by Adeola Adeniyi
When I was home Monday night hanging out with my homeboys Kenny and Chris, I answered the knocks at the door and my main man Allen was standing there holding his stomach with his bottom lip busted and right eye swollen. I could see blood along with the melting snow on the sleeves of his heavy dark blue coat too. After he came inside, he told us that these three white boys jumped him in the parking lot of the McDonald’s on Neptune and West 6thStreet as he was leaving from there. Kenny stood his tall lanky ass up and told Allen that we were all gonna go back out there to find those white boys and put a serious hurting on them. Chris added how he didn’t want any of them walking correctly anymore either. Now I really wasn’t all that eager to go throw down with anyone but Allen has been my boy since we first met in the sandbox so I nodded in agreement. Allen sat in the chair by the portable fan heater on the windowsill and Chris ran to the kitchen. I could hear him in there banging the ice tray on the counter. He came back a second later with ice cubes wrapped in a washcloth and handed it to Allen so he could press it against his eye. Chris also gave him napkins from his pocket, which he used to wipe away the blood on his lip.
Kenny killed the news on TV and walked over to Allen. He started to inspect his bad eye as if he was an actual doctor while lighting a cigarette. “It looks painful.”
“It doesn’t hurt that bad.” Allen opened up the washcloth to put one of the cubes on his lips. “Those white boys didn’t know how to punch anyway. My mom used to hit me much harder when I was a kid.”
“Did you know them?” I asked.
Allen nodded while scratching under his hairy chin. “It was that punk ass Tony D. The other two dudes I’ve never seen before. They called me nigger a buncha times too.”
We didn’t know Tony DiNapoli personally but we have seen him hanging at P.S. 329 sometimes. He couldn’t be a part of the Haven program there anymore because he graduated from high school three years ago but still sold weed, hash, fake IDs, beer, liquor, and ecstasy to the white kids attending. That was all his business though.
“You know what they jumped you for A?” Chris asked.
“What does it matter?” Kenny said, opening his mouth to blow out smoke rings. “He got jumped by a bunch of white boys. We gotta get us some getback.”
Chris sucked his teeth and waved his hand at Kenny. “I was only askin’ so dead that noise quick.”
Kenny said, “We had no noise last year when you had beef with that fool Rayshawn in Mrs. Duncan’s class and wanted us to throw down with him and his crew so don’t say shit.”
“It had to do with Breanna.” Allen leaned back in the chair and slowly put both of his feet up on the footrest. “All them bullshit lies going around about us,”
“Didn’t Breanna go out with that fool before though?” Chris asked.
Allen nodded. “Just for a month when we broke up that one time and he’s still fiendin’ for what’s mines,”
“I know you ain’t do what everyone is talking about right?” Chris said.
Allen kicked the footrest and it turned over after hitting the floor. “Don’t ever be asking me anything like that fool.”
“Be easy my brother. You know I ain’t meant anything by it.” Chris replied.
I knew Chris only asked that because everyone in school has been asking each other that about him and Breanna. It even spread to P.S. 329. Breanna Feitel was a new sophomore white girl Allen started going with in September when he found out she told some of her new girlfriends she thought he was cute. For the last two days, everyone in school was whispering that Breanna told them how she told Allen to stop while they were in the middle of boning but that he kept going until he finished. Breanna swore it was all lies and they were both furious people were talking behind their backs. I didn’t believe those bullshit lies anyway. Nobody dared asked Allen anything though. People knew if they did, they’d have to deal with his fists going right to their jaws and nobody wanted to feel that pain so they kept quiet.
“Well stop talking like that then Chris ’cause we is gonna go hurt them.” Kenny let smoke out through his nose and then sucked down the rest of his cigarette.
Chris picked up the fan heater and put it on top of the broken thirty-five inch TV in the corner. He turned the heat up and rubbed his hands in front of the glowing orange lights. Kenny did the same thing.
“You sure you wanna go right now?” Chris asked. “They’re probably gone.”
Kenny got up in his face and they both stood there staring at each other hard. Kenny towered over him but Chris was a big solid dude with a large chest, hands, and arms. I didn’t know who’d win if they fought for real. It would have most likely been Chris. He won plenty of play fights with Kenny and I’m sure he could have won a real one. It looked like it could happen right now so to keep them from hurting each other or breaking my mother’s TV, computer, or coffee table, I moved in the middle between them. I stayed there for a few seconds until Chris backed away.
“Why you wanna back down for Chris?” Kenny said. “I know you’re not scared now to go out and fight some white boys just ’cause you is going to Howard U in the fall. I know that’s not the deal.”
“I ain’t scared of nobody.” Chris replied. “Now get out my face with that noise.”
Kenny pointed his finger in Chris’s face. “I say we go out there right now to find them punk ass white boys.” he slapped his chest twice with this big grin on his face. “I always say what we do ’cause I’m in charge. Don’t forget that shit.”
“Whatever,” Chris mumbled.
“I know you down right kid?” Kenny said to me after taking a drag.
I wanted to tell him how I felt but instead I kept it inside and just nodded. “Yeah man.”
Kenny smiled and slapped me five. Allen stood and went in the hallway. When he came back a few minutes later, he was patting his wet face dry with a washcloth. Kenny pushed his cigarette into the ashtray on the coffee table and started brushing his hair. He had a dark Caesar haircut and since his waves were mad deep, he brushed his hair every five minutes. Allen put on his Raiders knit hat and flung the washcloth on the couch.
“Let’s go yo!” Kenny said.
Chris and Kenny got their coats from the closet by the front door. I took mines off the couch and shut off the fan heater. When we went outside, I locked the door and followed them down the stairs.
John Dewy freed us today at three o’clock in the afternoon as always and I found Kenny waiting for me outside my homeroom. Part two of us finding Tony D and his boys was coming. We left and said nothing walking in the packed and noisy hallway. On the first floor, we heard our names called before leaving out the front entrance so we stopped. I felt kinda happy. We saw Mrs. Riley, this tiny little brown-skinned woman with glasses and some grays mixed in with her black hair leave the main office and walk over to us. We could smell the cigarette smoke on her sweater and her perfume was too strong. All four of us once had her for a teacher at some point. Kenny stood up straight and took off his Yankees cap. He even pulled his pants up. She smiled and we smiled back.
“You boys are staying out of trouble right?” she asked.
Kenny nodded. “Of course we are Mrs. Riley. You don’t have to worry about us.”
“No doubt,” I said. “You know we never get in any real trouble. We’re good.”
Mrs. Riley looked at Kenny and pointed her bony manicured finger at him. “That black eye I saw Mr. Walker with looks like trouble caused in those streets and I’ll call your mother if I find out you’re trouble Mr. Brown. You might not be in my class this year but you will always be my student so I’m always watching.” She turned to me. “You too boy,”
“It’s all good Mrs. Riley.” I said.
“Good.” She replied.
Kenny said, “We’ll be alright Mrs. Riley.”
She smiled at us again and said the same thing to a boy she found leaving the main office. Kenny put his cap back on but the right way this time and we saw our homeboy Sean buttoning his big coat at his locker so we went to him. He slapped us five.
“How’s my favorite deejay?” Sean started brushing his waves. “Is his eye better?”
Kenny nodded. “Yeah,”
“Good.” Sean said. “Now everybody knows how white pussy can lead to trouble but that Breanna Feitel sure is fine. I’d bone that girl on the serious.”
“You is a fool I swear.” Kenny said, laughing. “But I’d bone her without a doubt.”
Sean laughed too and opened his coat to show us his green shirt with a Jets logo on it. Kenny checked the tag in the back and it musta been authentic ’cause he nodded with his approving smile.
“This is the shit.” Kenny said.
“I know it’s the shit.” Sean replied. “You and the crew should come shop with me today to the JFK store my girl works at. She says the security there is a joke.”
I wouldn’t have said no to some shopping since we did that good and that shirt was cool but I knew Kenny wasn’t going for that.
“Maybe Friday bro,” Kenny said. “We gotta get some getback.”
“Aiight, but watch y’all backs ’cause I heard that Tony D is a nut.” Sean said.
Kenny and I walked on Mermaid Avenue to P.S. 329. Allen kept getting angry ’cause he couldn’t hear the other person on his cell phone that good. Even with our coats, the chilly winds made our bodies shiver. We had about four or five inches of snow on the ground already with more coming down. The only people outside were these two young Spanish boys we passed taking turns spitting some pretty decent rhymes as they shoveled the snow in front of a bodega. I wanted to be home right now or anywhere else really but instead I was here. I had to be here. If I didn’t show up to fight, they’d think I was turning into a punk. That type of thinking about my character would get around and I’d lose respect. The last thing a man needed was to lose respect in Coney Island. Then they’d really think I was soft if I backed out of fighting some white boys. A fool in Coney Island needed his rep the same way he needed his arms and legs. The same way he needed oxygen. That was the real reason I went with Allen, Chris, and Kenny back to McDonald’s, P.S. 329, Nathan’s, and the arcade on Surf Avenue last night. I also thought of the time my kid sister Crystal came home crying and told me some dude that lived in her homegirl’s building pinched her ass as she went to visit her. I had her take us to the building to show us the pervert. They never even debated whether to help me beat his ass or not. We followed that fool to a supermarket and Kenny hit him with a garbage can to knock him on the ground. After we repeatedly kicked him in his chest and ribs, he had to use all his strength to crawl away.
We got to the bodega on West 30th Street right across the street from P.S. 329 at about four but there was no Chris. First, only Allen was at the subway on Avenue X where we normally met after school and now Chris wasn’t here. We went to his crib at the Gravesend Houses earlier and asked his grandpops if he saw him but he had no idea.
Allen leaned back against a car and pulled out a couple of bills from his pocket. He counted his loot twice and then put it away. Kenny hit Chris up on his cell again and still got nothing. He then suddenly started swinging both of his fists wildly in the air.
“I knew Chris was gonna punk out on us.” Kenny shouted. “I just knew it!”
“You don’t know anything. Chris loves to rumble more than the three of us.” I replied. “He probably went to an unexpected football practice or just ain’t here yet so be easy.”
“We had practice this morning and he showed up to that.” Allen replied.
“He’s scared.” Kenny said. “Chris is actually scared to fight some white boys.”
Allen lit a cigarette and waved it at him. “Man shut up.”
Kenny said, “’Member how Chris tackled Wingate’s Quarterback so hard he broke that fool’s leg?”
“That boy is gonna be out at least until next year so we gonna beat them easy this month.” Allen said. “Wingate ain’t ever gonna be able to talk shit about our team.”
“Well I hope Chris shows up.” Kenny said. “You mess with one of us and we’ll come back at you harder.” He looked at me. “You ’member that right fool?”
“No doubt,” I said.
I wondered why Chris ain’t show up here today. I thought that maybe Chris was just getting tired of fighting. Maybe I thought that ’cause that’s how I felt sometimes. I was also tired of us fighting other boys, tagging walls, joyriding, and all the other dumb shit we did. I was still going to be there for Allen though. Back in July, we fought these three Crip niggas on the boardwalk one evening near the entrance to Astroland ’cause they tried punking Kenny for his new Jordans and gold chain. Chris was throwing most of the punches and even when one of them cut his arm, they still ran after he grabbed the switchblade from the boy who cut him and sliced his hand. Even after Coney Island Hospital stitched Chris up and left him with a bad scar, he still won two fights later. One was outside his building with a grown man dating his older sister and another against a player for Layette after we lost to them and he decided to talk shit. Our school wouldn’t have won the PSAL championship last year without Chris’s strength, speed, and tackling ability so their coach fought to keep the school from suspending him off the team as they did with Mark Johnson. Mark’s fight with the center from Erasmus Hall wasn’t too bad either. Only a shove that led to some punches before people pulled them apart. The thing was that Mark really ain’t been doing much on the team to help them win. Maybe this was the fight Chris didn’t wanna go through with and actually had the balls not to show up for it. If true, he had something that I really didn’t have. Kenny or Allen either.
“Fighting is beneath proper college brothers.” Kenny smirked. “They train them at Howard and all colleges really to be proper and upstanding citizens. Y’all just watch. He’s going to forget about his boys. Do y’all see my brother Alex in Coney Island anymore? Nope. He’s out living it up in Cali with his no titty or ass having wife.”
Allen finished his cigarette and walked over to Kenny to jab his finger into his chest. “But you still ain’t gotta hate on him. Anyway, you steady claiming you leaving after the summer. Least I’m only going to Hunter in the fall.”
