All posts in “Issues”

Reverence

I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup.
                                    —Pablo Neruda

There is always water.

My memory is fluid, rippling out.

I am three or four years old when someone throws me into a pool. My eyes and nose sting with chlorine, but instinctively I know not to let the water rush into my lungs. I kick my feet, propel my arms, until there is air again. I breathe fast and hard before slipping under once more. This is how I learn to swim, how I come to believe at five or six that I am a mermaid, and the water is where I belong.

I spend years of my childhood along the Jersey shore. Sand in my hair. Salt on my skin. When I’m ten, my father teaches me to body surf, and the ocean becomes my summer home. I learn to time my launches, to slide down the face of each wave. And I learn something, too, about fear, about how to tuck my head and tumble when the momentum of the sea grabs hold of me, refuses to let go.

It takes only seconds to drown.

The dreams I have are of the deepest blue.

I wake, feel the weight of my body falling, my lungs bloated, pushing against the cage of my ribs. The house I live in fills up with rainwater. That is real. Not part of the dream. Like Noah in the Bible story, but there is no boat. Only forty days and forty nights of driving rain.

So much floats away.

My water breaks in that house. Twice.

Two daughters are born, twenty-one months apart. The year the youngest is born, a tropical storm floods the streets of our town. In thirteen houses along the creek, water rises to the second floor.

I stand on the front porch of that house beside a husband I hardly know. Twice, he’s become a father. Not once has he marveled at the changing shape of my belly. Not once has he pressed his hands against the jutting bones, wanting to feel the movement, his own blood orbiting.

I don’t even know if he can swim.

I become buoyant.

After the storm, I leave with my daughters. The three of us are mermaids, drifting to another shore. Scales of emerald and sapphire. Aquamarine. When a wave takes us, we are ready. I teach my daughters: head-tuck and roll.

The summer the oldest turns seven, she begs me to let her jump from the diving board into the deep end of a pool. I agree, but only if I am there to catch her. With her knobby knees turning inward, nearly smacking up against one another, she bounces for a while on the end of the board. She needs to go over exactly how this is going to happen. I can sense her uncertainty as she looks down into the water.

I remind her that she doesn’t have to do this now. Then I glimpse her body in midair, the blue bathing suit, her long limbs extended, knees bent slightly, arms out to the side, splashing as she breaks the water’s surface. But she does not jump far enough toward me, her slender body slipping in between my fingertips, barely grazing my skin.

In a single moment, she drops to the bottom of the pool.

Nine feet down.

Numbers lurch through my mind. Whole numbers. Fractions. Depths. Percentages. Odds. On average, ten people die every day from unintentional drowning. More than half of those deaths occur in swimming pools.

My daughter had only been able to hold her breath to the count of sixteen-Mississippi when we’d practiced earlier in the shallow end.

I dive straight down, adrenaline pumping my heart so fast I am dizzy.

Thirteen-Mississippi. Fourteen-Mississippi.

Struggling to grab a hold of her, I try hooking my arms under hers.

Fifteen-Mississippi.

She kicks and flails.

Sixteen-Mississippi.

I slip beneath her and propel upward. She finds air. I can hear her coughing and gurgling, but I remain below. Still underwater. No strength left in my arms. No air left in my lungs.

If I give up, we will both sink back down.

Not now, I think. Not like this.

I learn to scuba dive in a quarry. This is something I must do. Find how easy it is to let myself drop sixty feet below the surface. To steal air from a silver tank. To watch my own breath ascend like tiny torches of light.

Years later, I am diving from a boat in Indonesia. It is the last dive on a ten-day trip. At forty feet, I hook into a rock as I feel the current getting stronger. It pushes against the mask on my face, tugs at the regulator in my mouth. My breaths are shallow, fast. The moment I release the hook, I am swept away by something so intense it feels almost like grief. I strain to kick against it but at some point I surrender, pray it will take me to a calmer place. And it does. At fifteen feet, I stop for a few minutes, let my bubbles ascend before I do.

There is victory in this stillness.

Reverence in remembering water’s capacity to overwhelm.

There are people here who live on the sea. Clustered together in protected coves, small floating villages. The water is their way of life. By lowering their oars beneath the surface, they can feel the tides, the currents, find where the sea will be calm, where fish will be abundant.

They learn young to dive deep for oyster pearls, to hold their breath for five minutes at a time. No silver tank filled with air. No weights to help them sink. Only the propulsion of their bodies. Hunger driving them further down. I become fixated on how it is they survive, the way they head straight into the earth’s belly and take from it what they need.

The tide here keeps time.

Waves come fast on the wind.

