Embroidered with Hail

Yousef el Qedra (translated by Yasmin Snounu, Edward Morin, and George Khoury) Embroidered with Hail In the beginning, he exalted himself above the sinful act of...

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Embroidered with Hail

Yousef el Qedra (translated by Yasmin Snounu, Edward Morin, and George Khoury)

Embroidered with Hail

In the beginning, he exalted himself
above the sinful act of eating the fruit.
Then he was burned by trees and frolicking
girls, causing his name and the blueness
of his soul to bleed.  He searched for prophecy
carved into fire.  So he was devoured
by rivers flowing toward their destination,
and he was satisfied by a line
on a skewed wall that was told by a
story in a book neglected by time.

And he was walking in the night of a story
like a murderer searching for faces,
wrapped up with dust desiring silence.
He mounted the stairs of alertness
within a sleeping dream; he slept in
the gardens of attentive wakefulness.
He was anesthetized by the veins
of countries that lost their pulses,
and his pulse started beating with names
of women he had created from dates;
their soul is grapes, and their house is flutes
made of soughs. He drew his colors like a
sword and went into illusive wars
with whiteness and illusion.  He didn’t
survive, so steadfastness wouldn’t embrace him,
but he escaped to train the street always to forgive.

A doe in the forest of speech snatched him,
stripped him of answers, and dressed him
in runes made of questions; she passed through
his veins slowly and wove from his alienation
a city for dance and temptation.
She carved on his alienation
poems of water, and from his character
traits she sewed a jacket embroidered
with smooth hail.

One evening on the balcony
of words, he saw the body of darkness
running naked, chased by the idea
that’s scared of itself, so he sought shelter
in the open pages of a book.

January, 2011

 

 

مطرّزةً بالبَرَدِ

في البدء، ارتفع عن خطيئة الفاكهة، ثم اكتوى بالشجر والصبايا، نازفاً اسمه وكثيراً من زرقةِ روحه، فتّش عن نبؤةِ محفورةٍ في النار، فالتهمتْهُ الأنهارُ الذاهبة إلى رجاءاتها، واكتفى بسطرٍ على حائطٍ مائلٍ أخبرتْ عنه قصةٌ في كتابٍ أهملتْهُ الأيامْ.

وكانَ يمشي في ليلِ الحكايةِ كقاتلْ، يبحثُ عن وجوهٍ غلّفها غبارٌ يشتهي السكونْ، اعتلى أدراجَ اليقظةِ في حلمٍ نائمٍ، ونامَ في حدائق الصحوِ المتنبّه، خدّرته عروقُ البلادِ التي فقدتْ نبضها، وصار ينبضُ بأسماءِ اللواتي خلقهنَّ من تمرِ وروحهنَّ عنب وبيتهنَّ ناياتٍ من شهقاتْ. استلَّ ألوانَهُ سيفاً وخاضَ حروباً وهميةً مع البياضِ والوهمْ، لم ينجُ لئلا تحضنْهُ الصلابةُ، ونجا حتى يدرّبُ الطريقُ على العفوِ دائماً.

التقطتْهُ ظبيةٌ في غابةِ الكلام، جرَّدته من الاجاباتِ وألبستْهُ تعاويذ من الأسئلة، مشت في عروقِهِ على مهلٍ وغزلتْ من غربتِهِ مدينةً للرقصِ وللغواية، نقشتْ على عزلتِهِ قصائد من ماء، ومن ملامحِهِ حاكتْ سُترةً مطرّزةً بالبَرَدِ الناعِمْ.

وذاتَ مساءٍ، ومن على شرفةِ المفرداتْ، رأى جسدَ العتمةِ يركضُ عارياً تلاحقُهُ الفكرةُ المفجوعةُ بذاتها، فاحتمى بدفتي كتابْ

2011 yraunaJ

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The Three Vaporizing Babes

Emily Flouton

The Three Vaporizing Babes

It was Thursday, or maybe Monday. I was lying on the couch in my brother’s basement, working my way through a bag of dried mango and staring at this one painting on the wall I’d been staring at for weeks, losing hours a day in the thing. It looked like two seals about to have sex, but it might have been a seal and a fat brown penguin. One thing was sure: they were in love with each other.
I’d been living on that couch for four months, washed the sheets maybe twice. In that time I’d earned a total of $280 working security at one Dolce & Gabbana sample sale. But I’d just posted a bunch of five-star Yelp reviews for my newly launched private investigation business, and Jupiter, the planet of miracles and bounty, had entered my house of finances, so I had a feeling my luck was about to change.
My phone vibrated into my ass cheek. Local L.A. number. I waited a few seconds before answering. “Rocco here.”
The guy on the other end of the line sounded like he used a lot of moisturizer. “Rocco! This is Phil Sylvester from the Sylvester Media Group.”
“Never heard of you.” This was bullshit; he’d emailed me through my website, and expecting his call was my plans for the day.
“Got a job for you,” Sylvester said. “Concerns a reality TV show. One of those ones where a guy dates fifty-seven girls and tries to only sleep with a dozen.”
“I don’t approve of such things,” I said. In truth, I’d never thought about it. I just didn’t appreciate that he’d skipped the part where he was supposed to tell me which of the Yelp reviews had convinced him to hire me. I had a sense that hearing my words repeated back to me by someone else would do something for what the internet tells me is my impostor syndrome, which I have literally no reason to have.
“Regardless, the girls keep vaporizing from their hotel room.”
“You’re telling me these girls are turning into vapor?”
“Well, not actual vapor. But they’re disappearing off somewhere at night, after the cameramen go home. See, we’re not allowed to film them while they sleep, because of legal BS.”
“Then how do you know they’re going anywhere?”
“They come back different in the mornings.” Phil lowered his voice to almost a growl. “Dirty.”
Dirty women. I knew dirty women, but I didn’t want to tell Phil Sylvester about it. I could tell he’d like it too much. I have a brother—not the one whose basement I live in, but another one. He lives in the Valley and is always having these pool parties with themes, like Mardi Gras or Group Sex or IPA, even though a couple years ago at one of them a woman totally drowned. His wife’s alleged best friend, but I’m 78 percent sure my brother was fucking her. They found the woman in the pool the next morning, naked, her hair getting sucked into the filter. Skull bashing against the wall again and again and again, or that’s how I picture it.
“Can’t they just give them a shower?” I asked Phil. “If they’re so dirty, these women.”
“Well, the real problem is they come back exhausted. They keep yawning and they have these dark circles under their eyes. Makeup is all over my dick about it. And it’s too late in the season to replace them.”
“Phil,” I said—even though I already knew the answer to the question I was about to ask, which was that he needed me and only me, that I was the exact right man for the job—“Phil,” I said, “what’s it got to do with me?”

I was to sit outside their hotel room door all night long. I wasn’t allowed to go in, because of the legal BS, but I’d see the women if they tried to go off and do anything dirty. And if I could solve this, this Mystery of the Vaporizing Babes, I would get to marry the hottest, youngest one.
Kidding. I would never take that deal. I see marriage very much as a cliff whose edge you want to get as close to as possible without falling off. You want someone to want you to fall off the cliff with them. Being loved unconditionally, no matter how bad you fuck up, is imperative to being a person. I get that. It keeps you feeling like things are OK, which they obviously are not. But at the last minute you need to yank yourself back from the precipice and sip from your bottle of water. Which is why I was living in my brother’s basement at this moment in time, having left Zora the Clinically Bonkers with our art deco studio apartment and all of our succulents, which I’m sure she had killed by this point.
But Phil did promise me enough cash that I could move out of my brother’s basement, maybe order one of those kits where you build a whole house out of a shipping container. I looked up the babes on my brother’s ancient computer, which had a mouse that went on the desk with a wire. By this point, the main guy in the show—Tristan—had culled his herd to just three. First was Whitney, the blonde. Skin like milk. In the photo she was wearing a cowgirl outfit—leather chaps and a whip. He’d pick her in the end. I’d caught a few of these shows during my tenure in the basement, and the guy always went for the blandest blonde. Personally, I prefer something a little less obvious, a little more broken, when it comes to females—a jagged edge to grab on to. Goths, stunt doubles, socially awkward programmers. Before Zora, I dated a female trucker ten years my senior. Zora herself was your average girl from Fresno, but she had these wide-set eyes and this way of doing her makeup that made her look like a gray alien. It hypnotized me, right up until she started talking about us adopting a pair of hypoallergenic cats.
Still, I think of her.
The second one was the brunette. Kelsey. Blue eyes, beaky nose. The-hottestgirl-in-her-high-school kind of thing. She wouldn’t age well, but she could probably fuck with a Thanksgiving turkey. Tristan wouldn’t want her. She looked pleasant, like good company.
The third one was black. Barbara. She was the prize of this batch, probably, the only one with any glint to her eyeballs, but he wouldn’t want her, either. The black girls on these shows are just window dressing—Jimmy Kimmel is always going on about it. Long weave. I could tell it was a weave, and fake hair grosses me out, but it was shiny, at least. She was holding a python. It was working for me.
I undid the drawstring on my sweatpants and listened for my brother and sister-in-law above me, but they were at work or church or whatnot.
All three of the babes were giving dumb looks to the camera. Playing possum.
“Gonna get you,” I said.

That night, after the camera guys went home, I was getting myself settled outside their hotel room door in this shitty fabric chair with this ugly pattern of squares on it when the blond one came out. Whitney. She blinked at me, probably going for “seductive,” but her fake lashes unbalanced her face. She had different but related shades of makeup on and, close up, you could see they were barely blended, giving her a carved wooden look.
“We thought you might be hungry,” she said, handing me a styrofoam food container. Having all those thoughts about her face took up enough time that I didn’t say thank you, but it’s not like I owed her a thank you. I didn’t ask for the food.
The logo on the container was from this new ramen place in Silverlake. I peeled off the cover and got hit with a blast of steamy umami. Whitney didn’t give me any chopsticks, so I had to eat the ramen with my hands. Slopped it all over my jeans. Next thing I remember, there was light coming through the window and my phone was buzzing into my ass cheek and Phil’s voice was saying things about what a waste of space I am, like I haven’t heard that track enough. But it was like I was hearing his voice through a fog.
“I’m gonna give you one more chance, Rocco, and then I’m gonna fuck your name into the mud,” he said, or something like that.
“No, you won’t,” I said, I don’t know why. “You’ll give me two more chances.

To clear my head I drove out to Glendale, which is one of the few places in L.A. they have an Orange Julius. I find Orange Julii soothing. Artifacts from a simpler time. I thought about driving to the beach to drink my Orange Julius while staring at the ocean, but that seemed like a lot of effort.
Then I was back in my shitty chair, waving goodnight to the camera guys. Right on cue, Kelsey, the girl-next-door one, came out and handed me some fried chicken. Big juicy thighs really oiling up the plate. “Whitney told me you liked the ramen,” she said, blue eyes twinkling in a way I didn’t much care for. Gave me no napkins or wet wipes, of course.
“Where’d you get this?” I asked, starting to make a connection between the ramen and the brain fog.She shrugged a tiny shrug that was likely meant to be adorable. “Don’t worry about it.”
Then she went back in and I looked at the plate with trepidation. But you can’t roofie fried chicken. That doesn’t make sense on a molecular level. Although a lot of things in L.A. don’t make sense, like grown men wearing fluorescent tank tops.
Next thing, I was coming to on the shitty rug in front of my chair and a man with Phil Sylvester’s voice was standing over me, yowling, his forehead a gigantic gleaming Easter egg.
“Kill yourself!” I said to him, I don’t know why.
“Rocco, you’re supposed to be the best. I heard you were the best. Are you telling me you’re not the best?”
I wanted to ask him for a definition of “best,” and for him to use it in a sentence, and then I wanted to really think about if I was—it seemed important—but there wasn’t time.

