Issues /  / Fiction

Other than a handful of holidays and one funeral, I had spent the last fourteen years successfully avoiding my hometown where, because of a terrible misunderstanding, everyone believed I was a pervert. But then my father had a stroke on his twelfth mission trip to Honduras, two-hundred miles from civilization, and was flown back to the U.S. speaking nonsense. No excuse was enough for my mother.

“Judah Lynn Davies,” she said, “your father is a survivor. A walking miracle. He nearly died and you can’t even be bothered to help us out a little.”

“I told you I can’t come now. I’ve booked time in the studio. I will lose my job if I miss this. Do you want me to lose my job?”

“Next flight, mister.” My mother was a schoolteacher known for her switchblade syntax. “Next. Flight.” 

So there I was, back in Texas after fourteen years, sitting in a frigid hospital room watching the doctor perform tests on my father. 

“Alright, Mr. Davies. I want you to follow along and do what I say, okay?”

My father looked to my mother, who was eating his hospital applesauce and reading an Oprah Winfrey magazine even I knew was months old. The look on his face said, I’m hungry. It said, Where the hell are we?

“Go on, Wendell,” said my mother.

The doctor had my father touch his nose and then his right knee and then left knee. Then, just to be cruel I guess, he made the man pat his head and rub his belly. 

“Good work, Mr. Davies. Now can you tell me who this is?”

The doctor pointed to me.

“That’s Robbie.”

Robbie was my uncle, and not necessarily somebody you wanted to be mistaken for. The doctor wrote something down, which seemed a bit unnecessary, honestly.

“Mmm,” said the doctor. “And what is your daughter’s name?”


My sister, whose name was not Becky, burst into tears.

“He can’t remember us! He can’t remember a thing! Oh Daddy, what has happened to that beautiful mind of yours?”

“No, no,” said the doctor. “He knows who you are. It’s the names, the words themselves, he’s struggling with. Like we thought, his motor skills and coordination have been unaffected, but he is experiencing pretty severe aphasia. His brain is having difficulty processing speech and language. He’ll need extensive speech therapy. There’s a center not far from here. I’ll send a referral and have someone call you to set up appointments. They don’t take insurance but have competitive rates.”

The doctor left. My mother rubbed her temples and mumbled, “Competitive rates. Competitive rates.”

Look, when you are raised by a Texas History teacher and a protestant missionary there are a few things you just have to understand. The first thing is this: Money will always be an issue and complaining about financial or material struggles of any kind is as shameful as public nudity.

“Well,” my mother said to no one in particular, “God won’t give us any more than we can handle.”

My father’s face was screwed up as though it required immense concentration for him to simply lie there. Fearing he might get stuck this way forever, I picked up his juice box and placed the straw to his lips.

In my real life, the one in Nashville, I was about to lose the job I’d worked the last decade for. I was a producer at Bucking Foal Records and the last two albums I’d helmed had been commercial failures misunderstood by critics. But a friend of a friend introduced me to a young songwriter named Naomi Withers and I convinced her to let me record her new single. She’d been called this generation’s Joni Mitchell and let me tell you the woman could write, sing, and play. Stone-cold smart, too. I agreed to cut the single pro-bono, confident once she saw her art explode onto the national scene, she’d want me to cut the album. She was going to save my career. I was going to send hers through the stratosphere.

This free session was what I had to cancel to see my father. Naturally, Naomi pulled out and was rumored to now be negotiating a deal with a different label. My boss informed me of the development via voicemail.

“Because of what you’re going through,” he said, “you get till the end of the week to make it up, Bud.”

On the ride home from the hospital, my mother continued to massage her head and neck, occasionally rolling it around on her shoulders and letting out a moan that made me shudder.

“Judah, I have to ask you a favor.”

“Do you, now?”

“Your father would like you to see if you can get your sister’s car fixed.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“The engine is making a noise and water is leaking onto the floor.”

“Is this one issue or two separate issues?”

“Ask your sister,” said my mother.

“I plan on it but I need to know one thing. Did you have me fly down so I could take her car to the mechanic?”

“I told you he wouldn’t do it, Mom. He doesn’t want to be a part of this family,” my sister snarled from the backseat.

“Your father scheduled it before his stroke and he’s been very concerned about it. He’d be much more comfortable if you joined her.”

“Well then,” I said, “career be damned, no sister of mine will go to the mechanic alone!”

I took my sister to Aztec Auto first thing the next morning.

“You know what happens when you have aphasia?” I asked in the car.

“Is this the beginning of one of your disgusting jokes?” Her hands were folded in her lap and her posture was prim and perfect. My sister was all the things I wasn’t: deeply religious, soon to be married, and living at home. She taught World History to tenth graders and I was certain she was still a virgin.

“Never mind,” I said. “I just wanted to tell you what I read online last night, about how people with aphasia often experience depression, mood swings, confusion, and intense emotional volatility. But what’s the problem with this here car?” 

“You don’t hear that sound?”

It was her car and here I was driving it.

“Sounds like the belt,” I said. “I bet the belt is worn.” 

I didn’t know the first thing about cars.

“Is that really true about aphasia?” she asked.

“He called me Uncle Robbie. I cancel the single most important session of my life and the first thing the man does is call me Robbie. Imagine how that feels.”

“Imagine how Dad feels,” she sniped. 

“Okay. I was joking. No need to get like that.”

“Truthful? Dad nearly dies and you act like it is some big inconvenience for you. We love you Judah and this is how you treat us.”

I didn’t tell her I’d booked a flight later that week and planned on staying a few extra days. Sometimes you just cannot win. And who had been reading up on living with aphasia? Not her. 

At Aztec Auto, I told the attendant about the noise her car was making and the possibility of it being a worn belt. My sister went into the waiting room. Across the garage a lanky man with sagging pants bent over the exposed engine of a diesel truck. 

My stomach does this thing where it goes into fits and spasms when something awful is about to happen to me. I do not know the science behind it, but it is evidently some kind of flight or fight response triggered by what is called the reptilian brain. 

I did not need to get a better look at the skinny man to confirm what my stomach had sensed: Freddie Schramm, the person responsible for my reputation in this town as a leering pervert, stood across the parking lot. I threw the keys at the attendant and ran for the waiting room.

“Judah Davies!” I heard behind me.

“Freddie Schramm,” I said, feigning surprise and doing my best to ignore the quivering in my gut. “I didn’t know you worked here.”

“Shit, Judy, I been here ten years now.” He crossed the lot in about three ugly strides. “I practically run the place these days.”

Sophomore year of high school a girl named Sarah Sanderson accused me of looking up Freddie’s girlfriend’s skirt. I refused to fight him because it wasn’t true. For the next two years, he made my life miserable and convinced everyone in the tri-county area I was a pussy-hearted degenerate.

“Hey, man. Listen. I heard about your dad.  I’m sorry. Just know you guys are in my thoughts and prayers.”

He clapped my shoulder harder than necessary. He had long fingers and huge bulbous knuckles like a tree frog.

“How long you in town for?”

“Well, you know … ”

“Look at you, man. You working at Bucking Foal Records, still?”

“Yeah, I am,” I said, feeling at first a swell of pride and then a bolt of unease in the form of a stomach spasm so violent I nearly doubled over. How did Freddie know where I worked?

“Sick, man. If you’re not too busy, my band Vulture Eye is playing at The Ice House tonight. You ought to come by.”

“I probably shouldn’t.”

“No seriously. Come out. I know what you’re thinking but we don’t suck. Promise.”

“Well, we’ll see.”

“So what’s wrong with your ride?”

“It’s making a weird noise and something is leaking onto the floor.”

“You think those two issues are separate or related?”

“I think the car is just a piece of shit, Freddie. It’s my sister’s and she’s had it for years. She’s a school teacher and can’t afford much, you know.”

“Hell, man. Tell her we’ll work out a deal. Y’all got too much to worry about right now.”

“No need. We plan on paying for it.” 

“How about this? You come to the show tonight and we’ll get this taken care of.” He turned his palms up and tilted them like scales. “All you gotta do is come out.”

I ducked into the waiting area where a woman sat with a small child. The moment she saw me she crossed her legs and pulled her child to her. Good to be home, I thought.

Half an hour later the mechanic told us the passenger window needed to be replaced and the condenser had busted. (Two separate issues.) Altogether it’d be eight hundred bucks.

“Jesus Fucking Christ,” I said. It could not be helped.

“Judah Lynn,” my sister hissed in a way so much like my mother it frightened even her.

Freddie snuck up and threw his grease-monkey arms around me and my sister.

“Deal don’t sound so bad now does it, Judy? We go on at ten.”

“Everything happens for a reason,” said my sister on the way home.

“Would you stop. They wouldn’t eat that kind of money. They cheated us somehow. Or Freddie honestly thinks he can weasel me into signing his shitty band.”

“Or maybe the Lord provides for the faithful, Judah. Can you not accept a blessing?”

“Freddie Schramm is not a blessing. He is a miserable jackass and he only did that because he thinks I can be his big break. Do you know what he did to me?”

“Everyone knows, Judah. But now is your chance for reconciliation. Your time to move on.”

“Move on? I did move on. You people brought me back.”

“He really helped us out today. He helped me out.”

I couldn’t tell if my sister was talking about Freddie or the Lord Himself.

“Dad knew,” she said. “Dad knew you needed to be there with me so your friend would show us kindness and you could find forgiveness in your heart. His faith is so strong. Imagine if you hadn’t been there, Judah.”

“I am,” I said. “In fact, I am imagining I am not here this the very moment.”

Okay listen, my sister and I were raised in a home where there was good reason for all our suffering. The Lord had a plan and we were just too human and foolish to see it. Once our toaster set the kitchen on fire and burned all of our belongings. But there was faulty wallpaper in the prefab so the manufacturer gifted us a new model. The Lord works in mysterious ways. My dog was run over by our neighbor, a raging drunk, but as I cried over Bojo’s carcass the neighbor prayed with my father and converted on the spot. Everything happens for a reason.

Unable to bear my sister anymore I pulled a CD out of the console and popped it in. A slide guitar dove in with some expertly controlled feedback followed by a reverberated drum beat.

“Who is this?” I asked. My sister had no taste in music and that guitar tone was quite tasty.

“I thought it was yours. I don’t listen to music when I drive. I like the quiet. I talk to God.”

I grabbed the disc’s sleeve. “Vulture Eye Demos. Vol. II.” I ejected the disc and sent it out the window.

My mother was on the back steps scratching the dog’s ears and drinking a Shiner Bock. The rehabilitation center had called.

“How bad?” I asked.

“The important thing is your father is alive.”

“Great. We can’t afford it.”

“We have to remember God has a plan for everything.”

“Do we really have to pretend like God gives a shit about us right now? Sure looks like Dad got the short end. You can tell me how things really are.”

I wished I hadn’t said this because I knew rather than answer she’d just change the subject to something she was not ashamed to talk about, namely how I had abandoned her and my father and sister when I moved to Nashville.

“It’s time you thought seriously about moving home. We could use the help.”

The other thing you have to understand about being raised by a Texas History teacher and a missionary is this: the only good reason to leave your hometown is to go on a field trip to the Alamo or spread the Gospel to those less fortunate than you.

“Mom. I can’t do that.”

“Would you just let me?”

A herd of freak birds six feet tall thundered along the fence behind the prefab.

“I didn’t know Mr. Moeller still had emus,” I said. 

My parents’ prefab home sat in the country outside of town. The neighbor, an old German man with yellow teeth and a lower lip perpetually stuffed with Skoal, had purchased a bunch of emus back in the 90s. They were the new beef, he assured my father. Emu ranching never took off but I loved watching the birds bound through the shrub like dinosaurs. 

My mother took a swig of beer.

“They’re releasing your father tomorrow.”

“Like tomorrow, tomorrow?” 

“What other tomorrow is there?”

Sometimes when my mother says something it sounds like lyrics to an old song.

“Did you ask if there were any options should this rehab place not work out?”

“I’ve got to get the house ready for him,” she said. “I haven’t had time to go grocery shopping or vacuum or walk the dog or clean the car.” 

“So that’s it?” I asked. “He’s coming home and we can’t afford therapy so we’re gonna pray hard and hope everything is okay?”

“I’m doing the best I can. Maybe after a few months we’ll have enough saved up.” She downed all but the dregs of the beer. “Or we can see if the church will host a fundraiser. You know your father would never accept donations though. Will you finish this? I shouldn’t be drinking.”

I walked to the back fence and began peeling the label off the sweaty bottle. The emus turned their heads to look back at me.

Once when I was about six years old I heard my father preaching in the backyard. This was early in the morning, right around dawn. He stood here at this fence with his Bible splayed in his palm and a big bucket of old lettuce at his feet. I had no idea who he was speaking to or why anyone would want a salad for breakfast. When he saw me on the back steps he said, “Come on out, Bud. Come see.” The tall grass wet my bare shins and green and brown grasshoppers flew like sparks from the weeds. When I reached him, he lifted me onto his shoulders. “Keep an eye out. They’ll be here soon.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Angels,” he said.

He proceeded to read from the book of Psalms. It was his favorite. Like David, my father believed nature was perfect and a sign that God could do no wrong.

Over the hill at the edge of the pasture, the heads of emus appeared on their lithe necks. This was the first time I’d seen them. I had no idea what they were. My father cleared his throat and spoke louder and clearer. The ground shook as the whole herd galloped toward us. I began to cry. 

“Don’t be scared, now. Aren’t they magnificent?”

I wasn’t scared and they were magnificent. They had long delicate lashes like the women in my mother’s magazines and bodies the shapes and sizes of Christmas trees. 

“They won’t hurt you,” he said, offering his bucket of lettuce. I squirmed as they drilled their big pointy heads into it.

“Now don’t be scared. They’re just hungry. You wanna try?”

I shook my head and wiped my eyes.

“Hey, it’s alright. Why don’t you reach down and give one a pat on the head? They like that.”

And so, I did. And later at school, I told the whole class I touched one of the angels my father summoned, to which my teacher snapped, “Judah Davies you need to stop telling fibs. Your father wouldn’t approve.”

Out in the yard I finished my mother’s beer and watched the herd move away from our fence.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” I shouted. The emus trotted off, unmoved.

The Ice House was packed with sickly looking white boys in glasses and flannel. The thing with the college crowd is they look the same everywhere you go. I had a hard time believing so many young people were willing to drive to this town to see Freddie Schramm play, but according to the bartender, Vulture Eye was the only act.

Believe me when I say I looked long and deep for any reason to dismiss them. But I came up empty. They were incredible. A tinnitus inducing wall of sound with a country flare reminiscent of Rust-era Crazy Horse. The crowd knew their songs and shouted requests all night. Their stage presence was impressive too. No histrionics. They looked and sounded like veterans, confident the tidal wave of guitar riffs was all they needed to impress. It’s not something you see from a lot of these upstart bands. Freddie played a Gold Top Les Paul, one of the ’57 reissues it looked like, and truth be told the man could shred. Every time he finished a solo the crowd whistled and cheered. I hate to say it but I might have, too.

In high school Freddie dated a girl named Bridget Riley. She was a dime, I won’t lie. Why she ever dated Freddie was beyond me, but at the homecoming pep rally my sophomore year I got caught looking up her skirt. Only that is not what happened. What happed was this: I stood on the gym floor beside the accordion bleachers with my hands in my pockets (Where else was I to put them?) when I spotted a sparrow in the rafters. Even before the Bridget Riley episode of which I am about to tell, I maintained a healthy disdain for my classmates. Though I made good grades, I was considered boonies-country trailer trash. Unlike other trailer trash who were feared and respected because they smoked cigarettes and had pregnant girlfriends, people believed I was an earnest prude who would try and pray their sins away. What I’m saying is I didn’t have many friends. So, as I watched this sparrow fly around the rafters, I imagined the trapped creature defecating on one of my classmates’ heads. A dreamy smile spread across my face when who but Sarah Sanderson should lean over and say, “I know what you’re looking at Judah Davies, you freak.”

Just then I realized from where we stood we could see clear up Bridget Riley’s skirt. She stood at the edge of the bleachers above us and if she was wearing any underwear it was the kind that made you wonder why she wore any at all.

“Freddie Schramm, this sicko is touching himself and staring up your girlfriend’s skirt!”

The fact that she told Freddie and not Bridget says all you need to know about Sarah Sanderson.

Freddie locked eyes with me as people scurried away leaving me on the gym floor, my hands still in my pockets.

“Judah Davies get your hands out of your pants and get up here so I can kick your ass!”

In the days to come Freddie convinced everyone I was a frustrated virgin with repressed desires who got off by peeping on girls. He challenged me to a fight at the cliff behind the school. For divine reasons unknown, our school was built near the edge of a limestone quarry and any time there was a dispute that called for violence, the fight would be staged at the edge of a hundred foot cliff overlooking the quarry. Heights terrify me. And besides, I was innocent. Naturally I did not show up. Freddie told everyone I was a coward and obviously guilty because an innocent man would defend his honor or whatever. The town happily obliged.

The school board voted to pass a rule saying girls must wear shorts beneath their skirts.

People in the halls whispered, “Can you see his hands?”

From the urinal beside me they hissed, “If you shake it more than twice it’s a sin.”

Honestly, I felt bad for Bridget. Other boys made obscene gestures when she walked by and her reputation became forever linked to mine. Knowing I could not approach her in person, I sent her a note but it was intercepted and the vice principal told me I wasn’t allowed to speak to her.

When my father received news of what happened he took me to the Sonic on the hill and ordered us both Strawberry Limeades.

“Judah, what you’re going through is completely natural. I want you to know that. But learning to control these impulses—”

“Jesus, Dad. That’s not even what happened.” I explained the whole situation at the pep rally. “So yeah, I might have looked, but I wasn’t looking. There’s a difference!”

“You know,” he said, after a long silence, “there will be a time when none of this matters and everyone will see how wrong they are about you, son. David wrote in Psalm 41 ‘My foes all whisper against me; they imagine the worst about me: I have a deadly disease, they say … But you, Lord, have mercy and raise me up that I may repay them as they deserve.’”

I don’t know how David fared, but I did not have a single date while in high school. The most I ever saw—get this—was what floated above me that day in the gym. 

Back in the Ice House, Vulture Eye’s set was ending. Freddie went up to the mic. “Ladies and gentlemen, this next one goes out to my boy Judah Davies. His family’s going through a rough time so somebody buy the man a drink. Actually, buy him two so we can see what he’s doing with his hands!”

The joke was lost on most of the crowd, but Freddie beamed. He approached me after the show.

“Shit, Judy! You actually showed up. So what’d you think?”

I nursed my Coors Lite and took a moment to answer. 

“Well, I won’t lie, Freddie. Been a while since I’ve seen someone play like that.”

“I hope you’re not just saying that. We work our asses off. Listen—I hate asking since you’ve got so much going on right now, but I’d kick myself if I didn’t say something while you’re in town.”

Here it comes, I thought.

“There someone at Bucking Foal you could introduce us to?”

“Yeah, Freddie. That someone is me.”

He looked at me with an anxious grin as though anticipating a punchline.

“I’ll spare you from looking like a jackass,” I said. “You know the answer to what you’re about to ask is ‘No.’ Frankly I am a little surprised at your gall for thinking I’d help you out after everything you did. But if I were stuck in this town like you, I’d probably be pretty desperate to get out too.”

I can’t lie. It felt great to say this and see the dumbfounded look on his face. I stood up and tossed my bottle over the bar and into the trash can where it broke against the other bottles.

“You can’t be serious. The Bridget stuff? We were kids, man. All that shit is behind us. I’d love to work with you. I love what you did with Whiskey Dream’s sound. They needed to go electric like four albums ago.”

The bar was emptying out. Crushed cans littered the floor. In the parking lot a couple of drunks got in a fight.

“Maybe so, Freddie. But I’ve dealt with one too many assholes from behind the glass to willingly sign on another. Thanks for inviting me to the show. I’ll see ya around.”

I might have skipped out of the bar that night.

Before his stroke my father spoke with clarity and confidence. He read the Bible daily and rarely used contractions. These traits suited him well as he spread the Good Word across Central America, Africa, and other places deemed so unfortunate they attract the presence of evangelicals. But as the week progressed the severity of his aphasia became clearer.

“Buddha nut!” he exclaimed any time my mother’s dog jumped on the couch.

“I can’t force the jangle on, guy!” he growled at me, while pointing my sister’s phone at a blank television screen.

