JANUARY 13, 2020| ISSUE no 258
short fiction by Gina Willner-Pardo
Janice sat on the examination table, squinting to see a flyer about domestic abuse pinned to the bulletin board above the sink. “Have you ever been hit? Choked? Slapped? Pushed? Bitten? Burned? Grabbed?” she read. She wondered how many women sitting exactly where she was at this moment had confessed something similar to Dr. O’Malley, whose resolute cheerfulness in the face of fibrocystic breasts and inconclusive PAP smears Janice had always appreciated. Would Dr. O’Malley be able to remain optimistic after hearing that one of her patients had been bitten by a raging husband? Jesus, she thought. Life could take a turn, and then where were you? She pulled the edges of the paper gown together, glad for the choices she’d made, the dangers sidestepped.
The door opened and Dr. O’Malley breezed in. “Vaginal atrophy!” she said, a hint of triumph in her voice.
“Easily seen on the slide. And it’s very common in post-menopausal women. Nothing to worry about,” Dr. O’Malley said. “I’ll prescribe a cream.” She sat at her computer and began fiddling with the mouse.
“Atrophy, though.” Janice clutched her gown.
Dr. O’Malley laughed. “I know, right?”
“I mean, what if a man had to listen to some doctor tell him he had penile atrophy?” She thought of Ben, the way his ruddy cheeks would blanch. He might faint dead away.
“That’s why they call it ED,” Dr. O’Malley said, fingers flying over her keyboard.
~ ~ ~
Before Ben climbed the ladder, he knew he would be recommending a total replacement. He could see the whole roof sagging from the sidewalk, and there were weeds growing in most of the gutters. The homeowner was an elderly woman who wanted to tell him that her husband was the one who did the outside chores. She made Ben a cup of tea while she explained that she’d finally found a room for him at the memory-care place downtown. “Only after he started hitting me,” she said. “I promised I’d always take care of him. But I couldn’t stand the hitting.”
“You did the right thing,” Ben said.
“It’s a terrible disease, the way it sneaks up on a person,” Mrs. DeNovellis said. “He was a good husband. Always home at five thirty. Liked his dinner at six.”
Ben thought, Janice would say the same thing about me, although he found it impossible to imagine himself in one of those places, diapered and belligerent, drooling in front of a TV.Even cancer was better: You could be dignified. You could muster stoicism.
She said, “I just couldn’t stand the hitting.” Her eyes were wet. “I couldn’t stand it.” He saw that she was apologizing, as though not wanting to be hit were something she had kept from Mr. DeNovellis, and if he’d known, he never would have done it in the first place.
“He sounds like the kind of man who would want you to have a good roof,” Ben said, putting a hand on her twig-like arm. He saw that she had been beautiful once; he wondered if Mr. DeNovellis, his brain littered with plaques and tangles, was able to remember that.
~ ~ ~
Driving home, the bag from CVS on the passenger seat, Janice let herself feel sad about the searing pain that had caused her to push on Ben’s chest and yell “Get out!” two nights before. He had moved hastily out of and off her, alarmed.They had sex often and contentedly (although Janice could have used a little more in the way of variety), and this disturbance seemed potentially ominous. She was glad to have been able to text him that everything was fine.
They had been married for fifteen years, since her first husband Craig had bolted after several instances of cavalier infidelity she had tried to forgive for their son’s sake. Ben bought her flowers every week, complimented the Bento bowls she had begun serving him, held her hand as they made their way into favorite cafes and restaurants. He was happy when she retired from high-school counseling early and urged her to take up photography. When she asked if he minded earning all the money and paying all the bills, he arched his eyebrows, his way of reminding her just who he was: a guy born in the fifties—short and stocky, broad-shouldered, hands thickened with calluses—who liked wearing suits on occasion, was always on time, and had no problem asking the neighbors’ teenagers to turn down the music. A grownup. The responsible one.
He had never once seemed even close to biting her.
She didn’t answer his text: She was forlorn in a way she couldn’t quite name. Turning onto her block, slowing as she passed the familiar homes—each one a variant of the others, with the same patch of lawn and ornamental shrubs maintained by the HOA, on whose Board of Directors Ben now served—she tried unsuccessfully to cheer herself up with thoughts of homemade gnocchi and an after-dinner walk down to the community pond.
~ ~ ~
Later that night, removing the tube of cream from the bag, she noticed something written in pen at the bottom of the receipt. You are a beautiful woman. Why so sad? Call me, she read. The phone number was scrawled below, and under that, a signature: Alan.
She had to read it twice, and then again after she’d inserted the medication. Who had seen her and written this? Weren’t pharmacists bound by standards of professional behavior or something?
Lying in bed beside a slumbering Ben, she looked it up on her phone. There was, indeed, a code of ethics. She couldn’t stop shaking.
After an hour, she reached for her phone. I think it’s illegal for you to contact me like that, she texted. She was going to write I could have you fired, but that seemed needlessly belligerent, under the circumstances. She put the phone back in the charger and drifted into fitful, angry unconsciousness.
~ ~ ~
Ben turned to her when the room was just graying into morning. “I can’t for two weeks, baby,” Janice whispered. “The cream takes a while.”
He rolled onto his back, slowed his breathing. He reminded himself that she had gone immediately to the doctor, that the problem was minor in the grand scheme of things, and solvable. But still. He was aware of his own disappointment, needs not being met, the way such things could simmer and burn in a man.
He thought about the morning schedule: checking on a couple of the crews, meeting with a local developer. The comfort of familiar work: repetitive, deeply understood. It reminded him who he was: a man who put one foot in front of the other, who could occupy himself and forget that he was waiting.
~ ~ ~
When she was sure he had dozed off, she grabbed her phone. No message. Good, she thought, replacing it on the charger and turning toward the wall, waiting to be soothed into sleep by the knowledge of her own righteousness. She could be the responsible one, too.
