My therapist has helped me so much over the past almost nine years I’ve been going to see her. I went at my husband’s suggestion that my extraordinary fear of caterpillars was something that could perhaps be overcome if I understood the seed that had been planted somewhere in my childhood.
I sort of knew where it started; I was eight and my brother, two years older, told me he dropped one down my back. I screamed and hollered and ran around until he admitted he hadn’t and I calmed down. That night getting undressed, I found the big greenish-brown squish stain in the back of my shirt. The doctor was thrilled at this found memory. He felt it had to have been an absolutely traumatizing event that stayed with me. I didn’t think it affected my sex life but Dr. Johnson insisted it did.
“Way beyond fear of real caterpillars,” he said, “it nurtured a distrust of anything caterpillar in form.”
“Huh?” I said.
So that’s why he’s sitting over there in the corner of our bedroom, watching. I wasn’t crazy about the idea but the doctor and my husband agreed it might help if at that moment of giving way to the ecstasy we all shout “Caterpillar!” together as one loud voice.
It didn’t work, at least as far as I’m concerned, but my husband and Dr. Johnson seem pleased.
Category Archives: Susan Gibb
One night I woke up and caught my boyfriend cheating at a game of cards. I was devastated.
“It’s only Solitaire,” he said.
“It’s only Solitaire!” I cried.
“Yes!” he said.
“That’s right!” I sobbed.
We argued long and hard till dawn broke through the window, sharing its light with the walls, the floor, the cat playing with her empty food dish, but not with us. We could not see each other’s point of view. I fed the cat, packed my things and left. I mean, come on, how could I stay with such a man?
Life kept on kicking me hard after that, toppling everything I dared to touch. I was being so careful, so conscious now of playing by the rules. In fact, sabotaging my every effort at my job (I gave a rave review of a coworker that put her in a supervisory position over me), my new apartment (gave up the second floor for the first and was broken into three times in a month), and in love (answered his questions honestly, i.e., “No, you’re not the one with the biggest…”) losing each new man almost immediately.
It took a while, but I wised-up. I lied through my teeth and am now happily the head of my department, ensconced in a fully paid-for apartment on the Avenue, and am sleeping with the married CEO of the company.
Let’s just say I learned how to play my cards.
When Mary Brevins died, she took the memory of the sun with her. It wasn’t as big a problem as the engineers had thought since light had been established in all but the most remote sections of the earth and even several light-lanes spanning the major oceans had been completed.
For Joyce Fields, however, it was a major event, for now it placed her in the position of having the last living memory of the sun. The officials came to pick her up before she could get away.
“What do you mean, grass and trees and even buildings change color during the day, or if there were what you call clouds to dissipate the light?”
“Why wouldn’t your sun prevent the snow?”
“Change the color of your skin? Impossible!”
“Okay, so show us which hill it hid behind at night.”
Finally they let her go. Convinced she was simply an old woman in the early stages of dementia. They laughed as they reread the things she claimed were true when she was young before all the technology took over simple functions.
Back home, Joyce Fields sat down in her favorite chair. She hadn’t known Mary Brevins but she felt the loss. She closed her eyes and as she always did, brought up her favorite memories. She recalled a morning when she went fishing with her dad and brother. The way the sun came up and colored the small pond like a paintbrush dipped in water.
Colonel Houghton knelt down by his cot and put his hands together. “Please dear God, clear weather for tomorrow. Guide our troops on ground and safely through the skies.” He licked a finger and thumb and put out the wick and lay down. He fell asleep to the peaceful plans of the strategic implementation of war maneuvers.
Private First Class Petry lay shivering on his cot despite the desert day’s heat that radiated from the sand. He bit down on his blanket to keep his teeth from chattering.
The others were coping much better. Most were snoring out their positions. Chelmuk was at the far end but sounded next-bunk loud. Hood was whistling music through his nose. Kriscenski was a stop-breather. That, for the first few weeks, had scared them all more than the war that slithered closer every day. “How would that look to his family,” Chelmuk said, “dead in bed! Just stopped breathin’ that’s all.” They all had laughed.
Petry relaxed by thinking of things like that. It took his mind off tomorrow. Still, just before he slipped into sleep, he whispered, “Please, Lord, make it rain.” Which in the arid Middle East, was a bigger favor than the Pope asking for a single day of global peace.
The soldiers woke to the slap of hard-hitting rain. Each–except for Colonel Houghton–thanked God for their luck and modern technology; there would be no war that day.
The man who said he was her father smelled of bourbon and Aqua Velva. He slicked his hair back in the way that men with blue-black hair often did.
The man who said he was her father said he was sorry, not only for the loss now of her mother, but for taking off on them years ago. The man said he had loved her mother very much, was crazy about her at the time. That he had been too young and scared to be a family.
He sat beside her at the funeral service, his arm set along the back of her chair, his other hand holding hers in her lap. At the cemetery, his fingers settled in the small of her back to steady her. She was barely aware of him and yet glad to have him there. He took her home and assured the neighbors he’d get her to school on Monday, that is, if she was ready to go.
A month later, the man told her they’d be moving to Houston where he knew he could get a job. He told her he’d heard the schools were great there and she’d make new friends.
She went with him, the man who said he was her father, because he told her he loved her and held her when she woke up crying, and he hugged and kissed her every day, and because she had no one else and no place else to go.
