January 17 2018| ISSUE no 229
crack the spine
Stephen C. Middleton
Jessica B. Weisenfels
Suzanne Farrell Smith
Don L. Robishaw
Giving Up the Ghost
short fiction by Tina Cabrera
You know only half the story. You know the dead haunt the living. Every story, so they say, has a beginning and an end. If this is the case, then Isobel is transfixed somewhere in between, paralyzed by grief.
She crouches in remembrance under a stream of cool water, shivering. Last night's dream:Let go. Or was it, Let me go!She had just cranked the handle from its off position to the left, expecting hot water quick. Instead, lukewarm is the best she gets. Cool, lukewarm, lukewarm, cool. She moves the handle of the color-coded faucet all the way to the halfway point between hot and cold in favor of red.You grabbed my hand, not offered.We fell down the pit together.The showerhead fails to spew hot water only when someone else runs hot water at the same time. But there is no one else now.
Not sure of how much time has passed since she got into the shower, Isobel shuts the water off without soaping and dries off. She drapes the towel over her back to catch the dripping water from her shower cap. Seely, you used to say shower caps are for old ladies with curlers in their hair. Funny, Seely.
Isobel is the sensitive, serious one. Or is it, Isobel was the sensitive one. Isobel is still here. Seely isn't. Isobel had been the sensitive one when compared to Seely, who is no longer here. The present and past intermingle, at least in Isobel's mind.You used to say shower caps were for old ladies with curlers in their hair. You snickered when you said this. I could not laugh, not because it wasn’t funny, but because laughing requires a kind of energy I lack .
Her cat Tigger is scratching at the door. She can tell it is Tigger doing the scratching and not Merry because declawed cats cannot scratch like that. Even though Seely had Merry declawed long before they met, the very thought of it makes Isobel bitter; Isobel cannot (could not) bring herself to forgive. Mind in matters of dream and trying not to freeze. What time is it? Isobel wonders. But she won't open the door, no, not even to check the time, not even if she might be running behind. She will not open the door to let in even more cool air. She must stay warm by not running the fan, keeping the door closed, and tightening the large towel around her frail, thin body.
Isobel stands in front of the mirror. The mirror is clear. She sees herself and Seely. She stands to the farthest left of the crack she created in madness that grievous day. Seely tosses her hair back, like Cher. The long black mane still shiny and smooth despite being shampooed daily. Isobel had shared her insights gained from reading only the informative portions of fashion magazines on the best routines for healthy living.Don't wash your hair every day; do shampoo only once or twice a week to preserve that sheen.Isobel blinks rapidly and wipes the mirror. She sees only her image in the mirror now.
Isobel had taken down all the mirrors that Seely had placed in every room except for hers. She left the one up in her bedroom because it was proffered as a gift. Seely had given her one in the shape of an oval, dismissing Isobel's rendition of Borges and mirrors.Borges's writings repeat the symbols of labyrinths, libraries, and mirrors, among other objects. My favorite writer of all time. His stories speculate on the enigma of mirrors. He (or the other Borges, the literary one) wrote Borges & I. They shared a love (like I do) for hourglasses and the taste of coffee. Each one of us contains multitudes."Whatever," Seely had said, not out of rudeness, but out of frustration that she and Isobel did not always speak the same language. She thought Isobel disliked mirrors out of superstition or fear. She misunderstood.You thought it was silly to fear mirrors, and what is more, to imitate the thoughts and feelings of a beloved, but dead, author. I never said it was about fear. I cannot bear to see the mere reflection of an object rather than the thing itself. To see in a mirror is to see in darkness. Mirrors (or is it we?) are enigmas. Even if I had told you this, you would still shake your head and say that my resistance to mirrors is ridiculous. So much of who we are cannot be revealed through words.
Isobel looks up at the row of eight light bulbs and squints. The fourth bulb from the left has been blinking on and off now for weeks. She will not replace it when it completely burns out. Eight bulbs is exorbitant. She will wait till seven of the eight are completely depleted and leave in just one good bulb. She turns her back to the mirror, and lathers her eczema-riddled skin. The long, lighted mirror with two faucets and two sinks.Who needs two any longer when there is just me?
Seely died in a most generic fashion, from a most generic disease, as Isobel would describe it. Is it insensitive for Isobel to describe the death of her best friend this way? The only irony is that she died in the same hospital where she was born. Seely still had health coverage despite her divorce from her Navy retired husband older than her by 15 years. Famous for top-notch care, the hospital staff took good care of her until her death. As expected from cancer, all but a few sprigs of hair remained here and there. She died, as so many others do, slowly but with an array of drugs like morphine to lessen the pain and smoothen the transition. First, she withdrew inward, unable to make or maintain direct eye contact with anyone. Her eyes had appeared as described by many in contact with the dying, grey and vacant. Isobel frustratingly found that she could not describe that look any other way, especially because Isobel's eyes were naturally gray. She could not get herself to say, "Seely's eyes turned grey and empty" because "empty" would sound disingenuous. ‘Empty’ is nondescript. On the other hand, it would seem a monstrosity to stare long into eyes that appear vacant and void. Besides, the eyes of the dying wander, as if reflecting the restlessness of the dying human soul.
Then she fell into a coma. The doctors had warned this would happen. They had seen it numerous times. Then came the unnerving death rattle. Last breath. Why then does something expected, including the way a person dies, still carry an element of surprise? Isobel knew her friend was dying, for Seely's health declined rapidly once she discovered she had stage four lung cancer.I know this is happening, I know the inevitable, but why is this happening to someone who so very much wants to live?The trembling leg. Isobel had never read anywhere that this specific phenomena might be part of the process. The loss of hair, yes, but Seely's answer to the question, "How old are you" to test for cognition, now that the cancer had spread. Seely said, "I'm eleven." No article on the effects of cancer, no conversation with doctors prepared for "I'm eleven" as the answer.
The water is rushing from the showerhead hot. Isobel takes her showers early in the morning before work for the very purpose of enjoying the hottest shower possible. Seely used to make breakfast every morning while Isobel showered. She would do the dishes too. “Not while I’m showering, I told you!” Isobel would tell Seely. “I appreciate your thoughtfulness, trying to lighten my burden.” Always slow to waking. Not ready for the demands of another day.
The dermatologist had urged Isobel to shower in cool water because it is better for Eczema. Store bought hair dye instructs to wash hair with cool water to preserve the color longer. Isobel defies this advice, not out of spite, but because she finds hot showers soothing. The added bonus is that hot water steams the bathroom mirror that she cannot take down. She dabs moisturizer on her forehead now and spreads it over the rest of her face in circular motion. Her face appears in the fogged mirror like the blotch from Van Gogh’s paintbrush, indistinct, her hair a tint of silky brown chocolate, nipples specks of pink. Clock without a face. Few spaces of visual clarity fail to guide her lotioned hands over the rest of her body. The scaly, itchy, bumpy hairline sprouting soft bristles of hair. She clumsily applies sparse amounts to the parts of her back she can reach, one hand at a time. First, she moistens each shoulder blade, then tries to reach that spot between the shoulder blades. She pauses and feels the touch of a hand not her own. At the spot just short of an itch, or a bump, possibly another big zit that has materialized overnight. Seely’s fingers are rough. The ointment cool to the touch. Like this. What would I do without you?
The mirror is free of moisture now. And here Isobel stands alone, warm and naked. Skin dry and thirsty.Where did I leave off?
Isobel is taking a short shower because today is no shampoo hair day and because the water once again is lukewarm. In between shampoos, she uses the dry kind from an aerosol can, which Seely had pointed out contradicted Isobel's environmental concerns. Isobel drapes the towel over her back to catch water from the shower cap. The mirror is not fogged but still she lathers her body with lotion for sensitive skin not by sight but by touch. No fan on. She ignores her movements reflected in the mirror and guides her hands all over her body—face, chest and thighs, sans the ears.
In the kitchen, a boiled egg sits on the counter by the sink. Had she retrieved it from the refrigerator before jumping in the shower, to allow it to reach room temperature? Why can't she remember? You would think an errand of several succinct steps (open fridge, find Ziploc bag, close fridge, rinse egg, place on plate) would require conscious effort. But Isobel eats one boiled egg for breakfast every day; therefore, the routine makes conscious effort unnecessary. If only she had made mindfulness her daily practice as Seely had (so she claimed), then the careful, thoughtful acts of daily tasks like this would stick and prompt clarity of memory.
The dishwasher racks are drawn out. This is not the alarming thing, for Isobel has always used the dishwasher as a dish rack. So did Seely in fact; they both laughed when, through a You Tube video, they discovered that this was a common practice in Asian households of the kind they had both been raised in. What is alarming is that the dishes are warm to the touch, as if they have just been washed. Isobel pauses, reaches to open the refrigerator again, this time for the loaf of bread, but there sits one piece of toast right by the toaster, spread with peanut butter. The only thing missing is a ready-made pot of coffee. She had forgotten to prepare her daily coffee. The microwave clock blinks 6:05. She must leave by 6:45 to get to work on time. Don’t panic. All of this has an explanation.
