When the Curtain Closes, by Jesse Falzoi
It happened on a Tuesday night. The lights went off and the radio stopped and the flame beneath the pot died down.
“This time they will be a bit too al dente, I’m afraid,” Judith said.
Her twelve-year-old daughter stood up and felt her way to the fuse box. Her son, who had turned nine a month ago, ran into his room to get the Ghostbusters kit. Judith looked out the window, at the moonless night, at the sky that was not gray anymore but black, then her son returned and aimed the gun at the wall where a smiling ghost was dancing.
“Gotcha,” he shouted.
“Give me that.” Judith grabbed the pistol and the plastic skull and turned both off. “We’ll need the batteries.”
When her daughter returned she told her to get the candle stand from the living room.
“The fuses are okay,” her daughter said. “It must be something else.” She stepped up to the window. “It’s a blackout, right? Oh my God.”
“Don’t worry. It used to happen all the time when we first moved here.” Judith smiled. “That was before you were born. After the wall came down they had to renew everything. They turned off the gas one day, on another electricity or water. But in the end, they turned everything on again.”
She checked the lighters. One was nearly empty and the other half full. They had twenty-three tea lights and a pile of used and unused candles of all sizes.
“A candlelight dinner,” she turned around and smiled. “Isn’t it nice?”
They sat down to eat. They were lucky. The sauce had been ready for a while and was still hot. Her son had filled their glasses with tap water before the lights went off. They had been waiting for the farfalle and this time they weren’t overcooked. They looked like perfect butterflies.
Judith saw the flickering lights in the distance. Most people seemed to have found candles. Maybe the others weren’t home yet. When the children asked for refills she got up and gave them an apple each. There were nine left.
“You don’t need to brush your teeth tonight,” she said. “And don’t use the flush.”
She took out a clean pot and turned on the faucet. When the water stopped she tried the bathroom, but the pot was only half full as she returned to the kitchen.
“I need to pee,” her son said.
“Don’t use the flush.” Judith put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “You watch him,” she said and reached for a shopping bag. “I’ll be back in ten minutes. You can both sleep in my bed tonight. It’ll be very cold in here soon.”
“Where are you going?”
“There’s hardly any milk left.”
Judith held up the candle stand.
“Make a wish, ” she said and watched her kids thinking and then blowing. “Don’t let anybody in,” she said and went to the hall to put on her coat. She reached up to the top shelf and pulled out The Woman in White. She removed an envelope she’d stuck between page number 48 and 49 and shoved it into her bag.
Nine months before, a friend had told her that his wife kept making fun of him after he’d equipped the cellar with water cans and the mattress with cash.
“Everything would stop,” he said after parking the car in front of her apartment house.
“What about phones?”
“Won’t work. No app to help you out.”
“We can still use regular ones, can’t we? Most people still have them.”
“Who would you call?”
“What if they don’t answer?”
She gazed up at the windows on the second floor behind which her children were sleeping. “The fire department?”
“They’d ask you if you had an emergency and if you didn’t, they’d tell you to get off the line.”
She reached for the door handle, saying, “Thank God our stove works with gas.”
“Which is pumped up with electricity. Same with your water supply. The higher you live, the less you get. You can flush once, if you’re lucky. And maybe fill a small bucket with tap water.” He turned on the motor. “The first to go will be the old ones who don’t get their medication. And the babies. Two weeks and you’ll have us back in the caves, killing each other for a piece of bread.”
When she was waiting that night for her feet to get warm under the blanket, she remembered a friend from Ireland who couldn’t start a harvester one morning because the bank hadn’t received the last payment and turned off the motor via satellite. She sent a text message to her friend and he answered that this was forbidden in Germany. She put her cell back, feeling relieved although she didn’t even own a car. The next day, she’d gone to a hardware store to buy a 50 liter water can and on her way home she’d withdrawn a grand in small bills.
People on the sidewalk were talking and gesticulating to each other. Cars were moving slowly and traffic lights weren’t working. Judith tried the grocery store door but it was locked. A man showed up next to her.
“Smartphones don’t work,” he said.
“No, they don’t.”
She crossed the street and walked to the next grocery store that was bigger and open until midnight. People were standing in endless lines, trying to pay for their food but the scanners didn’t work. They mostly took it calmly, except for a woman who held on to a packet of Pampers and ran toward the door.
Judith hid under a fruit stand until they turned off the emergency lights. Then she felt her way through the aisles and filled her bag with whole grain crispbread and zwieback. She was caught by a young assistant carrying a torchlight.
“You have to leave,” he said.
“My kids are hungry.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
They approached the exit.
A security guard aimed his torch at them. “You gotta leave that here, ma’am.”
Judith opened her purse and took out a bill.
“Please,” she whispered. “I have two kids at home.”
“Can’t do that, ma’am.”
“She’s a friend. I’ll pay for it tomorrow,” the young assistant said.
Her son was fast asleep, her daughter still reading.
“My phone’s not working,” she said.
“No smart phone’s working. We can use the other.” Judith blew out the candle.
When she’d met the children’s father, an ordinary candle lasted until next evening. They both took it for a sign, but he left them when the kids were six and two. He lived in Leipzig now with another wife and another kid.
“Go to sleep.”
“It’s never been this dark, mom.”
“Remember when we went to the countryside?”
“But there was the moon. And the stars.”
Judith opened the curtain. “Have a look.”
They stood next to each other until her daughter finished listing the names of the many stars her father had taught her, then Judith brought the shopping bag to the kitchen and unpacked it. Food wasn’t a problem, it would last three to four weeks. She had read somewhere that people could live without food for another week or two.
She called the police and was told to stay calm. She called the fire department and was told to get off the line if there wasn’t an emergency. For a split second, she thought of telling them that there was one but then put down the receiver.
“On the second day,” her friend had said, “They will start looting the shops. And then you’ll see. They’ll become animals.”
She crawled between the children and felt their warm soft bodies, listening to their regular breathing. Despite the drawn curtains, she could see everything. How quickly we adapt, she thought before falling asleep.
The next morning she called school and work and listened to the dial tone for a while and then put down the receiver. When the children woke, she brought them their winter boots and woolen caps and told them to wear a sweater and a cardigan.
“It’s kind of fun, isn’t it?” she said.
“Yeah,” her daughter said. “We would have had a written a test today.”
Judith kissed her son’s icy nose. “Let’s see what we’ve got for breakfast.”
“What about soccer? I need to go.” He looked at the clock and said, “I’ll be late.”
“There’s no school today,” Judith said. “Everybody is staying home.”
A friend of hers had once shown up with a box of ready-to-drink café latte; Judith found it too sweet and too artificial, but she hated throwing away food and thus left it in the cabinet for potential visitors who consumed such things. There were six cans. She would drink half a day. Maybe lengthen it with water. Eventually, she would appreciate anything that only smelled of coffee.
Her daughter opened the dishwasher to put away her bowl, but Judith reminded her that it wasn’t working and so her daughter reached for the sponge and turned on the faucet. A few drops came out.
“Leave it there,” Judith said.
“How do we brush our teeth?”
Judith took a cup and dipped it into the pot and passed it to her daughter.
“Yep.” She sat down again and watched her son eat.
“Is it good?”
He nodded. There was a tiny piece of chocolate in the corner of his mouth.
“How about going for a walk?” She smiled at him. “Would you like that?”
“We’ll dress you up like an Eskimo, all right?”
She reached for his empty bowl and put it in the sink. Then, she heard the flush. She walked slowly out of the kitchen and came to a halt in front of the bathroom.
“Honey, you have to listen to me.”
Her daughter unlocked the door. “What?”
“I told you not to flush,” Judith said.
Judith looked her in the eye. “Promise that you will do exactly what I tell you in the future.”
Her daughter frowned. “Calm down, mom.”
The street was full of people when they came out of the house. Some talked and some watched and some went back inside. A group of people was softly discussing something until a man came running.
“It’s only in Berlin,” he shouted. “I just had my mother on the landline.”
“The whole of Berlin?” a woman said.
“Let’s call dad,” Judith’s daughter said.
“When we get home.”
In front of a café people were sitting on benches, their thick gloves clutched around beer bottles. They were wrapped up in blankets and a cloud of smoke hung above them. Cars drifted along the street, unusually careful, considerate, although there were no policemen to replace the inoperative traffic lights. They walked along the closed shops and felt like on a Sunday. Then they headed home again and left their scarves and caps on during lunch (sandwiches). In the afternoon they played board games, sitting cross-legged on the carpet, held warm by blankets. At six o’clock Judith lit the second candle and prepared a meal of leftovers. She divided the rest of the orange juice between her children and wiped their dishes clean with toilet paper when they were finished.
She took the candle stand and led them to the bathroom to make them brush their teeth.
“Put the lid down after you use the toilet.”
“I have to go now,” her son said and she waited in front of the bathroom until he was done and covered his turds with cleaner.
When both kids were sleeping, huddled against each other, Judith blew out the candle and fetched a can of latte from the kitchen. She left the apartment, walked down the stairs and opened a window. In the opposite building, somebody had the same idea; she could see an orange dot every now and then. She smoked looking at the star-covered sky. There couldn’t be many cars on the streets; maybe people instinctively decided to save. Or maybe they really were at home now, in their bedrooms, producing the masses of babies everybody associated with blackouts.
