Dutch

Dutch

Did the wailing in your womb threatened to capsize
your ‘60s Mayflower when you crossed with your new husband?
Pale, dried apples, curled onto themselves like mold-freckled
wood shavings, filled your patchwork bags, packed alongside
traditions you would never let go.
Bathe once a week and shoulder a faded pink sweater,
dark under the arms, and stretch on hairy stockings, limp in the toes.
Peppermint Wilhelmina-, cinnamon-, must-, licorice-lined pockets.
Did the newness grab you, shake you, slap you,
caress you, with visions of the swampy lowlands?
Did a market display of oranges suddenly assault you
with trumpets and fanfare? Did a green-grey river turn putrid with
 fish and thick with boats, where Vermeer in a tantrum may as well
have thrown his painting, or his wife? Did home visit you often?

Splattered across the front of the church, a massacre in blue.
Ink-stained hands dig at a threadbare scalp, desperately trying to
pull out something that was no longer there.
Did you miss her, your daughter, when she left on a pilgrimage
from which she would not return?
All you were—a parched peach-coloured photograph,
a cream cardigan dipped in a birthday cake,
a lost, half smile that didn’t fit, slim hands on your shoulders gripping
them like reins and then helplessly letting go—yet, I miss you.
Keys rattle, jangle, play across your fingers, mischievous things,
you know they fit a lock…somewhere.
Did you really hate children, or did you forget that you liked them?
As a patient—grey hair and pale green paper blankets—it didn’t matter.
Follow the light. Follow the light back home.

Three grey-green, yolky beans left in the auger, times were hard,
and fingers became expendable.
You built birdhouses, beds, homes, strong and lasting, but
your brothers built them stronger, and theirs still remain.
Feuds went beyond blood. The photograph in the ex-wife’s
wallet, you looked different then.
What did you do to make your head deflate and spot and rot like a mango?
Was it the accent you never defeated, when all the other pilgrims did?
Did the hearing aid, pressed deep, that you insist shrank your leg
two and three-quarter inches, let you hear the soggy banks? The loud, vivid streets?
Thump. Limp. A cane, shellacked and silver-tipped, whacked against grandchildren
and pets in gestures not intended violently. Van Gogh didn’t mean it either.
Swirl your beer and saliva, and spit on the driveway, a river of crushed ocean, and
Wave home. Wave Home.

 

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The Grave Digger’s Ultimatum

A bell rang.

The door swung open with a rush of filthy air, putrid and reeking of the lesser half of the city. A vileness so strong it permeated the blood of those who inhabited the area, and clung to the clothes of those who did not. A scent that clung like a dying hand.

A bell rang.

The door clicked shut.

“It needs to be tighter,” the woman, my mother, complained bursting forth into the steamy shop, “The color is too vibrant as well.”

Pivoting, her skirt tightly swirling, she examined with a half-pinched eye the flaccid swatches hanging from the tailor’s shaking arms. She felt it made her appear as if she knew what she was doing, as if we had money for a new dress, this woman, my mother, .

I stood on a dais, left with less room to speak than the mannequin I replaced. I could not inhale; I could not lift my arms above my ribcage; and I could not turn my head without pins threatening to puncture my carotid. Perhaps that would not have been a bad thing, to spray the shop and keepers with my blood before crumpling to a heap at their feet like a defeated swan, having lived with as much effect as one.

The woman, my mother, plowed around me, examining me not as her offspring but as a knockoff piece of art she must sell. My statuesque chest was not yet threatening to shred the seams of the bodice and launch forth into the face of whichever leering suitor happened to be admiring it. However, the fabric might unravel if the nagging cough I felt climbing through my lungs took hold. The past weeks these coughing fits had become more frequent. I had already suffered one this morning, although with less warning; I had accidentally sprayed the breakfast table with phlegm and blood and oatmeal. Hopefully this attack would subside until later. The woman, my mother, would have a fit if I was to collapse here, embarrassing her more than usual.

As the tailor’s rail-thin apprentice circled me with another bolt of fabric, this one a cream-white to complement the white-cream already composing the preponderance of the dress, I knew that I would not be able to choke down the gagging feeling in my throat. I began to cough; the tailors and trainees backed away, secretly making the sign of the cross beneath the pile of mucus-colored fabric in their arms. The woman, my mother, quickly threw a handkerchief in my face, an attempt to stifle my retching.

“We’ll finish this later gentlemen, thank you,” she said.

I could hear the disdain in her voice. We would now be forced to return to the shop to finish the fitting, putting our grand schedule behind itself. We would not be ready in time.

My thoughts began to wane. I could no longer gain enough air, and I felt myself weaken.

A bell rang.

I woke to two dusty discs wavering above my face, the smell of sulfur, and church bells ringing in the distance..

“Is she awake yet?” a voice asked. I recognized the impatience; it was the woman, my mother.

A dusty murmur sounded in response.

I attempted to rise, but the result was like the few times I had gone swimming but should not have. The world felt thick, and I could not grasp. My abilities had suddenly retroverted to a childlike state; moving was like holding a too-large implement in too-small hands.

“It might pass, but she will need rest,” the bespectacled creature replied; he looked like a weasel.

The woman, my mother, harrumphed. I knew, without being able to see, that her bosom quivered and shook, her whole figure did. She was like a short, fat pipe organ, one with visible vibrations.

“This could get worse if she doesn’t.”

“Bah, she has her mother’s strength,” the woman, my mother bellowed. She did not believe in a separate subdued sickroom code of conduct. She was the same woman–piercing, prowing, tough as leather–in church as she was at the rallies. She had one personality, but two faces. The one oft turned on me was not a nurturing one.

“Still…I recommend rest,” the weasel sighed, clicking his black case shut with a sound like thin bones snapping.

Through the gauzy haze wafting around me, I could hear him being escorted to the door, the woman, my mother, stomping after him. I attempted to sleep, knowing she would return soon, but I was still suspended in the vellum-like state induced by whatever “remedy” was forced down my throat.

In the street below my shuttered, blinded window, hansom reigns snapped over the back of a horse; damp hoof beats sounded on the wet cobblestones like wet potatoes slapping together. The woman, my mother, launched back into my room, thrusting herself through the frame like an ox at the sales gate, flaring snout and protruding chest first.

“Get up. Get ready for dinner,” she demanded, snapping the blanket from the bed like a sail in a gale. “He’s coming tonight.”

My skin felt as though it was made from amphibians, dank and crawling. I did not want to get up. I wanted to pile more blankets on myself, hopefully through the extra pressure ridding my skin of the writhing and cold and damp. I was not to get what I desired.

Over shivering prickled skin, tightlipped, pity-riddled maids synched and winched a corset; it made my figure seem delicate enough to encircle with one hand. I, instead, felt that hand around my throat. I knew I would not make it through the evening, yet I continued in the parade of preparations. I allowed the maids to lower the dress over my head. I permitted them to pull and pin my hair. I tolerated their touch. I knew of little else.

The nervous creatures exchanged wide-flared stares when I began hacking again. One was shoved forward at me with a cloth, a bib to cover my garish yellow dress. Perhaps she would not object, the woman, my mother, as it would cover the faded trim, the frayed stitching. It was an old dress. Must keep up appearances. Must put on a good show. We do not want to frighten our guest away, no matter how much we might want to never see him again.

Not that he is horrible–no, he has never demonstrated an afflicted nerve. He has never demonstrated much of anything. The pale grey blandness of him smothers everything that he might possibly be. Aged, but not dignified; mature, but not wise; educated, but not intelligent. He contrasts me in every way he possibly could while remaining in the same species. His blood runs blue, mine stains the crumple cloth red before me. The maids stared at it, until the bells in the kitchen rang, and they scuttle off, happy of reprieve.

“You are looking well, my dear,” he said, leaning over my hand.

I nod, not trusting myself to speak without spraying him with whatever vile fluid is waiting to come forth. I am trying not to breathe, avoiding taking air into my lungs that will tear at my throat like a cranky badger trying to escape from his burrow. Not that it is difficult, the maids seemed to have predicted this, for I believe my corset is tighter than normal. For once, I do not mind, but I feel numb. My fingers feel dead and cold. He does not seem to notice.

“Care for a brandy?” the woman, my mother, asked.

“I really shouldn’t…” It was always the same conversation, like an extravagant ritual from seventeenth century France.

“I shouldn’t either, but I’m going to. Be a gentleman and join me,” the woman, my mother, guffawed.

“Alright, a little fire in the belly couldn’t hurt,” he said; I could mime the words alongside them.

They left for the salon without looking back, and I stood in the foyer listening to the tinkling curtain as they passed beneath it, leaving the resounding bell-like music in their wake. The woman, my mother, composed her own parade complete with a calliope of noise reminiscent of a dockside heritage.

Bells in the dining room jingled as the maids, now in kitchen garb, announced the meal, and he and the woman, my mother, emerged, bearing ruddy cheeks and cheeky smiles.

“Come on, come on, haven’t got all day,” the woman, my mother bellowed, pushing forward.

He took my arm and looped it in his; if he had not held it in place, it would have fallen.

