Madame L’s Academy for Young Women Who Wish to Become Trees

At Madame L’s Academy for Young Women Who Wish to Become Trees we learned to plant our feet in the soil and hold our arms in the air. It was boring work, I was sad to find, much like the schools I had been sent to before, the ones where we wrote out Latin phrases over and over again and were made to recite the dates and death counts of various Napoleonic campaigns.

I suppose I anticipated something different but that was pretty much all it was. Madame L would walk amongst us, making sure we kept perfectly still. If we turned to face the sun it was to be done no faster than a millimeter a month. Any faster and she would rap you with her switch, Esther – an alumnus.

The other girls seemed nice enough, but of course we weren’t allowed to talk with one another. We came from the same sorts of nice families, the ones that could afford a school like Madame L’s, but none of us was the type of girl who flinches if a spider or six crawls up your leg. We ended up there for a reason, after all: the type who could almost pass as a nice, normal sort save for a tightness in the jaw, a reticence that bore no hints of shyness, and a distaste for the things most people go crazy for, like food and music and a date at a nice restaurant.

We had all exhausted our mothers and fathers in one way or another.  Some of the girls looked like the type who would get caught in the stairwell at school with a boy, or with a girl, or get pregnant, or something like this.  Some of the girls were something else.  Quiet types.  Inward.  More tree than girl even before they came.

In any event, we didn’t do well in the lives we had been born to.  We had to be transferred to different soil.

In time our skin blistered and bubbled and turned to bark. Our hair, wiry and dry, fell to the ground in winter and when the snow thawed it grew back in, thick and green and leafy. One hardly noticed that the transformation was going on.  It happened so slowly.  And the boredom dripped away bit by bit, like everything else dripped away – my mother and father, my white bed, my body, Napoleon and his death march to Russia, declensions, young men and their dinner offers.  It all went away.

Being a tree wasn’t dull at all. I stretched, I grew, I rolled my neck, I oozed sap and went dormant and awoke again and blossomed and all over again. And again.

My roots reached out and tickled those of the other girls until we were hopelessly entwined. It felt like five minutes, actually, but it was more like seventy years. And then I desired to take a walk, which is something a tree can’t do.  I missed it though.  And so I decided to turn back, which took another twenty years, and I found myself, a wretched old woman up to her knees in the dirt. I wandered down the mountain to the village where I took up on a bench tossing bread crumbs to pigeons.

Here I’ll stay. To change back would be too much effort, and an old woman on a bench is as rooted as any tree.  But for her life is slower, and for this I am thankful.  To the trees life is quick. To the trees it’s all a dance, wild and fast and delirious. People see them in slow motion and think they’re so stately and peaceful and still. I know it’s a crock. It’s a young girl’s game, that tree business.




Prima Noctis

Romania, 1971

 

This woman in the stained wedding dress isn’t really Alina, bending over Stephen as he searches for blankets in a huge wooden trunk at the foot of his parents’ bed. Her ankle-long tulle veil shouldn’t have been ridden with dust, after being trampled under so many rubber-soled boots, hardened bare feet. Her head shouldn’t have been spinning from all the whirling on the dance floor, or from the homemade plum schnapps, or from struggling to understand what was being said to her in the strange mountain dialect. It was not a wedding, but a documentary about customs and traditions, that she’d been watching, trapped inside the bride’s body. Not only had the guests at the ceremony been so queer and unfamiliar, even her Stephen looked foreign in the traditional costume he changed into shortly before midnight.

“Are you even listening?” asks her husband.

“Huh?”

“The carpets hanging on the walls. My grandmother made them,” he says. “She had an Austrian weaving loom. It was a huge, beautiful thing. When the communists came to power, they took her weaving loom, her lands and her husband.”

“Stephen. I don’t need a history lesson right now,” says Alina. “Keep it for your class.”

She doesn’t want to remember that their family histories grew in parallel realities. When the communists came, two years before Alina was born, her mother lived in a mansion in Bucharest, complete with a team of eight servants. Alina is now glad that her mother refused to accept the convergence of histories and come to the wedding. She would have been ashamed of the heavy, bug eaten furniture in her father-in-law’s house, of its floors made of compacted earth, of the dust covering the streets like an ill-willed layer of snow, of the men’s queer accents and their bawdy jokes, of their fingers stained with the liquid oozed by the cabbage rolls, of their onion and cheap alcohol breaths that came too close to her face as they danced with her, kissed her on the cheeks, hugged her.

