Eastern New Mexico University’s literary magazine, El Portal, offers a venue for the work of writers, artists and photographers.
ENMU students, national, and international writers are welcome to submit their original, previously unpublished short stories, plays, poetry and photography. No entry fees are charged. Cash prizes are awarded to first-, second- and third-place winners in each category (only ENMU students qualify).
El Portal is published each semester at Eastern thanks to Dr. Jack Williamson, a world-renowned science fiction writer and professor emeritus at ENMU who underwrote the publication. El Portal has been published since 1939.
Timothy Dodd is from Mink Shoals, West Virginia in the heart of Appalachia. He is the author of short story collections Fissures and Other Stories (Bottom Dog Press), Men in Midnight Bloom (Cowboy Jamboree Press), and Mortality Birds (Southernmost Books, with Steve Lambert), as well as the poetry collection, Modern Ancient (High Window Press), In addition to appearing in earlier editions of El Portal, Tim’s stories have appeared in Yemassee, Glassworks Magazine, and Anthology of Appalachian Writers; his poetry in Crab Creek Review, Roanoke Review, Crannog, and elsewhere. Also a visual artist, Tim primarily exhibits his oil paintings in the Philippines. Sample artwork can be found on his Instagram@timothybdoddartwork. His website is timothybdodd.wordpress.com.
Unye Terminal, After Midnight by Timothy Dodd
Dogs slink around the lot of domestication, keeping close to gate. Somewhere voices stress against each other in the void, and out past the station, cars wheeze across the night’s highway.
The next bus pulls in, out: someone surely knows where it’s going, and someone surely believes in destination, like me sitting here in a time capsule’s darkness, taking it for granted that morning light will come.
Anthony Kane Evans has had around sixty-five short stories published in various UK, French, US, Canadian, Nigerian, Singaporean, and Australian literary journals, e-zines, and anthologies. Journals include London Magazine (UK), Orbis Quarterly International Literary Journal (UK), The Tusculum Review (US), Going Down Swinging (Australia), and The Antigonish Review (Canada). E-zines include Litro Magazine, New Pop Lit, and Short Édition. Though born in Manchester, UK, he is currently to be found in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he has made several documentary films for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation.
Slim’s Back in Town by Anthony Kane Evans
It was the summer of 1874, when Slim rode into Wild Hill, pop. 1,745. He tied his horse up outside the saloon, Bill’s Watering Hole, sneezed – not for the first time – on account of all the dust he’d eaten on his journey, pushed open the swinging doors and strode on in.
“Well, well, well. Lookee here!” Bill said, glancing up from mopping the bar with a dirty rag, “When did they let you out?”
Slim had to think about that one.
The giant saucer-like object in the sky at night – at first, he’d thought part of the moon and broken off and floated down to earth – how it had shot the guard in the watchtower. No, ‘shot’ was the wrong word. How twin blue lights had emanated – yes, he had to use a big word like that – from the giant saucer – Made in Sheffield could clearly be seen on its underside – causing the guard to clutch at his throat and begin to fall, but before he could fall, to – how had Doc put it? – disintegrate. That was it. One minute he was there, pointing his rifle at Slim and Doc, the next he had faded into nothingness.
“Two weeks back,” Slim said, “They let me go early on account of my good behaviour.”
It was what Doc had told him to say. For God’s sake, Doc had said, don’t mention the saucer. And if you do, then for God’s sake don’t mention that it had Made in Sheffield stamped on its underside. As Slim couldn’t read, there had been little danger of that before Doc had told him.
“A bottle of Old Overholt,” Slim said.
Bill looked carefully at Slim.
“A whole bottle?”
Slim opened a saddlebag, took out a rock the size of a man’s fist and put it up on the counter. The rock wasn’t a normal rock, it glittered. Slim unholstered his revolver, took hold of the business end of it and whacked the lump with the handle. A piece of the rock broke off. Slim gave the piece to Bill who looked at in wonderment.
“You had time to go gold prospectin’ since you got out, then?” he said.
“Sure did, Bill. You know me, I never was one to dilly-dally. Now send the boy over to Ma’s place and tell her to ask Mirabelle to get herself over here and pronto.”
Bill whistled. A boy ran out of the back.
“Jimmy, go on over to Ma’s. Tell her Bill said to send Mirabelle. Customer.”
He looked at the lump of gold before Slim, the fragment before himself.
“An important customer!” he called after the boy.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Wilson!” Jimmy called back.
The boy ran out.
“Boy’s getting big,” Slim said.
“You been gone five years,” Bill said.
Five back-breaking years. Then the saucer. The strange men in the saucer. Dressed like bankers. Frock coats, the works. White men except their faces were not white, but yellow. Not yellow like a Chinaman’s. Sallow, that’s what Doc had called it. He had explained that saucers were nothing but iron horses that rode through the sky. That the men inside them had ridden for many years. That they had been kept locked up inside without access to regular sunlight which accounted for the strange yellow tinge to their faces, their hands. We have come for you, Doc, they had said. Slim had heard them say it.
Bill put a shot glass up on the counter.
“Sorry, Slim, it’s just the surprise of seeing you that’s making me forget my duty.”
Bill put a bottle of Old Overholt next to the glass. Uncorked it, poured Slim a full glass.
“Join me, Bill. They wasn’t no drinking men.”
“Who wasn’t, Slim? Your fellow prospectors?”
“Yes, they … they …”
Thinking was hard for Slim. It wasn’t that he was a lightweight in the mental stakes, not at all. But the hard labour had had an effect. The years out in the mid-day sun. Against his will.
“They couldn’t rightly afford it,” he said.
Mirabelle came in, followed by the boy. She’d aged. It was mostly in the eyes that you could see it.
“Slim!” she said.
Then she looked at the gold.
“Gold!” she said.
Then she looked at Bill.
“Oh, hello Bill, kind of quiet in here today, isn’t it?”
“It’s only ten in the morning, Belle,” he said.
“Oh, yeah, about that!” she said.
She frowned, then quickly smiled. Her second-best smile.
“But on account of it’s you who’s doing the asking, Slim, I don’t mind. Really, I don’t. Make a girl some coffee, can’t you, Bill?”
“Reckon we could all use some coffee this time o’ the morning,” Bill said.
Slim remembered what the men dressed like bankers had said to Doc.
“I’ve come for you, Belle,” he said.
She looked at Slim.
“I’m not the girl I once was, Slim,” she said.
Slim thought about that.
“Hell, I can see that, Belle. Do you think I’m blind? I’m not the man I once was neither.”
Belle looked at the gold.
“Well, if you’re sure, Slim.”
Jimmy was sitting up on the counter, staring at the gold, which is where he’d been since he’d followed Mirabelle in. Bill looked at the gold.
“Better put that away, Slim.”
Slim took hold of the lump of gold and put it back into the saddlebag. It was as though it had been night with the oil lamps turned up real high and now it was black night again. Bill popped his fragment into a vest pocket.
“Tell the boy to go fetch Pastor Brown,” Slim said.
“Rushing things, a bit, aren’t you, Slim?” Mirabelle said.
“Belle, if it hadn’t been for you, those five long years, well, I just wouldn’t have got through them, that’s all.”
“Slim,” Bill said, “You know the pastor won’t set foot in my saloon. We ain’t even on speaking terms, I’m sorry to say. Why, he’s got half the town turned against me!”
“I’ll make it all right,” Slim said, “we’ll say you’re making a contribution. Isn’t that what they call it?”
“Who, me?” Bill said.
“No, I’ll give it, but we’ll say that it’s you what is giving it.”
“Oh, like that?”
“Say, just how much of this stuff you got?”
“Two saddlebags stuffed with it, that’s what,” Slim said.
It was all those strange sallow bankers had to offer him.
“Sorry we can’t give you anything handier, Slim,” they’d said.
“Oh, don’t mind me,” Slim had said, “I’ll make out.”
Then Slim had looked at Doc.
“You sure this is all right? I mean, you really want to go with them, Doc?”
“I’ve always been a forward-looking man, Slim. Always been for the iron horse and the telegraph wire, you know that.”
“And I’ve been a damn fool!” Slim had said.
“Don’t say that, Slim,” the strange men had said, “We too get all sentimental-like for the past, don’t we chaps?”
“We sure do!” they had said.
Slim looked at Bill.
“Well, at least get the boy to go and tell the pastor that Slim and Belle plan on getting married this coming Sunday if that is all right by him.”
Bill instructed the boy. Then he went out back to make the coffee.
“So, Belle, tell me, what have you been up to while I’ve been away?” Slim said.
Ronald L. Grimes grew up in Clovis, New Mexico. He is a writer and filmmaker living in Ontario, Canada. Among his publications are: “The Backsides of White Souls,” “My Book, My Self,” and “A Pack a Day” (Canadian Notes & Queries). “Boundary Bound” and “His Heart Has Wheels” (El Portal). “Disarming Boys” (The Canopy Review). “Where Is Here?” (Canadian Journal of Native Studies). Two film samples: Rockin’ the Coffin (on YouTube, commissioned by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and A Daughter’s Song (on Vimeo).
Crowbait by Ronald L. Grimes
Shirley steps out of her Airstream trailer into the dark at Spirit Hill Trailer Park and runs her finger around the edges of a cracked pearl button on her ragged western shirt, “The circle of life is coming to an end. So be it.”
The gravel crunches under her boots. A flutter of wings. She stops. Listens. Peers over a clump of scrub oak bushes and says to her dead grandmother, “Angels and crows are passing in the sky. This marks the beginning of the end. Granny, you prepared me. I’m ready.”
Shirley climbs into her black Dodge Ram pickup, stashes her .357 Magnum Nighthawk pistol in the glove compartment, stops at the Sonic Drive-In, buys a chocolate pecan milkshake, hoping the sugar will keep her awake as she drives from Lubbock to Sundown, Texas. She arrives as the sun rises over Resurrection Valley Cemetery to offer a few corn seeds, gifts to her dead grandmother.
Shirley was two, when her parents, Rex and Maggie, were killed when a F-86 fighter jet from Canon Air Force Base lost power and crashed into their car outside Clovis, New Mexico. Her grandmother, Luella Wilmington, adopted Shirley and raised her a Christian fundamentalist. Granny Luella told Shirley, “Whatever is fundamental for Jesus, is fundamental for me and fundamental for you.”
Members of Calvary Methodist Church teased Luella, called her a Bible thumper. “So what?” she said. “Methodists were once called Bible moths.” When Luella sang “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” the congregation—hearts warmed by the Spirit—wept what Eddie Whatley called the salty tears of Jesus.
Luella knew by heart her favorite hymns in the Cokesbury Hymnal and had no use for the thick revised hymnal. She had doubts about renaming the denomination the United Methodist Church. She resisted being united with liberals who practiced abortion or homosexuality. Abortion was murder and homosexuality, a perversion.
In the summers Luella sent young Shirley to Bible school where she memorized verses from the King James version. Granny knew God had inspired its translators. He held them in his hands—stroked their fingers, stirred their hearts, enlightened their brains.
By the time Shirley was thirty-four Bible verses pierced her heart like arrows. A pain would rise, and a moan would pass through her lips. Granny told her, “Moaning is a sign the Holy Spirit is passing through you, rising up to Heaven.”
Granny Luella died of a sudden heart attack the day after Shirley’s fortieth birthday. She found her grandmother with her hand over her heart, a sure sign that God had welcomed her to heaven. By the time an ambulance arrived, Shirley was lying on the floor shaking. Later she told a nurse at Lubbock Methodist Hospital that she saw Luella standing at the heavenly portal about to enter life eternal.
After Shirley was released from the hospital, she helped the undertaker bury her grandmother. As she pushed her hands into the sandy soil, she said, “Time is passing quickly. The few remaining grains of sand are pouring through the tiny hole of God’s cosmic egg timer. The end is touching the beginning. God is closing the circle of life.”
But grief became a ghost. It held her hand, rode shotgun in her pickup, haunted her dreams. Shirley would wake up screaming, “Granny’s in heaven. You damned unholy ghost, be gone. You’re a devil. Go back and feel the fiery flames of hell.”
Three months after Luella’s death, Shirley met Ozias Abraham at Love’s Truckstop on Interstate 27, where she ate breakfast on Wednesdays with a group of women. She and Ozias became friends. He was a truck driver and often away for weeks at a time. While Ozias was on the road, Shirley drove to his ten acres outside Levelland to feed corn to his five Herford pigs and to put out hay for his two Clydesdale horses.
When Ozias was on the road, Shirley was lonely and on edge. She watched late-night evangelists on television and kept her pistol on the bedside table. She touched her gun, stroked its barrel, put it in her mouth and sucked until she tasted burned gun powder.
Granny Luella had loved bacon fat and corn dripping with butter. Shirley became addicted to chocolate chips. After a few years, she was shaped like Granny Luella—short, stocky, with a powerful, commanding voice.
Women began to follow Shirley. Once she had followers, she decided to attend Caprock Christian College. She majored in Bible and graduated at the top of her class. She also earned a certificate in court reporting and began to travel through Texas and New Mexico. She had nimble fingers, so her transcripts were fast and accurate. She became a favorite of circuit judges. Soon she had a thriving business.
On the road Shirley carried her Nighthawk pistol to protect herself from men who had rape on their minds. Granny had taught her that rapists wore a peculiar look on their faces, that you could smell the foul scent of their lust in the air as it burned your nostrils.”
Ozias gave Shirley a Buck hunting knife. “Hold their balls up like this. Castrate the bastards.” He gave her a John Deere hat, told her to put it on the dash of her pickup, so men would think there was another man around who could protect her.
“I don’t need protection,” she said, “I hit what I aim at.”
Shirley told her best friend Chris Hilton, “Granny Luella said if you’re round and heavy, like me, you’d better develop a compelling personality.”
By the time Shirley was forty-two, she had organized a dozen faithful followers into the Holy Hallelujah Prayer Group. The women prayed together on Wednesday nights. The group started after Shirley told the women who gathered for breakfast at Love’s Truckstop about a vision. She saw Granny Luella weeping in heaven eagerly waiting for her granddaughter and the righteous. Granny said, “Look. The crows are gathering. Circling in the sky. The unrighteous are crow bait. Time is running out. Tell people to get right with the Almighty Judge or he will send them straight off into the fiery flames of Hell, where their skin will boil and bubble. The pain will never go away.”
Shirley was eager for the Lord to come. She had visions of the last days, heard voices radiating from lumbering ice-cream trucks, swift racing bikes, howling coyotes, and would act out her visions for the prayer group.
“You’re God’s puppet,” said the women.
“I like that,” Shirley said, “I’m God almighty’s squawking puppet.” The women laughed.
Shirley watched her neighbors like a crow, hollering at their kids for throwing yucca spears at each other. She shouted caw-caw-caw to make them stop. “You noisy kids ought to obey your parents and neighbors.”
They ignored her. Called her a witch.
Shirley wasn’t a witch. Far from it. At age forty-three, she married Ozias Abraham, who converted to marry Shirley. Together, they joined the Lone Coyote Cowboy Church in Lubbock. Both dressed western and carried pistols to protect the church from drug lords and illegals. Ozias—tall, lean, full of play and humor—drove trucks from Mexico through the United States to Canada.
Chris asked Shirley, “Isn’t the Cowboy Church full of racists?”
“No. We can’t possibly be racists. We’re Americans.”
“You have three Donald Trump signs on your lawn.”
“We do. But we’re not racists. Neither is Trump. Soon he will be president.”
Shirley had picked out her plot at Resurrection Valley Cemetery next to Granny Luella’s grave. She covered it with yucca plants. She touched the point and ran her finger along its jagged edge. She called the blades of the yucca plant arrows of God.
Shirley’s gravestone was ready for the Great Arrival. The stone was carved with her birth date followed by a dash. She was not eager to die but knew Jesus would soon arrive and resurrect the righteous. She had faith, knew she would be among the saved. She turned east, the direction from which the Great Judge would come, and strolled among the graves, talking with the dead and the living. She pounded the ground with both hands and breathed, “Come to Jesus,” hoping the unrepentant dead would hear and repent.
Despite their arguments about Chris’s participation in the Women’s March on Washington in 2017, the two women clung tooth and nail to the old friendship. When Shirley began to talk about the unrepentant dead, Chris, a part-time cognitive therapist, asked Shirley questions, “Can the dead repent? Can you be saved after death?” Chris was skilled at keeping the focus off herself and on others.
Chris poured a tumbler of tea with four packets of sugar for Shirley, then a glass of Pinot Noir for herself. Chris saw Shirley was embarrassed by her questions. She smiled, “You know, Shirley, Jesus turned water into wine, not wine into water.”
Shirley laughed, “Shut your trap, sister. You know I’m a teetotaler.”
Shirley had not always been alcohol-free. When she was a student at Caprock College, she became a barrel-racing champion. Late one night, against the rules of the college, she guzzled cheap tequila with other members of the Annie Oakley Rodeo Club. They stumbled toward a corral, smelled the foul air from the oil pumps, vomited and rode their horses bareback across a flat field. Shirley’s horse Matilda stepped into a prairie dog hole and broke its leg.
