Short

OPEN MOUTHED by Kwan Ann Tan

I knew I was in trouble the moment my co-worker caught me humming the female part to the last duet in La Boheme.

‘That sounds familiar,’ Lucy said as we stacked rows and rows of fragrant soap. ‘My grandmother loves that opera. She’s never seen it in person though, which is a shame. Maybe I should bring her one of these days.’

We laughed and continued restocking the shelves. It was a job that made a pair of opera tickets near impossible. The sound system crackled to life, and my faint memories of the song were drowned out by saccharine pop, making the store artificially cheery.

‘You know what happens in the end of that opera, right?’ Lucy asked, putting a final soap in place.

I did, having read the Wikipedia summary on the bus this morning. But I said nothing.

‘She dies.’ 

*

That morning, I awoke before the music started, and lay in the dark, waiting.

I had never been an early riser, but every morning I now shook myself awake in restless anticipation for the performance to start. I arose with scales in my ears, which quickly mellowed out to softer voice exercises then, as I down a cold, half-hearted breakfast, the songs. It was no secret there was an opera singer living in my building, even my letting agent muttered that she hoped I liked music when I signed the contracts. I had already heard multiple curses and shouts from other neighbours in a futile attempt to stop her from practicing so early.

I knew some of the more famous songs. Arias from Carmen, The Magic Flute, and Madame Butterfly, my father played for me on a CD when I was younger. To him, opera was the highest mark of civilization. He lived in fear that one day someone might catch him unfamiliar with some aspect of Western culture, exposing him for the farmer’s son that he was. In turn, he fed me a diet of strange facts and fancies, until I picked up the habit. My phone was filled with tabs from Wikipedia, online dictionary entries for opera terminology, and YouTube video compilations with titles like ‘top ten best opera singers in history.’

Sometimes on my way to work, I caught sight of the opera singer’s harried personal assistant, balancing coffees on a drink carrier and nearly spilling them in a rush to open the front door. She barely had time to nod before disappearing into the mysterious depths of the opera singer’s ground floor flat.

When I left that morning, I couldn’t resist the urge to look at the singer’s window. She stood in the dark lit by faint sunrise glow, mouth trilling wildly in a perfect O. She stopped when our eyes met, mouth still open, daring me to complain about the noise. Even in the dim light, I could see that she was beautiful.

As I walked away, she resumed her song, like a concert performance suddenly unmuted.

*

My neighbour on the 2nd floor, a single mother with an always inexplicably sticky daughter, moved out on Saturday. I helped—she was lovely. She often dropped by with food as if her motherly spirit couldn’t help but overflow onto anyone younger than her. I was sad to see her go but I would miss her casserole more. Knowing she would never accept a gift from me, I hid a care package of soaps and lotions in one of her unsealed moving boxes by the door.

‘I don’t want to leave but I have to,’ she said wistfully, looking at the mess strewn around the small flat. I had tripped over a mobile and was trying to free myself without destroying it. ‘My little girl’s nursery teacher advised me to stop speaking French at home but that’s exactly the problem—I don’t speak a word of French.’

She leaned down to give an affectionate peck on her daughter’s cheek. As if to illustrate her point, the girl burst into a sweet rendition of Carmen’s Habanera. Although the tune was right, it replicated none of the words’ meaning.

She sighed in resignation. ‘I don’t think she understands what it all means, but she sings in reply to everything now.’

I wondered what the opera-singer would make of this. If they ever met they could sing in reply to each other, making new meaning from the old songs.

‘Between you and me,’ my neighbour lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, ‘I’m hoping the new place doesn’t come with a built-in alarm clock—god knows a child is loud enough in the mornings.’ 

*

The first time the opera-singer spoke to me, she mistook me for her personal assistant.

To be honest, we looked nothing alike. Her assistant was a willowy blonde nearly a head taller than me and a graceful heap of angles and bones hidden under a carefully draped cardigan. Meanwhile, I inherited my father’s farmer son stockiness and, because I refused to listen to my mother’s advice to stay out of the sun, had a noticeably darker skin tone. Still: the hallway was dark, and the clock had just ticked past six. Still: like a siren, the sound of her voice lured me into her cave. I never stood a chance.

‘There you are,’ she said in a low voice as I entered the building. It had been a long day at work, and I was looking forward to having the evening to myself. I stopped short in the doorway, face cloaked by shadow. I glanced over my shoulder, wondering if she was really talking to me. The opera-singer wore a dark veil and a black dress with beads that glinted faintly.

She tapped her doorframe impatiently. ‘Well? You’re letting the cold in, which you know is bad for my throat. Close the door and come in quickly, I need you.’

Like a shrouded wraith, she passed through the door and left me to run after her so the flat door wouldn’t shut in my face.

Before I migrated to the gloomy British Isles, I had never lived in a flat before. My family was proud of the fact that we were 三世同堂: three generations living under the same roof. My grandparents and parents still lived in the same concrete and corrugated metal roofed house, and I had grown up close to the sun, moving easily in and out of the outdoors like it was a second home.

Here, things were different. A house was something that hid you from the elements. Somewhere you could pretend that the outside didn’t exist.

Standing there at the opening of the opera-singer’s flat, for a brief moment, I imagined I had stepped into the backstage of a theatre. I didn’t know where to look first. The walls were covered in poster-sized theatre bills, many of which in she was the star, her face in posed expressions of emotion, her name in large capitals at the bottom. I learned her name when a piece of fan mail was delivered to my mailbox by accident. Vases of luxurious hothouse flowers battled to stay alive, stuck in that heady, perfumed stage of half-rot. A costume rack stood to attention in the corner, where the opera-singer had tried on and discarded a few outfits already—the white and gold cotton of an Egyptian queen, the heavy petticoat and bustle of a 16th century noblewoman, the flattering cut of a tongue-in-cheek suit clearly made for a woman.

‘You smell different,’ she noted, not bothering to look at me. I didn’t move, unsure if she would catch me the next moment. ‘A bit like a soap store.’

She had already collapsed into a red velvet upholstered chaise longue and had an eye mask on. There was no chance I would be found out. Just as I was about to reply, she gestured to a neat pyramid of clementines on an ornately carved table beside her.

I stepped forward gingerly, trying to leave as little of my presence on the carpet as possible. In that moment I didn’t think of how it looked, the upstairs neighbour who had lied her way in and now was preparing to, well, I could have done anything to her. A series of dramatic scenes flashed through my mind: my hand holding a dagger, like a horror film, where the opera-singer was the beautiful victim; my hand carefully touching her face, as if she were a fairytale princess cursed to sleep forever; my hand reaching out to tenderly stroke her hair, the eye-mask falling off as she looked at me properly for the first time. Our eyes would meet, and instead of terror, I would see understanding, a mutual accord that we had fallen in love.

‘Sometime this year,’ she said, leaving her mouth slack so there was no room for me to mistake her order. Whether out of sheer habit or not, her mouth was curved in a perfect O.

I moved faster, squatted next to the table and peeled the clementine, not caring that the pith and peel lodged themselves in my nail beds and would stain my fingernails orange until I next had a shower. Out of habit, I peeled them the same way my mother did: in a single unbroken strip that curled into a spiral.

When the clementine sat naked in my palm, I split it into its segments and rocked back on my heels, sitting as close to her as I dared, lifting a single fragrant slice to her mouth. Her tongue darted out to taste the juice beading on the edges of the clementine. Then, so my fingers would be safe, she took the piece between her front teeth and retreated to chew her prize. I trembled when her lips brushed my fingers. Even her chewing was measured, and I could see her throat shifting in a smooth ripple as the juice and pulp moved down into the cavity of her body.

I sat there for what could have been seconds or hours, like a supplicant endlessly twisting the rosary around their fingers. If I had continued the motions of peeling and lifting any longer, I’m sure I would have forgotten my own name, where I had come from, what I was doing there.

The sound of the building door opening broke the spell. I cast around wildly and tried to gather my bearings. I dropped the orange half on the carpet and crushed it underfoot in my haste to run from the room. If this was a comic opera, I would have dived somewhere ridiculous to hide—underneath the chaise langue the opera-singer sat on as I watched the action on the main stage. But self-preservation kicked in, and I pushed past the door just as the assistant entered, my head doggedly lowered, so all I saw was a flash of shoes and a small cry coming from her mouth. It was too late for her to do anything. I had already taken the stairs three at a time, sprinted into my flat, and slammed the door shut.

I laid like a dying starfish on my cold floor. My heart struggled to escape my chest.

*

Over the next few weeks, I did everything I could to avoid the opera-singer and her assistant short of scaling the wall to my flat. I left the house a half hour before the assistant turned up. When I walked past her window, if the opera-singer had started already, I resolutely did not turn around. I stopped humming opera at work, I tried to move past the obsession, I even bought earplugs to distract myself from the morning concerts.

I kept dreaming of her voice. Sometimes I was plunged into complete darkness, with only her music coaxing me to relax and become absorbed by the dark space. Other times she sang without words. Just an endless wave of noise that spilled into her real-life vocal warm-ups.

On a Saturday, weeks after I entered the opera-singer’s house, I left the house around 1 when I would usually avoid leaving or entering. Saturdays were matinee days and there was too much of a chance of meeting her. In the past, her leaving for the theatre was a spectacle that I watched from my bedroom window. When I heard the slowly chugging engine of a taxi waiting on the road, I waited too, to see what the opera-singer would be wearing. From what I understood (the occasional manager did come to shout through her windows), the opera-singer lived her life perpetually late to her next appointment. She dressed and rehearsed at home as much as possible, hardly ever leaving her flat except to travel to the theatre or go on stupendous shopping trips and expensive dinners with men that kissed her cheek as they parted ways on the doorstep. When she did make it to the theatre, it was very often down to the wire—literally flinging herself onstage the moment she arrived.

So that Saturday, as I descended the stairs, she spoke to me.

When I recall it now, she must have been waiting there for me in silence, half-shadowed by evening light. I was on the last flight of stairs before the ground floor, distracted by digging through my bag to make sure that I had my wallet.

‘Can you help me with this?’ She asked. ‘I would ask my assistant, but she’s not in today. She’s sick again. People really need to take better care of themselves.’

I froze at the sound of her voice and looked up.

She was facing away from me, the curve of her spine exposed in a lace dress with a silk slip inside. The help she needed was clear. There was a row of many, many tiny pearl buttons that needed to be done up at the back. Each step I took towards her brought a new detail to my eyes: the angular planes of her shoulder blades, the smooth, unblemished surface of her skin.

The opera-singer stood perfectly still, like a hunter waiting for its prey to slip into a trap.

I fell right into it. It was as if I had dissociated and was watching the scene from outside my body, staring at our two figures as if we were set onstage.

My fingers were sure and steady as they made their way up the dress. When they were done up, they looked like an iridescent spinal cord, one I could pluck like an instrument’s string. My fingers were practically on her skin. The gentle heat emanating from her hypnotised me. She was silent the whole way through until the second-to-last button.

‘Do you want to watch me sing this afternoon?’ she asked.

The final button slid into place, as did the rest of my life. 

*

The opera-singer’s manager shut me away in a box that no one else seemed to be in, rolling his eyes and complaining about my attire the whole way through. The crowds we squeezed through were a mixed bag. There were young and old audiences rippling with excitement, murmuring the opera-singer’s name. Glancing at the programme, I smiled when I saw the performance was going to be La Boheme.

I quickly realised why no one else was in the box once the opera started. It was set behind the stage rather than in front. You couldn’t help but be in the spotlight, part of another dimension, onstage being watched by an audience with eyes like tadpoles. The crowd hadn’t realised there was a courtship unfolding outside the opera they watched.

I watched the glossy back of the opera-singer’s head as she twirled across the stage. My favourite part of La Boheme—when Musetta sings a waltz to try and win over Marcello—was riveting. She was singing to an overweight Marcello clearly past his prime, but it didn’t matter. The lilting tones drew me in and tied me down. My father had played it for me as a child. The waltz was transformed before me, a song sung for my ears alone. The only living thing onstage was my opera-singer. As she hit her triumphant high note, she flicked her eyes to my box, a grin on her lips.

I left the box. After the song was over and the lovers had fallen irresistibly into one another’s arms, I fled to the bathroom to compose myself. Trembling in front of the endless rows of mirrors in the black-marbled bathroom, I stood weakly at a sink, trying to banish the red from my cheeks with cold water.

Her manager tracked me down just as the curtains drew over the final act. ‘She wants to see you,’ he said with a slight sneer.

In the dressing room, she had miraculously returned into the high necked, pearl buttoned dress, as if she had never taken it off in the first place.

‘I’m starving,’ she said. ‘We should get dinner.’

We were whisked out the side doors, avoiding anyone who wanted a picture or autograph, to a quiet all-night breakfast cafe down a deserted alley.

We drank wine with our English breakfast. She fed me a scone dripping in clotted cream and jam. She talked—more than I did—about her life and her art. It took her some time to shed the skin of her performance, she said, and talking about it helped her feel like herself. She told me her real name, apparently a different one from her stage name, and offered I should call her a pet name instead. The only type of jam she liked was strawberry, never raspberry, because the seeds in the latter got stuck in her teeth. The sweater I wore reminded her of an old schoolteacher she had a crush on. She loved travelling but hated flying. She’d been to Malaysia once on a layover to Australia. Her favourite novels were mysteries, and a close second was space opera. ‘It’s impossible for us to be alone,’ she said, smiling. ‘I just don’t believe that’s how the universe works.’ 

We spent another hour before sliding, tipsy, into the taxi waiting for her outside. When we finally drew up, I saw people walking to the train station to begin their daily commutes. The sound of the key unlocking the door seemed as if it might wake up the whole building. We passed by her flat, and I said goodnight as she opened the door.

‘Aren’t you going to come in?’ She asked.

Without waiting for an answer she disappeared into the yellow glow of her flat. The door remained open.

I followed. 

*

 I slept that first night deeply and without dreams.

The sunlight woke me, not song. From the angle of the sun entering her window, I knew that it was well past my usual waking time. I had missed my shift at the soap store. The opera-singer was curled up by my side, one arm thrown over my ribcage.

I wondered if I should leave, awkwardly shuffling out the flat, praying no one in the building saw me. Before I could decide, the opera-singer’s assistant flung the door open and stared at us in the bed. The opera-singer awoke and stood by the bed.

‘Eileen?’ She said as the assistant relayed the singer’s plans for the day. ‘You’re fired. Leave the schedule outside.’

The assistant let out a small cry, sunk to the ground and clung to the opera-singer’s knees. Throughout the exchange I feigned sleep but I felt my face slowly turning red.

Only when I heard the door close, and the front door slam did I open an eye to peek at the scene. The opera-singer stood by the window, peeling the skin of an apple with a sharp knife, letting it dangle down in a curl. When she saw I was awake she smiled gently.

‘I seem to have lost an assistant,’ she said. ‘Would you mind taking over until I find a new one?’

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BABIES DON’T KEEP by Janelle Bassett

I packed my blue kiddie-sized suitcase that said “Off to Grandma’s House.” In went the socks that I liked to roll down into ankle worms. In went the hairbrush with my spelling bee name tag stuck on the handle to claim it as mine—just like the dark greasy hair wound through it.

Usually the suitcase referred to my dark-haired Grandma, because that's where I took it. This time I was packing for a trip to my red-haired Grandma’s, but the suitcase was still right about where I was headed.

I put in a wax air freshener shaped like a teddy bear. The bear wore blue jeans and I’d melted his head into his shoulders with a lamp light. I meant to—had wished for a real flame and quicker dripping. The bear was a victim but still smelled like sea breeze. I always sniffed my victim before going to sleep. Routines were secretly holding me together.

I hoped my mom would pack a bag for my sister. Without help, her bag would be only Tootsie Rolls, trolls, and hard objects for pelting me when I most deserved it. No underwear, just projectiles.

I finished packing my suitcase hours before I was to be taken anywhere. I sat on my bed with my shoes buckled and looked in the mirror and saw the kind of girl who packed her bag hours early and then put on her shoes and looked in the mirror and watched herself pat-pat her bag to make sure it was staying ready.

I watched Grandma pull up through my sheer curtains. She parked her tan Buick, put her purse on her shoulder then, remembering she was in a small town where purse snatchings were rare and she could acquire her granddaughters for free, set her purse back down.

My mom let me open the door. Grandma was no longer her mother-in-law, so Mom was under no obligation to smile, coo, or offer her pigs-in-a-blanket when she came around. Mom put out her cigarette and put both feet on the floor—she no longer needed to impress but that didn’t mean she wanted to be caught all bunched up and puffing away.

“Look at you, all ready to go! I guess you didn’t have time to brush your hair. Where’s your sister?”

Grandma stood there fragrant and put together, masterfully middle-aged. She was the only person in my life who wore outfits and not just clothes. This gave her a certain authority over my hair. Her go-to look was bright multi-colored tops tucked into solid slacks, plus jazzy belts, beaucoup jewelry, a crisp hairdo, shoulder purse and foo-foo perfume. She had a high slim waist and it seemed like her whole past and future revolved around that fact—her middle being so easy to locate.

Grandma looked past me and saw my mom sitting up straight and not on fire. “How are you doing, Mandy?”

Mom said she was “getting along fine” but did not offer examples of her fineness or ask any questions in return. Instead she got up to see what was keeping my sister from getting this woman off her porch.

I was telling Grandma that I’d packed a swimsuit just-in-case when we heard yelling.

“It’s time to go. Right now!”

“I want to bring my (unintelligible)!”

“You can’t! It doesn’t fit in your bag! Just take everything from inside and pack it. Same thing.”

Grandma and I heard a scream that started upright then dropped to the floor. Then we heard the crunchy brown carpet take some abuse from Tara’s fists and heels. I thought good. That carpet deserved it.

I bet Grandma wished she had her purse to look through while she stood through this tantrum—she could have feigned gum-rifling to break the tension.

I told her, “I better go see what’s going on.”

She looked in at our couch and said, “I’ll guess I’ll wait in the car.”

When I walked in Tara was still pounding and my mom had her face in her hands. Mom saw me and offered, “She wants to bring her entire drawer.”

Tara stopped moving and crying so that her justification wasn’t coming from an out-of-control animal. “I need to bring it because Chomp-Chomp sleeps in there. It’s her bed!”

Chomp-Chomp was my sister’s stuffed rabbit who I’d never ever seen sleep anywhere other than in Tara’s twin bed, in the crook of her arm. I said, “Why can’t she bring the drawer?”

“Because… it’s part of the dresser.”