Police cars of all types and sizes drove by the next day and informed via megaphones to not use vehicles. Despite the early hour, the street was full of people shouting and waving fists. Judith unpacked the battery-driven speakers she’d gotten for her daughter’s birthday and connected them to her iPod. Townes Van Zandt was singing of mountains and rivers and valleys as she cut open the carton to get out the last drops of milk for the müsli. Her daughter sat down and yawned. She was wearing the thick woolen sweater that Judith had knitted for her two years ago before it vanished in the depths of the dresser having never been worn.
“Looks nice and warm,” Judith said.
“Have you called dad? Tell him to get us out of here.”
“I’ll do it later.”
Her son looked suspiciously at his bowl. With the milk gone, she’d added water, but after another spoonful, he didn’t seem to notice anymore.
“We have enough to eat and we have enough to drink,” Judith said. “We just stay inside until it’s over.”
“And what are we supposed to do the whole fucking day?” her daughter said.
“I don’t have any homework.”
Her daughter looked at her, then she jumped up from the chair and ran into the hall. She’d already taken the phone off the hook when Judith arrived. She pressed it to her ear before finally passing it to Judith—there was no dial tone.
They studied in her son’s room that led to the backyard. She turned off the iPod to save batteries. Her son was doing math and her daughter wrote an essay about ten things she would take to a deserted island. After an hour they switched. When Judith wanted to help her daughter, she realized that she wasn’t able to do the most basic calculations anymore.
For lunch, there was the last portion of pasta and afterward, they shared an apple and yoghurt. She took out Monopoly from the children’s large pile of board games. At six o’clock she went to the kitchen for zwieback and by nine o’clock she was bankrupt. Her daughter jumped up and let all her bills rain down on them.
They skipped brushing their teeth and Judith kissed them good-night.
“What if dad doesn’t even know?” her daughter mumbled.
When they were both asleep in her bed, Judith got up and peeped through the living-room curtains: nobody was outside. Maybe her friend had been wrong. Maybe most people would just stay indoors and wait for the lights to turn on again.
She went to the kitchen to get an empty plastic bottle. Then she put on her boots and coat, opened the door and listened. When she was sure that she was alone, she went quietly down the stairs. She unlocked the door to the cellar, filled the bottle with water from the can and hurried back up. Latte and cigarettes in hand, she walked down the stairs again, opened the window and smoked, counting the remaining cigarettes, trying to remember if she had one or two new packs in her drawer. The door next to hers opened and a dark silhouette came down the stairs.
“I’ll give you a euro for a cigarette,” her neighbor said.
“No,” she said.
“You don’t have to give me money.” She took out her pack and passed it to him. The tiny flame lit up their faces and they smiled at each other.
“Sure,” she said.
When they finished smoking, they went up the stairs together and separated in front of their doors.
The next day, when her children were sitting at the desk, working on the list of assignments that Judith had prepared for them, she locked the door twice and walked down the deserted stairs. She had the feeling that everybody except her family had left the building. She walked along the empty street, then turned the corner. There was a crowd in front of the grocery store; its windows were smashed. A man with a roll of toilet paper told her that there was no use going in anymore. She walked on and passed a kiosk whose owner was selling goods to the highest bidder. A bottle of water was just being exchanged for fifty euros.
There were no children. No elderly, no one showing any sign of infirmity, at least for now. Judith walked to the big grocery store. She arrived to see people attacking the security guards. More people came running out and within seconds the street was bursting with crowds who recklessly pushed their way through the smashed windows. Judith slowly retreated, happy that she wasn’t carrying a bag; the ones who came out of the supermarket with their pickings were robbed instantly.
At home, the children had just finished their assignments. She made the last round of sandwiches with the remaining bread and the hardened chunk of cheddar. They sat down and ate in silence while Judith looked at them, feeling calm and safe in a way she’d never before. When they were finished, she opened the last yoghurt. Each had a spoon and passed it on. The children cleared the table while Judith fetched the Scrabble board. After using up the pieces, they invented stories with the words they’d placed on the board and then it was time for dinner again. They each had crispbread with butter and a glass of water. Then they lay down and Judith read them one of the books she’d saved from her childhood. It was about a girl who had to leave the village where she had grown up because her parents wanted her to go to school. Judith remembered her yearning to live in the country when the children were little, but their father only took it for a temporary fancy, and after he’d left them she couldn’t summon the necessary strength for such a move.
She kept turning the tattered pages long after the children had fallen asleep. She put on her shoes and her coat and grabbed the half can of latte she’d saved from the previous day and her cigarettes. She opened the door, tiptoed down the stairs and opened the window. On the third drag, her neighbor came. She offered him a cigarette. They stood next to each other smoking and sharing the latte. When the cigarettes and the drink were finished they continued to look into the night and their hands joined.
The next day Judith organized a story contest. Her son was the winner. He’d written a story about a man who had lost his memory and woke up in a small village where nobody spoke his language. After lunch (zwieback with butter and an apple) they dressed up and pretended that they were a noble family on the Titanic and when it sank, they climbed into the lifeboat (the bathtub) and eventually reached a deserted island where they built a hut out of all the chairs they had. They covered it with clothes and bed linens and had a candle-lit dinner with crispbread and the last banana. Then, Judith searched the bookshelves for her songbook and they sang songs. When the children were sleeping, she grabbed a new can of latte and her cigarettes and went down the stairs still wearing her evening dress. The neighbor was already waiting. After they’d tossed their cigarette butts into the night, their faces came close to one another and they listened to their breathing with closed eyes.
The next morning Judith remembered William Tell. She carefully opened the gilt-edged book and after a short quarrel about who would be playing William, they all studied their roles. They rehearsed the whole day and performed in front of stuffed animals. It was a big success.
“Why do we never open the curtains?” her son asked when Judith took them to bed.
“Because they keep out the cold,” she said. “Remember how we had them like this for weeks last summer? And you were always happy to get here because it was nice and cool?”
“I wish it were summer now,” her daughter said.
Judith laughed. “But we would have nothing to look forward to.”
Later, when she wanted to wash herself in the bathroom, she heard someone moving in the hall. Still holding the wet cloth, she stormed into the dark and shrieked when she bumped into her daughter who was fully dressed.
“What are you doing?”
“I want to see if Luna is okay.”
“Are you crazy?”
“It’s only two blocks, mom!”
Judith pulled the key out of the lock.
“It’s dangerous outside. Don’t do that again.”
“And what about you? What are you doing out there? Plus, you’re wasting water.”
Judith got her dressing gown from the bathroom and when she came back into the hall, her daughter had already pulled off the boots.
“Why isn’t dad coming?”
“I don’t know.”
She waited for her daughter to undress and lay next to her until she seemed to be fast asleep. Then she grabbed the second to last can of latte and a blanket and slipped out of the apartment. After making sure that she’d locked the door twice, she sat on the stairs and lit a cigarette and another cigarette and another cigarette. When the latte was finished, she wrapped herself into the blanket and fell asleep. She woke up feeling her neighbor’s embrace and they kissed and their hands wandered over their bodies until her daughter called, “Mom, where are you?”
Judith ran upstairs. Her son had wet the bed.
“I’m here,” she said. “It’s all right.”
Her daughter ran to the living room and flung open the curtains. “And what about this?”
A large group of people dressed in black, faces covered, armed with bats, hammers, and broomsticks were smashing the windows on the ground floors. Some had brought ladders.
“We’re too high,” Judith said.
“What about the police? Why aren’t they doing anything?”
“They’ll be here in a minute, don’t worry.”
She pulled the children to the bathroom and undressed them. She fetched the water bottle from the kitchen and washed them. When they were wrapped up in towels, she took the rest of the water and washed herself.
“Now we’ll die of thirst,” her son said.
“Go back to sleep,” Judith said. “We will not die. I’ll take care of you. I promise.”
When they’d fallen asleep, she went back to the living room and peeped through the curtain. It was quiet now. The people in black had disappeared. In their place stood soldiers with machine guns. Huge signs had been installed forbidding people from leaving their homes. Thank God, Judith thought.
It was dawning when she tiptoed down the stairs and into the cellar. She filled two bottles, hid them under her coat, and ran into her neighbor’s girlfriend.
“You have children. You must have water somewhere,” she said.
The woman blocked her way. “I know what you’re up to.”
Judith shoved one bottle into her hand and ran upstairs. Back in her apartment, she pushed the furniture to the windows facing the street. She piled up dressers and desks and chairs, covering them with clothes and bed linens and when she was done they looked like mountains. In the bedroom, the children’s faces were golden from the sun and she sat down on the floor next to them, looking at the bright blue sky. As the voices and the shooting grew louder she turned on her iPod and the children woke up to “Chelsea Morning.”
“Tell me that I was only dreaming,” her daughter said.
“This can’t go on forever,” Judith said. “Maybe it’s harder than before to fix it but in the end, they will.”
“It’s been how many days? Five, six?” Her daughter closed her eyes again. “I don’t even know.”
Judith kissed her forehead.
“Three, honey. When we don’t feel good it seems as though it has been ages, but actually, it hasn’t been that long.”
Her son climbed onto her lap.
“Maybe everybody is dead by now and we’re the only survivors.”
“Nobody’s dead, sweetheart.” She put him down and stood up. “Listen, you both get fifty euros a day. Until they turn everything on again.”
Her daughter sat up. “From the day it started?”
“From the day it started.”
“Yeah,” her son shouted.
“I’m older. I want a hundred.” Her daughter grabbed her arm. “And what if they turn it on in the evening, will we still get paid?”