That was the day Shirley stopped drinking.
There was no room in the Airstream for Shirley’s rodeo trophies and buckles, so Chris stored them in her two-car garage, beside her pink Corvette. Together, the two friends decided to name the Corvette, “Matilda Down the Hole.”
“Which hole?” Chris asked.
Shirley blushed, then laughed.
Chris, whom local teenage boys considered a stunner, was blond and gorgeous—a poster woman for Miss Texas but with the wrong political sentiments. She was a Bernie-Sanders Democrat and a Presbyterian who donated much of her inherited oil wealth to peace and justice causes.
Chris had frequent, short headaches. In August a migraine started and lasted for a week. The pain was so intense she could hardly walk. Shirley pressed her hands to Chris’s head, prayed, then said, “Chris, ask the Lord to come into your heart and you’ll be healed.”
Chris was desperate, so she went with Shirley to the next meeting of the Holy Hallelujah Prayer Group. Chris allowed the women to lay on hands. She could feel the heat radiating through their fingers and smell their sweat. She allowed them to anoint her head with holy water that Shirley had brought home from her last trip to the Holy Land.
The next Wednesday the women cried out for the Holy Spirit to descend. They saw visions of red and yellow flames in the heavens, spoke in tongues, fell into trance, rolled on the floor. Terrified, Chris ran out of the meeting. When Shirley accused Chris of retreating, she heard the word as a sign that they should go on a real retreat.
The next week, after the migraine had lifted, Chris bought two expensive camping tents, one red, the other blue. Shirley insisted on using her black Dodge Ram pickup, “No gravel chips on your pink Corvette.” They drove to Amarillo, ate jalapeño-laced enchiladas at the Saguaro Restaurant. Chris skipped dessert. Shirley ate four sopapillas filled with butter and Busy Bee honey.
The two women headed north toward Palo Duro Canyon. A ranger handed out a pamphlet at the entrance gate. Chris read a few lines to Shirley, “When the Spanish first discovered Palo Duro Canyon, they said it was like an upside-down mountain.” Chris said, “That’s me. I’m an upside down mountain. My head is below my feet. Something is wrong with me. I’m dizzy. I’m not sure where I’m headed.”
As they drove deep into the canyon, the sun was setting. Chris said, “Sorry, old friend, I need to be alone. I have to figure out what I’m doing, where I’m going.” They agreed that Shirley would set up the red tent and Chris, the blue one. During the day they talked and explored the canyon valley, but at night they were alone in their tents.
Each night Shirley began, “Dear Lord.” Every prayer ended with, “Please Jesus. Come soon.”
Chris pulled off the rain fly and stared at the sky through the mesh at the top of the tent. She talked to the stars, imagining the twinkling was star-talk. The stars asked, “What are you doing with your life? Who do you want to be with? Where are you going?”
Chris wanted to talk with Shirley about these questions but didn’t. She knew the answers would be predictable, “Give your life to Jesus. Turn it over to the Lord.”
At midnight Shirley had a dream that woke her up. An angel came down. They wrestled. When the heavenly being touched her nipple, she felt a burst of pleasure. When she woke up, she was horrified.
In the morning she crawled out of her tent and confessed to Chris, “Last night an angel touched me. Here…”
“Ah, you know angels—their messages are mixed. You never know what they mean.”
“I’m a Christian, so I should know how to interpret dreams. The Bible is full of them.”
On Wednesday, when Shirley told the dream to her prayer group, arguments erupted. Some said the dream was from Satan. Others said it was from God. One said breasts aren’t for pleasure but for feeding babies. Another said, the Savior was gentle, there was something feminine about Jesus. Another said, women were the first to see him after his resurrection. He had a gentle touch. He was kind to children, had long hair, and loved the disciple John.
Shirley went home confused. She examined her nipples, squeezed them, said to the empty Airstream, “That feels so good.” She wished she and Ozias could have children. She began to pace back and forth. Like many members of the Cowboy Church, Shirley had a reproduction of Warner Sallman’s painting, Jesus Knocking at the Door. She had heard sermons from Brother Goodnight assuring the congregation that the door in the painting is a symbol of the human heart. As she passed by the painting, she would pause and put her hand over her breast, sometimes feeling a hard nipple.
Late one Tuesday night, hand over heart, she realized her nipple was hard. Desire surged through her body. Her overalls grew damp. Ozias had just returned from trucking medical supplies from Mexico to Texas. He was surprised when she unzipped his Wranglers. He had driven for sixteen hours without sleeping.
Their delight was quick lived and deeply unsatisfying.
Chris and Shirley met the next morning at Roadrunner Coffee Shop. Shirley talked about the prayer-group controversy and her feelings about the painting. Chris reached out and gingerly touched Shirley’s breast, “Here?” she asked.
Shirley smiled, “Yeah.” Then she began to drum her fingers on the table.
Chris changed the subject, “Remember when we were in high school and took an archery class?”
“Yeah, we both got A’s.”
“Well, I was in an archery shop at Sweetwater last week and bought a lefthanded bow and two dozen arrows. Maybe we should take up archery again? What do you think? There’s a pit outside of town near the Rainbow Center.”
“Not sure how good I’d be now,” said Shirley.
“But we could try, couldn’t we?”
A week later Shirley found her old Bear recurve bow stashed away in Chris’s garage. Shirley showed it to Chris, ran her finger up and down the bow’s curves, “They’re gorgeous, like you Chris. I get more pleasure from Ol’ Bear than from Ozias.”
“There are other ways to get pleasure.”
The next week the two women visited the pit and were surprised at how much of their skill remained after twenty-seven years. An elderly custodian at the Rainbow Center said, “The pit, back in the early 1960s, housed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that rose up out of the ground like huge, deadly dicks—like rattlesnakes.”
Shirley fell silent.
For the next year, on Saturdays, Chris and Shirley went for an early morning coffee then headed to the pit. They became quite skilled and entered local competitions they often won. Dr. Eunice Beavin, a professor of anthropology and religious studies at Trinity College, saw them on television and asked the two women to come to her class for a demonstration. She wanted students to understand that the aging body continues to learn, that getting older does not prevent you from being a student. “We are all students,” she said.
Two field targets were set up in a large classroom. For five minutes the women shot arrows, most of them dead center. The students were stunned at the skill of these middle-aged women.
The professor borrowed the women’s bows and passed them around, “Don’t just look at the bows or think about them. Stroke the bow. Touch it. Feel it. Become one with it.”
Puzzled but interested, the students passed around the bows. They stroked and imagined. One of the students, Sarah Gillford, a pitcher for Trinity College’s baseball ball team, sat on the back row. She imagined Chris naked. Sarah opened her zipper and covered her hand with her baseball cap.
After class the Dr. Beavin gave Chris and Shirley a two hundred-dollar honorarium and a copy of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen and the Art of Archery. Chris took it home and read it avidly.
Shirley kept saying she intended to read it, but never did.
A year passed. Ozias had been away for three weeks. Shirley was lonely and slept over at Chris’s. Shirley said, “I worry he’s having an affair with somebody in Windsor. He keeps getting text messages. Says they are from someone at a Canadian biotech company. Maybe he’s having an affair with her?”
“Want to talk?” asked Chris.
“No,” said Shirley. She went to bed depressed.
Chris stayed up late. She had bought Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and read the first few chapters. She was imagining herself sitting on a big Harley Davidson motorcycle headed to San Francisco.
The next week she started taking motorcycle lessons and within a few months she bought a new Harley. She loved to feel the roaring engine radiating its power through her thighs.
A few weeks later, she sold her pink Corvette and put her house up for sale.
When Shirley saw the for-sale sign, she was furious. She screamed, “You didn’t tell me you were leaving.” She stormed out the front door, slamming it behind her.
Not a word passed between the women for a week.
The day Shirley showed up at Chris’s home, she was taken aback. “I’ve come to forgive you,” said Shirley.
“Forgive me? For what?”
“For being a coward, a runway. You are leaving me and leaving the Lord.”
“You and the Lord are the same? Isn’t that idolatry? I’ve lived all my life here. I’m not running away, just wanting to explore the world outside the Southwest.”
“Chris, you should settle down. But I forgive you.”
“I don’t want your forgiveness. I want your understanding.”
“I understand that you’ve sinned and need to repent.”
“For what? No. Absolutely not.”
“Maybe you’re a lesbian.”
“And if I were?”
The Wednesday after this argument, Shirley went to her prayer group and told the women what had happened. Most of them cheered her for standing up for Christian principles. Anne Vass said, “If she’s a lesbian, that’s against God’s will.” Most of the group agreed that a husband is the head of a household, and that the purpose of sex is not enjoyment but reproduction. Males and females were meant to have babies, to create—just as God created the universe.
After the meeting Shirley went to LouAnna, a prayer group member, and asked why she had been quiet. “I don’t think we should be judgmental. Judgment belongs to God.”
“But God wants us to judge between good and evil,” objected Shirley.
“Maybe, but our judgments are fallible. We’re not God. We’re not omniscient.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
The next morning Shirley drove to Resurrection Valley Cemetery in Sundown. She saw seven crows sitting on her grandmother’s gravestone, the grave was covered with rabbit fur, blood and guts. Shirley smelled the rotten odor and knew this was a sign the Tribulation had begun and that she was being tested.
She felt the crows were calling her, “Come, Shirley, come join us.”
She was attracted but terrified.
She stood still.
Determined not to yield.
Shirley invited Chris out for coffee. “I’m confused. I heard the crows calling me and was tempted to follow. Jesus is calling me too. I want to follow him. He’s divine and forgives. I know you don’t want to be forgiven for running away, but the End is coming soon. I’m at a loss. I don’t know what to say.”
“Maybe the best strategy is to say nothing. Be silent.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said Shirley as she stared out the coffee shop window, “Prayer isn’t only about talking. Being quiet is a way of praying too. There is a passage in the Old Testament that says we should silent before God, since the Last Days are near.”
“Those days have been near for over two thousand years.”
“But you know what I mean?”
“No, not really.”
“I mean, Jesus never left us. He’s here now, sitting beside us. Can’t you feel him?”
“Where is he sitting? I thought he was in heaven.”
“He’s in both places.”
“Where is he now?”
“In my heart.”
“Not your brain? Not your belly? Not your vagina?”
Shirley blushed, shuffled her boots on the wooden floor, “Now why would Jesus be down there?”
“Because the whole body, not just your heart, is sacred. If you were raped, you’d feel that some sacred part of your body had been violated. Right?”
“Come on, Shirley, you know that’s true.”
“Okay, I do.”
“Let me ask you a question,” said Chris. “You’re always taking about the incarnation. If God became flesh in Jesus, every part of our body is sacred. Why not a toe? An elbow? Why not the clitoris? You like touching it, don’t you?”
Shirley looked at Chris and smiled. Then, embarrassed, she stared down into her coffee cup, poured in more cream, stashed her napkin into her purse.
Desperate to change the subject, Shirley said, “Listen. You hear that? Hundreds of crows are landing in the dead elms outside the coffee shop. That’s a sign the End is near.”
“Maybe Jesus is a crow?”
“Crows are devils.”
Chris laughed, “Crows are smart. Maybe you and I are crows? What’s so special about humans?”
“We have souls.”
“How do you know animals or rocks don’t?”
“They aren’t living.”
“You don’t know that,” said Chris, “The rock that closed Jesus’s tomb…well, maybe it rolled itself away. Even rocks could have spirits. Native Americans think so.”
Shirley rolled her eyeballs but said nothing.
The two women paid their bill and headed out into the blinding sun toward Hillcrest Park. “You know,” said Shirley, “We rarely take long walks, but when we do, we always get along. Why is that?”
“Don’t know. Maybe walking is prayer? I heard about Pueblo people in the Rio Grande Valley. For them dancing, their feet touching the earth, is prayer.”
“Being silent is prayer? And dancing is prayer? Maybe I should teach the members of Holy Hallelujah these ways of praying.”
For the next half-hour the two women walked and said nothing until a crow flew overhead.
“Yeah, why not?”
The two women began to build female scarecrows out of dried corn stalks from Ozias’s garden. They used cornsilk to give them curly, frizzy wigs. Each was dressed in a frilly old dress that Chris was going to donate to the Salvation Army. They called each of the scarecrows Major Barbara, since Chris had seen the play Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw when she was in Washington for the Women’s March.
Ozias donated the corn. The women built seven Barbies, but the crows were unafraid. They landed on the scarecrows, pecked out the eyes and gobbled the corn kernels. At sunrise and sunset hundreds of crows gathered. Ozias laughed, calling the gathering a conference of stand-up Jewish comedians.
Chris laughed, but Shirley didn’t think the joke was funny.
One day at noon Shirley walked calmly to the garden and shot arrows through the hearts of the scarecrows and burned them. For hours the crows circled the garden. One crow circled, swooped down, slammed its beak into her skull and left her bleeding. When it came back a second time, Shirley grabbed her Nighthawk pistol and shot it out of the air.
She ground the crow’s head into the dirt with her boot heel.
When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Shirley was jubilant. “Chris, he’s been chosen by God, and that means an end to abortion, to murder. He has been chosen to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.”
“He was elected by people with your views, not mine. He likes to pinch asses and grab women by their pussies. He’s had many affairs and probably paid for several abortions. Anyway, he lost the election.”
“No, he won by a huge majority,” said Shirley.
“He lost the popular vote by over two million votes, although he won the Electoral College. He was elected by people with your views, not mine.
Three days after Trump’s election Shirley had a dream. She sat up in bed at two in the morning. Ozias was still sleeping. She drove to Chris’s home, woke up her friend, “I’ve had a vision. I see a huge mansion full of dead souls. Granny Luella’s there. She shouts that the End is here. The Handmaidens are lighting candles. Jews are blowing the ram’s horn in Jerusalem. They are being converted to Christianity and are calling people to prepare their souls to meet God Almighty, the Judge of Souls.
“An angel flies over, then turns into a dove. I fall on the floor and weep with joy. I cry please come. The Holy Spirit arrives. Our spirits intertwine. We make love. We become one. I feel my soul starting to lift off my body. I shout, O God, O my God.
“I wake up dizzy, ecstatic. Hoping to see the dove again, I fall asleep and dream. The dove returns. It flies outside my bedroom window. I am so happy.
“Suddenly a crow tears into the side of the dove and rips its head off. The crow stands upright on its legs. It’s taller than a person and has wings. It’s the Devil. Its beak changes into a bullhorn with a crackling sound like an electrical short in a revival tent. The Crow-Devil calls out to dead souls, Follow me. Skeletons sit up in their graves. I scream, No! It’s too early. It’s not time. Jesus, stop the Devil.
“I’m not ready. I’m waiting for Chris.”
Three months later the women go the sandhills for a picnic. The sun is setting. Chris says, “Sorry Shirley but Jesus isn’t coming. Not now. Not ever.”
“Yes. He’s coming. But not yet. He’s waiting on you.”
“And I’m waiting on Her.”
“What on God’s green earth are you talking about?”
“We’re made in God’s image, right?”
“In our image—yours and mine,” says Chris. “That would be female. Shirley, we’re doves. We’re also crows. We daughters of God are both doves and crows.”
“That makes no sense. The world is divided—good on right, evil on the left.”
“We peace-loving humans think we can scare off crows with scarecrows. But scarecrows—meant by us to repel crows—attract them like magnets. Let me ask you, Shirley, will God forgive the crows?”
“He will forgive all who repent.”
“Can crows repent? Why should they? I don’t repent. Why should I? God made crows and women smart and curious. Like Eve, we women keep eating apples and crows, corn. That’s how we know the difference between good, evil, and everything in between. There is no heaven. There is no hell. Just the all-encompassing Mother Earth.”
“I can’t remember my mother or father, and my grandmother was a saint.”
“I never knew my grandparents. Like you, my parents died early but left me wealthy, with stocks in Diamondback Oil Company.
“You follow Jesus, but I adopted the Great Cosmic Mamma, blind to virtues and vices, blind to religion. We’re all saved. Now and forever, right?”
Shirley takes off her boots, digs her toes into the sand, stares at the disappearing horizon. “Maybe so,” she says, “I’m tired. Tired of waiting.”
As darkness creeps in both women grow silent. Each decides to leave. But neither moves. They fall asleep in the warm sand. The next morning, when the sun rises, Shirley sits up, sees wave patterns in the sand and knows they are the tracks of a sidewinder rattlesnake. She follows the tracks to an old yucca plant. Sees it is about to drop its seeds. Behind the yucca are hundreds of crow tracks, a few black feathers, and a dead sidewinder with its eyes pecked out.
Ozias parks his truck beside the Airstream, goes in, finds a note from Shirley, “Chris and I are taking a trip. We’re riding her motorcycle to Corpus Christi. Should be back in two weeks. Maybe longer. Don’t worry.”