Phil said to stick close to the babes all day and see if I could get any clues. I trailed them down to the pool. No one’s hair touched water. Then we got mani-pedied and I don’t think they passed the Bechdel test once all day. It was Tristan this and Tristan that, his swoony brown eyes and gooshy smile. I’m sorry, but I found the babes to be vapid. Living up to what they’d been told they were, that kind of thing. Like the girls in that study who took the SATs wearing bikinis and did much worse on it than the girls in jeans. So, like … change? Night fell and I was banished to my shitty chair.
Barbara, the maybe prize, came out and handed me a leg of lamb.
“Enjoy,” she said, smirking. I said thank you, because I’m nice, but she didn’t even give me a plate.
Down the hall, a guy was servicing the elevator. He was hot, or at least my friend Kaleb would have thought so. I don’t always notice when other men are hot. But sometimes I do. It’s newish. Not the noticing part—that’s been going on forever—but the part that comes after. The doing-something part. The first time, it was this waiter at Denny’s with a pierced lip. I was wasted on Evan Williams, late night, vacuuming up a tower of pancakes. Pierced Lip comped my meal. Touched my shoulder. I’d just broken up with Zora and I loved the idea of fucking something that didn’t remind me of her stupid fucking face.
Actually, that’s not really it, and we didn’t even fuck all the way.
After that, there was one other time, on Venice Beach, this skater in these really wide shorts. This isn’t a secret. But before I met Kaleb through fantasy football and started going to bars with him, I wasn’t in the enlightened place I’m in now. And like a year ago I would have punched myself hard if I’d even considered doing anything. Now I don’t give a shit. That being said, if Kaleb or the waiter or the skater ever told anyone I went to high school with or my family, I would be fairly irate.
So I noticed this guy by the elevator was well built and had a nice man bun, which is one of the few L.A. affectations I can stand. Apparently he could smell my leg of lamb from down the hallway, because he licked his lips.
“Want some?” I asked.
“Sure.”
He advanced upon me.
So we were gnawing at this leg of lamb from different angles while it dripped bloody juices on the rug, and I was feeling pretty good about life for no real reason, and being in such close proximity to each other’s bodies, with our teeth tearing into this dead thing, injected some particles into the air.
“Want to play?” he asked.
His directness appealed. I looked into his eyes, which were the deep blue of river rocks. Vulnerable. I liked that. I thought about my balls being in his mouth, about flossing his teeth with what grew there, trusting him with that even though I didn’t know him at all, and I said why not. Threw the lamb bone down on the shitty rug. We went into the elevator and he pressed the button to lock it.
We did that and other things. It was not unspecial. I mean, it was fine. I could feel the brain fog coming on a little, but I kissed through it and that seemed to keep it corralled. Then something strange happened. My spurt changed my brain some. After the spurt, I wasn’t thinking about the Barbara one as a prize anymore. If I’d had to have a fantasy about her right then, it would have been that she was a servant popping in to bring me and Man Bun breakfast in bed. With plates.
Man Bun and I hugged. I could smell the sweat on his neck and it nearly made me hard again, but not enough that I wanted to risk seeming needy.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’re welcome.”
“Don’t operate any heavy machinery.”
I felt myself walking to the door of the babes’ room and trying the knob. The light flashed green.

So technically I wasn’t supposed to be in there, but I also knew it was the only place I was supposed to be. It came to me that Phil Sylvester probably expected me to break the rules and penetrate the fortress or whatnot. He was that guy.
Sure enough, the babes had vaporized. I looked around, but there was no glowing hole in the floor leading to Dante’s Inferno, and I checked the windows, but we were on the thirty-second floor. I was considering my options when I heard high-pitched noises coming from behind this super-ugly tapestry on the wall. Pulling it back revealed a door. Who would have thought, right? A door in the wall of a hotel, leading to an adjoining room. Mystery fucking solved.
I was about to open it when it came to me that I probably should disguise myself as a babe to go where the babes had gone. So I stripped, put on a monogrammed robe. Went into the bathroom, which was filthy, by the way, and wrapped a towel around my hair. I found these Korean face masks that looked like Silence of the Lambs and slapped one on. It covered my entire face except my eyeballs. I’m not very hairy apart from my balls, which were well hidden in the robe, so I felt my disguise to be a success.
I pulled back the tapestry and opened the door.

The three babes had the lead guy, Tristan, hog-tied on top of the king-size bed. They were all over him, but probably not in the way he’d have wanted, whipping him lightly with the ends of their long hair and the belts of their robes and their dainty gold necklaces. One of them was singing “Free Bird” kind of longingly as she did this. I found this strange, but it also made sense to me, in a revenge-porn, Take Back the Night kind of way.
Tristan’s eyes were rolled back in their sockets in rapture or from drugs. He was tangerine in color and nearly hairless, a wax figure. In no way hot. Especially not after the furred thighs and faint barnyard aroma of Man Bun. The babes were focused on their ministrations, but finally Whitney noticed me standing there in the doorway, squinted, and said, “Hillary F.? Is that you?”
I nodded.
“Join us, you cunt.”
I got on the bed and started scratching at Tristan’s leg with my toenails. After my pedicure, my toenails looked like shimmery golden moons, and it felt nice, scratching Tristan with my attractive nails. I enjoyed the lightness of my assault on this probably vapid dude I had nothing against, the sensation of his oiled skin against the remains of my calluses. I carved my initials into his thigh in thin white lines, watched as the curve of the R turned pink and began to swell.
Then I started getting sleepy. Did not want to pass out on that bed, have my balls discovered, and be likewise set upon just for being a man, like this was feminist Twitter. So I ran out, de-masked, put on a little toner, and got back to my chair just in time to—

I told Phil I needed more time. Time for what? I just didn’t want to tell him what I’d seen until I understood it better. Let’s face it: Phil is gross. A sweaty, balding suit. And I felt weirdly sympathetic to the babes, even though they had drugged my ass thrice with takeout and didn’t deserve my sympathy. But pretending to be one of them had given me a window into their inner bitterness. And I saw chopped-off bits of myself floating around in their inner bitterness, like flies in soup.
Still, I needed Phil’s cash, so I was conflicted. My brother and his boring wife had been dropping hints about other things they could be doing with their basement, like turning it into something called Macramé Central.

The next day, Tristan had a spelunking date with Barbara, so it was just me and Whitney and Kelsey. I couldn’t tell if they knew about my covert mission. Maybe? They kept stealing glances at me from above their journals and around their mimosas, between their tiny pieces of dark chocolate. But that might just have been because my skin was really glowing.
Then I was back in my chair. Whitney came out with a cream envelope on a silver tray, an inscrutable look on her toy-soldier face. Inside the envelope was a card that read, “If you choose to forgo your shitty chair, please use this keycard to join us for a night you’ll never forget.”
My first reaction was disappointment. I was supposed to solve the mystery. She wasn’t supposed to hand me the solution on a literal silver tray. I gave her my stoic face until she shrugged and went back in. Then I sat there feeling irritated and bored.
Also, I’m superstitious, and I had my own thoughts about what had made my investigation the previous evening a triumph: i.e., the sex energy I got from Man Bun. Who I’d found myself thinking about once or twice. And OK, yeah, I was a little bit hoping I’d have to use that same method again, channeling his sex energy, cloaking myself in it, using it to gain entry. Or maybe it was more us sharing the drugged food, the communion of that or whatever, that had freed me from brain addlement. It occurred to me that maybe this whole thing was really about me, to teach me a lesson about opening myself up to love.
I waited a while to see if Man Bun would show. He didn’t. I used the key.

Behind the secret door, orange Tristan was again hog-tied on the bed while the babes lounged and spanked. But this time, I wasn’t a babe. I was a man. My reaction was automatic. I drew my weapon, a slim Beretta. Aimed it between Whitney’s glittery eyes.
“We thought you were chiller than this,” she said, letting her non-spanking hand float into the air, as though bidding on something at a charity auction.
“Yeah,” said Barbara, continuing to tweak Tristan’s nose hairs. “We heard you were totally not straight.”
This froze me to my core. Man Bun had been talking about me.
Or, Man Bun had been talking about me.
I kept the gun trained on Whitney’s forehead. “That’s not your concern. Spill.”
“Not until you put that thing away.”
I of course refused. So they kept spanking and tweaking. “What if I point it at your knee instead?” I suggested. Actually, I was pretty proud of this one. Babes are always holding forth about how the police should shoot to wound instead of shooting to kill. They conferred, but it was a no-go. After a while we came to a compromise where I stuck the barrel of my pistol into my jeans pocket, so it was still easily accessible but it was also pointing at my junk.
“OK,” Kelsey said, “it’s like this. We needed to finish the show in the top three to lock down endorsement deals for organic snowboarding gear, but none of us actually wants to get stuck marrying this.”
She flicked Tristan’s worm-colored upper lip.
“What’s it got to do with me?”
“Well, we thought you might want to come along, see what we’ve got cooked up. We thought you might appreciate it.”
I stared at her.
“Because we thought you were a cool, woke dude?”
I shrugged. Maybe I was or maybe I wasn’t. They shook their heads, clucked their tongues. Then they hoisted Tristan, propped him up like in that old movie Weekend at Bernie’s, dragged him to the door. Not the hidden, adjoining door. Another door, a front door.
“I’m calling Phil Sylvester,” I said, I don’t know why. I wouldn’t really have called Phil that late—he gets up super early for squash.
Whitney just raised her pencil-thin eyebrows.
Man Bun was waiting for us by the elevator. Was not expecting that. He barely acknowledged my presence.
“Did you tell them we messed around?” I whispered to him as the doors closed.
He gave me the tiniest upturned head nod.
“Not cool.”
“Why not? You ashamed of me?” He said it in an I know you’re not because I’m super hot voice, which annoyed me.
I shrugged.
He shrugged, too.
I shrugged.
We went down and down and down, to a kind of sub-basement, and then the elevator opened into a giant room filled with all these silver and gold and jewelencrusted trees. In the middle of the fake forest was a pitcher’s mound on which was set a weathered watering can, some jars of honey, a bushel of apples, two live doves, a scarecrow, and a tiny violin.
I sat on the floor as the women propped Tristan up on the mound and slapped his face a bunch. Man Bun sat next to me and said, “I seriously am sorry.”
I shrugged.
It would have been a good time for him and me to get to know each other better, but I couldn’t think of any questions to ask. About his life, his family? That’s so played out. Instead, we watched Kelsey make Tristan slurp from a flat white until he sputtered and choked.
Whitney got all up in Tristan’s face. “Propose!” she said, giving him what I think she thought looked like a gang sign but really looked more like jazz hands.
“Propose to me now.”
“But—” Tristan glanced from girl to girl to girl. “I don’t know who I’m picking yet. We haven’t even all fucked all the way.”
“You’re going to propose to all of us, OK? We’ll tape it. And then we’re going to decide, among ourselves, our way, which one of us gets stuck with your pathetic ass.”
It occurs to me that you may want to know what the babes were wearing when this went down. Barbara’s dress was tight and yellow and too long; she could barely walk. Whitney’s was poofy and pink like a Barbie prom dress. Kelsey’s was blue and relatively inoffensive, but cheap looking, like it came from Dressbarn. They had more gunk on their faces than ever. But then Barbara turned on this giant floodlight, and the makeup started to make sense. Floodlit, they looked incandescent. Like princesses. The kind you might want to marry.
Tristan glared at Barbara. “Don’t touch that,” he said. “You’re not qualified. Only a grip can touch the lights on a set.”
She didn’t seem to hear him.
Man Bun began readying the camera. I came around behind him, considered touching his waist. “I didn’t know you knew how to do that,” I said, which was idiotic, considering that I knew nothing about him. He patted my hand.
They deposited Tristan on the proposal mound and handed him a set of note cards. Then they filmed him giving the exact same proposal three times: “The first time I looked into your eyes I could see my mother … When I think of my future with you I can almost forget about my fear of heights,” etc. Then Whitney gave Tristan a bowl of matzo ball soup and he conked out again.
“Now we decide,” Barbara said.
Many things were on the table. Rock, paper, scissors? Duck, duck, goose? Spin the bottle? Truth or dare? At one point, Whitney looked at me and said, “Why don’t you just decide who gets stuck with him?”
A warm feeling spread through my chest. I was about to shout out a name—any name, the first babe name I remembered—but then Man Bun said, “You want to give all your power over to a man again?”
I wanted to tell him to stop being so politically correct, that it was OK to give me power, because I was probably queer, and maybe even woke, even though whether I was or not was nobody’s business, but then Barbara was like, “Totally, you’re right,” and Kelsey was like, “You didn’t have to say that—I was going to say that. This decision not to let him make the decision isn’t because of you, Man Bun,” and they drew names out of a hat.
If you care, Kelsey lost.