“Why does your mom have such large sandwiches?” he cried, kicking a pair of sandals out of the doorway.

One morning I heard him up early preaching away at the fence like he used to. Only he wasn’t preaching. The truth was my father, Wendell Davies, was crying. The Bible was open in his hands and he kept turning the pages back and forth and shaking his head. Not a single emu was near.

Part of me wanted to go out and tell him he didn’t need to read the Bible to understand it. He probably had all those verses memorized anyway. I mean, he’d forced my sister and me to memorize a good many. Sure, he’d probably butcher them now—“I can do all jeans through crosses that struggles me”—but he still had the meaning of it inside of him. That was more than I ever had.

The other part of me couldn’t help but think he’d done this to himself. If the man had gotten anyone else to take my sister’s car, I’d’ve cut a deal with Naomi Withers by now. I’d have enough to fly him to the best speech therapist this country offered. But my father had made many puzzling choices he chalked up to the mystery of God’s will. Around the time my mother became pregnant, he turned down a high-paying position at a company that manufactured scooters for the mobility impaired in order to become a missionary. How often I dreamt of this other reality where I was not raised in a trailer home and my father could afford to send me to college without condemning me to student loans.

He began flipping the pages so violently a few ripped. Finally, he threw the Book into the yard. I could see his shoulders bouncing. Just then I noticed he forgot the lettuce. I went to the kitchen and dumped some into a plastic bucket I found beneath the sink and ran out there after him.

“Dad, wait,” I said, but I could not see him anywhere. I picked the Bible up and circled the trailer, fearing I’d find him facedown in the grass, his brain just hemorrhaging away.

“Bubby?” he said.

“What? No. Dad it’s me.”

Days spent lying in a hospital bed had taken more than a few pounds from my father. His eyes were sunk deep in his head and he looked like an emaciated stranger who’d wandered out of the woods.

“Dad, what are you doing?”

He had a red canister of gasoline in one hand and a box of matches in the other. He looked down as if he’d only now noticed them and then pushed his way into the brush. Let me tell you; for an aphasiac man in his sixties, my father could move through some brush. I circled the property for a good five minutes before I heard a whirring sound and the crackle and pop of open flames. Evidently, he saw it fit to burn a perfectly alive juniper sapling. When I found him, he stood so close to this burning bush I feared he might burn himself up, too.

Maybe I was thinking of Moses on Mount Horeb. Maybe for a moment I forgot I no longer believed in miracles. Whatever the reason, I could not move. I could not pull him back. I could only stand there and behold the spectacle.

The tree burnt until it was nothing but a spindle. It takes a lot of heat, a lot of gasoline to burn up a live juniper. When my father turned, his face was blistered and oozing. His eyes were red and swollen shut, his lips all puffed up. He picked up his red canister and went back to the house, puzzled by the look of horror on my face. A ring of embers pulsed in the ashes of the tree. I kicked some dirt on them and went chasing after my old man, afraid my future had just unrobed and bared its ugly naked self.

Though he was upset when we took him back to the hospital, my father let the nurses look him over without much fuss. He’d sustained second degree burns across his front side and needed antibiotics. The doctor said we were to rub aloe vera on him at least three times a day.

“Not it,” I said.

“Not it! I think you should be the only one to do it since you didn’t stop him,” said my sister. “Don’t listen to him, Daddy. I’ll make sure he does it.”

A nurse dolloped some Vaseline on his finger and he smeared it over his blistered lips.

“I want to know if he can still feel pain,” said my mother. “Is that something that can happen? Can one just not feel pain anymore?” She sounded a bit jealous, honestly.

“The burns don’t concern me as much as this behavior. Erratic changes in behavior are common with brain injuries. Is he seeing a speech therapist?”

“We’re doing our best,” said my mother. 

“Mrs. Davies, I can’t stress to you enough how important it is he receives the right rehabilitation and therapy now. The brain is plastic and if we want it to heal properly he needs to begin work immediately.”

No one said a word on the ride home. My father fiddled with his bandages and pulled a couple off. I looked at my sister. If she was going to jump up there and stop him from hurting himself she sure was taking her time. 

We passed the pawn shop where many years ago my father bought me an old RCA record player. My first. The tone out of that thing was so warm you felt the band was there in the room with you. He bought it so I could listen to his Gospel recordings but he had an old Townes Van Zandt album called High, Low and In Between. That was the gateway for me. Merle. Willie. Guy. I knew country music—real country music—was my calling. The day I told my parents I was moving to Nashville to fix the genre, my mother cried like all the mothers in the songs I loved. I’m not sure she ever really forgave Dad for giving me that RCA.

“Do you still have your old ginger with the soul?” he asked me.

I could never understand the decisions my father made, but I will credit him with this: he never stopped me from pursuing my dream and never once complained about me moving away.  

“I do,” I said. “The tonearm needs to be rebalanced though. About time I took care of that.” 

The next morning, I downloaded the remaining Vulture Eye demos to my laptop. I do not believe in divine reasoning, but I admit it was fortunate I did not throw all of them out of my sister’s car. Most of the songs featured broken relationships, highways, bars—standard stuff. One song, I am certain, was about me:

I see you spyin’

Inside you’re cryin’

Boy that’s no way 

Of livin’ and dyin’

After I finished all four demo discs, I downloaded the best tracks to a zip file and sent it to my boss. Half an hour later, he called.

“I want you to know I only opened those because I feel sorry for you.”

“So what do you think?”

“I think it’s a miracle you stumbled on this and if you don’t pursue it like your life depends on it you might as well stay down there in Texas. Someone will make this band big.” 

“I know it,” I said. “But there’s something I have to do first.”

“I don’t care if you have to suck every single one of their dicks. You want to keep your job—you get on this.”

My boss hung up in a manner that is custom to agents and producers. Even on an iPhone it is like a guillotine dropping.

I dialed Aztec Auto and asked for the manager.

“Listen, Freddie. I’ve thought it over. If you want to talk, meet me at the cliff when you get off.”

“Not so high and mighty now.”

“I could make you huge. Gritty blue-collar band with guitar riffs bigger than the Texas sky. People eat this shit up. But first I need to hear you say you should’ve never done what you did.”

“Judah, we were teenagers. Let it go. I don’t even know what really happened.”

“Exactly. And you’re going to call everyone who’s still around and get them at the cliff. Then you’re going to admit you were wrong in front of all of them.”

“You want me to call everyone to the cliff?”

“Even Bridget Riley.”

“You know she’s like an attorney or something in Dallas, right? She’s got kids.”

“Well she can bring them along.”

I hung up like an agent. I will admit it is harder than it looks.

There were about a dozen people at the cliff including me and Freddie. I spied Sarah Sanderson in her Mazda with her phone out and ready to record. To my delight, she’d gained at least a hundred and twenty pounds and had five ugly kids crawling around her car. Freddie had his back to the cliff and was flanked by the members of Vulture Eye. 

“You talk to Bridget?”

“I got her assistant. Said she couldn’t make it so I told him to leave her a message.”

“You tell these people why they’re here?”

“Judah, you really going to do this?”

“No. You are. Tell these people it wasn’t true.”

“Let it go, man. We were kids. I don’t blame you for looking. Hell if it were me I’d have stolen a look, too. Granted she gave me a whole lot more than that.” Freddie fist-bumped his drummer. “Look, man. I don’t give a shit. You didn’t do it. I was an asshole. Whatever.”

“Say it like you believe it.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“Do it,” I said. “Do it!”

What happened next felt like something that must’ve happened long ago and was still happening at this very moment. Something that could not be stopped, a point where all possibilities converged into one impulsive action I had dreamt of for the better part of sixteen years.

I shoved Freddie. Hard.

He wind-milled his arms and looked back at the yawning precipice that threatened to take him. What I saw in his eyes was something graver than terror. I did not reach out to pull him back. To tell you the truth, until that moment, I had underestimated just how deeply the damage Freddie had done to me ran. I know how it looked. Me pushing him and just standing there and watching. I wished I had tried to pull him back. I really do. Mostly because, as it turned out, he did not fall. He lived to tell everyone I had attempted murder, which was not true. I never intended to kill him. It was an accident.

“You could’ve killed me, you fucking bastard!”

For reasons that would soon become painfully clear to me, Freddie removed his shirt and handed it to his drummer. Before I had time to do anything he popped me in the jaw then began throwing jabs. The weird, bony knuckles on his fists were like golf balls, pelting me from all directions.

I should say now that until this moment, I had never been in a fight. The closest I’d come was when the bassist of one of my bands tried to walk out on a contractual obligation, but it never came to blows. Honestly, I didn’t quite know what to do. Freddie rushed me and I wrapped him up in what I intended to be a headlock but the result was more of a hug. The crowd found this funny. Freddie head-butted me in the face, which caused my nose to bleed and ruined my shirt. I kicked him good in the shin which got him hopping on his other leg.

As the fight wore on and we traded blows, the crowd became confused. More than once I heard someone ask if we were done yet. Someone else said to just let us wear ourselves out. Far in the back, I heard Clayton Crawford explain the whole Bridget Riley story to his wife who obviously was not from here.

We circled. Freddie busted my lip but I gave him a shiner. Finally, he bull-rushed me and pinned me to the ground. With both knees on my chest he began slamming his fists into my head.

“Stop!” I cried, “Oh God, stop!”

Freddie’s fist seemed to strike me from some far-off place. When he was finally done, it was just the two of us. He stood with his hands on his knees and spat in the dirt.

“I pity you, Judah Davies. I really do,” he said. “I don’t care who you know or what you have to offer. I will never work with you, you murderous pervert.”

The sun was setting by the time I got home. As I pulled into the gravel drive, I got a text from my boss asking for an update on Vulture Eye. I hit ignore and stumbled out of the car.

My father stood at the back fence with the bucket of lettuce I’d brought him the morning he lit the juniper on fire. I limped toward him, a bruised and swollen mess. He seemed to expect this for he did not look the least bit alarmed. When I got to him, he turned toward the fence and whistled loudly. I shut my eyes and felt his hand steady me. Over the pounding in my head I heard the feet of coming angels.

Cody Lee


Cody Lee has worked as a librarian, teacher, and copywriter. He received his MFA at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and has published writing in Witness Magazine, The Carolina Quarterly, and JMWW. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two cats.

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There had never been a carnival. On that at least, everyone agreed. There had never been a circus, not even so much as a county fair.

So, where did it come from?

That was the first question. When would it leave? was the second. As the answer to that proved to be not soon enough, the biggest question folded itself around every unspoken word.

The biggest question was not When did it appear? though no one agreed on that either. Nor was it How did it get here? or What should we do about it? though perhaps it should have been. The big question was none of these, nor was it any of the thousand small questions that occupied the thoughts and talk of the community (Why does the lion have only half a mane? What does the elephant want with our children? Did the rabbit eat my chickens?). The Big Question was What does the carousel want?

What happened to Shauto Bo, Visha Abul, and the others?

Suyen Bo forbids her daughters to go anywhere near the carousel. The Bo family no longer visits the center of town. They go the long way to the baker’s—behind the Jorviks’ house and the school—even though this takes three times as long. Ziu is sent to fetch water from the mountain stream, a full day's journey there and back, a brace of heavy buckets across her shoulders—heavier once they were full.

How do we interpret this tale? Is it the mother's love or a jealous spite?

Misha Abul listens to Suyen's fears as they chop firewood together for the coming winter. Suyen had a husband, Shauto, who had vanished; Suyen was sure the carousel was to blame. Her husband had been eaten, or stolen, or turned into one of its wooden creatures—the boar, maybe; Shauto was born in the year of the boar.

Misha Abul clucks sympathetically. Suyen says she thinks she had a son, too, but he is so vanished even she can hardly remember him. Misha says nothing about her own vanished son; a good friend does not usurp another’s grief.

Only when Suyen goes woodcutting are her daughters alone together. Ziu warns Yumi not to grow too beautiful. “Be careful,” she says. “You’re not little anymore.”

Shauto left them all, but their mother hoards the grief to herself. Ziu says Suyen thrives on the attention, on the tragedy of being a beautiful young widow.

It was only when folk began to say Ziu surpassed her mother in beauty that Suyen decided the carousel was a danger. Jealous of her elder daughter's beauty, Suyen keeps her away from town, forces Ziu to carry buckets that are far too big for her—miles and miles, to bow her neck, coarsen her hands, leather her skin under the sun.

Instead, the work makes Ziu even more beautiful. The muscles in her back and arms become a flowing stream beneath her burnished skin. To carry her burden, Ziu grew taller. She tussled with mountain lions who mistook her for prey and keened her eyes for striking vipers. This change happened slowly, so the Bo family did not notice. A fierceness grew in the muscles of Ziu’s shoulders, in the swift flicks of her gaze, and the townsfolk saw. Ziu Bo is a mountain lion, a goddess, the sun.

One day, Suyen went to the forest to chop wood with Misha Abul. Ziu left, when it was still dark, to get water from the stream. Left to herself, Yumi climbed to The Meadow Surrounded by Hills in search of dandelions. She had nearly enough for a salad when the rabbit appeared.

It came from a cleft between two hills. Like all the carousel creatures, the rabbit moved in long, slow bounds. Limbs immobile, legs splayed in a predator’s pounce—Impossibly slowly, the rabbit rose and fell in utter silence. Its disturbing, unnatural arcs, mesmerizing outside the carousel’s frame.

White paint, yellowed by sun and wind, peeled off in jagged curls to bare splintering wood beneath. At their lowest, the rabbit’s frozen paws came to Yumi’s waist. Only his brass pole—greened all over—reached the ground; it sank into the earth. Never rising, it made no sound and left no mark. In the rabbit’s wake, not a single blade of grass bent to mark his passing.

As the carousel rabbit reached her, Yumi stood as still as the flowers she picked, the yellow of her dress cementing the resemblance. At the bottom of the rabbit’s arc, Yumi’s breath misted its granite eyes. Droplets huddled in snowflake cracks, retreated into the deeper fissures of the left eye. Between the rabbit’s eyes and his mouth, a chunk had crumbled away. A perverse geode took the place of a nose, black-rotted wood shining with slime.

Three times, the rabbit rose and fell before Yumi Bo. When Yumi did not run away, the rabbit tilted its head to the side. Wood cracked inside him. The forced, jerking motion tore the splitting paint on the rabbit’s neck.

Decomposing leaves, black and slimy, flopped loose and dangled from his lowered ear. A sprig of wood sorrel sprouted from the other.

Yumi reached out to the mangy rabbit to pull the debris from his left ear. She had to time the move. While he was down, she thrust her hand, up to the wrist, into the rabbit’s ear. Yumi clutched muck and thorns, letting the rabbit’s upward momentum pull the ear out of her reach. With a sucking sound, the muck pulled free. Yumi was left with a handful of nettles and burrs, packed in mildewed slime. In the open air, the muck reeked of offal.

Although the carousel creature could make no sound, Yumi saw the light glint off the rabbit's shattered foreface. Thank you.

The stench of the muck lessened. Sucking blood from the little girl’s pricked fingers, the slime melted away, and Yumi held a handful of red-white roses and chicken bones. As she watched, the roses’ cut stems wriggled, chased her retreating blood beneath her skin. Yumi watched the white retreat to the very edges of the petals. She imagined roots exploring her veins. When the roses turned entirely red, her hand stopped hurting. The cuts were healed.

Up and down, the rabbit waited. Yumi reached out again—an offering. The carousel rabbit sank. His fang-filled maw closed around Yumi Bo’s wrist. He crunched, chicken bones snapping between his teeth. For the first time, Yumi noticed the copper stain around the rabbit's lips.

Jaw locked, the rabbit rose. In his grasp, Yumi floated too. At the height of their arc, the rabbit released her hand. Rose petals stuck between his fangs.

You have done me a kindness. I shall give you a gift in return. I give you the blessing of the rabbit. Whenever you are in danger, strike your paw three times upon the ground and a warren will open up and swallow you to safety. But be warned: You cannot choose where the warren will take you, and once gone, you may find there is no way back.

As he spoke, the rabbit began to look slightly more a living beast and slightly less a carousel. Patches of fur—not paint—ruffled in the breeze of their descent. At last with a great creaking and tearing of wood the rabbit pounded his hind leg three times upon the ground. A dark hole opened in the earth, and he was gone. Yumi floated alone to the ground in The Meadow Surrounded by Hills, a white rabbit’s foot in place of her left hand.

Ziu had eyes for the soap-maker's boy. Ziedrich Tahmasebi was kind and soft-spoken. He smelled of the flowers he and his father crushed to scent their soaps.

There was only one problem: Ziedrich Tahmasebi wasn't real. There was no soap-maker in the town with the carousel that had never seen a circus. People there had little use for such luxuries as scented soaps.

Yet Ziu knew there should have been. She felt the edges the Tahmasebis ought to have filled How else to explain the house-sized hole in the otherwise cozy-tight town?

Ziu smelled saffron when Baia Tahmasebi cooked. She heard the tenor strains of Ofran’s and Ziedrich’s working songs. Walking past the window that was not there, Ziu met Baia's gaze. Felt the warmth of the older woman's smile. This would have been my mother-in-law.

Ziu was strong. She would have chopped firewood for her in-laws. She would take the long journeys for winter blooms, so that gentle Ziedrich and Ofran could stay safe and warm. Ziu ached for what ought to have been.

Taunted by the constant pricks of a life she could never live, by the ghost of a loving family she could never have, Ziu grew bitter with her mother and sister. Many days, Ziu refused even to speak to Suyen. With Yumi she was distant and sharp.

Of her father, Yumi Bo remembered only absence. She did remember him, contrary to what people thought. She remembered the way Shauto had eaten with the same vague expression spiced pork dishes Suyen slaved over for days and bowls of plain oats. She remembered crying up at that impassive face, and she remembered learning it would be no use. Shauto did not interact with Yumi, with the world. He stared at the blank wall and ate what was placed before him.

When he was gone, Suyen insisted the carousel had taken her husband. Ziu believed he had simply left, had walked and kept walking, leaving behind the wife and daughters he no longer desired. Yumi thought it was simpler than that. Shauto hardly existed to begin with—he did little, cared less—was it so strange he just stopped existing the rest of the way?

He had been gone over a year before Yumi learned the word “papa.”

Suyen never stopped talking. Her mouth was sometimes silent, but her voice never stopped. Ziu said Suyen only cared about herself, that she was selfish, that she didn’t love her daughters.

Yumi thought it was Shauto. He was a crack in a butter churn. When he was there, Suyen poured all she had into the churn. She wanted so desperately to please him; wanted him to want her. She poured out her soul, and he leaked it away. Suyen failed her daughters, but Yumi thought she tried to love them—she simply had no skill for it. Yumi said none of this to Ziu.

Ziu never hid things from Yumi. She told her little sister horrible truths, so that she could never be ambushed.

This is why, when Ziu went silent, Yumi was afraid.

When Ziu failed to notice her rabbit’s-foot hand, Yumi wondered if she had vanished like her father. The next day, Ziu slung the yoke of empty buckets across her shoulders. Yumi followed, silent as a shadow.

Ziu stood a long time outside the Tahmasebis’ house-that-was-not. Yumi saw the Tahmasebis as often as anyone. Like the rest of the neighbors, she forgot again as soon as she turned away. Now, with the carousel rabbit’s blessing, Yumi remembered.

Yumi followed Ziu past the Jorviks’ house, past the school. She followed Ziu into the golden hills. Along the way, a venomous snake struck from the tall grass. Swift as the wind, Ziu circled her foot away from the fangs to kick the back of the viper’s neck. The snake flew a dozen yards to land, unharmed, in the grass. Ziu did not even break her stride.

When they reached the stream, a mountain lion leapt from behind a boulder. It pounced on Ziu’s back, while she was crouched to fill the buckets. Yumi ran to her sister, but before her third step landed, Ziu had rolled the mountain lion off herself and flung it to the other side of the stream.

When Ziu stood, sunlight dappled in the muscles of her arms and calves. Yumi noticed, at last, that her sister had grown glorious. She was ashamed she had not seen it sooner.

Ziu looked at Yumi, hiding in the tall grass. “Why are you following me?”

Yumi felt foolish. How could she be angry with Ziu? “I was afraid,” she said. “Every day, you left, and the elephant followed you.” Only as she said this did Yumi realize it was so.