“Glad to see you waiting, my dear.”

I had no choice as I had no strength to move, and I did not even realize that I was standing still for the entire time of their alcohol laced negotiations. The woman, my mother, was smiling. I knew she had gotten what she wanted, and I did not.

 

I did not eat, but he and the woman, my mother, did not notice. They were too busy throwing subtle self-congratulatory quips back and forth and winking to each other, as if I were not there, which I wasn’t.

I scratched at my corset through my dress with a fork. They did not notice that either.

Talk passed between them like a bad dish from a resilient host–politics, which I could not care less about and should not be brought up with the woman, my mother; religion, for which I had little time and the woman, my mother denounced; and most importantly, finances, which had little to do with me as I had none and the woman, my mother, already knew but wanted to hear again–all in all, it was a bad recipe. My obvious distaste for it was ignored, and it was slid past me without being offered.

However, when I began coughing and attempting not to do so by shoving a piece of dry chicken down my throat to soothe the nagging reflex that threatened to pull my lungs out of my chest, I did gain their notice by spraying mutilated chicken across him and the centerpiece.

The woman, my mother, ended the meal before dessert, harrumphing as she bustled he and I from the room, ramming us with that domineering chest of hers.

In the parlor, the woman, my mother, took a seat under the gas lamp and took up her sash sewing and left he and I at the window unattended under her rabid gaze.

He took my hand, and I could feel the lines on his soft skin.

I still had not beaten the cough that finished dinner, and made small chuffing noises to stifle it, to keep it at bay until I could release it and let it take me to the floor and leave me weak and breathless. He did not seem to notice, or perhaps thought that the sounds were hereditary, carryover from the frequent harrumphing of the woman, my mother.

“My dear child,” I was dying to hear what he had to say, “I don’t think that my intentions are misunderstood or unclear.”

Unfortunately no, they were not. This whole process had been done before, though not to this level of finality. He was more bland than the others, and none of the barbs and snags attached to him, instead falling away like the trapdoors under a doomed heretic. He did not know into what he was getting himself, and would not until the rope was about his neck.

“I have already spoken with your mother,” the woman, “and drawn up the prenuptial agreement,” without my voicing my consent, “I think we shall be a smart match.” Oh, but in truth, how foolish we would be to be a match. I would never find companionship within my marriage or within the ring of societal hell that he occupied, and he would in turn lose his because of me.

It all came down to politics–that a woman without title could wrangle a man of such. That a woman without holdings could wrangle a man of such–and the woman, my mother, was pleased. I was a gleaming poster for all that she rallied and advocated. It could be seen on her face as she tried to look as though she was sewing, even though her crooked hawk-eye was turned to us. The woman, my mother, orchestrated her pied pipes, and he followed. I was the road on which they walked.

The rain fell as the rain always did, but I could no longer feel it. I barely saw it out the window, the thin glass obscured by rivulets of water and darkness. My world had continuously constricted to the narrow confines of the home, and then the window, and then myself–and even that was shrinking. I was numb beyond my shoulders. The thought did not terrify me, which terrified me.

“Child?” he patted my cheek “Are you alright? You’re so pale…”

Just like I was always told to be.

I would never escape.

But then fell to my escape…

And it was silent. Silent beyond description, beyond words, silent in a way that only those who could not hear could understand and appreciate. Nothing but the sound of my own breathing and my own words and thoughts–all or none of which may have been in my own head.

And it was dark. Dark beyond description, beyond words, dark in a way that only those who could not see could understand and appreciate. I threw my hands out before me, striking the thin skin of my knuckles against something that would not move. I put them to my mouth, tasting blood, proving that I could still bleed and taste–two things that I had not lost.

My shoulders rubbed a barrier like that which laid beneath me and above me, and bordered my head and shelved my feet. Cold and covered with cool satin. I was gone, and I was never coming back. The lid above me would not move, nor would any other panel of the box that, in all likelihood, was crafted from rocklike wood and notches and paste designed to withstand the apocalypse.

In my fruitless thrashing, I felt a tugging on my wrist, something wrapped around the circumference. It gave, for a short distance, before retracting, slithering back into the depths of the darkness surrounding me, but maintaining its tension.

Time was infinite and huge and terrible and unaffecting.

Occasionally, I shifted in my narrow space, attempting to find a more comfortable position in which to endure eternity. I still felt lightheaded.

And then I heard bells. Or I thought I did, for they were distant and faint and my understanding of reality was askew. My audible dreams continued to get louder, closer, and I heard scratching, thumping, sifting.

And it was light. For darkness in night, it was light. I could see; I could breath; I could hear. The world had returned.

“You getting up, missy?” a man stood several feet above me, holding a shovel.

I realized I could move, freely. I stood, remaining below the ground, still staring upwards at the spindly man above me, a silhouette outlined in stars. I put my hand to my head, pulling the twine wrapped about it, pulling the bell hanging from my headrest above the ground.

“What do I do?”

“Well,” he said, leaning over on his implement, his face looming closer–pale from his shift and round from deflated age–it hung like a moon, “you’ve got three options. You can lie back down, and I’ll put the lid and dirt back where it belongs. Or you can go back to your life, and I’ll be putting the lid and dirt back over you in a few months. Or you can go away, live life completely to your own accord…best be making your choice quickly, love, I’ve other things to tend to–”

In the near distance, a bell rang.

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RUFUS

His name was RUFUS

said his shined belt buckle
under the 

grey
bullet

that he

shot

himself.

Dark rain, and mud.

His world and

rank

were without stars.

His 

kepi

was too small, but
he REFUSED to admit it.
His

grey

pants rode up his shins
as if AFRAID of the ground.
He would start something new,
like the

Tweeds of
                                                                              Tammany Hall.

Green and YELLOW striped socks.

His jacket

outranked

him, but he liked the way the dove-

grey

material hugged his shoulders.

The officers

ripped the lapels from his fine
coat, and the shoulders hung

Limp, tattered, and frayed

like the BROKEN wings of a

DEFEATED angel.

The officers

hated

him,
but he

hated

them,

So It Was Fair

except there were more of

them

than there was of him.

He lost at euchre—

always lost—

because of a ration and
a half of corn whiskey, although
he said it wasn’t. The other

soldiers

said it wasn’t.
He just wasn’t a winner.

He lost his boots in a game,
but threw such a fit that 

the REBEL officer
gave them back.

These boots found RUFUS looking
for a cobbler.
They were shiny and

Yankee-made

and the soles began to peel away

leaving the

pithy, unaired, inner

leather of a grapefruit.
He

tried to fix

them, but stabbed
himself with a needle
and threw the

whole mess

into the fire.

Another

soldier

with more patience
and no boots,
went after them.
RUFUS took them back,
and beat the

soldier

for stealing.

There wasn’t a cobbler in 

the unit

so he

marched into town

which he wasn’t supposed to do
and found a tailor.
The man

did not fix

boots, but with a

gun

to his head, he fixed everything.
RUFUS left with his shiny boots and
his

pistol

jabbed in his belt above his crotch.
He whistled a

Yankee

tune and felt

REBELIOUS.

The cobblestones melted together
beneath his feet and
seams disappeared under
moss and rubble and gunpowder and
shiny boots.

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Hubert

Words may show a man’s wit, but actions his meaning—Benjamin Franklin

 

FATHER: You’ve been dead to me before.

HUBERT: And for some reason, you just keep resurrecting me. Do you need something to believe in so badly, Father?

FATHER: Don’t be impertinent, Hubert. I do believe you behave badly just for the attention.

HUBERT: Do you think that would work? Dear God, if only I could get some publicity…perhaps some of my work would actually sell.

FATHER: If you need money, I won’t give it to you.

HUBERT: I did not ask, nor do I want it. I’ve been living on my own for seven years without a cent from you. I’m quite alright.

FATHER: If you consider ‘alright’ to be living in this hellish little room with that awful loose woman—if you impregnate her, I forbid you to marry her—and those people you jaunt about with, they are a bad influence on you. Look at how you dress now; bloody hell, you’re worse off than the last time I saw you. You could at least try not to wipe that charcoal all over your face. You’d look a bit less like a pauper. Do you not realize that you cannot just go from our status to this?

HUBERT: Well, Father, it looks as though I have. If I have disrupted the natural order, as you claim, why not take one of the wild little urchins scuttling about, dust off his shaggy little smock, and plunk him down on your parliament seat. Let him sit there and pick his nose and drool on the armrest with the rest of your fat, stodgy friends. I’ll stay here, a weight on the dark side of the scale of natural harmony, with my perfectly lit apartment and a model at my disposal at all hours. Yes, I shall accept this fate for your new little prodigy and the good of all humanity.

FATHER: You waste your life. After all the tutoring and trips and presents, you toss my investment out with your torn canvasses.

HUBERT: I thought we established last week that my ghoulish friends had robbed me of my sense of guilt.

FATHER: Your mother wants to know if you’re brining anyone to dinner tomorrow.

HUBERT: Just Ann.

FATHER:       I’ll inform her. By the by, how is Ann?

HUBERT: Quite well. I think she’s finally breaking her publisher.

