Mopsy by Mark Mirsky
… He bent down beneath two bushes That grew from the same place, one wild, the other an olive, Through which the damp winds could not blow, nor rays of shining sun Beat, or rains pierce through, so thick together did the branches grow Interwoven. Beneath the two shrubs went Odysseus— With broad hands he scraped up a dry bed. Plenty of fallen leaves were there. Enough for two, three men—to take cover no matter how harsh the winter. Seeing this, the endlessly battered, godly Odysseus rejoiced, Lay right down in the middle of the leaves, under a heap stretched Like a man who in a pile of black ash buries a smoldering torch, At the edge of inhabited land, where no neighbors live nearby And keeps alive the seed of fire… The Odyssey, Book 5
I turn into the wiles of never ending subdivisions, the dreaming of one-family bungalows, craning of Great Neck’s stately mansions. Embarked on serpentine pathways through the sprawl of city suburbs in the lanes of Long Island, I find hidden back-ways, byways, and shady curving streets. The trees, front yard and back, suck up salt spray whipped from its Sound, the driveways are draped with low hanging branches, a screen of green through summer, early fall, later a lattice work for snow drifts. I sigh, as if I were Odysseus thrown up shivering from the Mediterranean, naked, buried in a pit of leaves
Where along the backwater sweeping opposite to Bridgeport, Westport, lapping the promontories of the Island’s would he find shelter? On what finger of land poking into the Atlantic could he come ashore? What would he suspect concealed in these suburban homes—sleights of hand, intimate zones, touching that tender obscenity, “privates”? Here comes fourteen year old Nausika tripping across the backyard lawn toward a stranger hidden by the fallen timber, where wildlife survives in a thin line of woods or tangle of brush, despite the stress of fences, the crossword of streets with as many eyes as windows?
Was it possible to name a daughter Mopsy? Was it possible for a father to be called Billy Barbarossa?
What was Mopsy doing with me?
Why did she tell me the tale of her best friend, Maraschino, consenting to be trussed in steel links between her legs, rolling under her armpits? The lengths locked together were borrowed from four custom built racing bicycles hanging next to Maraschino on ceiling hooks from the roof of the large garage. Under the tempered alloy chain shimmering blonde tresses, the pride of her husband, hung to below her waist, dangling on swells of flesh firm as an adolescent’s. The huge garage housed a Mercedes, a Lamborghini, a Honda Civic, the family van with child safety seats, an armor plated Hummer. Maraschino wavered four feet above the concrete floor, the chains looped prettily to expose nipples, a cold course strapped into her buttocks, steel chinks knotted on her back.
Occasionally Maraschino clinked when her husband set her going back, forth as if in a playground swing. In the garage the heat had been turned off. It was full blast in the brick Colonial where the children’s babysitter sat guard. Whip in hand, her husband paced. He wanted goose flesh. With a flick of the riding crop, he tried to sting a spark of fire in the dry leaves.
Was there a lesson in this for me?
“You will fall in love with her,” Mopsy promised.
And when I proposed that I could fall in love with Mopsy?
“You have a wife,” she retorted sharply.
“Why did you offer me Maraschino?”
She laughed in my face. “You have such an imagination.”
You will want to know what I was doing with Mopsy. I asked myself that every time I sat down to write a response to her provocations.
“Isn’t she beautiful,” Mopsy said in that bright voice, which leads one to imagine much more, her eyes soulful. Maraschino, her friend, after a brief conversation with me swept to the end of the room, dozens of eyes following the cleavage in her red, red, all too red revealing dress.
A room full of art critics, mostly men—there are uglier faces in the world, but… Disfigured by gossip, nastiness, these snort up cheap white wine in plastic cups. A few gallery owners stand out, superior in depravity, more forceful. The wine is barely drinkable. I owe my standing here to a willingness to write for nothing, scribbling on a new Web site dedicated to reviewing every gallery in Manhattan, Nosedot.com.
“Catchy, no?” its Creator asked when I offered my services.
“Too catchy?” My question was lost in the wave of the entrepreneur’s hand giving me leave to “Blow man, blow!”
Mopsy wants to be a journalist, wants to leave her husband in downtown Great Neck, a Heating Systems salesman. She befriended Maraschino in a Nursery school P.T.A. Mopsy does not live in immediate proximity to Maraschino whose many chambered home is in a gated community so private nobody knows its name; an ocean promontory kept off maps of Long Island.
This is Mopsy’s mythology.
I try to imagine Maraschino’s mate, the bored husband. What do I know of junk bonds, of arbitrage, of corporate merger and dissolutions? Is he a captain of risk capital, a computer whiz—something to do with numbers brought him such rapid multiplication he felt his wife, however beautiful, ought to be put in motion and there she is—at the end of the room coming toward me—but nothing makes her that special until I see her swinging in chains. How did he get her up there, suspended, on a pulley? The mechanical displaces the effort to imagine an erotic response. Clanking of chains, here she is in front of me, perfectly normal. We exchange polite, vague sentences. “Mopsy tells me…”
“She said you… the same…”
One can choose which of us says what. Not what we say, but what we do not say, is what I want to understand. Does she wince at the edge of each word?
I could never afford to keep her in chains.
I inhabit a rent-controlled hole on Avenue D and shower with plaster from a crumbling closet wall each morning. I rise to a job behind a university library desk. I give to an angry wife what is left from my monthly check. She feeds, clothes, houses and otherwise provides for herself on this, while supplementing the income of two very angry, post-adolescents. I am not a romantic object.
Mopsy met me while researching a paper on Caravaggio, coming to the desk for help in locating recent studies. Happily I had cribbed several striking sentences from a new coffee table edition of the artist’s work only the week before while preparing a review. Instantly I became something more than a morose man with silver hair, dandruff flaked behind the counter and when I introduced Nosedot.com into the conversation, I could see myself reflected, wild eyed in her mischievous ones, a satyr.
I made myself more terrible yet. I concealed from Mopsy that I still loved my wife. I never mentioned that it was I who urged her to contribute to the post-adolescents, that I made sneaking trips back to her apartment in the block of East Side Cooperatives by bus or foot and often spent the night there; leaving in the morning with jars of soup, meat patties wrapped in aluminum foil, whatever I could nab from the fruit bowl for my own larder.
Whom does Maraschino’s husband wrapping her in hardened alloy chain imagine? Is he a medieval knight securing an unbreakable chastity belt, stowing the key in his own burnished plate, before galloping off to a Crusade? Does he return by Lamborghini, contemplating after a time of bitter fighting, a weary trek through the toe of Italy, his piece of Nordic cherry pie, still blushing and secure? Is he a Roman General circling the female slave he has just purchased in the wake of pillage in the upper reaches of the Rhine? Or perhaps he is an S.S. sadist in a back chamber of Auschwitz, clicking his boots before contemplating the rape of a helpless creature?
Why doesn’t she brain him with a loop of the chain?
Or is she sorry, genuinely sympathetic, that this sorry man cannot summon a response to her except in a charade?
