Monday, May 31, 2010

"The First Dog" by Laura Hansen

Hummingbird earned his name because he was always busy, very fast, and also as stunning as the bird. He was one of the tallest males ever produced by his clan, carrying his height on a lithe frame. His hair was an unusual color for his people, completely black contrasted with sparkling blue eyes. Like the hummingbird, he was hard to catch. For him, the male rites of travel and mating had been natural. Despite finding beauty everywhere he went, he could not stay in the same place long.

Hummingbird had left his mother and his clan as soon as he completed his rites of manhood. For twenty-nine years, he had enjoyed this solitary walk. Walking was interrupted by both long and short stops with whichever clans and tribes he encountered. In his travels, Hummingbird had encountered many people, animals, and plants. Some so interesting that several times he stopped for over a year. Eventually he would become restless, and he would be on his feet again traveling in solitude. Hummingbird would have been surprised to find that as the bird flies he had traveled almost two thousand miles east of his clan’s home. Of course he had not simply walked east. Although he had looked for the sun every morning and walked towards it when he could, the mountain ranges, seas, lakes, and other natural boundaries, had caused him to zigzag across the continent.

In his twenty-nine years of travel, Hummingbird knew he had left behind many children. He did not know an exact number, he was sure of about five healthy sons and four healthy daughters. He had seen great bodies of water, giant mountains, beautiful flowers, graceful trees, and surprising animals. He wished that these could be seen by his mother and grandmother. Throughout his travels, he remembered well the words of his grandmothers and constantly served the Earth and her creatures.

On this day, when the moon was just half-full, he had been walking alone for countless months. To avoid large bodies of water, Hummingbird had been forced to cross a rather thin isthmus. This had led him later to a broad arid plain populated by strange rocks, which had become very hot and dry. Hummingbird met few people in this dry place. He expected as much since the environment was hostile.

Several times while crossing that barren territory, he had faced his death from thirst and had laid down to contemplate his life, and to thank Mother Earth for all his adventures. Having seen much of life and death, Hummingbird did not fear death, but he still craved life with a restless spirit. Each time he had felt his death approaching the Earth had provided for him. He had learned to eat creatures which his clan would have avoided, to find water in plants, and to discipline his body. Unbeknownst to him, he had become one of the strongest and most sensitive human creatures walking the Earth in his time. Days of thirst and starvation had brought him into contact with the mystical Earth herself, had killed all sense of fear, and allowed him the deep and penetrating mediations which modern human beings would forever seek.

During the worst of it, he had nearly forgotten the words of his mother that everything would change, and yet stay the same. For a while, he thought he might end his days on the endless arid plain. The words of his grandmother, who had never seen this place, proved true. Eventually, he began to see the familiar signs of life.

These signs were a great change from the dry rock. Hummingbird understood with great certainty his mother’s words about change, and was not at all surprised to see later a range of mountains in the distance. Nearly every day of his travels confirmed all that his grandmother and mother had taught. Hummingbird reprimanded himself for thinking that they were old-fashioned in his youth. His clan’s grandmothers and mothers had not seen much beyond the areas of the tribe, yet what they taught applied every place he went, with all people and in all circumstances. Such wisdom was surely a greatness. When he could, he communicated it to whomever he met. He was not surprised any longer when he discovered that the grandmothers and grandfathers of many clans, even those a ten-year walk from his own, understood these same teachings.

As he walked now, he entered fields with a few broad-leafed deciduous trees. Many of these trees bore fruit, which he enjoyed as he walked. The leaves provided great canopies of shade from the sun and he rested well and slept deeply. Being well-fed and comfortable again, he now longed for the company of other animals and humans whom he had not seen in several years. The animals of the arid plain had not been sociable—mostly snakes, insects, reptiles, and such. Now, he began to find birds and small mammals to converse with easing his growing loneliness.

There were times, mostly when he was surrounded by humans, when he began to think that he could never get enough solitude. Certainly it was true that Hummingbird had a great capacity for solitude. However, it had been more than a year now. He had begun to feel like the last man on Earth.

Hummingbird woke up well-rested underneath an old tree he could not identify. The birds had been singing for some time when he finally rose. He bathed in a nearby creek, using loose stones from the creek bed to scrub away the dirt. He filled up his water skin and dressed himself in his woven sandals and an old skin which he had recovered from a dead animal several years ago. Again he walked towards where the sun rose in the sky.

The small mammals in his path ran from him as if he were a predator, unlike the mammals near his clan, which were friendly to humans. He thought that either there were no people here, or they were violent people capable of harming small animals. Fruit dropped off the trees and onto the ground before him; nuts and seeds waited in his path for him to pick them up and eat them. He tried different types of plants along the way, occasionally finding new sources of food but often finding obnoxious tastes he had to spit out.

When the sun was highest in the sky, he stopped to rest under a great tree. Gradually the sounds around him became louder, as they often do when not competing with the sounds of our own movement and thoughts. He could discern a strange cry of the wind. As he listened more closely, it occurred to him that this was indeed a very strange sound. Perhaps it was not wind but the moaning of an injured creature. He listened a while longer until he was sure, and then rose to investigate. Very quietly and slowly, for the sound was difficult to follow, he moved towards what he suspected was the moaning of a creature. He followed the sound until he came upon a gruesome sight.

A mother wolf lay dead with two newborn pups beside her. One of the pups was balling loudly, trying in vain to raise her mother and brother. Hummingbird approached cautiously, as he been taught by his ancient grandmother, in case the mother was still alive, just unmoving. The mother was indeed dead, and so was one of the pups. The live pup, a female, continued her heart-breaking attempts to wake her mother. Hummingbird picked up the cub and held her, petting her to calm her, for who knew what other creatures would hear her moaning and approach to eat her. He gave the cub water from his skin, and then chewed up nuts and fed them to her. The pup’s eyes were still closed, but he managed to get her to eat the food. After eating and drinking, the creature fell asleep.

Hummingbird set the sleeping cub down and proceeded to make use of the carcasses, for it was a sin to waste the bounty of nature. He methodically carved and made use of every piece of the dead wolf and her pup. The bones he could use for tools, the skin for many things including covering, although he thought that the cub might find the skin a comfort and perhaps he could carry her that way. The intestines would serve as strong rope, and the meat could be eaten and would provide great strength. The entire procedure took several hours. When he was finished he built a small fire to cook the meat. Then he said great prayers of thanksgiving to Mother Earth for her bounty and blessed the eternal life of the wolf mother and her dead pup. By this time, the pup was awake and he again watered and fed her, after which he placed her into a sling made of her mother’s skin. The pup fell promptly asleep. Hummingbird was able to walk a great distance before she woke again.

That night Hummingbird had a restless sleep for the pup woke him up often, needing food and water. He tended to her religiously, knowing that his purpose was to care for the Earth and her creatures. He found himself sympathizing with young mothers everywhere in a way he could not have foreseen.

The next day, her eyes opened and he found her gazing at him while he fed her, just as human babies gaze at their mothers. The eye contact was irresistible, and he stared back into her warm brown eyes as he fed her, and calmed her by stroking her soft fur. He wanted to name her “Crying” but resisted, as he knew that naming a creature before it was half-grown could cause heartbreak.

For several weeks he lived this way, carrying the pup in her sling while he walked, stopping often to feed her. His restlessness for human contact disappeared as he discovered the new joy of caring for a young animal. He talked to the pup as if she were a friend and quickly discovered when to set her down to evacuate her bladder and bowels. Each time he set her down, she wandered a little more and a little longer although never far from him. Then her teeth started to come in and she would bite him with sharp nibbles. He learned quickly to provide her with something to chew on. A fallen twig was her favorite and she destroyed them quickly.

From his constant attentions they formed a bond which archeologists in the future would deny, for they would see no evidence of animal domestication in prehistoric humans. This was a lack of imagination on their part, for they did not comprehend a world where animals were not used to provide for humans. Hummingbird’s finely tuned instincts would never have allowed him to use the pup for his gain; he sought only to strengthen her and befriend her for in his thinking she was not less than he. Rather, she, like he, was simply one part of the perfect net of life. In this way, they did not become human and dog, but simply family, and the pup would know him as mother and he would know her as daughter.

Because of his attentions to her, and hers to him, they had created a unique language. He growled at her when he was displeased, and she cried for him when she was frightened or tired. He stroked her and talked softly to her when she was tired or fearful. She licked him with her tongue when he was tired. Once he hurt his hand on a thorn, and she licked his wound. He noticed that it healed more quickly than he would have expected, and understood yet again the truth of what his grandmothers had told him about life.

After eight weeks, the pup caught her first small mouse and ate it. Hummingbird decided she had passed her fragile childhood, and he began calling her by her name, Crying, for that is what had saved her. After ten weeks, the terrain they walked began to climb, and huge mountains could be seen in the distance. Despite the slope, she walked beside him more and more, although she still took long naps and he would have to carry her. Only then, when he was completely at peace—he had the comfortable company of Crying, the increasing variety of naturally available food and water— did he began to see signs of other life in the area.

Hummingbird noticed first the claws of bears, the paths made by wild pigs, and the footprints of deer. Several days later, he found human footprints in mud, which he followed. Several days after that, he came to a clearing beside a large hill, the child of the great mountains that were now clearly visible in the distance. Here he could smell the other humans, their cooking and their bodies.

Hummingbird hesitated to approach them with his friend the wolf. Like any mother, he had not really noticed how much larger she had become. He saw her every day. Never did she look larger than the day before, or different in any way. When Hummingbird looked at Crying, he still saw the helpless pup he had rescued months before. Her weight he bore with no real feeling of increase, as the increase had been so slight every day that he had simply adapted to it. Nevertheless, occasionally he would see her running towards him from a distance and briefly wonder why a wolf was running at him. Only then, from a distance, and when he wasn’t expecting her, did he realize that she was now resembled a full-grown wolf.

Hummingbird decided to sing, to alert the clan to his presence, and Crying joined him, howling frightfully. He had traveled so far that he no longer knew if the people worshipped the Earth and her creatures, and he tried to shush Crying in case she might scare them. He heard noises in the bush and stood in front of his wolf, urging her to sit, which she finally did.

Hummingbird waved a hand in the universal sign of friendship towards the bush, where he imagined a person was looking at him.

“I am a friend,” he said in the language of the last clan he had met, over two years ago, hoping these people would understand him. Instead the person in the bush, or people, he did not know, sang a local birdcall.

Hummingbird sang a return call to them, while keeping Crying’s muzzle closed so that she would not howl. The birdcall of the strangers was repeated, and Hummingbird repeated his call. Then he raised both hands in the air, the universal gesture of being non-threatening, and sat down on the ground cross-legged next to his wolf. He heard the bushes rustling, and two strange-looking men appeared. They were both much shorter than he was, but besides that they looked nothing alike. One had much darker skin than Hummingbird, with more hair; the other had lighter skin and was nearly hairless. Hummingbird and Crying both cocked their heads inquisitively as they watched the strangers approach.

The men communicated to each other in a strange clicking language. Hummingbird had encountered several different clicks in his travels yet understood little that the men said to each other. The men were pointing at Crying and seemed worried about her. To alleviate their fears, Hummingbird turned to her, and stroked her fur, while speaking soothingly to her. Although she would not take her eyes off the strangers she did kiss Hummingbird’s ear, and the strangers giggled happily.

The strangers used gestures and clicks to communicate that they wanted Hummingbird to follow them, so he stood up and walked with Crying beside him, following them through the shrubbery and trees, up a steep path towards their cave. The path was so steep in one place that Crying hesitated and whined. Hummingbird easily picked her up and set her on the higher step to the astonishment of the strangers, who had never seen a man befriend a wolf, much less carry a living one.

The cave was large and wide with a low ceiling. There were six other people in the cave, who all became silent upon seeing Hummingbird and Crying. The two men gestured and clicked, and used a few words of their spoken language, directing their words to an old woman who was fair and hairless like the man he had met. They seemed to address her as “Rrr,” but Hummingbird could not be sure.

The woman, Rrr, approached Hummingbird and he sat down to appear less threatening to her. In doing so, he also held Crying next to him and whispered to her so that she would not frighten the woman. For a long time, the woman simply stood and looked at him, baffled by features she had never seen. She had heard third-hand, of course, of travelers who had encountered people with blue eyes, and skin this pink. The travelers had never mentioned the wolf friends, but had spoken well of the strange-looking people, and said that they respected their grandmothers and were hospitable to strangers.

While Rrr looked at him, Hummingbird gazed at the other members of the small clan. In addition to the two men who had found him, there was a dark, slender mother, and young people. A woman who had olive skin and straight black hair sat alone from the tribe, working on some sewing. She looked to be about mating age but Hummingbird could not be certain because she never looked up. Later, he would learn that her name was Alone. Near the adults were a very chubby, very dark girl, and two little boys. One boy resembled the girl Alone, and the other resembled no other person Hummingbird had ever seen.

Rrr finally nodded at Hummingbird and began to speak to him in her clicking language. He held up his palm to stop her, as he understood very little, and instead used his forefinger to draw the symbols of his people in the dirt. She nodded then, and indicated one of the signs she understood. Hummingbird smiled then, and all the children smiled with him. He decided that between the symbols and his knowledge of clicking that they could communicate. After years of solitude, he was eager to tell of all he had seen, eager to hear news of the world, and most impatient to mate. He already had his blue eyes on the girl-woman sitting alone in the corner.

Rrr made some clicking noises, and the other members of her clan approached Hummingbird, who remained sitting before them, smiling warmly at them and petting Crying, who glared at each of them. Very slowly they approached him, gazing at him and watching him as they came closer. Rrr stepped next to him and put her hairless hand on his head, gently picking up his thick black hair, feeling its texture, and then bent down and looked closely into his eyes. He noticed that her eyes were small and black.