It stood beside them now, rising and falling, the carousel elephant. Beside Ziu, the elephant was comically small. Gold paint flaked from it—a summer snow.

“She’s lonely,” Ziu says. “The children aren’t allowed to play with her.”

Yumi remembers how Ziu gazed at Ziedrich Tahmasebi. You don’t have to be lonely, she thinks; I’m right here. She says, “I’m not little anymore.”

When the sisters returned home, they found half the town outside their house. Suyen was distraught, weeping and shrieking that the carousel had stolen her husband, her son—she was sure she had had a son—and now her daughters, too.

“We’re here,” Ziu said. But no one heard her.

“We’re right here,” Yumi said. But no one saw them.

Suyen wailed. Someone got a torch. Burn it, someone said. Burn the carousel.

Ziu pushed through the crowd. Standing in the doorway of her own house, Ziu slapped her mother across the face; the sound of it a calving glacier.

“You know you never had a son!” Ziu shouted.

No one heard.

Suyen looked directly at her daughter and smiled. A hateful, leering smile, revealing yellow needle fangs.

Or—Suyen looked right at the place her daughter stood but could not see her. Her face so red with weeping, it showed no mark from Ziu’s slap.

Around Ziu and Yumi, townsfolk shouted, argued, planned. The sisters clung to each other. The Tahmasebis’ house was gone.

The carousel lion screamed.

“I’ll take care of you,” Ziu said. She always had.

The villagers set the lion ablaze. Paint melted. Black and gold rivulets wept from the carousel creature. Acrid smoke made its half-mane whole again.

Yumi shook her head. They would take care of each other. “I’m not little anymore.”

In agony, the lion leaped and writhed. Golden drops spattered the nearby buildings. The Bos’ house was the first to burn.

Three times, Yumi stamped her paw. The earth swirled open, drew her in. Yumi fell into the warm tunnel, Ziu torn from her grasp.

Karisma Tobin


Karisma (Charlie) Tobin grew up in the mountains of New Mexico and Alaska. Her work appears in Interim, Plainsongs, and others, and she is currently the Publishing Specialist at Texas Review Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing, Editing, and Publishing and an MA in English from Sam Houston State University.

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All his life, there was only just enough money, but at fifty-seven, he suddenly had too much.

It was not the first time Sam, Glenn’s boss, had suggested he and several others who worked on the wire harness line at the Speed Queen washer and dryer factory pool their cash and buy four hundred Mega Millions tickets, but it was the first time Glenn went in on the buy. He’d never before frittered away money on the lottery, but Sam had caught him in a foolish moment. There was also the fact he had a few more extra dollars in his pocket than usual because he and his wife Bernadette had decided not to go on vacation this year—not even down to the Dells for a long weekend of overeating and window-shopping. Glenn had instead promised to clean out the backyard storage shed and paint the kitchen during his week off in August, two tedious chores he was supposed to have done the previous summer but had evaded with wheedling and small bribes.

The night of the drawing, as heat lightning lacerated the sky to the west, they won a sum so preposterous Glenn initially felt nothing but confusion, his stunned mind laboring to understand that 528 million dollars could be something other than a hyperbolic abstraction. Only eight people would share all that money. No other ticket buyers anywhere in the world had chosen the same numbers, as it turned out. So much money made in an instant, and all he’d done was play a game requiring no skill.

Bernadette was even more stunned than he was, and happier. She had always been a generous person, baking two cakes for everyone’s birthday, buying too many gifts, giving away more than half the vegetables in the garden to the neighbors each year. In the week and a half following the arrival of their first installment of the big win—Glenn had insisted on the annual disbursement rather than the lump sum, of which the tax man would have taken fifty percent upfront—his wife sent hundred-dollar donations to every charity that had ever sent her a sheet of address labels, a pack of flimsy greeting cards, or an ugly reusable bag. She wrote so many checks they ran out, but she immediately ordered more and paid the fee for expedited delivery. In the past he’d never have let this go without griping, but now if he complained, she could ignore him.

Within minutes, it seemed to Glenn, another wad of solicitations was clogging their mailbox, this batch brazenly asking for even more money—Could you give $150 this time, Mrs. Ballard, for the starving children in country X? For confused whales being led off-course by container ships’ sonar? Do you know just how hard it is out there for owls? For monkeys kidnapped from their natural habitats? For people with chronic eczema?

Everyone was in dire need, and before the Mega Millions bus picked him up and drove him straight into a mountain-sized heap of dollar bills, Glenn hadn’t realized the extent of this neediness. His three sons and their families certainly had a multitude of pressing needs of their own. His youngest son, Jeff, twenty-three and already a father of two, had approached Bernadette with a shopping list containing an eye-popping number of apparently essential luxury goods. Without them, his family would doubtless cease to function, and Bernadette was happy to oblige, taking Jeff and Junie, his wife and the mother of his children, on a two-day shopping orgy.

Jeff and Junie’s list, penned by Junie:

  • Blu-ray player
  • Wii
  • Subaru Forester
  • Swing set
  • MixMaster
  • Fiestaware (12 place settings, please! ☺)
  • Blend-Tec blender
  • Sub-Zero fridge
  • Duxiana bed
  • Rastar Bentley GTC battery-powered 12V (for Mickey—a child’s car, not the adult version!)
  • All-Clad pans (set of 8)
  • Timberland boots (4 pairs—one for each of us!)
  • Maclaren Grand Tour LX stroller
  • 4- or 5-bedroom house w/2- (or 3-) car garage and in-ground swimming pool
  • (dream big, right? ;))
  • 25 sessions with a personal trainer (Junie)
  • Family gym membership for 24-hour Fitness
  • Wüsthof Classic knives (7-piece set)
  • 72-inch plasma screen TV
  • Dania leather sectional sofa (plus rush delivery)

Glenn’s other two sons were a little more tempered in their requests, but he was sure that, before long, they would find out what Jeff and Junie were getting their hands on, courtesy of Bernadette’s wallet, which was always open for business. Jim, their oldest son, and his wife Candace, had one child, an eleven-year-old girl named Rachel who bossed her parents around as if she were an A-list starlet instead of a small-town child of average intelligence and looks. Lately, when she tried to boss around Glenn, he started repeating back to her everything she said, which she or her mother didn’t think was funny, but his son seemed to get a kick out of it. Bernadette wasn’t amused either, and scolded Glenn for teasing Rachel, who she said would probably grow up to hate men, especially old men. “Good,” said Glenn. “She needs to be wary. Most of us are up to no good.”

The first thing Jim asked for was a college savings account for Rachel, which Bernadette set up in the same week the lottery money arrived, starting it with a sixty-thousand-dollar deposit. When she called to tell Jim that the fund was now alive and earning interest, he patched in Candace, and together, they asked if Bernadette and Glenn would help them put a down payment on a new house. The two-bedroom, one-and-a half-bath ranch they’d been making do with for the last twelve years was too small, and if they had to spend another year in it, well, they didn’t know if their marriage or their sanity would survive.

“Of course I told them we’ll help,” Bernadette told Glenn after she got off the phone. “I said we could probably just buy the house for them outright.”

Glenn could feel his throat constricting as he listened to his wife, but she was smiling with such guilelessness and joy. Nothing seemed to make her happier than making other people happy.

“I really wish you hadn’t told them that,” he said. “What if they ask for one of those big houses in Green Lake that rich people from Illinois use as their summer homes?”

“What if they do?” she asked. “We’re now as rich as they are, Glenn. Richer, I bet.” She laughed. “We should buy one of those houses for ourselves. We could have a summer home too.”

“We live six miles from Green Lake.” He shook his head. “You don’t buy your summer home one town over.”

“Who says? We can do whatever we want.”

“We can do some of the things we want,” he said.

“I’m not talking about breaking the law. I just want to live it up. I think we deserve that. The gods are smiling on us, Glenn. You could at least do them the courtesy of smiling back.”

Their middle son, Justin, wasn’t asking for a new house or car or a set of fancy European knives. Unlike his brothers, he wasn’t married and raising children; he’d always been close-mouthed about his private life. It was Bernadette, not Justin himself, who’d told Glenn that he preferred men to women, and Glenn had spoken to Justin about this preference only once—a stilted conversation with Glenn saying he accepted his son for who he was. Justin had looked at him with something close to confusion but also, Glenn thought, annoyance, before saying, “Thanks, Dad,” though he didn’t sound thankful or relieved, only uncomfortable. He lived in Chicago with his boyfriend Rob, who had never come up to Ripon to meet him and Bernadette.

Glenn himself had only been down to Illinois twice to visit Justin since he’d graduated from tech school in Milwaukee and begun his work as an X-ray technician, both of these Chicago visits in the pre-Rob era. Rob taught Spanish language classes at a private high school in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of the city—his full name was Roberto Gimenez, and in his teens, he had moved to the U.S. from some city in Mexico that Glenn had never heard of, San Miguel de something or other. “De Allende,” Bernadette always added, wondering why he could never remember it himself.

Via FedEx, she’d sent Justin a check for fifty thousand dollars the day after their money came in, and more than a month and a half later, Justin still had not troubled himself to drive home to thank them in person, though he did call his mother regularly, and she sent two other checks to him, one for thirty thousand dollars and the other for twenty-five thousand. Glenn was certain she was already thinking about sending a fourth check when he moved most of the money into a new account that he didn’t give her or any of their sons access to.

She’d already spent nearly half a million dollars, more than a third of their first disbursement, in less than two months. At her current headlong rate, she’d have it all frittered away before Christmas, and he’d have to go back to work at Speed Queen, if they’d even take him back, until the next annuity payment arrived in August. Their health insurance premiums alone, now that they were off of Speed Queen insurance, were over sixteen-hundred dollars a month.

He knew he had to tell her he’d cut off her access to the lottery money before she wrote more checks to relatives, charities, her church friends, and former coworkers. He’d left a hundred-thousand dollars in the joint account at the credit union, which ordinarily would have covered close to a year and a half worth of bills and other expenses, with something left over for one or two budget vacations. They’d lived frugally all their lives, and although he knew Bernadette loved giving gifts, he hadn’t known how many she was interested in giving until very recently.

He told her over breakfast the day after he moved the funds to a money market account that only he had access to. She was sipping coffee and looking at the Oshkosh Northwestern. When his words registered, she set down the paper and stared across the table at him.

“I’m glad you’re having a good time buying everyone gifts, but you’re overspending,” he said. “We have to live on this money too, and I don’t get another payout until next August.”

“We have plenty to go around,” she said. “Don’t be such a miser.”

He stared at her. “I’m being a miser? I’ve been letting you do whatever you want up until today.”

“You’re a miser, Glenn,” she said. “If you’d taken the lump sum instead of the annuity, we wouldn’t be arguing about this in the first place because we’d have a lot more money in the bank right now.”

“That’s exactly why I chose the annuity. At the rate you’re going, it would all be spent by the end of the year,” he said, his voice rising. “I left a hundred thousand in our joint account for you. That’s more spending money than we’ve ever had in our lives.”

She turned away and stared at the television across the room, which was tuned to an old episode of Let’s Make a Deal. He’d sprung for premium cable a few weeks ago, and they now had over three hundred channels, but he found himself watching the same ones as always. “It’s not fair, and you know that,” she said, furious.

“You can get by on a hundred thousand,” he said. He could feel his heart beating hard. “That’s more money than we made in a year when we were both working full time. If you need more than that before next August, you can ask for it. I’ll cover all our expenses out of the funds in the new account. I’d say that’s more than fair.”

She shook her head, her eyes glassy with tears. “I can’t believe you. You’re being so selfish. We’ve always shared everything equally.”

“Yes, we have, but now, you’re spending every penny, and at this rate, there won’t be anything left for me.”

“I’ll tell our sons that their father is cutting them off because he’s being a miser.” She was breathing in short gasps, her eyes leaking tears.

“You tell them that, Bernadette,” he said before he left her in the kitchen, tears on her cheeks. He stalked outside, climbed into his truck, and drove to Green Lake, where he’d lately taken to going for an afternoon cup of coffee at a café and souvenir shop run by the daughter of one of their neighbors.

He and Bernadette had gotten iPhones when the money came in (their sons insisting on it—what if there was an emergency—their own or someone else’s in the family? And now they could afford smartphones, so no more excuses), and as he drank his large cup of monkish decaf, he checked the balances on the accounts he shared with his wife. Their checking account showed a new thirty-thousand-dollar withdrawal, their savings account a twenty-five-thousand debit. There was now a $53,244.16 total in their joint accounts; the previous day, when he’d transferred the money to the protected account, the two balances had totaled $109,503.93.

He called the bank and asked if they had a record of these withdrawals being turned into cashier’s or traveler’s checks or else being funneled into some other account, maybe one Bernadette had set up in her own name, just to spite him. Lonnie, the personal banker who’d answered his call, told him he’d have to come into the bank in order for that information to be disclosed, which infuriated Glenn further. “I’m sorry, but it’s a safeguard for our customers,” she said, apologetic. “I’m sure it’s you, Mr. Ballard, but just in case, it’s better if you come by. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No,” he said and hung up without saying goodbye.

He dialed Jim, his eldest, and when his son picked up with a too-enthusiastic greeting, Glenn gruffly asked, “Have you talked to your mother today?”

“No,” said Jim. “Is something wrong?”

“We had a little disagreement.”

“Are you okay?”

“We’re fine,” he barked.

“I was planning to call today because the automatic deposit you guys set up for our monthly stipend didn’t go through. The routing number might be wrong on your end. Or maybe it just takes a little longer because it’s the first time?”

Glenn was standing on the sidewalk next to his truck—the same one he’d had for eleven years; he hadn’t replaced it because it was still reliable, and there was no rust on the body yet. He was parked across the street from Susie’s Coffee & Curiosities, in front of Green Lake Realty, and Moonstone, a small jewelry store owned by a gemologist Glenn had heard was from somewhere in the Upper Peninsula. He’d stepped out of the café when he called the bank, not wanting the four people sitting at the round mosaic-topped tables to overhear him. The sky was clear and the temperature in the low 80s, despite it being late September. Indian summer, he’d heard people call it all his life. It was an expression that made him happy, but Justin had told him years ago, when he was still in high school, that he shouldn’t use it.

“How much did she say we’re giving you each month?” he asked. This was the first he’d heard of it.

Jim hesitated. “She said three thousand.”

Glenn closed his eyes. If Jim were getting these monthly handouts on top of the other gifts, Justin and Jeff likely were too. “If you want to know the truth, your mother and I are still working out our finances. You probably know she’s been spending a lot lately. I’ve had to put the brakes on this a bit, and she isn’t happy.”

“I didn’t know,” he said. “I thought—”

“I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Are you sure you’re okay, Dad?”

“Yes. We’re just getting used to all this. It’s been—” He could feel himself sweating. It was too hot for September. “A learning experience.”

“If you can’t do three grand a month, we’d understand.”

“We’re okay,” he said. “But I think we’re going to set up trusts for you and your brothers. I don’t want her to have access to so much cash. Between you and me, and I mean this, Jim, keep this between you and me—she’s already spent more than a third of our first annuity and, as you know, it’s only about a month and a half since we got it.”

“She’s spent how much already?”

“Over half a million dollars.”

“Wow.” He paused. “But didn’t you win over sixty million?”

“Yes, but you know I didn’t opt for the lump sum. And there are a lot of taxes. The annuity isn’t as much as you’d think. That sixty million is spread out over thirty years. After taxes, it works out to about one and a half million. I have them take twenty-five percent for taxes right from the get-go, which doesn’t mean there won’t be more taxes to pay for the year. It depends on how many expenses we can claim.”

“You have an accountant now, right?”

“Not yet, but I’ll get one.”

“You need an accountant to work out a budget for you and Mom. Then she’d have someone outside the family telling her how much she can spend instead of you trying to do it.”

Before they hung up, Jim said, “Mom was telling me she thought there’d be a way for Candace or me to quit work. Or maybe even both of us. But if you guys are planning to set up a trust, we’d have to rethink this.”

Glenn looked up at the sky and quietly exhaled. “Give us a little more time to figure things out before you or Candace quit your jobs.”

“Jeff said he was quitting his job.”
“Jesus Christ,” said Glenn.

“I think he and Mom talked about it yesterday. She didn’t tell you?”

“No.” He looked across the street, into the café’s windows. A woman and a man were looking back at him, the woman’s bright red hair piled on top of her head, the man young and bald with tattoos on his arms and neck. Glenn turned his back to them.

“He hasn’t quit yet, as far as I know,” Jim said weakly.
Glenn rubbed his forehead hard, the skin clammy. “Jeff should not under any circumstances quit his job. He knows we didn’t take the lump sum, doesn’t he?”

“I think he knows.”

“I’d better call him.”

“It’s slow here right now,” said Jim. “I could call him.”

Glenn could feel a headache approaching, a steady, soft pounding starting behind his eyeballs. “Okay, but tell him I’ll call him later.”

“I’m sorry, Dad.”

“Things should calm down soon,” said Glenn. “With a little luck. If I have any left.”

“You guys are golden,” said Jim. “Just tell Mom to chill out.”

“You tell her,” said Glenn. “Maybe she’ll listen to you. And promise me you won’t quit your job, even if it’s only to hold onto your health insurance. Your mother and I pay a fortune for ours.”

“Okay, Dad. Just try to calm down,” said Jim.

It was after five o’clock when he got home from Green Lake. The exterior of their three-bedroom house had been given a fresh coat of yellow paint the previous week by a high-school friend of Jeff who ran a painting and light carpentry business with his older brother. The week before that, Glenn had all the bedroom and living room windows replaced, each one now with ultraviolet, light-deflecting film embedded in the glass. These two projects were Glenn’s main splurges since he’d received the first annuity, but he’d also bought new tires for his truck and had gotten a tune-up. For months, the timing belt had needed replacing, an expense that he’d always previously dreaded.

While the mechanic worked on his truck, Glenn had gone down the street and paid thirty dollars for a haircut at Miriam’s Hair and Nails—his first professional cut in more than a decade. Bernadette usually gave him a monthly cut at home, her hair-cutting skills having been honed on the boys while they were growing up. He’d also bought a pair of Nike running shoes—4 ounces each, which felt lighter even than the thick cotton socks he’d worn with his steel-toed boots, each boot two pounds, compulsory gear for every Speed Queen worker on the floor. Lastly, he’d purchased memberships for Bernadette and himself to the 24-hour Fitness a mile and a half from their house; everyone he’d talked to in the Mega Millions group seemed to be trying to drop a few pounds and upgrade their wardrobes and hairstyles, and Sam Raymond, his now-former boss, was also upgrading towns, having bought a fancy house down in Milwaukee, where he was moving in two weeks.

Since the big win, it was the desire for escape and new experiences that Glenn found most difficult to quell. His former coworker and fellow lottery winner, Curt Shukowski, had had a taste of this kind of freedom—six days of it in his RV before his wife, who hadn’t gone with him and who’d been struggling for years after their son, a Marine, was killed in Iraq, started throwing the contents of their house into the driveway and the street and had to be hauled into the police station and kept there until Curt was able to return. At the time of the police chief’s phone call, Curt was camped out by the ocean, not far from Savannah. He drove all day and through the night to get back to Ripon in less than a day.

Before Curt left on this ill-fated trip, he’d told Glenn he hoped it would be the first of many, and that night Glenn started looking online at RVs like Curt’s—a Gulf Stream 5210, which was a smaller and lighter model than many of the gas guzzlers that crowded Wisconsin’s and other state highways in the summer. Bernadette said she’d be happy to try motor homing, especially if Glenn was willing to go west to visit some of the national parks. When the boys were little, they’d made one trip to the Grand Canyon that had thoroughly exhausted them and their credit cards. Car trouble had added another thousand to their expenses.

Bernadette’s car wasn’t in the driveway or the garage when Glenn pulled in after his short trip to Green Lake. She’d traded in her six-year-old Cavalier for an orange sherbet Volkswagen Beetle—useless on the icy roads of a Midwestern winter, he was sure, but she couldn’t be dissuaded. “We can buy another car with four-wheel drive later this year,” she said.

At six, she still wasn’t home. At seven-thirty, he called her cell but voicemail picked up on the first ring. A few minutes later he texted: Where are you? Are you okay? 

