Monday, April 30, 2012

“Bags” by Matt Margo

I drove home from college one weekend and returned with a couple of plastic bags. The bags were blue and they contained some groceries that I had bought. I stocked the refrigerator with milk and carrots and fruit juice. I put a bottle of bleach in the closet next to my laundry basket. I ate a few pre-packaged cookies and set the package on top of the refrigerator. I dropped the empty bags onto the floor and left them there. My roommate never said anything. He was busy playing a computer game, shooting aliens in their heads with a laser beam rifle. I drove home the next weekend and the weekend after next and every weekend after that. I always took a trip to the local supermarket and always brought my purchases with me back to the dorm. I never stored the bags anywhere, and I never reused or recycled them after unloading my groceries. They always went to the floor.

My roommate’s family lived on the opposite end of the United States, so he rarely ever drove home. He only left on holiday breaks, never on weekends. After Thanksgiving or Christmas, he would return with his own plastic bags to toss aside carelessly, but they were usually white, not blue. As the school year continued, the weekends and holidays began to pile up. We became more and more surrounded until neither of us could walk without a cacophony of rustling and swishing beneath our feet. The noise was deafening; it drowned out the sounds of my roommate’s intergalactic conquests, even with a pair of buds fit tightly into his earholes.

Eventually, the bags were everywhere in our room. The floor was a carpet of them. “We need to stop kidding ourselves,” I told my roommate. “It’s time to get rid of these bags.” He wouldn’t listen to me. He was battling against the final boss. I looked at a dying bonsai tree on his desk, then grabbed the tree and threw it into a bag. “What are we going to do with all of these?” I said. I wanted an answer, but my roommate gave me none. The bags needed to fulfill a purpose. I refused to let them go to waste any longer. I picked another bag up off the floor and put my alarm clock in it. I put my roommate’s alarm clock in a bag. I put the textbooks for his history class in a bag. I put all of my shirts in a bag. I put my laptop computer in a bag. I thought about putting my roommate’s desktop computer in a bag, but I didn’t want to disrupt his progress in the game, and the computer was too large to fit in one bag anyway. It took me hours to pack everything away. By the end of the night, we had no more possessions, but there were also no more empty bags on the floor. They had all been filled and taken to the dumpster across the street. Feeling triumphant, I lied on the rough metal springs of my bedframe and thought about what I would eat for lunch tomorrow while my roommate stood in front of his computer, firing a gigantic missile at a tiny green planet in the distance.

Monday, April 23, 2012

“What’s a Girl For?” by Michael Henson

He liked the way that girl swung herself down the sidewalk. Not like one of these common, cheap things that walked these streets looking all hard with their cigarettes in their hands and that fuck-you look in their eye. He leaned across the hood of his car to watch her better.

“Hey, Benny, one of the boys called from down the street. “Let’s go shoot some hoop.”

“Later, man.”

“We need a fifth man for a team.”

“Go on ahead,” Benny said. “I’ll be down.”

He heard the boy mutter to the others. It bothered him and he glared at their backs. “Your momma,” he wanted to shout. But he decided not to play that game.

In fact, he was tired of games. He had felt a change coming over him in the past few days, a growing tired of the tricks and lies, tired of wasting time, tired of the same-old, same-old. He had looked around him one day and saw that everybody he knew, from the junkies to these jocks, was playing games, joking with time. He was fed up with it. He wanted out. At eighteen, with a job and a car, he didn’t need what these streets had to offer.

“When did you get so high and mighty,” his old girl said when he tried to talk about what he was feeling.

All he had said was I’m tired of this place. All he had said was Man I want to get up out of here. And then she had to hit on her cigarette and look at him all crazy. What’s a girl for if you can’t talk to her? These girls down here, they act all crazy; they act all hard.