“I’m going into the Marines but I’ll be back.” Kenny slapped Allen’s finger away, made an imaginary rifle to point at a city bus, and then pulled the trigger three times at the back of it. “When we get that stupid diploma come June, I’m out. This recruiter told me there’s all kinds of exotic pussy out there so I’m gonna go get some in Greece, Spain, Asia, and Egypt.” He laughed. “I’ll hear my name moaned in so many different languages it’s gonna be insane kid.”
“Ok playboy,” Allen said, rubbing his hands together. “But what’d you gonna do when they send you and your little dick to Iraq. Did your dumb ass forget we’re still at war?”
Kenny sucked his teeth. “You only hatin’ ’cause you gonna miss me but I’m out.”
“You better get outta here with that homo shit,” Allen replied.
Kenny shoved Allen and after Allen swung on him, Kenny grabbed the back of his coat and put him in a headlock. Allen punched Kenny’s sides and I moved out the way as they fell on the ground. Kenny got on top of Allen laughing while he struggled to free himself but suddenly Allen was able to climb on top of Kenny and pin that fool down. Allen picked up some snow to smash in Kenny’s face but Kenny got back on top again. They kept wrestling around on the ground laughing.
About fifteen minutes later, we crossed the street to go inside P.S. 329. Allen kept looking behind him. I looked back myself hoping to see Chris but I only saw two old dudes standing by the store now sharing a bottle. We reached the front entrance and the safety agent inside sighed because we bothered his reading of the Daily News by showing him our Haven ID cards. We then passed the gym seeing these two boys pushing each other and another trying to stop them. Walking up the empty staircase to the third floor, we saw three girls hanging outside the girl’s bathroom. They waved at us. When Allen tried kissing one on the cheek, she backed away. He sucked his teeth and we kept going.
“Blaze this masterpiece.” Allen said, giving him his iPod. “The hottest deejay in New York straight outta Coney Island finished his new mixtape.”
Kenny said, “Been waiting to hear this shit for the longest,” He flipped through the songs. “Aiight, you got 50 Cent, G-Unit, DMX, some Mobb Deep, and B.I.G on it. Cool.”
I could hear the beat from 50 Cent’s “In My Hood.” with Biggie spitting the “Things Done Changed.” rhymes on it.
“Diddy ain’t my favorite but I love his track that I used.” Allen said. “It’s hard.”
“Look, you are either hard or soft and Diddy is soft.” Kenny put one of the earplugs in his ear. “The nigga is a soft little bitch.”
“Whatever. I just like the song.” Allen said. “I like the Will Smith song I used too.”
Kenny laughed. “Little faggot.”
“That’s not what your sister said when she let me suck on her titties last night.” Allen replied. “Those plums sure were sweet.”
“I know. Karen said your tongue game was seriously whack bro.” Kenny said.
Allen shook his head with half a grin and knocked on the classroom door next to the water fountain. Breanna came out holding a thin paperback book in her hand. They both smiled at each other and he kissed her thin pink lips. Breanna was tall and pretty with these big green eyes and her brownish blond hair reaching her ass. She had herself a little slender figure too. To be real, I got hard seeing her in her low cut white blouse that showed her breasts perfectly. My dick then started aching seeing the silver ball ring in her tongue.
“Hey guys.” She waved her book at me and Kenny then turned back to Allen. “Hey there DJ Truth,” She slugged him in the arm lightly. “You never hit me back on IM last night when you left for a few seconds. I called you like ten times for almost an hour but got nothing.”
“Sorry,” Allen replied. “I just had to go do something with my pops. Forgive me?”
Breanna hit him on his head with her book. “Uh maybe, since I am your biggest and most loyal fan in Brooklyn and maybe the whole of New York.”
“You better be.” He said, kissing her on the forehead. “And that’s real.”
I was at Allen’s crib with him while they were talking on the web. Each time she called his cell he showed me her number on the caller ID and bragged about how much she loved him. I wasn’t saying anything about that though.
“I hope you’re feeling better.” Breanna said, rubbing his black eye with her thumb slowly. She then kissed it. “It doesn’t look so bad. It actually looks cute you know.”
“I look extra hard.” Allen smiled then held her free hand. “What’d you doing in there?”
Breanna lifted up her book. “Re-reading Hamlet since my mission is to kill next week’s audition. I have to show Mrs. Dawson I’m perfect to play Hamlet. I have to kill it.”
“I thought she wants you for Ophelia though?” Allen said.
Breanna started twisting the gold chain around her neck. “She does, but I already played Ophelia at my old school. Sienna is playing Claudius so if I get Hamlet, I get to kill her.” she grinned. “I think doing Hamlet could be therapeutic for me.”
“You’re still angry at her?” Allen said.
“I know the cunt did introduce me to her agent at DNA and helped get me signed with them but I’ll never forgive her for what she did to me. I do still have to kiss her tanned behind because she is Sienna Parker after all.” Breanna spit on the floor near her blue low top Converse sneakers and put the book in her back pocket. “I have to.”
Allen kissed her forehead again. “Well my baby is modeling so I’m happy about that.”
Breanna shrugged. “I think the whole modeling thing is stupid you ask me. I’m only doing it because my mother is making me. Anyway, since she’s tanning in Miami, I’m having a party at my place in celebration tonight. It’s only going to be us girls and we’re going to get high, high, high until we reach the moon.”
“We gotta talk Breanna.” Allen told her. “On the real,”
“It’s about Anthony isn’t it?” Breanna sucked her teeth. “I told you he’s a psycho. Can’t you just leave it alone? This macho nonsense isn’t even sexy anymore. Let it end.”
This white boy with short brown hair actually sporting a blue Tony Romo jersey came out the classroom holding the same Hamlet book and stood at the door. “Are you coming back to rehearsal ’cause you know I already miss you Bre, Bre.”
“In a sec babe,” Breanna replied.
“Cool,” he said.
After he left, Allen said, “Who’s that gay dude?”
Breanna laughed. “He’s anything but a queer. Michael has a girlfriend and two exes in our little acting group.”
Allen put his arm around Breanna’s waist and led her up the hallway. He started telling her something half way up there in her ear. Kenny and I went downstairs and we saw two cops taking those boys that were fighting out the gym in handcuffs. One was struggling with his cop as he led him to the door but the other boy walked calmly with his officer. We waited for Allen outside and watched the cops put the boys in their car.
“That fool Tony goes to work at the aquarium every day at eight in the morning so I say we meet there at seven thirty and wait.” Allen told us this while we sat in the back of a B74 bus with some old people and young kids an hour later. The whole time I sat between Allen and Kenny I was hoping the beef with Tony would be done with since we didn’t find him or his boys at the school and they most likely wouldn’t show up there anymore because of the expected get back but that wish just died right now.
“He’s already off work so we could go to that fool’s crib now.” Allen said. “He lives in Bensonhurst with his sister. I got his address out of Breanna and everything.”
Kenny shook his head and then moved his finger over his throat. “Not even kid. That’ll be like going to Afghanistan.” He stood up and pressed the request stop. “We’ll beat his punk ass tomorrow morning and be on our way to school. That shit will be mad quick and easy.”
The bus stopped at Surf and Stillwell and we got off through the back doors. Kenny grabbed the back of Allen’s coat and put him in a headlock. Kenny kept laughing but let go after seeing this short coffee color shorty with black hair walk to the bus crowd. Kenny went and tried talking with her but we watched her ignore him until she stepped on the bus.
“Shorty’s a dime but she’s frontin’ hard kid.” Kenny said when he jogged back.
“Nah, she just has eyes and a brain is all.” Allen straightened his coat. “Let’s go get some dogs and fries.”
Kenny lit a cigarette. “I can’t. I gotta go stack that loot and my boss is gonna go bat shit crazy on me if I’m late. I’ll see you fools on the block later tonight.”
Allen giggled. “Have fun slinging them taco sand burritos.”
Kenny smiled as he slowly lifted his middle finger up at Allen. We then slapped him five and he walked to the subway. I walked across the street with Allen to Nathan’s and stood on the line looking up at the menus.
The next day I stayed home and didn’t answer the door when the boys came at seven in the morning to pick me up. I just stayed in bed and put the pillow over my head. I got up later at nine and watched women fight each other over assholes on two dumb talk shows. I thought of Allen the whole time and couldn’t stop feeling like a punk. When the buzzer rang at eleven, I still didn’t touch the intercom. In like ten minutes, the doorbell started ringing. I just sat on the couch with the TV on mute and drowned out the bell but after it stopped, the kicking on the door started. The combo of feeling like shit and the noise made me open it. Kenny was there smoking a cigarette and Chris was sipping a cup of steaming coco. I didn’t see Allen. When I asked, “What’s up?” Kenny just shook his head. Chris kept drinking his coco.
Kenny brushed the snow off his coat. “You are just pitiful sometimes I swear man. You never know anything.”
I sucked my teeth. “Just tell me what’s up fool!”
“You don’t know ’cause you herbed out on us this morning but forget that.” Chris wiped away coco foam from his mouth with the back of his hand. “Breanna’s at Coney Island Hospital. She overdosed at her party this morning at about three after sniffing some of that bin Laden coke them fools on the boardwalk be slinging.”
“We found out in calculus.” Kenny replied. “Everyone in school is talking about it.”
Chris said, “She’s lucky she’s alive. I heard they were just smoking weed at first but then Sienna Parker brought out the yayo and made Breanna and their friends try it with her.”
Kenny shook his head. “That wasn’t her first time using that shit idiot. My girl told me she heard Breanna be using it in the clubs all the time. Allen’s all crazy over a crazy ho.”
“I know you still fiendin’ for Sheila but she’s yo ex and why is Breanna a ho?” Chris said. “That’s cold even for you man. The girl coulda died you know.”
Kenny sucked his teeth. “I ain’t saying it to be mean. I swear I’m not. It’s just a fact. I heard Breanna slept with like twenty dudes already. She just turned sixteen and that’s way too many men for a girl that age to have fucked. And, everyone knows them crazy stories about her at her old school in Forest Hills. Don’t blame me fool.”
“Let’s just go to the hospital.” Chris said. “Allen’s waiting for us.”
I walked back inside with them. Chris and Kenny sat on the couch. I went into my bedroom and got dressed. I felt bad for Breanna but at least she was still alive. I felt bad for Kenny too. He was hurting. Allen couldn’t lose her. Breanna was the only thing in his life that mattered to him even though he had his music, football, and his rep. He told me once before when we were alone how Breanna was the only good thing he had. The four of us really had so little in our lives that mattered so we tried to hold on to the few things that did.
I grabbed my coat along with my scarf and went back inside. When they saw me, they got up and Chris turned off the TV. I got my keys and we left without saying anything.
The three of us walked up Ocean Parkway a half hour later and got to Coney Island Hospital. We found Allen in front of the building by the entrance smoking a cigarette. His eyes were all watery. Kenny was the first to hug him then Chris went and it was my turn afterwards. Allen put his cigarette out on the ash urn on the garbage can and we walked into the lobby. Kenny led us to the window. A young skinny boy about eight or nine with a cast on his left arm kept crying even though his mom told him to be quite. She finally gave him the two dollars for the machine he was begging for because the people sitting on the plastic orange chairs watching Rachael Ray on the TV attached to the ceiling kept giving them hard stares. We saw doctors, nurses, security guards, and sick people walking around everywhere.
“How’s Breanna doing brother?” Chris said.
“They won’t let anybody see her but she’s ok.” Allen replied. “They keep trying to reach her mom but can’t ’cause she left Miami for Vegas last night and her brother is somewhere in the Congo. The actual Congo you know. With her dad, it’s like who even knows.” He balled his hands into fists. “And those stupid nurses up there won’t let me see her.”
“You’ll get to see her. Don’t worry man.” Kenny said.
“This shit is all fucked up!” Allen said, sitting in the empty seat next to the boy with his mom. The boy was quiet now since he had an ice cream sandwich in his mouth. Chris and I sat facing him. Kenny stood to stare out the window.
Chris got up and patted Allen on the back. “The main thing is that she’s alive. She’s gonna be fine.”
“Thanks man.” Allen replied.
“You’re our brother. We hurt when you hurt.” Kenny said.
Four nurses walked in the lobby together laughing and when they split in different directions, I saw that the tall skinny white boy with messy black hair walking behind them was Tony D. He was checking out the ass of a woman who walked past him. Allen, Kenny, and Chris noticed him too because they started agreeing it was him. Tony walked closer and the four of us looked at him. He was going to sit in the empty seat under the security camera on the ceiling but when he saw us, he stopped. He was holding yellow roses in one hand and a plastic bag full of books in the other. We kept looking at him and he did the same. After this went on for a few seconds, he turned around and started walking back to the doors fast.
