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Cousin

by Fernando Meisenhalter

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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

The Wild Roses of the Apartment

by Asma Abdi

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“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
are very…”
“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
was garbage.
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
Ali.
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

Entropy in Ragtime

by Christina Murphy

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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 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 nod.
“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

Looking Out for Mrs. Ruff

by Donal Mahoney

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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.

A New Man

by Gloria Frym

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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.”
“Sure.”
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.”
“You okay?”
“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

MUNI 19, Tuesday, 7:45am

by Jenn Virškus

Jenn_AlexNowik-pola

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?”
“I’m nine.”
Ha ha. “You like school?” Head nod again. Okay. Questions that require answers. “What’s your favorite subject?”
“Math.”
“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

Civilization and Its Malcontents

by Arthur Levine

civilization_psigrist-pola

Old Crick might still be with us were it not for my being such a dumb ass. Still, maybe he’s better off. Either there’s nothing, which would trouble me and a lot of other folks greatly to be the case, or else there’s something, which most folks including myself tend to accept as the gospel truth. Problem is, what’s that something going to be?

Old Crick could be down there shoveling coal into a hot furnace or up above wearing wings. Well it’s easy enough to see old Crick working a shovel, but it’s hard as all get out to picture wings on that cranky old sonofabitch, all liquored up with them raggedy overalls and that old corn pipe he’s forever chewing the stem of.

*

I knew it was a mistake from the get-go, but that’s Joey Fazenbaker for you. He brings it over in this metal box like something you might put your important papers in if you had any, all locked up, and he hands me the key. Then he plops on the couch and puts his feet up, stretching those long legs of his across Stell’s new coffee table, and lights him a Lucky Strike.

I shove the ashtray over in his general direction and tell him to get his damn boots off Stell’s table, which he does, misses the ashtray with his match, and says, “Lookit, Barb don’t want a goddamn gun in the house now we got us a baby to worry about. What am I gonna do? I don’t want to just sell it. It was give to me by Pop and I’d like to keep it, if for nothing else to pass it on to my own son now that I got one. All’s I’m asking is keep it for me for a bit. Give me time to work something out.”

His breath smells like he just ate a dogshit sandwich for breakfast and I wish he’d hit the ashtray just once. He’s like that. Only pays attention to his own concerns. Nobody else’s matter.

“Can’t you just lock it up?” I say, “Take the bullets out and just lock it up?”

“I’m telling you how she is she won’t have it! She told me straight out, either the gun goes or you AND the gun goes! She don’t kid around, Barb don’t.”

The last thing me and Stell need is another firearm in the house. We got rid of my 870 on account of how the buckshot demolished the paneling in the rec room during one of our lover’s quarrels.

Course we always come back around Stell and me, kiss and make up. That’s just how we are. Like most folks, carrying on one minute, all lovey-dovey the next.

Well finally I says to Joey, “Okay. For now, just put the damn thing in the shed and cover it with that old tarp I got over the half pint of Comfort I keep for emergencies. Stell and me will discuss about it this evening, when she gets home from the Legion. But no promises! And for Christ’s sake empty out the bullets! And lock the damn thing up and hold on to the damn key! And don’t be forgetting to lock the shed when you’re done!”

I should have went with him.

*

My ass hurts from sitting on them steps leading to the gallery of Miller’s Store. Behind me old Crick has planted his own self on a wood crate to the right of the front door, gumming the stem of that corncob pipe of his.

The rest of the usuals clutter up the steps and the gallery whittling sticks or just taking up space. Donny Blue Crow is sipping his shine out of a jar and humming whatever it is he hums. Cagey Bill is tapping his foot and drumming his fingers and jerking his head back and forth every so often. Something’s not right with how he is, makes him carry on like that.

Dud Fazenbaker (no relation to Joey) pulls on the visor of his IH ball cap to shade his eyes and spits a brown stream across the steps just missing the high-top Chuck Taylors of Durum Brown, who’s struggling up the street on account of the bad wheel on that damn grocery cart of his, full of alunium cans.

Durum stops and scratches his stomach through a hole in that t-shirt he wears, the one with the rock band on the front, which don’t appear to have met with any clothes soap since the Surrender.

He points at Dud and yells, “You watchit! You best not be spittin’ on no African-Americans no more! Else I gone get the NCA and P after your ass!”

Dud pays him no mind and Durum Brown goes on up the street nearly run down by Sheriff Hodge, who swerves that old Ford of his toward Buster Hill’s fruit wagon.

Buster jerks the wagon out of harm’s way in time for the Sheriff to right the Ford again, but in the process tips the wagon and a goodly portion of Buster’s strawberries pour over into the dusty street.

“Sheriff looks to be in his sheets again,” Dud Fazenbaker says to nobody specific, and lets loose another brown stream, “Whatsit they says? Law is for the protection of the people? Protecting the people my ass!”

Old Crick shifts his position on the crate, says, “Hodge ain’t the problem. Civilization, that’s the problem.”

After another long swallow from his fruit jar, Donny Blue Crow looks up, says, “Ain’t that the truth.”

Joey Fazenbaker comes up street on his way to cut granite for tombstones at Keller and Sons. Keller passed on a long time ago and his sons sold the business to that nasty old skinflint Efrem Poor, but Poor kept the old name.

“Protecting the people my ass!” Dud says again, fingering a fresh chaw from the package of Red Man.

Old Crick ain’t listening, he just goes on mumbling to himself on how things is going to pot. After a bit he pockets his half pint, gets up with some effort, cracking his arthritic knees, and hobbles down the steps of the gallery up street in the direction of Skiddy’s Tavern. As it’s getting on noon, Skiddy will be lighting up the sign about now and making ready to open.

*

Stell and I was barred from Skiddy’s for a time, back when Donny Blue Crow’s granddaughter Lila and me started getting too friendly and Stell aims her half-filled long-necked Bud at me and misses and throws it clear through Skiddy’s front window.

Donny Blue Crow hisself don’t go into Skiddy’s on account of he prefers his shine to store bought, which he buys cheap off another redskin who I believe goes by the name of Lester Yellow Bird or Yellow something or other.