Judith opened The Woman in White again and took out the second envelope. She counted the bills into her children’s hands.
“You’re getting 70,” she said to her daughter. “And I’ll pay you every morning at 9 unless the switch is working.”
They were allowed to have breakfast in bed, zwieback and fresh orange juice made from the last orange, and she read them another of her favorite childhood books. It was about a young boy who was sold to a traveling artist. Judith proposed they act out some of the scenes. Her son wanted to be the monkey, so Rémi had to be played by her daughter. They traveled from village to village and performed their shows at the foot of the mountains and when night approached they asked the villagers for a piece of bread and a corner in their barn where they could spread out their blankets. They took their modest meal (half a zwieback each and water) at the campfire (three tea lights) and when the children were fast asleep, Judith put on her most beautiful dress, pinned up her hair, and carefully applied mascara and lipstick.
She opened her door. A trace of tea lights led upstairs. On the top floor, in front of the door to the attic that had been locked since they’d moved in, her neighbor had put up a tent. She crawled inside. Caressing him she could feel every bone. He pressed his face against her breast, she took him into her arms and they clung to each other like twin embryos in their mother’s womb.
Back in her apartment, Judith divided all their provisions in half, went down to the cellar and filled three bottles with water. She packed everything into a box, pushed it in front of her neighbor’s door, knocked and hurried back inside.
In the evening her son had a fever. He looked so pale and lifeless that she became frightened for the first time.
“He’ll be fine,” she said to her daughter.
Judith looked up. “What?”
“I think it’s my period.”
“We’ll celebrate when this is over, okay?”
“What the fuck is there to celebrate? I want to go to dad.”
“It can’t last forever, sweetheart. We’ll all be fine.”
Her daughter pressed her hands to her ears and shouted, “I want my dad!”
Judith went to the bathroom to get the thermometer and automatically reached for the light switch and it worked.
Jesse Falzoi lives in Berlin, Germany. Her stories as well as her translation of Donald Barthelme’s “Sentence” have appeared in American, Russian, Indian, German, Swiss, Irish, British, and Canadian magazines and anthologies. Her book on craft came out in May and her first novel will be published next year. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College.
Redfish Cove, by Benjamin Soileau
When Leo Broussard spots the Do Not Anchor or Dredge sign at the mouth of the canal, he swivels the tiller of the Evinrude and steers the boat toward it. Passing the sign up close, he notices that the water has inched nearer to the letters, or hell, he thinks, maybe it’s the sign that’s sinking. It’s the same with the canal, getting wider each year, the grass thinner. He considers that if they’d not been coming to this place for the last two decades then he might not be able to find it. Also to be considered, of course, is that this trip might be the last for them, but he doesn’t want to ruin the moment. The marsh grass on either side of them shines golden in the still December afternoon as if it’s been painted there. The unmistakable puff of a porpoise coming up for air steals his attention to the side of the boat, where he sees the sun ripple off its slickened pebble-gray skin before it slides back under. Leo looks to the front of the boat to see if Emily has seen, and she’s already smiling at him from under her straw hat.
He and Emily christened it Redfish Cove the first time they discovered it, celebrating with ice cold beers over an Igloo that they couldn’t close for the tails protruding from it, each one the size of a man’s open hand, and dusted with its own unique pattern of black dots. They were happy and laughing because it ached their forearms to even bring the beer to their lips. By then the girls were in middle school and not interested in driving three hours down to the coast to sit in a boat all day with their parents, fooling with dead shrimp. Leo and Emily used to say that it was like dating again, those weekends without children. Once a year, always in the first couple weeks of December, they’d load the boat up, drive down to Leesville and stay at Boudreax’s Marina for the weekend to visit Redfish Cove, and not once, with the exception of last year, had it ever been unproductive.
Approaching the dead end of the canal where Leo will beach the boat, he slows the engine to an idle. Emily crouches at the front of the bateau with the rope coiled at her elbow, like a Cajun hood ornament, Leo thinks. He cherishes this part of the ritual: to see Emily leap into the marsh grass when the boat slides onto the mud, turning as she lands in one graceful movement and pulling the boat further up to capitalize on her momentum. It is an act of pure grace, a testament to her strength. Leo notices how loosely her blouse fits, how it whips over her frame in the soft breeze. He considers the next round of tests, how they are still not out of the woods.
“Be careful up there, girl,” he calls out. “I can get us up just fine.”
Emily braces herself on the front of the boat, and Leo knows that she is weighing her ability. She begins to turn around, but hesitates, stares forward in defiance of her body, as if she’s playing the image of her younger self doing it all those many times before. When she takes a seat, Leo feels her pride lanced, like the sting of something passing, and he wants to wrap his arms around her. He revs the engine slightly and then cuts it.
Once they are beached, Emily steps out with the rope, stretches it taut. Leo hands her the fishing poles, the landing net, and then carries the ice chest onto the bank and ties the rope to one of the handles.
They have a patch of land about fifteen feet by a hundred feet on which to navigate. Every trip they find themselves fishing in a tighter space, and since last year they’d not been able to come, it seems even smaller now. In the last few trips they’ve had to bring rubber boots so they can walk over the muck. They keep their sneakers in a plastic bag to change into before getting back into the boat to avoid tracking mud over everything. They’ve evolved with the diminishing land, adapting with towels, a piece of plywood to lay down at the foot of the boat, whatever becomes necessary.
“We still got some time before the water starts moving right,” Leo says, cracking a beer and looking out at the flat marsh. On the horizon, a speck of orange fire flickers from a platform far out in the Gulf. A helicopter in the distance floats across the pastel sky, the same robin’s egg blue as Emily’s eyes.
Emily is already standing at water’s edge with her line in the water, and Leo chuckles at her enthusiasm. She’d be fishing even if there were no fish left to catch. She removes a tomato from her fanny pack and eats it like an apple. Emily is fiercely proud of the ones she grows in their garden in Baton Rouge. She sells them occasionally at the farmer’s market downtown, mails them to their daughters in padded shoeboxes.
A whip of wind carries the high, bitter scent of it to Leo, and he inhales with the salt air. He wonders if she will continue to grow them in Tennessee, and if so, will the soil there grow them as big and firm. Will the family moving into their house at the end of the month continue to care for the garden they’d built and cultivated over the years? He imagines digging up the entire garden, preserving it over a network of tarps, and transporting the whole damn thing in a monstrous moving truck to Sweetwater with them.
The water still isn’t moving the way it needs to. If everything goes the way it always has, when the tide begins to come in, they will stand on the bank and pluck big redfish on every cast. They’ll catch their limit in no time, and spend the rest of the afternoon catching and releasing them for next year. When the sun sets, they’ll eat some blackened with a bottle of wine at the picnic table under their room, and then make love in their flimsy bed with sore forearms, and aching shoulders. They’ll feel the foundation move beneath them, creaking on the weathered planks and pillars that support Boudreaux’s.
Leo sits in a folding chair, and watches Emily fish, looking for the V-shaped wake moving away behind fins slicing through the surface. When the redfish turn on, the baits won’t even hit bottom. The reds will be stacked up in the shallow water, conserving their energy with open mouths, letting the cockahoe minnows pour in. Leo can’t recall in all their trips ever catching more than a few rat reds, the smaller, illegal ones that are better tasting because of the lack of blood in their meat. He considers the difference in strikes. Rat reds attack it, hit it hard as if they’re proud of their conquest, but the bulls are different. They inhale it and you won’t feel any machine gun tugging with the grown ups, just a heavy weight building up, as if you’re hung up on a car, and of course, that’s when you set the hook, brace yourself.
Leo hears the zing of Emily’s drag and goes to her. She’s hunched over with her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth. “It’s not a red,” she says, guiding the tip of her rod over the bank while reeling in. “Hopefully something good, but not a red.” She lifts a flounder out of the brown water, sets it flopping on the ground. Leo takes a knee and steadies it with the flat of his hand. He unhooks the jig from its mouth and tosses the bait back out over the water. The flounder flips over so that its bone white bottom is to the sky, as if displaying its smooth meaty side to demonstrate that it still has so far to go. “It’s no doormat, that’s for sure,” says Emily.
Leo stands and turns the fish in his hands. “It could be the doormat at a hobbit’s house, maybe.”
“Let me catch a bigger one and I’ll stuff it with crab meat.” Emily adjusts the sparkle beetle on the jig.
“You should tighten your drag,” Leo says, getting ready to toss the fish back.
“Don’t forget the bet,” she says, making the adjustment.
Leo grins, and brings the fish to his face, kisses it softly on the mouth. The bet is always the same: the first one to catch a fish, the other has to kiss it. “Not too bad, actually,” Leo says. “I might just save this one for later.”
“Lucky flounder,” Emily says, casting back out.
“Go tell your momma to come see us,” Leo says to the fish, and flings it back out into the still water.
Inspired by his wife’s success, Leo takes a seat on the cooler to bait up. He selects a red jig head with most of the paint flaked off, revealing the grey lead beneath, a sign of luck. After tying it on, he grabs an oily chartreuse sparkle beetle and fits it onto the hook, sliding it up to the head. Leo walks in the opposite direction from his wife and casts at the point of a cut. Bumping his bait off the bottom as he retrieves it, Leo gives thanks to God for allowing him and Emily another year together, slipping in a prayer for their success that day. Two years ago, their prayers had nothing to do with a fishing trip, and Leo is grateful that his silent pleas can afford to be so benign.