“Let’s go follow him.” Kenny said. “We got that punk right now.”
Allen waved his hand in the direction of the front doors. “Forget him. I don’t care about him.”
“We got him right now.” Chris stood up. “Don’t you puss out on us fool!”
“I ain’t man.” Allen replied.
“Then let’s go.” Kenny said. “Now is our chance.”
Kenny and Chris ran through the automatic doors but Allen stayed. I just sat there but when Kenny came back a few minutes later and told us to come on, I didn’t move. Allen didn’t either. Kenny didn’t touch Allen but started pulling my right arm so I punched his hand a few times and he let go. He waved his hand at me and ran back through the doors but I moved closer to Allen so I could be there for my boy.
Adeola Adeniyi is a 28-year-old college student at Medgar Evers College majoring in English. His work has been published in the fall 2010 and 2011 issues of Black Magnolias Literary Journal, had a story in the top ten of the Open City Magazine 2010 RRofihe Trophy Short Story Contest and was recently published in aaduna’s Winter 2012 issue.
photo by dandeluca
by Aurelia Lorca
Grumpy is my cousin and she is a spaz. She has just little too much junk in her trunk and wears her jeans so tight you know she has to lie down to zip. She is a tragedy waiting to happen. She has been skating since she was a kid. Every Saturday, she takes the morning lessons and skates the afternoon skates. Her mom says it is good exercise. My mom started me skating because of Grumpy. My moms says letting me spend my Saturdays at the skating rink is a nice way to get me out of her hair for the day. Like most of us, Grumpy has no-where else to go: No friends, no brothers, no sisters, only me, her younger cousin. She has a dad, but he is never around.
Nobody really liked her until a really fine guy started showing up on Saturday afternoons with his little brothers and sisters. We had seen his picture in the papers- he was some sort of basketball hero. He was so fine, when Grumpy first saw him she couldn’t stop staring and skated into the wall. Dude musta felt sorry for her banging against the wall so he asked her to skate couples.
Grumpy freaked and hid in the bathroom, crying that she had never held hands with a boy before. Everyone cracked up. But Happy felt sorry for her and said she had to do something. Happy always claimed with a little hairspray she could transform anyone, anyone. So she dragged Grumpy out of the stall, told her to quit crying and not move while she sprayed up her bangs proper.
After Grumpy came out of the bathroom, the situation became only more pathetic. Turns out dude didn’t speak much English. We could hear Grumpy repeating the same thing each time she skated by us- “Yo tengo un gato el se llama ‘Merlin’ el es blanco, negro, y muy gordo.” Of course we never saw the boy or his family again. And that was that.
But because of their bonding over a can of hairspray, Grumpy became friends with Happy, which made her cool with the rest of the Shorties.
“She has the best hair,” Happy said. “She doesn’t even need a pick to keep it up.”
When her mom finally allowed her to go to the Friday and Saturday night skates, Grumpy officially became a Shortie, and was given her name, “Grumpy,” the Seventh Shortie. Yeah. She thought the name Grumpy gave her an edge, thought they were giving her props, but girl couldn’t stare down a Care-Bear much less kick her way out of a wet paper bag. Grumpy was the only name left- the one none of us wanted- what guy would wanna get sprung on a chick named Grumpy? Even Sneezy was better.
Once she was a Shortie, everyone thought Grumpy was ok. The only downer about night-skates for Grumpy is me. My mission is to skate in the line and pick up on older guys by pretending I am fifteen. Though army guys are horn-dogs and easy targets, most don’t buy my hustle, at least not yet. One army dude told me that he had seen mosquito bites that were bigger than my tits, and little girls like me should stay home. But Grumpy’s mom, my aunt, won’t let her come to the night skates alone. So she drags me with her, only to ditch me. If I don’t leave her alone, she calls me “mosquito bite”.
I have to give Grumpy credit, she does try, but she can’t help looking like a freak. Her mom won’t allow her to have a job- it will take away from her schoolwork- and girl thinks “stealing was wrong.” So she has to beg and beg for jeans straight from the clearance rack that are just wrong, straight funky, not enough zippers, or too much neon paisley and plaid. She carries a Liz Claiborne, like the rest of us, but it too is from the clearance rack and was green instead of tan. Making things worse, Grumpy stuffs her pick in her purse instead of her back pocket because she is scared it will make her butt look funny. That pick along with her can of Aqua Net, gum, and a brush with a handle covered in scrunchies, pokes its sorry yellow head from a sorry small hole, like it is gasping for air or something.
Her pick, her purse, her jeans and her ass are all sorry. Grumpy is sorry. But in that line with the Shorties, she is different. She is cool. They make her cool.
Every Friday and Saturday night the Seven Shorties ruled the rink. They never skated unless it was a good song. When the bass started bumping, they did their thing, rocking the floor in line with the Shortie in front of them. Get in their way and they were Rocka-bye baby. BOMPA BOMP BOMP. Just skate to the side, give props and stare. They looked good and they knew it. The Seven Shorties rockin’ that bass, aqua-net and ass.
Except for Grumpy, they were all of their names: Doc was going to be a senior and knew things so she was Doc. Happy was the state freestyle champion who could get mad height on her jumps and was pure genius with a curling iron and a can of hairspray, and was well, Happy with the loudest lamest laugh you ever heard. Bashful you never heard, but we learned everything we needed to know about makeup from Bashful. Sleepy was hecka chill and never got up before noon. We all know what Dopey was, and why, but she had a thing going with the floor-guard, Miguel, so it was cool (even though he was a 19 year old army guy, with a wife and kid back in Brooklyn). Sneezy had asthma real bad but she had been skating since she was old enough to walk and wore 32DD bra-size. Dudes never cared about her wheezing.
Each of them rocked black satin jackets with a white skate and their names stitched in red on the back: Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sleepy, Dopey, Sneezy, and Grumpy. The Seven Shorties.
Really, they all of could be called Dopey, except for Happy- she thought it was ‘gross’- and, of course, Grumpy. Grumpy never fooled with it, wouldn’t even try and left when we smoked in the parking lot because she feared getting contact high. Never mind that we were outdoors. Shit, Grumpy left even when we snuck wine coolers in the bathroom. She claimed she couldn’t even have a just a sip because of an accident she had on her ten speed in middle school.
“I had a head injury and the doctors told me that if I ever drink I could end up in fetal rat position like this,” she would say, curling up her hands under her chin like they were little paws.
On the Friday night skate of Labor Day Weekend, the floor is shining with fresh wax but the rink is silent, stinking of new carpet, and so empty it is hollow. Everything smells like new carpet instead of old skates. Everything is too shiny, too clean.
“This is bunk,” Dopey says.
“What about Miguel?” Grumpy asks.
“What about him? “ Dopey shrugs. “It’s not as if he is the only reason I come here.”
The skating rink had shut down for the entire month of August to remodel, dumping us all with nowhere to go. Grumpy spent most of the summer at home anyway, recovering from a bad sunburn. She looked like that dude from the movie “The Fly”. Her shit was red, puffy and flaking. She had been using a zit cream and didn’t believe the label when it said, “no sun exposure.”
Lame. Gave new meaning to the word.
The rest of the Shorties were almost as lost. Dopey disappeared, no one knew where until later, when it all went down. Doc worked more hours at her job. Sleepy started waking up early and got into soap operas, until Sneezy got her driver’s license and they started cruising. According to Sleepy, Bashful spent most of the time on the phone with some ridiculously fine army guy, talking about what she didn’t know because girl never talked.
Grumpy doesn’t hang around to listen about Dopey’s latest beef with Miguel and races to put on her skates.
Her skin is still red and flaking. All night she has been complaining that her braces are too tight.
“I FEEL THE NEED FOR SPEED!” she screams.
I am the only one to follow her.
“What the fuck?” Sneezy says. “Does she think she’s in Top Gun or something?”
“Hurry up!” Grumpy shouts. “Put on your skates! The floor is so smooth its like skating on butter!”
“What a spaz,” Doc says.
“A total spaz,” I say, as Grumpy skates around the floor alone, rockin’ out without any music.
I follow Grumpy onto the floor, laughing to myself how she doesn’t even seem to notice the way things have changed. The rink has finally fixed the marquise so it no longer said, “Del Monte Gard s.” The floor is still a giant wood rectangle, but it is polished, too polished. To the right of the entrance is still the the trophy window and photos of skaters, the skate shop, the rental skate booth, the lockers, the bathrooms. Alongside the photos of skaters, are still the autographed pictures of Laverne and Shirley and The Fonz, all on skates, and the sign, “Skating is Fun,” with a Coppertone blonde in a blue skating dress. But the carpet is too new, too fluffy.
Grumpy continues to speed around the freshly waxed floor, shouting at the rest of the Shorties to join her. The dj must have been feeling Grumpy’s elation, because all of a sudden L’Trimm’s “Cars that Go Boom” starts blasting. Grumpy claps, squeals a cheer, and, I’m sad to say, jumps a little hop. So, I clap, squeal a cheer, and jump. Grumpy just ignores me and starts to Cabbage Patch, her fists jiggling with the beat. So, I begin to Cabbage Patch.
“Get lost mosquito bite!” she screams over her shoulder. “It’s the Seven Shorties, not eight!”
“You guys, get out here!” she shouts. “The floor is like butter! Mosquito bite- scram!”
She skates off the floor screaming, her hair flying, her hands waving, “Come on you guys!”
“We like the cars, the cars that go BOOM!” she sings.
I trail behind her and then stop. Normally, we roll off the floor onto the carpet no problem, never had to slow down because the carpet was so old. But the new carpet is fat, I mean, fat, F-A-T. Just as Grumpy says “BOOM” her wheels hit the carpet and she straight launches horizontally into the air three feet, her arms out like Superman. Her bangs are like a tidal wave of hair sprayed into a horn charging towards the rest of the Shorites, and then BOO-YAH.
Absolutely fucking beautiful.
Grumpy lays spread-eagled, face down on the red and blue swirls of the carpet. The music stops playing.
“Is she alive?” Sleepy asks.
The Shorties all roll over to her. I want to laugh but my cousin appears lifeless so all I can do is wait in anticipation with my fingers in my mouth.
None of us can move.
“It’s like skating on butter”, Grumpy whimpers, her face still down in the carpet.
We can’t move. We can’t speak. We can’t get the image of Grumpy flying out of our heads.
Grumpy never notices anything. Just like she doesn’t notice how all of the Shorties are upset. How and why Sneezy’s Uncle is not around tonight.
Sometimes Sneezy’s Uncle works as a rental skate guy, though he is not in the army. He says he likes us because we made him feel young. He is twenty-nine going on thirty. Turning thirty makes him feel old he says. Doc is seventeen. Sneezy, Happy, Bashful, and Sleepy are sixteen. Dopey and Grumpy are fifteen. I am thirteen.
He is old, we say.
We loved the attention he gave us. We thought he loved us. He knew Siouxsie Sioux back in the day, and even showed us the record she had signed for him. He always said Happy was so beautiful, and gave her a little teddy bear on Valentine’s Day when the guy she had been hanging out with dumped her. He said Grumpy would be pretty if she lost weight.
Grumpy’s mother refused to let her go to the beach when he took everyone, even though my mother let me go. His brother and sister-in-law, Sneezy’s dad and step-mom, had their wedding at the rink. My mom said he was safe, after all we knew his family, and Sneezy was our age. My aunt said he reminded her far too much of the Pied Piper.
That August, when the rink was closed, Dopey started hanging out at his apartment. At first we didn’t understand. But then we found out she was pregnant, and her mom had kicked her out of the house. Sneezy’s Uncle said it was cool to stay with him. He said we could all hang out. His apartment became party central. None of us knew that he and Dopey had also been doing speed. What did it matter? We all drank and smoked at the rink anyway. He was the one who always bought us wine coolers and kicked us down weed. What difference did it make that we were at his apartment? He was pretty much family. It was cool.
Except one night, at his apartment, Happy got too drunk and she semi-blacked out. He put her into his bed, and later, we found out, he had sex with her. She had been a virgin. She didn’t like him like that, she told us. She didn’t think of him that way. She had thought of him like a dorky uncle. She thought he was safe.
He always greeted us with long hugs. Whenever he hugged me I could feel the “T” shape of his torso under his shirt.
“You have a bangin‘ body,” I told him. “Too bad it’s attached to your head.”