Rrr made clicking noises and the clan responded. Hummingbird picked up the words sky and eyes. He was shocked to discover that he was the first blue-eyed person they had ever seen. Perhaps he had traveled longer than he realized. He closed his eyes for a moment and said a silent prayer to Mother Earth for the success of his long journey and for the joy he had found along the way.

Hummingbird stayed with these people two years. During that year he met other tribes in the area and came to know the language. Crying rarely left his side and slept next to him every night. Often he would wake up and find her head on his chest. He did mate with Alone and their mating produced a son. The whole clan was grateful.

For the first time in his life he felt melancholy when the urge to travel struck him once again. Hummingbird had imagined that finally his restlessness had left him and that perhaps he might stay here with this woman he adored. For a while he ignored the urge, but this only made him grumpy. Eventually he could stand it no more and announced his decision to depart. To his surprise the clan was pleased, for they had noticed his increasing tension and knew before he did that he must once again take up the walk that had brought him to them.

For her part, Crying was excited. She remembered the long walk fondly and all the different smells and senses along the way. Rrr told Hummingbird what she knew of the area to the East and he took off on a summer morning. For a while they encountered many humans but Hummingbird was too impatient to stop and talk long. He would share a meal, and then begin walking again.

During this time Crying began to look not just like an adult wolf, but like a very large ferocious adult wolf. He watched with pride as she took down larger game and shared it with him. As was the way with Mother Nature, the good he had done for Crying when she was a pup was being returned to him tenfold. He could not have been more proud if he had birthed her himself.

Hummingbird also noticed that strangers were very wary of him. Once he came across several unkind looking men traveling in the opposite direction. Crying growled at them. While Hummingbird was accustomed to her strange way of talking, the strangers were truly frightened. Not only people, but large predators, avoided Crying. Hummingbird had never felt more secure, not even in the cave with his family so many years ago. Security was something he had never sought, but he valued it just the same.

For another year they walked together in perfect contentment. Then one evening Crying disappeared. Hummingbird had not worried at first because he knew she could take care of herself. More than anything, he was hurt that she had left him. Sure, she had been known to run ahead of him, or dawdle behind him, but she always caught up. The next morning he wondered if he should keep walking or wait for her to return. He waited for a day, walking around and calling her name. She did not appear. The next day he decided to walk, for that is how she had always found him before.

Walking, Hummingbird felt uneasy. He constantly stopped and looked for Crying. He couldn’t seem to relax like he usually did and had difficulty sleeping. His dreams were full of the wolf. He considered these feelings as he walked. He had never felt this way before. Hummingbird had walked away from countless loved ones without a second thought but somehow could not bear that Crying had walked away from him. He took to howling forlornly as he walked but still she did not appear. A week passed.

Hummingbird realized finally that for the first time in his life he had found a being that he loved too much to leave. He would never have left Crying, their friendship was too good. Somehow it was more than friendship, more even than family, almost as if she were a part of him. He felt as if his own heart had walked away from his body. Crying had asked for nothing of him, yet he had given her everything. That night he cried for the first time in many years and then he howled.

The following day he was still crying when he encountered a small clan of people. Wiping his face, Hummingbird introduced himself. They were friendly and practically dragged him back to their home to meet the rest of the tribe. While he didn’t know their language, he was able to understand some of their gestures. That evening he slept with the tribe.

The next morning he got up and went outside with some of the men. While they were talking he heard her voice. She howled once and he ran towards the sound. The men ran after him. She did not talk to him again. She was too busy running towards him. Hummingbird saw her flying through the tall grass, cried her name, and howled. Crying leapt for him, knocking him over and licking his face. Hummingbird put his arms around her and held her with crazy, overwhelming affection. Suddenly more tears sprang from his eyes than ever before. Crying licked them off happily.

Many minutes later Hummingbird had the presence of mind to look back at his new companions. They were staring in shock. Crying saw them and growled once, not too menacingly, in their direction. Hummingbird patted her and told her it was okay. She sat down and panted. Through gestures Hummingbird was able to tell the men that she was his friend, and that he had lost her. That was why he was crying yesterday, and now he was happy again. More than happy, he was complete and whole again.

Hummingbird and Crying stayed with the tribe for one more night before they took up the walk again. For the first several weeks it was as if everything had returned to normal, but then Crying began to change. She would get tired more often and he would have to carry her. Then she began to get fat.

One day, it dawned on him that she was pregnant. For a few minutes he was both excited and scared. He looked forward to holding the puppies and raising them. He dreaded Crying leaving him with her brood. Considering the problem, he decided that the best course of action would be to camp somewhere near humans when it was time. Perhaps he could convince other humans of the benefits of having a wolf by their side. If he could, the pups could stay with them. After all, Crying would only mother the pups for a year or so before they went off on their own.
And so it was that Hummingbird and Crying showed everyone they met in their travels the joy of interspecies cooperation and friendship. Over the years she disappeared three times, and bore three litters, all of whom found homes. When Crying died fourteen years after she was born, Hummingbird was inconsolable. He wept for days. Although he befriended many other animals after Crying passed, none ever replaced her. Many he loved as much as he had loved her, but in every case the relationship was different. Each pet helped him more deeply understand the meaning of life and of love.

This story is dedicated to
Poppy, Jo, Fritz, Chief, Timber, Mandy, Baxter, Clark and Freyja
Memorable Companions All

Friday, May 28, 2010

“Small” by Evan Schoettle

Two strangers and another person entered a small town in their small vehicles, one big, not knowing one from the other at similar times.  In a small diner, in a small town that was a small distance from a large town they sat at the small bar and ate lunch.  The small waitress took an order of the pot roast special, while the other one thinking that sounded good ordered that also.  The other stranger to the other two guys ordered a cheeseburger, plain, with fries and a small coke.  The small waitress who apparently had small boobs did not enjoy the small talk from each of the three strangers.  In silence they sat until the one that did not know the other said something to the other until the other joined in and they had small talk among themselves.
 
The small waitress gave each of the patrons their small bills and was able to squeeze out a small smile to each of the strangers.  She seemed to not like them very much.  They each left behind a small tip before they headed to the small bathroom that only fit two at a time.  With a kind gesture the one guy let the two others that he hardly knew go as he waited and he was alone.  The two left the small room and gestured a sign of thank-you and good-bye as they left that small diner with the waitress with the small boobs.
 
In the small parking lot the two were already in their small cars with motors running as the other got in his large car as the two drove away, bumper to bumper.  On the highway, I-70, the one noticed a small group of two small cars ahead of him.  The one approached the small cars as he headed for Boulder, Colorado and decided to keep a small distance behind the other two, for kicks.  They drove together but only for a small amount of time until they reached the Broadway exit, and like a small pack of wolves they followed each other until reaching a small, narrow street where the one turned and parked his small car.  The other continued until the one stopped to park as the other went by.  After realizing the spot was too small for his large car, he drove on to see that the other sneaked a spot perfect for his small car, and on he went in search of a large spot to park.
 
In a small dark bar one sat at the bar all alone and ordered from a large bartender a whiskey and coke.  Soon after his small glass was set another person came in and sat at the bar to order a whiskey and coke from the bartender with a small head.  The one looked over with a nod and asked if he lived around here, and once more the two from the small diner back in that small town continued with their small talk.  The one was about to order another, when the small headed bartender went to prepare a dry martini with a lemon twist for the other as he nodded to the others and came into converse with those  two.  He explained how that spot was too small for his big car.  He had luckily found a spot right in front of his apartment building and it was only a small walk from there.  The two refilled their drinks and proceeded to tell the other that it turned out that they both lived in the same complex exactly where the other parked.  The one had been there one year, while the other had been there close to three years and the other said he had just moved in there two weeks ago from a small town.
 
After a small amount of time in the dark and small bar they left their small drinks with a small nod to the large bartender with the small head.  They made their exit.  The one took the small walk to the complex while the other two got into their small cars, one big.  With only a small distance to travel, all living in the same small place, they drove and each found a place in the rather small lot behind the small building that housed them.

Their small adventure came to a close and their meeting was just a small coincidence.  The world really was a small place.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Chicken Soup" by Mark Barkawitz

He broke their date Saturday night. Told her he wasn’t feeling well. She had offered to come by. To play nurse. But he’d said no thanks. So he stayed home and brooded by himself instead. Maybe she wasn’t The One, after all? Did the same thing Sunday morning, too. Just lay around on the couch, watching football, listening to his stomach complain because he hadn’t gone down to the corner cafe for his usual Sunday breakfast. But as the morning game ended, he heard a car pull up outside.

He got up and looked out the blinds. Her Honda was parked at the curb. Wearing a little spaghetti-strap top over tight, white jeans, she was already approaching with a covered pot held between both hands with a dishtowel—her take on Florence Nightingale. All she needed was the red cross on a white, nurse’s cap. He turned off the TV and opened the front door.

“You’re not contagious, are you?” she asked.

He shook his head, “Nope,” and pushed open the screen door.

“Good.” She stepped inside. She was tall and slender with high cheekbones and innocent, doe-like eyes—a model’s face and figure. Definitely, a head-turner. “I made you some homemade, chicken soup.”

“Really?” She had never cooked for him before. He had only been to her apartment a few times. Mostly to pick her up for dates. The place was usually messy. More like a guy’s than a girl’s. And his new bed was larger and more comfortable than her old twin-sized, with its back-stabbing, mattress springs. He followed her into the kitchen. She put the pot on the stove, turned on a low flame, and approached him.

“I missed you last night.” She put her long arms around his neck and smiled her purposely crooked, little smile. She wasn’t wearing a bra. But she was young enough and firm enough to pull it off.

He wanted to kiss her. Badly. But he had promised himself to play it cool. So he didn’t answer, even though he, too, had missed her.

She leaned against him. The corners of his mouth rose uncontrollably. He tried not to smile, to give in. But damnit, it really wasn’t her fault. He’d agreed—they could see other people. He had likewise wanted to keep his options opened. How was he to know it would come back to cuckold him?

“You hungry?” she asked.

He nodded. “Famished.”

“Good.” She kissed his cheek and went to the drawer for a ladle. “I spent all night in my apartment.” She turned and pointed the big spoon at him. “Cooking for you, mister.”

He sat at the kitchen table. As she reached up into the cupboard for a bowl, her shapely, little breast threatened to pop out the side of her top. Maybe they could work this out, he thought? Rearrange their arrangement. Get the other guy—she was unaware he had seen them together—out of the picture. Make it monogamous. Exclusive. Why not?

But when she removed the top from the pot, stirred up its contents, and ladled out a steamy bowlful, an aroma—like dirty sweat socks—wafted across the room. Smiling, she brought the large bowl and placed it on the table in front of him. As she went back to the drawer for a spoon, she warned playfully: “And you better like it.”

But as he looked down through the steam at the oily surface of the murky liquid before him, he knew there was no way in hell anything that smelled like this was going to be likable. She came back with a soup spoon for him, sat at the table, and arched her perfectly-plucked eyebrows in anticipation. He dipped in, lifted the spoon to his lips, and tasted the oily broth. But as he tried to keep from gagging in front of her, he suddenly knew—she wasn’t The One. Not for him anyway. Because dalliances aside, there was no way in hell he could spend the rest of his life pretending to like this woman’s cooking.

It was as simple as chicken soup.

Until she rubbed her leg against his under the table and again flashed that crooked, little smile of hers. Aw, what the hell? There were antacid tablets in the medicine cabinet. So he sipped another spoonful, forced a smile back at her, and made a mental note:

From now on, we dine-out exclusively. Let the other damn guy eat her cooking.

Monday, May 24, 2010

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"Purgatory (or About a Girl)" by Chasity Thomas

Jared was gone. Gone for two weeks and 3 days, having only left behind an overdue utility bill and a dog that shit everywhere when left alone. Zoey lifted her foot and removed the shoe that had stepped in another one of Price's presents.

"Price", she called out limping towards the bathroom. 'Where are you, you little fucker."

She knew where he was of course. Cowering in a corner somewhere because he knew he had done something wrong. Probably had done so the minute he finished his business. It was always like that with him. Do something wrong, hide, then give the puppy dog eyes until she caved in.

The phone began to ring as she walked towards the bathroom. She chose to ignore it, as she already knew who it was. Her mother had been calling almost every night to make sure she was “alright.” As if Jared leaving meant she was going to slit her wrists or something. She wasn't sure what annoyed her more; that her mother believed she was so fragile or that when she thought of it slitting her wrists hadn't sounded so bad. It had to hurt a lot less than a broken heart.

“Sweetheart, are you there?” her mother's saccharine sweet voice called out over her answering machine. "Well, I just wanted you to know that your father and I are having a family get together on Friday and want you to come. Okay, call me later."

Zoey rinsed her shoe under the faucet and almost gagged at the smell. How such a small dog could release so much crap was beyond her. As she dried the shoe off, her mind chose to focus on the task at hand rather than her mother's sly attempt to goad her out of the house. It was true, she hadn't done any outside activities since he left but it had only been 2 weeks not years. She needed time to mourn, or if not mourn at least time to contemplate her future. Having the one thing in your life that you believed to be pure and true turn out to be a lie is devastating, not to mention stressful. How many 29 year old women could honestly say they would be happy if a five year relationship ended? It felt like reading "War and Peace" then being told to start all over again, all of that time and energy. And love, oh yes the love that seemed to know no bounds. That was timeless, endless, and beyond comprehension as to how something could be so beautiful. Jared hadn't always been the best at remembering anniversaries or putting the toilet seat down but at love he was like a dream.

“You have got to be kidding me," Zoey yelled as she walked into her bedroom.

On the floor beside her bed sat a pair of Aldo sandals she had purchased not more than a month ago. She had only gotten a chance to wear them once and had been looking forward to wearing them to work tomorrow. It appeared, as she lifted one sandal off of the floor, that Price had taken a liking to the material because he had ripped the top of the sandal to shreds.
Zoey plopped down on her bed and laid back. Her natural reaction was to go find him and give a good scolding. But she found that he no more understood what she was saying than she did why she would try explaining to a dog that sandals cost money. Looking back on why she had gotten Price in the first place it occurred to her that Jared had been the catalyst.

