The Happiest Place  |  Alexa Mergen















             



THE CHRISTMAS TOMMY TURNED ELEVEN, he tore the wrapping off a large box to find an I.O.U. buried within. This was the first Christmas after his mother left, and his father still tried hard to win Tommy’s allegiance. The slip of paper promised a spring break trip to Anaheim to visit Disneyland. Tommy Senior also guaranteed one dollar a week for the next twelve weeks, until the trip, to be spent however his son wished. His father watched from where he sat on the floor, his back against the couch. Tommy held the paper with his dad’s tiny printing lined up in the middle.
             “What do you think, son?” his father asked, taking a sip of coffee from the red and green mug Tommy had made in art class four years earlier.
             Tommy wanted a chinchilla like the one in the window at Main Street Pets. “How do I know we’ll really go?”
             His father’s jaw jutted to one side, and Tommy heard him take a breath before he answered, “Because I said so.”
             “Okay.” Tommy reached for the package from his grandmother in Fresno, which he knew contained pajamas and underwear.
             Later in his room upstairs with the underwear, pajamas printed with blue and red race cars, and the book from his aunt, Mysteries and Riddles, piled neatly on his bed, Tommy reread the I.O.U. He considered asking his father if the twelve dollars could be used for a gerbil or hamster, but decided to see if the money materialized first. He longed for something soft he could pet and talk to while in his room. The cat, Samson, died the month before Tommy’s mother left. Burying it in the backyard beneath the locust tree was the last long afternoon they spent together. Tommy tried not to cry, but when his mother told him they should head back inside and start dinner, the tears fell, and he bit his upper lip. She picked Tommy up, although she was not much taller than he, kissed his check, looked him in the face, and said, “T. J., honey, I know it’s sad, but he wouldn’t have been around much longer anyway.”
             Once inside, he pulled the striped photo album from the shelf in the living room and sat at the kitchen table while his mother fried linguisa. When she went into the living room to answer the telephone, he removed the Polaroid of himself in diapers holding Samson, the black cat’s hind legs dragging on the floor, its white belly exposed. Tommy kept the photo in a cigar box with his Swiss Army knife, magnifying glass, and a twenty-dollar bill his aunt gave him “for emergencies.” After his mother left, Tommy checked each closet to see what she had taken with her. The album remained on the shelf, and Tommy wished she had it and would notice the photo missing and be sorry.
             Although the weekly dollars came sporadically, the trip would happen. On Thursday of the first week of April, Tommy’s father came home with two train tickets in his shirt pocket. Tommy asked for one to take to school and show his friends, but his father said he would lose it. Instead, he gave him a thin, yellow itinerary, and Tommy passed it around at lunch. His friends’ Christmas toys were now broken or lacked batteries, and though popular for his generosity—he always shared food when asked and let others copy his math homework—Tommy achieved his first brief period of celebrity. At home, the underwear that was new a few months ago was as gray as the rest, although the unworn pajamas were bright and fresh enough for another boy. Tommy was grateful to have an event to look forward to. He would have preferred, however, a different travel companion.
             As the days lengthened and orange poppies bloomed in the median strips, Tommy Senior seemed to have more hours to be mean. Like his son, who scratched lines inside his dresser drawer counting the days since his mother left, the deserted husband felt trapped by the approach of May when Julie had taken off. His short temper got shorter. He did not drink at home so Tommy could not predict what set him off storming through the house crying, “Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn, goddamn,” or pulling out a four-by-four from behind the kitchen door, laying it on the table, and hammering in nail after nail, letting out a scream with each blow. But he never hit Tommy, and there was food in the refrigerator, so the boy knew he was fortunate enough.
             To avoid his father, Tommy went to bed as soon as dusk fell. Sometimes he left during a commercial, in the middle of a television show.
             “Where are you going, Junior?” his father asked over his shoulder.
             “Just up to bed,” Tommy replied, rubbing one hand up and down the banister.
             “You sick? You better not be, and if you are, blame your mother. Her side was a sickly bunch if I ever saw one.” Then, his father would wave his large hand and say, “Go ahead. You’re not much company anyway,” or “Go ahead and leave me, too. What the hell.”
             But Tommy knew his father had loved Mother, he saw it in the faces of the photos in the striped album he now kept hidden in his room. And he figured because he was part of his mom, his father loved him, too. Sure enough, sometimes his father called after him.
             “Be sure you get your homework done, son.” Or, “Brush your teeth good.”


♥♥♥


             Disneyland disappointed Tommy. He had been told by the train conductor that the park is the happiest place on Earth. Yet, before the bus even stopped in front of the gate, Tommy knew this was not so. The girl who sold them their tickets struggled to count the bills and coins the register displayed. The turnstile needed a good shove to pass through, and the cotton candy vendors walked as if their feet ached. Since he was worse than motherless—abandoned—Tommy knew about fake cheer. He received it from the checkout man at the grocery, from his teacher, from the mothers of his friends who tucked him in at overnights as if he were their child, and even from his own father who pulled the cookbook from the kitchen shelf and attempted the porcupine balls Tommy’s mother had made.
             “What do you think, kiddo? Dad can cook, too,” he said, as he spooned the crumbly meatballs onto Tommy’s plate.
             His mother also made a sauce from canned tomatoes, but Tommy said nothing except, “It’s great, Dad. Thanks.”
             Now with his hand on the boy’s back, Tommy’s father guided him toward Sleeping Beauty. His father took off his cap as if entering church.
             “Would you like your picture taken with Sleeping Beauty?” Tom Senior asked, looking at the clear-skinned girl in the blue dress.
             “No, Dad, thanks,” Tommy turned toward the rollercoaster.
             “Now, son, she seems like a nice fairytale. Aren’t you?” he asked the girl.
             She smiled and tilted her head, her basket held in front of her as she rocked from foot to foot.
             “Maybe later, Dad. I’m hungry.”
             His father took pride in the fact that his family, the two of them, never went hungry. “No one can say you ever went hungry,” his father would tell him at dinner. “You get your three squares.” Tommy’s father winked at the costumed teen and said to her, “Growing boy.” Then, Tommy and his father bought two hot dogs and drinks.
             To please his father, Tommy went on each ride they came to in their tour of the park. If his father waited behind, Tommy made sure to look for him, standing on the lowest rung of the fence that kept the visitors in orderly lines. On one of his last rides, The Octopus, Tommy finally saw behind the rides and storefronts. Bags of garbage overflowed dumpsters, and he thought he saw Snow White with Robin Hood passing a cigarette behind a crepe myrtle bush. But when he turned to look, the car swung, and he ended up facing the other way. He couldn’t see no matter how he twisted his neck.
             Their last ride was a miniature train. It had a black engine banded by shiny brass strips. It blew smoke from a smoke stack but ran on electricity. Tigger and the Chipmunks leaned from the sides of the passenger cars as the train slowed to a stop. This didn’t make sense since Tigger was from Winnie the Pooh and the Chipmunks were a cartoon. Tommy caught himself trying to think logically. This was Disneyland, dork, and inside the costumes were people acting happy for their job.
             As the train wound through the park, Tommy’s dad put his arm around Tommy’s shoulders. They sat in the last bench seat by themselves. The sun was setting, and it did feel comfortable to push his face into the breeze. Tommy counted 10 bench seats on each side of the aisle. Each seat could hold three without squishing. That meant 60 people could fit in that car alone—his entire sixth grade class. That would be fun! Tommy mastered fractions before the spring break, and now his mind was spinning. He and his dad were two—one-thirtieth of the number that could fill the car. If his mom were there, they would be three—one-twentieth. That sounded like a much bigger percentage. One person makes a difference when counting numbers. He and his dad were two-thirds of a family.