It wasn’t until late that evening when her phone buzzed. She set her book down on the coffee table and read Not illegal. I filled your prescription properly. I thought you looked unhappy and I wanted to pay you a compliment.
While she was considering whether an apology was in order, he added You take my breath away.
She wrote, I’m sixty-two, for God’s sake, her fingers shaking as she typed.
Like you can’t be beautiful at sixty-two?
How old are you? she asked
Fifty-five. Send me a picture.
You already know what I look like, she wrote. And then, Send me one.
Her heart was thudding uncomfortably; her face was hot. She thought, What the hell?
The picture he sent was clearly taken for professional purposes: He was visible from the chest up, wore a uniform, and was smiling in front of a backdrop featuring the pharmacy’s logo. She wondered how many women he’d sent it to, and if they had fallen for his cheesy line.
He was pleasant looking: reddish hair threaded with gray, an unlikely tan. Rugged-seeming for someone who spent all day filling prescriptions under those awful fluorescent lights. Biceps straining at the cuff of his short sleeves.
She wrote, Thanks for the compliment, but I’m happily married.
So am I, he wrote. If you weren’t married, would you want to fuck?
Had anyone ever asked her that before? Surprised, she realized no one had. Both of her husbands would feel the question indecorous, disrespectful of a wife or serious girlfriend. (Although come to think of it, just what had Craig been saying to the woman blowing him in the downstairs half-bath when Janice had come upon them all those years ago?)
Just saying the word ‘fuck’ to herself—just reading it on her phone and knowing it was meant for her—was jarring.
I might want to have coffee first, she wrote.
I’m not looking for coffee.
After a moment, she typed, What are you looking for?
Knowing she was someone different now. Just like that.
She knew something was happening, and the fact that it was unexpected and previously unhoped-for did nothing to keep her from reading his answer or writing back.
~ ~ ~
Emptying the wastebaskets—trash collection was on Tuesday mornings—Ben came on the crumpled receipt. He unfolded it, probably, he thought later, to make sure Janice had intended to throw it away: Sometimes she was careless about things that might prove useful at tax time. He read the scribbled note and thrust the receipt in his back pocket.
Well, of course it was nothing to worry about. She’d thrown it away, after all. Some clown overstepping his bounds, nothing more. She may not even have looked at the receipt. In fact, this was probably the case, given what he knew of her tendency to be indifferent to things that ended up being important. (He often thought that without him, she would forget about taxes altogether and end up paying a lot of hefty fines.)
That night, he couldn’t sleep. The darkness settled on his chest; the minutes on his phone ticked by with excruciating slowness. He couldn’t stop turning things over in his mind. Just why had this Alan character felt the need to approach his wife? Had she smiled at him—innocently, of course—with no thought that doing so might encourage an unwanted exchange? Or had filling her prescription alerted him to the fact that she was sexually active and given rise to illicit thoughts?
He turned onto his side, agitated. Next to him, Janice snored lightly, which struck him as unfair. He was almost seventy, an age when all he wanted was peace: financial security, enjoyable work, his adult daughters living productive lives in their own homes, a good woman, decent health, food prepared to his liking, the occasional trip. A respectable night’s rest.
So how was it that, through no fault of his own, he was tossing and turning, while his wife, who’d started this whole damn thing (unintentionally, of course) slept blissfully by his side?
~ ~ ~
Alan usually texted Janice in the middle of the day—his lunch hour, she thought incredulously—and she arranged to be in her car, which she drove to a remote corner of the parking garage at Target. There, far from other vehicles, enveloped in shadowy half-light, she marveled at the power of words that, before Alan, had seemed only vaguely titillating. Before Alan, they had not been directed to her, had not expressed anyone’s intentions concerning her personally.
Words she used to associate with sniggering ten-year-olds. Now they were layered with meaning, signifying a particular man’s primeval need for the part of her that was small and silky, pettable, helpless. A man who said these things wasn’t sniggering. He was confidently demanding, and she—overwhelmed by her own smallness in the face of his urgency, and her own—had no choice but to submit. All in writing, which surely meant it wasn’t really submission: She was engaged and fully participating, wasn’t she? Still, it felt as though she had given away her power, which she valued in the part of her life she lived outside a dirty parking garage.
Not really submission. She had a masters, for God’s sake.
~ ~ ~
She wondered what his wife was like, if he had children, played golf, loved his mother. If he were trustworthy. It was incredible to her that she had offered up such previously undiscovered parts of herself to someone about whom she knew nothing.
About a week after they’d begun texting, she typed, Why did you decide to become a pharmacist? She felt terrifically shy, as though, minutes before, she had not disclosed that she wanted to be forcefully violated while bent over the hood of a car.
Don’t do that, he wrote back.
Try to get to know me. Try to be friends. We aren’t friends.
It stung. But before she had a chance to respond, he wrote, This way, it isn’t really happening.
~ ~ ~
Standing at the counter under the “Consultation” sign in the nearly empty pharmacy, Ben told the clerk, “I’d like to speak to Alan.” In truth, he had no idea what he was going to say, but he felt compelled to tell this guy just what he thought of him putting the moves on his wife. Maybe he also wanted to get a look at him, if he were being honest about it. Make sure there was nothing to worry about, then give him a piece of his mind. Two birds.
The man who approached the counter was younger, short and thick in the torso, with thinning red hair and freckled forearms. The kind of guy who wasn’t picked for teams in gym, Ben couldn’t help but think. A guy you assumed would feel awkward about inserting himself where he didn’t belong. On his left hand, a thin, silver wedding ring caught the light.
“Problem with your prescription?” he asked, smiling genially, and Ben, momentarily distracted by the ring, fumbled in his back pocket for the receipt, forgetting that he held it in his other hand. When he realized his mistake, he thrust the crumpled slip of paper forward, feeling as though he’d already been outwitted.
“This you?” he asked.