Lester must be a hundred years old and don’t come to town so much anymore. Used to he’d come in driving that rickety wagon filled with fruit jars full of shine, sell what he could, then you wouldn’t see him till the next batch. I bought some off of him once but it tasted so poorly I couldn’t get it down. Old Crick claimed it was on account of the snake poison them injuns add to it to give it more of a kick. Don’t bother some though, anyways not Sheriff Hodge. Seems he’s one of the old injun’s best customers.

Anyhow the story has it Lester’s mule finally dies on him and his son ain’t about to drive him up in that rusted Chevy station wagon he’s got, on account of he has ideas of being a preacher and is always tormenting the old man about making the Devil’s own brew. So now old Lester borrows a mule for his wagon when he can, which like I say, is none too often.

Them injuns is a sorry bunch. Most don’t work and live off us taxpaying citizens, welfare, food stamps, the whole bit. But they do like their firewater. Their women have a taste for it as well.

Like that squaw got me in a mess over at Skiddy’s. Cute young thing, but a little on the chunky side. To hear Cagey Bill tell it, she ain’t above given a white man a pretty good time for his money, neither. I’ve heard similar from Bug Eyes Humphrey, but that don’t hold much water, as when it comes to him relating about his carryings ons and such, Bug Eyes and the truth tend to be very distant relations.

*

Skiddy’s right name is Eustace Skidmore, but nobody’s called him that in years. Most folks can’t even recall his right name. Of late, Doc Grandy told him no more drinking on account of his liver, so these days Skiddy pretty much sticks to just beer.

He’s got the Papst sign in the window lit and is open for business by the time I catch up with old Crick and Dud Fazenbaker and Bug Eyes Humphrey and grab me a stool at the bar.

Skiddy lights himself a Camel, he don’t pay no mind in his place to all that “No Smoking” bullshit the County come up with. Hell, when Hodge or his deputy, Skinner, come around, they light up just the same as anybody else. When the County started in with all that I recall Skiddy went on for the whole day, saying “They got no business telling me what I can and can’t do in my own goddamn place!”

I also recall old Crick telling him, “It ain’t just the damn government! It’s the whole of civilization gone haywire!”

Skiddy puts his mop back in the corner of the bar, turns on the fan, drops a red quarter in the box, and makes his selections, the first of which is F7, Tom T. Hall. Folks here has their favorites and you get to know them numbers by heart after awhile.

He pours old Crick a shot of CC and reaches in the cooler for a PBR for Crick to wash it down. Not having the proper license, Skiddy only serves hard liquor to the regulars and then only when there’s no strangers around. Crick prefers his Beam but all’s Skiddy gets is the whiskey, so Crick makes do just to be sociable, saving the rest of his half pint for tomorrow’s breakfast.

If I’ve got one wish, I hope it rains at my funeral
For once, I’d like to be the only one dry

 

In no time the bar fills up with the rest of the regulars, paying their tabs out of pension money, welfare checks, paychecks from the Celanese, unemployment benefits (mostly from them got shitcanned over at CONRAC Industries), and a few here and there, with food stamps (fifty cents on the dollar), while some, known to be good for it, just run tabs till the next payday comes.

Skiddy flips a red quarter to Dud Fazenbaker for the box, and Dud presses some numbers, the first being J4, a George Jones.

…can’t hold out much longer
The way that I feel
With the blood from my body
I could start my own still…

Most of the bar talk still concerns Sheriff Hodge running down that little Shepherd girl.

“Won’t nothing come of it,” says Bug Eyes, in between swallows, “The old man spends more time upstate than he does with that woman of his. All them Shepherds is just a bunch of low-rent whites. What’s one less?”

“Low-rent or not, ain’t nobody g-going to m-mess with Hodge,” stutters Cagey Bill, “Ain’t like he’s g-going to arrest hisself!”

“You got that right!” adds Dud, “Protection of the people, my ass…”

“Just one more sign,” mumbles old Crick, “Hodge shoulda oughten to be part of that sorry crowd begging quarters in front of the monument, instead of wearing a badge, if it weren’t that civilization has gone to pot so…”

Crick tosses Dud a quarter and tells him play G9.

…Stop the world and let me off
I’m tired of goin’ ’round n’ ’round…

*

Stell comes through the door with a look on her face says now’s not the time to be talking nonsense about keeping no gun around and when I run Joey’s gun business by her, turns out I’m absolutely correct.

“You dumb ass! How can you even think of keeping another gun in the house after you damn near blew my head off that time in Jackson?”

I don’t say nothing on account of I’m pretty good about knowing when to keep my mouth shut when she gets like this. But she’s got it all wrong. Jackson’s not where it was at, it was later on when we were renting that place outside of Clarysville. I went after her with a pair of borrowed hedge clippers in Jackson, but only after she tried to smash my head in with that planter her mother gave us in the shape of a catfish.

And regarding Joey’s gun, I’m thinking it’s best to let on like I’m in agreement one hundred percent, which in a matter of speaking I am, and I figure to just leave it where it’s at, under the tarp in the shed, locked up with no bullets, how I told Joey to leave it. Can’t do nobody no harm locked up with no bullets.

Only like I say, I should have followed him out there.

*

The benches is all filled up, so me and Cagey Bill and Bug Eyes and some folks with which I’m only passing familiar, all stand in the back of the courtroom, doing our best to not block the doors. Sheriff Hodge is on the stand claiming flat out he didn’t have nothing to do with that Shepherd girl being run down, couldn’t have, on account of he’s nowhere near the school that day, but over in Memphis on police business, which he says he can’t let on about on account of the sensitive nature. Claims the two girls must have took his car for somebody else’s.

“Youngsters like them,” he says, “Is prone to getting it wrong when it comes to being eye witness to events such as this.” Looking over at the two girls, he says, “And I ain’t suggesting nothing here, but kids is also prone to fibbing on occasion, specially when it comes to what you call your athriaty figures.” Then he claims he’s doing everything he can to find the real culprit and bring him to justice as is his sworn duty.

While Hodge is going on about all this Judge McCain’s eyeing a fly about to land on the papers in front of him. Finally swats it and studies his hand and says, “I got no choice but to take the word of man sworn to uphold the law over that of a couple of schoolgirls.” And he raps his hammer on his desk and that’s that.

The whole time I notice the Judge never once sets his eyes on Lucie Shepherd, the girl’s mom. All the while I see her staring at the flag to the left of the Judge and when he says about Hodge upholding the law she just looks over at her son and from where I’m at all the way in the back of the room, plain as day I hear her say, “You can’t expect no different, when it comes to folks like us.”

