Hold the Line by Matt Bender

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There’ve been a few times in my life when circumstances led me to consider the chorus of Toto’s 1978 hit “Hold the Line,” which states: “Love isn’t always on time.” When I was young and first started falling in love I thought it was a terrible untruth because love was real, tangible. The chorus is the only line in the song worth pondering. The verses are a slapdash series of It’s not in the way that you ____ me statements, which, while I guess may speak to the elusive nature of love, have nothing to do with whether it’s “on time” or not.

I was driving on I-95 the last time “Hold the Line” came on the radio. One can never be sure, but I believe the frustration I was feeling at that moment and the disc jockey’s decision to throw that song on was the perfect handshake of time and space. If they ever explain String Theory that moment will be in there, along with it being the direct result of me having had an extramarital affair with a groupie for my band, Fit Wizards, in the parking lot after a show.

The band had been playing at this bar called The Brass Teat pretty consistently in the months leading up it. Stan, our guitarist, was renting out a practice space he’d slip into for an hour after work to nail down some of the more difficult, more crowd-pleasing solos required by our repertoire. Our drummer had been playing since he was a kid and could bang out a solo or even a round on the bongos if he wanted to. I played bass. I was not as practiced or experienced as them, but rocked a tremendous and well-manicured moustache, a thing that added stage presence as the other dudes were physically unremarkable. The moustache raised some eyebrows when I first started growing it, but people have since become accustomed. I like to think of it as a mascot, like, “Oh look, it’s the guy with the awesome moustache. Fit Wizards must be playing.”

The drummer’s name is Tommy. My name is Scott. We have a singer, too, but seriously fuck that guy. We’re not going to talk about him.

We had just finished our second set that night at the Teat. I was packing my gear when the Groupie approached me, just walked right up on stage, set her drink on my amp and started going on about how we rock, how our choice of cover songs were the soundtrack to her life. She asked how often we played and if I wanted to go out back and smoke a joint. It’s a cliché at this point: smoking joints leads to heavy petting, leads to her station wagon in the parking lot, a choose-your-own-adventure fest of trying to forget you have a spouse and a kid and probably she does, too, but the sex hasn’t been as wild since the kid came along and wifey sure as hell doesn’t put your dick in her mouth anymore. You wonder if Groupie still does it to her husband. She really does seem to have a knack for it.

Her and I walked back grinning and returned to our respective peoples. I wanted to tell my bandmates, especially Stan, but couldn’t, because our wives were all friends and I didn’t want to risk any rumors getting started. Notice that word: were. Also notice that Stan has a practice space. Sorry to point it all out like that. It’s not that I think you’re dumb, but it’s important to the story and the only thing that’s changed about humans in the last 5,000 years is that our attention span has gotten shorter. I got Stan to lend me a key, exchanged contact info with the Groupie and started meeting her for quick trysts at the practice space.

People get bored. People find something exciting. People fuck. 5,000 years.

I should also point out that I love my wife and kid. Throughout our time together I’ve always tried to be the best dad I could be. T wife and kid aren’t really part of this story, though. Let’s put the whole me having a family thing into the same bin we put the lead singer in.

Groupie was having a great time. She’d been trying to up her meetings at the space and trying to get some free bass lessons while she was at it. Piano had been her mother’s instrument, the one she grew up playing, but something about the way a bass note hums up the spine had an atavistic effect that made her lady-bits shiver.

They say you need to have a real connection to your art – not thinking of it as a job or a hobby, but an essential and serious component of your life – if you were ever going to be truly good at it. She felt she had that for bass, hot in the blood. Fucking at the practice space made sense in that she would show up early to run over some scales and whatever song she was working on for an hour or so before I got there, but then she sucked a bonus year of talent out of me as she pinned me to the floor and took my body to the hilt.

She remained a succubus. An artiste. A prodigy.

The only time I ever saw Groupie with her husband was a Saturday afternoon while jogging on the nearby greenway. They were walking on the opposite side of the sidewalk towards me. I only half-recognized her at first and must have had a leering sort of look on my face as I passed them, ogling. I’d forgotten how pretty she is. I started singing The Beatles’ “I’m a Believer” and started one more lap. They were walking behind a big group of older women when I passed them again and I didn’t see them until the last second, slurring “I’m a belieeever!” as I huffed and puffed and jogged and sang like a drunk.

I told my wife I was going to start giving bass lessons a few days a week for some extra scratch, to which she said, “I didn’t know you were good enough to give lessons.”

That hurt. Made it easier to meet with Groupie.

We met so often that going home for dinner felt like stepping out on her. I did start giving her bass lessons, though, and she did pay me. She got some snot-nose kid who lives in her building to also come down for a weekly lesson and he paid me a little more than she did.

I tried to teach him about real music. Got onto James Carr, because he’s one of the most underrated soul singers of all time. His trademark is a track called “Dark End of the Street,” recorded in 1966, and is about a man (presumably Carr) meeting a married (presumably white) woman in the shady part of town. The duality of them having an interracial fling in the 1960’s, meeting in dark locations and fearing they might get caught is heartbreaking and the stuff of real drama in soul music. In the last verse Carr sings about how if they happen to bump into each other on the street and she sees him, she should just “walk on by” and not say anything, kind of like I should have done with Groupie and her man, although it’s very likely neither of them noticed me.

One thing that cracked me up about a lot of the dudes from the Golden Age of Soul is how they would put out records where every song is a testament to love and faith and marriage and the next day you’d see news about James Brown shooting out his girlfriend’s tires, Al Green getting a pot of boiling grits tossed on him, Marvin Gaye’s string of tumultuous and short-lived attempts at commitment. Stan said, “It’s because so much passion is required to belt out some of those tunes that it boils over into their personal lives.”

I think that’s bullshit.

Those dudes lived in a time when famous people could get away with anything, drinking hard liquor and grunting up a gram of cocaine for breakfast. The ladies of soul were, for the most part, much more well-behaved.          

Groupie was an Aretha Franklin fan from way back, back when her parents would put records on and she’d dance around in the living room. When Franklin died in 2018 the whole city of Detroit celebrated for over a week in her honor. Groupie didn’t cry, but she did buy a “Best of Aretha” compilation and listened to it for a week straight while driving back and forth from work. She figured out how to play “Respect” on bass, a skill that caused Scott to laugh and say, “The student has become the teacher.” The whole day had been going well until later that evening when a group of 20-somethings drove by and one of them yelled “Suck my dick, ho!” from the car window.

TLC released “No Scrubs” in 1999 and Gwen Stefani released “Ain’t No Hollaback Girl” in 2004 which, in my mind, makes them thematically-related, the lyrics about dudes (scrubs) with barbed-wire tattoos on their biceps holla-ing from car windows and are you the type of girl who hollas back or not? With all that’s been written and said about street harassment it’s a wonder any dude does it, or even thinks it possible that a romance might begin with a catcall.

The greatest song ever recorded is The Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place.” I’ve argued with friends about whether the album or the live version is better but, honestly, they’re both just fucking awesome and you can take your pick. They have some other good songs, but this one is the best.

The original title of this story was going to be “Liberal Snowflake Freaks Out!” and involve an encounter where I detail how I freaked out on Groupie, got caught on camera and it went viral. The wives might not have all been friends by the end of the story, which may or may not have involved me getting busted for the affair and people taking sides. Groupie was potentially in a polyamorous thing with her man, everything cool with them at the big reveal. But hasn’t that been done before?

At least you got a decent sex scene and helped smash the old archetype of love and death and redemption. No Hero, no Sage, no Quest. The music stuff was fun, too.

Matt Bender is the former host of the online FreeSongProject and has been working in the international school system for the past 10 years. He currently teaches American Literature in the garden city of Guangzhou, China – home of dim sum and the Cantonese language. His work has been published in Perfect Sound Forever, Scribble and Stone Highway Review. He also worked as a journalist for Word Vietnam magazine throughout his time in Ho Chi Minh City. Read his non-fictions online at Medium.com/@benderbbender.

Know Guns by J.L. Higgs

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“Hey, Dad. Grandpa’s got a gun!”

“What the fuck,” Cheryl mouthed to me. Our eyes locked, and I dropped the suitcases.

From where I was, I couldn’t see our seven-year-old son, Jack. We’d arrived at the cabin near dusk. Though we’d been delayed in the Friday traffic heading north from the city, Hank’s car was nowhere in sight. While Cheryl and I had been unloading the car’s trunk, Jack had dashed inside and straight upstairs to the bedrooms.   

Guns had always been a part of my life. I’d grown up in a rural community. As a boy, we played army almost daily. Our fathers had served during the last war. Even though we were kids, we all expected that when the time came, we’d do our duty as well. In the evenings we watched TV on our old Dumont and the good guys always won. Cavalrymen defeated Indians, the Japanese were beaten by our soldiers, and in the shoot’em up Westerns, the lawmen always triumphed.

The one common denominator: guns.

The scales always tipped in favor of the good guys not just because they were the good guys, but because they were also good with their guns. Back then, the fact that the victors were always white never made an impression on me. Few people who looked like me appeared on TV in those days. We knew Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan actually lorded it over white actors in blackface.

Between all the kids in my neighborhood, we had everything we needed for our war games. Helmets, canteens, pistols, machine guns that made rat-tat-tat-tat-tat sounds, and air rifles. I liked the air rifles. You could shove their muzzles in the ground, then blast the compacted dirt out their barrels. Sometimes we’d have to temporarily halt our games to settle who shot and killed who first, but when we were called in for dinner, the living and the dead always arose and went home.   

As a kid, I swore when my time came, I was going to be a Marine. They had the coolest uniforms. When my cousin, Tommy, joined up he’d went into the Marines. He was strong and tough. He carried himself with a swagger us younger kids envied and tried to imitate. 

Through him, I met Roy. Roy was the local Marine Recruiter. He shared a recruitment office in the basement of our Post Office with a Navy recruiter named Sandy. A full-size cardboard cutout of Uncle Sam stood outside it with “I want you” emblazoned across his chest and his huge finger pointing at me. The words seemed less a request than an order.

Despite our patriotic leanings, when our turn actually came around, my friends and I wanted no part of it. There was a real war going on in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Many people sent far away returned dead. Others like my cousin Tommy, who survived seemingly intact, came back changed. Whether they were even alive and not the walking dead depended on your point of view and definition of living. That was when I learned that in the real world, being a good guy and good with a gun didn’t always ensure a favorable outcome.

  As I walked to the base of the stairs only one thought went through my mind, Dear God, please don’t let that boy be holding that gun.

“Jack,” I called out. “Where are you?”

“In grandpa’s room,” he said.

“Well buddy, you need to get out of grandpa’s room. I’m not sure he’d want you in there. Why don’t you come down and help me bring the bags upstairs?”

“Dad?”           

“Yeah, buddy.”

“How come grandpa keeps a gun behind his door?” He came into view, half carrying, half dragging the gun.

I glanced at Cheryl. Her eyes were filled with terror.

My throat went dry as I moved closer to the stairs. I’d never imagined ever being on the wrong end of a gun. 

“Jack,” I said. “You know we have rules about touching other people’s things without asking first.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, then you know that you shouldn’t be touching grandpa’s gun.” I swallowed deeply. “I want you to lay it on the floor very carefully. So you don’t break it. Because that would make grandpa sad.”

“Okay.”

I held my breath.

Jack laid the gun down. Then he bounded down the steps and into the front room.

Cheryl grabbed him and held him tightly. She kissed the top of his head again and again. 

I walked up the stairs, picked the gun up off the floor, and checked the safety. Then I pulled back the bolt and looked in the chamber. Nestled inside was a live round. I sat the butt of the gun on the floor, leaned it at an angle, and plucked the round out. Then I put the gun back in Hank’s room.

“Was it loaded?” asked Cheryl as I rejoined her and Jack in the front room.

I nodded.

“Goddammit.” She cursed more in the last few minutes than in all the year’s I’d known her. Anger poured out of her so fast I didn’t even try to keep up. Finally, she stopped and stood there with tears running down her face.

“It’s okay.” I  wrapped my arms around her. “Everyone’s fine. No one got hurt and…”

The sound of a car door slamming made Cheryl charge from my arms and out the front door like she was on fire. Before Hank could straighten up she was on him. Though I couldn’t hear a word, from the way her arms were waving around, she was giving him hell.

Hank just stood there absorbing every blow. Finally, she swatted his arm, then steamed off down the path that led to the pond.

I opened the cabin door and Hank, his arms full of grocery bags, came in. He looked at Jack and me. Without saying a word, he sat the bags on the kitchen counter and emptied them. After placing the perishables in the refrigerator, he put the canned goods in the kitchen cabinets.

“Grandpa, where’d mom go?” Jack dragged a stool over to the kitchen counter. He climbed onto the stool as Hank continued putting away the groceries.

“A walk.”

“Why’d she go for a walk now? Doesn’t she know we’re going to eat soon?”

“She knows.”

Hank had grown up hunting. The prior year, he’d invited me to go deer hunting with him. I’d agreed to go. It’d been years since I’d had venison. Some folks didn’t care for its strong flavor, but I did. 

Sitting on the beat up boards of the stand in a tree, our guns lying across our laps, there was nothing to do but wait. Deer hunting required silence and patience. You waited, listened, and hoped. In the days before, Hank had checked for tracks, droppings, and patches on tree trunks where deer had rubbed away the bark with their sprouting horns. Based on what he’d seen, he’d concluded that deer were passing beneath the stand on a regular basis. So, that was where we waited.

Hank and his four brothers had built the stand. The scrap wood steps they’d nailed to the side of the tree had been replaced many times over. Most recently around the year Jack had been born.

The first time Cheryl had said she wanted me to come home with her and meet her father, I’d shook my head and said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not?” she asked.

“I think that’s rather obvious,” I replied.

“Scientifically speaking, there’s no such thing as race,” she countered.

“Yeah,” I responded. “Well, this is America, not some science convention.”

She sighed, looked me in the eyes and said, “You don’t know my father.”

Damn right and I don’t want to, I thought, envisioning pitchforks and burning crosses materializing out of thin air if he were to lay eyes on me.

Seeing my raised eyebrows, Cheryl had laughed. “Don’t be such a wuss,” she said. “Everything will be fine.”

Despite my doubts, I ended up going home with her and was shocked to be proven wrong. From the moment I met Hank, he never displayed a single moment of concern or hesitation regarding Cheryl and me. His approach to raising her had been to try to equip her with the ability to make good decisions. Then he’d accepted the fact that it was up to her to make her own decisions. Nothing was more important to him than her happiness. That included me, and Hank’s attitude was that was fine with that.

