Monday, December 7, 2015

Fiction #64

New fiction! Issue #64
Submissions now open for #65

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #64: Janet Buck

The Pipe Dream Minus Smoke

We're tired of Candyland and any game born inside a cardboard box. "Auntie J, can we do something else? I'm bored." I need to stretch, get off the floor. "Of course," I say. "How about we bake some chocolate chip cookies?" I see the dull and vacant look in Chelsea's eyes. "Slice & Bakes that come in tubes?" she whispers sideways to the air. "No, heaven's no, not that kind, the real ones with softened butter, flour on the countertop, which makes a cloud each time you sneeze, which makes you laugh, laugh some more. We'll use extract from vanilla beans, various ingredients you'll have to climb a ladder for. You'll be the one who gathers all the things we need, arrange the cookies on the pan. I'll just do the measuring." Her eyes return to spiraling lights of blue topaz. She does a little Oh boy, goodie, goodie! dance, which draws a smile between the wrinkles on my face, softly grinning wild flowers in some Monet packed with blossoms lingering. She is six. I am almost sixty-eight, broken and too near the edge of do it now—later won't be soon enough.



Our cookies turn out perfectly, the kitchen turned upside down, the way I liked it years ago, when patience wasn't stabbed by pain. Flour is everywhere I look, snow drifts in the August heat. Not sure what the season is—I like it here. Her little fingers dipped in butter, then in dough developing—with chocolate chips, extra ones, toffee bits that soften as the cookies bake. I put her on a stepstool, let her turn the mixer on—she pushes High and what a lovely mess we have. White dandruff of some deity. "Auntie J, can I eat some chocolate chips?" I let her loose—doing whatever she wants, give her yogurt and a spoon to level out the glucose rise and cranky dip. We bake four dozen, eat enough, leave disasters where they wait, they can wait, dishes piled in the sink. A little soap, a little water, then we head outside to sit beneath her favorite tree, a birch that guards the health of infants sleeping in a crib.



She's too grown up for car seats or a cradle now; I have to improvise with dreams, even though I know she'll see her share of suffering, like anyone who skips a stair to stay ahead of some unwelcome destiny. We shake the excess flour off our shirts, hand it over to the grass. My yard is full of ferns and roses, hanging baskets, the basic plethora of color that lifts the darkness just a notch. "Honey, want to play a different game? One made by making up the rules, not reading them?" She's interested, very, very interested. Her eyebrows lift in crescent, horizontal loops of just plain curiosity. Chelsea loves imaginings. Her best, best friend in this wide world is the mouse in the book: Stuart Little. I've given her three copies now, one for every room she frequents in her home. "Can Stuart play along?" she asks. I nod and say, "Of course he can." Chelsea's such a charm for bracelets on an aging wrist, one broken, both arthritic now.



"Here's the plan"— I say to her, eager to get started with whatever's new—“it might not work; it crossed my mind like wind chimes on a breezy day." She looks confused. I tell her this: "We're going to try 'n match the colors, shapes, the smells, and textures of the garden—all the stones, the sky above, trees lined up on distant hills—any, some, or all of it to foods you love, or even ones you wouldn't touch even if your mother said, 'Eat it now and I mean Now, or you are going to your room!'" Chelsea winces: "Mommy does that all the time, but you just let me eat dessert as long I have other stuff along with it." I went too far. I know too much about her mother's rituals, despise her for her attitude, hide it like some slimy snail beneath a rock. Hate the times it shows its face. "Let's get started with our game. I've got a pen and notepad here; I'll take notes for both of us. And if you want to really study blossoms in the yard, go ahead, snatch the heads right off the stems. You're too young for scissors now. Chelsea stands with so much pleading dignity, hands on hips, "I am not!" but I refuse to take the risk. I'd rather lose a wad of flowers pulled from dirt, than see her missing half a thumb or have some scar, even though she ogles mine as if they're inked-in colored signs of some tattoo she'd want someday. Chelsea's way too young to know they aren't just bumps on skin on shoulder blades, wants to touch them, find a spark of reasoning behind them all. She knows too much and questions them as if they'll answer back to her.



This little girl looks at glazes of a puffy cloud and off we go—she goes first:

"I see frosting on a birthday cake, not much is left; I ate it all."

(I have to keep my laughter in a box for now, let her think.)

I tell her, "I see vichyssoise that's dark, like someone poured in soy sauce by accident." (I'm pretty sure a storm is coming from the south, but cannot bear to break the spell.)

"Auntie J, my tummy hurts."

"I think you had a little too much cookie dough. I did too. I'll get us Tums and be right back."

Meanwhile Chelsea raids the garden for its symbols, takes no more than just one bud from every plant, puts them on the picnic table, pats one with a fingertip, shoots a look: it could die because of touch. We split a Tums, dart into our little game. She tells me Stuart needs a column on the page for what he says. "I'm so sorry, I forgot. You get points for everything that Stuart says." 

Chelsea looks incredulous, as if a brand new station wagon sits outside a falling shack. Someone who is very poor, who can't afford a car at all, is standing there—then there it is, metallic blue. I love her look of gratitude.



"Auntie J, this yellow flower—it's a slice of pie right off the sun, but pretty small. Stuart says it's whole sun, all of it, from where he sits, since he is itty bitty—you know that!"

"It could be a slice off bitter lemon rinds, but I prefer your photograph."

"See that moss, Auntie J—it covers those three rocks out there. That's parsley all chopped up for stew. Stuart says it's a blanket to keep the cold away."

"It could be mold on bricks of cheese."

"That's ucky stuff."

"You're absolutely right; you get an extra point for that. You've earned almost all the points." Chelsea carries on as if she knows that points are not the point at all.

"See this red one here, Auntie J—it's sticky, feels like cherry juice that stains your hands, from goopy cherries in a can. Stuart says it's purple robes on some old priest, but doesn't know we have to stick to food to play this game, that purple's not the same as red. Let's put him down for a little nap."

"Good idea. We could be here 'til the sun goes down."

"Fine with me," Chelsea says, "This orange Gerber daisy, 'member when you taught me that, it's a wheel of baby carrots, same as what we feed Snoopy all the time for little snacks."

"It might be an orange, missing sections same as people missing teeth."

"That's an ucky one, again, Auntie J."



We both have to pee, so Chelsea follows me into the house, the toes of her shoes touching my heels. I'm busy contemplating steps, but feel the closeness hovering—some barricade that halts the wind. We take turns peeing. She goes first, then asks if I have lemonade. "Yes, I do. We'll have some soon." I wriggle my pajama jeans down my thighs. Chelsea sees my carbon parts, the gaping knee that's not a knee, asks me for the millionth time: "Does that thing hurt? Never mind, I know it does, but you won't tell. Don't want you having ouchies everywhere. It makes me hurt—not sure where." I tell her: "I am fine—we're fine." She sees right through the cellophane, but off we go for lemonade. "Auntie J, you limp a lot, just like Spot, our doggie Daddy put to sleep forever and forever and I never saw her again. Mom said, No! but Daddy let Spot sleep with me." She's crying now—I hold her tight against my chest, tell her I won't go to sleep.



Back out on the patio, Chelsea's growing tired of flowers; they're wilted now, flat, and thin, weak as some old woman's skin that bruises at the slightest touch. She quickly throws them in a bucket next to her, with all the frazzled ones before. I deadhead when the sun comes up. She knows why the bucket's there.



"See those rows of trees up on the hill? They're stalks of fresh asparagus, my very favorite vegetables. See that little stack of wood? It's piled up like roasts inside the fridge. Daddy says he likes them rare, that Mommy cooks 'em 'til they're only good for firewood. That's exactly what he says."

"Honey, you sure won this game, hands down, of course! You got almost every point.

"Stuart helped. This is fun. I wanna play some more."

"Yes, it was. Not today. You won, but didn't gloat at all, which is good, very good. Bragging makes your head swell up like big balloons, then oops, it pops. It's getting late; you better go. Did you tell your mother where you are?"

"Said I was going to Amy's house, for Candyland."

"Why did you lie? You shouldn't lie. Lies are nests of awful wasps and you get stung. Later on, you feel really terrible."

"Well, you told a lie today. You told me that it didn't hurt, your leg, I mean."

"That's different. I didn't want to pass you pain like giving you some awful flu. Let's fix a plate, a dozen cookies for your mom. Then you need to tell her where you've been all day."

"Un un, no way. She won't care, she's not you. She might kinda' smile, then grab her wine, then turn her back. I'll be looking at her back. She'll be busy on her cell. I'll be looking at her back. Okay, I'll go. I wanna' stay." Jesus, I've just handed her some stinkin' fish eggs on a cracker round.

"Don't forget…Stuart's in the doggie bed, next to Snoopy, snoring like old men in chairs."

"Uh huh. I'll get Stuart, then I'll go, but I'll be back. Promise me, you'll still be here."

"I promise you."

"I wanna' stay. I really wanna' stay with you. Make certain you don't do, well, you know Spot's forever, ever, ever sleep."

"Not tonight."

"Okay, bye, bye. Thank you for the afternoon. It was fun—I learned a lot."

"So did I. Two opposites: what's sweet and sour.  Bye, bye, sweetheart. See you soon."