“We will bring it back.” I made it into a “we” situation, like the idea was gathering momentum. Practically everyone thinks bringing the whole drawer is a reasonable idea.

Tara looked at me to forgive me for about twenty percent of how I’d treated her up until that moment. I had to keep her tipped slightly toward me with these moments of understanding so she didn’t hit me too hard when she hit me too hard.

Mom said, “It’s heavy. And what would your grandma think?”

From the floor Tara watched to see if I was pulling for her strong enough to get past the next, logistical hurdle.

“We’ll tell her it’s a Reed family tradition—that your family has traveled with their dresser drawers for centuries. One guy started it and then that became the way it was done. Like how Johnny Appleseed’s descendants probably still wear pots on their heads.”

Tara put her ankle on her opposite knee and said “Yeah” like she’d just been taking a casual floor rest or doing a yoga pose and not wigging out about a detachable piece of furniture.

Mom must have realized how close she was to being free from us for two days. “Fine. But I’m not carrying it out to her car. You two will have to manage.” She gave us each a kiss on the cheek, went into her room, and shut the door.

As Tara and I lugged the dresser drawer across the lawn we remarked conspiratorially on how light it was, really, and how well Chomp-Chomp would sleep in the city. Grandma popped the trunk without comment. We didn’t even have to tell her about the Reed tradition, she could tell by our unkept hair that we came with a fair amount of straggly reasoning.

***

Tara and I rode in the backseat because Grandma had plastic shopping bags in the front and didn’t offer to move them. Also, we needed to be close enough to fight and huff at each other without getting neck cricks.

Grandma never asked about school or friends or if we’ve been nice to Mommy. She wanted to spend time with us, not with a five- and a seven-year-old. She knew our day-to-day lives were boring struggles and that nothing that happened at school was worth sharing, so instead she told us about her life.

I was glad I didn’t have to produce answers like, “Yes, my teacher is very nice, she grades in green instead of red” but I did want to tell someone about getting under my desk for earthquake drills in my dress and how the cold concrete floor felt on my underwear when I leaned back into a full crouch. And about my daily work digging out tree roots at recess. Every day I exposed more tendrils and every day I became less articulate.

Grandma told us about selling high-end stuffed animals to rich children and the parents who wanted to shut them up, and about her new dummy cat who tried to sleep on the wrought iron headboard but kept falling into the crack between the bed and the wall with a squawk that must have meant “I thought this time would be different!”

I filed away all this incoming information. I looked like a blank incapable child who might sit watching houseflies, but I was a Rolodex in cotton tights. These stories were clues and demonstrations I might need someday when I learned how to be a person.

Tara looked out the window. This made me furious. I wanted to hurt her so that I didn’t have to think about how she saw the world when I was busy with my own investigation.

I whispered to her, “You smell like the dog when she first wakes up.”

She frowned, hurt and small, and tried to kick me.

Grandma said, “Stop that fighting or you won’t get to see what’s in these bags.”

Tara stopped so I gave her a victorious look because even though we both stood to gain from the bags she had already sustained my critical comment while I remained unkicked.

Tara told Grandma that we’d each gotten a puppy from a neighborhood litter. Spunk, the puppy she’d chosen, was still alive and chasing cars while the dog I’d chosen, Lucky, was killed by a car just as soon as I’d named him. Tara said, “Isn’t that kind of funny? Lucky?”

And Grandma laughed because it was kind of funny when you weren’t the owner and the namer of the unlucky pup.

So Tara kicked me back without compromising the bag of goodies, and while I stewed about the comedic, deflating death of my pet I was also relieved that my sister had tipped us back to even. I did my best damage in retribution.

***

We’d been driving for two hours when we stopped at a gas station. Grandma needed to fill up and said we could get a snack, which meant candy because we weren’t the kind of girls to walk out with a bag of pretzels.

Tara and I stayed in the car while Grandma pumped. We wordlessly watched Grandma push buttons while the back of her belt sparkled for us. When she turned around with the nozzle she tapped it on the window, like a fun-loving warning. Give me a smile with your hands up where I can see ‘em.

Inside the gas station I found the candy aisle and decided to get Sixlets which are like rounder M&M’s, with even more of that factory-made taste (bouquet of dye with notes of clanking).

Before I could finalize my choice by swiping it off the rack, I saw a man in the next aisle. He was in the salt aisle: chips, peanut butter crackers, jerky sticks, mixed nuts. He held a bag of Funyuns and I recognized him immediately. If I hadn’t been with my Grandma I might not have made such swift connections. I might have thought, “Bus driver? Farm hand? Yoyo’s Pop-Pop?” But in that context I easily remembered that he had once been my low-level, temporary, menacing Grandpa. An image of him reclining on the couch leering and sneering in pajama pants made my stomach grasp at my inner-skin for balance and composure.

I froze and tried to understand the implications of this sighting and whether I wanted to be recognized by this man. I scanned for Tara. She was safe with Grandma and the cold drinks. I considered army-crawling to them but I knew the Sixlets would make me a conspicuous rattlesnake.

He hadn’t noticed me yet. Then I recalled how unremarkable and forgettable a child I was. People never remembered me. I had to be formally introduced to my great-grandmother each holiday and every picnic. I could probably do a cha-cha dance with several packages of Sixlets and this past-Grandpa wouldn’t even look up.

This was a relief. This Grandpa had, for a brief time, been the partner of my red-haired Grandma who was now only feet away with the cold drinks. I didn’t know if they had been married or simply boyfriend and girlfriend, but I think they lived together. His razor and comb had been in her bathroom with her seashell art and her round cakes of pink soap.

I’d only picked up slivers about their relationship. From listening to adult conversations I’d learned that he’d been stealing from Grandma and had done the same with other women, that he’d pushed a girlfriend down concrete steps, that he’d gone by other names, that he was bad inside—wanting and taking. All while smelling of sharp pine. But the final point of all the gathered slivers was this: she’d gotten away from him.

Until then. When he loomed one aisle over with his Funyuns.

I wanted to sound an alarm and be an alarm. I didn’t want to be unremarkable but ultra-remarkable, like a swirling flame that screams in beeps.

“Hey! Hey you! You’re my grand baby! Aren’t you my little grand baby?”

He was looking over and down at me, identifying me correctly. Except I was never his and he knew me from ages five to six, when I could read and shower alone and wear bodysuits—so not a baby.

I decided not to speak but to cower. So much for being an alarm, for swirling in response to danger. In the heat of the moment I was all prey, all rabbit, begging for mercy only with my eyes.

“You are my grand-baby ain’t ya? You’ve grown. You’re gettin’ lady legs!”

He was leaning on the rack between us and studying me like his eyes were the sun and I grew into a woman only under his edifying watch. I didn’t know he was drunk but I knew he was loose in a way that meant anything could happen. And that the “anything” felt tipped toward bad and toward irrevocable.

He knew I was scared and this only brightened his beam.

I heard my grandma’s shoes tipping across the store. I saw her approach, looking only right-at-me because she’d had previous experience with his mean and binding focus.

She stopped at the entrance to my aisle. “Come on over here.”

She was my well-dressed embassy.

Tara was at her side, looking frightened and like she forgave me for another twenty percent of my awful behavior because she disliked seeing me in a vulnerable situation.

“Well, looky here. Pretty Miss Dreena. Here with our grandbabies. Looking so nice.”

Grandma didn’t acknowledge him or meet his eye and I understood all the strength she had in her—her strength in that moment and in the moment she finally kicked him out. I understood her strength in the moments I couldn’t imagine, like what bad men did when they had the chance, and moments I wasn’t privy to, moments from before I was born, like when she was ten and a neighbor boy pushed her down, lifted her skirt, and stood over her because he wanted her to know he could do more if he felt like it. In that moment her strength kept the truth of that powerlessness from penetrating her being.

I took my Sixlets and went to Grandma. She held my hand and led us to the checkout. She looked straight ahead but Tara and I were weaker and watched him following us.

“Where are my three beautiful girls heading tonight?”

Two people were in front of us in line. Grandma gripped our skulls and turned our faces away from him.

“Where are you taking my grandbabies?” His voice was becoming more threatening and more cajoling.

I started to cry. It felt like he could do whatever he wanted since he’d claimed me as his. His grandbaby.

Grandma pulled me into her hip. We were next in line.

Tara saw my tears and turned back to yell, “We are not your grandbabies! And you smell like your dog when she first wakes up!”

He laughed and he came closer, both actions that made the tears come harder.

Grandma had to yank the Sixlets from my upset hand to pay for them.

He was right beside us, nearest to me. He called Grandma’s name. He called her “the little wife.” He asked where we were going over and over.

The woman behind the counter said, “Is there a problem here?” and I wanted to scream an affirmative and scramble behind the counter with her, back with the telephones and the guns and the propriety.

But Grandma very coolly said we were fine and closed her purse and handed us our candy.

She said to us, “We are going to walk to the car and drive away.”

I just knew he’d follow us and scratch at my window until he saw that none of my haughty confidence remained. I knew he wanted to put his yellow teeth in my face and feed off my disgust.

But once we started toward the door he stopped shouting and simply let us go. We got in and we drove away, just like Grandma said. I looked out the window at the gas station. He hadn’t emerged. He wasn’t chasing us.

We were not his grandbabies.

As she pulled back onto the road Grandma asked, “Are you girls okay?”

As Tara said, “No” I said, “He didn’t even remember my name.”

Read More »

GENIUS by T.J. Larkey

I'd been a process server my whole life.

Well not really.

I remember my dad driving me around a lot after school, leaving the car running as he knocked on strangers’ doors.

At seven seeing his Vietnam Vet fearlessness for the first time, ducking a crackhead wielding a broken lawn lamp.

At fifteen working in his house/office, and at seventeen feeling so lucky to have a job that didn’t leave me smelling like grease.

And at nineteen using the savings to move away to California.

So it really only felt like it.

Like I’d never done, and wouldn’t ever do, anything else.

The rightful heir to King Larkey of Larkey Process Professionals.

 

 

I was driving to work in Tempe, hungover.

One of those apartment complexes I’d served since high-school, the same drive in the same car down the 101 freeway.

It was hot out when I left but even hotter when I got there.

I took a minute to get used to it with the windows down while I plugged in my headphones and found the right playlist, titled “That Real Shit.”

Then I started my circular walk around.

The same walk.

Est. 2010.

“Hi there!”—bitch-ass subservient tone—“Is ___ or ___ home?”—sheepish smile—“This is a late rent notice from the leasing office for you.”

And when done right, the response: “Thanks(?)”

It wasn’t hard to pull off.

Placating their anger with idiot grins and clown dances.

Climbing staircases like I expected a statue of myself hands to the clouds to be built at the top.

Dancing through the parking lot, shoulders and head bobbing.

Tapping lightly and rhythmically on doors to match the song I was listening to privately so others could enjoy it too.

And if they did get angry: just silently absorbing the shit with a smile, that half-lie in the back of my brain whispering seductively, “I’m not the bad guy, I have my own problems paying rent, and it might as well be me and not those dead-eyed chain-smoking creatures from the court.”

 

 

“Hi there!”

An elderly woman so happy to have company she didn’t understand what was happening.

A college kid too bro’d out to respond with anything but, “Fersher dood.”

A mom of three with a toddler on her hip, talking on the phone, too busy for words but angry enough to give me a look I wouldn’t forget.

I served and served.

Thinking only of ways not to have to serve anymore.

Fantasizing about anything else.

Numbing my surroundings with rap music.

Drifting into your life bringing change but on to the next door so quick you felt violated.

Stuntin’ like my daddy.

 

 

The rapper in my headphones was talking about being awesome, getting money because he was awesome.

I thought about becoming a rapper.

Another rapper made me laugh.

I thought about being a comedian.

The next rapper said, “Name one genius that ain’t crazy,” and I thought about being a genius.

Dear Kanye, is there another option for crazy people other than being a genius?

Dear Self, you are not a genius.

No.

No fucking way.

Not even sure why you’re thinking that you fu—

“What do you want!?”

A big shirtless thing in a dark room, standing behind a half-open door, looking at me.

“Sorry,” I said, popping out my headphones. “Is Kyle home?”

“Kyle who?”

“Kyle”—checking paper—“Lind?”

“Nope.”

“Oh, okay, well, I have a notice here for him from the Leasing Office.”

“Kay.”

“Could you give it to him?”

“Nah there’s no Kyle here.”

“Uhh”—I looked at the paper, the number on the door—“But this is the apartment number listed, and it’s from the leasing office. Also I’ve served you before man.”

“There’s no Kyle.”

“None Kyles?”

“There are zero Kyles here.”

He closed the door.

I folded the paper up to tuck it in the door, then tucked it in the door.

He pushed it out.

I tucked it in again.

The door opened.

He said, “I will kill you dude, seriously.”

I said, “I will die willingly, just try it.”

No I didn’t.

I walked away briskly with my hands at my sides like I hadn’t heard him.

Because I am not the bad guy.

I just can’t do anything else.

I’m crazy for not doing something else.

Name one crazy that ain’t genius.

 

 

I got to my car and locked the door.

Laughing nervously.

There were still more notices to be served at the complex but I didn’t feel like serving them so I did my special process server trick that wasn’t really a trick and was actually just crumpling them up and throwing them on the floor underneath the passenger seat.

I had sparkling water cans, fast food wrappers, gas station pizza boxes, and my little snack bag down there too.

I grabbed my little snack bag.

Pulled out a beef stick thing (extra-large, to carry me through the rest of that day) and ate slowly, trying not to have a panic attack.

Then I checked my remaining work.

Only two stops left.

One on the way home, and one out of the way.

I decided to pull another process server trick.

Which really was a trick where you serve the close one and type the other into GPS so you know how long it would take to get to the place you didn’t really go to but then write the time down like you did go to it and then drive home where it is safe instead.

Because fuck all of Arizona except my apartment.

Especially Tempe.

Fuck every resident of Tempe, past and present, except the celebrated hip hop trio Injury Reserve.

Yeah—Tempe—yeah you—we were never really friends.

The absolute worst (I’d done no research whatsoever) stretch of college-ness ever.

College town, party town, number one at being the worst town, cop town, fuck town U.S.A.

I drove out of it as fast as possible.

 

 

Downtown Phoenix, the old historic neighborhood, off the 10 freeway at 7th Ave.

Out of College Town and into Artsy/Murderous/Fancy/Opinion Town.

I passed the old timey hipster diner on 10th..

Then past a row of houses all similarly beaten down until I hit the newest looking of them, with a small white gate like those in the old movies.

There was a dog barking as soon as I got out of my car and when I approached the gate, he made himself known.

Big drooling bastard, a killer, absolutely beautiful.

He poked his nose out of the gate, barking viciously at me.

Hello gorgeous—I said, reaching out my hand and almost losing it.

What beautiful teeth you have—I thought, smiling maniacally.

Suicide by man’s best friend—I fantasized.

The door opened behind him.

His barking stopped.

His owner said things and when I said things back his (the dog’s) barking started up again.

“Sorry! He usually stops.”

I said it was okay, that dogs acted differently around me than they usually do.

“He/She is not usually like this”—I heard that a lot.

My dick and balls had been sniffed, nuzzled, borderline molested by almost every dog I’d ever met.

They can smell genius—I thought, hiding a smirk.

“A notice! From the Realty Company!”

I waved the paper and the man understood.

He walked out and received it from me graciously but was not happy about it.

An understanding.

That feeling when people knew you were just doing your job and you had no control over the way landlords or realty companies operated.

It was something like a head nod between strangers on the sidewalk or when you find a loose cigarette under your passenger seat, under all that garbage—so human, so good.

“Have a nice day!” I said, but what I meant was I love you. “Sorry to bother you.”

“No worries!” he said.

 

 

Back at home I loaded the bad news papers along with the service info into my printer/scanner and sent them off to my dad’s office/home.

I was sitting on my hard little futon couch trying to get comfortable.

Drinking beer very fast.

A movie on in the background.

But distracted by my neck pain and my back pain and my asshole pain.

Prostatitis—or Trucker’s disease—from sitting on your ass too long.

I also wasn’t breathing very well.

I’d been hit in the face too many times, taken a few drunken headers on rock and concrete, and the result was a skull that didn’t sit right on my neck.

I had daily stretches and exercises created by this Russian-Israeli physicist named Moshe Feldenkrais—the only thing that worked, even after seeing doctor after doctor specializing in everything from the heart to TMJ to the psyche—but I hadn’t done them in a while.

I drank instead—i.e. lazy—until the pain went away and I didn’t care as much about my short breath or my racing heart.

Just as I was feeling a little better, my phone went off.

I ignored it.

It went off again.

I saw on the screen that it was the big man.

“Hey Boss.”

Like we were in the middle of a conversation already: “Did you serve that Buckeye?”

I lied and told him I had.

The papers were scanning now.

It was just my printer, that piece of shit printer.

“Never mind the printer, the guy said you didn’t serve it.”

“What guy?”

“The owner of the house. He lives next door and said he didn’t see you, or the notice on the door. He was watching all day.”

I said why would he do that.

My dad said that the owner wanted to see how the guy reacted to being served.

I said what a bitch.

My dad said you didn’t serve it did you?

I said how dare you question my work ethic.

No I didn’t.

I apologized, said that this was the first time—only because Buckeye was so far away—and that I was grateful for him and that it wouldn’t happen again and that I loved him.

“Cut the crap. I know it won’t happen again,” he said. “You’ll lose your license. You want to lose your license? You want to leave me stranded doing everything by myself for weeks?”

“No.”

I hung up the phone.

Guzzled some cold coffee.

And walked out of my apartment and into my car.

My asshole still hurt.

 

 

Buckeye.

A sort-of town out in the desert you never think of unless you’re driving through it to California, or you’re a process server.

A long two-lane road with not much to look at except signs and roadside memorials.

I had a tendency to seek out roadside memorials, a habit since I’d made the drive to Los Angeles and back so many times.

And I saw a few really new and beautiful looking ones and couldn’t help zoning out.

Feeling (something).

People around me though, they didn’t seem to be appreciating the view as much.

They were going twenty-five to thirty over the limit and swerving around me like assholes.

A testament to Man’s big fallacy that even the roads with the highest body counts never seemed to deter them from driving like assholes.

One asshole rode my bumper in a way that said: “I’m angry with you and need you to know it.”

Another asshole flashed his lights at me.

And the toughest of assholes—of course—throwing a potentially fatal fit so I can feel punished and shamed.

Yes absolutely, sorry, and thank you.

A single head nod and a smile for you, no eye-contact no matter how long you honk.

A one-handed clap for you, while the other rubs my sweaty stringy-haired balls.