Ozias does worry, “Chris has a motorcycle?” He drives to her house and discovers it has been sold. Goes back to the Airstream. Searches Shirley’s closet. Her good clothes are gone. Drives to his garden. No scarecrows. Only ashes, burnt arrows, crow feathers. He examines the scene, imagines what happened. Fails. Goes to the Holy Hallelujah Prayer Group. They haven’t seen Shirley for weeks. The air is thick with burning questions. Has she been taken? Why have we been left behind? LouAnna reminds the group that Shirley had said, “Women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will not.”
Ozias drives to Corpus Christi. Can’t find Shirley. Drives back to Lubbock after two weeks of searching. Files a missing-person report.
Three months pass. Ozias can only speculate about Shirley’s fate. Abducted? Raped? Dead? Maybe she just left me for another man?
Jake Goodnight, senior pastor at Lone Coyote Cowboy Church, pulls Ozias aside after Sunday praise and worship and says, “Come with me.”
Jake suggests that they build two scarecrows to resemble Shirley and Chris. They take them to Resurrection Valley Cemetery. Jake suggests that they use Shirley’s Nighthawk pistol to shoot the Barbies to shreds. Ozias balks, then vomits at the thought of shooting holes in a manikin of Shirley. But he’s desperate and respects Pastor Jake’s judgment. The two men fill the scarecrows with lead. Then burn the straw, corn shucks and wood.
They carry the ashes to Granny Luella’s grave in Sundown. Ozias says, “Luella Wilmington, listen to me. Shirley’s lost. Maybe she’s with you, maybe not. Is she crowbait? I hope not. Here are some ashes from burned scarecrows. I’m sorry. You’re sorry. The world is sorry.”
Jake sits in silence with Ozias who weeps and weeps.
Ozias jumps up, grabs Shirley’s Nighthawk, “I’m going to bury this too.” Jake, a devoted gun lover, hesitates. But he knows this act is Ozias’s way of dealing with grief. They dig a hole in the ground at Shirley’s headstone, pull apart the pistol, and bury it.
A month later Ozias sells the Airstream trailer and moves back to Canada.
Seven months later he receives a letter from Shirley forwarded from Lubbock to Windsor. “Dear Ozias, I’m so sorry I didn’t have the courage to tell you I was leaving. You are a good man. You deserve better. For several months I couldn’t admit to myself what was happening. You’ve always known that I love Chris, but it took me a long time to realize that I desire her as well. You and I both know we didn’t have a great sex life. Now I understand why.
Chris and I are living in San Francisco in a commune sponsored by the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco. It’s an LGBTQ+ church, very different from Lone Coyote Cowboy Church. I don’t ask for your forgiveness, but I would like for you to understand what’s happened to me.
“I have begun to sing in the church choir, and Chris has become a full-time therapist for this community. People like us, who live an unconventional lifestyle, have lots of problems, and that includes me. I still have Granny Luella’s voice in my head pounding me with Bible verses. I thank her for raising me, caring for me, but I resist her view of the Bible. Now I can see that it’s not, as Granny used to say, rules for life. The Bible is about liberation. I’m now reading James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Granny Luella would have hated the book. I have strayed from her faith but found my own. Thank God.
“I’ve always wanted to ask whether you were having an affair in Windsor, but, well, that’s none of my business.
“If you’d like to write back, that would make me happy. If you don’t, I understand.
“A new Shirley.”
Ozias Abraham reads the letter to Norma Bergstrom, his new wife. They agree. He should write Shirley. But he waits for three months.
“Dear Shirley, I can’t tell you how sad, disappointed, and angry I have been. You should have told me before you left. We could have parted amiably. I wasn’t happy in our marriage either. I wouldn’t have guessed that you are a lesbian, although, as you say, our sex life was poor.
I know you suspected that I was having an affair. I was. Norma and I married last October and have joined Congregation Ahavath Sholom, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Detroit across the bridge from Windsor, where we live. I feel good about reconnecting with my Jewish roots.
“You’re singing in a choir. It’s curious how you and I converge as we diverge. People in the synagogue enjoy my baritone voice. I am now in training to become a cantor. I chant. You sing hymns.
“When I moved back to Canada, I gave up my guns and buried your Nighthawk pistol. I donated my cowboy duds to the Salvation Army. I’m now the manager of TGIF Trucking International, so I have to wear a suit. Some days I pretend I’m Leonard Cohen. You might like some of his music. He was a Montreal Jew and a Zen Buddhist. I’m reading a biography about him now. I have a vague memory that you and Chris were reading one of those Zen-and-the-art-of books.
“Anyway, Shirley, I’m glad you wrote. Now we can put our relationship to rest. The circle of our life together has ended.
“As always, but different, Ozias.”
Shirley writes back a short note, “Dear Ozias. You’ll laugh when you read this. There is a huge square in front of the Metropolitan Community Church. Pigeons and crows gather there. Hundreds of them. I feed them seeds and food scraps. There is a wounded crow with only one leg. Her flight is so beautiful, but when she’s on the ground, she can only hop. She’s my favorite. She always comes to me. I like to imagine I’m a wounded healer. I call her Black Beauty and feed her only dried corn.”
Robin Blackburn McBride holds degrees in English, Drama, and Education from the University of Toronto. She is a member of Amnesty International Canada and PEN Canada and an active supporter of environmental causes, including the preservation of old-growth forests.
A Shock of Blue by Robin Blackburn McBride
Dust lingered everywhere—on the chalkboard and tablets, on sweaty fingers rubbing out answers and rewriting them, and on the sun-seared window ledge, where a set of last term’s atlases baked. On that same shelf, a solitary Christmas cactus had long ago left its body. Throughout seventh-grade algebra class, the teacher spoke in turkey-gobble, and I turned my head to the left, where a single window was open about six inches. I could see the sky and hear birdsong.
Even before the sound of the birds was broken by Florence’s screams, I understood why the motor car idling outside the maternity home had worried me. She’d had the baby.
“Florence!” I hollered it twice and bolted from the room and down four flights of stairs. For several seconds, all I heard were my own footfalls and panting within the dark, wood-paneled hall. I ran with my skirt hiked to my knees. Teachers opened their doors and stared. On the ground floor, one of them lunged and grabbed me by the sleeve, but I yanked myself free.
Out on the street in front of the maternity home, the driver stood with his cap in his hands, while the matron and Florence tugged in opposite directions on a suitcase handle. When I
shouted my friend’s name, the woman released her hold, and Florence looked at me, stumbling backward. Dropping the bag, which sprang open with a creak like a trapdoor, she ran to meet me in the middle of the road. We flung our arms around each other.
Even though Florence was two and a half years older than I, fifteen, we’d become friends for the last three months of her pregnancy. On the days when I’d skipped school to go and sit with her by the river, she’d often rested her favorite book, The Great Galleries of Europe, on her huge belly, and she showed me the museums in her namesake city, a place she hoped one day to see. Once her baby was old enough. Although everyone at the home had told Florence that her parents were doing the right thing by putting the baby up for adoption, she refused to believe it would happen. Each time we met, holding the book open with one hand, with the other Florence patted the blue baby blanket that she’d snuck into the home in her underwear, and spread over her belly every chance she got. Like a charm. Somehow, she kept telling me, when everyone saw how much Florence loved her baby, how they fit, and what a natural mother she was, no one could separate them. That’s why I was worried. I knew what was coming.
The baby was gone.
Like a person who’d just been thrown from a moving cart, Florence was shivering. I squeezed her with everything I had.
Her face was flushed and blotchy, and her glazed eyes only half met mine when she pulled back and spoke. “They’ve given her away, and now they’re sending me home without her!” Shrieking, Florence doubled over, shaking her fists, beating them on her thighs, and crossing them on her chest. “My baby’s hungry!” She was moaning. The front of her dress was wet with milk.
What could I do? I hugged her shuddering body again, and this time I held on.
Near the suitcase, amongst her scattered clothing was a shock of blue blanket on the pavement. The Great Galleries of Europe lay beside it, splayed open on its spine. I watched the pages flutter and closed my eyes, wishing for a Da Vinci angel. Without knowing what was happening, I saw a vision of an older Florence seated alone at the side of a tidy, narrow bed. In her room, the floor had been swept clean, the desk cleared, and the wardrobe closed. Through the bars of a single window, daylight reached with pale fingers to touch her vacant face.
What did that mean? Where had it come from? No, no. That couldn’t happen.
Gripping her shoulders, I focused on my friend. “Florence. Listen to me—”
“I called her Sarah.” Florence’s teeth were chattering. I could smell her sweat, and the side of my neck was wet with her tears. “Now she won’t know her name!” Florence was bawling again.
The principal and a few teachers had come out and gathered at the edge of the playground, yet on both sides of the street, the adults hung back. It was as though Florence’s wails had cast a spell on them. They were stone people. I didn’t want to look at them, or up at the school, where I knew every window would be filled with staring faces. Taking a breath, I held my grip and gaze steady. “Florence.”
Only the driver moved. He kept turning his cap in his hands. “She’s hysterical.”
As the principal headed toward us, a woman with a medical bag, maybe the same midwife who’d delivered Florence’s baby the night before, crossed the lawn of the home and stepped beside us. “Please, let them alone for a minute. This girl has just had to give her baby away. Let her cry with her friend.”
At the sound of that last word, the principal’s chest puffed up as he stopped. Looking first at the midwife, and then at the matron, he pushed his glasses higher on his nose. The matron
backed away. At that, he turned and headed toward the school gate, where by now the secretary had joined the few teachers, and several younger boys in drill clothes had gravitated from the field to the iron fence, keeping their snickering low. Holding his hand up, the head of the school motioned for the drillmaster to take the boys back inside. Then, only the secretary and the few teachers without classes remained at the gate, standing behind the principal, staring at us.
“Florence!” Shaking her shoulders, I studied her glistening, wan face. “Listen.”
She blinked at me.
“You can see Sarah again.”
“With your mind.” Keeping hold of her made sense. But the words? Where were they coming from? And why was I smiling? “Remember like we talked about that day at the river? Just close your eyes.”
Florence flashed me a bloodshot scowl. Then she took a double breath and wiped her nose with the back of her wrist. She closed her eyes.
“Can you see her?”
Her shoulders and chest were heaving. Florence was frowning.
“Now I want you to see her surrounded by people who love her. Can you do that?”
“But I love her.” Her brow was puckered, and she was still whimpering.
“Yes.” I grasped her cold hands. “Yes, you do. You love her and you always will. Love is big, Florence. You love her, and nothing—and no one can ever change that. Take some deep breaths.”
She was moaning, trembling. “She’s just a little baby.” Florence took one deep breath.
“Yes. You gave her life. No one else did that. You. And you can keep on loving her now,
Florence. Picture Sarah in a big, beautiful bubble of your love. It’s pure sunshine light. Can you see it?”
Tears were leaking from the corners of her eyes.
“Your love is so important, Florence, because it helps make Sarah’s bubble strong—so strong, and bright, that she’ll always feel the protection of it. Can you sense that?”
She bit her lower lip. More tears.
“A bright, strong bubble needs lots of love, Florence. There’s no limit. So—would it be all right if, in Sarah’s life, lots of people love her and help to keep her safe and happy?”
She wiped the tears off her cheeks with her sleeve. “Do you really believe this?”
“I do.” Did I say that? “I feel it, Florence. The parents who are raising her—they love her too. They know she’s a little baby, just like you said, and she needs to be held. She needs to be fed. See her being picked up and bundled, all snug in her bubble. Can you see her being held?”
“She’s being given a warm bottle. As you watch her, just love her, Florence. Send her all that love, even though she can’t see you right now. She can feel you. You can touch her soft head and, in your mind, give her your finger to squeeze. Can you do that?” What was going on? Where were the words coming from? Did I have the right to say them? Was I making it worse? But I couldn’t seem to stop. Somehow, I needed to tell her what I was seeing.
Florence’s eyes remained closed, and she kept hold of my hands. “Maybe I can do it. Maybe I can squeeze her finger.”
Holy cow. She was trying. “Now, Florence, keep with me.” Oh please. “Stay with me.” Standing there, I felt the sun on my arms, and they were tingling along with the chickadees’ chitters. From up above us on a wire, a house finch chirruped its jumbly song. My body went
calm, even my toes. “Imagine she’s a little older. She has a room that smells like sheets all fresh from the clothesline. She’s got a comfy old stuffed bear, and picture books, and the parents raising her are taking good care of her, Florence. They’re having a birthday party for her on the lawn. The mother raising her sets down a big chocolate cake with five candles right in front of her. Can you see her smiling at her birthday party?”
“She’s got my hair.”
I took a breath. “She does.”
“It tangles easily.” Florence swallowed. “It needs to be kept in braids or it’ll turn to mats. Most people don’t know how to brush that kind of hair.”
I squeezed her hands. “The mother raising her knows just how to brush it, Florence.”
“You have to be patient. You have to be gentle.” A few more tears came down. She was shaking her head.
My throat and chest began to tighten. “The mother raising her is patient. She’s very gentle.” I saw my own adoptive mother’s hands lengthening the hem on my skirt in delicate stitches. I felt them braiding my hair for the studio portrait, and I cleared my throat. “Can you see careful hands brushing Sarah’s hair, Florence?”
Rubbing her inner arm across her damp chest, she let go, smoothing her dress with her palms. “Okay.”
“That’s good.” I retook her hands. “Now, imagine her growing up in a nice house, with friends who come over, and piano lessons, and trips to the beach in summer. See her with people who look after her and love her, knowing how special she is. Can you feel all that love going to her?”
Florence nodded. Her closed eyelids were fluttering, and she looked like she was
dreaming. Her palms were warm.
“Anytime, you can hold her and send her your love. Hold her just like a little baby, even when she’s big. She’ll feel it. And, Florence—” Tears were wobbling at the edges of my own eyes now. “You can stop holding her too.” I swallowed. “It’s okay.” I let a few run down my cheeks. “She’ll still feel your love.”
Florence nodded. “Avery.” Her trembling had stopped. “I want her to know me.”
I gave her hands a firm shake. “She’ll know, Florence.”
Florence opened her eyes.
For several seconds we stayed together like that in the center of the road.
The sound of approaching footsteps on the asphalt marked the end of the spell. “Avery Conlon.” The principal pronounced my name like he was reading it from a roster. I didn’t care. I didn’t look at him.
From her side of the street, the matron took a few steps toward us too. The midwife had gone. This was it.
I turned and walked in the matron’s direction, brushing past her as I headed for the fallen luggage, and bent down, picking up Florence’s blue blanket and folding it, with her clothes and the book, into the bag. I brought her suitcase back to her. “I think you’re going to go to Europe, Florence.”
“Really? Do you see that too?”
I saw several things. I saw Florence standing in a vast gallery before the gilt-framed Madonna of the Rocks. I saw her in the desert with the wind beating her face and her hair tied
back under a safari hat. She wore trousers and she was kneeling in the sand, digging, concentrating. I saw a young woman’s hand knock twice on a door in Cobourg. She whispered Florence’s name. The door opened.
For a moment, a faint smile appeared and faded on Florence’s face. “Write to me.”
“I will. I’ll send my letters to your parents’ hardware store.”
Her chest rose. “Yes!” For the first time she gave my hands a squeeze and shook them. “It’s on the Main Street. Fieldstone’s in Cobourg. That’s all you need on the envelope. I’ll write you back.”
The principal was beside us now, speaking over his shoulder and waving again, this time to the teachers. “We’ll have order. Back to your classrooms, ladies.” Off they went. When I looked at him, his face was red, and his eyes goggled at me above his big mustache.
The matron took Florence’s bag. She handed it to the driver, who set it in the trunk and cranked the engine twice before the machine engaged, sputtering into a steady rhythm.
Turning back to face Florence, I memorized where we stood as we had a last hug. “I’ll write tonight.”
“Enough, now.” The principal took me by the arm as the matron did the same with Florence, packing her into the car and, in a controlled voice, wishing her well. My arm hurt where the principal’s fingers dug in. I kept craning my head over my shoulder, even as he muscled me back, so I could watch her for a few seconds more, in the car. Through the window, Florence looked at me, cradling an invisible baby in her arms. Then Florence blew me a kiss, and the car pulled away.
Something had stirred awake in me in the middle of that road. The message I’d spoken had come through me on its own. But where had it come from? I had no idea.
In the principal’s office, I closed my eyes and hugged Florence again in my mind, making sure she could feel me and would know that when she cried again, I was right there for her. Staying with her like that, I had a hope that she’d remember to send Sarah love and see her being cared for, just like in the message. Tonight, in my letter, I’d tell her to pay attention to her dreams. She might see Sarah there. But for now, “Just send her love” were the words I kept muttering under my breath as the principal explained what a danger I’d been to the community, and how he’d apologize to the matron on behalf of the school. I wasn’t to write any letters. Those girls were no business of ours.
Through the caning, ten times on each palm, I closed my eyes and saw Florence in her own bubble of light in the taxi. I won’t lie. The welts stung, and part of me wanted to cry, but I didn’t. I didn’t care if I got beaten. I didn’t care what people would say about me. I didn’t care how they’d stare and whisper when I walked into a room, or how they’d laugh. The images of Sarah and Florence in their light told me what I was going to do with my life.
