Bargain

Picture Credits: Angelika Demel

When I was fourteen I babysat for a couple with
three gorgeous kids, two girls and a boy. The kids’ mother was a ballerina. She
was petite and muscular. The kids’ father seemed to me like a bear, he was so
much bigger than her. And because there was something foreboding about him. I
imagined he contained a dark forest inside his skin. He was handsome, though.
The few times he was the one to relay instructions to me about dinner and
bedtime while the kids’ mother finished getting ready behind their closed
bedroom door, I couldn’t look him in the eye.

I didn’t know much back then, but I knew the
couple was drunk when they returned late at night. They had a ragged sloppiness
about them, like clothes wrinkled from sitting too long in the dryer. How late,
I don’t remember now, only that they stayed out much later than my parents ever
did. If my parents went out, it was for chicken fried steak and a movie. They
were in bed by ten.

When the couple returned, the kids’ father handed
me a wad of crumpled dollar bills. I was grossly underpaid. A bargain, my
friend Steph called me. The family she babysat for lived in a house with
ceilings so high she couldn’t reach them with a broomstick. Two kids versus the
three in my charge, but her hourly rate was three times what the Elliots paid
me.   

I put up with it because I told myself they
wouldn’t be able to afford dates if it weren’t for me. Their house was small.
Some of the tiles had come up in the kitchen. Every room looked like an
unfinished craft project.

Also, I was frugal. Scolded my younger siblings
when they begged our mother for toys at the store. Got scolded by her in return
because our mother was not frugal. Years later, after my parents divorced, she
would blow through her half of their savings within two years, despite having a
full-time job and no health problems or other financial impediments. 

I put up with it too because I was timid and
eager to please, thus easy to take advantage of, which is to say I wasn’t a particularly
good babysitter. The Elliots got what they paid for.

The kids’ father always drove me home. The
kids’ mother muttered thank you, then disappeared into their bedroom. The glow
that had been in her cheeks on the way out the door was dulled and hardened
when they walked back in.

Without a word, he would hold the front door
for me, just as he had for her some hours earlier.

The drive wasn’t far—a couple miles. Still, he
never said a word about how maybe he shouldn’t drive me home, how maybe he’d
had too much to drink.

Of course, I could have said something. I could
have called and woke my father to tell him to come get me. But I didn’t. Just
like how a few years later, I wouldn’t speak up in so many other circumstances
involving men who would make me feel as small and inconsequential as a gnat. As
that bear of a man drove in silence, as though he were alone, I felt so much
smaller than his ballerina wife, smaller even than his children. In reality, I
was taller than all of them, but I didn’t own my height. I didn’t own anything
about my body other than my shame at being the kind of girl no one gave a damn
about, not even a man with alcohol on his breath, nothing but crumpled ones in
his pocket.




Moon

Picture Credits: Ponciano

The rich arsehole is going to the moon and he is very happy to tell you that he alone will be travelling to the moon after all it is his rocket he will be travelling to the moon in and it was designed not by him but by others just for him to travel to the moon in but he did tell those others what he desired and he wants to tell you this that he helped and organized and encouraged but mostly he paid and paid and paid and so he will be travelling alone to the moon in a rocket he helped construct and he is happy to be travelling alone to the moon let’s face it who wants to be sat next to somebody on a long journey talking and sharing the experience nobody let’s be honest and that is why he will be alone in his rocket that will be traveling to the moon and on the moon waiting for him is his new home from home a simulacrum you could say of the home he has on his island his own island you know the one the one that you’ve drooled over numerous times with the slouching rock stars and movie stars and model stars that one that bores him now but on the moon it will suit his needs with its ten bedrooms and eleven restrooms and the wine cellar and the amazing kitchen and up there waiting for him there is a car that flies and other great gadgets that he wanted and helped to design and paid and paid and paid he just wants you to know  and not to won’t worry about him on his long journey to the moon in his rocket where he alone will experience the joys and exhilaration and he will take photographs and make videos while experiencing the journey just for and on his return of course he plans on returning he will publish a book that will be made into a movie and after the movie is old and stale he plans on taking you to the moon but only when he has turned the air up there fresh and clean and safe he just wants you to know.




The Ice Cream Wars

Picture Credits: SilviaEmilie

            The jingle starts it every day. Mrs.
Smith by the door, dollar in her hand. She is hungry with ice cream love. The
ice cream always looks back at her. Not like her husband. None of her dresses
fit anymore. That’s okay. Ice cream love is a much better fit.

Mr.
Smith does look at her. He watches her from the couch. Watches his widening
wife, her chest heaving with desire. He knows she loves the ice cream man. That
the ice cream is just an excuse. That the ice cream man is younger and tanner,
but that’s okay. Frankly, the ice cream man is a much better fit.

            The ice cream man is jingling, all
right. He is waiting for next door Laura to emerge her pretty self, same as she
does every day at this hour. She is a flower who comes out to water the other
flowers and never even looks his way. Of course, he thinks, his ice cream would
only plump her in the middle, lopside her perfect stem. He thinks of his wife,
home and garbled from ice cream bloat. Very much like the woman who lives in
the house next to Laura, who runs out to his truck, sweaty dollar in her fist.
He hopes one day pretty Laura will look his way. That she will hear his jingle.
He thinks again of his wife. And how pretty Laura is a much better fit.

