Originally appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly.Read More
A storm is coming and Luke’s made sure we have everything we’ll need: enough dry food to get through the week, a bathtub filled with tap water, flashlights, batteries, extra blankets. If it were up to me, it would be nothing but condoms and booze, but Wyoming Luke is serious about survival. He wants to board up the windows but I’ve asked him not to. I want to watch as third avenue becomes a small river, as coffee cups, plastic bags, and wayward umbrellas emerge from the canal and float like spirits down the street.
This isn’t the kind of affair where he tells me he loves me. He doesn’t buy me gifts, or promise to leave his wife. He doesn’t miss me when I’m not around, or pursue me when I don’t answer his texts. Wyoming Luke is with me because Hannah is visiting her sister in Arizona. He’s protecting us, but he wants to get back to her.
I am Luke’s first man. The night we met, he bought me a drink at a jazz club. He led me to his apartment, his callused hand on my back, his lips breathing the singer’s tune into my neck. Once we were at his place, I was bold enough to pull his clothes from his body, to remove his wedding band before slipping his finger into my mouth, but then he pushed me to my knees. He covered my mouth, pulled my hair, gripped my neck. He made sure I knew who was boss. Afterward, he held me through the night, pulling my cheek to his chest, entangling his legs with mine, at random moments kissing my neck or nibbling my ear.
In the morning, he told me not to call him. “My wife,” he said.
When I came to New York, I wanted a scrappy town, a place where bad things could happen. I wanted to live in a place where you were never too far from destruction. The brownstone behind my apartment has a back porch. Mannequins clutter its’ roof. I look at them every day. Six moldy torsos. A trash can full of heads. But it’s the limbs that interest me most. Here, an upturned foot. There, a knee bent at ninety degrees—all frozen as though photographed alive, in motion.
In some way, each mannequin manages to touch the one next to him. When I look at them, I think of vacation nights spent with my cousins as children—five of us crammed into one bed, determined not to fall asleep, though we eventually tired of each other and slept like death until the rancid smell of chitterlings woke us. We clambered from the bed, rubbing our eyes, covering our noses, running from Grandma’s house into the brightness of the Carolina sun.
I sit cross-legged in a chair and watch as Wyoming Luke plays solitaire by candlelight. His fingers expertly shuffle and pile the cards as he deals himself another hand.
“You wanna play?” he asks. Outside, the wind screams and the rain pounces. He doesn’t wait for me to answer before he starts playing again. I get up and go to the kitchen. I open a bottle of cabernet and pour one third of it into a freshly cleaned balloon glass. I hear Wyoming Luke in the living room every time he slaps the table as he places each card.
Through the window I watch the neon sign for the auto body repair shop that hangs across the street. It moves more violently than I’ve ever seen. I wonder if it will fall to the ground and shatter, sparks shooting from it, dying in the water that amasses in the streets, or if it will continue as before, hanging, slow-swinging, its’ movement sparse.
A storm is coming and I have everything I’ll need. If Wyoming Luke stopped playing card games, rested his long arms against the back of the couch, spread his legs and nodded at me, I’d be immediately in front of him, on my knees. Instead I drink my wine, and he plays on, the sound of the cards landing against the coffee table relentless in my ear.
Originally appeared in Bound Off.
Janice was on an airplane headed to a conference she didn’t want to attend. The woman next to her spilled a cup of wine on Janice’s lap and then, a few minutes later, turned her nearly empty bag of miniature pretzels inside out to get at the broken bits in the corners, showering Janice with salt and crumbs. Behind them, a child howled for an entire hour. Above, one baggage compartment door kept coming unlatched. A flight attendant shut it several times but it wouldn’t stick, so she moved the luggage to another compartment but the door kept flapping around as the plane trundled on.
About halfway through the flight, the seatbelt lights flashed on. The attendants whispered in a cluster at the back of the plane before buckling themselves into fold-out seats. A disembodied pilot’s voice brought warning of severe turbulence. Soon, the cabin went dark. A rush of air swept through the aisle.
In the end, the plane made a fiery crash landing in an icy field. Janice remained conscious throughout the entire event. About half of the passengers survived. Janice untethered herself from the wreckage, managed to find her suitcase, and emerged onto the ice where some of the uninjured survivors wandered aimlessly, their sooty faces contorted in disbelief. Emergency personnel arrived along with a television crew. As the unaffected loaded people onto stretchers and set up their cameras, Janice stood off to the side behind a pine tree. She realized this was her one chance to disappear entirely, without questioning or investigation. Everyone would assume she had been killed in the crash. A team of men hoisted large hoses up to the smoldering debris. Janice pulled a cigarette from her cape and walked into the snowy forest, dragging her suitcase behind her. She had always enjoyed the cold.
By Justine Champine
Myrtle had always been beautiful and fashionable but was blinded in a fox hunting accident at the age of thirty-five. Because of this, her husband divorced her, and Myrtle fell into a bitter depression. She woke up in the night, stricken by terror, with the thought of forgetting what a hummingbird looked like. She sustained a number of cuts and burns learning how to cook for herself without sight in an unfamiliar kitchen. Eventually, Myrtle learned braille and became a widely sought after narrator of audio books. Everyone loved her deep voice.
Her former husband caught wind of her success and invited her over to what was once also her home to have dinner with him and his new wife, whose voice was unbearably cheerful. Over dinner, the ex-husband lauded Myrtle’s fortitude. He claimed to have always known she would persevere. The food was terrible.