At night, under the new moon, our boat makes passage. The storm is sudden. Fierce. Swells slam the boat like fist-punches, lifting it then letting it fall. Hard. I lean my body into the sway, look to the horizon, a fixed line. The water, a force.

About Kristina: Kristina Moriconi received her MFA in creative writing from Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington. Her work has appeared most recently in Rathalla Review and Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, and her chapbook, No Such Place, is due out in the fall of 2013 (Finishing Line Press). She teaches writing in the Philadelphia area and runs a writing workshop with Mothers in Charge for women who have lost children to violent crime.

Live! Dancing! Girls!

The women turn towards each other and lunge, chests puffed up, shoulders back, spines arched. Maybe it’s the looks of proud hostility twisted over their pretty faces, all dewy with sweat. Maybe it’s the way the words “CAT FIIIGHT!,” in singsong, seem to hover over any woman-to-woman confrontation. Or maybe it’s knowing that any “angry girl” can get cheapened with one quick, “You know, you’re so cute when you’re mad,” or—perhaps most likely, if we’re being honest—the oversexed reactions, the ones that accompany everything a decent-looking woman does: “Whatever she’s doing, it’s hot,” from some; “Whatever she’s doing, she knows half the guys in here are just thinking how hot she is. What a slutty outfit,” from others.

Around me, members of the audience add spurts of laughter to the scene, loud and confident, certain it’s meant to be funny. “The way women exhibit their woman-ness,” the director announced at the start of the show, “was a key part of our choreography.” Slinky black sequined dresses dance across a stage so dark that each shimmy or jump, each simulated tussle, catches just enough spotlight to toss a burst of light into the crowd. The program says this piece references an old television show I’ve never heard of, something about the hustle of city life. But even with the glitter, the laughs, the nudging pop culture references, I feel a wistful sense of shame.

As an audience, we watch the sequined performers on the stage take turns dancing solo, each playing at aiming to please her viewers just a little more than her neighbor had.  I uncross and re-cross my legs, shifting in my seat so I can try to catch a glimpse of the faces in the audience around me. I grow uncomfortable at the realization that I might be alone in projecting all this drama and hurt onto the movements of the women entertaining us.

Then some of the women collapse, others rush to their aid; in pairs they stay on the ground, tightly-wound balls of sisterhood, until each one gets up, shoulders tensed, faces covered in what-makes-you-think-I-needed-your-help. Those who’d knelt, offering maternal comfort just moments before, spring up too, back away with I-wasn’t-trying-to-help-you-anyway-bitch shakes of their heads. Perhaps the performance truly is about nothing more than an old television show, or the glamorous hustle of city life, but the goose bumps trickle up my arms anyway, because I can see it right there, on stage—how it can be to be a woman, among women.

About Brenda: Brenda is a recent graduate of the MFA program at CSU Fresno, where she was also editorial assistant and webmaster for The Normal School. Her work has appeared in Knee-Jerk Magazine, fwriction : review, and Puerto Del Sol.

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.

Lines of Perfection

Even in his earliest dreams, Ray saw lines. White lines on roads. Clear lines overhead. Lines when he heard music. Lines connecting him to those he loved, leading him to those he should love. Ray thought about the traffic lights hanging from lines: the monotony of their existence, three colours in sequence, impatient drivers wanting the green. Always wanting to go. The lines from underfoot to overhead were constant and drew him in: hypnotic and beautiful.

Ray loved where he lived. He was born there, went to school there, got a job and lost a job there. All his high school friends had left for Denver, laughing at him for wanting to stay.

Unable to disguise their happiness at starting university or the prospects of a well-paid city job, they said it was a dead man’s town.

It was the horizontal lines that held him, not the vertical. Denver was nothing but vertical. You spent your time looking up, up, up and always away from where you’d started. He’d been there many times. Once, he’d sat cross-legged, beside the giant bear sculpture outside the Colorado Convention Center. As the executives rushed in and out of glass doors, clutching papers to their chests, mobile phones hanging from their necks, Ray waited for the entire morning to see what Denver would give him. He felt himself fading into the background with the bear, watching the talk, the turn of head, the 30 seconds gap to ascertain whether people were useful, the next-big-thing or just-about-big-thing.