At the time Price had looked like one of those toy dogs that all the celebrity women loved to buy. An accessory that could be toted around in trendy bags while they sipped their trendy drinks and went shopping at trendy stores. Zoey wasn't and would never be trendy and she certainly didn't want a dog that could be classified as that. Her preference had been for a bulldog; they looked tough and were cute but just ugly enough to keep strangers from wanting to constantly pet them. But Jared had put in a lofty bid for them purchasing Price, most notably that he had a slight limp. And it was true, Price ambled to the side and it was most noticeable when he ran which is the first thing he did when they neared his cage. Seeing such a cute puppy with a funny gait she couldn't help but fall in love. So she told the proprietor she would take him and snatched him up.

“You handle him so well. You're going to be a great mom some day."

That was it, the statement to end all statements. Zoey had been sure at the time that this solidified her relationship with Jared.

No guy mentions something like motherhood or marriage unless he's serious. It was obvious after some time that for him it had been nothing more than an observation not a declaration of his commitment to her.

“God, can you say gullible,” Zoey mumbled to herself as she got up to change clothes. “Guess I’ll be buying some new shoes, again.”

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Time Goes in Starts and Stops" by Lilly Slaydon

I’ll tell you the last thing I remember.

There were sirens outside. I was sitting in the smoky brown dark at a back corner table, watching the slow motions of the mid-day drunks with bleary eyes, waiting for Max. The rhythm of my fingers drumming on the cracked wood table was making me nervous, making my heart jump, but I couldn’t stop. Ba-da-dum. Ba-da-dum. Ba-da-dum. My nailpolish was chipping off at the edges, red flaking away to a dirty tobacco-brown white.

Ba-da-dum.

When I first met Max at Sara Murphy’s dinner party, he was wearing a yellow tie. That was what made him seem so damned interesting to me in the first place. Every other man at that table was dressed for dinner, strictly black tie. Including my husband.

Ba-da-dum.

There was a sudden chill. In a rush of wind and screaming sirens, the door burst open and Max ran gasping in, soaking wet.

He took his hat off and shook himself down like a big dog, showering water everywhere. I ran to him.

“Did you get it??”

“Yeah baby, I got it, but tell me- how are we supposed to get to the pier when the coppers are so far up my ass I can hear ‘em in my teeth?” he asked, gesturing violently to the door. Cops, sirens, flashing lights. Reality. I shook my head.

“You got this far without being seen, what are you so afraid of?”

“Maxie, you’ve gotta open your eyes! They’re picking their way through every underground joint in the city looking for us, and I don’t have to tell you it ain’t gonna be that long before they get to this one! Or will we be protected from that, too, huh? By the mysterious power of love?” His eyes were wide and white with fear. Somewhere in the pit of my stomach, my own fear, sensing its brother, began to unfurl.

Swallowing, I tasted bile. I grabbed his flailing wrists and held them still, nails digging in deep.

“You shut your mouth,” I said. His breath staggered and stilled. The sound of relief. He nodded and I lessened my grip.

“Eddie’s out back with the car,” my mouth told him, lips forming words on their own.

“Let’s go,” he responded, and neither one of us moved. I was watching him. He was watching me. He was not wearing his yellow tie. His pulse was hot against my fingers. I was sure my heart was beating out the very same time. Ba-da-dum. Ba-da-dum.

There is a place inside of our closed eyes. A shared dream- a jungle, honey yellow sunshine pooling on the wide flat ferns, red and gold, like the lizards that rush through the lush green grass, like the glowing surface of the water where the light collects in changing shapes- now a heart, now a spade, now a nest. The water is soft underneath, and so blue, that impossible blue… It always faded when we tried to paint it. It was never the same, it was never the same!

“Let’s go,” he said again. We went.

In the back of the speakeasy are the stairs up to Max’s apartment. The staircase is so steep and narrow that you have to go up one at a time, groping blindly into the darkness ahead of you and trying not to trip over your own feet. In the past these trips were always taken in a laughing haze, stumbling tipsy over the steps in a race to get upstairs, get alone. This time, pulled forward by his hand clutching at mine, I climbed and thought of nothing.

We ran through the apartment. I’m not sure when we picked up our pace, but suddenly our feet were thundering on the creaking floorboards, through the bright canvas litter of the living room we’d turned into a studio in our rushed attempts to capture our vision, through the bedroom with the blue sheets and the wrought-iron bed frame. That bed was so different from the carved mahogany headboard and the crisp white sheets on which, for five years, I had laid and listened to my husband snoring long into the night. Those white sheets had stained slowly red, Max told me, when he shot the bullet straight into Ralph’s snoring, sleeping heart.

That was all he told me. If we got caught, he’d said, at least he would know I could go free. Innocent. Funny, the way things go.

He led me to the window still running. When we stopped, I was breathless, searching his face. Was he scared? Would we get away? His black hair fell soaked in emphatic lines down the sides of his face, his white teeth bared in a grimace, but his eyes- one blue, one brown, uneven and expressionless, staring right at me. I wondered what he was seeing.

“Take the tickets,” he whispered harshly, holding out the brown envelope that held our hope for the future. I slid it under my garter and it rested there, pointed edge poking into my thigh.

“When we get to Paris,” I said, “we can live completely different lives and be completely different people.” I was watching his eyes.

He blinked slowly. It started in his right eye- the brown one- and then spread to the left, so that he always seemed to have one eye open. I had never noticed that before.

“I don’t think I’d want you any different,” he drawled out over the sound of sirens outside, and when he reached for my arm I flinched away. His eyes flashed. There- something was there.

When he grabbed my arm I closed my eyes, and my vision swam with sunshine. In the thick green grass of the jungle a slow wind stirred. I opened my eyes. He kissed me.

We were falling forward, through a starry soft black tunnel. His teeth scraped against my lip once, twice- a rough warning, and on the jungle floor two vibrant yellow orchids sprang into blossom.

When he pulled away, it shattered. I clutched at him, trying to bring the vision back. He held me apart and ruffled my hair with his left hand, a look on his face I had never seen.

“Smile, baby. Life is art.”

I laughed so hard I started crying.

He helped me out onto the fire escape. I hunched against the freezing rain and stared at the black alley behind us, looking for Eddie’s Ford as Max fiddled with ladder, trying to get it down. I squinted as a light came around the corner. “Eddie,” I told him.
“’bout time,” he muttered, lifting his head.

The car stopped. The doors opened. I was seeing circles.

“POLICE!”

All my blood drained to my fingertips.

“No,” Max was saying. “No, no. No.” He reached into the pocket of his trenchcoat and pulled out the gun- I had never seen it, but I knew what it had done. I dove for the ladder.

“Drop your weapon!” and then I heard the first of the shots. The iron rungs of the fire escape were wet and cold in my fingers.

The ladder dropped down and I stared after it.

“Max!” he was screaming my name, reaching his hand out behind him. I grasped it and held it, and I felt the way his body rocked back as he fired another set of rounds. I stood up to say something in his ear- something important, but for the life of me I can’t remember- stood up to tell him something and then suddenly, everything went yellow. I dropped to my knees, sliding on the iron bars, held up by his hand. He was screaming, shooting.

The second shot I felt. It was a sharp, direct pain, driving straight into my left leg, and this time I screamed so loud I felt I was tearing my throat out. My legs buckled and only Max’s hand was keeping me from falling over the edge. Everything was cold and wet and loud. My grip was slipping, slipping.

“No!” Max screamed, reaching for my other hand. “No!” I stretched my arm out for him, but I was never going to make it.

His expression of horror grew more indistinct as I fell away from it. The ground, when I hit, was frozen flat.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"The Dragon Down the Hall" by Greg Dybec

Silva was as dead as dragons. My son believed in dragons. He would say the summer wind was a dragon’s roar somewhere in the distance. Now there were no dragons. Only Silva’s long boot laces that were untied and curled toward the banister at the top of the stairs where he lay stiff and still.

My son shuffled into the hallway after hearing the dull thump from outside his bedroom. His eyes were still sleeping and his mind somewhere in the purgatory of whatever fantastic dream he had awakened from. He clenched onto his small stuffed dragon and raised it eye level at the sight of Silva on the floor. I glanced in his direction, catching a glimpse of his large brown eyes that took refuge behind spongy green scales. With a nod he understood the situation. He rustled up enough courage and walked in my direction as I stood over Silva. His eyes raked back and forth between the dark hallway and the body, as if it was going to spring up at any moment. He finally reached my side. “He went to save the princess now,” he mumbled behind his bright plush monster.

Silva was a leper. An old man leper riddled with diabetes. He was an old friend of my mother and moved in with my son and me only three months ago. At first my son was frightened and had difficulty being in Silva’s presence. I instructed him not to stare, though he shuddered quite obviously whenever Silva entered. He would run to my side or up to his room, shielding his eyes with his small bony fists.

One night in the kitchen Silva explained to me that he understood why my son was afraid. He advised me not to worry, and assured that he would change things. He crept out of the kitchen like an old dog and made his way up the stairs. I remember listening intently and hearing the door to my son’s bedroom creak open with a tender push.

Ever since that night my son was fixated on Silva’s every move. He studied his daily routine, regularly peeking into the small square room where he stayed, marveling at his coarse legions and reptilian skin. One morning, as he slurped over a messy bowl of cereal, my son told me the truth about Silva. “He’s not ugly daddy, he’s turning into a dragon,” he shouted with enthusiasm. “Is that right?” I asked. “Yes. And when his scales finish coming in and his wings grow he’ll leave here to go save a princess.” He jumped off his chair with a flurry of growls and his arms stretched to the heavens. He flew circles around the kitchen before darting upstairs. His feet stampeded down the hallway and Silva’s door was hurled open with an excited thud.
Now I pushed my son back down the hallway, away from the shaded body of his serpent friend. He staggered with every step as if contemplating a speedy turn around. I kept my hands securely on his shoulders as we shuffled like stones into his room. When we reached his doorway his feet planted firmly into the rug. “So he’s gone now?” I polished my hand gently over his head. “Yes,” I replied. “He’s far away now. Probably flying to a castle.” My son shoved my hand off of his head before speaking. “But he has no wings.”

I dragged his lean body the rest of the way and fell gently onto his bed. The sluggish summer wind panted softly against the window and we didn’t say another word.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"You" by Nathan Fuller

You turn me over in your head again about a year later. You accidentally dig me up in the backyard of your mind. But you hadn’t found an old picture of us in a desk drawer that you were cleaning out, the desk you’d since moved to your garage, the picture from our first road trip, still smiling and hooded in the back of a speedboat. It isn’t a letter, or a shirt. It’s not a memento. It’s the way your mind happens to work. Sometimes you’re just watching the way the sun lights up your living room and you find yourself thinking of somebody you used to love.

You almost laugh out loud, but then you realize no one’s around right now to hear you. You’re thinking it’s kind of weird that you thought of me now, with nothing to bring it up, no one said my name. When you stand up and walk across your house, into the kitchen, to pour a glass of water, you realize you’re still thinking about me. You don’t think about why we broke up. You don’t really remember why anyway, you just remember a deep sadness you used to get. You can remember a few shirts I used to wear. You remember how far my collarbone stuck out. You remember the way I kissed and how you couldn’t really explain me to your friends very well. But then you think about the sadness. You never told me about it, but as soon as you felt it, it sunk low into your soul. It made you cry once. It ran through your body, pumping down to your toes and all the way back up, and it told you I was meant for someone else.

You don’t wonder what I’m doing. You think it’s possible I moved to Costa Rica on a whim, but really you figure I’m still close. It’s Saturday. You wonder if I think about you still. You call me.

I’m awkward on the phone, until I make you laugh. You’d started to breathe quicker, but then you giggle and it’s loud and you’re relieved. We don’t talk very long. We say we’re gonna meet in the park and walk your dog. You say you had to walk him anyway and you could use some company.

At the park I see you from the other side. You wear a long flowery skirt and a solid tight t-shirt. You look cute. I try to wear something you might recognize. Your hair is a little longer. Your smile is persistent and genuine, and I struggle to dam a hundred memories around the edges of my brain. We hug and start to walk, your dog leading us and the conversation. Then we catch up. We tell each other a few things we’ve memorized about ourselves and what we do. We wonder if we’d said these peculiar words before. We both look skyward and then down. It’s silent for a little while but we don’t think much of it. Then I ask you a question and you smile wider than before. You have to wait to stop smiling a second to answer. You choose your words carefully and suddenly everything is easier. We can talk now. We sit down under a tree. We’re newer versions of ourselves but at least we’re parallel. We talk and laugh and ask questions we wouldn’t have thought to ask before. You’re more thoughtful. I’m more patient. We’re lying down now looking at clouds through branches. Time loses track of us, then comes back and taps us on the shoulder after about an hour. You remember you have to be someplace and we stand up piecemeal, necks, arms, backs, thighs, ankles, wiping off our knees and scratching where our skin touched the grass. You give me a long hug. One of us says that this was nice and the other agrees. We don’t see each other ever again, but we walk away happy to the ladders of our lives, now with stronger rungs to stand on.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"The Very Long Way Home" by Matt Cutugno

Once upon a time it seemed as if but now not and so. She didn’t want to make too much out of that but she couldn’t help but wonder. She had drunk a lot that evening, she had drunk too much. Now she was seated at a bus stop bench on Second Avenue, woozy, thinking of all the different ways to describe herself. Drunk of course, but also wasted, trashed, inebriated and intoxicated. She was bombed, tight, totaled, tipsy. In arcane terms snookered.