 

Stephen is done raising his eyebrows and takes another blanket out of the trunk, tosses it on the bed.

“Don’t we have enough? You already pulled out three.”

“It can get really cold at night,” he says. “Besides, I was looking for some clean sheets.”

The soft inflections of his dialect forgotten, Stephen talks again like the history student he was when they met. Back then, his eyes became glassy when he told her about Dacian excavation sites discovered in the heart of Transylvania. There is a gap between the way he speaks and the way he looks: loose white pants, knee-long black boots and an embroidered wool vest. Whenever she gazes at him, she hears a single word, spoken in her mother’s voice: peasant peasant peasant. Alina cannot escape this house, this evening, this man. Even worse, she cannot escape herself.

Alina sweeps her hand over the rugs on the walls, the ones Stephen was talking about. They’re rectangular, with a geometrical pattern in red, white and black, a form of controlled chaos. A thick layer of dust, like talc, has seeped through the fabric, and it now glues to the skin in her palm, where so many layers of sweat have dried. Her dress is just as sticky as the rest of her, and makes her think of Hercule’s poisoned shirt.

“Can you please help me get out of this dress?” she asks, turning, but he is no longer in the room. “Stephen?”

“In here,” he yells from the main chamber.

Alina follows him and sees the blankets and sheets tossed on the narrow, plain bed across from the hearth. She points towards the pile.

“What is this?”

“We’re sleeping in here,” he says.

“Why?”

“I can’t spend my wedding night in my parents’ bed,” he says, recoiling and pursing his lips. “It’s disgusting.”

Alina is too tired to argue. She turns, pointing at the hidden zipper that runs across her back. As Stephen’s greasy fingers, clumsied by wine, stray along her spine, she closes her eyes. He could be any of the men who had been at the wedding feast, with their blackened feet, coarse beards, rough hands, but now she is as dirty as any of them, a princess dragged through the mud.  The day lingers on her skin, in the sweat mixed with dust and frankincense smoke, cabbage and garlic vapours from the kitchen, and she is not Alina. Maybe she is one of her noble ancestors, a spoiled girl held hostage by a peasant, and his callused hands are tearing the dress off her, throwing her on his humble bed and there she lies, trembling, eyes half closed, waiting for the prick.




Almost There, and Back Again

He sits right there next to her, nuzzling her neck, whispering half-drunken stories, not caring who’s looking, her husband’s friends, or his wife. Rob’s breath fans over her throat and ear, warming her against the light evening chill. She’s waiting for him to make a suggestion, can already hear it whisper within her. The world’s axis has tilted, she imagines the hum of bees who cannot sleep; in the back-garden around them obscene May tulips wilt, with their last, gold-dirty-musk smell mingling with barbecue fumes.

Later, maybe, she’ll tell her girlfriends: he looks handsome in his stubble. It is sparse but it tickles my throat the way I like. His wide eyes open wider when he comes, and then he scrunches them close, breathing my name. His curly hair is springy to the touch on my breasts. Without naming him, she would tell them he’s broad and strong, all those hours at basketball have made him limber. She’ll say, he has muscles, but not so many that it makes me ashamed of my flesh, and when he kisses me, I remember his lips, his tongue. My body becomes a faraway thing.

She’ll tell them all of it, leaving out no detail, and smile.

Rob’s hand on her stomach, she leans back and giggles at his imitation of her husband, and takes another sip of the Shiraz. The man they’re talking about stands behind the lighted glass windows, his bald pate tender in the yellowed lights, surrounded by kids: hers, and those of others. For a moment he seems to stare right at her through his rimless glasses, but he can’t possibly see her in the dark. The boys rush off upstairs after he talks to them, their squeals of glee spilling out of the open windows, while the girls settle down on the sofa.

Her husband picks up the empty tureen of cold soup she’d cooked this morning, and shuffles off to the kitchen. Her eyes prickle, and she blinks away the blurred window from her vision. On the front side of the garden, beyond the porch, there’s a shout of laughter.

Under her hand, the grass feels dry, abandoned, the air too heavy for summer-end. She can’t remember what she’s waiting for. She stands up, ignoring Rob’s groan of protest, and makes for the back door that leads to the kitchen. Behind her, she hears him call, but lets his voice float away and mingle with the noise of the evening, the distant tinkling of cutlery, laughter, an owl hooting somewhere above her in the dark.