                    ***

So this is how it feels to be a mom, to be a voice that's needed in the dead of night, to be at all. I whisper that one when she's left—out of sight—see sugar slipping off a spoon. Cry because a child is mired in swamps of apathy, rising as her mother speaks or doesn't speak, because I've never had a choice between the hunger and the meal. I'm the hairy coconut, falling from umbrellas of a palm, spilling milk in rivers running over traveled rocks. I wash the dishes all by hand, try to save her fingerprints.

*

Janet Buck is a seven-time Pushcart Nominee and the author of three full-length collections of poetry. She has published more than 4,000 poems, short stories, and non-fiction essays in print and on the internet. Janet’s recent work has appeared in Antiphon, Offcourse, Zombie Logic, Boston Literary Magazine, Vine Leaves, Poetrysuperhighway, Misfit Magazine, and River Babble; more of her poems and prose are scheduled for publication in forthcoming issues of The Milo Review, The Ann Arbor Review, Abramelin, Lavender Wolves, PoetryBay, The Birmingham Arts Journal, and other journals worldwide. In 2015, Buck was a featured author in Poetrymagazine.com and Burningword. Her latest print collection of verse is Dirty Laundry (Vine Leaves Press, 2015).

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Fiction #63

New fiction! Issue #63
Submissions now open for #64

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #63: Adam Giles

Neighbourhood Dick Problem

The dick-drawing gang is at it again. I took my daughters to the splash pad this afternoon and during one of our timeouts (excessive unsafe running), the five-year-old put her hand on the bench right where one of the dick drawers had gone to work: a black Sharpie doodle of an erect penis complete with low-hanging balls and sporadic scrotum hair. I swatted her hand away. “Don’t touch that!”

Sun’s down and Karen and the girls are asleep. Doors are double deadbolted. Alarm system’s armed. I’m in the garage, under the harsh glow of a 100-watt bulb, trying on the camo vest Hal from work had given me. It’s a tight squeeze. Also, it’s riddled with dried splatters from last week’s office paintball social. But having a little piece of Hal with me is comforting.

Historically the dick-drawing gang has at least respected boundaries, limiting their “urban art” to neighbourhood fringes: underpasses, dumpsters, the alley behind Roderick’s Convenience. Lately though it seems they’re branching out, mixing things up, drawing more dicks in more places, expanding their dick-drawing minds. Hydro boxes, playground slides, the catholic school (the west-facing gymnasium wall, perfectly positioned to capture the majestic gleam of the evening sun). The dicks, they’re spray-painted, they’re carved, they’re papier-mâchéd and dangling from trees.

They’re even starting to get abstract: like the chalked circle with the line down the middle on the sidewalk—innocuous until you realize it’s a straight-on perspective, that line down the middle being one of the gang’s first documented dick holes. They’re sampling the proverbial teat of variety, tasting the sweet taste of defiling respectable family areas, and it’s only swelling their hunger. Their hunger for drawing dicks.

Last week is when it all changed for me: Hal and me under the seats in that charred school bus, sweating it out, listening for movement, anything indicating an incoming. Hal’s hopper empty, my gun jammed, we heard a twig snap. I whimpered and Hal said shut the fuck up, you’re going to give away our position. Hal and I were buddied up. I requested Jim, my colleague in Standards, but the paintball social was supposed to be about bonding with someone you haven’t already bonded with. And that’s what happened on the sooty floor of that gutted school bus (firebombed during some riot and subsequently acquired by the Explosive Release Paintball Corporation)—we bonded, me and Hal from IT. By day, Hal fixed paper jams, fought off hacker security breaches, and snuffed out viruses when staff clicked links in “penis enlargement” or “fuckbuddy request” messages. In the killing fields though, the guy was a face-painted, camo-clad hero. It’s always the ones you least suspect. Another twig snapped, much closer than the last.

A cricket chirps somewhere inside the garage. Cockily. Like he’s reporting to his friends that he’s invaded my space and I’m not man enough to do anything about it—like, rendezvous point in here, boys. I’m tying my boots and one of the laces snaps, the torn thread dangling limp in my hand, probably foreshadowing how this evening’s going to turn out. Arrogant cricket sounds like he’s behind the paint cans. If I find him he’s hunkered down at his last rendezvous point.

I don’t know that they’re an actual gang, the dick drawers, but I imagine they travel in numbers, egging each other on, engaging in groupthink and one-upmanship. Whether or not they’re actively recruiting, I can’t be sure. Do they require a portfolio of previously drawn dicks or initiate new members (like, go draw a dick on that guy’s windshield)? Who knows. What I do know is that they’re getting bolder and soon I won’t be letting my kids outside, not in this dick-peppered neighbourhood. Karen says I’m overreacting. Also that I stifle the girls. But she’s okay with the new sex-ed curriculum—like, sure, let’s show our kids porn and teach them to whack off—so, you know, grain of salt.

I had this instinct to protect Hal, to prove my worth, so when Alpha Squad breached the school bus, I leapt into the line of fire and took a riddling to the chest. When I dropped, they riddled Hal. He later said, “‘A’ for effort, buddy.” With Hal and I down, Alpha Squad parted, allowing Alpha Squad Leader (my supervisor, Judith) up the narrow aisle. She stood over Hal and I and asked me if I thought I was a hero, to which I said no ma’am, of course not. “That’s right,” she said, gun nonchalantly askew, pointed at my crotch. She looked away, cracked her neck with mid-level-management swagger, and pegged me one in the testicles, finished me.

Hal visited me in the hospital, gave me the vest, said I earned it.

I mentioned the dick-drawing gang.

“Bunch of repressed Catholics,” Hal said. “Small potatoes. You could peg them off in one night.”

I move the paint cans and sure enough there’s the cricket. Silent. Still. I step on him, put him out like a cigarette, and leave the smear as a warning to the others.

I pour paintballs into the hopper, snap it onto the gun, and smack the button for the garage door opener. Up rises the garage door, panel by panel, revealing the night—and the droopy dick (with telltale mushroom of circumcision) scrawled on the windshield of my Volkswagen. Skunky permanent marker fumes waft my way. It’s fresh. I slink out to the driveway, deflated, hollow, vulnerable, but also enraged and resolute. I disengage the safety on the gun with the emotional detachment of a special-ops commando. I survey our corner of the subdivision.

The door to the laundry room opens and there’s the five-year-old in her pajamas.

“Why’s your face painted, Daddy?”

“Back inside, baby. Lock up.”

“Where you going?”

I enter the password on the keypad and the garage door comes down between us.

“For a walk.”

I start toward the playground, unlaced boot rattling around loose on my foot, not sure if she heard me.

*

Adam Giles's short fiction won the University of Toronto Magazine Short Story Contest and was longlisted for PRISM international’s Fiction Contest, the House of Anansi Broken Social Scene Story Contest, and the Penguin Random House Student Award for Fiction. He has stories forthcoming in Riddle Fence: A Journal of Arts & Culture and other literary journals. He lives in Mississauga, Ontario with his wife and two daughters. On the Interwebs: www.adamgiles.ca. On Twitter: @gilesadam.

Fiction #63: Ron Schafrick

Conjecture

Years ago, when I was living in South Korea teaching English at a private institute, I became involved with a reserved but adventurous man named Kang Jae Hoon, a cook in an upscale restaurant known for its traditional royal cuisine. Sometimes, especially at first and whenever we had company, Jae Hoon would spend hours in our little kitchen preparing those elaborate royal meals with their multitude of small, finely prepared side dishes. Most of the time, though, after a long day spent cooking, he would come home and boil a package of ramyeon instant noodles for a late-night dinner: the potato salad and pasta and the few other things I was barely capable of making didn’t entirely agree with him.

Not for me, was what he actually said, as he rooted through the cupboards in search of a small saucepan.

After five years, not long after we broke up, Jae Hoon met a grey-haired American businessman who took him back to the US as if Jae Hoon were some sort of exotic pet or an abandoned orphan in need of sheltering. There was no anger or bitterness between us by this point. We had both moved on to the next phase in our lives and continued to be friends, emailing each other often, even after he had moved to the States and I was still in Korea, teaching.

Finally, he’d written in one of those emails, no more questions. Meaning: no more of the kinds of questions that many Koreans typically posed to strangers and were just a normal part of everyday conversation: How old are you? Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? Why not? Here, he wrote, no one asks and no one cares. He emailed pictures of the white brick suburban split-level he and Bruce (that was the man’s name) lived in, the sumptuous dinner parties they’d thrown, and the weekend trips they’d taken together around the U.S. And although he hadn’t expressly said so, you could see he was very happy with his new life, the adventure of it and the direction it was heading. I was happy for him, if not a little envious.

One day, less than a year after his arrival in Atlanta, he emailed me saying that he had cancer. It was something the doctors suspected he must have had for quite some time, but it had gone unchecked until it was too late. No one predicted the cancer would take his life as quickly as it did. He had been diagnosed in May, booked his return flight to Seoul for August, but by the middle of July he was too ill to fly and by the end of the month he was dead.

Everybody gotta die some time, I remember he said when I called him about a week before he passed away, sounding astonishingly matter-of-fact about the whole thing.

When the urn containing his ashes arrived in Korea, Jae Hoon’s mother and father didn’t attend the funeral. I was not surprised that his father wasn’t there. I’d always known they’d had a rocky relationship, and I had more than once heard Jae Hoon say that he hated the man, although when pressed to explain he’d just shrug and talk about something else.

