All posts in “Fiction”

The Last Original Guitar Riff in G

Our work doesn’t bring us to the suburbs much. In my nearly six years with Containment, it’s mainly been recording studios, along with hotel suites and villas in Jamaica or the south of France, or an occasional surprise backstage at a nightclub when only the elite know that So-and-So is testing some new numbers. But on this bright summer afternoon, when Haines stops the van outside a three, maybe four-bedroom ranch that looks like all the houses around it except for the paint on the shutters, it’s like I’ve been transported to the neighborhood I lived in when I was in high school, where my biggest concern was whether I’d be platooning at end with David Dean or he’d play all four quarters.

Of course, I don’t tell Haines any of this as we exit the van. He’s got me beat by ten years in the Unit. He came on early enough to hear the stories from the first crews, those who’d been around when things were getting started in the fifties. I follow him down the sidewalk, silent, shading my hand over my eyes from the sun. Just like Fountainview Estates in 1984, the trees here haven’t grown to do much more than make navigating the push-mower difficult. An oil stain in the shape of Africa mars the driveway. We both avoid it, then step over the bike angled across the porch. I know little about Haines beyond what he’s told me about his life in the Unit and his life in it, along with what I can see in his wrinkled face, his high and tight that would still pass Corps muster, his gray suit, white shirt and black tie that match mine. Where was he born? What did he listen to when he was in school? Why is all this coming to me now?

Haines stops, holds a finger to his lips and points to the house. It takes me a minute but I can hear a guitar above the noise of squabbling siblings, wheezing garage doors, and roaring Weed Eaters. Just one guitar, playing the same few notes over and over, unaccompanied, sometimes cleanly, other times not. “Sounds like a Fender copy with a,” Haines pauses, squints. “Peavey. Definitely a Peavey.”

I nod, though I wouldn’t disagree even if I knew enough to. Haines is at the door in a blink, knocking. Not too hard. We aren’t the ATF or DEA. In fact, when this job came down from the head office, the recommended dress code was that we look like salesman. We needed to blend in and get to this street—what is it Cherry, Maple, Elm?—and get there fast, considering the potential of what was happening inside. I’m even carrying a sample case to complete the disguise, pretending to struggle though it’s empty.

Nobody answers the door, and the guitar keeps playing, now moving on to what sounds like the Stones or maybe the Who—I’m always mixing them up, which Haines can’t believe: “Do you even own a CD?” he’s always asking. Now the amp’s turned up a few notches and fuzzed out more than earlier. Haynes looks at his watch. I say, “Reminds me of home” and turn around to salute a rippling flag anchored to a house across the street.

“May I remind you that we’re on the clock,” Haines says, then knocks again, shifting from a couple of knuckles to a fist.

The guitar stops. There’s a hammering of feet on the floor. It sounds like laminate underfoot—surely no developer or homeowner would have laid hardwoods here. Locks get undone on the other side and the person who answers is just a kid. This shouldn’t surprise me. It’s a summer day. School’s out. Maybe he hasn’t got a job at McDonald’s or his shift doesn’t start until later. Still, we never see kids when we’re working. The youngest I’ve encountered was the twenty-two-year-old with the spiky blue hair and cheek tattoo who agreed he would, as Haines suggested, mute the power chords a little more on the next album.  But he and his band had sold over ten million units and we were outside his Austin mansion with the swimming pool shaped like an angry fist flipping off the world. It was hard to think of years as the way to measure him.

Holding open the door now, though, is really a kid, maybe sixteen, his mustache scant and his eyes sleepy, his hair a tangled mess like he woke only minutes ago. In Recon, I was trained to size people up quickly, know everything from ethnicity to which is their strong hand or where might they hide a weapon. You expect everyone to be white in a neighborhood like this, like mine, but I can’t figure this kid out. Mixed, I’m thinking, though I can’t figure out all the parts. If he was the one playing the guitar, experience tells me he’s likely part white. But none of this matters for now. Haines has started his spiel: “We were wondering if we might interest you in a product guaranteed to make your life 100 percent easier.”

The kid’s hanging on the door, his arm elongated and his mouth open. He doesn’t say anything but he pulls the door wider and that’s all Haines needs. He’s through and I follow. We don’t need to get physical—the main reason I’m here—but I flex my biceps and swivel around my neck just in case. “What’s in the case, dude?” the kid says, and I pause, remembering to hoist it like something’s actually inside. The kid’s eyes close again.

“Say,” Haines says, “what was that CD you were listening to before?”

This gets the kids eyes open. He gazes at my sample case, but doesn’t notice it’s just about as tall as he is. He says, “What CD?”

“Sounded like some pretty good guitar on it.”

Haines knows what he’s doing. I’m surprised. You deal with rock and roll guys as much as he does, he might have lost his touch with someone this young. The kid’s smile is brief, but I see it, and I wish I’d seen the color of his gums to have a better idea just what he is. He says, “That was me.” He digs a hand out of his pocket, wipes his mouth. “I was playing.” He cocks his head. He nods at the sample case. “What are you trying to sell?”

“I don’t believe it,” Haines says. “That was you?” He shakes his head. A smile as false as a promise tightens his creased face. He says, “Prove it.”

The kid’s smile is back, as legit as Haines’s isn’t. “Follow me.”

It doesn’t take him long to get to the room, which is as messy as mine was when I was his age, only instead of dirty clothes, shoulder pads and a helmet and Sports Illustrateds with Elway and Marino on the covers, his mess is made by heavy metal magazines, occasional rap ones, too, and jeans that all look like they’d fit Haines and me at the same time. I loosen my tie, undo a button, blocking the doorway while Haines clears off some space and sits on the unmade double bed. The kid plugs back in. I’ll be damned if the guitar isn’t a Fender copy and the amp has PEAVEY spelled out in silver on the front. And he’s banging out those same few notes, futzing a few of them but starting to get his timing down, and then, on the fourth try, playing each note so it rings like a coin dropped in an empty can and staring at Haines as if to say I told you.

Haines is off the bed and clapping before the kid can say anything. “Man, that’s good stuff,” Haines says. “Too good.” Then he stops clapping and turns to me, nods. The kid still smiles when I grab the neck of the guitar but his mouth and eyes both widen when I yank away his instrument. Next it’s his skinny arm, and I spin it behind his back. “Don’t resist,” I say. “It’s easier that way.”

 

On the drive back to the airport, Haines apologizes for the rough treatment and the short time the kid spent inside the sample case. He gives him the history during the flight, how, back in the fifties, the Unit was formed with the belief that this crazed teenage music, rock and roll, was not just a passing phase but a serious threat to social order that had to be contained. Not eliminated, Haines emphasizes, as there were individuals and corporations even as early as fifty-eight who’d figured out ways to profit from all the screeching, while containing it in a way that keeps it from becoming a truly transgressive moment in human history. Haines likes that last phrase. He’s said it every time we’ve been on such a call, and there are times when I think he believes it. But as he goes on, and the kid finally seems awake enough to understand, I stop listening. I’ve heard it before, plus I’ve never quite figured out how it’s all supposed to work or why it was determined around sixty-two that, by having British bands play essentially the same music that black guys did in the fifties, there would no longer be any of the interracial mixing that had frightened so many. I mean, I do and I don’t understand, for here’s exhibit a, the kid, of people of different races getting together. Yet there’s my own recollection of every concert we’ve gone to, Haines and me, and how the only black people at rock and roll shows are security. Things might be a little different at the rap and R&B concerts, but that’s not my area. I’m also confused about how the Unit operates, being both, as Haines says now (so I am listening, after all), above and within the government, here and abroad. Whatever the case, the checks don’t bounce so I do what I’m asked, which on this afternoon is to secure this kid’s transit to somewhere no one would know how to find him.

Haines is done with his story. I look at the kid and he’s nodding but in the way I used to nod to older people, hopeful that doing so would make sure this endless story was over. Haines pats him on the knee. “Understand what I’m saying then?”

The kid nods but as quickly shakes his head. He says, “This is about music.” He looks my way, flinches. His hand rises to knead his right shoulder. “Right?”

A signal flashes above the door to the cockpit. We’ll be landing soon. Haines says, “Shit, I don’t even know your name, buddy.”

I lean in closer, hoping to hear a name like LaMarcus or Jesus or Ban. “Jake,” the kid says, which even a bachelor like me knows is a popular boy name of the last decade. I quit. This is why I’m in Containment, not Inquiry, like Haines’s buddy Rothschild, who tipped us off about this one in the first place. The plane’s begun its descent, and I see Jake start at the angle. I wonder if it’s his first time on a plane.

