Salt

Salt

by James Kidd

 

You will soon learn that dying in the desert is not as romantic as you once thought. If you do not remember thinking this, remember the young boy who wanted to run away, far away to the edge of the world, which is always a desert. You dreamt of barchan dunes then, of an ever-shifting landscape of sand and heat in the day, with the cold moon as your night companion. And one day, perhaps, you would reach an oasis, lie down on the reeds beside it, and know that this was your grave. You would be happy to make it: the last mark of one who had seen everything.

But here there are no dunes, and there is no pool. There is salt, and cracked earth, and mountains in the distance which remind you of how much is left to see in the world. A cactus sits nearby, stunted and prickly. No fruit or flowers grow on it. The mountains look close, but you are starting to realize—

You remember your mother making borscht, but even dreams cannot chill your skin or moisten your tongue. The soup was always topped with a spoonful of sour cream, and even in your dreams your mother says, “One only,” when you ask for more.

And you do not think about the error that brought you here, you do not look at the desiccated skeleton off in the distance (a dog, perhaps?). You think of the mountains, and the cactus, and the borscht.

You will soon learn that dying is—

You are stepping forward, slower every time. You hear your mother call you “Ivan” which is not your name, just a folk tale about a lucky fool. The stories would always end well, but you had never known a happy ending. You were sure that was what was waiting for you in the mountains, or in that second spoonful of sour cream.

Your mother used to skin the beets after roasting them for just over half an hour, and when she did, the juice that flowed out looked like liquid rubies. They looked delicate, light, cold, and sweet, but always tasted like dirt.


 

How I Swallowed A Snake

How I Swallowed A Snake

by Annie Blake

 

“Have I ever told you?”

“Hmm?” I watched him dry himself with a towel.

“I reckon if I knew I was dying, I would just lie down and sleep.”

I liked when he talked like that. I started to feel open and shimmery like a delicate winter sun he could punch his fist through. I liked feeling freely vulnerable, even if there was risk.

 

“I would just lie in the snow and cover my face with a fur skin and let flakes blow over me.”

“You must feel safe. Like you know it’s time. And you can accept it. It’s good that you don’t need to fight it… I wish I could feel like that.” I started to untie my boots. For once, the bows slid out into lines easily. “It sounds primitive though.” I thought for a minute. “Dude, I think you’re in primary processing mode.”

 

“What?” I watched him put on his underwear and socks and T-shirt.

I sat on the bed, crossed my legs and covered my toes with the blankets. We never made the bed. Because that was a waste of time. “You’re thinking like a little kid—you know, you just want comfort fast.” My hands were clasped together and my fingers were pumping air out of them like a heart. I was nervous. How could he think death would be that easy? “Maybe some people can rebirth without drowning first. Don’t know. Isn’t rebirth supposed to hurt?”

“You think you’re so damn smart.”

 

We’ve been having these conversations a lot lately. I finally felt understood. There was probably not much more of his shallow shit I could take. He said he needed more intimacy. I told him I would be able to give more intimacy if I got a bit more grey matter first.

So we were trying to reach a compromise.

“I’m scared of you.” I looked at him squarely.

He looked at me like I pinched his eye.

“You said you wanted to know what I’m really thinking, but you can’t hack it.” The jumps between honesty and smartassdom were getting very blurry.

 

I could see him trying to brake his anger. He was doing very well.

He swallowed. “Why?–I’m not that person anymore.”

“You forgot about that thing two months ago?”

“Was longer than that.”

“You’re diverting.”

“That thing was different.”

That! See how you always say that! You’re disconnecting yourself from what happened.”

“You said that too.”

 

I looked at him hot-faced. My mouth was drying up. “I don’t get how you can just pretend it didn’t happen. At least I can bring it up. You’re fucking angry, Tommy.” I was shaking my head. I was in denial too. “And it’s not all my fault.”

He closed his eyes. And expelled. The air in his breath was as hard as wood.

“You’re crazy, you know that? Admit it.” I waited. Nothing. “I always think it’s me. But.”

His cheeks sagged.

 

I waited again. I looked down at the sheets I was caressing. “You almost smashed your head through the window to kill yourself.” (I’m sure there was a better way to open your view to the world). “Remember?” I stopped. I got louder and talked in sing-song. “Hon?” I think I was trying to diffuse the seriousness a little. His line of good progress was plummeting.

He put his hand over his mouth and tried to forget.

 

“You can’t just… you know, rebirth like that. You know? You’ve gotta really feel it—for a really long time.” Someone was drawing his face with charcoal. “You know what I’m sayin’?”

His lips were pursed. “How am I gonna work and do this rebirth thing at the same time? Huh? You think it’s so damn easy getting up every morning to face people? And then I’m supposed to get all depressed an’ shit?”

Excuses popped out of him like candy out of a dispenser.

 

Rebirthing was a serious business. I’m not sure if you could actually rebirth without losing your mind first. And I didn’t really know if there was choice involved. Well, I didn’t think anything we did was a choice, really. Rebirthing was something you did because you had to. Like a soldier comes to you with a gun and tells you to stand on this red line to be killed. That’s how rebirthing actually is. You just obey. Something makes you do it. The soldier told me to wear a mask. I couldn’t see the point of that. I asked if it would be okay to look. I preferred to look at his face. I tried to glimpse the bullet. I tried to remember what I was thinking.

 

I always watched the nurse pull blood out of my arm with a needle. Even though she always told me to look the other way.  It felt better for some reason. It was easier to avoid dizziness by focusing on something definite rather than at a blank wide wall.

 

“It was about me.” He finally thought of something to say.

“Was it?”

“I wasn’t gonna hurt you.”

“It didn’t feel that way…You go down, I go down too. That’s your whole damn life story, Tommy.”

He quickly shifted his position on the bed. “What?”

 

Fuck. He was gonna kill me that night. Maybe. Lucky he didn’t own a gun. He would have shot me. Christ. I just waited. He said he couldn’t believe I stood there and waited for him to kill himself.  I did wait. I looked at him like a planet through a telescope. The marital elasticity between us snapped. I crept into the other room and waited in the dark. (I suppose I needed to tell the soldier I changed my mind about the mask). I didn’t want to see it happen. I didn’t want to believe he was that angry. Christ. I could hear his breathing. He was muttering stuff to himself and he breathed methodically like a metronome full of fuel.

 

I went back to the original conversation. To calm him down. Or maybe to calm myself.

“If I was in palliative care I would need a team of philosophers to sit with me and reassure me I was going to be safe.”

He didn’t laugh. I had his attention.

 

I told him about my dream of a man with a bald head. He was like a moon hatching out of a bog. He looked a bit like a headstone or maybe even a stepping stone. His greed for air was shameless. His frog-eyes were as white and whole as hard-boiled eggs. They were the only things I could see. He arms kept sploshing around for this snake under the mud. He wanted to catch that snake. He had to swallow it to be saved. The snake, thin and small, wouldn’t be caught. Like the words writhing out of my mouth.

 

Tommy leaned over to hear me. My words were feathery like I had a lisp. Sometimes I felt like an underdeveloped child. Like I was stuck somewhere between the ages of four or five

and I was trying to justify myself to my parents before copping a hot row of smacks with a shoe.  I told him I had to work out why I was always fighting it.

 

Tommy’s shoulders were wide and low. “The man’s you. You’re close to rebirthing. Just grab the damn snake and shove it down your throat.”

Eating a snake in your dream meant you had rebirthed. Like the symbol of the ouroboros.

“I was scared of the taste of the skin.” My past left a slimy, green, moldy water taste in my mouth.

“Why do you think it would be easy for me to die?”

 

I shrugged. “The first thing you remember is nuzzling a woman’s coat,” I remembered this was his first ever memory.

“When did I tell you that?”

“Maybe you need more fight. Maybe you’re giving up…And your mom used to break biscuits in your milk so you could shut up and fall asleep. So she could do night-shift. You sleep too much. You would rather sleep than face your shit.”

