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...

Issue 27: Spring/Summer 2019

Our First Decade

Celebrating 10 Years of Subtropics.

Florida Then

A little gallery of images depicting “the state with the prettiest name” (Elizabeth Bishop)

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Embroidered with Hail
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Subtropics 27 cover art: The photograph on the cover and those on pages 49 through 56 of this issue of Subtropics were taken in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.
Interviews, New Interviews, Uncategorized

Jana Prikryl

Jana Prikryl

Interviewed by Stephen de Búrca

Something that stands out in your five “Anonymous” pieces is how careful and precise the speaker is in establishing the scene for the reader, as if to avoid affecting the scenes. Had you a particular series of photographs in mind while writing the five poems? What was the motive for this precision? And could you speak a little to how the speaker asserts her voice in the final section?

Yeah, that sounds right—“as if to avoid affecting the scenes,” though I didn’t aim for that deliberately. These poems are rooted in an anonymous photo album I bought years ago, in a junk shop in Brooklyn, and much later they grew out of a slightly inexplicable but strict procedure I came up with. The album contains 98 small snapshots of a group of girlfriends, in maybe their late teens, probably around 1910, and there’s no identifying text or captions. I’d spent a lot of time, over the years, staring at these photos and feeling this hopeless, trite, hopeless longing to know more about the people in them. So the procedure I devised—which I think drives the precision you mention—was an attempt to articulate that longing, which is so resistant to articulation, precisely because it is so universal or generic. The procedure involved rephotographing each snapshot, enlarging it on my computer, cropping it (in various ways, depending on the image), describing the section I’d cut in very clear, neutral prose, and then (months later, once all this was done) relying on only the prose (no peeking, etc.) to write a poem about what was no longer in each picture. I think the idea behind all this compulsive activity was: When so much of an artifact’s meaning is gone, why not remove more? Is it possible, in this way, to give the severed object some sense of a backstory, some connection to a past? I found myself using the series to generate a voice that stuck to the page while avoiding “style,” the devices I usually manipulate to make a poem sticky. So when the first person crept in near the end of the series it felt intrepid—it’s my first-person, my own thought unspooling, but as I wrote those lines I felt myself watching it happen in a very third-person way, my voice stripped of “poetry” yet generating a poem.

You said in a previous interview that English was the third language you learned, after Czech and German. (As someone who was raised speaking English and Irish, I feel it gives me a detachment from language that allows one to poke around at a language’s nooks and crannies.) What has your experience, as a poet, with this been? Do you feel this gives you a more objective relationship to a language as a mode of expression, rather than expression itself?

I don’t think I’m more objective regarding language (probably the opposite?), but yes, I feel that having this visceral bond with a very different language like Czech gives me a friendly skepticism about what English, or any language, can do. It sharpens my appetite for playing with language. And then I tend to be easily bored by “expression itself.” I care much less what a poem is saying than how it goes about saying it—or it’s more like I think how a poem says something is what it is saying. But this conviction seems to arise not so much from my detachment from English (which you mention, and I also feel!) as from my totally immersed love of it.

Your second collection, No Matter, is set to be published in July by Tim Duggan Books. Congratulations! I’ve heard many poets speak of feeling a sort of freedom (whether it’s in terms of voice or style, or even subject, that is more in line with how they might view themselves as poets) once their first collection is published. Was this your experience? Was your approach to No Matter different from your first collection, The After Party? And can you give us a sneak peak of what to expect from No Matter?