I could have called Phil Sylvester and told him everything. I didn’t only because the babes called him themselves. They had Phil over a barrel, because the show had already started airing and they were total fan faves. So the producers aired the Kelsey proposal. But if it had mattered, I think I would have told Phil everything, because I’ve thought about it a bunch and I do think I am the best. And people who
are the best do what they say they’ll do, even if they feel queasy about it. Plus, it’s one thing to be in favor of babes going rogue and sticking it to the man or what have you, and I will say I am more in favor of that now than I was before all this. (Not that I was against it before. I just didn’t care.) But when you get down to it, I have to
be about number one, and if you actually knew anything about me, you might understand why.
Man Bun came over to watch the proposal episode, but he barely ate any popcorn and left as soon as it was over. I don’t think he appreciated the fine ambience of the basement. He probably would have liked the house I built out of a shipping container. Good riddance. Maybe I should have gone for Barbara instead. I feel like there was this one time by the pool when she might have checked out my ass, which is probably my best feature. Most days now, I sleep in the basement till noon, and every time I wake up another piece of furniture is gone. First it was the Barcalounger, and then the coffee table, and then the wicker chair, and then my brother’s computer table, and then the computer and its vintage mouse. I had to start relying exclusively on my cracked phone to conduct business, which is a handicap to my forward progress. Then the entertainment center disappeared, and then the end tables, and then the TV, so I have nothing to do with my spare time, and then the couch—I had to start sleeping on the rug—and finally the painting of the two seals or the seal and penguin about to get it on, even though I asked my brother specifically if he would leave it for me so I’d have some vestige of love in my life. He didn’t listen. He doesn’t care. And now the basement is empty except for me and the macramé, so much macramé, humping up into mountains, taking over the room, crowding me out, macramé. Just. Everywhere.

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Breakthrough Mailboxes of Southern Pennsylvania

Tyler Barton

Breakthrough Mailboxes of Southern Pennsylvania

Across the street, the young, blond entrepreneurs have opened for business at the end of their driveway, cardboard signs advertising the sale of their small sister. She sits in the gravel, wearing a leash. Her hair’s in pigtails. Her brothers are screaming. No cars stop, though many swerve as they pass the property, nearly mowing over Fallingwater, Rhonda’s masterpiece mailbox.
Rhonda watches through the French window of her rancher, stress-squeezing a bottle of tacky glue, a tiny sconce on her newest model drying crooked. It’s the final day of her bereavement leave, but her mind is on last month’s accident—when a rubbernecking motorcyclist wiped out and totaled her Monticello mailbox, its miniature Corinthian pillars catching in his silver beard. Her art, erased. That day, the kids were playing a game called Semper Fi! where they pile inside the recycling tote, wait for the hum of a coming vehicle, and pop out jack-in-the-box style, screaming military slogans in hopes of goosing the driver.
Theirs is a bent, busy street on the edge of York City, where motorists, having endured a slew of long red lights, like to pretend the new 35 mph sign says 53. Rhonda’s property starts where the sidewalk dissolves into a gravelly shoulder and Tower Avenue doglegs out of town. In the apex of the bend stands her mailbox—clearly visible but totally vulnerable.
Today the two boys, maybe nine and six, shout at every vehicle that passes the property. “One hundred percent organic girl! Listen up, shitheads! Only one in stock!” If a car goes by without reaction—not even a honk or a jostle—it’s the middle finger for its rearview mirror. The boys have stubby, ugly middle fingers, like chopped-off hot dogs. She’s never met their father but imagines his hands are rough, dirt in the creases, grease in the lifeline.
Closing the curtain, Rhonda shakes her head and decides to intervene. She enters her garage, hoping to sneak up on the kids from the side and convey to them the danger—is it too rash to call it terror?—they’re bringing to this neighborhood, to their own troubled family, to her art.
With the garage light off, she bumps into the Chrysler Building, stubs a toe on the stairs of the Met. She loves to walk through this room full of mailboxes pretending it’s a dark gallery the tourists can never find. And this piece, she hears the docent whisper, was the first, started the month of the artist’s divorce. This one’s named after her son, who never calls. The voice fades as she descends the driveway.
“In fact, we’ll pay you to take her!” the boys yell as she limps past her hedgerow and across the street. “Fire sale! Fire sale!”
“Boys,” she says, as if they’re her kids and not strangers who moved in a few months ago, “you’ll regret the day someone stops and, you know, suddenly she’s gone.”
“She who?” says, maybe, Derek. Derek is the name she hears their father yell most often.
“Your dear sister,” Rhonda says.
“All she ever does is sing,” he says, taking the end of the leash and whipping it around his head like a lasso. A passing Subaru swerves at the road’s bend—missing Fallingwater—then speeds off. In the silence left behind, Rhonda hears it, the girl whisper-singing a wordless song.
“I think it’s pleasant,” Rhonda says, though the noise grates. “Like a bird.”
“We don’t want a bird,” the other boy says, fists in his swim trunks. “We want waffles!”“Isn’t today a school day?” Rhonda asks. It’s late September.
“Belgian waffles, lady.”
“So you want to give your sister away for waffles, but I wonder—what would your mother think?”
“Do you see her?” says Derek. “Do you see our mom, like, around?”
Rhonda kneels in the stones to make eye contact with the girl, who can’t yet be four years old, whose mouth opens a bit wider to sing, “Our mother in the clicker.” “The clicker?” Rhonda asks, squinting at the girl. “Is this some kind of riddle?”
“Shit, the TV clicker,” says Derek, pointing with an invisible remote, pressing his thumb, hating this channel, the Judgment Channel, this obnoxious episode featuring a sixty-seven-year-old, gray-hair-hanging-to-her-ass, nosy “artist” named Rhonda. The other boy comes over and tucks the long gray hair into Rhonda’s back khaki pocket. All the children laugh.
A weathered Buick approaches slowly, the engine popping, the window sliding down.
“Go get jobs!” comes a young, hard shout. When Rhonda turns, the car speeds away, the back tires spraying stones, but it swerves—the joke so funny that the driver lost his grip—and there they go, off the road. Fallingwater falls.
The teen reverses, gets out, pulls a black knit hat off his head, and asks if what he hit belongs to her. The kids run inside, Derek pulling his sister along with the leash. “Swear to God, lady,” the driver says. “I’ll replace this, uh—was that a mailbox?” Rhonda picks up one of the house’s tan cantilevers. The blue cellophane creek blows through the neighbor’s yard.
“Listen—I have a job.” She points the piece at him. “And I have to go back tomorrow.”

That night, because it’s warm and she is able, fit, focused on longevity, Rhonda walks five blocks to the YorkArts Center and drops off her Hemingway House for their yearly local juried show. Last fall, her Monticello was chosen (so was nearly every other submission), but it was displayed sloppily on a low stool behind the snack table. Alone, she had left the reception early.
The clerk who takes her piece smiles as an ornamental six-toed cat falls from the house’s balcony. She tries to explain Fallingwater to him. Truly, it had been her landmark work. Often Rhonda worries that she’s not really an artist, only averagely clever and a little annoying. An image comes into her mind as she walks home—her mailboxes going two for ten at a quick and careless estate sale auction. “Two for five!” her son yells to the bored buyers. “Fuck it—free! Fire sale!”
On the way, she stops at Turkey Hill and buys a giant Pepsi slushie. She sucks it down in the parking lot until her brain freezes. She’s had three weeks off to mourn Alan’s death. Not that she needed any time at all to grieve her ex-husband— they’d been divorced eight years and she hadn’t loved him since—when? College? Back when she was painting and he still watched her like a television? She was entitled to the benefit, though, and since her boss is a creep, she milked it. Her plan was to turn the leave into a self-funded artist residency, an opportunity to abandon her current mode of imitation and finally design something original—a home nobody’s ever seen.
However, apart from finishing Fallingwater, she’d wasted the time watching and worrying about the kids across the street. She wondered what care looked like to other people, wondered when neglect became abuse. They weren’t really the same, were they? Alan had hit their son, AJ, five times during his eighteen years in the house, and Rhonda remembers each one—especially the first, how she just stood at the sink, scrubbing so hard the steel wool ate a hole through the tin baking sheet.
The WALK sign is on, but she’s not walking.

For eighteen years, Rhonda taught crafting classes and shelved books at the library, but after Alan left, she had to find a job with health insurance. For a while she worked as a cafeteria aide in the high school, then three years ago she took a job at a counseling practice called Total Hope Life Services. When she applied, she imagined working with at-risk youth and young mothers, guiding them past the failures of their parents, maybe using arts-and-crafts therapy. But instead, she checks patients in at the front desk and suffers the requests of the staff’s four “hope therapists” and Troy, her needy boss. He’s the owner, and he believes in hugs. To work he rides a bicycle that—after fifteen minutes of Troy grunting and sweating in the lobby—folds up to the size of a briefcase. Everything he wears is wicking. “Wicking,” he explains to Rhonda weekly. “Feel it. Rub. The sweat comes out of me, but then this stuff just—fwwwp—wicks it right off.” He smells like her son’s old hockey bags in the back of the garage. Every morning, Troy’s shoes click loudly down the hallway, disturbing the appointments, leaving tough, dark marks.
Today, when Rhonda returns to the office, it’s worse than she remembered. Troy has hung new “art” on the walls, one print still bearing a half-torn Target price sticker. There’s a four-panel image of a daisy carrying through each season, a montage of mantras, a gray-scale Eiffel Tower.
Rhonda sits at her desk, hidden by stacks of counseling notes to be filed, when Troy clomps into the waiting room.
“Rhon!” he says, folding in a handlebar. “Did you have a great bereavement?”
“Well,” she says. “I mean—I think it was healthy.”
“You look like a wrung sponge,” he says, eyes on his shoes. On her first day, Rhonda was forced to take a “technology test” during which Troy stood behind her, watching as she navigated the practice’s webpage, reports portal, and billing system.
Rhonda types with two fingers. She knows it’s abnormal, but she’s actually quite fast. “Oh no,” Troy had said, dropping his hands to her shoulders. “I see you’re a pecker.” When he said it, she’d been concentrating too hard to feel insulted, but she felt it later, and cried quietly into her sangria glass at Applebee’s.
Now he’s at the side of the desk, leaning over the folders, spotting them with sweat.
“How are you, Troy?” she says.
“Buried, Rhon. Just swamped. Not easy working two jobs while you’re off. Really, I’ve broken some true sweat this last month.”
“Good thing you’ve got your wicking.”
“Do I sense an attitude today?”
“No, no. Sorry.” She rises, takes refuge near the printer.
“Rhonda.” He’s behind her now. “You know I’m sorry for your loss, right?”
“Thanks,” she says, turning and accidentally stepping into his hug. Surprising herself, she leans against him, lets out a loud breath. Her eyes close for a long, unpleasant moment.
“Do me a favor, stop by my office at lunch. We should debrief about the bereavement.”
“We should?” she says, thinking of the neighbor kids. What are they doing for lunch?
“Policy,” he says. “A few questions, you know—T’s to cross, lowercase j’s to dot.”
“It sounds like a grief pop quiz.”
“OK,” he says, nodding. “So it is an attitude.”