A silent and immortal don’t care to all and good night—don’t even care how tired it is to say it.

You’re welcome.

I made it there safely.

 

 

A lot of the neighborhoods out in the middle of the desert were very nice and had protective gates because of the secluded area surrounding them.

Small winding road surrounded by cacti that lead into a narrow passageway with a keypad and nothing else.

I didn’t have a gate code though.

I looked at the notice for a gate code but there was no gate code.

I didn’t have any room to move to the side for others to get through to the keypad so I sat there waiting for cars for a few minutes.

No cars came or went—the community looked small.

I called the number on the notice—no answer.

I wasn’t expecting an answer.

It was late and most of the realty companies or landlords didn’t answer calls, afraid (I'm guessing) they’d have to speak like a real human with someone they were potentially kicking out onto the street.

Uhh-unh—that was mine and my dad’s job.

“Speak forth,” Dad said.

“Hey I’m stuck at a gate, do we have anything about a code? I tried calling already.”

My dad said he’d look and then went to look and then came back to the phone to tell me he didn't find anything.

“Someone will come through eventually,” he said. “Just wait.”

So I waited.

Rolled down the windows.

Lit a cigarette.

Listened to the desert sounds.

Smelled a pleasant familiar scent from a plant (they were all over Arizona) that I wanted to know the name of but didn’t know the name of because I was too dumb/lazy/disconnected to remember.

A few minutes of that until a car pulled up to the gate from the other side.

The exit side, which was not connected to the enter side.

I waited until the car was halfway out and then turned slowly toward him in case the gate closed back up quickly.

When the car was fully through, I sped up and, almost immediately, had to slam on the brakes.

Because the car leaving had slammed on his brakes first, blocking me on purpose.

I reached for the notice, evidence I wasn’t a thief, and rolled down the window.

The man in the blockade car had rolled his window down too, to give me a look.

There was something to that look.

I flashed my notice and yelled, “I’m a process server!”

Smirking, he replied, “I’m president of the Homeowners Association.”

“Oh!”

“Yep. And I don’t know you.”

“Well fuck,” I said, then blacked out from disgust/anger. “Fuckety fuck shit blah blah (something about asking him if he’d like to be president of the ‘being headbutted to death association’) fuck and more fuck fucks.”

“Real nice,” he said, and drove off after seeing the gate had closed completely.

I reached for one of the cans under my passenger seat and threw it at him, hitting my hand on my door and missing badly because the can had no weight to it.

That useless adrenaline pumping through me now, shame and hatred adding to the trash medley smell.

Twenty minutes passed.

I was getting tired.

I pulled up to the gate, inspected it for weakness, decided I could go face-down through the bottom.

I pulled my car around and then onto another street close by, parked it.

As I walked through the desert I had a nightmare/fantasy about being bitten by a rattlesnake and having to go through many trials to save my own life, then being awarded some kind of certificate that entailed never having to work again.

I got to the gate, dropped to my hands and knees, took a deep breath, made it through, scuffing up my shirt.

My GPS took me past all these houses that looked the same.

It was taking longer than I’d anticipated and I started getting paranoid about my car being towed.

I picked up the pace, started a jog that turned into a run, until I was at the house.

“Hi there, is—”

“You alright man?”

A man not much older than me, staring at the sweat and pavement residue on my shirt.

“Yeah,” I said, still trying to catch my breath. “Just had to crawl under the gate.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“The president denied me safe passage.”

He laughed: “Oh, umm, okay, do you want some water or something?”

“Really? Yeah that’d be great thank you.”

He walked away, leaving the door open, came back with a big glass of ice water.

I drank it slowly but forgot to do the polite thing and not touch it to my lips.

He didn’t seem like he cared.

“So what’s up?”

I looked down at the notice. “I have a thing here, for you, I think.”

“Nice.”

“No I mean, a bad thing. It’s a late rent notice. The wording on here is scary but really it’s just like a warning. The owner of the house has to do a lot more paperwork in order to kick you out, so you have time to pay.”

“Oh no worries,” he said, jerking his thumb at the house next door. “I know the guy. Knew something was coming eventually.”

I handed the paper and the empty glass over to him.

“Thank you,” I said, then stood there waiting in case he wanted to get anything out of his system.

“So hey, can I ask you something,” he said. “Do you do just these, or like, do you do the whole process serving thing?”

“You asking if I do what (Actor) does in (Movie About Process Server)?”

“Hell yeah man. One of my all-time favorites. In high school I wanted to do exactly that job.”

“Yeah, I can imagine, that was the golden age for us.”

“So you just like drive around all day getting stoned or what? You must have some crazy stories too.”

“Not really. Served a guy who flashed his gun and asked me if I wanted to ‘catch some lead’ once, but I just laughed and he kept the gun in his waistband the whole time.”

“Oh shit, you gotta be careful out there.”

“Yeah definitely, I have a routine though.”

“A real pro huh?”

“You could say that. I’ve been doing it my whole life. I mean kind of my whole life.”

He held out his fist and I bumped it.

“Anyway,” I said. “Sorry to bother you.”

“All good man, take it easy.”

“You too,” I said, and walked back to the gate to crawl under it.

I made it to my car, which hadn’t been towed.

Then I drove home.

Feeling an embarrassing level of excitement for the weekend approaching.

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SALAD GIRLS by CK Kane

I don’t want my mom to die not because I like her, but because she’ll be the nastiest ghost. Unrelenting in death. I just know it. I pull her boots off like always. Using both hands, I make an ugly face and lean my body trying to pull. She moans like always. Whenever she’s not on a horse she’s in this bed. Crumbs of caked mud and crap get on the white sheets as the second boot finally gives and I almost fly across the room. Still in her breeches and a turtleneck, she pulls the covers over her save for a long black braid. The lived-in covers smell like dandruff.

*

A bell sound rattles sharp metallic through my bedroom.  Our doorbell almost never rings, so I don’t get up right away, I just freeze with my hand stuffed down my jeans, distracted from my drawing.

Downstairs in the doorway, she looks like one of the paper cut-out puppets I used to make. Just a dark shape. I recognize her but I don’t know if I should act like it.

“Karl,” says her mouth, like those wax lips we used to get at Halloween that weren’t exactly candy. She smells like the smoking section. Hi Auntie Deb, I say to her grin. A force allows me to stand a certain distance away from her, like the back of a magnet. It almost tickles when I step closer. She hears my mom wailing from upstairs through the walls and her down comforter. I don’t notice until she does.

Outside the bedroom the groaning is unbearable.

Auntie Deb leans in: “Ever since your father, huh.”

I nod, but I don’t remember.

I’m glad I don’t feel much. There’s no room in this house for anyone else’s feelings.

Auntie Deb click-clacks into my mother’s room, chattering.

Lydia, what did you take.

Lydia, this boy must be close to six feet already.

 

Her fingernail is a shade of red I’ve never seen before, almost brown, almost purple. It faintly scratches along the grain of the sheets: “My God, these cost more than my whole life and you wear your barn clothes to sleep?”

I remember a party a few years ago in a different town in Connecticut, one that seemed like the black & white version of our town. After the party I asked my mom if we were filthy rich. And she grabbed my face so hard and shook it and said, “Who taught you how to speak like that? Someone said that, you haven’t heard that in this house, who said that, who taught you that?”

I felt extra dumb. That was the last time I’d seen Auntie Deb until now.

The phone makes its wild sound to remind us it’s off the hook, its cord of tired curls swinging like a noose in waning lopes. My mom keeps it that way. Auntie Deb unplugs the phone from the wall and hangs it up, hard. She sits on the bed and rubs my mom’s back and I watch from the doorway, feeling the magnet feeling but also an upset. Like ticklish surgery.

The fingernail traces my mom like chalk through the dandruff horse shit covers.

“So skinny, Lydia. How do you stay so thin?”

My mom rolls her eyes, I’m not sure if it’s voluntary.

Coke and toast, I say.

Auntie Deb looks at me.

I tell her she only eats Coke and toast. Real Coke, not diet. White toast, I clean up the crumbs. With butter.

I think about my mom’s deliberate, aggressive cracking of a can of Coke. Almost violent. A sound I try to flee the room before I have to hear. The craziest burps, too. You’d never think such a skinny lady would have these Homer Simpson burps. But when I burped she told me I was disgusting and she hated me. I don’t burp around her anymore.

*

Auntie Deb in my room is awkward like Herman Munster, like she’s going to break something even though nothing is really breakable.

“How old are you, thirteen? You have the room of an old man.”

Her eyeballs swirl around like she’s worried about stalactites threatening to fall from the ceiling and impale her.

What if I am an old man, I reply to the back of her head.

*

Pepsi is the scraggly cat who paces around Auntie Deb’s porch. I call to him with a Psst psst psst. He glances at me before I go inside. Auntie Deb gets off the phone in her kitchen and tells me my mom is doing ok. The kitchen is yellow, everything. I hand her a refrigerator magnet. I stole it from a gift shop at Schiphol airport last summer when I visited Oma and Opa. It’s a small pair of wooden clogs. I guess I thought I might give it to someone at school. They hadn’t seen me in years. Oma was so upset by how much I resemble my dad she wouldn’t look at me. Opa and I would take walks through Oud-Zuid and return to their creaky house on Amstelveenseweg with something new every day: art supplies, a travel chess set, a little dinosaur sculpture, or just some still-warm bread.

“Aren’t you sweet,” her hand grasps the clogs and the fingernail presses them onto the fridge.

“What’s this for?”

I tell her, you know, for watching me or whatever.

I chop a fat golden onion on the cutting board like she tells me to. Stinging drips pour from my nose and I slip.

Blood squirts from my fingertip in weird beats and I wonder if I’ll need a stitch, I think so. Auntie Deb click-clacks over, standing worriedly behind me. I smell the smoking section and also her rose perfume, “Because people to whom the Virgin Mother has appeared, you know, they all report smelling roses first. An overwhelming aroma of rose. Rhapsodic.” The fingernails pinch my blood-finger and lift it to the wax Halloween lips like mini hors d’oeuvres.

And then she sucks.

*

The living room is like a garage sale. I do my homework and Pepsi stares at me through the window’s lacy curtain. My finger is starting to peel from where Auntie Deb filled it with superglue. She always has this cha-cha music playing and I guess it’s supposed to be cheerful but it’s so, so sad. It’s loud enough to hear above all else but also it fades into the carpet fluff like snowfall. I let Pepsi inside and he mews around my legs. Auntie Deb click-clacks out of the kitchen in an apron that she double-tied around her waist, pleased.

“I’m skinnier than your mom, now.”

Her mouth is a purple hole in her face from drinking wine. She notices Pepsi after a while and the purple hole contorts:

“Get him out of here or I’ll break that cat’s neck so fast your head’ll spin, don’t think I won’t do it.”

I carry Pepsi outside and remember my mom used to follow threats with so fast your head’ll spin when she still said things to me, and it always seemed so ghoulish.

The corduroy chair swallows me. Its coils are spent, its dimensions cartoonish. Auntie Deb sips from a chipped crystal cup on the floral couch and taps through the channels as the glow of the TV illuminates the purple hole. She asks if I remember my dad and if so can I still hear his voice saying things, because she can, and she wonders if they’re the same things. I tell her they’re not the same things because he didn’t speak in English to me, which bothered my mom. The purple hole smiles.

“God forbid Lydia feel excluded.”

 An audience looms around us. Saint relics and porcelain figurines of poodles, butterflies and Siamese cats peek from their shelves, dead-eyed.

“He liked—” the purple hole corrects itself in a tone even lower in its gravel throat. “He wanted me, your father.”

I join her on the couch, entering her ticklish force field.  She palms my skull. Her fingernails sift through my hair, letting it fall back into place like she’s flipping through pages in a book. Roses. Rhapsodic. She holds her cup to my face and my teeth clank the crystal when I gulp down her wine.

*

After my dad died a guy started coming over to tune the baby grand piano. He was balding and had drawn on a widow’s peak with black crayon, it looked like. My mom was awfully friendly to him, it wasn’t like her, she was drinking. My stomach flipped clunkily and I told Widow’s Peak about my dead dad while he tapped the same key over and over. My mom dragged me into the pantry and pinned my shoulders to the floor with her knees and gripped my little neck and said through her big square teeth that if I ever embarrassed her like that again she’d kill me, she’d fucking kill. me. Her eyes burned like the nostrils of one of her horses as a big glob of spit dangled from her mouth to my forehead. It splat right between my eyes and it smelled like her breath and her sobs. When she slammed the door, dry pasta rained on me.

*

Auntie Deb watches me eat while she puffs a cigarette, her eyes warming while I tell her bad stories about my mom like she asks me to. The kitchen yellow is bright and sick. Ash dances near my pancake but I still eat it. When I’m done, she tightens the belt on her robe and takes my plate away and says:

“Do you know what our mother did to us? Women are evil, you know. Rotten. Sick.”

*

The bathwater splashes up and down, up and down until I explode. Auntie Deb says I’ll get an infection, I’ll get backed up, if she doesn’t milk me. I can do it myself but her house, her rules. I stare at the same spot of tile grout when it happens. After the bath, I grab a towel and cover up quick. She is a scarecrow blocking the doorway. I tell her I haven’t had a headache in a while but she insists, it’s preventative, it’s better absorbed this way. I put one foot on the closed toilet seat and dig my toes into the carpet material seat cover. Through a rubber glove I feel the fingernail press the tablets inside of me as I try not to clench.

In bed, I picture an agonized, ancient tree trunk stuck inside another tree trunk at the bottom of the sea.

You don’t have to prove your feelings if you don’t have them.

You don’t have to have feelings.

In the dark things are easier.

That’s what I say.

*

When the cha-cha music isn’t playing, I can play whatever I want. Auntie Deb tries to like it.

“I used to be a backup singer for a rock’n’roller. With one or two other gals. We did our hair like a bunch of lettuce on top of our heads and wore lots of rouge on the apples of our cheeks. We started calling ourselves the salad girls.”

The bathroom door handle jiggles open. Her house her rules.

The fingernail pokes my stomach hard through the water splashing on every syllable. “Some-times-I-think-you’re-a-fag-got.”

When she slams the door, a brass ring from around the handle shimmies around and around before wobbling to a stop on the tile, sealing the quiet.

*

Charcoal scribbles hard like someone else is moving my hand for me and when I look up the art teacher looks away quickly and the other kids are already leaving. The guidance counselor’s voice, a phony pleading KARL, yanks me like bad entertainment off a stage into his office.

I tell him it’s art, it doesn’t mean anything. He says art always means something. Well, mine doesn’t. I sling my backpack over one shoulder and put my hair behind my ears on the way out.

The Janitor squeaks a wheeled bucket down the hall. He has deep eye sockets that make him look like an old picture. The soapy water sloshes floral and sweet and I’m nauseous as I run by his sunken face to get out. He might have said something to me or maybe his mouth just moved the way people missing teeth churn their face around their empty mouths.

*

Pepsi makes little snacking sounds when I give him the rest of my chicken dinner. The wind crackles through his parched fur the way it would move through dried grass and he’s happy I think. I focus on that.

“WHO THE FUCK IS IN MY BED?”

A dull punch to the throat wakes me. Coughing and gasping, there’s a blur, a frustrated ape straddling me, bopping the mattress beneath us. A gold chain grazes my eyes and I hear the swooshing of a windbreaker. Sour cologne and crunchy hair gel. Auntie Deb materializes in a talcum whirl and breaks it up. He’s still swinging. Straining between labored breaths, Auntie Deb introduces us.

“Karl, this is my son. Ronnie.”

I ask her if she means my cousin Ronnie.

Heaving, with his mother’s arms locking his by the elbows, Ronnie says, “I don’t got any cousins.”

I remind him our moms are sisters, that makes us cousins.

“I DON’T GOT. ANY COUSINS.”

Ronnie sleeps off his episode on the floral couch in an angel white tracksuit. His big wet eyes make his Disney-long lashes cling in damp spikes. His buttony nose is like a child with a cold’s or one of those Precious Moments figures you get for your first holy communion. I imagine a little ceramic statue of Ronnie, on his knees in his white tracksuit clasping a gold chain rosary. On the shelf of a Hallmark. A laugh I didn’t know I had falls out of me, bounces off my chin and down my chest like a spat-out mouthful of Cheerios. Auntie Deb looks at him from the yellow kitchen table, I can’t tell if she’s sad or embarrassed or both. She tells me that Ronnie’s dad worked in a crematorium.

“It’s no good for a person, to breathe death all day, it does something to them.” Her voice sounds like it’s asking me permission, like she wants forgiveness for living the way she has and birthing the couch angel.

*

Auntie Deb click-clacks down the hallway through clusters of students and their parents whispering over cookies and juice. There’s an invisible forest fire that follows her and once she passes everyone seems wilted, perplexed. Being at the school in the evening feels vulgar. The art teacher raises his eyebrows as he ushers her into his classroom, closing the door behind them, making me wait in the hall.

A group of classmates laugh and stare from afar. One of them, a girl, leaves the group and walks towards me purposefully, like she’s doing something brazen and wants to seem cool about it. Like she does badass spooky shit all the time. Like it wasn’t a dare. She tells me she thinks I’m good at drawing and that she might go to Europe in the summer and if she goes to Amsterdam can I teach her a word in Dutch maybe? I say misschien which means maybe. She adds that she doesn’t believe the things she’s heard about me—that I torture animals or that I left a kid in a coma at my last school.

A chair screeches, Auntie Deb is yelling at the art teacher. I open the door. “He’s not zany”, she mocks, “he’s-just-a-fag-got,” whacking the art teacher’s desk with my rolled-up grades on each sound. He winces as she raises the roll like she’s gonna hit him, a warning. She click-clacks right towards me and stops.

“Call his mother all you want. She’s unwell. I’m in charge now.”

The fingernails clamp my arm and she glares at the girl I was talking to and asks me, on our way through the spiritless juice and cookie crowd, “Who was that little tramp?”

*

Ronnie slurps stew in the yellow chair across from me. Each time Auntie Deb says something to me he slurps louder. The fingernails walk up my leg under the yellow table. I ask how my mom is and the fingernails stop and dig. “She’s home. She’s been home, Karl. She doesn’t want to see you. She doesn’t care.”

“WHAT THE FUCK MOM?”

 Ronnie pulls the hand away from my leg.

“Oh God forgive ya, Ronnie, for using that language with me,” barks Auntie Deb, cradling her lonely hand.

His Precious Moments face reddens when he asks what was that about. She tells him my mother is very disturbed so I need kindness, as much of it as I can get. Ronnie slams his fist on the table in front of me, rattling the salt and pepper shakers.