For the next several minutes, Isobel reflects on the state of her kitchen, but more importantly, the implications. Has she withdrawn so much into herself that she is now completely absent-minded?The shower, the mirror, Seely and me.She should have gone to therapy immediately, but she knows what the therapist would say. Grief happens to each person differently.
Isobel rehearses what she will say when she gets home from work several hours later today; it will be about 5:15. She prepares for what she will say to Seely, should she appear. It doesn’t really matter whether or not the Seely that she sees is a figment of her imagination, or if the apparent contusions in her reality are manifestations of grief, guilt or a combination of things. Therapist advice she has read in the important parts of women's magazines would say:Go with whatever transpires in the stages of grief even if you suspect they are illusions of the conscience.
Call her crazy, but Isobel will thank Seely for the room temperature egg, the perfectly spread toast, and reaching the part of her back out of reach.
When Isobel steps in the front door and takes off her shoes, she notices the shoe rack is leaning to one side. Seely had reminded her to replace it. She had forgotten again. When she rises from the stool and puts on her house slippers, Seely moves toward her as natural as ever. Isobel thank Seely in words, just as she planned. Seely nods in the negative. Her mouth takes on various shapes but no sound comes out; the air outside of her lips twirls like the smoke from a cigarette, then she sucks it in. The eyes that speak are Seely's, grey and pleading. Isobel's heart sinks right down to her cold feet.
Faceless face of Starry Night. Hair long and black.Seely's face.She rubs her goose-pimply skin. Hesitant to wipe the moisture from just that part of the mirror that impossibly reflects. Relieved, she sees what she expects, puffy short brown curly hair that she has come to accept. She pumps lotion into her right hand, pumping with her left. Her mirror self stays still. She waves her right hand; mirror left hand covers her crotch. She waves her hand again and her mirror head jerks simultaneously. She touches the mirror face, but the mirror does not mimic. Her mirror body collapses and so does her body body.
Isobel, surprisingly, in all her knowledge of customs and culture, science and philosophy, was not aware of the various models of the broken mirror superstition "break a mirror, face seven years of bad luck," when she struck the bathroom mirror with the toothbrush glass the day of Seely's death. Even if she had been aware, such an irrational belief would not stop her from enacting such powerful emotion. Even though one variation says that mirrors hold the power to confiscate part of the user's soul, which might be one way to explain why sometimes she sees Seely's image in the mirror instead of her own. Or explain why the mirror fails to reflect the present reality of her actions and seems to go off on its own. Certainly, a broken mirror with the power, as the superstition goes, to trap the soul of the one who breaks it, can make that imprisoned soul behave in bizarre ways. The superstition continues: if one breaks a mirror, the bizarre mirror world traps not just one's soul, but a broken soul. Needless to say, Isobel has been more broken than broken since that day.
Isobel comes to. The floor feels warm. It reminds her of the trip they took together during one spring break to Seoul, Korea. She and Seely stayed two nights in aHanok, or traditional Korean home. The heat came from the floor. This so fascinated them both that they Googled it together at an Internet café. The traditional home uses the Ondol, a floor-based heated rock system. Natural raw materials do not cause pollution.You can move here to teach! We can. I'll move with you and freeload. Isobel almost said,like you do now.But she bit her tongue. It was okay that Seely was only sporadically employed after her divorce. Not college educated, she had waitressed, pet sat, used her car as a taxi. Not once did she ask for money or fail to pay her share. She may not have been good at holding down a job, but she was good at saving. Oblivious to the ridiculousness of remaining crumpled on the bathroom floor, Isobel reminisces about an irretrievable past.That's how it feels right now. Your mat next to mine. I didn't make a fuss over you invading my space. I stepped over your body to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. You did not stir at all. I used to say it was freaky how quiet a sleeper you were. Tempted to place a mirror close to your face while you were sleeping to make sure you were still breathing. Just in case.
Weeks go by and the steam-less showers, ready-made breakfasts, and incomprehensible greetings at the door have nearly become a daily routine. Isobel even tried to change things by washing the dishes after dinner rather than leaving them in the sink. Still, each morning, like this, she would find her chores complete. The same death dream recurs too, as if she is now stuck in a loop of nauseating redundancy.
I used to believe that dreams are magical or the stuff of oracles, based on the fictional narratives with which I filled my mind. And then I moved on to scientific and biological explanations. Dreams are only manifestations of what happens to us in the waking day, recycling the moments of our lives in a nonlinear way. Or the revelations of previously buried feelings or passions suppressed in the unconscious mind. But then why do I feel so guilty? I felt, feel guilty both inside and outside of the dream.
Isobel wonders whether the stuff of her dream is regretful or prophetic or both.
I almost fell into a pit of infinite depth, barely hanging on to the lip. You grabbed my hand. I pleaded with you; I shouted Let go! But you held on. I wanted so badly for you to let me go (to save yourself? to free me?) but you held on (infuriatingly). Then I woke up with wet eyes, still angry at your dismissal of my wishes. Did I really wish to fall into the endless pit? How did I get there? Did I fall or jump in? I don't remember, other than the feeling of being pulled down into a dark fathomless hole in the ground and liking it, you reaching your hand to grab mine. Guilt for putting you in that position of having to choose whether or not to "save" me? Here I go making this all about me. But isn't that what grief really is? About how the living go on?
Isobel does not yet realize, because she cannot see outside of her own experience, that all of this is about how the living and the dead go on.
Seely and Isobel stand in front of the mirror that they share. Neither of them has ever cared about taboos or proper etiquette when it comes to sharing space in preparation for the day.You're the sister I never wanted, Seely reminds Isobel. Isobel blinks stupidly, wiping the mirror with her hand.Silly, it's not even fogged.She expects Isobel to bark at her about running the hot water in the kitchen to wash the dishes left soaking in the sink all night.Well if you had done your job at washing the dishes—it was your turn after all, I wouldn't have had to wash with hot water in the first place.Seely looks at Isobel's dark green shower cap and laughs. One of the bulbs on Isobel's side of the mirror buzzes, the light sporadically blinking on and off.When are you going to replace that?she asks. She watches Isobel struggle once again to apply lotion to her back.Here, let me help you.She squeezes just enough acne medicine on to one finger, lightly dabs the pimple and then spreads richly. The feel of the bump makes her cringe, but she doesn't say so.What would you do without me?
Isobel has gone to work. Seely sits on the love seat. Small in comparison to the larger, longer couch situated against the longer wall. Their unspoken understanding of which of the two sofas belongs to whom. Seely automatically takes her place on the smaller couch, even though Isobel's couch will be free all day. Seely likes the coziness of leaning against the arm of the love seat with her feet propped up on the opposite arm. She drapes her cat's favorite velvety-soft blanket on her legs with a book on her lap. She cannot make out the title, which appears to be written in a foreign language. She allows Merry to jump on her lap for the fact that he cannot scratch or get toenails stuck in the blanket.
She dozes off,or something, and the commotion of the door startles; she sees Isobel enter. She looks at the clock—5:15 on the dot. Isobel is mumbling something as she fidgets with her keys and shoes. Seely moves closer but still cannot make out the words.Speak up she says,I can't understand you.But Isobel keeps mumbling. Though Seely cannot understand the words, she senses frustration. Then Isobel collapses, as if in slow motion, as if she were folding. Seely catches her and moves her to her couch. Sitting on the edge, she rubs Isobel's feet. Eventually, Isobel opens her eyes and looks at Seely with recognition, those last pair of eyes that caught her gaze before…
Seely pinches herself and feels it. She reaches to touch the miniature clock on the cabinet full of dolls and places it next to her ear. Hears the ticking. She remembers sequential time.Interpret time linearly. Dreams are not bound by time. This is not all a dream after all.She died in the recent past; The past has happened and here she is, in the present, with Isobel, where she is not supposed to be.Let me go.These were the last words she now remembers that she spoke. Before those last words, she could not grasp what was dream, what was hallucination or reality (her current reality at least). Once, while in a reverie of childhood, someone asked how old she was, she answered, “I’m eleven.” Only when asked this question was she rudely snapped back into present time, like now, catching the troubled look in Isobel's eyes. She thinks about all she did for Isobel today and for many days now, just as she used to do before she died, how good it feels to still feel needed, but at the same time how she feels stilted somehow. She wants to transmit her thoughts but she cannot in any ordinary human way.I died,she says to herself.I really did.She feels compelled to tell Isobel Stop yanking me around. So she does. Isobel's demeanor, the whole of it, the only possible means of communication conveys utter confusion and bewilderment.
Am I still human, just a dead one? I remember, I lay dying. I feel like I am still me, my experience of my body feels the same as when I was alive, sans the physical pain. I was deathly ill, yes, I remember. Yet I still feel as I did the last moments, wanting to linger just a little longer. But also wanting to slumber some more, indefinitely. Isobel has taken the mirrors down. I don't blame her. She had her reasons for hating mirrors.
She seemed to hate herself too. Yes, I remember. She still needs me, I can tell. She lets me, a ghost by all indications, touch the plagued parts of her skin that she cannot reach by herself.