In Starbucks, he’d looked straight into the eyes of a man who stared in the window at him. Ray stared at his dirty blond hair and scruffy jeans. He saw intelligence and disappointment, felt a connection. We are alike, this homeless man and I. The lines of Denver unite us, thought Ray. There was something cold in between the glint of the sun off the mile-high glass buildings and the snow-capped mountains hovering, neglected and forgotten. That same evening he walked for over an hour, past the Salvation Army queues for food, the bulldogs and Union Jack flags swinging above pubs long closed, and back around past the Coors Stadium before picking up his Mustang, which he’d parked near 15th Street. There was a moment when it chugged and wouldn’t start, just as a pair of blondes in heels and tight jeans walked past laughing. He asked the Good Lord to do him just this one favour and the Mustang sprang into action. With thanks, he drove west. West on the I-70 to Idaho Springs, the largest town in Clear Creek County.

*

Drinking Jack Whacker ale in the Tommyknocker Brewery at the end of Miner Street, four-tenths of a mile from the spot where George A. Jackson found the first Colorado gold, Ray considered his predicament. The predicament of creating some sort of movement out of the stasis that his life had become. It was just, he realized, that the lines had some sort of magnetic pull – they either sent him away or drew him in. He couldn’t go back to Denver. He would have to stay where he was.

He could try to make a change. He liked the idea of skiing but Pa said it was for tourists or for the rich and he was neither. Pa opened a garage with snow-peaked Rocky Mountains in a round-windowed logo. That was where Ray worked now, after failing to get a tour guide job in the Argo Gold Mines and an unsuccessful attempt at being a cashier in Safeway. You passed Pa’s garage on the way to the heart of Idaho Springs and if you took a wrong turn into the town you still had to pass it to get to the roundabout at the other side. That was the logic: that business would boom.

Pa even made enough to flutter dollar bills in the gambling halls of Black Hawk. Sometimes he’d bring Ray and they’d have a buffalo steak meal in The Isle of Capri Hotel and Casino. Pa hid his winnings in a drawer in the garage because Ma would go crazy if she knew he’d been gambling. Winnings or not, the next day he’d be up at five, at the garage for six waiting for the chance of early morning customers. Business wasn’t booming now. But then again, Pa hadn’t needed to close down like those shops Ray had seen in Denver.

Pa was proud of the confederate flag that hung from the trailer. It was one of those cloth ones that you could wash when it got dirty, especially when the snow turned to slush or the wind blew the dust headlong into the reds and blues, the lines intersecting. The yellow sun surrounded by the red “C” of the Colorado State Flag hung alongside a larger national flag over the doorway, which he saluted going in and out. It was part of him, this place. The visitors who stood in lines as they queued to see the mines, to feel his history, were part of him, too.

Ray took another drink and banged his bottle a little too hard on the countertop of the Tommyknocker Brewery.

“Easy now,” said Teddy, the barman.

“They won’t forget this place,” Ray said screwing his face up.

“Who?”

“The history writers.”

Teddy shrugged. “Forget Idaho Springs?”

“Yeah.” Ray took another drink. “We were the first.”

“Ray,” Teddy stopped cleaning and leaned his bulky frame on the counter. Ray noticed his hair was the same colour as the homeless man in Denver. “What are you talking about now?”

“The Good Lord was right,” said Ray sitting straight and smiling. “He shone down on Idaho Springs and shone the light on the gold.”

“The gold rush.” Teddy nodded. “We’re in the books for that, for sure.”

“I love this town,” Ray said.

Teddy looked at his watch.

Ray stood up.

“Later?”

“Yeah.”

“You’ll come good on what you owe, now?”

“Scouts honour.”

Ray wavered slightly as he walked out onto Miner Street. The strong brew ales had gone to his head. He looked up. The cloudless sky was an optimistic blue on this crisp April day. The street was empty and he wanted to wrap his arms around it, own it, be it. It was his, this place. This place where highways passed overhead, hippies and hicks lived side by side and bars had large signs indicating that disorderly conduct would be dealt with by the Law; the police station had six cop cars parked and on the ready.

The ski-tourists had all gone back to where they came from and the summer season wouldn’t begin for another month or so, at least not until more of the Rocky Mountain National Park opened. Every year they’d hear stories of tourists planning road trips with the crazy idea of driving through the Rockies to get to Grand Lake. They’d either start driving too late to turn back and end up somewhere like Idaho Springs. Or they’d go back right to where they’d started – Estes Park. Not that they’d be bored there. Three summers in a row Ma and Pa brought Ray to Estes Park to walk and hunt. When he was ten Ray got his photograph taken seated between them. The best time to do a portrait is on vacation the advert had said.

“Right,” Pa said, fingering notes from winnings in his breast pocket. “We’re on vacation. We’re getting ourselves a portrait.”

Ma moaned that she didn’t have her favourite dress on as she kept it for special occasions.

“And what’s a damned vacation?” Pa shouted. “Is that not special occasion enough for you?”