            Next door Laura hates the daily
jingle. Upsets the roses, she thinks. Their delicate systems. She thinks about
all of that goo and ice cream fat which are of no use to flowers. She has spent
her life watching as people-love bloomed and wilted and crumbled to dust. Seen
the looks of lust from the ice cream man who should have been looking at his
wife, from Mr. Smith who should have been looking at his wife instead of
pretty, next door Laura, and frankly, at this point, her darling flowers,
rooted and still, are really a much better fit.




The Marble Sheikh

Picture Credits: Auckland Museum

We ran fast through the
grand hallway to the wide and carpeted staircase and I could feel our stampede
beneath our leaping feet. The palace was barren and cold. A blank red enveloped
my sight but I knew where I was leading the raging mob. We reached an imposing
door. I felt like I had to knock before entering but we kicked it open. 

You won’t believe what we
saw. No one does. The English journalists outside scoffed at us when we told
them. With anger in our hands and hearts, we saw him: The Crown Prince of our
Kingdom.

His eyes were as wide as
they could go. His mouth clenched and I could almost still hear echoes of his
probable anguish in his office. We stopped and circled the memory of him in
stone. 

‘Let’s break this son of a
bitch in a million pieces’ 

‘No, no one touch it. He
belongs in a museum, we are free’ 

‘Ah fuck! He’s playing a
joke on us, he’s on a jet to the Maldives by now’ I said. I ran and pushed the
marble sheikh onto the cold stone ground of his office.

Like the statues that we
crushed out on Celebration Square, Monument to Victory and the People’s Mosque
– it crushed into pieces spread out on the ground like spilt water. 

I remember how wide my
eyes were as the pieces, some large and some like dust, began to ooze a dark
and somber red. The mob pushed past me as they lunged at his remains and forced
bleeding stone into their pockets which grew patches of red. I could only stand
and watch, in the cool distant air. 




Layla’s Spoon

Picture Credits: Housing Works Thrift Shops

Layla Labda and her husband Samuel lived on the upper floor of a triplex
that they’d purchased in nineteen seventy-three. Their divorced son George who
was well into his fifties, lived on the second floor with his dog, Jolie.

Joshua, a writer originally from Newcastle, rented the basement
apartment from the Labda family.

Layla treated Joshua as if he were her second son. Since Joshua worked
from home, Layla often brought him leftovers on her antique fine china and
ornate silverware.

While Joshua truly appreciated the food, he was so involved in his
writing that he often forgot to return Layla’s precious dishes and cutlery. Subsequently,
Layla’s unique flatware had collected in a large pile on the counter of his
tiny kitchen.

Whenever Joshua’s girlfriend Marie visited his flat, she berated him for
his inconsiderate stockpiling tendencies, and took it upon herself to return the
beautiful dishes and cutlery upstairs to Layla.

“Thank you, Marie, it’s very kind of you to return these to me, but I
don’t mind at all if Joshua keeps my dishes lying around, my son George does
the same thing. The dishes and cutlery always turn up in my kitchen drawers
eventually,” Layla repeatedly assured Marie.

Before Marie officially moved in with Joshua, the couple were invited
for a celebratory dinner upstairs at Layla and Samuel’s.

Seated across from her at the table, Marie observed the elderly hostess.

Layla was an octogenarian, and at just under five feet tall, she appeared
visibly frail, but deceptively, she had tons of stamina. Layla admitted to her
guests that she’d spent twelve hours preparing the feast that was spread out
before them. “I prepared everything with love!” she said. Samuel picked up his
wife’s hand and kissed it.

The Labda’s dining room table was covered from end to end with traditional
Lebanese dishes, each item prepared from scratch.

Throughout dinner, (with his golden retriever by his side), George repeatedly
filled everyone’s glasses without anyone ever being the wiser. Thanks to his
magician like abilities, by the end of the evening, Marie was drunk.

“I could have sworn I only had one glass,” Marie said, shocked by her
dizziness upon rising from the table.

George, Joshua, Layla and Samuel all laughed.

Before leaving, Joshua and Marie thanked Layla for her hospitality and for
the tremendous effort she’d put into preparing the delicious feast.

“I love you both,” was Layla’s reply.

“I’m so impressed by her cooking talent,” Marie told Josh as they
descended the stairs to his apartment.

“Maybe you should ask her for some of her recipes. If you can read, you
can cook!” Joshua said.

While they were relaxing in front of the television after a long day of
moving Marie’s belongings into the basement apartment, the couple heard a loud
thud, followed by some whimpering noises coming from upstairs. Assuming it was just
George playing with Jolie, the couple thought nothing of the racket.

The following morning, discreetly peeping through the horizontal blinds
of their basement window, Marie and Joshua saw a procession of people attired
in black clothing entering the triplex. From the snippets of conversations that
they overheard, the couple gathered that Layla had died. Those whimpering
noises and the thud they’d heard, had likely come from poor, sweet Layla.  

After the funeral, George informed Joshua and Marie that they would have
to move out. Samuel was moving into a retirement home and George was selling
the triplex.

Marie couldn’t help but feel that Layla’s death was a bad omen for her
relationship with Joshua, since it had occurred on the first night that she’d
moved in with him. Shortly after the couple moved out, Marie and Joshua parted
ways.