Another night at his apartment he let me touch his cock through his pants. It was disappointingly small. We all felt sorry for Happy because it was her first time, and he was so pathetic. Afterwards he cried and tried to blame it on the drugs and the booze. We agreed to not tell anyone. Not our moms, not our other friends, and especially not Grumpy.
Grumpy is still laying face down on the carpet. We still can’t move. We still can’t speak. We still can’t stop seeing Grumpy soaring through the air.
“Did you see the height she got on that jump?” Happy finally says.
“Damn,” Dopey says.
“It’s like skating on butter,” Grumpy says again into the carpet.
“Can you move?” Happy asks.
“Like butter,” Grumpy says.
“Help her,” Happy says.
Doc and I each take one of her arms and pulled her up.
“What?” Happy asks. “Are you in pain? Did you break something?”
“My jeans!” she cries.
Her black jeans, one of the few pairs she has in a normal color, are split in two at the zipper.
We can not stop laughing.
“Just wear your shirt tucked out,” Happy says. “No-one will notice.”
“I’m leaving in ten if no-one shows,” Dopey says in between laughs.
The Shorties all skate out onto the floor. The rink is empty, silent. The dj has left his booth. They get in line anyway.
I trail behind them, flipping up Grumpy’s shirt whenever I have the chance, trying to make everyone laugh, but I can’t see anyone’s face. I am in the back of the line. Grumpy keeps slapping my hand away. Dopey has her hands in her sleeves, Happy’s shoulders are stiff, Bashful is playing with her hair, Sleepy keeps skating off to the left, and Sneezy keeps skating off to the right. Only Doc, in the front, holds her head up, nodding ever so slightly. The joke is not funny anymore.
The dj gets back into his booth, starts playing “Cindy” by the Armani Crew.
“This girl,” the Armani Crew sings. “She pulled up her skirt and said slap me ‘til it hurts.”
It is a good song with a good beat, so we begin to dance.
photo by mahfrot
by Philip Kobylarz
“You’ve got to breathe,” I told her. “You’ve really got to breathe, afterwards. I don’t care how good it is.”
“Oh, you don’t care?” she asked from behind the black veil of hair that concealed her face. I couldn’t see her mouth moving.
“You know what I mean.”
Marie had a tendency to give her all, to go all out. She was really wild when we were together. But afterwards, she would stop breathing and lie there as still as a sleeping body. I would have to nudge her or watch her back to see it rise and sink, to see if her lungs were tenuously pulling on a thread of air. She could be so still. Sometimes she wouldn’t say a word for a half an hour. Sometimes it scared me.
We were at the Blufftop Motel somewhere in the arid zone of southeastern Colorado. Our bodies and minds were drained as we both rested quietly while staring at the red glare of a digital clock. There must have been a recent storm that knocked the power out. It’s common knowledge around here that you wake to sunny skies, clouds roll in late afternoon, it rains fiercely, then clears up. The rain stops you for a minute from whatever you’re doing to watch the sun light up the dust in the air and extinguish behind cloudbanks that look like another distant range. It’s been so long since I’ve been West I had to spot the scud and smell the cold dirty rain to remember what it was like. Most days it worked like clockwork.
The transparent white curtains were split open and in between them we could see a creme-colored plateau, streaked in green stripes of some kind of vegetation, maybe sage or juniper. I doubt pine, at least not yet. We hadn’t come far enough to see a forest. This city seemed to be surrounded by tableland that was fissured into a million canyons like hidden mazes leading somewhere way beyond our gaze. And in them, the bones of dinosaurs sequestered. We would never find them though. Maybe no one would. Anyhow, we were just passing through.
We were going to the ocean. What we were really doing, who knows? Perhaps eloping. Maybe leaving our lives behind in a city where we had decent jobs and happy lives but not enough ways to get out. Maybe just taking a few days of vacation in the dying weeks of summer knowing we would return to our old selves safe and locked behind the deadbolt of an apartment’s door.
The day after, we rose early and crossed Utah and the wretched desert of Nevada. The sun shone blindingly the whole morning of driving and our car hummed over the pavement like a well-oiled fan. She drove for hours with her eyes fixed on the unending slit, sometimes jagged, line of the horizon, switching the radio dial around to find any kind of music. Anything. A lot of rockabilly, low-budget classical, and whiny, excitable men talking about the divine tricks of Jesus. How Our Lord walked much the very same landscape as these wastelands speaking of fecundity and the God in man. How he could make wine out of water and fish out of nothing but stones in baskets.
I was seeing the illusions of Palestine myself come to life in the vapors of heat above the highway. A sidewinder was really only a streak of orange desert sand brought to life by a gust of air. The mountains in the rearview weren’t moving and the Santa Fe train line underlining them wasn’t moving backwards. The wooden sign marking the playa couldn’t have said “next exit 150 miles.”
There were tens of different brands of gas stations and hastily erected warehouses. Sometimes a Calder of a refinery lit up with circus lights. I thought of ranch houses on the moon. Cattle trails were ground into the land like directions cut for the single engine airplanes flying above us. The few cactuses were in bloom with feathered hats of yellow and orange-like red.
“Pull over!” Marie yelled, waking me from my road dream. A rooster tail of dust enveloped the car. She ran out, leaving the door open, onto the scrub and piñon of wilderness. Flinging her leather purse along, at full-sprint, into the dying light of the desert, where the only cover was bush and rock streams of arroyos. Her glasses were sitting on the dashboard, fingerprints about the edges of the lenses.
Fourteen minutes passed before she was back. Her hair in switches and her cheeks blushed by the wind.
“What’d you do?”
“I had to pee. It’s really beautiful out there. Everything’s alive. Even the dirt. I think I saw a scorpion. There was something out there. I mean I saw something moving on the ground.”
We guessed we were still in Nevada. Tumbleweeds and gray stone hills in rows like monuments to nothing. The gas stations petered out on the highway where only fence poles marked the highway’s direction and served as civilization’s minimalism. A mantle of cool air was descending. A naked hand on the windshield left a stain of condensation. I began, I believe, seeing cradles of fog here and there, ghosts of clouds for seconds under the brights. Seeing is believing.
Marie drove for the rest of the night. One arm on the door, the other changing the dial or adjusting the mirrors. I wondered: to see what? She found a station that was on the frequency of short wave, emitting only beeps of sound, static and eerie feedback “There,” she said “that’s it.”
When I woke, we had come all the way to Sacramento. The plains rolled at the same speed as us and buckled into a crease of hills behind. After them, the ocean. Further west, Asia. She pointed to a jack-knifed trailer. Four cars had piled up behind it. There was an ambulance and the few cars of traffic were slowed down at the scene. A man lying on a stretcher, tied to it, with a reflection of red in his eyes similar to that of a wolf’s I thought I saw once as a boy in the north woods. Two men were carrying him to the open doors. He could have been seeing angel wings. The Greek becoming visible in the blue writing on white background: PARAMEDIC.
We had miles to go before we would reach the Grapevine, then the unending patchwork of Los Angeles, if the city could be seen under the blanket of early morning fog to be replaced by the opaque grey of afternoon pollution. We had arranged a place to stay somewhere along the coastal highway. It was an abandoned shack on the beach that was formerly used as a summer house by Marie’s sister who worked from time to time as a writer for television. She was now in between jobs and wanted the consolation of company. We would stay there and visit her in her new place in the hills. She warned us that we might become enchanted by the larger than life billboards on the road to her house and would never want to leave the glorified brand of reality that Southern California breeds. She referred to the region as “So Cal.”
“You wanna drive now?” Marie yawned.
The suburbs began and never did they cease. There was so much visual stimuli that I could barely keep my eyes on the road. Road sign. Call box. Weeping willow. Little Saigon. Traffic light. Palm trees ruffling their feathers in the breeze. We had made it to the end of a continent. The odometer changed over. Warm air filtered through vents and smelled of pavement and ocean sand.
A sidewalk extended into the sea. On the concrete platform, the iron railing had rusted to a deep maroon. Blotches of deep blue paint remained like thumbprints of limpets. Wooden benches with mainly seagulls aligned on them. It smelled of the cheap seafood restaurants burdening the pier. The word crab in Chinese and an airbrushed watercolor of the bright orange spider on a poster fluttering on a false kiosk. Marie got out of the car. The ocean was just across its empty parking lot.
The Santa Monicas leaned into the water, green in the distance, a mist beginning around their base and the lip of the ocean. The arcade was lit up. There were the musical chords of a carnival.
The first thing Marie said was “Oh shit.”
“Look, it’s not that bad. There’s seagulls, a mist coming in, look at that, down there, those models. It looks like there doing a fashion shoot!”
There were women dressed to kill behind lights and some men in leather. One had a camera. Another was telling the women where to stand.
“My pants. They’re ruined.”
I looked over the top of the car. Marie had a dark halo around her lap. What she called her monthly curse had followed her. I remembered the cactuses in bloom.
“So what,” I said. “Put a long shirt on. We’re here.”
We walked along the pier breathing it all in. At a tall, wooden building that had the word “Sinbad’s” painted on it, we stopped. It was abandoned but once must have been an arcade or a bar. Its gabled roof with warped planks peeling apart from one another seemed really western even if it wasn’t. Truth was the only thing that wasn’t a commodity in this town, maybe even this era.
The continent lay behind us. If there is such a place, or feeling, or state of something called happiness, we had found its momentary location. But like a hungry seagull, it took off on the next ocean breeze.
Marie, with her eyes scanning the distance and the ends of her hair feeling for the salt in the air, said, “Well, we made it. We really made it.”
“Where’s that?” I asked.
“From there to here,” she whispered. We breathed in the iodine of coastal air.
Philip Koblarz’s most recent works appear or will appear in Connecticut Review, Basalt, Santa Fe Literary Review, New American Writing, Poetry Salzburg Review and has appeared in Best American Poetry. His book, Rues, was recently published by Blue Light Press of San Francisco. His collection of fiction, Now Leaving Nowheresville and his book length essay Nearest Istanbul are forthcoming.
photo by WouterKiel
by Nick D’Annuzio Jones
Pre-crack, circa freebase, back when Richard Pryor a la flambe was the news, a professor asked me, told me, to be honest, to leave Boulder–the university, not the town, the big university, not the Buddhist joint where Corso and Ginsburg chilled nude and hairy in round redwood hot tubs rented by the hour, a past-time very much in vogue apres-sixties, pre-Reagan. I guess lack of attendance, low grades, late papers, a lackadaisical attitude and lots cocaine, lots of cocaine, continents of cocaine–along with the aforementioned hot tubs, long hours zoned out in early-model sensory deprivation tanks and a soft wet parade of young women, including a six-foot-three volleyball player whose name I forget; a 16-year-old cute-as-a-peyote-button sales girl who often wore her Kmart blue smock (and sometimes nothing underneath) in public and whose name I also forget; an undergraduate from Canada (how exotic, how hip, how Margaret Trudeau, that seemed then) named Heather who liked to sit on my roof in Wonderland (a townhouse development in the foothills), get high and watch the hang gliders; a ski bunny from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, also named Heather, who was miffed when I warned her that I probably gave her the clap because of a dalliance a couple weeks earlier in Barton Springs, in Austin, Texas (I was being responsible, no?)–all played a role in my expulsion after one semester; the executioner-professor, a former scribe from ciudad de los fallen angels, an authority on the Black Spring, the Prague thing not Henry Miller, strongly, compassionately, perhaps, suggested that I find another career path, as writing, at least the kind that required consistent adherence to facts and religious faith in professional ethical codes, didn’t seem to be my métier. Yet another professor, one who had slammed her condo door in my face when I visited her one night to deliver a tardy plea for an extension, seconded the motion–tiempo grande. She was particularly disturbed by my final paper in which I wrote about taking part in a line up at the local police station. Hey, a little first-person, Plimptonesque participatory journalism, no? Granted there was a long prologue-preamble, perhaps not quite appropriate, about perambulating around a porn shop across the street. But, otherwise, the paper was well within the research parameters for a course on Journalism and Public Affairs, I thought. Anyway, I took the plague professor’s advice, left and switched gears for awhile; I spent the next semester slicing warm plastic off the lips of Hanson ski boots, while dating a skinny chick with a chipped front tooth who dug dirt bikers but settled for me. I still did some stringing for the local rags that paid by the inch. Funny, no one thought that paying by “the inch” sounded funny back then. Incidentally, I usually received a less-than-studly buck an inch; in later years, before the end of high-paying print media, I would get about $2 a word or maybe $100 to $200 an inch, I guess, depending on the font and kerning. Coincidentally, if I deigned to do such work today, a buck an inch might be reasonable again. Or, more likely, I’d just get a slug for my slug and a nostalgic laugh. As they say, we’re all poets now.