 




In Miles Davis’ Living Room

I met Willa Jean at the Zulu parade. A few hours later we were at patio party in the lower Garden District, our necks laden with Mardi Gras beads. We were engaged in a friendly disagreement about how to make gumbo when out of the corner of my eye I noticed Willa Jean’s hand approach my face. For fun I snatched her wrist.  In my post parade state I teetered on my heels like one of those wobbly punching dummies.

I had considered kissing her all afternoon as I attempted to pull her close. Unfortunately, her arm evaporated from my grasp. Her hand separated from her wrist and fluttered next to my ear as if anticipating its reattachment. I followed her handless arm as it circled around my empty fist and reconnected with her floating hand.

With her index finger she outlined my lips and then touched the inside of my ear.

The din of the Mardi Gras revellers began to fade as Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way entered my consciousness. It was as if I were receiving a musical transfusion from a benevolent IV–Willa Jean’s finger. I have no idea how I knew it was In a Silent Way. I had never heard the piece before and had only a passing knowledge of Davis. I later bought the album and have since listened to it many times.

As the music flowed through my veins, I basked in the glow of Willa Jean. Everything around me slowed down, and I noticed Willa Jean’s other hand as it set a drink she had been nursing on the arm of an Adirondack chair. She brought it toward me in a caring, comforting move. I did not attempt to stop her this time.  Instead, I awaited her touch with anticipation as Miles Davis played on and on.

Willa Jean placed her hand on the side of my face like a warm compress. I closed my eyes. The heat of her hand spread down my neck, into my shoulders, my chest, my spine. My knees began to weaken. I needed to sit, but didn’t.

As I revelled in the excitement of Willa Jean’s advancement, I felt a tugging at my clavicle, as if a cosmic puppeteer were lifting me.  I wasn’t sure if this was simply the thrill of being seduced, or something altogether different. I did not care. It was Mardi Gras and I was grooving in Miles Davis’ living room.

With her hand full of my beads, Willa Jean pulled me close.  My feet lifted from the ground, and I hovered before her like a human drone. She pressed her lips against mine and explored the far corners of my mouth with her tongue. I immediately tasted and knew each distinct ingredient of her Sazerac: sugar, rye whisky, Peychaud’s bitters, the hint of Herbsaint.

I pulled back, found her eyes, held them. I moved in for another kiss, but she raised her free hand between us, palm out, to say, “Wait.” I obeyed and then noticed a guy shucking oysters in the corner of the yard.

He was frozen, in mid-shuck, his knife stalled in the eye of the bivalve.  I glanced around the yard, and it occurred to me that everyone at the party was frozen–mid drink, mid conversation. Crystallised words dangled in front of faces, over drinks: “Zulu,” “Quarter,” “you wish,” “Tchoupitulous,” “Donna does.” Willa Jean turned and looked over her shoulder at me. She exited past magnolias and through the wrought iron gate onto Camp Street. I floated after her on a vapour trail of her scent, the lingering taste of Willa Jean and her Sazerac on my tongue, and Miles Davis in my soul.

I awoke the next morning with Willa Jean spooned naked against my back. She was rubbing concentric circles between my shoulder blades. She kissed my neck. I turned to face her and slowly rose off the mattress, suspended above her. The blanket draped over half my body formed a tent over us. I looked down and found Willa Jean’s eyes, her smile, her breasts, and have been in love with her ever since.




Taxed on Affection

Experience disgust so intense that you are deprived and thirsty yet feel undeserving for affection or for love or anything. Experience anger so emotional that there are no lyrics to relate; there is no one to pick you up; there’s no time that could mitigate it. Experience resentment so full you declare it wasn’t love at all because a lover wouldn’t deny you and provoke you to deny him back, reasoning that it was probably meant to be; that it was probably just lust. The silly things are vivid in hindsight. Regretful begrudging is valid. Dilute it and reduce it so you don’t feel so inane.
Experience the fear that David J. Rosen wrote about on pages five and six. Experience the guilt of making love under the crucifix. Experience the thrill. Experience the bliss blocked off. Experience never getting a chance to be fully exposed, agreeing that you revealed yourself enough. No. That was mere juvenility. And there was always a peremptory hand craning and guiding and controlling, and you were stupid for believing you would prove your womanhood.
You belong back at home, sheltered beneath the authoritarian shaking heads of mom and dad. You belong back home where you thought it wasn’t home at all because the ground was made of ice and the ceiling dripped of resentment. You were born into tension and will probably die that way, too.