He shrugged.

 

Then he nodded. But he didn’t seem too fazed about it. My first memory was with my mom. We ran down the street in a panic because we were late picking up my sister from school. My mom’s presence felt like a cliff face that crumbled as easily as cake. I felt safer with her psychotic anger than with her thin body leaning with loss.

“I don’t get it.” I really didn’t. “How you can feel so damn safe… aren’t you scared you’re gonna go to hell?”

 

He shook his head. “I never think like that.” He crisscrossed his thumbs. “I would feel nervous about leaving you and the kids behind. I would miss you guys.”

I told him I was afraid of retribution. I was so afraid of burning I wouldn’t have room to mourn anyone. He was getting used to me talking like that.

“You said you don’t believe in hell anymore.”

“Yeah…but what if I was dying and started to panic?”

 

It would be nice to feel loss. I felt so out of control that mourning the old world felt indulgent. It was like trying to escape a burning house and worrying about photos when you’re trying to save your pregnant body. It’s like that. My soul. I worry about it. That it’s not full yet. That I haven’t found what I’m missing. Like that time my embryo died. I was a carrier of death. Like someone scooped out the deepest part of my mind. I still feel like squashing that doctor’s body between the palms of my hands like an old-fashioned clothes wringer. My mom had one of those. I used to help her wash clothes all the time. I got my arm sucked into it once. I got a nasty bruise from it.

 

I will never forget the doctor’s hands in my body. She was like the final clunk of a prison switch that commands light-out before I’m ready to sleep. She was a rusty tool. Like one of those manual drills my dad had. Her unperturbed face—her mouth that flapped out of habit. How she sucked me out with a pipe. “I need to find a longer pipe,” she sang, like she was calling a customer to come and collect their order at McDonald’s. Christ. Seriously. I’m still pissed she burnt my towel without asking me first. “Standard procedure,” she said. I wanted my bits on the towel for myself. I needed to see it first.

 

Even years later my kids say, “Why does it feel like someone’s missing?” I swear they know. Even though they don’t. Like the time I had a breakdown. And couldn’t make myself cry. That function just dried up. I knew if I cried, I would have lost it and ended up in some understaffed psychiatric unit in town. I would have lost my job. It would have felt like being in a prison and being forced to do things. That would have made me feel like the ultimate fuck-up. Back then, anyway. When I felt under control a few months later, I cried. Something rich and moist like a sponge rose and sat in my ribcage. Like a spiritual orgasm. I felt safe enough to drop a little and cry without falling through and losing the skeleton of my mind.

 

I envy people who can share things and feel resolved—who can just curl up and wait for sleep. I envy people who can experience a meaty abreaction without risking a psychotic break—without losing the sight and smells of roads and houses and the people of the world.

“What’s up?”

 

I had the sudden taste of winter soup in my mouth. “But I envy you… man…I wish I could just sleep things off.”

He shook the blankets like he was trying to unstick a trash liner. There was a gust of wind. He smiled and patted the cold empty spot next to him. I felt so damn grateful. Because we didn’t  fight. I was so sick of arguments. Then I felt guilty. He was good to me. In a lot of ways. It wasn’t all his fault. He was a bit of a kid. Kids walk off from bloody falls easily… But he wasn’t a kid.

 

Sometimes I hated him.  My mind was yanked open as wide as my eyes. The sleep mechanism in my brain automatically switched off.  I leaned over to kiss him.

“Your infection.” He pointed to the bony part of his throat.

“Don’t worry. It’s doesn’t hurt when I swallow anymore.”

“Just a few more days.”

My body was spinning feelings like clothes in a washing machine. “Alright.”

 

He turned the other way and snuggled under the blankets. His body was like an entire backbone. He bent his knees. He was long and slender. I watched him while I undressed. I felt stiff and full of bullets.

 

He looked like a snake.

 


Annie Blake is an Australian writer, thinker and researcher. Her main interests include psychoanalysis, philosophy and cosmology. Her poem ‘These Grey Streets’ was nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize by Vine Leaves Literary Journal. She holds a Bachelor of Teaching, a Graduate Diploma in Education and is a member of the C G Jung Society of Melbourne and Existentialist Society (Melbourne). You can visit her on http://annieblakethegatherer.blogspot.com.au/ and https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009445206990.

Why is David Sad?

Why is David Sad?

by T.O. Davis

WHY IS DAVID SAD? Asked no one ever, but David thought maybe they were   asking those things about him in the office or in the break room around the microwave or vending machine stocked with baby carrots, vegan “meat” sticks, and non-GMO-gluten-free-and-soy-free chips. There were better things they could be doing with their time,   David thought. It was Christmas and soon the New Year would be here and then Valentine’s Day and Easter and then the Fourth and Labor Day followed by Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas and the same old questions from his coworkers hanging around the office.

David always arrived early and worked late just like his dad and his grandad before him. David had a wife but he considered her sufficiently well adjusted to his schedule just like his dad and his granddad had with their wives before him. Was that what all the whispering in the breakroom was about? David thought. Were his coworkers jealous of his work ethic?

Perhaps it was “dick envy”? It seemed, after nearly thirty years of marriage, which felt, to David, more like 62.7 or some other impossibly odd number that is unbearably too long like the line for some amusement park ride that, in the beginning you are excited to ride, but by the time you are at the end of the line you just want it to be over with. However, after nearly thirty years of marriage, David’s wife, Maggie, finally saw his penis and she wasn’t impressed. Maybe it was the Ambien talking or the fact his naked body was only illuminated by her cell phone, but either way “shrinkage” was not a good argument against her disapproving, albeit slurred, gaze. David was fast approaching 50, and he wondered if he was going to lose her, too.

David and Maggie had no kids, but they had dogs: Sue and Leif. Both dogs were boys. Perhaps David was sad because Maggie would take the dogs; she would move to North Dakota and run a diner for the oil truckers; at night, she would write poetry or her memoir.

Then there was Angela, the receptionist. In David’s mind they were lovers, but he rarely spoke with her except for the occasional wave and smile as he came in and left for the day. He thought of friending her on Facebook or LinkedIn, but he knew little of her other than the few profile pics he could   peruse online. The only thing David knew about her, outside of social media, was she was his boss’s daughter.

David did not like Patricia. He thought, perhaps, Patricia had started the inquiry about him:

Why is David sad?

Then his idiot coworkers had allegedly hit reply all:

Because he is a big fat loser who stays in his cubicle?

Because he has seasonal affectiveness disorder?

Because he can’t satisfy a woman?

Because he is too old to compete in the market?

Because there is not enough coffee in the break room?

Because he has no children?

Because when he delivers mail, he tells all the women he put something in their box?

David shook his head. He could feel the HR goons staring at him from the smoke detectors; he covered his computer screen until his skin stopped   burning. His ears were popping, but it was only the fluorescent lights. He needed to get home; he would make them stop.

Maggie would not be hysterical when she called. The police report would list her as indifferent, but there would be no investigation. The obit would be to the point, just as David was and his dad and his graddad before him were: Survived by his spouse and two dogs. Maggie would pack things up, move back to Rocky Mount, and take up pottery until she got bored with it, but she would not be sad. She would start teaching at Edgecombe Community College and volunteer at Nash General; she would fall in love with weekend beach trips to Nags Head, but she would not be angry. She would not hate his guts for a childless marriage, for the lack of comfort, or for the mess in the guest room turned office, which now belonged to a happier couple; a family she never had. She would stop shaking her fists at the moon and take up running, until she was born anew.

 

Out of the Cave and Down the Slope

by D.M. Kerr

 

The narrator ponders the source of creative output, and whether the act of mining that source has any value.

1. I WRITE BASED on emotional experience that has been inside me a long time and am surprised that others are willing to consider listening.