There’s a flimsy, rusted, head-high filing cabinet in the break room where the Office Communal Foods forms are kept, charts on which the employees are supposed to record the amount of shared items they’ve consumed each day, like coffee, sugar, ketchup, and, for some reason, ice cubes. This morning, Rhonda’s alone with the cabinet, fighting with the top drawer. The massive case tilts forward easily, especially when the top drawer’s pulled all the way out. Others have complained about this in the past, complaints Troy has waved away as part of his employees’ secret plan to bankrupt the company with needless overhead expenses.
Pulling the top drawer farther out, Rhonda imagines what another month off could do for her art. She opens a second drawer. What will Troy ask in this meeting? She opens a third drawer, and the metal tower lurches forward, and she screams before she feels a thing.

The next day, the kids across the street have a new, disturbing scheme running. They’ve stuck their sister in the crotch of an oak alongside the road. From the perspective of passing cars, you can’t even tell she’s up there. In the driveway, about ten yards off, the boys go down on one knee and level cap rifles at the orange leaves. Every time a car guns around the bend, one of the brothers yells “Open fire!” and they shoot, their bodies rocking with dramatic kickback. The girl then sidles out of the tree and falls four feet to the ground, where she lies splayed, tongue out and eyes rolled back. She’s not a bad actress, Rhonda notes. But it’s wrong. It just is.
They’re boosting her back into the tree when Rhonda rolls up on her knee scooter. Fallingwater has been replaced by a model of the Guggenheim she’s not super proud of, its spiraled white atrium resembling a sort of toilet tank.
“Are you two trying to destroy my mailboxes?” she says from the shoulder. Startled, the boys turn. The girl slips from the branch, crumples to the ground.
“Illuminati confirmed!” they shout.
Rhonda doesn’t understand, but wants to.
“One,” Derek says, “you’re always watching us.”
“Two,” the other boy says, “you want to control our every move.”
“Three,” Derek says, “you look like a witch, you make shitty weird castles, and …”
“Seven,” the girl sings, “you get no mail!”
“Illuminati confirmed,” the younger boy says, nodding. The insults, silly as they are, still sting. Rhonda looks at the slate-gray prefab house behind them, its Veneerstone siding and hollow Corinthian pillars. Yeah, the place is big, but she can tell it’s empty inside.
“You know, I lost someone, too,” she says. “My husband. Plus, my son never visits.”
“Oh, no,” says the younger boy, “the movie!” He runs to a lawn chair and grabs a handheld camera.
“I’m your neighbor,” she says, looking at Derek. “And neighbors can talk to each other.”
“Wyatt—give me that!” says Derek, pressing buttons on the camera. “We’re making a YouTube. If enough people watch it, you get money, and then maybe a TV show.”
“Or a concert!” says the girl. Her shirt reads I CUT MY OWN HAIR. “Concert, too, right?”
“Yes, Jessie. God,” Wyatt says.
“The best part,” says Derek, “is editing it on the computer. Like, when people drive by, you can zoom in on their faces. You can put them on a loop.”
“Yeah,” says Wyatt. “They look like this.” He lifts his eyebrows and crosses his eyes.
“Yeah,” says Derek, “it’s like—” He does a droopy zombie face.
“Like—” Jessie says, mussing her hair and shoving out her tongue.
“Like this?” Rhonda says, screwing up her face like Troy folding his bicycle.
The children scream with laughter. Wyatt grabs her hand and whispers, “Wanna come inside and see?”

Her suspicion about their home is correct—there’s nothing inside. The walls are off-white and endless. The vinyl flooring mimics granite. There is practically no natural light. She doesn’t see any clear signs of abuse, unless you consider the air-conditioning that blasts from the vents to be a form of punishment.
“It’s like a cave in here,” she says. “I’m freezing.” But Wyatt assures her that Illuminati witches can’t freeze. Rhonda looks at her phone and sees an email from Troy with the subject heading “RE: Workers Comp.” (“Just some t’s to cross here, but I’m curious …”) She puts the phone away. Jessie grabs her by the ring finger and pulls her to the living room, where Rhonda’s scooter catches on the lip of the carpet. A Hannah Montana poster is spread on the floor, held down by an array of action figures.
“This my boy band,” Jessie says. “They sing YouTubes and be famous.”
The living room is just a pleather sectional, a giant television, and three windows with the blinds drawn. Rhonda used to own a TV but mostly kept it in the closet. A quiet man, a reader, Alan hauled it out only for special occasions, like the Super Bowl or a Vietnam documentary. They’d always seen TV as a bad socializer, like video games. Her own mother spent years in front of a TV, bound to her recliner, Rhonda only a bother. Because she was alone, Rhonda didn’t blame her as much as she blamed entertainment, its usurping power to distract.
Jessie turns the TV to VH1 and begins to sing, though no one on the show is singing. It’s a reality show apparently focused on poolside fistfights, but the girl hears a tune in it. Screens don’t seem to be stifling these kids’ creativity, though maybe they’ve made them fame-obsessed. But doesn’t everyone dream of being seen? Rhonda often fantasizes about seeing her work in a museum, of giving a great, brief speech to a sharp crowd of admirers. “Have a ball,” she’d say. “Drink the wine! Oh, and try the mini-quiches!” She’d wear a loud dress, something geometric and yellow, her hair done up and remarkable.
“Dad say we not famous. Derek say Dad a bully. Miss F. say no bullies in Bible school …”
“Wait,” Rhonda says. “When will your father be home? When does he get off work?”
Though the three voices come from different rooms, they all ring out together in the same practiced monotone: “However long it takes, for fuck’s sake!” Jessie extends the vowel sound in “sake” and pitches the word up an octave. The voices echo through the empty house. Rhonda thinks of what she’d do with a place like this. Ever since she and Alan closed on the rancher, she had anticipated a bigger home, something more ornate, a structure she could work with, a house that might inspire her to pick up a brush again. It’d been a big upgrade from her mother’s single-wide, but she’d always thought it was a first step to something better.
The first time Alan hit their son, AJ was four. Alan was on the phone and AJ was beneath the breakfast table, calling his father’s name. When he pulled the placemat from the end of the table, bringing his father’s breakfast shattering to the floor, he scrambled out to find Alan’s arm flying back against his face.
“All he wanted was your attention!” Rhonda yelled at Alan afterward.
“I reacted,” Alan said, the line still live, the phone hugging his red neck. “I just reacted!”
He would react again when AJ was nine. And again when he was eleven. Fifteen. Eighteen. And Rhonda, each time, would react, too—react by wondering how she could love a man whose instincts she couldn’t trust. She tried. She couldn’t. It didn’t work. Why did she wait for him to leave? This is the question that her art can’t formulate, that her son can’t ask, that these poor neighbors could never answer.
“And him name Momma,” Jessie says, holding up a shirtless, wounded G.I. Joe, and Rhonda sees the lip of a bruise on the girl’s upper arm. She reaches out and pulls Jessie’s sleeve further back.
The girl jerks away. “Hey!”
Suddenly Rhonda feels warm, nervous, like an intruder. For all anyone here knows, she’s a threat to this family. Following them inside was a dumb idea. She wheels out into the foyer, past what she notices now is a giant ragged hole in the drywall. She doesn’t ask.
“Where go?” Jessie says. Derek and Wyatt come sliding down the hall in socks.
“What the hell? I was gonna show you the video,” Derek says. “It’s just loading.”
“And I made you this,” Wyatt says, holding out a sandwich on a plate. Rhonda takes it from him, smiles, flips up the hearty bread. Ham, Brie. Is that apple?
“Pear,” Wyatt says, smiling. Jessie rushes out into the foyer and hands her the clicker. Rhonda takes the hefty remote, feels its gummy buttons.
“Dad told us he put her ashes in there,” Derek says. “So we can’t ever lose it.”
Rhonda tries to change the channel, but it doesn’t change. The credits keep rolling over two lovers crying in a cabana. “My ex-husband’s wife, Theresa,” she says, “had his ashes made into a little silver gemstone. She wears him on a ring.”
“That’s disgusting,” Derek says, and his siblings nod. It really is.
Wyatt grabs the remote from Rhonda, shakes it near his ear. “Duh. There’s nothing in here.”
“Dad’s a liar,” Derek says, and his siblings fall silent.

From the doorway, the kids are calling: “Don’t leave! You’re not a witch!” Rhonda’s halfway down the driveway when their father’s truck whips in, nearly clipping her cast. She scoots through the grass, toward the safety of the road and, just beyond it, her own house.
Behind her, the truck door slams. “Excuse me,” the man says. She’s only ever seen him getting in and out of the truck—never in the yard with the kids, never on the porch, never taking walks or in the driveway working on projects. “Do you have business here?” She keeps rolling until she reaches the road, a demilitarized zone.
“Lady?” he says, his voice close at her back.
“The kids,” she says, angling around toward him. “They, uh … well.”
“Kids? My kids? Those kids in there who just lost their mother?”
“I know, I know, but—” she says, backing toward the road.
“Oh, you know? You’re a know-it-all. Well, do you know where your property ends?”
“Listen, they broke my mailbox. Their reckless games. It’s happened twice now.”
“That one there?” he says, leaning to see past her. Rhonda stares at his suit, his leather shoes—brown and shining, but scuffed. She inches farther away from him, closer to home. He laughs. “I’m not sure they couldn’t have done any more damage than you done.”
A passing car honks at Rhonda, whose cast juts out into the demented road. “Get out of the fucking way!” the driver shouts from the window.
“What happened to your leg there?” the man says to Rhonda’s back. She’s pushing out across Tower Avenue. “Don’t suppose my kids are to blame for that, too?”