The same had been true when Jack was born.    

“I’ll be back,” I grabbed two jackets from the pegs near the cabin door and slipping one on.

As I walked along the path to the pond, I tried to think of what to say to Cheryl. She didn’t hunt. In fact, she hated guns. When we’d learned she was pregnant with Jack, one of the first things she made me promise was, no guns.

At the time that seemed easy enough. I was familiar with guns, but didn’t own any nor did I feel inclined to, but what I hadn’t realized was that when Cheryl had said no guns, she’d meant, no guns

No water guns, no air rifles, no BB guns, no kind of toy or real gun, period. Even the game at the county fair where you shoot water into the mouth of the clown to see who can get their balloon to pop first and win a prize was banned. No guns meant, no guns.

Once Cheryl’s no guns policy had been established there were times when it had led to some awkward situations. Like when she was ready to return to work after Jack had been born and she wanted to place him in a home daycare. We’d be interviewing potential care providers and everything would seem perfect. Then she’d look at me and I’d know it was time to ask the deal breaker. “Are there any firearms on the premises?” 

A yes answer immediately eliminated that care provider. Rationales, explanations, reassurances about safety – gun safes, locks, ammo kept separate from weapons, etc… were a worthless use of breath. Any guns, no Jack.                    

Cheryl had never mentioned she was a crack shot. It was Hank who told me. He’d said that when Cheryl was a little girl, he taught her how to handle a rifle. According to him, she was a natural. Her hands were steady, she was calm, and she breathed just right. She could zero the sight and barrel with such accuracy that hitting whatever she was targeting was a sure thing.

As Hank explained it, Cheryl never had any qualms when it came to guns until the summer she turned fifteen. That year he’d sent her away to spend time with her grandmother and the rest of her mother, Betty’s family. After Betty’s death, he’d moved the two of them back to the town where he’d grown up and he felt it was time she got to know them. Unfortunately, when a local boy pointed out Cheryl and said, “ain’t she the girl whose mother killed herself”, she learned the truth concerning her mother’s “accident.”

When Cheryl confronted Betty’s family they admitted she had placed the muzzle of a shotgun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. Hank had arrived home from work that day and found his wife’s brains splattered on the dining room wall and a screaming infant girl. He’d then sold the house and moved back to his hometown.  

Everyone had done their best to reassure Cheryl that what had happened had nothing to do with her. They explained that nowadays people called what Betty had had post postpartum depression. But back then, it had no name. Instead, people figured that sooner or later Betty would stop feeling blue and get back in the swing of things. Following that summer, Cheryl wouldn’t touch a gun.

I knew it was impossible for me to understand how Cheryl’s mother’s suicide had affected her, but sane or not, her mother had made her own choice. Hank then also made his. He’d done his best to raise a little girl on his own and shelter her from the horror of what had happened to her mother.

There was no way he could place the blame on a gun. Guns had been a part of his family’s way of life for generations. Every member of his family that I’d met had a deep respect for guns. They’d established inviolate rules about responsible ownership and passed them down from generation to generation. 

To them, guns weren’t good or bad. They were simply tools in the hands of whoever held them. I respected Hank’s family, and I respected their guns, but in general, I struggled to understand white people’s obsession with guns.

In rural communities where people hunted deer, rabbits, and turkeys, having guns made complete sense to me. When I lived in the country, I’d killed my fair share of destructive varmints, woodchucks that wouldn’t accept the fact your garden was off limits, the same with foxes and your chickens, but Cheryl, Jack, and I lived in suburbia. Why did there seem to be more white gun owners and collectors there? Definitely more than I’d ever known while living in the country, blacks and whites combined. And so many of the weapons they owned were clearly designed for war. 

Were some of these people consciously or subconsciously doing exactly that, preparing for war? Based on daily news reports, things were just as bad in cities. Young black men killing other black men, Latinos killing Latinos. There was nothing to hunt in suburbia or cities, they were just full of people.     

As I came around the bend and into the clearing, I saw Cheryl sitting on the pond’s battered wooden dock. She was staring at the water. I walked up and placed the jacket I was carrying around her shoulders. Then I sat down beside her. Small circles formed on the water’s surface. Each steadily expanded outward like a smoke ring until it could no longer maintain its perfect form. Then it broke apart and disappeared.

“It was an accident,” I said.

“I know,” she replied, a painful sadness in her eyes. “I know Hank would never do anything to hurt Jack.”

“You ready to head back?” I got to my feet.

“Yeah.” She took my hand and standing up.

We walked back toward the cabin side-by-side in silence. At one point I squeezed Cheryl’s hand, and she squeezed mine in return. As we drew close to the cabin, there was a strong smell of smoke in the air. A fire was going in the burn pit. Its flickering flames lit both Jack and Hank’s faces and they were each holding a stick with a hot dog over the flames. 

“We’re hungry,” said Jack. “We started cooking.” He smiled. 

Cheryl walked over to the packages of hot dogs and buns on a plate near Hank and took out two hot dogs.

“There’s sharpened sticks over there,” said Hank keeping his eyes focused front.

She grabbed two sticks, shoved a hot dog on the end of each and handed one to me. I grabbed a bun and walked over to Jack.

“Hey, buddy. I think yours is done,” I said. 

“But I like it burnt.”

“No, you don’t.” I took hold of his stick and pulled it from the fire. Then I slid his hot dog off the stick and into the bun. I handed it to him and he took a bite.

“Good?”

“Uh huh,” he said, bits of hot dog and bread falling from his mouth.

“Dad?”

“Cheryl.”

“Yours looks done.”

“So it is.” He pulled his hot dog out of the fire and blew on it. Then he took a bite taking care not to burn his lips or tongue.

Once we all had our fill, Jack’s being two, Hank pulled out a bag of marshmallows. He stuck a single marshmallow on the end of Jack’s stick, then his. Then he proceeded to show Jack how to roast marshmallows without charring them.

After Jack had eaten four or five marshmallows, Cheryl told him he’d had enough and it was time to start getting ready for bed. Jack opened his mouth to begin his nightly negotiations, but Hank stepped in.

“Mind your mother,” he said. “If you’re quick about it, there’s a couple of empty jars in the kitchen we can use to catch some fireflies.”

With that as an enticement, Jack was gone in a snap.

“Thanks,” said Cheryl to Hank. “Any more sugar and he’d be totally wired tonight.”

“Like his mother used to get.”

“Yeah,” replied Cheryl. “Like his mother used to get.”

Jack came charging back out the door. It slammed behind him.

“Whoa,” I said seeing his bare feet. “You need something on your feet.”

“But…”

“Hey, where’s my jars?” Hank rose to his feet. “Come on.” He scooped up Jack in his arms. “We can get something for your feet and the jars.”                 

As Hank carried Jack back inside, I walked over to Cheryl and began massaging her neck and shoulders. 

“Better?”

“Yeah.”

“You want to catch fireflies?”

“Not particularly.”

“Then I guess we should leave them to it and tidy up things inside before bed,” I said.

Cheryl nodded. We wrapped an arm around each other’s waists and walked back to the cabin. Jack and Hank passed us heading in the other direction on their way to catch fireflies.

The next day, Saturday, passed without incident. In the early afternoon, we went swimming in the pond. Later, Jack and Hank went for a nature walk. While they were gone, Cheryl and I stayed behind and drove ourselves crazy working on a one-thousand piece jigsaw puzzle. That evening Cheryl made dinner and things seemed to have returned to normal.

On Sunday morning, I thought it’d be best to get an early start. That way we’d avoid the weekenders, who were also returning home. When I awakened I could smell coffee. In the kitchen, Hank and Jack had been busy making a mountain of waffles. With his eyes as big as platters, Jack had crammed so many waffles into his mouth, he looked like a chipmunk. 

“You’d better slow down, buddy.” I rubbed his head as I slid onto a stool at the counter. 

Hank handed me a cup of steaming hot coffee. “She alright?” He gestured with his head in the direction of the loft where Cheryl was still sleeping.

“Yeah,” I replied. “She’s fine. You know how she is about guns.”

“Yup. Sure do.” Hank took a sip of his cup of coffee. “We good?”

“Of course.” I picked up my cup, toasted him with it, then took a sip. “Good coffee.”

“You know I’d never want any harm to come to the boy.”

“I know.”

“Well, just as long as you know.”

“I do.”

“Dad, what are you and grandpa talking about?” asked Jack, reminding us of his presence.

“Nothing, buddy. You need to finish your breakfast.” I got up from the stool and headed back to the loft, coffee in hand. 

Cheryl was awake but still wrapped in the bedsheets. When she saw me she sat up and scooted backward until her back was against the bed’s headboard. I handed her the cup of coffee.

“You make this?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “Your father did.”

“Good. You make lousy coffee.”

“Well good morning to you too,” I said.

She laid a hand on my wrist. “I take it he’s up.”

“Yeah. The kitchen’s waffle world.”

“I better go down there.” She handed me the coffee and leaped out from under the sheets. “He’ll let Jack eat as many waffles as he wants. The last thing we need is Jack getting car sick on the way home.”        

While Jack, Hank, and Cheryl continued with breakfast, I began packing. I’d finished with Jack’s things and started in on mine when Cheryl returned and joined in.

“He seems okay this morning.” She balled up a sweatshirt and tossed it into her suitcase.

“Uh Huh.”

“Look, I know he didn’t mean for it to happen, but…”

“I know,” I said. “It’s okay.  I understand.”

Cheryl resumed packing. I snapped the locks on my bag shut, then went and got Jack’s bag from the other room. Outside I skirted the edge of the burn pit, made my way to the wagon, and deposited the bag in the trunk. As I walked back to the cabin, I stopped at the burn pit for a moment, then continued on.  

Cheryl had finished the packing and brought the last of our suitcases downstairs to the front room. I tucked one of the small bags under my arm and grabbed each suitcase with a free hand.

“Let me help.” She slipped the small bag out from under my arm. She grabbed the door, and I shuffled through. We placed the suitcases in the trunk, then headed back to collect Jack.

“Did you notice?” I nodded toward the burn pit. 

Cheryl stopped and stared. Scratched in the pit’s ashes were the words, Jack & Grandpa.   

“That’s nice,” she said.

“Look there.” I pointed at the large clump of ashes after the final “a” in grandpa. 

Her eyes followed my finger, then stopped. Barely visible was what remained of the stock of the gun Jack had found when we’d arrived on Friday.

“He didn’t.”

“He must have.”

Cheryl shook her head and we resumed walking.

“You all set?” asked Hank as we set foot back inside. 

“Yup,” I replied. “We’ll be seeing you.” I waved, took Cheryl by the elbow and pretended to leave.

“What about me?”

“You who?”

“Me. Jack. You can’t leave without me.”

“Darn,” I said, smiling at my son. “I thought we were forgetting something.”

Cheryl took Jack by the hand and the four of us went outside to say final goodbyes. As Cheryl buckled Jack into his car seat, Hank went over to Jack’s open window, thrust in his hand, then quickly withdrew it.

“I’ve got your nose.” He held the tip of his thumb between his forefinger and middle finger.

“Give it back.” Jack squirmed in his seat.

“Alright.” Hank  reached back in and touched Jack’s nose. “Only as long as you promise to come visit me again real soon.”

“Dad, I love you.” Cheryl, gave Hank a hug.

“I love you too, little girl.” He hugging her back.

“Hank.”

“Jim.”

“You take care.”

“You too. Look after my little girl and grandson,” he added as Cheryl and I got in the car.

I started up the wagon, stuck my arm out the window, and gave Hank a wave as we began making our way down the cinder driveway. In the rearview mirror, I could see Hank standing alone waving goodbye.

“You all stay safe,” he yelled. Then he turned away and headed back toward the cabin.

J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American.  He has been published in over 30 magazines including: Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal, Rigorous, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

He currently lives outside of Boston.

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/JL-Higgs-ArtistWriter-1433711619998262

Tenderloin by Steve Carr

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In this room I’m hidden by a camouflage of poverty. It’s a small room with a bed that pulls down from the wall, a Murphy Bed they call it. To me, my bed is Murphy. There are no sheets or covers on Murphy and the mattress has a tear in the middle and its intestines are sticking out. I have no pillow but I rest my head on a helmet and dream that I’m somewhere else other than this room.

There’s a dresser with five drawers but I only use the bottom one, hiding my papers there: my army discharge papers, high school diploma, newspaper articles about me winning swimming competitions when I was in high school. Everything else I own, my civilian clothes, my army uniform, army boots, two thirty pound dumbbells, and my emptied duffel bag, are scattered about on the floor forming small mounds that I step over like the dead bodies I stepped over in Iraq. The mirror above the dresser has a crack that looks like a scar.

The walls have the wounds of neglect, cracking green paint and peeling yellow wallpaper. There’s a window with torn plastic curtains that looks out on the busy street and the small grocery store across the street. No one going by on the street or in and out of the store knows I’m watching them through the holes in the curtain. This room is my bunker.

I still wear my dog tags. They remind me of who I am, or was. Alone in this room it’s easy to forget a simple thing like my own name. Looking into the cracked mirror; its scar becomes my scar, an injury across the smooth flesh of my muscled chest.

I came back from Iraq, from the army, uninjured but not unscathed. No one can see the damage but me. I see it in my reflection; my blue eyes hold the injuries of witnessing what no man should see. My biceps, triceps, forearms, pectoral muscles, abdominal muscles, glutes, quads and calves are strong and well developed, but identity isn’t. It has gotten lost along the way.

Lifting dumbbells in front of the mirror I watch the armor that is my flesh ripple with every arm curl. In this room no one can pierce my armor. Out on the streets, it’s a different story. It’s a dangerous place called the Tenderloin. It’s the bruised underbelly of this city and I am now part of the bruise. It takes strategic thinking about when to venture out, so I when it is dark I watch through the holes in the curtains, for the time that is right to infiltrate those who inhabit the city streets.

***

Against this wall at night, one booted foot against it, my knee bent, my back pressed against the heat of the summer-heated bricks, I can only be seen by those looking for me; not me exactly, but the type of me they are looking for. I wear my sand color camouflage fatigues and a tight black t-shirt and black army boots but in the darkness where I stand I am the same color as the shadows.

The warm winds blow and tousle my short blonde hair. Rivulets of sweat run between my shoulder blades down my spine and the middle of my pecs. This is the weather of Iraq without the sand. I inhale the drifting toxins of the city: gas fumes, rotting trash, urine. From this location I spot the window of my room, the light left on like a safety beacon.