FATHER:       Good, good.

-:——————————————–:-

ANN:        Hope you’ve not been waiting long. Oh, Hubie, why do you always hack off your hair like that? You know I like it longer, and now you look like you’re trying to hide your recovery from some horrific disease.

HUBERT: Lovely to see you too, Ann. You know, it just easier to take care of like this, I don’t ha—

ANN:        But must you do it yourself? There are sheep of poor shepherds that look better off than your head. You’re not still using that painting knife, are you? Of course you are, there’s paint in your hair. People will think you’re trying too hard to achieve the appearance of a tragic and desperate artistic soul, but you are the epitome of that and you don’t even realize.

HUBERT: And this is coming from the woman wearing a dress splattered with ink—oh, it’s on your face too. You might want to, um…

ANN:        This is what I get for choosing a bohemian over a gentleman. And if you’re so curious, the children were rambunctious today, spilled it all over me and their blasted cat and rug. Speaking of, how much is left over from your last commissioned piece? I have to pay to have it cleaned before the Mistress finds out.

HUBERT: The rug or the cat? Oye, don’t hit me; I know what you meant. But, um, the commission’s gone—y-you knew that though.

ANN:        Gawd, Hubie, I need the money.

HUBERT: Well, your publisher is showing interest, isn’t he?

ANN:        Not in a way that will result in my being published. Hubie, why do you keep paying for all of those people to advance? We need the money just as badly.

HUBERT: You don’t understand. These artists, these writers will be the greats of our time, more so than we could ever imagine being. They are going somewhere big—Amsterdam, Paris. They’re going to amount to something, Ann.

ANN:        Unlike us. You pay for these people to go to the big cities, to wallow around with cheap prostitutes, and drink themselves soggy with absinthe, but have you heard from a single one since they got there? Have you been invited to join them? You choose terrible friends to sponsor, Hubie. You refuse to marry me until you have enough to support us, but you give away everything. You let that woman stay in your apartment, but not me. Why not me?

HUBERT: Because I want to marry you. She is just a friend who needs my help until she can find a theater to take her on.

ANN:        Hubert, patron saint and fornicator of the arts.

HUBERT: Dear God, not you too. I’ve had my soul chewed on already today.

ANN:        A passerby certainly would not know it.

HUBERT: Ann, no, please wait. D-don’t walk away.

ANN:        Hubert, I love you, but this is getting old. I work all day taking care of that ghastly family just so that we can have food, but it’s never enough. I don’t have time to write anymore. You have all the time in the world to paint, but you do it just for your charity cases. You refuse to go to your family for money—and I understand your need to separate from them, I really do, but you’ve got to something.

HUBERT: Are you still coming to dinner tomorrow?

ANN:        Gawd! Why don’t you ask that other woman of yours?

HUBERT: Mother doesn’t like her.

ANN:        You’ll come ‘round seven?

HUBERT: Of course.

-:——————————————–:-

HUBERT: You look cold, Mother. Are you sure you don’t want to go back inside?

MOTHER: No, no, I love the terrace, and this time of night.

HUBERT: At least take my jacket.

MOTHER: Thank you. Now, don’t slouch. You’re actually tall when you don’t slump over like that—oh Hubert, I just fixed this for you. How did you tear it already?

HUBERT: I live a busy life.

MOTHER: It looks like you got trounced again. Did you? Oh Hubert…why do you deal with those people? Can you find nothing better to do with your time than make foolish bets and play cards with those heathens at the docks? What about your painting? What about Ann? When are you going to marry that poor girl?

HUBERT: Oh Mother, I don’t know.

MOTHER: What is this? Look—my finger fits right through. Is this a bullet hole? Hubert, you’re not dueling again, are you? You know I abhor that. If you love fighting and shooting that much, why don’t you sign into the army? With your skill and your father’s name, you could make something of yourself, do something useful.

HUBERT: Is it not enough that I am happy?

MOTHER: Are you?

HUBERT: I’m doing exactly what I want, Mother. Why wouldn’t I be happy? Why wouldn’t I be ecstatic? I get to paint all day. I have a beautiful woman, many friends. You should be happy for me.

MOTHER: How much do you owe this time?

HUBERT: W-what are you talking about? I don’t owe anything. My paintings have been selling well, a-and Ann is going to sell her first book. We’ll be fine—

MOTHER: How much?

HUBERT: —eleven.

MOTHER: God, Hubert, this has to stop. Clearly your paintings are doing worse than before, as is your gambling. I beg of you, come home, where you can have a job doing nothing, which is your true talent. Leave Ann where she is. She knows what she wants, what she can do. Stop slowing her down with your dead weight, you jealous, little boy.

HUBERT: So you’ll give me the money?

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Made in ______

            Sue rifled through her modest tweed bag in search of her cigarettes; she didn’t smoke much, normally. Her purse yielded handfuls of soggy tissues, but not her pack of Winfields. They were probably in her husband’s teal truck. Unfortunately, that truck had been packed with stained canvass bags, a cook stove, and a blue-tick shepherd and had sped away from their little trailer that morning. The blue-and-white cardboard pack probably sat in the consol ashtray between her husband and that half-dressed American woman.

            The inn sat before Sue, tucked into the deep belly of a dusty valley in the middle of the Never Never. It squared its corners against the dirty eddies slamming against its walls, forcing clingy sand through the shrunken wood planks of bleached green siding. She approached the familiar porch hesitantly. She had not been happy the last time she was here, and hoped it would not be the same now. She hoped that she could find some gritty grain of truth, of something that would tell her she wasn’t crazy, wasn’t stupid, wasn’t hopeless. This time would be different.

-:-:-

            “Are you going to carry me over the threshold?” she had asked.

            “Why would I do that? We’ve been married for a week, Suzy-love; I think the time’s passed,” Richard said, not listening as he fumbled for a cassette under the seat; the truck swerved over the vacant and undefined dirt path that was considered a road in the endless expanses of the blinding yellow desert. The landscape was comprised of vague contours of shapes; only the hardest shadows glared from of the washed-out landscape, like an overexposed photograph. Small rock, or maybe a large one, there. Cactus shoulder here. Kangaroo, maybe.

            “We live in a truck, Rich. It will be the first real doorway that we pass through.” She folded her hands over her knees, tugging at her wool pencil skirt and wishing that he would put the windows up.

            “Yeah, we’ll see.” His voice was as rough and grated as the bumpy road; he scratched at the emerging stubble on his face and muttered about the shoddy, lying shaving cream.

            “We are going to the inn, aren’t we?” She was tired of stopping alongside the rutted road propping up a tent—or a sheet, after the tent blew away when Rich had insisted that it wasn’t necessary to stake it down—exposing her nuddy honeymoon self to the sharp sand, and waking up with the dog and a perentie pressed against her warm legs while Richard stood outside pissing against the wind.

            “Yeah, I guess. If they take the dog,” he said.

            “What if they don’t,” she asked him, touching his lavender seersucker-sheathed arm and watching him twist away.

            “We don’t need a dog.”

-:-:-

            That had been less than three years ago, and now she stood on that arid lane that still barely passed as a road. She called for her daughter, Mary, rolling the ‘r’ once so that it sounded like Murray. But would not matter if she had called her like an Australian or an American, her daughter had wrestled out of her car seat and disappeared. Sue’s old Land Rover docked halfway off the road only held evidence of human life; the other dusty, rusted cars sat empty; and the landscape rippled in emptiness and deadly heat. Her chest unlocked for the first time in days only so that it could seize again.

            “Mar-ray!”

            Happy squeals erupted from under the porch. “Ma! Doggie!”

            Sue quickly knelt on stones and snakeskins, looking under the uneven porch, and there her towheaded toddler sat, under a shaded shepherd, clinging at its legs like a Roman infant.

            “Doggie, ma! Blau!” she said, meaning blue.

            “Sweetie, that’s not Blue,” Sue said, but the cool den under the porch was dark. She wasn’t sure.

            The dog whined, nosing the child.

            “Baby come on, there’s snakes under here.” She managed to ensnare Mary’s arm with her hand. The dog licked Sue’s wrist, tongue flicking over the blue veins running like a roadmap to her fingers. “Come on, Mar-ray.” The dog watched her pull away from the cool, dirty cavern under porch, its eyes glinting back like spectacles. She pulled Mary up over the pinched and dipping boards of the porch and inside the inn; outside, the dog whined. The inn had not changed.

-:-:-

            Richard did not carry her over the threshold, but he let her carry her bags.

            “I can’t believe you want to stay here—it smells like a fishtank,” he said glaring at the flaky, yellowed pastry-like ceiling. “I’m gonna get the rest of the bags. Get us checked in.”

            Sue stood on the dense and dated shag rug in front of the scarred butcher-block front counter. Her green leather pumps sank into the old blue polyester as she waited for someone to emerge from the dark narrow depths of the inn. Light and sand sifted through the split board walls lining the low-ceilinged common room. Mismatched chairs huddled around scarred tables permanently set for dinner, the plates and bowls and tarnished spoon bellies coated in lacings of sand and dust. Richard was right; despite being in the middle of arid nowhere, it smelled like a dirty fishtank.