As Alan glanced at the receipt, Ben watched him carefully, looking for signs of embarrassment, but Alan scanned the receipt, then met his gaze evenly. “That’s me.”
“What the hell, man?”
Alan shrugged. “Hey, I gave it a shot. I saw her dropping off the prescription and, you know.”
“I know what?”
Alan squinted and frowned: He seemed to be realizing that Ben wasn’t there just to tell him to fuck off. “That she’s a knockout.”
Ben had to give it to him: He was owning up. He thought, And just what the fuck am I here for?
“Yeah, but come on. You’re married, right? What are you doing, hitting on married women?”
“Not ‘married women’. This one woman. Your wife.” He leaned slightly closer over the counter. “She never called. Never followed up. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“I’m not worried.”
Alan crossed his arms. “Then what are we doing here? What are we talking about?”
Ben glanced over his shoulder. He’d always found drug stores to be peculiar places, where people indirectly broadcast their physical inadequacies by purchasing particular products: enemas, ointments for jock itch and hemorrhoids, douches, depilatories. It was as though by entering the store, they were signing a pact with one another: I will not watch you slip those earwax removal drops into your cart if you pretend I’m here for the Snickers at the check-out counter and not the stool softener I’ve hidden discreetly under the latest issue of “Sports Illustrated.”
Behind him, the store was quiet as a church.
“I don’t get guys who cheat,” he said in a low voice. “The worry, the sneaking around. The aggravation. The risk.”
Alan shrugged. “The risk is part of it.”
“You do this a lot, then? It’s your thing?”
“Look. I don’t have to tell you anything. What do you want?”
Ben whispered, “What made you pick her?”
“I already told you. She’s gorgeous.”
He felt sweat on the back of his neck. He said nothing.
“Do you need me to say more? Is that your thing?”
“I mean, there are thirty-five-year-olds everywhere!” Horrified, he thought he might burst into tears.
“Jesus, man. Are you kidding me?” But Alan’s tone was gentle, almost forgiving. “Just look at her.
Ben felt shame rising, flooding his cheeks with heat.
“You should be wooing this gal every day,” Alan said. “What are you waiting for?”
Ben thought, The nerve of this jackass. As though he were the one who needed forgiving, or a lecture. “Hey,” he said, “I didn’t do anything wrong here!”
Alan raised his hands in mock surrender. “You’re right. I’m the bad guy.” The merest wisp of a smile flitted across his lips. “Your wife didn’t do anything wrong, either. So we’re all good.”
Ben didn’t want to seem like a guy who was easily mollified. “We’re clear?” he asked, grabbing up the receipt, beginning to back away. Hoping his words conveyed a subtle menace.
Alan nodded, his expression now one of slightly inconvenienced professionalism, and headed back to his station, where only his head and shoulders were visible. Ben watched him for a moment, until he was sure he had gone back to his work: soothing the distraught, minimizing pain, restoring to health those lucky enough to benefit from his ministrations.
Only when he returned to his truck did he become aware of his own discomfort. He thought, This guy helps people! And that seemed so at odds with the other part of him: the cheater, the sly manipulator.
He hated when someone was not one thing or the other.
At any rate, he thought, trying to shake the unease, nothing happened. He could put it behind him now.
~ ~ ~
After a few more days, Janice ended things with Alan. She’d grown tired of the Target parking lot, for one thing, and had begun to worry that any day now, a suspicious security guard might approach the car, giving rise to a host of other concerns. Would he be able to tell just what she was doing under cover of darkness and isolation? Could she be arrested? Would he tell her husband?
Intolerable, the chance she’d taken, the terrible consequences.
I totally understand, he texted back.
She waited to see if he would say more, but he didn’t. It seemed too abrupt an ending until she realized he’d been right: They weren’t friends.
No sorrow. Still. She would live with what she’d allowed to happen for the rest of her life. The price to pay.
But a few moments later, driving home, she felt everything slowing down and realized this settling—this return—wasn’t sorrow, exactly, but something almost worse: a death, a burial in familiar ground.
~ ~ ~
Ben made reservations at their favorite bistro. He arranged for the waiter to deliver a bouquet of roses to the table. While they shared a slice of orange-infused chocolate lava cake, he let one hand rest on her thigh.
“I’ve missed you,” he whispered, and Janice covered his hand with hers.
Later, in bed, he watched as she stood before him and crossed her arms to pull her t-shirt over her head. “No,” he said. “Let me.”
He nodded as she lowered her arms. He rose to his knees and put his hands on her hips, where the skin was cooler than his own. He grasped the hem of her shirt and pulled up slowly, watching her body reveal itself as though he were carving it out of marble. Marveling at the soft, dimpled pillow of her belly, the glow of her breasts in the dim moonlight: their sag and heft, the rise and fall as she breathed. The undersides of her raised arms—pale from perpetual concealment—which only he could see. Her face when it emerged: lips parted, green eyes half-closed. The sharp crescent of her cheekbone. Chin-length silver hair tousled from his efforts.
She knelt too, then, rested her arms on his shoulders, leaned close to kiss him. Then she put her mouth to his ear. What she whispered startled him: He had never heard her speak in such a way. Where had this come from? The doubt he had resolved to forget rose up in the dark around them, and he realized he had a choice to make. He could ask the question or not ask it. Prepare himself for whatever answer she might give. Face it head on.
But as quickly as the thought came to him, the moment passed, and what was happening between them became all that mattered, the most important thing.
Left on the Floor
By the Bed
She left him. Then he left her. Yet they both remain, content to malinger; afraid of what awaits for them at the end of their relationship. So they continue, each day finding the veneer they left crumpled on the floor next to the bed. They pick them up and wear them.
Hers includes the earrings he bought for her on their fourth anniversary. She still wears them, along with smile lines around her mouth; remnants of a different time.
His includes the boxers he wears for her. He has always preferred briefs. He has developed a small twitch in his left eye. Perhaps it’s from always squinting forward. To look at her directly would be to give ground.