I have often come down here for the flames. Here is deep, a murky cavern. It has not tasted fresh air in many years. The flames spurt and die, casting strange shadows in the gloom. Each time I come, I gather a flame in my arms and nurse it with my breath as I return to the surface. There, it is less precious, for the light makes it difficult to see, but I offer it up anyway. I do not know if it is accepted, for once offered, it vanishes into the blank faces of my listeners. But still I offer it.

I will not keep these flames, no matter how precious they have been in years past. When I was troubled by the world, I used to bring them down here, and watch them sputter in the sickly air, but there was something sweet about each one, and from the one I had brought I would proceed like a priest from flame to flame, until the cave felt hollow and my tears flowed. But I will keep these flames no more.

“This is the cave,” Fredrick said. The gas mask added a mechanical wheeziness to his voice, but it could not hide the reverence in it.

I stooped to enter. Ahead of me, I saw pinpoints of light, a votive of tiny flames, maybe two dozen or more. Each flame sat in its own pool of blackness—the murky tar that sustained it. A few of the fields, the ones closest to us, were empty.

“I used to come here all the time,” Fredrick said. “This was my sanctuary. My     private place.”

“Why?” I asked. “Why remove them?”

Fredrick just tugged gently at the pipe of his gas mask, as if it were a beard. He knelt over the nearest flame and gazed at it for a long time. We heard nothing but the rasp of our breaths through the oxygen tanks, the faint crackle of the flames, and the occasional rumbling of the deep toxic gas that underpinned this floor.

“I think we’ll take this one.” He carefully scooped the flame and a bit of the pitch into his insulated rubber gloves. He held it as if it were an offering. The flame continued to burn, thought it seemed less confident now.

“Wouldn’t it be better to leave them here? You can always come and look at them when you want.”

“No,” Fredrick said. The ancient military green of his facemask and the attending oxygen hose gave his chin a look of firmness it lacked in real life. “There’s no joy in keeping things that others never see.”

I considered the irony of his statement when, back on the surface, and freed from our encumbrances, we lowered the small flame, practically invisible in the summer sunlight, onto a small leave and set it afloat down the stream. Would anyone even see even one? I could not imagine how.

 

 

2. I FIND THAT, even after writing about the experience, it still replays in my mind; it   never seems to shrink.

A blast of light around me. We are near, but not near enough. I rage against something inside of me, some silly decisions that have cost me. But what cost? It is nothing. There is nothing lost. Yet I rage against it. What am I seeking? What old dead dog am I trying to jab with my foot? I don’t know: It all sits beneath me, only every time and again something little floats up to the surface and I let it go.

“Damn! Damn and double damn!”

“What is it?” I ran over to where Fredrick knelt, beside one of the small flames. We had been carting flames for days now, and only a few small flickering ones remained.

Fredrick’s hands were screwed tight, not in pain but in rage. Even as I approached, he slackened them. His mask, as always,   revealed no emotion.

“Nothing,” he said, and glanced down at the flame in front of his knees. “Nothing was lost, that cannot be recovered. I tend to forget that.”

Once more I worried about that seething bubble of gas beneath the floor of this cave.

“It’s gone now.” His hands now hung uselessly by his side. “I don’t know about this one. Maybe we shouldn’t be taking any more. It won’t grow, and it won’t die. It will always be a weak flame. They’ll never be worth anything.”

“Whatever,” I said. He had no right to put this on to me. I was only the paid help. “We brought twenty to the surface. They’re all floating now. That’s enough.”

Just as I said that, something burbled in the gloop beneath our cavern, and some gas escaped. The flame flickered bright now, its yellow and ochre light reflecting on the mask’s eye outlets.

“Just wait for them. No need to get angry. We’ll take this one up and let it go. You don’t have to take any more if you don’t want to.”

 

 

3. I FEEL BOUND to move forward, even if there is no emotional reward.

Yesterday was hard, tomorrow will be hard again. This sitting on scraping noises is not going anywhere that I can see. I play rough against the handle and hold my jests to myself. No turning, held on side by side by big tuft-coated blocks.

What seemed like ages later, when all the flames had been set afloat, Fredrick took me down the old railway track. We rode a small mining trolley that must have come with the original deed. Fredrick sat in front and I sat behind of the trolley, and we said nothing for hours on end.

We followed the track through a small cutting in the grey landscape, growing ever deeper in the cut until the land fell off and we were on a berm again. The cuttings were the worse part: we could see nothing, and the walls, grey, rough shale, closed in on us unmercifully. The walls echoed the scraping sound made by the cart’s iron wheels.

“It seems like we always are trying to get back into a mine but the land won’t let us!” I yelled, over the sound.

Fredrick did not acknowledge my words, even with a shrug of his shoulders. He continued to push against the turning rod of the cart, causing us to rock back and forth against the tracks. I couldn’t tell if it were a deliberate attempt to slow us down, or if he were trying to temper his despair and anger.

 

 

4. I FEEL BOUND up by banality that permeates my writing.

How can the singers feel, I ask, when the words are so far from anything I understand? Their words are common, not turning fresh nor bleating like old tired sheep I understand them. Let me break out! Let me go! I turn from side to side but there is no turning here, only a straight scraping track that takes my time from old to new without a change: yesterday it was hard, tomorrow it is dull.

That evening we spent in a small inn that bordered the track. I had been looking forward to some good food, wine and company after the three weeks with this dour man, but I was disappointed.

Fredrick and I sat at a tipsy wooden table after the meal while a group of men near the fire sang the country’s folk songs. I don’t know if it was because of Fredrick sitting stone-faced beside me, or because of the singers themselves, but I found the songs banal and lifeless. They sang of losing love, of bright flowers, of market fairs but I found I could not connect with anything they said.

Losing love is not like this, I thought. This is window-dressing. Losing love is the dying look in Fredrick’s eyes as he sets the flames afloat on the river. How can people not know what the feeling is?

“Tomorrow?” I asked Fredrick.

“We go.” Fredrick said. “After here it is not so steep. We will both have to push.”

“Will there be fields and streams?”

“No. Only slag.”

 

 

5. I TRY TO convince myself that I should ignore this sense of fruitlessness, because somewhere in the past is the key to who I am.

But I still hope. This is a long journey. It doesn’t matter if I’m late. There are answers in the past; there are things there that, if I let the burlap open, would tell me what to tell myself. I don’t mind the fire, I don’t like it, but I don’t mind the scraping away little by little. There is a wall, I’m told. I’m told it has to come down. It will come down, I promise. And it’s a long journey.

“You didn’t appreciate the lodgings last night,” Fredrick said.

We were pushing the cart—the incline was not steep but   deceptive. The morning sun burned hot, and perspiration had formed on his ridged forehead.

“I felt unmoved. As if the landscape itself had entered through the mouths of the singers and had removed their souls.”

Fredrick grunted. “Poetic.”

“Aren’t there any trees at all? For the rest of our journey?”

“It’s a long journey.” Fredrick smiled wistfully—the first sign of hope I had seen on his face in a long while. “I don’t mind the   scraping away.”

He stopped, and the cart kept moving. Apparently we had reached a crest, although there was no sign in the landscape to confirm it.

An hour later, unannounced, a black stream appeared beside the tracks. I wondered at the debris floating on the calm water, and realized with a shock I was staring at the lights we had set afloat, at the entrance to the mine.

“There are answers in the past,” Fredrick said, when I touched him on the shoulder. “It hurts to look, but there are answers in those flames.”

I contemplated that for a moment. What answers? The flames here, in the fierce sunlight, were only barely alive. We had a long journey, I reminded myself. Something will come up.

“Fredrick, why is the water so still? It’s not as fast as our cart.”

Fredrick motioned languidly with his hand. “There’s a wall up ahead. A dam. It will have to come down.”