            “What are you waiting for?” Richard said, seeing her standing where he left her as he slammed back inside, swinging the chipped screen door against the dead piano. “Ring the damn bell—fine I’ll do it. Hello? Hello? Anyone there?”

            “Rich, just wait,” Sue tugged on his bleached, threadbare shirt.

            A man emerged from the depths of the inn wiping a knife on his filthy waist apron. He approached the counter, but did not speak. He watched the couple and knew everything.

            “Can we get a room?” Rich asked curtly.

            The innkeeper ignored Richard’s request. “I like your wife,” he said.

-:-:-

            Sue stood inside the inn on the same rug. With the screen door that was more holes than anything else shut safely behind her, she released her daughter. The toddler sank into the cushy, damp rug by her mother’s green shoes and fondled the crushed piling, growing frustrated that the blue yarn was not long enough to reach her mouth while she was sitting up.

            “Mar-ray, don’t.” She pulled the yarn from the child’s chubby hands and moving her off the rug.

            The innkeeper limped from the back of the inn, pumping a sloshing garden sprayer.

            “Told you he’d leave you.”

            “Barney, not now. Please.”

            “I’m a bit surprised you came back,” he said pumping the jug, “but I had a feeling.”

            “Can we get a room?”

            “You certainly can. Doesn’t mean I’ll give it to you though.” He began dousing the floor in insecticide. “Damn ants.”

            “Barney…Oh God! What are you doing, my baby’s down there.”

            “And chewing on my rug too,” he wheezed as she swept Mary into her arms. “Ah leave her on the floor—she’ll learn quick enough if you tell her not to—or maybe she won’t. You didn’t.”

            Someone slammed a door upstairs, and flakes of buttery colored paint sifted down. Mary reached out a hand. She had never seen snow, but she instinctively touched her damp paint-coated fingers to her mouth to taste the flakes.

            “Ah, Mar-ray!”

            Outside, the dog barked from somewhere under the porch.

            “Did you get a dog, Barney?” she asked.

            “Lots of bitzers around. Gives the perenties something to snack on.”

            To her left, a noise turned her head—the squeaking shuffle of loafers followed by giggling clacking heels. On the stair, she caught sight of the soft worn heel of an American-made moccasin, something New English, but it pulled away back up stairs. She tried to remember if Richard had owned a pair of shoes like that, and prayed that he did not. Even though she had spent the last few weeks glaring at his feet, she could not remember. It had been a long time since she went shopping with him for shoes, or anything; he always went to the flashy American department stores in Alice Springs after he got the first paycheck of the season. She did not care for those stores. They would drive around for the months in between seasons as he looked for work, but there were not many ranches or farms in the Never Never, and fewer that needed an extra hand. She never understood his fascination with the cheap leather slipper shoes; they would not hold up to a king brown’s sharp fangs.

-:-:-

            “Look, I didn’t ask for this. Don’t bring me food I didn’t ask for,” Richard said, pushing the plate of gloppy stewed beef and brown bread back at Barney.

            “Rich…” Sue said softly.

            “And what’ll you have, m’dear?” Barney asked, leaning back using his potbelly as an anchor and pivot point; he smiled with his three teeth. The dim evening lanterns lit him like a grizzly Buddha.

            “She’ll have—”

            “I didn’t ask you, you dumb duffer,” Barney growled at Richard. “Now, how ‘bout some cabbage soup and oat bread, ya?” He disappeared back into the bowels of the inn.

            “You wanted to stay here,” Richard said to her, poking at his plate of unwanted meat before deciding to eat it.

            “Rich, we have to find some place to stay. You-we can’t live in the truck forever. It only seats two. What are we going to do for money? We don’t have a brass razoo,” Sue said fingering the billy pot.

            “Are you trying to tell me what to do? I know what to do, Suzy-love. Don’t be worrying yourself about things like that. You aren’t going hungry, now are you? No. Now look,” he leaned closer, his open shirtfront dipping into the meat sauce, “I may not have wanted to marry you, but you know I’ll take care of you.”

            Sue nodded, because she did not know what else to do. Barney reemerged from beyond the butcher-block counter, sloshing a bowl of soup balanced on the tray propped on his rounded shoulders.

            “There you go,” he said, swinging the bowl over Richard’s head, dribbling cabbage water into his cracker-blonde hair, and placing it before Sue.

            The chair clattered backwards, rolling over itself, as Richard leapt to his feet.

            “My apologies,” Barney said, laying a hand on his radish-round belly and pivoting forward into a bow. He ducked back into the inner inn, touching Sue’s shoulder once before leaving.

            “Hell with this. Come on, Sue—”

            “Rich, I don’t want to leave. I’m tired, and I want to eat.”

            “Whatever, let’s just go upstairs then. Get your new friend to show us our room.”

            Leaving her cabbage soup, Sue stood shakily, wondering how even for that single moment she had loved Rich. How she had fallen for that cool American accent that brushed over her like a rare wind. How he had managed to steer her so off course in a matter of weeks, and now with his ring on her hand how he had changed so greatly. Of course, he had never wanted that ring anywhere near her finger. She spent two months trying to find him after that night, just to tell him, not hoping for anything, and then that ring clamped on her finger, almost like it had been part of his game all along. But she wasn’t sure that it even was a game—most games needed more than one player.

            “Looking for your room?” Barney said, bumping between Sue and Richard. He led her up the splintery bent staircase, to a narrow hallway, the floor of which felt like it would give out any moment. Rich looked at Sue, raising his eyebrows.

            Barney introduced her to filthy room. One narrow bed engulfed most of the space; tattered leather curtains flapped at the pane-less floor-to-ceiling window. Richard turned to shut the door, but was left groping at nothing.

            “No doors.”

            “Why the hell not?” Richard said, flabbergasted.

            “No windows.”

            Richard crushed his face into a revolted sneer. “What the fuck’re you talking about?”

            “Dumb whacka don’t know Christmas from Bourke Street. He ain’t been here long, has he? No windows means no doors. Something crawls in your window, you want it to crawl right out the door. Critters get cranky when they’re cooped up,” Barney said, smiling.

-:-:-

            “Is he here, Barney?” Sue asked, setting her daughter down away from Barney; Mary had gotten too heavy to be comfortable.

            “You’re my favorite, Suzy. You know that.” He smiled at her; his three teeth as yellowed as the ceiling were sunk in pithy gums. She knew he would go no farther, stubborn ocker that he was. She wished she had bothered to look more closely at the other cars outside for a teal truck, and then realized that she did not care if it was parked out front.

            “You mind shutting the curtains,” Barney said. “Looks like a nasty duster’s brushin’ up.”

            “What good is that going to do? Why don’t you get actual windows?”

            “Because I don’t like to wash them. Hurry now, flap those curtains closed,” he fluttered his fingers towards the opening in the wall.

            The curtains were leather flaps with two holes to hang by and a pin to hold them down, and she latched them across the gaping holes.

            “There’s a good girl,” Barney said behind her. She thought he spoke to her, but turned to find him poking Mary in the cheeks as he tried to coax a small porcelain object out of her mouth.

            “Mar-ray! What did you do, Barney?”

            “I didn’t do anything. If you kept a better eye on my new little cobber here…”

            Sue wrenched a dripping cat figurine from her daughter’s mouth and handed it to Barney with a disgusted look.

            “Ah see, ‘Made in America’,” he said reading the slobbery bottom of the feline, “at least you won’t have to worry about lead in the paint. Ha ha!”

            Encircled in her mother’s arms, Mary reached for the figurine in Barney’s hand.

            “Ain’t that just a fair suck of the sav! Little blighter just doesn’t learn.” He leaned closer to the girl. “Now, what happens if you swallow this, eh? You choke and you die, that’s what happens. Then you don’t get to put things in your mouth anymore. Now, if you know, if you’re absolutely sure that this is the dinky-di, then go ahead, take it and die happy. But,” he dangled the cat just out of her reach, “if you take the time to look at this thingo, and realize that maybe it’s not all you think,” he dropped the figurine, letting it shatter on the floor between them, “you’ll save yourself from a lot of wasted time. You could have saved even more just looking at where it was made. Some things just can’t hold up to the outback, ya?”

            “That’s enough, Barney,” Sue said, swinging her daughter up into her arms again. “Trust me, I’ve learned.”

-:-:-

            She woke in the night, and sat up in the dusty bed, pulling the sheet around her and off Richard, who did not notice. They may as well have slept outside; she felt as though she had been more exposed here than when they camped like swaggies. The hall creaked, and Barney appeared in the doorway, illuminated in the cool moonlight. He held a shiny rope longer than he was and fat as his arm; it swayed slightly. Seeing her awake, he stepped through the doorway.

            He held a king brown, some feat for a man of his short, bandy stature. He knew it too.

            “I found it in the pail of whiskey I set out for the dingos. Ha ha! It’s half sloshed. Hit the bloody turps, it did!” he said.

            She was not sure she wanted to know why he was bringing it to the rooms upstairs, but asked anyway. “What are you going to do with it?”