Of course I love charades—the reception for a very, very, bad artist is a charade and here are Maraschino and Mopsy in their charade dresses. I would hang in chains if it made me more attractive to them.
I was not in love with Mopsy. To be more precise, at this point I am not in love with Mopsy imagined in links of hardened alloy; or as she appears now (at the alcoholic debutantes’ ball in her ball gown of soft black velvet, neckline plunging to breasts about to pop). The two women stand out in this shabby gallery. Its best painters, sculptors long ago fled a place known to hold on to artists’ sales, pleading bankruptcy). A few uptown sharks circle twirl from canvas to canvas: everyone else is in dungarees.
In the future I may fall in love with her again as I did at first. When Mopsy left my desk at last, taking many notes after opening a chest of personal information— the vapors of intoxication floated in her wake. I had just about written the paper for her. A thick, recent volume on Caravaggio lay open to a full page illustration of the sick Bacchus, I thought of renting a car, draped in a sheet, with ivy around my temples, driving to her street on Long Island, finding a way to thread myself just behind the fence line. I suspected from there across a shallow space of distressed lawn to a concrete patio it would only be two or three feet. It would be enough—a blank canvas for strange footprints in the shelf of February ice.
She had given me her e-mail, as much as unlatching her window. A laptop could be as dangerous as the mirror of Snow White’s wicked queen. I did not need to go through a back door into this woman’s bedroom, or loom, as Jack Frost tracing in glass panes. She had but to flick on her machine and call up my messages. There, I was, as good as invisible to the rest of the house.
Endless e-mails, yes, but that’s what I clutch, a quiver of electronic responses buried in my flesh, little arrows, that barely break the skin.
Months after our first meeting, Mopsy tells me the story of Maraschino, when the latter calls on Mopsy’s cell phone, desperate; on a trip into possible oblivion. Is her friend hopped up on pills interrupting us, I ask as Mopsy leans over my counter at the library? No matter, her friend is in distress. Maraschino’s backyard goes into my file cabinet. Her home sits on ten acres and the way to the fence lies across a rolling lawn, through a garden, then into a grove of birch, alder, old growth timber, oaks, until the ivy clad electrified posts of a chain link fence.
These are heroic dimensions for romance like a great English country house. The limits of space in Mopsy’s backyard are too narrow for epic drama. Maraschino’s lawns are wide enough for Henry James or Edith Wharton.
Masterpiece Theatre, however is over. Maraschino retreats in her red dress for another triumphant turn around the Art gallery, and Mopsy tells her latest story. A racing driver roared beside Maraschino after her return from a desperate drive meant to end in Long Island Sound. She was fleeing from husband, children and house, but long before I could arrive on the scene the race was over. Mopsy kept me in suspense for three weeks with tales of Maraschino, and hints of how desirable, dangerous, needy, she was; how she would adore me, before revealing that I had been beaten to the finish line by a driver twenty-five years my junior.
The curtain was pulled prematurely on my part in a tragic-comedy.
Mopsy’s attention is only intermittent. She comes industriously to the library desk on days when she has stacked the children with a baby sitter or chained her husband to the post. Mopsy loves me—she assures me. She loves Soho. She loves everyone and everything, even Nosedot.com (I promised to help her write for it) but this unbounded love after several months seems to exclude more than include. The only thing she does not like is the name her father gave her, “Mopsy.” She prefers to be called “Mary.”
Does she have a less generous, more restricted, narrow, hot and clammy love that she pinches out to others? As “Mary”?
It is time to rise out of the pit of leaves, shake off the morning frost, bits of twig, raid a clothesline for some pants, a shirt, socks, search the dumpsters for shoes, hat and a jacket, head back to Manhattan. Face it—I am naked, out of season.
“Why do you call me Mopsy?” I hear from a back window.
“You are a rag doll, ready to be torn apart at any moment, subject in your image of who you are to the whims of the child who holds you against his or her cheek?
I, obviously, am also a Mopsy.
Back behind my counter in the starched uniform of a senior Librarian, the wind down the corridor declaims, “Forget Mopsy! Forget Maraschino!” They are out of reach fruit in the branches of the suburbs. They are too real and pursuing the bodies of young men, all too real, heroes of the road, disheveled and probably untalented painters. Mopsy confesses that she is smitten with one who proclaimed his genius at the beginning of her class and defied the teacher to prove otherwise.
This last is an abuse of language. This is against the library rules. The schoolmaster in me comes to the fore. I decide to shut the door and restrict both these women to the Young Adult Room.
On the counter lies a letter from Sweden I have printed out. It’s too cold and far for even an Odysseus to swim there, but distance only renders it ethereal. The sentences are from a former sweetheart who wandered in one day to ask for a Par Lagerqvist (“I am Barabbas!” I wept, and sent her out with the volumes of Hamsun and Isak Dinesen.) She writes from Stockholm now that her last few trysts with men have left her bereft of hope in romance outside the library.
Surely these are golden words interspersed with the brass I had exchanged lately with other women and their timid electronic starts and stops. “I am searching in books now,” she writes, “for my partners.”
How to step into a book to meet her?
I recall her breasts in the bookstalls when I entreated her to come in early one morning, during a coffee break, when the upper floors were sure to be deserted.
I leaned her back against the very shelf from which, months before, I found Hunger, and sent her home with Hamsun’s novel of starvation and desire. My lips touched hers and found that her tongue met mine. My fingers inserted themselves into the buttonholes of her blouse, the hooks of her brassiere. At that moment I unsealed my dark eyes and looked into her blue, blue ones, looked down at her naked chest and then up.
“What does this mean?” she asked.
The question was so serious that I removed my hand from her nipple, which was waiting before deciding whether to rise, for my reply.
Hours, days, years, flashed before me as I went and returned in a wormhole to the future and back. Only a second before I was deep in dream. The question’s cold water woke me—to stare at her exposed breasts—the charade was over. A series of further questions, one nested in the other quickly unfolded. Her breasts were lovely but could I father a child to fasten on that depressed nipple still expecting an answer?
I leaned away. I tried to resume our conversation. The metal rim of the shelf pressed into her pert behind, I saw how pretty she was and the way possibility seemed to bubble out of her but at some point she began to re-button. Didn’t I invite her into the bookstalls with the intention of penetrating that bubble?
Was I the only party to this parlay? The Swedish girl too had to decide, “What does this mean?”
Or perhaps she meant, this does not mean what you think it does, unless…
“Unless you are prepared to mean something more, if you mean to go further…”
This was a serious young woman. All the tales of dancing naked on the bars of downtown Newark honkytonks, of the wiles of Au Pair girls in northern New Jersey, their fleshly teasing of old and young, tickling their private parts, evaporated in that cold heroic look of the figurehead from Stockholm from the fourth shelf of Scandinavian literature.
We both put the best possible interpretation on what had just happened. What did we talk about next?
I have no idea.
Weeks later I understood. I had answered her question.
Mopsy would suspect the same.