Ray looked at the roundness of the camera lens and the stern look of the photographer. When the flash came he blinked. The framed photograph on top of the Smeg showed a distant Ma, a smiling Pa and Ray with his eyes scrunched up. Almost every day on that trip they ate in a diner called The Egg and I. Ray liked to go back there to have his favourite meal, the Colorado Jack Scramble. But sometimes he would go for the regular Steak and Eggs to challenge himself. Ray, like Pa, preferred his eggs over easy and had lost count of the times when he had to send his eggs back because they were over medium. But not at The Egg and I. They always got it right.

After too many arguments with Ma over his wanderings, Ray had left home and now rented a room up past the Indian Hot Springs on Soda Creek Road. During the winter season he had to put chains on the wheels to get to the town. He liked being away from Ma and Pa. It gave him a strong inkling that anything could happen. He was important in this town.

Pa liked to watch baseball on the portable TV, which he’d hung in the corner of the garage workshop. He’d talk to the box of Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson. Any hero to erase the boredom. Ray wondered if Pa secretly wished he’d never left New York City the way he sometimes talked. Ray had an impressive collection of baseball cards which he kept in a drawer in the office when he wasn’t showing them to Pa, asking him to name the players in quick succession. Pa was good; he always got them first time no matter how many shuffles Ray gave his pack.

The only pedestrian on Colorado Boulevard, Ray walked down towards the river, avoiding the other end of Miner Street. He knew Ma and Nancy Ann would be in Café Aimee, seated in line with Priscilla the gold mannequin outside the Café. Ma would be embarrassed if she saw him wandering yet again when he was supposed to be working with Pa. He knew they’d be talking about knitting techniques, pots of steaming coffee on the go and Key Lime Pie for their treat. Nancy Ann said it reminded her of New Orleans, where she grew up. The women wore their own creations: Alpaca wool for winter and light cotton for summer. Their latest challenge was to knit blue spruce using pearl cotton to be patriotic but also using Colorado colours for local pride.

Yesterday over dinner Ma told him about Nancy Ann’s simple joy in buying twelve balls of brown wool for $12 – a colour nobody wanted. Ma was proud of her spruce pines scattered on the brown sweater, pleased with how the red stripes down the sleeves and yellow on the ribbed waist and rounded neckline had turned out.  She showed Ray how she did ones and twos and threes on some then fours on some; starting in the middle and following a drawing of the pattern leaving a tail long enough each side to double back. She held the sweater out for him to examine. They laid their hands flat on the wool.

“Everyone has to be darn good at what they do,” she said, looking him in the eye.

Ray thought about the way his hands seemed to merge with Ma’s hands on the sweater as his gaze now automatically roamed upwards. The wires were lower than the electricity ones and suspended on poles, brown with rust and from them hung yellow traffic lights, the red part larger than the orange and green. Ray closed his eyes momentarily; the red in his head was larger too, but it was a black-red of mood, senses that often stopped him moving.

The lights swung slightly, catching a wind Ray had yet to feel. He looked at the silver trees and wondered if their leafless branches could feel the breeze. Beyond them against a perfect blue sky, the pines, scattered on the hills, dry now as the snow had melted away. He continued walking and noticed an unfamiliar old pale yellow Nissan parked in front of the fire station. It too had patches of rust. Perhaps it was the same age as him; born in 1982. Ray looked into the car and saw a rake, a hoe, and several pairs of rubber boots stretched across the back seats. He wondered what idiot would park in front of a fire station.

Ray stared at the traffic lights and watched the wires, loving the way the sun hit off the metal. When he stared at the one spot too long, he had to look away and squeeze his eyes together to get rid of the black spots. In amongst the black spots he saw himself hanging, his body catching the light like a beacon of warning as it swung alongside the traffic lights. His heart beat wildly as adrenalin rushed through him. No fire engine would rescue him with that yellow Nissan blocking the exit. But if he were to hang himself? Would the drivers hoot in temper when the gawking spectators were slow to move on green? Who would be delayed getting onto the I-70, late getting into work and lose their job because his swinging body had mesmerized them?

He jumped as a green Chevrolet hooted. He’d been standing in the middle of the road. He waved his apologies and saw it was John Joe who was in the car.

“Hey,” he waved again.