            He thought for a moment, looking at the snake’s fat head; it flipped its tongue out of its mouth but forgot to retract it. “You want it?”

            “What? You’ve got kangaroos loose in your top paddock. What would I…” she trailed off as she caught Barney looking at her husband. He slept soundly beside her, his blonde hair and twitching moustache turned moon-grey in the night. She hesitated for a moment.

            “People cark it all the time. You could get the insurance money,” Barney said, coiling the brown snake in loops around his neck like a limp, scaly scarf.

            “He doesn’t have insurance,” she whispered softly, glancing at Richard again.

            “The snake doesn’t care.”

            “I think I need him,” she told Barney. “Right now, I think I do.”

            Barney shrugged; the snake on his shoulders jiggled. “He’s going to leave you. Not now, but he will. Do you need that? Snake bites aren’t always curable.”

            “No, I suppose they’re not.”

            “Some are though.” He ducked away, calling over his shoulder wishes for good sleep.

-:-:-

            “Where are you headed now?” Barney asked, slinging a fat platter of mismatched meat and eggs in front of Sue. He placed a bowl of hot cereal with slivers of strawberries arranged in a happy face on the table before Mary; she giggled.

            “Not sure. Probably back to Alice. I can find a job there,” Sue told him, picking at her breakfast.

            “The next lesson I’m going to teach you is how to eat properly,” he said, pulling a slab of bacon from her plate. “Hopefully, this one won’t take as long as the last. Maybe this one you can learn from your daughter; she doesn’t seem to have any trouble.”

            Mary sat across from them eating the oatmeal with her fingers.

            “No, she’s different…” Sue said quietly. “Thank you, Barney.”

            “Just come back again, ya?” he said, strangely sober, patting her hand. “And keep callin’ me, anytime, just call.”

Sue glanced around the squat room. “He never wanted to come back here.”

“You could have come back anytime by yourself.”

“I know. I’m here now.”

“You’re here now,” he echoed, “Fresh-made independence. How’s it feel?”

“Like snake venom.”

©

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Hotel in the Canadian Train Station

The fingers I rub over the smooth nub
of the newel post weren’t always like this.
When they were rubbed red and raw,
they picked up splinters more easily.
The wood I touched was not as smooth and
silky as the wood the other maids touched;
I was taller then. But now, I find where I
touched; clearly I left a mark.
I follow the trail I made so long ago,
touching it some, but mostly, I know
where it is.
The floorboards, wide and swaybacked,
creak exactly where they used to—hop,
sidestep, the laundry cart is not where it once was.
The bustle in the hallways has calmed; I can no longer
feel the bounce, bounce of the other girls as they
jog past where I could just reach out and touch
their brawny arms, smell their sweaty hands and foreheads
and hear their jangling laughs.
The sun still pours through the windows of the upper
hall, between the offices and the outside, touching the wood and
lighting the incense of pine.
It’s gentle and feels like the touch of the kitchen woman
Mary, who always guided me through the
difficult corridors.
But the kitchen no longer holds its warmth, not
that it had since I tripped over Mary’s body, where she
lay in a slurry of goulash after falling on the stove, and I
had to pull myself upright using
the tangible smell of cold, scorched flesh and tomatoes and onions and
I don’t eat pork anymore.
Avoiding the area where she fell so long ago, I navigate
the low, old room, feeling along the cluttered
remains of a renovation long since abandoned,
and I found the narrow maids’ stair.
Steep and skinny, it folded back on itself at every
floor as it hugged the walls up to the attic
where our beds were shoved together so tight,
where I could run my fingers over the girls’ heads
touching their soft, oily hair, their curls, their braids, and find my way.
I knew that I could not make it up the steps now,
I could barely make it then, but
I could still touch them. The treads worn so deep that
they were like wet clay marred by a huge thumb,
the chaotic scuffling, constantly chugging over the worn
boards. Sometimes the girls slipped on the rounded, clumsy,
silken steps.
Sometimes the sooty, acrid oil lamps on the walls leaked.
The wood felt so familiar under my dried fingers,
each neat grain lying in plane with its sisters,
every step, a family.
Except for the lower three steps, where the lines of wood
remained untouched, save for me, because I could never make
the respectful leap over them.
I kneel now, and stretch my fingers
towards the scratchy corner of the riser and tread
and find the crudely carved letters that say:
Katie died here.
I wasn’t here then, but the girls, the older girls, said
that the man, the fat man, had come with the soot-hauling boys
and taken her to the basement, and they were quiet.
The girls weren’t, but they were just the girls, and
it was a long time ago, when splinters were fresh
in young, sensitive fingertips.
Sobering and straightening, as much as I could, I left.
They would level this station soon, and
I just wanted to touch it again.

©

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Swaddling

I was made in New York,
but I was born where the fields lie,
combed and monotonously grey.
I spent evenings by the glowing squid of a furnace,
ordering memories out of the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.
I touched the prints of furs so much that they disappeared,
and I had to wait until next year to see them again.
Mother said that only people in New York
had furs like that, and that I was foolish for dreaming.
I told her I was going to New York.
I spent summers with the boy of the foreign hired people.
He was my Ántonia,
and he brought me a different world.
Our barns were full of magic, at first,
but then they were filled with muck-caked animals
and endless work and tired hay,
but we found fun, in that bored hay,
he and I.

We had a bad year.
The crops did not grow, but my belly did.
I said goodbye to the father, sent him off in green, with everyone else,
waving at the train, the thread of gold on my hand glinting.
I would be a widow before the ring was warm.
My baby was born into my arms alone—my dark skinned, sloe-eyed baby;
he was alone, save for me, because of me.
I was banished from the farm like the pony that bit the heads off chickens.
I left my sweet boy with his apple-headed grandmother,
her three teeth clattering together like a bone wind chime.
It could have been an evil sound, but she took my son
and wrapped him in the fur of a badger, saying it was lucky.
I would spend many years paying for my leave.

I found work in a bright city that was not New York,
starred with condescending lights that shined with stained argon.
The women on the street gave me an interview on my way to an interview,
lured me in with fur trimmed fans and illicit feather boas.
It was the dream, but then the boas began to shed,
and the rabbit fur cracked with age and poor care and
the lights continued to get crueler.
I sent my monthly check to my son and his rattling grandmother.
And that was life. I rolled into maturity and then rolled past.
There, I met Dotty, with her bulging eyes, black under the unflattering lamps.
She came to know me.
There, I met him, his deep plum suit, his greasy Italian shoes,
when he came on Thursday evenings, and then Friday afternoons.
He stayed all day Saturday,
and I never had to touch crumbling rabbit fur again.

He put me in his apartment in a city that was not New York,
but close. Chicago.
I was alone, in our cold home
it was fashionable to be so sleek and grey and monotonous.
My husband sealed deals with fishes and oranges.
I wanted to bring my son home, but he didn’t want a darkie running about.
I settled for Dotty instead, and we hatched great plans like mischievous chickens.
These would never be, but then they were.
He died rather quickly, in a trunk, in an alley somewhere, and
I never saw the body.
I sent for my son, but by then, he did not want to come home.
That winter, I went to New York
and swathed myself in the skin of another.
The fur was colder than I expected.

I set up my empire of fur, ruling it like the tyrant who killed my Ántonia.
I came to be hated and feared and respected and wanted—no,
my things came to be wanted.
Other farm girls wanted to touch fur
that was not caked in defecation,
that held some seemingly foreign magic.
My image was everywhere I no longer wanted it to be,
blown out of proportion, and I was expected to maintain it.
I ran out of air.
Botox and lifts and tucks and dyes and paint.
I lied.
I was old, and these lies were fragile—the furs, each smooth coarse hair,
a line, a hatch, a mark.
Dotty would meet me on New Year’s Eve and get raving drunk.
Half-dressed and older than I, she would sling herself about the bar,
half exposing me, like any jealous sister.
I let her stay in my spare bedroom; I wanted my friend close.
In my darkest moments,
I wanted to release her, intoxicate her, and send her to the national news.
I wanted to go back to that farm in Iowa and
wave at the train, and go with my son to pet the cows,
and I would wrap us in the fur of a badger.

©

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Ginger Roots

The birches lined the sloped street, canopying the road in a yellow sheet, swagged and puckered, dipping low like a child’s fort. They shed saw-toothed teardrop leaves—golden and pointed but still soft, like leather—freed by a sharp, short autumn gust. These flakes of fall fluttered and spun past a dark figure, a man wearing a black pea coat that was a bit too long, formal charcoal trousers, and shoes that were at one time shined slick. Lounging at an aesthetic angle against the papery peeling bark, he smoked; the languid curls of breathy smog obscured his pale face before a breeze smeared the wisps into the air. With fingers clenching a hand-rolled cigarette, he swept his hair out of his eyes, but the unnaturally black hank swung back like an obstinate raven wing. He looked up when he saw her approach, but did not smile, and instead lowered his beard-shaded chin and stared up and out at her from under thinly lashed eyelids.

