‘They look good,’ said Martin to his reflection. ‘Yeah, pretty smart.’
He turned his face from side to side, then up and down, admiring an expensive pair of Christian Dior sunglasses fitted neatly to his long and fleshy face. Martin was pleased that he could not only afford upmarket sunglasses now, but having recently had corneal surgery, could actually wear them instead of those cheap and tacky looking plastic clip-ons.
‘Yeah, real flash.’
Martin had spent considerable time searching for the right pair of sunglasses. They had to make him look good and protect his sensitive eyes. It was important he got exactly what he wanted so he was not bothered by having to spend hours hunting. He had plenty of time and money now that his latest business venture was prospering beyond his expectations.
Taking them off, Martin let his gaze roam around the small boutique store. Then he put them on again. The lenses were very dark and big enough to block light from most angles but not so big to make him look like a blowfly. That really would be uncool.
Cool was necessary now. It was part of the remodeled image of himself that he wanted to project to the world.
Finally satisfied that this particular pair of sunglasses was what he wanted, Martin removed them and carried them over to the counter where an attractive young sales girl with glazed eyes was waiting. No doubt she had watched Martin go through his exhaustively vain posturings with increasing annoyance. He was the sole customer and with him gone, she could quite happily return the latest Jackie Collin’s novel in which she was engrossed.
Her name tag read ‘Jenny’ and she managed to smile at Martin as he approached the counter.
‘Hello Jenny,’ said Martin. ‘How are you doing today?’
Mustering all the civility that she could find, Jenny responded politely that she was fine and asked how he was.
‘Good now that I’ve found what I’ve been looking for,’ replied Martin placing the Christian Diors on the counter and smiling.
Martin noticed that Jenny was very good looking as he watched her ring up the sale on the cash register. Shoulder length blonde hair framed a clear skinned, round face with well spaced green eyes either side of a cute nose. She also had a well proportioned figure covered by a simple but flattering blue dress. Martin was impressed and as he handed her three one hundred dollar notes he found himself feeling glad that he had not been able to find a suitable pair of sunglasses until he had come to this store.
Jenny seemed oblivious to his admiring stare as she handed him his change.
‘You’re very attractive Jenny. Beautiful in fact.’
Martin was always interested to see the response of a woman to a compliment. Would she think that he was rude? Trying to come on to her? Did he want something or was he sincere? From experience Martin knew that it took a mature woman to graciously accept a genuine compliment. Martin’s delivery was always perfectly charming but some women knew that it was a come-on line. They made it obvious that they disapproved and were not interested. Others did not know whether he was serious or not. Some knew and were happy to play the game. With reactions ranging from anger to embarrassment, it was an amusing game.
‘Thank you,’ replied Jenny casually like she did not care one way or the other. She did not blush or look up.
When she offered him a plastic bag to carry the sunglasses, Martin politely refused it by saying that it was a bright sunny day and he would prefer to wear his new purchase.
Jenny nodded and Martin continued to stand and stare.
‘Would you like to go out with me for dinner or a movie sometime?’ asked Martin.
‘No,’ said Jenny surprised at his directness yet no doubt flattered.
When Martin asked her why, she hesitated before saying, ‘I don’t even know you.’
Martin was momentarily lost as he watched her saphire eyes sparkle.
‘That’s not a reason,’ he said. ‘Going out with me will give you a chance to get to know me and you won’t be disappointed.’
Jenny cocked her head to the left and smiled self consciously. Martin had seen the look before, pregnant as it was with intrigue. Who was this guy she wondered. So sure of himself, so arrogant but not in an offensive way. Not an ugly man nor handsome, yet attractive in an indefinable way. His olive skin disguising acne scars around his clean shaven chin and wide mouth. A straight nose climbed between large brown eyes with long eyelashes.
‘No thank you. I have a boyfriend.’
Martin did not believe her but decided to back off anyway.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Thanks for the sunglasses. Goodbye.’
As she watched him leave Jenny wished that he had been more persistent. She did not have a boyfriend and was not sure why she said she did. She liked him and was impressed by his confidence. Perhaps she had just passed up a very good opportunity.
Three months after a painful break up with Adam who had cheated on her and lied to her, she felt ready to try again. It was not the first time that a man had treated her that way but it still hurt. She suspected that she was becoming hardened, desensitized by frequent disappointment. Yet somewhere inside she retained a glimmer of hope, believing that eventually she would find an honest and loving man who would respect and care for her. With a sigh she considered the fact that he may have just walked out the door.
To comfort herself, Jenny focused on Martin’s vanity and in her mind she exaggerated his self confidence to conceited arrogance. She felt like it was not such a loss after all.
Martin stood outside the store in the Spring sunlight surveying the street through his new Christian Dior sunglasses. He knew he would come back to see Jenny who was definitely worth pursuing.