Many years later, as Marie was about to serve her husband and children a
dinner of kebbe and tabouli, (both of which were Layla’s recipes), she happened
to find an ornate silver serving spoon buried at the back of her cutlery
drawer. She immediately recognized it as having belonged to Layla.

How on earth did that wind up here? Marie wondered.

Electing to view the mysterious discovery as a sign from Layla from the beyond,
Marie knew that her family’s dinners from that night on would taste infinitely
better, having been made, and served, with love from both herself and Layla.




Old Woman in a Black Buick Tripping on Nine Inch Nails

Picture Credits: mrefraim1

One hand on the wheel, the other on the gun,
she drove the Buick down I-80 cranking Nine Inch Nails, volume high as she. A rosary
dangling from the rear-view—shadow swinging like a hung man on the sun-shrivelled dash—reminded her
of Chuck.

They’d met in a bar just
outside of Omaha. She had no money but she did have tits. He had plenty of the
former, not enough of the latter. It was a fuck made in heaven. He was half her
age and twice her height but none of that mattered laying down. She’d wrecked
his marriage, then his head, snatched his stash and his car, then headed for California. 

She stopped for gas outside Salt Lake. The attendant
was mid-50s but sun and snow had burnt him old. After he filled her tank, she
followed him into the empty station.

                “Blow or
blowie?” she said.

                One
look at her tits and “Blowie” was all he said.

                She
stopped off in Reno before hitting the Sierras; undid a few buttons; slapped
tits and her last twenty bucks on a blackjack table. Five hours later, she was
five grand up and under the dealer in a comped suite shoving a pinkie up his
ass. He finished first but finished her off even though break time was over and
fucking guests was against the rules.

                Her
kinda guy. She thought about hanging around as she emptied the minibar—danced
around the room, tits flapping, ass pumping—then passed out.           

                Next
day, she snorted the rest of the stash, and hit the Sierras around noon. A trucker
sidled up; stared down from his cab. She undid her halter top with one deft
hand flipped him a tit and then the bird. She was over the pass and going down
fast. Hand on the gun, she rolled down the window and shot at the truck.

                “Fuck you,
fucker trucker! Fuck you. Fuck me. Fuck cancer! Fuck it all fucking fuck!”

She took her foot off the brake, pumped up
the volume and went down screaming.




Messages in the Dark

Picture Credits: Steve Buissinne

Exhibit F: An Extract
From the History of Time Spent with You

We travelled to France, you, me and the recovering alcoholic. You
were both working, and I -, I was the tea lady (as the brash Brit in the bar
teased). It was all insects buzzing, sunshine and chlorine.

The garden of the Chateau waited for you. For you to clear it, claw
it, manicure it. Remove the magical light from under the vines. To me, its
wildness was perfection. But your clients gave you Fortnum & Mason Jam for
Christmas and I knew the type of people they were. So there we were, the three
of us and a digger. 

I typed quietly indoors, churning through 18th Century literature,
my mind running in words.

You both carried on when the storm came and soaked your clothes so
they clung to your skin. I, inside, made hot tea and passed steamy mugs through
the door.

He looked like a boy, the alcoholic, – the recovered alcoholic – .
You almost wouldn’t notice the red under his eyes. The same eyes looked hurt
when we cheerily asked about the A.A. But deep breath, he talked about it with
the conviction of someone who knew it’s protocol –  I was
not well.

Wine glugged into our glasses over dinner. A hand over his – No thank you. We talked about the future while we sat on the plastic chairs outside, his rollie lit in a trembling hand. This addiction is fine. I endorsed his blurry-shaped ideas and he endorsed mine. – You’d be good at that. I didn’t ask about his past because it’s all shadows and holes. I was at university, he was unconscious.

When I was coy in my bikini, waddling to the pool, he said I have a
nice bottom, not to be smooth but to be kind.

He accompanied me to the boulangerie. I drove badly. He said it’s fine. Our french made us
embarrassed to order. He tried and apologised and we returned with twenty
croissants for three. I thought it was funny, But they’ll all go stale you complained. And our personalities
dangled -.

For one year sober, you receive a plastic coin and I think a
wristband would be better. Gathered in the cobbled living room we lit a fire
because the hearth is too majestic not to. With wine still in hand, I declared
war on the word Anonymous. It was the
wine that made me chatty. And I didn’t really understand but I knew I didn’t.

As we turned talk to the N.A, not the A.A (N for Narcotics? I asked), I remembered the stories of the little
tins found hidden in the workshop and how it was the secrets that upset
everyone not the heroin.

You would say it doesn’t matter now he’s better. Perhaps you did
say it – I can’t remember. Perhaps you meant it.

Our days repeated. Work, tea, lunch, ripples on the pool all
Hockney in the sunshine. Until the job was complete. (And the mouse we named
Horace had gorged on all our food).

We packed down the house, returned it to its form. Back to a place without
us, without sunglasses and books folded face down. I moved the owner’s wine
back where it was in the fridge. There were three bottles missing. Perhaps I
miscounted.

We wound our way home, packed up in the van, a stolen sunflower
each in the back. We ate jelly sweets, listened to audiobooks and nodded in and
out of sleep. We stopped by the side of the road where I cried and stamped my
feet at you because I really am terrible at driving but you didn’t need to say
it. You could have said it’s fine.

Why are you getting so
upset?
are the words I remember. But I couldn’t
articulate the something I knew to be true about you, about how I knew, that if
it were you, you never would have miscounted those bottles of wine.