Mommy, Mommy, look at me! Look at me, Mommy!’ After coming home from the hospital, Cassy’s mother did not look at her. Her mother with a half-shaved head, with bird-bone shoulders was not the same after going away. Her mother now stared into the bright patch of mold growing on the living room wall where the showerhead on the other side sprayed the wrong way. She stared at it, into its depths as she would a wishing well, searching for answers in a mass of oozing apricot-colored fungus; her eyes glazed over. Cassy’s father told her that doctors removed part of her mother’s brain and that she wouldn’t be okay for a while, but Cassy was little and didn’t understand. While her mother was staring vacantly at the mesmerizing peachy glob on the wall, Cassy would sit on the couch beside her and touch her soft buzzed head, fingernails catching on the staples holding it together. She imagined the doctors fixing it with the stapler that her father used to hang Christmas lights. Chack-a, chack-a, chack-a.

She did not smile at him. She preferred him to be silhouetted against red brick, grey snow sky, green-grey-black moving water, the black-red leather of their couch, and she still panted from the walk up the steep hill. She hated fall when she had to take the birch-lined mountain of a street to get home instead of her usual route along the smoothly graded road lined with maples and oaks and beech. She hated autumn, and wished that she could afford to skive off in September and return in November, but she couldn’t.

“You didn’t take my picture,” he said with mock indifference; she knew he was pouting.

She slid her hand Napoleon style between the large black buttons on the front of his coat and pulled him to her. He barely reached her eyebrows.

“You’re the photographer, Fagan, not me,” she said.

He shrugged. “How did the appointment go?”

“Fine,” she said.

“And you?”

“Also fine,” she lied, wrapping her bare hands around his wool sleeve; he smiled.

They made idle small talk about their day: his professors, her students, her professors. Navigating around the alley shredded with fresh construction, dotted with road cones and workers in florescent vests, they walked to her apartment. She thought her shoes looked clumsy next to his; even though scuffed and holding the faintest hint of soon-to-be peeling leather, he moved them in a way—sliding them over the stone sidewalk like a Thai dancer, or Norse pond skater—that seemed, to her, worldly. She liked that about him, even if he had never left the States. He could always be someone he was not—he was quirkily normal everywhere—and that was what had attracted her. In the library, he sat reading the obscure wriings of long-dead French poets and eating Skittles, in the dim and shrouded cherry-paneled window alcoves on the fourth floor, where she herself liked to escape after meetings with students. He had smiled and offered to share the shaded window seat; she had pulled the heavy sage-green curtains back from the window to protect his lovely emerald eyes from strain. That was two years ago.

Her mother wasn’t the same after she came home from the hospital, or after her hair grew back. When he thought he had come home to no dinner too many nights in a row, Cassy’s father scraped the gunk off the wall with a snow shovel and fixed the showerhead, and her mother blinked and looked around for the first time in weeks. That night, she burned her dresses in the backyard, danced around the flaming pyre, her skin flashing and glowing and writhing with light like ambrosia salad and crystalline maraschino cherries. She only wore her carroty-colored dresses after that, wrapping her waspy waist in a terracotta-red apron, cinching her lower figure into an inverted flowerpot. Then she started painting, every wall, ceiling, cabinet—a different shade. Amber. Titian. The floors were replaced with Mango carpet—an overstock from the 1970s—tile from the same era, and wood painted the color of a hunter’s cap. The house pulsed and glowed, almost radioactively, almost like lava, and after spending even a short time in its confines the longing for the normality outside the clownfish door was overcoming as volcanic fumes, as radiation poisoning. It was a perpetual sunset, numbing, suspending, and time never changed inside it.

At the kitchen pass-through, Fagan fiddled with his new antique Minolta, prying up the fickle rewind crank with a chopstick.

“Take my picture, Fagan. Show me what you see,” Cassy said, angling her head over the back of the old, dark leather couch. She had found it abandoned or lost outside a dormitory, and brought it here. She liked to think that she rescued it; Fagan, at times, agreed.

“It doesn’t work.”

“Then stop playing with it. Come here,” she said, rolling herself deep into the warm, mashed-potato cushions; they engulfed her, folded her under their comforting lumps, letting her melt like a glob of butter. Its mushy covering was torn in spots and had been patched with electrical tape that faded into the material, or the offending cushion had been turned over and poked into the corner of the sofa. It had flaws, but hid them gracefully and accepted flawed others without judgment. A blanket was not needed with this couch. The green driftwood fire threw fish-tank light across the room, washing over her face in unreal light.

Fagan obeyed, and sat beside her on the potato couch, his sweater, himself, identical to the cushions; she picked out his clothes. From the confines of the bottomless couch, he pulled his tin of cigarettes and matches and a thin book of Hemmingway’s poetry, rolled into a tube and secured with a rubber band.

“I wish you wouldn’t smoke,” she said, glaring at his soft, long fingers holding a glowing match to the tip of the cigarette, poised before his face.

“You smoke a pipe,” he said, snapping the rubber band from the book and letting the stained, curved pages flop open.

She tucked her legs beneath her, letting the couch take them away, leaving her feeling like a medicated amputee. She thought of getting out her pipe—old, carved bone with a lid over the bowl like a beer stein—and her flint lighter, but could not.

You killed him! You killed him, killed him, killed him—’ Cassy’s father had to drag her mother inside as she wrestled and scratched and screamed like a belligerent harpy. Cassy had just picked a marigold from the garden, her mother’s newest colorization project. Honeysuckle, tiger lilies, cosmos, African daisies, poppies ravaged the backyard, snarling over the fence and invading the neighbors. The fiery ivy crawled up the side of the house, scaly feet burrowing into the “Arizona Dreaming” siding; it avoided the roof. Her mother had wanted to replace the roof when she switched the siding, but Cassy’s father refused. The siding needed to be replaced; the roof did not. The house glared out of place on the street, blue shingles contrasting over the saffron siding. It was a house Dr. Seuss would envy, complete with a Lorax. Swathed in a jumper with stripes like the Grand Canyon, Cassy sat on the bare clay ground of the yard; her mother had removed the grass. The fence surrounding the rusty clay basin was slathered in thick, globby clearance-rack outdoor paint. Cadmium 72. When she was sure that her mother had been sedated with one of the light-blue, triangle pills, she pulled away the heavy swath of honeysuckle and pumpkin vine, hanging like a prickly stage curtain, and kicked the loose board open. Exit stage right.

“Why do you like that stuff? He kills himself, you know,” Cassy said.                                            “I’m sure you think that’s ‘because of his environment,’ ya?” 

“More than likely,” she said. “It won’t impress people, you know? Knowing his writing. Figure out how to use antiautodefenestrationism, locupletative, or veteratorian in a conversation. That’ll impress people.”

“…it is the spirit of the thing that will count.”

“Stop reading that book, please. Let’s do something,” Cassy said, wading through the couch to be closer to him, to fall into his sweater that was the couch and be a part of him. It was soft; it was easy. Her skin reflected the flickering, green pool light of the fire.

“Do you have any great ideas?” Fagan asked. He wrapped his arm around her head, touching the lines that had faintly begun to split her forehead, and pulled her deeper.

She plunged an arm into the couch, looking for something to save the evening, so that they would not sit stupidly on the mound of couch and stare at the fireplace. She had papers to grade and a paper to write, but did neither. He had exams to prepare for, but had already done so. It was a typical evening. They would reach the point where they could not possibly do less and then venture to the bedroom, make love, and fall asleep.

Another book of dark, angry poetry by someone who should have stuck to novels. An empty thermos with dribbles of wine—she had searched for that before, in this couch that ate things and time. A deck of cards, missing a full suit, could still play rummy. Rabbit fur cat toy, from the cat that ran away, or was eaten by the couch; Fagan didn’t like it anyway. A hooded, green fleece pullover, hers. A DVD documentary. A cheese puff.

The adjacent yard was so green, comparatively, that she felt she had put on glasses made of wine-bottle butts, a corrupted vision distorted by odd mold marks and the backwards imprint of where it was made. Normal, platonic flowers grew, harmless in the neat flowerbeds; hyacinth, violets, roses poked from the subtle, slithering groundcover. Goldfish-colored siding did not wrap the house next door; it was a yellow two-story. Cassy crouched like a garden gnome in the triangular gap in the fence—the neighbors’ side stained a natural brown—and watched the yard, the house. She watched the family, as they ate food that was not salmon, roughy, cantaloupe, on plates that were not the color of orioles. She watched as they played with their beagle, Fritz, and as the boy not dressed in prison garb ran after his smiling father. The boy’s mother called him inside, touching him on the head before following him with a swish of a blue floral skirt. Cassy wanted to touch the fabric, wanted to touch something not doused in curry, in tiger fur.

“What the hell is this?” Cassy shrieked, flinging herself off and out of the couch, her safe zone, stumbling into the black coffee table, throwing the offending ball of puffed corn and hydrogenated fat at Fagan.

He fumbled to grab it before it was lost again in the depths of the sofa.

“How did it get there? Is it yours?” she said, scrubbing the palms of her hands on her jeans.

“I don’t know; I didn’t put it there. It may have been Donny. He was over last week; we studied together. Remember?” Fagan said gently, holding his hands before himself like a pacifying shield as he shifted his hips off the couch.