She accomplishes her day by ticking off the small boxes she has drawn next to tasks on a folded piece of paper. Fifteen usually gets her to an overpriced afternoon drive-through for a decaf coffee. Twenty gets her to the finish line, back to her right shoulder, curled far away from him in their bed.
He accomplishes his day by counting calories. Self-improvement or ground work as an investment in a new future? She wonders. He’s not sure. Twelve hundred calories usually gets him to the gym where he roams as an introvert in public, hiding behind headphones playing the music of his youth. Another eight hundred gets him to the finish line, back to his left shoulder, curled far away from her in bed. They touch feet in the dark, but only for a moment.
This story is horribly depressing. Scratch that. Let’s try again.
She stayed with him. Then he stayed with her. Yet in truth, they mostly left, content to move on; afraid of the people they were becoming. So they remain, both orbiting around the other, polite, helpful, otherwise not engaged. Each day they find their veneers folded neatly in a drawer and slide into them.
Hers includes a new smartwatch she has purchased for herself, and short hair with highlights. It makes her feel airy and mobile.
His includes a new pair of boxers. Briefs were suffocating after all. There is a dull ache in his back. Is it because he has switched from weights to running? It is easier to be introverted on a sidewalk.
She accomplishes her day by juggling multiple streams of conversation through her gigantic smartphone. Why did she buy such a large phone? Thirty GIFs with girlfriends usually gets her to an afternoon coffee, shot of expresso. She sits inside the overpriced coffee shop and texts with her work friend, Marco. Sixty exchanges of text usually gets her to the finish line, back on her right shoulder, curled into bed by herself.
He accomplishes his day by blowing off sales calls and watching videos in his car. You can learn anything on the internet. Why didn’t he get a bigger phone? Forty videos usually gets him to the sports bar for a post-work conference with colleagues. It is easier to fight being an introvert with a few beers. The foursome always dwindles to a twosome with his work friend, Tish. Five beers get him to the finish line, sliding quietly into bed onto his left shoulder.
They touch feet in the dark, but only for a moment.
flash fiction by Jeff Barker
poetry by Barbara Daniels
I’m in a basement room, dirty
mauve blinds, view into an airshaft.
It might be raining. Hard to tell
here. Thanks for driving me back
from the hospital. I’m sorry
you saw my bloody incisions.
I’m leaning on you now. And
Booker’s death. Sorry, sorry.
Sure, he was pissing on the couch,
telling stories again and again, driving
your sister bats. I like the photo
of him you chose for the funeral.
His overalls and wide face. The red
dirt. It’s raining silver dollars here.
Not really. But aren’t we richer
than we ever dreamed we’d be? I wish
you’d known me when we were younger.
I was better then, kinder, stronger. It is
what it is now, as you tell me. Let’s
get together soon. Let’s have lunch.
The Silver Dollar Letter
I have paid for a plot of land in which to bury myself someday.
I plant flowers there, tend them.
micro fiction by Amanda Leahy
short fiction by Kaylie Saidin
All summer we’d been jiggling. Me and my sister Mandy walked around a neighborhood at noon on a weekday, sauntering up the pathways to houses, zigzagging through overgrown lawns. We marched right up to the doors, making sure to make our feet as quiet as possible when we did. Then we extended a hand, placed it on the doorknob, sometimes brass or wooden, curved or a small ball, and turned it each direction. We’d jiggle it a couple times to see if it’d give way. If it was locked, which it almost always was, it would make the clicking sound of defeat, and we’d shrug and run briskly to the sidewalk, onto the next house.
The air was sticky and sweltering even though the sun was hidden behind clouds that threatened rain. It’s like that during New Orleans summers. My balls were sweaty under my basketball shorts, and I envied Mandy’s sundress. I always thought it was so dumb, how girls get to wear flowy things that let their legs breathe, and I’m stuck in tight cloth every day.
“This neighborhood sucks,” Mandy said. “Everybody knows not to lock their doors.”
“We’ll find one.”
I didn’t know if we would find one. But I wanted us to, because if we didn’t, Aunt Sabine was going to kill us, but also, there would probably be air conditioning inside a house.
Mandy stopped walking and pulled her foot out of her fake leather sandal. It had been white once, I guess, but it was a dusty tan color now with cracked lines running down it like rivers on a map. She held the shoe with her toe and flicked it around, trying to get a pebble out of it. We were rounding a corner onto a new block. That was the trick – you had to only do one house per block. Otherwise people would get suspicious, and in some communities, neighbors were close, and they looked out for each other. You could end up on the internet if you weren’t careful. There were apps for that sort of thing. Aunt Sabine taught us that one.
“This isn’t going to work,” Mandy said.
We were already on the next street, scanning to see which house to try. “Which one do you think?” I asked her.
She rolled her eyes, then pushed her bangs out of her face and pointed to one with a low roof and a picket fence. “That one.”
Mandy always picked the worst houses.
“No,” I said. “It has a picket fence.”
“What the fuck is wrong with a picket fence?”
I paused. I couldn’t believe she was cursing already. She was only nine. I didn’t start cursing until I was ten. I guess it was because she’d spent more time growing up with Aunt Sabine. She probably didn’t even remember the way mom would discipline us if we cursed. She probably didn’t remember mom much at all, now that I thought about it.
“We can’t run out of a yard with a picket fence that easily,” I said.
“Who says we have to run?” I just gave her this look and watched her face fall when she realized what a dumb question it was.
We chose a house two down from the one she’d pointed at. It had an Adirondack chair on the porch that looked like it was freshly painted a cream color, and the door was tall and wooden. There was one of those old iron handles with a little button on top that you pushed in to unlock it. When I walked up to it and slid my hand over the cold knob, Mandy trailing six steps behind me on the lookout, I felt the door pulse. I pushed in slowly, willing it to nestle into a satisfying groove and for the door to push open with ease. But it didn’t. Instead I felt the click of it jamming over the deadbolt. I jiggled it a couple of times. Nothing.