♥♥♥


             They spent both nights at Aunt Pat’s house. The second night, Tommy left his cousins in front of their computer games in the family room to get a drink of water from the hall bathroom. As he pulled the paper cup from the pop-up dispenser, he overheard his name. He crept a few steps down the hall in his bare feet and stopped to listen to his father, aunt, and uncle talk. Shoulders tense, he remembered his mother telling him eavesdropping is not nice, but she was gone.
             “Pat,” his father said in a pleading voice Tommy had not heard, “I’m not saying forever. If you could just take him for a week. June, July, you choose. Then maybe Mom and Dad can take him for a few days.”
             “Mom and Dad?” Pat asked. “You’d send him there? Jesus, Tom, what are you thinking?”
             “Pat’s right, Tom,” the uncle said. “I don’t think a boy T. J.’s age would have much fun there.”
             Through the crack between the doorjamb and the open door, Tommy saw his uncle’s hand pat his aunt’s knee beneath the table. They were drinking coffee.
             “It’s Tommy, not T. J.”
             “Well, Tom, we’ve always called him T. J. The kids call him that.”
             “Not anymore. I don’t want to hear that anymore.” Tommy’s father took a sip of coffee and set the cup down hard, spilling some. “Christ, I’m sorry, Pat.”
             She handed him a napkin from the holder. “Don’t worry about it, for Pete’s sake. Do you ever hear from Julie anyway?”
             “She called once. A couple of weeks after. Tommy was in bed. Kid goes to bed with the chickens.” He looked at Pat. “He’s a pretty good kid. No problems.” When she didn’t respond, he continued, “J-bird wasn’t crying, but she sounded close.”
             “What’d she want?” Pat asked, leaning forward in her chair.
             “She, Christ, she wanted to know if I forgive her.”
             Tommy’s uncle shook his head, and Tommy saw his eye catch the clock hung on the wall. He gave his wife’s knee another little squeeze. She glared at him.
             “What did you say?”
             “What was I supposed to say? I asked how she was doing. I told her I loved her. I told her we were still married and always would be in the eyes of God.” He put one hand on top of his coffee cup as his sister held the pot. “Pattie, you were there. We promised to take care of each other. We were a family. What the hell happened? What the fuck did I do wrong?” He wiped at his eye with the heel of his hand, then looked at his hand as if surprised to find it dampened.
             Tommy started to back away from the door, but as he did, he heard his father say in a low whisper, so plain Tommy heard it as if spoken in his own ear, “I can’t do this. We’re not going to make it.”


♥ End ♥



After Alexa Mergen was kicked out of a second-grade slumber party for scaring the other little girls with a ghost story, she was hooked on telling tales. She worked for years as an English teacher, which was a great excuse to read a lot with smart people and to talk about writing. A list of her published fiction, poetry, and essays can be found at alexamergen.com. Alexa leads writing workshops and edits the blog, Yoga Stanza. [Author photo by and © Matt Weiser. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]

A PDF of this story is available for free.





Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch. All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

The Tutu  |  Victor Smith















             



“I SWEAR TO GOD, I went to Nationals in high school,” June blurted, wiping beer from her chin.
             Miss June and Early sat in the mid-afternoon solitude in front of the Mobil Home drinking, facing the pumps and waving to the occasional passing car. June took a tug at the bottle she had just taken from the cooler next to her chair, and continued.
             “I use ta be the best. My mother’s still got ribbons and trophies all over the den. I’m tellin ya.”
             Early sat back, his mind’s eye basking in the lascivious image of Miss June in a tight and skimpy unitard, ruffled at the waist, twirling and tossing the silvery baton.
             “I had my own routine just like what’s-her-name, the skater, ya know. I chose my own music and did my own thing up there.” She took a double gulp of the Utica Club, belched silently, eyes closing, with her free hand patting daintily at her chest just below the collarbone. “Oh, Early,” she whispered, unable for the moment to use her larynx, “that musta gone down the wrong way.”
             Early winked. “Miss June, ain’t no such thing as going down the wrong way, far as I’m concerned.” He took a big tug at his beer, swallowed hard, stretched his arms out wide, and belched loud enough to quiet birds and wake the dead. “I’d sure like to see a parade go by. Right here, right now. Did you know I used to play drums in school? Marched just like you did, every parade.” He took half the bottle in three fast gulps, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like a yo-yo. “You know, I’m a pretty patriotic guy. You’d never know looking at me. Used to get pretty into it, marching right behind the twirlers, banging on the snare. I was lead drummer on the right, man. Everybody else had to guide off me.”
             Miss June leaned over, warming to this vague mutual interest. “No shit?” she replied. “Parades are so cool. Ya know, I think I still got my baton in the trunk of the Camaro.”
             She looked down at her nearly empty bottle, shook out the remaining few drops, and tossed it into the trash can next to the front door. Dogma raised his head off the couch as the can reverberated next to his shady corner. He yawned, snapped at a circling deerfly, and went back to his dog-day napping. Early leaned over, pulled another out of the cooler, twisted off the cap, and handed it to Miss June. She took it, leaned back in her chair, stretched her arms back with a yawn, dribbling foam out the top of the sloshing bottle.
             “Oh, Early Bird, I don’t know. I shouldn’t be drinkin’ all this beer this time of day.”
             Early leaned over further, tipped his chair up onto two right legs, and threw his arm around her shoulder, leaning his own shoulder into her to keep from tipping over. “June Bug, the sun’s out hot, we’re sitting here with nothing better to do, nowhere else to go ... Remember how hot it used to get marching on Memorial Day? Man, I’d sweat my ass off.”
             “It was sure hot, even in that little thing they made me wear. I’ll tell ya.”
             Early removed his arm, brought his chair back to level, and drained his beer, tossing it at the trashcan over his left shoulder. It missed, bounced off the wall, and broke on the asphalt below. They both erupted into party laughter, turning to look at the shards of Early’s burgeoning incoordination.
             Turning back, Early looked over at Miss June. “Man, those days are gone,” he said. “I gave up drumming for the guitar, and I’ll bet you can’t twirl no more since you took up singing with your dad.”
             June sat up straight in indignation, taking the barely disguised bait whole. “Maybe you’re done. But I was the best, and I can still twirl just as good as I ever did.” With that, she lunged up and out of the chair, side-stepped her way back into balance, and made for the back of the Camaro. She leaned her pelvis into the side of the aging muscle car, fumbling in her tight jeans pocket for the keys.
             Early tipped back his beer, adjusted his crotch, and yelled over, “You still got the outfit?”
             June turned the key, pulling up on the trunk lid with her left hand, and banged it with the heel of her right hand just above the lock, as always. The lid popped, and she began rummaging through the piles of clothing, tools, and empty bottles, until she came up with a somewhat-greasy, but still functional, chrome-plated baton.
             Early took another pull at his beer and asked again, “Hey, look at that! You still got the outfit?”
             June rummaged some more and came up with a grimy little gym bag with the initials, JCS, and a baton embroidered on the side. She struggled with the rusty zipper as Early watched with growing impatience.
             “You need some WD on that,” Early said.
             She finally overpowered the zipper in little jerks and removed a flimsy looking, crinoline tutu affair with a ruffle along the bottom.
             “You can’t still get into that, can you?”
             Miss June turned around too fast, losing her balance, catching herself against the quarter panel of the Camaro. Holding the tutu out in front of herself, she snarled indignantly, “I can fit that!”
             Early’s mind raced the best that it could along this alcoholic backroad, colliding with blivets of large volumes in small containers, teenage fantasy obscuring thirtyish reality. He grabbed the gas pump to stop the vertigo of these prurient contradictions. “Bet you can’t!”
             Miss June huffed and began a swaying drunkwalk toward the front door. “We’ll just see about that!”
             Early stumbled back to his chair and dropped heavily into it. He drew the back of his hand across his brow, shaking it off in a gesture of blistering, libidinous heat. He looked over at his sleeping dog as he reached for his next Utica Club. “Dogma, old buddy, you and me are about to get a real show. You best wake it and shake it right now.”
             He was finishing his beer and checking his watch about the time the screen door slammed open, sending Dogma out of his slothful indolence, off the couch, and onto his feet. Miss June stood at the threshold, leaning heavily against the jamb, one knee bent sideways, one leg straight, one arm akimbo, the greasy baton spinning in front of her at the end of the other.
             “Hot diggity dog!” yelled Early, grabbing another beer, twisting around to face the house, trying to get up off the rickety chair. On his second lunge, he found his feet and held the pump to keep from falling. “Whoooeeee! Look at that!”
             Miss June stepped down to the asphalt and started a high-knee march in place, spinning the baton like a silver propeller. She had managed to get into the tutu, technically winning Early’s informal bet, but she was clearly not the little girl she used to be. The elastic leg holes bit painfully into the ample flesh of her thighs, creating a sausage-like effect just below her pelvic girdle. Her breasts were pressed close together and stuffed asymmetrically into the front of the garment, coming out the top like the foam oozing out of Early’s beer bottle. She tossed the baton high in the air, and—without a glance—passed her cigarette and caught the spinning staff in her opposite hand.
             “Holy shit,” said Early. “I don’t fucking believe my eyes!” He staggered over to the garbage can and up-ended it in a single motion as he hit the wall with his shoulder, foam spewing from the beer he had forgotten to set down. Trash and empty bottles scattered about the parking lot, and Dogma scurried for cover under the Camaro. Early emptied the rest of his beer, picked up another bottle, and began to beat furiously on the bottom of the can. “Step high, Miss June! Step higher!” he slurred, beating out a martial cadence, staring at the gaudy spectacle before him.
             She stuck the cigarette into her mouth, spinning around and changing hands. Her second spin revealed that the zipper linking the back of the tutu was beginning to fail near the bottom, its little teeth bulging with pent-up flesh that would not be denied.
             “Whoooooeeee!” yelled Early, as he beat on the can. “You’re doing it. You’re hot today!”
             Dogma snuck his head out from under the Camaro and watched the cacophonous drama unfolding just above his place of refuge. His tail began to quiver as Miss June marched past the car, spinning and swaggering. Early beat furiously, breaking a bottle, reaching for another without losing the cadence. Miss June’s zipper continued to part slowly upward, loosening the tutu, making her feel more comfortable as the vitality of reprised youth coursed through her veins alongside the alcohol. Dogma crawled carefully and quietly. Early beat faster.
             “Whooooeeee!” he cried.
             Then—as if staged for the eye of God watching this spectacle—three events took place in a startling precision of coincidence: their friend Harry’s station wagon careened into the parking lot, Dogma lunged out and locked onto Miss June’s left calf, and the aging zipper parted all the way to the top of the tutu. Harry got out of the car, Dogma humped in closed-eye abandon, and the front of Miss June’s tutu popped open to reveal a mountainous landscape, compressed and held together with multiple strips of duct tape. Harry gaped, Dogma humped, and Miss June screeched. She flailed at the dog with the baton, while Early just kept on banging the garbage can louder and louder.
             “Whooooeeeee!”
             Miss June bolted for the house, dragging and beating at the slobbering dog, which let go just before the threshold. Early fell backward in spasms of uncontrollable laughter, with Dogma all over him, licking his face and hands.
             Harry just stood there, erect and wide-eyed with astonishment, absorbing the incredible coincidence he’d stumbled onto. He slowly made his way toward the convulsing Early, helping him to his feet and back into his chair by the pumps.
             “You got any more of that beer?”