As the secretary led me back into the outer office, I gazed down at my scuffed shoes with half-closed eyes. I heard the principal’s voice on the telephone to my parents. A minute later, he poked his head around the door as though he hadn’t just whipped me, assuring me that my mother would soon be coming to pick me up.
How I wished that were true.
I closed my eyes and did my best to imagine my real mother holding me like Florence holding Sarah, not ever wanting to let me go.
Arnold Yasinski wrote his first poem when he was fifty years old and has since published fifty others in American poetry journals. His first collection of poems, Proposition, was published by 21st Century Renaissance in Ireland (January 2020).
Colin Dodds is a writer with several books to his name, including Ms. Never and Windfall. He grew up in Massachusetts and lived in California briefly, before finishing his education in New York City. Since then, he’s made his living as a journalist, editor, copywriter and video producer. His work has appeared in Gothamist, The Washington Post and more than three hundred other publications, and been praised by luminaries such as David Berman and Norman Mailer. Colin’s poetry collection Spokes of an Uneven Wheel was published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company in 2018. His short films have been selected by festivals around the world and he once built a twelve-foot-high pyramid out of PVC pipe, plywood and zip ties. Forget This Good Thing I Just Said, a first-of-its-kind literary and philosophical experience (the book form of which was named a finalist for the Big Other Book Prize for Nonfiction) is now available as an app for the iPhone. He lives in New York City, with his wife and children. You can find his work at thecolindodds.com
Cindy Gentry has enjoyed creative pursuits her whole life, and began creating artwork in 2018, after a move to New Mexico. She grew up in the mountains of Montana, to a father who taught her to love nature through his career with Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and a mother who encouraged creative pursuits and taught her to love God and to help others. She finds beauty in nature wherever life takes her. The rugged mountains of Montana delighted her as a child. She raised her children in the lush beauty of Green Country, Oklahoma, inspired by the verdant trees and the frequent powerful thunderstorms. She now resides in the high desert plains of New Mexico, with its incomparable sunrises and sunsets. She is currently studying Art at Eastern New Mexico University. Through her art she seeks to celebrate nature and show humankind at its best.
Emily Eddins is a multi-genre author of poems, short stories and essays. Her poetry, creative nonfiction, and short fiction have appeared in more than twenty publications including the Willow Review, The Louisville Review, The Round, Toad Suck Review, Forge, Front Porch, The Cape Rock, and others. Her humorous essay collection, AltitudeAdjustment, reached the Top Five in the Amazon Kindle Hot New Releases section for 90-minute short biographies. She holds a BA from Vanderbilt University and an MA from Georgetown University, and lives in Northern California with her family.
Kathryn Pope’s poetry, fiction, journalism, and creative nonfiction have appeared in The Cape Rock, Brushfire, Gulf Stream Magazine, Teleread, Parenting Magazine, and Emerald City. She holds an MFA in creative writing and an MA degree in urban sustainability. Kathryn is a faculty member and writing instructor at Antioch University. She enjoys knitting, spinning yarn, and sending handwritten letters delivered by the postal system.
How to be a Strong Female Character by Kathryn Pope
You’ve got this, with a family and a golden retriever who jumps on the couch like in pharmaceutical commercials. Be bold. Be public. Assert remembrance and learn how to sweat. When you wake in the night, do not walk barefoot into the alley listening for stars and drones. Do not crouch to see the ants carrying crumbs underground, their lines weaving like lace around the globe. Do not feed the soil with libations for your sins and sins of your ancestors. Do not lay yourself to rest as to death, bare-faced and silent.
IACYR ANDERSON FREITAS (1963) is a Brazilian writer who has published more than twenty books of poetry, short stories, and literary essays, having been translated into several languages, in more than fifteen countries. His works have won many important prizes, to cite a few, the most noticeable first place in the Prêmio Literário Nacional do PEN Clube do Brasil (National Literary Award of Brazil PEN Club) and special mention in the Premio Literario Casa de las Américas (Literary Prize Casa de Las Americas), in Cuba.
On Sundays by Iacyr Anderson Freitas
Many things have happened before they arrived in such life held by tomorrow’s emptiness. –Fernando Namora
What’s the importance of this now? I ask myself. Nothing. And yet, despite all my efforts, why have I never been able to forget what happened? Why this endless return against my will, the same image, the same afternoon, almost a memory by now but not quite? My strongest certainty: that interminable light, the unending agony of the cicadas, the sun stumping the landscape with fires. And not to mention the vertigo arriving straight from my childhood, turning life thicker, denser, and more terribly inexplicable at every passing day.
As a nine-year-old boy, unrecognizable to me today, I was often in agitation, high up on the mango tree, calmly measuring the afternoon from there, a place that in my view appeared more habitable than any other part in the world—despite its elusive difficult architecture of branches, embroidering shadows covering the house’s backyard. I remained there in silence, drinking the hours owed to me like a religious mystery, listening to this dark drum inside my chest, mouth, and bloody veins.
And that’s when, and how, I first noticed my mother and uncle—my father’s younger brother—slowly coming out from the back door and into the backyard, quietly speaking and appearing nervous.
My father had become paraplegic due to a major accident and, because of that, forced to deal with the limitations of this new reality, trading physical activities and business life for a wheelchair. Since then, nobody ever left him alone. People from the house, neighbors, family friends and relatives, shared an endless rotation of improvised card games, conversation, music gatherings, anything that could distract him from his profound depression. My mother even hid the drugs, the insecticides, and the revolver, fearing the worst. And this uncle—who, all these years in my memory, continued to go down the backyard’s stairs infinitely—was one of the house’s regulars, always kind and helpful. With me, especially, his favourite nephew.
As they speciously entered the backyard that day, I knew I remained unseen to them up on the mango tree. Whispering, confused and with suspicion, they walked up to the end of a small lateral garden. There, protected by the foliage, they kissed. This image, my mother and uncle kissing, is forever what stayed with me like a murder. Lost and without escape, my life became unbearable. All I recall was the blurred notion of an afternoon stretching through slime, clouded hours, and an entire life (nine years old) of useless questioning. Nothing else.
From that moment on, I turned into a poor miserable nobody, worse and more miserable after they turned around and went back to the kitchen. While, in the background, my father’s voice muffled and afar could be heard—or whatever was left of it after the accident—his syllables a rosary without brilliancy.
Almost two months later, on this uncle’s birthday, a strong blast raged through the door of my parent’s bedroom, a slit cutting the morning in half. Soon after, the yell of my mother. I was riding my bike in front of the house when it happened. Stunned by the sound, I ran towards it but was held before I could get closer to the room where my father’s body still boiled, his head cleaved by the old revolver’s bullet.
Why did he kill himself on that day precisely? My mind had created more than a thousand possibilities after witnessing that murderous kiss. When did my father find out about the affair? How did he have access, despite all family efforts, to a loaded revolver? These were some of the unending, unanswered questions I had pressing against my chest, crushing me into an unmapped darkness, stitched by silence at every minute. If it was up to me, the lovers should rest in peace, unforgiving and unmeasured, for everything else was already lost.
I never told this story to anyone. I held it as my secret, the live poison inside my blood. I kept the unpleasant arrival of that image, the ill feeling of its presence. I withheld everything in silence. Gradually, a foreign sadness grew in me. I became more distant and headstrong.
After the death of my father, our financial situation, which already wasn’t the best after his accident, worsened considerably. My uncle didn’t wait long to move away from the city, alleging work issues. A few years later, I also left the house to study. After a long time doing odd jobs here and there, I finally found something that allowed me to pay and finish my university degree. It also gave me the necessary alibi for when, if ever, I had to pack my bags and return to the place that made me so uncomfortable. Only occasionally I visited my mother.
By choice, my work holidays never coincided with my university break, and for that reason, I never traveled on vacations. My mother didn’t forgive my absence, though. And in turn, I felt the same: I couldn’t forgive her for what had happened. Even after so much time, I continued to punish her for the offence already trialed and condemned by higher magistrates—the voice of my father echoing in the uncanny image of that kiss, the revolver blast mercilessly seizing his memory in fear two months later. My own sense of abandonment, as well as my mother’s, and her sin, trembling before that image. The affection of two people, engine of an already dead kiss, stabbing me deeply in that cunning hour.
As soon as I finished my bachelor’s, I started my masters, followed up by my doctorate. Sometime later, as my temporary job expired, I was hired as a professor at the same university. I rarely returned to my mother’s house. She, likewise, never visited me. With the passing of years, our distance became unbearable. It was especially heavy for me since I’d finally recognized that poor woman’s suffering—the deaf magnitude of her pain. Her fight against my father’s depression, the consequences of his accident, and the financial difficulties that collapsed over our house. Life, for her, becoming a sudden enemy, an unannounced burden over her shoulders: house duties, children, the need to complement a small pension with sewing, renting rooms, desserts, and marriage cakes for sale. An endless ordeal that, without any doubt, costed her the erasure of her own existence in our name, her children. Moreover, the pressing need of a faraway desire, a slime grin between the sheets, that her body couldn’t forget.
Only now I’m able to recognize the power of this desire, how it is geared by darkness and many fires within. Unfortunately, to that nine-year-old boy up on the mango tree, shifting back and forth between the somber caves of his childhood, no comprehension or recognition was conceded. Shielded by a useless attempt to answer a question his own skin denied, rootless with a hatred without measure, he was blinded and prevented to transcend his own blood and semen, having before him only an inquisitional horizon—such punishment that hides within an extreme and obscure ignorance.
Why do we always understand a posteriori? Why do we overly condemn what exceeds us?
Because truly to forgive—if, indeed, one has such need—is to leave behind no marks or vestiges, to use a conjugation we barely accept to know as a verb. No one can blame for not trying to change my estrangement before the world, not even with my mother. My brothers exhausted me in their advises and demands. And yet everything appeared false and roughly staged to me. Once the mask contrarily reshaped my face, I had no way to return to what I was. Instead, I became a distant and cold man.
Now, as I sit in the living room of our old house, facing the picture of my father in his thin moustache and brilliantine, I hope all my sorrows can bring back that old boy to life. I hope, also, that with his return, the destiny of our days can change forever. Like a clock walking in countermarch, he can pull the old mango from the earth by its hairs, and with it, the rumour of the cicadas on the riddled turn of Januarys.
At last, I hope his return can save me from my mother’s terrible gaze, present in all her many pictures, her face intensively stouter as time passes, despite my wish.
With her hands so close to my gaze now, they resemble a land racked by drought, the kind of that never leaves the memory of our souls. I look at her without haste, unveiling our very sisal of silence. Her unhappiness maybe a torture, maybe a redemption to me. Occasionally, one of us makes a fortuitous exclamation, or if much, a meaningless commentary. We barely talk, that much is true. And I must admit, fearfully, that this is an imprint of our entire life.
We can only hope that destiny doesn’t give us another chance in this world. For only warm, good food, can save us from Sundays. But the cooking is not even close to my mother’s. She can’t be in the kitchen anymore, due to her sickness. In fact, she can’t do much these days, except, rather, allow her painful but dreamed passing hour. A large part of her memory even appears to have already left us, packing its suitcases for good. Just yesterday I saw her arguing with two of her (long-time dead) brothers. As for today, though, she is not into talking. She keeps staring at me as if I were a stranger, her arrogance long gone. At night, a few words escape from the thresholds, but no answers. In confidence, we talk. And like so, apart, we understand each other.
We had no choice. Uncle Oscar wouldn’t loan our family enough money to drill an irrigation well, so we were forced off our land. Our parents, Miles and Nelda Kleeman, traded our mortgaged sandy farm for Hillcrest Skateland in Clovis, New Mexico. We kids were delighted to move into town. We hated shoveling cow shit from the barn, stomping mice so they wouldn’t eat the grain, and gathering eggs from the henhouse. Bullsnakes hid in the nests so they could slurp the slimy goop from cracked eggs.
We took our dog Smoky into town. On the farm he would put himself between us and rattlesnakes. When the Sunday School teacher was trying to teach us about Jesus the Savior, I said Smoky was my savior. She didn’t think the joke was funny.
Hillcrest Skateland was a dump, but we loved being there. Dad said, “You young ones are short, so your noses are close to the floor, not much distance between you and the wood. Don’t worry about falling.” We didn’t. Soon we could skate without smashing into the rails or falling on our asses. We loved the smooth sound of the wheels on the old maple floor. Whistling and singing, we would sashay around the rink when no one was there. At night or during afternoon matinees the rink was filled with organ music—sounded too much like church music to me. Occasionally, Dad would play the “Tennessee Waltz” on his harmonica through a microphone. Skaters would cheer him. Encouraged, he’d play old cowboy songs. “Red River Valley,” “Happy Trails,” “Cool Water.” I remember skating to Connie Francis’s Spanish version of “Malaguena.” I had a crush on her. She wrapped that song around my heart.
Mom and Dad were usually behind the counter, polishing or fixing skates, selling candy and pop. Uncle Foggie managed a bottling company on Prince Street. He gave us kids free Dr. Peppers, Cokes, Pepsis. Peanut Patties were a Skateland favorite. We liked to watch the Patties being made at the Leslie Candy Company on Seventh Street. For a contest the company made the largest, heaviest peanut patty. It was six and a half feet in diameter and weighed three hundred and fifty pounds.
Mom warned us, “Candy is a tooth-rotter.” Back then, we got free sweet stuff. Now we have mouths full of fillings.
Since our parents owned the rink, they expected us to be the best skaters. None of us had ever been on skates, so our only choice was to learn from others. The best skaters were airmen from Cannon Air Force Base.
Our parents pounded “practice, practice, practice” into our kid brains. They made us practice, even when we didn’t want to. Scarlett and Tobin were four years younger than me. They became fine dance skaters and won gold medals in Southwest Skating Championships.
I was the middle kid. Ramsey was the oldest. He was a fundamentalist Christian. At school bullies called him a Jesus-Jerk. I’ve never known him to lie. He swore on the Bible that for his entire life he had been in love with Karen Boone, but she wouldn’t skate with him. At first I believed the bit about his “entire life.” He was twelve and I was eight. What did I know?
Later he said, “Even in the womb I loved her. God told me in a dream that she’s my soulmate.”
“Ramsey,” I said, “Love in our mama’s belly? Come on.”
I was young but not stupid.
“That’s right. Shut your mouth. What do you know?”
I said nothing, although I knew he was bullshitting.
Ramsey was a consummate bullshitter.
Ramsey was fourteen and I was ten when Karen Boone told me that Ramsey was the king of roller skates. She said, “Ramsey’s heart has wheels, that’s why I won’t marry him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that he would run away, be unfaithful.”
Maybe she was right. By the time Ramsey was sixteen, he had won racing medals, dancing medals, trick medals, and was popular among teenage girls. He would date a girl, dump her, then go back to the same girl again. He couldn’t make up his mind, couldn’t settle down.
Ramsey was the best skater I knew, so I asked if he would let me dub him, like a knight. He agreed. We sneaked out at midnight. I wore a paper crown. He knelt on the skating rink floor. I touched his shoulder with a wooden sword I carved and declared him, “Ramsey, Super-Christian Roller Skater King.”
He stood up, flexed his muscles, and said, “You are the most fantabulous brother anyone could have.”
I was so proud I cried.
I’m the family weeper.
Karen Boone was gorgeous, but I was just a kid, not yet a teenager. Besides, she was Ramsey’s wannabe girlfriend. Margie told me Karen had seduced Ramsey. When I looked up the word in the dictionary I knew Margie had lied. Ramsey said he was a virgin—a word I knew from Sunday School, where they taught us that without sex the virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. I never believed that, but my big brother did.
He believed every word in the Bible. “God wrote it,” he claimed.
Even as a kid I had no use for religion.
Be a good and kind person. That’s enough.
Ramsey could skate forward and backward but also sideways. I’m not sure how he did that. He could dance skate, race skate, trick skate. He was the master of four wheels, all with quiet precision bearings, the best you can buy. Our father told us, “No loose ball bearings, only the best. Your skating should be as quiet and smooth as those precision bearings.”
Wherever Ramsey went, the wheels led him. “My wheels are hooked to my heart,” he said, “they are hooked to my feet and brain—even to my six-inch dick. That’s what told me, but I never saw it. Mine was two inches. I guess that makes sense. Four years, four inches. If you are a kid, that’s what you assume.
An Air Force corporal from Cannon Air Force Base named Red Rossen used to hold Ramsey by the trucks of his skates and spin tight circles with Ramsey’s nose close to the floor and his arms flared out like eagle wings. Ellen Giles, Ramsey’s skating partner, was amazed, “I’m completely flabbergasted at his skill. That’s a miracle.”
“Not a miracle,” I said, “but a cool trick performed by my smartass big brother.” Ellen was a Seventh Day Adventist and told me kids my age shouldn’t say the word ass. I called her an asshole and ran. Ramsey and I knew a huge number of swear words, some in English, some in Spanish. The word ass—that was minor league.
