Up in Smoke
By Rachel McClain
I don’t know if me, the horses or Sam sensed Daddy first; but where seconds before the air had smelled of sweat and we’d heard nothing but soft snorting, now, a quiet fell, tucking around the semi-darkness like an extra blanket.
The horses made no move to betray what they’d heard in the loft; but Sam’s sweat froze in traceable rivulets on his back and I stopped picking hay off my sticky thighs the instant I heard Daddy meander through the door.
He leaned against the half wall of the stall beneath us, settling in for considering. Sam panicked and blindly began grasping for his pants, but I clasped his wrist and gritted my teeth at him. Daddy reached into his pocket with one hand and over to a horse’s head with the other. I heard soft snorting start up again from below as Daddy scratched the horse’s muzzle. Ease returned to the barn, but only some.
Through the cracks between the floorboard slats I saw his thin fingers thumbing open his pack of smoking papers and flicking open his tobacco tin. He delicately laid a single sheet of paper on the palm of his hand, cupping it gently against his half-curled fingers. He lined a row of stringy tobacco against the edge, pressing it into shape. My nose ran at the acrid memory of the scent, though I couldn’t smell the dark, neat pile from where I sat now. I sucked in my breath and watched.
Once, he’d rolled a cigarette and slowly and deliberately smoked it without saying a word to me while I perched on the edge of the dining room chair, hands clasped on my knees, waiting. He’d inhaled each sweet breath as if it were the last one he’d ever take before finally pronouncing that I’d indeed be allowed to go away to college in the fall. He’d roll a cigarette and smoke it before reaching any major decision, then he’d stick to it, even if he was proven wrong later, like the time he’d found our supposedly stolen tools in the back shed a week after letting Chet, the farmhand go.
Daddy stopped short of sealing this cigarette. He pressed the tobacco firmly and then studied it as if judging the amount, deeming it not adequate for this thinking. He added more tobacco and then pressed it into shape again. He never licked the paper in a smooth, single stroke; he always darted his tongue in and out like a snake’s when he sealed the edge, almost attacking the paper in fits and starts of salivary globs. Not a wasteful man, he curled the ends for fear of even the smallest bit falling to the ground.
The flame from the match illuminated his thin face and cast dancing shadows across his brow. The deep crags of his cheekbones created swoops and hollows that I saw even in the dim light of the barn with the quick flash of the match. He cast a thin and meager shadow in that instant of light. The boots stacked in the corner, gear left behind at the end of a hard day’s work done by strong men, didn’t belong to him but to the men he employed.
The orange circle at the end of his cigarette gave off enough light to trace the half-lines of his face; but after each slow inhale, a waft of exhaled smoke obscured my view. Sam stared at me. He made a move to pick bits of hay off my skin, which was prickly and red from the dried sweat and dust, but I shooed his hand. Sam had worried about shaking Daddy’s hand at the front door, about calling him sir, about making sure he was seen opening my car door . None of that mattered.
The orange circle grew brighter all the time and I could see Daddy’s fingertips pinching the end of it close to his lips. The decision would soon be reached. I was fond of Sam, but as I sat there, the night air beginning to chill my skin and the cigarette running to its end, I considered that Sam wasn’t as smart or as handsome as I could find.
The orange circle burned the brightest yet and then out. Daddy stubbed it against the barn wall and then flicked it on the hay. He sniffed the air and cleared his throat.
”Whore,” he said. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and meandered out of the barn, into the dark.
Baby Birds in Boxes
by Parker Dorris
Start with the pots. The pots won’t break. They’re a good warm-up.
Get as many boxes as you need and never force anything inside. If it doesn’t fit comfortably, it doesn’t fit. You break something, you have to buy it. You signed the same contract I did. I heard about this one girl who broke a vase that cost fifteen thousand dollars. She had to drop out of school.
I don’t know if it’s really true. But it’s the policy, so.
You wrap the pots in this brown paper, same as everything. It doesn’t matter that the pots aren’t going to break. This is what they pay us for. To wrap everything in brown, like the most boring Christmas presents ever.
And you wad up more paper to stuff the open spaces, so nothing can shake around on the truck. The loading boys drive like they’re losing a race.
You can’t listen to music. Not while you’re working. It doesn’t matter that it’s so quiet or that there’s no one to talk to. They want you to hear if the client says something. Clients hate to see us listening to music, in general.
And turn off your phone! If they hear your phone, even if you don’t answer it, they get mad.
The client will need you for something, I don’t know for what. They’re paying for care. Think of it like that. We care for their things, we care for them. If we could wrap them in brown and stow them away, we would. And they would tip us huge.