 

 

6. WHEN I’M NOT pushing so hard for an answer, I suddenly realize the past starts to flake off more easily.

When you believe, you can accept. When you can accept, you don’t push so hard. When you don’t push, little flakes come off one by one. Going this slow will take a long time but I am committed.

“It’s stuck,” Fredrick said.

We had reached a cutting, one of the few left in this nearly level plane. Fredrick and I had been pushing from behind the kart, arms held straight in front of us, heads facing the rails. We had heard scraping.

I glanced around the side of the cart. The walls were too close to the rails here, and the rust-red edge of our cart had left marks along the black, wet slate of the cutting’s walls.

“Don’t!” Fredrick had been about to stand up when I warned him. “It’s not stuck, just scraping.” I pushed at the cart with the back of my shoulders. “If you let go, it will just roll back on us.”

“Then what?” Fredrick asked.

“I’m holding it. Check your side. It’s just scraping, right?”

“Yeah. But it will stick more. Let the cart go back a bit and I’ll get around and dig away the walls.”

“No need. This is really loose shale. All we need to do is push slowly, and let it flake itself.”

“We’ll get stuck. And then we won’t be able to go backwards or forwards.”

“Trust me. It will work. We just need to give the shale a chance to crumble. See? Like that.”

“This will take forever.”

“Stay on it. Slow and steady. Like that. Let it scrape away.”

 

7. I CONSTANTLY REMIND myself I need to expose my journey to others.

Each little scraping step, each jolt from side to side, reminds me to ask for help. I ask, not knowing if the asker has heard, but I don’t care. In the asking is the help granted. Even if there is no change, even if the next jolt just goes back to the other side, I will wear away this wall flake by flake until it is just an old sodden mound and I won’t be crazy any more.

Our track now led us into an inhabited area. On either side of the cuttings, now, small houses squatted, decorated with knee-height white fences and small, green lawns. Through the windows of the houses, on occasion, we could see people watching, their hands holding cups or plates and drying cloths.

Fredrick did a curious thing: this man that I had come to know as silent and reticent, who had found happiness in a dark cave, his face obscured in a breathing mask, began to ask for help.

The gully in which we travelled was exceedingly narrow. Sharp, dark scale hung from each side, and our cart often got stuck.

“Please, if you can, we’d like a push. We’re on our way to the market.”

“They don’t want to help you,” I said, when another figure turned from its window.

“Helping is not the point. Asking is the point.”

I was about to question that logic when the sadness in Fredrick’s face caught my eye. He knew the danger of his ways and, timidly, was trying to battle it. Even asking for my help had been, I now realized, a struggle for him.

 

 

8. I REALIZE WHAT I have written is no longer attached to my self.

When I step into the cold, it seems different. It seems now like I am walking a little higher. The flakes are crunching under my feet, those fires and fears I offered up. Now they just lie about on the ground, no longer part of me. They no longer have any life. They no longer can hold back my soul.

We had finally escaped from the trenches. The plain lay on all sides of us, grey shale stretching into the distance. Our faces were smudged and our clothes torn from the constant pushing and scraping.

Fredrick’s cart ran freely now, although it still squeaked and jolted sluggishly. Fredrick sat a little taller on his seat. A certain pride enveloped him like a cloak and I realized all these past years he had never had a feeling of self-worth. It had been so constant, that lack, that I had just assumed it was part of his personality.

“Look,” I said, pointing at the now blackened concrete gully that ran parallel to our path. “Your baubles have made it this far. Perhaps they will even find fame.”

Fredrick turned away haughtily. “They aren’t mine. Look at them more closely. The life has gone out.”

He was right. In my haste to connect them to Fredrick, I hadn’t noticed the change between these ones and the ones I had set floating near the top of the spring. Those ones had glowed with that strange subterranean flame. Now the oil had congealed over them and the only light they gave was that reflected from the stars.

 

9. EVEN THOUGH I don’t see an end to this process, I gain a feeling; this is the way out.

So each step forward and back is still a step forward in my mind. I continue to trust, even though if I turned to look back I think I would see only caverns, the same that are in front of me. I don’t mind. I’m on my way out.

Finally, on the third day, it happened. The gully seemed like every other gully,   ragged black shale walls, a bleak flat plain beyond, but as we pushed the cart over the cusp, I could see, faint in the distance, the lights of the city.

Although we had been under the impression we were going downhill, we in fact had been making our way further and further up. From this point we could see that the plain before us was indeed falling away, and beyond it, about five miles distance, the rock was subsumed completely in verdant grass and farms. It was perhaps a trick of the clouds, but it really did appear that the sun shown only on the city, bathing it in a soft, amber glow.

“It’s like your lights,” I said, “but so much larger. It’s the image your lights were trying to capture.”

Fredrick said nothing. He did not even acknowledge that he had seen the city, as he loaded our backpacks onto the cart. But I did see him glancing back. His face was   taciturn as always, but he seemed to have in it now an underlying glow—not of hope, but, perhaps, of faith.

“Give us a push,” he said. “It’s still a long way forward. But we’re on our way out.”

 

 


“D. M. Kerr” is the writing name of a Canadian writer living and working in Singapore, where he teaches IT and game design. His stories have been published in Linden Avenue Literary Review and Beyond Imagination Magazine, among others. He is a founding member of Singapore’s Writing the City project. Even so, he is pleasantly surprised you are willing to consider reading his work.

 

 

 

 

Boar

by Julie Shavin

 

This story appeared in its original form in Circatrix

 

I DON’T KNOW why I call it or called it a rhino when obviously it was a hog. It was brown and thick and huge, a fleshy rectangle, or more of a box. But actually it was not that huge, only hog-sized. I had never touched it, fed or bathed it, but it was mine. And for some reason, it was near the ceiling, held in place by beams. I didn’t realize I lived in a house with beams until then, had simply not looked up. The ceiling may have been wood, like the wood-paneled ceiling I once had, in a house with lower ceilings generally, but this particular ceiling was very high, maybe 16 feet, and, on a beam, or probably two, how else would it balance, was the rhino or hog, suspended helpless, though there was no struggle, no movement at all.

I can’t say I loved it, though it would have to have been a pet, but it was precious to me in some unnamable way, and I knew it had to come down. Of course it had to come down. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how it got up, and whether that might be a clue in getting it down. In the end, I didn’t need to expend any effort. Shortly after seeing it caught, or rather, fraught, though again, there was no struggle, only a strange and silent kind of acceptance, it fell. It fell with a large crash, right on its back, and I knew the back was broken. I don’t remember sobbing or anything even close to it.

I remember wondering what to do, but before I could do anything, I saw something unbelievable, something incredible. It started to dissolve. I knew this meant it was dying, and I felt helpless. This is not the way death goes or comes, but there the rhino—my rhino—was dissolving into discreet masses, masses that were jelly-like, and then the masses began vanishing, as though evaporating, and the rhino-hog was no more. I remember no emotion but a kind of sadness and shock. There had been nothing I could have done to save the poor ugly thing.

And then something else happened. I saw a tiny movement and then more       movement. It was—was it possible? Yes, it was—regenerating, and before very long, I don’t know how long, it was back. It was itself again and I was glad, if flummoxed.

And then, before I could think too much about what had happened, it started dissolving again, getting smaller and smaller as a whole, until finally it was a token—an actual token, a shiny silver thing with some   turquoise as one would see on the neck of a guitar—the “arms” were the leaves of a clover, so it was like a two-leafed clover.

And then that disappeared and the animal, which didn’t have a name, and which was obviously a brown hog but with a rhinoceros horn, or maybe boar would be a better term, was again before me. It was not silent, as before, but in some kind of agony, yelping and yowling. And I heard a sloshing sound. I guess I didn’t think too much what that might be; I only thought of saving it, and suddenly realized that I could call the animal hospital, Compassion Animal Hospital was its name, and I dialed. But Compassion is not the one I really wanted. I couldn’t think of the name of the other one, which for undetermined reasons (perhaps they traveled and Compassion did not) I preferred. What came to me was Utopia or Ulysses, but neither was right. Perhaps it was some combination I couldn’t   recall, and since I couldn’t recall, I couldn’t call. So I was waiting on Compassion while it continued to yelp and yowl and the sloshing sound continued. No one came. We were alone and remained alone, and then it was over. It had died of hunger. I knew this. The sloshing was the stomach crying for food. It had not died of a broken back after all, of some freak accident amidst a freak circumstance, but of something as ordinary as starvation, and I felt really bad about that, because that I could have attended to.