“Damn,” Mandy said as we speed-walked away. “I thought that might have been the one.”
“Just because it’s unlocked doesn’t mean it’s the one,” I told her.
The day before, we’d tried a house that worked. It had been Mandy’s turn to jiggle, and all of a sudden, the knob twisted all the way to the side. She’d slowly pushed the door open, and I held my breath while I peered behind her from three steps below. Inside was an old man sitting in a wicker chair, watching television. He turned around and his face was terrifying in that way only elderly people can look. He had wrinkles in parts of the face I never even thought about, and white hairs growing out of his ears.
“Can I help you?” he’d asked in a voice that was not accusative or particularly kind. Mandy didn’t reply. She just took off. I did too, and we left the door open, hanging there, letting all the heat and bugs in.
“I guess you’re right.” Mandy was heading toward Claiborne, where we’d come from. “Sabine is probably already on her way to us.”
Aunt Sabine had told us she’d pick us up at a certain stoplight at a certain time, and my watch was blinking, telling me it was now.
“How much money did we make from the water?”
She reached into her plastic pink barbie purse that hung around her from a thin chain. The purse had been a gift for her when she was a toddler from one of our mother’s friends, a nauseating relic from the early 2000s. When she pulled out the wad of bills, they were so clumped together I assumed they were wet from the humidity. We’d sold a pack of water bottles in the morning outside a music festival for a dollar each. When that was done, Aunt Sabine picked us up and drove us to our next task: jiggling.
“There are twenty-four bottles in a pack,” I said. “So how many dollars do we have, then?”
Mandy stared at me. I hated the way she never really closed her mouth. She was a permanent mouth-breather.
“Twenty-four dollars.” I took the bills from her hand, and sure enough, they were moist. “That’s okay for a day.”
“Sabine won’t think so,” Mandy said.
“Why do you keep calling her that?”
We’d reached the stoplight just as the sun was starting to set. The red and yellow and green made me feel like I was at a circus.
Mandy leaned against a hedge. She was so small, and it was so big, I thought she might fall through it. “She’s not even our Aunt.”
“She is too.”
“She’s our godmother,” Mandy said. “You know what that means? That means she was just our mom’s friend.”
“No it doesn’t, stupid,” I told her.
“Then what does it mean?”
I was saved from having to say anything back because just then, like a witch being summoned, Aunt Sabine’s car was whipping around toward us. She didn’t have her headlights on but I knew it was her from the way the front bumper was a little bit unhinged and rusted on the left corner.
We got into the back, Mandy into her broken plastic car seat behind the driver’s side and me on the left against the window. Aunt Sabine hit the child locks and then turned to us. She was wearing too much eyeliner today. I could see it even from behind her giant bulging sunglasses. She must have worn it to try to get more tips at the restaurant.
Without starting the car, she stared at held out her palm. She didn’t seem to care that we were in the middle of a turning lane and there were cars coming.
“What did you get today?” she asked us.
I fished the roll of twenty-four ones out of my pocket and pressed it into her palm. She pulled away and counted it lightning fast, like she was shuffling cards.
“Is this it?”
“Yes,” we said in unison.
“You know I’ll check your pockets when we get home,” she said, “So make sure you tell me if that’s all of it now, to just avoid that.”
“That’s all of it.” When she turned around and finally started the engine, there were about three cars behind us honking. It was like she was deaf. I stared at the back of her head and her thick black hair and I imagined laser beams coming from my eyes and piercing her skull, and then it exploding, like some kind of cartoon.
She put the radio station she liked on and it was playing that corny song that went, you’re beautiful, it’s true, which was Aunt Sabine’s favorite song. She sang along to it a little bit too loud, and I wanted to roll up the windows so that people outside wouldn’t hear. After the song was over, after the last dramatic line, Aunt Sabine sighed and threw a cigarette butt out the window, turned to me, and said: “You and your sister really disappointed me today.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. I said it to be polite but also to be mean, because I knew it annoyed her when I called her ma’am. Aunt Sabine was thirty-three and preferred to be called Miss. We once saw her curse out a grocery store employee for it.
“You were out there for three hours,” she said. “You’re telling me that in all of Broadmoor, not one door was unlocked? You tried every block of that entire neighborhood, then went back again and did each house you missed? Because I don’t think you did. And you know what? It makes no sense for me to be busting my ass all day, slaving and waiting on people hand and foot, when you kids are just out playing in the street. No fucking way. If 2008 never happened, maybe your Auntie wouldn’t be having to work doubles, but…”
Mandy and I stopped listening around then because we didn’t want to hear her get into the recession and how good her life before was when she still had her job as a secretary. Instead, we played this game that we called Mindreaders. We wiggled our eyebrows and various parts of our faces in secret codes and pretended we were communicating. Once, an uncle who’d had too much to drink told me Aunt Sabine hadn’t been fired from being a secretary because of the recession, she’d been fired for showing up to work high. I never told Mandy this because I thought she was too little, but I tried to say it now by wrinkling my nose and then winking my left eye twice.
“Twenty-four dollars is nothing,” Aunt Sabine was saying. “That’s barely a dent in groceries, with everything y’all eat.”
“What if a house was unlocked?” Mandy said all of a sudden. My chest tightened because Mandy never talked back. “What should we have done?”
She twisted her head to stare at us directly. I couldn’t see her eyes because of the stupid glasses. I imagined the entire black lenses were her eyes and she was a massive bug, maybe a housefly.
“You should have gone in,” she said. “And brought me back what you could.”
“What if we couldn’t find anything?” Mandy asked. “What if the person came home?”
