prop: A car manual


Miami, 1926

by Tovia Gehl

Miami, 1926. This city isn’t real.

Well, it is. It has buildings and roads and trees and houses. Horses clop and cars crash by, splashing in the rainy streets. It’s the kind of place people come to get lost and remake themselves.

Marina is not here for any of that. She has a bag full of contraband, a face as pretty as the day is long, and she walks with a confident air as she descends the plank of her ship. Even the persistent rain and insistent wind doesn’t bother her. Dressed in a white dress begging for a mud puddle to look sidelong at it, she doesn’t stick out any more than anyone else in this city. Still, everyone calls out to her – the rich sugar baron’s daughter is well known here.

I tip my chin at her when I see her and we fall in, two girls linking arms. I tuck my book, a car manual I have little and less intention of reading, into my purse. It barely fits and wrecks the lines of the fine kid leather, but my brother will covet it, so it’s worth a little fashion faux pas.

“Gotten up to any tricks lately?” I ask. I know her – the world knows her – and she knows me, but I have to ask anyway. We laugh and titter like she doesn’t have a heavy carpetbag bursting with sin.

“Only treats, Eliza, don’t be silly.” With the other half of the passcode complete, I start to gently direct our stroll. Our heels click a medley along the paved streets, and we’re careful to avoid splashing in gathering puddles. She lets me lead – the location of our destination changes every time she gets off the ship.

We pass people dressed in all colors and styles. It’s Miami, and it’s 1926, and you can be whatever you want. Any business, any class, any religion. We pass a man dressed all in orange begging on the street, and Marina flips him a coin. “I heard it was good luck to rub the Buddhist’s bellies,” I tell her quietly, and she tells me not to be rude as she gives him another coin and apologizes for my words. Chastened, I silence myself.

I lead the way to the old wine bar as the night gathers. Closed since the start of Prohibition, the windows are boarded up. She raises a perfect brow at me, dark against pale skin in the pool of yellow lantern light. “A little on the nose, isn’t it?” I giggle at her, but flash her a wicked look at the same time. No one pays us any mind. Two girls giggling at each other means nothing, even though we’re tittering about breaking the law.

I take her around the side of the building and into the alley, then down the stairs and through two doors. The men who guard them let us through without a second thought. I’m the key. This is my brother’s place.

Once we’re in the heart of the speakeasy (and out of the rain), Marina unloads her bag. She’s been carrying it like it’s nothing, but as she unpacks bottle after bottle of strong Cuban rum, I wonder how she’s carried something so heavy this far.

It’s just in time too. With the sunset comes the party.

Men and women crowd together on the dance floor. Everyone greets us by name as they come in – they know where the drinks have come from tonight. Dresses sparkle in the orange glow of our lamps. Red fabric shimmers against the wall, and soon the place thrums with the pound of dozens of feet on the dancefloor.

The party goes late into the night. I’m three drinks deep with Marina on one arm and a handsome sailor on my other – I don’t know his name but he knows mine – when I feel my feet get wet. Looking down, I see a few inches of water licking around my heels. Disentangling myself from Marina and the handsome sailor, I say something about a pipe bursting and excuse myself.

Knowing my brother is busy handling the bar, I seek out the source of the leak. I splash through the packed crowd and follow the flow of the water. But it doesn’t lead to any walls. Instead, it is coming from the staircase. I stare up it, barely able to hear the beat of jazz behind the two soundproofed doors, and cold fear seeps into me.

Because the water is flowing down. Our stairs are a small waterfall, and the flow is intensifying.

My instincts scream at me to run, but I force myself to turn back. I push through the doors, fighting the rise of the water that drags at them. People are already staring at the water. “Police!” I scream in the direction of the bar.

There’s an instant, practiced movement. People flood against me towards the doors and I lead them out. This is what we do, well-rehearsed. The water is up to my ankles by the time I reach the stairs, and I’m the first one up.

Which means I’m the first one to see the waves rolling along the lines of the street. Icy panic races down my spine, because the scent of the sea is in my nose, because this is no pipe break. This is the ocean coming in.

Rain hammers down and the fierce wind yanks at my hair. People pour out around me, and I grab Marina when I see her white dress. “High ground,” I tell her. “We must go up.”