Isobel has not always been consumed with the idea of suicide. The possibility of it, like most obsessions, as a viable escape has crept in over time. Vague feelings of torpor turned into boredom, which transformed, in broad strokes into impossible-to-live with anguish. Though afforded generous space, her brand of melancholy has its limits before it spreads itself into the kind of desperation that pushes one to take the plunge.
Isobel nearly did when Seely died. If Isobel could hardly stand her sense of reality (or unreality) before, the idea that she will never be able to sense the world as it really is—that reality is always filtered through our unreliable senses, then losing Seely has pushed her to the edge. Seely had been there from the day they met to make her laugh, to care for the daily tasks that sapped so much of her energy, to encourage her to look in the mirror and see what was there literally, in the moment, for what it was, without feeling the need to question its veracity.Live in the moment as much as you can.Butliving in the present is impossible, for in a Borgesian way, the present is always already the past, and living mindfully is far too draining.
Isobel is torn. As much as she has failed to let go, Seely's return stirs something troubling within her. Her glimpses of Seely leave her feeling physically exhausted, so that she catches herself collapsing often. She keeps all of this to herself, not even confiding in her parents, who had virtually adopted Seely into the family if not literally, then ceremonially. The two met in high school, and stayed close even when Seely foolishly married her first boyfriend, a fellow pinoy, straight out of high school. After the divorce when Seely was still in her 20’s, she moved in with Isobel. Her family still in the Philippines, she spent the holidays with Seely and her family, who cooked her favorite Filipino food like lumpia and pancit, or what Seely in her teasing manner liked to call Asian spaghetti. You're lucky to be a mutt, Isobel, really. I'm just straight up Filipino. With your exotic looks you can be very enticing, if you'd just put some effort into it.They admired each other for what the other had in the way of characteristics:You should grow your hair into an afro, I think, Isobel. I've always wanted long straight hair I could toss like Cher, Seely. And your eyes, are you sure you're not of mixed blood after all? I've never met a full-fledged Filipino with grey eyes. Let's buy wigs and colored contacts and be each other for Halloween! Seely and her energizing way kept Isobel going. Kept her interested enough to keep on going for another day.
Isobel has thought about asking Seely’s parents if they get visitations from Seely too. But she has decided against it. Besides the fact that they live far away, this feels far too personal, between just her and Seely alone. Not that she thinks post-death Seely cannot traverse vast oceans and distances. She is not sure, never has been, of what to believe when it comes to death. Seely’s visits always occur at home, and always when Isobel is alone, which is almost all the time now. No boyfriend, no other friends she feels close enough to for a trial run. Maybe Seely would appear to her with others around. Maybe she won't. Isobel doesn't care to find out.
Seeing pre-cancer Seely again is jarring to say the least. Besides the fact that she and Seely cannot communicate in any ordinary way. Isobel knows now that she is not crazy. That she in fact is being haunted by Seely or some form of her. She knows because of the literalness of the experience. The very real sensation of Seely's fingers, with which she is quite familiar. Which she has felt other than as ointment spreader. She recognizes the slightly rough texture of Seely's fingers from when they painted each other's nails. From rubbing each other's hands when they went camping overnight in the cold and forgot to bring gloves. With all her interests she never really got caught up in the nature of ghosts before, or had taken the matter too seriously beyond reading short stories with ghostly elements or watching paranormal movies from time to time. Only now that she is faced with the unnatural appearance of her supposed-to-be-dead best friend is she forced to accept their reality.
She should be excited really, for if the dead still linger in some configuration, then her wish has come true. She wished with all her power, with as much gumption as a child wishing away the monsters of the dark—no, harder—for Seely to survive. For, wasn't it Isobel who silently wished for death? She wished for, not the pain, but the promise of disappearance so she wouldn't have to feel anything anymore. Instead, like the cruel prank of an invisible hand, Seely, the one full of life had it sucked out of her. Seely, the one who should go on thriving and living because she was so very good at it. If there is any life-truth to her dreams of late, then Isobel feels guilty for even wanting to be free of life. Her dream, her unconscious manifested its desire to ask Seely to let her go because she hoped to leave this world real soon.
Excited is not quite right.If this ghost is really Seely, then post-cancer, post life Seely will not let me go. I know, because Seely is still my crutch, my life-saver. I still need you Seely. From the time I met you, I always have.
This isn't at all what she expected. Either you'd be purely an apparition or no one could distinguish you from the living but a select few (as in "I see dead people!). Clearly, Isobel sees her. Therefore the effort to communicate, the constant puzzlement. Isobel was the first to think of writing messages to communicate in lieu of failed speech. She wrote on one of the whiteboards she uses for tutoring her Pre-SAT prep students, but the writing might as well have been Egyptian hieroglyphs, for Seely could not make out any of it. If it was in English as it must have been, for Isobel is no linguist or archaeologist. It is as if the wiring in Seely's mind (if she still has one) has been crossed to block cognition of written or spoken language leaving her stuck with her thoughts alone. Isobel has even drawn pictures as a last ditch effort combined with gestures. Touching really, for all her talents, drawing is not one of them. But the drawings do not tell Seely anything she doesn’t already know or remember—that Merry the male cat chases Tigger the female, to bite her in the butt, still fierce and semi-feral. At least this is how Seely interpreted the two stick figures before Isobel maddeningly erased to replace with long haired stick figure: Long haired stick figure lying down, arrow, long haired stick figure stands. Followed by gesture of the hand pointing to Isobel’s head.I know. You can't hear me Isobel, but what I'm trying to tell you is I don't know why I'm here either. I'm just as confused as you are.
Seely tried her post-death hand at writing too, only to be disheartened further. She cannot read, write, nor dream. Perhaps this is part of her punishment. Had she done something in life to be compelled to become a mere redundancy? Seely has grown weary. Linear time has bent into a circular web, trapping her in the consistency of repetition. She slumbers fitfully, she knows not where, suspended in a pillow of darkness without dream and wakes to find herself in the same place every morning, preparing Isobel’s breakfast with no desire to partake herself. She props herself on her loveseat, rubs Merry’s chin, and waits for Isobel’s return fitfully. Rinse, recycle, repeat.
She tries to will herself out of here. Or will herself somewhere else, her childhood home in the Philippines, where she lived until she was five. Perhaps she fails because her memory is vague and incomplete. She envisions returning for a brief visit to her ex-husband, but that fails too. Maybe because he has a new girlfriend and the invisible hand in this puppet show looks out only for the living. Cannot be troubled with the desires of the dead who've outlived their expiration date.
Seely is torn. She extends her friendship as she always did. She serves as a buffer between Isobel and her despair; but only the broken need crutches, and even
Seely cannot fix what makes Isobel broken in the first place. Only Isobel can do this. Besides, Seely’s life had been made rich by more than just Isobel’s friendship. This loop she is caught with Isobel cannot even be called a true friendship. Not the kind of friendship they once shared. Now, whatever they have tips disproportionately in favor of Isobel’s needs.That's it. I'm here for Isobel's needs. Isobel didn't and doesn't need Seely's writing. She doesn't need to hear a recount of Seely's dreams. Yet, maybe Seely can stop this. Stop setting out breakfast, washing the dishes, turning off the alarm clock when Isobel in her forgetfulness jumps in the shower before shutting it off. And yet…part of her still thrives in caring for the needs of others.I’m tired, but Isobel still needs me. I see the crack in the bathroom mirror. My collection of mirrors still stowed in the closet and on the topmost kitchen shelves. She plans on putting them back up, I’m sure, in my honor. She hasn’t given Merry away, something I worried she would do after I was gone. I see the way she tilts her head back teasingly the way I did with my Cher imitations, when she thinks no one sees.
In the shower, Isobel tries a thought experiment. She decides she will try mindfulness, even though she used to resist; Seely insisted on the positivity of a practice the effects of which Isobel considered too shrouded in mystery. Concentrate on what is happening right this moment rather than letting your mind wander everywhere else. Isobel closes her eyes under the stream of warm water.
I am still here and I shouldn't be. I should be somewhere else. I know this because we cannot speak to each other. For all intense purposes, we are mute. This means something. Isobel calls me here not through words but by her very demeanor, utterly melancholy and sad, unable or unwilling to let go. Let me go. Stop washing the dishes. Don’t prepare breakfast. I'll let her do own duties. I'll leave her alone.
Isobel gets herself to truly feel the flow and temperature of the water as it cascades against her skin. Subtle change to warmer and warmer, now hot, just enough. Now that the water strikes just the right temperature, other thoughts distract her.If dreams are something more than random reenactments of the moments of our lives, whether banal or special; if they are revelations of something very human, deeper than base needs, then I'd call them something other than revelations. I'd call them obscurities, inducers of mystery. It is what it is, Seely used to say. Seely, funny name. I asked when I met you, "What's your real name?" You said, with your nose scrunched and eyes narrowed, that is my real name! Not short for Priscilla? A variation on Shelly? No, don’t be silly! Why can't Filipinos have interesting names other than Remedios, Teresita, or Isobel for that matter! Silly Seely. It is what it is. I am who I am. Accept the mystery and try not to read too much into it. Enjoy the moment. Back to the moment.
