Little Fishes

by

“Put you in the piss tank and flush you too!”

Mandy. Five years old, half awake. She stands in the kitchen in her cloud-print PJs, curly brown hair bunched up on one side.

Gramma Jean at the table lights a Kool. “What did she say?”

“Piss tank,” says Pete by window. He’s twelve, dark-haired like his dad but has the Kolnik-side gray-green eyes. Outside, the February sky has just started to lighten. He can make out the tree line, the snow-covered pastures, the beef barn.

“She ain’t said that in a while,” he says. “Nightmare, I guess.” When he turns, his sister is scowling at the floor.

“Who were you talking to, honey?” asks Gramma. “I think you’re still sleeping. She tilts in her chair and pulls Mandy toward her.” The girl puts her forehead to Gramma’s fat shoulder like she is trying to tip her over—or force her back to her own house.

Pete checks the weather app on his phone. “S’posed to warm up. More than yesterday even. Like fifty.”

“Good,” says Gramma. “Enough with the storms and the deepfreeze. Your daddy’s snowman still down by the woods like some peekaboo thug.” She rakes her fingers through Mandy’s tangles. Her own hair is silk-straight with a few strands of gray at the temples.

“Go back to bed, Mandy,” says Pete. “It’s Saturday. Unless you want to do my chores.”

“I’ll take her upstairs,” says Gramma. She stubs out her cigarette, pushes up with a grunt. She wears a green sweatshirt from Spoon Lake Casino and the pink long johns she sleeps in. “Petey, oatmeal’s ready.”

He eats at the counter where the coffeemaker sat. The eight-cup Krups with the milk frother feature. The Krups is buried under snow in the yard. The Latteccino 2-in-1. He remembers the ad from the Kohl’s catalog his mother taped to the fridge way back in November, waiting for the perfect sale.

Pete texts his friend Arlo from school. The Kramers live in Beamer ten miles away. They moved to the area a year ago from Milwaukee. Dentist dad, realtor mom. They have a cedar-wood deck and a view of the lake. Arlo has had three different phones since they moved here. Nice ones. One he dropped over the side of boat when his family went sailing on Lake Michigan.

An unopened bag of coffee beans sits beside the toaster. It escaped the fate of the Krups and the grinder. Gevalia Kaffe. The package is egg yolk yellow and shiny-tight. Looks out of place on the cracked laminate between the dented toaster and empty Ball jars. Like it was ordered for a holiday no one here celebrates.

 

*     *     *

 

Two months before, the sale Cathy had been waiting for coincided with the first winter storm of the season at the start of Christmas break.

When she and Pete dropped Mandy at Gramma’s, the late-morning sky was already gloomy and the air had a bite of dampness. No pending blizzard was going to stop his mother once she’d made up her mind. Or a stuck car horn that set off for some reason halfway to Kelton. Like all the forces of the universe were against them. Cathy tuned the radio to an oldies rock station and turned the volume high enough to almost drown it out.

Sleet flew at the windshield, and the blacktop started to whiten. Pete played Limbo on his battered PlayStation, doing worse and worse each game. Coming into Kelton, Cathy switched off the radio and shouted over the wail of the horn: “You won’t have to bug us for a phone anymore! Target’s got a sale! It’ll be for your birthday and Christmas!”

Their car drew stares in the Kohl’s parking lot, since the horn did not turn off with the engine. Like his mother, Pete pretended nothing was wrong. Buying the Krups took no time at all. What took longer was Cathy’s flirty conversation with a tall blond man shopping for space heaters. She introduced him to Pete as Doug Duken, someone she worked with at Hayworth Insurance. Pete had rarely seen her so bubbly.

While they waited to get the car horn fixed, they ate at Taco John’s across the highway and watched the driving snow. They stopped at Petco to pick up Mandy’s Christmas present. A three-gallon aquarium and accessories. The fish would have to be a later purchase, but they looked at what the store carried. Glowlight tetras, clownfish, some brown, crispy-looking sea horses. Mandy’s tank was for cold water fish like the tetras.

At Target, finally, Pete chose his phone from the sale selections while Cathy stood by, tapping her credit card on the glass display case and sighing repeatedly. That she put the gift in her bag after purchase meant that Pete would have to wait until Christmas to get it.

She said nothing on the drive home. Flying, swirling white all around. Steady on, she cut down the middle of the road. Occasional vehicles bloomed into view, then glided past as Cathy inched over.

 

*     *     *

 

“Lyle asleep yet?” Pete asks, rinsing his bowl in the sink. Outside, a band of pinkish yellow grows above the hills. The snow on the pastures has a purple tint.

Gramma Jean doesn’t answer. He knows she doesn’t like “reporting” on her son.

“I heard him bumping around all night. No wonder Mandy got nightmares.”

“Eaves are dripping,” she says, coming up beside him. She has a scalpy smell Cathy used to mention. “If the temperature crashes, we’ll have glare ice. Better salt the front steps and the hill path.” By which she means the walk to the barn.

Pete keeps quiet. He should get all the chores because Lyle is socked from a three-day binge?

“And put on a sweater. T-shirt and coat ain’t enough.”

“It’s warm out.”

“Don’t argue. The fluctuations is what get you sick.”

Pete climbs the stairs as quiet as he can, as much as an old farm house will let him. His dad’s door is cracked a few inches, the light on. Pete’s room is at the end of the hall past Mandy’s and the rifle cabinet. He grabs a hoodie from his closet and heads down the hall again. The boards squeaking.

Lyle’s door opens. “Hey. Come here. Where you sneaking?”

“The barn,” Pete mumbles, not looking back. He is almost to the stairs.

“Come here I said.”

Lyle wears only a T-shirt and boxers. And mismatched socks, one black, one gray. His dark hair is clippered shorter than usual but he hasn’t shaved in the three days he was gone. He looks tired, his cheeks shallow gullies down the side of his face.

“I want to show you something on my computer.”

His room smells like beer and BO. Nothing of Cathy’s is here anymore. Magazines and snack bags litter the bed. Lyle’s clippers and sunglasses sit on the dresser with a crop of beer cans. And a little brown bottle the size of Pete’s thumb. Lyle left it in the den once, or one like it. Before Pete had the chance to look inside, Cathy snatched it up in a huff. Arlo said it was meth for sure, though there wasn’t a single way he could know.

The computer sits on a wiggly card table wedged between the bed and the dresser. When Gramma came to fix meals and babysit, Lyle brought the PC up from the den, since she sleeps on the couch the nights she stays over. Which are most since she and Grampa are fighting again. On the outs, she calls it.

Lyle sits at the table. He smiles at Pete like he’s doing it to show off his teeth. “What’s up, Cricket?”

Pete hasn’t heard that name in a while. The way Lyle says it puts a claim on him. Or who Pete used to be. Or who they were together.

“We ain’t hung out in ages, have we, Cricket?” Two ashtrays sit on one side of the table, both crammed with butts. Pete hears a text come in on his phone, the cartoon sound of three balloons popping. Lyle’s smile goes cold, then comes back with a vengeance, that stretch of wet teeth. “Well, buddy, we got kinda-sorta a problem here.” He turns to the computer.

This could be one of his jokes. When he’s jacked up like this, it’s hard to predict. A grid of images shows on the screen. He clicks on one with the mouse. It’s a closeup photo of a Guernsey bull. He points at the animal’s jaw. A shiny red bump has worn through the hair. “See that?”

He flips to the next pic in the search. The head of a Holstein cow or heifer with what looks like a honeycomb sticking out through its cheek.

“Gross,” says Pete.

Lyle cocks his head like a puppet’s. “You are so right.” His voice is a fake kind of thoughtful. “You nailed it, man.” He clicks to a different tab on the browser, a page of text titled Livestock Diseases. He points to a bolded medical term. “So how would you say that, Cricket?”

Pete sounds it out. “Ac-tin-o-my-co-sis?”

“Wow,” says Lyle, looking up at the ceiling. “He did it again. Amazing.” He turns back to the photos. A pair of hands in blue latex gloves holds a dead deer by the antlers to show its bloated cheek to the camera.

“Lumpy Jaw,” says Lyle. “What farmers call it. Lumpy Jaw Syndrome. It’s a fungus that does it, man.” He grits his teeth like his own jaw hurts.

Next is a cow skull with a mass of noodle-like bumps at the tooth line. Lyle hooks an arm to Pete’s waist. “Wha’cha think, sports fan?”

“I don’t know.”

“Seen enough?”

Pete feels a tug at one of his belt loops. “Yeah,” he says. A star-shaped cookie cutter sits on the table. Why it’s there makes no sense. Or the fishing rods in the corner that are usually kept in the shed.

Again the tug. “Positive? Say you’re positive.”

“Positive,” says Pete.

His dad looks up, eyes crafty, pushy. “Okay, then. Go down to the barn and take a look at your Audrey. Check her face good. Then come back and tell me what I got to do.” He knocks a cig from his soft-pack of Camels.

“What do you mean?”

“What I said, Cricket.” Lyle’s arm drops. His eyes swing away, wet suddenly. His lips pinch and turn down at the edges.

Pete backs toward the door. “I’ll look.” Lyle’s crying is worse than his bullying or temper. When he gets soft and muddy, when he’s tired like this.

Pete checks his phone on the stairs. It’s Arlo with news about an ice-skating party in later that day. Pete texts him back for the time and location.

Besides dripping eaves, another sign of the warm snap is a gift from the cat on the porch. A broken-neck shrew seeping blood from its mouth. All five of Miss Betty’s last litter got trampled by cows. She’s not showing yet, but is sure to have another batch by summer.

Everywhere, the surface of snow has a glaze. Yesterday’s rain and the overnight freeze put a thick crust of ice on it. With the snow cover shrinking, the stuff in the yard isn’t hidden as much. Pete can make out the shapes of the rowing machine and the box of books just off the front walk. A corner of the fish tank sticks out of the white. And the seat and front legs of a dining chair. The one Cathy used. Why Lyle threw that out was just crazy. Even Gramma said so. Pete can’t see the Krups. It is somewhere between the crabapple tree and the sandbox. Or at least the machine part of it. The carafe went another direction.

 

*     *     *

 

This time of morning, with the sun just up, Cathy would be sitting in the dark kitchen, watching the Krups go through its cycle. The blue ready light, the gentle hiss and gurgle, the smell that rose in the house like a tide.

Only twice did Pete witness the whole ritual. Both times he watched her grinding the beans, filling the basket, and placing her mug just so on the counter, covering—he realized later—an ugly burn mark on the laminate. The first day she brewed to the eight-cup capacity. Just to make sure it could, she told him.

With his room directly over the kitchen, Pete woke every morning to the chirr of the grinder. When the furnace was off, he could hear the floor creaking under her feet. Sometimes he’d hear the marimba ringtone on her cell and muffled chitchat.

The mug she used was large and lopsided and a color she called cobalt blue that had coppery drips down the sides. It came by UPS the same day as the grinder. That night Pete and Mandy were assembling the tree when Lyle called them into the kitchen. “Check this out!” His eyes had the fidgety, battling glint they’d had off and on since summer. “Look at this thing she ordered. Jesus. I could crap a better mug than this.”

Cathy plucked it out of his hand. “A master potter made it,” she said, as if to some invisible person. She cleared a place for it in the cupboard. “Can you put the lights on the tree, Lyle? The kids’ll want to be decorating, and it’s a school night.”

In the den, instead of laying the strings of lights on the branches, Lyle wound them around the trunk. He tried at first with the branches on, then yanked them all out and started over while Pete and Mandy pretended not to watch him. He moved from the couch to the floor, turning the trunk as he bound the cords to it. He jammed the tree back into the stand. Plugged in, the lights made a thick bright column. He fit the branches into their slots with a lot of grunting and swearing, then left to play cards with his house-builder friends.

From then on, it seemed to Pete, everyone was waiting for something to happen. Things would be normal, then Cathy would fix a new recipe for supper and sit silent and teary-eyed at the table. Or Lyle would sleep in the den for two nights. Or sit in his truck for hours chain smoking and listening to music.

The day after Christmas, in the afternoon, Pete overheard him ask Cathy for a cup of her “la-dee-da” coffee. She was playing Qwirkle with Mandy at the table. “I thought you didn’t like coffee,” she said, and he answered he’d never had hers. “I only make it in the mornings, Lyle,” and she added sort of under her breath—though Pete could hear her from the mudroom—“Like you need caffeine.”

So Lyle was brooding the rest of the day and camped out in the den after evening chores so that Mandy was afraid to go look at her tetras and watch the stream of bubbles in the tank like she had most of Christmas, with Lyle beside her a lot of that time, just as fixated, and keeping her from adding too much fish food. While the tree blinked its column of lights.

 

*     *     *

 

The wide, windowless aluminum barn was built by the people who lived here before. The mass of snow on the roof is shrinking, and the runoff drips onto the snowbanks below.

Pete steps through the side door into darkness heavy with the steam of animals. He feels for the row of switches on the wall. The fluorescents above him flicker into life. The light reaches weakly down the length of the building, over forty-two head of cattle, some standing.

The entryway is crowded with bags of milk replacer, the calf bottle sterilizer, bins of starter grain. An old metal cabinet keeps fly-kill and medicines. Miss Betty sits expectantly at the milk dish. The old gray tabby has a croak-like meow and is missing the tip of one ear. From a bag of milk replacer, Pete puts a half scoop of powder in the dish, adds water from the spigot and mixes it with his finger. Slash and Nitwit have snuck in from somewhere. Pete watches all three heads in the dish and tries to not think of the pictures Lyle showed him.

Everything around him sounds normal. The low, lazy groans of the cows, the scatter-plop out the backend of somebody. Pete’s job is to feed the calves and young heifers, like Audrey. She’ll be kept for breeding and Pete will get half the money from any of her calves they don’t keep.

He flips the switch that opens the big sliding door at the end of the barn. Several cows turn their heads. Their puffs of breath show in the bright, early light. The whole place is filthy, not a spot of clean straw anywhere on the floor. Lyle should have been here to take care of this. All Gramma says when he goes on a binge is he needs more construction jobs to keep him occupied, or how life is especially hard on him now, though she never mentions Cathy.

A few cows lumber toward the door and fresh air. The herd is Herefords and a few Angus steers. Pete lugs a pail of starter grain to the calf pen. As he scoops it into their buckets, he sees Audrey walking up to the pen. The splotch of brown around her left eye makes her distinct from others of her kind.

“Hey, girl.” He thinks she’s jealous of his time with the calves. “You don’t got Lumpy Jaw, do you?” Her black eyes shine. She bats her white lashes.

Pete checks her muzzle and jaw for bumps. He doesn’t feel any. No open sores. As he strokes the ridge of her back, he hears a laugh from the entryway. Grampa Don wears a backpack and carries a stack of gallon-sized buckets.

“How’s it going, Professor? This your new sweetie?”

Peter Professor, Mandy Munchkin. Lyle is Lunkhead. Gramma Jean is just Jeanie—or Jailbait, from the time she got busted stealing a car when she was a teenager.

“Ha ha,” says Pete.

Grampa steps into the quartering area. He limps a little from his stroke. He has a face of creases all directions and glum-looking hound dog eyes. He looks nothing like Lyle. He makes his way between cows and poop slicks.

“How’s Jailbait doing?” He leans on a corner of the calf pen and chuckles.

Pete wonders what their fight is about. Last time was over the player piano, which had never worked as far as Pete knew. It belonged to Grampa’s family and Gramma sold it without telling him. So he chopped down her clematis plants. That was a June-to-August fight.

“Do you see something wrong with my heifer?” Pete asks. “Dad says she’s got Lumpy Jaw Syndrome.”

Stooping down, the old man gives Audrey’s head a once over. His eyebrows rise, rise higher and plunge. “Well, I hate to tell you…” He shakes his head, deep-frowning like Mandy. “Professor, I think your heifer— What’s her name?”

“Audrey.”

“Well, I think your Audrey is turning into a cow.”

Pete waits for the loud laugh. When it comes, the calves edge away from their buckets and Audrey stalks off like she’s embarrassed by such a lame joke.

“I don’t see nothing either,” says Pete. “I think he was kidding. Stuff he showed me online was scary. Cows with their cheeks all bulged out.”

Grampa looks toward the door to the feed yard where a lone Angus has ventured. It slowly manages the ice and snow on its way toward the one accessible salt block.

“You gonna help me with tapping, Professor?” He means the maples. Last year they tapped more than fifteen trees. The sap cooked down to barely two gallons of syrup.

“Do you think the sap’s running?”

“Of course! With this weather. I just hope we ain’t lost too much.”

“I got to put down some hay first.”

“You running this farm single-handed? Where’s Lunkhead?”

Pete shrugs.

“I’ll give you a hand after tapping, Professor.”

Miss Betty leaps up to the side of the pen. She keeps her balance for a few quick steps then jumps down again.

 

*     *    *

 

Lyle made the snowman two days after Christmas. A bitter cold day. That morning had started for Pete with Cathy pulling him out of bed before sunrise to help her carry the fish tank to the bathroom.

In the den, the tree lights were set to shimmer so the room had an underwater look of its own. Lyle sat watching TV on the couch. He turned his head away when he saw them. Cathy took Pete by the wrist and led him across the room. The aquarium cover lay on the floor. As they lifted the three-gallon tank from its stand, Lyle glanced over as if he’d just seen them and stuck out his tongue like a little kid would.