Thank you! I don’t know about feeling free (I wish I had!)… I think because experimentation and instability of voice/self are some of the things nearest to me as a poet, when I finished The After Party I just felt crazily eager to embark on the next thing, with a new set of parameters and problems. And I was lucky to have gotten a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which gave me nine months to focus on the next book just when I needed it. (I’d had a baby three weeks after The After Party came out…) The result is that No Matter feels like a more focused, compacted object than my first book—it contains as much formal variety, I think, but its themes are more relentlessly interconnected. Actually the first things I started working on, after The After Party was finished in 2015, were these “Anonymous” poems. And then once I got to Radcliffe they became the kernel of the new manuscript. The impulse to “cut back” in a situation that’s already hopelessly austere—which I think is a very human, all too human impulse—ended up being a central theme in No Matter, a cognate of the temptation to be stoic, to retreat into oneself, in difficult times. A lot of the poems in this new book orbit around questions of how we deal with suffering and how a society is different from just a group of individuals, and what an individual can expect from her fellow individuals, and how damaging it might be if everybody truly believed in the virtue of self-reliance—if nobody asked anything of anyone.

And finally, when writing poetry, what are your reading habits like? Do you read poetry or do you read other genres? Who/what do you read? Any guilty pleasures?

While I was writing No Matter last year I assigned myself a pretty specific reading list, which isn’t how I usually proceed but it seemed right for this book—Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy, and truly weird medieval travelogues, and Spenser’s translations of Joachim du Bellay’s sonnets on the ruins of Rome, and pastoral poetry and scholarly texts on pastoral poetry. Basically stuff to get me in the mood to ponder the end times. Lately on the subway I’ve read novels by Margaret Drabble, Danielle Dutton, Natalia Ginzburg, and Yuko Tsushima, and various poets and biographies in between. I feel sort of embarrassed to say I don’t have guilty pleasures as a reader, because I instantly get bored if the stuff is not firing on all cylinders. But I have a weakness for British TV. I watched all of Gavin & Stacey a few weeks ago, and almost felt compelled to write an essay about its bizarre homophobic subplot (involving the Rob Brydon character) and about the conservative streak in a certain kind of comedy. Instead I found another British show to watch.

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Works

Anonymous

Jana Prikryl

Anonymous

Her hair is parted in the center and this side
wall of the house ends just above her part.
The seam between the house and not-house
seems to rise out of the part in her hair.
Dandelions on the lawn are playing
sundials, their globes give out the time
of year. She’s not smiling so much
as grimacing against the pull of the brush
and squinting against the sun. Nowhere are
her feet more than tacit. She is the tallest one.

Anonymous

The whitecaps blink like second thoughts
or action captured through a fledgling medium,
made sweet and anterior, already posthumous,
trinkets. A building of pale stone stretching out behind.
Stately, in other words.
Modillions between windows even at ground level and awnings pulled in.
Shadows short as a breath caught short,
midday.
To the right of these two, a third girl is centered in the center of the picture.
She seems to sway, making a window between her waist and that of the tallest girl.
We see through this window to a window behind.
But she leans toward the tall girl, cocks her head, and looks at you.
It’s the look of a friend who knows you well.

Anonymous

Above these three pairs of dark patent boots
on the highest of three steps, where three
of the six toes jut out past the nosing
making three little cups of shadow
hanging from the top of the riser,
each little cup falling over to the right
at exactly the same angle, three columns
of girls in long coats rise
between two dark pillars on a porch, three bright
numbers running down the right-hand pillar:
1
7
6.
All three wear hats,
each hat forms a porch
around each face, each face
smiles from its porches into the aperture.

Anonymous

Just in front of the porch steps, on a flat stone
that appears partially tucked under the porch,
a ficus in a clay planter. It produces
strange sounds. The silence that comes dressed
in not the past but conditional tense
may be quietest, it’s endured the most.

Anonymous

Their dated shoes are hidden in a cloud of grasses
of the kind she’s holding in her hand.
The sound of a strand of wild grass ripping
has something human about it, you feel
the earth’s scalp object, and that’s where you assert
your difference from the earth, an unexpected
homonym, in your own perception
quickly forgotten of how a patch of soil
resists you and then ceases to resist
and then the grass is yours. This
great piece of turf, this photo-realism.
He looks into the device
with a face almost expressionless,
a subject very knowing. She smiles.
I’ll be honest with you, it’s difficult
to like the men in these photographs.
My contempt might be capable
of reanimating them, the men alone, so deep
does power lodge in them, no
that can’t be right
when it’s the soil
and they the famished little roots.