And now we’re sat here, and you ask me over dinner if I remember our trip to France. And I smile and say, Yes. And think of how now it’s nothing but nostalgia, just a fragment in the history of me and you.




My Sinister Side

At first, I
didn’t pay it much attention: a wafting discomfort, hardly a touch. A week
later, a slight pulsation, barely a few seconds at the time. When it returned,
within a few days, it was more a tightening, a pressure, followed by a twinge.
Nothing to worry about. Under the left arm. Always the left.

A current shot
through the length of my arm, throbbing, stopping at the wrist. Always the
left.

A sharp
ache in my knee. A sting in the knee of my left leg. The ankle and the leg tingling
with pins and needles. The left leg. Always the left.

One at a
time, I could tolerate. I could ignore. But when they came together, all the
pains, all the twinges, all the soreness, strong and united, I squirmed. I held
my breath. I screamed in anguish.

It was too
much to bear. Too much to live with. What was I to do?

I spoke to
a friend. Or rather, half a friend. He had empathy and sent me to a person who
had helped him. No, he didn’t have a problem with his left side. But he wanted
to appear as half man, and half invisible. He needed to be cut in half. ‘His
new shape,’ he said, ‘offered infinite opportunity.’

‘Here is
the address. No need for an appointment. He is in demand,’ my friend said,
handing me a business card, ‘but he works around the clock. Like an assembly
line. You will be seen in no time.’

And so I
went to the man cutter. Man and woman cutter, to be precise.

You must
agree, he did an excellent job. He cut away my sinister side, leaving my better
half. Aesthetically, it is more pleasing too. I feel whole again.




July 1994

Ten feet of child-powered machine stalls on the sidewalk. Helmets click.

We’ve pillaged the garage for things with wheels,
mounts, and ramps. Brother rigged the machines while sister and I discuss
rules. She sits feet up on the Roller Racer®, a plastic seat with handlebars
resting on wheels. The handlebars conveniently double as footrests. We’ve tied
a piece of twine from the fork of the bar to the stem of the Cruiser bike. I
straddle my banana seat. Brother says go.

 Get to the Meerman’s driveway in under twenty and we’re golden. But sister leans forward too far and the metal handbars of the racer scrape cement. She panics, dives for the lawn. The sudden lack of steering and weight means I’ve got a six-pound piece of plastic on cheap wheels churning up grass. Earth and gravel fly everywhere. Sister’s pulled herself up and joined Brother, who is doing a stumbling run with the the kitchen timer in hand.

 Yellow house. Excelerate. Drop weight to the left as right leg elongates, forming the outside of the curve into the street. FREEDOM. Me and my five-wheeler swoop past whole houses now. The steel handlebars of the roller-racer burr the road, cutting sparks.

Blue house up. I slope up the sidewalk across the street.

Slooooooow to line up my front tire with the steep white strip that runs between the grass and driveway. For five seconds the Cruiser must coast on this four-inch wide, twenty-foot long, three-foot tall ledge. Any slower and wheels wobble. Linearity breaks down. Then I must make the jump. Brother and sister start yelling the countdown.

The air is sticky with cigarette smoke and ribs. Someone’s grilling. For courage I think of Princess Buttercup crossing the lagoon of shrieking eels, and the song my sister danced to for her jazz recital, sassy and sharp. I will never be prepared for the role of star. I know they’d want things from me, and all I can offer is subtle and microscopic. It’s alternately easy and difficult to be soft-spoken, to appear okay with not being popular. I squint my eyes to sharpen the smoke.

Five wheels coast the beam like nothing. Like that song, I’m walking on sunshine? Like, here I go, here I go, here I go again. Whoomp, there it is.

My front wheel breaks the precipice and smacks the street, rear wheel lifting up behind me. The whole block is silent as the steel Roller Racer® lashes through the air over my head.




The Perfect Balance

Picture Credits: Jody Davi

Everything
changes in an instant. Moving quickly, ink-stained clusters of low clouds chase
luminous, airy volumes of sunlight out of the sky. Glacial discharges ignite
the upturned bowl of the approaching rainstorm with pale fire; distant thunders
clatter behind the scenes. Suddenly, it smells like river, of dust and depths. The
next moment, a dazzling flash connects the nearest roofs with the ornate,
translucent inside of the overcast; a deafening boom detonates through the neighbourhood.
Torrents of water descend on the city at once; the wind spins and whips this deluge
into dense gradients sweeping through trees, enveloping houses, trailing along
the street. Soon, it all drowns in the wild maelstrom of the elements; total
chaos consumes everything.

It is good to be at home
at such moments, to find yourself in a dry, warm place fully isolated from the
pandemonium outside. It is strangely satisfying — to feel vanishingly small,
lonely, and utterly insignificant, truly a speck of dust lost in the cataclysm
of planetary proportions, while watching all this uproar from behind the windowpane
very much like an astronaut witnessing the end of days from the safe confines of
a sky lab receding into infinity.

And then you see another
human being — a naked man running across the street and, after a second — a
woman in her underwear following him with a garden shovel in her hands. The
woman is screaming something but you can’t hear the words. In this woman, you
recognise your neighbour Claire, a lawyer. She is about forty and she recently
told you how difficult it was to find a decent person to date and, possibly,
marry. She is barefoot; her luxurious blond mane is quickly getting wet.