Horses

With you, they buried your works, your tools. Then we brought the horses. Your black, your bay, your blue roan – they were weak. For three days they’d refused all sustenance, keeping vigil on the dry pasture: their muscle and bone showed like knots carved in stone. I prayed for rain.

We ran them, wasting them. The dust, uplifted, conferred meanings to our elders. We readied them. We scraped the sweat from them then bathed them and adorned them. I tended to your blue roan as I had tended to you, bathed you, prepared you. Each morning, I would press your bright chest plate against your chest. Did you ever see me?

Care was needed. Last spring, because Peterson’s boy gave no heed, struggling with his father’s stallion, he took a hoof to the skull, tumbling in ahead of the horse and dead but his legs still leaping, like a frog in a pot. A great glory, they called it.

Your blue roan battled. Her cries were a chorus of broken horns and vast collapsing things; then, a stampede of earth, engulfing the body, engulfing the neck and the large, violent head, engulfing the eyes, and the crying mouth, and the cry. The mounds lay still.

The mounds lay still, and the horses weren’t dead and weren’t living. And you were not dead, and you were not living. Then it was done (whatever it was we were doing here). But after the horses, they looked to me. They awaited another, a further act of faith.




Mask on, Mascot

“Lose some weight! You can’t fit through the door!” shouts another funny guy. Slide forward on the pillows covering your feet, missing shoes.

 

They want pictures—of course, they do. Your handler, your assigned “friend,” nudges them into a line, and you extend your gloved hand, aiming high to avoid legal action.

 

A grid censors everything you see, window screen material, used to keep bugs out of homes and reality out of camera rolls. Anything outside your box of vision is lost. You never smile in the pictures they take of you. Who would know?

 

Your sensations are limited to degrees of pressure: you can identify the distinctive thud of a whole soccer team of eight-year-olds hitting your legs, but not a sympathetic pat from your handler.

 

You look to your handler to be a real friend, to offer that miraculous sign of eye contact, eyes to grid of gaping mouth. Pushed through the door to safety, you can speak your first words in twenty minutes. Make them count: “Damn, it’s hot.”

 

And, finally, lift your cage; lose your persona. You’re a regular person again, but all that weight is off your shoulders.




Biflo

“Take a look under her hood, go on I dare you,” Todd Mason says, his tiny ponytail sticking to the sweat on his neck. The carport shields them from the brutal Florida sun, but amplifies the humidity, trapping the heat from the engine of the car between them and baking their skin from the inside out. “This here’s what I needed, this here’s what it’s all about,” he says, “she’s a real beaut’, ain’t she?”

 

“She’s a piece of shit,” Johnny tells him, his white tank top wet so his nipples and ribs show through. “Mom’s going to kick your ass,” he says, “that was college money.”

 

“Nah, what I need college for? This right here is Pussy U,” Todd Mason says, running his hand along the matte Sienna hood of the car and down over the grille and one of its square bevelled headlights. “What I need college for when I got a ‘vette?” he asks again, pulling a Twizzler out of the back pocket of his cutoffs and tracing the curve of the windshield with it before placing it inside his cheek. “This Vette’s all I need,” he says.

 

“Stop calling it that, you moron. It’s a Chevette. You can’t call it that,” Johnny says, licking the sweat off his lip. He leans against one metal leg of the carport, peels his shirt off his stomach, and scratches himself.  Under his tank top, his skin is taut and red like a hot dog. His hair is wet from the heat. He pushes a spot of rust over the fender back into the paint with his foot. Todd Mason lies down on the hood.

 

“You think he needed it like this?” he asks Johnny. “Dad, I mean. You think he felt like this about the Mustang before he died?”

 

Johnny picks something out of his teeth and eats it. He kicks at the bumper and spits. Todd Mason lets his arms fall wide. He feels the heat from under the hood burn through his clothes.

 

Behind them, there is a pile of overturned lawn chairs next to a rose bush that has incorporated into its tangle a rusted Weber grill and Todd Mason’s bicycle. On the other side of the carport, their mobile home looms. On its side, their mother has painted a portrait of Conway Twitty with spray paint and a stencil she cut herself using an overhead projector the elementary school was throwing out one summer. She said she did it because she needed to see something good, big. Besides this, theirs is much like the other trailers that stand steadily disintegrating in disjointed congregation in their Bithlo trailer park.