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Interviews, New Interviews, Uncategorized

Tom Whalen

Tom Whalen

Interviewed by Mitchell Galloway


Walser’s short fictions are often difficult to classify. You submitted “Rain” as a poetry translation, but we decided to accept it as fiction. What about this piece lends itself to be more a piece of poetry than prose?

“Rain” is prose, yes, but perhaps it’s more poem than story, more essay than fiction? I like how Walser’s work often makes classification irrelevant. I submitted it to Ange Mlinko, Subtropics’ poetry editor, because I know she’s not averse to the short prose piece or prose poem. I was very pleased that she and David Leavitt and the staff appreciated it.

Many of the short pieces you have translated originally appeared in the feuilleton section of newspapers. How did Walser’s work compare to other feuilleton pieces of the time (circa 1918)? What was the typical reader expecting? In these pieces did Walser parody the conventions of the feuilleton in any way?

Walser’s short prose pieces published in newspapers were different enough for Kafka to flip to the feuilleton section in search of them and for Eduard Korrodi, the feuilleton editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, to write that when he published a Walser piece (specifically those in the 1920s when parody would play a larger role in Walser’s prose), he “would receive letters from disgruntled readers threatening to cancel their subscriptions if the nonsense didn’t stop.” But for the most part, I’d say it’s not so much parody as it is his turning the conventional subject matter of the feuilleton to his own idiosyncratic ends, as can be seen in “Rain.”

Michael Hofmann writes in his introduction to Metamorphosis and Other Stories that Kafka “offers very little to the translator; there is no ‘voice’, no diction, no ‘style’.” Perhaps in contrast, what does Walser offer to the translator?

The “glacial purity” of Kafka’s prose, Christopher Middleton noted in “The Picture of Nobody: Some Remarks on Robert Walser” (1958), isn’t found in Walser, who was “anything but glacial.” Tracking and “miming” the shifting registers of Walser’s voice is one of the many difficulties and delights, if captured, in translating him.

In “Eine Art Erzählung” Walser writes, “If I am well disposed, that’s to say, feeling good, I tailor, cobble, weld, plane, knock, hammer, or nail together lines.” Besides writing in microscript later in life, do you know anything about his composition or revision process?

Caught in the swirl of Walser’s prose, it’s easy to think of him only as a free-wheeling master of improvisation. “I sit down somewhat reluctantly at my desk to play my piano, that is to say, to begin to discourse on the potato famine which long ago …” (“A Village Tale,” tr. Christopher Middleton, Selected Stories). But I think the narrator of “The Walk” offers us a more accurate take on his writing process: “Although I may cut a most carefree figure, I am highly serious and conscientious, and though I seem to be no more than delicate and dreamy, I am a solid technician!” (tr. CM, SS). My assumption, as well as that of Bernhard Echte and Werner Morlang, the transcribers of the microscripts, is that he composed slowly. I credit his productivity and the rapid flight of his thought in prose to his steadfastness.

Can you talk about the forthcoming collection in which this piece will appear? Are there other pieces translated for the first time?

Little Snow Landscape and Other Stories contains seventy stories. That’s eighteen fewer texts than in Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, but the new collection is twenty percent longer. As far as I know, all but three of these short pieces are previously untranslated. It opens in 1905 with an encomium by the twenty-six-year-old Walser to his homeland and concludes in 1933 with a meditation on his childhood in Biel, the town of his birth, published in the last of his four years in the cantonal mental hospital in Waldau outside Bern. Between these two poles, the book maps Walser’s outer and inner wanderings in various narrative modes, including essaylets, fables, idylls, tales of comedy and horror, monologues, travelogues, and prose pieces with “the stamp of calculated naïveté and artificial inartificiality” (“The Pipsqueak,” Girlfriends, Ghosts …). Besides presenting a representative sample of his short prose arranged chronologically by date of publication or composition, my selection process involved keeping in mind certain novelistic elements to bring the reader closer to this “most camouflaged of writers” (Elias Canetti).

