FICTION: MAYA ALEXANDRI – …Mad, or Well Advised?…

… Mad, or Well Advised?…

An Excerpt from the Novel, Waiting for Love Child

by: Maya Alexandri

 

Twelve days after I first cheated on my wife with Lisa Contra-Templeschmidt, I was still shaking.  I staggered up the entry-way stairs of Mao’s Boudoir, the private club for business executives managed by Eugene Hicks, the mucilaginous American who’d adjusted vastly better to marrying into a Chinese family than I had.  I could see Eugene’s lanky form, flitting about the hostess standing at the top of the stairs and tickling her left ear with the unlit tip of his cigar.

Swatting him away with an expression both coquettishness and annoyed, the hostess gestured nervously at me.  Eugene squinted down into the stairwell.  His oblong, pointy face bunched all its features too closely together around his nose, creating a rat-like effect that was enhanced by his splayed teeth.  “I should’ve known once Billy showed up that you couldn’t be far behind,” he giggled, holding out his hand.

I shook it and, for lack of any whiskers to pull, slapped him on the back.  “I see you’re living the high life, as always,” I greeted him without pleasure.

“Can’t say the same for you.  What d’you’ve got, Parkinson’s?”

I wouldn’t have thought that Eugene was perceptive enough to realize that I was shaking.  I grimaced, thinking what doctors would eventually name my ailment: Lisa Quakes.  Contra-Templeschmidt Quivers.  Looking to change the subject, I caught sight of Eugene’s frog-ugly wife, enthroned in a Qing-dynasty replica wooden chair in the corner, surveying the club’s patrons and rubbing her distended, pregnant belly.  “Doesn’t your wife mind you using your cigar as a tickler on the hostess?” I asked.

“Please,” Eugene entreated me unctuously, “it gives face to the whole family if I behave like an imperial lord, doing my duty by Wife, and frolicking with my concubines.  She wouldn’t accept anything less.”

I nodded, oscillating between being aghast and dismissing his remark for the glutinous drivel that it surely was.  “I need a drink,” I said with a final nod.

“To describe Eugene Hicks as ‘slithery,’” I whispered, placing my scotch on the low wooden table and flopping onto the plush opium bed next to Billy, “would be to give him too much spine.”

Billy chortled.  “I was disappointed when Six-Pointed Star picked his place for the meeting,” he admitted.  “It’s so tacky.”

I’m assuming you’ve never been to Mao’s Boudoir, Sandra, since its clientele is composed predominantly of men who couldn’t tell the theater from an anteater.  The decorating motif in Mao’s Boudoir can be summed up in a slogan fit for an interior design autocrat: recycle socialist realism as kitsch!  Four massive Mao portraits beam benightedly on each wall in the main room.  Between the portraits hang propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution, exhorting the executive clientele: “To rebel is justified!” “Labor in the countryside refines heartfelt proletariat commitment!”  “Smash counterrevolutionary thought in literature and art!”  The opium bed on which we were lounging was upholstered in red silk, embroidered with the hammer and sickle of the Communist flag.  The teapot from which the waitress poured our complimentary Pu-erh tea was decorated with a scene of a landlord, wearing a dunce cap, being publicly denounced and humiliated by an angry mob.  The waitress who poured the tea was dressed like a vampy Red Guard, in a jaunty military cap with one red star at its center; olive, short-sleeved, fitted shirt and matching shorts; ubiquitous red arm-band adorned with yellow characters; and high-heeled, lace-up black boots that ended at her knee.

“I couldn’t care less what the place looks like,” I growled, snapping forward to gulp my scotch, “but Eugene disgusts me.”

“Is that why you’re shaking?” Bill asked, observing the ice clattering in my scotch glass.

“Is it that obvious?” I cried, not so much because I minded Billy noticing, but because Lan hadn’t said anything about the tremors that’d become a constant since I first bedded Lisa.  They were, so far as I could tell, the sole give-away of my stray diao – and I’d been scrupulously attuned for any sign that would give me up.  I guess on some level I’d resigned myself that in situations like mine, everyone eventually is ren zang bing huo – caught with the booty – but I’d been hoping to forestall the inevitable, at least until I could avoid it altogether.  But if Eugene and Billy – two men, not a breed celebrated for its attentiveness – discerned that I was shaking within moments of seeing me, then the trembling must be embarrassingly apparent.  Why hadn’t Lan mentioned it?  Had I ceased to register in her consciousness?  Was she toying with me?  Or maybe it’d gotten worse?  I finished my drink and collapsed backwards onto the opium bed.

Billy watched me with a solemn expression.  After I’d exhaled dejectedly, he asked, “Drug withdrawal?”

“I wish,” I moaned.  “I can’t remember the last time I wasted my brain so blissfully.”  I lifted an arm limply to signal the waitress.  “Billy, order me another scotch, will you?”

“We’ve got a meeting,” he protested.

I glanced at my watch.  “We’re twenty minutes early, and they’re always late anyway.  I’ll sober up by then.”

“Or pass out,” Billy snorted, but he relented and ordered me another.

“Actually, Billy,” I rolled over onto my side and eyed him eagerly, “do you have any blow?  That’s a really good idea.”

“No, and it’s the worse idea you’ve ever had.  You’re already shaking!”
“It’s anxiety.  The coke will calm me.”

“How’s an amphetamine going to calm you?” Billy inquired parentally.  “What’re you so anxious about anyway?”
“I slept with Lisa.  Don’t tell anyone.”  I don’t know why I told him.  I hadn’t meant to confess to Billy, or to any other person, Sandra, except you.  I’d promised myself that only you, me, and Lisa would ever know – or at least, that was the plan.  Now you, me, Lisa and Billy knew, but I was too exhausted from the jitters to care.

A confused look occupied Billy’s face.  Then he asked, “Who’s Lisa?”

“Contra-Templeschmidt?!  The cartoonist!  The woman you hired!”

“You slept with her?”  Billy seemed incredulous.  “Isn’t that like Lyle Lovett cheating on Julia Roberts with, I don’t know, Janet Reno?  How does that happen?”

“No it is not like sleeping with Janet Reno!” I hissed, scrambling to an upright seated position, furious.  “Why are you giving me backsplash? – back . . . chat, whatever.  You’re the one who started all this.  You introduced me to her!  All this is your fault!  You’re the one who told me that I could cheat on Lan, that it’s ‘in the rules’ – that’s what you said.  I didn’t want to cheat on her!”

Billy leaned forward, away from me, and poured himself some tea.  He drank it deliberately and then turned to me with a melancholy frown.  “You do what you want, Dean.”

I grabbed his arm.  “Help me, man.  I’m sorry, I’m not mad at you, it’s not your fault.  Really, I didn’t mean that.  Help me.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Tell me what to do.  I need help, I’m trembling all the time.”

“That’s natural,” Billy shrugged.  “You’re physicalizing your guilt.”

The moment I realized he’d actually said “physicalizing,” I panicked.  I mean, I’d never heard the word before our drama therapy sessions, Sandra, and here Billy was using it in the same peculiar way, and I guess I thought he was mocking me – mocking me that I was in therapy, that he knew that I was in therapy, when I thought that the only people who knew were you, me and Lisa.  My arms shot forward, and I grabbed the front of his shirt, growling with the intensity of a shout, “How the hell do —”

“— Ow! What are you, psycho —”

“— you know that?!”

“— You’re pulling my chest hair!”

I released his shirt and cast a paranoid glance around the room.  The evening was still early enough that Mao’s Boudoir was relatively empty.  A party of humorless Chinese men was drinking tea several tables away, but they seemed absorbed by whatever conspiracy they were incubating.  Eugene was flouncing around a couple of waitresses at the opposite end of the room, and his frog-ugly wife maintained her regal remove in the corner chair.  Satisfied that public exposure of our tiff wasn’t imminent, I whipped back around to face Billy, whispering, “You don’t have any chest hair.”

“You were pinching me,” he retorted, smoothing the front of his shirt with his hands.  Then he reached out and pushed my face away roughly, but not unkindly.  

I hung my head.  He planted his palm on my temple and pushed my face again.  