 

Todd Mason looks up at the roof and runs his hand through his feathered bangs. He crosses one thin ankle over his knee and chews the liquorice rope in his cheek. “She gonna be mad, you think?” he asks Johnny, thinking of the time she stabbed him in the palm with a nail file for stealing her cigarettes.

 

“She’s going to fuck you up,” Johnny says, remembering she’d quit smoking, saying she needed the money for their college more than she needed to smoke. “She’s gonna kill us both,” he says.

 

There is some silence now, and a hot wind blows through the carport as the clouds close in for the afternoon rain. Fat drops hit the metal roof first, and then a slow quickening. Soon it comes down in sheets. They hear her pull up, her blue pick-up heaves up the dirt driveway and stops just short of the overhang.

 

Under the roof, the car purrs like a cat, shines a little through dull paint. Todd Mason leans back and opens the door, turns the radio on. All I Need is a Miracle by Mike and the Mechanics. She gets out of her truck and stands in front of them, in front of it all.

 

Beyond them, the rain hits the trailer, pelts Conway’s face and shakes rose branches around their captives. Beyond them, everything holds on to its dirt like it needs to, not letting the ugly wash off in the rain.




Lawn Boy – Greener Grass

They say that if a house is on fire and a woman has to choose between her child and another her husband, her lover she will choose the child. What if I told you I would choose differently? What do you think of me now? What if I told you that I am the mother of the neighbor lawn boy who was a terrorist? I love my son that I nearly died giving birth to, but hate the people who kidnapped my son’s mind. And what about the fertilizer I found in his closet and their God who promised him greener grasses. So, I will burn in hell. Imagine, at 3 a.m., I awoke my husband and told him to leave our home. Leave the house now. Theres a bomb, I whispered, shaking him with an urgency he had never seen. I practically pushed him out the door. I had to be quicktoo quick for him to think, to question. Carry our daughter. Don’t ask questions, just meet me at the end of the street, I said, like they were my last words.
As I heard the heavy thud of the front door close, I walked to my son’s room, locked the door, and crawled in his bed. Then I lit a match.




Dowager’s Hump

Sometime in my forty-fifth year on this very planet earth, one night, over dinner, my husband would examine my Dowager’s Hump with squeezed eyes. He would clear his throat and suggest that I needed to see a therapist.

“How long has that been there, Honey? Aren’t you about thirty years too young for that kind of thing?”

My daughter would ask him to pass her both the salt and pepper shakers.
“This meat is very dry,” she’d say.

My husband would inquire about the spicing I used to baste the chicken we were eating. Was it fresh thyme, or dried? Organic? He’d suggest it tasted a bit too spicy, or not spicy enough. He’d suspect it was overdone.

“Well, that is my little secret.”

I’d pat my hump and he’d twist his torso. It reminded me of the way he turn his entire face away when we had sex. How, from the bed, he’d toss a Kleenex into the trash and say “basket!”

“Maybe you would not have married me if I’d told you about the family problem?” I said, once, very softly. My husband would continue to twist his upper body away from me right there, in his chair. My hump, like the moon, would rise a bit higher. Sometimes, doing piles of dishes, my mother’s hump, my grandmother’s hump would feel so close. I’d find myself in the lobby of some very new doctor’s office trying to explain.

One day a doctor would come out of his closed-door office and shake my hand. My daughter would be next to me, then. She’d be offering her worn out doll to the doctor, squeezing the slumped over doll with her tiny hand. She’d whisper that her doll had a mom-hump but nobody could see it yet.

 




Manna

It came down like manna. Heavy green snowflakes in this place of blue byzantine seas, of sage olive groves and silver sardines. They all looked up to the roofs of their white-washed houses at the hammering and puckering. The accumulation of inches happened in minutes and then the people bathed in a hum of silence. One girl in an elasticated cotton dress peered into the green sediment. Small green bodies with moist wide-apart eyes blinked back in surprise.




Shrimp Woman


 

From the lake’s bed, she watches their legs: pink ribbons of skin and bone. Hunger swells as the birds wade deeper. Release of chemicals, flex of claws: she grabs, she bites. The flock escapes in panicked flight as she drags her prey to the muddy shore.

On land, she rips the bird’s mandibles with her teeth and she devours his tongue, clacking her jaws at the texture, the taste. Her fingers flex and pluck at the bird’s body. Wings tear. Bones crack.