“How much?” A middle aged man in khaki shorts and a blood-red polo shirt passing slowly by asks me.

“Not interested,” I say.

“I’ll make it worth your time,” he says.

“My time isn’t for sale.” I shift the other boot against the wall.

He moves on, targeting another inhabitant of the shadows not far from me. Their muffled voices are low and indecipherable until they depart into the alley. The sound of what they are doing with their bodies blends into the multitude of other sounds on this street: seller and buyer.

I separate myself from them and focus on the prostitute across the street adjust her neon pink stockings, Jade. Her hair is down tonight, separated down the middle and hanging around her face like a hajib of hair. I know her, not modest or religious, her hair doesn’t fool me.

A car pulls up to the curb beside her. She leans into the open passenger side window of the car. Apparently there is no agreement on the terms so he drives off leaving Jade now adjusting her halter top. What she wears is her uniform. She catches me and waves. I wave back.

She walks on and I realize how alike we are. Jade and I, both survivors of different kinds of war. Her war is the streets of the Tenderloin and I left the war in Iraq to enter this one in Jade’s territory. It’s a different combat zone.

“Have a cigarette?” a young man in tight jeans, a button down blue shirt and wearing cowboy boots asks.

“I don’t smoke.” I set my jaw.

He leans against the wall so close his cologne and after shave surround me. I’ve seen him before. He is a wanderer, one of the many who are always walking these streets. I’ve seen him through my curtains going in and out of the store, and up and down this street. His brown cowboy boots are well-shined. I notice those kinds of things. I’ve named him, Boots.

“Hot night.” Boots glances up at the starless sky.

“I’ve seen hotter,” I tell him.

He leans even closer to me. “I have some brown sugar,” Boots whispers as if it was a secret that no one in the Tenderloin had ever heard before. “We could go to my place.”

“No thanks,” I tell him.

The two have come out of the alley. The man in the shorts adjusts his belt and hurriedly walks past me. The other one stands at the entrance of the alley surveying the landscape and in the half-light he looks young, illegally young for what he is selling, which in itself is illegal.

He walks the other direction and escapes into the night. I am an observer, where strangers briefly become allies. I have several lookout posts in the Tenderloin, but this one near my room is where I mainly station myself. Boots nervously taps the toe of one of his boots against a crack in the pavement. He is as watchful as I am, but I can only guess what he is watching for.

 Back in the room I remove my sweat-soaked t-shirt and stand in front of the mirror and while the scar is still there, there are no fresh wounds; not on me or on the mirror.

***

Lying in the dark on my back on Murphy I’ve pushed the helmet aside and am staring up at the ceiling. Light from the grocery store’s white neon sign shines through the holes in the curtains to form bullet holes and grenade beams between the cracks that are like lines on a terrain map on the ceiling.  The ceiling fan does not work and is idle and useless. The room is even warmer than outside.

I’ve taken off all my clothes and deposited them on a mound of other gear. I sweat. It drains from my pores. This being naked, it is a test of my sense of safety. I’m not vulnerable in the room, only when I leave it.

Beneath the naked flesh of my back, Murphy’s protruding innards push into me. It’s a test of endurance, my ability to sustain the feeling of discomfort, so I don’t move. I hear a brief scream from outside as I drift off to sleep. I’ve heard screams before, when awake and not awake.

Morning comes with the subtlety of a tank rolling across hard earth. The sound of heavy traffic breaks through the barricade of my dreams. Eyes open, I glimpse the ceiling as it is in the light of day, a canopy of cracked plaster. I don’t move. My naked body adjusts to the dryness of the daytime heat.

Sweat sticks to my skin; I’m an evaporated salt lake with nothing left but granules. My skin has adhered to Murphy and as I rise up I pull some of Murphy’s insides with me. I sit on the edge of Murphy and survey the landscape that is the room. It’s a wasteland of neglect.

With a towel around my waist I go to the only bathroom on this floor and stand outside it waiting for whoever is inside. Around me is the carnage even worse than that in my room. Everything needs repair. After the sounds of the shower cease, the door unlocks moments later and the old man who lives in another of the rooms, comes out in a tattered purple bathrobe. He wears the difficulties of his life on his face like a mask of despair.

I go in as he goes down the hallway toward his room. I lock the door and undo my towel and urinate in the ringed toilet bowl. There is no brush to clean it with even if I wanted to. Every part of the building outside my room echoes. My urine hits the water in the toilet bowl and reverberates around me like choppers just as they land.

I read the graffiti on the walls as I have every morning. Nothing new is added. The writers moved on or grew tired of deciphering each other’s codes. Finished, I step into the shower, turn it on, and let cool water rinse the night from my skin.

My time in it is brief and after shaving I go back to my room. A yellow note sits pinned on my door. I open it and read: “Rent Past Due. Payment in full required. Management.”

In the room I dig beneath the papers in the bottom drawer of the dresser and take out the white envelope that I keep my money in and flip through the bills counting up the total. There’s enough to pay half the rent if I include what little is in my pants pocket. Sitting back on a mound of clothes, the softness is like a dead Iraqi soldier’s body I sat on while getting my picture taken. I pull one of the articles from high school out of the drawer and look at the picture of me when I was a champion swimmer in a pair of Speedos.

My body has changed.

I’ve changed.

The names of my parents are in the article: Bill and Doris. In the room they are just names on a yellowing piece of newsprint. I fold the article and place it back with all the other emotional contraband and close the drawer. Naked, exposed but unable to be seen, I stand at the window and peek through a hole in the curtain. Even in the brightness of the morning sun the shadows are everywhere in the Tenderloin.

In a different pair of fatigues the same color as the others and a different t-shirt, also black, I leave the room and exit the building to step out into the fury of noise and odors that is the Tenderloin on a weekday. Crossing the street to the store I see a man in a suit standing in my location. He’s reading a newspaper, an innocent occupier in my nighttime territory.

The store is cool and surprisingly quiet. The Korean man behind the counter is Mr. Chin. It’s not his real name. It’s the name I have given him. He has a mole in the middle of his chin and Mr. Chin sounded more Asian than Mole.

His age is hard to determine but his jet black hair is lined with strands of gray and his eyes have the weariness of age. Placing a carton of orange juice and a pack of fig newtons on the counter I don’t call him Mr. Chin. I don’t call him anything.

“How are you today?” he asks in a very formal way as always. “It looks like it’s going to be another hot day today.” He tallies the cost of my two items on the cash register.

“I’m used to the heat.” I hand him money.

Mr. Chin is always here it seems, night and day. He’s a motionless target in the Tenderloin where enemy combatants roam. Without knowing why, I worry about him. “Don’t you ever sleep?” I ask.

“I have insomnia,” he says. “Keeping busy takes my mind off wondering why I’m always awake.”

“Sleeping isn’t all it’s cut out to be.” I refuse a bag for my juice and cookies.

“Neither is being awake.” He smiles and I leave the store.

Finding a place to sit on a wood crate at the entrance of the alley, I sit down and open the carton and fig newtons. The alley reeks of refuse and stagnant water and in the heat is a noxious mixture that kills the taste of the juice and cookies. Stuck on the wall near where I’m sitting is a used condom glued there with bodily fluids like a medal of honor in a whorehouse. I’m unable to finish what I bought for my breakfast. I toss the half-empty carton of juice on top of garbage in an open trash can and wrap the package of fig newtons in my hand to be eaten later.

***

On a street in Baghdad I was accosted by a man who spoke no English but was definitely trying to warn me about something. When a bomb exploded a hundred yards up the street in the direction I was headed, I realized what he was trying to say. Paxton Street is much the same way; I feel like a foreigner always headed for unspeakable danger. I was told that it has improved over the years, becoming in some parts more gentrified, but I see few signs of it.

When I run into Boots coming out of an adult book store he’s more surprised to see me than I am to see him. I look down. He’s wearing the same cowboy boots.

He nods. “You always look like you’re dressed for combat.”

“I am.” I grip the cookies until they’re crushed. “Listen,” I say hesitantly, knowing I am about to enter a mine field. “I need to earn some money.”

“What are you willing to do for it?” he asks.

“Not what you think.”

A car drives slowly by and the driver taps the horn. Boots waves him on and the car continues up the street. “I know this guy looking for just your type,” Boots says.

“I told you, I’m not looking to make money that way.”

“I know,” Boots says. “This is something different. It’s not even illegal and the guy has lots of money and is willing to pay.”

“What does he want?” I ask, feeling as if Boots is that Iraqi but only I am being led into danger and not being kept from it.

“Meet me tonight at your usual spot and I’ll bring him along. You guys can meet and if you two are cool with each other he can tell you himself.”

“What do you want out of it?” I ask.

“I’ll get my take from him afterward,” he says.

***

In the afternoon I put the window up. Hot air blows the plastic curtains into the room. Their ends snap like muted gun fire.

I stand in front of the mirror and do arm curls. This combined with squats and crunches done between the mounds of my belongings is my daily routine. My dog tags tinkle against each other with every lift. On the top of the dresser the empty package of fig newtons rustles in the breeze. I’m readying myself for something; a secret mission.

With each curl I exhale in and out the smells of the Tenderloin and the odors in the room. My clothes lay on Murphy. I haven’t washed them for a week and they’re thick with sweat. When I leave the room and then come back in it’s my scent I smell first, then that of the city. 

Looking into the mirror is therapy. It reassures me along with the scent in the room that I exist, that I fought in Iraq and lived.

It’s me I’m looking at in the mirror when there is a knock on the door. I put on my pants and open it cautiously.

“Did you get the note I pinned on your door?” It’s Beard. That’s not his name but he has a beard that reaches down to his stomach. It was the first thing I noticed about him and before I knew his name. He’s a big man, obese not muscled. He’s proud of his job as manager of the building. I know this because he told me so.

“Yes, I got it,” I say.

“Are you going to be able to pay your rent by tomorrow?” Beard looks around me at the room and grimaces.

“Yes,” I tell him. “I’m making arrangements to get it tonight.”

“Good,” Beard says. “I don’t like to throw veterans out if I don’t have to.”

“You won’t have to throw me out,” I say.

He takes another look at the room, the hills of my belongings. “I’ll be back tomorrow and you can give me the rent then.” He turns and walks away.

I shut the door and put on the rest of my clothes. Without me or my clothes Murphy looks naked.

***

At twilight the store is busier. At the freezer I see through the glass there’s one burrito left. I open the door and take it out. I stare at the microwave instructions printed on the back. My diet sucks and the food I put into my body does not nourish me.

In the Army I was fed well and had a roof over my head as well as a steady paycheck. The only cost was the possibility of being shot or blown up. I put the burrito in the microwave at the back of the store and while waiting unscrew the cap on the water. I’m prepared to have my supper even before I get in line at the counter.

After Mr. Chin takes care of another customer, I step up and put the heated burrito and the water on the counter and take out a few dollar bills from my fatigues pocket. Before he puts his fingers on the cash register he says “You seem like a nice guy. I could use some help if you’re interested in working here.”

“Sure,” I say. “When do you want me to start?”

“Is tomorrow morning, okay?” He tallies up the price of my purchase on the cash register.

“Sure.” I pick up the burrito and bottled water and leave the store.

The street is bathed in fading sunlight as I cross it and take up my place at my lookout. In a matter of minutes even before the sun is completely down the young man – the kid – that was here last night takes his place in the same spot he was in last night. I quickly eat the burrito and down the water and walk over to the entrance of the alley and toss the burrito package and empty bottle in the trash can.

I’m looking at him and he is looking at me. He seems as if he stepped out of one of the photos of me in one of the newspaper clippings. I think of him as the me back then and name him, Me.

Me is wearing a tight white t-shirt with gold lettering on the upper right chest that says All-American.

“What are you looking at?” he asks.

“You shouldn’t be here,” I say.

He leans back against the wall and crosses his arms over his chest. “It’s a free country. I can be where I want.”

“I meant you shouldn’t be using this disgusting alley to conduct your business.”

“You know a better place?” Me asks sounding partially sarcastic and partially honestly inquisitive.

I think about my room, not because I would offer it to him, but it’s the only safe place I have known for the past three months. “No.”

I return to my spot and prop my boot against the wall and watch the shadows turn to night along the street. Me almost disappears in the darkness, his white t-shirt partly visible. I’m lost in thought, thinking about working at the store. It isn’t much but it’s enough.

Jade suddenly pops up in front of me. She has changed her uniform. She’s wearing a tight yellow vinyl skirt and a bright green bikini top. She almost towers over me in her knee high boots with spiked heels. Her hair is wound around her head like a turban.

“I saw you talking to that little sleaze ball who wears the cowboy boots. If you’ll take my advice steer clear of him. He’s connected with some pretty strange dudes.”

“Okay, thanks,” I say.

Au revoir.” Jade crosses the street. Her heels click like small firecrackers on the pavement with every step she takes. It reminds me of Fourth of July parties with Bill and Doris. It also reminds me of the sound of tracers being shot into the night sky.

***

Neither Jade or Me have seen any action. We three occupy our territories being watchful and restless, each for different reasons. The light shines through the window in the room, reminds me I have somewhere to go for rest and relaxation. I have it for now at least.

I spot Boots and the man with him as they walk toward me. In my head I instantly name the man, Swagger. It’s how he walks, as if he owned the world. As if about to undergo military inspection I stand up at parade rest. Boots and Swagger come up to me.

Without really acknowledging me, Boots turns to Swagger and says, “See, I told you, just what you’re looking for.”

Swagger is wearing a t-shirt and jeans and is nearly as muscular as I am. He looks me over from boots to my hair.

I feel like a mannequin in a store front window being examined for the cut of my clothes.

“You’ll do just fine,” he says.

“Do just fine for what?” I ask.

He raises his left hand to swat away a gnat and I see a wedding ring on the third finger. “I’d rather not discuss it here,” he says as if what he has in mind will be broadcast by loud speakers throughout the Tenderloin. “You must live nearby. Can we go there?”

Boots shuffles his feet on the sidewalk, the scuff of it is an annoying distraction. “Don’t you have somewhere else you can be?” I ask him.

“Oh, sure.” Boots turns to leave. “I’ll catch up with you later for my cut,” he says to Swagger. He walks toward Paxton Street, stopping in front of Me and whispering to him. They walk on together.

“I don’t do anything sexual,” I tell Swagger.

“What I’m looking for isn’t sexual, at least not in the usual sense. You could make up to five hundred dollars.” He reaches into his jeans and pulls out a roll of money held together by a rubber band. “But I don’t want to do this if you don’t have a place we can go to.”

