Monday, August 18, 2014

Fiction #53

New fiction! Issue #53
Submissions now open for #54!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #53: Julie Paul

Weeping Camperdown

“What makes you happy?” Andrew asked her.

Joni was blowing on her tea and looking smart in a thick orange sweater. She stopped and smiled at him. “Good question,” she said. “Do you want a list?”

Andrew flushed with embarrassment. He’d been too forthright and now she thought he was looking for easy ways to bring her happiness, a cheap way in. He smiled at her, but he could tell that his lips looked thin.

Still, she took his smile as an invitation to carry on. God, he hoped she wouldn’t say flowers or chocolate.

“Peonies,” she said. “They remind me of those fluffy dogs. Shih Tzus, maybe?”

He nodded. A bit off, but yes, he could see it. “What else?”

“My children,” she said. “Especially when they’re asleep.”

They laughed and then the sandwiches arrived and they spread their paper napkins over their laps. She ate her pickle before anything else and the crunch made him jump.

As he was into his first decent bite, she came up with another item for the list. “The moment when you turn off the kitchen lights at the end of a long day. The dishes are done, the fridge is full, everything is put away and ready for the next morning.”

Suddenly, he felt close to tears. They were so alike—equals in this ridiculous field they were now playing. Their baggage was of similar heft and vintage. He wasn’t thinking Brady Bunch; it was just so good to be sitting with a woman who knew fatigue of this level. The last woman he’d taken to lunch on his flex day had kept talking about Red Bull and e-books and she had updated her location on Facebook right in front of him, as if to tell him that she had people out there looking after her, who knew her coordinates in case the date went bad.

Joni’s hand was on his arm now. “And you?” she asked. “What’s the biggest happy thing in your life?”

“Ah,” he said. “Not a thing.”

“Nothing?”

“No. It’s not a thing.” He’d made a bad play on words and his daughter would cringe if she heard him. At eleven, in her critical phase—another play on words—Maddie was still the joy. “My kid,” he said. The comment made Joni smile.

They’d just started talking about their kids when a girl with a pink streak in her hair popped up beside their table. “Are you done yet?” She was about nine, he figured, and more full of nerve than his daughter would ever be. Would he still think of Maddie as his biggest joy if she acted like this girl? He remembered the year she’d made animal sounds when spoken to and he’d had to reassure the teacher that nothing was wrong. Predictably, it had been the year his wife had moved out: another sign of how they’d hurt Maddie. Of course he’d still loved his daughter then, although the chicken noises had made him a little crazy.

“No,” Joni said to the girl, who stood there staring at their food. “And we’re getting dessert.”

Nerve, he thought, was all right when properly used.

The girl moved on, to another table, and got the answer she wanted.

“I don’t want dessert,” Joni said, after she’d leaned in toward him. “I just want to linger.”

Andrew smiled, pointed at his plate. “We haven’t even finished half!”

“Kids,” she said. “Do you think they’re less observant these days?”

“I’m not sure. I’m not that observant when it comes to kids.” He didn’t like to break things apart, to analyze and compare and pass judgment. He imagined that judging things made most people feel powerful, or more involved in the world. Whenever he turned critical, he just felt old. A curmudgeon was what his daughter called him when he was grumpy.

“Oh, I dunno,” she said. “You seem pretty aware.” She looked into his eyes and goosebumps rose on his arms. Fifteen again! That’s how he felt. He hoped she didn’t notice.

“I have an idea,” he said, before he even knew he was speaking.

She nodded.

“How much time do you have?”

“Pickup’s at three, so about an hour?”

“Right. Me too.”

“What’s your plan?”

“I’m going to get these wrapped up.” He pointed at the sandwiches. “We’ll eat them, but just not here.”

In ten minutes they were at his favourite place in the city: Ross Bay Cemetery. He led her to a tree in the centre of the park-like burial ground and spread out his jacket for her to sit on. There was a small headstone, and a nearly obscured footstone, both engraved with the name Mott.

“This is incredible,” she said, and immediately laid her orange-sweatered self down to look up into the leaves.

“It’s a Weeping Camperdown Elm,” he told her. “One of only a handful in the whole city.”

“Do you visit the others?”

“No,” he said. “This is my favourite.”

They both lay back and stared into the tree, the leaves arranged like tiles over one another, only growing from one side of the branches. This made them easier to count: a relaxation technique he’d been using since he was little. When his parents started to yell at each other, he used to run out of the house and sit beneath the one decent tree in the backyard—an old broadleaf maple. There he would try and count all the leaves above him to calm himself down.

“I’m expecting gnomes to appear at any moment,” she said.

“It’s happened once or twice,” he told her. “And I hope you like the bagpipe, because they’re Scottish gnomes. That’s where the tree comes from, originally.”

She giggled and turned on her side. “I’m so happy we’re doing this.”

He heard her words with his blood, his joints, his tendons. Even his bones softened. Soon he was touching her at their command.

When they were done kissing, they both lay on their backs and held hands.

“I was at the library yesterday,” she said. “I was just sitting there, reading in the quiet, and it was quiet, aside from the old coughing men.” She paused, and pointed up at the leaf ceiling. “God! The light!”

It was their ceiling now; before it had been his alone but now he was willing to share. Oh, how ready he was for this.

“Anyway.” She squeezed his hand. “All of a sudden, a woman started crying. It was so, so strange.”

“Why? I mean, why was she crying?”

“I had to know, too, so I casually got up and moved closer. And there she was, at a table, reading, and weeping, and not even noticing anyone else.”

“Wow.” He didn’t want to think about libraries or sorrow right now—he was under his tree with a warm hand in his and a woman had just kissed his mouth for the first time in three years. The ache of that was so acute, he had to physically restrain his muscles from contracting so he could roll on top of her and—

“Guess what she was reading,” she said.

“The newspaper.”

“Not too far off.”

“Oprah?”

“No,” Joni said. “A book on the fate of the planet.”

“Whoa,” he said, but it was a misplaced whoa, because he’d forgotten, again, that when people said the planet, they meant this one, Earth, mother ship. He didn’t think of Earth as a planet. Planets were objects swirling with gas and ringed with light and really didn’t concern him, day to day. But this planet. Well.

“I know,” she said. “It made me teary, and guilty, and I got in my old clunker and drove to the ocean, just to make sure it was still there.”

“You want to go there now?” The sea was just thirty or so metres from them. He didn’t want to move, but he liked to leave his options open.

“No,” she said. “I know it’s there. I’d rather just stay right here.”

She had such a way of saying just what she meant, and wanted, that he remembered why his marriage hadn’t worked. His ex had never said what she wanted, directly. She was the queen of passive aggression, and eventually he went mad from the subversive demands.

Joni let go of his hand and turned on her side again. “Do you bring women here often?”

“None ’til you.”

She smiled and put her hand on his sternum. “Can I take you to my favourite place, the next time?”

Was she feeling his chest for a jump in his heart rate?

“I’d love that,” he said. Then he looked at his watch. “Dammit.”

“Already?”

“I know.”

She sighed. “Without dust, no rain.”

“Okay,” he said, slowly, because he had no idea what she meant.

“Raindrops form around dust bits.” She’d understood his slow okay. “And if we didn’t have histories, children, past lives, and so on, we would never have met.”

He felt jealous when he thought of her having a husband, even though the relationship was long over. Her honesty didn’t help. She’d spoken at lunch about her marriage, described intensity so extreme it made him squirm. Back when they were young, she had pursued her husband in the library stacks, and she always found him. She told Andrew she could find him by his scent, a feral thing. They’d done it in a study room, more than once.

That felt like too much information for a first date. But they were both coming to the table—the grass, the burial ground—with luggage. There were many things Andrew was not proud of, and she didn’t need to know any of them, because he had changed. Although he was already sensing that she was the kind of woman who would find out about his past, and he would most likely tell her everything. Men weren’t supposed to change, he knew from what his ex had shown him in her magazines, but he was different. He had changed. Perhaps he’d become sappy, late to romance, but it had never occurred to him to bring his ex here. Only a small example of what he was now versus then.

“We really better go.” She sat up and looked him right in the eye, a challenge in the look. “Promise we’ll do this again?”

He rolled over and got up onto his knees, kissed her forehead, then her lips. “I promise.”
They came out from under the elm and walked back through the cemetery, under the brocade of branches and turning leaves arching over the path. His hand longed to hold hers but now wasn’t the time. There had been no public announcement of anything—no private one, either, but he was lost in the speculations, hope burning in him—so they kept a slight distance from each other as they returned to his car, to the lives they lived, to the world that had vanished while they were lying under his tree.

*

Maddie was waiting for him, sitting on the brick fence around the schoolyard, head bent over a book. She was looking up from time to time for him—he watched her for a minute before getting out of the car and walking up the street—but she didn’t appear worried. A book is better than a friend, she told him once, and he’d felt both bereft and very pleased, in equal parts. He’d tried to arrange more play dates after that. He could see she had fun with the girls who came over, but she was even happier when they left. Maybe it came down to noise, a lack thereof in her life with him, and she simply preferred the quiet. Their visit to the library was as much a part of his week as her washing her hair, the bottle collecting for the class fundraiser, the takeout pad Thai.

“Hi, honey,” he called now, and she looked at him, and then marked her page before putting her book away.

“A bit late,” she said.

“You got some reading done, I see.”

She hopped down from her perch and walked beside him.

“You weren’t worried, I hope.”

She shrugged. “You’ve only forgotten once this month, so I was pretty sure you were coming.”

“Good,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He’d become good at apologies, and so far, at least, they’d worked on her.

*

The phone rang at 9:30 pm, while Maddie was brushing her teeth.

Joni. She needed to see him. He hoped his heart would stay in its cage. Especially when he had to say no, not tonight. He had his daughter.