Desperately pressing the
button of his car remote, the man sprints towards a new white Vauxhall parked
across the street. The car flashes the headlights in response and the man
quickly crawls inside and slams the door shut. Claire tugs wildly at the door handles.
A moment later, she smashes the windshield of the car with her weapon.

Watching her doing this,
you feel how everything changes again. The order, the stable, familiar
hierarchy of things returns. Violent cosmos recedes; relentless chaos subsides.
Humanity doesn’t look immaterial anymore; on the contrary, human life appears
tremendously substantial now, full of meaning, power, and intent, central to
the vast design of reality. With their frenetic activity, these two people seem
to justify the existence of the entire Universe around them.

The windshield of the
car is destroyed; the rain is pouring inside through the dark gap. The hood is
covered in dents. Visibly exhausted, Claire walks back home. You wait for a
couple of minutes but nothing else is happening outside. The wind ceases; heavy
rain keeps pounding the street and the roofs of the cars.

You wait a bit more;
then you return to your book and a cup of tea.




Boiled

Picture Credits: Eliane Meyer

He saw it there in front of him, one of many. This one had been there for some time, rotting. Rotten. It looked stuck fast in the wet, oily mud. One arm was twisted backwards and at the end the hand was claw-like, stiff, grasping for whatever it was it had been holding, something now long gone. Many things were now long gone from the scene, or so it seemed to him. They boiled the bones. Once the remaining flesh had been stripped off, hacked off, sliced off, bitten… they boiled down, boiled away, whatever was left. And the bones glistened. They sparkled. The cauldron hung from chains outside the barn. He saw his body now as bones, now as flesh, and wondered which one was him. Men came on horses and took them away. The bones were packed all together and tied up in an animal skin. It was quite a thing, to see the bones like that, to hear the bones like that, to hear them clatter while they were being rolled up tight. They left behind the man who had boiled the bones. They left him some money and a sword. He wrapped the sword again and again in cloth and put it under his bed, the only place he could think of. Later, on a sunny afternoon as he watched his house burning, he remembered it lying there, untouched since he had swaddled it. When the fire was almost finished and the other men had all gone, when the smouldering was all but done, he made his way through what was left, surprised at how easily what was once solid now crumbled. He found it, black where once it had shone. He banged the blade with his fist again and again, and slowly the gleaming blade was revealed.




After the Break

I heard a horrifying noise, as if our home had been hit by lightning. Through the dust I saw the building had cracked in two, a chasm straight through the middle of our home. The first earthquake in ten years. We were lucky. I was in the study and he was in the dining room, at opposite ends of the house, otherwise I might have lost my Jack.

Looking through the dust that had sprung up we waved to one another. I shouted to him, asking if he was hurt, but I could see his huge smile that he was fine and was obviously relieved I was okay. We tried to reach each other, across the break, but although our fingertips were within millimetres of one another we never quite touched and Jack said it was too dangerous to try to jump. He told me not to worry.

Every single day we delayed the chasm grew a foot wider and he moved further away from me. It’s a bit strange now the gap has grown wider; it means we can’t shout to one another anymore so I haven’t spoken to him for weeks. He wrote me a letter which took two weeks to arrive because of the poor postal system. In it he told me he’s always preferred that side of the house. Most of his belongings are over there and he’s always viewed this half as my bit of the house. He tells me he’d like to stay over there for a while.

I don’t plan to join Jack over there. I understand why he’s attached to his kitchen and studio and he will understand I can’t leave my study and books. It would be impossible to get them across the break and half a house really isn’t big enough for both of us.

We’ve decided the postal system is too tardy. So now the chasm has finally stopped widening we rigged up a pull wire with a bottle and send each other messages every day. Jack tells me he’s applied for citizenship there and that he’s happy. He understands my reasons for not wanting to join him. We’ve always had different hobbies and interests so it’s not as though we lived in one another’s pockets before. We understand the need to make time for ourselves, as well as each other, it’s the foundation on which our marriage was built.

I know we can survive this. We still talk. I mean we correspond rather than talk face to face, but I can see Jack waving at me from across the way and I wave back and it doesn’t feel that different really. I’m as happy as I’ve always been. Nothing has changed for me. He is still perfect in every way. I know he’s still there for me and always will be. I love him and he loves me. The nature of our relationship hasn’t changed at all. It’s just a different geography. Nothing will ever separate us, even when apart, we won’t be divided.




While Celebrating Our 8th Anniversary at the Greek Restaurant

Picture Credits: congerdesign

My wife tells me she dated an ambidextrous veteran who wasn’t much of a talker. “I had a thing for vets,” she admits, dragging her sleeve through the tzatziki.

“That’s great baby. You’re a blazing mess.”

Her underarm jiggles as she pops pita bread into her mouth. “Don’t play jealous, Randall,” she says. A tiny white bead of dip lands on her blouse. Above the left breast. Like an upturned nipple. I’m telling you what I see so I don’t have to make this stuff up.

The waiter takes orders from the booth behind her. His gaze darts towards my wife. She does this windmill thingy with her hands when she talks.

I move the red and yellow condiments out of my dear windmill’s way and glance around the room to see if my wife is the loudest, most active mammal currently occupying a booth. My suspicion is confirmed when the waiter looks at her again.

