LaToya Watkins' story nominated for a Pushcart Prize.Read More
Here is a story—Security and Exchange—from Dan Bevacqua, our best selling author of 2015.Read More
This is the last day of our Feature for LaToya Watkins and we're closing it out with The Mother, which won a Pushcart Prize.Read More
I ain't miss them kids much last night, but I wish I did. Feel like it'll be right if I try to feel something for them. Like I'm supposed to, but I can’t. I watch them chase each other across the tall grass and try to remember playing in the yard when I was little. I shouldn't.Read More
By LaToya Watkins
I been sitting here, waiting for them to lead you in. Fifteen minutes feel like fifty. I distract myself by counting the number of water stains on the ceiling. Then I figure how many women in the room. How many men? Children? The brother and sister that were carrying on during the bus ride up here are now begging their momma for money. Banging on the glass of the vending machine again and again. They stop when one of the guards finally stomps over and motions for them to sit. Stay. Some folks are pacing now. Others holding up the wall. We all waiting. Waiting for the sound of locks to spring open.
I study the women in the room with fresh make-up and fresh dollars. I have neither. There was no time to stop at Phillips 66 this morning, not after Mr. Bodee took sick. So I wait for you with two crumpled bills in one pocket and a folded up piece of paper in the other. The sea of orange jumpsuits will soon roll in like some rip tide. I stare at the big metal door you will walk through, and hope I can find the words this time before they are swept away. My eyes go back to the vending machine, to the rows of salted chips in C6 and the rows of Reese’s in B4. You always had a thing for peanut butter. That’s about the one thing that hasn’t changed in all this.
There is no line at the candy machine when the men file in. They are all serious until they scan the room and see their families. Then their faces light up. Finally, I see you. You are being led in my direction by a guard who looks like he’s still in high school, his face dotted with pus pimples.
You start talking fast before you sit down. We got two and a half hours.
“Hey, sis,” you say as you start drumming on the table between us. “How you been?”
I study you long and hard. This visit has to last. You are only thirty, and already balding at the top. Your eyes are like hard rust on an old penny. Before all this, they were brown.
“How’s Grandma? you say. “She still giving you a hard time?”
Grandma has never been here to see you. Not once in the eleven years you been in Lamesa. Neither has Momma for that matter. I open my mouth, but the words are swept away. I want to tell you that Grandma put a lock on the refrigerator door last week. She was always like some sentry on watch when it came to food. At three hundred pounds she can stand to miss a meal or two. The thought of a padlocked ice box makes me bust out laughing, especially since I know she hid the key in the bottom of her shoe. She should have put a lock on Uncle Elroy’s door. Kept him away from you. I think about Elroy now and my stomach knots up.
“She fine, Calvin,” I say. “I know how to stay out her way.”
You nod. Smile. Look away. Your eyes dart around the room. A long line has formed at the vending machine. One by one they feed fresh dollars and loose change into the slot. You shift in your seat before turning back to me.
“How are things out there, G? What’s going on?”
You are the only one who calls me G. On his good days, Mr. Bodee calls me Gem. Short for Gemini. He tells me that I’m a jewel. I start to tell you about Mr. Bodee ending up in the hospital and my being up all night waiting for his family to come in from Dallas. I have only known Mr. Bodee for about a year, but already he feel like family.
“Remember the man I work for?” I say. “Had to rush him to the ER late last night.”
Calvin laughs out loud. “What you do to that old man, G?”
I want to tell you that I button his shirt and cook his potatoes, and that we read together. But the words leave me again. Before I know it, someone else catches your eye. You follow a tall skinny gal walking towards the long wall for a telephone visit. She is carrying her bra in her hand and all the men are staring at her. Women too. Her breasts look like they'll bring her to the floor. I have nothing to speak of, so I can get by with a boy’s tee-shirt most of the time.
“Look at her,” you say.
I saw her pacing before, but I look again. She sits down in front of bullet proof glass and picks up the receiver. The man opposite her touches the scratched glass and she follows suit. It is as close to a contact visit as they will get.
Their raised hands remind me of Momma, waving at me. I saw her from the bus this morning. First time in years. I don’t know whether I should share the news everybody been whispering about since Uncle Elroy and your trial became the gossip of the day. Momma’s not your favorite subject. But then I decide to just come out and say it.
“I saw Momma from the bus on my up,” I say.
You look back without a word.
I don’t tell you the rest. That it was at least one hundred and ten degrees in the shade and she had on a purple turtle-neck sweater and denim shorts. I was embarrassed for her at first. Then Mr. Bodee’s words came into my head and I tried to remember who Momma was before the track marks and before the state took us. All I can come up with is how she smelled like Blue Magic pomade whenever she hugged me. Mr. Bodee says that’s a start. He was a sixth grade teacher for thirty-seven years before he started forgetting stuff, like how to button his shirt and find his way home. But he still knows a lot.
Your penny eyes grow harder. Still, you say nothing. I take advantage of the silence and say one last thing.
“She waved at me. She knew who I was and waved at me.”
You are disgusted. You roll your penny eyes. “Yeah,” you say. “She call you out by name?”
You don’t wait for me to answer. You shift in your seat and breathe in deep. I bite my lip and wish I could call the words back. But it’s too late. We sit stone faced.
We are saved by the children laughing at the next table, reading with their father. It is the sister and brother from before. I wonder if they are teaching their father how to read the way Mr. Bodee is teaching me. Me and Mr. B. use picture books too. The little girl is doing the reading. She helps me find the words to tell you.
“Calvin, I can’t come Saturdays no more,” I say fast. “At least for awhile.”
“Why? You sick or something?”
“No. Not sick.” I pull the folded up paper from my pocket and push it towards you.
“I’m starting classes at community college. Saturdays. My free day.”
You look at the paper. Then you stare at me with your hard penny eyes as if you are trying to place my face. I am your only family.
“Good for you, G,” is all you say before you look away from me. There is another long line at the vending machine.
“You bring change with you?”
I shake my head. I think about Archie, the white guy who opens up Phillips 66 on Saturday mornings. He was probably waiting at the register with my ninety-nine cents bean burrito and five crisp dollar bills, the way he does every Saturday. But I missed him this morning.
I stretch out my leg and stuff my hands deep into the pocket of my second hand jeans. I fish around until I find the dollar I’ve been searching for and pull the crumpled thing out. You look down at the dollar and frown.
“Awh, Gemini. What I tell you about them raggedy dollars? You know that machine be tripping. You better hope it works or you owe me two next week.”
It’s as if you didn’t hear one word I said about college. I try to remind you, but you cut me off.
“Yeah, whatever. Just remember for next time. Straight dollars or loose change. And get some money together to put on my books for commissary.”
“Sure, next week,” I say as I nod my head. Then I get up and make my way to the end of the line. I can feel you stare hard at me, like Mr. Boddie do sometimes. I look your way and see you drop your pennies to the floor like so much loose change.
Originally published in Kweli Journal.
Vashti read the bear policy posted at the start of the trail twice before she decided to walk with us. She made one command. "If we gone do this shit, y'all can't pull out no snacks, no water, no nothing. Ain't no bear bout to fuck with me. Y'all asses gone follow these policies."
I think she came along because she's curious about the nature of bears, but her fear is what drives us. She's almost ours in this place. In these mountains, so near where I hunted with my father as a boy. She's been our girl for the past couple of days. It's been nice. It’s a change. We've been her boys for such a long time. But now, on this mountain, things are right in the universe as long as she fears the bear.
I watch her wiggle her fingers through water trickling down the opening of the shallow cave. I'm bored. I want to climb. I watch her for a little while longer and then take a look at my wrist. We've been waiting for more than twenty minutes now, and it's starting to bother me that she won't go ahead.
"Tree cracking up there above your head, Vash," I say. "You probably ought to move away from that water. If a bear's on his way down here, I'm sure that's where he's heading." I try to sound concerned. A husband should be.
"Nuh, uh. You lying," she says, still crouching but turning her head to face me. The way she's twisting her face like a question makes me think about all the old photos hidden in a box in our garage. She almost looks beautiful. Young.
She captured me in a drunken and desperate one-night stand. I've been what she likes to call "hers" ever since. And she is content with things this way. She's okay with me not loving her. My cop money is like a gold mine to her. Our arrangement is not okay with me.
I turn my head. I want her to know I'm serious. There is a rustling above us. I can't be serious looking into her dark eyes. They're smooth and persuasive and demanding and bold. Got eyes like a time machine. They like to take me back to the party where we happened. The Tech party she didn't have no business being at. Guess I shouldn't have been there either. I wasn't a Tech student, but at least I was a student. I'd driven the road to Lubbock with a few guys from my own school in Kentucky. One of them had someone important at Texas Tech.
I wanted to impress the guys, so I had her. They all walked away from that weekend whole. Not me. I had to do the right thing.
I adjust the pack on my back and look at my watch again. I know she's watching me. I want her to know I'm watching my watch. I'm ready to hike—to climb. I was born for mountains. My father caught that early. That made him proud. We never missed a Tennessee deer season. That was before I could never go back home.
She finally stands up and drops the stick. She wipes something away from her legs and smacks her lips. "We ain't leaving him. You talking bout bears and shit. I'll be damned if I leave him down there. He ain't but thirteen, and he scary as shit," she says. She's gritting her teeth and spitting a little. I can tell she's trying hard not to be herself. She's so close to cursing me out I can hear the words in the back of her throat.