Leo had just retired from Exxon when Emily got sick, and she hadn’t been able to finish her last year teaching at the middle school. Emily was optimistic as always, expending her energy on setting his mind at ease when she was the one whose cells were betraying her. It was her way. Looking up now, seeing her take measured, calculated steps along the water’s edge, the way a spoonbill would, looking for a good, clean spot to fish, Leo imagines that the blur of waiting rooms, the antiseptic tang of hospitals, the surgeries, might all have been some surreal movie he’d seen in the early morning hours while half asleep. To be back at Redfish Cove as if they’d not missed a beat, it’s possible to believe that it was something that had happened to someone else.
In the distance, a flock of seagulls trails a shrimp boat, and it appears that the trawler has simply hooked a silver cloud and is dragging it across the horizon. The cloud is a thing alive, pulsing and surging above the nets, as if trying to break free from its snare. Leo smiles, thinking of the men on the boat, sorting through their catch, covered in bird shit, laughing and cussing the seagulls. Leo squints in an attempt to sear the image into his mind, to capture it like a photograph, something he’s been making an effort to do lately, since by Christmas they’ll no longer be residents of Louisiana.
The girls had as much to do with the decision to leave as Emily. They’d been down regularly through the whole ordeal, coming in shifts to help out, talking about how beautiful it is in Tennessee, how clean the air is, how much better it would be for her, and what really did they have left here, besides dead ancestors all the way down the line pushing up Saint Augustine grass?
When Emily started echoing their sentiment, Leo feared it was just a matter of time, but the grandbabies sealed the deal. The girls coordinated their pregnancies, the way they did everything else together. Something had gotten started that was beyond their control, and there was no stopping it. Emily had reminded him that Louisiana wasn’t going anywhere, and that they could always return if Tennessee didn’t work out, which is how he reasoned leaving the only place they’d ever known. The girls were both over the moon. “Just don’t go expecting me to start rooting for the Vols,” Leo had told them.
Leo reels in his bait and walks to the edge of the island, wanting to see the shrimp boat lilt out of sight. He follows a trail of raccoon tracks to a patch of mangroves. The tracks end suddenly, bit off by the depression of a boot print. It’s so fresh that he can see the zig zag patterns of the rubber. A Payday candy bar wrapper hangs from a branch of mangrove and then flutters in a small whip of wind. He feels a twinge of disappointment, but it quickly betrays itself as anger, like he’d discovered his home had been burglarized. When he looks closer, he sees several more boot impressions. Emily’s whistle arrives like a bottle rocket, and he sees her signaling him over.
When Leo gets to the other end of the island, Emily is crouched over a large white ice chest caked with mud. The cooler appears massive next to her.
“It was covered up with palmetto and that,” says Emily, pointing to a camouflage tarp balled up to the side. Next to it are a dozen crumpled beer cans shining silver in a swath of sunlight.
“That’s a three-hundred-dollar ice chest,” Leo says. “That’s what they take out on the charter boats.”
Emily pulls back the lid and Leo steps closer, leans over. Two enormous bull reds lay at the top, one of which has been decapitated to make it fit. The solitary black dot on its tail is the size of a fifty cent piece. “Jesus,” Leo says, moving them to the side to see underneath. He counts eighteen rat reds beneath them. The limit is five redfish per person, and they have to be at least sixteen inches. Besides the two bulls, most of the fish are thirteen inches at best. The bed of ice is still fresh. The color has bled from the fish, the once glittery orange scales now faded to a sickly amber. Leo runs his hand along the bull red where a layer of slime has begun to gather. The fish are stiff and cold on the pads of his fingertips.
“Greedy sons of bitches,” he says. “This is jail time. Beaucoup fines.”
“No wonder they’re not biting.” Emily closes the lid.
Leo holds onto Emily’s shoulder for support and steps up onto the cooler, looks around. Nothing but shimmering water cut through with golden grass. The helicopter is headed back to the platforms in the Gulf. He steps down, walks to the tarp and toes it with his boots, shakes his head at the beer cans. When he turns around, Emily is staring out toward the Gulf with her hands on her hips like she’s about to scold one of the girls. He can see by the way her shoulders rise that she is taking a deep breath, trying to gather herself. He is behind her immediately with his old strong hands cupped over her shoulders. “I know, Darlin,” he says.
“Not on this trip,” she says. “Not today.”
“We’ll be back,” Leo tells her. Until now, they’d given no voice to the possibility of not returning, as if by avoiding the subject they could somehow continue having it forever, and Emily’s words now seem to cement some reality.
“I don’t think so,” she says.
“Don’t go talking that nonsense,” Leo says. He wants to tell her they’ll always come back, but he swallows the swell rising in his throat. He places his hand on the back of her neck, brushes it with his thumb. “Come on now.”
“We have to keep them,” Emily says, turning around. She pinches the bridge of her nose, and swipes at the corners of her eyes. Leo sees that she has made a decision. “They’ll be wasted any other way,” she tells him.
“That’s a tough ice chest to be discreet with. I’m not going to jail over some fool’s doing.”
“You have your knife,” says Emily. “We can filet them and put them in Ziplocs at the bottom of our cooler.”
“I have my electric knife, but that’s no good out here. It’ll take me two hours to filet those fish with my rusty old knife, and I ain’t getting shot when some roughneck comes hunting his ice chest and finds me carving up his fish.”
“It’s just not right,” Emily says. She locks Leo with her eyes. “This is ours, Honey. All of this.”
Leo unravels the brown twine that’s been sitting by the gas tank for God knows how long. He will hide them out of sight until they leave, and he’ll find a spot to clean them before heading back to the marina. After removing the fish, Leo runs the twine through the gills of each one, cutting his fingers on the tiny rows of teeth as he passes it out the mouth and into the next set of gills. It takes him the better part of an hour, and he works quickly. He does all of them except the headless bull red. They leave that one, and return the palmetto and tarp back on the ice chest as if it had never been discovered.
The stringer of fish is twenty feet long when he’s done. He’s looking around for something to weight it down with, something that will keep them underwater, when he hears the approaching buzz of an engine. He can’t see it, but he doesn’t have time to spend looking. Leo runs to his boat and slashes the rope connected to the small anchor. He ties the end of the twine to the anchor, hurrying to fasten it.
“Hurry up, Honey,” says Emily.
Leo’s hands tremble as he loops the knot, pulls it tight and lobs the anchor out into the canal behind his boat. He bends down and ties the other end of the twine to his prop. When he stands back up he doesn’t have any breath. The edge of the boat pushed into his stomach, and he knows there will be a bruise. His heart is drumming, but the fish are staying under. He looks up and sees the boat coming toward them, still too far away to see clearly. He climbs back out of his bateau and joins Emily, who’s already got her line in the pond.
It’s another few minutes before the boat approaches. They’re in the next canal over, and because the land is so flat, it appears that they’re floating on the marsh grass. The boat cuts its engine and they coast to a stop at the dead end not fifty yards away. Leo’s shoulders tense when he considers the possibility that they have binoculars and have seen everything. He says a prayer and picks up his rod, casts out.
They hear the voices of the men carry over to them, the mechanical wheeze of their power pole reaching down to secure their Boston Whaler in the muck. Leo glances over, but the men aren’t paying him any mind. There are two of them, and they both have waders on. They step off the boat and wade through the water and grass until they are on dry land on the other side of their ice chest. Leo takes a deep breath and notices that the tide is beginning to come in.
When Leo and Emily hear the sharp curses reach them, they stare dead ahead at the slack lines arcing from the tips of their rods into the water. Mumbles, more curses bounce toward them. Leo knows the men are discussing the possibilities, the next course of action, and when they begin trudging over, he wishes he carried a pistol.
“How are you all doing this morning,” says the bigger man as they approach.
“Comment ca va,” says Emily, smiling like a girl.
“Howdy,” says Leo.
The man, Leo guesses, is in his forties. He’s got charcoal stubble above a strawberry red neck and stocky shoulders. His tattooed arms are bronze and Leo figures he works in a shipyard or on a rig somewhere. His Houston Oilers hat is molded onto his head as if he’s been wearing it his whole life. His companion is younger, early twenties, a scatter of acne across his cheeks. They wear sunglasses that flash yellow and green in the sun, the kind they sell in bait shops, with the clips attached so that they don’t fall off.
“Having any luck?” the older man says.
“Not yet,” Leo says. “How bout y’all?”
“We been tearing them up,” the younger one says. Bulging veins ride his neck like fingers of lightening. The older man reaches an arm behind the young one and taps him on the back, as if to let him know to keep quiet.
“We had a good run last night, but they seem to have laid down,” the older one says. “You happen to see anybody else out here today?”
“No,” says Leo. “We haven’t been out here long.”
“The game warden was here,” says Emily, beaming.
Leo’s chest tightens and he cuts in. “He was just checking for licenses, but he left. Lots of people landing their boats this morning, though.”
“Is that right?” says the man.
“We must be the only ones not got the telegram that the fish weren’t biting.”
“You seen anybody tooling with that ice chest over there?”
“Not until just now when y’all were. Shoot, I didn’t even know it was there.”
The older man digs out a cigarette and lights it. He walks past them to the bateau and pretends to be interested in it. The younger fellow lights a cigarette of his own.
“This is a nice boat,” the man says, gripping the front, giving it a little bounce, as if testing its durability.
“Yeah, nice boat,” the younger one slurs. His voice has an edge to it that Leo doesn’t like.