You know how the dead haunt the living? That is only half the story. The living also haunt the dead. The living and the dead haunt each other when they refuse to let each other go. They refuse to give each other up as if death were something to negotiate. But as it goes, every story has an end and a beginning. Just when their story was just about up, they both got stuck. Blinded by irrational guilt, need and grief, neither could see her way to the end of their story.
Once they give each other up, each can go on…Isobel, to the next stage of her life, whatever that may be. Seely, to the next realm, what the ancients have called in the most prosaic of terms (for lack of awareness or just the right words) life after death, heaven, hell, or the hereafter, maybe even everlasting sleep. Whatever the case, not bound to the middle, limbo, or the in-between of neither here nor there. Isobel only knows that the ghost of Seely has stopped haunting or helping her. Though she still misses Seely, she no longer feels utterly helpless or the blinding grief she had felt initially, nor the guilt that plagues those who feel unjustified in continuing to live beyond the death of their loved one. She lives differently.
From time to time, of course, Isobel will think of Seely. She will see Seely, among others who have traversed her path, but not in the mirror. She will see neither clearly nor lucidly, not in the present reality. When her eyes are open, her mind sometimes wanders inward to bask in the treasure box of memory.
The Garden of Adonis
Death came suddenly to the Garden of Adonis. His brother sleep had passed through the ivory gates not long before, and he had set Ares off his guard, obscuring his mind with thoughts as flighty and purposeless as the gossamer bed sheets in which he and Aphrodite lay tangled, at the very center of another man’s garden, the pivot of passion around which the whole earth spun. Ares leaned up on one elbow, watching Aphrodite skin an apple with her teeth, admiring the way the little curls of crimson fell like rose petals across her stainless breast and thinking that one or two rough kisses to complete the mirage might not be out of place when Aphrodite’s eyes rolled back in her head. She shook against him, a mockery of their usual rhythm, and then slipped from the bed to crumple against the marble dais of her unwalled bedroom, one leg trapped beneath Ares at the edge of the pallet.
Ares watched her without moving. He did not worry because there was nothing to worry about. The lifetimes of men fell away in that silence, and until the garden began to die around him Ares did not move, watching Aphrodite on her back and waiting for the goddess to wake, or to resume breathing. A goddess could hold her breath for a very long time.
When the tree whose branches had always sheltered their bed lost its leaves for the first time, its deep roots parched by the decay of Aphrodite’s love in the soil, Ares eased himself to the edge of the bed and let Aphrodite’s leg fall away from him. Though he was god of war and fire, his blood ran cold at the hollow shudder of her unblemished thigh sliding down to join the rest of her on the deep white floor. He called her name but could not wake her. He touched her but her skin was cold—the only time Aphrodite’s heart had not been racing since she’d first emerged from Poseidon’s waves, unquenched and lustful from her first breath.
Ares fled the dying garden and returned in the company of the entire host of Olympus. Shoulder to shoulder the gods and goddesses formed up around Aphrodite, each one passing awed fingers over the stillness of her chest. Asclepius had brought medicine into the garden, and only he could proclaim what had already been true for centuries: Beauty was dead.
The gods did not understand death. They knew what death was, but only in the sense that they knew what erosion was, what growing old was. It had nothing to do with them.
The gods separated to search for Aphrodite. Hades and Persephone returned to the shores of the roiling Styx and searched for her across the Elysian Fields, and then, with consternation, among the sinners in the bowels of Hell. Hades set Odysseus to calling her name in the long passages that connected the living world and the realm of the dead. Persephone caught her reflection in the pool of Tantalus and was astonished to find a streak of gray nestled into her deep brown hair.
Aphrodite was not in Hell. She was not in Elysia. She was not anywhere. She had ceased.
The notion of nonexistence had never occurred to the gods, and it ignited in them a frenzy that could not be quenched. Zeus refused to believe, and in his disbelief he roamed the world searching for Aphrodite, ravaging the wild shores with the fury of the storm. Demeter tore the earth to pieces to get to Persephone in fear for her daughter, seated so close to the hordes of the dead, and the earth knew no seasons until she had torn her fingernails away. In the shadows of columns that had long since begun to crumble, among marble shards like teeth or broken shells, wise Athena turned her eyes to the stars, which she had counted now and then for practice, always arriving at more or less the same number, and understood for the first time that stars died, and though new ones were born, and the count remained the same, the holes in space stayed empty, the distant songs of old light the only funerary for burnt-out gods.
What was a god who wasn’t immortal? Only a man with the power to destroy anything, to live long enough to lose everything he loved. Eternity without beauty was an ugly garden, more thorn than rose. And because she was the only one wise enough to see what was coming, Athena wondered if her death would come like Aphrodite’s, a swift supernova, or if gods could also decay, like isotopes, until they were just old stains on the fabric of the world, a worn patch that wanted weaving.
One by one, the old gods caved in, turning their shoulders to the world that was suddenly cold and uncanny, a broken ground too sharp under divine feet.
Hera to the birds, a flare of feathers brilliant as gold in the late light.
Demeter to the trees, the ripple of irate wind in burnished red leaves.
Persephone wasted away to bone, a bored skeleton reposing in Hell’s second throne.
Ares surrendered to the sea. His ember limbs hissed in the froth of the waves as he churned in the water, looking for the place Aphrodite first came to be, a tiny cluster of skin cells sloughed off and shining like a pearl under the sand.
Zeus watched them vanish one by one. The thunder unbound him until he was just a spark in a key, a socket, a contact wire in a glass bulb. Out the windows of airplanes, the descendents of demigods perceived the withered carcass of the father: a galaxy of electric lights seeping across the dark face of the sleeping world, calling for the rebirth of Beauty.
flash fiction by Michelle Dotter
poetry by Suke Cody
Everybody is dying.
Your mother, my father, that
writer guy who
won the major-league prize when
all the prizes were white-people prizes
while remaining stubbornly
black. Decades past I
served him eggs over-easy, pale
butter-toast and coffee with cream at the
local diner where
man-of-the-people politicians still
chew overdone burgers and greasy fries and
slurp milkshakes spun with
slices of apple pie and press flesh with
the Midwestern salt-of-the-earth
kiss fat corn-fed Midwestern babies—the
place that one guy
that kid’s-party clown guy
with the dead brother, he used to own it, but
this Chinese millionaire calls
the shots now, passes out
crisp five-dollar bills to the wait staff
like god dispensing manna.
Everybody who is not dead is busy dying,
and attending memorial services at the local
independent theatre, and organizing arts
festivals featuring John Waters,
and writing clever reviews of locally
produced beers, and dying.
Including Bob Dylan, and my
elderly neighbor who bikes out every
morning at 5 a.m. and spins home some hours
later to mow his lawn
and my lawn
and the grassy lawn-circle in the middle of the
cul-de-sac and I watch him
through my kitchen window only half-guilty.
It’s a very small lawn.
Very busy dying.
Withdrawing a foil from the scabbard I salute, attack, and retreat from my imaginary opponent. Parry, lunge…. I’m hit. I fall….
...Rizzo here rises, gazes around the theater, removes a helmet, and salutes.
Sounds of delight, followed by light clapping, as the curtain falls on the one-hundredth Wednesday performance at the Off-Off-Broadway, New School Improv Playhouse.
Performers return for a curtain call. Performers and normies. They have multiple identities. In their eyes, we have only one. The normies give a standing ovation.
Our special van arrives. We, too, return to friends, families, jobs, schools….
‘All the world’s a stage and….’
micro fiction by Don L. Robishaw
I saw Alex’s mother at the grocery store and she invited me to coffee the next day at the Starbucks in Burnstown. She’s old now, pushing seventy and still in a tie dye broomstick skirt I recognized from back when I was a teen. She’s a little less bright than she used to be, but still shiny. Like a hall mirror going darker with dirt and time. I feel myself getting that way too, older and further away from the people I used to be. As I dressed to meet her I felt the shame of choices I didn’t make creep up my throat.
“If anyone would have told me that between the two of you, he’d be the one to marry a good man and move to Bentonville to work for the Waltons, I’d’ve called bullshit.”
I stirred my coffee and nodded into the cup.
“I always thought it would be you to choose that kind of life, but I’m glad for what you did choose. You look well and I know you’re a good mama.” She hunched her shoulders, leaned in across the small table, “You know post-divorce is a good time to go get yours. Anybody from your past popping up yet?”
I smiled at her, told her about the all the old flames who sent me messages on social media. Then she asked the question I didn’t want to hear. Three words and the weight of them like an anvil coming right down on me.
“What about Judah?”
I shook my head and changed the subject. She said it in an even tone, threw it away like it was nothing, but when I climbed in bed that night, it was waiting for me. I whispered it to the low, white ceiling above my bed, shifting the emphasis of the cool, round syllables. What about Judah, then what about Judah, then what about Judah.