The bus wasn’t coming. She got up from the bench to begin her long walk home.
Shortly after that she stumbled and fell down some concrete steps that led to the parallel street below. She had been strolling confidently, when she found herself distracted and was looking up into the evening sky when she should have been watching where she was walking. She stumbled at a turn, didn’t see the first step, and that was it. You miss the first step on a flight of stairs, you may likely miss the second. A second step missed naturally increases the odds of missing another and even though she reached out for the wrought iron rail in the middle of her path, she could not manage both it and the steep flow of steps laid out in the dark. She managed neither and fell down, rolling completely over once, moving like a crab at another point, then trying to stand and stumbling one last time, falling to the sidewalk with an undignified thump She arrived at curbside near the base of the stairs.

She stood up, and looked back from whence she fell. She was bruised and bewildered, but otherwise unhurt. She decided it must be true that the Lord looks after infants and drunks. She slapped at the legs of her slacks, brushing off dirt she’d accumulated on her rapid descent. Finally, she looked around in her embarrassment to see if there were any witnesses to her shame. As it was two a.m., the streets were empty.

Oddly, the street she was on could be taken to reach her home. So the fall helped her progress, though that thought didn’t make her feel any better. She walked on. The night air would have been bracing if she could feel anything. She concluded that another word for drunk is numb. She was numb, happily enough being so, feelings are overrated. Concentration was hard though, she was having a hard time concentrating. She stopped at a street corner and took a deep breath, then hiccuped.
Her glance caught a tall, wire-meshed waste can that was situated at the curb. She stared at it to make sure - a skateboard was lying askew at the top of refuse.

Thus did she come up with the notion of skateboarding the long way home.

It wasn’t that crazy an idea. She was a trim, athletic young woman. So when she retrieved the luckily-for-her discarded skateboard, examined it, and decided to try it out, things started well. She placed the skateboard on the sidewalk, stepped on it with her left foot, steady steady and she hopped up and pushed off with her right foot. Step push she went, step push and she was riding.

The sidewalk was smooth, the area was well lit by street lights. She was moving forward nicely with her new conveyance. As the cool evening breeze blew into her, she was feeling proud and somewhat sobered up. If she could make it to Maple Avenue, she might easily catch a bus there or even hitch a ride the rest of the way home.

That was the plan when suddenly the front wheel of the skateboard seemed to loosen and wobble. It hampered her efforts to guild her momentum, and just at that moment the street took a sharper turn down to the traffic light at Maple Avenue.
Her speed increased exponentially, though she really didn’t know what that meant. She did realize that she was moving much too fast. Then for her own strange reasons, she leaned in, turning her weight to steer away from the sidewalk and toward the street, and just like that she was hurtling down the left traffic lane toward the stop light at Maple, which had just then turned red against her.

Time should have been standing still but that was the problem, it wasn’t. There she was on top of the skateboard, standing steadily enough but simply unable to stop going forward.

Her mind raced with her body, and it was a dead heat. She could jump off the skateboard, abandon her transport, but at this speed that would be ill-advised. She had suffered one fall already that night, which reduced the odds of escaping a second tumble unscathed. Meanwhile, the red traffic light was fast approaching, or more accurately, she was approaching it.
Her fate intervened. She flew into the intersection and passed directly under the red traffic light. Immediately she sensed cars on her right and left, headlights flashed and horns honked. Miraculously, she cleared the intersection, but she then swerved crazily and smacked into the curb opposite Maple Avenue. The skateboard hit hard and stopped at the gutter, but she did not. Instead she found herself airborne.

At that point time did slow down. She flew head first at first, then her head was pointed down and she was looking at a patch of green grass, then she further flipped and was gazing at the black cloudy sky. The next sensation she could verify was a sudden stop thud. She had flipped from the curb and landed in the back of a parked pickup truck. She heard a loud boom, then felt herself pained and flat on her back, knocked out.

She dreamed of apple blossoms. She was lying on soft grass, looking up into the branches of a spreading tree. Sunlight bled through. Delicate white flowers clung to the stems of branches, and some fell and fluttered down at her. It was a nice dream.
Then she heard a low rumbling, it was both soothing and jarring. The sound started in her sleep, then her dream dragged her into the real world. The pickup truck was driving along, its engine humming like a lullaby. She was still flat on her back, she blinked up at a neon sign for fast food turn right here open all night for your convenience. Lifting her head up slightly, she noted two men in the cabin of the truck. They were talking, one waved a cigarette, both were oblivious to their prone passenger.

The truck stopped at a traffic light. The motor idled, she did not, and she gathered what strength she had left, took a breath, and lifted herself to the side panel of the flat bed. She stood up slightly and jumped off the truck onto the street. She was, indeed, an athletic girl.

Just then the light changed and the truck took off with a screech. She watched the driver and his passenger fade from sight, still in their animated conversation, unaware of the good deed they had done in bringing her closer to home.
She hobbled to the sidewalk and stopped. She was on Maple and Division Street, not bad, she was almost home. It was then she realized that although she had been lucky that evening considering her drunkenness and helplessness, she was nonetheless hurting.

Let’s see, she had a headache, a bad one. Her blouse and slacks were ripped, her right knee was bleeding. She was missing one shoe. Both her palms were skinned and reddened, and her ankle was throbbing and likely sprained. Her throat was dry, her chest hurt. The good news was she was five minutes from her home, if she could get there other than by walking. If she had to walk, in her shameful condition, home was a distant dream.

That’s when she saw the bicycle. It was on the lawn in front of a house, and she decided quickly. She would ride the bike home, and return it to its owner the next day. She retrieved the bicycle from the lawn and brought it to the sidewalk. She mounted it and began to pedal, slowly but surely she moved forward. Childhood memories of long bike rides with friends came rushing back to her. Her bicycle’s frame was pink, the handle bars had streamers of red and gold. Funny, as life goes on you really don’t forget things. It was like, well, riding a bike.

And just like that, she was home.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Fear and Loathing in PA" by Ethan Abend

The water is frigid, its the very end the dive season and Dutch springs in Pennsylvania is crowed with eager divers looking to get "a few more dives in"while others are looking to break in new dive equipment otherwise called "toys "before the winter really sets in. This is where I find myself at 8:00 am on a Sunday late fall. My anxiety is not due to the large crowds or anything as frivolous, rather it is of much greater consequence, a Young diver’s life (and mine). A distant rumbling of fear in the recesses of my brain that's sounds ever closer as our dive time approaches.

The diver I’m referring to is a man-child by the name of Abe Clarkson. The circumstances of our initial introduction are innocent enough. A Causal "Hello, how are you?" I now know can lead to much pain and self-hate (hence the title "Loathing"). All I needed was a dive partner, for the day, two dives that's all. Mia, a dive instructor at Kings County Divers suggested that I take this fellow Ari. She said" He has almost finished his diver certification, I’m sure hell do fine.” Can you see the writing on the wall? Do you know my overzealous, naive reply? I think so.

The bad taste in my mouth grows fouler as I make small talk with this wet-behind-the-ears, "know it all, (almost certified) diver." The water is a seductress; she can make you do stupid things. The need to dive soon supersedes everything, including common sense and anything one might have picked up as early on as preschool.

My fears are soon realized as we make our first accent. Avi has no control of his buoyancy, meaning he is letting air out of his BC (buoyancy compensator vest) thus sinking to the bottom then to counteract his lack of flotiness he pumps too mutch air into his BC. Thus begins my day of fear, yes fear. A day filled with a dive buddy bouncing up and down in the water like an out-of-control pogo stick. Its not feasible or enjoyable dive with a person who s only direction is up and down. Dive # 1 was limited to a lot of surfacing then submerging and so forth.

Back on land, I tried to calm and encourage this human pogo stick. Lack of experience and time in the water is why he and almost all new divers have trouble with there buoyancy control. However, my dive buddy was not convinced there was any problem at all he said, "That was a great dive!” I wanted to go home. No second dive, no more baby-sitting this suicidal manic.

I needed to see my wife, and familiar faces. I needed to be held.

Dive number two starts with unrealistic optimism. Our dive plan is (Besides the constant up and down) to swim out on the surface twenty minutes due west to a marker that is directly over a sunken plane. I figured that if we were directly over this plane then at lest while we were bouncing up and down we could catch brief glimpses of this sunken plane (the reason I wanted to dive in Dutch springs to begin with). As I descend I see that my human yo yo of a dive buddy is having difficulty descending he seems to be stuck at the surface. I ascended the ten feet and asked what's wrong; He said," I forgot to put on my weight belt.”

Its winter now and thankfully the dive season has ended without loss of life or limb. I have learned an important lesson, never dive with an over confident, non-certified, complete stranger.

As luck would have it, that Sunday evening my dive buddy was in Manhattan getting a bite to eat, while he was in the restaurant a vandal relieved him of most of his shiny new dive gear (BC vest, Regulator, Dive computer, Wetsuit) A loss of about three thousand dollars.

Maybe the dive gods were trying to tell him something that Sunday night.

Disclaimer-Some names have been changed (my dive buddy) to avoid any embarrassment.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"The Locket" by Samantha Nusbuam

The phone call came the day of my son Sam's birthday. It was from a Dr. Moore informing me of my father's death. Could I come down to clean out the house? I answered with a "sure" and hung up the phone. I figured I could leave in the morning, stay a few hours, and still make it back in time for Sam's party. It was only a two hour drive home. Home? I exhaled slowly. I haven't been home in fifteen years. My mother moved out when I was ten and my brother was gone. I never kept in touch with my dad or the friends I had when I was younger. But there was not time to dwell on the past, I had a party to plan.

When I arrived at the house I was shocked. It was completely falling apart! Whatever paint hadn't peeled away was faded, the front lawn looked like the grass would never grow again, and the porch looked like it was about to collapse. I stepped cautiously up the steps and opened the door. As soon as I walked in, my breath caught in my throat and I started coughing. There were cigarette butts and empty beer cans strewed out along the floor. I covered my nose and mouth with my scarf and started up the stairs. The second floor was just as dirty as the first. The floorboards creaked as I crossed the hall to my father's room. It was empty except for a bed and a T.V. The air was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I tried prying open a window but it was stuck. The closet was empty as well so I headed towards my old room, shutting my father's door behind me.

All the furniture from my childhood was still there but there were boxes upon boxes piled up everywhere. I began picking through them but they were mostly filled with clothes. Some had old books and papers in them. There was nothing I wanted there. I was about to leave the room when something caught my eye. It was a small box shoved into the corner behind the door. I carried it to the bed and lifted the cover. Inside were mini bottles of perfume, makeup, and a silk scarf. I lifted the scarf to my face and inhaled. It was a smell I haven't smelled in a while. It was the smell of my mother. I gathered the entire scarf in my hands and felt something hard in the middle. I shook out the scarf and a little, black jewelery box fell out. I popped open the box and poured the contents into my hand. It was a silver heart shaped locket. Carefully turning the clasp, I opened the locket, revealing a picture. It was a picture of my brother and I. Sammy. He was the best brother anyone could ask for. He was hero and I thought him to be invincible.

He was four years older then I but we were like two peas in a pod. I remember once when I was ten, Sammy was pushing me on the tire swing we used to have in the backyard. I was up so high. Sammy gave me another hard push and suddenly I slipped right off. For a moment I felt like I was flying, but then I hit the ground and rolled a few feet. It didn't feel like anything was broken, I wasn't in pain, so I decided to play a trick on Sammy. I slowed my breathing and didn't move a muscle, pretending to be unconscious. Sammy came running over and dropped down next to me. "Lauren? Lauren!" I could hear the panic in his voice and realized I went to far. I opened my eyes and sat up. Sammy was looking at me, his face wet with tears. "I am okay, I was just joking," I assured him. He didn't answer but just sat there with his head in his hands. I gave him a hug and whispered, "I am really sorry." He lifted his head and said "don't worry about it. But if you ever do that again...." He tackled me to the ground and tickled me till I couldn't breathe. He gave me the locket later that night and I never took it off until the day he died.

Sammy killed himself when I was thirteen. I was so angry at him I ripped the locket off and thew it into my drawer. I wondered why he never told me something was bothering him. He didn't even leave a note. I thought I was more special to him then anyone else and I was hurt he never confided in me. The chiming of a clock pulled me off of memory lane. I looked at the picture again. Sammy was smiling but the smile didn't reach his eyes. They were cold and empty. Standing here now, I tried to think if maybe Sammy did try talking to me but I didn't pay attention. Why didn't I listen? I realized then that it didn't matter. Nothing could bring him back. His soul now lives on in my son Sam. I took another look around the house and headed back to my car. I looked at the locket one more time before putting it in my pocket. I smiled sadly as I read the words engraved on the cover: Together Forever.

"That Sad Lad" by Roch Samuels

In the darkest of recesses, often called night, scurries a boy in his tweens, anguished with fright.a puddle is bred through beads of fears' sweat, his mind on a scurry,heart packaging fret. His eyes dart in a convulsive fashion;in each midst of his pupils, lie facades of deep passion.fingers waddling in fright; failed attempt at a stillness ; throat victim of gulping ; the extent parallel to illness . The beat of his heart ; could blend thumps in a rock band; tongues saliva in a bamboozle, of oozing as quick sand.his teeth in a clench-hold; tense as they come; the violin of his life is on its very last strum. his vision made musty; lips pigmented frosty white; quiver and shiver; a deep-set frown his plight. Plowing to its speedy plunge ; is his hopes , is his dreams; his belief in himself a mere shred at its seams. in his legs spew a tingle , his blood on a sporadic flow; his emotionality embryonic; too malnourished to grow.palpitations past the speed limit; and brazen though it seems; he's used to the smack, that's a 'balm' for his screams. In a sprinkled about manner; scars decorate his form; each anew evicts a dread; in his soul a concocted storm. Teeth chatter till brittle; eyebrows furrow to mint; an age fail of wrinkles; to bequeath permanence of squint. Horror holds him in its strong-hold; for both future and past; for in each presence of moments, he is doomed imminence to its last. his lips purse with anguish ; for his fate void of pity; if rugs had not been of invention; his bones sight not've spoke pretty.gory though it sounds; reflective of reality this is,derive the lesson that its to be not his burden alone, we will carry ours and his. If ever u chance upon; a shrunken scared lad, lend a hug, and an ear, a termination to this fad. take a moment to wink, show the kid that you care, and if ever he should be in need, you'll always be there. and if he looks up and smiles, in a faint sort of way, and he musters the courage, to deem life okay, then you have been instrumental in his shoulder sagged life, you have modified its darkness, with your touch you've sliced strife. Now pat his head softly and whisper in his ear. "Like I said, when you need me,
I'll always be there."

