Mountains Between, by Jeff Ewing

White flakes streaked diagonally across the road in front of Shelley, then swirled away in the wash from the Lincoln. She let herself believe it was snow, watched the impossible storm lift and dance on the heat waves rippling off the pavement. There was no harm in fooling yourself from time to time—in the valley, with nothing stretching off into nothing, it was an essential skill. One flake caught under her wiper and fluttered like a moth. She studied it for a moment, then turned the wipers on and watched it drift off into the irrigation ditch.

She’d seen the real thing only once, years ago when she was a girl. The snow falling so slowly, onto the schoolyard and along the field roads. People still talked about it, especially on days like today—ninety-six degrees at eight-thirty in the morning. The back of her blouse was already sticking to the seat.

She looked in the rearview mirror and saw the pink duck pacifier bobbing against Casey’s lips, his eyes moving faintly behind their almost transparent lids. They both needed that. On the seat beside her, the mutton-chopped face of Ibsen glowered up at her from a fat hardback she’d picked up for $2.50 at a library sale. It had been a revelation. Standing under the sun-bleached awning, the sidewalk radiating like a hotplate, she’d been able to leave the valley behind and look out on a cooler, kinder world:

A road along the seashore. An avenue of trees along the road. Between the trees are seen the fjord, high mountain ranges and peaks.

She willed that other road into being now, saw it overlaid like vellum on the cracked highway—the cool wall of trees cutting the light, the flicker of water and shade, the blue line of the far shore. Mountains loomed and the air conditioner whirred. The storm thickened around her.

She concentrated, fixing the landscape in her mind, but it began to waver as a sour, burnt smell seeped in through the vents. The source of the storm was just ahead of her, a battered flatbed loaded with double rows of cages. The truck bounced over a pothole, and set off a fresh flurry of feathers from the chickens piled inside, one on top of another. She eased up on the gas and let the truck pull away. She swallowed hard, felt the dryness starting in her throat.  Nothing here was what it should be.

Her cell phone rang, and she snatched it up before it could wake Casey.

“Randy? You coming today?”

“Sorry. You have the wrong number.”

“Who is this?”

“You have the wrong number. There’s no Randy here.”

There was a pause, then the voice again, snapping in her ear.

“He doesn’t love you.”

“I’m hanging up now.”

“He never did.”

Vehement, snarling. Shelley punched the phone off.

She almost missed her exit and had to cut over at the last minute, across the unpaved V of the off-ramp. Gravel and dust sprayed out behind her, pinged against the undercarriage. When she pulled into the Safeway parking lot, she saw the chicken truck ahead of her again. It turned sharply toward the loading dock and one of the cages slid from the bed, slamming onto the pavement. She honked her horn. The driver flipped her off.

She parked in a wide area of empty spaces beside a shriveled, leafless tree. On the way in, she picked up a cart that had been abandoned. The chicken truck idled by the curb, the naked birds lolling, necks limp and twisted as old rope. The driver watched her as she crossed the parking lot, still swearing under his breath. She hiked her skirt up in back as the double doors hissed open and cool air poured out of the store. She knew what he’d be thinking. Childbirth hadn’t taken everything.

She took her time inside, feeling her skin tighten and pucker—like the chickens’—under the A/C. It had been weeks since she’d made a real meal. She ran her hands over peaches and honeydews, greedily popped a pair of stray grapes into her mouth. If anyone was watching, she didn’t care. She crushed a basil leaf under her nose, then ran the point of it down along the artery pulsing at the side of her throat. She leaned into the mister above the green onions and radishes, let it wash over her. Fine droplets beaded in her hair, ran down off her lip tasting faintly of salt.

When she came out, there was a crowd around her car. She stopped a short distance off and stood watching. She saw a man draw his arm back and swing it slowly forward, heard the glass of her window shatter a second later.

“Hey!” she yelled, hurrying across the pavement.

The crowd ignored her; they were watching the man as he leaned into the car and pulled a bundle out through the ragged window. A little pink plastic duck peeked out from the bundle, still as a cartoon panel.

#

Their faces floated in the heat, a girl and a man. Hovering over her.

“Hush now,” the girl said. Like a grandmother. She was no more than college age, with the tattoo of a vine snaking along her upper arm. She and the man—the man who’d broken the window—supported her between them, cooing to her. Shelley studied the man’s face above his white butcher’s apron, and realized it was the chicken truck driver. She tore her arm loose and dragged her nails across the side of his face. It was almost funny the way he just stood there and took it, hardly flinching, cradling the bundle. She scratched him again, felt a flap of skin tear loose. She snatched the bundle away and set it in the car seat. She tried to buckle it in, but the plastic clip where the belt fastened was broken. She patted the bundle once, and started the car.

The girl tapped on her window, mouthing something. The man stood a little way off, his hand pressed to his cheek. They didn’t try to stop her when she pulled out. Her shopping cart, still full of bags, bounced off her fender and rolled away back toward the store, melting ice cream already starting to leak through the paper.

#

A McDonald’s sack reeled from front to back, door to door, sailing out finally through the broken window. A white paper triangle left behind on the ragged glass fluttered like a tiny banner.

“It’s okay,” she said into the wind. “It’s okay.” To the bundle. To Casey.

She drove past the packing shed without stopping. Mike would be in the trailer, the temporary office that had been perched on its cinder block footings for more than ten years. On the phone, arranging things. Shipments, sales. He’d hold up a single finger. One minute. But the minute would stretch till it snapped, and she’d leave again anyway without talking to him.

The concrete and asphalt thinned out into orchards and vineyards as she drove toward the mountains she could see off in the distance, splotches of snow flickering at their summits.

Broken shade fell through the car, strobing across the dash. Rolling sprinkler rigs sprayed out in the fields, half the water evaporating before it hit the ground. She wondered why she’d never been out here before. In thirty-five years. Then she thought maybe she had been and just didn’t remember, and that seemed almost as sinful.

She crossed a small creek, its bank shady and inviting. On the other side, pulled over in the shade of an ancient walnut, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. The eyes looking back didn’t seem to be her eyes, and it startled her. She laughed and shook her head. Because, of course, they were.

She lowered herself into the water, farther and farther, until the water crackled in her ears like cellophane. She held her breath till her chest hurt; then she held it a little longer. A single bubble slipped between her lips and hurtled downstream. She was forgetting something.

As she shook her hair dry and lifted her wet shirt away from her, the thing gnawed at her. Like a little animal nibbling just under the surface. She shook her head, scratched behind her ear. What was it?

The phone rang again.

“You can’t run,” the voice said. “You bitch.”

#

“The baby’s crying,” Mike said.

“His name’s Casey.”

“I know his name.”

She rolled over in bed, pulled the covers up over her head. The light was so bright through the window it penetrated even through the thick comforter. She’d set the thermostat low enough that they needed it, the absurd goose down.

She heard him in the next room lifting Casey out of the crib, trying to quiet him. But Casey wanted her, always did. She closed her eyes, waited for him to give up.

She touched the cover of the Ibsen book on the nightstand, repeated a few of the names in her head: Hjallmar Ekdal, Dr. Rank, Rubek. Musical names. Not Shelley, not Casey, not Mike for god’s sake. They weren’t real, maybe, but so what? Who was? They did things for plausible reasons, they didn’t just live out of habit. They were not subject to the same stupid laws that made her and everyone else in this shitty little town so ridiculous. They did not step off curbs into piles of dog shit, or blubber down the sidewalk with mascara streaking their faces. They were not like these people, like her—arcless and lost, their characters barely sketched.

The car lurched, shot forward, lurched again. She’d meant to get gas after the store, at the gas station in the parking lot. They gave you a discount if you had a grocery receipt. She’d been distracted, of course.

She pulled off the pavement where a wide dirt road spilled out into dry fields. A cloud of dust eddied in through the broken window and settled on the dash. She looked out across the clotted and cracked dirt, interspersed here and there with aggressively green islands of weeds and star thistle, and threw up.

“I’m carrying your baby, Randy!”

The voice on the phone was nearly hysterical now.

“There’s no Randy here.”

“Your baby, our baby.”

Shelley spit into the dirt.

“You have the wrong number goddamnit!”

The voice on the other end paused.

“You’ve got some nerve. Put Randy on.”

“What is wrong with you? I’m telling you, you have the wrong fucking number!”

“Bullshit. Put him on!”

“No!”

She cut the call off with a jab of her thumb, then undid the car seat and set it on the ground. She worked quietly so as not to wake him. He was very still, turned a little to one side. She dropped the book into the diaper pocket and tucked her phone into the corner of the seat, against his leg. He liked it there—the music of it when it rang beside him, the tickling vibration. His skin was cool, and she withdrew her hand quickly at the touch of it.

The sun was almost straight overhead. Shelley carried the car seat like a picnic basket in the crook of her arm. She wished she was still breast feeding. Her breasts felt heavy and pointless, stuck together by a film of sweat beneath her shirt. She cupped her hand over her eyes and squinted toward a sickly green house perched on a dusty rise. A portable outhouse sat on a small mound off to one side. It was painted the same color as the house and she wondered which had come first.

A man was working on an old truck off to the side of the house. He came out from under the hood and wiped his hands on a rag, then wiped his nose with the same rag. Shelley stopped and stood where she was while he made his way over, a glass of something in his hand.

When he spoke, she only half heard him, but she answered back anyway. She glanced off to her side, expecting a director to tell them to stop at several points and start over again. The man spoke in clipped fragments like a voice translated from another language, lecturing her on family and love and other nonsense.

“What you’re doing, you need to stop,” he was saying. “You need to go home.”

As often happened with strangers, she fell quickly into anger. “What home?” she demanded. “Tell me where that is!”

The man laughed at her, his eyes squinting shut under bleached eyebrows. Nobody knew how to be a mother anymore, he preached. Other people had to tell them what they should have known down in their bones. Sipping the cloudy drink, from which the sour stink of whisky rose.

“There’s no naturalness nowhere.”

He wiped his nose again with the rag, let a couple of drops splash into the glass. It made her furious that he’d appointed himself her judge. Her voice grew loud and unexpectedly shrill. It crept into an inhuman register, warbling and fluttering, lifted on an updraft of grief. It floated high above her, caught in the dead air, circling against the dirty sky.

#

Down in the creek bed below the field she mopped her eyes with the heel of her hand, felt the grit rubbing in. She splashed handfuls of water in her face, one after another, until even her shirt was soaked through. As she climbed the far bank up out of the gully, she could just make out the penned outlines of the mountains through the haze.

She took the book out of its pocket, read the scene description from Act II of “The Lady from the Sea”:

It is a summer’s evening, and twilight. A golden-red shimmer is in the air and over the mountain-tops in the far distance.

She remembered a TV show she’d seen once about Sir Edmund Hilary, remembered him describing the long walk to Everest, the days of approach before the mountain became a real thing, close enough to be real. How he had felt unreal himself during that time, unformed on the long walk, not part of his own world yet, not yet Sir Edmund Hilary.

She watched a jet pass over her, so high that it made no noise. A great variety of plants that she couldn’t begin to name grew in among the trees. She wondered if any of them were edible. Some were, almost certainly. The fact that she had no idea which ones they were made her feel foolish. She’d always had a vague disdain for the country, for the empty areas like this that she drove through as quickly as possible. They were empty for a reason, she believed. You only ended up out here if you fucked up.

And now here she was.

Casey’s carrier rattled in her hand. She set it on the ground and took a step back. His foot, in its tiny shoe, trembled.

“Shhh,” she said.

Then she saw the phone, wedged under his leg. She lifted it to her ear hesitantly, expecting the woman again, the angry, possibly wronged woman. But it was Mike’s voice that came, tinny and distant, from the little speaker.

“Shelley?… You there?…Honey?”

She heard his breath held, heard him waiting.

“The news. I’m watching the news.”

She tried to hear what was behind him, through the silence, the world around him at that moment.

“I won’t be home for dinner,” she said.

“What?”

“You’ll have to fend for yourself.”

She hung up, but she knew he’d call back before very long. Ready this time, with her own responses already mapped out in his head. The whole conversation over and done before she’d even picked up the phone. Or that woman again, desperate and mean. She stood on her tiptoes beside a gnarled live oak and wedged the phone into a tight V of limbs.

#

At some point she took her sandals off and threw them away. Her feet were cracked and scored, but the ground underfoot now was thick with pine needles and duff, spongy and slick like snow might be. She wanted to know that feeling, to have nothing in between any more. Every so often she saw the flash of a snow patch on a far-off ridge, white and pure, every glimpse another bread crumb leading her on. It wouldn’t be long now.