Ramsey and Rossen played basketball on roller skates. Jump shots, hook shots, slam dunks. Soon they recruited an entire team called the New Mexico Blues. Ramsey and Rossen were the forwards for the Blues. They could jump shoot, and, while spinning in the air, land backwards, zip around behind the basket and take a second shot in case they missed the first one. The New Mexico Blues taught others to play roller skate basketball and helped to create two other teams, the Arizona Reds and Texas Purples. In a year there was a regional contest, and the Blues won.
Why not, when the King is on your side?
When the sport began to spread to Colorado and Utah, Ramsey lost interest. He became an Explorer Scout and within a couple of years had achieved the rank of Eagle. Ramsey always wanted to be the best.
That was his virtue. And his failing.
He told me a story about a Scouting trek though the Gila Wilderness. He saw naked Girl Scouts bathing in a river and realized that his zipper was bulging. He said, “Derrek, I know I shouldn’t have sex before marriage. Still, God made me this way. What am I to do?”
Ramsey was seventeen. As an experiment, he suspended all his Christian convictions and began trying to seduce every girl who would succumb to his “manly wiles.” A few Christians thought he was a pervert. He said, “Derrick, I want to experience everything my buddies experience, so I will understand what the Lord has saved me from.”
Even though I was only thirteen, I knew that was complete bullshit.
Ramsey began to imitate his friend Herbert Norman, who called himself Master Fucker. Ramsey told me that he imagined getting inside Herbert’s skin. Then he would imitate Herbert for two months. Fuck everything in sight, then claw his way out of Herbert’s skin, knowing who he himself really was.
Every attempt to get laid failed. My guess, he was far too eager. I admired his willingness to fail. I’ve always been afraid to fail. I’d sometimes fudge the truth to keep the peace. I am the Kleeman family peacemaker. Maybe I could work for the United Nations and help prevent wars? A big idea for a kid.
Ramsey rode a red and black ’57 Cushman Eagle that Dad hauled back in his candyapple red pickup from Amarillo. Ramsey wore a black motorcycle jacket with “Ramsey, Boone-Lover” written in yellow cursive on the back. When Karen saw it, she was embarrassed and avoided my brother like the plague.
There’s a picture of Ramsey and me standing by his Cushman Eagle. It’s Sunday. We’re on our way to church. Mom forces me to wear one of Dad’s old ties. It chokes me and hangs down to my belt. I have a four-inch tall flattop haircut. I look like a dork and have tried to buy the picture from Ramsey. “Nope,” he said, “it’s a treasure.” In that picture he’s wearing cufflinks and a stiffly starched white shirt. Inside his shirt is a bolo tie made by a Navajo silversmith. My parents allowed the bolo to pass as a tie.
Ramsey was always full of tricks. I sometimes called him King Coyote.
In ’61, the year Ramsey graduated from Clovis High School, he told Karen that it was his destiny to marry her. He asked her to go steady. She turned him down. He wanted to engage her. “No,” she said.
For a month his face was a soggy piece of wet leather hanging on a clothesline.
I’ve never seen him so sad.
At age eighteen Karen became engaged to Daniel Shockley, one of Ramsey’s friends. Daniel was a Pentecostal with curly red hair. Ramsey went to church with him, hoping to learn his secret, but Ramsey said the descent of the Holy Spirit left people in trance with people shouting and writhing on the floor. He said the scene scared the shit out of him, so he left.
Having lost the battle to win Karen Boone, Ramsey decided to attract other cute girls, so he became a weightlifter, “Maybe if I have big muscles and a super-masculine build, with my stomach pulled in, they’ll love me. Maybe if I wear size 30 pants instead of 32, they’ll go for me.”
So Ramsey settled for second best. He dated Delia O’Dell, a skating partner, but then dumped her after two weeks. “You are so, so selfish,” said our mom. Our dad didn’t think so. Neither did I. Ramsey was doing what many boys do—making mistakes, saying he’s sorry, then getting on with his life.
Once Ramsey double-dated with me. We went to see “April Love.” Ramsey imagined Pat Boone as Karen Boone’s uncle. Pat was a Super-Christian like Ramsey. We went with two sisters, Agatha and Crystal. After the movie Ramsey tried to sing with a Boone-like voice. The sound was dreadful.
A month later the four of us bought matching steady shirts with horizontal black and white stripes. We gave the sisters going-steady rings, wrapped in fuzzy pink yarn. The sisters’ mother knew our mother. Mrs. Bohannon would show up two or three times a week wanting to have coffee with our mom, who was too kind to turn her away.
Mrs. Bohannon wanted us to marry her two daughters. A stupid notion since I wasn’t old enough to marry. She thought we were a perfect match. She fretted about pregnancy. I was hoping we’d get to have “intercourse” with the girls. I had just learned the term in a junior high health course. I jacked off (health-class term: “masturbated”) once a day while imagining a naked Agatha with her boobs bouncing like Jell-O, although in real life she was flat-chested.
Good thing I didn’t get in bed with her. Back then I didn’t know what a condom was.
One summer, a year before Ramsey graduated from high school, he took a job as a radio announcer in Texas. Because of the time difference between Central and Mountain Time, he got up early to disk jockey the 5 a.m. show. In Muleshoe, he played country music for the cotton farmers, who got up at sunrise and listened to KMUL. The show was called “Catching the Boll Weevil.” Ramsey got to pick his own theme song, “Cattle Call” by Eddie Arnold. Ramsey hated country music and couldn’t imagine that anyone was listening, so he occasionally fell asleep at the turntable. A kind farmer, Lee-Bob Frampton, would call and wake him up. Ramsey had no use for the music, but the job helped pay for his Cushman Eagle.
On weekends Ramsey played rock and roll at KZOL in Farwell, Texas. He got to name the show, so he called it “Rockin’ with Ramsey.” The theme song was “Sandstorm” by Johnny and the Hurricanes. Listen to it. You can hear our farm blowing away in the wind. Rockin’ Ramsey had a huge teenage following in Clovis, Texico, Farwell, Portales, and Muleshoe. The radio station was swamped with fan letters. I admired my nonconformist big brother. My tendency was to blend in.
Ramsey met Roy Orbison at KZOL. “I want to be cool like Roy,” he told me, so he ditched his cowboy boots, wore dark sunglasses, bright red socks with yellow stars, and black shoes with white lightning bolts down the sides.
Crystal Bohannon kept her ear glued to the radio. She was a devoted fan and would call in requests and tell Ramsey how much she loved the music, hoping to convince him to marry her. Her busy-body mother kept bugging us, so we decided to dump the two girls.
Our mother was relieved.
Ramsey and I decided to ignore girls for a while. We shared a pet instead. Ellison Green, the manager of Hillcrest Zoo, gave Ramsey and me a de-fumed skunk. Ramsey and I loved El Stinko, a pet better than a dog. Certainly, better than a cat. We would squabble over who got to walk it on a leash down Sycamore Street.
Late one night, we let El Stinko run around the skating rink floor. It cleared quickly. Dad thought the trick was hilarious. Mom thought it was outrageous. She began to pray for us. This time in Spanish, so I knew she was serious. She spoke Spanish like a native speaker even though she was a Gringo. Her prayers, usually Methodist and calm, included crying this time. I felt so sad. She worried about both of us, “Ramsey is a bad influence on you Derrick.”
Buddy Balder, a shit-stomping cowboy from a big ranch outside of Clovis, threw a huge rock through our grandmother’s expensive stained-glass window on Gidding Street. Granny Luella’s home was one of the three brick houses in Clovis. It felt like a mansion to us Kleemans. Ramsey was across the street, in the alley behind the Clovis News Journal when he heard the glass shatter.
Ramsey was taking martial arts and had earned a green belt. He hoped a bully would find him so he could put his skills to use. Ramsey’s instructor told him, “The best strategy is to avoid fighting. If you must fight, stomp the aggressor’s kneecap down to the ankle. That will put an end to the conflict.”
Ramsey heard me crying and yelling. He ran across the street. Buddy raised a fist, Ramsey pointed to the sky, Buddy looked up, down came Ramsey’s right foot. Kneecap made a deep dive to ankle. Buddy was howling like a wounded coyote when the ambulance arrived. From then on, I lionized Ramsey. He was a hero, not like the ones in the movies but a real-life hero, worthy of respect. I told him that.
Ramsey said, “Derrick, cut the crap. If you were older, you would have done the same thing.”
“I guess so,” I said.
“For sure you would,” said Ramsey.
When Ramsey turned eighteen, he drove off in his black ’57 Mercury to some Methodist college in Kentucky. I longed to hear from him. Occasionally he would write to Mom and Dad, and I would pressure them to read the letters out loud to me. “Read them the way he would. Use his voice.” Both parents tried, failed.
I missed him a lot.
Four years later I turned eighteen and decided to see the world. Uncle Foggie had been in the Navy. He bought me a kid’s navy uniform when I was eight. That was the stupid reason I used to join the Navy in San Diego. I was shipped to Hawaii and learned to surfboard and scuba dive.
For a while, I had a pet baby octopus. I called it October the Eight-Legged. I would meet it in a shallow pool where we would play. To this day I still dream of fantastically colored fish and a grown-up October.
One night I went to a hula dance for tourists. I met Kula Kahuna, one of the dancers. That was her stage name. She wouldn’t tell me her real name. I paid her to teach me about sex. She taught me the details about female anatomy. I had never heard the word clitoris. I thought men just stuck it in and pulled it out. I loved copulating with her, but in a month I was shipped out to Guam on a training mission.
We Americans had already experienced Pearl Harbor and didn’t want a repeat in the Pacific.
We Americans imagine that we are masters of the world.
After eight months in Guam, I went to the Navy dental office in San Diego. A dentist had to fill four teeth—too many Peanut Patties—but he said I should see a naval optometrist to give me a visual test. The optometrist said I was almost blind and prescribed some very thick glasses. I couldn’t believe what the world looked like when everything was in focus.
Because of my bad eyes, the Navy discharged me, so I went to New Mexico Highlands University to study political science. With my world in clear focus, I decided to work hard and graduated with a straight A transcript and then entered a two-year MA program in international relations.
Even so, all I could think about were naked women. Like Ramsey, when he was a high school student, I began to chase skirts, didn’t care what color or size they were, all I wanted to do was take their clothes off and see naked females. Didn’t matter whether they were skinny or fat, I just wanted to lick that little button, then slip my male member into something quivery and wet. Back then I called it heavenly nectar and wished Methodist communion would use lady nectar instead of Welch’s grape juice.
After I finished my MA, I was sick of myself, tired of lusting, tired of my preoccupation with female bodies. Important things were happening in the world. The Vietnam War was raging. Ramsey was involved in protests, got bloodied up by NYPD officers on horseback at Columbia University.
I applied to several Ph.D. programs, got into Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and hoped to become a diplomat and work for the United Nations.
Back then I imagined the UN could stop wars.
Granny Luella told me the UN was full of Communists and Catholics. She wasn’t sure which ones were the worst, but I talked with Ramsey. He told me to ignore Granny and said her mother had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
During my first year in the doctoral program, I took a bus to New York City. Ramsey was about to graduate in anthropology from Columbia University. He was a teaching assistant for Dr. Mills Gaster, a famous anthropologist. Ramsey’s called his dissertation “The Squeaky Wheels of the Oil Industry among Native People of the Southwest.” I asked if “squeaky” had anything to do with roller skate bearings. He laughed and said that I would be the only one to understand the reference. His advisors wanted him to remove the word, but he refused. After he graduated, his dissertation became a best-selling book.
Ramsey said, “Religious institutions aren’t critical of big oil, even though fossil fuels are destroying the planet. Religion causes as much conflict as it prevents.”
I could hardly believe what he was saying. No longer a fundamentalist, he was an agnostic, “Let’s be honest. I don’t know. You don’t know. We don’t know. No apology, no guilt, Derrick.”
Ramsey had grown a bushy mustache, said it made him look like he belonged in New York City. I said that his southwestern accent would always give him away to taxi customers. He drove part-time, so he had a bit of extra money and would send me as much as he could to help with tuition.
Ramsey and I visited the United Nations building. When we walked through it and listened to debates, I imagined that was my calling. Later that day, as we were strolling through Riverside Park, I asked Ramsey about roller skating. He said he had given it up except as a metaphor for his dissertation title. “Why the metaphor?” I asked.
He said, “The sound of skate wheels on a maple floor is paradoxical.”
I thought—but didn’t say—graduate school makes you think you need to use big words.
“On the one hand,” said Ramsey, “the sound kept me writing. On the other, it put me to sleep.”
Ramsey finished his PhD with honors, quickly married, and had two children. He divorced after the birth of the last child. I asked him why. He said he didn’t know. My guess? Probably too focused on his career. After a few years he was a full professor of anthropology at New Mexico Western University.
Despite his promotions, Ramsey became sad and sullen. I felt sorry for him, tried to comfort him, but he yelled at me to stay out of his business, so I kept my mouth shut.
Ramsey had just started doing fieldwork on coal and uranium mines on the Navaho reservation. He was studying how the mines destroyed the health of Native Americans.
Ramsey sent me an email, asking if he could come see me for advice. He said he was desperate. He flew to New York City, where I had just started to work as a translator for the Peruvian consulate. Desperate? I could hardly believe him. An older brother needs the advice of his younger brother. I am still flattered even though I am well qualified to offer advice. When he arrived, he said he didn’t need advice. He just missed me, wanted to see me, to hug me.
We both cried.
When our parents decided to retire and sell Hillcrest Skateland, Ramsey and I decided this was a huge moment in their lives, so we agreed to meet in Clovis. By the time we got there, the rink had been sold. It was now a Pentecostal Church. The church made our parents a good offer, so they quickly accepted it. We were disappointed but begged the pastor to let us go inside. It was the same ugly old Quonset hut that our parents had bought twenty-six years ago. Bullsnakes were still crawling up through holes in the floor. But the Pentecostals treated them as pets, picked them up and kissed them to show that Jesus could save them from the Devil. When Ramsey suggested the Devil was a symbol, they said no, the Devil was real.
The next year our mother died of breast cancer. Dad loved Mom but also felt guilty for killing her with secondary smoke. He died two years later. We could tell from Mom’s diary that she died feeling alone even though she was surrounded by a huge family of sisters and brothers. Mom and I were close. When Ramsey showed me the dreams that she had written into her black diary, I was unbelievably sad. I admired her. She was a liberal Democrat in a very conservative Republican town. She knew Spanish when almost no white folks did.
When I turned sixty, I was sent to Peru as a consultant for the International Relief Fund. Even though I was fluent in Spanish, that didn’t help me up in the mountains, so I learned Quechua. In those lofty mountains I learned about an ancient civilization that made American civilization look like child’s play. In the high, dry Andes Mountains the Aymara had learned how to bring water up from deep and winding tunnels in the mountains—no machines, no irrigation wells—just the wind plowing down into the tunnel would force water up to the surface and into pools.
We Americans are idiots.
We imagine we know everything.
For three years Ramsey and I hardly saw one another. He retired in 2015, having divorced and lost touch with his two children. I flew out to New Mexico. He lived alone in an old trailer house outside Portales and looked like a skeleton from a Day of the Dead altar. He was lonely, hardly talked, stared at the horizon, ate almost nothing. Under the trailer were mangy dogs, maybe even a coyote. Inside the trailer was a black and white dog that looked like Smoky. It was clean. I could see a horse comb that Ramsey used to brush the dog’s hair. The new Smoky kept pushing aside the gun lying on the straw mat, just as the old Smoky had done with rattlesnakes.
Ramsey had lost interest in life and was on the edge of suicide.
“Come with me,” I said.
“No. Who cares?”
“No one else does.”
I said, “I know some who might care. Karen Boone’s husband died last year.”
Ramsey looked up at me from the straw mat. He stood up straight, stared at me, picked up the horse comb, ran it through his white hair and long beard. He asked where Karen was. I said I didn’t know. I could see that old twinkle beginning to return to his eyes.
Ever since Ramsey was a child, he had wanted to climb the Andes. Scouting instinct I suppose. I said I would take him to Machu Picchu. He agreed, provided he could bring Smoky, and I would help him find Karen. I said, “Bringing Smoky is a pain in the ass, but, okay, provided you train for a month. Run, lift weights, regain your health.”
He did. His had regained his self-discipline and self-respect.
The mountain climb was difficult for him. We took it slow. Smoky followed Ramsey gently pushing him on with his nose. I had to carry Ramsey up one very steep ascent, but as soon as he caught his breath, he insisted on walking. “I’m too full of pride,” he said.
I said, “No, you are full of self-respect.”
We found Karen Boone in a retirement village in Farwell, Texas. She was in her seventies but still quite beautiful, perched like a tiny yellow canary sitting in her wheelchair. Smoky sniffed her, licked her ankle. When Karen stood up, she used a wooden cane, said she bought it a decade ago when she took vacationed in Peru. When she saw Ramsey, she winked and whispered, “Ah, the roller skate king has come to save me.”
Ramsey said, “Karen, I am no longer the king of anything, just a poor peasant.” He looked into Karen’s deep brown eyes, “So beautiful,” he said. He kissed her then picked up her wheelchair, spun a wheel, listened to the sound and said, “Ah, this must be top of the line, a wheelchair with precision bearings.”