If I’m honest, I spent a good portion of my marriage thinking about him. I made a choice one too-hot September afternoon under a grove of pecan trees, and I spent all this time wondering if it was wrong. My boyfriend, now my ex-husband, was playing a gig with his band over in the Burnstown city square that night. We were eighteen and about to be engaged. It was before I understood what it meant to be someone’s wife.
Judah appeared like magic, leaner and taller than I remembered. He hated town events, called them Parades of Hypocrisy. I was surprised to see him. It had been a little over a year since he’d shattered me with our breakup. He’d been the model boyfriend. A boy wonder math genius two years younger than I was. Tall and angular with hair like haystacks. Feline jawbone and steady green eyes flecked with gold making him more like a lion than a boy. Romantic and devoted in ways I still struggle to understand, but a fan of pills and marijuana too. The pills and weed built the mystique of him, and everyone gave him sidelong glances over it.
I had a bit of a reputation of my own back in the day. I was among the smartest in my class, a model citizen at school, president of five clubs my senior year. But from the time I was fourteen my after school activities included various kinds of sex mostly with partners far too old for me, and it’s hard to keep a double life secret in a town of three thousand. Dedham is the death of secrets.
I never dated boys my own age, partly because they found me intimidating and partly out of a desire to protect their innocence. I had a wildness and hunger that I didn’t want to infect them with. A near-constant desire to have hot flesh pushed up against me. I especially did not date anyone younger than myself.
Judah was different. He was the most extraordinary person I’d ever met. Creative and brilliant and odd enough to be the same kind of outsider I was. He became my best friend quickly, and the best boyfriend I ever had shortly after that. People said, “Y’all are soulmates.”
I didn’t believe in soulmates. Still don’t. But I thought twice about it over the eight months we were together.
When he broke my heart I spent weeks crying into Alex’s shoulder, sitting at Alex’s mother’s kitchen table crying some more. Alex knew what the breakup was over, but I made a lie to offer everyone else. Judah broke my heart because I took his virginity. Though he loved substances, religious shame from a troubled childhood seeped in when it came to pleasures of the flesh. He told me he didn’t need another demon. Judah left me lonely, ashamed of things I’d never been ashamed of before. Back then I never thought about how lonely Alex must have been, the only young gay man in the whole town. In some ways that pulse of loneliness in our teen years drew us deeper into a friendship that had already spanned most of our lives. We spent a lot of time being lonely together. Then one day I finally cried Judah out of my system, or that’s what I thought in the moment, anyway. I picked myself up, had a few one night stands, fell into a real relationship with a greasy twenty-six-year-old vegan punk rocker, and graduated from high school.
I met Harold six months into that relationship. He walked into our freshman level history class with deep brown curls under an orange bandana that had tiny yellow flowers on it. I wanted him, so I took him. Mr. 26-year-old Vegan Punk Rocker was unceremoniously dumped and Harold, Alex, and I moved my stuff out of the tiny apartment we had shared in the middle of the night while he was heading back from a Weezer show in Missouri.
Back then I swore Harold was Judah’s opposite: shorter, bearded, stocky, face surrounded by browns in place of Judah’s golden hues. Unbelievable musician, but terrible at math. Harold grew from an average middle-class family, the kind of family who reveres the generations their people held plantations, while Judah lived in government housing with his former-sexpot mom. Harold’s half-hearted Catholicism to Judah’s unhinged backwoods nondenominational Christianity.See?I said to myself, They’re nothing alike.
But when Harold and I were together, people said, “Y’all are soulmates,” and deep down I knew everything I loved about him was separated by a thin filament from everything I’d loved about Judah. They were not opposites, but mirrors. I told myself I just had a type, but I wondered if that type had come to be because I’d loved Judah. Did I ever really believe Harold was my soulmate? Well, no. Of course not. At least that’s how I see it now.
Under the pecan trees that day, Judah told me he’d heard I worked at the coffee shop in Fort Smith and he’d hoped to catch me there. Another boy from our town had already told me that, but I nodded like I didn’t know, said I was sorry I’d missed him. His green eyes focused on mine, made me feel whole the way they had the year before, and I could not walk away. I wanted to, but I couldn’t.
“How’s school?” he asked.
“I’m thinking of dropping out. I can’t decide what I want to do.”
“That would be incredibly stupid.”
“You don’t get to say that to me,” I shot back at him.
“I’m sorry. I just meant you’re too smart—you should have gone off somewhere to school . MIT like we—you always planned.”
“I’ve got siblings to look after. I can’t do that from Massachusetts,” I turned to walk away.
“Marianne, I was hoping to tell you . . .” he paused and I turned to face him.
“It’s okay. We’re cool. Everything worked out for the best,” I told him.
He smiled sadly and took a deep breath, “I wanted to tell you that you deserve everything. You deserve everything that makes you happy. . .” he paused then, and I felt my face go red. “I—no . . .” He looked at the ground too late. I had already seen on his face what he meant. “You deserve to have everything you want. I’ve been waiting months to tell you that. Half a year.”
In that moment I knew I could walk to him and tell him that I wanted him. I could make the choice to have him again. But Harold arrived before I could speak, his deep brow set in a scowl.
In the car on the way home, Harold was more jealous than anyone I’d ever encountered, and he was mean about it too. I was still young enough to think that was romantic. Though we’d only been together a few months, he proposed the next day and I accepted. Looking back I think he never would have done it if I hadn’t gone off to talk to Judah.
It was like Judah’s shadow slid into the car on that hot September night, and it followed us. It followed when we married a few months later. It lurked in the hallway of our first small apartment. It stood in the bathroom doorway when I had my first miscarriage. It was with me when I dropped out of college because my young marriage was already falling apart. It followed us when we brought our baby boy home from the hospital the year after that. Anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, I thought of Judah. I wrapped my legs around my husband and thought of Judah. For a decade.
Harold had his own shadows. A girl named April, rum, and a sadness that clung to him like a grease stain.
The affair that ended my marriage was mine, with a man I met when I went back to school in my late twenties. It lasted several months and I didn’t even like him. But he had hair like haystacks and it was close enough to the real thing. The worst part is that Harold had gotten over that initial jealousy. After our second child was born he complained about the weight the pregnancies had put on me, but he never got jealous again. I’m not saying he was a good husband. He never kept steady work. He never took care of the boys. But the hardest truth is this: I was bored with my life so I had an affair.
Even now, five years after our divorce, I think I should have chosen Judah under those trees. Judah who cared if I graduated from college. Judah who thought I should have what I wanted.
Seventeen years apart from that evening under the trees, and one small chain of events stands at the center of my life. Almost exactly the median of my days, between my birth and these thirty-four years I’ve lived so far. It starts with the moment when Judah showed up after the fall formal in jeans and a tee shirt, waiting at the huge double doors for me to come out. Rain pouring little rivers down his face. A memory in dreary tones, the dark soft focus of a youth I lost too soon. He said, “I was bored. I came to see if you wanted to go back to my house and talk.” My date that night was my best friend Alex. He kissed my cheek and told me to go. I remember how those who didn’t know us thought it was odd that Alex let me go. People thought he was probably gay, but it wasn’t until that chaste kiss that anyone was sure. The grass was a thin sheet over inches of mud made by those torrential autumn storms, and when I took Judah’s hand to step out onto it, my heels sunk. Something ridiculous happened then. Something out of a movie, a scene that I’d roll my eyes at now. Judah, who towered over me but probably weighed less than my tall, muscular body allowed, leaned down and picked me up. He carried me to my truck, in the rain, with Alex and the rest of the high school seniors of Dedham High clapping in the background. He set me down and whispered “Should we give them more to talk about?” I pulled back and threw him against the driver’s side door, kissing him like I’d kissed a hundred men, but making him feel like he was the only one.
When I pull these things apart, when I look under the skin of my ten year failure, I see those romantic moments that continued to flicker across the back of my mind. And now, at thirty-four, I think of how much life I wasted waiting on anything that compared.
I never forgot, not for a moment, that Judah broke up with me because we slept together after months and months of foreplay. He thought demons came into him that night. I always wondered why sex demons were worse than the ones already crawling all over him.
When I went to Alex’s mother to tell her I was engaged to Harold, she was surprised. I was surprised when it wasn’t because of my age. But then again, most Dedham girls were married by twenty.
“You know I love Mr. Douglas. He’s my best friend and a great husband. I mean that. But Marianne, when I was young I loved another man,” she twisted her hand in her long paisley skirt and then turned her eyes back to me, “If that man came to my door and asked me to run away with him, I’m not absolutely sure that I wouldn’t pack my bags and go. I don’t want that to happen to you. I think Judah might be that man for you someday, honey, but if you say you love this new Harold like you loved Judah, I’ll believe you.”
“I’m really happy, Mrs. Douglas. Believe me,” I smiled my best smile, the one I think means I’m not lying.
“Just be careful you don’t have your soul tied up somewhere else.”
I came to wonder if she was right, if I did have my soul tied up somewhere else. I had dreams about it. Judah showing up in the doorway of the three bedroom brick house we owned when I was still married. It was always raining in the dream, and Judah never said anything. He just held out his hand, and I never hesitated. I took his hand and we disappeared. Faded into the rain like fog.