Her right arm tingled so that it hurt to turn her wrist. Occasionally the car seat bumped against a high spot and the pain shot up her arm to the shoulder. It was only fitting. She didn’t blame Casey, as some might have. You don’t blame kids for being kids. In due time, the two of them would redeem each other. That’s how it worked. Everything evened out. Mistakes were laughed over, once enough time had passed.

“People need help with happiness,” her father had told her once. “They can take care of the sad stuff themselves.”

That wasn’t true, of course. Not even close. She would tell Casey the truth, she would tell him that people needed help with all sorts of things, that the number of things they could in fact take care of by themselves could be counted on a five-year-old’s hand.

She didn’t reach the snow the next day, or the day after that. It was cold at night, but during the day the sun, if anything, was hotter and more direct. There were no more people now. She moved steadily uphill, stuck to the trees, and crossed the few roads she encountered cautiously, shuffling from shoulder to shoulder in the long gaps between cars.

As she went, she collected interesting objects she found for Casey. Some of them were natural, some were pieces of man-made things. She studied each one as if it were a clue, then she tucked it into the padding of his car seat—a piece of reflector, an eyeglass temple, a clump of quilted batting; a skein of cassette tape, a distributor coil, a cupped Bakelite hand. Rocks ground and stamped by time into every imaginable shape and color. Ridges and hills assembled under the car seat fabric as they made their way up and up, a new world rising from the old.

Eventually she came to a gray patch of snow, crusted and flecked with algae at the base of a big pine. She set Casey on the lip of the depression where the snow had collected. The canopy on his car seat was dusty and covered with a carpet of needles and leaves. It stuck when she tried to push it back. She pushed harder, a spar snapped, and light flooded down onto him, bright and unimpeded. He was curled in the seat, his head turned to the right and his hand flung out in a tiny fist. On his cheek was the birthmark that matched the mole on hers, near-identical dots connecting them like the imaginary lines of constellations.

She scooped out a handful of snow, held it to her neck, rubbed it across her forehead. She dug narrow furrows through the crust, which gradually turned white as she went deeper. She lifted Casey out of his seat, snuggled him into the clean underlayer. Then she laid down next to him, tucking the book under her head for a pillow. The smell of mildew—which she associated with the words themselves rather than the paper—mixed with the smells of sap and snowmelt. She fell asleep quickly and dreamed vividly of a house—beautiful and intricate and so different from her own—set on a gentle slope in a patch of blue shade.

The main room was littered with shoes and toys, books left open, the evidence of life being lived. Casey had his back to her. She was early. Her grandson saw her first, yelled “Grandma!” in that other language, the northern language they all spoke now with its round vowels and singing rhythms. The glare coming off the snow outside blurred Casey’s features when he turned to her. He was just an outline, shimmering, taking a step toward her, holding up a little bag filled with sticks and rocks and scraps of scavenged lives. A scuffed ceramic baby’s hand peeked out of the top, as if waving.

In the background, a wide garden of unbearable beauty. Flowers and birdsong. Sunlight.

 

 

Jeff Ewing is a writer from Northern California. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Sugar House Review, ZYZZYVA, Willow Springs, Utne Reader, Crazyhorse, Beloit Poetry Journal, Catamaran Literary Reader, and Southwest Review, among others. You can find him online at jeffewing.com.

Amends, by Lorna Brown
  1. My father’s dying.
  2. I haven’t seen him in five years.
  3. I hate him (maybe that should be number 1).
  4. My mother has just left my apartment.
  5. She made me to promise to go home for his birthday.
  6. His birthday is in less than a month.

I look like my mother but it’s my father who is a ghost on my back. He’s everywhere, in the sideways glance from a stranger, the laugh on the bus, the shout from a few streets over, the sirens in the middle of the night. Sometimes I expect to see him walking behind me on the street.  I haven’t seen him in years and I think if he was walking behind me he’d watch me with a snide smirk on his face. He might nod if I looked at him, but he’d keep moving. We’d have nothing to say to each other. People looking at us wouldn’t think we were related. I have my mother’s sandy hair and blue eyes. He is a dark haired untidy man with hair on his knuckles.

I have spent years being reminded of my father wherever I look and now he’s dying. Mam thinks I don’t believe it and she might be right.  When I think of my father I don’t think of a frail man. He’s 6 foot and has wide shoulders and arms. He doesn’t like being argued with and he hates religion, which is probably why I go to Mass every now and again. When he dies, I’ll go all the time just to piss him off. I’ll pray at him, just to annoy him.  It’ll be easier to talk to him when he’s dead anyway.

***

I live on Abbeygate Street in Galway above a charity shop that sells old clothes. The street is always busy with pedestrians.  I love the constant noise and bustle.  It is a lot different to where I grew up.

Mam drives the three hours to me once a month. Today she sat in my tiny kitchen and said, “It’s your father’s birthday next month and he wants to see you.”

I had to sit down. The living room windows were open and we could hear the traffic and chatter from people walking the street.  Usually it’s a distraction, but today I could only think of what she said. She looked a little frightened herself, or it might have been anticipation.  Mam is thin and has aged badly in the last years from me leaving and Dad getting sick. Her face is drawn and there were deep lines around her mouth and eyes. She doesn’t know why I left so quickly but she doesn’t ask. I was twenty so no surprise that I should move out, but I had to quit my apprenticeship in plumbing. I’d done a year and could be qualified by now. But I had no choice.

Until today I believed Dad never uttered my name. Mam asked if I was okay. I said, “Sure yeah.”  I wasn’t though. I think I went white in the face. I’d felt light headed with relief and couldn’t believe that after everything that had happened, I’d been waiting for some kind of acknowledgement from Dad. Still I didn’t know if I would go and I wouldn’t have agreed so quickly if Mam hadn’t said that it will probably be Dad’s last birthday and then proceeded to cry.

For a while when Dad was first diagnosed she drove to my flat especially to cry. I’d open the door and she’d break down instantaneously.  I’d hug her, but after a while I wouldn’t know what to do, and still her sobbing would go on. By the time she left, I’d feel exhausted. Today she started and I said, “Okay Mam, please don’t. I’ll go.”

She beamed then, poor Mam. I told her it could only be a short visit since I had to work at least one night during the weekend. She didn’t say anything but I saw her disappointment. She hates that I work in a bar.

From my living room window, I watched her walk away, a thin tall woman with short sandy hair and a tendency to look at her feet, and I wrote that list. Though, it should be,

  1. Marcus
  2. I wish I could hate Dad.

The day Dad caught me and Marcus together, Mam was working in the local shop.  She came home that evening to a very still house. I bet she stopped the moment she entered. She would have wondered what was wrong. We were not a family anymore. All those moments we’d shared had been blown apart by the incident in the basement. It was as simple as that.

The next day, when I told her I was leaving, she asked what had happened.  I told her to ask Dad and she gave me a look that let me know she already did, but had gotten nothing.

I said we had a fight. She asked “About what?”  And I said, “Stop, alright” so she stopped. She would never push anyone, that’s not her way.

I was a bit shaken up as it was.  Minutes before, I’d phoned Marcus’ house and his mother answered. She told me if I ever phoned again she would press charges. She said, “Marcus has a fractured rib because of you. He doesn’t want anyone to know, but I swear to God, you ever phone here again, I’ll have the guards on ya.”

I packed my bags after this conversation, not before.

Mam tried to convince me to stay. She went on about the apprenticeship and the lack of jobs and that I knew no-one in Galway. “Mam,” I said eventually, “I’m going, alright.”

I phoned her a few days later.  I asked if Dad had said anything and there was a long pause before she said no. I bet he came in all dust from the quarry.  He showered and sat at the table for dinner and didn’t even glance at my empty seat. My mother might have said that she drove me to the bus and he’d have said, “Pass the potatoes.”

Once a month, Mam would come to see me. She never told Dad where she was going. She said he knew though, as if his knowing meant he had brilliant powers of deduction, when she disappeared once a month for half the day, and probably had my number by the phone in the hall. I stayed in a hostel in Woodquay for a while, then a house in Salthill with some students, and finally my own place in Abbeygate Street.

I was still in Salthill, Mam and me were walking the promenade when she said, “Did you know Marcus Blunt is getting married?”

Have you ever seen someone nearly drown, they’re out cold and pretty much dead. Then they are being thumped in the chest and given the breath of life. They spit up water and they’re coughing and spluttering, I felt like that, a jolt like I’d been thumped and forced back to life. I managed to say no and ask who he was marrying.  Mam glanced at me with her worried blue eyes. “Bernadette Lavin,” she said. And I had an image of the red haired girl. She was so quiet in school, sweet like Mam but a more nervous kind.  Mam said, “You and Marcus used to be friends.”

I said, “Don’t, alright.”

The first time I snuck home was when Mam told me about Marcus’s house.  He did alright, a job with Bernadette’s Dad’s construction firm and some land to build on.

I wanted to see his place and I thought that maybe if I saw him I might stop the car. I’d been getting five night’s work in the Blue Note, so I could afford a banjaxed old van. Marcus’ house was built on the Galway road, before the bridge that led right towards the village’s main street. My house was a mile further on that side, so I didn’t have to worry about being seen.

His home was a green bungalow with a sloping lane and a large iron gate. There were no cars outside the first time I went by. Opposite was a field and then the river, and down a little ways was The Cottage bar.  I drove into the car park and waited for a while. I was sweating and my heart was like a ticking bomb. I thought of what I wanted to say to Marcus. I wanted to apologize and tell him that I didn’t understand what had happened in the basement. And I wanted to ask what he was doing marrying Bernadette. He’d been married over a year and I still found it hard to believe. I might have tried to see him when I’d first heard of the wedding, but Marcus lived with his parents and sister in the housing estate. It’s a small estate of around forty houses and everyone knows each other. There would be no way of driving through there without his mother knowing.

In that car park I sat for a long time thinking of Marcus pretending to be someone else. I wondered if maybe he didn’t have to lie. I wanted to ask him if everything he’d felt was gone.  I wanted to know if that was possible.  It grew dark and my legs were stiff. I started back towards Marcus’ house. The light was on in the front room. A black Volkswagen Golf was parked outside the house.  I kept driving.

Two times, I did that journey and didn’t have the courage to go near his house.  The third time, I saw him. I was driving past his house and he was walking out of the gate.  He’d gotten broad and his face was set in a serious way that was unfamiliar.

He’d been a bit of a joker back in the day, restless and impatient, bounding down the stairs and jumping up and down with ideas. He’d wanted to open a nightclub then, but he never settled on anything for long. He could hardly sit still, fiddling with music, or perched on the couch, his hands joined, his foot tapping.

He was the one who said, “I’ve never seen you with a girl.”  Then he’d said, “Patrick, you hear me?”

The man I saw walking out of the house was nothing like the smiling dark eyed boy I remembered. Through the rearview mirror, I had a view of him walking towards the village. I drove into The Cottage pub carpark and waited with my head down for him to pass. He looked taller than I remembered. His dark hair was shaved. When he was parallel to the car, I grew afraid that he would look at me. There was something unforgiving in the set of his face.

I never did that drive again.  Soon after, Mam visited and told me that Dad had prostate cancer. “He refused to go to the doctor, you know your father and now it’s too late.”

I don’t know if I felt anything. I didn’t consider going to see him. Although she asked a few times, she wasn’t persistent because he would have hated me to see him in hospital.

Then she said, “Your father wants you to come home.”

And I thought of doing that journey without having to worry about hiding. I thought of being able to park my van on the main street and it was shocking how much I wanted it and how much it scared me.

“What do you buy a dying man for his birthday?”  I asked Denise at work. She’s small with dark hair and has a tendency to hit, so I’d kept my distance before asking. “Jesus, you’re going to see him?”  She was the only one I talked to about Dad, though I wasn’t honest. She thought Dad told me to leave, that Mam knew why, and that I hadn’t been near my home town in years.  “That’s brilliant,” she said. She gave me a nudge and said, “Isn’t it?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

She said, “He’ll always need socks.”

The day I was expected, I phoned Mam from Sally Long’s pub. It was summer, an evening with a breeze and a few clouds. The people I saw walking seemed to be in a hurry, it was that kind of day.