Surprisingly, though, shortly before he left for the US, Jae Hoon had decided to spend the Lunar New Year’s holiday with his father. I suppose he wanted to make one last attempt at salvaging their relationship, to settle something maybe or come to some kind of resolution. And although I don’t know what they talked about, I do know that by the time he left on the third day, he said they had fought so fiercely that he knew he would never have anything to do with his father again.

His parents, I recall when I run through what details I know of his family, had divorced at a time when hardly anyone in Korea divorced—unlike today—and that his father was an alcoholic and was likely abusive, since most men of his generation typically were. His father was also heavily in debt—gambling debts; a passion for cards—which was probably the leading cause of his parents’ divorce. Originally, Jae Hoon’s family was from a small town at the southern tip of the peninsula, just outside of Kwangju, the city where the pro-democracy riots broke out in 1980 and where hundreds (some say thousands) of protesters were gunned down by government troops. Jae Hoon was a little boy at the time, ten years old, and Korea was a different country back then, he said. It was also much poorer, not like today, and his family was also poor when the violence erupted and everything in society, from the government on down, began to change.

That same year, after his parents separated, his father drifted across the country doing odd jobs: factory work, farm labour sometimes, but it was mostly in construction that he found steady employment. When Jae Hoon decided to visit him for the last time, his father was still in the construction industry, even living on construction sites in the kind of portable corrugated steel huts you often see in such places, only now he was the night watchman: a token title, I imagine, bestowed onto an otherwise old and shiftless man who likely did more sleeping than any vigilant watching. And so I picture them, father and son, together spending the Lunar New Year’s holiday in one of those cold and dirty huts on an empty construction site, the two of them sleeping on a plywood floor in a draughty room heated by a propane heater. I see them boiling ramyeon noodles three times a day on the portable gas range and drinking soju at night. I picture them playing hwa-tu, a card game I’ve often seen accompanied by much drinking and cursing and loud throat clearing, and I see the father berating his son for being nothing more than a cook—ah, yes, I remember this was something he said his father disparaged: such an un-manly occupation, what shame! And why wasn’t he married, anyway? Thirty-five and not even married! And why was he going to the States? Why did he need to go there of all places to study cooking?—(the pretext for his move)—Why was he wasting his money? What did he hope to accomplish? Who!—his father shouted, boiling over with drunken anger, pounding a fist down onto the low wooden table, upsetting the little piles of cards and the shot glasses of potato liquor—Who did he think he was?

And I can see the terrible argument that would ensue, and Jae Hoon saying things he might later regret, but perhaps also thinking at the end of those three days that at last something was resolved, that at last he was unburdened of a heavy load of hate and guilt. Well, he might have said to himself as the plane lifted off from the runway, at least I don’t have to see that man again.

Of course, all of this is simply conjecture.

But what really surprised me was not to see his mother at the funeral. How strange, I remember thinking, that she should be absent while his eight sisters (Jae Hoon was the only son, the youngest child) wailed and cried, angrily shouting at the urn that hot summer’s day: Babo! Babo! You fool! You fool! Why did you have to leave us? Why did you have to go?

They had informed their father, they said to me after the funeral, when they first learned of their brother’s death. Ji Yeon, the sister he was closest to, the second youngest, had made the trip to the steel hut on the construction site outside of Seoul to tell him in person that Jae Hoon had passed away. But the old man, she said, only shook his head and told her he wouldn’t be coming.

That didn’t surprise me. But when I asked about their mother, why she hadn’t come, the eight women just smiled sadly and looked askance.

We decided not to tell her, Ji Yeon said after a silence, hesitating at first.

She wouldn’t be able to handle it, added Su Hyun.

It’s better this way, said Yeon Hye.

I shook my head, incredulous. Who would do such a thing? I thought, and have often thought since. Not to tell a mother her child has died?

In the days following the funeral, I mentioned it often, to the other teachers at the institute, to my friends, both Korean and foreign, trying to make sense of it. But everyone said the same thing: Maybe the mother wasn’t quite right in the head. Maybe she was too mentally unstable to take in such news. But I couldn’t buy it. I’d met his mother once before, years ago, not long after I first met Jae Hoon, when he and I and all his sisters and brothers-in-law and all his nieces and nephews travelled to that small town in the south of the country for the Lunar New Year’s holiday and the enormous meal his mother had spent days preparing. She never struck me as odd or mentally unwell. Moguh, moguh, she had said to me—Eat, eat—when we all sat round three low wooden tables pushed together to accommodate everyone, tables on which every available square inch was covered in tiny little side dishes, bowls of rice, soup, and plates of fried fish. Of course no one suspected who I was in relation to Jae Hoon; I was simply the Canadian friend. Nothing more than that because that was a Western phenomenon, unknown in Korea. And when I looked across the table I saw a tiny woman with a head of tightly curled grey hair and a mouth like a puckered apple. Your typical halmoni, I remember thinking, your typical grandmother.

Moguh, moguh.

How long could they keep up this charade? I’ve often wondered as the months and years went by. Continuing to make up stories about Jae Hoon’s life in the US—the imaginary cooking courses he was taking, the fictitious job he landed, the nonexistent Green Card—yet never once receiving a single long-distance phone call? What were his sisters thinking? I was angry with them and told myself what they’d done was shameful.

*

More than ten years have gone by since then. I live in Canada now and although I’ve long since lost touch with Jae Hoon’s sisters, I think about them often, if they ever ended up telling their mother the truth about Jae Hoon and how devastated she would feel, betrayed and angry. But it was only when I sat down to write this little story that everything unexpectedly became clear, even stunningly obvious, the kind of thing that only time in its steady march can reveal: Of course his mother had known.

They’d all known Jae Hoon was gay, that that was what he had told his father the week before he left the country, the thing that unleashed the terrible fight, and that his father had likely told Ji Yeon when she visited him in the steel hut. Or maybe even before that. Maybe he called her up after Jae Hoon had left, or maybe he called his ex-wife to tell her. No matter: one by one they all found out, suddenly reconfiguring in their minds who Jae Hoon was, who I was, everything now making sense. And of course they told their mother that he died. How could they not? And like her ex-husband, she too had made the deliberate decision not to go to the funeral, probably turning back to the pot she was scrubbing in the kitchen sink when she received the news. His death was the likely outcome of the kind of lifestyle he’d chosen, she might have reasoned. Cancer! Bah! Don’t lie to me. It was AIDS.

She’s from a different generation, I imagine his sisters wanted to tell me the day of the funeral but at the last moment felt that they couldn’t, not knowing a tactful way to bring it up. She doesn’t understand such things, they might have wanted to say.

But, of course, this too is only conjecture.

*


Ron Schafrick’s stories have appeared in a number of journals, both in Canada and abroad. His story “Lovely Company,” which first appeared in Plenitude Magazine, was reprinted in Best Gay Stories 2015 and, most recently, in The Journey Prize Stories 27. For nine years he lived in South Korea but currently calls Toronto home. To find out more please visit www.ronschafrick.com

Photo credit: Changmin Jung.

Fiction #63: Sarah Richards

The Couch Surfer

Sometimes she sniffed the couch cushions after he left for the day, disguising her fetishizing as obsessive cleanliness in front of her family. His smell was complicated and uncatalogued, heady with sweat. In her fantasies that played in her mind like reruns, he worked with his hands all day and enjoyed rough sex, but he could also be soft and sensible, eschewing deodorant because it caused cancer.

And today she was going to meet him at last.

**

The alluring scents of her early-morning reveries were eclipsed by something putrid, and she stirred a little, making tiny fists under the covers and preparing to go to war on the harsh battlefield of Wednesday. Hump Day. She didn’t need to open her eyes to know the stench emanated from their youngest son in the crib, which had been stowed in the walk-in closet because they’d sacrificed a nursery and garage in the suburbs for a decrepit two-bedroom in Brooklyn.

Her husband Ken snored slowly and methodically with his mouth open, stale breath filling the air between them. His half a head of hair looked greasy and clung to the white pillowcase. She sensed Matty, her toddler, at the foot of their bed. He’d just finished tickling her feet judging by the lingering itchiness on the soles. He giggled and ran off to the living room, and she sat straight up in a panic. But when she located the alarm clock under the bed and saw that it was already 7:15, she relaxed back into the mattress. The couch surfer was gone for the day.

It had been three years since she’d woken up naturally and every day it got harder to function, as if she were a bucket of water with holes that could only be plugged with deep sleep. She shook Ken a little roughly. “Shitty baby diaper or rogue toddler? Which one you want?”

He answered, “Coffee.”

Sitting up in bed, woozy, she caught her reflection in the antique dresser mirror. Her dark hair was piled into a big bun atop her head like she was wearing a hat with an enormous pom pom. Her baby weight still hadn’t shifted and her double chin drooped unappealingly. Her eyes had folded into their bags and she had a bad case of acne on her chin.

The dizzy spell passed. She couldn’t remember how much she’d drank the night before, but she'd started long before making dinner, and the family had to put up with frozen French fries and chicken nuggets for the fourth night in a row. It had been easy enough to pull the meat and vegetables out of the fridge. But on her granite kitchen counter, the raw ingredients had seemed to band together in abject rebellion.

She tiptoed past baby Geronimo in the closet. He was sprawled luxuriously on his back, legs wide. His poo would have shot straight up his back, overstepping the diaper by a few inches and forming a big brown spot on the crib sheet, the under sheet, and probably the mattress.