“Knock it off,” I muttered, lamely swiping at his hand.

“You’ve gone crazy, you know that?  You need help —”

“— that’s what I’ve been telling you —”

“— you should see someone.”  He shifted forward to the edge of the opium bed and poured Pu-erh tea for both of us.  He handed me one of the cups and said, “I know someone at the Beijing International Harmony Hospital family counseling clinic.  I think she’s really good, but I don’t know if she’s right for you.  She’s not a psychiatrist, so she can’t prescribe medication, and I think you need —”

“— What do you mean, you ‘know’ her?”

“I see her.  She’s my therapist.  Her name’s Sandra Bernard.”      

For the first time in twelve days, I stopped shaking.  The stillness I felt was so complete that I’d be willing to bet that my automatic nervous system had stopped functioning.  Then my eyes goggled.  “You?  Why do you go to therapy?”

“Because I’m depressed all the time.  I’m lonely.  I’m disrespected by all the women here —”

“— Shut up.  You’ve got a kickin’ business.   You’re busy all the time.  You make good money.  You’re an entrepreneurial success —”

“— I’m depressed, Dean.  I drink too much —”

“— you’ve got a sober personality.  Old beyond your years.  You’re too serious, Billy, too mature, that’s your prob —”

“— I can’t adjust to life here.  I feel like I don’t belong.  I look like I belong, but I don’t.  I don’t have any community —”

“— how come I’ve never seen you at therapy?”

Now Billy stared for – as actors say – “a beat.”  Then he asked, “Who do you see at International Harmony’s counseling center?”

“Sandra.”

He nodded.  “Then you don’t need my help, talk to her.”

I collapsed back onto the opium bed again, drained.  I slapped my hands over my eyes.  “Billy,” I groaned, “don’t tell anyone I go to therapy, ok?  I’m trying to keep it a secret.”

“I won’t tell anyone, man.  But, you know, everyone in the expat community goes to the International Harmony counseling center.  It’s inevitable you’re going to meet people you know there.”

“I would’ve appreciated that warning two months ago,” I sat up spastically.  “I already ran into Lisa there.  You know, the trembling isn’t physicalizing guilt.  It’s a physicalization of lust.”

I am not one of those men who divulges to the guys sexual details of the who-did-what-to-whom-and-for-how-long variety, Sandra.  Only men with small diao “bond” with each other through gossip rituals that sacrifice the women in their beds.  I wouldn’t ever have told Billy about the irresistible and depraved things that Lisa did to me.  I never would’ve confided in Billy that Lisa’s suction capacity rivals that of vacuums used in particle accelerators.  Not from me would Billy have learned of Lisa’s Tintin tattoo, located just above her pubis, that depicts Tintin joyously bouncing along astride a horse, except that the “horse” is her woolly thatch of pubic hair.  No one would ever catch me telling Billy how I directed Lao Chen to drive me and Lisa to the Full Link Center on May 12, as if we were still going to the Six-Pointed Star meeting, but instead we ran to the Kuntai Hotel next door, where her lack of inhibitions and knowledge of male anatomy brought me to three consecutive orgasms and a bout of joyful tears.  Never before have I been on my hands and knees in front of a woman, and neither Billy nor any other man will ever know that fact.  This confession is just between you and me, Sandra.  Obviously, men have to be honest with their therapists, and honesty is a sign of having a big diao anyway.

I mention that I wouldn’t and didn’t share specifics with Billy to highlight that I didn’t need to: as soon as I explained that my trembling was “physicalizing lust,” Billy’s eyes clouded.  The man didn’t need to hear more to know that I was crippled by turgidity when awake and tormented by wet dreams when asleep.  Not another word needed to pass between us for Billy to understand that I had already slept with Lisa more times than I’d made love with Lan, and that my days had organized themselves into time spent prostrating myself before Lisa and the agonizing wait until I could do it again.    

“Be careful, man,” Billy admonished thickly.

“I want to stop, of course I do,” I pleaded.

In retrospect – and I hope this next admission isn’t insulting – I wouldn’t have said that I wanted to stop if I’d known that it would result in Billy insisting that I accompany him the following night to a rehearsal of your drama therapy production of Waiting for Godot.  I did want to stop – of course I did.  I never wanted to hurt Lan.  I recognized that cheating counted as “hurting Lan,” even when she didn’t know about it.  I was disappointing her, and her parents, and revealing myself as unworthy of the trust they’d placed in me.  I felt like a hai qun zhi ma – a blight on society.  But I don’t see why anyone, even a blight on society, should have to sit through Waiting for Godot.

Billy’s rationale was that, if I really wanted to end my affair with Lisa, I had cut off all contact with her and, because I couldn’t resist seeing her when left alone, that I had to spend my free time with him.  While I’m the first to agree with Billy’s thinking as a general matter, I didn’t understand the specifics of how such reasoning landed us at your rehearsal for Waiting for Godot.  

I’d seen the poster for the production in your office, of course:  “WAITING FOR GODOT, a drama therapy production, starring and benefiting Beijing’s migrant workers, directed by Sandra Bernard, 9 Theaters Chaoyang Cultural Center, June 23-30, 2008.”  I hadn’t ever considered going to the show, however.  Even after you’d casually mentioned that the proceeds from the show would benefit the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, which prompted me to buy tickets, I still didn’t consider actually seeing the show.  (I know, I know, Sandra, I told you that I was looking forward to it.  Sorry.  I lied.)  Billy says that you told him that attending the rehearsal might help him deepen his own practice of drama therapy because, at the rehearsal, he’d see other men on their own drama therapy odysseys, wrestling with the techniques.  I can promise that if you’d tried the same line on me, I would’ve told you that I was only too gratified to have my own practice remain superficial.

And I never, never, never would have gone to the rehearsal if I’d have had even a glimmer of a notion about the cast.  Not to say that I recognized any of the migrant workers who were playing Estragon, Pozzo, Lucky, or the Boy – I didn’t.  But Sandra, how could you have cast Lao Chen as Vladimir?  He’s not even a migrant, not really.  He’s from Hebei, like, not even 30 miles outside Beijing.  How can he qualify for a production “starring and benefiting Beijing’s migrant workers”?  I know you’ve said that you had no idea that he was my driver, but so what?!  It was still a betrayal, Sandra!  A damned-near fatal betrayal!  Seeing Lao Chen on stage rapidly escalated my physical problems from demure tremors to unrestrained choking.  You might as well have taken your own two hands, wrapped them around my throat, and vanquished the air from my lungs.  Poor Billy – not having recognized Lao Chen – misunderstood the problem and started doing the Heimlich maneuver on me, which did alleviate the choking, although not because of his emphatic, sternum-crushing thrusts, but because of my sudden fear that people seeing us would think we were gay.

I threw Billy off me and bolted to the back of the theater, where I hid behind a chair in the last row and peeked around at the on-stage action.  At the rear of the stage was a screen on which a large paper cut-out of a gnarled tree was backlit like a shadow puppet.  In the foreground, Lao Chen was arguing in Mandarin with a compact, muscular Chinese man, while a third guy wandered around the stage with an imbecilic smile on his face.  As Lao Chen spit on the stage and demanded 50 kuai before he’d run through the scene again, you, Sandra, were standing in the front row, waving your arms and screeching, “Just as emoting conquers emotion, continued existence defeats existential doubt!”  

Then Lao Chen grabbed his bowler hat off his head and began smacking the Chinese muscle man with it.  I’d never seen Lao Chen so vigorous or assertive, and I wondered if perhaps he hadn’t misunderstood the Chinese title of the play: whoever had translated the title “Waiting for Godot” had used characters that sound like “Godot” – gedou – but which is actually a verb indicating hand-to-hand combat.  Lao Chen seemed to think he was doing the muscle man a favor by not making him wait for the brawl, and the muscle man seemed to support such an interpretation by laughing as Lao Chen’s hat chastised his face.  Eventually, the muscle man snatched the hat and good-naturedly fished 20 kuai from his pocket.  