“Does he still want me to come?” I asked and I thought there was a pause of uncertainty before she said, “Yes, we’re waiting”. She’d warned me to expect a change, but when I drove the N17, passed green fields and stone walls, I felt as if it was mere hours since Dad had bounded down the basement stairs and grabbed me by the hair. I don’t know what kept me driving forward, but soon I was passing Marcus’s house. The place was in darkness and it felt like an omen. The Cottage bar had only a few cars in front. For the first time in four years, I saw the Statue of Our Lady in the alcove opposite the bridge. She was dressed in a white robe and her gaze was held towards heaven. Mam used to take me there when I was young. Once I asked why the statue’s arms were raised upwards. Mam said, “Because of people like your Dad.”

Over the bridge, a few cars were parked outside The Dun Maeve Hotel.   Spar supermarket was closed. My headlights were reflected in the dark window of Faith Wheeler’s café as I made the turn towards home. The bay sparkled in the moonlight.  A half mile down the road was the turn for my parent’s house.

***

Mam was at the window watching for me. I hadn’t turned off the ignition but she was out the door. She looked thinner. I was engulfed with the smell of the sea the moment the car opened. “He’s in the living room,” Mam said. Her hand was on my arm. Her touch was light but I felt that she was steering me in and without her hold I’d be left standing by the car.  The house was stifling hot. Gay Byrne’s voice was coming from the living room.

Mam said, “Come on,” and I let her lead me into the living room. I saw the side of the television, the fire, and then Dad. His dark hair was streaked with grey. He was pale and so thin his pants looked as if they were standing on their own. He was leaning on a crutch. Regardless of the cancer, he was not a man to sit when his son entered the room. Mam rushed to him and asked. “What are you doing for God Sake?”

“I’m fine Annette,” Dad said. She was at his side. Her arm went around his tiny waist. No illness could take away from the calm authority in his gaze.

“Hello Dad,” I said, and tried to keep eye contact but it was hard not to look away. There was no warmth in his pale eyes. There might have been surprise but I didn’t know if it was because I was there, or because I’d changed. My hair was cut short and I’d put on some weight. He nodded and said. “Patrick.”

“You don’t have to stand on my account,” I said.

Dad said he’d never stood on anyone’s account in his life and he wasn’t about to start now. He said a man ought to see his son home after four years eye to eye. Then he told Mam to leave him alone. “I’m able to drop into a feckin seat.”

He pushed her away with an arm that looked like a child’s. “She’s driving me nuts,” he said, “Do you know she quit her job at the shop. I used to have four hours a day of peace.”

“I’d heard she quit alright,” I said, “After you were rushed to hospital, wasn’t it?”

Dad’s eyes narrowed and he asked, “What are you getting at?”

“Nothing,” I told him.

“Right,” Dad said. His cheeks bones were prominent and his skin was a pasty color, but he was still forceful. The gaze seemed to dare me to pity him.   And all that time Mam was hovering around him. “The Late Late Show is on,” he said, and I told him I could see that, yes.

His mouth tightened. “Don’t be a smartshite,” he said.

Ten minutes, I thought, ten minutes and four years and all I got was ‘smartshite.’ He was looking at the television now.

“Annie Murphy’s being interviewed, did you hear about her?”

He didn’t wait for an answer but said, “She was the one who had the bishop’s child. He’s supported the boy for years. These are the people that the nation is trusting with their souls. Didn’t I always tell you that it’s a pile of corruption?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Alright,” Dad said. He refused Mam’s help and gasped as he lowered himself down to the seat. Still, it was hard for me to believe Dad was susceptible to pain.  His gaze was on Gaybo. He laughed at something that was said. Like that, I was dismissed.

In the kitchen, I said. “That went well.”

Mam looked at me with a frown. She said, “How about some tea?” But I couldn’t sit in the kitchen and talk as if Dad wasn’t in the other room. It felt weird being in the house, like we were trying to be something we weren’t. Mam didn’t seem surprised when I said I was going to my room.   My bedroom hadn’t changed.  It was a narrow room with a single bed and bedside cabinet. I was surprised there was still a phone on my bedside cabinet and it worked. But I shouldn’t have been, Dad wouldn’t have set foot in the place and Mam would have kept everything as it was. With the door closed and televised voices rising through the floor boards,I got Marcus Blunt’s number from directories. I hadn’t planned on phoning him, I’d planned to stay a night, have dinner tomorrow and then go. But then I was in my old room and it was impossible not to think of Marcus. I dialed the number without wondering what I might say. Marcus’ wife answered the phone. She had a sweet voice.  I might have hung up only for the soft way she’d said hello.  When I asked if Marcus was there she was quiet for a second. I wondered if she knew who I was; maybe they’d seen me outside her house and knew I was at home.  They might have been waiting for me to call. Finally she said no, he’s not here.” When she hung up, I felt like I’d missed something.

I slept badly. The television roared well after the Late Late. At some stage I felt hungry but didn’t fancy going into the kitchen. The thought of coming face to face with Dad alone was not a nice one.

The doorbell rang the next morning when I was thinking about leaving my room. I heard Mam saying hello. Then I heard the male voice and I stiffened. But it wasn’t Marcus. In fact, I was sure from the voice that the visitor was a priest. Mam used to sneak me away from the house to Sunday mass now and again, and now I recalled the way the priests’ voices fluctuated in a sing-song manner. In my sudden unease, I ran down the stairs and found the priest in the midst of taking off his jacket, the house was so stifling hot. I was going around in a t-shirt and bare feet.  Mam was standing beside the priest with a smile. She said, “Patrick, this is Father Divine.”

“Hello,Father.I’d say this is a wasted visit.”

Father Divine laughed, “It’s not my first.”

“Your father invited him,” Mam said.

I said, “You’re joking, right?”

It didn’t escape me that the priest wasn’t much older than I was. Father Divine had a mop of black hair, a square jaw and lively navy eyes.  He said, “Your father has gotten some comfort from our talks.”

“Who is there?” Dad said from the living room. I was staring at Mam. She was frowning as if I’d lost my head.  How could she believe Dad took this seriously? I was the only kid in town not to get my first holy or confirmation. My head was spinning. “Is that true Mam?” I said. “Does Dad get comfort from their talks?”

I saw the doubt in her eyes, but she recovered and said yes.

“Are you mad? This has got to be a joke, his last big laugh.”

“Annette!Who is there?” Dad said.

To the priest, I said, “My father might listen. He’ll nod every now and again but he’ll be laughing every step of the way. He has not an ounce of respect for you or your church.”

The priest said that may be so but he wouldn’t turn away from one of his congregation. “He’s not one of your congregation. He’s not a bloody lost sheep. He’s a feckin wolf.”

“Patrick, what’s gotten into you?’”Mam said.

“It’s okay; it must be hard to be losing a father,” the priest said.

I told him that wasn’t it at all.

“For God sake,” Dad shouted, “Do I have to go out there myself?”

It occurred to me that the only way to stop the priest was to wrestle him to the floor and sit on him. I might have done it too if Mam hadn’t shouted, “Patrick, what the hell are you doing?”

The priest was looking a little worried. I eased my stance, though it was hard not to try grab his arm as he slipped by.  It was easy to imagine what would have Dad said, “The other boy was kneeling on the floor and my son was on the couch with his pants by his ankles. Can you imagine the shock I got, Father?”

“Are you ok?” Mam said.

I didn’t answer. I was in the living room. Dad gave me a thin smile and asked what I wanted.  Father Divine was sitting perched on the couch beside Dad’s armchair. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were holding hands. I sat beside the priest. Mam appeared and was hovering inside the door.  She’d become an expert hoverer.  Dad said he didn’t realize we were going to have a party.

I said, “Last night you didn’t have much time for the church.”

Dad reminded me that last night he was talking about Annie Murphy.  To the priest, he said, “She was being interviewed on the Late Late Show. The whole thing would make you wonder.”

The priest said, “It would but you shouldn’t let one man affect their opinion of the Church. It’s important to keep an open mind.”

“Exactly Father, that’s what I’ve always said,” I said, “An open mind is key. Who are we to judge after all?”  I was settling in now, relaxing on the couch. I could nearly believe in our ability to have a civilized conversation, me and Dad, and the priest, as long as I didn’t look at Dad.

“But I know it’s against the church’s preaching’s so I was wondering and I hope you don’t mind me asking, if I’m stepping over the mark just tell me. But what did you think when my father told you I was gay?”

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Dad said. The priest paled slightly. Mam came forward and said, “That’s enough Patrick.”

I looked at her and it hit me like a fist. She must have seen it in the fall of my face. She glanced at Dad, which felt like a double betrayal. It was a glance of acknowledgement, the ‘what should we do now’ look. I was standing though I didn’t know how.

“When did he tell you?” I managed to ask. For a minute I thought she’d deny everything but she said, “Only a few weeks ago. If I knew before I would have said something.”

“What did he tell you?” I asked.

Dad said, “That’s enough!”

I refused to look at him. Mam said, “He told me about Marcus,” she paused and said, “The basement.”

My stomach turned. I said, “Did he tell you about the beating?”

“No, I did not!” my father said.

“Why not?” I asked, “Weren’t you proud?”

Dad managed to sit forward. He was raging. He was a bull in the chair.  “I had nothing to do with that sordid scene. I warned your mother not to ask you back. I told her that you’d cause some kind of trouble. It couldn’t be good, the likes of you in the house, but she wouldn’t listen and I’ve had enough of this shite.”

“Mr. Lenhihan,” The priest said, and was told to mind his own business.

The priest said, “Maybe I should come back another time.”

No one answered. I didn’t understand how Mam could be so naïve. If Dad didn’t want me around there was no way he’d stay quiet about it. He must have asked the priest to visit the second he knew I was coming.  “It’s against the Church’s preaching’s, isn’t it?” he would have said.

Mam touched my hand but I pulled away. She said sorry. Tears were streaming down her face. I managed a nod. That was all he could give her. I was trembling when I ran upstairs to my room.

In the hallway, I heard the priest ask Mam if she was okay. She might have nodded. The priest said something else that I missed. I was putting on my shoes when I heard the door close behind him. It took some effort for me to tie the laces. Mam knocked on my door and I asked her to please leave me alone. I put on my jacket and I waited until I heard Mam go downstairs and into the kitchen before I ran down the stairs. “Patrick,” she shouted but I didn’t answer.

The day was grey. The clouds hung heavy with rain. I didn’t want to think too much about what I was doing.  I drove slowly. My mouth was dry. I wished I’d stopped to have a drink of water, but there was no stopping now. A few bodies were around the village.  Faith Wheeler’s pastry menu was out in the pavement.  The people around seemed to be going in slow motion. I drove over the bridge, towards the statue of Our Lady.

“What would you say now?” I asked and she didn’t answer. Of course she didn’t, she just kept her head to the sky and her hands reaching upward as if pleading for escape. “Ah, come on,” she might have been saying, “Enough is enough.”

I was on the road to Marcus’s house now. The nerves were starting to get to me.  The river was dark and thick. It seemed to crawl by my side. Marcus’sIron Gate was open and I liked to think it was fate. His black Volkswagen Golf wasn’t there and a red Peugeot was in its place.   I got out of the car before I had time to think and rang the doorbell and waited. The door opened finally and there stood Bernadette in all her red-haired glory.  She started to smile and say hello and then she paused for a moment before saying, “Patrick.”

I nodded.  Her eyes were brighter than I remembered. And she didn’t seem so shy. It might have been the vibrancy of her red hair falling over her shoulders or her open scrutiny, but she seemed different to what I remembered.  My heart was a low drum in my chest and my mouth was parched dry. I didn’t know where to start. I expected her to ask what I wanted or to call for Marcus, but she didn’t. After what felt like forever she said, “Marcus doesn’t live here anymore.”

She waited for a moment, maybe for some reaction, but I wasn’t capable of thinking or feeling much after what happened in the house. I was exhausted all of a sudden. It was only hitting me now and in front of Bernadette Lavin of all people. I should have walked away but I couldn’t.

“You’re the first person I’ve told,” she said. “But then of course you know the truth already.”

Her smile wasn’t exactly sad, but mocking, like she was laughing at herself.

“Aren’t you going to say something?”

I told her I was sorry and she shrugged as if she didn’t believe me but didn’t really care.

“He wouldn’t talk about what happened with you two and I need to ask, did you hurt him because he tried it on?”

The question surprised and saddened me.  I told her no, and I might not have said anything if not for the soft way she was watching me and the lingering shock of Dad’s lie. “I’d nothing to do with that sordid scene,” he’d said, but he had. So I told her, “I hurt him because my father told me to.”