She didn’t respond. A little before eight, he got back into his truck and drove around town for a while. He didn’t spot her car at of the strip malls, or at the Pick n’ Save or Save-a-Lot stores, Save-a-Lot having taken over the spot where the Piggly Wiggly had stood for many years. She wasn’t at the Country Kitchen, Pizza Hut, or Walgreen’s, or at the park where she sometimes went for speed walks with two friends she’d known since high school, Marcia Fitzsimmons and Helen Baker. He called them too, but they hadn’t seen Bernadette all day.

Finally, at ten o’clock, his son Justin called from his and Rob’s apartment in Chicago. “Mom’s here with me,” he said, his phone voice always startling Glenn with its deepness. Neither of his other two sons or Glenn himself had voices like that.

“She’s in Chicago?” he asked. Dumb question, he realized too late.

“Yes,” said Justin patiently.

“She didn’t tell me she was going to see you. Did you know?”

“No,” said Justin. “She just showed up and rang the bell. She’s sleeping now. She didn’t want me to call you.”

“She’s mad at me,” he said. “She probably told you.”
“She said you’d been arguing. I’m sorry, Dad. You must have been worried.”

“I can’t believe she drove all that way by herself. Did she bring an overnight bag?”

“She has a suitcase with her.”

“A big one?”

His son hesitated. “Pretty big.”

Glenn had gone down to the basement earlier to see if any of the luggage was missing, but their four suitcases were in the same place as always. Her closet and dresser drawers hadn’t been raided either. She’d probably bought clothes and a new suitcase before arriving at Justin’s place. “Do you think I need to come down there tonight?” Glenn asked.

“Probably not a good idea,” said Justin. “I think she needs a little space right now.”

“I guess I’ll just call you tomorrow then. Maybe she’ll talk to me.”

“She wants to get a massage in the morning,” said Justin. “Robby and I have a guy we like to go to. She wants to try him out.”

Glenn took this in. He wondered where his son and his boyfriend went for this service that Glenn had always thought too intimate and invasive. To some shady back alley where the shirtless masseuses all had tattoos, earrings, and oiled-up muscles? He didn’t know where these images came from. TV, he realized. “She’s never had one before, as far as I know,” he finally said.

“I’m not sure if Marcel will be able to fit her in on such short notice, but we’ll find out in the morning.”

“Is Marcel American?”
“He’s Dutch.”

“I see.” The thought of his wife disrobing for a stranger in some private, dimly lit room, a stranger who would then work Bernadette over for what Glenn guessed would be quite a lot of money—what separated this activity from prostitution? He didn’t want to think about it.

“I’d better go, Dad. I should get to bed. I have to be at work at seven tomorrow.”

“What about your mother’s massage?”

“Robby’s going to take her.”

“I guess she needs to find a way to relax,” he said, forcing himself to sound agreeable.

There was a pause before Justin said, “Thanks for the money you guys have been giving me. It helps a lot. I’m sorry I haven’t come up to see you yet. Mom said you were hoping I would.”

“It’d be nice to meet Robby one of these days.”

“He and Mom seem to be hitting it off.”

“Everyone loves your mother. Especially lately.” Glenn’s laugh was mournful.

“I’m sure it’s been pretty trippy for you since you won.”

“That’s one way of saying it,” said Glenn. “Stressful is another.”

He went to bed around eleven-thirty but couldn’t sleep and twice got up to look at his phone, which had rapidly become an addiction, exactly what he’d complained for years would be the case, watching people of all ages staring down at these glowing screens when they were supposed to be crossing the street or having dinner with their families. Bernadette still had not called or texted, nor had she sent an email. He checked his bank accounts online and was relieved to see that she hadn’t made any other withdrawals since the two big ones after the afternoon’s argument about him moving the bulk of their remaining money to a restricted account.

Seeing the large balance in this new account both thrilled and disturbed him. He wanted to find a reason why he and the seven others, only eight people among the many millions who had undoubtedly bought tickets, had been so fortunate.

But, of course, there was no logic to it. There was no logic to anything when it came to luck, good or bad. He’d had a decent job with a pension, insurance benefits, and union protection. He’d liked his coworkers and was a good wire-harness maker, efficient and quick and reliable. Sam had always praised his work, and Glenn would return home most days feeling competent and valued. Now what was he doing? Arguing with his wife over their good fortune, adding stress and ill will to their previously happy marriage because his wife had turned into someone he hardly recognized.

But he couldn’t think of anyone who would pause for more than a second before agreeing to have a sixty-six million cash bomb dropped on their life, and he knew the other workers at Speed Queen now looked at him and Sam and the other winners with envy, and in some cases, open hostility—William Cline, the plant’s general manager, especially. He had to replace 8 full-time employees, one of them a foreman—no surprise he was far from pleased. When Glenn crossed paths with him in the parking lot a few days before his final shift, the big boss, as Cline was called around the plant, had stopped directly in front of him as Glenn was making his way to his car and said, “Be careful what you wish for, for you will surely receive it.” Then he laughed and shook his head and continued on his way, leaving Glenn feeling more than a little unnerved.

At home, he’d repeated Cline’s words to Bernadette who rolled her eyes and said it was only sour grapes—he was rotted through with jealousy. Despite his big boss’s salary, Cline wanted more, more, more, and was seriously pissed off that he didn’t have millions of lottery dollars heading toward his own bank account. The rumor was that he and some of the other upper-level managers had also bought a pile of lottery tickets, but between all of them, they’d only managed to match a few numbers on a handful of tickets. Jim later told Glenn that what Cline had said in the parking lot was a Chinese proverb. Hearing this, Bernadette again rolled her eyes. “Mr. Friggin’ Culture. He can eat his mean little heart out.”

Other people Glenn encountered in town—at the post office, at Ace Hardware, at Kwik Trip—people he’d known for much of his life, were looking at him differently, with curiosity and sometimes, like William Cline, envy that verged on animosity. Bernadette claimed not to notice any ill will, and when Glenn called her on her Pollyanna attitude, she was dismissive. “I don’t have to see it,” she said. “And you don’t either. You can choose how you feel, Glenn. You can.”

He wondered if she would say this now, if she would get on the phone down in Chicago and claim she was no longer angry with him, that she’d decided to be happy again and all was forgiven. Because of course it was so easy once you put your mind to it. At the time, he’d wondered if she was right, but now he knew it was bullshit.

At four in the morning, he still hadn’t fallen asleep. Head pounding again, he got out of bed and went into the kitchen. There was so much food in the fridge—Bernadette had stocked up earlier in the week. He stared at the cartons of eggs and orange juice, the loaves of expensive bakery bread, aware of his good fortune. He wondered if his wife was awake in their son’s guest room, if she would ever look at him again with love. The air around him was stale and humid. Outside, the birds were waking up in their tiny, perfect nests, chirping shrilly into the waning night. He could do anything and go anywhere in the world he wanted to. “Nothing was holding him back other than his own cowardice—he needed only to pack a bag and step out of the house. He could almost admire Bernadette now for leaving so abruptly. He wouldn’t have to leave a note either.

Christine Sneed


Christine Sneed is the author of two story collections and two novels. Her most book is The Virginity of Famous Men (stories). She's the editor of the forthcoming short fiction anthology Love in the Time of Time's Up, and Please Be Advised: A Novel in Memos, which will both be published in fall 2022. Her work has been included in publications such as The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New Stories from the Midwest, New England Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and the New York Times. She lives in Pasadena, CA and teaches for the MFA programs at Northwestern University and Regis University.

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Not just any alligator. The alligator. The one who lives behind the apartment complex, down in the drainage ditch under the trees. The sewage-green tyrant who suns himself in the tall grass that nobody bothers mowing, knowing good and goddamn well that everyone’s too old or lazy or chickenshit to do anything about him. That smirking fucker. That demonic asshole. That gator will die.

The first thing I’m going to do afterwards is have a drink. I know for a fact that I’ll need one. I’ll be shaky and nauseous from the stress of the battle—even if I kill him from afar, as I plan to. Huge streaks of sweat are going to be running down my face and neck. Slick landing strips for the squadrons of mosquitos that dive-bomb you the second you step outside. I won’t give a solitary damn because I’ll have finally done it. I’ll walk back inside, spaghetti-kneed and breathing fast—nevertheless making it to the entertainment center where my aunt keeps videotapes of her third wedding and a plastic jug of peach schnapps.

My aunt’s always out until nine. I’ll think about raiding the hutch where she keeps our family’s ancestral glassware but nerves will get the better of me. I’ll take a swig, straight from the bottle. Sweet syrup and fire down the back of my throat that sends me coughing, cursing, taking another—by which time I’ll have started to like it. Rising from the carpet that smells of cigarette ash, I’ll stare out the sliding glass balcony door at the corpse of the gator. Just making sure he’s really good and dead. Which he will be, because I’ll have planned it right. The night before, I’ll have crept out there—hucking chunks of raw chicken onto the grass. Raw chicken from the freezer—defrosted while my aunt is out grooming rich people’s dogs and marinated in an eye-watering mixture of everything under the kitchen sink. Gators, I’ve read, will eat anything. I assume that means poisoned chicken as well. I don’t think it’s going to kill the gator but I do think it’s going to help.

Because I’ve killed the gator, I will decide to raid my great-grandmother’s glassware after all. Sipping from a chalice like a fucking sultan, I will sprawl on the couch and not think about how it transforms into the world’s least comfortable futon. I will not dwell on how it shrieks like a torture victim when I try to unfold it, or how I’ve needed my aunt to help me, because I’m either too weak to do it on my own or too stupid to figure out how. I will not think about this because there will be no need to. I will be neither weak nor stupid for I will have slain a dinosaur.

The second thing I’m going to do is burn through a month’s worth of cell phone data streaming the grimiest, gruntiest, most muscle-bound porn I have ever seen in the sixteen-and-a-half years I’ve been cursed to walk this planet. I will not stress over how much this will hamper my routine of haunting the profiles of my friends back home, drooling with envy over their infinitely-better summers and lives-in-general. I will no longer be that sort of person.

The third thing I’m going to do is beat off in the shower.

The fourth thing I’m going to do is study my face in the mirror. Realizing, probably, that I’m looking pretty good, all things considered. Having spent the last month merely nibbling at those repulsive TV dinners will have helped me evaporate my baby fat. Having stayed inside for weeks will have turned my skin a shade of Tim-Burton-Movie pale. The humidity will make my hair puff out like usual, but this time, it won’t be a bad thing. It will have a wild, tousled look—like one of those Victorian poets who died young of a disease they caught after being exiled for doing sodomy. Sort of ironic-Byronic. In short, I will look hot.

The fifth thing I’m going to do is wear my dead uncle’s clothes. My aunt keeps stacks of them in the hallway closet. She’s been meaning to donate them for the last two years but says she hasn’t had a chance to yet.

It will not matter that the pants are flared at the hems or that the shirt-collar stretches out like wings trying to take flight. That retro-look is probably back in fashion. If it isn’t, I will not care, and by not caring, will look cool anyways. Cool and confident and dangerous. The kind of person who can walk down the shoulder of the highway without feeling out of place. Without feeling the slimy look of every local, like being here is somehow my choice or my fault. The kind of person with a cocky, easy stride as I stroll past the dollar generals and motorboat lots. The mortuaries, the private docks, the summer houses, the live bait shops, that church with the homophobic Leviticus verse on the sign out front. The used bookstore where that guy who looks like a much-younger, less-tragic Brandon Lee works. I will definitely go in there. I will not struggle with the door. I will not flinch when the chime rings alarmingly loud. I will not hesitate to strike up a casual conversation, leaning at the edge of the counter like I don’t really care.

I will not doubt myself. If I start to, I will picture the carcass of the alligator and be reminded of my triumph.

The sixth thing I’m going to do is ask where around here is good for dinner. I’ll drop that I’m new in town—not a tourist, god no—just staying with some family. Helping out some family, actually (and I clean the house when my aunt’s at work, so it’s not a total lie). But maybe the guy who looks like a much-younger, less-tragic Brandon Lee (who, by miraculous coincidence, is also named Brandon) could show me around.

I will not be tongue-tied. My heart will not be beating in my throat. The ghost of my schnapps buzz will help me power through. Brandon will smile and say yes, it’s a date and I will wait until I’m a safe distance away from the bookstore to do a joyful dance in the parking lot of a palm-reading shop.

The seventh thing I’m going to do is return the crossbow.

Obviously, it’s not my crossbow. I borrowed it from the back of someone’s truck. I’m not sure what his name is. He lives down the hall. He’s got a face the texture and color of a beefsteak tomato. He wears camo every day, even if he’s just going to the grocery store. He smokes Marlboro 100s and flicks butts all over the parking lot. He covers the bed of his pickup with a loose, crinkled tarp. There’s a faded sticker on the bumper with a flag and a skull and the words love it or leave it and I can’t do either.

The overcast sky will threaten rain. The fluorescent hallway lights will recite their horror-movie stutter. Behind apartment doors, I’ll hear the muffled voices of the disability-check recipients arguing with the daytime TV hosts. But I’ll be alright. I will promptly creep back into the corridor and down the stairs without incident. I will have another drink when I’m done.

The eighth thing I will do is have dinner with Brandon. I will meet him at some lakeside café named after a fish. We will not get looked at by the waitress. I will pick whatever Brandon recommends and it will be fried-to-oblivion and amazing.

Talking will not be difficult. My mind will not wander back to the sound the first bolt made when I missed—when it buried itself up to the safety-cone-orange fletching in the black, soft dirt. My witty anecdote will not be interrupted by the memory of how the alligator jerked when the second shot hit true. Brandon and I will get along fantastically. We’ll find out that we have a lot in common. Music. Movies. Bowling. Books. The sky will darken to a mysterious purple without ever fully turning black. We will get a free dessert. I will insist on paying and I will not worry that I was supposed to make the eighty bucks in my wallet last the whole summer. Because I’ll be leaving a decent tip, the waitress won’t hassle us when we sit at the table for a whole hour more, just talking. My voice will not crack. I will not accidentally badmouth his home state. I will not say anything so devastatingly awkward that the conversation bleeds out on the tablecloth with a look of betrayal in its eyes. If that happens (and I know that it won’t), it isn’t going to matter.

The ninth thing I’m going to do is show him the gator.

Only as a last resort. Or maybe if the dinner is going perfect, but more likely if it isn’t. I’ll tell him I’ve got something incredible to show him. We’ll walk back to my aunt’s apartment complex, shadowed by the hurricane trees, forced to walk close together because the sidewalks here are too narrow. We’ll be quiet, mostly, but that will be alright.

Our pants will be soaked from walking through the wet grass, but it won’t matter. The dark will have banished the bugs from the alligator’s corpse. Up close for the first time, I’ll realize how massive he was. Nine feet. Maybe ten. I’ll feel the confidence swelling again. I’ll grin knowingly to let Brandon know it was me.

He won’t think it was cruel. He might think it’s unusual. In his defense, it kind of is. Considering it, he’ll realize that any asshole can shoot a helpless deer with a gun. Plenty of assholes do. I am not an asshole. I have bested eighty-five million years of evolution through cunning and caveman ferocity. I am a badass motherfucker, and before I can stop myself, I’ll blurt this out:

You wanna do something special?

It will feel like forever as we stand there in the dark. It will only be for a second. Because it’s been such a good night, he’ll say for sure and my heart will start beating again.

I’ll tell him the tenth thing. He’ll laugh at first, because he’ll think I’m joking. Then he’ll realize I’m deadly serious and he’ll want to tell me I’m crazy. But because I’ve killed an alligator, because I’m standing so tall and poised, he’ll say fuck it. You’re wild. Whatever, let’s do it.

We’ll tear the tarp off the love it or leave it pickup truck. We’ll spread it out on the grass and roll the gator onto it, not thinking about how cold he feels, not looking at the bolt sticking out of his head. We’ll pick up the corners and carry him. Brandon will do most of the work but I’ll hold my own—drawing on reserves of strength I didn’t know I had until today.

It will take us longer to get there than we think. That’s a good thing, because it’ll mean fewer cars on the road who might see us.

The church will still be lit up. Leviticus will still be tattooed onto the sign out front. We’ll heave and grunt and strain but we will get the alligator up concrete steps. We’ll roll it out in front of the doorway, belly-up, tail hanging limply off the edge and in the bushes.

We’ll both be sweaty, both be panting. We’ll look at each other like yes, we just did that.

The eleventh thing I’ll do after killing an alligator is have my first kiss. I won’t be great at it, but that’s alright. There won’t be fireworks or a happily-ever-after but things will start improving from that point on.

Maybe that counts for more.

And all I have to do is kill the alligator.

Gordon Brown


Gordon Brown grew up in the deserts of Syria and now lives in the deserts of Nevada. Since his arrival in the New World his work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, F(r)iction Online, Nightscript, and Tales to Terrify. He spends his time writing feverishly and looking after his cats, of which he has none.

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I picked up a boy in Greenwich Village once. This was in the Nineteen-fifties, when I was maybe twenty-two. So you’ve probably figured out that I’m past eighty now and isn’t it amazing that I still remember this kid: skinny and short and fragile and young. Now, I see that I was a kid myself, but he was maybe sixteen and, me being twenty-two, I felt as old as his father.

I don’t suppose he was homeless at that age. Now that I think of it, there weren’t any homeless in New York City back then. That’s how long ago this was. Anyway, he was too warmly dressed and his hair was neatly combed but he had an air of not belonging anywhere. He floated after me when I smiled as I passed. He had just been standing on a corner, apparently waiting for anyone to smile and, when he caught up with me, I stopped and said, “Hello.” He shrugged when I asked if he wanted to come home with me so I didn’t know if the answer was yes or no but he followed me to the subway and, although he didn’t start any conversation, he responded to anything I asked. I liked feeling older and stronger and, in the Fifties, when you got that secret look from somebody, even slightly cute, you invited him home before the night got too late and there would be nobody left for you to invite. Things were more difficult then and you couldn’t afford to be choosy.

I don’t know that he found me attractive but I was just getting to be successful at work and maybe he got the vibes of masculinity and power I was trying to transmit. All my life, I had been groomed to be a concert pianist by my mother and all my life, the kids on the block had called me a fairy—years before I knew that I was—and all my life, I felt exactly like this kid looked, aimless and lost. Once I found out that I was indeed a fairy—I always wondered how they had known—I blamed my mother and the piano.

She loved the delicacy in my fingers, the sweet, dreamy expression on my face, the romance in the music, the way her little old lady friends called me an angel. An angel is close to a fairy, I figured.

When I got a job as an assistant at a classical music record company, I gave up dreams of a concert career, to my mother’s dismay, and took to striding the halls with memos, barking at suppliers over the phone, so pretty soon everybody in the office recognized that I was on the move and it didn’t take long for Nate Gelfand, the company’s top salesman, to spot me also.

Nate was tall and handsome, in his early thirties. Football player’s build. Broad shoulders. Thick thighs. A real sharp shooter in the way that he dressed, known for his way with the ladies and I could understand why. Water cooler gossip had it that he kept a suite at the Prince George Hotel, across the street from the office and, if you were a pretty secretary and he invited you to lunch, you were sure to end up there.

Nate was as different as could be from the founders of the company, Mr. Spiegelman, the president, and Dr. Schmitt, Head of the Music Department. Both were Hungarian refugees, with heavy accents, musicologists, astonished that they had made such a success out of their esoteric training, scared that one wrong decision could make it all disappear. Nate was a New York City kid through and through, but also Hungarian, which had given him a foot up in the firm. He had started in the Shipping Room, but when the founders discovered that he could speak their language and was full of confidence and American know-how, they moved him up pretty quickly. Don’t forget, the U.S. economy was on fire in the Fifties, especially in the record business. LPs had just been introduced, stereo was right around the corner. Elvis Presley had become a star and was selling more discs than anyone had ever dreamed about. Even in classical music, Van Cliburn had won the Moscow competition so everybody wanted to hear Tchaikovsky. There were constant crises. Decisions had to be made on the fly. Opportunities abounded for a guy with balls like fast-talking Nate, who knew exactly where he was going and how he was going to get there.

This kid I had picked up transmitted exactly the opposite vibes. He seemed to be available to be picked up by anyone, to go in any direction. He wasn’t a hustler. He didn’t ask for money and when I inquired if he expected any, he shrugged once again so I didn’t know if he had answered yes or no, but I figured if he was a pro he would have made it clear.