John Joe nodded. Ray noticed he rolled his eyes. He’d be off telling his wife that Ray was a layabout. His wife would tell her cousin Nancy Ann who would tell Ma. Goddamn, John Joe, he thought, kicking the gravel. He turned right and looped back around stopping on the grey metal bridge. The bridge was formed with lines that hugged, crossed, supported, went on forever. He sighed. He wasn’t hooked into anyone like those bars. The overhead wires gleamed in the sun. It was simply beautiful, he thought. He stood a second and listened to the rush of the river and against the silver trees it looked like a mirage. Ray pictured himself floating, soundlessly in the river, a line amongst the curves of the water. Someday, his body would surprise somebody. Somebody rafting or kayaking. Or hunting. Pa told him he’d seen an advert in Estes for hunters because they needed to keep the elk in balance with the habitat. Crazy as it sounded, there were three times more elk in Estes than in the Rocky Mountain National Park. Ray felt he was in the wrong habitat. There were, he was sure, more men than women in Idaho Springs.

Ray noticed a girl with a purposeful stride walking towards him. He stopped and pretended to be interested in the rain jackets in the shop window. As she passed him, he turned and smiled. He wondered if she were hot in those black knee-high boots. Her legs were tanned. They looked as if they were hanging from the black dress she wore. It was made from material that swung with her body. She looked the type to go on long walks in the snow; a girl with good lungs. She smiled back.

“Hi there,” she said, flicking her long black hair over her shoulder.

Ray felt the colour rush to his cheeks as he winked at her.

“Hi,” he managed.

He looked back at Pa’s garage, the sign swinging in the wind that had picked up.

“See you around,” she said, raising her eyebrows.

“You bet.”

Ray stared after her, the swing of her hips, and the exposed back in her dress showing a long tattoo down her spine in thick, fat, brown letters. It looked like Chinese. Or maybe Japanese. It sure wasn’t English.

Ray turned and decided to go back to his room. He started running, feeling the lines draw him in, hypnotic and beautiful, the wind whooshing past his ears. He felt he was moving past the Indian Hot Springs like an arrow. They said the Healing Waters of the Great Spirit bridged the Ute and Arapahoe Nations and that it was this sacred land which formed the neutral ground between the two tribes. Until Dr E.M. Cummins came along, that was, built a log cabin and changed everything, charging an entrance fee. Nobody had told Ray what had happened to the Ute and Arapahoe. He guessed they’d just moved along. Maybe they’d gone south to Mexico. Jessie James, Billy the Kid and Clint Eastwood all stayed at the Indian Hot Springs. Ray used to go when he was a teenager to pick up girls in the Sulphur Pools. They’d bring balls and pretend to play volleyball or lounge around in the mud room. They never bothered paying attention to the sign that read ‘Patrons have the right to solitude’. Ray wondered if the girl knew about the Indian Hot Springs. He would find her tonight, he thought, and tell her about the mineral content of the water and the heat of the caves. Ray knew the girl was right. She would see him around.

He showered, shaved and changed into neatly pressed Levi jeans. It was past six. A good time for dinner. He thought he might have a buffalo burger with extra fries. He walked down the hill, noticing a lump of polish on his shoes and rubbed it off with his forefinger. Licking the black stain he gagged and looked towards the river. He listened to its movement and wondered how hard it would be to drown. Would his instinct kick in, instantly, and all those swimming lessons Ma insisted he take pay off?  He remembered someone saying that you needed to weigh your pockets with stones. That would stop the spluttering, the swimming. But the Good Lord made the survival instinct far stronger than any stones.  Ray could feel that instinct just behind his eyes.

Ray hoped he wouldn’t meet Pa downtown. It was the second day this week he hadn’t showed for work. If he met Pa his plan to meet tattoo girl and take her to his room would be ruined. He looked up as the street lights with the striped lines down the iron pole and the bulbous illuminations sprung into action. It would be dark when he passed by here again. He hated that there were no lights on the road where he lived. He should have driven his Mustang, he thought. Girls liked cars. He kicked the sidewalk.

When he brought her to his room she would fall in love with him. She wouldn’t mind the walk back, he decided, in fact, she would be a runner like him, so together they would run to his room holding hands and she would declare her love. She would leave her dull job in the bank and move to Idaho Springs where the air was fresh. Ma would be proud. Ray tried to remember what she looked like. Her face. All that he could remember was the tattoo, mocking. But he’d see her soon. She’d told him.

But maybe she wasn’t even staying in town. And he would meet Pa, sneering, who would be with Ma who would shake her head and not look him in the eye. She would ask if he wanted to go walking and he would have to say yes. Ray got on his knees and prayed to the Good Lord that the girl would be in town. He prayed that she was lost and had to stay. But maybe, he thought, his heart quickening again, she was staying at the Indian Springs and he had, in fact, passed by her bedroom! Or maybe, even, she had watched him pass by her bedroom and was following him! He decided to skip dinner and go straight to Tommyknockers.