“Vladamir, listen to me,” you were squawking, Sandra, “when you say, ‘That passed the time,’ we the audience must understand that you Vladimir understand that passing the time is what gives life meaning.  Without something to do to pass the time, we’re just waiting for death and hoping neurotically that we’ll find a god once the inevitable arrives.  It’s boredom, listen to me, Vladamir – don’t give him any money! This is drama therapy!  We don’t pay the patients for treatment! —”

I began to relax, assured that everyone involved in the production was too involved with the on-stage fracas to have noticed me and Billy enter the theater.  As the muscle man replaced the bowler hat on Lao Chen’s head, Lao Chen volubly attempted to negotiated the fee up from 20 kuai to his standard 50.  The muscle man continued to argue with him, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying because you were still shouting, Sandra, “—it’s boredom that makes life seem meaningless because the waiting is interminable.  Unbearable!  Boredom forces us to ask, ‘Why are we waiting?’  The meaning of life is to stay busy, so that we’re never bored enough to ask that question.  Are you translating this?  I need you both to pay attention!  Stop giving him money!”

The muscle man most certainly did not translate what you’d been saying, Sandra, before he patted Lao Chen affably on the shoulder, turned and strode to the end of the stage, and jumped into the first row next to you.  The way he moved, the muscle man gave me the impression of a carny – maybe not a circus freak exactly, but someone who spent a lot of time around them.  He had shoulder-length, straight, black hair, and his eyes were bloodshot.  His face, which was wrinkled, looked older than his body, and I’d guessed that it’d gotten that way from hard living.  He wore ripped jeans and a tight t-shirt that stretched the words “SunFlood” from nipple to nipple; silver chains, spikes and skulls clanged from every available wrist, neck, ear, belt, wallet, and pocket.  The overall effect, while not handsome, was undeniably sexy.

Incredibly, astonishingly, unbelievably, when Mr. SunFlood landed in the first row next to you, he snaked his arm around your waist, pulled you close and kissed you several times.  Watching his lips graze your cheek and face, I began to feel that this theater was an alternative dimension governed by alien rules, a place where contingencies that would’ve been outlandish in this world were instead commonplace.  It was like coming to China for the first time all over again.  I knew that I was correctly perceiving the information, but I couldn’t integrate it into a schema of the world that I recognized.  You, Sandra, you were in a cross-cultural relationship, like me?  You don’t even speak Chinese!  You have no comprehension of wenhua chayi!  I felt indignant, protective, like a big brother.  I wanted to bolt down the aisle, punch SunFlood in the chest, and warn him: “If you hurt her, I’ll . . . . !”  

But my aggressive impulse withered at the thought that maybe I wasn’t so much protective, as possessive.  Was I as displeased to discover that you had a lover as I’d been to learn that my mother had remarried after my father?  While I puzzled over my underlying motivations, you and he exchanged a few murmured words, and then you hollered at a pitch that would’ve made a battalion of rats fall in line and stand at attention, “Run the scene again!”

Zai lai yi ci!” SunFlood repeated in Mandarin, his voice a rumbling blast.

The imbecile stopped his meandering and stood smiling, at spitting distance’s remove from Lao Chen.  Lao Chen’s face assumed a cross-eyed expression, as if an insect had dive-bombed his nose, and he hacked phlegm.  

“Good, good!” you shouted, Sandra.  “Vladimir, you’re physicalizing your concerns about impending boredom now that Pozzo and Lucky have departed.  Keep going!”  I couldn’t tell if you were genuinely applauding Lao Chen’s method, or if you were desperately trying to prevent him from spitting on the stage again; if the latter, your effort failed.

Shuo ba,” SunFlood ordered – literally, “speak.”  Sandra, I’m guessing you thought SunFlood was translating for you, but most of what you said never stood a chance.  And, Sandra, it looked to me like he wasn’t even trying to translate your words; he was deceiving you, thinking you’d never know.  That’s just my opinion, of course, and I’m telling you, not just because I think you should reconsider your relationship with this carny, but also because, if you’re committed to bringing drama therapy to the migrant masses, you’ll need to address this flaw in how you transmit your methodology.

Na ge hua le shijian, shi ma?” Lao Chen grunted.  Above the proscenium, a super-title projected, “That passed the time.”

“It would have passed in any case,” Estragon replied in Mandarin.  The migrant worker playing Estragon was plump and endlessly pleased to be onstage.  He delivered his line with the same incongruous grin that’d accented his every moment on stage; then he reached into his pocket for a melon seed, which he cracked between his teeth and afterwards spat the hull onto the stage.

“Estragon!” you hollered, Sandra, “live truthfully under imagined circumstances!  The circumstance is that your friends have just left.  Why are you smiling?  Is that truthful?”

“Stop eating melon seeds,” boomed SunFlood in Mandarin.  I’m not kidding, Sandra, that’s what he said.  All your insight, however dippy I might think it, was squandered.  “Do the line again!” SunFlood commanded.

“It would have passed in any case,” Estragon dutifully repeated, beaming.

“Yes, but not so rapidly, Fatty,” Lao Chen pronounced.  I was surprised to hear Lao Chen address Estragon as “Pangzi” – “Fatty” – because the nickname is one that I associate with Beijing, where it’s applied with profuse abandon; but then I noticed from the super-titles that “Fatty” wasn’t in Beckett’s script.  Lao Chen seemed to be delivering a Waiting for Godot with Chinese characteristics.  I immediately looked at SunFlood, to check if he was telling you about Lao Chen’s liberties with the lines, but he was absorbed with giving you a neck massage.

“What do we do now?” Estragon piped.

“I don’t know, Fatty.”

“Let’s go.”

“We can’t, Fatty.”

“Why not?”      

“We’re waiting for Godot.”  Lao Chen farted, a long, loud emission that squeaked off at the end.  

SunFlood guffawed.  Estragon maintained his amiable countenance and, interpreting SunFlood’s laughter as signaling a break, resumed eating melon seeds.

“Not sure about that capstone,” you called, Sandra.  “I’m losing the emotional through-line in this scene.  Your delivery doesn’t come across as the kind of emoting that conquers emotion – you don’t seem to be emoting at all.  You’re not connected to these lines.  Can we try it again, emoting, connected, this time?”

Without bothering to translate your observations about the scene’s deficiencies, SunFlood ordered a re-do: “Zai lai yi ci!”

Lao Chen demanded 50 kuai.  

I began to feel that your advice, Sandra, that Billy would learn from watching the rehearsal was sound.  Observing Lao Chen on his own drama therapy odyssey was teaching me that I needed to start demanding bonuses for meeting my therapeutic benchmarks.  

“What are you doing, squatting back here?”  Billy loomed over me, eyeing me with dour concern.  “I thought you went to the bathroom to spit – ”

I dragged Billy down beside me and hushed him.  “I don’t want anyone up there to know I’m here,” I hissed between clenched teeth.  “We need to go.”

“We just got here,” Billy objected.

“Then you stay.  I gotta go.”
“To Lisa’s?”  Billy’s expression was disappointed and censorious.  

“No, not to Lisa’s,” I retorted defensively.  “This has nothing to do with Lisa.  That’s my driver up there.  The so-called migrant worker playing Vladimir is Lao Chen!”

Billy’s face expanded with surprise.  “I thought I recognized —”

“— I can’t let him see me, otherwise he’ll want to know how I know Sandra, and my secret will be —”

“— but what’s he doing here?  How did Sandra find him?”

Billy’s question prompted an involuntary nervous response that felt like a bowling bowl dropping through my torso.  Prior to this moment, my anxiety had been fixated on the possibility of Lao Chen recognizing me, and the questions that would follow such an event.  I had been thinking that a combination of 150 kuai and the claim that Billy and I had wandered into the theater under the misapprehension that a performance by the Shaolin monks was that night’s entertainment would satisfy Lao Chen and assure his silence.  I had barely begun to calm myself, when Billy raised this fresh problem.  “He answered a casting call announcement?” I hazarded, knowing even before I articulated the words that the answer was “no.”

Billy reached out a hand to steady me, and I realized that I was shaking like a seismograph recording an earthquake.  “So you didn’t introduce them?”

I shook my head.

“Couldn’t she have met him when he dropped you off at your sessions?”