“I’ll come there,” she suggested.

Maddie was standing in front of him now, Sears Wish Book in hand. They were going to search through the store catalogue together and circle dreams.

“I’m sorry,” he said into the phone, business-like, sorry he had to use that tone. But his kid was watching him, and he didn’t want her to know his secret, that he was a man looking for love. This was not a thing he could share with her. At least, not yet. Not until the relationship evolved into something more, if that ever happened, a day when they would all get together and announce the news. “It’s not possible tonight.”

“Okay,” Joni said, lightly, seeming to know he was adopting a voice, an attitude. “But I’d really like to see you soon.”

“That sounds fine,” Andrew said, more gently. “I’ll speak with you tomorrow.”

“Work?” Maddie asked when he hung up the phone.

“Yep. Ready for bed?”

“No, ready for shopping!” She held up the catalogue and pulled him into her room, where they lay on her bed and imagined these objects making their lives better. Maddie circled at least one item every two pages, until they got to the lingerie section.

“Eww,” she said. “I’m skipping this.”

He didn’t protest, but he wanted to look, to see what to put on his future list.

*

It was eleven by the time he got himself ready for bed. After Maddie went to sleep, he did the dishes, folded laundry, made a grocery list, and answered a few emails. During the weeks she wasn’t with him, his evenings were empty; he still had to do the same things but the volume was halved. Fewer clothes, dishes, groceries. He liked fullness. He was not a loner by nature. Nor a single man. He needed a woman and he was not ashamed to admit the fact, at least to himself. The last few years had been hard, but gradually the debris from his marriage had begun to disperse. Maddie was still here, and not debris at all, but the beautiful result of a non-beautiful union.

When Andrew went to the front door to check the lock, he saw that the moon was full. He opened the door and stood on his porch with the light off to get a better view of the sky. He heard someone walking toward him, high heels striking the sidewalk lightly—a woman, alone. He hoped he wouldn’t startle her. He stayed completely still, and watched as she came into view. She was tall, and had long hair, and was wearing an orange sweater, like—

It was her!

“Joni!” he called out when she was nearly past his house. “Joni!”

She stopped walking and turned to him. “Andrew?”

“Yes! What are you—what a crazy thing!”

She walked up his short walkway. “I know! Is this your place?”

“Yeppers,” he said. “Home sweet home.”

“Cute,” she said. “I was just out for a walk, and—”

“Come and sit.” He wanted to rush over and hug her, but for some reason he was shy.

She sat down beside Andrew on the top step.

“You were out for a walk at this hour?”

“Sure,” she said. “I love the quiet.”

“You’re not afraid?”

She laughed. “Nah.” She put her hand on his knee. “What should I be afraid of, strange men on their porches?”

He felt the warmth from her palm penetrating through his pants to his thigh. “It’s a pretty safe city, I guess.”

“Especially around here.”

They sat there looking at the moon. Joni asked, “Is Maddie asleep?”

“She better be. It’s nearly midnight.”

Joni was quiet for a moment. Then, facing him directly, staring at him the way she had in the cemetery, she asked, “Can I come in?”

He was split in two—one half was already saying yes, of course, let’s go and strip down and see what happens—and the other half was holding the reins, as if this whole thing were an antsy horse, a horse he wasn’t sure of with all its energy, because he wasn’t used to horses. In a second he would have to find out which half was bigger, or stronger, or more in charge. In a second she would need an answer. He looked to the moon for help and all he could see was a breast.

“Come in,” he said. “But I’ll get you to take off your shoes out here. We don’t want to wake the baby.” He said this in a put-on voice, hoping she would pick up his tone, for humour. And she did. She took off her heels and exaggerated her tiptoeing as they entered his house, on the way to doing what he had wanted to do all day.

*

Andrew would not let her walk home by herself at 1:00 am, and because of that, she was hinting at staying. He had to say no. “Maddie, she’s not used to anyone being here but me.”

Joni smiled and stretched her long body out like a slack cat on the rec room couch. “That’s good to hear.”

Andrew blushed, surprising himself. He was self-conscious about his dry spell, sure, but he shouldn’t have reddened in front of the woman who’d just broken it.

“I’ll call you a cab,” he said. He kissed her forehead on the way to the telephone. She sighed, and got up very slowly, as if she could barely move, like a modern dancer’s version of lethargy.

When he had the cab company on the line, he asked her, “Where to?”

“Huh?”

“They need a destination. Your address.”

“Oh, right. Uh, 2578 Browning.”

He repeated what she’d said into the phone, and then hung up. “You live all the way up there?”

“Yeah, well, it’s not the nicest part of town, but it’s cheaper than here.”

“It’s not that,” Andrew said. “It’s just so far away.”

“I told you, I like to walk.” She was pulling her orange sweater on over her head. Her breasts, braless still, pushed out from under her Mexican cotton shirt and made him wish, for the tenth time at least, that it was his ex’s week with Maddie.

“Let’s walk together,” he suggested. “On the weekend. Unless you have your daughters?”

“Not ’til Sunday,” she said.

“Great.” He could already hear the taxi idling at the curb. “I’ll call you and we’ll make a plan.”

Once they were on the porch, after she’d put her heels on and in full view of the cab driver, they kissed. Their first public display.

“Goodnight, Joni,” he whispered. “Thank you.”

She waved as she walked out to the cab, swaying her hips a little more than he’d remembered. He’d done that to her. Loosened things up. He went to bed, feeling like a hero, already dreaming of the weekend.

*

At lunch the next day he told Buddy about her. He kept it basic, but the portrait was rosy. Then, as they were getting their coffees to go, Joni walked past the café.

“Hey!” Andrew said. “That’s her!”

Buddy frowned. “It is? That’s weird, isn’t it? Just like last night?”

Andrew was all smiles as he made a dash for the door, foregoing the cream. “It’s awesome,” he said. “See you back at the office.”

And it was awesome. Two coincidences like that. Maybe it was a sign, although he didn’t lean toward signs. Still, he caught up to her down the block, where she was window-shopping at the bookstore. He wanted to stand behind her and clap his hands to her eyes, like a schoolboy, but he resisted. Instead, he just said, “Well, hello, stranger,” and watched her eyes light up, just for him.

*

Andrew was late getting back to the office. He’d decided to walk the long way around the block with Joni, who was out looking for a birthday present for her youngest daughter. That was the thing about self-employment he envied: flexibility. She wrote curriculum for online education and her timelines were her own. He had a decent boss, but he still felt the pressure of the clock, and he left Joni at the toy store with a kiss—even more public than last night—and dashed back to his building.

Buddy gave Andrew looks all afternoon, and he deflected them all with blank smiles, busying himself with the Johnson account.

“So that was her,” he said when they were getting their last coffee in the staff room.

“Yeah,” Andrew said. “She’s pretty, hey?”

Buddy nodded. “How long you known her?”

“Uh, well, about a year. When our girls started taking ballet in the same class. But we just, you know, last night—”

“Yeah, you told me.” Buddy opened a package of digestive cookies and passed it to Andrew.

“No, thanks. I’ve gotta watch this now,” he said, hands on his little belly.

Buddy took three and set them on top of his mug. “Don’t go changin’,” he half sang.

“To try and please me,” Andrew half sang back. Oh, it had been a wonderful day.

*

When he arrived home, Maddie was already there.

“I thought you had volleyball.” Again he’d come upon her with her head in a book, this time on the front porch, right on the step where he and Joni had sat before moving inside. He didn’t know if the flush in his neck and cheeks was from the memory or for mixing up Maddie’s schedule again.

“My coach was sick, so Jane’s mom dropped me off.”

“Ah,” he said, relieved. “But you could’ve called me.”

Maddie shrugged. “It’s okay. I’m really into this book and I wanted to read.” She stuck her face back into the pages.

Andrew slowly looked around, at the porch, at the yard. “I have an idea,” he said. “Let’s hide you a key.”

She closed her book. “Really? Like in a secret compartment?”

Andrew smiled, but not beyond what she would tolerate. He had learned the hard way to hide his amusement at her reactions. Often she closed up like an anemone, humiliated. “Something like that,” he said. “Help me find a spot?”

They examined every nook and cranny, and eventually decided on the pot that held the rosemary, at the end of the porch. They put the key right in the dirt, in a Ziploc bag Maddie had raced in to get from the kitchen.

“Only for emergencies,” he told Maddie. “And times like these. And, it’s a secret, so no telling friends. Okay?”

“Okay,” she said and gave him a spontaneous hug. Apparently this new freedom was a big deal. He was ready to give the freedom to her, if she could show she could handle it.

*

The next day after school, Maddie went to a friend’s to work on a project. But when Andrew got home, his front door was unlocked, and jazz piano was coming at him in waves. Shit, shit, shit. He’d been watched. Invaded. And only a day after he’d hidden the key!

Just before he called the police, he wondered: Would a robber play the radio? Had Maddie’s schedule changed again?

“Hello?”

“Hello!” a voice called back.

Joni. She was lying on the couch in a sundress—or was it a nightgown?—reading the book he kept on the coffee table: The World in Photographs.

“Welcome home!” she said and closed the book. She opened her arms like she was a showgirl. “VoilĂ !”

“How did you—”

“Well, I figured you might be the kind of guy who keeps a key hidden, so I just had a little look around.”

Andrew perched on the arm of the couch. “That’s so weird,” he said slowly. “I just put the key out there yesterday.” He was still holding his cellphone, 9-1-1 keyed in but not sent. He looked at her, smiling on his blue blanket. “How did you know?”

She laughed. “I didn’t, silly. I just wanted to surprise you, and there it was!” She got up on her knees and kissed him. “I thought we could have fun together.”