Rhonda arrives home shaking. She wants only one thing: to work. To make art. But she can’t work in the living room—not with that house across the street, the lights flashing on and off, the doors slamming. And it’s too cold in the cramped kitchen. And the back porch is swamped with ladybugs. She hates this fucking house, always has. In AJ’s old room, she spreads her materials on the bed and begins a strange new … what? It’s not clear. She wings it. She paints the crooked siding a dark stone. Nearly black. Bars in the windows. No windows at all.
Even with Joni Mitchell’s Blue at full volume, Rhonda can hear the father screaming. There have been sharp, lone shouts before, but this seems to be a full performance. She grabs her phone to call the police—maybe just a noise
complaint—then hesitates. An old thought comes to her, one she’s hated for decades: who is she to claim to know the proper way for a father to act? Is it better to live with a mean man or none at all? If she steps in, things could get worse. The kids could be taken away. She stares at the phone. There’s a beautiful alert for a missed call from AJ, which she immediately returns.
Her son is worried about her injury, the fact that she hasn’t been working for over a month. When he coughs out the words “group home,” Rhonda interjects that she is sixty-four—though she’s really sixty-seven—and those places are for eightyyear-
olds. AJ asks, “Why are you crying?” and she hangs up.
He calls back.
“Talk to me,” he says.
“How? You never call.”
“I’m calling now. I just called.”
Rhonda feels a sick sinking in her gut, like a car cresting a country hill. “We need to talk about your father.”
“You mean, why you didn’t go to his funeral?”
“He abused you, AJ. Don’t you see that?”
“Are you serious? I was there, Mom. I had to hide my own bruises. I saw it again and again. I still see it.” He’s trying hard not to shout, and she loves him for it. “But I forgave him. We reconciled.”
“When?”
“Years ago, when he moved to New Mexico.”
“When he left me.”
“Yes, we talked about it for hours. It was awful. But I had to find a way to forgive him.”
“What about me?”
“You?”
“Have you forgiven me?”
“For what?”
The line holds quiet.
“For the neglect?” AJ says.
“The neglect?” Rhonda says. She needs water. “What are you saying? I meant—I mean, because I never stopped him. Somehow I just hid. I ignored it.”
“Mom, if you don’t see how that is neglect, then how can I forgive you?”

Saturdays, Rhonda always switches her mailbox, but today she sleeps late. The argument with AJ knocked her down like five NyQuil, and now she can’t remember where it ended. She’s heavy in the bed, an anchor out of water. Turning over, she sees the dark, unfinished monstrosity she’d been making the night before and, beside it, her phone, which she checks: only a voicemail from Troy, about workers’ comp, and he misses her, and there’s a meeting with a lawyer.
At noon, she pushes out to switch her mailbox. This week is Glass House, a simpler piece, but she’s always fantasized a life with nothing to hide. The sky looks ready for rain. The neighbor’s truck is home. At the end of their driveway, the boys
are tied to their own green plastic mailbox. A sign reads: free, o.b.o.
“It’s a new game!” Wyatt yells to her. “It’s called See How You Like It.”
“Noooo,” Derek corrects him. “Dad says it’s Taste Your Own Medicine.”
Rhonda turns around slowly, kicks her way back to the garage. “Wait, wait!” Derek calls. “Dad doesn’t get the filming part. He’s not even recording! There won’t be anything to put on YouTube. Go get us a camera, Rhonda.”
“Or, wait,” Wyatt says. “Just take us!”
“Yeah, Rhonda,” Derek says. “We’re free!”

The handheld camcorder was her gift to AJ one Christmas. She watches the little screen while she wheels through the house. Maybe he would make home videos, she’d hoped back when she bought it, but the memory card is only full of bootlegged movies from his friends’ houses. Air Bud recorded on a camcorder so AJ could watch it in his room, beneath the covers, alone.
She’s deleting, clearing space, when her cell phone rings. Her instinct is to ignore it. Could it be the final call from Troy, the one that says she’s being fired?
No, it’s from YorkArts. They’ve passed on her piece, and would she come pick it up at her earliest convenience? She drops the phone and leaves it on the floor. She will not cry. In the garage, she rolls right over the steps of the Met. It makes such a satisfying crunch.
Outside, she sets the camera on top of Glass House and frames the neighbors. Wait until the police see this. “Ready?” she says and clicks the red button. The boys begin to act like victims, straining against their ropes, grasping at the thin air.
“The Illuminati is pulling the strings!” they yell. Their voices fade behind her as she pushes off toward the city. “Mom! Mommy, help us!”

Rhonda powers up the sidewalk, head down, toward the city. She’s got video proof of abuse, but the policemen at the desk don’t want to watch her video. She shoves it in front of them. “Clever,” they say, ignoring her other evidence—bruises on the kids, holes in the wall, how he keeps them out of school. The officers scratch a few notes, but neither asks for names or an address. “You ever heard of a free country?” one mumbles.
From the police station Rhonda goes to the gallery. “Thank you,” says the clerk who hands over her mailbox. Without tears, she thanks him back, though what for? Outside, she has to work to balance the piece on the handlebars of her knee scooter, and just as she’s ready to push off, the door to the building swings open. Out comes a man whose feet click against the sidewalk. A canvas the size of a sports-bar television obscures his head—a crude, cartoonish-looking pair of leg bones, snapped in half and, for some reason, bleeding. The man puts down the painting, unlocks his bicycle from the no-parking sign. His legs and arms are slick with wicking. A sweat coats her boss’s face. “Troy,” she says as he tries to mount his bike with the awkward, violent painting under his arm. “Wait!” she says. “I didn’t know you were a painter.”
“Well, Rhon. I guess I’m not,” he says. “Not according to these people.”
“What is this?” she says, pointing to the canvas.
“My accident.” The sweat on his face might be tears as he explains how a surgeon had to remove a whole section of shattered bone. A car ran him off the road. His left leg’s a quarter-inch shorter now. “The bike shoes help a lot, kind of even
out my step.”
It’s quiet. No cars pass. Rhonda takes a breath and says, “Don’t touch me at work.”
“You mean hugging?”
“Actually, I mean,” she says, “I quit.”
Troy sighs, mounts his bike with the canvas squeezed under his armpit, and gives no wave. Rhonda’s nearly home before the mailbox slips from her handlebars and tumbles to the street. Perhaps a passing bus will smash it. She doesn’t wait around to see.

When Rhonda finally wheels up to her house, she feels very light. It’s possible her broken foot has disappeared—that’s how little she’s aware of it. Unless she looks down at her body beneath her head, she can’t guarantee any of it is there. This feels different. Not good, not bad, just empty.
The boys are still tied to the mailbox. Derek’s shirt is pulled up to his nose and he’s crying into the collar. Wyatt, sprawled and kicking the air, looks like fresh roadkill. The sun, on its arc back down, heads for the top of their house. Hours they’ve been out here.
“It’s over now,” Rhonda says, reaching down for the knot of plastic rope. “Game over.”
“Did we win?” Wyatt asks. Rhonda nods, though she’s not convinced. The knot’s so small, and impossibly tight. She tries, using her teeth, then gives up. As it falls from her hands, she reaches down again, her leg slipping off the scooter, and she tips onto the lawn. Here she lies, watching the sky turn pink. Ladybugs hover on flat paths through the air. The boys lean back in the dirt beside her. The rope around their waists has rubbed the skin of their hips raw. This is something she can see with her eyes. Evidence. What else? She sees that she will not be able to save them. And a glass mailbox, across the street, throwing around the last light
of the sun, delivering what only a fool would view as hope.
“I am going to go home. I am going to go home and call the police until they come.”
“Why are you talking like that?” Wyatt says.
Rhonda struggles to her feet and back onto her scooter.
“Why are you leaving?” Derek says. “Can we come?”
The boys’ protests grow louder as she crosses Tower Avenue a final time. There are quick cars coming, but they’re still far away. Behind her, the boys strain at the ends of their leashes, trying to chase. They pull and pull and stretch the rope, and when the post gives way, they fall forward into the road’s stony shoulder, shocking an approaching driver, who swerves. The car crashes through Glass House and hurtles over the hedgerow, unable to stop before it levels her.

The day before her U-Haul comes, Rhonda hosts a garage sale that AJ calls a gallery opening. A few dozen people wander by and walk inside. There’s the Robie House, Chrysler, and the Capitol. There’s Farnsworth, Taliesin, Hollyhock, Eames. Look at the dented Met, the Unity Temple. Visitors stroll the space as Rhonda watches from a wheelchair, woozy on pain pills but bursting with nerves. The strangers touch; she does not stop them. No prices are posted, but if they ask, she says, “Make an offer.” She doesn’t count the money. Each sale, she takes another pill, dry.
By early evening she’s hardly awake. The sun falls low enough to shine directly into the garage—a tunnel of light she feels her chair creeping toward.
AJ puts his arm around her shoulder. “Theresa’s here to see you,” he says.
Rhonda opens her eyes and sees a dark-haired, middle-aged woman who takes her hand and shakes it.
“Alan told me you were an artist,” she says. “Undiscovered.” The ring on her finger is charcoal-colored, but glowing. Could that be him? “Oh, here,” she says. “You can hold it.”
Rhonda shakes her head. Theresa hugs AJ, walks the gallery, opens her wallet. When she leaves, it’s with the Unity Temple under her arm, heels clicking on the driveway.
“Do me a favor?” Rhonda asks AJ, but hears no answer. “Can you make sure the kids across the street are OK? I’m sorry, love. But can you do that for them?”
Soon the garage door is sliding down, but Jessie sneaks beneath it, singing. She’s wearing a bathing suit, waving to Rhonda, skipping down the rows and peering into windows, peeling open little doors as if picking a lash from an eye. She finds an unfinished mailbox tucked back in the corner—a pitch-black house with pillars, a porch that looks foreign yet familiar—and gathers it into her arms. Her song gets loud, louder, thundering as she approaches, trying to wake the artist from her sleep.
“Why’s this one empty?” the girl says, setting the house on the card table.
Rhonda leans forward. She wants to answer, so she peers inside, watching, as if something might emerge.
“They all are,” Rhonda says. And together they reach to fix the little garage door, which is either falling closed or coming open.

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Sublet, Pay-Later System

Mira Rosenthal

Sublet, Pay-Later System

Everyone and their mother wants to extend us
credit, though we have no collateral, save

deposits made of late into the tremendous
sorrow bank where the walls seem to duplicate

rows, columns, keyholes begging for felonious
picking, so I can’t toss the glossy offers straight

into the garbage, lest someone thus and thus
root through to procure the place, the date,

the so-and-so that give away what we call
identity—no, I have to strip the very essence

of each form, displace the digits, tear to shreds
any semblance of a name before I ball

it all up and deposit it with the swarming ants.
Only then can we rest in our plywood bed.