I laughed. Karen had no idea what he was talking about, “Spinning wheels? That’s the best you can do, Ramsey?”
He picked her up, danced around like they were kids and kissed her again, this time for a long time, their tongues flicking and licking.
Ramsey, “Not much of my life is left, but will you marry me?”
Karen, “Yes, yes, yes.”
They held each other and wept. I couldn’t help crying with them.
Ramsey and Karen were married in the sandhills by Isabella Danforth, a Presbyterian pastor I met at the Woman’s March on Washington, DC in 2017. She and I married in 2018. We have a daughter, Jolene (Joy, for short). Smoky is now her dog. She loves to run her fingers through his silky black and white hair. Joy is a year old and has a rollerskate fetish. When she cries at night, Smoky cuddles up to her. I spin
the wheels of her baby roller skates. She falls asleep listening to the quiet sound of precision bearings.
I’d been at Harbor Station for three months when I took my first injection of U4.
Our family was poor, nearly starving. So when the recruiters came, I knew somebody had to go, and told Mama I’d be the one. She was afraid, though, knew all the rumors about the mining communities, and how people went away, got into trouble with drugs, and never came back. She believed me when I said I’d be ok, because I believed it too. And I tried real hard to stay clean, but it was basically impossible.
Something about the minerals got into you, turned your mind inward and got to gnawing on your soul. Other dudes who tried to stay clean eventually just flipped. One guy walked outside into space without his suit and lickety split, froze up and fractured into a thousand icy pieces.
Another guy started eating the Xap, or Xapandine – the mineral we were mining. The corporation used it to create pills for our soldiers fighting on the front lines. It gave them super human strength and focus for long periods of time. It even enabled them to resist radiation attacks, but it had to be altered in laboratories for effectiveness without side effects.
Well, this dude ate it raw. What a dose! Seconds later his whole head was swollen and blood and flem were pouring from his ears and nose and mouth. His corneas liquefied and slid down his cheeks when he dropped. Everyone in the room had to rush to the decontamination chamber and then we were quarantined for a week. It was horrible. I was puking blood by the second day. I thought I was gonna die.
That experience was my conversion moment. The only thing that could keep you from losing it was the U4, or at least that’s what all the miners said. But they were all addicts, so who knows? Anyhow, my workmate Cutter, a veteran miner who’d been at Harbor Station for over a year, took me to his U4 spot in a desolate cluster of buildings half way between the mines and the colony.
On the way we passed one of the hives of the Cemar. These were the original inhabitants of Harbor Station. A decade before, when the Asag Corporation for Mineral Development came to this rock, the Cemar were subjugated. Now they lived on fenced-in reservations, where they were present but silent, a mystery.
Sometimes the guys got pissed off thinking about those aliens, sitting out there on their cushy reservations, doing what appeared to be nothing. They conglomerated at the center of their towns in a state of group meditation or something. Big supply trucks went to the reservations, steady, meeting all their material needs. I mean, I got the reparations, us conquering their world and all, but some of the guys really hated them. We could hardly get enough food and were always running short on everything. Meanwhile we were busting our asses and daily exposing ourselves to radiation from the Xap, while the aliens just sat around getting handouts.
I only ever saw one or two of the Cemar up close, and it kinda made sense, the guys despising them. They had these huge blocky heads covered in pale fatty skin. But – no eyes, ears, or mouth. Kinda freaky, really. And they never spoke, just sort of shuffled around.
Anyhow, Cutter cursed the hive as we passed and started revving me up about the U4.
“Dude, something about it – you just forget about all this shit out here, all the long hours risking your life digging beneath this godforsaken corner of the universe. You sort of start to float and the good vibes just come in slow and steady, cleansing. You’ll definitely notice the difference. The Xap won’t bother you much after this.”
“Cool, I guess. I just want to stop getting so angry all the time.”
The Xap was making me edgy and weird ideas started hanging around in my mind. A couple of days before that miner had eaten the Xap, I had been out on the rock, in a deep cavern, dragging my extractor along. The tool is heavy and you get real sweaty inside your suit, lugging it around. Anyhow, I was soaked, and got this crazy idea to let in a little of the cool. Crack my mask with a jagged rock. Tear the suit below my armpit to let in a little chill. At first I shook it off easy – you know I’d die and all – but it just wouldn’t go away. Luckily Cutter found me banging a stone against my mask and jostled me before I could kill myself. That was when he told me about his spot.
“You just go in and sit in this reclining chair. Then they come in and pull some tubes out of the wall and set up a line to your femoral artery. You gotta be still for that, you know, or you might bleed out. Then they cover your eyes and ears with these soft, dark pads. Feels like you’re in a cave. Real nice. They got air- conditioning in there too, keeps you nice and comfy. Then the U4 starts flowing, and right away you’re drifting off to Heaven! First time is on me, ok, to celebrate.”
“Yeah, got my blood checked this morning. Seems my system is strong enough for promotion to Seymour Station. I’ll be able to buy plenty of U4 once those checks start coming in. Anyhow, Cheers!”
Every month we got our blood checked to see that our bodies were properly diffusing the Xap. Some guys just couldn’t stand it. They’d be gone in a week or so, head back to wherever they came from. For those of us that stayed it was a waiting game. Over time, our bodies would build up immunities to the mineral which would allow us to move up the ladder, so to speak. Harbor Station had fairly low accumulations of Xap, but in other places like Seymour Station, the composition was denser, and so the pay was better. But green recruits couldn’t survive there straight away. You had to build up to that. Some said the U4 helped with your resistance, but I was skeptical. Either way, I was glad for Cutter. He was one of those with the most time in at Harbor Station, and he was due a raise.
“Cheers to you, buddy. Hopefully it won’t be too long until I join you. And, thanks for this trip.”
So there I was plugged in, the U4 pumping, and wow, Cutter wasn’t lying. Best feeling I ever had. I was hooked right away. Every day that first week I was back taking another hit, and feeling good. My brain was hyperaware, like I was one of those monks that levitate. Well, my paycheck started getting real thin over the next few weeks. But I couldn’t stop. And when I wasn’t getting high, I still had a sort of lingering cheer, and best of all, my aches and pains almost completely subsided.
But after a while, it started to kind of fade. I had to take doses of the U4 for longer sessions. This cost more money, sure, but it also put me out during the daily eclipse, which was fine by me. That was kind of spooky, the sky turning black in the middle of the day. Some of the guys who’d been around for a while said you got used to it, but I decided it was the perfect time to go flying on the U4.
During one of these blackouts, something went wrong, and the attendants forgot they had me hooked up. Eventually the U4 ran dry, and I woke, soaring and manic. I was out of it, and nearly killed myself pulling the IV out of my groin. But I started stumbling around all cheery like and walked into the next room. I saw this other person, hooked up, just like me, and I was feeling so jolly I strolled over to chat him up.
But then I saw that it wasn’t human, but Cemar. I was so high I couldn’t stop staring, and then I saw the tubes leading to the wall directly opposite of where mine were hooked in. The machine was pumping away, but there was nothing in the tubes. There was no movement, no sound except the wheezing rhythm of the machine that had pumped the Cemar dry. I was about to shake the alien when I heard a door slam and frantic voices.
I panicked, rushed into the hall, found a supply closet and shut myself in. Seconds later attendants were right outside the door, and one of them was yelling.
“Oh shit – this machine is still pumping, and nothing is coming out! Who was he hooked up with?”
A smaller voice, almost a whisper, responded.
“Oh man, there was a newbie in there, been coming for the last couple of months, taking longer and longer doses. I forgot about him.”
“You forgot! Get in there and wake him now, before he dies. This guy is already dead.”
I heard running and a gasp.
I could hear the other man follow, and I knew I had to jet. I opened the door and looked toward the exit. But the dudes were returning and I couldn’t make it to the entrance, so I retreated down the hallway toward the other end of the building, trying each door along the way.
One opened and I stepped in. It was dark but noisy. There was a constant gurgle and wheeze of machines, a rhythm and space between them, indicating that many were in operation. When my eyes adjusted, I saw five stacked rows of Cemar hanging on the wall. Looked kind of like the Cemar hives in the wasteland. Each was restrained and enclosed in a glass cylinder, tubing running into their bodies. There must have been a hundred Cemar, all of them silent, unconscious.
The attendants were in the hall, outside the door. I ran to the edge of the room and fumbled along the wall, found another door, and slipped out. With my hands for guides I passed down a wide hallway and finally opened a door to the outside. I was standing on a loading dock, and the eclipse was just starting to end, little rays peeking from behind Vakna Moon, and I could see a stack of Cemar bodies lying still in a nearby garbage container. Then I heard one of them stirring.
The attendants would be on me any second, but here was a living creature, left for dead. I climbed in to shift the dead and uncover the living. But just as I started to move him the attendants burst outside, still agitated and yelling.
“You better hope that guy is just wandering around high. Oh, god, if he figures out what is going on here, if he understands what this really is, Asag will turn us into Cemar tomorrow, bruh. I’ll keep searching for him around here. In the meantime, you get those bodies out of here.”
They were right next to me and then they threw another body into the dumpster, right on top of where I was laying. So I couldn’t move when they loaded the garbage container on a truck and headed out into the waste.
When we got to the dump site, the U4 employee pressed a button on the truck which raised the canister until it dropped its contents into a giant pit. I came tumbling out as well, but kept real still, hoping the guy wouldn’t see me. He didn’t, but I almost gave myself away. The stench in the pit was so foul that I started to gag. Luckily the dude wasn’t paying much attention and after lowering the canister back on the truck, simply drove away.
I waited until the sound of the truck was gone. Then I started to dig my way out from under the bodies. The ground was lumpy and hard, but covered with some sort of slimy substance. I pulled myself to the edge of the pit just as the sun, Zembula, was pulling a quarter past Vakna Moon. The blue-gray twilight shone across the pit, revealing hundreds of Cemar bodies, in various states of decomposition.
I jumped up, my skin cold and tingly all over, my brain racing and bewildered.
But when Zembula was half full in the sky, I saw what truly lay before me, The fatty skins of the Cemar were melting away and something was underneath, shimmering like bones peeking from a deep gash. I covered my nose and darted back into the pit, climbing toward the first of the Cemar whose skin was nearly gone. I started digging at the skin and it fell away in putrid chunks, revealing a familiar form beneath, though altered. The skin was shrunken, bleached and matted to bone, but the face was still recognizable. My heart was pounding and tears were in my eyes. I turned and fled, climbing the banks of the pit until I stood at the fence, beneath a gray sign.
Hailey Gore received her bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and criminal justice from ENMU. She is now a graduate student obtaining her master’s degree in counseling. After Easter, Hailey hopes to obtain a doctoral degree in psychology and a law degree. Hailey has no formal training in poetic writing, but she finds that poetry is a way of personifying feeling. Hailey’s passion and interest in the field of psychology is what created her love for poetry and writing.
Cody Wilhelm is an English Major attending ENMU. Cody enjoys writing poems in his free time; his pieces attempt to capture universal human experiences and express intense emotional reactions to various interpersonal relationships. Cody is from Lubbock, Texas.
Shattered Stars by Cody Wilhelm
You are a galaxy.
An infinite abyss of wonder
but something broke you,
Swallowed all your planets,
extinguished your comets,
and shattered your stars.
A Black Hole came and didn’t stop
Until it consumed all of your life and stole all of your light.
It took everything until you were full of nothingness.
And you didn’t even see it coming, because Black Holes hide all the light that shows them.
I think your favorite planet, was the one that rained diamonds for days,
In a place where days lasted weeks.
And your favorite Sun was the one
That exploded with the most intense fury
Filling a whole solar system with the color of its fire.
He took your moons
And he took your suns,
Stole a piece of you.
You’ve always wanted to save rough men,
But this one showed such tenderness in his eyes that were pits of black.
You promised you’d never let go
As he drowned in the depths of himself.
But he pulled you into the currents of his hatred,
drowned you out in darkness
That you couldn’t outshine.
No matter how many supernovas you conjured in your vastness,
Richard Wirick is the author of four books that have been translated into more than ten languages. One Hundred Siberian Postcards (2006), short memoir-fiction pieces, was a London Times notable Book for 2007 and nominated for a PEN/Bingham Award for best first work by an American writer. It was followed by another story collection, Kicking In (2010). The novel The Devil’s Water was published in 2014, and a new novel, Sudden Mountain: Chapters From The Ghost Year, is forthcoming in 2022, as well as a third story collection. His collection of essays, Hat of Candles, came out in 2021. He writes for a wide variety of periodicals in the U.S., U.K., and is a senior voting member of the National Book Critics Circle. Originally from the Midwest, he practices law in Los Angeles, where he lives with his family.
Rain in the Heart by Richard Wirick
The cinderblock had fallen from the bridge overpass, plunging through the windshield of the mother’s car, bashing her head so badly her foot left the accelerator and she drifted over into the side lane near the Overland Avenue exit. It would begin to kill her slowly, but looked like it already had—her face a mound of scarlet mush that fell back against the headrest, which dripped with backsplatter, bone fragments, rivers of blood thickening on the elegant leather seat. None of her four kids were with her. No errand items. No dogs or purchases.
She wasn’t an immediate DOA, so an ambulance took her up to Cedars, where Lil’s friend Bev was a nurse in the ER. So much blood soaked through the sheets they kept putting new ones on her. The orderlies had a drill where they could whip the bloody one out as the new sheet floated downward, billowing, curved like a quiet parachute in the cave of sound—screams, shouts, metal clanging—that surrounded all of the beds. It was the plague time. People stayed away from hospitals.
Her husband was travelling and the kids were taken to an aunts. Lil went over for awhile. Their faces were so white and unbelieving that they could not cry. Sometimes they stood in a row and sometimes the row of them placed itself on the couch as the aunt and a cousin brought them glasses of water. Lil wondered who had told them without the father there. There were people at hospitals, social workers, that had such jobs. Death-messengers, like oncologists. Lil wanted to ask Bev how such messages were delivered. But Bev was beside herself in the café now where they talked now. She had just come from the house and had been in the ER when the interns were pumping the mother’s chest.
Bev had seen a lot—small plane crashes, commuter train suicides with heads and hands cut off by rails, explosion burns from chemical labs where the stuff couldn’t be put out and burned the people down to the bone. But Bev had never seen anything this bad, a head wound this severe. The mother had no facial skin intact, and a corner of the block had gouged out an eyeball and flattened her cranium, its centerless squares having left their exact footprint on her forehead and the beginnings of her scalp. They had shaved her head in case there was hope of getting her up into surgery.
But this was the worst, Bev said. She would talk for a minute and then start sobbing, looking down at the bowl of milk that some cereal—was the waitress sleeping?—was supposed to go in. She could hardly look at Lil. But when she did her eyes were so red and puffed that Lil imagined her as the swollen purple head of the woman herself. Bev, a nurse for thirty-five years, told Lil there was motion in the woman’s hand as she held it, tremors that were probably involuntary final twitches, the organism trying to preserve itself, trying to stay for a few more minutes in the world.
Bev put her head in her squared arms planted on the formica. Lil heached out and grabbed her arm, her head. They were close enough friends for Lil to hold her, but it somehow seemed wrong. Lil thought she would scream or faint, and then felt bad that that kind of spectacle would bother her. Bev shook with the sobs, reaching out to take a napkin, to roll them in one hand when Lil passed them to her.
“There was nothing left of her face,” Bev said, muffled, choking, looking up but out the window. It took a long time for her to meet Lil’s eyes. Lil felt helpless, imagining the helplessness of all nurses. How do you keep your head on straight with an assembly line of gunshot wounds, glass shards pulsing from the flesh of car crash victims, severed hands bundled in towels beside the body while nurses ran around looking for a refrigerator key, trying to save the shredded wrist and fingers for the calm, binoculared reattachment surgeons.
“Honey, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand there and look, and I’m the nurse.” Fuck, she said. Lil tried to support one arm and saw what was left of the washed-off blood on Bev’s skin, faded but with its edges sharp, like the sea-reaching splotches of land on a map.
When Lil asked the waiters for ice in a hand towel Bev waived her away, waived away the manager wondering what was wrong. Her lips trembled as the tears slid off of them, and when she looked at Lil it was like she was looking through a window, looking out a door that led to pastures, meadows of death.
Lil was twenty minutes late to her class. The teaching assistannt looked at her warily, looked down at the nail marks Bev’s fingers had left in the back of her hand.
“I’m not OK. Not OK. I can’t be here today.”
But she had to be. The other teachers and staff were strapped. They needed her. The assistant brought a paper by, knowing what had upset Lil. The headline called the mother’s death another “infrastructure accident.” There were many of them now. Under the banner was a “news analysis” editorial calling for taxes, grants, anything to fix the high, crumbling stone that was falling down everywhere.
Lil pushed the paper aside and looked out on her class of problem kids, an audience of what was now called the developmentally disabled. She saw their constant agitation as a kind of light around their bodies. Gravity was like a cloak, the lightest garment they could slip out of. A silk robe, a kimono. Alison was her cartwheeler, her hand-stander. She spun across the room on her windmill, calloused hands, hair wagging. She taught Tom, and later Dmitri, to stand on their heads, first with supporting hands and then with nothing but their heads, the warm pillows of young hair cupping their skulls with soft certainty. Allison put her classmates into circles, first still and then moving, like ancient Maypole spinners or toddlers playing ring-around. Her twin, Amy, brought in sticks and branches which she bent adeptly into animals.