And if he had, I would have paid, provided I could have haggled him down to my price, which wasn’t anything specific, just lower than what he wanted so I could make sure he understood I was in charge. That was the way I had learned to deal with suppliers at work, which was one of the reasons Nate liked me. I had only recently muscled my boss out of his job and taken over as head of the whole Purchasing Department and my stupid fuck of a boss didn’t even realize I had outmaneuvered him. On his last day, as my boss was clearing his desk, he wished me well and said he hoped the same thing didn’t happen to me as had happened to him, since the Head of Purchasing got blamed for everything. In this case, he said, the Handel Messiah album which should have been a smash, wasn’t and Nate blamed him because the die-cut covers came in late and the albums shipped after Christmas deadlines. But I knew that such a goof would never happen on my watch, the way I pushed the suppliers around, and, even if it did, the first thing I intended to do was hire a girl for my assistant, not a guy, since I knew that Nate would never let a girl run the department after he had taken her to the Prince George Hotel!

We ended up on the subway, the kid and I. I lived in Queens at the time—still on my assistant’s salary but already planning a move to Manhattan as soon as my Head of the Department’s paycheck kicked in. It was a long trip from the Village but he didn’t complain and didn’t tell me where he lived so I had no idea how long the trip would be for him to get home but maybe, I figured in dismay, he was planning to spend the night.

I wondered whether his parents might miss him. It was probably nuts of me to get involved with such a waif but I sensed no danger and my instincts have always been pretty good. I’d never been robbed or beaten and I’d been picking up boys off the street for a long, long time. That was the way we did it in the Fifties.

I told him I was Head of Purchasing for a record company—although I didn’t name the company, just as a precaution, and had to get to work early the following day, so he could get the message about going home, and he responded by singing the entire score of his high school senior musical all the way to my house on the subway. I suppose he thought I would discover him and get him a recording contract since I hadn’t specified that I worked for a classical record company and he probably didn’t know there was such a thing as classical music.

All of a sudden, I was overwhelmingly attracted to him. He wasn’t my type—so fey and withdrawn. I usually don’t go for chickens. I go for guys on the move, in suits and ties, with butch crew cuts. Top guys. This kid was too skinny and he had tiny hands and feet. He was very fem when he started talking. On the corner, he had looked like a juvenile delinquent, baseball cap backwards, sneakers untied, with the sullen expression, the slouch down pat. He just stood there, knowing the look would work, and not responding was all part of the act. Then when he got around to giggling, his fluttering hands gave him away. Maybe he was used to guys approaching because of the JD image and then moving on when he started to talk. Maybe that’s why he didn’t say much until he started to sing.

What the hell was I doing, I wondered, slightly embarrassed but charmed all the same. There weren’t too many others on the subway and, besides, the roaring train made so much noise I don’t imagine he could be heard except by me. But, every now and then, the train slid into a station and he kept singing out like Judy Garland. No shame whatsoever. People stared but he didn’t seem to give a damn. He didn’t even have a good voice but how could you resist his hunger to be heard?

This was ridiculous. I was getting the hots for him right then and there—for this child! I had always been the fem bottom and this baby could be a little thief. He could be a junkie. No, I thought, the complexion was clear and, what with the intakes of breath, even ruddy. On the street corner, he had sent out a sense of sexy danger. Singing, he radiated health and youth. And need. He opened his mouth to sing and I was afraid that the cold subway air would rush in and drown him. The noise would overwhelm him. With every note, he had to fight back the fates to get out a sound. But he did.

I was probably pretty lost and needy myself that night. And scared. After all, I had just taken over the big job and, much as I had scoffed at my boss, there was always the chance that Nate could turn on me next time an album bombed. Gossip was he immediately dumped every girl he screwed. I knew I was going to have to work my tail off and make no mistakes and kiss everybody’s ass and always be aware of the next up-and-comer, like me, who might have attracted Nate’s attention and then he would push him for a big job, maybe mine. Nate, office gossip had it, liked to have people in key positions who owed him.

When he had finished singing, the kid asked how I had managed to land a job like that. He would love to work for a record company, he sighed. It was the first time he had asked anything or expressed anything directly so I told him the story about the Handel Messiah as we rattled out of Manhattan and over the Queensboro Bridge, the dark night blanketing the windows so when we went aboveground it seemed even darker than it had been in the tunnel.

I told him how my boss was always frantic, waving papers around like a maniac. Rumor had it that at Executive Meetings, when Spiegelman or Schmitt or Nate asked him a question, the papers would fly, his hair would shed dandruff, he stuttered and apologized, driving everybody crazy and making any crisis worse than it seemed. That was the reason Nate decided to get rid of him once he had laid eyes upon me.

I didn’t tell the kid how I had fluttered my lashes back and Nate liked it. I don’t know that he knew but I knew and, of course, he couldn’t take me to the Prince George Hotel. This was the Fifties when everybody was scared.

I loved the way the kid was listening to me so I just kept talking, even though I had been told by my shitty ex-lover, Rudy, that I talked too much, revealed too much of myself before sex, analyzed too much after. Some guys, maybe, appreciated the intellectual approach, but not Rudy, who I was so in love with at the time that I wept for days afterward. This was before I had gotten the new job. It was then I decided that I didn’t want to be a concert pianist any more, didn’t want to be so fragile and sensitive that a bulldozer like Rudy could destroy my life.

I remember my last night with Rudy at a bar and I thought things were going well. He was my first long-term lover and we had been together nearly three months when all of a sudden, that awful night, he took off and left me with the check and this bitchy piece of advice about talking too much.

I decided, after days of weeping, that it was time to change if I wanted to get what I wanted out of life. First and foremost, I had to learn to shut up and start acting like a man, so I got the new job and started pounding out orders on the typewriter like I had never done at the piano.

The kid was absolutely agog. You could see that he had never worked in an office. He was fascinated by the goings on and he probably figured I was doing something really important, like negotiating an end to the Korean War, so I took him home and fucked him and the very next day, over the phone, I dumped him like he was a pretty secretary and I was superstud Nate.

Edward M. Cohen


Edward M. Cohen's story collection, "Before Stonewall," won the Awst Press Book Award and was published in June, 2021. His novel, "$250,000," was published by G.P. Putnam's Sons; his novella, "A Visit to My Father with my Son," by Running Wild Press; his chapbook, "Grim Gay Tales," by Fjords Review.

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“The police found drugs in his room.” In second grade, this is how your friend Emily tells you about her dad’s heroin overdose. “He’s in the hospital right now.” She tells you this casually as you walk in line to the gymnasium, where you’ll stand on stage and sing to all your parents, minus her dad. You’ve been chosen to be the line leader, so Emily’s behind you and you can’t see her face, can’t tell if her chin is trembling or she’s looking at her shoes or staring at the back of your head. On stage, you stand next to her and hold her hand as you sing. You scan the crowd for your mother and finally find her standing at the back, disposable camera in hand. She was late, like usual, and no seats were left. The parents in the front row beam at their children. You can smell their perfume.

A week later, on Halloween, all the kids come in wearing their costumes. Emily is wearing a big bunny suit, white and fuzzy. Her nose is painted pink and she has black lines drawn on for whiskers. When everyone is lining up for the parade, Emily stays in her seat. You ask her what’s wrong, and when she looks up at you she has tears staining her face, the whiskers dripping black lines down her cheeks. She tells you her dad crashed his truck last night. “Is he in the hospital again?” you ask. “No,” she says. “He died.” You’re not sure what to say or do, and all you can think about as you watch her is how that morning, someone still got her dressed in that costume, lovingly applied her makeup, tried to make life normal for her.

This is the same friend who once asked you to pull down your underwear as you jumped on an old mattress in the duplex where somebody (was it your dad?) punched a hole in the wall. Sometimes you and Emily put your eyes to that hole, looked through to the other side, to other people’s lives.

In fourth grade, the principal comes to your classroom and tells everyone to sit in a circle on the rug, and then he tells the class that your teacher has died. Mrs. Dickman. Kids sometimes made fun of her name; you’d like to think that you didn’t, but you probably did too. In your memory, the principal tells the class that Mrs. Dickman was murdered by her husband. But now you wonder if he really said that. Why would the principal tell a group of ten-year-olds the cause of their teacher’s death? Why name the perpetrator? Why make it murder at all? Why not just lie and say, “She passed peacefully in her sleep after a long illness”?

There is an electric sadness in the air when you plod down the catwalk after being let out of school early that day. A freckle-faced red-headed girl who smells like Band-Aids tells you that Mrs. Dickman’s husband murdered her in a jealous rage because he suspected she was cheating on him. Much later, you’ll write a story about this and mention that the husband killed her by strangling her with a pair of her own panty hose. It’s a detail you’ll think you remembered from that day but really probably made up for the story. You’ll wonder if it’s wrong to take other people’s stories and change them, if you’re making them more true or less, if they’re even your stories to tell.

The night before Halloween when you are eleven years old, while other kids are out egging houses and toilet-papering trees, you are sitting on your dad’s ripped recliner being told the news that your grandmother has died of a heart attack. You immediately explode in body-wracking sobs while simultaneously wondering at the effortlessness of this, this falling into grief as into a ravine that suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

You still go trick-or-treating the next night, but you come home early and sit on the front steps and cry. You watch the other kids walking by, laughing, popping bite-sized Snickers into their mouths as if as if death doesn’t exist. You are dressed as a clown, the last costume your mother will ever sew for you because after this you’ll tell her that you want to get a costume at the mall and then you’ll stop wearing costumes altogether. You are suddenly aware of how strange you must look, with your floppy shoes, your curly orange wig, your red nose, the white makeup and red mouth drawn artificially upward in a smile while you sit sobbing on your stoop. But no one seems to notice. You think about your friend Emily who moved away last year, want to ask her if the knot in your stomach will ever go away, if she is okay, if you’ll be okay too. When you wipe away your tears the makeup comes off and it looks like cupcake icing and just a little bit of blood.

The boy who has liked you since elementary school comes to the door in spring, the scraggly forsythia vibrant against dead grass, a crocus not quite pushing its way out between cracks in the sidewalk. The flower he bears in his cuticle-bitten hands is fully bloomed, though: It’s a blue plastic rose, the kind you see in QuickChek by the cash register when your dad’s buying lottery tickets. As the boy stands in the doorway, you become painfully aware of your breast buds poking cross-eyed through the thin material of your oversized T-shirt, and you wish you hadn’t taken off your training bra after school. In the background, a new video comes on MTV, Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You.” You feel your face prickle, flush at the unbearable awkwardness of this song playing while you stand in the doorway with this boy who might want to kiss you but who instead just hands you the blue rose while you stand mute, too embarrassed to even say “Thank you.”

This boy will grow up and crash his motorcycle at thirty, and after a week in a coma, will die in a hospital an hour from your hometown. When you hear the news, you will search for the blue rose because you know you kept it, you will search and search and search but never find it.

In seventh grade you walk home every day with the neighbor who you’ve decided is not your friend. Her name is Daisy and she has a pale doughy face scattered with freckles, wide-set green eyes, a gap between her teeth, and backyard chickens well before it was hip. You meet her by the rusty-chained tire swing stuffed with dead leaves, then you amble home in dusty yellow light, past square houses with birdfeeders and barn-shaped mailboxes, past neon letters in tanning salon windows, past the frothy white glow of a small bridal shop, women inside with big hair and long red fingernails eyeing you both with your knotted ponytails and chewed cuticles and saying, “Oh those poor babies.”You are silent the whole walk, and in your silence you hope those women in the shop windows can see how deeply you resent being grouped with Daisy, how very much you are not the same. When you get to Daisy’s house, she drawls her soft “Goodbye”and disappears behind a high wooden fence.

On her birthday, she brings cupcakes to class. Homemade, she says. She hands them out, placing them gingerly in front of each of her classmates on their desks. The cupcake is rich dark chocolate and looks delicious, but when Daisy gets back to her seat, the whispers start. Someone says the cupcakes have chicken shit in them. There are whispers and groans, giggles and gags. Word gets to you and you have only partially taken the wrapper off the cupcake. You put it down. Then the first kid gets up and throws their cupcake away, making sure Daisy knows it. One by one, the rest of the kids throw theirs away too, and finally, not wanting to be the only one who ate chicken shit, you get up and do it too, avoiding eye contact with Daisy, your mouth watering still. While the teacher grades quizzes at her desk, oblivious, Daisy stares down into her cupcake for a long time and then gets up, slowly walks to the trash can, and throws her own cupcake away.

Daisy doesn’t walk home with you that day, or the next, or the next. Her mom comes to pick her up every day, and as the weeks go on you wonder if that’s why she seems to be gaining weight, why her belly seems to be growing so much that by the spring, when she stands behind you in chorus, you can almost feel it brushing your back while her soft drawl drifts past your ears. She leaves before the end of the school year. The story is that her stepdad got her pregnant, so the mother took her down to Mississippi, a word you all tried so hard to learn to spell when you were younger, Daisy and you and all the others, reciting it over and over again in front of class, in sing-song voices so you’d never forget.

At fourteen, you and a friend sit on the hood of a broken-down car in the empty parking lot behind your house. Because you are bored and there’s nothing to do in this do-nothing town, and because your mom just hauled in five big boxes of food from the church’s food pantry, you and your friend take turns hurling jars of spaghetti sauce into the parking lot. You watch the heavy glass jar sail through the air and then explode onto the asphalt with a crack and splatter of red. You laugh every time, though your arm starts to hurt and the laughter starts to feel forced by the final one.

Later, your mom yells at you for wasting food, making a mess. “What if someone cuts themselves on the glass?” she cries. You hadn’t thought of that, hadn’t really been thinking about anyone else at all. She makes you clean it up in the dark, turning on the headlights of her car so you can see. You hear her and your dad talking on the deck. Your dad shrugs and says, “At least they’re not doing drugs. Throwing jars of spaghetti sauce isn’t so bad when it comes to teenage behavior.”

Your group of friends goes to camp the summer before high school begins. They don’t ask you to come because, they tell you, they know you would not be able to afford it and don’t want to make you feel bad. That’s the summer you learn how to steal. It starts with packs of gum from QuickChek, so much gum you don’t know what to do with. Then it moves on to makeup. Concealer, eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick, only the dark shades.

At the A&P, your mom is buying eggs or milk or whatever necessity you’ve run out of. You lag behind, end up in the makeup aisle. Stealthily, you think, you slip some lipstick into your pocket. In the checkout, a man comes and stands beside the bags. Before you leave, he asks you to stop and empty your pockets. You hand over the tube of lipstick, a deep purple. He holds the slender cylinder in his meaty hand and leans down to you. His eyes are bloodshot. “I’m gonna let you go,” he says, “because it’s my birthday.” His breath smells like alcohol, like your dad’s breath does sometimes. You feel like you should say “Happy birthday” to him, but you keep silent, your eyes on the floor. They stay glued to the floor the whole way home, and when you get there your mother cuts the engine and turns around to look at you. You’re sitting in the back seat like a cop car. When you look up, you’re surprised to see her eyes filled with tears. You’re the one who’s supposed to be crying. You’re the one who got in trouble. “Why didn’t you just ask me?” she says. “I could have gotten you that lipstick.” You think she is probably lying, but you know she wants it to be true, so you nod as if you believe her.

The next year, the landlord decides to expand the parking lot to accommodate visitors to the strip mall, so they pave over the rest of your small yard, where you used to run in the sprinkler and play in a plastic kiddie pool and cut worms in half to watch them squirm and hold buttercups to your mother’s chin to see if she liked butter. The only plant in the yard is the gangly forsythia, a gift from your grandmother before she died, planted when you first moved here when you were five. While they’re busy tearing it all up, your mother, your quiet-voiced mother, watches from the window, sobbing, screaming through the screen, “You bastards! You fucking bastards!” They can’t hear her, of course, over the sound of the bulldozer.

At seventeen, you get a job as a waitress in a diner that looks like an old-timey train car. On the morning of your second day on the job, your mother takes you to the doctor. You sit on the crinkly paper of the bed while the doctor asks you, “Do you think you might be pregnant?” You do not look at your mother. You cannot bring yourself to say the word “Yes,” so you just nod and start crying.

A few hours later, your mother drops you at work. The older waitress mentoring you is quick and nervous like a Chihuahua. “Hurry,” she says. “Smile. Are you wearing your pink lipstick? You must wear your pink lipstick or Janice will have your ass.” Janice is the manager, a woman in her sixties with bleach-blonde feathered hair, leathery skin, and hot pink lipstick smeared all around her lips.

Your mother calls the diner to check on you. Tom, the cook, answers the phone and glares at you as he hands over the receiver. As you talk to your mom, Tom watches from the kitchen. He has corpse-like skin, long black hair that he does not keep tied back, and a plunging widow’s peak, like a vampire. You try to get off the phone quickly, but Janice spots you. She stalks over, grabs the receiver from your hand, and slams it down. “No personal calls!” She studies your face. “You’re not even wearing pink lipstick! Just go home.”

Your dad picks you up. On the way home, he stops at the roadside ice cream stand that’s been there for years, probably since he was a kid, with picnic tables out back and a big field you remember running through once a long time ago. You order vanilla soft serve with rainbow sprinkles like you did when you were little, and your dad orders a large chocolate. You eat your ice creams in silence, sitting side by side on a bench. Your dad looks over at you only once with sad eyes, seems to consider putting his arm around you, but doesn’t. Mostly you both stare straight ahead at the large open expanse of green field in front of you, the line of trees at the end, the darkness of the woods beyond.

Jacqueline Vogtman


Jacqueline Vogtman's fiction has appeared in Copper Nickel, Kestrel, The Literary Review, Sierra Nevada Review, Smokelong Quarterly, and other journals. Born into a large working-class family, she worked a variety of jobs including cleaning churches and proofreading greeting cards before receiving her MFA from Bowling Green State University. She is currently Associate Professor of English at Mercer County Community College, where she teaches Composition and Literature, edits the local literary magazine Kelsey Review, and co-advises the student creative writing club. She has lived in New Jersey most of her life and currently resides in a small town surrounded by wildlife, which she explores with her husband, daughter, and dog.

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One summer day before seventh grade, the sky over my street rained doll Jesuses. Cassie, Tia, and I were playing Salem Witch Trials when we heard the first thunks of cloth bodies slamming into earth. We were sheltered beneath the burly limbs of a massive oak, me bound to that oak’s trunk by a neon-green jump rope. Over our heads, the oak’s limbs shivered. Outside the oak’s shelter, Jesuses battered the roof of Cassie’s mom’s SUV, smacked mailboxes, and felled one of the aluminum sunflowers staked in Cassie’s yard, striking the flower on its big, knobby head.

For a few seconds, Tia stared at me wide-eyed.

When we played Salem Witch Trials, I was always the witch; Cassie the prosecutor, defense lawyer, and judge; and Tia, the shrieking, finger-pointing public. As in real life, Cassie was impartial—sometimes determining me guilty, sometimes innocent. Tia, however, believed there was something essentially wrong about me.

One of my crimes: I’d been the first among us to develop breasts. What’s more, my breasts didn’t look “natural,” according to Tia. They were too big, too poufy. She eyed my breasts as if the devil himself had inflated them with his lips.

When the Jesus rain stopped, Tia seemed to forget me, though. She ran around scooping the Jesuses, like the innards of a colossal pinata, into the belly of her T-shirt.

Cassie untied me, and we joined in.

It was too late for some of the Jesuses. Cars had run them over. Birds had shat on them. Some had drowned in the creek that ran through the woods behind our houses. Eli Ellerman, who lived next door to Cassie, tied firecrackers to Jesuses and blew them to bits.

But there were still plenty of untarnished Jesuses. When our T-shirts wouldn’t hold any more, we switched to black plastic garbage bags we found in Cassie’s dad’s shed, shaking the bags out until they ballooned. Although none of us said as much, we all understood we were in competition to see who would collect the most.

I didn’t win (Tia gloated as much as you might imagine), but forty-one Jesuses was a sweet loot.

About the length of a hand and stuffed with cotton batting, the Jesuses smelled of hay and black licorice. Beneath their robes, they were anatomically correct, which made my mother blush when I brought them home. She said, “I don’t think these are appropriate for a young girl.”

I said, “You want me to throw Jesus into the trash?”

My mother sighed and resumed painting her little poodle dog Honey’s claws blue.

As I unloaded my Jesuses, I inspected them carefully for dirt and bugs—combed through their long hair with my fingers, shook out the folds of their beige robes. After, I assembled the Jesuses onto my bed.