I don’t know what I saw on her face, disgust, sympathy or just surprise. She didn’t ask why, then or later. She probably knew some things can’t be explained. There was my father’s face in mine, there were his screams and slaps and then…well, that is the moment when the trigger is pulled, only I had no gun, just feet and hands.

 

 

Lorna Brown has a Masters in Creative Writing from Emerson College. Her stories have appeared in several magazines such as Litro, Mulberry Fork Review, Congruent Spaces, The Missing Slate, The Manila Envelope and others. She grew up in Ireland, but now lives in Massachusetts with her husband and three daughters.

Cosmic Blues, by Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Six months at a restaurant is long enough to make you senior, enough to make you flounce through the place during lunch rush on a Thursday, five plates in your hand, calculating tax in your head and reciting the exact ingredients in the kibbeh. Six months gives you confidence that you know everything, everyone, all the backstories and ghosts that cling to people who end up in low-paying, family-owned restaurants.

But six months is nothing. Six months isn’t shit.

I arrived at Little Beirut one frigid Saturday morning, late, hungover, clutching a cup of coffee I’d paid for in dimes.

“Nicholas,” I shouted as I clanged through the glass door and past the wooden sign that proclaimed, Syracuse’s favorite hummus, “my car’s broken—help!” But I stopped at the hostess stand: instead of my stout, Lebanese boss, a thin, bloodless man was slumped at the staff table in the back eating soup and reading the comics.

I slowed as I neared him; something about him made me afraid to say hi. He looked up from his newspaper as I approached.

“Go ahead and sit down,” he said. His voice quavered at such an unexpected high pitch, mismatched to the man wearing five days of stubble, that I pulled out the chair across from him and tore the cellophane off a new softpack. “Can I get one of those,” he asked, eyeing the other nineteen Camel Lights in my hand.

I handed him a cigarette and watched him take a long drag, like he didn’t know when he’d get another smoke. At first glance he looked older—in his fifties or sixties—but close up his face, behind grizzle and grime, was smooth and his brown eyes were lively, darting between his food and the day’s Garfield.

“You new,” he asked. “I haven’t seen you before.”

“I’ve been here a while,” I said.

“You a college girl,” he asked, and I took it as an honest question, not an accusation.

I nodded.

“I’m Ray,” he said, and wiped his hand down his thigh before offering it to me.

“I’m Emily,” I said. “Are you going to work here?”

“I’ve been working here,” he said. “I come in, they give me something to do. I leave. I come back. That’s how it goes.” He paused and looked down at his soup bowl. “Hey—do they let you take the bread?”

“The pita,” I asked, blowing smoke over my shoulder. “Yeah, Nicholas doesn’t care.”

Then Ray lurched out of the chair in a motion that suggested wanting to be unseen, his body low like a badger. He returned with two pita that he held together and ate like a sandwich. “Mmh,” he said. “This Arab bread is good.” And he pronounced it ‘Ay-rab’ like the boys at my old high school.

“Actually,” I said, “I’m pretty sure the owner considers himself Phoenician, not Arabic.”

“We used to call ‘em ragheads when I was coming up,” Ray said, his eyes dancing. “Now, are ragheads considered Phoenician or Arabic?”

I blushed at the slur and looked around me, lest I be judged racist by association.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use that word,” I said. “And I’m from Texas.”

“Words don’t mean shit,” he said, scraping out the last of his soup. “We all end up in the same place.”

“When did you get here?” Nicholas, the owner’s son and heir apparent, had snuck up behind me and placed a soft and unwelcome hand on my shoulder. He smiled down at me, his thick moustache and caterpillar brows splitting his round face into thirds; it was tempting to make a Mario Brothers comparison.

“I just got here,” I said, moving to put on my apron and get to work.

“Don’t rush,” Nicholas said, pulling out a chair across the aisle from me and, after sitting down, stretching his large, booted feet towards mine. Then, looking at Ray, he shook his head and frowned. “Goddammit, Ray, don’t take the pita. Come on. My old man’s downstairs.” And he jerked his head, the unspoken command and underpinning power structure palpable in the silent dining room.

“You got it, boss.” Ray swallowed the last of his pita and lurched out of his seat again.

“He’s interesting,” I said after Ray had disappeared through the kitchen. Nicholas’ crush afforded me the benefit of shirking my prep duties.

“Interesting is one way to put it,” Nicholas said.

“Why don’t you want him eating the bread,” I asked.

“‘Cause he’s a bum. I don’t know why my old man lets him around here.”

“You don’t mean he’s homeless?”

“Who knows,” Nicholas said, appearing to lose interest in the conversation. “Don’t let him talk to you, though,” he said after a pause. “Trust me. Stay far away from Ray.”

The next Saturday I had to get my car out of the shop before work. The garage was three buses away in the industrial fringe of Solvay. As I departed University Hill, sinking down into the city proper, the contrasts between Houston and Syracuse, my old home and my new, were striking. Nothing in my suburb predated the 1970s; Syracuse was an old man lying under a fraying blanket.

On the bus I opened my sociology textbook and began an article about inequality of conditions and inequality of opportunities, attempting to explain privilege to kids like me who’d grown up shuttling through life in a minivan, eating Goldfish crackers and bopping to Will Smith. But the bus was hot and the prose was dry, and I gave up and leaned my cheek against the cold glass window and watched the city, dormant under the previous night’s snow. I found myself thinking about Ray: what would he say about inequality of conditions and inequality of opportunities?

It was eighty degrees in Houston that morning. I remembered a quote from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, something Gene Wilder said when the children wanted to turn back and go home: “You can’t get out backwards. You’ve got to go forwards to go back. Better press on.”

When I arrived at the restaurant later that morning, hard gusts assailed my wrists, my earlobes—anything left uncovered. A great, tiered icicle had formed overnight and thrust dangerously from the roof of the restaurant towards the sidewalk. Ray stood lobbing snowballs at it to no avail. I nodded to Ray as I crossed under the icicle. A fat drop of icy water rolled off the end and splattered my forehead, sending me deep into my coat for comfort.

The restaurant was busy despite the weather and I spent the day in a fog—busing, filling, seating, smiling. At the height of the lunch rush, as I refilled iced teas, Nicholas ambushed me, swinging a Lord and Taylor bag and grinning. Nicholas had a habit in those days of buying me things—leather handbags, designer sneakers—gifts I’d never requested and would never repay him for. I’d act grateful, pretend to like whatever it was, and then conclude the charade with a one-armed hug. I thought the gifts were harmless. Nicholas was married, almost twice my age, and I supposed he was only living out some fantasy, enjoying the pretense of having a mistress without actual infidelity weighing on his conscience. It was a silly infatuation, I believed, and one that would abate with time, as soon as another pretty sophomore walked in the restaurant to ask if there were any openings. This was one of many lies I would tell myself about men.

And so it was under these assumptions that I accepted a bottle of perfume from him that day. Nicholas, always blind to other people’s dilemmas, had snagged me at the busiest part of my day. “It’s great,” I said, smiling wanly at the name, Britney Spears, scrawled across the bottle in loopy, black cursive. “Thanks.”

“It’s the new one,” Nicholas said, turning the bottle in my hands. “This was the last one in the store.”

“It’s great,” I said again, looking past Nicholas at a table waiting on Turkish coffees. “I’ll definitely use it.”

“How about now,” he asked.

“I just got triple sat,” I said, figuring the logic of customer service would deter him. But he only asked again, more pathetically the second time. “Fine,” I said, and I sighed and pushed my sleeves up off my wrists. Nicholas took his time with the bottle, looking at me and my arms with admiration, and finally letting out a jet of fragrance that smelled like strawberry bubblegum.

“You smell like a princess,” he said and leaned forward for a kiss.

“The Turkish coffee,” I said, dodging his lips. “Is it going to burn?”

“It’s fine,” Nicholas said, and tried to lean into me again.

“No,” I said and held him back, his lips three inches from mine.

Ray rounded the corner at that moment and took in Nicholas and me—my hand on his chest—and I blushed, feeling complicit in something I couldn’t understand.

“What next, boss,” Ray asked.

“Goddammit,” Nicholas said, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Ray, get the fuck out of here.”

He waited for Ray to disappear down the stairs to the basement and when he looked back at me, I saw that he’d been pushed too far, that we’d somehow crossed into an unknown adult realm of deep feelings and bruised egos and real, immediate consequences. I was nineteen, unprepared to stare down a grown man with children and a mortgage and tell him he was being childish.

“What’s your problem?” he asked. “Don’t I treat you nice? There are a lot of girls who’d like a boyfriend to buy them things.”

“You’re not my boyfriend,” I said, trying to maneuver out to the line where four plates of lamb stew waited, cooling. “We’ve never even kissed. I’ve got nothing to do with this.”

“Then let me be your boyfriend. I want to take care of you.”

My customers were twisting in their seats, searching in vain for their coffee. A metal pan clattered behind the line and several Lebanese curses were spat onto the floor after it. Nicholas, the manager in title if not in presence of mind, was finally compelled to leave me and I’d never been so happy to return to a room of irritable customers.

I avoided Nicholas for the rest of lunch and, at two o’clock, escaped Little Beirut. My red Camry, battered but not broken, sat under the morning’s accumulation of snow and ice. While I stood scoring the windshield, attempting to break ice with flimsy plastic, I heard the restaurant door bang open and looked up to see Nicholas tramping through the snow in a t-shirt, hugging his meaty arms to his chest.

“Dude,” I began, “you’re freaking me out.”

“I know,” he said, rubbing his face with his hands. “I’m sorry. I was an asshole this morning. I just—I think about you all the time and—” he looked down, “it’s like this shitty car,” and the Camry’s sagging front bumper looked forlornly out from under the snow. “I wish you’d let me get you a new one. This is what I can do for you. I can take care of you.”

“I’m an adult,” I said, my frustration doing little to help break the ice. “I don’t need anyone to take care of me.”

“Look at you,” he said, “you don’t even have de-icer.”

Ray emerged from the restaurant, blinking against the wind. He disappeared into an alleyway and came out wheeling a bicycle that looked held together by luck and duct tape. He crossed to where Nicholas and I were arguing and looked somehow joyful, blind to the fact he was about to ride a bicycle through tundra.

“It’s payday, boss,” Ray said, rubbing his hands together. Nicholas grunted and unfolded a few bills from a large roll.

“Ray, you’re not riding that thing out here,” I said. “It’s fifteen degrees out. Let me give you a ride.”

“Okay,” Ray said, moving to put the bicycle in the trunk.

“No,” Nicholas said, “no, no, no, no. He’s not getting in a car with you.” And Nicholas moved to block Ray from the trunk.

“Yes, he is,” I said, anger flushing my cheeks. “You’re not my father, you’re not my boyfriend—you’re not even my boss. You’re just a sad doofus who sits around a dirty restaurant waiting for his father to die so he can inherit the stupid hummus recipe. Leave me alone!” And I shoved Nicholas with both hands, though owing to our weight differential and my poor footing in the snow, I only pushed myself back six inches. Nicholas looked stricken. His lips parted and he took a step back to watch as I finished scraping the windshield and Ray succeeded in folding his bike into the trunk.

“See you later, boss,” Ray said with what looked like a smirk as he opened the passenger door. And as he did it there was a terrible cracking sound, like a peal of spring thunder. The three of us turned to look just as the icicle fell from the roof of Little Beirut and shattered in a thousand jagged pieces. The crash was so loud several doors opened along Marshall Street and other merchants popped their heads out, taking in the damage.

When I drove off Nicholas was still standing in the street in his t-shirt, alternating his glance between my car and the roof, watching for anything else that might fall.

Ray wanted to be driven to Liverpool and I asked how he was going to ride ten miles in such weather.

“I’ve seen worse,” was all he said.

I turned up my CD player and Janis Joplin’s throaty alto immediately warmed the car.

Ray grinned. “This lady,” he said, tapping the speaker, “she got it. She got the hard life.” He turned the volume up higher. It was Kozmic Blues, when Janis admonishes, “Don’t expect any answers, dear, For I know that they don’t come with age, no, no.” The car barreled past crumbling brick facades and pensile neon signs, artifacts of a hopeful age. We skirted Onondaga Lake, the smell of rotting egg cutting through wind and snow and reaching us in the car. When the song finished he turned the volume down and appeared to wipe a tear from his eye.

“She’s really great,” I said, for the second time that day feeling very young.