♥ End ♥



VICTOR SMITH is a writer living in a rural upstate New York hamlet that just might be the setting of this piece. He has self-published two novels, and has had shorter fiction accepted in a number of online and paper magazines. He has been rejected by the very best minds in the pantheon of corporate publishing—an accomplishment that brings him great pride. He is also a musician and writer of quirky and cynical love songs.

A PDF of this story is available for free.





Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch. All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Inheritance  |  Stephanie Liden

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Mama Was a Breeder, and I Was Born a Son of a Bitch  |  Schuler Benson















             



ALL Y’ALL SUNUVABITCHES wanna mean dog. A killer. But don’t none of ya wanna get bit.
             When ya sit down ’n go ta talk about a man, how he lived ’n died, there’s gon’ be shit gets lost, caught up. Cain’t catch all of it. Don’t know Halfacre was always a bad man, a evil man, what have ya. Mighta died that way, but, hey … wudn’t no dogs born mean neither. Ain’t no dog born a killer. This’s as much about Halfacre’s lil girl as it is about Halfacre, but first, y’know, I tell ya. He wudn’t always like’ee ended up, I don’t reckon. That lil girl, though, I cain’t say. Well, I guess I’ll say again, ain’t no dog born mean.
             First time I met Halfacre, we was younger. His daddy was the kind always lookin’ fer the next big thang, y’know? Not like a get-rich-quick-type thang, but them change-the-world type thangs. We was green, ’n I was workin’ my first job, cleanin’ up guts at a processin’ shed. Deer mostly. Sumbitch hauled in a five-foot catfish one time, shitchu not. I didn’t care none. Guts is guts. I ’member Halfacre cuz first time I met ’im ’n his daddy was first time I ever did nothin’ ’round that shop other’n mop up innards. One uh Halfacre’s daddy’s next big thangs was emus. Yeah, them birds. The emus. S’posed ta be good eatin’, all that, but Halfacre’s daddy wanted a dynasty uh goddamn emus, I s’pose, cuz one day the ole man took Halfacre out ta the stretch where he kep’ ’em, ’n he says ta Halfacre, he says, “Son. One day all these emus’re gon’ be yours.” Way I heard was Halfacre says back, “I don’ want these goddamn emus.” So they end up killin’ thirty, forty-some-odd head uh emus, showed up at our place ta get ’em set up fer cookin’. Ole McHenry run the shop said he didn’t know thang one ’bout cleanin’ a emu. Gave a holler to a ole colored lady him ’n his buddies useta pay ta clean ducks they killt. Long story short, first day I met Halfacre, me ’n him was ridin’ top a johnboat trailer fillt up with dead emus, goin’ one end uh town ta th’other. We wudn’t friends er nothin’. But he knew who I was. And I knew who he was. Didn’t know I’d end up workin’ for ’im, ’course, but I did. And more. Worked for ’im, took care of ’im when he needed, ’n he kep a roof over my head more’n once. Guess he ended up with his daddy’s, uh, onter-panoorial spirit, y’know? Public bidness ’n not-so-public bidness alike.
             ’Fore he got all his ducks in a row with the scrapyard ’n them couple other legal thangs he had coverin’ up fer the gun-runnin’ ’n the dope cookin’, that sumbitch couldn’t put a bottle down fer the life of ’im. I ’member, cuz it was more’n once I hadda haul his ass out The Blue Lady, Crabapple, goddamn parkin’ lots, ever’where else. Sumbitch get mean when he was in it. Sumbitch drink ’imself cross-eyed on damn ole corn shine, what have ya, ’n ya’d know it was ’bout ta get bad when he’d start that pointin’ shit. Sumbitch look up atcha, crossed eyes rollin’ around like they was fightin’ fer which one was gon’ stare a hole in ya, ’n then Halfacre’d stick that ole crooked finger out in yer direction, ’n it always start the same ever’ damn time. He’d say:
             “’N then there’s this motherrrr fuckerrrr right here …”
             After that, he commence layin’ in, now, sayin’ summuh the most off-color shit he could think up ta say to a person. Name-callin’, shit-talkin’ yer mama, all the reg’lar shit, but then that other, deeper shit that get ta cuttin’ in yer guts ’n bones, curdlin’ down where shit a man says can seep in ’n fester. That shit caught ’im a whooped ass more’n a couple times when he was outta town, but never from me. I fought that drink just as hard, ’n I know what liquor’ll get a man sayin’. In that regard, Halfacre was my cross ta bear, ’n that sumbitch was heavy as hell ’n had splinters stickin’ off ever’ which-a-way. But that was then.
             Halfacre gimme charge uh the yard ’round ’Ninety-Two. The county done set up that recyclin’ bullshit ’cross the creek, had a bona-fide car-crusher, with that damn magnet thang, whole kitchen sink, so ole Halfacre figgered the scrapyard’s days was numbered ’n started sinkin’ more money elsewheres. While he was seein’ ta what he called his “developin’ properties”—them houses down ’round Bossier where he had his boys cookin’ dope—he gimme the yard ta run. I’d done been with ’im a long time by then, ’n he knew I kep my eyes front, ’n he knew I’d do it fer peanuts. Cheap sumbitch, I’ll say that. Sumbitch shit fire ta save a match.
             Now I don’t know the back-n-forth on Halfacre’s goin’s on with whoever his boys down in Bossier dealt with, but far’s I could tell, it all run smooth enough cuz Halfacre’d come back up ta town ’n stick around the yard a few days. Put a dent in my action when he was around, as I’d give myself first ups on whatever come through that was worth more’n we’d pay whoever brought it in. Copper mostly. Salvage’ble car parts. If it was big work, I’d call out two, three dopefiends I’d use on the side ta get ta takin’ shit apart ’n cartin’ it off. Ain’t a man alive can strip cash scrap off a car faster’n a man on that needle. ’Course I’d have ta keep it roped in when Halfacre was in town. Took me a long time ’fore I was willin’ ta skim nothin’ off ’im. Other’n the first time I did, anyway. Tell ya real quick.