“SHE LOVES ME MORE,” he spews in my face. He gets up and backs away. The loaded slingshot pull of the screen door spring is like held breath behind him when he stops to announce, “YOU’RE NEVER GONNA SEE PEPSI AGAIN” before he stomps towards his car.

The fingernails rub my shoulders as I finish my stew, ripping off pieces of a dinner roll and dunking them in the remains. I’m entitled. She asks me do I want to kill my mommy and that she would help me and we would get away with it. I shake my head no and stuff more stew-soaked dinner roll into my mouth calmly. She yanks her hands away, disgusted by my serenity.

The house is warm, but it’s not mine.

*

I kick a twig down the road on my walk back to Auntie Deb’s. The sun’s exit behind me creates a monstrous silhouette. It reminds me of when Auntie Deb showed up at our door that time. And her shape projected through the foyer, eating it up like black smoke. Consumed. I realize I forgot my sketchbook.

I try two different doors before I find one unlocked and the school’s so empty even my shadow echoes. The locker room lights buzz and then dip, buzz and dip. When I see the janitor, his dopey stance is sheepish like I busted him doing something wrong. Maybe it’s the jumpsuit making him a bow-legged toddler with a sagging diaper. He asks me what I’ve got there and I tell him some drawings but he walks over my words and says filth. He waddles towards me and says it again.

“Filth.”

His homeless mouth makes the shape of filth this time with no sound. He tugs at himself. I become rubber cement all clumsy and stuck. His hand forces mine to feel him get bigger through the jumpsuit.

The toilet tank lid is in clunky pieces next to him. The blood smells like something you shouldn’t. I don’t remember. I look away and think when I look back this won’t be real but there it is, a flesh-filled jumpsuit slumped and stuck to the floor. A wet teabag. This has to be a dream. I’m dreaming. Pressure fills the space around my body and I shake ‘cause Auntie Deb is gonna be so pissed I’m taking so long. Supper is important.

I stand right over him, his entire face caved in now, a collapsed building. A discarded Halloween mask on a paved street. His ghost eyes are milky blue hard-boiled eggs splayed in different directions like a gorilla’s tits. Spit fills my mouth and seeps from the corners. I poke the body with a pen and it’s so crazy, I stab him with the pen all over, each time: does that hurt, does that hurt, does that hurt? I step back, my shoes peeling off the floor with sticky syrup sounds. I take a running jump and land on his chest, clunk, I think I broke his ribs. He’s surprisingly sturdy. I jump up and down until I almost lose my balance on his squishy gut. I imagine his organs are water balloons and I’m popping them. Like bubble wrap. I lift up his arm and drop it, thunk. My jeans and sweater and shoes are spattered.

I sit down on a changing bench and flip through my sketchbook, showing him my drawings and explaining them. I marvel at the sound of my voice. I pause, feeling truly heard, and I giggle. Almost ecstatically. And then I draw him.

My syrup feet make Band-Aid rip sounds all the way through the school parking lot. I’ll walk all night until I get to Mom’s house.

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LONELINESS AND HEARTACHE IN THE DISCARDED APPLE CORE PIT OF AMERICA’S ROTTED DREAM FOR AND OF ITSELF by Nathaniel Duggan

Lately Frank has been feeling especially Frank-like, his days reduced to the potato chip crumbs he has failed to brush from his lap—as if he, the essence of himself, is a shirt that can be slipped on or off and has been worn perhaps a few too many weeks in a row. He wets the bed more than when he was a child, although back then his piss was hot and searing as shame, whereas now it is simply cold as a metal unexpectedly touched. His sweat, too, is cold. His dreams are muggy as incest, bratty stepsiblings fucked. He works at a deli sandwich shop, his shifts spent fondling various meats through disposable plastic. He is 32-years old and having trouble, lately, imagining what will fill all the years left ahead of him.

On his days off, Frank visits his mother. At one point Frank had friends; then, suddenly, as if through a magician’s whirling trick of smoke and exploding pigeons, he woke and did not have friends. They had vanished. They had slipped into the cracks of better lives, found secret passageways hidden behind their medicine cabinets into mortgages and tropical island vacations and jobs with business suits, places thoroughly and utterly inaccessible to the Franks of the world.

“Maybe you could try grad school,” his mother suggests over lunch. “You always did so well in school. Or what about teaching English overseas? Plenty of young people are teaching English overseas these days, they’re saying.”

“You always do this,” Frank says. “This is all we ever talk about. Can’t we ever talk about anything else?”

“You were just always so good in school,” his mother says.

The previous day, Frank remembers, he fucked up a wrap at work. The wrap had folded wrong, split against the bend of itself, crumbled and unspooled. He’d looked at his coworker, Kyle, in mock-shock. “How do you fuck up a wrap,” he said.

Kyle was in his early twenties and attending community college, acne still surging like meteor showers across his face. He was grinning.

“Yes you did,” Kyle said. “You sure did fuck that one up. But hey, there’re children starving in Africa, there are tiny babies without food or homes or mothers, and one fucked up wrap doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of their suffering.”

In response, Frank slam-dunked the wrap into the trash can. Across the service counter, customers were watching. Frank felt strange and unreal, felt almost, as if in a video game, unbeatable—like there were forces trying to defeat him and they could not.

That kind of thing happened sometimes, he knew. In certain moments, a hatch opened in your brain, and you crawled up and out through it to escape the piloted machine of yourself, got far enough from your own way of seeing that your life became as unrecognizable to you as a telescoped planet, and for a moment, then, even beneath the insect-splotched lightbulbs of your workplace, everything kind of glimmered like it was covered in fresh dew.

Of course, like anything else those flashes ended. The customers coughed impatiently. Kyle shuffled his feet and suggested they get back to work, he and Frank. You were just you, after all. There was no way, as of yet—as discovered and postulated by scientists, by physicists in nuclear basements and engineers pale-faced by the rays of computer screens stared into late at night—to be anyone else. So Frank made the wrap. Although really he did not want to make the wrap. He wanted instead to talk about how those children overseas were only starving because of American bombs and governmental policy destabilizing their infrastructure.

“You were always so good in school,” his mother says again in the dining room, her voice a sigh. as faint now as a tapping on a windowpane.

Although it’s bright summer, all the lights in the house are on, making the space look cold and drained of the day. They finish the meal in silence. Afterwards, his mother excuses herself to the bathroom. Frank hears her run the shower and then, muffled by the water, quietly scream.

Frank gets in his car and does a few laps around the neighborhood. He is not drunk but he feels the dilation of drunkenness, as if there are air bubbles moving in his bloodstream. This is the suburb where he grew up, adjacent to the city where his current apartment is. It occurs to him he has not made it very far outside of his life, the neatly cropped and segmented lawn of it. When he returns to his mother’s house, all the lights are off, and he finds her asleep on the living room couch, sprawled and open-mouthed as a child.

 

***

 

After a lunchtime rush, Frank asks Kyle, “So what’s up this weekend? Any parties?”

He means it as a joke. He has always assumed that Kyle, still living with his parents, returns home to play video games after each shift. To his surprise, Kyle freezes at this question, the color draining from his face.

“I mean,” Kyle says. “Well, it wouldn’t really be your kind of scene. Kind of a different crowd. I mean, younger. No offense, dude.”

On Frank’s smoking break, the clouds roil apocalyptically in the sky above. He tries to light his cigarette with a dramatic flourish, like it’s the last cigarette he’ll smoke before the ash-black end of the world. He thinks about a boy he kissed at a New Year’s party five years ago who he hasn’t seen or spoken to since.

“We just had such a connection,” he says when he steps back into the kitchen.

“Wait,” Kyle says. “This isn’t about what’s-his-name, is it?”

“Brian,” Frank says. “We just really kicked it off. We had such a spark.”

“Jesus,” Kyle says. “We’re not really talking about this for the thousandth time again this week, are we? Didn’t that happen like, a century ago? Just let it go, man. Please let’s not talk about this again.”

When Frank gets back to his apartment, he doesn’t turn on any lights. He eats a prepared supermarket meal by the orange glow a streetlamp tosses against his bedroom wall and drinks half a beer. Teaching overseas…He imagines himself copy and pasted, a file moved but otherwise unmodified, into China, South Korea. In the scene he is in a classroom and the students around him are faceless. He himself in the scene is faceless—actually, he is censored out, a digital conglomeration of squares. After his lessons he would probably go back to an apartment no bigger than the one he currently occupies, eat a prepared supermarket meal, and drink half a beer. The thought makes him feel bereft of hope, like in the second act of a summer blockbuster where aliens have invaded the earth and toppled the government—the part where the heroes lose and fog shrouds the horizon. Faceless Frank. The problem with leaving for anywhere else, he suspects, pulling the covers over his head, is that he would have to go there with himself.

 

***

 

And so for a while, for a couple several years and decades, Frank feels formless. He feels like a cookie cutter shape, its limits defined and rigid, but its details bludgeoned, the features misshapen as blurs. He gets enraged every now and again at his mother. For what reason, after all, did she have to create him? To force him pink and vulnerable into the cruelty that is the world? He feels often and especially like a supervillain abomination, like a—ha ha—a Frankenstein, and when he visits her, he screams and shatters her plates. He still works for minimum wage wrapping sandwiches. He is 36, and then he is 47. Kyle has long since quit, graduated with his college degree and gone off somewhere probably to teach English overseas. Frank himself has begun to drink at an admittedly destructive rate, although he does this in a subtle, calculated way that doesn’t feel so much like blatant annihilation of the self but rather quiet sabotage, trapdoors and tripwires laced intricately throughout his heart. He feels, now, like he is a spy in the country of himself, engaging in acts of treason, and so appropriately one morning he calls his ex-boyfriend Adam.

They decide to meet on the beach. It is late fall. They lay out their towels and then lay on top of their towels, side by side.

“That gull keeps circling me,” Adam says. “Are you seeing this? Maybe it thinks I’m dead. That I’m a carcass. A corpse.” 

“Jesus,” Frank says. “You never change. Everything’s always about you, isn’t it?”

There are leaves scattered about the beach, autumn red, like so many cooked crabs spilled. Seagulls keep pinwheeling overhead. The ocean sounds the way the inside of an empty shell sounds. The weather is cloudy, and it’s one of those days where you cannot tell if it is a buoy washing ashore or a headless, half-eaten seal.

Afterwards they get a hotel. Adam turns on the television. There is a rerun of “Shark Week” playing. “Shark Week” is a TV series produced annually that, for an entire week, dedicates itself to shark-based content—divers getting into deep-sea cages with sharks, lifeguards interviewed regarding shark-based deaths on their beaches, entomological investigations into the history of sharks and the possible existence of super sharks, ancient and lurking things at the bottom of the ocean the size of sunken ships.

Frank is realizing sex will probably not happen tonight.

This is, simply, not a situation in which sex between two people can occur.

Shark Week keeps playing, a rerun of a rerun’s idea of itself. Frank and Adam fall asleep together fully clothed, and the next day after leaving the hotel they do not talk ever again.

Later a decision will be made by ad agencies and corporate lawyers to transform “Shark Week” into “Shark Month.” And after this proves a rousing success, they will extend it even further, until there are entire Shark-themed calendar years, and before you know it your very life has become a Shark Week rerun regurgitated and interrupted regularly by commercials.

That night as Frank fell asleep against Adam’s warmth, he dreamed of a room black with mirrors—every inch of it paneled with glass such that the light inside bounced continually and endlessly until its expiration, leaving nothing then but darkness. Although he could not see, Frank was aware of his reflection in the mirrors, multiplied a million times over. He could sense it there moving in all that glass like a hole in the back of his head, a hole the size of the moon—no. A hole the size of the disappearance of the moon.

 

***

 

One Friday Frank goes to the bar alone.

No one there talks to him, and he does not talk to anyone.

He spends several nights in a row eating fast food in his car in empty supermarket parking lots.

Late November a centipede scuttles down his neck.

Somewhere a terrorist whispers the word “galvanize” in a Wendy’s before ordering chili cheese fries.

Overall love is renounced across the globe, as is life, death, inner city bus drivers.

Various presidents and prime ministers acknowledge in hastily assembled press releases that nothing will ever happen to anyone ever again.

People are a bit perplexed by this—should they feel secured or doomed?

More worrying, they realize: can they even still tell the difference?

Each day sheds the skin of itself and slithers into the next. On interstates everywhere rodents dart in front of roaring 18-wheelers. The chipmunks have grown crazed and carnivorous, caught—on camera!—gnawing one another’s bones. Fathers are blamed for America. Founding, suburban, whatever, it is the father’s fault, whether he was absent or perhaps so present his touch reaches across the span of centuries to tangle each life and word and thought of his great-great-grandchildren like puppet string. And so a feeling of doom pervades and closes each day. Schoolteachers drive to little league baseball fields late at night and shoot their brains out atop dusty mounds that seem almost Martian in the moonlight. The stock market, meanwhile, does pretty well.

Frank tells his doctor, “I feel displaced and without purpose. I am utterly depressed. I know I have a drinking problem, but the problem is not the drinking, the problem is what causes the drinking, the problem drinks itself dry, it is an abscess, I feel it as a scabbed drought on the back of my skull where fluid cannot help but lump and end in an aneurysm because it is a lack that must be filled, because nothing always wants something. In this sense, the symptom is the same as the cure.”

“Yes,” the doctor says, hands stuffed deep into Frank’s mouth. “OK. Frank, you know I’m a dentist. Have you thought about seeing a professional regarding this?”

Frank is 54-years old, driving to his mother’s house.

They argue over salad.

Frank is intrigued to find himself so self-righteous while so full of greens. The same mouth spitting acid at his mother is chewing vegetation, mincing arugula into mushed bits—what could be less threatening than grazing on grass? Yet she gets so small when he attacks her. To Frank her retreat is contemptible, her face crumpling in on itself like a beer can’s crushing, even her wrinkles wrinkled, sad eyes lost in folded decades of skin. But he knows, when he goes outside to smoke a cigarette, that he cannot blame her—she is only trying to help. He should not be so hard on her. Sometimes it is necessary to shrink yourself, he understands. Sometimes, confronted with the vast, metropolitan sprawl of life and its disappointments, you have to reduce yourself to your smallest unit, to slip rodent-like through the cracks and avoid all that gargantuan existential nonsense, those questions, asteroid-sized and incoming, Why am I here, Where am I going, and What am I going to make for dinner?

 

***

 

Life becomes a four-walled thing for Frank, always closing in, a phone ringing at midnight and an unfamiliar voice asking, “Is your refrigerator running?” He is suspicious of nostalgia, the sugared deceit of it. Any moment can become nostalgic with enough refraction, any person can be yearned for if placed at a far enough distance.

His heart, the bargained yard sale of it, continues to pump. He does not find love. He is 60, his mother is dead and he has inherited her house. He sleeps each night in the guest bedroom and he washes the sheets after.

One afternoon in the supermarket he runs into Kyle. It has been, it seems, generations since he last saw Kyle. His acne is gone. His hair gleams and he is wearing a business suit and tie. He looks, Frank muses, professional—which begs the question, then, professional of what exactly, of teeth, of blue-gloved hands plunged into the gape of a mouth, of football, of politics, of sandwiches, of teaching overseas…

“Frank,” Kyle says. “Oh, hey! How have you been?”

“Kyle,” Frank says. “Not bad, man. What’re you up to these days?”

They talk for a while. Kyle has one of those jobs and is living one of those lives—“You know how it goes,” he says, and Frank does, and together they nod their heads in understanding. Kyle would like to catch up, he invites Frank to dinner. As they part ways, Frank reflects that so much happens in the supermarket, so many people loveless and wandering and checking their eggs before purchasing. The parking lot is vast as an airplane landing strip, and as he navigates it he feels the distinct melancholy that comes with a journey’s beginning or end. Where did he park again?

And then it is 1am and the leaves of the trees in his neighborhood are limned by orange streetlight and there is no moon. A moonless night: imagine, Frank thinks, to be –less, to be, in a word, without. Frankless, he thinks. He cannot sleep. He leaves the guest room and makes the walk down the hallway to his original bedroom, the one he slept in as a child. The floor creaks beneath him as if he is an intruder in his own house. The bedroom is a belly of darkness and trapped air, the lights off and the shades drawn tight, everything perfectly preserved by the stale smell of dust. He crawls into his old bed, pulls the blankets to his chin, and closes his eyes. His eyelids are shut tight but he is utterly awake. Somewhere in the house there is a window open and the breeze it lets in sounds like his mother’s soft sighing. Secure as he is beneath his sheets, he feels cast-off and drifting, like an island untethered. He feels like someone else, someone completely and thoroughly not-Frank: like an old childhood friend of himself, one of the kids he had been close to in grade school before they had moved somewhere away and irrevocably exotic, to Florida or Hawaii; a friend lost then, but coming back now, rendered strange and unknowable by so many decades apart, yet familiar as a constellation is far, returning to a place they had never properly left.

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THE KRASNERS by Aaron Kreuter

When I think back to those days it is fear that I remember, fear that I keep returning to, fear that I cannot get away from. First there’s the free-floating, general fear of adolescence: the fear of fitting in, the fear of saying the right thing, the fear of a body under revolt. And, for the most part, it wasn’t on the school playground or the mall food court, but at Kol B’Seder, the Reform synagogue my parents joined when I was twelve, where the major battles against these fears were waged. I fell in love in those hallways, made friends during those Thursday evening and Saturday morning classes, tested boundaries, discovered limits, and, thanks to a liberal focus on the Holocaust, came face-to-face with the depravity that every human society is capable of. We read harrowing accounts of Jewish children from Germany, Poland, and Holland, had elderly survivors come speak to us every couple of months, and on Yom HaShoah, we watched the videos. All the kids would pile into the sanctuary—I would sit with Mitzy, Erin, and Stephanie, and sometimes Paul Cohen would leave his own friends and come join us—and we would watch archival footage of the camps, interviews with survivors, fictional retellings of the Wannsee conference, of the Warsaw Uprising, of the Nuremberg Trials. How many years of watching tractors organize hills of bodies does it take to give you lifelong nightmares (of course, the burn of the Holocaust was always immediately remedied with the balm of Israel: footage of the Declaration of Independence, grainy news briefs on the pioneering Israeli spirit, the wonders of the Kibbutz, the marvel of Tel Aviv, the Jewish city built in the desert)?