He wanted to be dropped off at a forlorn Irish bar a block from the lake, its only sign of occupancy a flickering green and orange cloverleaf posted in the window. “Um, can I actually join you,” I asked. “I’m pretty keyed up after fighting with Nicholas and I think I could use a beer.”

“Sure,” Ray said, and then snuffled and spat into the parking lot.

The bar was dim and charmless, with a wooden floor and pervasive mold smell. I was surprised to see other patrons, weather-beaten men and women with faces like old boats. The place was full of regret, regrets maybe not even earned in one lifetime but passed on genetically, one dismal generation begetting another.

We ordered two Labatts and sat at a wooden table under a picture of James Joyce.

I cleared my throat. “So did you grow up here?”

“Yep,” he said. “Here in paradise.”

I gave a gentle laugh. “And have you always worked in restaurants?”

“I get by.”

“You know,” I said, hoping to put Ray at ease, to bond over our common enemy, “you don’t have to call Nicholas, ‘boss.’ He’s an idiot. I told him I visited my cousin in Michigan and he asked me what state that was in.”

Ray waved his hand. “I’ve known that kid since his dad bought the place. He was a skinny, pimple-faced kid. All bones.”

I laughed and asked for more stories. We had another round and two more after that, me funding our evening with singles earned that afternoon. Ray was, as I’d hoped, a gifted conversationalist, confirming my suspicions that, off campus, I could receive a real education, learning humanism from real humans. He told me about his childhood—of barefoot expeditions through empty lots searching for edible mushrooms, of nights curled up on a cement floor, hugging a stray dog to his chest for warmth. But he wasn’t seeking pity. All his stories had a happy ending—he sold the wild mushrooms to help his mother and the stray dog ended up a cherished pet. He had a teflon quality to him, an imperviousness to judgment I’d never seen in anyone. I wanted to help him, find him a home and a vocation, because that much wisdom couldn’t be allowed to sleep under a bridge. Meeting Ray was destiny, I thought. I could help him find his bearings and, in return, he’d help me find mine.

As night descended more patrons trickled in. A burly man in fleece pants and combat boots sat down at the table next to us and Ray got quiet. “Green army boots,” he said, half to himself.

“Green army boots,” I asked, expecting another chestnut.

Ray sighed and gulped the rest of his beer. “I used to suck this guy off,” he began, with the nonchalance that I’d use on a story about losing my glasses. “He’d pay me a few bucks to come to his house and suck him off. About every month he’d find me at this bar on Salina, and he’d have to wait until his wife was out, and then I’d go up there and do it to him. Well, one night I get to his house and he’s got a friend there and the friend says he wants to watch. I say fine, but you’ll have to pay. I offer to suck the friend off but he doesn’t want it. When we’re done, they both drop me back at the bar and I don’t hear from either of them for a while. Then one day the friend shows up at the bar. It’s early—eleven in the morning. And the friend says, I want you to come with me to my house. So I say fine—I figure I’ll make a few bucks, and I go with him. And it’s a big fucking house out in Dewitt. Nice place. I go in there and he tells me to take a shower, get all cleaned up, and—I swear to God—he says he wants me to put on these green army boots. Nothing else, just the green army boots.

“This is some weird shit but I’ve seen weirder shit than this. So I clean myself up and put on the boots and I wait in this bedroom upstairs. After a while the guy brings me downstairs to the living room and there’s this plastic lawn chair in the middle of the floor and the guy has me stand up on it. And I don’t know what the hell he’s going to do but he’s an older guy and I figure I can fuck him up if I need to. He looks me up and down a few minutes, all quiet like, and then finally, when I’m about to ask him what the fuck it is I’m doing there, he pulls out his dick and starts jerking off. And that was it. That was the big fucking finale. He wanted me to stand there, buck naked, in these goddamn green boots, so he could jerk off.” And at the retelling Ray laughed so hard he smacked the table and spilled some of my beer. I couldn’t think of any way to respond so I fell into mimicry, laughing with Ray so as not to betray the pity and horror that wanted to paint my face.

“Can you believe that,” he asked. “He had me going out there for years—same thing, same boots, every time. Fuck.”

“Do you still—” I couldn’t bring myself to finish the question.

“Do I still suck dick for money,” he asked loudly, looking at me like I was stupid. “Fuck yeah, when I have to.”

I counted the empty bottles on the table and there were twelve. I had a thrusting pain behind my right eye and a strong desire to lie down on the floor. A woman at the bar was picking her nose and a puddle of something crept out of the men’s room. I wanted to go home, possibly all the way back to Houston, to sleep in my cloud-covered sheets and wake up to feel my parents’ cheap plush carpeting under my toes.

I was about to say goodnight, to will myself sober enough to drive home, when I felt Nicholas’ unmistakable hesitant grip on my shoulder. I looked up to find him hovering over me and casting a long shadow over Ray.

“It’s time to go,” he said.

“Sit down,” Ray said, sliding a chair away from the table with his foot. “Have a cold one.”

“Fuck you,” Nicholas said and strengthened his grip on me.

I twisted away from Nicholas’ hand and looked up at him, furious. “Why are you here,” I asked. “Don’t you have a family to go home to?”

“I said it’s time to go,” he said, and tried to raise me up out of my chair.

“If you touch me again I’ll scream.”

“You don’t want her to scream,” Ray said, and gave a thin, high-pitched laugh.

Nicholas was growing redder but I was too drunk for empathy. He crouched down and I made a show of crossing my arms and looking away, but he continued in a loud whisper anyway. “I told you, I don’t know how many times, that he’s no good. There’s things you don’t know about. Stuff from a long time ago. I know you think you can help him out, ‘cause you want to do the right thing, but he’s fucked up, okay? Now please, please come with me.”

Ray was peeling a label from a bottle and smiling to himself. “Nickie, you still got that mole on your back,” he asked, looking at Nicholas and winking. “Goddamn you were a skinny kid. No wonder you never had a girlfriend.”

Still crouched, Nicholas ground a fist into the palm of his hand. “If you talk to me again I swear to God I’ll slit your throat.”

“Your older boy looks a lot like you,” Ray said, laughing again in a way that was making me uneasy. “Does he like motorcycles, too?”

Nicholas was on top of Ray before I even realized he’d gotten up. The first punch caused a ribbon of blood to run from Ray’s nose; the second caught him in the gut and he folded like a pocketknife. Nicholas hit him again and again with fury that reached back decades and Ray took it, never blocking his face, like he was glad to have everything out in the open. I was aware of myself screaming but the sound was disconnected from the fight, like a delayed soundtrack mismatched to the action onscreen.

After what seemed like hours Nicholas pulled himself away—his face was pink and swollen and he’d been crying. I said his name, said it again, but he wouldn’t take his eyes off Ray, crumpled and bleeding on the floor. The other bar patrons were silent and watched the scene with what looked like resignation, as though violence was just a language recalled in moments of heat. I called Nicholas a third time and he finally looked up, but he was looking through me, somewhere else, somewhere I couldn’t see and didn’t want to anyway. He finally backed away from Ray, his eyes on the ground at what he’d done, and without a word went out of the bar.

I was still sitting at the table, and the twelve bottles of Labatt were still arrayed and undisturbed, but I had the sensation of something important slipping out and away from me, like sand spilling from a small rip in a bag. Ray wasn’t moving. I took off my sweatshirt, rolled it up, and placed it under his head. The bartender called the police, patrons began to clear. Soon it was just Ray and me. A small gurgling sound arose from somewhere in Ray’s chest and I answered it by whispering his name over and over, telling him the ambulance was on its way. I picked up his hand and was surprised by the scabs at his fingertips, the calluses on his palm. I heard a siren far down the Parkway. I imagined Nicholas, driving home, silently washing his bloody hands in the kitchen sink and sitting alone in the living room while his family slept a few feet away. Ray, if he lived—where would he go? Back to a concrete floor? The sun would come up and the buses would drive down University Hill and Nicholas would fry the falafel and I’d doze off in class and Ray would scurry back into the shadows…and inequality of conditions didn’t seem quite the right term anymore.

The bartender had gone out to smoke and left the door wide open and snowflakes reached us even at the back of the bar. The siren grew louder until red and blue lights danced across the windows and Ray’s face; I got dizzy watching them. A blonde woman held a clipboard and questioned me while two men bent over Ray and worked, listening, injecting, pumping, snow still blowing in through the open door. A man shouted at the bartender to shut the door, and as he did I could suddenly smell everything in the bar—cigarettes, urine, vomit and sweat, like I’d just pulled my head out of water. The woman snapped her fingers in my face—my eyes had strayed to Ray, now bare-chested, about to receive defibrillation. I looked back at her and asked her to repeat her question, though I had heard it the first time. The men applied pads to Ray’s chest, above a field of pink scars that ran like tiger stripes across his stomach, and delivered the shock. His body stiffened and released and the men readied the machine again. At the second shock Ray’s lips parted and his tongue dropped out of his mouth, and I remember worrying that a part of him was escaping, too. I finally turned back to face the woman and apologized. I didn’t even know his last name—what could I say?

 

 

Elizabeth‘s work has appeared in The Bold Italic, Foliate Oak, and Mothers Always Write, and she was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2016 Short Story Award for New Writers. She lives with her family in Oakland, California.

7:37 at I-Hop, by Samuel Cole

Chuck and I haven’t spoken for ten days. We’ve gone without speaking before, but not for this long. Nor with such outward disdain—or is it called inner pleasure? There was the week Chuck decided to stay in Baton Rouge to work harder the sales convention floor; the rainy week I decided to stay in Colorado and snap a few more photographs of family-summer-fun for the  tourism brochure; the stretch of days after my mother had a heart attack and after my father asked if he could move in with us; the week after that when Chuck said, “We’re in no position to take care of your father’s special needs,” and the week after that when I finally phoned my father to tell him, “It’s a super nice assisted living complex. You won’t be alone. You’ll make tons of friends. You’ll love it.” Big moments filled with big circumstances that neither Chuck nor I could articulate with any number of spoken words.

See, generally, we’re idea guys, and respective to our professional fields, we’re pretty successful. Some even call us innovators. Chuck can sell webinar kits to the technologically challenged and sell the technologically challenged on the benefits of webinar kits without using the words webinar and challenged while I can capture through a camera lens images of humanity people often relate to through cheers or tears. We see ourselves as culture class beefing up the Upper West Side. Not that either of us admit it aloud. Or to each other. We’re neither emotional anthropologists who (re)actively dissect human predilections nor the type of men to express our thoughts about weather patterns, political agendas, historical wars, house projects, or who paid what to whom. You know, real life stuff.

There are some days, like the day my mother had a heart attack, when I think I’d like it if Chuck knew more about blue, my favorite color—white is his favorite color—and I think I’d like it if I knew something more about his mother besides her odd nickname, Boots, and the bizarre infatuation she has with a set of leather hardcover books delineating The Rise and Fall of (insert any president here). How unpatriotic. And then there are other days, like the day my father asked if he could move in with us, when I think I’d really like it if Chuck could speak from one corner of his heart—I’ve heard deeply feeling people do this sort of thing—and looking in my eyes, ask me to share a sad moment or two over the last year and what I did or didn’t do to overcome it. I know I can think of two.

And then there are tragic days, like the day I had to tell my father, “It’s a very nice assisted living complex. You won’t be alone. You’ll make tons of friends. You’ll love it,” which we all knew was a lie, when I think I’d really like it if Chuck could sit beside me, maybe hold my hand, and talk late into the evening about our own aging bodies comprised of seventy percent water, one-hundred and twenty-thousand veins, and two-hundred and six bones. Just once, I’d like to share something fascinating with him—did you know oxygenated blood is bright red?—without hearing, “I already knew that.” Maybe we could get into a little tiff before bedtime, maybe call each other a few cruel names—I’ve heard people at the end of frustration do this sort of thing—wrestle with our respective sides of the bed and kiss each other goodnight before wishing the other sweet dreams. Is that too much to ask?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about who I am without Chuck. Ten years cycling through the same routine with the same person feels a lot more like twenty. We’ve been we for so long, I’m not sure I exist anymore. I figure that’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about asking Chuck, “Have you ever felt old, poor, and sad?” I think I’d like it if he whispered the response into my ear—I’ve heard people in love do this sort of thing—and lay naked beside me on the living room floor: stare at the ceiling, play footsie, bask in fusion affection. Then I think I’d be comfortable enough to ask him a follow up question. “Do you believe everyone’s veins are patterned to run blood the exact same way, or are veins, like fingerprints, uniquely different?” I think I’d like it if he put his fingertips on mine, and whispered, “Now at least ours are the same.” Sometimes I really do want to be close to him.