What do I mean?
In that letter from Stockholm I can touch the breasts of the Swedish girl in love with danger, romance, through whom the shelves speak, but only in the books I sent her home with and those she spoke about. To pace under a woman in chains with a whip in a Long Island garage, however, is to walk a strange Arctic.
Only in a book could that possibly be more than an exercise in infantile futility. In books life goes beyond the moment’s possibilities. Who would leave wife and children for that paper existence or an electronic one? Yet the instructions for those hours in which we walk the earth lie in the Manual of Arms on the shelves. Are chains just one more trinket that should have been left with stuffed animals in a child’s toy box? Or would they place you in a story image that would renew desire? Books like images borrow from real, everyday life.
What do I mean when I write to Sweden, “I love you”?
Did a man called Odysseus ever swim in, from a cold sea, having escaped an island where time was lost to bury himself naked in leaves and twigs? Did he walk out on a beach to find a fourteen year old so beautiful he could forget the trembling of age in his throttled bones? What specks of truth clung to the old, blind, bard’s body who sang of Odysseus’ flesh on the wet sand? Mopsy, Maraschino, my Swedish friend were long past the moment when Nausika’s breasts rose under her modest gauzes to meet the stranger’s gaze.
Raising his eyes to the night sky as he knelt in that hole, scooped out of loam, sand, moss, lined with “plenty of fallen leaves,” did the great navigator who went to Hades to see his mother, look beyond his own world? The gods he courted were subject to birth, pubescence and maturity. There they stuck but could not go backwards. Their amours and adventures are marked by human time. This is the fatal intermingling of divinity and flesh. A song set down in a scroll or book, had its words pass beyond the era of the heroes and heroines assigned to stars above the poet and his sailor’s head.
Odysseus’s gods are suspended in the paltry dimensions of the perceived universe.
Time’s chains in links drag heavier and heavier. The warmth that goes through Odysseus when he thinks of touching Penelope’s breasts again, his wife’s laughing globes whose nipples wrinkled hard at his fingertips, slowly drains away. Even the thought of Kalypso’s “lovely hair” and her “shining” thighs filled with musk fails to arouse him. Where has it gone, the thrill that passed through his bones like honey on his palate? Has it fled to in the vault above and does it require him to pass beyond even that to recover?
Seeing Nausika, he will feel some of it still cradled in him, and seek to stopper it in words.
At the court of Nausika’s father, Ulysses realizes that he has found a land of magic, a circle of sailors, ships that can sail against the wind of seas, oceans and planets. These seamen hold a circular notion in their calloused palms that he and others have entertained in dreams. He begins to recite the long lines of an epic. He is the song’s principal actor. He sings a tale in which the teller can disappear, go backwards, then appear again, to go on and on in the worlds in which it is recalled, as long as it is repeated.
Maraschino hangs in chains like a pirate, on a gibbet in the harbor, waiting for the ocean to engulf as the tide rolls in. Looking over my shoulder, it is Mopsy who swings beside her. There is a third figure, fastened by a hook in a vast garage, cold, but keeping them company.
Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston and grew up in the Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury district that borders Franklin Park to the east, north and south. Attending Boston Public Latin, Harvard College and Stanford University, Mr. Mirsky has previously published four novels, Thou Worm Jacob, Proceedings of the Rabble, Blue Hill Avenue, The Red Adam, a collection of short stories, The Secret Table, and several books of criticism, My Search for the Messiah, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, The Absent Shakespeare, and his latest, The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire to Decay, He is the co-editor of Rabbinic Fantasies (Yale University Press) The Jews of Pinsk Volumes 1 & 2, (Stanford University Press) and the editor of Robert Musil’s Diaries in English (Basic Books). He founded the journal Fiction in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Jane DeLynn and Max and Marianne Frisch and has been its editor-in-chief up to the present. Professor of English at The City College of New York, he has served as its chairperson and Director of Jewish Studies. His reviews and articles on architecture and literature have appeared in The New York Sunday Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, The Massachusetts Review, Partisan Review, The Progressive, Haaretz, and numerous other publications. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the Fringe Festival in 2007 and can be found on the www.indietheaternow.com
An Autobiographical essay published in 1999 on Mark Jay Mirsky can be found in Volume 30 of Contemporary Authors, Gale and a chapter is dedicated to him in Jules Chametzky’s volume, Out of Brownsville. He is about to issue a novel about Boston lost in the 1950’s, called Franklin Park Puddingstone as an e-book.
His articles appear on the Fiction Website, Fictioninc.com and a blog, markmirsky.com
Marlboro Man by Erik Raschke
As I am leaving for my evening walk with my dog, King Louis XIV, I discover that someone has been mashing their cigarettes out on our “Welcome” mat. They are yellow Marlboro butts, the cigarettes of cowboys and mavericks.
I return to our apartment, toss the cigarette butts into the trash, wash with anti-bacterial soap. Even though my wife, Marieke, is still awake, reading, my son Philip is sleeping so I go about the house cautiously, gently turning the taps, measuring each movement.
Back in the hallway, I search the floorboards for clues that will reveal the perpetrator, for the culprit’s shoe prints in the carpet, the smoker’s size and sex, but in the end, I am only fooling myself, petty in my pretension that I have some sort of control over this opaque offense.
I glance over at our neighbor, Lucy’s, doormat. I am hardly surprised that there are no cigarette butts by her door.
Lucy, our blonde twenty-five year-old neighbor, whose profession as a bartender has made her pale white Dutch skin almost translucent, her voice charred by tobacco smoke, sleeps days, starts her evening at midnight, watches television until the morning church bells chime. When she first moved in, we exchanged introductions, her body language suggested she viewed me as a threat. Her arms remained wrapped tight about her torso, as if restraining a tempest.
Now, as King Louis XIV and I walk along the Zoutkeetsgracht, continuing our walk, I mull over my annoyance. To be so anti-social and self-absorbed… to leave cigarette butts on one’s Welcome mat. Lucy and her friends, coming in and out at all hours, comrades in discourtesy.
The Dutch night sky is cloudless, but it feels as if the clouds are still lurking about in some other form only because the air is so heavy and damp. I stop and sit on a bench, let King Louis XIV sniff, investigate corners. The water moves gently through the canals, pulled and tugged eastward by massive turbines, then ejaculated into the deep trenches of the Rijnkanaal.
I hold Marieke’s breasts, one in each palm, thin nipple between fingers. Her eyes are closed, her face pointed upward. The shadows twitching between the sinuous light of the streetlamp and the green phosphorescence of the kitchen clock, creep onto her body, darkening the space between our genitals, where only the outline of my shaft entering her body is visible.
I can see her eyes studying me, watching me watching her. Marieke has never been able to relax during sex, so she pontificates while dramatizing rapture.
When I am close to orgasm, she reads it in my face, lifts her body, points my penis upward, and I ejaculate onto her belly and thighs. She does not let me go. Leans forward and bites my neck. She then spreads my semen over her skin with two fingers, gazing at the slick sheen with wonderment.