*

She sat at the bar. Same dress, black heels instead of boots. A turquoise choker with a teardrop stone hung around her neck. Ray could not contain his smile. It was clear Teddy had worked hard on the small talk to keep her there for him.

“So, lady,” Ray said, sliding into the stool beside one of them. “Good to see you again.”

She turned. She had an Indian face, he thought, a square jaw, chocolate brown eyes. She looked different, somehow.

“Again?” she frowned.

Ray could see fear in the frown which made her look ugly.

He remembered seeing lightning shoot across the bridge and wanting, desperately, to know what it would feel like if it struck him. Would it be quick and glorious?

“Ray,” Teddy was looking at him. “Ray,” he repeated and nodded at the girl. She was waiting on his answer.

“We met earlier,” Ray said slowly before taking a deep breath. His voice sounded high pitched. “We met downtown. You said you’d see me later.”

“Ah, yes. By the bridge.” She exhaled smoke.

“Yes, that’s it.” Ray felt pleased again. There was something sexy about women who smoked. He wondered if there was something wrong with her short-term memory.

“So,” he ventured, “what brings you to these parts?”

“I left my girlfriends in Denver and came here for some me-time.”

“That’s my friend Teddy,” he said, accepting a beer from Teddy and placing it carefully on the coaster.

She nodded. “We’ve met.”

“Have you been up to the Hot Springs?” he asked, raising one eyebrow. “Did you know that the mineral content of the water is one of the best in the world?”

“That’s where I’m staying,” she answered, holding out her hand. “Alice,” she said.

“Alice in Wonderland,” Ray said, grinning, thinking that Alice was definitely the girl for him.

“Randy,” Ray said, taking Alice’s hand. “Randy from Nashville. Nashville, Tennessee.”

She smiled. “An outsider like me.”

A wave of nausea passed over him. He’d never even been to Tennessee. As she spoke Ray found it difficult to look at her mouth with those crooked teeth. The lines were just…wrong.

“Ha!” he said slipping on his stool, holding up his glass. “That’s what too many fine ales does to you.”

Alice laughed loudly. Maybe, he thought, she would be easy. He wouldn’t have to look at her face. He could take her from behind.

“So what brought you to Idaho Springs? It can’t be the gold,” Alice said, twirling her hair around her finger. It was that funny black, like a navy black, thick and strong. She could wrap it around her neck, like a scarf, or a necklace. When they embraced, he would wrap it around his neck.

“Nah,” Ray said, “broke up with my girlfriend and came to work in the Argo Gold Mines.”

Alice took a drink. She had a suspicious look on her face.  “This Pick Axe is pretty good.”

“Damned good,” said Ray, “like Dorie and I used to be together.”

“Her name was Dorie?”

Ray nodded. “You fly, I buy, she used to say,” he said.

“What in the hell is that?” She laughed a little too loudly.

Teddy came over. “You okay, my man?”

“I’m doing just fine,” Ray winked.

Teddy nodded at Alice. “Fixed for drinks?”

She paused before answering. “I’m good.”

“Like I said, welcome to Colorado,” said Teddy, grinning.

“Like I said, thank you, Teddy.” Alice sipped her drink, staring Teddy right in the eye.

“Never touched a cigarette, me,” Ray said loudly, “only ever liked the real good stuff.” Ray closed a nostril and sniffed through the other.

Alice slipped off her stool. “Be back in five.”

Ray watched her dress move with her hips. He let out a silent whistle as she turned into the Restrooms.

“You fly, I buy, she had that much money she just got pleasure out of watching me fly,” he said. He threw his hands in the air, like his arms were the wings of a plane. “Fly,” he said, laughing. In his head the sound of the river came and he looked behind him to see John Joe raise his glass. He raised one back. He thought of the wires holding the traffic lights and a picture of his neck breaking as he swung flashed before him. He wondered if it would break at a right angle.

“Have you looked at the wires overhead here?” he asked when Alice returned. “They’re all straight but if you look carefully you see the tanks are rounded.”

Alice slid onto the stool. She took a drink.

Ray felt silly for mentioning the lines in the brewery.

“Dorie was crazy,” he said a little louder. “She had all this money from her Pa, just didn’t know what to do with it so I was like her bit of rough, you know, like Billy Joel, the poor boy…”

“Dorie? Your rich girlfriend?”

“Ex,” Ray said loudly. “Ex-girlfriend. The Good Lord ain’t given me a new one yet.”

Alice smiled. The lines on her face were rounded, though the crows’ feet around her eyes were dead straight. For a second her eyes seemed blue like the sapphires on Ma’s ring. A brilliant combination of lines and light.

“But you gotta ask,” Ray said, “you gotta ask the Good Lord for help when you need help.”