Ten days ago, eating breakfast at I-HOP, just as I was about to take a sip of coffee, Chuck asked, “If you were a fatal disease, what kind would you be and why?”

I dropped the fork. It clanked against the white plate and bounced against the green carpeting. Which is where I left it.

I checked my wrist watch. As a young boy, the ticking of a clock during moments of uneasiness comforted me. My parent’s relationship, much like an outside clothes line, was pulled taut with tension. They sat at the kitchen table, and staring in opposite directions, crunched toast and swallowed scrambled eggs. No good morning. No how did you sleep. No tell me everything about your wildest dreams.

I stared at Chuck, whose usual calm demeanor seemed agitated, the way hot, black coffee changes color, and temperature, when creamer is added. For once, he was asking me a substantive question about human predilections. Very much, in fact, like an emotive anthropologist.

“What did you say?”

Shooing me away, he said, “Just so you know, you’re not a better of a listener than I am.”

The image of my parents seated at the kitchen table crunching toast and swallowing scrambled eggs had grabbed my attention. “Please ask me again.”

“You’re the reason I didn’t want your father to move in with us,” he said. “No one, even him, should be subjected to that much alone time.”

My stomach turned queasy. My heart felt wounded—I’ve heard people with wounded hearts often have queasy stomachs. Now, if we’d have been anywhere else, say at a bookstore reading or a photo gallery, I wouldn’t have been so offended, because I’d have been distracted by class and culture. I’d have simply kept walking and let it go. But because we were sitting and eating at I-HOP, and people we’re starting to stare, I felt the need to defend myself and critique aloud his critique. “You’re being ridiculous.”

“I’m over it.” He stood. “I’m done.”

I sat alone for a very long time.

Fuming in the back seat during the ride home, I decided that outward disdain and inner pleasure are not mutually exclusive but simultaneously unsatisfying, like trying to guess the end of a movie before it even started. I also wanted Chuck to admit he was an unhappy, desperate man who understands very little about himself, or me, or any human predilection. I also wanted to tell him I felt the exact same way. But he didn’t. So I didn’t. And the wheel of silent dysfunction kept on spinning.

Then there are days like this morning, both of us dressing in the same mirror, when I think I’d like it if we stopped snickering and talked openly as adult men about the future and our roles in it. So I began. “I guess I’d be localized gangrene in need of an appendectomy. What about you? Which disease would you be?”

“Final stage of cirrhosis of the liver.” He opened and closed the door, leaving me unable to weep, pack, or text—I’ve heard people under extreme duress often sit motionless in the bathroom—and following the example of my parents: I did nothing at all.

 

 

Samuel Cole lives in Woodbury, MN, where he finds work in special event/development management. He’s a poet, flash fiction geek, and political essayist enthusiast. His work has appeared in many literary journals, and his first poetry collection, Bereft and the Same-Sex Heart, was published in October 2016 by Pski’s Porch Publishing. He is also a prize-winning card maker and scrapbooker.

 

The Top Bench, by Crawdad Nelson

If  sauna doesn’t cure you, death is imminent

Old Finnish proverb

 

I feel like I have been beaten up and left to hang somewhere, drying, a condition I know can only be properly rectified by exposure to damp heat. The hours on the saw leave me with what the Stihl handbook refers to as “Whitefinger,” meaning I have cold pale paws which can wrap around the lethal handles and hang on, but don’t feel much. After work they ache; when I sleep, they creep into my dreams as devolved clawlike mitts. I quit my other job because stirring the beans into the rice with that 18 inch wooden spoon, after a day on the woodpile, running the saw and swinging a maul, caused forearms and hands to snap with electric jolts. I could barely grip the wheel to drive home after. I make more money cutting wood so there was no debate. As I lie down I take care not to bend the elbows, but lie flat, and let oxygen swell down kinked arteries into my fingertips. The back is handling the work all right, because I have learned that much, but I’m getting hit in the legs and feet by flying chunks of firewood when I reach deep to cut a pile, and I have to be aware that my boss, Rob, will suddenly and frequently turn his back to the pickup and start flinging chunks of wood over the shoulder, like a thief. I’ve been nailed a few times, but he does it anyway. My shins are dented and bruised.

Worse, since he owns the woodpile and controls production, I have to let him boss me around, one of my least favorite approaches to earning a living. He’s not a bad guy on the surface, polite in the old school manner to strangers and friends alike, and able to keep his grudges under control. My problem is that I feel obliged to argue but don’t have the will. So I go along with his outdated paradigm because mine dead-ended somewhere between Reagan and Bush, and we agree with Rush Limbaugh about everything, pretending to be James Dean and Ron Howard cruising 1962 Petaluma, rather than a pair of misfits struggling to survive as firewood guys at the end of the 1990s. Admittedly, his maladjustments are superior to mine, thus my concession of status. Whereas I was a subject of mild curiosity for a few people who read certain obscure journals and underground tabloids, with a tenuous grip on a literary career, he literally grew up as a folk hero, an unnatural talent on the football field, bigger and faster than anyone for miles around. Although college took him six years and innumerable appointments with effeminate guidance counselors, he did eventually sign a pro football contract as a result of it, not a multi-million dollar deal, but enough to give him a start in life, while I had taken a few classes but learned very little at the local community colleges and succeeding in creating powerful enemies and one or two quiet allies at HSU.

Thus his holdings: a dozen of the county’s least desirable rental properties, and the woodpile, compared favorably with my total holdings of whatever was in my pocket at the time, and a bank account three out of every four weeks.  His dream was to purchase a carpet steaming van, while I considered dreams in general somewhat pathetic and tried not to indulge in them. He compulsively ranked everyone he met or heard of according to his personal scale of worthiness, factoring in athletic ability, appearance, and reputation as well as business acumen and real estate holdings, while I saw things on a much smaller scale. He was obsessed with things while I simply observed and offered what I intended usually as wry commentary but which was undoubtedly interpreted as bitterness.

Still, I can’t help thinking all those noble things I have learned from poets pertain to the world Rob lives in, as well as my own. Therefore, he is in the wrong since he represents all that is backward and unkind, an exploiter of men, beasts and the raw earth itself, while I must be in the right since I favor balance and compassion. After I have headed off his rhetoric he dwells on past embarrassments from his days as a Communications major. His chief rhetorical ploy is the genial anecdote, leaving him unprepared to rebut much. Since I can’t leave a weak argument alone, he frequently ends up with feelings that must remind him of what happens when a gifted young athlete, raised on adulation, advances to the level of true competition, finally meets someone his own size, if not bigger, and gets flattened by someone making a casual effort.

By now I have been through all the excuses, and all the wild shots in the dark that I am entitled to, after the ancestral sawmill proved hazardous and temporary, and I left my hometown to pursue a career in the arts.  From here on out it shall be simple toil. Everything is a symbol for everything else. The magazine is not a thing of the past, but worse, a neutered and distorted misprint, out of my control. The cookie business has come and gone. I got swindled so badly by the mushroom buyers that my undercapitalized roots were exposed and I was knocked out of the weed business as well. Even poems lost their charm not long after what remained of my love life got on a plane to New Hampshire and I found myself in a shady, unfinished cabin so well-hidden that I was no longer sure that I was alive.

Which begins to explain the woodpile, as I ladle cold water onto the crackling hot stones, and let steam work me over. The day began just after sunrise, with a cool July mist rising out of the small stream that runs along the tracks behind the small mill with the woodpile. It continued with hours in a grimy cloud of chainsaw exhaust, ruining the otherwise clear air of Arcata. The sun emerged from its damp sheath, like a rose climbing over the barn, although the fog bank could be felt all day, breathing on us. We stank of sweat and dirt, the grime that rises when you stomp and grind your boots into sawdust and old loam. We stank of kicked wood and broken spines and spilled chain oil on the dirt coating the floor of the pickup. We stank of elbow grease, and repeated painful contortions.

I still read, Pynchon and biographies of Lenin, Mao and the Latin American revolutionaries, looking for that secret ingredient-the idea that will link literature to revolution, and make everything real. Anything less just pisses me off. I am pissed off a good deal of the time, which hasn’t really been such a problem since my days on the greenchain, back during the Reagan administration, but is a problem now, making it more and more difficult to get along with people. Luckily, the only person I actually have to get along with is the one who owns the woodpile, and pays me daily wages to help him cut it up in small chunks and sell it by the truckload.

He and I don’t get along worth a shit, but he thinks we get along great. For survival purposes, I chew the end off my tongue all day, like a grey fox gnawing his leg out of a Victor #2. Except in my case there is neither a chicken house to justify the assault nor a shotgun to settle the issue. I keep my opinions to myself, from the time we first fire up the Stihls and startle the otherwise bucolic Arcata neighborhood into resentful awareness, until the last chunk of madrone sails past my earlobe in the gloaming, as I struggle for footing. The woman in the nearest house has come out once, in her robe, with steaming coffee, and tried to reason with us, but she hadn’t reckoned on our low opinion of Reason. We are raw, low animals, and we are reacting, rather than acting. At least Rob is, and he’s the one whose opinion counts. I winked at the NPR coffee mug and looked over her shoulder at the convincingly stickered Subaru, standard equipment for the kind of people Rob hates most, or would if he took their opinions seriously. Instead, he scoffs. He hates the sin but loves the sinner, the way his mother taught him to.

He has purchased the wood at a price he will never quite admit to, and puts a lot of thought, and many cell phone calls, into making sure he gets the highest possible price for it. It’s a fair enough deal, if we were delivering seasoned firewood, or the buyer has the luxury of letting it dry in his own shed before trying to burn it. The woodpile is really trim and waste from an experimental hardwood mill, which will ultimately fail, although they produce a reasonable inventory of finished lumber.

As a result, the wood we cut isn’t properly seasoned. Rob hears many complaints, including one from a sauce vendor who blames green firewood for the rust on his barbecue. Rob doesn’t care. He seeks, instead, to convince me that the wood is actually drier than people think it is, as if, perhaps, if I believe, it will be true. But I know the truth of course, plus I have argued philosophy with professionals and know a faulty argument when I see one. I see the foam splurging around the fresh cuts we make with our tools, feel the damp in my gloves at the end of the day. There is a profound lesson for me in that, and not a reassuring one.

I refill the wooden bucket with cold water from the black rubber hose, with the lights out. By this point I am rolling with sweat, a little unsteady, relishing the power of steam and remembering the advice of every old timer I’ve ever met in a sauna, beginning with my strangely religious memory of Bill Kinnunen who sold us fresh cow’s milk in a last vestige of neighborliness. That was in a world that has been put away in record books, and can be viewed in movies, but won’t be back.

In the dark sauna which I first entered as a sprite of very few years, he sat on the top bench in the gloom reminding me to breathe. Breathe, he said, with conviction. It was, no doubt,  advice he had heard from the codgers of his own youth, and so on, backward into remote history, to the invention of the sauna by some hygienically-minded magician.

Old advice, but good. I breathe deep and work through poses intended to release the effects of continued hard work and repressed animosity, stretching one leg, then the other, like an athlete. The shocks and strains wash out, my core is roasting like a captured fowl near but not exactly on the flame. I feel the fire, saw it when I sprinkled a spoonful of water onto the miniature rack of rocks, trying to replicate the farmhouse tradition of pouring a cold stream of water onto a heap of white-hot river stones, in order to produce the sacred noise, the enclosing damp heat, as the old man hidden in the corner reminds me, not to content myself with writhing around, panting, sweating and pawing at the cold water in the bucket, but to look inside myself, find out where I live, and breathe.

Rob says he will fire me the first time he sees me put the chainsaw on the ground to start it. According to him, the only acceptable way to do it, even with the 065, is to hold it with the right hand on the throttle while yanking the cord with a crossover move, out in front of the belt like a baseball bat. If you can’t do that, you’re not man enough to run the saw, simple as that. Roberto, a laborer at the sawmill, had been coming out at lunch time and on weekends to run the saw, but Rob fired him the day I started, without apology. He had been able to start the small saw, but wasn’t qualified to run the big one. Years of  cutting firewood, shed upon shedful, flinging it into and out of Dodge Power Wagons and beat-up trailers, tossing chunks and rolling rounds downhill on good days, dragging everything uphill on bad ones, finally pays off.