She smelled like oranges. He loved oranges. They reminded him of Christmas and Florida and mornings. He had to ignore the memories right now.

“But, Joni, what if I’d walked in with Maddie? Or what if she came home alone and found you here?”

She sat on her heels and smiled. “I would’ve hid in a hurry.”

“And then what? Slipped out the door when we weren’t looking?”

She nodded. “Sure.”

“Joni,” he said. “We are not on television. It’s just—just too weird, coming home, finding you here. Not that I don’t like seeing you, but it’s just odd, you know? Like yesterday, you just being there on the street when I was out for lunch, and the other night . . .”

He stopped. He felt like he was disintegrating as he spoke, the space between his cells growing, as if he were more empty than full. Porous, like coral. And in those spaces, the truth came flowing through.

She was on his couch, no longer smiling, but fixing her eyes on him with a sort of animal stare, as if she’d been cornered but still felt confident that she could get out alive. Or maybe he was making that part up. Maybe the look on her face meant she’d misjudged him, couldn’t believe he’d jump to such a crazy notion, a woman chasing him.

He looked back at her, matched her gaze, and waited for her to speak. He was waiting to hear the words that would make everything go back to normal, a return to where they’d been just a few days ago, eating sandwiches, talking about their children.

She started to cry. And try as he might, he could not just sit there and watch her, waiting for a decent explanation. That explanation did not exist, and never would. He pulled her to his chest.

To stalk was to pursue, to track, to chase and hunt—it meant you were in pursuit of something worth following. There was so much risk these days, with privacy all but gone, cyberstalking, identity theft, and fraud of various types, that Andrew had never given it a second thought. But who really did? Who walked around expecting someone to be hunting them? Who felt worthy enough of this sort of behaviour, except criminals and celebrities? Could this woman, a mother, sobbing against his shirt, really be guilty of this? Did he give off some sort of scent she could track, the same way her husband had? No, Andrew was just an ordinary guy. Not worth any sort of pursuit, least of all with this kind of determination.

“Joni,” he said softly. “Tell me what’s going on.”

She pulled herself back so she could look at him. Her face was red and wet; she tried to smile. “You’re not angry?”

He shook his head. “No. Just confused.”

“Oh, thank God,” she said. “I can handle anything but anger.” She moved over to make room for him on the couch, and patted the space. “Sit down, Andy. There’s so much to talk about!”

Something in her voice made Andrew’s hair prickle. Her expression had changed again, from sorry to enthusiastic. Her eyes were wide, her cheeks flushed.

“I thought we could go here for our first weekend away.” She picked up a glossy brochure from the coffee table. “And then we could go back, for our honeymoon, you know, to reminisce. I know the girls would love it—this place even has a waterslide!” She opened the brochure to a photo of the pool. “Isn’t it perfect for us?”

Yes, she was definitely wearing a nightie, pale green and covered in tiny leaves. As she spoke, he imagined her buying it with him in mind, because of their picnic under the elm tree. His elm tree.

He began to count.

*

"Weeping Camperdown" will be included in Julie Paul's forthcoming collection, The Pull of the Moon, which will be available September 30, 2014 (Brindle & Glass Publishing). 
 Julie Paul is the author of The Jealousy Bone and The Pull of the Moon. Her stories, poems, and essays have been published in numerous journals, including the New Quarterly, the Malahat Review, the Fiddlehead, the Dalhousie Review, Geist, and Canadian Living, and in the anthologies Coming Attractions 07 and Women Behaving Badly. Learn more about Julie at juliepaul.ca.

Photo credit: Ryan Rock.

Fiction #53: Idas Ridaktum

The Interrogation

I looked at the man out of the corner of my eye on the subway. I was coming home from work and something struck me as odd about the man. The man already stood out due to his appearance, but that wasn’t why he was odd to me. They, and by they I mean the Maulanas and Muftis, would say that it takes a lot of faith, or Imaan, to do what that man was doing. To dress the way he was dressed, respecting and adhering to the Sunnah. He was dressed in one of those long white robes, a jubbah, a black cap covering his head and a full beard affixed his face. Many people looked at that man and thought ‘Muslim’.  Everyone in the Muslim community would commend him for his strong character and they would silently use him as a paragon of virtue in all sermons that came after. We were all meant to feel shame that we were not also dressing the same.

I was a grown man though. This meant I could feel whatever I want. I was able to feel whatever I wanted because I disobeyed the doctrine of organized Islam and asked questions. One example of this is ‘What does keeping a full beard and adhering to the Sunnah have anything to do with being a good person and achieving salvation? Those things may instill discipline, show a commitment to one’s faith, and a respect for the tradition of the Prophet (PBUH), but they will not be the transgression that bars you from the gates of Jannah. Ever.’

I looked at the man out of the corner of my eye on the streetcar, the fragrance of his itr softly emanating towards me and I thought something subversive. I knew him. The smell took me back to a different time, when we were all younger, and that fragrance pervaded the air and breathy halls of an ancient building only twenty years old. I remembered. I knew that man once, when we were all still boys, trying to figure out what faith really meant and how important it was.

We were teenagers, fifteen or sixteen or something. He was new to Canada, having just arrived from Pakistan that year. He was a few years younger than me, quiet, shy. He was dressed in a bright green and purple wool sweater and it was the middle of May. I think someone had told him that Canada was supposed to be cold. He always had the same glossy brown pants on, the kind you’d find at a disco in the 70’s. He was a funny looking kid by Western standards, and seeing a new kid dressed like that in the hallways at school burned an image in my brain that I carried throughout the rest of the week. I saw the kid again at the mosque on Saturday to my dismay. I was taken aback by seeing him there. There had always been a stark divide between secular and religious in my life. The two had always been separate. When I left school for the day I could expect to not see any of those people again until the next day, or Monday, or September. Seeing him on Saturday reminded me that he was like me, that he wasn’t that much different than I, and we had a lot in common despite how badly I wanted to deny it. Seeing him there on Saturday in his glossy brown pants, I had to admit that he didn’t’ look that out of place anymore. His outfit fit in a place that didn’t value fashion. I specifically remember hearing that evening that God favors the austere and Spartan person. Whether that was through poverty or a concern for the otherworldly didn’t matter. That kid was austere as shit, through no choice of his own. Later that evening a Maulana approached my father and I after the sermon was over and we were preparing to leave. My face fell. He had the new kid in tow with another man who could only be the kid’s father.

The Maulana gave a warm Salaam to my father and I. We sat and I began to wonder why my father looked unbothered. The Maulana gestured to me and spoke in Urdu. I could only hope that the man hadn’t heard anything troubling about me from my teachers in class. From what I could gather, it appeared that the new boy was having trouble adjusting in school. His English wasn’t great and he needed help acclimating to his new life here. All shit that I could’ve told them when I saw him in that outfit on the first day. I could tell where the conversation was headed and I grew uncomfortable. The last thing I needed was a kid who didn’t know English tailing me at school. It just wasn’t a good look.

But good looks didn’t matter to some people. I was young, and when you’re young, you’re an asshole sometimes. I wanted to be left alone by that kid and anyone else who didn’t know English. Even though I was born here, I was still desperate to prove it. I didn’t feel like my identity and citizenship were infallible. The way it was ingrained and a part of those rich white kids. I felt Canadian, but that feeling didn’t feel impervious. I didn’t want anyone mistaking me for someone who didn’t know English. This was my mortal fear. That someone would look at me and surmise that I was fresh off the boat. That fear made me a dick.

I needed everyone to know I knew English when they looked at me. So I was an asshole to that kid.

My father of course volunteered my company at school to help the kid adjust, much to my chagrin. Both my father and the Maulana were oblivious to my teenage discomfort and haughty protest, my crossed arms invisible to them. You may read this and believe that they just simply didn’t care, but the honest truth was that they were blind to my silent protests. They didn’t see or understand or care for a healthy social life. The other kid saw it all though, and I’m sure he knew, in that silent unspoken language we shared. All of us, the sons of religious immigrants, whenever we wanted to convey anything contrary to what was being displayed, could do it with a look, a nod, a glare. When words are profane, we have languages born in darkness, told through a touch, a glance, a breath of hot air. His hurt eyes recognized my silent protest in the Mosque that night.

The next week at school, the kid made a feeble half-hearted attempt to sit at my lunch table in the afternoon. As an asshole, I felt no empathy for him, only pity and awkwardness. He ate his lunch in silence, the smell of Daal and garlic making me brush the air in front of my nose and wrinkle it in disgust. I scarfed my hot dogs so I could continue playing Magic. He could feel his own unwanted presence in the crashing, rocking lunch room and he stood up to leave early. I would see him around in school afterwards, but never again around me. Even if he had stuck around we had nothing in common. There was nothing for him to do around me. At that age, people form friendships because of shared interest. He had been in the country a month, and the way we saw our religion and faith was completely different. His faith was a part of him, it directly dictated his identity. He loved cricket, and action movies where they cracked chicken bones to simulate kicks and punches.

I liked girls with big asses, Magic, Pokemon, comic books and hockey. What was I supposed to talk to this kid about? Still, I feel bad, horrible, guilty. That’s why I’m writing this all down. So you know what happened to him, and because I feel partly responsible. You decide.

About a few weeks before school let out for the summer, I was called into the principal’s office. I wasn’t worried though, I’d done nothing wrong, trouble wasn’t really my thing. I was surprised though to see the new kid sitting there, looking scared. Adeel, that was his name. I remember it now. Adeel was sitting there, looking scared, his eyes were wide, and he gulped, bobbing his Adam’s apple as I walked in. The principal, a frazzled woman with curly black hair sticking out all over the place motioned for me to sit beside him, facing her across the long dark, deep plum desk.