I’m grateful that Walser’s work, for the English reader, continues to be a slow excavation. I would hate for every short piece to be translated and crammed into an exhaustive “collected works.” Do you think all of Walser at once would be, as “Rain” says, “too grand and difficult”? Can we agree a volume of Walser should always fit in the side pocket of a rucksack?

That seems the perfect place to me. “Beiseit”—apart, aside—is where Walser and his work thrive.

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Uncategorized, Works

Rain

Robert Walser (translated by Tom Whalen)

Rain

There’s gentle but also unruly rain. We prefer the former but take it as it comes. To accept what comes and yet never lose one’s cheerfulness isn’t easy, but beautiful because of that. What tastes the sweetest? Natural honey? No, something else: peaceful, everyday work without calamity. Speaking of rain, you could say it makes the earth black and soddens the streets. I deeply hope more will occur to me. Dark rain clouds have something cozy, poetic about them. Is that it? Oh no, Mr. Author! I request a smidgen of patience so I may collect myself. Sentences, words don’t just fly to me, they want to be caught unawares, captured, attained, discovered, enticed. Sometimes the mind thinks more about zwieback than about language and the like. In general, we have spring rain, autumn rain, etc. Rain is wet. That has been the case and we assume will remain so. No one should ever succumb to the opinion that he is unique. We’re all like one another, at least I firmly believe this, and furthermore I believe everything has already happened and existed once before and that’s why all pride seems exceedingly superfluous and inexpedient.

But why, dear friend, don’t you stick meticulously to your drizzling theme? In fact, often it only drizzles. But more often it pours and rains in real torrents, as if it wanted to inundate every path, park, dear lovely garden, every field and the paraphernalia hanging there. To be drenched by rain now and then isn’t at all funny, rather it can be quite irksome, which without doubt everyone will have experienced in his dull or eventful life. In a proper rain everything becomes wet except water, like rivers, which can’t possibly get wet because they already are. What I am I can’t become, and what I have can’t be given to me. Rain moistens roofs, fills holes and barrels with water, swims and runs down slopes, washes useless stuff away, sees to it that everything all about glitters watery, swallows up and gulps down dust, is a sweeper and wiper who diligently wipes and valiantly sweeps up and makes those who don’t carry an umbrella scurry along. How richly thinged the world is; again and again we sincerely have to adore it. Should it also be permitted to think about excursions, entire cities, wide, verdant landscapes filled with fruitfulness, of Russian, Bavarian, Belgian, Thuringian, North American, Spanish, Tuscan regions moistened and injected with abundant wetness? Or about historical pageants, the dense crowd breaking up, seeking shelter that looks quite pleasant? Wouldn’t a dreamy poet in rainy weather like to sit at a dear old window so as to feel inordinately lonely? If I’m not mistaken, it rained endlessly, as it were, during the Battle of Dresden, and Napoleon got thoroughly soaked.

Many years ago, as it dripped and rained enchantingly, I promenaded and strolled along the local Bahnhofstrasse that had duplicated itself, its facades, trees, gentlemen and ladies, primarily these, boys and girls and kittens and I don’t know what all, magically reflected in the smooth asphalt and in the soft afternoon light in such a way that there was an upper world and a lower world and the unfathomable seemed almost more beautiful than the real. Desist, desist. Relent and break off. Consider whether this article perhaps isn’t already almost too grand and difficult.