Jackpot. When the saw roars into operation, I lean one knee, protected by chaps, against a mound of madrone strips and slabs cut lengthwise from the flanks of logs being worked into shape. The wood is heavy, awkward, interlocked in a heap dropped from the steel tongs of a front-end loader. The scraps and hidden lunkers are up to a foot thick, uneven and full of defects. I measure the length of a chunk of firewood and drop the saw onto the pile, carving away.

Sawdust filled with flying pellets of kerf and waste comes at my face in broken streams, and small chunks of madrone, knots, waste, trimmed ends, fly out of the cut, bouncing off my shins, or worse. I squint, tilt the hard hat toward the fatal spray, and squeeze the throttle wide open as the wood comes off the searching bar and spinning chain, then either falls neatly into a heap, or bounces awkwardly toward my feet. I try to stay ready to do my own bounce in case things get tight, like the old-school choppers, but in reality I am swamped in loosened chunks and slabs of slick wood, which have been piled on top of older scraps and chunks, all semi-mortared by drifts of sawdust. It would be hard to find a more dangerous way to approach these piles of slabs, but it’s a quicker way to make money than an organized approach would be.

Since the wood is still green, and usually presents a square side to line up on, it’s not that hard to chunk it up with a maul; it’s easier than splitting out rounds, but not as satisfying. I usually prop four or five heavy chunks together and split them down to half a tier in a rhythmic burst. Then it’s time to load the Ford again.

I toss wood at a steady pace, and Rob catches and loads. He lets me use the gloves, but bitches if he gets a pinched finger, so I have to throw the wood with care. I open the knees, half-squat, and swing the wood out with both hands so it arcs neatly, and comes close to the right spot on the growing stack. I keep it smooth and easy, so I don’t blow out my back. We can usually split and stack a cord out of that mess with an hour’s honest labor, two hours if we have to grind it out. We always toss a few loose chunks into the gaps between the stacked wood and the splintered plywood bracing the load in. On the F150 we stack it as high as the roof of the cab, all the way back, finishing with a slight dome of green madrone, which impresses people on sight. The pickup snorts and bucks like a stolen pony as we back it onto the street and head out to make deliveries.

Rob knows all the good looking girls by name, or if he doesn’t he soon finds out. We stop for coffee on every trip, on the way out and returning empty, and scrape our sawdusty boots against the sleek hardwood furniture, stinking of oiled gas and the woodpile. Most of the girls who work in or patronize our favorite haunts are students at Humboldt State, a demographic producing girls who are, although attractive to Rob by reason of gender, age, and athletic ability, near unanimously unavailable to him, by reason of gender, age, and political development. Rob, in short, has plenty of the first and none of the second, while the girls are all quickly evolving quite sophisticated political identities, but aren’t visibly impressed by athletic prowess or feats of primate strength.

However that does not stop him from trying. He had, by the time I started running the saw and helping him load, ordered so many espresso drinks that he pissed black.

Thus, Rob discovered an adequate substitute for those gallons of latte in chai. It also gave him a good excuse to chat girls up, something inconsequential but trendy to have in common with some, and which impresses others. His gift is to be so devoid of self-awareness that he can have the precise encounter over and over again, down to the word, with the same girl each day, or with different girls each time, and keep rolling back for more, unhurt. Whatever frustration he feels is taken out on his steady girlfriend, a timid, tiny thing he must have found huddled outside a high school graduation ceremony.

The three things he admires most about girls are virtue, bust size, and weight, or the lack of it. He seems to have constructed a fantasy world where his chasteness is never in doubt, while the virtue of every woman is in doubt and, where desirability exists–by his exacting standards-is in peril. In short, he appears to have incorporated a fundamentalist view of society out of step with the majority but certainly validated in the god-fearing community he feels closest to. Although love and romance are constantly on his mind, his references to actual sex are oblique and speculative rather than experiential and seasoned. In other words he, otherwise a careful keeper of records and noter of achievements, has never boasted of a sexual encounter more profound than hand-holding. At the same time, he is a great proponent of anything that would be thought of as a family value, while revealing a somewhat literal understanding of “husbandry” on the farm. Even a rail-thin girl’s mother is taken into consideration, so that we spend many long hours wondering whether this or that persuaded feminist will grow plump with age, or mature like a willow, with supple bends and curves, and become unpersuaded. For most of the day, when I’m not running a saw, Rob explains his thoughts on these matters, all of which I can see coming, like a Safeway truck howling up 101 loaded with empty calories hidden behind silly slogans.

Most days we load and unload the truck four times. Some days we get five, although that means working with the last murky light, and then some, finishing in the dark. But nobody misses us if we get home late.

My head throbs, I get a little dizzy, dash another bucket of the cold stuff in my face. It induces a vision of the girl at the counter who took my money and handed me a towel. I thought her look revealed a smattering of hidden longing, although I could have been imagining that; I didn’t ask. She had blond braids and a dairy-girl glow, tucked into high-waisted jeans and an open-throated white blouse. When she smiled, recognizing me as a repeat customer, the name penciled onto the appointment book on the counter, I saw her caress the name itself, the pencil mark that represented me. It sent a cold thrill through my body, and ideas began to crop up in the areas of my brain which had gone unused all day, although I can’t claim they were good ones.

The first bucket of cold water suggests a second, which is good, like entering a cool lake after a hard walk uphill. If she were to meet me in the dressing room…

I can’t remember ever being satisfied, having enough of anything, but I know just what I want. To hell with what I might need. The soft give and take of her body, without complication..

Not to be whole, but to want to be whole.

I can easily see her as if she is there but what I can’t do is project the idea five minutes forward. I have no idea where it all goes.

I use the brush to ink cold water into my skin, scrubbing away toxic sweat, replacing it with my own jug of creekwater, nodding across time to the farmer, my distant ancestor, who left records dating to the year 1680 in parish annals of rural northern Finland and paid his debt to the king with squirrel hides and barrels of butter. I imagine that he could handle an axe, a shovel, and a horse. He was most likely born in a sauna, and if he died on his back, his back was on a sauna bench.

I’m not dead, nor going to die, but as I lie on the hot bench in layered moisture and all I have wrung out, my entire body throbbing, splashing cold water on with the rustic carved ladle, I feel the life in me, which has recently been tested, sinking, diminishing.

The room is dark and lonesome, but there are unsettling things going on. I can actually reach across, the path to the other side is wide and slopes down. The sauna is both womblike and a crypt; the top bench is a wedge of hell that destroys me to renew me. The thick weight of my distressed and exercised, and much pained, heart pounds in my ears. She had turned to get the towels from the bin stowed below waist level. Thus her graceful bending twist, before she turned back to me. Our eyes met in a hard stare. This is what I feel, might be the last thing I feel, if I don’t get up and move.

I get off the top bench, sit on the lower one, and run the cold hose across my body, wear cold water like a cunning outfit and feel life sinking back into bones and muscle, absorbing it from the atmosphere, as though I am some sort of protein-hungry plant or fungus, breathless but hardening out of vapors, back into the shape of the body. Labor, filth, poverty, and the hours of boneheaded, stubborn, backward philosophy wash out of me and go into the drain on the floor. All day Rob switches back and forth between Power 96, the pop music station with its pounding confections, like a tape made secretly in a cheerleader’s brain, and the country station, K101, as if seeking wisdom in the philosophy of teenagers, since that is the last place he remembers seeing it.

Once I get out of the steam, once I’m clean and dry, I need to breathe. For once.

 

 

Crawdad Nelson is the literary equivalent of a free radical. His method of assembling prose is mostly intuitive, influenced by the masters from Tolstoy to Pynchon. His education has been nearly all self-directed and his work has been aimed at non-traditional targets, where it has had the predictable effect of attracting very little attention. He has, however, managed to publish several small books of prose and poetry. Recent work can be found at Circa, A Magazine of Historical Fiction, Chiron Review, and the Anderson Valley Advertiser.

The Sugar Castle, by Rosaleen Bertolino

Christmas Eve afternoon. Tish is strolling the frozen shoreline of Lake Michigan with her brother, Brady. The sky is blue and white, the lake a darker blue, the ice boulders offshore wheeze and shift. Already Brady sounds homesick, and he’s just flown in. He’s telling her about the annual holiday parade in Panama City. “. . . Horses with pom-poms. A float with the Holy Family and live sheep. You should see it.”

“I’d love to,” she says, trying not to sound too eager. She practically begged him to spend Christmas with her. She’s never been to Panama, although he’s lived there for ten years. Whenever she’s actually had the time and money to visit Brady, those times have always been inconvenient for him, too busy with work, or traveling for his consulting business. Even now she can’t quite believe he’s here, her elusive older brother, sixty years old and still wearing his hair, now thin and gray, tied back in a short ponytail. The ponytail is a mistake, she thinks, but his skin looks tan and healthy. Does she, at fifty-four, look as good for her age? She doubts it. She’s had a difficult year and isn’t sure when it will get better.

Their shoes crunch along the rocky beach. A breeze stings their cheeks. At last they reach a good view of the lighthouse—so thickly coated in sparkling white ice, so spangled with crystalline lumps and swirls that it looks like a castle out of a fairytale.

“Spectacular!” Brady says. He gets out his phone and takes pictures, including one of her in which the lighthouse appears to be rising out of her head like a crown. Clever, except that her chin appears huge, her eyes small and squinty, her cheeks rough red. She knows better than to say these things to Brady, though.

She tells him, “You’ll have to come back this summer. Although it’s not nearly so impressive without the ice.”

He nods cryptically, skids a little in his inappropriate shoes, black boots without much of a tread, and rubs his gloved hands together. “Ready for a drink?” His nose is dripping and his breath comes out in white puffs.

“Why not,” Tish says, more enthusiastically than she feels. Her knees are stiff and she feels a headache coming on, probably her Lyme disease flaring up, but, amazed and grateful that he’s come all this way, is determined to show him a good time

In that spirit, two months ago she’d reserved adjoining rooms at this shingled lakeside resort. Her own house is only a couple of hours away but spending the holidays there after her husband, Matt, moved out seems unbearable. The house has a stifled, haunted feeling, as though someone died.

Tish likes the grand swags of pine boughs and holly that loop through the hotel lobby. And though Brady laughs at its bar, which is posing as a wealthy hunter’s library—mounted elk heads, an enormous chandelier of antlers, vast shelves of brown and red leather-bound books, books that are probably fake—she can tell he secretly likes it. They sit near the cavernous fireplace, sinking deep into big soft chairs, drinks in hand, feet stretched toward the fire. From the dining room, they can hear a large group laughing and popping open Christmas crackers.

Tish’s eggnog is heavy on the bourbon. Halfway thru the sweet, strong drink her resolve not to bring up anything unpleasant melts completely away.

“Why do you think he left me?” she asks.

“He’s an asshole.” Brady says the same thing every time, a protective-brother reflex and thus almost meaningless.

But Tish feels entitled to some male secrets, feels that her brother owes it to her, a matter of karma, having left many women himself. “Please, there has to be more to it than that.” She leans forward, attempting a smile.

He stands up. “I’m getting another drink. Would you like one?”

“No, thank you.” She shouldn’t be drinking at all; alcohol exacerbates her symptoms. But if one can’t indulge a little on Christmas Eve, what’s the point? She watches Brady sidle up to the bartender, a bottle-blonde in a crisp, white shirt.

Matt moved out in August—no longer in love with her, he’d said, this man she’d expected to spend the rest of her life with. At first she’d put Matt’s departure down to his chronic depression; he’d always been a negative thinker. She was upset, of course, but confidently predicted to all her friends that eventually he would come back, and believed it herself.

By September he was living with the girlfriend. That was when she cracked, a crack that ran the length of her body. It felt as if the tiniest injury, something that wouldn’t affect a normal person, would split her in two, kill her. Worse, she was that age when women become invisible to men. On the subway, in the grocery store, everywhere she went, unseeing males bumped into her, sometimes but not always muttered a hasty, ‘excuse me,’ rushed on. For all the recognition in their eyes, she might have been a block of wood.

At work she was just going through the motions. Several times recently she’d made bad mistakes, the hospital administrator pulling her aside, asking her if she wanted some time off. She’d said no, which was a lie, because she couldn’t afford to be seen as weak. She refused to give Matt the satisfaction of knowing that he’d ruined her life.

She went twice weekly to a marriage counselor, alone, because Matt declined her invitation to conduct a post-mortem. She interviewed friends for clues as if they were potential witnesses in a lawsuit. Two women in her chronic illness survivor’s group thought that her husband had left because Tish’s Lyme disease was more than he’d been prepared to handle, men being inherently selfish. It had happened to other women they knew.