She crept up to Ken who had fallen back asleep and whispered in his ear, “OK, I’ll chase Matty and make coffee. You’re on poop patrol.”

**

In the living room, Matty was sitting on the floor flipping slowly through the latest edition of The New Yorker, lingering on each page to earnestly scrutinize each cartoon. His blond curls shot out from his head in every direction because he’d gone to sleep with wet hair after his bath last night—that much she remembered.

She eased herself quietly onto the couch, careful not to disturb Matty’s rare silence, and unfolded the first blanket on the pile that the roommate had left behind. She pulled the woolen comforter over herself, letting the fibers caress her. She inhaled the exotic smells and even detected warmth in the fabric, left by his body when he vacated the apartment not even half an hour ago.

She had 15 hours to go before he would return.

Ken would be upset if he saw her on the couch. He’d deemed it a no-go zone, which enraged her because it had been his idea not hers.

When he told her what he’d done, she said, “A couch surfer?”

“Yeah, I think that’s what they call it.”

“In our living room?”

He sighed. “Kate, we’re barely making rent with Matty’s preschool fees. You told me to take care of it so I did.”

“I meant broker a deal or kiss some client’s ass. Whatever the fuck you do at work.”

He shook his head. “You didn’t used to talk like this.”

“Like what?”

“So crass and—.”

“A stranger, Ken. You’ve invited a stranger to sleep on our couch every night and you want to talk about my potty mouth?”

“Look. The place is set up for it—with the ensuite bathroom and the connecting doors in the bedrooms. You have a better idea?”

She glared at him.

He shrugged. “Money is tight.” He said this with the hint of a smile. Their relationship had moved into a new realm: inflexibility and vindictiveness had long replaced compromise and compassion. Instead of not going to bed mad, they welcomed it and grew high from the hostility. Anger was easier to deal with than whatever else it was they were feeling. Plus he blamed her for their financial problems, for moving to Cobble Hill and pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone. She had insisted on this neighborhood because it had one of the city’s best elementary schools and living in a brownstone townhouse had always implied success to Kate—even if they only rented one sloping floor of it. Her rationale had been that it was cheaper to pay high rent than put two kids in private school, but he’d been satisfied to move upstate and commute. She told him the suburbs would make their kids fat and sheltered and boring.

Most of that was true, but there were deeper and stronger allures to positioning Ken in Brooklyn, just a ten-minute subway ride from his office in Lower Manhattan. A long commute would afford Ken space and autonomy, while she languished in some cookie-cutter subdivision and spent her afternoons trapped in an SUV, shuttling her kids between strip malls and play dates. Her biggest fear was that he’d become addicted to the freedom. It would start with after-dinner drinks with colleagues and then graduate to, “Work was nuts today. Think I’ll just crash at a hotel in the city.”

Most aspects of her life were slipping out of her hands, but the reins on her marriage were firmly in her grasp. She would not, under any circumstances, let them go.

**

After Ken had left for work, Matty had been safely deposited at his preschool a block away, and baby Geronimo had gone down for his first nap of the day, Kate consulted her to-do list. This always revitalized her, as if seeing the items that comprised her week reinstated the control she’d lost after having kids.

The first three tasks were already checked off. Call PS 29 and ask, yet again, if the status of Matty’s application for pre-K in the fall had been successful. Done. The second and third involved cleaning, which she had already finished in the morning while Geronimo sat in the bouncy chair and sucked on a hair scrunchy.

Next up was laundering the couch surfer’s linens. She picked them up, one by one, and breathed in the fantastic smell. Although she’d only heard him coming and going, and once caught a glimpse of his profile as he headed out the front door a few minutes late, she felt like she knew him. He was tall and thin, while Ken was short and squat. The evidence he left behind in the garbage suggested that he used Crest and ate Clif Bars. Once there was a used ticket stub for a concert in Bushwick, and she dug it out and tucked it away in the drawer of her bedside table.

Something about the way he folded the blankets and stacked them, with the ends facing out, rather than the smooth round parts, intrigued her. He was unabashed about leaving the toilet seat up. She was determined to meet him tonight.

**

The weather was nippy for April and Kate was already counting the minutes until she could leave before she’d even unlatched the heavy gate to the playground. She kissed Genevieve’s cheek and smiled at her son Bernard, who was several days younger than Geronimo but somehow bigger and more engaged in the world.

They maneuvered their strollers into the play area and secured their children in swings. Once Geronimo felt the wind on his face, he beamed, and Kate began to relax a little. She asked Genevieve, “You up for lunch today?”

Genevieve’s high-pitched baby voice rambled in French and Bernard nodded yes.

“OK let’s just give them a sec on the swing. Tire ‘em out,” Kate said.

She got into the rhythm of pushing the swing and sunk deeper into her thoughts. Genevieve chattered about all the restaurants in the neighborhood and this and that dining review. She was into a high society; she could match celebrities with the local café or restaurant they frequented. Even before having children, the only work she did was hosting and attending galas and fundraising events with her husband, Jimmy. Despite her lack of conventional beauty—she had a big nose and her eyes were spaced apart too far—Genevieve was the perfect dinner party companion because she was well spoken, worldly, and intelligent. She had a masters degree in international development policy.

Kate said, “You decide the restaurant.” She was anxious for Genevieve’s incessant chatter to stop so she could figure out a game plan for later. Genevieve knew nothing about the couch surfer. None of her friends did. Neither did her family back home in Indiana. She’d never admit financial trouble or that it was a mistake to leave her copywriting job to be a stay-home mother, just like she’d avoid mentioning that she sometimes fed Matty Cheetos for dinner. Or that she knew that the three hours between playschool and Ken getting home equaled 18 episodes of Curious George.

Genevieve took them to a slightly upscale sit-down restaurant on Smith Street that served ironic twists on comfort foods—at exorbitant prices as the menu in the window indicated. Geronimo fell asleep in the stroller just before they entered. Kate’s joy at anticipating a lunch without having to rock and entertain a whiny baby eclipsed the fact that she couldn’t really afford to eat anything.

When the waitress came to take their drink order, Kate said, “Do you have lunch specials?”

The waitress’s smile faded slightly and she put a little too much pretend empathy into her reply. “Sor-ry, we don’t.”

Kate waited for Genevieve to order, using the extra time to scour the menu for something meal-like, but appetizer-priced.

Genevieve said, “You know it’s my birthday?”

“Oh yeah?” Kate tried to remember if this was new information or something she should have been prepared for. “I didn’t know?”

“I kept it secret because I was sort of dreading it.”

“Why?”

“It’s the big 3-0!”

Kate’s mouth fell open slightly. She had always comforted herself with the fact that Genevieve was older. After all, she owned a whole brownstone and hired a nanny, a housecleaner, a man to do the garbage, and a second man to move her car when the street cleaner came. Kate assumed she was closer to 40 and immaculately preserved because she was French and glamorous. Kate swallowed the realization that Genevieve was actually five years younger and it settled in her stomach like indigestion.

Her voice trembled a little in the effort to sound convincing, “We should celebrate.”

Genevieve, impervious to Kate’s inner turmoil, pounced on the opportunity to brag. “Oh no, Jimmy have big plans!”

In an effort to change the subject, fast, Kate said, “Really. I insist. How about a glass of champagne.”

“Oh no. It’s really expensive.”

Something about the way she lingered over the word expensive and let the corners of her mouth curl up just a little triggered a defensive reaction in Kate.

“You know what?” She said more to the waitress than Genevieve. “Make it a bottle.”

“Kate, it’s too much.” Genevieve put her hand on Kate’s.

Kate pulled her hand out and placed it on top of Genevieve’s and patted it gently. “Nevermind. Nothing is too much for my playground buddy!”

Kate tried to instill the word buddy with the same level of hostility, bitterness, and derision as Genevieve’s expensive, but Genevieve only clapped her hands together and giggled, “Fun fun fun!”

Genevieve fussed over Bernard, while Kate grew gloomy over the fact that she had just overcommitted financially to someone who was barely a friend. Despite the sun streaming through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, lighting up the bottles behind the bar and the modern art on the walls, there was an unfathomable darkness all around her. Every day she sunk deeper into it. At first she thought it was jealousy, then shame. Or was she just sleep deprived? Wanting to meet the couch surfer felt urgent like a full bladder, and relieving it would somehow fix everything.

**

When Geronimo stirred in his stroller several hours later, Kate’s champagne buzz had already started to wear off. Bernard had been sitting up in Genevieve’s arms through the first half of lunch, then, for the second half, slumbering against her chest like he was an extension of her body. Of both her children, only Matty had fallen asleep and stayed asleep on her once and that was only because she’d read the bottle incorrectly and accidentally given him too much Advil.

Kate let Geronimo fuss a little while she checked her phone. There were 17 missed calls and 3 texts and she realized her ringer was off. She silently fumed at Matty for playing with her phone again and putting it into silent mode, but then felt instantly guilty when she realized she’d forgotten to pick him up from preschool. The phone display said it was almost 5 pm. She scrolled down to the last text message from Ken.

Got him. Almost home. Where are you?

She texted back quickly the name of the bar and then immediately regretted it.

Geronimo was growing more agitated in the stroller. She pulled him out and held him tightly. It was too soon, though, and he was disoriented and angry. His flailing limbs knocked over her water glass. When he began howling Kate burst out in tears. Genevieve reached her hand across the table and said, “What’s wrong?”