“Ray,” said Alice standing down from the stool, “the Good Lord’s telling me to get back to the Indian Springs. I’m up early to sample some of that water in the caves you were talking about.”

“Oh,” Ray looked towards Teddy.

“Leaving so soon?” Teddy asked slapping the wet cloth with the blue ribbed line around its edges against his palm.

“Want me for something?” Alice said.

“What does it say?” Ray asked nodding at her back.

“Aha, the mystery letters.” She laughed.

“Well?”

“Well. I’ll just catch you later.”

Alice walked towards the door.

She said it. She said she would catch him. Ray rocked on his stool and watched her leave. The Good Lord always provided. She was staying at the Indian Hot Springs. She’d had a drink too many. She wasn’t from here. She didn’t know that the lines overhead pointed to shortcuts and secret places. She didn’t know the lines of this town like he did. The door swung shut. John Joe laughed loudly. And Ray saw that Nancy Ann was right by him wearing a brown knitted short sleeved sweater, looking at him with a worried expression.

He looked towards the brewery pipes and visualised the letters of Alice’s tattoo moving in time with his hands, across her back. Then he would know the meaning. He imagined he was running with the sweat nearly killing him, running at the speed of light to….he took a deep breath…to – no! – to  John Joe and punching him, scratching at him until he had no more laughter inside. Nancy Ann was right to be worried. John Joe had put himself in danger with that laughing of his. And now he was running with Alice and she was laughing. Hers was a beautiful laughter because it came from true happiness. Not this false laughter that he had to listen to every night in the bar. And Alice was loving every minute with him. Having the time of her life.

I buy. You fly.

A flash of silver came before him. He looked around, feeling he should go. Follow her. Find her. Feel the connecting lines between them, the sharpness of the wires, the softness of her body, the push of his body against hers. She’d want it; she’d told him she’d see him later. She told him. There was a connection.

“Ray.” Teddy stood in front of him, his face serious, yet again slapping the wet cloth against his palm. “Go home.”

author-pic-shauna-gilliganAbout Shauna: Shauna, from Dublin, Ireland has worked and lived in Mexico, Spain, India and the UK. She currently lives in County Kildare, Ireland. Her writing has been published widely and she has given readings of her short and long fiction in Ireland, the UK, Spain and USA. Her debut novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere (Ward Wood, London) was published in 2012. Visit her website.

2013 All-Star Lineup: Home Team

2B | Neil Serven: “Duster”

LF | Clara Changxin Fang: “Baseball for Immigrants”

1B | Mark Pawlak: “Win, Lose, Rain Delay, Washout”

3B | Courtney Preiss: “Life Ain’t Easy for a Girl Named Mickey”

C | Kimberley Lynne: “Oriole Park”

SS | Aaron Burch: “Closed Captioning”

CF | Jenny O’Grady: “Korean Baseball”

RF | Ray Morrison: “Stealing Home”

SP | Ben Tanzer: “The Natural”

RP | Marjorie Maddox: “Conversation with Self on Origins”

Manager (Interview) | Stewart O’Nan, author of  The Odds, Last Night at the Lobster, Wish You Were Here, co-authored Faithful: Two Die-Hard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season with Stephen King.

CHECK OUT THE AWAY TEAM LINEUP

Duster

They let Duster throw out the first pitch by himself, leg braces and all. It drops like a duck shot out of the sky and rolls most of the way to the catcher, who had moved up to receive the throw. People in the crowd whistle and applaud as though the kid’s just made it back from the moon.

Virgil asked if it was child labor to make us play for charity. Donleavy got benched when he pointed out that wrist bands don’t cure shit no matter what color they make them.

Guys, this is about awareness, Coach said.

My uncle died of cancer, Donleavy said. Of the pancreas. I’m pretty aware of it.

This is different. This is for kids who got a raw deal. C’mon, I thought you guys were ballplayers. This is about community.

I thought it was about awareness, I said.

We’ve already been fucked over once today. We had been told that several members of our Detroit Tigers (fifth place in the American League East, but the season is young!) would grace us with their presence, sign autographs, maybe toss around the apple and talk a little shop. Here we were ready for Sweet Lou, Trammell, Sparky, Big Cecil, maybe David Wells if he wasn’t too hung over. Instead they send over a couple scrubs from Toledo and some of the lesser-known vets from the ’84 championship team (our fathers’ Tigers) who still live in the area. No Rusty Kuntz, but Tom Brookens was nice.

So it’s us Orioles against the A’s in a Babe Ruth Fourteens preseason scrimmage. The winner gets to say they helped wipe out cancer.