No one other than me has been in the room since I moved into it. Even Beard has not gotten any further than my open door. “We can go to my room,” I say reluctantly. When the sound of gunfire rings out from Mr. Chin’s store I think it’s noises in my head.

Swagger and I glance in that direction. Within moments the sound of police sirens pierce the night.

“He’s been shot,” Jade yells to me from across the street.

I cross the street with Swagger. Two police cars and an ambulance pull up in front of Mr. Chin’s store. A small crowd of onlookers including Jade are chattering among themselves.

“The guy tried to rob him, then shot him and ran out.”

“He’s such a nice man.”

“Who are they talking about?” Swagger asks.

“Mr. Chin, I think,” I say. “He owns the store.”

“Is he a friend of yours?” Swagger asks.

“The last friend I had was killed in Iraq,” I say.

Swagger looks at his watch. “I don’t have lots of time. Can we go?”

Going into my building I look over my shoulder and see two paramedics bringing someone out of the store on a stretcher, covered by a sheet.

***

The room is as I left it. It never changes in any noticeable way. The air is hot and thick with the stench of body odor. Swagger says nothing as he comes in and I close the door behind him. He stands feet spread apart between two mounds of clothing. He reaches into his pocket and takes out the roll of money and tosses it on Murphy.

“A hundred dollars every time you punch me,” he says.

“What?” I say, uncertain that I have heard him correctly.

“I want you to punch me,” he says. “And hard. Anywhere but my face.”

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Yes.” He removes his t-shirt.

“What are you doing?” I say. “I told you nothing sexual.”

“I’m not wanting sex with you.” He sits on Murphy and pulls off his shoes and socks. “I just want you to punch me a few times. That’s all. I just prefer to be naked when you do it.” He stands up and takes off his jeans and underwear and faces me. “Go ahead. I’m ready.”

I punch him on his left chest just above his nipple. He’s staring at me with disappointment written on his face. “Surely you can punch me harder than that.”

I land another much harder punch above the other nipple. The sound of my fist making contact with his bare flesh is like a bullet striking a cardboard target. He reels back slightly, and closes his eyes for a moment. He slowly opens his eyes. They are glassy like a cat in heat. “Oh, yeah that’s more like it.” He reaches over to the wad of money and takes out a hundred dollar bill and hands it to me. “Again,” he says.

I shove the money into my pocket and hit him in the stomach. He bends over and spits up on the floor. When he stands there is a smile on his face and I see that he’s aroused. He gives me another hundred dollar bill. I hit him again, this time on his left jaw.

“I told you not the face,” he says.

Then I punch him again, and again, and don’t stop. I am a relentless machine of released anger. He collapses on Murphy in a pile of blood and sweat. His face swells. Bruises already darken the skin around his eyes. His breathing grows labored.

“Why?” he asks. Blood drips from his mouth.

“I was in Iraq,” I say and lay into him again.

Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 240 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies since June, 2016. He has two collections of short stories, Sand and Rain, that have been published by Clarendon House Publications. His third collection of short stories, Heat, was published by Czykmate Productions. His YA collection of stories, The Tales of Talker Knock was published by Clarendon House Publications. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/. He is on Twitter @carrsteven960.

Grove of the Patriarchs by Grace Marcus

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I am the first child my mother never wanted.

That I have two brothers and a sister is a testament to her docility, not her change of heart. My earliest memory is of her perfume, an exotic, spicy scent, and of her dark hair swinging down around her pale and pretty face when she rescued the hem of her dress from my grasp. I was always reaching out for her. This is not selective memory. In photos she is ever lovely, and I am ever longing—one chubby arm outstretched—to touch her.

One day (I must have been five or six years old and whining for her attention) she told me, “I’m not your mother.” And, for a moment, I believed her. It’s when I noticed for the first time my mother’s dreamy blindness and deafness, inhabiting what world I didn’t know. All I knew was that she was unhappy when summoned back to mine.

For all his faults, my father was the one who took care of us when we were sick, stayed with us until we fell asleep. “Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques. Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?” he’d chant over and over but I resisted, waiting once more for the ‘Sonnez les matines. Sonnez les matines,’ loving the sweet cadence of his voice, his hand on my forehead.

Since he walked out on her, it falls to me to be my mother’s caretaker, not that she needs one yet. But if it comes down to that, it will be me. My brothers live on the east coast and my sister Sharon, who lives in Vancouver—Washington, not Canada—and close enough to drive down in a few hours, hasn’t spoken to our mother in years.

“You’re a sap, Suzanne,” she tells me. “You can’t change the past.”

I’ve taken today off from my job at the Puget Sound Views (it’s a monthly magazine and we just put the January issue to bed) to drive my mother to a cardiologist in Seattle for a consult about a condition that causes her heart to slow and lurch disconcertingly. She and I live on opposite sides of the Narrows Bridge, I’m in Tacoma and she’s in Gig Harbor. I leave early enough to drive down to Point Defiance Park to walk the waterfront first, a salve for the resentment I will inevitably feel when she fails to evince any interest in those parts of my world that do not intersect with hers.

A mile long crescent of walkway snakes from the parking lot at the boat launch to the beach along Commencement Bay in the penumbra of the Cascades. Mount Rainier wears a corona of clouds, so I can’t see its distinctive ram’s head shape, even though the weather is unusually fine for December. That’s where I planned to be today for my ritual respite after the jumpy rush of making the deadline, in Mount Rainier National Park on a small island in the middle of the Ohanapecosh River, at the Grove of the Patriarchs, filling my lungs with oxygen from the ancient trees. That stand of Douglas fir, western hemlock, and red cedar has been growing undisturbed for nearly one-thousand years, the river protecting the Grove from fire, the gods protecting it from all else. I am fascinated by the elegant symbiosis of the nurse logs, which perpetuate that lush forest. The fallen trees decay by degrees into a carpet of mosses. Then lichens, mushrooms and fern transform them into nurseries for cedar and conifer seedlings. There are nurse logs here at Point Defiance as well, along Five Mile Drive, but I’ve run out of morning.

There’s no bridge traffic at this hour so I can easily glimpse down at the choppy swells and the blue-gray ropes of rip tides in the Narrows. On the other side of the bridge, I take the second exit and drive around the harbor where the marinas are filled with masts soldiering in the breeze, before looping onto the access road to my mother’s house. I turn left at the crooked Madrona tree, drive down the unpaved lane and park on the gravel. Her house, rented since my parents’ divorce three years ago, is shoebox plain, with dated appliances, and drab carpeting but is situated on a sandy spit of beachfront amid grander homes. Inside it smells pleasantly of bracken from the stones and shells and driftwood she has placed on every windowsill, in every shallow bowl, her only contribution to this furnished house. Her decorative stamp is outdoors, in the whimsical sculptures, the tiles embedded in the pathways, a hot tub enclosed by a filmy forest of pampas grass.

My mother beams her hello from the open doorway. Nothing personal. It’s the same smile she offers everyone. She used to be beautiful, with a hint of animal wildness peeking out in the otherwise buttoned-up old photos, her belt tied askew at her cinched waist, a bit of tooth bared between the dark lips, her hip cocked and knees aslant, as provocative as she dared.

Even now at nearly seventy, she is prettier than I. Her thick hair is streaked and cropped spiky-short over espresso eyes and lips that redden as if dipped in persimmons, even without lipstick. She wears an ivory silk blouse with a narrow black skirt and a light wool jacket the color of plums. Two-inch heels and tinted stockings show off her elegant ankles and calves. I am raggedy with lack of sleep and rumpled for lack of clean laundry.

Both my daughters were home over Thanksgiving break: Elise from Boston, where she lives with her father during the school year, and Kit from Ann Arbor, where she lives with her lover, also named Kit, also a woman. When the girls are home, except for work, I put the rest of my life on hold. Not out of obligation or sacrifice but because I enjoy their company; Elise’s mordant wit and discerning intellect, Kit’s dead-on mimicry, her hilarious political rants. I’d like them even if they weren’t my daughters.

We cook together and scout thrift stores, ride the ferries and walk the waterfront. Sail in good weather. They catch up with their friends and each other when they’re home, but they’ve stopped visiting their grandparents.

My father berates my former husband to Elise, who adores him, and crudely mocks Kit’s relationship. “You just haven’t met the right guy, honey,” he told her.  “Believe me, he’d change your tune.”

My mother, on the other hand, pretends that neither the girls’ father nor Kit’s lover exist.

“I had a bad night,” my mother tells me, offering her cheek to be kissed.

“You look wonderful.” I say this as if it were an accusation.

“Oh, well . . .” she waves her hand, dismissive. “I felt it though.” She rests her fingertips in a cage over her heart.

“What? What did you feel?” I always have to shape her language to understand her, she’s maddeningly vague.

“My heart,” she says.

“Felt it what, Mom? Stop, Slow; Hesitate?”

“Just different, you know. Like it’s been.”

My mother has unwittingly chosen my profession. I untangle syntax, un-mix metaphors and interrogate reporters until I know the story as well as they, so their articles will read with clarity and grace. I sigh. It doesn’t matter what she says, anyway. We will have empirical evidence soon. The exam, EKG, the labs.

My mother waits until I pull onto I-5 and am dodging traffic before she tells me she has been seeing my father. The way she says it, I know it isn’t for coffee.

“He’s married,” I say, although that’s not what worries me.

“Maybe it’s better this way.”

“Why? So he can beat her up and date you?”

“Don’t be melodramatic, Suzanne.” Her tone is mild. “Your father never struck me.”

When I feel compassionate, I remind myself that she was constricted in every possible way: by poverty and gender, education and class. What she had in abundance was imagination. It was how, I understood later, she could pretend my father was exhausted or worried when he was overbearing or cruel. How she could reframe his badgering as concern, his insults as instructive. The dreamy quality that kept her removed from me, from us, was how she survived.

*

The cardiologist is bald except for a low-lying fringe of wooly grey hair, and extremely tall. Tall, and good-looking in a coarse, sensual way. His fingers are thick, his mouth wide. He swivels in his chair and rests one ankle on the opposite knee, his thigh a long and solid plank, his shoe like a small boat.

“I haven’t seen you before, Mrs…” he glances at her chart, “Garner, have I?”

“It’s Ms.,” my mother says. “And yes, I had a consult in August.”

He puts down the chart and studies her. “I think I would have remembered you.” He manages to make this sound provocative.

He stands and extends his hand. “Come, let me listen before we do the EKG.”

He helps her onto the examination table, tells her to unbutton her blouse. She’s wearing a lacy camisole. He slips the stethoscope under its frothy trim. Her breast disappears under his cupped hand.

“Fifty beats per minute,” the doctor says. “Any dizziness, nausea?”

“Sometimes.”

“Which?” he asks her. “How often?”

Good luck, I think, trying to understand my mother.

He takes her hand and tries again. “How about now? Do you feel lightheaded now?”

It infuriates me that this man is flirting with my mother—and not in a patronizing way—some remnant of her glory days clings to her, some superannuated estrogen patch or pheromone. My boyfriends, my husband, all of them were taken with her. I don’t know how my father stood it.

No, that’s a lie.

My father is the sort of man who likes his women beautiful. Beautiful and frail. He does, of course, resent them for it later.

“Christ, Adele, must I do every little goddamned thing for you?” he would say after my mother handed him a light bulb or a recalcitrant pickle jar.

“Of course you must, Mitchell.” She’d laugh and rubbed up against him, the sensuous gesture revolted my teenage-self. Was it that or the way in which my father was captivated?

He always got the best parts of her. And when my father was away, at work or on a business trip, it was as though she went away as well. From the time I was twelve, I became the woman of the house in his absence, signing permission slips, helping with homework, defrosting the ground beef for dinner. My mother wore aprons fussily, like a wardrobe in a play. Pots got burned and dinners ruined amid chapters of a book.

I am fulminating about all this when my mother blinks three times then slumps to the floor.

The doctor kneels beside her, bends his ear to her mouth. When he places his hands between her breasts, it takes me a second to realize it’s CPR.  “Get my nurse,” he tells me. “Now. Move!”           

I intercept the nurse in the hallway. “My mother collapsed. He wants you.”

The placid-faced Filipina races past me into a room, then pops right back out, like in a cartoon, dragging a red metal cart behind her. She summons another nurse who rushes into the same room and wheels out a gurney.

It’s only minutes before the doctor is running alongside the gurney, two nurses in attendance, the Filipina straddled across my mother’s chest, her hands like pistons revving up my mother’s heart. I run behind until they disappear into the service elevator at the end the corridor. I’m punching the elevator buttons when the receptionist tells me they’ve taken my mother to the Cardiac Care Unit.

“Fifth floor,” she tells me. “Bear right.”

*

I call Sharon from the family waiting room. “I’ll come down,” she says.

I know she means for me, not our mother. The kindness undoes me. “Okay,” I manage through the knot in my throat. “Good.”

“Suze?”

I can’t speak.

“Suzanne. You’ve done your best, damn it.”

“Her, too,” I say, and hang up before Sharon can tell me that’s bullshit.

While I wait, I close my eyes and conjure the hushed embrace of the Grove of the Patriarchs, immerse myself in its green glory until I am as tranquil and still as the trees themselves.

 I can’t believe it when the handsome doctor comes out with that look on his face, the one that says everything isn’t okay and never will be again.

*

The room has a ghoulish green glow, all fluorescence and scrubs and easily washed plastic chairs. Everything else is white: the crib-like hospital beds, the linens, the bathroom fixtures exposed to passers-by.

I edge past the patient in the bed closest to the door; my heart knocking in my chest, to look for her but the second bed is empty. I double-check the slip of paper in my hand. Room 3605-A. The first bed. I spin around. I didn’t recognize her because this time she has gone so far away that she’s never coming back.

I know this even before the doctor arrives and tells me it wasn’t her heart, after all, but a burst aneurysm that caused the stroke, which has spared her heart but ravaged her brain.

My breath enters my chest through a long narrow tube, one cold milliliter at a time. I back out of the room grateful for the obligation I have to call the others. I call my brothers first. They take it in stride. To them our mother has been as impartial and reliable as a nurse log, giving off nutrients but little else once they took off on their own.

“I’m sorry, Suze,” they tell me, acknowledging the loss is mine alone.

I call Sharon but get her voice mail. I don’t leave a message. I call my father last, reluctant to subject my mother to either his scrutiny or his lack of regard. Until I can make contact with Sharon, I walk the streets, wandering over to Pioneer Square, then into the lobby of the Alexis Hotel where I buy a pack of cigarettes in the gift shop. It’s been a decade since I’ve smoked but I decide I’ve been prudent for too long, that I should have been bolder and said my piece when I still had the chance. Three cigarettes later, I throw away the pack and dial Sharon again.