Leo thinks that if the older one were to scratch his ass the younger one would follow suit. “It’s nothing fancy,” says Leo, reeling in his line and laying his pole down. “That’s what we call a Cajun cruise ship. Whereabouts y’all from?”
“Here and there,” he says. He steps into the water beside the bateau, opens the compartment that Leo built on the side where he keeps the life jackets and tackle, peers in.
Small waves of panic ring out from Leo’s gut in icy metallic ripples, as if a jagged rock had been thrown there. He prays the man doesn’t go deeper to circle the whole boat.
“Pretty spacious for such a small ride,” the man says, glancing around, and not seeing any other hiding spots, comes back out of the water. He approaches Leo’s ice chest and the younger one joins him there. “We sure are thirsty,” he says, squatting down beside the cooler. “Would you mind terribly if me and my partner here borrow a drink from you?”
“Help yourselves,” says Leo.
The man opens the lid and rifles through the ice, upturning beers and lunch meat, digging his hand to the bottom. He withdraws two beers and hisses them open, hands one to the younger man, who stumbles forward to receive it. He takes a long swallow and Leo watches his Adam’s apple lurch like the bubble in a carpenter’s level. He walks along the edge of the water out to the mangroves, taking sips from his beer, casting his eyes over the grass, hunting his fish. The other man is doing the same, and Leo looks out behind his bateau where he’d thrown the stringer and sees the corpse of a rat red, brushing against the marsh grass, its white belly up to the sun. Oh Lord, he thinks. Please, Lord, help them not to see. Leo looks for more fish and thinks that every patch of foam or debris riding the incoming tide is another corpse. He looks up at Emily and she meets his gaze.
The men are wandering up and down the banks, searching. Emily lays down her pole and slaps her hands against her hips before clapping them together. “I’ll bet you boys are hungry. Let me make y’all some sandwiches.” She’s almost singing with joy. “I got some bologna here and some cheese. The bread got a little wet, but I can make it so that you won’t even notice.” She presses a tomato into the young one’s hand, and then opens the ice chest, starts removing condiments.
The men look at one another, and Leo sees the young one shrug. The older man steps over to the cooler. “No,” he says, turning up his beer can once more. He pumps it down, crumples it and drops it to the ground. “We were just leaving. Thank you for the drinks,” he says, and walks toward his companion, who, getting the message, upturns his beer.
“We may swing by later to see if the fish have started up again,” the older one says.
The young man places his finished beer on the ground and brings his foot down to smash it, but misses, curses the can. He flattens it on the second attempt. “Ain’t no goddam fish left out here,” he says.
“Ought to be ashamed of y’allselves,” Emily says to their backs as they’re leaving.
“OK,” says Leo, louder than he’d intended, taking up her hand in his. “Let them go now.”
The older man turns, puts his hand on the back of the younger one’s neck. “I’m sorry ma’am. This one’s got piss poor manners.”
The men walk back to their cooler. They each take a handle and carry it back to their boat, the young one dragging the tarp behind him the way a sleepy child would his blanket. Once they fling the cooler up, they climb onboard to join it. The power pole hums as it retracts from the mud and the twin engines cough to life. They point the boat back toward Bayou Lafourche and gun it, their wake crashing into and burying the marsh grass that borders the canal.
Leo and Emily watch the boat turn into the channel and disappear, heading north. Emily wraps her arm around Leo’s waist, pats his side, and says, “Where were we?” She returns the condiments to the ice chest, deposits the men’s cans in a plastic bag, and moves off to collect the rest of their garbage.
Leo takes a seat on the cooler, bristling with rage at the men’s intrusion. He sees Emily cover the marsh, stooping delicately to pick up trash, trying to erase any sign of the men’s presence on the island.
If the girls could have just been happy with their lives up there and left well enough alone. There would always be holidays and visits. He and Emily would beat the goddamn thing and carry on in their own way, the way they were meant to in the place they were made to be. He clamps his jaw hard enough to hear the calcium whine in his ears, bites against the helplessness of being swept along, and scrabbling to find some foothold, his mind claws for purchase to slow it down. Looking up, he sees Emily heading back over with her bag full of trash, and he remembers the fish.
Leo steps back onto the boat and bends down near the engine. The twine hangs limp from the prop, and as he gathers it slack in his hand, he pictures the anchor sailing free from the rushed knot he’d tied when it reached its threshold. That twine had to be ten years old. The redfish corpse is still twirling in a patch of foam against a cut in the marsh, and he spots another in the next cut down, belly up. Leo imagines them all floating one by one off the string, rolling and tumbling across the bottom, being carried away into a hundred directions by a legion of blue crabs.
He cuts the twine with his pocket knife and sits down in the boat, hunched forward. Staring at their clean sneakers in the plastic bag, he shudders at the idea of putting them back on. Just what in the hell is in Tennessee? His grandchildren will grow up fishing there, and he doesn’t even know what kind of fish they catch. Leo crams his eyes shut and sees the violating boot prints in the mud, wills them full of salt water. He imagines the Gulf surging in like the Red Sea upon the Egyptians, fast forwarding through time until the entire island is underwater, finding comfort in knowing that Redfish Cove will be tucked away, safe under the smooth quiet surface.
A shadow crosses him, as though cast by a swift-moving cloud, its darkness passing away from him across the mud, moving out toward the Gulf, but it shatters upon the vision of Emily at the water’s edge, poised stoic under the sun, rod and reel in hand. She has purged her island, and is back doing what it is she came to do.
The sun is shining on her in such a way that he can just make out the smile carved on her face from under the shade of her straw hat. Her shadow is cast out on the water and Leo squints her in, lets the image materialize into his brain. Her thin arms hold fast to the rod and reel, determined to counter the weight she seems to know will gather there, to feel the strain of life on the other end, turning in the shallow, flinging up mud and spray as it lunges desperately for deeper water.
Leo climbs out of the boat and collects his fishing pole. He sidles up alongside Emily and she smiles at him, her eyes pure liquid gratitude. Several brown pelicans swoop low over them, their shadows tracking over the water and marsh grass toward the bay beyond, where they begin diving, a good sign. The tide will be coming in for a little while longer. Leo breathes deep the southeast wind kicking up and casts out as far as he can.
Benjamin Soileau was born and bred in south Louisiana. His stories have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Louisiana Literature, Bayou, Eclectica, and many other journals and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He drives a beer truck in Olympia, Washington, and is finishing a collection of short stories and beginning a novel. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Care, by Charlotte Hammond
On my mother’s first birthday since she lost her mind, I stare into the blue light of the fridge. I’m starved. My eyes first land on a big, softening persimmon. I take it out and cut it into chunks and let my fingers get sticky with juice.
Then I decide to slice up one of the cucumbers I have to prepare for later. I listen for the thwack, thwack, thwack of the knife hitting the plastic cutting board wondering if it will stir my mother, but the apartment doesn’t move. On the cold cucumber rounds I smear cream cheese from a plastic tub and eat them cupped like chilled tacos.
These days my mother sleeps late. Till after eight some days. It should be a good thing. It seems unfair that old people, especially the restless ones, should have trouble giving into long nights of rest. That their bodies won’t let them take it easy and live in their dreams a bit longer. I should rejoice in those mornings without my mother, but they set me on edge a little. I’m the one to greet her in the morning, where it used to be the other way around. Nowadays, I never know what I’m going to get.
After I’ve scarfed down the whole cucumber and a good third of the cream cheese, I look for more. I painstakingly take out all the ingredients to make my mother her birthday soup or even the components of the side dishes for the family luncheon. So much room for failure in this kitchen. I’m the opposite of my mother: an eater who dislikes cooking. For my mother, eating has always been the chore.
I unfold a carton of chocolate milk and drink it straight. I imagine my mother waking up to me and my horrible manners. The reaction I’d get from the new her. The loosened her. I picture my mother laughing, giddily, even a little complicitly, at the sight of her daughter chugging milk like a teenage boy.
Finally, I unlock a plastic container of leftover spaghetti my sister left last weekend. Grated cheese from 7-Eleven dresses it up a bit. Then I put on a pot of coffee, wondering if the smell might rouse the sleeping woman in the next room.
Slurping spaghetti, I bop around from foot to foot while I watch the coffee brew. I imagine singing Eoma the birthday song by Paul McCartney. She might like it. It might clue her into what’s going on today. Does the woman in the other room still love the Beatles? Then I take in the apartment a little, jolted at its clutter. Another thing for my sister to raise an eyebrow about. Avoid. I move to straighten an errant pile when the bedroom door opens.
The birthday girl emerges dressed in a powder pink nightgown baring all of her arms even though it’s January. She’s wearing my slippers, which look like fuzzy flower pots. Her doll-thin hair is matted, sort of pushed to one side of her head so that she looks like she’s been walking in a gale. She is frowning, as if the sight of the apartment and/or me in it is shooting dull pain into her temples.
Before I can rush to throw something over her shoulders, she locks my gaze and narrows her eyes. In that instant, I put down the spaghetti because I know something devastating is about to come out.
“Where’s your father? Did he go to the store?”
My stomach clamps down on the undigested noodles like a falling person gripping a slick railing.
“Eoma. Dad’s gone. You separated twelve years ago.” I pause, searching her stony expression. “We’re not in contact with him anymore.” Gradual clouds pass over her pale face. I can see she accepts it.
“Oh, yes. I did know that.” My mother drops her gaze and clears her throat. I go to her and give her a zip-up sweatshirt that was lying on the couch.