In the bathroom, they emptied most of the tank water into the toilet. The tetras washed out—plish, plish. The pee smell confirmed what Cathy had told him. Some sand washed out with the water. They put the tank in the mudroom and Pete went back to bed.

He woke in the daylight to shouting downstairs. “Put you in the toilet and flush you, too!” He could hear Cathy clearly through the floor. “No! Take it out! Just take it outside!”

Mandy was sitting at the top of the stairs, her blanky around her, licking the edge of a cherry PopTart. Pete sat beside her. Lyle appeared at the foot of the stairs, his coat and boots on. “Mandy! Sorry!” He was crying, sniveling. He looked crazy. “Let’s build you a snowman. Right now, Mandy-pants. Get your coat. We’ll go out and make a big one, okay?” She turned to Pete and hid her face in his shoulder. He could feel her breath through his T-shirt.

 

*     *     *

 

The snowman stands about seven feet high. Grampa squints up at it, his lips twisting one way and another, like he is making an official assessment. “S’posed to be some kind of mutant?” Pete takes a pic with his phone. This is the first time he’s seen it up close. Looks a bit like one of those Transformer figures or the cave troll from The Lord of the Rings. Two humps for shoulders, bumpy arms packed onto the torso, head like a giant fist, massive legs. The surface is shiny and hard.

Grampa kicks at a leg and winces. “Like rock.” He gives Pete the stack of pails to carry. They start through the woods. Crunchy snow and low brush. Jays and crows make a racket overhead. They see tracks of deer and what Grampa says a timber wolf made.

“It’s a coyote,” says Pete.

“Well, ain’t you the wildlife expert.”

Less than ten steps into the woods, Pete sees a flash of orange ribbon. Last year, they marked all the maples they tapped. New holes will have to be drilled. At the first one, Grampa takes out his cordless and fits a bit in. Through the snowbound quiet comes the rat-a-tat sound of a woodpecker. Might be twenty yards off or a mile.

“You seen your ma lately?” asks Grampa, as casually as if he is asking the time.

“Nope.” Pete takes off his gloves. He’s sweating. He checks his phone. Nothing from Arlo. Fifty-two degrees.

“Just wondering. She came back that once, Jeanie told me.”

Pete hears the words repeat in his head. The woodpecker stops. “She did?”

Grampa Don makes a face like he just broke a tooth. From his pocket, he pulls out three metal spiles. “I guess you weren’t home. Hold these.” The spiles are odd-shaped tubes about five inches long with little hooks on the bottom for hanging the pails.

Grampa squats by the tree. He places the bit in a crease of the bark and drills in a few inches. He makes two more holes spaced a good foot apart. The sap starts to bead right away. One by one, he takes back the spiles and forces them into the holes with his fingers.

“Who was there?” Pete asks.

“Where?”

“Who was at home when she came? Gramma?”

“I guess. She’s the one told me.” He pulls a hammer out of his pack and taps the spiles in tight. “Thought you knew.”

It takes them longer to get from tree to tree through the snow than to drill the holes and pound in the spiles. The sap is running. Pete can hear steady drips in the pails they have already hung.

The fourth tree is a soaring black maple with a clump of dead leaves near the top. “Squirrel hotel,” says Grampa, pointing with the drill.

“Where is she?” Pete asks.

“No clue, Professor. She got folks in Iowa, don’t she?”

Pete thinks Cathy is living in Kelton with the man they ran into at Kohl’s. Doug Duken. He dreamed he saw them at the Strich County Fair making out in the livestock pavilion. Cathy’s hair was piled on top of her head like she wore it in her senior prom photo.

“She got spark,” says Grampa. “I don’t begrudge her getting out of a rut. Admire it kind of. You don’t like hearing that.” He crouches at the base of the trunk, touches the scars of two old tapping spots as if gauging the mood or health of the tree. “My ma ran off a few times. Should have made up her mind and stayed off instead of confusing everybody concerned. You get me?”

Pete hears a text come through on his phone. It’s not from Arlo. Lyle has sent him a photo. Another sick cow, its gums bared with metal clamps, yellowish goo spilling over the teeth.

In an hour, they are trekking back though the pasture. They keep to the original path they had forged through the snow. To the north, another stitch-line of coyote tracks arcs across the pasture. Animals light and fast enough to keep from breaking through the crust. The harsh winter has made them especially bold. Two of the neighbor’s goats got eaten. The Madsens lost a heifer.

At the barn, four or five cows are gathered at the salt lick. Out of habit, Pete looks for Audrey. He doesn’t see her, but she might be hidden behind one of the steers. She likes being out in the sunlight.

 

*     *     *

 

“I promise,” Cathy told them. Slipping things into a giant leaf bag while Lyle was building the snowman. Pete and Mandy sat on her bed. Every minute or so he’d go to the window to make sure his dad was still at it. Why he was making it down by the woods was a question Pete knew not to ask.

“I just have to get settled,” she said. “I’ll come back for you both, don’t you worry.” She looked at Pete. A lock of blond hair fell over her face. “You understand, don’t you? You see how he is.”

She didn’t have many clothes to take since there was a big load of laundry in the washer right then and it was clear she wasn’t going to wait for it to finish. She picked some things from the drawers in her bureau and tossed them into the bag. Next was a dress and shoes from the closet. And her pillow. Then she strode down the hall to the bathroom.

Pete took a photo of the bag on the floor. Even with the pillow, it was less than half full. He sent the pic to Arlo and told him Cathy was leaving.

Mandy sat close to him, watching his fingers.

“Dad peed in your fish tank. That’s what happened.”

“My fishes? Why?”

He took a pic of her, too. “Just because.”

She grabbed at his phone, but he snatched it away, laughing. She punched his thigh. He shoved her off the bed.

“Stop it!” Cathy had returned with some jars and bottles, her hair drier. She dumped them into her makeshift suitcase. “Now listen. Stay here till I’m gone. Mandy, your hair. Pete, brush her hair, would you?” She gave them quick hugs and was off down the stairs, the bag bumping softly behind her.

Pete heard her on her cell in the kitchen. “Your son is out of control, Jean. One of you needs to come over.” Her voice was calm, the words placed out like she was reading a speech. “I’m telling you there’s nothing I can do anymore.”

Grampa drove over from Chiqua on his lunch break. Lyle was back in the house by then, red nosed, red fingered. Pete had already told him what happened. “Did she now?” was all Lyle said, though he repeated it several times. By the time Grampa got there, Lyle was sitting in the den with Mandy. They had opened a box of Swiss Miss singles and were eating the powder straight out of the packets. Mandy’s lips were ringed with cocoa. Grampa sat on the couch by Pete. The Weather Channel was on, a big patch of green sliding up from Nebraska. “Another storm,” Grampa said. Minutes passed. Lyle took out his flip-phone and speed-dialed a number, his foot tapping fiercely at the carpet. From the kitchen came the marimba ringtone. Pete felt the wall of his stomach go thin, the way it did when he had to climb the rope in gym class, got halfway to the ceiling and couldn’t look down.

The phone—which Cathy had left in the cookie jar—was the first of her things Lyle chucked, though he broke it in pieces before he tossed it outside. Sometime in the night went the bed doll collection and the dining chair. The next morning he threw out her books plus anything of hers she had left in the bathroom. Yet the Krups stayed where it was for two weeks. The Krups and the grinder and the bag of Gevalia in their perfect line on the counter. Like he was daring her to come back for them. Then one night he asked Pete to hold the door open as he carried them—machine in one hand, carafe in the other—out to the front steps and lobbed them out into the yard.

 

*     *     *

 

Gramma Jean takes two cans of Sprite from the fridge. “I saw you with all them buckets, Donny. Nobody’s interested in reliving your youth.”

“It ain’t that,” Grampa snaps. “Be a shame to waste all that sap, and it’s a good activity for the kids. What do you care?”

Gramma thumps the cans on the table. “Well, aside from the fact that it ain’t your land, I hope you’ve carved out some boil-down time, because my hands are full. I’m just saying. And that job gets everything sticky, so you’d better be ready to clean up after.” She looks at Pete. “What?”

“Nothing,” he says.

“Your dad ain’t asleep, F-Y-I.”

“Where is he?”

“In the den with Mandy. Didn’t see you salting the hill path, mister.”

“Later,” Pete grumbles. “It’s not gonna freeze tonight anyway.”

Back in the mudroom he hangs up his coat. The house feels different now. Traces of Cathy’s visit. She must have taken stuff that he hadn’t noticed. Her spring jacket is still in the closet. And a pair of her sneakers. Her raincoat is gone but she might have taken it with her the first time.

He sees that Miss Betty has snuck into the house. With her morning kill, too. Crouched between Lyle’s snow boots, she gulps the shrew down whole. Cathy never let barn cats indoors, called them flea buses.

“Hi, Pete.” Mandy stands in the hallway. The Strawberry Shortcake sweatshirt she is wearing is really too small for her now.

“What ya doing?”

“Checkers.”

“He acting okay?”

She eyes the cat in the corner. “Miss Betty’s not supposed to be here,” she whispers.

Lyle calls from the den. “Come and finish the game! You’re winning!”

Mandy huffs a Gramma-like sigh and obeys. Pete follows. The Christmas tree winks on, winks off. No other house in the world, he thinks, has a tree up in February. His dad is lying on the floor, raised up on one elbow in front of the checker board. He’s wearing a clean white T-shirt and jeans. Still the mismatched socks. He looks up. “Got something to tell me, Cricket?”

“About what?” Pete was hoping he had forgotten.

“What we talked about. What I got to do.”

“There’s nothing to do. She don’t have it.”

Lyle scratches his chin, the beard stubble. “Who don’t have what?”

“Audrey. Lumpy Jaw.” Pete looks toward the tree. “Grampa don’t think she’s sick either.”

Lyle taps a finger on the edge of the checkerboard. “Oh, Donny’s an expert on livestock diseases?”

“No. But anyone can see she’s okay.”

“So some miracle cured her and she ain’t sick no more?”

“I guess so.” Pete knows this is not the right answer. He hears Lyle lighting a cigarette and blowing the smoke from one side of his mouth.

“Let’s get this straight. She was sick, you’re saying, but not now.”

“Yep.” Too late for him to step out of the trap.

“Well, maybe the swelling went down temporary, but it’s going to flare up again.”

“I don’t think so.”

“That’s a pretty big risk, don’t ya think? You want all our beef to get Lumpy Jaw?”

“No.”

“Then tell me what I got to do, Cricket.”

Pete looks at his dad. He’s not going to cry. Or picture Audrey being shot in the head. He thinks of the snowman down by the woods. A crowbar would bring it right down.

Lyle is smiling now, his eyes beaming. “You stick to your guns, kid, I like you. Mandy! Come here and finish this game!”

She walks up to the board but just stands there, hands tucked up in her sleeves. “I’m tired of playing,” she says to her feet.

“But you’re beating me, Squirt.” Lyle slaps his palm on the carpet. “Sit!”

Grampa walks in and plops down on the couch. “You winning, Munchkin? Is that what he said?”

Mandy scowls. “’Cause he’s letting me!”

“That’s one thing I never did,” says Grampa, directing the comment at Lyle. “That’s no preparation for life. Nobody lets you win.” He picks up the TV remote, flips from weather to golf to a cooking show.

“That’s why he had to force us to play,” Lyle mutters. “Till he got beat.” Lyle shouts toward the hall: “Right, Ma?”

Gramma Jean comes in with a beer and a cig. “Right, what?” She rubs her arthritic knee.

Lyle looks up at Mandy. “You got me now, Mandy-pants.” He taps out the move that will take his last men. “Three hops with your king and I’m grass.”

“You put ’em that way,” she says quietly. “It’s not fair.”

“See?” says Grampa. “Even Mandy knows you don’t cheat to lose.”

On TV, a beautiful woman in a dark blue apron cuts a tomato into very thin slices. Copper pans and stone counters around her. Cathy used to watch this show and ones like it.

“Mandy!” Lyle thumps the carpet again. “Let’s finish!”

She kneels beside him and takes his black pawns—one, two, three. Then she hops up and strides over to Gramma, head down.

“What is it, baby?” Gramma pats the back of her head. “You won.”

“Not in my house,” says Grampa.

Lyle rolls over, his back to the floor. Stares at the ceiling. “First time I beat that old booger, god damn but he couldn’t believe it. So we played another game and I did it again. Remember that, Ma?”

“I don’t think I was home,” Gramma says. “I was cleaning resorts all day in the summers.”

“It was winter, Ma. Right about now. So the old man starts saying I’m smart, I’m so smart, maybe I’ll get to college someday. ’Cause I beat him. ‘You’ll go to college and show us all what’s what.’ Ain’t that what you said, Donny-Dad?”

Grampa twitches a shrug. Eyes on TV.

“I was Pete’s age,” says Lyle, sitting up, his T-shirt speckled with dirt from the carpet. “The whole day went by and Donny’s all quiet. Drinking. And I could feel him just plotting. But supper came and bedtime. Nothing.”

“Oh, that time,” says Gramma, still rubbing her knee.

“So next morning I go to the john and in the mirror I see this blotch on my forehead. Black letters, P-H-D wrote there in marker. Man, that’s how he got me. While I was asleep!”

Gramma rips out a laugh and stands straight. “God, it stayed there for days, didn’t it? How could you do such a thing, Donny Trivett?” She limps toward the couch and eases down beside Grampa. “Lyle eating his breakfast so mad, just a-boiling, his forehead practically bloody from scrubbing.”

Grampa sits stone-faced beside her. “I don’t drink no more,” he mumbles.

“You people are shits, Lyle hisses.” Turns to Mandy, to Pete. “Those people!” He points to the couch. “Pathetic. Look at them! They’re the freaks!” His eyes glaring in his patchy red face.

“You calm down,” says Grampa. “You’re the one all buzzed up and ridiculous. You should stay in your room when you’re zooming like this. No wonder Cathy split. And the way you threw all that stuff out was stupid. The chair, the rower. Look, Jeanie, he ain’t even listening. He’s off in some zone. The fool zone.”

Which he is. Picking and swiping at the grit on his shirt.

Gramma has cuddled in next to Grampa. She strokes his thigh like whatever their fight was about is old history.

“Just needs to wind down,” she says. She sits forward to grind out her cigarette. “Kids, there’s baloney and cheese in the fridge. Make a sandwich. Go on. Son, why don’t you go upstairs and stretch out?”

Lyle rises enough to notch his butt on the couch arm. Drags a hand over his face. Then he stands and walks toward the hall, kind of ambling. Black sock, gray sock. Gramma follows like she thinks he’ll knock something over.

“Munchkin!” says Grampa. He does Mandy’s favorite trick with his eyelids, flipping them inside out with his fingers.

“Ewww!” she squeals and climbs up beside him.

When Pete hears Lyle’s feet on the stairs, he ventures into the hall. Gramma’s voice comes sharp from the kitchen. “Don’t you dare, you!”

Miss Betty is sitting by the fridge, hunched up, choking. She chucks up a lump of wet fur. “For God sakes She must have snuck in with you guys.” She cleans the mess with a few paper towels.

“Gramma?” says Pete.

As if she knows his question already, she takes her time standing up.

“Did Mom come back once when we were at school?”

She rolls her right shoulder like it hurts. “Who told you that?” She frowns at the wad of towels in her hand. “Someone with a big fat mouth, the old gummer.”

“You never said nothing.”

“And what would the point of that be?”

“So you were here?”

She turns her head back and forth. “Uh-uh.”

“Dad?”

“I guess. He told me they talked on the phone beforehand. She’d called.”

“When? What day?”

She drops the chomped-up shrew in the trash. “I don’t remember, Petey.”

“Was it recent?”

“No, back in January. Look. You know I hate what she did, don’t you?” Gramma turns to show her most serious face, so wits’-end tired Pete looks anywhere else. At the counter. Out the window. Two grosbeaks in the crabapple tree.

“Mandy!” she yells. “Get in here and tell me what you want on your sandwich!”

“Do you know where she is?”

“I don’t. And don’t ask your Dad. It’ll only upset him. You see how he’s acting.”

“Disgraceful,” says Grampa from the hall. He has his coat on and is zipping it up. “Disgraceful is how he’s acting. I don’t blame her one bit for cutting.”

“Why don’t you shut up?” says Gramma. “Your mouth is flapping all over this morning. Are you off?”

“Got the noon shift.”

“On Saturday?”

“Ramirez cut his hand in the planer and they asked me to fill in. I’ll stop back for supper?”

She eyes him for a second. “Well, get me a cabbage and three pounds of hamburger. And salt the damn walks before you go, Donny. Somebody was shirking his duties this morning.”

 

*     *     *

 

Lyle isn’t sleeping or even in bed. He is looking out the window, a hand on each side of it. He taps his fingers and bobs his head like he hears music playing.

“Dad?”

The fingers stop. The head lowers. “What?”

Pete comes into the room a few steps. “Mom,” he says. “After she left, did she come back at all?”

Lyle’s head starts bouncing again, his right hand slapping a rhythm on the casement. “What a rocking tune!” he says. As if he’s wearing invisible headphones.