“Can you stop that?” I whisper.

“Stop what?” she exclaims with curious, not-whispering eyebrows. Her blouse glistens when it moves.

“Stop making a commotion, please? You’re attracting attention.” I address the blouse, the voice, the wife in unison.

She freezes mid-dip, and gives me the once-over used to assess unexpected kitchen cockroaches; the little ones get a pass while the hefty roach gets a heel. I imagine the crunching sound, the fast death.

“Maybe you should relax and stop being so anxious. What’s the problem? Try some tzatziki.”

I gesture towards the waiter with the help of my head.

“Oh him?” my wife laughs. “He has a glass eye.”

The waiter slides toward our table. “Do you need more water?” he asks.

Tzatziki dries like toothpaste on her lips, but she assures him we’re fine. “I was just telling my husband about your eye.” Her voice is warm, intimate, ready for S’mores.

The waiter’s eyes seem to argue amongst themselves— one eye tracks my darling’s face while the other eye stands in salute to an invisible monument.

“Yeah, it’s not my real eye,” he says.

“Tell my husband how you got it.”

“I bought it. For money,” the waiter admits.

“How do you know this?” I ask my wife.

“I was there. At the knife fight. In the bowling alley parking lot. When was that?” She scans the waiter’s face for a calendar date.

He shuts his eyes and thinks a minute. I wonder if the closed glass eye feels different from the closed real eye.

“2003. The Monster League Championship.”

“Of course!” My wife’s palm slams the table top. “2003! What a year. I was dating Larry that year, a monster, a true fiend in the sack. Did you ever recover your real eye?”

“Partly.”

My wife leans over, whispers–“it was a knife fight”– in that just-between-the-two-of-us voice.

“Larry. You never mentioned Larry,” I whisper back.

“Nonsense. Larry was not even a french fry in the grand scheme of things. Besides, I know how crazy you get over my exes. Effusions of sudden envy. Over nothing, baby, nothing. Wildflowers and weeds blossom over graves.”

The waiter lifts the white paper napkin from under my wife’s elbow and proceeds to gently dab the tszatziki from her chin and the crevice of her lips. The dabbing occurs in slow motion.

“Mmmm, thanks Ricardo. I’m starving—when will our gyros be ready?  Starving is an understatement. Ravenous, really. I am straight-up ravenous. Like a raven, you know?”

How to convey the disappointment I feel when faced with my wife’s devastating etymological linkage and the waiter cleaning her chin soft-porn style? My feelings pale near the fire of watching him lean down and swipe that tiny white nipple from her blouse. My nipple. Her mess. His hand.

“Good god! What’s next? If even a waiter could see it.”

“See what? He can see whatever. He has a glass eye, you know. He’s not blind.”

“That’s obvious. Our marriage simmers in this wood veneer booth whereupon you invite another man to fondle your ersatz nipple?”

My wife’s face could launch a thousand commercial cruises. She reaches across the table for my hand but there’s a fork clenched in my fist and the fork touches nothing.

She wraps her hand around my hand holding the fork. A fist with a fork inside it.

“Is that what this is about?”

“Of course,” I lie. “Over-exposure, public nipples…”

She smiles and squeezes my hand, then pumps it twice. My wife knows better. This is not about her nipples or my nipples or the knife fight or the waiter making love to her blouse and her body with his single functioning eye. This is about a fork and two hands tangled, the monsters we meet and the monsters we make up, a marriage.




Jitters

Picture Credits: Mazlov

A part wants to break away from the other part. The part that wants to break away claims a different culture. How many cultures make the whole. Who are the true people from the part that wants to break away and the true people from the part that believes in the whole. How many parts make up the whole and how many parts break down the whole. Is the whole more corrupt than its parts. How can you know your part in the parts and which part. There are variations of language. There are variations in weather and this can change the constitution of this or that part of the people. They are burning tyres on the highway. Some people are unfurling flags and waving them in the air as symbol for solidarity. A shift to the right in the south, a slight shift to the left in the centre, and here, further north, it is unclear. How far can we break down the parts before we find the whole again. Everyone at the bus stop is jittery. When will it arrive. What if it keeps going. You have to keep your eye out. You have to stick your thumb out. If you want the bus to keep going, wave your finger and shake your head. If you wave your finger for the bus to stop, you have sent the wrong signal.




Regeneration

The artist descends to her workshop. The stairs creak underneath her feet. A lightbulb hums. With a rustle of plastic, she uncovers her project. The artist hides it so her wife and daughter, rummaging for a winter coat or out-grown toy, won’t see. Not yet. Upstairs, her wife shuffles papers at the kitchen table. Their daughter has fallen asleep at last. The artist considers her sculpture. The ears are correct. Symmetrical, small, with intricate hollows and unattached lobes. The earrings are spherical studs, fissured and whorled like tiny brains. The rest of the sculpture—the artist listens to the low, insistent voice inside her head—is wrong. The artist spritzes her creation. She pounds it back to formlessness. She gets to work.

+

The artist descends to her workshop. The stale air smells of day-old tea. As the artist uncovers her project, particulates swarm. She sneezes. Her daughter’s nose drips like a broken faucet lately. She went through tissue after tissue at the ceremony. And after, when her daughter laid her tired head against her shoulder, her hair gave off the watermelon scent of kid shampoo. The artist considers her sculpture. The nose is correct. Bony and narrow, with flaring nostrils and the shallowest channel between the tip and top of the lips, which—the artist inhales, frowns, and exhales—are wrong. The mouth needs work. She begins by destroying the woman in front of her.