She was beautiful once, a few years ago. Street life has since pock-marked her face, dotted her arms with bruises that scream purple, mellow to yellow and green, or fester if the needle was dirty.
She takes out a comb and makes a part in her hair down the middle but just a few inches down it catches on knots and her arm, painfully heavy, drops away, leaving the comb there like a butterfly perched on her ear.
It takes a long time but she gets it untangled. Spits on the ends to curl them around her finger, slowly drawing it out to let them hang there to dry. She pulls out a small round mirror, peers between cracks, presses down with the palm of her hand to level the shards back into one single image. Or at least as close to one as she can.
Her hands flipper through the large plastic bag, come out with a scratched and dented tube of lipstick. The color flares up like a lighter. She leans close to the mirror and paints on the memory of lips. She finds a clean sweater, changes her jeans, and goes out to stand by the curb.
He comes by at the usual time and she hopes to catch his eye. Last Friday evening she recognized him, thought he might have recognized her. He stares, slows his step but doesn’t stop. She smiles but he keeps walking by.
She was already half-melted into the new dimension when he knocked on her door seeking a cup of sugar. When she answered, he was taken by surprise.
For her part, she was quite nonchalant about the transition. She half-smiled, the left side of her face nearly transparent. “Come on in,” she said, swinging the door open wide and hopping back on her right leg to let him by.
“I’m sorry to bother you, if you’re busy,” he said. He wasn’t sure how long the whole process took. He’d never known anyone before who’d made the shift. He couldn’t help staring. Her blouse and jeans unraveled slowly across her body like a west wind clearing the plains. As he watched, her left breast turned a silvery color, wavy like heated air rising on pavement in a hot summer sun, then disappeared.
“No, it’s fine,” she said, and led the way to her small kitchenette. “I won’t be taking any of this stuff with me and I’m happy someone can use it.” She reached into a cabinet and pulled a full bag of sugar off a top shelf. She almost lost her balance.
“Why are you leaving?” he asked. He was disappointed, for she was quite pretty.
“New job, a promotion,” she said. “My name’s Cherise.” Her nose and mouth faded away with her words.
“I’m Charlie,” he said, and caught the bag of sugar before it dropped to the floor.
“It’s like walking on seashells trying to talk to you!” she said.
“You mean eggs,” he said, “it’s like walking on eggshells.” He snorted to make his point, left the table and went into the other room.
And somehow that ended the argument this time.
She heard the television blare up. People laughing. She couldn’t imagine what in life was so funny anymore that an entire audience would laugh. She took a deep breath and tried to calm herself down. Her nerves zapped with electric anger. She stuck her hands in the dishwater and watched as they sizzled and spat. It was getting harder and harder. She stopped scrubbing dried pasta off the plate and swore she’d give that one to him at the next meal.
The next night was the same thing. “How the hell do you think my day went?” he said. His eyebrows were set in that mean way they had of placing themselves whenever he talked to her lately.
She poked at the cioppino she’d thought would please something inside him. “What the fuck’s this?” he had growled.
“You don’t have a clue what it’s like out there,” he went on. He worked on a mussel, fork and knife teasing it open. It slid from the plate and flew off. He sat staring at his plate, building up steam, and then shoved the plate off the table and banged out the door.
“Broken shells,” she whispered as she picked them up off the floor. “Seashells.”
She could count lovers on her fingers if she included her thumbs. Was that bad? Did it make her desirable or just loose?
Angela was twenty-eight. She loved sex, had rubber-band flexibility, and though she hadn’t loved all her lovers, there were two or three that meant something more than just sex. One of them had been Andre.
It was on a European vacation after high school graduation. She’d stayed in hostels because it was the trendy way to “do Europe” then. She hadn’t listened to her mother and packed a blanket. It was a cold May in France and Andre was not only warm but handsome in that skinny Frenchman sort of way. He put her to sleep at night with whispered poetry she didn’t understand. Her mother insisted she return to the States immediately. She left him standing on the Left Bank waving goodbye. She often thought of him fondly, blowing kisses and sweet purple violets into the Seine waiting for her to return.
Another was Greg the Hobo who dressed in old ripped sweatshirts and jeans. Her mother had sabotaged the relationship when she brought him home on semester break. He was Dr. Greg (the Hobo) today.
Her last love and the one she was now swallowing pills in her bathroom over is Paul, a musician who told her he loved three other women besides her. Simultaneously. Her mother phoned an hour too late.
She lived her life concerned about the inside of people, the inside of herself. She’d forget what you looked like, never notice a new haircut, new color, a shaved mustache or beard. She wouldn’t know if you wore the same thing every day. I once wore big dark-rimmed glasses just to see what she’d say and it flew by her attention as if I’d been born with them on. . . and she’s known me since just about then; best friends kindergarten through college.
If she asked you a question she’d present it carefully, each word picked like the best blooms for a bridal bouquet. Then she’d wait, stare at you with an intensity meant to make you realize the importance of your answer but instead only made you feel pressured, flustered, and if you did not know her well, probably annoyed.
“What did we learn?” she asked me three hours before graduation ceremonies would begin. “What, if it comes down to a sentence, was the most important knowledge we’ve gained?”