“Do you know him? Adeel. He’s new.” The principal, Mrs. Braithwaite asked, her fingertips on her chin, pointed like a gun while she waited for my response.

“Yeah,” I choked out, still unsure if what I was saying could get me into trouble. Mrs. Braithwaite studied me for a minute, obviously trying to discern if I was lying, her suspicion clear in her blue eyes. I knew what she was going and yet still her look scared me. No kid in middle school wants to be in a principal’s office. At that age, it’s seldom for anything good.

“Adeel was in an incident in gym class last week. I understand that you share a gym class with him and Megan?”

“Yes, that’s right.” I admitted, unsure of why I felt guilty. And what did Megan have anything to do with this?

“Well someone’s accused him of something. Something very serious.”

I didn’t understand. The kid was way too quiet. He didn’t even have any friends. What could he have possibly gotten up to?

“He says that you may be able to clear his name.” Mrs. Braithwaite paused again, letting the brevity of the situation sink into the cold, carpeted room. I was nonplussed, still unsure of how I fit into this whole thing. Last week’s gym class, as far as I could recall was uneventful. Just another day, we played basketball if I remembered correctly.

“We played basketball.” I offered quietly, shrugging my shoulders. I wasn’t sure what else to say.

“Adeel has been accused of a sexual assault,” She said clearly, her voice dripping with cold steel.

No, it couldn’t be me, I remember thinking immediately. He was an immigrant. And even though I was born here, I felt the same. We were way too scared and intimidated to even talk to any girl. They were too different from us. I ventured a look towards Adeel, he had his head down, staring at the grey pukey carpet so I couldn’t read his face.

“Do you remember seeing anything strange last Thursday? After gym class I mean? Mr. Rogelio says you were one of the last ones to leave? You were collecting balls after class for talking out of turn?”
It came back to me. I’d made a stupid comment out loud about the Appalachian mountains being in Appalachia and Mr. Rogelio told me to collect the rest of the balls strewn throughout the room as punishment. I was throwing them long distance into the storage closet as the class filed off into the changing rooms. I remember seeing Megan limp a little. It looked like she was trying to hide the awkward gait while she talked with her friend. Megan wasn’t really the gym type anyways. Her and a few friends usually just sat on the bench and watched, taking a zero for the day from the gym teacher. That day was much of the same for them.

I was in the change room alone afterwards and I remember rushing so I could catch up to my friends at the lockers. On my way out, I remember seeing Adeel, walking in the opposite direction. He smiled weakly at me and I pretended not to see it. I was pathetic, but so was his situation. He’d become famous in school. Every day after school his father met him at the entrance and they took the subway home together. He was fourteen years old, taking the subway home with his father. And that man gave no indication that he was on his way home from work either. He came in sweatpants and an oversized plaid shirt, sandals and a toupee adorned on his head. You could set your watch to his appearances at the front doors after school every day. Poor kid never stood a chance.

I looked at the principal. “I’m sorry...I don’t think I saw anything weird.”

“Are you sure? Think harder.” The principal repeated, her brows furrowed now, creases appearing on creases on her forehead. I was starting to feel accused.

Was Megan’s limp even a big deal? Did it matter that she was already limping before gym class was even over? Was it worth mentioning? Did it even matter that I saw Adeel walking down the hall after gym class that day? I didn’t want to indict anybody. I didn’t want to accuse someone of anything or create a problem where there wasn’t one. My deference for a white girl commanded me to stay silent.

“No I don’t think there was anything.” I said.

“You were the last one out of the changing room that day. Did you see either Megan or Adeel?”
It was like she knew something, or felt something was off. She was still fishing and I could tell now that Adeel had told her that he’d seen me in the hallway after school that day. As a little bitch, I wanted no part of it. A scared boy who just wanted to be left alone. Rape accusations were the type of things that followed immigrants around. White kids weren’t being pulled into offices to vouch for other white kids accused of assault in my mind.

I just wanted to be left alone. I wanted the questioning to end. I wanted to go back to class. I didn’t want to be involved in this weird problem that wasn’t mine and never could be.

“No, I didn’t see anything.” I couldn’t look Adeel in the eye. I told myself at the time that that was because I was too focused on the principal.

“Okay, That will be all. Thanks for your help Ahmad.”

She stood up and led me to the door. I hurried and didn’t bother looking back to where Adeel was still sitting. Stuck in his chair. I didn’t want the image of him alone in that cold room burned into my brain. But I felt it all the same, when the door closed behind me with a soft click. I knew he was in there, cold, confused, in a flurry of grey law. All for the sake of persevering my stupid teenage identity, I’d failed a boy in his hour of need. So I could go on, pretending I was the same as everyone else.

I remember what happened to him. I remember my stomach churning when I saw him next. He was suspended for two weeks. Word around the school was they couldn’t expel him because there was no concrete evidence for his crime. He’d got off lightly because of Megan’s reputation, and his lack of one. We all knew it might’ve been bullshit but none of us ever spoke up or said anything. We were all too meek and afraid in that lunchroom cacophony of a cafeteria where a ragtag group of Bengalis and Tamils sat amidst a sea of loud voices. The school kept it all hush-hush, and likely only suspended him to appease the girl’s parents. Megan never looked him in the eye ever again, and when Adeel came back, he was a changed man. Laughing angels spread their wings before him to tread on. His quiet demeanor became an austere one, the eyes of the afterlife quietly judging everything around him in the classroom.

When I took the subway to school a few weeks later, my heart sank even further in calamity. Adeel and his father were taking the subway together. And once again, I shook my head in awe at the fear and reprehension it took to go so far. But what really brought it home to me, what really made me uncomfortable, was that they were holding hands. A fourteen year old holding his father’s hand, looking nonplussed. Should a false rape accusation really affect someone that bad? I don’t know. I know that Adeel’s father walked him to school after and promptly turned back around at the gate and went back home, his Imaan enough to guard him from Fitna on his commute back home.

After I graduated I never saw him again, until that day on the streetcar a few weeks back, the musk of itr permeating throughout the car. It is said that angels keep their company around that smell. They find themselves around a blessed, holy man, and create a gathering of light around him. A man so sure of himself, and steadfast in his convictions, his faith lays waste to his doubts.

His doubts never even got a chance.

*


Idas is a writer currently squandering away his twenties working full time as a press release editor. Most of his spare time is spent either writing or reading, and the rest of it in contending with an existential crisis most Saturday nights at 4:30 AM after watching his fifth re-run of iCarly. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto, having studied English, and has largely remained unpublished until now.

Photo credit: Jason Liang

Fiction #53: J.K. Nolan

# 344

Vested in this brief memoir will be no similitude, allegory, or metaphor; the reality of the prosaic word is adequate encasement enough for one woman’s suffering. If the humble chronicler would seem to transgress his prescribed simplicity, he does so because on occasion our lady’s suffering was to her something more than mortal. He forgives her histrionics, and allows her, in his account of her endurance, correspondent embellishment in salute of her pain – as, no doubt, will the reader.

Our lady’s last years were spent in a small cottage. At first there was nothing particularly especial to remark about the residence – it shared all the common characteristics of the cottage in general – but where the writer has decided to pick up this history the cottage’s outward appearance was in a state of change, and had been for some time yet: shrouded in great trees, overhung with foliage, and denied sun: trapped in this moisture its wooden frame was rotting; trapped in this perpetual umbrage, seized by thick vines, enmeshed in moss and lichen, its wooden frame was becoming an extension of the forest in which it was isolated, soon to be reclaimed by the survivors of antiquity.

Of the cottage’s inward appearance, however, there was no semblance of change. While outwardly the cottage passed through temporality as do all human monuments – degenerately – inwardly the cottage’s aspect produced upon the mind the overwhelming impression that it was transcending time; that while without the worms were burrowing their slow way through the pine, there was a point at which they must cease in their efforts, being unable as it were to proceed any further.

For the air was not upset by mold or putrefaction. The fire burned steadily upon the hearth; the crucifix hung in good shape above the mantle, an effigy of grotesque contortion and provincial law gleaming in the glow. The empty kettle sat unrusted upon the hob: it, too, dazzling, sharing in the constant flame. A sizeable clock was lodged in a corner, but it did neither tick nor knell, its brazen pendulum did swing neither this way or that. No second, no minute, no hour was in that cottage ever announced; no day, no week, no month ever marked; and the light never made its way through the walls to guide us. Though once upon a time there may have been movement in our lady’s cottage, it had all tapered into insensibility, caught up and frozen in interminable monotony. And at its core was our lady, fixed to a cushion on her plastic-protected love-seat; as its very source, was her affliction, a trammelling weight upon her old, frail breast. Fixed to her cushion, as the clock was lodged in its corner, her hand outstretched on a side-table, in what might have been a creeping withdrawal from the blackened butt of a final cigarette, our lady was prisoner to a past that had become eternal.

What had cast her into this strait was the commonest occurrence of all – death. Our lady was not exceptional; she was ordinary indeed. But in the eruption of sudden loss relativity disappeared. There was no room left beyond her exquisite pain for comfort in generalizations. No extrapolation, no calculation, no arithmetic could soothe her; no rule, no principle, no adage could amend her woe; no philosophy could remedy the stupor into which she fell when Vimy Ridge became the grave of her dearest husband: when the bootprints, bones, and blood of his compatriots formed his tombstone, and the cacophony of cries, canons, and gunshots composed his epitaph – for none of this artifice had the power to resurrect, and restore. The globe shrank, and her bereaved spirit, voluminous with anguish, enveloped it.