I want to sigh at the mention of her son Keylan, but I don't. She slapped me for calling her an enabler last month when I thought she was babying him. I didn't hit her back. I would never hit her back. My mother would rise from her grave if I ever considered it. My father would shake his head like I'm pitiful and hate me more than he already does. I remember he used to tell me before leaving for his own shift at the force, "Take care of your momma, or I'll take care of you."
Vashti slapped me hard enough to cause my face to turn red, and I'm blue-black. I try to understand that she comes from violence, but that gets hard. I feel bad for the man she's allowing—no making Keylan become. She's hindering his growth because she don't like where it's going. She's been doing that for a real long time. But it really got bad a few months ago when she caught him watching internet porn—gay porn. She didn't ask him how he found it. If it was by accident. She just blew up.
Now she swears up and down he's gay. Says she don't mind the boy watching porn, but Chicks with Dicks isn't the way she'll allow her boy to go.
The day she slapped me, she'd walked in the bathroom to put some towels from the laundry away, and Keylan was getting undressed to shower. Caught him off guard and he almost split his head wide open trying to hide behind the shower door. I guess she was pretty surprised by what she saw because she walked right out of the bathroom and slammed her hand over her mouth. Then she released the hand, smiling big and wide. "My baby got pubes and man-sized balls." Then her smile became a frown. She turned around and went right back into the bathroom.
Keylan started crying, begging her to leave, but she wanted to know what man he'd been showing his anatomy to. That's when I cut in and told her all her talking—her pushing the boy was inappropriate. She was being an enabler and she would stunt his growth to manhood. That's when she told me to mind my damn business. When she slapped me as hard as any man could.
Later that night, after we made what she likes to call love, after she told me she needed money for her hair and nails and a new outfit for job-hunting, she asked me what an enabler was. I just lay there for a while, trying to enjoy her head in the fold of my arm—in the fold of my arm where my woman should rest. I didn't want to ruin the moment—the peace. Her believing in me—that I had the key to open her up. Me believing in myself. So I lied.
"I don't know," I said. "I just made it up." And in that moment, I lit up her world. She rose from the fold, smiling and kissed me with as much passion as was ever between us.
My squad partner, Chavis, says I should leave her. Says to hell with her and her son, but I think Chavis is wrong. My father taught me that men don't leave. We sacrifice because we're supposed to see what's coming. "Men are prophets," he once told me. "Every single one of them got the power to see and cast out demons before they can touch us." I was supposed to see that Vashti was who she is. I failed.
My father. I'll respect him and his Kentucky Church of Christ spirit for as long as I live. Still, I know he'll never forgive me. All his preachy ways about men and what they're supposed to do and be. He thinks I'm a demon. A sodomite. He never tried to help me understand my manhood but penalized me when I tried to explore it. I asked him about sex when I was still in middle school, and his tongue sent me to hell. After his verbal rebuke, we kneeled in front of the white Jesus painting in our basement for days, praying that demon out of me. After that, we pretended to forget that I had ever said anything.
We both tried to make me right. Each in our own way. My father gave me God, and God gave me Alvin White. When my fathercaught us sleeping—cuddled up close and naked— in the same bed my senior year of high school, he stopped speaking to me altogether. It was the only time I'd ever been intimate with anyone, and my father gave up on me forever. Told me when I left for college he never wanted to see me again. But still, I try. I married Vashti for right. For my father and Jesus. Neither one of them speaks to me anymore.
I turn my head toward Vashti and can't help but smile. Her struggle for femininity is funny to me. She's so tall and filled out in those calf-length tights. Like a big man would be. Her belly button is smiling at me on purpose. Her tank-top is too short. It shouldn't be, but she likes it that way. Her stomach jiggles when she moves, but she does that. Wears clothes that no one can mistake are feminine and false nails so long they curve. Reminds me of mothers who glue bows on the heads of bald baby girls so strangers don't mistake them for boys. I wish she knew that her womanhood is unmistakable. That she's nothing like a man. And that I've really tried to love her.
We both hear limbs breaking this time and her eyes widen as she reaches her arms out to grab at me. The trail that winds up this mountain is narrow and two miles long. The trees are a canopy above us, creating a green darkness that I have missed over the years. Fear sparkles in Vasti's eyes at the cracking of every limb or the chirping of every bird. She's not used to this. She's from a flat land. Dust storms and tornados are common for her. She'll stand in the eye of one of those storms. She's not home in my mountains. We are only a quarter of the way up and I hope this hike lasts forever. I place my hand on her shoulder to steady her nervous movement.
"We need to go back," she says once she's safe in my arms. "Which way is it moving, Sonny?" she asks in a childish voice that I like. She's never really been submissive or nothing like that. Vashti always knows what she wants and when she wants it.
"Sounds like it’s moving down. We should go up. It'll have moved down, near the base, by the time we hike back down," I say.
"You out of your head. Keylan down there. Shit, I'm tired of you treating him like he ain't yours," she says. She's frowning and her eyes appear to have forgotten that she's helpless in my mountains. That this is where she needs me to guide her.
I want to tell her how unfair it is for her to say those things. That I love Keylan like he’s my own son. But most of all, I want to remind her that she is in my mountains. That she is woman and I am man. "It's not like that, Vashti. It's really not. And I'm talking about the base. Keylan's on the trail. The bear won't go down the trail. Keylan will b—"
"Why in the hell did he go back for anyway, Sonny? We climbing a fucking mountain. Me and my baby don't know shit about no woods. We from East Park," she says like I don't already know. Like I don't know where the night at the Tech party has led me. Like I didn't find out that, with her friends, she'd crashed the party from her raunchy neighborhood. Like I've forgotten that I quit school and moved to her town when she called and claimed pregnant. Like I can forget that there is no green there. That it's flat and mountains only live in my dreams there.
"Why would your dumb ass let him go back?" She twists her head out of my arms and looks around. "Shit, I don't even know what to do." Her eyes are blaming me for her confusion when the tree over our heads begins to wiggle.
"Move," I say, waving her back down the mountain. "He's coming down this way."
No sooner than I speak the words, a black bear pushes dirt and grass over the ridge above us. Vashti sees the same claws I see and I have to remind her with a finger against my lips to stay quiet. I mouth to her not to run. To walk back slowly, but I stand there and watch as the bear makes his way down to the hiker's trail and then to the small cave I'd warned Vashti about. I step back, keeping a safe distance between myself and the bear. He has deposited himself on the trail. He sits between me and the top of the mountain and moves with slowness and certainty, like he owns the trail and the mountain and the small cave. On all fours, he laps the falling water and I can see a bald patch on his back. He drinks and ignores me, but I know he knows I'm here. I look behind me to make sure Vashti is safe, but she's gone.
I want to worry about her, but I don't have time. I haven’t been this close to a bear in years, and I know he'll soon disappear into the mountain. He reminds me of my father. Large and comfortable and avoiding my eyes. My father loved the mountains. Said they were the original homes of men. He stopped taking me when I was sixteen. When I stopped being a man. I wonder if he still hikes them. If he's seen this bear.
I want to capture the bear. To have this memory of my father trapped in time. I remember that Vashti has the Nikon in her pack. I back away from the drinking bear to get it. When I meet her about sixty feet down the trail, she is standing with Keylan and another group of hikers. She's warning them about the bear—telling them it's not safe, but they ready their cameras and smile. They know this small mountain. Keylan smiles too.
"I want to see it, Sonny," he says, and his hopeful eyes remind me that I must be a better father than the one Vashti originally chose for him.
I smile at him and beckon him over with a wave. "Get the camera from your mom."
"I know you don't think I'm about to let him go back up there for no bear. You trying to kill this boy today, ain't you, Sonny?" she asks, grabbing Keylan's growing bicep to hold him near her.
Keylan rolls his eyes and lets out a loud huff. He shifts the weight of his slender, near six foot frame to one leg. He has grown so much since I met him eight years ago. He was a disturbed kindergartener then. Hiding under classroom desks, thinking that the same cops who arrested his father would get him. He was sensitive; Vashti called him a crybaby. He was just one of those kids who stayed to himself. The quiet kind of kid who didn't get into much trouble. Took him a while to warm up to me since I was a cop, but it didn't take me long to realize that Keylan was a good kid. Vashti is still hard on him. Says he's always been a little too soft. But Keylan really is a good kid.
When Keylan's father was released from prison three years ago, we had trouble. Vashti let the alleged father talk her into spending time with Keylan. I've run into trouble with him and Vashti since his release, but marriage is forever. That's what I keep telling myself. Didn't take long for his presence to start coming out in Keylan.
I was angry with Keylan at first. I had put a lot into that kid, and he was blowing it away to be like his alleged father. He was pulling stunts like experimenting with cigarettes, skipping school with his little friends, and even cursing when he thought we couldn't hear him. He even went to sagging his pants and trying to act tough. I took the belt to him when he called me a pig. He didn't tell his mother about the belt, but it hurt my relationship with him.
I began rallying for a kid of my own. Reminding my wife that I married her under false pretenses. She claimed to have lost the baby after we were married. I don't know if I believe she was ever pregnant—if I ever really cared. My father needed to see me be a man. He needed to see me with a woman. So I took Vashti as my wife. My father still won't see the man in me though.