When she has fed, she dips her head in the lake and watches the blood wash away. Her mind is calm, the hunger satisfied. She basks in the sun. Rodents come. Crows. Flies. Picking the bones clean. Days pass before she slips back in the water. Back to her place, down below.

Evening. Sun setting. Thin legs re-appear. One pair. Two pairs. Many pairs. She lies so still at the bottom of the lake and she studies the birds as they feed and wade. Their beautiful shapes. Such elegant curves as they straighten and arc. She admires them, worships them even, as they feed on her half-formed kin. All the while her hunger grows.

At dawn she sinks her teeth. The flock rouses, running on water, a great commotion. The one left behind – her catch – is female. Its glands are full of crop milk, a fatty surprise that coats her tongue. Pure nourishment. Milk for chicks. It floods her body with memories of softness in her body. Remembering the time when she was just like her kind. A cyst. A swelling. A hatchling in brine. Molting for legs, for eyes. Growing and shedding like her sisters and brothers. But in her, the hunger that left the others behind. They did not keep shedding their soft shells as she did. They floated away, towards the light at the surface. They became fodder. She kept growing and shedding again. And the hunger swelled in her. And she fed. And she grew. And her shell hardened, layer on layer, and her nails and teeth grew long.

She stays on the bank with the body for hours, a whole day. A whole night. But when the scavengers come, she does not let them have the bird. It has given her too much. She is beholden.

Days later, when the flock returns, she rears up, urging them away from their dead sister, away from the lake. She cannot imagine hunger’s return. It is pale and far away. A day moon in a blue sky.




Skipping Clues

Though it bore the trademark of damage but we still held it in our hands and christened it Tonka, meaning ‘this one shall last’. Tonka was the rusting remnant we inherited from our cousin’s reckless pleasure. It needed salvation; a new skin of paint, a brake and a not-so-tattered saddle to be called a bicycle again; they knew. But most importantly, Tonka needed us –ten year olds who woke up just for it; we knew. We kept on knowing, until that very moist morning when he came.

I remember him: a big-stuffed-dirty-sack-of-a-boy with yellow hollow eyes and the smell of burnt tobacco. He bent down and made a little motion with his forefinger, tearing the sand with much solemnity. My twin brother on seeing what he drew on it screamed with utmost worship: ‘Ah! He is Jesus! Let’s give him Tonka.’

I allowed myself forget that we both attended church when the bishop spoke about how Jesus would come in different containers to interview our charity.

‘No! Not again. This can’t be Jesus. Jesus rides on an ass.’ I spoke gustily.

‘Damn! I bet he is. He has come to give it a try and to save it.’ He shouted.

Seeing he was getting bellicose, I let go with an exasperated sigh –aargh!

The fat boy, wearing a devilish smile, cycled on the creaking Tonka like a hawk struggling with a tough prey. Then, he zoomed away with it, pedalling like a mad machine, perhaps into the sky where he had fallen from.

After we had recovered from a fruitless hot pursuit and wept; for once, I staggered towards the spot he had drawn on and found an ‘X’ mark −the ‘wrong’ symbol my twin brother mistook for the Cross, because of his short-sightedness; even in religion.




To Quench

It was the time of bombings, the morning after the Emab blast. Martha came out of her house and found on the veranda a bundle in black polythene bag.

“Blood of Jesus,” she said, and flew back in, losing in flight the ankara wrapper worn around her waist.

In white t-shirt and white, silk underskirt, she stood contemplating the fate of her wrapper, her luck should she return for it, her life, her body, her entirety, blown into bits. Head in the backyard, fingers in a neighbour’s room, viscera roasting, blood seething, spirit adrift. She went and kneeled on the couch by the window and peeped out through a part in the curtain. She saw the sun rising without fire. Not even enough light to brighten the room. She saw her wrapper wave to a wind that passed, but the bundle was out of sight. She drew the curtain wider and craned her neck

She shuddered, thinking she saw the bundle stir. She did hear a sound, though, of movement. She froze and listened more intently. There was in her mind an interval of absolute quiet, a moment when the air stilled. Martha lived in a one-bedroom flat on the ground floor of a two-storey apartment building enclosed in an unpainted concrete fence with two gates, one permanently locked, the other guarded by Ade. The compound was often quiet this time of the day, 9am, when students and workers have departed for school and office. Then came the sound of the wall clock ticking and of feet marching past, oblivious of the danger by the way. She leaped from the couch and grabbed her cell phone from the centre table. Her battery was low but she could still manage to call for help. Her index finger hovered over the keypad, knowing not which number to dial.