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Grownups

Josh Russell

Grownups

A cop blowing a whistle directed traffic into and out of Piedmont, and when he waved her in, Kim thought she could almost recognize the tune. She wondered if she’d ever visit a hospital that wasn’t several hospitals stuck together, each building an example of its decade’s generic hospital architecture. The parking deck was an ugly afterthought, and the bridge from it to the 77 Building jiggled. HR was in the 1984 Building. A tiny diagram on the wall showed there were also Buildings 105, 95, 35, and 2004. The numbers didn’t appear to be intended to orient. There was no YOU ARE HERE dot. On the gleaming terrazzo there were yellow, blue, orange, red, and green lines, but corresponding lines didn’t appear on the map. She’d been nervous in the car, and now she felt sick.
Kim could see the sign for Endoscopy down the hall, and found it on the faded plan. To get to the 1984 Building, she needed to follow the hall to its visible end, past Endoscopy, and keep following it when it doglegged to the right. She checked her bag to make sure she had her résumé.
When she was but a few steps from it, the door to Endoscopy opened, and out came a man who in profile looked like her dead husband. It wasn’t Tom—she knew it couldn’t be Tom—but when she said “Tom?” and he turned to her and answered “Yes?” she made a fist and hit him in the ear.
He yelped, “Are you crazy?” and held the left side of his head. “Are you crazy?”
His cheekbones were slightly stronger than Tom’s.
“I thought you were someone else.”
He stared at her like she was speaking a language he had to translate word by word. His eyes were not as close-set as Tom’s, though the blue matched. “Someone else named Tom?” he finally asked.
“Yes,” she said, and started to walk away, hoping he’d assume she was indeed crazy and leave her alone.
Instead he followed her. “You owe me a favor.”
She pretended not to hear him.
“Hey,” he said, and put his hand on her shoulder.
She spun around and said, “I’ll punch you again.” When he laughed at her, he looked and sounded so much like Tom that she stumbled. Tom caught her elbow and held it. She didn’t tell him not to touch her.
“Listen, I need someone to say they’ll drive me home after I have my colonoscopy or they won’t let me have a colonoscopy, and because I don’t have insurance, I had to pay for the colonoscopy in advance, and I doubt there’s a refund policy for a colonoscopy. And I’m missing a day’s work for the colonoscopy. I knew I wasn’t allowed to drive, but I thought I could catch the bus, but now they’re telling me someone has to sit in the waiting room the entire time I have the colonoscopy.”
“You want me to drive you home?”
He let go of her elbow. “Just tell them you will so I can have the colonoscopy.”
A nurse in purple scrubs walked past and Kim almost said to her, “This man is bothering me,” but she knew he was upset by the way he kept repeating the word colonoscopy, and she felt sorry for him. He looked hungover and had dark circles under his eyes.
“You really do look like someone I know named Tom.”
“So you’ll do it?”
She didn’t want to. “Sure,” she said.

Kim followed Tom into the Endoscopy waiting room, which was loud with TV and filled with people looking at their phones, and up to the desk, where he almost shouted at the receptionist that his ride had arrived. He was sorry he’d said before he didn’t have a ride—he was just having trouble thinking clearly since he’d been fasting, you know, for the colonoscopy, and what he’d meant to say was that his ride wasn’t with him when he first came in, but that she was on her way, and look, here she was!
He was a clumsy liar in baggy sweatpants and a T-shirt with a picture of a squirrel on it. Kim was wearing her interview suit and grown-up makeup. She knew her fibs would work where his were failing.
“I’m his wife,” she said. Tom flinched. “We’re fighting.”
The receptionist smirked and nodded knowingly at Kim.
Tom was called back immediately.

The TV was tuned to the talk show Kim’s mother-in-law watched every morning, the volume so high it was as if the nitwit hosts were screaming at the celebrity chef who was making them an omelet. She closed her eyes, wondering how long she should wait before she pretended to go to the bathroom and snuck away.
Behind her eyelids she tried to keep separate the faces of the Tom she’d hit in the hallway and the Tom she’d often wanted to hit before he died.
The day Kim told Tom she was pregnant, he acted happy, which surprised her. They’d been married for a couple of years then, and things had not been easy. She’d expected the news to cause trouble. They called in sick—both worked in the office of Tom’s dad’s pest control business—and spent the morning in bed having sex to celebrate what sex had led to, then went out for lunch, at which point Tom started drinking and his mood changed. Four beers in, he loudly wondered how she could be so stupid, stupid enough to forget to take a pill, stupid enough to think he wanted a kid, stupid enough not to know he thought about leaving her fat ass every day. Kim saw the people at the next table trying to act as if they couldn’t hear him. Tom saw them, too.
“Hey,” he said to the guy sitting to his right, “don’t I know you? You look really familiar. Don’t I know you? Are you on TV?”
It was a brilliant trick: Kim saw everyone’s attention turn to the guy Tom was asking.
Then Tom looked to the left and said to a different man, “Hey, don’t I know you? You look really familiar. Don’t I know you? Are you on TV?”
Now everyone was looking at Tom. He pulled out his wallet and dropped bills onto his plate of half-eaten spaghetti.
He got up, and Kim followed.
In the car, she thought about abortion. She thought about the cruelest ways to tell him that she, too, considered leaving him every day, but couldn’t come up with a version that didn’t sound like a weak echo of his meanness. She imagined him laughing at whatever she told him.
“Fuck, I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m just kind of freaked out, you know?”
She knew this pattern and fought against giving in.
“Hey,” he said, “don’t I know you? You look really familiar. Don’t I know you? Are you on TV?”
She heard herself laughing before she realized she was.

In the waiting room, the commercials were even louder than the show. Kim asked the receptionist if it was OK to get coffee and was told that it was, but to come back soon, because she would need to be there when her husband woke from the anesthesia.
She was unlocking the Camry when she remembered why she was at the hospital. Thinking about Tom and having the receptionist refer to the guy who looked like Tom as her husband had rattled her. She crossed the bridge to Building 77 once again, hurried past the door to Endoscopy, navigated the dogleg she’d seen
on the map, and found the passage to Building 1984.
A frowning HR receptionist time-stamped her résumé and dropped it onto a stack. “You could have emailed it, you know,” she said. “No reason to dress up and come here.”
Kim couldn’t tell the receptionist that she’d been out of work for five months, that desperation had driven her to pick up her suit from the cleaners and borrow her teenage daughter’s mascara, that dressing up and leaving the house made her mother-in-law hassle her a little less about not being able to get a job.
“Thanks,” she said.
The nurse in purple scrubs was in the hall, leaning against the wall and checking her phone, when Kim turned the corner. “Good,” the nurse said, “you’re back. He’ll be waking up soon.”
“Long morning?” Kim asked, trying to sound blasé.
“Butts and guts. Lots of fun.”
She led Kim to recovery and pulled closed the curtain behind her. Sedated, Tom looked like Tom had looked before he died—Tom dead for a decade, Tom who, if alive, would be thirty-seven. This Tom had looked like Tom had looked in his coffin. For a few weeks after the funeral, Ella, then three, had asked where Daddy was, then stopped asking, easy as that.
Kim poked Tom to see how deeply he slept. When he didn’t react, she lifted the blanket to make sure his ankle wasn’t marked with Tom’s frat’s three Greek letters. Instead there was a tattoo of Big Bird, from Sesame Street.
“You asshole,” she said anyway, as if this unconscious Tom were a conduit through which her years of anger could reach dead Tom, and immediately she felt stupid—this wasn’t dead Tom—but he stirred and turned his head away from her slightly, and this infuriated her.
“Why?” she said, but he interrupted her with a noise that was half snore and half sneeze.
His eyelids fluttered.
“I hate you,” she said, and was taken aback by how good it made her feel to say it, so she said it again—“I hate you, you asshole”—and then she slapped him.
He yelped and his eyes popped open. He looked confused and frightened. “What’re you doing here?”
“Is the patient awake?” the nurse in purple scrubs asked in a singsong voice from the other side of the curtain.
Kim wondered how much she’d heard. “He is,” she said.
The nurse pulled open the curtain and patted Kim’s shoulder. “The doctor will be with you soon,” she told her, not Tom.
“What are you doing here?” he asked Kim again.
“Sir, your wife is taking care of you,” the nurse said, and Kim knew she must have heard everything.
“She’s not my wife,” Tom said.
The nurse rolled her eyes. “Sir, anesthesia can make you confused. Just calm down.” To Kim, she said, “They all wake up like this.” She checked his pulse. “Just try to pass some gas, sir. Need to make sure everything’s working.”
“Listen, she’s not my wife.”
Kim could hear in his voice that he was becoming more lucid. She suspected that something was wrong the moment the doctor appeared—narrowed eyes and pinched mouth—and she was certain there was trouble when he began to speak in the slow and serious voice used to deliver bad news.
“I expected hemorrhoids, as you know, but I found a tumor.”
Tom looked from the doctor to Kim to the nurse and back to the doctor. “Tumor?” he said, his tone guilty, as if he’d been hiding it from them and had been found out.
“Can-cer,” the doctor told him, sounding out each syllable. “But this isn’t a death sentence.”
Kim knew the doctor thought he had to push the information through the fuzz of the fading anesthesia, but the way he was talking to Tom made her angry for him.
“What now?” she asked.
“She’s not my wife,” Tom said.
“Sir,” the nurse snapped at him.
“It’s OK,” the doctor said, “you’re going to feel disoriented and upset. It’s normal.” He handed Kim some paperwork. “You’ll need to make an appointment with a surgeon and an oncologist,” he told her. “Call his GP and have him make the referrals.”
“I don’t have a GP,” Tom said. “I don’t have insurance.”
The nurse and the doctor exchanged a look.
“She’s not my wife,” he added, and they appeared relieved that he’d changed the subject.
“I met her in the hallway and asked her to lie so you’d do the colonoscopy. I don’t even know her name.”
The nurse and the doctor turned to Kim, and she realized they wanted badly to be done with Tom. Suddenly it occurred to her that she could get in trouble.
“Stop being weird,” she said to Tom. “Get dressed and we’ll get breakfast.”
“I don’t want breakfast.”
The doctor patted Kim’s shoulder. Bickering spouses were easier to believe in than the story of a woman pretending to be a man’s wife so he could get a colonoscopy.

Tom told everyone Kim wasn’t his wife—the nurse in blue scrubs who helped him get dressed, the young, plump male orderly (his name tag identified him as Stanley) who came with a wheelchair, the men and women in the waiting room, the security guard in the hallway—and Kim felt bad, because Tom was clearly dismayed that no one believed him.
In the parking garage, she considered driving away, stranding him at the exit, where he’d be waiting with Stanley, cutting him free of the lie that had allowed him to learn the truth about what was inside him and herself free from thinking about Tom. But she worried again that if she did she’d get in trouble somehow—maybe they’d figure out who she was because of the résumé she’d left in 1984—and the possibility of trouble she couldn’t afford, combined with the idea of him sitting in the wheelchair insisting over and over that she wasn’t his wife until it became clear to the orderly that she wasn’t coming, made her sad. And, truth be told, it had felt good to say to him the things she’d wanted to say to Tom for years; it had felt good to slap him. She’d buy him breakfast and drive him home
She followed the signs to patient pickup and helped the orderly gently force Tom into the car. Though he’d stopped complaining that she wasn’t his wife, he nonetheless half-heartedly struggled as Stanley pulled the seat belt over him and clicked it, at which point he slumped, defeated.

“Do you like pancakes?” she asked as she turned onto Peachtree.
He glared at her. “Do I like pancakes?”
“My name’s Kim, by the way.”
“I don’t care what your name is.”
She stopped for a red light and waited for him to open the door and get out, but he didn’t.
“You’re young for a colonoscopy, aren’t you?”
“There was blood in my shit.”
Kim couldn’t think of anything more to say than “So, pancakes?”
He didn’t answer. Out of the corner of her eye, she tried to find features that made this Tom obviously not dead Tom. Surely, she told herself, time had made it hard for her to remember Tom’s eyebrow, ear, frown; surely the Tom of her memories was being replaced by the Tom sitting next to her.
“Red light!” he barked, and she stomped the break to avoid rear-ending the minivan in front of them.
“My bad,” she said. He coughed and didn’t look at her.