This one, the one he watched as she swung down the opposite side of the street, was different. She wasn’t all that pretty, but there was something about her. Something in the way she swung herself so easily, her hips and shoulders loose and relaxed. She wasn’t all huddled up and hard like these girls from down here. She wasn’t all corners and cut-at-you looks. He could tell it by the open way she looked the street up and down. She didn’t walk with a dead-ahead stare like these girls from the neighborhood, half the time with their arms folded in front of them like they were cold, with their faces all screwed up hard.

His old girl, Julie, used to walk all hard like that. Even when they were out together, he would try to hold her hand, do the kind of things people ought to when they were on a date. But she’d walk like that, all stiff, like she’d been tied up for days, like she’d been stuffed in a box and couldn’t get loose.

“Man, why you gotta walk like that?” he asked her.

She said, “What’re you talking about?” Like he’d said something crazy. She didn’t even know. How was he supposed to explain if she didn’t even know?

But this one didn’t have that hard look. She didn’t look like some stuck-up preppie either. She looked like girls he had seen at concerts, had seen in school, had seen in magazines. She looked relaxed, easy-going, not cheap, but free-moving and fun. Damn, he thought. I want to scope this out.

He didn’t know what she could be doing down here. She walked like she belonged here, but she looked so freed up.

That’s the way it ought to be, he thought. People shouldn’t have to walk around all stiff and screwed up and hard.

The girl was headed up the street and would soon be gone into the maze of traffic and pedestrians. What the hell, he thought. I might as well play this out.

As he crossed the street, he lost sight of her. Fearful she might turn a corner and be lost to him, he fretted behind an old granny pushing a shopping cart. The girl’s head bobbed ahead into the distance. He dodged right and dodged left and dodged right again before he could steer past the granny and prepare to sail up the street after the girl. B ut the sidewalks were still crowded. What was more, he didn’t want to look the fool, dogging after some girl. But he didn’t want to lose her either. So he walked faster, weaving as best he could in and out among the shoppers, the kids eating ice cream, the red-faced winos, the old men on walkers, and the hustlers leaning into doorways, watching for that mane of blonde hair, that sway in the shoulders among the other heads and shoulders of the street.

She was nowhere among them. He was sure she was lost and gone into some shop or around some corner.

But then he saw her. Coming back. She had turned around and was headed straight back toward him. If he kept up at this pace, he would run dead into her, so he slowed. She was smiling and looking out into the street. He thought to himself, What if I try to talk to her? What could I say?

Then: no. he couldn’t believe it. He slowed even more, then stopped to watch. She had stopped abruptly, pivoted, and stepped to the curb where she now leaned and smiled into the window of a car. He saw the car pull over and saw the way she brightened when the car stopped. She looked once up-street and down, then leaned closer into the window. There was no way to mistake it. She stood that way for less than a minute, he hip cocked and her purse swinging in her hand. Then, in a swift move, she slung her purse onto her shoulder, opened the door of the car, and swung herself in.

The car took off into the traffic, leaving him alone in the middle of the jostling sidewalk. Ripped up with rage, he stalked down the street, looking for something to throw, something to damage.

Monday, April 16, 2012

“Dying Among Them” by Andrew Dinsmoor

Tim Willard moved to Las Vegas to die. With nineteen surgical staples biting a seam into his scalp, he drove until I-15 turned into Paradise Road. Until he was sure he’d never see another set of eyes asking if he needed help. Growing up he held his penis with his right hand to piss, but what was given to him at birth was taken away after the first incision into his skull. So he learned to pee lefty, and he learned to never charge over twenty on his MasterCard, because signing was too damn embarrassing—even for a man so near death.

When the tremor started in his right arm he brought it across his chest and held it firmly at the wrist with his left hand, like trying to steady a jackhammer. He had thirty seconds to find soft ground before the world convulsed violently and he woke delirious, in his own urine and tears. But when he got to Vegas he needed a job. His hands shook like plucked guitar strings, but anticonvulsants helped enough—a couple months would do it.

His first five interviews lasted less than ten minutes.