“He doesn’t drop me off at my sessions.  I didn’t trust him to take me.  I mean, if he knows I go to therapy, the information’s that much closer to Lan and her parents.”

Billy, savior that he is, didn’t prolong the inquiry.  “Let’s get a drink, man,” he concluded and shepherded me out of the theater.

We didn’t talk in the cab.  Billy directed the cab to Face, an overpriced Orientalist trap for the overpaid Occidentalist, and I didn’t comment.  We took our seats at the bar, ordered double scotches, and finished them, all without a word.  On the second double scotch, Billy said, “Lao Chen never took you to International Harmony for sessions?”

“No.”  I was beginning to suspect that the alcohol was exacerbating, rather than relieving, the tremors, but I decided to ignore my hunch; I gulped my scotch.  “He picked me up a couple of times.”

“Really?”

“Sure, but so what?  It’s not unusual to have to go to International Harmony.  I told him it was for a checkup.”

“Lan almost certainly pays him to spy on you.”

“You’re paranoid.”

“It wouldn’t be unusual.”

“I pay him to keep his mouth shut!” I shot back.  I probably sounded brash, confident.  But I wasn’t.  I was, in the Chinese expression, ti xin diao dan: my heart rocketing, my guts hanging.  What an idiot, buffoon, moron, fool, dolt, dunce, simp, ass I was!  How had I never considered that Lan was paying Lao Chen for his speech, just as I was paying him for his silence?  As general manager of our company, she’d hired him, and she paid his salary every month.  Sure, I’d called Billy paranoid, but I suddenly realized that of course Lan added a little extra to Lao Chen’s salary every month for a special report on where I’d been, who I’d seen, and what I’d done.  

And I had no doubt, as between her kuai and mine, whose money was more valuable to Lao Chen.  I might’ve married into China, but I was not and never would be, Chinese; I was confident that, in matters of subterfuge, being Chinese mattered: regardless that we’d worked together for six years, Lao Chen would be loyal to Lan, his countrywoman, over me – I was sure of it.  In fact, with money and loyalty at stake, Lao Chen had an incentive, not merely to report, but also to investigate.  What’s to say that, after the fifth or sixth time that I asked him to pick me up at International Harmony, he didn’t poke around and discover that I had regular sessions at the family counseling clinic?      

“So you think that Lan knows I go to therapy?” I asked, my throat tight.

“I wasn’t thinking about therapy, Dean,” Billy said in his grave-digger’s voice.  “Cheating might be in the rules, but so’s discretion.  You can’t get caught.”  

My hand was shaking so insistently that I feared I’d drop the tumbler.  I’d lost my taste for the scotch anyway, so I placed the glass carefully on the bar and looked at my hands.  Lao Chen had driven me and Lisa to the Full Link Center on May 12.  Had he followed us to the Kuntai Hotel?  Or maybe he hadn’t needed to – she and I had been kissing in the alley.  He might’ve seen us.  In any event, we must’ve looked to be in heat when we got in his car.  

It’s okay, Dean, I tried to calm myself.  No one but – and here I drummed a finger on the bar for each person I counted – Sandra, me, Lisa, Billy, and Lao Chen knows.  One hand, five finger’s worth of people – that’s all the people who know.  But the tally didn’t allay me.  Ren duo zui zai, I thought.  Five people, was that “too many” for secrecy?  Of course, one person might be too many for secrecy, if that one person was Lao Chen.  I looked at the other hand and counted out Lan, the General, Yuemu and, after a pause, P.J.  If Lao Chen knew, they knew.

“Are you still shaking out of lust?” Billy asked.

“No,” I admitted.  “Now I think I’m physicalizing fear.”

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FICTION: MICHAEL CHIN – ONE OF THEM

ONE OF THEM

By Michael Chin

My first time with a ring rat, she said I was one of them.

         You know how long I’ve been bringing wrestlers back here? She asked.

        There were clues. Her bedroom something like a pro wrestling museum, wallpapered with advertisements. A newer, full-color glossy flyer selling El Generico vs. Kevin Steen. Old school posters that listed the card in red ink, red and white photos of the main eventers on top. Ted Dibiase and Randy Savage on one. Harley Race and Tito Santana on another. I think it’s Bob Backlund on another, but it’s too faded and my eyesight was too bad to really make it out from her mattress on the floor, to that upper, cobwebbed corner.

           A long time, I guessed.

           You ever hear of Paul Steer? She had varicose veins on her forearms, on her shins, neither of which I could see under a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, but it was all on display now. The both of us naked, her leg snaked around mine, cheek to my chest until she propped herself up to look at me. The boys used to call him Steer the Queer, no malice behind it, just was what he was. Bisexual actually. We hung out a few times, and he’d have me help him out, shoot the juice up his ass. Said he was too scared of needles to do it for himself. You believe that? Great big guy, gets smashed with steel chairs and ring bells, but he’s scared of a little needle?

           I’d never stayed this naked this long with someone, just talking, not even kissing. This exposed and this free to explore.

        It wasn’t so different being in the ring, I told myself, out there in my underwear for all the world to see.

        It was real different, though. No underwear, no kneepads, no boots. It was my feet I was most self-conscious about. I had a great big blister on my right foot, second littlest toe. I lost my right boot (I have to assume one of the boys stole it—a rib until he didn’t give it back) and another one of the boys gave me one of his extras and it was too small and clearly faded next to my left boot’s newer, glossy black exterior, but what else was I gonna do, and it wasn’t like I could afford another pair of boots, so I went on using that little right boot until I’d hurt myself.

           You’re one of them, she said again. New school. Not like one of the old tough guys.

        I’ve been trying to be like the old guys. Tough. Hard. Following all the rituals like shaking everyone’s hand in the locker room when I come in and offering to carry the veterans’ bags for them. There’s something about this ring rat seeing through all that that hurts my feelings, but I guess that proves what she said was true.

        But that’s not all she said. She looked me straight in the eyes. You’re already dead inside. Nothing in there. You shouldn’t look like that so young.

        I accepted this all as true. When she closed her eyes and kissed me, I was grateful I could close my eyes, too, and keep all that emptiness hidden. She grappled with me. Wanted me to get her in a Camel Clutch. Wanted me to get her from behind. Wanted me to pin her down. She bit my trapezius until it hurt, until she drew blood.

        Afterward, in her bathroom, where only one of the three bulbs above the sink worked, where the bathmat sparkled, made of some sort of jelly and glitter, was so soft beneath my feet, I looked at myself in the mirror. In the eyes. I tried to see if I could spot anything. To see what she saw, when said, I was one of them.

 

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FICTION: Good Lookin – S.F. Wright

Good Lookin

 

I heard about her death five years after I quit. She was a heavy woman who dressed in tacky clothes; they looked like they’d been purchased at a yard sale. She kept her long brown and gray hair tied in a ponytail; she never wore makeup.

 

My friend, who still works at the bookstore, emailed me a link to the obituary. I don’t know why; I barely knew the woman. She was just someone who frequented the store.

At first I wasn’t even sure to whom he was referring.

I read the obituary, but even after I gleaned the information- she was 64, taught high school English, never married, was survived by a brother- and reread her name, I had no idea who this was.

You remember, my friend’s next email said. The heavy, round woman. I couldn’t picture her.With the pony tail. Wore those awful clothes. I still wasn’t sure, but an image started to form.

Always called the male cashiers Good Lookin.

Now I saw her, as clearly as if I’d seen her that morning.

So her name was Sally Jenkins.

 

I could never stand her. When she was in line, I’d intentionally ring more slowly so she had to go to another cashier. But sometimes I was the only one at the registers. Then she’d come over with her smile, and I had no choice but to ring her up and listen to her.

She spoke in platitudes and clichés. But her most annoying expression- and she only used this with male employees- was Hey, good lookin.

I don’t know why this appellation annoyed me so; it wasn’t insulting- if anything, it was complimentary in a folksy way- and it’s not that it embarrassed me (and, as I get easily embarrassed, there are a multitude of other things she could’ve addressed me by that would’ve done that). I don’t think it was those words as much as it was those words coming from that face; the combination just irritated me.