             Way back, ’fore I dried out, I’d mop up a couple nights a week at Halfacre’s bar. He kep a row uh well bottles ’neath the drafts, ’n I’d get in the bourbon while he, er whoever else, be in the back room countin’ up. Swapped it with water. Filled it right back up ta the line. One night, I get done moppin’, he come out early, wander back behind the bar, tell me siddown, asks me what I’m drankin’. I tell ’im bourbon, ’n he pulls out one uh them well bottles I been nippin’ on fer weeks, sets it next to a glass in front uh me, fills ’er up. I reach fer that glass; he grabs it first, pulls it up to ’is face. Holds it ta the light above the pool table. Says he looks in the liquor sometimes. Holds it ta the light ’n looks into it, like a mirror. Says it shows ’im the future, if he can see through it. Sticks the glass in frunnah me, ’n in that light I see water mix with amber, swirlin’ snakes uh broke, curved brightness, like a mirage er leaked gas in a street puddle. Water ’n liquor. Bullshit ’n the real deal fightin’ fer real estate in a tight spot. That’s when he says ta me, he says, “Cain’t see through muddy water,” ’n broke that goddamn glass across my scalp. I say this cuz after he gimme that beatin’ ’n I didn’t take off, he knew he had me, y’know? So he started givin’ me more ta do. That night with the glass’s when Halfacre figgered he broke me. He broke all of us worked for ’im ’n knew enough about what crooked shit he was into. Once I started at the yard, that’s where I seen how he broke his boys, ’n eventually that lil girl.
             When I tell ya ’bout Halfacre’s boys down ’round Bossier, I mean his boys. Sumbitch had four of ’em ’tween two differnt ole girls. He was a blood-is-bond fella, y’know? Rather have sons handlin’ his bidness when he could. Seen too many fellas get in a tight ’n run talkin’ ta the laws. Halfacre wanted his boys hard as cement ’n stuck to ’im the same. How he did it was the same ever’ time. When each uh them boys was ’round nine, ten, Halfacre’d bring ’em ta the scrapyard around evenin’, take ’em back ta the twel-buh-twelve chain-link kennel where them yard dogs stayed durin’ bidness hours. He’d get close ’n go ta pokin’ at ’em with this broke-off mop handle. Jabbin’ through the chain link like shootin’ cues on felt, like stokin’ a fire burnin’ on the body of a man he hated. Get them dogs riled up, madder’n hell. Soon as he’d got ’em ready ta tear ’im in half, Halfacre’d drop the mop handle. He’d take whichever boy he brought by the shoulders ’n he’d say in the boy’s ear, he’d say:
             “Every sumbitch in this world wanna bad dog, but don’t none of ’em wanna get bit. Between you and ever’thang worth takin’ is a dog’ll lay you open fer just lookin’ his way. A killer. So how you gon’ get by a killer?”
             Then, he’d kneel down between the kid ’n the pen, and he’d put a butcher paper pack uh bloody deer sausage on the gravel, and he’d put a ole pistol next to it. Pistol had one bullet. Meat was fulla poison. ’Fore they even got there, them boys knew they was gon’ hafta take a life. Halfacre didn’t give ’em no choice ’bout that. But he let ’em decide how they was gon’ do it. I seen ’im do this shit with all four boys. All four of ’em picked up that pistol first, then set it down ’n threw the meat over the fence. Then they’d sit ’n wait. Time come that ole dog finally keel over, Halfacre’d open the pen, make ’em drag the carcass out ’n bury it out in the back forty. Hell of a thang. Them boys come up stuckit their daddy like glue after that. The lil girl didn’t come til way later, til all them boys was already growed ’n doin’ Halfacre’s dirty work elsewheres.
             His oldest was early twenties, I s’pose, when Halfacre’s daughter come along. Her mama named ’er Juliet, but she didn’t go by it not a day in ’er life. She was a lil girl with brothers, I’ll say that, ’n you could tell. She was buckshot. Lil barnburner like ’er oldest brother’d call ’er. Them boys got ’er, y’know? Halfacre … Halfacre didn’t really know nothin’ ’bout how ta raise a lil girl, I s’pose. It was like them two never spoke as a daddy ’n a lil girl. More like for’ners don’t speak each other’s language, feelin’ each other out ’n not makin’ no sense. Mighta been where he went wrong with ’er. Coulda been somethin’ else. I don’t know; I wudn’t there fer all of it. But I was there when he brought ’er ta the yard ta break ’er like he did them boys.
             Even though the dogs was differnt dogs ’n the years was differnt years, it was like them dogs had a way uh learnin’ from the ones came before ’em. Evenin’ Halfacre brought that lil girl ta the yard, they hit that pen fence like they was mad at it soon as he come in sight. Some reason, I couldn’t figger he was gon’ do her like he done his boys. I didn’t know what ta make of ’er bein’ there. Them dogs sure didn’t care. Halfacre get close ’n go ta pokin’ at ’em with that mop handle somethin’ terrible. Them dogs was in it, now, done took off on one. Barkin’, snarlin’ like a sumbitch, hittin’ that chain link over ’n over. Bad dreams. Coupl’a goddamn monsters. Lil girl wudn’t cryin’, nothin’, just had ’er head cocked down, lookin’ through that fence, little hands pent up in fists ’n I could see ’em just a’shakin’ like she was trynna keep from catchin’ on fire from the inside. Halfacre slid a hand down in his blue jeans hammer pouch, pullt out a butcher paper bundle, still bleedin’ on the corners. He set it on the gravel at his lil girl’s feet, then stuck a hand in the other back pocket ’n pullt out a revolver. Somethin’ snub-nosed, blued. Smaller’n the mag he’d done used with them boys. He flipped open the chamber, wagged the gun in his hand, feelin’ its heft, then snapped it shut ’n laid it on the ground nexta the raw meat.
             Even over all them damn dogs’ racket, I could hear ’im talkin’ low, like it was secrets, poison pourin’ in that lil girl’s ear in a scratched-up half-whisper:
             “Every sumbitch in this world wanna bad dog, but don’t none of ’em wanna get bit. Between you and ever’thang worth takin’ is a dog’ll lay you open fer just lookin’ his way. Goddamn killer. How you gon’ get by a killer?”
             This’s what Halfacre give his kids. My mama never gimme nothin’, ’cept ta gimme up. I’s told she passed not too long after they pullt me from ’er, ’n she lit out fer god-knows-where, light one kid she didn’ want ’n ready fer the world. Found out a couple years ago I got a brother lives in one uh them shit towns in the delta. Eudora, somewhere. Ain’t that far. He been there all this time; I been here, neither of us none the wiser. I don’t know ’im, but I know ’im, ya know? He’s a lush. He got buckeyes under the skin in his knuckles from a life spent haulin’ a better man’s rope. Mama didn’t give him er me no part of ’er was the part’d pick up ’n go ’n move on, ready fer the world. Cain’t never say what’s gon’ get passed down ’n what ain’t. Halfacre was the kinda man ta pull a trigger, but not a damn one uh his boys was. Not when they was kids, at least. I ’magine that’s what he was ’spectin’ when he brought ’er downna the yard ta break ’er. She bent over, picked up that pistol, set it back down, just like ’er brothers. But then, she picked it up again, lil hands just a’shakin’. Swung it around at ole Halfacre’s guts ’n took a big step back.
             He says, “Now who you think you are, pointin’ that at me?”
             First time I ever heard ’er talk. She says, “A goddamn killer.”