“Not to mix wine and beer?” I said. I hoped that maybe on this one day at least she would relax, enjoy, go with the flow of the crowd. Believe me, nobody else would be pondering beyond missing their friends, gaining their freedom, their summer trips to Europe or at the very least, Belize.
“No,” she said. “We’ve learned that we are a core, with apple growing around it.”
Nadine was the odd child who liked layering clothes; kneesocks, tights and legwarmers sticking out from shirts and sweaters that fell almost to the edge of her skirt.
She liked gloves and sometimes wore them with mittens.
There were tams with tassels and saucer-like wide-brimmed hats, all topped with ribbons and sometimes a flower–even one that looked like a Bird of Paradise plant. Her hair underneath was long, very long, likely down to her hips but wound up in plaits and wrapped around her head like a crown.
Her mother thought she was cold. Her father just thought she was fat. Her brother bounced off of her running to the table, the TV, through the hallways in school. He thought it was fun, that she was quite funny. Unlike most brothers, he liked Nadine a lot.
She didn’t have many friends, most frightened away by the heaviness of a mood that matched her appearance. Dark, mistaken as sullen, she was a genius inside of her cave, mumbling out correct answers her teachers would need to bend forward to hear.
One night as Nadine was undressing for bed, laying out the pajamas and nightgown and socks and bedjacket that she would wear, she glanced in a mirror. The mirror reflected her room and her bed, her clothes in a pile on the floor, but somehow, she wasn’t there.
I happened by your street last night, just as you were going out the door. I wanted to say hello but you seemed in such a hurry so I followed you instead, thinking that perhaps I’d catch you when you came to your destination.
It was an unfamiliar part of town–at least to me–so I parked several cars behind you. I waited a moment too long and you were out and up the stairs of an address I just scribbled down. A short while later you came out and a girl was a step or so behind you. Odd, you both got in your car.
You went to Antonio’s Real Italian Restaurant. Isn’t that funny–you and I went there all the time. I guess you must have really liked it there and hadn’t lied. I thought about going in and having dinner too, then I’d get a chance to talk to you and meet your friend. But honestly, I wasn’t very hungry.
She looked quite tipsy, your friend; was it the sauvignon? Or did you have the burgundy we always had with the lasagna? I deliberated and then decided that I shouldn’t approach you both just then. I’m sure she would have just been too embarrassed.
I waited for a long time when you dropped her off. Then I woke up in the morning and your car was gone. I would have liked to say hello and ask you if you miss me.
They stood together in a circle around a fire that was slowly dying out. The man held out the last bit of paper, a one-dollar bill. He held it by its ends, his fingers trembling slightly, and stretched it out in front of him and stared at it a long time.
The others waited, there was no reason to rush him. He was a banker, yes; they could tell that from his suit now sooty grey. One man who used to be a mechanic on the street that used to be there found it funny that the banker still wore his tie. But then it would come in handy as a tourniquet if needed. Stranger things were being salvaged.
The banker let go of one end of the dollar bill. It flipped in the wind that blew hard and straight off the ocean, having neither trees nor structures left to slow it down. He took a few steps forward, dropped to his haunches and held the bill to the struggling flame. It flared as if it cried out with the metamorphosis into ash.
“Now what?” the former mechanic asked to no one in particular. Though some had looked to the banker as their leader, most had simply followed anyone that appeared to have a place to go.
The banker stood up, looked around beyond the people to the horizon. “I don’t know,” he said. “We just never thought…I just don’t know.”
For two hours she sat silent at the far end of the couch, the cat held tightly on her lap and petted aggressively to ensure it would stay. Between them an empty cushion two miles wide. On the far end he sprawled with his feet up on the coffee table. He wished she would put her feet up on it too.
He tried to think of something to say but the game was so close between teams. She got up and went into the kitchen. He reached for the cat but it hissed at him.
In the morning she found him asleep on the couch and she smiled. The TV was silent and the cat was curled up on his chest.
It was just over the border on the U.S. side. A little town that yawned out onto a stretch of desert that looked the same on both sides of the fence. The brush low and harsh with spikes and in early summer, large purple flowers. As he walked he plucked a single bloom for her hair.
She waited until the romance of midnight, watching the moonlight paint long cactus shadows on the ground. Her first wall was the easiest. She leaned out the window and landed in a somersault in the back yard. She stepped quietly around the cans and boxes scattered like sentinels. She ducked behind the shell of an old Chevy, once her playhouse, now sitting like a crab with open door pincers reaching out to catch her, eat her up.
He went up to the fencing and squatted, shifted his gun to his side. He pulled at the wires, his fingers finding the patch and lifting it free.
She felt so unglamorous, glad he couldn’t see her for she ran like a spider, this way and that, hopping in places where dark shapes warned. Something snapped in the night to her left.
In the morning the sun rose on both sides of the border. A young woman lay just out of its reach. As the sun burned her skin and the sand grains blew in to caress her, a purple flower wilted in the hole of a fence three hundred yards away.
He felt the warm wet tip of her tongue in his ear, gritting his teeth against it. Sandpapery, much like a cat’s. Why does one have to bow to the whims of a lover?
Meanwhile, she squirmed under the touch of him rolling her nipple between forefinger and thumb. She hated that, though her body responded more naturally to it than her mind. She didn’t know him well enough yet to tell him it wasn’t something she liked.