My shul life was separate, distinct, from my school one, a parallel narrative to my daily existence, a place where I could reinvent myself, learn from my social blunders, try new things. My parents found what they were looking for too, I suppose: having recently relocated from Montreal, and knowing nobody in Toronto, they managed to find friends, connection, community. We were invited in with open arms: Friday night potlucks, Saturday morning services that would end almost every week with a bagels-and-tuna Kiddush celebrating the most recent bar or bat mitzvah, the holidays strung through the Jewish year like an uneven necklace; there were retreats, clubs, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, youth groups, Torah study groups, lecture series, sports leagues, cooking classes, and it was all ours for the admission price of membership and the sacrifice of sitting through forty-five minutes of guitar-backed prayers most Friday nights.

But that’s not what I’m here to tell you about; I’m here to tell you about the Krasners. The Krasners were royalty at Kol B’Seder, one of the original six founding families. David Krasner was president-emeritus, head usher, and a major donor and philanthropist, his name appearing regularly in both the Jewish and city papers. He was a big man, with a deep, commanding voice, and we were all terrified of him (as head usher he especially picked on Erin, who happened to often be the loudest person in the room). Geri Krasner was president of the sisterhood, second soloist in the choir, and head of fundraising for the shul’s annual trip to Israel. Though unofficial, they had two seats reserved for them in the second row of the sanctuary, where, unless they were on one of their frequent family trips to New York City, they would be found every Friday night, Saturday morning, guest lecture, and holiday large or small. They had five children: Joanna, Neta, Yoni, Daniel, and Stephanie. Joanna and Neta were older than us and were both off in the States at small, expensive liberal arts colleges; Yoni and Daniel both played competitive hockey and were hardly ever around; Stephanie, who was a year older than I was, played guitar, wrote short stories about desperate people lost in grotesque urban environments, wore her sisters’ hand-me-downs, and was as confident as you would expect a beautiful, rich, creative, sheltered fourteen-year-old to be. She was the only Krasner child to spend time with us. Does it even need to be said that I was in love with her? I don’t know if I recall the first time we were invited to the Krasners’ mansion, or if all of those early nights are jumbled in my memory (how my parents managed to ingratiate themselves so quickly into Kol B’Seder’s inner circle I have no idea). What I do know is that in the fall of my thirteenth year, my bar mitzvah already receding into the past, we were there almost every Saturday night, along with five or six other families from the shul: the Brickmans, the Golds, the Cohens, the Mitzcovitzes, the Hoffmans, the Krasners, and us. They were raucous nights of food, arguments, unrequited teenage passion, discovery.

The Krasner estate was situated on two acres of forest off the Bridal Path, and still is, without a doubt, the biggest house I have ever been in. Though unbelievably large—not deep, but wide—it was old, unrenovated, and deeply lived in. The front door opened into a tiled foyer, the double-wide white-carpet staircase spiraling to the second floor. When the kitchen was built in the mid-eighties it must have been state-of-the-art, and had a separate eating area and breakfast nook; the dining room table could easily sit sixteen; and the living and family room walls were adorned with David and Geri’s various awards, commendations, and photos of trips to Israel and the family at their New York apartment. A door in the kitchen led into the mudroom, which was the size of our school gym, with big sliding doors leading out to the woods and ravine behind the house and three separate entrances to the three self-contained heated garages. Next to the mudroom was the indoor pool, next to the indoor pool was the old stables that Krasner had renovated into a floor hockey rink for the boys, complete with stands and a scoreboard. We never went upstairs.

The basement, accessible from an open staircase in the living room and a dark, enclosed one off the pool that used to lead to the servant quarters, was a long narrow hallway traversing the length of the house, with keypad-locked doors on either side. The only room in the basement we had access to was the entertainment room, which was where we spent most of our time. We could shut the door while we were down there, be as loud and silly as we wanted: mostly we would watch Arnold Schwarzenegger VHSes and listen to Adam Sandler albums, kill ourselves laughing at Paul Cohen’s jokes and dirty behaviour. Paul brimmed with sexual innuendo, Sandler-influenced voices, and what I guess I would call now teenage bravura; without his own friends around, Paul lavished us with attention. I would try to laugh just the right amount, be careful what I said, hope my absolute devotion to the seventeen-year-old Paul was not as obvious to everybody else as it was to me, try and not break out in sweat whenever Stephanie Krasner was on the same side of the room as me, strumming her guitar or reading one of her thrillingly dark stories. Regular nights in the life of a shy, sensitive boy.

 

There is one night in particular that I would continue to go back to again and again, as if to locate some sense of forewarning, of premonition. My uncle Menachem had joined the Montreal exodus, was staying with us for a few weeks before his visa came through and he could head to the coast, where he had some friends in a folk band that were going to take him on as guitar tech, and he had joined us at the Krasners for Saturday night dinner. It was after we had eaten and everybody under thirty-five had already gone to the basement, but I was still sitting at the table, next to my Mom. I was fascinated by my uncle, enthralled by the way he engaged with others. He just didn’t follow the same social conventions of the other adults in my life: he would argue, he would cut, he wouldn’t let hyperbole or hypocrisy or xenophobia pass him by. He wore his curly hair halfway between short and acceptably long, had shown up at our door with nothing but a worn banjo case and a suitcase full of old sweaters and threadbare slacks, and was vocally opposed to every single thing I was being taught to value: the Western world, the market economy, the eons-long persecution of the Jews. It was like nothing I had ever known, and to see him in the same room as David Krasner was worth missing out on whatever was going on downstairs.

As I knew they would, it was only a few minutes into their coffee before they got into it. They had been talking about the situation in Quebec, when Geri Krasner mentioned something about Israel. As I remember it now, I happened to be looking at my parents as a wave of worry passed over their faces.

“Israel? Israel?” Menachem said. “I don’t see what Israel has to do with any of this.” My mother and Menachem grew up in a strict religious household; their father, my grandfather, was a famous rabbi of some kind, he wrote a treatise on some arcane Talmudic matter that was still required reading to those who read treatises on arcane Talmudic matters. When he died everything religious in their household disappeared, which included my grandfather’s fervent Zionism. Joining Kol B’Seder was the first non-secular thing my mother had done since she was a teenager, and for the month he was with us Menachem never tired of making fun of her for it.

Geri looked personally hurt. “Israel has everything to do with it,” she said. “Israel is what keeps us safe.”

“Safe? Safe?! I can tell you, I don’t feel safe knowing that, as it turns out, when you give Jews an army and a nuclear bomb they mistreat it as readily as anybody else. The state of Israel was supposed to be a bastion of ethical power, a light unto the nations, and look what they’ve done with it! Oppression, occupation, racism, all backed—not to mention—by US money and warplanes!” Menachem was talking animatedly, using his hands for emphasis, his curls bouncing against his forehead.

“You’re a very strange man,” Geri said, barely controlling her anger. “How can you say these things, with the way the world is going right now? With what’s happening in our own country for Christ’s sake?!”

“I still feel safer here, knowing I’m not a part of the machinery of occupation. Sometimes it’s better to be the powerless one.”

At this, all eyes turned to Krasner. David, unlike my uncle and Geri, was calm, collected, loudly sipping his coffee. We all knew his story, he came once a year to religious school to remind anyone who could possibly forget: his parents were born over there, in Europe, were survivors. They had lost three children, David’s ghost siblings, as well as their entire extended families; the climax of David’s harrowing familial saga, which he would always build to with exquisite suspense, centered on his mother’s white gold engagement ring, which she had kept hidden, with great difficulty, until, in 1944, she traded it for the roast chicken and civilian clothes that ended up saving their lives. After spending two years as DPs in Europe they had come to Canada with absolutely nothing, spent the rest of their lives working and building a life for David. When Krasner Sr. died, the young Krasner took over his father’s small factory, and within ten years had turned it into the international company it was today. David’s talk to us would always end with him imploring us to not grow too complacent: “it could happen again, even here, even in Canada,” he would intone in his most stentorian voice. Imagine unloading that on a bunch of children. The last time he had spoken, Stephanie had raised her hand (is it any wonder Stephanie’s stories were so bleak?). “Daddy,” she asked, “what are you doing to fight against complacency? We seem pretty complacent to me.” As in love with her as I already was, now I was in awe of her—pushing back against the most feared man at shul, no matter that it was also her father. “Don’t underestimate your old man, Stephy,” Krasner had said, causing some cautious laughter from the audience, “I’m in a constant state of preparedness. Nothing is going to catch us off guard. Trust me.” But I’m getting away from the story. Back to the kitchen table: surely David wouldn’t let Menachem’s comment slide, and it looked like he was getting ready to speak, but Menachem beat him to it. The slight pause in conversation had pushed him into an even higher level of agitation.

“I can’t believe a smart woman like you would fall for their propaganda. Some Jews get some guns and we’re all supposed to bow down to them, let them do whatever they please in our name? That’s not how the world works. Wrong is wrong. The abuse of power is the abuse of power, no matter who’s committing it in whose name! We are not the only ones who can be victimized!”

“Now, Menachem,” my father said, attempting to neutralize the situation, “be reasonable.”

“I am being reasonable. It’s these sheeple that aren’t being reasonable!” Watching Menachem on the offensive I couldn’t help thinking about how that very afternoon I had walked into our family room to find him sobbing to the international news, his half-strung banjo forgotten in his lap.

My mother, who usually let Menachem go on without pushing back, got involved. “Do you think Israel has the right to exist?” she asked, softly, as if afraid of the answer.

Menachem grinned. “As much as any other nation state has the right to exist. So, not so much.”

Everyone started talking over each other at this point, until David cleared his throat. It was as if we were at shul and he told us to stop being so loud in the hallway during services: the adults, even Menachem, his hands frozen mid-gesticulation, stopped yelling and turned to him.

David took his time before speaking. “So what you’re saying, Menachem,” he said finally, “is that if, god forbid, our little project of western democracy cracks apart, and fascists—or only-god-knows-what-worse—come into power and start targeting Jews again, you wouldn’t accept Israel’s protection, be first in line to board one of their planes?”

Menachem looked like he had been hit in the gut. He sat for a minute, slumped in his chair, his face full of anguish. Unlike the right-to-exist question, he was apparently unprepared for this one: I don’t think the problem had ever been presented to him like that before. A different kind of person would have pretended to be unfazed, but not my uncle. He would never lie, even to people like David Krasner, whom he detested with the unique fervor of the anarchist, pacifist guitar tech he was.

“Oh, I would go, why not? I don’t have a death wish. But I’ll tell you one thing, Mr. Krasner. I wouldn’t sit idly over there in your ‘promised land.’ I would join the fight for social justice, for peace, for equal rights. One barbarity does not legitimate another.” He said the last sentence again, quietly, to himself.

David laughed softly, sipped his coffee. It was obvious that as far as he was concerned, he had won. “Did you hear the latest from the US congress?” Geri said, changing topics. “These are truly dark times.”

The room slipped back into its usual chatty noise and I went downstairs.

 

It must have been soon after that night that we broke into the Krasners’ house for the first time. Menachem had recently left, the whole family seeing him off at the airport, but what I remember far more vividly than what would end up being the last time any of us saw Menachem, what I still see when I wake up in the morning, is the look of surprised joy on Paul’s face when the window to the indoor hockey rink he had unlatched the night before swung open from the outside. Paul climbed through and opened the door for us, still grinning. The Krasners were in New York City for the week, so we knew the house would be empty. We walked through the dark hockey rink, the cavernous pool room, and took the back staircase into the long basement hallway. I was terrified, but not more terrified than when I had to play baseball during gym, or whenever I was talking to Stephanie Krasner, or any other number of social situations I found myself in on a weekly basis. With Paul’s infectious confidence it was hard to stay afraid.

Every door in the basement was shut, but Mitzy knew the code to the entertainment room. The first few times we broke in, we would just hang out, play video games, listen to CDs and watch movies. It was like a regular Saturday night there, except unsanctioned, except without any adults. Except without Stephanie. On our third time, with Paul’s urging, we ventured upstairs, and I got my first look at Stephanie’s bedroom. It was everything I imagined it to be: thick warm carpet, guitar cases neatly stacked by the window, camp photos, necklaces, a four-poster bed with a heavy white duvet, a white desk with a red typewriter centered perfectly on it. The door to the walk-in closet was slightly ajar, and there was a pair of red underwear caught on the lip of the wicker laundry basket next to her bed. I didn’t dare touch anything; this was sacred territory to my hormone-addled mind. I lagged behind for a few minutes before catching up to everybody in the master bedroom. We jumped on the bed, which must have been a triple-king; Erin had us all in stitches as she pretended to be Geri singing in the shower, turning on one of the three heads and soaking Mitzy; Paul pretended to stick various items into various holes.

Eventually we toweled the wet bathroom floor, smoothed the bed, and left the way we came, Paul carefully closing the hockey rink window behind us. That night we drove back to the suburbs and went for burgers and fries. Erin put the jawbreaker she had been working on all night on the table before picking up her burger. I was reveling in the intoxicating effects of belonging, of being with Paul as he grinned his way through his burger, but when I saw that Erin had a bracelet on her wrist that an hour ago was most definitely on Stephanie’s night table, the high I had somewhat diminished, though not enough to stop me from going back to the Krasners the night after, and the night after that.

 

The Saturday when the Krasners were back from NYC we were all there, as usual. After dinner, all the kids went down to the basement, but the door to our usual hang-out wouldn’t open.

“Daddy must have changed the code again,” Stephanie said. She went to the stairs and started calling for her father.

“Steph, Steph, it’s all right, I have a master,” Yoni, who had sprained his wrist and so had to miss practice that night, said. He pulled a tiny, shiny key from his pocket, and inserted it into the bottom of the keypad. The lock clicked open.

“How’d you get that?” Stephanie asked as we spilled into the room.

“Dad made a new one when he thought he lost this one; I found it at the bottom of the pool,” he said. “What? Don’t make that face! This is our house.”

“Why is your dad so obsessed with keeping all these doors locked?” I asked Stephanie after we sat down on the couch. Paul, Mitzy, and Yoni were loudly playing video games, shouting out insults and knocking controllers out of hands. I would never have been able to ask Stephanie such a complicated question even a week ago; breaking into the house had empowered me—I had a secret.

“Oh, daddy’s just weird like that.”

“What are in those other rooms, anyways?”

Stephanie smiled at me and my heart stoppered in my throat. “You don’t want to know,” she said.

“Maybe it’s bodies!” Erin said. I hadn’t even noticed that she had sat down next to us.

“Just like one of your stories,” I said, turning back to Stephanie.

She laughed, almost shyly, and my heart popped out of my throat and anchored in my stomach.

 

A few weeks later, a Wednesday night, the Krasner family back in NYC for some Jewish leaders gala, I got a text message from Paul: “come outside.” I grabbed my shoes and coat and went out to Paul’s idling car; Mitzy was riding shotgun, the latest Smith and Wesson catalogue in his lap, so I got into the back, next to Erin. “Show him Mitz!” Paul called as he pulled away from my house. With a flourish, Mitz produced something out of his pocket: the Krasner master key. I laughed uncomfortably.

“What are we going to do with that?” I asked.

“What’d you think we’re going to do, little buddy?” Paul asked. I looked out the window. We were leaving the suburbs.

I opened my mouth to protest—who knows what would have happened, what would have been different if I had said something?—but at that moment Erin grabbed my hand. I was so startled it was as though my life rebooted and started over again at that exact instant. After ten minutes of us holding hands I stole a glance at Erin. She smiled at me, her jawbreaker pushed into one cheek. I was so infatuated with Stephanie that I had never really given Erin much attention before, she had just always been there—how had I not noticed her mischievous eyes, her scrawniness, her cropped hair, her cheeks aglow in the swiping streetlights? I don’t think I took a breath on the thirty-minute drive to the Krasners’.

We parked at the end of the street, walked casually along the sidewalkless road before cutting across the lawn and sprinting into the back of their property. Paul scampered through the window and let us in. Five minutes later we were standing at the end of the basement hallway. All those doors; all those possibilities. “Fuck it, let’s eat,” Paul said, and we began.

We worked our way down the hall, each door opening with the click of the key in the lock. We discovered: a dark room, shelves of film, stations for the various washes, the intoxicating chemical stink; a workout room, benches and weights and a wall of mirrors; a wine cellar; a whiskey cellar; a room of VHSes organized and labelled on floor-to-ceiling shelves; a dusty library; and, behind the second last door on the right, a room full of gold.

How many people get to experience entering a room that is full of gold? Well, we did. It was the smallest room we had been in so far, grey carpet, bare white walls, and, piled neatly in the middle, was a pyramid of dull gold bricks, about as tall as I was. The looks on our faces must have been priceless; Mitzy looked like he had ascended to heaven. “Look at all that gold!” Paul shouted in his goofiest Sandler voice. We didn’t get any further than that room, but oh, did we celebrate, dancing around the gold, yelling with adrenaline, holding the bars above our heads, though they were heavy enough that I couldn’t keep one up for more than a minute.

Somewhere in the revelry Erin grabbed my hand. “Come with me,” she said. We went down the hall and into the entertainment room. I had never been in there with only one other person before and it seemed unnaturally large. Erin pushed me onto the couch. “Kiss me,” she said, her sugary-sour breath on my face. I kissed her, and we fell onto the floor.

The next day Paul was waiting in the parking lot of my elementary school, something he had never done before. I happened to be leaving at the same time as the vice principal, and I watched as she gave Paul, who was sitting on the hood of his car smoking a cigarette, a dirty look as she got into her car; I waited until she had pulled out of the lot before going over to him. I sensed right away that something about Paul had changed: he looked up at me with eyes that had been bent to a single purpose. “We’re going back tonight,” he said, as we drove the suburban streets, the newscaster on the radio talking about the emergency meeting just called at the UN. “Mitzy got his older bro to rent us a truck. And Erin had a great idea.”

This is always the hardest part of the story. Sure, I can tell you about my doubts, the debate I held in my head. But the end result will always be the same: I went along with it.

We stole eighty-five gold bricks from the Krasners’ basement that night. My arms were sore for almost a week (a few days later when we gave the first bars to the launderer Paul had somehow found, we learned that they were Good Delivery regulation bars, 12.4 kg, 400 troy ounces, exactly eleven inches long, each one worth about half a million US dollars). Paul had it all planned out: we took apart the pyramid, hauled it out to Mitzy who was waiting down the snow-dusted street in the van, and rebuilt it with regular house bricks Paul bought at the hardware store and spray-painted gold (this was Erin’s ‘great idea’: a sort-of extra fuck you to Krasner, I guess). We were so used to being in the Krasners’ when we weren’t supposed to, that there was no sense of urgency. We worked slowly, carefully. When we were almost finished building the fake pyramid, Erin took my hand, and I followed her down the hall, up the front stairs, across the kitchen, up the main stairs, and into Stephanie’s bedroom. She plopped down on Stephanie’s wide bed, popped the jawbreaker out of her mouth and dropped it onto Stephanie’s night table. “I bought some condoms,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “I think we can afford them now.” I hesitated, but she grabbed my arms and pulled me onto her. We melted into the downy whiteness of the bed. I was transgressing all over the place.