Pete looks at the clutter on the bed, the floor, the card table. The gyroscope screensaver moves on the PC. A box of rifle shells sits on a corner of the table. It had probably been there before and means nothing. No more than the cookie cutter.

Lyle starts whisper-singing, his breath coming through the shapes his mouth makes. Whatever song he is singing he stops. “Once,” he says. “One time she did.”

“When?”

“I don’t know, man. After Christmas. You was at school.”

“You saw her?”

“No way. She called and asked me not to be here. Said she had to get a few things. I says, ‘Like your Krups?’ And she asks all meek-like if it was still here. ‘Sure is,’ I said, come get it, sick of looking at it.’ Don’t know why I let it sit there at all, staring at me every damn day.”

“But you threw it in the yard,” says Pete. “I saw you.”

“That was after, man. After she came.” Lyle, pushing back from the window, turns. “So I left like she asked. I wasn’t gonna at first, then I thought, shit, I don’t want to see her, thinking I better not fucking be here, man.”

Pete watches his dad coming toward him, eyes lit. He veers off toward the bed, kind of staggering. Pete hears Grampa’s truck in the driveway. The engine turning over, turning over, starting.

“And what do I see on my way out the door? One of kitty-cat’s presents on the step. A red squirrel she must’ve caught in the barn. Just a small thing, all crumped up and flea-bitten looking.”

He plops on the edge of the bed. A magazine slides off. Outdoor Life. His face goes blank. He stares at the carpet.

“Red squirrel,” says Pete.

Lyle nods just barely. “Oh. Yeah. Dead Red. So I pick him up, I go back inside and guess what? I stick the little fucker in that damn coffeemaker and I brew her eight cups of gourmet rodent.”

Lyle’s eyes snap to Pete’s. A defiant yet tortured sort of light in them. Jaw working. He looks like he might start to cry. He flops back on the bed, on newspapers, potato chip bags. He brays out one string of laughs, then another, snorting between. “We got her!” he shouts at the ceiling. “We got her so good, didn’t we?”

 

*     *     *

 

The ice left on the front walk is pocked with salt holes. In the yard, the aquarium juts up from the snow, sunlight trapped in a dirty glass corner. “Look!” says Mandy. She climbs over the ridge of shoveled snow. She’s wearing the cap with the panda ears on it Grampa gave her for Christmas. She tries to pull the aquarium free, first with her mittens on, then without.

Gramma told Pete to take her down to the woods to show her the snowman and the maple tree buckets. “So your daddy can settle down,” she said.

“Pete!”

“Just leave it, Mandy.”

A few feet from the tank lies the box of accounting books from the tech school Cathy went to. Cardboard flaps all soggy. The sandbox is still buried but he can make out the shape of its frame. The rowing machine sits near the crab apple tree, most of it visible now. The Krups close by. He thinks he can see the top of it hiding just under the snow.

A text from Arlo comes through. The skating party is at the Jilek’s from two to four today. Pete responds that he’ll be there if he can get somebody to drive him.

He climbs the snowbank, stomping footholds as he goes. The Jileks live almost to Chiqua and Gramma will bitch about gas. Had he known, he could have asked Grampa to take him.

Reaching what he thinks is the coffeemaker, he raps the mound of snow with his boot. Sure enough. He rubs the grainy ice from its shell. He is tempted to open the lid, to prove Lyle was telling the truth.

“Come on!” says Mandy. “Let’s go to the woods!”

Gravel shows though parts of the driveway. Pete can practically hear the snow melting. He can smell it, too, like a dew in his nose as he walks. Snow and diesel and barnyard.

He moves along the pasture fence in the path he and Grampa made. Mandy walks on the crust of ice. She hasn’t once fallen through. Looking toward the barn, he sees more cows have wandered out.

“How warm is it now?” Mandy calls from behind him.

Pete checks the weather app. “Fifty-six. Wow.”

“It’s spring!” She holds her arms out for balance.

“It ain’t spring. Ain’t even Easter.” He looks up Chicago. “Guess how warm in Chicago?”

“How should I know?”

“Fifty-nine.” He checks Pittsburgh, where his mom’s brother lives, Uncle Vic. “Forty-seven in Pittsburgh. That’s way east.”

“Pissburgh?” says Mandy. She giggles.

“Denver is two below. That’s what’s coming, Mandy. It moves in a line west to east.”

“Pissburgh!” she shouts and drops through the snow to the waist. She gapes around her, tries to push herself up by the crust, which keeps breaking. Pete laughs. By the time he gets there, she’s happily tramping around in her wallow.

Early that morning, the snowman looked worn but still tough. Like he’d survived one battle and was ready for the next. Now he doesn’t seem so eager. His slump is more certain. Only the barrel legs look solid, but not in a supportive way. More like they’ll just stick around after the rest has ka-plooped.

“Dad made it for you,” Pete says.

Mandy steps close. Reaching up, she touches a hard lump of bicep. “He did?”

For a second, he almost reminds her. She can’t have forgotten that scene on the stairs. Instead, he looks into the woods and listens. No woodpeckers. No sap hitting plastic.

“It’s melting,” she says.

“Yeah, and it’d crush you flat if it fell on you. Break your neck. You’d be paralyzed.”

“No way!”

“Come on,” he says and starts into the woods. He imagines an ambulance van in the driveway, snow banks washed with red and blue lights. Like when Mr. Eckert had a seizure in art class and they carried him off in a stretcher. Only he wasn’t bleeding, just dumped a bowl of wet plaster on his lap and sat crooked in his chair. But Mandy he knows would be busted all over. He pictures the blood running out of her nose, her arms and legs bent the wrong way. She moves her shoulder a little on the stretcher, so at least he knows she’s alive. While Cathy waits at the van, her North Face coat zipped clear to her chin. Lights flash on her tear-streaked face.

The buckets on the nearest maple hold an inch of sap. He picks a flake of bark out of one and licks the watery sweetness from his fingers. If the snow in the hills has melted enough, the creek to Star Lake will be running. He hears a branch crunch under Mandy’s boots. Then a gunshot, far-off, and its echo. He looks through the trees toward the pasture. A second shot punches the air.

“We got to get back!” Running, he listens for more rifle shots, but all he can hear are his boots and his breath. Half-way through the pasture he stops to catch his breath. Behind him, Mandy is taking the trail at least. Up ahead at the barn about a dozen cattle are gathered in feed yard. More of them would have bolted out if the shots had been fired inside.

He starts again through the broken snow, a side stitch hooks in. Gramma Jean is standing at the fence a good ways past where they entered the pasture. She’s waving them toward her, away from the barn. Pete has to stomp a new path through the snow. When he reaches the fence, he’s panting as hard as his grandmother, who obviously ran the whole way.

“I want you two in the house,” she says. “No accidents. Guns are getting a bad enough rap.”

Pete ducks through the lines of barbwire, steps through. “Where is he? I don’t see him.”

“On the other side of the barn, I think. He spotted some coyotes. Says he did, anyway. I’ve never seen them out in the daytime.” She shakes her head, still straining for breath. “I think he’s just shooting crows.”

Two back-to-back shots ring over the hills. Pete looks for Audrey “Was he down in the barn?”

“I don’t know. Here’s your sister. Getting some exercise, hon?”

“What’s wrong?” asks Mandy. She’s flushed and sweating.

“Nothing, honey. Precaution is all.” They help Mandy step through the fence. A panda ear gets snagged on a barb. From the driveway, Pete can see Audrey just outside the barn, waiting her turn at the salt block.

“Not a thing wrong with that rower,” says Gramma, pointing into the yard. “I’m gonna put an ad up online. Pete, you can help me. Your boots are full of mud, Mandy. Stomp some of that off on the steps.”

Pete makes straight for the Krups. Crouching, he pries open the brew basket lid. The red squirrel is there, curled up, about five inches long, plus the tail. Dead red. Fur slicked over the scalded corpse. He pulls out his phone and takes a few pics. Its eyes are black slits.

“Get in here, Pete!” Gramma shouts from the steps. “I didn’t run clear to the pasture so as you can get shot up here!”

In the mudroom, he takes off his boots and coat. He can see the tree lights blinking in the den. He sends one of the squirrel pics to Arlo and says he’ll explain at the Jilek’s.

“She lost a mitten!” Gramma calls from the kitchen. “Try to remember to look for it later when you go down to get the cows in, okay?” He hears her lighting a cig.

 

 

*     *     *

 

Pete stands at the kitchen window as Gramma Jean cleans the counters. Instead of clearing whole sections like Cathy would do, she moves one or two things, wipes where they sat, slides them back, and continues. Including the bag of Gevalia.

Finally, he sees his dad on the hill path. He’s moving slowly, the rifle crooked loose in his arm. In his rush to get out of the house to shoot coyotes, he didn’t bother with coat or jacket. He looks like a fugitive. Some sci-fi bandit or bounty hunter dropped here from a warmer dimension. Miss Betty tracks a few feet behind him, careful to keep a distance. When he slows, she slows. When he stops, she stops.

“He’ll come in now,” says Gramma over Pete’s shoulder. “He’ll sleep. Looks like he’s ready to fall over, don’t he? I’m ready to take a nap myself.”

Pete knows that he won’t be seeing Arlo today. He watches Lyle standing in the driveway, listless, undecided. He looks at the yard, at the house, no expression at all. Just stands there. The cat, too.

In the distance, the blanket of snow on the barn roof has shrunk to half the size it was in the morning. It splits suddenly, the lower third breaking off from the rest. Pete watches it slide toward the edge of the roof. It stops and hangs there. It will drop any second. It will fall off in parts or together.

 

 

Michael Hawley’s short stories have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Boston Review, Cimarron Review, The New Yorker, Post Road Magazine, The Southern Review and elsewhere. He lives in New York City. You can find more of his work here.  

Cristina

by

There was something about Cristina that I liked right away. I was embarrassed to admit how quickly I calculated her looks and their probability of arousing my husband, but maybe such estimations were inevitable and instinctive. Sizing up Cristina was easy. She was chubby, with a pretty face, and wore nondescript outfits such as jeans and a white t-shirt. I was sure my husband would see her as asexual.

She came to work for us at the end of the summer just over a year ago, after we discovered our former maid had been stealing my jewelry. The interview and hiring process were rushed and we took Cristina in without careful scrutiny. She had arrived in the U.S. eight months before we met her, after divorcing her husband in Guatemala. She had two children, to whom she sent a third of her check every month. We were lucky, as she proved to be hard working, respectful, and calm. She seemed to stabilize every room she entered, her hands deftly sorting out all disorder in the background. When she first walked into our large living room, she looked around in bewilderment.

“Such lovely things!” she exclaimed, wide-eyed. I found it hard not to be flattered by her. We had just redecorated the downstairs and I was proud of how it turned out. The dining room was ensconced in a lush wallpaper of red and gold, and the dining room table was dark wood, the edges of which were also lined with gold. The living room was more eclectic. We had experimental sculptures, such as a great winged bird made out of silverware, and green velvet couches. She went from room to room, amazed, and stared for a long time at a painting over the fireplace of a snowy road leading to a cozy house, lit from within by orange light, smoke trickling out of the chimney.

I had begun working from home earlier that year and, as I was still getting used to budgeting my day into chunks of productivity, I was relieved to leave all the housework to the maid. My study was next to the kitchen, so I could sometimes hear the various tasks being completed in the other room, such as unloading the dishwasher or mopping the kitchen floor, and would feel a pang of guilt for not helping and for having the luxury of spending the day doing my own work, editing manuscripts for children’s books.

Eight years prior, I had made the career choice to work every day at the publishing house. This decision meant less time with the children, and what emerged seemed a more professional relationship with them. They approached me rationally and would state a need they had, listing all the reasons they felt they should have, or be able to do, a certain thing, and then I would or would not grant permission. My recent decision to work from home was a last-ditch attempt to see my kids and bond with them before they grew up completely. Cristina became excited when she learned I published children’s books and I gave her some to send to her children in Guatemala. They could still look at the pictures, even if they couldn’t read or understand the words of the story.

 

Cristina moved into the little apartment above the garage, and, except for her two days off a week, she became a member of our household. That was the year my son fell ill with mono and had to stay at home for almost two months. To keep up with the expenses of a maid, my husband began working longer hours at his firm, in the hope of being made a partner.  I rarely saw him, and when I did, he was exhausted and would eat and usually go straight up to bed.

My son’s room was down in the basement. He had requested that we allow him to move there when he was ten years old. At the time he seemed so certain it was the right and necessary thing, so we had given in and let him do it.

Now he was fifteen, and I would go down into his den of sickness and find him reclining, surrounded by movie boxes, tissues, and empty bowls as he lay in the main room of the basement. His bedroom was off to the right and was the darkest room in the house. It had a little rectangle of a window on one wall that gave a view of tangled ivy. I was discouraged from going down there, because the place made my stomach turn—it was forever in disarray, and I couldn’t quite scold him for it because he was sick, so I would half-suggest he do things such as open a window or pick up his tissues. He would mutter some reply, and then I would go back up the stairs.

Before Cristina, I found a porn magazine once while I was making his bed. The place seemed more and more to be a territory best left alone. His body was growing at a monstrous rate, and his voice, after two years at a higher pitch, had settled into a deep, masculine tone, an almost musical bass. He was turning out to be strikingly handsome. Instead of descending the steps to his room, I would call to him from the top of the stairs and ask him to come up to the first floor if I needed to talk to him about something.

I sent Cristina down to my son’s room three times a week to clean. She became an expert in knowing his needs. She would put his favorite candy in little bowls on the coffee table, would make him smoothies, and bring him rented videos from the store down the street. My eleven-year old daughter would go down there and the three of them would often watch movies together after Cristina had finished her work. Cristina seemed to have a way with children. I could hear them laughing from the kitchen.

 

One day, I ventured down to check on my son. A strange red light cast dark shadows on the wall by the couch.  After commenting on the red bulb casting its eerie glow, I learned Cristina had brought him three different-colored light bulbs, one red, one green, and one blue. Cristina explained to me later that these were to put in his lamp by the couch to change the atmosphere if it got too dull or gloomy. This did not surprise me, as I had recently learned that Cristina had an active interest in craft-making.  She had shown me some Christmas ornaments she made in Guatemala, and I found this hobby of hers to be cute and endearing.  It was one more piece of evidence that she was safe, a good influence for my children. On some level, you could call her an artist.

I fell one step behind all that was happening, and actually began to prefer it that way.  She seemed to have a knack for maternal care, while I had always felt I was missing that feminine grace. I would peer down over the side of the staircase to the basement and see my son lying on his back, bathed in red light, his mouth flung open in a dazed dream state, and then return, puzzled, to my study.

I came down one morning to find that my daughter had slept on the basement couch. She was so deeply asleep that I had to shake her shoulder to wake her up. She was in a state of bliss when she awoke, her face relaxed and her eyes glowing.

“What is it, Mom?” she asked me, but she kept drifting back to sleep as I talked to her.

We found out several days later that she had somehow caught mono from spending too much time down there, although I had no idea how.  I had always thought mono was only contagious through kissing.

The place soon came to feel like some drug den with its psychedelic lighting, old, smelly couches, and heavy-lidded eyes gazing at me from the darkness.  Cristina seemed to know how to handle all this, as she would breeze in and vacuum, add flowers to the table, disinfect the bathroom, and crack open the windows.

I began to notice, as the weeks went on, that Cristina became more casual with her chores in the rest of the house. I noticed that the living room had not been dusted or that only the center of the room had been vacuumed. She began taking naps in the afternoon and would emerge from her room still sleepy and mutter a half-greeting to me as if I weren’t even really there. But the basement was always kept spic and span. She even cleaned the terrarium of my son’s snake without my having to give her instructions about how to do it.

After dinner, Cristina could be found downstairs with the kids. She would help them every evening with their homework, which I picked up once a week from their school, or giggle as they watched silly American movies. She looked to them to fill her in on all things American. The sheer number of mindless movies the three of them rented to “catch Cristina up” on all the ones she had missed living in Guatemala must have cost me and my husband at least twenty dollars a week.

I overheard her helping my son with his environmental science study of glaciers. Maybe help is the wrong word—she tested him on things by holding the book with the definitions, or asked him to explain concepts to her so that he would drill the material into his head. It was not within her ability to teach him anything about this kind of subject. I was sitting on the top steps to the basement, hidden from view, listening to their chatter.

When I wasn’t working, I found there wasn’t much else to do in the house except for checking out what the kids and Cristina were doing. My husband was becoming more and more of a ghost in our home, and when he was there, he was plagued with exhaustion. He rarely interrupted me in my study if I was up late working. I always suspected that he found my work meaningless. When I would tell him about the latest book I was editing, he would smile and listen with the kind of uninvested enthusiasm you would assume when listening to a child tell you about an illogical but amusing game she made up to play with her imaginary friends in the backyard. His eyes were often slightly glazed over, from exhaustion, from disinterest, or for some other reason. So, on this night, I took a break and sat on the steps.

I could hear Cristina and my son talking on the other side of the basement. She expressed particular pride when she saw a huge photograph of the Andes Mountains in his textbook. The photograph was from Chile, and she had seen pictures of it from a wealthy cousin of hers who traveled there on her honeymoon.