“Just get rid of it, okay? Please.” She continued to back away.

“Alright,” he threw it away in the can in the kitchen. “Look, babe, it’s gone. You want a beer?” he asked, pulling a bottle of Halloween lager from the stainless steel fridge and peeling the festive label off into the trash.

She shook her head, no.

Fagan frowned at her, forehead crinkled in confusion, and shrugged, his face melting smooth. “Are you alright, love?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” she told him, shaking her head in a neutral gesture; she patted the mushy cushion next to her. “We need to talk.”

“Are we okay?” He approached the sofa hesitantly, putting the bottle to his mouth.

“Um, yeah, I think so, I-I hope so. Well, um—oh God, there’re more!” She jumped off the couch again, and crossed paths with Fagan, pushing him towards it.

“What?” he asked.

She pointed towards the crevice between the cushions.

“Seriously?” he sighed, stepping around her. He clean-and-jerked the cushion off its base, exposing a graduate-level sociology book with the receipt stapled to the cover, an undeveloped roll of Kodak T-Max 100 film, and half-crushed cheddar puffs rolling about like ants under siege.

Fagan held the sagging pillow above his head, quiet, unsure of how to proceed. He looked at his girlfriend. She was older, more knowledgeable; she had helped him get this far. But she looked heartsick and nauseous.

“We have to get rid of it,” she said flatly.

“Ah come on, not the couch, babe. We need this thing,” he said desperately, lowering the cushion, unconsciously holding it like a shield.

“I don’t know what else is in there. Please, can we just get rid of it?”

Clenching his teeth, Fagan nodded. They hauled the bulky, creaking, groaning sofa to the open hallway outside. The beastly thing sucked their hands into its soft upholstery, lapping at them with cool, textured leather like an apologetic dog. Cassy dropped the piece of furniture on the balcony and walked away, pausing as she reentered the doorway to look back. Fagan leaned on his end of the couch, staring at her, his blue-black hair falling in his face like a drooping puppy’s ear.

“I’m sorry,” she said as she went back inside.

I’m Hiram, but people call me Hi. You can call me Hi. Hi Hi, hi Hi, hi Hi. Everything was a singsong or dance or giggle to her, but not at home. Only through this creamsicle color-changer, did real things live. This had become her real world, where she could see the full spectrum, instead of one narrow fissure. Hi handed her a purple gerbera daisy. Hi’s mother invited her in for a snack, dinner, breakfast, for whatever meal Cassy happened to emerge through the portal in time to join. She laid out vegetable platters, handed out cookies; Cassy ate everything except for the carrots. My god, child, you’re tangerine. Hi’s mother touched her head with soft, gentle fingers that did not smell of macaroni and cheese, sending them back out to play. Fritz barked erratically at Cassy. She did not know how to approach an animal; her mother had gotten rid of their grey cat soon after she had begun to worship the fungus. But Cassy liked Fritz, and he eventually came to like her. It was a varied little world, just one yard over; she could see the top floor of her own habanero house looming over the fence, always watching her when she left. She hated going back through the color distorter, when her father came home after dark and noticed that she was missing and bellowed, Cassandra, until she reappeared. Bye Hi.

“So what did you want to talk about?” Fagan said hesitantly. He tapped his cigarette in the glass ashtray on the bedside table.

Cassy leaned against the headboard. It did not absorb her, hide her the way that the couch did. But she was not about to forgive the sofa, and she could not stay in the living room without it.

“Um—” Cassy shifted awkwardly against the bed. This was not the evening routine, and she didn’t quite know what to do. Without the couch’s soft support, she felt lost.

“You’re not pregnant, are you?” Fagan said, dropping his cigarette into the ashtray; the glowing tube dissolved into a shapeless glob of warm ash. He paled further, and the few freckles across his nose became visible.

“Yeah.”

“Oh God.” He snapped the grey cotton sheets and the green and blue and purple quilt back like an ill wind, and strode out of the room, smooth hands pulling his hair.

He walked flatfooted, heel toe, heel toe, like a German soldier, she heard him pacing in the kitchen, humming the Auld Layne Syne as he did when he was nervous or anxious or confused. Groaning inwardly, Cassy wadded her side of the covering and pulling on a pale pink robe, shuffled out to the main room. Fagan paused mid-march, wide-eyed.

“What are we going to do? What do you want to do? Can we keep it? Do you want to keep it? He-her, it sounds weird, doesn’t it? I don’t know. I don’t know.” He dropped his arms, and stood looking like a sad, naked white scarecrow, a skinny snowman. “Cass, what are we going to do?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

He approached her, and peeled back the layers of the robe, exposing her bare belly. “What can we do?” he asked, placing his hands on her flat stomach.

She pulled away, seizing his wrists. “Don’t do that. I hate it when people do that to…to pregnant ladies’ bellies. Especially now—it’s no bigger than a peanut. You’re feeling for a peanut, sending thoughts to a peanut. You can’t love a peanut.”

“So what are you going to do, Cass,” he said, his voice flattening, thinning. He seemed taller; he needed a shave.

“We can’t possibly keep it. Not me—definitely not me, or you, for that matter,” Cassy said, scratching at her face.

“Why not?” Fagan tipped his head sideways. “Why couldn’t we?”

“You’re so young, Fagan. You just don’t understand. I can’t have a kid. I just—

“I think I understand perfectly, but you’re not the only one in this. I have a say too.”

“Actually, you don’t, Fagan, nor do you understand what this would do to your life. It would never be the same. You would never get to be that dark man smoking on a Parisian street corner, or the regular at the café in Florence, or the man on the mountain in Mahalangur. These dreams of yours, they won’t come true if I keep it.” Cassy’s shoulders fell as she spoke; she was tired of holding them up. “We aren’t discussing this; I’m not keeping it.”

Fagan let out a loud breath halfway between a groan and pleasured moan.

“Trust me. I’ve always done what’s best for you, for us, okay? Just trust me.” Cassy touched his shoulder, but he rolled his upper body away.

“I’m learning what’s best,” he said, “what’s right. Don’t treat me like I’m stupid and incompetent, Cass. I’m not. No one is the same person forever; we all change.”

‘We should play this. I could be the bandit, and you: Johnny Law.’ Cassy and Hi lay on the floor before his parents’ television watching an old black-and-white sitcom. The neutral colors gave her a look into the outside world without overwhelming her. Hi’s mother stood in the doorway to the den, drying a red Fiesta dinner plate on her blue-checked apron. ‘Cassy child, is your father home yet?’ Cassy wrapped her thin arms around Hi’s neck before ducking back though the distorting portal. Under the cloudy night sky, only the faintest tinges of snow-fence flowers and yam vines were visible; the Fanta had been drowned in darkness. The windows of the mandarin house were angry black squares; one light was on in the kitchen, shining jack o’lantern light onto the patio. ‘Mommy? Daddy?’ The house was quiet. Oddly. Her mother always hummed a high-pitched, off-key noise. ‘Mommy?’ The burgundy pool had not yet reached the CAUTION sign her mother used when she waxed the kitchen floor, and Cassy was able to slip into her mother’s butterscotch lair. ‘Mommy?’ The caramel bucket was upended, translucent kumquat goo mingling with the sticky, seeping crimson. Her mother lay on her left arm in the middle of the merging mess. Under her fox-fur dyed hair, her mother’s head had split open along the fissure. As the men in white carried her mother out the front door, Cassy’s father, who did not smell of her mother’s citrusy perfume, sat with her on the copper carpet of the stairs. Neither cried. He said that her mother had slipped, had fallen, had hit her head on the maple syrup Formica, right on the fault line running across her skull, shattering it. The skimming pool of dark maroon in the kitchen contrasted violently with the nectarine room. It was the first bit of life the house had seen in years.  

It was a week before Fagan spoke to her again. He avoided her, staying at a friend’s apartment, and finally walked back in, sturdier than when he left.

“It is your choice,” he said softly, swinging his tan-and-burgundy messenger bag over his head and onto the grey granite countertop.

She stood before him, in the doorway to the bedroom, shuffling papers, saying nothing. He kicked off his black shoes; a wet, brown leaf clung to the gentle curve of his left heel.

“You know what I think, and where I stand. I may not like your choice—hell, I don’t like your choice—but I will support you in it,” he said.

“Thank you.”

“So, um, where are we?” Fagan said, sidling into the apartment uncomfortably; the missing couch left an awkward, mammoth void in the heart of the room.

“We’re okay. I-we don’t have to make the decision right now. We don’t have to talk about this for a while,” Cassy told him gently.

            He walked over the grey and black and yellow wool rug separating them. “Good.”

            They faded from the lake-light of the fireplace as they fell back into the bedroom.

            Later, Cassy leaned against the headboard that still did not feel right; Fagan was curled against her chest, sleeping soundly. His black head wedged against her armpit. She wanted her pipe, but not the complications.