"Foxie" by Mark Barkawitz

I’d just returned from a run. As was my habit, I grabbed a chilled Gatorade from the freezer and sat in the canvas chair on our front porch, feet up on the railing, peering past palm fronds which overlapped the nearby San Gabriel mountains, now book-ended by my size ten Reeboks. As I sipped and cooled down, a large, roundish guy in skin-tight, neon red-and-yellow cycling shorts and matching top pedaled feverishly past. Under his likewise yellow helmet, he looked like Humpty-Dumpty. I laughed to myself, wondering if this guy owned a mirror, and if so, how the hell did he see himself in that outfit? But at the same time, there was something oddly familiar about him.

My wife’s Explorer pulled into the driveway. She was tall and svelte, still not showing the three-month-old fetus—our first child—inside of her. “How was your run?” She tousled my hair like a little kid’s before disappearing into the house.

“Good.” As I took another sip and glanced down the block, Humpty-Dumpty approached from the other direction, his heavy legs working more methodically now. It suddenly hit me—Maple Mouth—so as he passed, I yelled from the porch: “Hey, Dick!” He looked over. I waved and yelled: “It’s Mike.” He braked and turned around. I got up and walked off the porch to greet him.

A few years ago, Dick and I had played on the same baseball team. It was sponsored by a local bar, which all of the players and fans frequented. He was the back-up first baseman and lived in the back house next door to where I’d lived before getting married. He had put on a few pounds, but was heavy even back then. He recognized me as I got closer, smiled. We shook hands. He unbuckled his helmet. We reminisced about our good ol’ days as ballplayers, then caught up. He had gotten divorced. And re-married. And re-divorced. Told me all the sordid details of each. That was why we called him Maple Mouth—once tapped his mouth never stopped running. When I finally got a word in, he was surprised to hear that I was still married.

“Why?”

“Come on, dude. You were a hound in those days.” His beefy face smiled, as if it had swallowed secrets from my bachelorhood past.

“I was single then. Now I’m married. Different breeds.”

“Yeah, I guess,” he scoffed, then got serious: “Did you hear about Foxie?”

“Foxie?”

“My first wife’s sister. Remember? She stayed with us in the back house that summer.”

“Oh, yeah. You mean Helen. What about her?”

“She died of AIDS, man.”

“AIDS?”

“Yeah. You didn’t hear?”

“No. No. How would I?”

“Bummer. Huh?” He kept talking, as was his habit, but I stopped listening, as was mine. AIDS. She died of AIDS, man. It hit me like a fastball on the helmet. Not that I knew her that well. She was this sexy, twenty-something, bi-sexual hooker who had had to get out of L.A. that summer—something about some john with a knife—so she had stayed with her older sister—Maple Mouth’s first wife—in their little back house in Pasadena until things chilled-out. She already had one scar from a knife—a small, diagonal slash on her cheek from a jealous woman—and was trying to avert another. She was the first (and only) hooker I’d ever met. But aside from her profession, she wasn’t that different than other girls I’d met in bars or at college. Of course, she had this dark side. We talked over the fence mostly. Just for those few weeks that summer. Temporary neighbors mostly. Mostly . . .

It was hot that summer. I was watering the yellowed front lawn of the little house that I rented near the college, when I spotted a pair of red, lace panties on the driveway next door. They looked clean—as if just laundered—so I picked them up, dropped the hose on the lawn, and walked down the driveway to the rear house, where all the blinds and drapes were closed. The stereo was on inside; some English-sounding band sang a love song about a sex dwarf. I knocked. After a brief pause, the stereo lowered and the door opened partially. Foxie peeked out at me, her pretty face betrayed by the small scar on her cheek. I held up the red, lace panties.

“Do these belong to you?”

She smiled sheepishly. “I was looking for those.” When she reached out to take them, she was wearing a black corset, which squeezed her breasts upward and together, as if in offering, and her black, net stockings were gartered. Behind her through the now-opened doorway in the center of the darkened livingroom lit by candles, a naked, bald-headed man knelt on his hands and knees with some sort of saddle strapped to his back. She explained: “I’m working. I’ll stop by later to thank you.” She smiled again—but not sheepishly this time—and slowly closed the door.

“I hear that shit can hide in your system for years, then one day—Wham!—you got AIDS. Are you listening to me, man?” Dick asked.

“What? Oh. Sorry. I was just thinking about your sister-in-law.”

“Ex-sister-in-law.”

“Yeah. Ex.”

Dick talked some more, but eventually got back on his bike and rode away. His colorful, egg-shaped figure balancing on inch-wide tires reminded me again of that nursery rhyme: Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. I killed off the Gatorade.

Sitting at the dining room table, my wife worked on her shopping list. “Friend of yours?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“The guy you were talking to outside.” She looked up from her list. “On the bike.”

“Oh. Sort of. You remember Dick. We used to play ball together. Lived in that little back house on our old block.”

She nodded. “Of course. Who could forget Dick?”

I nodded back.

“The doctor’s office called. They changed my appointment to Wednesday.”

“Appointment?”

“For the ultra-sound. Remember? You wanted to come with me.”

“Oh. Right.”

She wrinkled her brow. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“You seem a little distracted.”

My wife left for the market. I grabbed a can of beer from the refrigerator, sat in the tub, and let the steamy water run over my feet as it filled. I sipped the beer. That shit can hide in your system for years. I wondered if Foxie had already been infected that summer. I tried not to think about it. But like Maple Mouth’s mouth, my brain was already tapped and running.

It was pretty late that night when there was a knock on my front door. I was working at my desk in the front room with the stereo on low. When I opened the door, Foxie smiled in at me, wearing a tank top sans bra with cut-off jeans. “I wanted to thank you. You know—for returning my panties.” She smiled sheepishly again, her lips glossy-wet, and held up a bottle of gold 1800 tequila. “Got any mixer?”

I smiled back. “As a matter of fact, I do.”

She came in and we mixed a batch of margaritas in the blender, then sat on the couch in the livingroom, drinking and talking. She seemed to want to talk. I didn’t mind listening, though hers wasn’t the cheeriest of stories. Her step-father had sexually molested her as a teenager, so she had dropped-out of high school and moved out on her own at sixteen. But she liked to read, so was well-spoken and informed on an array of subjects. Her voice was small, her features and frame petite. She shared an apartment in Venice Beach with her lesbian lover. For the most part, she didn’t like men. Just worked for them.

“But you’re okay.” She stared over the salted rim of her mushroom-shaped glass. “You can call me Helen.”

“Thanks.” I tapped my glass with hers. “Helen.” We smiled at each other and drank up. It was soon after midnight and we mixed another batch of margaritas in the kitchen. While the blender blended, Helen leaned against me.

Parked in the driveway, I brought in the groceries from the opened back end of my wife’s SUV. She made dinner. We ate. She was tired and went to bed early. I stayed up to watch a ball game, but fell asleep on the couch. When I woke with a start, the game was over and the nightly news was on. I grabbed the remote from the coffee table and turned off the TV, but just lay there in the darkness.

Helen sat on the couch again, sipping her drink, sun-tanned legs crossed, nipples protruding under her cotton top. It was easy to see why men paid her, sometimes as much as a-thousand-a-night for what she termed “specialty sex.” Her specialty. She wasn’t the type you’d find standing on a street corner. She had a “clientele,” as she called them. I sat down next to her, sipped my drink.

“Where’s your girlfriend tonight?” she asked.

“We broke up.”

“Too bad.”

“Yeah.”

I got in bed quietly, so as not to wake my wife. But I just lay there, too. I couldn’t sleep now. I contemplated getting back up. To do what? Inevitably, I would fall off to sleep. I knew that. Just not yet.

She finished her drink.

“I think there’s a little left in the blender.”

“I’m good.” She put the empty glass with a red lipstick mark on the coffee table and turned towards me, pulling her knees up under her on the couch. Her dark eyes were sleepy now, but her lips still glossy-wet. She took the drink from my hand and put it, too, on the coffee table. She leaned closer. She smelled intoxicatingly good. I told her so. She touched my bare bicep with her index finger, the nail of which was long and crimson, and bit her lower lip, while staring back at me.

“Um—”

“Sh-h-h.” She moved her finger to my lips to silence me, then leaned in. But as I closed my eyes and awaited her glossy, wet lips, there was a sudden, startling knock-knock-knock at the front door. We both sat upright.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

Again, knock-knock-knock.

“Who in the hell?” I got up off the couch without a clue as to who would be knocking at my door at this hour of the night. My ex-girlfriend? The cops? But when I opened the door, it was only Dick on the other side.

“Hey. I just got back from the bar. The ol’ lady’s crashed-out. Saw your light on. Figured you were still up.” Without an invitation, he walked into the room. Spotting a beautiful, sexy woman on my couch, two partially-consumed alcoholic beverages on the coffee table, and calculating in the current hour of the evening, a more intuitive mind might have figured: three’s a crowd. But not Dick. “Hey, Foxie. Oo-o. Margaritas. My favorite. Got another glass? In the kitchen?”

And before I could throw his oblivious ass back out my front door, he was already headed in the other direction and disappeared into the next room. Helen and I looked at each other. The blender blended in the kitchen. She shrugged. Reluctantly, I shrugged, too. From the other side of the wall, Maple Mouth informed us:

“Man, did I kill on the pool table tonight. You guys shoulda’ seen me. Ran the table twice. Couldn’t loose if you shot me. Just one a’ those nights. You know? Everyone was asking: ‘Where the hell’s Mike tonight? Where the hell’s Mike?’ Especially after your ex-girlfriend showed up with some other dude.” He stepped back into the room, head tilted back, drinking from a juice glass with a heavily-salted rim. He lowered his drink and smiled—pleased with himself for some reason—oblivious to the coarse, white salt on the tip of his nose and at the corners of his mouth, like a clown’s make-up. Helen and I cracked-up laughing. Dick hadn’t a goddamn clue.

A few days later, Helen moved back to Venice Beach. I never saw her again. A few weeks later, my future wife moved into the apartment building two doors down. The rest is history. Inadvertent, geographic, fortuitous history. In my case anyway. I looked over at her sleeping peacefully in the dark next to me, our child safely inside of her. In their case, too.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall: Are you listening to me, man?

Yeah, Maple Mouth. Just this once. I’m listening.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

“Amberly,” an excerpt from the novel "The Life of Brian Garry" by Scott Deckman

Going to See One Girl and Thinking About Another One …

So I’m sitting on the train around noon on Friday, rambling up some graded hill on the way to see Dari Horoweitz-Marcella, a woman who, at turns, I’ve treated both good and bad, just like Gordon Gano crooned unnervingly on “Mother of a Girl” on that curious, underappreciated Violent Femmes 3 record. You look like you could be, the mother of a girl … oh mother, how we treated each other. Suddenly my heart stings as I see a doppelganger that takes me back to what I’m forever running away from, something brought back to consciousness by that run-in with the FBI yesterday: Amberly, or more pointedly, a girl from Amberly, her name was Jennifer. I try not to think about Jennifer for reasons you’ll agree, a little later, are sound.

Here goes …

Right after the trial I get sent straight to Amberly, don’t even get to go home. We were prepared for this and were able to bring me a little care package of underwear and a toothbrush and magazines and crap, half of which they pitch, saying that we were to “Humanly Detox,” i.e., divorce ourselves from our old, flawed reality and graduate into a pristine new one. So I get there, get all my magazines tossed, my walkman and CDs confiscated, and even a couple pairs of boxer shorts with drawstrings taken away from me, hence any of this downright criminal fleecing would make me more suicidal than I already was. In truth I wasn’t suicidal, but depressed and sad. Yeah, I was sad, but what I really felt was diminished, like I was in here with these crazies for doing something I still felt I had a right to do, thereby proving I was a little crazy. But Reed man, Reed had it coming. I mean, was I really gonna toss the old geezer or just scare him? You know, I’m not sure and still can’t honestly answer that question. I believe it started out all rage, then migrated to just scaring him, but the more he fought the meaner I got, and hey, I guess I did want him out the window. Yeah, you can argue I was in a psychotic stage or whatever they call it. But that’s a cop-out. No underlying mental defect I can think of caused The Window Incident (and certainly not the nebulous intermittent explosive disorder or equally embarrassing paranoid personality disorder – shut up – explanations the jury bought from our psychiatrist at trial), just Reed and his contemptuously blaring mouth, insisting I cheated on my paper. And yes, Dari helped me, a little, but it was me who researched and wrote the thing. And Jennifer Gants, God, I don’t know if I wanna delve this deep, but the memory sparked by that chick three rows up on the left, I’m looking at her sad little cheek and ear, once in awhile a profile, even more rarely a full face shot, all pretty melancholy and only happy when it rains, that’s Jennifer alright, little Jen Gants.

Sometimes it’s better not to remember.