She cries when I tell her. Great gulping sobs which astonish me. I’d expected her to comfort me but it’s the other way around and when I hang up, I realize that she must have harbored the same secret hope all the years she’d been ridiculing mine.

*

The hospital room is dark now, except for the frenetic flickering of the TV. The remote is pinned to the sheet near my mother’s head, the stagy voices and static-y soundtrack leaking onto her pillow. I can’t tell if she’s listening but she’s not watching the screen, her eyes are closed. Wait. If she turned on the TV, then perhaps she’s trying to work her way back to speech, back to comprehension.

The nurse’s voice startles me. “We turn it on for them. Sometimes it helps,” he says as he fastens the blood pressure cuff onto my mother’s arm.

“Is it helping now?” I ask, a tendril of hope taking root in my chest.

He shrugs. “Hard to tell.”

As soon as he leaves, I stand close to the bed. “Mom,” I say. “Mom. It’s me.”

She looks up at the sound of my voice. Her gaze slides down my face to my hand, which she seizes in a fierce grip.

“Mom,” I try again and this time she doesn’t even look up, but just tightens her hold on me until my hand aches and her nails inscribe their hieroglyphics in my flesh.  One by one, I pry her fingers loose and cradle them between my palms until they slacken.           

“It’s okay, Mom, I’m right here.” I tuck her in and brush the damp hair away from her still lovely face.

I station the green plastic chair where she can see me and settle into its cool, unyielding embrace, prepared to stay until she falls asleep. She reaches for me through the bedrails. I take her hand and sing, “Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques.  Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?”

Grace Marcus’s work has been published in Philadelphia Stories, The Bucks County Writer Magazine, Adanna Literary Journal, TheWritersEye, and Women on Writing. Her novel, Visible Signs, was a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner Writing Competition.

The First chapter of her novel, “Visible Signs,” is featured in the Feb 2019 issue of the Embark Literary Journey. https://embarkliteraryjournal.com/issues/issue-7-january-2019/visible-signs-grace-marcus/

She holds a Master’s in Theatre Arts from Montclair University. Her checkered past includes stints as an actress, waitress, social worker, newspaper editor, radio and cable TV show producer. A Brooklyn native, she has resided on both coasts. At present, she lives in North Carolina where she is working on a new novel and a collection of short stories.

AL by Gregg Voss

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The trees. That’s what I remember most. The trees, sailing by under the languid, dripping light of the street lamps. I couldn’t see them well, but they were there nonetheless. I smelled their browning, crackling leaves just beginning their descent to the street, even in those frenzied moments. There were cars, of course, and houses with their own rectangular lights beaming into my peripheral vision, but the trees. They were living things staring down at a grand transformation.

The guy was dark-skinned, Jheri-curled, totally 80s, and hard to pick up in the night made more glowering by the trees. I had seen him in the parking lot as I took out the garbage, the knife, like his hair, glinting as he pointed it straight at Al, who reluctantly handed him her purse. She shrank back on one foot, arms half-raised like bank tellers in the movies who are being robbed.

Now that I think about it all these year later, there was no conscious decision to do what I did. Just a throaty, “Hey!” I dropped the greasy garbage bucket that reeked of fried fish and potato salad, already in pursuit.

He sprinted like a high school track star. Under those normal circumstances he would have blown me away, but here, I gained. I closed in on him. Despite the sucking sound echoing from my lungs in rhythm with the shockwaves of pain in my shins with each foot that hit the pavement, it was liberating.

Life’s training wheels fell off.

From somewhere behind me came Al’s sandpaper cry – “Let him go. Let him go, kid. It ain’t worth it.” I ignored it because it was just another of her orders, a heart murmur of ten minutes earlier when she stormed out of the back door of Jac’s Supper Club, leaving me in a near-tearful fit of rage.

“When’re ya gonna learn, sonny boy?” She had gripped a whisk broom with white knuckles as if she was ready to use it on me. “Ya better wake up and change your ways, or yer gonna be out on yer ear.”

A pause of reflection in the empty kitchen. Even the cooks had punched out, and her next words echoed off the stainless steel of the dishwasher.

“I’m leavin’. Yer closin’ up.”

I had never done that before. It left me terrified. What if I F’d it up? What if there was a big, fat mess tomorrow morning, or worse?

Her purse was almost within reach. It felt near enough to touch as it bounced under the moonlight, grasped tightly in the guy’s hand, the knife in the other. He made a sharp, sudden turn to the right and headed across the open, grassy prairie of a corner house, a juvenile white oak hovering nearby. I tried the same maneuver and spun hard, nearly hitting the ground. My ankle  cracked, but I righted myself.

He bought himself a step or two. That’s all.  

I favored my right leg a little, but I sped up. I was a running back. I was holding an invisible football at chest level, my right arm extended, ready to ward off a would-be tackler, wearing a powder-blue Marshall football uniform, despite the fact that I had never put on a helmet in my life. The Marshall football players were bastards, once tying my hundred-pound frame to the stall in the second-floor bathroom. But they were tough, and in most peoples’ minds, legendary.

I was as tough as they were.

I became the legend.

Jac’s was my first high school job, my first paying job. Sure, I had shoveled snow, raked leaves, cut lawns and whatnot, which put a few bucks in the pockets of my Levi’s as a youth. But there was nothing like that first paycheck from Jac’s, a grand total of twenty-four ninety-one for eight hours of work. (Do the math; that’s when minimum wage was three dollars and thirty five cents.) I had actually done real, bonafide work for those dollars, and the proof was on paper, though I realize now that that work was at the expense of everyone around me. Including Al.

Al’s given name was Alvina, and she stood maybe five-foot, always wearing a black blouse and green apron. She was probably in her late 60s at that time, in fall 1985, but her beehive hair was apple red. The lines on her face cut deeply under her bifocals, craggy rivulets that reminded me of the Grand Canyon that I had never seen in person, only in pictures. She stalked around in a pair of sensible orthopedic shoes, and cussed as if she was a longshoreman, loud and long and laboriously. Even Jac, a hard man who was known to drop an F bomb or two while dropping another load of fish into the deep fryer, had to shake his head.

“Dammit to hell,” Al shrieked earlier that evening as I chatted up a cute hostess that was in my English class at Marshall. “You talk too much!”

I just laughed. It wasn’t because of the statement – I had heard it all before – but because of the inflection, a low, guttural tone that came from deep within her constitution and cut across the chaos that is a Polish supper club on a fish fry Friday night in Milwaukee. In all likelihood, it filtered its way onto the dining room floor, drifting over the sultry deep-fryer steam and the clanging of pots and pans.

“Ah, the hell with it.” She flung up her hands.

That’s what I thought as the pain in my ankle started to shimmy up my leg tendon by tendon. I was still within spitting distance of the purse, a bone-white handbag with red and blue squares on the sides and a pair of spaghetti straps.

The thief  pulled away. Our steps fell out of rhythm. His grew just a tad fainter. Somewhere I realized I wasn’t a running back anymore – I was a defensive back trying desperately to keep a flanker from hitting paydirt. I considered lying out and making one last desperate dive for the purse when I nearly tripped over it.

He dropped the purse. Then came the tinkle-tinkle of something metal hitting the pavement and I realized he had dumped the knife, too. He cut another precision ninety-degree hard right and like a hurdle, nearly vaulted a chain-link fence that bridged two houses, and was gone. The reason was a pair of white MPD squad cars idling on the cross street ahead, the cops jabbering away. Oblivious.

You talk too much!

A maroon Coupe de Ville screeched to a stop behind me, and there was Al, hobbling over to where I was sitting on the curb, ankle throbbing something fierce, but I had the purse and the knife.

“I toldja not to go after him, kid.” No thanks, or even a howdy-do. “You coulda gotten hurt. Dammit, anyway …” She threw her arm around me, helped me to my feet, and I jump-stepped the entire way to her car, shooting pain through my ankle with each impact. The leaves fell from the trees, the smell like burnt toast creeping into my nostrils.

Years later, I was at Al’s wake, her hands clasped in prayer to a God she continuously blasphemed, the nails of her dish-worn hands painted, which felt like blasphemy. A table stood nearby. Littered with photos from throughout her life, I spied something else, the purse. I smirked to myself and recalled the drive we made to St Joe’s Hospital, where I was born and a night when I was reborn in a distinct way.

As Al turned the wheel and drove me and my throbbing ankle for treatment, she left me with the only words that have ever really mattered. “You’re all right, Eric. You’re all right.”


Gregg Voss is a marketing communications writer during the day and covers high school sports most evenings and weekends. In the intervening time, he is a prolific fiction writer – most recently, he had a short story published in the Winter 2018 edition of Door County Magazine, and another published in the December edition of The Write Launch. Additionally, he has completed his first long-form manuscript, a short story collection tentatively titled “The Valley of American Shadow,” which he hopes to publish in 2019. Finally, he’s also working on his first novel.

Violette by Ivan Zoric

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Here’s a name you don’t hear often. Violette Reign. The words rolled effortlessly off her tongue. Her perfect French scattered a pack of wild chills up my spine. No way I was going to repeat it without practicing—Slav roots and hard R’s be damned.

It suited her. One look at her, shivering in the cold February night air, inside the courtyard where we were all gathered, and I knew she had reinvented herself with it. It was not the fact that she was obviously cold (and that thin leather jacket did not help either), no.  She shivered with grace; a delicate tremble of the shoulders, a gentle sway of her hips, all the time standing on the tip of her toes.

The fool that I was, I fell for it. I offered her my coat, which she refused with a smile.

“I am not that cold, really,” she said. “Besides, I hear it is warm down there, like almost 68 degrees.”

Down there were the Portland Shanghai tunnels. An underground network of passageways, holding cells and old opium dens built back in the day when beards were worn by men instead of hipsters and vices were more than just a night of gambling and a buffet at Spirit Mountain Casino. Nowadays, they were home for gutterpunk kids, restaurant pantries and rat colonies. The tour we were on was nothing more than a glorified basement crawl, covering a city block, if that.  I was working on a new story and had to get some firsthand experience. It’s not like I could just go to any basement, at least not without fear of getting shot. The long, cold fingers of the NRA were all over Portland, no matter how liberal it tried to look.

“So I hear; lack of air flow and all those heating pipes,” I said.

“Kind of creepy, right? I mean, getting snatched and taken down like all those people back in the day. I’d die before they even get to sell me off.”

“Make sure you stay in the middle of the group, just in case,” I said.

Her eyes clouded over.

The tour guide interrupted our exchange. The courtyard went quiet, some twenty or so faces starring at him in expectation.

He opened up with a history of the Shanghai tunnels, an almost century old network of tunnels underneath downtown Portland. For all of it’s current liberal glory, the city used to be a real world hellhole not even a hundred years ago. Not all the pirates and smugglers preferred Caribbean. Some of them loved cold waters of Pacific Northwest and Columbia river. Finding  enough people to crew the ships required a bit more unorthodox approach, though. Snatching being the most popular one. Drop and roll had a  different meaning back then.

He followed this with a story of how he had been lost in tunnels as a seven year old, more than once and always in the company of a haggard seaman. He was totally oblivious to how it sounded to the rest of us. Violette shot me a glance, eyes wide open and I responded with a raised eyebrow and shrugging. We both smiled and I put my arm around her shoulders. A jolt of electricity caught us both by surprise. I almost pulled the arm back, but she grabbed it with her hand and pressed it harder into the shoulder. I understood. Her shivers stopped.

Our guide opened the massive trapdoor and led us into the musky darkness.

She drew closer with every nook, every corner we explored. I inhaled her perfume, a faint trace of rose water and something else, much sharper and earthy. Not too strong to be intoxicating, just subtle enough to make me wonder. The tunnels were pitch black, aside from a few holes in the ceiling, so we kept fingers interlocked. Her skin felt smooth and cold, a lake in flesh, so unlike the rough volcanic island surface of mine. From somewhere up above drifted the noise of the rolling bowling balls and pin strikes. The smell of pizzas, baking cheese wafted down through the vents. It was strangely comforting.

There were no hobos or ghosts, though, unless you count those in stories that our guide served with an enthusiasm of an old schoolteacher. That’s exactly what he looked like. He sported a Mr. Rogers sweater, taped glasses and a monotone voice that even Ben Stein would be proud of. He belonged down here, with cobwebs and old sailor boots. His haircut was somewhat of a relic as well.

Not that it was a completely wasted journey. The rope and cans early alarm system worked surprisingly well even nowadays. Especially because our guide did not warn us about it so we got to experience the firsthand how loud and terrifying it is when you walk into it. The room where they broke the young women spirits after being kidnapped was a  box with nothing but a chair and aura of despair completing it. It was a pure essence of claustrophobia.  Violette and I checked the walls for nail marks and messages, but like most of the tour, the original woodwork had been replaced. In these confined halls, the air was heavy and oppressive.

We were happy to be out of there after an hour. The cool breeze was a blessing. A clear spring night, so rare for Portland , opened up all around us. The city rang alive with laughter. Music blasted as we walked by the open bar doors, mixed with drunk shouts and singing. It was still early in the evening, so we grabbed a table by the fireplace at Hobo’s and ordered drinks.

“So, I have to ask – what’s with walking on your toes? I noticed you do it a few times tonight?”

The shadows of the fire danced upon her face as she played with the straws in the cocktail glass.

“I am a ballerina”.

“ That is awesome. I have never met one.”

“ Been doing it since I was three. It’s in my blood. I live for it,” she said.

“Ballet, or blood?”

“Both.”

A devilish smile flashed across her pale face, as she licked a few drops of runaway Ruby Sparkler cocktail of the edge of the glass.

“Have you ever watched anyone dance by candlelight?” She asked.

“I have not.”

“An erotic ballet virgin then? How quaint. Would you like to?”

I did, and it wasn’t just the snark in her voice that I reacted to. I couldn’t dance. It has always been elusive and abstract to me. Magic, when it really comes down to it.  The fire in my belly was more than just the alcohol working .We were out that door before the ice cubes in our glasses even had the chance to melt.

Her ballet studio was off Burnside. A two story building tucked in behind a row of birches, barely visible from the street. She unlocked the front door and we found ourselves in the dark, yet again, only this time the musky smell of the underground had been replaced by something much more appealing. The same rose water fragrance, only that mysterious earthy component much stronger this time. It was not her perfume, I realized, but the studio itself. She must have spent hours there every day. Every night. The sound of traffic came through muffled, nothing but a buzz. This was a temple of the art and I had every intention of becoming a devotee.