Martin had grown tired of his current girlfriend, Emma. She had become a bore and was nagging him about moving to the next level in their relationship. That was girlspeak for co-habitation. He already shared his home with a number of beautiful women. He did not share his bed though because he preferred to sleep alone and also he tried not to mix business and pleasure because it always caused problems. Although Martin liked to solve problems he did not feel the need to create them.
Once Jenny had been secured he would say goodbye to Emma.
Martin looked up into the sky. There was only one cloud blotting the heavenly azure blue. One small, fluffly, harmless cloud.
As he walked along, Martin began to imagine himself and Jenny together and then he planned the inevitable break up with Emma. Running through his catalogue of previously used break up ploys, he tried to predict how Emma would react to each.
He was busy congratulating himself on his success in business and with women when something caught his eye. It was a smudge. At first he thought it was another cloud. Martin took his sunglasses off, pulled a clean handkerchief from his pocket and began to clean the smudge off. Staring hard and rubbing harder he eventually satisfied himself that the lens was clear, but when he replaced the sunglasses on his face the cloud reappeared.
Martin became enraged when a repeat cleaning performance had exactly the same result. Only this time the smudge was larger. He swore lavishly and stormed back up the road to the store, inside and straight to the counter where Jenny was reading.
She looked up in surprise, and noticing his obvious ill temper did not speak. Irate customers were not a rare phenomenon. Jenny merely had to decide on the best way to deal with them on an individual basis. Given the fact that Martin had already expressed a liking for her, Jenny reasoned that she would be able to calm him quickly.
‘Have you come to see if I’ve changed my mind?’
‘What?’ replied Martin.
‘Maybe you think I’ve reconsidered going out with you.’
Flushed by such uncharacteristic brashness, Jenny struggled to maintain composure especially as she seemed to have gained some advantage over this man. She held some power. She liked that. Powerlessness was normal for her in the face of, in the throes of passion. Such dereliction of self control had broken and scarred her, but had not proved to be sufficient deterrent to recidivism in the past. Some called it hopeless romanticism. Jenny didn’t call it anything.
Martin was taken aback and temporarily forgot about his sunglasses. Although it was not her fault that his sunglasses were dirty he was fired up and ready to give Jenny a piece of his mind. She had not even touched them but she was the front line of customer service. Nothing personal but Jenny was the human face of the store from where he had purchased what he now believed to be defective goods.
‘Well have you?’ asked Martin with his tried and true charming smile.
‘No, I haven’t.’
‘In that case there is something wrong with these sunnies.’ Martin was not disappointed by a second rejection: he simply switched his attention back to the matter at hand.
After he explained the problem Jenny asked cheekily, ‘Was your hanky clean?’ She took the sunglasses from Martin and examined the mark for herself.
Martin laughed in spite of his annoyance.
She produced an anti static cloth from a drawer under the counter and worked away at the smudge for thirty seconds before holding them up to the light and asserting that they were now absolutely spotless. Cloud free.
Martin looked for himself and had to agree.
‘Thanks for that…now about dinner…what kind of food do you like?’
‘I like food that I can eat by myself.’
‘Uh huh,’ said Martin thoughtfully as they looked into each other’s eyes. ‘I guess I’ll see you later then.’
‘Uh huh,’ replied Jenny coolly mimicking his tone.
She bit her lower lip as he turned and walked away. Was she really going to be dumb enough to send him away again? Or was it the wisest course of action? She’d had this argument with herself many times before. He was harmless. He was dangerous. It was only a date. It could be something more. I hope it’s something more. It’s probably nothing. Jenny didn’t know this man from a bar of soap. After being momentarily distracted wondering what brand of soap he used, Jenny clench her hands into tight little fists, summoned up some courage, and called after him.
‘I’m free Friday!’
Martin stopped suddenly. He was so pleased with himself that he could hardly contain his glee. The electronic beeper went unnoticed as it whined continuously while he stood in the doorway.
‘I’ll pick you up after work, okay?’
He heard her reply, ‘See you then,’ and start to giggle like a schoolgirl who had just been asked out on her first date.
Like a perfect gentleman, Martin pulled a chair from under the small round table and gestured for Jenny to sit. They made small talk over a bottle of Shiraz. He all charm. She all blushes and giggles. Jenny told him the story of her life and he listened carefully, lavishing her with the attention he knew she craved. He spoke of himself as well, ensuring he revealed only as much as was necessary to sate her curiosity but not enough to support any doubts she may have had about him being the kind of man mothers always told their daughters to beware of.
‘How do you feel about sex?’
Jenny answered immediately, ‘I like it,’ but her expression indicated shock at her recklessness.
‘There would not be a man on this earth,’ continued Martin, ‘Who would not like it with you.’
The spell was broken. Jenny clasped her glass tightly as the smile fell from her face and she shuffled back in her seat.
Martin seemingly oblivious to her discomfort, continued, ‘I wouldn’t mind sharing either.’