We rarely get this far. Most of the performers in the business, they’ve been indoctrinated by somebody—a manager, record exec, a fellow performer—and we’re reminders, not enforcers. Oh, there’s been a few I’ve heard of who wouldn’t turn it down or switch to country or gospel or movie soundtracks. There’s a famous left-hander from Seattle, Haines says, who everybody thinks is dead but is really hanging out in this very unit, ordering pizzas from Domino’s and getting fat as a tick. But Jake’s too young, which is why we’re this far into the call. He doesn’t know enough to know better, and Haines tells me now, as we watch the kid sitting in an interrogation room that looks as swank as a hotel suite in Manhattan, that’s what makes this particular job so difficult. “I can’t tell,” Haines says. “Which way he’s going to go.” On the other side of the glass, Jake picks up a pack of Marlboros—which seems to me a sign that he’s mostly white—then looks around and pockets the pack, as if saving them for later.

“What happens if he says no?” I say.

“He stays.”

Jake’s probably a lazy little fucker who regularly slept past noon, talked back and kept up his family by playing too loud and too late, but he had to have people who might miss him. “Jesus, Haines,” I say. “What about his family?”

“They get this.” And he pulls out of the inside pocket of his jacket a folded piece of paper, which has, “Dear Mom and Dad,” at the top and “That’s why I don’t want to come back home,” right before his forged signature. “Kids go missing all the time. For real,” Haines says when I hand back the letter. He smacks the paper against his hand. “And Christ, did you hear that riff? It was going to blow shit up.” I wonder who turned Jake in, if it was a friend or a neighbor or a teacher or a family member. Or maybe the Unit already has the monitoring device Haynes keeps talking about on every guitar sold. “I guess so,” I say, but I’m not convinced. Then again, what do I know about music? Haines is right. I don’t even own a CD. On the radio I recognize a song or two, mostly ones on the oldies station that we listened to before games to get riled up. Stuff to chant and bang on shoulder pads to, but little else.

“I’m going to need you inside,” Haines says. He looks right at me. “It might get to that point.”

That point is a place I’ve never been in this job, at which I’m more than just the threat of being physical. I might actually have to cuff the kid around or make absolutely certain that he won’t ever be able to do anything on the guitar again. I stare at my hands. They’ve been there to take out who knows how many enemies back in the Gulf, but haven’t been one on one since I was trying to beat out David Dean for starting defensive end. “Just look,” Haines says, and sure enough Jake is walking in the direction of the guitar and the amp. They’re not hidden, exactly, but kept in a place where someone would have to look for them. This, Haines tells me, demonstrates just how important playing is to the person involved. That alone isn’t dangerous, but what Jake does next is:  he plugs in and bangs out that riff, which, now that I’m listening, is pretty catchy. Haines says, “Follow me,” and I do.

It’s probably the best guitar that Jake has ever played. The Unit never scrimps, and coming through the amp that’s nearly as tall as the lanky little fucker—I had to tuck his legs to fit him in that sample case—I’m really hearing what the kid’s playing and catch myself humming along as we walk in. Haines shouts, “Jake, could you turn it off for a minute?”

Jake nods but he rakes the volume knob higher and smacks the fat blue pick against the strings once more, really knocking it out. The sound is filling the empty spaces in me—between my ribs, behind my kneecaps—and moving me forward more than I am. Haines yanks the amp’s plug out of the wall. “That’s better,” he says. He’s smiling again, though Jake’s probably figured out enough to mistrust it. “How did you come up with that riff?” Haines says.

Jake needs a second to realize the volume is gone. He keeps playing and I wonder how loud the sound is in his head. He pockets the pick—little klepto—and rubs his chin against the torn collar of his t-shirt. “I was trying to play La Bamba,” he says.

“Why play that spic music?” Haines says, and I wonder if he’s trying to figure out the same thing that I am. I stand near the door, even though it’s locked, my knees bent slightly, my hands damp and pressed against my sides.

Jake says, “That’s not cool.” But that’s it. Nothing more. No curse words in Spanish or defense of his mother or father’s race. “Your generation is so out of touch.”

“So I am, so I am,” Haines says. He sits down on the sofa across from Jake. At last, the kid takes the guitar off and leans it against the amp. Haines says, “You understand then that my friend here and I aren’t just music lovers. That we’re here to make sure that you and that riff don’t go anywhere where  you might do some serious societal damage?”

“Why do you care?” Jake says, defiant.

“Why don’t you just make it easy on yourself, Jake,” Haines says.  “Just put the guitar down. Go back home. Have fun and dick around with your garage band or whatever. Just don’t play that riff in G any more.” He leans closer. He’s not smiling now. “Ever.”

“This is a joke, right? This is, like, totally un-American.” He looks at me and winces again. My palms grow even damper, like they’re feeling the guilt the rest of me is trying to ignore.

“Listen up, Jake,” Haines says. “You’re not the first person we’ve had here. You won’t be the last.”

“Like who?”

His eyes glaze over as Haines mentions some of the people the Unit has silenced or convinced to invest their efforts elsewhere, but a few make the poor kid wince. He’s shaking his head by the time Haines mentions that famous left-handed player, and Jake says, “He’s dead, man. I read two fucking books about him.”

“Oh no, he’s right in here. Blows away everybody in Rock Band, on drums and vocals, too. You can meet him right before we leave. After you promise to quit playing that riff.”

For a long minute, Jake just stares at the guitar leaning against the amp. It’s cherry red and shines so bright I can see the blurry reflection of Jake’s long face. His fists bounce on his shaking knees. I still don’t know just what he is and won’t until I ask him, but the way he seems now and with his memory of my sleeper hold, why would he say anything to me. When he stands and walks toward Haines, I relax, pretty certain that, like all the rest, he’s about to say that, in the end, a few cool notes don’t mean that much. And after Haines stands and extends his hand, Jake nods.  Their hands get pretty close before Jake wheels around, plugs in the amp, straps on the guitar, and jacks every knob up to such a volume that my teeth are rattling before he even strikes a note. Which he does, of course, hammering that riff out so cleanly it sounds like a recording from the most up to date studio around. Only this time, he’s got more. Rather than playing the riff over and over, he slides into a little solo, then some chords, his fingers forming the shapes while he stares directly at Haines. If he’s got words yet, he’s not sharing them now, but Haines has this to say to me: “It’s that time.” And my hands free themselves from my sides before I even think. Yet I want to watch this kid play. “Goddam it,” Haines says. “It’s time.”

I don’t remember a single moment like the one when I learned my football career would end. No members of a covert agency visited me to make that clear. There was just this moment when the lack of recruiting letters from even the tiny colleges and the shrinking playing time made it pretty certain that soon I would be turning in my equipment for a last time. When I take the few steps toward Jake and he keeps playing, I know  I should have in mind the fracture of a couple of fingers on both hands so they’ll never glide so easily over these strings again. Yet I can’t. Haines says my name twice and slaps me on the shoulder but he quiets when I get his left hand behind his back—I knew he was a portsider after our first five minutes together—and it’s almost like he knows what I’m doing when I put him in the hold, like he maybe approves. The sight of Haines crumpled on the couch finally gets Jake to stop playing, but before he says a word I hand him the cash in my wallet and combine that with what’s in Haines’s. “Eight hundred,” I say. “Plenty to get back home.”

“Why?” Jake says, the guitar still strapped to him, like it should never come off.

I shrug, say, “Get out of here,” and guide him back to my empty sample case. It’s a tight fit, sure, but when we’re off the base and he’s on his way to the airport to fly home I finally feel as though I come to, thinking that I have a decision of my own to make now and need to get moving. But already I can hear Jake’s song in my head. I don’t know if he’s got words of his own or needs to meet the person who’s going to supply them. Either way, it’s playing in my head now, like it’s on the radio, on the way to a Friday night game, when everything seemed on the verge of changing for the better.

About Tom: Tom Willams is the author of two books of fiction: The Mimic’s Own Voice and Don’t Start Me Talkin’. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and their son.

Tom Williams is co-author of Cobalt Press’ debut full-length book, Four Fathers.
Click here to learn more about the collection of fiction and poetry.

 

Interview: Michael Landweber

Cobalt: Michael, hi. Thanks for doing this with us. It’s great to have an excerpt from your new book We in our first issue of the third year! To begin with, can you set us up for what we’re about to read?