“I forgot Matty.”

Genevieve let out a cinematic gasp. “I assumed that Ken was home today.” 

There she went annunciating again. Kate bubbled with anger. “Why would you assume that?”

“I just thought—.” Genevieve balked from Kate’s tone.

“Because Ken’s job isn’t as important as Jimmy’s?”

Genevieve dabbed her napkin against the sides of her mouth even though they’d finished eating an hour ago. She maintained her composure. “I think we had better get going.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Kate said.

Genevieve stood up and tucked Bernard into his bunting bag and zipped it up while he cooed softly. She said to Kate, “Do you want some help? Can I take Gerry?”

Kate’s hands gripped the side of the distressed wood table. “His name is Geronimo. Not Gerry or Ger-Ger.”

Genevieve whispered, “I’m sorry.”

Kate caught a whiff of Genevieve’s perfume and it sobered her up a little.

Nausea and fatigue hit her hard. She squeaked out an apology but she knew it was too late.

Genevieve brushed past her on the way out of the restaurant and said, “Thanks for the birthday drinks, ma chérie.”

**

Ken and Matty showed up two cocktails later. It was dark outside. She could tell by the way the door chime jingled in that hesitant manner that they were behind her, entering the restaurant, and looking for her table. She could sense Ken’s apprehension and hear his deep intake of breath in her head, as he prepared himself for battle. The restaurant was busy by this point and Geronimo had settled into a slow but steady wail. A few diners looked relieved to see Ken arrive, hoping he was the more sane parent, who would shush or rock the baby to calm him down rather than just sit and drink and stare.

“What the heck?” Ken said.

Kate passed Geronimo over to him. “Take him. That one, too.” She pointed at Matty. “And go away.”

Ken hissed, “You’re drunk, I get it. But pull yourself together.”

“No thank you. Good bye.” She kissed Matty mechanically and whispered in his ear, “Mommy’s not feeling too well. Go with Daddy."

Ken stood mouth agape for a few seconds, but Kate went back to hunching over her drink and sipping it slowly until they left. Then she ordered a shot of tequila from the waitress and waited for 10 pm to arrive.

**

Kate thought it was quite remarkable, how one little rip and life could fall apart at the seams. She couldn’t imagine Ken putting the boys to bed without her. He usually came home after they were asleep, crack open a beer, and then watch some spy drama on the iPad mini with his headphones on.

She drank more to steady her nerves, which had begun to fray by 9:30 pm. When the server refused to sell her more alcohol, she declined to argue. Instead, she retaliated by leaving a small tip after she’d gotten over the shock of her credit card not being rejected. When she rose, she wobbled a little and the candle on her table, which she couldn’t remember the waitress lighting, blew out. A diner at the next table got up to help her. 

“Can I call you a cab?”

“I’m fine.”

“I don’t think you should walk.”

She leaned over as if to pat his shoulder and reassure him she’d be fine, but she lost her balance and crashed into his chest. When he tried to steady her, she reached up and grabbed his face, her lips lunging for his. He pulled away quickly, turned her around, and pushed her out in front of him. He guided her toward the door at a safe distance. She began to cry and mumbled, “I have to exit.”
The man said, “Yes, let me help you outside. I’ll flag down a cab for you.”

She sobbed, “Don’t you see? I have only one exit.”

**

It was well after 10 when she turned the key in her apartment door. It was dark, but she could smell the couch surfer. The front door faced the back of the couch and she could see the glow of an electronic device on the other side, shooting up toward the ceiling like a spot light. She heard a male voice and her heart began to beat even faster. All she would have to do is turn on the light or speak. It was the moment she’d been waiting for all day.

He whispered, presumably into a phone, “Hold on a sec.”

She was breaking all the rules, invading his space after 10 pm and her hands trembled as she unzipped her jacket and eased off her running shoes. The glowing device shifted, casting a flash of light around the room.

He murmured, “I’ll call you back.”

As the glow dimmed to darkness, she stood for a long time holding her breath. She was just a few feet from the couch and he was on it. She tried to propel her body forward, but couldn’t. She waited for something to happen to her. Her entire life hinged on this one moment, but she couldn’t make her feet move.

She said as loudly as she could muster, “Sorry.”

He answered her with silence and the rejection stung. It wasn’t what she’d expected, but then again, neither was motherhood—or marriage for that matter. The couch surfer shifted on the couch and breathed through his nose, but stayed quiet.

Despite the darkness, she could feel her cheeks flush, angry and humiliated. Ken always teased her when Matty burst in on her in the shower and she shrieked about privacy. Fart jokes made her eyes roll. Ken told her she’d better toughen up because she was raising two boys.

**

She ducked into her bedroom, a few feet from the front door of the apartment. Geronimo was asleep in the crib and Matty was curled up in the crescent formed by Ken’s body. Both of them were snoring softly. Her family was like the vegetables and meat on the kitchen counter, only they had assembled themselves, despite her dereliction of duty. Knowing they could survive without her was such a relief that she had to lean against the wall to keep from falling down.

She scooped up Matty and took him to his bedroom. Instead of using the door that joined their bedrooms, she carried him through the living room. The adjoining door squeaked and she hated to disturb Ken and Geronimo who were sleeping peacefully.

Kate felt her way along the walls and averted her eyes from the couch surfer. She was no longer eager to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle, nor was she going to remain quiet and timid in her own home.

In Matty’s room, she tucked him into his racing car bed and sat beside him. She held his hand and stroked his curls, breathing in the familiar smells of his bedroom. When she kissed his lips, she tasted Cheetos. Ken must have fed them to him and then forgot to brush his teeth. It brought tears to her eyes knowing that she wasn’t the only one making mistakes. As she closed his curtain, she caught a glimpse of a nearly full moon in the sky.

In her own bedroom, she peered in at Geronimo, the light from outside casting a glow on his crib. The top sheet had been changed and it no longer smelled like a dirty diaper. Now pink monkeys on the fabric’s pattern surrounded her son, hugging him and keeping him warm.

She left Geronimo and shut the closet door. Then she undressed and crawled into bed. She got on top of Ken and pulled down his underwear. He moaned in his sleep when she took him in her hands and she smiled. As he was no longer her enemy, she was eager to please him.

Moving around on top, him inside her, he finally reached some kind of consciousness. He wiped slobber from his mouth and said, “Kate. Stop. We have to talk.”

“No we don’t.” She stroked his chest.

“What about protection?” He was out of breath.

“I think we’re ready.”

“Ready for what?”

“A third.”

He tried to slow her down, but he was far too excited. They hadn’t had sex in almost a year. She covered his mouth with her hand and then pushed her naked breasts into his chest, rubbing them against his white Hanes t-shirt. He came quickly, and when she flopped back on to the mattress beside him, she lifted her legs up and rocked back and forth on her tailbone for maximum fertility. That was how she’d gotten pregnant with Matty and Geronimo—both of whom had only taken one try.

They didn’t talk, but almost an hour passed before he fell back asleep. Only when his breathing sunk into a deep, methodical rhythm could she say for sure that she was alone again. She put her hands on her stomach and kneaded her flabby flesh like dough, as if she had the power to affect change within her body.


Sarah Richards is an MFA Candidate at the University of British Columbia. She also works as a core writing mentor for Booming Ground and serves on the PRISM international editorial board.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fiction #62

New fiction! Issue #62
Submissions now open for #63

Special thanks to all who have been submitting. Enjoy.

Fiction #62: Andrew Brobyn

Ghostwriter

http://www.anotherlife.bloghost.com/

~2014/10/13: Posted by ANOTHERLIFE in General, Love, Journal
2:27pm

I love this girl

I love her. I love her. I love her…
   
I fell into it—like a daydream, or a fever: like a life, or a life drawn to light…

I love everything about her. I can’t even remember existence before her. I don’t want to. I don’t want to imagine it. I never used to understand how old married couples always seem to die within months of each other. I studied a bit of biology in university so I couldn’t reconcile the reality of those stories with reason. But love—true love—I now know that has no reason; it’s a force, beholden to no higher power than itself. Love is beyond the trivial capacity of human reasoning to understand.

It’s like, you know how geniuses are always described as ‘eccentric’, and a lot of them are thought of as insane in their own lifetimes? It’s not that they’re crazy—they just think beyond the bounds of convention, of which normal people can’t even fathom, let alone cross. And (bear with me here), if God is omnipotent and omniscient, then how mad must Its ways seem to mere mortals? Well, this woman—my girl—she’s divine. And the love that she conjures in me is absolutely psychotic.
There’s no logic in the frantic, frenetic, furious frenzy of it: the passion, the overwhelming intensity of longing when she’s gone, the insane jubilation when she returns…even the willfully assumed pain that I glory in—a masochistic token of our unified soul’s harmony. It’s not just that I feel sympathy when I can tell she’s down; I feel empathy. I don’t even have to know what the source of her sadness is—it doesn’t matter where you start; what matters is where you end up, and how you get there. I can feel everything she feels, because we’re headed to the same place and we’re getting there the same way—together, as one.
   