 

*

THE THOUGHTS NEVER went completely away. They came and went, they were before and after, and sometimes during. Basically, when he reached up and around with his left arm in the hospice bed, I had thought it was for me. I had found out on day 6, quite by accident. Well, not really accident. We didn’t speak on the phone much; were not phone people; in fact, he was not good with any kind of conversation. No, our relationship was something other, something, I thought, as did everyone else, smaller, less consequential, less meaningful, superficial, silly, and so forth. When we met, he was done in and so was I. We were both fleeing. That our bodies were in love and that he was in love, in general, did seem, at least the former, absurd, and I had never phrased it as “in love,” but there it was. We were not together often, only a few days here and there. I was, after all, married, if unhappily.

So he’d had a stroke, the worst kind—a brain-bleed, languished six days without sustenance, to include water. In hospice, they explained, you make the person comfortable, but you do not extend life, and I asked and asked how this could be comfort, with only a sponge dipped in Sprite to suck on. They thought it rhetorical,   especially since I was not family. He sucked desperately, like a neglected newborn. He had most likely been reaching for the sponge, but that didn’t occur to me then. Over and over, and then I stopped and began rubbing something on his chest to aid breathing — but I don’t know why this was allowed when water was not. One thing they said was that he was unable to swallow. Yet occasionally he coughed, a big, loud, racking smoker’s cough (though I heard later they found no cancer), and when he coughed he reached up to cover his mouth and smooth his mustache. Neither of those would be instinct, and struck me as strange, if he was virtually gone. They explained he was not completely gone, and I was mortified to hear it. Yes, his eyes were open. One was bloodshot, on the side that couldn’t move. The other stared, bluer than I’d ever seen. I didn’t realize until later that all the bleariness from the chronic insomnia was gone, and, of course, there was no moisture in the body whatsoever. His tongue lolled; his breathing was ragged and hard. But when he coughed like that, he swallowed —I saw and heard him. Still, they threw me out “for asking too many questions.” “We’ll see you at the service,” they said. And it wasn’t until weeks later that I realized he had died, not of the stroke directly, and not from kidneys and other organs’ shutting down, but from thirst, though of course, if he could have moved, he could have gotten water.

 

*

IN A COMMON and gross way, it makes sense the hog had a horn and thus seemed like a rhino. He, the dead, and I—our bodies—were insatiable, which would include just being by one another’s side. We had to be this way, or head on a lap, or one behind the other pushing a cart in the grocery. But to this day, friends say, it would not have worked out. He loved you, but that’s all. That you felt alive and comforted in a cold and frightening world when you were next to his warmth meant nothing. That’ is animal stuff. That’s what they say and what I thus say. It’s true I did not love him. If asked, I always said, “he made me feel safe.”

Oh, but that’s too easy, it would seem, which I hate to say and ask, not because it’s not obviously true, but because it is an intrusion: here I am, outside, stepping in, forcing a step from in to out. But, forgetting that for now, it is too easy. Life is not always like that and a good story never is, and anyway, who said anything about a story? I am   telling you about real things and which included the pig, hog, rhino, or boar, whatever it was. It doesn’t   matter. Things are not always so neat, fluid, so easily symbolic. It is true it could be just that, that I was thinking of him, and how he appeared then disappeared. Or how I   appeared and disappeared, but no, the former makes more sense; it was he who was left hanging. Then again, also I. Things, including a good story, are more like a good  crossword puzzle. One has four of five letters in an answer and the answer makes   perfect sense, and still it is wrong. The last letter determines it. He wasn’t reaching for me. He was pointing. To the sponge. But after I pulled his arm fully around to hug me, he didn’t point again, so who knows? We don’t know. We don’t have that telling letter.

 

*

NOW IT IS TODAY, as now always is, even though it is always yesterday too and   maybe tomorrow, yes, of course tomorrow, though we don’t know it. As a convenience I’ll say that early afternoon, I took my depression for a walk with the dog. All around me it was dark, although the sun shone brightly. It was a dark brightness, as though the sun were false, a manmade shiny thing, as though there were some master behind it dangling it. It was not about the sunglasses, although it is true I couldn’t get the music in my pocket to play, a small device I’d purchased to help defend me against the exposure, by which I mean, not just bright light in the eyes, something that had bothered me even as a child, but exposure in general. I saw a phrase after this bad feeling had gone on for about a month: exposure anxiety, and thought, I have this, though it was associated with autism, yet I was not autistic. But the world, at least   during this depression, had come to revulse me. Revulsion is the only word I can think for it, though repulsion would do as well. But revulsion, to me, seems to incorporate the physical aspect better.

The houses are revolting, the leaves, the trees, sticks, rocks, even green, my favorite color: the yards. I can no longer look at or stand the quotidian. This isn’t really new, but was always masked. There were always distractions. It seems as though the distractions are gone.

It was the quietest it has ever been in the neighborhood, this day after the holiday, and it sickened me, who loved quiet. I knew it was a luxury to fall into this sickness or to maintain it, but I was sleeping strangely well, and had spent three decades sleeping horribly and losing every other day. My life had become all about sleep, sweet and sacred sleep. So I wouldn’t change drugs, even with a depression so severe the ideations were constant. I knew I wouldn’t act on them, though, so what was the point of moving to yet another drug? I had already changed them, weaning off one and onto   another, and then cutting back when I was too jittery, too uncoordinated; I was now at only a 1/3 the smallest dose. The   remnants of agitation were still with me but without that third, I didn’t sleep at all.

When weaning, first the depression lifted, and I couldn’t believe it. One morning in the hot bath, a ritual involving epsom salts for pain, I was listening to a rousing song on the tablet someone had given me, and thought to share, adding, let’s dance! I noticed it was 8:45 in the morning. I had not seen morning without being hideously sick in all those years, those thirty. And then this. And then that: within a month, the crash. And the jitters, the muscles in knots. This very day, it was still like walking through blood, the blood of the sun. Every step said No. It was an effort to keep going. It’s like the body was locked.

My friend had encouraged me to buy a warm coat, because I had said I needed one, that I couldn’t fight the muscles and the depression and the cold. She said, do it, and I said maybe, as though wanting to be cantankerous, needing attention, needing to shoot myself in the foot. What do you mean, maybe? If you get out and walk and it raises serotonin, then depression will lift some and you can do something for another person. Only then will you feel better. That’s what she said – but she doesn’t get depressed, she said, and doesn’t understand it. What I mean is, depression doesn’t care about other people; it is selfish. It chooses you and takes you for a walk with the dog. But I  understood what she was saying, because I was empty. I didn’t care about anyone or anything. No amount of shopping or book-buying or any other satisfying of needs, like movie watching, could budge it. I was bereft. There was no warmth anywhere and now I said maybe and only maybe would I buy a coat, because I knew the coat was only about the body.