♥ End ♥




Schuler Benson’s fiction and poetry have been featured in Kudzu Review, Hobart, The Fat City Review, and elsewhere. His first book, a collection of short fiction titled The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide, is forthcoming from Alternating Current, summer 2014. He currently resides in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he is wrapping up a ten-year bachelor’s degree in creative writing. [Author photo by and © Celeste Zendler. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Grading Bad  |  Jon Sindell















             



SHE WAS THE INCORRUPTIBLE, so named by a senior during the most grueling AP World semester ever.
             “Just one night off, Ms. L,” whined star student Jasmine, comically sliding halfway to the floor.
             “Did Napoleon take a night off before Austerlitz? Did Metternich take a night off when orchestrating The Final Act of the Congress of—?” Brilliant eyes gleamed as if to say, It’s a gimme.
             “Vienna!” sang the choir, and Ms. Lollar air-marked one point.
             “You expected a night off,” grinned quipster Dave, “from The Incorruptible?”
             “Which epithet refers to whom?” asked the imperturbable teacher, scanning the class with her luminous gaze. None dared dip his eyes, for doing so would ensure being called on.
             “Robespierre,” said Maria, a shy girl with an emergent smile.
             “Naturellement. And incidentally”—Ms. Lollar’s eyes noted the change of the hour from World History to English Lit time—“why do I say ‘refers to whom,’ and not who? Brandon?”
             Brandon’s eyes were on the teacher, but his grammar brain was elsewhere. Pronoun usage could not compete with The Gleeful Grammarian’s tight gray business skirt, crimson sweater, shining blond hair pulled into a tight bun, full lips painted red and poised to curl up into a generous smile or down into a disappointed little frown, or the geeky black specs—understood as an affectation meant to make the teacher less intimidating.
             “Brandon? Are you there?”
             The entire class would have understood Brandon’s vacuity, even if his cheeks hadn’t turned chili-red, for all of the boys had giggled in the first week of school when one boy floated a trial balloon about Ms. Lollar and “cougars.” The two-time Santa Fe Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year had ignored the thrust of the uncouth remark, had forgiven the boys for considering her cougar-aged when she was just thirty, and had immediately started a lively discussion ranging from the psychological significance of the age-thirty milestone to an examination of intergenerational romance in literature to a survey of historical norms that accepted the pursuit of younger women by older men, but not the reverse. The girls, for their part, readily forgave Ms. Lollar for her allure, not only because they revered her, but also because they knew in their hearts that she would never encourage even the cutest boy in the class to pursue her.
             “Whom is for objects,” said that cutest boy, a defensive back. “Who is for subjects.”
             “And you, Mr. Castillo, have just won a Lollar Pop. Chocolate with jalapeño.”
             “Thank you, Ms. Lollar.”
             The Incorruptible was incorruptible in every way that a teacher could be. Whiny pleas for grading on a curve were deflected with aplomb: “Would you want your dentist or airline pilot to be graded on a curve?” Requests for extra credit were chuckled away as the puerile residue of the middle-school mind. Nor was Ms. Lollar susceptible to the suave importuning of a Canyon Road art gallery owner that his son’s grade be rounded up, a plea oiled with hints of an extraordinary discount on a Ghost Ranch landscape. On reflection, the doting dad grandly stated, the blemish giving rise to the discount really ought to preclude any charge at all. In reply, Ms. L strode briskly to her office door and stood erect against the jamb. “The lease on my apartment prohibits nail holes, but I shall be certain to visit Ghost Ranch soon. Perhaps I’ll take pictures.” The gallery owner correctly perceived a cordial invitation never to return.
             The Incorruptible was just that.
             Until Mittens got sick.
             It was December and chilly, and Mittens had been caught in a draft. The result: a listless eye and a ghastly wheeze that to Ms. Lollar’s ear sounded like death throes. Covering poor Mittens with a soft cloth and setting her beneath a heat lamp affected no cure. Administering chicken soup and warm milk with an eyedropper did not help. Murmured endearments and cradling arms failed to restore Mittens’ health, nor did eschewing unsettling nighttime entertainments such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men in favor of New Mexican Desert, an ambient blend of coyote howls and Native American flute. A mail-order antibiotic merely reduced the teacher’s cash to near-nothing, and an expensive prescription from the veterinary clinic finished the job. A vet specialist was needed, but no money was at hand for the fee.
             Then, Ms. L recalled Jason. The Homework Help Guy. Jason Beene, a slacking former student who had driven her crazy because he was bright but obstinately resistant to her efforts to reform him. It was Jason who had recently been fingered by a D student as the source of two ghostwritten B papers in another teacher’s class. The principal had alerted the faculty to be on guard for fraudulent essays, but Ms. L had paid the matter no mind because she trusted her students completely.
             After dismissing the cast of Macbeth following a spirited evening rehearsal, Ms. Lollar recovered Jason’s phone number from a file in the vacant counseling office. “Jason,” she said in an authoritative hush.
             “Ms. L!” Even four years later, even on the phone, Ms. Lollar’s voice produced tremors. “I’m in school, Ms. L! Really! I mean, I took some classes at Community. But I’m learning! I’m—”
             “Jason. Please. I need to see you.” Ms. Lollar set KFC for the meeting because it was the last place a teacher who taught Fast Food Nation with a vengeance was apt to be seen by anyone she knew. “Jason,” she murmured with a cool look around, “I know all about your ghostwriting service.”
             “That’s poor diction, Ms. L. That’s a—euphemism, you know? Calling it a service. It’s a scam, man. But I’ve quit it. Honest!”
             “Jason.” She set her womanly hand on his, and he trembled.
             “All right,” he said helplessly. “Just say what you want, and I’ll do it, Ms. L.”
             “I want,” said Ms. Lollar in the way a different kind of woman might prepare to extract massive concessions from a rich, lovestruck suitor, “perfect grammar and impeccable diction. I want MLA style correctly applied. I want cogent essays with thoughtful theses supported by airtight logic and illustrated with pertinent examples. I want a personal and provocative viewpoint. And for the love of God, dude, if you can’t spell a word”—Ms. Lollar peered at Jason with eyes that radiated intelligence, wit, and authority—“use a spell checker!”
             Jason stared back like a babe at his mom: trusting, mystified, and completely in love.
             Within a few days, da kine hit the street, and the legend of the purest essays ever seen in the Southwest spread through the schools like wildfire through the dry summer pines.
             “All right, Ms. L!” grinned Jason, raising a fistful of ones and fives. “One more essay and I get my Halo map pack and two new controllers!” He swiveled on his rusty computer chair eager to enter the print command, for a customer waiting at the drop spot in the plaza had to leave soon to walk the dog.
             “And what do you call this?” gasped Ms. Lollar, staring at Jason’s laptop and wrinkling her nose at more than the putrescence emanating from Jason’s kitchen sink. “‘Though only six,’” she read, “‘Atticus speaks to Scout in a candid and respectful manner.’”
             “What do I call it, Ms. L? I call it a good essay; that’s what I call it. A strong B, at least.”
             The teacher affected the look of horror that her ex-student remembered too well. “I call it a misplaced modifier, Jason. Unless you think Atticus Finch is just six.”
             “Aw, Ms. L—”
             “Aw is for awful. Now listen, paisan. The only reason this essay mill has gone from thirty dollars a week to one hundred ten and rising is the purity of our product. Which means you cook clean, or you don’t cook at all. Is that clear?”
             “Yes, Ms. Lollar.”
             “Don’t mumble.”
             “Yes, Ms. Lollar!”
             “Good. Now, clean up this rhetorical mess before you hit the street, and I don’t want to see one dangling participle, one instance of awkward syntax, or one punctuation mark out of place. And for God’s sake, man—clean up your apartment.”
             Two days later, Mittens saw the specialist, though the veterinary bill and the cost of a rental car for the trip to Albuquerque consumed most of Miss Lollar’s share of the booty. Back in Santa Fe, Mittens recovered, and the elated Ms. Lollar celebrated with a cup of chocolate elixir at Kakawa. It would not be the last, for the team’s take soon reached two- to three-hundred dollars per week.
             There was a scare, though, when a rival essay mill run by two high school seniors warned Jason that any further encroachments on their turf would result in his bike being crushed like a piñon. They knew not what they had done. For Ms. Lollar took an essay that a disgruntled customer of the rival mill had shown to Jason and marked it up in gory red ink with dozens of comments flagging the grammatical errors, structural flaws, and faulty logic that made it a ghastly exemplar of the ghostwriter’s art. Copies of the devastating document were circulated throughout the underground “grade culture” of the three high schools of Santa Fe Public and all of the privates. Suddenly, the whole turf was theirs.
             The celebration of Ms. Lollar’s victory took place shortly after school ended, in a basket suspended from a rainbow balloon over Albuquerque. Prudence dictated that Jason not be invited, but seven new grads soared over the desert at Ms. Lollar’s expense and smiled with the satisfaction of possessing cool arcane knowledge when Ms. L reviewed last fall’s lecture on the French fascination with manned balloon flight during the latter days of the Scientific Revolution. And when the pilot poured champagne for Ms. Lollar and mineral water for the grads for a post-landing toast, and asked the group in a rhetorical tone why balloons are always supplied with a bottle of champagne, each student knew that the custom had originated with King Louis, who supplied his balloonists with the king’s own vintage to mollify any such peasants as might be disturbed by the landing of balloons in their fields.
             “You’ve got quite a teacher,” the ruddy pilot marveled. “The only thing I don’t get is how a teacher can afford a balloon ride for eight.”
             Ms. Lollar lowered her eyes demurely, and for a moment her features grew dark as she contemplated how little cash remained.
             There did remain enough, however, for a point-and-shoot camera and a car-share membership that allowed her to make the long drive to Ghost Ranch. There, the woman just crowned Santa Fe Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year for the third time, marveled at the red rock cliffs that had enchanted O’Keeffe, and framed a picture with Mittens in the foreground. Would Mittens flee? Hardly. Though the desert was her natural home, the iguana loved her owner, who gazed back at her with commensurate love, and asked herself for one uncomfortable moment whether the reptilian gaze directed at her wasn’t just a little akin to that which she saw in the mirror these days.