He huffed and puffed above her and just as she thought he would give out a groan, he tucked both arms underneath her, rolled the two of them over, and sat her on top. She didn’t like being on top, especially when she was already exhausted. It was a lazy-lover thing to do, and she thought she’d done her job already, actively bucking and panting flat on her back for what seemed like hours.
He was annoyed. Damn, she was losing momentum. He gripped her waist and bounced her up and down. She gratefully accepted his help.
Finally, finally it was over and he let her slide off to lie beside him. Jesus, she thought he’d never be done.
Shit, he thought, I’m sure no one’s ever held out this long just to please her. Her soft purring beside him, he didn’t realize, was already a snore.
“Who?” I ask. I don’t recognize the name, can hardly make sense of it. The caller is crying.
She explains that we went to college together, were in the same dorm, but I don’t really remember her well. A picture pieces together, a flat, freckled face, sad eyes behind telescope glasses, a certain smell, like stale cigarettes mingled with Vapo-Rub. Marcy Johansson. Clown orange hair. I only saw her through our second year; I’m not even sure she graduated.
She wants to come over. I avoid it and agree to meet her downtown. I stop on the bank on the way to the cafe, one hundred dollars cash is all I’m willing to give her. I’m sure this is why she’s called.
I spot her; same flag of hair. “Hi, Marcy,” I say and sit down across from her. She’s drinking coffee and I order the same.
The story is one I don’t want to listen to, don’t want to remember. It’s been twenty years, and I never knew all the details, the remnants of a mistake. I realize now why I hadn’t seen her around the final two years.
“He was your son, too,” she says. Her eyes drip sorrow. “I thought you might want to know what became of him, that he was brave and died a hero. He was a good son. A fine young man.”
I give her the one hundred dollars and leave. I don’t know what else she expected.
What could a fourth-grader do? Global warming seemed like something only God could handle yet Mrs. Charmish told the class that it was up to each of them to do something about it. To prevent the polar ice caps from melting and turning New York City into an aquarium. To keep California from breaking off and floating away. Since his little town was smack dab in the center of Kansas, Jimmy seemed safe from major destruction but California was where they made movies!
Jimmy researched the web, read an article his father pointed out in Newsweek. Much was already in the works, like electric cars and wind-power and changing the diet of cows. He needed something original and on Saturday night, sitting in the tub, he thought of it.
“My plan,” he said confidently, “involves drilling all the oil out that we’d need for centuries and storing it in huge tanks. Then capping the dry wells, mainly those on the coastlines and Alaska, with a large rubber stopper. And when the ice melts and floods, simply pulling the plug.”
“Also,” he added quickly, “we’d build bridges every ten miles from California onto the bordering state lines so when it dropped off, it would float like a dock on the ocean instead of just floating away.”
Mrs. Charmish shook her head in dismay and gave his report a D-minus. Jimmy was mad. It had all seemed so simple to him.
He saw it on a TV documentary years ago, when he was little, maybe six or seven. But he remembered it, the blackened walls, the charred wingback chair, and just in front, the empty shoes.
He’d been amazed and liked the sound of it: “spontaneous combustion.” Gone in a whoosh of flame, a smoke ring left to mark your place on earth. Where last you were–in this case, where last the woman sat.
No one understood it, they had said, though theories offered might have been an answer if it happened often enough, but it was rare. A rare phenomenon that no one felt was worth the time and money to explore. But he thought about it quite a lot.
For years he thought it might be the fire of anger, like when his father got so mad he yelled and swung a belt at everyone who scattered through the rooms. Then because he was a small boy then, he’d find a place to hide. And watch. He didn’t want to miss the sight, the phenomenon of seeing his dad explode in fiery rage.
It never happened though, at least not spontaneously. And when they asked him later, he told them it was natural, though very rare.
He makes no sound, no pant nor grunt. He woke me with a lover’s touch, his fingers speaking words a woman understands. It is a dream but no, I feel the warm breath on my neck, the weight and scent of a man that settles me slow and deep into my mattress, my room, my reality. My shriek is stopped by a hand and my body screams by bucking, pushing, shoving at the mass of him. He slaps my face.
“Who are you?” I say, but he slaps me again, so hard that I’m amazed at the gentleness of his other hand between my thighs. This man is complicated, I think; more conflicted within himself than what is happening here.
I moan. He grabs my neck between his thumb and hand. All right, he is no fool. He knows and hates the faking too. He slides inside me and if for nothing else, I’m grateful that my body has responded in its instinctual way.
The silence hangs between us like a world suspended. I imagine Earth orbiting without a sound inside the dark expanse of space. His lurching moves the bed as if the universe had suddenly gone mad and blown us down a black hole, spiraling out of sight–for I can’t see anything, can’t feel myself at all.
And when he’s done, no sigh of pleasure. I close my eyes and when I open them he’s gone. The bedroom door wide open. My soul ajar.
The morning after Jackie’s life dissolved in a whoosh of words and a slamming door, she missed the bus and waited fifteen minutes for the next one.
It bumbled, squealed and stopped. This driver didn’t smile in recognition, wish her a good morning. No smiles along the aisle, no nods, no “Hi, Jackie!” to make it better. She was a woman who’d lost her man, her plans for happily-ever-after.