Vashti ignored my requests for a kid. Said I better be happy with Keylan. And I am…until she reminds me that he's not my son. Those days—days like the day she slapped me—I want a son of my own. A little me to teach to be me one day. I'd teach my boy to be a man. I'd forget my father and teach him to be a man the best way I know how.
When I found out what Keylan's father did to him—what he thought he was doing for him, I felt bad—somehow responsible. I was sick for days and my wife didn't understand. It was no big deal to her. It was what he needed. It was the cure. I wanted to vomit and spit and laugh in her face. I wanted to tell her she was supposed to be my cure.
It was after I'd belted him—after I'd judged him—that I found out. It was a Saturday, so Vashti was on one of her all day trips to the beauty salon. I'd been working on the lawn all day. The lawn is the only place where I ever find peace in her town. I've taken on the characteristics of a mound builder and constructed a small mountain on our front lawn. With the grass starting to spring up all over the giant pile of red dirt, I feel that I am rebuilding. Like I have recreated the Appalachians or the Smokies. Reminds me of what I lost.
On that Saturday, when I came back into the house to wash my hands, I heard soft cries coming from the hall bathroom. When I tapped on the door, the cries quieted. I tapped again. This time Keylan answered with a shaky yes.
"Open the door," I said firmly. I was surprised when he actually did.
His eyes were red and tissue was stuck to his face from where he had tried to wipe. I asked him if I could come in, and after some hesitation, he opened the door. I walked over to the toilet and took a seat. He stood by the door with his eyes focused on his shoes.
"What's with the weepy eyes?" I asked, crossing one of my legs over the other.
He shrugged his shoulders. "I'm alright."
"Keylan," I called in a stern voice. "What is it?" I sat there and waited. When he realized I was staying put, he sighed.
"I won't never be no man," he said.
"Why would you say a thing like that, Keylan?" I asked.
"I didn't like it. Maybe I'm soft like Momma say," he said, pointing to his chest. His voice was shaky and it made me sad for him.
"What didn't you like?" I asked.
"He said something wrong cause I didn't want her. He said he gone break the faggot in me."
I felt my mouth open and fall into an "o". "Your dad?" I asked, but I already knew. He nodded.
"He bought me a woman—one of his customers. It made me sick. I didn't want her. I tried to and didn't," he said, before sliding down to the floor like a puddle of sadness and opening his cries to the world.
I stood up from the toilet and kneeled beside him. I offered him all the comfort I had in me. I rubbed his back and told him the story of how I lost home. Told him he'd be okay. And before leaving his defeated body on the bathroom floor, I told him, "Loving a woman has nothing to do with being man, son."
"Mom," Keylan says. "I can handle myself. Sonny bought me this." He holds up the wooden Swiss Army knife I found at the mountain general store last night. I couldn't find one with his name, so I had to settle for one engraved with a "K." That knife is why Keylan went back down the mountain. He'd dropped it and refused to go on without it once he realized it was gone. His mother had been examining the drop on the side of the mountain when he whispered to me that he needed to go back for it. I let him go. I was proud that he even wanted to.
"Where you get that from, boy?" Vashti asks. "You gave my baby a knife?" she asks, eyeing me.
I hadn't told Vashti about the knife. She had spent her time in the store asking the clerk about the Eastern Tennessee fascination with taffy and fudge. She hadn't paid me and the boy much attention. It was a private exchange. We understood that. Not in a hiding kind of way. But in way that meant we understood that this was an important moment, and it made us both something more to each other than we already were. We had these exchanges often, especially after that day on the bathroom floor. When I talked to him about what his father had done—what mine thought of me. When I told him that we would get through that. When I explained that his confusion had to do with his age. He'd been too young for what his father given him.
His eyes are begging me to climb—to see the bear, and as the strangers that had been huddled listening to Vashti's story begin to pass us, I want to share my climb with him.
"Vashti," I begin. "He'll be fine. You go on back down, and we'll meet you at the car. I just want him to see the waterfall at the top. Just this once. Trust me. Let me take him with me," I say. I'm begging her for this. To allow both of us to be men the best way we know how. To allow us this climb. To allow us this freedom to be one with this mountain. To see the beauty in what she fears.
"No," she says, placing her hands on her hips. "He can't go. Both of y'all need to get back to the car. I done let you play Jungle George long enough. Drop this mountain shit and let's go."
I sigh. "Is it the bear, Vashti? Is that it?" I ask. "The bear is like… He's like John the Baptist. He eats locusts and honey. Not people…," I say, letting my words trail off. I'm trying to be gentle and firm with her. But then, I'm tired of watching my tongue. "Not you. He doesn't want food… like you." I finish and feel a growl in my voice.
Her eyes widen and her black lips part to say something. She's rolling her neck and spitting curse words and fire and nails, but I don't hear her. My eyes are pinned on the dark beads that are her son's eyes. I want to save him from her. I want to protect him from becoming me, but defeat is all I've shown him. I cannot save him. Not like this. I'm lost. I've lost.
I nod in the boy's direction. I cut through his mother's words, "Take care of your mother." And then I adjust the pack on my back. A tear rolls down his face, but he nods back and tries to smile. Vashti's curses slice through the silence. She tells me that I can't leave her. I'm weak. I'm not a man. She's still cursing me when I turn my back and set my eyes on the winding trail that is the side of the mountain. Her screams grow louder as I hike away. After a while, those screams become cries, and then they cease altogether.
The sun beams down on the side of the mountain as it prepares to rest for the night. I trek sweaty with no sunglasses. I want to live the mountain. Although I want to see it, I do not pass the bear again. And I realize there is no rush. I'll wait for the bear. I'll wait for as long as it takes.
Originally published at Joyland Magazine.
Joanie had bad teeth; no one would fall in love with her. We sat at her kitchen table drinking gin and juice out of old jam jars while outside the window the world gathered itself into dusk. She said, “It seems so simple when you consider the odds. Seven billion people. Three-and-a-half billion men. That’s three-and-a-half billion chances. But then when it’s me, and every stranger is someone I’d have to smile at, a million to one I’ll die alone.”
She rose and stood in front of the fridge. “Listen to me, going on,” she said. “How are you and Robert doing? Do you want a cheese and pickle sandwich?”
There was a gentle knocking from upstairs, the ghost of her mother that haunted a bedroom closet. Joanie had left the closet closed for years. At night, she said, she could hear her mother crying, but was afraid to let her out.
Joanie used to be my babysitter. I hadn’t seen her in years, but when we moved into her neighborhood she dutifully appeared to shuffle boxes from truck to house in the flat summer light, arriving earlier and staying later than Robert’s and my friends. She looked how I remembered her: the unreachably aged way that 15-year-olds appear to five-year-olds. The front tooth that crossed over the other like a girl uncomfortably crossing and uncrossing her legs.
Our photographer friend Manny caught Joanie carrying a vase and lifted his camera; she shook her head, thrust the vase toward Robert and me, saying, “Flowers belong with flowers.”
“Joanie, come on,” we shouted, laughing. She returned to the door shyly, arms full of antimacassars, and peeked into the lens. As if the good work of helping a neighbor might, just this once, allow her to be lovely.
Outside the window the blue evening waned into black. Joanie said, “You’ve done so well for yourself, Lorraine. You were always so independent. You don’t even need a man.”
The sentence puddled on the table. I wanted to say, loving isn’t about need, but it felt like telling a starving friend that your turkey dinner isn’t very good as you sit and chew it in front of them.
I rose, and she told me I could leave before I said I had to. Upstairs, the ghost of her mother moaned. I rinsed my glass in the sink and went out into the night.
I was halfway home when flowers began to fall from the sky. The frogs hushed, and the whole night went ripe with gardenia. Then it was on me, a heavy rain, damp petals plastering to my face in the dark: dahlia and lily and rose. Stems and blossoms arcing from the clouds to tangle on trees and bounce wetly on lawns, a fragrant golden crush in the porch lights. Something wild opened in me, then. I twisted back to the yellow square of her kitchen window. I wanted to run back inside, to say, Joanie, come on. I wanted to run into every lonely house of every lonely woman on the street, to take them by the hands and fling their arms wide and lead them shy and tender and fearful into the rain with their arms outstretched, telling them: this is for you, this is all for you.
Originally published at People Holding.
There is a snake on your desk.
It is your first day of work. You are alone after a morning of team-building exercises, which you spent sweating into the armpits of a borrowed shirt. You had a tête-à-tête with your supervisor about time sheets and integrity that ran through your lunch hour, but you were afraid to chew in front of him, so now you are starving.
You do not know if the snake is poisonous. Snakes have never been your specialty. You examine it, try to be rational and adult, but all you can think is, it’s a snake! and it’s black! and it’s as big around as a penis! But you realize how subjective that is, and how revealing, and so you mentally amend this to it’s as big around as a pen! which isn’t true, but it’s hard to think of cylindrical things when the shirt you’re wearing smells like someone else’s detergent and there is a snake on your desk and you are going to get fired and have to work at Pizza Hut like everyone else in your graduating class.
You take a breath. You look around for your boss, or a binder of company policies on unexpected reptilian issues. In the neutral-toned distance, somebody switches on the copy machine. The snake flicks its small, black tongue. It tastes your nervous air.