(1918)

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Works

Dead Dog

Sarah Edwards

Dead Dog

A Louisiana Thanksgiving, and the seatbelts burn hot ribbons across their shoulders. In the car, seventy miles down the road—bags thrown together, a cellophane-wrapped pumpkin pie sliding around on the floorboards—and they have not yet discussed what will happen to the dog. The wife can’t imagine that they’ll keep it, though she also can’t imagine giving it away. It has become worse than a bad dog: it has become a good dog who is a liability.
The husband’s family has often joked with the wife that she loves the dog more than she loves him. It is a joke about her devotion, just above average, to the animal, though its suggestive undercurrent is that she is a ridiculous person. During this visit, when the husband pulled out a Polaroid from their wedding—a courthouse wedding, a shotgun wedding, held just months before—his mother took it into her hands and squinted.
Interesting, she said. So what exactly is it that you’re wearing here?
And when the wife proudly told her that it was actually a vintage prom dress, a thrift-store find, if she could believe it, the mother-in-law stood up to clear the table. A steal, the wife said to her mother-in-law’s back as she stood before the sink. God, I mean. I swear. It feels like air.
The husband and wife had met at a party, back in May, crowded among yucca; a party that had seemed average to her but new and daring to him, glinting with bayou liquors, freewheeling and dark, an experiment. In June, they drove to the coast at midnight, speeding through conversations about coincidences and the joke/not-joke names of future children. In July, they drifted into cohabitation. By August the weather had turned muggy and biblical. The hairs on the tomato plants stood on alert ends, and impossibly long snakes tumbled out of trees, spooking up the yard’s speedboat tarp. They’d awakened one day and lain in bed with the wife’s phone on their knees, watching the green eye of a hurricane move across the screen, flickering persistently like trick candles on a birthday cake. And when, after a while, the husband walked out into the yard and picked bouquets of iris (Louisiana iris, the rare kind, artery red), one for each of them, she had laughed, nodded. OK, yes. OK—yes!
The flowers wilted before they made it up the courthouse steps, but the hurricane itself never came and swept on suddenly toward the Carolinas.
Later, when they look at the wedding picture, the juvenile shimmer of the wife’s dress is hard for the husband’s parents to swallow; also the age difference. The husband was born in 1990. The wife was born in 1978, the year “YMCA,” by the Village People, came out. Were they to learn of her first two marriages, the husband’s parents would likely find those hard to swallow, too.
The parents, who run a popular magazine about rare bourbon varieties, are famously magnanimous. They have an open-door policy. Everyone knows this. But when it comes to the wife, they cannot help but feel that she is backwoods trash. Whenever she brings up astrology, they grow uncomfortable. Children, as a topic, don’t sit well with them, either. Dogs, as a topic, have been weakly agreed upon. Dogs, so full of neutral habits. Dogs, so full of eyes and ears, noses and tails.
The husband worships his parents—the unflagging, hand-on-back grace of their devotion to each other. He wishes that the wife could see them as he does. They are good people, dog people. Until last night, they had one, too.
The wife has had hers for nine years, and … Oh! This dog! A Tom Hanks among dogs, licking babies, flopping ecstatically on the floor. A dog who sits when you say Sit, who high-fives when you say High-five. Its nose is wet as a bath faucet, its paws large and helpless as oven mitts. The dog has been through everything with her. It has been through the first husband, the second husband, the Clozapine, the tiled kitchen floor, pink like a Mary Kay Cadillac.
She has only had her new husband for a few months, and the dog will not hurt anything again—really. She will make sure of it.
Can you keep an eye out for gas? Something under $2.90? the husband says, breaking the silence, brushing the back of her hand with his. Then he says, You know, let’s make it harder—something under $2.85.
The husband likes to make little challenges like this for himself, although, maddeningly, he is not actually competitive. He is kind. Just below the surface of what he knows about himself there is also this: a belief that the marriage is, itself, a kind of kindness.