Just look at this place.
Never say stuff like that, “Just look at this place.” Not to the loading boys and never, ever to the client. They don’t want to hear us gawking. And who knows why they’re leaving? The money’s all gone. Somebody had an affair. A kid died.
After the pots, the silverware. You wrap each fork, knife, and spoon separately. You can’t use enough brown paper.
Everything until now was just to clear the way for all the glass. People in houses like these love glass. They have tons of it. They don’t even call it glass. They call it crystal.
You take the glass one piece at a time. Both hands, ten fingers. Don’t hold the glass up in the air any longer than you have to. Get it on the table or the floor as fast as you can, and wrap it thick in brown.
Think of tucking in baby birds. That’s all you’re doing.
The Creeping Dread
By Tim Hall
"Ow," I said, sitting up. "Ow."
"What is it?"
"Weltschmertz," I gasped. "Sulfur."
"Did you overdo it?"
"Silence. The arrow of my dignity is broken."
"I'll get the Advil."
I lay back on the pillow. Goddamn that Joni Mitchell. Who knew Miles Of Aisles was so "funky"?
I was getting old. Still, what a concert that must have been. A magical experience was had by all.
"Here you go, darling."
Dolly handed me two pills and a glass of water. I swallowed the Advil and returned the glass.
Dolly put the glass on the night table. I rolled slowly onto my side to face her.
"Do you feel any better about your mom?" she asked. "Now that you have a possible solution, I mean."
"Yes. Possible solutions are best. I can suggest a path; it's up to others whether or not to follow it."
"Did you tell your mom she could move in with us?"
"What did she say?"
"The proceedings were marred by a derogatory skepticism. She asked if we had doctors out here, and churches, and wondered where we got our food and if we had televisions and mail delivery."
"But we're in Chicago."
"She sees Indians and buffalo."
"Has she heard from anybody else?"
"What did Jim say when you called him?"
"He said the beach house was killer this year, and that we should come out next summer."
"Did you tell him about your mom?"
"Yes. The connection suddenly got bad."
"What about Meg?"
"Pathos and pork chops. Angst and anisette. Resentment and rigatoni."
"Well, we can increase the amount we send her each month."
"Not much. We don't know what our heating bills will be. Or how much for buffalo repellent or to bribe the local tribal chief."
"We can find the money. I'll do whatever is necessary."
Dolly kissed me.
"I hear Augie. I'll bring him downstairs. Stay and rest."
"The angels in heaven are junkie whores next to you.”
Mom had always been difficult. She had a poster on the fridge, a head shot of an ostrich that was all geek-necked and spiky and had bulging eyes. Underneath it said, “Don’t tell me to relax. It’s only my tension that’s keeping me together.” I had resentments, sure. But you don't let an old woman suffer.
Waiting for some cosmic apology was a sucker's game.
The Advil had begun to take effect, so I thrashed around on the bed a bit, my fists punching the air above my head.
Swallow. Blast. Frack.
"Are you fighting with yourself again?" Dolly called from downstairs.
"Yes, god damn it," I yelled.
"Do you need help?"
"No, I've got it under control."
"Okay. Augie's asking for you."
I swung out of bed and pulled on my striped lounge pants and bear paw slippers. Fuck a duck in a cow's ass and call it Benjamin. Meaning: what the hell.
Cancel the Verizon account, that's sixty right there. Shut down the other website, no use spending ten bucks a month on that. Drop the thermostat another degree. Netflix, another ten. We could find a way. We were already drinking Folger's.
I inched my way downstairs and limped into the family room. Dolly had My Dog Skip in the DVD player. Augie was playing with a truck.
"There's a special place in hell for people who neglect the elderly," I said, still clenching and unclenching my fists.
Augie dropped the truck, ran over and hugged my legs. Dolly began smiling and crying at the same time. So beautiful.
"He knows you're upset. He's trying to make you feel better."
I got on my knees and squeezed Augie so hard he burped. He giggled and squeezed back, patting me on the back with his tiny hands, head on my shoulder.
"It'll be all right," Dolly said. "We'll figure something out."
On the television, the dog they called Skip was making havoc at a baseball game. Augie was laughing. It was his favorite part. Two boys collided. Oof.
Ha ha ha!
I already knew the end. Willie Morris grew up and went to Oxford. Then he became the youngest editor ever in the history of Harper's magazine. Later he returned to the south, where he died in 1999. He thought of Skip every day.
He was a wonderful writer. I bet he would have helped his mother, too, if she needed it. Even if she didn't look like Diane Lane.