Michael Landweber: Thanks for having me.  And congrats to Cobalt on your third year!

I’ve been saying my book is literary fiction with a splash of genre. It is the story of a 40-something who wakes up inside the brain of his 7-year-old self. He’s not in control – he’s just a hitchhiker who can observe the world through his younger self. The man, Ben, just wants to get away from Binky, which was his nickname as a child. That is, until he realizes that it is three days before his sister is going to be attacked, a crime that destroyed his family.  Ben realizes that he has to convince Binky to do something about it.  The problem is that Binky doesn’t like his older self very much. Ben doesn’t always have the best judgment, and one of the ways he has been trying to win Binky over is by helping him answer some of Binky’s classmates questions about sex. This has made Binky a bit of a elementary school celebrity. But it also leads to the trip to the Principal’s office in the excerpt.

Cobalt: You’ve established yourself pretty well in the local literary scene, publishing work in various Maryland and DC journals. What do you think are some of the strengths to living in such a rich literary scene?

Landweber: It is awesome to be living in an area with so many great outlets for writing. Cobalt is a wonderful addition to the literary landscape.   As you mentioned, I’ve been lucky enough to land pieces in local journals and websites like Gargoyle, Big Lucks, Potomac Review, jmww and Barrelhouse.  But this only happened for me and others because there are so many great writers and editors promoting the work of their peers. It is tough out there for a writer to be heard. Having such a collaborative atmosphere in the DC/Baltimore area helps amplify all the rich voices found here.

Cobalt: Madison, Wisconsin, eh? What brought you here to Maryland?

Landweber: Well, the short answer is that I’ve been following the same girl around for twenty years and she brought me to DC.  But the long answer starts a bit before that. Madison is a terrific place to grow up, but like most kids I was ready to try something new after high school. I went to Princeton for college and then ended up moving to Japan for a year.  Turns out that girl, who is now my wife, lived in the apartment next to mine in Tokyo.  She hasn’t been able to shake me since.  When she decided to leave Japan and travel in Asia, I tagged along.  When she decided to go to law school in Ann Arbor, I found myself two grad programs that would cover three years at Michigan.  And when she decided we should live in DC, I got myself a job at the State Department.  Stalking her really has made my decisionmaking process much less complicated.

Cobalt: How does being a bureaucrat inform your writing/hinder it?

Landweber: Well, everything I do informs my writing in some way.  I think that’s the case for all writers.  There are aspects of how things move through a bureaucracy that appeal to my sense of the absurd.  At the same time, for all the flak that the federal government gets, the policies and programs that come out of the complicated system have real affects on people and I would argue that they are often beneficial. Anyway, that’s my defense of bureaucrats.  But, that said, I don’t really write about anything that I work on.  As for hindering my writing, that is more a function of having a full time job than being a bureaucrat.  There are only so many hours in the day.

Cobalt: I always enjoy a good psychological read, and you even get into sci-fi (which has been on a serious upswing as far as pop-culture seems to be concerned). Can you speak more to these elements within the book?

Landweber: Including genre elements in literary fiction does seem to be on an upswing. There are some amazing writers that have always used them, such as Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami.  But now it seems that many writers are more willing to blur the lines, including some of my favorites like Kazuo Ishiguro, Karen Russell, Michael Chabon and Kevin Brockmeier.

In We, I wanted to send my main character back in time, but I didn’t want to do something that I’d seen before.  I didn’t want a straight up time travel story.  And I didn’t want to have him just take over the body of his younger self.  I was more interested in the psychology of how would someone interact with an earlier version of themselves.  So, that’s how I ended up with two manifestations of the same person occupying one brain.  It made for a lot of fun dialogue to write.  I also enjoyed going down the path of envisioning what a physical representation of the superego and id might look like.  Particularly the id, which turned out to be a nasty piece of work.

Cobalt: And where can our readers obtain a copy? Do you have any local events coming up?

Landweber: I’m encouraging people to order a copy through their local independent bookstore.  It may not be on the shelf, but any store can get a copy for you.  It is also available on any of the big retailers’ websites or through my publisher, Coffeetown Press.

I’ll be in Baltimore reading at the 510 series on November 16.  Also, let me put in a good word for the new Waterbear reading series which is held at One More Page books in Arlington, VA.  I had a great time reading there in August.

About Michael: Michael Landweber is the author of the novel, We (Coffeetown Press, 2013). His stories have appeared in Fugue, Fourteen Hills, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, American Literary Review, Big Lucks and a bunch of other places. He is an Associate Editor at Potomac Review, and writes reviews for Pop Matters and the Washington Independent Review of Books. Find more about Mike at mikelandweber.com.

excerpt from WE

We sat outside the Principal’s office on a hard wooden bench for three long minutes. I could hear Binky pacing back and forth inside the cave, rolling side to side like a metronome. He did not talk to me, but I knew he blamed me for everything. I wanted to tell him that getting called to the Principal’s office was a good thing, a badge of honor among the elementary school set, even though I knew it wouldn’t help. Binky didn’t want to talk to me; the chill made that clear.

“Benedict,” the shriveled secretary barked. “Principal Vanderbilt will see you now.”

It was comforting that my memory of Principal Vanderbilt matched the reality exactly. A sixty-something balding man with a paunch and a ’70s porno mustache. When someone says the word “principal,” I think of him.

He was not alone in the office. Ms. Mittewag was there as well. She looked concerned. Vanderbilt put on his practiced stern expression. It worked on Binky, who shrunk deeper into his chair, but I could see that Vanderbilt’s face, from eyebrows to jowls, had frayed around the edges from years of foisting this very look upon generations of children. The severity was a façade. Nothing real to fear here. There was a third person in the room. A woman wearing all white, young and a bit plump, with a round kind face. She was the type of girl who would have been my friend in high school. Probably the school nurse.

“Benedict, do you know why you’re here?” Vanderbilt said.

His question sounded like an accusation. Binky shook his head. An honest response for him and a flat out lie for me.

“You’ve been talking to the other kids,” he said. “Telling them things.”

I felt our face flush, telegraphing our guilt. I could hardly fault Binky for that. Going beet red at the slightest provocation is one of my best party tricks.

“These things you’ve been saying. They’re not appropriate for a child to talk about. Do you understand?”

“Or write,” Ms. Mittewag said. “Who told you these things?”

Ms. Mittewag punctuated her question by dropping a handful of notes onto the Principal’s desk, each one containing a bite of the forbidden fruit.

“Tell us, Benedict,” Vanderbilt said, leaning forward and filling our vision. “Someone must have told you these things. Who was it?”

Binky didn’t answer.

Principal Vanderbilt sat back again. He paged through our file.

“You have siblings. An older brother. Did he tell you those things?”

Binky remained silent.

“Or your sister maybe. Sara. I remember her.”

“No!”

Binky didn’t mean to shout, but there is no controlling an eruption of loyalty.

“It wasn’t your sister?”

“No.”

Binky paused.

Don’t tell them the truth, I said.

He ignored me.

“It was him. He told me.”

“So it was your brother,” Vanderbilt said. He checked the file again. “Charles.”

“No, not him,” Binky said, his voice sinking deep into quicksand.

The room grew quiet. The three adults exchanged glances. Principal Vanderbilt came out from behind the desk. He took a seat next to us.

“You can tell us the truth here. This is a safe place. Have you been talking to another adult? A man? Someone you don’t know?”

“No. Not … I don’t know. I …”

Binky didn’t have the words. The room filled with dread, three adults wondering if something horrible had happened on their watch.

They think you’ve been talking to strangers, I said.

I don’t talk to strangers.

Tell them that.

But I talk to you. I don’t know you.

You do know me, I said. You know you do.

I guess.

Tell them Charles told you.

That’s a lie.

Sometimes you need to lie.

“Benedict, are you okay? Benedict?”

We focused on the room again. The nurse was kneeling down in front of us now. She had a hand on our forehead and looked deeply into our eyes.

Binky nodded at her and she could not hide her relief.

“It was Charles,” Binky said. “He told me.”

Again, the adults spoke wordlessly, assessing the situation. Principal Vanderbilt wanted to discuss with the nurse. Ms. Mittewag took Binky’s hand and led him out of the room.

I shouldn’t have done that.

No, I said. It’s okay. Better this way.

We paused in the outer office.

“No luck getting his parents,” the secretary said.

“There’s only one period left,” Ms. Mittewag said. “Tell Jack I’m taking him back to class. I’ll talk to his dad when he picks him up.”