            Leave a comment…
         • October 13th, 2014 at 3:45pm, golgothan said:   
lol QWEER. how can u b so disparate about sum bich?!? post a pic of her shes so hot. ill fuk her if ur 2 puss 2 lolol
         • October 13th, 2014 at 8:03pm, rafe said:
Yea, seek not the fool for the fool will present himself in due course. Haha, golgothan, you wouldn’t need a picture of his girlfriend if you could articulate (or have) original thoughts. Maybe then your dating profile wouldn’t be a barren cyber-wasteland. On the other hand, anotherlife, it’s cool that you’re in love and everything…just don’t go crazy over it. Congratulations and all; but, never think that anyone’s perfect.
         • October 14th, 2014 at 1:22am, psyche said:
Hey anotherlife, she sounds like quite a girl!! And I love the way you write. I feel like I’m right there with you… I wish I were as lucky as you in that respect…*sigh* Also, golgothan, I hope you have a box of tissues handy for your nightly emissions of loneliness…aka tears. Lmao!
          • October 14th, 2014 at 10:58am, anotherlife
Ahahaha. Wow, harsh… Well done though. And thank you. I’m sure you’ll find someone. The world has a way of working out, if you work with it    =)
          • October 14th, 2014 at 11:21am, psyche said:
 ;) Well put, sir.
~2014/10/15: Posted by ANOTHERLIFE in General, Love, Journal
1:55pm

Lessons in love language

I love her in every way it’s possible to love someone. A while ago, I read the Ancient Greek’s definitions of the types of love. And they’re all there…

Philia: She’s my best friend. I really believe that I could talk to her forever and never be bored (even if we weren’t together!) She doesn’t have to speak; just seeing her brings me comfort. She likes the same books that I do; she likes the same movies; she even shares my taste in breakfast cereal! This is crazy!

Storge: I saw her for the first time not even a month ago but I feel like she’s been there my whole life. I’ve always loved her. I just didn’t know she existed… The past few weeks have been amazing! I don’t even get irritated when she stays up late with the music on, or when her alarm wakes me up in the morning…they’re all just reminders that she’s here—that she’s not just a dream. Sometimes, I don’t even think of her as the opposite sex—as in, just another person I could satisfy my bodily and psychological needs with—I think of her as someone I can be a child with (sorry if that’s strange). The twin I never had. Someone to share innocent joys with: someone to grow up with, that I’ll always share more than just a past with.

Eros: She is my muse and my entire mind. She owns me. I want her to use me as she sees fit, to whatever ends she needs met.

Agape: She is my own, personal God. She permeates everything in this little world of mine and infuses it all with ineffable beauty: beyond just physical beauty, or the beauty of knowing something is true and good and right; she is beauty without borders. Infinite. I would do anything for her, even if I could only ever love her from afar in order to preserve her happiness. I know she deserves better than me. What she deserves is impossible though; only once could the universe, or even a multiverse of eternal recurrence, create something so miraculously perfect—she’s the only being that deserves to be with her. She’s too good for the base qualities and desires of anyone else. But, somehow, she’s here—in my life. I simply can’t express how much I love her. I just love her. That’s it.

Thanks for reading! Sorry if I’m kind of gushing…
           
Leave a comment…
        • October 15th, 2014 at 2:24pm, psyche said:
Don’t apologize at all! That was sooo sweet! If people don’t want to be reading about this, they don’t have to. I do want to read about this, so keep writing =) Even if I become your only follower, lol.   
        • October 15th, 2014 at 2:26pm, rafe said:
Those are some pretty intense feelings to have for anyone, let alone a girl you’ve only known for a month. Be careful. Don’t let your heart beat louder than your head speaks.
~2014/10/15: Posted by ANOTHERLIFE in General, Love, Journal, Poetry
2:23pm
Because I’m a cheeseball

So, right after I wrote that last post, I went out on my balcony to savour the waning summer. The weather’s glorious today; the sun is incredibly fierce (even through the quickly chilling breeze) and its brilliance conquers and consumes the sky. Even the windows of my complex are too bright to look at directly.
I was a bit dazed, and shading my eyes, when a thin, cream-coloured veil of clouds drifted with predestined determination, perfectly into place. I didn’t have to shift my focus at all: one second my vision was full of reflected sunlight from the sliding door, the next it was full of something far more powerful, more vital to life, and absolutely all encompassing. The sun may sear spots in your sight if you stare but my girl will be branded into your very being with one instantaneous flare. And I can’t turn my gaze elsewhere.

She was asleep, the sheets pleated by a Godsend of happenstance to caress and cascade across her body, like the life-giving swells of the sea. Watching her eyelids flicker open and blink, slowly, like they were breathing the beauty of this transcendent, immediate moment; that was exhilarating. There was a thick, warm glow all around her, sweet to my sight—she’s like a queen bee, bathed in honey that could quench a King Midas hunger. I’m enamoured by her every gesture. Even the way her laugh lines crinkle as she rolls out of bed and checks her phone is worthy only of description as Art. I wish I could paint, purely to paint her. But if I tried it’d probably end up looking more like golgothan than Gaia… (HA!) All I’ve really got to work with are words, so I’ll try to paint a portrait of this precise point in time with those (and sorry if it’s not amazing—I just needed to do this: no person, living or lost, could possibly do justice in capturing Paradise).
(i)
        Fluid as stained
        glass         flakes
                feeding a flame—

            a dreamer awakes
            as art flees
from its frame;

            a painter awaits
            as a dream
                plays its games;
           
            though the painter, with patience, renders
wilderness
                tenderly
tamed.     He is bold as he moulds her,
                        she is told to behave;
                        but she lets him control her,
                        in servitude craved.

    Who is slave, and who master? Are both masterless slaves?

        He bleeds with each brushstroke,
        yet engraves her
with his name—

    but this peace, this is priceless, this is not sold:         it is saved.


(ii)
            Behold, She is wholly
        otherworldly             and lonely, a halo
                        held closely,
                    the sheen of which shows me

                    there is in-
deed Heaven
in life        if you look:
       
        it is living itself,
            it knows its time
                is afoot.
       
Leave a comment…
         • October 15th, 2014 at 2:31pm, rafe said:
Hey man, nice work. Does it have a title? I don’t really get all of the spacing choices but I’m guessing this is a first draft? Some of the rhythm seems a bit off… Awesome building blocks though!
        • October 15th, 2014 at 2:34pm, anotherlife said:
Thanks. Yeah, it’s definitely not what I’d call ‘done’, or even ready to be abandoned yet. I want to make it absolutely perfect before I muster the courage to show it to her. This would be embarrassing in its current state. =p
        • October 15th, 2014 at 2:31pm, psyche said:
 Whoa. That was gorgeous… I’m speechless. Amazing =D
        • October 15th, 2014 at 2:36pm, anotherlife said:
Thanks again! I’m glad someone liked it. I don’t know if it’ll ever reach its intended audience though…
        • October 17th, 2014 at 9:49pm, psyche said:
Well, even if it doesn’t, it made me incredibly happy—and sad, but in a happy kind of way, if that makes sense… Thank you =) PS. Hope you’re alright!!
∫ 2014/10/15: PSYCHE sent a message to ANOTHERLIFE
2:42pm

Hiya =)
Hey!! Sorry if this is kind of weird but I wanted to tell you that I am really LOVING reading your blog. You seem like a really cool person and, well, I just felt like I should say ‘hi’ and let you know that you’re appreciated. Soooo…hi!! Lol =P
~2014/10/21: Posted by ANOTHERLIFE in General, Love, Journal
4:58am

No rest for the wicked
Sorry I haven’t posted anything in a while. I haven’t seen much of my girl lately, and she is my muse. I don’t feel like I can write without her to inspire me. Whenever she’s been home in the last few days, she has people over—but she still seems morose and distant; or, if she’s alone, she just goes straight to bed. I’m kind of worried about her but I don’t know what to do…help?
Leave a comment…
        • October 21st, 2014 at 5:12am, psyche said:
I’m sorry to hear that =( Maybe she needs space? Have you talked to her about it? I’d like to help if I can!!! =)
∫ 2014/10/21: ANOTHERLIFE sent a message to PSYCHE
5:25am

Re: Hiya =)
Hey psyche, I apologize for taking so long to get back to you. Thanks for liking my stuff…I just don’t really feel like writing much right now though. And I haven’t spoken to her about it; I can’t bring myself to. I don’t have anyone that I can speak to about this either. Nobody knows her. Nobody knows me. Thanks for offering help but I don’t know what you could do. Sorry again…
∫ 2014/10/21: PSYCHE sent a message to ANOTHERLIFE
5:28am

Re: Hiya =)
No worries about the delay! I completely understand!! And I’m really, really sorry that you don’t feel like writing…I adore your posts, they make me believe in love… Seriously, if there’s anything I can do to help? You could talk to me maybe? I know how it is to feel alone…I moved to the city recently and don’t really have anyone. I could talk to her?? What’s her email? Feel better!! =)
~2014/10/31: Posted by ANOTHERLIFE in General, Love, Journal
3:46am

The end…

I came home a bit early from work tonight, just in time to regret it. I was in the courtyard and I looked up to see if she still had the lights on. She was on the balcony having a cigarette, the smoke from her lips mixing with vapour from her lungs as it hit the ghostly-cold air around us, diffusing into the vacuum of the dry, dying night. The moon hung on her head like a crown, its sterling ray threads seeping down through her gown, around shoulders and hips, creating a silhouette of a spirit I would dare not wish to kiss—for fear she would, like the smoke, simply merge with the mist and be gone... She was so terrifyingly beautiful.
Then I saw a shadow behind her. The heart she’d stolen from me ceased beating, frozen in light of that phantom betrayed by moonbeam.
   