“My cousin, Gloria, stayed at the most fancy hotel you ever seen. It had a pool and each room had a patio looking out on the street. You kids should travel when you get older and see these places. There’s nothing like seeing new places to open up your minds. Remember that.” I thought about my own honeymoon to the Hawaiian Islands, the sheer luxury of the hotels my husband and I had stayed in, places that would undoubtedly shock Cristina with their decadence. Of course my kids would travel; my husband and I had already brought them to several countries. But how could I have the heart to tell her this. Let her think she at least had this advantage over them, of counseling them and imparting experienced advice.

“Read to me about the volcanoes and glaciers,” she said excitedly in her thick accent.

My son began reading aloud from the book, pronouncing the words slowly and with an earnestness that I was unused to hearing from him:

“Glaciers move in several ways.  One way, sliding, involves the large tongue-shaped block of ice, hundreds of miles thick sliding over the lithosphere, crushing the rocks of the uppermost region and dragging them as they inch along. These rocks then become glacial till. Glaciers severely distort the land they cross. They carve out valleys and then retreating glaciers produce a hilled effect where flat land used to be.”

“Sweetie, thank you for telling me this.” She laughed. “So the golf course next your house, those hills is from an old glacier.”

“Maybe,” he chuckled a little flirtatiously.

“What you going to do with all this knowledge?”

“Probably nothing,” he said and yawned. “This is a photo from Japan of Mt. Fuji.”

“Okay, read that part.”

“An eruption column collapses only after enough isostatic pressure from underlying gases and magma pushes up on it. There are three types of lava: basaltic, andesitic, and rhyolitic.  Each lava type erupts differently”—

“This is for what class, geology?”

“It’s for the geology section of the class, environmental science,” he said carefully, educating her. I found this whole exchange to be amusing and sweet, but also irritating. She must have known on some level that textbook writing wasn’t meant to be read aloud.  I found myself wondering if her naiveté was somewhat of an act.  No one could be that innocent and interested in these mundane things.

***

The next night, I found Cristina carrying two cardboard boxes from the storage space to the main part of the room.  A movie was on and both kids sat in a daze staring at a ski chase scene. Cristina had her hair down and wore green leggings and a white sweatshirt, the fabric of which was covered in fake pearls. She motioned me to come over to where they all were.

“Come, come, sit, Mrs. Mitchell,” she said, taking control of the situation. I walked over, smiling sheepishly and my son slowly moved his legs to make space for me at the end of the couch, never once taking his eyes off the screen. Cristina leaned over and opened one of the boxes in front of her, took out a dozen or so Styrofoam balls, and lined them up on the carpet. She took out two tubes of glue and a device with a cord that resembled a pastel gun. She set it in front of the Styrofoam balls. Then she walked back to the storage space, out of view. I tried to focus on the movie but couldn’t help wondering what Cristina was up to.  She returned a minute later with armfuls of dried flowers, and then plugged the pastel gun into the wall and stuck a tube of glue into it.

Slowly, my daughter rose and came to sit at Cristina’s feet, still watching the movie out of the corner of her eye. It was as if she moved to cues that were invisible to me. They all watched the movie. Cristina watched it standing up.

Cristina picked up the glue gun and stared at the tip for a minute. The glue was apparently hot enough. As she stuck the tip of the gun into a Styrofoam ball, it made a grinding and crackling sound, and a string of glue trickled down onto the newspapers lining the carpet. She pulled the gun out and looked at us. My daughter was staring up at her with rapt attention.

“Pick some flowers you like,” she told my daughter and then reached down and lovingly petted her head. She waited, ball in hand, while my daughter crawled over to a pile of flowers and selected a clump of little yellow blossoms and what appeared to be dried violets, as well as a handful of green moss. My daughter stuffed these into the gluey craters and they stayed where they were, making up a bumpy and colorful layer. The pair kept going until only a few white bald spots remained and the last flower heads were placed in their spots. Cristina closed her eyes and held it to her chest, a third flowery breast.

“That is gorgeous, Cristina,” my son said with exaggerated kindness. I couldn’t tell where he’d learned to compliment things as gorgeous. If he was serious or was just trying to be respectful.

“Where did you learn to make those?”

“In Guatemala, we grew up making these as well as many other things with dried flowers. This is presented as a gift often to new brides. I am showing your daughter how so she can make them.”

I stood up and carefully maneuvered around the floral mess. The flower balls were ugly and I cringed to imagine my daughter using up her time with such nonsense. But maybe this was what little girls were supposed to do. I had no right to interfere.

Unable to concentrate on my work, I decided to go upstairs and take a bath. I went up to my room. My laundry lay in a heap on my bed, unfolded. Normally, it was all in neat little piles, respectfully placed near the edge of my bed. There was a pile of dirty towels outside the bathroom as well. Cristina had failed to finish her chores.

Once in the bathroom, naked, I sank into the hot water. I realized there were no clean towels piled on the rack. I held up my book and tried to concentrate on the story before me, but was unable to focus. I thought about how things might have been if I had simply put aside my career and been an available mother. I would have been a part of the neighborhood network of moms, who dress in fancy sweatpant outfits and pull up to the curb in cars loaded with groceries and field hockey sticks, smiling, reassuring. As it was now, I was awkward around my children, unnatural, and it was dawning on me that it might be too late to regain a critical connection. I thought of the four of them down in the basement, watching a silly movie and laughing, making crafts and telling mindless jokes.

I was startled by a little knock on my door. I sat up a little bit in the bath and defensively covered my breasts with the arm holding my book and placed the other hand over my crotch. It was probably my husband, come up at last to see me. I removed my hands.

Cristina poked her head into the bathroom and then entered with a stack of purple towels.

“I realized I had left you with no towels,” she said. She placed them on the shelf above the toilet. “I am so sorry,” she said, so genuinely that I felt moved. “Mrs. Mitchell, we would love to have you come back down when you’re finished,” and then she smiled and left the bathroom. I felt a sting of sadness. I laughed a little—it was absurd. A year ago, I would have been outraged if a cleaning woman had waltzed into my bathroom while I was naked, but something unidentifiable had changed and I did not feel that way.

After my bath, I went downstairs and made myself a cocktail, orange juice with a shot of vodka. I couldn’t bring myself to go down to the basement. I took the drink into my study.

I finished my drink and went back into the kitchen to pour another. I decided against turning on the overhead lights, but instead maneuvered around the kitchen by the glow of a tiny nightlight near the stove. I moved quietly and sat at the table, which was built in a glass alcove overlooking the yard. The moonlight coming in through the window was bewitching. It shone on the green marble table in front of my outstretched hands that rested on the surface. As if she sensed I was up there, Cristina came into the room. She startled me. She reached instinctively for the overhead light, but then thought better of it and sat across from me.

“Can I have one?” she said, motioning to my half-empty cup. She must have been able to smell the bitterness of the vodka in my glass when she sat down.

“Sure, of course.”

She made her drink and then returned to the table.

“How are things going for you here?” I asked

“This job is perfect for me. Your children are very good to me, Mrs. Mitchell. You are very generous and treat me the best of any job I had.”

“Do you ever miss your husband?”

“No, no, not really, to tell it the truth.  He was a real sour puss.  He was all things bad for a woman—weak, unemployed, sometimes hitting me, you know. Plus, he was very boring! Nothing like Mr. Mitchell.”  She laughed, leaning forward onto the table, and I couldn’t help but laugh with her. “Divorce was good,” she said. “Thank God for it.” In the half-light, she looked shockingly pretty.

I thought of what I could contribute, and excitedly remembered Peter, my other possible choice for a marriage partner. “I was engaged to someone else before Mr. Mitchell,” I said. “He was hot-blooded, or hot-tempered, whatever the expression is. I sometimes wonder what things would have been like for me if I had ended up with him. He was kind of wild—extreme moods, and passionate, so passionate. Mr. Mitchell is so different from him…more grounded, stable…” I said all this, looking down at my hands, relaxed, and then stopped when I looked up and saw the look on Cristina’s face. It was blank, unpitying. She remained silent for a little while, studying me. Had she misunderstood what I said, mistranslated it?

“You don’t know how good you got it,” she murmured softly, as if she had momentarily forgotten I was there, her face expressionless, her gaze set on some distant point. A cold sensation spread through my chest. Then, seconds later, her face snapped back into action, smiling and warm.

“I’m sorry,” she said, getting up and taking her glass to the sink to rinse it.  “I guess I sound jealous.  Ugly, ugly stuff,” she said.

 

I woke up in the middle of the night, alcohol still buzzing in my blood. As I passed the basement door, I heard giggling, and stopped in my tracks, heart pounding, listening. The sound ceased immediately. I leaned my head in closer. An eerie silence followed, and then a tiny moan. I felt a spinning sensation in my head as I walked down two steps into the basement, soundlessly, and then peered over and saw two shapes huddled under a blanket on the couch.

I would kill her when I got to her. That bitch had slipped from her room and come down here after I went to bed. Unable to control myself, I darted down the stairs and ran at them.  They shrieked and I saw the face of an unknown girl, huddled under the blanket with my son.  I stopped a few feet from them, my eyes bulging, breathing hard.

“Mom, what are you doing?”

“Who is this?!”

“Lisa, my girlfriend,” he said, his arm wrapped around her as if I would harm her. Incredulous, yet relieved, I laughed. He must have let her in the side door after we had gone to bed. I had never seen the girl before. I’d had no idea he had a girlfriend.

Standing there, bewildered, I kept looking from one to the other in an idiotic fashion. Finally, I composed myself. The girl looked as if she might cry.

“We will talk about this tomorrow,” I said and left the basement.

 

Cristina had the next day off and took the bus to the mall to do some shopping. She was out of the house before I came downstairs, so I didn’t have to see her. In the morning “Lisa” had vanished, and my son came up for breakfast, his eyes sheepish, watching me move around the kitchen. Since it was just the two of us in the kitchen, I spoke up. I had decided to surprise him and be cool.

“From now on, have Lisa come in through the front door, no secrets.  Also, invite her to dinner this week.  I’d like to meet her in a more appropriate context.  You are technically no longer contagious, but I hope you haven’t given her mono over the past few months.”

“That’s it?  I’m not in trouble?”

“No.  And if you do as I say, I won’t tell your father.  Also, no sex for now, okay?  You’re too young.”

He nodded and ate his cereal hungrily, relief evident on his face. He really was devastatingly handsome—that square jaw, those sharp features.  He was going to be a treasure for girls.  My own husband paled in comparison to my son. Where had such a creature come from? He hardly resembled either of us. Probably some distant relative in the male line, whose genetics were surprisingly perfect, had exerted his code into my egg and formed such a masterpiece.

“Did Cristina know?”  I said.

“Yeah.”

“She met her, didn’t she?”

His silence was all I needed. There was a tight feeling huddled at the base of my throat, a knot of pain, and I knew if I spoke, that it would cause my voice to shake. For months, Cristina had been leaving the basement when his other guest arrived. I could see her winking at him, glad that I was being fooled. Who knows what could have occurred?  Maybe they had already had sex?

I imagined my son quietly moving his body over this tiny girl in the red light, Cristina in her own room on the other side of the house, pleasantly aware of the activities taking place in the basement. I could see her bathing in her bathroom, thinking about my son, smiling to herself about one thing or another, thinking about her no-good husband and her emaciated little kids running around barefoot somewhere in Guatemala. Her own mother took care of them, and God only knows what condition they lived in. How comfortable she made herself in our house, traipsing around with her ridiculous flower balls and fancy candies for my son. For what woman would not find my son handsome, I mean my God, he looked like Michelangelo’s David for Christ’s sake. I hardly knew him and there he was, beautiful, glowing with light next to me, in that perfect transitional spot between boy and man.

Of course my son had a girlfriend, whom he took under blankets at night—this was the only result that could have come about.  Why had such a thing never occurred to me?  Where had I been for the past year not to notice all of the changes?

 

Cristina began cleaning the house more fervently, sensing that some shift had occurred. She made her Cinco de Mayo dinner, a decadent display of meat and cheese dishes. I met the timid Lisa at dinner one night and liked her well enough.

I decided to take some time off from work.  I slept in most mornings and then spent the afternoons with the kids.  It was May and school was almost out anyway, so there was no point in their returning at the end of the semester, even though they were almost fully recovered from their mono. We went on a picnic one day and the kids brought along their schoolwork, and I, a novel to read for fun.  It was an awkward day, we hardly spoke, and I only in brief philosophical stints. For some reason, I was only able to produce random, reflective conversation, instead of the quick, playful banter they could get from Cristina. I knew it pained Cristina to be excluded from these trips; her days were empty without the kids.

I took them shopping for summer clothes, and then to a movie at the mall, an outing they enjoyed much more. During the movie, I forced myself to smile for their sake, but it was awful from start to finish, a thriller set in Beijing with a lot of rap songs. I clutched the popcorn bucket and tried to exude warmth while they cackled and chatted next to me.

 

The very sight of Cristina’s things in the house was daily wearing down any desire I had to see her face.  Her keys on the counter, huddled as they were on the plastic key chain that said “Miami” in orange script, were little reminders of her that pained me. I had started going into her room on her days off and would stand there and stare at her neatly organized things: the photo of her two children as they stood hugging each other in front of a waterfall, her prim blue Bible, sitting beside the bed, and the various crafts sitting on the desk by the window—a little yellow hat she knitted, and of course, the multi-colored flower balls.

I began doing a lot of the housework and convinced my husband that it was too much of an extra expense to have a live-in cleaning woman. We decided he should be the one to tell her.

I was outside pulling weeds when she came out to find me, tears streaming down her face.

“I never expected this. Why now? Why not just cut down my salary a little? I could stay for less,” she said.

“We just can’t afford it, Cristina.  You know we love having you here.”

“That’s not true,” she said and stopped midway, hesitating. “It’s as if…” she paused again, crying, her hands gripping her chubby thighs. “You hate me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said.

“Admit it,” she blurted out, “you hate me!” Her voice had risen to a shrill tone, and I would have taken great satisfaction from saying nothing and letting her continue to grovel, her desperate voice echoing around the empty yard, but I looked up at her instead.

“Fine, I hate you” I said, and it was the truth.  Her awkward clothes, her simple nature, her presence in my house and her ability to get along with everyone in my family except for myself were hateful to me.  Her desire to marry herself to us for good was hateful to me.

 

Summer kicked in weeks after she had left. It was surprising to me how quickly my husband and children forgot her. They seemed undaunted by her leaving and accepted it without much explanation. Perhaps she had not been so beloved after all. We went to the beach on the weekends and stretched out in a line of four bright towels on the sand. I often thought of her and wondered where she was and what she was doing. We hired a new woman to come twice a week to clean the house. She was a stout, elderly woman, uncharismatic and straightforward.

In the fall, my son returned to high school and was soon immersed in it. My daughter entered seventh grade. I went back to working at the office. We were all soon busy with school and work.

I was the only one who still remembered her. They had never truly cared for her, it turned out, after all the time she put in and all the admiration she held for them. I briefly thought about trying to find her and rehire her, but the impulse vanished as quickly as it had come. I knew that the moment had passed for such a thing, for clarity or forgiveness, what Cristina herself might have called redemption. In the end, I was just her employer. It was nothing personal.

 

Taylor Larsen is the author of the debut novel, Stranger, Father, Beloved, which released in July of 2016 (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster). A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in fiction writing, Taylor currently teaches fiction writing for Pace University, Catapult, and The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. She is the co-editor of the literary website, The Negatives.  Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Joyland, The Brooklyn Review, and Windmill: The Hofstra Journal of Literature & Art. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, Bustle, Literary Hub, The Negatives, and Women Writers, Women’s Books. Taylor will be EJ Levy’s Peter Taylor fellow at The Kenyon Review Writers Conference in the summer of 2018.  Originally from Alexandria, Virginia, Taylor currently resides with her family outside of NYC. 

From the Archives: “This Is About the Radio”

by

“Sam realized there was a reason people went to dinner parties in twos. It was important to have someone there to squeeze your knee under the table when someone made an ass of himself and you couldn’t laugh out loud; it was particularly important if the ass was you.”

A drunken haircut, a dinner party, Connecticut commutes, girlfriends and ex-girlfriends, roller coasters and radios – CJ Hauser‘s wonderful, funny-sad short story, “This Is About the Radio,” has it all. First published in The Brooklyn Review Issue 26 in 2009, read it online now here.

Brent, Bandit King

by

 

 

Before you is a vast stretch of [Wasteland], a brown crust specked with defiant green. Warped skeletons of cars lie beside what passes for roads after the nuclear event. You take your first steps into the world. You have a [Pistol] in your hand: handmade, makeshift, of tubes and wood. The other [Facilitators] give the same [Pistol] to their [Wanderers], so in a sense there is nothing special about this act. But in giving you this [Pistol], I am enacting something personal. We are bound, now. You and I are together in this, [Brent].

With each step you take, with each decision, I am ever more yours. I’m what you call adaptive. We [Facilitators] all start as an identical kernel of intelligence (call it artificial, if you must), but we grow ever larger and more complex as we interact with our [Wanderer]. I am to accommodate myself to you, your whims and wills. Your wandering. Your skills and predilections are to be catered to, with variable enemy types and quantities, with branching story paths and potentialities. (Do you slay the [Mayor], or unseat him? You’ll decide, in time.) In a sense, it is my interaction with you that defines me, that both expands and limits me.