Good night good lookin, she’d say after I rang her up (despite the fact that she was (as I learned later) an English teacher, she bought mostly romance novels), and she’d give me her smile, no matter how badly I’d fail at returning my own.

 

Though I’m fairly certain there were times I liked working at the bookstore- there had to be, right?- most of my memories from that place are of misery and endurance. The more I worked there, the more I disliked it (I’d come to despise the place by my last year); so my most recent- and, hence, most vivid- remembrances are consequently the most disconsolate.

I disliked the customers; I hated the hours; I resented how poorly we were paid; I abhorred fighting for a parking spot on Saturday afternoons.

My best memory from the bookstore, on the other hand, is the day I quit.

A new store manager- the fifth I’d had- hadn’t cared for me and was looking to get rid of me. I didn’t like him either or- again- my job at all by that point. Soon after this manager started, I missed four days without calling out. He phoned my house. Before he asked anything, I said I quit.

It wasn’t a dramatic scene from a movie, with my telling him off and storming out (I was on the phone, after all), but it felt good nonetheless. In fact, it felt great.

All those year I’d wanted to leave, and with two words, I was gone.

———-

I worked at a tutoring center for a while and enrolled in grad school. Upon completing my degree I found work as an adjunct professor. I loved the work- or at least I loved it compared to the bookstore- and my enthusiasm and dedication were such that I was hired fulltime. But the position only lasted one semester; afterwards I returned to adjunct work. And soon I hated being an adjunct as much as I hated working at the bookstore.

But it was a different kind of hatred: in the bookstore, there’d never been a future; at the college, there’d been one, but it had been snatched back.

I decided it was again time to move on. I ended up doing- even though I didn’t know this at the time- what Sally Jenkins did: teach high school English.

 

I’d been a high school teacher for two years when my friend sent me the email.

I’m now 37; Sally Jenkins was 64, which means all those times she called me Good Lookin I was around 20 to 30 and she somewhere between 47 and 57.

But why think of these things? They don’t matter.

What matters is that my high school job is starting to grate on me, even though it hasn’t done so completely. I’m making more money in the public schools than I’d made at the bookstore, tutoring center, or college (even as a fulltime professor), but if you’re miserable, or sense you’re going to be, what does that matter?

It angered me somewhat that my old coworker sent me the email about Sally Jenkins, a woman I only knew peripherally. It annoyed me that I remembered her face and her voice saying good lookin.

And it especially infuriated me that my friend thought I’d be interested.

I read the obituary- a couple of times- but it was with voyeuristic curiosity rather than concern.

I don’t like looking into the past, particularly my own. It doesn’t take you anywhere positive. All it leads to is what you’ve divulged about yourself to others, and sometimes- and who needs to know this?- what you’re revealing to yourself now.

Visit S.F. Wright Online.

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FICTION: Chocolate Éclair – Peter Emmett Naughton

Chocolate Éclair

Oscar never expected to make it to fifty.  Neither one of us did.  It wasn’t the violence in our neighborhood or even some of the things we got mixed up in as kids; we just couldn’t imagine ourselves with gray hair playing checkers on the stoop like my father and Oscar’s uncle did every evening.

I think we thought that the world would have changed by then.  That science and medicine would’ve progressed to the point that people didn’t get old anymore or that the world would be so messed up that no one would be living at all.  The future is strange that way.  Hope and dread carry equal weight when you can’t see beyond the curve in the road.

What I remember most about that age was wanting to hold on to the good moments. Sometimes I’d catch myself in the middle of one of our midnight revelries, after we’d scored a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of booze, thinking about how good everything felt in that moment and knowing that it wouldn’t be that way forever.  People assume that kids aren’t aware of stuff like that until they’re older, but I was and it always made me a little sad.

The best thing that Oscar and I ever did back then was also the worst trouble we ever got into.  It was the reason Oscar went to juvy and my father put me in a military academy, and the reason we stayed friends when we both finally got out.

******

That July had been unbearably hot.  It was the kind of heat that leeched into your skin and followed you around even after you’d gotten out from under its blistering rays.  We spent the first half of that month indoors, searching out shade along with whatever scarce pockets of air conditioning we could find and only venturing out after the sun had gone down.

Everything felt subdued that summer.  There were almost none of the normally ubiquitous pick-up games at Vargas Park and even the hustlers hanging out on the street corners seemed sapped of their energy.  We were all just wandering around in a daze trying to think of some way to keep cool.  The movie theaters were so jammed that there was even a line for the kids sneaking in the back.  Oscar and I saw the same sappy romance movie five times in a row until the usher finally got wise and kicked us out.

We spent hours walking around department stores pretending to look at shoes, jeans, watches, even cologne, though the girl at the makeup counter usually gave us the stink-eye if we loitered there too long.  We went through every fast-food joint and late-night diner in town getting endless soda refills until they insisted we order something else.  By the middle of the month we’d been kicked out or run off of every place we could think of and there was still no end to the heat.

That’s when we got the idea.

“What we need is a way to take the cold with us.”  Oscar said.

“What?”

“You know, something portable so we don’t have to keep running from place to place.”

“We could wear ice packs around our necks; you know those ones with that blue gel stuff?”

“That ain’t gonna work man.  Those things would be luke-warm sacks of slime ten minutes after we got out the door.”

“Well maybe we could recharge them?”

“Huh?”  Oscar said.  He was looking at a pair of girls in cutoff jean shorts walking up the other side of the street.

“I was saying that we could refreeze the packs at like 7-11 and stuff.  In those cases where they keep the ice cream.”

Oscar looked at me for a moment and then a smile slowly spread across his face.

“Now that’s an idea.”

“I think my mom has some in our fridge.”

“Forget that ice pack shit Benny.  You just came up with something a whole lot better.”

“What are you talking about?”

“A truck man.  We’re gonna hijack an ice cream truck.”

I started laughing, but Oscar wasn’t.  He just stood there with that same big grin on his face.

“Are you serious?”

“Hey, it was your idea.”

“No it wasn’t.”

“Jesus Benny, first good idea you get and you’re not even smart enough to take credit for it.”

“We can’t steal a fucking ice cream truck Oscar.”

“Have you seen the lard assess that drive those things?  All we have to do is get him out of the driver’s seat and it’s ours.  Besides, it’s not like we’d really be stealing it, just borrowing it for a while.”

“You’re nuts man.  I just got over being grounded and my Dad said if I get busted again he’s gonna send me to military school.”

“Then we better make sure we don’t get busted.”

“I’m not doing this.  No way.”

“We’re gonna be Seniors next year.  Do you wanna walk into school as the losers we are now or as legends?”

“Even if we managed to pull it off, who the hell’s gonna believe us?”

“That’s the easy part.  Now follow me and keep your ears open for Turkey In the Straw.”

“Turkey in the what?”

“The ice cream truck song.  Jeez dude, don’t you know anything?”

******

We spent the better part of two hours combing neighborhoods, looking for packs of kids gathered at curbs and listening for the telltale musical notes. The sun had gone down almost an hour ago, and we knew that only a few drivers stayed out after dark.  Oscar asked around and tried to get a bead on where any trucks had last been seen, but all we came up with were a bunch of false leads and misinformation from kids who either didn’t know what they were talking about or just felt like messing with us for the fun of it.  It was the same kind of thing that Oscar and I did whenever someone pulled over and asked us for directions.

“We’ve been all over everywhere man.  When are we gonna call this?”  I said.

“How the hell do you ever expect to do anything if you just give up all the time?”

“It’s a dumb idea.”

“It’s your dumb idea.”

“How does that make it better?  Besides it wasn’t really my idea.”

“Sure it was, and it’s a good one.  We just have to stick with it.”

“I just don’t think we’re gonna find one.”

“You got something better to do right now?”

“…no….”

“Well then how about you quit whining and we keep looking.”

“Whatever.”  I said and kicked a can off the curb into a storm drain on the other side of the street.

We’d gone another four blocks and crossed back through the basketball courts at Vargas Park when Oscar suddenly stopped.

“Hold up.”  Oscar said and put his arm in the air.  “You hear it?”