§

Jeremy Klopotoski was on our team last year. Kid couldn’t throw for shit so they put him at first base, but he couldn’t scoop for shit, either. It turned out he had leukemia, so he had to quit the team. Then we won our last six games.

It’s funny how these things come together. One kid gets a shit draw and it happens to be a kid whose dad is cozy with the City Council and Rec Department. So Duster gets his own weekend and we all perform in his honor. They’re selling t-shirts with his profile on the front for 12 bucks a pop, and you can tell by the sea of orange in the stands that people are buying them. Tomorrow they’re closing down Euclid Avenue for the Run for Jeremy 5K.

Nobody, other than his parents, calls him Jeremy.

We stand and listen to speeches from Duster’s dad and the lady who heads the Claw Through Cancer Foundation that the Tigers work with. The Tigers’ mascot keeps copping feels off the girls when they pose for photos.

 §

Benji gives me shit for taking a plug of dip when this is supposed to be a cancer benefit. Between innings I give him a plug, too.

By the third inning we’ve plated 21 runs and it’s only because of the mercy rule that we don’t have more. But we can’t just stop playing, because then people would leave, when the whole point is to get them to stick around and buy their T-shirts and concessions so Claw Through Cancer can get the proceeds.

What do we do?, Virgil says. Chuck a few throws?

Coach doesn’t answer. He says nothing, except: You guys are ballplayers. Let’s see some hustle.

We are the favorites to go to the state tourney this year: me at short, Benji at third, Virgil behind the dish, Spike and Lorenzo on the mound, Donleavy and C.J. in the outfield. On paper we’re unbeatable.

We are clinging to a nineteen-run lead in the sixth when someone throws out the idea that we should let Duster take a hack.

He’s not on the roster, C. J. says.

It’s only a scrimmage. We can bend the rules a bit.

He doesn’t have a uniform, Donleavy says.

Oh, but magically: Duster’s still got his last year’s threads and they just happen to be in the trunk of his father’s car. It’ll only take a minute.

Coach says nothing. Nobody says anything.

This is sure to end well.

§

Whit, C. J. says to me. Duster’s a goner, isn’t he?

I work up a spit and give him a look like, how the fuck would I know?

I mean, it’s gotta be why they’re doing this, right?

One of the coaches on the A’s has volunteered to pitch to Duster, batting practice-style. He moves up to the front of the mound while Duster sets up in the left-handed batter’s box.

The helmet is huge on his head, his face completely shadowed by the bill.

The crowd even gets the joke when Duster does his Mo Vaughn stance, arm-flex and bat-wiggle and all, his right elbow dangling in the strike zone.

After a few pitches it’s apparent they’re not counting balls and strikes.

Spike calls out to Duster to do his Mickey Tettleton. Duster does an awesome Tettleton. He stands upright, at least as well as he can, with his feet close together, does the around-the-clock a few times, then brings the handle of the bat slowly up to his ear flap, cradling the top hand with the bottom, the barrel out horizontal.

The crowd thinks it’s hilarious, but they don’t know why.

And then, swinging with just his upper body, he gets ahold of one. The metal sings through the air. The ball is on the ground, a rifle shot up the middle that nearly Charlie Browns the A’s coach before zipping over second base and into center field.

§

The crowd gives him a standing ovation. As Duster remains in the batter’s box, joined by his father, they begin to chant the name that no one ever calls him.

I turn to the others. Guys. We gotta get him out of here.

They look at me, then look at each other. Then Benji says, Let’s do it.

Now. Hurry.

And we are out of the dugout and onto him—me, Benji, Spike, Virgil, C. J., Donleavy—barreling past Mr. Klopotoski and hoisting his son up on our shoulders. Even with the braces Duster is not heavy. Up he goes like a balloon in a street parade. The closest field exit is down the right-field line, so that is where we head. Once we’ve made it through the crowd, with their way-to-gos and backslaps, we’ll take him someplace really nice, like Denny’s or Pizza Hut. We’ll say it’s to celebrate his hit, the beginning of his comeback. We’ll round up all of our friends and get a big booth in the back of the room, where we can have him all to ourselves and the rest of the world can’t find us.

About Neil: Neil Serven is a writer and lexicographer. His stories have appeared in Washington Square, Beloit Fiction Journal, Ayris, and Atticus Review, among other places. In 1984 he led the B-Farm league in walks for the Gowdy Park A’s in Lynn, Massachusetts, back before on-base percentage was looked upon as a valued skill in a ballplayer. He now lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts, with his wife and three cats.

Favorite Team: Boston Red Sox
Favorite Player: Spike Owen

Return to Home Team Lineup.