She then lays down next to me, my wetness sliding off her body like oil seeping into a still pond. We breath and say nothing and listen to Lucy smoking a cigarette on her balcony, the coo of a pigeon from atop the ventilation duct on the roof, Philip breathing deeply in his bed.
The next afternoon, returning from a walk with Philip and King Louis XIV, I almost run into an Arab Moroccan man leaving Lucy’s apartment. He does not say hello nor meet my eyes. He has a lit Marlboro cigarette in his mouth, the same butts, I am sure, which I have found upon my “Welcome” mat.
“Filthy animal,” this same man spits as he passes King Louis XIV.
He pounds down the last seven stairs and throws open the door to our building. When it slams shut, there is the stillness of deflated confrontation. The smoke from his Marlboro hangs, gently bends in the fluorescent light. Through the window, I see the Moroccan man adjusting to the fresh air, tying his scarf tighter, pulling up the collar of his jacket. He drops his cigarette onto the ground and lights another, his face tightened in disgust.
King Louis XIV waits for my move, perpetually expectant.
Inside our apartment, Philip and I wash hands and fall onto the couch. I turn on the television and Philip drinks a juice-box then plays with his toys. I watch a show about automobiles whose content is more about the witty commentary of the British presenters than the actual test drives.
At some point, Philip wanders into the kitchen. After five minutes of total silence, I check in on him and discover the cabinet door wide open. He is sitting in the middle of the floor with a bottle of bleach in one hand and a bleach bottle cap in his mouth.
I lift him up and frantically ask if he has swallowed bleach. He stares at me, intrigued by the cadence of the sounds exiting my mouth. I lift him into the air and put my nose against his lips. He giggles as I sniff, as if this is Daddy’s new game. His breath smells like bleach. I set him down, read over the Dutch on the back of the bottle. It says quite clearly, yet unhelpfully, ‘harmful if swallowed.’
I look out the window, look around the apartment, toward the door. I pick up the phone, but cannot remember the number for an emergency. I hang up the phone, pick it up again. Dial 119. I get a message saying I have dialed a wrong number. I dial 911 and get the same message. I hang up the phone. I pick it up again. Pace.
I open the front door, labor over my choices, check Philip’s soft blue eyes hoping that there is something that will give me an answer.
I step over to our neighbor, Lucy’s door, and knock reluctantly. There is movement. Shuffling. She answers, dressed in a green bathrobe and Moroccan-style slippers, the type of shoes with a colored, pointed tip. She blinks rapidly, searches over my shoulder. There is something about the malaise in her gaze that suggests a lifelong experience with hostile confrontation.
“I think Philip swallowed bleach,” I say.
“Is it 911 or 119 or…”
“Neither,” she says. “Come in.”
She opens the door and walks away and I follow, smelling stale cigarettes, lemon cleaning spray. We sit on a red leather couch and Philip becomes curious, about this new environment, eyes moving over everything with equal intensity, but shows little inclination to leave my lap and explore.
Lucy’s cell-phone is sitting near an espresso machine. She picks it up and dials quickly. I notice several appliances lining the kitchen counter, just next to the espresso maker, appliances that Marieke and I have been saving to buy.
While Lucy waits for the hospital, she walks over and touches Philip’s cheek with her finger, gives him a smile so affecting that even I feel its warmth.
“How long ago did it happen?”
“Ten minutes… Maybe.”
“He didn’t throw up or anything?”
As I shake my head, someone answers on the phone and Lucy turns away to explain the situation. She is then put on hold and instead of joining us, walks over to the kitchen window, turns her back and for a brief second I think she is looking into our apartment, into our bedroom.
After Lucy hangs up she repeats what the nurse has said: that if Philip isn’t vomiting, then I should stay put, give him lots of water, feed him bread layered thick with peanut butter, and keep a close eye on him. Lucy then smells Philip’s mouth, takes a clean rag from the kitchen drawer, wets it, and slowly wipes around the edges of his mouth. She is maternal yet indelicate, making silly faces at Philip, but rubbing entirely too hard.
She stands so close that I can smell her soap, feel the texture of terrycloth washed in untreated water and without softener. In the sunlight I notice a few fading scars on her face, wounds from some minor physical traumas. Her hair is clean, light and thin, so blonde that it borders white.
“I know what he might like.”
She goes to her refrigerator and takes out a pad of sweet rum-butter and smears it thickly on a thin piece of raisin bread. Using two fingers, Philip wolfs it down, stuffing the bread almost whole into his mouth. When he has finished, she makes him another and he happily takes it.
“He’s got wonderful dimples.”
Lucy continues to stare at Philip, this boy eating her food. Slowly her eyes suggest that she is no longer thinking about my son but something far more consuming and expansive, the delicate tentacles of domestic possibility. Then something strikes her imagination, something searing. Her face twists gradually, the corner of her lips puckering, thin blonde eyebrows becoming perfectly horizontal, as if she has seen, in an open casket, the corpse of a childhood friend.
I sit next to the bed and watch Philip sleep. Although he is as peaceful as always, I feel that if I leave his side, even for a moment, he will die.
I have called Marieke several times, but it has gone straight to her voicemail. I have left her a message explaining the situation, but each minute I sit there I cannot help but ponder her absence. She has shut off her phone, adamant in her belief that I take responsibility and temporarily relieve her of parental responsibility. I have never decided whether this is perfectly sane or shockingly deviant behavior for a mother.
A siren wails. It is not the sirens of my youth nor the sirens of my country. A phone rings. It is not the sound of an American phone. There is a stinging in my stomach. A sickening dread. The sun sets and I remain in the dark.
It is late when Marieke finally calls. She says that she has just heard my voicemail message and is biking home as fast as she can. I tell her not to worry, that Philip is fine, but she does not want to listen. She apologizes and apologizes and huffs as she pedals.
When she gets home, she runs into the bedroom, looks at Philip, runs her hand across his forehead, exhales, swallows hard. I try and touch Marieke, but her whole body is tense and she moves quickly away. She has been by herself, in her research laboratory, for most of the day today and continues to be so in my presence.
When she is reassured that Philip is alive, Marieke returns to the kitchen and pours herself a glass of wine. I recap what has happened. She listens patiently, asks only a few questions, mostly pertaining to the hospital’s instructions. Says nothing about my interaction with Lucy. Then says, almost in a whisper, “I can’t believe you didn’t see it happening.”
Then a terrible silence follows. Slowly, something deep inside rises to the surface, bursts into my mouth. The timing feels right and wrong and yet right, but my face and body are burning with indignation. My cheeks widen. I cannot hold it back. I say, almost trip out:
“I’m tired of everything being foreign, of… of every detail of my life something I have to learn again. I want to go back to America.”
“We made the choice to come here,” she protests, her tone flat.
“We? You told me this is where you are having the baby. That’s not a choice. It’s an ultimatum.”
“Circles and circles… I’m so tired of this argument.”
“I am too.”