♥ End ♥




Jon Sindell’s short fiction has appeared in several dozen publications, among them Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Word Riot, Connotation Press, MadHat Lit, New South, Mojave River Review, The Good Men Project, Prick of the Spindle, and Weave. A human, he earns his bread as a humanities tutor and professional writing coach. He curates the Rolling Writers reading series in San Francisco and practiced law once’t. This story first appeared in a shorter version in Hobart. [Author photo by and © Christopher Novak.]

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

Chindi  |  Eric Shonkwiler

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Franklin  |  Derrick Martin-Campbell















             



ALEX SPENT THE SUMMER he turned eighteen working at a tourist restaurant on the bay and living in his Aunt Betsy’s house, a bed and breakfast she ran out of a haunted old Victorian, standing alone on a hill facing the Pacific and the setting sun.
             His customers at the restaurant were mostly motorcycle hobbyists and retired sport fishermen, middle-aged men and their wives and girlfriends, all sunburned red, squinting and eating and drinking and laughing, meeting all the world this way and loving it with the money they fanned upon it. And of course, loving Alex, since—at their command, dutifully and with reverence—he took it away.
             “This is the bill ...” began one such customer, slapping the ledger on the table, credit card protruding.
             His party of fifteen, all variations to Alex on this middle-aged man and woman sitting beside him, the man in a sleeveless T-shirt and mirrored shades he wore indoors, ball cap backwards on his hairless skull, the woman freckled and bleach-blond, disdainful in a bikini top. It was three in the afternoon and beer, scotch, and tequila glasses already covered the tables. From the sunglasses, Alex guessed the guy was probably already drunk when he came in.
             “... This is for you ...” he went on, placing a fifty on top of the ledger, “... and this ...” raising a hundred steady in his other hand, “... this ... is for the man ... who follows her ass out to the parking lot ... and takes ... what’s ... coming to him.”
             Conversation at their tables stopped as the room’s attention suddenly reorganized around Alex. All watched him as the man pushed the money into a sloppy pile on the bill, topped it off with the cherry of his car keys, crossed his arms, and waited, staring at Alex.
             Alex looked from the woman, to the money, to the man, to the crowd of hungry eyes tracking him. The woman only stared right back, Sphinx-like, watching him around the food she chewed. He saw how the man’s chest rose quick and shallow beneath his crossed arms, sweat on his temples. The couple sitting beside them smiled at Alex.
             His own sweat cold on his back, Alex hesitated just a moment before he brushed the keys off onto the table, snapped up both the money and ledger, and, turning to go, managed to deadpan over his shoulder, “Thank you for the offer, sir, but I’m not sure your truck is big enough for the three of us.”
             For a long time, just the silence followed him. Then, as he passed between the swinging kitchen doors, the room burst finally into loud, drunken, ecstatic laughter behind him. In the kitchen, he headed straight for the freezer, stuck his head in, and breathed deeply, blushing from the something strange and not altogether unpleasant still stirring in him.
             His Aunt Betsy’s friends were the other side of the Humboldt County people. They were like Betsy, old hippies and beatniks, single people who drove the summer up and down the 101 in cars with more than two hundred thousand miles on them. They drank and smoked and played the piano and bragged of their decades-old exploits, reminiscing easily about a west coast before I-5, before California Route 1, even … or the Spanish Mission Trail. They claimed to recall impossible things, the gold rush and the Wiyot Massacre, priests knelt praying in the frothing waves, before there were palm trees.
             “Okay, well, what was it like, then?” asked Alex, mostly joking with the white-haired woman beside him, a guest and old friend of Betsy’s, as they sat rolling spliffs on the porch one evening. “What was it like at the very beginning, way back before there was anybody here at all?”
             “Anyone?” she said.
             “Anyone. No people. Nobody. What was it like, then?”
             She looked up from the work in her lap, out over the railing and into the purple, humid night. She licked a paper, thinking. “I guess ...” she said, paused. “I guess it was ...” Her eyes seemed to glimmer as she cocked her head, then to focus very far away. “Bigger,” she said, finally, “or maybe smaller?” She bit her lip.
             “Come on,” teased Alex. “Wasn’t it better? Isn’t that what you people are all about? Like, ‘Well, back in the day ...’” He smiled at her, waiting, but the white-haired woman remained still, ambiguous, immune to his prompts, and for a while then, there were only the crickets.
             Finally, after long enough that he twitched a little at her touch, stirred from his own reverie, she gently patted his leg. “Oh. You’re such a flirt, aren’t you, sweetie. Come on, where’d that Betsy get to? We can’t smoke all this just us two.”