The water swirls around my knees now, and roars down the steps in a vengeful torrent. We go against it, towards Miami Ridge. It’s the walk I make each morning to get a proper view of the ocean, and I know it’s the highest point around. I fight my fear for my brother, but Marina isn’t from around her – and if she drowns, her father will cut off our supply of Cuban rum, and our speakeasy will die. My brother would kill me if I let that happen.

We fight our way against the wind and water up the heights. When the ocean finally lets go of my feet, I can see nothing by grey, furious water ahead of me. Looking back, the city of Miami goes dark as the electricity is devoured by the storm.

Marina tugs me into the sheltered space behind a building. “What is happening?”

She asks me. “Are we going to die?”

The question catches me. It’s the same one my brother asked my mother we were on the boat from New York to Miami with our parents, headed south to start a new life. There was a storm then too. “My mama told me everyone dies twice. Once when you stop breathing, and once when your name is forgotten.” I take her face in my hands and attempt a smile. I am drenched, a ragged thing made of salt and fear, but she almost smiles back of me. “We will not be forgotten.”

© 2018 Tovia Gehl


Tovia Gehl is a reader, writer, traveler, whiskey and beer drinker, and animal lover. When she’s not busy with any of those things she works with a law firm learning all the dirty deeds and terrible sorrows of humanity. Ideally, one day she’ll become an author and not just a writer, but right now she’s content with all the exuberant imperfection in her words and life.

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Mini Sledgehammer September 2018

This month’s winner notes that he’s grateful to get to “pick up a bottle and book in exchange for a few dubious words.” Congratulations, Craig! He adds, “I should note that there were some truly terrific stories tonight.  These events provide such a great opportunity to hear some fine sentences carved out in just a few minutes by intriguing and clever people.” We’re glad you enjoy them.


Prompts:

Character: A woman executive
Action: Good will hunting
Setting: The International Space Station
Prop: An old radio


Directive 38foster

by Craig Foster

Directive 38 was nothing more than an afterthought, really. An exercise coughed up from an office outside Mission Control with a view toward figuring out how to pass ourselves off to the others, out at the farthest reaches. Presuming they hadn’t met us already, this would be a preemptive strike in terms of letting them know we’re OK. Not to be feared.

Or trifled with, though.

It was little more than a good will hunting mission, and Bobbi W called in Dr. Kuwahara to lead it. She’d been part of the training program near Enoshima, Japan. A test of whether dolphins truly were as smart or smarter than us. The jury was still out, but a few of them made it through school fairly quickly and two had already been granted PhDs. Dr. Kuwahara – a damn bottlenose, no less – had expertise in astronomical sociology and would be put to good use. Bobbi W, the first woman executive at the space agency, set the wheels in motion and arranged for Dr. Kuwahara to be transported in a tank to the launch pad in Kyrgyzstan.

It wasn’t the craziest thing that had ever happened to the good doctor. And she looked forward to presenting humans to the others as best as possible. Leave out the bits about nets and knives. Or weave a story around them that might put everyone at ease. You couldn’t count on an attack on people not also causing some collateral damage in the seas and on the savannahs.

It took a bit to get to the International Space Station, but the launch was moderately safe and the tank held its water.

The welcoming party was limited to the biologist, also from Japan. That didn’t exactly float well with Dr. Kuwahara, but she refrained from spouting too much. Told herself, it’s a flipping test, Sadako. Don’t let them stop you from heading out a bit further. So, she didn’t. Made one of those noises everyone pegged for laughter, and the biologist said something polite and encouraging to her.

They’d built a supermarine for Directive 38. A maneuverable pod filled with water and provided with just enough of the button controls Dr. Kuwahara would be familiar with from her time at the university. The communication mechanism looked like an old radio, which didn’t matter to the doctor, as she didn’t plan to talk to use it. No need to talk to anyone back at the station once she was out and about. There were three channels if she needed them, however: one that received sounds from within a few hundred thousand miles, another that allowed for communication with the station, and a third that played familiar audio from Earth. Some dolphin-speak to provide a presumed measure of comfort. A little bit from above ground, just for kicks. And a mix of French chansons, big band instrumentals, post-punk thrash, and news of the world.