“I’ll say what I said last time,” she sighs, the condescension searing, flaying. “Look at me. Here. Look at me. We have a house. Medical insurance. Subsidized child care. If you can provide that in America then we’ll go. We will. I promise. But try and be a little realistic. You have an undergraduate degree in Anthropology. You’ve only had jobs that barely pay minimum wage. You’re doing a great job with Philip. You make wonderful, healthy meals for us. The house has never been so clean. I like coming home from work. I’m happy. You make me happy. This! This life makes me happy. But if you think life will be better back in America. If you can make life better. Better than this. Then I promise we’ll go.”
I find myself forcing out a whimper, “Maybe I’ll go back to America by myself. I could do that. I could. And then you can live your life any way you want!”
Marieke’s face calcifies and she looks expressionlessly out the windows at a tram rattling past, its passengers studying the darkness which lays in between our window and theirs. She then stands, walks to the window, begins to take off her clothes, right there. She removes everything until she is only wearing lacy black underwear and a bra. She then looks at me, looks at me for far too long, as if calculating my worth, and kisses me on the forehead, before crossing the floor and into the bathroom to brush her teeth.
I walk out to the balcony, resting my elbows against the metal railing. In the square below Lucy’s Moroccan friend, the man who smokes Marlboro cigarettes, the man who thinks my dog is filthy, is sitting on a bench with his back to me, smoking a cigarette, and looking down an empty Spaarndammerstraat. The window has been open the whole time and I’m sure he has heard us. Heard us talking about Philip. Heard the shrill pitch of emasculation.
Around two in the morning, through the walls, I hear voices. The television is turned off, a beer opens, Lucy asks something quickly, then slowly, then laughs what sounds like a nervous conclusion. The radio is turned on, but kept to a low volume. Lucy’s friend walks around the apartment, her floor creaks, her floorboards extending into my apartment.
The lamp in Lucy’s bedroom is switched on, filling our bedroom with light. There is no more conversation. Just a radio announcer’s gentle, confident voice, the international then local news, the weather, construction announcements, hectic advertisements.
I hear voices, slow, quiet talking. Then, a few seconds later, curtains open, Lucy and her friend enter her room kissing hard, he pushing her gently. She lifts one leg and wraps it around him. He puts his left hand up her shirt and, palm arched like a Olympian swimmer waiting for the gun, shoves his right hand down her pants. She is not surprised by his force, moves her hips into him, arches her neck to the left. His hands fumble between her legs, lifts fingers upward, hard. She closes her eyes, gasps, grabs his wrist, and brings her mouth to his neck, biting into him just below his ear.
Lucy is more aggressive when it comes to taking off clothes. She pulls and tugs, lifts her friend’s shirt, unbuckles his pants frenetically, forces down his underwear. She is still wearing her bra and jeans when she kneels and places him in her mouth and since he is not completely erect, she manages all of him into her throat.
I look over at Marieke who is still sleeping, her mouth ajar, her body rigid yet strangely limp. I lean forward onto my knees, shocked by my own voyeurism.
I toss the sheets from my body and take off my shirt, set it to the side of the bed. I look back at the man who smokes Marlboro cigarettes and leaves the butts on my ‘Welcome’ mat, this man who thinks my dog is filthy… this man who is grimacing with delight as he holds Lucy’s head while Lucy fights from gagging…
When he finally releases, Lucy pulls back for air, exposing his wet, erect penis. There is a piercing contemplation of roles, a temporary disentangling, on her part, from the thorns of submission. She looks up at the Moroccan man in a way that I cannot tell whether it is longing or a quiet, almost maternal apprehension.
The man who smokes Marlboro cigarettes and leaves the butts on my ‘Welcome’ mat, puts his hand around Lucy’s neck. She closes her eyes rapturously as he begins to squeeze, as he lifts her to her feet. Even from this distance I can see her face turning purple. His eyes never leave hers and her eyes never leave his. Suddenly, he lets go, reaches back, and slaps her so hard she falls out of sight. He kneels down a second later, descending upon the prey.
I lie back down, listening to the sounds of her screams of pleasure, chilled by the cold, magnificent cruelty of Lucy boyfriend’s domination, jealous over his control, his hard masculine self-confidence. I do not know what has made him this way, what has lead him to feel such pleasure from such cruelty, but it somehow feels more authentic and real than the supple tendons of my marriage. Gender roles established over thousands of years, roles only within the last few hundred suppressed, now released through his sexual domination. I am humbled by this man’s direct perversion, his natural barbarism, his rough sensuality, his complete disregard.
The next afternoon, as I am struggling to ascend the stairs with my son, Philip, under one arm, the stroller in my hand, and two bags of groceries in the other, I discover a smoldering Marlboro cigarette on my ‘Welcome’ mat. My first instinct is to drop everything and pound on Lucy’s door, but as I fumble with the keys, open the door, and set Philip inside, I hear a noise in the dark hallway. A snort. When I turn, I am not surprised to find the man who smokes Marlboro cigarettes standing behind me, in a corner, leaning against the railing, smoking, texting on his iPhone.
“Is this yours?” I say to him, pointing at the cigarette butt. He does not immediately look up, but I keep pointing, hoping he will.
This Moroccan man takes his time finishing his text. When he finally looks up, it is not his casualness which arouses my fury, but his inattentiveness, his meretricious disregard for my exasperation.
“This is the mat to my front door,” I hear my voice quivering. “You can’t just throw your cigarette butts here. You need to pick it up!”
He slowly slides his phone into his puffy jacket pocket and walks over to me, his heavy boots causing the floorboards to creak. As he gets closer, the light coming into the hallway from my apartment is cast upon his face, bringing out his soft, round brown eyes, his high, long cheekbones, his narrow mouth and thin lips, lips that I have seen move with a hypnotizing elasticity.
“You don’t even live here,” I spit. “Who does this? Who?…”
He steps so close that I can smell the cigarettes on his breath. The black, Arabic stubble lining his cheekbones is almost touching my own freshly shaven face, his tightly curled black hair, the hair of Africans, smells of hair wax, marijuana smoke, eggplant tagine.
“Pick it up now,” I whisper, each word shivering, barely passing my lips. “You! Now!”
His eyes narrow and he comes so close, his nose only inches away, his eyes boring down… I am almost convinced that he is about to kiss me. So convinced am I, that I feel my eyes closing automatically, my anger carbonating into an almost fizzy excitement, my indignation swelling into the sexual. My mouth opens slightly, my body relaxes. I imagine myself softening under his grip, unable to escape. I imagine him never letting go. Even as I collapse. Perhaps even climbing on top of me, his knees pressing into my chest.
There is the smell of smoke in the air. The smell of Marlboro smoke. This smell will remain in the hall for hours, never really leaving, just becoming an imperceptible layer of yellow. And the butts will pile up until the ‘Welcome’ mat is entirely obscured.
Erik Raschke is the author of The Book of Samuel (St. Martin’s Press) and several short stories. He lives in Amsterdam.