 Every writer from my era (and the preceding one, in particular) has a Plimpton story. Here’s mine: The only time I ever met George was in 1997, when I was attending the Adult Video Convention in Las Vegas. Plimpton, well-aged and taller than I expected bounded into the ballroom, smiling, happy, eager for something. I introduced myself. “Well, don’t write that I’m here, he said, in his familiar nasally patrician voice, the tone a half-octave higher and somewhat to the left of William F. Buckley’s. He then mumbled something, chased with a charming laugh, about doing a piece for Harper’s. I understood. Often on these sex stories, one spends hours, days observing, sometimes taking part (“Calling Mr. Gay Talese! Calling Mr. Gay Talese!”), but never puts the experience down on paper. Hell, it’s all research, right? I didn’t have that problem that week; I banged out 1,500 words and my expense account in a day. The Living section, however, killed my “Lunch with Ron Jeremy” piece – a crustacean hack named Marty Arnold went apoplectic over the art, I heard. Plimpton’s piece? I never saw it. I don’t even know if he wrote it. I do, however, keep waiting for an adult video featuring George to appear on a celebrity porn web sites one day.
Nick D’Annunzio Jones, a nom de plume, is a poet and conceptual writer in Seattle and a former reporter for The New York Times. His poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals in the United States and abroad. He is at work on a memoir in prose poems, from which this piece is taken.
photo by istolethetv
by Fernando Meisenhalter
My German relatives are visiting us in Mexico City. They are my uncle, aunt, and a cousin my age who I’ve never met before. I don’t speak German, so I’m ignored during the hugs at the airport. I am also excluded from subsequent conversations. German has now become the official language in the car ride back home. I have become a foreigner in my own family.
My parents are so cheerful they don’t seem like my parents at all; they appear to be normal, good, happy people. It’s a family that looks like mine, but is not really mine.
I wonder how long this charade will last.
“Fernando, get the Löwenbräu,” my dad says once we get home.
“What Löwenbräu?” I say.
My father looks at my uncle as if to say: This kid isn’t the fastest ship in the fleet.
“The beer, get the beer,” my dad says. “The beer I told you to put in the fridge.”
“Oh,” I say. “I forgot to put it there.”
My father’s face changes instantly from happiness to pure rage.
“I TOLD YOU TO PUT THEM IN THE FRIDGE!” he says, clenching his teeth. “I ask you ONE THING, one thing ONLY, AND YOU CAN’T EVEN DO THAT!” Then he slaps me across the face.
The slap hurts, but worse is that the loud sound startles everyone, like the smack of a whip.
“Don’t just stand there!” my dad says. “GO GET IT!”
My dad turns to his brother and smiles again, nervously, trying to cheer everyone up, but the mood in the room has shifted.
My cheek burning, I hurry to get the beer.
The next day I take my cousin with me to school. He’s never been to Mexico before, so everything is new to him. He doesn’t understand Spanish and he’s very quiet in class. I wonder what he thinks about us Third-Worlders. Do we seem weird? Does he pity us? Do we disgust him? What little we manage to communicate is always in English because we both studied it at school.
My cousin comes alive in math class, where he helps me with algebra. But I cannot grasp the exercises, and after a while, in frustration, he gives up, refusing to provide me with any further assistance. I can tell we won’t get along.
During recess we play soccer and from the start he distinguishes himself as a superior as well as popular player. Everyone seems to be calling out his name.
“Hey,” one of my classmates says as he runs past me, “we like your cousin. He’s not like you.”
After the game, my cousin starts chatting up some of the popular girls, communicating via gestures and broken English. I later find out he got invited to a party.
“Why can’t you be more like your cousin?” my dad says. “Look at him: he’s been in Mexico just two days, and he’s already making friends. You’ve been here your entire life and you don’t have a single friend. How can anybody be so inept?”
He slaps me, but I don’t feel ashamed anymore. By now everyone knows I’m a battered kid, despised by my own parents. I don’t need to hide it.
Matters get worse. Later that week, some of my classmates invite my cousin on a trip to Acapulco.
“Look at your cousin.” My father says. “He’s enjoying life while you just mope around the house with that pathetic look on your face, watching TV all day. I just don’t get it.”
My cousin comes back from Acapulco with a tan and a bright smile. He learned to water-ski and snorkel. I have never done either of those things. I have never been to Acapulco. Everyone smiles at him, asks him questions, talks to him, ruffles his fine blond hair. My cousin has also learned a few Spanish phrases, which he repeats in a thick German accent.
“Oye, compadre,” he says while everyone laughs. “Quiero cerveza.”
I have to admit, he does sound funny.
“Soy muy macho,” he says, while everyone looks at him admiringly.
“I’m macho, too,” I say, trying to join in the fun. But I sound too eager, letting out a forced chuckle to support my own joke. I also imitate my cousin’s thick German accent, thinking that might be funny. But no one laughs. In fact, my dad gives me the dirtiest look he’s ever managed to cast upon me in his long career of hostility and contempt.
“That’s not funny, Fernando,” my father says. “You’re mocking his accent. You can’t speak a word of German, but you think it is okay to make fun when others try to learn Spanish. That’s disgusting. Go stand in the corner, and think about what you just did,” he commands.
“I was just trying to be funny,” I say.
But it’s no use. The corner is my destiny.
The instant I leave the room, the laughter resumes. I hear my cousin carry on with his halting Spanish phrases, “Oye, loco,” and then adding, with erroneous grammar, “quiero mucho cerveza.”
All the grownups giggle.
“Oh,” I hear my mom sigh. “He’s so wonderful. I wish he were my son.”
My relatives are leaving today. My parents drive them to the airport. There are goodbye hugs and kisses at the international terminal, my uncle and aunt holding those blue and yellow Lufthansa tickets in their hands. My cousin avoids hugging me, but as a departing gift he gives me a bar of chocolate. It is good German milk chocolate, my favorite kind. I take it with a faint smile.
“Danke,” I say using the only German word I know. My cousin walks back to his parents. It’s obvious they told him to give me the chocolate, that it wasn’t his idea. I can tell because he never looks back at me. Not once.
It’s a very quiet ride back home in my parents’ car.
A month later a letter arrives from Germany. My cousin committed suicide. He hanged himself from a swing in a playground in Hanover. His test scores were too low, the letter explains, and he didn’t get into a high school with a college track. He couldn’t handle the feeling of failure.
“He was such a good kid,” the letter concludes, “so noble.”
I look at my father nervously. Will he ask, why him, why not you? Is he going to explode now, unleash his Old Testament fury upon me? This could be the worst beating of my life.
But my dad only shakes his head from side to side in what appears to be sadness, and says: “Well, he wasn’t going to make it into college, so he saved his parents the disappointment. He was a good kid. It’s too bad things didn’t work out for him,” he says, wrapping up matters in an all-knowing tone.
“Oh,” my mom says, “he was such a wonderful kid, but he was weak; too fragile.”
They continue drinking their coffee and reading the paper.
This time I want to be beaten. But my dad just keeps sipping and reads on.
All of a sudden I realize I am lucky to be the family’s designated loser because no one expects anything from me. There is no pressure in my life, no expectation. I was born a disappointment, I could fail a million times, fail always, and it wouldn’t make any difference. I’m free.
I go to my room and pull out the chocolate bar my cousin gave me. It’s intact. For some strange reason, I haven’t been able to eat it.
There’s an empty feeling in my chest. I think of my cousin, the cousin I didn’t know well, didn’t even like, but whom I now somehow miss.
I tear the wrapper and break off a square of chocolate and put it in my mouth. It tastes divinely. Then I break off another square, and another, and another; and one by one, I eat them all.
Fernando Meisenhalter is of German ancestry and was raised in Mexico City and therefore grew up under great stress, but he still loves both sauerkraut and guacamole.
photo by LWI
by Asma Abdi
“Ali, garbage is future, Quit that goddamn oil refinery, Come to Tehran. Come to our garbage
business, The south isn’t your place.”
“I can’t decide now, Everything depends on the factory…”
“Listen, Oil will finish someday, but garbage is perpetual. Don’t be so foolish.”
“I…I really can’t decide, Mohammad, … You know …I like Tehran, but it`s the capital. The rents
“Come on, Tehran’s streets are paved with gold. People jump into dustbins and just like stray
cats they earn everything they want… , They earn cartons and plastics… they earn money.”
“I… I really can’t decide dude, You know… If I want to go to Tehran, I need a place to live…
and with these rents… ”
“For god`s sake Ali, Forget about the rents for a sec. This morning, I sold my cartons for
80,000 Tomans… Do you understand… 80,000 Tomans…”
“It`s good… but…”
“No buts dear, Just… just take a look at your face, what are those wrinkles around your eyes?
You are just 30. What are you doing in that damn wilderness, having no good food, no good
water, no good women, for what?”
“I… I really can’t decide now, I need to think.”
“Think, but don`t say no.”
Garbage…Garbage… Always garbage, I was sick of everything about This garbage business,
and Mohammad; my dear husband, was the head of this business. It was one of his impressive
abilities to relate everything to garbage. I wished I’d never suggested him talking to Ali. I knew
Ali, he hated garbage too.
Ali was one of our very few best friends who lived in one of southern cities. He was one of
those guys who choose, willingly or unwillingly, to go forward step by step; cautious in my
word… Coward in Mohammad’s, but now for the first time in our common life, whatever he was;
cautious or coward, wasn’t the matter of importance really. We agreed to choose Ali as a key for
all of our problems.
“Oh…Gentlemen, forget about garbage for a sec,” I broke in to change the subject. “First tea,
then business.” I said to Mohammad smiling in a way he knew I was angry.
“Oh, darling. We don’t have to gulp boiling tea. We don’t need a full bladder to take a
pregnancy test. Do we?” Mohammad said, grinning first at Ali, then at me.
I blushed. Why was he talking about the test in front of Ali? A stranger man?
I went to bathroom. Mohammad was still speaking.
I sat down on the toilet, looking at my pregnancy test. There were a lot of words on the whole
package in English. I looked for its Persian direction. There wasn’t any, only a small paper stuck
on the foreign words: “urinate directly onto the test stick for about five seconds.”
I`d drunk my tea so fast to fill my bladder up quickly. I really wanted to put an end to it. I was
vomiting for two days.
I didn’t know If I liked it positive or negative. I began to count 1,2,3,4,… the first day we’d
come in this apartment I`d counted the steps just like that 1, 2,3,4,… I never understood if I
liked our new apartment or not. It was too decent for a woman whose husband’s favorite subject
Five seconds was over. I put the lid of the test back quickly as if a baby, right in that very
moment, wanted to jump out of that piss-stained stuff suddenly. Everything about that probable
baby was to come to light by pee, Just in ten minutes. I burst into laugh.
I shacked my ass in the mirror, as always. It was one of the good things about our new
apartment. A big mirror in bathroom is a real bright side of life. I could see all of my body in it.
Why were we in that apartment? In that expensive neighborhood? That was’t our place for sure.
Ali was shocked when he saw the luxury and it was right. Shocked people scares me to death,
especially when they are right. We shouldn’t have left our previous neighborhood, but
Mohammad believed that we could live in every neighborhood we wanted, because it was
Mohammad’s only motto that the life expenses of a neighborhood is equal with the price of
garbage of that neighborhood.
I turned the running faucet off. I heard Mohammad again, He was still speaking.
“Don’t worry about rents man, we are friends, you can live with us Ali, In this apartment, we
have one extra room; we can pay the rent fifty-fifty, ok? I assure you, garbage of this
neighborhood is gold.”
Such an idiot, He was begging nearly. He was ruining all the plan. I couldn’t take it anymore,
I ran in the room. Mohammad was still speaking.
“Let`s go to the balcony, I want to water my flowers.” I cut in to stop him lecturing, smiling at
I had many roses on our balcony. I thought They might change Ali`s mind about living with
us. They were wild, beautiful and tempting. We should have shown him the apartment at first,
instead of talking.
“Look this one Ali, I planted it myself.” I smiled at Ali.
“Your flowers make me sad,” Ali said, looking at tall apartments all around us.
“Let’s stay awake tonight, The sunrise is wonderful in this balcony,” I said, smiling at Ali.
Ali was saying nothing. He was saying nothing more and more. If Ali didn`t accept to live
with us, we had to give the apartment back. I wanted those wild roses destroyed, especially those
I had planted myself.
I was about to vomit again. I ran to the bathroom. Ali and Mohammad ran after me. In my
stomach, there was nothing but tea.