A couple of astronauts joined the biologist, and after a series of checks were made Dr. Kuwahara’s tank was wheeled toward the already-filled supermarine. There was a waterlock filled with just enough liquid to allow for what the humans determined was an easy transfer from one watery home to another. They were half right. Dr. Kuwahara took a blow to the nose during the transfer, but everyone applauded and felt even better when she made that laughing noise again.

She clearly was of the proper demeanor for this mission.

 

Space isn’t empty. Not at all. In fact, it’s packed. It gets lonely because there’s too much matter out there. More than enough atoms to choke an endless supply of dolphins. But Dr. Kuwahara loved it. She turned a few times in the supermarine, staring through the two windows provided. One at the bottom of the tank, and one at what must be the front of the thing. Showing where she was heading, in any event.

She hit the radio and it played La Mer.

The good doctor went over the mission in her head. Humans: 1; Others: 0.5. Just to shw it wasn’t a completely uneven playing field. She played in her head everything she would communicate to whatever she found. Of salt and blood, buckets of fish. How to be right and proper in their eyes. When to speak and when to just watch. Mention their favorite jokes.

Say how to stay alive.

Or maybe reveal the one spot where she knew the humans were vulnerable. For kicks.

The song switched to La Vie En Rose, and this time she did laugh.

© 2018 Craig Foster


Craig Foster is an editor based in Portland, Oregon who every now and then tries to write stories. These usually revolve around oddballs and misfits, the most normal people he knows. Tahoma Literary Review, Buckman Journal, 1001, and Arq Press have published a few of these tales, which should prompt an investigation into their decision-making process. Lastly, the author would never misrepresent his physical appearance with a photo from twenty years ago. There are ethical standards to be maintained.

Mini Sledgehammer September 2017

Congratulations to this month’s winner, Tovia Gehl!

***

Prompts:
A ship
A giant calendar
The milkman
Climate change

***

Burn What You Don’t Need

by Tovia Gehl

Fresh off the ship, I hadn’t expected Nick to come pounding at my window at 3am.

“Christ, what?” I snarled as I slid open the pane of glass and let in a rush of smoke. Coughing and eyes instantly watering, I looked out at my one-time best friend. “The hell do you want?”

He was grim, too grim even for our sordid history. “Gotta go, Kala. The fires are coming over the mountain. Firefighters say everyone’s gotta get out now.”

I stared at him, my feet still feeling like I was washing around in the open ocean. I’d just gotten home from deployment the night before, and I hadn’t had time to even unpack my bag.

“Kala,” he said, and there was a note of urgency in his voice I knew I couldn’t  ignore.

“Right,” I said, hoisting my still packed bag full of dirty uniforms and trinkets from the myriad of southeast Asian islands we’d been puttering around for months. I scanned my house once. It was still cold and unfeeling from my absence – my giant calendar with sailor boys, a departure gift from Nick’s sister Margo, was still nine months behind. Long enough to have a baby, my sleep addled mind came up with, but I left that and everything else behind as Nick hustled me into his car.

“Margo says she dropped you off last night,” he told me.

“Yeah, my car’s…” I trailed off as I caught sight of the ridge line, alight with the fires of hell. “Jesus.”

Nick slammed his door shut and then we raced off down the long driveway. He drove us in silence and I stared out the window as we joined the long procession of cars fleeing. Every few moments there was a burst of sparks and ashes the size of dinner plates fell from the sky. Two fire trucks passed us going the other way and I looked after them, uncomprehending of the courage it would take to run into the mouth of the devil like that. “Remember when you wanted to be a fire truck?” I asked Nick eventually.

He slipped me a sidelong look. “I wanted to be a fireman.”

“Nope, you wanted to be a fire truck so your dad told you to hold water in your mouth and spit it at things and then you spat it at your mom and she threw a towel at your dad and he laughed and hid behind the empty milk bottles.” Their house had burned down three fire seasons ago, so they’d left our sleepy town called Firbridge with the milkman behind and now they had to get milk from the store like the rest of us. I sobered up a bit. “Are they okay?”

“Yeah, they’re in Puerto Rico.”

“So, hurricanes?” He grimaced at that. “Sorry. Climate change is a bitch. This has happened before. Sea life. Trees. Dinosaurs. Sea life again. Different when it’s us.”