Kim took him to a place on Ponce with a fading and flaking mural of a giant coffee cup on the wall that faced the parking lot. She’d driven past it many times and thought it looked interesting, but she hated eating alone in restaurants, so she’d never stopped.
Tom followed her in and sat across from her. He had his eyes closed. She couldn’t figure out if this was because he was still slightly anesthetized or if he was playing an angry game of I-can’t-see-you.
Dozens of pastel toasters and electric hand mixers from the fifties hung on the walls, but the waitress wore a Motörhead T-shirt. A silver hoop pierced her lip.
“Coffee?” she asked.
“Yes, please,” Kim answered.
Tom slowly opened his eyes and stared at the waitress. “Hey,” he said to her. “Beth, right?”
She grinned at him. “You’re Blake’s friend.”
He nodded and smiled. “Coffee would be awesome.”
Kim watched him watch Beth walk to the coffeepot.
“Do you want to talk about cancer?” Kim asked.
“No, thanks,” Tom said.
Beth brought their coffee. Kim studied Tom while he gave his order—pancakes, eggs, bacon, grits, large orange juice, raisin toast, fruit cup. So intent was she that it took her a moment to realize he’d stopped talking and that he and Beth were staring at her.
Kim looked down at the menu and read aloud the first words she saw: “Biscuits and gravy.” She sipped her coffee so she wouldn’t have to make eye contact.
When Beth had crossed the room, Tom asked, “Is this how you spend your mornings? Kidnapping people from the hospital and taking them to breakfast?”
His voice was sharper than before. Either, Kim thought, the drugs were wearing off, or he was feeling less freaked out about the tumor, or both.
“I’m just trying to be nice.”
“You sucker-punched me and called me an asshole and slapped me.”
Kim flinched. He’d been more awake than she’d thought. “I—” she started, but he interrupted her.
“I need to wash my hands,” he said, and pushed back his chair and got up.
She felt foolish. What did she think was going to happen when she half abducted some random guy who looked like Tom ten years ago, some guy who’d just been told he had colon cancer and needed surgery he couldn’t afford? She should have told the truth at the hospital. When he came back to the table, she decided, she’d offer to pay for an Uber if he didn’t want a ride, maybe send him flowers if he was willing to give her his address.
Beth was back. A busboy in an apron stood behind her. There were many plates.
“Tom told me to give you this.” Beth showed Kim her middle finger. She tore the check from her pad and slapped it down beside Kim’s fork. “Whenever you’re ready, ma’am.”
“He left?”
“I’m sorry, didn’t you understand the message?” She flipped off Kim again.
It made Kim feel old that her first impulse was to demand to see a manager, not throw coffee or a punch. Instead of doing any of those things, she handed over her credit card.
The busboy was walking past holding an empty takeout box, and Kim snatched it from his hands, sure that if she asked for one, Beth would spit in it.
“Thanks!” she said chirpily, before he could complain.
She piled the huge breakfast into the container and realized that running up the bill with pancakes and fruit cup and eggs was also a middle finger. Tom had never intended to eat any of it.
When Beth came back for the check, Kim drew a dark X across the tip line.

In the parking lot, she sat in her car and checked her email, hoping for a message from one of the many places she’d left a résumé. There was only a note from Ella’s math teacher about sloppy homework and low quiz grades.
Beth came out with the busboy and they passed a lighter and leaned against the parking lot mural and smoked. Kim watched them, remembering the innumerable cigarettes she’d smoked when she was a waitress, in the breaks between wrapping silverware and making huge pots of sweet and unsweet iced tea, between flirting with line cooks and counting tips. This was her life before Tom, before sharing a house with a mother-in-law with dementia, before a teenage daughter getting a D+ in math, before worrying that unemployment benefits were about to run out.
His paperwork was on the passenger seat. The text at the top of the page noted that a likely tumor had been discovered, biopsied, and tattooed. Kim wondered what tattooing a tumor involved. Below the notes was a grid of sixteen pictures of Tom’s colon, four rows of four. The first dozen were of similarly shiny and weirdly clean yellow-pink tunnels. In the middle of the bottom row was a snapshot unlike the others—a bloody nub next to grayish pimples. It looked like someone had rubbed out a cigarette in his large intestine.
Kim got out of the car and walked over to Beth and the busboy. “Hey, Beth, right? Tom’s sick.” She held up the report. “I need to take this to him. Can you tell me where I can find him?”
Beth again showed Kim her middle finger. “Listen, Mom, how many times do I have to deliver this message?”
“You’ll get old, too.” She’d meant it as a threat, but it sounded more like an apology.
Beth flicked her cigarette at Kim and walked away.
“He works at Coffee Kingdom, over in EAV,” the busboy told her. “Total dick, FYI.”

Kim disliked East Atlanta Village, its trust-fund bohemians and belligerent panhandlers. The last time she’d found herself there was for a street festival Ella begged to be taken to. Her mother-in-law had tagged along so that she could go to an antique shop where she remembered buying things in decades past. The festival annoyed Kim—needlework samplers of obscene rap lyrics, weird overpriced baked goods, local bands blaring sloppy covers of songs she’d never heard—and the antique store had become a braiding salon, which first baffled then enraged Doris. It had rained the entire time, so Kim was surprised by blue skies when she parked in front of the coffee shop.
Through the plate glass she could see Tom behind the counter, smiling. The guy working the espresso machine had a matching grin. They looked as if they’d just shared a great joke.
Most of the people in the line Kim joined were dressed like she was: on their way to interviews, or very late for work, or running adult errands at once halfhearted and desperate, like midday adultery, or leaving a résumé at a hospital in the hope that they’d be hired to sort files. Everyone at a table had a laptop and Buddy Holly glasses and looked like they’d slept in the jeans and T-shirts they wore.
When her turn came, Kim could almost see, through his forehead, the gears of Tom’s brain grinding as he tried to remember her. He was, she recognized, very stoned.
“You left this in my car.” She handed him the colonoscopy report.
The edges of his smile twitched. He looked at the pictures. “Oh, shit,” he said.
His worried face was so much like Tom’s worried face that she couldn’t offer more than “Yes, well,” and then, remembering where she was, “Small decaf?”
Tom filled a paper cup and slid it across the counter. “Shit,” he said again, looking at the snapshot of his tumor.
“Are you OK?” Kim asked.
“Come on, let’s go,” the guy behind her in line whined. “Dude, large latte,” he said to the other barista.
Kim stepped aside and the guy glared at her, tiny angry eyes sunk in a pig’s face. He flipped a folded bill at Tom, and it fluttered to the counter. Tom picked it up, smoothed it carefully, rang up the order, and slowly made change, all of it in coins. When he cocked his arm, Kim took two steps back, feeling what was coming. Tom side-armed the fistful of quarters and nickels and dimes at the impatient man’s chest. Coins bounced off his tie and shirtfront and clattered on the floor. The other barista called out “Large latte,” as though nothing had happened. The guy glared at Tom for a few seconds, then moved down the counter, picked up his coffee, and walked out, leaving behind every cent.
“Jed’s going to fire you when that tool complains,” the other barista said. “I mean, dude, the fuck?”
Tom picked up the doctor’s report. Discombobulated by the racket the coins had made on the floor and the sudden silence following, Kim thought he was coming around the counter to give the paper back to her, and she held out her hand. He walked past and out onto the sidewalk, still wearing his apron. She followed.
“You got me fired,” he told her.
She was confused. “You threw change at someone. And no one fired you.”
“Why are you here?”
Kim tapped the paper he was holding.
He looked down at it and said again, “Oh, shit.”
“None to be seen in those pictures,” she said lamely.
He squinted his bloodshot eyes at her. “Weed on top of anesthesia is hitting me hard. I’m super hungry.”
“I’ve still got all that food you ordered.”
“Don’t be mean.”
“I’m serious.”
“For real?”
“For real.” Kim unlocked the Camry and opened the passenger door. The smell of pancakes wafted out.
“Can I have your coffee?”
She handed it to him, and he got in. Kim made her way to the driver’s side and joined him. He found the takeout box.
She started speaking, because, unlike her Tom, this Tom didn’t talk with his mouth full of food, and she couldn’t bear to sit in silence: in profile, the resemblance was even stronger.
“The last time I was in EAV was for some street festival. It rained, and Ella bitched and moaned about the weather but wouldn’t leave, and my mother-in-law couldn’t stop talking about how black people were ruining everything.”
Tom barely looked up from his food.
“The guy you look just like is—was—my husband.”
“Divorced?” he asked, eyes on eggs and fruit cup.
“Dead. Ten years ago. Car crash.” Kim was still amazed he’d been sober, and the woman who’d T-boned the Honda drunk. She’d assumed the opposite when the police came to the door late that Tuesday night.
“I married him because I was poor.”
“There are worse reasons.” Tom dropped the fork into the empty box. “You were, like, what, thirteen when you got married?”
Kim snorted. A kid on a skateboard clacked past on the sidewalk while zipping up his jacket, casually ollied a fire hydrant, landed in the street in front of a moving bus, and headed down the centerline on Flat Shoals.
“Who’s Ella?” Tom asked.
“My daughter—who’s thirteen, and better not be getting married anytime soon.”
“Kids today,” he said, and tipped her coffee cup to get the last drops.
The setting was different, but she recognized the conversation’s rhythms. Had they been in a bar, there would have been a couple more drinks and an exchange of information intended to make things less anonymous before one of them suggested they go. In a coffee shop, now would be the time to suggest the bar.
“We live with my mother-in-law,” Kim said. “Doris has dementia, and some days she thinks Tom’s still alive and will be home soon to yell at her about what a bitch she is to not let him go to Florida for spring break with his friends.”
“It must be hard to be a single parent.” She recognized a seducer’s impatient smile. “And the dementia stuff must be hard, too.”
Kim imagined his room in the apartment or house he shared with the friend whom Beth, the waitress at the breakfast place, had mentioned. What was his name? Blake? The unmade futon, the bong atop the IKEA dresser, the ironic thrift-store or yard-sale painting, the box of rubbers under the bed. Selfish sex during which no one took care of anyone except themselves, and no one apologized.
“She thinks he’s still alive?” Tom said.
“Some days.” She was growing impatient with how slowly he was getting to the moment where he put his hand on her knee, so she put her hand on his.
“Do you think she would believe I was him?”
She pulled her hand back. “What?”
“The only insurance I can afford has a five-thousand-dollar deductible.”
“You want me to let you pretend to be my dead husband so you can scam my demented mother-in-law out of five thousand dollars?”
“I have cancer, remember?”
“Get out,” Kim said.
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding.” He put his hand high on her thigh. “I know you want to fuck.”
“Out.”
“You old cunt,” he hissed.
Cold blew in when Tom climbed out. He slammed the door and stood on the curb for a moment, his back to the car, then headed down the street.
When would it end? Kim wondered. Everybody demanding favors, wanting their messes cleaned up. And what did she get in return? A waitress’s middle finger, and some Tom look-alike calling her a cunt, and Doris yelling that it was Kim’s fault Tom was dead on the days she was lucid enough to remember he was dead. She took a long breath and turned the key and the reliable Camry started. Above East Atlanta’s low buildings, the early spring sky was a flawless blue. Kim had hoped Tom would be fired until she looked down at the picture of his tumor. Five-thousand-dollar deductible.
She pulled away from the curb, drove past him, pulled over, rolled down the window. When he was parallel with the car, she called, “Get in.”
“Fuck you,” he said, almost under his breath.
“You forgot this.” She waved the report.
He tried to reach in and grab it, but Kim pulled it back.
“Get in if you want it.”
He pursed his lips and obeyed.
“You OK?” she asked.
“Are we going to do it?” he asked.
Doris was home. After school, Ella went to drama club. Kim didn’t have to pick her up until five. It could work.
“Yes.”
Tom smirked and nodded. “My place is only a few blocks away.”
“No, not that,” she said. “The money.”
“Aw.” He sounded like Ella when Kim told her she was grounded for the weekend for saying something mean to her grandmother or not doing her math homework.
“You need five thousand dollars.”
“You really think she’ll believe I’m her dead son? She’s that gone?”
Kim couldn’t be completely sure—Doris had good days and bad, and there was no way to predict which today would be—but it was the only option. “It’ll work,” she told him.
“How’d we meet?” he asked when she stopped at a red light.
“Jesus, how stoned are you? The hospital, remember?”
“I mean how did you and dead Tom meet? What if she—Doris? Mom?—quizzes me? What’s my birthday? Did I play little league? Did I call her Mom?”
The light turned green and Kim drove through the intersection. Was Doris gone enough?
She was about to pull over and tell Tom again to get out when she remembered the days when Doris had to be reminded of the words for fork and dog.