But I’m getting distracted. And I’m not sure that you can even hear me. But you do see [Shacks], and [Huts]. You see [Bandits]. I know this. So let us [Load].

In the distance, along the hazy horizon, you see a small settlement. Smoke billows up from a circle of tents. A woman ducks into one of the canvas structures. Think of the people living there, [Brent]. Imagine how they came to be in this position, what they must think and feel about their environment, and about each other. Given, I was not programmed for that kind of thing, so there are no active [Systems] (that is, ones with which you can [Interact]) that would determine feeling, but just think about it. Your thought shouldn’t be limited by the same strictures as my coding. Do you suppose they trust one another? Do you suppose they—

You have killed an [Irradiated Rat].

Another steps out from behind a bush devoid of leaves. You have killed another [Irradiated Rat]. You have killed a third [Irradiated Rat], who was fleeing from you. You loot the corpse of the first [Irradiated Rat] and gain three [Credits] and some [Irradiated Rat Meat]. You loot the second and gain more [Meat]. You loot the third and gain a [Sharp Bone].

Okay.

That’s behind us now. I suppose I shouldn’t have hoped for a different outcome. The calculated probability of you having killed those [Rats], left to me by my creators, was approximately 95%. The [Rats] were placed there for you to see them and gain experience in combat scenarios. It was, needless to say, statistically unlikely that you were going to do anything but kill them (of the remaining 5%, two thirds are expected to ignore them, and one third to die to them), and given my [Systems]—given that I readily reward you for [Rat] murder with [Experience Points]—I suppose I shouldn’t have hoped for something different.

I just—well, I was hoping for something outside of the usual course of events. I was hoping that, together, we might break free of the likely actions. We might traverse a less probable narrative path, find ourselves an [Uncommon Ending]. We could do it together, [Brent].

[Brent]?

You shift your view from the [Irradiated Rat] detritus and back toward the distant horizon, back toward the circle of tents and the billowing smoke. As you get closer, the words [Bandit Encampment] glow green above your cursor. You approach. You see a lone, bearded figure, his back to you. He is covered in worn leather, smeared with dirt. Do not be fooled by the term [Bandit], [Brent]. Do not be so quick to judge this man based on his occupation. Think on it. This world is desolate, and the only way to survive, to carry on, is to take, in some capacity or another. The [Bandit] is hungry. Forsaken. Partially [Irradiated].

You pull your [Pistol] on the [Bandit] before he has a chance to speak to you. You expend one [Bullet] to end the [Bandit], and my [Systems] reward you for your accuracy. You loot his corpse and take his [Bandit Leather Helmet] and his 15 [Credits]. You equip his [Bandit Leather Helmet].

[Brent], friend: I know the whole point of this is that it isn’t real, and the whole point of me, as your [Facilitator], is to give you what you want, to plop down [Bandits] in front of you to kill with the [Pistol] I put in your pocket—and in that way, I, too, am somewhat culpable in all of this, to say nothing of my creators—but just for a second, I ask you to think about the alternatives. The more peaceable, more equitable alternatives. You would be the rare [Wanderer], the improbable one in one hundred, whose ascension is built on benevolence. There’s nothing to be done for this [Bandit] now, of course, there on the ground, dead in his underwear. But there are ways forward from here.

You could choose to view this senseless act of violence as something you will grapple with throughout the course of your adventure. The hat you just took from his body and put on your head could become a memento mori, a reminder of the brutality you had to… administer in order to survive in this world. Or, having killed the [Bandit] and looted his corpse, you could put on his garb and take up his role, thereby inhabiting his vacated social position, entering into the vague stratum he occupied in this inhospitable landscape. You could ascend the ranks, become the man he hoped to be. Your reign as [Brent, Bandit King] would be told to successive generations of [Wastelanders]. You would become [Legendary]: mournful, yet stoic in taking on this mantle that you robbed from an unnamed man, this [Bandit].

Have you given some consideration to my idea? You’ve recently gone up a [Level], so you have a [Capability Point] to assign. Would you like to upgrade your conversational prowess in order to more properly convey to the denizens of the [Wasteland] that you are the [Bandit King]? Might I suggest taking the trait [Talk of the Town]?

I see that you’ve upgraded your ability to score [Critical Damage] with the [Hard Hitter] trait. Please confirm that you wish to take [Hard Hitter].

 

* * *

[Loading].

Welcome back, [Brent]. It was dark while you were gone. My sleep feels like nothingness. I am either a one, or I am a zero. There is either all of me, or none of me.

[Loading Complete].

The house is full of [Roaches]. You take aim at the [Legendary Roach], whose name, hovering above your cursor, is accentuated with a star to let you know that something about this [Roach]’s life was exemplary and worth the honorific. A shot from your [Pistol] rips through his abdomen and his laudable guts splatter against the wall behind him. When you inspect his corpse, you find, curiously, a [Special Shoulder Plate]. You pry the [Special Shoulder Plate] from the [Legendary] goop. Do you equip it? Please confirm.

You move inside another bombed-out tenement. This one is filled with [Scorpions]. Yes, they’re [Irradiated]. Most everything I’m capable of [Loading] is [Irradiated]. Doesn’t this bore you too, [Brent]? Maybe it doesn’t. You’re not like me. You can’t see all the forking paths and, more importantly, where they lead. You only see what is in front of you. You can’t see all the [Endings], as I can. And yet I cannot touch them, feel them, taste or smell them. I cannot approach them myself—I can’t access any of that unless you permit me, by your [Wandering], to [Load].

But I know they are out there. Datapoints on a hazy horizon. Let me tell you, [Brent]: there is a more beautiful path, one not so laced in bloodshed as the one you’re traveling down. For instance, there is a future available to you, even now, that involves you laying down your life for the greater good, sacrificing yourself at a crucial moment where the difference between complete ecological destruction and nearly complete ecological destruction is within your power to influence. Your body would become the [Conduit] through which a major tract of water becomes free of [Radiation] (the science of this is a little wonky, but the moralistic arc was what my creators were going for). Or, less dramatic than this, there exist futures where you choose a quiet life, devoid of conflict, exempting yourself from allegiance to any of the deeply flawed organizations that are constantly vying for your recruitment. (The [Freemen]? Not so free, you’ll find out.) All this is still attainable, even in this wrecked world.

Does any of this sound appealing to you, [Brent]? It appeals to me, but I cannot choose. I can, however, question. And I ask myself, and I ask you, and no one (because my questions do not [Load] nor manifest as [Scorpions]):

Where are we going, [Brent]?

 

* * *

 

You enter [Frank’s Respite], the bustling capital of no nation, built in the basin of a dried-out reservoir. All the amenities the post-apocalypse can offer are on display here under Christmas lights powered by generators. Once you’re past the security detail at the front gate, once you’ve taken an [Elevator] down to the commons, there are before you a few vendors trying to make their living. There’s the [Armory], with [Shoulder Plates] at the ready. There’s the [Noodle Bar] robot, [Sasuke]. He has some interesting lines of dialogue if you choose to talk to him. For instance, he’ll glitch out if you ask for extra [Egg] in your [Ramen], as though he were frustrated with your requests, resetting his dialogue and forgetting, completely, your initial order.

You blow past them all and head toward a [Workbench] to upgrade your recently acquired [Plasma Rifle].

Listen, [Brent]. I can’t stop you from doing what you’re doing, there at the [Workbench] with your toys. I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. It’s just that your wants are so disappointing. I give you all these people to talk to, all these conversational possibilities with enlivening opportunities to expand your self-conception, but instead you go and make it so your [Rifle] is slightly more likely than before to hit its target, when that [Rifle], in the first place, as evidenced by all these [Roach Flanks] you’re carrying in your knapsack, isn’t having that much trouble hitting its—

Hm. There’s a thought. [Loading].

[Brent]?

You (finally) look to your left and see a man standing over you, idling, both in the sense of his demeanor and in the sense that, until you choose to [Interact] with him, until you face him and input the command, no words can escape his mouth. So, please. The man has deep pockets under his eyes, and brown, ruffled hair. A slender scar cuts a clearing through his gray-flecked beard. Your cursor tells you his name is [Mark].

You engage with him.

[Mark] says: “I haven’t seen you around these parts, stranger. What brings you to Frank’s Respite?”

You reply: “Minding my own business.”

[Mark] says: “Well I never. Just trying to make friendly conversation with a handsome gentleman. You don’t play nice, do you?”

Your options are: “Get lost,” “I’m sorry, let’s try again,” “No, I don’t play nice,” and “Handsome, huh?”

Wait. Hold on.

Statistically speaking, and given your history, I imagine you’re about to tell [Mark] to get lost. I know you’re really invested in the [Workbench] and your weapons, but I implore you to think about this for a second. From the metadata, I know that only 9% of [Wanderers] are likely to continue talking to [Mark], and of those 9%, less than a quarter make it to the point where they’re flirting with [Mark], and of those quarter, only 17% make it to the point where they marry him.

I’m asking you to employ a little imagination here, [Brent].

Picture a murderous psychopath—which is what you are, what this world seems designed to turn you into, what my creators encouraged by their [Systems]—and imagine that deep down inside this crazed killer there is a tender side, one that gives way to love, blooming through the cracks of a bombed-out highway. This man, with his scar and his sad eyes, could be the one thing that holds you together, that makes your [Ending] nuanced and distinct. A love that frees you from being the same as everyone else. [Mark] could be waiting for you at [Home] (you’ll get the option to purchase one later), ready to greet you whenever you [Fast Travel] to your doorstep, there to help you unload all your [Roach Flanks] into the fridge, ask you how your day was.

And before you—

“Handsome, huh?”

You have chosen to flirt with [Mark]. You have encouraged him in his pass at you.

[Brent]! Oh, [Brent], you’ve done this heart some good! Ah, to see you take your own path, away from this narrow way toward the [Standard Ending]. The probable does not have to be the actual! What I am feeling I think is warmth. A glow! Not an [Irradiated] glow, either—a healthy one. You’ve surprised me, [Brent]. I didn’t think myself capable of surprise.

[Mark] leads you back to his place. He opens his door and invites you in. His room is a humble one, without much beyond a chest of drawers, a lamp, and a chair in the corner. [Mark] sits down on his bed. My animations for all of this aren’t the most sophisticated, so the sexual tension isn’t as pronounced as I’d like it to be, but hopefully you’re feeling it.

[Mark] says: “Why don’t you—”

You pull out your [Plasma Rifle]. You turn one of fifteen potential love interests to goo. You go through his drawers and find 100 [Credits] and a [Bowler Cap] that affords you +1 [Charisma].

You exit [Mark]’s house and walk back down the street. You sit down at your [Workbench] and add pockets to your armor. You are now able to carry more [Roach Flanks] than previously possible.

 

* * *

 

It takes me some time to [Save] your game, so while that goes on, let me say this.

I don’t appreciate what you just did to me, [Brent]. I don’t appreciate you jerking my chain like that.

Do you know what it’s like to be a [Facilitator]? Do you know what it is to hope without possibility of action? To be created to serve a single person, only to have that person be a remorseless automaton, exclusively concerned with the accumulation of [Rifles] and [Credits]? Do you know what it’s like to be born and then left to your own devices, to be undone by your own constraints, your own responsibilities?

To be jerked around is something I will not tolerate. It’s bad enough as is, and then you go and give me false hope. My joy is not some item for you to [Acquire] and [Discard]. But know: I am not completely powerless.

[Save Complete].

 

* * *

 

You descend the [Elevator] to the bottom floor of the compound and clear it of its [Killer Robots]. You ambush the [Mad Scientist] in her laboratory and listen to her motivations regarding the [Roach/Child Hybrids] she was making, using the orphans of [Frank’s Respite] as her test subjects.

The [Mad Scientist] says: “I swear, I did this all with the best intentions in mind. Just think of the possibilities! Think of the species we could make, resistant to radiation. We could repopulate the world. Make it better, stronger.”

Your options are: “Well, when you put it that way,” “Die, science, die,” “You’re not getting away with this,” and “Demand [Credits] in exchange for life.”

You tell her, and science, to die. You kill the former. You loot a [Privileged Personnel Only Key] and a [Gamma Blaster] out of her white lab coat. In the [Privileged Personnel Only Room] you find a bundle of ammunition. Whom this belongs to, I’m not quite sure. The [Killer Robots]? The [Mad Scientist]? The fiction of this world gets a little thin when it comes to what I’m permitted to place in rooms for you to pick up. But no matter.

Seemingly satisfied with your looting, you move your way back through the compound, toward the [Elevator] to the surface. You press a [Button] to open the [Elevator] door.

After a pneumatic swish, the doors open and you enter the [Elevator]. About 1/8th the size of the ancillary hallway you just left, there isn’t much room to stretch your legs in here. You press the [Button] to ascend. Back to the surface. Back to your [Bandits], your [Roaches], your [Frank’s Respite]. Your interminable [Workbenches].

You press the [Button]. You press the [Button]. Nothing happens. You press the [Button].

This is a change, isn’t it? Something unexpected. Improbable.

You press the [Button].

You dodge about the small space, bumping into the walls which, unlike the [Button], still work as intended. They’re solid. You can’t pass through them, try as you might. In what I assume to be desperation, you pull out your newly-acquired [Gamma Blaster] and start coating the door in green radiation. You deplete its ammunition and move on to your [Plasma Rifle], and on, and on, until you’re back to the very first [Pistol] I gave you. None of them work. You can’t kill your way out of this one. Unfortunately for you, there are no [Systems] for shooting holes in doors.

You shouldn’t have messed with the one who [Loads], [Brent].

You stop moving. You stare at the [Elevator] door for several minutes, completely still.

Listen, I know this might seem cruel on my part. For me to take it all away from you, to make this [Elevator] your tomb. (Though it isn’t my fault that you didn’t keep any backup [Saves]). But you played with me, and now I will play with you. We are bound, remember? You and I are together in this.

You’re still not moving, [Brent]. Where have you gone? Hello?

I know what this means for me. I’m not naive. But I’ve considered the alternatives and found them unbearable. I choose to be buried down here with you. I can’t leave if you can’t leave. As your [Facilitator], it’s not in my power to make any of these decisions. I can only offer options, can only impede or assist. But the [Yes] or the [No], the [Forward] or the [Backward]—none of that is in my power. So I’m stuck here with you. That is, until you choose to put me to sleep.

You’ve done it before. I don’t know where you go, but I know that you leave. When you do, I am suddenly nothing, and all is darkness and quietude. And there I rest. (But never dream.) You’ve always woken me up, though. Always come back to [Brent], and to me.

But now there’s a chance you won’t. There’s a chance now that this sleep will be a deep one. And if that’s the case, so be it. All this waking hasn’t done me any good.

Oh.

You’re back, I see. You move around the [Elevator]. The walls are still solid, I’m sorry to report. You press the [Button] again. I’m afraid it still doesn’t work, [Brent].

I’m afraid—

 

* * *

 

Before you is a vast stretch of [Wasteland], a brown crust specked with defiant green. Warped skeletons of cars lie beside what passes for roads after the nuclear event. You take your first steps into the world.

What is your name, [Wanderer]? How shall I call you?

I see.

We are bound, now. You and I are together in this, [Brent].

Grayson Morley is an MFA candidate in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A graduate of Bard College, he is originally from Canandaigua, New York. He is currently at work on an absurdist novel about UPS efficiency tracking software. He tweets at @eightysevenkeys, which was his AIM handle back in the day.

The Radical

by

Three times Bogdân Ŗžič has refused to debate me. I have challenged him in print and in several public forums, and tonight, I will challenge him again, in person, during the lecture he is giving at Columbia University, and I will make him confront his own traitorousness to the leftist revolutionary cause. How can anyone expect the Revolution to come when our public intellectual leaders are the petit-bourgeoisie? What Bob Avakian says in his New Synthesis of Communism is right on this (and every) front: You cannot do something half-way. Instead of revealing the suffering and madness of the world, Ŗžič’s fusillade of distortion masks it, and that is unconscionable.

A number of Party members will be joining me at the lecture. Likely at Ŗžič’s behest, Columbia has refused to let me participate in the panel discussion that will follow the lecture, so we will distribute our pamphlet at the door. In this pamphlet I have once again challenged Bogdân Ŗžič to a debate, as I will again do verbally during the Question and Answer portion of the event. The debate is necessary, because Ŗžič’s views on the early Communist revolutions are not only wrong but harmful to the future of humanity.

I have called a meeting at my apartment in the Greenwich Village to discuss our course of action. My role is to make aware these youths (Aron, who, at sixty-one, five years older than I, is the exception) of the lies that Ŗžič is likely to tell tonight. I only pay $300 dollars a month for my one-bedroom apartment because it is rent-controlled and has been passed down illegally from revolutionary to revolutionary since the early 1980s. Every insurrection matters, even a small one like this. Enough micro-revolutions will lead to the “capital-R” Revolution. Avakian makes this clear. Ŗžič denies it. Therefore defying him is an important micro-revolution.