“Y’all are fucking kids.” Aunt Sabine grabbed Mandy’s arm and held it tight. It made me mad, seeing it held that tight. It was like she was trying to squeeze down to the bone. “Nothing would ever happen to you, because ya’ll are kids. You can get away with anything. You hear me? You can do anything. Whatever you see, you take. Because everything, even little things, are worth money. Even this fucking plastic purse.”
She took the little purse from the arch at our feet between our backseats. Mandy struggled to grab it back from her, but Aunt Sabine gripped her arm again with her other hand so she couldn’t move. All at once, I wasn’t even thinking, but I felt my arm shooting toward the front of the car, not at Aunt Sabine but beyond her, to the steering wheel.
It was too late. The car careened over a median and into a blue truck, and I heard more than I felt it, a massive crunching sound, then a scrape, the scraping of metal. I’d put my hands over my face instinctively, and when I lifted them and opened my eyes, I saw that the driver’s side of the car was dented and crushed. Aunt Sabine sat in the front, staring straight ahead and not moving. She still hadn’t taken off her glasses, but with a trembling left hand, she was reaching up. I looked at Mandy and she looked back at me and I saw that she was bleeding, a long dark red ribbon coming down her face and dripping onto her neck from a massive gash in her temple. She had that look on her face that little kids get right before they’re about to sob, when they’re realizing what has happened.
A tall man was climbing down from the blue truck, and I saw Aunt Sabine roll up her window and grab the wheel. Before I could think, I reached up and flicked the child lock off. And I pulled open my door, the one that wasn’t dented and still worked, grabbed Mandy by the same arm she’d already been grabbed by twice, and dragged her out with me.
We ran through traffic to the other side of the street and people were honking and starting to slow down. It reminded me of playing a live-action game of Frogger, except with two frogs holding hands and a million logs coming at us and only one life. We kept going, past the neutral ground and into the next neighborhood, and I didn’t look back because I was afraid Aunt Sabine would be behind us, somehow soaring through the air with her housefly wings.
We didn’t stop running, even when we got to a side street. Mandy was starting to fall behind and pant, and I didn’t want to look at her because all the blood on her face scared me, but I kept doing it anyway and wiping it off with my shirt. It looked like I’d used my shirt as a bib to eat berry pie.
Mandy was sobbing and saying, Timothy, wait, brother, wait, and I knew that we had to stop running because she wasn’t going to make it much further, so I did a quick scan of the street and saw a house painted blue and yellow with a small patch of grass in the front and no picket fence. I ran up to it, through the yard and up three steps at once, and then I grabbed the doorknob. It was a standard metal silver ball that I clenched with my sweaty hands. I jiggled it right, then left, and I didn’t feel it catch. There was no clicking noise, no noise at all. It just swung open.
I stood there in the doorway and heard Mandy shrinking up behind me. Inside there was a long and narrow hall with a stained-glass window at the end. Somewhere, there were dark wooden stairs that looked like they began to wind. I didn’t move. I felt a lot of wind rushing in my ears and in the back of my throat, and it seemed like it was coming from inside the house, like if I stepped in I would live there now, it would be our house, everything we took would be ours for once, and we would grow old and I would have hair come out of my ears. But then I thought I heard the wind from the direction we came from, too, and I closed my eyes as we stood in the threshold. I waited for it to swallow us up.
Johnsy Seen Her Too
1. Bar Talk
It was late when we hauled her onto the boat in a net, squirming and thrashing and hissing. She looked like a mighty big fish at first. The moon shone white on the black water. One of the most beautiful nights I ever seen. Peaceful. I’ll admit I’d had a lot to drink. But like I say, Johnsy was there, and he seen her too, wasn’t just me. We had a time untangling the net and dumping her into the bottom of the boat. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw what we’d caught. My granddaddy used to tell stories about mermaids in these parts, but he was a known liar and that was a long time ago. There was no mistaking it in the bright moonlight. She had long slimy hair, dark and greenish, and pale skin. Large breasts, with dark, pointy nipples. Her breasts flopped as she writhed in the net and I could barely take my eyes off them. The perfect woman, from the waist up at least. She had a powerful tail below, with fish scales that glittered. When she stopped hissing, she turned and give me a look and smiled right at me. Her eyes were black as night. She had little teeth, each sharpened to a perfect point, and you can bet I got scared. Think about it. A woman but not a woman and, pardon my French, no hole but the one with the teeth. What if she seduced you? She was beautiful enough to make you forget you knew better. So I scooped my hands under the net on the bottom of the boat and heaved her overboard, net and all. A loud splash and she was gone. “What the hell?” Johnsy said. He was mad as all get out. “We coulda made some money off that,” he said. “Johnsy,” I told him, “Any fool could see she was nothin’ but trouble.” Laugh if you want, it’s all true as I’m standing here. Ask Johnsy. He’s had his share of trouble since then. Smashed up two good trucks, did a month in county, most of you know about that. I’ve had some trouble myself, nowhere near as bad as it might’ve been if we’d’ve kept her. Been quite a few years now, but I’m still not sorry about what I done.
2. I’ve Heard It All, and Then Some
I been a barmaid at The Salty Dog for longer than I care to remember. Heard all their stories more times than I care to remember. A hole with teeth! You don't need some college psych textbook to figure that one out. But Nathaniel’s buddies all slap their knees and laugh. Not one of ‘em says, “Got any issues with women? What happened with them two wives? That girlfriend you call a ‘bitch on wheels’?” Nathaniel was one of my biggest mistakes. Thank god they’ve forgotten the month when he was steering me around on his arm, falling into bed drunk with me every weekend. Half the time too smashed to get it up. Then cryin’ in the morning. “I’m gonna quit, darlin’. Startin’ today. You know you’re everything to me.” I could tell you stories all right, but I won’t. It’s drink and not mermaids cause their problems. Johnsy too. Good for nothing but talking shit in bars with a bunch of guys just like ‘em. The others guffaw and say they don't believe the mermaid story. But their eyes grow wide when Nathaniel describes her breasts. They all want to know where him and Johnsy were fishing the night they caught her.