This isn’t the first time she has asked about my father. In fact, it happened earlier this week, again with a morning confrontation. Then he was “her husband,” which, legally, he still is. After I broke the truth to her again, her mouth twisted and she asked if he was still an accountant. As if his having a prominent profession could give her something. Some identity to hang on to. Her mind failing, she could still be the estranged wife of a respected accountant.
My mother could hardly keep track of where we lived, or what year it was, or the ingredients of her own invented recipes, the perfunctory tasks of living on her own. My father, on the other hand, could account for the finances of a large, nation-wide paint company. In her mind’s cloudscape, my father emerged out of a glimmering high rise, his brow bent over pages of numbers to choreograph and balance.
Truthfully, none of us knew what he did with his life these days. I moved my mouth into something I thought might resemble a calm smile. “Yes, Eoma. Dad is still an accountant at the paint company. He does very well.”
Now, I usher her into the bathroom with instructions to shower and dress while I make the seaweed soup for her birthday.
Like all my cooking, it is a sloppy process. I’ve added too little water to the machine and nearly botch the rice. Note to self: don’t screw that up later for the relatives. I gulp the coffee with a splash of chocolate milk in between swilling and seasoning the soup. It’s a pale green liquid covering shifting tectonic plates of darker kelp. I arrange my mother’s pills in a little pink dish.
It feels especially purposeful to have made my mother her own seaweed soup this year, the soup that restores the mother’s nutrients after childbirth, the soup that encourages us to be slippery like the seaweed. To slide into life as easy as possible. For the child’s sake and the mother’s. I pray she likes it.
Dressed in only a towel, Eoma places her pills in her mouth: one, two, three. My phone pulses and I know it’s my sister asking something inane. I angrily tidy the shoes in the vestibule. Did I make enough side dishes? What type of mineral water does our uncle prefer? As I type out a sarcastic reply, I hear my mother clang her spoon to the table. Shit, I think, the soup must taste awful.
“Hey,” she calls to me, her voice ragged. “What are you doing at home today? Why aren’t you at work? How on Earth do you have this much time to waste on me?” She locks eyes with me as if she’s trying to decode this conspiracy. I open my mouth to form an answer, but then I change my mind. Today isn’t the day to remind her why I’m here and not across town in a nice apartment, why her oldest daughter moved home, the reason everything I had got derailed. Today can’t be about me. Care is what you do despite your sunken heart.
I try to speak with the soft calmness of a hospital nurse or church lady, but it comes out in a stifled croak. I tell her that today is Sunday.
Her eyes in their soft, eggy sockets stay fixed on me like a suspect.
“And your sister teaches school.” Her voice less sharp, wavering on the last words. Is she reading me? Or does she remember?
I nod in her direction. She relaxes as if an invisible vice has released the top of her. She turns her attention to her spoon, returns to where she was before her mind skipped the tracks.
“Since when did you learn how to cook?”
As soon as my sister and her husband arrive, my sister drags me into the bedroom to give me a bag of useless trinkets. I’m in the middle of arranging side dishes when she does this. I’ve made my uncle’s favorite bean sprouts with sesame oil. I’ve made my mother’s favorite cucumber dish from the cucumbers I didn’t eat for breakfast. My sister’s beloved fish cake came from the 7-Eleven.
“Supplies,” my sister says, setting down the shopping bag near the wardrobe I now share with my mother. I roll my eyes at her.
“You know I’m not doing that. Please. Give it up.”
Jina’s new idea is that because my mother has lost her memory and her mind, we should reconstruct it for her in the form of a scrapbook. Of course, my sister had decided that she herself has no time to do this and me, unemployed—as if mom was not round-the-clock –would have infinite time and energy to assemble snippets of paper and photographs into an approximation of my mother’s sixty-two year life. When my sister had suggested the idea, I had wondered about what a crazy notion it was, though I was half dumbstruck. How were certain portions of our mother’s life supposed to get an editorial spread in Her Paper Memory?
“Do you want me to write on it?” I had asked my sister when she initially pitched the idea.
“No,” Jina says, “I want it to flow as a succession of images and shapes, like her own memory would. Of course, you’ll have to narrate a few parts,” she added. My mother asked me questions about herself at least a dozen times a day. Maybe Jina thought this book could save me time. More likely, though, it was so that mother remembered who Jina was.
One month ago, my sister took Eoma to the mall for Christmas shopping. It was something they had always done together. They drove to the Hyundai department store in my sister’s car. At one point, my mother stopped humming along to the ballads on the radio and turned to my sister.
“I’m sorry, but could you remind me of how we met?”
My sister nearly lost control of the car. “I almost killed us both and I almost wanted it that way,” Jina said when she told me the story, her face white as a bed sheet.
At the side of the road my sister sobbed. “Eoma, I’m your youngest daughter. You gave birth to me.” Last one out and first to slip away, I thought at the time.
“It’s her birthday,” Jina says, sulking into the shopping bag of scrapbook paper and tacky decals. “If you started the book when I asked you to, it could have been done by now.” I stay silent. My sister catches something in my face and runs her eyes around it. “Hey, are you overeating again?” she asks.
My uncle greets his sister like a long lost friend. He’s brought a box of pears wrapped in a bow for my mother and cheap beer, which is mostly for himself since even my sister’s husband is a demure drinker. I could tell that my mother was confused by her brother’s uncharacteristic warmth and even more puzzled by the gift. She donned a toothy smile, encouraging everyone to give in to the magnetic pull of the lunch table.
Playing my role as hostess, I give a little welcome speech. “We’re here to celebrate the birthday of my wonderful, generous, and hard-working mother, who was kind enough to eat my seaweed soup this morning.” My uncle feigns astonishment at my having cooked anything. My mother looks around the table, beaming nervously, as if someone had elbowed her and hissed in her withered ear “keep smiling.”
I prepared the main dish a day in advance. A braised chicken in a simple brown sauce. I studied the domestic queens of YouTube and gave it my best shot. Combating deep mortification, I set the chicken in front of my family. My sister begins murmuring measured praise when she’s interrupted.
“Certainly we should wait for my husband,” my mother says sternly, her face twisted in sudden concern. My brother-in-law’s face goes blank as a lampshade. My uncle laughs nervously and moves to pour his sister some beer, which doubly horrifies Jina. I know it will either have to be Jina or me who will remind her of reality, but I decide it’s Jina’s turn and start shoveling folds of bean sprouts and cucumbers into my mouth.
As the chicken is pulled apart and eaten, my brother-in-law and uncle take turns presiding over the table. My brother in law’s job sounds very middling. He does things with numbers, like my father. My uncle shares animated anecdotes about residents doing salacious things in the building where he is a super. One couple in their forties apparently started running a dirty webcam service for extra cash and got caught. Jina gives them credit for their creativity. After I serve some more helpings of chicken, my brother-in-law says his company may be hiring soon. Front desk. Part-time. I mutter a non-committal answer and avoid Jina’s gaze.
While clearing plates from the table, I notice my mother is gone. Even Jina, who had been gingerly sipping beer my uncle poured for her, didn’t recognize Eoma’s absence. It happened that way when she wandered off: time became a mysterious blip my mother could snatch for herself.
In seconds, I’ve scoured the apartment. Her winter coat, a cornflower blue, hangs by the doorway. Shit, I think.
Our street looks soft in the fading winter sunlight. It’s still. On the asphalt there’s a covering snow that must have fallen during the party. Shit, I think again, wondering about the state of my mother’s feet. She was wearing socks. No, just house slippers, no socks. I couldn’t remember. There are more than a few trails of footprints on the sidewalk. I try to replace gaps in my own short term memory and imagine what my mother’s mind was trying to piece together as she wandered along our dingy street.
Blocks away, I make out a smudge of silver, like the head of a dandelion. Speeding to a trot, I call her. My mother stands in front of a pet store with a pink neon bone in the window. On her feet are Jina’s Puma sneakers with the laces untied.
“It’s freezing out, Eoma,” I start to say. “You’re worried about me? Look at these animals,” she motions to three white balls of fluff doing an excited samba against the glass. Pink tongues trembling. An unfamiliar tone emerged from her. “They’re so lonely.”
She tells me she doesn’t want to go back inside. It’s uncomfortable, my mother says, having to socialize with people she doesn’t know well. I hold her close as we walk back through the cold dusk. Under her sweater, her spine is a series of pointed knobs, like a wide tooth comb.
Back at the house, I take Eoma into the bedroom so she can relax, swaddling her with an electric blanket she shrugs off with a tired giggle. Jina and her husband offer to take my rosy-looking uncle to the subway. “Try the book,” my sister breathes in my ear before sidling out the door.
The untouched birthday cake glows in the fridge, dotted with purple icing balloons. I cut myself a square piece and put it on a plate beside a bowl of seaweed soup. Surrounded by the untouched mess of the party, I bring the cold, slippery soup to my lips.
A day in the future forms in my mind, stark and spotlit like a scene from a play. A day that comes before her body fails, a day before the total reversal of parent and child. I don’t fear the moment my mother will ask me who I am. What paralyzes me is the part when I’ll tell her I’m her daughter and she will want to know more, and I won’t know where to start.
Charlotte Hammond is a writer living and working in New Jersey. Her work has previously appeared in Gone Lawn and Imminent Quarterly
Gum, by Evan McMurry
The six of us met in the foyer of the restaurant. We wouldn’t have known we belonged together except we all carried the brown scratchy notebooks sent to us in the mail, accompanied with directions simple and vague: describe an average night out; include one photo per page.