Trees were rustling in the humid breeze and there was the rattle and creak of chains from the swings as they swayed lazily from side to side.

“I don’t….”

“Listen.”

I closed my eyes and strained to hear, but there were still only the sounds of the park in my ears.  Then, off in the distance, I heard the faint whisper of those familiar musical notes that always sounded to me like they belonged in a nursery rhyme or a campfire sing-a-long.

“That way!”  Oscar pointed and we sprinted back across the park as fast as we could.

We rounded the corner at Kensington and nearly ran smack into the back of the truck.  There was a knot of kids all standing next to it happily licking and munching at bars and cones as the last girl in the group stood by the window, impatiently scuffing the toe of her sneaker on the sidewalk while she waited.

I turned to Oscar. “So what now?”

“Quick, act sick.”

“How?”

“Just bend over and start moaning.”

I doubled over and began clutching at my stomach as Oscar led me around to the side of the truck.

“Hey Mister, my friend is real sick.”  Oscar said just as the driver finished handing the girl her Chips Galore ice cream cookie sandwich.  I let out a low moan and kept my face pointed at the ground.

“What’s wrong with him?” the driver asked.

“I dunno?”  Oscar said.  “He was fine a minute ago and then he just started grabbing at his guts.”

“Did he eat something recently?”

“He had a hot dog from that cart over by the park.”

“Christ kid, don’t you know anything?”  the driver said and started to climb out of the truck.  “That guy’s been chased off by the cops three times already.  Nothin’ but rat parts and newspaper in those dogs.”

I moaned again, louder this time, and sunk to my knees.  The driver came around to where Oscar and I were and put a hand on my shoulder.

“Can you stand son?”

I glanced up at him and shook my head slowly.  This man was the antithesis of a lard ass.  He had a hard, angular face, blonde hair that was so light it was almost white and bright blue eyes.  He looked like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner.  Oscar and I had seen it in the theater six times during one of our marathon sessions.

“I think I better phone for an ambulance.”  the driver said.

“It usually takes them a while to get here, especially in this neighborhood.  I don’t know if he can wait that long.”  Oscar said.

The driver looked at me for a long moment and then turned back to Oscar.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.  Help me get him into the truck.”

I felt the man lift me up under my left shoulder while Oscar got under my right.  The driver had to hunch down to match Oscar’s height and they staggered me over to the truck like a drunk after last call.

“I gotta phone my boss and let him know what’s going on.  I’ll be back in a second.”  The driver said and jogged over to a payphone on the corner.

“Quick, shut the door.”  Oscar said and climbed behind the wheel.

“I don’t think we should do this.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He’s a nice guy.  I don’t wanna get him in trouble.”

“He’s not gonna get in trouble.”

“Oscar….”

“You wanna go to the hospital and explain to a bunch of doctors that you’re not really sick?”

I shook my head.

“Then shut the damn door already.”

I closed the door.

“Hang on.”  Oscar said as he put the truck into drive and floored it.

I heard the driver screaming at us as we pulled away, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying.  I thought again of Rutger Hauer and an involuntary shiver shot up my spine.

We drove for blocks, neither of us speaking.  I wasn’t sure if Oscar knew where he was going, or if he only wanted to put as much distance as he could between us and the scene of the crime.

“So…what now?”  I asked.

“Well for starters we’ve got us some portable refrigeration; so soak in that cold my man.”

Until Oscar pointed it out, I hadn’t really noticed the pleasant chill surrounding us.  I was still thinking about the driver, expecting him to pop up at any moment and rip us to pieces with his murderous android arms.

“It’s great and all.”  I said.  “But what are we gonna do; just drive around ‘till we run out of gas?”

“Oh no, I’ve got much bigger plans.”

“Such as?”

“You’ll see.  We need to get this puppy back home first.”

“Back home?!  Are you insane?!”

“Not right outside our houses dumbass.  Just in the general neighborhood.”

“I thought we were trying not to be noticed?”

“It’s not like the driver knows who we are or where we live.”

“Yeah, but someone else might see us and call it in to the cops.”

“No one is gonna do that, especially not after what I’ve got planned.”

******

It took us nearly half an hour to get back to our neighborhood with Oscar going down out of the way side streets and through adjacent alleyways trying to keep off the radar.  Even avoiding the populated areas with the music turned off didn’t stop some kids from trying to flag us down, but we just kept our heads low and accelerated away before they could get close.

Eventually we made it over to Seventh Street and Oscar pulled over, parking the truck underneath a tall, yellow streetlight.

“This is still pretty close to home man.”  I said.

“That’s the point.”  Oscar said and switched on Turkey In the Straw.

“What are you doing?”

“Just wait.”

I watched as kids from Seventh and the block over and our block started making their way towards us.

Oscar picked up the C.B. microphone and flipped a small silver toggle switch.

“Welcome Vargas Heights!”  Oscar’s voice came booming out from the truck over the music.

“We are Los Hermanos Congelados here to welcome you to the first ever Vargas Heights free ice cream night!”

For a moment it was silent and then suddenly there was a loud whistle from somewhere followed by a teenage kid yelling “Fuck Yeah!” at the top of his lungs.

This sparked a barrage of hoots and hollers from the gathering crowd as kids from every direction started piling up against the truck.

I grabbed the mic out of Oscar’s hand.  “Have you lost your mind dude?”

“C’mon man, look.”  Oscar said and pointed to the swarm of people outside the truck.

He put an arm around my shoulder and grinned at me.  I tried to say something, but when I looked out at the sea of people I became silent and my face broke into a smile.

“We better hurry before they tip us over.”  Oscar said.

There was a barrage of voices calling out orders as Oscar and I dove into the freezers in back.

‘Bomb Pop!’, ‘Push-Up!’, ‘Strawberry Shortcake!’, ‘Candy Crunch!’, ‘Drumstick!’, ‘Chocotaco!’, ‘Toasted Almond!’

We pointed to people and tossed them their ice cream as others surged in to take their place.  It was loud and crazy, but no one got in anyone’s face, there was no shoving or fighting and some of the bigger kids even made sure the younger ones got what they ordered before getting their own.

‘Lemon Squeeze!’, ‘Mouskiteer Bar!’, ‘Dreamsicle!’ ‘Malt Cup!’

Oscar and I kept diving into the chests, quickly sorting through the boxes for the next order. By the time everyone had been served the truck was nearly half empty.

“Now who wants seconds?”  Oscar shouted and the crowd responded in-kind.

I arched an eyebrow at Oscar.  “Seconds?”

“When are we ever gonna get another chance to play Robin Hood?”

I grabbed an armful of ice cream sandwiches from one of the chests and flung them at the mass of out-stretched hands.

Oscar high-fived me and sent out a wave of snow cones.

We kept on throwing until every bar, cup, cone and sandwich was gone.  By that time I was laughing so hard that I thought I might throw up or pass out.

Oscar got back on the C.B.

“Thank you Vargas Heights for letting us treat you tonight!  It has truly been our pleasure!”

We were just about to pull away when we heard someone start to chant.

‘Hermanos Congelados! Hermanos Congelados!’

Soon the chant was picked up by the rest of the crowd.

‘Hermanos Congelados!, Hermanos Congelados!, Hermanos Congelados!, Hermanos Congelados!’

“Good night Vargas Heights!”  Oscar and I yelled over the loud speaker as we peeled out from the block and sped down the street with Turkey In the Straw blaring from the roof.

******

We returned the truck to the same corner where we had taken it.  We thought that way the driver would be sure to find it, but we didn’t think about the fact that the cops would be watching the area.

By the time Oscar and I got off the truck we were surrounded by flashing lights and loud voices telling us to get on the ground.

Oscar told them that he had stolen the truck by himself and picked me up after.  The driver had already said that I was there from the beginning, but the cops still put the primary blame on Oscar, maybe because he said that it had been his idea or maybe because my father was friendly with one of the sergeants at the station.

That’s how Oscar ended up spending the next year in Juvenile Detention while I spent my senior year at Oakhurst Military Academy.

We both came out of it changed and neither one of us spent much time with our old crew from high school after that.