♥♥♥


             Franklin arrived the afternoon of July Fourth, and Betsy ran down the gravel driveway to meet him, screeching like a teenager the whole way. He stood easily seven feet tall, at least five hundred pounds, wore a pitted white suit, drove a dirty white sedan, and was accompanied only by a filthy, half-wild, sixteen-year-old boy.
             From the porch, Alex watched Franklin extract his body from the sedan like it was a magic trick, growing slowly into a colossus in the sunshine. He wrapped a bear’s paw around Betsy’s shoulders as she crashed into him and nuzzled her face in his belly, happy. Her arms did not reach halfway around him.
             “Oh, my dear, sweet Betsy,” he said, pushed a handkerchief around his forehead. “It has been an age.”
             A horse could have dozed in his shadow.
             Alex helped the boy carry Franklin’s luggage, one slim suitcase and a crate of sixteen bottles of wine, bottles Franklin uncorked and drank over the course of the evening between long, melancholy sighs. The boy said nothing all through dinner, ate nearly as much as Franklin, who consumed enough of Betsy’s spare ribs, cabbage, and scalloped potatoes to feed three people, ate it moaning and rolling his eyes, sausage fingers dancing in sorcerous arcs through the steaming, supper air.
             “These potatoes,” he said, chewing. “Mm, Betsy, they are not potatoes,” and with his free hand, he blessed them. “They are the Body,” he said, mouth full. “Hand us the wine, love.”
             There were no other guests that night, thankfully, since Franklin’s stentorian voice carried unbelievably through the house. Eating and drinking and then smoking and drinking afterward, Alex and the boy mostly listened as Franklin and Betsy told stories to and about each other, nights and boys they had shared, stories ending always prematurely in private, knowing laughter.
             “Alex,” Franklin said at one point, turning to address him for the first time that evening, “that white car out there in the drive now, the sedan, do you know where I got it?”
             The room’s attention turned to Alex. Though Franklin did not immediately continue, taking a satisfied moment to re-cross his legs, Alex sensed the question was rhetorical and waited politely from his cushion on the floor. He rested his chin on his knees, offered Franklin the same smile he offered customers at the restaurant preparing to give their orders.
             “Did you know, Alex, that I did not, in fact, buy that car outside, but that I, more accurately, acquired it? And from your Aunt Betsy, even?” He winked at Betsy who covered her giggle with her hand. She laughed that night as Alex had never heard her laugh before.
             Franklin paused again to remove his white loafers (eighteen inches each) and set them beside the couch on which he lounged. They rested neatly beside the several bottles he’d finished just since sitting down.
             “Really?” Alex said, when he felt it was appropriate.
             “Why yes!” said Franklin, very pleased. “You see, Alex, there was a time in my life when, as a young man, I saw the fruits of this world hung a good deal heavier above me than I do now, heavier and closer to the ground, you see? And, seeing them thus, I was often moved to avail myself upon these fruits. Because, you see, Alex, it is my firm belief that the things we need most in this world are never offered to us; they are, in fact, only taken. It is something I attempt to imprint on all of the young people I encounter, that they might comprehend and benefit from this lone, true imperative offered us by this cruel world: Take. Take, Alex. Take, take, and take again. Always. It is this imperative I, myself, obeyed when, returning to the matter at hand, at twenty-three, I took your Aunt Betsy’s car one hot August day, drove it kicking dust and gravel as she chased me screaming down the drive, barefoot in her underwear, vengeful as an orphan—”
             “And shooting at you—don’t forget!” said Betsy, laughing. “Oh, my goodness, Franklin, do you remember? I shot at you. At least once, I’m sure.”
             “Yes!” he said, choking on his wine as he laughed, as well. “Yes, good God! Of course! Who gave you a gun? Which one of your Neanderthals?”
             Together they laughed a while, then. The boy watched. Alex watched, too, still smiling. He waited until the room completely stilled. And then.
             “What kind of gun was it?” Alex said.
             Suddenly, the air in the room changed, the easy mirth of the previous conversation drained away.
             “What did you say?” Franklin asked, speaking quietly at first. He looked to Alex, then Betsy, coughed some more, searched the room in swelling indignation before grimacing in disgust. “Did you hear him, Betsy? What—What kind of gun was it?”
             “Aw, Franklin, come on,” she said. “It’s okay. It’s just a question. He didn’t mean anything by it. Hey, let’s have some more wine.”
             But Alex did not stop smiling at him, and Franklin, seeing this, refused all trifles. The couch groaned beneath Franklin as he rolled away, pulled his stocking-feet protectively beneath his bulk. Betsy petitioned him, but he only muttered and sniffed the air.
             “Such an amusing young person, isn’t he?” he said, saying it several times to all corners of the room.
             Glowing amidst the discord, Alex still wasn’t sure exactly what he’d done, or why, and he too began to cast about the room, grinning stoned and drunk, until his gaze met finally that of the boy, Franklin’s boy, his own gaze red-eyed and already smiling right back at Alex.
             Later, lingering in the bathroom, Alex took a quiet moment, grateful to be alone. He splashed water on his face, heard the sound of Franklin’s voice downstairs. He watched his own eyes in the mirror, waited until a stranger looked back.
             “It was his tone, Betsy! The tone he used to address me!”


♥♥♥


             Returning from a similar trip still later that night, Alex found Franklin alone and snoring on the couch in the now otherwise-empty room. Through the screen door, he heard what sounded like Betsy’s whispered voice out on the porch, heard her beg, whispering, “... Oh, no ... No, no, please,” heard her laugh (a huskier version of the new laugh he’d noticed that night), followed by silence, then more begging. “No, please ...” she said. “I can’t. Please.” Then, gently, little more than a sigh, “Please.”
             Relieved of his hosting duties, Alex turned to remount the stairs and head for bed when, just then, a new noise halted him. It started low, nearly imperceptible at first, but Alex felt a shiver run down his spine upon hearing it, felt time seem to slow as the sound of it gradually filled the room until, finally, it became a word.
             “You,” Franklin said.
             Alex turned around. Though he remained seated, he saw Franklin’s body begin to stir, saw his chest swell with new breath as he slowly stretched and set his shoulders, even swore he felt the house noticeably tremble as, one by one, reverberating with each impact, Franklin, groaning, set his giant’s stocking-feet upon the ground.
             “You!” he repeated, louder now, eyes still shut as though dreaming or just very drunk. “Can’t you see,” he said, “how, for all your varied ... mmm ... charms, ... at the end of the day ... you’re all just exactly the same: a pack of smug ... fucking ... sluts. You are!” he roared, making Alex jump. “You are, and you don’t even realize it ... how ordinary you are ... mmm ... even as you are treated so exceptionally ... humored by every john on the fucking block! But it isn’t always going to be that way, my friend ... Oh, no, it isn’t ... mmm ... Oh, no ... it ... isn’t.”
             And then he was still again.
             Alex did not move right away. Dizzy and frightened—his own blood pounding in his ears the only audible sound left in the country quiet—his hand found the banister behind him as he turned into what should have been his first step up the stairs. Afraid to turn his back on Franklin, though, he misjudged and tripped, landed hard on his side, and knocked the wind from his lungs. Lying there, gasping for air as in a dream, Alex watched as Franklin’s dark, mysterious shape rose from the couch, like a bear to its hind legs, saw Franklin grow huge before him, filling the room, disturbing the chandelier, and cracking the ceiling plaster. And it seemed there was for that moment nowhere beyond his grasp, nowhere where Franklin’s great hands could not fall upon him.
             “Love will leave you!” Franklin cried, as Alex found his feet enough to scramble up the stairs on all fours, Franklin’s voice still pursuing him. “Love will leave you! It will! It will! It will!”
             Upstairs, Alex locked his door and fell against it, tried to slow his breathing down, and listened for any sign of pursuit. He felt the house creak and tremble beneath him, straddling fault lines. He pressed his ear to the door, listening. Then, to the floor.


♥♥♥


             In the morning, Alex found Betsy hungover and drinking coffee at the kitchen table. She held her head in her small, fluted fingers, peered wincing out between them at the world.
             Franklin and the boy were already gone, she said, the boy just some street kid, someone Franklin had picked up in Golden Gate Park a few days before. She told Alex how Franklin had apparently told the boy he was dying, had invited him to drive to Vancouver with him, where they would get married, and Franklin would leave the boy all his money.
             “All his money?” Alex said.
             “Yeah.” Betsy snorted bitterly.
             “How old was he, even? That kid?”
             “Oh, don’t worry. He was old enough.”
             Standing at the counter behind her, Alex poured coffee for himself. Stirring it, he watched Betsy hold her head in her hands, watched the thin, fragile line of her spine, shoulder blades obvious through her robe. He watched her throughout the day, the week, gardening, cooking, doing the books; he waited to feel something, disdain maybe, or pity. He watched her sit and drink her coffee, and he waited.
             He waited all summer.


♥ End ♥




Derrick Martin-Campbell is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. His work has previously appeared in HOUSEFIRE, Metazen, Nailed Magazine, New Dead Families, Thought Catalog, and Unshod Quills. [Author photo by and © Chelsea Campbell-Martin. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]



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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

The Ever.  The After.  |  Alexa Mergen















             