McCain gives her a look like he’s about to say something, but instead climbs down from his perch and leaves by the back door he came in on.

Lucie’s son being only five, asks her could they stop in Christian’s for a penny candy. Then he asks since his Sis ain’t there on account of her going to heaven to be with Jesus, could he have hers too.

*

The Widow Mrs. Jake Stamp tromps her big old self up the steps to Miller’s Store, poking this one and that one with her cane to let her pass, and reaching the door, turns to us, says, “You men should ought to be ashamed! You’re a disgrace to the white race!”

Donny Blue Crow looks to say something, but thinks better of it and takes another long sip out of his jar.

Dud Fazenbaker tosses his empty long-neck Bud into the street, and says to nobody in particular, “They claim they put a motherfucker on the damn moon, how come the fuck they can’t get my damn checks to me when they’re posed to?”

“They got no right messing with out in space,” says old Crick, polishing the last of his half pint, “They’re out of line is what. Humans is meant for right where they is. They got no call to be messing with the planets like that.”

Donny Blue Crow looks to be speaking into his jar, says, “Old bitch calling me a white man. Ain’t no cocksucking white man…Chickasaw!” He lets out a whoop and yells, “Chickasaw!”

Dud spits a stream of Red Man, says, “Shut the fuck up Geronimo! You fucking lost! Remember? We white men kicked your fucking injun asses!”

Bug Eyes Humphrey leans forward and pats Dud’s shoulder, tells him, “He don’t remember nothing. Fucking redskin don’t remember to open his damn fly when he pisses!”

*

As usual, Old Crick and Dud Fazenbaker and me are the first paying customers of the day, while the juke box man, Harvey Waters is busy sorting out the red quarters and handing them to Skiddy for priming the box. He takes out a number on what looks like the Decca label, maybe Web Pierce or Brenda Lee, and puts in something on an odd label I don’t know of.

Skiddy sets Harvey a bottle of Old German on the counter and a glass. He’s one of the few prefers the glass to just drinking directly out of the bottle. Mostly it’s the ladies who want glasses.

Skiddy asks him, “You hear about Hodge running down that Shepherd kid?”

“Yeah. I heard something about that,” says Waters, “Heard he got off for it. No surprise there.”

Old Crick mumbles something I can’t make out.

“What’d you expect?” Skiddy says, “They had two kids saw the whole thing. Didn’t mean squat. Hodge says he didn’t do it, old sonofabitch McCain lets him off scot free.”

Crick clanks his empty shot glass down, says, “What the hell a white man’s got to do to get served round here?”

Skiddy pours him another shot and lifts and shakes Crick’s PBR to see is he ready for another.

“Like I say, no surprise,” Waters says.

“Law is posed to be for the protection of the people,” Dud says, gulping down the last of his Bud, “Yeah, right.”

“They took up a collection at the First Baptist last Sunday for a stone. That Shepherd woman don’t have a pot to piss in. All them kids hanging on her. No old man helping out,” Skiddy says.

“Don’t seem like there is any law no more,” Waters says, “The foxes is in the barn and the door’s already closed.”

Crick polishes his shot and takes a swig of the PBR. “Every man for himself,” he says, sliding off his school, and stumbling toward the head on those arthritic knees of his.

Dud says, “Last I hear they still had her old man up at Lansdown. Armed robbery, wasn’t it?”

“Who can keep track?” Skiddy says, “Yeah, this time I believe it was armed robbery.”

“How folks like that get by is beyond me,” Waters adds.

He puts down the empty, tugs the frayed bill on his Massey-Ferguson ball cap, and shakes another Camel out of the pack.

Skiddy grabs an Old German out of the cooler and replaces Water’s empty, then remembers he forgot to turn on the Pabst sign.

“I best be finishing my route,” Waters says. He takes one final long gulp to polish the second bottle, “Whatsit they say? Time and trouble don’t wait on nobody.”

*

I’m out front of Miller’s leaning under the hood with a flat-edged Stanley on the solenoid to get the Valiant started, when I see Old Crick and Bug Eyes Humphrey stumbling out of Skiddy’s. They both seem so shitfaced I can’t tell who’s holding on to who.

Old Crick and Bug Eyes come up on either side of me and Bug Eyes says, “Need a jump?”

“Nope. It should start okay now,” I tell him, bringing down the hood.

“That there jalopy will outlive you,” says Old Crick, “Them Jap shitboxes ain’t got nothing on them slant sixes. Crap they make these days can’t hold a candle to them old Valiants. All comes back to civ-”

I don’t hear the rest on account of the pops of what might could be an engine missing a cylinder or bullets leaving the chamber of a firearm. Bug Eyes wastes no time plopping his fat self down on the far side of the Plymouth, but me and Old Crick just stands there, us both looking over in the general direction of Skiddy’s where it come from.

*

The killing of Durum Brown does not create much of a stir. The Widow Mrs. Jake Stamp claims she saw the whole thing and that it was another nigger what shot him. Only when Sheriff Hodge asks what did he look like, all she tells him is he just looked like a nigger and that Hodge ought to know darn well one looks the same as another to a respectable white woman of means, such as herself.

Most folks have come to be use to them blacks killing each other, though they mostly go about it down in Monkey Holler, or as they call it these days, Carver Valley. You say Carver Valley to an old timer, he’ll just look at you. It’s the new arrivals buying up them new homes over in Juniperville calls it Carver Valley. Only it ain’t Juniperville no more neither. Where they’s at is Highland Heights, only it’s really just Juniperville but that ain’t high tone enough, so they give it some new name to go along with the big time money they’s paying for them houses.

They come taking up all the high paying jobs at the CONRAC Industries. Used to be the Crenshaw Mill before CONRAC come along. CONRAC buys it up and busts up the union, brings in a new set of young white folks to run things and shitcans the white folks been there for years, hires a bunch of porch monkeys and a few injuns to do the actual work, and pays ‘em peanuts.

One story has it that the killing of Durum Brown was revenge. That Mrs. Jake Stamp got it all wrong, it weren’t a black at all but a dark white man what shot him, some working man CONRAC got rid of, going off the handle, shooting the first nigger he sees. Might be, but Sheriff Hodge ain’t brung nobody in as yet, and it don’t appear he’s about to.