She felt like she was going to be sick. Was she really hearing these words? It could not be real. She tried to speak but could not. The wine tasted like paste now so she put the glass on the table, carelessly splashing a little of the sweet red liquid on the white table cloth. Was she so drunk that she imagined the words? Did he really say that he wouldn’t mind sharing? What was she supposed to do now? The eyes of all were fastened on her: must have been. Mocking her stupidity. Poor gullible little thing flew straight into the spider’s web. So sad. She’s trapped. The heat in Jenny’s face was terrifying.
Like the consummate salesman that he was, Martin did not miss a beat. He merely poured her some more wine and said, ‘I operate a gentleman’s establishment. Very classy. Upmarket. It’s a safe, drug free environment and all the girls get on really well. I’m sure you’d fit in perfectly. Good money too!’
‘A what?’ asked Jenny softly, finally finding her voice. Her head was spinning but it was no longer the alcohol affecting her.
‘A gentleman’s club,’ repeated Martin.
‘Prostitutes?’ She spat the word out and became very angry when he simply nodded and grinned.
‘You prick. You dirty bastard. I can’t believe I fell for all your smooth talk when all you wanted was to…’
‘Calm down Jenny. All my girls-’
‘All my girls? All my girls? Have a listen to yourself. How could you be so arrogant.’
‘They find it strange at first but-’
‘But nothing. Stop it. You’re killing me. You are an absolute bloody joke. A sick piece of crap.’
All Martin could do was sit in stunned silence as Jenny abused him. He didn’t even flinch when she tossed the contents of her glass into his face. Then she slapped him with such ferocity that he fell sideways off his chair. He was so embarrassed he just sat there on the floor: unable to move. Still not satisfied, Jenny picked up Martin’s glass and emptied it on his head.
‘Open your goddamn eyes, you bastard,’ she shouted as tears streamed down her face: her voice redolent with disappointment. Disgust and anger.
Martin blinked furiously as he fumbled for a napkin.
‘Open your eyes and look at me!’ she demanded.
She was so humiliated her voice cracked which prevented her from furthering her verbal assault. Summoning a lungful of air for one last barrage, she said in an icy tone, ‘It wasn’t your sunglasses that were dirty, it was your eyes. Your mind. Look at me! You piece of shit bastard. I’m a person not a piece of meat. The sunglasses aren’t defective. You are!’
She ordered Martin to open his eyes and then she slapped him again before leaving the restaurant as fast as she could. The sound of gasping patrons was lost in the pulsing hum of blood in her ears.
Next morning after a sleepless night, Martin stepped out of his front door squinting in the bright sunshine. When he put on his sunglasses he couldn’t see anything. He took them off. Brightness. Put them on again. Darkness. Disgusted he threw them on the footpath and stomped on them until they broke into several pieces.
It was only then that it hit him. Despite spending the whole night trying to figure a way to make it right with Jenny, he had not seen his fault. Now suddenly he did and he was deeply ashamed. He staggered under the weight of revelation, and collapsed onto his backside. This epiphany of his arrogance literally took his breath away. His new image, his business, his relationships were all worthless. He was worthless.
Martin tilted to the side to pick up the remnants of his expensive Christian Diors, marveling at the twist of fate that had brought he and Jenny together. The sunglasses were smashed beyond repair, as was his pride. It was all beautifully clear now. He would give it all away just to be with Jenny. To receive her forgiveness, and see her smile again. Absolute madness. Insanity. Love.
D.A. Cairns is married with two teenagers and lives on the south coast of New South Wales where he works part time as an English language teacher and writes stories in his very limited spare time. He has had 12 short stories published (but who’s counting right?) Devolution was his first novel and novel no.2 is currently seeking an agent or a publisher. Anyone interested?
read square pegs @ http://dacairns.blogspot.com
I was fighting it all the way, wearing knickers, me, twelve going on thirty it felt some days, dreams about Ginnie Wilmot practically every night now, the morning dew being the vague remnants my father spoke about with a smile on his face, new hairs in my crotch, my mother wanting her boy to look neat, my father looking at the horizon almost saying this too will pass. It was his one-shoulder shrug that carried verb and noun in its arsenal. I had early discovered that he did not need a lot of words.
My mother was looking at her choice of two hats, checking them out in the mirror on her bureau. A dried flower was creased in cellophane in one corner of the mirror; I’d heard some reference about it but had declined interest. My father’s picture, him in a Marine uniform, was framed in a second corner, my sisters and me in another, in our Sunday best a year earlier. A palm frond from Palm Sunday twisted itself across the top of the mirror. I think the hats were as old as I was. I knew she would pick the purple one. Her eyes announced the decision prematurely; again, an article of speech. Much of the time we were a family of silence, where looks or shrugs or hand gestures or finger pointing said all that was needed. My cousin Phyllenda had given the hat to her. “You’ll look great in this one.” I could never tell my mother Phyllenda’s boyfriend had swiped it from a booth in Dougherty’s Pub in Malden Square where he’d go of an evening or two. I’d seen them talking an evening on the porch, Dermott’s hand up under Phyllenda’s dress and it not yet dark.