We walked silently back to the classroom.

No. It’s not better. It’s lying. It’s bad. You do bad things.

Sometimes things seem bad when they aren’t, I said.

Stop saying that. You are bad. I don’t like you. You want to hurt Sara. You hate Mommy. You tell me to say grown-up things that get me in trouble. You tell me to lie.

We arrived back in our classroom. Ms. Mittewag led us back to our desk. The other kids had not returned from gym yet. We were alone. She knelt next to us, still holding our hand.

“Ben, you can tell me what’s bothering you,” she said. “It’s okay.”

In her eyes, I saw the teacher that she would become, the one I wished had taught me. Binky saw her too.

I need to protect Sara.

Binky was right, of course. That had to be why I was here. To help Sara. To protect her. Only then did I realize that I had been hoping that I wouldn’t have to do anything. I still felt that way. Maybe my mere presence here had changed things. Maybe I could stop the rape from happening just by existing.

I need to protect everyone from you.

I’m not the problem.

But I could feel that Binky had left, vacating the cave for another part of the brain where I couldn’t follow. I wondered if he could hear me, if he would even listen.

Please, Binky, I said. Don’t.

“Ben?” Ms. Mittewag said. “Can you hear me?”

“He talks to me,” Binky said in a whisper, maybe hoping I wouldn’t hear.

“Who talks to you?”

“I don’t know. He says that he’s me.”

“Is this a person?”

“No. I don’t know.”

Don’t tell her, I said. Please, Binky.

My words echoed around me, too late and without strength.

“Is it just someone you hear? Someone who talks to you in your head? A voice?”

Binky lunged for her and she took him into her arms. He whispered into her ear.

“He says things. He says someone is going to hurt Sara. He scares me.”

I said nothing. There was nothing left to say.

“It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“I just want him to go away.”

On that sentiment, we were in complete agreement.

Click here to order We by Michael Landweber, currently out from Coffeetown Press.

Hurried Departure

I didn’t see the clock, covered as it was in lipstick, smeared there by an angry paramour intent on getting her message across in mauve. It must have been five-ish, or thereabouts. How I knew the time was more to do with the glow across the tops of the trees–that particular pool of yellow that comes in the gloaming around here–than any temporal credit given to my innate mental sharpness.

Anyway, it was my fault, the crusted desires of the middle-aged man, seeking solace in the pages of the pet lover’s magazine. When I saw the recipe for the “gumbo” of goat afterbirth with a tone of jasmine, I couldn’t resist. My lady friend arrived for dinner, the room aglow in dim purplish lights from the chiffon scarves placed over the lamps, more an effort to conceal the cracked paint and cobwebbed corners than any romantic notion. Don’t misunderstand me, I wasn’t looking to roll on the sofa with her, no. She was too proper for such activities, but I did sense benevolence on her part, towards me.

The wax rolled down the lit candle, like, well, you know… She accepted a splash of Pinot Noir from Oregon, and walked through to the kitchen, where the caprine gumbo was bubbling away. In the tangle of bloody afterbirth, a small creature was paddling in the cast iron pot, a perfectly formed three-inch tall goat-child.

My lady friend excused herself to the bathroom, and as the kitchen light struck the stove I flicked at a dust mote floating in the light beam. She did not return to the kitchen, only the slam of the door attesting to her hurried departure.

Click here to order Blood a Cold Blue by James Claffey from Press 53.

Bone

A furrow of metal pieces hold my skull together, inexpertly riveted in place by a disaffected nurse practitioner. How did it happen, she asked. The truth, unknown, the fiction a woven mat of dark rooms and ill-placed furniture. Even as I made my way to the parking lot, the bone revolted from the metal, the clear fluid gelled on the wound, and the low moon hung ashamedly in the bare trees. Strength through prayer, a fallback position, the unspoken cure-all for my family afflictions. Spare a few coppers? the tinker in the blanket asked at the hospital gate, the mummified baby hugged to her chest. My left eye fell down to the bottom of the socket and rebounded shakily for a few seconds. In my pocket, my fingers rubbed lint and thread together, a complete absence of coin.

Click here to order Blood a Cold Blue by James Claffey from Press 53.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Dying, Just Before, and the Moment After

I

She streaks past me naked in the dark hall. Light from the bathroom flashes upon her face, her thin shoulders, her sharp knees. Her head turns toward me, her dark eyes angry stabs. As if daring me to see her, stop her, help her. Or demanding I don’t.

I struggle up from the cot where I’ve been sleeping. Through the open doorway, she’s a slice of bright light, slumped on the toilet, the white tiles gleaming behind her.

She kicks the door shut in my face.

II

Late June she’s diagnosed. October first gone. Mid-August her strength rallies.

“I don’t think I’m dying after all,” she tells me. “They got it all wrong.  As usual.”

“Don’t look at me like that,” she says.

“Like what?”

“Like that.”

III

The plums lie where they fall in the tall grass. I pass them on my way to the dumpster, where I toss plastic bags filled with fouled Depends, empty syringes, and morphine bottles.

On the way back to her apartment I gather up a few plums, passing over the ones pecked by birds, or burst open from the fall, or too soft to hold together, carefully selecting those with bright tight skins.

“Where did you get those? Did you pick them?”

“No, they were on the ground.”

“Garbage. Throw them out.”

“Garbage,” she insists. Her foot hits the lever, opening the trash can as I try to push past her.

When she’s not looking I fish out the plums and wash them in cold water. I place them in a bowl in the refrigerator next to the bottles of Ensure and pediatric water that she won’t touch.

When she’s asleep I take one out and press the cold, purple flesh against my lips, biting through the taut, tart skin to the soft, sweet meat beneath. Sucking up the juices.

IV

“Come here.  I want you to sit on my lap.”

“No, Mama. I’m too heavy. I’ll hurt you.”

“Come, I want to hold you, like I used to,” she says, patting her lap.

Her hands are all bone now, her nails long and yellow. Her pajama bottoms are so loose there’s almost no leg to sit on. I balance on the edge of the recliner and she pulls my head down to her chest.

“There now,” she says, “there now.”

I feel like I’m lying on glass. Like any second I’ll break through. Like the long sharp shards of her body holding me up are giving way, and I’m being torn to pieces in her arms.

V

“She says you stole her car.” The social worker from hospice sits on the couch with a pad and pen in her hand. She’s new. They’re always new. We’ve had this conversation before.

“It’s in the shop. The clutch went out, remember Mama?”

“You can’t have it. Bring it back.”

“You don’t need it. Besides you can’t drive.”

“Anna can drive me, can’t you Anna?”

Across from the social worker sits Anna, slumped on the hearth, biting her thumbnail. I sit facing my mother. We are like four points on the compass, holding up our respective ends.

“That’s not Anna’s job, to drive you.”

“I know what you’re doing,” she tells me between clenched teeth.

“What am I doing?”

“You know what you’re doing!”

Her fury flashes across the room in brilliant streaks, passing over Anna’s bent head, the social worker’s busy pen. It hits me full in the face. I do not flinch.

VI

In spring the wild turkeys wander down from the hillsides and graze in the meadow behind our home. Sometimes they come into our yard and stand before the glass doors. Raising their wings and flapping furiously, they butt their hard beaks against the glass. Attacking what they take as another.

VII

She’s moving in slow motion, inching across the room in her walker. Her sharp shoulders are hunched, her wide mouth drooped, her once silver hair yellow and dull. Dark eyes burn in sunken sockets.

Slowly she turns her face turns toward me, fixing her fierce, bitter-bright eyes on mine.

“This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says.

VIII

I kneel at her knees weeping. Her hands lightly pat my head.

When I look up her eyes are closed and she looks so peaceful. Her body sinks deep into the soft cushions steeped in her own scent. The wings of the chair, the arms and the legs, rise up around her, the sharp edges of her face and body sunk in softness.

If I could I would let her, cocooned like that, sink deep beneath the shade of the plum trees outside her window. Sink into the earth just like that.

The tight bitter skin broken through. All the sweet juices let loose.

IX

The ground squirrels are popping up everywhere, their long tunnels weaving through the roots of the old oaks, loosening the soil that anchors them to the slopes. We fear they will eventually cause the trees to tumble and the hillside holding up our home collapse.

So we feed them poison, sprinkling it around the trees and along the squirrel-dug furrows, as if sowing seed. It’s the same stuff found in the warfarin my husband takes to keep his blood thin and clot-free.