By Ivan Faute
After he sat down at the bar and ordered a whisky sour, he laid out, one next to the other, a lighter, a flashlight, several books of matches and a laser pointer. It seemed to be mildly metaphorical if anyone wanted to go that route. Betty did.
"Let me guess," she said in her slightly drunk, lispy-voice, "you're a coal miner. Or maybe a priest? 'This little light of mine.' Ha. How about a visionary?"
"Excuse me," the man turned to her.
She turned toward him.
"How about a light?" she put a Virginia Slim menthol to her lips. "I know!" she said.
The stranger shifted in his seat uncomfortably.
"You’re the god of fire. That guy. Oh what was his name?" She turned to the bartender and shook her cigarette at him. "Paul, what's the guy's name who brought fire to people?"
Paul, the bartender was shaking a martini at the other end of the bar. "Thomas Edison," he yelled back.
"Smartass," Betty said. "Not him." She turned to the stranger. "You know who I mean, don't you? I mean, you look educated and all."
"You mean Orpheus," he said.
"That's him," she said. "That's who you are I bet. Orpheus. Hey, Paul," Betty yelled, "we got a Greek god here. Orpheus."
Paul ignored her.
"Ever since this place was mentioned in some fucking magazine or novel or something, it's been overrun with these types." She pointed with her unlit cigarette to the blond Paul was serving.
The man next to Betty picked up his lighter and held it lit for her.
"Oh, thank you." She sucked in for several seconds. "This place used to be good. They had cheap drinks, it's right here on Hollywood. You could always find a place to sit. But not now, I have to get here at four thirty. Four thirty in the fucking afternoon to get this stool." She rested the cigarette in the thick, glass ashtray. "How long have I been coming here, Paul?"
Paul again ignored her, attending to a new crush of customers.
"At least fifteen years if it's been a day."
The stranger shrugged his shoulders at her.
Betty picked up her smoke and looked him up and down, leaning back on her stool to get a view down to his shoes. She shook her head as if she knew something, took another drag, and righted herself. "Your not a yuppie are you?"
The man took a sip of his scotch and water. "Do those exist anymore? I suppose they do. No, I'm not."
"So then, what are you?" She held out her hand, palm up, expectantly.
"Orpheus, a Greek god, like you said." He took another sip of his drink, and Betty followed his example. "But there isn't much for us to do anymore. I mean, I came to L.A. because you hear so much about the need for Greek gods. You know, 'He has the body of a Greek god.' It's not what they meant though. It’s not what they meant at all."
Betty stubbed out the remains of her Virginia Slim. She tapped the edge of her glass with her nail and looked askance at the man beside her. "Don’t I know it,” she said. “Don’t I know it.”
Late Summer Flu
By Jennifer Dorr
My baby tried corn for the first time. I roasted each ear ‘til the husk split, severed kernels with a bone blade, pulverized them between my teeth, soaked them in a white heifer’s cream. She nursed this golden food from my palm.
It seemed to go down well, until twilight, when I heard rumbling beneath blankets. This was no ordinary wind. Her cries rent open the night. I ran my fingers over her, searching for slivers of wood or glass. Beneath delicate shoulder blades, wings had sprouted from bloodless slits - featherless. Each with the texture of woodland moss.
Naturally, I called the pediatrician. I confessed, “I fed her corn.” He said, “Pish-posh: A virus is going around.” I gasped, “But will she be all right?” “She’ll be fine, though unrecognizable. Why don’t you bring her down to the office?”
Florescent light bleached my retinas. Still, I was impressed with the décor. There were fuzzy, egg-shaped chairs. A merry, tooting train circled. Dr. wore his lab coat with silver sneakers. A shock of white hair implied genius. His cheeks were unlined: egg shell.
“It has progressed further than I assumed.” His flawless brow did not register concern. “Give her this. Perhaps we can stop it.” He placed a platinum pill in my hand. Sweat pooled around its cool heft. “But how will she swallow this?” I asked. “Mothers always find a way.”
From afar, his secretary looked young. I was misled by her wig of blond curls. Underneath, matted black tendrils peeked. Her face was an Irish cliff. She grabbed my wrist, talons digging. “Ha! You cannot stop it. Throw out his snake oil. You must dance upon red fruit for your girl.” “What, what did you say?” I sputtered. “Your co-payment is ten dollars, Ma’am.”
I cajoled, coating his treatment in sugar, but it made her gag. I found myself squatting on the floor, skinning beets with my bone blade, sucking pits from scarlet plums, disemboweling pomegranate. A jungle haze blanketed the bathroom as I stewed red fruits in my tub. I stepped into broth. A beat rose from memory. I tore at my braid with stained palms, hoofed and swirled ‘til my heels cracked.