Harlem is for Children by Paul H. Segar
The kitchen curtains were boiling in hot water. It was the only way his mother knew to kill the grease that clung to them from the meals prepared in the big purple pots on the stove. The curtains, his Aunt Joan’s, were yellow with little brown dots woven into them. These dots, when he looked at them closely, were peppered with smaller white dots inside of them made of the weft. He had tried counting them all one day, but gave up when his eyes would not allow him to see between the folds of yellow fabric where he knew many of the dots were hiding.
But he did not care about the dots this Sunday. This Sunday, for the first Sunday, he cared about the table. The huge table made of wood that sat in the middle of his aunt’s kitchen. It was half of a half of a larger table. The other halves were in Carolina with another Aunt and a grandfather. There were no scratches on the table of any kind. And when he put his nose against the wood, he could smell nothing on it but the lingering sweetness of baby oil. There were knots in the wood, dark as closed eyes, twisting and winding in a way that the curtains would when his aunt opened a window, allowing the fresh air that came off the Hudson to give life to her plants. Letting his eyes wander, he noticed that his hands were resting in a very light rectangle. He looked around the table and noticed seven more rectangles. One of these was directly across from him where his sister sat, her eyes busy, watching their aunt take off her Sunday shoes.
He didn’t know why his sister was so interested in their aunt’s shoes. She had worn them many Sundays prior. They were black shoes with little black roses that buttoned just above short, rounded heels. They were opened-toed. And he could see the seam of his aunt’s stockings, in the same coffee color his mother wore, squeezing themselves out of the toe-boxes, like earthworms excavating their way through dirt. His aunt always re-buttoned them after taking them off, re-stuffing them with yellowed balls of newspaper that had propped up the leather for many years. She picked up her shoes by the heels, then stood.
“You headin’ in your bedroom?” his mother asked. “Hand me the vinegar by your foot before you go.”
“The one right here?”
“No,” his mother said, lighting a cigarette, “the one up your ass.” His aunt waited until his mother took her first drag. She let the cigarette jive in her mouth, kicking it to a corner with her tongue before she spoke again, “I thought I told you to buy more vinegar? This your windows – not mine. I only use white vinegar – white, Joan. What the Hell you want me to do with red vinegar? That big ass bottle there on the floor,” his mother looked down at it with a cut of her dark blue eyes, “that were a waste of money.”
“All they had was red vinegar.”
“What you think God give you legs for?” His mother took another puff from her cigarette. “Take your ass to another supermarket … make no damn sense, fill up your fridgerator with everything except what I send you for.” She flicked the ashes into the sink then unscrewed the cap to the vinegar. A huge dollop of it went into the boiling pot of curtains. Followed by another that ran down the eggplant colored pot, causing it to hiss like a radiator. “Shit.” His mother quickly turned, looking down into the sink. “I put the ashes from my cigarette right on the damn placemats.” She turned on the faucet, holding each placemat under the running water with her big right hand. “And nobody ain’t say a word!” She shook each one, letting the water fly around in the souring air of the large white kitchen. “They fine,” she said, clearing a space on the countertop for them, wiping each one dry with a dishtowel. “I need to hurry and finish before it get dark, Sol ain’t comin’ to pick up me and the kids tonight.”
“He stayin’ at the laundromat?”
“I told you already he had to stay home,” his mother said. “I hope he had the sense to put dinner on the stove, it’s already cook. That’s askin’ too much, when the other night I got home, he had let the kids split a soda. A big bottle. He know better. Good for ‘em – every time they burp they burn they damn noses, they little stomach hurts … I told him, you give it to ‘em you stay up with them all night.”
“Time changed, you don’t have to hurry home.”
“I want to get home before it get too dark. I’m goin’ to hang these curtains up wet. It’s hot enough in here for them to dry.”
He watched his mother drag her forearm across her forehead and the sides of her face, taking it over an uncountable number of freckles and moles that looked like tiny drops of oil in sand. She picked up the placemats, then made her way to the table, putting one down in the light rectangular space where his hands had just been. And there, staring up at him, or looking somewhere that he could not see, was the face of Jesus and his twelve disciples. His aunt had long ago made sure that he and his sister knew all their names, repeatedly pointing to a painted face beneath the plastic of the placemat with a polished nail, and if their mouths were full, waiting for them to swallow before answering. This was a picture from The Good Book. And his aunt had told him more about The Good Book than that woman who ran the Sunday school and had three sons in jail or the preacher that called out to his congregation to never put coins in the collection plate. What he knew, he knew well. What he did not know, the aunt had a Watchtower at the ready for him to take home from a stack on an end table next to a large potted plant in the living room. What he liked most about the painting of The Last Supper on the placemat was the jug. It was a big jug that to him had a funny shape. When he would tell his sister about the jug, she wouldn’t listen to him. She would say, “So,” in the same flat voice that hid the single digits of her age. It was the same flat voice she used when she wanted to order him around, a voice that he feared.
That fear had settled into him yesterday when his sister ordered him to get a crate that was inside the alcove under the first floor stairs of their building. After he was given the order, he stood looking at her, hoping that she would come with him. The building hallway was dark and constantly full of junkies or homeless people that called the many fire-gutted apartments home. But his sister said she would not come with him. She barked the orders again, pinching his arm with every word before pushing him out their front door.
He felt the burn from the pinches as he slowly crept down the stairs by himself. On the second landing, he decided he was going to hold his nose under the alcove, knowing that junkies, homeless people, and anyone else used it for a bathroom. Coming to the first flight, and turning to the left on the last stair, he kicked at the crate, trying to use his foot as a hook. Kicking harder at the crate, he became angry and could no longer feel the pain from the pinches on his arm. But the anger went away, much like the pain he had felt when he marched back up the stairs, holding the crate in his hands, unaware of the urine staining his shirt.
His sister took the crate from him, placed it in front of their closed door and used it to reach the highest lock before jiggling the doorknob like their mother and telling him to hurry downstairs.
It was a sunny day, the kind of sunny day that his mother did not like. He did not know why. But he liked the sun and the way it sometimes sat in every room of the abandoned buildings around him and how it reflected kindly through the bars onto the plate glass door of the corner store. If the sun were a real person, he thought he knew it well enough that he would ask it to play.
When he played, he was only allowed to play with his sister inside their apartment. But today was different, and he knew it was different. His sister had promised him that they were going to play with other children. He had never played with children from his block before. His mother had said these children were as, “Wild and loud as monkeys without the goddamn trees.” And as they headed up the street to where they were, he stuck so impossibly close to his sister’s side out of fear that she could not push him away.
The other children collected around them. It was quickly decided, by someone that he could not look in the eye, that they would be “It.” Thankfully, they were “It.” And he and his sister could run in and out all the abandoned cars together and search all the hallways together and press their tiny fingers into the thin-skinned flesh of the children that had been playing in the blue light of the morning when he first heard their voices from his bedroom window as he lay in bed, still feeling the strength of his mother’s presence, even though she had gone to work at the laundromat long before the sun had risen.