“Why is the package of your pregnancy test on the floor?” Mohammad shouted. “Its carton,
you know how much does it worth?” He put his precious carton into the trash can.
My eye’s caught the test. I’d forgotten about checking my results.
Positive or negative? I chose in the last moment. No differences… naturally.
There was no sign on it. Neither Positive nor negative. I pulled the package from the trash
can and checked the Persian direction again: Test should be read in ten minutes, because all of the signs will be cleared after that.
Asma Abdi is a writer and a journalist from Iran. Her work has appeared in 2 languages; Persian and English, in some Iranian and Non-Iranian magazines. She started writing in English two years ago and one of her works named “All about my mother’s razor” appeared in March, 2013 issue of “Barebacklit.” She has 2 BA in Persian literature and Law and an MA in human rights, All from the University of Tehran. These days she is working on a novel, “Forever Madam Bovary.”
photo by MarkWallace
by Christina Murphy
A clearly marked sign prohibited parking, standing, or loitering. I was not the one the sign was directed to but the person behind me who had a gold unicycle, a monocle, and a straw basket for his sandwich.
“Where are you going?” he said to me.
“To unmarked spaces.”
“I used to say that,” he said. “Now I sell used cars on the weekends—mostly mini-cars that no one wants to buy but everyone wants to drive. It is hard to earn a living nowadays.”
“I’m retired,” I said.
“Oh, then you can ride my unicycle as it is based on entropy, just like I am. It is an uncertain world, you know.”
“I’m rolling along on one wheel,” he said. “Two pedals but one wheel.”
“What do you make of that?” I said.
“It reminds me of money,” he said.
“Money is something I remember but not fondly,” I said. “Too much it comes, it goes, and not much shelf-life in between.”
“Money, food, one seat, two wheels, not much else matters,” he said. “Do you want to ride or not?”
“No, I have not been balanced in any way for years,” I said. “And I am color blind.”
“Then you will not know if this coin is gold or silver,” he said, handing me a small coin with the image of the Queen of Denmark.
“No. Does it matter if I know or not? Do you ride any better or worse for knowing?”
“No, I do not.”
I was staring at him as he rolls back and forth, forth and back, to keep his balance as he talked to me. “You could walk along beside me,” he said.
“No, that is a compromise,” I said.
“Yes, with gravitational forces,” he said.
“I will miss you,” he said. “I must move on. I am expected at the next corner where entropy is waiting to play trombone in the universal marching band. I wish you could join me and see that, but you are color blind. No rainbows for you.”
“No, none at all.”
“Have a pleasant day, and please do keep the coin. It is gold and reflects the sun perfectly. And if you hold it to your ear, you will hear a trombone playing ragtime.”
He rolled away, gained speed, turned the corner, and became another marked sign in the blurring heat of the mid-day sun.
Christina Murphy’s stories have appeared in a range of journals and anthologies, including A cappella Zoo, PANK, Word Riot, and Spilling Ink Review. Her fiction has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was the winner of the 2011 Andre Dubus Award for Short Fiction.
photo by mike baird
by Donal Mahoney
Opal Ruff, at the age of 83, had been sitting in the same corner of the red vinyl couch in the tiny lobby of the New Morse Hotel almost every day for the last three years. Her eldest son, Herman, a bachelor in his sixties, had brought her to the hotel shortly after her husband, Noah, had died of a heart attack on Christmas Day, 1969.
“I don’t want to go there,” Mrs. Ruff protested at the time, but Herman had responsibilities of his own and insisted that she pack up and move into the hotel.
The New Morse was more of a warehouse for the aged than a hotel. It was not the kind of place Mrs. Ruff would have selected for herself had she been able to get around without a walker. Old folks signed in and many of them never signed out. Funeral home attendants would carry them out. Relatives of the deceased would come by and carry out their belongings in brown paper bags.
It’s not that Mrs. Ruff thought she was too good for the New Morse Hotel. It took a couple of months but eventually she adjusted to her new environment. Now she lived with ash trays in the lobby rather than doilies in her living room.
The other residents, most of them elderly males, had gotten used to seeing her on the couch two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. She would sit in her corner of the couch saying the rosary in silence, lips moving, her hair in a tidy bun, her long dress down to her ankles. She could easily have passed for the mother or grandmother of the woman in the painting, “American Gothic.”
While Mrs. Ruff said her rosary, the male residents would take turns sitting in the uncomfortable easy chairs, reminiscing and trading tales about when they were young and randy and not limited to the lobby of the New Morse Hotel.
Considering the nature of the men’s conversation, it was fortunate Mrs. Ruff was deaf and never wore her hearing aids in the lobby. She had worn them in her first few months but now she left them in her tiny room so she could pray and not have to hear the men discuss their lives in pursuit of women. Mrs. Ruff had nothing against sex. In fact, she had presented Mr. Ruff with eight children, four boys and four girls. All of them lived in other states now, except for Herman, who was busy rearing six children of his own without the help of his wife who, for some reason Mrs. Ruff didn’t understand, had committed suicide.
“Noah and I had a good marriage,” Mrs. Ruff would occasionally say if someone inquired politely about her life before moving into the New Morse Hotel. “He was very healthy for his age and no one expected him to have a heart attack. But he hit the floor with a thump and never moved. I knew he was gone when he wet himself and it soaked the living room rug.”
Poverty was the one thing most of the men who lived in the hotel had in common. But there were also a few retired gentlemen who had small pensions as well as Social Security checks they could count on. They chose to live in the New Morse because they appreciated the Ashkenaz Restaurant, which was located on the floor beneath the hotel and was known throughout Chicago for its Jewish cuisine. Most of the dishes were favorites of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews who lived in the neighborhood, some of them survivors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald as tattooed numbers on their forearms would always attest.
Harris Cohen didn’t have a tattoo. He had been born eight decades ago in America. He liked the matzoh ball soup and the knishes and kishke that he could order at Ashkenaz. Every month, on the day he received his retirement check, he would celebrate with a pastrami sandwich on rye, loaded with mustard.
“I have never eaten better pastrami,” Harris would often say, “not even in New York.”
He had eaten these specialties all his life and that is why, after retiring from the railroad where he had worked 40 years as a conductor, he chose the New Morse Hotel as his residence. Every morning, unlike most of the other men, he would shave, put on his short-sleeved white shirt, a nice tie, and the navy blue pants he saved from his days on the Century Limited, where he had patrolled the aisles making certain the needs of the passengers were met in a timely fashion. He usually worked the trips from Chicago to New York and back again, which took 16 hours each way and involved sleeping berths for some and at least two meals per trip for everyone on the train. Passengers expected good service for their money and Harris provided it, not because of the occasional tip he would receive but because he liked to do a good job.
“No one ever had a complaint in one of my cars,” Harris would announce in the lobby at least once a week. And no one ever bothered to argue with him.
Harris Cohen treated Mrs. Ruff with great respect. Although he was unfamiliar with the rosary, he knew from his own religion, Judaism, that prayer beads, as he called them, were important. That is why he would never interrupt Mrs. Ruff while she was praying. But as soon as he saw her make the final Sign of the Cross, he would ask after her well-being. She would always assure him that she was fine and then inquire about him. Harris and Mrs. Ruff had mastered the art of pleasantries and each was very polite in dealing with the other.
In fact, Harris often sat at one end of the couch and Mrs. Ruff at the other. After he had paid his respects to Mrs. Ruff, he was free to read his newspaper and strike up conversations with the other men who took a seat in the lobby while waiting for the clerk of the day to materialize behind the desk and give them their mail. Sometimes they had to wait until the ancient switchboard lit up with a call. If no clerk was available, Ralph Doogan, the manager, would come roaring out of his office behind the board to find out what had interrupted his day. Often he had the remains of a gigantic ham sandwich in his hand. Every once in awhile, Doogan would offer Harris Cohen a bite of his ham sandwich and Cohen would always decline. He was not a religious man, but he had been bar mitzvahed as a young man and he did not want to give Doogan the satisfaction of getting him to eat something forbidden to the Jewish people.
“Doogan can keep his ham, ” Harris was known to say. “I like my pastrami.”
The hotel had only one maid, Rozelle Johnson, who took care of 16 rooms on the second floor and another 16 on the third floor. Her rounds took all day. A good Baptist, and a lovely woman in her early forties, Rozelle had long ago put the lechers in the lobby firmly in their place. They knew she was not available at any price.
“Leave that woman alone,” long-term residents would advise any new man who checked in, and they levied that warning with good reason. One of their own a few years back, big Bruno, had paid a great price for grabbing Rozelle’s buttocks as she wheeled her cart down the narrow hall. She hit him with her dustpan on the top of his bald head and then whacked him across the face, breaking his nose. There was blood everywhere. None of the men of the New Morse Hotel tried to get next to Rozelle after that.
As a result of this incident, Rozelle talked regularly with only two residents among those she encountered on her daily rounds. She spoke with Mrs. Ruff when she was in her room and had her hearing aids in place. She admired the spirituality of Mrs. Ruff even if she wasn’t a Baptist like Rozelle. She knew that Mrs. Ruff had accepted Jesus the way Catholics do and if that was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for her.
She also liked to talk with Harris Cohen, not because he tipped her a dollar a week but because the man was always clean and well-shaven and wore a tie. In the lobby, Harris had the good sense to modify his language when Rozelle was passing through. When she wasn’t there, however, he would advise the other men who sat down what it was like during the Depression. According to Harris, the going price for the company of a woman as fetching as Rozelle was $2.00, not a penny more.
“The ladies were happy to get the money,” Harris would say, “and I was happy to help out. Times were tough.”
Not knowing Harris and his attitude toward women, Rozelle always thought she might be able to fix him up with Mrs. Ruff despite their religious differences. She thought the two of them might be able to keep each other company. And if they eventually got married, the hotel did have a few apartment suites that Rozelle thought would suit them as a couple. Whenever one of these little suites, as the hotel called them, became available, Rozelle would amplify her praise of Harris while cleaning Mrs. Ruff’s room. For months, Mrs. Ruff listened politely and agreed that Harris seemed to be a gentleman. After all, she had never heard his tales of feminine conquests in the lobby because she sat there without her hearing aids, quietly saying her rosary.
One day, however, Rozelle’s lobbying in behalf of Harris got to be too much for Mrs. Ruff. After making the bed, her final duty in the room, Rozelle was preparing to leave when she decided to take a chance and tell Mrs. Ruff that she thought Harris might like to take her to lunch in the restaurant downstairs. Rozelle didn’t know that Harris Cohen, despite being the same age as Mrs. Ruff, had always liked younger women and had savored enough of them over the years, especially when times were tough. Mrs. Ruff, on the other hand, had loved her husband throughout her marriage and had no interest in any other man. But Rozelle had a point to make.
“Mrs. Ruff,” she said, “I wouldn’t suggest you having lunch with Harris if I didn’t think he was a gentleman. He might even ask you to marry him at some point.”
Tired of Rozelle’s efforts in behalf in Harris, Mrs. Ruff moved a little in her chair, put her rosary down, looked Rozelle in the eye, and said,
“And if I married him, what would I do–lift him on and lift him off?”
Rozelle never mentioned Harris Cohen to Mrs. Ruff again. Six months later, she found another job in a much better hotel.
Nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart prizes, Donal Mahoney has had work published in a variety of print and electronic publications in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Some of his work can be found here.
by Gloria Frym
She wasn’t his type at all. Heavy set, spiky hair, black lace-up boots with thick high soles, and dark purple lipstick that made her mouth overtake a plain, small face which didn’t seem to fit her frame.
“These are delicious,” she said, as they stood, unintroduced, at the buffet table, sampling fresh strawberry waffles their host had just stacked on a platter.
“Oh,” he said, “you’re using your hands. I was wondering how to negotiate a fork and knife like this.”
“They fall into the same Miss Manners category as fried chicken,” she said. “You don’t need silverware.”
He bit into the waffle, melted butter sliding into his beard.
“Mmmm….you’re right. But I’m making a mess.”
“No problem. Faces wash,” she said.
He barely cared. She was no one he planned to impress, and there was no one else to talk to at this brunch. A client he’d worked on for years had cajoled him into coming. Normally, he didn’t socialize with clients. Breach of professional ethics, he thought. In fact, he wasn’t socializing much with anyone for the last few months, having slipped into his annual commemorative depression just after his birthday.
Every year, something to count on.
For days he’d been anxious about the party, being around new people, sleepless and tormented by his inability, at age fifty-eight, to earn a decent living.