Anyway, the walk was an insularity, as though the world were a nut-funhouse mirror. The mind says go and the muscles say stop. At one point, I couldn’t see at all, for the glare, and the dog led. He found the path for home, and I followed. And though I wanted to speak to no one, had looked only at sidewalks or the ground, safe places, for some reason, when he found the path and I exclaimed that he had, a woman saw me. And I joked. I said, hm, time to get him certified with a vest and all, a service animal. Indeed, or something like it, she responded. I had always talked with people easily, to the amazement of my daughters, who did not, one moreso than the other. I explained to daughter 2, though, that this talent of mine was just the flip side of anxiety. One side is avoidance, the other is outgoingness, running of the mouth. Too, I had liked people while talking with them, like the old joke, I like humanity; it’s people I can’t stand. But with me, it was liking people, though I detested humanity. That’s a big subject, since I’m not sure how I can hate humanity when I see it as just a bunch of robots prey to chemistry, upbringing, even climate. At any rate, I would bond in an instant, or so it felt. Now it didn’t feel that way at all. I had no desire to speak or to listen, certainly not to joke. Everything was just too dark, but it happened. Mercifully, the walk ended.

 

*

I WAS THINKING about how when the pig or hog or rhino or boar died, I felt nothing, nothing but “alas, hunger,” and feels nothing now. I did not feel suddenly alone, though I feel the most alone in my life. I did not feel unalone either, as in, well, that is that. It had been there for me to save. My friend, the one without the depression, says, as a species, we are far from responsibility. It is all about being happy, these days. Am I? Am I happy, happy happy? It used to be about responsibility. I did try to save it, did I not? But I didn’t love it, which means couldn’t, the way one doesn’t love or not love a black cloud, unless the land is parched, I suppose.

And now, with the dog on the bed, I am thinking about how, yesterday, he jumped but couldn’t quite make it up, so I had lifted him, with great difficulty. He was getting older, like me, and when the other dog attacked, he jumped down, fell, rolled, twisted and righted, and I worried about his spine. He had short legs and a long body. I was sure I loved him; there were all kinds of signs. But everything was vanishing, it seemed, and I didn’t know when it would all come together, how long it would last, or if it would matter – if anything did, at all, because it is dark in here with the one small lamp, the ceiling is low, and no one needs rescue. I live for dreams, but am not speaking of them here, no. There is a rustling of leaves and branches over the deck roof, which is rife with holes. I have wondered what might fall through, what the next thing will be. I have wondered whether the weight of any animal or of being animal is not too much to bear.

 

 


 

 

 

 

Bill Teitelbaum: Busted (fiction)

Busted

 

Except that he’d been arrested everything would have been fine, Walter Roman said.

He’d been home for several hours by then, but now that supper was over and the boys were next door at the Bensons watching a ballgame, he asked Dorothy to sit down with him at the kitchen table.

“Look, let’s try not to kill the messenger, okay?”

Plus, it was a lame bust to begin with, Walter said. The hooker was a cop. With appropriate counsel a case for entrapment would have been child’s play. The charge would have been vacated prior to arraignment.

Still, he had been busted, and the police had impounded the car.

“But you said it was being fixed,” Dorothy said.

Dorothy was trying to focus her attention. But how could she not have known about this?

“The car, too?” she asked.

“But she wasn’t a hooker, she was a cop,” Walter explained.

“But what did she say? Was she pretty?”

“Dorothy, she was a cop. What difference does it make?”

“But why didn’t you tell me yesterday? Why did you wait until now to tell me?”

That’s what made it so confusing, Dorothy realized. He had made love so gently to her last night. They had been so happy. Afterwards they talked about remodeling the kitchen.

She looked about now at the scarred cabinets and crowded countertops, the electric stove she had never really gotten used to. All that would have to wait now, Dorothy thought.

But it was all in the way you looked at it, Walter said. She knew perfectly well that his family had been uncommunicative. That’s why it was so hard for him to talk about things. Until the arrest in fact he had taken some pride in this. He didn’t like to bother people. He considered this one of his more commendable qualities.

But she had trusted him, Dorothy said. How could he have betrayed their privacy that way?

Walter sighed, offering his upturned hands at first but then settled them in his lap. You would have thought both of them had been arrested.

But how could he say he loved her, Dorothy asked, if he could have sex with someone else?

*

Had she really asked him that? Well, she had asked for it then. You’d have thought she was prepared for his answer.

While Walter to his unending regret had seized the moment as an invitation to unburden.

Did she think it was easy for him, he asked. A sex-life with teenaged kids in the house was difficult enough. Two sex-lives was work.

There was no remorse or even sorrow in this travesty of a confession. He was only being honest with her. Who was he hurting, Walter asked.

“But Walter, it’s disgusting. Can’t you see it’s disgusting?”

He nodded ruefully to this, but apologizing in the circumstances seemed pointless by then.

“I always knew you would feel that way, but I was sort of hoping you would understand it.”

“You mean that I would tolerate it?”

But he never did it to the exclusion of the important things. It was like stopping after work for a beer, he said. Like getting a haircut. It wasn’t like he was involved with them.

But he had always been so considerate with her, she said. She couldn’t understand it.

But she liked him that way, Walter reminded her. It wasn’t her fault that she was nice. “I always thought you were right about those things.”

For her sake then, he took care of those other things himself. He didn’t want to trouble her with it. It was like everything else he took care of, Walter explained — the jiggly light switches, the float valves in the toilet tanks? She could look around the house, he offered.

Dorothy was still struggling with these putative analogies when Walter returned from the basement with the waxed canvas duffel in which he kept his collection — postcards and playing cards, DVD’s, magazines, comic books and calendars, almanacs, peephole viewers, flip-books that he riffled to create the illusion of animation.

“You really like this stuff?” Dorothy asked.

But ‘like’ was not the word, she discovered. Those little panel books, with their scabrous parodies of popular comic-strip characters — Popeye the Sailor, Nancy and Sluggo, Maggie and Jiggs, Joe Palooka — those were collectors’ items, Walter told her.

*

Dorothy saw now that she had probably gone a little crazy during those first weeks.

Who was she, this prostitute he’d solicited? What did she look like? What had she said to him? Had he approached her, Dorothy asked, or had she approached him? Wasn’t he afraid? What if he brought something home to her? They had parasites those people. They hated people. Spreading diseases was fine with them.

Or did he hate her — maybe that was it, she said. Why else would he humiliate her that way? Didn’t he see how insulting it was? What had she done to provoke all that? Didn’t he realize that trusting him might already have cost her life?

Her heart would explode if she didn’t talk to someone, but her friends were not the kinds of friends she could confide her confusion to. She had phone-pals who probably would have been happy to listen, but the occasions whenever more than two of them got together almost always took on that breathless, chittering quality of a slumber party, and the women seemed so hungry for these reliefs that Dorothy didn’t see how she could impose on them.

Dorothy’s doctor had called by then with the reports from the lab. All negative thank God, she was fine he told her. But despite the leavening effect of this news, she felt curiously undercut by its dearth of consequence.

“Dorothy, I really don’t see why we have to make such a big thing out of this. It was wrong but I’m not a different person all of a sudden and if you could calm down for a second, I think you’ll see you’re really sort of over-reacting a little.

“I know you don’t want to hear this,” he added, as if talking about it could make it all right, Dorothy thought, like anything else they might be talking about.

But it was not all right, Dorothy said. He was her husband, or he was not her husband.

*

Walter offered to move out then, to give her some space as he put it, but wandering those formerly familiar rooms seemed only to heighten her confusion. Their familiarity itself seemed to mock and reproach her. But when she tried to explain her decision to the boys, it seemed as if they, too, had lives that were their real lives. They understood everything, you would have thought. They stood patiently, letting Dorothy embrace them, but they felt sorry for her. Her tender mind embarrassed them. Obviously, they too had humored her with assurances of regular habits and wholesome companions, just as they stood now humoring her admonitions to take care of the house. She had known all that for years, she saw now. In their sullen way they had probably imagined themselves protecting her. Even now they had that look.

*

Dorothy had taken a small apartment within walking distance of the mall where she was the day-manager of a jewelry franchise and two evenings a week she attended a re-entry class at the high school where she worked at planting herself and living in the present. There was also a mental aerobics class she was thinking of joining, a combination of reading and meditation, competitive discussion, board games, low-impact calisthenics and interpersonal problem solving. That, too, would be good for her, she thought. But at night she lay awake and in a few weeks convinced herself that everything had been her fault. Though not fat she was soft. She had short legs, stupid hair, dull skin, and though her butt was small its droop depressed her. If he’d cared for her at all, she thought, wouldn’t he have said something?