I still wonder if it wasn’t the shadow of some great love that followed me all those years, but instead the fleeing of little bits of my soul on their way to find all we’d lost. Sometimes it does feel like a part of me has gotten smaller, stretched thin by the dissonance between what I wanted and what I chose. Some days it feels like Judah could whisper my name from halfway across the world and I’d hear it. Most days it seems like Judah was a movie I never stayed to finish. A goodness I could never keep. A want that still burns inside me.
II. All They’d Lost
She was with her children when she saw him again. There he was, in the corner booth of the Dedham Whole Hawg, eating much like any stranger or polite acquaintance would. In total ignorance of her presence there. In her weaker moments, she thought if they met again there’d be a current in the room. Not enough to lift her feet from the grass like before, but enough that he’d lift his still-blond head and know, somehow, that she was standing there. The defining moment in the movie she never finished. The moment when everything changes.
She looked at her sons. Teddy was dutifully staring at his phone, as fourteen-year-olds were wont to do. Tyler, fresh from his eighth birthday, was admiring the cinnamon rolls in the case. Judah sat in the corner booth, even thinner than he’d been all those years ago. Too thin. Long face a mask set above sinewy long neck over collarbone jutting out like a small bluff. He was refugee camp thin. Gaunt eyes looking out from a history book. Meth thin. Another good boy lost in the sea of skeletons.
Someone said he’d been out in the Oklahoma panhandle, but she hadn’t heard he’d come back to the county. She paid for the two pies she’d ordered, slipped out the door with her sons, and headed over to her grandmother’s house for the family dinner. She found her sister leaned against the storage building, smoking a cigarette and watching her niece jump on the trampoline.
“Can I have one?”
“Thought you quit,” Tessa replied, handing her the pack.
“Did you know Judah was back in town?” Marianne asked.
“Yeah, dumbass, Judah Moore.”
“Of course I did, why?”
Marianne looked at the ground, wishing she’d dropped off the boys and called Alex instead. Tessa’s wide brown eyes grew huge in her face.
“Oh shit. Y’all used to date, huh?”
“Yeah,” she said, thinking that the word wasn’t enough.Date. It sounded so small.
“Well, you’ll see him Sunday at Aurora’s birthday party.”
“Why the fuck did you invite him to Aurora’s birthday party?”
“Oh shit. You’re really upset.”
“No, I’m fine. Sorry,” Marianne took a deep drag of her cigarette and broke into a coughing fit.
Tessa patted her back, “Slow down, slick. I didn’t realize it meant that much to you.”
“I didn’t either.” It might not have been the truth, but Marianne’s little sister was a heart-breaking badass, a woman who left a wake of a thousand shattered men, and she didn’t want to lose face or weep before the pie was served.
“You might need to sit down for this next part,” Tessa said.
Marianne nodded, but didn’t sit.
“You remember Ryan’s mom, Aggie?”
Ryan was Aurora’s father, a beautiful country boy who turned out to have a pretty intense drug selling habit. His mother was worse. Marianne nodded.
“Judah has been back for two years. Living with Aggie.”
Marianne let the information wash over her. It nearly swept her off her feet. Aggie was so old. Old enough to be Judah’s mother.
From the trampoline, Aurora began wailing. Tessa walked away, called over her shoulder, “You better get your shit together, sis. Your niece calls him Papa Judah now.”
Marianne finished her cigarette, thinking of the boy with hair like haystacks.
On Sunday Marianne wore her best dress, the kind of garden party dress that looked even better with a petticoat. The dress was a deep plum that complimented her dark eyes, the same color she’d worn on the first night she’d kissed Judah. She swept the same shade over her eyelids and glazed her lips in a pale pink. She twisted her hair into a knot, took it down, braided it, and arrived with it flowing around her shoulders.
Teddy went off to sit on a bench away from his young cousins, and Tyler laid their gift for Aurora on a picnic table and went off to swing with the birthday girl. Marianne scanned the park for Aggie and Judah, but they had not arrived. She helped Tessa with the decorations, carefully taping down the plastic tablecloth and setting the water bottles in perfectly straight lines. After it was all done, she asked Tessa for another cigarette. Tessa obliged, but rolled her eyes. Marianne decided to buy a pack on the way home.
Aggie and Judah arrived, Judah’s arm wrapped around her waist. They approached the table, their gift for Aurora in a grocery store sack twisting around Judah’s finger. Aggie hugged Tessa, Tessa’s thick, strong arms obscuring the bones in Aggie’s back, which showed through the cut out in her thin shirt. Judah locked eyes with Marianne and nodded in greeting. A thrill went down her spine. His flesh may have gone down to bone and aged beyond his years, but those steady green eyes were still exactly the same. Here he was, her boy, a grown man in a tattered, oversized tee shirt. Standing, again, under treetops.
Tessa hugged Judah next, and Marianne greeted Aggie, somehow jealous of the touch her sister was receiving. When Aggie wandered off to find her granddaughter, Judah stayed.
Tessa suddenly made herself busy transporting presents to a picnic table halfway across the small park, and Marianne was alone with Judah.
“So . . .” she began.
“Heard you’ve done well . . .” Judah spoke over her.
Instead of giggling like they might have when they were younger, they both looked at the ground. Marianne’s face went bright red.
“You want some water?” Marianne asked to cover her embarrassment.
“I can reach the water,” Judah smiled, the stretch of his skin wrinkling beyond his age in that posture.
“So . . . what are you up to these days?” Marianne asked.
“Oh, this and that. I hear you’re the branch manager over at the bank.”
“I am,” Marianne replied.
“And you got two boys.”
Marianne nodded. “I’m sorry, I don’t really know what you’ve been up to. I didn’t even know you were back in town until. . . ”
“Until you went to pick up the pies the other day.”
“I saw you. I didn’t know if you’d want to talk to me, so I didn’t want to make it all awkward in front of your boys.”
“You saw me?”
Judah leaned in, collapsing the world around them until Tessa’s loud laughter from ten feet away seemed to disappear. Marianne nearly gasped when he smelled like he always had—marijuana and Old Spice.
“I’ll always see you. I can still feel it when you’re in the room.”
Marianne’s face flushed again.
Aggie approached then, wrapping her arm around Judah’s waist.
“You two catching up?” Aggie asked, good-naturedly.
Judah nodded, “It’s been a long time. I was just asking if my old friend got everything she ever wanted.”
Marianne smiled her best smile for Aggie, “I told him no one gets everything they wanted.”
“Girl, ain’t that the truth. We can get pretty close, though, cain’t we?” Aggie stood on her tiptoes and planted a kiss on Judah’s cheek. He stared through Marianne as she did it.
Marianne did buy a pack of cigarettes on her way home. She smoked five after her boys went to bed, sitting on her front porch among the herbs, thinking about how sad Judah’s life had become. She hoped he’d turn it around. She hoped he was happy. She hoped he’d move back to the panhandle and she’d never have to see him again. When her phone rang at two a.m., she answered even though she didn’t know the number.
“I’m sorry. I thought you would be asleep. Same number since high school, huh?”
Marianne drew a deep breath. “You remembered my number?”
“I remember all your numbers,” Judah said. “Anyway I didn’t mean to wake you. I was going to leave a voicemail, see if you wanted to grab a coffee sometime?”
Marianne let the silence hang for a moment, imagined walking into the Burnstown Starbucks with Judah, her bright boy who always smelled of marijuana and Old Spice. His face. His beautiful face. The image changed before her, hair like haystacks over that obvious skull. A ratty shirt with a junk store jacket thrown over it, dirty jeans too big for his too-thin frame. She let out a sigh.
“This silence feels like a death, Marianne.” His voice pulled back the image and she wanted to say yes so badly she could feel it burning her throat.
There was temptation there, to clean him up. To save him. But the image came back when he didn’t speak, and the thought of being in public with him . . . people would think he was homeless. He wore a hard life stretched in his skin, and she couldn’t stop seeing the ruin. And there was something deeper, too. Could she afford to sink her whole big life into his salvation?
“I’m sorry, Judah. I can’t.”
“Alright, I knew it was a long shot.”
“I just—I can’t. I’m so sorry. I have to go. Work tomorrow.”
“Okay.” She remembered the way he went still when he couldn’t face something. The night be broke her heart, that stillness she couldn’t stand. He was so animated, so much a fidgeting energy, but she felt him go still across the line.
“It was really good to see you again, Judah. I mean that. You have a good night, okay?”
“Marianne—wait . . .”
She waited, though the quiet stretched a beat too long.
“Did . . . I mean, I know you didn’t get everything you wanted, but are you happy? Are you happy in your life?”
She did not hesitate. “No, I’m not.”
“Are you at least satisfied?” She remembered him in a copse of trees that seemed a life apart. Judah saying she should have what she wanted.
“Mostly.” She smiled then, smiled at that telling of a hard-won truth, and said her goodbyes.