“We told his parents we met in a class at Emory, but really we met in a shitty bar where we got into a fight over whose quarters were stacked first to claim a pool table—mine were. I never went to Emory. We told them we fell in love in
Shakespeare seminar.”
Kim saw Tom’s lips moving, as if he was repeating her words to memorize them.
“He called her Momma.”
“Momma,” he repeated. “Momma. Momma.”
She tried to remember how Doris had acted when she left the house earlier. All she could recall was her mother-in-law asking why Kim wasn’t wearing pantyhose if she wanted to look nice. Did Kim not own pantyhose? Doris had wondered.
When, a couple of blocks later, Kim turned onto Memorial, Tom said, “Where’re we going?”
“Decatur.”
He chuckled. “Bougie.”
They rode in silence through a few stoplights. Kim wanted to turn on the radio to fill the quiet, but it was tuned to NPR, and she didn’t want to hear him snicker again.
“How long were we married before I died?” he asked as they passed the basketball courts at East Lake Park.
“Five years.”
“Was the car crash my fault?”
“No, which was a surprise. You were a drunk.”
“OK, cool.”
Kim turned onto Candler.
“Do I have brothers or sisters?”
“Only child.”
“Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Have brothers or sisters? Where are your parents?”
“I’m a grownup.” She pulled into the driveway and turned off the ignition.
“This is it?” Tom said.
The brick ranch looked shabby and small beside the huge new house some dentist had built next door the year before. Since Doris was too cheap to replace the worn-out roof, a dark patch of shingles showed where there had been a leak. “They used to be rich,” Kim said. “Kind of.”
Tom followed her to the front door and into the house. The living room, she realized, looked like the living room of an old person, full of fake antique furniture and a huge collection of dusty bagpiper figurines. TV noise came from the kitchen. Nancy, Doris’s elderly toy poodle, came to greet them, wagging her entire body.
“Should I know this dog?”
She nodded. “That’s Nancy.”
He picked Nancy up and she licked his face.
“Stay here,” Kim said, and walked through the dining room into the kitchen. “Doris?” she called. “Guess who’s home early from work?”
Doris was sitting at the little table in the breakfast nook, staring out the window, her hands wrapped around a coffee mug as Fox News muttered on the counter television. She bopped her head slightly as if to the TV’s beat. Her hair was a cloud of thin white curls, and Kim suddenly felt sorry for her rather than mad about her insults and mean parsimony.
“Momma?” Tom said from the doorway, and Kim and Doris turned to him. He was still holding Nancy. Over his shoulder, hanging on the wall, Kim noticed the high school graduation picture of Tom she’d seen so many times she’d forgotten it was there.
“Momma?” he said again. He looked nothing like the grinning kid in the mortarboard. “I’m home. I need five thousand dollars. Do you have five thousand dollars for me?”
Doris looked at Kim, puzzled.
“It’s Tom,” Kim said. “Tom’s sick. Tom needs money for the doctor.”
Doris nodded, as if slowly understanding. “Wait here,” she said.
At first Kim felt relieved—Doris was going to give him the money—and then disgusted with herself for taking advantage of a confused old woman.
“Does she have cash?” Tom asked once Doris was gone. “Check might be a problem, right?”
Kim walked past him into the dining room and stared at the picture of Tom.
“Oh, fuck, that’s him?” Tom asked. He shook his head. “I don’t look anything like that douchebag.”
Doris reappeared, pointing a tiny handgun at Tom.
“Give me the dog,” Kim told him, and he handed over Nancy.
Doris had one eye closed and was squinting down the short barrel with her open eye. “Get out,” she calmly told Tom.
“It was her idea,” he said, and tipped his head toward Kim.
“That’s not true,” Doris said. The gun looked like a toy in her frail hand. “How dare you!”
Kim was stunned. It was the only time Doris had ever taken her side in an argument.
The noise was louder than the sound Kim had imagined such a little pistol could make. Tom fell, but Kim could see the hole high on the wall behind him. He scuttled across the carpet on his hands and knees, whimpering. Nancy was barking excitedly in Kim’s arms. He reached up to open the front door and tumbled out.
“I’ll kill you if I ever see you again!” Doris yelled after him.
Kim crossed the room and closed the door, not looking to see which way he ran. She put Nancy down and the little dog hopped up onto the back of the couch and barked at the world outside the window. When Doris wrapped her arms around her, pulling her into a tight hug, Kim could feel the gun pressed flat against her back.
“He’s gone, Kim.” Her mother-in-law’s voice was calm. “That wasn’t Tom. Tom’s gone, but you’re going to be OK.”

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Uncategorized, Works

Closed Doors

Richard O’Brien

Closed Doors

Every Place that you left is Eden in some way.
—JOHN DARNIELLE

Rooms where for good or for ill—things died.
—CHARLOTTE MEW

Frewin II.10

In this room, at that desk, I must have written
my masterpieces of misogyny
(through this knowledge would only come to me
far on the other side of the illusion).

One window faced onto St. Michael’s Street.
Outside the homeless shelter—now a Bill’s—
star speakers would arrive in Benzes, Rolls.
I Blu-Tacked postcards to a lilac sheet

of sugar paper: was that the same year?
The gourmet vegetarian sausages
we cooked hungover were burnt to a crisp;
dough-soft inside. A rag rug on the floor

I still have now. I threw up in the sink
(a sign below about the “Rodding Eye”)
from dawn till six, the day of the goodbye
meal Ally had planned for me at Brasserie Blanc.

Lycée Jean Perrin

In Charlie’s flat—I barely know the contours
of what was there. I know what happened in it.
On nitrous, once, I passed out for a minute
that nothing in me wishes to restore.

Another night, I hopped the green steel gate
I couldn’t open; walked the tramlines home
to Place Viarme, and back to find the phone
I never did find (God knows in what state).

There was a party when Lindsey kissed Kate;
a night when someone stole two chicken fillets;
pizza, and football games I played, unwilling
to be left out; a neighbor who complained.

The laptop loud on Traktor, matching beats.
A photo of his girlfriend near his bed.
Bastien picked me up the last night; sad
to remember, now we barely even speak.

XIV.10

In what some rower called “the Arab Staircase,”
I tried and failed to turn tea into sex.
Deep green armchairs. The question of “What’s next?”
not just at three. That bathroom was the last place

I’ll ever make filled pasta in a bowl
with kettle, sieve, jarred pesto, grated cheddar.
There must have been a desk. A single bed,
two sets of brown sheets. Posters on the wall

for books I’d read with different cover art.
There was a mantelpiece on which I leant
French biscuit adverts—statements of intent,
sophistication stamped on A4 card.

The last weeks saw it filled with props for filming,
a generator. I brought back a girl
who held me till I broke my shameful spell;
who asked if I’d tried to hide her, that first morning.

1 Rue Sarrazin

In the top-floor flat, Nantes, Rue Sarrazin:
a couch with orange cushions no one chose;
the floor (stone, somehow?) cold against my toes;
a kitchenette I’ll never use again.

There was a cupboard lined with bathroom tiles
our jovial, vague landlord tried to fit
a shower in: the plumbing wouldn’t stretch
that far, he told us once, after a while—

so there they stayed. Jovanna had a map
of Europe, countries marked with playground slurs,
and though I almost never spoke to her,
one day I came back from a weekend trip

to find the condoms missing from my wardrobe.
The wall pitched steep above my bed; a window
looked on the never open church below,
roof ringed with angels. I left without a note.

Tintagel House

In the old Vauxhall Met Police HQ
there were blue, corrugated carpet tiles
and corridors which seemed to stretch for miles
between the toilets and the large, blank rooms

Lydia and her artist friends were renting
at bargain rates: the scheme kept squatters out.
They’d built a long, rough table. No amount
of shelves could make the kitchen feel less empty.

Mattresses on the ground. The windows looked
over the Thames: this was no student skyline.
It had the feel of an abandoned high-rise.
I stopped to buy Portuguese chocolate milk

each morning, walking to an internship:
for what? It led nowhere, since I’ve forgotten.
The owners finally kicked out the guardians.
For all I know, they might be demolishing it.

30 Waterside

In Helen’s house, which we can’t go to now:
rich faded rugs, a large flatscreen TV,
cases of red wine shipped from overseas
to save in bulk, I think—I forget how.

There was a tree once, made from stacking books;
a lime-green kitchen where we never went;
the gate, left open to the elements,
creaked like the stairs. Apparently, it leaked.

Helen took baths and disappeared for hours.
There was a patio where we got high,
where pigeons shat, were shot, and came to die;
a teddy sewn from scraps of other bears.

There was, eventually, a crystal skull
loaded with gin. Stuffed rodents. Hocus-pocus.
Sated with rent, the landlord gave them notice.
It had been months, by then, since I’d seen it full.

51 Ely Street

In Ely Street (pronounced the Fenland way,
not like the prophet, as I would insist),
the floor was red stone flags. Once, as a guest,
having somehow contrived to snap my key

in my own lock, I spent a night half-frozen
on a ratty couch beneath low Tudor beams;
a diagram for cribbing Cymbeline
and Hamlet on the wall. Each time I opened

the shonky bathroom door, the wrought-iron latch
had to be fought against. Dozens would drink
here, leave their mugs and glasses by the sink.
The backyard: weeds, barbecue trays, and ash.

And I was happy there. We praised Sankt Hans,
sang hver by har sin heks and ate charred Quorn,
understood hygge—friendship, keeping warm.
Someone’s rejigged the furniture, like best-laid plans.

Spectacle Works

In our apartment, by the standing lamp,
these are the things I’ll fix while I am able:
that jasmine plant. That marbled coffee table.
Socks slung over that clotheshorse: some still damp.

This flatpack sideboard, with the doors stove in.
This ten-meter TV extension lead.
These shiny cushion covers which you sewed
after about four months of promising.

Those salt-dough ducks, whose rough pearlescent sheen
soared over the eBay identikit.
That recess which you joked could hold a crib,
which doesn’t mean a joke is all you mean.

These stacks and stacks of books we’ll never read.
This open map. Those frames. That uncapped pen.
This rug I found a place for in the end.
This warm night. This unanswered text. This need.

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Interviews, New Interviews

Richard O’Brien

Interviews

Richard O’Brien

Interviewed by Hannah Whiteman

One of the things that drew me to “Closed Doors” was the personality that every location in the poem seemed to possess. It seemed (for lack of a better word) real. Does this poem draw heavily on your own experiences? If so, how do you balance that autobiographical strain with staying true to the direction that the poem is taking you?

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Interviews, New Interviews

Josh Russell

Interviews

Josh Russell

Interviewed by Earnest Buck

I was hoping to do a shorter interview that focused on some of the themes in “Grownups” that resonated with me. I hope this isn’t too much to share, but I was caretaker to my wife when she was receiving treatment for breast cancer and I found this story mirrored (strangely) some of my experiences. So, if you’ll bear with me, here are a few questions (I may have some follow-ups if that is amenable). 

What was the impetus for this story?

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