*

Old Crick come by the place of a Sunday morning, says about the heat spell we’re having and this and that, then says, “What with this heat, a person sure gets him a thirst.”

Being it’s just nine and Stell don’t abide drinking in the house before noon, mostly joking and knowing damn well what it is he’s needing, I ask would he like a glass of water.

Old Crick grins, says, “You mean for a chaser?”

I tell him the whereabouts of that bottle I keep out back, hand him the key and say to him to be sure and do his drinking right there in the shed, and not out in the open, on account of if Stell sees him she’ll go on the warpath. I point to where Stell is at, doing up some bacon in the kitchen, and tell him, “We’ve been getting along pretty fair of late and the last thing I need is some old drunk gumming up the works!”

He screws up his face, says, “One of these days you might could borry the pants off of her and swap ‘em for that dress you got on, just to see do they fit!”

Old Crick don’t have no woman, lives out near them old warehouses off Center, just him and his dogs. If memory serves, might have been Dud Fazenbaker what told me there was some woman way back when, with a young girl. Big woman, not bad looking, to hear him tell it, but for her size. Come to town with the kid every now and then for essentials. All this must have been before my time.

Actually, maybe it wasn’t Dud, might could have been Bug Eyes told me. Anyhow, comes a time the word is the child took sick, maybe died, and the woman’s not seen no more. I believe it was Bug Eyes told me, not Dud. But whoever, old Crick himself never has said nothing about it and it ain’t the type thing you bring up to a person, specially a cantankerous old fart like Crick.

*

            We have been getting on pretty fair of late, Stell and I. Mostly cause I finally give in and she stopped taken her birth pills and I been keeping my fingers crossed. Once I get started I forget all about it, but then when I finish it come back to me. There’s no way we could have a kid. In the first place, we’re at this point in time getting by on Stell’s waitress money from the barroom over at the Legion plus my two hundred eleven dollar unemployment, since I got shitcanned from pearl diving at Ruby Tuesday’s for drinking on the job, on account of the asshole assistant manager Jason claimed he smelt it on my breath, when all’s I had was a sip of this girl Evelyn’s Bud, who at that time I was sort of friendly with. And on account of it’s been almost a year now, I believe I’m only one or two more checks short of finished, and you can’t hardly pay for a kid on what we got coming in, less you want to live like low-rent white folks.

But Stell wants a kid real bad, keeps saying how we’re not really a family with no kid, something she gets from the television, no doubt from those same ladies’ shows such as Joey’s Barb looks at. Thing is I care about Stell, I really do, and I want to do right by her. Plus, like I say, them checks of mine is going to run out in another week or two, and then where the hell am I without Stell’s tip money.

But a kid?

After tonight’s lovemaking with Stell I’m wide awake, whereas mostly all’s I want’s a smoke and then sweet dreams. But tonight for some reason, like I say I’m still raring to go for another round only she rolls over and don’t want no part of no more.

So I hit the hall light and march into the kitchen and polish the last of my fifth of Comfort, then grab the key and a flashlight and make my way over to the shed for my bottle what I keep for emergencies. I don’t see the empty on the floor until I kick it by accident after I lift the tarp.

Damn Crick! Bars closed hours ago. Now I got to drive clear across the County Line to find a packaged liquor place still open.

*

            I had just got took on temporary working graveyard at Livewell’s Chemical, so’s all’s I know is what I hear from Stell, who happens to be off from her waitressing at the Legion on that particular Tuesday evening. The way she tells it, it’s after midnight and she’s looking at a rerun of “Peyton Place” on the television when Joey come banging on the door yelling he wants the key to our shed. She asks him how come he needs it and he says on account of he needs his gun, pronto!

Well at first Stell believes him to be loaded up, though she don’t smell no liquor on him. But how he is, after a bit of listening to him carry on, she comes around to the idea that the best thing to do is to get the damn key and show him once and for all there ain’t no gun to be had in there.

So she finds a flashlight and the long and the short of it is he finds that box what you’d put your important papers in if you had any, but no gun. Now Joey’s really going off, to hear Stell tell it.

“That motherfucker you married stole my gun! Probably sold it! Damn motherfucker!”

Stell relates to me how he’s carrying on so she can’t figure what’s got into him. Only thing she can figure is maybe he’s gone and got himself tanked after all, but she’s never knowed Joey to be much of a drinker, plus she don’t smell nothing. Then she considers maybe he’s on the dope.

“I kill that lying motherfucker! And that good-for-nothing husband of yours besides!” he tells her, then goes stomping off back to his home place.

*

            After hearing all accounts Judge McCain decides it’s a case of self-defense what resulted in Joey receiving a leg full of buckshot on the part of Dud Fazenbaker after Joey looks to come at him with that steak knife, and the Judge has Joey being sent upstate to the Farm in Parchman soon’s they get through learning him to walk again at Christ Child.

During her turn, Joey’s wife Barb has her friend Lucille hold the baby while she claims to the judge there weren’t nothing going on between herself and Dud, that it was all in Joey’s head.

Judge can’t hardly hear her on account of how the baby’s going off while Lucille does what she can to try to quiet him down. Barb steps down and Lucille hands her the baby back and takes a handkerchief from her sleeve to wipe at the drool on her dress where the baby was at.

Joey hobbles up on his crutches and swears otherwise, that he knowed for a fact Dud was having his way with Barb, on account of finding Dud’s IH ball cap under the bed. McCain can hear Joey fine now as there’s not a peep out of the baby at the present time, no doubt on account of he’s back with his mom.

It’s Dud’s turn and he has to speak up loud, as once again the baby commences to howl like a coyote and Barb finally has Lucille take him out of the courtroom, to the gallery in front of the courthouse from which the little bugger’s complaints can still be heard on the inside plain as day.

Dud swears that ball cap weren’t his, that he lost his ball cap coming home from Skiddy’s the night before last, on account of it got blowed off his head by that big wind we had come up, taking down all them branches and whatnot. He claims he never had no designs on Barb or no other female and that he and his wife Connie were just as happy with one another as the day they left the church.

“She’d say the same if she were here,” Dud says, “Only she and the kids are having a visit with her mother in Jackson, at this point in time.”

Us in the back of the courtroom tend to favor Joey’s side of things concerning the hanky-panky, but whichever way you look at it, he’s still the guilty party on account of him going after Dud with the steak knife, which truth be told, each of us would have no doubt done the same under such conditions with no firearm handy, should Dud have been prowling around with one of our own, with the exception of Bug Eyes, who’s a bachelor and as such took Dud’s side of things on that matter over Joey’s.