I couldn’t go upstairs. I waited in the courtyard for an hour before I saw him come out the door. I wanted to kill him. I wanted to torture him. I wanted him to know who I was. I wanted him to watch my eyes as I watched his try to stretch out the last horror filled moment of his miserable fucking life. I wanted to use him as practice.
   
But I couldn’t…
I’m sitting outside the lobby now. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what I will do. I have to do something. I wish that had been me on the balcony with her, holding her. She’s so small. I could lift her effortlessly. We could spend eternity together, entwined in an embrace with no borders…

 We would land right where I’m sitting.
                Leave a comment…
        • October 31st, 2014 at 4:08am, psyche said:
HEY! Please, please email me before you do anything. Is she there with you now?? Please tell me you haven’t done anything…
        • October 31st, 2014 at 4:23am, psyche said:
Why aren’t you answering my emails?? Come on! Talk to me, please!! This is really important!!!!!
        • November 5th, 2014 at 5:42pm, rafe said:
Dude. I hope you’re ok… That can be pretty rough, I know. Move on though, man. Plenty of fish to fry out there. She’s not worth the worry. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t beat her up either... I’m looking forward to reading some more stuff soon! Cheer up!
 ∫ 2014/10/31: PSYCHE sent a message to ANOTHERLIFE
4:11am
Re: Hey =)
Hey, I know this is weird and awkward and fucked up and everything…I have no right to be interfering in your life…but PLEASE don’t do anything you’ll regret. You’re a great guy!! There are plenty of girls out there that would love someone like you. Don’t do something stupid just because of an immature girl who doesn’t know what she’s got right in front of her!!! Here, this is my number, text me as soon as you get this… 121-5225 I’m Chris…

∫ 2014/10/31: PSYCHE sent a message to ANOTHERLIFE
4:19am

Re: Hey =)
I need to know that you’re not going to do anything. I can help you!! Please just talk to me...
§ 4:22am MSG RECEIVED: 913-4514
Chris, it’s anotherlife, thanks for caring but I really don’t want to talk. I’m going to do this. Please don’t try to dissuade me. She’s already done the worst she could to me, and now it’s my turn.
§ 4:23am MSG RECEIVED: 121-
You’re actually doing this? Are you fucking insane?!? Is she there with you? Just leave. Go for a walk. Clear your head!!
§ 4:25am MSG RECEIVED: 121-5225
Hello?!?! Where are you? What are you doing??
§ 4:26am MSG RECEIVED: 913-4514
I have to. There’s a thin line between love and hate, like life and death, or Heaven and Hell. They’re different ends of a current, or just two sides of a magnet. You can’t have one without the other. They’re the same thing…it’s all just a matter of perspective. I’m going to make her see from a new
§ 4:26am MSG RECEIVED: 913-4514
She was my muse, she moved my heart and my hands to create—but creation is a kind of destruction. She just inspired a new act of creation: my last and most lasting. Now she’s more than a muse…she’s my canvas.
§ 4:26am MSG RECEIVED: 121-5225
Where are you? I can come see you. I need to see you. I need to be with you and keep you safe: from her and yourself. It doesn’t have to end like this!!!! You can change your mind. I can change your mind…
§ 4:29am MSG RECEIVED: 913-4514
It’s too late. There’s no stopping fate. I’m going to do this. I’m so sorry but there’s no other option… It’ll be over soon—everything. She’s still awake. I feel so alive in this manic nightmare. I need to share it with her. I need her to experience this moment with me, this orgasm of comedic tragedy. Our lives will become our life, for one final forever.
§ 4:29am MSG RECEIVED: 121-5225
Wait!!!!! Please, God, wait!!! Tell me where I can find you. I’m coming right now!!!! Hold on, please.
§ 4:30am MSG RECEIVED: 913-4514
I’m sorry. I can’t. I can hear her through her door… It’s our time. Goodbye Chris.

*

Andrew Brobyn is a Toronto based writer of poetry, fiction, criticism, and essays. He studied philosophy and natural sciences at the University of Guelph, then Creative Book Publishing at Humber College. Andrew is awaiting the cinematic release of his first feature-length screenplay, forthcoming in 2016, while studying for his LSATs, and, hopefully, law school.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Fiction #62: Rosalind Goldsmith

Familiar

I took the bus to a school where I was scheduled to supply teach for one day, thank god only one, I thought. Hated the school I was going to, hated the crippled geometry of the neighbourhood, hated worse the bus that took me through it.

*

Hadn’t slept, was fogged up and bleary, my head infested and buzzing with undreamt dreams like fat squash bugs crawling up and down on the inside of my skull. I sat by a window, looked out at a brick gas station with a puke-yellow sign, closed my eyes. The bus was jammed – bridled kids going to school, catatonics like me herding off to work, three outsize strollers, a baby human puppy-wauling in what looked like an armor-plated dune buggy.

*

Four stops before my stop, a man and a woman climbed in. They had a mangy, mangy yellow dog who got squeezed by people’s legs. The couple pushed their way through the crowd in the front half of the bus.

“’Scuse me,” he said loud, while they shouldered through. They came to a halt close to me – close to where I was sitting.

“’Scuse US,” she said, “It’s US, ‘Scuse US!” It was summer and she was massive. Rolls of hot flesh gobbed over her bright blue shorts, bloomed out from her armpits, bloused down from her shoulders. He was a tough with a barrel belly and he was tattooed all over his arms – visions of chaos and Armageddon right there on his biceps. Biblical. Their scrawny dog scrunched itself small under my bench seat.

“Us,” she repeated, “When you say ‘’scuse’, you should say us not me.”

“Shut your face, bitch. I’ll say ‘t the fuck I want.”

“Shut your own face, asshole.”

“You call me that, I’ll flatten your face.”

“Threaten me, I’ll call the cops.”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck you.”

“You’re a witch. You oughta be cremated alive.”

“If that’s not a threat, I don’t know what the fuck it is.” Squint.

Pause. “It’s a threat.”

“You just threatened me.”

Fuckin’ right.”

“You’re an asshole.”

“Shut your face.”

*

This exchange looped at high pitch and full volume for the next four stops. Traffic was solid, so that meant about over ten minutes. 

*

I was cowed by it, I thought that she, if not her, someone else might get hurt. When we crawled closer towards my stop, I stood up early and slipped past them, just as he yelled, “If you fuckin’ call me that again, I’m gonna fuckin’ smash on the back of your stupid fuckin’ head.”

I twisted my way towards the front, and I saw that not one person, not one, was paying a shrip of attention to the fight or even making any special effort not to pay attention to it – like looking away with that strain in the neck which is a deliberate strain. Everyone ignored it calmly like it was just not happening. The school kids scraped their teeth on chemical candy bars, an old lady smiled wide because a teenager stood up to give her a seat, even the yowling baby stopped yowling and started to squeach and drool while his mother leaned into his armored vehicle and shook a plastic giraffe in his face. All this was going on while the screaming couple went on screaming at high volume intensity without a pause, without even a break. Was I the only one hearing this, or what the - ?

*

As I sorry-sorry-sorried my way to the front door, it was the same all the way up. No one listened, no one made any comment, not so much as a “tsk”, or a “whoa” and no one bothered to even glance. I stood close by the driver, I was standing well past the white line of no crossing, but I considered my cause to be more than important enough to violate such a rule. The bus was edging up to my stop.

“Listen,” I said, “I think there’s a kind of a fight going on back there – it could get dangerous. I mean, he’s threatening her, and they’re screaming. It could get violent.”

The driver half smiled and looked at me sideways.

“Don’t worry about it.” The door whinged open. “Have a nice day.”

*

I got off the bus mad. What the hell. The driver didn’t even care. Somebody could’ve got hurt, seriously even. I thought I would call the Transit Office that afternoon to report the incident – and the driver, but the day got busy, I forgot about it, so I didn’t.

*

When I got home, I was truly, sackly leveled, slept ‘til eight when the phone rang. They wanted me to go back next day. What – One more day. Needed the money. Don’t be torn, I said in my head, don’t say no. Not too torn, I agreed. That night I slept the bad and “fitful” sleep, full of fits, like short fits of sleep followed by long fits of being awake. I was too alive to the knowledge that I had to return to the hated neighbourhood next day.

*

I got up, ploded in, at 7:00, made it in time to catch the bus. And it wasn’t déja vu like you know it, like you’ve seen it before, like the filing cabinet feeling; it was the same, the same exactly as the day before: I sat in the same seat. The cars on the street were the same cars, the buildings we passed looked distressed as hell, just like they looked yesterday. The same people got on the bus – students, stun-faced workers, the same three strollers. And

*

Four stops before my stop, the couple with the mangy yellow dog got on.

“’Scuse the two of us,” she yelled, and they shoved through the crowd of us, and their dog slunk and wound through all the human-smelling legs.

“Speak for yourself, bitch,” he jeered.

“What’d you call me, asshole?”

“Called you a bitch.”

“You’re fuckin’ gonna answer for that, asshole.”

“I already did answer. I called you a bitch.”

“I’ll call the cops.”

“’I’ll call the cops,” he copy-whined.

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck you.”

*

I settled in for the ride, the ride and the rest of it, staring out at the hairline-cracked windows, the boarded up store fronts by the hundred, and the concrete stacks of apartments with their cramped, scurrilous rows of moldy balconies, like teeth rotting from neglect and from the sheer putridness of it all.