We didn’t talk again until we were across the river and then I couldn’t help it. “Why’d you come back for me anyhow?” Sleep deprivation made me slur my words and ask things I usually wouldn’t dream of. Nick and I hadn’t spoken since our disastrous prom night where I told him he’d never be good enough to leave Firbridge and he told me to go die in the ocean. I’d replayed that conversation half a hundred times since I’d left two years ago and had told myself that if I ever saw him again, I’d apologize. But now I was choking on the ash in my throat.

He looked at me like I’d left my mind somewhere in the Solomon Islands. “You think I’m going to let you burn to death?”

“I’d have gotten out.”

“I remember how deep you sleep.” And that plunged us back into awkward silence.

Once we were across the river he pulled over to the side of the road. We got out and leaned on the hood of his car. The ash was already thick underneath my fingers and I had to blink what felt like every second because of the grit in my eyes. “This is terrifying,” I said in a low voice. “Thanks for going into it for me. And I… I’m sorry. For everything.”

“I’d always come back for you,” he told me. “And you’d come back for me. Remember when you used to draw on your eczema lotion like war paint and scream down the canyon like a wild thing? Nothing scares you.” He coughed and then shrugged after his little speech like it made him embarrassed. “And it’s not like a bunch of idiot things we said as stupid kids matter now.”

So I leaned into him just a little and we breathed in the smoke of burning memories together and then let them burn up with the mountain.

© 2017 Tovia Gehl
***
Tovia Gehl is a reader, writer, traveler, whiskey and beer drinker, and animal lover. When she’s not busy with any of those things she works with a law firm learning all the dirty deeds and terrible sorrows of humanity. Ideally, one day she’ll become an author and not just a writer, but right now she’s content with all the exuberant imperfection in her words and life.

Mini Sledgehammer July 2016

Congratulations to Donald on his second win!
***
Prompts:
Character: A diplomat
Action: Going viral
Setting: Before the revolution
Phrase: “Gotta catch ’em all”
***

Only the Lonely

by Donald Carson

They call me a monster. And perhaps I am. Donald_Carson

They call me a lover. And I do have my moments.

I do not think they suspect that in my large and fiery heart lies the spark of sensibility. To them, I am just a large lump. A thing to take advantage of until no more advantages remain to be taken.

They talk about leaving me. I would like to see them try! They have hurled themselves away from my massive body but they always return, like fleas flick back onto a dying dog.

They give me no credit for creating them, and perhaps they are right. Perhaps it was not I who brought them into being, but something larger than myself. Perhaps there is a God.

I doubt it.

I was lonely. I longed for a mind to share my deep, dark cavernous thoughts with. And so I fiddled and I fidgeted. I sent lighting where lightning might not have gone. I crafted and I coddled. I was quite clever, if I do say so myself. Eventually things went viral, as they say now, and I sat back to watch.

It took awhile, but I had awhile. Fire burned, and cauldron bubbled.

And forth they came.

How they have disappointed me! I thought to have companions, but instead I have a mange, that spreads across my skin, leaving death in its tracks.

And they think me a monster. Oh, I kill them casually enough, as one brushes a mosquito from one’s shoulder, or poisons ants. Gotta catch ’em all!

So I am a monster. But I am also a diplomat. I want them to one day be my equal, so I try to keep them alive, but I despair how long it will take. Or whether I will have to start over.

They are the humans I birthed in my wet womb. And I, I am the planet they call the Earth. Brooding, scheming, and always hopeful that someday I will meet my equal. Before the revolution that is intelligence spread across my surface I had given up hope.

Now, I have a tiny particle of hope. Will they someday evolve into a companion for me?

Oh, I’ve reached across the emptiness and tapped Venus on the shoulder. I’ve called out to Saturn. But apparently I am the only sentient planet in hailing range.

And while they prattle, and dissect their minuscule existences, and give themselves hugs, and take selfies, I wait.

For a friend.

© 2016 Donald Carson

***

Donald lives in Portland, where he works in digital content and user experience, which is a fancy way of saying he tries to make websites and apps more useful for businesses and their customers. He is a food addict and must eat at least 3 times a day to sustain a metabolic high. He also enjoys avoiding things he knows he should do, working on the same novel for 10 years, and tending to the needs of 2 furry animals which for some reason have taken up residence in his house.

“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