They, the lot of them, could be aggressive. The girls, oddly much more than the boys. If a hand slipped, if a step in the dance was missed, a girl might slap another, push her so her neck jerked and her hair came out of its morning-Mother arrangement.
Dmitri was among the mollifiers, the calmers. The psychiatrist Jill consulted with told her about Melanie Klein, who had written written of “flips” from violent to peaceful and back again, something children carried from their early agons with their mothers, at once sunlike sources and enemies to be eviscerated. Lil’s kids riffed on this model, holding their companions’ shoulders and minutes later karate-chopping the bottoms of their backs.
Dmitri was the peacemaker, infallibly calling for calm, pulling people apart. This sheriff’s role came to him when he was most quiet and depressed. The same cloud that passed its mist over his face had a kind of pixie dust that stopped the clamor of his fellow spinners and dancers. He had a touch, and in the touch Lil imagined a gift, something almost supernatural, but pouring out of the grittiest earthiness and normalcy.
One girl, in an epileptic fit, threw books around the room like a spinning machine. Dmitri timed the spokes of her hands—lots of these kids, some high intelligent Aspergers with an intuitive physics—and made sure nobody became a target. One boy, two boys tried to drop a globe from the high bookshelf they stood on. They were waiting for vthe right enemy, a certain snide redheaded girl. Dmitri stood below their perch. If you want to hit something, hit me. Drop it and I’ll catch it.
He not only caught it but snagged it on the tips of his fingers, like a basketball player. He bounced it on his palms and watching him, Lil thought of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, Hitler passing a globe around like a basketball.
The Glover sisters were in one of their imaginary cooking fits, funnelling their neurosis into a kind of Formula One baking run-off. They couldn’t have a lighter or be in the kitchen, so all they could do was pull down bowls from the cupboards, whip the butter, load it all up with flower and yeast. Once, in an earthquake, their concoction swayed like the tiny waves of a resevoir. They pushed the pastel china together with air-hockey velocity, but could tell—again from their disorder—to push just hard enough to avoid breaking the bowls. Once they miscalculated, and geysers of unwhipped gunk flew out and spread across the pleats of their dresses.
The boys liked the rough tones of this supposedly gentle gaggle of females. The expected manner of the cooking, too, had a clamor much louder than seemed possible. Doug Grosso loved this, leaning forward as if at a zoo creature behind its glass. Jim Roper, whose class picture revealed a fly on his head, egged them on—‘Go girl. Go bitch’ in a soft tone they couldn’y hear.
Dmitri would laugh, in his gulping, asmatic, but somehow patois-like streams of laughter. He’d tapped out a rhythm on his knees, trying to follow the calve-slapping of Grosso. Lil saw Dmitri as the keel in this showboat, steadying, steadying it as the whole thing started slipping and collapsing. He was good, as was Grosso, with the girls, who were far more crazed than the boys, manic pools of estrogenic explosions. Lil locked up all the knives and scissors, but worried even about the bowl shards, even the girls’ clean, fast-growing nails. She thought of the psych-techs, burly bouncer-types in the Cedars 5150 wards, who of course the school could not afford. The funding gaps were cloying at first, then infuriating. She bought texts out of her paycheck, brought food from home as the girls’ weights were dropping. Boys took pieces of the food gratefully and walked around eating it, their skin shimmering with the white pallor of the hungry.
The acrobats—that’t what she called them—lined up before their stunts—sweet or macabre—like a formless row of sagging shacks. Then each would start to break away, as if in something modernly choreographed. One girl—Lil was terrible with names, a deficit for a teacher—told Lil she felt like she was going to “buth open.” What she would do is simply hold her breath and puff out her cheeks like a blowfish. Her whole body would inflate—her stomach and tiny breasts, and make a metal balloon inflating sound, that kind of tinny, unfolding crinckle. She told Lil she never thought of anything because she was afraid she’d become the thing she was thinking of. After learning a little Darwin in biology, and with Lil spotting bulemia symptoms, the girl would suddenly throw out crazed savant phrases, like “Everything looks for something softer than itself to eat.”
One of the cartwheelers spun through, knocking a ruler and pencil sharpener off Lil’s desk.
An older girl, who looked so much like the Darwin girl they could be twins, had body separation and skin-shift hallucinations, talking about how, at certain times of the day, her head had shifted a little to the left. Or her eyes, her skull, the thoughts coming forward out of it like a tiny circus megaphone. The articulation of this always changed, but it was always a shift, a tilt. Usually to the left.
Disembodiment was a constant mean for these kids. Less of them were the usual fare—like in other homes—of delf-harmers, cutters, skin gougers, water-running scalders. They stood entirely to the side of themselves, so the harming would seem like they were harming somebody else. They felt their lives were being lived by somebody else. They loved the East European torture movies, but that was as far as true slashing and bludgeoning would go. For Lil, as ashamed as she would be to admit it, the lurid movies were bringers of peace, flickering buffers in the dark.
Dmitri never spoke of diisplacement, of distancing, or what the DSM called ‘splintering.’ He could be wildly eccentric, bugging out his eyes, pretzelling his arms. But he had, by Lil’s lights, grown into himself, robustly embraced who he was with all of its warts and flashes of unravelling. He didn’t seem to need the others, which Lil saw as a kind of strength. He was happy in his own company. Most of her kids were hard and incomplete, not having come into their characters, the fullness of their personalities. They were like kits, beginning to fill with the wind of themselves like the puffer girl. But Dmitri filled all of himself, catching hold of some early branch of maturity.
His eyes were smooth, as calm as a windless pond. Their blue, blue sameness made Lil want to believe in God.
When the pandemic came, the school stayed in session. It was in one of the red counties whose governments were skeptical of masking, bureaucrats, federal entities handing out “guidelines” that had so far seemed fruitless.
Her acrobats were there each day, spinning with masks on, standing upside down and pulling the bottom of the cloth off their chins so they could breathe and shout. They brought all of their old selves with them, but with a new sense of both fearfulness and joy. Following the lockdown’s tiny steps filled them with wonder, made them part of adult life, made their lives belong to the world.
When Dmitri wasn’t back by the fourth day she wondered if he’d shown symptoms and his mother had sequestered him. Surely it was something she was controlling, finding the limits of. He had not missed a class in three years.
She felt a hole quivering in the space of the room where he always sat. But he was so silent so much of the time that the empty space couldn’t be silent too. The clatter and laughter of the new-masked spinners filled out the square of his clean emptiness, his chilly Buddha calm. A Buddha stillnes. That was the thing about him. Lil felt she had finally happened on it truest description. She liked the odd assessment. She liked the idea of it.
When Lil called his mother’s cell—everyone’s mobiles were on an 8X by X app—but they went unanswered, even when she tried every three or four hours. Lil called Bev at her nurse’s station and asked if she’d heard from anyone at the house or anyone who knew him. Bev’s voice was cagey. She said that something was going on. She didn’t want to talk about it, felt that she couldn’t. Her clipped snippets took on an old-fashioned, gossipy tone as she hedged and deflected, the kind of guarded jabber she remembered from the days of party lines. This absence of information from an old confidant chilled and irritated her. Toward the end of the call, in a near-whisper that made Lil’s stomach flip, Bev said Lil might want to turn on the TV.
After about an hour and a half Dmitri’s school picture came up on the screen. Lil picked up the remote but it wouldn’t work. She checked the batteries. The area of the school she sat in had such poor reception, its open spaces and athletic wings pocketing voices and then bursting them back. She finally got the sound on, but it was just as his face was fading, still staring out at her with the eyes that had made her breathless so short a time ago.
Dmitri was missing was all she could conclude. She dialled the assistant principal, the school nurse and counsellor, people she had true friendships with. He was missing. Missing. She went back throughherthoughts of him, the long, filmlike row of images. She wondered how far he could get if he’d just left home. Five miles. Twenty-five miles. He had that kind of energy, that sureness of purpose.
* * *
It was Dmitri who had dislodged the piece of concrete from the overpass. Someone had seen him run from the missing square with a steel rod or a crowbar. Those were the allegations. He had been released on his own recognizance, to the mother who never picked up the phone.
Lil went to the wastebasket in the media room and vomited, the surge of it splashing and smearing the ink on the crumpled paper. When her stomach was empty and her head blank—at least for now—she went into her office, thanking God it was study hall so she could keep her door locked. The tears kept falling, in neat, streaming drops down onto her blotter. She pushed her keyboard toward the monitor to keep it dry.
She felt there was nothing left for her now, in her heart or what was left of her head. She took out her Xanax, pear-shaped light peach pills, and downed four of them with a bottle of Fiji water. “It will break you down.” It’s what her father had said about working with kids like this. “It breaks you down.” It was worth it, she thought, the fracturing, the personal crumbling. She was a passenger on their train, setting each one of them down in a cracked plastic but still useable seat. She built on that, that moving forward. She walked now in her thoughts through the sun and shadow of the imagined, racing, voice-filled cars.
Bev would have known Lil had seen this all already. She scrolled through the Beverlys in her contacts, even though she knew her number by heart. They would get someone in to see him. Somebody other than a lawyer.
In a newspaper quiz the day before, she learned that Hitler was known to have loved and treated with special attention his loud pen of shepards. For hours, it was the only thing she could think about. In the next couple of days, as details developed, she could not rid herself of the image—the small man leaning down in his perfectly pressed tan officer’s uniform, taking pieces of meat out of a bowl and placing them, with the utmost gentleness, into each one of the upturned mouths.
Wolfren Davis, graduate of ENMU, was raised in beautiful Colorado amongst the colorful leaves of the abundant aspen trees. Despite all the fresh air and endless skyway, she spent all her time tucked into a dark corner with a good book. Her library teacher was heard saying she was relieved when the girl left for college because, on her last days, she’d read all there was to offer. Now she resides in New Mexico with her beloved French Bulldog who, instead of barking like a normal dog, screeches like a seal suffering from the flu, her two cats whose sole purpose is to not let her sleep, and her amazing domestic partner.
The pounding beat of a song that civilization had forgotten pulsated in my ears, taking me out of this broken down car and into a not-so-distant past. It didn’t even matter that the seat belt had been broken in the locked position and was, therefore, digging into my back or that the car rocked and groaned in a way that would have made a lesser woman seasick.
My trance was broken when a shaking hand lurched forward and twisted the knob on the dash until the radio went mute.
“It’s not going away,” Jeremiah worried, leaning closer to the window to try to get a better view with his video camera. He flinched violently backwards when a pair of rotting hands beat at the passenger window. “And no one else is coming. What if this is it? What if this is what I’m wearing to my funeral?”
“It’s not like they’d have an open casket,” I pointed out. “Though I doubt it’s going to leave enough of a body behind to even find. If our corpse doesn’t walk off first.”
Jeremiah gave a disgusted glare at his stained jeans and tacky, salmon colored t-shirt that featured a faded college logo. “I knew I should have worn my nice button up but nooo. It’s for a special occasion. What’s more special than dying?”
But, as I surveyed our situation a little more closely, I realized that Jeremiah was right. The undead creature was banging, howling, and slobbering away and it hadn’t attracted the slightest bit of attention. I guess that is what we get for sneaking out after sunset.
“Well, I guess you know what that means.”
“We should get into the fetal position and wait for sweet death to take us into her embrace?” Jeremiah pressed the video camera right against the window. “Is it me or are they getting even uglier?”
“We should make even more noise.” Without setting the driver’s seat up, I put my foot onto the car’s horn, prayed it would work, and pressed. A long, splitting honk filled the night.
The undead paused its attack, sniffed the air and looked about to see if something bigger and badder had joined the fight. Seeing that it was still alone, it resumed its attack with vigor.
The car briefly went up on two wheels.
“I’m turning the radio back on,” I warned Jeremiah. “If I die, I want to die deaf and oblivious. Do me a favor and try not to scream too loud.”
“You can’t just bury your head in the sand every time we are about to get eaten, Ostrich-Girl.” Jeremiah turned the video camera to face himself. “You see, kiddies, there are three types of people in the world. There are people like Joanna here. She ignores her problems. Closes her eyes and hopes they’ll just, poof, disappear. Then there are handsome, dashing people like me. We are runners. Not the most heroic sort but, hey, we survive.”
The creature suddenly stopped its attack on the car, leaned back, and listened. With a gleeful rumble, it darted into the darkness.
“Where is it going?” I asked. “Wait, where are you going?!”
Jeremiah kicked the door open. “And, perfect timing, there’s the third type of person in this wacky world of ours. That…” The undead suddenly reappeared, tittering backwards and bucking with each gunshot as buckshot pummeled its rotting body.
“That is an Ari.”
From the abandoned street came a leather-clad woman. Marisol King was barely five feet of bottled rage armed to the teeth with weapons and a desire for mayhem. The third shotgun blast knocked the undead onto its back where it struggled like an overturned turtle.
Ari dropped a foot onto its chest to keep the dying creature down. It swiped weakly, tearing her skin-tight jeans. Honestly, it could have skinned her to the bone, and she wouldn’t have noticed. She just cocked the shotgun, aimed for the head and fired.
“Yes!” Jeremiah laughed, running over to circle the pair to get the best view and providing commentary as he went. “And the crowd goes wild! Ari King, The King of Mayhem. Ari ‘Don’t Need No King’ King. She might be short…”
Ari re-cocked the gun and pulled it on Jeremiah with a flash of teeth.
Jeremiah backtracked, “Not short. Very average. Tall. Really, a freak of nature!”
“Shhhh.” I carefully stepped around the mess of Jell-O-textured blood, skull fragments, and brain matter. “We’ve made enough noise to draw a lot of them,” then a terrible thought occurred to me, “Or my sister.”
Jeremiah yelped when Ari stomped on his foot and swiped the video camera from his grasp.
“No! No, no, no!” Jeremiah bounced around in pain, tentatively trying to retrieve his property. “Don’t delete it. That’s amazing footage!”
“Shhh!” I reminded them again. “This is why I hate sneaking out with you! You just invite danger!” “I can’t have my father seeing this,” Ari explained as she erased Jeremiah’s precious footage. She tossed the now blank camera back.
Jeremiah pouted. “I wouldn’t have posted it without your permission. You didn’t have to be such a bully.”
“You posted a video of you brushing your teeth yesterday,” I pointed out. Seeing his betrayed look, I added. “I’m not taking sides. I’m just saying you post EVERYTHING.”
Jeremiah just scoffed, taking his loss in stride and beginning to videotape the undead’s body. “Well, excuse me. My videos are my only way to connect with the world!”
A crash in the distance made me jump, trying to cower behind Ari. My nearly six-foot frame looking comical behind Ari’s short stature.
“It’s just a stray dog,” Ari said dismissively.
“You sure?” I peered over her head down the deserted streets. I could spot more abandoned cars and store fronts but nothing else. “How can you be sure? Shouldn’t you get your gun ready just in case?”
“As I just said,” Ari roughly nudged me with her elbow, “It’s a stray.” A dog barked in the far distance and Ari flashed a smug grin in my direction.
Rubbing my ribs, I backed away. “Well, we should go. Someone is going to notice that we are gone.” Jeremiah sighed, “Come on, Joanna. You always do this. Relax a little.”
“It’s called being responsible,” I defended. I knew I was the ‘buzzkill’ of our group, but I liked to think I was the only reason that the other two were still alive. If I left them to their own devices, it would be their blood decorating the sidewalk.
“Can we go?”
“Just chill. I have one more store to search and then we can scurry home, okay?” She reached up to pat the side of my ear before heading over to a store with a grungy sign that said PEEP’S KNACKS AND KNICKS.
With no preamble, Ari used the butt of her gun to smash the front window.
I groaned, “She didn’t even check to see if the door was unlocked.”
Jeremiah just shrugged. “It’s Ari, isn’t it? What did you expect?”
While Jeremiah walked around and narrated the tale of how we had nearly been eaten by such a fearsome creature, I kept a sharp eye on our surroundings. We hadn’t seen any undead on our journey here but, as the attack suggested, there was at least one. And, if there is one, others are sure to follow.
Another window smashed. Apparently leaving through the same window she had already broken was too easy for Ari, so she had broken the last remaining one on her way out.
“Find it?” Jeremiah asked, shoving his video camera in her face.
Ari huffed, “No. Did they just burn them all or something?”
“A dictionary?” I stared incredulously at the scowling woman. “Please tell me that I didn’t almost get eaten because you were looking for a dictionary again.” Ari shrugged.
“I’m friends with lunatics.”
Once Jeremiah had gotten his fill of taping and Ari had accepted that this little town’s stores were not going to provide her with the book she needed, they both relented and allowed me to drag them back home.
Home was a mobile convoy that consisted of five semis with mobile homes strapped to the trailer, another seven RVs, and nearly two dozen trucks, ambulances, cars, and motorcycles. As far as mobile camps went, Sanctum was exceptionally large and always on the move.