The next morning I woke up a multimillionaire, a criminal, and, seemingly most important of all, newly sexually active.

You can imagine what happened next, can’t you? Picture it: Paul was in grade eleven, Mitzy and Erin were in grade nine, I was in grade eight, not even in high school yet! But that didn’t stop us from burning through hundreds of thousands of dollars those first few weeks. We threw massive parties. Paul rented a three-bedroom penthouse apartment in the highrise near the mall where we could keep all of our purchases, had a vault installed in one of the bedrooms to store the gold, which we sold one at a time to various shady characters. At first, Erin and I continued our love-making.

What can I say? The gold changed me, it changed all of us. We spent with abandon, fuelled our wildest whims. We didn’t think of saving any of it. What did we know about long term GICs, safe investments, real estate? Mitzy started collecting high-end knives and guns, moved to LA before the borders closed and you could still bribe your way into the States. Erin got into rave promoting, always had a gaggle of glassy-eyed, spiky haired rave girls and boys surrounding her (they called her ‘mommy.’ It was weird). It hit Paul hardest of all. It wasn’t long before the money let his addictive side take over. As for myself, I wasn’t much better: without the aid of alcohol, drugs, or a warm body, I could no longer fall asleep; I stopped communicating with my parents; the halcyon days at Kol B’Seder receded into the past; everything I did, saw, or thought was filtered through the money. At the time, though, I barely noticed. We were kings and queens, riding high.

But I told you this was a story of fear, and it is. By the middle of high school I had bought my way to being among the coolest, most popular kids in school. I had slept with two thirds of the girls in my suburbs, one sixth of the guys, had everything I could ever want. But we were out of gold. Paul had let his addictions take him into some dark places, and we lost him to heroin and the teeming underground of criminals and drug dealers that had taken over most of downtown Toronto; the last time I saw him he begged me for a bar of gold, but I didn’t have any to give him, I didn’t save a single penny, and I’m not too sure I would have even if I could. I was a cold, calculating hedonist. Eventually, of course, I blew it with Erin, and then, like the conceited fool I had become, I blew it even more spectacularly with Stephanie. The second-last time I saw her, at the Skydome, during one of the first major registration events, she told me that something very valuable had been stolen from her father.

“I’m sure he’ll be fine,” I had said arrogantly. Stephanie was as vivacious as ever, and talking to her reminded me of my innocent childhood adoration. Shortly after we had stolen the gold from her father, Stephanie had transferred to a private school in New York; who knows what rumours about me had reached her, what she thought. I had heard that since she’d been back in Toronto she’d been working as a journalist for one of the last private newspapers—which, like all the others, had by then been shut down—and I was of course too self absorbed to ask what she was doing now.

“You don’t know anything about it, do you?” she asked.

“What? Of course not!”

She looked at me through narrow eyes. She sighed. “It’s really bad,” she said. “Really, really bad. Daddy had made certain—guarantees. And now he’s not going to be able to come through on them. And you heard he lost the business, right? We have to sell the house.”

“What? You’re kidding!” I was so delusional, I was still gauging my chances of hooking up with her.

Stephanie scoffed.

“Is it really so hard to believe? Look around you, things are not good.”

“It’s just like one of your stories,” I said.

She looked at me like I was sub-human. She spoke, slowly, sadly. “If you can’t see the difference between the two, you’re more lost than I thought.”

“I love you,” I said in a burst of recklessness that had become second nature to me. She looked stunned. A long moment passed. She studied me with her narrowed eyes. My mood soured.

“What happened to you, huh?” she said eventually. “You used to be such a nice, sweet boy.”

I had a quick retort for her, of course; those days, I had a quick retort for everything (though I would be lying if I didn’t say that this was the first time in four years that I started to doubt myself; a tiny little rip, but from then on there was nothing I could do from stopping the real world from seeping in, accumulating).

Unlike Stephanie, Krasner himself never confronted any of us—did he even suspect? In any case, what does it matter, the gold was gone; our fates were sealed. In the end Krasner had become more complacent than he thought, in his poorly protected mansion, in his brotherhood meetings, in his trust in the rule of law. In a padlocked room in his basement he didn’t bother to check on until it was too late. How angry at himself he must have been when it all came crashing down. A few short months after that conversation with Stephanie, the tanks would be rolling along Rideau, along Robson, along University, and the true terror would begin. But this, of course, is the part you already know, the part we all know all too well.

Let me just say this, then, in lieu of a proper ending. In the coming years, there would be survival. There would be horror. Horror stacked upon horror, humankind finally teetering too far over the very edge of the abyss. There would be compromise. There would be escape—though, of course, there ended up being no one to save us, no airplanes to lift us to freedom, and there never had been. For a very few, there would even be honour (I hope Menachem, wherever he is, managed to hold onto his ideals; for so many of us that was the first thing to go). But it was only after everything else, only after I heard what happened to the Krasners, what happened to Stephanie, that there would be guilt, terrible, body-slamming guilt. Guilt so stupendous, so unimaginably vast, that it drowns out everything else, becomes indistinguishable from the fear that follows me through all the days of my endangered life.

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THE ROAD 2 NOWHERE by KKUURRTT

My friend Brian joined a cult. He was always doing stupid shit like that. This one time when we were fifteen he jumped off a bridge cause fucking Mike Langer dared him to. He broke his shinbone when he hit the water and spent the rest of summer in a cast. It wasn’t all bad though. Langer sold weed and gave him a half-ounce for free because he felt terrible about daring him to do it even though we were playing Truth or Dare on a bridge which was dumb on everybody’s part. Honestly, we’re lucky it came up as short as it did on broken bones. We smoked that grass all summer long and had the time of our lives in many respects, so sometimes you come up on the downstroke I guess. 

They were called Harmony Home and were based out of—fuck—actually, I don’t know where they were based out of even. I’m not gonna sit here and pretend like I have the facts. I don’t have the facts. I don’t have shit. All I know is they are spread out across the country and Brian got roped into it while living in Seattle trying to write grunge songs even though rock has been dead since before Sonic Youth broke up. 

He and I lost touch like most people who went to high school together. Come on, don’t lie to yourself and tell me some bullshit line about how you still have the exact same friends as the ones you grew up with. You totally might still talk to the homies from way back but it’s not the same, is it? Something’s definitely missing, even if you’ve never been able to place exactly what that missing was. With Brian, it was always a whole bunch of weird shit that just didn’t compute. It made a whole hell of a lot more sense when he turned out to be the type of dude to get roped into following a guy named Steven LightSource like he’s the second coming of Christ. Sell his shit and shave his hair and go full steam ahead like other people do with stand-up comedy or Kickstarter campaigns or love. 

Like the majority of Brian’s acquaintances, I saw this all go down on Facebook. It went from wow Brian’s posting an awful lot about this, to shit well ok, now he’s signing off permanently to join them in the woods and become one with himself and the universe simultaneously. All right buddy whatever makes your knees knock at night. The real problem was that Brian wasn’t the only one. This wasn’t some isolated incident or anything. Harmony Home has more followers than Jesus. I think I know three or four to be honest. 

But now I’m on a bus with his Dad up to central Oregon, heading towards the compound they think he might possibly, theoretically, hopefully be at. Nobody has heard hare nor hide nor hello from him for well over twelve months and they are getting worried that maybe he drank the Kool-Aid or worse, but I don’t know what’s worse. I’m here because Bill asked me to come up with him. Bill was my Basketball coach in middle school and he still plays golf with my Dad. He thinks that since Brian and I have been friends since childhood seeing me will trigger something and make him be all like yeah, let’s fuck this popsicle stand. I’m not so sure about that, but it beats working. If Bill’s gonna pay me the money I’d normally make painting houses for him, fine I’ll be his deprogrammer. I’ll be whatever he wants me to be. 

We cross the border and the bus pulls off the highway following a sign for McDonalds. 1.2 Miles says the sign but who’s counting. There’s a Jack in the Box across the street but we stop at McDonalds. Coffee and fuel so when we finally land and are ready to get to work it’s not like shit let’s get a bagel first. I don’t know what Mr. Rollins has planned but I don’t do so hot on an empty stomach. 

“You want anything?” I ask the old man. His wearied eyes pour over a book about Harmony House that he took out from the library over by my house. He didn’t sleep a wink all ride. I slept like a baby. 

“Bill?” 

“Oh, uh…” he says, trying to pretend like he heard me the first time. “Large coffee, cream, two sugars,” he responds as if present and accounted for this whole time. “And I don’t know, an Egg McMuffin or whatever you can get them to leave cheese off of.” 

“Roger.”

I hop off the bus, feet hitting pavement simultaneously. Sometimes I imagine myself landing skateboard tricks that I’ve never been brave enough to try in real life. 

Fiddle around with the pipe in my pocket as I make my way around back instead of through the entrance like I’m supposed to. Next to a dumpster I sprinkle some green in the thumbprint indent on top of the bowl. I ground this flower up before we left, knowing full well that if I wanted to smoke anything this trip it would have to do it fast and loose. Lips, lighter, and the smoke hits my lungs. Hold it for a five count like I’ve been doing since Brian and I first started back in 2002. I have to be stoned to make it through this weekend. Or maybe it will be just the reminder that Brian needs to help snap his brain back to basics. Get all those cultoids so faded that they’ll be like this shit is wack, man you saved us, and those pretty cult girls will be like show me what a real man fucks like. 

An Egg McMuffin hold the American for the old man and the Big Breakfast with Hotcakes for me, two large coffees, all the cream all the sugar. The girl behind the counter is this beautiful girl who couldn’t have been older than seventeen. Too much eyeshadow on, like maybe she was trying to look older but probably really because she listens to punk rock and is too young to have style with it. I want to talk to her about The Misfits or Morrissey but I’m too stoned to sound like a normal human and would probably just seem like I’m hitting on her. Which I guess I sort of would be, but only not really. It’s fun to flirt with teenage girls the same way it is with old ladies, like they love it and it makes them feel special but nothing’s going to come of it, because come on. Man those peepers pop and I could get absolutely lost in them for a lifetime if I didn’t have business to take care of, like literal transactional business. 

“$17.18” she says like we’re talking about anything else. I want to say something clever. Same as you, right? Seventeen? Eighteen? And then she’d smile at me and we’d get out of there and I’d take her under my wing and protect her like Cherie Currie and the Runaways, but after a while with those doe eyes batting at me all the time we’d become something more and go live in Portland where this kind of age gap is not only accepted it’s encouraged. We’d open a coffee-shop/book-store/performance-space where we could live happily ever after and I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this bullshit.

Instead I say, “uhh yeah,” and fish into my pockets for that crumpled twenty I shoved in there on my way out of the house. I accidentally pull the pipe out with the bill and boy do those mascara monsters take in an eyeful like it’s some sort of lost fucking Indiana Jones treasure, but I guess it would be to a girl in East Klamath Falls, Oregon who probably hasn’t even heard of The Melvins yet. My eyes are shifty but we still manage to make contact. I smile uncomfortably, knowing I’ve blown it with the love of my life but it didn’t matter because I’ll never see her again. I pay with a $20 and don’t even wait for the change. 

The whole bus is waiting for me after another quick detour to get high again adds an extra five past the time I was supposed to be back. Bill won’t let them leave though like he’s some sort of stand up guy for having my back, but really it’s just that he knows he can’t handle any of this without me. Imagine that! Me being a support system for anything! My therapist would be so proud. 

“Thanks Bill.” I hand him the bag and plop my ass into the seat that’s meant for a man about four inches shorter and forty pounds lighter. 

“Bus driver says we’re about two hours outside of Bend. We’ll rent a car there and get a hotel for the night. Get our heads screwed on right before we hit the road again.” “Okay.”

Bill sleeps the whole way to Bend and I can’t stop thinking. Funny. 

Sitting in this Holiday Inn, I look out the window at a Best Buy across the concrete. The sun is out and Bill is snoring louder than a motorcycle with a fresh muffler testing out its new system at Sturgis. VRZZZZZTT—VRZZZZZZT—VRZZZZZZZT. Poor Guy. Guess I would be tuckered out too if I was dealing with the most stressful thing I’d ever dealt with. The hardest thing I had to do was bury my Mom, but my Dad did most of the work and it was so long ago now that I don’t remember if the pain was really that real or I’m just imagining it now. 

I decide to take a stroll through the store and end up in the DVD section looking at the back of The Master hoping to gain some inkling of insight. Hmmm… Philip Seymour Hoffman gone too soon, that’s the best I got. I place it back on the shelf and move up the alphabet to Cheech & Chong: Up in Smoke, which reminds me… 

Behind the box store next to the folded boxes, I’m cheefing through a bowl like there’s four or five of us passing it around. But it’s just me. It’s always just me. I don’t know why any of this matters. 

When I wake up Bill’s already down having a hotel breakfast. I take a seat with my plate of sausage links and look at my Dad’s friend and not my friend’s Dad. He’s head down in that book again like it’s got the solution to his problems and isn’t just leaving him with a better understanding of why his son left his no-job, no-girlfriend, living-in-his-parents-basement existence behind. I roll the meat tubes around with my fork wondering what really makes this man in front of me tick. Is it really about saving his son? Or is it more about saving face? What if his son already is saved? What if after we get there father and son look each other in the eyes and we just turn around and go home? Nothing needs saving here he’ll say and we’ll take the long ride back to Carlsbad in complete silence. I swear if that happens I won’t say a word. 

From Bend we fill up on gas twice, get a cup of coffee each, and I take approximately one piss. When we end up in a town called Burns I know it’s the place before Bill even tells me. It’s just got the vibe. 

Turns out Bill never really had too much of a plan, which I find out the hard way after he drives through town and parks somewhere inconspicuous on the outskirts. He turns to me and says: “So what do you got?” Like I’m the one here to save my son. 

“Uhh…” I say. “Shit,” he says.

He drops me off at the diner, Frank & Marys, with a vague plan of “finding out information.” I put it in quotes because he did when he said it like there was some sort of extra meaning I wasn’t entirely getting. He tells me that he’d do it if he could but he can’t because he looks like a cop. That he’ll sit in his car and think of next steps while I dig around with the locals. Bill leaves me with a twenty and a boot out the passenger side and tells me to call him if I find anything.

Tuna Melt, Coffee all the milk all the sugar. Sit at the counter and MARY, that’s what her name tag says, can hardly even look at me when she takes my order. Another young person stumbling around Burns looking for the quick and easy path to salvation that Steven LightSource advertised on his YouTube channel. I watched one or two of the videos when Brian first disappeared but it all seemed like metaphysical mumbo jumbo to me with the real truths hidden behind the paywall. 

“For 9.99 a month you can have unlimited access to the ‘Source of Eternal Happiness.’ Subscribe here.” No thanks. I’ve got Netflix

Mary drops off my plate and it clatters on the counter like it only can in cartoons. She tops off my coffee letting it steam just like I like it, piping hot, too much to even drink yet. I want to ask if she knows where Harmony House is but know it would become some awkward thing where I have to backtrack and explain myself like no I’m not trying to join—my friend is there and I’m trying to rescue him—I don’t have to explain myself to you MARY.

A girl slides in next to me and orders a bacon cheeseburger and a Coke. She’s pretty in a way directly marketed to me like when you’re talking about a product on the phone and then all of a sudden that exact product is in your Instagram feed. She smiles at me. I turn away.

“Do I know you from somewhere?” she asks.“Yeah yeah.” I say brushing her off.“No seriously,” she continues. “Kurt?”

I mean that’s my name so obviously I turn.

“Oh my God that is you! What are you doing out here?” She says.“I should ask you the same thing.”

I take a look at her face trying to place it. It does look familiar, but my mind has been playing tricks on me lately. The other day I watched an entire movie start to finish before realizing I’d seen it already. The last frame was a total oh shit you’ve seen this moment, but with two whole hours of NOTHING before that.

We eye each other for a long time while she makes faces that she must think will help jog something. They don’t. Finally: “Sam? Samantha Kersaw…”

Still nothing.

“Come on. We dated for a little at ASU. I sold mushrooms.”FUCK I had dated this girl. I think. Pretty sure I broke up with her over text. “Oh shit! How’ve you been?” I say, trying to deflect years of built-up anxiety in the turn of a friendly phrase.

“Great, Kurt. I’ve been really great.” She says before jumping right into it like she’s got no shame whatsoever about being in a cult. Because I guess to her it’s not a cult. It just is. “Have you heard of Harmony Home?”

What utter convenience, right? Travel 700 miles just to run into a girl I used to fuck in college. Or did we ever? It’s not that surprising though, not really. Harmony Home has a tendency to target former or current drug abusers like Brian, Sam and myself. It’s part of their ‘thing’ according to that New York Times exposé that Bill read out loud from on the first leg of our trip. And plus, the world is a minuscule place full of happenstance and coincidence. Synchronicity is as universal as any other thing that happens regularly.

“It’s the um—” I want to say cult I want to say cult I want to say cult—“religious organization that I see on the news all the time.” 

“Exactly! My husband and I run the Oregon chapter. It’s a dream come true really. I was so lost when you knew me back in college. Tune in, turn on, drop out was right. Just had the wrong turn on.”

Is she talking about me?

Mary scoffs as she delivers Sam’s order with the same level of spite she had with mine. Cartoon Clatter 2: The Animated Adventures of Platey and Cuppy. “Cheeseburger and Coke,” she says through gritted teeth, staring Samantha down like they’re old enemies who have had this confrontation many many times before. “You people aren’t welcome here anymore.”

“Please be reasona—”

Mary turns away, without filling me up even though I could clearly use it. My eye stays on the coffee swirling behind the glass. “Come on, let’s take a booth,” Samantha says to me. “Catch up.”

I see Mary making eye contact like don’t do it man but I can’t help myself. We pull into the stretched red leather of the booth. Classic diner fare. She barely gives me a moment to breathe before rocketing right back in.

“So, what’s the real reason you’re all the way out here in the middle of nowhere? You’re interested, right? Came to see what all the fuss is about? I can sense it on you.” I pause.

For what feels like forever.

And maybe it was.

Maybe it was 2 and 1/2 minutes.

Maybe it was eternity and she aged a thousand generations right in front of my face. Maybe it was 2 and a 1/2 seconds.

We’ll never know.