In college, you believed you’d rather die than work in a cubicle. But then the economy fell out from under you and the rest of the nation, and your diploma failed to be the magic carpet that every adult in your life had always promised it would be. Your friends began to move back home one by one, shelving English and Peace Studies degrees to apply for management positions at Home Depot and Zaxby’s, and you thought: Okay. I can compromise for just a little bit. I can do something I love on the side. Until things even out, you thought. You checked your teeth in the mirror. Maybe they’ll give me dental coverage.
Your parents phoned every Sunday. “Have you found anything?” your father asked, weekly.
“I’m still looking,” you answered, weekly. It was getting harder and harder to say this. Applying for jobs was beginning to feel like stapling your resume to small boulders and pitching them out of airplanes. You just prayed they’d hit the right people.
“You know there’s always room for you at home,” your mother said, weekly.
“It’s not that we don’t think you can do it,” your father said, weekly. Which meant, of course, that they didn’t.
You fudged some numbers. You made follow-up calls. You were enthusiastic but not overeager. You smiled plastic smiles at plastic interviewers and described your qualifications and eagerness to work for a Company Just Like This One—only not Like This One, but actually This One, because This Company is appealing to you in some deeply personal way that is exactly the kind of bullshit that the interviewers are paid to believe about Their Companies. Your friends, in parents’ basements across the country, donned polyester uniforms, baseball hats with chickens on them. Their Facebook updates now are frequent, and bitter.
“I can fix up the basement for you,” your mother offered.
“What happened to my room?” you asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “I just moved in a few things. Sewing. Scrapbooking. The dog.”
“The basement is creepy,” you said.
“It’s amazing what a few throw pillows can do,” she said.
But somehow you got hired, and here you are: your first day in the real world, and there is a snake on your desk.
It stretches lazily across your keyboard, black in a way that drinks in the light and spits nothing back out—almost too black to be real. Perhaps it’s not. Perhaps this is a test. They knew they made a mistake hiring you, and now they’re just waiting for you to fail so they can outsource your job to India. “Couldn’t even handle a snake,” they’ll scoff. “Kids these days. Think life should be handed to them on a silver spoon.”
You tug at the cuffs of your shirt. The snake drapes itself across your QWERTY row.
You walk to your neighbor’s cubicle, trying to project an air of confidence. His nameplate says Bill. You are a little angry that somebody named Bill works in Billing. You think he could have made better life choices.
“Um,” you say, sticking your head in his doorway. “Hi.”
Bill is watching a YouTube video of fainting goats. He sees you and jumps.
“Oh, hey,” he says, whipping his headphones off and trying to look official. “You’re the new kid.”
Your hands are empty. You wish you’d brought something with you, something work-related, like a stapler or a three-hole punch, but there is nothing in your cubicle yet except your computer and a snake.
“How’s it going so far?” he asks.
You nod vigorously. “Oh, good, you know. Pretty good.”
“You have any questions or anything?” Bill from Billing asks.
You shake your head. Your voice is a squeak in your throat, a squeak of cheerful desperation. “Nope,” you squeak.
Bill nods. It is obvious he wants to get back to his goat video. “Well, let me know if you need help.” He tries for a joke. “You know where to find me!”
“Yep,” you say. You don’t want to leave because there’s nothing for you to do but go back to your cubicle and the maybe-poisonous snake, but Bill fiddles meaningfully with his headphones, and you are forced to take the hint. “All right,” you say. “Goodbye!” You punch the air a little. “Neighbor!”
The headphones are on. Bill offers a jaunty salute. He thinks you’re useless. You can tell already.
You hope that the snake will be gone by the time you get back, but it is still there. It has coiled itself around your computer. It makes sense, you guess. Snakes are cold-blooded, after all. They have to take their warmth where they can find it.
You approach your desk. The snake watches you, eyes glittering like grommets. Okay, snake, you think. I am just going to do some work now. You can stay there and sleep, and I am going to have a productive, adult day. And I am going to earn a paycheck like a productive adult person, and not move back in with my parents even though the economy is miserable, and I majored in comparative literature and there is a snake on my desk.
Heart pounding, you creep onto the edge of your chair. The snake doesn’t move.
Emboldened, you switch on the computer. You log in, open an empty spreadsheet.
The snake unwinds itself from the computer, undulates silently across your desk. Your throat goes dry. You wish you’d thought to get coffee. You never liked coffee, but you could use one now.
The snake spills itself across your mouse pad, dragging the smooth skin of its underbelly over your wrist. It is surprisingly soft. You didn’t realize it would be so soft. You swallow, affect an ergonomic posture as it spirals up your elbow, cool and dry. It settles itself in the hollow of your throat, and you hold your body very still. You type only with your pinkies, your left thumb. It is less difficult than you expected. You can easily copy and paste.
The back of your throat begins to ache. You think longingly of the water cooler, a coffee. You think: maybe something half-caf. With three Splendas, no cream. If a Starbucks order goes out later, maybe you can chip in. Maybe, once the snake has gone, you can be the one who takes the order.
Originally published by Monkeybicycle.
The trouble was that the shark had been born a human. Certain things were very difficult. The dryness of the air, for one. The stillness of food. As a baby, the shark-child cried constantly and without sound, a great white yawn of woe. It wanted to bite everything but had no teeth.
“She’s so sleepy,” her proud mother said.
“A born napper,” her father said.
The shark-child, of course, did not sleep. The shark-child lay awake in her crib in the silent house, moving her feet ceaselessly beneath the blankets.
The child grew up and forgot she was a shark. Her parents called her Anna. She did well in things like dodgeball and running away. She was running away constantly. Anna’s parents laughed. They bought a toddler leash. She outgrew the toddler leash. She disappeared for hours at a time in grocery stores, in parks. But she always circled back.
When Anna was six she got a younger brother named Lyle. Lyle was a normal child. Which is to say: he was not a shark. He was a human baby with Down’s Syndrome. The entire family loved him to pieces. At night, lying on the couch, their mother would find the two of them, Anna and Lyle, each holding the other’s arm gently in their mouths, and smiling.
After Lyle, Anna did not tire of running away. But she began to bring back things for him: buttons and sticks and the tail of a baby squirrel.
Their parents were very good at loving. They loved and loved and loved.
“We love you,” they told Anna when she didn’t make the volleyball team.
“We love you!” they told Lyle when he sang them songs at dinner.
“We love you,” they told Anna when she was 25 and had just come home again for the 4,815th time, “but maybe it’s time for you to strike out on your own.”
It was the first time Anna had heard love come with a but.
It was a difficult world for a young shark. Several career paths were obvious: cards, for one. Loans. Swim instructor. But Anna’s path had never been a straight one. She applied for everything she knew nothing about. She fell in love with all of the wrong men. She rubbed up against her lovers like she was sandpaper, and they came away from her bleeding and frightened and smooth.
Anna was working as a welder when she met Luis. Luis was a giant man who wore button-down shirts with the top buttons missing, a dark cloud of hair constantly threatening to spill free. He looked like someone who had been a refrigerator in a past life. Instead, he had been a bear.
From 1950 to 1961, Luis had lived in the remote Idahoan wilderness as an 800-pound grizzly. He had been female as a bear, which lead to many confusing encounters in his young human life. He had been shot once in a bar, when a drunk man took a swing at a shrimpy punk kid and a protective instinct that Luis could not understand had reared up in him, roaring. He walked now with a limp.
It was the limp that attracted Anna to Luis. Watching him walk, she felt a sweet ache in her molars.
He approached her after a few months. It had taken him a while to work up the nerve.
“Maurice says you’re pretty good at double-U butt welds,” he said.
It was not a good first line and, saying it, he knew it was a mistake. But the shark girl straightened and smiled.
“I do what I can,” she said. Which was modest. She was exceedingly great at double-U butt welds. But this generosity gave him courage.
“I feel like I know you from somewhere,” he said, tentatively.
She laughed. “We’ve been working together for the last three months,” she said.
He rubbed the back of his neck with a massive hand.
“But before that,” he said. “You seem really familiar somehow.”
Anna tilted her head to the side, scrutinizing him with a flat yellow gaze.
“Yes,” she said. “You too.”
Her torch was beginning to glow hot and bright.
“Do you—want to go out sometime?” Luis asked. “Grab a beer?”
Anna smiled up at him with all of her teeth. Every tooth was saying, yes, you, I choose you.
The bear was the first man Anna stayed with for more than a week. Nothing she did could make him go. When she bit, he bit back. The two of them had enormous, roaring, bloody tussles. Her friends said, you’re crazy. They said, this is a mistake. They said, how can you love a man who’s always at your throat. She’d corrected, we’re always at each other’s throats, and when they stared at her, she said, also the sex is really great. And they said, okay, we guess. Staring at the happiness glowing from her face. Wondering what it was they were missing.
They moved in together in autumn. Luis’ appetite was enormous—for Anna, for food, for life. He repainted her stoop, stacked firewood, talked about putting in a fence. He came home one day with a length of fabric he’d found by a Dumpster. He had plans: washing, ironing, cutting into curtains. “I can do the hemming,” he said, misreading the look on her face. “I taught myself to sew when I was a teenager.”
“Okay,” she said, flatly. That night, she lay apart from him in bed, feeling the tension that ran through her body every time she thought the word curtains. It was fierce and anxious and almost sexual. Curtains. Release. Curtains. Release. Curtains.
He woke to find her packing bags.