*

Naturally all her friends disappeared— she was a carrier now, a home-wrecker herself. Answering the door in a bustier and hose? Even the most loyal of them had fixed her in place. Suddenly it was as if her husband’s arrest was the only thing that had ever happened to her, and whenever the ladies spoke to her now it was always with the same tiresome, condescending concern. Not how was work, or do you feel like a coffee, or would you like to go shopping? No. “How are you, Dorothy? How do you feel today?” Their pity seemed only to magnify her losses. Cheerfulness would have felt reckless to those terrified women.

*

And now he wanted her back? But it didn’t make sense. Why, she asked at their weekly dinners. For what, if she wasn’t good enough? She wasn’t sexy, she wasn’t alluring. As in the costume romances she favored, her erotic imagination peaked with kisses, languid in a fugue of waves, a surge of brine, a falling away.

I always thought you liked my kisses, Walter said.

She did, she said. She had. But it wasn’t the same anymore. She would have felt childish and stupid kissing him now.

But I miss you, Dorothy. I loved making love with you, Walter said.

Yes, she thought bitterly, like home-cooking?

Yet Walter for his part seemed to think she was being petty. “Dorothy, why are you doing this?” he asked. It was as if he was embarrassed by her severity, as if he would never have expected such willfulness from her. “You’re my heart, Dorothy. I count on you. How can you be this mad at me?”

She loved him, too, that was the madness of it. Angry, hurt, diminished  as she was, nevertheless her impulse was to help him. She felt unfaithful resenting him so much.

“I just don’t understand how you did those things, Walter. I don’t even know really if I want to.”

Had their whole marriage been a joke? The memories of her life seemed impossible to her now. Her devotion to him? Her self-respect?

“Dorothy, you’re going to drive yourself crazy this way. We have our lives in each other. How can you walk away from that?”

“Don’t you dare tell me what I can do,” she replied. “You don’t care about me. You never cared about me.”

“I know you’re upset, Dorothy, but that’s not fair.”

*

 “Men are scum,” one of the women in her group said.

Yes, that made it easy, Dorothy thought. Reduce half the world to a petulant generalization.

A part-timer at the shop, Charlotte Buhler, had recommended Dorothy to this church-basement forum, which Dorothy appreciated in principle, but she felt pity for these slack and tentative, rather furtive women. They brooded and nagged but seemed lacking in the ordinary gumption to belong to themselves. Indeed all they truly seemed to yearn for was the ordinary affection one might offer a pet, for rather than be manless and somewhat vague as a result on the question of their necessity, they would suffer rapes, thefts, disfiguring assaults, public humiliation, financial abuse, and then, in pursuit of revenge, they would humiliate themselves further by having sex with people who didn’t care about them. They seemed shallow and unfeminine to Dorothy, perhaps vengeful and cunning, but broken and without character.

Nor were they supportive of her particularly. He was not a gambler or a drug addict, they observed. Presumably she was supposed to be grateful for this. Was he ever violent with her? Did he drink? Did he run up bills? Did he write bad checks? Was he into pain? Did he ever choke her, or force her to have sex with him, or take stuff from her parents, or lock her out? Did he ever destroy anything of hers, a doll or a keepsake or a pretty dress? Was he jealous of her? Did he distrust her? Did he follow her around? Did he ridicule her to the kids? Did he show up at her work and pick fights with her colleagues? Did he make her get high with him? Did he try to take over the money, or criticize her shopping?  Did he force her to say that other men were attractive to her, or that she had fantasies of being with them?

You don’t get it, Dorothy said. That wasn’t what she was for him. He was a very sentimental man, this Walter Roman. Once they went to one of those lovers’ retreats — one of those spas with the heart-shaped beds and the in-room whirlpools? The women waited patiently then for the drowning scene, and when it didn’t come they seemed confused. “Who paid?” someone asked.

*

Dorothy made it her business to be in court for Walter’s appearance, and it gratified her that the presiding judge was a woman. She wanted him to be punished, and it puzzled her that the judge could be so skeptical about the arrest and so cynical about the charges. He was found guilty of course, but when he was sentenced to only eight hours of community service, Dorothy felt betrayed all over again, and at their periodic meetings, ostensibly to resolve matters of household administration, somehow the conversation always turned on the question of what she had done to warrant disgrace.

But he had never made comparisons, Walter protested. He had never asked her to do things that he knew she wouldn’t do and he never complained that she was unimaginative or incurious. He accepted her as she was, he said, narrow maybe but her sincerity touched him. There was always something of the wedding night about their lovemaking. She was always new for him that way. He had never wanted to spoil that.

“You adjusted,” she said.

Walter made an effort to maintain a neutral expression, but his head seemed to swivel away from her despite him.

“I was dull so you adjusted,” Dorothy said.

“It really wasn’t that bad for me, Dorothy. It was nice that you were like that. I respected it.”

He looked on the bright side, he was telling her. He used his imagination. She was old-school, this little Dorothy of his, a loving, home-made, one-man woman. She was limited but she could see the compensations for him in her limitations. He would never have to worry about her. She would never be unpredictable enough to constitute a problem.

No, of course it wasn’t always wonderful, Walter said. But neither was it ever disappointing for him. How could it be, he asked.

It was just that he couldn’t understand why she struggled to hold onto these petty resentments when with even less effort they might put the past behind them.

Open-mouthed, Dorothy sat back behind another untouched salad, the spit drying on her teeth as Walter renewed his commitment to their marriage. It could even be better now, he said, he should have been more open with her, he should have trusted her more, since at least where the sex was concerned he saw now that he might have been as old-school as she was.

“You mean I can be a whore too now,” she said, “if I put my mind to it.”

*

That fall Dorothy began taking evening classes toward an accounting degree at the community college and the boys, apparently growing up, were taking better care of things. They washed their own clothes and saw to the grounds, they kept the cars repaired, and to Dorothy’s relief they seemed also to have discovered themselves lacking that serendipitous combination of math skills, menace, prudence and gall that was essential for selling drugs at a profit. But money worries kept Dorothy in a constant state of crisis — she was still waking in the small hours of the morning with that sudden vacancy of water dropping from beneath a raft — and though her classes were supposed to be improving her earning power, her fatigue made it difficult for Dorothy to think about the future in terms of concrete objectives. The counseling center at the college had helped her with the budgeting, and when Walter petitioned for child-support, Dorothy finally dismissed her lawyer and retained another to renegotiate the settlement; but she had no savings, no retirement plan, nothing put aside for the kids’ educations, and since each month saw her carrying a higher balance on her cards, each day seemed to take on its own wretchedly precarious quality. She found herself counting and recounting her change at shop counters, triple-checking her bank statements, and repeatedly verifying the deductions itemized on the coupons attached to her salary checks; yet for all these pains she would neglect to enter the odd payment or ATM transaction in her check register and fail regularly to debit the account for minor service fees. Inadvertently she would hang the A-line jumpers that comprised most of her wardrobe on the same hangers as her tailored skirts and then spend days in circular and futile, broken-English quarrels with the dry-cleaning people. She would misplace her house-keys, neglect dental appointments, forget the names of regular customers. Often there was a feeling that information essential to her happiness was deliberately being withheld from her. But by whom? For what reason?

She might have been ready to see men again, though, and she wondered if those intermittent throes of anxiety and revulsion might really be a kind of anticipatory excitement. Yet the whole idea of getting to know someone seemed preposterous and impossible to her. Dorothy herself was not to be trusted. What else had her own life taught her except this? She was supposed to feel tougher but only felt exhausted, her best ambition to avoid risking challenge.