When I woke curled around her body, her smile was sky after storms. Her wings became filaments of air. Still, I cannot tell you if she’s cured.
Playing for the Eighth Time Today
by David Macpherson
The girl dragged here by her father examines her fidgeting shoes, twines her fingers about her scarf, and spins around the gallery floor, as if hoping she’ll be asked to leave. She stops, huffs out exasperated air, cocks her head at something heard and says, “Dad, who’s that ? The person singing on the stereo?”
The father smiles, happy to be knowledgeable, to be needed. “That’s Chet Baker. He had a great voice, didn’t he?” The voice makes him shiver, as if he’s standing on top of a grave.
“Sounds like a girl,” she says. “Did all guys sing like that back then?”
”No. Just him.” He scans down the row of photographs mounted on the gallery wall. All black and white photos of dead jazz men, singing passages to the next world, the next cul-de-sac, the next chorus. He beckons his daughter to his side. “That’s him. That’s Chet Baker.”
She studies the stooped figure framed before her. “Wow. He’s pretty.”
The father looks at his daughter and the light burning about her face. Is this one of those moments for an object lesson? Should he tell her about Chet Baker? About the needle, the broken teeth, the hand not played? How all that beauty was given away? Should he embrace this teaching moment? He laughs. Funny to think she would listen if he did.
He appraises the photo. “He was. He was very pretty,” he says with unexcavated irony.
The girl leans in further. “You bet. He’s delicious.”
The father shakes his head in the expected manner and surrenders. “Alright. I said if you came in here with me, I’d get you lunch. Let’s find someplace ridiculously overpriced and snooty.”
The girl resets. “Now you’re talking.” She threads her arm through his and leads him out to the world.
Leaving the voice singing in the empty space. Bouncing off the pristine white walls again and again, with no good place to go.
The Hidden Lining
By Elaine Chiew
Carla's pocket has sprung a hole. Her car keys and loose change rattle around in the hem of her coat. Shoppers stare as she flips the coat up waist-high to burrow her fist deep inside the silk lining, chasing elusive objects. Her daughter, Becca, stares fascinated. Four years old, she has a new passion for holes, crannies, basements and otherwise secret compartments. The pair of shoes Carla's spent all afternoon searching for dangle from Becca’s limp wrist.
Carla locates the car keys, but not the loose change. The mall car park is full of milling pedestrians. A reeking Santa rings a bell as an elf holds out a tin-can for charity. Carla walks past, apologetic. Muddy snow lies in puffed tracks. The wind snaps.
At the car, Carla takes off her coat. Becca is about to get in, and the car door slams shut. For a second, maybe two, Carla can't see her.
When the car door swings open, a feeling of disbelief, of being duped, washes over Carla. She looks up and down the car length. She can't see Becca's mousy, red-ribboned, pigtails. “Becca?” She glances up the row of cars, she scans around. Her eyes pick out a flapping coat here, a tweed sleeve there, a jaunty hat, a rainbow-colored scarf. “Honey, this is no time to play.” Carla circles her car. On a whim, she looks underneath, but sees only oil-stains. "Where are you honey-pie? Becca!”
Her eyes are faster than her legs. They are hounds, racing up and down the aisles of cars, fastened at waist-length, looking for flying pigtails, a pink gingham-checked skirt, a lime-sherbet scarf. An old lady in a peacoat accosts her, "Lost something?"
"Have you seen a little girl with pigtails, about ye high?" Carla is frantic now. Soon, two or three shoppers are helping her, squelching among the tufted snowtracks, zigzagging among cars, yelling for Becca.
Did she leave Becca at the shops? Carla begins to doubt the certainties of her mind. Real and unreal trade places through a thin membrane. How flimsy reality is. Carla dashes back inside the mall, revisiting all the shoe shops. Becca’s little voice echoes in her mind - shrill and imperative, “I am magic, Mama. I can shrink to the size of a pea.”
No one has seen Becca. The shop attendants don't even remember her. There's a banging in Carla’s ears. Her ribs hurt, her eyes sting. Her world unzips. On the other side, Carla glimpses an alternate reality, one of mute disbelief. Another Carla stares unblinking back at her, like a watery reflection.
Back at the car, the old lady in the peacoat admonishes her, "You should have watched her more closely!"
The wind has picked up now, the late afternoon gray shrouded by cold. The old lady goes home. The others wish her luck, offer to call the police. Carla sobs openly.
"This is not funny," she keeps repeating. That feeling of disbelief washes back, a tidal wave. Carla remembers a jigsaw puzzle she'd dismantled when Becca was two, learning to do one for the first time. One minute whole, the next second, two jagged pieces were missing, nowhere to be found, as if they'd slipped into another dimension through a hidden lining.