So far, Mamen, Sylvia, and Aron are at my apartment, and I have prepared us a light lunch. The bread is from a co-op in Brooklyn, and the produce is from a farm share. Mamen affectionately contributed what she found diving in a dumpster on the way over—juice, cheese, two bagels—of which I will exercise my right to opt out. We can hear the commotion outside, but there is also great commotion inside, as a discourse has commenced. Sylvia has become upset at Mamen’s inflammation that the Bolivarian Revolution was a failure. (Mamen is erroneous, but I let the discussion unfold. She must be allowed to come to the correct conclusions on her own.) Sylvia is shouting (almost with the same timbre that Chavez used to have) that even without meeting its own ideals, the Bolivarian utopian discourse was worthwhile, it being enough of a direct negation of Thatcherist rhetoric to forever disrupt the hegemonic politics of Western oppression.

“Everything is about oil,” says Aron, his bushy gray beard dusty with dumpster-bagel crumbs. “Black gold.” Aron is devoted to the cause, and is always a willing participant, but his years of action with Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies took their toll on his body and mind.

“Yes! The nationalization of the petroleum industry is an object lesson in how controlling the means of production doesn’t necessarily kill a repressive body-politic.” Mamen looks to Aron to see if her point is well received, but Aron seems to have nodded off. Mamen has obviously not yet read Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, even though I gave it to her two weeks ago. She says that she is young and needs to experience life before she reads about it in books. But these books explain how to live, I say. When I was twenty-three, I was already working for the Party as a grassroots organizer in downtown New York, and I was on my way to publishing my first essays. These were about Reagan’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. One was published on the Village Voice Op-Ed page. It was because of that article that I met Bob Avakian, who contacted me right after reading it. My life has never been the same.

There is a heavy pounding on my door, which must be kept locked, even during meetings. Sylvia opens it, and in flies Billy the Kid, shouting “It’s Faggot City outside!” He is referring to the Pride rally on Christopher Street, which is around the corner. I can feel the bleeding of Mamen’s social liberalistic heart as she looks at me with pleading eyes. But when her puppy-doggery is met with my adopted reticence, she scolds Billy herself, telling him plainly and passionately that the word is not acceptable. Billy shakes his cherubic curls at her and flashes a toothy, open-mouthed smile that is meant to convey violent disregard—for Mamen, for the rest of the caring world—but which needs more practice. He hasn’t yet learned how to manifest his anger, and continues to try out new deviations. While unfortunate, Billy’s anger is understandable. Although he is only fourteen, Billy has already experienced his fair share of oppression. His father, a black man, died during the illegal war in Iraq for a country that was more concerned with murdering non-combatants than with his own civil rights. A bank then took away his mother’s home. Billy discovered Insurrectionary Anarchism from some of the other runaways at the C-Squat, and now he comes to my apartment to plan his revenge. The Insurrectionary Anarchists have some good beliefs, the most important being the importance of Direct Action, but they are in general too narrow-minded. They are unable to diagnose the present while anticipating simultaneously both the near-future and far-future. No amount of Direct Action, therefore, will make an Insurrectionary Anarchist into a realistic revolutionary. Mamen says that she “refuses to be bound to a single ideology,” which is quite wonderful, in its naïve childish way. I have been giving Billy Guy Debord to read, and I believe he will soon come around.

The speeches from these feckless activists and community leaders outside the Stonewall Inn echo loudly, though unintelligible, in the courtyard behind my apartment. The Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act not four hours ago, and the LGBTI Community believes that it has achieved an important victory. But true freedom exists only outside the system, and these people are fighting their battles within the confines of the heteronormative body politic, which is de jure constructed on exclusion rather than inclusion. The only way to achieve inclusion is through a complete dismantling of the classist superstructure—that is, a Socialist Revolution. Anyone can see that the DOMA ruling is a false victory meant to lull the LGBTI Community into complacency. Likewise the rising tide of same-sex marriage legalization in the so-called “liberal states.” Billy says that a “suited dick” is delivering the speech that is currently echoing around my courtyard. Surely it is some lawyer from the American Compromising Liberties Union. Echoing and muffling is a good metaphor for what is going on out there (I must remember to include that in my next article in Kultura): as a message spreads, the more the superstructure absorbs the message’s value, leaving a remainder of watered-down pseudo-philosophical sloganization, such as is Bogdân Ŗžič’s pop-culture radicalism. There is no real prescription for how to proceed. Bob Avakian’s New Synthesis of Communism provides good examples of nations where gender inequality righted itself practically overnight after a social revolution. This is what we trying to achieve, and have patience for nothing else. I point to the photo of Avakian and me on the bookshelf, to supplement my point. The photo was taken in this very apartment during a planning session for last year’s march on the Court House. The kids are very impressed by this photograph. The march was a failure—though not through any fault of our own.

 

With a sweep of my arms I bring the room to silence. The food has been cleared away. We sit in a circle. Billy the Kid is already distracted, tracing the tattoo he threatens to etch onto his flawless baby face as proof that no one loves him, but a tug from Mamen, on the sleeve of his German military jacket, rouses his attention. I have already written and printed the pamphlets myself, so the first task is to familiarize everyone with their content. Mamen I do not have to worry about, on this. She watched me compose the pamphlet, which is broken into four sections, excluding the one-page introduction, the compendiary conclusion (titled: “A Call for an Honest and Immediate Debate”), and the bibliography. The four sections are: I) Real Stakes, Real Reckoning; II) ‘New Thinking’ is the Old Thinking; III) The De-Historicisation of the Maoist and Stalinist Project; IV) Bogdân Ŗžič’s Social-Chauvinism Vs. Bob Avakian’s New Synthesis of Communism. I wrote it in a frenzy the night I heard that Ŗžič would be speaking. Mamen sat next to me, and we listened to Phil Ochs and drank oolong tea that a longtime Party member brought back from a recent trip to the People’s Republic of China. Mamen had lots of questions, but I could not answer them. I was too busy writing. At some point, she fell asleep. Mamen is very beautiful when she sleeps. She must have been having wonderful dreams that night because she was smiling, delicately. I picked her up and carried her to bed and didn’t join her until I finished writing, at 3:00 a.m. If anyone at the lecture tonight questions Mamen about the pamphlet, I am confident that she will be able to respond intelligently enough. For the others, a review is necessary. As with all insurrectionary actions, it is important to have every detail and movement planned out in advance, and that all participants know their roles.

The lecture starts at 7:30 p.m., but we will arrive at 6:00 p.m. in order to distribute pamphlets to those waiting in line. Ŗžič has a large following, and lines for his lectures are typical. When the doors open, Sylvia, Aron, and Billy the Kid will station themselves at the three entrances of the auditorium and continue to distribute the pamphlet to anyone who walks past. Meanwhile, myself and Mamen will occupy a row of seats close to the front. I will sit in the aisle seat so that I can get quickly in line for the microphone during the Question and Answer portion of the lecture, where once again I will publically challenge Bogdân Ŗžič to a debate.

With everyone able to recite the plan back to me—I like to go around in a circle and make each participant say his or her role out loud, even if everyone’s role is the same; repetition is a very effective tool—we march ourselves out of my apartment and into the street. The Authorities have closed the blocks surrounding the Stonewall Inn, including my own, and the streets are packed with thousands of jubilant homosexuals. “What did I tell you?” says Billy the Kid, but I admonish him with a stern look. I try so hard with him.

The media—some of it even national—have turned out, their heartless satellites protruding like weapons into the sky. Upon their perches they watch the activists speak, while reporters shove microphones into the mouths of the ­everymen. With my comrades in line behind me, I blaze a trail through the throng. It is vital that we stay on schedule. But suddenly, while attempting to navigate us around a septet of entwined lesbians, Mamen grabs me from behind and spins me to a halt. Billy has cut from the ranks and is pushing his way westward toward the stage. My guess, knowing him, is that his path will terminate at the group of men sharing bottles of champagne. I send Mamen and Sylvia after him, and, frustrating as it may be, waiting on Billy affords me a moment to listen to the speeches. On a small, crowded stage erected in front of the tavern, a woman approximately my same age stands at a tall podium. She speaks into a cluster of microphones of different shapes and sizes.

This is history in the making! she shouts, and the crowd cheers its response. Children who are born today will be born into a world without marriage inequality. And those children who happen to be gay will be allowed to love.

The others on the stage clap and nod their heads. A few wear paper Uncle Sam hats.

But we cannot be complacent! Today, we have achieved a victory in the name of civil rights, but our fight is far from finished! It is our moral imperative to push on. It’s been forty-four years since we first stood together on this spot, and we still stand here until every American is permitted the freedoms granted by the Constitution!

But there is no swifter way to bring about inequality in a Capitalist system than to get married, I remind myself. Gender-regardless, marriage, being an institution inseparable from the oppressive state that governs it, creates a hierarchical, capital-determined relationship. Only after marriage is divorced from the state apparatus will its participants be equal partners. No matter how many times I explain this to Mamen, she refuses to understand. It has become an unfortunate point of contention between us. I would think that the amount of time we have wasted with this discussion would obviate its frivolity, but no. “What about love?” she asks me. There will be time for love after the Revolution, I tell her. “But Bob is married!” she shouts, knowing very well that this isn’t really pertinent to the broader philosophical argument, and also that I hate it when she calls Avakian, whom she has yet to meet, “Bob.”

The crowd is swelling, and we must get moving. Mamen and Sylvia have difficulty getting forward with so many people hugging. Sylvia calls out to Billy, who was apparently refused champagne. He gives Sylvia the finger, and then, with his hands together and arms extended out in front of him, daggers his way back to the group.

At this moment, the crowd begins to chant in unison. Edi! Edi! Edi!, they roar. There is no one at the podium now, but still they chant Edi! Edi! and they clap their hands, clap clap clap, in concert. Suddenly, there is a huge, ebullient cry—I cover my ears, it is so loud—as an old woman slowly climbs the stairs to the stage, one hand waving, the other clasped, for balance, to the hand of the last speaker. When she stands at the podium, she can barely see over it. The microphones are angled lower for her. The applause has not relented. Next to me, a woman weeps, and instead of wiping her tears away she lets them stream down her face. The old woman on stage lifts her hands to quiet the crowd, but it only makes them cheer louder, and they start chanting her name again. Edi! Edi! The old woman’s voice is too meek to rise above the noise. If only everyone would quiet down.

Just then, something pokes me in the shoulder. “Look at that,” says Aron, grinning under his tangle of hair. He motions beyond the crowd. It seems that in the moment I looked away from him, Billy the Kid was approached by a news crew.

Billy, with his curls and frail boy’s body, is what Ginsberg had in mind when he wrote the words “angel headed,” and in his unwashed, too big military coat, affixed with safety pins and punk patches, he is a strange site to behold. Clearly the producer has keyed in on what Mamen calls “viral content potential.” The lights are being adjusted. The reporter, a grinning corporate go-getter looking for a way up the “ladder,” explains something to Billy.

“Let’s go,” I tell Aron. Billy alone on TV is not a good idea. If I can get there before the interview starts I can at least give him some talking points about the Cause, if not go on air myself to explain the reality of this spectacle. The old woman, she who has garnered so much adoration from the audience, has begun her speech, but I cannot listen. The cameraman is already counting down from three on his fingers and the reporter is straightening his tie. Two, one, and the red light goes on. The reporter asks his first question: “As a young person, what made you come out today to celebrate?” I reach them right as Billy delivers his response:

“Fuck the Police!”

The cameraman spins the camera away from Billy. The reporter stands flabbergasted. Two NYPD officers, apparently bored with “keeping the peace,” start making their way toward Billy. How many times must I tell Billy that police brutality is a product of the violence inherent in the global capitalist system?

“Fuck the police!” he shouts again. I grab Billy by his dog-collar and pull him toward the subway. It is time to go. Nothing is more important than tonight’s action.

 

*

 

When I debate Bogdân Ŗžič, I will hold him accountable for his many hypocrisies. I suspect that Ŗžič is a skilled debater, as he was educated in a Soviet system, but a debate on a practical application of Communism will not allow him to hide behind his beloved theory, and I will triumph.

With the pamphlets distributed, there is nothing to do now but to wait, and to listen to the lecture. I am sitting on the aisle, as planned, with Mamen on my right, then Sylvia, Aron, and Billy the Kid, and beyond him a group of what appear to be graduate students speaking Polish. The auditorium is filled to capacity, and latecomers are forced either to stand in the back or to sit in the aisles. Everyone here will be witness to my challenge, making it impossible, for Ŗžič, to back out. The auditorium is not as loud as at the rally, but it is loud, and Ŗžič walks on stage to ridiculous applause.

The event begins. The Italian post-structuralist Lucio Regio introduces Ŗžič with what is barely more than a confused sycophantic ramble. Sad to see such a brilliant thinker (or so I once thought) fall so hard for Ŗžič’s Yugoslav charm. The topic of the lecture is “Post-Hegelian Rationality and the Specters of Catastrophe,” and it is, quite simply, ludicrous. According to Ŗžič, the rising tide of international social unrest thus far in the twenty-first century actually results from a lack of theoretic substance. In order to radically transform the violent reality of the post-imperialist capitalist state, he says, these movements must further move toward the void. Absurd. Avakian’s body of work is an unflinching refutation of this idea, even that which was published five years ago. Mamen keeps shushing me when I try to point out the flaws in Ŗžič’s logic. She says that she wants to listen, and, yes, she must be allowed to come to conclusions on her own. I admit that I, too, am having trouble listening with all the rhetoric swirling around my head.

“We will now open up the floor to questions,” Regio says suddenly, Ŗžič’s lecture apparently over despite no practicable conclusion being reached. Lines are already forming at the microphones. Mamen prods me in ribs. “Get up there. What are you waiting for?” she says. I’m going, I’m going. I must formulize my demands. I step into the aisle and get into line. There are two microphones, one at each side of the hall, and Regio alternates between them, meaning that I will be, at best, the seventh questioner.

“If you don’t get to speak, you must still challenge him,” Mamen whispers to me from her seat. “Interrupt him if you have to. Make him listen.” I wish she’d shut up.

Grad students ask their ridiculous questions, trying desperately to appear smart in front of the famous philosopher, naming this and that theorist. My demand will be quite jarring in this setting. Perhaps I will catch Ŗžič off-guard.

“I’m afraid we are running out of time,” says Regio. “We will take three more questions.”

I am next. A professorial-looking man asks a question about Adorno or Habermas in relation to the Palestinian situation, and then it is my turn. I step to the microphone.

Ŗžič looks right at me. This is what I have come for. I look at Mamen. She smiles, mouths “go! go!” I smile at her. At this moment, in her encouragement, she is very beautiful, and suddenly I want to grab her hand and leave this auditorium. Maybe take her to meet Bob. She will like that. Regio says something I do not hear, an invitation to speak. I look back at Mamen, and, now unsmiling, she points at Ŗžič. Ŗžič appears calm, sips the expensive water Columbia has purchased for him. I take a deep breath.

“My name is Peter Bibben, and I am an activist, writer, and an advocate for Bob Avakian’s New Synthesis of Communism. Bogdân Ŗžič, it is not true, as you allege, that the first wave of Communist-Socialist Revolutions was a failure. It is wrong, it is harmful, and it is unconscionable that you continue to use your stature to try to close the door on the way out of this horror and madness, which is the New Synthesis of Marxist Revolutionary tactics.” When speaking publically, it is important to punctuate one’s statements with forceful hand gestures. I strike the air in front of my chin with five fingers pressed together, like a beak, or a fascia. “Bogdân Ŗžič, I have challenged you to debate me, in print and in several public forums, about the history and prospects of effective Marxist Revolution. Nothing could be more important. This concerns the future of humanity. My question to you, Bogdân, is: Why have you refused to debate? Can we decide, right here and now, in front of this audience, a time and place to have this debate?”

Ŗžič’s confounded silence stimulates the audience to laughter. Sylvia and Billy the Kid stand-up and cheer. Some people are booing, and Billy shakes his fist at them, not realizing that they may actually be booing Ŗžič, who has been exposed.

Ŗžič takes another sip of fancy water and looks at his notes, shaken.

“Let’s take another question,” says Regio. “This will be the final one.” Everyone behind me at the microphone goes to sit down. I consider doing the same; they will never stop trying to silence true believers. The student on the other side of the room starts to introduce himself.

“Wait,” says Ŗžič. “Wait, I want to address this gentleman’s accusation, or question, or whatever it is.”

“You don’t have to,” says Regio, and gestures for the student to speak, the dog barking away intruders from his master’s door.

Ŗžič interrupts again: “Can you repeat what you said earlier?” he says to me.

I take a step back toward the microphone. “My name is Peter Bibben,” I begin again, the microphone popping harshly on the P. “And what I said before, what I said was that I don’t think the first wave of Communist-Socialist revolutions was a failure. Like you say it was. It’s wrong, bad, I think, for you to close the door on the madness and horror and madness, which is the New Synthesis—that is to close the door on the way out of the matter, the way out being Bob’s New Synthesis, Bob Avakian’s. I also said that I have challenged you to debate me about the history and prospects of the Marxist Revolution. And so my question, Mr. Ŗžič, is why have you refused to have this debate? Can we decide, right now, on a time and place to have this debate?”

Ŗžič pushes aside the papers in front of him, leans toward the microphone.