 A gravel road once led to her cottage, but after the Official car drove down it, and the Official man delivered the Official telegram, notable for being writ upon a model, and conferred his Official condolences, notable for proceeding from a sympathy that had to be pretended for a few hundred thousand other mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers, and sisters, and Officially disengaged himself from the scene – and our lady was left to weep in a crumpled heap upon the patio – well, then the road fell into disuse, and strewn about it in course of time were the leavings from those same survivors of antiquity who denied the sun to our lady’s cabin, as the Official tidings would blot out forever our lady’s future. The Great War was undertaken to insure the freedom of a few select nations – a Great shame that it should have enslaved so many of their peoples; that blinded by a Great dream the political acumen of our prized state officials should prove so short-sighted, and fettered to their failure, that our lady should have felt so completely the Great disillusionment.

Fixed to her spot on the couch, our lady’s outstretched hand before the ashtray appears no longer to be in a posture of withdrawal, but is rather pointing to an object on the mantle. Perched on that cement slab, beneath the gleaming crucifix, is a frame. Our lady points at it, griping to express a truth. From within the sunken sockets she stares with vacant eyes; and from within the frame life stares back at her – yet a life prematurely taken, made but a picture too soon.

The romantic might call our lady’s loss tragic; the sentimentalist pathetic; the moralist useful; the philosopher a necessary evil; the religious a divine operation; the poet, languishing in his words, a cruel, undeserved, sundering of husband and wife. But we, as a confession to human weakness, will forbear to classify – will content ourselves with the conclusion that behind our lady’s sunken vacancy abound the images, militated by ungovernable passions, of destruction, battle, blood, and an unknown place on Vimy Ridge, marked by the cross she supplied there in his name. And that, while this memoir of our lady’s suffering is not unique, yet it is one to confuse our notions of life and death.

*

Writer, musician, philosopher, student, teacher, lover, friend.

Photo credit: Natasha Kilfoil

Monday, June 30, 2014

Fiction #52

New fiction! Issue #52
Submissions now open for #53!

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #52: Ann Rushton


No Campfire

Ryan had been going out with Jeremy for several months, and unlike many—no, pretty much all of the men she had normally saw—he made no moves to sleep with her.  They danced around it at the end of each date (a kiss, another kiss, another kiss) and Ryan thought it strange that it took them so long.  She’d never felt this way before, blind with lust and infatuation, wanting a man so badly she could hardly think of anything else, and his unwillingness to participate confounded her, as if something about her repelled him.  

Finally, though, she’d persuaded him to stay the night, late on a Monday in May, long after they met, and she found Jeremy almost regretful in his lovemaking, keeping his eyes closed, barely kissing her on the mouth as they rolled in the sheets of her unmade bed. His body smelled like sweat and a faint undercurrent of odor, and she found it as erotic as anything else. She had never been with a man with such formidable skin, his hands rough and yet at once as soft as her own. She came with the tanginess of a bee sting, surprising her, and she inhaled sharply, but he didn’t make a noise as he finished. After, he didn’t speak to her for several moments, and then traipsed silently into the bathroom.

When he returned, still naked, she said, “You want to stay? You can stay.”  Trying not to sound needy. He folded himself into the bed as she stood and opened her dresser.

“You’re getting dressed?”

“I can’t sleep naked,” she said, pulling on her gray pajama pants. “It’s my thing. I get too cold.”
He looked at her, his face harder than she felt it should be, considering what they had previously done. “Come on, girl. Take them off and get into bed with me.”

She wondered if either of them slept that night. She stared at the clock, distracted by the night noises streaming through the open window—cars dashing by, crickets chirping, a sliver of a song from a car radio. She recalled, out of nowhere, her best friend from high school, telling her, “you need to guide the guy, you know, tell them what you want. Otherwise they screw it all up.”  Ryan had lost her virginity when she was sixteen, and the boy, whose name she could not recall, truly had no idea what he was doing. There had been others, sure, but the sex was nothing special. But Jeremy. Jeremy knew what he was doing. A kiss on the curve of her breast, a finger resting on the inside of her thigh, the look of sheer concentration on his face as he entered her, this conglomeration of movements made her feel as if she were the only person in the world.

In the morning, he made them coffee and lay in bed as she dressed for work, his hands behind his head. She liked his appearance of course, you can’t take that away from a woman, the essentials of unrefined attraction. She grabbed a moment to appreciate his firm upper torso, the beige hair that grew from the top of his amber, freckle-dappled chest towards his genitals. “So,” she said. “That was fun.”

He said, with a wry smile, “You can call it that.”

“Yeah,” she replied, not sure what he meant. Later, he walked out with her into the brilliant, sparkly May sun, and they kissed briefly before she drove off. Halfway to work, Ryan realized that they never made plans, as they had with any other date. The weekend after next was Memorial Day—earlier, in passing, he mentioned he had the weekend off. Jeremy was a cop, his schedule was wacky, working nights and weekends, so she had assumed he meant he wanted to spend this free weekend with her.  Now she felt foolish.

After he didn’t call for several days, she berated herself for sleeping with him.  She counted the errors she had made.  It was too early.  He took sex too seriously.  He felt she was easy. She was easy.  She was too young for him—twenty-five to his forty.  But still, before she went to bed each night that week, like a fool, she double-checked the cell phone to see if maybe the battery had died.  By the end of the week, tired of waiting by the phone, hoping for a distraction, she made plans to meet a bunch of girlfriends for drinks after she finished her shift at the restaurant. 

Ryan had two jobs—her daytime job was at a corporate mailroom in downtown Kansas City, her evenings were spent waiting tables at Chuckster’s, a sports bar in the suburbs.  She’d had a relationship with the owner, David, one of the biggest mistakes of her life.  (As if this was easy for her to define.)  David was the wild boy grown up, the wild boy she always coveted.  Early thirties, tattoos down his arms, longish brown hair. But David had been ensnared already. He had a wife, he had three kids.  She loved David, what she figured was love, anyway, but he was unwilling to leave his wife and kids for her, even after she had become pregnant the year before. When she told him, he had not reacted in the way she wanted. Instead, he became angry and defensive, and later, hurt.  He couldn’t leave his wife, he told Ryan, crying.  He was part owner of the series of restaurants with her family.  If he left Julie, he’d have nothing. He loved Ryan, he claimed, but she knew he didn’t mean it.  He didn’t love her. He loved his wife. He loved the kids he already had.   She had an abortion, telling him instead that she had miscarried, and the relief on his face confirmed what she knew about his true feelings.  She had only been a fling. But she couldn’t stop seeing him, even after everything. He was like a drug, additive and harmful, but she didn’t care.  It felt too good to be with him.  Then she met Jeremy and everything changed. As if she had a future. 

After she had broken it off with David, he had come around to her apartment, wanting her back. He claimed that eventually he’d figure out something, but in the meantime, couldn’t they just keep on with what they were doing?  He had given her a box, small enough for a piece of jewelry but not a ring box.  She had kicked him out, had thrown the box down the laundry chute. She didn’t want him back, she told him. She was no longer a sucker. She had moved on, and you’re an asshole.  He smiled gently, almost condescendingly, as if he didn’t believe her, but he left her alone, scheduling her on his off days, and when they occasionally crossed paths at work, he treated her like any other server, kind but not invested. 

David was working the bar that night, looking especially attractive in a red-wine dress shirt and blue-jeans, his hair falling over his forehead, longer than usual. The service slowed after an initial rush of early dinner patrons, mostly older couples and a few families with little kids who crumbled crackers all over the carpeting. After Ryan finished her last table and went to check out, David called out to her across the bar, “Buy you a beer?”

She clocked out and hung up her apron, then sat at a stool, across from his perch inside the counter. “Boulevard?” She nodded, and watched as he poured. “How you been?”

“Good, good,” she replied. He flipped a coaster in front of her and set the beer down. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” he replied. The bar, which stood parallel to the remainder of the restaurant, was separated by a wood-paneled wall, with mirrors from the top of the cherry-lined booths to the tall ceilings. To Ryan, it had the same feeling as a funhouse, right down to the tiled floors. The televisions, all seven of them, were on mute, and Bonnie Raitt pulsed over the sound system. Several couples occupied the booths, and a group mingled at the edge of the bar.

He gave himself a beer and stood in front of her. “Doing anything fun this weekend?”

Ryan shook her head. “Going out with the girls.”  She sipped, glanced at him. “You?” 

He shrugged. “Julie took the girls to her folks’ house down at the lake. We’re spending a little time apart.”

“Oh,” she said.

“No, it’s, no...”  He peered to his left. The bar was becoming more crowded, the music and conversation made it hard for her to hear. “I better jump in,” he said, “but don’t leave.” As he stepped back to speak to his help, Ryan’s phone rang.

Ryan’s heart leapt. And there was his name.  She left the bar, trailing her way into the back of the restaurant. “Hi,” she said, tucking herself in to a corner of the break-room, away from the noise.

“Are you out?” Jeremy asked.

“I’m at Chuckster’s. I just got off,” she said. She paused, willing herself to control her breathing.  “What are you doing?”

“I’m home,” he said.

“You’re not working tonight?”

“I had a buddy who needed some nights off earlier this week so I switched. I worked eight nights in a row. I’m beat.”

So that was the reason. “Okay. I wish you would have said something to me. Because…I mean, after the other night…”

“Said what to you?”

“That you, you know…that you were busy.”

“I was too busy to call you and tell you I was busy,” he said. Was he joking? She couldn’t tell.

“Well, what about now? You want to come out?” she asked. She crooked her finger in her other ear, straining to hear his voice, positioning her hip against the wall.

“No.” 

Ryan waited for an explanation but there wasn’t one. “Why not?” she finally asked.

Instead of answering, he said, “Listen, I’m going down to the Lake of the Ozarks tomorrow. You want to go backpacking with me?  We could stay overnight and sleep under the stars. What do you say?”

“Tomorrow?” 