A May Sunday was a bit snappy this early with the sunrise. “There will be hundreds of people at Nahant Beach today.” Both the radio in the bedroom and the kitchen were on; her music almost mute in the background. She looked out the window across Cliftondale Square, across the green of the traffic circle and the new green of elms already leaping at full growth against the sky. On the third floor we lived, yet not as high as some of the elms. Gently a nod was spoken, an affirmation. “They are waiting for summer at the beach,” she added. “They go walking on the beach looking for it. It’s over the horizon a few weeks yet. We will go right from church. You will wear your new green suit.” At length it had become her trip-hammer approach, the hard music. In that voice I felt the agencies of iron and slag at a mix. “You don’t know how proud I am of you in your new suit. And two pair of pants, at that.” For sure, iron and slag in her words, the new and the dross. At her lighting up about the new suit, I cringed. Two pair of pants seemed eternal, would carry me into high school, into football, the mold of the locker-room, pal-talk growing the way my older brother would nod, owning up to all I had heard. Hell, there’d be knickers, for God’s sake, for girls, lots of them prettier than Ginnie Wilmot who once sat across a log flashing her white underpants at me so that something happened in my throat, something so dark and dry and dreadful that I can taste it yet.
Simon Goldman it was who sprung the suit on my mother, little shrunken Simon with the poppy eyes and the red face, on Saturday morning collecting his due of pennies she yet owed on a parlor set. “It’s green herringbone tweed, my Helen,” he said, in that possessive delivery he must have developed early in his game. “It has two pair of pants. For you yet cheaper than anyone. Resplendent he will be in it. Resplendent. No boy in this whole town has a suit like it. And the famous golfers wear knickers, I’ve seen them in newsreels at the theater. Hogan and O’Brien and Downey, McDevitt and Fitzpatrick, McHenry and that Shaun whoever from Swampscott.” He was inventive, you had to admit. I’d have said a liar as well as a schemer. “Two pair of pants. Green. Herringbone. Think of the message.”
His eyes almost fell out of his head, dropping Ireland almost at his feet, dropping it at her feet. I almost pushed him down the stairs, he was at it again, selling her, saying it was a bargain, saying you people are climbing the social ladder on my advice and merchandise. Truth is, she cautioned me once, only once, on how I should remember Simon. “I found him,” she had said, “he didn’t find me.”
The worst part of it all, putting on the suit, the knickers with knee length socks, was having to take off my sneakers. I thought they were welded to me. I thought I’d wear them forever. I belonged in sneakers, foul or fair, “But not in your new suit.” It was as if her whole foot had come down on the subject. My father lifted his chin, flicked his head aside, gave off a mere suggestion of a nod, shrugged his shoulders. This too shall pass. With a knife he could not have carved it deeper.
In my new greenery we headed for Nahant Beach, me in my green knickers, four sisters all dolled up in the back seat of the old Graham, the titters and snickers behind their hands, my unsworn vow becoming animate at the back of my mind, a prowler on the outskirts of a campground.
Up front, in her purple hat, a purple dress with a big collar, a black pocketbook with an over-scored but lustrous patina, my mother looked straight ahead, playing now and then with the knob on the radio, trying to catch La Scala or New York out for a morning stroll.
She stared at nothing she might wish to have. Beside her, between her and my father in a car borrowed from my uncle, was the second pair of green herringbone knickers. Not knowing why they were there, I nevertheless felt my father’s hand in it. I wondered if there had been an argument’s movement along with the package, or behind it. Arguments I had heard, about dozens of things, then quiet discussions. Once it had been about the radio one could hardly hear. “Music has shaped me,” my mother once said, “from the very first touch to the very first clench of fist.” That’s when I knew she loved the brass of a band or an orchestra, not just the oompa of it, but the cold clear energy of horns clearing their throats with melodies one could only dream of.
“Toot the horn,” my mother said. “Now there’s Dolly Donovan.” Her wave was thorough and friendly. No message hung on its signal. “She’ll be at the beach. Maurice will bring her.” I did not deflect a message in that pronouncement: it came anyway. Maurice bid and Maurice done. Some laws, it seemed to say, were carved in stone. It could have said Life is more than being made to wear green knickers, but I wouldn’t let it.
In the rearview mirror I caught my father’s eye. “We might as well see what Forty Steps looks like today, and then come back to the beach.” The gears downshifted as he swung the corner down Boston Street in Lynn. We had come over the bridge spanning the Saugus River. In my nose the salt was alive, and pictures came with it. The gulls, by the hundreds, whipped a frenzy. Waves dashed on the rocks of Nahant, especially where Forty Steps climbed upward from the froth of water. The lobster boats, working yet, bobbed out on the Atlantic. Under sunlight majestic white sails of sloops and schooners and sailboats from Elysium, Islands of the Blessed and Marblehead darted like skaters before the wind. On that same wind brigantines and caravels and corsairs leaped from my reading, taking me away from green knickers and Nahant all the way back to Elysium and Ginnie Wilmot, the salt spray clean and sprightly and the dry vulture of taste yet in my throat from one glimpse of white underpants. Would that mystery, that sight, never go away?