She went to the bedroom and returned with a wrapper around her waist and a bottle of consecrated olive oil in her hand. She poured some oil on her head, on the corners of the parlour and at the door. After mumbling some prayers, she opened the door, hoping the bundle would be gone. She sidestepped it and hastened towards the gate where Ade sat on the step of the guardhouse smoking a roll of marijuana. He promptly dropped the smoke and squashed it under his feet, greeted and stood at attention as she instructed him to take out the trash on her veranda. She then took a stroll.




The End of the Road

 

On his last trek, he’d bagged a couple of Munros up in Scotland. And before that, he’d been up Snowdon carrying a large backpack. And then there was the trip to Ireland and a barefoot walk up Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday. And now, here he was, struggling to make headway on a suburban street. Why was it so arduous? Every crack in the pavement was an obstacle. And the road was flat. Or so he’d thought. “It’s easy going,” she’d said. “There aren’t any hills.” No hills! It was uphill all the way. The journey – a simple shopping expedition – was turning into one of those nightmares, walking somewhere but not getting anywhere; feet stuck in quicksand. “It’s no good,” he said. “I’ll have to stop. I need a rest.” She turned to glance at him. “Dear oh dear,” she said. “With all that walking you’ve done, and you can’t even push a wheelchair.” “I know,” he said. And he stared at his feet, and the cleft he’d so carefully avoided. He stared at the road, which stretched yard after yard in a seeming horizontal. And he stared at the shops at the end of the road. But he didn’t see the shops; he saw a mountain. He was in Ireland again, walking barefoot up Croagh Patrick. He gripped the handles and began to push.




The Thing that Ate Cars and Avatars

The Thing sprang first out of a mid-century blue velvet sofa like a crocodile, snatching automobiles out of the automobile ads that would appear on its television. A Toyota Highlander for instance could provide 670 calories, 30 milligrams of potassium, 4 grams of dietary fiber, 11 grams of total fat and 220 milligrams of sodium.

As it ate it swelled, living in the shape of Vincent D’onofrio, or a Tyrannosaurus, or a geodesic dome or a hairy butte. Rubber, steel and advertising agencies were pressed to the breaking point serving its appetite, and shortages imperiled the gross domestic product.

There was a fin-de-siècle decadence in the taste The Thing developed for the delicacy of dewy girls on Facebook circa seventeen, and the rich and filling @bigfuckingdeal it stalked in the marshy grass of Twitter feeds.

It crawled into The Cloud by removing the screws on the cover with an armadillo tail. Better than a Phillips any day of the week The Thing had learned from a post on Emily’s List. Once in, it gorged on the barely formed foetuses of 1,400 future trends, Julian Assange’s soul, small and chewy as a California almond, and a Hulu original, among the cornucopia of non-saturated fats and proteins.

Popeye Conroy couldn’t resist a dame in a string of Japanese white pearls and a sad face. Bebe de Montague knew The Thing was taking her for a ride, and she dabbed at her tears with a Kleenex as she sat in front of Popeye’s desk in a hardback chair.  He didn’t have anything in his office more advanced than a number 2 pencil and a bag of M & Ms.

“I can’t promise a damn thing. But I’ll do my best little sister.”

She offered him a draw from her vape as he walked her to the door.

“Never touch the stuff.”

There was no substitute for plain old defoliating shoe leather. Popeye got a whiff of The Thing, which seemed to be damn near everywhere. He tracked the scent to a private cabana at the Beverley Hilton pool. He didn’t mince words. He didn’t like words. He cocked his arm, and hit the Thing hard as hard he could right in the bloated belly.

Out came a spew of half-digested HTML code, Apple CarPlay, steering wheels, temporarily free iphone apps, Super Bowl halftime shows, and a swirl of foamy chunks of phone batteries labeled Made in China.

Naturally the hullabaloo was in the papers. Bebe couldn’t stand the pressure of fame. The last anybody heard from her she was hawking the sex tape she shot in Van Nuys.

Popeye would never watch it though. It wasn’t his thing.




The Wheels on the Train

After forty-two years, Mrs. Sampat found herself sitting across from her ex-husband on the overnight train to Bombay. He stared at her, his dark eyes magnified behind the bifocals, his mouth opening and closing like a frog trying to conjure words. He was a good looking man and wrinkles had been kind to him in old age. His one hand rested casually on the thigh of the man sitting next to him, a balding gentleman reading a newspaper.