After that I say the only thing I can think to say: “You smoke?”

She doesn’t look over her shoulder, doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t look me in the eyes and tell me that every decision I’ve ever made has been wrong and I need to give up such filthy habits. No. She says, “Yeah, sure.”

I drop the twenty and we get the fuck out of there.

We smoke that bowl and then another one on the drive to Harmony Home. We pass the pipe back and forth in silence as her Jeep bounces on dirt roads that will probably never be paved. If Bill were smart he’d be following us right now, but I refuse to look over my shoulder and check. Fact of the matter is he’s not very smart. He’s probably sitting in a supermarket parking lot crying into his phone about how badly he’s failed as a father. I heard him doing that once to his girlfriend so I can only assume it's what he does every time I’m out of earshot. Maybe he’s got his finger hovering over my name in his phone, too afraid to find out what I’ve found. He never calls.

Sam rests a hand on my thigh and I feel something for the first time in a long time. It’s a familiar touch, but if I’m being completely honest, it’s not one I totally recognize. I remember a girl selling mushrooms and I remember this face, but I don’t really remember being with her in that kind of way. Life was a blur back then, Xanned out more often than not. What the fuck is wrong with me? This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife, how did I get here? Fuck, I’m high.

Windows down as we roll up to our destination and I’m greeted by a chorus of friendliness in a clearing cut out of the woods just for us. A giant mansion stands behind them like they even make houses this big? Step out of the car and both feet land at the same time like it’s some sort of compulsion. I swear it’s not. I pass through a gauntlet of smiles that look like they’ve been tipped off and waiting for my arrival. “Hi, welcome to Harmony Home, I’m Jennifer.”

“Oh, he’s got such a beautiful aura. Where did he come from?”“Once in a Lifetime, brother. Same as it ever was.”

“Anything you need just let me know, I’m your guy. Glad to have you here with us.” At the end of this hallway of humans I see a guy I know. Hey, I know that guy! “Welcome, my friend,” Brian says as I approach. His head is shaved, with a smile planted far further than ear to ear. I wonder if it connects in the back of his head or what. I don’t think I’ve ever seen his eyes as lit up and alive as they are right now. Nothing needs saving here. Turn around and go home. Brian pecks Samantha on the cheek and I slowly but surely connect the dots to who exactly is married to whom. Now, that’s fucking happenstance. 

Arm on my back, Brian draws me nearer to the house. Samantha and the thirty-some others follow behind. No processional, no pomp, none of that shit. No overly excitable people asking if I’d ever heard of their lord and savior. These weren’t brainwashed monkeys. No. They are people, just regular guys and gals splitting off into casual conversations that have nothing to do with saving my soul.

I had expectations and these weren’t them.

Turns out that the ‘Source of Eternal Happiness’ isn’t anything we didn’t already have inside of us this whole time. We are in control of our own destiny. Harmony Home simply provides daily affirmations and necessities to those who seek to live a life in peace and with purpose. For $9.99 a month. Not so bad if you ask me.

I wonder how long Bill ended up waiting before he went home.

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HAZARD by Nicholas Rall

Ethel and Edith tried to keep their eyes open, resting in a square of brownish dying grass; an empty lot. There used to be a family who lived there, and I could see the kids play in the driveway from our window, until men with big, yellow machines tore it down and it stayed like that until the girls took me with them. They’d been in the neighborhood for a few hours, walking through about half the state of Florida, staying close to the interstate. Usually they could get a ride but not that night, and it was time to rest.

The area they found themselves in was hidden in the woods next to the interstate; the kind of place you don't remember, until an image of a dozen houses, smothered, overtaken by weeds, comes to your mind later after a bad day at work, a nightmare maybe, lingering residue from a trip through Florida you took a few years earlier.

They were drawn to his truck, a red Ford Ranger from the 1970’s, which was in perfect condition and probably inherited from a recently dead relative. He hadn't had enough time to neglect it, to let it rot into one of the other rusty clumps in the neighborhood—at least not on the outside.

Unknown to him, I'm sure, the girls watched as he walked to the curb and climbed into his truck. They thought they might find something useful in his garage or, at least, a shady place to rest. The garage door was busted, unable to lower all the way, leaving about a foot and a half of space open; just enough for the two of them to squeeze underneath.

Below all the tangles of the Earth, that old house might have had a scabby, reddish brown, rusted roof. Maybe it was painted a pale pink, and a tiny, concrete slab of a “porch” was the last thing your feet would touch before you entered through the ripped screen door. I don't remember.

The girls were disappointed when their eyes adjusted to the light. Only a set of six rusty metal racks lined the walls stacked mostly with empty buckets, car cleaning supplies, some oil, degreaser, and even a few broken garden tools, which had to come from somewhere else; somewhere that could sustain a real garden, not just thick, untamed weeds. The floor was cluttered with pieces of machines, unorganized in damp cardboard boxes—junk and not much else.

Nothing was of much use to them, except a large, navy tarp that was a little dirty but only with dust and leaves. Ethel found it crammed inside a brown bucket, and they’d be able to use it to protect some of their belongings, because it might rain soon. It was just after eight in the morning when they entered the man’s garage; it would rain soon… The tarp was thick, industrial grade, so they figured maybe the man worked in construction or did when he was younger. It certainly was an improvement over their current method of protecting their belongings which was to wrap everything in any plastic bags they could find; sometimes this included trashcan lining from cans inside gas station restrooms.

They sat in the man’s garage to cool off, until the sun finally went down. That summer held a record for years as the hottest in Florida, but even on an average year there was wet heat in the air—the kind usually only produced at dry cleaners, only the pleasant hint of fabric cleaner was absent. Instead, this air smelled like it had expired.

The girls walked all night, and they needed to rest now, for a few hours, until the man came home or until they woke up. They laid on their blanket  in the corner of the garage and vanished beneath the skyline of boxes.

“How long do you think he’ll be gone?” asked Edith, “he’s probably at work, huh?”

“Yeah, he’s probably at work, where do you think he works Edie?” Ethel wondered.

Turning from her side, Edith laid flat, staring up into his garage ceiling.

“Bucket Factory,” she replied, “and he’s in charge of those little plastic pieces that go on the metal handles…”

“Yeah,” Ethel replied. “Yeah I think that's right.”

I don’t remember a time before the heat … At first, I thought we didn’t have electricity because of how much I’d sweat, even though the man would crack the windows just a bit. I could hear the hum most then, and sometimes they even got into the house—the bugs. He would kill them, so I always protected them and hid them in my cup.

Maybe the house was air conditioned, but he never turned it on. Anyway, there had to be power coming from somewhere because I do remember watching the TV; a small black square placed on top of his dresser. The room had a light green carpet and a big bed. I remember the bed; it had tall white beams on all four corners and was raised enough to where I needed his help to get on to the top of it. The man had a stack of tapes, a dozen or so, but he never brought home new ones. Every once in a while, I’ll remember when I see an actor from one of the tapes on the TV, but I can never recall their names. I think I dreamt them up now and then, but there’s one I’d always look for that was my favorite … A woman, who was a scientist or vet, and her daughter living in Africa adopted a baby gorilla who was being hunted by poachers. When I can’t sleep I think of that movie; a jungle, and the sounds and smell of the jungle help me sleep. Usually at some point in the night, he’d turn off the tape and that’s when I would use the buzzing hum to fall asleep, which was usually more soothing than the movie.

When the girls awoke, light no longer shone in from the gap of the garage. With no way of telling time, they assumed they had slept for at least twelve hours. After gathering their things, they crawled through the black slit they entered. The man’s truck was back; windows rolled down, the cab was not cluttered like his garage—empty with nothing but a few of his crumbs on the floor.

“Looks like it can’t be too late, everyone’s still up. I hear sitcoms coming from that house, so it’s only about seven o’clock,” Ethel observed, standing in the same spot of dead grass she stood in outside of the man’s house hours ago.

“Yeah, I bet he just got off work, just pulled out his dinner from the microwave,” Edith replied as she walked back towards his house to the front door.

“I’ll ask if we can borrow the keys.”

A few weeks after her seventeenth birthday, Ethel had inherited some land that a second cousin of hers was impatiently waiting to hand over, and he had just informed her that that if she did not officially claim the land by the end of the month, he’d trade it to a friend of his for cattle. Part of her was fine was this, as something about living steady in Nebraska made her sick. Edith, born in the same hospital room just six months after Ethel though, figured her best friend  should  be the one to pocket the money from the land. They both liked walking and staying in new places each night, which could only be better with a steady amount of money, so she pushed the two of them through the South.

I heard something that could only be possible in a dream. I have to be dreaming because the man was right beside me, holding me. I felt his chest moving up and down against my back, as his hairy arms wrapped around my stomach … I had never seen anyone else in the house besides the man, but, when the girls walked past the door, I wasn’t scared. I was sure I was asleep. Maybe I should have been scared, but I wasn’t.

A soft buzzing just above my belly began and spread through my body… I knew they’d leave—I wished they’d take me with them. I closed my eyes, focusing on the buzzing outside until Ethel gently rubbed my cheek with her thumb and then lifted a finger to her lips, “Shhh.”

I was small enough then for her to carry easily, my chin sat on Ethel’s shoulders, and with hand over my eye I peeked through as the movie continued on the screen. Edith took the pillow I’d been using and pushed it down onto the man’s face, as the bugs began to hum louder than I'd ever heard before, welcoming me outside into their world.

Ethel, she was the first person I remember who felt real. She was tall, pale, with a thin face and light grey eyes. She and Edith both were frighteningly skinny, with bones showing through that never should.

She sat with me down in the cab of the man’s truck, playing with my hair, which was longer than hers. She pulled her fingers through one greasy, knotted tangle at a time, asking me questions in the same gentle way in which she unraveled my hair, but I had no answers for her, not even a name.

Soon, I heard the front door shut and Edith climbed in the passenger seat, as she vaguely smiled at me, handing me a garbage bag full of a couple of my toys and clothes she could find around the house. I smiled back but her dark, long hair was in her face, covering her eyes. When she wrapped her hair up with a tie she slid off of her wrist, I could see her light blue eyes. Darkness dripped from them, and I was not sure if she was a boy or a girl. I had only seen teenagers in movies.

Ethel drove through the night, as I rested my head against the glass window. I tried to listen to the wind; warm on my face, sneaking through a crack, not uncomfortable but pleasant and calming. We stopped at a gas station for a map. The girls asked me if I’d like to help them find our way. I did. I could not believe the lines and landmarks on the paper turn into real places, and I loved hearing Ethel and Edith talk. I stayed up with them all night just listening and directing a turn when needed, until my eyelids got so heavy they shut down. I woke up to the heavy orange light of the earth and glimpses of cars and trucks of all shapes and sizing speeding past me in every direction.

The truck screeched into the gas station parking lot. Ethel firmly held my hand and led me through the glass, double doors to use the bathroom and find some breakfast. I grabbed a Fruity Pebbles cereal bar, chocolate milk, and some peanuts.

Mesmerized by the blue and grey eyes that seemed to understand everything before them, I could feel their lives overshadowing mine. They didn't act like the teenagers on the tapes.

The concrete beneath his truck was cracked and dry, laid years ago but never maintained. Every few hours they came across long smooth stretches though.

“Do you think this is a good engine?” asked Edith.

“No … I don’t think so, not really,” Ethel replied with both hands gripped around the leather wheel.

“Yeah,”  agreed Edith. “It sounds weak ...” She paused for a minute.

“How many days do you think it took to build this whole truck?”

Ethel replied instantly, “Twelve days for the frame.”

“How long do you think it’s gonna take us to get to  your cousin's house?” Edith asked, resting her head against the glass.

“About a day, should be there by tomorrow around this time.”

“God I fucking hate him,” Edith groaned.

Ethel smirked. “Maybe he’s not so bad now. We won’t have to stay long.”

I ate on the curb below the pump, while Ethel fed the truck its breakfast. The sun made her hair glow tangerine. She caught me looking and let me know she thought that my hair was pretty and would be even prettier if I let her brush it, but I still did not let her.

The hidden insides of the man's truck were rotten and started to smell. The wheel began to shake in Ethel’s hands, spreading throughout the entire truck. The stink became suffocating. Ethel pulled onto the side of the road along an endless wooden fence. Soon a thick, black smoke rose from the engine, high above us.

A grey-haired, serious woman hauling a horse trailer pulled up, with six noses peeking through the metal grating. She told Ethel how we could scrap the truck. Ethel drove a few more miles and the truck died next to a field with one cow. On the other side of the field a thousand giant plastic tubes were being stored.

The bugs sounded a lot like the ones from where we came; squally and screechy. Edith and I played tag and hide-and-go-seek in the tubes. Focused, as quiet as possible, trying to hold my breath in the darkness of the thick, black plastic, I turned my head towards the opposite end, to scout the other direction, and Edith appeared out of nowhere. I froze, nearly falling off the edge, which had to be a 30-foot drop, but she grabbed me in time. She knew how bad she’d scared me because she held me for a long time before we climbed down.

That night we stayed in a marigold motel that was long and had one wooden door everyone had to come and go through. The inside looked like one long hallway with a thousand doors on each side, each a different shade of rust.

The owners were an older husband and wife, and did not want to rent out a room to Ethel. They said she was too young, but she insisted she was eighteen and eventually, they believed her.

Now I can only imagine them as people, mostly with faces like mine  but they had such sluggish attitudes and so they seemed to me to be actual slugs. I can actually remember, once the night attendant checked in, the two of them sliding their way down the hall, passing us as we entered our room, squeezing into a hole at the end of the hall, half the size of their thick, slimy bodies.

The motel sat next to a highway where the air was much drier than where we had come from. I could still hear the bugs, louder actually, and I hoped that they were following somehow.

We walked across the parking lot to a dusty green building that had a plastic man, on its roof, with a mustache and chef’s hat holding a pizza, larger than all three of our bodies combined.

While we sat on the bed, the television showed Kentucky commercials. A man screamed “Sale! Sale! Sale!” in front of a thousand cars. I knew he was nervous.

I took a warm bath, and fell asleep in Ethel’s oversized jacket. When she took the jacket off to wrap me in it, it was like she took off her shell and bones protruded out stretching her skin. I slept at the foot of the bed, curled up into a little ball. I had no trouble falling asleep once the air conditioner began to buzz. As the cool air flooded my nostrils and into my head, I dreamt of Ethel, Edith, and myself in the truck, driving through the night. I followed the truck from high above in the sky, flying with thousands of other round little pink bugs, buzzing…

A knock on our door woke me. Edith  didn’t move but Ethel shot up, and, as she saw me looking at the door, she rubbed my head until I fell back asleep.

The next morning, she told us to be very quiet getting ready because a priest had fallen asleep outside our door. She said the owners (the slugs) probably called him because we looked like we needed help. We saw him lying on one of the pillows in the motel lobby. Ethel lifted me over his body into Edith’s arms, and I saw a sliver of his face. His beard was white, thickest at his cheeks, thinning the higher it went. He tried to sleep like I did, in a little ball, but his long body formed a scribble.

With the money left from the truck, Ethel said we could buy bus tickets to Nebraska.

We walked for hours to get to the bus station, but I didn’t care. I loved it. I saw things I didn’t know the world had. I hadn’t known there were so many kinds of cars and so many people. Some people were eating hotdogs outside of a big white church and I ate so many I got a stomach ache. We got some bottles of water and marched on to the Hazard Greyhound Station—nothing was wrong with it, that was just the name of the town, a mining town. Edith said her Dad used to watch a funny show about some boys in Hazard but that it was nothing like what we saw.

Maybe the smoke from the man’s dead truck seeped into the sky and made everything in Hazard tinted by a shadow and much worse than TV.

Edith sat with me while Ethel bought the tickets. At first we were the only people in the station, but soon another bus dropped off a load. Some stayed and waited for another to carry them off, but some were supposed to be in Hazard. Ethel came back and told us our bus to Nebraska arrived at 3:00 a.m.

The girls agreed that they’d rather explore the town than sit in the Greyhound station for 16 hours. I was relieved because I wanted to walk more and I was disappointed to be going on the bus already. Edith was very interested in the mountains. They didn’t look how I’d imagine mountains in real life because they were not as tall as I thought they should be. She wanted to go up into them and explore, but Ethel shook her head at the idea. A small second hand store was across the street, and Ethel motioned us there instead.

I had walked off over to the videotape aisle, looking at all of the covers. The man only had about 12 or so tapes I had watched over and over again, so I never knew anymore existed. I was mesmerized by a cover with a plane crashing into the ocean but lost all interest in the tape when a deep voice echoed from the opposite end of the aisle.

It was the priest who had been asleep at our door earlier. Today, he was serious with determination in his voice. He began to walk towards me, so I ran to Ethel, checking out at the front. “You! Just stop, for just one moment please stop, I need to talk with you…’’ he called to us.

I hadn’t had to say anything, so maybe it was on my face or I was holding her wrist too tight, but she knew something was wrong before she even heard his voice.

“I’ll talk to him, okay? I know him… Don’t worry,” said the cashier, whose name tag read “August.”

“Father, what’s the matter? What’s going on here?” August called down the aisle, “Why are you bothering these kids? I have some leftovers … Father, have you eaten lunch? Go wait in the break room for me, I’ll be in in five.”

August scanned Ethel’s final item, “I think he’s just a little hungry.”

When I saw that priest again, alarms went off in every part of my body, but Ethel knew how to turn them off. She calmly finished checking out, and she led me outside where Edith was sitting outside on the curb smoking a cigarette. Ethel gave her a look, just a slight look, and she joined us, as we quickly walked away from the store back toward the mountains…

“You think he’s even a real priest? asked Edith. “Probably,” Ethel replied. “God’s looking for us maybe, maybe he’s trying to take us straight to heaven.” This made them both laugh for a while, and it made me laugh too.

Ethel asked if I’d like to hold her bags, and she said it was my job because she knew I could keep them safe. She had picked out some clothes for me. I walked between them. They looked like opposite sisters.  Ethel always wore white, light colors, blonde hair, but not yellow; sort of like dead grass. Edith, dyed her hair black, always wearing dark layers of clothes. She always said that was her real hair color, usually with wide open eyes and her tongue out past her chin because she knew I never believed her.

Ethel said, "We should probably go walk in the woods for a while.”

It must have stopped raining right before we got in because climbing up the hill covered us in mud. When we got up to the top, Edith put a little dollop of mud on my nose. I thought she was being mean until she giggled.