The Graham, brush-painted green, lumpy for the tour of Nahant where Cabots and Rockefellers and Lowells and Longfellow himself once sat their thrones, cruised along the Nahant Causeway. In the slight breeze you could feel the sun bleaching stones, sand, the inner harbor’s glistening rocks throwing off plates of light like the backs of hippopotami caught in a satin lacquer. People dressed for church and late dinners and nights on the town walked along the beach, their best clothes akin to badges of some sort. “My, look at that white hat with the huge brim,” my mother said, pointing out a woman holding a man’s arm, three children at their heels. The girls were still giggling behind their hands, restrained while my father was driving, on their best behavior. Once on the beach they would become themselves. And I would set about de-suiting myself.
When we strolled over to the Forty Steps, the waves talking to us, the crowd of people on all approaches, I saw other boys in knickers, but no herringbone green tweed. No iron mother holding her whip and her pride in one hand. A few giggles and harrumps I heard, the way my grandfather could talk, making a point or two on his own. No question in my mind they were directed at my pants more than the whole suit. These people could also nod, shrug, gesture, make sense without words. I wondered what made me want to read in the first place, seeking all the adventure of new words, in this wide world of the body’s semaphore, so expressive, so legitimate.
I knew it wouldn’t take long, not at Nahant, not at the edge of the great ocean itself, not here where the Norsemen and Vikings and Irish sailors were flung across the seas with Europe behind shoving them relentlessly. My parents, arm in arm, walked on pavement, the girls broke free with yells, I fled down to the rocks at the ocean’s edge. With an odd gesture, my mother lifted a hand to her face, as if surprise dwelt there to be touched, to be awakened, to be lifted for use. That’s when I knew she was the smartest person in the whole world. She had seen it all coming, had practically choreographed the whole thing, and my father thinking he was in control all that time. At last she had measured me against all other boys in knickers. And found something wanting.
Green is as green does, I could almost hear myself say as I slipped on the rocks heavy with seaweed still with salt, still with water, still with an unbecoming dye residing pimple-like, blister-like, pod-like, in its hairy masses. It was more like sitting down in puddled ink, that intentional trip, trying to be a loving son, finding it so difficult in green knickers, obeying more primal urges.
“What a mess you’ve made of yourself,” she said when she saw me, that hand still in surprise at her face. “Go up to the car and change your pants. I brought the other pair along,” so you could get rid of them also, she seemed to say. My father had found the horizon to his liking, the thin line of boyhood and manhood merging out there on the edge of the world; no shrug of the shoulder, no sleight of hand, but a look outward that was as well a look backward. I saw it all.
I’m so shit lucky, I said to myself, loving them forever, and then some.
Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry Regiment in Korea, 1951. His short story collections are Epic Cures and Brief Cases, Short Spans, from Press 53, NC; and From the Quickening, from Pocol Press, VA, which also issued his memoirs, A Collection of Friends. He has 18 Pushcart nominations and 250 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine, has appeared in 4 issues of Rosebud Magazine and 7 issues of Ocean Magazine. A manuscript, Murder from the Forum (an NHL mystery), is in the hands of an agent. His newest book, from Milspeak Publishers, is Korean Echoes, poems from the forgotten war.
It could have been
the cover for Steinbeck’s
“Grapes of Wrath”
composed in black & white
for a black and white world–
Hitler annihilating the Jews,
Louis pummeling Schmelling,
The dark divide of the Great Depression.
Almost everyone in the photo
dressed in their Sunday best
despite hard times indelibly etched
into stone faces.
It is a sunny day
as everyone is squinting, forcing
an obliged look of tolerance,
My father is the one in the back row
with the trademark snarl
like Sean Penn from a previous life.
I imagine him mumbling
under his breath something like
“Burning daylight, got chores to do.”
The only person smiling
is the youngest, yet she too
will come to experience
the burden the weight of the world
can have on the shoulders
of its children
as they struggle with the earth
& its elements
for their daily bread
only to be left at the end of the day
on a dead-end country road, forcing
an obliged look of tolerance.
Ben Rasnic is originally from Jonesville, a small rural town in extreme Southwest Virginia, population <1000.
Currently, Ben resides in Bowie, Maryland, earns a paycheck as an accountant for a paper recycling company in Alexandria, Va.
A steadily increasing portion of his leisure time is spent creating poems that can be found on numerous internet websites and in a few “old school” printed publications.
At the end of summer
the evening sky
is lavender and gold,
the leaves are dark, dark green.