Lucky for Dud old Crick saw to Joey’s gun before Joey got at it. Not so lucky for old Crick though.

*

            The story has it when the two boys found him laying there in the woods by what was later learnt to be an unmarked grave, the cold had kept old Crick looking much like himself. The one boy, yet another Fazenbaker of no relation to Joey or Dud, told Deputy Skinner they took old Crick to be sleeping at first. There weren’t much blood to speak of and what there was of it wasn’t in plain sight, just the one small hole in the far side of his skull, with some black around it, but how he was laying the boys missed seeing that when they first come upon him. After they got their nerve, one of them gives him a poke is when they get that he ain’t just sleeping and it’s then they notice the gun.

Well, old Crick is by now in one place or another, is my belief. Whichever, he’s no doubt offering his complaints to whoever is calling the shots where he’s at, on how things there is gone all to pot from how they used to be.

*

            Stell come through the door last night and after a considerable bit of hemming and hawing on her part, she let’s out with she’s two months late.

 

 *

Arthur Levine is a writer based in Rockville, MD.

photo by psigrist

Night Laborers

by Ben Bellizzi

nightlaborers_adamliconoclastebanal-pola

When people ask me what I do for work, I never tell them. Sometimes I describe it as freelancing, sometimes as photographic journalism, and sometimes, in my more playful moments, as performance art. People often ask questions without being prepared for the answers, and although those who look on the underside of rocks should expect to find a slug or two, I spare them that reality. Without a touch of arrogance, I can accurately say that I am among the elite of my field, and in the world of professional blackmail, few women have mastered the technique as I have.

Although I’m in my early thirties and my career spans nearly six years, the majority of my work has never made it to press. My poses are so convincing, the photos so sharp and incriminating that the subjects, individuals whose reputations would be ruined if such photos were published, pay top dollar to keep them from the public. While these quick payoffs are the desired effect of my work, I can’t help but feel a tinge of disappointment that such expertise goes unnoticed.

For the most part, successful blackmail depends on catching the subject in an embarrassing act, normally of a sexual nature. However, for a subject who is faithful to his wife and does not frequent prostitutes, a bit of stage work is necessary. A picture of a man in bed with a buxom blond portrays just that, and if the scene is adequately set, no one will ever question its legitimacy. The camera shows no timetable for her visit, nor does it distinguish how she came to be there, just that she was nude and in bed and up to something in the middle of the night.

The majority of our business comes from hotel hits. Once we establish the subject’s location and solitary status, Doug, the cameraman and lock specialist, works on the door while I ready myself for robe removal. When the door flies open, I drop the robe and rush directly toward the bed, while Doug circles the room for his best shot, sometimes mounting a chair or a coffee table for an aerial view. I slide feet first under the covers, sidle up next to the subject, and engage the camera.

It is important to establish the ecstasy shot immediately. No matter how surprised the subject might be at my arrival, a look of uncontrollable pleasure on the girl’s face creates the eroticism in the photographic sequence, even if it is apparent that the man is not in the same euphoric state. For this shot, I make sure that my hair is disheveled and that a few strands fall into my face. The head tilts back, one shoulder thrusts forward, the mouth opens, the lips reach out, one eye is closed, the other one flutters in delight, and the back arches and pushes the breasts to the forefront of the photo. I embellish this pose while Doug shoots away, and then we progress to stage two.

The subjects rarely leave the sanctuary of the bed during these encounters. Of course there have been those who’ve jumped up, scampered toward a closet or simply clutched the wall while Doug’s camera captured their frenetic state, but the fear of bodily exposure normally keeps them under the covers. At this time, we commence with stage two, the shocked shots. I slide close to the subject, pull the comforter over my breasts, and act as terrified and confused as the man beside me. These shots establish my camaraderie with the subject, as we are partners in a shared crime and face our fate together. I like to throw an arm around the subject, to pull him closer to me in order to accentuate the atmosphere of fear and surprise, to allow the camera to catch my arm clutching at my would be lover. These shots are the most intimate, for in their bewilderment the subjects often clutch me back, and for a moment there we are, interrupted lovers holding onto the only things we know to be true while the camera exposes us to the world. There is something romantic, even heroic about these moments, and on more than one occasion, following business negotiations, former subjects have contacted me in hope of establishing a personal relationship. Never once have I accepted one of these proposals, but it is a testament to my professional work that even in these moments when celebrities and politicians and various public figures are under attack from the paparazzi, at the very moment when their careers are taking drastic turns for the worse, they feel a connection to me, something real underneath the façade that the camera captures. One subject, a man of national recognition, courted me for years, sending me flowers and poorly written love poems with such frequency that when his wife found out, she left him. He was a desperate and lonely man, and our shocked shots are some of my finest work to date.

The final shots of the sequence are the runaway shots. These involve me racing from the room, Doug following to catch a leg here, a buttock there, a lock of blond hair disappearing through a doorway. These shots are difficult to catch and are of more artistic value than anything else, and they are so nondescript that we often pull old ones from the archives and reuse them in multiple sequences. At one point I suggested that we scrap the shots altogether and therefore expedite our escape time, but Doug protested: he enjoys the shots too much, the chase of a naked woman through a strange hotel room, and I cannot take that away from him. Doug once harbored dreams of using his quick camera skills to shoot fast-moving wildlife in exotic locals around the globe, and the satisfaction he takes from catching an entire limb or a silhouette running into the night is worth more to him than the most lavish of payoffs. The man is an artist, and he will not be deprived of his art.

After a night of work, Doug and I often go for breakfast at the retro-themed FROCK’S DINER with the flickering neon sign. For years the establishment has been unable to keep the R and the top part of the O illuminated, creating an effect that delights the neighborhood kids to no end. The sign is sabotaged, no doubt.

Nancy, the night waitress, has the wonderfully bitter personality befitting of an aging woman who works during the hours when more fortunate women sleep entwined in their lovers. She greets us with the understanding that occurs between people whose professions provide a common hardship, but her temperament could never be described as congenial. She prefers pointing to speaking, has no aversion to scratching herself in various locations while we order, and often delivers our meals with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, sneering at the no smoking signs in the windows. She is a disgrace, and we would not continue our patronage of Frock’s without the delight that she provides us.