Jennifer Gants, or Jen if you’d like, had this delicately wispy Morrissey worshiping-countenance about her – I mean, you didn’t even have to ask, you just knew; she was tiny in that Fiona Apple way, kinda exploited like in that video she did, you know the one, the one, for that song “Criminal” I think it was, where she was half-naked and looking alternately like jailbait, heroin chic and a sad little underfed puppy abandoned in what looked like ’70s punk Bowery, cause, like a lot of things, that place doesn’t exist anymore. Elegantly wasted is what she was. I met her the second day I was there, in group, me having to introduce myself to this wide circle of about 20 people. Aside from the handsome closeted gay ex-sitcom semi-notable, the pornstar/call girl, the senator’s son, banking scion and prominent “international businessman” I talked about before in the beginning of this screed, she was the only one you’d care to talk to. One guy in the circle was rumored to be a child killer, not molester, but killer; one guy was biting his hands so hard and virulent they bled, to get bandaged over and over, only to heal, where the bandages would be taken off and the whole fiasco would repeat itself; one guy, later on, would get up and pee right in the middle of our “situational role playing,” dude wore this beat-up old blue cap with a white front. He would mutter to himself, “I didn’t do it, or I didn’t mean to do it” for minutes, sometimes hours at a time. One chick would eat the skin off her fingers to the point where she bled as well, and one old woman named Hennessey O’Brien would suddenly shower us with sunny epithets at the most unlikely times, during personal tragedies too sad to name, ditties like “Grow up you old fart!” or “Who died and made you king!” or my personal favorite non sequitur, “If I woulda known that I woulda voted for Carter!”

Not surprisingly, Jennifer was the only one of that crew I really got to know. At the beginning of group I take a seat beside her cause, okay, I was thinking with the other head a little, a big no-no, particularly here, and also cause I need a place to sit and the pickings were slim. She turns toward me with a cynical, withering look, like she knew this was a bunch of crap and nothing could save her. That was what she looked like, a warm melancholy. I smile at her and she mouths “hello” and looks down, blue eyes not risking prolonged exposure into what could be a set of crazies.

I sit and stare at her profile and wonder what in the world she did to get in here, if she’s truly nuts or only happy when it rains. So here I am, fish outta water and knowing I’m gonna have my A.A. moment here any minute when I admit to the world I’m an attempted murderer. When it comes, when it’s announced that there’s a new psycho among the fold, she smiles at me, languidly, and here I go on my feet to address the throng of admirers.

“Come on, we ain’t got all day!” growls Hennessey.

“Now Hennessey, we know that’s not how we do things here,” says Jewish Earth Mother Counselor Dr. Edith Kratz, 40-something, brown-haired, earth-toned and luvin it, in chic brown glasses that look expensive and toothy smile not seen since the aforementioned Carter in his heyday. “Brian, you go ahead, dear.”

That smile wasn’t helping quell the nerves, and neither was this Hennessey woman. Startled – and a bit miffed, I start anyway.

“Hi guys … and girls, I’m Brian and I’m here to get to know myself? Yes, to get to know myself better and find the reasons for why I’m … here.”

“Very good Brian, great start! Grooouuup?”

“Hi Brian,” they all say in unison, and Jennifer looks up and gives me a snicker.

*****
Later in the lunchroom I get to talk to her. She sees me sitting alone, eating some weird potato and broccoli vegetarian concoction. And I’m hungry. They encouraged liberal water intake so I had a huge bottle of water to top it off with. I’m reading the house protocols they give us in lieu of anything else since they tossed all my “stimulant-ridden” magazines. These protocols aren’t just prohibitions, but are filled with ridiculous self-helpenalia, which I find at turns both humorous and insulting. Later I’d learn about ways to earn outside reading privileges, but we don’t have time to discuss each and every little Amberly peculiarity.

“Hey, want some company?” she sneaks up from behind with her tray of likewise gunk, except hers has a more yellowish tint, and the portion is much smaller. She looks precocious in her white pajamas, cute, but otherworldly as well, like an apparition.

“I guess I could use some,” I smile, still feeling out this crazy place, lucky I’m not sitting in some jail cell trying earnestly not to become somebody’s bitch. “This place, the food, the d├ęcor.”

“Yeah, this place,” she repeats, not smiling.

“So, what are ya in for?” I joke.

She chews and smiles.

“You don’t wanna know. I don’t wanna know. Actually, I don’t know.”

“Oh come on, we all know. But I don’t care, this place seems a lot better than jail.”

“You been there?” she looks up expectantly, hopeful.

“No, no, just, you know, it was either here or there.”

“Oh, gotcha.”

We don’t say anything for awhile.

“You know, we’re not all criminally insane in here,” she says.

“Thanks,” I reply.

“No, I don’t mean you,” she reaches out and grabs my hand with the coldest I’ve ever felt.

I put mine on hers. “I know, I know, we’re not all crazy here.”

She smiles slightly. “I’m Jennifer, Jennifer Gants.”

“I’m Brian, Brian Garry.”

We shake those same hands and dislodge, continue eating, not saying much else, nothing important anyway, but a friend is made.

Over the weeks ahead I start to get to know bits and pieces of her life, not all at once, like that was all she could stand, as if she would melt like a delicate ice cream cone if she told me everything in one shot. Technically we weren’t supposed to be hanging out in the traditional sense, but, incredibly, some of the guards let us do just that when the mood struck or when favorable circumstances presented themselves; one cause he thought it’d be good for us, another, who saw’m come and go, cause she didn’t think it made any difference; and a third, cause he liked bribes – he was cheap too, which was funny cause a few people here looked to be moneyed. Well, anyway, we knew some superficial stuff about each other and I was fighting the urge to kiss her, but, admittedly, I knew this wouldn’t be a good thing to try given our straits, and that it might be damaging to both of us. Last thing we needed to deal with in this funhouse. We were sitting in her room talking, her bunched up in the corner picking at her fingernails – a habit that was popular here – and me trying, who knows what I’m trying, trying to do my time so I can get the hell outta here. And it turns out she’s the only thing in this place that would mark me indelibly.

“You ever thought about it, the big one?”

“Hah?” I say, trying to think of something interesting to say when she throws me that. “The Whopper, Big Mac?” I stare at her, seeing my try for cute fall flat.

She shakes her head slowly, gives me an only happy when it rains look, and goes on with her nails.

“Nah … kidding.” At least I didn’t mention genitalia. “The big one, you mean, the big question? Why we’re here?”

“Yeah, well, sort of. But the other big one, death. What happens when we cease to exist?”

I scoot closer to her.

“Well, I guess we … die.”

“Duuh,” she looks at me sadly with these saucer-like blue eyes that seem to take up most of the top part of her face. She shakes her only happy when it rains head and begins looking at her nails again. I can tell I disappoint her.

“Well, what do you think?”

“That’s why I asked you,” she says, smiling.

“Well, I think,” I bumrush and tickle her rapidly.

“Hey! Ahahah,” she laughs before fending me off, “stop it, they’ll hear!”

But I was unprepared for what I would feel. I felt bones, literally skin and bones. Poor thing probably weighed like 90 pounds. And this wasn’t Kate Moss sexy skin’n’bones … this was sickly 90 pounds, past heroin chic and on to something darker. Sure, with clothes, especially these rather thick PJs, she could hide it somewhat, but now the secret, or the extent of it, was out. She senses what I’m thinking and the air gets acrid.

She looks up at me with huge sad eyes. She doesn’t have to say anything.

“I’m … are you okay?”

“I think you better go.”

“Okay.”

I do.

*****
So I’m in the middle of “situational role playing” with that horny nymph chick, the pornstar, Lacy Smith. You can’t tell with these people cause most of us here, most of them, are prone to lie. The situation is that I’m the boss of a paint company and I’m supposed to fire her. She’s supposed to act dignified, but what she’s doing is acting like she wants to fuck me. For my part I’m supposed to be fair but firm, to borrow a phrase from referee Joe Cortez, explaining to her that while I value her services and think the world of her as a person – and greatly admire her fake fun bags and collagen lips, I think she is not the right fit for the job.

“Lacy, I think the world of you, I really do, and your work here at Johnson’s Paints has been greatly appreciated.” (And stop it already about the name, that’s what we called it.)

“So, why ya firing me then?” she leers, with this come-hither look that I find both intoxicating and annoying, her boobs looking like balloons of my deliverance. And that mouth. She better stop this.

“Well, I think maybe … ”

“Go with it, go with it,” says Dr. Kratz. “You’re doing great Brian.”

“I think that maybe you’d be better off at a job where you could utilize your other skills … better. We’re all good at something.”

“What do you think I’m good at?” she moves closer, cloying look in her eyes, mouth opened a bit, with just a hint of tongue visible in between.

Instinctively I move my front away from her, which draws criticism from Dr. Kratz.

“Face her, face her. We don’t hide from uncomfortable situations in here, Brian.”

I’m trying to prevent an uncomfortable situation alright. Good thing I got a pair of too-small boxers on or she’d see the meaning of uncomfortable here in a minute.

“Lacy,” I make the mistake of touching her shoulder gently, “I think you’d be a great receptionist or a great … something to do with marketing, with your pleasing personality. But the world of paint is not quite ready for your charms at this point.”

Now, four things are going on at once. Kratz looks about to scold me for touching. While gentle positive touch is encouraged, ole Kratz is a sharp bird, having done time in the decadent Southern California ’80s where sex, drugs and rock’n’roll were not only vices, but a way of life, and I’m sure the bird dog can tell my hand may be wandering perilously close to what she calls sensual touch, which is absolutely forbidden. In truth what I’m doing is something in between. The second thing that’s happening is Lacy’s blue eyes burning embers into my crotch, but to be honest, she may not even mean it, cause that’s how she looks at most of us men at Amberly, her reason for being. The third thing that’s going on is that I am, regrettably, getting hard down there, and am using the time-honored maneuver of young and old horndogs alike of pushing my butt back and belly and chest out, looking like a white, uncoordinated rooster with bad posture, all to hide it. The fourth thing that’s happening is that moribund Jennifer is smiling, or smirking, and I can feel her pools of blue on me and I’m happy cause we haven’t talked much since I felt her shame.

Lacy takes a step closer to me, prompting some preempting from Kratz.

“Lacy, what did we agree on at our session yesterday about maintaining proper personal space when addressing others?”

The smile Lacy is giving me tells me she paid no heed to Dr. Kratz concerning proper personal space, or anything else for that matter. I’m about to lose it as I step back, my time-honored maneuver still in full effect.

“But Brian, I thought I was doing a great job.”

She’s so smoldering at this point that Dr. Kratz has seen enough.

“Okay, that will be all today! Brian, you did a good job. Lacy, we still have some things to work on,” the Colgate smile still beaming in spite of the pitiful showing.

As I take my seat I lock eyes with only happy when it rains and she’s smiling, finding the whole thing wildly entertaining. She mouths “Brian” and I’m happy. Mostly I’m glad to be sitting, and glad that most of the loons in here aren’t perceptive enough to notice my crotch or, more likely, are too wrapped up in their own demons to care. I can breathe deep again and do.

*****
Later, and I’m back in her little room in the girl’s dorm, having given Bud the guard $10 bucks. I’m laying there next to Jen, and things are still awkward between us. We’re not saying much, and she’s mostly looking at her nails, then biting them, and I’m mostly humming and looking at her, then away.

“So, what did you think of my performance today?”

“Performance, yeah, I was thinking, where’s the cast and crew? Where’s the deli cart? Except there was no money shot.”

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t the easiest thing to go through, either,” I say.

“She’s got all you guys rowed up; it’s funny for a girl to watch, though.”

“Her? Lacy? Pahhh,” I lie, “She’s hardly my type.”

“You’re a boy Brian, anybody that’ll give you a blowjob is your type.”

“I take great offense to that, I really do.”

She smiles. “And she’s got tits like watermelons and a nice round ass and big cock-slurping lips. All in all, a nice-looking skank.”

“Well, how come I never seen you do the situational role-play yet?”

“Maybe she knows I think this place is a joke.”

“We all do, that doesn’t make any difference. How long you been here again?”

“Couple months.”

“Well, we never really did discuss why you were in here,” I venture.

She’s studying her nails, then chewing them.

“Well, we haven’t,” I say again.

She shoots me a defeated look. “That’s why I like you.”

“Yeah … you know it’s not that bad, being in here. Three hots and a cot.”

“Boy you do make it sound like jail.”

“Well,” I stop, running out of things to say. “Well, you never have anything much good to say,” I spit. “Would it kill you to try?”

“You wanna know why I’m in here?” she says evenly, with a bit of weight. “You really wanna know?”

Actually, at this point I don’t, I can imagine it’s quite painful.

“Not if you don’t feel like telling me.”

“I’m opening up,” she stares at me bare, her voice sounding slightly manic.

“Okay, why are you in here?”

“It started when I was 10. It was nothing but, ‘Come sit on my lap, come sit on Uncle Gerald’s lap my pretty girl.’ So I did. Uncle Gerald lived with us for awhile. He was this gregarious alcoholic, ex-jock type, ladies’ man, everyone loved him, the kinda guy who peaked at 18 winning some state championship in some sport, wrestling, baseball, I can’t remember, sports … I’m a girl,” she shrugs, huge eyes wide but unfocussed, staring down, a little off to the left of me.

I wish I wasn’t, but I’m riveted. “Okay …”

“Well, it all started with him calling me his ‘favorite girl,’ his ‘lovely little bunny,’ real cute and innocent, you know? I’m 10 and don’t know any better, you know, I’m his ‘little bunny,’ you know?”

I nod.

“Well, at first it was just feeling his strong hands on my back, and I’m a little girl, small for my age, always was,” she feels important to point out, “and … well, anyway. So that’s how it starts, innocently.”

“You don’t have to tell me.”

“You wanna know.”

“I just want you to be happy.”

“Plahh. Come on, that’s impossible.”

“No it’s not.”

“So, you know, I’m a little kid, what do I know? I don’t know anything it turns out. The feeling up the back gradually turns into touching me in the front, again, somewhat innocent, you know, just my belly, you know?”

“Yeah, I understand.”

“Anyway, God I hate when I do this,” she shows me her nails, one of which is bleeding. “I’m usually more careful, you know?” her blues burning holes in me, but I’m not in control of this, the ball’s in her court, all I can do is listen, even if I don’t want to.

“Well, you know, I’m little, littler than I am now,” her eyes get expressive, “I mean, I’m small! Like, little!” she’s becoming animated. “Small, you know?”