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know,” she said, startled by the sudden request. “I’m not sure.”

“Well, just give me a call in the morning if you want to go,” he said. “I’ll have everything you need. I can even have an extra backpack packed for you.” There was a beat, and he said, “I’ll want to leave early. If you want to go call me before 6:00.”

“A.M.?”

“Yep.”

“That’s pretty early.”

“Yep.”

She bit her tongue so hard it bled. “That’s too early.”

“Ryan,” Jeremy said, his tone serious. “I’d like for you to come.” A beat. “I think it would be good for you to get out in the fresh air.”

She couldn’t imagine being angrier. “You don’t call for a week and then this? What is this?”

“You’re mad at me about that? Really?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m mad at you.” She found this confession freeing. “I don’t like being jerked around.”

“I was working. I wasn’t jerking you around.” He didn’t say anything for a moment. She pushed her finger further into her ear, thinking maybe she missed something. “So, tomorrow.”

“Yeah, well. We’ll see.” Pissed, she shut her phone with a snap and threw it into her purse, and walked back to the bar. 

David sat at the stool next to hers, drinking the remainder of his beer. “Look, I’ve wanted to talk to you.”

She cut him off. “You want to come out tonight?”

“You sure?”

She shrugged. “Why not, right?”

They met the girls at Tommy’s in Westport, after making out in the front of his Escalade for a half-hour, him placing his hand between her legs. “Later,” she kept whispering. “Later.”  His lips felt different from Jeremy’s, not so fulfilling.

The night was hot, strange for late May, with a dry wind that spread grit into their eyes and teeth. Although she could tell by looking at her girlfriends that they were pissed—primarily because David was sitting next to Ryan with a protective elbow wrapped around her neck—it was too loud for them to say as much.  They had listened to Ryan complain about David for over two years, and had been cautiously hopeful, they said, when she proclaimed it was over.  Music blared from the speakers, old school—Magic Carpet Ride, Paperback Writer, Barracuda. Finally, David went off to the bathroom, and Ryan, as she suspected, was attacked.

“What the fuck?  I thought you were done with him. ,” Gretchen said. She had on a tight, black t-shirt dress that showed her bumps and curves.

“Maybe not,” Ryan said. “He said he and his wife were taking a break.”

“Even so,” Molly said, through a haze of cigarette smoke, “this was supposed to be us tonight.”

“Gee, sorry,” Ryan said. She was drunk. She and David had three beers and a couple tequila shots before leaving Chuckster’s, and then she’d drank three more beers in succession after they entered the bar. She hadn’t eaten; the one excuse she could make. She drank the rest of the beer in front of her. “If that’s how you really feel then I guess I’ll just take off now.” She grabbed her purse and wormed her way through the crowd towards the men’s room. David exited as she approached. “They’re pissed,” she said, wrapping her arms around him. “Pissed that I brought you.”

They kissed. She willed his kiss to be more satisfying, but it was useless. “Let’s go,” he said, taking her arm and weaving them out the bar.

David and Julie, Ryan knew, owned a house in Prairie Village, but he drove south of Westport, and took 1-70 east towards Independence. He had the air conditioner on high, and Ryan, dressed only in her Chuckster’s t-shirt and a short jean skirt, was freezing. “Where are we going?”

“My brother’s place. He’s in Boca this weekend and he wanted me to water his plants.” 
He placed a hand on her upper thigh as he drove, his pinky finger edging towards her panty. Traffic was heavy on the interstate, despite it being close to 11:00. Ryan watched as the billboards flipped by, aware but not really aware as his finger inched closer to her crotch. “You’ve shaved lately, haven’t you?” he said. “Yeah, I like that.”

She had not shaved for him, and at the thought put her hand on his wrist. “Just pay attention to the driving, okay?”

“Hard to get? Is this a new leaf or something?” he said, drawing his hand back to the steering wheel. “I kind of like it.”

Ryan drew a deep, inverted breath. “No,” she said, “I just know that there are cops crawling all over the interstate on a Friday night.”

“Yeah?” David said. “How do you know that?”

She shook her head, peering at her reflection in the window. “Duh. It’s Friday night. You run a bar, you don’t know that?”  When her mouth moved, it appeared as if it were melting. “I need another drink,” she said. “Do you suppose he has something in his place to drink?”

David’s brother lived in a complex that housed several identical structures, inside a terraced and fenced security system. David steered the car through the web of brightly-lit apartment buildings and parking spaces, and he pulled up to a spot in front of one of the units, far as one could go.

He led her inside, up a tall flight of stairs that were grey and stained. They were greeted at the door by three howling cats. The kitchen was littered with pizza boxes and beer cans, dirty dishes, porn magazines. “My brother isn’t exactly the cleanest person,” David said, rummaging through the fridge. He came up with two beers. “Here we go,” he said, handing her one. Ryan had never met the brother. She didn’t even know his name.

She had to lean against the counter to stop her head from whirling. “Thanks,” she said, drinking.

“Come here, you,” he said, taking her hand. They walked down the short hall to a bedroom. Like the rest of the house, it was a mess—a Budweiser banner on the wall, one corner flopping like a limp hand, clothes strewn, and a full ashtray next to the bed. David took off his shirt. “I’ve wanted this, I’ve wanted you,” he said, kissing her, pulling her top over her head. He stopped. “Why aren’t you wearing it?”

“Wearing what?”

“The necklace I got you. The claddagh necklace.”  He touched the middle of her sternum with his forefinger. “Should hit you right here.”

Ryan closed her eyes. He had given her a claddagh, thinking, somehow, that it would resonate with her. “I must have left it at home,” she said. “I guess I don’t want to lose it.”  She felt like she was drowning as she faded in and out of consciousness.

When Ryan woke, David was sleeping on the futon next to her, naked. She fitfully recalled what had happened. Nothing, it seemed like, but then she remembered his orgasm in her mouth, swallowing his saltiness before she had passed out. She lifted her thumping head and saw the time on the black, rectangular alarm clock next to the bed, 5:05 a.m.

She made it to the hall bathroom just in time. She puked, and then in the mirror she spied an almost unrecognizable face, with mascara and eyeliner streaked across her cheeks. She wiped it away with a cracked cake of soap and dried her face with a towel that smelled of cat pee.
She slid out of the apartment, trying not to look around. She went down the stairs, and through the glass front door she could see she was right off the interstate. It was just beginning to get light out, the sky a hazy dark blue. She had never been to Jeremy’s house but she knew where he lived, knew that she was close, maybe a five-minute car ride. She took her phone out of her pocket and dialed Jeremy. It was 5:13

He answered immediately.

“Hi,” she said. “It’s me. It’s Ryan.”

“Ryan,” he hummed into the phone, sounding pleased. “You want to go with me this morning?”

“Jeremy,” she said. “I fucked up.”  The parking lot was quiet and empty. She sat on the curb, holding her spinning head in her free hand. From the highway she smelled the asphalt and the rubber burning from the tires.

“How did you fuck up?” Jeremy asked, his voice steady.

“Jeremy,” she said, again, swallowing a hard sob. “I’m sorry.”

“Hey,” he said. “Hey, are you okay?”

“I’m okay. I just—I need a ride.”

“You’re not at home?” 

“No.”

“Where are you?” She told him. He paused, and then said, “I’ll be right over.”

Ryan walked the sidewalk to the front entrance, and sat on a bench that was positioned in front of the complex sign.  The morning was still hot and humid, the dark beginning to ease. To the east the sky was tinged with low-lying slate-gray clouds on the horizon. Ryan hoped it would not rain. She leaned back and laid her head back against the tip of the bench. The humidity made her feel like she had an extra layer of skin, an epidermis made of the smoke and semen from the night before.

Jeremy pulled up in his black truck, the engine chugging. The morning sky reflected off the trim as she opened the door and got in. She could not read the look on his face. His eyes were as dull as the clouds on the horizon. He had the air conditioning on and the leather seats felt like ice on her upper back. The car smelled new, even though he had purchased it the year before. The carpet on the floor stood on edge from frequent vacuuming. She strapped on the seat belt and eased back. A wave of nausea overcame her as he pulled out of the parking lot. She breathed in and out. He said nothing for a few blocks until:  “Are you ok?” 

“Yes.”

“It’s my job to ask that.”

“It’s not like that,” she said. She slid down further in the seat, thankful that she, for the moment, did not feel like puking. “Nothing was done to me that I didn’t want done. I just—I had too much to drink and I went home with my...my friend, and so, you know…”

Abruptly, he drove into the parking lot of an office complex, steering the car to an empty corner. Her stomach lurched. He put the truck in park and left the engine running. Turning to her, he said, “Here’s the deal, kid.” 

“The deal?”

“Look at me,” he said. Her head was heavy and it was difficult for her to look up, but she did, finding his face hard and impassive.

“What?”

“Clearly you were upset with me, and yeah, maybe I should have said something to you, but that’s how my life works. I work a lot and it’s been a while since I’ve had to be accountable to someone.”  The engine clicked and hummed at a lower decibel. “So, I’m sorry.”

This pleased her, that he said this. She imagined it was tough for him. She bowed her head, focusing on her hands.

“But here’s the deal,” he continued. “You have to take me as I am.  If we’re going to be together, you can’t be sallying between me and other guys. I mean, is this your thing?  You go and pick up a guy in a bar when something else doesn’t work?”

The pleasant feeling from earlier quickly subsided.  How did he know? “God! No! He—he was my ex. It’s—complicated.”

“How?”

“He’s married. He, well, he’s married.”

“That sounds amazingly uncomplicated to me.”

“I know,” she said with sudden realization. “I know it seems that way.”