“Take off your shoes,” she whispered.

 I obeyed without argument.

She produced a chair, from somewhere deep in the room and I sat down, eager for the show and slightly buzzed. “Wait there, I will be right back. I have to change and bring candles.” She disappeared into the darkness.

I sat for what seemed like an eternity. Time is elastic, any junkie can vouch for that. It has a tendency to stretch itself thin when you really need something, when you want something. At that very moment, I wanted to see Violette dance more than I wanted to breathe.

A small flicker of light appeared in the far end of the room, followed by another a few moments later. She lighted candles along the corners, eight of them altogether. I could vaguely see shapes of barre all along the room.

“Shouldn’t there be mirrors on the walls?” I asked.

“Not here”, she said. “They take away from the magic of it all. Besides, when I dance I can’t see myself anyway.” She stepped into the faint light and I could finally see her, dressed up for the occasion.

She wore a black leotard like another skin, muscles shifting under it as she moved, like panther waiting to pounce. The parts it did not cover were covered by a complex mosaic of tattoos, ranging from simple tribals, all the way to a scene from Le Petit Prince, complete with fox and a rose.

“Le Petit Prince?” I asked.

“Always. So sad, yet so poignant. I identify myself with him. I too have a rose, that takes too much of me, it seems,” she said.

“Your art?”

“You could say so…”

She walked back to the barre and turned facing away from me. Candlelight made her look ethereal, shadows dancing across the floor like licks of dark flame.

“A basic few steps for the first timer,” she said.

“This is Demi-Plié.” Her knees bent halfway as she executed the move.

“Followed by a Grand-Plié.” This time she bent all the way down, her feet apart. I swallowed hard.

She sped up.

“Elevé, Relevé, Battement Tendu, Rond de Jamb.”

And then she took off, like a comet across the night sky.

It was pure magic. All I could do is sit there, my mouth open as she moved across the floor like a living flame.

Her bleached blonde hair whipped back and forth as she ascended into figures I thought impossible to perform by the human body. Pirouettes so precise, so fast that for moment she was nothing but a blur of color. She snapped out of them in jumps high enough to make me question the laws of gravity. Her back arched to the point of unfolding, as she spun and danced her way from one arabesque  into another, fluid like a river.

I swear those tattoos moved as well. Subtle at first, the position of the fox slightly closer to the rose, but as she went on they became a moving tapestry, an animation in flesh unfolding in front of me. The fox ran away and the rose withered, leaving the surface barren, only to be replaced by baobab trees, growing out of it. I did not even get to register surprise when Little Prince himself appeared and started plucking them out, sighing visibly. The snake slithered in soon after and I could see her talking him to him seductively.

I wanted to scream, to warn this new-found miracle she danced into existence for me as I knew very well how the story ends, for now I was sure this was not the work of an ordinary ballerina. Her magic transcended the boundaries of life and death.

What was once a dead painting on the surface of the skin became just as alive and solid as I had been. This was her Piecé de Résistance, this new life she created out her passion. Tears filled my eyes and I glimpsed the bite that would end it all.

“And now for Coup de Grâce!”, she said.

Before I could jump, Violette spun close to me and drew the tip of her ballet shoe to my neck. A sharp pain exploded in my jugular, white heat spreading through my body. I watched, paralyzed, as she pulled a long sliver of a needle, sticking out of her shoe and landed en pointe, finishing her act, glimmering with sweat. The candles began extinguishing, one by one, light dying all around me until there was nothing left but the tunnel vision and a sound of her labored breathing. The darkness came soon after.

                                                                 ***

I woke up to find myself hanging from the ceiling, hands tied to the massive chandelier which was now lit up.

“It’s a shame, you know.” Violette walked in front of me, wearing the same leather jacket I first saw her in. “I actually liked you. There is certain gravitas about you. You seemed genuinely interested in my dance, rather than just hoping for a quickie in a dance studio. Makes what comes next all that more painful.”

She pulled out a long, curved blade and without flinching cut a big chunk out of my biceps.

The pain burned to the bone. I screamed as she licked the flesh and tossed it into a bowl on the floor nonchalantly.

“This gift of mine did not come without a price. It requires sustenance in order to persist.” She sauntered to the massive doors at the far end of the room. “Come out little ones. Time to drink. Allegro!” She she opened the doors.

The rumble of a dozen small feet drew near. Tiny ballet shoes filled the room with ballerinas in training. 

I finally figured out why her studio smelled like earth. She lived for blood.

“He was right, you know? Le Pettit Prince. You become responsible for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”

The blade cutting into my flesh again and I am left with but a single thought: The stars on her skin will be my home when I wake up anew.

Ivan Zoric lives and writes in Portland, OR, after living through a more than eventful childhood in war torn Yugoslavia. He has published short fiction in his native Serbian and just recently decided to take on writing in English full time. When he is not writing he spends his days alternating as payroll ninja and a dad to four kids, a Portuguese water dog, four chickens and a squirrel.

A Condition of Absolute Reality by Leila Allison

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10:30, Sunday morning, 21 February 1970

-1-

It was one of those little lost lamb spring days that sometimes wander into the dead of a Pacific Northwest winter. The sky was as clear as the devil’s conscience, and the temperature would reach well into the sixties by mid-afternoon. Almost everyone in Charleston would go out to grab a piece of that little lost lamb spring day; they knew it wouldn’t be long until another dreary storm blew in off Philo Bay.

Tess and I exited our basement apartment. Tess was careful to close the door softly because our mother had been out late the night before. It was Mom’s good fortune that Tess had been the last one out. Even at age eleven, I already made it a point not to show Mom unnecessary courtesy.

As we descended the crumbling stone steps that led to the alley Tess tapped my shoulder and asked if I thought the drunk passed out behind Elmo’s Adult Books was dead. I glimpsed him from our only window earlier and had already forgotten about him. Human messes were common in the alley, and behind Elmo’s in particular. 

“No,” I said, “dead bums don’t fart.” We hadn’t heard anything like that, but the odor was unmistakable.

“Grr-rowse,” Tess giggled. She was eight, and invariably greeted the low and disgusting with a laugh, a smile, and the twisting of “gross” into a two-and-a-half syllable word.

“Whaddya ‘spect, roses?” The way I saw it, since the guy was completely out for the count it really didn’t matter if he was dead or alive. That, as we used to say, was his funeral. Still, it was always a good idea to give winos a wide berth, you never know when one might be playing possum.

“You put your money in your front pocket yet?” I asked after we had placed a bit of distance between ourselves and the man. We departed the alley where it met Burwell and directed our mile long walk east, toward downtown. I knew damned well that Tess hadn’t moved her loot from an immense black purse she rescued from the row of ash cans behind our building a few weeks back. That was always the way it went with Tess, you had to remind her fifteen times.

She stopped with a pout and a stomp. “‘You put your money in your pocket yet?’” she repeated, all rat-a-tat-tat and snotty-like. “Oh, all right, boss of me.” She sneered. “I’ll do it so you’ll shut up about it.” 

“Good call. And toss that dumb thing in the trash while your at it,” I said, giving her purse a good flick with my index finger. “Everyone will think I’m taking a little retarded girl to the movies.”

“Oh, huh,” Tess said. This was a little catch-phrase of hers that meant everything from “You don’t say” to “Fuck off and die” (aka, “Foad”).

I thought I’d heard something close to foad in that particular “Oh, huh” Naturally, I considered correcting Tess’s attitude with a small display of violence, for that has been the right of older siblings since the invention of younger siblings. But I let it go. It was, after all, a fine little lost lamb of a morning that had wandered into February, and for the first time since October warmth glowed in the sunlight. All that, and…well…I guess I had called her a retard.

“Oh, all right,” I said. “But don’t ask me to hold it for you none.” And, yes, I had noticed that she’d taken only a few pennies out of her purse and put them in her front pocket, thus leaving the bulk of her fortune in that silly-ass thing. Under normal circumstances that would have been an insult to my intelligence, making a small display of violence mandatory. But, really, I seldom pounded on Tess. Whenever my quick temper threatened her with actual harm, all the ugliness in my heart would reflect in her innocent, trusting blue eyes. This would cause me to back down and feel bad about myself. It was a hell of a defense mechanism.

Like Rome, Charleston is a city of hills. Unless you are annoyingly athletic (which neither Tess nor I were–then or ever), riding your bike any distance whatsoever requires a great deal of getting off and pushing the damn thing uphill. We had bikes, as they were, but we usually rode them in the flat alley, against the grain of the bounding grades, which typically run west to east. Big Burwell Hill stood directly between us and downtown. The freaking thing sat there like a goddam Alp. Burwell Hill has always questioned the resolve of the humble pedestrian; after a considerable amount of whining on Tess’s part, we proved ourselves up to the challenge.

At the crest, a complete view of Charleston, the shipyard (which is the only reason why there is a Charleston) and the Puget Sound spread before us. I could still see the frigid winter blue in the sea, and farther out a tumble of whitecaps marked where Philo Bay communicated with the wilder, open Sound.  

“How much you got?” Tess asked.

“‘Bout six dollars,” I said.

“I’ve got four-ninety-six.”

“You’d have more if you didn’t give a buck to the March of Dimes,” I said, referring to the large can that used to come round the classrooms two or three times during school year. “They call it the March of Dimes for a reason, Miss Moneybags.”

“I feel sorry for kids on crutches, Miss Stingy-pants.”

“Cripples get their crutches for free,” I said.

Sometimes God punishes you on the spot for the heinous shit you do or say. On those occasions no subtle, ironic payback lies ahead, nor will you be standing at the Pearly Gates and hear that heinous shit mentioned along with similar bon mots from a list that St. Peter reads to you–one which gives a detailed explanation on why you’ll be cooling your ass in Purgatory for a century or three, or however long necessary ‘til you are deemed holy enough for the Kingdom.

On the heels of my “crutches for free” comment, something that happened when I was about four bloomed in my head. Mom (who was carrying Tess, still in diapers, in her arms) and I were walking past the Presbyterian church during Christmastime. Ahead came a man using a rope to tow one of those wooden dollies movers use to transport furniture, and on the dolly sat a boy of maybe eight. The boy had heavy braces on both his legs and he sat upright and spread eagle on the dolly as though he were stuck that way. As we passed I saw that he had hooks for hands. He smiled at me and I screamed and screamed. I think I’d be screaming still if Mom hadn’t given me a sharp crack in face.

“What’s-a-matter-you?” Tess asked.

“Nuthin’,” I said. “C’mon, Woolies should be ‘bout ready to open.”

During the workweek, and to a lesser degree, Saturday, Burwell and downtown Charleston would be extremely active. Three of the ten shipyard gates lay evenly spaced apart from each other on Burwell, and the area was usually a mad tangle of cars, foot traffic, belligerent admonishments, blaring horns, and frustrated people futilely searching for parking. Come Sunday, however, downtown would fall asleep and become relatively deserted. The sound of the wind blowing in off Philo Bay would mix with the ringing of distant church bells, and something deep inside my heart would become sad and anxious and in deep need of consolation.

Back before even the smallest town became like a 24/7, meth-twitching, insane consciousness, nearly every business in Charleston (including Elmo’s) was closed on Sunday. As far as we knew only three businesses would be open that day: Woolworths (from 11-3); the Roxy Theatre (for the Sunday matinee only), and, I think, The Last Chance Tavern (whose patrons were almost exclusively young black men). Being girls of eight and eleven, and as white as Miss America’s smile, Tess and I had only two of the three open doors available to us. And on that day, which I now consider to be the last truly happy day in my life, we would visit both.

***

If I ever get sent to the electric chair, I know what I’d want my last meal to be: a Woolworth’s hamburger, fries and a fountain coke poured on shaved ice. Since the booths were occupied by church-goers (aka, “Christers”), we sat at the counter like proper little ladies and did our best not to eat like swine. Removing the wrapper off the straw at Woolworth’s used to be one of life’s greater small joys. There was a routine I followed and never deviated from: first I’d tear off the paper at one end, blow gently into the opening–as only to move the paper half-way down the candy-striped straw, mind you–and then I’d remove the wrapper and roll it up into a little ball. Looking back, I guess “life’s greater small joys” sounds contradictory; but I have no better phrase handy. I used to feel the same joy about October fog; the way a cat will settle in behind your knees and bathe herself as you lie in bed; checking books out from the library, and the smell of new shoes. The little losses add up to something big. I’m not one who would want to relive a big-ticket moment in my past; I’d settle for five minutes’ worth of seeing the world the way I used to see it.

We paid the check with dimes. Whenever I see a dime I often remember Tess thinking that a nickel ought to be worth more than a dime because it is the bigger of the two. It didn’t matter if she was eight or forty-eight, she never let go of that opinion. However, that sort of thinking never had sway at the Woolworth’s lunch counter; sixty cents apiece was the going rate for what we had and we each kicked in a nickel for a tip–which made us feel like sophisticated young women of the world, indeed.

The counter lady had spared us an appreciative wink and nod as we wiped up our spilled ketchup and salt and laid our napkins neatly on our plates. I wondered if she’d have done the same if she knew that we had acquired the bulk of our fortune from boosting flats of returnable soda and beer bottles from behind the A&P on Sixth Street then redeem them at the Thriftway on 11th, and vice-versa. The backsides of both stores communicated with our alley, and on the other side of the alley lay connected vacant lots heavily covered by blackberry brambles and scrub-foliage. We developed an intricate set of passages for our get-a-ways, which led from lot to lot, and even set booby traps for the few boxboys who had the stones to chase us. Once, when a yo-yo craze had swept our school, Tess and I had been bold enough to swipe the same flat of Hires Root Beer bottles three times in the same day as to raise the necessary yo-yo capital. We never got caught.

And there was the plain fact that we were prepubescent pornographers. Until old Elmo finally got wise, we’d bide our time in the bushes every Friday before school and wait for a greasy-looking fat guy to drop off bundles of magazines at Elmo’s back door. Nowadays, that might seem like madness, but I really don’t see how it was any different from the way Amazon delivers the goods today. Now, we didn’t steal everything that wasn’t nailed down, just a few. I used a pocket knife to cut the ties and Tess snaked out five or six issues of whatever jackrag lay inside and we’d beat it back undercover and stash the swag in one of any one of six hiding holes. Pictures of naked women were very much in demand at Charleston Elementary. Primo denero. Dangerous scam, however.