The greatest love is one
that demands no response
but gives fully and completely.
I think of Hellen,
who loved me
a child whom
she took to her heart
into middle age.
Anne Whitehouse is a poet and fiction writer living in New York City. Her newest poetry collection is ONE SUNDAY MORNING, just out from Finishing Line Press. Two short stories will be published in Editions Bibliotekos’ forthcoming anthology, BEING HUMAN: CALL OF THE WILD.
I stray & sleep in a nation where at least one’s more famous to fear. Where exes invisible themselves thus you on social networks, like we were ever social & our ice cream’s gone uniquely wrong. Where the dawn is deaf & dumb to the sound I make out of a bed of leaves on another apartment’s shitty lawn. Where my sentences are longer than a sweet thing’s treed. Where is me & why, oh how, do you please?
Parker Tettleton’s work is featured in &/or forthcoming from elimae, Mud Luscious, > kill author, Gargoyle, The Catalonian Review, & Drupe Fruits, among others. His chapbook SAME OPPOSITE is available from Thunderclap! Press. More or less is here.
“A breast needle biopsy is a minor procedure, Mrs. Jackson,” the nurse told me over the phone.
“We do them right here in the office.”
The floor seemed to move a little under my feet as I told my husband about it.
Later that evening, Hoarders was on and I was too lazy to get up. “Would you bring me a Sprite with ice, honey?” I called to him. “Would you bring yourself a Sprite with ice, honey?” He was playing his stupid computer game.
“Never mind,” I said, not really thinking. “I’ll just die.”
He began to cry.
I felt godawful terrible. I hugged his head to my chest. At the same time, I was about to fall over laughing, because I am an idiot.
Three days later, we were here, in the waiting room. Someone had attached two felt Santa hats to the coffee cart, holiday decorations. I thought about caffeine causing breast lumps, but got a cup anyway.
A tiny Asian man yanked at the pointy red hats. “They yours? They yours?” We said no, but he didn’t understand. He seemed perplexed that he could not pick up the hats we had forgotten. He wanted to return them to us. The man yanked. The coffee cart shook.
My husband and I snickered behind our hands. “You are so bad,” I told him.
I finished filling out the forms, returned the clipboard to the girl at the desk. I swiped the pen, though. My husband would think it was funny.
We talked about lunch. Right after this we’d go to our favorite seafood joint and get everything we felt like getting, who cared what it cost.
An elderly woman was up at the front desk. She talked on and on. One of those old people who think the medical staff are their friends. The woman had on a black beret, black slacks, black coat. She was heavyset, the same thickness all the way up and down. “Look, honey,” I whispered to my husband. “It’s a phone booth. Not many of those around anymore.”
His eyes widened in mock horror. “God’s gonna get you for that, godammmit.”
I cracked up, swallowed my coffee wrong, coughed.
“There now, see? That’s what you get.”
After filling in an answer in my crossword book, I passed it and the illicit pen to my husband. “Your turn. They sure do take their time here.”
The old woman in black clumped by with her cane. “Look,” my husband whispered. “It’s the angel of death.”
“Oh, you’re evil.”
We howled into our hands.
“Mrs. Jackson?” the doctor’s assistant called.
We stopped laughing. I stood up. The old woman nodded, and the floor moved a little under my feet.
Carly Berg has a B.A. in English and a master’s in Social Work. Her work has been accepted by PANK, Eunoia Review, The Front Porch Review, and others. She lives in Texas, and wonders if a fruitbat bounced off her head one time or if she made it up.
night landscapes—the moon’s curved light
chimes in a grey pavilion tell each other
of golden tents and silver wires
as if memories were watercolors
the sultry heat is laden with stains
of blood grapes and glimmering dew
a jocund dance of momentary rhythm
darkened by melancholy
in places fit for silence, mad songs fill the air
roaring winds, fallen light, and those who would
have been knights are jeweled with innocence
and lost to time
One may have a blazing hearth in one’s soul and yet no one ever come to sit by it. Passerby see only a wisp of smoke from the chimney and continue on the way.
-Vincent Van Gogh
I spotted the front door through a break in the kudzu. I would see the heat rising out of the thick tangle of steaming vines. It was slow moving through the mass of vegetation. Winged insects, heavy with dew, flew in sluggish circles across my vision as I went.
The porch was framed by short columns and the wooden siding was painted a chipped, faded blue. The boards on the patio creaked beneath my feet, but overall, the structure looked solid. I turned my back to the front door and looked into the swarm of leaves, tendrils and insects shimmering in the fresh dawn.
It seemed like a good place to hide.
The doorknob had been punched out. I went down on one knee to take a look inside. The living room floor was covered in dust and torn newspapers and there were thick, opaque spiderwebs strung up everywhere. I sat looking a long time.