The other five seemed of the same age, early to mid-twenties, skin-flushed with a little drag around the eyes from the night before. That made sense; the flyers had been distributed in the clubs downtown, which pulled from a limited pool. Made sense, that is, except for me. I was too young to drink—though not too young to deliver ice, a product in urgent demand when a club ran out at eleven o’clock on a Friday night. I wasn’t even the one who nicked the flyer. Junior, who worked delivery with me on Friday and Saturday nights, was the scrounge. He dumped bags of ice in the service wells and on his way out grabbed what he could—black plastic ashtrays, a stack of coasters, a sip from a drink left melting on a cocktail table—and paraded into our warehouse with cheap loot tumbling from his arms. “Why do you take this crap?” I asked him one night. He held up a square red candle. “You and Christine need a candle for the apartment?”
We did. I took it, as I would end up taking that flyer, that garish yellow post soliciting participants for a focus group on dating that Junior handed to me one night with a grin darting towards the edges of his fat cheeks. Christine and I had been dating since sophomore year, six years on, and Junior, deep into his uncommitted thirties, liked to say we made monogamy appear even more boring than he’d always suspected.
I looked around now at the five others, who, except for two women chatting away at each other on the booth left of me, were silently pulling at their cuticles or tapping the faux-tweed notebook covers. The talkers were an accident of proximity. On my left was a lithe, glossy woman who entered just after me and strode to the hostess stand with a prom-queen gait escorted by the gazes of every male present; she had sharp green doe eyes that looked as though they had been selected out of a department store case precisely to offset her bronze skin. The other was just as coordinated but not as proportioned; large, blank spaces of flesh filled out her forearms and midriff and thighs. They were dressed almost identically, maroon tank tops over faded jeans, and differed only in headwear: a beret pulled slightly askew over the prom queen’s forehead, her straight auburn bangs dangling like chimes from underneath, while her new friend had bushels of curled brown hair springing from her head as if trying to escape.
The men were less engaging. A lothario slumped in a guayabera and boots at the end of the banquette, staring with cowboy cool into the middle distance as if it were a party he might hit up later. Beside him sat a short, manicured blond man in a sky blue polo shirt framing the sleepy seductiveness of his half-closed eyes. Between these two groups was a massive, hulking man, face all jaw and body all shoulders. He looked as though he could lift the restaurant and shake it until the woman he wanted fell out. I figured he and the prom queen would eventually get around to discovering they had a lot in common—though, as Junior pointed out on slow nights when we people-watched downtown, I didn’t have much experience in these things.
And that was why I was there. Christine had seen it as a lark, “subverting” a cheesy dating forum. But I was there out of intense personal curiosity. I was turning twenty-one in three months—“Your birthday will last a week, my friend,” was all Junior had to say of his plans—and I suspected Junior might be right. Not about my weeklong celebration, but about his other, more sinister warning, that I was content to stay in night after night with Christine as she dozed on my shoulder midway through a movie only because I didn’t know how much more was out there. “Your six year relationship,” Junior said—and he said it as my friend, he assured me—“will not last six months past your birthday.”
This was a dire enough prediction that I was willing to engage in some field research to confirm or debunk it. All those people I pushed through every night hugging a bag of ice that soaked through my shirt, who stretched over the counter waving credit cards for the bartenders’ attention, who hollered outside of bars over which club to go to next, the girl who cried to her friends on the sidewalk about the awful thing her boyfriend had said, that guy who slurred accusations at an ex-flame until a bouncer removed him, those long lines of boys and girls who grimaced at their phones as if they were toys that weren’t as exciting as the ads had promised—somewhere amongst this crowd was someone who might crack open a whole new world to me. Right?
“I think it’s time we got started.”
The call to action came from a woman in a black business suit who flashed an orthodontically-pristine smile and introduced herself as Amy. We followed her into the banquet room, where a couple of rectangular tables had been pushed together and topped with one unlit candle. In one corner two men operated a video camera and a boom mic—the flyer had said something about being filmed but hadn’t specified why—while in the opposite corner a server stirred from his early-shift doldrums to take a drink order. Jaded waiters were my favorite kind, as they didn’t check IDs, and from this one I eagerly ordered a glass of Zinfandel because it was the most adventurous-sounding word on the list.
Amy told us to enjoy a round before we got started. The two girls hadn’t stopped talking and were now inclined toward each other in giggling conspiracy. The lothario went back to being bored, while Sleepy Seductive Guy practiced his half-lids. The hulking man thundered down into the seat next to me and leaned over as if about to confide a cataclysmic secret.
He stuck out a big slice of flesh for a hand, and as I shook it Trevor tilted further in, occluding us with one of his huge shoulders. “What do you got so far?”
Trevor boasted the slicked back hair I’d seen on so many men in clubs, a level of maintenance that promised they took care of their appearance, while dabbing his chin was the corresponding stubble that warned said care could never domesticate their irrepressible masculinity. I’d explained this to Junior one night, attempting to distil my passive dislike for these guys into some impressive thesis that would show I was no naïf. But Junior shook his head. “Girls like slicked back hair, they like stubble.” He pointed proudly to his own version of each.
“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Trevor said. “See those two over there, going at it like best friends? Never happen outside of this situation.”
“It wouldn’t?” I asked, and I wasn’t being sarcastic.
“Naw, you kidding me? Those two met at a bar, nothing to do with each other. See, you gotta look at these things anthropologically.” He scooched his chair towards me. “Chick in the beret, the cute one? She’s only talking to the other because she ain’t out on the prowl. At a bar, looking to score? No way she’d talk to a girl like that. Now the other girl, she’s what we call a happy-hour friend. She’s good until six, six-thirty. You ditch her once the drinks go full price, you track me?”
I resisted the impulse to write all of this down. There were happy-hour friends and full-price friends. Check. I casually indicated Sleepy Seductive Guy, who was sitting to the right of us and looked as if he was about to nod off. “What do you make of him?”
“Girlfriend stealer.” Trevor raised two manly bushy eyebrows. “Mark my words. Ever see your lady talking to someone like him, you’re in extreme measure territory.”
“What kind of measures?” I whispered, but before Trevor could respond Amy called our forum to order.
We introduced ourselves. I learned prom queen’s name was Bailey and her new best friend’s name was Dawn. (Lothario and Sleepy had names, but they were too generic to register). Amy outlined our purpose—“We’re just here to get a feel for how young people are going out”—and said she trusted we’d all brought our notebooks. Each of us held our notebooks closely, suddenly afraid of giving away what was inside. Myself especially. Seeing how seriously everybody else was treating their nights out, I began to think mine was an unfunny joke that would backfire.
We started with Bailey, because, really, Bailey had probably gone first in everything in life. Page by page we bar-hopped with her, from a cultured beginning at a martini bar, Bailey and two of her suitors swirling triangles of vodka, to an ending several hours later at a rooftop lounge, Bailey barely perceptible among a crowd shouting in various directions at last call. As Bailey displayed each photo—and in a couple I swear I saw Junior pocketing a candle in the background —Amy interrupted with questions, mostly related to Bailey’s accessories. She rarely appeared without a large hemp purse dangling from her shoulder, and Amy noticed it was different from the small fuchsia handbag looped on her chair back at dinner. This led to a discussion about the different purses required for various occasions. Amy quizzed her on the process of stocking a handbag for the night out. We got a catalogue of lipstick, lip gloss, chapstick, compact mirror, wallet, secondary wallet, ID holder, gum, mint, phone…
This tedium was broken by the arrival of dinner. Christine had been working for the past two years at an organic market, the contents of our refrigerator growing increasingly moral and flavorless, forcing me to sneak red meat on the side. While I attacked my bleeding steak with carnivorous energy, Sleepy Seductive Guy led us through his night, starting at an appetizer joint known for its prosciutto, striking up conversations with various long-legged, black-heeled women until Sleepy had a particular one in his bedroom sights. Amy cross-examined him about the decisions behind his outfit. Sleepy liked light fabrics that breathed, he said; a single drop of sweat could tank an otherwise promising encounter. Amy asked the men how many pockets we needed when we went out, whether that had an effect on the clothes we selected. Where did we put our phone? Our wallet? Our gum?
I looked up. The question had been directed to me. Where did I put my gum when I went out? I had no answer for this. With the room staring, I quickly shoved a bite of filet into my mouth and pointed at my full cheeks. Pass. We moved on to Dawn.
Dawn’s night was a less glamorous shadow of Bailey’s, with the martinis replaced by neon margaritas, suitors exchanged for high school friends. We trailed Dawn smoking, Dawn toasting, Dawn consoling a teary-eyed friend. Her narration was full and vivid, so proud she was of the panoply of establishments she visited and people she met. She sought backing on every detail from Bailey—you go there too, right? Before Amy could ask, Dawn accounted for her lack of handbag. She brandished a flat packet of gum about the size of an outstretched hand and bent it so we could see in. She’d fashioned a strip of plastic inside the packet, which firmly held her ID and credit card.
“I got sick of carrying all that extra stuff. I mean, this is all you need when you go out, right?” Dawn said, as her audience peered at the wonder of consolidation. “I dunno, I guess I just think handbags are a pain.”