“It doesn’t seem that way, it is that way,” he said. “I’ve seen this shit a thousand times, girls like you who chase around a guy who isn’t available and then she gets in trouble because of it. I have no idea of what happened and I don’t care. It’s all the same. I’m here. I’m available. In my own way. Just because I don’t call for a week doesn’t mean I don’t want to be with you.”  He leaned in closer, and she looked back up at him.  “So now I’ll say it. I want to be with you. I’m not the kind of man who has sex with a woman and then never call her again. I figured you knew that. Maybe you didn’t. But now, I’m telling you. And you need to decide. Right now. I’m going camping and I want you to come with me. But I’m not doing this with you, this drama, this phone call at dawn where you need saving. All right?  I don’t have time for that kind of bullshit.”

This little soliloquy tugged at her heart. She’d never heard anyone speak like this before, certainly not to her. “Okay,” she said. She chewed on a hangnail, finally tearing it off. It began to bleed, and she sucked on her finger.

“Okay?”

“Okay, I’ll go with you,” she said, the blood sweet on her tongue. “Okay, I’ll stop with the bullshit.”

“All right, then.” He nodded, looking off into the distance, staring at the cars on the road ahead. “This can work out. I know it can. You’re…you know. You’re a good girl. You just need something, a little guidance. Right?  I figure, I can bring you along. Show you the ways of the world, right?” Then he leaned in and kissed her, his lips as soft as his voice was hard. “It’ll be fine. We’ll have fun. You can sleep on the way.”

“Aw,” she said, rubbing his stubbly cheek. “Our first fight.”

They drove three hours into the Ozark hills, and hiked eight miles to a high ledge where they set up camp. She took a nap in the shade. When she woke, the sun had skimmed the trees and she was cold. Jeremy was sitting next to her, his back against a tree. He was reading a book, the title she could not see.  Ryan looked up at him and yawned.

He squinted. “How are you?”

“Okay. Hangover’s gone.”

He shook his head. “Damn. To be a kid again.”

“Where do I pee?” she asked him. He pointed to the woods behind him.

When she came back he had water and slices of cheese and pepperoni waiting for her. “This can be an early dinner, if you want,” he said, as she sat crossed-legged on the blanket.   

“We don’t cook?”

He shook his head, frowning. “I don’t do campfires.”

“So PC,” Ryan said, chewing on the meat, the spice biting at her lips. “What kind of camp is this?  No campfire?”

“No campfire.”

“Did you bring any beer?”  She asked, and immediately regretted it, by the look on his face. She wished he was funnier. “I’m kidding.”  He smiled. That was better. She lay down on her side, stretching her legs. “You want some?”  She handed him a piece of cheese. He took it, and she said, “So is this your way of chilling out or something?”

Jeremy folded a corner of the page he was reading and set the book next to him. He took a bite of the cheese and chewed thoughtfully. “I don’t know. I guess I’ve always been into hiking. Since before I can even remember my brother and I were always setting up a tent in the yard, and by the time I was a teenager we would camp in the parks around home. We lived pretty close to a state park and my dad was always so drunk he never knew we were missing.” 

“Well, if it’s one thing I know, it’s that,” she said.  Her father owned a bar, she grew up watching men drink too much.  Maybe Jeremy had forgotten this, because he looked at her, curious. “Hello! The bartender’s daughter over here? I know drunk men.”

“Ah. Right,” he said. “Yeah, my old man’s a big drunk, still is, and when he wasn’t drinking he was blaming us for everything. I couldn’t wait to get away from him.” 

“That’s sad,” she said. She picked another cheese slice out of the cooler.

“He likes his booze,” Jeremy said. “He could give a shit about his sons. So I learned early on to not give a shit about him.” His face bore the sign of sun from the day’s walk, bright and crimson on the tips of his cheeks. “I guess, then, that this is my way of getting away.” He turned and lay on his back, his hands locked under his head. “I guess I always associated camping with peace.”

She mimicked his movements. The sky was a cerulean blue, clear of clouds. The only noises were the sounds of birds singing and the faint rustle of the wind through the trees. She knew what he meant. It was peaceful, a peace she wasn’t quite reckoned with, but she liked how he liked it.

That night they sprayed bug spray on each other and lay on the sleeping bag, watching the sky turn black. He talked about the trees and named the night calls. They counted stars and he pointed out constellations. Finally they went into the tent where they made love, locked together in the dark. She felt herself blending in with the shadows, not seeing anything but the edges of his face and shoulders, feeling his body above her, searching out his mouth in the dimness. Nothing had ever felt so good.

The next morning they returned to the truck, and he took her to a barbeque place outside of Kansas City for lunch. He told her that he loved her, right there, over a table of beer and barbeque, and she said, back to him, that she loved him. They drove home in bright daylight, with the windows down, her hair blowing about her face. He leaned over and rubbed her leg, and for a good portion of the trip, kept his hand right there. As if in ownership. Something inside told her not to question it, their declaration, even though somewhere else, in a tiny corner of her brain, there was a small thought nagging her. Aren’t you supposed to know?  But maybe, this was how it was supposed to feel, she told herself. Maybe this was what love felt like, after all.

*

Ann Rushton’s work has been published in such magazines as “Amazon Day One” “The Chariton Review”, “The Breakwater Review”, “wigleaf”,” Literary Mama”, and many other publications. She is the editor and co-founder of “Bound Off”, a literary audio journal, and lives in Iowa City, Iowa with her husband and daughters.  Find more at annrushton.com.


Photo credit: Valerie Eichhorn.

Fiction #52: J. J. Steinfeld

Wrong Numbers

Thaddeus was sitting at a window stool of the coffee shop he had visited nearly every day for the last ten years, for a half hour before work in the morning and then stopping in again to pick up a coffee-to-go after work. It was Sunday, though, and this was the first time he can remember ever coming to this coffee shop on a Sunday. And even more unusual, he had gone to church this morning, the first time in he couldn’t remember how long, but throughout the sermon about the need for forthrightness with oneself and with God he kept thinking about going to the coffee shop and having a coffee. It was the church his parents had attended, and he had stopped attending even before he graduated high school. He was certain it was the same minister, the intense, God-evoking, sermonizing voice seemed to remain forceful but he was now grey haired and stooped. Thaddeus recalled a loud argument with his parents when he told them that going to church was a waste of time, especially on a Sunday, and the minister didn’t have a direct phone line to the Lord even if he had such a loud voice. Thaddeus thought the word forthrightness was perfect for describing his behaviour that morning, and wished he had used it in his argument with his parents. He didn’t recall ever using the word before, and whispered it over and over, until it sounded like the strangest word in the world.

The coffee shop was not only walking distance from the church, but also a few blocks away from the liquor store where Thaddeus has worked as a clerk for ten years—ten years a month from tomorrow. He had started almost six months ago to think in terms of that upcoming ten-year milestone, pondering it every day, often several times a day as if it were a perfunctory prayer he needed to recite: ten years, an astounding decade, at one job. Ten years… He had started the day after his thirty-fifth birthday, determined not to lose another job, nervous as a teenager on a first date, but he had made it through the day and a couple thousand or so more liquor-store days after that.

Thaddeus saw himself outside the window, shaped as a bronze ten-year trophy. He blinked away the human trophy and began to write numbers on a napkin. He liked numbers, figures, making calculations: he was calculating how many people he had sold liquor to in the last ten years as he was stirring his third cup of coffee of the afternoon. Then how much alcohol had been purchased. He actually attempted to visualize the ten-years’ worth of booze flowing all around him. An enormous sea of booze, he thought. Better yet, a booze ocean. He wondered who in the history of the world had consumed the most alcohol and how much that would be. He thought of his old life of drinking, a little lake of alcohol, that would be an approximate image, remembering hearing the poet Al Purdy describe a lake of beer. That was years ago, at the only poetry reading he had ever attended; his ex-wife had made him go to the reading, saying yet again that he needed an infusion of culture, and that time he had gone along, just to please her. Purdy, he recalled, described being in a rowboat in the middle of a lake of all the beer he had consumed in his poetry-writing lifetime. Purdy was tall and as he chatted with him after the reading, Thaddeus felt he was half the famous poet’s height. He timidly told Purdy, as he waited for the poet to sign the book he had purchased, the only poetry book he had ever bought, that he also had a weakness for beer but couldn’t write a poem to save his life. Now he hadn’t had a drop of alcohol in a decade, not even a rain puddle’s worth. He was always struck by the realization that he had stopped drinking after getting the job at the liquor store. Yes, how much liquor had he sold, bottles of all sizes—he estimated it would be close to a half million, maybe more. Staring into his coffee, he imagined looking into a whirlpool and could see himself swirling and being pulled down into the water. If this were a fantasy film, he thought, there might be another world he could wind up in. He liked the thought of going to another world.

“Do you mind if I sit next to you?” a woman, holding a paper cup and a small metal tea pot, said, as she stood at the empty stool next to Thaddeus, causing him to slow his stirring.

“Of course…certainly,” he said.

“My name is Celeste,” she said as she sat down and placed her cup and tea pot on the counter.

“What a lovely name,” he said, still stirring his coffee.

Celestial, wouldn’t you say?” she said, and smiled.

Her teeth were beautiful, and it reminded Thaddeus that he had a dental appointment next Friday. He had waited nearly three years for his six-month check-up and cleaning. He sure could put things off. During one of their innumerable arguments about his negligent habits, his ex-wife called him a procrastinator of the highest order, often referred to him as The Procrastinator during their five-year marriage. She left him before he found his job at the liquor store and embarked on his new life.

“I’m tired of being shy and unassertive,” Celeste said, and offered her right hand to Thaddeus. He noticed how long her fingers were, longer than his, and that the forefinger was slightly bent.

Lifting his arm out of the whirlpool, he gave her a tentative handshake. “Yep, shy and unassertive could characterize me fairly accurately also.”