I nod, frozen.

“So he starts to rub me on my chest, and you know, me and some other kids have done that, other little kids, boys and girls about my age, no harm in that, right? I felt a little weird or dirty but told myself if Uncle Gerald did it, it was alright, right? And even today I can’t drink beer because that’s what I smelled, putrid Budweiser on his stinking breath.”

The room is igniting, and I’m not sure what to do next, but maybe I’m a coward, wanting her to stop for me and not her.

“You don’t … I understand, I …” we lock eyes.

“No, you wanna know, so now you’re gonna know.”

“Jen – ”

“Shut up!”

I do.

“So, you know, he starts to feel me down below and it felt good, I mean it did! It felt good, and then it felt bad. And then good again. And at this point … you know, I’m little,” the first misting over her blue eyes, she pauses again, shivering a little, keeping it together, still messing with those fingernails, “so, you know. I’m just a little girl. And that’s how it goes for a couple years. At dinner he’d sit across from me and we’d play footsies, with my parents asking me how school was, the whole time I’m getting more confused, you know? And,” she looks down, a tear finally cascading down her white face, eyes literally like goblets of blue Kool-Aid, “you know, I finally tell my mom. And you know what she said?”

I shake my head slow.

“She said I was probably leading him on.”

“Oh … I’m sorry, I’m sorry about that,” is all I can think of.

“Yeah …” she smiles, face full of tears. “And I compensated, compensated for getting raped by my uncle a couple times a week since I was 10, I compensate by not eating, or throwing up what I do eat. In that house, this is the only thing I could control, me, the size of me. I mean they did kick him out, but I’m not sure if they thought I was making most of the stuff up. I think they think he ‘played with me,’ they said, but didn’t actually fuck me. But he did fuck me! Like it was the alcohol, I think is the excuse they made and he accepted. Yeah, he accepted it all right. Never got in trouble for it in any manner. Swept under the rug. Went to an alcohol treatment center, some fucking place like this. Still see him at Christmas, like it never happened. What’s dead stays dead. But I tell you,” she looks into my eyes, hard and big, “it’s not dead.”

“I’m so sorry about this,” I go to grab her.

“Don’t touch me,” she pushes me away. She’s shivering again, and she breaks down. Not in one piece, but in sections. Seems like with everything else, she can’t commit to any one thing fully, but holds it in until it pushes itself out.

I’m stuck, and she’s sobbing.

“Do you?”

She’s hunched over shaking, making hiccupping noises but God lovin she doesn’t want me to touch her. I don’t know what to do. The air is nitroglycerine and I’m a flea in this tempest. I shake my head slightly, look at the floor, and prepare to go. I get to my feet and she reaches out for my PJs, and I go to Jen, holding her for what seems like hours, as long as I’m allowed to get away with it in this worthless compound.

*****
So yeah, Jen belongs here, more than me. But she also needs hugs and support and a childhood back that was stolen from her, and while I can’t give her the latter, what I can is the former, a shoulder to lean on. So we become closer, or as close as she can let anybody get to her. I gently encourage her to eat, sometimes making a silly game of it. We go over The Window Incident – she thinks it’s a hoot, that we should all get to act so brave. In fact, she thinks most of my anecdotes are praiseworthy, from The Roll at the Heights and getting my heart smashed later by Amelia Earhart Bettings, to some of the more randy shenanigans with drunken girls, not to mention my own drunken escapades, kinda like she was either an empty vessel devoid of historical content, or that her teary admission that day on the bed would suffice, like it was too much already. She was, above everything else, a private person. She liked goth music, I got that from her. She was originally from a suburb of Seattle and had moved out here for school at UMBC where she majored in English when she wasn’t hospitalized, I got that too. She liked red wine over white, found solace in Anne Sexton, Amy Tan, Sylvia Plath, Alice Walker, Sex and the City and Margaret Atwood, but also liked Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Poppy Z. Brite and I think American Psycho, which she said was funny. I didn’t realize how telling that was until a year later when I read Glamorama and found out that American Psycho was even more fucked up. And yes, she liked rain and storm clouds and candles and incense and cats and large dogs and dressing in black, liked her makeup to accentuate her pale skin, black dresses – all black dresses, all types of comedy, from Bill Hicks and David Cross to Chris Farley, Adam Sandler and Margaret Cho, and she liked New York better than L.A., but San Francisco best of all. In fact she once dated a bassist in a semi-notable underground rock band who I won’t mention who lived in the City by the Bay. She loved movies and could talk about Pulp Fiction and how it belonged in the pantheon of great American movies, right up there with Citizen Kane, To Kill a Mockingbird, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, GoodFellas and anything Hitchcock ever did, about how foreign films were overrated because of the subtitles and supposed European sophistication, and of course, she could go on and on about horror movies, from slasher masterpieces like Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to slicker ironometers like Scream and the camp of The Evil Dead series, not to mention some truly twisted Japanese films I can’t remember the names of.

But she didn’t like telling me hardly anything else, nothing more about her molestation or her horrid eating disorder, other than she’d been hospitalized for it twice before, and fishing for info wasn’t the easiest so most of the time we talked gibberish, about the idiots locked in this monkey house with us, about the closeted queer who she admitted was very attractive, and one of whose B-movies she liked. She told me he had confided in her that, at his worst, he had a three-grand-a-week cocaine habit. And we regularly bandied around ideas about what would be the best way to kill some of the more obnoxious patients stuck in here with us. Oh the things we would come up with, such elaborate schemes, the more amoral the better. One of the more pedestrian but fulfilling was the exploding toilet seat for Hennessey O’Brien, one of the more sinister comeuppances a hydrochloric acid-soaked dildo for Lacy Smith, and undoubtedly the messiest was that wood chipper they used in Fargo for whoever was pissing us off the most, chief among them Duke, who I’ll describe below, and even ole Dr. Kratz herself when she got out of line. Sure, it was stupid, but wasn’t that the point? Escapism, euphemistic release, isn’t that what horror’s all about? Beats the real stuff, what she couldn’t escape.

But things were again to take another turn for the worse. One day I see Jen walking really fast past the large common room after an evening session with Dr. Kratz, eyes red, looking scared.

I call her name.

“Not right now Brian.”

“Come on. What’s wrong?”

I get up and follow her to the female dorm but I’m stopped dead in my tracks by the aforementioned Duke, one of the guards who wasn’t in on the whole hanging out scheme, not at all.

“Where you goin?”

“Come on Duke, let me in there. She needs me.”

“This ain’t no soap opera. You get back to where you’re supposed to be, now go on. We don’t wanna break the rules here.”

Duke seems like the high school football star who wasn’t quite good enough to get a scholarship to play college ball. Hell, maybe he was too dumb to even play football in high school, never making the grade in the first place, or, in his case, he “didn’t need no book-learning, books’r for pussies, and I ain’t no pussy.” He was about 6”, weighed about 250 or so and could probably bench press a truck. He had these dull blue-gray eyes and his head, prematurely balding in the first place, had just a conciliatory stubble. Duke actually reminded me of my old pal Skoal. To be honest with you, I could picture the two hanging out. A scary thought, and if anything, this proves I have made some life progress over the years. So, again, there’s no way to force my way past him, plus that might put me in lockdown, the hole, “contemplative isolation” they called it here. But I’d probably only get that if I physically assaulted the brute in some way. I fancied myself a little cleverer than that. Plus, I didn’t want my neck broken, as Duke was fond of reciting the Amberly party line whenever a patient got a little nasty: “I can use as much force as necessary to subdue any of you: As Much Force As Necessary.” And he meant it. Maybe that’s why the authorities there seemed to like the Cro-Mag.

“Come on!”

Duke steps closer, close enough that I can smell him, a bawdy mix of Brut and sweat.

“You’re not going anywhere but back to your dorm, now!”

I walk away pissed, but calculating my next modus operandi. I didn’t like the way Jen looked and I sure as hell don’t want her to be alone, just from some of the offhand comments she’s made about harming herself; a couple scars I’ve spied on her arms were probably the emanation of this line of thinking. I walk back to my corridor, see the Brad Pitt-looking dude, Anthony Myers, chatting up the senator’s son a little too intimately for my tastes, and let my imagination take hold. But really, doesn’t take too much imagination with the fire alarm hanging on the wall all red, loud and inviting. I go for it, pull the lever, and off the thing sounds.

Our dorm counselor, Lou Brightman, rounds us all up and believe me, this takes some doing as some of the more unstable shipmates are severely damaged goods. The dude with the hat is in the corner looking like he’s about to pee himself and Lou corrals him, just to make sure he doesn’t. He also has to help out one fellow who walks with a pronounced limp. Lou’s not a bad guy, a tree-hugging touchy-feeler who’s even emotionally available to the rumored child killer, who, while he’s never said anything remotely perverted to me, is said to talk about little kids with zest and zeal to the others here, particularly the more touched individuals. He never said anything to me; if he did it woulda been a short conversation. So when we finally get out the door I spot Jen standing there in the hot misty air and go to her.

“Hey.”

“Brian,” she frowns.

Duke sees me and hustles me away.

“You, get back over there!”

I move outta there as Duke gets closer, hustling over to my side, pissed that after all I went through I’m given the shrug-off by Jen. But soon, standing in the wet evening air, I’m thinking about her trying to kill herself and before long I’m sneaking back over there.

“Listen … ”

“Brian, go away.”

“Jen … ”

But she turns around, holds her arms and stares at the ground.

“Wait, I pull the alarm to get to you and this is the thanks I get? I’m worried here!”

Now guess who was approaching to get me, and what he overheard?

“Brian.”

“Lou, it’s not what you think.”

“You pulled the alarm?”

Defeated, I look at him, nodding ruefully. He grabs me by my arm, waving his other hand around in a circle in the misty evening.

“False alarm people! False alarm! Let’s go back inside! But great job evacuating and lining up everyone, great job!”

I hear Duke yelling at another poor soul. They put Duke on the girl’s side cause from past experience it’s usually the testosterone-laden males who try and get in the girl’s dorm, not the other way around. Though I coulda sworn I heard Lacy and somebody getting it on one night in ours.

“I can explain,” I offer Lou, trying to wriggle away from him.

“I’m sure you can.”

We get back inside and Lou takes me inside his office.

“Brian, you know I have to report this.”

“No you don’t, or maybe you do. Listen, I only did this cause I needed to see Jen.”

“How many times do we have to tell you that we don’t want you fraternizing with the women, that their side is off-limits to you guys?”

“Me?”

“Yes you. You’re one of the worst offenders.”

“Who have I gone over there and seen besides Jen?”

“What about that time with Lacy?”

I had forgotten about that time with Lacy cause, a. it was a while ago, and b. technically it shouldn’t have counted because I was actually over there to see Jen, but Lacy caught me in the hall and … when Lacy grabs you there’s not much you can do. Besides, we just rubbed each other a little and had a kiss or two before some busybody in the dorm saw us and screamed, thereby alerting Duke, who caught us. Looking back, I’m sure Duke had to use every bit of his reptilian-brained self-control not to smite me down, club Lacy over the head and take her away to an empty room.

“Oh come on … listen, Jen’s not in a good place right now.”

“None of you are Brian, that’s the point. But we just can’t go breaking the rules anytime we want to without any consequences.”

“Will you listen to yourself? I need to see her, come on.”

“No, not tonight. You’re in some trouble. I’m gonna get Dru, she’ll handle it.”

He goes to pick up the phone and I put my hand on his to stop him from dialing.

“Brian, you want even more trouble?”

“That’s exactly what she doesn’t need. Especially from Dr. Kratz.”

“Is that what this is about, some problem with Dr. Kratz?”

“No, for Christ’s sake, aren’t you supposed to be the touchy-feely bearded one?”

“I take offense to that.”

“Listen, I just wanna talk to her. After her appointment with Kratz she looked bad, like some kinda zombie, psychotic thing was going on with her.”

“And that’s why I’m calling Dru; Dru is the counselor on duty for the females this evening and, unlike you,” he waves his finger at me, “Dru’s trained to deal with these things.”

I’m about ready to punch Lou, but I know that would be the death of me, and if anything, it would be an invitation for Duke to sodomize me with a nightstick. Plus, I don’t wanna hurt the limp-wrist.

“Let me go over there with you.”

“No! Brian,” he pauses for a bit, frowning. “I tell you what though, and I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m gonna handle this, you pulling the fire alarm, internally, not through the discipline measures of Dr. Steinberg.”

“God Lou, I know you’re sweet but I didn’t think you were that way.”

He frowns, expecting more gratitude. “You’re lucky I am, that way, the way of someone who cares about you in here.”

I almost break into a smile, this guy.

“Let me think of a suitable workstance for you to do, which I will in the near future, I assure you,” he says, indiscernible-colored eyes behind the wire-framed glasses big. He shakes his head, a bit exasperated at my insubordination. “But I do think you pulled that alarm with good intentions, whatever that can mean.”

“I did. I actually … care about her.”

“I had my doubts, but with the trouble this stunt could’ve brought you, has brought you,” his eyes get bigger again and I’m trying not to laugh at this eager beaver, eager to save our wretched souls, “I’m starting to think you do.” He looks like he wants to hug me and I cut bait and leave before he can, which underscores everything I hate about this place. Now, God knows I was lucky to be there, cause prison, nobody wants that. But this therapeutic garbage …workstance was their wishy-washy therapeutic way of saying punishment. Basically, it meant we had to work off any offense we caused, but with a name like that it wouldn’t be punishment at all, but an opportunity for personal growth, that we’d actually learn something, see the error of our ways and all that crap. I’m like, you let child murderers in Amberly, rumored or not, that guy is a creep and I’m sure he’s not the only one who’s done something equally horrific to land a stay here in the short past. Crazy or not, those fuckers should be in prison, getting it up the ass with a tire iron for a lifetime, if not shot through with 10,000 volts, not in here getting goddamn workstances.