Doug and I will sit in a booth lined with boisterous plastic cushions, sipping burned coffee while we discuss career aspirations that we both accept as unattainable. Never do we utter phrases like “National Geographic” or “Scorsese,” rather we speak of these ideals with the haziness and hopelessness of an infidel dreaming of heaven. We are highly skilled at what we do, but so specialized in our fields that our talents would not produce the same compensation in other, more ethical professions. Our best work is that which will never be seen. We are each other’s muses, each other’s only audience.

As dawn’s first rays sneak into the streets, Doug drops me off at my apartment building, always bidding me farewell with a kiss on the cheek. He stretches across the bench seat as I casually tilt toward him and act as if this is a mere formality to our night. Despite our close professional relationship, Doug has never invited me into his private life. I know that he’s been involved in a handful of serious relationships, enjoys throwing the Frisbee with his dog and attempting to surf, but our friendship is restricted to the cover of night. As he kisses me, I close my eyes and hold still, not wanting to move in any way that would curtail this moment. Sometimes he’ll place a hand on my shoulder, and I savor his touch as if it’s the last I’ll ever experience. When he retreats, I pause for a moment, imagining that his lips are still resting on my cheek, that they are perhaps even crawling over to sprinkle my mouth with the most tender of touches. When I am sure that they are not, I open my eyes, smile at him, and murmur goodnight.

Once inside the building, I climb the stairs to my studio on the third floor. An outsider might describe the apartment as unkempt, but as I walk through it, my own mess contains a sort of perfect order. The running shoes and shorts lie ready beside the door, the yoga mat stretches out in full view of the television, and the pots and pans await the next meal on unlit burners. I run a quick shower and dress for bed while the morning light filters in through the drapes. Years ago I developed the habit of sleeping beneath many layers of clothing, for my naked body used to swim aimlessly amid the sheets, feeling lost and exposed. There was a time when I rarely slept alone, but now I have arrived at the point in my life that when involved in brief, impersonal relationships, I am haunted by the sensation that I’m assembling a puzzle to which I lack the most integral of pieces. The idea of inviting an unfamiliar man into my bed fills me with such apprehension that I no longer regard it an option. My room seems to forever contain a camera and an audience, and I will not allow myself to be caught in such a spectacle. The only man with whom I would consider sharing my private life has already kissed me goodnight, and with our relationship restricted to that of professional partners, I am unwilling to accept substitutions. Instead, I lie ensconced in a cocoon of pajama bottoms and long-sleeved tee shirts, hoping to fall asleep before the bustle of the outside world penetrates my walls.

In the other apartment on my floor, an attractive young couple shares a one-bedroom. I see them from time to time on the stairs, bikes always hanging from their shoulders, either embarking or returning from a glorious adventure. Below me is a family of four, neither child above the age of six. They decorate the outside of their door in accordance with the appropriate seasonal holiday, the exclamatory slogans announcing their celebrations and happiness to all those who pass by. I am friendly with my neighbors and they sometimes invite me to dinner, but within our lives exists such a difference that I cannot possibly accept. As a single adult, you are your work, and I have long been unable to detach myself from mine.

Above me lives Mrs. Dobson. When she moves about her apartment, I follow her cane’s hollow thump on my ceiling as she maneuvers out of bed, across to the bathroom, or into the kitchen. She only leaves the apartment on Tuesdays and Thursdays when the nurse takes her for a walk in the park, and also on the occasional Saturday when her son brings her to the museum. Her invitations for me to join her in the latter of these outings have been relentless, for she believes that her son and I would make a fabulous pair.

On one of these Saturdays, still groggy from a long night’s work, I encountered Mrs. Dobson and her son on the stairs. He was a tall and sturdy man in his late thirties, genuinely handsome, his hands slender yet masculine. His shake was both firm and tender, and I did my best to meet his pressure. He spoke to me with enthusiasm, and I smiled at him politely while I searched for an opportunity to slip back into the safety of my apartment. He said it was a pleasure to finally meet me, and he asked me what I did for work.

After a moment of thought, I said, “I’m an artist.”

He clasped his hands together. “The arts are fantastic,” he said, “I used to take a great amount of pleasure in illustration, but I traded it all in for a business suit. What kind of art do you do?”

His expression was that of someone awaiting good news, and I felt obliged not to dismiss him.

“I work in photography,” I said.

His face again lit up. “That’s wonderful. I’ve always been fascinated with the photographic arts. I’ll bet it brings you much happiness.”

I nodded as I shuffled to the door. I laid a hand on the knob, smiled at both he and his mother as I turned it, and said, “Yes, it does. It’s all I have.”

*

Ben Bellizzi’s fiction has appeared in Monday Night, Prick of the Spindle, and The Dreams of Things, among others, and was included in the “2010 Notable Reading” section the 2011 Best American Nonrequired Reading. He is a graduate of the California College of the Arts MFA program.

photo by adamliconoclastebanal

Garbage

by Zarina Zabrisky

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Please forgive my mistakes; English is my second language. I need help, Doctor. I have a problem with garbage. I’m afraid of garbage. I see garbage everywhere. What? When was I first scared of garbage?

I think it started when I was twenty. I lived in Siberia with a real jerk. That jerk was an aspiring philosopher. He dreamed about the Nobel Prize as he stretched out on a pea-green couch in front of a broken TV. When asked to take garbage out, he always refused.

“Demonstrating a capacity to act is against my principles,” he preached. “Masha! Read Gumilev! The ‘passionarity,’ Masha, learn about ‘passionarity.’ Each ethnic group, Masha, has a level of vital energy and capacity to act. Each ethnos goes through stages. Rise, development, climax. Inertia, convolution, memorial. Russia is in deep inertia now. Use your brain! How many times have I told you: show you are capable of doing anything and the garbage of the world will pour into your bucket.”

Translation: take out the garbage yourself. Following his principles, he never demonstrated any passionarity for anything other than eating pickled herring and drinking vodka. For a few years I was parading my passionarity, along with empty vodka bottles, down the dirty staircase, working two shifts at a brick factory, giving birth to triplets, hand washing diapers in ice-cold water, fixing sewage pipes, pickling herring and shopping for vodka. I waited for his Nobel Prize. Russia snored in its deep inertia. Then, there was no passionarity left. I went to live with my mother.