“If we could lock the door we could go outside,” his sister had told him. “I got my keys. We could go play.” He didn’t want to go outside. But he did want to play with his sister. She was a year older than him and in first grade. And the keys, given to her in case of an emergency, made her more than just older in his eyes, they made her his entire world. Maybe, if she saw him playing well, she would want to play with him more often when he asked and not when their mother told her she had to.
He couldn’t get in and out of the abandoned cars as fast as his sister could. Her long limbs were something that he did not get from their father. They took her so far away from him that his body would stop and he would want to cry. He could feel the tears warming behind his eyes. But he could not cry. Crying would make his sister call him a baby. He learned that if he could not keep up, he could go another way. He could go around the cars. But he was told this was cheating. And for cheating, he was now, “It,” alone, having to count to twenty with his eyes closed without his sister beside him.
He was “It” alone for the rest of the games they played. He wanted to stop playing. But he had become good at sliding through the abandoned cars, careful not to touch the sharp jagged things that he saw. A girl, bigger than him and bigger than his sister, had decided it was time to play something else. They all sat on the stoop in a giant clump of sweat, trying to answer what was being asked over and over again, “What you want to play now?” He didn’t have any ideas. And if he did, he wouldn’t talk to any of the other children about them. The other children’s faces were faces that he did not know very well. And he only talked to faces he knew. Once his mother had told him to speak to a man with a giant Afro and a large boombox set on his shoulder. He refused, watching the huge speakers on the boombox pulsate like the eyes of a massive fly as the man kissed his mother on the cheek. After kissing his mother, the man gave his sister a dollar. The man gave him a dollar too. But that was only after his mother had pried him off her thigh and told him to wave.
His listening to the answers of what game they were going to play next was interrupted when he saw that his shoelace was untied. He knew how to tie it, but he could never tie it good enough that it would not come loose again. He showed his sister the undone laces. She took his foot, propping it up in her lap. He leaned in just missing the clip of a giant yellow leg going over his head. A big man, a grown man, had stepped over him, his right foot landing hard on the concrete.
He looked at the man. He was shirtless, standing in nothing but his underwear and house shoes, exchanging handgrips, knuckles, and pounds with men that passed by. The smell of sleep was stuck to him. And he kept putting his index finger in the corners of his eyes, bowing his head, trying to knock the tiny rocks from them onto the ground.
He had never been so close to this man before. He was one of the men his mother had told him and his sister to stay away from. He had seen this man buy ice cream for other children but his mother would not allow him or his sister to have any. He had also seen this man laugh and throw blue balls to the boys back and forth across the street, giving chase to them when they escaped hands, taking them to the fire hydrant to clean everything from the gutter off them.
Something very loud popped. It popped again very fast. It popped again and filled the street with screams and running bodies. It kept popping and people kept running and screaming and disappearing off the street.
The boy had disappeared off the street too. He was in a building hallway. Its heavy iron door closed, not letting in light. A woman had him in her arms. And he had wedged as much of his head as he could into her chest, letting tears run down his face, and spit fall freely from his mouth like water.
In time, the woman put him down and wiped his face clean with the roughness of her hand. She put in his hand the hand of his sister. He looked at her to find that she was also having her tears dried. “Yo’ mother know you two out here?” the woman asked. He knew the sound of her voice, and once his eyes dried he knew her face. “She upstairs? I’m goin’ t’take you two to her. You two shouldn’t be out here.”
They were the last ones to leave the building’s hallway. It had been thick with people and as they passed they had looked at him in a way that made his heart feel as if it did not belong to him. The block was crowded again. And there was a body. And blood around that body filled the cracks in the concrete that lay underneath it. They passed the body quietly. Looking up the block, his building seemed incredibly far away.
“We not suppose t’be outside,” his sister said.
“You two goin’ t’get it,” the woman said, “yo’ mother don’t play. She think you two upstairs in that house, sleepin’ or somethin’.”
“She’s not home,” his sister said. “She at the laundromat.”
“I only saw your mother leave,” the woman said. “Yo’ daddy, Sol, he ain’t home.”
“No,” his sister said. “He went to the laundromat first. But he comin’ back.”
They entered their building and the darkness of the first floor. They went up the stairs with the woman carrying him. The crate was gone from in front of their door. She took the keys from his sister and let them inside, telling them to stay put while she went to find their mother. They sat inside the apartment in unnerved silence, waiting for the inevitable sound of their mother’s labored footsteps to climb the stairs to their front door.
The sound of his mother’s footsteps always sounded as if they were about to break off at the ankles from overuse. They sounded that way now as she walked back to Aunt Joan’s stove, turning off the pot of boiling curtains, placing it in the kitchen sink.
“I have to go,” his mother said, wringing the curtains with enough force to draw the yellow color from them and spiraling down the drain, “It’s gettin’ too dark.”
“It ain’t that dark.”
“You deaf? You know how long it take me to walk here, by the time I get home it will be dark. Hurry up, I’m leavin’.”
His aunt left the room. The boy could feel his mother’s eyes on him. He also felt when they left his body and moved onto his sister’s. He didn’t dare look up. He listened to the soft crackle of his aunt opening her purse in another room and the sound of his mother taking a puff from her cigarette. His aunt came back into the kitchen.
“I only got fifteen,” the aunt said.
“You did this shit on purpose,” his mother said, banging her hand down hard on the table, causing the children to jump in their seats. “You know you did this shit on purpose. I clean yo’ house every fuckin’ weekend, Joan, every weekend. What you think I clean it for –my health?” His mother snatched the money from her. She picked up her white handbag from off the floor underneath the kitchen sink, flinging it over her shoulder in a motion that found her hand pulling the zipper open with the same hand clutching the singles and two fives. “You know how much I need that fuckin’ money.”
“I don’t got it right now.”
“Go fuck yourself.” Their mother snapped her fingers and the children slipped out of their chairs, hurrying to stand to the left and right of her. “I ask you to go and give me twenty for the month – you know damn well what happen.” She took hold of their hands. “I’m lucky these two still alive. Thank God Sol left the laundry early.” His mother threw the money down on the floor as if it would break. “I’ll put my own fuckin’ lock on my fuckin’ front door – you don’t have to give me nothin’. Your day’ll come … because you know what I need it for, because this one,” their mother raised her sister’s arm high enough that she was on her toes, “were dumb enough to give a fuckin’ crackhead her keys!”
The boy looked down at the money as it lay in a knot on the kitchen floor. It sat close enough for him to touch, to protect, if he were to step on it, or if his sister were to. Her foot was closer to it than was his own. He could hear the deep pull of his mother’s voice above his head, and the voice of his aunt. And he could also hear himself, thinking about moving, and wanting to move became something more than just a thought to him. He wanted to inch his foot towards the money as slowly as the water sliding down the side of the kitchen sink from the curtains his mother left hanging over its lip. But he knew he could not move. He also knew his sister could not move as well. And since they could not move, he thought about the money in a different way, he thought would it look the same when he saw it there next Sunday.