She pulled out her e-reader but couldn’t concentrate. He’d taken her wedding gown, her anniversary parties, her children with him when he’d left. She looked around, guessing the life of strangers. It was better that she’d missed her regular bus–these people didn’t know, couldn’t tell that she was different now.
A woman sat across the aisle knitting some horrid orange thing. A young woman next to her was beaming down at a bundle she cradled in her arms. The man in front had serious dandruff that made her cringe. No one looked like they’d been broken into pieces. Everyone on the stinking bus had a better life than her.
She read, often re-reading to get the drift of story. People brushed by, got on, most got off. Her stop was next. When she put the reader away she saw the bundle left behind. It moved. She rushed and picked it up just as the bus swung around a corner and hissed to a stop. She smiled as she got off, suddenly feeling better.
“Mourning doves are just country pigeons,” she argued, “and squirrels are no better than rats.”
What could he say? They’d been over this same ground a hundred times, a thousand times. He had wanted to move to the country and he couldn’t budge her until they’d both lost their high power jobs in the city. They had to make some fast decisions before their savings ran out.
They bought a falling-down farmhouse in upstate New York. She hated it. Together they fixed and replaced and painted, though their furniture never really suited the rooms. Electricity flickered in storms and she used up all the long-tapered candles. Then something changed.
For the first time she saw the sun rise without scaling the sharp edge of buildings. She heard growls and yips in the night. She learned you could make morning coffee yourself, and have pancakes drowned in syrup that came out of their neighbor’s maples in spring, boiled down to an amber thickness as priceless as gold.
She grew out of her pantsuits and stuffed her new curves into size-larger jeans. She wore plaid flannel shirts, and Pradas were traded for workboots. Her nails never grew long enough to warrant a manicure at a salon.
“Listen,” she said, “hear that?” and he told her it was nothing, just mourning doves. “Damn birds woke me up again,” he said. She smiled and scattered dried corn for the squirrels.
I snuggle down between the deepest creases of it, between the heart line and the head line of his left palm. His fingers curl over in a blanket. I am safe and warm.
On windy days he puts me in his pocket. Though still I feel the turbulence of the flying sand against my back, I face the warm beat of his heart and fall asleep sometimes, I am so safe.
It is easier now–though one would never think so–to cook his meals and clean our little house. I fly through as light as a cottonseed on the wind. My feet never touch the floor. I peek into the pots of simmering soups, stand on the edge and stir aromas into the air with my arms. I sleep upon a pillow by his side and barely make a dent into its silken softness. He smiles at me more warmly now and kisses me sweetly as he holds me in the palm of his hand. His hand I need no longer fear. His hand that is caressing, warm and safe.
I feel loved and cared for. I feel his admiration. I am the perfect wife, the perfect woman, here in the palm of his hand.
It came when she most needed it, the message that would have turned it all around. When things left her scabbed and black as charcoal, when even food was gravel on her tongue. Yet she never read it. Never saw it.
It was a simple twist of fate, an inversion of numbers on the street address. The sender meant to write “138 Madison Street” but wrote “381” instead. A postcard that made its way dropped from his loving hand on a postal clerk’s desk in Rota, Spain, sat among its brothers with their cheery greetings in a cramped sack in the dimness of a mailtruck, packed tightly into bins in the black hold of an airplane, fluttered free in New York for an instant before it flew again cross-country to LA. All that, to be held in puzzled disinterest by the wrong hand for an instant and discarded.
It wept silently, its final journey made amid the stink of garbage one week old. It screamed in agony as the flames ate at its words.
I’m sorry. I was a complete idiot. I love you and I hope you’ll forgive me.
She wept and let out one long scream of agony as she spread her arms and flew off the roof of 138 Madison Street into the black container of the night even as he waited for her answer.
“No, the other one, the little one,” she said.
“Si?” The man held up a rose-colored spray of flowers fit for a funeral.
“No,” she pointed, “the blue, azure, aqua, blue…”
She held the flowers as low as she could but still could not see well around them. Muttered “watch its” and “hey, look out!” synchronized with the bumping of bodies as she ran into one after another to make her way home through the twelve blocks of the city, up three flights of stairs.
She kicked the door closed, set the bouquet in the sink. “Shit.”
She turned to look at her lover. “I couldn’t get the flowers I wanted for the dinner table tonight because the man didn’t understand me.”
He came over and stared at the sink full of pink. “Sister?”
“Oh Lord, I didn’t even see that,” she said and she cut the glitter-written ribbon off the stems.
“You can cut them down,” he said, “fill about three vases.” He was laughing. “You’ll get it. These people understand you, they just pretend so they can sell something that costs more.”
The roast was burnt. The potatoes glazed with a hard air-dried shell. The string beans were thrown out after they’d waited two hours.
“Try again,” she said, and he punched in the redial. He nodded and mouthed, “ringing.” “Hello?” he said into the phone. His face changed and she knew something was terribly wrong.
This image is a combination of images and effects. From a portrait photo I took of a friend, I selected the face and used a neon effect to highlight the frown and lines of the character. The background is a photo I took of a large maple tree covered with a light layer of snow applying the same effect, and merging the two to create the nature and strength of a woman as defined by her crowning glory.
She fingered the spikes as if they were alien. Last week her hand slid over the ice rink of her skull. She wondered if she should just shave the new growth again. Her eyes looked huge in the mirror.