My classmates knew that I was pretty tough, and not just for a girl, either, this kept the gag pretty much a secret from the faculty. Yet one little fucker got busted and spilled his guts (I kept Tess out of the transactions, she was in advertising). I got detention twice for this, once for selling him a centerfold the second time for pounding the holy hell out of the little fucker during lunch, in front of everyone, as to send a message. Nowadays they would have probably sent SWAT after me and put me in Gitmo Bay. I don’t think I would have liked growing up in today’s world.

On our way out of Woolie’s Tess grabbed my arm and said, “Let’s get some pictures.”

“Make sure it’s okay first,” I said. “Movie starts in twenty minutes.”

The photobooth stood by the front entrance and was almost always OUT OF ORDER, but the sign was off it that day, and after Tess double-checked with one of the cashiers, it was indeed back in service. For a quarter you got a strip composed of four one-inch square pictures. I liked the idea, but only on up to twenty-five cents. Blowing half-a-buck on the machine seemed wasteful to me. So we went in together and made a series of dumb faces.

Tess extracted the strip and handed it to me. I said “cool,” gave it back to her, and it then disappeared in that scroungy purse of hers. I never thought about it again until last November, as I sifted through her stuff two days before her funeral. And there was something written on the back of the thing. Somehow, after nearly fifty years gone by, Tess held onto that damn film strip, even after the loss of everything else good in her life. I had it buried with her, it seemed to me that nothing I have ever touched in life ever belonged more to one person, better displayed the secret heart of one person than the words that lay behind the run of photos.

There wasn’t anything supremely poetic or earth shattering on the back of it. Just the day and date and “Me and Big Boss of Me Having Fun” written in her childish script on it. I came within a lick of scanning both sides of the strip, but something deep inside my mind, that same something which becomes melancholy at the intertwined sound of wind and church bells, told me not to do it.  

Shirley Jackson says, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; katydids and larks are supposed, by some, to dream.” I dream yet I do not exist sanely. Perhaps this is due to the fact that I have the subject and object in my dreams the wrong way round. Maybe I am whom,  and not the who who tells my story and weaves the tapestry of my dreams.

There once turned a world in which I loved Woolworth’s hamburgers. Mainly the bun, the way it had crisped on the grill and how just a little grease got on the smooth top, but never too much as to make it soggy. Now there turns a world in which the memory of such is steeped in a sadness so profound that every description I try to lay on it fails not just miserably but to the degree that it demeans the event.

Still, I wouldn’t trade my imperfect past for the most promising future. It was, and I love it dearly. Since I find my own expressions lacking, I leave you with the final words uttered by Marley’s Ghost: “Look to see me no more.”

Leila Allison lives in the menacing Pacific Northwest. She is a member of the Union of Pen-names and Imaginary Friends, and, as such, she works only between three and six in the morning, seven days a week, as stipulated in the contract between Leila and her “employer”–a dubious, shadow-like person who only comes out from under the bed to buy cigarettes and feed a parakeet named Roy.

KITEZH by A.L. Sirois

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The digital clock on my car’s dash read 8:59 am. I took my .380 semiautomatic out of the glove box and slid it in the holster inside my jacket. Not that I thought I’d need it here; I’m simply in the habit of having a gun on me. I walked across the pea gravel to the flagstones leading to the green front door, pressing the doorbell at precisely 9:00 am.

The door swung open, answered by a tall, loose-limbed man with straight dark hair, dark eyes and a pleasant smile. I also noticed the grey patches under his eyes, and wondered how well he had been sleeping of late.

“Miss McNeil. A pleasure. I am Peter Orlov.” His English was ever so slightly accented by his native tongue. “Please, come in.”

Orlov ushered me into a house tastefully decorated in a more or less classical style, with polished wood floors, plenty of light from wide windows, bookcases, and flowers on end tables.

I learned early on that I don’t play well with others. I’m not anti-social—well, maybe a little—or truculent, I like having my way and I’m usually right. Over the years I’ve found that most people don’t appreciate these tendencies.

College wasn’t for me, either, so I joined the Army. Having a natural facility for languages I trained as a cryptologic linguist. The armed services and I turned out not to be such a great fit, either, even though I enjoyed the opportunities provided me. My twin brother, Terry, became a career military man. Fine by me. We have no other family, and as long as he’s happy, I’m happy. After I was discharged I knocked around the West Coast for awhile, grew bored, and came back east.

Terry helped me get into my current line of work. I’m an investigator. I find things, learn things; take risks for those who can’t. Or won’t. Terry is well connected with the CIA and DMS and other alphabet agencies that occasionally need someone like me to follow up on off-the-books stuff. My clientele tends to be high-end. Very high-end.

Which often makes opening e-mails from strangers interesting.

A particularly interesting one hit my in-box two days earlier. It was from Peter Orlov, whom I did not know, and read, simply, Dear Miss McNeil: I want to know where I was. And I want to return there.

He’d attached a scan of a Pravda article from 1987 detailing the disappearance of nine-year-old Pytor Abramovich Orlov while vacationing with his parents and younger brother, and his mysterious reappearance two days later in the center of Arzamas, the nearest city. When asked where he’d been, Pytor lapsed into glossolalia, which ceased only when questioning ended. Otherwise his speech was unimpaired.

Also attached to Peter—Pytor—Orlov’s email were several colored pencil sketches he’d made of strangely dressed people who looked somehow Slavic but wore bright voluminous garments and turban-like headgear. The men donned forked beards, and the women hid their breasts under dozens of strands of wampum-like necklaces. Perhaps in emulation of the male turban, their hair was worn in an up swept all-but-spherical coif, like an expanded Sixties “beehive.” All, men and women, were light of complexion, with dark eyes and dark hair.

I’m well-traveled, and have spent time on all the continents—including Antarctica—doing research for my clients. I didn’t recognize the particular ethnic group depicted in Orlov’s meticulous drawings. They certainly were not Russian, or even Slavic. If anything, they looked somewhat Persian.

Intrigued, I replied, agreeing to see him. Two days later I was in Nyack, New York.

According to my research, both Orlov brothers came to the States from Russia as children in 1989. Peter was now thirty-eight years old, the wealthy if somewhat eccentric and reclusive CEO of a rising pharmaceutical conglomerate. Jurij changed his name to George and took over the day-to-day running of the corporation as its COO. Peter had no wife, no ex-wives, no children.

Orlov led the way through the foyer into a sitting room. “Miss O’Neil, will you take coffee or tea?”

“Decaf green tea would be wonderful if you have it. And do call me Alice.”

“Then you must call me Peter.” He excused himself.

I examined my surroundings. Low bookcases lined three walls, with paintings above them. French doors opened onto a slate patio, brushed this October day by leaves from a black walnut tree. Its spherical seedpods sat scattered on the flags like green golf balls.

I turned as he entered with two steaming cups—Noritake china on a silver tray along with a sugar bowl, tongs, spoons and creamer. Real silver, too, not plate. And he did his own serving. Odd, for such a wealthy person.

I dropped a lump of raw sugar into my cup as he settled into a wing chair opposite the window. “I couldn’t place the costumes in the drawings you sent.”

A half smile. “I would have been astounded if you could.”

“And that’s the clothing worn by the inhabitants of the place to which you were taken.” I took a chair across from his. “Kitezh, or whatever you call it.”

“I was not taken there. I walked there.”

“Walked?” I set my teacup down on the table beside my chair. “Peter.” I switched to Russian. “I know my Russian geography. It’s more than fifty kilometers from where you vanished, near Lake Svetloyar, to where you turned up.”

“Fifty-three.” He smiled with a crooked humor.

“And you… walked there.”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“In a manner of… at the age of nine?”

He nodded.

“In two days?”

“Ah. No.” He leaned forward. “I was somewhere else, in between. In Kitezh.” His gaze became distant. “At that time it was near the lake. They didn’t want me to get lost, you see, so they took me, teleportedme, whatever, to Arzamas. I didn’t walk fifty-three kilometers.”

“’They?” I gaped. “Teleported?” And what did he mean by at that time?

“The inhabitants of Kitezh.” He sighed, smiling. “It’s such a beautiful place, Alice.”

He wasn’t speaking in the past tense. The place was real, alive, to him.

“There was a fountain, with two and three-story homes all around, peaked roofs, very quaint but overgrown with electric ivy, a blue sky such as I have never seen any—”

“Wait, what? Electric ivy?”

He waved a hand. “I call it that. All the houses were festooned with green wires. At first I thought they were vines because they had leaves, with curling offshoots like Morning Glory tendrils seeking purchase, but the leaves were transparent, with flat electronic components inside them. These vines covered the houses.”

“Solar collectors.” This man was not lying. At least, he didn’t think he was.

“I saw no other source of power while I was there.”

“I see. Go on. And on your return?”

He shook his head as if to settle his thoughts. “I walked from the square at the behest of my… hosts, headed for a street entry, and no sooner did I set foot off the cobbles then I stepped into Arzamas. I was in front of the town hall.”

“The transition was instantaneous?”

“Yes.” His hands grew animated. “And so that was the fifty-three kilometers. In a single step.”

I sipped my tea as he filled in details. Lake Svetloyar was a popular tourist destination among a certain class of Russians. Peter’s parents, petrochemical engineers, had often vacationed there when their boys were young.

“We got off the bus in Balakhna. You say you are good with geography, Alice. Do you know the town?”

“I know of it.”

“Nestled in the arms of the Volga. An historic region, but there’s not much for young boys to do there. My father loved to fish, though, and my mother to sketch. They took us to the lake on the second day. I drew for a while with Mother, but got bored and wandered off, exploring, as boys will do. George adored fishing, and stayed with our father. I skipped stones on the lake, caught a frog or two, let them go and then I got hungry so I turned back.” He frowned and sighed. “And saw a city on the shore of the lake, placed between me and my parents. I had to have walked through it, you see; but I never saw it until I turned back.” He paused, but I said nothing, simply nodded for him to continue.

“I call it a city, but it was more a village. The lakeside path I walked became a cobblestone street. Wood frame buildings lined it. This was Kitezh.” At my blank look, he went on.” He leaned forward. “A mythical city, like… I don’t know, the Emerald City? Or the place where Batman lives. But I believe Kitezh took me, and after I was there for a short time, deposited me in Arzamas.”

In a single step. “You could not discuss this when you were young. Yet now you can speak of it.”

“I could not write about my experience, either, although again I thought I was being perfectly clear.” He shrugged. “Scrawls. Nor could I type coherently into a computer. My parents feared I had a brain tumor. MRIs and PET scans ruled that out. At last I stopped talking about what happened to me and thereafter had no further speech or writing problems.

“My parents were both killed in a train wreck in 1988. George and I were raised by relatives here in America. When we came of age we devoted ourselves to our parents’ business. They had a small pharmaceutical company, which George and I have grown into a multinational corporation. When our corporate headquarters moved to New York City, I came here. George stays in Manhattan.

“Two years ago I was in an automobile accident that left me in a coma for four days. When I came to I found George sitting at my bedside, looking oddly at me. He said I had been raving about Kitezh. Do you understand? I could talk about it at last, even if I was delirious! The accident somehow negated the conditioning, hypnosis, whatever, I’d received in Kitezh. Or maybe the compulsion had worn off with time, I don’t know. I told him I’d simply been dreaming.” He sighed. “I did not want to worry him. About my sanity, you see. He never says anything, but I believe he has his doubts.”

“Mmm.” I knew a little something about that. “So you came to me, to find Kitezh.” I took a last sip of my tea and carefully put the cup down on the table. Outside, a black walnut seedpod hit the patio flagstones with a clunk.

“Exactly.”

“Russia? I’ve never been there. I speak the language, but—”

He waved this aside. “I have friends there who will help you.”

“You’ve tried to find it yourself?”

He frowned, his gaze again growing distant. “I have returned to Russia several times to search for it, to no avail. I would swear Kitezh recedes from me.” He pursed his mouth. “Avoids me.” He went to his computer and called up a sound file. It was forty seconds of a strange melody, simple but with odd intervals, hesitantly played on a piano.

“This is a song I heard while I was there,” he said. “Someone played it on a flute one night. I’ve never forgotten it. I picked it out on a piano and recorded it.” He handed me a flash drive. “Here’s a copy.”

Peter Orlov was no crackpot. Somethinghad happened to him. Something he couldn’t explain.

“It is said, you know,” Peter told me, “that only those who are pure in their heart and soul will find their way to Kitezh.”

I allowed myself a tight smile. “Even so, I am hardly pure in my heart and soul.”

“I have nowhere else to turn. Will you help me?”

“I’ll try.” We shook on it, and the discussion turned to my fee.

He didn’t blink.

*

On the flight to Russia I went over Peter’s notes and drawings as well as the official accounts detailing his “disappearance.” I also obtained his medical records. None of the documentation gave me the least hint how to find Kitezh.

Others had heard of it, however, as I learned after spending a few hours on the Internet. According to legend, as the Mongols swept through the region some eight centuries ago they learned of Kitezh and detoured to sack it. They reached the lake shore town, saw it had no fortifications, and drew their weapons for slaughter. Kitezh’s citizens ringed the village wall, praying for salvation as the horsemen advanced. Like a miracle, water burst forth from dozens of places in the ground. As the Mongols stared in amazement the city sank beneath the lake and was never seen again.

Except occasionally, here and there, at different locations around the lake where young Pytor Abramovich Orlov stumbled on it.

Allegedly.

My first move would be to check out the area.

Two days’ travel later I was in a Volga 3102 with crappy suspension, jouncing along a semi-improved roadway toward Lake Svetloyar. My driver, Mikhail, a laconic chain-smoking dumpling of a man with close-set eyes, had met me at Moscow Airport. He was one of the friends Peter mentioned. He seemed surprised that I spoke fluent Russian.

“Poor Pyotr. He’s been obsessing about Kitezh since he was a child.”

“Yes?”

He nodded, never taking his eyes from the road, for which I was grateful. My insides cramped in an uproar from the car bouncing along all the ruts. “He visited me the last time he was here, a few months ago. He thinks the city flees him, you know.” He blew smoke out of his nose in a gentle snort.

“He did say something about that.”

“Why he thinks you could be of help. I do not know.”

“I’m a professional researcher.”

His glance, eyebrows raised, asked a further question.

“Of the paranormal, you might say.”

He scoffed. “Supernatural?” After that he said nothing more, which was fine with me. I was in no mood to explain how an army cryptologic linguist had become a professional cryptologist. He concentrated on his cigarettes and his driving and I concentrated on not puking all over his bouncing, smoky little car.

At last we arrived at our destination, a small hotel near the lake—more of a bed and breakfast, really, with a dining room. I signed in while Mikhail brought my luggage to my room. As it was not tourist season, I turned out to be the only guest.