“Where are we going?” he asked. In a voice that knew the answer. There was a ring hidden in the underwear drawer. There were champagne flutes coming in from Amazon, with free shipping.
She crammed a sweater into the bag. She crammed an unmatched sock.
The man said from the dark, “But why?”
His voice was raw enough that something in her flitted back, circled with interest. But then he said, “Please stay,” and everything in her felt like drowning.
Anna lay in the bathtub at her parents’ house all that winter, biting everything in reach with her cute pebble teeth. The whole world seemed too dry and too bright.
“Keep your head up,” her friends said.
“Just keep swimming,” they said. “There are plenty more fish in the sea,” they said.
They did not know that Anna was a shark. Anna did not know, either. Sharks are not renowned for self-awareness.
Lyle came to visit her in the bathtub and she cried. Because she was crying, Lyle cried. She fell asleep and woke to find him poised delicately beside her with a toothpick, picking bits of things from between her teeth.
Luis found her again when she was working as a school counselor. He came to see her in the teachers’ lounge. He leaned on the vending machine. They were similar in shape.
She asked about his job. He asked about hers. That morning, a little girl had come in to talk about her parents’ divorce, and Anna had suggested they make voodoo dolls. The little girl had gone to the principal, crying.
She said, “It’s good.”
“I miss you,” he said.
The shark-girl said nothing, and then said, “I miss you too.”
Luis was thinner, bright-eyed. There was a new hardness to his edges. He said, “What’s keeping you?”
She had new friends now. She had taken up jogging. While they jogged around the park in their bright jog tops her new friends gave her advice about men. She let them think Luis had done the leaving. They ran in the same path every day and said men and said take his number out of your phone and said he never deserved you. She went to the dentist once a week and had them check for cavities. It wouldn’t be long now.
Anna said, “You know I’m not that kind of woman.”
He said, “What kind?”
She said, “The right kind.” And then, “The keeping kind.”
They looked at her hands, spread on the table. They seemed like hands that did not belong to a complete fuck-up. They did not seem relevant to the situation.
But the bear took them in his own and placed her knuckle in his living mouth: not to bite, but gently. She felt his tongue against her skin: a small, warm resting place.
The shark-woman gnashed her tiny teeth, thought no. Thought of the deathless march ahead of her: the endless succession of lovers, the jog tops, the bars. How sure a thing it seemed to run, smooth and uncomplicated. How cold.
The bear-man held her in his eyes and waited while Anna’s thoughts circled around and around the rest of her life. Waited until, terrified, she opened wide her human arms and sank.
Originally published by Smoking Glue Gun.
There is a monster living underneath your bed and the monster is lonely. His wife has left him and taken the dog, and his only son is a queer who went to UCLA and got liberated and runs around with a gaggle of men in v-neck shirts. The monster learned all this from his ex-wife's neighbor, the only person from his old life who still talks to him. She is kind of hot, the neighbor, in an older, spank-you-with-a-spatula way, but the monster knows that she pities him, and that's a huge turn-off for the monster. The monster has pride. Not the way his son has pride, mind you, but pride. Pride in his character, pride in his work. The monster has worked for the same company for the last thirty years, in a cubicle next to salesmen named Lenny and Bob. The monster always arrives at eight on the dot and has never taken lunch. Sometimes people try to talk with the monster about football or the weather, but since his wife has left him the monster exudes an air of horrible sadness that makes people feel tired, and so they talk about football without him. Somebody still has to do it.
The monster goes home on Friday nights and sits on the couch and stares into the quiet empty space of time ahead of him with no dog to walk no wife to argue with no son to speak of. The light is gray and aging in the window. The monster lies beneath your bed and stares at the springs. He wonders what it's like to carry all that weight, and thinks that if someone would give him some weight again, something to carry, maybe he could squeal for joy, too.
The monster frightened you when you were little and still believed you could grow up to become anything. You tucked away your fingers and toes, worried that his loneliness would touch you. But now you are old enough to know better. The monster deserved it, you think. Why else would he be a monster?
One night, drunk after your high school graduation party, your ears still ringing with congratulations, you let your hand trail down to the floor beside your bed. You wait for the monster to take it. The monster thinks about his son. He stares at your hand, and he stares at the phone. By the time he reaches out, if he reaches out, you have long since gone to sleep.
Originally published in Broad! magazine.
By P. E. Garcia
She wakes, and there is the dark, the muted smell of soap, and the sound of the stray dogs rummaging through garbage in the streets. Today she will drown herself.
She lights the oil lantern, and in its glow, dresses; her joints ache with every bend and extension. While blowing out the lantern, she tucks the flowers underneath her arm.
Her room is a small shack standing atop the roof of the Hostel Leguia, and as she locks the door, the cool wind whips around her. She feels a drop of water. Maybe rain, she thinks, but doubts it; it has not rained in Chiclayo for a long time.
Briefly, she looks at the sky to admire the stars and the moon, and then she heads down the stairs. At the last stair, she stops and waits. The light is on in the hallway of the second floor. She peers around the edge of the wall that divides the stairwell from the hallway and sees the manager of the hostel, Luis, slumped in his chair at the check-out. He snores loudly, and she fears that she might wake him. He would be angry at her for leaving when she must work soon, and he would be even angrier if she disturbed him.
She does not wake him, though, as she heads down the steps to the outside, and she is relieved. The unpaved road is firm under her feet, and there is little light in the alleyway. It is dangerous for her to be here, in the dark, a woman, alone. She wonders if she will be harmed, but she can see no one in the darkness with her, and the stray dogs barely lift their curious heads.
In these streets, there are always thieves and drunks and rapists, and, in her younger days, there would have been a man to protect her. And after the men stopped showing up, there was her son, and she dragged him through the streets instead, and he would act bitter.
Her son is in America now, and she hurts at the thought of him.
She turns onto Calle Leguia, into the well-lit street.
What is in America that is not in Peru? She cannot imagine. She has seen Americans, their fragile pale bodies hunched under the weight of their enormous backpacks. They leave the hostel and are gone all day. They come back only at night, their pale skin turned a bright red, their soft, smooth hands torn by a day’s work, and their backpacks overflowing with llama wool sweaters, wooden flutes and pictures of the Incan mounds.
She asked an American once why he had come there.
“En-ton-deer tu famil-ah,” he said.
That is how he had said it, “famil-ah”—as though that is what the Incans or the pan flute players or the people in the mercado, hawking their cheap wares, laughing with each other over the piles of American money—as though that’s what those people are to her.
She wonders if her son is that way now, pale and soft.
Dust blows across the street. She covers her face, but it still gets in her eyes. She winces but continues walking, her eyes watery.
She is on Juan Timis Stack, and she only notices because this was once her favorite part of town. The buildings had been bright and colorful, but now are deteriorating, and the dingy white beneath the peeling paint shows through; it makes her think of vanilla. There is a refrigerator on the sidewalk, made up from the parts of other refrigerators, refurbished to be sold in Lima, where the people can afford those kinds of things. She steps around it and wishes that she could have it for herself.
At the corner of Juan Timis and Avenue Pacifico, she sees the small stand of Julio, closed up and layered with the dust that is blowing down the road. As she passes it and turns down Pacifico, she runs her hand along it, the dust rubbing off onto her palm. She remembers kissing Julio, and the acidic taste of ceviche coming off his lips onto hers and burning. She can see him sleeping, wrapped up tight in a blanket, but she cannot see the bed, or the room, or herself, and she wonders who makes him ceviche now.
As she continues down Pacifico, the cemetery comes into sight. She runs her hand along the black metal bars of the fence, the thick rust crumbling off at her touch. At the gates, she stands and admires the metal, tracing her finger down the bars, around the latch, and then back up.
She was sick as a child, and the doctor thought she would die. She only wanted to sleep, to sleep and to be left alone, but her mother had pulled her out of bed and dragged her here, singing softly to her:
Luna, lunera, cascabelera,
Cinco pollitos y una ternera,Sal solecito, caliéntame un poquito,Por hoy y por mañana por toda la semana.
Over and over again, she sang to her. It makes her sick to think of it.
She slowly pulls the gate open. The hinges creak loudly, and she feels embarrassed by the sound, as though she has been caught doing something wrong. Walking down the dirt path through the graveyard, she wonders where it is that her mother dragged her. Who was in that grave?
Each tombstone she sees frightens her. Where had they been? Who was there? The man, painted, holding bones—whose bones? She did not know, and colors, such colors, and fire and heat and warmth and Luna, lunera, cascabelera, but now there was another song and she did not want to hear it and she could not understand it so Sal solecito, caliéntame un poquito, over and over again. But there was dust, and bones, and her mother weeping and calling out that new strange song, and the man forced some kind of meat into her mouth, the taste of blood, and everything was so ugly.
And within a few days, she was well, and her mother thanked God.
She comes to the only place in the graveyard that she knows, the plots reserved for her and her family. Her mother and father are the only two there, and there is the empty space left for her. She pulls at some of the weeds sprouting from their graves, though it feels strange to kill what has grown from her parent’s bodies.
As she places the flowers on her mother’s grave, she imagines what it would be like to fall through the ground and join her.
There are no flowers for her father’s grave. She did not know him, only that he did not want conversation at the dinner table, that he built up the riches that her mother squandered away, and that he loved to chew coca leaves.
Coca leaves gave him energy, her mother told her, so that he could make the trips to Lima. He chewed them, even when he was dying, lying on the sofa and cursing God.