Then on his sixth, Tim became a handyman for Hilton Hotels. He had built beautiful homes his entire life, and carpenters of forty years experience would watch him work and tell him his hands didn’t need saws and hammers to shape wood. “Nothin’ but buildin’ a birdhouse for people,” he’d reply.

At Hilton he replaced light bulbs, tightened door hinges—fixed hotel rooms while he knew his body would forever be broken. Tim worked slower than the other carpenters at Hilton, and after two weeks the healthy sat opposite him in the break room. I need to make peace, anyway, not friends, Tim thought over lunch breaks, and his tongue and lips moved to the words of the Lord’s Prayer each night.

On Sundays he stepped left foot first into Low Avenue Church, his listless right leg dragging like a tired child. He sat alone and sang the same songs he had when there was hair atop his head and a better life to hope for. He offered ones and fives and quarters and nickels, and he drank Christ’s blood and he ate Christ’s flesh every Sunday.

On his third week at Low Avenue, Tim stood, removed his khaki beret and lowered his head in respect for God. From the pew behind came a gasp. He turned in place to see a young boy with fingers for eyes and a frightened woman gawking at the barbed-wire scars on his scalp. He thought back to when he was a boy, healthy and unmarked, and, for a moment, he wanted to run from that church and back to his mother. But like everyone else, she was busy living. So he turned forward and hung the beret on his head. He collapsed at the waist, hands clenching the pew ahead, and cried while the happy people around him sang in the name of God.

Monday, April 9, 2012

“Ortigia” by Michelle Reale

We promised each other we would work on ourselves. First. He went fishing like he always did. I wanted to record every day life. I felt like I was missing so much since we decided to live together. There was only one window. The walls were pink and damp though the heat outside left every thing brown and crackling. I couldn’t reconcile the two.

I set up the video camera. I wanted to see what the little house looked like as I went about my every day life. I did everything from the inside out.

He surprised me when he came in. He hadn’t been gone long. He held a shiny black trash bag. His stomach was protruding through his orange t-shirt. I thought of the fuzz below his navel. How I longed to stroke it, but knew that and other things were off limits for a time.

What have you got there? I asked, even though I knew, because who doesn’t like to let their own narrative unfold?

He laid the bag on the floor then pulled out a bundle wrapped in an old flannel. Unrolled it gently. I saw the blood, first. Then I recognized the flannel.

Tell me, I said.

First he talked about how the line snapped. Then, how the fish kept leaping out of the water, banging into one another. How they threw themselves against the boat and seemed disoriented.

Bloody hell, I said, but felt excited anyway.

But, he said.

I waited.

He held both of the nearly navy blue fish in the fist of his left hand. He was sweating. He looked into the camera. Is it on? He asked.

I nodded, stepped into view, and provocatively adjusted the straps of my red bra. I imagined he would find it an interesting gesture when we watched together later on. The fizzy wine was cold and I desperately wanted a glass.

Shut it off, he said. His breath was rapid and choppy. I thought of the ocean. We were only a few feet away from an ancient sea wall. I heard the waves breaking.

He was rooted in place. Only his eyes were moving. I pried his fingers off of the squashed tail fins of the gleaming, speckled fish and set them side-by-side on the table.

I tip-toed in front of the camera. Complied with his wishes.

Monday, April 2, 2012

“His Hands Are Off Her Now” by Rachelle Mathis

On the morning of the day I killed my boyfriend, I woke up before the sun rose and snuggled closer to him in his bed. Sleepily, he turned his head toward me and brushed my cheek with his lips. He caressed my arm softly and then he was out again. I lay awake staring into the dark, not knowing why I felt so uneasy. At almost nine he rolled away from me and out of bed, saying,

"I'm gonna shower, baby, and then we can go to the farmer's market like you wanted."

I didn't reply, merely glanced at him, and then back down at the bed. He looked confused.

"What's the matter?"

I held my arms up and he laid down beside me again. Ignoring his question, I pressed my mouth to his. I felt his surprise, but he kissed me back eagerly. My hands ran up his bare back, my nails made welts on his skin.