But it was supposed to be fun now, her coffee ladies assured her. These were her new companions, shop-women like herself employed at the mall, cynical and funny, rudely affectionate. What was at stake they asked, shaking her playfully by her upper arms.  She knew more now, they reminded her, she could take it easy with herself.

But she felt pathetic, she complained. He’d made such a baboon of her. It was like those sieges of premenstrual malaise she used to suffer in adolescence when her own body had felt uninhabitable. That she had lived this long and what had it meant? She was like one of those dismal young girls who got pregnant and had babies as a kind of magical way to compel all the rest of that spun-sugar flummery to materialize, the hubby and home with the cheery fire, the holiday dinners with life-long friends, the tinsel-draped tree, the pie in the oven, Daddy proud and Mom content. Her soul had been mortgaged to those lace-paper doilies. It had all been so easy that way, like a child’s belief in Santa Claus, some delusional faith that everything effortlessly would be all right and that life like someone’s kindly Uncle Ned would make an exception for her.

What do you take me for, she had asked Walter over and over. Had she really said that? You would have thought she still had her dignity. She used to flatter herself that way, that there was honor in her simplicity.

But it was only a kind of incompetence really. She wasn’t principled, she was just lazy. Maturity was too difficult so she dismissed it as cynicism.

Well, look at her then. Look where her spurious naiveté had gotten her.

*

Although maybe in the last analysis that’s what hope was, Dorothy thought, that you could still be appalled by things.

It didn’t sound like hope though, did it? Or were hope and despair just different responses to the same abject helplessness?

She took the sputtering saucepan of canned soup from the stove and then poured another small glass of the white jug-wine she had taken to drinking recently to help her sleep.

The question was how did you say yes to things without asking to have your brains knocked out? She envied those women who seemed able with such apparent ease to fill that space between before and after, who seemed to take themselves so casually, who had that happy faculty for attributing a uniform care to whatever they might be doing. They were stylish women. You couldn’t hide those powers. Their wisdom showed in the angle of their heads, in their languor, and in the infinite gradations of expression they could draw from the corners of their mouths. She envied that capacity for occupation they seemed to have, diverting themselves with small pleasures of the senses. For herself the yard-sale excursions they invited her to join seemed always to take an extraordinary effort, but for them there seemed immense satisfaction simply turning things in their hands. They bought flowers for themselves. They traveled together. They bought season subscriptions to local theaters. Doubtless, whenever that old itch came upon them, they would simply go out and get someone to scratch it for them.  “Wrapped in plastic,” they laughed. “Always get it wrapped in plastic.”

Had they always been that way, she wondered, or was it simply an age they had reached? They felt like outlaws to her, like the bad-girls she had feared and condemned in high school, casually defiant, bending their resentments to resemble pride. Indifference like that had always seemed disreputable to Dorothy, a sort of dirtiness, but now she wondered if a bit of defiance might be just what she was missing.

Except that was a lie, too. She knew what she was missing.

But more vivid in its absence was the simple, incidental, day-to-day touching, those dozens of small casual pecks and pressings  that seemed now to have anchored her in place and stitched the pieces of her life together. She glanced then at the soup and found she had no appetite for it. In the bathroom she undressed quickly and waited for the shower to run warm.

The Cambodian woman who did her nails had recently told Dorothy a happily-ever-after story about one of her clients, a widow who ended up marrying her former brother-in-law, and from time to time Dorothy would hear similar stories from her coffee ladies, about women recycling old beaus recovered like rummage-sale items at class reunions, but when Dorothy assessed her own chances for one of these fairy-tale redemptions, her best prospects seemed either the state lottery or perhaps some pensioned halfwit with a passion for stretch marks.

The water was hot and after dialing the taps to adjust the temperature, she stepped into the tub. This was better. The percussive warmth quickly penetrated her muscles, lifting the tension from her shoulders and carrying it down the backs of her legs. She turned and leaned forward, supporting herself with the towel bar, to let the water massage her lower back.

Relaxed now, she began to lather her body, but almost immediately her own hands embarrassed her so that she had to start over, soaping herself again but this time with a coarse washcloth. Probably it was the wine, Dorothy thought. Lately it had become a little too easy to drink. But a moment later, lathering her hair, she had to wonder if she might be truly drunk. The water tracing the rounds of her body felt strangely thick, like a warm syrup, and beneath the thrum of the shower she seemed to hear a rising din in her own body, a pulling heaviness at first like a weight of fatigue but almost immediately more insistent, like something warm and boneless turning over in sleep, yawning and then gathering itself. Her spine seemed to shrink. She felt knotted, but then the knottedness seemed to melt in her, opening like a peeling open of wings. For a minute or more she couldn’t trust herself to move.

Though she couldn’t deny the relief she felt. Apparently she was a lot like Walter, Dorothy thought. She didn’t want to bother anyone.

 


Bill Teitelbaum studies writing at the Kitchen Table College of Continuing Education in Lincolnwood, Illinois. His work has appeared in journals such as 2 Bridges Review, Bayou, The Iconoclast, Jewish Fiction and Rhino, and in anthologies such as Western Michigan University’s Art of the One-Act. His short story, “Busted,” is part of a collection about the newly single called Are You Seeing Anyone?

Joseph Musso: Declassified Documents From the Man…

Declassified documents from the man who lives in the cardboard box in the alley, #10,601

 

FROYD is my name. I’m a dreamer and sexual deviant. I want to kill myself but I’m a pacifist, and therefore prohibited from doing so by my own moral   tenets. Yet, I think about possession as an absolute right and how both my life and my violence belong to me and are mine to do with as I please. The       question remains, though: Am I still a pacifist if I only hurt myself?

My sister is an anarchist. My father is the Anti-Christ. It’s been so long since I’ve seen any face with similar bone structure to mine that it’s very possible I dreamed up a family. I have no family. I don’t remember being born. There are no family photographs or relatives of any kind to inform me on any sort of a childhood. I see no one with my tendencies, characteristics, hopes, fears. To that end, what other conclusion can I come to, other that one day I simply     appeared?

I have a clock face. My nose is running. Time is running out of me. Swollen eyes and isn’t life just shit these days. I’m 400 pounds and filled with juice and meat. But my carcass is drying up in the sun. The skin on my legs is hard and rough. My hands crack from dryness. Out from these cracks, the blood comes out already dried. Am I dying from the inside out or from the outside in?

My name is FROYD.

When I think of painters and prostitutes of course Modigliani comes to mind. What innocence remains in the whore? Much! comes the answer in paint and dreams. Such enormous life in their faces, their eyes and necks, their naked and half naked bodies, their sadness and beauty – one which cannot be pried loose from the other. It is always said about M that he paints the soul of a subject. Her viciousness. His subtlety. Her quickly evaporating innocence. His diabolical nature, apathy, shyness, poverty of spirit.

In all life there is innocence, decadence, joy, pain. Why would anyone rip the puckered, pouting lips from such a face? Why would anyone clothe such bare and rare sadness and beauty? Don’t paint happiness when no such thing is currently present. Don’t paint lies! says M. Express each truth as it flows free out of each posed subject, each man and woman, each situation and circumstance, each room. Express truth, dear artists of the world, be it pretty or ugly or cruel and devious! Express truth!

Hi, my name is FROYD.

A question posed, if I might: For only self-destructive reasons (or its opposite), do we each denounce the one in our lives who most closely possesses the same turmoil, the same moments of clarity and peace, the same helplessness that dwells also in ourselves? Is our love or disdain for others merely the love or disdain we feel for ourselves?

Are we all not both whore and virgin? Corrupt and pure? Many selves within the one self?

If one woman is a whore, then all women are whores. No?

If one man is a deviant, then all men are deviants. Yes?

My name is FROYD. I am both king and peasant, at times ruling over myself with a benevolent hand, at times with a cruel hand. It’s simple: I’m complicated.

My name is FROYD, and isn’t this life just the shit?