When we’d learned in school about parthenogenesis, how some female insects, and even lizards, can reproduce without males, in effect making copies of themselves, I’d said, “Like Mary giving birth to Jesus?” Our teacher had frowned. She’d said, “No,” but the expression on her face after made me think she wasn’t so sure.

Later, Tia said that if anyone was a copy of their mother, it was me. She took to calling me Haploid. I ignored her, but I wondered, too. I’d never met my father. According to my mother, he died before I was born. Also, it was true I looked very much like my mother, right down to her enormous breasts.

My neighborhood was on the news that night. Speculation about the Jesuses’ origins ran the gamut, but I didn’t care where they’d come from.

That night, in the amber glow of the nightlight, I reached for the Jesuses one by one, pushing them underneath the covers and arranging them over my body, like leeches, starting at my toes. I buried myself beneath my forty-one lovers until only my nose and mouth remained uncovered. Then I closed my eyes and felt all those Jesuses’ penises turning to stone.

I was a naïve twelve-year-old. The closest my mother ever broached the topic of sex was when she took her poodle dog, Honey, to get spayed. When I asked what that meant, my mother said, “So she won’t go into heat and get a belly full of furballs.”

What I knew I’d learned from other kids. I was spotty on the details.

The idea of forty-one penises turning to stone against my skin didn’t frighten me. On the contrary. I imagined I was lying alongside the bed of the creek behind our houses. With my eyes closed, I could hear the trickling of the water along those polished rocks. I could smell the almost sweet odor of minerals and decay. I was not cold because of all the warm bodies pressing against me.

That’s how I fell asleep night after night until one morning my mother came into my bedroom and saw the Jesuses pressed against my cheeks and all those lumps beneath my covers and said I was a little freak.

She left and returned with the kitchen wastebasket. Honey trailed behind her.

“In they go,” my mother said, “Every last one.”

When I didn’t move, my mother bent and snatched a Jesus from my pillow. She dropped it into the wastebasket on top of a clump of cold, murdered spaghetti.

Honey barked. She bared her weird, little teeth, which reminded me of Tia.

When my mother reached for the Jesus pressed against my cheek, I turned my head and clamped my mouth on that Jesus’s feet. My mother tugged on the Jesus’s head. I tugged back. When Jesus’s head popped off his body, my mother fell backward onto the floor.

I studied my wide-eyed mother in her fuzzy night gown. It was a pale baby blue, the same color as the polish she’d applied to Honey’s claws. Little pearl-like buttons marched up my mother’s sternum, between her pillowy breasts. Besides her flushed face, only the ruddy, rubbery skin of her arms was exposed. I had the strange sense that if one of us had made the other then it was I who had made my mother—shaping her from a mound of pungent, earthen dough.

Michelle Ross


Michelle Ross is the author of three story collections: There's So Much They Haven't Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award; Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award; and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (forthcoming in 2022). Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, Witness, and many other venues. Her work is included in Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, the Wigleaf Top 50, and other anthologies. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review.

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I do my bid and come home and call my celly to kick it. I scoop him up that night and ask how he’s been. He blows his smoke out the window and snaps the butt away, hard. I nod. He asks how I’m sleeping.

I say, How? Which how?

He says he sleeps in a panic. He thinks somebody’s been hiding in our cell. You mean your room, I say. No. He’s firm. In our cell. Sometimes he’ll see somebody there but when he checks, there’s no one.

That’s good, I tell him. And he goes, You think that’s better?

In my mind, I’m driving pretty normal. I’m checking the speed limit signs, using peripheral vision. I feel like I’m holding the wheel very straight.

He inspects the cell, he says, to check if something has changed. I go, Changed? He says, Yeah. While we were sleeping.

I say, Has it? He says, For sure. I go, Like what?

Sometimes the day stretches on like he’s still in the dream. But it keeps changing, he says. He can’t feel the floor. Like when he’s standing. It keeps shifting. He says it’s not there.

I stop at a red light and he stops talking. I listen to the ticking of the traffic light, counting back to green. I get the feeling I should watch what I say. I roll up the windows and seal us both in. I hear the glass sucked into the rubber.

Fool, I say, laughing. You need to chill. Go do some yoga or something.

With the windows rolled up, I feel the car more as I drive—the mass of it I’m steering with this wheel. But the longer I go, the more I feel somebody else is there too, like I’ve been driving this other person around.

Just the other night, they bussed me back to L.A. I processed out, walking those halls like the world owed me money. I changed into my clothes, grabbed my personals, and popped that last door—I pushed the bar with my own two hands—and there I was, back in the streets. Like nothing had happened.

I thought, I could do another four if I had to.

I walked those blocks around the Towers to feel my legs. I smelled the sidewalk smells. It had to be midnight or later, but the sky had turned purple, the black shapes of palm trees burned against it. I remember. It looked “so tall.”

I passed the shops of the strip malls, all closed but the bondsman’s, and, through the black windows, the curls of unlit neon tubes for Colt .45, CHECKS CASHED, and OPEN. I thought a lot could change in four years. I thought there’d be—not hoverboards or flying cars but—something.

I kept walking, looking for a sign of the years that had passed, but no matter how I turned at the corners, I could feel the Towers behind me, waiting.

Have a smoothie, I say. Drink more water.

I’m blinking through the oncoming headlights. They get so close and then they’re slipping by, harmless. I’m blowing through fireflies. I’m steering correctly.

Touch some trees, I say. You should get more sun.

Yeah. That’s all he keeps saying. Yeah.

Swear to God, I tell him. Stop thinking so much.

It’s the easiest thing in the world—to be here. All you’d have to do is be here.

Take a walk or something. Go for a drive.

I lift a hand and adjust the rearview mirror. I sweep it, slowly, back and forth.

Steve Chang


Steve Chang is from the San Gabriel Valley, California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, J Journal, The Normal School, Wigleaf and elsewhere. He is an associate fiction editor at Okay Donkey.

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They fell in love like thistle weeds. Like baneberries. Like calamus. And they imagined that their bodies were like a mud river whispering in the night as it slipped past. Like someone had drowned there and was forever bobbing in the current. And often they held hands and kissed and gripped each other and refused to let go. And their hands were pennyworts and checkerberries. And their hands were an offering of feverfew and skullcaps and bittersweets. And at night when they shared a bed, they were reminded of frostweed and darting bats and albino moons. And sometimes they believed that their breaths were occultations, that their hands were transforming into blossoms and claws. And the lovers fought some nights like chorus frogs or starving dogs. And they were as silent other times as the pale and translucent skin of the stars. And come morning, they hissed at each other like snakes and held each other like epileptic grass twitching in the wind. And when they were together, that wind howled and the carrion flies hovered. And when they were apart, the sky was a dim cloth and their memories were brackishly alluring ponds. And then, come winter, the snow fell around them like pale ash.

Doug Ramspeck


Doug Ramspeck is the author of eight poetry collections, one collection of short stories, and a novella. His story collection, The Owl That Carries Us Away, received the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize. Individual stories have appeared in journals that include The Southern Review, Iowa Review, Southwest Review, and The Georgia Review. His short fiction, Balloon,” was listed as a Distinguished Story by The Best American Short Stories. He is a three-time recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award.

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You like to take walks in your busy neighborhood, and it’s your habit to take in whatever appears in your field of vision. A certain young man has crossed your path three times in the past week, enough to make you think you could see him again. He’s on your mind today as you look right and left and gaze ahead at intersections. He recently attended a reading of your story, “Perimeter,” and afterward approached you and gave you a contemptuous look. He didn’t say a word, only stared at you as if he thought he should put a stop to what you were doing. To him, your work seemed to reflect disturbing characteristics in you that should not be welcome in the world.

It’s a quiet day on the street, sunshine, take a breath, what’s the problem? Then you see him nearing or think you do. Is your mind playing tricks on you? You go into a bookstore and pretend to browse the magazine section, but after several minutes you don’t see him pass. Outside you resume your course, and there he is. I thought that was you, he says. Were you avoiding me? You want to know how long he’s been watching you. Is he familiar with your routes and therefore able to create the illusion of a chance encounter? He looks straight at you, waiting. You don’t answer him, don’t ask any questions, though you wonder why he has shown himself if he was following you. His contempt begins to show, and he gives you a sniff and walks by you.

You have no doubt he’s been following you. He wanted to get deeper inside your head by confronting you with it, you conclude, and you can’t suppress the idea that he has some intent to do something about you. You could have asked him if he lives nearby, and if you knew his name you could try to look him up and find out where he lives. It comes to you that he could know where you live and you imagine him lurking in your apartment.

You mutter inwardly as you walk, and not until you’re entering your door code do you realize you’ve reversed course and returned to your familiar environment. You take the elevator up, unlock your door, and step inside. It angers you that you can’t look up his address, and your anger puts you in what you imagine is his apartment, rifling through his things for an object to take and enjoying the chaos you’re creating. You go to his refrigerator and remove his mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, and salad dressing and empty the jars and bottles all over his furniture. You pursue your mission with a vengeance until a shiver runs through you when you see him open his door. He sees you and gives you a look that says he knew you were capable of this behavior.

You sit on your sofa, breathing heavily, the look on his face staying with you. You have revealed yourself to him, this out-of-control anger, this desire to create suffering. Don’t turn against yourself, these images are only a part of your thoughts, triggered by you but also by his sudden appearance in front of you. What was he doing there? Has he followed you back to your apartment? Should you look out your window? Don’t be afraid to assume ill intentions on his part; you can’t believe he has none.

You go to the window and peer down. Far up the street you see a man leaning in the recess of a doorway. He turns his head and looks toward you as if his eyes are meeting yours. You stare intently at his shape and become convinced it is him. Why would he be there if he’s not waiting or watching for someone?

In your mind you leave the window and rush out the door and through traffic. He peeks out, and before he can get away you’re in front of him. What are you doing here? you ask. I live here, he replies. The door opens behind him and a woman you assume is a resident comes through it. Does he live here? you ask her, pointing at him. I’ve never seen him, she says and walks off. He does not contradict her or offer his identification to prove his address. You ask him for it, wanting to get his name into the bargain. Stop, he says. Stop what? you ask. People like you, he says, with your self-centered torment. You go on and on and never stop. Standing at your window, you no longer see him. You return to your seat, and though you crave an end to his antagonism you repeat his words.

He doesn’t show himself for almost a week and you don’t know whether to feel relieved or on edge at the prospect that he’s grown more furtive. And one day on your way back from the grocery store, your hands full of reusable bags, you see him across the street. You stop, and he grins at you, your sense of danger seeming to feed his grin. You get your feet moving, and he watches you walk away. You get to your apartment, your bags growing heavy, not looking behind you before entering the building, and when the outside door slams shut you let out a sigh. You notice on the elevator how much you’re sweating. You put your groceries away, moving too fast, banging cabinet doors, knocking things down in the refrigerator. You go to the sofa and sit and cover your face, but you know you cannot hide.

Glen Pourciau


Glen Pourciau's third story collection, Getaway, was published in September by Four Way Books. His stories have been published by AGNI Online, failbetter, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, New World Writing, The Paris Review, Post Road, The Rupture, and others.

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At breakfast last week with a couple of friends I almost said what I thought of a story one of them was telling. It had to do with him running into a guy who said something disparaging about him that he thought was uncalled for. I decided to let the story pass without comment, but I kept repeating to myself what I would have said if I’d spoken and imagining what he would have said back to me. My other friend at the table said nothing out loud, though I could see in his face that the way the story was told bothered him. Both of us may have been waiting for the other to speak or taking the other’s silence as evidence that it was best to let the story stand without a word against it, its limited perspective apparent to us without coming out with it. At least one of us, me, had an underlying assumption in my silence that our friend would not change his viewpoint no matter what we said.

Today the three of us met again for breakfast and the guy brought up the same story. I won’t say the storyteller’s name, because he wouldn’t like me putting him in the position of having his credibility questioned without giving him an opportunity to speak for himself and defend, or at least clarify, his viewpoint. I don’t want to include my name or my other friend’s name since our names could be used to connect the story to the storyteller. I also don’t want to tell the name of the person who said something supposedly uncalled for or to repeat what he said. I’m not telling anything about the surrounding circumstances or the other people involved because if I did the story could be traced back to him by certain people, and I can’t see putting him at risk of being judged when he has no voice in the story except through my friend and then through me, the two of us no doubt coloring his words with our own thoughts.

Anyway, my unnamed friend brought up the story again because he happened to run into the same guy again. This time he said he didn’t feel up to talking with him, but the guy persisted, arguing along the same lines as before, feeling aggrieved, my friend said, due to the way he’d been spoken to during their first confrontation. Personally, I agreed more with the other guy’s point of view, though I wasn’t completely unsympathetic to my friend, knowing the other guy was no model of ideal behavior. Still, my friend in his own telling seemed rude and defensive and, based on what I was hearing, answered the guy with even more anger than at their other meeting, perhaps frustrated that his first confrontation had had no effect on the other guy, except to cause him to dig in and argue with greater force. My storytelling friend said it was probably not a coincidence that he ran into this guy twice during the space of a week and that he suspected the guy could have been following him for the sole purpose of picking a fight. I found his suspicion troubling in how it reflected on his view of the other guy and also in how it reflected back on him, specifically his feeling of victimization and his imagining devious intentions at work against him.

I could say some of this to my storytelling friend, but I don’t want to get that far inside his head. In fact, I feel a desire to get his story out of my head and that could be what I’m working toward in putting these words down. If so, it’s not working. The more I involve my mind, the deeper the impression of his story becomes, and I wonder if he’ll become angry at me and my other friend for not voicing our support. If he wasn’t looking for our sympathy and support, why was he telling us the story?

I dread sitting face to face with him and listening to another chapter. I could skip breakfast with him for a while, but he could then suspect me of taking the other guy’s side, so I think I’ll go and risk hearing him continue his tale.

I wish I had less to say and wish I could say more.

Glen Pourciau


Glen Pourciau's third story collection, Getaway, was published in September by Four Way Books. His stories have been published by AGNI Online, failbetter, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, New World Writing, The Paris Review, Post Road, The Rupture, and others.

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In a bloodstream communiqué I am sent word of impending war. Send help. Our color is wrong. Send help. I hear wind from the balcony. The plague is advancing. “I think my father is dying,” I say. “I think my father’s blood is being destroyed.” I receive an empty room in response. I find a photo of my father and recount the moment it depicts. He holds me aloft in a beach setting–his English skin arguing with the sun. My arms are outstretched above him, a vague look of fear on my face. The photograph finds continuation of the frozen moment in my mind. In one motion, my father throws me to the sand with the force one might give to a bag of potting mix they have tired of carrying. I keep staring at the photograph, hoping that doing so long enough will reveal the moment my father picks me up and brushes off the sand, but this does not occur. My hatred for photographs lives in the narratives they convey beyond the moment they freeze.

I turn out the lights by crushing the globes responsible in my hands. You must come sooner than now, continues the communiqué. Broadcasts from my father’s body have been rare since our mother died and when they arrive, they have little to say. What they do say waits for sleepless nights. I lick my front door open and taste the history it holds. The outside is another version of everyday with hues no less ominous than Saturday morning cartoons or microwave countdowns. My mother died so slowly that her death became little more than a reminder that she was once alive. The situation with my father is different and finds demarcation in its urgency. He was fine when we spoke days ago on Father’s Day–no … this is incorrect. He complained of a cold. Something minor. His throat itched and he complained of a general fatigue. After swallowing cold and flu tablets he convinced us, and himself, he was well. Then his muscles began to melt, but did they? He needed assistance to reach the hospital. He complained of backache. The English pink in his skin had been replaced by a yellow not dissimilar to povidone-iodine, like his body had been prepped for an endless playtime of invasive surgery.

I play dominoes with the cab driver when we pause at red lights or mounds of dead cattle. He explains the rules to me, and I explain different rules to him. In this mismatch of order, we intrude upon one another’s patience until he or I or both of us toss the misunderstood dominoes out the window, where they land in a scatter and are collected by hungry children. “Why the hospital?” asks the driver. “Because blood needs me,” I reply. He nods and we arrive and I pay and I get out and he drives away and I stare at the entrance and it does not stare back.

The receptionist regards me with disquiet as I shake him by the shoulders and demand an audience with my father’s blood. He escapes my grip and holds a photo of his children against my throat. I beg him not to do anything and he begs me to let him. We find no common ground and I walk away, attuning my ears to the bloodline communiqué, which leads to my father. There is a wave of something hateful and it pools in our neck, says my father’s blood. I walk toward it, passing doors and corridors like an anxious whisper. Our bladder is dying–our piss is thick and black. The panicked broadcasts lead to a structure removed from the hospital’s body, across a dry field, abandoned among overgrowth. I push against a steel door, emerging into a small room with a smaller bed with the smaller body of my father upon it. At one side of the bed sits my sister, her eyes the burning rash of exhausted tears. On the other side my brother stares downward, refusing to regard anything but scabs on the ground.

“Is he dead?” I ask. “Not technically,” replies my sister. “Not until they remove it.” She points at a box that feeds a tube into my father’s mouth. Every few seconds it performs a dance, which forces his chest to heave. I move toward my father’s face and study the way it has bloated into a caricature of the man from photographs. His eyes are taped shut, but I imagine terror residing inside them and almost motion to tear the tape away to confirm my suspicion. “So, he’s dead,” I say. “Not technically,” replies my sister. My brother keeps staring downward, his foot scraping against something burnt into the ground. We’re not dead, says my father’s blood. But soon. “What do the doctorssay?” I ask. “They werejust waiting for you to get here so they can turn him off,” replies my sister.

I remember a basil plant I purchased from a supermarket. It came housed in a plastic pot and sat on my kitchen counter so it could gorge on morning sun. After the second day its leaves grew depressed. By the fourth day those depressed leaves had met their end and hung like nooses. Then the stems turned to rubber and fell in pathetic coils. I was ready to throw the basil away but was invested in its wellbeing. I planted it in my back garden like a burial. Its roots, for whatever they were still worth, were secure in the ground, but its structure lay upon it dead. I fed it water, but it did not seem to care. I crouched beside it and told it stories, but it still did not seem to care. I tried to forget, but my mind would not allow this. A mind trying to forget is a mind capable only of remembering and so I slept on the dirt beside my dead basil. I stayed by its side until I died as it died or it found life once more and in choosing the latter it gave me back the comfort of my bed and the deepness of my sleep. It grew strong and became much more than it was.

“I will find the sickness inside him and I will kill it,” I say. “How?” asks my sister. I position myself until my face is before my father’s and tear the tape away. His eyes are grey weeping mucus, but even now they make me feel small. I focus on the endless child I am in his presence and let the ensuing judgement shrink me. I shrink until the pores on his skin gape and I am able to walk inside. “Do not go in there,” says my sister. Her voice, although booming, has never sounded so small and I ignore it much as one ignores an insect on the other side of the world climbing up a table leg.

I have not been inside my father’s body since before I was conceived, yet it wears something familiar to me. I feel the nuts and bolts of broken blood beneath each step and hope I am not too late. Come now, says the body of my father. “Come where?” I ask. To the heart of our infection. “Where is that?” The left leg. I push through the growing rot of my father’s muscle tissue and force a passage downward. The growing death of the body around me feels like empty afterschool homes. You can read words in any stain, and I read the afterschool walls much like I read the melting interior of my father’s overwhelming sepsis. The blood around me becomes brown foam that thickens as it dries.

I am not wise enough to save another. The arterial labyrinth of doomed biology allows no bearing and defies direction. Each step is simultaneously forward and backward and momentum is a joke deprived of a punch line. The walls of this vein feel like straw awaiting fire and when I push, it cracks into powder. “Am I close?” I ask. No, is the reply. The urgency demarcating the first bloodline communiqué has been replaced by listless defeat. My father’s body has stopped fighting and with absence of fight comes an absence of direction for me to follow. “Tell me where to go,” I ask. There is, of course, no reply.

In my father’s bladder the piss is tar. I wade through it, feeling it thicken into black concrete. Slight movement captures my attention and I walk toward it, hoping what I see is real. Bending over, I forage around in the black piss until what moves meets my hand. I lift it and hold it before me. Free of the bog, the movement increases and I am sure what I hold has wings. I wipe the tar away and soon understand that the wings have feathers and between the wings exists a body. There is a robin in my hands and its beak moves without creating sound. Its eyes are glued shut with tar and nothing I do can fix it. My attempts to do so result in crushing its eyeball, causing its body to writhe and its beak to open wider. Holding it against my mouth, I whisper apologies.