3. The Mermaid’s Song
I should never have left our magical kingdom, the sunken ships with dead men’s bones and chests of jewels and verdigris-covered gold, the banks of colored coral and schools of tiny fish, the underwater plants swaying on the ocean floor. I was too curious. There were two of them, fishermen with faces white as chalk, who dragged me over the side of the boat and untangled me from the net that night. “Holy fuck,” the big one said, staring at my breasts. “Will you look at that?” When I hissed and bared my teeth, he started shaking all over, threw me back in the water fast as he could. “We coulda made some money off that,” I heard the little one say before I dove back under. I've heard tales of mermaids with human husbands who wanted to stay on land. Mermaids ready to drink witches’ potions, cut out their tongues, slice off their tails and give up life under sea with their sisters for a man. But I never believed it and I still don't. That’s just not a story a woman would tell.
flash fiction by Jacqueline Doyle
Before you come to Poland
leave your pronoun in a jar.
You won’t use it here
in the center of Europe,
unbuckled from your
new world straining
for fifteen famous minutes
and your panoply of skins.
You’ll find a buttery homogeneous melting
of common kitchens, common tongues
into flock, fold, and chorus
so when you want to say, I’m coming,
just say, Coming.
They’ll know who you are.
First Person Singular
poetry by Helena Lipstadt
The Year Before
I Loved You
We were young. Nothing in the bank but time, which we squandered, waste being our right. Age was a faint probability not worth pondering. We talked about things we intended to see and do, but these aspirations somehow skirted the years it would take to achieve them.
I don’t know why I keep thinking of you. We were intimate, though not in love. Falling in love is one part luck and nine parts physiology and we were not chosen. I can’t remember when we began having sex; certainly there was no moment when we lunged for each other. At some point we simply wound up in your lumpy bed, flesh to flesh, which is when I discovered the small scar you would not talk about. Your mustache tickled, your breath was not spring fresh and you had more hair on your body than I would have guessed, some of it migrating to the light blue sheets. Afterwards, we smoked cigarettes, leaning against the headboard, and you entertained me with dead-on impressions of our boss. While not remarkable, the sex must have served us in some way, for it wove itself into the fabric of our friendship, filling the odd moments.
I was unattached, fresh from a relationship with a mean-spirited boy who did me the favor of dumping me. You were engaged to your childhood sweetheart. I asked if you felt guilty about what we were doing, and you said engagements weren’t marriages and that you would never cheat on your wife. I admired your certainty and believed you. Besides, where was the harm? We both knew I didn’t pose a threat. I was in fact a little jealous, not of Linda, but of what the two of you had—the things you said about her, the way you beamed when you got a letter from her. I wanted someone to love me like that.
We worked for a barely solvent vanity press in south Boston, though we were not supposed to call it that. Housed in an old warehouse, it was dying by degrees, dying along with its owner, an 88-year-old Christian Scientist named Edward Fleese. I can still recall his Dickensian scowl and the croak of his voice, and I can see the greasy brown suit coat he wore every day, the shoulders littered with dandruff. Every few seconds bits of skin would fall off his waxen face and onto his desk pad. A few long strands of oily brown hair looped over the spotted dome of his scalp. His yellowed fingernails, which I couldn’t bear to look at, were long and chipped.
Somehow Mr. Fleese managed to employ seven of us, though of course he paid very little. We all sat at what looked like military surplus desks, in a big room that was always too hot or too cold. Each of us comprised our own department. I was the billing department, and my desk was next to the room’s entrance. What I did each day was type up letters to our clients, requesting prompt payment for services rendered, and at the bottom of the page I’d stick on a Dunn and Bradstreet label for emphasis. These letters were sent to the same list of authors on a rolling basis; when I reached the end of the list, I would start back at A.
There was an editor (the position I wanted) who spent her time planning her wedding—she did not have a fiancée or even a boyfriend—anda no talent artist who labored for weeks over a single awful cover, which she would then hold up for applause. And there was a shipping clerk who slept through his days on boxes of unsold books in a room we called The Tomb.You were in charge of marketing. I’m not sure what exactly you did for Benson Publishing, but you were skilled at marketing yourself. While we were all trying to get out of there, you were especially energetic about it, each week coming up with slightly altered versions of your resume, which I would proofread—there was no spell check back then; this was the era of noisy, balky typewriters. Editing your resumes was the least I could do in return for the sustenance you gave me, mugging faces when Mr. Fleese walked past, dropping notes on my desk on your way to the men’s room, quips that made me laugh out loud.
In the beginning we spent our lunches sitting on park benches, eating the sandwiches we’d brought. Now and then we’d stop by your favorite haunt, Fred’s Ice Cream: parlor stools on one side, hippie merchandise on the other—cotton tapestries, patchouli incense, painted glass pipes. Later we drifted to a fern bar (my influence) and fortified ourselves with a couple gin and tonics and a bowl of pretzels before heading back to the stasis of work. At 5:00, free at last, we’d walk to the Arlington station and take the Green Line to our thimble-size apartments off Beacon Street.
Sometimes we ate dinner together, at my place or yours—dining out was beyond our means. I would heat up some of the rice I made each Sunday, dumping in a can of vegetable soup, and we would eat it at the red chipped Formica table I bought at Goodwill, the same place I scored all my worldly goods that year. You were more adventurous in the kitchen than I was, trying your hand at things like gnocchi or tamales, and though you had little success, you never seemed to mind, shrugging off these small disasters with a grin. I envied that, how easily you forgave yourself.
You introduced me to the sort of places I would not have found on my own: shops that sold exotic grains from barrels, bookstores hidden at the top of stairways, salvage yards filled with secondhand treasures. You were a city boy and knew all the bargains and backways.