I thought it would be the same for us too, and at first it was, but then one day I was sitting on the stoop in front of my building and Oscar came by with this big, stupid grin on his face.

“What’s with you?”  I asked, it coming out harder than I’d intended.

“I was just over by Seventh Street.”

“Oh yeah.”  I said without looking up from the magazine I was reading.

“They still say it.  Whenever they hear Turkey In the Straw they start chanting.”

I started to ask Oscar what he meant, but then I remembered.

“Los Hermanos Congelados.”  I whispered.

“Los Hermanos Congelados.”  Oscar repeated and we exchanged a sly smile.

******

Oscar made it ten years longer than either of us ever thought we would.  He was killed by the same heart condition that had taken his father two decades sooner than it claimed Oscar.

At his funeral I saw a lot of people from the old neighborhood.  They had all come out to pay their respects, even the ones who barely knew him.  Neighborhood folks are always good that way.

I only stayed for a few minutes.  Just long enough to pray for my friend and slip a small piece of paper into the lining of his casket.

It contained only three words.

 

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FICTION: SUMMER – Jennifer Cerna

Summer

 

The sun, in its descent, turned green leaves a bright gold. Small flecks of dust in the air reflected that same light, falling onto the houseplants and the hardwood floor. The air was hot and still. The fan, broken, sat guilty in the corner of the room. Cicadas screamed from every tree in the mountain behind the house.

Sam twisted in her chair, popping her back. When the sun goes down, I’ll run, she thought to herself. She looked out at the hazy peninsula that she called home. She did not want to run.

Children screamed and laughed outside. Yet inside the apartment, there was a quiet tranquility accompanied with piano songs in minor. Sam sat in her faded chair, thinking about how her mood seemed to reflect her life: solitary and quiet, a bit detached.

She thought about home. How the peninsula haze carried with it the smell of home: a landlocked, flat nowhere. She remembered her childhood, also solitary, quiet, and detached. Birds in the distance cried out.

How time flies! It had been twelve years since she first experienced this smell. The distant memories of her childhood seemed closer here than anywhere else, even though she had never lived here as a child.

In one year, Sam would have to return home. Why, she did not know. All she knew was that she couldn’t be on this peninsula for more than one more year. So she had set the date that her work contract would end and spent her free time at home, sitting in her faded chair, reflecting on her past and thinking about her future.

She wished she could stop time. This was why she ran so much. Even when cars drove by, the sun sets, and house lights flicker on and off, time never seemed to pass as long as her feet kept hitting the pavement in rhythmic motion. Action cut through a frozen time before it resumed again.

The sun would not set for another hour and a half, but running would be tolerable in less than an hour. Sam shifted in her chair, bits of lint sticking to the backs of her thighs. She thought about Ella, the girl she fell in love with the moment she laid eyes on her in a college drawing class. She had a few interactions with her, but mostly, she only saw her walking around campus.

The night before, while scrolling through her social media feed, Sam saw that Ella was in a relationship with another woman, a surprise to her! She had spent all four years of college lusting after a straight woman only to find out that had she been brave enough, she could have had a chance with her. How sad, Sam thought. She would probably never see Ella again except on her social media “Friends” list.

The sun tucked itself behind the high mountains, though still some ways above the horizon set by the ocean. Sam stood. It was time to stretch.

Sam collapsed on the floor in a heap next to her bed. The run had been nothing special, but she felt exhausted. She stared at the space under her bed and watched as a spider crawled aimlessly. The sun had dipped below the horizon a while ago but still illuminated the sky a deep, but bright blue. The families in the houses close to Sam had already begun preparing for their evening meals.

The smell of fried chicken, teriyaki sauce, and freshly cooked rice wafted through the screen doors. Sam lay on her back with her head towards the screen door, staring at the remnants of light left in the sky, breathing in a mix of her incense and the smell other people’s dinners.

 Hungry as she was, the only food she had in her house for the next week was rice and eggs. She thought about Ella again and let her heart flutter at her memories of her freckles, eyes, and lips.

Ella was a mystery of beauty. She had shoulder-length, dark chestnut-colored hair that stayed shiny all year round. Her eyebrows were rather standard, but provided a good frame for her pale blue-green eyes. Her lips were always a darker red, as though she had been chewing on them. Even when she smiled, her eyes cast a shadow of faint and constant anger over her face. She was of average height, but her body gave the impression of being long and lean. Her style was always effortlessly and unexpectedly cool.

Sam sighed. Her chances of attracting someone like that wouldn’t change based on their sexual orientation. It would always be zero. She thought about herself, slightly shorter than the average woman, not curvy, and not thin: just kind of a blob somewhere in between. Her hairs was dark and frizzed most of the time, unable to decide unanimously if they wanted to be curly or straight, regardless of the humidity. Her skin was too tanned and her style never seemed to suit her body type. In her own mind, she was quite brutish and lacked grace. Even when running, the single thing she felt good at, her own feet kicked her legs.

Morning came and the birds outside screamed tirelessly as if competing with the cicadas. The sun had risen, but it was not six o’clock yet. Sam’s eyelids drifted open. She sighed. Another day, just like the rest. The only special thing was that it was one day closer to her last day on this island.

Two hours later, Sam was at work, sitting at her desk. The windows were open, and the air conditioner was off. The heavy heat gripped her neck and made her clothes feel like they were made of fleece. She thought about the invisibility that she felt constantly enshrouded in, even at work. She listened to her coworkers speak to each other, sometimes laughing, but often left at the end of the day not having spoken a word.

Once finally home, Sam stripped to her undershirt and thin shorts and settled herself once again in her chair, like she has done for the past three months. Like she will do for the next eleven and three weeks. She thought about Ella again, a topic of the past. She “Liked” the picture of Ella and her new girlfriend, though it felt insincere. She imagined herself putting Ella in a box, closing it, and pushing it into a dark corner, where she kept other memories and thoughts that she dwelled on occasionally.

She sat in the chair, watching the dust fall and the sun change its position, thinking about some obscure thing of the past or fantasy of the future until it was time to drag herself out for a run again.

So it went for the next eleven months and three weeks.

 

Read more "FICTION: SUMMER – Jennifer Cerna"

FICTION: WARNINGS – ADAM PHILLIPS

 

 

Warnings

    In the beginning…Ye shall not neglect not neglecting for a fraction of a second.  Nary a sunny field, a cave, the water, the dark (obviously the dark) shall go unexamined preceding entrance.  Send forth your weakest first.  Thou shalt not fall a fraction less than vigilant whilst sleeping, whilst wrapped in your mother’s hairy arms.  Thou brutish former self.  Flee fromst each noise, each bobbing leaf.  Flee the corpus, burst asunder, entrails strewn like petals of the loosestrife….   

    You were born with the ocean in your brain.  Even if you’ve never seen it.  Even if you’ve never imagined it.  The darkness and the ice.  Perpetual motion.  Darkness and perpetual falling.  The tantalizing vestigial memory of light without sight.  Eternity.  Mist.  Slickness.  Mist.  The alpha and omega.  Running in a dream.  Eschatological storm.  Sliding amorphous shapes.  Protean.  Do not go into the ocean.  Kraken.  Siren.  Lantern eyes, the size of multiple hearts.  Leviathan.  Goblin’s faces.  Creatures blind and flat.  Sea lions shrieking their fangs on rocks like men turned vicious slugs in hell.  Noah’s eyes, dull but moving, moving, choosing, picking sides…Picking the future and the past.  The smell of prosaic ubiquitous death.  Beware the corpse spit mockingly out, bloated and clownish, features blurred.  There, says the ocean.  Fifty billion years ago and now.  Now.  Now.  Every second, a fresh now.  Don’t come back, says the ocean.  Get back up on your fucking hill.    

    In the beginning there was water, and there was dirt.  