He told her he’d love her no matter what she had done. Had she wrecked the car?
Overdrawn the account?
Quit her job? Gotten pregnant? Gambled away all their savings?
No, no, and no.
Then why worry? He’d love her if she got fat as a rum ball. He’d love her if she were bald.
What he hadn’t asked was if she had had an affair. If it was, in fact, with his closest friend, Jake. For a month she festered in silence. Then she cut off her long dark brown hair. Used his electric shaver to smooth her head all over, glowing and fresh and clean.
He stood there not blinking, not breathing, so neither did she. Then his hands dropped down to his sides and his mouth guppied for words. She waited. He coughed and then he asked her why she had done it. She told him about the three weeks he had been away and how Jake had come over and they’d both had too much to drink. He said nothing but in the morning he left.
She couldn’t believe it. He said he would forgive anything. He would love her forever regardless of all. Even if she was bald.
Every Saturday morning they come around and have us draw numbers from a small wooden box. Then we wait. They’ll come back and call twenty numbers as we crowd in the main yard, its dust oddly red and muddy as nothing I remember from the outside to be.
Some women whisper nervously about being freed. We hold our numbers close to our breasts, afraid to let anyone see, to be holding someone else’s lucky number. But luck is dependably random.
Some of us are silent, having gone through months of Saturday mornings. We see hope as a wisp of breeze that blows through the camp on its way somewhere else. Eyes shine through the lack of expressions, expectation nearer oblivion, some flickering a final spark. It’s mostly the new ones, the latest arrivals, who are excited, believing that this week their number will be called, that they are already on their way home.
She had just arrived three weeks ago, a young woman, her belly bursting with child. We found an extra blanket, shoes for her feet. She stands anxiously, her face innocent and naive. She had become my friend and that frightened me.
The guards return. My number is called. She silently begs me. I wipe her eyes off my face, turn and join the line. Her hope brands my back like a hot iron. I’ve never told her what I suspect, in case I am wrong. But for this week, at least, I think she is safe.
The late-day shadows stretch out like nymphs on the lawn, reveling naked and dark in the warm golden-green grass. In islands they float on the surface, shifting, reaching, drifting apart.
He sits in his chair reading. The umbrella is arced to slant its shade on the pages of the latest Grisham novel. His face too is bereft of the sun. I alone drink in its yellowness. I absorb it into my veins, the blood carrying it through my body like a waitress with a tray full of daiquiris sparkling in sugar-rimmed glasses. His drink is a masculine scotch on the rocks. Mine is a faceful of afternoon sun.
An awning of tension hovers above us, its clarity accenting the lean of his body, elbows grounded for takeoff. His chair is angled away from mine by just enough. Mine is boldly straight out to the yard.
“Are you still mad at me?”
He grunts, doesn’t look up. A finger flips over the page, ready to hold his place should this turn into an argument.
“I’m not mad at you,” he says. He looks out across the lawn, now spread with writhing shadows of maple and ash. “It’s Joe’s fault. Jesus, my best friend fucks my wife.” He snorts as if the air around us is thick, its transparency made of plastic-wrap. “I don’t blame you.”
Icy daiquiris flow like a hot river within me.
So yes, I murdered my husband. Chopped him into little pieces, froze and disposed of them all but no, I didn’t eat him! What in God’s name do you think I am?
It’s taken me two years. After he’d retired he was always home. It was nerve-wracking, you know? I’d had him on a high cholesterol diet but, well, got impatient, so I finished him off with a lamp. I just got rid of the last of him this week. It was much harder than I’d thought it would be.
A few bits into the garbage each week was taking forever. I started leaving a finger or toe, a nipple (yes, I did cut off his nipples but that really wasn’t the worst) in someone else’s trash. Double-wrapped in toweling and baggies, unrecognizable and uninviting to scavengers, human or otherwise. Oh, that’s another funny thing–
I discovered that Bosco, our boxer, enjoyed these tidbits as treats! I had dropped a piece of liver and before I could pick it up he’d wolfed it right down! I started adding pieces to his dinners or as a reward, but he threw up in the yard once and the neighbor was standing right there when an obviously human ear was center stage in the mess!
Oh, no, I don’t think you’ll find enough of him left around. Really, if he hadn’t taken an early retirement, or I had been blessed with more patience…he wasn’t a bad man…
|He picks the Chevy so I naturally get a Ford. He loves Italian and I develop an allergic reaction to tomatoes. Honest, my throat closes, my face swells, the whole scary thing. Why then did we get married? To beat him and win.
My mother told me he was the perfect man for me. I told her twenty-nine was not yet an old maid. “But you two have been together since high school,” she said. “Before that,” I growled and she knew enough to drop it for a month.
We hated, we dated, we hated, ad infinitum, but he was the one I trusted to pop my cherry. After that, he thought he owned me but I told him, “you merely unlocked the door.”
He was the one I came back to for holidays, summers home from campus, because after all, he was there. I’d spend the first few days crying about the latest guy, purposely snotting up the new Christmas sweater his latest girlfriend had knitted.
“Let’s be honest,” he said more than once, “we’re trying our best to avoid ending up with each other. You’re better at it than I am.”
“No,” I said, “I can just hold out longer than you.”