Paul H. Segar, a celebrity stylist/fashion designer, was born and raised in New York City. He received a B.A. in English Literature from City College of New York and has won several awards in recognition of his writing, including the Ross Alexander Playwriting Prize & the Jerome Lowell DeJur Award in creative writing. His work has previously appeared in Fiction magazine.
Membership Dues, an excerpt by Chris Ross
Ivers planned to visit LaSalle on weekends, but the way it is with Robinson Farms if it isn’t raining then you’re working, and it’s been three straight weeks of sunshine since LaSalle admitted herself to the mental health ward of St.Vincent’s.
The call comes on a Wednesday. Ivers is told that time is up. “Come and get her.” He makes the three-hour drive the next day, finds LaSalle sitting on a bench outside the ER. She’s dressed in hospital blues and her purple Cons.
“Don’t get mad,” she says.
“I’m not mad, LaSalle.”
“The days got mixed up. I can’t leave until tomorrow, but I can go out for an hour or two today if you want?”
Ivers looks at the brown glass of the ER doors. Understanding that complaining won’t change anything, he puts on his sunglasses and takes LaSalle by the hand. They leave St. Vincent’s on foot. An ambulance nearly hits them as they cross the street. The warmth of the ambulance’s grill is like an animal’s breath on their shoulders.
Walking along the storefronts of downtown Indianapolis, Ivers wonders if he should buy her something like flowers or chocolate or lunch at Red Lobster. They grab a couple of Sunkists and head over to the courthouse. Lunchtime, crowded, the courthouse lawn is roped-off to be seeded. A stroll around the perimeter, LaSalle stops to inspect a plaque set within an enormous wedge of granite.
“Centennial Time Capsule,” she reads. “To be opened in 2103 A.D.”
They find a bench and sit staring at the roped-off lawn. Above them, the sky is all kinds of clouds, torn and grey, full and white. LaSalle kicks off her sneakers, rolls up her hospital pants, and says, “I think I make better friends on the inside than I do on the outside.”
Ivers digs his keys out from a front pocket of his jeans. “The plus side to suffering.”
“But inside friends don’t last.”
“And outside friends do?”
“I think it’s all the recreational therapy. How we’re told to focus on the here and now?”
Ivers watches her look around at the people lunching along the perimeter. It’s like watching someone who’s asleep and wondering what they’re dreaming about. He tries to take a hold of her hand. She pulls back, not just her hand but all of her.
“I haven’t been in a real huggy environment, you know?”
“It’s not like anybody forced you to go in there.”
“Everything tastes like celery.”
“Again, all your idea.”
She turns and brings her legs around his waist, draws him in. He puts his face in her hair, pleased to find she doesn’t smell like hospital. And for the first time since her decision to admit herself, he tells her what he feels. “I’m sorry, LaSalle. I am.” She asks if he missed her. “Very much,” he hears himself answering.
She takes his sunglasses, relaxes back on her elbows and reaches for her Sunkist.
“No lying on the benches.”
This comes from a man in a brown uniform. Instead of a badge, he wears a green patch. Instead of a gun, he’s armed with a little steel arm and claw. “Benches are for sitting,” he says.
Ivers looks at LaSalle in his sunglasses, wonders what she expects of him, if anything. “Listen,” he tells the guy. “We’re just trying to get some air, huh?”
The man pinches a Twix wrapper from the protected lawn, and says, “Rules are rules.”
Ivers stays at the Marriott that night, gets half-drunk at the hotel bar watching a Pacers game. He wakes up the next morning to the sound of cars honking in the rain. The wake-up call comes in. He picks up the receiver, lets it drop. The complimentary toothpaste tastes like drywall.
They had agreed to not meet at St. Vincent’s but back at the time capsule in front of the courthouse. Ivers is standing in the rain now, waiting, watching umbrellas snapping open over people stepping off buses. A young girl approaches him and asks, “Hey, am I anywhere near the children’s science museum?”
Ivers says, “I wouldn’t know. I’m from Dekker?”
She drops her umbrella to her knees, gives it a good shake and moves on, leaving Ivers to wonder why Dekker had to come out like a question. Inspecting the plaque to the time capsule he finds it hard to believe there was a time when the future meant people going to work in spaceships, having robots for friends, families living in glass cities at the bottom of the sea.
LaSalle comes up smiling in the rain. She’s dressed in her pink corduroys, World Wildlife t-shirt and purple Cons. No umbrella. “Don’t get mad,” she says. “There was paperwork.”
Tired of telling her he’s not mad, Ivers asks if she’s hungry.
“Totally,” she says as if she had just gotten off of work. She pecks him on the cheek. “Let’s eat.”
At an Amish buffet on the south side of Indianapolis, Ivers talks about clearing land for Robinson Farms.
“It’s not Robinson land,” he explains. “The real owner can’t afford to have it cleared, so in exchange he’s allowing the Robinsons to farm it next year.” He waves down an Amish waitress for more coffee. “I hope it’s raining back home. They’ll replace me if I’m gone for too long.”
“But it’s only been a couple of days.”
“Everyday counts, LaSalle.”
She cuts into her cured ham. “So I’m told,” she says.
They make love when they get home, order Dominoes and watch an episode of Frasier in bed. Ivers wakes up in the middle of the night to the sound of running water. He finds her in the bathroom sitting at the edge of the tub in the dark. She looks up at him, and he has to tell her, “I’m not mad.” He turns off the water and guides her back to bed. They sleep the rest of the night holding one another.
The next day is warm, windy, the sky low and grey. Claiming he left his cell in the car, Ivers makes the call out in the driveway. When he asks if they need him, he’s told to call back tomorrow. Back in the house, LaSalle is at the kitchen table smoking her Carltons and catching up on her funnies. This time, it’s not as if he’s watching someone who’s asleep and wonders what they’re dreaming about. But if she dreams at all.
“They’ve got work for me today,” he tells her.
She sits back, sets her cigarette in the ashtray.
“Listen,” he says, wiping the pout from her face as if it were a milk moustache. “It looks like it’s going to rain anyway. I’ll try and cut out early.”
She tells him, “You don’t have to do that.”
Ivers drives around Dekker for a while. What was once the post office is now a Verizon. The high school is now the middle school. Swastika graffiti can be seen beneath the swipes of battleship grey at the foot of the columned storage bins of the grain elevator. He grabs a donut at the Shell station. Just paying for the donut makes him feel fat and useless, so he heads over to the YMCA. The receptionist at the Y reminds him, “Hey, Ivers, membership dues don’t pay for themselves, you know?”
“I know what I owe,” he says, and gives the receptionist two dollars for towel rental. Pushing through the heavy blue doors to the men’s locker room, he’s met by the comforting reek of bleach and chlorine.
Chris Ross lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn where he teaches at Medgar Evers College. His debut novel, Born & Raised, was published by Tell Me Press in 2013. Membership Dues is an excerpt from his novel-in-progress Sparkler Bomb.