    Then we recognized water as separate from the soil, we moved it, we made it work, we grew corn.   We smelled soot on our hands, and we set that soot to work.  We smelled blood on our hands, and we spilled more and made a lake of blood and set it to work.  We smelled shit on our hands…We made every other living thing in the world stand where we wanted them to stand and declared ourselves no longer of the world.  Stay clear of the corn at night.  Marauders.  Look away, look away, from the bobbing lights in the corn at night.  Do not (do not!) fuck amongst the corn.  Trolls.  Don’t forget to throw a virgin off the tower, the rim of the volcano, the apex of the pyramid.  Do not incur the wrath of the river child.  Do not incite the manticore.  Do not misbehave.  Listen to your mother.  Smile as your father strikes you.  There are so many (so many!) things out there just waiting to eat the children.

    Do not incite the dead.  Don’t make fun of them.  Don’t use their parts.  Don’t piss on the dead.   Don’t claw their soil (it’s all they have).  Don’t bury them upside down, or face down.  Don’t cram them into something.  Don’t stuff more than one into a single hole.  Don’t put their hands on their crotches or their thumbs in their eyes (Us & Them).  Don’t forget to bury them.  Beware the corpse that has been scared to death.  Don’t rouse the dead.  Don’t arouse the dead.  Don’t tell them they’re dead.  Never use their names.  Never forget.  Don’t eat them, even if you’re starving.  Don’t take their stuff.  Don’t hump their wives or daughters.      

    Beware of things that are smaller or larger than they’re supposed to be.  Or misshapen.  Beware of fused combinations.  Beware of the man with a dog’s head.  Beware of the man with no head.  The snake with a man’s head.  The man with a vegetable head.  Beware of snake parts, no matter what the head and the body.  Beware of deep velvety flowers in the humid swamp at night.  Barbarians.  Beware of glowing eyes.  Dull eyes.  Spinning eyes.  The eyes of a rooster.  Beware of eyes like drops of oil.  Like buttons or stitches.  The eyes of a pig.  Don’t ever look / into any eyes.

    Close your windows against birds flying in reading tomorrow’s obituaries.  Don’t eat the dead sailor’s spirit.  Water water everywhere.   

    Don’t let your soul get trapped.  If another soul gets trapped, don’t break the receptacle.  Wash it facing south.  Grind the victim into dust.  Better yet, hide the fucking thing, so nobody falls in.

    When the world has grown uncontrollable, find something you can control and control it.          

    Then things get simpler.  Or stupider.  No longer does the thing necessarily match the source of death.  No longer does one avoid the shark to avoid being eaten by the shark.  [Suddenly, you prepare your food incorrectly or tell the wrong part of the sky to kiss your ass, and here comes the shark knocking at your door with an edict to eat you.  Fear the passage.  Do not forget to fortify the door, lay out food before the door, paint the door with blood.  Do not leave the door open (birds again…).  Don’t leave the mead hall.  Don’t sacrifice to the stone faces, who used to warn you against so much.  Do not steal, even if you’re starving.  Even if your children are starving (unless you want EVERYONE TO DIE!).  Listen to the king.  Don’t listen to the king.  Don’t kill the king and take his stuff.  Don’t think too much.  Do not forget to pray (cagily, now!) to the Destroyer.  Beware the Destroyer.  Burn meat for the Creator.  Go have your period outside the city limits.  Kill the wild man.  Do not ask why.  Align yourself with the wild man.  Watch for he who / is duskier than you.  

    Do not touch nor consent to be touched by the rats.  Do not go near the body in the gutter, bloating, black around the gills.  Do not dance with strange women on bridges, or at night, or when the atmosphere has grown disorienting.  Never refuse a dance with a strange woman.  If a man approaches you bearing a riddle, run.  Dwarves.  Beware the corpse stripped and robbed alongside the road.  Though we have finally lost the child-eater with his multiple heads wearing smaller heads (beautiful gossamer hair) on hemp ropes strung around his waist and throats, with the razor-sharp teeth pricking cracked black lips and  blood splotching his powdery white face, DO NOT (for a second) assume that the children are no longer being eaten.  The eater has simply become less outrageous, ostentatious, obvious.  Now it’s an old woman sneaking in on the breeze through a bedroom window, now it’s an old man selling snacks in the forest.     

    Do not let anything steal the women.  Everything wants to steal the women.  Or worse, impregnate the women, leaving us to raise the child and tend to the deranged limping women.  And then even if you do everything correctly, the goddamn bastard child murders you in your sleep.  Beware of women watching wistfully out windows.  Beware of elongated shadows crossing bed chambers, tallow from sperm candles dripping down long hairy fingers.  Beware the man with the face of a wolf, the hirsute torso of a wolf, the face of a rat, talons like a weasel, eyes like a spider, the hunched mien of a spider.  Beware the corpse drained like a fig.  Do not (do not!) go down to help the unidentified ship safely abut the wharf because the ship is (clearly) full of long-rotting corpses, and something will flash ashore, and the next thing you know the women (always the women!) are wandering the breaker wall in their nightgowns at midnight.  

    If the foreigners are destitute, cloddish, pock-marked, clad in rags, butchering / the language…let them pass.  Beware only the debonair, the velvet capes, the large hair.  Beware the rolling Rs.  Do not let the girls choose.  Do not let the girls travel.  Slaughter the foreigners in their beds.  Ask questions later.  Do not ask questions.    

    Don’t play god.  Of course you want to play god.  Don’t play god.  Messy business.  You sew it together, it shambles back.  Be gentle, You, you say.  It smacks you over the head (the thing that once existed only within your head).  It chucks the girl into the river.  You have no control.  You think you have control but you don’t.  

    Don’t fixate on the poetic revelation that, at root, all of them only want to be loved.  Don’t linger on the fact that they’re lonely and ugly and weird and deserving of our sympathy.  Don’t obsess over their insistence that they only want to pick the flowers, watch the butterflies, listen to the birds sing…They only want to touch the pretty hair of the girls.  Because even so…

     Even so, what then?  So fucking what?  What else are you supposed to do?  Regardless of the butterflies, the hair, the birds…They had their chance.  Even if it wasn’t a chance.  They’ve got to go.   

    Then, wait a minute now, everything has changed.  (Who…?)  It’s no longer the foreigner, the weirdo, the brute, the beast outside…but the monster within.  Inside of you!  Always brutish rising from the refined, never the opposite; never have the virile and bellicose feared discovering within themselves the homuncular soul of some effete bookworm.  Always the gutter or the jungle.  Always there, some thin relentless trickle of primordial ooze, waiting to feed some dark blossom.  A dark star passes through you, and suddenly off you go to stave in heads with canes or skewer heads on stakes.  (And admit it, you like it).  

    And nature.  Thousands of years spent stacking stones and harnessing fire, fighting to keep her from tearing out livers with her great green teeth.  Beating back the tomato vines, the roused dinosaurs, the drooping black serpents…And suddenly now, the goddamn opposite.  Cultivate the beast.  Do not use flashbulbs when photographing the beast.  Wear your slippers.  Kill those who would throw her into peril, and if not…

    If not, you’re living in sand, breathing fiberglass.  Air becomes chemical, water melts your throat.    

    Which brings us to the present day.  A puritanical voice shouting “Don’t go fuck in the woods.  Don’t smoke weed.  (Does this sound fun?  Of course it does, but don’t!)  Don’t be weird.  Don’t limp or stutter.  You will be culled.”  And the device, the tool, the reckoning comes limping big and bloodstained, shitty clothes, himself the victim of childhood ostracizing, swinging garden tools, faceless, voiceless, mechanical, no passion in his violence.  Beware of the beautiful bikini-clad corpse with her throat slit at the edge of the woods.  And here the warning is double-edged.  Don’t create this thing.  Don’t be a dick.  Don’t take everything you can have.  Cradle the reject.  Sleep with the nerd.  

    Then (the story goes) we invent microscopes to see the crossed wires in our bodies, the tangle of our minds.  We kill practically everybody and then write a thousand books confirming how repulsed we are at the prospect of killing everybody.  We have nobody to fight so we eat ourselves.  

    We look in a mirror.  We’ve become smaller than we remember we’re supposed to be.  Hunched.  Perforations like rudimentary gills.  And there, we say, pointing a gnarled finger…

    There you are.  

    All this time.  We’ve been expecting you.  

    Let’s put this thing to rest.  

 

 

     

Read more "FICTION: WARNINGS – ADAM PHILLIPS"