Thus the jerk stage was over. I have my own theory. I believe that each girl goes through a jerk stage. If she is lucky she might even get to some other stage. I got lucky, and there came a handsome prince with many capacities. He was an American engineer. He came to study the secret of Siberian bricks, saw me hammering the bricks, lost his head, and took me to America.

American ethnos got more passionarity. We live in a lovely brick cottage covered with ivy. He puts orchids in my flaxen hair and fixes sewage pipes. He drinks only mango juice, cooks candlelight dinners and takes the garbage out. He recycles. He plays chess with the triplets. On two boards. It never snows. Suddenly, life is good. And you get used to the good life. You forget the junk. You watch a hummingbird shit on your hammock, and you are happy.

I’m happy, Doctor. I never think about the jerk. But, Doctor, I see garbage everywhere. It must be my memorial stage. I did read my Gumilev.

How?

I might be lying in my hammock, and all of a sudden I see the old pea-green couch floating by. A decomposing herring carcass reclines on it, a half-finished vodka bottle clutched to its ribs. It raises the bottle, winks and says in the jerk’s voice: “Here’s to you, bitch. You learned my lesson. You got the prize.”

I’m disgusted and I say, “What are you talking about, you drunken idiot?”

“You know. Capacity, Masha. Passionarity. Remember? Life knows. They know. They use you, and they abuse you. The only way out is to use them. So—bravo! You finally used your brains. Be a bitch. If you are not a bitch, life is a bitch to you. Lie in your hammock. Watch your tropical sunset. Drink your mango juice. Don’t move a finger. They’ll fix the sewage pipes…”

And the herring laughs and drinks vodka out of the bottle.

“Stop it,” I say. “I’m not like this! Shut up and take the fucking garbage out!”

And then there comes the garbage. It creeps up on me from the blue swimming pool, from pink rose bushes and from behind the emerald ivy; it’s everywhere: empty vodka bottles, crinkled Pravda newspapers, stinking cigarette butts, moldy cloth diapers, fish bones, broken bricks… rotten mangoes, dead hummingbirds, philosophy books, garbage, garbage, garbage… it rises, it swells, it flows… It is about to get me… I wake up screaming, and my handsome husband is by my side… I put my trembling hands around his smooth tanned torso… oh no! It’s a giant smelly dead herring, the morbid head is laughing, the slimy lips are reaching for me.

“Passionarity!” roars the herring.

And I don’t know, Doctor, what is the dream, and what is the reality? What is this buzz: is it a hummingbird or the broken TV set? Don’t look at me like this, Doctor, you are scaring me…  I might have become a bitch, but I kept my capacity to love, my passionarity to live! Just tell me, should I demonstrate it? Will this prince turn into a drunken jerk? Will the garbage of the world pour into my fucking bucket? Or should I quit and leave and head for the desert.

 *

Zarina Zabrisky started to write at six. She wrote traveling around the world as a street artist, translator, and a kickboxing instructor. Zarina started to publish her work in 2011. Since then her work appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada and Nepal and three of her short stories are nominated for Pushcart Prize. (Nominations by Eleven Eleven Journal of Literature and Art, Red Fez Literary Magazine and Epic Rites Press Publishing.) Amy Hempel has picked her short story for distinction as Finalist in The Normal School’s Normal Prize in Fiction, 2012. IRON, her first short story collection, is now available from amazon.com in the US. You can find more about Zarina and read her published work here.

photo by editor B

The Foot

by Faith McGee

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“I should have remembered that you divorced me before I made you nachos,” Ramona says as she presses her forehead against the cool kitchen wall.

Charles grunts from the recliner and says without abandoning the television, “These nachos are not so good that you should feel regret.”

When Ramona closes her eyes, she sees the seagull wallpaper that she picked out for her new house with Fred. On their honeymoon, he took her to California. It was just like the films, but with more seagulls. She’d waited twenty years to be a fascinating person. Even her hairdresser was taken aback when she showed her the haircut she wanted from a magazine. She had invested heavily in five new skirts. Everything was magical except the time a tourist asked if “her son” could take their picture.

“You’ve changed nothing since I left,” she says while taking a sponge to pizza crumbs and pork chop grease on the stove. Charles looks over at her and wonders if she’ll clean the microwave. Her sullen eyes make him worry.

“Why should I? I thought the house was perfect when you lived here,” Charles says crunching on nachos. He looks at the wall clock. The batteries died the day after Ramona left him. Once while waiting in line at the hardware store, Charles thought about replacing them, but chose last year’s Female Firefighters in Bikinis calendar instead.

The clock is like a souvenir, he thinks.

When Ramona walks by him to shake out the rug, he smells her hair and thinks about how she’s used the same type of shampoo for thirty years. Jasmine and vanilla. Twice he’s caught himself rationing out small amounts. He would never admit on the construction site that he’d done anything new to his hair.

“How does Fred put up with you looking so frumpy?” Charles asks.

Ramona forces a weak laugh as she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She’d liked the way the dress looked in the dressing room. The saleswoman told her that the yellow took ten years off her face. Ramona asked what would take off fifteen.

“I guess he likes frumpy. It’s natural. Not like the women in the strip clubs.”

Charles winces. He wishes that he went to strip clubs. Women are too far away from him.

“Navajo Nation Police too strict for driving from Flagstaff at night. Besides my foot is too bad for driving,” Charles says pointing to his cast.

“Why do you beat up yourself?” Ramona asks sitting in her chair.

A dog barking makes them both turn to the window.

“Construction site is cursed. Two men fell off the scaffolding on the first day. Maybe witchcraft.”

“Was the construction site cursed when you broke your arm or when you cut your finger? I’ve spent almost as much time here taking care of you as I did when we were married.”

“Maybe I have noodle legs,” Charles says grinning. Once Ramona made spaghetti, and threw the noodles on the ceiling. When they caught, she said the ceiling had noodle legs.

He looks down at the hole in his shirt. He’d caught the bottom of it on a nail the night Ramona told him she was in love with Fred. She was casual about it like when she would tell him the sink was clogged. His younger brother Simon told him there was nothing in the marriage he could fix. Simon promised that there were plenty of fish in the sea, but I have run out of bait, Charles bitterly thinks as he plays with the hole.

“I guess I could have saved you some gas money by eating cat food for weeks.”

“Cat food would be a step up for you.”