AS THE MIDDLE CHILD OF FIVE, Jesse Sanchez learned early that if freedom was all you wanted, if you didn’t care about proving a point, then cooperation took you further than rebellion did. He covered for his older brothers when they came home late or skipped their chores, and he watched his younger sisters willingly. He went to the store for his mom, not caring if he ran into other kids from school when his arms were laden with bags of groceries and his littlest sister tugged at the edge of his T-shirt. “Hey,” he’d say, and comment on the high school basketball team. Or he might say, “Nice day, huh?” in a way that sounded like he’d just noticed the sun when he saw you.
             Teachers at Manzanita Middle School were grateful for Jesse because he did what you asked and made no demands. He never lingered by the door after the bell rang or asked to eat lunch in your room. He could be counted on to lead a group project or to collect homework. Peers liked him because he was calm, often saying, “Ya’ll, let the teacher talk,” when the class got rowdy. Even though he didn’t smoke pot with them, grungers respected him at the skate park where he’d show up late in the afternoon, sometimes with his little sister. He’d set her on the bench with his jacket to hold, and he’d get on the ramps.
             So, after Jesse jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge on a Thursday in February, no one could begin to guess why. He was a nice kid. One who might’ve been successful. Athletic, sharp-looking. He helped his mom, respected his dad.
             His mother bore up at the funeral, held up by family, but she broke into crying at home in the kitchen while her sisters washed dishes at the sink and her husband’s brothers played with the girls. When she saw Jesse’s skateboard propped by the door, she started a sobbing jag that lasted four days straight, through meals and sleepless nights, until she was emptied. So used to the sobbing, the subsequent quiet made the dog whine.
             After a week of holding his breath, of watching his children and wife drain themselves of memories of what had been and imaginings of what would never be, Jesse’s father insisted the boys return to school, their jobs, and chores. Mr. Sanchez’s buddies covered for him on the landscaping crew, so he stayed home with the girls one more week, all perched along the edge of the couch where their mother lay among them like a broken chair hurled onto the highway that had caused a hazard too perilous for anyone to retrieve. The father and the girls played board games no one cared to win. When Jesse’s mother got up one afternoon and started brushing and braiding her daughters’ hair, Jesse’s dad knew she would be okay. He grabbed his hat from the hook by the door and returned gratefully to the machines of his trade.
             In the staff lounge at Manzanita, teachers shook their heads as they reheated leftovers in the microwave and filled coffee cups and water bottles. Even teachers who usually worked at their desks through lunch came in to puzzle over this one. They agreed that they weren’t just teachers anymore but parents and counselors. It was too much. Driving home, stopped at a red light, or standing in line waiting to swipe a debit card to pay for groceries, Jesse’s former teachers would recall an exceptional paper he wrote or a quiz he aced. They remembered times class ran smoothly, everyone on task, and they’d been able to catch up on entering grades or searching for images for a PowerPoint lecture. Good days with Jesse in class. He had presence. Then, the stoplight changed to green or the cashier stated the total bill, and Jesse’s teachers reminded themselves they couldn’t be everything to everyone. There were so many kids, at least thirty-five in five different classes swarming in like commuters catching a train every forty-eight minutes. You do the best you can.
             The school counselors announced over the PA that any student feeling sad or lonely should ask his or her teacher for a pass. Stacey Pinner started crying during social studies two days after Jesse’s death, unsettling Mr. Kilfner who did not recall such scenes when he began teaching twenty years ago. Stacey and Jesse had gone out in fifth grade. He was, she insisted, the nicest boyfriend she ever had. Mr. Kilfner sent Stacey to the office where the counselor bought her a soda and let her cry. For a week, Stacey’s friends surrounded her at lunch, held her hand, listened to her stories. They believed they would never have a boy as great as Jesse to love them. The girls borrowed markers and construction paper from Miss Tilly and made a card for Jesse’s mother.
             Ambrose Collins wouldn’t go to the counselor even after his tears scared him by spilling from his eyes when he went to the restroom. He did not know he was crying until he caught sight of himself in the strip of stainless steel that served as an unbreakable mirror in the lavatory. Mr. Collins had gone to a counselor once with Mrs. Collins so she wouldn’t keep after him about it. When they came home, Ambrose’s dad entered the door first, taking off his nice jacket as he passed through the living room, saying, “Stupid waste of time and money.” Ambrose’s mother followed, closing the door with extra care, already treating the house as if she didn’t live there. Counselors did not help. And, besides, there was no reason for Ambrose to be upset about Jesse. They hadn’t been best friends. They had spent one day together at the marina last summer when they both found themselves there with nothing to do. They’d rolled up their pants legs and waded into the mud at low tide, scooping up mussels, looking for bits of metal and coins. Ambrose was sorry he and Jesse never rode bikes together in the hills or played catch in the parking lot.


♥♥♥


             The night before he ended up taking his life, Jesse had lain on his stomach in bed listening to foghorns. Bars of light filtered through the blinds, striping the blanket on his bed. He wasn’t unhappy, but he wasn’t happy, either. He felt odd. Like a lone shoe on the shoulder of the road. Or a building abandoned after a house fire.
             Getting to the bridge was easy. Three years earlier, Jesse had taken BART with his fifth grade class for a field trip to Fisherman’s Wharf. What intrigued him about the city were reflections of passersby in storefronts. Reflections in windows seemed to reveal the truth about a subject. In a mirror, the eyes went to certain familiar spots. A plate-glass reflection provided a glimpse into a moment. You could lay yourself bare without invasion if you looked obliquely. That day, the day of the best field trip ever, Jesse’s mother had taken off from work to chaperone. He noticed he was getting as tall as she was. She stroked her son’s hair as the two of them peered through a store window at maps and globes arranged inside. She knew how to look at things, too, so she let him linger until the rest of the class was a half block away. Then, they turned and continued without hurrying, not worrying about catching up. For that half block, Jesse pretended it was his mother and he, away for the day.
             Now, he was alone. After exiting at the Embarcadero, Jesse asked a woman in a suit like a man’s which way to the Golden Gate Bridge.
             “Shouldn’t you be in school?” she asked, after giving him directions.
             Jesse didn’t have the urge to lie. “It’s a school day,” he said, and smiled.
             The woman laughed, looked at the sky, then back at the kid in khaki pants and layers of T-shirts. “Well, you picked a beautiful day to play hooky.”
             Jesse shrugged, thanked her, and walked with a light step toward the water.
             The woman called after him, the lapels of her jacket rising around her like wings in the wind. “Hey, kid! What’re you going to the bridge for, anyway?”
             Jesse called back, his voice clear above the traffic noise, “Curious to see it again.”
             The woman looked at him. “Watch yourself.”
             Jesse raised his arm in acknowledgment and started walking again. He was truthful. He’d seen the bridge four years ago with his grandparents when they visited for Thanksgiving. He wanted to see it now under the winter sunshine. He wanted to walk across it, at least, since he couldn’t skate the parabola of cables as he did in his dreams.
             Beyond the clutter of chowder stands and taffy shops of Fisherman’s Wharf, sailboats lined up neatly in their berths and lawns hosted bicyclists resting in the grass. Windows of the bright houses across the streets cast back the scene. A vocabulary word popped into Jesse’s head: “suffused.” The whole place was suffused with happiness. For an instant, Jesse regretted not bringing his littlest sister, Marisa, to play leapfrog and tag in the grass. But being alone was good.
             The Legion of Honor looked like Ancient Greece would. Columns and pagodas peeked from trees. Swans swam in a pond. Jesse felt alert and relaxed, a groove he found in his best moments on his skateboard. He’d also felt it the day he and Ambrose Collins fished in the mud last summer. Jesse knew how to hold that feeling and make it last. Today, everything fueled it. The five pelicans flying overhead, low enough to see their feet tucked in their feathers. The dark water. The presence of home on the distant shore. Joggers pounding by with clean determination. A green car passed with a little girl holding a ribbon out the rear window, watching it flutter in the wind.
             Jesse arrived at the red-orange bridge. He found the narrow pedestrian path. A low wall separated the path from cars on Highway 1. Skating this bridge, Jesse thought, would be like fucking flying. Jesse took in the blue sweaters and black pants, white sneakers and jeans of the other sightseers. His enthusiasm was contagious. Those who saw him couldn’t help smiling.
             After crossing to Marin, Jesse turned back, walking along the bay side of the bridge. He stopped and looked across the lanes of moving cars to the entrance to the Pacific. Manzanita was somewhere over that way. General science class might be starting. They had homework due. Mr. Perkins always had the class stand and salute him saying, “Reporting for General Science.” Jesse laughed.
             He was free, standing above the water in the wind on a sunny day. Except for the safety rail. Jesse found himself climbing up, higher. He was a lookout on a battleship. He was a pirate. He was an astronaut speeding into outer space. He was Jesse–alive in his body, sure as Spiderman on the metal rails. And then, it occurred to him to let go. To try it. The free feeling, make it last. Just before he did so, Jesse saw a heavyset man running toward the spot where he had started, arms waving. But Jesse was lost. He wanted to say, “Don’t worry,” but words belonged to another time. This was letting go with no way back. Action; moment; fear; falling; this; now; the losses above; the next below; the ever; the after.


♥ End ♥




After Alexa Mergen was kicked out of a second-grade slumber party for scaring the other little girls with a ghost story, she was hooked on telling tales. She worked for years as an English teacher, which was a great excuse to read a lot with smart people and to talk about writing. A list of her published fiction, poetry, and essays can be found at alexamergen.com. Alexa leads writing workshops and edits the blog, Yoga Stanza. [Author photo by and © Matt Weiser. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]

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We feature a Kindle-friendly PDF (That means actually formatted for reading!) of each story for free download each day, available for a limited time. Don’t delay; download today! Just want a plain ol’ regular PDF? Sure, we’ve got that, too. Need help? Check the sidebar.




Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.