When she finally fell back asleep she dreamt him standing at her front door, a dream just like the one she had had a million times before, this time with a change to the ending. Instead of taking his hand, she looked into his steady eyes and watched as he disappeared into the rain like fog. He never said a word in the dream, and by Aurora’s next birthday, he was dead.
When I think of her I think of dimensions. I used to keep her senior picture hidden in my wallet. I marked it up to figure her ratios so I could memorize her in digits.
Approximately 1.62. The number as elemental human need. Top of head to pupil. Width of nose. Nosetip to chin. The golden ratio of attraction. Her face is nearly ideal. The nose is slightly too wide, but her eyes are mathematically perfect. When I dream her, I see her face in equations, her laughter in visible rounds of spiral. Up and up it winds and into trees and running through the spirals of leaves and their little breathing mouths. Spiral on spiral on perfect golden ratio, macro- and microcosm of her and us and feeding into itself. Into ourselves. When she speaks it’s the number. “1.61803398875,” she says. Forever and ever in the dream. Her lips twisting a half-smile as she says it. I carry her through the rain a hundred years a night and she never says anything but the number. The number over and over again and never my name. The number and a spinning laugh dancing on treetops.
When I met her husband I wondered if he dreamt her in sounds. I know people who know him now. He’s the best blues guitarist in the county, they say. I wonder where he puts her mouth on the fret board, what lonely sound the bridge of her nose makes.
I memorized pi to the one hundred and seventy fifth digit when I knew her best. Thought it was the perfect number. I still think it sometimes. Smoke up. Write it out on the walls in chalk. Aggie wipes it off. I feel the loss then, a burning ache like she’s dead. It stings my eyes. I ask Aggie why she did that and she says I’m too crazy about numbers and asks why I don’t pay more attention to our life together.
After the park I write her on the wall in numbers, in marker this time. Close my eyes and see her face in living color. Remember her in centimeters. The only portrait I can make. 1.76 for her nose and the span of her face. 1.67 for lips to chin. Innerocular distance as compared to width of eyes, 1.61803398875.
A Triptych in Trees
short fiction by Jessica B. Weisenfels
What Kids Are Scared Of
The Elvis’s wig itched and smelled moldy as Artie slapped glue on it and palmed it onto place atop his bald head. He swung open the dented door of his Dodge Caravan, slammed a few pills, slung a string-less guitar over his shoulder and tried to process the decibels from a party of six-year olds around the back of the white house. “God knows I need the money,” he thought. “No need to mention a cash job to the ex.”
“Thanks for coming,” Mr. Gladsphere said, pumping Artie’s hand, placing three fifty dollar bills in them. “Glad you work on short notice.”
“Better that the clown wasn’t available,” Artie said. “A lot of kids are scared of them.”
“Let’s go,” Gladsphere urged as Artie tried to walk faster, his white leather pants croaking against his large thighs. Did his wife leave him because of his large thighs? Did he lose his job because of them?
“Where’s the clown?” Gladsphere’s son Jimmy cried, when they arrived out back.
“Oh, it’s the fat Elvis,” great aunt Ginny said, adding one more to Jimmy’s complaint while staring at Artie; close enough for him to notice the booze on her breath; her the booze on his. “I’m still a fan,” she laughed at her own come on.
At Showtime, Jimmy’s mother gave him the less than Vegas introduction but presented him as a special guest. The kids were silent, checking him out head to toe as if he were an alien, his large pant bells stiff as a board, and rhinestones twinkling like miniature burning bright headlights but certainly not like stars—never like stars. Artie was now The King.
Sweat rolled down Artie’s chest like streams of rain against a window and then he jerked to life as the music began, “WELL, IT’S ONE FOR THE MONEY…TWO FOR THE SHOW…,” he sang, and gyrated.
When “Blue Suede Shoes” ended, the Gladsphere’s looked at each other, and Ginny’s enraptured squeal was all the praise that rained. The children asked what Artie’s name was.
“I am The King,” he said. “You wanted The Clown but I am a king!” he said.
“I want a balloon elephant,” Jimmy said.
“How about another song instead?” Artie asked in a southern accent; a Southern Jersey accent.
“I want an Indian headdress,” some kid said. “A balloon one.”
“Devil in Disguise?”
“A dog, a swan, a sword!” They all yelled at once.
Sprouting from the sleeve of Arties’s white leather jacket, crinkly strands of the worn fringe limply dangled. They connected to the oversized cuff and the “hold that thought” finger he held up as he left the stage.
“Where do you think you’re going? Is it too hot for you?” Ginny said in a sultry way, but Elvis ducked her, cutting around the corner of the white house and back toward the Caravan. “You’ll never make it back,” he thought, taking seven tiny white pills from his jacket and gulping them down.
Inside the van he looked for a bag of balloons, an air compressor and his white rubber clown face with orange hair, which flared upward on the side. He moved to his knees sifting through belongings in the cargo area. He started to throw them around; looking for all the things he had lost.
flash fiction by Timothy Gager
Art after Hiroshima
A scar after surgery
Mirrored by the photograph
But this scar was caused
By a machete
In the Congo
Or simple sleep deprivation
For which I was medicated
Here gleeful inflicted
Or; with Cystoscopy,
I would talk
& the chill walk to
The chill walk to
Torture chamber or
It is, after all,
Only a little neck.
poetry by Stephen C. Middleton
Big Boy Steps
My son and I stand at the base of the library steps, which are being climbed quickly by a high-school boy in salmon-colored pants and slowly by an older couple possibly heading to today’s drop-in computer lab.
We are new to this town, forty-five minutes northeast of our old home by the United Nations Headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. Salmon-colored pants on teenage boys are novel to us. My son, who is three and three quarters, sticks his forefinger in his mouth and gazes to the top of the stairs, where the library’s front doors slide open and closed. He loves doors. He needs to watch them close behind us and needs to watch them open for the next person and needs to watch them close again. He also loves the jumbo metal drop-off box, which awaits the picture book about boats we borrowed two weeks ago.
Boat book in one hand and child fingers in the other, I notice my purse, stuffed with our day’s needs, is cutting across my torso. The early-March air erodes my patience. We just need to get up the stairs and check off the first errand.
I encourage my son. “Let’s go, Bug.” Bug is short for Buggy, short for Bugaboo, the nickname I gave him hours after he was born.
“Hold Mommy’s hand,” he says.
“Yes, of course.”
He’s wearing a puffy silver coat and bright blue cords. It’s a Kermit-the-frog effect: upper body an egg, lower body skinny sticks.
“Watch me,” I say, and I lift my right foot. Have you ever wondered about your legs as they climb stairs? How they know what to do without you telling them? Lately, I’ve been narrating what my legs do, so I can fine-tune the procedural language. Knee bends, heel lifts, toes rise, hip rolls back in its joint, and right foot plants on the first step, while left foot waits on the sidewalk. During the act of stepping, weight shifts from heel to toe to quad to hips and lower back, not to mention between the two legs. And what are the hands doing, if not grasping books and boys?
Feet now split between sidewalk and stair, I watch my son. As if he’s wearing a cast, he swings his right leg out, and his sneakered foot lands hard on an angle on the first step. He used to wear ankle braces with oversized orthopedic shoes but recently graduated. Ms. Genice, his physical therapist, told me that his new sneakers, teal with orange laces, are “very cute.”
“Ok, now we’re going to try getting your other foot allll the way up to the second step.” I model. With a slight bounce of my right leg, I gather enough momentum to hoist my left foot, pass over the first stair, and plant it on the second.
My son grips my fingers as his left leg traces a semi-circle. But he overshoots the second step altogether, striking the third with his heel. Then he pulls his foot back too far; it scrapes across the second stair and thuds next to his right foot on the first step.
“Let’s try again, Buggy.Big. Boy. Steps. Just like Ms. Genice says.” Step-over-step climbing is a goal for this school year, his first in Pre-Kindergarten. It’s one of eighteen goals organized by developmental domain: gross motor, fine motor, speech, sensory. Eighteen big-boy steps.
This time, I let go of his hand and guide his legs from behind. With my help, his right leg doesn’t swing quite as far out, but his left leg still overshoots.
A middle-aged man in a t-shirt with no jacket side-eyes us as he takes the stairs in twos. I wonder if he’s wondering what’s wrong with my son, who bears no outward signs of atypical development and no longer wears assistive devices. What, the passerby might be asking, does that kid have? You’d have to zoom in to one chromosome in each cell to see that what hehasis really what he’smissing: five of 24,000 genes. Without this material, some 1.4 million DNA base pairs, my son has not developed at the same rate, or reached milestones in the same order, as have the majority of his peers. Right now, for instance, as the man reaches the sliding doors, my son has taken four steps, but he’s standing on the second stair. It takes him twice as many steps to get anywhere.
Until 2008, my son’s genetic difference was unknown. But with the completion of the Human Genome Project and invention of highly sensitive tests, tiny changes in our DNA can now be detected and mapped. Recently discovered deletions of genetic material (as well as duplications) help explain a myriad of symptoms that, even in the recent past, labeled a kid as weird or needy or slow. Or worse. Some were classified “deficient” and tossed out of secure social structures like public schools and even families, doomed by limited understanding and lack of intervention to exist in asylums.