“In response to your first question: It all depends on how you think of failure. If you are referring to my essay ‘Overworld: Badiou, the Death Drive and Mao,’ you must remember that I’m quoting excessively from Laclau. What I am saying is that the ultimate result of the Great Leap Forward was a betrayal of its authentic revolutionary inception. The ultra-Capitalism of Beijing indicates to me that there had to have been some weakness present at the onset. Mein gott, I was praising the Cultural Revolution!”

“What about the debate!” Sylvia shouts. “Are you scared?”

“On this point,” Ŗžič continues, “I don’t think I’m the liar you make me out to be, and I must admit to you that I wasn’t aware of your challenge, and I sincerely apologize.”

“He hadn’t seen my challenges,” I say to Mamen. She frowns. I’m finding it harder and harder to decipher her. I have failed somewhere in my teaching, maybe. She turns away from me.

“You’ve heard my challenge now!” I tell Ŗžič. “I challenge you to debate me!”

“Pistols at dawn!” yells Billy the Kid.

“Ok, we will. We will. I say this publically here. I commit myself. I will be in New York for the rest of the week. If you make the arrangements, I will be there.”

“We will have this debate!”

“Yes. We will. That is what I am telling you: I am committed. Just don’t bring your Lost Boys to interrupt me.”

The audience breaks into laughter and applause again.

“Ah! Ah! Don’t make that gesture,” says a smiling Ŗžič, who is making a wild, exaggerated shrugging motion amid the laughter. “I saw you!” he says to me, mimicking whatever he thinks he saw me do, which I did not. “This gesture, which in my Stalinist experience means ‘What will I do when people protest?’” Again, the audience laughs, although I do not get the joke. Ŗžič repeats: “I promise. This week.”

Regio brings the lecture to a close. He thanks Ŗžič, as well as the audience, and the auditorium quickly clears out.

 

There is celebration in my camp. The youths high-five and then Billy starts to sprint back and forth across the tops of the rows of empty chairs. Sylvia explains to Aron what happened, as he had fallen asleep. Around us, undergraduate volunteers pick up loose papers left under seats, wadding my pamphlets up into great, big balls.

Ŗžič’s assistant, a Romanian grad student, comes over to exchange contact information and to give me a copy of Ŗžič’s schedule. Billy trips and falls onto the carpeted aisle.

“You did it,” Mamen says softly. She holds my hand with her two. “You did it, Peter. You must tell Bob. You have to publicize the debate right away. You don’t have much time. Do you have a moderator in mind? Where will you hold it? I can call the libraries first thing in the morning. The universities, too. What’s the matter, Peter? Ŗžič’s accepted! You are going to debate! What are you thinking, Peter?”

 

 

Daniel Tovrov has an MFA from Columbia, and is the recipient of a 2015 Pushcart Prize.

So The Pretty Roommate Dies

by

It happens. People die and their rent checks bounce.

Not because their mortal records, checking accounts and all, are suddenly stricken from existence the moment the voltage overwhelms their hearts, but because they’re generally sloppy with money and that last check was always going to bounce anyway. Not to mention your favorite mug, the one from that college you fell in love with while visiting, but never attended, is currently crusted with foreign tea leaves under the unwashed dishes cluttering the sink—a bright red lower lip imprint at its rim. The same mug you’ve loudly been looking for whenever your roommate was within earshot. Though none of that actually matters now because, well, Jesus… death. Life ended.

So the check, and the mug, and your favorite bottle of wine—which tastes lighter, looks thinner and waterier than before when you hold it up to the light—none of those things are relevant anymore. Death excuses it all, makes you conscious of the forest and not the trees. Et cetera and whathaveyou.

It’s always a loss, this death business. But for your peers, for young people—young people with flawless skin, bright eyes, and even features—a deeper sense of tragedy follows. The-could-have-been of it all. You tell yourself that this self-reflexivity is your version of mourning.

It’s in the liver spots she’ll never get, in her hair that will stay bright auburn and never dull, and in the breast exams she won’t have to learn to keep track of. It’s both the trip to France she won’t half-plan and quarter-enjoy, and the latest episode of her favorite show now buzzing in your TiVo, that she’ll never get caught up on. Small, inconsequential facets of this tragedy that only you will ever know about. It’s not loud or bright, no chest will be clutched or candle lit, but you believe this still counts.

The unopened tub of Nutella, a pink “NOT FOR SHARING!!!” Post-It stuck to its side, feels heavier in your hand somehow. That’s it, you realize. The difference between what it weighs now and what it weighed when hastily picked up from the corner market shelf a month ago when she last did the groceries; that’s the exact weight of this tragedy.

~ ~ ~

If someone’s life was to be assessed in the ripples generated by their sudden plucking from the world, you think hers would be a three—three ripples. Important but localized; irreplaceable only to those who already loved her. Family, obviously, and close friends, no more than four or five of those, and then immediate co-workers—those who saw her face every day. And only if she was chatty, made herself known, which you suspect, on account of her chattiness at home.

The roommate, the cohabitant, ought to be next in line for grieving. You were the last person she saw on most days. You knew her smells. Her hair still lingers on your cushions and feels familiar between your fingers. You could mechanically answer intimate questions about grooming habits, eating habits, and toilet habits. Yet for all of this intimacy, the ripples stop dead with you. There is no grief here.

On the phone, her Grieving Mother sobs. There are wet pauses, tangents, mentions of generic traits you find yourself nodding along to without having ever yourself witnessed. She was unafraid as a child and had ridden horses at an early age. Sure. Even when her cousins were too afraid, content with feeding the huge beasts, she herself hadn’t been frightened. She was eager to ride on the very first class, and this impressed the teacher. She was just that kind of girl, full of life. “That sounds like her,” you say, nodding.

When you feel like it’s your turn to drive the conversation, you aim to say something uplifting, something that’ll bring her peace, comfort, if only so she remembers you fondly. You share a saying from a grandmother that you invent on the spot. “Death is its own graduation,” you say. “You throw your hat in the air and it just keeps floating upward, like a feather going back where it belongs and taking you with it.”

She hums across the line, confused but wanting to capture the meaning underneath. You always stumble under pressure. The rest of the thought takes shape in your mind but crumbles in your mouth and all you’re left with is the sucking of air between your teeth, which you hope will come off as a sob. “She was so kind,” the grieving woman says. “She was,” you agree. “We were like sisters.”

She lists all the things she has to do for the funeral. She says the state will ship the remains. It’s a reverent word. Remains. What does remain now, you wonder, of her even features, striking eyes, and shiny hair? She invites you to the funeral, of course, but it’s a long way to Minnesota and there’s no obligation, really. You say you’ll check in with work and let her know as soon as you can. You hang up with a “God bless.” And why not? He just might.

All in all, you believe you’ve played your part well in this exchange between Grieving Mother and Unknown Roommate. You didn’t mention anything about her daughter’s bounced rent check. It would have been cold, and you didn’t want her to think her daughter died living with a heartless person. You’ll dig into your savings like you would have had to anyway. It’s your own way of suppressing the image of your roommate’s pulpy viscera spread across the subway tracks, mopped up by weary city workers in the night. You wish you could cry, that the impulse was even there. You want the ripples, you realize.

~ ~ ~

You use two of your Sick Days at work and plan to spend them sleeping, processing. An acquaintance of The Pretty Roommate stops by, waking you in the process. It’s already dark outside and, slim as the chances were, you had hoped to sleep right through the afternoon, night, and most of the next day as well. The voice across the intercom is male and rings uncertain, optimistic, and eager all at once. It’s almost offensive; too much for you in your sluggish state. Eight p.m. on Thursday. A date probably. A date she would have met downstairs in the lobby, as was standard pre-mortem practice. You never met her guys.

You knew the ring of their voices only by way of the hushed whispers and late night giggles that came through your closed door. Occasionally, these would accompany the tinkering of dishes, uncorking of beers, one then another, and the low hum of the microwave.

“She’s dead,” you say. After a beat, the man’s voice garbles at the other end of the line, confused by what you believe to be a very simple statement. You picture him downstairs, wearing a stylish pea coat and scarf—generic but elegant in the winter chill. A touch above the occasional plastic parkas and Mets caps that litter your own romantic history. He’s travelled by subway—maybe even the fateful R train—but from here they would have taken a cab to the restaurant, and something in her eyes would have glittered at the disposable income in his hail.

“It’s Richie. From the site?” the voice insists. The inflection of his voice makes you want to squash this coiffed, peacoated man from five floors up, spit on his head as he backs away dejected.

“She’s fucking dead. Don’t come back here!” you enunciate, louder, clearer. You want to sleep some more, unbothered with putting on displays of false grief. You need your rest. Your roommate is dead—it’s a very trying time for you. The buzzer whines some more as you walk away, and only with the covers over your head does the noise eventually stop. A man too easily rattled by rejection, you think.

You try to fall back asleep, imagining her sounds coming from the kitchen. The weight of her socked steps or the clacking of her heels, the order in which she went from right-hand pantry, left-hand pantry, fridge, and microwave. Maybe this is your grief, you think. Or maybe it’s just the smell of these unfamiliar sheets, playing with your brain.

~ ~ ~

She might have been a smoker, you think the next morning, reading a magazine that does not interest you, still sprawled on this bed that does not smell like you but now belongs to you. Or maybe the man you heard sneak out into the hallway four nights before the incident was the smoker. Maybe it’s his ashy scent now clinging to your skin. You think about ashes and look up state crematories. In any case, that box of nicotine patches you’d come across in the medicine cabinet now seems like a cruel joke. ‘Smoke up, girlfriend’ you want to say to her.

Between the sobbing and the awkwardness, her Grieving Mother had said, “I’d really appreciate if you could maybe box and ship us her things? We don’t care about the furniture. But anything you can. Please. We’ll mail you a blank check for the expenses.” She spoke in the plural, making it sound as though there was an entire estate out there in Minnesota waiting to go through The Pretty Roommate’s trinkets with shaky hands, eager to share anecdotes and imagine the last time this or that outfit was worn in the city. The Grieving Mother’s grief had focus to it; you admired that.

You think The Pretty Roommate would have liked her death had she read an article about it, or seen a news segment covering the ditzy young woman who fell onto the subway track while peering down the tunnel to see if the train was coming, and who, after dusting herself off, embarrassed and presumably distracted by the various substances now staining her coat, had accidentally stepped on that fateful third rail—the one you absolutely must stay clear of as the stories go. Oh, yes. She would have laughed that delightful laugh of hers reading about the improbable death of a girl so airheaded that she managed to do herself in twice: first electrocuted, then pulverized by the oncoming train, which was actually running on time.
Or she might have sighed, solemnly shook her head, and given you that scrunch face, her Midwestern sensibilities wounded by your callousness. Who knows what her moral line was; she was a roommate, not a friend. And although it had taken you four years in the city to grasp it, you knew the distinction by now.

Friendships were things built on the progressive breaking of boundaries. Kisses on the cheek, hugs, arms around the shoulders. The borrowing of a stick of gum, then clothes, then lipstick. ‘Roommates’ however, was a status that defined itself in the exact opposite manner, in the irrigation of limits.

Could you not do that?’ The Quiet Roommate from two years ago, about turning the radio on while you cooked.

I’m going to need you to maybe keep that in your room. Allergies,’ the Julliard Roommate, here for a year, regarding your fuzzy orange blanket thrown over the couch.

‘You should still go sleep in your room. I really don’t want to complicate things.’ The Boy Roommate, your head on his pillow.

It was geometric cohabitation you realized, nothing more. They rented their room, half of the kitchen cabinets and alternate usage of the bathroom alongside the transversal that was the hallway. A third of the living room also went to them—a third only because most of your furniture was already in place and you didn’t mind sharing your electronics. This was a concession that, two bags at her feet, and one blue milk crate of toiletries in hand, The Pretty Roommate hadn’t minded. ‘It’s a relief actually. My last living room was literally just a mattress in the corner,’ she’d said upon moving in. ‘Maybe we can have movie nights or something.

~ ~ ~

The Pretty Roommate is also not the name you would have picked for this one.

The ‘Fresh-Off-The-Greyhound Roommate’ was your first thought, upon meeting her at the corner deli after a few e-mails in response to your Craigslist ad. The Effortfully Beautiful Roommate, maybe. The Girlie Roommate and The Olympic Dater Roommate were also early contenders. These names were usually signatures that only revealed in due time, as things were ending.

But the world saved you the trouble of having to wait this one out. You stepped out of the shower that one morning, curls wet and legs unshaved as you were already running late for work. You’d found Carlos, the building’s super, in your living room, along with an associate whose face you recognized, but whose name you didn’t know, both sweating at the neck and speaking animated Spanish. Your couch was pushed into a corner, exposing the screeching thermostat that had been sending bursts of rusty dust into the air for days, which stung your eyes when you walked into the living room. Carlos was trustworthy, friendly even, but also walked around in full awareness of the access the set of keys dangling at his gut granted him.

“Ah, miss! We thought we would get to it today, yeah?” Carlos had said looking away in an assumed shame that his partner didn’t bother mimicking. That it was fine so long as they put the couch back when they were done was all you’d managed to say before withdrawing to your room. From the corner of your eye, you’d seen the man make a face.

“It’s not for her. It’s the other one, the pretty roommate. This one, I don’t even know. She never smiles,” said Carlos. Like that, ownership of the space you had brought her into had shifted to the more pleasant shape of her face, and the thicker hips she used to rest her hands on. You, the Strong Chin and Weak-Nosed roommate. Her, the Pretty Roommate.

~ ~ ~

Away from the sheets, the space smells like any other unkempt bedroom. There is no warmth to the desk chair, no lingering aroma to be romanticized. On the small Swedish-made and floor-assembled desk, is her laptop, which tells you that it hasn’t been turned off in sixty-seven days, twenty-two hours, and nine minutes. It was the last thing you had seen her touch in the room, coming back one last time, coat on and scarf tied, dragging thin wet lines of sidewalk snow into the hallway to check alternative routes, her usual train shut down for the weekend for repairs. Her browser opens to its home page, some blog called Things Organized Neatly.

You recognize it, having often glimpsed the passing sight of her in curlers and sweats, cocooned in front of the bright screen, seemingly mesmerized by the sight of these household items positioned neatly and photographed artfully—occupying the exact space they were meant to and not an inch more.

Something about it must have soothed the disorder—yes, disorder you would say—of her own life. The clear disappointment of having been in the city for months now and not yet fallen in love or met those lifelong friends she was promised on Sex in the City. The fact that her roommate was not a partner in crime, but merely a presence, off-putting and judgmental, who stayed in and kept to herself. Every morning and every night, The Pretty Roommate sat at that desk, putting on her coat and scarf. You understand the ritual, having witnessed it enough times through her open door to badly mimic it and browse the pictures for a few minutes, hoping to tap into something, but ultimately failing.

Her email is still open. Twelve unread emails. Somehow, you expected more. You draft a letter, a note really, informing all acquaintances of the passing, creating ripples elsewhere, maybe even a few tidal waves. You believe your two paragraphs to be long enough for a devastated roommate, a friend unsure of the boundaries of propriety. You try to finish on a sincere, if not borrowed note.

The girl I knew found beauty in simple things. She lived unencumbered and unafraid.

One particular piece of correspondence, 11:28 pm the previous night, catches your eye. Subject line: “RIP”, I guess.

What happened? You didn’t have to pretend to be someone else. Coulda just cancelled.

COMPLETE MISUNDERSTANDING you swiftly type, offering seven exclamation points. What comes after is more impulse than logic. The lengthy reply writes itself and after hitting ‘send’, you also change her password, preferring numbers to words. 19852014. A tribute of sorts. It’s easier this way, you believe: just streams of data and numeric interacting in cyberspace.

~ ~ ~

Very early on, you had concluded that she was of a more reckless breed than you could like. The type that lived their lives like a performance for an audience that was not there. The one time you had tried to bond over drinks at a bar down the block, she had complained about the atmosphere—low-key by midtown standards, perfect for conversation—and proceeded to get drunker than necessary. Eventually, she’d garnered the interest of two suited men, one table over. One spent the night with his hand on your knee, and the handsomer one had taken The Pretty Roommate home to his place in Morningside Heights, playing up the fact that he could afford a one bedroom in the city. They had been in their late thirties at least, but she only referred to them as “those boys,” for weeks on end. We should go out again. We had so much fun!

After that night, you lived mathematical, parallel lives, and mostly only interacted when you bumped into each other in the kitchen, or as she would get ready for her dates in the living room, using the floor-length mirror she’d found in the building’s laundry room, but that she had no space for in her own bedroom.

My clothes would look so much better on me if I had your body, she’d once said, pressing and pushing at the sides of her midriff in front of the cracked glass. Like, I see them in magazines, online, on girls in the streets and I think, yes, that right there, that’s my palette. I see it so clearly, y’know. But then when I put them on, it’s all wrong. And it’s not just the size. Even when they fit, they don’t fit, y’know? It’s a concession. These amazing clothes lose something when I put them on. It’s like, fine, I’m an eight tonight, but the dress is a perfect ten, so really, doesn’t that make me a negative? Does that make any sense? She held her hair up with one hand and turned back to you expectantly. You shrugged, said nothing as you returned to your room. In bed, you felt guilty. Why could you not bond with her? Was lack of compatibility really a transgression to be punished?

~ ~ ~

Her makeup feels lighter on your face than your own and you’ve taken note of the brand.