“Nada se queda,” he said. “Nada se queda.”
And that is all she knows of her father.
Nada se queda.
She stands and leaves the graveyard, looking down at the path before her, so as not to catch another glimpse of the tombstones. Back on Pacifico, she walks towards Juan Pomis, every step deliberate. She is going to the ocean; she knows it and feels at peace.
The dark is fading into a light purple, and the birds call to each other from the trees and the rooftops. She thinks of the birds, and then of parrots: the parrot that swooped into her window once, confused. It flew about her room, pecking and crying out, smashing itself into her dresser, knocking her jewelry to the floor, slamming into the mirror, and tangling itself in the bed sheets. When it flew out again, she laughed, and she only laughed because she was so scared.
She sees the bird fly out through the window, into the bright blue sky, and the sky becomes the ocean, and she thinks of the ocean again, and how she is going to drown in it. The thought brings heat to her body. Sal solecito, caliéntame un poquito.
She used to go to the beach with Brijida and admire the young fishermen, their chests toned and sweaty, and that used to be good.
She thinks of the fishermen, and Brijida, flirting and smiling at them. She goes with Brijida beneath the dock, goes and lies with Brijida and two fishermen. One is on top of her, and she smiles and she laughs and she is having fun and she is in pain and there is blood and she did not think it would hurt so bad and she wants him to stop and she pushes that sweaty chest, but it is not the same sweat. It is a new sweat. It is a bad sweat, a greasy, filthy sweat, and he makes her sweat the same greasy, filthy sweat and he will not stop. And it hurts, but he does not stop.
And she is crying beneath the dock with Brijida, and they hold each other, and do not talk to the fishermen again. She thinks of the ocean, the ocean and drowning.
The walk is longer than she remembered. Her bones are aching; her muscles are aching. There was not so much pain when she was younger. She should stop and rest, she knows, but she will not stop. Her muscles ache, and her joints burn. She will not stop; she does not stop, not when peace and relief are so near.
She does not think; she leaves her head, her body, and she is somewhere in the sky, sitting with Christ and her father and her mother and the man with the bones and the song. She is with her pale soft son in America, sipping coffee at his kitchen table. She is somewhere else, anywhere else, where her muscles and joints and thoughts do not burn.
The night continues to fade, and the adobe huts that surround the beach come into sight. She slows when she comes near them, and she hears the sound of the people rising for the morning. The scent of garbage and dead fish fills her nostrils, but it seems inviting and familiar. She breathes it in with pleasure.
Among the houses now, the sounds jumble together: a baby cries, a woman calls to her child, a man yawns, a dog growls, and she knows them all, and she listens. A thought comes to her, that there could be peace here, among the poor and the simple, and she could smell these smells and hear these sounds and she would have that peace.
Two children run towards her, shirtless, kicking a balled-up pair of socks back and forth like a soccer ball. She stops walking to admire them. They call to each other with laughing voices and run past her, nearly knocking her down, and she feels a slight breeze from their running. She turns to call to them, though she is not sure what to say, but they are far away now. She stands with her mouth open, looking after them.
Sighing deeply, she tastes the scent of the air. There is no pleasure in it anymore.
She walks past the houses and comes to the long dunes of the beach. They tower above her, and she worries about the pain in her bones and her muscles. She does not want to quit, though. She is going to the ocean, and she is going to drown. She knows it; she wants it.
The dune is steeper than she thought, and she struggles. There is no sure footing; her walk becomes a crawl. At the top of the dune, she rests. She does not want to, but she must.
She looks out over the ocean: what would it be like to die? Would it be peaceful? Her father looked peaceful; her mother looked peaceful. Jesus looked peaceful. She would be peaceful.
She hears the calls of the fishermen, and she remembers them and their sweat and their heat and their grease, and she feels disgust.
She will drown; there will be peace.
Walking down the dune, she steps carefully onto the beach. There are old fish bones and teeth buried in the sand, and she tries to avoid them; they still cut at her feet through her old shoes and calluses.
There was an old bloated seal carcass on the beach once. Had he drowned? He did not look peaceful, and he smelled worse than anything she could remember.
She stretches, and there is salt in the air.
She slept on the beach once as a child when her mother took her. She swam and played so much until she fell asleep in the warm summer sand. Sea air made sleeping sweet.
She would be peaceful.
As she pulls off her clothes, piece by piece, she feels the warmth radiating from the water. Timidly, one foot goes into the ocean, then the other. The sand is soft and squeezes itself between her toes, and it feels good.
It would not be so bad to drown, would it?
There is the seal, bloated and rotten.
And her father and mother in their caskets.
And herself, what would she be?
“Ah, Señor Jesus. ¿Qué se queda, Señor? ¿Qué se queda?”
There is no answer but the beating of the water on the shore.
She curls her toes into the sand.
Nada se queda.
“Nada se queda.”
She walks farther into the water, and the sand becomes rocks lined with algae. Turning, she floats upward onto her back and sinks down. Her nipples and nose poke out from the water, and she feels good. She turns again and swims out farther and sees the long dock on the other end of the beach.
The dawn is breaking. Smoke rises from above the dunes of the beach, and it is all she can see of the city. She swims forwards and backwards, never coming closer to the shore and never any farther.
She is in the water, somewhere amid the white foam of the deep blue waves. She tries to imagine looking down upon herself from the sky; she cannot. A nervous relief overtakes her, and her body trembles in the water. She knows that she must end it.
Downward she goes. The ocean is swallowing her; she is dying. She will be peaceful. She will be the bone, the sacred song, the pale, soft carcass. She will be the seal, the father, the mother, the fishbone and Christ. Nada se queda.
The weight of the water is painful. Out of habit, she holds her breath.
She opens her eyes under the water. The salt stings, and she sees only light and blue and her arms waving, and she is suddenly frightened. She fights. She swims. She fights, and she breaks the surface and gasps for breath.
What has she done?
She treads the water, sore and tired, and looks out over the ocean. The horizon is barren. She must try again, must drown; there must be peace.
Turning again, she floats on her back and looks up at the sky. She must rest, must prepare herself. Next time must be right. The water laps around her, and it is the only sound she hears. She admires the sky, and finally, she is ready.
She straightens up, ready to dive down again, when she hears the voice of a man call to her. It is a fisherman in the distance. She tries to wave to him, to show him that she is okay, that she has not drowned, but he is not calling to her. He is calling to his shipmates. He is pointing at her. He is laughing.
They are laughing. They are calling to her and grabbing their crotches.
Hot with embarrassment, she feels their greasy sweat and their chests, their eyes following, burning her as she turns and swims back to shore. The sand is hotter than she remembers, and as she dresses, her clothes cling to her wet body.
She rests on the shore, warming herself in the sun, watching the sweaty, greasy fishermen as they return to their work. Is there no peace, no dignity to be had, even in dying? These men, these beasts with broad chests, greasy sweat, dark eyes, dark curls, callused skin; they drive her to death, and degrade her still. Nada se queda.
She does not know what to do; she can only stand and turn to walk back through the hot sand, the bones, the dunes, the garbage and filth and dust, back into the city where she lives.
Originally appeared on The Toast.
By Dan Bevacqua
After being wrong for months and months, and calling them all sorts of horrible names, Dad explained to me that the painters were Vietnamese.
“They’re not Chinese or Korean,” he said. “It’s racist to say they are if they’re not.”
“Why?” I said. We were eating in the kitchen. I stared at my spelling words out on the table. The list was super easy: HUMAN, BICYCLE, ACTION.
“It’s just racist, Kevin.”
“And we aren’t racist in this family,” I said, which is what he always says.
When Dad has a late meeting—maybe with the school board or the PTA or the ladies from the Special Ed. Department—we eat pizza. Guillermo’s is in the same strip mall as the clothing store where Mom used to work, a place called Style. Because Dad says he can’t stand to look through the big picture window at the mannequins all dolled up like hookers, he parks the Contour on the left side of the building, and sends me in. He gives me twenty dollars, and says, “Tip appropriately.” Last month, there was a pregnant girl behind the register. She didn’t look old enough to be pregnant, but she was. When she saw me, she said, “Well, look at you, Mister. Got a hot date?” I was wearing my red sport coat with the fake handkerchief in the breast pocket.
“No,” I told her.
She laughed and laughed, and then her hands jumped to her stomach. “This thing hates that,” she said.
“When I have a good time,” she said. She stuck her tongue out at her belly. “What’s the name on the order, hon?”
The girl got up on a stool and looked at the different pizzas. They keep them in boxes on top of the oven so that they’ll stay warm. I stared at her stomach and wondered if her being pregnant wasn’t some kind of class assignment, like when the high schoolers push each other around in wheelchairs for a week. Dad says that’s dumb because being paralyzed isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s the opposite of fun, whatever that is.
Pretty soon the girl found our pizza. She looked down at me from where she wobbled on the stool. Her neck was sweating. Her face looked like a lima bean. “The nausea comes and goes,” she said. “If this was a year ago, I’d be at cheer camp.” She asked me what grade I was in.
“Enjoy it while you can,” she said.
Back in the car, Dad asked for the change. I told him there wasn’t any.
“How much was the goddamn pizza?”
“Eleven dollars,” I said. I told him how the girl started crying, and how she seemed so sad, but was really pretty, and how I thought I could make her happy.