*

Rosalind Goldsmith lives in Toronto. She teaches literacy and is working on a collection of short stories.

Fiction #62: Dave McGinn

Stepping Up

I want to explain what happened with your son because I don’t want Sensei Mike to get all the blame.

I know that I haven’t really earned the right to talk of the warrior code and all that stuff—I mean, I’ve only taken one class—but it wouldn’t be very honourable of me to say that what I did is all Sensei Mike’s fault. I’ve been trying to step up lately. That’s what my wife keeps telling me—“Jason, you need to start stepping up,” she’ll say, and so this is me stepping up. Although maybe considering what happened between your son and I it’s inappropriate to be talking in foot-related metaphors. I hope you understand that when I say I want to “step up” I only mean it as a figure of speech.

For three years now I’ve been teaching boys like your son at a private school in Oakville. Before that I had a job at a moving company and played bass in a band called Death Slinger that I really thought was going to take off one day. Please don’t judge me by the name. Eric our drummer insisted on it.

And to be honest, I thought it had a pretty cool ring to it back then.

But when Sarah—that’s my wife—got pregnant, she said it was time for me to step up. She called in a few favours with her mother, who is on the board of the school and all kinds of charity organizations. And so that’s how I got the job.

I tried to step up and buy a car to get to work in but Sarah said we needed to save money for a house. So I take the train, which is usually empty when I get on after work but by the time it’s close to the city good luck getting on let alone finding a seat.

I said I teach boys like your son but it seems like Scott is a decent kid who really pays attention in class. He seems like a good kid. You wouldn’t believe what my students are like.

They sing this song about me. They don’t think that I can her them but trust me I can hear them all right.

A couple of weeks ago I grabbed Tom Sanderson that little shit and I yanked that smarmy yellow and crimson tie of his and I pulled his face right up to mine and I yelled, “I know who Mr. Balls is. Don’t think you’re fooling anyone one!”

You can probably imagine that did not go over well with Sarah’s mom or Principal Lahr or Mr. and Mrs. Sanderson for that matter. But after a lot of apologizing and repeated referrals to the fact that there has never been any inappropriate behavior in my employee file, well everyone decided to let bygones be bygones and water under the bridge just never let it happen again.

Ms. Berton, another teacher in my department who’s always been really kind to me, pulled me aside in the teacher’s lounge a few days later to confide that that Sanderson kid is a real piece of work and perhaps if I got a hobby it would help deal with the stress.

I turned down her invitation to play tennis because it doesn’t seem like my kind of sport. But I did think she had a point about finding a hobby.

What’s weird is that right as I was thinking this on the train is when I saw the sign for Sensei Mike’s dojo out of the window.

It wasn’t only weird as a coincidence but weird because in three years I had never noticed the sign before.

But there it was, the fading black lettering against a red backdrop in the middle of one of those strip malls that are everywhere along the train tracks. The sign was simple, not like some of those martial arts places you see that are trying way too hard to sell it. You know, with pictures of dragons and stuff.

It was close enough to a stop that the next day after work I got off the train and walked over. I knew Sarah would be a bit ticked off about my being home late but I wanted to check it out.

Through the front window I could see that a class was in session. Two rows of people in white coats and pants—technically it’s called a gi—punching and kicking in unison.

Sensei Mike was at the front of the room, walking back and forth, hands clasped behind his back.
He was wearing a white gi like everyone else, which I respected. Some of these karate teachers in movies will wear black or red to try to look special I guess but Sensei Mike didn’t have to bother with stuff like that.

I also liked that he didn’t acknowledge me standing there on the other side of the window, the parking lot behind me.

I knew he knew I was standing there, but he must have wanted it to be my decision to come in or not.

When I walked in Sensei Mike came over to talk at the front counter. Everyone else stayed in their rows doing punches.

That discipline was something I really admired.

Sensei Mike asked me a few questions. Had I ever done any martial arts before? What did I want to get from learning karate?

He talked to me about honour and discipline and learning to live by a code.

Did you want to purchase a gi? Because I probably should, he told me. But he could provide me with shorts for tonight.

He fished out a pair that had pictures of goldfish all over them and the top of a gi from behind the counter and told me I could get changed downstairs. The shorts didn’t look suitable for a karate class but what was I going to say?

When I got back up from getting changed the two rows of students were doing punches and Sensei Mike motioned for me with a nod of his goatee to join in the back row. The kid next to me sort of looked at me without moving his head but that was it. I was just one more guy in class, even if no one else looked older than 17.

But as Sensei Mike had said, we’re all equals learning together.

It felt really good. Most of the moves were pretty basic—low punch, front kick—that I really felt like I was getting the hang of it. I started to break a sweat and all the stress from my day was gone. The rhythm of the class really puts you in the moment. Side kick. Stress gone. “Hiya!” Stress gone.

Sensei Mike even gave me an approving nod that made me really proud. I knew that Ms. Berton was right. I did need a hobby, and this was it.

Right then Sensei Mike said it was time for sparring. It threw me to be honest because I was really feeling in the zone doing moves and now I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do.

So I just followed along. Everyone sat in a really wide circle around blue mats off towards the far end of the dojo. I nudged in next to a heavyset kid with glasses who gave me the side eye but I ignored him.

“Marcus, Eric,” Sensei Mike barked. Two boys maybe a little older than Scott sprang up from their knees. I actually flinched, I think because of how aggressive they shot up. I mean, why not just stand up, right?

Glasses didn’t even bother hiding his side eye.

Marcus and Eric were circling each other. I was trying to get Sensei Mike’s attention. I needed some sign from him about how I was supposed to fit in with this whole sparring portion of the class.

But he was completely focused on the two boys on the mats. He had one arm across his chest and the other was scratching his goatee.

“Good, Marcus!” he said when Marcus landed a swift kick on Eric’s shin.

Sensei Mike was walking behind us, hands now clasped behind his back.

“What is your best defense?” he shouted when Eric was pinned to the floor.

Eric couldn’t figure it out, so Sensei Mike called “Good job.” Eric and Marcus bowed at each other and returned their seats in the circle.

Sensei Mike called the next two names and both boys popped up off their knees just like Marcus and Eric had. As Sensei Mike got near my I leaned back to get his attention but he still ignored me.

I wasn’t really watching the second sparring round but it ended pretty quickly.

“Jason and Scott!”

A kid across the circle from me launched up and right when I was thinking there’s no way I’m the Jason he’s calling I looked up and saw Sensei Mike looking straight at me.

Everyone kid in the circle slowly followed his eyes to me. I was still thinking there’s no way he’s serious.

But he did mean me. It was obvious. I hurt my knee a few years ago helping a pal move a couch so I had to get up a lot more gingerly than the other students, although I tried not to embarrass myself too much by doing anything like groaning.

When I got to my feet I tried to get Sensei Mike’s attention but he was already walking around the circle and looking in to space.

I turned and looked at your son. His eyes were squinting and I could see his nostrils flaring in and out. He looked like a wolverine ready to claw my head off.

I was just about to say, “Okay, I don’t know if this is appropr—” when Sensei Mike barked “Fight!”

Your son came rushing at me. For what it’s worth, he seems like a fearless kid. I crossed my hands in front of me to shield me from the blows. It didn’t help all that much. Your son fights like a whirlwind full of forks. He punched me in the stomach, then chopped me just below the shoulder, then hoofed me in the shin. I was frozen when he backed away.

I could see the kids in the circle trying to stifle laughs.

Side Eye had has head down as if looking at the scene would make him explode.

Of course now Sensei Mike was making eye contact. He did not look happy.

“Fight!”

Your son charged me with his little fists of fury act again. He must have known I wasn’t going to fight back because he unleashed every move he knows on me. He darted away and looked at his little twerp friends in their crisp white gis and they all laughed. But they shut up fast when Sensei Mike yelled for silence.

What song would they make up about me here, I wondered.

I looked over at Sensei Mike who had a very pissed off look on his face. I wanted to ask, “What is it you want me to do here, man?” but it’s not as if I could do that in front of the kids. We just stared at each other and he nodded very slowly.

I knew exactly what he meant.

“Fight!”

Scott came running at me with all the confidence in the world, fists raised high. I went in to a stance. Not the one I learned earlier in the evening. The one I was in when I played bass in Death Slinger—feet wide apart, arms out. And when he got near me, I kicked your kid as hard as I could right in the stomach. He folded like a chair at the torso and hit the mat like a bag of wet sand.
For a second there was nothing but complete stillness and the sound of wheezing for air. Then Sensei Mike and a few kids rushed over to your son, who was crying and gasping.

After the police arrived with the ambulance the whole thing obviously took a lot of explaining. Anyways, as you know, writing you this letter is part of my agreement with the court. You probably also know that I’m not allowed to attend any martial arts classes for six months while I do my probation.

The judge said that it was important to be honest and sincere in this letter—my apology must be from the heart, he said. So I want to tell you I am truly sorry for what I did to Scott. And in that same spirit of honesty I want you to know I promise to do better next time, and that I really can’t wait to see Sensei Mike again.

*

Dave McGinn lives in Toronto. His nonfiction writing has appeared in the National Post, Maclean's and The Globe and Mail, where he works as a reporter. He wants to be a stand-up comedian but is terrible at telling jokes. This is his first published short story. 

Photo credit is Siri Agrell.