His body and his bodywork were simultaneously slipping out of middle age and perilously edging towards the poverty level. Fatigue from a bad heart–for which some friggin’ allopathic surgeon advised surgery, and thank you very much, herbs and diet would do– had recently caused him to cut back on massaging men whose large bodies and inevitably closed chakras forced him to work too hard. He was often so exhausted after a session he couldn’t walk around the block without panting.
And the large canvases he had painstakingly stretched three years ago sat blank against the dingy walls of his little house in the flats. Here he was in the hills–fabulous view of the bay from the deck, hot tub, blue tiled walls and an oak island in the middle of the kitchen, French doors flung open onto a flower garden with a fountain bubbling in the center–the California equivalent of some damn Moorish palace.
What was his life for if he couldn’t paint? And why had he dropped out so long ago to heal others if he couldn’t heal himself?
These thirty years of using his hands in the service of other people’s bodies, bodies that held such fears that their muscles froze. A life of essential oils, jumbo heating pads, hot lamps, catalogs filled with massage tables, blankets, energy juices, high potency vitamins yielded nothing more than a battered sedan parked next to an overgrown lawn and vegetable beds gone to seed. This year, he was too tired to even plant radishes.
“So what do you do?” she asked, helping herself to another waffle. Not one of those women afraid of carbohydrates, he thought. Her lipstick was smudged and fading, but he was too busy eating to notice the soft girlish expression now visible on her pale face.
“Body work. I’m a body worker,” he said with his mouth full. “I need to sit down. Really.”
She followed him into the living room, which was bare except for a large Persian rug and several folding chairs shoved up against the wall.
“What’s this?” she said. “Looks like they’re set up for a sock hop.”
“I need a table, something to lean on,” he said. He felt bewildered even holding a plate in his hands, as if he might drop it onto the expensive carpet and make a total fool of himself.
“Say, why don’t we just sit on the rug and have our own little picnic?” she said.
He consented, in spite of his back, which really needed a chair.
“Here,” she said, “I’ve got an extra napkin. You haven’t asked me what I do.”
“Why is it whenever you go to a party, the minute after you get a person’s name, it’s followed by a comma, and fill in the blank–what they do. Or what they are. I mean, it would be a lot better to just let it flow into the conversation.”
“We’re sort of past that age, don’t you think? I mean, don’t you want to know what a person does so you can assess whether you have any common ground?”
“I guess. But it seems like “networking” to me,” his fingers making quotes.
“Nothing wrong with that. It’s how the world works. You meet someone and you connect or you don’t connect. It’s nice to know where to begin.”
“I guess I’m more into vibes. Correction: intuition. Instincts, you know. So, what do you do?” he heard himself saying.
“I’m a consultant. For a high tech biomedical company. I tell them how to use their databases.”
“Sounds fascinating. You see, we have nothing in common. You might as well go back into the dining room and mingle among the other scrambled eggs.”
“But I love massages. I’m under a lot of stress and since I got back from India, I’ve really needed some body work.”
“Well, I don’t work that much,” he paused, not wanting to insult her. “I’ve had to cut back working on large people recently.”
“Would you like another waffle? I’m going to get more orange juice.”
He sat cross-legged in the middle of the empty room. Nothing on the walls but fresh paint. Where’s the couch? he wondered. A guy with this much money ought to have a couch. But maybe a new one was on order, maybe he’d had a couch and gotten rid of it, put it out on the street so that somebody like me could borrow a truck and take it home to live among the rest of the mismatched, flea market crap he’d collected all these years.
She returned with more waffles and stood towering in front of him like an Amazon in an R. Crumb comic. Now he noticed her all right, and stared at the ample breasts bulging out of her black Lycra top. She pulled a chair towards him and sat down on the floor across from him.
“Yeah, so as I was saying. What was I saying?”
“You were saying you were a corporate type under a lot of stress. You must have stock options and all the trimmings, huh? Condo somewhere south of Market?”
“How’d you guess?”
“It fits the profile. I read the newspapers sometimes.”
“Sure, I make a lot of money. I work hard for a few months and then take off traveling or backpacking. I’ve got a good life. I’m studying Sanskrit.”
“Planning on joining a cult?”
“Boy, you sure have a scissor tongue. I’m really not dangerous!”
He apologized and then shut up. He wished she would go away. He wanted to leave after he finished this waffle. She was certainly nice, probably more interesting than he was giving her credit for, but not his type. Too young, anyway. Probably listened to terrible music. Barely alive when Kennedy was assassinated. No idea of Vietnam. An idea of Vietnam was critical to any relationship he was going to strike up.
“Did you drop out in the 60s?” she suddenly asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I never dropped back in. I have nothing but contempt for multi-nationals like the one you work for.”
“I was in Seattle for the WTO protest.”
“What were you doing? Throwing rocks at the protesters?”
“No way! I was out there on the streets. See, we have some common ground.”
“I guess. But how can you work for a corporation?”
“There aren’t any other places to work. Anyway, there’s no Vietnam for us. Just perpetual war and we’re the soldiers and the civilians all rolled into one.”
He got up, exhausted by her perky analysis, envious of her energy.
“It was nice meeting you. I’ve got to go.”
“We just had a conversation about the most important issue facing the globe, and we don’t even know one another’s names.”
“Yeah, you see how faceless corporatism makes us.”
He drove home thinking about the woman whose name he didn’t bother to get. His thoughts were vague, but he kept seeing tits and platform boots and the inconsistency of a generation that could revile the very hand that fed it. She was probably a feminist too, with a good rap on S & M or the dignity of sex workers or Playboy bunnies or Hilary Clinton. He might be bummed out, but he didn’t hurt anyone and he tried to keep his principles. Oh he knew the world had changed. He just didn’t feel like changing to accommodate it. He didn’t even own a computer.
He was surprised when she called a few weeks later.
“Harris, this is Jen, Jennifer Oliver. We met at that brunch at Philip’s? Do you remember me?”
“Oh yeah, hi.” Figures she’d have a name like Jennifer, he thought. Her name didn’t even cross his mind. If he imagined she had a name it might be Natasha or god forbid, Tiffany.
“Listen, I’m really in pain, I mean, my neck is killing me. And my masseuse went off to Japan. I’d like to make an appointment to see you.”
He let the silence fill with street sounds coming from her end. Probably on a cell phone. She wouldn’t be the type to use a public phone.
“Can you hear me? I’m sorry, the connection isn’t too good. The battery in my cell is running low. We might be cut off.”
And they were. The dead, clickless nothing.
She phoned back.
“So I’m standing here with my butt practically grazed by traffic. Harris, I asked Philip for your name and number. I could come over to Berkeley tomorrow. Do you have any time?”
“You know,” he thought for a few seconds, the words just came out. “I guess I’d rather go for a walk with you than give you a massage. I just don’t want to mix the two.”
“I’d go for a walk with you! Really, you really want to go for a walk with me?”
“Sure. I generally don’t like to work both ends of the candle, you know. But if you’re really in pain, I’ll give you a massage as a present, as a friend.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t do that. I really couldn’t have a massage without paying for it. I mean, you’re a professional. It’s not fair.”
“Well, can you come over around 2?” Again, the words just tumbled out with no ostensible premeditation, surprising him.
He gave her directions and they hung up.
She drove them up to Tilden Park in her Miata, not commenting on his house, his car parked in a driveway overgrown by crabgrass. They parked at Inspiration Point and walked for an hour, not noticing the time. They reached the cattle guard where the pavement turns to dirt trail, and kept walking into the greeny hills. When dusk fell, they walked back in the gray mist, debated over Japanese or Thai food, went for the latter. They talked until the lights of the restaurant dimmed and the impatient waiter stood by the table with the bill on a tray. Harris excused himself to go to the bathroom; she paid the check with an American Express card. When he returned, he put a $20 bill on the table. She put it in her wallet.
“I still need that massage,” she said.
“Oh, I forgot.”
“Sure, but some other time. It’s late. Okay?”
“Okay. But no charge.”
“No, I couldn’t do that.”
He slept badly, his mind filled with voices, images of her pert, jelled hair, her dark jean jacket and clean Nikes mixed with his own baggy drawstring pants and scuffed hiking boots and stringy, gray curls. It had been a wonderful, early spring day, the air filled with the fragrance of cut alfalfa and pine needles. They talked about her love of India, her spiritual guru, a peasant cooperative she had visited near New Delhi where the women made quilts for foreign export and revived the failing economy of their village.
He hoped she never called again.
She called, and he was drawn into seeing her a few nights a week. In between, she would take off for days on small trips, and weeks on longer ones, always sending him funny postcards. They hadn’t even kissed yet, but their conversations were rich, and he laughed with her. He drove to her condo in the city a couple of times where they watched movies and drank martinis. She picked up some take-out sushi after work; he brought tofu burgers. They popped popcorn and had Milk Duds for dessert. He continued to limp along with his work, limiting his sessions to small women. His energy was flagging badly.
Something would have to be done about his heart, the doctor advised. He couldn’t just let it wear down. He really needed an operation. He really needed that valve replacement. Did he think he’d live forever? It was a tried and true procedure. Back to work in a couple of months. But he didn’t have a couple of months. Where would he get the income he was scratching out if he couldn’t work for two months? He had no savings. Couldn’t he borrow some money on his credit card? He had no credit card. The little house was all he had. You could take out a home equity loan, the doctor said, you could use it to live on.
“Now I want that massage, Harris,” she said one afternoon rubbing her neck. She sat on the Mexican blanket that covered his couch, picking off cat hairs. “It’s all locked up. You promised!”
He escorted her, as he would any client, into his massage room and instructed her to take off her clothes. She could keep her panties on if she wanted to. He’d be back in a few moments.
She slipped onto the table underneath the blanket and lay on her stomach with her face in the donut pillow, as he had told her to do. He knocked and entered.
“I’m going to use some aromatherapy. So first you’ll feel the oil.”
“Mmm…it smells great. What is it?”
“Essence of Joy. I order it specially.”
He carefully folded the blanket down to her waist, and rubbed the oil over her broad shoulders, along her spine, up her neck. Her body flattened seemed even larger on the table than it did when she was sitting, but now it was just a body in pain to him, not a body he judged by its girth. His hands went deep into her muscles, pressing on the pressure points and releasing. She moaned.
“I hope I’m not pressing too hard,” he said.
“Oh no, it’s perfect, it’s a good feeling.”
He worked silently, pulling each finger out with a pop, each hand, each arm. He asked her to turn over. Her breasts spread wide. He dimmed the lights so he wouldn’t see but feel. It was his business to feel the knots buried in her muscles. He was an expert at feeling a body’s pain. He could almost tell what was held in its tightness, though the specifics were irrelevant to him.
He applied an oversized heating pad to parts of her body to loosen her up. Then he kneaded the knotted spots, he pressed the flesh of her lower back, he moved to her gluteals. If he thought of her as Jennifer, they would be her ass, but he didn’t think of her with a name, only a body, a being with a body in spasm.
After an hour he slowed down. Her eyes closed, she could feel his fingers moving over her face. They pressed in on the center of her forehead, and pulled the skin towards her ears to release the tension between her eyes. He stopped and picked up a small bell and mallet and gonged the bell lightly three times.
“Whenever you’re ready, get dressed. No hurry. Relax and breathe. Get up slowly. Do you want some water? I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
They argued slightly about payment. He didn’t want money from her. He told her to leave, he had a client coming soon. She wrote out a check and slipped it under the phone, hugged him and said she’d call.
His appetite was bad. He could feel his anxiety deepening and perhaps it would never leave him. Perhaps she was the sort of woman who liked depressed men so she could boss them around. Why did she keep calling? Of course he knew. They had fun together. Or as much fun as he could muster. But they were so different. She liked money. She liked expensive things. She had stock in Microsoft!
“I’ve been laid off,” she announced right after he answered the phone. No greeting, just that.
“Jen? You? What do you mean? You’re not even an employee.”
“It’s all the same. The company’s going bust. Just like the dot coms.”
“But they hire you as a consultant, don’t they?”
“They’re dissolving. They’re caput. No need for consultants. They’re already in Chapter 13.”
“I’m sorry. I mean, I’m sorry for you. It’s your livelihood.”
“Yeah, I guess I’ll just have to sell my wares elsewhere. I’m okay, I’m not broke. Yet.”
“What about the mortgage?”
“Yeah, a little detail. But I’ll worry about it later. They owe me a good chunk and I think they’ll pay. I can unload the car, and I’ll be fine for a while. And you know, I think I’ll go to India for a month. I’d really like to see my guru again. Now is the right time.”