Amy clacked away at her laptop. “This is really all you take when you go out?” Bailey leaned forward, saying, “Oh my God, that’s such a great idea,” and then Dawn stood and showed how it fit right into her back pocket. Her face, beaming since Bailey had chosen her as a confidant, now radiated with genuine surprise; she looked as though she had never been in the spotlight but had been practicing for it her whole life.
While the room was focused on Dawn, Trevor scribbled on a piece of paper and slid it to me with grade-school covertness. What do you think we’re getting at here? Before I could invent a reply I heard Amy thank Dawn and thought with panic of my notebook.
My night out in pictures was Christine’s contribution to this excursion. She’d raided friends’ closets with an eye for old Halloween costumes, and directed the set pieces that appeared in my notebook. Her personal favorite was the photo of me dressed as a pirate arguing with a lamp post. This was the image that flashed in my mind when Amy’s gaze settled upon me.
“I think it’s time we took a break,” she said.
As the group stretched and small-talked by the iron benches outside the restaurant, I smoked on the sidewalk and contemplated an exit. I’d gotten my free steak and glass of zin, and found little worth subverting. It would make a lackluster story for Christine, and Junior would be disappointed, but I also felt something essential inside of me had been tested and affirmed. I crushed the cigarette beneath my shoe and turned towards the parking lot. And there was Dawn.
She was standing alone with her phone out, but clearly wasn’t calling or texting anyone—it was something to look at as she stole furtive glances at her old friend Bailey, strolling with Trevor towards the parking lot. Bits of their conversation floated back, Bailey’s voice a melodic treble at the discoveries of all they had in common, Trevor’s low chuckle a bass line of approval. He was right, Bailey had shed her friend the moment a prize was in sight. You had to look at these things anthropologically.
Dawn blanked her phone’s screen at my approach, no doubt to hide that she wasn’t doing anything on it, then realized with a flinch her action only confirmed this, then realized she’d flinched. To stop this cascade I lit a new cigarette and held it out to her. She examined my offering as if it contained a mean trick, then took a drag.
“This thing seem weird to you?” Dawn asked as she passed the cigarette back. “I mean, this was supposed to be about dating, right? But we haven’t even talked about dating. It’s all been how we dress and handbags and stuff. What do handbags have to do with dating?”
I didn’t know where to begin. Anybody who didn’t see what had been going on for the previous hour had to have been blinded by something, naiveté, hope—or, I realized, looking at Dawn, hope’s dark little shadow, loneliness. Dawn didn’t notice my lack of response because she was casting an envious glance at Bailey, who laughed at something Trevor had said, and then seized her gesture as the perfect opportunity to place a delicate hand on his bicep.
“Well,” Dawn said, “at least somebody got a date out of this.”
Amy emerged from the entryway and called everybody in. Dawn took one last look at her erstwhile friend and headed back, body sagging as she went as if recalling that just a few minutes before it had been the center of all of our attentions.
I stepped on my cigarette, swiveled on my heel, and marched inside.
There may have been nights, I admitted to Junior, when I excused my shoulder gently from under Christine’s sleeping head and snuck into the yard behind our duplex to smoke and stare at the dull planks of our back fence, nights when I would have called myself bored. Junior took this as proof—“proooo-oooof!”—that gargantuan desires swelled just beneath my content surface, that the moment I surrendered they would engulf my current self and transform it.
Here’s what I didn’t tell Junior: there were also nights, before holidays when the crowds thinned and we had but one or two deliveries, when I would dump ice in a bar’s well, go around to the other side of the counter and order a complimentary cocktail from the bartender, who never asked how old I was, and look about before finally settling my gaze upon one patron, who was talking to one of her friends or maybe even standing alone, and imagine a different life. This new girlfriend and I would take drives up the mountains, which Christine always talked about but never did; our social circle would encompass more than just Christine’s nit-picky coworkers; the earnest dinner parties we threw would be replaced by raucous neighborhood dives; the yawning indie rock she preferred would be overridden by the ceaseless thump blaring from the club’s speakers. Junior was right, there were entire alternate existences.
But they lived in imagination only. I tried a couple times talking with the hypothetical future partner; a few lines in, I’d mention how her last comment reminded me of what my girlfriend always said; a bewildered look tipped me off, and I backed sheepishly away. In reality I couldn’t imagine myself without Christine. I enjoyed helping julienne carrots and cucumbers for her organic dinner parties, even if I didn’t savor the result. We traded Tupperware full of Christine’s dishes for bottles of wine from the older guests, and the next night Christine and I would get trashed off grocery store vino and attempt to pole vault in our living room using a broom or some other crazy shenanigan, and when we were sweaty and breathless from that we made love on the floor, grinning at each other face-to-face with our teeth smeared purple like ecstatic beasts. Who cared if I didn’t like her music or her salads.
Those nights I drove the truck back to the warehouse, hung with Junior until closing, and went home to find Christine asleep on our couch. She woke up long enough for me to ease next to her and then nestled as she had for years in the crook of my neck. After a few minutes, I fell asleep with her. That was just fine by me.
The seating arrangement was different after the break. Bailey sat in her same seat because, really, it was her seat, but Trevor helped himself to the chair formerly occupied by Dawn. The two scooted within inches of each other and Trevor tipped a shoulder towards her, sealing it with a huddle. Dawn was relegated to the spot beside me, her face rigid as it observed the new couple, eyelids lowered like blinds against a bitter glare.
“I want to ask you all,” Amy said, “what the most important things are you bring when you go out.”
My arm shot up.
A table of faces turned towards me, as I hadn’t uttered a word the entire time. In the end I got only one word out.
“Gum,” I said.
The syllable hopped from my mouth and pirouetted in the center of the table, all tension diffusing and the last bit of humidity evaporating into the air conditioning. It worked like a rhyme at the end of a convoluted stanza, a cadence resolving all dissonance that preceded it.
“I’m happy you said that,” Amy said, smiling like a slot machine about to pay out. “I really am. Going around the room, who would say gum is essential to a night out?”
Bailey piped up. “Oh, totally. I always have gum.”
Sleepy woke up. “There’s never gum when you need it.”
“How do you mean, Matt?” That was his name, Matt.
“Well, you can buy, like, smokes and shit at a bar, right? But after all the smoking and drinking, you need gum or a mint or something if you’re gonna hook up. So why can’t you buy that at a bar?”
Amy nodded. “Going around the room, if gum were sold at a bar, how likely, on a scale of one to ten, would you be to buy it?”
This led to an extended discussion on gum and booze, sidelined by Bailey’s complaint that gum did not mix with gin and tonics. Amy asked, on a scale of one to ten, how likely we would be to buy a gum product flavored to enhance rather than clash with our cocktails. I spent the time trying to determine whether Amy’s gum company—whose name was stamped on the camera case leaned against the far wall for all to see—was trying to develop an ad campaign or new packaging or what. So distracted were we that it was a while before anyone noticed Dawn was crying.
“Honey?” Amy said as she caught Dawn’s chest tremble. “Oh no, honey, what’s wrong?”
“Gum?” The word tripped over her lower lip. “This whole thing was about gum?”
The room was so quiet you could hear the cameraman hit the off button.
“The flyer said this was about dating,” Dawn pleaded, her chest heaving again.
“Oh, no, honey.” Amy hurried toward her.
“You lied to us,” Dawn blurted out. “You lied to us.”
Christine was asleep in front of the television when I got home, her face lit by the moonlight glow of scrolling movie credits. I told her the story before she went to work the next morning. She shook her head for Dawn, shook her head at Bailey and Trevor, shook her head at Amy and casual, professional deception. Junior laughed for much of the tale, interrupting several times to remind me he told me this was going to be worth it. But when I got to the end he kind of chortled and then the chortle died and he was quieter than usual the rest of the night. I kept the anecdote going for a couple months, regaling Christine’s humorless coworkers, then a couple of high school friends who crashed in our living room for a spell. I told it even when people didn’t seem interested, hoping some moral would arise from its airing.
Eventually I forgot about the incident. Or, rather, it was subsumed by a more critical situation, namely that Junior’s prediction proved correct. I turned twenty-one, ditched the ice business to become a bar back and eventually a bartender at a craft beer joint so new I’d never even delivered chunks of frozen water to them. The other bartenders and I kept the place open for ourselves after the shift, flipping a switch on the jukebox to play free Pixies songs as we shot Irish whiskey. I did not get home until three or four in the morning, long after Christine had migrated from the couch to the bed. She had to be at the organic market at seven each morning; I didn’t even stir when she left. Soon our relationship consisted of nothing but each other’s outlines, barely perceptible in the darkness of our bedroom.
I forgot about the story for a full year-and-a-half, until one night when I was standing in line at the grocery store, a single bottle of Zinfandel tucked under my arm to take back to the studio apartment I’d gotten after Christine and I broke up. Some commotion erupted behind my back, two sorority girls in Greek-monikered sweats exclaiming over some great something. The two had opened a pack of gum, a featured product in the checkout line. One of them removed the foil sheet containing the little gum compartments and bent the empty packet so that a clear plastic strip was visible inside. She stuck her ID it into the strip and pulled it back out again, and then demonstrated to her friend how the whole thing fit into the pocket of her sweats.
“Isn’t that such a great idea?” she said.
Then I paid for my wine and went home alone.
Evan McMurry‘s fiction has appeared in over one-dozen publications, including Post Road, Euphony, Palaver and more, and was named a finalist for the Al-Simāk Award for Fiction from the Chicago Review of Books. He graduated from Reed College and received his MFA from Texas State University-San Marcos.