FUCK THIS PLACE.

Course, I tried to throw a man from a building, so what do I know?

So I don’t get to see her till the next day, and when I do she doesn’t want any parts of me, and I’m more than a little hurt, more than a little worried and more than a little offended, I mean, who does this chick think she is? All I went through for her and this is the thanks I get? The next week or so she continually rebuffs my advances, but I’m getting good marks otherwise, unbelievably, by both Kratz and Lou. Lou says that they’re “taking care” of Jennifer, and not to “worry.” I find this patently ridiculous.

So one day when Duke isn’t watching over the girl’s wing, our guard Gene is on a smoke break, and the older, grizzled woman guard who doesn’t mind when we “sneak” past her is minding the store – and, just as importantly, when Lou is nowhere to be found – I do just that and make it to Jen’s door which is shut.

I knock on her door. No answer. I knock again.

“Jennifer, it’s me.” I suddenly feel really stupid, dumb. I don’t wanna barge in. Girl doesn’t wanna talk to me she doesn’t wanna talk to me.

Suddenly, open sesame, and the door laggardly opens, and what I see confirms my suspicions. Her eyes are bloodshot, face tear-streaked, hair a mess, much of it matted, and she doesn’t say anything, but falls into my arms. A bunch of pills drop out of her right hand onto the floor, a whole shitload; she’d been holding them so long that her hand is stained blue. Yeah, these people here are helping her alright. I don’t know if she’s taken some already or not, but I’m not taking any chances, and I scoop her up like some hero in an antiquated movie and take her to the doctor on duty; she’s as light as a wisp, like a child, really. He takes one look and calls an ambulance. Me, I know full well I’m gonna go to the hole or somewhere else bad for being over there, but really, who cares about me?

*****
Well, I did get sent to the hole for a week or so, and during that time Lou, sweet Lou, tells me Jennifer – who had taken some of those pills – has been transferred to a more “intensive inpatient facility.” Jen’s gonna be a drugged-up walking zombie wherever she goes, and while I know I may never see her again, and this deeply saddens me, I at least know she won’t be able to kill herself there. Or it’ll be harder to than it would be here, where at times they almost invite it. So given the circumstances I was in shock when I hear from her again three years later. I’d been out of school for a while and living in Bel Air with Steve, working for High’s and about to get promoted to adjunct accountant. I’m not sure where she got my email address, but I welcome the letter with the thirst of a landed blue whale. Here’s how it goes.

From: Jennifer Gants
To: Brian Garry
Date: August 23 2003
Subject: All Cleared

Hey Brian,

How are you? God, it’s been awhile eh? I’m assuming you finally got out of that rat trap? Well, since I kinda left you hanging I thought I better clue you in on what happened to me. I ended up at this place called Grove Creek , and it was hell. They watched us all the time, never giving us any privacy, even had female nurses with us when we showered, right in the bathroom – luckily we had curtains on the stalls! But saying this, there was this one therapist, Ginger Jacobs, who I did sorta connect with. She was youngish and slightly hip (she liked the Cure), and seemed to understand what I went through as a child victimized by someone I alternately wanted to make my boyfriend and alternately wanted to kill, and the resulting obsession with my weight. I was really fucked up at Amberly and I’m sorry we had to meet under those circumstances. Well, now I’m back in Seattle, or, Lake Wammabagi, a suburb of it, living at home. I’m actually working at Pizza Hut, can you believe that? Me, goth girl, serving up hot pies and salads and pitchers of Bud. The only salvation is the jukebox, which I waste too much money on while there. At least it’s computerized, hooked up to the internet, so I can listen to some half-decent music (Cure, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Interpol and the Strokes, you know, Siouxsie and the rest). Through the suggestion of my psych Mary, I’ve even reluctantly talked with my parents in therapy a few times. Mary’s actually kinda cool: a lot cooler than Dr. Kratz That earth-hugging psychopath. Things are guardedly better with them but I’ll never be able to forgive them, and I gotta accept it and move on, try and salvage some type of relationship with them, even if it’s not worth it. I’m not in a terribly great place, but nowhere near where you saw me that night at Amberly. I’m really sorry for what I put you through Brian. I’ll always remember how sweet you were to me and you may have saved my life. Who knows what I was gonna do with the rest of those pills? Maybe we can hook up one day when I get out of this house. Miss ya.

Love,

Jen

Reply.

From: Brian Garry
To: Jennifer Gants
Date: August 24 2003
Subject: RE: All Cleared

God Jen I’m so happy to hear you’re outta the nuthouse and back home. When I found you that evening I was worried, now I’m happy you’re dealing with your problems even though you have to live with your treacherous family. Hope you can salvage something from that mess. You deserve all the happiness in the world. Me, well, I’m living in Bel Air, MD, either a suburb or these days what they’re calling an exurb of Baltimore, and it’s just as lame as it sounds: teenage boys in tricked-out Hondas, little lasses with the daisy dukes, nice lawns, soccer moms, and a bunch of new development, you know, Joe Average Baltimorean Outgrowth Bedroom Community. No action, none for me anyway, living with my friend from school, Steve. Happy Hour at DuClaws and trips to Towson and Baltimore and home turf Severna Park, and once in awhile D.C. or trips to Philly to see some cats we know.

Ah … you’re all the way out on the other coast. I hope we can meet up again soon. Maybe when one of us saves up enough money and gets a cheap flight. Here’s my aol IM in case you catch me online: BrianGarry. Real fuckin original, eh? You work at Pizza Hut and I work at High’s, we’re both really setting the world on fire. Hey, beats Amberly. Here’s my number when you get the chance: 410-420-9682. Call me or get back to me on aol. I’m on a lot at night, jerking off to porn. Haha. Glad to hear you’re doing well.

Miss You Too,

Brian

Reply.

From: Jennifer Gants
To: Brian Garry
Date: August 28 2003
Subject: RE: All Cleared

You, jerking off at online porn? No, please tell me it’s not true. Not my precious Brian! I’m gonna tell Dr. Kratz and your ass is going to the hole! Duke! Duke! I’m doing pretty well at Pizza Hut, well enough that they are letting me train other waitresses. I know, who knew I’d find my calling? I’m up to 96 pounds, up 10 from when you knew me. But I’m short you know, like 5’2”. I’m little, remember?! So I’m not that small, not that skinny. I met this dude Seth at the mall. He works in the record store there. He’s 26, into Skinny Puppy and other goth industrial stuff. He asked me out and we saw a show in the city last night, some industrial metal band called Crucifixication. I know, horrible name, eh? Anyway, he has dyed black hair, dresses like me, black, is pale like me, is misanthropic like me, and is kinda cute in a weird, brooding way – like me! Kidding. Plus he’s skinny like me. Won’t get fat around him. I’ll try and give you a call soon.

Take care,

Jen

I answer her like I did last time, and I don’t hear from her for like a month or two. And this is what she says when I do.

From: Jennifer Gants
To: Brian Garry
Date: October 14, 2003
Subject: Life or something

Hey Brian,

Long time no talk, eh? How are you? Sorry I haven’t mailed you, been really busy. I gained like four more pounds and broke the three-digit barrier, but felt so bad about them (all four of’m, not to mention having made the big three) that I started puking again and my parents caught me and things were a little dicey again. Me and Seth are doing so-so, he seems to want sex as much as I don’t want it, and we haven’t quite gotten there yet, just fooling around. Oh boy, like I say, he’s a guy! We’ll see what happens, but, you know, I may be little and I may be a girl but I have rights, you know? Anyway, still at Pizzaslut and I hate it, the boss, Ernie, is dumb as a brick and all these adolescent high schoolers and college losers are making me want to go back and finish school, but I have awhile before I can register and things here aren’t the greatest. If my parents hadn’t caught me puking things would be better for me at home. Seth wants us to get a place together; he currently lives in an apartment in his folks’ basement, but, hell, I haven’t hardly gave’m head yet, let alone live with him? Slow down cowboy, Mr. Dark and Angry.

I’m friendly again with Sue and Jennifer, my best friends from high school. They still live in the area, been hanging out with them. Jennifer (we used to be Jen #1 – me, and Jen #2 – her. Clever) is about to get married to some guy in med school. He’s cute too, and totally different from me. She’s changed, a lot more straight-laced, an elementary school teacher, no more dark Vampire lipstick. Both Sue and she have finished school and Sue is in grad school to get her MFA in writing, something that interests me. I feel a little weird around them though, like they’ve changed and I’m still the same troll who listens to Morrissey and the Smiths and paints her nails black – sometimes. Anyway, miss you, hope we can chat soon online or on the phone. I got your handle and number.

Reply.

From: Brian Garry
To: Jennifer Gants
Date: October 14, 2003
Subject: RE: Life or something

Hey kiddo,

Long time no talk no kiddin, was startin to think you ran off and married that Seth character. Sounds like things are progressing, even though you had a little slip-up there. All things considered, glad they caught you. Don’t want you sick like you were. Please, I’m begging, you’re beautiful, and a few more pounds would only add to your pale, brooding beauty. Don’t give it up to Seth, that ass, or at least make’m work for it. If he’s too pushy tell’m I’ll come looking for him. Been thinking about coming out there, but I’ll wait until you get out of the house. Pizzaslut Highslut. I hate my job too, except they made me some type of lay accountant, which I can hopefully parlay into some weenie (but well-paying) corporate job with benefits, get some goddamn healthcare. My luck I’ll need it. Anyway, jump on IM sometime. Hang in there, you’re doing good. Call me. I’d like to hear your voice.

Talk to you soon,

Brian

We indeed talk a couple times and keep emailing, but then things started to change. Here’s a glance.

From: Jennifer Gants
To: Brian Garry
Date: December 17, 2003
Subject: Breakin’ Up

Hey Bri,

How are you? Hope your job is doing good. Me and Seth broke up. I’m pretty bummed about it but he started acting nasty to me, telling me if I loved him I’d have sex with him. Original, eh? Guess the occasional BJ wasn’t enough for him. Well, screw’m, the loser.

Anyway, I moved outta the house and got a place in Capitol Hill with my friend Sue. My parents are glad to have me out of their hair, me and my sullen attitude and loud music and weird friends. Like Sue is weird. Come on. Not anymore, or not like she was, no more blue hair. She’s like a refined punk now, politically aware Betty Boop-looking thing. Please. They hated Seth, but he was an ass, though unfortunately that’s the kind of guys I go for, not sweet ones like you Brian. Here’s a kiss. Actually, now that I’ve moved out we seem to be getting along better. I actually passed out again the other day, must have skipped a couple meals there while I was working at my new job. But don’t worry, I’m fine. I can eat, I’m not fat. I’m little! Remember?

Gotta go, Call you soon!

Reply.

From: Brian Garry
To: Jennifer Gants
Date: December 19, 2003
Subject: I’m glad

Jen,

I’m glad you dumped Seth, that dumb, mopey fuck didn’t realize what he had. Now maybe there’s a chance for me? Haha. I’d like to come out sometime and check out your new place in Capitol Hill. You and Sue still fighting over the TV? I just want you happy and healthy and it was cool chatting with you online yesterday, you seemed somewhat sunny. You’re in my thoughts a lot and I’m glad you made 1000 bucks last week bustin your ass at that swanky place. I’m sure you have plenty of suitors there, no? Just keep at it. I’ll try and give you a call before Christmas.

Love,

Brian

When I called her the next day she wasn’t there, nor was she a week later, nor the week after that. A month or so goes by without contact and then this.

From: Sue Billingshead
To: Brian Garry; gleboweicz@hotmail.com; bspanagon@yahoo.com; reni2times@ …
Date: February 15 2004
Subject: In memoriam

Hello everyone,

This is Sue Billingshead, Jennifer Gants’ best friend and I have sad news. As some of you know Jen and I have been living together in Capitol Hill in Seattle for awhile now. Well, I’m extremely sorry to say Jen has passed away. I walked in yesterday evening and found her laying in the bathroom next to the tub, not moving. I called the paramedics and they said she had likely been dead since the morning. This hurts me very, very much because I really loved this girl, we all did. I’ve been close to her since middle school. As some of you know, she was coming back from a very bad time. But things were going deceptively good. She had just gotten a waitress job at McMannus downtown, making good money, and planned to go to school next semester to finish up her degree in English. She had a good core group of friends, some old ones like me and Jennifer Acostia, and some new ones. She even had a boyfriend for awhile there, and recently started dating this great guy she met at a party here, an architect. Despite some rocky patches things were looking up. But her demons were crafty and many. While she had initially gained some weight in her battle with anorexia, this past month or so she began shriveling away again, and hiding it with extra clothing and even cooking a bunch for a dinner party we hosted. I can’t help but feel a little responsible, and couldn’t believe how thin she had gotten again when I saw her on the floor. I knew she was gone but I was hoping for a miracle. She’s with God now.

The funeral will be held at Lowe’s Funeral Home in Lake Wammabagi this Saturday, with a viewing Friday night, same place. The address is at the bottom of the email. Let’s all keep Jennifer and her family in our prayers as they go through this awful time.

I’m devastated, we lost an incredible girl, an incredible friend. Listen, whoever reads this, let’s not let Jennifer’s death be in vain, let’s all keep a closer watch on the ones we love, because pain and deviance go together. Really, none of us had any idea the demons that had controlled her came back, and so swiftly. Jen battled, but in the end those demons had their day, but they can’t take away what she meant to those who knew and loved her. She’ll be missed and wherever you are Jen, up in heaven, in the ether, stretched out blazingly over the universe, we miss you and LOVE you and may you REST IN PEACE. You’ll live on in the hearts of many.

Sue Billingshead, Jennifer Acostia

P.S.: If you can, please join me in donating to www.nationaleatingdisorders.org. I don’t want another person to suffer like Jen did.

That’s why I don’t think about Jennifer Gants too often, and why I hadn’t mentioned her yet. And that’s why I won’t mention her again. Jennifer Marie Gants, may you rest in peace.