When I felt enough time had passed, I pounded on the door a half-dozen times and waited for something to stir. Silence. I braced my shoulder against the door and exerted a slow pressure. Ruined paint flakes clung to my shirt; the door swung open soundlessly.
I called out a friendly greeting and crossed the threshold into the living room. My voice sounded strangely muffled in the abandoned space. The dust-caked coffee table caught my eye, first thing. There were empty bottles and an ashtray full of cigarette butts resting atop the grime.
I lifted the longest butt from the ashtray, thumbed the pack of matches from my pocket, and lit up. I was sure the sun was still up, but inside, in the darkness, there was no way of knowing for sure. I went into the kitchen and started looking through the cabinets.
Early the next morning I set out to gather the few things I would need. The employment agency could wait until the next day; there was housekeeping to be done. I still had a few twenties in my wallet and a paycheck in my pocket. There seemed to be plenty of time.
I had seen an old mattress propped against the wall of an apartment building the day before. In the dim, flickering luminescence of that promising dawn, I hefted the worn, speckled mattress over my shoulder and headed home. The mattress when it landed raised a large cloud of dust, the particles dancing around my shoulders, sticking to my skin.
By midday, there was a pair of thin blankets spread across the mattress and a pile of pillows resting at one end. In the kitchen, I had stacked an assortment of cook pots and crockery of varying designs in a dusty cupboard. My small propane burner, black with charred food, sat beside the sink.
I had the first meal in my new house about three in the afternoon that second day; a can of pork and beans with two pieces of white bread to wipe the bowl clean. It was easy to sleep in the silence of the vines. I drifted off early, feeling warm and safe in my cocoon of blankets.
With the house settled, I had to get back to work. That meant a daily trip to the temp agency. I’d sign in, take a seat on one of the hard benches furthest from the door, and wait.
The man behind the window sat smoking through the days. I had never seen him without a cigarette in his hand. I would stare at my shoes, or pretend to read a magazine. It made for a long day.
Some days, I got a truck to unload at the warehouse down the street. Without a car, the warehouse was my only option, but it didn’t bother me. Anything was better than sitting and waiting for your name to be called.
I carried boxes from one tractor-trailer to another. You were paid by the truckload rather than the hour. Some days, you got a truck full of Kleenex and toilet paper; other days it was furniture, or appliances. I got a partner to help with the heavy trucks, but that meant half the pay. It was a bad deal, but you take what you can get.
Those days on the heavy trucks seemed endless. If you thought about what you were doing, you would never make it. When it became almost unbearable, when I was sweating and cursing a box, and the dust from the carton was settling in my mouth and lungs, I thought of the house.
I had a bright, mental image of the front door tucked behind the vines. The rooms were pregnant with my sparse belongings. I was home again.
With regular sleep came dreams. One night, I dreamt the shotgun against my windpipe. I woke up screaming, sweating. When the fit had passed, I sat and listened to the silence. Even the vines stopped whispering against the window panes.
It had happened in my parents basement the summer before. I had been pacing across the carpet a couple days, trying to find a way out. I had this habit of staring in the mirror for lengthy periods of time. I wasn’t sure why it happened, but I kept staring, searching for answers, looking into the black nothingness of the pupils, hoping to escape somehow.
I alternated between pacing and staring. It seemed like a sensible way to foster the madness. I didn’t hide from madness then. It seemed easier than living in any normal way.
My face was swollen with sloth and drink. I had scarcely shaved since my inglorious return from college, and the ingrown hairs were scattered across my throat in angry, infectious blotches borne of neglect. There was twenty-four years wasted and twinned in the glass.
It was hard to look away.
They called me to the dinner that night, but the humiliation that eating had become was too much. I feigned sleep, though there was no reason to do so; they had stopped coming down to the basement some time before.
I didn’t know anything about the gun except where it was kept.
I held the barrel of the shotgun flush against my throat. I could see the oily dust on the barrel with an odd clarity; individual flecks of luminescent matter shone in the grime and loose particles floated away from the steel in rhythm with my shaking hands.
It looked like an instrument of horrible precision. I hoped my head would be completely severed from the neck, but it seemed more likely that a sick second mouth would simply explode into being at my throat. I could picture the shotgun pellets speckled in the blood and flesh.
I pulled the trigger. There was a small clicking sound, and I flinched badly. I was surprised to see light enter my vision. I blinked my eyes a few times to be sure. then I pulled the trigger again.
I checked the safety, I tried to pump the shotgun again. The shell had jammed, and in my inexperience, I had no remedy. I pitched the shotgun across the room. It bounced off the wall and landed on the floor with a soft metallic clatter. I sat motionless against the wall a long time. Sat there sweating and trying to return my breathing to its normal rhythm, the sensation of panic fresh, but not at all unfamiliar.
I left the next day while they were at work. An old college friend had promised me a room. A month later, I ran away from his house in the middle of the night. I moved on to the next friend.
They all talked a lot about burning bridges. I never stuck around long enough to see the smoke clear.