The woman sat down and slowly poured a cup of tea from a height that Thaddeus thought excessive, expecting her to miss her cup but not a drop did.

“The only time I ever drink tea is when I’m not feeling well,” Thaddeus said, seeming to be confessing a secret.

“Hope you don’t want any tea.”

“I’m not feeling bad at all, but when I was a child, if I complained of a sore throat or feeling lousy, my mother would make me a tea.”

“My mother died when I was eight,” the woman said sharply, looking at the counter.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Under suspicious circumstances, that’s the way I remember people describing it,‘ she said, and he recalled two TV dramas he had seen lately where mothers of young children had died under suspicious circumstances, but caught himself before revealing this.

As Thaddeus resumed stirring his coffee, the woman lifted her head and looked out the window as she continued her story: “My father told me before he died ten years ago, that he really wasn’t my father. Talk about taking an axe to the family tree. That little biographical tidbit affected me more than my mother dying when I was three.”

“That’s a shocker and a half.” Thaddeus wanted to ask the woman the date of her father’s death, curious how close the man’s death was to the day he had started working at the liquor store, but quickly discarded that thought.

“I think he was lying,” the woman said, and took a tentative sip of tea.

“Why do you think that?”

“He was always blaming people for his dissatisfaction with his life, including my dear mother who he claimed slept around a lot even after they got married, deciding at the end that he couldn’t have been my father.”

“That wasn’t very fatherly of him.”

“I’ve never told anyone this before, not a soul.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Say you understand that it is difficult to be a human being.”

“That is indeed true.”

“I can talk to you,” the woman said, pouring another cup of tea, and began drinking it quickly.

“And I like listening to you. You are very forthright, and I find forthrightness an admirable quality,” he said, wondering if he would go to church next Sunday.

“I have to go now,“ she said, barely finishing half of her second tea.

“Oh, no.”

“We’ll talk again soon, I hope.”

“I don‘t see why not.”

“You promise to call me?”

“It will be my pleasure.”

“You swear?”

“My word of honour as a coffee drinker.”

Celeste borrowed Thaddeus’s pen and wrote down her e-mail address and cellphone number on the napkin with his earlier calculations. “I can say things over the phone that I can’t in person, I don’t know why.”

“But you told me about your father.”

“Other things. Not like that.”

“Must be something psychological, not that I‘m a psychologist or anything.”        

“It’s as if I’m a different person.”

“I can relate to that,” Thaddeus said, and drew some designs with his fingertips on the counter close to Celeste’s cup. “What sort of things?” he asked as light-heartedly as he could.

“You know, things of an intimate nature.”

“That sounds exciting.”

“Or frightening.”

Celeste touched Thaddeus gently in the shoulder, he so wanting to kiss her, but she hurried off, explaining she was already late for visiting a friend in the hospital.

Thaddeus watched Celeste leave the coffee shop and as the door closed behind her, he looked out the front window, to see where she was going. He waved at her, but she was already across the street, starting to run.

*

Thaddeus wasn’t able to sleep and felt horrible in the morning. All he could think about was the woman from the coffee shop…Celeste…celestial Celeste. He imagined talking to her again, began to anticipate it. He called in to work early, before anyone had arrived, and left a message that he was wretchedly ill, stomach flu or something, and wouldn’t be able to come in. He apologized at great length and hung up, surprised with himself for talking so long to an answering machine. Ordinarily he had an aversion to leaving personal messages with a lifeless contraption. At least this time he didn’t curse the impersonal recorded words. He kept thinking about the most marvellous woman he had ever met, the first time he had had anything that resembled a fully formed conversation with a woman in he couldn’t remember how long. On the day his wife had left him, telling Thaddeus, among other criticisms, that he was the most uncommunicative person she had ever known, and in order for a marriage to work and love to last there had to be communication, even as simple as everyday conversations. She told him he was as unconversational as a horse’s ass, and that she meant it literally. He tried to imitate a horse’s neighing, and she laughed at his feeble attempt. He wasn’t comfortable talking with strangers or meeting new people, and that was why he was so surprised when the woman sat down next to him at the coffee shop and started talking, bringing out something incredible in him. Their conversation hadn’t even lasted a half hour yet he felt drawn to her. He looked at her e-mail address and cellphone number, touched the sheet of paper as if trying to touch the woman, wondered when the best time to call her would be. She had wanted him to call her, she had been emphatic about that, and he imagined asking her to spend sometime together soon, how about this weekend, perhaps the entire weekend, they talking about everything under the sun and becoming intimate through words and their bodies. After a rejuvenating early-morning reverie, he decided to call her, no procrastination this time. Nine o’clock certainly wasn’t too early. Maybe she was at a job. She didn’t mention what she did, but it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. Five melodious rings, a briefly mesmerizing rhythm, and a man with a raspy voice answered.

“Is Celeste there?” Thaddeus stuttered out. Husband? Boyfriend? Lover? He hated these words, the questioning thoughts.

“Who is this?” the man asked.

“I told Celeste I’d call her. This is Thaddeus.”

“My name is Thaddeus.”

“Not the most common name in the world.”

“No it is not. Celeste never mentioned you.”

“We just met yesterday.”

“Tell you the truth, I met her yesterday also.”

“You’re lying,” Thaddeus told the man.

“Watch who you call a liar, you stupid idiot.”

“I just don’t think your name is Thaddeus.”

“Well, stupid or idiot, I don’t know which one to call you, I don’t think your name is Thaddeus. I have to get to work.”

“I took the day off,” Thaddeus explained.

“I can’t be taking any days off,” the man said. “I’ll leave Celeste a note that you called before I go to the liquor store,” the man said and hung up.

Liquor store… How could he work at a liquor store? Maybe he meant that he wanted to pick up some booze before going to work. That had to be it, Thaddeus concluded.

An hour and two coffees later, hoping maybe that Celeste had returned home, he called again, and an unfamiliar woman’s voice said that there was no Celeste there, even though she has a sister named Celeste whom she hasn’t seen in a year, and he told her the phone number he wanted and she said that phone number wasn’t anything close to the one he had just called. The woman suggested he try more carefully, advising him to try calling at a time when the weather conditions weren‘t so threatening, to which Thaddeus replied wryly, “The weather is beautiful outside. You couldn’t ask for a lovelier day.” “It’s raining cats and dogs here,” the woman said, and clicked off rudely. It hadn’t sounded anything like Celeste’s voice, but he was hoping she was disguising her voice, some sort of game he didn’t yet understand. No harm in that, nothing sinister, he rationalized. Just a playful, harmless game with a man she had met in a coffee shop yesterday. Thaddeus called once more, hoping third time lucky, and a person with his voice, that was unmistakable, answered, Thaddeus smiling in expectation of a wonderful conversation, but quickly berated himself for calling; worse still, saying accusingly, “Talking to oneself is a madcap slippage.” “A slippage from what?” the other person asked, toying with cleverness and the confusion at hand. “Slippage from a life of reveries and coffees,” the impolite words shrill with ear-splitting betrayal. Thaddeus hung up, spilling anger all around him, wondering who in the world he might call next.

He went to his computer and typed the name “Celeste” into a search engine, visited a few websites at random, then he typed in “Thaddeus and Celeste,” visiting even more websites, and finally “Thaddeus and Celeste and love,” and finds a newspaper article from a New Zealand newspaper about a couple who had celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary by going on a week-long hike through one of the most rugged parts of the country.

Thaddeus’s uncertainty and apprehension increasing, he typed a message to Celeste: “There seems to be something wrong with the phone number you gave me yesterday. I would like to talk to you, to see you soon. Please e-mail me. Maybe we could meet for tea and coffee.”

Thaddeus sat in front of his computer for most of the day, waiting for Celeste’s response. He actually attempted to write a poem, describing their meeting at the coffee shop. He cut and paste the poem into a second e-mail and sent it to Celeste, hoping she wouldn’t think he was foolish. He looked around the house for the one book of poetry he owned but couldn’t find it. Instead, he began to look up poetry on the internet, starting with Al Purdy’s poetry, and even found websites where he could listen to poetry being read. One of the poets he found, he thought, sounded very much like Celeste but he knew that was wishful thinking and besides, most of her poems dealt with space travel and other worlds, and nothing about love. Nevertheless, Thaddeus felt elated, reading and listening to poetry and even starting a second poem, and decided to get a bottle of wine, to celebrate with Celeste when they did get together. Celebrate their meeting and how she had inspired him to write his first poem since he was kid. And he decided to pick up some beer, it wouldn’t hurt, but of course he would go to another liquor, not where he worked. His meeting with Celeste made him feel optimistic about the future, and he was certain a beer or two wouldn’t hurt, would help relax him as he waited for Celeste’s message.

*

Fiction writer, poet, and playwright J. J. Steinfeld lives on Prince Edward Island, where he is patiently waiting for Godot’s arrival and a phone call from Kafka. While waiting, he has published fourteen books, including Our Hero in the Cradle of Confederation (Novel, Pottersfield Press), Disturbing Identities (Stories, Ekstasis Editions),  Should the Word Hell Be Capitalized? (Stories, Gaspereau Press), Anton Chekhov Was Never in Charlottetown (Stories, Gaspereau Press), Would You Hide Me? (Stories, Gaspereau Press), An Affection for Precipices (Poetry, Serengeti Press), Misshapenness (Poetry, Ekstasis Editions), and A Glass Shard and Memory (Stories, Recliner Books). As of summer 2014, more than 300 of his stories—with five over the years in The Danforth Review—and 700 poems have appeared in anthologies and periodicals internationally, and over forty of his one-act plays and a handful of full-length plays have been performed in Canada and the United States. 

Photo credit: Brenda Whiteway.