Just then, the car handle jiggles. Carla gasps, she sees the edges of coat, the bag of shoes lying on the carseat, flapping from the wind through the open car door. Becca stands there, pigtails mussed, a pleased grin on her face. "I went diving," she whispers.
Becca holds out her hands. Lying in her palms are shiny pennies, dimes, and quarters.
By Amanda Nazario
Since Joe and I broke up, I haven’t been sleeping very much. I catch naps, an hour or two, no more. I think about Joe all the time, but I’m not heartbroken. In moments of weakness I find myself hoping he doesn’t hate me, but I know there’s no way he would. Because when I think of him I feel love, and sadness, but primarily love.
Last summer I went to Joe’s childhood house for the last time. It was also the last time I slept well, deeply, consistently, next to him on the foldout in his mom’s basement. Joe’s mom cooked all our breakfasts and did our laundry; she was doting and overbearing, and not, as I’d expected her to be, sad. But she did show me two photos of Joe as a child that moved me almost to tears. I think she might have known they would, I think that might have been why she showed them.
Picture one was of Joe and his brother. Joe was five, his brother was a baby in a walker. Standing before the walker wearing feety pajamas, Joe held a giant hairbrush over his brother’s head, the bristle end just barely touching the baby’s wispy hair. Joe was looking straight at the camera, suppressing a grin, his non-hairbrush-holding hand turned up in a shrug—like, Who knew?
I have never met Joe’s brother, of course. When he died Joe was just starting to date girls; Joe has said this explains everything I need to know.
Picture two was of the mom, the little brother, and Joe. They were all eating ice cream cones. Joe’s mom was looking at the camera, holding her cone and smiling. His chubby brother was hugging her with one arm, smiling too. Joe, age eight, his hair neatly side-parted, sat apart from them. He was frowning down at his ice cream cone—as if there was something wrong with it, but he didn’t know what was wrong with it yet.
Last night Joe was supposed to call me. We spoke on the phone and decided we were ready to see each other again, and he said he’d give me a call when he got off work. He never did. I was disappointed, but not surprised. I ate dinner in a restaurant by myself, came home and wrote emails to a bunch of people, then lay in bed trying to sleep. I enjoyed doing all of these things, even the lying awake, which I am still doing.
In bed I think of Joe and love him. I think of the little boy frowning at the ice cream cone. I wonder, why is it that we always think of them as children when we forgive them? I’ve heard it a bunch of times before, from my girlfriends, and I’ve said it myself a bunch of times too, not just about Joe. He was like a little kid.
At three in the morning my intercom rings, a loud synthetic-doorbell noise: bee-doo, bee-doo. Disoriented, I pick up the receiver, and wait for the black-and-white monitor to kick on and show me what was happening outside. My heart knocks around. No one has ever surprised me like this before, in the middle of the night.
The intercom is the fanciest thing in my apartment. The first time Joe visited me here he couldn’t stop talking about how fancy it was, and how fascinating.
The display flashes into view, and in murky black-and-white I see a boy’s back in a wide-striped polo shirt. I’ve always admired the way Joe can wear those shirts—he has the shoulders and arms of a much younger guy, and at thirty is still mistaken for twenty-one or twenty-two sometimes, especially in those shirts. In the monitor the boy’s head is bowed, contrite, sad.
Clicking the button to open the front door, I start breathing funny and telling myself things. I don’t press the “talk” button; I don’t have to ask who it is. No sex, I tell myself. Sex right now, I couldn’t handle. We will turn the lights on and talk to each other from opposite ends of the couch. But of course I’ll allow him the initial hug. Depending on how he is - if he is crying, I might hold him a long time, pet the side of his head, kiss his damp cheek. After the hug we’ll talk honestly to each other, maybe all night, maybe for the first time ever.
A minute goes by and no one appears at my door. The intercom rings again.
In my building there are two doors in the lobby, so sometimes I have to buzz people in twice. If they don’t make it inside the vestibule on time, they get stuck there until the second buzz. I lift the receiver again, try the door-opener button, and find it isn’t working. The monitor comes on.
I see that the boy is Efrain, my super’s son. He leans into the speaker on the wall, and suddenly I hear his voice: “Hey, I’m sorry, can you buzz me in? My dad’s sleeping. I’m really sorry.”
Efrain is fourteen now; every time I see him he’s grown a half-inch taller. He favors striped polo shirts and is going to be really handsome one day. I press the buzzer, he opens the door, and the monitor goes dark.