I, on the other hand, was not disposed to city life. Even with your tutelage I could not seem to fit in, and my plan to become a renowned book critic had slipped a few notches. Things around me kept hinting defeat, like the bits of ceiling plaster that fell daily into the rust-stained bathtub and the red felt squares on my bathroom floor that would not stop peeling up no matter how much glue I used. The failing motor in the half fridge was waking me up at night, along with panic attacks that seized me in the early morning hours. The man in the basement apartment below me had lost his job at Honeywell and was now agoraphobic. Sometimes his letters wound up in my mail slot, and when I went down to his apartment to deliver them, he would not open his door all the way: I never saw his whole face. The same thing, I realized, could happen to me. (Fortunately, I had made friends with a beautiful young woman down the hall who dated a succession of doctors and supplied me with all the Valium I began to require.)
I stayed a year at Benson Publishing, rescued not by a better job but by the misguided notion that I needed to leave Boston and move to a place where my luck was bound to change. Oddly, I cannot remember our goodbye, which must have been somber, maybe tearful. We had spent our days and many nights together, unwittingly turning that time into something durable, portable. Eventually you would marry Linda, sell insurance and move to the suburbs, and I would carry you through it all as if that year was in a locket at my throat.
I saw you just once after Boston, when my partner and I made a trip to Cape Cod. The four of us met at the Union Oyster House for dinner, and Linda was even more charming than I imagined. Witty like you, with the kind of warmth that made me feel special right away. Enthralled with my own partner, I was happy for you, for all of us. It was an evening of laughter, the table covered with lobster shells and wine glasses.
A few years ago, I Zaba-searched your name and found you in a small town in western Massachusetts. You answered my letter right away, and most of my questions, telling me about your two boys and the summer home you’d purchased in Maine, and over the course of a couple more letters I shared my own middle-age almanac, until we fell out of touch again.
It was Linda who told me of your death—quick, from lung cancer. The news was a gut-punch; I couldn’t move. She had found my email address in your phone and knew I would want to know. She said you always spoke well of me.
She also sent me a picture of you and your boys, mountains in the distance; she said it was taken on a camping trip a year before your death. Aside from your smile, I would not have recognized you, but your son, the slight one, made my eyes brim with tears—he looked so much like you back then.
I wish I could have told you that I loved you, that it happened over time. That it is still happening. I am sad for your family, for the world without you. For me nothing has changed.
creative non-fiction by Jean Ryan
Jeff Barker has many short stories published in literary journals and anthologies including Hobart, The Broadkill Review, HelloHorror Journal, Literally Stories, Jolly Horror Press, and the Taco Bell Quarterly Literary Journal. Jeff is also a healthcare provider in the field of psychiatry. Before that, he had a nine year career as a television news anchor and reporter in Texas, Alabama, Florida, and Oregon. He has interviewed three U.S. Presidents, and stood in the middle of five major hurricanes. He lives on the Gulf Coast in Daphne, Alabama. You can follow his work at jeff-barker.comor on twitter: @JB_JeffBarker.
Barbara Daniels’ book Rose Fever was published by WordTech Press and chapbooks Black Sails, Quinn & Marie, and Moon Kitchen by Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She received three fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
Jacqueline Doyle’s flash chapbook The Missing Girl won a contest at Black Lawrence Press, and was included in Best Books of 2017 lists at Paper Darts and The Coil. She has recent flash in The Collagist, Little Fiction/Big Truths, Juked, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. Find her online atwww.jacquelinedoyle.comand on twitter@doylejacq.
Amanda Leahy is a native of Lowell, Massachusetts. She is currently pursuing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Montpelier, Vermont. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Thin Air, Dream Pop Journal, MoonPark Review, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere.
Helena Lipstadt was born in Berlin and lives in Los Angeles and Blue Hill, Maine. She studied with poets Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz, among others. Lipstadt’s poems have been featured in Rattling Wall, Trivia, basalt, Porter House Review (forthcoming), The Cape Rock (forthcoming), and elsewhere. Lipstadt is the author of two chapbooks, Leave Me Signs and If My Heart Were A Desert. She has been awarded writing residencies at WUJS Arts Project, Arad, Israel and Borderland Foundation, Sejny, Poland
A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia’s writing and art has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, bohemianizm, Cheap Pop, Crab Fat, Crack the Spine, Five:2:One, Gambling the Aisle, Gravel, Hayden’s Ferry Review, matchbook, Medium, McSweeney’s, Mojave River Review, Necessary Fiction, North American Review, Per Contra, Points in Case, Prairie Schooner, Popular Science, Razed, SmokeLong Quarterly, Up the Staircase, and others. His blog is atwww.davepetraglia.com
Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in coastal Alabama. Her debut collection of short stories, Survival Skills, was published by Ashland Creek Press and short-listed for a Lambda Literary Award. Lovers and Loners is her second story collection. Her book of nature essays, Strange Company, is available in digital form, paperback and audio.
Kaylie Saidin is an MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. She reads fiction at Ecotone and Pithead Chapel. Her work has appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader, upstreet #15, Bridge Eight, and elsewhere.
Gina Willner-Pardo has written short stories published in Berkeley Fiction Review, Bluestem, Pleiades, COG Magazine, Five on the Fifth, Mad River Review, Origins Journal, The South Carolina Review, Streetlight Magazine, Summerset Review, White Wall Review, and Whetstone, which awarded her story “Accident” the John Patrick McGrath Memorial Award (1999). She has also written seventeen books for children, all published by Clarionor Albert Whitman. Gina’s book Figuring Out Frances won the 1999 Josette Frank Award, presented by the Bank Street College of Education, to honor a book of “outstanding literary merit in which children or young people deal in a positive and realistic way with difficulties in their world and grow emotionally and morally.” Gina has a BA in English from Bryn Mawr College and an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley. She has studied with James Frey. When not writing, Gina enjoys running, hiking, kayaking—and she makes a mean blueberry custard pie.
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Kerri Farrell Foley
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