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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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.