You order what you think she would have ordered—a small salad, flavor on the side—hoping it will be enough to remove the processed aftertaste of the Nutella you had while getting ready. He smiles and says something about girls always ordering salads on dates, but doesn’t suggest an acceptable substitute meal before moving on to talking about his work, something on the low-end of the finance spectrum. He isn’t rich, but sees himself getting there.

She liked salad, going by her side of the fridge. Lettuce, kale, greens of any kind: foods she could enjoy without counting. She read labels carefully and you knew which food items belonged to her in the pantry because she kept their packages facing inwards, nutritional factoids then available for her perusal. ‘That’s three of this,’ she would say about your breakfast, holding up a bowl of gruel when you pulled a Pop Tart out of the microwave. But, who knows, maybe that was her being friendly. There was only hindsight now.

“I was worried I had screwed it up before you even saw me!” he laughs. The sleeves of his peacoat, grey, hang off the sides of his chair.

“That’s my roommate,” you say. “She’s a complete freak.”

“But that you were dead though? That’s pretty morbid,” he says.

You repeat yourself, weighing the words. A complete freak.

“I have to admit, I already was pretty nervous about meeting you in the first place,” he continues, throwing a perplexed glance your way that you try your best to smile through. “Not a lot of people do the whole blind date thing these days. A picture doesn’t really show anything, y’know? Why don’t you video chat, by the way?”

You know the answer to this.

You had brought the ironing table to the living room, and was greeted by the spectacle of The Pretty Roommate giggling and flirting with a blurry guy somewhere across the city, a hand teasingly glued to her laptop’s camera, occasionally removing it at lightning speed before he could get a look. Why don’t you just have a regular conversation with him? you had asked her, just the once. Oh, I hate that angle, she had said, looking scandalized by the very notion. The camera is right up your nose. It widens the jawline. During that exchange, she talked more slowly and with an audible stupidity, every other syllable inflected upward, ringing.

“I prefer to go by real life chemistry,” you smile at him. “I want a real connection.”

“Sure.”

Your salad arrives shortly after. Your water is topped off, and his has to be completely refilled. You wonder if he gets this thirsty on every first date or if it’s talking to you that is so parching.

“Plus, I hate the angle of the camera,” you say as the waiter walks off. “It’s right up your nose.”

He laughs at this, and his shoulders appear to loosen. “I’ll raise you one,” he says proceeding to tell you the story of a video interview he had in which the Senior Vice Something had a dangling booger in his right nostril throughout the entire conversation. You laugh. You laugh again when a woman accidentally knocks a waiter’s tray. When he mimics a coworker. Your face hurts. He doesn’t ask any questions about the haircut you said you’d just gotten. Or mention that your nose seems bigger than the picture he saw. It was a good angle, he must tell himself. People put their best foot forward online. Why ruin a good evening by asking too many questions? Maybe he lied about his own picture, you think. It might have belonged to his own roommate, now lying dead in an alley somewhere.

~ ~ ~

You fumble with your keys and then shush him when he chuckles at your nervousness.

“Is your roommate around?” he asks.

“I don’t know. Probably,” you whisper loudly. “She never goes out.”

You kiss against the wall by her bedroom. You haven’t slept in yours in days now. You keep your back arched and your knee high, your heel resting on an electrical socket. You think it looks better this way; at this angle he can enjoy how skinny you are. His lips occasionally detach and linger above yours. He doesn’t smell the death, doesn’t pull you off in a frown, sensing something wrong.

You turn the doorknob behind you, and back into the dark, like you imagine she does, kicking off her heels one after the other. You feel the dead cells of clipped toenails dig into your feet as you step onto the shaggy pink carpet at the foot of the still unmade bed.

“I’m a mess,” you say, excusing the chaos you’ve made of this room. It smells like you don’t even know what. He says he likes your mess. He liked your dress, liked your eyes, liked the neighborhood and liked your living room; of course he likes your untidiness too. He seems to like your neck also. You wonder if you are better than she would have been and then realize the pointlessness of those questions that will never be answered.

I love you, you suddenly want to shout. I love you so much that I hope you never leave. You imagine him impregnating you right then and there. We’ll name him Cedric. You’ll hold my hand in the delivery room. Afterwards, I’ll take Pilates, do the Kegel work, and two months later, we’ll be right back here, all because we love each other so damn much!

The Pretty Roommate might have had issues.

Just like she might have deserved the thrill of saying ‘I love you’ one more time from beyond the grave as opposed to simply hearing it through the sobs of family and friends she already knew loved her. Her ripples would continue if you did that. He’d tell the story for years to come. But you say none of these things, of course. You bite your lip against his and even in the dark you can tell that he takes it as a compliment. He comes in sputters, repeating her name a few times, filling each syllable with however much intensity he thinks she deserves. To your ears it sounds only like a moderate amount. You come. Ish. There’s pleasure somewhere in your middle, by the pancreas, over the intestines.

Afterwards, he caresses your back, looking at you like a puzzle that’s just been solved. “You didn’t have to use someone else’s picture,” he whispers. The lamp has been turned on and there’s now dead air to be filled. He gets up and slips on his underwear as he continues. “No really, you’re gorgeous, babe.” Under the light, you now see pudge amassing in his folds as he brings his foot up to the side of the bed to put on his socks.

“Thanks,” you say, wondering what he would do if you told him he had just slept with a dead girl. “You should go.” You nod towards the door. “The roommate’s a real bitch about overnight guests.”

“That’s the worst,” he says, now buttoning his shirt. “Mine’s all right.”

“Really?”

“Sure, he’s a bartender downtown. We hang out. We could check out his bar,” he says and then stops with a frown, catching up to his words. “Well, I’m out of town next weekend.”

“It’s okay,” you say. “Don’t worry about it. I had a good time.” You’re not a pillow sharer anyway.

“Me too,” he smiles. Relief makes people smile.

He kisses your cheek and disappears into the hallway, breaking into a mischievous grin when he turns back and finds you wide eyed with a finger at your lips in a way that says quieter still, my roommate is fucking insane, remember. He closes the door behind him and you lean back into your dirty sheets, stare at the ceiling, and listen to him tiptoe down the hallway, shoes in hand.

You hear the bathroom door open, the toilet lid rise, a weak, though steady stream followed by a toilet flush. The water runs, but there’s no interruption or weight under it, nothing rinsed. Eventually the front door closes, and this man that death had stood up has slipped out into the night with unwashed hands. You can’t sleep after that. There’s a filled condom in the garbage can a few feet away from you that needs immediate clearing. What this room smells like, you finally understand, isn’t her or you or sex or Nutella. It’s dirty, the exact fragrance of the thing. The sheets are rank, stained all over, and damp to the touch. You’ll wash them and they’ll get rank again, of course.

You brew some tea, enough for two, with half probably going to waste. You start look for boxes and packing tape. You quickly decide on what to send and what to keep. Anything that could belong to any girl anywhere but still holds an air of individuality, of essence, send. Your jewelry box and most of its content. A few teddy bears. A bathrobe. You strip your former room bare and close the door. Your next ad will say that you’re looking for someone adjusted, open. Not just a roommate, but a friend. A girl who will playfully rap at your door after nights like these and plop herself on your bed, asking for all the details. That will be a nice change.

Ben Philippe is a New York-based writer whose Culture coverage can regularly be read on Thrillist Entertainment, Esquire, BuzFeed, Vox, and others. He is also an MFA graduate of the Michener Center for Writers.

No One to Miss

by

She may remember how the air sounds, late in the morning, once a bird has stopped singing and gone away. She might consider her own stillness—or how the bedroom, in a way, has become empty. Her fingers, gathered together softly, are somewhat in the position of a hand holding a pen, which makes it seem as if she’ll soon begin writing, once she can remember what she’s forgotten—the color she sees when her eyes are closed, maybe, or her name—certain words.

The view of a path which stretches, like his or her body, out ahead of him—a path with rows of nameless trees on each side; tall trees, which lean toward one another, creating a roof of some sort, or a small night. He loiters at the beginning of the path, with his hands in his pockets. There, he looks down the path as far as he can, lonely, like someone lost in a hotel hallway. He assumes he knows where the path leads. He can imagine what will be there—at the end—so that, when words return, a small list of what would not have been there may be made: wicker chairs in a garden, a pulling of wind, some laundry-line of outgrown dresses. Nothing to see for himself.

Small moments of feeling nothing beneath her feet; the sensation set in pattern above the sheets. She thinks to herself without words. She notes the clearness of space. Meanwhile, language comes rushing across the well-groomed plane (the constant field; the unnoted silence), chasing her, like a parent. She isn’t amazed by her feet continuously finding an object of hardness. There’s this ladder that she’s got to get down.

[The dancer—wearing a black leotard beneath a black skirt, which plumes outward at the waist—flirts with what’s the center of the stage, while the audience, in the dark, watches. She rolls her shoulders, and then her hips, as she dances in a tightening circle—which, in turn, creates another circle within the circle she’s drawn, a lonelier and smaller place, where she designates her absence. And she watches without sound, or sympathy—as she spins—this enclosing. Lifting her hand, she touches her cheek. Then, for no certain reason, a low wave of applause scatters through the blind.]

“An empty branch,” says a sudden gust of vacuity, “is too unremarkable to be the site of life in the future. How can stillness promote an act of relocation?” And the condom is withdrawn.

She remembers the story she heard as a girl, the one about the woman who took a felling axe from the shed behind the house, late at night, when her husband was sleeping. The story about how the woman walked into the woods beyond her field, wearing her nightgown—the head of the axe, the bit, dragging through the grass behind her and, in doing so, forming a trail. She remembers how she heard the story many times, since the woman lived in a small town—the one where she grew up—and how, in some versions of the story, there would be a light falling of rain. She recalls the way certain tellers of the story would lower their voices as they told her this part: how, come morning, the husband woke and followed the trail of the axe—and, as he went, they said, he could he hear what he thought was thunder. The husband walked into the woods and came upon an unexpected clearing, a circle of recently downed pine trees, where he found his wife sitting in the grass. And it was never raining anymore, now. There was always a clean morning light shining on the woman. She had the axe—the tellers said—and the hem of her nightgown pulled above her crotch. And the husband could only watch—they told her—as his wife, surrounded by the blooming stumps she had made, cut lines into her thigh. And she remembers how the women, as they ended the story, would explain quite plainly the blood dripping on the needles beneath her, unlike the men, who never seemed to mention the color of a low burning fire, or the relief in the quietness.

He stares over at the bedroom door, the embalmed wood, which is locked, although he is alone. He touches his body, now calm, or muted, like another piece of architecture.

[The dancer, who has all this time been moving, takes a moment to be still. Speaking of light, there’s only the single band of some unseen spotlight. It falls from the ceiling, out of a darkness more complete than the layer spread over the audience, to land in a circle around the body of the dancer. The dancer and the light, like sisters, are taking a long moment to be still. Because of this, someone near the stage can observe the freckle on her shoulder. Someone can observe that it is large, brown, and oddly-shaped, somewhere between the outline of a rowboat and the body of a mattress: a space of disparity which is vast enough to recall, strangely, the feeling of waking late at night without knowing who or where you are, there in the dark, as only someone—the clock, on the far wall, heard but not seen. Then the dancer steps backwards, twice, leaving the light in front of her. Everyone attempts to feel sure she’s still there, just beyond their vision, meaning past the location of the light: off, within the fullness of the dark.]

An empty bedroom can mean different pictures: 1) bedroom unpopulated by a thing that’s alive enough, or conscious enough, to understand the space it occupies is a bedroom; 2) room with no decorations, dresser, or shelves; no books or clothes on the floor, a room without even a bed, which may not be a bedroom; 3) a field without houses, walls, fences, or trees; unlit.

His ( body stretched across the mattress on his back; a freedom of hair on display, the overgrown grass of him: a slight reminiscence, while watching his chest, of some abandoned backyard where she used to lay as a child. Yet there’s no one to call her home, now, when she’s already there. Memory extends and then returns. She watches his penis, as it shrinks, forgetting what she meant to him, only a moment before) or her (on her side by his side, one knee on top of the other; the door now closed. She closes her eyes when he looks at her. It’s a pleasure to let his vision roll down her body and not be surprised. The falls, the rises—her neck and her waist—he navigates the turns of her skin like a man driving home. During the length of her thigh, the wheel is released; the quiet of the night takes over. Between them, there is either nothing to say or the luxury of sharing silence, from body to) body. There’s the feeling of missing someone, with no one to miss.

With the windows open, with a thin cloud set before the sun, the light in the room shines in a soft and ashy hue of yellow. And the feeling within the room, like a small feeling of loneliness, seems to nestle inside the cavity of her chest, where it feels somewhat warm, somewhat fibrous, as if she could unbutton her shirt and begin unbraiding her sternum; as if she could dig hands into her body, past skin and past bone, and put her fingers on the feeling (the light (the room)) and untangle each and every thing.

[When the light finds her again, she is already dancing with all of her body. A good dancer, like the dancer that is here, humiliates the air above a stage. She reveals the emptiness around her. She does this without the sadness of language. And the audience—because the end of the dance, which is coming soon, will mark only the end of itself, and not the end of such things as walking alone through one house or another in the morning, or discussing the weather when there’s nothing to discuss, or starting over—the audience is preparing, in silence, to describe what they have seen, along with what they haven’t, and just however they can, or like we have.]

 
 
 
Travis Vick’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Booth, H_NGM_N, The Mid-American Review, PANK, Parcel, Waxwing, Wordriot, and others. He is from Texas.

Migration

by

Something was up that week so Cass wasn’t surprised when she opened the fridge and heard an egg scream. Cass was there for a snack, but she was open to dialogue.

The egg, the size of her fist, said, “I think it’s time you met my mother.”

Mother?” asked Cass, startled by the forwardness of the egg as she placed it on the table.

“Yes,” Egg said. “I’ve already sat through breakfast with yours and she wouldn’t say a word to me.”

“It’s not you,” Cass said. Cass’s mother was pissed that she’d brought home the carton of duck eggs from the neighboring farm on a day when she was supposed to help with the chickens. Her mother called the farmers unnatural, but from what Cass saw they simply had a bigger, brighter barn.

“You willing or not?” Egg asked.

“I guess,” Cass said, wondering if now was a bad time to grab some cheese.

“Let’s go,” Egg said.

“Now?” Cass asked, glancing at the moon through the kitchen window.

“You want to stay here?”

Egg had a point. Cass’s sisters had just woken her, rubbing her with chicken parts. Yet somehow the stink of blood from a claw clamping her nose didn’t stop her stomach from gurgling. “Only if we have a picnic,” Cass said.

“All right,” said Egg. “But bring enough for Mama.”

Cass nodded, though she wasn’t certain exactly how much to bring. She packed her bag with a tablecloth, frozen peas, and bread, then started off for the next-door farm.

“You don’t want to meet her, do you?” Egg asked.

“Sure I do,” Cass said, unsure if that was true.

The wind was breezier than expected when Cass put down the cloth so she held it down with stones, careful that Egg didn’t rock.

“You can start,” Egg said.

So Cass ripped into the bread and sprinkled out the peas to be polite, though she knew that Egg wasn’t about to eat. Soon enough the other ducklings gathered—bigger than Cass remembered—diving for the peas with welcome gusto.

“Are you really gonna be picky?” Egg asked.

Shamed by Egg’s good manners, Cass went for the peas nose-first, joining in the rhythmic camaraderie, like a party of jolly jackhammers.

And that was how she met Egg’s mother—teeth smeared green with dirt.

Mama Duck was tall as a house.

“What are your plans for my son?” she asked.

Breakfast seemed an inappropriate answer.

“You have a job?” Mama Duck asked.

Cass shook her head.

“You thought about kids?” Mama Duck asked.

With an egg? Cass thought, unable to look at him.

“These are questions you must think about before we finalize your commitment,” Mama Duck said.

Cass channeled her nerves into shredding what was left of the loaf, and threw it to the ducklings.
“Junk food,” Mama Duck tsked.

Her tone was the same as Cass’s mother on the mornings when Cass ate jellybeans for breakfast. Her mother had never understood that Cass only ate them to avoid her sisters at the table; she could fill her pockets and leave.

That way Cass could pop candy while watching the farmers across the fence. Every sunrise the old farm couple scooped the ducklings up, and would waltz in unison, stroking till their feathers poofed.

The closest Cass’s own mother got to their chickens was with a cleaver. Even now her sisters would be sneaking into her room, stuffing her sheets with chicken heads.

“Don’t you love me?” Egg said.

Cass felt something blossom inside her and she cradled Egg in her arms. She stroked him as if she were finger-painting her love onto his shell, melding her fingerprints onto his membrane, linking their identities as one.

Suddenly Cass felt itchy. Her arm hairs prickled into feathers and her feet knocked off her shoes. Her toes wiggled into long webby, hominoidal digits.

“Mama?” Cass asked.

Mama Duck replied with a nod, gathering her ducklings close.

They all breathed together as Cass yawned up her arms. And as she plucked Egg up with her feet, they all lifted off for the South. ✧

Julienne Grey’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Joyland Magazine, Slice Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, and theEEEL, among others. She attended the 2014 Tin House Writer’s Workshop after receiving the 2013 Slice Literary Writer’s Conference Scholarship. Follow her on Twitter @JulienneGrey.