+

The artist descends to her workshop. Her wife is washing dishes. The artist tongues her teeth to free a sprig of spinach. The neighbors brought a casserole. Traditional. She uncovers her project. The sculpture’s lips are lovely. Pursed and dainty, thin lips scored with tiny lines. They move in her mind, but what will her daughter retain? A powdery kiss on the cheek. An ice cream sandwich in the kitchen. Cigarettes and mothballs. Her accented croak. Some phrases from a bedtime story. Hug after hug after hug goodnight. The artist hopes. The artist fears: a still, flat image. Even less. She adds the laugh lines, wrinkles, scars. The mole on the side of her chin. She cups the sculpture’s cheeks between her palms. Almost. The body is not the soul, and yet. She can’t undo the face before her, can’t even recover her. The artist ascends the stairs in tears.

+

In the morning, the artist descends to her workshop. Light pours through the basement window. Birds chirp and her daughter is laughing. The ears. Her wife brews breakfast tea with lemon. The nose. Cereal and milk slosh into a bowl, the mouth, and dribble down her daughter’s chin. The skin. The artist blinks and reaches to crease the sculpture’s lids. She paints black circles ringed with brown. White crescents with stray threads of red. The artist lays the rescued wig (white curls) around the heart-shaped face. Stands back and meets her mother’s gaze. Becomes in that instant her daughter again.

+++




Subtitles 4: My Sitcom

Picture Credits: Annca

Entertainment, family style

 

Subtitles: 4

The father plays Rachmaninoff on his euphonium on his days off from the aeronautics lab.  He puns on Plato and serves seven styles of risotto.  After subbing at his daughter’s hip-hop class, in casual bedroom shots he unbuttons designer shirts of lilac and ultramarine to showcase a solar plexus that would make Michelangelo fumble his chisel.  Peggy, the mother, dyes her hair pistachio.  She crushes bathroom scales in jumble sale T-shirts and pink sweat pants, enters with a crumbly cream-filled peach cupcake in every scene.  Her catch phrase: “Why try?”  Her stock gag: bamboozling her hair salon buddies into jimmying the boss’s shotgun cabinet so they can rumble to the dump and blast rockchucks.  Six episodes in the season fizzles.  Pallid actors pack cardboard boxes into taxis on a rainy Thursday afternoon in a quarter of the city where old studios stand like bombed airplane hangars.  A wrinkled entertainment weekly tumbles like a flamboyant afterthought across the plaza, catching in the hands of a crossing guard who like a vassal with a proclamation spreads and reads it, a punchy piece from an upstart columnist eager to make a name for himself, his thumb on the pulse of public taste, calling it The Death of Humor.

 

 

My Sitcom

 




After he moved in

Picture Credits: Joe Goldberg

“You need to screw it in like this.” When Buddha twisted his wrist, the light bulb looked like a glass lotus in his elegantly cupped hand.

“I’m trying to!” I wobbled on the stool as I reached for the fixture, my fingers clenched claws. I bet I looked like a club-footed flamingo. Not for the first time, I wished I’d paid more attention to my ex’s electrical advice and Mom’s lectures on poise.  Maybe I’d have more core stability if I’d joined Buddha for his yoga. Meditation was great, but it clearly wasn’t enough. Not for me anyway.

When I’d offered Buddha somewhere to stay, it was only meant as a transient living arrangement. I’d figured he wouldn’t require much: a simple cushion, a basic mattress and floor to sleep on, some rice and green tea.

Apparently, I was wrong. Thick carpet was essential for muffling noise and he had to have space to breathe. While mostly quiet was important, the sound of his chanting filled the whole apartment at strange hours – especially last thing at night and early in the morning. It turned out his belly took some feeding. Enlightenment also necessitated daily laundered sheets, fresh flowers and plenty of light.

I realized his needs had taken over when he insisted on forty 1000 lumen bulbs – one for each year of his earthly life – to be strung across the ceiling. It’s true his face shone brighter than the Las Vegas Strip. But each one had to be replaced immediately when it died. I was on the seventh that week, and, when I came to think about it, I’d not yet seen him put one in himself.

Meanwhile, this bulb was refusing to stay secured. It was clearly cross-threaded. I shifted my weight slightly and lost my grip. The bulb hit the ground exploding into sharp fragments across his thick, muffling carpet.

“Watch out!” I shouted, scared he might cut his bare feet. Then I remembered – I’d given him my shoes earlier that week.

After Buddha left for his evening yoga class, I packed his bag, complete with a rechargeable torch, and left it by the neighbor’s fig tree.




Caviar

 

 Perestroika meant twenty-three, with two Masters degrees, and still unemployed in Odessa, so she started selling magazines in the supermarket kiosk, and she kept selling magazines until the day he walked in.

Half Russian, half Hungarian, descended from exiled aristocrats. Sure. The truth was he was confident – energetic, young, and handsome, too – with a plan to smuggle caviar from Russia to Ukraine. It was risky, but everyone was doing it, he said, so why couldn’t they?

They could.