After the meal, Myrtle pretended to go to the wash room. Instead, she crept silently upstairs and into what was once her dressing room. On the vanity was a jewelry box. Myrtle emptied its entire contents into a secret pocket she’d sewn into her cape for this very purpose. Then she pretended to be exhausted, and showed herself out the front door. Thank you for your generosity, she shouted over her shoulder on the way out.
By Justine Champine
Matilda wandered away from the picnic in search of her glasses but soon found herself lost in an untended thicket of vines. Each direction she turned looked identical to the last. Beyond the vines she could see only the shapes of more vines, and strange fruited flowers climbing upward toward the sunlight. As she walked further into the swamp, the light grew weaker and the vines were all covered in moss. Matilda could still hear sounds of the picnic she’d left. It was a party thrown by her family to celebrate her 101st birthday, which was not actually for another week. Everyone spoke to her in a loud, painfully slow voice but she tolerated it because now, when she cleared her throat to say something, everyone went completely silent and listened with rapt attention. Sometimes she only meant to ask what time it was, though sometimes she did want to share some recollection from earlier in life and her children and their children gave her such thorough and unwavering audience Matilda was almost flustered by it. She thought about this as she ambled further into the thicket. Throughout her girlhood the law still barred women from owning property. She could remember making money as a teenager scrubbing cloth diapers on a washboard for wealthier families. As a woman, Matilda was unable to open a checking account without the consent of a husband she did not yet have. People began listening to her so intently only when she got so old as to be aspirational. They were always asking, What’s the secret to such a long life? She’d had to answer questions like this so many times she began to make things up. I start every morning with a shot of cold vodka, she’d explain, or A handstand every night before bed, for the circulation. Matilda reached a clearing in the vines and came upon a hole in the ground about as wide as a garbage can lid. She crouched down to peer over the edge and felt a vague suction pulling at her hands, like a weak vacuum. In the hole, she could see not only the glasses she’d gotten lost searching for, but also every item she’d misplaced over the last century of life. A gold wedding band, an innumerable collection of hair pins, a seal skin coat left on a train, many tax documents and pencils and sets of keys, an antiquated biology textbook, a purple suede glove with seed pearl buttons, bottles of medication. The hole was deep. She could hardly make out the bottom of it beneath all the lost things. Matilda plucked her glasses and a pack of cigarettes from the top of the pile and slowly made her way back to the picnic.
By the second day, Brunhilda had grown bored and had enormous regret over drinking the grenadine. She’d already polished all the stones in her jewelry box and re-read the books stacked on the nightstand and gave herself a manicure, then she pulled all the loose threads from her throw rug and from them wove another much smaller rug. That night, as she was falling asleep, she wished aloud for an end to the agonizing stomach cramps.
In the morning, the cramps had not subsided but there was a small, green creature at the side of her bed. It looked like a little child, but had tiny curled horns like a ram and could speak and walk like any grown person. Good morning, it said, I heard your wish. Brunhilda stared at the creature. I can fix you for a
small price, it continued. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and yawned. She still felt very ill from the spoiled grenadine. The creature pulled a scroll of paper from behind its back and extended it toward Brunhilda, you just have to sign here, it explained, pointing its slender little finger at a blank space toward the bottom. She read the contract over. What’s this about my first born? She asked. The creature shook its head, opened its mouth to say something, but Brunhilda crumpled up the contract and tossed it to the side. Get real, she told it. Fine, the creature continued, how about that bottle of nail polish on your nightstand? I’m very fond of the shade. Brunhilda sighed and rolled her eyes up to the ceiling, This color is discontinued, she groaned.
In the end, an agreement could not be reached and the little creature disappeared in a puff of smoke. Brunhilda recovered but lost all tolerance for the taste of grenadine.
The girl knocks on the wooden door frame. Dogs start barking, the shapes of them knocking against the curtains in the front window. The curtains are held together with safety pins to keep the cold out. Thick plastic covers the windows, taped with duct tape along the frames. Like every winter.Read More
By John Proctor
When you realize that your worst fears are not of what you think them to be, but exactly the opposite. When you imagine the ice caps melting and sending a tidal wave crashing over your city, you are afraid of being priced out of your neighborhood. When you imagine the death of someone in your family, you are afraid of doing hundreds of small things that will make your spouse wish he or she had stayed with the person he or she’d been dating before you, or that your children will have to work out with their future therapists and/or religious cults. When you remember 9/11 fondly, perhaps it’s because the city’s temporary collapse drew deeper meaning, or at least a temporary respite, from the numbers you’d been coding for people’s reactions to personal hygiene products at the market research job you’d taken after being fired from your PR job and the advertising job before it. Perhaps when you imagine the worst possible scenario, you’re seeking to avoid the most obvious one: that you, like everyone else, are subject to the quotidian middle, where the best and worst possible scenarios are well beyond your reach.
By John Proctor
When you follow a low crescent moon down the West Side Highway, past early October fireworks over the Palisades cliffs, under the George Washington Bridge that shuffled you into this city sixteen years ago and you feel for a moment that rush of expectation, of imagined colonization that you’ll never feel again, that was never real in the first place but it feels like the only thing for this ephemeral, echoing moment, before you come back to this also-moment, when you’re driving back to Brooklyn from your job in Westchester County like you do every Thursday evening, and the crescent sliver looks so thin, so fragile as it lowers to meet the shimmering Jersey skyline, and you remember standing at the Queens Plaza train station at 2am composing lines in blank verse in your journal as that same moon vanished into the glistening teeth of midtown Manhattan—you called that piece “And the City Swallowed the Moon” but now, fifteen years later as you pass West 30th and the moon dips behind Jersey City, you know even New York can’t eat the moon. It’s just moving into someone else’s skyline.