“Hah! No way,” he said, and we fought over that. It grew worse when we both ended up here.
“Bet you can outlast me on staying single,” he’d said.
Heh-heh. I said “I-do” about thirty seconds before he did.
|He finally asked her out. She was ecstatic. He, a junior partner of the firm and the only good-looking guy who wasn’t married. There were other unmated lawyers but toads were better bred.
Evelina started life as Evelyn but changed it as being more exotic. She was, by more opinion than just her own, a beautiful woman. Skin of milk chocolate melting into molded curves, soft straight hair from genes likely left by rape before the Civil War, and the golden brown eyes of a mink. She was smart Southern charm. No one, least of all Evelina, could figure out why she hadn’t been down the aisle long before now, at thirty-two, as her melting curves threatened to layer into double-dipped thickness.
They met at Trattoria, he waving her from a darkened corner table. Evelina smiled, striding confidently as if she hadn’t been hiding in the ladies room for twenty minutes because she’d arrived too soon. He ordered for them, which she found both endearing and outrageously annoying. Since she would have chosen the same thing, she let it ride but did murmur about it being overcooked.
In bed he swiftly took over, instating her in the woman-on-knees position which she’d never liked. He also took a long time, leaving her exhausted and grumpy by the time he came.
“Last time, last man,” she told her new friend Leah. “I think we’ll have the swordfish,” she told the waiter, ignoring Leah’s protests.
He laughs and runs just like the other boys even though he doesn’t have a father now just his mom. Wild-eyed big-grinned crazy-legged games of tag with hands held open at the ready. On a schoolyard in Missouri grassy brown and littered with the colors of September he is happy, unaware of any threat except for maybe Brandon who’s a bully and likes to pick on younger kids. Something needles through the moment and he slows and for a moment stops and listens. Eyes dart at the subtle hum that only he can hear off in the distance. Shoulders pull together at an imagined rush of wind that brings the scent of smoke so strong he holds his nose. Brown-black curly head dipped down, he cringes as a plane glides overhead. Sometimes his friends will tease him but most times they somehow know and don’t, remembering what Miss McCallum told them about that picture in their history book. About that day. He’s just a little boy and he was only two all those years ago in New York City.
I saw it coming. No one would listen. Said it was ridiculous to believe that the stars hold up the sky like pushpins. That as the stars are blown out like birthday candles, the sky would come crashing down. I learned to just keep my mouth shut. I didn’t think it would happen in my lifetime anyway.
The reports about global warming, however, concerned me. I looked for a connection. Whether the sky started drooping in places as it came unstuck and affected climate, or if warming was responsible for putting out stars before their time.
I tried to talk about this with my wife but she gave me that look of “oh dear God, please don’t start that again.” This reaction from someone who supposedly loves me a lot discouraged me from bringing it up to anyone else. Then I thought of Charles.
Charles worked in the lab. I’d spent time with him over some projects. Charles is weird but he does know his stuff and I trusted him more than anyone to at least consider the theory. He’s not one to shuffle off blame either. So, I told him. He listened.
Then it happened. Thanks to Charlie we had time to prepare. When we, possibly the last three survivors (I forced my wife to come with us) emerged from the shelter, we had a whole new set of problems to face. Did you know the beautiful blue sky is actually the consistency of melting fudge?
He got up, had breakfast, showered and dressed, and sat down at the computer to log in at his job. Norm checked for new emails and read them one by one. He laughed out loud. That Bob was a card. Who knew where he got these things. Norm forwarded the jokes to his friends. He logged into Twitter, then Facebook. Then it was time for a break.
He rinsed out his cup and set it inside the sink. He opened the refrigerator and eyed all the shelves, waiting for something to call out to him. He finally took an apple and went back to his desk. He checked his email. And Twitter and Facebook. He clicked open a file and worked on it for almost an hour. Then he logged off for lunch.
Norm was between a nerd and a geek. He figured things out for himself surfing sites, downloading programs and playing around until he got stuck. Then he’d seek help on the forums, scrolling through posts, getting sidetracked by interesting threads.
He had a two o’clock meeting on Skype. After that, he worked more on the project files, making revisions suggested at the meeting. He was tired, it’d been a usual busy Monday and five o’clock loomed. He closed up the file, checked email (and Twitter and Facebook), and logged out.
With his jacket over his arm and car keys in hand, Norm sighed and left for the day.
I knew a man who never slept. Who never lived within that blank space of time between drifting off and waking up again. His name, as odd as he, was Herman Merkelmutter.
We were roommates back at MIT. After college we lost touch. I heard he married a woman in Ohio who wrote novels and played a tuba. I think about him now and then and would love to sit down and have a conversation about his inability to suspend his consciousness. Whether he spent his wakefulness in any form of restful rejuvenation. If a slowdown of his brain waves was enough.
My wife Lisa is the librarian at the university where I teach third year creative writing. She’s never been completely awake. The library is the perfect place for her. She’s completely functional and people don’t realize that she’s asleep. She’s a good driver and that’s a plus on long trips.
I’m an eight hours of sleep kind of guy. I get a bit dopey with too much sleep and very grouchy in a bout of too little. It all works out well enough. There are probably hundreds, maybe thousands of people who remain at the extremes of sleep or wakefulness simultaneously. Just as the rest of us are at the extremes of being fully one and later, the other. As a matter of fact, I’m sure we all know a few.