The truth is, I still don’t know how to classify my son. Our new town has given him one of the five special-education seats in his mainstream class. For each special-ed student, administrators select a primary disability category, such as deafness or traumatic brain injury or, simply, “to be determined.” Our team checked “developmental delay” on my son’s forms this year. I asked whether his genetic deletion might fit with “other health impairment,” which catches everything from lead poisoning to Tourette’s Syndrome, but was told that “impairment” isn’t determined until he turns five. By five, the people who know about these things will know whether his delay has been erased or has cemented into a permanent disability. We have until he’s five to figure out if we can teach him to compensate for what’s missing.
Plenty of days I scoop my son against my hip and carry him up or down the library steps, especially in bad weather. Sometimes I lead him to the ramp, 50 feet to the left of the steps. My son walks pretty well on an incline, though he sometimes rolls his ankles in a way that makes me cringe. The ramp passes in front of the handicapped spaces. I always notice the blue plastic signs hanging from rear-view mirrors and wonder if I should apply for one. I also have twin toddlers; surely I should park close to the entrance of the library or Costco.
But today, even though it’s chilly, even though I’m tired and have a lot to do, I parked at the far end of the library lot and led us up two dirt embankments before we hit the concrete steps. I don’t know what I want my son to say about me when he’s older. That I was his biggest advocate, making sure he had all the accommodations he needed in order to succeed? Or that I treated him just like any other kid and expected him to do everything a typical child did? Will he even know what’s different about him? That’s what keeps me up at night. Wondering whether to tell him, and if so, how and when. Despite emerging awareness of genetic differences like my son’s, his condition is invisible. Sometimes I think I’m the only one who can detect it. The hole in his helix rings like the rim of a meditation bowl. I hear it all the time.
I’ve become friendly with another parent whose son receives speech therapy. She invited me to join her book club. Feeling warmly included, I went along to a meeting. We talked about Barbara Claypole White’s novel The Perfect Son, which features a teenage boy with Tourette’s who develops a deeper relationship with his demanding father after his mother suffers a debilitating heart attack. During a revelatory moment in the ER, the boy says to his father, who would prefer the family keep the boy’s syndrome under wraps, “Dad, Tourette’s isn’t really something I can hide. Most people have me pegged as odd before I’ve opened my mouth.”
I didn’t know anyone at the meeting aside from my new friend. Relative anonymity freed me to share that my son also has a syndrome. I asked the women about whether they, if their child had an invisible disability, would reveal it. One said her friend has a daughter with a disorder and she’s afraid to tell the child because she might use it as a crutch. I think she meant to say “excuse.” A child who cannot walk without aid has an excuse. Give the child a crutch and teach her to walk with it. In my son’s case, I provide multiple crutches, in the form of physical therapy, patient instruction, practice steps. Sometimes, I am the crutch.
Recently, I stopped with my son on a whim at a Farmer’s Market. It was set up on the slight incline of a grassy hill, a well-worn dirt path between two neat rows of white tents. Closing time approached, so we’d have to move quickly up and down the aisle, looking for local tomatoes and corn. With little time and on uneven terrain, I decided to carry my son, his legs wrapped around my waist, his head on my shoulder. For a moment, while studying a table loaded with jars of pickles and jam, I felt not burdened by thirty-five pounds of boy, but free. We so rarely had time to peruse a Farmer’s Market. In our prolonged hug, we were content.
I saw the man before I heard him. Mid-50s, light blue linen button-down over khaki shorts, straw hat, sunglasses. He stood behind a bench, looking right at me, and I assumed he would call out, peddling his local fare. As I passed his tent, he spoke. “Can’t that kid walk?”
I almost kept going. Had I done so, my son would not have noticed the man. But instinct stopped me, and I turned to meet the man’s sunglassed gaze. “How much does he weigh?” he said. “I mean, geez. Look at you!”
That kid not walking was my kid, now aware of the exchange.Look at you. Yes, look at me, short and not that strong. My spine was bent to support my son’s weight. Look at me, a parent making a moment in our day a little easier. A human crutch.
“He has some trouble walking,” I said.
The man pulled his head back and stuttered. “Oh … oh.”
“Mmm hmm, Buggy?” I held my breath, suddenly worried about what he’d caught.
“Is that a guitar?” My son was now focused on a white-haired woman playing a ukulele and singing folk songs at the end of the aisle. Maybe he missed the fact that I just revealed to a stranger, and, therefore, to him, that something was wrong. That he had trouble. Until then, we’d never spoken of his syndrome. To him, physical therapy was normal. Learning to climb was normal. His body, no matter how hard he had to work to plan and carry out movement, was normal. I was grateful he hadn’t caught the significance of my words. I wasn’t ready for that step just yet.
Often, I have to quiet the ringing around the empty space and listen to my son’s wholeness. Right now at the library, and at most places on most days, there’s nothing in the world he wants more than to make me smile.
“Look Mommy, I’m doing good,” he says.Big boy steps, and he tries again and again, the first foot swinging out and landing squarely, then the second swinging way too far and trying to skip a step, before sliding back to meet the first.
By the time we reach the top of the library steps, my son has not done the step-over-step pattern once. I say, “Good trying, Buggy! I’m so proud of you.” I’m a little loud, as if performing parenthood to benefit our audience, now a mother with three hopping children. Or perhaps my performance is solely for my son. I sense I am manufacturing this moment and ignoring my impatience to ensure he feels safe and happy in his upbringing. To make him, and me, feel more typical, even as we are, very much, just ourselves.
by Suzanne Farrell Smith
Tina V. Cabrera
Tina V. Cabrera earned her MFA in Fiction from San Diego State University in 2009. Her essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in or are forthcoming in journals such as Pleiades, Hobart, Quickly, Crack the Spine, Big Bridge Magazine, Vagabondage Press, San Diego Poetry Annual, Fiction International and Outrider Press. She has presented critical work at the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) in New York and Pennsylvania, which has been published in print and online. You can visit her writer’s blog at www.cannyuncanny.wordpress.com/.
Suke Cody makes her home in Iowa City, IA with her son, husband, and a menagerie of small, cranky animals. A graduate of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, she has recently published work in Pithead Chapel, Every Pigeon, and The Timberline Review, and served as a co-editor for the Seneca Review anthology,We Might As Well Call It the Lyric Essay.Cody blogs about houseplants at mossymoss.com, and shamelessly produces BBC Sherlock slash fan fiction for an international audience.
Michelle Dotter is editor-in-chief of Dzanc Books, a nonprofit independent press devoted to literary excellence. Her work has appeared in Molotov Cocktail, Entropy, and the No Extra Words podcast. She lives in Boulder, CO.
Timothy Gager is the author of thirteen books of short fiction and poetry. He’s hosted the successful Dire Literary Series in Cambridge, Massachusetts since 2001 and was the co-founder of Somerville News Writers Festival. He has had over 400 works of fiction and poetry published and of which eleven have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His work has been read on National Public Radio.
Stephen C. Middleton
Stephen C. Middleton is a writer working in London, England. He has had five books published, including A Brave Light (Stride) and Worlds of Pain / Shades of Grace (Poetry Salzburg). He has been in several anthologies, among them Paging Doctor Jazz (Shoestring), From Hepworth’s Garden Out (Shearsman, 2010), and Yesterday’s Music Today (Knives Forks And Spoons Press, 2015). For many years he was editor of Ostinato, a magazine of jazz and jazz inspired poetry, and The Tenormen Press. He has been in many magazines worldwide. Current projects (prose and poetry) relate to jazz, blues, politics, outsider (folk) art, mountain environments, and long-term illness.
Don L. Robishaw
Don L. Robishaw has three stories published in Flash Fiction Magazine and one in O-Dark-Thirty. Don ran educational programs for homeless shelters for thirteen years. He served in the US Navy, worked at the VA Hospital in Leads, MA and as a civilian for the US Army in South Korea. He’s well-traveled, using various ways and means: Sailor, Peace Corps Volunteer, bartender, hitchhiker, world traveler/backpacker, college professor/adult educator, and circus roustabout. Today he likes to write satirical and gritty fictional tales of men and women from various backgrounds on hero’s journeys, border crossings, and various adventures. Many of the characters he develops have served for periods of time in the military.
Suzanne Farrell Smith
Suzanne Farrell Smith’s work explores memory, trauma, health, education, and parenthood and has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. Recent work appears in ink&coda, Copper Nickel, and Under the Gum Tree. Essays have been listed as Special Mention by Pushcart and Notable in Best American. With an MA from The New School and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Suzanne teaches writing and education courses at Manhattanville College. She lives with her husband and three sons in Connecticut.
Jessica B. Weisenfels
Jessica B. Weisenfels lives in the Arkansas Ozarks, where she accumulates chronic diseases and steals language from her children. Her poetry can be found in Fence, E-ratio, Sink Review, and a few other places. Her fiction has been published by Fiction Southeast, the Yalobusha Review, Apt, and Sick Lit Magazine.
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