I helped Ethel and Edith set up the tarp from the man’s garage. The air beneath the trees smelled clean and safe... Once we were set up and sitting on the tarp, Ethel and Edith started telling me how much fun the bus would be, how the two of them met on the bus when they were just a little older than me, and how they would walk to their stop together. Every morning, Ethel played with my hair again, and I fell asleep to a mix of their memories and the sounds of all sorts of things moving in the woods. Soon I could hear all the other bugs, waiting for me.

Ethel tried her best not to wake me up, but as soon as I heard the man’s voice I clung to her, unable to look behind me. I pretended to be asleep. I knew the man would take me away; I knew the priest would take me back to the heat, to the expired air. I knew I would somehow end up back in the man’s house, even if he was not there. I would be there alone, in the heat, but this time in silence without even the comfort of the bugs … This priest, I was sure, had already convinced the girls that I was much better off in his care, and I became angry at them for becoming so easily convinced. I began to plan my escape into the woods, until I heard … laughter, comfortable laughter. The three of them were already making light of what was a misunderstanding.

The priest, dropping all sense of authority he tried to present earlier, explained that the reason he had been chasing us around Hazard was to beg us not to move there. He said they just could not take anyone in, that there was a waitlist for jobs for people who were born in the town and there was simply nothing for us there.

Ethel explained our issues: on our way home from spending the summer helping our grandmother on her farm in Florida, Ethel’s faithful truck of 3 years, her first truck, had finally “crapped out” on her, most likely due to the strain put on it at the farm.  It was okay because our father had just promised her a new car for her senior year.

My memories of him are mostly from Ethel and Edith keeping them alive. They actually kept in touch with the priest for a few years, giving life updates grounded mostly in truth with the addition of a fictional grandmother in Florida, but he hasn’t written back in about five years. Edith thinks he’s dead but Ethel’s not so sure. Sometimes the idea of taking a family road trip back to Hazard comes up but it just hasn’t worked out yet.

We spent our remaining hours in Hazard under the care of the priest. The inside of his home had a shaggy brown carpet that stretched through all the rooms, bordered by walls, pasted with orange wallpaper with faded brown stripes. In the living room, he had a big box of a TV and a collection of tapes—even more than I had at the man's house. I injected one into the machine about a lamb who wanted nothing more than to be eaten by God.

I watched the lamb travel the world, trying to prove it’s worth to God, sitting between the girls on the priest’s tan, leather couch. It was well worn. It must have been passed down to him. Everything in his home seemed like it had always been there—maybe God had built it for him? I’ve never gone to church, but the man back in Florida used to pray and read me things from the bible. This priest said he had not held a service in over six years because most of the people in Hazard had shifted their faith from God to something else, though he never explained what. Ethel later told me her mama loved God more than her, which is why she left…

The bus station’s light was almost green; unnatural and flickering. Ethel checked us in, and the station was full tonight with a few dozen people who lined the blue plastic coated benches, some greeted the priest by first name. A few people had already boarded; one man looked like he was a professional bus rider. Soon it was time to leave and the girls asked me to pick a seat, so I led them to the middle of the bus, where its engine hummed the loudest.

As we pulled away, the three of us looked out the window. Outside the station, the priest had gathered a handful of people from off of a bus coming from Arizona, begging them to avoid Hazard as a potential place to settle down.

When we finally arrived in Nebraska, we went straight to meet Ethel’s cousin to claim her land. Sometimes in the beginning, he’d come over for dinner, but they never talked much. They could never click, so they stopped trying to.

They sat at a rotting wooden table in the grass, in the shadow of a less rotted barn—the barn we lived in for a month before we could afford to build a traditional house—signing what needed to be signed.

I was drawn over to the dirt. Inside of a big plot of dirt surrounded by 20-foot-tall mulberry trees, I could hear something moving beneath; a new kind of buzz.

As I began to dig in the earth, each clump was dense with white worms—more worm than dirt. They were beautiful, not the typical limp earthworm, but these were powerful, fat, white worms. I called the girls over, soon, the three of us were in a trance.

The worms circled through the dirt like dolphins.

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ARE YOU MY MOTHER? by Allie Zenwirth

A

I used to get these pangs of want, filled with unnamable desires. You would find me jumping. You would find me erratic. I want to make something. I want to dance with somebody… I want to feel the heat with somebody… yeah... With somebody who loves me. Я хочу. I want… I want… I want… I don’t know… I want…  If you were that stranger at the bar you would ask me, “How do you have so much energy?” and I would say, “I don’t know,” and then  jeté away. 

Now I’m drained, all my juice is gone. Instead of yelling at people to, “Wake up!” I’m alone in a desert of darkness, amputated, stuck on scalding asphalt, bleeding as I push myself forward by my stumps one inch at a time into a never-ending nightmare. Nobody’s home inside me. My voice is deeper and flatter, allowing my new apartment-mate to clock me as trans:

New Apartment Mate: Can I ask you a question?

Allie Zenwirth: Sure

New Apartment mate: Your voice is very thick

Allie Zenwirth:

New Apartment Mate: (winks, gives thumbs up)

I am in a manhole of wanting to die. The lid standing between me and the street weighs 249 lbs (as manhole covers are wont).

My therapist points out that my suicidality is reasonable.* That makes me feel better. 

*he phrases it differently.

B

In the beginning of 2020, Corona Time, New York was the epicenter. I stayed with my Russian professor in Yonkers for a month, and during one particular dinner, as I talked everyone’s heads off about the Community, I got a text. 

Father: How are you feeling?

I announced: “Guess who just texted me?” I consumed everyone. “That’s a weird text, right? The first time in months: ‘How are you feeling?’ How should I respond?” 

From my father’s perspective, a concern regarding my health was reasonable. About half of the Chasidic community was infected by the virus. He was. My mom was. His brothers were. My mom’s siblings were. 

I had a follow up call with my father who said he’ll call me back, but he never did. However, the virus gave my mom an excuse to talk with me again. We hadn’t spoken in a year.

C

For a while, her disembodied voice was a grounding presence. She was someone to talk to when I moved back to my room in Jersey City. A windowless basement room in which I couldn’t stand upright, without A/C, and infested with both cockroaches and ants. Housing-wise, things improved when I paid the extra $150 and moved up to the second floor. I was still unemployed, alone, without many friends. 

D

Throughout my years at Sarah Lawrence College, I would be on the verge of homelessness during the winter breaks when the campus closed, relying on the kindness of strangers. During the break my senior year, January of 2019, I called my mother, asking her if she wanted to get together. Just like the year before, she asked if she could think about it and call me back. After three days, she decided she would be down to meet, but just like the year before, it would need to be in secret. We discussed our options and my mom determined it would be as if we were to have an affair. We would book a hotel room.

The following Wednesday morning, after eating two egg and cheese English Muffins I had gotten from Dunkin’ the night before, I looked out the window of a room in Hotel Le Blu and watched as a woman approached the hotel. She had gained weight. As usual she was wearing body-covering dark-colored clothing and false hair.

My mother entered the hotel and came up the elevator. I found her in the hallway, looking lost. I hugged her as if she were a pillow. Going into the room she put down her bags of Greek yogurt for herself and homemade cookies for me and we sat down on chairs facing each other. She got straight down to what she wanted to tell me.

Mom: I love you.

Me: I love you too.

Mom: I like talking with you on the phone.

Me: I like talking with you too. 

Mom: I know you are well intentioned, but you writing a memoir has been incredibly hurtful to me. I know you think you’re doing it for the right reasons, but I don’t think it’s ok that you expect me to keep talking with you.

Me: Is it because I am writing about you? I could use a pseudonym. 

Mom: Being written about is part of it. You know I’m a private person. 

Me: (nods unsure)

Mom: But...

The real problem? I would be writing negatively about the Community.

E

Talking with my mother in the bowels of my basement room was not all bliss. We would argue in almost hour-long bursts. Strangers would look at me strangely as I broke the silence of the night, making laps around my neighborhood, raising my voice in vehemence. She argued that I wasn’t Paul Revere rousing the colonials, that my memoir was not whistleblowing, that I was sharing with the world a warped version of the Chasidic Community, one driven by hatred and personal grievance. 

I argued that the Chasidic Community was a place where human rights were being violated. 

In August of 2020, when my mother recruited an aunt and an uncle to help refute my claims, when three people telling me that my experience in the Community was my own fault* became too much, I told my mother so. I told her we could continue to speak but I will not be gaslighted. She stopped calling me. 

*My mother will laugh. How predictable: another conversation that I warp and misconstrue. What else is new?

F

So now here I am in September of 2020, isolated, with a deadness all too familiar. My feelings blend with those of my still-in-Community-self, the mirage of pain I left behind in 2016, when I escaped. An experience I hoped would never return.

G

In 2011, when I was thirteen, I would sit beside Halberstam, a rabbi who was also a therapist, in the uncomfortable chair besides his desk, waiting. The darkness that had surrounded me since the age of five had turned into a throbbing pain. I was waiting for Halberstam to tell me why. To prescribe me some Advil. 

Like a pediatrician walking into a room saying, “Hi, how are you doing?” who would hear a few symptoms then confidently declare, “So here is what I’m going to do,” Halberstam found the problem: it was my parents. They had been putting “interjections” in my brain, programming me to believe that I deserved to be miserable. He implied that I was abused. I had never liked my parents, but I never realized their terribleness. “Oh boy, poor me.”

Halberstam’s abuse theory was not based on anything I said. I found out later that my mother had been seeing him as a patient as well. He must have based it on what my mother told him during her therapy. Something real. Unwilling and unable to tell me the truth, he turned it into something vague, which turned into “my parents are abusing me.” He didn’t bother to check in and see if that was my lived experience. He didn’t bother to check in and see if that was what made me unable to see anything but bleakness.

H

In 2014, after my second hospitalization in a psych ward, at sixteen, my mother and I became friends. Prison inmates. My mother shared that she never wanted me to be born. I was grateful she told me as it meant I wasn’t making things up. For a while, that was all that was mentioned of it. Then, in 2020, during the few months we resumed talking, my mother added that she didn’t want to get married either. She described her increasing dread as the wedding date had drawn nearer.

I

In 2020, when we would be on the phone, I argued that the Community was to blame for her marriage and my birth. The Community made her get married to someone she didn’t know at 18, and made her pump out one kid after the other. But in her mind the fault was her own. She could have decided not to get married and be ostracized. She chose to get married because deep down she wanted to. “We all need connection.” She could have gone on birth control even though she wasn’t allowed to without permission from a judge. She chose to have kids to prove to the world that you can have kids and not love them.

J

Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) is a novice in training at a nunnery in Novitiate (2017).  She is intimacy repressed to the extent that she can’t bear hearing the object of her desire, Sister Emmanuelle (Rebecca Dyan), read the bible. One night, Sister Emmanuelle wakes up to a knock on her door. She opens it a crack.

Sister Emmanuelle: (whispers) You can’t be here

Sister Cathleen: (inaudible pleading)

Sister Emmanuelle: Okay

They both sit down on the bed nervous. LONG pause.

Sister Cathleen: Do you remember… Do you remember when you asked what I was starving for? I just want to be comforted… please will you just comfort me… please… please will you just… please will you just… please I just want to be comforted… please will you just comfort me... Please… Please… Please… Please will you just comfort me… Please will you just comfort me…

Unable to shut up until she is held, kissed, smothered, and eaten. 

I feel that.

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THE SIDE DOOR by Michael Farfel

Wendy wore black. He loved that most about her. She made her way over, careful, slow steps, like a deer, like he was extending bits of food. “Your arms are smaller than mine. I just need to loosen that nut. But I can't reach it,” Carl said over the exposed engine.“Smaller,” she repeated and made a show of flexing her arms. He laughed, “You're just more compact, is all. Come on, sweetheart. Give it a throw?”She pulled her hair into a ponytail. Maybe it was her hair he loved most. She bent over the engine and maneuvered the socket into place. She had to stand on her toes. He leaned back and watched. Maybe it was her ass he loved most. She worked cautiously at first. One hand resting on the carburetor for balance. She held the wrench awkwardly—difficult to find leverage in such a small space.“Fucking thing,” said Carl.  Wendy looked at him, sad-eyed. “It’s not a big deal. Can’t we just take it to the shop?”Carl shook his head and smiled, “Let me back in there. I’ll get the fucker off.”“Patience, Carl. Patience.”She adjusted the socket wrench so that she could get both hands to it. With one elbow framed against the air filter she was able to apply more torque.  “Careful,” Carl said. Her face turned red as she put more of her body weight into the push.“Careful,” Carl repeated, leaning over the far side of the engine.With one more deep breath the nut broke loose and Wendy’s hand punched through to the engine block. She jumped back and let out a feral yelp. “God dammit,” Carl said. “Are you okay?”She held the new wound to her lips and a line of blood crept down her chin. Her wide, watery eyes glared with unwavering intensity. “Let's go to the sink and have a look.” He handed her a clean rag and she pulled her hand away from her mouth. Carl’s heart skipped a beat when he saw how much it was bleeding. They made it to the sink and she placed it under the cool water.“What the fuck?” he said. She didn’t dare look. The blood ceased its flow abruptly and you could see bone, as clear as day and white as snow. “What the fuck?” Carl repeated. “Is it bad?” she asked through clenched teeth.“We just need to get you to a doctor. Jesus. Oh God.” They took his work truck and he punched it out of the driveway. He couldn’t look at her. Her complexion pallored as shadows of street signs danced across her face. Occasionally she'd touch her hand to her lips.“Turn on the radio or something,” she said. “I can’t bear to listen to the throbbing.”He fumbled with the radio dial. Country music blared.

My love was deep for this Mexican maiden, 

He moved to turn it down, but she shook her head. 

One night a wild young cowboy came in,

He dared a quick glance at her hand. The wound had grown to twice its size—more and more bone.“Don’t pick,” he cried out. “We’re almost there, just a few more miles.”

with wicked Felina, the girl that I loved.

 He let her out in front of the emergency room doors. By the time he joined her inside she was already sitting.There were four other people waiting: a mother and her son, a short-haired woman and a square-shaped man. Each—except the mother—had injuries similar to Wendy’s. The boy’s outstretched elbow showed a swath of bone the size of an egg. The short-haired woman held her face in her hands, looking forward toward nothing, and under her right eye was the same thing. Bright white. Smaller than the boy’s and in the shape of Illinois. The square-shaped man had a gash across his forehead. The flickering of the fluorescent bulb cast the injury in stuttered light.Carl sat down next to Wendy and touched her good hand, “What’s going on here?”“What do you mean?” she was annoyed with the question and didn’t hide it. “I’m waiting for them to come get me and put me back together, Carl. Because of you.”He blinked his eyes as a sudden headache built above his nose. “But, what about them?” he motioned his head toward the others.She scanned the room then looked at him and shook her head. “That's none of our business Carl. You need to stay focused.”Three of her knuckles were now totally revealed and the injury crept up the back of her hand. He sat with her for what felt like forever. Fifteen minutes. Occasionally the square-shaped man would hum and the short-haired woman would make a show of adjusting in her seat. Carl focused on his feet. Every time he looked up their wounds seemed to grow. His heart thumped in his ears.“I’m going to see what’s taking so long,” he said, mostly to himself as he stood.The nurse working the front desk didn’t acknowledge him immediately, eventually pointing to an intercom button. She was safely tucked behind a plastic window.He pressed, “What’s going on here?”“Excuse me?” she responded.“Wendy. She’s been over there for an eternity. Fifteen minutes. Twenty. Her hand, it’s...” he looked back at Wendy and took a deep breath, “... falling apart. It’s a major issue. We need help.” His words knocked together. “Right now, please. Right fucking now.”“Sir, please watch your language. We’ll get to her soon enough.”He looked over his shoulder again. The mother and son both looked at him. The boy’s wound now nearly encompassed his whole arm.“When?” Carl whispered. “Please.”“Sir, I assure you help is on the way.”“She’ll die out here, you stupid bitch.”The mother covered her son’s ears and gasped. Carl felt the eyes of the room dig into him.The nurse smiled and nodded, “Okay sir, I’m gonna call security now.” “I’m so sorry,” said Carl, “I just…” he put his face in his hands. The nurse was already on the phone, still nodding. Before he could turn around security had arrived. Two men. A small man with a small mustache and a much larger man. The smaller man wore the clothes of an hourly security guard with an emblem on his chest reminiscent of Nazi-era aesthetic, meant to strike fear. The larger was an actual police officer. Barrel chested, gun at the ready, super-human smile.“Everything alright here?” asked the officer, never losing eye contact.“Yeah, is everything all right?” repeated the security guard, never making eye contact.Carl nodded. “Fine, fine. Just waiting in the waiting room with Wendy.”“Who’s Wendy?” asked the officer.The security guard opened his mouth, but the officer lifted his hand in protest, always smiling.“What does it matter who? She’s sick and they won’t help her.” He pointed at the nurse. “They lack urgency. There is no urgency here.”“How about we step outside for a minute, Mister… What did you say your name was?”“No,” Carl said. “Wendy needs me.”“Wendy’s fine,” the officer said and motioned for the security guard to move behind Carl. “We’re gonna take this conversation outside. Let the autumn air cool us.” The officer winked.“No,” Carl repeated.The officer's gaze faltered for a quick second, he seemed to be examining something just outside of Carl. “Only two ways, sir. There’s the front door and there’s the side door. Do you understand?” the officer said, eyes refocused. Carl looked back and forth from the guard to the officer.  Nothing was making sense.“You see, I'm the side door,” the officer continued. “I exist as an act of kindness. Pure kindness. Unburdened by evil. You understand?”Carl laughed nervously, “You have the wrong guy. I’m here for Wendy. Her skin is—it’s melting.”In one lightning-fast movement, Carl was on the ground. The officer had pulled Carl’s arm one way and swept his legs the other. Guiding him down in an almost tender embrace.The security guard yipped and clapped his hands together. “Great. Wow,” he yelled out.The officer leaned over Carl, his smile ever wider, and said “The side door, then.”  Carl looked back at Wendy as the officer pushed him down a long hallway. She seemed fine. She smiled a full smile and Carl remembered that that was why he loved her most. Her teeth. Strange that he would’ve forgotten that, he thought. He waved and immediately regretted it because when she waved back he could see that her hand was mostly bone now. He felt himself scream, but couldn’t hear anything.The officer and the guard accompanied Carl all the way to his car.“Now, I’m gonna let you sit out here. Wendy is a beautiful woman. I’d hate for her to be stranded. But just remember what I told you.” “Two ways?” asked Carl looking up from his driver’s seat.“There is only one way, Carl.” The officer finally stopped smiling.The guard did two fast punches in the air and yelled out, “One way, buddy,” and slammed Carl’s door.
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