Sometimes I imagine them out there beneath the oak trees in the moonlight, the squirrels running in slow motion through dark tunnels while the blood running through their veins grows thinner and thinner. The light in their brains growing brighter and brighter until they finally explode, like stars, in a burst of white light.

X

She sits on the edge of the bed hunched over, letting me do what I will. The lamplight spills over our bent heads, catching the sheen on her tight skin.

I hold her bare foot in my hand and rub lotion into the dry skin, messaging the soft soles and the rough edges of her toes. I spread the thick lotion up her thin ankles and over the scales on her calves where it soon disappears. I pour on more and more.

Her skin is so thirsty. There’s no end to the thirst.

XI

I listen to her breathing in the dark from my cot in the next room. I hold my breath each time, waiting, listening. Sometimes minutes seem to pass before the rattle starts up again. Each time it’s longer and longer. Soon the minutes will turn to hours, the hours to days, then weeks, years.

How long can you hold your breath before your heart bursts?

XII

I touch her hair, her cheek, before they wheel her into the room where she’s cremated. I wait while she turns to ashes.

XIII

It’s too dark to see when I hear the deer scream. There’s only the sound of thundering hooves and that long terrifying scream passing from one end of the meadow to the other, before crashing down a ravine.

It ends abruptly, as if a knife has crossed its throat.

I see the deer often in my dreams, screaming past me in the dark, slowly turning her head toward me. Fixing her fierce, bitter-bright eyes on mine.

I do not turn away.  I let her drink and drink.

About Deborah: Deborah Brasket is a writer living on the central coast of California. She taught English and literature as an adjunct professor before becoming the director of a nonprofit, where she advocated on social justice and environmental issues.  Her essays, articles, poetry, book reviews, and fiction have been published in a number of venues over the years. Currently she is working on a novel, a collection of short stories, and a book based on her six-year voyage around the world on a small sailboat. Some of her work can be found on her blog.

Chambersburg

At the end of a day, we turn off fluorescent lights, leaving office work on respective desks. Between us—the width of Pennsylvania. You fly west, and I scurry east. A woman named Lillie has prepared a bed in the middle.

You hold an elegant gift bag emblazoned with blue and gold geometrics. Inside, there are pages from Science magazine crumpled and balled. Makeshift tissue paper, you say. The mouth of a wine glass is wedged with quarks and constellations.

I have slept with you once before this, but it was in a Queen size bed in Pittsburgh and not as floral. But that night I didn’t sleep at all.

On a Saturday, we wine hop in an October countryside, tripping upon an Apple Festival but refraining. We instead climb a gravel driveway to the Hauser Estate Winery, quickly fetching glasses of white and red. You sign a receipt in large, shaky letters resembling an M an E and a K, and we rest our frigid bodies in the metal chairs outside. The chatter of young folks dissipates behind us. My mother loved that kind of pen, you tell me.

That night, I immediately regret telling you I wanted to see the Round Barn of Terror. My face has never been so buried in tweed, scratches on the chin. But then we drink cider and make smores and there is feeling in my toes again. Feeling all over.

It is during the last breakfast of cheese omelets and canister coffee that I consider loving you. Instead, I fixate on a navy damask placemat and wonder how many tiny towns separate me from you.

About B. Rose: B. Rose Huber is a science writer for the University of Pittsburgh. She received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore, where she published her novella A Bear’s Place. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pear Noir!, The Light Ekphrastic, The New Yinzer, Weave Magazine, and Welter.

Displacement

I’m a drowner. I see to it that men receive their dues in accordance with His Honour’s command. Eight buckets in each crate and then I wait until the pounding stops—but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself; or, rather, of you.

Yes, I can tell from a league away that you’re either unfamiliar with what I do, which is a surprise, or maybe even disdainful of it, which is even more of a surprise. In either case, you shouldn’t be. You are one of His Honour’s fortunes, after all. An ill-behaved one, at that, or you’d not be here.

But I suppose that’s why we’ve brought you forward today: to learn. Why you’re the only one, though, that I can’t resolve, but I can assure you that more will be along, due enough. There’s never just one. I should think it really very strange if there were only one, and investigate the source of the congestion immediately. Granted, we’ve been slowing lately, but there’s always a half-dozen, at least. Not one. They’ll be here—they’ll just have to miss the lecture.

Which brings me to the point. You may wonder Why all the talk? Why the description? You may ask yourself why I don’t just remove the hood and show you what it is I’ll be talking about. To that I say to you: each to its due time. Now, I have my label, and you yours; and I abide by the rule of label. The time is not yet, you know. I see you’re shaking now; positively quivering all over. I understand that it’s cold in here, and that they don’t exactly give you much in the way of clothing (though they used to), but try to bear it for a while longer. Unless you’re… oh, hey, now, don’t get like that. Come, don’t be afraid, it’s alright, really, and not so bad as all that. I promise you, lad.

First, I know you’re innocent. Oh, you probably have an astonished look on your face, I’d guess, if I could see it. How do I know, you’d probably ask, if you could say it—don’t worry, we’ll be taking the gag before you step in (it’s called a stopper), and the hood as well, for that matter. With half a dozen or more coming in here each day we should, as a nation, go completely under were we not to share: all for bits and pieces like that. Everything for good reason, you know. Each to their time. Oh, there you’ve been set off again; I apologize, truly. I don’t mean any discomfort, to rub any wounds.

Where was I, though? Your innocence, yes. I know you’re innocent because everyone is. The tale is well-worn. It’s why you’ve been fitted with all the equipment, after all. So we don’t hear it again, among other things. But you’re such a skinny fellow, almost a skeleton, really, that I don’t see what harm you’d do unleashed from the harness (do they spare the food now, too?). Don’t try to answer; the other branches aren’t my responsibility, and my body’s laden enough with duties here. I’m no judge, but a metonym. In any event, it’s all about efficiency; there are committees; I’m certain the state knows its business. And I know mine. For everything is very much a business these days—you wouldn’t believe how many laws went unenforced (especially the newer ones) until the agents and the arbiters were incentivized—after all, an institution testifies its worth only through continued relevancy. Policy is beyond me, but I follow commands to their letter, you’ll find.

§

You’re in the final chamber. That’s what it’s really called: the final chamber—although others have their own colloquial names for it. The mud room. The long room. The wet room. At least they’re all in agreement about one thing: it is a room. And that room is wide and rectangular, with grates along its regular walls. We’re in the farthest side of it now, on the benches, but it moves down like a grand hallway or a promenade; with the vaulted ceilings, too, you’d hardly guess it’s underground but for the drip.

As we start to walk you’ll feel a mounting tilt as the floor begins to move towards the outermost edges (you’re not so giddy as to imagine it)—which is why the crates themselves are shaped irregularly at the bottom: to accommodate this slant and to ensure a tight, flat seal against the top. Twelve and twelve crates, side to side, exactly one meter apart from one another and two from the walls. That’s the pattern. The three small holes at the top are first for the funnels, and later to drag them for transport. The tracks are there for something else. It’s not important that you remember all of the figures so long as you appreciate the grander, indelible organization.

We’ll approach the crates, and one is placed inside—not forced: one can choose to situate himself inside or be pushed in manually; really, it’s up to him—though nearly everyone decides to curl in upon their back with their face straight up, towards where the sky would be. To be honest I hate that, I truly do. I hate the look on pale faces, stamped with wet eyes aghast in the light like wet moons when the hoods come off, that expression like a little guppy retreats just before the lid slides over and snaps in place. They have an unexpected kind of fail-safe, these lids: you see, the mechanism of them ensures that once they lock themselves they can’t be opened by anyone. I don’t mean just the condemned, I mean anyone at all: I can’t open it; no man can, and I mean that. So you see it’s usually best simply to resign after that point (I tell this advice to everyone and to this day it’s never once been followed). But we each follow a course. We have a direction spread before us and we must go, which is why there is a mutual forgiveness here.

The water enters through the three holes, via the three-pronged funnel. They’re massive, metal devices, these funnels, that are actually painful to lift. A chain-operated conveyer does the other lifting, with my guidance. Then eight buckets. Then pounding like a gavel in my head. But really that’s all it takes; eight buckets and bit of time until stillness reigns again. The struts fall aside. And then it all flows back out, winding across the flagstones and back up to the main trough. And then I’m left here and – well I doubt you care about any of that, after all… gosh, I wonder whether I’ve been using the same twelve-times-two-times-eight buckets of water for nine – ten – years…?