Mrs. Sampat looked out the window as villages, trees, people flashed by in a blur. She could feel his eyes on him. It was getting a bit ridiculous. She took out her knitting, a yellow and neon green sweater for her granddaughter. Her needles clicked purl, knit, knit, purl.

“Excuse me, sister, but do I know you?” he said.

Do I know you, sister? Oh, how appropriate. You were the chutiya who married me and then refused to do your husbandly duty and you ask if you know me? I lay in your bed, our bed, night after night, waiting for you to touch me, kiss me, hold me, but you, with your back turned to me, pretended to be asleep. Why did you even marry me? Oh, right. Your parents forced the marriage on you because they thought it would “cure you” of your inclination. I guess I should be thankful you didn’t put up a fight during the divorce. But, for you to wonder after forty-two years if you know me! Sure, I have put on a few kilos, okay thirty, but still, the least you could do is remember the eighteen-year-old you married a few decades ago. I hope I was the only girl you married.

Mrs. Sampat felt a stitch drop in her knitting. She looked her ex-husband in the eyes. “I don’t think you know me at all.”




We Are Not the Young

Two women sit cross-legged on the floor, in a 70s style living room. The older pulls scrapbook after scrapbook off the wall, trying to find a name the younger recognizes. The younger simply smiles and remarks how she has been meaning to digitize her photographs. The older wakes up in the middle of the night, trying to remember the name of her dear friend, who died seven years ago and held her close when their canoe hit land at the lake, at the age of eight. Standing up next to her bed, her blood pressure drops and she blacks out. The younger wakes up in the middle of the night, trying to remember her to-do list, the one she has not written down, which starts with “visit Grandma,” includes “write more,” and ends with “be a better daughter.” On her morning run, her un-diagnosed brain tumour expands, and her legs fall out from under her. In the morning, the younger will tell the older she finally feels her age, that she skinned her knees like a baby and the sight of the blood made her feel dizzy. The older will tell the younger, it’s okay not to feel. When the younger dies, she is cremated, and there is no place for the older to visit, to leave white baby’s breath on her grave, so she tells the wind, “I feel, I feel.”




Sympathy

 

 So this afternoon the devil appeared to me. I was smoking on the balcony when I caught this whiff of sulfur. I turned around and sure enough there he was, leaning up against the railing and smirking at me. He looked kind of like Johnny Thunders, all tight jeans and tousled hair, but his eyes were mismatched blue and green like Bowie. And he was wearing your leather jacket.

 

 Babe, you called me. He crooned softly. I couldn’t help it. I walked towards him, stopping an inch away and fingering the buttons carefully affixed to his lapels. He was, indeed, incarnate. He looked down at me, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear like an ex-lover. In fact, I think you may have summoned me…He smirked, raising an eyebrow.

 

Twice last night. Again in the shower this morning. All my adolescent fantasies. Witching hours spent staring holes into the black and white posters of boys with sneers and electric guitars. Willing them to come to life and sing to me and me alone. My feverish libido imprinting their images deep in my psyche. Priming me for that moment, late in my 20s, when a boy clad in head-to-toe black walked up to me in the worst dive in town and started holding my hand, like it was the most natural thing in the world, and said

 

You called me.

 

I think it happened that way anyways. There was a hellish glow, for sure, and blood on my lips. Your cock was hard, that much I remember. The light of a single red bulb in a makeshift warehouse bedroom with a record spinning like the circles of the underworld.  But who dares speak of hell in the presence of Teenage Kicks?

 

“I don’t think he’s fucking anyone else.” Your roommate told me.

“All he ever does these days is sit there with his record collection, writing in his diary.”

 

The devil fished it out of your jacket with long slender fingers, eyeing me curiously and holding it out for inspection. That battered cardboard cover, marbled black and white, its edges beginning to soften and disintegrate from constant use. The black tape binding along the spine almost discolored. It was still warm to the touch. I brought it up to my face and sniffed it. I knew it was really yours because it still bore the faintest traces of your smell, just enough to get me tipsy. I held it like I was holding your heart, and for a minute everything seemed to vibrate. I confess: I did in fact consider it, but I swear to you I did not crack those pages open. I pushed it back into his hands, stared at the ground dancing in front of me, and when I looked up he was gone.

 

There are some things I don’t want to know.