It had been started by Father Dragger, a young man at the time of the infection some thirty years ago who grabbed some vulnerable transients and created our little slice of paradise. Over the years, people had come and gone, given birth and died, until Sanctum was fifty people strong.
Even after all this time, Father Dragger still liked to gather those down on their luck. If he found a family struggling, a loner limping along, or, better yet, an orphaned child, he was sure to scoop them up with a warm smile and a promise of a better life.
Sanctum was currently parked outside a small town in New Mexico called Porthall. It seemed to be built around VVCU, a small college which was completely overrun with stray animals and purple flowering weeds. Which, considering how strongly and randomly the wind liked to blow, I was surprised that anything that wasn’t bolted to the ground hadn’t just flown away.
The convoy had circled itself on top of the fake grass of the football field during its short stay here. The night Enforcers were keeping guard in the Announcer’s Booth, high above the arena, and I could see a few couples milling around in the safety of the stadium lights.
“We need a distraction,” I surmised, trying to piece together a plan to sneak back in without the pair in the Announcer’s Booth catching on. “Ari, if you throw a rock at Jamerson’s truck then…wait, where are you two going?!”
“It’s Davis and Rodrick on look out,” Jeremiah pointed out. “It’d be harder to sneak by a blind…” “And deaf,” Ari added cruelly.
“And deaf, old, paraplegic,” Jeremiah finished with a chuckle.
Sure enough, Davis and Rodrick weren’t even acing the convoy but each other. They were obviously too far away to make out what they were saying but a lot of wild hand gestures were being made to emphasize points. I didn’t know how Sanctum had not perished with those two as Enforcers but, if there was a time to get up to shenanigans, it was when they were at the helm.
Even from a long distance away, I tried to catch a glimpse of Davis. It’d been ten long years and I still felt like that eight-year-old peeking around cars to see the new boy without being caught. Would I ever grow out of that? I was almost eighteen and it sure didn’t look that way.
I thought we were in the clear. Jeremiah had already split off to head towards his family’s RV while mumbling about edits and soundbites while Ari and I headed towards the semi-trailer that held the mobile home that we shared with her father.
It had been about three years ago when Ari had started seeking her own space and, instead of sharing a small room with me, she’d taken to sleeping in the seats of the parked semi at night. It didn’t look comfortable, but I wouldn’t complain about having my own room.
“You cool?” Ari questioned as we reached the semi-trailer.
“Would it matter if I wasn’t?”
“Not really.” Ari gave a wide grin. “But you don’t have to worry so much all the time. I got you.” “Pulchritudinous.”
We both froze as my sister’s voice rang through the otherwise silent night. From behind the trailer, the Enforcer strode. As always, my sister was immaculate, not a strand of gold hair out of place, a wrinkle in her clothes, nor a fleeting emotion to break her stony persona.
The first time Jeremiah met Olwen, he had gone as far as to poke her shoulder and marvel “how life like she was”. I still haven’t managed to convince him that Olwen wasn’t a robot. Just lacked, well, any sort of personality.
Olwen’s amber eyes swept over the both of us before landing back on Ari. “Pulchritudinous.” My pathetic crush on Davis was not the only thing that hadn’t changed in the last ten years. Olwen had used that time to stage a long assault on Ari and, by the way she’d started appearing with more and more words as of late, she was determined to drive Ari crazy before the short girl turned eighteen.
Ari gritted her teeth, a low, grinding noise. “Stupid Head.”
“Your vocabulary astounds me,” Olwen droned, her demeanor unchanging even as the insult lit a fire in Ari’s eyes that promised harm. “Did you learn that word on the back of a cereal box?”
“Can you two stop it and help me up?” I struggled to climb onto the back of the semi-trailer. Everyone else made it look so easy but, no matter how often I tried, I always looked like a newborn deer on black ice.
“Two? She insulted me first!” Ari snapped but came over and shoved me the rest of the way up.
Olwen didn’t even blink, just studied the two of us closely.
“What is on your shoes, Joanna?”
I glanced down. Despite being careful, I still had managed to get a smear of black/red blood on the white of my converse. I hastily scraped my shoes against the trailer. Olwen watched.
“That wouldn’t be undead blood, would it?” Olwen didn’t wait for an answer. “Because that would mean you snuck out again. But you wouldn’t have done that after you promised Ari’s father that you’d outgrown that type of nonsense, would you?”
I just squeaked but Ari, a much more practiced liar, intervened. “Of course, we didn’t sneak out. Even if we wanted to, we wouldn’t have been able to sneak past Davis and Rodrick.” Ari leaned against the trailer with a sly smirk. “No one can sneak past them. Very bright. And alert. I tried sneaking into your oh-so private trailer, and they totally stopped me. I definitely did not get a chance to hide a snake in your bed. That’s how alert they are.”
Olwen was clearly not convinced. It did not help that, while Olwen mulled over a smartass response, one of the Enforcers in the Announcer’s Booth leaned against the controls and a booming voice echoed through the stadium. “And then I was like BOOM! You should have seen this thing drop. It was insane.”
Olwen rubbed her temple. “Excuse me.” She turned to Ari. “Pulchritudinous.” Then she strode away, heading towards the Announcer’s Booth to ream her subordinates. Ari spluttered. “Moron!”
I grinned. “We really need to find you that dictionary.”
“Oh, shut up.” Ari spat. “Just go to bed. Tell my pop that…”
The front door of the mobile home opened, and Father Dragger gave an unimpressed clearing of his throat. Ari had gotten her height from her father but, despite his small stature, he had a big personality and an affinity for an unusual dress of a bolo-tie with socks and sandals. Now, though, he was wearing blue flannel pajamas.
“Now, girls. It’s late and the good people of Sanctum are preparing for a long journey in the morning. Joanna, come in and prepare yourself. Will you be joining us, Ari?”
Ari just pointed to the cab of the semi and waved over her shoulder as she headed away.
Father Dragger just shook his head with an exasperated sigh. “What shall we do with our girl, Joanna?” Luckily, Father Dragger didn’t see the stain on my shoe and let me slip to my room without an inquisition.
Frank Haberle’s novel-in-stories, Shufflers, about minimum wage transients during the Reagan era, is now available from Flexible Press (https://www.flexiblepub.com/shufflers). His short stories have been featured in many journals including Rosie, featured here, in El Portal in 2015. Frank’s stories won awards from Pen Parentis (2011), Beautiful Loser Magazine (2017) the Sustainable Arts Foundation (2013) and the Rose Warner Prize for Fiction (2021). Frank is a volunteer workshop leader for the NY Writers Coalition. He lives in Brooklyn and works in The Bronx. More about Frank’s writing can be found on his website www.frankhaberle.com
ROSIE by Frank Haberle
From the back of the truck, Danny watches the first shafts of sunlight paint the side of the mountain in brilliant orange. The beam spreads above him, picking up floating ice crystals that swarm around the trees. The snow lights up, then turns to black water and dribbles down the slopes in big black stains. This is so beautiful, Danny thinks. This place is so beautiful. If only—
Bang! The truck hits a rut on the hard dirt road. Danny bounces up, then down on the toolbox. Kenny pulls the little cab window open and grins at him. A plume of cigarette smoke puffs out the window. “You still holding them propane tanks?” he asks.
“Yes,” Danny says. He is holding in his frozen hands a steel cable that loops through the eyeholes of a dozen propane tanks, leashed to the truck’s side rail. They are tight and cut into his palms, but he can’t let go. He’s been told what happens if he lets them go. “Fireworks,” the boss once told him. “Happened to the last rental,” he said, holding his hands up and giggling under his bushy moustache. “Look ma, no hands!”
Kenny drives straight into town and pulls the truck up in front of the McDonald’s. He climbs out of the cab and slams the door shut. “Come on.” He waves an unnaturally long arm at Danny. Danny follows him through the glass door to the counter. “Boss says I should buy you breakfast.”
Danny sits down across from Kenny. Two stacks of pancakes in Styrofoam containers sit on plastic trays between them. “Boss wants me to talk to you about not being a rental no more,” he says. A knot of homesickness clutches Danny’s throat. He can’t swallow his pancakes. He pushes the tray away. “He just wants me to ask is all. It’s a good job once you go permanent.” Kenny finishes his pancakes and sticks a plastic fork into Danny’s. “Once I went permanent, they started paying me for all the overtime and all that. And nobody treats you like a rental no more.”
“Thanks,” Danny says.
“All Boss wants you to do is think about it is all,” Kenny says. Somehow he stuffs the pancakes into his mouth while still smoking. “Let him know by tomorrow. Today he told me to bring you and the propane and them tools over to site four. They screwed up so bad they need a rental to come clean it all up.”
The big truck turns out onto the flat paved road that runs through downtown Bend, then spills out on the road toward the river. Through the trees, Danny can see the neat little cluster of houses and stores around the old mill. He can barely make out smoke rising from chimneys, steam rising from a plant, and the roof of a diner. All he can think of now is that tray of pancakes they left there. He misses them. He is sad he didn’t eat them.
Kenny pulls the truck in front of a two-story shell of a building in the woods. Through the woods next door, cars inch slowly through a drive-through window. Danny can’t make out if it’s a Wendy’s or a Burger King.
Kenny sticks his head back out the window. “Well, we’re here, I guess. Get your ass off the truck. Check in with a guy they call Rosie. Jest pull off four of them tanks. And don’t lose them tools.”
Danny enters a cinderblock fortress. A half-dozen workers with burnt faces and shaggy blond beards drop long steel bars onto a cement surface. They glare at Danny, then go back for another bar.
“You know where I can find Rosie?” Danny asks one.
“Nope,” this one says, putting his large hands on his hips.
“Can you point me in his general direction?”
“I can,” he says. “But let me ask you something first. Where you from?”
“Site seven,” Danny says, nodding back toward the big truck. “From the site seven worksite. They told me to find Rosie.”
“No, I mean, where you from.”
The man turns and spits on the bar he just dropped.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “We heard all about you.”
“Up here!” A voice comes from somewhere high up in the building’s half-constructed skeleton, but Danny can’t see anyone up there. “You come on up here! Don’t pay them no mind.”
A new bar clangs down. “Who’s that?” another one asks.
“Shuffler,” the spitter says. “They sent him over here from seven to do some poop work.”
He spits again.
“Course, now we don’t need us no poop worker. We got us here a shuffler.”
“Up here now,” the voice from above comes again. “Get on up here.”
Danny looks up again at the roofless turret of the castle. Scaffolding made of planks and rope weaves through the top ledges. The sun has just started to bleed through the trees, blinding him. He sees the silhouette of a small man above him, waving a large forearm. “I guess you’re looking for me,” the voice says. “You must be that shuffler they sent. Get on up. There’s a ladder out back. Grab that toolbox. Get on up here.”
Danny climbs over a pile of half-shattered crates and broken cement blocks, through the frame of what might someday become a back door. Danny ascends the ladder with one arm, moving the heavy toolbox up against his stomach. He climbs over the ledge and lands softly on the wet wood of the scaffolding, which creaks under his weight.
“Y’ever see anything so screwed up in your whole life?” the voice asks.
Danny turns around, and Rosie is standing in front of him. His face is very difficult to look at. One eye is clear blue and stares right at him, and one has no pigment at all and stares down and away. There’s a nose that’s been broken so many times that Danny can’t really tell where nose starts and forehead ends. The whole right side of Rosie’s face drifts away from him. He’s short but wide; two twisted arms dangle loosely out of a sleeveless Rebel Yell sweatshirt.
“Yeah, like I was saying,” Rosie continues. “Some screw-butt contractor said we do it his way or whatever and git it done before the first snowfall, and guess the hell what else is new. So what’s it do? It snows. And it all just fell out, the first frost, it just frigging cracked out, man. Set us back three weeks easy. We’re screwed, man. We screwed this job up good.”
Danny pulls his gloves on; they have grown stiff and cold in his pocket. “What do you need me to do?”
“I don’t care what the hell you do,” Rosie says, still staring at his ruins. “I ain’t the boss man.” Rosie turns to walk back to a corner where he dug a hole between two steel beams. Then he marches straight back to Danny, almost bumping up next to him. “But I guess if I was the boss man, I’d want you to take that sledgehammer over there and start breaking up the rest of that crap wall so we can reset it all over again. I’d probably want this whole job dug out and redone and set before it freezes out again.”
Danny’s arms and legs ache with hunger. He picks up the sledgehammer. It’s heavy, and it hurts his hands still cracked and sore from yesterday, when he dug a foundation trench out at site seven. Rosie starts digging through the toolbox. Danny starts swinging. The cracking concrete feels good. It drops in little triangles onto the scaffold boards. He peeks down at the floor below; he can still hear the clang of the rebar men working, but he can’t see them. He follows the lines where they interlaced the bars together.
“You ain’t gonna get nowhere, just tapping at it like that,” Rosie says.
“Don’t have to apologize to me none,” he says, still pulling out tools. “Like I said, I ain’t the boss.”
Rosie screams out something like a whoop. It is so loud that Danny loses his grip on the sledgehammer. He traps it with his leg before it plummets off the scaffolding. He turns back to Rosie. He guesses Rosie must have hurt himself, but he is staring out over the precipice.
“Oh, baby,” Rosie says. “Oh, baby. Will you look at that. Oh, baby, baby. Will you look.”
“Look at what?” Danny asks. He peers over the edge. He can see the fast-food restaurant. There’s a woman pulling the door open. She’s wearing a green pants suit, like a flight attendant or a rental car agent. Her hair is tied up in an off-green scarf that matches her suit.
“Will you look at that,” Rosie says. “Hmmm, hmmm. Oh, baby.”
Danny picks up the sledgehammer and swings it fiercely. A square foot of the wall becomes sand; it slides down the wall of the building.
“Let me ask you something,” Rosie says behind him. He waits for Danny to turn around. Danny takes off his work gloves, pretending to adjust them, so he doesn’t have to look at Rosie. Then Rosie comes right up into Danny’s face again.
“You got yourself a woman?”
“A woman! You got yourself a woman?”
“Yeah,” Danny says, “I guess.”
Danny starts to pick up the hammer again when Rosie makes a gesture for him to stop.
“I got me the best woman in the world,” he says. “But she’s in the big house right now.” Rosie pulls a wad of something wet out of his sweatshirt pocket and stuffs it in the sagging side of his mouth. “It’s all account of me she’s in there too.
“Thing is, we were climbing out the back window of this here liquor store, and we set the alarm off, and the cops came in the front door. And you know what she said? She said, ‘You run, Rosie.’ And I said, ‘No, sir,’ right to her face I said it. ‘No woman of mine’s gonna take one for me.’ And she said, ‘You run, mister! You got a prior!’ And she turned and shot one over their heads. That was enough for me, and I ran like hell. I just ran and ran, and when I turned around, she weren’t there. She got eight years, and she’s still up there, and she never once told nobody I was with her. Not once. I ended up in there later for something else, but I only got two years. Now I go up there and visit her sometimes ’cause she was so loyal and all that.”
Rosie is still staring out at the fast-food restaurant. He spits a string of brown tobacco juice out onto the snow.
“Even though I pretty much got women anytime I want now.”
Danny picks up the sledgehammer and swings it with such force that the whole wall collapses in a cloud of powder; when the dust clears, Rosie’s still there.
“Now let me ask you something,” he asks Danny. “You got a woman that would do something like that for you?”
Danny doesn’t get to answer. The workers on the floor are screaming up at him; he has to go down and clean the rubble and plaster he’s just poured down into their new foundation.
By the time Danny is done, Kenny’s come back to get him. When Danny climbs down the ladder, Kenny stands there staring at him, his arms hanging at his sides, surrounded by the other workers.
“Looks like he pretty much screwed this job up worse,” one says to Kenny.
“Stay away from them sledgehammers,” one of them yells to Danny when he climbs into the back of the truck.
Kenny drives Danny back to the center of town.
“So you got to meet Rosie,” he yells above the wind howling all around Danny.
“Ain’t he something?”
Kenny pauses to light a cigarette.
“He tell you he used to be the boss man?”
“No,” Danny yells back. “He didn’t tell me that.”
“Yeah, he used to be the boss,” Kenny says. “Then he got all messed up, did some time. When he got out, the company still hired him back. Only he can’t be a boss no more. For all the obvious reasons, I guess. But it goes to show you. This company takes care of its own,” Kenny says. “When I heard that story, I signed right up.”
The big truck pulls over on the town’s main street, just across from the McDonald’s.
“See you in the morning,” Kenny yells. “You go right in and talk to Boss.”
Kenny pulls the little cab window shut. Danny climbs off the back of the truck, which roars off out of town, its tire chains ringing on the pavement. The sky goes dark, and it starts to snow again; big white gobs float down like feathers. Danny stands for a second, not sure where to turn; then he can’t help himself. He stares in through the plate-glass window of the McDonald’s, now closed. He looks at the table he sat at, where the pancakes once steamed in their Styrofoam tray. He has some hope that they are still there. But the table was wiped clean many hours ago.