In the back of the car, the dog lets out a long, low whine. His feet stutter as the husband eases onto the brake and off an exit. He slings a paste of drool across the headrests.
The wife has heard this particular sound from the dog before. It doesn’t have to do with shame, doesn’t have to do with hazy dog-grief; no, her dog is not thinking about the other animal it killed this morning—the dog belonging to the husband’s mother; boxy, unremarkable, and patient, the dog they found when they came downstairs for breakfast. Upon spotting it limp beneath the table, the mother-in-law let out a little throat cry, high-pitched and compromising. The wife didn’t make a sound, but her thoughts began racing. She thought, Who has come and hurt our dogs? But then she understood. When she found her own dog in the front-hall closet, hiding behind a set of golf clubs—tawny hair still caught between its teeth, confused and frightened by its own strength—she knelt and gathered it into her arms.
Now hot air zips through the open windows, and a Rolodex of billboards—they all seem to be advertising either hell or something large, the world’s largest!—unfurls beside the car. Now the sound her dog is making only has to do with needing to pee. It is a need that has appeared suddenly in its brain like a suggestion, a commercial, a balloon. It is inflating, slowly, outsizing everything else. The dog is not thinking about what will happen next.
Bingo! the husband says, pulling into a station. See? $2.84.
He glances back at the dog and gets out. In the past, he was eager to volunteer for menial dog-care tasks, eager to prove some Boy Scout willingness. He likes the dog, of course, but now when he looks at it there is already a suggestion of goodbye, an appraisal of the facts: here sits a nice dog who sometimes kills things.
It was only a few days ago, the wife thinks, that she lay in bed with the husband, her face pushed peacefully up against the cleft of his shoulder—a warm, piney miracle. She wonders mildly what she would do if she were in his position, but the thought is too impossible to host. The least she can do now is get out and take the dog over to a dry patch of grass and let it do its business. That much is on her. Open the door, she thinks. Get out. OK, do it now. Now.
She doesn’t move. She adjusts her sunglasses, takes her hair and winds it into a new ponytail. The dog whines, nudges her elbow with its nose. Outside, the pavement sizzles like seltzer and smells of bruised citrus, of something sweet and newly rotten—though once, when she described something this way, the husband laughed delightedly at the precision. What a goober, he said, we’re nowhere near fruit trees!
He pumps gas, then cracks the door open and peers in. Want anything? he asks. Peanuts? Ginger ale? Shitty coffee?
What he is getting at is that she probably wants cigarettes to calm her down, to smoke her out of this darkness. He is a good man, but he wants her to ask him for the bad thing so that he does not have to suggest it.
Peanuts, she says in a secret voice, though even as she says it, she’s not sure whether she is saying it to throw him off her trail or because she really wants peanuts.
That all?
Yes, she says.
He finishes pumping the gas. No, she thinks. She cannot part with the dog. It is getting older, and with age come spurts of a dazed, feral energy. But it has never meant to hurt anything. If it comes down to it, she thinks, if the choice is between taking the dog and driving out of this gas station, burning rubber, the husband jogging behind, yelling, Maggie, Jesus freaking Christ, Maggie, come on, Mags, she’ll do what she has to. She loves the husband, loves the uneven upside-downcake viscosity of their union, but he will be fine, will be loved, always, by someone. Of course, he might miss her, but his life is male, muscled by college sports, is blue oxford shirtsleeves rolled quarter up, is still at the very beginning—he’ll move on,maybe become a youth pastor. There is always time left for a man to become a youth pastor.
He walks off in the direction of the gas station. He trots back, peers in. From inside the car, his face looms large, impossibly big, enveloped by a white glare, almost impossible to make sense of.
He drops the keys through the crack in the window. He waits.
What? she says.
Hot out here, he says, and it is as if he is baiting her.
OK, she says. OK, and turns the pleasing flashlight of her smile up toward him.