Look, I’m sorry for going off like this. But where on earth are the others? You must recognize that I’m not used to such an… intimate audience. I suppose I’m prone to gambol on when there’s no crowd. It’s so much easier to face the whole than the part: the finer details are obscured. You see, it doesn’t happen, this: only one, how queer… I’m sure they’ll be along, though; we can wait…

§

…once (I’m sorry, did I frighten you?)…

Once I heard the most incredible hissing, like a jet of spray issuing from the sea, a quick and powerful fssst, but as if squeezed only through a fissure, far off, or coming to me through a conch. You should have seen this man: wide and sinewy, with bulbous features as if he were banged from birch-wood with a stone. And he had somehow managed to force his nose through one of the holes like a snorkel! Never before had I seen such a thing, and never since. He was still breathing through it.

So I had to take my finger, of course, and push him a little ways back down. What else was there to do? And these holes are small, really so tiny, as you’ll see, and my index finger couldn’t even fit—and yet his nose, of all goddamn things, could. Why? I often ask that, knowing well there’s no reply. I eventually arrived at the ring finger, by degrees: yes, that one worked. And I just kind of, you know, touched him a bit with the tip of it, with the very pad of my finger, almost a caress, really. I didn’t want to be harsh, didn’t want to admonish him or anything; we both knew he was wrong, there was no point in making it embarrassing for him. And so I just pressed my finger down an inch, barely up to the knuckle, for my joints aren’t as they used to be and that’s all that would fit. And left it there until the pounding stopped.

The third finger of the right hand… Oh? That noise is the squeal of my gloves; I wear gloves now. I had the oil from his skin on my skin; and of all the ironies, oil and water are immiscible. Do you know what that means? Saturate, desiccate, saturate again, and something still stays behind. The amount of water one displaces is due to body size; that man really wet the mortar, for all the good it did him. Do you know what that’s called? Displacement. Take your case, for example: would eight buckets even…? What I mean to say is that not everyone’s the same, though they’re all condemned. You won’t catch anyone else telling you that around here, though—and you wouldn’t have caught me, under normal circumstances. For even to this day, fresh after the rain, if I stroke the knot of a tree, or if a dog brushes its snout against my palm… but it’s just the arm of His Honour, the hand of the Nation. I think we’ll wait for the superintendent in quiet, now.

§

I’ve decided to tell you something more. It appears that we’re going to be here for a while yet and, to be honest, I find the silence positively unbearable. The echoes from the walls, the noise of your snot beneath the mask (how I wish they let them breathe through the stopper). It’s my duty to deliver the procedure of the final chamber, so I’ll be exhaustive today.

Do you know what happens after the crates have been left alone? (Stay with me. Don’t topple away like that.) You should pay attention to this. It happens after three hours like clockwork – you’ll know why in a moment. That whole wall sinks away like a miracle, and with scant sunbeams filtering from the surface, the waggon drives over the rampway from above. These waggons are completely automated; they manoeuvre themselves in here with metal feelers, clasp the top of the crates, and carry them off. Almost nobody knows this, but they bring them through old tunnels, down to the mires, where the crates are elevated by the cargo beds and their contents slid down the hillside. The crates are returned; but the rest washes away, through the Sandy Seas and well beyond the Borders. And one floats in the Sand Seas, it’s said. It’s the only way out without passing through an outpost or a checkpoint; it’s so steep that it’s no way in, though, which is why I suspect there was never any need for sentinels.

§

Forty minutes behind schedule. Where is the superintendent? He’s absolutely never late. There’s something amiss, and we’ll have to get started. Stand up.

About Kane: Originally from California, Kane Klemic received a Master’s of English from the University of Victoria in 2011 and is currently pursuing a dual Master’s of Library and Archival Studies at the University of British Columbia. Really, he’s just buying time as he works on his first novel, The Castlerat. As of 2013, he shares a home in Vancouver with his wife, his daughter, and a bird.

Grand Gesture

We’ve been perched on the telephone wires all day, bearing gifts. There are many of us, more of us than you can count, each beak holding a special something. One of us holds a Simply Lemonade bottle-cap because that’s Girlfriend’s favorite drink. Another holds a discarded Wendy’s wrapper that he said came from an Asiago Chicken Sandwich, because Girlfriend can’t get enough of them, she swears they put crack in it. Many others are holding fortunes from those Chinese cookies, or assorted clips, pins, and other shiny things. I, myself, am holding a live salamander. It’s squirming and I feel sorry for it, especially because the other pigeons think I’m strange and stubborn, that the salamander suffers for no good reason, but I am their leader and that means respect, which means they don’t fight me on the things I consider important. This reptile will be the vessel for my feelings and that’s that, I told them this morning as we landed on the wires, Trust me, I know these things. And they do trust me; that’s something I appreciate. So we’ve remained perched all day in the August swelter, with our breasts thrust forward as if we were robins and not pigeons, silent and imperial. Girlfriend’s out, but she will be back soon. We watch and wait.

A red Mustang flies into the neighborhood, disregarding the stop sign, and brakes on a dime. We know who the car belongs to and we’re immediately compelled to crap on the windshield. I catch one of us hunching forward, prepping for flight. Wait, says my gesture, a single raised wing, Let’s just see what he does.

Boyfriend remains stopped in front of Girlfriend’s house, right in the middle of the street. He doesn’t even bother flashing the hazards, he just puts it in park, sits there daring the traffic with a mean expression, a face that says Do somethin’ nigga. Cars whip around him violently, grazing the front bumper of the Nissan heading the opposing traffic.

A black man wearing a do-rag hops out of the Nissan, angry, but exposed, and cars blow by him because now instead of an accident victim, he’s just someone else in the way. “Move nigga!” a driver yells, and leads several cars in speeding past the man, nearly clipping him. Drivers proceed carelessly as if the black man were nothing. Even the children playing basketball in narrow driveways or double-dutch on the cracked walk have to take pause and step further away from the curb. The black man hops back in his Nissan, slams the door, and drives off. The children resume play, business as usual.

In that moment the black Nissan driver was one of us. A bird caught in the whirl of a rough city; of drivers speeding up on us when seen in the road; of passersby flinging unfinished food at us, an amalgam of ketchup and mustard and saliva splaying our dark feathers.

Girlfriend leaves us alone. She slows when she sees us, Come on birds! she says, drumming the wheel, Ya’ll got wings, now go! But she’s patient in her own way, she sees us picking crumbs out of the road, going about our business of survival, and she doesn’t fault us for that. She just lurches forward in her Honda Accord, some part of her tempted to floor it, knowing we’ll take flight and scatter instantly. But I feel her protection, her bleeding heart that refuses to risk hurting us. At least she thinks about hitting the brake. She understands that life is fragile—even pigeon life, and grants us some kind of consideration despite how dirty and disease-ridden she knows we are. We make people sick and we know this, and it’s a shame we’re both so close in proximity yet cast to different worlds.

But still she slows her car for us, and we appreciate the gesture, we consider it a kindness.

Honk! Honk!

Everyone is jamming angry palms into their horns, Boyfriend too, because even though he’s the source of the problem, the red Mustang in the middle of the road, he wants the hood to see how big his balls are, how taut with muscle his big manly warrior chest is, how fierce a scowl he can fire toward these motherfuckers who dare challenge him on his stomping grounds, in his hood, and right in front of his girl’s house too, his girl’s house. The disrespect. Complete disrespect. How dare these niggas not respect him. My God. Don’t these niggas know that Boyfriend has got to rep his hood? Apparently not. Engines behind him rev hard in rhythmic chorus. Move! Move! Move!

All we do in this world is move, that’s what life had given us, and even when Boyfriend’s not stopping up traffic, I feel very little movement from him anyway, I feel like he would make a bad bird, and I’m glad that there aren’t birds like him; I suppose we have wings for a reason.

We wait for someone to tell Boyfriend to move his car, but that’s not going to happen. I guess he looks angry enough to instill fear because Boyfriend’s big enough and black enough to scare more than just the occasional white passerby. Boyfriend is the-nigga-you-don’t-mess-with as the locals often say, the one that gives dark skin the agency to move about the night, as if all dark people suddenly grew powerful when cloaked within hard urban pitch.

Boyfriend steps out of the car, clenching his fists. He glares at the stopped cars and the air suddenly changes.

No more honking. Everything goes quiet.