            “Ah, Fagan, I don’t know,” she said, making no sound, just pushing air through lips formed to words. The warm breeze of her voice ruffled Fagan’s dark hair like the last brittle leaf of fall. In the movement, she saw a flash of the past. Combing through his dark scalp, she unearthed the ginger roots of his unnaturally black hair, and knew that she could not stay with him. She would not look upon him again without seeing that reminder, the color of bittersweet berries.

            Shrugging out of Fagan’s pale arms, Cassy gathered what she needed about the apartment; there was not much. She did not want reminders of what would now become another of her past lives. Her classes would go on without her. Fagan would go on without her, and she without him. She always hated leaving, but it was sadly getting easier. At least she was consistent to herself.

            She glanced in the dusky bedroom a final time. He lay curled on the bed in the hollow left by her body. His face no longer slackened into a boyish look of neutral peace; he had grown up. It had been a quick and painful growth spurt that would ail him for the rest of his life, but he could handle it now, just as he would handle her leaving.

            ‘Why didn’t you fix Mommy?’ Cassy and her father sat at the kitchen table; funeral flowers in various stages of dehydration and wilting engulfed the spray-tan kitchen. She fiddled with gnarled blue ribbon she had stolen from one of the bouquets and tied around her wrist. ‘I don’t know, Cassandra.’ Her father stood at the sink, looking out the window trimmed in wavy red-squirrel curtains. The squat square bottle of oaky liquid never left his hand; he kissed it often with a look bleeding guilt and long-awaited happiness. ‘The plumber’s house is never plumbed. The mechanic’s car is never fixed. I’m not that kind of doctor anyway.’ Cassy banged her hand on the persimmon-stained wood table. ‘But you fixed other people. Why couldn’t you fix her?’ ‘We aren’t having this conversation, Cassandra.’ ‘Why?’ Her father walked into the living room; lit by a single, orangutan-colored lamp, it glowed like a bottle of ale set in a window. She had followed, her bare feed unwashed, the sooty funeral veil still tangled around her neck; she had not visited Hi’s house or mother since her own cracked her head that final time. ‘But why?’ He sank deeper in his suede chair. ‘You’re going to go away for a while, Cassandra.’ ‘Why? Why can’t I stay with you? I like it now that you’re home.’ With his middle fingers, he kneaded his temples in deep circles. ‘You’re going to your aunt’s house. You met her at the funeral.’ Cassy began to cry. ‘I don’t want you here. I can’t take care of you, Cassandra.’ Later, when her aunt was taking her suitcase to the car, Cassy ran to the backyard and dove through the hole in the fence, grabbing a fistful of her mother’s flowers and tearing her octopus-colored sweater. ‘Hi! Hi!’ She sprinted over the damp grass laced with brown-spotted yellow leaves. Knocking on the sliding backdoor, she realizes that she has nothing to say; her words were spent on her father. On the other side of the fence, her aunt hollered. ‘Cassandra.’ Tugging the pale-blue ribbon from her wrist, Cassy tied it around the handful of paprika-colored blooms and placed the nosegay on the doorstep, giving him something to remember her. ‘Cassandra.’ She pulled the smoky, pluming veil over her head like a beekeeper’s hood and ducked back into her own yard.

            The maple and oak and beech crowns were full again, vibrantly verdant, hanging high and happy over the gracefully scaled street. This road did not jostle or buck, and the blue-wrapped bundle in her tired arms was quiet. Cassy had not spoken to Fagan since that early morning when she left him, but she had left with him the apartment, paid off years in advance with her father’s life insurance. He had killed himself, maybe; it may have been an accident. The police and fire department never came to a decisive conclusion. Either way, something soaked in whiskey within the house went up in flames and took the robin’s-red-breast structure with it.

            Despite the fact that he could remain at the apartment without charge, she had not been sure that Fagan was still there until she saw the couch lingering on the porch. It sat, now filled with dried leaves and assorted dark sweaters. The dilapidated thing looked to be moving on. No longer were the cushions high and fluffy; months of elemental suffering had toned them, made them springy and resilient. The leather was no longer butter-soft, but hardened. A stray cat had torn at its arms but not broken the tough skin.

            She held the bundle for a moment, and pulled back the blue blanket, exposing sleepy bottle-green eyes, and a pale face topped in a fluffy dollop of strawberry-blonde hair. Thankfully, he looked like his father. There would be nothing to remind him of her, no memory of her in the mirror. She would disappear completely.

            Cassy stared at the front door. Swaying with the bundle in her arms, she made a deal with herself. If he cried before she was ready to leave, she would ring the doorbell and wait until Fagan appeared.

            She touched the boy’s nose, smoothing over the soft, white skin. “Who could love a peanut?” she said, glancing at the door.

Laying the bundled boy on the couch, she tucked him into the warm, graceful cushions, carefully molding to the boy’s neck and body. It knew what was important, and for this she had loved it, before it betrayed her.

            From the inner pocket of her grey wool coat, Cassy pulled her pipe; the bone was warm. She quickly snapped the flint lighter over the sooty bowl and clamped down the finialed silver lid, puffing at the stem. She looked at the apartment entrance again, and at the boy; neither stirred. She laid a finger on his soft squashed nose. A small cloud of smoke hung about her head, like filmy gauze, obscuring and distorting her face. Mauve lips clenching the stem of the pipe. A shadowed, brown eye. Detached earlobe. She rang the doorbell and walked away. All the boy would know of his mother would be his father’s stories and a puff of smoke on skinny legs.

©

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She Was Chocolate, and He Was Vanilla

A puddle bloomed on his knee,
as he sat beneath the poplar,
before the church,
waiting.
Anytime now, she
would whiz by on her bike
that made noises like a rabid top.
The two soggy cones, held
in his shaking fists
dripped
strawberry cream,
sticky, pungent, and pink.
He had heard that girls like pink.
Roadside gravel crunched
and spun as she
approached.
Her brown legs
were always moving, the
muscles changing—they would
have driven Leonardo mad.
She passed by
blind.
He let the pink
cones fall to the dirt with
the others. Ants gnawed on his
legs. He would try again.
Climbing on the
bridge
with hands full,
always of strawberry cream,
he wavered, nearly fell, and sat
down on the stone ledge.
Gravel ricocheted.
Sleeves,
his and hers,
touched as she passed.
He nearly fell in the water, but
she touched his sleeve,
touched him.
Pink
swirls teased
fish in the rocky creek.
He became a crossing arm with
strawberry cream cones.
Stones sprayed.
Crash.
Why didn’t
you move, you idiot,
she growled, wiping bloody stones
off her once-perfect
knees. He didn’t
speak.
I love you.
Can you move? My

boyfriend is waiting for me, she said,
standing on the pedals,
her legs still.
Numb,
he shifted,
and she whizzed away.
He looked at the gravel lining the bridge
and saw blood staining
the pebbles
red
and pink.
Sifting, them through his
fingers, he knew that on her, he had
left his mark, and him,
she would not
forget.

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Dolls

He hated them. All of them.

Anne was first. Anne with her coy smile, and dark hair. She was the first. She ended quickly, silently. Perhaps not the end she deserved, but she deserved an end. She had to be destroyed. They all did. With their knowing, depthless smiles and their shining, cold eyes. He wanted to ruin them. Anne was first. With her smooth, porcelain skin, teasing him with what was not his. He hated them. All of them.

Catherine was next. All in the blink of an afternoon. He scarcely knew what he was doing, but he knew what he was doing, what he had done. His mother and sisters would be devastated when they learned of this, but they deserved it. He hated them too. He fingered Catherine’s cool, lifeless form with a chubby digit. He could not stand the way she looked at him. Lifeless, yet still looking. Always watching.

After Catherine, he went searching for Jane. Quiet, grasping Jane. Not a first choice, but she was involved. She had to be stopped. Those eyes had to be stopped. They sat away from notice, but still watched, and waited, and he found them.

Mary followed Jane by a time; he had paused and surveyed his work. It was too late to stop, and Mary was not a favorite anyway. He brought the blade down and watched her eyes roll away, still watching. The head lolled against the wall, coming to a rest, and the eyes finally closed. He wished that they could all be more like her, with eyes that did not always watch.

Marie was the fanciest, the favorite, apart from Anne. She with her fancy clothes and her delicately formed hands. Yes, Marie was beautiful, for an ugly thing. Her soft face, painstakingly made-up with tiny brushes–they were older than they looked, behind these painted faces. The others, he saw fear in their faces, but not Marie. Proud, little Marie. She knew she deserved it. She made so many suffer. She made him suffer, with her inaccessibility. Her high position on the ladder. She was brought down to her size, to his level. He smiled, enjoying himself and the unnerving feeling of immanent peril. Any moment could be the last. This lonely afternoon would be over eventually.

Benita was the last. He had hardly seen her, when in line with the others. But once alone in the ghost of a line, she was the only choice left. Would they even notice her disappearance from the teeming crowds and rows and shelves and lines of history and society in foundation and fun? He doubted it. Marie’s curly blond hair would draw more notice. Anne’s dark eyes would draw more notice. No one would notice Benita amid the others. He could go free of that one. He smiled, fingering his many smooth skinned prizes, and he was still smiling when the door opened behind him and the screaming began.

©

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