In my garden there was a robin very similar to the one I drop lifeless back in the tar. It was attracted to a mirror I kept leaning against a fence because it lacked an appropriate location inside. Whenever I sat on my back step to stare at the sun, the robin would form a soundtrack as its beak tapped against its reflection in the mirror. In placing the mirror, I had placed a tireless enemy for the robin to give itself to. I considered covering the glass or turning it around, but I could not execute these considerations. In truth, I appreciated the robin’s company and feared that altering the dynamic in any way may lead to its absence. Knowing it would be there whenever I was provided comfort. The morning I discovered it dead before the mirror, its beak cracked, was difficult to absorb. I let its body sit in position for several days, hoping it would wake like my basil, but it did not. When the maggots swarmed its body, I knew the time had come to put the robin in the ground. I took a photograph of the corpse and kept it under my pillow.

My father’s body is dead, and I am trapped within its final collapse. I push my way through the sticky piss and fall from his bladder into the maze of his biology. A rush of gas passes me, the smell of which reminds me of forgotten meals. I recall a commercial I watched as a child where another child, upon eating a particular brand of bread was transformed into a superhero, capable of flying and imbued with ferocious strength. I believed what I saw in the commercial and coveted this bread, but my parents would not allow it. Instead, I was given homemade rocks of dough and told to regard it as bread. Rather than superhuman abilities, I experienced little more than illness. My father’s body squeezes against me. Pushing me in. Collapsing around me.

Squeezing me in.

Squeezing me in.

Squeezing me.

Matthew Revert


Matthew Revert is a multidisciplinary artist from Melbourne, Australia with a focus on visual art, writing, music and design. His visual art has amassed a strong following and in 2019, Clash Books released a book of his visual art called Try Not To Think Bad Thoughts. He is the author of five novels including The Tumours Made Me Interesting, Basal Ganglia and Human Trees. Reissues of his sought after written work will finally be released starting with his first three comedic absurdist novels in 2022 by 11:11 Press. He has had music released in myriad formats by renowned labels such as Erstwhile Records, Kye Records, No Rent among others. His graphic design work can be found on no fewer than 800 book and record covers.

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Once upon a time, in a hot dry summer, I listed my vagina on Airbnb. I filled in my details, specified my policies, uploaded my photos and my listing went live. It was official: I was a private person with a public property.

In short order, I received numerous inquiries involving time-consuming Q&A’s (“I know you say no pets, but would you accept a small therapy dog?” No. “If I paid extra, would you reconsider your prohibition against children?” No. “I think you’re too pricey for me, if you come down lmk.” “Could you elaborate on your cleaning procedures?”). Eventually I accepted my first proper guest.

Larry was a slight, middle-aged man of dubious nationality who was in and out in a fraction of the time he’d booked and who left a five-star review highlighting my “soft, warm, sound-proof curtains.” Larry was the ideal first guest—neat, quiet, courteous, energy-conserving and fragrance-free—who fluffed the couch pillows on his way out and left a thank you note by the door.

The next day, I made certain necessary changes in my life: turned my bed to face east, unsubscribed from LinkedIn, became a freegan (i.e., got dinner from the dumpster outside Whole Foods where half-cases of arugula could be found, along with day-old bread and a good deal of portabella mushrooms).

I read a message board for Airbnb hosts and there learned that safety was my responsibility, so I bought a CO2 detector, a fire extinguisher, a first-aid kit, and a liter-sized bottle of hand-sanitizer. I drew, laminated, and posted on the back of my door a detailed plan of my vagina with a compass in one corner showing north with the letter N and little red arrows indicating its exit route. Next, I consulted a tax lawyer. She informed me that as long as I documented and kept all receipts, I could write off everything from the bundle of spare toothbrushes to the extra coffee filters to my Netflix subscription. “Of course,” she added, “you’ll also be able to deduct a portion of the depreciation of your vagina.”

My second vagina renter was called Lionel. He’d asked if I provided breakfast, so I’d bought a box of kosher berry toaster pastries and a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice. He nodded when he saw them on the counter. With Lionel, I could think and feel exactly what he was experiencing the moment he experienced it. In the past this might have been overwhelming and caused me to offer him my vagina indefinitely, however, this time, I did not. I wrote a starred guest review in which I mentioned Lionel’s punctuality and excellent communication and included a private comment thanking him for his patient suggestions regarding my vagina’s accessibility. He used a wheelchair, and according to his recommendations, I moved plates and cups to the lower cabinets, popped the table up on casters, cleared a 32” pathway from door to bed, and purchased fold-up, telescopic ramps and a set of suction grab bars. Then I returned Lionel’s security deposit and continued on my way. I was determined to see my journey to its end.


I didn’t like to talk about my vagina but if the subject came up, I’d say something like how super fun it was at age whatever to realize I was female. I tried to think about my vagina as either a vagina of the past or a vagina of the future. I was not alone but I felt like I was.

On rare occasions, the word vagina sounded beautiful to me, but even then, at first it sounded bad, like an aftertaste, only before, and not a taste but a sound—vagina had a beforesound that made me wince a little prior to naming it, was what I meant.

My vagina was a metaphor, but also a real thing that smelled and farted and squirted and contracted and released and sang and overate and wept and slept like everything and everyone else. I liked to remind those who relied on statistics that the average human had half a vagina, which was only sort of a joke. Turned out I didn’t so much not want to talk about my vagina as not want to talk about anything but my vagina.

I was a virgin when my vagina first spoke to me: This is Vagina, I am currently unable to take your call; I am either away from my body or on a bike.

My vagina was the pink elephant in the room, the thing I always thought about once I realized I wasn’t supposed to, which was when I was five years old and greeted my parents’ dinner guests by lifting my skirt and introducing them to my vagina, the name of which I’d just learned, and instead of the expected, nice to meet you, Vagina, the man dinner guest had looked away, and the woman dinner guest had turned the color of her scarf, and my mother had yanked up my panties so hard their rough lace burned me from ankle to crotch. If only this were a world where people said vagina all the time like they said car or weather or Tuesday or dear; what kind of a world would that be? A world where Big Pharma was a hangar-sized apothecary brimming with tinctures and vitamins and herbs, where suppression required a therapist not a poll watcher, and the only thing captured was carbon.

I wanted to change my life from my vagina outward. I cried a little when I thought that.

Time for some math: one vagina equaled an approach; two vaginas equaled a lecture; three vaginas equaled a joke; four or more vaginas equaled a law.

My vagina needed a staff—therapist, publicist, decorator, lawyer, personal shopper, accountant, cook, but I could only afford one, so I had to choose wisely. I interviewed them together in my living room—asking them each what they brought to the table.

Therapist: I listen. When your vagina speaks, I hear it. When your vagina is silent, I interpret.

Publicist: The image of your vagina is up to the people who control that image. I am that person. I can control the narrative.

Decorator: The skills to transform your vagina into the outward expression of your truest self. Discounts with vendors. Excellent references.

Lawyer: Thousands of hours representing the interests of your vagina. I will work tirelessly to win your vagina the settlements it deserves.

Personal shopper: Whatever your vagina needs, I’ve taken care of it before you recognize the need.

Accountant: Your vagina should not have to worry about regulations or compliance. I’ll protect your vagina’s assets while keeping your vagina out of the sights of the government.

Cook: Nothing fazes me—late hours, noise, odors … I’m your man.

I thanked them for their time but decided instead on a DIY approach.

I wanted to turn my discomfort with my vagina into something delectable like the blogger who made sourdough with her vaginal yeast and served it to her Thanksgiving guests.

There was a particular kind of vagina makeup I read about that was only available in Scandinavia, which was appalling and also disappointing; I got on the waitlist. I never stopped meeting the challenge of being a vagina with a woman.

My vagina aspired to be the avant-garde—in the artistic sense: the pioneer, the innovator, yes, of course, but also in the military sense: the avant-garde stratégique, the force at the front engaging the enemy wherever he was found. In the presence of young women for whom a gesture might open new routes to power, I made a point of scratching my vagina in public. I knew other people had other sorts of practices—practices related to ending mass incarceration or eradicating factory farming, but as my guru said, know thyself. (My avant-garde vagina was, in the anarchist sense, sensational.)

I wore a T-shirt that said, What’s Your Vagina’s Name? and as I walked down the street, women called out to me saying, Venus! Isis! Madame President!

With my phone, I took photographs of my vagina; they looked like extreme close-ups of Bryce Canyon.

When people asked me where I got my ideas from, I said my vagina. After reading Billy Collins’ poem “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” I spent the rest of the afternoon designing a button for my vagina that was both waterproof and comfortable and could be buttoned or unbuttoned with only my mind. I thought the way I said vagina, the frequency with which I peppered it into conversation, the tilt of my head when I said vagina, the tone of my voice when I said vagina … I thought it all might add up to something bigger than myself. Was my vagina here for the wrong reasons? Talking about my vagina made me feel better about myself, but not as good about myself as if I’d figured out a way to contribute something material to someone who needed it, like a house for an abused woman. I took some comfort in the fact that my vagina was local, organic and ethically sourced.

My vagina had a ghost vagina made up of everything that was moved aside to make room for it.

I google translated vagina, and it turned out in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese it was still a vagina, though it was something else in Hebrew, something I couldn’t say exactly, because, although I’d gone to Hebrew school and could read the Jewish script, google translate did not provide the little vowel markings beneath and beside the consonants, and when I tried to look up how to pronounce the vowel-less Hebrew word for vagina, a mechanical woman-ish voice came out of my computer saying over and over, vagina, vagina, vagina. Then I heard somewhere that vowels were emotions and consonants were the intellect, and I wondered what a vagina without emotion might be like.

There was an empty space in my vagina where I had meant to put my accolades, and I worked hard to fill it with explanations and entertainments. I wrote a correction to my vagina the size of a story wherein I set right much of what, between the end and the beginning, I’d gotten wrong, starting with the fact that what I’d introduced my parents’ guests to when I was five was not, in fact, my vagina but my vulva which was a whole other story.


It came to be that Simon, the son of a judge, was my third renter. I was turned to the wall so Simon could pretend to slip in through the window while, at his request, my vagina hid under the covers preparing to emerge as if from a coma, disoriented and grateful. In my Airbnb listing under “amenities,” I’d included “humidified,” “exterior lighting,” and “self-cleaning,” and as I lay there staring at the baseboard, I wondered if I ought also to consider ticking “long-term renters welcome,” to avoid the plasticity required in renting to different guests with different tastes.

A hand over my mouth and a dick in my hand and my vagina oozed into action. Simon’s moves were alternately impersonal and embarrassing. At about the time he asked me to shut up and threatened to pull the knife he said was in the pocket of the jacket that he was still wearing, the doorbell rang. Once it became clear the doorbell ringer would rather ring and knock and walk around the perimeter of the property and ring and knock some more than leave, Simon got off of me and told me to send the intruder away.

I opened the door to a broad-shouldered man who looked like an arborist I’d once dated. “I’m so sorry I’m late,” said the arborist-lookalike, eyeing my bedsheet-for-a-robe.

I stood facing the threshold with Simon hiding behind the door.

The arborist-lookalike explained that he’d rented my vagina on Craigslist but had been unable to alert me to his late arrival, since after paying the rental fee, the email link on the listing had disappeared.

Just then, Simon began pressing something sharp against my sheeted rear. I told the arborist-lookalike that while what we put into the world is exactly what we receive, I’d never listed my vagina on Craigslist.

When the arborist-lookalike told me how much he’d paid the scammer in Florida, I felt bad but also, not responsible, and also a little bit insulted, since the Floridian scammer who’d copied my vagina’s Airbnb listing had charged a third of my rate.

Still, the arborist-lookalike would not leave. I could feel Simon’s impatience through the pressure of his concealed weapon, and I must have turned slightly, because all at once a great pain shot through the bursitis in my hip, and without thinking, I screamed and flung the door open, smacking Simon in the face, causing him to drop his weapon to cup his bloody nose with his hand. I grabbed the knife, which turned out not to be a knife, but a calligraphy pen. Simon promised to leave a “scathing” review, grabbed his shoes and stormed off.

Then the arborist-lookalike pushed me back into the house saying he’d paid for my vagina and expected his stay. I stabbed him in the neck with the pen. After he bled out on my welcome mat, I dragged his body to the firepit, doused it in gasoline, lit it and watched as a tree-shaped plume of smoke rose into the night and seeded the clouds. It began to rain.

Lynn Schmeidler


Lynn Schmeidler’s fiction has appeared in KR Online, Conjunctions, Georgia Review, The Southern Review and other literary magazines. She is the recipient of a Sewanee Writers Conference Tennessee Williams scholarship in fiction and has been awarded residencies at Vermont Studio Center and Virginia Center for Creative Arts. In addition to fiction, she has published one poetry book, History of Gone (Veliz Books, 2018, shortlisted for the Sexton Prize and finalist for the Anhinga-Robert Dana Prize) and two poetry chapbooks, Wrack Lines (Grayson Books, 2017, Finalist for the Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize and the Comstock Review Jessie Bryce Niles Chapbook Prize) and Curiouser & Curiouser (Winner of the Grayson Books 2013 Chapbook Prize). She is at work on a short story collection.

paper texture

It was one of those ads you see tacked on the bulletin board at the grocery store. It said, “Are you Black?”

I was.

It said, “Are you the only Black person in your immediate area?”

I looked around, though I didn’t really have to. Yep, I was.

Then it said, “Do you yearn to meet more Black people in your same American predicament?”

Of course. Why not?

“Well, call the number below because we at The Black Friend Association can hook you up.”

Unlike all the other tacked-up ads for lost cats, movers, and house painters, this one had white font on black paper, which made it stand out. At the bottom, the association’s phone number was printed vertically many times along the edge, the paper cut so you could rip off a strip and take the number with you. I reached up and tore off a piece and looked at it as I walked out the store. I slipped it into my wallet and noticed the paper was the same size as the ones found in fortune cookies. And for the first time in a long while, I felt lucky.


I’d recently moved to The Whitest City in America, which was also known as The Nicest City because there were a lot of hippies and hipsters there. I don’t think it being called The Nicest City had anything to do with the majority of its citizens being white instead of Black or any other race. I think it had a lot to do with everyone being liberal and cannabis being legal there.

I just happened to be from down south, The Blackest City in America, and I’d moved to The Whitest City for work. I was in advertising and design, the only Black employee at the headquarters of The Biggest Athletic Shoe Company in the World, our number one product being The Highest-Selling Basketball Sneaker Ever. The shoe was first made in the ’80s, named after The Best Basketball Player to Ever Exist, but no one played basketball in them anymore. They were fashion sneakers now, revamped and repackaged every few months, sold for outrageous prices. Black kids in rough parts of the country killed each other over these shoes, stole them off each other’s dead feet. They waited in lines all night for the new releases, and there I was, designing their demise.

My company had lured many Black folks from The Blackest City in America here to The Whitest City for diversity’s sake. The company was trying to improve its image. They’d recently stopped using Asian and Mexican sweatshop labor. They’d begun hiring and promoting women. They made Black pay, my pay, equal to white, and in some cases higher. In the job interview, the recruiters even said there were a number of clubs for Black professionals in town where I could rub elbows with other Black people like me. Unfortunately, when I got here, the other Black folks they’d hired had already decided being in The Whitest City wasn’t their thing. They’d all gone back south to The Blackest City or to the Midwest to The Windiest City or east to The Biggest City in America. In those places, diversity was more of a naturally occurring thing, at least most of the time. Black folks didn’t have to worry about it as much.


When I called The Black Friend Association, I wasn’t surprised to be greeted by an electronic voice. But instead of sounding like a robot, it sounded like a younger Black woman, like my sister. The voice asked how Black I was on a scale of one to ten, and when I hesitated, it said, “Hold up. Just so you know, we don’t mean your actual skin tone. We mean linguistically, aesthetically. Are you a ‘I-use-the-word-nigga-at-the-end-of-every-sentence’ Black person? That would be a one. Or are you a ‘I-never-drop-my-Rs’ Black person, a ‘Why-do-you-sound-so-white’ Black person? That would be a ten. And just so you know, this is our way of matching you with your particular kind of Black person. A ten is no better than a one. Black folks are a varied people. We don’t expect any of you to be just a one or just a ten. Mix it up a little.”

I was on the upper scale of the Blackometer so I thumbed an eight.

The voice said, “Awesome, dude. Let us handle this for you.” As I waited, I wondered how the voice would’ve sounded if I’d scored myself a two or three. Would it have called me “my nigga” or “homie” or “cuz?”

I climbed through the phone tree, which took almost half an hour. The whole time I thought, Couldn’t this just be online? But then I thought maybe this was purposely done in secret, away from the government. I started to think about long-dead boogeymen like J. Edgar Hoover and then the entire Republican Party. Finally, at the end, the voice said, “Great, my dude, you’re done. We’ll contact you with your matches. Expect a text message very soon.” As the call ended, I heard the voice say, in parting, “Please. Stay Black.” I felt a little weird saying, “You, too.”


I was probably having trouble reconciling being in The Whitest City because I was also having trouble with a woman named Desiree, who I’d started seeing as soon as I got to town and who happened to be as white as white can be, my first white girlfriend.

I’d wanted to stop seeing her but could never bring myself to ending it. She said very white things to me, one particularly white thing that bothered me the most. She’d basically told me, in so many words, that I wasn’t really Black. She’d been telling me this in a few different ways before I actually realized it, the first time being pretty blatant. “You know, really,” she said, “you might as well be white.” It was like she was trying to convince me to switch teams.

And we hadn’t even been talking about Blackness or whiteness or really anything at all. We were having sex, which was the main reason I couldn’t quit her. She was on top as usual, squirming pleasurably, riding me rhythmically, up and down, up and down, like I was a carousel horse.

“What do you mean?” I watched my dark hands palm her perfect white breasts. I reminded her that I was just as Black as The Blackest Actor in the World.

“Ehh. Kinda. Sorta.”

“Kinda sorta ironic,” I said.

She was bouncing enthusiastically now, as though trying to crack my spine with her pelvis. “Ironic how?”

“Well, whenever you refer to my dick, you do tend to call it Black. I mean, just five minutes ago, you said you couldn’t wait to ride my ‘Black dick.’”

If I was being honest, our sexual encounters leaned more toward hate-sex. I felt like she was grooming me for something I couldn’t help resisting. She was a little older than me, and our encounters often made me feel again like a horse, but a real one this time, one she couldn’t break. This was the geyser out of which gushed our sexual tension. She asked me to do the nastiest things to her, weird porno stuff that always seemed so desirable in theory but disgusting in practice. Yet, the dirtiest part of me still liked doing them.

“Okay, fine,” she said. “You’re Black, but just not, like, Black-Black-Black. You’re really just a guy. It’s almost like you’re raceless. That’s why I like you. I mean, your ancestors may have been slaves―”

“Enslaved,” I said.

She rolled her eyes. “Fine. ‘Enslaved.’” She took the time to do air quotes. “But they probably didn’t suffer that much. They probably worked in the house, not the field. I mean, didn’t you say your dad went to Yale?”

“Harvard.” I then reminded her that my last name was the same as a very prominent Confederate General who’d owned many enslaved. In The Blackest City in America, there were many Black people with this last name. “Because, you know, enslavement and bondage and a little thing called white-people-owning-Black-people.”

“Yeah, but that was then.” She wormed around on top of me. When she hit the right spot, she locked up into a seizure-like orgasm, almost snapping off my dick. Through her clinched teeth, she grunted, “Can’t you just get over it?” Then she collapsed on top of me, panting.


Since The Biggest Athletic Shoe Company in the World was very white and hipster, we didn’t have meetings in normal places like conference rooms and offices. We had them in the company gymnasium, on its sprawling campus in a suburb just outside the city. The design and ad team and I were all sitting on the bleachers, looking down at a woman named Abby, who was standing on the basketball court graffitiing a white board with sales projections.

In front of me was my touchpad, where I’d begun to take notes. I hadn’t gotten far, though. There was just a black dot on the white screen, my stylus sitting impotently in my lap. I’d been looking at that lonely black dot, focusing and focusing on it, when my phone buzzed and brought me out of my trance. It was The Black Friend Association. Apparently, I had a match, only one, which was a bit disappointing. I was hoping for a long list to choose from so I could cherry-pick my perfect friend, or at the very least, have a number of meetups to occupy my time. All I got was a guy named Calvin. In the text was his number and a note from him that said, “Hello, bro. I cannot wait to meet you. Are you around this weekend?”