Cars slowly make their way around Boyfriend as if in apology. I imagine the cars standing on their rear wheels, tip-toeing—tip-wheeling—around a really big black man. It occurs to me that maybe he thinks he’s moving in life, going somewhere as people say, and that he’s not moving in actuality because he doesn’t perceive a lack of movement. He has a moving problem because his muscle and skin makes things move around him, he’s getting what he wants without doing much of anything, at least in the immediate moment.

But for how long?

Girlfriend isn’t having any of it, and he knows that. That’s why he’s here even though she told him not to come back. Nigga you on Time Out, she had said, Time Out. I better not see you for three months, or ever.

Time Out isn’t over, it’s been two days, but Boyfriend is here anyway. With some planned brilliance I suppose.

Boyfriend closes his eyes and breathes deep, doing a couple ins-and-outs, something we’d never seen him do before. He reaches a hand into his right pocket, lets the hand linger there for a couple seconds, and takes it out. “Control,” I hear him say to himself, “Impulse control, like momma told me. I got this. Impulse. Control.” Like the impulse to not do the things we’re used to Boyfriend doing. The things that made all the cars apologize to him and his red Mustang, which is still parked in the middle of the road. The things that drew us to Girlfriend’s house in the first place—outside of Girlfriend herself—in case Boyfriend got out of line, or out of control, again.

He eyes Girlfriend’s door like a target, and steps onto the curb. He advances up the cement path toward her front step; his gait is measured and steady, his back straight and tall, and his face has softened from a scowl to something neutral, a calm expression. He’s not slouching or stomping or furrowing his brow like we’re used to. He’s not being a hoodlum for once; he’s promising peace and that makes us nervous. The quiet before the storm, people say, and that’s true. Our senses are keen and we’re gone long before the first drops hit, before the sky goes white with the storm to come.

We clutch our gifts hard, anxious for Boyfriend’s next move.

The salamander in my mouth wriggles wildly, it’s thrashing in pain, it screaming and screaming because I almost killed it, but he’s alive and that’s all that matters, that’s all I’m really concerned about. The thing’s got fight.

Boyfriend reaches the door and knocks.

“Baby?”

Boyfriend speaks in a deep baritone that nearly rattles the windows. We’re waiting for Girlfriend to get home; he thinks she’s there. She left dressed in her best, for church and then family time. That’s what she does—especially when a nigga isn’t acting right. He knocks again.

“Baby? It’s me. I know I’m on Time Out and all that craziness but I just wanna tell you that I’m sorry, I apologize from the bottom of me because I know I hurt you tho…I didn’t mean to do all that…all that stuff that I did to make you raise up on me like that, I was just having a moment, a bad moment that’s all.”

Boyfriend starts to look worried. He breathes in, breathes out, and knocks again. Meanwhile Girlfriend’s Honda Accord pulls up behind his Mustang. She makes an angry face at the familiar car, but remains stopped, turns her hazard flashers on. She looks out at her doorstep at Boyfriend, speaking from the bottom of him and all. She doesn’t say anything, just joins us in our watching, and listens.

“Now, if ya cud just like, tell me what I did, then we’ll be straight. We’ll be cool and all that and we can get back to all the lovey stuff we be doin’ ‘cause girl, you really bring out the soft in me, you know, that huggy feely type nigga that don’t come out ‘cause momma say she can’t pay my ‘ridiculous’ car note and my daddy, well you know how it go…What I do tho?”

He reaches into his right pocket, leaves his hand there, rolls it around a bit, feeling.

“Seriously tho, how you gonna put a nigga on Time Out and not tell him what he did tho? How can I learn from what I did and what I’m sorry for if you don’t guide me into what’s right? I just need you there for me so I can be there for you, ya dig? I did things. And you did things, in response, but this response, I don’t know babe…it’s…it’s…it’s questionable. Not quite objectionable or anything, not there yet, but it be gettin’ there tho.”

He waits for a response. Nothing. Girlfriend is still where she’s at, listening, losing patience because she takes Time Out seriously. She’s flustered even though she’s always so tightly in control, and you can see her thinking hard, looking pained because reflection is tough business. As a bird all we have is the sky and our thoughts. We come down for scraps and then fly back up into high white meditation; everything down here is so complicated, it’s too much and the people down here do too much, torture themselves by how much they’re always doing, even Girlfriend.

Many people down here are actually moving, but often times participate in craziness, and in meditation I wonder: Is it hard to know how to treat each other? How to take care of one another? We do it, we’re hundreds strong, why can’t people? Why can’t two people do this thing right?

He pulls his hand out of his pocket, and in his hand there is a condom in a black package with gold lettering: Magnum. He leaves it on her Welcome mat.

“Anyway,” he says with a deep smirk carved into his face, “I learned my lesson, and I’m sorry. So yeah, just hit me up babe, when you ready for the, you know, that Make-Up Sex. You know what it is, how we get down. Just call me, I’ma be waitin’ wherever I am, in Time Out, ya dig.”

He begins to leave and sees Girlfriend in the walkway, pounding toward him angrily.

I look across the telephone wires at my brethren and they’re looking back. They’re waiting for my signal. So I give it to them: I raise both wings and they go flying.

Girlfriend continues to pound toward him, she’s at the curb, she’s halfway up the cement path toward her door where Boyfriend waits, smiling widely. His arms are outstretched to receive her in a hug; Girlfriend cocks her fist.

One of our brothers drops his load, the Simply Lemonade bottle-cap he’s gifting Girlfriend. It lands between Girlfriend and Boyfriend, bouncing, rattling, and after a couple seconds finally stopping.

They both look up.

Our pigeon brethren are circling above, casting dark moving shadows over the house. Now they’re all dropping their special somethings for Girlfriend to have. The drop resembles snow. Pieces of Styrofoam that once contained her favorite Hawaiian Fried Rice, the Asiago Chicken Sandwich wrapper, fortunes she’s gleamed at but had thrown away from Chinese places she frequents—all of it floating down slowly, ceremonially, like small white blessings.

Boyfriend goes running because he feels attacked. He flies into his car and yells to Girlfriend, “Go inside! Call me later!” And then winking, “I know you will,” and speeds off.

The children playing in the streets, the neighbors walking by, the backed-up cars—all of them disappear, go away and into hiding and such.

Bottle-caps and clips and pins and hair-bows and other gifts we think suit Girlfriend also come flying down. They land around her and she’s scared, she’s terrified, she looks as if she’s about to cry—but that’s not something we can help so we keep going. Girlfriend is paralyzed in fear and she’s ready to go inside, to shut us out, to reject our goodwill, and as she steps toward her front door she sees the messages on the fortunes peppering the doorway:

It will be alright, allow life to be good to you.

Winning numbers: 7, 23, 5, 38, 10, 12

Happiness is out there, it’s closer than you think.

I descend toward Girlfriend, swiftly, with the salamander still thrashing in my mouth. I land before her, impeding her path to the doorway, and we lock eyes, her pupils shimmering with fear, with tears inside she refuses to let go. But she’s still here, waiting, giving us the chance that nobody else would.

My brethren continue to circle, dropping gifts.

I lower my beak, reverently setting the salamander down. It’s injured, its spine crushed by my grip, but he’s managing to crawl toward her, slowly, yet tenaciously. The salamander is crawling and getting closer and he’s yells something that I can’t understand because it sounds guttural and hurt. But he keeps going, he’s not stopping. The salamander is getting closer and closer, he’s almost there, he’s almost there, he’s almost to the tip of her shoe. He yells again and this time it is clear, in our animal tongue he’s cries out Girlfriend’s name, Jacq! Jacq!…and even though to her it must register as a low hiss, her eyes soften.

Girlfriend bends down and cups her hand toward the salamander because she knows.

About Olvard: Olvard Smith was born and raised in Hawthorne, California, and received his B.A. in English/Creative Writing at Cal State University Northridge. He’s drawn to writing that addresses one’s individual identity politics, and draws inspiration from life in urban areas such as Hawthorne, Inglewood, and the hipster haven of Northridge, California. In Fall, 2013, he’s beginning an MFA in fiction at Rutgers-Newark, in a city surely promising a plethora of urban adventures/misadventures. His work has previously appeared in The Zodiac Review and Red Fez.

G.

G. That’s all he remembers of her name. G. with flying hair the color of ghee. Her red bra. L. B. Noland, aging DJ, builds present on past, dilates time and space, spinning old songs. But G.’s past what’s past. Out of the news with “Like a Rolling Stone”—a “lunar,” played once in a blue moon–here’s G. on her skateboard, image luminous as a holograph. Out of the blue. Why’s he mooning over G.? Don’t look back. He paces carpeted floor of the studio, taking in old Blind Boy Grunt’s withering, saga- like song, thinking G. Whatever happened to G.?