Mikhail took his leave in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Jet-lagged and ill, I went straight to bed, wakened the next morning by my cell phone to a misty dawn.

While dressing the next morning, my cell phone rang. I dug it out of my pocket. The LED panel read G. ORLOV.

Aw, crap. I flipped it open. “McNeil.”

“What progress, Ms. McNeil?”

“Hello, Mr. Orlov.” No George and Alice with this brother. “Nothing definite yet.”

Silence. Then, “I expect results, Ms. McNeil. I told you when I hired you: I can’t allow the company to be run by an unbalanced CEO, even if he is my brother.”

Fighting between the Orlov brothers wasn’t my concern. Peter Orlov thought he’d found me on his own, but it was George who’d heard of me and nudged my name and rep into his brother’s ken. Peter took the bait. He believed in me because he wanted to.

“Understood, sir,” I said, as coldly as I could. George’s money was better than good, but he was an arrogant, entitled jerk. I prepared for Peter to be an even bigger one, but found myself surprised: I liked Peter. Which made this subterfuge all the more distasteful to me.

It was all business, yeah, and I had two big paydays coming, one from each brother, but that didn’t endear me to myself.

 “Good,” he said. “I’ll call later.” The line went dead.

*

Breakfast consisted of strong coffee and pastries of a type I’d never seen before: dark braided bread coated with a fruit compote glaze and filled with mildly spiced meat. Scrumptious, but I could no more than nibble at it. My stomach wouldn’t cooperate.

As the waiter, a pasty-faced man in his fifties, cleared the table I flipped my cellphone open to access my media files. “Have you ever heard this tune, my friend?” I played Peter’s little melody.

The waiter’s eyes went wide then became hooded. He spoke but not in Russian. I couldn’t place the tongue. He caught himself and said, curtly, “No. Never.” He hurried away with the dishes.

I left the inn with a backpack containing one of the pastries, some cheese, and water—and a couple of very sophisticated little devices to detect and measure ambient electromagnetic fields. The air blew cool and slightly damp, but with an apple snap to it that I never encountered in the States. Tourist season was past, and I stood alone on the lakeside trail. The water lapped conversationally and birds sang.

Despite the day’s beauty, as I walked the path something seemed off to me. Kitezh, I felt sure, was not likely to be sitting around waiting for me to find it. It would more likely be wandering amid the dark fir forest crowding the lake.

I began thinking of the city as an animal-like entity, something with intelligence and purpose.

The trees around me grew somehow more menacing and I couldn’t shake the conviction that I was being watched. My instruments, however, revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Three times I resolved to turn back; instead, after an hour and a half or so I made it all the way around the lake. I had gotten some good exercise, but learned nothing.

Back at the hotel I ate a good dinner, and went to bed.

The next morning I took the lakeside trail once more, in the opposite direction. This time I got about three-quarters of the way around the lake before I saw a sketchy trail twisting away from the main path, threading into a narrow, steep sided ravine. I was a dozen or so steps into the cleft before an unexpected aroma of fresh bread filled my nostrils. I walked a few meters further, the delicious odor drawing me on despite my unsettled stomach.

Ahead, the way became quite rocky before curling around a dark stand of juniper that obscured my view. As I came round the thick bushes, the walls of the ravine closed in overhead, tunnel-like. The path became a cobbled passageway, the stones rising from the ground like bubbles from oatmeal.

Another twist of the trail hid the further end of the tunnel. The scent of bread grew even stronger. I rounded the corner, and stepped into a garden.

I stood on the edge of acres of trimmed grass framing beds of pale flowers unfamiliar to me. Stands of equally unfamiliar trees dotted the expanse. The way I’d been following continued through this park-like setting.

To my knowledge, there was no tourist attraction like this anywhere near the hotel.

I approached the nearest of several flowerbeds. The blossoms sat cream-colored, as large as saucers, with delicate mauve throats and long tapering leaves. Within each bloom sparkled what I took to be dewdrops. I leaned closer, and saw that each “drop” contained a strange little dark nucleus. As I moved back, these nuclei shifted position, as though aware of me, watching me.

A chill fluttered across my stomach. Then, partially hidden beside another plot of the weird flowers, I saw someone kneeling. A man, obviously, though his back was tome and his face unseen. He wore a sort of tunic and a turban was wrapped around his head. Beside the plants a small box had been affixed to a short post, like a low-sitting wren house.

I sucked in my breath. He could have walked out of one of Peter’s sketches. I drew closer, and saw that he was placing electrodes from a small device to the shrub. Knowledgeable as I was of common (and uncommon) electronics, I had never seen anything like the smart-phone-sized thing he held.

I approached him. He looked up at me. Blue eyes twinkled in a seamed, tanned face decorated by a dark goatee—the face of a fortyish man who spent much if not most of his time outdoors. He climbed easily to his feet and bowed to me.

“Greetings and welcome,” he said in Russian. “I am Benedikt.”

“Thank you. My name’s Alice. Uhm… what are you doing, there?” With my chin I pointed at the wire-festooned plant.

He chuckled. “I’m stimulating this plant to produce a version that will bear pure white flowers. It’s rather resistant, but I think I’ve got the correct settings at last.” He opened the box’s hinged top, placed the hand-held gadget within and clicked shut the lid.

“How?”

“I’m an electrobotanist,” he said, as if that was sufficient explanation.

What the devil is an electrobotanist? I licked my lips. “Is this… Kitezh?”

He smiled. “Come with me, Alice, if you would.” Benedikt set off through the park. Ahead, above a screen of vegetation, I saw the peaked, vine-grown roofs of what seemed to be a quaint Middle European town. The odor of baking bread had grown so strong now that I felt I could chew the air. “Kitezh… you are familiar with some of our local tall tales, I see.”

Tall tales. “I was taking a walk around the lake. I saw a little side-path, and…”

“It’s easy to get lost around here. You’re American, I think?”

“Yes.”

“Hardly a sought-out tourist destination, the lake, for Americans.”

I simply shrugged.

Within a few minutes we passed the screen of vegetation and entered a beautiful village. The lake lapped against a small wharf to which were tied a number of coracles, all appearing quite new, with polished oarlocks and painted a shiny green. It was the most charming little place I have ever seen, complete with a glittering fountain in the town square.

“Benedikt, I walked around the whole lake yesterday. There was no way I wouldn’t have noticed the trail to this place.”

“Yet somehow you did not.” He smiled. “It’s surprising what one can overlook if one is preoccupied.”

“I notice things for a living.” Never mind that I missed the path. “I came here specifically to find Kitezh.” I withdrew my cell phone from my pocket and began taking pictures.

Benedikt said, in a gentle tone, “That won’t work here.”

“Oh, no service, huh?” He was right. There were no bars on the display. While less than a tenth of a mile away I had been talking with George Orlov. Well, cell phones. “That’s all right, I’m only taking pictures.” And a few discreet movies. As well as whatever data the gizmos in my backpack can gather.

He shook his head, smiling. “I’m sorry. It won’t take pictures, either.”

I checked the phone—another point for Benedikt. Nothing in memory or on the card. The damn thing must be malfunctioning. But I knew it wasn’t. Whatever mental blip that caused people to speak in tongues after they left Kitezh apparently had an electronic analog, some sort of jamming field.

“Once you return through the ravine,” Benedikt said, “your phone will work.”

Without waiting to hear more I spun round and ran back the way we’d come. But somehow in my excitement I managed to lose my way. Again.On the path. At last, though I no longer knew where I was, I stopped. I pulled out my cell phone, saw two bars and punched Peter’s number.

His voice: “Hello?”

“Morel muspi. Rolod tisi tema, reutetcesnoc gincsipida tilé. Man h’bin. C’nun suirav sisilicaf soré. Des téra.” Listen to me. I found the place. It’s real. Kitezh is real. It’s all true. I’ve proved it.

“Who the hell is this? Alice, is that?”

“Des téra!” It’s real!

“Alice, you’re talking gibberish. Wait. You… can’t tell me what happened, can you?” He muttered something to himself. “You found it.”

“Mm-hm! Nio ni tilev—” Shaking with frustration I gave up, and walked on with the phone clutched in my hand. I was back on the trail around the lake, out of Kitezh and presumably free of its influence. I turned around, and saw nothing of the path’s offshoot that had led me there. It was maddening.

“Alice, are you there?” from my phone.

I lifted the phone to my ear. “I’m here.” I walked back a few steps and saw the way unfold out of the shrubbery like a live thing approaching me. “Wait, Peter.” I stepped onto the path. “Wait a moment.” I ran as fast as I could toward the ravine. At its mouth stood Benedikt the electrobotanist. He smiled, and tapped his forehead.

Yeah yeah, Yellow Submarine; it’s all in the mind.“You’re not going to let me tell him.”

His smile broadened but remained kindly. And a little pitying?

Into the phone, I said, “Goodbye, Peter. I’ll talk to you later.” I was panting. I faced the electrobotanist. “How much longer do you think you can keep this up, Benedikt? You Kitezhians or, or whatever you call yourselves.”

Benedikt extended a hand, palm up—walk with me. We strolled toward the village. “You’re correct,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to maintain our secrecy forever. It’s harder these days, with modern technology all around us. We regularly take the village to regions in Chinawhere—”

“Whoa. Wait. You take the village?”

“Oh, yes. It’s, well, portable.”

“But how can you move a whole,” I trailed off. “You’re not going to tell me.”

He smiled.

Just like Brigadoon, I said to myself, frowning. “Okay, go on with what you were saying.”

“We go to China, where there are deposits of rare earth elements we need for our own various technologies, including what you’d call a ‘cloaking device’ shielding us from outside view.” He sighed. “But the Chinese are growing suspicious due to ‘unexplained’ depletion of these deposits, and we may soon need to investigate extraterrestrial sources.”

“Well, I can under—wait. Extraterrestrial?”

“Asteroids. Let’s just say we’re working on it.”

“But this is…” I spread my arms and shook my head, at a loss for words. “How can a little lakeside village be capable of such a thing?”

“We’re not, not yet.”

“Not yet? My God.” My head was spinning. George Orlov was going to get his money’s worth, all right.

Peter already had. My very inability to tell him the truth told him the truth.

I would not, of course, be able to tell George what I had learned, that Kitezh was real, but my glossolalia would be sufficiently revealing. I had a pang for what I was doing to his unsuspecting brother.

“I know your circumstances, Ms. McNeill,” Benedikt said. “Why you’re here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Peter Orlov. To our way of looking at things, his boyhood visit here happened only a few weeks ago.”

I thought about the waiter back at the hotel. “Yeah, I think I’m starting to get it. You’ve been spying on me.”

“More like investigating what sort of person you are.”

“If you’re that good, you must know what I am. What I do.” I took a breath. “I’ve killed people, Benedikt.”

“Oh yes, we know. But we feel that in all cases the deaths were justified.” He smiled. “Otherwise you and I would not be talking now.”

“Uh-huh.” We walked a few more steps in silence while I thought. To someone in my line of work, Kitezh was like Paradise. I could learn so much. “Benedikt, listen. Do, do people ever stay on, here? You know, having stumbled in, do you allow some visitors to stay?”

“It has happened. If Peter finds us again, he’ll be allowed to stay. He has knowledge of financial matters that we would be able to use.”

“Yeah. What about someone like me? Could I stay?”

“Alice, the only reason we are having this conversation now is because we have been discussing our need for someone like you.”

“That’s settled, then. You won’t regret—”

He held up a hand. “You do understand that if at some point you decide to leave, you won’t be able to talk about it to anyone outside.”

“Yeees.”

“Nor will you retain the knowledge. We will have to edit your memory to remove any memories of Kitezh or what you did here.”

I swallowed. “Yes. But what about Peter Orlov?” I knew it was a foolish question as soon as the words left my mouth.

“I think he will make his way back here eventually.”

“Hmm. And George?”

Benedikt shrugged without bothering to speak.

I nodded slowly. George would be stuck. No proof and no investigator. On the other hand, if Peter was convinced that Kitezh existed, nothing would keep him from getting back to it. George would get his wish. He’d end heading the corporation.

I thought about the life I would be leaving behind. I had no family left except my younger brother, a career military man. He knew about my line of work, had in fact helped me get into it, being well connected with the CIA and DMS and a bunch of other alphabet agencies that occasionally needed someone like me to follow up on off-the-books stuff. If I vanished he’d assume I had good reason, or got tangled with something bigger or weirder than I could handle.

Aside from him and a few houseplants, there was no one.

And yet.

We stood in Kitezh’s town square, Benedikt and I. There was the splashing fountain, the little houses covered with electric ivy, and a blue sky such as I had never seen. Small catlike mechanisms prowled the square, their metal claws ticking on the cobbles.

The breeze shifted warm and laden with good scents. A melody drifted past me; the same one Peter had recorded. A chill tickled my spine. I might call it unearthly.

I held out my hand and he took it.

“You’re not staying,” he said.

“I can’t just…disappear. I have family.” I released his hand. “A different kind of family. And other clients. Dangling threads that need tying up, you know? Believe me, I’d rather stay.”

Benedikt stared into my eyes for a long moment. Then he nodded. “Very well. Good luck, Alice. Perhaps I will see you again one day.”

I don’t like goodbyes. I turned and walked away.


A.L. Sirois is a writer, developmental editor, graphic artist and performing musician. He has published fiction in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Amazing Stories, and Thema, and online at Electric Spec, Mystery Weekly, Every Day Fiction and Flash Fiction Online, et al. His story “In the Conservatory” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Other works include a fantasy novel, THE BOHEMIAN MAGICIAN (Dragon Scale Publishing, 2017), and JERSEY GHOULS (Azure Spider Publications, 2018). As an artist, he’s produced hundreds of drawings, paintings and illustrations. He lives in Rockingham County, North Carolina with his wife and occasional collaborator, author Grace Marcus.

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Violette by Ivan Zoric

Sooo good

Me First Magazine

Here’s a name you don’t hear often. Violette Reign.
The words rolled effortlessly off her tongue. Her perfect French scattered a
pack of wild chills up my spine. No way I was going to repeat it without
practicing—Slav roots and hard R’s be damned.

It suited her. One look at her, shivering in the cold February night air, inside the courtyard where we were all gathered, and I knew she had reinvented herself with it. It was not the fact that she was obviously cold (and that thin leather jacket did not help either), no. She shivered with grace; a delicate tremble of the shoulders, a gentle sway of her hips, all the time standing on the tip of her toes.

The fool that I was, I fell for it. I offered her my coat, which she refused with a smile.

“I am not that cold, really,” she said. “Besides…

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