“You’re doomed,” he said. “And you owe me nine dollars.”
In the kitchen, Dad wiped the grease from his fingers on a blue dishtowel and picked up my spelling words. He likes to complain about the light. We use a table lamp now, after Billy, Mom’s friend, broke the overhead. There was a big party one afternoon when Dad was at school. I was there because I’d faked sick. Also, I’m good at making drinks. I keep everybody’s spirits up. At the party, Billy got so excited when a Prince song came on that he jumped into the air, and put his head through the light.
Dad tilted the lampshade and the room wasn’t quite as dark. He looked at my words. I was bored with FALLING, BLOOD, and LONELY, and I’d written some of my own at the bottom of the page.
“Rapier?” he said.
I explained to him that it was a fancy word for a sword.
“Yes, I know,” he said. “I went to college.” Dad read off the page. “Mace, brass knuckles, blowtorch. Enlighten me.”
“Weapons,” I said. “To use against the painters.”
Dad gave me the teacher face. It might mean that whatever I’m saying is a lie.
“I’m imagining,” I said. “Kids play pretend. How could I actually hurt them?”
I hate the painters. They come around to the complex every three months. Each of the men wears a white jumpsuit and a white painter’s cap, and the women wear the same thing minus the caps. In the morning the painters are quiet. They set up their buckets and tarps and get the brushes ready. Dad says some of the grownups around here still go to work, and when they walk to their cars the painters only nod at them or blurt out a word in their nutso language. Nobody but us kids are around in the afternoon when they get weird and attack us.
“They don’t attack you,” Dad said. “And the way you used ‘nutso’ is racist.”
“They do,” I said. “Yesterday they put Amber on top of a Volkswagen, tied her up, and drove around the parking lot.”
Amber is eight, like me, and the daughter of Jim Costello, the super. We don’t like him, or anyone else in his family because they’re degenerates, even though Mom hangs out with Amber’s mom sometimes.
“They didn’t drive around with Amber on the roof,” Dad said.
He was right, they hadn’t. “But they tied her up,” I said. But that wasn’t true either.
Dad had his phone out on the table and it started to shimmy around. His phone is kind of broken, and it took a few seconds for Mom’s face to light up the screen. It was Thursday, and we hadn’t heard from her yet. I knew Dad was pissed about that, about her not calling, because he’d told me. “I’m pissed,” he’d said. He was angry too about the last time she called. All Mom did was scream at him and then, when I got on the phone, cry.
“I can’t do it tonight,” he said.
I’ve seen the common area at the hospital where Mom calls us from. I can picture what it looks like when she leaves Dad a message. She’s got on the robe we brought her last time we went, and her hair is getting long. She’s scratching at her scalp until it bleeds because I’m not there to stop her.
After Dad’s cell buzzed with the voicemail, our landline started to ring, and he said, “Don’t.”
I climbed down off the chair anyway.
“Seriously?” Dad sighed. Teaching fifth grade exhausts him, and then there are the meetings, and me, and Mom, and everything else. He looks young in the morning, and old by dark.
I put the receiver up to my ear, listened.
“Doomed,” Dad said.
At school, they keep Natalie, Ervin, and me away from the other kids. We have our own purple rug and a table that we share. All of our supplies are in the middle of the table, like glue, and calculators, and a map of the world that folds up into the shape of a telescope, and says EXPLORE! on it. The other kids don’t have maps, or calculators, and their scissors are duller than ours. While they guesstimate the number of beans in a jar, we do long division. During their story time, we read chapter books by ourselves where sometimes the characters don’t survive. There used to be another boy with us, Lance, but it turned out there was something wrong with him. He was the smartest kid in the world, I think, but he couldn’t look anybody in the eye, or be touched, otherwise he’d scream, “Get your dirty fucking hands off me!” He goes to a special school now.
Natalie’s skin is a dark gold, like the pre-historic goop that mosquitoes used to get trapped in. Ervin is Puerto Rican. “You’re white,” Natalie once said to me. It wasn’t mean or anything. It was like someone in her head asked her what color I was. It made Ervin laugh.
Last week, Mrs. Larson gave us an assignment where we had to write down all the capitals of all the countries in the world and then alphabetize them. Before she went back to the normal class, she said, “I’m sorry. I have no idea what to do with you people. It keeps me up at night.” The other kids were making dioramas. A girl named Therese loaded up a shoebox with glitter, spat into the box a bunch of times, and then dumped the whole mess on her head. The shiny gunk in her mouth and eyes made her cry.
“If Lance was here he’d tell her something,” Ervin said.
“Like she got a butt for a brain,” Natalie said.
It turned out that all the capitals of all the countries in the world were already alphabetized on the back of the EXPLORE! map, and there was nothing for us to do. I waited to see what Natalie wanted. She didn’t look at me for a minute, so I wasn’t sure, but then she went to the chalkboard and took the block of wood with GIRLS written on it and left the classroom. I did the same with BOYS. When I got to the giant handicapped bathroom, the door was open a crack, and her eye was staring out at me. Once I was in, Natalie locked the door behind us. It smelled like pee in there.
“I like your pants,” Natalie said. I was wearing my blue pinstripes that Mom gave me. She’s always buying me clothes we can’t afford, and doesn’t tell Dad.
“Thanks,” I said to Natalie. “They were expensive.”
“You wanna kiss me?” she said.
Every time we go to the bathroom, Natalie says that, and then I kiss her.
Natalie went back to class first. I counted to thirty Mississippi in the bathroom, and then I left. It was strange to run into Dad in the hall. He was walking around with Miss Rodriguez. She teaches fifth grade like him. They were both being quiet, and their faces were serious, like they were trying to read each other’s minds, but were having a hard time.
“What’s that in your hand?” Dad said.
I showed him BOYS.
“Gotcha,” he said.
Miss Rodriguez was a student teacher last year, but now she’s a real teacher. I don’t get why she walks around in high heels everyday. None of the other teachers do that. Mom says she gets it—“Oh, I get it all right!”—but when she asks Dad to explain it to me, he just says, “How many cocktails is that, darling?”
“I like your pants,” Miss Rodriguez said to me. “I used to have a boyfriend who wore pants like that.”
“What happened to him?” I said. “Did he die?”
“No,” she said, surprised. “He moved back to Puerto Rico.”
“San Juan,” I said.
“That’s the capital,” I told her.
Miss Rodriguez said she had to be leaving now, but that she was looking forward to seeing Dad later. She was a very fast walker. You could hear her shoes clacking all the way down the hall.
“I have a meeting after school,” Dad said. “With Miss Rodriguez. About school stuff.”
That meant I had to take the bus. Dad started to walk back to the fifth grade wing, but then stopped, turned to me.
“Did he die?” Dad said. “Really?”
“What?” I said. “It happens. That’s something everybody knows.”
I took the bus home. After it dropped me off, I saw Amber Costello crouched down by the mailbox with a cherry Popsicle in her mouth. Amber goes crazy for sugar. Her eyes were wet and shiny like pieces of fish.
“Hey, Einstein,” she said.
Amber’s T-shirt was long. It might’ve been the only thing she was wearing.
“Hey, Amber,” I said. “Why weren’t you at school?”
“Because it’s fuckin’ stupid and I fuckin’ hate it,” she said. “Those Chinks are back.”
The painters were in front of Building 6, eating a late lunch out of soup bowls. The women used chopsticks. The men tipped their heads back and slurped. When the painters spoke to each other, or laughed at a joke, noodles flew everywhere. The noodles landed in the grass that was just starting to grow. Amber and I stood ten feet away and stared.
“I think they see us,” she whispered.
Once, when Mom was sick and had to get well before Dad came home, Billy and his friend Darnell came over. I liked Darnell, but not as much as I liked Billy. Darnell was weird. He always called me Caspar, or Michael J. Fox, or Mick Jagger. Sometimes he just called me Tiny Little White Dude. I liked him anyway. Darnell was the saddest out of anybody when Billy died—maybe even more than Mom. He moved away after.
That afternoon, they were both still around. Mom called Billy, and somehow he understood what she was saying. I’d already gotten her into bed by the time they arrived. We stood in the bedroom, and looked down at her. I hadn’t seen a dead person yet, but that’s what she reminded me of. Billy pushed Mom’s hair back behind her ears. She opened her eyes real quick, and looked at him. “Heya, handsome,” she said. Then she closed her eyes again.
Darnell thought we should get some air. Holding hands, we took a walk through the complex.
“Kev’ in the middle,” Billy said.
They swung me up into the air as we walked. Billy’s laugh echoed off the buildings, and went down inside the swampy creek behind the parking lot before coming back to us. The buildings in the complex are brick, and two-story, and Dad says they were made for soldiers coming home from war. Not these wars, he says, or the ones before them, but the big war, the one his grandfather fought in and never talked about.
When we rounded Building 4, we saw Jim Costello and his custodians. Mom calls Costello “the fat blob of the Earth” and says the men who work under him all hate him, but are either too dumb to notice, or too afraid to say anything. Dad says Costello is the reason why the rich hate the poor. “It makes sense to me,” I heard him tell Mom once. “I look at him, and I get it.”
Costello was wearing the same stained, holey green T-shirt he always does, and drinking from a paper bag. He looked like the fat blob of the Earth, but with a patchy beard. The three men in his crew stood around with their own bags, sipping. I’ve never seen a single one of them hold a tool, or a mop even. They look like sailors to me.