The holidays this year feel like an ordeal, a reminder that now, except for Brady, she’s alone in the world: no children, her parents dead. Her eyes water. Ashamed, she wipes her eyes, glances self-consciously around. But except for her and Brady and the female bartender, the room is empty, and Brady and the bartender are deep in conversation. Her brother, the flirt.

Count to ten, focus on your breath, advises her marriage counselor. Count to ten and then begin again, and again. This is how you get through pain.

She remembers how distressed she’d been, last spring, when Matt told her that he was going to visit his sister, who was battling cancer, and how he thought it was best if he went alone because she and the sister did not get along. He hoped she’d understand. But Tish did not; she absolutely must go with him—she was his wife, wasn’t she? Wasn’t she there to support him in all things? She began to cry, until at last he relented. After all the drama, the visit to his sister had gone rather well—she’d thought so at the time, at least. She wonders now if perhaps he hadn’t. Perhaps even then he’d intended to meet the girlfriend somewhere.

Brady comes back with a glass of Scotch and, ignoring her wishes, another eggnog for her.

“On the house,” he says.

“I really shouldn’t drink.”

“Your funeral,” he says, settling back into his chair.

Tears spring out again. “Don’t mind me,” she says, swiping at her eyes with the drink napkin.

Brady nods and looks away. He sips his Scotch.

She doesn’t enjoy crying, no matter what Matt claimed.

“You’re manipulative,” he’d shouted during their last fight. “Whenever you’re losing, you cry and I’m forced to give in.” His cruel words had only made her cry harder, alone in the dark house because he’d already slammed out the door.

She begins to drink the second eggnog. She’s always felt things strongly. As a child, there’d been a song, “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” that could reliably make her sob within a few notes. When Brady’s friends were over, he would play the record, then punch their arms, saying, “You owe me a dollar,” as Tish wept. Brady was no longer so cruelly opportunistic, but perhaps even now he thought frequent tears reason enough to leave a woman.

“Are you hungry?” Brady asks her.

“Not really.”

“Let’s just have a little snack here in the bar then,” he says. “I’ll see what I can arrange.” He goes back over to the bartender, who looks at him eagerly. Even from here Tish can see that.

“Nice place,” Brady says, settling himself back in his chair. “Good job, sis.”

The fire sparks and crackles. Hidden speakers play Christmas carols. Mellowed by his second Scotch, Brady says, “I almost cancelled this trip,” and even though what he says isn’t unexpected, her heart breaks a little. Perhaps it’s the six years’ age difference, but he’s always been more important to her than she is to him.

A waiter arrives with two bowls of cheese soup.

She isn’t hungry, but the warm soup is comforting and before she knows it, she’s finished the bowl. She’s sleepy, contented, a little tipsy. Ready to talk with her brother, about anything really, but mostly about how strange it is that they’re both grieving the ends of relationships. Brady’s much younger girlfriend has dumped him, the first time Tish has known that to happen (Brady inevitably tires of his partners first).

“There’s an incredible soup called Sancocho in Panama,” Brady says. “It’s made with chicken and yucca root.”

“Yum,” she says. “Do you miss her?”

“What do you mean?”

“Alicia?”

His eyes hood over. He yawns. “Sometimes. Time to hit the hay?”

“All right,” she says. She’s gone too far, she thinks; he doesn’t want to talk about Alicia. Then he yawns again and she thinks, he’s flown a long way today, maybe he’s just tired.

In her room, Tish curls up on her side and hugs a pillow to her chest. She still isn’t used to sleeping alone. It helps when the bed isn’t her bed; it helps when the bed is as lovely as this one, with its thick mattress and perfectly smooth sheets. But it’s not easy falling asleep. She wonders how things would have turned out if Matt had been willing to discuss their marriage like a responsible adult. She wonders how things would be if he’d decided not to leave her after all. Or if he’d changed his mind, and come back. Would she ever be able to trust him again? Probably not.

In the first weeks, she actually went out and bought a gun. If he’d been foolish enough to show up at the house with the girlfriend, she might have killed them both. Or waved the gun around at least: ordered them off her property. She liked the feel of the cold, heavy metal, of its power. Several times she’d pressed the muzzle to her cheek. The gun gave her options that she didn’t have before.

Now tossing and turning, attempting to resist what has been her nightly habit for months, she gets out of bed, opens her suitcase, and takes out the gun. She gets back into bed, and falls asleep holding its comforting weight. Protection, even though it’s not loaded.

 

Morning. Tish feels a queasy hopefulness—it’s always been like this for her on Christmas, wanting the day to be perfect. She has put the gun away, locked her suitcase, taken a shower. They’d agreed to have breakfast together, but Brady doesn’t answer when she knocks on his door, not even after she knocks again, louder. Earlier, she’d heard noises coming from his room, moaning or snoring, she couldn’t tell which, and now she feels a slight panic—what if he’s dead? Her brother strikes her as someone who would die without warning.

She gets out her phone and sends him a cautious text: “Ready for breakfast?”

“No,” he replies, almost immediately.

Tish doesn’t want to eat alone on Christmas morning. Even room service. “Later then?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“I’ll call you.”

She returns to her room, attempts to read a book, but it doesn’t keep her interest. She hears his door creak, opens hers, and sees the bartender from last night slipping out of his room. The woman, her white shirt wrinkled, walks rapidly toward the elevator. She doesn’t acknowledge Tish. Possibly she’s ashamed, or perhaps she doesn’t consider Tish someone worth acknowledging. Tish thinks about wishing her a Merry Christmas, but settles for a long stare instead, feeling vaguely triumphant when the woman doesn’t meet her eyes.

She shouldn’t be surprised. Brady claiming to be tired last night—it’s obvious now that he was tired only of her company. After he’d walked her to her room, he must have gone back to the bar.

Tish counts her breaths, one to ten. She feels a sudden, desperate need to get outside. She’ll go for a walk along the lake.

In the lobby, she sees the large family from yesterday making their way to the dining room, the grandparents handsome and white-haired, the father staggering under a stack of presents. She’s offended by their ostentatious happiness. Shouldn’t a resort such as this be a refuge for those who have nowhere else to go for the holidays? Couples trying to mend things, for instance, or small, quiet groups of friends. Orphans. Divorcees.

As she steps outside, the reflection of sunlight on snow momentarily blinds her. She stops, closes her eyes. When she opens them again, there’s the ice-coated lighthouse shimmering in the distance like a mirage. Along the main walkway, icicles hang, enormous fangs. She breaks off a tooth. Even through thick mittens, she feels its cold sting.

She and Brady grew up where winter was a frost that made the lawn crunchy, nothing like Minnesota where the air gets so cold that you could kill yourself simply by undressing. Thirty years ago, she’d come to Milwaukee for a nursing job, never intending to stay. Then she’d met Matt. She has no reason to remain in this Nordic climate now, no reason except for her job at the hospital, which she’s sick to death of. Head of nursing is not what it sounds. She spends all day buried in paperwork. What if she quit her job and moved to Panama? She wishes Brady would invite her, not just to visit but to stay, but she’s certain it would never occur to him. Perhaps he doesn’t want his younger sister nearby. And yet the two of them have no other family in the world.

An ice fisherman walks past her, bulky, red-faced, lugging a fishing pole, an axe, a bucket. They’re everywhere this time of year. She herself can’t imagine a more unpleasant activity. Imagine sitting on a downturned bucket in the icy cold. “Merry Christmas!” he says, winking.

“Same to you.”

“Care to join me on the ice?”

She smiles, shakes her head. Probably he’s been drinking. Besides, she’s finished with Midwestern men, so seemingly untroubled, while deep inside their corn-fed chests resentments multiply, nourished by suppression.

“When we got married, you wouldn’t even let me keep my cat,” Matt claimed before he left, as if she were heartless, and not, as he well knew, allergic to fur. Perhaps he’d conveniently forgotten, the better to turn her into the bad guy.

From her coat pocket, her phone vibrates. A text from Brady: “Where are you?”

She can’t type with mittens on, and it’s too cold to take them off.

She hurries back, arriving out of breath, her heart pounding, wondering why she feels the need to rush. Does she really think he’ll find time to bed the bartender again? Or find some other way to disappear? She does.

She tears off her mittens in the lobby and texts him back. “I’m here.”

He’s already in the dining room, his hair damp from a shower. He’s unapologetic about making her wait earlier, while she stammers, “I didn’t think you’d get up for a while.”

“Not to worry,” he says, regally.

As they wait for their breakfast to arrive, they exchange presents. He gives her a silky pink scarf, professionally wrapped, which she guesses he bought at the airport. Tish, on the other hand, searched for and found his present months ago, a rare book of old maps of Central America. She smiles to conceal her disappointment in the scarf, pleased to see how pleased he is by the book. It’s often this way between them: his older-brother love erratic and careless, and hers unwavering, worshipful.

Brady finds a map of Panama. He laughs. “Drawn before we were sliced in two.”

“What?”

“The canal,” he says. “Right here is Isla Contadora. Come visit and I’ll teach you to dive.”

Brady can be so charming.

Tish wants to say, I’ll be out on the next plane, but isn’t sure he means this invitation. There’s an invisible fortress around him, which she thinks is his way of protecting her, or perhaps himself, as if she were still a child and not a woman in her fifties.

Their waiter, an indifferent young man in a green and red bowtie, brings their breakfast. Steak and eggs for Brady; scrambled eggs and toast for her. Tish is slightly queasy and wishes she’d just ordered the toast.

Brady bends over his plate and saws at the meat. Shoves a chunk in his mouth, swallowing rapidly. Disgusting, the way he shovels in food like a cave man. And has sex like a cave man, too, with whoever comes along.

“So you miss Alicia?” she says, barely bothering to conceal her anger. “Is that why you slept with the bartender?”

Brady’s open mouth reveals a cud of meat on his tongue; his eyes are unreadable. His cheeks swell; he’s going to spit the half-chewed mouthful straight at her. But he swallows and grins. “Miss Prissy. Did you know you have crumbs all over yourself?”

She looks down at her black sweater. “Oh my God.”

Suddenly they begin laughing, helplessly, Tish snickering, Brady hee-hawing, the way they had as kids when something embarrassing struck them as hilarious. The other diners are looking their way, some smiling, others perplexed and disapproving, which only makes them laugh harder.

At last, they calm down. Wipe their eyes.

“You mentioned a sleigh ride,” Brady says, leaning back in his chair, his hands folded over his small, soft gut. “What do you think?”

The sleigh ride is a bone he’s tossing her, because he didn’t seem interested when she suggested it yesterday. But so what—of course, she wants to go.

Thick wool blankets across their laps, the horse’s breath steaming, grainy clopping of hooves along the beach, the coachman with his top hat and black cape—at last it feels to her like Christmas.

Brady looks tired. Of course, he didn’t get any sleep. Too busy.

They pass children industriously building a family out of snow. The snow father has a baseball cap, the snow mother is wearing a brassiere.

Brady laughs.

“Do you ever wish you’d had children?” Tish asks, whispering because she doesn’t want the coachman to hear.

“No! Do you?”

“I didn’t used to. But I hate being alone.”

“You have me,” he says gallantly, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

“Don’t you mind being alone?”

“I’m happier alone.”

This is why they will never understand one another. She wishes she could learn to make her heart as cool as his.

“You’re a good person, Tish,” Brady says. “You always do the right thing, even when it’s hard. I couldn’t ask to be related to a nicer person.”

“Thank you,” she says, as if what he’s saying is true. He has no idea of all the bitterness she holds inside, swaddled by her soft voice, her even temper—and how badly she’d like to find a way to safely let it out.

They reach a good view of the lighthouse. It’s as beautiful as yesterday, the frozen snow sparkling like sugar. There’s a fairytale Tish suddenly remembers—one with a sleigh—about a little boy who gets a splinter of ice in his heart and goes off to live with the evil Snow Queen. His sister must save him, at least that’s how she remembers it, but how she manages it she can’t recall. The sleigh slides along behind the steady gray horse. After the ride, they might nap or play cards. Later, Brady might vanish to his room with the bartender again, while she lies alone in her room with an unloaded gun.

 

 

Rosaleen Bertolino was born and raised in the Bay Area. Her awards include a Marin Arts Council Individual Artist Grant and Honorable Mention for the James D Phelan Award. Her stories have most recently appeared in West Marin Review, Euphony, and Gravel.
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