“A little spendthrift, don’t you think. I mean, shouldn’t you be economizing?”
“Easy come, easy go. But meantime, why not come over? Late dinner and video? Then the traffic won’t be bad. Or I’ll come to you. I’ll rent the video, you scrounge up food.”
He bought some organic pesto and fresh fettuccini. They fixed a salad together in his tiny kitchen, and sat down with a bottle of wine on the couch. He got up to put on some music.
“Opera okay with you? I mean, you’re not going to plug your ears if you have to listen to Joan Sutherland and Pavarotti, are you?”
“No, I don’t usually listen to opera. But I know they’re the tops.”
“Oh, this one, this is a rare recording of them doing Bellini’s I Puritani at the height of their powers. His voice, especially in the early 70s, no tenor can match. There is absolutely no one like him. You’ll see.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have any one else to compare him to. My personal repertoire is limited to Andrea Bocelli for a half hour on KQED.”
“He’s a fraud. He’s a blind, simpering gusher. He’s no good! Only old ladies like him. Bel Canto is not supposed to be sentimental, it’s supposed to be beautiful. It’s the poetry of music. It’s supposed to move you to tears.”
“He moved me to tears, but I don’t know why.”
“Well, just listen to this.”
They ate but did not weep. Somehow what was a private pleasure for Harris didn’t translate in another person’s presence. He noted this, kept it with their other differences on a list in his head. He didn’t feel like talking about it when the aria was over.
“Hey, I brought a movie,” she reached into her purse. “The Three Faces of Eve.” An old Joanne Woodward film. I just love her. She doesn’t look like she should be married to someone as handsome as Paul Newman, but there you have it. They’ve been together for ages. You wanna watch it?”
“I guess,” he said, feeling withdrawn and lonely in her presence.
In the movie, Joanne Woodward is young and thin and beautiful. She plays a soft- spoken, working class wife and mother who suddenly begins to have amnesiac spells where she goes out and buys expensive clothes. The clothes are delivered in boxes by the department stores. Her husband is shocked. When did you buy this? he interrogates her. We can’t afford it! She says she thinks he’d like looking at her in these lovely clothes. She suddenly terrorizes her daughter. But she never remembers slipping into this other persona. Her husband takes her to a psychiatrist, and he makes the diagnosis: multiple personalities. At first, the character Eve has only two personalities–one passive and meek, the other licentious and sassy. Her husband is an ignorant man. He leaves her because he thinks she’s faking it. Then as her therapy continues, a third personality emerges–a perfectly ordinary, balanced woman who finds a man who loves her. She confesses to him that she’s ill. He wants to marry her anyway.
Harris began to doze just before Eve’s third personality emerged. He wanted to turn off the VCR, and he wanted to go to bed. He hit the Pause button.
“You can just stick around and finish the movie, if you want. I’m beat.”
“Oh Harris, it’s just getting good. Don’t you want to see how it turns out? She’s even got names for her different alters.”
He kept watching, compelled, not by Jen, but the movie. I am a different person, he thought, when I am depressed. Here I am sitting next to a woman I’m not sleeping with. Why am I not sleeping with her? Even my voice seems different to me.
Harris felt himself becoming acutely uncomfortable. It wasn’t Jen’s presence or the fact that he would rather be listening to I Puritani. He watched as Eve’s third personality struggled to recall her childhood, a specific event that somehow triggered her illness. When she remembered it, she was cured. Simplistic Hollywood resolution of a serious pathology! He grabbed the wand and pressed the Off button.
“Harris, are you okay?”
“Am I okay? You’re the one who was laid off today. How can you be so cheerful all the time?”
“Harris, that’s like asking me, How can your eyes be blue? It’s easy for me to be cheerful. I am cheerful. I’m an optimist.”
“Well, I’m not. The world is shit.”
“Harris, you know what I think? I think you’re depressed. I’ve been watching you for three months. You don’t sleep, you barely eat, you’re the most negative person I’ve ever met.”
“So glad you noticed. Now you have an excuse to stop calling.”
“And you don’t want to sleep with me. I can understand that. I know I’m fat. But we’re crazy about one another, aren’t we?”
“Are we? Maybe I’m gay. . . .”
“You’re not gay, stop joking. You’re miserable. Have you ever tried to get help?”
“You think this is the first time I’ve been depressed! You can’t imagine. I’ve been struggling half my life.”
“What a waste. You could get help. There’s therapy. There are pharmaceuticals. ”
“That’s exactly what I don’t want to buy into. Pop a pill, forget about the world.”
“This is ridiculous. You haven’t even tried!”
“They take your sex drive away. Why would I want to take a drug that killed my sex drive?”
“Doesn’t seem to me you have any.”
“How would you know? What do you know? You really ought to go. Just leave. Okay?”
She took out the DVD and glared at him for the first time.
“Okay. I didn’t plan for that movie to make you feel bad. I didn’t even know exactly what it was about. Don’t think I set you up. But you know, I’ve blown your cover. You can’t deny it anymore. You can stop seeing me, but you’ll still be depressed.”
She slammed the front door; the living room shook with aftershock.
He always recovered from these spells. It was anxiety. Seventy percent, at least, he reasoned. Nerves. Nervous prostration. Nervous breakdown. He never broke down. He limped along, hiding. And only the body, bodywork healed him. Only through the body, through other people’s bodies could he lose his pain. But this time it wasn’t working. He was waking in the middle of the night breathless. And not going back to sleep.
Why was this time different? Why did the weight of it hold him in his heart? In his real and metaphorical heart. His weak heart murmuring along like a little old engine all worn out. Can I? I think I can’t, he chugged. I think I can’t. Therefore, I think I can’t. A charming tautology, he thought. If I thought I could, then I could. I might.
He dozed off dreaming that Jen looked liked his ex-wife, with a waist he could put his hands around, his fingers touching. Her young beauty deepening, without his noticing, into middle age. Her still active desire, his inability or his anxiety ridden prematureness. Her leaving him. Taking up with a young martial arts master.
They owned nothing in common but the house. She gave it to him, pitying him in the end. The worst emotion, he thought, the worst. To pity another human being who had been inside you for years.
For days after, he worked badly.
“Harris, hey, man. How you doing?” yelled a neighbor who practiced Tai Chi on his lawn every morning.
“I don’t know.”
“Not really. Been better. A bit, ah, down,” he retorted.
He got the name of a shrink from one of his clients who was always mixing and matching remedies. He paid enough to Kaiser, they ought to do something for him besides want to cut out his organs.
He took the pills and swallowed the talk. Too much talk. Too much childhood, all over again. A grown man going backwards when what he wanted was to move on.
He talked about his wife, and then Jen. Any fool could see what she’d done. He already knew. Had he thrown it away?
Not much happened. She let him alone, and after a couple of weeks, he missed her enough to call. They got together, they talked and laughed as much as before, and one night, she slept over. The big buildup turned out fine. Better than fine. She was all over him. And he was all over her. Her big body. All over his body, her hands touching him. His strong hands sliding along her ankles, moving upwards. She held him so tightly, he was afraid again.
She was going off to India, as planned. She’d see him in a month. Maybe he’d feel better by then. She wished he’d get email. But she’d write.
“–ris,” she said, calling him from the airport. The static on her cell cut off part of his name.
“Hi. Oh, I thought your plane took off already.”
“It’s –ayed. They’re –ust boarding. I –alled to –ay I –ove –ou.”
“What? I can’t hear you very well.”
“I called to say I love you,” she spit out fast. She adjusted the antenna.
“Those are fighting words.”
“Ok, so let’s have our first fight. It’s not real until you can fight.”
“You’re picking a great time, you want to get on a plane after a fight? That’s bad karma, I think. You’ll regret it at 35,000 feet above the Pacific.”
“Ok. I un-love you. Can you hear me? I un-love you.”
“So,” he paused. “So, see you. Be well.”
Some more of not much continued. Except that in the mornings, after a while, he started to wake up without dread. Without that particular screw-driving pain. Is happiness the absence of pain? That’s what one of his clients said.
His 11 o’clock arrived a little early. She rang the bell in the service porch, and he opened the door with the same grimace that was etched around his lips and mouth.
“You look different,” she said. “Different from when I was last here. I mean, like a totally new man. Did you cut your hair or something?”
“Me? Nah. I’m just the same. Of course our cells change completely every few years. But you, hey you look miserable. What’s going on with you? Lower back again? Come on in,” he escorted her to the massage room. “I’ll be right back.”
Gloria Frym is a poet and fiction writer. Her most recent book is Mind Over Matter (BlazeVOX books, 2011) and prior to that she published the chapbook Any Time Soon (Little Red Leaves, 2010). Other works by Frym include The Lost Poems of Sappho (Effing Press, 2007) and Solution Simulacra (United Artists Books, 2006). A previous book of poems, Homeless at Home, won an American Book Award. She is the author of several other volumes of poetry and two critically acclaimed short story collections: Distance No Object (City Lights Books) and How I Learned (Coffee House Press).
photo by Victor1558
by Jenn Virškus
It isn’t too crowded on the bus this morning. I grab a seat under the window in between an aging woman and a young girl. The woman is picking her nose, really digging in there, working that rubbery cartilage like a sculptor works clay. I turn to the girl.
She looks young, can’t have been more than seven or eight. She sits quietly hugging her backpack, her tiny, wire-framed glasses sliding down her nose, long, curly pony-tail hanging over her shoulder. She wears a plaid skirt and blue blazer. Catholic school. Nice.
“You ride this bus every day alone?” She nods her head. “You know not to talk to strangers, right?” Another nod. I take out a stick of gum, offer her one. “Piece of gum?” A head shake, no. Good girl. “This your bus to school?” A nod. “How old are you?”
Ha ha. “You like school?” Head nod again. Okay. Questions that require answers. “What’s your favorite subject?”
“You guys doing algebra yet?”
She rolls her eyes. “I’m in fourth grade.” Snot.
Hmm. Fourth grade. What do they study? “Multiplication tables then?” A nod. “How high can you go? Ten times ten?”
“Uh, yea. I’m not in kindergarten. I can do up to twenty-five times twenty-five. Now we’re doing decimals.”
Well excuse me. I don’t have kids. Do I look like a guy who has kids? I’m wearing a blue hoody, a backwards baseball cap (to hide my receding hairline), and a cigarette behind my ear. I smoked a fat joint for breakfast and am now drinking a large cup of cheap coffee at 7:45 in the morning on the bus. She gets off at the next stop. Doesn’t even say good-bye. Brat. Kids these days. No manners.
I wish my mom had a car. Then I wouldn’t have to ride the bus to school every day. People always want to talk to me, I don’t know why. My mom says never to talk to strangers on the bus, but sometimes you have to, or people get weird. Aggressive. That’s worse. I try to sit in the corner, but today I have to sit under the window, in the seats reserved for seniors and the elderly. There are two seats open, one next to an old lady picking her nose, the other next to a fat man. He looks like Santa Claus. I sit next to him. At the next stop, a man in a blue hoody sits down next to me. He has a goatee; his clothes are clean enough, but he smells funny anyway. I think it’s marijuana—my mom told me what it smelled like one time so I would know. Know to stay away. I try.
This man is a talker. I hug my backpack, and stare straight in front of me.
“You ride this bus every day?”
Here we go. I wish I had headphones, then I could ignore him, but my mom says I have to have all my senses to protect myself. So I glance his way and just nod my head.
“You know not to talk to strangers, right?” Yeah buddy I do. So why do you keep talking to me? He offers me a piece of gum. “Piece of gum?” Are you kidding me? I shake my head no. “This your bus to school?” Duh. Why do you think I’m dressed like this? Britney Spears video? “How old are you?”
Ugh. Okay fine. “I’m nine.”
“You like school?” Will he ever stop? “What’s your favorite subject in school?” Nope.
He looks stupid. I try to sound smart. “Math.”
“You guys doing algebra yet?” How does this guy even know what algebra is?
“I’m in fourth grade.” Obviously.
“Multiplication tables then?” Yea. “How high can you go? Ten times ten?” I guess he’s not getting the smart vibe.
“Uh, yeah. I’m not in kindergarten. I can do up to twenty-five times twenty-five. Now we’re doing decimals.” Jerk.
Before he can ask any more questions, we get to my stop. I get off the bus as fast as I can, and walk straight into school. I put my backpack in my cubby and take my place in the second row. I hope my mom gets a car soon.
Jenn Virškus is a multilingual adventurer, sailboat racer, ski instructor and freelance artist of Lithuanian descent. Visit her on the web.
photo by Alex Nowik