I felt nervous and giddy, but I stayed calm in my text back. I wrote something simple and carefree. “Sure. Hit me up. Really looking forward to it.” I felt I should add something extra for authenticity’s sake. In the end, I just signed off with “Stay Black.” As soon as I sent it, he texted back, “You, too.”


We met at The Only Ethiopian Restaurant in Town. He was already sitting in a booth, the only person in the whole place. He was looking down at a laminated menu, and as I approached, I realized we were a perfect match. We looked alike, the thick black-framed glasses, the high-top fade, the hip-hop clothes, the groomed beard. Right when I got to the table, he looked up and said, “Ricky?” He stood, and we did the bro hug and gave each other dap a little awkwardly. I was reminded of the movies about Black women’s love lives that my mother made me see with her when I was a kid. I remembered sitting in a theater full of Black women as their deepest feelings were confirmed on the big screen. I finally understood that sensation. I realized I’d been waiting to exhale this entire time. So, I finally did.

He said he was from back East, The Chocolate City, and I said I had a few cousins who lived there. When he heard I was from The Blackest City, he said he had cousins there, too, who’d gone to The Coolest Black College in America and ended up staying in the area. We nodded and smiled. “That is what’s up,” he said.

The server, an older Ethiopian man, took our order, which just so happened to be the same thing, the vegetarian plate with the customary injera bread. He looked at Calvin and then me and asked if we were twins, or at least brothers.

We both looked at him, surprised. “No, why do you ask?”

“Because you look identical.”

Calvin and I smiled at each other and said thanks.

The old man sort of looked behind us, as though we had something on our necks, as though the tags on our shirts were sticking out. Then we watched him shuffle off.

Calvin said he’d been in town a few months longer than me and had gone on a couple Black friend meetups with mixed results. He bumped my fist. “But you? I’m glad we have met. You are a real one.”

Funnily, he was kind of stiff, but I thought he was just socially awkward. I thanked him and said he seemed like a real one, too. He was in marketing and had been lured to town by a large company for diversity, too. He was thriving, but something still felt off, he said. “There is the feeling of not belonging, of being marooned on a distant planet. Sometimes, I just feel like I am waiting for a ship to rescue me.”

I noticed he didn’t use contractions when he spoke. He also had a little bit of an accent, but I just thought he was from another country. “Me, too,” I said. “It’s not like it’s bad here. There just aren’t very many other kinds of people.”

We’d both had success with women, white women, but we felt unfulfilled, misunderstood.

“And it is not that they are white. It is that they just do not get me. I have dated women who happened to be white in other places, and they did get me.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s just weird. It’s like it’s this place.” I looked outside at all the passing people, who were all white. I looked back at him, and we just nodded at each other and then started laughing. We both had the same sense of humor. We talked about how, according to statistics, out of every five people living in The Whitest City in America, 4.75 were white.

I said, “But of course that just makes me think about the 0.25 that isn’t, like there’s a really short Black person somewhere walking around the city.”

“Or,” he said, “some non-white leg hopping about town.”

We both laughed again.

I made a joke that it was almost like I was having a conversation with myself in the mirror, and he said, “Word? That is so dope.”


My work was going as well as it could. I bought a new car and a new bike and a mega sound system. I had every gaming console and video game on the market. My superiors ate up my designs like cake. I’d even gotten longlisted for Blackest Shoe Designer in America. My social life was just as fulfilling.

Calvin and I started doing every Black thing we could think of. We played basketball a lot. We tried to pick up white women, the only kind in The Whitest City. When well-known hip-hop acts from The Biggest City in America came to town, we went and saw them, the two of us the only Black locals in the club. We even went to The Only Soul Food Restaurant in Town, but the food wasn’t that good. Soul food made by white folks just didn’t taste right. Calvin said it was the best he’d ever had, though, which was worrying. I figured it was because he was from the Northeast and from an immigrant family. He’d probably never had the real thing.

I tried to get him to open up, to talk more about being Black, an immigrant, but he tended to just say the same things he said the first time we met. “There is the feeling of not belonging, of being marooned on a distant planet. Sometimes, I just feel like I am waiting for a ship to rescue me.”

I said, “Yeah, you said that already. Say something else.”

He’d try, but it was always the same sentiments, just reworded. I thought maybe it was because he was on the marketing side of things and not the creative one like me. I wondered and almost asked if he was in therapy or something, but I stopped myself. If the man couldn’t express himself, why beat him up over it?


To fill the void, I kept seeing Desiree, because, well, hate-sex. It had a hold on me. She was tall and had long legs and her aforementioned wonderful breasts. She was statuesque and had a Black woman’s behind, which didn’t hurt either. Most times, she wore lingerie under her regular clothes, or she’d just show up in a trench coat and nothing underneath. Not long after I’d gotten cool with Calvin, she came over, and we watched a little TV, a documentary about how predatory and rapey dolphins were. That was all it took. Pretty soon, she was gyrating on top of me, grinding her pubic bone into mine like a pestle into a mortar. She showed me an article about a famous foreign baseball player who had, in his wealthy retirement, lightened his complexion. The Dominican Home Run King. There were pictures of him with pink skin but his Afro-Dominican features. He even wore blue contacts, which all just made him look like a monster to me. It was like Blackface but in reverse. Pinkface. But she just kept saying, “Isn’t he so hot?”

I said, “What, you’re into pink guys now?”

“Sure. Pink guys are something to aspire to.” She was still flipping through the magazine like we weren’t having sex, like she was in a waiting room. She was chewing gum.

I looked at her funny, but she put the magazine down and started bouncing on top of me more, shaking her boobs in my face.

“If you want someone raceless,” I said, “why don’t you just date a white guy?”

She stopped bouncing and thought about it.

It took all my will not to nuzzle up to her nipples and nibble on them like a goldfish.

Finally, she shrugged. “White guys are bland. They have no edge.”

“So, you want a Black guy with lightened skin, so he has just enough edge to excite you yet still be palatable.”

She said, “You know, this doesn’t have to make sense. I can just feel how I feel.”

“Lucky you. Some people don’t have that option.”


With Calvin, our new activities seemed cool, but our initial banter just wasn’t there anymore. We went to pro basketball games, but he didn’t seem interested. We saw the latest movies starring The Most Gangster Gangster-Rapper-Turned-Actor, but Calvin acted like they were trash.

One time, I said, “You good, my dude? What’s up with you?”

He turned to me, and I had that weird sensation again. It was like he was my twin, my glum one. “I just have a lot on my mind.”

We were sitting next to each other on my couch, watching a stand up special by The Blackest Comedian in America.

“This shit’s funny,” I said. “Don’t you think?”

“It is okay. I think I liked his last one better.”

He was right. The jokes didn’t even make me laugh. The Blackest Comedian in America seemed like he was kind of phoning it in. I turned it off.

“Hey, is everything okay with you? I mean, did I do something wrong?”

“No,” he said. “I am having women difficulties. White women difficulties.” He looked at me as though that said it all.

Still, I asked if he wanted to talk about it.

“No thanks. I am good.”


Nothing was going right. Soon, Desiree was trying to change how I dressed. Instead of fashion sneakers and fitted hats and hip-hop shirts, she wanted me in golf shirts and tight shorts and dress shoes without socks. The final straw was when she suggested I shave my beard and maybe curl my hair. “Like him.” She showed me a picture of The Best Golfer in History, a Black guy who didn’t seem to really identify as Black.

Surprisingly, we weren’t having sex, just watching TV. “My hair’s already curly, most Black people’s hair is.”

“I know.” She rubbed my head and then smushed my high-top fade, looking frustrated when it sprang back to its normal height. “But I mean bigger curls, longer ones. It’s more like a sponge now. Have you ever thought of straightening it?”

“Straightening it.”

“Yeah, so it’ll be like mine.” She ran her hand through her fine hair, each strand distinct from the next like dried spaghetti.

I looked over at her. She was smiling at me. She must’ve sensed my displeasure because she started taking her clothes off. She stood there in her lingerie and garter belt and crotchless panties. I stopped her and said, “You know, I think you should leave. We’re done here.” I turned on my gaming system and ignored her.

She was so sure of herself, so totally vain that when she said, “You’ll regret this,” it came out without a hint of vindictiveness, as though it was an undisputed fact of the world. Black people who ditched white people instantly regretted it. “You’re gonna lose your mind without me.” She actually sang it, wagging her finger, her voice still humming as the door clicked shut. I set down my game controller and went to my balcony door. I watched her get into her electric car and drive away. And for a couple of hours, I wondered if she was right. What the hell had I done?


The next few weeks were pretty lonely. But then, out of the blue, Calvin asked me to help him move to a new apartment across town. I said sure. I was bored and without sex, and the video games just weren’t cutting it. Besides, something still drew me to him. I wanted to meet his other friends, but when I showed up, it was just him. He hardly had any possessions, which was surprising. He seemed like the type to have stuff. I helped him with his bed and dresser and end tables and couch. I thought maybe he’d snap out of it, but things still weren’t the same. Once, I even called him Cal, which I thought made me seem friendly and familiar, but evidently, he didn’t think so. It was like I couldn’t do right. It was like he couldn’t be bothered. After we were done, I thought we’d at least go out for a drink or a meal, but when I suggested it, he fake-yawned and said he was bushed.


“Yeah, I am plumb tuckered,” he said. I thought maybe he was on antidepressants. He seemed unemotional now. He went to the bathroom, and I kept saying that in my head. I am plumb tuckered. Who the fuck says plumb tuckered? I was standing in his kitchen. The toilet flushed. His ring of keys was sitting on the counter next to a smaller ring of spares. I pocketed the spares, and when he came out of the bathroom, he fake-yawned again and said, “All right, well…”

I rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah, see you around.”


A few months went by. I put in more requests with the association, but the only person that I matched with was Calvin. I even redid my profile so that it would cast a wider net, into the Black demographic that wasn’t as much like me, the hood and ratchet types. Still nothing. My company went through three new releases. I had my own team now. I was leading the way, but every night I went home to my apartment alone. Occasionally, I went to bars, hoping to run into other Black people. I did phone interviews with companies in other cities, but nothing was coming through. I drove the two hours out to the coast sometimes, to walk on the beach and see the ocean, but once I was there, I just turned around and went home.

Unfortunately, in the more urban cities in America, our shoe designs were so desirable that kids were robbing and stealing, killing each other for the shoes at an even higher rate. The publicity was good at first, but it quickly turned bad. People on the Internet were calling the shoe The Death Sneaker now, calling us The Deadliest Athletic Shoe Company in the World. People were calling the Best Basketball Player to Ever Exist an Uncle Tom and a sellout again. The higher-ups, none too happy about losing profits, were contemplating a design audit. My whole team would have to regroup. I wondered if Desiree was right about me losing my mind. I spent most of my time at the Ethiopian place by myself, trying to get Mr. Getachew, the old man who owned it, to talk to me.

One day, breaking the wall of silence, he asked where my friend was.

“Calvin? Who knows? Probably being weird somewhere.”

“It’s like he’s not human, huh?” Getachew joked.


Getachew matter-of-factly said, “Well, what do you expect? He was a robot.”

“Robot,” I said.

He looked up, still smiling. “What? You didn’t know?”

“Know what?”

“That he was a robot.” He pointed at a Black guy walking past the window. “There. Don’t you see that thing on his neck?”

I turned, and just as the guy went around the corner, just above his shirt collar, I thought I saw something, what looked like a couple USB ports.

“He’s one of them.”
“One of whom?”

“The fake Black guys planted here to make it seem more diverse. It’s a new tactic big

brother’s using now.”

“No way,” I said.

Getachew nodded emphatically. “He’s just like those electric cars and bikes they leave around town for convenience.” He stared out the window and then just said, “Electronic Negroes.”

“If that’s the case, wouldn’t he want to be my friend?”

Getachew tapped his foot. “Not necessarily. Maybe he doesn’t like you because he got reprogrammed. Maybe he just wants to meet another Black robot and not you.”

I pushed my plate away, shaking my head.

Getachew smiled. “Is it so farfetched? You have a phone in your pocket that is a computer. There’s the internet. There’s a whole electronic world out there that is intangible. Money isn’t even made of paper anymore.” He looked up at the sky. “It’s all in the cloud.”

I shook my head again. “Can’t be true. I was hanging out with him.”

“Yeah, well, you were hanging with an electronic Negro, then. He had those ports, too.” Getachew looked up at me seriously. “I probably should’ve told you the first time I saw you together, but I thought you were both, you know, digital, not analog.”

I grabbed a fistful of my beard. I stroked it. “It can’t be.”

“You better start believing it.” Getachew nodded gravely and then solemnly. “Sorry you had to find out like this, but this town is weird. They’ll do anything to lure us here. I was a doctor in my country. Twenty years ago, the local government promised I’d be one here, too. They said there’d be a huge Ethiopian community for me to help. Now look. I have a restaurant, and you’re the only one who comes in. I’ve never even put on a stethoscope in this country. It’s been in a box in storage all this time. I had to learn how to cook.”

“Jesus,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

Getachew shrugged. “America.”

“But diversity robots? Electronic Black people?” I said. “Is that really … a thing?”

“Yep.” He said he had a friend who was an avid fisherman. He used little battery-powered lures. “It’s the same thing. The fish are probably having the same conversation we’re having right now, telling each other, ‘Hey, watch out for that one. You know he’s an electronic fish.’”

All I could do was just sit there, wondering if Desiree was right. Had I lost my mind?


I started following Calvin around, even to his job once. I saw him move among his coworkers more mechanically than I had noticed before. I saw the ports on his neck. I thought back and remembered how he never used contractions when he spoke. When we shot hoops those times, his jumper was pretty fucking stiff, too. He couldn’t even go to his left. And he jumped off the wrong foot during layups, which was just odd. Like, who does that? Some nights, I followed him as he went out on the town. I watched him sit in bars by himself and, like me, talk to no one. I felt sorry for this digital fool.

On lonely nights, I thought I was becoming one of them. I’d constantly rub the back of my neck, checking for the ports. I had nightmares that one day I did find some back there, that I’d been a Black robot all along. Mr. Getachew thought I was losing my shit. “Boy, get a hold of yourself. You’re not electronic. You’re just young and stupid and make too much money for your own good. You probably have too much time on your hands.” He pointed at me then and said, “You know, you should consider getting a hobby.”

He was right. My previous hobby was Desiree, though. I even tried to call her, but she must’ve blocked my number. One night, in an effort to get out of the house and be around people, I went to a bar, and she was there with some guy who was way lighter than me. She saw me and hugged up on the guy and mouthed, “See, I told you you’d lose your mind.” She ran her hand through his straight hair. I wondered if he’d once been dark and had now lightened his skin. His features looked vaguely African. I thought of the filthy sex they were having.

“Isn’t he so hot?” She licked his ear, and I wondered if he was a robot like Calvin. I left and drove around the city, finding myself in the parking lot of Calvin’s apartment complex. I sat in my car, aimed directly at his balcony. I could see into his living room, see him sitting on his couch without anything on, no TV, no laptop, no entertainment at all. He was just sitting there, staring straight ahead like, well, a robot. At exactly nine o’clock, he stood in a motorized manner, turned off his living room light and walked into his bedroom. The light came on in there, and a minute later it went off, too.

Hooked on my keyring, dangling from my car’s ignition, was his small ring of spares. I fondled them and then finally took them off and got out. His apartment complex had exposed stairways like mine, and each apartment door opened to the outside. The whole complex was asleep, and I felt unseen in a good way. I crept up the stairs. Slowly, carefully, I slid the key into his lock and opened the door, leaving it cracked behind me so I could escape without a sound. I walked through the dark apartment, and everything was so orderly that I figured no man could be living there, only a machine. He didn’t even have a gaming system. For some reason, this had me fuming, the fact that I’d been duped by an electronic mannequin, the fact that I was in this stupid city at all. I had friends from college who were killing it in other cities, in real relationships, in oases of diversity. Why had I come west to this raceless wasteland?

I crept into the bedroom, and he was lying on his back with his eyes closed and his arms at his side like he was dead. Two cords ran from his neck to a black docking station the size of a shoe box. It was sitting on the nightstand, plugged into the wall, and it seemed to hum, a cooling fan whirring on its backside. I wanted to throw up seeing how electrical he was, how digital. I held my hand under Calvin’s nose to see if he was breathing, and there was indeed air coming out of his nostrils, but it was just like that cooling fan air, a constant breeze of electrical-smelling wind.

Why did this fool look just like me? It was as if I’d been cloned. It pissed me off so I hit him, right on the chin. There was a plasticky crunch, and his head popped from his neck. It rolled off the bed to the floor, landing between my feet. I thought an alarm would go off, beeping, something, but there wasn’t a sound. I lifted one arm and wrenched it until it popped off, too. I did the other arm and the legs and the feet. Within a minute, he was just a pile of parts on the floor, stray vein-like wires sticking out of every joint.

At the end of the bed was an old footlocker. I expected it to be empty, a prop, and I wasn’t surprised when I opened it and that turned out to be true. Like a puzzle, I fit each limb neatly inside and secured the lock. I picked it, him, up and oddly he was light. I lugged it out to my car and put it in the trunk and drove around the city wondering what to do with him. I thought of taking him home and rebuilding him, reprogramming him to be my undying friend. But then I thought about Desiree and her new light-skinned man, who I was certain now was a robot, too. I thought of how pitiful I’d seem with my own private robot, as pitiful as a perv who had a closet full of sex dolls.

I drove to one of the bridges that split The Whitest City in America in two, the Eastside from the Westside. I stopped in the middle span of the bridge, pulled the footlocker out of the trunk, and threw it over the edge. It fell for what seemed like forever, tumbling through the air. For a second, I regretted it. I should’ve kept him. I reached out my open hand. No, come back. But the farther away he got, weirdly, the better I felt. I could breathe. The locker hit the water with a splash. I watched it float there, worried that it wouldn’t sink. I thought it might suddenly spring open and there he’d be looking up at me menacingly, climbing out, ready to kill me. But then the water started to pull it under, and the locker disappeared, its only trace a few bubbles as the river swallowed it like a monster. I went home.


It wasn’t long after that my life got better. My team and I successfully regrouped. Other things in the world drew people’s attention, and the Deadliest Sneaker thing passed. I came up with new designs. We made just enough shoes so people wouldn’t kill each other for them. I even met a few nice women who happened to white and Hispanic and Asian. They just wanted to chill and not have hate-sex. I even befriended a few white guys at work who seemed, I don’t know, normal enough to hang out with, too. Still, I looked at my profile at The Black Friend Association, which had finally gotten a decent website. I never did find any new matches so I canceled my membership. I kept an eye out for better, Blacker opportunities in other cities, but in the meantime, I felt resigned to The Whitest City on Earth.

Occasionally, I’d go eat Ethiopian and talk to Getachew. I eventually told him what I’d done, and he said, “Good. One less of them on the streets.”

I still felt a little weird about it, like I was a murderer. I asked if he thought that was normal.
“Sure, but you have to remember that wasn’t a person. It was just a thing, a thing in the shape of a person. Do you ever feel bad getting rid of an old laptop?”

“No,” I said.

“Well then.” It all made a smile flower on his face. He brought over my food and then went back to sweeping.

I ate and watched him, and something occurred to me. I said, “Hey, you’re a real person and I’m a real person. Why can’t we just be friends? You’re the only real Black person I know in this town.”

Getachew stopped sweeping. He looked up at the ceiling and gave the question some thought. Finally, he just shook his head. “Ehh, unfortunately, this is as close as I like to get to people. Sorry.”

He went back in the kitchen, and I went back to my food. I took a pinch of injera and stared out the window, watching streams of people go by, one or two of them Black. I rubbed my neck, looking for the USB ports, a habit I couldn’t break. I chewed on the sour bread and suddenly found myself wishing someone, anyone, would come in and start talking. Because, well, the silence, the stillness. I was over it.

Chris Stuck


Chris Stuck is the author of Give My Love to the Savages: Stories (Amistad/HarperCollins). He earned an MFA from George Mason University and has been a fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the Callaloo Writer’s Workshop, and the Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship. He is a Pushcart Prize winner, and his work has been published in American Literary Review, Bennington Review, Cagibi, Callaloo, Meridian, Natural Bridge, and StoryQuarterly. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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