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Interviews

Sarah Edwards

INTERVIEWS

Sarah Edwards

Interviewed by Jackson Armstrong


Your story “Dead Dog” has deliberation and grace (and a lot of humor). To borrow an adjective from it, it is, in some ways, almost biblical. How conscious were you of the tone of the story, and perhaps the balance, during the process of writing it?

That’s nice of you to say! In a rare turn, this story had a specific set of language that seemed to belong to it: language that felt both florid and reticent. Normally, I think, I write more narratively—there’s more dialogue, more backstory, more plot points. This one felt very tied to a moment and to an internal, fluid, distorted state of mind. Because the narrator is spiraling a bit, the burden rests on the sentences to replicate that feeling: I wanted there to be a sense that the wife is experiencing emotions that she can’t contain, that they flow over the boundaries of a sentence (hence the run-ons!). I do feel strongly that lyricism can (and should) be funny—that that pairing is as true a reflection of life as any. I don’t like stories that take themselves too serious.

What, might I ask, was the genesis of this piece?

I don’t know a specific origin point, but when I originally wrote it, two years ago, it was much longer. It began before Thanksgiving and walked all the way through dinner and the dog killing and there were multiple characters and it was awful; it really didn’t work. So as an exercise I deleted everything except the scene after Thanksgiving, and then began to write within those parameters. And that felt right.

Generally speaking, I am interested by messy situations in which blame is unclear—which, with animals, is so often the case. We can feel so close to them, and feel that they understand us, and of course there’s this giant gap between us and the way they experience threat and sometimes simply don’t understand their own bodies and urges. I’m sure this isn’t the last story I’ll write about a dead animal.

I know you’re also a poet. How does that influence your prose writing, or vice versa? Do you prefer one over the other?

At some point this past fall, I taped a note to my mirror that said: “Poetry doesn’t have to be autobiographical and fiction doesn’t have to be nice.” Both forms and their autobiographical sourcing have become more loose for me, recently, and it’s a bit of a relief. I feel less pressure (though obviously that’s a lifelong tussle) to have stories reflect me as a person or the gracious Southern woman I was raised to be, rather than me as a writer. I like both stories and poems that have distance, that bleed into each other. Often a story will begin as a poem (and sometimes even vice-versa) and I think that an attention to emotional compression, to really fleshing a thought out in a single lyrical line, helps sentences to stand on their own. I want a story to do that, to powerlift with syntax. Or ideally that’d be nice, right? Many of my favorite writers write both fiction and poetry, or super short fiction that has the feeling of a poem.  I don’t think I can pick one over the other!

If you had to cast this story with B-List actor  (but the dog is literal human Tom Hanks, on all fours or not; we can discuss this) who would you choose and why?

Hmm. very good question. I can kinda see Leelee Sobieski in a prom dress wedding getup. Aaron Eckhart is way too handsome to be a normal person, but he definitely has youth pastor vibes, don’t you think? As does adult Jonathan Taylor Thomas. In a very different way, but they both kind of have that healthy—so robust as to be sinister—thing going on.

And wow, a literal Tom Hanks as the dog! That’s good. I guess I should really read your fiction, Jackson, if this suggestion is any indication of it.

There’s always time for a man to become a youth pastor. This is true. But what does a man need to become a youth pastor? An unusually well-manicured goatee? What are some other qualifications?

Hmm, probably a name like Clay or Harris or any kind of non-name that could also be the name of a neighborhood subdivision, maybe a goatee, a signature handshake, a suspicious overfamiliarity with the word “lust,” probably an internalized hatred toward women. I don’t know, I’ve met a few really kind and genuine youth pastors, but when I paint with a broad stroke (like I am right now) I don’t have a lot of good things to say.

Ultimately, youth pastors need to have a vicious competitive edge that is barely kept at bay, and more than a passing proficiency in table sports.

Lastly (noting that “Dead Dog” is your first prose publication), where can we read some of your poetry?

I do have one fiction piece up, though not in print. You can read it on Joyland. I don’t have a lot of linkable poems! There’s a couple in the upcoming issues of TYPO and The Sycamore Review. And then others in Prelude, Hobart, and The Hampden-Sydney Review.

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Feature

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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