Costello took a drink from his bag, and said, “You three look like a fuckin’ Oreo.”
Billy and Darnell turned toward Costello, but they didn’t seem angry. It was more like they were getting back to something they had set aside for a while. Billy pulled his hand from mine, and placed it on my head. He looked down at me. “When you get older,” he said, “don’t be like that.”
Billy was big and strong then. This was before things got bad, before Mom and me saw him in front of the Cumberland Farms, asking strangers for gas money even though he didn’t have a car.
To the 5th grade play that night I wore a cashmere scarf Mom bought for me on credit. It was cold out. The Contour wouldn’t start. One of our Ecuadorian neighbors had to jump us. “Good people,” Dad said. By the time we got to school, Dorothy had already found out about the Wizard. We sat in the way back, listening to Miss Rodriguez shout out lines to her students.
Everybody was at the reception. All the kids under twelve, and their parents, the Scarecrow and the Lion, Principal Rivers. The punch was called the Ruby Slipper, and fizzled with Ginger Ale. Across the gym, near the basketball hoop, Dad talked with Miss Rodriguez, and her fiancé, Juan. Juan’s a fireman. He did a whole presentation on career day where he brought in the dog.
I saw Natalie. She stood on one leg near the punch bowl.
“Hi,” I said.
“Your scarf looks stupid,” she said.
“No it doesn’t.”
“I’m not your girlfriend anymore,” she said. “I’m Ervin’s girlfriend. My mom says it makes more sense.”
“We come from two different worlds. Blame society. You can’t change history,” Natalie said.
“She says she’s not crazy about Ervin either,” Natalie said, “but whatcha gonna do.”
Through the crowd, I watched Dad, Miss Rodriguez, and Juan walk out of the gym, down a hallway that led to the music room. Juan did all the talking. Dad and Miss Rodriguez stared at the floor. I started to say something to Natalie, but she was gone. There was nobody around. I mean, no one was speaking to me, or asking me questions, and I went alone to the front of the school.
Only half the florescent lights were on. I’d never seen the trophy cases like that before. Fake gold shined in the dark. They keep the second place plaques and the team pictures in the case too. The pictures go way back in time, back to when the players don’t smile, and there’s only one black kid.
School is K through 12, and, unless we move, I’ll keep going here. I’m skipping to 4th grade next year, and then there’s 5th and 6th. You could keep going. When I think about that it never seems real. It feels like a story somebody told me, and in the story everything’s perfect. I can drive, and maybe I’m a scientist. But if I dream about it for too long, the car slams into a tree or my lab explodes. It happens every time.
Deep inside the school, I heard the sound of a man coughing. I moved toward the edge of the main hallway, but it was too dark to see. I thought I heard some flyers being pulled from a bulletin board. There was the ripping sound, and then the wobble of posters falling through the air. The steps were heavy, and I knew they were Dad’s. Soon he was out of the hall. In the light, I saw that his nose and mouth were bleeding. His hands were at his sides. He let the blood flow. He didn’t even try to stop it.
When Mom took me to see Billy, she lied. She said he’d been in a car accident. I knew it wasn’t true, but I pretended along. Before we went to visit him, I listened to Mom and Dad talk about it behind their bedroom door. It wasn’t hard to figure out. Billy owed guys money.
The hospital is ginormous. Mom’s building is out back, on a separate plot of land with its own path, plus benches and hummingbird feeders. Billy’s room was on the first floor of the main building. It had a view of the parking lot. Billy never saw the view because his eyelids were taped shut. A tube ran down his throat, and worked his lungs for him. His face looked like purple cauliflower.
The day Mom and I went to visit Billy, Darnell sat in a chair next to his bed and cried. I have this problem where I stare at people who are crying. If we’re at the grocery store and some kid starts sobbing, I stop and look at them until Mom pulls me away. She doesn’t like when I do it, so I tried not to with Darnell, but it was hard. It meant I could only look at Mom, or at Billy, or at the room around me, which was boring and tan, the way hospitals are. I could have looked out the window, I guess, but there was nothing out there.
“What’s he know?” Darnell asked Mom.
A tube ran down Billy’s throat, and worked his lungs for him.
“He knows about Billy’s accident,” Mom said. “He knows about the car.”
“Oh, good,” Darnell said. “Billy loves him.”
“Loved,” I said. “Billy loved.”
“Loves honey,” Mom said. “You mean that Billy loves.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
The morning before our Sunday visit, Dad tried out all kinds of makeup on his face, but none of Mom’s stuff helped.
“She’s too pretty,” Dad said. “If she were ugly, I could find something useful.”
I stood on the toilet seat, and together we looked at his face in the bathroom mirror. The swelling was down, but the skin around his eyes was green and black. His bottom lip cracked open every once in awhile. Dad tried a smile.
“How’s your war against the Vietcong going?”
In the mirror, I gave him my Kevin face. It might mean that whatever he’s saying is stupid.
“Your lip’s bleeding again,” I said.
We were late seeing her. Mom waited outside the entrance, near the automatic doors. Every time they closed, they would open again. When she hugged me it hurt my ribs. I’d worn the red sport coat. She told me I looked like a million bucks.
All Dad did was say Hi. Mom looked at his face.
We walked around the hospital until we found a bench. There was a hummingbird feeder next to it, and the birds were in the air around our heads. Mom made me tell her all about school.
“… Therese choked on some glitter,” I said. “That happened. We knew all the capitals, so—”
“Look at your goddamn face,” Mom said to Dad. “I’m supposed to sit here? This is my punishment? Some Latina? At least I loved him. You hear me? I loved him.”
For a half-second, all I could hear were the dumb hummingbirds. Then Dad yanked me up by the hand, dragged me down the main path into the hospital. He sat me on the couch in the TV room, and told me not to move or to talk with anyone. Then he went back outside to where Mom was on the bench. Through the window, I saw them walking, but then the sidewalk curved.
There were guys in the TV room. Bob and Carlos introduced themselves, and asked if the History Channel was O.K.
“I like history,” I said. I sat between them on the big red couch.
“Me too,” Bob said. He was fat, and older than Dad. “I was in it. ‘Nam. You gotta know the past, man. You gotta wrap your head around it. Otherwise, what?”
“You’re doomed,” Carlos said. His teeth were rotted out. “Otherwise that.”
“Doomed,” I said, nodding yes.
“This kid gets it,” Bob said.
The show was called “Rest & Relaxation: Love and Lust in Wartime.” It was about the American Army in the 20th Century. An old soldier was talking about a girl he’d known. Bob said he thought he knew the guy. The soldier said, no, he hadn’t met the girl in a bar. He’d met her on a jungle road. She was carrying a bucket of water on her head. He followed her to where she lived.
“You couldn’t even call that thing a hut,” he told the camera. “I stood outside of it all day. I wouldn’t leave until she took a walk with me. Finally, she did. It was nice. I don’t know. We didn’t speak the same language. Somehow we talked. There wasn’t any war when we talked. It was like we were people.”
He didn’t go on, but you could tell there was more to the story than that.
Mom came in alone to the TV room. The mascara down her cheeks looked like streaks of oil. In my head, I made a tin man joke, but it wasn’t funny. Mom saw me with Bob and Carlos, and took me by the hand.
“I don’t want you hanging out with junkies,” she said, pulling me away.
“Too late for that!” Bob shouted.
Mom said Dad was waiting in the parking lot. We had a few minutes, just the two of us. She brought me to her room. There was nothing but two beds, and a poster on the wall of a prayer to God. We sat down beside each other on her bed.
“Do you hate me?” she said.
“Do you love me?” she said. “Do you know I love you?”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “I love you too.”
We stared at the other bed across from us. The blankets moved around some, and then a lady popped her head out from beneath the covers. She was a black lady, and she seemed tired, and scared. She didn’t say anything, just looked at Mom and me.
“Denise, this is my son, Kevin,” Mom said. “Kevin, Denise.”
Denise said that it was nice to meet me, and then she went back under the blanket.
“Denise,” Mom said. “Are you still mad at me?”
“Damn right I am,” Denise said. It sounded like she was talking into her pillow. “You’ve got problems.”
“I’m sorry,” Mom said. “I’m sorry I accused you of stealing my toothbrush.”
“That was messed up,” Denise said. “That was messed up on many levels.”
“I said I was sorry,” Mom said.
Mom tried to stop me, but I hopped down off her bed, and walked over to where Denise was. The blanket felt like cardboard. I pulled it up, and stared into her face. She looked like Mom used to sometimes in the morning, when I’d get up and find her in the kitchen, crying and talking fast to herself. I told Denise not to worry about Mom, that we weren’t racist in this family. Then I climbed into bed with her, and pulled the blanket down over us. Our faces were an inch apart.
“My girlfriend broke up with me,” I said. “She says we come from different worlds. Maybe I hate history. Maybe it means we’re doomed.”
“You’re crazy like your mother,” Denise said, but she was smiling.
Outside, Mom said she was going to count back from ten. The blanket was thin, and let the light through. The fabric made Denise look orange. We were warm under there, and laughing, and Denise took my hand and squeezed, and I squeezed hers, and then we waited for the countdown to hit zero, and for Mom to pull off the blanket, and for all of our fun to be over.
Originally published in Tweed's Magazine of Literature & Art.