I was wandering through the woods when I saw the front door. It was hard to believe at first, but there it was; a place to hide, free and clear.
In autumn, the open flue funneled in the cold winds of the season. I slept in the living room when the temperatures dipped below freezing. Beneath the floorboards, small creatures were scurrying, racing against the coming winter. On the most miserable nights, when my feet went numb, I sat and listened.
Most mornings, I gathered dead leaves and dry sticks for kindling, and scoured the thin woods behind the house for logs. The kudzu had stunted the forest long before; the massive cobwebs strung up in their strange, circular patterns shone a ghastly white in the few slivers of sunlight that penetrated the canopy. The rotten, broken limbs I retrieved from the barren earth crumbled like wet paper in my hands.
I would sit and watch my flames for hours, admiring the heat of the fire as it crept in slow waves through the darkness.
I had settled into a stable routine of working, stockpiling wood against the coming cold, and searching the streets come nightfall for more elaborate furnishings. There was a battered recliner beside the fireplace, and a small table and chair in the kitchen. Cooking implements of a considerable variety filled the drawers, and the shelf over his fireplace was lined with scavenged books and magazines.
I was ready for winter.
The men appeared quite early one morning. I heard them hacking at the kudzu with their sickles as they cut a path to the front door. The quiet swish of the blades was interspersed with the occasional rustle of a tangled arm or leg being worked free from the grasping vines. They pushed on the front door, but I had chalked the threshold with wood sometime before. One of the men bent to look through the keyhole but it had been covered over with old newspaper.
“It’s a damn shame,” the first man said. “You just can’t believe a person would let an old house go like this.”
“With all those weeds grown over the house, the roof is probably rotten clean through,” the second man answered.
“What a waste. No telling what might live inside. Rats, possums, who knows?”
The first man toed a small vine near his left shoe as he spoke. He tried to cut it through with the heel of his boot, but the vine was strong. He gave it up.
“Well, nothing to do but post the notice and get on.”
“Yes sir,” the second answered. He took the notice from his pocket, unfolded the paper, flattened the creases, and hung it on the front door with a staple at each end.
While they were talking, I sat and watched the front door from the kitchen. I stood very still. I remember hearing the small concussion of the stapler and the movement of the vines as the two men went on their way. When they had gone, I stared at the door a long time. A sickness pulsed through my body, and there were fresh sensations of pain screaming near my temples.
I waited until dark to read the notice. Among a mess of legal language, I saw the house was to be demolished in thirty short days. My breath was smoking in the freezing air.
That night I huddled near the fire, the rhythmic dance of the flames running across the walls. I tried to think of something to do. But they had made it very clear there was nothing to do. It was all stapled to the front door, in plain sight; nowhere to hide.
I bought an ax. My trips to the woods took on a fresh urgency. I hacked at the ruined trees with silent fury, and the days passed in melee of sweat and splinters.
Two days before the demolition, I taped the broken handle back together and swung the blade until my arms were numb. The 29th day had passed. When I had enough wood, I went inside and put my pack together. My remaining food, the gas burner, cookware and cutlery, and the pair of thin blankets was all I had. It didn’t take long to get ready.
I walked my pack to the edge of the sparse timber.
I stayed awake all night long. The smell of fire and woodsmoke on the winter air pulled me toward times past more than I would have liked. I walked the house, stopping occasionally to touch the walls, or feel the floor beneath my feet.
A few hours before dawn, I lit the stack closest to the front door. I stood in the kitchen a few minutes to make sure the kindle had taken. When the smoke rolled into the kitchen, I turned and walked out the backdoor and into the depleted forest.
By the time the demolition crew pulled up, the roof had collapsed. The multitude of kudzu was smoking in the holocaust of flame and raw heat. The green leaves about the vines flashed in small explosions of fire, and tiny flakes of gray ash floated like snow flakes on the breeze that fed the inferno.
I sat and watched from a tree stump until the sirens sang in the distance, and then I picked up my pack and walked through the ruined forest, and out the other side.
Benjamin Atherton is an author based in Knoxville, TN. His work has
been featured in Pill Hill Press, Vine Leaves, Dark Chaos, and The
I want us to watch
while our faces turn
toward each other
and the clothes
we wear burn off
in the newborn light.
You said we should always
be brave. I try to be
every morning over my toothbrush
and the waning stars.
I stare through your eyes,
your firm heart
beating peaceful rhythms
and a brush of bells.
Ortiz is a retired educator, poet, painter, and photographer. He has a B.A. in English literature, and a M.A. in philosophy. Flutter Press released his debut chapbook, At the Tail End of Dusk, in October of 2009. Ronin Press released his second chapbook: topography of a desire, in May of 2010. Avantacular Press released his first photographic chapbook: The Sugarcane Harvest, May 2010. He is a three time nominee for the 2010 and 2011 Sundress Best of the Web Anthology and a 2010 Pushcart nominee.