Noland, occluded by her memory, watches white wonder of snow falling across the yellow field out back where the radio towers rise like hypodermic needles into the sky’s dull glow above faint spires and banked mirrors of the Nashville skyline, thinking change of weather explains advent of G. Onset of winter of discontent? Bob Dylan, after all these years, still voices deep-felt hopes and fears, speaks to him. But he never sang for G.

 

When Dylan took the stage with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival and played a short, wailing set of his new electric music, L. B. was not yet eighteen and a first-term college student in northern Michigan, happy to be away from home in hilly country. He was attending the summer session, which he started just a week out of high school, because his parents were off on a trip to Germany; but he wished he could have been back in Newport, where tender memories of being a boy still lingered, to hear Dylan’s wizardry. At the time, he was wooing G., a sad-eyed girl in his comp class, who attended the festival. But not L. B.

Every morning he and G. skateboarded from Harding Hall (his dorm) and Wesley (hers) on “The Hill,” which overlooked the campus’ classrooms and administration buildings below. (He remembers dorm names but not G.’s.) Down they swooped to the student union on a winding sidewalk that curved like S-turns on an alpine road, then walked up terrace-like, cement steps and past a splashing fountain for coffee before class. (G. drank tea, he remembers now.) It was the summer of ‘65, August, days overcast and humid–testy–as the term drew to a close during exam week.

He read the news afternoons for the college radio station. GNP, fueled by Vietnam, was doubling. Japan and Germany were gaining economic power. “The Great Society” was flowering with new acts and programs (Medicare, civil rights, water quality, higher education). In their comp class, they were reading Silent Spring, talking about the environment. Walden. (And freedom and dignity of Walden II.)  Girls were reading Feminine Mystique. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was hummed by guys in the dorm, or “I Want Candy.” That week, blacks were rioting in Watts. “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” was hot; “I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops on everybody’s lips.

L. B. remembers her vividly; what was her name? Glenda? Way her yellow- white hair would fly, would linger blonde on blonde after her. (As a three-syllable name would? Genevieve?)  Rail-thin and nasal-toned, she was long-legged with angular ears that poked out of her hair. Gretchen?  Why did he always go for these wispy blondes? (Earthy redhead, Eileen, true-blue wife in otherwise touch-and-go life, his fate).

Along with her books, G. carried her skateboard under one arm, or hugged it to her breasts. At the time, the board was a flat, foot-long elliptical piece of thick, varnished wood with pink rubber wheels—no grip tape on the deck—a trusty means of transportation on the hilly campus, and he admired G.’s nimbleness on it. She was a nonstop talker, pink, peaked helix of her ears tense as a hare’s when she listened. She nibbled with the harmonica, liked Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, and had a battered copy of String Along by The Kingston Trio. Amid rising expectations of the sixties, they were going to shock their semi-affluent parents and get a dingy apartment together near a supermarket and, in her words, “read and read and read and read” (and fuck, he hoped).

Whatever happened to G. and her skateboard with wheels the color of bubblegum, her ephemeral red bra likewise pink under white blouse she pressed the board to along with her books, a copy of The Act of Creation they were reading for comp class on top? Whatever happened to his girl of the lowlands with her sweet love of folk and salt-thatch of straw hair, and did she have the technical know-how girls have now? He and G. never got that far, only a few, hot make-out sessions behind the huge holly by entrance to her dorm, housemother calling like a British barmaid, “Girls, hurry up please, it’s time. HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.”

Although G.’s kisses and humid hop-o’-my-thumb body were enough to convince L. B. to get an apartment together, he and his Baby Blue, they never did. Or was it a small cottage on nearby White Cloud Lake they were going to get, where they would grow pole beans and tomatoes and peppers and eat honey sandwiches? At night, water lapping the shore, they’d talk about a line from a song for an hour.

He never saw G. after that summer session in ‘65 when Dylan stunned her and the folkies at the Newport Folk Festival with “Like a Rolling Stone,” and the Beatles were knighted, and the British Invasion kept coming and coming and coming (as he hoped G. would)–Kinks, Yardbirds, Animals, Searchers—everybody humming “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” and a whole sub-genre sprang up based on Farfisa and Vox compact electronic organs like “She’s about a Mover,” “Wooly Bully” and “Liar, Liar” (oh, how his pants were on fire); when the music set you free from the adult world and you felt bonded with “My Generation,” and your parents in the stolid suburbs were so willing to be snowballed.

Now L. B. remembers G.’s last name. Plum. Like Milt Plum, former quarterback for the Lions. Gretchen Plum? Genevieve Plum? Oh, Mrs. Plum, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter, and G. and I Are Getting an Apartment, or Cottage on White Cloud Lake, and Fuck and Fuck and Fuck and Fuck (“and Read,” G. would say primly).

“I want you,” G. would say to him in her dorm lounge watching the Raiders perform on “Where the Action Is,” a Dick Clark-like daily music program, his arm around her slight shoulders as the group in their knickers and three-cornered hats ground out their garage-band rock, which in its way was America’s reaction to the Invaders, roots of which went back to the Raiders’ own prophetic “Like, Long Hair” in 1962 before anybody but girls had any, when grown-ups, men in burr cuts and women in beehives, started Twistin’ in High Society with Lester Lanin, favorite bandleader in JFK’s White House, or Joey Dee and the Starliters.

L.B. looked for G. all that following fall, before onset of winter, watched for G.’s rail-thin body and Marianne Faithful-like hair flying behind her as she skateboarded down the winding walkways from The Hill on campus. Her skimpy red bra. But she was gone like a passing song. By end of the semester, L. B. forgot all about G. and her folkie purity, had left school himself to drift in radio, as the world turned more serious in January, 1966; even the cheery and innocent Beatles got somber with Rubber Soul. Something happened. What was it, did he know?

He was left with only the vague scene of her festival report. At the tail end of that summer session, G. Plum cut classes for a week and bravely took the bus by herself to Newport (L. B. was expected to give his daily newscasts, plus had a job delivering pizzas, and was sorry he couldn’t go). G. visited her brother, “the war monger,” at the Naval War College while she was there. She told Noland all about her adventures with him, “uptight in his summer whites,” though she herself after the experience of the festival seemed cold–strict and severe, even stuffy—and all about Dylan’s short session, describing her shocked reaction. Something was blowin’ in the wind.

“He howled at us,” she told him. “And we howled back. In rage.”

G. trotted along in her ballet slippers and toreador pants telling Noland about folk music being the new art form for American youth (“after it was driven underground by those Eisenhower saps”), his lengthening body ranging above hers, lacy red bra she wore pink under her white blouse with that glowing selfsame cast of wheels of the skateboard she clutched along with her books to her slight chest.

“Dylan turned his back on us,” she protested. “How many songs did he play?”

“After three songs we booed him off the stage.” “Did he play ‘Desolation Row’?”

“Was so mad I don’t remember. Played that long one everybody likes. ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’  What an affront to a woman.” G. gagged. “Makes my wings droop.”

“Then what?”

“Oh, came back for an encore. On acoustic. Thanks, pal. Sang ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ in that braying voice.

“Still, must’ve been something there—”

Fearfully appropriate, don’t you think?” she put in. “Singing ‘Baby Blue’!”

He swung open prison-like door to creaky Hobbes Hall and let her pass through into the dim corridor. She turned and leaned her cute bottom against jail-green of the cement-block wall, deep pools of sad eyes below blonde bangs, as he remembers them, like ice looking up into his—chill blue, expectant, waiting, kiss-proof lips set. He had no answer for her. They turned in opposite directions, each heading to opposing exams.

How does it feeel
To be without a hoome,
Like a complete unknoown,
Like a ROO-ollling STONE?

How did it feel? Bitter, “with no direction home,” but exhilarating. Double-edged. Felt freewheelin’, exactly like rock ’n’ roll. Oh, G., my Baby Blue, why was it all over? What happened to the babies we were going to have—Peter, Paul and Mary? What happened to you and your skateboard?  And music? And me?

About Rob: Rob Schultz taught American literature at Western Michigan University and Virginia Commonwealth University before drifting into radio and voice work. He published a first novel, Styll in Love (Van Neste Books); another novel, On-Air and a book of stories, In Hart, seek a publisher. Stories and poems have appeared in over thirty publications and are forthcoming in eight others, including Blue Lake Review, Coe Review and Northwind.