Ramona sighs. It’s already noon. Back at her house, Fred is painting a nude model in his workshop. Everyday, she makes them turkey sandwiches for lunch, because Fred is slightly obsessed with Thanksgiving. Ramona chalks it up to him losing his mother at an early age and never getting a proper sit down dinner. She asked him once if he was in a “fowl” mood, but he never got the joke.

She pictures him spooning macaroni leftovers into the model’s mouth. In her mind, the model is throwing back her long hair, crossing and uncrossing her legs and secretly spitting bits of pasta into a napkin.

“Why not call Sara to come help you?” she asks, annoyed.

“She’s too busy with her own family. Our grandkids are giving her problems. Mary is boy crazy and Chuma is busy with dance groups. Her husband is lazy too.”

Ramona nods her head, “I told her that at the beginning. When she told me he was a software engineer, I was like ‘he sits all day?’ not a good sign.” She peeks at their family photos on the wall. Her favorite is the one with Charles holding Sara wearing her ceremonial clothes. Charles looks young and proud. Instinctively, she reaches for Charles’ hand. But remembers herself.

“Ouch. The skin is itchy. This foot will get infected. You will see.” He picks up a straw to wedge between the cast and the skin.

“That looks like a terrible drink.”

“Ramona, I could end up on one of those television crime shows for all you care. The ones where they bring a bunch of high tech equipment to some body part found at a pool”

“Those shows aren’t real.”

“It doesn’t matter. I could wind up a body part next to some cocktail with an umbrella in it,” Charles says while despondently pointing to his foot.

Ramona’s face softens. She remembers their honeymoon in a shed behind her aunt’s house. Charles paid her aunt twenty dollars a night to use the backyard. They silently touched each other as her nephews booby-trapped the shed’s door.

“I’ll bring you a picture that Fred just painted to pick up your spirits. It’s of the ocean.”

Charles groans,” Why is it always about the ocean? The ocean is a million miles from Arizona. Is the Big Mountain not good enough for him?”

Ramona is silent. She met Fred at the grocery store in Tuba City a year ago. His wife had just died and he had a cart filled with canned cranberry sauce.

“This is no way to live,” she told Fred. They had promised to remain friends. He was thirteen years younger and fit into slim jeans, so she never guessed he’d be interested in her.

“I’m going to leave.”

“The baseball game will be over soon, and I will need to take my medicine. Tell me about the book you are reading,” Charles says anxiously.

“It’s about tropical fish.”

Charles turns off the sound on the television and looks at her. When he is alone, he pictures her much younger like when they first met. They were twenty and dancing at the Buffalo Dance. Ramona’s braids flew around her feathers, her eyes were young and interested, and dust never seemed to settle on her ceremonial clothes. Right away, he knew he wanted to marry her. Her mother thought he had a decent job that didn’t depend on something as fickle as the brain. “Better to make things with the hands than in the brain,” she would say.

“There are these black and white fish called angels or angelfish. When they swim, they look like one hand applauding.”

“I like the way you look when you talk about them,” Charles says. He fumbles for the remote and turns on the sound.

The sound of the game fills the room. Ramona thinks about what she could make Charles for dinner. There’s a steak in the freezer. They could watch an old classic movie like they used to on the weekends. Fred refuses to keep a television in the house. He says it is for those disinterested in life.

Charles is looking at her from the corner of his eye. Her hand is a mere inch away from his. Ramona stands up and walks to the front door. She lights a cigarette and stares out onto the driveway. She notices that her yellow roses have made a turn for the worse.

“You’re back to smoking? Is that what all the artist types you hang out with do?” Charles says wondering if she’d like to see the photographs of the sunset he’s been taking. Everyday, Charles makes his way over to his window to capture the last remaining rays of the sun.

Ramona shrugs and thinks of Fred painting the contour of the model’s breasts.

“You smoked too when we first met.”

“I did it to impress you,” he says looking away from her.

“It didn’t impress me,” Ramona says rubbing out the fallen ashes with her sandal.

“Why not? You are too hard to impress Ramona,” Charles slides his photographs back into the drawer of the side table.

“I just thought you were like me.”

“I was like you. We’re the same age. Isn’t that enough?”

Ramona walks into their bedroom and closes the door. She takes off her new yellow dress. Her hands release her hair from their braids. She lies in their bed.

Throughout the years, she’s made shapes and animals from the texture of the popcorn ceiling. There’s my old friend giraffe, she thinks.

“How have you been little bird?” she asks the corner of the room. “When will Charles hobble in here snake?” The snake remains silent. She imagines the white snake uncoiling from the ceiling, dropping down and wrapping around her body. At first, the snake’s soft belly holds her lightly, but then become firm. Its forked tongue licks the sensitive spot behind her left ear. Her hand drifts past her bellybutton.

Charles turns up the game from the living room. Her snake swiftly travels back to the ceiling. Ramona dresses herself slowly.

She opens the door to the bedroom and ignores Charles’ bewildered look. Ramona sits back down again. No, I will make Charles take me out to the new hamburger place, she thinks.

“We could go…”

“Did you go look at your old dresses? There are a few left. They are much more suited for you than the cheap one you are wearing. You could change,” Charles says as he puts down the plate of nachos. His face looks soft and young.

Ramona stands up and grabs her purse.

“You should get new sheets Takala,” she points to the open door of the bedroom, “I see you still use the old ones.”

Charles is surprised that she used his Hopi name. Through the window, he watches her walk down the driveway. He thinks of jumping up and stopping her. He thinks of kissing her like he did at the Buffalo Dance. He pictures them looking at these applauding fish together.

Charles hears crunching gravel. He bolts off the couch and hurries through his living room. As he struggles with the door, Charles expects to see her outside with young eyes like that day they danced.

There’s nothing left in the desert, but a hot breath on his hand. A black and white dog scurries behind dead rose bushes and reveals a row of crooked teeth. Charles sits on the driveway. With one deft movement, he pulls off the cast, stretches his leg and wiggles his toes awake. The dog licks the homemade cast. Off in the distance, Ramona’s truck kicks up dark dust. Charles stands up and wanders back into he house. The sound of the baseball game spills into the desert.

*

Faith McGee graduated from California College of the Arts with an MFA in Creative Writing. During a trip to New Mexico this year, she was inspired to write this piece.

photo by soccerkrys


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