Once we were done, after he had made a wet spot on the blue striped sheets, he left me to take that earlier intended shower. I dug into my backpack, pulled out the mini skirt and t-shirt I had selected at my own apartment the night before. The skirt slung low on my hips. I had lost weight since buying it, too much weight. He sometimes liked to gently slide his hands over my collarbone, my ribs, anything of mine that felt fragile.

"Baby, you're like a doll." he'd whisper in my ear, loosely gripping the base of my neck. "My little doll."

In just a few minutes he was out of the shower. He had always been quick like that, forever impatient at how long I took to get ready. That day I was done before him. I had just pulled my long hair back into a ponytail and skipped any make up, knowing I could opt to cover my face with sunglasses. I watched him dress. I studied the muscles in his back as he pulled a shirt over his head. I knew how good looking he was, how lucky I was that someone like him loved me.

His car was so clean it reminded me of a hospital, or some other sterile environment. My own vehicle was so messy that he refused to ride in it. As soon as we were on the road he reached over for my hand and held it tightly. Squeezing it now and then to get my attention, he would grin at me once I looked over and say something like,

"You're beautiful, Baby."

I'm still not really sure why I never fully believed him. I would glance into the side mirror and study myself, never satisfied with what I saw.

The farmer's market was crowded with other professional couples. It was the thing to do. We were all the same. We lived on the same Spanish-named streets. We shopped at the same IKEA. We drove the same route down the PCH. We all lived our lives for each other. He did most of the shopping, a little of everything here and there. Filling our trendy burlap sack with things our parents never worried about buying when we were growing up, like organic honey and heirloom tomatoes. It was my idea to get apricots. They looked so fresh and appealing. Tasty. I bought a bag full of them.

"You don't even like apricots." he told me. "You said the taste makes your mouth itch."

I ignored him. Instead I thought about being little, and always wanting spinach at the store because that's what Popeye ate. I would whine and cry until my father bought some for me, but when it came time for me to eat it I would throw an even bigger fit and he would have to toss it out. I wondered why Daddy kept buying it if he knew I was going to do that.

He wanted to take the scenic route home, through the canyon and wooded areas surrounding our suburban community. Singing along to the radio and holding my hand, he would take his eyes off the road to glance at me every now and then. I would smile slightly, and wish the heaviness in my heart would go away.

I had such perfection with him, a steady relationship with a loving man who had a great job. The things that scared me about him were my own problem. I was the abnormal one. The look in his eyes when he said "I love you" wouldn't make other girls uneasy. The way my skin crawled and stung when he put his hands on me wasn't his fault.

"Baby, why are you crying?"

I dropped his hand and traced a finger under my eye. I was crying. I couldn't answer him. What was wrong with me? I started to shake. I wrapped my arms around myself and leaned against the door. His concerned expression was making me angry.

"Did you take your meds today?"

I still didn't reply. I stared ahead at the road, at every curve the car approached, at every beautiful bit of scenery that was supposed to make me grateful for life. Without a word, I reached over and jerked the wheel as hard as I could. The impact felt better than his kisses.

Warmth was the sensation that caused me wake up. At first I thought it was just my crying, because I was crying harder than ever before. But my hand to my face brought back bright red. It hurt to turn my head to the left. What I saw hurt worse than that. I didn't have to check his pulse to know he was dead. Half of him was inside the car, half of him was outside. None of it looked human.

I unbuckled my seat belt and realized that as fastidious as he was about most things, he never wore his. I never did well enough in English to remember if that would be classified as irony, but I decided to call it so. The bag of apricots had broken open, and the smell of busted fruit mixed with that of copper and death. One rested in my lap, as pure and perfect as it had been when I bought it.

Cradling the apricot to my chest, I kicked at the passenger door until it opened. I crawled up the embankment and sat on the roadside. I knew I had a while to wait until someone drove by. Biting into the apricot, I noted that it was the best thing I had ever tasted.