Black caviar, first-rate stuff, impossible to produce artificially. She liked it when he talked about the sturgeon laying their eggs, about needing to go to the source, Astrakhan, north of the Caspian Sea. They bought it in tins from poachers and hid them in the engine, in the gas tank, underneath the bucket seats. Police were everywhere, all along the border. If they’d been caught it would’ve been prison for a long, long time.

But they never got caught; it was thrilling. It was new clothes and drugs and anything they wanted. She couldn’t want any more, so why, then, did she lie? Why, then, did she skim a little extra for herself? When he found out, it was all over like that.

He disappeared with the car. She went back to magazines. She got married and had two blonde kids who looked just like the father she’d later divorce.

Years go by. The kids grow up. She moves to Baltimore U.S.A. and gets a job managing inventory for a discount supermarket chain. She has her own desk and a phone, and a cloth-covered corkboard where she tacks up photos. One day she hears from a friend that her old partner is still in business, and for a moment she forgets the years, forgets the distance, forgets her two teenagers and her salaried office job. For a moment she thinks about trying to get in touch. But no, she doesn’t do that. That’s not her anymore. She looks at her corkboard with all her photos and remembers the new life she’s made.

When they were little, the kids would beg, Mama, tell us about when you were our age. But she didn’t know how to tell them that she’d never really been their age. So she made things up, wild accounts of horses and travelling carnivals and holidays by the sea. She never mentioned caviar, but once in a while, for a birthday – or just because – she’d buy a jar and serve it to them on good buttered bread.

Now, fickle and moody, the kids barely talk to her at all. The boy only wants to play soccer and smoke, and the girl hardly ever leaves her room. She guesses this is justice, or the next closest thing.




The Polovakai

The Polovakai were a people of numbers.

They were a humanoid species recognized to possess a comparable mental capacity to humans decades before the first anthropologist decided to venture so deep into the jungles of their planet. Their houses were built like burls on the sides of enormous trees, decorated in ropes.

The first anthropologist told us about the ropes. She had wondered if the ropes might be there to help them climb, but even the children of the Polovakai had no difficulty climbing trees. Their hands gripped the bark easily, their claws extending as much as necessary. They had short, wiry fur like goats, and four short limbs of equal length. They had large swivelling ears and eyes that were all black.

The second anthropologist realized that the ropes existed not for climbing, but for their knots. All of the ropes had knots, and knotted ropes were worn around the waists, wrists, necks, ankles and even the knobby fingers of the Polovakai, as well as dangling from their houses and doorways like tassels.

The third anthropologist hadn’t returned.

The fourth anthropologist had explained that the knots were numbers. Each number meant something to the Polovokai, she had explained in a dead voice when the interviewer had finally persuaded her to speak of her experiences. One was the number of the Polovokai themselves.

Two was the number of elements—air and earth—and life required both. Air included cloud, wind, fire and light, and earth included flesh, dirt and stone.

Three was the number of supreme beings they recognized: one, an immaterial ancestor of the Polovokai; the second, the combined mind of their forest; and a third, a force of goodness, luck and love.

Four was the number of times a Poloka’s name grew during life. The last anthropologist had lived with an old Poloka named Chanarikai who had once been called Chanari, Chanar, Chan, and Ch.

Five was the greatest number of people one Polovakai could marry, either at once or over their lifespan. Six was the number of genders they recognized: male and female, mostly male and mostly female, falena or both and nallale or neither. Seven was the number of senses they recognized: sight, touch, smell, hearing, balance, direction, and recognition. Fifty-one was the number of the village that the last anthropologist stayed in. Because every whole number had a meaning, when the Polovokai counted or used numbers for other things they did so in halves.

All of this, the fourth anthropologist explained in the early days of her return, as she had leapt erratically from topic to topic, her eyes wild in her night-dark face, tears coming readily to her brown eyes. She had been given the number 14.5. It was all she would say for hours, that, and I didn’t understand.

Her number was higher than the numbers of the three that had come before her, the numbers that before that fourth and final anthropologist’s report, no one had paid much attention to. The first woman to brave the jungle had been given the number .5 when she left. She had barely spoken a word before she had been bitten by a poisonous snake and died.

The second was given 3.5, and had passed on information about ropes and knots before she had died in a freak fire.

The third never returned. Perhaps they hadn’t liked him; perhaps his number was negative.

The fourth anthropologist was with them for nearly five months before they sent her back. The Polovakai didn’t allow notes or recordings to be taken of them, so she had to be interviewed like the others. She also had to be interviewed because of her state.

“I didn’t know,” she said again as tears streaked down her young face from wide eyes. It was the thirteenth day since her return. “I didn’t understand.”

“What about infinity?” the interviewer asked.

But the anthropologist’s eyes had glazed over, her hands clasped tightly in her lap, and she didn’t seem to hear her question. “They told me at the beginning,” the anthropologist said, shaking her head over and over again. “Everything has a number, they said. If I wanted to learn the numbers I had to have one. They gave me my number.”

“What about infinity?” the interviewer asked again, gently.

“They don’t believe in it,” the anthropologist said. “Everything has a number. Everything ends.”

“What about—”

“They gave me my number,” the anthropologist repeated, hands pressed to the sides of her head as if to protect herself from the truth, eyes wild and unseeing as she fled from the room.

When the last anthropologist died from some sudden, unknown illness the next day, the file on the Polovokai was closed and researchers stopped venturing down to ask about numbers.




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.