Stop what you’re doing, look around. Who is sleeping? Who is awake?
The question trills in a loop in his head: “Are we there yet? Are we? Are we there?” Two six-year old voices in harmony, twins, a boy and a girl.
He is driving alone on the same roads that he had with his wife beside him, the twins strapped in their seats in the back playing a game that he’d hoped would keep them busy. It was a long ride to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving.
He makes himself do it, though he hasn’t seen his in-laws in years. Just makes the drive up there, just to see how many times he can safely maneuver the curves and the snow. That curve. That curve in snow.
The radio has been turned up loud to drown out his thoughts. Now, closing in on the place where it happened, he turns the radio off. Snow falls like a sky full of parachutes. Slowly sideways, landing in big splats on the windshield before the wipers sweep the bodies away.
There it is–up ahead–the spot where they went off the road. He looks down at the speedometer. Thirty. That’s just what he was doing that day.
He speeds up just a bit, holds tight to the wheel because Lord knows, he was being careful then. The car starts to slide–just a bit, just for a second–but smoothly rounds the bend and goes on. He’s made it safely through it again and he’s crying.
In the beginning, there were thirty-five of us. Twenty-five women and ten men. We were all young, healthy, selected for our child-bearing genes. We were told to go ahead and have fun.
Thirteen of the women got pregnant the first month. Ten of the babies aborted themselves, unable to cope with the difference in external environment. We kept trying, selecting men as if they were stud horses, by their fertility because they all were intelligent, all handsome and strong.
After eleven months, we’d each suffered several miscarriages. I alone carried a pregnancy to six months, the longest. I alone went through an actual birth but too early, or as we know now, too late. The baby was dead.
After two years they stopped sending replacements. They know what we know, that time is all scrambled up here. The wheelchairs they’ve sent us, and high blood pressure meds, but no doctor in his right mind will come.
It’s been nearly three years and I’m weary. There is only one other left with me now. His hair, like mine, is silver and long. We sleep curled into each other, taking advantage of the months that will pass in the night.
He comes through now and then, the traveling salesman of jokes, lead guitar in the on-the-road band. These visits are a flutter of wings, the routine that overrides her day, fills a night. As the taillights of his ’98 Buick red-streak out of town, Antonia breaks out in hives.
It’s happened that way for over a decade, twelve years she counts on her fingers and ears. She finds the fexofenadine in her medicine cabinet which when opened, hides the hives on the other side of its door. Her face is screwed up in resentment, natural symmetry unnaturally out of square. A mouth tired of singing the song of hello and goodbye, the low notes outlasting the high.
It’s a prescription she refills on a regular basis because she won’t know when the headlights will pull in. Sometimes a phone call, the blare of a trumpet, comes from a phone booth the next town away, the next county, the next state. Sometimes not. Like the meds, the house is kept ready, the dust caught before it could fall. There is always a steak in the freezer, always a six-pack of Coors asleep in the bottom of the vegetable bin.
Antonia hasn’t dated in the last ten years of her now forty-two. Except for tonight; she said yes to the concert with Jim, the pharmacist at the drugstore in town. She kissed him goodnight, went upstairs, undressed, and smiled as she scratched at the hives.
His back hung in flayed strips like the carcasses of cattle where she bought meat to make meals for a husband she loved.
He was a robber, a thief of emotions, caught and branded by law an adulterer. She found him on her way home, barely alive, moaning and rolling in the cool dirt of the alley. Sand ground into the torn flesh of his back, flowing blood like an overturned vase seeping water into a carpet. Colors ran, intermingled.
She hid him in the shack at the back of their walled yard. She moved tools, brought a blanket, a candle and some water and wine. She cleaned the ragged landscape of his back and dressed it with cotton. He whispered thanks between warnings. She shushed him and left him to sleep.
He told her about the woman. He cried when he spoke her name. He said her eyes still burned into his own, her lips healed his wounds with the memory of kisses. He said that he wished that he too had been put to death.
She kept him hidden for nearly a week. He insisted that he would leave the next day.
He was gone, as he’d said, but he had been seen by her neighbor, a bitter old widow she disliked.
She sang as she prepared the evening meal, happy to no longer have a secret kept from her husband, when they came and took her away.
For centuries it was said that the border swallowed those who attempted to cross it. An old wives’ tale, many said, constructed to keep children in line. On both sides, children played the same games. If they played all together without speaking, one would imagine the ball still being kicked, carried beyond goals.
The shadow of Diego’s house just touched the hills that touched the border at late afternoon in the month of July. This, said Diego’s mother, was the line where small children and men could be lost. No one would know what had happened but you would never see that person again. Small boys grew into men but their eyes still shone with the mischief. Some day they would challenge the eater of men. Each day it grew in importance rather than died with their childhood dreams. They still planned in whispers; they still caught the gleam of the line as, touched by the sun, it beckoned with flashes of gold light every day at high noon.
One night Diego and his closest friend Juan bellied up to the border. Their breath was heavy with excitement and fear. Their eyes met in moonlight, their nods in agreement. As one, they sprang up and ran.
They ran as if chased by black devil bulls. Diego heard the crowd cheering, saw the ball flying, felt the heavy weight as he was tackled and fell.